NOW is the occasion come for commenting on the meaning of the psalms of the Sisters. The exposition of their several poems will be made easier and more intelligible, if I first relate the circumstances under which the Bhikkhunīs in the beginning came to leave the world and obtain admission into the Order. Of this, therefore, I will give an account in outline.
When the Lord of the world had combined the Eight Factors–humanity and the rest of Buddhahood–when, having made his great resolve at the feet of the Buddha Dīpankără,63 and mastering equally all the Thirty Perfections, according to the prophecy of the Four-and-Twenty Buddha in succession concerning him, he had reached the climax in his progress towards wisdom, knowledge of the world and Buddhahood, then he took rebirth in the Realms of Bliss (Tusita). And there, when he had lived the span of life among the ten thousand gods of the Cosmic Circles, he thereupon assented to the request of those gods to be reborn as a man that he might become a Buddha, according to their words:
'The time is now at hand when Thou,
Great Hero, shouldst as man be born.
Bearing both gods and men across,
Do Thou reveal th' Ambrosial Way!'
So he made the Five Great Considerations, and then, in the house of King Suddhodana, of the princely clan of the Sākiyas, did he, mindful and self-possessed, enter a mother's womb; then, mindful and self-possessed, did he there ten months abide; then, mindful and self-possessed, did he thence emerge and come to birth in the Lumbinī Grove.
Reared by divers nurses, surrounded ever in luxury by a great retinue, he grew up in due course, dwelling in one of three mansions, amid divers bands of nautch-women, and enjoying honours like a god. Then, anguish being stirred in him at sight of an aged man, a diseased man, and a dead man, he, from the maturity of his insight, saw the danger in the life of the senses and the profit in renouncing it. Mounting his horse Kanthaka, and with Channa as his companion, at midnight, through the gate set open by spirits, he went forth on the Great Renunciation. During the remainder of that night he traversed three kingdoms, and, coming to the bank of the river Anomā, and taking the outward marks of an Arahant, brought to him by the Brahmā-god Ghaṭīkāra, he left the world. Thereupon, as though he were already an Elder with the eight requisites, 64 comely in appearance and of graceful deportment, he came in due course to Rājagaha, and there going round for alms, he ate his meal in the cave of Mount Paṇḍava. There the King of Magadha offered him his kingdom. But he, refusing it, went to Bhaggava's hermitage and learnt his system; thence to Āḷāra and Uddaka and learnt their systems. Finding all that inadequate, he proceeded to Uruvelā, and there for six years practised austerities. Then, discerning that this brought no penetration of the Ariyan Norm, he said, 'This is not the Path to Enlightenment,' and, taking solid food, he in a few days recovered strength. So, on full-moon day in the month of May, he ate the choice food given by Sujātā, 65 and, casting the golden dish upstream into the river, he, full of his resolve, 'To-day will I become a Buddha!' ascended at eventide the Bo-tree seat–his praises sung by Kāla, king of the Nāgas–and there, in a quakeless spot 66 facing the eastern world, seated him cross-legged and indomitable. There, fixing his will in four respects, he vanquished the power of Māra ere the sun went down. In the first watch of the night he recalled his former lives; in the middle watch he purified the eye celestial; in the last watch he sounded the depth of the knowledge of the Causal Law. And, grasping in direct and reverse order the formula of causal relation, he developed insight, and reached that perfect enlightenment reached by all Buddhas but shared by no one else. There then abiding seven days in the Fruition which has Nibbana as its object, and, in the same manner, abiding yet other seven days on the Bo-tree seat, he partook of sweet food beneath the Rājāyatana tree.67 Then, again, seated beneath the Goatherds' Banyan, he reflected on the depth of the essence of the Norm. 68 And his mind was disinclined for effort till he was entreated by Great Brahmā; but then he gazed upon the world with the Buddha-Eye, and, seeing all the diverse range of faculties in all beings, he promised Great Brahmā that he would teach the Norm. Meditating, 'Where, now, shall I first teach the Norm?' he discerned that Āḷāra and Uddaka had passed away; but then he thought, 'Very helpful to me were the Five who were attending on me when I broke off from my ascetic struggles. What if I were first to preach to them?' So, in the full moon of July, he went from the Great Bo-tree toward Benāres. And when he had travelled eighteen leagues, he met halfway the recluse Upaka 69 and conversed with him; and so on to Isipatana, where he convinced the Five by means of the Discourse called Turning the Wheel of the Norm, 70 beginning:
'There are two extremes, O bhikkhus, which the man who has given up the world ought not to follow' . . .thus giving them, beginning with Aññakondañña, together with eighteen myriads of Brahma-gods, a draught of Truth-ambrosia. Then on the first day of the next fortnight he established also Elder Bhaddaji in the path of the Stream-winners; on the second day, Elder Vappa; on the third day, Elder Mahānāma; on the fourth, Elder Assaji; and on the fifth day, by preaching the sermon of the Mark of No-Soul, he established them all in Arahantship. Thereafter he brought over many folk into the Ariyan fold 71 –to wit, the fifty-five youths led by Yasa, the thirty Bhaddavaggiyans in the Cotton-tree Grove, and the thousand former ascetics on the ridge of Gayā-Head. And when he had established eleven myriads, with Bimbisāra at their head, in the fruit of Entering the Stream (conversion), and one myriad in the Three Refuges, he accepted the gift of the Bamboo Grove, and there abode. Now, when Sāriputta and Moggallāna, brought into the First Path through Assaji, had taken leave of Sañjaya (their teacher), had joined the Buddha with their respective followings, and had realized the topmost Fruition, he set them, who had attained the perfection of discipleship, over all his disciples. Then, going at the entreaty of Elder Kāḷudāyi to Kapilavatthu, he subdued the proud stubbornness of his kinsmen by the Twin Miracle, 72 and establishing his father in the Path of No-Return, and Great Pajāpatī 73 in the Fruition of Entering the Stream, and causing the princes Nanda and Rāhula 74 to renounce the world, he went back to Rājagaha.
Now it came thereafter to pass, while the Master was staying at the Hall of the Gabled House near Vesālī, that King Suddhodhana attained Arahantship while under the white canopy, 75 and then passed away. Then in Great Pajāpatī arose the thought of renouncing the world. Then there came to her the wives of those five hundred young nobles who had renounced the world on hearing, on the bank of the Rohinī river, the 'Discourse concerning Strife and Dissension,' and they told her, saying: 'We will all renounce the world to follow the Master.' And they wished that she should lead them to him. Now Great Pajāpatī had once already asked the Master for admission to his Order, and had not won his consent; wherefore she now bade her hairdresser cut off her hair, and donning the yellow robes, she took all those Sākiya ladies with her to Vesālī, and there entreating Him of the Tenfold Power through Elder Ānanda, she gained his permission to leave the world and enter the Order by accepting the Eight Rules. 76 And the others, also, were all ordained at the same time.
This, in brief, is the story. What is here said has been handed down at greater length here and there in the Pali Canon.
Thus ordained, Great Pajāpatī came before the Master, and, saluting him, stood on one side. Then he taught her the Norm. She, taking up under him the system of exercise, attained to Arahantship. The other five hundred Bhikkhunīs attained it at the end of Nandaka's sermon.77 Now the Order of Bhikkhunīs being thus well established, and multiplying in divers villages, towns, country districts, and royal residences, dames, daughters-in-law and maidens of the clans, hearing of the great enlightenment of the Buddha, of the very truth of the Norm, of the excellent practices of the Order, were mightily pleased with the system, and, dreading the round of rebirth, they sought permission of husband, parents, and kin, and taking the system to their bosom, renounced the world. So renouncing and living virtuously, they received instruction from the Master and the Elders, and with toil and effort soon realized Arahantship. And the psalms which they uttered from time to time, in bursts of enthusiasm and otherwise, were afterwards by the Recensionists included in the Rehearsal, and arranged together in eleven cantos. They are called the Verses of the Elder Women (Therī-gāthā), and they are divided into cantos of single verses, two verses, and so on, as follows:
63 One of the twenty-four Buddhas of later Buddhism. Early Buddhism reckoned only seven. For this and the following episodes in greater detail, cf. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories, pp. 12 ſ. 27, 28; 60, 61; 87; 92.
64 Loc. cit., 87.
65 Ibid., 92 ſſ.
66 Loc. cit., 96.
67 =King's-stead Tree.
68 See Translator's Preface.
69 See his story in Ps. lxviii.
70 Translated by Rhys Davids in Buddhist Suttas, S.B.E. xi., pp. 146 ſſ.
71 Lit., territory–i.e., the 'true faith.' Cf. Buddhist Birth Stories, p. 113.
72 Cf. Buddhist Birth Stories, p. 123 ſ.
73 The sister and co-wife of the Buddha's mother. See Ps. lv.
74 His half-brother (son of Pajāpatī), and his own son.
75 I.e., as King and layman, without renouncing the world.
76 For the oldest acoount of this, see Rhys Davids and Oldenberg, Vinaya Texts, iii., 320 ſ.
77 Majjhima Nikāya, iii., pp. 270 ſſ.