The power of a woman’s devotion: Utpalavarṇā, the first to greet Buddha’s Descent from the Heavens (Lhabab Duchen)

“With chariot and horses, four I came,

Made visible by supranormal power,

And worshipped, wonder working, at his feet,

The wondrous Buddha, Sovereign of the World.”

-Utpalavarṇā , the first person to greet the Buddha on his Descent from the Heavens

Today is known as Descent from the Divine Realm (Lha-Bab Duchen) and is celebrated on the 22nd day in the ninth lunar month of the Asian calendars. It marks the anniversary of Buddha Shakyamuni descending down from The Heaven of Thirty-Three (Trayastrimsa), after giving teachings there to benefit the gods in the desire realms, and to repay the kindness of his mother by liberating her from Samsara (who had passed away only one week after giving birth to Buddha). This is considered to be one of the great deeds of the Buddha and it is part of the Buddhist tradition to engage in virtuous activities and prayer on this day.

At the age of 41, after having attained enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha became aware that his dear mother was stuck in The Heaven of Thirty-Three, where numerous gods resided, but since it was a realm where desire existed, liberation from samsara was not possible for mortals reborn there. After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he went to The Heaven of Thirty-Three to teach the Abhidharma to his mother and other celestial beings. After three months of teaching there, the Buddha decided to return to his disciples and lay followers who had became worried at his long absence. Even though they could see that he was well in the divine realms, they wanted him back. Maugdalyayana, one of his closest disciples, pleaded with him to return. The Buddha was reluctant to do so, and a long debate ensued between the two, at the end of which, he was persuaded to return to Earth. His descent from the heaven takes place at Sankashya in modern Uttar Pradesh, India.

Photo of Stupa at Sankashya, India the place of Buddha’s descent, commissioned by HE Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Buddha also then performed the miracle of lifting the veil on all the worlds, as he returned on a staircase, not to but from heaven, all the worlds were, for that brief period of time, able to see each other. The veil between the worlds and all the different realms of being was lifted, and all the vast audience of those who came to welcome him back, were able to see other realms of existence, and thus know that they truly existed. Light is supposed to have come into even the very darkest realms, where by definition, no light shines.

UTPALAVARNA: The Nun who was first to greet Buddha on his Descent from the Heavens

Although the story of Buddha’s actions for his mother is the most well-known aspect of this important Buddhist commemoration, less is known (or spoken) about another woman, Utpalavarṇā (one of the chief female disciples of Buddha) on that day, whose extraordinary devotion for the Buddha enabled her to be transformed into a Universal Monarch so that she could be first to greet him when he returned to earth. According to some accounts, crowds of people gathered eagerly awaiting the Buddha’s return. Everyone wanted to greet the great teacher, yet the nun Utpalavarna (whose name literally means ‘colour of the blue lotus’) vows that she would be the first person to greet the Buddha when he descends. For a simple nun it would have been difficult to get a prime spot to meet Buddha against the powerful kings and princes with their elaborate entourages.

However, as a result of Utpala’s devotion, she is transformed into a universal monarch, accompanied by seven treasures and the most elaborate troops, and thus she is able to secure the best position to fulfill her vow. She is the first to greet the Buddha, upon which she reverts back to her original appearance. Recognizing Utpala’s devotion, the Buddha predicts her future enlightenment .

The earliest known record of Utpala comes from a 3rd century BCE stone engraving, portraying her at the Buddha’s descent. Utpala is said to be mentioned in several early Buddhist texts of the Pali Canon, including the Saṃyutta NikāyaAṅguttara Nikāya, and the Therīgāthā and Apadāna collections within the Khuddaka Nikaya as well as some early Mahayana texts such as the Perfection of Wisdom in Eighty-thousand Lines and Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom.

For this short post, I have compiled a catalogue of texts on Utpala contained in Volume II of a publication of outstanding women in India and Tibet, published in Tibet in 2013 (‘phags bod kyi skyes chen ma dag gi rnam par thar ba pad+ma dkar po’i phreng ba/ TBRC W1KG16649). I hope to write more about these texts in the near future.

Uppalavanna and the Buddha front and center. 
Deva Rohana (image credit: fig. 10 p 362 in https://www.academia.edu/14260827/In_Search_of_Utpalavarna_in_Gandharan_Buddhist_Art)

This fantastic fable of love, compassion and devotion by, and for women is something to rejoice in and to remember that Buddha Shakyamuni was well ahead of his time when it came to treating women with equality, respect and compassion. Similar, to when the Buddha complied with his aunt’s demand that nuns be ordained, the Buddha’s treatment of Utpala can be seen as yet more evidence of his view of women as capable of full awakening.

May all beings attain the fully awakened state and have the devotion of Utpala!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 7th November 2020.

CATALOGUE OF TEXTS ON UTPALAVARNA IN ‘THE WHITE-LOTUS GARLAND OF LIFE STORIES OF GREAT WOMEN IN INDIA AND TIBET’

These titles on Utpala can be found in Volume II of ‘phags bod kyi skyes chen ma dag gi rnam par thar ba pad+ma dkar po’i phreng ba/ TBRC W1KG16649:

  • The way in which the woman, Utpalavarna, went to the extreme of reversing lust for men and became a nun (bu mo ut+pa la’i mdog can mo ‘gal bu la chags pa dang mthar rab tu byung nas rdzu ‘phrul can rnams kyi mchog tu gyur tshul/ pp. 61 – 83).
  • The way in which the magical manifestation of the teacher conquered the puffed-up pride of woman Utpala and established her on the path of liberation (ston pas rdzu ‘phrul gyis bu mo ut+pa la’i lang tsho’i khengs pa bcom nas thar lam la bkod tshul/ pp. 84-91, pp. 70-77.
  • Gelongma Utpalavarna’s autobiography about her own suffering at home, resulted in five hundred women (dge slong ma ut+pa la’i mdog can gyis rang gi lo rgyus dang sbyar nas khyim na gnas pa’i sdug bsngal rgya cher bstan te bud med lnga brgya ‘bras bu la bkod tshul/ pp.78-91).
  • The story of how Gelongma Utpalavarna magically emanated a retinue (dge slong ma ut+pa la’i kha dog ma ‘khor bsgyur du sprul nas rdzu ‘phrul bstan pa’i lo rgyus/ pp.92-94).
  • The story of Gelongma Utpalavarna offering some cloth after neutralising a band of robbers who generated faith towards her (dge slong ma ut+pa la’i mdog can la chom rkun pa dag dad pa skyes nas bsod snyoms dang ras yug phul ba’i lo rgyus/ pp.95-100).

Further Reading

2 thoughts on “The power of a woman’s devotion: Utpalavarṇā, the first to greet Buddha’s Descent from the Heavens (Lhabab Duchen)

  1. So nice you did remember about this special day. Obvious question, when Buddha did sit in meditation
    and his mind was in Tushita heaven, was he aware of Earth reality? All best.

    1. Thanks so much. I would imagine that as Buddha’s mind is omnipresent and pervasive that he was aware of all phenomena and beings simultaneously at all times. No distinctions or separations. Manifesting billons of bodies in billions of universes at the same time would be possible.

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