Chief Female Disciples of Buddha


The Sangha

The complete Buddhist way of life consists of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.

The word “Sangha”- also means the “Community of Monks”.

Since the Buddha’s preaching of the first sermon “Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta” at Isipatana in the Deer Park at Benares and the establishment of the 5 Bhikkhus (monks) who became the first official Sangha, the growth of the monks never had stopped.

Instead it spread from country to country and became the worthy custodian of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dhamma.

In general, the Buddha’s disciples (the Sangha) are classified in 3 groups:

The first group is the Chief Disciples (males and females) and the second is the Great Disciples, both these groups are found during the Buddha’s days in great numbers although 80 were especially mentioned.

The third is the group of ordinary disciples who now spread all over the world, carrying their religious duties in various ways to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Outstanding amongst the Buddha’s disciples are the

Chief Male Disciples

and the Chief Female Disciples

1. Venerable Khema
2. Venerable Uppalavaṇṇa

3. Venerable Mahāpajāpati Gotamī
4. Venerable Dhammadinna
5. Venerable Paṭācārā

They had not only developed inner access into the Dhamma but also had special potency of their own in the field of profound wisdom and awesome mental feats.

Bhikkhunī Khema Therī

Just as Venerable Sāriputta was appointed the First Chief Male Disciple, the Venerable Bhikkhunī Khema Therī was appointed the First Chief Female Disciple.

Her story began when she was the captivating beautiful Queen of King Bimbisāra who was a staunch supporter of the Buddha.

Being pious and wise King Bimbisāra had become a Stream-winner.

He was well aware of his consorts' vanity and infatuation of her own beauty that had prevented her from going to listen when the Buddha preached Dhamma.

Her husband King Bimbisāra however, was very eager for her to overcome the infatuation and fear of the Buddha's criticism of her. So the king devised a clever strategy to arouse her curiosity to visit the beautiful Bamboo Grove park and its monastery of great splendour.

To achieve this King Bimbisāra commanded his court entertainers to perform theatrical plays and compose songs about the fantasies of the royal park.

That was what happened precisely when Queen Khema, inspired by the play, decided to go and see the Bamboo Grove for herself. As she approached the grove, she saw the Buddha preaching the Dhamma.

Aware that she was nearby, the Buddha created an apparition of a heavenly beautiful lady fanning Him with a palm leaf fan.

When Khema saw the apparition, she was captivated. She was so impressed by the angelic loveliness of the apparition that the pride of her own beauty vanished instantly.

As she was so entranced, the Buddha caused the young lady to age gradually until she was very old, decrepit and ugly who finally collapsed and died.

Continuing to look, Queen Khema saw the rotting corpse decaying further until it was full of flies, worm- infested, maggots eating, as well as stripping the corpse until only a heap of bones was left.

Khema was horrified. Realising how foolish she was, she immediately changed her attitude and realized the true nature of the decaying body in the youthful and the young;

as guided by the Buddha, Queen Khema became a Stream-winner. This means she had crossed the stream of craving, having destroyed doubts, wrong views and clinging to wrongful rites and ceremonies.

Queen Khema knew that she was then safe from miserable births in the lower existences and was happy with the human and divine life thereafter.

The Buddha, who was guiding her, knew of this and quickly helped her further on by making her realise the transience of all formations (things). She readily understood and realised Arahantship.

Then the Buddha called King Bimbisāra and told him that Queen Khema had attained Arahantship. She had to be ordained or to pass away into Nibbāna. King Bimbisāra readily agreed for her to be ordained as a Bhikkhunī.

Well-respected for her penetrative insight and wisdom Arahant Khema Therī could not ever again be tempted by sense pleasures, not even by Mara who was disguised as a handsome celestial youth.

The Buddha declared her to be the wisest of His ordained female disciple and made her the leader of the Bhikkhunī Sangha.

Bhikkhunī Uppalavaṇṇa Therī

Like the story of Khema Therī, the First Chief Female Disciple, Uppalavaṇṇa was born in Sāvatthī to a prosperous banker and his wife. They named her “Uppalavaṇṇa” because the colour of her skin resembles the hue of the blue lotus flower.

Upon her coming of age, her father received many marriage proposals from suitors both rich and poor, from all over the land.

He was at a loss of what to do and to choose a suitable husband to wed his only beautiful daughter. Not wishing to offend any suitors or their families, he continued to procrastinate.

Finding no solution to the problem, he then called his daughter to him and explained his dilemma to her. He further asked her if she would be willing to forsake marriage and be ordained as a Bhikkhunī.

Uppalavaṇṇa was destined to achieve Arahantship in this life, so she readily agreed to renounce the world.

One day it was her turn to sweep the Uposatha hall. She took a lamp there and set about doing her task. When she had finished her work, she sat down to meditate.

Fixing her eyes on the lamp, she took the flame as an object for the fire kasiṇa meditation. She kept up her vigil on this exercise until she attained all the jhānas and then went on to attain Arahantship.

With this attainment also came the profound knowledge of the Dhamma, the powers of intuition as well as the great psychic powers.

Soon after, the Buddha appointed her His Second Chief Female Disciple, declaring her to be foremost in these powers, among the Bhikkhunīs.

There were also some episodes in her life to promote a better understanding on the dangers of sensual desire:

In this connection, she used to recite a verse whereby the mother and her daughter, who loved the same man, treated each other as rival enemies, vying for the love of that man. This composition of verses reminded people about the dangers of craving for sensual pleasures.

In another incident Uppalavaṇṇa was dwelling alone in the forest hut. The childhood infatuated cousin hid inside her hut and waited for her to return at dusk. He then raped her while she was sleeping and ran out of the forest to escape.

His mortal sin however only allowed him just a few steps from the hut before he was swallowed up by a fierce flame that shot up from the bowels of the earth. He was wrapped up by the flame and sucked into Avīci Hell.

Mara in a separate incident, tried to tempt and seduce Uppalavaṇṇa Therī but was thoroughly rebuked and sent back empty handed, dejected and disappointed.

Arahant Uppalavaṇṇa Therī declared to Mara that since her mind was pure, having self-control, possessing the six higher knowledges and had abandoned all craving for sense pleasures, she could no longer be enticed by sensuality — earthly or divine.

The Buddha said that if anyone were to look up to someone as an exemplar of holy life, they should regard Therī Khema and Therī Uppalavaṇṇa as such.

Bhikkhunī Mahāpajāpati Gotamī Arahant Therī

The inspirational story about Bhikkhunī Mahāpajāpati Gotamī started long ago during the time of Buddha Padumuttara:

On an occasion when she was listening to a discourse by the Buddha, she happened to witness a Bhikkhunī being honoured as the foremost among the Bhikkhunīs, who was enlightened earlier.

She aspired to the same distinction in a future existence:

After making extraordinary offerings to the Buddha, she made the same wish before the Buddha, who predicted that her aspiration would be fulfilled during Gotama Buddha’s time.

For the rest of her life she spent her time doing many meritorious deeds. After her death, she enjoyed only human and divine life in between the appearance of Buddhas.

So during this world cycle, she was born into a Sakyan royal family and was known by the name of Mahāpajāpati Gotamī, the younger daughter of King Mahasuppabuddha of Devadaha. She was the younger sister to Princess Mahāmāyā.

Distinguished court astrologers, using physiogamy and palmistry on the two sisters predicted that the sons born to them would become a Universal Monarch.

When the two sisters came of age, they were both betrothed to King Suddhodana and were taken to Kapilavatthu

where the Princess Mahāmāyā was made the Queen Consort. She gave birth to Prince Siddhattha, the Buddha-to-be but she passed away on the seventh day of the baby’s birth.

So her younger sister, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī became the foster mother in spite of herself giving birth to baby Nanda only five days ago.

However she loved and cared more about her nephew Prince Siddhattha than her own son Prince Nanda, whom she sent to be milk-fed by the other nurses. This left her free to dote on Prince Siddhattha with full care, love and undivided attention, until he grew up strong and healthy.

Her strong material devotion to the Prince Siddhattha until he matured and finally left the palace for his great renunciation, was indeed unique.

In the royal household, there were 3 persons who had special affinity for the ascetic Siddhattha since his renunciation and who eventually succeeded in attaining Buddhahood, sitting under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya:

1. the royal father, King Suddhodana;
2. the Princess Yaśodharā and three,
3. the Queen Mahāpajāpati Gotamī, the foster-mother;

- all of them eagerly waited for the return of the Buddha to Kapilavatthu.

When the Buddha did so, King Suddhodana gave his son, now a Buddha, a magnificent royal welcome reciprocated by the Buddha’s preaching, greatly benefitting the royal father who initially attained from Sotāpanna and finally Arahantship on his deathbed.

Princess Yaśodharā was granted her wish when the Buddha, accompanied by His disciples and the royal entourage including King Suddhodana, visited her in her personal chamber and allowed her to pay homage and worship Him as she liked.

Queen Mahāpajāpati Gotamī offered to the Buddha her own hand-sewn robe. Much to the delight of the Queen, the Buddha accepted her gift.

When King Suddhodana attained Arahantship and passed away into Parinibbāna, Queen Mahāpajāpati Gotamī felt that she must become a Bhikkhunī.

There were 500 Sakyan who were queen’s consorts who also wanted to become Bhikkhunīs, like what she was thinking of.

So Queen Gotamī became their leader, approached the Buddha and requested Him to let them, including Princess Yaśodharā be ordained as Bhikkhunīs.

The Buddha refused and turned down their requests several times.

Out of sheer frustration and unable to gain any spiritual solace, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī and the five hundred Sakyan ladies shaved their heads, wearing yellow robes, marched up to the Buddha and again requested Him to allow them to be ordained as Bhikkhunīs.

The Buddha still refused them the permission.

Out of desperation and at wits end, they approached the Venerable Ānanda who succeeded in securing the much-awaited permission.

They were the only Bhikkhunīs who were ordained upon the acceptance of the 8 great rules of the nuns and were ordained by a group of Bhikkhus.

Needless to say, the new Bhikkhunīs practised very diligently and soon attained Arahantship, living in serenity as well as spiritual solace for the rest of their lives.

As a Bhikkhunī, Mahāpajāpati Gotamī practised very earnestly and attained Arahantship with supernormal powers. From then onwards, she enjoyed the homeless life, living harmoniously with the other 500 Ariyan Sakyan ladies, till their ripe old age.

One day she happened to review her life-span and found it to have reached the end. She was then 120 years old. She then quickly sought the Buddha and His great disciples to obtain their permission to attain Parinibbāna (the final demise).

The Buddha asked her to show her spiritual powers, which she deftly did to the awesome admiration of the audience consisting of the Sangha and the lay people.

The 500 Arahant Sakyan Therīs also did their stunning feats of spiritual power as instructed by the Buddha who likewise gave them permission to attain Parinibbāna. So they all went back to their Bhikkhunī’s monastery and did what they had to do.

Mahāpajāpati Gotamī went into meditation. Going through all the Jhāna stages and finally stopping at the fourth jhāna; released herself by entering into Parinibbāna.

Her funeral, together with those of the 500 Arahant Therīs was very orderly and very dignified as well as grand because it was attended by the Buddha Himself.

Even the Gods and Deities attended the funeral procession showering down heavenly blooms, a spectacular miracle never seen before.

So ended the great life of the Arahant Therī Mahāpajāpati Gotamī who gave such a grand inspiration for the ladies in search of spiritual solace and profound happiness.

Bhikkhunī Dhammadinna Therī

In family life Dhammadinna was married to a man named Visākha and were devoted to each other, enjoying a happy and comfortable life in Rājagaha.

One day Visākha decided to hear the Buddha preaching the Dhamma and was very impressed by what he had heard:

So he returned every day to listen to the Dhamma and soon after he became a Non-Returner (Anāgāmī), the third stage of Buddhist Sainthood:

This meant he had cut off all attachment to sense pleasure as well as eradiated his ill-will and thus shattering his bondage of repeated birth in Samsara.

While going home one day, he resolved to give up home life and become a Bhikkhu:

Upon reaching home, he explained to his wife Dhammadinna, of his noble intention, then he handed over all his worldly wealth to her.

His shocked but quick-witted wife then asked for permission to become a Bhikkhunī (Buddhist nun) instead; as she too had realized the worthlessness of worldly wealth.

Visākha gladly consented and prepared suitable offerings for the Sangha. He escorted his wife to the Bhikkhunīs’ residence, offered the gifts, after which presented her for ordination.

Once ordained, Dhammadinna yearned to retreat to the forest to practise meditation in solitude. After obtaining permission she left Rājagaha and joined some like-minded Bhikkhunīs at the forest hermitage.

After acquainted with the new surroundings, she practised meditation intensively and because of her previous-life perfections, she soon attained Arahantship and uttered her triumphant hymn of joy at her noble attainment.

Her noble victory had given her great insight and profound skill in explaining the Dhamma to others.

Convinced that she had no further reasons to be there, she decided to return to Rājagaha where she could use her new Dhamma expertise to help and benefit others.

Her former husband Visākha, wanted to know why she had decided to return to Rājagaha. Knowing that it was rude to ask her outright, Visākha chose to test her Dhamma knowledge instead:

So after paying his respects, he questioned her at length about the Dhamma, the path and its fruits and she answered him clearly and accurately. Finally he questioned her about Arahantship but Dhammadinna did not answer, instead she sent him to see the Buddha.

On meeting the Buddha, Visākha related the whole dialogue with Dhammadinna in detail.

After hearing his account of the dialogue the Buddha praised Arahant Therī Dhammadinna saying that He would have answered in the same way.

Such was the Buddha’s high regard for her as the Dhamma expositor and she was ranked as the most competent Dhamma teacher amongst all the other Bhikkhunīs.

Bhikkhunī Paṭācārā Therī

Paṭācārā Therī was born in Sāvatthi to a rich family of loving parents.

She grew up a very beautiful daughter, closely guarded by her caring parents who built her a seven storied mansion fortified by a heavy guard around it for her safety.

Nevertheless, unknown to anyone she fell in love with her servant:

With no intention of marrying the suitor chosen by her parents, she quickly connive a plan with the help of that servant to escape from her heavily guarded luxurious home to start a new life with him.

She succeeded in the guise of a servant in rags fetching water and was able to fool the guards. The lovers met at the city gates and eloped to a distant village where they settled down as husband and wife.

He became a farmer to start a family. She soon became pregnant and asked her husband to bring her back to her parents’ home for childbirth.

The husband was scared of her parents because of their unsanctioned elopement. Anyway, unable to bear anymore procrastination she went by herself in her husband’s absence.

The husband later gave chase and found her by the wayside where she had given birth. With no purpose of proceeding further, they returned to their farmhouse.

All was well, until she became pregnant again and when it was due birth time she again wanted to return to her parents’ home. Repeated postponement again forced her to return to her parents' home with her small son.

Again the husband gave chase and found them along the country road, in a heavy rainstorm. She gave birth and told her husband to find them shelter. He ran off to do this but in doing so, was bitten by a poisonous snake and died instantly.

Paṭācārā had to take care of her small son and her new born son as well as to brave the rainstorm, in the absence of her husband.

In the morning the rainstorm abated, but still there was no sign of her husband. Unable to wait any longer, she took her two sons and went in search of their father.

Eventually she found the swollen contorted body and blamed herself bitterly for his death. Tearfully she went away towards her home in Sāvatthi.

On the way she had to cross a small river which became a raging torrent because of the previous night’s rainstorm.

She told the small boy to wait for her while she crossed the raging river with the new born baby and placed him on a leaf at the other bank.

She then came back for the small boy but half-way in the river a big hungry bird swooped down and carried off the new-born baby. The mother Paṭācārā frantically waved her arms to drive the bird away but to no avail.

Meanwhile the small boy mistook the arms of his mother to be a signal for him to go to her. Unable to reach her in mid-stream he fell into the raging river and was drowned.

In great anguish she wandered miserably on to Sāvatthi, hoping for consolation and solace from her parents.

On the outskirt of the city, she enquired about her family and was told that they were dead. Their home was destroyed by lightning during the rainstorm the night before.

She was told to look at the pall of smoke rising from the totally burnt building which was her parents’ home.

She was completely overcome by grief. Mad with grief and distraught with all the tragedies, Paṭācārā wandered naked, raving and wailing around the streets of Sāvatthi. No one helped or comforted her. Some even mocked and taunted her, calling her names.

Eventually she wandered into Jetavana Monastery where the Buddha was preaching Dhamma:

When she wandered near enough, the Compassionate Buddha, knowing the history of her previous lives, approached her, brushing aside the people’s intention to drive her away. He called her to Him, consoling her with gentle words and restoring back her senses.

Becoming aware of her nakedness, she felt ashamed and crouched down on the ground. She was thrown a cloak to cover herself.

She got up, came close to the Buddha, worshipped Him and implored Him to help her. She related to the Buddha the tragic loss of her whole family and property.

The Buddha knew that she had been suffering this sorrow repeatedly and told her in verse that the tears she had shed in grief were more than the waters of all the oceans combined.

There was no shelter or refuge to be found in the sons, daughters, father or mother, nor any kinsfolk for they were subject to death. Knowing this, let the wise one (or in this case-her) cultivate the way leading to Nibbāna.

Hearing this she became calm and serene in her mind and attained Sotāpanna, the Stream-winner. She then requested to be ordained and became a Bhikkhunī.

Once, when she was washing her feet, she watched the bubbles ran along the soil and burst as soon as they were formed, while the water ran only a little way on but was also soaked up by the soil.

As she was intently observing this phenomenon the Buddha projected an image of Himself and told Paṭācārā Therī that living a hundred years and not seeing the rise and fall, yet better indeed, was a single day’s life of one, who saw the rise and fall.

Upon hearing the Buddha’s words, Paṭācārā Therī became an Arahant. Then she became known as “Patita Carita” meaning “happy demeanour”.