The Danger in Attachment to One's Beauty
Ambapali was a wealthy and beautiful Indian courtesan during the time of the Buddha. Before she heard the Buddha preach, her main concern had been to cultivate and maintain her renowned beauty. With the Buddha's guidance, she was able to face the inevitability of aging and the loss of her beauty and to comprehend the suffering of old age. Her verses can also stimulate our own understanding:
My eyes were shining, very brilliant like jewels, very black and long. Overwhelmed by old age, they do not look beautiful. Not otherwise is the utterance of the speaker of truth...
Formerly my hands looked beautiful, possessing delicate signet rings, decorated with gold. Because of old age they are like onions and radishes. Not otherwise is the utterance of the speaker of the truth...
Formerly my body looked beautiful, like a well-polished sheet of gold. (Now) it is covered with very fine wrinkles. Not otherwise is the utterance of the speaker of the truth...
Such was this body. (Now) it is decrepit, the abode of many pains, an old house with its plaster fallen off. Not otherwise is the utterance of the speaker of the truth.
(vv. 257, 264, 266, 270)
Ambapali sees how all the body's charms give way to ugliness and pain as the aging process takes its toll, as the Buddha teaches it must. All physical beauty, no matter how perfect it might seem at one youthful moment, is utterly impermanent. Even at its peak, the brilliance of the eyes is already, if invisibly, starting to grow dim; the firmness of limbs is withering; the smoothness of skin is wrinkling. Impermanence and decay, Ambapali reminds us, is the nature of all bodies and of everything else in the universe as well.
Khema, the queen of King Bimbisara, was another woman who had been enthralled with her own beauty prior to meeting the Buddha. But Khema had made a vow before one of the earlier Buddhas to become great in wisdom under the Buddha Gotama. During the dispensations of several of the intervening Buddhas, she had parks made which she donated to each Buddha and his Sangha.
But in her final lifetime Khema strongly resisted going to see the Buddha Gotama. Perhaps her "Mara forces" were making a last effort to keep her in Samsara ["Cycle of Rebirth"]. They were, however, doomed to fail since by the force of her merits this was to be her final existence. King Bimbisara almost had to trick her into going to the Buddha because Queen Khema was so attached to her looks and was afraid that this would provoke the Buddha's disapproval. If we ever find ourselves resisting the Dharma, we can use Khema's example to remind ourselves of the temporary nature of this mental state. Then we will not take it as a major personal fault. Mind's old habits are not pure, so at times it is bound to struggle against the process of purification.
But the Buddha knew how to tame Khema's vanity and conceit. He created the vivid image of a woman even more attractive than she was. When she came into his presence, Khema saw this other lady fanning the Buddha. Then, before the queen's very eyes, the Buddha made the beautiful image grow older and older until she was just a decaying bag of bones. Seeing this, first Khema realized that her own beauty was not unmatched. This broke her pride. Second and more important, she understood that she herself would likewise have to grow old and decrepit.
The Buddha next spoke a verse and Khema became a stream-enterer. Then in rapid succession she went through all the stages of enlightenment to attain Arhatship on the spot. Thereupon the Buddha told King Bimbisara that she would either have to ordain or to pass away, and the king, unable to bear the thought of losing her so soon, gave her permission to ordain. So, already an arhat, she was ordained — one of the very rare cases of a human being who had achieved Arhatship before entering the Sangha. Khema had clearly built up truly unrivaled paramis ["virutes in the service of attaining enlightenment"] by giving great gifts to earlier buddhas ["fully enlightened teachers"] and by learning their teachings thoroughly. Here again we see the great importance of creating in the present strong good karma based on wisdom, even if we do not attain any of the paths or fruits in this lifetime. The more good deeds accompanied by wisdom that we do now, the easier will it be when the time actually comes for us to reach the goal. Meditation is, of course, the most valuable of such deeds.
In the Therigatha ["Verses of Enlightened Nuns"], Khema's poem takes the form of a conversation with Mara, the being who controls and symbolizes the forces of evil. Mara praised her beauty, and her reply shows how totally her view of herself and of life had changed now that she fully understood the true nature of things:
Through this body vile, foul seat of disease and corruption,
Loathing I feel, and oppression. Cravings of lust are uprooted.
Lusts of the body and mind cut like daggers and javelins.
Speak not to me of delighting in any sensuous pleasure!
All such vanities cannot delight me any more.
Then she identifies Mara with those who believe that mere ritual observances will lead to mental purification. Khema states that such people, who worship fire or the constellations, etc., are ignorant of reality and cannot eliminate their defiling tendencies through such practices. This is why the belief that rites and rituals can bring about liberation has to be eliminated to attain even the stage of stream-entry.
Khema concludes her verses with an exclamation of deep gratitude to the Buddha, the supreme among men. Her last line is a resounding "lion's roar":
(I am) utterly free from all sorrow,
A doer of the Buddha's teachings.
Khema had "done" — that is, put into practice — the message of all the Buddhas, and this had taken her beyond the realms of suffering.