Life of the Buddha

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(Part Two) 4. Visakha, Great Female Supporter

Visakha was the devout and generous daughter of a millionaire. When she was only seven years old, the Buddha visited her birthplace. Her grandfather, hearing of the Buddha’s visit, advised Visakha to go out and welcome him. Though she was so young, she was religious and virtuous. As such, immediately after hearing the Dharma from the Buddha, she attained the first stage of sainthood.

When she was fifteen years old, some Brahmins saw Visakha and thought she would be an ideal wife for their master Punnavaddhana, the son of a millionaire named Migara. Visakha possessed the five kinds of feminine beauty: beautiful hair, a beautiful figure, beautiful bone structure, beautiful skin which was smooth and golden in colour, and youthfulness. Accordingly, they made arrangements for Visakha to be married to Punnavaddhana.

On her wedding day, her wise father gave her some advice under these ten headings:

1. A wife should not criticise her husband and parents-in-law in front of other people. Neither should their weaknesses or household quarrels be reported elsewhere.

2. A wife should not listen to the stories or reports of other households.

3. Things should be lent to those who return them.

4. Things should not be lent to those who do not return them.

5. Poor relatives and friends should be helped even if they do not repay.

6. A wife should sit gracefully. On seeing her parents-in-law or her husband, she should respect them by rising from her seat.

7. Before taking her food, a wife should first see that her parents-in-law and husband are served. She should also make sure that his servants are well cared for.

8. Before going to sleep, a wife should see that all doors are closed, furniture is safe, servants have performed their duties, and that parents-in-law have retired. As a rule, a wife should rise early in the morning and unless she is sick, she should not sleep during the day.

9. Her parents-in-law and husband should be treated very carefully, like fire.

10. Her parents-in-law and husband should be given the respect due to devas.

From the day Visakha arrived in Savatthi, the city of her husband, she was kind and generous to everyone in the city and everyone loved her.

One day, her father-in-law was eating some sweet rice porridge from a golden bowl when a monk entered the house for alms. Although her father-in-law saw the monk, he continued to eat as if he had not. Visakha politely told the monk, “Pass on, Venerable Sir, my father-in-law is eating stale food.”

For a long time Visakha’s father-in-law had been unhappy at her because she was a devout follower and supporter of the Buddha while he was not. He was looking for a chance to break off the marriage between his son and Visakha, but her conduct was faultless. Now he saw his chance. Misunderstanding Visakha’s words, he thought she had brought disgrace to his family.

He ordered Visakha to be expelled from the house, but she reminded him of her father’s request to eight clansmen. Her father had told them, “If there be any fault in my daughter, investigate it.”

The millionaire agreed to her request and summoned those eight clansmen to come and investigate whether Visakha was guilty of rudeness. When they arrived he secretly told them, “Find her guilty of this fault and expel her from the house.”

Visakha proved her innocence by explaining, “Sirs, when my father-in-law ignored the monk and continued to eat his milk-rice porridge he was not making merit in his present life. He was only enjoying the merits of his past actions. Was this not like eating stale food?”

Her father-in-law had to admit that she was not guilty of being rude.

There were other misunderstandings after this, but Visakha was able to explain to her father-in-law’s satisfaction. After these incidents, her father-in-law began to realise his error and to see the great wisdom of Visakha. At her suggestion, he invited the Buddha to their house to give teachings. On hearing the discourse he became a sotapanna (first stage of sainthood) .

With wisdom and patience, she succeeded in converting her husband’s household to a happy Buddhist home. Visakha was also very generous and helpful to the monks. She built the Pubbarama monastery for the monks at great cost. Immense was her joy when the Buddha spent six rainy seasons there.

In one of the discourses that the Buddha delivered to Visakha, he spoke of the eight qualities in a woman that bring her welfare and happiness in this world and the next: “Herein, Visakha, a woman does her work well, she manages the servants, she respects her husband and she guards his wealth. Herein, Visakha, a woman has confidence (saddha) in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha; virtue (sila); charity (caga); and wisdom (panna).”

Being a woman who had many talents, Visakha played an important role in various activities amongst the Buddha and his followers. At times, she was given the authority by the Buddha to settle disputes that arose amongst the nuns (bhikkhunis). Some Vinaya rules of discipline were also laid down for the nuns when she was called in to settle their disputes.

Visakha died at the ripe age of one hundred and twenty.