Friday, March 8, 2013

The Buddha's chief female disciple: Khema

Dhr. Seven (re-editing), Wisdom Quarterly version, based on Sister Khema translation from German of Hellmuth Hecker's Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha (BPS)
The historical Buddha with Khema and Uppalavanna, his chief female disciples foremost in wisdom and psychic powers. In fact, this is never found. Here another buddha and two deified figures are shown, Hangzhou, China (Breen Jones/

Prajna Paramita (123Chic/
Just as there were two foremost disciples in the order of monks (Sariputra and Maha Moggallana), likewise the Buddha named two women as foremost amongst nuns, namely Khema and Uppalavanna.
Khema -- whose name means well-settled, composed, security, a synonym for nirvana -- was "foremost in wisdom." She belonged to a royal family from Magadha, the middle country where Siddhartha went in search of enlightenment. When she was of marriageable age, she became one of the chief consorts of the king of Magadha, Bimbisara, who himself became a prominent enlightened disciple of the Buddha.
As beautiful as her appearance, equally beautiful was her life as the wife of an Indian maha-raja "great king"). When she heard about the Buddha from her husband the king, she became interested. But she had a certain reluctance to become involved with his teaching or Dharma and Discipline. Why? She felt that the teaching would run counter to her life of beauty, sense-pleasures, and indulgence.
However the king, out of compassion, thought up a way to encourage her to hear the teaching. He described at length the beauty, harmony, and peace of the monastic complex in the Bamboo Grove, where the Buddha stayed frequently. Because she loved beauty, harmony, and peace, she was soon persuaded to visit.
Decked out in royal splendor of silk and sandalwood, she went to the monastery. The Enlightened One spoke to her and explained the law of radical impermanence affecting all conditioned-beauty. She penetrated this teaching fully and, still dressed in royal garb, attained full enlightenment (or at least the third stage). Just like the monk Maha Kappina -- a former king -- she gained liberation through the power of hearing the Buddha's words while still dressed in splendid garments.
With her husband the king's permission she joined the Order of Nuns. Such a sudden attainment, dawning like lightning, is only possible where the seed of wisdom has long been ripening and where virtue (compassionate nonharming) is fully matured.
An ordinary person, hearing Khema's story, may only see the wonder of the present happening. But a buddha can see beyond this and know that the person before him did not come to full liberation accidentally. It came about like this:

Story of the Past
Taken from the Jatakas or the Buddha's "Birth Stories"
Nuns, Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon, Burma (AFP)
In former times when a teaching-buddha appeared in the world, Khema in past lives [who was not actually Khema, of course, nor any singular being actually traveling through samsara, a minor point but crucial to a Buddhist understanding of reality enabling liberation from ignorance and suffering] also appeared near him, or so it has been recounted.
Due to her inner attraction towards the highest Truth, the Dharma, she always came to birth wherever the bearer and proclaimer of such Truth lived. It is said that already innumerable ages ago she had sold her beautiful hair to give alms to the Buddha Padumuttara. During the time of the Buddha Vipassi, 91 aeons ago, she herself had been a teacher of Dharma. Further it is told that during the three buddhas of our happy aeon, fortunate for having multiple world-teachers, prior to the historical Buddha Gautama, she was a lay disciple and gained happiness through building complexes for the monastic Order or Sangha.
While most beings mill around heavenly or hellish realms during the lifetime of a buddha, Khema always tried to be near the source of wisdom. When there was no buddha appearing in the world, she would be reborn at the time of nonteaching (pacceka) buddhas or bodhisattvas, those striving to become teaching-buddhas.
In one birth she was the wife of the Bodhisat, the future historical Buddha, who always exhorted his peaceful family in this way:
According to what you have got, give alms;
Observing lunar days, keep the precepts pure;
Recollect the thought of death and be mindful of this mortal state.
For in the case of beings like ourselves, death is certain, life is uncertain;
All existing things are transitory and subject to constant decaying.
Therefore, be heedful of your ways day and night.
One day Khema's only son in this life was suddenly killed by the bite of a poisonous snake, yet she was able to maintain equanimity, famously uttering comforting words still read at Buddhist funerals:
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 [is reborn] 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 (J 354).
In another life, it is recorded, she was she daughter-in-law of the Bodhisat (Jataka 397), many times a great empress who dreamed of receiving teachings from the Bodhisat then actually being taught by him (Jatakas 501, 502, 534). It is further recounted that as a queen she was always the wife of that being who later became the Buddha's chief male disciple, Sariputra "foremost in wisdom," who said about her:
Of equal status is the wife,
Loyal, speaking only loving words,
With children, beauty, fame, garlanded,
She always listened to my words (Jataka 502, 534).
This husband in former lives was an honest 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).
Sudden Enlightenment
The perfection of wisdom (EmeraldsRain/
Only because Khema had already purified her heart and perfected it in these virtues over many past existences, she was now mature enough with pure and tranquil emotions and thoughts, that she could accept the ultimate Truth in the twinkling of an eye.
The Buddha praised her as his chief disciple "foremost in wisdom." A story goes with this honor. King Pasenadi was traveling throughout his country. One evening he arrived at a small township. it was early and he felt like having a spiritual-philosophical conversation. He ordered a servant to find a wise ascetic (shraman) or priest (Brahmin) in town. The servant sounded everyone out but could not find anyone for such conversation. He reported this to the king, adding that a nun of the Buddha's Order resided in the town.
It was the enlightened nun Khema, who was famed everywhere for her wisdom and known to be bright, profound, clever, possessed of deep insight, having heard much Dharma. She was a public speaker of great renown, always ready with the right retort. The king at once went to the former queen, greeted her respectfully, and embarked on the following conversation with her:
Pasenadi: Does an awakened one (arhat) exist after death?
Khema: The Enlightened One has not declared that an awakened one exists after death.
P: Then an awakened one does not exist after death?
K: That too, the Enlightened One has not declared.
P: Then the awakened one exists after death and does not exist?
K: Even that, the Enlightened One has not declared.
P: Then one must say, the awakened one neither exists nor not exists after death?
K: That too, the Enlightened One has not declared.
Thereupon the king wanted to know why the Buddha had rejected these four exhaustive possibilities about what happens to someone who reaches the goal the Buddha teaches. 
1. First one must understand what all of these questions imply. The first question corresponds with the view of all those beings whose highest goal is to continue on after death, spurred on by craving for renewed existence (Eternalism). The answer that an awakened one continues to exist after death is the one given by all other religions, including later interpretations of Buddhism (namely, Hindu-influenced Mahayana Buddhism).
2. The second answer that the awakened one does not exist after death would be in keeping with a craving for non-existence (Annihilationism), the popular hope or belief that death marks the utter end of existence. (This is a materialistic/nihilistic view of life, popular in science circles, that what comes into being is only physical and, with the disintegration of that, nothing remains). Because of an urge for definite knowledge and certainly, a definition is sought which could claim that the Five Aggregates of existence -- physical form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness, which are the basis of our clinging to identity, views, objects, and so on -- are completely dissolved and disappear upon the shedding of the body as an enlightened or awakened being, as if deliverance, emancipation, liberation, complete freedom consisted in that mere fact of dissolution.
3. The third answer seeks a compromise: Everything impermanent in an awakened person would be annihilated, but that permanent aspect, as if there were one, one's essence, our actual personality, would remain forever.
4. The fourth answer tries to get out of the predicament by formulating a "neither-nor" situation meant to be satisfying. [This "solution" is formulated with the idea that it is something that words and concepts cannot describe but still uses "exist" and "not exist"]. 
All four formulas were rejected by the Buddha as wrong views -- largely because of their unspoken assumption. They all presuppose that there is an "I" distinct and apart from the factors that comprise it. The ultimate reality is that "I" and "factors" are part of the experience which arises and constantly passes away. Ignorance arises with consciousness. And enlightenment -- awakening from the illusion -- cuts off the ignorance and, moreover, the suffering that also arises.
What did Khema realize?
The One who sees, towering in stone in Thailand (fredMin/
(Susan Murcott/
Only an Enlightened One, or those who have been their disciples, can actually see this. And unless this understanding is awakened, the assumption will again and again come up in the mind that there is an "I," an essentially permanent "self," must be wandering through samsara (the Round of Death and Rebirth).

All religions seem to be teaching that we, our "souls," are gradually ascending higher and higher until we dissolve or are absorbed into the All (Brahman, God, the Universe), which gets called "final liberation." This is a widespread belief the Buddha tried with great effort to dislodge, but it came back. As "enlightened" or lofty as it sounds, it is still trapped in wrong view. The actual answer is so much more subtle that we find it nearly impossible to get; we become entangled in a net of views and paradoxes, contradictions in language and assumptions that do not actually exist. One can really not "think" one's way out of it. BUT one can be disentangled and freed from the circular dilemma.
Others wrongly and dangerously conclude from this that the Buddha teaches the destruction of a "self," as if he taught that there was some permanent being to annihilate. That being does not exist and is not annihilated. Something exists, and the Buddha spoke at length of the aggregates of existence and their dependent arising. Penetrating this leads to liberation.

The Buddha, unlike every other teacher in the world, teaches that there is no "I" or "self," that it has never existed and has never wandered through samsara. The mind is flumoxed, the heart droops: There is existence, dependent on impersonal factors that arise due to causes and conditions. There is identifying with them as a self, but they are not-self (anatta). Ignorance fears what is liberating because it feels as if it is losing something. All that disappears is suffering, so we cling to suffering. The only antidote is awakening.
Kwan Yin (Dlakme/
What we call "I," "consciousness," or the "world" are in reality constantly changing processes. They are always in flux, throwing up the illusion of "self," born in the present, speculated on in the past and future. 
The way to liberation is to stop clinging to and speculating about the "I," to become free from habitual views and formulas, and come to the end of the heart/mind's illusory conjuring.
Not through increasing the thought processes about phenomena, but through mindfulness (presence of mind in the here and now, lucid bare-awareness) of the arising of phenomena, which leads to reducing the chatter in the mind, can liberation be attained.
Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think -- anything that can be contained in consciousness, no matter how wide-ranging and pure it is -- has arisen due to factorial causes [it is nothing but factors that are not it]; therefore, it is impermanent and subject to constant decay and dissolution.
Everything subject to decay and change is not-self (anatta). Because the Five clung-to Aggregates are subject to dissolution and destruction, they are not "my" self, are not "I," are not "mine." 
"I" cannot prevent their decay, their being off-center (dukkha), becoming damaged, faulty, and their eventual passing away. 
The conclusion that the self must then be outside and independent of the Five Aggregates does not follow either. This, too, is a thought, a logical deduction, a calculation and therefore just another aggregate (mental formation) clung to.
Any designation of what an awakened one is after death is an illusion, born out of the compulsion for naming. With words it will be misleading.
"Magic Buddha" (fredMin/flickr)
Whoever has followed the teaching of the Awakened One, as Khema did, is greatly relieved to discover (to know-and-see for oneself) that the Buddha did not teach the destruction of an existing entity, nor the annihilation of a self. 
Conversely, those not instructed by the Enlightened One or the liberating Dharma live, without exception, in a world of perpetual destruction, of uncontrollable transiency in the realm of death and dying (and rebirth).
Whatever they look upon as "I" and "mine" is constantly vanishing. And only upon renouncing these things, which are unsatisfactory due to their radical impermanence, can they reach a refuge of peace and security, a khema called nirvana.
Just as the lion's roar of the Enlightened One proclaimed:
"Open are the doors to the deathless!
Who has ears to hear, come and listen!"
Khema and the King
Khema tried to explain this to King Pasenadi with a simile: She asked him whether he had a clever mathematician in his service, who could calculate for him how many hundred, thousand, or hundred-thousand grains of sand are contained in the Ganges river.
The king replied that it is not possible. The nun then asked him whether he knew of anyone who could figure out how many gallons of water are contained in the great ocean. That, too, the king considered impossible. Khema asked him why it is impossible. 
The king replied that it is because the ocean is mighty, deep, and unfathomable.
Just so, explained Khema, is the Enlightened One or any awakened person. Whoever wishes to define the awakened (the accomplished arhats) could only do so through the Five clung-to Aggregates, and neither the Buddha nor anyone who has reached enlightenment clings to them any longer.
"Released from clinging to form, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness is the Enlightened One, as mighty, deep, and unfathomable as the great ocean."
Therefore, it is not appropriate to say that he existed or did not exist, or existed and did not exist, nor neither existed nor not existed. All of these designations could not define what is indefinable.
Just this is liberation: liberation from the compulsion to identify as "self" that constant flux of the Five Aggregates, which are actually impersonal, impermanent, and imperiled (liable to suffering). They are never the same from one moment to the next, but only appear as a discharge of arising from the formations.
The king rejoiced in the penetrating explanation of the liberating Truth by Khema. Later, he met the Buddha and put to him the same four questions.
The Buddha explained it exactly as Khema had, even using the same words. The king was amazed and recounted his conversation with the wise Khema, the enlightened nun (S 44,1).
Sources: S 17,23; S 44,1; A I,24; II,62; IV,176; VIII,91. Thag. 139-144; J 354;397;501;502;534;539; Ap II No.18 (verse 96); Bu 26,19.

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