John Strong, Legend and Cult of Upagupta: insists on the forest tradition as the source of the cult of Upagupta, throughout Southeast Asia - Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
Venerable Upagupta was the third-generation successor of the great Arahant disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Ananda.
Upagupta was disciple of Venerable Sanakavasi, the patriarch of Mount Urumunda, a disciple of Venerable Ananda. Sanakavasi was a native of Rajagrha, according to the northern legends (Asokarajasutra). He introduced Buddhism to Mathura in the west, by establishing a forest tradition on Mount Urumunda where he built a large temple.
Venerable Sanakavasin is associated with the Second Buddhist Council whose patron was Kalasoka.
When Venerable Sanakavasi passed away, Venerable Upagupta became his successor as patriarch.
“Not enough attention has been given to the fact that the masters of the Dharma in the legends were forest-dwelling ascetically inclined tradition of meditators,” Strong wrote.
“Sankavasin, when he is in Kashmir, rejoices at the contemplative life and sings of his meditation on rocky peaks and in deep ravines which keep him warm despite his wearing but a single garment of hemp. When he returns to Mathura and is taken for a mahalla monk, the next contrasts him to the Tripitaka masters form South India, who have memorized the whole of the Buddhist canon but knows nothing about meditation. The tripitaika master is a scholar monk, but the Upagupta knows he is a matricidal fornicator and will have nothing to do with him. Sankavasin, on the other hand, follows the vocation of mediation; he may look grubby, have long hair, and appear to be a mahalla, but he is actually enlightened, and he is Upagupta’s master.”
Upagupta himself was the head of the Natabhitika monastery on Mount Urumunda, which Sanakavasin founded. This monastery is repeatedly called “the foremost of all the Buddha’s forest-haunts (aranyayatana) where the lodgings (seat beds) are conductive to meditation (samatha).”
From her, Upagupta instructs monks from all over India who came to see him. The Ashokarajavadana says the Buddha predicted that Upagupta would be “the foremost of all those who are instructors of mediation.”
“Too often, the ascetic practices in general and the pamsukulika practices in particular have been studied from the perspective of the town-dwelling monks, who tolerated them but did not follow them, rather than from the perspective of the forest-dwelling monks, who advocated and maintained them…..The Pamsukulanisamsan ( is a text that is self-avowedly of the ascetic tradition). It is a Pali work of the anisamsa genre (telling the “advantage” of doing good deeds) and has found popularity in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It tells the story of the very first pamsukula: A rich merchant of Uruvela had a daughter who died giving birth to her first child, who was still born. The merchant then decided to offer some robe material to the Buddha; he took an expensive piece of cloth, wrapped it around the dead fetus and the afterbirth of his daughter, and kept if for seven days. Then he deposited it on the road where he know the Buddha was due to pass. The Buddha, seeing it, thought,, “ This is the first pamsukula…the Buddhas of the past wore pamsukula; I, therefore, will wear one too.” He picked it up; the decaying fetus and afterbirth fell on the ground, which then shook and trembled to mark what for this tradition was a momentous occasion.”
“There follows an account of the washing, drying, and dyeing, of the pamsukula by the Buddha with the divine help of the god Indra; and then, as the text puts it, ‘the Buddha’s old robe disappeared, and he became a pamsukulika.’ Later, the Buddha exalts the wearing of rag heap robes in no uncertain terms: ‘the pamsukula robe,’ he declares, ‘is the best. It is while wearing it that the Buddhas have liberated all creatures…O monks, I wear the pamsukula robe; you should do likewise.”
“The real hero of this text, however, is not the Buddha but his disciple, the elder Mahakassapa, who the story goes on to present as a sort of patron saint of the pamsukulikas. The tale passes very quickly over his ordination and then features a noteworthy conversation between him and the Buddha. Mahakassapa asks the Buddha how many ‘vocations’ (dhura) there are open for Buddhist monks. The Buddha replies, “There are two: the vocation of books and the vocation of mediation.’ The elder then wants to know what is meant by these. ‘In the vocation of books, replies the Buddha, ‘a monk memorizes on nikaya, two nikayas, or all the texts of the canon. In the vocation of mediation, a monk practices awareness of the perishable nature of existence and he reaches arahantship. The Buddha goes on to describe the thirteen ascetic practices and in particular the wearing of pamsukula (of which he lists twenty-three different kinds) Kassapa decides to choose the vocation of meditation, but he does so fro noteworthy reason: “ I wandered forth,’ he declares, ‘to become a monk when I was an old mahallaka; I cannot follow the vocation of books! I will therefore follow the vocation of meditation.”
“The notion that the vocation of meditation (forest tradition) was particularly appropriate for monks who had entered the Sangha late in life (that is, mahallas) has important repercussions and may go far in helping to explain the town-and-book monks’ attitude towards long-haired ascetics and forest monks. As he Buddhist Sangha evolved, it became clear that the establishment liked to recruit new members when they were young. Not only did this allow for more control in maintaining the status quo, but it had the practical effect of giving more time to young monks for memorizing sutras when their minds were still supple and not yet preoccupied with pastoral cares and other duties. Monks ordained late in life not only found it more difficult to learn great numbers of texts by heart, but they brought with them habits form lay life that they sometimes found hard to shake and which caused them to be viewed with suspicion.”
“More importantly, becoming a forest monk late in life seemed to follow a well-established Brahmanical pattern of spiritual development, rather than a typically Buddhist one. According to the doctrine of the four ashramas, or stages of life, after being a student (brahmacarin) and hen a householder (grhastha), a twice-born Hindu could become a forest-dwelling hermit (vanaprastha) ‘when he had seen the birth of his sons’ sons and white hairs began to appear on his head.’ In India, then forest meditation was classically the prerogative of men who turned to spiritual practices in their old age. Youth, the brahmacarin, stage, was the time for memorization of texts and for celibacy.” [John Strong, The Cult of Upagupta]
The scholar monks look back at the writings of Sakyamuni. The forest monks look forward to the Buddha of the future, Maitreya. Mahakassapa is instructive in this regard, he awaits the coming of Maître in a meditative trance in the mountains, and will present the Buddha’s robe to him. It is not clear whether he is dead or alive.
The forest saints are witness to the potency of the Dharma, of the possibility of present enlightenment, and to the awaiting of the Buddha of the future, Maitreya.
Forest monks were most active in promoting the vajrayana in India.