Thursday, June 2, 2011

Foremost in Wisdom (the Nun Khema)

Hellmuth Hecker (Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha) Wisdom Quarterly update


The Buddha had two foremost female disciples, the nuns Khema and Uppalavanna, just as there were two foremost disciples in the Order of Monks, namely Sariputta and Moggallana.

The name Khema means well-settled or composed or security. It is a synonym for nirvana. The nun Khema belonged to a royal family from the land of Magadha, India, where the Buddha resided as he spread the Dharma.

When she was of marriageable age, young Khema became one of the chief consorts of King Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha. As beautiful as her appearance was her life as a princess-in-waiting. King Bimbisara was a great supporter devoted to the Buddha and his message.

When Khema heard about the Buddha from her husband, she became interested. But she was reluctant to become involved with his teaching: She felt that the Dharma of an ascetic teacher might run counter to her life of indulgence in sense-pleasures.

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 Buddhist monastery in the Bamboo Grove, where the Buddha frequently resided as he toured the country on foot. She loved beauty, harmony, and peace and was therefore persuaded to visit.

Decked out in her royal splendor, she went to the monastery. The Enlightened One spoke to her and explained the law of impermanence of all conditioned beauty. She penetrated this sutra fully. And still dressed in royal garments, she attained enlightenment.

Just like the Buddhist monk Mahakappina -- a former king -- she likewise became liberated through the power of [her previous karma ripening as] the Buddha spoke. She realized the Truth still dressed in the garments of a lay person.

With her husband's consent, she joined the Order of Nuns. Such an attainment, like lightning, is only possible when the seed of wisdom has long been ripening and virtue is fully matured.

An ordinary person hearing Khema's story marvels at the wonder of the sudden attainment. But it was not the strength of what the Buddha said alone; Khema's attainment had a great deal to do with her own karma (actions).

A supremely enlightened buddha sees beyond appearances. This woman did not come to full liberation accidentally. Rather, it came about like this.

In former times whenever a buddha appeared in the world, then-Khema also appeared nearby, or so it has been said in the texts. Due to her inner attraction towards the highest Truth (dharma or "unchanging Truth" the Dharma, or doctrine, points towards), she always came to birth wherever the bearer and proclaimer of such Truth lived.

It is said that innumerable ages ago she had sold her beautiful hair to give alms to the Buddha Padumuttara. During the time of the Buddha Vipassi, which was 91 aeons ago, she had been a teacher of Dharma. Further it is told, that during the three buddhas of our present and very fortunate aeon prior to the historical Buddha Gautama, Khema (in former lives) was a lay disciple who gained happiness by building abbeys for the community of Buddhist monastics.

While most living beings mill about heavenly or hellish realms during the life of a buddha, Khema always gravitated to the source of wisdom by her inner affinity to such teachings. When there was no supremely enlightened buddha appearing in the world, which is most of the time, she was reborn at the time of non-teaching (pacceka) buddhas or bodhisattvas (beings striving for supreme enlightenment).

In one birth she was the wife of the Bodhisat (the future Buddha), who always exhorted his peaceful family in this way:

According to what you have got, give alms;
Observe the lunar observance days and keep the precepts pure;
Dwell upon the thought of death being mindful of your mortal state.
For in the case of beings death is certain, life is uncertain;
All composite things are transitory and subject to decay.
Therefore, be heedful of your ways day and night.


One day Khema's only son was suddenly killed by the bite of a poisonous snake, yet she was able to keep total equanimity:

Death of a Loved One
Uncalled he hither came, without leave departed, too;
Even as he came, he went. What cause is here for woe?
No friend's lament can touch the ashes of the dead:
Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.
Though I should fast and weep, how would it profit me?
My kith and kin, alas, would more unhappy be.
No friend's lament can touch the ashes of the dead:
Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.
Buddhist Birth Tale (Jataka) 354

Another time -- so it is told -- she was she daughter-in-law of the Bodhisat (Jataka 397), many times a great empress who dreamed of receiving teachings from the Bodhisat, and then actually was taught by him (Jatakas 501, 502, 534). It is further recounted that as a queen she was always the wife of the future Sariputra (the Buddha's chief male disciple, "foremost in wisdom"), who said about her:

Of equal status is the wife,
Deferential, speaking only loving words,
With children, beauty, fame, garlanded,
She always listens to my words.
Jatakas 502, 534

This husband in former lives was a righteous king, who upheld the ten royal virtues: generosity, morality, renunciation, truthfulness, gentleness, patience, amity, harmlessness, humility, and justice. Because of these virtues the king lived in happiness and bliss. Khema, too, lived in accordance with these precepts. (Jataka 534)

It was only because Khema had purified her heart and perfected it in these virtues in many past lives that she was now mature enough to immediately benefit from the Buddha's instruction. She had such pure and tranquil emotions that she could accept the ultimate Truth in the twinkling of an eye.

[The reason she did not realize the Truth much earlier was that she had wished to be a foremost disciple for a future buddha, which delayed her own attainment of liberation as she developed the perfection (paramis) to make this possible.]

Nearly unknown, the Buddha praised Khema as the Buddhist nun "foremost in wisdom."

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