GREAT FEMALE DISCIPLES
Khema, who was of royal birth, lived in the city of Sagala in the kingdom of Magadha. Because of her golden skin, her parents had named her Khema. When she grew up she became the chief consort of King Bimbisara. She was extremely beautiful and very conscious of her exquisite beauty. As such she did not want to see the Buddha or hear the Dhamma, as the Buddha had made it quite clear that external beauty was impermanent and of no value to enlightenment.
King Bimbisara, who was a devoted follower of the Buddha, wanted his queen to listen to the Buddha’s teachings. He thought of a plan to entice her to visit the monastery in which the Buddha was residing. King Bimbisara had his musicians describe in song the natural beauty of the grove in which the Buddha was residing. Khema, who was extremely fond of beauty, listened enraptured to their description of the beautiful flowers and trees that surrounded the Buddha. Wanting to experience the beauty of the grove, Khema decided to visit the monastery.
The Buddha was giving a discourse to a large gathering when he saw Khema in the distance, approaching the monastery. With his psychic powers he created a vision of an exquisitely beautiful maiden by his side. Khema, enchanted by the beauty of the grove and its scented flowers, walked closer and closer to the gathering until her attention was drawn to the beautiful maiden who was fanning the Buddha. Khema, who admired beauty, was captivated by the maiden whose beauty far surpassed her own.
The Buddha then made the beautiful maiden age slowly before her eyes. Khema saw the maiden’s beautiful skin wrinkle, her hair change to grey and her body age. She then saw the body collapse with age and pass away, leaving behind just a corpse which in turn changed to a heap of bones. Understanding that all conditioned phenomena were impermanent, Khema realized that the same would happen to her. How could she retain her beauty when this exquisite vision aged and decomposed before her very eyes?
Khema was ready to listen to the Buddha, who then dispensed to her the dangers of lust and sense pleasures and requested her to give up sense pleasures which were transient. Directing her spiritually advanced mind to the teachings, Khema attained Arahanthship. She then received permission from King Bimbisara to enter the Noble Order of Nuns.
Khema was able to penetrate the truth so quickly because of her practice of the virtues and wisdom many aeons ago. Because of her strong attraction to the Truth and wisdom, Khema had attained birth in the proximity of Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas and Bodhisattas in many previous lives and had studied, practised and taught the Dhamma.
One hundred thousand world cycles ago, at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, Khema was born in a servant family in the City of Hannsavati. She had been inspired by the Padumuttara Buddha who was dispensing the Dhamma to an assembly of monks and nuns. There arose in her a strong desire to offer a meal to the Padumuttara Buddha. As she had no money, she had cut off her beautiful hair and sold it to earn the money required to give alms to the Buddha. She had then made the aspiration to be the chief female disciple of a future Buddha and foremost in wisdom. From that time onwards Khema had worked tirelessly to fulfil her aspiration. Ninety-one world cycles ago at the time of the Buddha Vipassi, she was a Bhikkhuni and a teacher of the Dhamma. At the time of the Buddhas Kakusandha, Konagamana and Kassapa in the present Maha Baddha Kappa, she had been a lay disciple of the respective Buddhas, had built monasteries and given alms to each of the Buddhas and their retinue of monks and nuns, and practised the Dhamma diligently.
There are many Jataka stories of Khema’s previous births. She had had the opportunity to develop wisdom as the wife of the Bodhisatta Gotama (Jataka 354), as His daughter-in-law (Jataka 397), and as the wife of Sariputta (Jataka 534). In each of these previous birth stories she had been virtuous and had performed many meritorious deeds to fulfil her aspiration.
After attaining Arahanthship Khema understood the impermanence of the body and the dangers of sensual pleasures. Once an insistent admirer tried to seduce her, as follows:
"You are so young and beautiful,
And I myself am in the bloom of youth;
Come, noble lady, let us rejoice
In the music of a fivefold ensemble."
Khema, who was already an Arahanth, admonished him as follows:
"I am repelled and humiliated
By this putrid, fleshy body,
Afflicted by illness, so very fragile
I have uprooted sensual craving.
Sensual pleasures are now like sword stakes,
The aggregates are their chopping block.
That which you call sensual delight
Has become for me no delight at all.
Everywhere delight has been destroyed,
The mass of darkness has been shattered.
Know this O evil One -
You are defeated, Exterminator.
Fools who do not know reality
In forest glades they seek retreat
And worship in reverence, planets, stars, or fire
To quench passion’s impurity.
The great Buddha, noblest of all men
I who worship Him
From sorrow of repeated birth am free
The Noble Buddha Order, I protect devotedly.
-- (Therigatha 139-144)
Khema, who was the first female chief disciple of the Buddha, ranked foremost in wisdom and insight. She was respected by all for her wisdom and ability to explain the higher teachings. Her wisdom and lucid explanations of deep subjects made a lasting impression on King Pasenadi Kosala, who had great respect and regard for her. Khema, with her sharp mind, wisdom, and analytical skills, helped the Buddha in teaching the Dhamma to His large congregation of nuns and in training the nuns, to whom she served as a role model. There are also many recorded instances where Khema, with compassion and understanding, taught the Dhamma to male and female lay devotees.
Uppalavanna was the unusually beautiful daughter of a rich merchant. Her skin was the blue- black colour and texture of the calyx of the blue lotus. Because of the unusually beautiful colour of her complexion, her parents named her Uppalavanna or ‘one with the hue of the blue lotus’. When she came of age her parents had her married to a young merchant from a wealthy family. As was the custom at the time, she moved to her husband’s home in Savatthi.
Uppalavanna lived happily with her in-laws until her husband had to travel to Rajagaha for business. Neither Uppalavanna nor her husband were aware that she was with child when he left. When her pregnancy became noticeable, her mother-in-law accused her of misconduct. Despite her pleas of innocence, Uppalavanna was cast out of her home by her mother-in-law who now despised her. Uppalavanna, who had not done any wrong, decided that she would go to Rajagaha in search of her husband.
The journey was long and difficult. Accepting the hospitality of strangers who felt compassion for the beautiful woman who was heavy with child, she walked slowly from city to city until her labour pains started. Resting in a hut on the way-side she delivered a baby son. Tired and weak, Uppalavanna wrapped the new-born in her robe and rested. Then, leaving the baby in the hut, she walked to the river close by to wash.
A stranger who was passing by heard the faint cry of her baby. Seeing the little baby with no parents in sight, he decided to adopt the child. When Uppalavanna came back to the hut she was devastated. Weeping in sorrow she ran about looking for her child, but was unable to find her baby son.
Uppalavanna was desolated. She knew that she could no longer go to her husband. He would surely kill her if he found out that she had lost his son. A first-born son was the head of the family who carried on the lineage. In the male-dominant society of India this was a very precious child and his birth a celebrated event. Uppalavanna knew that she had no hope of being forgiven for her carelessness. Having no place to go, she decided to go home to her parents. She was walking through a thick jungle when a robber who was hiding out in the jungle caught sight of her. Attracted by her unusual beauty, he decided to take her as his wife. The desperate Uppalavanna agreed.
Before long she conceived again and gave birth to a baby girl. Her life, however, was not a happy, comfortable one. Her husband was often violently angry with her. He continually reminded her of her past and his gracious hospitality towards her in taking her as his wife. After one such long and furious argument he stormed off in anger. Uppalavanna, who was furious with her husband, jumped up and threw her baby daughter who was resting on her lap on to the bed. The baby flew off the bed, on to the floor and cut her head. Blood gushed from the wound as the baby lay unconscious. Uppalavanna was sure that she had accidentally killed her daughter. She knew that her husband would never believe her. She feared for her life for she knew the wrath of her robber husband. She decided to run away again.
Earning her keep by performing menial jobs the beautiful Uppalavanna scraped a living. Her former wealth and beauty were of no use to her. She was a fallen woman, ashamed to go back to her parents and afraid to go back to her husband. She lived thus for many years in great poverty. One day as she was gathering firewood a handsome youth saw her. Attracted by the older woman’s beauty he decided to take her as his wife. Uppalavanna, who was tired of her insecure life, agreed.
Uppalavanna and her husband lived together in harmony for some time. Then one day he had to leave on business. When he came back he brought with him a second wife – a very beautiful woman who was in the flush of youth. Uppalavanna accepted the younger woman reluctantly. Men often had their way with women and having more than one wife was a common occurrence. The two women formed a shaky friendship. Uppalavanna was grooming the younger wife’s hair one day when she noticed a large, jagged scar on her head. The young woman then informed her that she was the daughter of a robber and that she had injured her head when her mother had fought with her father. Uppalavanna was horrified. This was her own daughter whom she had left for dead many years ago. The thought that she and her daughter had shared a man sickened her. Unable to bear the shame of her degrading life she went to the Buddha for solace and comfort. Uppalavanna then decided to join the Noble Order of Nuns.
Soon afterwards it was her turn to unlock and clean the assembly hall. After she had lighted the lamp and swept the hall the flame of the lamp attracted her. Concentrating on the element of fire, she went into deep meditation and attained Arahanthship together with the analytical knowledge.
Because of her comprehensive supernormal powers Uppalavanna was declared by the Buddha to be foremost in supernormal powers among His nuns. She was also His second chief female disciple. Together with Khema she helped the Buddha with the teaching and administration of His growing congregation of nuns. Uppalavanna, who had suffered greatly in her youth because of society’s treatment of women, helped other young women attain freedom from suffering. Her experience of the unique suffering faced by women made it easy for her to empathise with others in similar situations.
To understand Uppalavanna’s quick attainment of enlightenment we need to go back many aeons to the time of the Buddha Padumuttara. At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, Uppalavanna was born to a wealthy family in the City of Hannsavati. She had seen the Padumuttara Buddha appoint another nun foremost in supernormal powers and appoint her as His second female disciple. Inspired by the nun, Uppalavanna had provided meals and the requisites to the Buddha and His retinue for seven days. She had then made the aspiration to be the second chief disciple of a Buddha. The Buddha Padumuttara, seeing that Uppalavanna would fulfill her aspiration, prophesied that under the Buddha Gotama she would be the second chief female disciple and foremost in supernormal powers. From this time onward Uppalavanna had performed meritorious deeds earnestly and worked towards her aspiration.
The text documents some of Uppalavanna’s past births. At the time of the Kassapa Buddha, the Buddha who preceded our Gotama Buddha, Uppalavanna was born to the royal family in the city of Benares as the daughter of King Kiki. She had been a devoted follower of the Buddha and had performed many meritorious deeds, including the building of a beautiful monastery for the Buddha. At death she was reborn in a divine realm and enjoyed heavenly bliss for a long time.
Her next documented birth is as a poor woman. Between the time of the Supreme Buddha Kassapa and the Supreme Buddha Gotama there had appeared on earth many Pacceka Buddhas. A Pacceka Buddha who had been in deep meditation for seven days in the Gandhamadana Mountain had descended from the mountain in search of alms. At that time Uppalavanna had just picked some blue lotus flowers and rice which she had then made into popped rice. On seeing the Pacceka Buddha she had offered Him the popped rice and the beautiful blue lotus flowers that she had just picked. Then, full of joy, she had aspired to be as beautiful as the blue lotus. Accepting the meal and the flowers, the Pacceka Buddha had returned to the mountaintop, using astral travel. At death Uppalavanna was reborn in a heavenly realm where she enjoyed heavenly bliss for a long time.
She then passed away from the heavenly realm and was born again in the human realm. No record exists of her parents or her birth. The text documents that a hermit who lived in the forest near a lake where blue lotus flowers grew had found the beautiful baby by the side of the lake, beside the flowers. The baby, who was very beautiful with skin the colour of a blue lotus, was named Uppalavanna by the hermit. He then decided to adopt the helpless infant. Uppalavanna grew up to be exceedingly beautiful and resembled a celestial nymph. She led a sheltered life alone in the forest with the hermit.
One day, a traveller who was passing through the forest saw the unusually beautiful girl and inquired from the hermit as to her origin. When the hermit explained that she was an orphan and that he had brought her up as his own child he went back and informed the king of the exceptionally beautiful maiden who lived in the forest. The King decided to make her his consort. Together with his courtiers, he visited the hermit and asked Uppalavanna to be his queen. She agreed. Leaving the forest, she moved into the palace and soon became his favourite queen.
The next documented birth is when Uppalavanna was reborn in Rajagaha as the wife of a farmer. At this time eight Pacceka Buddhas had appeared in the world and Uppalavanna had the good fortune to offer them alms. She had prepared a meal of fragrant rice and was taking it to her husband who was tilling the land when she saw the eight Buddhas seeking alms. She had immediately given the Buddhas the meal that she had prepared for her husband, and invited them to her home for their meal on the following day. She had then prepared fragrant food and picked eight bunches of blue lotus flowers, which she had offered to the Buddhas after the meal. For the second time, she aspired to be as beautiful as the blue lotus.
The next documented birth was in Savatthi at the time of our Gotama Buddha. The aspiration made at the time of the Padumuttara Buddha was to bear fruit. Her degrading life was too much to bear.
Sharing her husband with her daughter weighed heavily on her mind. She decided to join the order of nuns under the Buddha. Even though the text documents two instances of Uppalavanna’s aspiration to be as beautiful as the blue lotus it is most likely that she also renewed her original aspiration to be foremost in supernatural powers and the second chief disciple of the Buddha. Fulfilment of such an aspiration requires great effort and many meritorious deeds.
It is likely that her unusual colouring and exotic beauty attracted more attention, which resulted in the preservation of this section of the text. The fact that Uppalavanna immediately agreed to be a nun under the Buddha Gotama and that she attained Arahanthship shortly thereafter, indicates that there must have been many other instances when she had developed wisdom and spiritual insight and renewed her aspiration after performing meritorious deeds. These, however, were not available in my research.
At that time it was common for nuns, as it was for monks, to retreat into the forest to meditate. Uppalavanna returned from her alms round and entered her hut in the Dark Forest. Unknown to her, a former admirer named ananda, who was in love with her, had entered her hut and hidden under her bed. Shortly after she had laid down to rest, catching her by surprise, he climbed on top of her and overpowered her. Despite her pleas and protest, he abused her and had his way. He then left, slinking out unseen as he had come in.
The evil of abusing an Arahanth, however, was too powerful. Tormented by his evil deed, ananda died burning in the fires of his desire and was reborn in the Avichi Hell.
Uppalavanna composed herself and informed the nuns of her ordeal. The nuns in turn informed the Blessed One. The Buddha’s worst fears for His Order of Nuns had come to pass. Uppalavanna, His chief disciple, had been overpowered, abused, and treated with disrespect. Approaching King Pasenadi Kosala, the Buddha requested that he build a residence for the nuns within the confines of the City. He then made it a monastic rule that nuns should not meditate and reside alone in the forest. From this time onwards nuns resided only within the city.
Sometime later the monks assembled in the Dhamma hall and began to discuss this incident. There arose a debate as to the needs of Arahanths to gratify their passions. The Buddha then cleared up their doubts by informing them that the desire between a man and woman is quenched in those who have attained Arahanthship and described an Arahanth (Brahmin) thus:
"One, who like water on a lotus leaf
Or mustard seed on a needle point,
Clings not to pleasures sensual –
That one I call a Brahmin (Arahanth)."
Uppalavanna explains her suffering and final attainment of release as follows:
"Both of us, mother and daughter
Of me there was religious excitement
Amazing hair raising.
Woe upon sensual pleasures
Impure, evil-smelling, with many troubles
Mother and daughter were co-wives.
Having seen the peril in sensual pleasures
And (seeing) renunciation as firm security,
I went forth at Rajagaha from the house
To the homeless state.
I know that I have lived before
The divine-eye has been purified
And there is knowledge of the state of mind
The ear-element has been purified
Supernormal powers too have been realized by me
I have attained the anhiliation of craving
(These) six supernormal powers have been realized by me
The Buddha’s teaching has been done.
Having fashioned a four-horse chariot by supernormal powers
Having paid homage to the Buddha’s feet
The glorious protector of the world
I stood on one side."
-- (Therigatha 224-229)
Uppalavanna was often desired by many admirers because of her extraordinary beauty. The fact that she was a member of the Buddha’s Holy Order did not deter them. The following verses illustrate the insistence of an admirer and Uppalavanna’s response.
"You who are so beautiful
Seated beneath a sal tree with blossoms crowned
So aware of your own loneliness
Do you not tremble when seducers come along?"
"Though men like you, seducers
A hundred thousand should approach
No single hair of mine will turn
Nor will I quake with fear
And so, tempter, coming alone
Of what effect are you?
I who possess supernormal powers
Can make my form disappear
Between your eyebrows or your belly
I could lodge and stay
How then, Mara, can you see me?
My mind I have so disciplined
Clairvoyance, I have cultivated
The fourfold path I have realized
I know the Buddha’s words and ardently I follow.
Lusts as deadly weapons, rend and tear apart
These our bodies, heirs of senses
Desires of which you speak
Lack all desire for me.
I have conquered all desire
And rent apart
The murky gloom of ignorance
Know, tempter, I have triumphed over you."
-- (Therigatha 230-235)
The exotic Uppalavanna, who could relate to the unique suffering that women faced, was a great asset to the Buddha. Using her supernormal powers and her gentle pleasing nature, she helped many thousands of women in their emancipation. Many, drawn by her beauty, compassion and gentleness, emulated the great Arahanth and attained their own enlightenment.
19. Bhadda Kundalakesa
At the time of the Buddha in the city of Rajagaha there lived a rich merchant who had a very beautiful daughter named Bhadda. Because of her frivolous and passionate nature her parents had her confined to the seventh floor of a seven-story mansion where she lived in seclusion with her maidservants.
One day she heard a commotion and looking out of her window saw a very handsome youth who had been led to trial for committing a robbery. She instantly fell passionately and hopelessly in love with the youth. Her parents tried to dissuade her by pointing out that he was a thief and not to be trusted but Bhadda would not heed their advice. Instead,she lay down on her bed and refused to eat or drink until the man was given to her in marriage. In desperation, Bhadda’s parents agreed to her request. Her father gave a large bribe to the officials who substituted a poor, innocent man for the youth, and Bhadda’s lover was freed. Bhadda’s parents gave her in marriage to the youth, hoping that her love and his good fortune would mend his ways.
But the youth, who was a thief at heart, did not change. Instead, he was obsessed with his wife’s beautiful wedding jewellery, which he planned to steal from her. He informed Bhadda that he had taken a vow to the God of the Mountains. He had vowed that if his life was spared he would go to the top of the mountain, the abode of the God, and make an offering. It was time, he said, to keep the vow. Instructing Bhadda to dress in all her finery, he set off with her to the top of a high mountain.
On the way they reached a steep cliff with a sheer face known as robbers’ cliff, as in accordance with the laws of that time thieves were put to death at this point by pushing them over the cliff. He then told Bhadda to hand over all her jewellery and informed her of her impending death as he planned to push her over the cliff and make off with her jewels. Bhadda was at a loss as to what she should do. However, being extremely quick-witted, she came up with a plan to foil her husband.
She agreed to his request and asked permission to pay obeisance to her husband whom she said she dearly loved. Then falling on her knees, she saluted him from each side and when she was directly behind him pushed him over the cliff.
Bhadda, who was a kind and compassionate person, was horrified at what she had done. The fact that she had killed a person, even in self-defence, weighed on her mind. No longer was she attracted to men and sense pleasures. Having decided to take to the life of an ascetic, she joined a religious movement known as the Jains.
In keeping with the beliefs of the Jains her hair was pulled out at the roots as a form of penance. She followed their teachings and practised their religion diligently. Her hair however, started to grow back, only this time it came back in the form of thick curls. Bhadda was soon referred to as Kundalakesa or ‘curly hair’.
Before long Kundalakesa had mastered all the knowledge of the Jains. She moved from teacher to teacher, grasping and learning their philosophies and practices very quickly. Having studied under many spiritual teachers Kundalakesa became a very knowledgeable, spiritual person. So much so that she gained a reputation for being excellent at debating in matters of religion and philosophy.
Kundalakesa used to travel from city to city challenging people to debates. Whenever she entered a city, she made a small mound of sand and planted in the centre a branch of the rose apple tree. She would then challenge anyone who wanted to debate with her to accept her challenge by trampling down the mound of sand.
One day when the Buddha was in residence at the Jetavana monastery, Kundalakesa arrived in Savatthi and issued her challenge. Sariputta decided to accept her challenge. He instructed some children to go and trample the mound of sand on his behalf and to ask Kundalakesa to come to the monastery on the following day to debate with him.
Confident of her victory, Kundalakesa came to the monastery with a large gathering of her supporters. She began by questioning Sariputta. Each question that she asked was answered correctly by Sariputta. Kundalakesa asked question after question until she was exhausted of questions. No matter what her question Sariputta knew the answer. It was now Sariputta’s turn to challenge her. Kundalakesa faltered at the very first question. Not knowing the answer she asked him to teach her. Sariputta agreed to answer the question in the presence of the Buddha.
Sariputta led her to the Buddha and Bhadda listened to His teaching. Bhadda, who was extremely quick-witted, attained Arahanthship instantaneously. The Buddha declared that Bhadda was foremost among the nuns in understanding the Dhamma quickly, for, like the monk Bahiya, she had attained enlightenment instantaneously.
Using her skill in debating Bhadda travelled far and wide preaching the Dhamma to others so that they too could benefit by the Truth. She describes her experiences of enlightenment and her travels whilst teaching the Dhamma as follows:
"Formerly I travelled in a single cloth
With plucked hair, covered with mud,
Imagining flaws in the flawless
And seeing no flaws in what is flawed."
-- (Therigatha 107)
"He then taught me the Dhamma,
The aggregates, sense bases, and elements.
The Leader told me about foulness
Impermanence, suffering and non self.
Having heard the Dhamma from Him,
I purified the vision of the Dhamma.
When I had understood true Dhamma
(I asked for) the going forth and ordination.
Requested, the Leader then said to me
"Come, O Bhadda"
Then, having been fully ordained
I observed a little streamlet of water.
Through that stream of foot-washing water
I knew the process of rise and fall.
Then I reflected that all formations
Are exactly the same in nature.
Right on the spot my mind was released
Totally freed by the end of clinging.
The Victor then appointed me the chief
Of those with quick understanding."
-- (Apadana 38-46)
"Free from defilements, for fifty years
I travelled in Anga and Magadha.
Among the Vajjis in Kasi and Kosala,
I ate the alms food of the land.
That lay supporter - wise man indeed -
Who gave a robe to Bhadda
Has generated abundant merit
For she is one free of all ties."
-- (Therigatha 110-111)
Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Savatthi merchant. When she came of age her parents arranged a marriage for her to a man of similar status and wealth. Patacara, however, was in love with one of the servants in her parents’ household. She decided to elope with her lover as she felt that it would be impossible for her to obtain the consent of her parents to marry a servant.
Dressing as a servant and carrying a pot of water on her head, Patacara fled with her lover. They set up house in a village at some distance from Savatthi. Her husband tilled the land and earned a meagre living. Patacara worked at pounding the rice, cooking and cleaning – duties that had formerly been performed by the servants in her parents’ home. Thus she led a difficult life, paying in this birth itself for the suffering she had caused her parents through her elopement.
After some time Patacara became pregnant with their first child. As was the custom she wanted to go back to her parents’ home for the delivery. At the appropriate time she requested her husband to take her back to her parents. He refused, as he was sure that they would have him tortured and killed for taking her away from them. Patacara then decided to go on her own. Telling her neighbours that she had gone to visit her parents, Patacara started walking towards Savatthi.
When her husband returned from work and found that Patacara had left to see her parents he was distraught. Running after her he caught up with her and pleaded for her to return. At that time the birth pains started. Taking shelter under some bushes Patacara gave birth to a baby boy. At her husband’s insistence she turned back and returned to their home.
Some years later Patacara became pregnant with their second child. When the time for the child’s birth drew near, determined to have the baby with the support of her parents, she took her older son and walked towards Savatthi. She had walked half the distance when her husband caught up with her. Again he dissuaded her from going. But this time Patacara was determined to be with her parents.
They were travelling thus when they were overcome by a fierce rainstorm. Strong winds tore across the path, swaying the branches hither and thither, and torrents of rain poured down. In the midst of the storm Patacara’s birth pains started. She asked her husband to build a temporary shelter to shield them from the torrential rains and wind. He left to cut down some suitable branches to build a shelter. Patacara waited in vain for her husband’s return. Then, shielding her first-born as best she could, she gave birth to a second son. Patacara slept the night huddled under a bush, her body arched to shield her two sons from the storm.
The next morning she traced the steps of her husband to find his stiffened body. When cutting branches for a shelter he had disturbed a poisonous snake. Death had been painful but quick. Lamenting in sorrow, Patacara gathered her sons and continued to her parents’ home in Savatthi.
On the way they had to cross the swollen river Aciravati. The water was waist-high and the current strong. Patacara, exhausted by the storm and her recent ordeal of childbirth, knew that she could not carry both children. Leaving her older son on the bank she carried the newborn babe to the other side. Then she started back to fetch her first-born. She was half-way across when she saw a hawk swoop down to carry away the newborn who resembled a piece of red meat. Patacara screamed and waved her hands, hoping the hawk would drop her baby. The hawk ignored her cries, but her first-born, thinking that his mother was calling him, ran into the river only to be swept away by the swirling waters.
Patacara was broken with grief. She had lost her husband and two sons within one day. Numb with grief, her hair streaming, her clothes wet, a tear-stained Patacara approached Savatthi. There she met a city dweller and inquired as to the whereabouts of her parents. The stranger begged her not to ask about that family. "Inquire about any other but not that family," he said. But Patacara insisted. He then informed her that the previous night’s strong winds had blown over their house, killing both her parents and her brother. Then, pointing towards blue smoke that rose into the air, he said, "Look, that is the smoke from the funeral pyre of the three that died. They were cremated together."
Her grief too great to bear, Patacara lost her mind. Screaming in pain she ran about the town, her clothes torn, hair streaming, half-naked. The locals abused her and called her names for they were sure that she was mentally deranged. A grief-stricken, half-crazy Patacara approached the Jetavana monastery where the Buddha was residing. The townsfolk tried to stop her. But the Buddha, perceiving with his compassionate eye her inner wisdom, bade her enter. He then brought her back to mindfulness by His compassion and words. The Buddha said, "Regain your mindfulness, sister". It was as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown over her body. The words shook her very being and calmed her grief-stricken mind. Wrapping a cloak that someone had thrown to her around her person, Patacara told her tragic story to the Buddha.
The Buddha listened with compassion and patience, then told her not to be troubled any longer. "You have come to One who can help relieve your suffering. It is not only today that you have lost sons, husbands and parents, but throughout this infinite round of samsara you have lost sons and others dear to you." "You have, He said, shed more tears than the waters in the four oceans." As He went on speaking Patacara’s grief subsided. The Buddha then concluded with the following verse:
"The four oceans contain but a little water
Compared to all the tears we have shed
Smitten by sorrow, bewildered by pain
Why, O woman, are you still heedless?"
No sons are there for shelter
No father or related folk
For one seized by death
Kinsmen provide no shelter.
Having well understood this fact
The wise men well restrained by virtue
Quickly indeed should clear
The path going to Nibbana."
-- (Dhammapada 268, 288, 289)
By the time the Buddha had finished His discourse Patacara was no longer the raving madwoman who had entered the monastery. She had penetrated the Truth of the impermanence of all conditioned things and attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. She then requested ordination as a nun. After entering the Noble Order of nuns, Patacara practised the Dhamma diligently. Her diligence soon bore fruit, as before long Patachara attained Arahanthship. She explains her experiences and her attainment as follows in the Therigatha:
"Ploughing the field with their ploughs
Sowing seeds upon the ground,
Maintaining their wives and children,
Young men acquire wealth.
Then why, when I am pure in virtue,
Practising the Master’s Teaching
Have I not attained Nibbana
For I am neither lazy nor arrogant?
Having washed my feet
I reflected upon the waters.
When I saw the foot water flow
From the high ground down the slope.
My mind became concentrated
Like an excellent thoroughbred steed.
Having taken a lamp I entered my hut
I inspected the bed and sat on the couch.
Then, having taken a needle
I pulled down the wick
The liberation of the mind
Was like the quenching of the lamp."
-- (Therigatha 112-116)
Patacara had achieved her goal. With the quenching of the lamp, her mind, which was one pointed, attained liberation. Patacara was designated by the Buddha as the nun who was foremost in Vinaya (discipline rules for the monks and nuns). As a young girl Patacara had been undisciplined and frivolous. She had rebelled against the authority of her parents and reaped the misfortune of her rebellion. Thus it is not surprising that she valued the importance of discipline and became the nun foremost in the Vinaya.
Patacara was able to move from a frivolous girl to a saint so quickly because of her past life aspirations and training. At the time of the Padumuttara Buddha one hundred thousand world cycles ago, she had observed the Teacher assign to a nun the title of foremost in the discipline. She had been inspired by that nun and aspired to be the nun foremost in discipline under a future Buddha. The Buddha Padumuttara, seeing that Patacara had the merit and ability to fulfil her aspiration, had prophesied that she would be the nun foremost in discipline at the time of the Buddha Gotama.
Patacara had been a nun under many subsequent Buddhas and the insight and wisdom she had acquired came to fruition under the Gotama Buddha.
Many nuns benefitted from Patacara’s instruction and training. The following are the grateful words of the nun Cunda, formerly a beggar, who obtained instruction from her.
"Because she had compassion for me
Patacara gave me the going forth (ordination)
Then she gave me an exhortation,
And enjoined me in the ultimate goal.
Having heard her word,
I followed her instruction;
The lady’s exhortation was not in vain,
I am now canker-free, with the triple knowledge."
-- (Therigatha 125-126)
The text also contained the unidentified writings of one who described the experiences of a group of 30 nuns who obtained instruction from Patacara.
Having heard her advice, Patacara’s instruction,
They cleaned their feet and sat down on one side.
Then, devoted to serenity of mind,
They practised the Buddha’s teaching.
In the first watch of the night,
They recollected their former births.
In the night’s middle watch,
They purified the divine eye.
In the last watch of the night,
They sundered the mass of darkness.
Having risen they worshipped her feet,
"Your instruction has been taken to heart.
As the thirty gods honour Indra,
The one unconquered in battle,
So shall we dwell honouring you.
We are cankerless, bearers of triple knowledge."
-- (Therigatha 119-121)
The writing clearly illustrates the gratitude of the nuns to the teacher whose instruction helped them to attain the unconditioned (Nibbana). In addition to honouring the Buddha they were exceedingly grateful to the one who taught them the Dhamma, and worshipped and honoured their instructor. Just as the Buddha showed gratitude to the Bodhi Tree that gave Him shade and shelter, thus providing the environment He needed for mental concentration and enlightenment, His nuns and monks honoured the teachers who helped them reach Nibbana.
Patacara, who had suffered greatly because of her undisciplined and inconsiderate behaviour, devoted her life to teaching other young women monastic discipline and the benefits of a disciplined mind. She was respected as a great teacher and a compassionate nun who helped many women attain emancipation.
21. Sundari Nanda
Nanda was the daughter of King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Pajapati Gotami and the stepsister of Prince Siddhattha. As she brought great pleasure and joy to her parents she was named Nanda, which means joy and pleasure. Nanda grew up to be extremely graceful and beautiful and was often referred to as Sunadari Nanda or ‘Nanda the Beautiful’.
When her mother, Queen Pajapati, and many other Sakyan ladies gave up the household life to take up the holy life, Nanda decided to join them. However, she did not do so out of confidence in the Buddha or the Dhamma. Nanda was ordained as a nun to conform to the wishes of her relatives, whom she loved.
The lovely Nanda was very popular and respected by all. People were touched by the sight of the lovely royal daughter, sister of the Buddha, wandering the streets for alms in the simple robes of a nun. Nanda’s mind, however, was not on her emancipation. She was enthralled by her beauty and popularity.
Nanda knew that she was not keeping the high ideals of the Holy Order. Afraid that the Buddha would admonish her for her vanity and preoccupation with beauty, she avoided meeting Him.
One day the Buddha had all His nuns who were in residence come to Him one at a time for instruction. Nanda did not comply as she felt guilty and did not want to face the Buddha. The Buddha then called her and gave her a spiritual message that emphasized all her good qualities. Even though this discourse made Nanda joyful and uplifted her, the Buddha realized that Nanda was not yet ready for a discourse on the Four Noble Truths.
Seeing that Nanda was still enthralled with her beauty, He created an exquisite vision of a beautiful maiden whose beauty surpassed Nanda’s radiance. He then made the image age before her eyes. Nanda saw the beautiful maiden age, her skin growing old and wrinkled and her hair turning grey.
She saw the woman collapse with age and finally die. She saw the body decompose and turn into an ugly sight, bloated with worms. Nanda realized the impermanence of this body with which she was so preoccupied. Her mind was now ready for the teachings. The Buddha then explained the Dhamma of impermanence and the loathsomeness of this body to her. He also gave her the loathsomeness of the body as her topic of meditation. Because of her strong attraction to her beauty it was necessary for her to contemplate the loathsomeness of her body to penetrate the Truth. Before long Nanda attained Arahanthship and expressed her struggle for attainment and the bliss of Nibbana as follows:
"Nanda, behold this body,
Ailing, impure and putrid,
Develop the meditation on the foul,
Make the mind unified, well composed.
As is this so was that,
As is that so this will be (doctrine of cause and effect),
Putrid, exhaling a foul odour,
A thing in which fools delight.
Inspecting it as it is,
Unwearying by day and night,
With my own wisdom I pierced right through,
And then I saw for myself.
As I dwelt ever heedful,
Dissecting it (the body) with methodical thought,
I saw this body as it really is,
Both inside and outside.
Then I became disenchanted with the body,
My inward attachment faded away,
Being diligent and detached at heart,
I live in peace, fully quenched."
-- (Therigatha 82-86)
22. Bhadda Kapilani
Bhadda was the former wife of Maha Kassapa. Together with her husband she led a celibate life and eventually gave up her wealth and possessions to lead the life of an ascetic in search of Truth. When Kassapa suggested that they should part ways in search of a Teacher she agreed, and taking the left fork of the road, approached Savatthi. She listened to the Dhamma of the Buddha at Jetavana but as He had not yet formed the order of the nuns she remained in a nunnery with another sect of ascetics.
It was approximately five years later that the Buddha formed the order of the nuns. Bhadda then joined the order, meditated and attained Arahanthship. At the time of the Padumuttara Buddha, Bhadda, together with her husband, had performed many meritorious deeds. Whilst Kassapa, then known as Vedeha, had been inspired by a monk who led an austere life, Bhadda had been inspired by a nun who could recollect many past births. After performing many meritorious actions, she had aspired to be the nun foremost in recollection of past births. The Padumuttara Buddha, seeing that her aspiration would be fulfilled, declared that at the time of the Gotama Buddha, one hundred thousand world cycles into the future, she would be the nun foremost in recollecting past births.
It is interesting to see the effects of the great Arahanths’ aspirations and their fulfilment. Even though Bhadda had the potential to be an Arahanth and had taken to the holy life five years prior to Maha Pajapati, she had no inclination to establish the order of the nuns. Her aspiration was to recollect aeons of past lives. This knowledge was her strength and was what she used in motivating her pupils. When studying the histories of the great disciples one realizes how varied they were in temperament and interests, how each one was inspired by different attributes, selected that which interested them and then used this faculty to help others see the Truth. Bhadda used her knowledge of past lives to interest and motivate her pupils to perform acts of merit and to strive diligently.
Also interesting are Bhadda’s past associations with Kassapa. During the era of the Buddha Padumuttara, Bhadda and Vedeha performed many wholesome deeds and at death were reborn in the heavenly realms.
The next recorded life story is many, many years later, at the time of the Buddha Vipassi, the fifth preceding Buddha, ninety-one world cycles prior to the Buddha Gotama. At that time Bhadda and Kassapa were once again husband and wife, but they were exceedingly poor. So poor, that they had only one outer garment which was of good quality. Husband and wife shared this one garment by each taking turns to go out.
At that time the Buddha Vipassi was giving a special sermon and both Bhadda and her husband, Ekasataka, wanted to hear Him speak. But as they only had one garment Bhadda went during the daytime and her husband went in the night. As the Ekasataka listened to the sermon, the value of giving and generosity became so deeply impressed in his mind that he wanted to give the only outer garment they had to the Vipassi Buddha.
But after the thought entered his mind Ekasataka started to have doubts. Thoughts rushed through his mind. "How can we manage with no outer garments? This is all we both have. Should I not consult my wife first?" Then pushing aside these doubts, he removed his outer garment and laid it at the feet of the Vipassi Buddha. Having done so he clapped his hands joyfully and cried, "I have won! I have won!" When the king, who was also in the audience, heard the cry of victory, he inquired as to what had happened. The king was overwhelmed by the poor man’s act of generosity. Making him the court chaplain he gave Ekasataka and his wife many sets of clothes.
And so the situation of the poor couple changed. Resulting from this selfless act, at death Ekasataka was reborn in a celestial realm. There he lived in splendour until the effects of his wholesome deeds wore off, whereupon he was reborn as a righteous king with Bhadda as his chief queen.
Many other past life stories are documented where Kassapa and Bhadda had been associated. Once Bhadda and Kassapa were the parents of ananda. After the aged mother of ananda’s teacher fell hopelessly in love with ananda, so much so as to plan the death of his teacher, her own son to have her lover, both Bhadda and ananda took to the life of ascetics.
On another occasion Kassapa and Bhadda had been the Brahmin parents of four sons. Bhadda’s four sons were the Bodhisatta, our Buddha Gotama, Sariputta, Moggallana and Anurudha (Jataka 509). Parents and children had all taken to the holy life of ascetics.
Also interesting is the life story at a time between Supreme Buddhas when Bhadda had wronged a Pacceka Buddha. She had quarrelled with her sister-in-law, and seeing that her sister in-law had just offered fragrant food to a Pacceka Buddha, she had taken his bowl, thrown out the food and filled it with mud. Almost immediately she had felt remorse for her action. Taking the bowl back she had washed it and refilled it with fragrant, well-prepared food.
As a kammic consequence of this action, in a subsequent birth Bhadda was born with great wealth and beauty but her body gave off an unbearable smell. Her husband, who was again Kassapa, could not stand the smell and left her. She had many other suitors because of her wealth and beauty, but none would remain with her because of her offensive odour.
During this period there had appeared in the world a fully enlightened Supreme Buddha named Kassapa. Feeling that her life was of little use Baddha sold all her property, melted down her jewellery and formed a golden brick which she donated to the shrine that was being built to hold the relics of the Kassapa Buddha, who had just passed away. As a result of this deed her body became fragrant again and her former husband took her back.
The last documented life story was where Bhadda had been the Queen of Benares and had supported many Pacceka Buddhas. Deeply moved at the sudden death of the Pacceka Buddhas she had given up her life as queen and taken to the life of an ascetic. By the powers of her renunciation and her meditative lifestyle she had been reborn in a Brahma realm. At the same time Kassapa too had been reborn in the Brahma realm. It was after this life that they had been reborn in the human world as Pippali Kassapa and Bhadda Kapilana. It was also the experience in the Brahma realm that resulted in their decision to lead a celibate life.
As an Arahanth Bhikkhuni Bhadda devoted herself to the teaching of younger nuns in monastic discipline. The Therigatha documents her praise of her former husband Kassapa and her own attainment of emancipation.
"A son of the Buddha and his rightful heir,
Kassapa who is well concentrated
Knows his abode in previous lives
The Brahmin is a triple knowledge bearer.
Just so is Bhadda Kapilani
A triple knowledge nun who has left death behind.
Having conquered mara (death) and his mount,
She lives bearing her final body.
Having seen the grave danger in the world,
We both went forth into homelessness.
Now we are destroyers of the cankers,
Tamed and cool, we have won Nibbana."
-- (Therigatha 63-66)
23. Kisa Gotami
Gotami was the daughter of a poor man. Because of the leanness of her body she was referred to as Kisa Gotami or "Lean Gotami". She was fortunate, however, in marrying the son of a rich merchant. But the treatment she received from her in-laws was not in keeping with a lady of noble birth. They never let her forget her beginings.
Before long Kisa Gotami conceived and gave birth to a son. She adored her child and lavished her attention and love on him. The child was just beginning to walk when he succumbed to a fatal sickness and died. Kisa Gotami, who had never experienced death before, was devastated. The in-laws who had mistreated her had accepted her after the birth of her son. As such she had lavished her attention on her son and centred her life around the child who had brought about her acceptance. Determined to seek medicine that would bring him back to life, she placed her dead child on her hip and went from house to house in search of a skilled physician.
The villagers began to laugh at her and call her names. Could she not see that her child was dead? But the grief-stricken Gotami persisted. A certain wise man, feeling compassion for the distraught woman, directed her to the Buddha. Paying obeisance to the Buddha, Kisa Gotami asked Him to bring her child back to life.
The Buddha, with his divine eye, saw that Kisa Gotami was spiritually advanced due to past life efforts. Her mind, however, was not ready for the Dhamma due to her unbearable grief.
Seeing that Kisa Gotami had never before experienced death, the Buddha asked her to bring Him a few mustard seeds from a house where there had been no death. Kisa Gotami lived in a village where extended families lived together. She went from house to house with her dead child, only to find that she could not find a house where a death had not occurred. Before long Kisa Gotami realized that death was common to all beings. Disposing of her dead child in the cemetery, she went back to the Buddha for consolation.
The Buddha questioned her if she had obtained the mustard seeds. Gotami informed the Buddha that in every family in the village there had been a death. "The dead", she said, "seem to outnumber the living."
Seeing that Kisa Gotami was ready for the Dhamma, the Buddha taught her the impermanence of all things. At the end of the four-line discourse, Kisa Gotami, who was spiritually ripe, attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. She then asked permission to be ordained as a nun.
The nun Kisa Gotami practised the teachings of the Buddha in earnest. One day, as she was about to put out the lamp in the Dhamma hall, she was attracted by the flame. Concentrating on the dancing flame she reflected, "Even as it is with this flame, so also it is with living beings. Some flare up while others flicker out. Only they that have reached Nibbana are seen no more."
The Buddha, realizing that Kisa Gotami was close to reaching her goal, projected a radiant image of Himself and using her reflections instructed her as follows: "Even as it is with this flame, so is it also with living beings. Some flare up while others flicker out. Only they that have reached Nibbana are seen no more. Therefore, better is the life of one who sees Nibbana though living but for an instant than to endure a hundred years and not see Nibbana." At the end of the discourse Kisa Gotami attained the supreme bliss of Nibbana.
In gratitude Kisa Gotami describes the great joy the Buddha gave her and encouraged others to associate with the Noble Ones.
"To the world the Sage has praised
The value of noble friendship
By resorting to noble friends
Even a fool becomes wise.
One should resort to worthy people,
For thus one’s wisdom ever grows,
By resorting to worthy people
One is freed from suffering.
One should know the Four Noble Truths:
Suffering and its origination,
Then the cessation of suffering
And the Noble Eightfold Path.
-- (Therigatha 213-215)
Kisa Gotami, who had suffered greatly as a poor woman of low birth, related to other women who were in pain. The life of a woman was difficult and fraught with suffering. Women were often treated as chattel and abused. Many men had more than one wife. Kisa Gotami, who had suffered as a woman, was compassionate to the suffering of women. She describes some of the ordeals that women she knew had to experience and her relief in release from suffering. It is only when one understands the plight of women in India at the time of the Buddha that one can truly appreciate the radical change that He instituted and the gratitude that women such as Kisa Gotami felt towards Him for recognizing that women were as spiritually capable as men.
"The Teacher, He the tamer of men
Claimed as sorrow, birth as woman
To be one among many others
Wife to man, it is sorrow, it is painful.
Women who have given birth but once,
Unable to go through that pain again
Slit their own throats.
Frail girls take poison,
When conceived in folly
Child and mother suffer greatly.
I have seen women
Who when their time to give birth comes near
Bear a child on the way before coming home
Then find dead their own husbands.
A woman once lost both her children;
Her destitute husband, he too died
She saw them all, mother, father, brother
Burn together on one funeral pyre.
Lowly and destitute by birth,
Reborn a thousand times
She suffered untold sorrow;
The tears she shed were as boundless as the sea.
She lived amid the burial grounds
To see beasts prey on her son’s dead body,
Born to a lot so humble, a target for scorn
By the Light of Truth she won release.
I too have trod that Eightfold Path
So Noble, the roadway leading to peace
That quietude I have myself realized,
At Truth’s mirror I have deeply gazed."
-- (Therigatha 216-224)
Once she was approached by Mara, the evil one, who tried to seduce her but Gotami was strong and undefeatable. With equanimity she addresses the tempter as friend.
"Why not when you’ve lost your son
Do you sit alone with a tearful face?
Having entered the woods all alone
Are you on the lookout for a man?"
"I have gotten past the death of sons;
With this the search for men has ended,
I do not sorrow, I do not weep,
Nor do I fear you, friend.
Delight everywhere has been destroyed,
The mass of darkness has been sundered.
Having conquered the mighty army of Death,
I dwell without defiling taints."
-- (Samyutta Nikaya)
The Buddha dispensed the Dhamma because of the impermanence of all things, for it is this impermanence that results in suffering. The Buddha often used the suffering caused by the death of a loved one to illustrate the impermanence of all conditioned phenomena. He then helped the spiritually advanced such as Kisa Gotami to attain the supreme bliss of the unconditioned Nibbana. Kisa Gotami took on ascetic practices and wore coarse robes patched from the discarded rags she found at charnel grounds. The Buddha declared that Gotami was foremost among the nuns who wore coarse garments, one of the thirteen ascetic practices.
In Pataliputta, which later became the capital of Emperor Asoka, there lived two nuns named Bodhi and Isidasi who were good friends. They had both destroyed all defilements and attained enlightenment. One day the friends discussed their past histories and their initiation to the Noble Order. Bhikkuni Bodhi, who was elderly, had undergone great suffering. She told her story to Isidasi and then asked the young and beautiful nun how someone as beautiful and likable as she had experienced the suffering of existence. Bodhi said,
"You are lovely, noble Isidasi,
And your youth has not yet faded.
What was the flaw that you had seen
That led you to pursue renunciation?"
-- (Therigatha 403)
Isidasi then told her life story. She had been born in the city of Ujjeni as the much-loved only daughter of a rich merchant. When she came of age, a wealthy merchant who was a friend of her father asked for her hand in marriage for his son. Isidasi’s parents were overjoyed at the proposal as they knew the family well. Isidasi, who was a model daughter, displayed these qualities and behaviour to her husband and in-laws. She soon she won over the hearts of her parents-in-law. Isidasi also grew to love her husband. Disregarding the help offered by her servants she took care of all his meals and needs herself. However, despite her love and model behaviour, her husband soon tired of her. Isidasi describes her life as follows:
"By myself I cooked the rice,
By myself I washed the dishes.
As a mother looks after her only son,
So did I serve my husband.
I showed him devotion unsurpassed,
I served him with a humble mind,
I arose early, I was diligent, virtuous,
And yet my husband hated me."
-- (Therigatha 412-413)
While admitting to his parents that Isidasi was blameless her husband insisted that he could no longer live with her. However, as she had done no wrong, he offered to leave the city and start a new life elsewhere. Isidasi’s parents-in-law were devastated. They loved their daughter-in-law and did not want to lose her. Thinking that there was a problem that their son was hesitant to tell them, they questioned Isidasi. She answered truthfully as follows:
"I have done nothing wrong,
I have done him no harm,
I have not spoken rudely to him.
What have I done that my husband hates me?"
-- (Therigatha 418)
Her parents-in-law were perplexed and disappointed. They had grown to love Isidasi as a daughter. They did not, however, want their son to move away to another city. They decided to send Isidasi back to her parents, certain that with her beauty and kindness she would easily find another suitable partner. This rejection was devastating to Isidasi. Being sent back to one’s parents was a disgrace and a shame in Indian society at the time of the Buddha. Isidasi describes her pain as follows:
"Rejected, overcome by suffering,
They led me back to my father’s house.
While appeasing our son, they exclaimed,
We have lost the beautiful goddess of fortune".
-- ( Therigatha 419)
Isidasi’s parents were perplexed by what had happened. Accepting the inevitable they began looking for a suitable husband. Before long they found a wealthy young man who was so overcome by Isidasi’s beauty and deportment that he offered to provide half of the usual marriage dowry that was given by the bride’s father. Despite the fact that Isidasi lavished her attention on her new husband and treated him with utmost respect, the same pattern followed. Within a month he retuned her to her father and annulled the marriage, though he could give no cause for his extreme dislike of his model wife.
Isidasi was devastated. This second rejection pierced her heart like a poisoned arrow. She moped around the house, dejected. When a mendicant came to their house begging for alms, Isidasi’s desperate father offered her to the ascetic. The ascetic seemed to be unsatisfied with his solitary life. The prospect of a beautiful wife and a life of luxury in a splendid mansion appealed to him. Giving his begging bowl and robes to her father he accepted Isidasi as his wife. But after two weeks he brought her back and asked for his robe and bowl. "He preferred", he said, "to be the poorest man on earth than to live with Isidasi under the same roof." Despite the fact that they pleaded to know the reason for the rejection he could give none. "All he knew, he said, was that he could not live with her."
Isidasi was ready to commit suicide. The shame and sorrow of three rejections were too hard to bear. She was planning for her death when a Buddhist nun named Jinaddata came to their house for alms. Pleased by her serenity and countenance, Isidasi asked permission from her father to enter the Noble Order. Her father was hesitant as he did not want to lose her company, but seeing the suffering in his beloved daughter’s eyes, he agreed. He then urged her to attain the supreme state of Nibbana.
"Then my father said to me
Attain enlightenment and the supreme state
Gain Nibbana which the Best of Men
Has Himself already realized".
-- (Therigatha 432)
After her ordination Isidasi concentrated her efforts on reaching the supreme bliss of Nibbana. Within seven days she attained the higher knowledge. Isidasi could recollect her past lives, see the passing away and rebirth of beings and penetrate the knowledge required for the destruction of all suffering. Looking into her past lives Isidasi understood the cause of her failed marriages.
She explained the cause of her present suffering to her friend Bodhi. Eight lifetimes ago Isidasi had been born a man – a rich, handsome and dashing goldsmith. Women had been attracted to him and he had taken advantage of them even though they were other men’s wives and innocent girls. He flitted from woman to woman, breaking hearts, quite oblivious to the pain and suffering he was causing. He wanted to take his pleasure again and again. He wanted change. The fact that he had broken many hearts and marriages did not bother him at all. They were all trophies that he could brag about.
He danced his last dance at death. He had to reap the effects of the suffering he had caused. At death he was reborn in hell and experienced the torment and suffering of the fiery realm for many, many years. Just as he had caused suffering with no regard to the pain of others, he suffered torment without mercy.
After suffering in hellish torment for the lifespan of the plane he was reborn in the womb of a monkey. Seven days after his birth the leader of the monkeys, seeing a threat to his position from the new-born monkey, bit his genitals and castrated him. Isidasi describes this act, done to prevent future rivalry, as follows:
"A great monkey leader of the troops,
Castrated me when I was seven days old,
This was the fruit of that kamma
Because I had seduced others wives."
-- (Therigatha 437)
At death he was reborn as a sheep, the offspring of a lame, one-eyed ewe. He lived in misery for twelve years, infected with intestinal worms, obliged to transport children and pull the plough and cart with hardly any rest. Hard work was what the frivolous goldsmith had avoided and hard work was what he now had to endure as a beast of burden. He had been castrated by his owner and his life was a misery of intense, hard work with loss of sight in his latter years.
After being in the animal realm for two births he was reborn in the human world as a cross between a male and a female. He was the child of a slave girl born in the gutter. He led a solitary life of suffering, shunned by both males and females and was treated as a freak.
In his next birth he (the former goldsmith) was reborn as a female. He had now become a woman, the object of his former desire. The woman’s father was a good-for-nothing carter who failed at every endeavour. He gave his daughter to a rich merchant to pay his debts. Despite her pleas she found herself taken into the merchant’s household as a slave girl. She was sixteen years old and an attractive girl. After some time, the son of the household fell in love with her, and took her as his second wife. Naturally, the first wife was most displeased with this arrangement. The slave girl, however, did everything in her power to strike discord between the husband and wife, as she liked her new position. This resulted in much fighting and quarrelling in the household until she finally succeeded in breaking up the marriage and separating the husband and his first wife.
The fruits of her earlier unwholesome deeds as the goldsmith had been exhausted. But this new suffering she had caused had to bear fruit. The slave girl was reborn as Isidasi. In her previous birth she had caused disharmony and separated a husband and wife, causing great grief and suffering. She now had to suffer the contempt and rejection of every man she married. The text does not specify the meritorious deeds that she must have performed in her past, previous to her frivolous behaviour, but her compassion, calm acceptance and devotion to her husbands created the opportunity for the past good deeds to mature.With effort and diligence Isidasi attained Nibbana. She explained her final liberation as follows:
"This was the fruit of that past deed,
That although I served them like a slave,
They rejected me and went away;
Of that too I have made an end."
-- (Therigatha 447)
We can all benefit from Isidasi’s story. Over time, especially in the western world, moral values have deteriorated. Young men and women are very casual about sexual behaviour and the media and television have glorified sex through advertisements, movies and magazines. What was once considered immoral is now considered moral. Despite the ignorance of humankind, the law of kamma operates. The Buddha laid down a very simple moral code to follow regarding sexual behaviour. As Buddhists we are not only advised to refrain from adultery and rape, but we are cautioned against inappropriate sexual behaviour of any kind. This includes relationships with those under the guardianship of parents, relatives and friends and relationships with members of religious orders who have taken the vows of celibacy. Buddhists should not indulge in casual sex but should exercise restraint and ensure that they form meaningful, long-term relationships based on love and commitment before they give in to their desires. Buddhists should also actively work at preventing child abuse and the breaking up and disruption of marriages caused by casual relationships.
At the time of the Buddha there lived in Savatthi a woman named Sona who had ten children. She had spent her entire life occupied with the welfare of her children. She had enjoyed nursing them, feeding them, educating them and when they were older, finding suitable partners for them. Her whole life centred around her children and soon she was known as ‘Sona with many children’.
Sona’s husband was a lay devotee of the Buddha. As his children were all married and his responsibilities reduced, he spent more and more time studying and practising the Dhamma. Before long he was totaly inspired by the Teachings. He decided to join the Holy Order. It was not easy for Sona to accept this decision, but instead of holding him back she decided that she too would lead a more religious life. With this in mind she divided up her wealth and land among her children and asked them to support her by providing her with the bare necessities of life. She then spent her time in religious activities as a lay devotee of the Buddha.
For some time all went well. Then, one by one, her children and their spouses began to feel that she was a burden to them. They had never really accepted their father’s decision to join the Noble Order and they resented supporting their mother who was now spending most of her time in religious devotion. Forgetting how much she had done for them, they started quarrelling amongst thenselves on an equitable division of her support and care. They all felt that it had been an unfair arrangement in which each of them had to bear an unfair proportion of her support. To them the mother who had sacrificed so much became a nuisance and a burden.
This ungrateful treatment caused great suffering to Sona, who had sacrificed her entire life for her children. She became bitter and angry. She had expected her children to support her in her old age as was the custom in India. Having distributed her wealth among them she had no means to support herself. Disillusioned, she decided to seek solace from the Buddha.
After listening to one of the Buddha’s nuns, Sona began to analyze her feelings and disappointment in her children. Had she sacrificed her life for them and nurtured them selflessly or had she done it with expectation of return? Had she given unconditional love to her children? How did her feelings compare with the compassion and loving-kindness the Buddha advocated?
Sona decided to join the Buddha’s order of nuns to practise and develop selfless love and virtues. Following her husband’s path, she became a nun. Before long, however, Sona realized that she had taken her old habits with her into the order. She was an old woman who was set in her ways. Joining the order had not changed her as a person. Often she was a target for criticism by younger nuns as she had difficulties in changing her ways. Sona realized that attaining spiritual purity was no easy task.
Sona began to practise mindfulness and self-observation in earnest. She had to be aware of her emotions and weaknesses and discipline her mind. Because she had entered the order in her latter years Sona knew that she had to work with effort. She practised meditation with urgency, often passing the entire night in sitting and walking meditation. So as not to disturb others, she started to meditate in the lower hall in the dark by guiding herself with the pillars. Before long her determination and effort resulted in Sona attaining Arahanthship. She describes her attainment in her own words:
"Then the other Bhikkhunis
Left me alone in the convent.
They had given me instructions
To boil a cauldron of water.
Having fetched the water
I poured it into the cauldron.
I put the cauldron on the stove and sat,
Then my mind became composed.
I saw the aggregates as impermanent,
I saw them as suffering and not self.
Having expelled all cankers from my heart,
Right there I attained Arahanthship."
-- ( Apadana 234-236)
When the other nuns retuned they asked Sona for the hot water and she realized that she had not as yet boiled it. Using the supernormal powers that she now possessed and the fire element Sona heated the water and offered it to the nuns, who reported her extraordinary feat to the Buddha. The Buddha declared Sona as foremost among the nuns who put forth great effort and praised her effort and attainment by saying:
"Though one should live a hundred years
As a lazy, sluggish person,
Better it is to live a single day
Firmly arousing one’s energy."
-- (Dhammapada 112)
Sona describes her life in the Therigatha as follows:
"I bore ten children in this body,
In this physical frame of mine.
Then when I was old and frail,
I went up to a Bhikkhuni.
She gave me a discourse on the Teaching,
On the aggregates, sense bases, elements.
Having heard the Dhamma discourses from her,
I shaved my hair and then went forth.
Whilst still a probationer,
I purified the divine eye.
Now I know my past abodes,
Where it is that I lived before.
With one-pointed mind well composed,
I developed the sinless state.
Immediately I was released,
Quenched with the end of clinging.
The five aggregates are well understood,
They stand cut off at the root.
Fie on you, O wretched aging,
Now there is no more re-becoming."
-- (Therigatha 102-106)
Sona’s story is one from which we can all learn. Children who read this should reflect on their responsibilities to their parents. Our parents took care of us when we were too young to take care of ourselves, taught us right from wrong and showed us the Dhamma. The Buddha said that even if we carried our parents on our shoulders for our entire lifetime (shoulder the responsibility of their care and comfort) we would not be able to settle the obligation we owe them for what they have done. The effects of what one does to one’s parents have forceful results. Both the wholesome and unwholesome deeds we perform towards our parents have serious consequences.
For parents there is much to learn from Sona. We do not own our children. How can we, when we do not even own ourselves? Children should fulfill their obligations to their parents. We should show them by example. But bringing up children in Western society is even more difficult than bringing them up in the East. If our children don’t fulfil their duties we must remember that the Buddha said that we are our own saviours. Nothing is gained by reflecting on their omissions and getting bitter and angry. But much can be gained by disciplining ourselves and purifying our own minds. The cause of suffering – craving lies within us. All we can do is to ensure that we have done our best for our children. We cannot save them just as they cannot save us. In the end each of us is our own saviour.