THE ‘GOLDEN GODDESS’ NUN WHOM BUDDHA SAID WAS BEST AT RECOLLECTING PREVIOUS LIVES AND ATTAINED ARHATSHIP: BHADDA-KAPILANI. Introduction to Bhaddā Kāpilānī’s life-story, previous lives and excellent qualities.

66. “Similar is Bhaddā Kāpilānī, a triple-knowledge bearer, killer of death; Who bears the last body, having conquered Māra and his mount. (Tatheva bhaddā kāpilānī, tevijjā maccuhāyinī; Dhāreti antimaṃ dehaṃ, jetvā māraṃ savāhanaṃ.)

67. “Having seen danger in the world, both of us ordained; We are taintless, tamed, cooled down, we are liberated. (Disvā ādīnavaṃ loke, ubho pabbajitā mayaṃ; Tyamha khīṇāsavā dantā, sītibhūtamha nibbutā”ti. … Bhaddā kāpilānī therī …)”

—Bhaddā Kapilānī from Therīgāthā (Thig 4.1) 

“Thereafter soon I won the rank of Arahant.
Ah! well for me who held the friendship wise and good
Of glorious Kassapa.”

–Bhaddā Kapilānī in the Apadāna

“The goldsmith made a woman’s statue as requested, which was almost life size. Then, Mahākāśyapa showed his father the statue. He said “if you can find a beautiful woman just like the statue, who has that kind of a golden colour complexion. If you can find a woman as beautiful as that, then I will take her as my bride. Otherwise, I do not need a wife”. This was his idea. He thought that his father would never find anyone as stunning as the statue.”

–excerpt from Life-Story of Mahākāśyapa teaching by 17th Karmapa (2022)

INTRODUCTION

Today for Dākinī Day, (as promised) to counter-balance the male-centred accounts of Buddha’s main students I published recently, I offer this short post on one of the foremost nuns of the Buddha, Bhaddā Kāpilānī. Although, those male students were without doubt highly realised practitioners and inspiring members of the Buddha’s original sangha, the fact that it is still only the men whose stories are shared and valued is not alright, especially now in the 21st Century where women’s voices and lives are increasingly being valued, heard and accounted for.

One  example, is the case of Sthūlanandā, the badly-behaved nun who is said to have inspired many Vinaya rules, whom I wrote about recently here. Another case, this time is of a nun considered to be highly realised, that of Bhadra-Kapilānī (Pali: Bhaddā-kapilānī), an incredibly beautiful woman born into an extremely wealthy Brahmin family, whose beauty matched that of a golden statue created by the son of one of the wealthiest men in India at that time, Mahakasyapa, whom she married. The story of their meeting and their celibate, platonic marriage (as told by the 17th Karmapa) can be read here.

However, as the 17th Karmapa himself said, Bhaddā Kapilānī’s story after her husband and her decided to leave their home and go forth and practice (separate from each other) is an interesting and moving one. Moreover, Bhaddā Kapilānī became one of the Buddha’s main students, who he called the foremost of nuns who could recall former lives, and who attained Arhatship. Thus, it is surprising more is not known or spoken about her.
 
So, in this short post, I have compiled information and research available on Bhaddā Kapilānī. First, I give a list of the foremost female disciples of Buddha (laywomen and nuns), then some information about Bhaddā Kapilānī. Finding any drawings, images or statues of the Buddha’s female disciples is almost impossible. There simply are not any, unlike the Buddha’s male disciples. This is not limited to original Buddhism though, and is an issue in Tibetan Buddhism where female lineage holders and teachers are rarely, if ever included in depictions of lineage trees and so on. More on that in another post.
 
May this compilation inspire nuns and laywomen to do more research and translation on the great female disciples of Buddha, and have the same intelligence, courage and resilience when facing patriarchal, sexist discrimination and harassment!

Music? Buddhist nuns chanting the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and Golden Lady by Stevie Wonder. Sarva Mangalam!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 20th September 2022.

Twenty-three foremost female disciples (nuns and laywomen) of Gautama Buddha
Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the step-mother and maternal aunt of Buddha. In Buddhist tradition, she was the first woman to seek ordination, which she did from Gautama Buddha directly, and she became the first Buddhist nun.

The names of women listed as Buddha’s best students, both nuns and householders, are listed in the Pañcama Vagga and Chaṭṭha Vagga of the Aṅguttara Nikāya[i] respectively.

Foremost of nuns:

  1. Foremost in seniority: Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī
  2. Foremost in great wisdom: Khemā
  3. Foremost in psychic power: Uppalavaṇṇā
  4. Foremost in memorizing the Vinaya: Paṭācārā
  5. Foremost in speaking the Dhamma: Dhammadinna
  6. Foremost in absorption: Sundari Nandā
  7. Foremost in energy: Soṇā
  8. Foremost in clairvoyance: Sakulā
  9. Foremost in swift insight: Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā
  10. Foremost in recollecting past lives: Bhaddā Kāpilānī
  11. Foremost in great insight: Bhaddakaccānā
  12. Foremost in wearing coarse robes: Kisāgotamī
  13. Foremost in faith: Siṅgālakamātā

Foremost of laywomen

  1. Foremost in first going for refuge: Sujātā Seniyadhītā
  2. Foremost as donor: Visākhā
  3. Foremost in learning: Khujjuttarā
  4. Foremost who dwells in metta: Sāmāvatī
  5. Foremost in absorption: Uttarānandamātā
  6. Foremost in giving fine things: Suppavāsā Koliyadhītā
  7. Foremost in caring for the sick: Suppiyā
  8. Foremost in experiential confidence: Kātiyānī
  9. Foremost in reliability: Nakulamātā
  10. Foremost in confidence based on oral transmission: Kāḷī of Kuraraghara

Bhaddā Kāpilānī is listed among the foremost nuns as the one who could best recollect previous lives.

Bhaddā Kāpilānī’s family background and previous lives and Verses in the Therīgāthā
Sagala in the Maurya Empire under Ashoka the Great (c. 250 B.C.)

Bhaddā was an incredibly beautiful woman whose beauty matched that of a golden goddess statue and who married one of the Buddha’s main disciples, Mahākāśyapa . She later became a Buddhist bhikkhuni and a leading disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Bhaddā came of a Brahman family of the Kosiya clan at Sagala, now modern day Sialkot in Punjab, Pakistan (see image). There is little written about her. One example is this passage in the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns),  in which Bhaddā speaks of her attainments as a Buddhist nun and praises her husband, Mahākāśyapa (which is fully translated here:

“She was born in the time of Padumuttara Buddha, in a clansman’s house at Haŋsavatī. Come to years of discretion, she heard the Master preach, and saw him assign a Bhikkhunī the first rank among those who could recall previous lives. Thereat she made her resolve, wishing that she, too, might acquire such a rank. Working merit all her life, she was reborn, when no Buddha had arisen, in a clansman’s house at Benares, and in due course married.

Then one day a quarrel arose between her and her sister-in-law. And the latter having given food to a Silent Buddha, Bhaddā thought, ‘She will win glory for this,’ and taking the bowl from his hand, she filled it with mud instead of food. The people said, ‘Foolish woman! what has the Silent Buddha done to offend you?’ And she, ashamed of herself, took back the bowl, emptied and scrubbed it with scented powder, filled it with the four sweet foods, and sprinkled it on the top with ghee of the colour of a lotus-calyx. Handing it back, shining, to the Silent Buddha, she registered a prayer: ‘May I have a shining body like this bowl!’

After many fortunate rebirths, she was reborn, in the time of Kassapa Buddha, at Benares, as the daughter of the wealthy treasurer. But by the fruition of her previous karma her body was of evil odour, and she was repulsive to others. Much troubled thereby, she had her ornaments made into an ingot of gold, and placed it in the Buddha’s shrine, doing reverence with her hands full of lotuses. Thereby her body, even in that birth, became fragrant and sweet. As a beloved wife she did good all her life, was reborn in heaven to celestial joys, and at length took birth as the daughter of the King of Benares. There she lived gloriously, ministering to Silent Buddhas. When they passed away she was greatly troubled, and left the world for ascetic practices. Dwelling in groves, she practised Jhana, and was reborn in the Brahma heavens, and thence into the family of a brahmin of the Kosiya clan at Sāgala.  Reared in great state, she was wedded to the young noble Pippali at the village of Mahā-tittha. When he renounced the world she handed over her great wealth to her kinsfolk that she too might go forth; and she dwelt five years in the Sophists’ Grove, after which she was ordained by Great Pajāpatī the Gotamid. Establishing insight, she soon won Arahantship.

And she became an expert in knowledge of her past lives, through the surplus force of her resolve (made in past ages), and was herein ranked first by the Master when, seated in the Jeta Grove among the company of Ariyans, he classified the Bhikkhunīs. One day she broke forth in a Psalm, recounting all that she had wrought, accompanied by a eulogy of the virtues of the great Elder Kassapa, thus:

Son of the Buddha and his heir is he,
Great Kassapa, master of self, serene!
The vision of far, bygone days is his,
Ay, heaven and hell no secrets hold for him. (63)

Death too of rebirth hath he won, and
A seer is he of mystic lore profound.
By these three arms of learning doth he stand
Thrice-wise, ‘mong gods and men elect, sublime. (64)

She too, Bhaddā the Kapilani–thrice-wise
And victor over death and birth is she–
Bears to this end her last incarnate frame,
For she hath conquered Mara and his host. (65)

We both have seen, both he and I, the woe
And pity of the world, and have gone forth.
We both are Arahants with selves well tamed.
Cool are we both, ours is Nibbana now! (66)”

Previous Lives of Bhaddā Kāpilānī- twice-former Queen of Benares

“In the time of Padumuttara Buddha, Bhaddā Kāpilānī was the wife of Videha, a setthi of Hamsavatī, and having heard a nun proclaimed in the first rank of those who could recall former lives, she resolved to acquire a similar rank, while her husband (Mahā Kassapa in this life) resolved to be chief among those who practise austere vows (dhutavādinam). Together they did many good deeds and were reborn in heaven.

In the time of Vipassī Buddha, the husband was the brahmin Ekasātaka and she was his wife. In his next birth he was king of Benares and she his chief queen. Together they entertained eight Pacceka Buddhas on a very lavish scale. In the interval between the appearance in the world of Konāgamana and Kassapa Buddha, the husband was a clansman and she his wife. One day a quarrel arose between her and her sister-in law. The latter gave alms to a Pacceka Buddha and Bhaddā, thinking “She will win glory for this,” took the bowl from her hand and filled it with mud. But later she was filled with remorse, took back the bowl, emptied it, scrubbed it with scented powder and, having filled it with the four sweet foods, sprinkled over the top ghee of the colour of a lotus calyx. Handing it back to the Pacceka Buddha, she prayed to herself “May I have a shining body like this offering.”

In a later birth, Bhaddā was born as the daughter of a wealthy treasurer of Benares; she was given in marriage, but her body was of such evil odour that she was repulsive to all and was abandoned by several husbands. Much troubled, she had her ornaments made into an ingot of gold and placed it on the shrine of Kassapa Buddha, which was in process of being built, and did reverence to it with her hands full of lotuses. Her body immediately became fragrant and sweet, and she was married again to her first husband. The Apadāna account mentions two other lives: one when she was the wife of Sumitta and gave a blanket to a Pacceka Buddha, and again when she was born among the Koliyans and attended on one hundred Pacceka Buddhas of Koliya.

Later, she was the queen of Nanda, king of Benares (Brahmadatta, according to the Apadāna, which gives King Nanda as the name of her husband in another life), with whom she ministered to five hundred Pacceka Buddhas, sons of Padumavatī. When they passed away she was greatly troubled and left the world to give herself up to ascetic practices. She dwelt in a grove, developed jhāna, and was reborn in the Brahma world. (ThigA.67ff.; Ap.ii.578ff.; AA.ii.93ff., 203f.; A.i.25; Thig.vs.63-6).

The ‘Golden Goddess’ nun who outshone a stunning golden statue

Bhaddā Kāpilānī was also an extraordinarily beautiful woman who first married (a young age) the great Mahākāśyapa, one of the main male disciples of the Buddha. As for how they met, this was recently explained by the 17th Karmapa in detail here

“The goldsmith made a woman’s statue as requested, which was almost life size. Then, Mahākāśyapa showed his father the statue. He said “if you can find a beautiful woman just like the statue, who has that kind of a golden colour complexion. If you can find a woman as beautiful as that, then I will take her as my bride. Otherwise, I do not need a wife”. This was his idea. He thought that his father would never find anyone as stunning as the statue.”

“When Bhaddā was going to the statue to make offerings something happened that surprised everyone. When Bhaddā was in front of the statue, its colour started to fade more and more. At first, the statue was golden in colour but as Bhaddā was extremely beautiful and glowed with golden colour, as she got closer to it then the colour of the statue faded, it got bluer and bluer until at the end, it was as if the goddess of woman that was made of gold had turned into iron and had no radiance at all. Maybe the way these Indian stories are told are probably exaggerating a little. In any case, basically, because Bhaddā was so beautiful people got this feeling like the glow of the statue had disappeared because of her beauty. Her beauty dimmed and outshone the golden glow of the statue until it looked totally dark. It is like a poetic way of saying and showing how beautiful she was.

Some of the people then thought, “What is this? It is so strange, what is this bad omen? Has someone cast a spell on the statue?” So, they went to look where the glowing light was coming from and they saw the girl and realised that the light was coming from the girl. The Brahmin youths asked Bhaddā “Whose daughter, are you?” She told them she was Kapila’s daughter. The Brahmins thought: ” This is a special girl; this is the one we’re looking for.”

Difficult life after separating from her husband, Mahākāśyapa so they can both engage in practice
Bhaddā Kāpilānī was regularly harassed by men when begging for alms and raped by fellow ascetics before she became a Buddhist nun.

In Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms, (2014) University of Hawai’i, Clarke, S. states that after separating from her then husband, Mahākāśyapa who became ordained under the Buddha, met her again. She had joined an order of naked [immoral] ascetics led by Nirgrantha Pūraṇa (Pali: Pūraṇa Kassapa). She was regularly targeted for rape by her fellow ascetics, however. Mahākāśyapa pitied her and persuaded her to become ordained as a Buddhist bhikṣunī instead.  Nevertheless, she was still harassed often, but now only when going outside. Since this happened when Bhadra went out in villages to obtain alms, Mahākāśyapa requested the Buddha’s permission to daily give half of the alms food he had gained to her, so she did not need to go out anymore. His actions came under criticism, however, from a group of monks called the Group of Six, as well as Sthūlanandā. 

Ohnuma (2013) says that Sthūlanandā went against the idea of detachment and renunciation as generally advocated in early Buddhist monasticism, which is why she hated Mahākāśyapa and Bhadra. She expressed criticism of Mahākāśyapa often, even when he did not act with typical ascetic detachment. Regardless, Mahākāśyapa continued to guide his former wife and she attained arhat (Pali: arahant) afterwards. In a poem attributed to her, she praises her ex-husband’s gifts, shared vision of the truth and spiritual friendship. Mahākāśyapa did not mention her in his poems, though.

Bhaddā Kāpilānī in the Ekottarika-āgama

Another text that mentions Bhaddā Kāpilānī is the Ekottarika-āgama. Bhikkhu Anālayo (2013) in his study of this text says that:

“This Ekottarika-āgama is a counterpart to the Aṅguttara-nikāya preserved in Pāli, both being collections of early Buddhist discourses arranged according to a numerical principle. While the Aṅguttara-nikāya is part of the Theravāda canon, the Ekottarika-āgama is a collection transmitted by a different school, whose precise identity is still a subject of ongoing discussion among scholars. 

In the case of the bhikkhunīs, the Ekottarika-āgama lists fifty-one outstanding bhikkhunīs, whereas the Aṅguttara-nikāya has thirteen….(2013:98)

“The list of outstanding bhikkhunī s in the Aṅguttara-nikāya agrees with its Ekottarika-āgama parallel that Bhaddhākapilānī (11) was foremost among those who recollect past lives, differing only in mentioning her in the tenth position in its list.” (2013:105)

In a video teaching about Bhaddā Kāpilānī, Ayya Vimalanyani shares teachings from the Ekottarika-āgama, explaining that:

“The Ekottarika-āgama is very interesting for many reasons, but one reason is that there are a number of Sutras in there that do not have a parallel in the Pali, or any other place in any other canon and they feature Bhikshuni nuns and portray them in a very  positive light[iii].

Because we have so few Sutras about Bhikshunis that feature Bhikshunis prominently where either the Bhikshunis are giving the teaching, or whether there is a teaching given two Bhikshunis in the Pali canon we have about about 20 of those sutas from among like many thousands of sutras in the Pali canon. So, altogether we have very few sutras that feature Bhikshunis and therefore having a few more in the Ekottarika-āgama is very special.” It says:

 “I heard it like this, at one time the Buddha was at Sravasti in Jeta’s grove together with a great community of 500 Bhikshus.”

So we see this is the typical introduction of a sutra, pretty much the same as in Pali even though this is a Chinese Sutra.

“Also, at that time in Sravasti there was a Bhikshuni called Bhaddā who was dwelling together with 500 Bhikshunis of whom she was the leader.”

 This is again very interesting here we see the Buddha is there with 500 and Bhaddā Kāpilānī is there with 500 Bhikshunis. Both of them are the leaders of their respective communities. So, we see that Bhikshuni is set up sort of a little bit even as being on par with the Buddha so as a very respected leader and this parallelism shows us that the Sutra portrays Bhaddā Kāpilānī, in a very positive light as an outstanding teacher as an outstanding leader. Also the number 500 is very unusual. Normally, there’s only one Bhikshuni that has 500 other Bhikshunis as her following, which is of course Mahajapati the buddha’s maternal aunt and foster mother. So, ascribing 500 followers to Bhaddā Kāpilānī again is a sign that this wants to show us how outstanding Bhaddā Kāpilānī is and what a great leader she was. So here from the start, the suta tells us that this is a very positive sutra about Bhikshunis.”

Indeed it is, and that is why Bhaddā Kāpilānī’s life and background are worthy of study, preservation and emulation.

READING/SOURCES

Clarke, S. (2014). Family Matters in Indian Buddhist MonasticismsUniversity of Hawai’i

Bhikkhu Anālayo. (2013).  in Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

Bhikkhu-Mahinda-Therigatha-Edition-2.pdf (learnbuddhism.org)

Ohnuma, Reiko. (2013). in “Bad Nun: Thullanandā in Pāli Canonical and Commentarial Sources.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 20:17–66.

Tomlin, Adele (2022):

FROM RICHES TO RAGS: THE MAN TO WHOM BUDDHA GAVE HIS OLD ROBES: MAHAKASHYAPA’S LIBERATION-STORY BY 17th KARMAPA

THE ‘FAT JOYFUL’ NUN, STHULANANDA: ‘BADDEST-BALDIE’ IN THE VINAYA OR ‘BAD-ASS’ PROTO-FEMINIST? Early Buddhist nun, Sthūlanandā; challenging male monastic privilege or a powerful symbol of the futile ‘trappings’ of following rules without real, inner transformation

 


[i] The Anguttara Nikaya (aṅguttaranikāya; lit. ’Increased by One Collection’, also translated “Gradual Collection” or “Numerical Discourses”) is a Buddhist scripture, the fourth of the five nikayas, or collections, in the Sutta Pitaka, which is one of the “three baskets” that comprise the Pali Tipitaka of Theravada Buddhism. This nikaya consists of several thousand discourses ascribed to the Buddha and his chief disciples arranged in eleven “books”, according to the number of dhamma items referenced in them.

[ii] The city was the capital of the Madra Kingdom and it was razed in 326 BC during the Indian campaign of Alexander the Great.  In the 2nd century BC, Sagala was made capital of the Indo-Greek kingdom by Menander I. Menander embraced Buddhism after extensive debating with a Buddhist monk, as recorded in the Buddhist text Milinda Panha. Sagala became a major centre for Buddhism under his reign, and prospered as a major trading centre.

[iii] In Chapter Five of ‘Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies’ (2013) Alice Collett (ed.), Bhikkhu Anālayo focuses on the Aṅguttara-nikāya / Ekottarika-āgama. He provides a translation of the lists of preeminent nuns in the Chinese Ekottarika-āgama and a comparison between this and the Pāli version. The number of outstanding nuns listed in the Ekottarika-āgama is far greater than in the Pāli. The Ekottarika-āgama records fifty-one eminent nuns, while the Pāli has only thirteen. Qualities identified, sanctioned, and eulogized range from broad ethical characteristics through mental ability or agility to teaching and other beneficial activities. As Anālayo notes in his conclusion, the nuns named on each list are each noted as foremost of all nuns, which presupposed that many other nuns also exemplify such noble characteristics. See: Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

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