Enlightenment – Chapter 50: Nuns Triumph over Evil

The Buddha had many female disciples, and many of them joined the order of nuns (bhikkhuni in Pali). These included his own stepmother, as well as former queens, princesses, courtesans and the wives of men who had become monks. A woman named Kisagotami joined the order of nuns after the Buddha helped her overcome the death of her infant son. Knowing of his great powers, she brought the body of her child to the Buddha and begged him to bring him back to life. He promised to do so, saying that he only required a single mustard seed from a household that had known no suffering. She set out from door to door, asking for a mustard seed, and hearing from each family a different tale of sorrow. She slowly understood the universality of suffering, laid her child to rest, and became a nun.

Many nuns, including Kisagotami, became arhats, and their experiences are collected in two works, one entitled Songs of the Female Elders (Therigatha) and another whose title might be translated as Discourses Connected with Nuns (Bhikkhunlsamyutta), selections from which appear below. Some of the same verses appear in both, suggesting that the verses may be older than the prose portions.

The Discourses Connected with Nuns describes ten encounters (three of which are included here) with Mara, the deity of desire and death, who seeks to discourage the nuns in their meditation, just as he had done with Prince Siddhartha. He is equally unsuccessful here. His derisive words to the nuns here indicate contemporary attitudes to women, seeing them as lustful and intellectually inferior to men. (There is disagreement about the meaning of the term *two-fingered’ wisdom below; some say it is a reference to cooking – testing whether rice is cooked; others say it refers to sewing.) In each case, the nuns counter Mara’s characterizations, and he leaves them to meditate in peace.

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at SavatthI in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s Park.

Then, in the morning, the bhikkhuni Alavika dressed and, taking bowl and robe, entered SavatthI for alms. When she had walked for alms in SavatthI and had returned from her almsround, after her meal she went to the Blind Men’s Grove seeking seclusion.

Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in the bhikkhuni Alavika, desiring to make her fall away from seclusion, approached her and addressed her in verse:

‘There is no escape in the world,

So what will you do with seclusion?

Enjoy the delights of sensual pleasure:

Don’t be remorseful later!’

Then it occurred to the bhikkhuni A!avika: ‘Now who is it that recited the verse – a human being or a non-human being?’ Then it occurred to her: ‘This is Mara the Evil One, who has recited the verse desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in me, desiring to make me fall way from seclusion.’

Then the bhikkhum AUavika, having understood, ‘This is Mara the Evil One’, replied to him in verses:

‘There is an escape in the world

Which I have closely touched with wisdom.

O Evil One, kinsman of the negligent,

You do not know that state.

‘Sensual pleasures are like swords and stakes:

The aggregates like their chopping block.

What you call sensual delight Has become for me non-delight.’

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, ‘The bhikkhum Alavika knows me’, sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

At Savatthi. Then, in the morning, the bhikkhum Soma dressed and, taking bowl and robe, entered Savatthi for alms. When she had walked for alms in Savatthi and had returned from her almsround, after her meal she went into the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding. Having plunged into the Blind Men’s Grove, she sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s abiding.

Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in the bhikkhum Soma, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

Which is to be attained by the seers,

Can’t be attained by a woman With her two-fingered wisdom.’

Then it occurred to the bhikkhuni Soma: ‘Now who is this that recited the verse – a human being or a non-human being?’ Then it occurred to her: ‘This is Mara the Evil One, who has recited the verse desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in me, desiring to make me fall way from concentration.’

Then the bhikkhuni Soma, having understood, ‘This is Mara the Evil One’, replied to him in verses:

‘What does womanhood matter at all

When the mind is concentrated well,

When knowledge flows steadily

As one sees correctly into dhamma.

‘One to whom it might occur,

“I’m a woman” or “I’m a man”

Or “I’m anything at all” – Is fit for Mara to address.’

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, ‘The bhikkhuni Soma knows me’, sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

At Savatthi. Then, in the morning, the bhikkhuni Kisagotami dressed and, taking bowl and robe, entered Savatthi for alms. When she had walked for alms in Savatthi and had returned from her almsround, after her meal she went to the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding. Having plunged into the Blind Men’s Grove, she sat down at the foot of a tree for the day’s abiding.

Then Mara the Evil One, desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in the bhikkhuni Kisagotami, desiring to make her fall away from concentration, approached her and addressed her in verse:

‘Why now, when your son is dead,

Do you sit alone with tearful face?

Having entered the woods alone,

Are you on the lookout for a man?’

Then it occurred to the bhikkhum Kisagotami: ‘Now who is this that recited the verse – a human being or a non-human being?’ Then it occurred to her: ‘This is Mara the Evil One, who has recited the verse desiring to arouse fear, trepidation and terror in me, desiring to make me fall away from concentration.’

Then the bhikkhum Kisagotami, having understood, ‘This is Mara the Evil One’, replied to him in verses:

‘I’ve got past the death of sons;

With this, the search for men has ended.

I do not sorrow, I do not weep,

Nor do I fear you, friend.

‘Delight everywhere has been destroyed,

The mass of darkness has been sundered.

Having conquered the army of death,

I dwell without defiling taints.

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, ‘The bhikkhuni KisagotamI knows me’, sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

From Bhikkhunlsamyutta, in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, vol. 1, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), pp. 221-4.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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