Anathapindika was a lay disciple and benefactor of the historical Buddha. His generosity toward the Buddha and his monks became the ideal of lay support of the monastic sangha. His original name was Sudatta.
To appreciate Anathapindika's role in Buddhist history, one must understand the way the first Buddhist monks lived. They took shelter in forests, sleeping among tree roots. They had no roofs over their heads other than what nature provided.
The Buddha and his disciples did not stay in any one place, except during rainy season. Most of the time they traveled from one village to another, teaching the dharma and begging for their food. Possibly the Buddha felt they should not stay in any one place so that they wouldn't deplete any community's food supplies. Only during the summer monsoon rains did they remain in one place, devoting themselves to intensive study and practice.
One day, about a year after the Buddha's enlightenment, the wealthy merchant Sudatta left his home in Savatthi (which was in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in India) and traveled to Rajagaha (the site of present-day Rajgir, in the state of Bihar) on business. His married sister lived in Rajagaha with her well-to-do husband, and Sudatta went to her home for a visit.
To his surprise, the members of the household were too busy to greet Sudatta. They were bustling about preparing a meal for many guests. Are you hosting a wedding? asked Sudatta. Is the king coming?
But Sudatta's brother-in-law replied that the meal was for a buddha, an enlightened one, and his monks. Sudatta was astonished, then excited. He became so eager to meet the Buddha that he couldn't sleep, and he didn't want to wait for the dinner to meet the Buddha.
While it was still night Sudatta left his sister's house and began to walk to where the Buddha was staying. According to tradition, Sudatta became afraid in the dark, but his determination to keep going scattered the darkness.
He found the Buddha walking in meditation in the early dawn. "Come, Sudatta," the Buddha said, calling him by name, although they had never met before. Sudatta, awestruck, threw himself at the Buddha's feet. "I hope you slept peacefully, Blessed One," Sudatta said.
"One who is unbound to sensual pleasure and acquisition sleeps at ease," the Buddha replied.
The Buddha saw that Sudatta was ready to receive teachings, and so he taught the Four Noble Truths to Sudatta. Sudatta had an opening insight that day. The Buddha would call his lay disciple Anathapindika ("feeder of the orphans or helpless").
The First Monastery
The next day the Buddha and his monks dined at the home of Anathapindika's sister and brother-in-law. After the dinner, Anathapindika invited the Buddha and his monks to spend the next monsoon season in in Savatthi. The Buddha accepted, adding "The Tathagatas, oh householder, take pleasure in solitude."
Arriving home in Savatthi, Anathapindika looked for a property appropriate for the Buddha's rainy-season retreat. He found a forest glade near Savatthi that belonged to Prince Jeta. The price was dear -- 18 million gold coins. And he was allowed to buy only as much land as he could cover with his gold coins.
When the coins were laid out, only a small area on the edge of the grove remained bare. Then Prince Jeta, moved by Anathapindika's devotion, announced that he would build an imposing gate tower there at his own expense.
Anathapindika was not done. He spent more of his wealth building a meeting hall, a dining hall, sleeping cells, wells, lotus ponds, and whatever else the monks might need during their solitary rains retreats. And he surrounded the property with a great wall. This was the very first Buddhist monastery.
Today, readers of the sutras will notice that the Buddha delivered many of his discourses "in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika's Monastery." The Buddha did not live there permanently, but it became his customary place to stay during the summer rains retreats.
Anathapindika the Householder and Student
This is not the end of Anathapindika's story. Many stories about him and his family are recorded in the Pali texts. His wife became a devoted follower of the Buddha also, and delighted in taking care of the monks who came to the house for alms.
There were four children, three daughters and a son. The daughters also devoted themselves to the dharma. The son resisted, preferring to pursue wealth, but eventually he gained in insight also and became a benefactor of the Buddha like his father. The monks would call him "Little Anathapindika."
Anathapindika the elder remained a student for the rest of his life. His devotion to the Buddha was such that when he came to hear the Buddha speak he sat quietly and did not ask questions. He did not want the Buddha to feel obligated to cater to him because of his patronage.
Instead, he would modestly wait to one side in case the Buddha chose to speak to him and offer instruction. If the Buddha said nothing, then sometimes then Anathapindika would speak, offering some anecdote from his daily life. And then he would wait to see if his teacher had comments or criticisms to offer. Most of the Buddha's advice and teachings that are specifically for laypeople are taken from his instructions to Anathapindika.
When Anathapindika was on his deathbed he asked for the Buddha's disciples Sariputra and Ananda to come to him, probably because he was too modest to make demands of the Buddha. Sariputra's words to the dying Anathapindika are recorded in the Anathapindikovada Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 143), which include more advanced teachings, usually reserved for monks, than Anathapindika had heard before. But at that point he had renounced all attachments to worldly things and was ready to hear it.
And Anathapindika shed tears, and he said, "Venerable Sariputra, please let this sort of talk on the dharma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing this teaching. There will be those who will understand it." His last thought was for the enlightenment of others. And later that day, after Ananda and Sariputra left him, he died.