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Disciples, the Buddhas first

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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In the Mahāvaccagotta Sutta the Buddha mentioned that he had many thousands of disciples, a good number of whom had attained one or another of the stages leading to enlightenment (M.I,490-2). However, his first disciples were the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika. During the fourth week the Buddha was staying at Uruvelā, Tapussa and Bhallika happened to pass the outskirts of the village and saw the Buddha quietly meditating there. Impressed his serene looks and the aura of peace around him they approached him of barley gruel and honey balls. When the Buddha had finished eating the two merchants asked if they could take refuge in him and his Dhamma. They did not take refuge in the Saṅgha because it had not yet been established yet (Vin.I,4). The Tipiṭaka contains very little other information about these two individuals. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya the Buddha describes Tapussa as ‘the first person to take Refuge’ (A.I,26) and in the Theragāthā there is a verse by Bhallika although it is not certain if this is the same person (Th.7). Perhaps because of the dearth of information about Tapussa and Bhallika many legends grew up around their names. When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in northern Afghanistan in the 7th century he visited two towns each claiming to be the merchant’s hometowns and each named after them. Near each town was a stūpa supposedly enshrining relics given to Tapussa and Bhallika by the Buddha. From about the 5th century CE Sri Lankans have claimed Tapussa and Bhallika as their own. At Tiriyaya on the north-east coast of Sri Lanka is a beautiful stūpa supposedly built by the two merchants and enshrining a hair given to them by the Buddha. On the other hand, the Burmese insist that Tapussa and Bhallika were from their country. The great Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon contains, Burmese legend says, eight hairs that the Buddha gave the two merchants. In reality Tapussa and Bhallika were almost certainly Indians and from the Middle Land, and other than the references to them in the Tipiṭaka we have no authentic information about them. See Subhadda.

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