Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Dhammadinnā

Elder Nun Dhammadinnā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

The story in the commentary about this great nun is somewhat anomalous, as her story is said to have been similar to Ven. Khemā’s, even down to doing a deed for the Chief Disciple of the Buddha Padumuttara, the Elder Sujāta, and aspiring for a similar position herself. But the commentary here seems somewhat confused, as in her Traditional verses, it clearly says she did a good deed for the Elder Sujāta, and at a later time heard Buddha Padumuttara place a nun in foremost position of those who talk about Dhamma, and aspired to that position herself, which is indeed the position she fulfilled, being the counterpart of Ven. Mantāṇiputta.

Later she was also one of the seven sisters who built a monastery for the Buddha Kassapa’s monks, and was eventually reborn into her last life. Her birthplace is not stated here, but the Tradition states it was in Giribbaja (another name for Rājagaha), and she did indeed marry the merchant Visākha who was living in that city, and who was a close friend of King Bimbisāra.

Her husband Visākha was amongst the crowds of people who went out to greet the Buddha when he returned to Rājagaha around nine months after his Awakening, and there and then he attained the First Path, and later on he progressed through to the Third Path.

At that point he became incapable to living a normal household life, having transcended sensual desire, and he therefore informed his wife and gave her permission to choose her own future. Dhammadinnā, not wishing to take up what he had thrown away, chose to go forth and after ordination went to a hermitage in the countryside, where she quickly attained Liberation.

Visākha was surprised by her quick return to Rājagaha and didn’t know whether it was because she was dissatisfied with the life or not, so he decided to visit her to find out. Rather than asking what could be an embarrassing question though, he skilfully asked her about the teaching, deepening the questions as he received answers.

This showed him beyond doubt, that not only was she satisfied, but that her own personal experience was beyond his own; when he reported his conversation to the Buddha he confirmed Dhammadinnā’s greatness and attainment, and made her teaching his own by approving it as being the same as he himself would have taught.

The discourse that was recorded on that occasion, the Small Discourse giving an Elaboration (MN 44), is one of the most outstanding discourses spoken by a disciple in the Tipiṭaka, and is justly famous. I have translated it elsewhere on this website. It was owing to this discourse that Ven. Dhammadinnā was appointed to the position of foremost amongst those who talk on Dhamma.

5. The Story about the Elder Nun Dhammadinnā

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AN 1.5.5

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
Dhammakathikānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Dhammadinnā.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who talk about Dhamma, that is to say, Dhammadinnā.

AA 1.5.5
The Commentarial Story:

In the fifth story, “Amongst those who talk about Dhamma,” it shows why Dhammadinnā, amongst those who talked about Dhamma, was said to be foremost.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was reborn in a place belonging to others in Haṁsavatī, It means she was born to a servant in someone else’s house. and after doing a great deed for the Elder Sujāta, In the Traditions it says she gave him a cake, led him to her master’s house and fed him again. the Chief Disciple of the Fortunate Padumuttara, she aspired for that position herself.

She did good deeds for the rest of her life, and was reborn in Heaven, and everything below should be understood in accordance with the Elder Khemā’s resolution. It is not easy to see how to apply this instruction as after Khemā’s aspiration the story at the time of Buddha Kassapa is told. But here that comes after the following story during the period of Buddha Phussa.

Various Good Deeds under Different Buddhas

But at the time of the Buddha Phussa, while living with the Teacher’s three brothers by different Mothers, she was placed as a servant in the house of the one in charge of almsgiving, and when told: “Give one,” gave two. This life is unrecorded in her Apadāna.

Thus she gave all, but without causing decline, and ninety-two aeons having passed by, she was conceived in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, in the time of the Buddha Kassapa, and was one of seven sisters. She lived as a celibate for twenty-thousand years and had a dwelling place made for the Community of monks.

She was reborn amongst gods and humans only during one period when there was no Buddha.

Her Last Life

When this Gotama Buddha arose she was conceived in a good family home, and later went to the home of the merchant Visākha. I.e. she married the merchant of this name.

The merchant Visākha, King Bimbisāra’s friend, went with the King and for the first time saw the One of Ten Powers, listened to the Dhamma, was established in the Fruit of Stream-Entry, and later realised the Fruit of Non-Returner.

That day, after going home, Dhammadinnā was standing at the top of the stairs with outstretched hands, but without taking her hand he ascended the mansion.

Also while eating he did not speak saying: “Give this, bring that.”

Dhammadinnā, having taken a spoon, reflected while serving: “He did not take my hand as I was giving him my hand, and while eating he does not talk, I wonder what is my fault?”

Then, when he had eaten, she asked him: “Noble Sir, I wonder what is my fault?”

“Dhammadinnā, you have no fault, but from today forward intimacy with you, to sit or to stand near, or to chew and eat after you have brought food is no longer possible.

If you wish you can dwell in this home.
But if you do not wish, take however much wealth you need, and go to your family’s house. This story of Visākha’s and Dhammadinnā’s renunciation is told is much greater detail in the Majjhima Commentary on Cūḷavedallasuttaṁ (MN 44), a translation of which is found elsewhere on this website.

Her Renunciation and Attainments

“Noble Sir, that being so, on that which has been spat aside, or vomited up, I could not live with my head held high. Please allow my going forth.”

Visākha said: “Very good, Dhammadinnā!” and after announcing it to the King, he sent Dhammadinnā in a golden palanquin to the nunnery for the going forth.

After the going forth she thought: “This merchant while still in the midst of his house has made an end to suffering, This usually indicates Liberation, but here we have to understand it as indicating a relative end to suffering, as Visākha was a Non-Returner, still at the third stage of the path. but from the time I received the going forth till now I have yet to make an end to suffering.”

She went to her teacher and preceptor, and said: “Noble Ladies, my mind does not delight in this crowded place, I would go to a village dwelling.” Since the incident when Arahat Uppalavaṇṇā was raped nuns were not allowed to live by themselves in the wilderness (araññā), so she asks to go and live somewhere at least not so crowded as a town.

The Elders, because she had renounced a great family through her going forth, felt unable to find fault with her thought, and they took her and went to a village dwelling.

As she had prepared the right conditions in the past not long after she attained Liberation together with the analytic knowledges.

Her Teaching

Then it occurred to her: “I have attained the summit of what was to be done, living here what will I do? I shall go to Rājagaha, and there on account of me a large company of my relatives will make merit,” and with the Elders she returned to the city.

Visākha, hearing that she had come, thought: ‘Quickly she came, is it because she is dissatisfied?’

In the evening time, he went into her presence and worshipped, and sat down at one side, thinking: ‘It is inappropriate to ask about her dissatisfaction,’ and instead he asked a question about the five constituent parts and so forth, This refers to the Cūḷavedallasuttaṁ (MN 44). and Dhammadinnā, like one who cuts through a lily stalk with a sword, answered each of the questions.

The devotee, understanding how sharp was the Elder Nun Dhammadinnā’s knowledge, after asking questions in order about all the conditions for the three paths of his own attainment, asked about learning the Path to Liberation.

The Elder Nun Dhammadinnā understood that the devotee had only reached the state up to the Fruit of Non-Returner.

Thinking: ‘Now he is going beyond his own state and running on,’ she stopped him and said: “You are not able to grasp, friend Visākha, answers to questions that are beyond your limits, like immersion in Nibbāna, the spiritual life that ends in Nibbāna, that has a conclusion in Nibbāna.

Desiring this, friend Visākha, approach the Fortunate One and you can ask him about this matter, and just as the Fortunate One explains, so you should bear it in mind.”

Visākha went into the presence of the Teacher and told him the questions and answers that had been given.

The Teacher listened to his words, and saying: “My daughter has no craving for past, future or present constituents,” he then spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada: Dhp 421.

“The one who has nothing in the past, the future or the present, and is unattached to this nothing, that one I call a spiritual person.”

Then having given approval to Dhammadinnā, he said this to the devotee Visākha: “Wise, Visākha, is the nun Dhammadinnā, having great wisdom, Visākha, is the nun Dhammadinnā, if you were to ask me, Visākha, the same matter, I would answer it in the same way, in the same way as the nun Dhammadinnā has answered, for this is indeed the meaning, and so should you bear it in mind.”

Thus did the story unfold.

Later as the Teacher was sitting in Jeta’s Wood, as he was assigning the places of the nuns in order, regarding this Small Discourse giving an Elaboration, A text and translation of this discourse can be found elsewhere on this the occasion had arisen, he placed this Elder Nun in the foremost position in the Dispensation amongst those who talked about Dhamma.