Sunday, July 15, 2018

Female enlightenment: Queen Samavati

Hellmuth Hecker, Buddhist Women at the Time of the Buddha, Sister Khema (trans. from German); Dhr. Seven, Kalyani Mitta, Amber Larson, Sayalay Aloka (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
What's enlightenment? Realizing the four truths
In the days when India Magadha was the fortunate home of an Awakened One, a husband and wife lived within its borders with an only daughter, Samavati, who was exceedingly beautiful.

Their family life was a happy and harmonious one. Then one day pestilence broke out in their hometown. Among those fleeing from the disaster area was this family with their grown up daughter.
They went to Kosambi, the capital of the kingdom of Vamsa in the valley of the river Ganges. The municipality had erected a public eating hall for refugees. There the daughter, Samavati, went to obtain food. The first day she took three portions, the second day two portions, and on the third day only one portion.
Mitta, the man who was distributing the food, could not resist asking her ironically whether she had finally realized the capacity of her stomach.

Samavati replied calmly: On the first day her father had died, so she only needed food for two people; on the second day her mother had succumbed to the dreaded disease, so she only needed food for herself. The official felt ashamed about his sarcastic remark and wholeheartedly begged her forgiveness.

A long conversation ensued. When he found out that she was all alone in the world, he proposed to adopt her as his foster child. She was happy to accept and was now relieved of all worries about her livelihood.
Samavati immediately began helping her foster father with the distribution of the food and the care of the refugees.
Thanks to her efficiency and care, the former chaos became channeled into orderly activity. Nobody tried to get ahead of others any more, nobody quarreled, and everyone was content.
Soon the king's finance minister, Ghosaka, became aware that the public food distribution was taking place without noise and tumult. When he expressed his praise and appreciation to the food-distributor, the official replied modestly that his foster-daughter was mainly responsible for this.

In this way Ghosaka met Samavati and was so impressed with her noble bearing that he decided to adopt her as his own daughter. His food-distributor consented, reluctantly and woefully. He loved her, but he did not want to be in the way of her good fortune.

So Finance Minister Ghosaka took her into his house, and she thereby became heiress of a vast fortune and became part of the most exalted circles of the land.

The king was Udena, who was living in Kosambi at the time. And he had two chief consorts. One was Vasuladatta, whom he had married for political reasons and because she was very beautiful, but these were her only assets. The second one, Magandiya, was not only very beautiful, but also very clever though without heart. So the king was not emotionally contented with his two wives.
One day King Udena met the charming, adopted-daughter of his finance minister and fell in love with her at first sight. He felt magically attracted by her loving and generous nature.

Samavati had exactly what was missing in both his other wives. King Udena sent a messenger to Finance Minister Ghosaka and asked him to give Samavati to him in marriage. Ghosaka was thrown into an emotional upheaval. He loved Samavati above all else, and she had become indispensable to him. She was the delight of his life.

On the other hand, he knew the king's temper and was afraid to deny him his request. But in the end his attachment to Samavati won out, and he thought: "Better to die than to live without Samavati."
As usual, King Udena lost his temper. In his fury he fired Ghosaka and banned him from his kingdom but did not allow Samavati to accompany him into exile. He took over his former finance minister's property and locked up his magnificent mansion.

Samavati was desolate that Ghosaka had to suffer so much on her account and had lost not only her but also his home and belongings. Out of compassion for her adopted-father, to whom she was devoted with great gratitude, she decided to end their dispute by voluntarily becoming the king's wife.

She went to the palace and informed the king of her decision. The king was immediately appeased and restored Ghosaka to his former position, as well as rescinding all other measures against him.

Because Samavati had great love for everyone, she had so much inner strength that this decision was not a difficult one for her.

It was not important to her where she lived, whether in the mansion of the finance minister as his favorite daughter, or in the palace as the favorite wife of the king, or in obscurity as when she was in the house of her parents, or as a poor refugee with no house at all. She always found peace in her own heart and was happy regardless of outer circumstances.
Samavati's life at the court of one of the maha rajas ("great kings") of the time fell into a harmonious pattern. Among her servants there was one named Khujjuttara (the "hunchbacked"). Outwardly she was ill-formed, but otherwise very capable.

Everyday Queen Samavati gave her eight gold coins to buy flowers for the women's quarters of the palace. But Khujjuttara always bought only four coins' worth and used the rest for herself.

Sudden enlightenment
Light arose, knowledge arose, vision arose.
One day when she was once again buying flowers for her mistress from the gardener, a wandering ascetic was taking his alms meal there. He was of majestic appearance. When he gave a discourse (sutra) to the gardener after the meal, Khujjuttara listened. The monk was actually the Buddha.

He directed his discourse in such a way that he spoke directly to Khujjuttara's heart. And his Teaching penetrated into her heart. From hearing just this one discourse, so well expounded, she attained stream-entry, the first stage of enlightenment.
  • [A Western monastic in an Australian publication once noted that sotapanna or "stream enterer" includes the word sota, which refers to hearing. And in so many cases, it is the hearing of the good Dharma (after a gradual discourse that progressively calms, gladdens, sharpens, and informs the mind) that causes stream entry, the realization of the first level of enlightenment. Here is yet another case where this is true. The Buddha sees her potential and gives a gradual discourse adding enough to bring her mind to realization of the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of phenomena (mainly the Five Aggregates) so that the heart lets go for a moment and is freed by wisdom, liberated by sudden insight, cutting of the hindrances, bonds, taints, and defilements (nivaranas, samyojanas, asavas, kilesas) that were the obstacles to initial realization. Hearing is not enough, but hearing on top of temporary-purification brought about by absorption (jhana) and emerging to reflect on dependent origination is. It will seem to the person as "sudden" and "spontaneous" or uncaused, but careful examination will reveal there are many causes to it. One needs to be ready, which comes from previous merit coming to fruition fortuitously when there is an opportunity to hear and apply the liberating Dharma. Hearing it has many causes as well, one of which is merit or good karma.]
Without quite knowing what had happened to her, she was a totally changed person. [She was now of changed lineage, a "noble one," yet did not know what had happened. Isn't that interesting? One can partially awaken, be guaranteed of future liberation from all suffering within seven lives and not know it, not understand it, not be able to explain it. And it happened to an uneducated female, a lowly servant, a petty thief, not a perfect person at all. Who says women are incapable of enlightenment in this very life?]

The whole world, which had seemed so obvious and real to her until then, now appeared to her as a dream, unreal. The first thing she did that day was to buy twice as many flowers using all eight coins. She deeply regretted her former dishonesty.
When Queen Samavati asked her why there were suddenly so many flowers, noble [partially enlightened] Khujjuttara fell at the queen's feet and confessed her thefts.

When Samavati forgave her magnanimously, Khujjuttara told her what was closest to her heart, namely, that she had heard a discourse from the Buddha, which had suddenly changed her entire life. She could not be specific about the contents of the Teaching, but Samavati could see for herself what a wholesome and healing influence it had had on her servant.

She made Khujjuttara her personal attendant and told her to visit the Buddhist monastery (vihara or temporary residence) every day to listen to the Dharma then repeat it to her each day.

Khujjuttara had an outstanding memory. What she had heard once she could repeat verbatim. Later on she made a collection of discourses she had heard from the Buddha or one of his fully enlightened disciples during these days at Kosambi. From it developed the book now called Itivuttaka ("It-was-said-thus"), composed of 112 small discourses.
When King Udena once again told his beloved Queen Samavati that she could wish for anything and he would fulfill it, she wished that the Buddha would come to the palace daily to have his almsfood there and propound his Teaching.

The king's courier took the message of this perpetual invitation to the Buddha, but he declined and instead sent his personal attendant, the stream-enterer Ananda.
From then on Ananda went to the palace daily for his almsmeal and afterward gave a Dharma discourse. [He possessed the most extraordinary memory in all of Buddhism and may have been the son of the Buddha, not of Yasodhara/Bimba Devi but of a harem girl, as recorded in the canons of other traditions.]
  • [Who was Ananda? Tradition from the Pali (the world's only exclusively-Buddhist language) canon speaks of Ananda as the first cousin of Shakymuni Buddha by their fathers. The Mahavastu states that Ananda's mother's name was Mrigi ("little deer"), who is named in the Tibetan canon called the Kanjyur and the Sanghabhedavastu (see text) as one of Prince Siddhartha's harem wives (prior to his renunciation of the world), pointing to the possibility that Ananda was in fact the Buddha's first son. (Reference: Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha's Life by Wendy Garling 2016, Shambhala Publications, pp. 94-106).
  • Prince Siddhartha's second son, Rahula, was the child of his wife, Princess "Yasodhara" (a descriptive title), whose actual name Bimba. In the 20th year of the Buddha's ministry, he asked for a volunteer among the monks to be his personal attendant. Ananda stepped up, thereafter accompanying the Buddha on most of his wanderings and playing the crucial role of interlocutor in most of the recorded dialogues.
  • Ananda is also the subject of a special panegyric delivered by the Buddha just before the Buddha's final nirvana (in the Mahaparinibbana Sutra, DN 16); it is acclaim for a man who is popular, kind, unselfish, and thoughtful toward others.]
Queen Samavati had already been well prepared by Khujjuttara's reports, and within a short time she understood the meaning and reached stream-entry, just as her maid-servant had done.
Now, through their common understanding of the Dharma, the Buddha's Teaching, the queen and the maid became equal. Within a short time, the Teaching spread through the whole of the women's quarters, and there was hardly anyone who did not become a disciple of the Awakened One.

Even Samavati's stepfather, the restored Finance Minister Ghosaka, was deeply touched by the Teaching. Similar to Anathapindika [the Buddhist multi-millionaire and stream-enterer (yes, even rich bankers can make it to enlightenment)], Ghosaka donated a large monastery in Kosambi to the Buddhist monastic community (Sangha), so that traveling monks and nuns would have a secure and satisfactory shelter in their wanderings.

Every time the Buddha visited Kosambi, he stayed in this monastery, which came to be called Ghositarama [-arama means it was a "park" or "parcel of land" with meditation huts rather than a large monastery building]. And other monastics and wandering ascetics could also find shelter there.

Through the influence of the Dharma, Queen Samavati became determined to develop her abilities more intensively. Her most important asset was the way she could feel sympathy for all beings and could penetrate everyone with loving-kindness and compassion.

She was able to develop this faculty so strongly that the Buddha declared her the "female lay disciple most skilled in metta (loving-kindness)" (A I.19).

Jealousy and tragedy
The Bharadvaja clan Brahmins love to sock it to the compassionate Buddha.

This all-pervading loving-friendliness was soon tested severely. It happened that the second main consort of the king, Queen Magandiya, became imbued with a virulent hatred for anything "Buddhist."

Once her father had heard the Buddha teach unconditional love toward all beings, and it had seemed to him that the Buddha was the most worthy one to marry his daughter. In his naive ignorance of the rules of wandering ascetics and Buddhist monks, he offered his daughter to the Buddha to take as his wife. After all, beautiful Magandiya was desired by many suitors already.

The Buddha graphically declined their kind offer, and by speaking an opportune single verse about the unattractiveness of the body caused beautiful Magandiya's father and mother to attain the fruit of non-returning (the third stage of enlightenment). This was the Buddha's verse, as recorded in the Sutta Nipata (v.835):
Having seen Craving [dancing] with Discontent and Lust,*
[the names of the Tempter Mara's three alluring daughters]
there was not in me any wish for sex [having overcome desire].
How then for this dung-and-urine filled [water bag],
two things I would not even be willing to touch with my foot
[were I to come across them along a road while wandering].
But Queen Magandiya, vain about her youthful beauty, did not benefit from this powerful teaching like her parents did. She thought the Buddha's rejection of her hand in marriage was an insult. Therefore, hatred against him and his disciples arose in her and had been stewing for a long time.

She then became the wife of King Udena, and when the king took a third wife, she could willingly accept that, as it was the custom at that time for kings. But that Samavati had become a disciple of the Buddha and had converted the other women in the palace to his Dharma, that she could not tolerate!

Her hatred against any and everything connected with the Buddha now turned against Queen Samavati as his representative. She thought up one meanness after another, and her quick wit and sharp intelligence served only to conjure up new misdeeds.

First, she told the king that Queen Samavati was trying to take his life. But the king was well aware of Samavati's great love for all beings, so he did not take this accusation seriously. He barely listened to it and forgot it almost immediately.

Second, Queen Magandiya ordered one of her maid-servants to spread rumors about the Buddha and his monastics throughout Kosambi, so that Samavati would also be maligned by association. With this she was more successful.

A wave of aversion struck the whole monastic order to such an extent that Ananda suggested to the Buddha that they leave the town of Kosambi. The Buddha smiled and said that the purity of the monastics would silence all rumors within seven days. Hardly had King Udena heard the gossip leveled against the monastic order than it had already subsided. Queen Magandiya's second attempt against Queen Samavati had failed.
Some time later Magandiya had eight specially selected chickens sent to the king and suggested that Samavati should slaughter them and prepare them for a meal. Samavati refused to do this, as she would not kill any living beings [an enlightened vegan queen?] Since the king knew of her all-embracing love, he did not lose his temper, but accepted her decision as being in character.

Magandiya then tried for a fourth time to harm Samavati. Just prior to the week which King Udena was to spend with Samavati [as co-wives took turns sharing him], Magandiya hid a venomnous snake in Samavati's chambers, though the venom sacs had secretly been removed.

When King Udena discovered the snake, all evidence pointed towards Samavati -- as if she had devised a plot to assassinate the king. His fury and rage made him lose all control. He reached for his bow and arrow and aimed right at Samavati [but she had the power of jhana attainable by cultivating loving-kindness to the point of full absorption at will, which protects one from harm].

So seeing the king grow furious, she entered absorption, and the arrow he shot at her simply missed or rebounded from her without doing any harm. He could not believe it. He could not have missed. His hatred could not influence her loving concern for him, which continued to emanate from her and thereby protected both of them from his harm.
  • [For had he killed her as he intended in his fury, he would have made very, very bad karma because she was a noble one, whose lineage is changed at the instant of enlightenment from ordinary uninstructed worlding to noble/enlightened.]
When King Udena regained his equilibrium and saw the miracle that she was unharmed -- that his arrow could not harm Samavati, he was so deeply moved that he asked her forgiveness and was even more convinced of her nobility, innocence, and faithfulness.

In fact, he became interested in the Teaching that had given such strength to his wife, far more strength and fearlessness than he possessed by his anger, royal position, and brute power.

When a famous monk named Pindola Bharadvaja stayed at the Ghosita Monastery, the king visited him and discussed the Teaching. He learned that the young monastics, in accordance with the Buddha's advice, instead of having contact monks with females or nuns with males instead cultivated feelings towards them in accordance with their age as either being their mother, sister, or daughter or father, brother, or son.

They thereby overcame their dependence on the other sex and could live contentedly as celibates in spite of their youth [and hormones]. At the end of the discourse, the king was so impressed that he went for guidance (sarana) to the Buddha and became a lay disciple (S 35,127).

Dharma and Karma
Samavati had been reflecting about the wonders of the Dharma and the intricacies of karmic influences.

In her own life, one thing had led to another: She had come to Kosambi as a poor refugee. Then her family had died. Then the food-distributor had taken her in and given her shelter. The finance minister had taken her on as his adopted daughter. Then she became the king's new wife, a queen. Her maid-servant had brought the Dharma, the liberating teaching , to her palace. And she became an enlightened disciple of the Buddha and a stream-winner.

Subsequently she spread the teaching to all the women in the palace, then to Ghosaka, and now lastly also to the temperamental king. How convincing Truth was! She often thought in this way and then permeated all beings with loving-kindness, or metta, wishing them health, happiness, freedom, and ease.

The king now tried more determinedly to control his smoldering nature and to subdue his greed and hate, which expressed themselves as passion and anger. Talks with Queen Samavati were very helpful to him in this respect. Slowly this development culminated in his losing all sexual craving when he was in Samavati's company as he was cultivating serene feelings towards females as if they were his very own mother, sister, or daughter.

While he was not yet free of strong sexual desire towards his other wives, he was willing to let Samavati continue on her Buddhist path to liberation unhindered by sexual demands. Soon she attained to the second stage of enlightenment called once-returning and drew nearer and nearer to the third stage, that of non-returning, an attainment which many men and women could achieve in lay-life in those days.
Queen Magandiya had suspended her attacks for some time, but continued to ponder how to harm the Buddha through Samavati. After much brooding, she conceived of a devious plan: She brought some of her relatives around to her point of view and uttered slander against Samavati to them.

Then she proposed to have her killed. So that it would not attract attention but appear to be an accident, the whole women's palace was to be hit by arson. The plan was worked out in all details. Queen Magandiya left town some time beforehand, so that no suspicion could fall on her.
This grave deed of arson resulted in sky-high flames that demolished the wooden palace totally and 500 [which means "a great many" in the Pali language] women residing in it were all killed, including Queen Samavati. News of this disaster spread around town very quickly.

No other topic of conversation could be heard there. Several monks, who had not been ordained very long, were also affected by the agitation. So after their almsround they went to the Buddha and inquired what would be the future rebirth of these female lay disciples with Samavati as their leader.

The Awakened One calmed their excited hearts and diverted their curiosity about this most interesting question of rebirth by answering very briefly: "Among these women, O meditators, there are some disciples who are stream-enterers, some who are once-returners, and some who are non-returners. All of these lay disciples received the fruits of their past deeds" (Ud VII, 10).
The Buddha mentioned here the first three fruits of the Dharma: stream-entry, once-returning, and non-returning. All of these disciples were safe from any future rebirth lower than the human plane, and each one was securely moving towards the final goal of complete liberation.

This was the most important aspect of their lives and deaths, and the Buddha would not elucidate any further details. He had previously told Ananda that it was a vexation for the Enlightened One to explain the future births of all disciples who died (DN 16.11) because it was no surprise that practice of the Dharma had this effect. This was normal, but if he would have to explain where everyone had been reborn as a result of their efforts, it would be tiresome and of no real fruit.
The Buddha later explained -- to monks discussing how "unjust" it was that these faithful lay disciples had died such a terrible death -- that the women experienced this because of a collective deed they had committed many lifetimes ago.

Once Samavati had been queen of Benares (Varanasi). She had gone with her ladies-in-waiting to bathe in the river. Feeling cold, she asked that a bush be burned to provide them some warmth. She saw only too late that a monk -- in fact, a nonteaching buddha -- was sitting not moving within the bush.

Unknown to them, being a buddha and being deep in meditative absorption (jhana), he remained unharmed. Awakened Ones, after all, cannot be killed. But the women did not know this and, fearing that they would be blamed for having made a fire without due caution, did something desperate.

Samavati had the deluded idea to pour oil all over this monk, who was sitting in full absorption, so that burning him would obliterate their mistake. This plan could not actually succeed, however, but the bad intention and attempt would carry karmic resultants. In this lifetime, the ripening of the result of that karma had taken place.
The Buddha has declared that one of the favorable results of the practice of metta (loving-kindness) is the fact that fire, poison, and weapons do no harm to the practitioner. This has to be understood in such a way that during the actual emanation of loving-kindness [to the point of absorption called jhana] the one who manifests this radiance cannot be harmed, just as Samavati proved when the king's arrow did not penetrate her.

At other times, fire can harm one; it could even incinerate her body. Samavati had become a non-returner and was therefore free of all sensual desire and hate and was no longer identified with her body. Her radiant, soft heart was imbued with the Four Divine Abidings.*
  • *The Brahma Viharas of loving-kindness, compassion, happiness in others happiness, and equanimity.
It was unassailable and untouched by fire. Her inner-being could not be burned. What was burned was the body only. It is a rare happening that one of the Awakened Ones is murdered (e.g., Maha Moggallana, Kaludayi) or that one of the buddhas is threatened with murder (i.e., Devadatta's attempt on the Buddha Gautama), and equally rare is it to find that one perfected in metta and attained to non-returner should die a violent death.

All three types of persons, however, have in common that their hearts can no longer be swayed by this violence.

Samavati's last words were: "It would not be an easy matter, even with the knowledge of a buddha, to determine exactly the number of times our bodies have thus been burned with fire as we have passed from birth to birth in this Round of Existences, which has no conceivable beginning. Therefore, be heedful!" Those ladies meditated on painful feeling and so gained the noble paths and fruits (phala-magga of enlightenment).

Two thousand years after the final nirvana of the Buddha, in 1582, soldiers burned a Buddhist monastery in Japan, and all the monks inside were burned to death. The last thing the soldiers heard before everything burned down were the words of the Abbot:
Who has liberated heart and mind,
For him fire is only a cool wind.
Referring to the tragedy of the fire at Kosambi, the Buddha spoke the following verse to the monks:
The world is in delusion's grip
Its form is seen as real
The fool is in the grip of "assets"*
Wrapped about with gloom
Both seem to last forever
But nothing is there for one who sees.
  • *Assets: upadhi, the basis for life and continued rebirth and death.
King Udena was overwhelmed with grief at Samavati's death and kept brooding about who could be the perpetrator of this ghastly deed. He came to the conclusion that it must have been Magandiya. He did not want to question her directly because she would deny it. So he thought of a ruse.

He said to his ministers: "Until now I have always been apprehensive, because Samavati was forever seeking an occasion to slay me. But now I shall be able to sleep in peace." The ministers asked the king who it could have been that had done this deed, "Only someone who really loves me," the king replied.

Magandiya had been standing nearby. When she heard that, she came forward and proudly claimed that she alone was responsible for the fire and the death of Samavati and the women. The king said that he would grant her and all her relatives a "boon" for this.
When all her relatives were assembled, the king had them burned publicly and then had the earth plowed under so that all traces of the ashes would be destroyed. He had Magandiya executed as a mass-murderess, which was his royal duty and responsibility.

But his fury knew no bounds, so he still looked for revenge. He had her killed with utmost cruelty. She died an excruciating death, which was a foretaste of the tortures awaiting her in the netherworld, after which she would have to roam in samsara (Round of Rebirth) for a long, long time to come.
Soon King Udena regretted his cruel, vengeful deed. Again and again he saw Samavati's face in front of him, full of love for all beings, even boundless love for her enemies. He felt he had distanced himself from her even further than her death had done, because of his violent fury. So he began to control his temper more and more and to follow the Buddha's teachings ardently.
Two women who had been friends of Samavati were so moved by this tragedy that they realized the impermanence of all earthly things. They saw it so clearly that they entered the Order of Buddhist Nuns. Both became arhats, fully enlightened, one very soon and the other after 25 years of practice (Therigatha 37 and 39).
Samavati, however, was reborn in the realm of the Pure Abodes, where she would be able to reach nirvana. The different results of love and hate could be seen with exemplary clarity in the lives and deaths of these two queens.

One day the monks were discussing who was alive and who dead. The Buddha said that Magandiya even while living was dead already, whereas Samavati, although dead, was truly alive. And he spoke these verses:
Heedfulness — the path to Deathlessness (nirvana)
Heedlessness — the path to death (samsara)
The heedful do not die [but make an end of rebirth]
The heedless are as if already dead.
The wise therefore, recognizing this
as the distinction of heedfulness,
in heedfulness rejoice, delighting
among the noble ones
They meditate persistently, constantly
They steadfastly strive
They're determined to reach nirvana,
that Unexcelled Freedom from all bonds.
Dhammapada 21-23
The Buddha declared Samavati to be "foremost among female lay disciples who dwell in loving-kindness (metta)."
Sources: Dhammapada Commentary to vv. 21-23; Commentary to Anguttara Nikaya Vol. I (on those Foremost); Path of Purification p. 417.

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