Not long after Buddha attained enlightenment, Sariputra and Mogallana entered the Sangha and became His disciples. Sariputra attained liberation from rebirth in two week' time while Mogallana did it in seven days and was already an Arhat with supernatural powers.
Mogallana's Past Life - Vow to Attain Supernatural Powers
If we want to know how Mogallana achieved his supernatural powers, we have to trace back to his past life.
He was actually a fisherman in his previous life. Later he realised that earning his livelihood by catching fish was a karma of great suffering. He also felt that one must cultivate merits for a better future life; therefore, he decided to change his line. Then one day, he met a Pratyeka-buddha and was impressed with His dignified manner. With reverence, he invited the Pratyeka-buddha to his house to receive offerings. As the Pratyeka-buddha was not good in preaching, he could only use his divine powers to save the world. After his meal, he jumped into the air and moved freely in all directions. Mogallana was so impressed that he vowed to attain supernatural powers in his next life.
Hence, Mogallana finally achieved pre-eminence in supernatural powers during his next life when he was Buddha's disciple.
Mogallana's Supernatural Powers - Transformation into a Bridge
Mogallana had the divine powers to hear any sounds, whether near or far, and to see things through obstructions. He could also travel to any place he liked in an instant.
Once, the people of Sravasti gave a banquet to make offering to the monks and nuns of many religions. Mogallana was the first guest to arrive at the banquet which was held at a big square opposite a river.
Soon, many heretics also came for the offerings and they hoped to get the best seat first. Unexpectedly, the river suddenly rose and they had difficulty in crossing it. Just then, Mogallana saw the Buddha and His disciples approaching from far. He therefore transformed into a bridge decorated with gems across the river and awaited the Buddha's arrival.
Upon seeing the bridge, the heretics were delighted and they rushed across the bridge. However, before they could reach the other side of the river, the bridge collapsed suddenly. As a result, they fell into the river, all yelling for help.
The bridge reappeared across the river when the Buddha arrived. Walking across the bridge with His disciples, the Buddha saw the heretics struggling in the river. The compassionate Buddha immediately saved the heretics through His supernatural power and then allowed them to follow Him. Once they reached the other side of the river, safe and sound, the bridge vanished in the air.
This incident led the heretics to the conclusion that they could not stand comparison with the Buddha and His disciples.
Testing How Far the Buddha's Voice Could Reach
One day, when Mogallana was in the meditation room, he could actually hear the voice of Buddha who was preaching in the hall. He was very surprised because Buddha was quite far from him. To find out how far the Buddha's voice could reach, he decided to go to a far Buddhaksetra, or land of a Buddha.
Through his divine feet, he came to a Buddhaksetra and saw Lokesvararaja Buddha preaching there. The delighted Mogallana sat down and listened to the preaching.
Surprisingly, he could hear the preaching of the Buddha on the earth and that of the Lokesvararaja Buddha at the same time. Mogallana's presence was later discovered by one of the bodhisattvas. Knowing that he was the great disciple of the Buddha on the earth, Lokesvararaja Buddha asked him, " Venerable, you are here to find out how far the voice of the Buddha can reach. Am I right?"
"Yes!" answered Mogallana.
"Venerable, you should not have this intention. The power of all Buddhas is quite beyond us and the preaching of all Buddhas is everywhere in the immaterial universe."
Mogallana felt quite ashamed after hearing that. From then on, he never dared do the same again.
Saving His Mother
Mogallana was noted not only for his great supernatural powers but also for his filial piety!
One day, while looking at the realm of hungry ghosts with his divine vision, Mogallana saw his mother suffering there. He was very sad. So, with the help of his supernatural power, the filial Mogallana provided a bowl of rice for his mother. However, when the rice reached his mother's hands, it turned into burning charcoal and could not be eaten. Upon seeing that, Mogallana could not help but cried sadly. Though he could tell what caused the ghosts to receive their retribution, he could not explain his mother's suffering. So he immediately went to ask the Buddha.
Buddha said compassionately, "Mogallana, your mother had in her previous life, slandered the Buddha and the Sangha. Moreover, she did not believe in retribution and had been greedy and hot-tempered. That is why she is receiving such a retribution. The reason why you do not know your mother's karma is that your supernatural power has been hindered by the love between mother and son!"
"Lord Buddha, is there any way to help my mother get out of the realm of hungry ghosts?" Mogallana asked earnestly.
"Mogallana, you cannot save you mother on your own because her bad karma is very serious. The only way is to depend on the supernatural powers of the holy monks to help free her from the suffering in the realm of hungry ghosts."
"The fifteenth of the seventh lunar month every year is the last day of summer retreat for all monks and many of them will have attained enlightenment by then. If one makes offerings to all holy monks on this day, he can rely on their united efforts to release his parents and relatives from the realms of suffering. If his parents are alive, they will live a longer and happier life."
The delighted Mogallana carried out Buddha's instructions and made offerings to all monks on the last day of the summer retreat. True enough, his mother was immediately freed from the realm of hungry ghosts. He was very grateful to Buddha and praised the beneficence of the Triple Gem. He also urged people to make offerings to Buddha and Sangha on the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month to repay the kindness of their parents. This is the origin of the Ullambana Festival.
Reciting a Gatha
Once, when the disciples gathered and discussed what they had gained from learning the Buddha Dharma, Mogallana recited a gatha, or metrical hymn, which was as follows:
Purify the mind,
This is the teachings of all Buddhas.
This simple gatha helps beginners to grasp the objective of the Buddha Dharma. Like Venerable Mogallana, it is always on our mind.
The Limitations of Supernatural Powers
Mogallana always thought that nothing was impossible with his supernatural power. However, little did he realise that supernatural power could not help one escape the law of cause and effect. Neither did he know that it could not defeat karma and free one from the cycle of life and death.
Once, Buddha's homeland Kapilavastu was invaded by King Vidudabha of Kosala. Being a patriot, Buddha had succeeded in blocking the enemy for three times. But King Vidudabha did not want to give up. Knowing that this was due to the karma of Sakya clan, the Buddha had no choice but to let it be.
Mogallana was deeply agitated when he heard that Kapilavastu was surrounded by enemy troops. Though Buddha told him this was the karma of Sakya clan, he insisted on saving the clan people with his miraculous power.
He flew into Kapilavastu which was already encircled by enemy troops ring upon ring. He selected the five hundred outstanding Sakyas and put them in a bowl. When he had safely flown out of the country, he opened the bowl and found that the five hundred people in it had already turned into blood!
Mogallana then realised one could not violate the law of cause and effect taught by the Buddha. Even supernatural power could not outmatch karmic effect.
Mogallana was still enthusiastic in propagating the Buddha Dharma even when he was getting older. That invited the jealousy of the heretics. They could not harm the Buddha but they awaited a chance to assassinate Mogallana.
Once, while Mogallana was on a mission of propagating the Dharma, the heretics saw him passing by the foot of a hill. They pushed some heavy rocks down the hill and Mogallana was crushed to death!
The death of Mogallana caused much sorrow to the other monks. They wondered why Mogallana did not use his great supernatural powers to resist the heretics, or at least to avoid their plot. So they went to consult the Buddha.
Being aware of the future happenings on earth. Buddha was not as emotional as His disciples. Instead, He said calmly to them, "Mogallana could have resisted the heretics with his supernatural power. However, when he was a fisherman in his previous life, he had killed many lives. He knew that no one could escape the karmic result due to cause and effect."
"But, Lord Buddha, we still feel that his death is really a tragic one!" said the bhikkhus.
"Bhikkhus! Death is nothing to those who have attained enlightenment. Birth and death are facts of life and we should not be afraid of death. The more important thing is whether we have the confidence in facing death. Mogallana had died with a clear mind and entered Nirvana. He had vowed to devote his life to the Truth. Furthermore, he sacrificed his life for the Dharma. Therefore, his death is commendable indeed!