When she was born, Nanda was lovingly welcomed by her parents â€” the father of the Buddha and his second wife. Her name means joy, contentment, pleasure, and was given when parents were especially joyful about the arrival of a baby.
Nanda was extremely well-bred, graceful and beautiful. To distinguish her from others by the same name, she was later called "Rupa-Nanda," "one of delightful form," or sometimes "Sundari-Nanda," "beautiful Nanda."
In due course many members of her family â€” the royal house of the Shakyas â€” left the household for the homeless life, influenced by the amazing fact that one of their clan had become the fully-enlightened Buddha. Amongst them was her brother Nanda, her cousins, and finally her mother, together with many other Shakyan ladies. Thereupon Nanda also took this step, but it is recorded that she did not do it out of confidence in the teacher and the teachings, but out of love for her relatives and a feeling of belonging with them.
One can easily imagine the love and respect accorded the graceful half-sister of the Buddha and how touched the people were by the sight of the lovely royal daughter, so near in family ties to the Blessed One, wandering amongst them in the garb of a nun.
But it soon became obvious that this was not a good basis for a nun's life. Nanda's thoughts were mainly directed towards her own beauty and her popularity with the people, traits which were resultants of former good actions. These resultants now became dangers to her, since she forgot to reinforce them with new actions. She felt that she was not living up to the high ideals the people envisioned for her, and that she was far from the goal for which so many noble-born clansmen had gone into the homeless life. She was sure that the Blessed One would censure her on account of this. Therefore she managed to evade him for a long time.
One day the Buddha requested all the nuns to come to him, one by one, to receive his teaching, but Nanda did not comply. The Master let her be called specially, and then she appeared before him, ashamed and anxious by her demeanor. The Buddha addressed her and appealed to all her positive qualities so that she listened to him willingly and delighted in his words. When the Blessed One knew that the talk had uplifted her, had made her joyful and ready to accept his teaching, he did not immediately explain absolute reality to her, as is often mentioned in other accounts, frequently resulting in noble attainment to his listener.
Because Nanda was so taken up with her physical beauty, the Buddha used his psychic powers to conjure up the vision of an even more beautiful woman, who then aged visibly and relentlessly before her very eyes. Thereby Nanda could see, compressed within a few moments, what otherwise one can only notice in people through decades â€” and often because of proximity and habit one does not even fully comprehend: the fading away of youth and beauty, the decay, the appearance of wrinkles and gray hair. The vision affected Nanda deeply; she was shaken to the center of her being.
After having shown her this graphic picture, the Buddha could explain the law of impermanence to her in such a way that she penetrated the truth of its completely, and thereby attained the knowledge of future liberation â€” stream-entry. As a meditation subject the Buddha gave her the contemplation of the impermanence and foulness of the body. She persevered for a long time with this practice "faithful and courageous day and night"; (Thig 84) as she described in her verses:
Sick, impure and foul as well,
Nanda, see this congeries
With the unlovely, [*] develop mind
Well-composed to singleness.
As is that, thus will this likewise be.
Exhaling foulness, evil smells,
A thing it is enjoyed [**] by fools.
Diligently considering it,
By day and night thus seeing it,
With my own wisdom having seen,
I turned away, dispassionate.
With my diligence, carefully
I examined the body
And saw this as it really is â€”
Both within and without.
Unlusting and dispassionate
Within this body then was I:
By diligence from fetters freed,
Peaceful was I and quite cool.
* [The meditations on seeing the body as unattractive, either as parts, or in death.]
** [Play on her own name, Nanda or Joy and "abhinanditam."]
Because Nanda had been so infatuated with her physical appearance, it had been necessary for her to apply the extreme of meditations on bodily unattractiveness as a counter-measure to find equanimity as balance between the two opposites. For beauty and ugliness are just two kinds of impermanence. Nothing can disturb the cool, peaceful heart ever again.
Later the Buddha raised his half-sister as being the foremost amongst nuns who practiced Jhana.[***] This meant that she not only followed the analytical way of insight, but put emphasis on the experience of tranquillity. Enjoying this pure well-being, she no longer needed any lower enjoyments and soon found indestructible peace. Although she had gone into homelessness because of attachment to her relatives, she became totally free and equal to the One she venerated.
*** [Jhana: Total meditative absorption.]
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.