The Blessed One was like the shining star that shed light on to the Sakyan Clan, which gave them the highest prestige and recognition. The Enlightenment of the Supreme Buddha was a gateway for countless helpless beings to end the suffering of wandering in the woeful cycle of rebirth. One year after his Enlightenment, the Blessed One, accompanied by a large retinue of disciples, arrived at Kapilavatthu to teach the Dhamma to his relatives. After listening to the sublime teachings of the Buddha, the Sakyans were very pleased and delighted. As a result, many relatives of the Buddha went forth and joined the order of monks, the Saṅgha. His step-brother Nanda and his beloved son Rāhula were also amongst them. While still reigning, King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, attained final quenching (Nibbāna). After the passing away of the great king, the inclination to go forth arose in Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī.
On one occasion, the Blessed One visited Kapilavatthu to resolve a dispute between the Sakyans and their neighbors, the Koliyans, concerning the irrigation of channels from the river Rohini. After the controversy was settled, 250 young men from each side went forth under the Buddha. On hearing the Dhamma, the five hundred young monks attained Arahantship, the final fruit of the path. Their wives sent them messages asking them to return home, but they replied that they were now incapable of living a household life. The five hundred young women, therefore, went to Queen Mahāpajāpatī and asked her to request ordination from the Buddha on their behalf.
Knowing that the Blessed One was dwelling in the Banyan Tree Park, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī approached the Buddha and pleaded with him three times to grant permission for women to enter the Saṅgha. On each occasion, permission for women to go forth under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata was denied.
The Buddha having stayed at Kapilavatthu as long as he liked, journeyed to Vesalī, where he dwelled in the hall with the peaked roof in the Great Wood. Without being disheartened by the Buddha’s decision, Pajāpatī Gotamī along with a great number of Sakyan ladies resolved to cut off her hair and donning ochre robes, walked from Kapilavatthu to Vesalī. Experiencing many hardships, with their tender feet swollen and bodies covered with dust, miserable and saddened, weeping with tearful faces, the Sakyan women arrived at Vesalī and stood outside the entrance of the hall with the peaked roof.
Venerable Ānanda found Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī weeping, and learning the cause of her grief was deeply moved. He approached the Blessed One and repeatedly requested him to grant permission for women to go forth in the Buddha’s Dispensation. Realizing the difficulty of the spiritual life and foreseeing the problems that may arise in the future, the Blessed One denied the repeated requests and asked Venerable Ānanda not to favor the going forth of women.
Without being disrespectful, Venerable Ānanda tried a different approach and questioned the Buddha: “Are women, Bhante, capable of realizing the fruit of stream-entry (sotāpanna), the fruit of once-returning (sakādagāmi), the fruit of non-returning (anāgāmi) and the fruit of Arahantship when they have gone forth from the household life into homelessness under the Tathāgata’s Dhamma and discipline?” The Blessed One replied that they were capable of realizing the fruits of the path. Pleased and encouraged by the favorable reply, Venerable Ānanda addressed the Buddha again: “If, Bhante, it is possible for a woman to realize the fruits of the path, and considering that Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī has been of great service and help to the Blessed One–having been his maternal aunt, and foster mother who nurtured and nursed him when his mother died–it would be good if women were given permission to renounce the world and enter the Dispensation of the Buddha as bhikkhunīs.”
Finally, yielding to the requests of Venerable Ānanda, the Blessed One proclaimed: “If, Ānanda, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī accepts the eight principles of respect (garudhamma), let that itself be her full-ordination.
- “A bhikkhunī who has been ordained for a hundred years should pay homage to a bhikkhu who has been ordained that same day, should rise up for him, reverentially salute him, and behave courteously toward him.”
- “A bhikkhunī should not enter upon the rains in a place where there are no bhikkhus.”
- “Every half-month a bhikkhunī should ask the Saṅgha of Bhikkhus about two things: about the day of the uposatha, and about coming for the exhortation.”
- “When a bhikkhunī has observed the rains, she should invite correction before both Sanghas regarding three things: regarding anything seen, heard, or suspected.”
- “A bhikkhunī who has broken any of the rules of respect should observe a half-month’s penalty period before both Sanghas.”
- “A probationer who has completed two years of training in the six principles should seek full-ordination from both Sanghas.”
- “A bhikkhunī must in no way insult or revile a bhikkhu.”
- “From today on, Ānanda, bhikkhunīs are prohibited from admonishing bhikkhus, but bhikkhus are not prohibited from admonishing bhikkhunīs.”
“These principles should be honored, respected, esteemed, and venerated, and should not be transgressed as long as life lasts.”
(Gotamī Sutta, AN 8.51 – Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
When Venerable Ānanda mentioned them to Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, she was ever so grateful to him and gladly agreed to abide by the eight principles. With utmost gratitude and keeping him in high esteem, Mahāpajāpatī addressed Venerable Ānanda: “Bhante Ānanda, as a woman or a man when young, of tender years, and fond of ornaments, with head bathed, having obtained a garland of lotus flowers or a garland of jasmine flowers or a garland of some sweet-scented lilies, having taken it with both hands, would place it on top of his or her head, in the same way, I accept these eight principles of respect as not to be transgressed as long as life lasts.”
In establishing the Saṅgha of Bhikkhunīs, the Blessed One most compassionately uplifted the status of women in society and paved the path for them to experience deliverance from all suffering.
Practicing the Dhamma diligently, before long, Mahāpajāpatī realized the Dhamma, attained Arahantship and forever escaped from the snare of the Māra.
On the occasion of giving titles to his disciples, the Blessed One proclaimed: “Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhunī disciples in seniority is Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī.”
Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpatī acted earnestly to help those women who searched for refuge in the Tathāgata’s teachings.
After the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha was established, many women throughout the country from all levels of society ordained as bhikkhunīs. Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpatī pursued every effort to enhance the spiritual lives of other women with sustained devotion, dedication, and diligence. Her kindness, helpfulness, and patience won her deep respect among the Saṅgha and the lay devotees. It was in this manner that Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpatī upheld the Buddha’s Dispensation. A great leader and an outstanding spiritual adviser, she undertook the task of guiding others to reap the benefits of the Buddha’s teachings. Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī combined the qualities of a perfect teacher with those of an ideal spiritual friend. Filled with the qualities that are finest and most endearing in a human being, she was, by all means, an embodiment of perfection.
The Noble Saṅgha to whom we have gone for refuge includes such great Arahants like Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī Therī, about whom we can develop a very pleasant mind. Her contribution to Gautama Supreme Buddha’s Dispensation, her dedication in establishing the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, and the fantastic legacy that she left behind will always be remembered, cherished, and valued by the noble disciples of the Buddha.
The great Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, the heartwood of the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha, fulfilling her duties to the fullest and the utmost, attained the supreme bliss of Nibbāna at the age of 120.
Our heartfelt homage to the Great Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī!
Written by a Venerable Nun Of
Buddhist Nuns of Mahamevnawa