He was a brahmin of Sāvatthi, born before the Buddha's Enlightenment. Pilinda was his personal name, Vaccha being that of his family. He became a recluse and learnt the Cūla Gandhāra vijjā, but, when the Buddha appeared, the charm refused to work. Having heard that the Mahā Gandhāra prevented the working of the Cūla Gandhāra and having concluded that the Buddha knew the former, he entered the Order at the Buddha's suggestion, in order to acquire it. The Buddha gave him exercises in meditation, and he became an arahant.
Certain devas who had been born in the deva world as a result of Pilinda's guidance in a former birth, out of gratitude, waited on him morning and evening. He thus became famous as being dear to the devas, and was declared by the Buddha to be chief among such monks (A.i.24).
In the time of Padumuttara Buddha, he was a rich householder of Hamsavatī and wished to become a monk beloved of the devas. In the time of Sumedhā Buddha be was born in the world of men and paid great honour to the Buddha's Thūpa. In a later existence he was a cakkavatti, named Varuna, and established his subjects in righteousness, so that after death they were born in heaven (ThagA.i.51f).
Pilinda had a habit of addressing everyone as Vasala (outcaste). When this was reported to the Buddha he explained that this was because Pilinda had, for one hundred lives, been born among Vasalavādī-Brahmins (Ud.iii.6; DhA.iv.181f). One day, on entering Rājagaha, Pilinda met a man carrying a bowl of pipphalī (long pepper). “What's in thy bowl, Vasala?" he asked, and the man, in anger, said, “The dung of mice." "So be it," said Pilinda, and the pepper turned into dung. The man was horrified, and, seeking Pilinda, persuaded him to right the matter (AA.i.154f).
The Vinaya Pitaka mentions that on several different occasions Pilinda suffered from various ailments and the Buddha had to give permission for the provision of suitable remedies. Vin.i.204f.; some hold (e.g., Brethren 14, n. 4) that the Thera of Rājagaha, mentioned in the following stories, was distinct from the Thera of Sāvatthi. See below.
Once Bimbisāra found Pilinda, clearing a cave in order to provide a cell for himself. The king promised to build a monastery for him if he could obtain the Buddha's sanction. The permission was obtained and was reported to the king, but he forgot the matter until one hundred days later. On remembering, he made ample amends, gave Pilinda five hundred attendants to look after the monastery, and granted for their maintenance a village, which came to be called Arāmikagāma or Pilindagāma. One day, while in the village for alms, Pilinda went into a house where a girl was weeping because the day was a feast day and she had no ornament to wear, her parents being too poor to afford any. Pilinda gave her a roll of grass to put round her head and it turned instantly into solid gold. The king's officers, hearing of this wreath, suspected the family of theft and cast them into prison. The next day Pilinda, discovering what had happened, visited the king and convinced him of his iddhi powers by turning the whole palace into gold. The family was released, and the king and his courtiers gave to Pilinda large quantities of the five medicaments, all of which Pilinda distributed among those who wished for them. Vin.i.206 ff.; iii.248ff. This was the occasion for the forming of the rule that all medicaments required by a monk should be used within seven days. It was in reference to this that the Gandhāra Jātaka (J.iii.363 ff.) was preached. The incident of the palace being turned into gold is referred to at Kvu.608.
Another story is related of Pilinda's iddhi powers (Vin.iii.67). Once a family of Benares, which was wont to minister to Pilinda, was attacked by robbers and two girls were kidnapped. Pilinda, by his iddhi power caused them to be brought back, and the monks complained of this to the Buddha, but the Buddha held that no wrong had been done. The Apadāna (i.59f.; 302 16) has two sets of verses ascribed to Pilinda, the second very much longer than the first, thus supporting the view mentioned earlier, that there were two Theras named Pilindavaccha. In any event, there has evidently been a confusion of legends, and it is no longer possible to separate them. It is the first set of Apadāna verses which is quoted in the Theragāthā Commentary (Loc. cit.). In the second set we are told that in the time of Padumuttara Buddha, Pilinda was a very wealthy dovārika. He took many precious gifts to Ananda, Padumuttara's father, and won from him a boon. He asked, as his boon, that he should be allowed to entertain the Buddha. The king refused to grant this, but the dovārika appealed to the judges and they gave the verdict in his favour. Thereupon he held a great almsgiving of unparalleled splendour for seven days and gave away all manner of gifts. As a result he was born one thousand times as king of the devas and one thousand times also as king of men. In his last birth he suffered from neither heat nor cold, dust did not adhere to his body, and the rain did not wet him.