Six young nobles of the Shakya tribe - Ananda, Anuruddha, Bhaddiya, Bhagu,Devadatta and Kimbila - resolved together to become Shakyamuni's disciples. When they left the kingdom's capital, Kapilavatthu, it was with such a great train of carts, horses, elephants, and retainers that everyone thought they were embarking on an excursion.
At the boundary between the land of the Shakyas and the kingdom of Magadha, however, they sent their entire train back to the capital, keeping with them only Upali, a barber.
In a grove on the border, they ordered Upali to shave their heads. Next they removed their rich clothes and jeweled ornaments and put on the coarse garments they had prepared. They then said to the barber, “Upali, you have served us long and well.
We have made up our minds to go to Anupiya, in the kingdom of Malla, where Shakyamuni is staying, and ask him to include us among his disciples. Since we are going to renounce the secular world these clothes and ornaments are no longer of any use to us. Take them all and return quickly with them to Kapilavatthu.”
Upali stared after the young nobles as they vanished into the forest. Then, coming to himself, he was overwhelmed by the heap of costly things lying, at his feet. Trembling, he picked them up and hastily, concealed himself in the woods, where he puzzled over the meaning of what had just happened. He thought, “There can be no doubt that I have been given great wealth, enough to feed me for the rest of my life.” But he at once saw that if he took the riches home, people would suspect him of having stolen them.
To a man like Upali, who had always been honest, being the object of such suspicions would have been intolerable. Even if he reported what had happened, he would probably be punished for having aided the young nobles in abandoning secular life for the life of religion, Upali was at his wits' end.
Then he began wondering why the six young men had given up their lives of wealth and comfort to devote themselves to religion. He suddenly recalled words he had heard a few days earlier at the Nigrodha Monastery, outside Kapilavatthu: “All the suffering of the world is born of greed. Unless greed is abandoned, true peace of mind is impossible to attain.” The speaker had been Shakyamuni, who had once been the Shakya crown prince but had left home to search for the Way to perfect enlightenment.
Upali immediately saw that the cause of his confusion and fear was the desire that had awakened in him as soon as he had received the nobles' belongings. “Now I understand,” he exclaimed to himself. “Those young men left the secular world in the hope of finding peace of mind.” He realized that Shakyamuni was a great person, able to see the innermost recesses of the
human heart. Upali resolved to ask the young men to take him with them to Shakyamuni. No longer interested in the garments and jewels, he hung them on trees, one to a branch. Praying, that some pure-hearted traveler would find and be made happy by the riches, he hastened after the nobles.
That decision required great determination. The barber Upali, who was later to be revered as preeminent in keeping the precepts, had been born into the lowest of the four major castes, which were rigidly fixed in the time of Shakyamuni. People born into one of these castes - the Brahmans at the top, followed by the Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Sudras--remained in it for life.
Those in the lowest caste had no hope of improving their status, regardless of ability. Members of the Sudra caste, like Upali, were not permitted to eat with, much less fraternize with or marry, members of the caste to which the nobles belonged.
Thinking Upali had returned to Kapilavatthu, the young men were surprised to see him in
pursuit and asked him what was the matter. What had happened to the clothes and jewels they had given him? Had he been set upon by robbers? Panting, Upali replied, “No. Please listen to what I have to say. Riches of that kind are not suitable for a poor man like me. First of all, they would disturb my peace of mind. Be good enough to take me with you to Shakyamuni.”
They did as he asked, and thus the six young nobles and Upali the barber made obeisance together at the feet of the Buddha.
The Buddha asked the six young nobles who the man behind them was and was told that he was Upali the barber, who though of low birth had served the Shakyas well. Stiff with fear, Upali advanced timidly. Shakyamuni gently asked if he was seeking the Way. Upali replied, “Yes, if a person of mean birth like me can be permitted to become a monk..”
With a deep nod, Shakyamuni said, “Upali, people are not valuable because of birth. Put your mind at rest. Our Sangha makes no distinction on the basis of occupation or social class. The only rank that exists is seniority in the Sangha itself. Receive your ordination now.”
The six young nobles were astounded that Upali should be ordained ahead of them, since
this would mean they would be in a lower position than he and would have to pay reverence to him. One of them voiced their general discontent, “But Upali was our servant. . . .”
Shakyamuni replied crisply, “Why should people who have left secular life to be free of the desires of the world persist in clinging to discrimination by social class? That is not how you should seek the Way.”
Having been a prince himself, Shakyamuni no doubt saw the conceit of these young men, who formerly had commanded the services of hordes of underlings. It was to awaken them to their own pride that he ordained Upali ahead of them. It is said that the young men recognized the meaning of the Buddha's act and paid sincere reverence to Upali after he was ordained, taking places inferior to his.
One scripture offers the following account of why Upali was able to overcome his lowly birth to become one of the Buddha's disciples. When Shakyamuni was a hermit in an earlier existence, he once asked the palace barber to shave his head, but the barber refused contemptuously because of the hermit's wretched appearance.
The barber's nephew, who was an inexperienced novice, condemned his uncle's unkindness and did his best to shave the hermit. The young man revered the hermit thereafter and prayed to be reborn as a barber serving, him in a future life, in which he would continue to seek the Way. This man was Upali in an earlier existence.
Neither proud nor service, always accepting frankly what people said and doing all things sincerely, Upali learned and kept all he precepts so well that he surpassed all other members of the Sangha in this endeavor.
Upali once asked for permission to retire to the seclusion of the forests to train himself in meditative concentration, but Shakyamuni replied, "Each person has his own abilities. You are not made for the solitude of the forests. Let us imagine a huge elephant bathing happily in a lake. What would happen if a rabbit or a cat, observing the elephants' enjoyment, tried to emulate it by jumping into the water?"
Upali then realized that he should remain in the Sangha, devoting himself to discipline and training, keeping the precepts, and serving as a guide to the other monks. Whenever he entertained the least doubt on some point, he immediately referred the question to the Buddha. He kept all the precepts - beginning of course with the five basic ones of not taking life, stealing, indulging in sexual misconduct, lying or drinking intoxicants - so well that other people began coming to him for advice on them.
It must not be thought, however, that Upali followed the precepts dogmatically. He knew how to make exceptions. Once he met a sick old monk who was returning from a journey. Hearing that the old man's illness could be cured by drinking wine, Upali went to his master and asked what he should do. The Buddha said that sick people were exempted from the precept forbidding the drinking of intoxicants. Upali immediately gave wine to the old man, who recovered.
Upali observed the precepts for the sake of all the monks and for the improvement of the Sangha. He was revered for the way in which he resolved the disputes that frequently disturbed the Sangha, and after the Buddha's death he contributed greatly to the successful transmission of the Buddha's teachings to later generations by authenticating the precepts at the First Council, which met to compile the Buddha's teachings.