In Rajgir, the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, lived a girl of good family named Bhadda. Her parents protected her very carefully, because she had a passionate nature and they were afraid that she would be hurt due to her attraction to men. One day from her window Bhadda saw how a thief was being led to the place of execution. He was the son of a Brahman (priest-caste) but had a strong tendency towards stealing.
She fell in love with him at first sight. She convinced her father that she could not live without him, and so he bribed the guards who let the condemned man escape.
Soon after the wedding the bridegroom became obsessed with the desire to get his wife's jewelry. He told her he had made a vow that he would make an offering to a certain mountain deity if he could escape execution. Through this ruse he managed to get Bhadda away from his home. He wanted to throw her down from a high cliff to gain possession of her valuable ornaments. When they came to the cliff, he brusquely told her about his intention. Bhadda, in her distress, likewise resolved to a ruse that enabled her to give him a push so that it was he who fell to his death.
Burdened by the enormity of her deed, she did not want to return to lay life. Sensual pleasures and possessions were no longer tempting for her. She became a wandering ascetic. First she entered the order of Jains and as a special penance, her hair was torn out by the roots, when she ordained. But it grew again and was very curly. Therefore she was called "Curly-hair" (Kundalakesa).
The teaching of the Jain sect did not satisfy her, so she became a solitary wanderer. For fifty years she traveled through India and visited many spiritual teachers, thereby obtaining an excellent knowledge of religious scriptures and philosophies. She became one of the most famous debaters. When she entered a town, she would make a sand-pile and stick a rose-apple branch into it and would announce that whoever would engage in discussion with her should trample upon the sand-pile.
One day she came to Savatthi and again erected her little monument. At that time, Sariputta â€” the disciple of the Buddha with the greatest power of analysis â€” was staying at the Jeta Grove. He heard of the arrival of Bhadda and as a sign of his willingness for debate, he had several children go and trample on the sand-pile. Thereupon Bhadda went to the Jeta Grove, to Anathapindika's Monastery, accompanied by a large number of people. She was certain of victory, since she had become used to being the winner in all debates.
She put a number of questions to Sariputta. He answered all of them until she found nothing more to ask. Then Sariputta questioned her. Already the first question affected Bhadda profoundly, namely, "What is the One?" She remained silent, unable to discern what the Elder could have been inquiring about. Surely he did not mean "God," or "Brahman" or "the Infinite," she pondered. But what was it then? The answer should have been "nutriment" because all beings are sustained by food.
Although she was unable to find an answer and thereby lost the debate, she knew that here was someone who had found what she had been looking; for during her pilgrimage of half a century. She chose Shariputta as her teacher, but he referred her to the Buddha. The Awakened One preached Dharma to her at Mount Vulture Peak and concluded with the following verses:
Though a thousand verses
are made of meaningless lines,
better the single meaningful line
by hearing which one is at peace.
Just as the wanderer Bahiya was foremost amongst monks who attained arahantship faster than anyone else, she was foremost amongst nuns with the same quality. Both grasped the highest Truth so quickly and so deeply that admittance to the Order followed after attainment of arahantship. Mind and emotions of both of them had long been trained and prepared, so that they could reach the highest attainment very quickly.
Bhadda's verses have been handed down to us in the collection of the "Verses of the Elder Nuns," as she summarizes her life:
I traveled before in a single cloth,
With shaven head, covered in dust,
Thinking of faults in the faultless,
While in the faulty seeing no faults. [*]
When done was the day's abiding, [**]
I went to Mount Vulture Peak
And saw the stainless Buddha
By the Order of Bhikkhus revered.
Then before Him my hands in anjali [***]
Humbly, I bowed down on my knees.
"Come, Bhadda," He said to me:
And thus was I ordained.
Debt-free, I traveled for fifty years
In Anga, Magadha and Vajji,
In Kasi and Kosala, too,
Living on the alms of the land.
That lay-supporter â€” wise man indeed â€”
May many merits accrue to him!
Who gave a robe to Bhadda for
Free of all ties is she.
* [Vajja: fault, can also mean "what is obstructive to spiritual progress."]
** [The daytime spent in seclusion for meditation.]
*** [anjali: hands placed palms to palm respectfully.]
Â© 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. Â© 1994 Access to Insight edition.Courtesy of Hellmuth Hecker, the author, and Sister Khema who translated from German. For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.