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Great Disciples of the Buddha by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker

Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker (edited with an introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi).  Wisdom Publications 1997, 411 pages.

This is a great book to read before jumping into the suttas.  In the original texts, so many people meet the Buddha, debate him, come and go, live, die, say this and that, it can be hard to keep their stories straight.  Of course, some show up repeatedly or are particularly memorable, but the suttas proper don’t always fill you in on their details.  Nor do they typically provide a coherent narrative all in one place, even of the great disciples like Ananda or Sariputta.  I don’t know of any other book that puts all these stories together to provide what approximates biographies in the modern sense.

This book started off in 1966 as a series of separate publications by Hellmuth Hecker in the German Buddhist periodical Wissen und Wandel.  Hecker singlehandedly researched and wrote the monographs that make up the bulk of the book, and when one considers the amount of material he had to go through to arrive at the reasonably comprehensive accounts offered here, the impressiveness of his achievement becomes clear.  Also in 1966 Nyanaponika, then president of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka, wrote and published a biography of the Buddha’s preeminent disciple, Sariputta.  However, it remained to Bhikkhu Bodhi to bring the work of these men together between two covers, to perform the necessary editorial tasks, and to round out the text with a biography of his own, that of Mahakaccana.  The result is an indispensable addition to the library of any Buddhist devotee.

Following is a list of the disciples whose lives are reviewed: Sariputta, Mahamoggallana, Mahakassapa, Ananda, Anuruddha, Mahakaccana, Visakha, Angulimala, Anathapindika, and fourteen other lesser known people.  Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are here, as well as laymen and laywomen.  The tone throughout is pious and uncritical, and while some people may be bothered by this, Bhikkhu Bodhi makes clear at the beginning that the purpose of the book is not to try to find the historical “truth” of these people, but to present them as the Buddhist world has known and revered them.  At times, the accumulation of legend weighs heavily, but very often too one can detect biographical truth and get the feeling for the reality of these people.  As I read, I found myself wondering how it would have been, for example, to have had Ananda as a college roommate.  I can see it even now: everybody loves him; his incredible memory means that studies are a cakewalk, women are drawn irresistibly to him and he gets voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  On other hand, if I’d had to room with Mahakasspa I think I would have been a little intimidated–he was one tough daddy.

All in all, this is a most worthy and informative book and I highly recommend it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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