Women Buddhist Masters
Olivia International Journal of Dharma Studies
Women Buddhist Masters
The aim of this paper is to two fold-first, to set forth a definition of "mastery" as it is understood across diverse Buddhist traditions. Secondly, using verses from the Therigatha, I argue that the first female monastics meet the criteria of Buddhist masters. My claim is based on evidence from the teachings of the historical Buddha and by citing examples from the elder female disciples, and finally, by illustrating that the embodied experience as women was central to their development of mastery.
the Anguttura Nikaya. These include Mahapajapati, Khema, Uppalavanna, Patacara,
Dhammadinna, Nanda, Sona, Sakula, and Bhadda Kundalakesa. The verses of the two
bhikkhunis not discussed in detail here are those of Bhadda Kapilani, and Kisagotami.3
I also examine passages from the Therigatha that paint a picture of what it meant to be
a woman Buddhist master at the time of the Buddha which offers us insight into the
importance of female embodiment on the path to enlightenment.
Mastery acknowledged by the Buddha
Having been acknowledged as foremost in specific areas indicates that these ther?s
achieved a level of mastery above all other nuns in the same category. In his essay
on Outstanding Bhikkhunis, Venerable Analayo points out that the Buddha names
bhikkhunis ?foremost among others? or, more precisely, ?foremost among several
bhikkhunis that were of long standing.?4 This hierarchy indicates that the bhikkhunis
who made the list were considered wise elders amongst many bhikkhunis.
The bhikkhunis that the Buddha acknowledges as ?foremost? on his list of exceptional
bhikkhunis can and should be understood as masters. This section is dedicated to a
description of each of these foremost bhikkhunis, beginning with Mahapajapati Gotami, the
first woman to request the ordination of women in Buddhism, and the first to become a
bhikkhuni. Not surprisingly, Mahapajapati Gotami is listed as foremost in seniority and the first to
become enlightened.5 One version of the controversial story of Mahapajapati gaining
ordination for women tells that Ananda, the Buddha?s attendant, asked the Buddha whether women
could become enlightened. This compelled the Buddha to acknowledge women?s capacity and
finally agree to ordain her. Mahapajapati's verse makes clear her capacity was realized:
By using the word nirodho, the Pali word for cessation, which is often synonymous
with nibbana, liberating enlightenment, Mahapajapati?s attainment has proven the
Buddha?s acknowledgment that women?s spiritual potential was equal to men?s.
The Buddha designates Khema as foremost in wisdom among his female disciples. A
story from the commentary tells us that Khema attained arahantship when she first
met the Buddha and heard him recite a verse from the Dhammapada. Khema?s verse in
the Therigatha is composed as a reply to Mara?s attempt to seduce her. She has
abandoned conceit and rejects the illusory pleasures of the body, saying:
What you take as pleasures are not for me,
the mass of mental darkness (tamokkhandho) is split open.
Know this, evil one, you are defeated, you are finished.7
Khema?s verse indicates that her practice led her to deconstruct the mechanistic
nature of the khandhas, the five psychophysical aggregates, which create and reify the
identity of a self. Here, she tells us that her enlightenment included seeing that the self
is not a solid, independent entity but instead arises concomitant to the khandhas?
process of creating and reifying.8
The Buddha acknowledges Uppalavanna?s transformation into a meditation master
when he named her as foremost among bhikkhunis in psychic powers.9 We will look
more closely at psychic powers below. Here we want to note that within the
Therigatha, the Buddha praises Uppalavanna and attributes?s enlightenment to her.
Speaking of Subha, the Buddha says,
Subha?s enlightenment included the ability to know the three things (tevijja): the ability to
know one?s past lives; to know where and why other beings are reborn; and to know that
one?s defilements have been destroyed. About these, Hallisey writes, ?to know the three
things that most don?t know is to know that one is enlightened and will not be reborn.?11
The Buddha named Sakula foremost among bhikkunis in attaining the divine eye. She
did not hear the teachings of the Buddha directly but from one of his monks and
became enlightened just by hearing the teachings. She says:
I saw the dhamma perfectly, knew freedom (nibbanam), the eternal state.12
Sakula?s verse gives a different twist on the embodied experience of a woman joining
the bhikkhuni order, which we will explore below.
The Buddha named Bhadda Kundalakesa foremost among bhikkhunis in speed of
attaining direct knowledge. In her verse she says that she was formerly a Jain nun, who
engaged in debate, but when she heard about the Buddha she climbed Vultures Peak to
see him and he ordained her on the spot. She says:
Bhadda tells us that after her enlightenment she spent fifty years as an alms
mendicant and praises, in her verse, the merits of the laypeople who supported her.
The Buddha also named Sundarinanda foremost among bhikkhunis in meditation?she
received direct teachings from the Buddha, which are best examined in our third section
on embodied experience?and Sona as foremost among bhikkhunis who exerted effort.14
The Buddha lists effort (viriya)15 as one of the ten paramis or perfections, which must be
developed in order to become enlightened. In his translation of Dhammapala's A Treatise
on the Paramis, Bhikkhu Bodhi, translates viriya as energy, tells us, ?Energy has the
characteristic of striving; its function is to fortify; its manifestation is indefatigability; an occasion
for the arousing of energy, or a sense of spiritual urgency, is its proximate cause.?16
The Buddha acknowledged Dhammadinna?s mastery when he named her foremost
among bhikkhunis in teaching the dhamma.17 According to the Majjhima Nikaya, as a
bhikkhuni, Dhammadinna met with her former husband, Visakha, to answer questions
and explain the Dhamma to him. Visakha then went to the Buddha and reported the
full extent of their conversation. After the Buddha heard this account, he said,
?Dhammadinna the nun is wise, Visakha, a woman of great discernment. If you
had asked me those things, I would have answered you in the same way she did.
That is the meaning of those things. That is how you should remember it.?18
Patacara?s story is not told in the Therigatha but is provided by the commentaries.19 It is
the story of transforming intolerable human suffering into a life within the safety of the
Buddha?s monastic sangha, a topic we will examine in our third category. We are told in the
commentaries that when Patacara, mad with grief, first approached the Buddha, he gave her
direct teachings. Hearing his words, she regained sanity and became a stream enterer, after
which the Buddha himself ordained her and sent her to live in the nun?s community. The
Buddha named Patacara as foremost among bhikkhunis in knowledge of the Vinaya.
All of these master bhikkhunis were acknowledged by the Buddha as such and
realized mastery through their practice of the Buddha?s teaching. However, the Buddha?s
acknowledgement is only one of the ways that these bhikkhunis? mastery is designated.
In the next section, I examine the ways their mastery was designated and
acknowledged by their own disciples.
Mastery acknowledged by disciples of the bhikkhunis
Masters are given that identity by their disciples?students who have evaluated the
master?s teachings and look to her for guidance. Six of the verses directly acknowledge
the guidance a bhikkhuni received from a theri, a senior nun. For example, the poem
by Uttama indicates that she left the monastery several times before seeking teachings
from Patacara, a senior nun whom she trusted. Her respect for this nun is evident in
her words: ?I went to a bhikkhuni whom I trusted.?20 In a subsequent verse, an
unnamed nun makes the identical statement: ?I went to a bhikkhuni whom I trusted.?21 In
this case, the trusted bhikkhuni is said to be Dhammadina.22
As the leader of the nuns? community, Mahapajapati led the ordinations of many
women who joined the bhikkhuni sangha, and she served as the preceptor for others.
Although the number is a symbolic trope, Mahapajapati was said to have five hundred
followers. She is mentioned repeatedly in verses throughout the Therigatha.
Patacara also had many disciples within the nuns? community, one of whom was
Canda. Before her ordination, Canda lived as a beggar for seven years after her brahmin
family fell on hard times. Her verse begins with a description of her earlier destitution:
In the past, I was poor, a widow without children,
without friends or relatives, I did not get food or clothing.
Taking a bowl and stick, I went begging from family to family,
I wandered seven years, tormented by cold and heat.23
Canda was on the street begging for food when she saw Patacara going on her alms
round, collecting food and drink for the day. Describing their encounter, Canda says:
Approaching her, I said, ?Make me go forth into homelessness.?
And she was sympathetic to me and [Patacara] made me go forth,
She gave me advice and pointed me toward the highest goal.24
Following Patacara?s instructions, Canda says that she ?put into action her advice.?
Like Subha above, Canda describes her enlightenment as gaining insight into the
three things that most don't know.26
Dhammadinna is named in the commentaries as a teacher to many of the ther?s. One
of Dhammadinna?s disciples was the bhikkhuni Sukha, whose teachings were said to so
please a devata living in a nearby tree that he traveled into the town of Rajagaha
praising Sukha and repeating the first two stanzas of her verse:
It is significant that the devatas are portrayed as evaluating the teaching of the Sukha.
Recollection of the devas is an important practice in the Pali canon, included in the list of
Ten Recollections the Buddha taught as a means of training the mind.28 In this verse, the
devata praises Sukha?s teachings, comparing them to a life-giving elixir, delicious and
irresistible. With Dhammadinna as her teacher, Sukha?s ability to teach others is not surprising.
We have seen the importance of the elder bhikkhunis to laywomen and to the
younger nuns who go to them for guidance. Having overcome their own personal difficulties
and made progress on the path to enlightenment, these elder nuns have been
designated masters by those who approach them for help.
Having looked at two of the three categories which convey mastery, we will turn to
the most significant and more complex topic: the mastery that is remarkably achieved
in a female body. While the Buddha may have declared women capable of achieving
enlightenment, the culture of the time gave them little opportunity to do so.
Mastery arising from women?s embodied experience
Our third category?the cultivation of wisdom from the embodied lives of women?is
rich with complexity. The examples below articulate the embodied experiences and the
challenges these women faced at the time of the Buddha. They tell of the conditions of
the women?s lives that preceded and brought them to ordination. These women?s lives
were proscribed by cultural constraints, which cast them into subservient roles. It is
through these verses that we hear about their transformation from ordinary women to
Buddhist masters who, through strength, endurance, and courage, developed great
wisdom and ?powers beyond normal.? In the following section I unpack the
transformation particular to women.
The cultural bias maintained that vanity is a downfall of women and in these verses it
is often reported as an impediment the nuns had to overcome. Said to be both beautiful
and vain, Sundarinanda received teachings directly from the Buddha. He taught her to
perceive the body as an object, impermanent like all other objects. The Buddha is
quoted in her verse as saying to her:
Sundarinanda used this contemplation of the body as a method of cultivation, which
led to her awakening. The final stanza of her verse reads:
In the Satipatthana Sutta,31 the Buddha instructs the meditator to practice mindfulness
of the body as the first foundation of awareness. Diligent practice of mindfulness of the
body gives rise to seeing the body "as it really is," that is, as an ever changing collection of
parts. Described in the Khuddhakapatha Sutta, "this body has hairs of the head, hairs of
the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm,
spleen, lungs, intestines, bowels, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat,
tears, skin grease, spittle, nasal mucus, oil of the joints, and urine."32 Disciples are taught
to perceive the body not as a solid object but as these relatively unattractive parts.
Like Sundarinanda, Khema was also beautiful and vain. She was a courtesan of King
Bimbisara, who was a devout follower of the Buddha. She avoided meeting the Buddha,
fearing his rebuke of her conceit. In one version of the story, she was forced to meet the
Buddha; in another, she had a change of heart and went on her own. As she approached
him, the Buddha, through his psychic abilities, created the illusion of a beautiful woman
fanning him. Khema was mesmerized by the woman?s beauty and realized that she herself
was far less beautiful than the vision she perceived. The Buddha then slowly changed the
illusion he created from a young and beautiful woman to an old hag who was toothless,
wrinkled, and grey, demonstrating the fleeting nature of worldly appearances.
Khema's verse attests to the efficacy of this vision. She says:
This foul body, sick, so easily broken, vexes and shames me,
my craving for sex has been rooted out.33
This lesson was a change of heart for Khema and led her to the development of wisdom.
It is ironic that women's physical beauty creates their defect of vanity but when the
Buddha confronts them, leads to their liberation.
Many stories of Buddhist masters recount episodes in their lives that required
endurance in overcoming obstacles and difficulties. This endurance indicates strength,
determination, and authenticity?qualities that are also required in the pursuit of awakening.
In the verses below, we hear of the great suffering that preceded the ordination of these
women. Tragedy, insanity, and abuse transformed into great accomplishment.
We learn Patacara?s backstory in the commentaries.34 The death of her husband,
children, and parents culminates in the loss of her own sanity?Patacara?s is a cautionary
tale on the uncertainty of life. Said to have come from the family of a merchant,
Patacara ran off with one the servants of her house. She had a child and then became
pregnant again and wanted to return home to give birth there. On the way there, she went
into labor and, during a torrential downpour, ended up giving birth on the side of the
road. Her husband went to find material to build a shelter for her and the children, but
died of snakebite during his search. She decided to continue on to her parent's home,
but misfortune struck and both children died as she attempted to cross a rising river.
Alone and helpless, she decided to continue homeward, but misfortune struck again.
She learned that her parent's home had collapsed in the storm and all her family
members had died. Grief stricken, Patacara went mad. She lived on the streets and people
avoided her. Finally, she heard the Buddha?s teachings and she mastered her grief. From
that point on, the Buddha trained her in meditation.
Her verse in the Therigatha is a chronology of her awakening?she begins by
lamenting her lack of realization and exposing her doubts:
Patacara then uses an everyday experience in her monastic life as a theme for
awakening. Just as her previous life was a story of personal loss, her awakening story is set
in her private quarters. She says:
There are no other verses in the Therigatha where a nun?s bed is mentioned.
Patacara?s poem is intimate in the sense of bringing her audience into her personal
space, both emotionally and physically.
The Therigatha contains many stories about the perils of domestic life, but
Uppalavanna?s poem is particularly vivid. It is a complex poem, moving through themes,
voice and time. The first three verses describe the dangers that arise from ?sexual urges.? The
verses begin with a description of her past when she was forced into a polygamous marriage
with her mother. Beginning in a first person narrative, Uppalavanna recalls the past:
Her second stanza continues describing the ?cursed? events of sharing a husband
with her mother, saying ?sexual urges?dirty, foul, dangerous.?38 In the third verse, the
narrative voice turns to the third person, describing how these negative experiences
compelled her to ordain:
The fourth verse returns to a first person narrative and is set in the present. Given
the subject matter, the reader assumes a considerable amount of time has passed. In
this verse, Uppalavanna describes the extraordinary abilities that she has attained from
her spiritual activities, which presumably took great effort over a period of years.
Uppalavanna has gone beyond the set descriptions of awakening we find in the
verses?she has attained extraordinary psychic powers (iddhiya).42 When the
bhikkhunis describe their awakening, they often mention the powers they acquire along
the way, but Uppalavanna?s abilities to manifest objects are ?powers beyond normal?:
In the commentary, Dhammapala writes that Uppalavanna created the chariot so that
she could go see the Buddha as he performed miracles. In Outstanding Bhikkhunis,
Venerable Analayo includes the details recounted in the Agama version, which says
that Uppalavanna ?transformed herself into a universal monarch in order to move
easily to the front of a large crowd and receive the Buddha.?44
Uppalavanna?s attainments are many and versatile. Later in the poem, she takes on
Mara when she goes into the forest alone and he tries to frighten her with the threat of
rape. Uppalavanna?s reply to Mara makes clear that she is not intimated by his taunts;
in fact, she ridicules him with her response:
As a poem representing a female voice, Uppalavanna?s retort has spurred much
interest. She is admired and used as an example of both the vulnerabilities and the strength
of being female. According to one commentary, the bhikkhuni Uppalavanna suffered
sexual abuse as a co-wife married to the same man as her mother. In another version, a
relative hid under her bed and raped her when she was alone.46 With its references to
sex and power, it is not surprising that authors of subsequent commentaries have
created imaginary Uppalavannas for hundreds of years.47 Complex though it is,
Uppalavanna?s poem in the Therigatha makes two very real points about the lives of
women in ancient India that the commentaries seem to ignore: first, their sex made them
vulnerable, and second, they had the capacity to develop tremendous meditative power.
It isn?t clear how Bhadda Kundalakesa?s early life relates to her development of
mastery. In all versions from the commentaries, she is both a victim and a murderer.
Hallisey recounts the Dhammapala commentary in which Bhadda, the daughter of a
wealthy merchant, sees a thief named Sattuka being led away and she falls in love with
him. Bhadda tells her father that she cannot live without this man and her father buys the
convict?s release, after which Bhadda marries him and becomes his devoted wife. Sattuka,
a recalcitrant criminal, connives to steal her valuable jewelry. Bhadda learns of his scheme
and kills him. Aware that, as a murderer, she must leave her home, she ordains as a Jain
nun. Shaving her head, not bathing or cleaning her teeth, Bhadda wears the one robe that
is allowed by Jain doctrine and walks throughout India debating religious views.
After debating Sariputta and losing to him, he sends her to Vultures Peak to meet the Buddha.
The Apadana gives another version of Bhadda's going forth. While still a Jain nun,
Bhadda was sitting outside reflecting on Jain philosophical doctrines when she saw a dog
approach and drop from its jaws a mutilated human hand infested with maggots. Seeing
this macabre sight provokes a deep spiritual shock in Bhadda. Intent on finding someone
capable of explaining the significance of that event, she manages to meet the Buddha.49
Bhadda?s stories have a modern ring to them: she appears to make her own choices,
albeit bad ones, until she meets the Buddha.
Sona is another woman who sought ordination as a way to overcome the suffering
brought by the disappointments and pitfalls of domestic life. Her verse begins with a
reflection on her life as a wife and mother that brought her to the Buddha?s sangha.50
It was after I gave birth to ten sons with this body
when I was weak and old that I approached a nun.51
The commentary provides details about her past, referring to her as ?Sona with
many children,? and reports that earlier in her life, Sona?s husband, an ardent follower
of the Buddha, had left her and their children to become a monk. Sona raised their
ten children alone and when they were finally grown, she gave them all of her land
and possessions, keeping nothing for herself, assuming that they would look after her.
But rather than support her in her old age, Sona?s children began to see her as a
burden. This betrayal embittered her, but ultimately spurred her to examine her life and
pursue ordination. Subsequently, Sona realized that ordaining late in life, set in her
ways, could be an obstacle to awakening. To overcome a lifetime of habits, she
trained constantly, with diligence and determination. It is said that she spent day and
night in rigorous meditations. Of her awakening, Sona says:
In contrast, Dhammadinna and Sakula represent women who chose to leave marriage
and family in order to pursue the spiritual life. Their motivation did not arise from
either desperation or despair. Both women left the relative safety and ease of domestic
life in exchange for a life as alms mendicants.
As Dhammadinna?s story goes, her husband, Visakha, heard the teachings of the
Buddha and returned home determined to ordain as a monk. When he asked what
she might do under the circumstances, Dhammadinna told him that she too wanted to
ordain. As it turned out, Visakha changed his mind and remained a layman. Dhammadinna,
on the other hand, joined the community of nuns and practiced diligently, becoming a
meditation master. She writes,
She who has given rise to the wish for freedom
and is set on it, shall be clear in mind.53
On the other hand, Sakula experienced a life-changing spiritual experience upon
hearing the teachings of an enlightened Buddhist monk. She says,
I was living at home when I heard the Buddha?s teaching from a monk,
and I saw the Dhamma perfectly, knew freedom, the eternal state (nibbanam).54
Sakula reports that just by hearing the dhamma, she touched enlightenment
(nibbanam). Her life was so radically changed by this that she was moved to leave behind her
children, her home and her wealth.
Who I was then left behind son and daughter, wealth and grain,
after cutting off my hair, I went forth into homelessness.55
In this verse, Sakula says that she now sees her past self as someone else??who I was
then.? Unlike Patacara, whose tragedies drove her to madness and then ordination, or
Sona, who was abandoned by her children, Sakula?s seemingly affluent and ordinary life
became untenable after her spiritual awakening. In a different twist on the
transformation from domestic constraint to renunciate, Sakula was compelled to ordain not by
tragedy but by spiritual desire. She expresses no regret about leaving her children; in
fact, she describes not what she lost, but what she gained:
I ordained as a nun, I remembered former lives,
the eye that sees the invisible (dibbacakkhum) was clear, spotless, developed.56
As a nun, Sakula developed the power of remembering past lives and, as mentioned
earlier, the Buddha names her foremost in achieving the divine eye. While supernormal
powers are not an end in themselves in Buddhism, they indicate that the practitioner
has attained high levels of realization.
In the Anguttura Nikaya, the Buddha makes clear that these nine bhikkhunis were
eminent among his disciples. And we have read the verses in which younger members of
the monastic community acknowledge the elder bhikkhunis as masters to approach when
needing guidance. Some are of these women were beautiful but vain, and others bore
children whom they would love and lose. While some are given no choice in their
marriages, others choose their spouses or choose to leave them. Clearly the authors of
these verses exemplify the embodied life of women. What all these women have in
common is that the single most important determining factor in their lives was their
femaleness. The fact that these nuns were recognized for their mastery is remarkable in
and of itself because of the position of women at the time of the Buddha. In other words,
their reputations were heightened because of their femaleness and the singularity of their
embodied experiences?experiences that they transformed into the motivating force
toward awakening. What we learn from these verses is that these women used their
female bodies as the means to enlightenment and became Buddhist masters.
1Anguttara Nikaya (AN) (2012), I 235-247
2I am using Charles Hallisey's 2015 translations and commentary of the Therigatha
(Thi) throughout although I am not using his spelling of the Pali names. For
commentarial material from the Theri-Apadana and other commentaries, here I am using
Nyanaponika and Hecker (2003).
3Recognized foremost for remembering past lives, Bhadda Kapilani's mentions
briefly the downfall of conjugal life described in greater detail in the verses I examine
in the section, Domestic Life. The verse of Kisagotami, who was recognized by the
Buddha as foremost among nuns in wearing coarse robes, includes the story of Patacara
to describe the madness brought on by grief. While Kisagotami's story is perhaps the
better known, Patacara's tragic past was instrumental to her awakening, which
transformed her into one of the most important teachers to the bhikkhunis of the
42Iddhiya are supernormal powers that are achieved along the path of
enlighten46This is said to be the reason why the Buddha created the rule that nuns should
not travel alone or live in the forest.
gives a comprehensive
49Nyanaponika and Heckler, 271
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Anguttura Nikaya . 2012 . (ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi) Wisdom Publications, Somerville
Dhammapala. 2005 . A Treatise on the Paramis (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi) . http://www.accesstoinsight. org/lib/authors/bodhi/ wheel409.html (accessed 30 Mar 2016 ).
Hallisey , Charles. 2015 . Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women . Cambridge : Harvard University Press.
Kuddhaka , Nikaya. 2005 . Dvattimsakara Sutta (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) . http://www.accesstoinsight. org/tipitaka/kn/khp/ khp.1-9.than.html#khp-3.
Majjima , Nikaya. 1998 . Culavadella Sutta (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) . http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.044. than.html.
Majjima , Nikaya. 2008 . Satipatthana Sutta (trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu) . http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn. 010.than.html.
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