The Future-Mahapajapatigotami was born into a worthy family in the city of Hamsavati during the time of Padumuttara Buddha. On one occasion she was listening to a discourse by the Buddha when she happened to see a bhikkhuni being honoured by the Buddha as the foremost among the bhikkhunis who were enlightened earliest. (Rattannu Puggala =one who was enlightened earliest. This is a technical term which means the bhikkhu who is the senior-most in the Order. It also means the bhikkhu who understands the four Ariya Truths earliest. It also may mean the Bhikkhu who attain Arahatship earliest.) She aspired to the same distinction in a future existence. So she made extra ordinary offerings to the Buddha and expressed that wish before the Buddha. The Buddha predicted that her aspiration would be fulfilled.
In her previous existence as the Head of Water Carriers.
That worthy woman led a life of charity and observed the moral precepts and at the end of her life she was reborn in the deva realm. When she passed away from deva existence, during the interval between the two Buddhas, she was reborn into the slave class in Baranasi as the head of water carriers.
Then when the rains-retreat period was drawing near, five Paccekabuddhas who lived in Nandamu Cave descended at the Migadavana Forest near Baranasi from their travelling in the air and went into the city to gather alms-food. They stayed at the Isipatana Migadavana forest after the alms-round and discussed about seeking help in making small dwelling places for use during the rains-retreat.
(A bhikkhu who vows to remain at a chosen place during the rains-retreat period is required by the Vinaya Rules to live in a sort of dwelling with some roof, made of slate, or baked tile, or cement tile, or grass or leaves and with a door. This rule has no exception even for those bhikkhus who have vowed to observe such austere practices as the Nalaka practice or the Moneyya practice. If a dwelling for the purpose is not offered them ready-made, they have to seek assistance in getting one built. This dwelling is the place where they vow to live during the three-month rains-retreat period, and is essential for making the vow.)
The five Paccekabuddhas who had to fulfill the need for a dwelling for use during the rains-retreat arranged their robes in the evening and entered the city of Baranasi to seek assistance. Their going into the city was noted by the chief of the water carriers. The Paccekabuddhas stood at the door of the Rich Man of Baranasi but when they told him about their need the Rich Man said, "We were not prepared to help. May the revered ones go elsewhere"
The chief of water carriers met the Paccekabuddhasas they came out of the city at the city gate and putting down the water pot, she made obeisance. Then she asked the purpose of the revered ones in going into the city and coming out soon from it. The Paccekabuddhas told her that they were seeking assistance to have a small dwelling built for use during the rains-retreat period. And also on further inquiry, she learnt that the need was still unfulfilled. She asked them, "Is this dwelling to be the gift of only well-to-do donors? Or is it proper for a slave like me to donate one?"
"Anybody may do so, lay female supporter," the replied.
"Very well Venerable Sirs, we shall donate the dwellings tomorrow. Meantime, may the Venerable Ones accept my offering of food tomorrow."
After making the invitation she picked up her water pot and, instead of returning to the city, she went back to the water-hole and gathered her company of water carriers there. Then she said to them, "Now girls, do you want to be slaves to others all the time? Or do you want freedom from servitude?"
They answered in unison, "We want freedom from servitude!"
"If so, I have invited the five Paccekabuddhas to an offering tomorrow. They are in need of dwellings. Let your husbands give their hands for one day tomorrow.
"Very well," they all said. They told this to their husbands in the evening after the latter had come home from the forest where they worked. The men all agreed to help and made an appointment at the door of the chief of the male slaves. When they had assembled there the head of the water carriers urged them to lend a hand in the building of dwelling for the five Paccekabuddhas for use during the rains-retreat period, extolling the great benefits of such contribution. A few of the men who did not agree to help at first were admonished by her and persuaded into the task
The next morning, the head of the water carriers offered food to the five Paccekabuddhas. After that she signalled the five hundred slaves men to start work. They promptly went to the forest, cut down trees, and each group of a hundred men built a modest dwelling unit for one Paccekabuddha, complete with an adjacent walk to it. They filled the water pots and saw to the bare essentials in five dwellings for the five Paccekabuddhas. They offered them to the Paccekabuddhas, requested them to dwell there during the rains-retreat period, got the consent of the revered ones, and they took turns to offer daily food to them.
If there was some poor water carrier who was unable to prepare a meal for the five Paccekabuddhas on her appointed day, the head of the water carriers gave her the necessary provisions. The three months of rains-retreat period thus passed. Near the end of the period the head of the water carriers asked the five hundred slave girls each to weave a piece of rough cloth. The five hundred pieces collected from them were exchanged for five sets of fine robes for each of the five Paccekabuddhas which were offered to them. The Paccekabuddhas, after receiving them, rose to the sky in the presence of their donors and went away in the direction of Gandamadana mountain.
In the past existence as the Chief Weaver.
Those water carriers slave girls spent the rest of their life in doing meritorious acts. On their death they were reborn in the deva realm. The head of the deva girls, on her passing away, was reborn into the family of the chief weaver in a weaver's village near Baranasi. One day the five hundred sons of Queen Paduma devi, all Paccekabuddhas, went to the door of the royal palace at the Baranasi on invitation. But there was no one to attend to them to offer seats or to offer food. They had to return to their abode. As they left the city and were at the weaver's village, the chief weaver had much devotion for them and after paying obeisance to them, offered food. The Paccekabuddhas accepted her offering of food and, after finishing the meal, left for the Gandamadana mountain.
(b) Taking up Bhikkhuni hood in her last existence.
The chief weaver spent the rest of her life in deeds of merit. After passing away from that existence she was reborn in the deva realm and the human realm in turns. On the eve of the arising of Gotama Buddha, she was reborn into the Sakyan royal family as the younger daughter of King Mahasuppabuddha in Devadaha. She was called Gotami and was the younger sister of Princess Mahamaya. Court astrologers learned in the Vedas and adept at reading human forms and marks (physiognomy) and palmistry, after scrutinising the distinctive bodily features of the two sisters predicted that the sons born of the two sisters would become a Universal Monarch.
When the two sisters came of age they were betrothed to King Suddhodana and they were taken to Kapilavatthu where Princess Mahamaya was made the Chief Queen. Later, after the Buddha-to-be had passed away from Tusita deva realm, he was conceived in the womb of Queen Mahamaya. After the Queen had given birth to her son (on the full moon of Kason=May in the 68th year of the Great Era) on the seventh day she passed away and was reborn in Tusita deva realm by the name of Santusita. On the death of Queen Mahamaya, King Suddhodana made the younger sister Queen Gotami the Chief Queen.
After Queen Mahamaya had given birth to Prince Siddhattha, two or three days later Queen Mahapajapati Gotami, the step mother of Prince Siddhattha, gave birth to Prince Nanda. So at the time Queen Mahamaya died Prince Siddhattha was only seven days old while Prince Nanda was only four or five days old. Queen Mahapajapati Gotami nursed her step-son, Prince Siddhattha from her own breast, while leaving her own son, Prince Nanda to be nurtured by nurses. She devoted her whole attention to the bringing up of her little nephew, the Buddha-to-be.
Later, after the Buddha-to-be had renounced the world, won Supreme Enlightenment and as the all-knowing Buddha while he was on the Buddha's mission to bring welfare to the world, he made his first visit to Kapilavatthu. On the next day after arrival there he went into the city to collect alms-food. His father King Suddhodana had opportunity to listen to the Buddha's discourse while still on his alms-round and won Stream-Entry Knowledge. Then on the second day, Prince Nanda was admitted into the Order. On the seventh day the Buddha's son Rahula was admitted as a novice (The details of these events have already been given above.)
The Buddha spent his fifth rains-retreat period at Kutagara monastery in the Mahavana forest near Vesali. During that time King Suddhodana won Arahatship under the regal white umbrella at the court of Kapilavatthu and passed away the same day. Then Queen Mahapajapati Gotami was keen to renounce the world and become a bhikkhuni. Later the five hundred queen consorts of the five hundred Sakyan princes who became bhikkhus on the occasion of the expounding of the Mahasamaya Sutta unanimously decided to become bhikkhunis. They made Queen Mahapajapati Gotami their spoke-woman to request the Buddha for admission into the Order. The first attempt by the Queen, the Buddha's step-mother, failed. Then she and the five hundred Sakyan princesses shaved their heads, donned dyed robes, and marched on foot from Kapilavatthu to Vesali. They sought the Venerable Ananda's support in pleading for their case for admission. At last the Buddha admitted them into the Order as bhikkhunis or female bhikkhu. Mahapajapati Gotami was admitted by administering the eight principal vows garu dhamma. The five hundred Sakyan princesses were admitted by an assembly of bhikkhus only. (Note later under normal procedure, a bhikkhuni had to be admitted by an assembly of bhikkhunis also) (The details about this paragraph may be found in The Great Chronicle, Volume Three, Chapter twenty-three.)
The Buddha's step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami Theri won Arahatship after hearing the Samkhitta sutta. The five hundred bhikkhunis later won enlightenment at various levels after hearing the Nandakovada sutta.
(c) Mahapajapati Gotami Theri, The Foremost Bhikkhuni.
On a later occasion when the Buddha was residing at the Jetavana monastery and designating foremost Bhikkhunis, the Buddha declared
"Bhikkhus, among my bhikkhuni disciples who are of long standing in the Order, Mahapajapati Gotami is the foremost."
(Herein, the name 'Gotami' represents the Gotama clan. 'Mahapajapati' is the epithet which means 'mother of great offspring'. This epithet was based on the prognostication of physiognomists and palmists that from the special features observed on her person she was to be the mother of a Universal Monarch if she gave birth to a son, or the mother of the wife of a Universal Monarch if she gave birth to a daughter.) — Commentary on Majja.
The passing away of Gotami Theri
When Gotami Theri was of 120 years' age, she was residing at a bhikkhuni monastery which was in the city of Vesali (As a rule Bhikkhuni monasteries were set up inside the town or village.) The Buddha was then staying at the Mahavana monastery near Vesali. One morning, after collecting alms-food in the city and finishing her meal, Gotami Theri entered into the attainment of Arahatta phala for a predetermined period. After rising from the Jhana attainment she remembered the long series of her acquisition of merits in her past existences and felt very delighted. Then she reviewed her life-span. She saw that it had come to an end. She thought it proper to inform the Buddha at Mahavana forest about her approaching death, as well as bidding leave of her passing away to his colleagues who had been a source of her inspiration such as the two Chief Disciples and co-resident Ariyas. Then only she would return to the monastery and pass away. The same idea arose in the minds of the five hundred bhikkhunis of Sakyan origin.
(The touching events concerning the passing away of Gotami Theri will now be told based on: (1) The Chiddapidhanani (Volume One, Chapter Twelve) by Mahavisuddharama Sayadaw, and the Apadana, Khuddaka Nikaya, IV. Only a gist of those texts is given here.)
The Buddha's step-mother, Gotami Theri thought "I am not going to live to see the passing away of my son, the Buddha, nor that of the two Chief Disciples, nor that of my grandson Rahula, nor that of my nephew Ananda. I am going to predecease them all. I shall seek permission to pass-away from my son, the Buddha now." The same thoughts passed in the minds of five hundred bhikkhunis of Sakyan origin.
At that moment the earth quaked violently. Unseasonable rains thundered in the sky. The guardian spirits of the bhikkhuni monasteries wailed. The five hundred bhikkhunis went to Gotami Theri and told her about the wailing of the guardian spirits and Gotami Theri told them her plan to pass away. The five hundred Bhikkhunis also told her their plan likewise. They all asked the guardian spirits of the monastery to pardon them if they had offended them in any way. Then, casting her last glance at the monastery, Gotami Theri uttered this verse.
"I shall now proceed to the unconditioned (Nibbana) where there is no ageing or death, no association with beings or things one dislikes, no separation from beings or things one holds dear."
Among those who heard those words, those who had not rid themselves of attachment, men and devas alike, wailed miserably. (The touching scene of their lamentation is vividly described in the Pali text)
When the bhikkhunis came out of their monastery along the High Street devotees came out of their homes, and kneeling themselves before Gotami Theri wailed, expressing their deep distress. The Buddha's step-mother Gotami Theri spoke words that help quell their sorrow. (Her words rich with the Doctrine may be gleaned from the Pali text. This remark also applies to other stanzas that she was to utter later on.) She uttered nine and a half stanzas to allay the lamentation of the citizens of Vesali. When she got before the presence of the Buddha she informed the Buddha of her impending death and asked the Buddha's approval to release her life-maintaining thought process in verse, sixteen in all, beginning with the words: Aham sugata te mata tum ca vira pita mama. The Buddha gave his approval in a stanza. After that she recited five stanzas in praise of the Bhagava.
Then she asked permission of the Samgha, the Venerable Rahula, the Venerable Ananda and the Venerable Nanda, to approve of her passing away in two stanzas (beginning with the words asivisalayasame) describing the banefulness of sentient existence The Venerable Nanda and Rahula who were then Arahats took the words of the great Theri as inspiring emotional religious awakening, but as for the Venerable Ananda who was still training himself for Arahatship they caused much sorrow and lamentation, expressing his grief in a stanza beginning with, "ha santim Gotami ya ti. " The great Theri solaced her nephew with words of wisdom.
Thereafter, the Buddha asked Gotami Theri in the following verse to display her supernormal powers.
"Gotami, for the sake of those fools who have doubts about female devotees attaining Enlightenment in my teaching, to enable them shed those doubts, display your supernormal powers."
The one-twenty-year old bhikkhuni complied by showing her supernormal powers as described in the text on Supernormal powers such as from being one to become many, from being many, to become one, to become visible and to become invisible, to pass through a wall or a mountain, etc. Then she walked in mid-air holding Mount Meru as the prop on which the great earth rested as an umbrella, and turning upside down this miraculous umbrella. She created an atmosphere of intense heat as when six suns arise simultaneously, etc. Having complied with the Buddha's request, she came down and making obeisance to the Bhagava, sat in a suitable place. She said, "Venerable son, I, your step-mother, is 120 years of age. I have grown old I have lived long enough. May I be allowed to die"
The audience, stunned by the miraculous powers displayed by Gotami Theri asked her, "Venerable One, what was the extent of merit you had performed to be endowed with such power and capability?" And Gotami Theri related to them the successive acts of merit she had performed since the days of Padumuttara Buddha down to the last existence. Those events ran into a number of stanzas.
Then the five hundred Bhikkhunis rose up to the sky as a cluster of stars, captivating the eye of the audience, displayed their supernormal powers, and having obtained the Buddha's approval to wind up their miraculous feats, made obeisance to the Bhagava and sat in a suitable place. They recounted to the Bhagava in verses how much they owed to Gotami Theri. Then they asked the Bhagava's permission to pass away.
The Bhagava said, "Bhikkhunis, you know the time to pass away. Thus having obtained the Buddha's approval, they made obeisance to the Bhagava and returned to their monastery. The Buddha accompanied by a large company of devotees, saw Gotami Theri off up to the entrance to his forest abode. There the great Theri and her five hundred Bhikkhunis disciples made their last obeisance to the Buddha together. Then the five hundred Bhikkhunis entered the city and sat cross-legged in their respective dwellings at the monastery.
At that time many male and female lay disciples of the Buddha, seeing the time had come to see the last of the noble ones , gathered around to pay their last respect, beating their bosoms in great sorrow. They threw themselves down on the ground like a tree uprooted. Gotami Theri caressed the head of the eldest of the female devotees and uttered this stanza
"Daughters, lamentation leads only to Mara's domain and is therefore in vain. All conditioned things are impermanent, they end up in separation, they cause endless agitation."
Then she told them to go back to their homes. When alone, she entered into the first jhana of the Fine Material sphere and upwards, stage by stage, till the jhana of the neither-consciousness-nor-non-consciousness, and then downwards, stage by stage, to the first jhana of the Fine Material sphere. Thus upwards and downwards she dwelt in the eight mundane jhanic attainments. Then she dwelt in jhanic attainment beginning from the first jhana up to the fourth jhana. Arising from that jhana she realised complete Cessation of the aggregates just as a lamp goes out when the oil and the wick become exhausted. The remaining five hundred Bhikkhuni disciples also realized complete Cessation.
At that moment the great earth quaked violently. Meteors fell from the sky. The skies rumbled with thunder. The celestial beings wailed. Celestial flowers rained from the sky. Mount Meru tottered like a dancer swaying. The great ocean roared as if deeply troubled. Nagas, asuras, devas and brahmas expressed their emotional religious awakening in such term as "impermanent are all conditioned things, they have the nature of dissolution"
Devas and brahmas reported the death of Gotami Theri and the five hundred bhikkhunis to the Buddha. The Buddha sent the Venerable Ananda to inform the matter to the bhikkhus. Then, accompanied by many bhikkhus, the Buddha joined the funeral procession which took this order; (1) men, devas nagas, asuras and brahmas marched at the head, followed by, (2) the five hundred Golden hearses of five hundred bhikkhunis with multi-tiered roofs created by deva Visukamma wherein were placed the remains of the bhikkhunis on their cots, and these hearses were borne by devas, (3) then followed the hearse of Gotami Theri the Buddha's step-mother, which was borne by the four Great Deva Kings, (4) then followed the Samgha and the Buddha. The whole route from the monastery to the funeral ground was canopied and all along the route were placed streams, pennants, while all the ground was strewn with flowers. Celestial lotus flowers came down thick and fast as though they were hanging loosely in the sky. All sorts of flowers and perfumes wafted in the air. All sorts of music; singing and dancing took place in honour of the departed noble Arahats.
During the progress of the funeral procession both the sun and the moon were visible to the people. Stars were shining in the sky. Even at that noon the sun's rays were cool like that of the moon. In fact, the occasion of Gotami Theri's funeral was surrounded by even more wonderful happenings than on the occasion of the funeral of the Buddha himself. On the occasion of the Buddha's funeral there was no Buddha nor the Venerable Sariputta and bhikkhu elders to supervise the funeral proceedings whereas on the occasion of the funeral of Gotami Theri, there were the Buddha and the bhikkhu elders such as the Venerable Sariputta to supervise the proceedings.
At the charnel-ground after the remains of Gotami Theri were incinerated, the Venerable Ananda picked up the relics and uttered this stanzas;
"Gone now is Gotami. Her remains have been burnt up. And soon the passing away of the Buddha, the much anxiously awaited event, will take place"
The Venerable Ananda collected the relics in the alms-bowl used by Gotami Theri and presented them to Buddha. Thereupon the Buddha held up the relics of his step-mother for the audience to view and spoke to the assembly of man, devas and brahmas thus:
"Just as a big tree full of hard core standing firmly has a great trunk and that great trunk, being of impermanent nature, falls down, so also Gotami who had been like a big tree trunk to the bhikkhuni Samgha is calmed (i.e., has entered Nibbana.)"
The Buddha uttered altogether ten stanzas for the benefit of the audience on that memorable occasion. These ten stanzas with text and word-for-word meanings may be gleaned by the reader in the Chiddapidhanti to his delight.)
(Here ends the story of Mahapajapati Gotami Theri)