The Lives and Psalms of the Buddha's Disciples
(Thera Theri Gatha)

by Amara Chayabongse


I. Maha Pajapati the Gotamid

   Today we unfortunately do not have any of Madame van Gorkom's enlightening reading material about “vipassana ” or mental development. The energetic author of the series of articles will be travelling through Europe for some time, and we will probably have to wait a while for her work. However she has assured us that she has already collected material for more writings as soon as she has resettled. Therefore, in the meantime, we ask you to join us in exploring another segment of our religion, the beauty and expressiveness of the Buddhist Psalms, Thera Theri Gatha.

        These verses are attributed to certain eminent members of the Buddhist order, and are extremely interesting as manifestations of the religious mind. Although the common refrain is the winning of a supreme wisdom, each psalm has a distinctly individual tone. We begin today with a psalm in the book by the Pali Text Society, “Psalms of the Early Buddhists”.

        In Canto VI, Psalm IV, Maha Pajapati the Gotamid uttered an expressive gatha. Maha Pajapati the Gotamid was, in more modern terms, the Buddha's stepmother. She was also his maternal aunt, being the younger sister of the Great Maya, whom King Suddhodana married. When the Great Maya died soon after her son's birth, the Great Pajapati brought him up to become the most outstanding prince of the land. The commentator (1) gives further details of her past experiences that in one of her past lives she was born in a clansman's family in Hangsavati. She then heard Padumuttara, who was the Buddha in those times, preaching, and as he assigned the foremost place for experience to a certain Bhikkhuni, she vowed that she would one day attain the same position. Later, when she was reborn in the age of the silent Buddha, between the ages of Kassapa and our Buddha, she was the forewoman of hundreds of slave girls at Benares. These women had their husbands build lodgings for five silent Buddha who came to Isipatana during the rainy months, and also provided them with essentials. She again served the silent Buddha when she was again reborn in a weaver's village near Benares, in a head man's family. Finally, she was born at Devadaha, in the family of Maha Suppabuddha of the line Gotama, as the younger sister of Maha Maya, and both she and her sister became the Buddha's closest relatives, as said earlier.

        After the Buddha had reached the perfect enlightenment and had begun to teach the norm, he was entreated to go to Kapilavatthu, where he enlightened his kinsmen so that his father was established in the Path of No Return, and Maha Pajapati in the fruitation of Entering the Stream. (2) He also caused their son, his half brother Nanda, and his own son Rahula and other princes of their city to renounce the world and enter the order.

        When the time came, King Suddhodana attained Arahantship and then passed away. His widow, the Great Pajapati, wished to renounce the world. She and five hundred wives of the young nobles who had heard the preaching on the bank of the Rohini river and had since been ordained, left their city to travel to Vesali where the Buddha was staying, to obtain his permission to become ordained themselves. The Maha Pajapati herself had tried once before to do so, but had failed to win his consent. This time, she, at the head of the other honourable ladies, all robed in yellow and with their hair cut, entreated him through the Elder Ananda. At last she gained his permission and all were ordained.

        The Buddha then taught her the norm and she took up the exercise system and attained Arahantship; the other Bhikkhuni later also attained the same level. Thus began the order of Bhikkhuni that later multiplied. At last, one day, at the Jeta Grove Vihara, the Buddha assigned the foremost place in experience to Maha Pajapati the Gotamid. She, testifying her bliss and gratitude, declared before the Buddha, the one who brought help where there had been none:

                            Buddha the Wake, the Hero, hail! all hail!
                        Supreme o'er every being that hath life,
                        Who from all ill and sorrow hast released
                        Me and so many, many stricken folk.
                        Now have I understood how ill doth come.
                        Craving, the Cause, in me is dried up.
                        Have I not trod, have I not touched the
                        End Of Ill - the Ariyan, the Eightfold Path?
                        Oh! but ‘tis long I've wandered down all time.
                        Living as mother, father, brother, son,
                        And as grandparent in the ages past -
                        Not knowing how and what things really are,
                        And never finding what I needed sore.
                        But now mine eyes have seen th'Exalted One;
                        And now I know this living frame's the last,
                        And shattered is th'unending round of births.
                        No more Pajapati shall come to be!
                        Behold the company who learn from him -
                        In happy concord of fraternity,
                        Of strenuous energy and resolute,
                        From strength to strength advancing toward the Goal-
                        The noblest homage this to Buddha paid.

                            Oh! surely for the good of countless lives
                        Did sister Maya bring forth Gotama,
                        Dispeller of the burden of our ill,
                        Who lay o'erweighted with disease and death!

        Here, then, is the praise of a stepmother for the child of her husband, a person who deprived her son of the throne by ordaining him, too. She, however, does not seem to think that it was to be grieved about, rather, it was to be rejoiced at, for he had brought help, in wisdom and insight, in the ending of all sorrows, in the ending of death and rebirth. Even though she had brought him up and cared for him throughout his childhood, he released her and others, including those whom she loved from ill and ignorance. Even as she was his mother by action, she considers him her father for he gave birth to her insight and true happiness. She had come to see things as they really were, she was no longer deceived or bound by the senses. That is, she had “come to understand how ill doth come'” she had “trod ... the Eightfold Path” and “touched the End of Ill”.

        The commentator of the book, “Psalms of the Early Buddhists” (3) believes that the Buddha's contemporary disciples had never spoken of having recalled past lives. She believes that the information in this area might have in fact been examples in the course of their individual teachings that later became attached to their biographies. The incidents could even be, she says, merely speculations of later masters who had written about them. Whatever they might have been, the stories still serve the purpose of helping us to see the possible trends of mental development, namely vipassana, as well as other forms of accumulations.

        As to whether there is rebirth or not, if there were not yesterday, would we be in existence today? If there is today as well as yesterday, will there not be tomorrow? How can we remember what or where we were before we were born since we cannot even remember the moment of our birth? How can we know what lies beyond death when we do not know what may happen tomorrow? To return to the subject of accumulations, why is every person different from the other? What is the cause of, for example, a natural gift or talent in some people? In the case of the early Buddhists, people have remarked at the ease of so many of them in achieving insight and the right understanding, in attaining Arahantship. Some became enlightened the very first time they heard the Buddha's teachings. In fact so many Buddhists reached the state of Nibbana that some people wonder why people don't do so nowadays. They forget that even if some people should reach the stage nowadays, there would be no way outwardly to identify an Arahanta. Furthermore, one cannot become an Arahanta, now or at any other time, without working, in a sense, towards it, and even more important, having the right understanding about it. That is where mental development comes in.

        Consider the case of Maha Pajapati, her long exercise through so many life-times towards her aspirations. Assuming her assigned record is correct, she had heard the truth and had probably begun her mental development at the time of the Buddha Padumuttara's teachings, and it is probable that she continued to follow at least some of the Eightfold Path, which accumulated the favourable conditions for the supreme mental development in her last life. Since, also, everything arises because of conditions, even if the past lives ascribed to her are not as they really were, and in any case we have no way of knowing one way or the other, we can be sure that she did accumulate conditions for her attainment.

        That is why the Buddha, throughout his teachings, encouraged people to be ever mindful, as the mental development exercise. Some people, on hearing about mindfulness in theory, tend to question its value, or think that it is too easy, or that it is to be attacked only on the day they intend to become an Arahanta. For didn't the others, such as the elders, attain the very moment they put their minds to it? However, how can one tell the level of mindfulness or other accumulations that another person has had? How can we find out whether something is easy or not if one hasn't tried it personally? Only the person who is mindful or is accumulating insight will know how much he has done by way of accumulating conditions for further development. Only by this accomplishment will the way be paved to the victory over all sorrows, permanently.

        On the other hand, some people may find it very difficult to be mindful, to have the right understanding about vipassana or mental development. It seems so hard, and it truly is, though not too hard either, to be mindful of the nama and rupa. There are so many of them, countless to be experienced each day, each hour, even. Yet which is better, to despair and resign yourself to ignorance or to do your best by accumulating more knowledge, as much mindfulness and can arise in your daily life, and work your way to the ultimate happiness of Nibbana? You may not become fully enlightened in this life, but who knows when you may have accumulated the right conditions for that stage in your next lives?

        Maha Pajapati the Gotamid realized her aspirations after a great number of rebirths; she had lived one of her lives during the time of Padumuttara Buddha. Who knows, if we can somehow obtain knowledge of our former lives, we might find that we were alive even at the time of her last rebirth. We might have heard her excellent teachings to the Bhikkhuni and seen her functioning as their leader. And if we had been alive at the time of her death, we might have even witnessed a funeral of which no parallel can occur. Even the Buddha's funeral was not as wondrous; his funeral was in fact extremely sad. Maha Pajapati's procession was filled with eminent members of the Buddhist order, the Buddha himself, the venerable Nanda, her son, the venerable Rahula, her grandson, the venerable Ananda, her nephew, and other great Arahanta such as the venerable Sariputta, as well as countless Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni and people who had not renounced the world. At the time of the Buddha's death many of the eminent Bhikkhu had passed away, and in any case there could not have been a Buddha attending the funeral (4) Thus we end today's reading about the greatest Bhikkhuni, the lady who was one in countless millions in that she was practically a Buddha's mother as well as mother and grandmother of Arahanta.



(1) Mrs. Rhys Davids. “Psalms of the Sisters,” Psalms of the Early Buddhists, (London : published for the Pali Text Society by Luzac & Company Ltd. 1964), pp. 87-88.

(2) Ibid., p.6. See also Samantapasadika translated by Somdej Maha Virawongse, Bangkok. pp. 111-129.

(3) Ibid., pp. 87-88.

(4) “Khuddaka Nikaya,” The Tipitaka in Thai, XXII, (Bangkok: Department of Religious Affairs Press, B.E. 2500), pp. 360- 362.


For Further Reading

P.T.S.,* Dictionary of Pali Proper Names, II, p.52 : Comprehensive biography.

P.T.S., Psalms of the Early Buddhists, The Sisters, pp. 87-89: Biography and gatha.

S.B.B.,** Book of the Discipline, V, p.352 ff: Maha Pajapati asks for and is granted the going-forth for women.

P.T.S., Gradual Sayings, IV, p. 181ff: As above.

P.T.S., Middle Length Sayings, III, p.322 ff: Maha Pajapati asks the Buddha to exhort the nuns. Instead, Nandaka does, giving exactly the same teaching (on the impermanence etc. of all conditioned phenomena experienced through the six doorways) two evenings in a row. On the second evening, the nuns all penetrate to the truth.

P.T.S., Middle Length Sayings, III, p. 300ff: Maha Pajapati offers a very fine robe to the Buddha, who urges her to offer it instead to the Sangha with the Buddha at its head. This is an occasion for an analytical discourse on giving.

S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, II, p. 94ff: Maha Pajapati reports to the Buddha how nuns are kept from their dhamma practice by monks who have them wash, dye and comb sheep's wool for them. This is the occasion for the laying down of forfeiture rule (for monks) no. 17.

Ibid., p.277: The Buddha teaches Dhamma to Maha Pajapati as she lies ill. This is in connection with expiation rule (for monks) no. 23.

S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, III, p.250: Maha Pajapati points out to the Buddha that the odour of the nuns is offensive. The Buddha makes the appropriate allowance. P.T.S., Gradual Sayings, IV, p.186: Maha Pajapati asks for Dhamma in brief from the Buddha.

Also, S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, IV, p.507; P.T.S., Gradual Sayings, I, p.21; S.B.B., Book of the Discipline, V, p.401; P.T.S., Jataka Stories, II, p.222; Jataka Stories, III, p.358; Jataka Stories, VI, p.246.

* Pali Text Society.

** Sacred Books of the Buddhists.