Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī

Bhadda Kapilani
Elder Nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Bhaddā, after the usual start with Buddha Padumuttara, had a rather uncharacteristic lapse, in that in an intervening life she first gave something to an Independent Buddha, then took it back, and finally gave it again, and made an aspiration to have a beautiful body, which came true in her last life. The same thing happened with Uppalavaṇṇā in her previous life, see above. 01

The commentary gives an abbreviated version of Bhaddā’s final life story, referring the reader to the identical story given for her husband Pippali who would become famous as Mahā Kassapa. To make Bhaddā’s story complete I have inserted the relevant section.

It tells a very touching story from the early life of Pippali and Bhaddā. Although bethrothed to each other, neither wanted to marry and wrote to the other saying so, and that they intended ordaining instead. The letters were intercepted on the way, however, and they were tricked into marriage. They decided after the ceremony to maintain celibacy, and did not consummate the marriage.

After Pippali’s parents died, the young couple were obliged to take on the tasks of householders and look after the considerable fortune that was their family property. One day, on noticing the killing of insects on their estate, they asked who is culpable for the deaths. They learned, to their dismay, that the responsibility belongs to them alone.

As far as I understand the workings of kamma they would bear either none or very little responsibility for the death of the creatures, but in the story here all the blame for the deaths is put on them alone, which puts sufficient fear into their hearts that they abandon their wealth and decide to go forth.

This took place soon after the Buddha had attained Awakening, and they left on their quest before meeting or hearing about the Buddha. After disposing of their wealth and giving freedom to their servants, they wandered off together until they realised that remaining together might attract blame, and decided to split up.

Taking the right hand road, Pippali almost immediately met the Buddha and soon became one of his great disciples. Yet more years would pass before the founding of the Buddha’s Community of nuns, hence Bhaddā went forth amongst the Wanderers (Paribbājika); this again indicates that communities of female ascetics existed even before the Buddha founded his own Community.

Around five years later Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī went forth as the first of the nuns, and not long after Bhaddā received ordination from her, attained Liberation and was placed at foremost amongst those who could remember their former lives. The male disciple having this same quality was Ven. Sobhita.

The story which leads up to this position really gives no grounds for why she would attain to this particular position, which is odd, as the stories are meant to illustrate this. Another curious thing is that in the next story, about Bhaddā Kaccānā (the Buddha’s former wife), she is said to excel all others in her attainment of recalling past lives, so it seems there is another anomaly here. Nevertheless, the story remains of great interest and is memorable in its own right.

The Traditions fail to mention her aspiration under Buddha Padumuttara, and indeed it seems her virtue is simply to support her husband (the future Mahā Kassapa) in his deeds, both here and in other future lives which are mentioned. Neither is it mentioned that she was placed in a foremost position in the Traditions, so again there is something of an anomaly in the story.

10. The Story about the Elder Nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī

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AN 1.5.10

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
pubbenivāsaṁ anussarantīnaṁ ChS omits: anussarantīnaṁ02, yad-idaṁ Bhaddā Kāpilānī.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who can recollect their former lives, that is to say, Bhaddā Kāpilānī.

AA 1.5.10
The Commentarial Story:

In the tenth story, “Amongst those who have knowledge of their former lives,” it shows why, amongst those who could recollect the succession of the great mass of former lives, the Elder Nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī was said to be foremost.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems, she was reborn in a good family home in Haṁsavatī. Later, while listening to the Teacher teach the Dhamma, seeing the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost amongst those who recollect their former lives, she did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

Her Good Deeds

After being reborn amongst gods and humans only for one hundred thousand aeons, when there was no Buddha arisen, she was conceived in a good family home in Sāvatthī.

During a quarrel with her brother’s wife, when the sister gave alms food to an Independent Buddha, she thought: “After giving alms food to him, she has him under her control,” and she grabbed the bowl from the Independent Buddha’s hand, threw away the food, filled it with mud and gave it back.

The people said: “She is a fool,” and blamed her, saying: “You had a quarrel with her, but did nothing to her, what offence has the Independent Buddha done to you?”

Feeling shame at these words, she took the bowl again, emptied the mud, washed and scrubbed it with fragrant soap powder, filled it with the four sweet things, Ghee, honey, sugar and sesame oil.03 and sprinkling it with ghee shining the colour of a lotus calyx, placed it in the hand of the Independent Buddha, saying: “Just as this alms food shines forth, so may my body shine forth.”

She established this aspiration. The text of the relevant sections from Ven. Mahā Kassapa’s story have been included here in accordance with the instruction in the text.04

Her Last Life

...after our Teacher had arisen in the world, and had Set Rolling the Noble Wheel of the Dhamma, he gradually entered Rājagaha.

While the Teacher was dwelling there, this young brāhmaṇa Pippali, The future Ven. Mahā Kassapa.05 in the Magadha country, in the brāhmaṇa village called Great Ford, had been reborn in the brāhmaṇa Kapila’s Queen’s womb; and Bhaddā Kāpilānī, in the Madda country, in the Sāgala town, had been reborn in the brāhmaṇa Kosiya’s Queen’s womb.

Gradually they both grew up, and when the young brāhmaṇa Pippali was twenty years old, and Bhaddā had come to sixteen, his Mother and Father, after examining their son, said: “Dear, you are now mature, you should keep up the family lineage,” It means he should now get married and have children of his own.06 and they pressed him greatly.

The young brāhmaṇa said: “It is not suitable to talk such talk in my ear, as long as you last I will look after you, but after you have departed, I will go forth.”

After a few days had passed they spoke again, and again he refused. Again they spoke, again he refused.

From then on his Mother spoke incessantly about it. The young brāhmaṇa thought: ‘I must convince my Mother.’ He gave a thousand coins of red gold, and had a woman’s form made by the goldsmiths.

At the end of the work he rubbed and polished it and so on, dressed it in red clothes, had it adorned with various ornaments and colourful flowers, summoned his Mother and said: “Mother, finding someone of such a form I will live in a household, but not finding her I will not live there.”

The wise brāhmaṇī thought: “My meritorious son must have formed a resolution and given gifts. He wasn’t making merit by himself alone, surely there will be a woman whom he made merit with who is like this golden statue.”

She summoned eight brāhmaṇas and satisfied them with all they wished for, and mounted the golden statue on a chariot, saying: “Go, Dears, and wherever there is a family similar to ours in birth, lineage and wealth, look for a girl who is like this golden statue, and after making a present, give it to her,” and she sent them off.

They thought: ‘This is our work,’ and departed.

Thinking: ‘Where will we go?’ and: ‘The Madda country is a mine of women, let us go to the Madda country,’ they went to the Madda country and to the Sāgala town.

They set up the golden statue there at the bathing ghat and sat down on one side.

Then Bhaddā's nurse washed and decorated Bhaddā and made her sit in the royal bed chamber, and while going to bathe, she saw the statue, and thinking: ‘The Noble Lady has come here,’ she made a threatening gesture, saying: “Why are you so obstinate as to come here?” and lifting up her hand threateningly, she said: “Go back quickly!” and slapped it on the side.

Her hand trembled like she had struck a rock, and stepping back, she said: “It is so hard!”

Seeing her stiff neck and thinking: ‘My Noble Lady,’ she made a gesture, and said: “This is inappropriate for a Noble Lady who is dressed by me!”

Then those men surrounded her and asked: “Is your Master’s daughter like this?”

“Why this is as lovely as my Noble Lady, who has a hundred, even a thousand, virtues. There is nothing that can hold a candle to her when she is sat in her twelve-cubit chamber, the radiance of her body destroys the darkness!”

“Then come,” and they took the offering, mounted the golden statue on a chariot, and stopped at the gate of the house of the brāhmaṇa of the Kosiya clan and announced their coming.

The brāhmaṇa received them well and asked: “From where did you come?”

“From the house of the brāhmaṇa Kapila in the Great Ford village in the Magadha country.”

“For what reason have you come?”

“For this reason,” (and they explained).

“It is good, Dears, this brāhmaṇa has the same birth, lineage and wealth as us, we will give him the girl,” and he received the bride-gift.

They sent a message to the brāhmaṇa Kapila, saying: “Having found the girl, please do what should be done.”

After hearing the message, they informed the young brāhmaṇa Pippali, saying: “It seems the girl has been found.”

The young brāhmaṇa reflecting: ‘I thought they will not find her and now they say she is found. Misfortune has arisen, I will send her a letter,’ and having gone into seclusion he wrote a letter.

“Bhaddā should gain a household life suitable to her birth, lineage and wealth, but having renounced, I will go forth, do not regret it later.”

Bhaddā also, having heard: “It seems they desire to give me to such and such,” went into seclusion and wrote a letter.

“The Noble Sir should gain a household life suitable to his birth, lineage and wealth, but having renounced, I will go forth, do not regret it later.”

The two letter bearers met on the highway.

“Whose letter is this?”

“The young brāhmaṇa Pippali send it to Bhaddā.”

“This is whose letter?”

“Bhaddā sent it to the young brāhmaṇa Pippali,” and after saying that and reading the letters, they said: “Look at the children’s deeds!”

They tore the letters up and threw them away in the wilderness, wrote similar letters, and sent them from here and there.

Thus neither Pippali nor Bhaddā wished there to be a meeting.

The day they married the young brāhmaṇa took a garland of flowers and set it up. There seems to be an ellipsis in the story here as they are now married, but it doesn’t say how that came about.07

Bhaddā also set one up in the middle of the bed.

Having enjoyed supper they both thought: ‘We will go up and lie down,’ and having met in the bedroom, the young brāhmaṇa went up and lay down on his right side, and Bhaddā after laying down on her left side, said: “On whichever side the flowers fade we will know that a lustful thought arose to the one on that side, you should not come near this garland of flowers.”

Through fear of their bodies coming into contact with each other they passed the time without falling asleep during the three watches of the night and during the day there was no laughter.

For as long as their Mothers and Fathers continued they were unaffected by material life in this world, and they did not manage the family estates, but with their passing, they had to manage them.

The young brāhmaṇa Pippali was very wealthy, having eight hundred and seventy million.

The golden powder that was thrown away after bathing his body for one day, was enough for twelve measures by the Magadha measure.

There were at least sixty reservoirs with irrigation machines, his workplace was twelve leagues, there were fourteen Anurādhapura-sized villages, The Great Commentator Buddhaghosa was residing in Anurādhapūra, the ancient Sri Lankan capital, when he compiled the commentaries. 08 fourteen elephant armies, fourteen horse armies and fourteen chariot armies.

One day, after mounting a decorated horse and going to work surrounded by the populace, he stood at the top of the ten million fields that were being broken by the plough, and having seen the birds, beginning with the crows, digging up and eating the earth worms, and insects and so on, he asked: “Dear, what are they eating?”

“Earth worms, Noble Sir.”

“Who pays for the wickedness done by these birds?”

“You do, Noble Sir.”

He thought: ‘If mine is the result for the wickedness done by these, what will I do with eight hundred and seventy million, what use is a workplace of twelve leagues, what use sixty reservoirs with irrigation machines, what use fourteen villages? Having given everything over to Bhaddā Kāpilānī I will renounce and go forth.’

Bhaddā Kāpilānī at that time was sitting surrounded by her helpers. Then three pots of sesame seeds were sown over the inner fields and she saw crows eating the worms that dwelt in the sesame, and asked: “Lady, what are they eating?”

“Worms, Noble Lady.”

“Whose is the unwholesome result?”

“Yours, Noble Lady.”

She thought: ‘Four cubit of clothes and a mere measure of milk-rice is enough for me, but if the unwholesome deeds done by this many people is mine, it is certainly not possible to lift my head from the round of births and deaths through a thousand rebirths. Having given everything over to the Noble Sir as soon as he returns, I will renounce and go forth.’

The young brāhmaṇa returned after bathing, ascended the mansion and sat down on an expensive couch.

They prepared a meal for him suitable for a Universal Monarch.

After they both had eaten, and with the departure of the attendants, they sat down on a comfortable spot in seclusion.

Then the young brāhmaṇa said this to Bhaddā: “Bhaddā, when coming to this house how much wealth did you bring?”

“Fifty-five thousand carts, Noble Sir.”

“There is all this wealth, plus eight hundred and seventy million, and sixty reservoirs with irrigation machines and so on, I give all of this over to you.”

“But where will you go, Noble Sir?”

“I will go forth.”

“Noble Sir, I also have been sitting here waiting for your coming, I also will go forth.”

The three states of continuation The sense worlds (kāmaloka), the form worlds (rūpaloka) and the formless worlds (arūpaloka).09 appeared to them like three leaf-huts that are burning.

They had their clothes died yellow with astringents and clay bowls brought from the market, shaved off each others’ hair, saying: “Our going forth is on account of those who are Liberated in the world,” and depositing their bowls in their bags, and slinging them over the shoulder, they descended from the palace.

No one from the home, whether servants or workers, recognised them.

Then, having departed from the brāhmaṇa village, while going through the entrance to the servants‘ village, they were recognised by those living in the servants’ village by their gait and deportment.

Throwing themselves at their feet crying, they said: “Noble Ones, why do you leave us helpless?”

After saying: “We, friends, having seen that the three states of continuation are like three leaf-huts that are burning, are going forth. If we were to make you freemen one by one, it would not be possible with one hundred years you are so many. After washing each other’s heads, Apparently a sign that they were given their freedom.10 live as freemen,” and leaving them crying they went away.

The Elder, as he was going along in front, after stopping and looking, thought: ‘This Bhaddā Kāpilānī, who is worth more than all the women in the Rose-Apple Isle, is coming along behind me. But there may be a reason for someone to think thus: ‘Having gone forth they are not able to live apart, but that is unsuitable for them.’ If someone defiled their minds in this way, they might risk filling up the lower worlds, after abandoning her, it is right to go off by myself.’

While going forward he saw a junction in the path and stood at its head. Bhaddā came and worshipped and also stood there. Then he said to her: “Bhaddā, having seen such a woman as you following me, and thinking: ‘Having gone forth they are not able to live apart,’ through us the people may defile their minds, and might fill up the lower worlds, therefore at this junction you take one road, and I will go by another.”

“Yes, Noble Sir, for those gone forth, women are known as a stain, thinking: ‘Having gone forth these are not living apart,’ they will make the fault ours, you take one path, I will take another, and we will live apart.”

After reverentially circumambulating him three times and worshipping with the five-fold prostration on all four sides, she extended a reverential salutation with the ten fingernails joined together, saying: “Our friendship and fellowship that ran over a measure of one hundred thousand aeons is broken today,” This seems to presage her ability to know past lives, although this was happening before her ordination or attainment.11 and “You are known as one belonging to the right, the right path is suitable for you, I am a woman belonging to the left, the left path is suitable for me,” after worshipping, she entered the left path.

At the time of this juncture the great earth, as though saying: “This universe with its mountains and Mount Sineru I am able to bear, but your virtue I am unable to bear,” quaked with a roar, which spread like thunderstorms in the sky, and the mountain at the centre of the universe resounded.

* * *

But the Elder Mahā Kassapa, after taking the right hand road, went into the One of Ten Power's presence at the root of the Many Sons’ Banyan Tree shrine, while Bhaddā Kāpilānī, after taking the left hand road, because there wasn't yet permission for women to go forth, went to the Wandering Nuns’ monastery.

But when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī received the going forth, then that Elder It is curious that she should be called an Elder at this point, as she is still unordained in the nuns’ Community. 12 received the going forth and the higher ordination in the presence of the Elder Nun.

Later, while working at insight meditation, she attained Liberation and became one who had mastered the knowledge of former lives.

Then, after the Teacher had sat down in Jeta’s Wood, as he was assigning the places of the nuns in order, he placed this Elder Nun in the foremost position amongst those who recollect their former lives.