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~ the Parinibbana of Mahapajapati Gotami

Tathālokā Therī

Warm full moon greetings, dear friends of the Dhamma, It is the full moon, and according to the Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Burmese Theravada Buddhist calendars, it is Magha Puja aka "Sangha Day," the lunar anniversary of the first major gathering of the Sangha, and the Buddha's teaching of the Ovada Patimokkha, what is called "the heart of the Buddha's teaching": to do no evil, to establish oneself in what is wholesome, and to purify the mind. In Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, this full moon day is called Navam Poya, and remembers and commemorates the Buddha's appointment of his leading disciples. It is also one of the greatest anniversaries for women in Buddhism, and i read again and reflect upon the story of the final Nirvana -- Parinibbana -- of the great woman credited with the foundation of our Bhikkhuni Sangha, the venerable Mahapajapati Gotami Theri. According to the sacred biographies recorded in the Theri Apadana as we have inherited it in the Tipitaka of the Pali and Chinese texts, this full moon is the anniversary of that great date, not only of she, but of her 500 bhikkhuni companions who had originally gone forth into monastic life with her and realized enlightenment together. It was a great passing away within the Sangha the like of which was never seen before or after. Read on if you would like to know more...

Mahapajapati Gotami Theri Parinibbana Fresco (above) inside the ceiling of the Queen's Chedi, Doi Inthanon, Thailand (below) Images thanks to Darren and Bee Noi

According to the Gotami Theri Apadana, The Sacred Biography of Gotami Theri ~ On this day, in Vesali, Mahapajapati Gotami, then aged 120 years old, and after intuiting the Buddha's own upcoming final passing, decided that it would be a fitting time for she too to pass into final Nirvana. The earth trembled, thunder roared and the devas began to lament, knowing her thought. And then in solitude, the thought also arose in the minds of her 500 bhikkhuni companions, all of them arahants, that as they had gone forth into monastic life together, and realized the Path and its fruits together, that it would be good for them to enter Parinibbana together, with the Buddha's blessing. And so she, Khema Theri and all five hundred bhikkhunis informed the guardian devas of their monastery that it would be the last time they would see them and, the with devas lamenting, they went to the Buddha where he was staying in the Kutaghara Sala at the Great Wood Monastery of Vesali. The text compares the bhikkhunis to the going out of stars at dawn, and Maha Gotami (as she is called therein) with all of her companions is likened to the great mother river Ganges, with all of her tributaries, flowing down and disappearing from perception into the great ocean. Seeing the great procession, faithful laywomen emerged from their dwellings, bowing at Maha Gotami's feet and asking her how she could go and leave them without a protector. She answered them,

Enough of your weeping, children! Today is a day of joy. Suffering has been understood; The cause of suffering allayed; Cessation has been experienced; the Path's cultivation done. I have attended to the Teacher; The Buddha's Teaching has been done; Putting down the heavy burden, Everything that leads to further becoming has been rooted out. That aim for which one goes forth From home to homelessness Has been attained by me; All my fetters and bonds are destroyed. ...Do not grieve for me children... ...My wish I've had for very long, Today will be fulfilled... If you have loving sympathy for me, And if you have gratitude and appreciation; Then strong and ardently attentive should you be in your endeavors To the meaning of the True Dhamma. Women received the Going Forth At my request to the Sambuddha; As i have found joy and delight [in this Path], So should you practice!

- Gotami Theri Apadana, Vv 119-129

Having so roused them, with Maha Gotami leading the company, they walked on. Coming before the Buddha, she said that although she had served as his mother, he had served as her father in his gift of the happiness of the true Dhamma in which she felt herself to be re-born.

It was I, Welcome One, Who raised up your fleshy body; It was by your nurturing That my flawless Dhamma Body was raised. I gave you mother's milk Which quenched your thirst for a short time; From you I drank the Dhamma milk, Which gives Eternal Peace.

- Vv 131-132

Then, mentioned that having a son like him was excellent for ending the desire for further children, so mentioned her wish to "abandon this body" for the last time and enter final Nirvana, with his blessing. And at her request, he uncovered his body and she touched her face to his lotus-like feet, his skin shining like burnished gold (according to the narrator), asking his forgiveness for any fault that there might have been in her in her way of entering monastic life or in her instruction of her fellow bhikkhunis. To which he replied: [to Gotami Theri:]

Indeed ~ What is to be brought up, Of a being so adorned with virtue? What more can be said To One who is going to Nirvana?

[and to the bhikkhunis with her:]

My Monastic Sangha is pure, Ready to escape this world; Like the light of the moon at dawn, Which fading, disappears.

- Vv 146-147

The other bhikkhunis then all bowed at the Buddha's feet, appearing like the stars around Mt. Everest. And Gotami Theri said: "My eyes and ears could never see or hear enough of you, but now, quenched in the Dhamma, they are satiated." She then praised and appreciated him extensively for his teaching. Then, turning to the Bhikkhu Sangha, she then mentioned her intention of final Nibbana again to Nanda (her son) and Rahula (her step-grandson), saying:

All karmic fabrications are hollow and unsteady, Like the trunk of the plantain; Fleeting and transitory, Like a mirage or illusion. So thus is the Conqueror's aunt, Who nurtured the Awakened One; Gotami, comes to her end; All conditioned things are impermanent.

- Vv 158-159

But for Ananda, who was still in training, while he was standing there, tears fell. Comforted and consoled by first the Buddha and then Maha Gotami, Gotami mentioned how effective his efforts on behalf of the bhikkhunis had been, when now (at that time) even seven year-old girls and had realized sainthood in the Buddha's Sasana, a state so hard to reach for even men of so many other life circumstances. And how at one time, when she had blessed the Buddha with long life when he sneezed, he mentioned Buddhas are not to be so blessed. But rather, the harmony of the Sangha in practice is the best blessing to the Buddha for the long life of his teaching. And then, noting that there were still some present who still did not believe in women's full spiritual capacities, the Buddha asked Maha Gotami to perform a miracle of psychic power. Which she did, as the text elaborates upon in very many verses. She then sat down to one side, and the people, amazed and astonished, asked her how she had come to obtain such abilities. It is at this point that her Apadana proper begins, for she then begins to relate her spiritual career at length, from the first arising of her aspiration to Bodhi at the time of the very ancient Buddha Padumuttara, who she greatly admired, and was especially impressed by when she witnessed him speaking of his maternal aunt as foremost among the bhikkhunis in his assembly. She became a great supporter of his Sangha, and he predicted her future enlightenment as Gotami in the Sasana of the Buddha Gotama. Hearing this she felt a most sublime spiritual bliss, and when she passed away she was reborn supremely happy and magnificent amongst the devas. Afterwards, she returned to continue on her path of spiritual development among human beings for many further lifetimes, until at last taking her final birth in our fortunate eon. She relayed how when her male kinfolk went forth as monks with her stepson after he became a Buddha, how she witnessed the peaceful joy and happiness that they attained. She spoke of how she went forth, and that the five hundred wise Sakyan women kinfolk who she had entered monastic life with had now also attained this peace and happiness. They had seized the crucial moment, done what needed to be done, and realized Arahantship, with the Welcome One's tender mercy and compassion. The bhikkhunis who surrounded her then rose up into the air like stars around her, blazed forth miraculously, then descended to show their reverential appreciation to the Buddha together and to praise Maha Gotami for her tender mercy and compassion upon them. They then praise her in many verses for her kindly help to them to completely overcome all of the defilements and fluctuations of their minds and hearts. They then roar the lion's (lioness') roar of their liberation before her and all assembled. And requesting the Buddha's blessing that they all enter Parinibbanna together, they rose and left, the Buddha accompanying them as far as the monastery gate, where Maha Gotami bowed down at the Buddha's feet one last time.

This is my last look at your features, Like ambrosial amrita; Benevolent Protector of the World; I'll not see your face again.

- V 236

They then reentered their bhikkhuni sanctuary, where Gotami went to sit upon her own auspicious seat, and laywomen who were faithful friends of her monastery approached and came before her, bowing at her feet. They cried and lamented, and begged her not to go. To one of them who was faithful and wise, Gotami spoke these words while stroking her head:

Enough of your depression children; Do not fall into the snares of Death; Everything that exists changes; Separation surely comes.

- V 243

Then, sending them away, she entered into the first, second, third and four excellent jhanas (deep meditative absorptions), and then the formless jhanas: the spheres of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception. Having returned in reverse order, she reversed this process once again, and then, rising up, she went out (nibbaya) like a fuelless lamp's flame. There was then an earthquake, lightning fell from the sky and thunder crashed, flowers raining down from the sky, with the sound of angels. And the heavens spoke saying:

Indeed, All conditioned things are impermanent; Just like this As [these aggregates] have dispersed.

- V 250

And just so too did her five hundred bhikkhuni companions follow, rising up and going out like lamps. Heavenly beings then approached and informed the Buddha, and he in turn asked Ananda to inform the Sangha that his mother passed. Ananda then called the Bhikkhu Sangha to assembly, and said:

She who with great effort and care, Raised the Sage's final material body -- Gotami -- has gone to Peace, Like the stars at sunrise. To the Inconceivable, The Buddha's mother has gone; Where those with the five eyes, Even the Leader, cannot see her. Let those who have faith in the Welcome One, Those who are dear to the Great Sage, And those who are the Welcome One's heirs, Come to honor the Buddha's mother.

- Vv 257-259

Then wise monks came from near and far, and the people raised a funerary bier -- Gotami's cot with a delightful golden pinnacled canopy built up around it. It was raised by the four great world guardians who carried it on their shoulders, with Sakka and all of the devas gathered around. Then five hundred other pinnacled huts the color of the autumnal sun were raised, and all were carried together in funerary procession, both the sun and moon and stars showing in the canopy of the sky (an eclipse?). Although it was high noon, the sun cooled, celestial music was heard and flowers both rained down and sprung up from the earth. It is said that even the Parinibbana of the Buddha was not equal to that of Gotami, as for hers, the Buddha and monks like Sariputta were present to officiate. The pyres were made out of fragrant wood, and then sprinkled with fragrant water. And when the fires were out, and the only the bones and sarira remained, Ananda spoke in eulogy. Then, instructed by the Blessed One, Ananda placed Mahapajapati Gotami's crematory remains in her almsbowl and handed them to the Buddha. The Seventh Sage then said:

Just as a great tree possessed of heartwood (sara) ~ Standing, rising from its roots, will eventually fall to pieces, No matter how mighty the aggregates, due to impermanence; Thus Gotami, of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, Is utterly and completely gone. O, what what a wonder it was to me! When my mother attained final Nirvana; Leaving nothing but her crematory remains, There is neither sorrow nor tears. There is no grieving for such a one, As she who has crossed over the ocean of samsara; Beyond all burning, She is cooled, well extinguished. She was learned and of great wisdom, with wisdom vast and wide; Senior-most among the bhikkhunis, Remember her thus, O bhikkhus.

- Vv 280-282

The Buddha then continues to laud her mastery and excellence in many verses, until finally, as he was only three months later to say of himself as well:

Therefore, be lamps (or islands) unto yourselves, The Foundations of Mindfulness your domain; Cultivate the Seven Factors of Awakening, And put an end to suffering.

- V 288

Thus ends the Gotami Theri Apadana. ~ In eulogy to the founding mother of our Bhikkhuni Sangha, with great loving respect and appreciation to all of the wise ones who have gone before, and all those still alive today, Tathālokā Bhikkhunī February 3, 2015 -- My particular gratitude for the translations of both Jonathan Walters and William Pruitt of the Gotami Theri Apadana which i consulted, and for the Cattha Sanghayana Tipitaka Pali text, freely available online at, upon which this partial verse and prose rendering of the text is based. The verse numbers here are in accordance. For more on the Gotami Theri Apadana in English, you may like to read Jonathan Walter's "A Voice From the Silence: The Buddha's Mother's Story".


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Going Forth & Going Out

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