Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Kuṇḍalakesā

Elder Nun Kuṇḍalakesā’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā’s story is one of the longer ones, showing a very capable and confident young woman. She began her career in the normal way under Buddha Padumuttara, and was also one of the seven sisters born to King Kiki.

In her last life she was reborn in a merchant’s family on the same day her future husband was born, though the signs accompanying his birth were very inauspicious, and they nearly had him put to death there and then.

The boy however grew up in safety, but from an early age was a kleptomaniac, stealing whatever he could get his hands on, no matter how many times his parents scolded him and tried to guide him rightly, and eventually, as he had no further talent, his Father gave him the means to become a professional thief, and left him to his fate.

The young man eventually broke into nearly every house in the city, and when the King found out, he gave the Mayor only one day to find the person responsible or die himself. The Mayor caught the thief, and when he was brought before the King he was sentenced to death.

For reasons not properly explained in the story here, when Bhaddā saw him on his way to execution, she fell in love, and begged for his release, which her Father organised. He was brought back to the house to be her partner. Even then his passion for theft couldn’t be assuaged, and he planned to kill Bhaddā and take her ornaments.

Bhaddā, however, turned out to be quick in wits and disposed of him before he disposed of her. Not able to return home after his death she renounced and became a Jaina nun. We notice here that nuns of other sects had their own hermitages and must have been a common sight in ancient India; these hermitages are mentioned again in the following story.
She excelled in debate and toured the country challenging others to debate with her, and finally came to Sāvatthī. There she met with Ven. Sāriputta who easily defeated her and asked her to meet with the Buddha. She went as asked, and the Buddha taught her in one verse, at the conclusion of which she attained Liberation, and went forth again in the nuns’ Community.

It was because of this display of her quick and ready wit that she was placed in foremost position amongst those who were quick in deep knowledge. Her male counterpart was Ven. Bāhiya Dārucīriya. The canonical story about him can be found in the influential meditation discourse at Udāna 1.10, which is translated elsewhere on this website.01

9. The Story about the Elder Nun Kuṇḍalakesā

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AN 1.5.9

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
khippābhiññānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Kuṇḍalakesā. RTE, PTS: Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā.02

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who are quick in deep knowledge, that is to say, Kuṇḍalakesā.

AA 1.5.9
The Commentarial Story:

In the ninth story, “Amongst those who are quick in deep knowledge,” it shows why the Elder Nun Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā, amongst those who were quick in deep knowledge, was said to be foremost.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara she was reborn in a good family home in Haṁsavatī. She listened to the Teacher talk about Dhamma, and saw the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost amongst those who are quick in deep knowledge, did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

Various Good Deeds

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

In the time of the Buddha Kassapa, in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, she was one of seven sisters. She established the ten precepts for twenty-thousand years and lived as a celibate, and made a dwelling place for the Community.

She was then 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 merchant’s family in the city of Rājagaha, and they gave her the name Bhaddā, Auspicious.

That very day in the city the King’s chaplain’s son was born. From the moment of his birth, beginning with King Bimbisāra’s residence, and throughout the whole city weapons blazed forth.

In the morning the chaplain went to the King’s family and asked if the King had slept comfortably. The King said: “How can I sleep comfortably today, Teacher, when all night we saw the weapons in the King’s residence blazing forth and we have become fearful?”

“Great King, do not worry for this reason, not only in your home did weapons blaze forth, it was so throughout the whole city.”

“What is the reason, Teacher?”

“In our home was born a child under the thieves’ star, he will become an enemy to the whole city, this is the portent concerning him, there is no danger for you, but if you wish, let us bear him off.”

“There being no intention to harm us, there is no need to bear him off.”

The chaplain, thinking: ‘My son has come bearing his own name,’ named him Sattuka, Little Enemy.

Bhaddā grew up in the merchant’s home, and Sattuka grew up in the chaplain’s home.

From the time he was able to play by running around here and there whatever he saw in any place he had wandered to, he took all of it away, and filled up his Mother and Father’s home with it.

His Father, although giving him a thousand reasons, was not able to restrain him.

Later, as he reached maturity, understanding it was an impossibility to restrain him in any way, he gave him a pair of blue robes, and put into his hands all the requisites for housebreaking and a grapple, and sent him off, saying: “You can make a living through doing this work.”

From that day forward, after throwing his grapple, ascending residences of good families, making a breach, and taking the goods that other families had stored there, as if he had put them there himself, he departed. There was not a home in the whole city that was not plundered by him.

One day as the King was travelling about the city in his chariot, he asked his charioteer: “Why is it that there appears to be a breach in every house in this city?”

“God-King, in this city there is a thief named Sattuka who, having broken through the wall, carries off the property of the good families.”

The King summoned the Mayor, and said: “It seems that in this city there is such and such a thief, why have you not grabbed him?”

“We, God-King, are not able to find the thief together with the stolen property.”

“If today you capture the thief you can live; but if you do not capture him, I will issue a Royal command.” I.e. he will give him capital punishment.03

“Yes, God-King,” and the Mayor sent men all over the city, and after Sattuka had broken through a wall, and was making off with others’ goods, they captured him together with the stolen property and brought him to the King.

The King said: “Take this thief out through the south gate and execute him!”

The Mayor gave his assent to the King, and having that thief flogged with a thousand strokes at each of the crossroads, he went out Present tense used in the sense of the immediate past.04 by the southern gate. Executions always took place to the south of the city.05

Her Marriage

At that time the merchant’s daughter Bhaddā, after opening the window because of the uproar of the populace, while looking around, saw the thief Sattuka being brought out, and holding her two hands over her heart, went and lay down on the couch with her head held low.

She was the family’s only daughter and her relatives were not able to endure even a trifling contortion of her face.

Then her Mother, seeing her lying on the couch, asked: “What are you doing, Dear?”

“Do you see this thief they have prepared and brought out to be executed?”

“Yes, Lady, we do see him.”

“If I get him I will live, but if I don’t get him there is surely death for me.”

They, being unable to convince her in any way, considered: “Life is better than death.”

Then her Father went into the Mayor’s presence, and gave him a thousand in a bribe, saying: “My daughter is infatuated with this thief, please free him through some means or other.”

He, saying: “Very well,” assenting to the merchant, grabbed the thief, and delayed at the funeral bier until the sun was setting. Then, as the sun set, he drove a certain man from the prison, and loosening Sattuka’s bonds, he sent Sattuka to the merchant’s home. Having the other man bound with Sattuka’s bonds, he drove him through the southern door and had him executed.

The merchant’s servants grabbed Sattuka and took him to the merchant’s residence.

Seeing him, the merchant, thinking: “I will fulfil my daughter’s desire,” had Sattuka bathed in scented water, adorned with all decorations, and sent him to the mansion.

Bhaddā, thinking: “My desire is fulfilled,” decorated herself with innumerable decorations and amused herself with him.

Sattuka, after a few days had passed, thought: “Her decorative articles will be mine, but by what means is it fitting to grab her ornaments?”

At a time they were sitting comfortably together, he said to Bhaddā: “There is a word of mine I would like to speak.”

The merchant’s daughter, like one who had received a thousand coins, with a satisfied mind, said: “Speak freely, Noble Sir.”

“You thought: ‘His life was saved because of me,’ but when they grabbed me on the mountain from where they throw down thieves I prayed to the god living there, imploring: ‘If I receive my life, I will make an offering to you.’ Because of that my life was saved, quickly get an offering ready.”

Bhaddā, thinking: ‘I will fulfil his desire,’ prepared the offering, decorated herself with all decorations, mounted a vehicle with her husband, and went to the mountain from where they throw down thieves, began to ascend, thinking: ‘I will make an offering to the god of the mountain.’

Sattuka thought: ‘With all of us ascending I will not be able to grab her ornaments,’ so after having her take the offering-vessel, he ascended the mountain. It mean he went with her alone, having dismissed the entourage. 06

But while speaking with Bhaddā he spoke no endearing words, and from his gestures she understood his intention.

Then he said to her: “Bhaddā, cast off your robe, and make a bundle here of all the ornaments heaped up on you.”

“Husband, what is my fault?”

“Why, fool, do you think I have come to make offerings?” he said, making a sign.

“Having torn the liver out of that god I could give an offering in this place, but I have come desiring your ornaments.”

“Noble Sir, but whose are the ornaments, and whose am I?”

“We do not know of such a thing, as your property is one thing, and my property is another.”

“Very well, Noble Sir, but let me fulfil one wish, let me give you in all your finery a hug from in front and from behind.”

Saying: “Very well,” he accepted.

Understanding his acceptance, she hugged him from the front, made like she was hugging him from behind, and threw him from the mountain from where they throw down thieves.

He fell through the air and was crushed to pieces.

Seeing the wondrous nature of her deed, the goddess who dwelt on the mountain spoke this verse expounding her virtue:

“Not on every occasion is it a man that is wise,
a women is wise also, she is wise now and then.

Not on every occasion is it a man that is wise,
a women is wise also, if she but think for a moment.”

Her First Ordination and Teaching

Then Bhaddā thought: ‘Because of this I am not able to return again to my home. I will go from here and go forth in some going forth or other,’ and she went to the Nigaṇṭha’s monastery and requested to go forth amongst the Nigaṇṭhas.

Then they said this to her: “What manner of going forth?”

She said: “Please give your supreme going forth.”

Saying, “Very well,” they pulled out her hair with the shell of a palm nut and gave her the going forth. In the Traditions the story is very different from here on. There she is said to have lived in a cemetery and seeing a rotting corpse asked the Jainas about it, who couldn’t answer and sent her to the Buddha (!) where she heard the Teaching about impermanence, gained faith, went forth and soon after was Liberated. 07

But her hair grew back in ringlets and wavy curls, and because of that, the name Kuṇḍalakesā, Curly Hair, arose.

She learned all the skills in the place of her going forth, and knowing: ‘There is no further distinction beyond this,’ I.e. she had learned all they could teach. 08 wandering from village to town to capital city, wherever there were learned men, she went there and learned all the arts they knew.

And in many places, because she was so learned no one was able to give a reply to her.

Then not seeing anyone who was able to dispute with her, in whatever village or town she entered, she piled up sand at the gate, and set up a branch of a rose-apple tree right there, saying: “Whoever is able to refute my word, he should trample down this branch,” and she informed the children standing nearby.

No one trampled it down even after seven days.

Then taking it, she departed.

Her Conversion and Attainment

At that time our Gracious One had been reborn in the world and was living in Jeta’s Wood at Sāvatthī.

Then Kuṇḍalakesā, after gradually reaching Sāvatthī, and entering the city in the same way as before, set her branch in the sand, informed the children and left.

At that time Ven. Sāriputta, the General of the Dhamma, after the Community of monks had already entered the city, saw the Rose-Apple branch in the sand heap while entering the town alone, and asked: “Why is this placed here?”

The children, without omitting anything, told him the reason.

“That being so, take it and trample on it, children.”

They listened to the Elder’s word but some didn’t dare to trample on it, while some others, after trampling on it in an instant, crushed it to powder.

Kuṇḍalakesā, while leaving after taking her meal, saw the branch trampled down and asked: “Who did this deed?”

Then they told her the General of the Dhamma had caused it to be done.

She thought: ‘He must be knowing his own strength else he wouldn’t dare to have had the branch trampled down, he must surely be a great man! But I am insignificant in comparison, and I will not shine, and yet thinking: ‘After entering the village, it is right to inform the people,’ that is what she did.

It should be understood that all eighty thousand families residing in that city in their various neighbourhoods were informed.

The Elder, after the meal duties, sat down at the root of a certain tree. Then Kuṇḍalakesā, surrounded by the populace, went into the presence of the Elder, exchanged greetings and stood on one side.

She asked: “Reverend Sir, did you have the branch trampled down?”

“Yes, I had it trampled down.”

“That being so, reverend Sir, let there be a discussion on our doctrine, together with yours.”

“Let it be so, Bhaddā.”

“But who should ask, and who should answer?”

“Our questions are ready, you can ask according to your understanding.”

Consent having been given by the Elder she asked everything according to the doctrine she understood, and the Elder answered it all, and having asked everything, she fell silent.

Then the Elder said to her: “You asked many things, but we will ask only one question.”

“Ask away, reverend Sir.”

“What is said to be one?”

Kuṇḍalakesā said: “I don’t know, reverend Sir.”

“If you don’t know even that much, how will you know anything else?”

She fell at the Elder’s feet right there and said: “I go to you for refuge, reverend Sir.”

“There is no coming to me for refuge, the Greatest Person in the world with its gods dwells in a monastery nearby, go to Him for refuge.”

She said: “I will do so, reverend Sir.”

In the evening time, at the time the Teacher was teaching Dhamma, she went into the presence of the Teacher, worshipped with the fivefold prostration and stood at one side.

The Teacher, by way of subjugating her volitional processes, spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada:

“Even though one possesses a thousand lines from verses which are unbeneficial, they are surpassed by one line of verse, which, having heard, one is calmed.”

At the conclusion of the verse, just as she was standing there, after attaining Liberation together with the analytic knowledges, she asked for the going forth.

The Teacher agreed to her going forth, and she went to the nunnery and went forth.

Later this discussion arose in the midst of the four assemblies: That is, the monks, nuns, male and female lay devotees.09 “Great is this Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā, in that she attained Liberation at the end of just four lines of verse!”

For this reason the Teacher, as the occasion had arisen, placed this Elder Nun in the foremost position amongst those who were quick in deep knowledge.