Monday, July 14, 2008

Female Foremost in Wisdom

The Buddha had two chief disciples, both recognized as "foremost in wisdom." The first was the monk Sariputra Thero, the other the beautiful nun Khema Theri.

Ven. Khema Theri's story dates back aeons to the time of Padumuttara Buddha. She was then a servant maid. She offered three pieces of appetizing sweets to that buddha. Thereafter, she cut her hair tresses and sold them. With the proceeds she held an almsgiving. She aspired to be the chief disciple. During the Dispensation of Vipassi Buddha, she listened to his sermon and, as a result, entered the Order and became a nun.

She was an able exponent of Dharma. During the span of life -- which at that time was reputedly 10,000 years -- she rendered signal services to the Dispensation by spreading the Dharma far and wide. Thereafter to two of the buddhas in succession, Kakusanda and Konganna, having been born to wealthy families, she was able to offer shelter to the buddhas, acquiring much merit in the process. Thereafter, in the Dispensation of Buddha Kassapa, she was born as the daughter of Kiki, the King of Benares, and her name was Samsari. She listened to that buddha so ardently that she built and donated a magnificient monastery to him.

In the Dispensation of Gautama the Buddha, she was born in a princely family in Sagala with the name Khema. The color of her complexion was golden. She was exceedingly beautiful and married King Bimbisara of Kosala. She was reluctant, however, to visit Shakyamuni Buddha for fear that the Blessed One would condemn the “fleeting nature” of beauty.

Every time she visited the temple, she dodged meeting the Buddha. One day the king ordered his men to take her to the Buddha. On her arrival, the Buddha used his siddhi-powers to create a female attendant of unsurpassed beauty. Khema was struck by her beauty. While Khema was thus enthralled, she felt that beauty could only beguile. Knowing Khema's mind, the Buddha then made the figure rapidly pass from youth through middle age, old age, and extreme old age devoid of all beauty.

Enthralling beauty thus gave way to graphic hideousness. Khema understood the meaning and felt what was in store for her -- the impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal nature of existence.

To a mind thus prepared and ready to receive the liberating truth, the Buddha preached. The seeds of the Dharma fell on good ground. For Khema became a stream-enterer (sotapanna), the first stage of liberation.

The Buddha illustrated his sermon by bringing before her mind the lesson of the spider and the web. As soon as a fly strikes a web, the spider by the motion thus generated takes it as a signal and attacks by devouring the fly. As time goes on, the spider becomes wedded to the web. So, too, humans are wedded to passion and lust. Khema's mind understood, and momentarily freed of craving, she became a saint (arahant), fully liberated from suffering.

She asked the king, her husband, for permission to ordain as a Buddhist nun. The king, himself a noble disciple of the Buddha (at least a stream-enterer), readily consented.

One day sometime later, Mara Deva (supernaturally adopting the guise of a handsome young man) tempted Khema. He was utterly rebuffed. Undone, he took flight. One night soon after, Khema thought of visiting the Buddha. But at that time the Buddha was with Sakka, chief of the dieties in his realm. Rather than disturb the Buddha, Khema wheeled around in the air and disappeared. Sakka on seeing this remarkable display was soon apprised of its meaning by the Buddha. And addressing the monastic and lay disciples, the Buddha declared Khema "foremost in wisdom" among all his female disciples.

Fair maid lost in thy beauty
Was rescued by the Great Sage
Thy mind as keen as razor's edge
Thou heard the call of Duty
Khema - Foremost in Wisdom
Leigh Brasington version

The name Khema means "well-settled," "composed," or "security" and is a synonym for Nirvana. The nun Khema belonged to a royal family from the land of Magadha. When she was of marriageable age, she became one of the chief consorts of King Bimbisara. As beautiful as her appearance was, equally beautiful was her life as the wife of an Indian Maharaja.

When she heard about the Buddha from her husband, she became interested. But she had a certain reluctance to become involved with his teaching. She felt that the teaching would run counter to her life of sense-pleasures and indulgences. The king, however, knew how he could influence her to listen to the teaching. He described at length the harmony, peace, and beauty of the monastery in the Bamboo Grove, which was where the Buddha stayed frequently.

Because she loved beauty, harmony, and peace, she was persuaded to visit. Decked out in royal splendor in silk and sandalwood paste, she went to the monastery and was gradually drawn to the hall where the Buddha was teaching. The Buddha, who knew her mind, created by his psychic powers a beautiful young woman standing beside him fanning him.

Khema thought to herself, "Never before have I seen such a woman! I myself do not come within a fraction of her beauty! Surely those who say the ascetic Gotama disparages beauty are misrepresenting him." Then the Buddha made the form gradually morph through youth, middle age, and into old age until it finally fell to the ground lifeless. Only then did Khema realize the vanity of external beauty and the fleeting nature of life. She thought, "Has such a body as that come to be wrecked? If so my body too must share this fate!" She was established in the fruit of stream-entry, the first [of four] levels of enlightenment. The Buddha then taught her the Dharma, concluding with:

Those smitten with passion
fall back
into a self-made stream,
like a spider snared in its own web.
But having cut it, the enlightened set forth,
free of longing, abandoning
all suffering and stress (Dhp. 347)

She penetrated this sermon fully and attained total enlightenment, becoming liberated through the power of the Buddha's words while still decked in her royal garments. With her husband's permission she joined the Order of Nuns. The Buddha later praised her as foremost among all the nuns in wisdom.
Edited from Pen Portraits Ninety-three Eminent Disciples of the Buddha by C. De Saram. Reprinted for free distribution by the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation (Taipei, Taiwan); Leigh Brasington version:

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