Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Paṭācārā

Elder Nun Paṭācārā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

This nun disciple’s story is certainly one of the most memorable in Buddhist literature, and is also one of the most celebrated. Like the others she was born during Buddha Padumuttara’s time, and made her aspiration to become a foremost disciple, in this case in bearing the discipline in mind. She was also one of the seven sisters born to Kiki, the King of Kāsi.

The story, however, deals quickly with her past lives and then moves on to her last life, when she was reborn in a good family home in Sāvatthī. Against all family conventions, and outside of marriage she had a liaison with one of the household’s workers, fell in love and eloped, rather than marrying the man her family had arranged for her.

When she became pregnant she decided to go back to her family for help with the delivery, but her husband kept putting off the time for departure, and departing late she eventually had the child on the way. She therefore returned home with the child. A second time the same thing happened, and she gave birth on the road. Up to this point the story is similar to that of Cūḷa- and Mahāpanthaka, see AA

Just then a great storm blew up and she asked her husband to prepare a shelter, which he did. But as he went to get materials for a roof he was bitten by a cobra and died. When she discovered the body in the morning, she lamented but decided to continue to her parent’s home.

On the way, while crossing a ford, one of her children was snatched away by a hawk, and the other one was swept away by the current and drowned. She made it to the city, but only to find that her family home had collapsed during the storm, and all inside were lost and were awaiting their cremation. This meant that within one day she had lost husband, children, parents and siblings.

At that point she lost her mind completely, threw off her clothes and went around naked and senseless, until one day she met the Buddha who suffused her with loving-kindness and admonished her, whereat she regained her senses, covered herself up and listened to his Dhamma teaching.

The Buddha taught her with a memorable verse and she attained the First Stage of Awakening and ordained. In a story which is not included in this commentary, but is brought in here from another, while contemplating the fading away of water in the ground she gained insight, realised that life was impermanent, and attained Liberation.

Later the Buddha appointed her as the one who was foremost in bearing the discipline in mind. The connection of her story to her position is presumably because of her conversion from being a woman who refused to abide by the rules of society to one who later became the most diligent in Discipline.

She therefore appears as the counterpart of Ven. Upāli, who answered the questions on discipline at the First Recitation.

4. The Story about the Elder Nun Paṭācārā

right click to download mp3

AN 1.5.4

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
Vinayadharānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Paṭācārā.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who bear the Discipline in mind, that is to say, Paṭācārā.

AA 1.5.4
The Commentarial Story:

In the fourth story, “Amongst those who bear the Discipline in mind, that is to say, Paṭācārā,” it shows why the Elder Nun Paṭācārā, amongst those who bore the Discipline in mind, was said to be foremost.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was conceived in a good family home in Haṁsavatī, and later, while listening to the Teacher teach the Dhamma, she saw the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost amongst those who bore the Discipline in mind, did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

She did good deeds for the rest of her life and was reborn amongst gods and humans only.

In 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 once again in the world of the gods.

She enjoyed good fortune during one period when there was no Buddha.

Her Last Life

When this Gotama Buddha arose, she was conceived in a merchant’s home in Sāvatthī.

Later, when she was mature, she became intimate with a certain worker in her own home, and as she was going to someone from a family of her own standing, I.e. as she was being married off to one of equal rank.01 she informed the man that she had been intimate with, saying: “From tomorrow even if you beat on the door a hundred times you will not be able to see me. If this is a worthy deed for you, take me right now and let us go.”

Saying: “So be it!” he grabbed the most valuable and suitable things, took her from the city, retired for three or four leagues, and set up home in one village.

Then later an embryo was established in her womb.

When her foetus was mature, she said: “Husband, we are without protection in this place, let us go to my family’s home.”

He said: “Today let us go”, and: “Tomorrow let us go,” and being unable to decide when to go, he let the time pass by.

She understood his reasoning, and thinking: ‘This fool will not take me,’ therefore when he had gone outside, thinking: ‘I will go to my family home by myself,’ she set out on the path.

He returned and not seeing her in the home, he asked the neighbours, and hearing: “She is going to her family home,” he thought: ‘It is because of me that this daughter of a good family is without protection,’ and he followed in her steps and caught up with her.

As she was on the highway she was delivered of her child.

Then, thinking: ‘That thing for which we set out, has happened right here on the highway, having gone there now, what would we do?’ and they turned back.

And again an embryo was established in her womb, and everything happened just as the first time. Lit: according to the earlier method. It means it all happened in the same way as was related for her first pregnancy.02

But as she was delivering on the highway, at the very moment of birth, a great storm arose in all four quarters.

She said to the gentleman: “Husband, an out of season storm has arisen in all four quarters, please endeavour to make a wooden shelter.”

He said: “I will do so!” and he made a little hut with sticks, and said: “I will go and bring grass to thatch it,” and he cut the grass near the foot of a certain great anthill.

Then a black snake A cobra, the most deadly of the deadly snakes.03 that was lying in the anthill bit him on the foot and through that he fell down dead on the spot.

She, however, spent the whole night thinking: ‘Now he will come, now he will come,’ and said: “Certainly, he is thinking: ‘She is helpless,’ and he will have abandoned me on the road and gone away.”

The light appeared while she was searching for him by following his footsteps and, seeing he had fallen at the foot of an anthill, she lamented: “Because of me this man perished.”

She took her young boy on her side and made the elder one grasp her fingers and while going along the road, she saw a certain shallow river across the highway, and realised: ‘I will not be able to go over in one go with both the boys.’

So she placed the eldest on the near shore, and carried the youngest to the far shore, lay him down on a cloth pillow, crossed back again, and entered the river, thinking: ‘I will go and fetch the other child.’

Then at the time she reached the middle of the river, one hawk, thinking: ‘This is a piece of meat,’ came to peck at the youngest child.

She waved her hand to drive the hawk off.

Having seen the gesture of her hand, the eldest child, thinking: ‘She is summoning me,’ descended into the river, fell into the stream, and was borne away with the current.

The hawk, before she could reach him, grabbed the youngest child and bore him away.

Overcome with great grief she went along the highway wailing this mournful song:

“Both my sons have died, and my Husband is dead on the path.”

She reached Sāvatthī wailing like this, went to the good families district, and through grief was unable to find her own home, and asked: “In this place there is such and such a family, but where is the house?”

They answered: “Having enquired about that family, what will you do? The home they dwelt in fell down owing to being hit by the wind, and right there and then all of them reached the end of their lives. Now they are all, young and old, burning on a funeral pyre. Look: you can make out the rising smoke.”

When she heard this, she said: “What did you say?”

Being unable to bear being clothed in her robe, just as when she was born, I.e. naked.04 stretching out her arms and crying, she went to her relatives’ funeral pyre, and filled out her mournful song, lamenting:

“Both my sons have died, and my Husband is dead on the path; Mother, Father and Brothers too, burn upon the funeral pyre.”

Though she was given a cloth by other people, each time she tore it off, and threw it away.

Then everywhere she went the populace walked surrounding her, and said: “This cloth-wanderer wanders without a cloth for protection,” and they made the name Paṭācārā. This is an odd explanation, she is called cloth-wanderer because she has no clothes? We might have expected the name to be Apaṭācārā, clothless wanderer. There is a second explanation of the name below, also unconvincing, which suggests that the origin of the name had been forgotten.05

Because she became famous for shamelessly wandering around with nothing on, therefore they said: “Her good conduct has fallen away,” and they made the name Paṭācārā.

One day as the Teacher was teaching Dhamma to the populace, she entered the monastery, and stood at the edge of the assembly.

The Teacher, having suffused her with a suffusion of loving-kindness, said: “Regain your mindfulness, Sister, regain your mindfulness, Sister.”

Having heard the Teacher’s word she regained a strong sense of modesty and shame, and she sat down on the ground right there.

A gentleman who was standing not far away threw her an upper robe. She dressed herself and listened to the Dhamma.

The Teacher, on account of her, spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada:

“Not in children is there refuge, not in Father or in kin, for one attacked by the End-Maker Another name for Māra, or death.06 there is no refuge in relatives.

Having understood the consequence, the wise one who protects his virtue, quickly purifies the Path that leads to Nibbāna.” Dhp. 288-289.07

At the conclusion of that verse as she stood there she was established in Stream-Entry, and having approached and worshipped the Teacher, she asked for the going forth.

The Teacher said to her: “Go to the nunnery and go forth,” and he allowed her going forth. The following lines are from near the end of the Dhammapada Commentary to verse 113. 08

One day she took water in her waterpot, and pouring it while washing her feet, it went but a little way and stopped; she poured it a second time and it went a little further; she poured it a third time and it went even further than that.

Having taken that as a meditation object, and defining the three ages of life, she thought: ‘Like the first pouring of the water by me, some of these beings die in the first age of life; those who go further than that, like the second time I poured out the water, die in middle age; those who go further than that, like the third time I poured out the water, surely die in the last age of life.’

The Teacher, sitting radiant in the Perfumed Cottage, appeared as though standing and speaking with her face to face, saying:

“Thus Paṭācārā, better than not seeing the rise and fall of the five constituents (of mind and body) while living for a hundred years, is seeing rise and fall for even a day or for even a moment,” and after making the connection, teaching Dhamma, he spoke this verse:

“He who lives for a hundred years not seeing rise and fall, is surpassed by one living for one day seeing rise and fall.” Dhp. 113. It means seeing the rising and falling away of everything in existence, but particularly of one’s own constituent parts.09

At the conclusion of the teaching Paṭācārā attained Liberation together with the analytic knowledges.

Not long after her going forth, and her attainment of Liberation, grasping the Buddha’s words she became one who had mastered the Basket of Discipline.

Later, while sitting in Jeta’s Wood, in placing the nuns successively in their different positions, he placed Paṭācāra in the foremost position of those who bore the Discipline in mind.