EMINENT WOMEN IN EARLY BUDDHIST HISTORY
This presentation tells the stories of six eminent nuns and two distinguished laywomen from the time of the Buddha. Their stories illustrate how the Buddha’s teaching can help people overcome their weaknesses, improve their situation, and make positive contributions to peace and well-being in the world. Although these nuns and laywomen all came from very different social backgrounds and had distinctive personal histories, through practicing the Buddhadharma, each of them developed the qualities of eminence.
Bhikkhuni Mahapajapati Gotami was the Buddha’s foster mother. She founded and became the leader of the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The story of how Mahapajapati asked to join the order of renunciants is narrated in Culavagga II of the Vinaya. This story has become famous, for it is associated with the eight garudhammas (special rules for nuns) and illustrates how strong-willed Mahapajapati was. It is said that, at the time of her birth, a fortune-teller predicted that she would later become a leader of a large assembly. Therefore she was given the name Mahapajapati. Gotami is her clan name. Unlike her elder sister Maya, the birthmother of Prince Siddattha, who is depicted as a mild, pious, and gentle queen, Mahapajapati proved her leadership as soon as she became queen and the foster mother of Siddattha. Perhaps her strong and decisive character is one reason the controversial legend that Buddha instituted the eight garudhammas as a condition for her ordination. The eight garudhammas are being questioned now, especially in an era when gender equality is a mark of civilization and our access and ability to philologically evaluate historic documents has greatly increased.” Mahapajapati met the Buddha on many occasions, both as a lay devotee and as a nun, and the Buddha offered special teachings for her spiritual nourishment.
In one such a discourse, the Buddha spoke of eight dhammas or qualities that spur spiritual development. Mahapajapati said, “It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief, so that, having heard the Dhamma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, and resolute.” The Buddha responded, “The qualities that you know ‘lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome…. This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”1
Mahapajapati’s verses in the Therigatha reveal a zealous and pious attitude:“Buddha, hero, homage to you. O, best of all creatures, who released me and many others people from pain. All pains have been comprehended, the root of craving dried; the noble eightfold path developed, the extinction attained by me (verses 157-8)…. I see the disciples all together, putting forth energy, resolute, always with strong effort; this is the homage to the Buddha. (verse 261)”2 Her verses in the Apadana reveal the sensibility of a mother. She compares the mother’s milk she gave to the young bodhisattva prince to the milk of Dhamma the Buddha gave her that led to liberation. When she passed into final nibbana (died), in order to dispel the mistaken belief that women cannot attain the highest spiritual goal, the Buddha asked her to display many supernormal powers. Mahapajapati, together with her 500 Arahant bhikkhuni disciples, then rose into the air and performed a feast of various miracles. Finally, by contemplating the fire element, they self-cremated in the sky. Their relics were collected and enshrined in different stupas.
Bhikkhuni Khema was formerly a consort of King Bimbasara who ruled Magadha. After becoming a nun, she became recognized as foremost in wisdom, parallel to Bhikkhu Sariputta. Because of her beauty and status, Khema had been a very proud woman. She heard about the Buddha and his teachings through the king, who had become a sotapanna (stream enterer), but shied away from listening to Dhamma talks, because she heard that physical beauty was of no consequence in the Buddha’s teaching. The king genuinely loved her and was concerned about her spiritual benefit. He arranged for her attendants to praise the beauty of Veluvana Grove, which the king had offered to the Buddha and Sangha as a monastery. She was thus lured into going to the bamboo grove and drawn to the place where the Buddha was teaching Dhamma. Seeing her, the Buddha used his supernormal powers to create an extremely beautiful young woman who stood beside him and fanned him. Queen Khema was stunned by her beauty. The Buddha then caused the image to grow older and older, until it became aged, with a toothless face, wrinkled skin, and grey hair, and finally fell on the ground as a corpse. As this was happening, the Buddha reminded Khema of the impermanence of both beauty and life in this verse:
Khema, behold this mass of elements:
Diseased, impure, decaying,
Trickling all over, and oozing.
It is desired only by fools.3
This is a typical admonishment to those who are enchanted by their own youth and beauty. It worked with Khema, who developed unshakable faith in the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha continued to lead her further, to a deeper understanding of the truth. This is briefly recorded in Dhammapada 347:
Those enslaved by lust drift down the stream
As a spider glides on its self-spun web.
Having cut off even this, the wise wander
Indifferent to the pleasures they’ve renounced.4
Upon hearing this verse, Queen Khema became an arahant (liberated one) on the spot. Royal pleasures and the power of beauty no longer appealed to her mind. She obtained permission from the king to become a nun and became recognized as the nun most eminent in wisdom. Her verses of enlightenment are found in Therigatha 139-44. The Samyutta Nikaya (SN 44:1) records a very profound dialogue between the arahant Bhikkhuni Khema and King Pasenadi of Kosala on the nature of the Tathagata (“one thusgone,” an enlightened being).
Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna was a beautiful girl from a noble family. Once she became a nun, she developed psychic powers and was recognized by the Buddha as his foremost female disciple in this regard. She possessed the six higher knowledges and was unmoved by all temptations. In the Samyutta Nikāya, we find the story of her encounter with Mara: “Then, in the morning, the bhikkhuni Uppalavanna dressed… She stood at the foot of a sala tree in full flower. Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation, and terror in the bhikkhuni Uppalavanna, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:
Having gone to a sala tree with flowering top,
You stand at its foot all alone, bhikkhuni.
There is none whose beauty can rival your own:
Foolish girl, have you no fear of rogues?5
When she pondered who was trying to disturb her calm abiding, she realized: “This is Mara the Evil One… desiring to make me fall away from concentration,” and responded thus:
Though a hundred thousand rogues
Just like you might come here,
I stir not a hair, I feel no terror;
Even alone, Mara, I don’t fear you.
I am the master of my own mind,
The bases of power are well developed;
I am freed from every kind of bondage,
Therefore I don’t fear you, friend.
Bhikkhuni Upalavanna had a number of famous disciple nuns from similar backgrounds, that is, beautiful girls from well-to-do families who were moved by listening to the Dhamma, developed pure faith, and became renunciants after seeing the dangers implicit in sensual pleasures. One of these was Bhikkhuni Subha, the goldsmith’s daughter, whose verses of enlightenment appear in Therigatha 338-65.
Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna was an upper-class housewife who became recognized as the nun most eminent in teaching Dharma.8The Majjhima Nikaya contains a very profound and illuminating discourse given by Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna to Visakha, a virtuous layman who was her former husband and had became a non-returner. At the end of the her discourse, the Buddha commented that, if someone had asked him these questions, he would responded just the same way.9 This high praise is unequaled among theBuddha’s disciples.
The story of how Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna renounced the world is narrated in several different texts in the Pali canon.10 The most significant fact in these accounts is that she had everything she could have wanted in worldly life: a happy marriage, wealth, relatives, fame, etc. Still, with a pure motivation, she chose to renounce worldly life. With diligence, she reached her goal in a short time; according to commentaries, just a few months after her going-forth. Her verse (Therigatha 12) reflects her way of practice: “One should be eager, determined, and noble of mind. One whose thoughts are not attached to sensual pleasures is called a “stream winner.” She became the teacher of numerous disciples, including Sukha, another famous nun (Therigatha 58).
Patacara was a desperate widow who, after becoming a nun, was very effective in helping distressed women. In contrast to Dhammadinna, as a young girl, Patacara yielded to her passions and was unrestrained in her emotional desires. She was a daughter of a middle-class family and was kept safe in an upper apartment of her parents’ home. But, in spite of her parents’ precautions, she fell in love with a male servant in her parents’ household. When she learned that her parents were going to give her in marriage to another man of her same social class, she secretly arranged to escape with her lover. They ran away with all her jewelry and settled down in a far-away village.
After some years, when Patacara was expecting a baby and in the advanced stages of pregnancy, she wished to go back to her parents’ house to deliver her child. Her husband tried to persuade her not to go because he was afraid of being punished for having seduced her. Nevertheless, she left one day when her husband was away and proceeded to the town of her parents. Her husband caught up with her on the way, but she gave birth to a baby boy when they were halfway to her parents’ home. There was no point in proceeding further, so they returned to their house in the village. A few years later, she was due to have another baby. Again, she tried to go to her parents’ home with her elder son, but this time, too, she went into labor on the way. When her husband found her, it was already evening. He went into a nearby wood to get some twigs and leaves to make a temporary shelter for her and their children. On the way, just as she was giving birth to her second son, he was bitten by a poisonous snake and died on the spot. As she anxiously waited for her husband to return, the night grew darker and darker. Adding to her despair, a storm arose with lightning, thunder, and pouring rain. Still, she and her two young sons caught no sight of her husband. In the morning, when the storm stopped, she went to look for her husband, only to find that he had died the night before.
Lamenting bitterly, Patacara began walking with her two sons and approached a river that she had to cross to reach home. The river had swollen during the night, due to the heavy rain. She felt too weak to carry both children across the river at the same time, so she left her older son on the riverbank and carried her newborn across to the other shore. Setting him down, she returned to carry her older son across. Just as she reached the middle of the river, a hawk swooped down, snatched her baby son, and carried him off into the sky. As she shouted to drive the hawk away, her older son thought she was calling him, jumped into the river, and got carried downstream by the swift current right in front of his young mother’s eyes. In one night, she had lost her husband and both of her young sons.
Exhausted and full of despair, Patacara dragged herself to her parents’ town. As she approached, she met a man and asked about her parents. He begged her not to ask, but she insisted. With a sad expression, he pointed to the cremation ground and told her that both her parents had been killed when their house collapsed in the storm the night before. The elderly couple and her only brother had all died and their bodies were now being burnt to ash on the funeral pyre. On hearing this tragic news, she went completely mad. She tore off her clothes and ran naked on the road. People called her a mad woman and threw rubbish at her. However, due to her great store of merit, she was driven away to Jetavana Monastery, where the Buddha was teaching Dhamma to a crowd. She rushed towards the Buddha, even though many people tried to push her out of the hall. When she came before the Compassionate One, a layman kindly placed his upper garment on her body. She bowed down before the Buddha and, in doing so, gave vent to the ocean of suffering she had experienced in her life. The Compassionate One relieved her suffering by giving a verse that; there and then, helped her regain her senses. Sitting quietly, she listened attentively to the Dhamma teachings.
Eventually, Patacara asked to join the Sangha. She became a nun and practiced diligently to realize the ultimate goal of the noble life. Her verses in the Therigatha (112- 116) reflect her attainment of enlightenment. As an elder, experienced nun, she had many disciples, including both renunciants and laywomen. She was able to give them appropriate advice and lead them to enlightenment. She was able to rise above all the tragedies of her live and become an effective therapist for others who had experienced trauma.
Bhikkhuni Soma was a disillusioned mother of many children. Once she entered the order of bhikkhunis, she struggled conscientiously to eliminate all fetters from her heart. Eventually, she was recognized as the most eminent nun in joyful effort. It is a common preconception in many cultures and societies that women are not fit for the spiritual life. Unfortunately, this unfounded belief is widespread and hard to dispel. For this reason, when Soma renounced worldly life, she was challenged by Mara, the Evil One. The way she managed to counteract Mara’s influence in this situation is quite a story. On seeing her enter a secluded place for meditation, Mara appeared and said:
That state so hard to achieve
Which is to be attained by the seers,
Can’t be attained by a woman
With her two-fingered wisdom.12
One may wonder whether Mara is an actual being with a mischievous personality or Soma’s own subconscious mind, with the deeply embedded biases that pervaded her culture. In any case, because she was wise and alert from moment to moment, she was able to effectively deal with Mara’s challenges. As an enlightened nun, venerable Soma called Mara by his true name and educated him, saying,
What does womanhood matter at all
When the mind is concentrated well,
When knowledge flows on steadily
As one sees correctly into Dhamma.
One to whom it might occur,
“I’m a woman” or “I’m a man”
Or “I’m anything at all” –
Is fit for Mara to address.
Hearing this, Mara the Evil One realized that, “The bhikkhuni Soma knows me.” Sad and defeated, he disappeared then and there.13
Eminent Laywomen at the Buddha’s Time
During the time of the Buddha, Visakha was an attractive woman who was noted for her compassion and devotion. She was a fortunate child who followed her grandfather to the monastery to listen to Dhamma talks. It is said that she achieved the first stage of realization (sotapanna, stream enterer) when she was only seven years old. Graceful and intelligent, she was eventually given in marriage to a young man of the same rank and wealth. The story of how she converted her parents-in-law to Buddhism is quite dramatic. For this reason, her father-in-law treated her as if she were his mother, which earned her the name Miragamata. From references to her in the Dhammapada and Vinaya, we know that she ran the family business, had many children and grandchildren, and still she found time to practice the Dhamma. She was renowned for being very generous, pure-hearted, wise, and trustworthy in resolving problems among monastics. She was a truly gifted woman who was what the suttas call “a person who goes from light to light,” meaning she had created good karma and made the most of it.
Another woman during the Buddha’s time, Khujjuttara, was a dwarf and cunning servant who became a righteous and eminent Dhamma teacher. She was the ugly but clever and capable servant of Queen Samavati. Every day, the queen gave her eight gold coins to purchase perfumes to be used in the queen’s quarters. Khujjuttara deceitfully used only half the money she was given for the right purpose and pocketed the rest. She continued in this way for quite a long time. But Queen Samavati, being a very kind and tolerant person, kept her in her service, even after she realized the deception. One day on the way to market, Khujjuttara heard that a fully enlightened being, the Buddha, was in the area. She followed other people who were going to listen to his teachings. After hearing his teachings, she felt ashamed of her behavior. After that day, she was unable to cheat her kind-hearted queen any more. Instead, she used all money given to her for perfumes and flowers, as she should. The queen and the women in the palace were surprised at the quality of things she bought for them. She fell at the feet of her kind queen and confessed her wrongdoings in the past. She also let the queen know how she had become transformed. Upon hearing her story, the queen allowed her to go listen to the Dhamma whenever the Buddha taught in their town. After listening to his discourses, Khujjuttara memorized them and then taught Queen Samavati and the 500 women in the palace. Because she had a very good memory, she was able to memorize volumes of discourses. Her encounter with the Dhamma gives us a glimpse of how learning the Buddha’s teachings can work like a miracle to transform people from all walks of life.
1 Anguttara Nikaya (AN) VIII, 53. Trans. Thanissaruo Bhikkhu: www. accesstoinsight.net.
2 Verses of the Elders II (Therigatha), trans. K. R. Norman (London: Pali Text Society, 1995), pp.157-61.
3 Theri-Appadana, Khuddaka Nikaya, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publication, 2000), p. 481. “Atura asuci puti passa kheme samussaya, uggharanta paggharanta balana abhinandita.
4 Khuddaka Nikaya, Appadana, verse 485.
5 Samyutta Nikaya (SN 5:5). Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans., The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Boston: Wisdom Publication, 2000).
6 Ibid. In the Vinaya, it is recounted that Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna was raped by a cowherd when she was alone in the forest. This incident became the precedent for a rule that prohibits nuns from staying alone in forests or dangerous places. But, because Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna was already an arahant at the time, it is said that her mind was not disrupted by the event.
7 Bhikkhuni Samyutta; SN 5:5. K. R. Norman, trans., The Elder’s Verses II, Therigatha,.verses 230-33. (London: Pali Text Society, 1996).
8 A I, 25: etad aggam dhamma-kathikānam, yad idam Dhammadinna. Chatthasangayana electronic edition, 1998.
9 Culavedalla Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya (M. I, 44):
10 For example, Therigatha,15ff; Appadana ii.567f; Anguttara Atthakatha i.196f; Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha i.515ff; Dhammapada Atthakatha iv.229ff.
11 Ap.II, 3:6, vv234-36; Dhp. 112, Therigatha, verses 102-6; SN. 5:2.
12 Bhikkhuni Vagga, SN 1. Bodhi, The Connected Discourses.
13 SN 5:2. Ibid.