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Eminent Women in Earliest Buddhist History

From Editors: " Women in Buddhism is a topic that can be approached from varied perspectives including those of theology, history, anthropology, and feminism. Topical interests include the theological status of women, the treatment of women in Buddhist societies at home and in public, the history of women in Buddhism, and a comparison of the experiences of women across different forms of Buddhism. As in other religions, the experiences of Buddhist women have varied considerably."

In this presentation we will hear the stories of 10 eminent nuns and 5 distinguished lay women at the Buddha time. Their stories illustrate how Buddha teaching can help to overcome one‟s weakness and improve one‟s situation as well as make a positive contribution to the peace and well being of this world. A notable feature is that they came from very different social backgrounds, each has a distinctive personal history, and once practiced the Buddha Dharma, each had developed into an eminent role. They are:


1. Ven. Mahapajjapati

was the Buddha‟s foster mother. She became the leader of Bhikkhuni Order. The story of how Mahā Pajapati Gotami asked to join the Order of Samana is narrated at Vin. II, Culavagga. This story has become famous, for it associated with the eight Garudhamma, and it also tells us how strong-willed she was. It is said that at her birth, a fortune- teller predicted that she would later become a leader of a big crowd, therefore she was given the name Mahā Pajapati and Gotami is her clan name. Unlike her elder sister Mayā - the birth mother of Prince Siddattha, who was depicted as a mild, pious and gentle queen, Mahā Pajapati proved her leadership right after she herself become queen and foster mother of Siddattha. Perhaps, her strong and decisive character, is one reason made the Buddha laid down the Eight Garu Dhamma as a condition for her ordination (if this is in fact true). The Eight Garu Dhamma are in question now, especially in an age like ours when gender equal is a sign of civilization. There are many occasions she met the Buddha, as a devotee as well as a nun and the Buddha offerred special teachings for her spiritual nourishment.


Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha's stepmother ordains

One such a discourse is found in AN, the Buddha spoke of eight Dhamma (qualities) which spur spiritual development as follows: “It would be good, lord, if the Blessed One would teach me the Dhamma in brief such that, having heard the Dhamma from the Blessed One, I might dwell alone, secluded, heedful, ardent, & resolute." […] “As for the qualities of which you may know, 'These qualities 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': You may definitely hold, 'This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher's instruction.'" [AN VIII, 53, English translation of Ven Thanissara Bhikkhu, accesstoinsight.net].


To me, this is the true Eight GaruDhamma, not the set we find in the Vinaya Pitaka. Though in Cūlavagga and elsewhere in the Vinaya Pitaka, it is reported that she made some attempts to have certain items of Garu Dhamma dropped, however, her verses in the Therigatha reveal different attitudes: that of a disciple, a mother and of a man. “Buddha, hero, homage to you, O, best of all creatures, who released me and many others people from pain […] I see the disciples all together, putting forth energy, resolute, always with strong effort; this is the homage to the Buddha.” [Thig157- 161] At her final passing away into Nibbana, the Buddha, in order to dispel the wrong belief that women can‟t attain the highest spiritual potential, asked her to display many supernormal powers. Maha Pajapati Gotami, together with her 500 Arahant Bhikkhunis rose in the air and then performed a feast of various miracles. Then contemplating on the fire element, they self-cremated in the air. Their relics were collected and enshrined in different stupas.


2. Ven. Khema,

was a former consort of King Bimbasara of Magadha country. She became the foremost nun in wisdom, a parallel of Ven Sariputta. Khema was a very proud woman because of her beauty and status. She heard about the Buddha and Dhamma through the king himself, who was a Sotapanna (a first-degree saint) at that time, but she always tried to shy away from going to listen to Dhamma talks for she heard that physical beauty is of no account in the Buddha‟s teaching. The king had a true love for her, and wanted her to benefit herself spiritually. In doing so, he had her attendants praise the beauty of Veluvana grove which the king had offered to the Buddha and Sangha as a monastery. She was lured to go out to the bamboo grove and was trickily drawn to the place where the Buddha was preaching Dhamma. Seeing her, the Buddha created by his supernormal power a young and extremely beautiful lady who stood beside and fanned him. Queen Khema was stunned by her beauty. The Buddha caused the image to grow older and older, until it reached maturity in age with a toothless face, wrinkled skin, and grey hairs, and finally it fell on the ground as a corpse. At the same time, the Buddha reminded her of the impermanence of life and beauty by a verse, thus: Khema, behold this mass of elements, Diseased, impure, decaying; Trickling all over and oozing, It is desired only by fools.1

This is a typical admonishment to those who are enchanted by their own youth and beauty, and this time, too, it worked with Khema, she was established in an unshakable faith in the Buddha‟s teaching. The Buddha continued to lead her further on to a deeper understanding of the truth. This is briefly recorded in Dhammapada 347 as follows:

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. [App. 485]

Just with that, Queen Khema attained Arahantship on the spot. Now, royal pleasures and power of beauty had no appeal to her mind. Having obtained the permission of the king, she entered nunhood and was appointed an eminent role as the foremost nun in wisdom. Her enlightened verses are found in Therigatha 139- 144. The Samyutta Nikaya (SN 44:1) records a very profound dialogue between Arahant Bhikkhuni Khema and King Pasenadi of Kosala on the nature of Tathagata (an enlightened being or the essence of existence).

3. Ven. Uppalavanna was a beautiful girl from a noble family. Once she became a nun, she developed psychic powers and was the Buddha‟s foremost female disciple in this field. She also possessed the six higher knowledges and was immovable by all temptations. In the Samyutta Nikāya, we find an episode of her encountering Mara, the Evil One: “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?2 In the Vinaya accounts, we see that Ven Uppalavanna once was raped by a cowboy when she was alone in the forest. This incident cause a rule was set to bind the nun not to go or stay alone in the forest or dangerous place. But for Ven. Uppalavanna, she was an Arahant by the time, and it is said her mind was not corrupted by the event. When she pondering who is thattrying to disturb her peaceful abiding, she came to know: “This is Mara the Evil One... desiring to make me fall away from concentration." On realization she replied him in verses 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.


Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, "The bhikkhuni Uppalavanna knows me," sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.”3 [SN 5:5 Bhikkhuni Samyutta; Thig. Verses 230-33]. Ven. Upalavanna had a number of famous disciple nuns who came from a background similar to hers, i.e., beautiful girls from well-to do families, who being moved by listening to the Dhamma, aroused pure faith and entered the holy life with a right motive of having seen the danger in sensual pleasures. One of them was Bhikkhuni Subha, the goldsmith‟s daughter. Her enlightened verses are at Therigatha 338-365.

Lady Buddha, Da Nang, in Vietnam.

4. Ven. Dhammadinna, an upper class house-wife, became the most eminent nun in preaching Dharma.4 In the Majjhima Nikaya, we find a very profound and highly elucidating discourse given by Ven. Dhammadinna to a practitioner of the Buddhist path named Visākha who was a non- returner (her former husband, a treasurer of King Bimbasara in Rajagaha). At the end of the discourse, the Buddha himself commented that if someone were to ask him these questions, he would answer just the same bhikkhuni Dhammadinna did.5 This is a praise of whih we do not find any equal in the range of disciples. The story of how Ven Dhammadinna renounced the world is narrated in ThigA.15ff; Ap.ii.567f; AA.i.196f; MA.i.515ff; DhA.iv.229ff. The most significant fact in these accounts is that she had have every thing in worldly life that people call a happy marriage, wealth, relatives, fame, etc., but she chose to renounce the world by a right motive, and with proper effort, she reached her goal in a short time (according to commentaries, just a few months after her going-forth). Her verse in Thig 12. reflects the way of her practice: “One should be eager, determined, and suffused with mind; one whose thought is not attached to sensual pleasures is called an “up-streamer”. She became the teacher of numerous disciples, including Sukhā, another famous nun(ThigA.58).


5. Ven. Patacara, a desperate widow, became an effective nun in helping distressed women. In contrast to Dhammadinna, the story of Patacara is that of a young girl who yielded to her passion and emotional appetite without restraint. She was a daughter of a middle class family and was kept safe in the upper apartment of her parents‟ home. But, in spite of her parents‟ cautions, 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 some man of the same class, she secretly arranged an escape with her lover. They ran away with all her jewelry and settled down in a far- away village. After some years, she was expecting a baby and when her pregnancy was advanced, she wished to go back to her parents‟ house to deliver her child. However, her husband tried to persuade her not to go because he was afraid of punishment for having seduced her.Nervertheless, when her husband was absent, she left and proceeded to the town where her parents were. 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 is no point in going there any more, so they returned to their house in the village. Only a few years later she was due to have another baby. As with the first time, she tried to get 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 evening and her husband went into a nearby wood to get some twigs and leaves to make a temporary shelter for her and their children. He was bitten by a


poisonous snake and died on the spot while she delivered their second son. It got darker and darker, and adding to her despair, a stormy rain poured down with lightning and thunder while she and her two young sons saw no sight of her husband. The stormy rain stop in the morning, and she went to look for her husband only to see that he had died the night before.


Lamenting, with her two sons, she approached a river that she had to cross to reach her home town. The river was swollen due to heavy rain during the night. She felt weak and was unable to carry both children across the river. She left the elder son by the bank, carried her newborn to the other bank and left him there, then returned to carry the elder son across. When she was in the middle of the river, a hawk dropped and carried her baby into the sky. She shouted to drive the bird away, but her elder son thought his mother had called to him. He jumped into the water, and the swift current carried him downstream right in front of his young mother‟s despairing eyes.

Within one night, she had lost her husband and two sons.


Exhausted, she dragged her feet towards the nearby town. On the way, she met a man and inquired about her parents. He begged her not to ask about them, but she insisted. He sadly pointed to a smoking funeral fire and told her that the night before a heavy storm had caused their house to collapse. The elder couple and their son (her brother) had died, and the smoke was from their funeral pyre. On hearing the news, she instantly went mad. She tore off her clothes and ran naked on the road. People called her a mad woman and threw rubbish at her. However, she still had much merit stored, as she was driven away into Jetawanna monastery where the Buddha was preaching Dhamma to a crowd. She rushed towards the Buddha in spite of many people trying to push her out of the hall. When she was in front of the Compassionate One, a layman kindly threw his upper garment on her body. She bowed down and cried as if to pour down all water (an ocean of suffering) in her life. The Compassionate One saved her by giving a verse; there and then, she gained her senses. Seated down quietly, she listened attentively to the Dhamma talks. Later on she asked to become a nun. Patacara was admitted to the nunnery where she tried hard to realize the ultimate goal of the noble life. Her verses in Therigatha (112- 116) reflect how she gained enlightenment. As an elder and experienced nun, she had many disciples, renunciants as well as laywomen. She was able to give them suitable advice and lead them to enlightenment. Noteworthy of her case is that she had risen above her fate, and was able to be an effective psychotherapist for those in traumatic or post traumatic situations.


In the role of mediator between the Buddha and the lay communities, Ānanda sometimes made suggestions to the Buddha for amendments in the monastic discipline. Most importantly, the early texts attribute the inclusion of women in the early saṅgha (monastic order) to Ānanda.
East Javanese relief depicting the Buddha in his final days, and Ānanda.

6. Ven. Kisagotami, was once was a distraught woman who asked for medicine to bring back her death child. She was led to the Buddha. The great Compassionate One asked her to bring some sesame seeds from a house that had never had anybody die there. With the dead child in her arms, she went from house to house, they gave her sesame seeds, but when she asked if there was someone who had died in that house, the answer was always „yes‟. Finally she realized that death is a universal condition. She was not the only one who was grief-stricken over the permanent separation from a beloved one. On this realization, she went to a cemetery, buried her dead child, then returned to Jetavanna monastery to ask to become a nun. Once ordained, she worked hard to overcome her motherly instinct and finally attained the state of deathlessness. A discourse in the Samyutta Nikaya reveals an episode of her encounter with Mara, who tried to arose the mother instinct in her thus:

“Why now, when your son is dead, Do you sit alone with tearful face? Having entered the woods all alone, Are you on the lookout for a man?” (Bhikkhuni vagga, SN, Bhikhu Bodhi‟s translation)

The story of Kisagotami and her verses in the Therigatha show that she was an ordinary woman who entered married life and suffered all the subjections of a powerless young woman. As any ordinary young woman, she had searched to escape loneliness, poverty and feeling of unsecurity by marriage. In ignorance, one might think that she would find security and wholeness by union with another. But in this case, Kisagotami was wise enough to see that that is only an illusion.

Then, she replied to Mara thus:

“I've 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 army of Death,

I dwell without defiling taints.”

(Bhikkhuni vagga, SN, Bhikhu Bodhi‟s translation)


Having realized the futile of worldly existences, she practiced Dhamma in the most resolute way, and she was named as the most eminent nun in ascetic practice. Dhp Commantary tells stories of her visit Buddha using psychic power and illuminated whole Jetavanna garden at night.


7. Ven. Bhaddakaccana, the Prince Siddattha‟s wife, become foremost in peaceful abiding after she renounced. Commentarial works have it that she renounced the world together with Mahā Pajāpati Gotami and passed away in the same manner and at the same time as the latter. We do not find her real name in any text recounting the life of the Buddha, nor is her verse in Therīgatha, but her account is found at Therī Appadana (Ap.ii.584ff ) under the name Yasodhara. Here, we can see how it feels to be the wife of the most distinguished figure in history, a religious man called the Buddha. Bhaddakaccana was also known by another name as Bimbādevī, a cousin of Prince Siddattha. After she gave birth to Rahula, the only child of Siddattha, people called her Rahulamātā, i.e., the mother of Rahula. In Jātaka stories of the former births of the Bodhisatta, she appeared many times as the virtuous and faithful wife of the Bodhisatta and the mother of Rahula. It should be noted that Bimba means an image, a reflection of something else; like Mayā, the name of the Buddha‟s mother which means an illusion. Well, does she really exist as a personality that the name Yasodhara bears?


8. Ven. Bhaddā Kundalakesa7, a passionate young woman became the foremost nun in quickness of understanding. Unlike Rahulamata, she is a real woman as well as a distinguished ascetic and, perhaps, a philosopher. Her story is revealed at Appada, verses 677- 684. Like many other young people, she made a big mistake by following her strong sexual desire which people call “love at the first sight”. Feeling disillusioned and ashamed at what had happened, she never returned home but wandered around, learned and practiced different tenets prevalent at that time. She was of keen insight and quick wisdom that not only saved her life at some moments of dire circumstances, but also served her in debates with other wanderers. Again, she was disillusioned with all heretics. She met Sariputta, the Buddha‟s foremost disciple in wisdom, who led her to the Buddha. The latter taught her about the aggregates, spheres, and elements; and on impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and on the non-self-nature of all existence. She gained enlightenment on the spot, having got rid off all taints and erroneous views. It is said that, the Buddha taught these kind of doctrines only to the practitioners who had practiced well and were of a keen and penetrating knowledge. For this, Bhadda Kundalakesa earned her prominent status as the foremost nun in quickness of understanding. After her enlightenment, Bhadda travelled through North India, preached Dhamma to different people, and was famed as the most worthy field of merit to common people.In addition, she is of the very rare cases of disciples who got to the status of bhikkhu or bhikkhuni by the saying “come bhikkhu / bhikkhuni” from the Buddha‟s lips. Also, it is very likely that she was the first Buddhist nun (see App. 682; also Bhikkhu Sujato‟s argument in his comming book)


9. Ven. Soma8, a disillusioned mother of many children, strived very hard to expel all fetters from her heart, once entered the Order of bhikkhunis. She was named the foremost nun in arousing energy. It was a belief in many cultures and societies that women are not fit for spiritual life. This is unfounded belief, but unfortunately, it is a wide-spread and a hard-to-die one. This is why when Soma renounced the world, she was challenged by Mara, the Evil One. How she managed to counteract in this situation, here is the story goes: 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.”