III. Ambapali

  Last week we read about the recorded life of the venerable Rahula, the Buddha's son. Ordained at the age of seven as a Samanera , he became an Arahanta six months after he became a Bhikkhu, at the age of twenty. He was honoured by the Buddha as the most diligent in acquiring knowledge. Ostensibly, his was the ideal life of a searcher of truths, so devoted was he to the pursuit of enlightenment. Throughout his biography there are indications that he had led a life of the utmost degree of rectitude and chastity. His splendid history is in very sharp contrast to the one we will be hearing today, the story of the venerable Ambapali Theri.

        The beautiful Ambapali was found in the King's gardens in Vesali , at the foot of a mango tree. The gardener brought her to the city, where she was known as the Mango guardian's girl. She became extremely lovely, with such grace and charm that many young princes contended for her favours. Finally, in order to end their quarrels, they agreed to appoint her courtesan. She on her part, agreed on five conditions, one of which was that her charge should be 500 kahapana. Apparently from her enormous field of admirers she made Vesali very rich with the king of Rajagaha as one of her patrons as well as father of her child, Vimala Kondanna. King Bimbisara of Rajagaha was inspired by the prosperity of Vesali to appoint a courtesan to his own city as well. (1)

        There are some assertions that Ambapali, in one of her former lives, was born when Sikhi was Buddha. At the time she had entered the order as a novice, and one day, while in a procession with Bhikkhuni, she came behind an Arahanta Theri. Not having noticed that the Theri had spat in the court, she reproved, “What prostitute has been spitting in this place?” (2)

        We are not saying that simply because of her foolish but unintentional slight of an Arahanta, she had had to, herself, become a prostitute, even if the given assertions were accurate. Factual or not as her chronicle may be, the fact remains that each person reacts to a stimulus according to his accumulated nature. A number of people, encountering the same situation, would rarely say the very same words, much less think or feel the exact same way. How each responds would be up to his accumulations or habitual tendencies. In this particular instance, it is very doubtful whether many people would normally say anything like the novice's words as comment or even in surprise. In spite of the fact that she was a samaneri in the Buddhist order, the exclamation she uttered was that of a prostitute. Speech and actions are indications of a person's morality, and her tendencies, even then, appeared.

        Another interesting feature is the injury done to the Theri. When one has insulted anyone at all, whether incited to do so or not, it can hardly be considered a wholesome deed. Consequently, when the damaged party is one of supreme virtue, with no cause of any disrespect, it certainly must be somewhat greater an error. Then again, even if the novice did not intend to insult the Theri, it was not quite proper of her to utter such offensive and rather coarse remarks. Thus, if not for other purposes, this account should serve at least to caution people against saying indecorous things, impulsively or otherwise.

        Returning to the lovely Ambapali, her ascribed history presents another ponderable aspect. She had shown ambition for a greater understanding as well as accumulated the right conditions for mental development in her past lives. Yet at the same time she must have been accumulating conditions to become a courtesan. If one would deliberate upon it, each living thing must have numerous direction of accumulations, since every single action brings about a result as long as there is still clinging to a self. In fact, the law of action-reaction in Buddhism rather resembles the modern scientific law of energy in that anything that arises has causes and results. The Buddha teaches that as long as we are deceived by the senses into clinging to a self, each self-oriented action would cause reactions and more clinging. Only when one knows from one's own experiences that there is in fact no self, only nama and rupa, or mental phenomena and physical phenomena, will one be freed from the cycle of action, reaction, accumulation, birth and death.

        We can see from the venerable Ambapali's attributed chronicle of succeeding lives that it is not so easy to eliminate a long accumulated ignorance. She had had to try, lifetime after lifetime, even after she had been shown the right path, to become enlightened. She had been born to hear the teachings of Dhamma before the time of our Buddha, yet she had not been able to attain Arahantship. She had entered the order in one of her former lives, but failed to win even the entering of the stream. Nor did becoming ordained keep her from becoming a woman of pleasure in her last life.

        Unless one has established himself in at least the winning of the stream, the Sotapanna, one can still be led astray by habitual tendencies one has accumulated or is accumulating every day in one's life. Realizing that, should one allow any possible chance of accumulating insight to go by wasted? Who knows what or where one will be born in his next life? Suppose one were to turn up in place where there is no chance of learning about Dhamma, a place of total ignorance about enlightenment? Or suppose one were to be born an animal? If not for other reasons, should one not try to accumulate good deeds so that one will not be born worse off than in this life? And what greater accomplished is there than the winning of the supreme wisdom or at least becoming Sotapanna, which ensures that the end of all sorrows is near, within one's reach, and prevents any regression from accumulating insight to the point of total enlightenment?

        One might think that one would never at all do anything to bring about really bad results, such as murdering. Here again, while there is believing in a self, the law of action and reaction will always govern our lives. Can one be absolutely certain that one has never done anything regrettable in his past lives, since it is doubtful that anyone is completely free from guilt in the present life? Consequently, how can one be sure that one will not be very much persuaded to feel impelled to do even the worst deeds because of one's accumulations? The main difference of Buddhism from other religions is that in Buddhism there is no one god to be blamed for any occurrence. All are conditioned by the cycle of action and reaction, and wisdom is the only way to break the cycle and end all sufferings. And unless one has attained at least the level of Sotapanna, there can be no certainty that there may not be a regression in one's accumulations towards clear insight.

        Should one then feel desperation and repent one's sins and torture oneself with guilt and grief for one's doings in this life as well as the forgotten past ones? To immerse oneself in unpleasant emotions is wrong in the Buddhist teachings. There is no help in torturing oneself; it is unwise. The past cannot be undone, but the future can be made more pleasant. Why waste time grieving about the past? True, the future may bring painful results from the past, but should one then plunge into desperation and self pity or call for help from others? Unfavourable circumstances need not bring unhappiness. Also, even though one might try to eliminate one's sufferings by correcting the circumstances, what would really lessen one's unhappiness is the correction of one's own understanding.

        If we see things as they really are, accept and experience the truth, realize that nothing is everlasting and that even the greatest sorrow or joy will pass, and stop clinging to a self in the nama and rupa, we will find that we are able to react under circumstances with wisdom. It is to be noted that this does not mean that we should give in to our troubles and turn the other cheek but to react with the right understanding, with as much command of our faculties as possible. Isn't it true that normally we can think about our troubles more clearly if we can view them with detachment? Then, not only will we have lessened our sorrows, but we may find that we have not done anything unwise that would bring on more unpleasantness.

        The Buddha taught people to face the hard facts of life with wisdom, even with cheer. The Theri Ambapali was thrown into a situation which could not have been very comfortable, much less honourable. Although she was sought after by the highest ranking men and showered with riches and attention, she was forced to accept her position and humiliation. If she had been born in a high place it is doubtful that anyone could have forced his wishes on her so. Whatever her origins or occupation, nothing could keep her from doing good deeds, developing her insight and wisdom, and finally achieving equality with the most virtuous men and women - by becoming an Arahanta.

        When she heard the Buddha's teachings in Vesali , she became converted and saw the path to insight. So impressed and fulfilled was she by his teachings that she built a Vihara in her own lovely gardens and offered it to him and the Bhikkhu. Her own son, who was later the Elder Vimala Kondanna, left the world to enter the order, and some time after that she herself became ordained a Bhikkhuni.

        On the subject of Bhikkhuni, we would like to point out the differences between the Buddhist order of Bhikkhuni and nuns in other religions. Where some religions relate ordained ladies directly and rather physically with the founder of the religion, with reunion with Him envisioned, in Buddhism, the furthest extent in which a Bhikkhuni relates herself to her teacher is to acclaim him as her father. There is no implication at all found in any of the recorded utterances of quasi amorous self surrender to the person or image of the beloved such as characterizes quite a bit of another religion's literature, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni alike more often considered the master their father, their benefactor, their kind and noble friend, kalyana-mitta.

        But the person whose preaching brought her to contemplate the law of impermanence which later released the venerable Ambapali's mind from all attachments was her own son. The Elder Vimala Kondanna preached to her, and she, studying the alterations as illustrated by her own ageing body, uttered the following verses:

    Glossy and black as the down of the bee my curls once clustered.
They with the waste of the years are liker to hempen or bark cloth.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

    Fragrant as casket of perfume, as full of sweet blossoms the hair of me.
All with the waste of the years now rank as the odour of hare's fur.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Dense as a grove well planted, and comely with comb, pin and parting.
All with the waste of the years dishevelled the fair plaits and fallen.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Glittered the swarthy plaits in head-dresses jewelled and golden.
All with the waste of the years broken, and shorn are the tresses.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Wrought as by sculptor's craft the brows of me shone, finely penciled.
They with the waste of the years are seamed with wrinkles, o'erhanging.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Flashing and brilliant as jewels, dark-blue and long-lidded the eyes of me.
They with the waste of the years spoilt utterly, radiant no longer.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Dainty and smooth the curve of the nostrils e'en as in children.
Now with the waste of the years seared the nose is and shrivelled.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Lovely the lines of my ears as the delicate work of the goldsmith.
They with the waste of the years are seamed with wrinkles and pendent.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Gleamed as I smiled my teeth like the opening buds of the plantain.
They with the waste of the years are broken and yellow as barley.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Sweet was my voice as the bell of the cuckoo through the woodlands flitting.
Now with the waste of the years broken the music and halting.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Softly glistened of yore as mother-of-pearl the throat of me.
Now with the waste of the years all wilted its beauty and twisted.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Beauteous the arms of me once shone like twin pillars cylindrical.
They with the waste of the years hang feeble as withering branches.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Beauteous of yore were my soft hands with rings and gewgaws resplendent.
They with the waste of the years like roots are knotted and scabrous.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Full and lovely in contour rose of yore the small breasts of me.
They with the waste of the years droop shrunken as skins without water.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Shone of yore this body as shield of gold well polished.
Now with the waste of the years all covered with network of wrinkles.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Like to the coils of a snake the full beauty of yore of the thighs of me.
They with the waste of the years are even as stems of the bamboo.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Beauteous to see were my ankles of yore, bedecked with gold bangles.
They with the waste of the years are shrunken as faggots of sesamum.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Soft and lovely of yore as though filled out with down were the feet of me.
They with the waste of the years are cracked open and wizened with wrinkles.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

Such hath this body been. Now age-weary and weak and unsightly,
Home of manifold ills: old house whence the mortar is dropping.
So and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.
        Instead of being ashamed or frightened of her decreasing beauty and decadent body and trying to disguise or hide it, the notorious beauty of yore calmly accepts the fact, and in experiencing it, she saw impermanence, unhappiness, and its causes. Comprehending the cycle of life, seeing things as they really were, her insight was clear and she attained Arahantship.

        Even looking just superficially, we can see from the venerable Ambapali's life how a person can start out in one of the worst possible positions and end up in the highest attainable state for man or woman. But then all things are ever changing, all alterable both for the better and for the worse. That is why attachment to them as someone or something unavoidably leads to surprise and disappointments even to fear, desperation and bitterness. However, changes are unavoidable, and must be faced, and better still, experienced. If one is ever mindful of the mental phenomena and physical phenomena, of nama and rupa one will gradually become enlightened about unhappiness and its elimination. That is the only way to attain the supreme wisdom, when all ignorance and sorrows can be forever ended.

        As in today's story, no matter what you are or have been, if you really wish to become enlightened, it is not impossible. There is no prohibition as to the kind or class of people to practice the Buddha's teachings, not even for a woman of the venerable Ambapali's profession and background. In Buddhism, equality for women is real, each level of attainment equalizes those who have won it regardless of their former worldly status. In what other society or country would a woman of the Theri's history be accepted as an equal to people like the venerable Rahula or the Great Pajapati?



(1) Lakshmi R. Goonesekere, “Ambapali,” Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Vol. I, edited by G.P. Malalasekera, (Ceylon: The Government Press, 1971), pp. 418-419.

(2) Davids, op. cit., p.120.



P.T.S., Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, I, pp. 155, 156: Comprehensive biography and sutta references.

P.T.S., Psalms of the Early Buddhists, the Sisters, p.120 ff: Biography and gatha.

S.B.B., Dialogues of the Buddha, II, p. 102ff: Ambapali presents her mango grove to the Order with the Buddha at its head.

S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, IV, p. 315ff: As above. Ibid., p.379: The establishment of Ambapali as courtesan is cited as contributing significantly to Vesali's prosperity.

P.T.S., Psalm of the Early Buddhists, the Brethren, p.353: Seven lines of verse spoken by Ananda, some say in admonition of those who lost their heads at the sight of Ambapali, are recorded here.

Also, S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, II, p.295; P.T.S., Gradual Sayings, I, p.18; Jataka Stories, II, pp. 46, 48, 75, 98, 188, 268, 295; Jataka Stories, III, pp. 43, 44, 111, 232; Jataka Stories, IV, pp. 22, 185; Jataka Stories, V, pp. 99, 134; Jataka Stories, VI, pp. 37, 80, 156, 305.