Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Soṇā

Elder Nun Soṇā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

This is one of the most touching stories of the collection. Soṇā, also known as Many-Children Soṇā, after raising ten children, seeing them all married off, and distributing her wealth to them, finds herself despised by her children, and decides to go forth. In the Traditions the story is quite different: there her husband and ten sons all decide to go forth, and she, being left alone, also decided to go forth. 01

Even when she has gone forth no one respected her, so she took up insight meditation on the nature of the body and worked at it with great zeal. One day while working at her meditation subject, the Buddha projected an image of himself standing in front of her, and gave her encouragement.

She then attained Liberation, but realised she hadn't carried out her assigned duty to warm the water for the nuns’ bath when they returned from alms round. Thinking that if someone spoke badly of her they may make demerit, upon their return she warmed the water through miraculous power, and this convinced them of her attainment.

The nuns begged for forgiveness and Ven. Soṇā became at long last a highly respected member of the Community, known as being zealous in making effort, and when the Buddha was placing the nuns in position, she was made foremost amongst those who were energetic.

Her male counterpart also had the same first name, and was known as Ven. Soṇa Koḷivisa.

7. The Story about the Elder Nun Soṇā

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AN 1.5.7

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
āraddhaviriyānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Soṇā.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who are energetic, that is to say, Soṇā.

AA 1.5.7
The Commentarial Story:

In the seventh story, “Amongst those who are energetic,” it shows why Soṇā, amongst those who have held up and fulfilled energy, 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. Later, while listening to the Dhamma and seeing the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost amongst those who were energetic, she did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

Her Last Life

She was reborn amongst gods and humans only for one hundred thousand aeons.

When this Gotama Buddha arose she was conceived in a good family home in Sāvatthī.

Later, she was established in the household life and had many sons and daughters, The commentaries say she had ten children.02 and she set them all up individually in the household life. She divided up her property and gave it to them, see the Dhammapada Commentary to vs. 115.03

From thence onwards, thinking: ‘What can she do for us?’ when she came into their presence, they did not even designate her as ‘Mother.’

And Many-Children Soṇā, understanding their lack of respect towards herself, thinking: ‘What will I do dwelling in a house,’ renounced and went forth.

Then the nuns, thinking: ‘She does not know the minor duties, she behaves improperly,’ gave her punishment.

Her sons and daughters saw her being punished, and thinking: ‘Till this very day she does not know the training rules,’ and they ridiculed her on the spot wherever she was seen.

Having heard their words, with spiritual anxiety aroused, thinking: ‘It is fitting to make a course to purification for myself,’ she rehearsed the Thirty-Two Fold Nature in whatever place she was sitting and whatever place she was standing.

There are in this body: This is a separate text at Khp. 3, and is found passim throughout the discourses.04

hairs of the head, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin,
flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys,
heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs,
intestines, mesentery, undigested food, excrement,
bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat,
tears, grease, spit, mucus, synovic fluid, urine.

And just as formerly she had been known as Many-Children Soṇā, so later she became well known as the Elder Nun Energetic Soṇā.

Then one day as the nuns were going to the monks‘ monastery, after saying: ‘Heat some water for the Community of Nuns, Soṇā,’ they departed.

Before the water was heated in the fire house, while reciting the Thirty-Two Fold Nature as she was walking in meditation, she developed insight.

The Teacher, while sitting in the Fragrant Cottage appeared to her and recited this illustrious verse: This teaching comes after her attainment of Liberation in the Traditions. 05

“The one who lives for a hundred years not seeing the Supreme Dhamma, is surpassed by one living for one day only who sees the Supreme Dhamma.” Dhp 115.06

She attained Liberation at the conclusion of the verse, and thought: ‘I have attained Liberation, but when they return, without considering, they will speak dispraise of me, and will accumulate much demerit, therefore it is fitting to do something as a sign.’

She placed the water pot over the fire-place, but she didn’t make the fire underneath.

After the nuns had returned, seeing the fire-place, but not seeing a fire, they said: “We told this old lady: ‘Heat the water for the Community of Nuns,’ but today she did not make the fire in the fire-place.”

“Noble Ladies, why do you need fire? If you like to bathe with hot water, take water from the pot and bathe.”

They, thinking: ‘There will be a reason here,’ went and put their hand into the water, and understanding it was heated, brought a water pot and took the water, and as they took from it in that place it refilled.

Then they all understood she was established in Liberation, and those who were junior fell at her feet in the five-fold prostration, saying: “Noble Lady, for so long we disregarded you, injured and spoke injuriously, please forgive us,” and they asked for forgiveness.

The seniors, having squatted down, said: “Noble Lady, forgive us,” and asked for forgiveness.

From then on, though she had gone forth in old age, they said: “She has been established in the highest fruit in no long time through being energetic,” and the virtue of the Elder Nun became well-known.

Later, after the Teacher had sat down in Jeta’s Wood, as he was assigning the places of the nuns in order, he placed the Elder Nun Soṇā in the foremost position amongst those who were energetic.