Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī

Mahapajapati Gotami
Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

The first of the foremost nun disciples is the root and the most important also, as Mahāpajāpatī was the founding member of the nuns’ monastic order, and this story tells how she reached such an eminent position. It was a position that is not attained in one life alone, but over a great period of time, just as the Buddha’s Awakening was also built on the acts performed during a great succession of lives.

The story of how she came to the title as senior-most of the nuns in many ways sets the pattern for the others that follow: she was born at the time of the previous Buddha Padumuttara, Who was the 13th of the 28 Buddhas that culminated in Gotama Buddha, it seems most of the Foremost Disciples started their career under this Buddha. Gotama began his under Buddha Dīpaṅkara, who was 4th in line, so it appears that Disciples can attain their state with less effort than a Buddha. 01 and saw that Buddha appoint a nun to a foremost position, In this case as foremost in seniority. This is the normal pattern, but Ven. Khemā aspired to her position after meeting Sujāta, the Buddha’s Chief Disciple, who was foremost in great wisdom. 02 did a great deed, normally consisting of some considerable personal sacrifice, and made an aspiration for the same position herself.

The pattern then records the good deeds that she did in the interim, before meeting the present Buddha Gotama. These take two forms, either good deeds done under former Buddhas, or good deeds done to Independent Buddhas (Paccekabuddha). In this case we see that after being born in the higher worlds only, amongst gods and humans, she was eventually reborn and encountered a group of Independent Buddhas, who were trying to get help from the lay people in preparing for the Rains Retreat, which required building suitable huts.

They were initially turned down by the rich folk in the city. Therefore the earlier incarnation of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (nameless here, as are nearly all the nuns in their earlier lives), herself a slave, offered to build them and organised a large group of 500 female slaves to give their help by offering to provide food for the Retreat and getting their husbands to donate the manual labour needed to prepare the huts.

This good deed of the 500 slaves binds them together kammically for the rest of their time in saṁsāra (the round of births and deaths), and at the time of Gotama Buddha, they will go forth with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, and attain Liberation.

One thing we should notice about this episode is that it shows that the Independent Buddhas have no problem at all in taking donations from slaves, who were held to be the lowest in society. Indeed, it is this lack of discrimination of the Independent Buddhas that gives the slaves the chance to rise in the scale of existence.

A similar story is recorded next, when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was a weaver’s wife near Bārāṇasī. There she organised the feeding of 500 Independent Buddhas, who again had failed to find offerings from the rich folk of the city.

The good deeds that have been recorded are, of course, just some examples from the immense number of lives she lived between the two Buddhas mentioned at the beginning and the end of her career, and we have to understand them as exemplary acts building up her perfections just as the Buddha had accumulated his.

In her last life Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the younger sister of the Bodhisatta’s Mother, Mahā Māyā, both of whom were given in marriage to the Sākiyan King Suddhodana. When the elder sister died shortly after giving birth, the younger gave her own recently born son Nanda out to a wet-nurse, and took on the nursing of Siddhattha herself. According to the traditional timings, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was 120 years old when she attained Final Liberation, which was in the last year of the Buddha’s life, so that would make her forty at the time of the Buddha’s birth. Mahāmāyā was her older sister, but how much older is not clear. 03 She was therefore the foster Mother of the boy who would eventually reach Buddhahood, and would have been engaged in all aspects of his up-bringing, including his education and early marriage. Something Ven. Ānanda would remind the Buddha of when she requested ordination for women. 04

Five years after the Buddha's Awakening, her husband the King attained Liberation, died straight afterwards and left her a widow. At this point she decided to dedicate the remainder of her life to the spiritual path, and requested the Buddha to start a nuns’ order, similar to the monks’ order, which had been founded at the beginning of the Sāsana.

She was joined in making this request by the 500 women who had been her slave companions in the previous life. They had been reborn in the Sākiyan state, and their husbands had gone forth after the Buddha had resolved a quarrel and taught them Dhamma on the banks of the Rohinī river.

All of them went to Vesālī, where the Buddha was residing, and eventually attained entry into the newly founded order, with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī being the first, and thereby the most senior nun, being the female equivalent of the first monk in the Sāsana, Ven. Aññā Koṇḍañña.

1. The Story about the Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī

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AN 1.5.1

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
rattaññūnaṁ, yad-idaṁ Mahāpajāpatigotamī.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who are senior, that is to say, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī.

AA 1.5.1
The Commentarial Story:

In the first of the texts concerning the Elder Nuns, “That is to say, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī,” it shows how the Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, amongst those who were senior, was said to be the foremost. Rattaññū, means endowed with (many) nights; it refers to her seniority as being the first of the nuns who was ordained.05

This is the exposition concerning the enquiry into her previous deeds.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was conceived in a good family home in Haṁsavatī. This was Buddha Padumuttara’s birthplace. All of the nuns (and a number of the monks) are said to have made their initial aspiration under this Buddha in this place.06 Then at another time, while listening to the Teacher teach the Dhamma, she saw the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost in seniority, did a great deed The sort of great deed is characterised in Khemā’s story: she sold her hair and gave a donation to Sujāta, one of the Buddha Padumuttara’s Chief Disciples. Compare also the sub-commentary on Dhammadinnā’s story, which says a similar thing about her resolution.07 and aspired for the same position herself. It is worthwhile noting here that all the women make an aspiration to become a bhikkhunī who is foremost in one thing or another. Not one of them wishes to change her sex, or seems to think that might give her a better chance in life and in regard to Awakening. 08

She gave donations for the rest of her life and protected her virtue. Having passed away from there she was reborn in the world of the gods and spent one period when there was no Buddha Lit: a Buddha-interval; it means a long period of time when no Buddha awakens on earth. These are said to be much longer than the periods when a Buddha, or his teaching, is available.09 there. She passed away again from the world of the gods, was reborn, and became the chief amongst five hundred female slaves in Bārāṇasī.

Then, as the time for the Rains Retreat was approaching, five Independent Buddhas descended from Mount Nandamūlaka to Isipatana. Nandamūlaka was a mountain in the Himālaya, near to Mt. Kelasa (Kailash); Isipatana is outside of Bārāṇasī, and was the site where Gotama Buddha gave his first sermon.10 They wandered for alms in the city, and after going back to Isipatana, they thought: ‘We will ask for manual labour in order to prepare the huts for spending the Rains.’ After wrapping their robes they entered the city in the evening time and stood at the gate of the treasurer’s house.

The chief female slave took a waterpot and while going to the reservoir saw the Independent Buddhas entering the city. The treasurer, after hearing why they had come, said: “You do not have our permission, please go!”

Then, as they were leaving the city, the chief female slave, took her waterpot and while entering she saw them, put down the waterpot, worshipped, bent down, lifted up her face, and asked: “Noble Ones, having just entered the city, why are you now leaving?”

“We came to ask for manual labour to prepare the huts for spending the Rains.”

“Did you receive it, reverend Sirs?”

“We did not receive it, lay woman.”

“But can these huts only be made by the powerful, or is it possible also for the lowly to build them?”

“It is possible for anyone to build them.”

“Very well, reverend Sirs, we will build them, tomorrow please accept our alms food.” After inviting them she took the waterpot, placed it on the road going to the reservoir, and every time the other female slaves came, she said: “Wait here.” When everyone had assembled, she said: “Ladies, will we always be doing slave-work for another, or do you wish to be free of this slavery?”

“Noble Lady, today itself we wish to be free.”

“If you so wish, as the five Independent Buddhas didn’t receive manual labour they were invited by me for tomorrow. Have your husbands give manual labour for a day.”

They replied: “Very well!” and informed their husbands when they returned from the forest.

They also said: “Very well!” and assembled at the chief male slave’s door.

Then the chief female slave said to them: “Tomorrow, Dears, you must give manual labour to the Independent Buddhas.” She explained the advantages, and even those who did not desire to do it at first, after she had given them strong advice, they all agreed.

On the next day, after giving food to the Independent Buddhas, she gave a sign to all of the slaves. They entered the wilderness straight away and assembled the timber. Having gathered in hundreds and made each of them a hut together with a walking meditation path, they placed suitable beds, chairs and drinks and received a promise from the Independent Buddhas to spend the three months The period of the Rains Retreat.11 right there. Then they prepared alms food for each of them in turn.

For those who were not able to take the opportunity to give on their day, the chief female slave took food from her own house and gave it.

After looking after them for three months, the chief female slave had each of the female slaves prepare cloth, and they made five-hundred coarse cloths.

After exchanging them, and having the three robes made, she gave a set to each of the five Independent Buddhas. And even as they watched, the Independent Buddhas went through the air to Mount Gandhamādana. The text is indicating that they returned to where they had previously been living.12

Another Life: Giving Donations

After doing good deeds for the rest of their lives, they were reborn in the world of the gods. The chief female, having passed away from there, was reborn to the chief weaver in a weaver’s village not far from Bārāṇasī. Being a weaver was considered a very low profession, and therefore the village was kept outside the city.13

Then one day, Padumavatī sons, the five-hundred Independent Buddhas, See Ven. Uppalavaṇṇā’s Story for information on these Independent Buddhas.14 were invited by the King of Bārāṇasī. After going to the King’s Gate, and not seeing anyone there, they turned back and left via the city gate, and went to the weaver’s village.

Those women saw the Independent Buddhas, treated them kindly, and after worshipping them all, they gave them alms food. After taking their food, they left for Gandhamādana.

Her Last Life

After doing good deeds for the rest of her life she was reborn amongst gods and humans only. This phrase occurs in each of the stories, and it means that she was only born amongst gods and humans, in a good destination, from the time of her aspiration. 14 Later she was reborn prior to our Teacher, and was conceived in the house of Mahāsuppabuddha in the city of Devadaha, and was given the name Gotamī, and was Mahāmāyā’s younger sister.

The brāhmaṇas learned in the scriptures, examining the characteristics, declared: “The children who dwell in these two wombs will become universal monarchs.” This is odd, as none of them did. Mahāmāyā gave birth to Siddhattha, who became the Buddha; and Mahāpajāpatī gave birth to Nanda and Nandā, who both ordained and became Liberated Ones.15

The great King Suddhodana, when they had reached maturity, married the two of them and led them to his home. Later, after our Buddha-to-be had passed away from Tusita Heaven, he took conception in the womb of Queen Mahāmāyā.

Mahāmāyā died seven days from the day she delivered him and was reborn in Tusita Heaven. As the god Setaketu, who was also called Santusita. Later the Buddha would go and teach the Abhidhamma to her.16

The great King Suddhodana placed the Great Being’s Mother’s sister, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, in the position of Chief Consort. At that time prince Nanda was born. Two or three days after Siddhattha.17 Mahāpajāpatī gave prince Nanda to a wet-nurse and took care of the Buddha-to-be herself.

On another occasion, the Buddha-to-be left on his Great Renunciation and attained omniscience. While working for the benefit of the world he gradually reached the city of Kapilavatthu and went into the city for alms.

Then his Father, the Great King Suddhodana, hearing a talk about Dhamma on the highway became a Stream-Enterer. Then on the second day Nanda went forth, Nanda was born to King Suddhodana and Mahāpajāpati and is therefore the Buddha’s half-brother; his going forth is told in Ud. 3.2, and also at great length in Ven. Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda.18 and Rāhula on the seventh day. The Buddha’s son. 19

On another occasion the Teacher was living in the vicinity of Vesālī in the Gabled Hall. In the Mahāvana, or Great Wood. 20

At that time the Great King Suddhodana, realised Liberation under the white parasol and was Completely Emancipated. According to the commentary on the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) he was already a Non-Returner, and when he was dying the Buddha visited him and he became an Arahant. He died the same day and was never ordained.21

Then the thought of ordination occurred to Mahāpajāpatī.

After leaving the bank of the river Rohiṇī at the conclusion of the Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes, Sn 4.11, The Discourse about Quarrels and Disputes. At the conclusion of the discourse five hundred young men went forth. 22 all the wives of the five-hundred young men who had gone forth, had but one thought: ‘After going into Mahāpajāpatī’s presence, all of us will go forth in the presence of the Teacher.’

Making Mahāpajāpatī their chief, and going into the presence of the Teacher, they expressed their desire to go forth.

The first time Mahāpajāpatī requested the going forth from the Teacher it was not granted.

Therefore, she summoned the barber, had her hair removed, donned the yellow robes, took all the Sākiyan women and went to Vesālī. There the Elder Ānanda made the request to the One of Ten Powers and she received the going forth and the higher ordination with the eight serious rules. The giving of the aṭṭhagarudhamma, the eight heavy or serious rules, constituted her ordination.23

All the others also received their higher ordination together.

This is told in brief here, but the elaboration comes from the story in the text. From AN 8.51, also part of the Vinayapiṭaka, the Basket of the Discipline, The Chapter on Bhikkhunīs (Cullavagga 10, Bhikkhunikkhandaka).24

Then, after her higher ordination, Mahāpajāpatī, after approaching the Teacher and worshipping him, stood on one side, and the Teacher taught the Dhamma to her.

After taking a meditation subject in the presence of the Teacher, she attained Liberation. While listening to the Saṁkhittasuttaṁ, AN 8.53. 25

All five hundred nuns at the conclusion of the Discourse on Nandaka’s Advice also attained Liberation. MN 146. See elsewhere on this website for a text and translation. Nandakattheravatthu in the Aṅguttara Commentary also says they attained Liberation, but in the discourse itself, and in the Majjhima Commentary, it mentions that the least of the nuns only attained Stream Entry, not full Liberation, so there is a discrepancy between the two sources. 26

This is the story of what happened.

Later, when the Teacher was sitting in Jeta’s Wood, when placing the nuns in their different positions, he placed Mahāpajāpatī as the foremost amongst those who were senior.