During the lifetime of the Buddha Shakyamuni, almsgiving was a common practice but there was one patron who stood out from the rest. Through his selflessness and generosity, Sudatta, a successful Brahmin merchant, came to be known as Anathapindika, the incomparable benefactor.
Sudatta lived with his wife Punnalakkhana and three children in Sravasti, which at the time of Buddha’s awakening was the largest town in the Ganges plains. On one of his frequent business trips to Rajgir, Sudatta encountered Buddha Shakyamuni teaching. He immediately recognized the Buddha as his teacher. He prostrated at the Buddha’s feet and then, in an awkward move many of us can identify with, he asked the Blessed One if he had slept well. The Buddha kindly replied:
Always indeed He sleeps well,
The Brahmin who is fully quenched,
Who does not cling to sensual pleasure,
Cool at heart is that acquisition.
Having cut off all attachment,
Having removed desire from the heart,
The Peaceful One indeed sleeps well,
For he has attained peace of mind.
Instantly devoted, Sudatta was torn by a decision. Should he become a renunciant, cut off all attachments, give up his worldly life and follow Buddha? What about his obligations to his business and love for his family? When he requested Buddha’s advice on the matter, Buddha instructed Sudatta to remain a householder and businessman but to lose attachment to his worldliness, to continue his lifestyle but to do so in accord with the dharma.
Sudatta invited Buddha to come to Sravasti and began to look for a suitable place to build a temple. The most beautiful park in the area belonged to Prince Jeta, son of Prasenjit the king of Sravasti. Jeta tested Sudatta by agreeing to sell the land so long as Sudatta pay the price of paving the entire park with gold coins. Filled with devotion, patience and determination, Sudatta did as he was told and then selflessly named the new park after the prince . Jetavana Vihara. He then built a magnificent complex, complete with a seven-storey palace, temples, meditation halls, lush gardens, lotus ponds and walkways for the Buddha and his entire retinue. For the next twenty-five years Buddha and his students congregated at Sravasti during monsoon season and it was here that the master gave his disciples the Tripitakas. Jetavana was also the site of the first vinaya ordination and the place where the Diamond Sutra was taught.
When the Buddha was in residence Sudatta visited the monastery daily along with the other disciples, never expecting any special treatment from the Buddha simply because he was his chief benefactor. Sudatta quietly provided the sangha with food, alms bowls, robes and medicine and extended his generosity also to the townspeople. He received teachings from the Buddha without question. But if the subject arose, Buddha would welcome discussion of Sudatta’s specific worldly concerns, using these examples as a vehicle to teach dharma. Buddha gave Sudatta several important teachings about wealth and generosity. He said that there are four kinds of bliss for a head of household: the bliss of ownership; the bliss of sharing wealth; the bliss of debtlessness; and the bliss of blamelessness.
He said it was fine for lay people to seek long life, beauty, happiness, fame and rebirth in a heaven, but these things could be not obtained merely by prayer or by taking vows. He explained that only perfection of confidence (in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), perfection of virtue, perfection of generosity and perfection of wisdom can truly bring those precious rewards.
Through the blessings and teachings of the Buddha, and his own good karma and merit, Sudatta reached the first bhumi and became known as Anathapindika. Never one to proselytize or seek attention, Sudatta nevertheless influenced all those around him. His commitment and life example inspired countless students to follow the dharma. He died with Ananda and Sariputra at his side and went to Tushita Heaven.
During Tibetan New Year (February 2004), Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche led a group of his friends and students on pilgrimage to Sravasti. While grand palace and grounds have succumbed to ravages of time, one of the most beautiful spots in Jetavana, still stands – the Anandabodhi tree. This sacred tree was brought (it is told that Maha Moggallana retrieved the sapling using astral travel) as a cutting from the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, which itself grew from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya.