Through the Keyhole
Stories from the Tradition
A disciple of the Buddha is set an impossible test to prove that he has attained the status of Arhat.
Ananda, whose name means ‘joy’, was not only the Buddha’s personal attendant for many years but was also his cousin.
Upon the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa, who had been appointed the first Patriarch by the Buddha, saw to it that the teachings were collected together so as not to be forgotten. He therefore called together the arhats to what would be called the First Council.
The Buddha had taught for 45 years and had died, aged 80, in the Sala Grove at Kushinagar. These teachings were transmitted orally and only later written down. The council saw to it that the rules of conduct as well as the narratives of the Buddha’s life and sermons were preserved and, thanks to this council’s work, we have them today.
Ananda made his way to Rajgir, where the council was to be convened, but Mahakasyapa had been quite clear that only the arhats would be allowed to participate. Ananda, despite having been with the Buddha for so many years had not gained arhatship and so was not permitted to attend.
This was despite being so well-placed to have heard so much of what the Buddha had said over many years. What is more, Ananda was renowned as having an excellent memory. Now, you might think that Mahakasyapa was making some kind of mistake not allowing such a well placed person to attend. However, it is not just a matter of being able to recite something; one must be able to understand it. To record something as important as the teachings of the Buddha it is just as important to understand the meaning of them too. As we know, it is all too easy to exaggerate, twist, and forget key points in even the most simple of messages. So, we have to cut Mahakasyapa some slack here; there was nothing personal against Ananda, and the Patriarch’s first priority was to accurately record and aggregate all the teachings of the recently departed Buddha. The arhats were all well attained and had profound insight into the Buddha’s teachings.
However, Ananda was very determined and realised that, if he could not join in, then a lot of what was said over the years would be lost. Even if he made a separate recording, it would not qualify as part of the accepted canon and would thus be forever disputed. Again, for Ananda there was nothing personal for him in this, he too, like Mahakasyapa, was only concerned about posterity and preserving the teachings for humanity. Thus, on his way back to his modest hut where he slept and meditated, he vowed that he would attain arhatship.
The story goes that he began to meditate and did so the whole night through. As dawn broke, he decided to lie down briefly before continuing. Just as his head touched his pillow, Ananda had a profound realisation and attained the status of Arhat in that moment.
He got up and returned to where the council had convened. They had already started and Ananda could hear them all reciting and agreeing with each other on what had been said. Standing in front of the locked door Mahakasyapa stood guard. Ananda greeted him and asked to be let in. Mahakasyapa again reiterated the rule about the council being only for arhats. Ananda could now claim that he too had now attained arhatship. So, Mahakasyapa replied to this saying that if this were so, then he could go in by going through the keyhole of the locked door.
This might sound like a tall order but arhats have some supernormal powers so this request was not unreasonable.
Ananda went over to the door and as requested entered through the keyhole.
On the other side of the door, Ananda looked around, there were 499 monks but whoever had laid out the seats had prepared for 500 arhats. It looked like he had been expected. Ananda took his seat and began to speak:
“Thus have I heard… “
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