Foremost Nuns Home PageThe Elder Nun Paṭācārā’s Story
Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Uppalavaṇṇā
Elder Nun Uppalavaṇṇā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok
Uppalavaṇṇā Therī’s story is not only the longest in this collection, but also the most complicated and fantastical. She made the usual aspiration under the Buddha Padumuttara, and was later reborn in Buddha Kassapa’s time, where she was one of the seven sisters who built a residence for the Community.
Later, she was reborn again and became a manual worker. While working in the fields she saw an Independent Buddha and gave a donation of 500 pieces of puffed rice, and a lotus flower, and made an aspiration to have 500 children in the future and for lotus flowers to appear under her feet when she walked about.
Afterwards she was reborn in Heaven, where lotus flowers did indeed spring forth under her feet, and was later reborn inside a lotus flower back on earth.
She was adopted by a hermit, from whose thumb milk miraculously sprang forth, and she was brought up in the seclusion of the forest, and named Padumavatī. It means: one who is like a lotus, and is one of only a few names we know from previous lives in this cycle of stories.01
Her beauty was once again outstanding, surpassing that of normal humans, and when she was seen by a forester he mentioned the matter to the King, who came and claimed her for his Chief Queen.
Her exaltation to such a high position upset the other women in the harem and they plotted against her. She became pregnant, but the King was called away to a border dispute, and she gave birth in the meantime, to one main son Mahāpaduma, and 500 other sons, said to be moisture-born.
The jealous concubines bribed the midwife to replace the child with a blood-stained log and to make out that Padumavatī was not a real human being. The King returned from the battle and heard that she had had an unnatural birth and without enquiring into it banished her from the Palace.
The women wished to hold water sports, and took the 500 children with them in baskets and set them afloat on the river, apparently to dispose of them. However, the baskets were caught in nets and brought to the King, who, through the intervention of Sakka, discovered the women’s deceit, and reinstated Padumavatī.
The King made the women Padumavatī’s slaves, but she freed them in her magnanimity, and even gave her sons to them to be cared for. The sons, in turn, once grown up, realised the impermanence of life and became Independent Buddhas, at which point Padumavatī, overcome by grief and illness at their departure, died and was reborn in a poor family nearby.
One time she saw eight Independent Buddhas, her former sons, and offered them a meal for the following day. They recognised her as their former Mother, and brought the others along for the meal too, so that she could earn more merit, and both the food she had prepared and the house she gave it in expanded to accommodate the larger number. Satisfied with her gift she aspired to have the colour of a blue lily’s heart in a future life.
In her last life this wish was fulfilled, and they named her Uppalavaṇṇā because of her skin colour. It is the name of the Blue Lily flower.02 She was so desirable it is said that all the Kings and merchants asked for her in marriage. Her Father, not wishing to anger any of them by choosing one over the others, arranged for her ordination instead.
She went forth and soon attained Liberation, together with the spiritual power of transformation. Before the Buddha performed the double miracle, she offered to perform a miracle of transformation herself, and was later placed foremost of the female disciples who had spiritual power.
Such is a synopsis of the story, and it is a long one, spun out with many details, and we see how her strong aspirations for particular bodily characteristics seem to underpin her eventual ability to attain spiritual power and especially the power of bodily transformation.
Her appointment to this position makes her the counterpart to Ven. Moggallāna, as one of the two Chief disciples on the female side.
The story is long and intricate and one thing it demonstrates is that people who have close family ties, or who are kammically linked in a strong enough fashion, generally get reborn in proximity to their former acquaintances, These may be connected by love, like Siddhattha and Yasodharā; or by enmity like Siddhattha and Devadatta. 03 just as Padumavatī was reborn close to her children after they became Independent Buddhas.
3. The Story about the Elder Nun Uppalavaṇṇā
Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
iddhimantīnaṁ, RTE, PTS: iddhimantānaṁ.04 yad-idaṁ Uppalavaṇṇā.
This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who have spiritual powers, that is to say, Uppalavaṇṇā.
The Commentarial Story:
In the third story, about Uppalavaṇṇā, as she was endowed with a colour similar to a blue lily’s heart Lit: the calyx, or leaves surrounding the flower.05 the Elder Nun received this name.
At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was conceived in a good family home in Haṁsavatī.
Later, after going with the populace into the presence of the Teacher, she listened to the Dhamma and saw the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost in spiritual powers.
She then gave a great donation to the Community of monastics with the Buddha at their head for seven days and aspired for that position herself.
Building a Residence for Buddha Kassapa’s Monks
She did good deeds for the rest of her life and being reborn amongst gods and humans only, in the city of Bārāṇasī, at the time of the Buddha Kassapa. She was conceived in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, and was one of seven sisters. She lived as a celibate for twenty-thousand years, had a residence made for the Community of monks, and was reborn in the world of the gods.
Feeding a Paccekabuddha with Puffed Rice
Passing away from there, In the Traditions several lives are mentioned at this point, including one under the Buddha Vipassī. None of these are mentioned here. The life which herein follows is disposed of in one verse in the Traditions. 06 and coming again to the world of humans, she was reborn in a certain little village, and made a living in that place by doing Here we see the absolutive used in its original instrumental sense. 07 manual labour.
One day, while going to the hut in the field, on the highway near a lake in the morning time, she saw a blossoming lotus flower and descended into the lake. She took that flower in a lotus leaf used to wrap puffed rice, cut the tips of rice in the field, and while sitting in the field, she roasted the rice, and counted five-hundred pieces of puffed rice.
At that time, having arisen from the attainment of cessation on Mount Gandhamādana, a certain Independent Buddha came and stood not far away from her.
Having seen the Independent Buddha, she took a lotus flower together with the puffed rice, descended from her hut, placed the puffed rice in the Independent Buddha’s bowl, and covered the bowl over with the lotus flower.
When the Independent Buddha had departed a short way she thought: ‘One who has gone forth surely has no use for a flower, I will take the flower and adorn myself.’
She went to the Independent Buddha and took the flower from his hand, but thought again: ‘If this Noble One had no use for a flower, he wouldn’t have allowed me to place it on the top of the bowl, indeed there will be a use for the Noble One.’
She went again, placed it back on the top of the bowl, and begged the Independent Buddha for forgiveness, saying: “Reverend Sir, may the result of my puffed rice be as many sons as there were pieces of rice, and the result of my giving the lotus flower be that wherever I am reborn lotus flowers arise under my feet.” She made this aspiration.
As she was watching him, that Independent Buddha went through the air to Mount Gandhamādana, and washing his feet near to the Independent Buddhas’ rope ladder, he placed the lotus on Mount Nandamūlaka.
As a result of that deed, she gained conception in the world of the gods, and from the time of her rebirth great lotus flowers appeared under her feet.
Padumavatī’s Early Life
She passed away from there and was reborn on a lotus heart in one lotus lake at the foot of a mountain. Again in the Traditions, this life, which is so elaborated here, is recounted in just three verses. 08
A certain ascetic lived near there, and in the morning time, he went to the lake in order to wash his face, saw the flower and thought: ‘This flower’s head is the largest of all the heads of flowers. Through what reason did the bud come to be here?’
After descending into the water he took the flower. As soon as he had taken it it flowered, and the ascetic saw a young girl lying in the heart of the lotus.
From the time of first seeing her, paternal love Lit: daughter love.09 arose, and he carried her with the lotus to his leaf-hut and lay her down on his couch. Through the power of her merit milk sprung from his thumb.
When that flower had faded, he brought a new flower and lay her in that.
Then from the time she began to play by running around here and there at every step there arose a lotus flower, and the colour of her body was like rays of saffron.
Without having attained the radiance of a god she nevertheless surpassed the radiance of a human.
When her Father had gone to gather various kinds of fruit she remained behind in the leaf-hut.
Then one day, when she had reached maturity her Father went to gather various kinds of fruit and a certain forester saw her and thought: “Amongst mankind there is none as beautiful as this, I will enquire about her,” and he sat down looking for the coming of the ascetic.
As her Father was coming, she went out to meet him, took the carrying pole and water pot from his hand, and after he had come, while sitting she showed him the duties she had done.
Then the forester understood she was human, worshipped the ascetic, and sat down.
The ascetic invited the forester with forest roots and various kinds of fruits and water, and asked: “Good sir! Will you stay in this place, or will you go?”
“I will go, reverend Sir, what will I do here?”
“After going from here will you be able to keep quiet Lit: not speak.10 about the things you saw?”
“If the Noble One does not wish it, for what reason will I speak?”
And after worshipping the ascetic, so as to recognise the path again when he returned, he went away making marks on the branches and on the trees.
Padumavatī’s Marriage to the King
After going to Bārāṇasī he saw the King, and the King asked: “Why have you come?”
“God-King, your forester has seen a wonderful treasure of a woman at the foot of a mountain and returned,” and he told him all that had happened.
The King heard his report and quickly went to the foot of the mountain and set up camp not far from that place. Then, together with the forester and the other men, after the ascetic had finished his meal duties, at a time when he was sitting, he went and worshipped him there, was received in a friendly manner, and sat down on one side.
The King, after placing the requisite goods for one gone forth at the feet of the ascetic, said: “Reverend Sir, what will we do in this place, shall we go?”
“Please go, Great King.”
“Yes, I will go, reverend Sir, but we have heard: ‘The Noble One has the company of the opposite sex nearby’, and this is unsuitable for those gone forth, please let her go with me, reverend Sir.”
“People’s minds are surely hard to please, how will she live in the midst of so many people?”
“Beginning from any time we please, I will place her in a position senior to the rest and look after her, reverend Sir.”
Having heard the King’s speech, because of the name she had taken in her youth, he called his daughter, saying: “Dear Padumavatī.”
She emerged from the leaf hut at that single word, worshipped her Father, and stood there.
Then her Father said: “Dear, you have reached maturity in this place, but from the time you were seen by the King, it has been inappropriate to live here, you should go with the King, Dear.”
She replied to this word of her Father, saying: “Very well, Father,” worshipped him, and stood there crying.
The King, thinking: ‘I will win over her Father’s heart,’ placed a heap of money in that place and anointed her.
Then after taking her, and leading her to the city, from the time they returned, without even looking at the rest of the women, he took delight with her alone.
Those women, being jealous by nature, and desiring to break her close connection with the King, said this: “This is not one born of humans, Great King! Where in the past did you see amongst humans that lotuses would arise in the place they were walking? Surely this is a demoness, you must drive her away, Great King!”
The King listened to their speech but was silent.
Then at another time there was a border disturbance. Thinking: ‘Padumavatī is advanced in pregnancy,’ Lit: heavy in the womb.11 he left her in the city and went to the border area.
Then those women, having given a bribe to her nurse, said: “Remove her child as soon as it is born, and having smeared a log of wood with blood, place it near her.”
Not long after, Padumavatī was delivered of her child. The prince Mahāpaduma alone dwelt in her womb. Another four-hundred and ninety-nine sons were reborn from moisture This is one of the four ways creatures were thought to be born: aṇḍaja, egg-born, jalābuja, womb-born, saṁsedaja, moisture-born, opapātika, spontaneously born.12 after the boy Mahāpaduma exited his Mother’s womb and was laying there.
Then understanding: ‘I must act before she recovers her mindfulness,’ the nurse smeared a log of wood with blood, placed it near her, and signalled to those women. Those five hundred women each took a child, employed nearby weavers, Cundakāra is defined as turner in PED, on the basis of one reading. Here the context makes it clear it must mean a weaver of baskets.13 and had them bring baskets. Then each took her child, lay him down there, made a seal on the outside and placed them aside.
When Padumavatī had recovered her senses she asked her nurse: “What have I delivered, Lady?” Meaning was it a girl or a boy?14 Menacing her she said: “Where will your son be found?” Saying: “This is the child that exited from your womb,” she placed the blood-smeared log of wood in front of her.
Seeing that, Padumavatī became depressed and said: “Having chopped it up, quickly remove it, if someone should see it, it would be a cause of shame.”
She listened to her speech as though wishing her well, chopped it up and threw it on the fire-place.
Returning from the border areas, the King waited outside the city for the auspicious time, Lit: waiting for the right constellation.15 made camp and sat down.
Then the five-hundred women went out to meet the King as he was coming and said: “You do not have faith in us, Great King, as though we speak without reason. After calling your Consort’s nurse, ask whether your Queen delivered a log of wood!”
The King, without properly investigating the reason, thinking: ‘She must be a non-human being,’ drove her from the house.
With her departure from the Palace all the lotus flowers That used to appear under her feet.16 disappeared, and her skin lost its radiance.
She went by herself along the middle of the street. Then a certain old and aged woman saw her and maternal Lit: daughter love.17 love arose, and she said: “Where are you going, Lady?”
“I am a stranger roaming around looking for somewhere to live.”
She said: “Come here, Lady,” and she gave her a place to live and served her food.
As she was residing like this in that place, those five-hundred women, having one thought, said to the King: “Great King, when you had gone to the camp, we said to the goddess of the Ganges: ‘When our God-King returns victorious from battle, we will make an oblation and hold water sports.’ This was our aspiration, and this matter, God-King, we now make known.”
The King, being satisfied with their statement, went to the Ganges to sport in the water.
All of them took their baskets, covered them over, went to the stream, wrapped up the baskets in order to disguise them, dropped them in the water and sent the baskets off.
All those baskets went off together and got caught in nets that had been fastened under the stream.
Then after playing at water sports, at the time the King was emerging, seeing the baskets suspended in the net, they were brought to the King.
The King, seeing the baskets, said: “What is in the baskets, Dears?”
“We do not know, God-King.”
The baskets were opened while he was watching, and they first opened the boy Mahāpaduma’s basket.
For all of them as they were laying in the baskets during the day, milk had sprung from their thumbs through the power of their merit.
Sakka, the King of the Gods, in order to dispel the King’s doubts, had had these words Lit: these letters.18 written inside the baskets: “These boys were reborn in Padumavatī’s womb, and are the King of Bārāṇasī’s sons. The five-hundred women who are Padumavatī’s rivals placed them in baskets and threw them in the water. Let the King understand the reason.”
As soon as the baskets were opened the King had the words Lit: letters.19 read out, and seeing his sons, he raised up the boy Mahāpaduma, and said: “Quickly prepare the chariot, harness the horses, I will enter the city today and endear some of those women.”
He ascended the palace, placed a bag with a thousand coins on an elephant’s neck, and had the drum beat, announcing: “He who finds Padumavatī, can take these thousand coins.”
Hearing that announcement Padumavatī informed her adopted Mother, saying: “Take the thousand coins from the elephant’s neck, Lady.”
“I do not dare to take such a thing.”
Having said it a second and a third time, she said: “After saying what, Lady, shall I take it?”
“ ‘My daughter has found Queen Padumavatī,’ after saying that, take it.”
She, thinking: ‘What will be, will be,’ went and took the box with a thousand coins.
Then the men questioned her: “Did you find Queen Padumavatī, Lady?”
She said: “I did not find her, but it seems my daughter found her.”
They said: “But where is she, Lady?” and going with her and recognising Padumavatī, they fell at her feet.
At that time understanding: ‘This is Queen Padumavatī!’ she said: “Indeed, a really serious thing was done to the woman, she being a Consort to such a King, and she dwelt in such a place without protection!”
The King’s men set up white curtains around Padumavatī’s residence, placed a guard at the door and went and informed the King.
The King sent a golden palanquin.
She said: “I will not go in this way! From my dwelling place all along the way until the Palace spread noble and beautiful carpets made of cloth, have canopies set up adorned with golden stars above, and when all ornaments are sent for my adornment, I will go by foot. Thus the city-folk will see my good fortune!”
The King said: “Do it according to Padumavatī’s pleasure.”
Then Padumavatī was adorned with all ornaments, and saying: “I will go to the Palace,” proceeded along the path.
Then at each place she stepped, after breaking through the noble and beautiful carpets made of cloth, lotus flowers arose.
After she had shown off to the populace her good fortune, she ascended the Palace, and by way of giving an allowance to the old lady for her expenses, had all those beautiful carpets given to her.
The King had the five-hundred women summoned, and said: “After making these slaves, I give them to the Queen.”
“Very good, Great King, please make known to the whole city your gift to me of these women.”
The King had the drum beat in the city announcing: “After making these five-hundred treacherous women slaves, I have given them to Padumavatī.”
Understanding: ‘Their slavery has been seen by the whole city,’ she made a request of the King, saying: “I desire to give freedom to my slaves, God-King.”
“As you wish, Queen!”
This being so, he summoned the drummer, and said: “ ‘After these women were made slaves to Padumavatī, she has given freedom to all five-hundred of them,’ beat the drum and announce this.”
When they were given their freedom, she gave the four-hundred and ninety-nine sons into their hands for bringing up, and took the boy Mahāpaduma herself.
Then later, when those boys had reached playing age, the King had various types of playgrounds made in the garden.
When they were sixteen years of age they all came together, and while playing in the royal bathing pool covered with lotuses in the garden, having seen new lotuses blossoming and old lotuses falling from their stalks, they thought: ‘When even a thing such as this, which is not produced by previous deeds, It means they are not creatures developed enough to have intentional life. 20 undergoes decay, how much more then will our bodies be subject to the same destiny!’
Grasping this meditation object they all produced the knowledge characterising the Independent Awakening, I.e. they became Paccekabuddhas.21 and, after rising from there, sat down cross-legged in the heart of the lotuses. Lit: in the pericarps.22
Then the King’s men who had come with them, understanding that most of the day had passed, said: “Noble Children, do you know the time?”
They remained silent.
Those men went to the King and informed him: “The princes, God-King, are sitting in the hearts of the lotuses, and when we speak they make no reply.”
The King said: “Allow them to sit as they wish.”
The whole night a guard was set, and they sat in this way in the hearts of the lotuses until dawn arose.
The men approached on the following day and said: “Princes, do you know the time?”
“We are not Princes, we are now Independent Buddhas.”
“Noble Sirs, you are saying something very grave, Independent Buddhas are surely not like you are, they have hair and beard only up to two inches long, and on their bodies are fastened the eight requisites.” The eight requisites are the three robes, the bowl, a razor, a needle, a belt and a water-strainer.23
They stroked their heads with their right hands, and at that moment the signs of home life vanished, and the eight requisites appeared on their bodies.
As the populace was watching they went through the air to Mount Nandamūlaka.
Queen Padumavatī thought: ‘After having so many children, I have become childless!’
Her heart was overcome by grief and she died from this illness, and in a small village near the gate of the city of Rājagaha The Traditions specify that it was on the slope of Mt. Isigili, one of the seven mountains surrounding Rājagaha. This life again only requires four verses in the Traditions. 24 she was reborn, and made a living in that place by doing manual labour.
Feeding 500 Paccekabuddhas
Later she went to a good family home, That is, she got married.25 and while carrying rice-porridge one day to her husband’s field, in the midst of her children, she saw eight Independent Buddhas going through the air at the time they went for alms, and going quickly, she informed her husband, saying: “Look, Noble Sir, let us invite these Independent Buddhas and feed them.”
He said: “These are birds who look like ascetics who are flying somewhere, they are not Independent Buddhas.”
As they were talking they descended to a spot not far away.
That woman gave her own rice and other solid food to them herself on that day, and said: “Tomorrow, eight people can take my alms food.”
“Well said, lay woman, such is your hospitality, let there be just eight seats then, but seeing a great many Independent Buddhas, your heart would be uplifted.”
On the following day she prepared eight seats, arranged them with great respect for the eight of them, and sat down.
The Independent Buddhas who were invited informed the rest, saying: “Sirs, without going anywhere else today, all of you show your regard for your Mother.”
Hearing their words, they all came through the air together, and appeared at the gate of their Mother’s house.
Having seen a great many more than those whom she had perceived at first and, without wavering, she ushered them all into the house and made them sit down on the seats.
As they were sitting down in order, a further eight seats appeared through supernatural power and the ninth sat himself down on the nearest seat.
As the seats increased, so did the house increase in size.
When they were all thus seated, the woman respectfully offered what was prepared for the eight Independent Buddhas to the five hundred, and bringing eight handfuls of blue lilies in her hand, she placed them at the feet of the Independent Buddhas she had invited and said: “Reverend Sirs, in whatever place I am reborn may the colour of my body be like the colour of the inside of this blue lily’s heart.”
She made this aspiration.
The Independent Buddhas rejoiced with their Mother and returned to Gandhamādana.
She did good deeds for the rest of her life, and after passing away from there she was reborn in the world of the gods.
Her Last Life
When this Gotama Buddha arose she was conceived in a merchant’s family in Sāvatthī, and as she was the same colour as the heart of a blue lily, she was given the name Uppalavaṇṇā. Uppala = blue water-lily; vaṇṇa = colour.26
When she had reached maturity all the Kings in the Rose-Apple Isle The normal designation for what we now roughly call India. 27 and the merchants also sent a message to the merchant, saying: “Please give us your daughter.”
There were none known to be not sending this message.
Then the merchant thought: ‘I will not be able to satisfy Lit: grab the mind.28 all of them, I will have to employ some skilful means,’ and after summoning his daughter, he said: “Will you be able to go forth, Daughter?”
Because of being in her last rebirth, that word was like medicated oil sprinkled on her head, therefore she said to her Father: “Father, I will go forth.”
He paid respects to her, led her to the nunnery, and had her go forth. In Buddhist countries these days, at the ordination the postulant will pay respects to their parents for the last time, and straight after the ordination, the parents pay respect to the socially elevated child. Here it seems the Father paid respects as soon as she agreed to ordination.29
Not long after she had gone forth, The Traditions state it was less than two weeks. 30 her turn to work in the observance hall arose.
She lit the lamp, swept the observance hall, and grasping the sign of the crest of the lamp, while looking at it again and again, and producing absorption on the fire meditation subject, and making that a basis, she attained Liberation.
Together with the fruit of Liberation she also mastered the spiritual power of transformation. This is the power to transform oneself into many beings, and from many to become one again. 31
Later, on the day the Teacher performed the double miracle, Performed to confute the heretics, it consisted of emitting fire and water from his body.32 she roared a lion’s roar, saying: “I will perform a miracle, reverend Sir.” Along with others on that day, Uppalavaṇṇā offered to perform a miracle. However, the Buddha didn’t allow her, or anyone else, to perform any miracles at that time. The following few lines are from the Dhammapada Commentary to vs. 181.33
Being asked “What miracle will you perform?” she said: “Reverend Sir, after showing myself before an assembly for twelve leagues on all sides, surrounded by an assembly that is thirty-six leagues from front to back and taking the form of a Universal Monarch and approaching, I will worship you.” The Traditions record a different miracle whereby she fashioned a chariot and four horses. 34 The Teacher said: “I know your power.”
For this reason the Teacher, as the occasion had arisen, while sitting in Jeta’s Wood, in placing the nuns successively in their different positions, placed this Elder Nun in the foremost position of those possessing spiritual power.
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last updated: March 2015