Khemātherīvatthu PTS omit vatthu, and similarly throughout. 01
2. The Story about the Elder Nun Khemā


Like Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, and indeed all the nuns singled out in these stories, Khemā’s story begins at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, who was the 13th of the 28 most recent Buddhas culminating in our Gotama Buddha.

At that time she saw one of Buddha Padumuttara’s Chief Disciples, Sujāta, The other was Devala. They were both cousins of Buddha Padumuttara. 02 and having sold her hair for cash, made a donation to the Elder on the same day. This is an example of one of the great deeds that all the disciples do before confirming their aspiration. Khemā’s aspiration in this case was to be foremost in great wisdom.

One thing to note is that most of the aspirants see a nun being appointed to a position of great eminence, and aspire to the same position, but here Khemā sees the Buddha’s Chief male disciple, and aspires to a similar wisdom as he has. In the Traditions (Apadāna), however, it says she saw the Buddha appoint a nun to the position of great wisdom, and then made her aspiration.

As with Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, she was in that life born as a slave girl and was owned by another. However in the Traditions about her it appears she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant.03 Again rank had no bearing on what the person could achieve if their aspirations were good and the energy sufficient, and, as in all of these life stories, the energy for doing good deeds over many lives must have been dedicated indeed.

After she had completed a life of good deeds, she was reborn many times over a period of many thousands of aeons, where we must understand that she was also engaged in doing good deeds and abstaining from bad ones, which provided the foundation for her later achievements.

She was then reborn at the time of the Buddha Kassapa, The Traditions mention other lives at the time of the Buddha Vipassī, under whom she ordained and attained great excellence, and Buddha Koṇāgamana, for whom, as a lay woman, she donated a monastery. 04 the Buddha directly before our Gotama Buddha, in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, A name for the kingdom that had Bārāṇasī for its capital. 05 as one of seven sisters. Five of these seven sisters appear in these stories about the nuns, they are Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā, Paṭācārā, Dhammadinnā and Nandā. The other two were the foremost lay disciples Mahāmāyā and Visākhā.06 The future Rāhula was also their brother in that life, it seems.

In her last life because of her previous good deeds her skin glowed with a golden hue, and she was so beautiful she was married to King Bimbisāra. Her beauty proved to be something of an obstacle, because she believed the Buddha would find fault with her, and didn’t wish to meet with him.

The King, however, didn’t find this suitable, and first had poets compose songs in praise of the Bamboo Wood where the Buddha was staying, and then, when she agreed to go to see the wood, told his men not to let her return without meeting the Buddha.

When she finally did meet the Buddha he created the appearance of a heavenly angel whom he caused to go quickly through the ages of life, until she fell down dead right in front of Khemā. Thus she gained insight into the transient nature of things, including her own body, and attained Liberation.

Khemā’s great wisdom was renowned, especially her knowledge and understanding of the Abhidhamma, According to the Traditions even during the time of Buddha Kassapa she had memorised the Mahānidānasuttanta (Great Discourse on Origins, DN 15); and in her final life she was again taught the same discourse, and also the Kathāvatthu. 07 and she was indeed appointed as the Elder Nun foremost in having great wisdom, a position equivalent to that of Ven. Sāriputta for the monk disciples.

I fill out the story in-line with some verses from the Traditions about her, and elsewhere on this website you can read the discourse (Khemasuttaṁ, SN 44.1) that was held to have earned her this position.

AN 1.5.2

Etad-aggaṁ bhikkhave mama sāvikānaṁ bhikkhunīnaṁ
This is the foremost of my nun disciples, monastics,

mahāpaññānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Khemā.
amongst those who have great wisdom, that is to say, Khemā.

AA 1.5.2

Dutiye, “Khemā” ti evaṁnāmikā PTS: evaṁnāmika-.08 bhikkhunī.
In the second (story), “Khemā” is the name of this nun.

Ito paṭṭhāya ca: “Panassā SHB, PTS: Pana.09 pañhakamme RTE: pañhākamme.10 ayam-anupubbikathā,” ti avatvā,
From here on, without saying: “This is the exposition concerning the enquiry into her (previous) deeds,”

sabbattha abhinīhāraṁ ādiṁ katvā, vattabbam-eva vakkhāma.
placing the resolution at the beginning each time, we will say what should be said.

Previous Lives

Atīte kira Padumuttarabuddhakāle,
In the past, at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems,

Haṁsavatīnagare ChS: Haṁsavatiyaṁ.11 ayaṁ parapariyāpannā PTS: pariyāpannā.12 hutvā nibbatti.
she was reborn in the city of Haṁsavatī, and was owned by another. I.e. she was a slave-girl. 13

Athekadivasaṁ tassa Bhagavato aggasāvakaṁ, RTE, ChS: aggasāvikaṁ.14
° Then one day, she saw that Gracious One’s chief disciple,

Sujātatheraṁ RTE, ChS: Sujātattheriṁ, i.e. a nun called Sujātā; the Buddha Padamuttara’s chief disciple though was Sujāta, a monk. 15 nāma, piṇḍāya carantaṁ RTE: carantiṁ.16 disvā,
the Elder named Sujāta, This Buddha had two chief disciples, named Sujāta and Devala; his chief female disciples were called Amitā and Asamā.17 walking for alms,

tayo modake datvā, taṁ divasam-eva attano kese RTE: gehe; having left home.18 vissajjetvā,
gave him three sweetmeats, had her hair shorn on that very day,

Therassa RTE, ChS: Theriyā.19 dānaṁ datvā,
gave a donation to the Elder, With the proceeds from selling her hair.20

‘Anāgate Buddhuppāde tumhe viya mahāpaññā bhaveyyan’-ti patthanaṁ RTE: paṭṭhanaṁ.21 katvā,
and made this aspiration: ‘When a Buddha has arisen in the future may I, like you, have great wisdom,’

yāvajīvaṁ kusalakamme RTE, ChS: kusalakammesu; PTS: kusalakammena.22 appamattā hutvā,
she did good deeds for the rest of her life,

kappasatasahassaṁ devamanussesu saṁsarantī, SHB, PTS: saṁsaritvā.23
and being reborn amongst gods and humans (only) for one hundred thousand aeons,

Kassapabuddhakāle Kikissa PTS: Kikissa Rañño, and similarly throughout; RTE: Kiṁkissa rañño, and similarly throughout; ChS normally writes Kikissa Kāsirañño; SHB wavers between Kikissa Kāsirañño and Kikissa Rañño.24 Kāsirañño gehe paṭisandhiṁ gahetvā,
she was conceived in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi, in the time of the Buddha Kassapa, In the Therīgāthā Commentary stories about her lives in the times of the Buddhas Vipassī, Kakusandha and Koṇāgamana are also related.25

sattannaṁ bhaginīnaṁ abbhantarā hutvā,
and became (one) amongst seven sisters, These sisters are mentioned a number of times below. They eventually became the future disciples, Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā, Paṭācārā, Kuṇḍalakesī, Kisā Gotamī, Dhammadinnā and Visākhā.26

vīsativassasahassāni gehe yeva komāribrahmacariyaṁ SHB, PTS: komāra-.27 caritvā,
lived as a celibate in the house for twenty-thousand years,

tāhi bhaginīhi saddhiṁ Dasabalassa vasanapariveṇaṁ kāretvā,
together with her sisters had a dwelling place made for the One of Ten Powers,

ekaṁ Buddhantaraṁ devamanussesu saṁsarantī, SHB, PTS: saṁsaritvā.28
and being reborn amongst gods and humans (only) during one period when there was no Buddha,

Imasmiṁ Buddhuppāde
when this (Gotama) Buddha arose

Maddaraṭṭhe Sāgalanagare Rājakule paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhi,
she was conceived in a Royal family in the city of Sāgala in the country of Madda,

Khemā tissā nāmaṁ akaṁsu.
and given the name Khemā.

Her Last Life

Tassā sarīravaṇṇo suvaṇṇarasapiñjaro viya SHB omits: viya.29 ahosi.
The radiance of her body glowed as it were with a golden hue.

SHB, PTS omit: ; RTE adds: pana.30 vayappattā SHB, PTS add: ca pana.31 Bimbisārarañño gehaṁ agamāsi.
When she had reached maturity she was taken to King Bimbisāra’s house. This is an idiom which often occurs, it means she was married to the King.32

Sā Tathāgate Rājagahaṁ upanissāya Veḷuvane viharante,
When the Realised One was living near to Rājagaha in the Bamboo Wood,

‘Satthā kira rūpe dosaṁ dassetī,’ ti PTS: dasseti.33 rūpamadamattā hutvā,
(she), being intoxicated with her own beauty, and thinking: ‘The Teacher, it appears, sees fault in beauty,’

‘Mayham-pi rūpe dosaṁ dasseyyā,’ ti
and: ‘He will see fault in my beauty,’

bhayena Dasabalaṁ RTE: Dasabalassa.34 dassanāya na gacchati.
through fear, didn’t go to see the One of Ten Powers.

Rājā cintesi: “Ahaṁ Satthu aggupaṭṭhāko,
The King thought: ‘I am the Teacher’s foremost attendant, Interestingly this position was not given him in the Etad-agga chapter, where the position is unassigned. Hatthigāma Uggata was named as the foremost attendant on the Community. 35

mādisassa ca nāma Ariyasāvakassa,
and for one like me who is known as a Noble Disciple, He became a Stream-Enterer when the Buddha fulfilled his promise and returned to teach the King shortly after his Awakening.36

Aggamahesī PTS: Aggamahesi.37 Dasabalaṁ dassanāya na gacchati, na me etaṁ ruccatī.’ ti
(that) my Chief Consort does not go to see the One of Ten Powers, is not pleasing to me.’

So kavīhi Veḷuvanuyyānassa vaṇṇaṁ bandhāpetvā:
After having the praises of the Bamboo Grove composed by the poets:

“Khemāya Deviyā savanūpacāre gāyathā,” ti āha.
he said: “Recite (the poems) within the hearing of Queen Khemā.”

“Rammaṁ Veḷuvanaṁ yena na diṭṭhaṁ Sugatālayaṁ,
“He who has not seen the delightful Bamboo Wood, These are the verses that were recited according to Khemātheriyāpadānaṁ, Therī-Apadānaṁ, 2: 329-332. 38 the Fortunate One’s residence,

na tena Nandanaṁ diṭṭhaṁ, iti maññāmase PTS: maññemahe; RTE: maññamhase.39 mayaṁ.
has also not seen Nandana (in Tāvatiṁsa Heaven), such was my thinking.

Yena Veḷuvanaṁ diṭṭhaṁ, naranandananandanaṁ,
He who has seen the Bamboo Wood, rejoicing in the rejoicer of men,

sudiṭṭhaṁ Nandanaṁ tena Amarindasunandanaṁ.
has also seen Nandana greatly rejoiced in by the Lord of the Gods (Sakka).

Vihāya Nandanaṁ devā, otaritvā Mahītalaṁ, PTS, RTE: Mahītale.40
The gods, having abandoned Nandana, and descended to the surface of the Earth,

rammaṁ Veḷuvanaṁ disvā, na PTS writes as one word: disvāna.41 tappanti suvimhitā.
after seeing the delightful Veḷuvana, astonished, are not satiated (with it).

Rājapuññena nibbattaṁ, Buddhapuññena bhūsitaṁ,
Through the King’s merit it appeared, it is decorated with the Buddha’s merit,

ko vattā tassa nissesaṁ Vanassa guṇasañcayaṁ?”
who could describe the great quantity of virtues of that Wood?”

Sā Uyyānassa vaṇṇaṁ sutvā, gantukāmā hutvā, Rājānaṁ paṭipucchi.
After hearing the praise of the Grove, and gaining a desire to go, she put the question to the King.

Rājā: “Uyyānaṁ gaccha, SHB: gacchaṁ.42
The King said: “Go to the Grove,

Satthāraṁ pana adisvā, āgantuṁ na labhissasī,” ti PTS: labhissatī ti.43 āha.
but without having seen the Teacher, you will not receive (permission) to return.”

Sā Rañño paṭivacanaṁ adatvā va, PTS omits: va.44 maggaṁ paṭipajji.
Without having given a reply to the King, she took the path (to the Grove).

Rājā tāya saddhiṁ gacchante purise āha:
The King said to the men who were going with her:

“Sace Devī, uyyānato nivattamānā, Dasabalaṁ passati, iccetaṁ kusalaṁ;
“If the Queen, returning from the garden, sees the One of Ten Powers, that is good;

sace na passati, Rājāṇāya naṁ dassethā.” ti
(but) if she does not see (him), the Royal command is you must point him out.”


Atha kho sā Devī divasabhāgaṁ Uyyāne caritvā,
Then the Queen, after walking in the Grove in the daytime,

nivattantī Dasabalaṁ adisvā va, gantuṁ āraddhā.
and returning without seeing the One of Ten Powers, was ready to go.

Atha naṁ Rājapurisā, attano aruciyā va, Deviṁ SHB, PTS omit: Deviṁ.45 Satthu santikaṁ nayiṁsu.
Then the King’s men, against her liking, led the Queen into the presence of the Teacher.

Satthā taṁ āgacchantiṁ disvā, iddhiyā ekaṁ devaccharaṁ nimminitvā,
The Teacher saw her coming, and with his spiritual power made an image of a heavenly angel,

tālavaṇṭaṁ RTE: tālapaṇṇaṁ.46 gahetvā, bījamānaṁ viya akāsi.
which took up a palm-fan, and he made (it look) like she was fanning him.

Khemā RTE adds: ca.47 Devī taṁ disvā cintesi:
Having seen her, Queen Khemā thought:

“Mānamhi SHB: Mānaṁ vatamhi; PTS: Manāvat’ amhi; RTE: Ahañcamhi.48 naṭṭhā, evarūpā nāma devaccharappaṭibhāgā SHB, RTE: dibbaccharapaṭibhāgā.49 itthiyo,
“My conceit has perished, such beautiful women, like unto heavenly angels,

Dasabalassa avidūre tiṭṭhanti, ahaṁ etāsaṁ paricārikā pi nappahomi,
are standing not far from the One of Ten Powers, I am not fit to be their servant,

mānamadaṁ RTE: ahaṁ.50 hi nissāya SHB, PTS: manaṁ hi akāraṇā; RTE: ahaṁ hi nikkāraṇā.51 pāpacittassa vasena naṭṭhā.” ti
my wicked mind supported by mad conceit has perished.”

Taṁ SHB, PTS omit: Taṁ.52 nimittaṁ gahetvā tam-eva itthiṁ olokayamānā aṭṭhāsi.
Grasping the image she stood there looking at the woman.

Athassā RTE: Atha naṁ tassā.53 passantiyā va, Tathāgatassa adhiṭṭhānabalena,
Then as she was watching, through the power of the Realised One’s resolve,

sā itthī PTS: itthi.54 paṭhamavayaṁ atikkamma,
that angel passed beyond her youth,

majjhimavaye ṭhitā viya majjhimavayaṁ atikkamma,
and from being in middle-age, she passed beyond middle-age,

pacchimavaye ṭhitā viya ca valittacāpalitakesā PTS: valittacā phalitakesā.55 khaṇḍasithiladantā ChS: khaṇḍasithilaviraḷaā; RTE: khaṇḍitapatitadantā.56 ahosi.
and was like one in old-age having wrinkled skin, grey hair and broken and loose teeth.

Tato tassā passantiyā va, RTE: va.57 saddhiṁ tālavaṇṭena RTE: tālapaṇṇena.58 parivattitvā RTE: parivattetvā.59 papati. ChS: paripati.60
Then as she was watching, (the angel) stumbled about together with her fan and fell down.

Tato Khemā pubbahetusampannattā,
Then Khemā, being endowed with the former conditions, This is a phrase that is many times used in these contexts; it means the requisite conditions for attaining Awakening in this life.61

tasmiṁ ārammaṇe āpāthagate, evaṁ cintesi:
as that sense-object came within range, reflected thus:

‘Evaṁvidham-pi nāma sarīraṁ evarūpaṁ vipattiṁ pāpuṇāti,
‘Even such a beautiful body comes to misfortune,

mayham-pi sarīraṁ evaṁgatikam-eva bhavissatī.’ ti
my body will also come to the very same (misfortune).’

Athassā evaṁ cintitakkhaṇe Satthā imaṁ Dhammapade gātham-āha:
At the instant that she had that thought, the Teacher spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada: Dhp 347.62

“Ye rāgarattānupatanti sotaṁ,
“Those impassioned with passion run along with the stream,

sayaṁkataṁ makkaṭako va jālaṁ,
just as a spider (runs along) the web she has made herself,

etam-pi chetvāna, vajanti dhīrā SHB is unreadable here, but maybe, paribbajanti; PTS: paripajjanti.63
after cutting that off, the wise journey on

anapekkhino, sabbadukkhaṁ SHB, PTS: kāmasukhaṁ.64 pahāyā.” ti
without expectation, having abandoned all suffering.”

Sā gāthāpariyosāne ṭhitapade SHB, PTS: patiṭṭhitapade.65 ṭhitā yeva,
At the conclusion of the verse, while standing on that very spot,

saha paṭisambhidāhi Arahattaṁ pāpuṇi.
she attained Liberation together with the analytic knowledges. In the Traditions it says she heard some more teachings, then she purified the Dhamma-Eye, which normally indicates the attainment of Stream-Entry, requested ordination and went forth and two weeks later attained full Liberation. 66

Agāramajjhe vasantena SHB: Agāramajjhāvasantena; PTS: Agāramajjhe ca.67 nāma Arahattaṁ pattena
For one who attains Liberation while dwelling in the midst of the home life

taṁ divasam-eva Parinibbāyitabbaṁ vā pabbajitabbaṁ vā hoti.
she should either that very day attain Final Nibbāna or go forth.

Sā pana attano āyusaṅkhārānaṁ pavattanabhāvaṁ PTS: pavattanaka-.68 ñatvā,
(The Buddha), understanding the life span of her existence,

“Attano pabbajjaṁ anujānāpessāmī.” ti
said: “I will cause her to receive permission to go forth.”

Satthāraṁ vanditvā Rājanivesanaṁ gantvā,
After worshipping the Teacher and going to the King’s residence,

Rājānaṁ anabhivādetvā va aṭṭhāsi.
she stood there without having worshipped the King.

Rājā iṅgiteneva RTE: iṅgitasaññāṇena.69 aññāsi: “Ariyadhammaṁ SHB, PTS: Ariyadhammaṁ Arahattaṁ.70 pattā bhavissatī,” ti
Through that sign, the King understood: “She must have attained Nobility,”

atha naṁ āha: “Devi, gatā nu kho Satthu dassanāyā?” ti SHB, PTS: nu kho si Satthāraṁ dassanāyā ti? 71
then he said to her: “Queen, have you been to see the Teacher?”

“Mahārāja, tumhehi diṭṭhadassanaṁ parittaṁ, SHB, PTS: parittakaṁ; RTE: caritaṁ.72
“Great King, only a little insight has been gained by you,

ahaṁ pana Dasabalaṁ sudiṭṭham-akāsiṁ,
but I have gained the One of Ten Power’s true insight,

pabbajjaṁ me anujānāthā!” ti
you must allow me to go forth!”

Rājā: “Sādhu Devī!” ti sampaṭicchitvā,
The King, answered: “Very well, Queen!”

suvaṇṇasivikāya bhikkhunī-upassayaṁ upanetvā, SHB, PTS: pesetvā.73 pabbājesi.
and had her carried in a golden palanquin to the nunnery, and had her go forth.

Athassā: “Khemā Therī SHB, PTS: Khemā.74 nāma, gihibhāve ṭhatvā SHB, PTS: ṭhitā va.75 Arahattaṁ pattā,” ti
Then it was said of her: “The Elder Nun called Khemā, while still a householder, attained Liberation,”

mahāpaññabhāvo pākaṭo ahosi. RTE: ahosīti.76
and she became famous for her great wisdom.

(Khemā speaks:) From Khemātheriyāpadānaṁ, Therī-Apadānaṁ, 1.8, near the end.77

Nibbinnā sabbasaṅkhāre, paccayākārakovidā,
Wearied of all processes, skilled in the modes of conditions,

caturoghe atikkamma, Arahattam-apāpuṇiṁ.
having overcome the four floods, I attained Liberation.

Iddhīsu ca vasī āsiṁ, dibbāya sotadhātuyā,
I have mastery over spiritual power, the divine ear-element,

cetopariyañāṇassa vasī cāpi bhavām-ahaṁ.
I have mastery in knowledge of mind-reading.

Pubbenivāsaṁ jānāmi, dibbacakkhu visodhitaṁ,
I know my previous lives, have clarified the divine eye,

sabbāsavaparikkhīṇā, natthi dāni punabbhavo.
destroyed all the pollutants, This indicates her attainment of the six deep knowledges (cha abhiññā).78 there is no continuation of existence.

Atthadhammaniruttīsu paṭibhāne tatheva ca
Right there, in meanings, conditions, language and improvisation These are the four analytic knowledges (paṭisambhidā).79

parisuddhaṁ mama ñāṇaṁ, uppannaṁ Buddhasāsane.
my knowledge was purified, (it) arose within the Buddha’s Teaching.

Kusalāhaṁ visuddhīsu, kathāvatthuvisāradā,
I was proficient in purification, mature in subjects for discussion,

Abhidhammanayaññū ca, vasippattāmhi Sāsane.
a knower of the Abstract Teaching method, attained to mastery in the Teaching,

Tato Toraṇavatthusmiṁ, Raññā Kosalasāminā
Later on the grounds in Toraṇa, by the Lord King of Kosala

pucchitā nipuṇe pañhe, byākarontī yathātathaṁ.
I was questioned with deep questions, and I answered just as it is.

Tadā sa Rājā Sugataṁ upasaṅkamma pucchatha,
Then the King approached the Fortunate One and questioned him,

tatheva Buddho byākāsi, yathā te byākatā mayā.
right there the Awakened One answered, just as I had answered. These two verses summarise Khemāsuttaṁ, SN 44.1, for a text and translation of which, see elsewhere on this website. 80

Idam-ettha vatthu. SHB, PTS: etthakaṁ vatthuṁ; RTE: Idametthapi vatthuṁ.81
This is the story here.

Atha Satthā aparabhāge Jetavane nisinno,
Then later, when the Teacher was sitting in Jeta’s Wood,

bhikkhuniyo paṭipāṭiyā ṭhānantaresu SHB, PTS, ChS: ṭhānantare.82 ṭhapento,
in placing the nuns successively in their different positions,

Khemātheriṁ SHB, PTS: Khemaṁ theriṁ.83 mahāpaññānaṁ aggaṭṭhāne ṭhapesī. ti
he placed the Elder Nun Khemā at the foremost of those having great wisdom.



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