Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Khemā

Elder Nun Khemā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Like Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, and indeed all the nuns singled out in these stories, Khemā’s story begins at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, who was the 13th of the 28 most recent Buddhas culminating in our Gotama Buddha.

At that time she saw one of Buddha Padumuttara’s Chief Disciples, Sujāta, The other was Devala. They were both cousins of Buddha Padumuttara. 01 and having sold her hair for cash, made a donation to the Elder on the same day. This is an example of one of the great deeds that all the disciples do before confirming their aspiration. Khemā’s aspiration in this case was to be foremost in great wisdom.

One thing to note is that most of the aspirants see a nun being appointed to a position of great eminence, and aspire to the same position, but here Khemā sees the Buddha’s Chief male disciple, and aspires to a similar wisdom as he has. In the Traditions (Apadāna), however, it says she saw the Buddha appoint a nun to the position of great wisdom, and then made her aspiration.

As with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, she was in that life born as a slave girl and was owned by another. However in the Traditions about her it appears she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant.02 Again rank had no bearing on what the person could achieve if their aspirations were good and the energy sufficient, and, as in all of these life stories, the energy for doing good deeds over many lives must have been dedicated indeed.

After she had completed a life of good deeds, she was reborn many times over a period of many thousands of aeons, where we must understand that she was also engaged in doing good deeds and abstaining from bad ones, which provided the foundation for her later achievements.

She was then reborn at the time of the Buddha Kassapa, The Traditions mention other lives at the time of the Buddha Vipassī, under whom she ordained and attained great excellence, and Buddha Koṇāgamana, for whom, as a lay woman, she donated a monastery. 03 the Buddha directly before our Gotama Buddha, in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, A name for the kingdom that had Bārāṇasī for its capital. 04 as one of seven sisters. Five of these seven sisters appear in these stories about the nuns, they are Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā, Paṭācārā, Dhammadinnā and Nandā. The other two were the foremost lay disciples Mahāmāyā and Visākhā.05 The future Rāhula was also their brother in that life, it seems.

In her last life because of her previous good deeds her skin glowed with a golden hue, and she was so beautiful she was married to King Bimbisāra. Her beauty proved to be something of an obstacle, because she believed the Buddha would find fault with her, and didn’t wish to meet with him.

The King, however, didn’t find this suitable, and first had poets compose songs in praise of the Bamboo Wood where the Buddha was staying, and then, when she agreed to go to see the wood, told his men not to let her return without meeting the Buddha.

When she finally did meet the Buddha he created the appearance of a heavenly angel whom he caused to go quickly through the ages of life, until she fell down dead right in front of Khemā. Thus she gained insight into the transient nature of things, including her own body, and attained Liberation.

Khemā’s great wisdom was renowned, especially her knowledge and understanding of the Abhidhamma, According to the Traditions even during the time of Buddha Kassapa she had memorised the Mahānidānasuttanta (Great Discourse on Origins, DN 15); and in her final life she was again taught the same discourse, and also the Kathāvatthu. 06 and she was indeed appointed as the Elder Nun foremost in having great wisdom, a position equivalent to that of Ven. Sāriputta for the monk disciples.

I fill out the story in-line with some verses from the Traditions about her, and elsewhere on this website you can read the discourse (Khemāsuttaṁ, SN 44.1) that was held to have earned her this position.

2. The Story about the Elder Nun Khemā

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AN 1.5.2

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
mahāpaññānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Khemā.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who have great wisdom, that is to say, Khemā.

AA 1.5.2
The Commentarial Story:

In the second story, Khemā is the name of this nun.

From here on, without saying: “This is the exposition concerning the enquiry into her previous deeds,” placing the resolution at the beginning each time, we will say what should be said.

Previous Lives

In the past, at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was reborn in the city of Haṁsavatī, and was owned by another. I.e. she was a slave-girl. 07

Then one day, she saw that Gracious One's chief disciple, the Elder named Sujāta, This Buddha had two chief disciples, named Sujāta and Devala; his chief female disciples were called Amitā and Asamā.08 walking for alms and gave him three sweetmeats. She her hair shorn on that very day, gave a donation to the Elder, With the proceeds from selling her hair.09 and made this aspiration: ‘When a Buddha has arisen in the future may I, like you, have great wisdom.’

She did good deeds for the rest of her life, and being reborn amongst gods and humans only for one hundred thousand aeons, she was conceived in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, in the time of the Buddha Kassapa, In the Therīgāthā Commentary stories about her lives in the times of the Buddhas Vipassī, Kakusandha and Koṇāgamana are also related.10 and was one of seven sisters. These sisters are mentioned a number of times below. They eventually became the future disciples, Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā, Paṭācārā, Kuṇḍalakesī, Kisā Gotamī, Dhammadinnā and Visākhā.11

She lived as a celibate in the house for twenty-thousand years and together with her sisters she had a dwelling place made for the One of Ten Powers. She was then reborn amongst gods and humans only during one period when there was no Buddha.

When this Gotama Buddha arose she was conceived in a Royal family in the city of Sāgala in the country of Madda, and given the name Khemā.

Her Last Life

The radiance of her body glowed as it were with a golden hue. When she had reached maturity she was taken to King Bimbisāra’s house. This is an idiom which often occurs, it means she was married to the King.12

When the Realised One was living near to Rājagaha in the Bamboo Wood, she, being intoxicated with her own beauty, and thinking: ‘The Teacher, it appears, sees fault in beauty,’ and: ‘He will see fault in my beauty,’ through fear, didn’t go to see the One of Ten Powers.

The King thought: ‘I am the Teacher’s foremost attendant, Interestingly this position was not given him in the Etad-agga chapter, where the position is unassigned. Hatthigāma Uggata was named as the foremost attendant on the Community. 13 and for one like me who is known as a Noble Disciple, He became a Stream-Enterer when the Buddha fulfilled his promise and returned to teach the King shortly after his Awakening.14 that my Chief Consort does not go to see the One of Ten Powers, is not pleasing to me.’

After having the praises of the Bamboo Grove composed by the poets, he said: “Recite the poems within the hearing of Queen Khemā.”

“He who has not seen the delightful Bamboo Wood, These are the verses that were recited according to Khemātheriyāpadānaṁ, Therī-Apadānaṁ, 2: 329-332. 15
the Fortunate One’s residence,
has also not seen Nandana in Tāvatiṁsa Heaven,
such was my thinking.

He who has seen the Bamboo Wood,
rejoicing in the rejoicer of men,
has also seen Nandana, greatly rejoiced in
by the Lord of the Gods Sakka.

The gods, having abandoned Nandana,
and descended to the surface of the Earth,
after seeing the delightful Veḷuvana,
astonished, are not satiated with it.

Through the King’s merit it appeared,
it is decorated with the Buddha’s merit,
who could describe
the great quantity of virtues of that Wood?”

After hearing the praise of the Grove, and gaining a desire to go, she put the question to the King.

The King said: “Go to the Grove, but without having seen the Teacher, you will not receive permission to return.”

Without having given a reply to the King, she took the path to the Grove.

The King said to the men who were going with her: “If the Queen, returning from the garden sees the One of Ten Powers, that is good; but if she does not see him, the Royal command is you must point him out.”

Then the Queen, after walking in the Grove in the daytime, and returning without seeing the One of Ten Powers, was ready to go. But the King’s men, against her liking, led the Queen into the presence of the Teacher.

The Teacher saw her coming, and with his spiritual power made an image of a heavenly angel, which took up a palm-fan, and he made it look like she was fanning him.

Having seen her, Queen Khemā thought: “My conceit has perished, such beautiful women, like unto heavenly angels, are standing not far from the One of Ten Powers. I am not fit to be their servant, my wicked mind supported by mad conceit has perished.”

Grasping the image she stood there looking at the woman. Then as she was watching, through the power of the Realised One’s resolve, that angel passed beyond her youth, and from being in middle-age, she passed beyond middle-age, and was like one in old-age having wrinkled skin, grey hair and broken and loose teeth.

Then, as she was watching, the angel stumbled about together with her fan and fell down. Then Khemā, being endowed with the former conditions, This is a phrase that is many times used in these contexts; it means the requisite conditions for attaining Awakening in this life.16 as that sense-object came within range, reflected thus: ‘Even such a beautiful body comes to misfortune, my body will also come to the very same misfortune.’

At the instant that she had that thought, the Teacher spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada: Dhp 347.17

“Those impassioned with passion run along with the stream,
just as a spider runs along the web she has made herself,
after cutting that off, the wise journey on
without expectation, having abandoned all suffering.”

At the conclusion of the verse, while standing on that very spot, she attained Liberation together with the analytic knowledges. In the Traditions it says she heard some more teachings, then she purified the Dhamma-Eye, which normally indicates the attainment of Stream-Entry, requested ordination and went forth and two weeks later attained full Liberation. 18

For one who attains Liberation while dwelling in the midst of the home life she should either that very day attain Final Nibbāna or go forth.

The Buddha, understanding the life span of her existence, said: “I will cause her to receive permission to go forth.”

After worshipping the Teacher and going to the King’s residence, she stood there without having worshipped the King.

Through that sign, the King understood: “She must have attained Nobility,” then he said to her: “Queen, have you been to see the Teacher?”

“Great King, only a little insight has been gained by you, but I have gained the One of Ten Power’s true insight, you must allow me to go forth!”

The King, answered: “Very well, Queen!” and had her carried in a golden palanquin to the nunnery, and had her go forth.

Then it was said of her: “The Elder Nun called Khemā, while still a householder, attained Liberation,” and she became famous for her great wisdom.

(Khemā speaks:) From Khemātheriyāpadānaṁ, Therī-Apadānaṁ, 1.8, near the end.19

Wearied of all processes, skilled in the modes of conditions, having overcome the four floods, I attained Liberation.

I have mastery over spiritual power, the divine ear-element, I have mastery in knowledge of mind-reading.

I know my previous lives, have clarified the divine eye, destroyed all the pollutants, This indicates her attainment of the six deep knowledges (cha abhiñña).20 there is no continuation of existence.

Right there, in meanings, conditions, language and improvisation These are the four analytic knowledges (pa?isambhida).21 my knowledge was purified, it arose within the Buddha’s Teaching.

I was proficient in purification, mature in subjects for discussion, a knower of the Abstract Teaching method, attained to mastery in the Teaching.

Later, on the grounds in Toraṇa, I was questioned by the Lord King of Kosala with deep questions, and I answered just as it is.

Then the King approached the Fortunate One and questioned him, right there the Awakened One answered, just as I had answered. These two verses summarise Khemasutta?, SN 44.1, for a text and translation of which, see elsewhere on this website. 22

This is the story here.

Then later, when the Teacher was sitting in Jeta’s Wood, in placing the nuns successively in their different positions, he placed the Elder Nun Khemā at the foremost of those having great wisdom.