“Look at the disciples all together,
their energy,
their sincere effort.
This is homage to the buddhas.

Maya gave birth to Gautama
for the sake of us all.
She has driven back painof the sick and dying.”

–Excerpt from Maha Pajapati (Gotami) Theri: A Mother’s Blessing” (Thig 6.6)

“For the Buddha, Gautama, his chief male disciples were Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, while his chief female disciples were Kṣemā and Utpalavarṇā. According to the Buddhavaṃsa, all Buddhas of the past followed this pattern of selecting two chief male disciples and two chief female disciples.”

–Hecker & Nyanaponika Thera (2003)


Here is Day 12 (Part One) of the teachings by 17th Karmapa on the Origins of Secret Mantra (video here).

In this teaching, the Karmapa explained the Buddha’s decision to teach Dharma after attaining enlightenment and who he should teach. Also, how students and wealthy sponsors immediately and quickly gravitated towards the Buddha naturally, including powerful Kings and royalty, his father, wife and child.

The Karmapa then considered the Buddha’s more ‘radical’ views and actions for that time.  One of his most radical actions was accepting the lowest Shudra caste as monastics and students. At that time, such castes were not even permitted to practice a religion. Not only did Buddha openly accept them in the sangha but he also insisted that the royal caste monks prostrate to lower caste monks, if they had more senior ordination.

The second most radical act, for that time, was Buddha allowing women to be fully-ordained nuns and sangha members. This revolutionary act came about due to the protestations of his aunt (and step-mother), Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, who when Buddha finally accepted her demands, also became the first fully-ordained nun. Karmapa then spoke briefly about other notable and excellent female students.

[The 17th Karmapa himself named the annual debate for Kagyu nuns, Arya Kshema, after one of the Buddha’s main female students, Kshema. For more on that and his other activities to bring back full-ordination of nuns within Tibetan Buddhism, see here.]

The final part of the teaching was on serious schisms and events in the Buddha’s life, mainly caused by Devadatta his cousin, and the Buddha’s passing into nirvana. That teaching will be published in the next post (Part 2).

May women be restored to their full and equal role as practitioners, teachers and students, and may all castes and creeds attain the full awakening!

Music? Imagine by John Lennon or Revolution by the Beatles? Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man……(or sisterhood of women) 🙂

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 18th September 2021.


ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (Day 12) by 17th Karmapa

Leaving the hardships behind

“Yesterday I spoke about some of the deeds of our teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni from taking birth to practicing austerities. Today, I will continue with the life story of the Buddha. 

Prince Siddhartha had spent six whole years practicing austerities. Even if we disregard the physical difficulties, he had endured inconceivable hardships. Yet, no matter how many ascetic practices he underwent, he was unable to achieve a state that transcended the world, or to realise the actual nature of things.  Then he remembered something that happened when he was young, which i mentioned yesterday. He had gone with his father, Shuddodhana outside the city to see the farmers working in the fields, This is in our Tibetan texts. It is called ‘farmer’s town (Shingmai Drong) When he went there,  he had sat underneath a tree in  meditation achieving the level of the first dhyana and felt the pleasure of body and mind that goes with that. He remembered this. He thought maybe I should practice this way of meditation when I was just a child. If I spend the whole time practicing austerities it will be too hard on my body and not of any real benefit.  He stopped the austerities and began to eat coarse foods (he began to eat) as a way to revive and build up his body strength.

At that time, he had five companions with him also practicing the austerities. When he stopped and started to eat, the five ascetics who had been practicing with Prince Siddhartha thought, ‘oh yes, this prince must still be attached to the royal enjoyments, and now was no longer practicing the path. They were disappointed and lost their confidence in him and did not want to stay with him. So, they left him for Varanasi.

The next of Prince Siddhartha’s deeds then unfolded. He went to bathe in the Nairanjana River. He hadn’t eaten food for so long, never mind having washed his body. It was filthy and unclean and he wanted to cleanse it.  When he was bathing he had very little physical strength due to practicing and  he nearly fainted with exhaustion. Sujata, the daughter of a cowherd, saw him and instantly began to care for him. As she was a cowherd she offered a very nutritious milk porridge and it was very beneficial. the Sutras say that the Gods added many beneficial medicines to it. We can forget about that. Milk alone has a lot of nutritional value and his body revived.

This is similar to the story of Milarepa, when he also lost a lot of his physical strength and then some hunters came and gave him some food to eat. As a result, his body gained strength and his mind and was able to meditate more and gain more realisations. This is why it is said in the ‘Song of Interdependence’ that those who support those in the mountains have the interdependence of attaining awakening together.

So in this way, Sujata really helped him. There are other explanations that say it may have been someone other than her who offered him the milk. I will not speak about that.”

Sujata offering yoghurt to the Buddha

The Great Awakening under the Bodhi Tree

“Siddhartha went to a nearby forest and made a seat below an aśvattha or pippala tree. He sat underneath it in meditation samadhi. Up to this point, he had been practicing non-Buddhist methods of shamatha. After his body revived, he began to meditate on the experience insight (we could even  say the Buddhist meditations) and developed discriminating prajna. He realized that the permanent atma/Self taught by the non-Buddhists does not exist by nature. When he realised this, through prajna realizing selflessness, he entered the dhyana that transcends the world. He was able to eliminate all afflictions and attain Buddhahood beneath the tree. 

Attaining Buddhahood was not some big event or ceremony. It was a very ordinary situation. From outside, he was sitting under a tree and nothing special about it. When we talk about the aśvattha tree, it is a species of tree that later became called the Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment.

So, what was the truth the Buddha realized when he became enlightened? What was the nature of things he saw? What did he know? These are big questions. There are many different answers in the four sections of the scriptures. However, we don’t have these scriptures in Tibetan, which is a bit disappointing.

Some say the Buddha saw the meaning of the Four Noble Truths, some say he realized the meaning of the 12 links of interdependence, some say by going through the four dhyanas and three kinds of awareness he realized the meaning of the nature of things.There are many explanations but I do not think there is much of a contradiction between them. I do not need to speak much about those in detail now since I’m talking about history’,

The place where the Buddha reached enlightenment was later called Buddhagayā or the “essence of enlightenment”. A great stupa was built and it became the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site globally.  According to the Southern and Tibetan traditions, the Buddha achieved awakening in the Vaisakha month. So this whole month is considered to be very sacred. However, even within the Buddhist scriptures there are different accounts of the time of the awakening. I will not speak about those in detail either. 

The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India. The tree/place where Buddha attained enlightenment

Turning the Wheel of Dharma and the four-fold community of students

“Before I speak about turning the wheel of Dharma. after the Buddha reached enlightenment, no one was disturbing him and there were no afflictions and all the stains and obscurations were pacified. Thus he sat for seven days in samadhi experiencing perfect peace under the tree. Then he rose from that samdahi and sat under other trees/ Since he had achieved awakening and  feeling the inconceivable joy of liberation, he continued in that state. As we have not attained such a state, we cannot even imagine how amazing and enjoyable that might be. When we experience the sensory pleasures of form, taste, sound and so on we get really tricked by them. Yet the Buddha had attained the ultimate nature of things and so he sat there for five weeks experiencing that feeling and state. Then,he thought that the dharma he had realized was so deep, even if he explained it to others, it would be too difficult and profound to understand. It is just too far removed from them. So he thought there is no point in teaching the Dharma to other people. So for that reason, Shakyamuni had more the thought that he should not teach the Dharma. 

However, he had accomplished the most important benefit for himself, attaining awakening, but when he accomplished that and enjoyed the experience of that. When he arose from that profound feeling, he had another thought: that he must benefit others. So what was the best benefit for others? It is to teach them the Dharma and exlain the meaning, to turn the ‘wheel of dharma’. This is an analogy, it is like setting in motion a wheel which keeps on rotating. So he decided to teach.

Some scholars say that when Buddha attained Buddhahood, he immediately thought of passing into nrivana and entering the complete expanse of peace and wanted to stay in that state. They say it is possible he had that feeling. That is not a Mahayana question but a common Buddhist one.  Later, when there was talk about PratyekaBuddhas and the experience they have, it was probably based on this experience the Buddha had. 

So some scholars hypothesise this. Other scholars don’t disagree and said at that time, there were sages who lived on their own. This is a different way of talking about Pratyeka Buddhas. So scholars wonder about them and their history. They ask what is the basis, the texts and the source. This is different from our way of thinking and we need to know that.

Who would be best to teach the dharma to first? He had to choose people who could understand it, not just anyone. If he taught someone who couldn’t understand it, there would be no benefit. Finally, Shakyamuni decided to teach his five companion ascetics first, as they would be able to understand the profound meaning. They had a certain degree of practice and also a connection. They were at Deer Park in Sarnath, near Varanasi and so he went there. These days we say Sarnath, but it was called the Deer Park originally. 

Sarnath is the place where the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha originally came together. The Buddha taught the Dharma and who did he teach? The sangha, the five companions. Later, we call them the ‘good group of five’. We can go to Sarnath and still see the ruins on this site. It also has an Ashokan pillar with a lion capital. This became the symbol of India after independence. He taught them the middle way, not too far left or right, no extremes, right down the middle; and the Four Truths. They all attained realization of the true nature and become Arhats. This is like the first community, or sangha. This is what we mean by noble sangha. 

His first lay followers, or Upāsakas, were Yasa, a householder, and his two parents, wife, and children. The first male and female householders. It is said that later,  Yasa became an Arhat, although externally he was still wearing the clothes of a householder. So internally he was a bhiksu, or monk who had realized the nature. Fifty of his friends also went forth and later all achieved Arhatship. Thus the four-fold community of the sangha grew naturally.

So Buddha only taught the Dharma to people he chose who needed it and who would understand. It was not for everyone who had a pair of ears. This is another crucial point. He thought about if it would benefit others.  From the beginning, the Buddha’s intention was to spread the dharma; He wasn’t looking to show off and impress people, and spread his own view. Only after he found the right people did he teach. This is another crucial point and important to remember. After he turned the wheel of Dharma, the three jewels that we all go for refuge to had originated.”

Spreading the Dharma – Magadha, King Bimbisara and Bamboo Grove and some of his main students

Map showing the location of Shravasti, the place near the border of Nepal, where Buddha spent most of his time staying and teaching in India.

“After Buddha left Varanasi, he returned to the kingdom of Magadha. At that time in India, there were sixteen most powerful Kingdoms and one of the most powerful kingdoms was Magadha. When he went there he had many different students.”


Uruvela-Kassapa took ordination from Buddha

“There was a well- known religious figure in the Brahman tradition, by the name of Uruvela-Kassapa[i] who became a student of Buddha[ii]. As he was so important  his two brothers, and siblings also became his students. Also, as he was so well-known in Magadha people were surprised and thus, the Buddha’s name became renowned throughout Magadha.”

King Bimbisara

King Bimbisara taking refuge and became a student of Buddha

“The Buddha gathered all his students and brought them together in Rajgir, the capital of Magadha. When he arrived there was King Bimbisara was there. Yesterday, I mistakenly said that Buddha met King Bimbisara on the way leaving his home/ However, that was not him but King Prasenajit. The King of Kosala was Prasenajit, and so he advised him as one of his subjects not to leave home.

So Buddha went to the palace in Rajgir, and Bimbisara took refuge, becoming one of the Buddha’s  lay students. Bimbisara also offered the Bamboo Grove as a place for the Buddha and sangha to stay. The Bamboo Grove probably was the first residence for the sangha. Bimbisara also became a patron of the sangha. They stayed in the Bamboo Grove and it became a hub of Buddhism where all social classes rushed there and thronged to take refuge and become Buddhists. 

Śāriputra, Maudgalyāyana and Mahā Kāśyapa

Statue of one of Buddha’s main students. Shariputra in Bodh Gaya, India, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment

“In particular, in Rajgir there were three principal students. Among the monks, Shariputra (Śāriputra)[iii] had the greatest prajna wisdom, Maudgalyāyana (Pali: Moggallāna)[iv], had the greatest powers and Mahā Kāśyapa or Mahākāśyapa (Pali: Mahākassapa), who later became the regent of the teachings and representative of the Buddha, all accompanied him from that time. Mahākāśyapa in particular would later influence the compilation of the teachings at the council that was convened to do that[v]. They became students while Buddha was staying in Magadha.”

Mahākāśyapa depicted with a naked ascetic hearing about the Buddha’s parinirvana
Mahākāśyapa, one of the Buddha’s main students. Image from the Kizil Caves

Return to Kosala and wealthy sponsor, Anāthapiṇḍada’s  offering of Jetavana Grove in Shravasti

Bharhut sculpture – donation of Anathapindaka. 1875 – British Library

“Then, the Buddha went to  Kosala to spread the Dharma. In that region, there was someone who became a main lay disciple of Buddha,  a merchant called Anāthapiṇḍada (Pali: Anāthapiṇḍika). He was probably a resident of Shravasti, the capital of Kosala[vi] and probably the greatest merchant there.  There were many orphans to whom he gave food every day. He was always being generous and giving food to those who were without protection or defence. So, his name means “giving food to the defenceless”.  His actual name was probably Sudatta. 

Anāthapiṇḍada had gone to Rajgir for business and he had heard that there was a Buddha there. Buddha was so famous at that time, that he heard about him and thought he should go and meet him. So, he went to meet the Buddha at the Bamboo Grove in Rajgir.  Then he took refuge, requesting the Buddha to come to Shravasti, to the kingdom Kosala.  The Buddha accepted his invitation. Anāthapiṇḍada then quickly returned to Kosala. He thought there should be some place for them to stay in Shravasti.

In Shravasti, there was the Jetavana Grove belonging to Prince Jeta, who was probably the cousin of King Prasenajit.  It was his own private park. Anāthapiṇḍada asked the Prince to sell the Jetavana Grove to him and the Prince refused. However, Anāthapiṇḍada was very insistent and the Prince said, jokingly, “Only if you cover it with gold I will sell it to you.”  In the end, Anāthapiṇḍada covered the ground with gold and told him look you said cover it with gold and I have, right? So he tried to get him to keep his word. Thus, he got the Jeta Grove and bought it for an extremely high price. Yet within three months they had built a monastery, so it must have been very simple monastery. Some people say it was probably made out of wood. Then the Buddha and his retinue came and stayed there. It was here that the Buddha stayed for the longest time and taught dharma the most.”

Image of the Buddha’s remains of his meditation hut in the Jetavana Grove, Shravsati, India

King Prasenajit

“King Prasenajit of Shravasti went later to take refuge with the Buddha. The main reason was  due to the encouragement of his queen Mallikā. He had several wives but she was the one who encouraged him[vii].” 

Image of King Prasenajit paying a visit to Buddha

The Buddha’s Father, Wife and Son become monastics and students of Buddha

“The Buddha’s father, King Shuddodhana hearing of the Buddha’s deeds really moved him and he longed to meet his son once again, as he had not seen him for a long time.  The Buddha accepted his request and went back home to Kapilavastu. This is the father and son meeting. We have a Mahayana Sutra called ‘The Meeting of the Father and Son’.  Buddha met his father, his wife and young son Rahula. This is an image of them waiting and watching him as he arrived (above).

Buddha’s wife, Yashodhara also went forth and became his student, as did his son, Rahula in later years. However, at that time, he was very young so Buddha gave him the novice vows and entrusted him to an elder student.”

Shakyamuni Buddha depicted with son, Rahula

Upāli the low-caste student of Buddha – No caste divisions or discrimination, ‘the only way is up’

“Many of the Shakya youths wanted to become monks. Some asked their parents and some didn’t and secretly did it. There were many events around that. Among these monks, there was Devadatta the Buddha’s cousin, Ānanda, and his younger half-brother Nanda who became monks at that time.

There was also a low caste barber Upāli who, according to the existing caste system, had no right to practice the dharma, who also became a monk. This is an important story. He was of the Shudra caste, the lowest caste.  As I said before, the Shudras had no right to practice Dharma and were not allowed to recite Vedic texts. They could only say ‘Nama’ I prostrate to you. If they did recite any words, their tongues would be cut out.

At that time, there was a barber from the lower caste called Upāli . There were many Shakya youths who had come to Buddha to become monastics. So first you have to shave your head. Upāli  was the barber  and they would call him to come and shave their heads. There was a Shakyan Prince Bhadrika  and they recognised each other. When Upāli  was shaving his head, he began to cry. When the Prince asked him why he was crying, ‘we are all happy to be going forth’.  Upāli said ‘don’t worry I just felt sad’. The Prince had always treated him very well, so when they go forth, they go off to different areas. For that reason, Upāli  was sad because he wouldn’t see Prince Bhadrika again.

The Prince said, “Don’t worry, we will give you our jewels and ornaments. We’ll make sure you have a good life. All of us Princes are going forth so we don’t need all these things and will give them to you”. They thought he could sell them and use them for himself and they thought it was great. So the princes gave all their gold and jewellry to Upāli . At first he was going to go straight home. However, Upāli  was worried that if King Shuddodhana heard of this, he might punish him thinking that he had made all the princes go forth and become monastics. Upāli thought ‘maybe I can go forth with them’. When he thought this , he left all the jewels by a tree and went to go forth. Yet as he went there, he thought ‘I am a Shudra a lower caste and the higher castes can do that, I have no right to do that’. So he collapsed in tears once again. knowing he had no right to go forth.

Then someone saw him and asked why he was crying and why he was so sad.  Upāli  looked up and saw Shariputa and told him the whole story and finally asked him to ask the Buddha, “Is someone like me from the Shudra caste allowed to go forth?” ‘Maybe it is very audacious for me to think that, but please ask him’, he said.

Immediately Shariputra replied, “What is your name?’ He responded ‘Upāli ‘. Shariputra said: ‘In the Buddhist dharma there is no distinction of caste or clan. The Buddha is someone who has equanimity for all. Whoever you are, you can go forth. So come with me! The Buddha will be delighted to give you the monastic vows.’[viii]

Upāli  was very happy to hear this and went with him to see the Buddha to become a monk. The way to become a monk then was saying ‘Come hither Bikshus’. Upāli became a monk before the Shakya princes, so was more senior than them. One had to prostrate to the person who is senior. However, people would not prostrate to him because he was a Shudra, a low caste. They complained about it saying ‘we are Kshatriya caste, it is not OK for us to prostrate to someone from a lower caste.  It is like reversing heaven and earth!’ In particular, Devadatta objected to it strongly. “

Depiction of Buddha with Upali

However, they still had to do it. Later, Upāli  became the one who was best at upholding the precepts and who knew the Vinaya the best. Also, when they were compiling the words of the Buddha at the Council, the Vinaya, He was extremely helpful with that[ix]. [It is said that Buddha himself taught Upali the Vinaya].

Shakyamuni Buddha turned the caste system totally upside down. He gave everyone the opportunity and right to practice the dharma. There was no distinction between castes. This is one of the most important things that shows us the Buddha’s equal loving-kindness and compassion for all.”

First Council at Rajgir, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti, at which Upali was said to have been instrumental in explaining the Vinaya. Photograph of murals in the Nava Jetavana temple, Jetavana Park, Shravasti.

Buddha the feminist: Prajapati, his aunt, the first fully-ordained nun and women as sangha


“Another example of Buddha’s loving-kindness and compassion is this deed. This is Prajapati, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī)  who had raised the Buddha after his mother had passed away in childbirth. She was his step-mother. When she saw others becoming monastics, she also wanted to go forth and brought many Shakya women to see the Buddha and asked him to become sangha. The Buddha refused and did not give permission for a very long time, although they made multiple requests.”

[It is said that with her were hundreds of women who had lost their families – first in wars, and then to Buddhism, when the men renounced war and became monks.]

The Buddha initially rejected the elderly Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī’s request to be ordained as a ‘nun’

“They then asked Ananda to be their messenger and use his influence. Only through the influence of Ananda did Buddha finally give his permission and  she was finally allowed to enter as a bhiksuni[x].

This was the origin of female monastics, bikkshunis and only developed at that time. However, when these communities came together there would be some difficulties and issues. If they don’t know how to treat each other then it’s complicated. So in order to avoid such difficulties, the Buddha made the nuns accept the “Eight Principles of Respect[xi] a set of strict rules.  I have spoken about fully-ordained nuns several times. “

[Author’s Note: The narrative given by the Karmapa is of course a simplistic one and not necessarily accurate. Wendy Garling’s new book The Woman Who Raised Buddha: Mahaprajapati (Shambhala, 2021), in particular Chapter 8, goes into a lot more detail regarding how the Shakya women first became laywomen members of the sangha and then later, fully-ordained nuns. It is presented here as if Ananda convinced Buddha to let women be sangha etc. However:

….as Analayo points out, the Buddha (being the Buddha) would not have needed reminding that women had the same potential as men, or that there was the precedent of the fourfold assembly, or for that matter, that he himself had made a commitment to forming a fourfold assembly shortly after his enlightenment. The Buddha would have known exactly what was going on and had his own unique handle on how this important karmic event was meant to play out. We can’t know what that was, but one way or another, we can be glad that it did. A Sinhala passage reflects his omniscience on this matter as he speaks to Ananda:

Are the Buddhas born in the world only for the benefit of men? Assuredly it is also for the benefit of females as well. When I delivered the Tirokudha-sutra, many women entered the paths, as did also many goddesses when I delivered the Abhidhamma in Trayastrimsa. Have not Visakha and many other upasikas entered the paths? The entrance is open for women as well as men.

…The Buddha’s refusal to grant women the going forth could have originally been an expression of apprehensions that conditions were not yet ripe for this move…it could have reflected concerns regarding how to accommodate women living the holy life in celibacy as homeless wanderers at this early stage in the development of Buddhist monasticism, when safe dwelling places for Buddhist monastics were still scarce and public recognition not yet widespread.” Garling (2021: Chapter 8).

These Eight Rules are controversial because they are seen as an attempt to push women into an inferior role and because several Buddhist scholars, have found evidence that the eight Garudhammas are not really the teachings of Gautama Buddha[xii].]

Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, pictured with Buddha as a child. She was his aunt, and acted as his step-mother when his mother passed away, and also became the first fully-ordained nun. Photograph of an old Lithographic Painting drawn by Maligawage Sarlis Master of Ceylon.

Statue of Mahaprajapati Gautami at Upaya Zen Center, USA. From

Some of the main female students of Buddha – Kshema, Uppalavanna and Dhammadinna and Kisāgotamī 

Image of Buddha with female students

“In India, there were not only the four castes, but there had been a certain amount of equality for women. later, their situation got worse and their rights lesser and lesser. In particular, in terms of religion so that kind of environment he gave the full rights and permission for women to practice the Dharma. Not only that, because of the instructions and guidance of the Buddha, there were many excellent women who achieved high states.   For example, Kshema[xiii] and Dhammadinna [xiv] both had great intelligence or prajna. Eventually they were also able to teach Dharma to the Bikkshu monks. 

Likewise, there was the nun, Uppalavaṇṇā[xv] who was a siddha possessing miraculous powers. I am speaking primarily of the Theravada or the Shravaka tradition. Kisāgotamī was said to be supreme in her realization of the nature of mind.

There are many different explanations in the Sutra and what I am basing my explanations on here are Sutras are from the Southern Buddhist traditions. So there were many excellent  male and female students.”

[The 17th Karmapa himself created and named the recently instituted annual debate for Kagyu nuns, Arya Kshema after this female student. For more on that and Karmapa’s other activities to improve the status and education and bring back full-ordination of nuns within Tibetan Buddhism, see here.]

Karma Kagyu nuns at the annual Arya Kshema event held at Bodh Gaya, India. The event was created and named after Kshema, one of the main female students of Buddha.

Householder students, former criminals and no stopping the spread of Buddha Dharma

“Among the  lay people/householders, there were some superior students. among those, there was one called Citta had the greatest understanding of the meaning of the dharma. Also, there was Ugga from Vaishali and Mahanaman from the Shakya tribe were well-known as the greatest patrons or donors who were giving food to the poor and so on. 

 A few examples of the Buddha’s famous students include the greatest of evil-doers, Angulimala. There were many bandits in India and he was one, a notorious mass murderer who had killed 999 people (or even more). He had killed hundreds of people and not only that, he was very cruel, and would make and wear a necklace of their fingers. He was very savage and horrible.  Yet the Buddha gave him advice and in the end, he became one of Buddha’s students and then an Arhat. 

What this shows is that no matter how horrible, mean or vile the person was, however much the society hated or were afraid of, even that person could become a good and even a superior person. 

Likewise, even among the 16 Arhats there was Cullapanthaka, who was unable to memorize anything, even a single line of verse. These days, we might say he was mentally disabled. He would remember and then forget it. Buddha gave him guidance and then realized the profound nature through that. there are many other famous students, but I cannot speak of all of them. 

In the Theravada tradition, there is the Suttanipāta Sutra (the Short Sutras) in which there is a chapter called Pārāyanavagga, which means the Transcendent Vehicle. It explains how a Brahman called Bāvarin from the Deccan regions of South India brought 66 of his students to receive teachings from the Buddha. They came from a long distance. These days, we can go by train or plane and it takes a few hours. Then. people took a long time to cover such distances yet even then they travelled to get teachings from the Buddha in central India. 

Among the 66 students were two Brahman boys, Ajita (Nipampa, the Unconquered) and Tissa-Metteyya. Later some scholars thought that  the Maitreya of the Mahayana Sutras is probably them, that it may just be one person. We don’t need to examine this. At that time, even people from the South of India came to see him. This shows us that many people loved the Buddha and he was very welcoming to everyone. 

The Buddha was protected by the Kshatriyas and the Vaisha class and because of that his teachings grew and spread significantly. By the time the Buddha passed into nirvana he was like the sun at noon. His teachings had spread in many regions of India. No matter who they were, no one could stop the spread of Buddhism, neither Brahmans, gods or demons. No-one could stop the spread of Buddhism at that point.”

Further Reading

Anālayo, Bhikkhu (2011). Mahapajapati’s going forth in the Madhyama agama, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 18, 268-317.

Anālayo, Bhikkhu (2016). The Going Forth of Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī in T 60, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 23, 1-31.

Garling, Wendy (2016). Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life. Shambhala Publications. 

Garling, Wendy (2021). The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati. Shambhala Publications.

Songs of the Elder Sisters, a selection of 14 poems from the Therigatha translated into verse by Francis Booth (2009), digital edition (Kindle).

Hecker, Hellmuth; Nyanaponika Thera (2003), Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy (PDF), Simon and Schuster.

Hallisey, Charles (2015) Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, translated by  Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press.

Murcott, Susan (1991) The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha. Parallax Press.

Krey, Gisela (2010-09-04), “On Women as Teachers in Early Buddhism: Dhammadinnā and Khemā”, Buddhist Studies Review, 27 (1): 17–40.

Sayadaw, Ven. Mingun (1990), “The story of Upatissa (Sāriputta) and Kolita (Mahā Moggallāna) [Part 1]”,

Scott, Rachel M (2010). Buddhism, miraculous powers, and gender – rethinking the stories of Theravada nuns, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33 (1-2), 489-511.

Shaw, Sarah (2013), “Character, Disposition, and the Qualities of the Arahats as a Means of Communicating Buddhist Philosophy in the Suttas” (PDF), in Emmanuel, Steven M. (ed.), A companion to Buddhist philosophy (first ed.), Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell

Walters, Jonathan S. (1994). “A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha’s Mother’s Story.” History of Religions 33, 350–379.


[i] Uruvela Kassapa was an ascetic who dwelt on the banks of the Nairañjanā river who was converted by the Buddha at Uruvelā (from whence his name) shortly after the Buddha attained enlightenment (bodhi). He was one of three brothers who between them had many hundred followers. The Buddha resided with Uruvela-Kassapa for a time and performed many feats of magical power, including defeating a fire-breathing demon (nāga). Impressed by these powers, the ascetic sought ordination along with his brothers and their followers. They all became Arhats when the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon to them. The scene of Uruvela-Kassapa’s conversion is recorded at Sāñcī.

[ii] The story of how he became a student is as follows: “As soon as he had 60 disciples the Buddha sent them away to teach people everywhere. He left the Deer Park and turned southwards towards the Magadha country.Along the way, on the banks of a river, there lived three brothers whose names were Uruvela Kassapa, Nadi Kassapa and Gaya Kassapa. Each lived with 500, 300 and 200 followers respectively.One evening the Buddha visited Uruvela Kassapa’s hut and asked, “If it is not an inconvenience, may I spend a night in your kitchen?”“I don’t mind, Great Gotama, but there is a fierce serpent king in the kitchen. I am afraid it will harm you,” said Uruvela Kassapa. “Oh, I don’t mind,” answered the Buddha. “If you have no objection I will spent the night there.” The Buddha went into the kitchen, spread some grass on the floor for bedding, and sat down. The fierce serpent king, hearing the noise, came slithering out of a hole in the wall, opening his mouth to bite the Buddha.”I will not harm this serpent king. I will subdue him by my love and kindness,” thought the Buddha. The angrier the serpent king became, the more kindly and loving was Buddha. The serpent king could do him no harm.

Early next morning Uruvela Kassapa went to the Buddha and found him sitting in deep meditation. The ascetic was surprised and asked the Buddha whether the serpent king had harmed him. “Here, see for yourself,” said the Buddha and uncovered his begging bowl. Out came the fierce serpent king and the ascetic started to run away in fright. But the Buddha stopped him, saying that he had a way to tame any fierce serpent.

“Can I learn?” asked the ascetic. The Buddha then gave his teachings and Uruvela Kassapa, his brothers and all their followers became devotees of the Buddha’s Dharma.”

[iii] “Śāriputra had a key leadership role in the ministry of the Buddha and is considered in many Buddhist schools to have been important in the development of the Buddhist Abhidharma. He appears in several Mahayana sutras, and in some sutras, is used as a counterpoint to represent the Hinayana school of Buddhism.[9][10]

Buddhist texts relate that Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana were childhood friends who became spiritual wanderers in their youth.[11] After having searched for spiritual truth for a while, they came into contact with the teachings of the Buddha and ordained as monks under him, after which the Buddha declared the friends his two chief disciples. Śāriputra was said to have attained enlightenment as an arhat two weeks after ordaining.  As chief disciple Śāriputra assumed a leadership role in the Sangha, doing tasks like looking after monks, giving them objects of meditation, and clarifying points of doctrine. He was the first disciple the Buddha allowed to ordain other monks.[18] Śāriputra died shortly before the Buddha in his hometown and was cremated.[19][20] According to Buddhist texts, his relics were then enshrined at Jetavana Monastery. Archaeological findings from the 1800s suggest his relics may have been redistributed across the Indian subcontinent by subsequent kings.

Śāriputra is regarded as an important and wise disciple of the Buddha, particularly in Theravada Buddhism where he is given a status close to a second Buddha. In Buddhist art, he is often depicted alongside the Buddha, usually to his right. He was known for his strict adherence to the Buddhist monastic rules, as well as for his wisdom and teaching ability, giving him the title “General of the Dharma” (Sanskrit: Dharmasenapati; Pali: Dhammasenāpati). Śāriputra is considered the disciple of the Buddha who was foremost in wisdom.[26] His female counterpart was Kṣemā.

According to accounts from the 7th century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, Śāriputra’s as well as Maudgalyāyana’s relics could be found in the Indian city of Mathura in stupas built by King Asoka. However, as of 1999, no archaeological reports had confirmed such findings at the sites mentioned by either Chinese pilgrims or Buddhist texts, although findings were made at other sites.”

[iv] “Maudgalyayana and Śāriputra have a deep spiritual friendship. They are depicted in Buddhist art as the two disciples that accompany the Buddha, and they have complementing roles as teachers. As a teacher, Maudgalyayana is known for his psychic powers, and he is often depicted using these in his teaching methods. In many early Buddhist canons, Maudgalyāyana is instrumental in re-uniting the monastic community after Devadatta causes a schism. Furthermore, Maudgalyāyana is connected with accounts about the making of the first Buddha image. Maudgalyāyana dies at the age of eighty-four, killed through the efforts of a rival sect. This violent death is described in Buddhist scriptures as a result of Maudgalyāyana’s karma of having killed his own parents in a previous life.

Through post-canonical texts, Maudgalyāyana became known for his filial piety through a popular account of him transferring his merits to his mother. This led to a tradition in many Buddhist countries known as the ghost festival, during which people dedicate their merits to their ancestors. Maudgalyāyana has also traditionally been associated with meditation and sometimes Abhidharma texts, as well as the Dharmaguptaka school. In the nineteenth century, relics were found attributed to him, which have been widely venerated.”

In a Pali Jātaka account, the Buddha is said to have had the ashes of Maudgalyāyana collected and kept in a stūpa in the gateway of the Veluvaḷa.[1 In two other accounts, however, one from the Dharmaguptaka and the other from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, Anāthapiṇḍika and other laypeople requested the Buddha to build a stūpa in honor of Maudgalyāyana. According to the Divyāvadāna, emperor Ashoka visited the stūpa and made an offering, on the advice of Upagupta Thera.During the succeeding centuries, Xuan Zang and other Chinese pilgrims reported that a stūpa with Maudgalyāyana’s relics could be found under the Indian city Mathura, and in several other places in Northeast India. However, as of 1999, none of these had been confirmed by archaeological findings.”

[v] Mahā Kāśyapa or Mahākāśyapa (Pali: Mahākassapa) was one of the principal disciples of Gautama Buddha.[2] He is regarded in Buddhism as an enlightened disciple, being foremost in ascetic practice. Mahākāśyapa assumed leadership of the monastic community following the paranirvāṇa (death) of the Buddha, presiding over the First Buddhist Council. He was considered to be the first patriarch in a number of early Buddhist schools and continued to have an important role as patriarch in the Chan and Zen traditions. In Buddhist texts, he assumed many identities, that of a renunciant saint, a lawgiver, an anti-establishment figure, but also a “guarantor of future justice” in the time of Maitreya, the future Buddha—he has been described as “both the anchorite and the friend of mankind, even of the outcast”.

In canonical Buddhist texts in several traditions, Mahākāśyapa was born as Pippali in a village and entered an arranged marriage with a woman named Bhadra-Kapilānī. Both of them aspired to lead a celibate life, however, and they decided not to consummate their marriage. Having grown weary of the agricultural profession and the damage it did, they both left the lay life behind to become mendicants. Pippali later met the Buddha, under whom he was ordained as a monk, named Kāśyapa, but later called Mahākāśyapa to distinguish him from other disciples.

Mahākāśyapa became an important disciple of the Buddha, to the extent that the Buddha exchanged his robe with him, which was a symbol of the transmittance of the Buddhist teaching. He became foremost in ascetic practices and attained enlightenment shortly after. He often had disputes with Ānanda, the attendant of the Buddha, due to their different dispositions and views. Despite his ascetic, strict and stern reputation, he paid an interest in community matters and teaching, and was known for his compassion for the poor, which sometimes caused him to be depicted as an anti-establishment figure. He had a prominent role in the cremation of the Buddha, acting as a sort of eldest son of the Buddha, as well as being the leader in the subsequent First Council. He is depicted as hesitatingly allowing Ānanda to participate in the council, and chastising him afterwards for a number of offenses the latter was regarded to have committed.”

[vi] Shravasti (IAST: Śrāvastī; Pali: Sāvatthī) was the capital of Kosala kingdom in ancient India and the place where the Buddha lived most after his enlightenment. It is near the Rapti river in the northeastern part of Uttar Pradesh India, close to the Nepalese border.

[vii] Pasenadi (Sanskrit: Prasenajit) (c. 6th century BCE) was an Aikṣvāka dynasty ruler of Kosala. Sāvatthī was his capital. He succeeded after Sanjaya Mahākosala.  He was a prominent Upāsaka (lay follower) of Gautama Buddha, and built many Buddhist monasteries for the Buddha.

[viii] “Several variations on the story of Upāli’s ordination exist, but all of them emphasize that his status in the saṅgha (Sanskrit: saṃgha; monastic community) was independent of his caste origin. In the Pāli version, the princes, including Anuruddha (Sanskrit: Aniruddha), voluntarily allowed Upāli to ordain before them in order to give him seniority in order of ordination and abandon their own attachment to caste and social status.

In the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda version of the story, co-disciple Sāriputta (Sanskrit: Śāriputra) persuaded Upāli to become ordained when he hesitated because of being low caste, but in the Mahāvastu, it was Upāli’s own initiative. The Mahāvastu continues that after all the monks had been ordained, the Buddha requested that the former princes bow for their former barber, which led to consternation among the witnessing king Bimbisāra and advisers, who also bowed for Upāli following their example. It became widely known that the Sakyans had their barber ordained before them to humble their pride,[as the Buddha related a Jātaka tale that the king and advisers had bowed for Upāli in a previous life, too.

Indologist T.W. Rhys Davids noted that Upāli was the “striking proof of the reality of the effect produced by Gautama’s disregard of the supposed importance of caste”.  Historian H.W. Schumann also raises Upāli as an example of the general rule that “in no case did … humble origins prevent a monk from becoming prominent in the Order”.  Religion scholar Jeffrey Samuels points out, though, that the majority of Buddhist monks and nuns during the time of the Buddha, as drawn from several analyses of Buddhist texts, were from higher castes, with a minority of six percent like Upāli being exception to the rule. Historian Sangh Sen Singh argues that Upāli could have been the leader of the saṅgha after the Buddha’s parinibbāna instead of Mahākassapa (Sanskrit: parinirvāṇa, Mahākāśyapa). But the fact that he was from a low caste effectively prevented this, as many of the Buddhist devotees at the time might have objected to his leadership position.”

[ix] Upāli (Sanskrit and Pāli) was a monk, one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha  and, according to early Buddhist texts, the person in charge of the reciting and reviewing of monastic discipline (Pāli and Sanskrit: vinaya) on the First Buddhist Council. Upāli was born a low-caste barber. He met the Buddha when still a child, and later, when the Sakya princes received ordination, he did so as well. He was ordained before the princes, putting humility before caste. Having been ordained, Upāli learnt both Buddhist doctrine (Pali: Dhamma; Sanskrit: Dharma) and vinaya. His preceptor was Kappitaka. Upāli became known for his mastery and strictness of vinaya and was consulted often about vinaya matters. A notable case he decided was that of the monk Ajjuka, who was accused of partisanship in a conflict about real estate. During the First Council, Upāli received the important role of reciting the vinaya, for which he is mostly known.

Scholars have analyzed Upāli’s role and that of other disciples in the early texts, and it has been suggested that his role in the texts was emphasized during a period of compiling that stressed monastic discipline, during which Mahākassapa (Sanskrit: Mahākāśyapa) and Upāli became the most important disciples. Later, Upāli and his pupils became known as vinayadharas (Pāli; ‘custodians of the vinaya’), who preserved the monastic discipline after the Buddha’s parinibbāna (Sanskrit: parinirvāṇa; passing into final Nirvana). This lineage became an important part of the identity of Ceylonese and Burmese Buddhism. In China, the 7th-century Vinaya school referred to Upāli as their patriarch, and it was believed that one of their founders was a reincarnation of him. The technical conversations about vinaya between the Buddha and Upāli were recorded in the Pāli and Sarvāstivāda traditions and have been suggested as an important subject of study for modern-day ethics in American Buddhism.”

[x] “When King Suddhodhana died, Mahapajapati Gotami decided to attain ordination. Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Buddha and asked to be ordained into the Sangha. The Buddha refused  and went on to Vesāli. Undaunted, Gotami cut off her hair and donned yellow robes and with many Sakyan ladies followed the Buddha to Vesāli on foot. Upon arrival, she repeated her request to be ordained. Ananda, one of the principal disciples and an attendant of the Buddha, met her and offered to intercede with the Buddha on her behalf. Gotami agreed to accept the Eight Garudhammas and was accorded the status of the first bhikkhuni. Subsequent women had to undergo full ordination to become nuns.”

“The stories of a number of nuns (Skt. bhikshuni) in early Buddhism were written down in various parts of the Pali Buddhist scriptures, especially in the Therigatha, commonly translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns, composed about 600 BCE, and also in the Theri Apadana or The Great Deeds of the Elder Nuns, composed in 2nd-1st century BCE. The longest part of the Theri Apadana is the Gautami Apadana (The Great Deeds of Gautami), and tells the story of Mahaprajapati Gautami.”

[xi] “The Eight Garudhammas (Sanskrit: guru-dharma,[note 1] translated as “rules of respect”, “principles of respect”,  “principles to be respected”) are additional precepts required of bhikkhunis (fully ordained Buddhist nuns) above and beyond the monastic rule (vinaya) that applied to monks. The authenticity of these rules is contested; they were supposedly added to the (bhikkhunis) Vinaya “to allow more acceptance” of a monastic Order for women, during the Buddha’s time.  They are controversial because they attempt to push women into an inferior role and because many Buddhists, especially Bhikkhunis, have found evidence that the eight Garudhammas are not really the teachings of Gautama Buddha.”

[xii] “Bhikkhu Analayo has stated that the historicity of the gurudharmas is “a rather doubtful matter”  but notes that they are present in all Vinayas. He says”

“When evaluated from the viewpoint of their narrative context, it seems clear that the formulations of the gurudharma concerning bhikṣuṇī ordination found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda, Sarvāstivāda, and Saṃmitīya Vinayas reflect an earlier version. This earlier version did not yet stipulate the necessity of training as a sikṣamāna and it prescribed ordination given by bhikṣus only, not by both communities.”

Yin Shun has noted the inconsistency[which?] of the Garudhammas in various Buddhist scriptures. Thich Nhat Hanh believes them to have been intended as temporary rules. Ute Hüsken agrees that there is inconsistency saying:

“These eight rules serve not only as admission criteria but also as rules that are to be observed for life by every nun. It is therefore striking that this set of rules in the Pāli Vinaya is not part of the Bhikkhunīpāṭimokkha. How-ever, seven of these rules do in fact have parallels either in word or in con-tent with other rules stated in the Bhikkhunīpāṭimokkha. Moreover, it is remarkable that these eight rules, although depicted as a precondition for ordination, are not at all mentioned in the ordination formulas for nuns, as given elsewhere in the Cullavagga.

Bhikkhu Anālayo and Thanissaro Bhikkhu state that garudhammas were initially simply “set out as principles” and did not had the status of a formal training rule until violations occurred.”

[xiii] “Khema (Pali: Khemā; Sanskrit: Kṣemā) was a Buddhist bhikkhuni, or nun, who was one of the top female disciples of the Buddha. She is considered the first of the Buddha’s two chief female disciples, along with Uppalavanna. Khema was born into the royal family of the ancient Kingdom of Madra, and was the wife of King Bimbisara of the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha. Khema was convinced to visit the Buddha by her husband, who hired poets to sing about the beauty of the monastery he was staying at to her. She attained enlightenment as a laywoman while listening to one of the Buddha’s sermons, considered a rare feat in Buddhist texts. Following her attainment, Khema entered the monastic life under the Buddha as a bhikkhuni. According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha declared her his female disciple foremost in wisdom. Her male counterpart was Sariputta.”

[xiv] “Dhammadinna was the wife of a merchant. She and her husband became Buddhists and she decided to ordain as a bhikkhuni (nun). Shortly thereafter she became enlightened (arahant). Her husband progressed well, but to the stage of non-returner, which is not yet enlightened. She surpassed her husband, which became one of many examples of where women exceeded either their husbands or their teachers in spiritual progress, once again showing the gender equality in the teachings of the Buddha. On one occasion Ven. Dhammadinna was giving a Dhamma talk and the Buddha sat silently and listened. After the talk, the Buddha said that he could not have said (the teachings) it any better and praised her vigorously.”

[xv] “Uppalavanna (Pali: Uppalavaṇṇā; Sanskrit: Utpalavarṇā) was a Buddhist bhikkhuni (Pali; Sanskrit: Bhikshuni) , or nun, who was considered one of the top female disciples of the Buddha. She is considered the second of the Buddha’s two chief female disciples, along with Khema. She was given the name Uppalavanna, meaning “color of a blue water lily”, at birth due to the bluish color of her skin.

According to the Theravada tradition, Uppalavanna was born the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Due to her beauty, numerous wealthy and powerful suitors came to her father to ask for her hand in marriage. Instead of marrying, she entered the monastic life under the Buddha as a bhikkhuni. According to the Mulasarvastivada tradition, Uppalavanna had a tumultuous life as a wife and courtesan before converting to Buddhism and becoming a bhikkhuni.

Uppalavanna attained enlightenment while using a fire kasina as her object of meditation less than two weeks after her ordination. Following her enlightenment she developed a mastery of iddhipada, or spiritual powers, leading the Buddha to declare her his female disciple foremost in psychic powers. Her male counterpart was Maha Moggallana.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s