Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Beautiful Princess's Spiritual Journey

Wisdom Quarterly edit: Illustrated Jataka & Other Stories of the Buddha, C.B. Varma
Princess Kalyani, the Buddha's would-be sister-in-law of, decided to become a nun.

Janapada Kalyani ("loveliest in the land") was to become the Buddha's sister-in-law. But when all hopes of her fiance, the Buddha's half-brother Prince Nanda, returning to her withered away, she sat alone in the palace. Gradually the renowned beauty recovered from the trauma of losing both her prince and her hopes of becoming queen.

As far as she could understand, Nanda had left her. He had also left behind the throne and their new palace the day before their wedding to become an ascetic under his slightly older brother, the Buddha.

She had seen Nanda following the Buddha with a retinue of monks toward the monastery after a meal at their family's royal palace. She had called out to him from the balcony to return to her quickly, not knowing that he was only carrying the Buddha's bowl to the gate out of respect with no conscious intention of detaching, abandoning her, breaking off the marriage, or becoming a monk.

But he did not return. And in the course of time, she felt that her entire life was to be a waste. There was nothing very significant for her to pursue in the palace. She therefore decided to also join the Buddhist monastic order (Sangha). She renounced the sensuous home life under the guidance of Maha Pajapati Gotami, the Buddha and Nanda's mother.

Ven. Maha Pajapati was the first Buddhist nun in history, having founded the Order of Buddhist Nuns (Bhikkhuni Sangha) with the help of Ananda by asking the Buddha if women were equal. There is a new debate as to whether or not the Buddha subordinated the status of nuns by instituting eight extra rules for them as a condition of allowing female ordination. There is also doubt about whether he said his choice in doing so would cut by half the life of the Dispensation. It seems much more likely that these things were the products of monks unable to come to terms with the Buddha's progressive stand on women's equality.

Nevertheless, although Janapada Kalyani had outwardly renounced the world, her attachment to her own body and beauty remained intense. She was very proud of her physical charms.

As a result, she did not dare give ear to the Buddha’s discourses, which she felt would only highlight the impermanence of worldly phenomena like good looks.

She never allowed even the thought that her own unsurpassed beauty could some day fade away.

But it eventually happened that while visiting the Buddha with other nuns from the abbey (many of them also former royalty from the Buddha's family) she heard him preach.

The Buddha knew her mind with his psychic ability. He therefore created the mental form of a surpassingly gorgeous woman, who stood fanning him before he started his discourse.

While listening to the sutra, Janapada Kalyani was riveted by this young maiden's stunning beauty. Then as the discourse progressed, she saw the maiden aging, passing the stages of decrepitude with:

  • wrinkled skin
  • greying hair
  • drooping breasts

Moreover, she also witnessed firsthand the change in the people's gaze, which was now no longer lustful and eager but cold and indifferent as they looked at her fanning the Buddha.

The aging continued and worsened until she saw her dead body begin to decompose in a mass of filth.

This startling demonstration filled Kalyani with a sense of spiritual urgency and mindfulness. The Buddha had sped up the inevitable not to distress her, but to impress on her the liberating-truth and the reason for temporarily detaching from everything impermanent.

Finally, detached from the mental bondage of craving for sensuality, she was able to really hear the sermon. It elevated Kalyani to the point of stream entry. This is the first stage of enlightenment, which results from seeing all phenomenal things as: passing, distressing, and utterly depending on supporting conditions for their existence. She realized (not believed) the truth of the impersonal, "empty" nature of things (anatta). And leaving behind desire for all things that rise and fall, she glimpsed nirvana -- the deathless, unsurpassable bliss.

Some time later, on hearing the Buddha deliver the discourse on the process of the body's decomposition (Kayavicchandika Sutra), Janapada Kalyani attained full enlightenment.

SOURCES: Introduction, Glossary, Bibliography. Samyutta Nikaya iv.341; Udana Commentary 170; Jataka 1.394; Majjhima Nikaya i.387; Dhammapada Atthakatha i.105; Theragatha Atthakatha i.318.

What Happened to Prince Nanda?
Nanda Sutra, Inspired Utterances (Udana) 3.2, Wisdom Quarterly translation
Thus have I heard. The Buddha was once staying near Savatthi in Jeta's Grove at Anathapindika's monastery. On that occasion young Nanda, his brother, the son of the same father as the Buddha and mothers who were sisters, informed a number of monks:

"Friends, I am discontented with leading the high life" [brahmacariya, the supreme life of celibacy and spiritual exertion]. I am unable to endure it [because of my fiance, the beautiful Janapada Kalyani, waiting for me in the palace]. I will give up the training and return to the low life."

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