Maudgalyayana (also called Moggallana, Maha Moggallana, or Mahamaudgalyayana) was one of the principle disciples of the historical Buddha. In some traditions, Maudgalyayana was said to have magical powers. He is also remembered as a close lifelong friend to Sariputra.
Maudgalyayana's Early Life
Maudgalyayana was born into a wealthy and prominent Brahmin family in what is now the Indian state of Bihar. His original name was Kolita.
According to Buddhist tradition, Kolita's family was close to another Brahmanic family living nearby. A son was born to the other family on the same day as Maudgalyayana's birth and named Upatissa. The two boys became inseparable friends and remained so their entire lives.
Once the two young men attended a festival of entertainment that went on for several days. Something about the entertainment left Kolita and Upatissa uncomfortable. They began to question the significance of their lives and what might happen in years go come,when neither they nor the entertainers could escape old age and death.
Kolita and Upatissa grew increasingly unhappy, and eventually they vowed to become wandering aesthetics and seek enlightenment. They gave up their homes, wealth, and lives of privilege to become begging spiritual seekers.
The Search for Enlightenment
In 6th century India, begging holy men were a common sight. Within the Brahmin caste, older men sometimes became brahmanas and lived out their senior years meditating in the forest.
But there was another tradition, called the shramanas, joined by men of all castes. The shramanas were wandering mendicant spiritual seekers who rejected the caste system and social convention. These shramanas formed spiritual communities in the forests and governed themselves through consensus, almost like modern republics.
Many shramana communities formed around well-known teachers. One of these was named Sanjaya, who taught that the deep questions about the nature of existence could not be answered by logic or philosophical speculation. For this reason, Sanjaya refused to commit to specific doctrines about the existence of souls or of life after death. Instead, he taught his students to be detached from any existential views.
Kolita and Upatissa were attracted to Sanjaya's shramana for a time, but decided that he had no remedy for their spiritual unease. So they left Sanjaya and went searching again. They met many other renowned sages and mystics, but they perceived that these allegedly wise men knew no more than they did. After 20 years of wandering, they returned to area where they grew up. But they remained unsatisfied.
Meeting the Buddha
But their spiritual quest was not finished. One day Upatissa met an uncommonly serene ascetic named Assaji. Assaji had been one of the Buddha's original companions and one of the five monks to be present at the Buddha's first sermon.
A few words of dharma from Assaji gave Upatissa great insight. He ran to his friend to tell him he had learned of a true teacher, the Buddha, who was staying nearby. The pair resolved to go see the Buddha.
First they visited their old teacher Sanjaya and invited him to come also and be a disciple of the Buddha. But Sanjaya had been a revered teacher surrounded by fawning disciples for many years. He could not bear the thought of being a mere student again.
When the two friends finally came into the presence of the Buddha, he proclaimed they were a blessed pair who would become his chief disciples. From then on, Upatissa was called Sariputra, or son of Sari, his mother. Kolita was called Maudgalyayana, his clan name. This would be lengthened to Maha-Maudgalyayana, or "great one of the Maudgalyayana."
Ancient accounts emphasize what might be called Maudgalyayana's psychic or supernatural powers. However, modern Buddhist might better relate to a problem he struggled with early in practice.
Maudgalyayana withdrew to a forest to apply himself to meditation. Through warm days, tropical breezes, the scent of flowers, the songs of birds, dappled sunlight shining through the canopy of leaves -- Maudgalyayana struggled with sleepiness. Day after day he struggled to keep his eyes open and his posture correct. Anyone who has fought off sleepiness during a long meditation retreat can relate to this.
The Buddha worked patiently with his student, as generations of Buddhist teachers have worked with sleepy students since. The Capala Sutta of the Pali Tipitika (Anguttara Nikaya 7.58) records the Buddha's advice for sleepy mediators, as taught to Maudgalyayana.
Maudgalyayana successfully overcame his sleepiness problem and realized enlightenment. As the Buddha had predicted, Maudgalyayana and Sariputra became chief disciples. He said, "Seek and cultivate, O monks, the company of Sariputra and Maudgalyayana! They are wise and are helpful to their fellows in the Holy Life. Sariputra is like a mother, and Maudgalyayana is like a nurse. Sariputra trains monks for the Fruit of stream-entry, and Maudgalyayana for the supreme goal." (Majjhima Nikaya, 141)
Maudgalyayana and Sariputra lived to be 84 years old, but they passed away under very different circumstances. Sariputra, sensing his end was near, went home to see his aged mother and died peacefully in the room where he was born. About a fortnight later, Maudgalyayana was seized and beaten by members of a rival sect. Broken and bleeding, the elderly man stumbled to his teacher, the Buddha, and peacefully died at his feet.