Once Moggallāna saw with the divine eye how King Pasenadi had been defeated in battle by the Licchavis and how afterwards he had gathered his troops again and vanquished them. When Moggallāna reported this, some monks accused him of falsely boasting about his supernormal faculties, which is a disciplinary offence making a monk subject to expulsion from the Order. The Buddha, however, explained that Moggallāna had reported only what he had seen and what had actually happened.

Above all, Moggallāna used his divine eye to observe the operation of the law of kamma and its fruits. Again and again he saw how human beings, through their evil actions that harmed their fellow beings, were reborn among the petas, miserable ghosts, and had to undergo much suffering, while others, who practiced charity and virtue, rose upwards to the heavenly abodes. He often reported such cases to exemplify the law of kamma. These reports are collected in two books of the Pāli Canon, one dealing with the ghost realm (the Petavatthu) and one with the heavenly abodes (the Vimānavatthu). From this it can be readily understood why Moggallāna was famous as one who knew the worlds beyond as well as the workings of kamma.

The reports are too numerous to discuss here, but at least one of his visions, recorded in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, should be mentioned.

Once Moggallāna lived on Vulture’s Peak, near Rājagaha, together with the monk Lakkhaṇa, one of the thousand brahmin ascetics who had been converted together with Uruvela Kassapa. One morning, when they had descended from the peak to go on alms round in the town, Moggallāna smiled when they reached a certain place on the road. When his companion asked him the reason, Moggallāna said that this was not the right time to explain; he would explain later in the presence of the Master.

When they later met the Buddha, Lakkhaṇa repeated his question, and Moggallāna now said that at that spot he had seen many miserable ghosts flying through the air, chased around by predators and tormented by various kinds of afflictions. The Buddha confirmed this as absolutely true and added that he himself spoke only reluctantly about such matters because people with skeptical minds would not believe it.

Then the Buddha, out of his universal knowledge, explained what propensities and behaviour had brought those ghosts to their present pitiable position.


“Just as a person might bend his stretched arm or stretch his bent arm,” so quickly could Moggallāna depart bodily from the human world and reappear in a celestial realm. Repeatedly he made use of this capacity to instruct other beings and to look after the affairs of the Order. Thus he taught the devas in the realm of the Thirty-three the factors of stream- entry, and tested Sakka, their king, to determine whether he had understood the teaching about the extinction of craving.


When the Buddha was preaching the Abhidhamma for three months in one of the heavenly worlds, Moggallāna appeared in that heaven, informed him of happenings in the Order, and asked for instructions. He visited not only the gods of the sense sphere, but also those of the Brahma- world.


Thus he appeared before a Brahmā deity who believed that there were no ascetics capable of entering his realm, and through questioning and supernormal feats Moggallāna shook that deity’s self-assurance. On another occasion he appeared in front of a Brahmā named Tissa—who formerly had been a monk and had died recently—and gave him instructions about stream-entry and the realization of final deliverance.



Moggallāna also had mastery over what appears to be solid matter. Once the monks staying at a monastery were negligent, busying themselves too much with material trifles. Learning of this, the Buddha asked Moggallāna to use a feat of supernormal power in order to shake them out of their complacency and inspire them to return to serious striving. In response, Moggallāna pushed the building with his big toe, so that the entire monastery, called the Mansion of Migāra’s Mother, shook and trembled as if there was an earthquake. The monks were so deeply stirred by this event that they shook off their worldly interests and again became receptive to the Buddha’s instructions.


The Buddha explained to them that the source of Moggallāna’s great supernormal prowess was the development of the four roads to power.


Once Moggallāna visited Sakka in his heavenly realm and saw that he was living rather lightheartedly. Captivated by heavenly sense pleasures, he had become forgetful of the Dhamma. To dispel his vanity Moggallāna used his toe to shake Sakka’s celestial palace, the Banner of Victory, in which Sakka took much pride. This had a shock effect on Sakka too, and he now recalled the teaching on the extinction of craving, which the Buddha had briefly taught him not long ago. It was the same teaching that the Buddha had given to Moggallāna as a spur to attaining arahantship.


Once there was a famine in the area where the Buddha and his community of monks were residing, and the monks could not obtain sufficient alms-food. On that occasion Moggallāna asked the Buddha whether he might overturn the ground so that the nourishing substance underneath would be accessible and could be eaten. But the Buddha prohibited him, as this would cause the destruction of a large number of living beings.


Then Moggallāna offered to use his psychic power to open a road to the Uttarakuru country so that the monks could go there for alms. This, too, the Buddha prohibited. But all survived the famine unharmed, even without such supernormal devices. This was the only occasion when the Buddha disapproved of Moggallāna’s suggestions.


Moggallāna’s supernormal power expressed itself too in his ability to bring things from far distances by magical locomotion. Thus, for instance, he brought lotus stalks from the Himalayas when Sāriputta was ill and needed them for medicine. He also fetched a shoot of the Bodhi tree for Anāthapiṇḍika to be planted at the Jetavana Monastery. However, when his fellow-monk Piṇḍola asked him to prove the superiority of the Buddha’s Sangha over the sectarians by magically bringing down a precious bowl that had been hung up in town so high that nobody could take it down, Moggallāna refused, saying that Piṇḍola himself possessed sufficient powers to do it. But when Piṇḍola actually performed that feat, the Buddha rebuked him: a monk should not display supernormal powers merely to impress the laity.


Although we have confined the preceding discussion to incidents mentioned in the Pāli Canon, this account would be deficient if we did not mention what the commentaries regard as Moggallāna’s most formidable display of psychic power, his triumph over the divine serpent, the royal nāga Nandopananda. This incident is recorded in the Visuddhimagga. On one occasion, when the Buddha together with five hundred monks visited the heaven of the Thirty- three, they passed just above the abode of Nandopananda.


This infuriated the royal nāga, who sought to take revenge by surrounding Mount Sineru with his coils and spreading his hood so that the entire world was enveloped in darkness. Several eminent monks offered to subdue the nāga, but the Buddha, aware of his ferocity, would not permit them. It was only to Moggallāna, the last to volunteer, that he granted permission. Moggallāna then transformed himself into a huge royal nāga and engaged Nandopananda in a terrible battle of flame and smoke.


Drawing upon one power after another, appearing in a variety of shapes and sizes, he shattered his rival’s defenses. In the last phase of the battle he assumed the form of a supaṇṇa, the celestial eagle, arch-enemy of the nāga. At this point Nandopananda capitulated, and the elder, assuming once again the form of a monk, brought him to the Buddha in triumph and elicited from him an apology.


Half a year before the Buddha’s Parinibbāna, on the full-moon day of the month Kattika (October/November), death separated the two chief disciples for the last time. It was on this day that Sāriputta passed away in his birth chamber in his parental home—surrounded by his many pupils, but far away from Moggallāna. Even though during life the two had been almost inseparable, their deaths, like their attainment of arahantship, occurred at different places.

Soon after the passing away of Sāriputta, Moggallāna had a bizarre encounter with Māra, the Evil One, the Tempter and Lord of Death, which may well have been a premonition of his own imminent demise.

One night, while the elder was walking back and forth for exercise, Māra slipped into his body and entered his bowels. Moggallāna sat down and attended to his abdomen, which suddenly felt as heavy as a bag of beans. He then discovered the Evil One lodged within his own belly. Calmly he told Māra to get out. Māra was astonished that he had been detected so soon, and in his delusion thought that even the Buddha would not have recognized him so quickly. But Moggallāna read his thoughts and again ordered him to depart. Māra now escaped through Moggallāna’s mouth and stood at the door of the hut. Moggallāna told him that he knew him not only on that day but had also known him in the past, for their kammic connection was old and deep.

 The following is the gist of what he said:

The first of the five Buddhas appearing in our ‘fortunate aeon’ (bhaddakappa) was Kakusandha, whose chief disciples were the arahants Vidhura and Sañjīva. At that time, Moggallāna was Māra, by name Māra Dūsi. For Māra too, like Mahā-brahmā and Sakka, is not a permanent being but a cosmic post or office—chief of demons, lord of the lower world— which is filled by different individuals migrating through the round of existence.

At that time Māra Dūsi had a sister named Kālī, whose son was to become the Māra of our age. Hence Moggallāna’s own nephew then was now standing in front of him in his hut as the present Māra. When, in that past age, Moggallāna was Māra, he had taken possession of a boy and made him throw a potsherd at the head of the Buddha Kakusandha’s chief disciple, the arahant Vidhura. The wound was a severe one, which caused blood to flow.

When the Buddha Kakusandha turned around and saw this, he said: “Indeed, Māra knows no moderation here” —for even in diabolical actions there might be moderation—and under the Perfect One’s glance Māra Dūsi’s body dissolved and reappeared in the deepest hell. Just a moment earlier he had been the overlord of all the hellish worlds, and now he himself was one of hell’s victims. For many thousands of years Moggallāna had to suffer in hell as the kammic result of attacking an arahant. He was condemned to spend ten thousand years alone in the Great Hell, having a human body and the head of a fish. Whenever two lances of his torturers crossed in his heart, he would know that a thousand years of his torment had passed.


This encounter with Māra once more brought to Moggallāna’s mind the terrors of saṃsāra from which he was now forever free. Soon afterwards Moggallāna felt that the time of his last existence was running out. Being an arahant he saw no reason to extend his life span to the end of the aeon by an act of will, and he calmly allowed impermanence to take its lawful course.


Surrounded by many of his monks, the Buddha passed away peacefully during a meditative absorption which he entered with perfect mastery. Sāriputta’s death in his parental home, likewise with fellow monks in attendance, was similarly serene. Ānanda died at the age of 120; as he did not wish to burden anyone by his funeral, he entered meditative concentration on the fire element so that his body vanished in a blaze.


Considering the serene death of the Master and of these two disciples, one would have expected that Mahāmoggallāna, too, would have undergone the final dissolution of the body under peaceful circumstances. But Moggallāna’s end was very different, though the gruesome nature of his death did not shake his firm and serene mind.


Moggallāna passed away a fortnight after his friend Sāriputta, on the new-moon day of the month Kartika (October/November), in the autumn. The ‘great decease’ of the Buddha took place on the full- moon night of the month Vesākha (May), half a year after the death of his two chief disciples. The Buddha was in his eightieth year when he passed away, while both Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna died at the age of eighty-four.


The circumstances of Moggallāna’s death are related in two sources, the Dhammapada Commentary and the Jātaka Commentary. The account here will be based on the Dhammapada Commentary, with the differences in the Jātaka Commentary noted parenthetically.


Because the Buddha was so skilful as a teacher, leading countless people to the gates of deliverance, the populace of Magadha for the most part had transferred its allegiance from the various rival ascetic orders to the Enlightened One and his Sangha.


A group of naked ascetics, resentful over this loss of prestige, pinned the prime responsibility for their hard times on the Venerable Mahāmoggallāna. They believed that Moggallāna had won over their own adherents to the Buddha’s Dhamma with his reports of his celestial travels, in which he related how he had seen the virtuous devotees of the Buddha enjoying rebirth in heaven and the followers of other sects, lacking moral conduct, suffering in miserable subhuman states of existence. These ascetics were so enraged about their loss of popularity that they wanted to eliminate Moggallāna. Without accepting responsibility for their own misfortune, they projected the blame externally and concentrated their envy and hate on the great disciple.


While the ascetics were hesitant to kill Moggallāna by their own hand, they had no scruples about employing others to carry out their nefarious deed. Having procured a thousand gold coins from their followers, they approached a band of brigands and offered them the money in exchange for the great disciple’s life. At that time Moggallāna was living alone in a forest hut at the Black Rock, on the slope of Mount Isigili outside Rājagaha.


After his encounter with Māra he knew that the end of his days was near. Having enjoyed the bliss of liberation, he now felt the body to be an obstruction and burden and had no desire to use his psychic faculties to keep it alive for the rest of the aeon. Yet, when he saw the brigands approach, he knew they were coming to kill him, and he used his supernormal powers to slip through the keyhole. The gangsters arrived at an empty hut, and though they searched everywhere, they could not find him. They returned the following day too, but this time the elder soared up into the air and escaped through the roof. The next month too the bandits came, but again they could not catch the elder. (In the Jātaka version the bandits return on six consecutive days and catch him only on the seventh day.)


Moggallāna’s motivation in escaping was not fear of death. The reason he used his psychic powers to elude the gangsters was not to protect his body but to spare the would-be assassins the frightful kammic consequences of such a murderous deed, necessarily leading to rebirth in the hells. He wanted to spare them such a fate by giving them time to reconsider and abstain from their crime.


But their greed for the promised money was so great that they persisted and returned again the following month (or on the seventh day in the Jātaka account). This time their persistence was ‘rewarded,’ for at that moment Moggallāna suddenly lost his psychic mastery over the body.


The reason for this sudden change in fate lay in a terrible deed he had committed in the distant past. Many aeons ago, in a previous birth, Moggallāna had brought about the death of his parents (in the Jātaka version, however, he relents at the last moment and spares them). That heinous kamma had brought him to a rebirth in hell for countless years, but it had not yet fully matured. A residue remained, and now, when he was in mortal danger, that residue suddenly ripened and confronted him with its fruit. Moggallāna realized that he had no choice but to submit to destiny. The brigands entered, knocked him down, and ‘pounded his bones until they were as small as grains of rice.’ Then, thinking that he was dead, they threw his body behind a clump of bushes and fled, keen on collecting their reward.

But Moggallāna’s physical and mental strength was formidable and he had not yet capitulated to death.


He regained consciousness and, by the power of meditation, he soared through the air and came into the presence of the Master. There he announced that he would attain final Nibbāna. The Buddha asked him to give a final sermon to the community of monks, which he did, with an additional display of wonders and marvels. Then he paid homage to the Blessed One, returned to the Black Rock, and passed into the Nibbāna element without residue.


In this last turbulent phase of his life, the kamma of the past that had ripened so suddenly could affect only his body but could not shake his mind, for he no longer identified himself with his empirical personality. For him the five aggregates that others identified as ‘Moggallāna’ were as foreign as an inanimate body:


They penetrate the subtle truth

As the tip of a hair with an arrow

Who see the five aggregates as alien

And do not regard them as self.


Those who see conditioned things

As alien and not as self

Have pierced right through the subtle truth

As the tip of a hair with an arrow.


This last episode of Moggallāna’s life, however, did show that the law of moral causality has even greater potency than the supernormal feats of a master of psychic power.


Speaking about his chief disciples shortly after their deaths, the Buddha declared:


Those who in the past have been Holy Ones,

Fully Enlightened Ones, those Blessed Ones, too, had such excellent pairs of disciples as I had in Sāriputta and Moggallāna.


Those who in the future will be Holy Ones, Fully Enlightened Ones, those Blessed Ones, too, will have such excellent pairs of disciples as I had in Sāriputta and Moggallāna.


Marvellous it is, most wonderful it is, bhikkhus, concerning those disciples, that they will act in accordance with the Master’s teaching, will act in accordance with his advice; that they will be dear to the four assemblies, will be loved, respected, and honoured by them.


Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna were such wonderful disciples, the Buddha said, that the assembly of monks appeared empty to him after their death. It was marvellous that such an excellent pair of disciples existed, but it was marvellous, too, that, in spite of their excellence, when the two had passed away there was no grief, no lamentation on the part of the Master.


Therefore, the Buddha continued, inspired by the greatness of the two chief disciples, let dedicated followers of the Dhamma strive to be their own island of refuge, with the Dhamma as their island of refuge, not looking for any other refuge. Let them rely entirely on the powerful help of the four foundations of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna).


Those who, with keen desire, thus train themselves along the Noble Eightfold Path will certainly pass beyond all the realms of darkness which abound in saṃsāra. So the Master assures us.