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Khema of Great Wisdom

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Just as there were two foremost disciples in the order of monks, namely Shariputra and Moggallana, likewise the Buddha named two women as foremost amongst nuns, namely Uppalavanna and Khema.

The name Khema means well-settled or composed or security and is a synonym for Nirvana. The nun Khema belonged to a royal family from the land of Magadha. When she was of marriageable age, she became one of the chief consorts of King Bimbisara. As beautiful as her appearance was, equally beautiful was her life as the wife of an Indian Maharaja.

When she heard about the Buddha from her husband, she became interested, but she had a certain reluctance to become involved with his teaching. She felt that the teaching would run counter to her life of sense-pleasures and indulgences. The king, however, knew how he could influence her to listen to the teaching. He described at length the harmony, the peace and beauty of the monastery in the Bamboo Grove, where the Buddha stayed frequently. Because she loved beauty, harmony and peace, she was persuaded to visit there.

Decked out in royal splendor with silk and sandalwood, she went to the monastery. The Exalted One spoke to her and explained the law of impermanence of all conditioned beauty to her. She penetrated this sermon fully and still dressed in royal garments, she attained to enlightenment. Just like the monk, Mahakappina — a former king — she likewise became liberated through the power of the Buddha's words while still dressed in the garments of the laity. With her husband's permission she joined the Order of Nuns. Such an attainment, almost like lightning, is only possible however where the seed of wisdom has long been ripening and virtue is fully matured.

An ordinary person, hearing Khema's story, only sees the wonder of the present happening. A Buddha can see beyond this and knows that this woman did not come to full liberation accidentally. It came about like this: In former times when a Buddha appeared in the world, then Khema in those past lives also appeared near him, or so it has been recounted. Due to her inner attraction towards the highest Truth, she always came to birth wherever the bearer and proclaimer of such Truth lived. It is said that already innumerable ages ago she had sold her beautiful hair to give alms to the Buddha Padumuttara. During the time of the Buddha Vipassi, ninety-one eons ago, she had been a teacher of Dharma. Further it is told, that during the three Buddhas of our happy eon, which were previous to our Buddha Gautama, she was a lay disciple and gained happiness through building monasteries for the Sangha.

While most beings mill around heaven or hell realms during the life-time of a Buddha, Khema always tried to be near the source of wisdom. When there was no Buddha appearing in the world, she would be reborn at the time of Pacceka-Buddhas or Bodhisattas. In one birth she was the wife of the Bodhisatta, who always exhorted his peaceful family like this:

According to what you have got, give alms;
Observe the Uposatha days, keep the precepts pure;
Dwell upon the thought of death
and be mindful of your mortal state.
For in the case of beings like ourselves, death is certain, life is uncertain;
All existing things are transitory and subject to decay.
Therefore be heedful of your ways day and night.

One day Khema's only son in this life was suddenly killed by the bite of a poisonous snake, yet she was able to keep total equanimity:

Uncalled he hither came, without leave departed, too;
Even as he came, he went. What cause is here for woe?
No friend's lament can touch the ashes of the dead:
Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.
Though I should fast and weep, how would it profit me?
My kith and kin, alas! would more unhappy be.
No friend's lament can touch the ashes of the dead:
Why should I grieve? He fares the way he had to tread.

Another time — so it is told — she was she daughter-in-law of the Bodhisattva (J 397), many times a great Empress who dreamt about receiving teaching from the Bodhisattva and then actually was taught by him (J 501,502,534). It is further recounted that as a Queen she was always the wife of he who was later Shariputra, who said about her:

Of equal status is the wife,
Obedient, speaking only loving words,
With children, beauty, fame, garlanded,
She always listens to my words.

This husband in former lives was a righteous king, who upheld the ten royal virtues: Generosity, morality, renunciation, truthfulness, gentleness, patience, amity, harmlessness, humility, justice. Because of these virtues the king lived in happiness and bliss. Khema, too, lived in accordance with these precepts.

Only because Khema had already purified her heart and perfected it in these virtues, in many past lives she was now mature enough and had such pure and tranquil emotions, that she could accept the ultimate Truth in the twinkling of an eye.

The Buddha praised her as the nun foremost in wisdom. A story goes with that: King Pasenadi was traveling through his country, and one evening he arrived at a small township. He felt like having a conversation about Dharma and ordered a servant to find out whether there was a wise ascetic or priest in the town. The servant sounded everyone out, but could not find anyone whom his master could converse with. He reported this to the King and added that a nun of the Buddha lived in the town.

It was the saintly Khema, who was famed everywhere for her wisdom and known to be clever, possessing deep insight, had heard much Dharma, and was a speaker of renown, knowing always the right retort. Thereupon the king went to the former Queen, greeted her with respect and had the following conversation with her:

P.: Does an Awakened One exist after death?
K.: The Exalted One has not declared that an Awakened One exists after death.
P.: Then an Awakened One does not exist after death?
K.: That too, the Exalted One has not declared.
P.: Then the Awakened One exists after death and does not exist?
K.: Even that, the Exalted One has not declared.
P.: Then one must say, the Awakened One neither exists nor not exists after death?
K.: That too, the Exalted One has not declared.

Thereupon the King wanted to know why the Buddha had rejected these four questions. First we must try to understand what these questions imply. The first question corresponds with the view of all those beings whose highest goal is to continue on after death, spurred on by craving for existence. The answer that an Awakened One continues to exist after death, is the one given by all other religions, including later interpretations of Buddhism.

The second answer that the Enlightened One does not exist after death would be in keeping with craving for non-existence, i.e., annihilation.

Because of an urge for definite knowledge and certainly, a definition is sought which could claim that the five aggregates (skandha) of form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness — which make up the sum total of all existence — are completely dissolved and disappear upon the shedding of an Awakened One's body; and that deliverance consisted in that mere fact of dissolution.

The third answer seeks a compromise: everything impermanent in an Awakened One would be annihilated, but the permanent aspect, the essence, his actual person, would remain.

The fourth answer tries to get out of the predicament by formulating a "neither-nor" situation, which is meant to be satisfying. [*] All four formulas have been rejected by the Buddha as wrong view. They all presuppose that there is an "I" distinct from the world, while in reality "I" and "world" are part of the experience which arises because of consciousness.

* [This "solution" is formulated with the idea that it is something that words/concepts cannot describe, but it still uses "exist" "not exist" and so was not accepted by the Buddha.]

Only the Enlightened Ones can actually see this or those who have been their disciples, and unless this understanding is awakened, the assumption is made that an "I," and essentially permanent "self," is wandering through samsara, gradually ascending higher and higher until it is dissolved, which is liberation; this is a belief held by some. Others conclude from this, that the Buddha teaches the destruction of the "self." But the Buddha teaches that there is no "I" or "self," which can be destroyed, that it has never existed and has never wandered through samsara.

What we call "I" and what we call "world" are in reality a constantly changing process, always in flux, which always throws up the illusion of "I" and "world" born in the present and speculated upon in the past and future. The way to liberation is to stop speculating about the "I," to become free from habitual views and formulas, and come to the end of the mind's illusory conjuring.

Not through increasing the thought processes about phenomena, but through mindfulness of the arising of phenomena, which leads to reducing the chatter in the mind, can liberation be attained. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think, anything that can be contained in consciousness, no matter how wide-ranging and pure it is, has arisen due to causes; therefore it is impermanent and subject to decay and dissolution.

Everything which is subject to decay and change is not-self. Because the five clung-to aggregates are subject to destruction, they are not "my" self, are not "mine." "I" cannot prevent their decay, their becoming sick, damaged, faulty and their passing away. The conclusion that the self must then be outside of the five aggregates does not follow either, because it, too, is a thought and therefore belongs to one of the five clung-to aggregates (i.e., mental formations).

Any designation of the Enlightened One after death is therefore an illusion, born out of compulsion for naming, and cannot be appropriate. Whoever has followed the teaching of the Awakened One, as Khema did, is greatly relieved to see that the Buddha did not teach the destruction of an existing entity, nor the annihilation of a self. But, on the contrary, those not instructed by the Exalted One live without exception in a world of perpetual destruction, of uncontrollable transiency in the realm of death. Whatever they look upon as "I" and "mine" is constantly vanishing and only upon renouncing these things which are unsatisfactory because of their impermanence, can they reach a refuge of peace and security. Just as the lion's roar of the Exalted One proclaimed: "Open are the doors to the deathless, who has ears to hear, come and listen."

Khema tried to explain this to the King with a simile. She asked him whether he had a clever mathematician or statistician, who could calculate for him how many hundred, thousand or hundred-thousand grains of sand are contained in the river Ganges. The King replied that that is not possible. The nun then asked him whether he knew of anyone who could figure out how many gallons of water are contained in the great ocean. That, too, the King considered impossible. Khema asked him why it is not possible. The King replied that the ocean is mighty, deep, unfathomable.

Just so, said Khema, is the Exalted One. Whoever wished to define the Awakened One, could only do so through the five clung-to aggregates and the Buddha no longer clung-to them. "Released from clinging to form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness is the Enlightened One, mighty, deep unfathomable as the great ocean."

Therefore it was not appropriate to say he existed or did not exist, or existed and did not exist, nor did he neither exist nor not exist. All these designations could not define what was undefinable. Just that was liberation: liberation from the compulsion to stabilize as "self" the constant flux of the five aggregates, which are never the same in any given moment, but only appear as a discharge of tensions arising from mental formations.

The King rejoiced in the penetrating explanation of the nun Khema. Later on he met the Enlightened One and asked him the same four questions. The Buddha explained it exactly as Khema had done, even using the same words. The King was amazed and recounted his conversation with the wise nun Khema, the arhat.

© 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. © 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.



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