Introduction to the Story about the Elder Nun Kisā Gotamī

Kisa Gotami
Elder Nun Kisā Gotamī’s Story
at Wat Pho, Bangkok

Kisā Gotamī’s story is another of the really memorable stories in this collection: having made the usual aspiration at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, no further lives are recorded until she is born in her last life, to a poor family in Sāvatthī.

She gained a good marriage but was despised by the family until such time as she had a son, at which point she was treated with respect. Unfortunately this didn’t last, as the young lad died while still a child.

Gotamī, unable to face the fact that her child had died, which, besides the grief involved in losing a child, would also have the unwanted consequence of lowering her status again, wandered around asking for medicine for her dead child, which no one could supply.

One wise man thought to send her to the Buddha, who is a physician who could cure all ills, and she readily went along. The Buddha asked her to bring a mustard seed to him, but there is a catch, it must be from a household that never saw a death in the family.

Full of hope she went into town and started on her quest, but after a few houses she realised every house she went to has seen a death in the family, and that death is not for her son alone, but is a pervasive phenomena in life, and that this is a universal teaching.

She abandoned her child in the charnel ground and returned to the Buddha a wiser person than when she left, and he taught her with a verse, which saw her established in the first stage of Awakening. Later he taught her again, and that time she attained Liberation.

The reason why she attained her foremost position as one who wore rough robes, and it does not seem to be prefigured in the story. It is simply stated that that was what she was good at, and eventually she was placed foremost for it.

The counterpart to this nun amongst the monks was Mogharājā. He was one of Bāvarī’s sixteen students, who made an epic journey across India to meet and ask questions of the Buddha. His answers were enough for most of them to attain Liberation. 01

12. The Story about the Elder Nun Kisā Gotamī

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AN 1.5.12

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
lūkhacīvaradharānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Kisā Gotamī.

This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics, amongst those
who wear robes made of rough materials, that is to say, Kisā Gotamī.

AA 1.5.12
The Commentarial Story:

In the twelfth story, “Amongst those who wear robes made of rough materials,” it shows why Kisā Gotamī, amongst those who wore robes brought from the cemetery that are rough in three ways, The Ṭīkā describes these as being: vatthalūkhasuttalūkharajanalūkhasaṅkhāta, reckoned as rough in cloth, rough in thread, and rough in dye.02 was said to be foremost.

‘Gotamī’ was her name, but as she was somewhat thin by nature she was called ‘Kisā It means: thin, skinny. 03 Gotamī’.

Her Aspiration

At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, 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 wore robes made of rough materials, she did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

Her Last Life

After being reborn amongst gods and humans only for one hundred thousand aeons, when this Gotama Buddha arose, she was reborn in a poor family in Sāvatthī, and when she reached maturity she went to a good family.

There they abused her as a daughter of a poor family.

Later, she gave birth to a son, and then she was treated with respect.

But when the boy had reached playing age, running here and running there, he died, and grief arose in her.

She thought: ‘In this home, where gains and respect have been cut off, and since the time of the birth of my son, I have gained respect, they will endeavour to cast away my son.’

With her son on her hip, saying: “Give medicine for my son,” she wandered successively to the door of various homes, and men, wherever they saw her, saying: “Where did you ever see medicine for one who is dead?” clapped their hands and mocked her.

Although they spoke like this, she wasn’t convinced.

Then, after a certain wise man had seen her, and thought: ‘Her mind has been overthrown by grief for her son, but although no one else will know of a medicine, the One of Ten Powers will know,’ he said: “Lady, there is no one knowing the medicine for your son other than the Greatest Person in the world with its gods, the One of Ten Powers, who dwells in a nearby monastery, go into his presence and ask Him.”

She, thinking: ‘This man speaks the truth,’ carrying her son, stood on the edge of the four assemblies at a time when the Realised One was sitting on his Buddha seat, and said: “Give medicine for my son, Gracious One.”

The Teacher, seeing she had the supporting conditions, said: “It is fortunate for you, Gotamī, that you came here for medicine. Enter the town and wander through the whole town starting from one end, and at whatever home there has not been a death, from there bring a mustard seed.”

Saying: “Very well, reverend Sir,” she entered into the town with a hopeful mind, and at the first home she said: “The One of Ten Powers has me bring a mustard seed as medicine for my son, please give me a mustard seed.”

Saying: “Come, Gotamī,” and stretching forth, they gave it to her. “I am not able to take it, but first must ask: ‘In this home has there not been a death?’ ”

“What did you say, Gotamī, who is able to count those who have died here?”

“Then that is enough, I will not take it, the One of Ten Powers told me I have to take it for him from a home where there has not been a death.”

Having gone to the third house in this way, she realised:

“The whole city will be this way, this must have been foreseen by the Awakened One, who is beneficent and compassionate.”

She became spiritually anxious, departed from there, went to the charnel grounds, and took her son with her hand, and saying: “Son, I thought there was death only for you, but it is not only for you, for the whole population it is the same, this is the Dhamma,” and she abandoned her son in the charnel grounds, and spoke this verse:

“Not a village Teaching, nor a town Teaching, nor is this a Teaching for one family alone,

For the whole of the world with its gods, there is this Teaching of impermanence.” The verse is quoted from the Traditions about Kisā Gotamī, Therī-Apadāna, 3.2 vs. 27.04

Having spoken thus, she went into the presence of the Teacher.

Then the Teacher said to her: “Gotamī, did you get the mustard seed?”

“The business with a mustard seed is finished, reverend Sir, but give me something for support.”

Then the Teacher spoke this verse to her found in the Dhammapada:

“That person whose clinging mind is intoxicated by children and cattle, death will carry away like a sleeping village by a great flood.” Dhp 287.05

At the end of the verse as she stood there she was established in Stream-Entry and requested the going forth, and the Teacher allowed the going forth.

She circumambulated the Teacher three times, worshipped him, went to the nunnery, received the going forth and higher ordination, and in no long time, while wisely reflecting, she developed insight.

Then the Teacher spoke this lustrous verse:

“The one who lives for a hundred years not seeing the Deathless state, is surpassed by one living for one day seeing the Deathless state.” Dhp 114.06

At the end of the verse she attained Liberation, and in the use of the requisites she became pre-eminent, and wandered around after covering herself with a robe that was rough in three ways.

Later as the Teacher was sitting 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 wore robes that are rough in three ways.