After attaining enlightenment under the bodhi tree at Gaya, in the kingdom of Magadha, Shakyamuni traveled through much of northeastern India teaching, and visited his home City of Kapilavatthu several times. The fame of the Buddha and his teaching of a way to eliminate suffering grew rapidly, and many young men of the Shakya tribe abandoned secular life to join the
Anuruddha, Shakyamuni's cousin, who was later to be praised as foremost in divine insight, was a son of the Shakya royal house. One day, when everyone in Kapilavatthu was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the man whose teachings had won over so many young men in the capital, Anuruddha was visited by his older brother, Mahanama, who proposed that one of them give up secular life in the hope of gaining religious merit and that the other accept the responsibilities of heir to the family.
Mahanama made this proposal because he was concerned that if both were to give up secular life no one would remain to carry on the family line. Anuruddha had no objection to his brother's proposal but was uncertain whether he, accustomed as he was to luxury and the freedom to do as he liked, could withstand the rigorous discipline of the religious life.
If he took over the family responsibilities, on the other hand, he would spend the rest of his life coping with the constant demands of farming and of conducting Brahman religious ceremonies. He was torn between the two courses.
Anuruddha was aristocratic in appearance, with straight brows and a finely shaped nose, and was also skilled in martial arts and sports. His parents doted on him and gave him a house for each of the seasons--one for summer, one for winter, and one for the rainy season--just as Shakyamuni's parents had done for him when he was still Prince Siddhattha. In the inner apartments of these buildings Anuruddha had been carefully reared, attended by many serving women.
In spite of the comfort and luxury of his life, however, Anuruddha was dissatisfied. His life
began to seem empty, and he was overcome by a profound sadness. During one of Shakyamuni's
visits to Kapilavatthu, Anuruddha caught a glimpse of this man who was pure and free of all the troubles of the world. That glimpse caused him to choose the life of religious pursuit.
He thought, “Shakyamuni felt more deeply than anyone the emptiness and futility of life in this world and sought liberation from suffering, a state of absolute tranquillity. He will be able to teach me how to find what I seek.”
His mind made up, Anuruddha obtained permission from his older brother to join the Sangha and then went to his mother for her permission. She loved him deeply and refused at first; finally, however, seeing that he was resolute, she compromised and agreed to consent if Anuruddha's cousin Bhaddiya would also devote himself to the pursuit of religious truth.
She felt safe in making that concession, since Bhaddiya had become king of the Shakyas after the death of King Suddhodana, Shakyamuni's father. It was unlikely that a man in such a position would discard his responsibilities and become a monk.
Anuruddha then went to Bhaddiya and requested his company in leaving the secular world to follow Shakyamuni. Torn between his state duties and his desire to become a monk, Bhaddiya first said he would accompany Anuruddha if he agreed to wait seven years. Anuruddha refused.
The length of time was shortened to six years, then five, four, and so on to one year. Finally Baddiya promised to become a monk if Anuruddha waited a mere seven days.
Having persuaded Bhaddiya, Anuruddha went on to win over four more young nobles
Ananda, Bhagu, Devadatta, and Kimbila--and all of them, with the barber Upali, went to Shakyamuni and joined the Sangha.
Before becoming a monk, Anuruddha had worn beautiful clothes, slept on the softest
bedding, and lived in comfort surrounded by servants. Now he found that wearing ragged robes, begging for food, sleeping outside, and other aspects of his new life of severe discipline were very difficult. But with stubborn perseverance, he finally became accustomed to the life of a monk, only to be assaulted by the fatigue brought on by such strict training.
One day, when he and many other disciples had gathered at the Jetavana Monastery to hear Shakyamuni teach, Annuruddha was overcome by drowsiness and fell asleep. He awoke with a start when he heard Shakyamuni call his name. Shakyamuni said, “It must be a pure and wise person who can take joy in hearing the Dharma and sleep peacefully, with no mental disturbance.”
Those words, no doubt intended as a mild reproof, pierced the heart of the exhausted disciple. When the sermon ended, Anuruddha approached Shakyamuni, who said to him, “Why did you give up a regal life for the life of religious discipline? To escape the irksome duties of the crown? From fear of robbers?”
Overcome by shame, Anuruddha replied, “No, revered teacher. I did so to pursue the Way that transcends the suffering of birth, aging, illness, death, and all the other sorrows of the world.”
”And do you think dozing will help you fulfill your wish?” asked Shakyamuni. Anuruddha
realized that the indolent habits of court life still lingered deep in his mind and body, ready to rise to the surface at the least mental laxness.
Anuruddha said, “Revered teacher, I have been guilty of misconduct. Please forgive me. Never again will I sleep in front of you, not even if my eyes should melt and my body break out in sores.” There was a look of extraordinary resolution on Anuruddha's face as he made this vow.
After making his vow of sleeplessness, Anuruddha began a fierce battle with his body's need for sleep. He is said to have gone for nights on end without closing his eyes. A long period of
this severe discipline enabled him to attain the enlightenment of an arahant, but the strain caused his sight to fail. Shakyamuni instructed Anuruddha to consult a physician, who pronounced that he could be cured by sleep.
Shakyamuni, hearing this, called Anuruddha to his side and said, “By carrying out your vow, you have rid yourself of all delusions. Why not sleep peacefully now? As the body requires, food for nourishment, so the eyes require sleep.”
Deeply moved though he was by this demonstration of affection and compassion, Anuruddha replied, “Revered teacher, by making a vow of sleeplessness I have conquered suffering. How can I discard that vow now?”
Anuruddha knew how difficult it is for people to change their personalities and habits. An instant's inattention had allowed lethargy and pride to take over and had made him doze in the presence of the Buddha. He never forgot that incident or ceased to reproach himself for it. It was his burning desire for self-improvement and religious insight, not stubborn insistence on fulfilling his vow, that made him keep his vow of sleeplessness, even if it meant going blind. Indeed, Anuruddha finally did go blind. But as he lost physical sight he gained spiritual vision into the true nature of all things and came to be respected as foremost in divine insight.
On one occasion when a large number of disciples had gathered at the Jetavana Monastery
to hear Shakyamuni teach, Anuruddha suddenly became aware of the ragged condition of his robe and wanted to mend it; but being blind, he could not thread the needle. He turned to the other monks nearby and said, “Would some monk who wishes to acquire merit and attain enlightenment
thread this needle for me?”
A person approached and asked to be allowed to do the task, but Anuruddha recognized
the voice of Shakyamuni and said in surprise, “Revered teacher, I could not allow you to do it. I was thinking of a person who wanted to acquire merit and seek happiness.”
To this Shakyamuni said, “No one in this world seeks happiness more than I.”
“I do not like to appear to talk back to you, but you are a buddha. What Dharma can you
seek beyond what you have already attained?” asked Anuruddha.
Shakyamuni answered, “Anuruddha, I too am continually seeking the Dharma. There is no end to seeking the Dharma, even for a buddha.” Then he threaded the needle for Anuruddha, whose blind eyes filled with the radiant image of the Buddha.