India, the site of the Buddha's great awakening, has a rich an ancient history of enlightened women, both monastics (Skt: bhiksuni, Pali: bhikkhuni) and lay women (upasika) savika disciples of the Buddha -- essential aspects of the Buddha's Four-fold Assembly of disciples -- the bearers of his inheritance. This blog shares with you some of the wealth of their long and contemporary history, together with sites, writings and happenings of interest.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Lost Vaishali Stupa of Bhiksuni Maha Prajapati Gautami

In the Gotami Apadana (Skt: Gautami Avadana) of the Pali-text Tipitaka appears the sacred biography of Mahapajapati Gotami (Skt: Mahaprajavati Gautami), the Blessed Buddha's aunt and foster mother.  

The opening of her life story is the beginning of the story of the end of her life in the Gotami Apadana. For it begins with she and subsequently her close companions thought to enter final Nirvana. It is set in Vesali (Skt: Vaishali) where both she and the Buddha, who she speaks of within as both son and spiritual father, are then staying.  According to the Pali Texts, Vesali is both the site of her great "going forth" -- where she and her five hundred companions entered the monastic life and establishing the Bhikkhuni Sasana, and the place of her great "going out" or Parinibbana (Skt: Parinirvana).  It is thus one of the most important historical sites of the ancient Bhiksuni Sangha.

The Gotami Apadana is one of the longest and most impressive of the ancient women disciples of the Buddha's tales.  Mahapajapati Gotami works extensive miracles of supernormal power at the Buddha's request together with her bhikkhuni companions in order to convert those who do not yet believe in women's enlightenment. She is mourned by both layfolk and devas, and honored by the Buddha, the great leading elders of the Bhikkhu Sangha, and the entire pantheon of heavenly beings.  Her final words to the Buddha and his eulogy of her are most impressive. 

Read Jonathan Walter's "A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha's Mother's Story here.

A full English-language translation of the Gotami Apadana can also be found in the Pali Text Society's Commentary on the Verses of the Theris authored by Acariya Dharmapala and translated by William Pruitt.

 Image of 5th century BCE Indian saint Mahaprajapati Gautami 
Upaya Zen Center, USA

Mahapajapati Theri is not only so honored in the Khuddhaka Nikaya of which the Theri Apadana is one book, but also in the Mulasarvastivadin Sanskrit Buddhist texts and their Tibetan and Chinese translations.  Therein she appears preeminent amongst the early bhiksuni disciples of the Buddha, as their advocate, intermediary, preceptor, teacher, friend, leading elder and co-savior. 

Read "For Women Too: Ethics and Gender in the Narratives of the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya by Ven. Damcho Diane Finnegan to learn more about Mahaprajavati Gautami here

The Gotami Apadana mentions Maha Gotami Theri's cremation under the guidance of her son the Bhagavan Buddha, and the saririka dhatu or relics that remained afterwards being collected at the Buddha's direction by Ananda Thera, placed in her bhiksa patra (almsbowl), and then given to the Buddha.  The Buddha led a processing carrying her relics and the Licchavi princes erected stupiary monuments to hold these relics and those of her great peers.  

Later, other stupas were erected in Vaishali for the Buddha's own crematory remains as well as those of his great disciple and personal attendant Mahasthavira Ananda, preserver of the Blessed One's Dhamma teachings.

The reliquary stupa and monument to the Buddha has been found, as has the stupa believed to be dedicated to Ananda, which contained a further reliquary casket, with relics also identified as those of the Buddha. However the stupa dedicated to Maha Prajapati Gautami has yet to be discovered or identified.

Relics of Phra Mae Pajapati Theri or "Holy Mother Pajapati the Woman Elder" have been discovered in the Buddhist Kingdom of Thailand.  A collection of crematory relics of ancient disciples of the Buddha specially commissioned by HH the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism, Phra Rajaratanamangala, contains two relics identified as belonging to her.  These are from the private collection of Mr. Tong Di Hansa Gunarom, and are amongst relics of thirteen of the Buddha's foremost bhiksuni and upasika disciples. 

Crematory Relics of Mahaprajapati Gautami

The Buddha's eulogy as he held Maha Gautami's reliquary remains in her almsbowl in his hands:

"Taking them up with his hands,
the seventh sage then spoke:

'Even the trunk of a huge timber tree

however massive it may be,
will break to bits, eventually.
Thus Gotami, of the Bhikkhuni Sangha,
is now gone out completely.

'It is so marvelous a thing:
my mother who has reached nirvana
leaving only bits of bone
had neither grief nor tears.

'She crossed this ocean of existence,
grieving not for others left;
she now is cool, she's well gone out;
her torment now is done.

'Know this, O monks, she was most wise,
with wisdom vast and wide.
Of foremost standing she was
amongst the bhikkhunis.

'A master of great powers,
she cultivated the "divine ear"
and knew the mind's of others.

'In former births before this one,
she mastered the "divine eye."
All imperfections were destroyed;
she will be reborn no more.

'She had purified her knowledge
of meaning and the doctrines,
of etymology, and preaching;
therefore she did not grieve.

'An iron rod aglow in fire
cools off and leaves no ash.
Just like the flame once in the rod,
it's not known where she went.

'Those who are emancipated
cross the flood of lust's deluge;
those with solid happiness
do not get born again.

'Therefore be lamps unto yourselves
go graze in mindfulness.
With wisdom's seven parts attained,
you all should end your woe.'"

-- The Buddha, Gotami Theri Apadana vv  278-288 (CST-Be)
Adapted from the translation by Jonathan Walters



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