Home page Up (parent) Next (right) Previous (left) Abbreviations

Page last updated on 8 October, 2020

Association for Insight Meditation Home Page


1. Upāli Thera.– One of the most eminent of the Buddha’s immediate disciples. He belonged to a barber’s family in Kapilavatthu and entered the service of the Sakyan princes. When Anuruddha and his cousins left the world and sought ordination from the Buddha at Anupiyā Grove, Upāli accompanied them. They gave him all their valuable ornaments, but, on further consideration, he refused to accept them and wished to become a monk with them. The reason given for his refusal is that he knew the Sākyā were hot-headed, and feared that the kinsmen of the princes might suspect him of having murdered the young men for the sake of their belongings.

At the request of the Sakyan youths, the Buddha ordained Upāli before them all, so that their pride might be humbledUpāli’s preceptor (upajjhāya) was Kappitaka.² When Upāli went to the Buddha for an exercise for meditation, he asked that he might be allowed to dwell in the forest. However, the Buddha would not agree, for if Upāli went into the forest he would learn only meditation, while, if he remained amongst men, he would have knowledge both of meditation and of the word of the Dhamma. Upāli accepted the Buddha’s advice and, practising insight, in due course won Arahantship. The Buddha himself taught Upāli the whole of the Vinaya Piṭaka.³

In the assembly of the Saṅgha, the Buddha declared him to be the most proficient of those who were learned in the Vinaya (vinayadharānaṃ).⁴ He is often spoken of as having reached the pinnacle of the Vinaya, or as being its chief repository (Vinaye agganikkhitto),⁵ and three particular cases — those of Ajjuka. the Bhārukacchaka monk ⁷ and Kumāra-Kassapa — are frequently mentioned in this connection as instances where Upāli’s decisions on Vinaya rules earned the special commendation of the Buddha. In the Rājagaha Council, Upāli took a leading part, deciding all the questions relative to the Vinaya, in the same way as Ānanda decided questions regarding the Dhamma.

In accordance with this tradition, ascribing to Upāli especial authority regarding the rules of the Order, various instances are given of Upāli questioning the Buddha about the Vinaya regulations. Thus we find him consulting the Buddha as to the legality or otherwise of a complete congregation performing, in the absence of an accused monk, an act at which his presence is required.¹⁰ Again, he wishes to know if, in a matter which has caused altercations and schisms among members of the Order, the Saṅgha declares re-establishment of concord without thorough investigation, could such a declaration be lawful? ¹¹ When a monk intends to take upon himself the conduct of any matter that has to be decided, under what conditions should he do so? What qualities should a monk possess in himself before he takes upon himself to warn others? ¹² In what case can there be an interruption of the probationary period of a monk who has been placed on probation? ¹³

A whole list of questions asked by Upāli and answers given by the Buddha on matters pertaining to the Vinaya rules is found in the chapter called Upāli-Pañcaka in the Parivāra.¹⁴ It is not possible to determine which of these and other questions were actually asked by Upāli, and which were ascribed to him on account of his traditional reputation.

It is said ¹⁵ that even in the Buddha’s lifetime monks considered it a great privilege to learn the Vinaya under Upāli. The monks seem to have regarded Upāli as their particular friend, to whom they could go in their difficulties. Thus, when certain monks had been deprived by thieves of their clothes, it is Upāli’s protection that they seek.¹⁶

The Canon contains few records of any discourses connected with Upāli, apart from his questions on the Vinaya. In the Aṅguttaranikāya¹⁷ he is mentioned as asking the Buddha for a brief discourse, the Buddha telling him that if there were anything that did not conduce to revulsion and detachment, Upāli could be sure that such things did not form part of the Buddha’s teaching. There is a record of another discourse,¹⁸ which the Buddha is stated to have taught when Upāli expressed the desire to retire into the solitude of the forest. The Buddha tells him that forest-life is not for the man who has not mastered his mind or attained to tranquillity. For other discourses see Upāli Sutta and Ubbāhikā Sutta.

Three verses are ascribed to Upāli in the Theragāthā¹⁹ where he admonishes the brethren to seek noble friends of unfaltering character, to learn the monks’ code of discipline and to dwell in solitude. In the time of Padumuttara, Upāli was a very rich brahmin named Sujāta. When the Buddha came to his father’s city in order to teach him the Dhamma, Sujāta saw him, and in the assembly be noticed an ascetic named Sunanda, holding over the Buddha for seven days a canopy of flowers. The Buddha declared that Sunanda would, in the time of Gotama Buddha, become famous as the elder Puṇṇa Mantāṇiputta. Sujāta, too, wished to see the future Buddha Gotama, and having heard Padumuttara Buddha praise the monk Pātika as chief of the Vinayadharā, he wished to hear, regarding himself, a similar declaration from Gotama. With this end in view he did many deeds of merit, chief of which was the erection of a monastery named Sobhana, for the Buddha and his monks, at an expense of one hundred thousand.

As a result he was born in heaven for thirty thousand world-cycles and was one thousand times king of the devas. One thousand times, too, he was a Cakkavatti.

Two world-cycles ago there was a warrior (khattiya) named Añjasa, and Upāli was born as his son Sunanda. One day he went to the park riding an elephant named Sirika, and met, on the way, the Pacceka Buddha Devala, whom he insulted in various ways. Sunanda was, thereupon, seized with a sensation of great heat in his body, and it was not until he went with a large following to the Pacceka Buddha and asked his pardon that the sensation left him. It is said that if the Buddha had not forgiven him, the whole country would have been destroyed. This insult paid to the Pacceka Buddha was the cause of Upāli having been born as a barber in his last birth.²⁰

Buddhaghosa says ²¹ that while the Buddha was yet alive Upāli drew up certain instructions according to which future Vinayadharā should interpret Vinaya rules, and that, in conjunction with others, he compiled explanatory notes on matters connected with the Vinaya.

In direct pupillary succession to Upāli as head of the Vinayadharā was Dāsaka, whom Upāli had first met at the Vālikārāma, where Upāli was staying.²² Upāli taught him the whole of the Vinaya. Upāli’s death was in the sixth year of Udāyibhadda’s reign.²³


¹ Vin.ii.182; DhA.i.116 f; see also Bu.i.61; but see BuA.44; the Tibetan sources give a slightly different version, see Rockhill, op.cit., pp.55‑6; according to the Mahāvastu iii.179, Upāli was the Buddha’s barber, too.

² Vin.iv.308. ³ ThagA.i.360 f, 370; AA.i.172.

A.i.24; see also Vin.iv.142, where the Buddha is mentioned as speaking Upāli’s praises.

E.g., Dpv.iv.3, 5; v.7, 9. Vin.iii.66 f. Vin.iii.39.

AA.i.158; MA.i.336; J.i.148; DhA.iii.145.

Vin.ii.286 f; DA.i.11 f; Mhv.iii.30. ¹⁰ Vin.i.325 f.

¹¹ Vin.i.358 f. ¹² Vin.ii.248 f. ¹³ Vin.ii.33 f.

¹⁴ Vin.v.180‑206; see also the Upālivagga of the Aṅguttaranikāya v.70 ff.

¹⁵ E.g., Vin.iv.142; Sp.iv.876.

¹⁶ Vin.iii.212; see also the story of Ramanīyavihārī, ThagA.i.116.

¹⁷ A.iv.143 f. ¹⁸ A.v.201 ff.

¹⁹ Thag.vv. 249‑51; but see Gotama the Man, p.215; another verse ascribed to Upāli, but so far not traced elsewhere, is found in the Milindapañha p.108.

²⁰ Ap.i.37 ff. ²¹ Sp.i.272, 283. ²² Mhv.v.10. ²³ Dpv.v.7 ff.

2. Upāli.– A lad of Rājagaha. His parents, wishing him to live a life of ease, did not have him instructed in any of the usual means of livelihood, lest he should be inconvenienced while learning them. After much consideration, they decided to have him ordained. He joined the Order with sixteen other companions equally young, and it is said that they rose at dawn and started shouting for food. This was the reason for the rule that no one under twenty years of age should receive the higher ordination (upasampadā). Vin.i.77 f.

3. Upāli Thera.– The Apadāna (i.91 f) contains the story of a thera named Upāli, who is to be distinguished from the eminent disciple of that name, though the Apadāna verses obviously point to a confusion of the legends of the two. The Apadāna Commentary distinguishes this monk as “Bhāgineyya Upāli,” and states that he was a nephew of the Venerable Upāli. He was born in Kapilavatthu and was ordained by his uncle, who later became an Arahant.

Bhāgineyya Upāli had been a householder in the time of Padumuttara. Later he left the world and became an ascetic in Himavā. There he met the Buddha and the monks, and uttered their praises in song. As a result he was eighteen times king of the devas and twenty-five times king of men.

4. Upāli.– Distinguished as Upāli-Gahapati. He lived at Nāḷandā and was a follower of Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta.

He was present when Dīghatapassī reported to Nāṭaputta an account of his visit to the Buddha in the Pāvārika Mango-grove. Upāli undertook to go himself to the Buddha and refute his views, in spite of the protestations of Dīghatapassī. At the end of his discussion with the Buddha, which is recorded in the Upāli Sutta, Upāli is converted and invites the Buddha to a meal. Although the Buddha enjoins upon Upāli that his benefactions to the Nigaṇṭhā should not cease because of his conversion, Upāli gives instructions that no Nigaṇṭha be admitted to his presence, but that if they need food it shall be given to them. Hearing a rumour of his conversion, first Tapassī, and later Nāṭaputta himself, go to Upāli’s house, where they learn the truth. When Nāṭaputta is finally convinced that Upāli has become a follower of the Buddha, hot blood gushes from his mouth (M.i.371 ff).

According to Buddhaghosa (MA.ii.621, 830), Nāṭaputta had to be carried on a litter to Pāvā, where he died shortly after.

Upāli became a Stream-winner (sotāpanna) (MA.ii.620).

He is mentioned, with Ānanda, Citta-gahapati, Dhammika-upāsaka and Khujjuttarā, as one who had acquired the four types of Analytical Knowledge (paṭisambhidā) while being yet a learner (sekha). Vism.ii.442; VibhA.388.

5. Upāli Thera.– Head of the chapter of monks sent from Thailand, at the request of Kittisirirājasīha, to re-establish the higher ordination (upasampadā) in Sri Lanka. He was held in great esteem by the king of Sri Lanka and often taught him. Upāli died in Sri Lanka of an incurable disease of the nose, and his funeral obsequies were held with great solemnity. Cv.c.71, 94, 117, 127, 142.