Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Buddha's Sister: "Beautiful Joy"

Myanmarpedia (Burmese Buddhist records) edited by Wisdom Quarterly
Enthralled with her own beauty and popularity even as a nun, Sundari Nanda managed to break free and become enlightened (

Sundari Nanda
was the the stepsister of Prince Siddhattha (who years later became the Buddha), the daughter of his father King Suddhodana and his adoptive mother Queen Maha Pajapati Gotami (the sister of Siddhattha's biological mother).

Because she brought great pleasure and joy to her parents, she was named Nanda, which means joy and pleasure. Nanda grew up to be extremely graceful and beautiful and was often referred to as Sundari Nanda or "Nanda the Beautiful."

When her mother, Queen Maha Pajapati, and other Sakyan ladies gave up the household life to take up the spiritual life, Sundari Nanda decided to join them. However, she did not do so out of confidence in the Buddha or the Dhamma. She was ordained as a nun to conform to the wishes of her relatives, whom she loved greatly.

Lovely Nanda was very popular and respected by everyone. People were touched by the sight of a stunning royal daughter, the sister of the Buddha, wandering the streets for alms in the simple saffron robes of a nun.

Her mind, however, was not on her enlightenment and emancipation from rebirth and suffering (samsara). She was instead enthralled with her beauty and popularity.

She knew this was not in keeping with the high ideals of the Noble Order. Afraid that the Buddha would admonish her for her vanity and preoccupation with beauty and popularity, she avoided seeing him.

One day the Buddha called for all of the female monastics in residence near him to come one at a time for instruction. Sundari Nanda did not comply because she felt guilty and did not want to face him. The Buddha then called for her specifically. She came and he gave her spiritual instruction that emphasized all of her good qualities.

Even though this discourse made her feel joyful and uplifted, the Buddha realized that her mind/heart (citta or stream of consciousness) was not yet ready for a liberating discourse on the Four Noble Truths.

Seeing that she was still enthralled with her beauty, he created an exquisite vision of a beautiful youthful maiden whose beauty surpassed lovely Nanda’s own radiance. He then caused the image to suddenly age before her eyes.

Sundari Nanda's vision: Beauty fades quickly with time lapse magic.

Sundari Nanda saw the beautiful maiden shrivel, her skin growing wrinkled and discolored, her hair turning grey and falling out. She saw the exquisite form collapse with in frailty and finally die, bloat, and disintegrate into a mass of foul liquid, and bones, and dust.

As the body decomposed becoming an unspeakably ugly sight, bloated with worms and giving a stench, lovely Nanda realized the nature of this body with which she had been so preoccupied. Disillusioned and finally freed of the fetter of a long held attachment, her mind was ready to see clearly the profound teaching of the Buddha's Dhamma (Dharma).

The Buddha then explained to her the liberating Doctrine of impermanence and the hidden repulsive aspects of her very beautiful body. He gave her the loathsomeness of the body (in 32 parts) as her special subject of meditation.

Because of her strong attraction to her beauty -- even in light of the vision that had temporarily freed her of it -- it was necessary for her to contemplate the loathsomeness of the body to penetrate the Truth.

In no long time, Sundari Nanda attained full enlightenment (became an arahant) and expressed her struggle for this supreme attainment and the bliss of nibbana (nirvana) as follows:

“Nanda, behold this body,
Ailing, impure, and putrid,
Develop the meditation on the foul,
Make the mind unified, well composed.
As is this so was that,
As is that so this will be [cause and effect],
Putrid, exhaling a foul odor,
A thing in which fools delight.
Inspecting it as it is,
Unwearying by day and night,
With my own wisdom I pierced right through,
And so saw for myself.
As I dwelled ever heedful,
Dissecting it with methodical attention
[parsing the body into its contituent parts with the mind],
I saw this body as it really is,
Both inside and outside, internal and external.
Then I became disenchanted with this body,
My inward attachment faded away.
Being diligent and detached at heart,
I live in peace, fully quenched.”
– (Therigatha 82-86)

(Gnostic Nunnery)

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