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Buddha and His Disciples

Anathapindika — The Feeder of the Poor

72. In the 5th century B.C.E., trade and commerce were already highly developed in India. Caravans travelled from one city to another and financial houses made money available for loan. If a person had skill and was prepared to take risks, it was quite possible to make a lot of money and perhaps even become a millionaire (setthi). One of the Buddha's most famous lay disciples was such a man. His name was Sudatta but because he was always ready to give to the hungry, the homeless or the dispossessed, he was known by everybody as Anathapindika, meaning 'the feeder of the poor'.

73. Anathapindika lived in Savatthi but he travelled a lot on business and one day while in Rajagaha, he went to visit his brother-in-law. The household was so busy with preparations for a feast that Anathapindika failed to get his usual warm welcome. "What is the big occasion?" Anathapindika asked his brother-in-law. "Are you preparing for a great wedding or perhaps a visit from the king?" "No," was the reply. "The Buddha and his monks are coming for a meal tomorrow." Just hearing the word 'Buddha' filled Anathapindika with such joy that he could hardly contain himself. "You mean that a fully enlightened being has arisen in the world? How wonderful! Take me to meet him". Anathapindika wanted to go straight away but he was persuaded that it was too late and that it would be better to do so the next morning. That night Anathapindika was so excited that he could hardly sleep and he got up several times thinking it was already dawn. Eventually, thinking that the sun would be rising soon, Anathapindika set off to meet the Buddha, but as he entered the outskirts of the city and it was still dark, he became frightened and decided to turn back. Suddenly, a friendly spirit appeared illuminating the whole area and urged him to continue. "Walk on, friend. To move forward is better for you than to turn back." Encouraged by these words, Anathapindika continued and soon came across the Buddha walking up and down in the early morning light. The Buddha saw Anathapindika hesitating to come closer and he beckoned him. "Come forward, Sudatta." Astonished that the Buddha would know his real name and awed by the great man's presence, Anathapindika hurried forward and bowed at the Buddha's feet. The two men talked together for a while and as the sun came up; Anathapindika understood the essence of the Dharma and became a Stream-Winner.

Anathapindika then asked the Buddha if he could offer him a meal the next day and the Buddha accepted. All during the day he thought how wonderful it would be if the Buddha could come to Savatthi and how many people would benefit from the visit. Consequently, the next day, after the Buddha had finished his meal, Anathapindika asked him if he would come and visit Savatthi. The Buddha thought for a while and then agreed, adding: "Enlightened ones prefer to stay in peaceful places", and Anathapindika responded: "I fully understand, Lord."

74. When Anathapindika finished his business in Rajagaha, he set out for Savatthi, and as soon as he arrived he began to make preparations for the Buddha's arrival. First, he had to find a suitable place for the Buddha and his monks to stay, near the city but not too noisy. The best place proved to be a pleasure park about one kilometre south-west from the walls of Savatthi, owned by Prince Jeta. Anathapindika approached the prince and asked him if he wanted to sell his park. He declined. "Name a price," Anathapindika insisted, but Prince Jeta reiterated that he was not interested in selling. "I will pay you any price you like," Anathapindika said, and in order to put him off, the prince said: "All right! You can have the park for however much it costs to cover the ground with gold coins." To the prince's astonishment, Anathapindika enthusiastically agreed and left straight away to get the money. Soon a wagon, full of gold pieces, arrived at the park and servants began spreading the money on the ground. When Prince Jeta saw this, he realised how determined Anathapindika was to get the park and finally decided to accept a more reasonable price for it. Anathapindika then spent a huge amount of money building living quarters, assembly halls, storerooms and pavilions, laying out gardens and digging ponds while Prince Jeta offered to build an impressive gate house leading into the park and a wall around it for privacy. In recognition of the two men who made all this possible, the monastery was named Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park or just Jeta's Grove (Jetavana) for short.[ N1 ]

75. From the age of sixty, the Buddha spent every rainy season except his last at Jetavana and delivered more discourses there than at any other location. The Buddha's favourite places in Jetavana were two small houses, the Kosambakuti and the Gandhakuti. The Gandhakuti (Fragrant Hut) got its name because the flowers that people constantly brought to offer to the Buddha gave the building such a pleasing fragrance. The Gandhakuti had a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom and a staircase leading up to it where the Buddha used to sometimes stand in the evening and address the monks. One of Ananda's duties was to regularly dust and clean the Gandhakuti, remove the faded flowers and put the chair and bed back in their proper place.

In 1863, the ruins of Jetavana were discovered and later archaeological investigation identified the Gandhakuti and the Kosambakuti, and showed that the Jetavana was a centre of Buddhism from the Buddha's time right up until the 13th century C.E.

76. Although Anathapindika built the Jetavana, this was certainly not the extent of his generosity. Over the years he spent vast amounts of money providing the five requisites for monks, building and maintaining monasteries, and doing charity in the name of Buddhism. He understood that if wealth is used with generosity and compassion, it can be a real means for spiritual development.

77. But Anathapindika did not just have generosity with his wealth, he had generosity of spirit also. When he was young he had a friend named Kalakanni, which means 'unlucky', and the two boys used to make mud pies together as they played. As they grew up, Anathapindika became rich while Kalakanni seemed to be plagued by one misfortune after another and remained poor. Hoping that his old friend might help him, Kalakanni went one day, hesitant and ashamed, to see Anathapindika to ask if he could give him a job. Happy to help, Anathapindika gave him a job looking after the property in one of his houses. Anathapindika's family were not happy to have Kalakanni in the house. "How can you employ this man? He's nothing but a derelict. We are a respectable family while he is little more than a beggar. And besides, hearing that name Kalakanni being used in the house all day is bound to bring bad luck." Anathapindika replied: "A person is not made by his name. The superstitious judge people by their names but the wise judge them by the goodness of their hearts. I shall not turn Kalakanni out simply because he is poor or because of his name. We have been friends since we were children." Anathapindika's family were silent but they were still not happy. One day Kalakanni had to return to his village for a while and when a group of thieves heard that he would be out of the house, they decided they would break in and rob the house. That night they came to the house not knowing that Kalakanni's departure had been delayed. He awoke, and heard the thieves talking outside the window, and realising that there were several of them and that they were all heavily armed, he immediately jumped up, talking loudly, banging doors, lighting lamps in different rooms and generally made as much noise as he could. The thieves thought that there was a party in the house and they fled. When this became known, Anathapindika called his family, who were now very grateful to Kalakanni, and said to them, "If this house had not been guarded by such a wise and loyal friend, it would have been plundered. If I had taken your advice, we would all be in a very different position today. It is not name or wealth that makes a person, but his heart." Kalakanni was given a raise and came to be accepted by the household.[ N2 ]

78. Anathapindika's great wealth and equally great generosity prompted many of the Buddha's discourses, some of them related to the subject of the skilful use of wealth. But sometimes, Anathapindika had to be reminded that it is not the lavishness of a gift that is important and also that there are some things more important than generosity, things like love and understanding, for example. In the Velama Sutta, the Buddha told Anathapindika about a man who had once given lavish gifts, but because no one really benefited, his gift had very little good effect.

"If he had fed a hundred people who had Perfect View, it would have had a greater effect. If he had fed a hundred Once-Returners, the effect would have been greater still. If he had fed a hundred Non-Returners, the effect would have been greater than this. If he had fed a hundred Noble Ones, it would have been greater than this. Feeding the whole Sangha with the Buddha at its head would have been yet again greater. If he had built a monastery for the use of the Sangha, it would have had a greater effect. Taking Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and keeping the Precepts would be greater still. Better yet would be to fill the heart with love. Best of all would be to develop the thought of love even if only for a moment."[ N3 ]

Later in life, Anathapindika became quite poor due to his constant giving and also due to some unwise business decisions. Eventually, he became ill but Sariputta and Ananda visited him regularly, comforting him with talk on Dharma.[ N4 ] Throughout its history, Buddhism has been assisted in its establishment and spread by the generous support it has received from wealthy merchants and businessmen, but the first and greatest of these was Anathapindika.

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