In the Book of the Ones in the Numerical Collection (Aṅguttaranikāya, 1.14) there is a bare list of seventy-four monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen whom the Buddha singled out as excelling in a certain spiritual quality they had developed. Some, as in the case of Ānanda, were appointed to more than one position, excelling in various qualities.
No more information is given about them there, or the circumstances that led up to their being given these positions. Although some of them are known from other places in the discourses to have held these positions, like the eldest disciples, others would be unknown today, if they were not named here.
The commentary on the Numerical Discourses, a section of which is translated here, tries to fill in this lacuna by providing detailed histories of the disciples, telling when and where they made an aspiration to hold the position; the good deeds they did, and the story of their last life.
In the case of the nuns this more or less follows this pattern:
Some of the life histories given here are long and detailed, while others are brief and hardly accomplish their aim of explaining why they were appointed to their position; a number are justly famous, while a few are short and easily forgotten.
All the stories, however, play a very important role in the teaching, as they show that people with very different backgrounds – both fortunate and unfortunate – were capable of attaining the highest aim in life when given the right teachings at the right time, and they therefore serve as inspirations and role models for us today.
A few of the nuns are named as characters in the previous lives of the Bodhisatta recorded in the Jātaka Birth Stories, where Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, Uppalavaṇṇā, Khemā and Bhaddā Kaccānā (Yasodharā) particularly are frequently identified. Bhaddā Kāpilānī and Kisāgotamī are also identified there, but none of the others as far as I could discover.
I have given introductions to each of the stories as they occur, and pointed out some of the key features therein, and also some of the anomalies that are found, and therefore needn’t review them again here.
The stories of the nuns as they are recorded here seek only to show why they were placed by the Buddha in such a high and exemplary position, and do not purport to give full biographies of the nuns, and we can often find more information in the Traditions (Apadāna) about them, or in their recorded paeans of joy in the Therīgāthā and its commentary.
Other materials like this are sometimes referred to in the text, and I have included some to fill out parts of the story where appropriate and serve the purpose of helping to explain why they acquired their positions. This is either done in-line, or, sometimes, if they are larger works, they are made available elsewhere on this website and links are provided.
One thing I think worth bringing to notice is that none of the women involved aspire to become men, as it was not seen as necessary – or even useful – to change gender while aspiring to Awakening and positions of great rank. Gender seems never to have been considered an issue in these matters.
I have started with the translations of the nun disciples, not because the others are less important, but because I think it is useful to try and recover these role models for Buddhist women of today who are sometimes struggling to get their voice heard and their role acknowledged in the Sāsana.
In this sense we seem to have gone backward in recent centuries, as the Buddha’s generation, and even the commentarial generation, were happy to record the deeds of these great women, and encourage more to aspire for the same ideals, and found no problem acknowledging their contribution to the Sāsana.
I began work on these translations around 2011, but many other works called for my attention in the meantime, and I am happy to see at least this section completed. I hope to return to these texts one day and continue the work by translating first the stories of the lay disciples, and eventually the male monastic disciples, which is by far the longest section of this part of the commentary.
After I had translated about half of the text I found that a previous translation existed, done as early as 1893 by Mabel Bode, and this helped me correct some passages, and was a help in making the rest of the translation.
I also had the help of the English translation of The Great Chronicles of Buddhas (sic), originally written in Burmese, which is a monumental work by Bhaddanta Vicittasārābhivaṁsa (Mingun Sayadaw), who was one of the foremost scholars in Myanmar in the 20th century.
As is normal in the Text and Translation section of the website I have normally taken the text and translation line by line. Occasionally it has proved necessary to take two lines together for the purposes of translation, this is then signified by the insertion of the symbol ° at the beginning of the first line affected.
Texts supplementary to the titles and main translations have been marked in purple and green. They are sometimes Canonical, as with quotes from the Apadāna, Dhammapada and Suttanipāta texts; sometimes from other commentaries, as with the Dhammapada commentary; and in the case of one section (in Bhaddā Kāpilānī’s story), from an earlier part of the same commentary, to which we are referred. They are identified in the notes as they appear.
last updated: March 2015