Monday, November 16, 2009

The Pregnant Nun

"Octomom" Nadya Suleman, Halloween costume as pregnant nun with babies dressed as devils (

THERE WAS ONCE A YOUNG WOMAN who had only been married for a short time when she realized that her true calling was to be a nun (bhikkhuni) rather than a wife. Her good husband’s heart broke to hear her ask permission to leave him. But because he loved her dearly, he allowed her to go and fulfill her wish.

She thus entered the nunhood and became a disciple of Devadatta, little knowing that she was already pregnant at the time. As the months rolled by, her condition became obvious. The other nuns took her to see Devadatta, who demanded that she disrobe. However, she refused to do so.

“Why should I disrobe,” she asked, “if I have not broken any monastic rule?” Instead, she went to the Buddha and became one of his disciples. While the Buddha knew that she had not violated any of the monastic precepts, for the sake of her good name as well as that of the Order, the Buddha requested a public hearing of her case in the presence of the king. The aim of doing so was to prove the blamelessness of this nun once and for all and to remove the last traces of doubt that anyone might have concerning her condition.

The expectant mother was then thoroughly questioned by one of the Buddha’s female followers who was able to establish that the nun had indeed become pregnant while she was still a lay woman and not after having entered the nunhood. A monk appointed by the Buddha to oversee the case then made a public declaration of the nun's blamelessness. Everyone gathered to hear the proceedings, including the king, returned home satisfied.

When the nun gave birth to a baby boy, the king adopted him as his very own son. However, at the age of seven, upon learning that his mother was a nun, the little boy left the palace and became a novice. At the age of 20, he underwent full ordination and became a monk. Proceeding to the forest, after diligent practice consisting of balanced-effort (both calm and consistent, rather than straining and striving) he attained complete enlightenment (arhantship). Thereafter, he continued to live in the forest alone for more than twelve years.

When his mother finally got to see him again, she could not contain her excitement. She ran up to him with tears of joy in her eyes. The son, however, remained equanimous saying to her, “You are acting like a worldly mother and not as one who has entered the Order. Have you not learned the joy of restraint?” Then to emphasize his point, he walked away -- knowing full well that if he had greeted his mother otherwise, she would have remained emotionally attached to him and her own spiritual and meditative progress would have been hampered.

But unaware of her son’s deeply compassionate motives, the mother at first could not get over how harshly he had treated her. She was heartbroken. Later, however, she began to understand that her son was trying to help her. With her new understanding in mind, she practiced more diligently and consistently and began to realize the futility of all emotional attachment. Letting go of such attachment, she too became an arahant (arhat, saint, completely enlightened disciple).

The monastics who knew the story of the pregnant nun and her son remarked that if the mother had been foolish enough to disrobe as Devadatta had bid her, she and her son would not have become saints. “They were lucky, Venerable Sir,” they added, “to have come to you for their guide (sarana).” The Buddha replied, “In trying to attain arahantship, you must strive diligently and depend on yourself rather than anyone else.”

One indeed is one’s own refuge (sarana). What other refuge can
there be? With oneself thoroughly controlled, one can
attain a refuge which is difficult to attain.
Dhammapada 160


Some American Buddhists might argue that monasticism should be condemned. It's unnatural, it's outdated, it's severe asceticism. But Wisdom Quarterly asks the question, What is the point of renunciation, celibacy, a peaceful life, and meditation? It is not an end in itself, not something to be undertaken because workaday life is too hard or painful.

Monasticism -- at least temporary ordination -- is wisely undertaken to achieve the goals that otherwise elude us. If one's meditation is not going well, renounce. And not so mysteriously, the mind will rest on its object and lead to remarkable attainments in virtue, concentration, and insight. These goals are both excellent mundane karma and phenomenal supramundane karma.

Buddhist temples in the US and in Buddhist countries encourage temporary ordination. Such ordinations are not binding commitments to chanting, chastity, and poverty. Rather, grasped correctly, they are extraordinarily rare opportunities to make merit, meditate, and experience a tremendous amount of freedom -- freedom from the cramped dustiness of household life with its debts, obligations, and worries. It is a remarkable thing that Buddhism was the first world religion to establish nunneries to give women the same opportunities as men for their education, participation in society, and enlightenment. And Wisdom Quarterly backs these goals 100%. The Buddha's dispensation would be incomplete without a Bhikkhuni Sangha.