Upagupta (Ubakikuta) is not mentioned in the Pāli Canon, and although featuring in non-canonical Pāli literature, he does not become prominent in Theravāda countries until around the 12th century (as a result of his importance in the Sanskrit sources). In the Sarvāstivāda tradition he is the fifth patriarch after Mahākaśyapa, Ānanda, Madhyāntika, and Śāṇakavāsin, and in the Zen tradition he is regarded as the fourth. He features prominently in the avadāna literature, and he is said to have lived during the time of Aśoka, who held him in high esteem.
Upagupta is said to have been born one hundred years after the Nirvana of Shakyamuni Buddha. His other name was Yupo Jueduo and he also bore the name Wupo Guduo. He was the son of one Gupta, a perfume-seller of Benares, (or Madura) and he entered the Buddhist order (he was ordained as a monk) at the age of seventeen and at twenty bore witness to the truth (he attained Arahatship of an exceptionally high order). He is said to be highly intelligent and eloquent.
Upagupta’s birth was considered of such importance that his coming is alleged to have been predicted by both Buddha himself and Ananda. Eventually, he became, in virtue and wisdom, almost a Buddha, lacking, however, the thirty-two marks of a Great Man (Mahåpurusalaksana).
We can find the first mention of Upagupta in a prophecy ascribed to the Buddha in Pårsupradånåvadåna. The Buddha is said to have told Ånanda at Mathurå that:
– a hundred years after the Buddha’s demise, there would be a perfume merchant at Mathurå by the name of Gupta;
– his son, Upagupta, would be a Buddha without marks (Alaksanako Buddha – i.e. a Buddha without the thirty-two signs of a Great Person) and a hundred years after the Buddha’s demise would perform the function of a Buddha.
Succeeding to the patriarchate of the Indian Buddhist Order on the death of Sanakavasa (the third patriarch), he crossed the sunken Ganges to Videha Bettiah in western Tirahuti (Tirhut) and went to the monastery erected by the householder Vasusaara. After a short stay there he proceeded to Mt. Gandha, where he made many converts.
Thence he went to Mathura in the northwest of the “Middle Country” and resided at the monastery on the top of Mount ‘Shira’ founded during the time of the patriarch Sanakavasa. While there, he converted crowds of people who had been beguiled by Mara “in the shape of a dancer with attendants male and female”.
From Mathura, he proceeded to Aparanta, during the reign of a king called Mahendra and there the inhabitants of Bagal erected for him a retreat in ‘the grove of the duck-herd’. It is said that Upagupta frequently sojourned in this kingdom.
Upagupta spent his final years in Mathura, taking up residence in a cave. From there he issued a set of seven precise instructions to guide his followers to increasing understanding. Using wooden counters, he kept track as each one reached the state of an arhat, and eventually these counters filled his entire cave.
As to Upagupta’s death, accounts differ a great deal. Some state that he died and that this event occurred at Mathura (but there are no references to his relics or stupas). The Japanese legend related that there was an earthquake and he transcended (or crossed over) or that “he went to ‘Shin-tam’.”
The Burmese tradition considers him being still alive – like Mahakasyapa and a few others Arahats by getting outside the circle of rebirths – that his personal entity or Sattra (while it still retained a body), has – by mystical means – become liberated from the influence of Avidyaa and the operation of the Causal Chain, and in this way – by his supernatural powers or Siddhis – he has secured immortality.
He was succeeded by Dhitika, the son of a wealthy Brahmin
Upagupta attended Sanavasa for three years and then shaved his head and became a monk. Once, the Venerable asked him, “Did you make your home departure physically or in spirit?” The master replied, “Truly, I made my home departure physically” The Venerable said, “How can the Wondrous Dharma of the Buddhas have anything to do with body or mind?” On hearing this, the master was greatly awakened.
Upagupta is a disciple of Buddha and goes from one place to another. He is sleeping in a small town when a dancing girl wakes him up and requests him to sleep at her home. Upagupta refuses, and tells her “I will visit you when the time is ripe.”
A year later, and again on travel to the same place, Upagupta finds the dancing girl lying on the ground outside the town, having sores all over the body and shunned by the townsfolk. He applies balm on her body and when asked who he was, he replies “The time has come to visit you and I am here.”