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Buddha School Stories: The Lesson of Devadatta’s Fall into Hell

Sept. 5, 2021 |   By a Falun Dafa practitioner in China

(Minghui.org) During the era of Shakyamuni, there was a person named Devadatta. A cousin of Shakyamuni, he was also a prince, tall and handsome. Devadatta became a monk together with Ananda and others. 

It was said that when Devadatta went to meet Shakyamuni for ordination, it was a big ceremony and he was dressed in luxury clothes riding an elephant with a gold-decorated saddle. This was as if to show people that: Look! A prestigious prince would become a monk now. As a practitioner, however, it was an attachment of showing-off. 

After becoming a monk, Devadatta did well in the first 12 years. According to Buddhist scripture, Devadatta was smart and learned a lot. He was also determined during 12 years of sitting meditation, he had faith and a pure mind for Buddha scripture, and he cultivated well in 12 years after becoming a monk. In Datang Xiyu Ji (The Western Regions of Tang Dynasty) by Xuanzang, the prototype of Monk Tang of Journey to the West, it described a large stone house where Devadatta used to do sitting meditation. In addition, Devadatta developed some supernormal abilities through these 12 years of cultivation. 

Because of his prestigious background – a prince and Shakyamuni’s cousin, together with his diligence and supernormal abilities, Devadatta was blindly admired by many lay Buddhists and monks. Sariputra, one of Shakyamuni’s top disciples, also visited him and praised him for his elite background, knowledge, good looks, and supernormal abilities. 

Ajatashatru, prince of Magadha and lay Buddhist, went further and his admiration was nearly fanatical. He said Devadatta had great mighty virtue and was similar to a Buddha. Every day, he provided 500 cauldrons of premium food to Devadatta and his followers. With a prince Ajatashatru showing so much respect to Devadatta, some ordinary people and lay Buddhists admired Devadatta even more. 

As a practitioner, Devadatta still had attachment to earthly fame and material interest. As a result, he happily accepted this exaggerated praise, worship, and donations. These further eroded his heart and he became more arrogant. He went so far as claim himself no different from Buddha with so many people admiring him. Gradually, he became jealous of Shakyamuni, with raging greed, rebellious thoughts, and an inevitable fate. 

Once Devadatta went to Shakyamuni saying that he should take over and lead the Buddhist community since Shakyamuni was in advanced age. Shakyamuni seriously declined his request and said Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were not even asked to take over even though both had great wisdom and supernormal abilities. How could a foolish person like Devadatta assume the leadership? In front of others, Shakyamuni also announced that he would no longer acknowledge anything Devadatta may do afterward in the name of monks or Buddhist and that Devadatta would be responsible for himself. 

Even after this announcement, however, many Buddhist practitioners who blindly followed Devadatta still lacked a clear understanding. They continued worshiping Devadatta and some even thought Shakyamuni made those remarks out of jealousy. 

There was a story in Buddhism that once Shakyamuni went out begging for food and saw Devadatta coming from a distance. To avoid meeting this person with great sins, Shakyamuni stepped to the side. Some disciples who followed him were confused and even asked whether Shakyamuni did so to show respect for Devadatta. This showed many people were muddle-headed, and they did not have deep faith in Shakyamuni or clarity about Devadatta’s sins. 

As this continued, Devadatta fell further and even planned to take Shakyamuni’s life. Several times he sent people to murder Shakyamuni, but each time the killers were moved by Shakyamuni and stopped. Devadatta then made an elephant drunk with wine and released it when Shakyamuni came to town begging for food. Seeing the drunk elephant rushing toward them, some disciples of Shakyamuni ran away, while some stayed to protect Shakyamuni with their own lives. When the drunk elephant saw Shakyamuni, however, it knelt down with both knees and touched Shakyamuni’s feet with its trunk. By then, more people began to criticize Devadatta, but some still followed him. Not long after that, Uppalavanna, one of Shakyamuni’s top female disciples, went to Devadatta trying to convince him to repent and change. But Devadatta beat her to death. 

To satisfy his evil ego, Devadatta claimed himself a master, and proposed many specious and grandiose Buddhism theories. Some new monks were misled and agreed with him. With their support, Devadatta went to Mount Gaya. With compassion toward these new monks, however, Shakyamuni asked Sariputra and Maudgalyayana to follow them, successfully helping them understand that Devadatta was undermining Buddhism. These people returned to Shakyamuni and repented in front of him. 

In the end, all vicious attempts of Devadatta failed. With great sins, he died miserably. After that, Shakyamuni once said, among the Buddha teachings from him, Devadatta did not have even the slightest contribution. Therefore, Devadatta would fall into hell upon death. 

But some monks still doubted Shakyamuni’s teachings. They asked Shakyamuni why Shakyamuni said Devadatta would suffer heavy karmic retribution since he had great supernormal abilities and fame? Apparently, they were not clear and had not awakened from the influence from Devadatta. Even when Faxian and Xuanzang visited India from the Han region hundreds of years later, they found some muddle-headed monks still worshiped Devadatta, not Shakyamuni. 

It was a serious lesson that Devadatta descended from a diligent, well-established Buddhist disciple to a vicious figure that fell into hell. Shakyamuni also mentioned that, had Magadha’s prince Ajatashatru not admired Devadatta so much and provided 500 cauldrons of premium food a day, Devadatta probably would not have gone that far. Such blind praise and worship were part of what fueled Devadatta’s ego, pushing sending on the path of no return toward hell. 

From the perspective of cultivation, Devadatta’s downfall could be related to his attachments of showing-off, pursuit of fame and interest, and jealousy. Once gaining supernormal abilities and being worshiped, his attachments were intensified, resulting in him no longer believing in Shakyamuni and the Buddhist teachings. In the end, he committed serious sins. During this process, the blind praise and worship from other Buddhist monks also played a critical role. Without them, Devadatta probably would not have gone so far. In fact, after Shakyamuni declared his not acknowledging Devadatta anymore, if all disciples would have deep faith in Shakyamuni and left Devadatta, this situation might have helped Devadatta to awaken and return to the right path. 

(Adapted from pureinsight.org)