Aggatherīvatthu Home PageThe Elder Nun Khemā’s Story
Mahāpajāpatigotamītherīvatthu SHB omits titles altogether; PTS:
1. The Story about the Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī
The first of the foremost nun disciples is the root and the most important also, as Mahāpajāpatī was the founding member of the nuns’ monastic order, and this story tells how she reached such an eminent position. It was a position that is not attained in one life alone, but over a great period of time, just as the Buddha’s Awakening was also built on the acts performed during a great succession of lives.
The story of how she came to the title as senior-most of the nuns in many ways sets the pattern for the others that follow: she was born at the time of the previous Buddha Padumuttara, Who was the 13th of the 28 Buddhas that culminated in Gotama Buddha, it seems most of the Foremost Disciples started their career under this Buddha. Gotama began his under Buddha Dīpaṅkara, who was 4th in line, so it appears that Disciples can attain their state with less effort than a Buddha. 02 and saw that Buddha appoint a nun to a foremost position, In this case as foremost in seniority. This is the normal pattern, but Ven. Khemā aspired to her position after meeting Sujāta, the Buddha’s Chief Disciple, who was foremost in great wisdom. 03 did a great deed, normally consisting of some considerable personal sacrifice, and made an aspiration for the same position herself.
The pattern then records the good deeds that she did in the interim, before meeting the present Buddha Gotama. These take two forms, either good deeds done under former Buddhas, or good deeds done to Independent Buddhas (Paccekabuddha). In this case we see that after being born in the higher worlds only, amongst gods and humans, she was eventually reborn and encountered a group of Independent Buddhas, who were trying to get help from the lay people in preparing for the Rains Retreat, which required building suitable huts.
They were initially turned down by the rich folk in the city. Therefore the earlier incarnation of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (nameless here, as are nearly all the nuns in their earlier lives), herself a slave, offered to build them and organised a large group of 500 female slaves to give their help by offering to provide food for the Retreat and getting their husbands to donate the manual labour needed to prepare the huts.
This good deed of the 500 slaves binds them together kammically for the rest of their time in saṁsāra (the round of births and deaths), and at the time of Gotama Buddha, they will go forth with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, and attain Liberation.
One thing we should notice about this episode is that it shows that the Independent Buddhas have no problem at all in taking donations from slaves, who were held to be the lowest in society. Indeed, it is this lack of discrimination of the Independent Buddhas that gives the slaves the chance to rise in the scale of existence.
A similar story is recorded next, when Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was a weaver’s wife near Bārāṇasī. There she organised the feeding of 500 Independent Buddhas, who again had failed to find offerings from the rich folk of the city.
The good deeds that have been recorded are, of course, just some examples from the immense number of lives she lived between the two Buddhas mentioned at the beginning and the end of her career, and we have to understand them as exemplary acts building up her perfections just as the Buddha had accumulated his.
In her last life Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the younger sister of the Bodhisatta’s Mother, Mahā Māyā, both of whom were given in marriage to the Sākiyan King Suddhodana. When the elder sister died shortly after giving birth, the younger gave her own recently born son Nanda out to a wet-nurse, and took on the nursing of Siddhattha herself. According to the traditional timings, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was 120 years old when she attained Final Liberation, which was in the last year of the Buddha’s life, so that would make her forty at the time of the Buddha’s birth. Mahāmāyā was her older sister, but how much older is not clear. 04 She was therefore the foster Mother of the boy who would eventually reach Buddhahood, and would have been engaged in all aspects of his up-bringing, including his education and early marriage. Something Ven. Ānanda would remind the Buddha of when she requested ordination for women. 05
Five years after the Buddha’s Awakening, her husband the King attained Liberation, died straight afterwards and left her a widow. At this point she decided to dedicate the remainder of her life to the spiritual path, and requested the Buddha to start a nuns’ order, similar to the monks’ order, which had been founded at the beginning of the Sāsana.
She was joined in making this request by the 500 women who had been her slave companions in the previous life. They had been reborn in the Sākiyan state, and their husbands had gone forth after the Buddha had resolved a quarrel and taught them Dhamma on the banks of the Rohinī river.
All of them went to Vesālī, where the Buddha was residing, and eventually attained entry into the newly founded order, with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī being the first, and thereby the most senior nun, being the female equivalent of the first monk in the Sāsana, Ven. Aññā Koṇḍañña.
Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics,
rattaññūnaṁ, yad-idaṁ Mahāpajāpatigotamī.
amongst those who are senior, that is to say, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī.
In the first of the texts concerning the Elder Nuns, “That is to say, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī,”
it shows how the Elder Nun Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, amongst those who were senior, was said to be the foremost.
Tassā pañhakamme RTE, ChS adds:
This is the exposition concerning the enquiry into her (previous) deeds:
Her Aspiration and Good Deeds
Ayaṁ kira Padumuttarabuddhakāle
At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems,
Haṁsavatiyaṁ kulagehe paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhitvā,
she was conceived in a good family home in Haṁsavatī, This was Buddha Padumuttara’s birthplace. All of the nuns (and a number of the monks) are said to have made their initial aspiration under this Buddha in this place.11
aparena samayena, Satthu Dhammadesanaṁ suṇantī,
and at another time, while listening to the Teacher teach the Dhamma,
Satthāraṁ ekaṁ bhikkhuniṁ rattaññūnaṁ aggaṭṭhāne ṭhapentaṁ disvā,
seeing the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost in seniority,
adhikārakammaṁ katvā taṁ ṭhānantaraṁ patthesi. RTE:
she did a great deed The sort of great deed is characterised in Khemā’s story: she sold her hair and gave a donation to Sujāta, one of the Buddha Padumuttara’s Chief Disciples. Compare also the sub-commentary on Dhammadinnā’s story, which says a similar thing about her resolution.13 and aspired for that position herself. It is worthwhile noting here that all the women make an aspiration to become a bhikkhunī who is foremost in one thing or another. Not one of them wishes to change her sex, or seems to think that might give her a better chance in life and in regard to Awakening. 14
Sā yāvajīvaṁ dānaṁ datvā, sīlaṁ rakkhitvā, SHB, PTS:
She gave donations for the rest of her life, protected her virtue,
tato cuto, devaloke nibbattitvā,
passed away from there, was reborn in the world of the gods,
pana ekasmiṁ Buddhantare, devalokato cavitvā,
and spending one period when there was no Buddha Lit: a Buddha-interval; it means a long period of time when no Buddha awakens on earth. These are said to be much longer than the periods when a Buddha, or his teaching, is available.16 (there), she passed away (again) from the world of the gods,
Bārāṇasiyaṁ pañcannaṁ dāsisatānaṁ jeṭṭhikā RTE, ChS:
was reborn, and became the chief amongst five hundred female slaves in Bārāṇasī.
Atha Vassūpanāyikasamaye, SHB:
Then, as the time for the Rains Retreat was approaching,
pañca Paccekabuddhā RTE:
five Independent Buddhas descended from Mount Nandamūlaka to Isipatana, Nandamūlaka was a mountain in the Himālaya, near to Mt. Kelasa (Kailash); Isipatana is outside of Bārāṇasī, and was the site where Gotama Buddha gave his first sermon.20
nagare piṇḍāya caritvā, Isipatanam-eva gantvā,
wandered for alms in the city, and after going (back) to Isipatana,
‘Vassūpanāyikakuṭiyā atthāya hatthakammaṁ yācissāmā,’ ti. RTE and ChS insert a long Ṭīkā-like section here:
they thought: ‘We will ask for manual labour in order to prepare the huts for spending the Rains,’
cīvaraṁ pārupitvā, sāyaṇhasamaye ChS:
and after wrapping their robes, they entered the city in the evening time
seṭṭhissa gharadvāre aṭṭhaṁsu.
and stood at the gate of the treasurer’s house.
Jeṭṭhakadāsī, kuṭaṁ SHB:
The chief female slave took a waterpot and while going to the reservoir
Paccekabuddhe nagaraṁ pavisante addasa.
saw the Independent Buddhas entering the city.
Seṭṭhi, tesaṁ āgatakāraṇaṁ sutvā,
The treasurer, after hearing why they had come,
“Amhākaṁ okāso natthi, gacchantū!” ti āha.
said: “You do not have our permission, please go!”
Atha, te nagarā nikkhamante, RTE, ChS:
Then, as they were leaving the city,
jeṭṭhakadāsī, kuṭaṁ gahetvā, pavisantī disvā,
the chief female slave, took her waterpot and while entering she saw them,
kuṭaṁ otāretvā, vanditvā, onamitvā, SHB:
put down the waterpot, worshipped, bent down, lifted up her face,
“Ayyā, nagaraṁ paviṭṭhamattā va, nikkhamantā RTE, ChS:
and asked: “Noble Ones, having just entered the city, why are you (now) leaving?”
“We came to ask for manual labour to prepare the huts for spending the Rains.”
“Laddhaṁ Bhante?” ti
“Did you receive it, reverend Sirs?”
“Na laddhaṁ upāsike.” ti
“We did not receive it, lay woman.”
“Kiṁ panesā kuṭī issareheva kātabbā,
“But can these huts only be made by the powerful,
udāhu SHB, PTS omit:
or is it possible also for the lowly to build (them)?”
“Yena kenaci sakkā kātun.”-ti SHB, PTS omit:
“It is possible for anyone to build (them).”
“Sādhu Bhante mayaṁ karissāma,
“Very well, reverend Sirs, we will build (them),
sve mayhaṁ bhikkhaṁ gaṇhathā,” ti nimantetvā, SHB, PTS adds:
tomorrow please accept our alms food,” and after inviting (them),
puna kuṭaṁ gahetvā, āgamanatitthamagge SHB, PTS:
she took the waterpot, placed it on the road going to the reservoir,
and every time the other female slaves came, she said: “Wait here,”
sabbāsaṁ āgatakāle āha:
and when everyone had assembled, she said:
“Ammā, kiṁ niccam-eva parassa dāsikammaṁ SHB, PTS:
“Ladies, will we always be doing slave-work for another,
udāhu dāsibhāvato SHB:
or do you wish to be free of this slavery?”
“Ajjeva muccituṁ icchāma, Ayye.” ti
“Noble Lady, today itself we wish to be free.”
“Yadi evaṁ, mayā pañca RTE adds:
“If you so wish, as the five Independent Buddhas didn’t receive manual labour
they were invited by me for tomorrow.
Tumhākaṁ sāmikehi ekadivasaṁ hatthakammaṁ dāpethā.” ti
Have your husbands give manual labour for a day.”
Tā: “Sādhū!” ti, sampaṭicchitvā,
They replied: “Very well!”
sāyaṁ aṭavito āgatakāle sāmikānaṁ ārocesuṁ.
and informed their husbands when they returned from the forest.
Te: “Sādhū!” ti, jeṭṭhakadāsassa RTE:
They (also) said: “Very well!” and assembled at the chief male slave’s door.
Atha ne jeṭṭhakadāsī:
Then the chief female slave said to them:
“Sve Tātā Paccekabuddhānaṁ hatthakammaṁ dethā,” ti
“Tomorrow, Dears, you must give manual labour to the Independent Buddhas,”
ānisaṁsaṁ ācikkhitvā, ye pi na kātukāmā,
and she explained the advantages, and even those who did not desire to do it (at first),
te gāḷhena ovādena tajjetvā, sabbe pi sampaṭicchāpesi. SHB, PTS:
after she had given them strong advice, they all agreed.
Sā punadivase Paccekabuddhānaṁ bhattaṁ datvā,
On the next day, after giving food to the Independent Buddhas,
sabbesaṁ dāsaputtānaṁ saññaṁ adāsi.
she gave a sign to all of the slaves.
Te tāvad-eva araññaṁ pavisitvā, dabbasambhāre samodhānetvā,
They entered the wilderness straight away, assembled the timber,
sataṁ sataṁ hutvā, ekekaṁ kuṭiṁ caṅkamanādiparivāraṁ RTE:
gathered in hundreds, made each of them a hut together with a walking meditation path,
mañcapīṭhapānīyaparibhojanīyādīni PTS: -
and placed suitable beds, chairs and drinks,
Paccekabuddhānaṁ SHB, PTS:
and got a promise from the Independent Buddhas to spend the three months The period of the Rains Retreat.45 right there,
vārabhikkhaṁ paṭṭhapesuṁ. RTE:
and prepared alms food (for each of them) in turn.
For those who were not able to take the opportunity to give on their day,
tassā SHB, PTS:
the chief female slave took (food) from her own house and gave it.
Evaṁ temāsaṁ paṭijaggitvā, SHB, PTS:
After looking after them for three months,
jeṭṭhakadāsī ekekaṁ dāsiṁ ekekaṁ sāṭakaṁ RTE:
the chief female slave had each of the female slaves prepare cloth,
pañca thūlasāṭakasatāni ahesuṁ.
and they made five-hundred coarse cloths.
Tāni parivattāpetvā, pañcannaṁ Paccekabuddhānaṁ RTE:
After exchanging them, and having the three robes made, she gave (a set to each of) the five Independent Buddhas.
Paccekabuddhā tāsaṁ passantīnaṁ yeva
And even as they watched, the Independent Buddhas
ākāsena Gandhamādanapabbataṁ agamaṁsu.
went through the air to Mount Gandhamādana. The text is indicating that they returned to where they had previously been living.54
Another Life: Giving Donations
Tā pi sabbā yāvajīvaṁ kusalaṁ katvā, devaloke nibbattiṁsu.
After doing good deeds for the rest of their lives, they were reborn in the world of the gods.
Tāsaṁ RTE, ChS:
The chief female, having passed away from there,
Bārāṇasiyā avidūre pesakāragāme pesakārajeṭṭhakassa gehe nibbatti.
was reborn to the chief weaver in a weaver’s village not far from Bārāṇasī. Being a weaver was considered a very low profession, and therefore the village was kept outside the city.56
Athekadivasaṁ, Padumavatiyā puttā, pañcasatā Paccekabuddhā,
Then one day, Padumavatī sons, the five-hundred Independent Buddhas, See Ven. Uppalavaṇṇā’s Story for information on these Independent Buddhas.56
being invited by the King of Bārāṇasī, after going to the King’s Gate,
kañci olokentam-pi adisvā,
and not seeing anyone there,
nivattitvā nagaradvārena nikkhamitvā,
turned back and left via the city gate,
taṁ pesakāragāmaṁ SHB, PTS:
and went to the weaver’s village.
Sā itthī, RTE:
Those women saw the Independent Buddhas,
treated them kindly, and after worshipping them all, gave them alms food.
Te bhattakiccaṁ katvā, Gandhamādanam-eva agamaṁsu.
After taking their food, they left for Gandhamādana.
Her Last Life
Sā pi yāvajīvaṁ kusalaṁ katvā, devamanussesu saṁsarantī,
After doing good deeds for the rest of her life, and being reborn amongst gods and humans (only), This phrase occurs in each of the stories, and it means that she was only born amongst gods and humans, in a good destination, from the time of her aspiration. 62
amhākaṁ Satthu nibbattito puretaram-eva,
she was reborn prior to our Teacher,
Devadahanagare Mahāsuppabuddhassa gehe paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhi,
and was conceived in the house of Mahāsuppabuddha in the city of Devadaha,
Gotamī tissā nāmaṁ akaṁsu.
and was given the name Gotamī.
Mahāmāyāya kaniṭṭhabhaginī hoti.
She was Mahāmāyā’s younger sister.
The brāhmaṇas learned in the scriptures, examining the characteristics,
“Imāsaṁ dvinnam-pi RTE:
° declared: “The children who dwell in these two wombs
cakkavattino bhavissantī,” ti byākariṁsu.
will become universal monarchs.” This is odd, as none of them did. Mahāmāyā gave birth to Siddhattha, who became the Buddha; and Mahāpajāpatī gave birth to Nanda and Nandā, who both ordained and became Liberated Ones.66
The great King Suddhodana, when they had reached maturity,
tā dve pi maṅgalaṁ katvā attano gharaṁ ānesi.
married the two of them and led them to his home.
Aparabhāge amhākaṁ Bodhisatto Tusitapurā cavitvā,
Later, after our Buddha-to-be had passed away from Tusita Heaven,
Mahāmāyāya Deviyā SHB, PTS omit:
he took conception in the womb of Queen Mahāmāyā.
Mahāmāyā, tassa jātadivasato sattame divase,
Mahāmāyā, seven days from the day she delivered him,
kālaṁ katvā RTE:
died and was reborn in Tusita Heaven. As the god Setaketu, who was also called Santusita. Later the Buddha would go and teach the Abhidhamma to her.69
Suddhodanamahārājā Mahāsattassa mātucchaṁ,
° The great King Suddhodana placed the Great Being’s Mother’s sister,
Mahāpajāpatiṁ Gotamiṁ PTS:
Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, in the position of Chief Consort.
Tasmiṁ kāle Nandakumāro jāto.
At that time prince Nanda was born. Two or three days after Siddhattha.71
Ayaṁ Mahāpajāpatī Nandakumāraṁ dhātīnaṁ datvā
Mahāpajāpatī gave prince Nanda to a wet-nurse
sayaṁ Bodhisattaṁ parihari. RTE:
and took care of the Buddha-to-be herself.
Aparena samayena Bodhisatto mahābhinikkhamanaṁ nikkhamitvā,
On another occasion, the Buddha-to-be left on his Great Renunciation,
sabbaññutaṁ patvā, lokānuggahaṁ karonto,
attained omniscience, and while working for the benefit of the world,
anukkamena Kapilapuraṁ ChS:
gradually reached the city of Kapilavatthu and went into the city for alms.
Athassa Pitā Suddhodanamahārājā, PTS:
Then his Father the Great King Suddhodana,
antaravīthiyaṁ yeva Dhammakathaṁ sutvā Sotāpanno ahosi.
hearing a talk about Dhamma on the highway became a Stream-Enterer. According to the Dhammapada Commentary (DhpA 1.9) Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī also became a Stream-Enterer during the same teaching session.74a
Atha SHB, PTS omit:
Then on the second day Nanda went forth, Nanda was born to King Suddhodana and Mahāpajāpati and is therefore the Buddha’s half-brother; his going forth is told in Ud. 3.2, and also at great length in Ven. Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda.76 and Rāhula on the seventh day. The Buddha’s son. 77
Satthā aparena samayena Vesāliṁ upanissāya Kūṭāgārasālāyaṁ viharati.
On another occasion the Teacher was living in the vicinity of Vesālī in the Gabled Hall. In the Mahāvana, or Great Wood. 78
Tasmiṁ samaye Suddhodanamahārājā,
At that time the Great King Suddhodana,
setacchattassa SHB, PTS:
realised Liberation under the white parasol and was Completely Emancipated. According to the commentary on the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) he was already a Non-Returner, and when he was dying the Buddha visited him and he became an Arahant. He died the same day and was never ordained.80
Tadā Mahāpajāpatī ChS:
Then the thought of ordination occurred to Mahāpajāpatī.
Tato Rohiṇīnadītīre Kalahavivādasuttapariyosāne nikkhamitvā,
After leaving the bank of the river Rohiṇī at the conclusion of the Discourse on Quarrels and Disputes, Sn 4.11, The Discourse about Quarrels and Disputes. At the conclusion of the discourse five hundred young men went forth. 82
pabbajitānaṁ pañcannaṁ kumārasatānaṁ pādaparicārikā sabbā va ekacittā hutvā:
all the wives of the five-hundred young men who had gone forth, had but one thought:
‘Mahāpajāpatiyā santikaṁ gantvā, sabbā va Satthu santike pabbajissāmā.’ ti
‘After going into Mahāpajāpatī’s presence, all of us will go forth in the presence of the Teacher.’
Mahāpajāpatiṁ jeṭṭhikaṁ katvā,
Making Mahāpajāpatī their chief,
Satthu santikaṁ gantvā, pabbajitukāmā ahesuṁ.
and going into the presence of the Teacher, they expressed their desire to go forth.
Ayañ-ca Mahāpajāpatī ChS:
The first time Mahāpajāpatī
Satthāraṁ pabbajjaṁ yācamānā nālattha.
requested the going forth from the Teacher it was not granted.
Tasmā, kappakaṁ pakkosāpetvā, kese chinnāpetvā, PTS:
Therefore, she summoned the barber, had her hair removed, donned the yellow robes,
sabbā tā Sākiyāniyo ādāya Vesāliṁ gantvā,
took all the Sākiyan women and went to Vesālī,
Ānandatherena RTE, ChS:
and the One of Ten Powers was requested by the Elder Ānanda,
aṭṭhahi garudhammehi pabbajjañ-ca upasampadañ-ca alattha.
and she received the going forth and the higher ordination with the eight serious rules. The giving of the
Itarā pana sabbā pi ekato va PTS omits:
All the others also received their higher ordination together.
Ayam-ettha saṅkhepo, vitthārato panetaṁ vatthupāḷiyaṁ PTS:
This (is told) in brief here, but the elaboration comes from the story in the text. From AN 8.51, also part of the Vinayapiṭaka, the Basket of the Discipline, The Chapter on Bhikkhunīs (Cullavagga 10, Bhikkhunikkhandaka).90
Evaṁ upasampannā pana Mahāpajāpatī,
Then, after her higher ordination, Mahāpajāpatī,
Satthāraṁ upasaṅkamitvā abhivādetvā, ekamantaṁ aṭṭhāsi,
after approaching the Teacher and worshipping him, stood on one side,
athassā Satthā Dhammaṁ desesi.
and the Teacher taught the Dhamma to her.
Sā Satthu santike va ChS omits:
After taking a meditation subject in the presence of the Teacher, she attained Liberation. While listening to the Saṁkhittasuttaṁ, AN 8.53. 92
Sesā pañcasatā bhikkhuniyo Nandakovādasuttapariyosāne Arahattaṁ pāpuṇiṁsu.
All five hundred nuns at the conclusion of the Discourse on Nandaka’s Advice (also) attained Liberation. MN 146. See elsewhere on this website for a text and translation. Nandakattheravatthu in the Aṅguttara Commentary also says they attained Liberation, but in the discourse itself, and in the Majjhima Commentary, it mentions that the least of the nuns only attained Stream Entry, not full Liberation, so there is a discrepancy between the two sources. 93
Evam-etaṁ vatthu samuṭṭhitaṁ.
This is the story of what happened.
Aparabhāge, Satthā Jetavane nisinno, bhikkhuniyo ṭhānantaresu SHB, PTS, ChS:
Later, when the Teacher was sitting in Jeta’s Wood, when placing the nuns in their different positions,
Mahāpajāpatiṁ rattaññūnaṁ aggaṭṭhāne ṭhapesī. ti
he placed Mahāpajāpatī as the foremost amongst those who were senior.
last updated: March 2015