4. The Story about the Elder Nun Paṭācārā


This nun disciple’s story is certainly one of the most memorable in Buddhist literature, and is also one of the most celebrated. Like the others she was born during Buddha Padumuttara’s time, and made her aspiration to become a foremost disciple, in this case in bearing the discipline in mind. She was also one of the seven sisters born to Kiki, the King of Kāsi.

The story, however, deals quickly with her past lives and then moves on to her last life, when she was reborn in a good family home in Sāvatthī. Against all family conventions, and outside of marriage she had a liaison with one of the household’s workers, fell in love and eloped, rather than marrying the man her family had arranged for her. Cf. the story as retold in the Dhammapada Commentary, which is told in an even more dramatic and convincing form than the one told here.01

When she became pregnant she decided to go back to her family for help with the delivery, but her husband kept putting off the time for departure, and departing late she eventually had the child on the way. She therefore returned home with the child. A second time the same thing happened, and she gave birth on the road. Up to this point the story is similar to that of Cūḷa- and Mahāpanthaka, see AA

Just then a great storm blew up and she asked her husband to prepare a shelter, which he did. But as he went to get materials for a roof he was bitten by a cobra and died. When she discovered the body in the morning, she lamented but decided to continue to her parent’s home.

On the way, while crossing a ford, one of her children was snatched away by a hawk, and the other one was swept away by the current and drowned. She made it to the city, but only to find that her family home had collapsed during the storm, and all inside were lost and were awaiting their cremation. This meant that within one day she had lost husband, children, parents and siblings.

At that point she lost her mind completely, threw off her clothes and went around naked and senseless, until one day she met the Buddha who suffused her with loving-kindness and admonished her, whereat she regained her senses, covered herself up and listened to his Dhamma teaching.

The Buddha taught her with a memorable verse and she attained the First Stage of Awakening and ordained. In a story which is not included in this commentary, but is brought in here from another, while contemplating the fading away of water in the ground she gained insight, realised that life was impermanent, and attained Liberation.

Later the Buddha appointed her as the one who was foremost in bearing the discipline in mind. The connection of her story to her position is presumably because of her conversion from being a woman who refused to abide by the rules of society to one who later became the most diligent in Discipline.

She therefore appears as the counterpart of Ven. Upāli, who answered the questions on discipline at the First Recitation.

AN 1.5.4

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

Vinayadharānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Paṭācārā.
amongst those who bear the Discipline in mind, that is to say, Paṭācārā.

AA 1.5.4

Catutthe, “Vinayadharānaṁ, yad-idaṁ Paṭācārā,” ti
In the fourth (story), “Amongst those who bear the Discipline in mind, that is to say, Paṭācārā,”

Paṭācārā Therī Vinayadharānaṁ aggā ti dasseti.
it shows (why) the Elder Nun Paṭācārā, amongst those who bore the Discipline in mind, was said to be foremost.

Her Aspiration and Good Deeds

Sā kira Padumuttarabuddhakāle,
At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, it seems,

Haṁsavatiyaṁ kulagehe paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhitvā, SHB, PTS: gahetvā.03
after being conceived in a good family home in Haṁsavatī,

aparabhāge, Satthu Dhammadesanaṁ suṇantī,
and later, while listening to the Teacher teach the Dhamma,

Satthāraṁ ekaṁ bhikkhuniṁ Vinayadharānaṁ aggaṭṭhāne ṭhapentaṁ disvā,
seeing the Teacher place a certain nun as being foremost amongst those who bore the Discipline in mind,

adhikārakammaṁ katvā taṁ ṭhānantaraṁ patthesi.
she did a great deed and aspired for that position herself.

Sā yāvajīvaṁ kusalaṁ katvā, devamanussesu saṁsaritvā, ChS: saṁsarantī.04
She did good deeds for the rest of her life, was reborn amongst gods and humans (only),

Kassapabuddhakāle Kikissa Kāsirañño gehe paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhitvā, SHB, PTS: gahetvā.05
and in the time of the Buddha Kassapa, she was conceived in the home of Kiki, the King of Kāsi,

sattannaṁ bhaginīnaṁ abbhantarā hutvā,
and became (one) amongst seven sisters,

vīsativassasahassāni brahmacariyaṁ caritvā,
lived as a celibate for twenty-thousand years,

Bhikkhusaṅghassa pariveṇaṁ kāretvā, ChS: katvā.06
had a residence made for the Community of monks,

puna devaloke nibbattitvā,
was reborn once again in the world of the gods,

ekaṁ Buddhantaraṁ sampattiṁ anubhavitvā,
and enjoyed good fortune during one period when there was no Buddha,

imasmiṁ Buddhuppāde, Sāvatthiyaṁ seṭṭhigehe paṭisandhiṁ gaṇhi.
and when this (Gotama) Buddha arose, she was conceived in a merchant’s home in Sāvatthī.

Her Last Life

Sā aparabhāge, vayappattā,
Later, when she was mature,

attano gehe ekena kammakārena saddhiṁ santhavaṁ katvā,
after becoming intimate with a certain worker in her own home,

aparabhāge attano samānajātikaṁ kulaṁ gacchantī,
as she was going to someone from a family of her own standing, I.e. as she was being married off to one of equal rank.07

katasanthavassa SHB, PTS: tassa katasanthavassa.08 purisassa RTE: tassa santhavapurisassa.09 saññaṁ adāsi:
she informed the man that she had been intimate with,

“Tvaṁ ChS reads: Na tvaṁ here, omits: na before labhissasi.10 sve RTE: sveva.11 paṭṭhāya maṁ pāṭihārasatena RTE: pahārasatena; ChS: paṭihāra-; AṬ: pāṭihārasatena pī ti dvārasatena pi.12 pi daṭṭhuṁ na ChS omits: na.13 labhissasi,
saying: “From tomorrow even if you beat on the door a hundred times you will not be able to see me,

sace te kammaṁ atthi, idāni SHB, PTS: idānimeva.14 maṁ gaṇhitvā gacchāhī.” ti SHB, PTS: gacchā ti.15
if this is a (worthy) deed for you, take me right now and let us go.”

So: “Evaṁ hotū!” ti anucchavikaṁ hatthasāraṁ gahetvā,
Saying: “So be it!” he grabbed the most valuable and suitable things,

taṁ ādāya nagarato, tīṇi cattāri yojanāni paṭikkamitvā,
took her from the city, retired for three or four leagues,

ekasmiṁ gāmake vāsaṁ kappesi.
and set up home in one village.


Atha SHB, PTS omit: Atha.16 aparabhāge tassā kucchiyaṁ gabbho patiṭṭhāsi.
Then later an embryo was established in her womb.

Sā gabbhe paripakke:
When her foetus was mature,

“Idaṁ amhākaṁ anāthaṭṭhānaṁ, RTE: aṭṭhānaṁ.17 kulagehaṁ gacchāma, Sāmī,” ti āha.
she said: “Husband, we are without protection in this place, let us go to my family’s home.”

So: “Ajja gacchāma”, “Sve gacchāmā,” ti
He said: “Today let us go”, and: “Tomorrow let us go,”

gantuṁ asakkonto, kālaṁ vītināmesi.
and being unable (to decide when) to go, he let the time pass by.

Sā tassa kāraṇaṁ ñatvā: ‘Nāyaṁ bālo maṁ nessatī,’ ti
She understood his reasoning, and thinking: ‘This fool will not take me,’

tasmiṁ bahi gate:
therefore when he had gone outside,

’Ekikā va kulagehaṁ PTS: kulagāmaṁ.18 gamissāmī,’ ti maggaṁ paṭipajji.
thinking: ‘I will go to my family home by myself,’ she set out on the path.

So āgantvā, taṁ gehe apassanto, paṭivissake pucchitvā,
He returned and not seeing her in the home, he asked the neighbours,

“Kulagehaṁ gatā,” ti sutvā,
and hearing: “She is going to her family home,”

’Maṁ nissāya kuladhītā anāthā jātā,’ ti PTS: anāthajātā ti.19
he thought: ‘It is because of me that this daughter of a good family is without protection,’

padānupadikaṁ gantvā, sampāpuṇi.
and he followed in her steps and caught up (with her).

Tassā antarāmagge va gabbhavuṭṭhānaṁ ahosi.
As she was on the highway she was delivered (of her child).

Tato: ‘Yassatthāya mayaṁ gaccheyyāma, so attho antarāmagge va nipphanno,
Then, thinking: ‘That thing for which we set out, has happened right here on the highway,

idāni gantvā, kiṁ karissāmā?’ ti paṭinivattiṁsu.
having gone (there) now, what would we do?’ and they turned back.


Puna: ‘Tassā kucchiyaṁ gabbho patiṭṭhāsī,’ ti
And again: ‘An embryo was established in her womb,’

purimanayeneva vitthāretabbaṁ.
and it should be elaborated according to what was said above. Lit: according to the earlier method. It means it all happened in the same way as was related for her first pregnancy.20


Antarāmagge panassā gabbhavuṭṭhāne jātamatte yeva,
But as she was delivering on the highway, at the very moment of birth,

catūsu disāsu mahāmegho uṭṭhahi. SHB: uṭṭhahiṁsu; PTS: vuṭṭhahiṁsu.21
a great storm arose in all four quarters.

Sā taṁ purisaṁ āha: “Sāmi, avelāya catūsu disāsu megho uṭṭhito, SHB, PTS: meghā vuṭṭhitā; RTE: mahāmegho uṭṭhito.22
She said to the gentleman: “Husband, an out of season storm has arisen in all four quarters,

anovassakaṭṭhānaṁ RTE, ChS: attano vasanaṭṭhānaṁ.23 kātuṁ vāyamāhī.” ti
please endeavour to make a wooden shelter.”

So: “Evaṁ karissāmī!” ti daṇḍakehi kuṭikaṁ SHB, PTS: kuṭiṁ.24 katvā,
He said: “I will do so!” and he made a little hut with sticks,

“Chadanatthāya tiṇaṁ āharissāmī,” ti
and said: “I will go and bring grass to thatch it,”

ekasmiṁ mahāvammikapāde SHB, PTS: vammikapāde.25 tiṇaṁ chindati.
and he cut the grass near the foot of a certain great anthill.

Atha naṁ vammike nipanno kaṇhasappo pāde ḍaṁsi SHB, PTS: ḍasi.26
Then a black snake A cobra, the most deadly of the deadly snakes.27 that was lying in the anthill bit him on the foot

so tasmiṁ yeva ṭhāne patito.
and through that he fell down (dead) on the spot.

Sā pi: ‘Idāni āgamissati, idāni āgamissatī,’ ti sabbarattiṁ khepetvā:
She, however, spent the whole night thinking: ‘Now he will come, now he will come,’

“Addhā maṁ so: ‘Anāthā esā,’ ti magge chaḍḍetvā PTS: chaḍḍhetvā.28 gato bhavissatī.” ti
and said: “Certainly, he is thinking: ‘She is helpless,’ and he will have abandoned me on the road and gone away.”

Āloke sañjāte padānusārena olokentī vammikapāde patitaṁ disvā:
The light appeared while she was searching (for him) by following his footsteps and, seeing he had fallen at the foot of an anthill,

“Maṁ nissāya naṭṭho puriso,” ti paridevitvā,
she lamented: “Because of me this man perished,”

daharadārakaṁ passenādāya, mahallakaṁ aṅgulīhi RTE: aṅguliṁ.29 gāhāpetvā,
and having taken her young boy on her side and made the elder one grasp her fingers,

maggena gacchantī antarāmagge ekaṁ uttānanadiṁ SHB, PTS: -nadikaṁ.30 disvā,
while going along the road, she saw a certain shallow river across the highway,

’Dve pi SHB, PTS: dve pi dāni.31 dārake ekappahāreneva PTS: ekappahārena.32 ādāya gantuṁ na sakkhissāmī,’ ti SHB, PTS: sakkhissāmi, omit ti.33
and realising: ‘I will not be able to go over in one go with both the boys,’

jeṭṭhakaṁ orimatīre ṭhapetvā, daharaṁ RTE: daharaṁ dārakaṁ; PTS: daharakaṁ.34 paratīraṁ netvā,
she placed the eldest on the near shore, and carried the youngest to the far shore,

pilotikacumbaṭake RTE: -cumbiṭake; PTS: -cumbaṭe.35 nipajjāpetvā, puna nivattitvā,
lay him down on a cloth pillow, crossed back again,

’Itaraṁ RTE: Imaṁ.36 gahetvā gamissāmī,’ ti nadiṁ otari.
and entered the river, thinking: ‘I will go and fetch the other (child).’

Athassā nadīmajjhaṁ pattakāle eko seno:
Then at the time she reached the middle of the river, one hawk,

’Maṁsapiṇḍo SHB, PTS: -piṇḍako.37 ayan,’-ti saññāya, dārakaṁ vijjhituṁ RTE: gaṇhitvā.38 āgacchati.
thinking: ‘This is a piece of meat,’ came to peck at the (youngest) child.

Sā hatthaṁ pasāretvā senaṁ palāpesi.
She waved her hand to drive the hawk off.

Tassā taṁ hatthavikāraṁ disvā, mahallakadārako:
Having seen the gesture of her hand, the eldest child,

’Maṁ pakkosatī,’ ti saññāya, nadiṁ otaritvā,
thinking: ‘She is summoning me,’ descended into the river,

sote patito yathāsotaṁ agamāsi.
fell into the stream and was borne away with the current.

So pi seno tassā asampattāya eva,
The hawk, before she could reach him,

taṁ daharadārakaṁ SHB, PTS: dārakaṁ.39 gaṇhitvā agamāsi.
grabbed the youngest child and bore him away.


Sā balavasokābhibhūtā antarāmagge imaṁ vilāpagītaṁ SHB, PTS: vilāpagītakaṁ; RTE: vilāpaṁ gītakaṁ.40 gāyantī gacchati:
She, overcome with great grief, went along the highway wailing this mournful song:

“Ubho puttā kālaṅkatā, SHB, PTS, RTE: kālakatā.41 panthe mayhaṁ Patī mato.” ti
“Both my sons have died, and my Husband is dead on the path.”

Sā evaṁ vilapamānā PTS: vilappamānā.42 va RTE omits: va.43 Sāvatthiṁ patvā, kulasabhāgaṁ gantvā pi,
She reached Sāvatthī wailing like this, went to the good families district,

sokavaseneva attano gehaṁ vavatthapetuṁ asakkontī:
and through grief was unable to find her own home,

“Imasmiṁ ṭhāne evaṁvidhaṁ nāma kulaṁ atthi,
° and asked: “In this place there is such and such a family,

kataraṁ taṁ gehan?”-ti paṭipucchi.
(but) where is the house?”

“Tvaṁ taṁ kulaṁ paṭipucchitvā, SHB, PTS: pucchitvā.44 kiṁ karissasi?
(They answered): “Having enquired about that family, what will you do?

Tesaṁ vasanagehaṁ vātappahārena patitaṁ,
The home they dwelt in fell down owing to being hit by the wind,

tattheva SHB, PTS: tattha.45 te sabbe pi jīvitakkhayaṁ pattā,
and right there and then all of them reached the end of their lives,

atha ne PTS: nesaṁ.46 khuddakamahallake ekacitakasmiṁ yeva jhāpenti.
now they are (all), young and old, burning on a funeral pyre.

Passa: esā dhūmavaṭṭi paññāyatī.” ti
Look: you can make out the rising smoke.”

Sā taṁ kathaṁ sutvā va: “Kiṁ tumhe vadathā?” ti
When she heard this, she said: “What did you say?”

Attano nivatthasāṭakaṁ RTE: nivaṭṭha-.47 sandhāretuṁ asakkontī,
Being unable to bear being clothed in her robe,

jātaniyāmeneva, bāhā paggayha kandamānā,
just as when she was born, I.e. naked.48 stretching out her arms and crying,

ñātīnaṁ citakaṭṭhānaṁ gantvā,
she went to her relatives’ funeral pyre,

taṁ vilāpagītaṁ paripuṇṇaṁ katvā, paridevamānā:
and filled out her mournful song, lamenting:

“Ubho puttā kālaṅkatā, panthe mayhaṁ Patī mato;
“Both my sons have died, and my Husband is dead on the path;

Mātā Pitā ca Bhātā ca, ekacitakĕ SHB, RTE, ChS: ekacitakasmiṁ.49 ḍayhare.” ti āha.
Mother, Father and Brothers too, burn upon the funeral pyre.”

Aññena janena paṭaṁ RTE, ChS: sāṭakaṁ.50 dinnam-pi phāletvā phāletvā RTE omits: phāletvā.51 chaḍḍeti.
Though she was given a cloth by other people, each time she tore it off, and threw it away.

Atha naṁ diṭṭhadiṭṭhaṭṭhāne mahājano parivāretvā carati, RTE: vicarati.52
Then everywhere she was seen the populace walked surrounding her,

athassā: “Ayaṁ paṭācāraṁ paṭapariharaṇaṁ vinā caratī,” ti RTE: paṭācārā paṭavicāraṇaṁ vinā vicaratī ti.53
and said: “This cloth-wanderer wanders without a cloth for protection,”

Paṭācārā teva nāmaṁ akaṁsu.
and they made the name Paṭācārā. This is an odd explanation, she is called cloth-wanderer because she has no clothes? We might have expected the name to be Apaṭācārā, clothless wanderer. There is a second explanation of the name below, also unconvincing, which suggests that the origin of the name had been forgotten.54

Yasmā cassā so RTE: panassā.55 naggabhāvena alajjī-ācāro RTE: alajjī va ācāro.56 pākaṭo ahosi,
Because she became famous for shamelessly wandering around with nothing on,

tasmā: “Patito PTS: Paṭu.57 ācāro assā,” ti SHB: Paṭu ācāro assā ti patito ācāro assā ti.58 Paṭācārā teva nāmaṁ akaṁsu.
therefore (they said): “Her (good) conduct has fallen away,” and they made the name Paṭācārā.


Sā ekadivasaṁ Satthari mahājanassa Dhammaṁ desente,
One day as the Teacher was teaching Dhamma to the populace,

vihāraṁ pavisitvā, parisapariyante aṭṭhāsi.
she entered the monastery, and stood at the edge of the assembly.

Satthā mettāpharaṇena RTE: mettāya.59 pharitvā:
The Teacher, having suffused her with a suffusion of loving-kindness,

“Satiṁ paṭilabha, Bhagini, satiṁ paṭilabha, Bhaginī.” ti āha.
said: “Regain your mindfulness, Sister, regain your mindfulness, Sister.”

Tassā Satthu vacanaṁ sutvā balavahirottappaṁ āgataṁ,
Having heard the Teacher’s word she regained a strong sense of modesty and shame,

sā tattheva bhūmiyaṁ nisīdi.
and she sat down on the ground right there.

Avidūre ṭhito puriso SHB, PTS: ṭhitapuriso.60 uttarisāṭakaṁ khipitvā adāsi.
A gentleman who was standing not far away threw her an upper robe.

Sā taṁ nivāsetvā Dhammaṁ assosi.
She dressed herself and listened to the Dhamma.

Satthā tassā cariyavasena, imā Dhammapade gāthā āha:
The Teacher, on account of her, spoke this verse found in the Dhammapada:

“Na santi puttā tāṇāya, na Pitā na pi ChS: nāpi.61 bandhavā,
“Not in children is there refuge, not in Father or in kin,

Antakenādhipannassa natthi ñātīsu tāṇatā.
for one attacked by the End-Maker Another name for Māra, or death.62 there is no refuge in relatives.

Etam-atthavasaṁ ñatvā, paṇḍito sīlasaṁvuto,
Having understood the consequence, the wise one who protects his virtue,

Nibbānagamanaṁ Maggaṁ khippam-eva visodhaye.” ti
quickly purifies the Path that leads to Nibbāna.” Dhp. 288-289.63

Sā gāthāpariyosāne yathāṭhitā va sotāpattiphale patiṭṭhāya,
At the conclusion of that verse as she stood there she was established in Stream-Entry,

Satthāraṁ upasaṅkamitvā vanditvā SHB, PTS add: ṭhitā.64 pabbajjaṁ yāci.
and having approached and worshipped the Teacher, she asked for the going forth.

Satthā SHB, PTS omit: Satthā.65 tassā: “Bhikkhunī-upassayaṁ RTE: bhikkhunūpassayaṁ.66 gantvā pabbajā,” ti
The Teacher said to her: “Go to the nunnery and go forth,”

pabbajjaṁ sampaṭicchi.
and he allowed her going forth. The following lines are from near the end of the Dhammapada Commentary to verse 113. 67

Sā ekadivasaṁ kuṭena udakaṁ ādāya, pāde dhovantī udakaṁ āsiñci,
One day she took water in her waterpot, and pouring it while washing her feet,

taṁ thokaṁ gantvā pacchijji.
it went (but) a little way and stopped.

Dutiyavāre āsittaṁ tato dūrataraṁ agamāsi.
She poured it a second time and it went a little further.

Tatiyavāre āsittaṁ tato pi dūrataran-ti.
She poured it a third time and it went even further than that.

Sā tad-eva ārammaṇaṁ gahetvā, tayo vaye paricchinditvā,
Having taken that as a meditation object, and defining the three ages (of life),

’Mayā paṭhamaṁ āsittaṁ udakaṁ viya ime sattā paṭhamavaye pi maranti;
° she thought: ‘Like the first pouring of the water by me, (some of) these beings die in the first age (of life);

tato RTE: tato pi.68 dūrataraṁ gataṁ,
those who go further than that,

dutiyavāre āsittaṁ udakaṁ PTS: āsittaudakaṁ; also below.69 viya, majjhimavaye pi maranti;
like the second time I poured out the water, die in middle age;

tato pi dūrataraṁ gataṁ, tatiyavāre āsittaṁ udakaṁ viya,
those who go further than that, like the third time I poured out the water,

pacchimavaye pi maranti yevā,’ ti cintesi.
surely die in the last age (of life).’

Satthā Gandhakuṭiyaṁ nisinno va obhāsaṁ pharitvā,
The Teacher, sitting radiant in the Perfumed Cottage,

tassā sammukhe ṭhatvā kathento viya,
(appeared) as though standing and speaking with her face to face,

“Evam-etaṁ Paṭācāre,
° saying: “Thus Paṭācārā,

pañcannam-pi RTE: pañcannaṁ hi.70 khandhānaṁ udayabbayaṁ apassantassa
better than not seeing the rise and fall of the five constituents (of mind and body)

vassasataṁ jīvanato, RTE: jīvitato; PTS adds: pi.71 tesaṁ udayabbayaṁ passantassa
while living for a hundred years, is seeing rise and fall

ekāham-pi ekakkhaṇam-pi jīvitaṁ seyyo,” ti vatvā,
for even a day or for even a moment,”

anusandhiṁ ghaṭetvā, Dhammaṁ desento, imaṁ ChS omits: imaṁ.72 gātham-āha:
and after making the connection, teaching Dhamma, he spoke this verse:

“Yo ca vassasataṁ jīve apassaṁ udayabbayaṁ,
“He who lives for a hundred years not seeing rise and fall,

Ekāhaṁ jīvitaṁ seyyo passato udayabbayan.”-ti
is surpassed by one living for one day seeing rise and fall.” Dhp. 113. It means seeing the rising and falling away of everything in existence, but particularly of one’s own constituent parts.73

Desanāvasāne Paṭācārā saha paṭisambhidāhi Arahattaṁ pāpuṇi.
At the conclusion of the teaching Paṭācārā attained Liberation together with the analytic knowledges.

Sā pabbajitvā na cirasseva Arahattaṁ patvā, PTS: pattā.74
Not long after her going forth, and her attainment of Liberation,

Buddhavacanaṁ gaṇhantī RTE: uggaṇhi.75 Vinayapiṭake ciṇṇavasī ahosi.
grasping the Buddha’s words she became one who had mastered the Basket of Discipline.

Aparabhāge Satthā Jetavane nisinno,
Later, while sitting in Jeta’s Wood,

bhikkhuniyo paṭipāṭiyā ṭhānantaresu SHB, PTS, ChS: ṭhānantare.76 ṭhapento,
in placing the nuns successively in their different positions,

Paṭācāraṁ Vinayadharānaṁ aggaṭṭhāne ṭhapesī. ti
he placed Paṭācāra in the foremost position of those who bore the Discipline in mind.



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