Buddhism and Women

Pre-eminent Women Disciples of the Buddha

Because she had observed her precepts well as a good devotee of a former Buddha, Subha was born as the beautiful daughter of a prosperous goldsmith during the dispensation of Lord Gotama Buddha. Since her birth brought good luck to the household, her proud father named her Subha, which means “Lucky.” He often thought, “This daughter of mine promises to be a perfect beauty. She reminds me of the superb royal jewellery I make!”

By the time Subha reached her sixteenth year, her father had become a rich man, receiving commissions from many rich clients. As his trade prospered, he had many goldsmiths working under him. Subha often wore the beautiful necklaces, coronets, and other ornaments he crafted for queens and princesses, parading and showing off their beauty. The parents and neighbors admired good-natured Subha, who appeared even more beautiful wearing delicate, refined ornaments. As Subha was kind, her home was a happy place, where friends and relations assembled in harmony.

Subha’s neighbors often talked of a royal prince who had left his palace to lead an ascetic life. They said that the noble Sage had become a great saint, with many disciples. One day when the people of Rajgriha expected the noble sage’s arrival, Subhas’ father declared that day a holiday for his workmen and the maid Subha went with her parents and friends to witness the great sage’s arrival. When the populace, led by King Bimbisara, heard the Lord Buddha’s teachings, they were filled with joy. By evening the king, his retinue, and all the citizens of the town had accepted Buddhism as their faith. Very soon monasteries were offered to the Buddha, where some of the monks stayed, while others set forth to preach the doctrine.

Soon Buddhism was the accepted religion of the country. Many young men and women joined the Order of monks and nuns. Subha accompanied her parents to the teaching site and listened happily to the discourses. She saw the yellow-robed nuns and spoke with them. Her family became good devotees who often visited the monastery. One day, as the Lord surveyed the audience with supernormal vision, he saw that the maid Subha was experiencing last birth in samsaric existence – that she would become a nun and gain enlightenment. As the Lord preached that day, Subha listened intently and, at the end of the discourse, she attained the stage of a Stream Entrant. Thereupon she pleaded with her parents to allow her to become a nun. The parents were reluctant to part with her since, as their only child, she was slated to inherit their wealth. So, because they loved her, they tried their best to change her mind. In the end, however, they relented and, in due course, she became a nun. Her parents and relations thought that Subha would soon leave the nunnery and return to them, since she was fond of wearing fine clothes and jewellery.

Meanwhile Subha received doctrinal instructions from the nuns and observed her precepts well. She listened well when the nuns preached the Dharma and discussed doctrinal topics at length. She received instructions on meditation and meditated peacefully. Without her, the fond parents’ home became a desolate place. Eventually, they talked over with friends and decided to visit the nunnery with the idea of coaxing Subha to return home. As they visited the nunnery, her mother began to weep, saying: “Dear daughter! Our home is a desolate place without you. Think of the lovely gold jewellery made specially for you by your father! These ornaments decorated your neck, ears, and arms! Once you loved to wear them! Now we have no daughter to inherit them! Dear daughter, we are rich with much wealth and many servants! Return and be the owner of all our wealth!” Her relations and friends made the same appeal while the mother cried.

Subha, determined to stop further appeals, tried to convince them that their appeals were in vain. She advised them with these words:

Listen well, my mother and relations.
Attired nicely as befitted a youth,
I listened to the teachings of the Lord.
In a wholesome state of mind,
I then realised the Truth.
So I left my parents who loved me,
My devoted friends and relations all,
All luxuries of a comfortable life,
Considerable wealth, lands and fields.
Craving for worldly comforts,
Does not suit my life now.
I left my homey comforts.
I shall not go there again,
I prefer a life of solitude,
Devoid of all craving.
Those fallen into the abyss of desire,
Often face disappointments,
Loss of their wealth,
Bodily hurt and even worse disasters.

Dear relations, listen to me.
Why do you try to tempt me
With all the troubles that I have left behind?
Dear friends, please realise that I am a homeless nun,
Who discerns no value in wealth!
My head is shaven;
I am clad in the robes of the Order.
Please realize my homeless mendicant state!
Living on whatever food others offer me,
Wearing robes that others offer me,
Living according to the precepts
-Such is the life of a nun.

Omniscient Lord Buddha,
As well as the noble Sangha,
Have shattered all bonds of desire
To attain the freedom of liberation.
They are free and happy!

Craving and desire are frightful enemies.
Like a devastating fire, they bring
All troublesome sorrows in their wake.
Like enemies, they chose to punish us.
Sensual pleasures are a terror,
Poisoning the minds of people.
Like a poisoned dart, they pierce the pure mind,
Misleading people to danger and sin.
Pleasures of the senses are frightful,
Like a snake’s head about to sting.

Those ignorant people,
Who unable to cross the mire of desire,
Wallow in the pleasures of the senses.
They see no end in birth and death,
In the vast sea of existence.
Thus craving brings forth,
Rebirth in sorrowful conditions.
Their feed are as if bound
Forever in the ocean of samsaric existence.

Greed and desire create foes,
Enticing followers to danger.
Repenting their folly,
They face endless sorrows.
Partaking of sugar-coated poisoned food,
They are happy, singing at first.
As the poison works, it brings much torment.
Suffering and disaster follow in its wake.

Therefore, dear friends and relations,
For these reasons, I do not accept
Your ideas of happiness dependent on wealth.
I have found happiness in being a nun.
Never will I accept home life again!
Even as the Noble Ones,
Who followed the Noble Eightfold Path,
Were able to cross the fearful ocean of samsara,
I shall certainly follow their steps,
To gain the bliss of nibbana.

The friends and relations who listened never tempted her again. Most of them realised the truth of her words, and were happy when they listened to her.

Meditating on peace, Subha was able to attain her goal of attaining full liberation on the eighth day after her ordination. One day, as the enlightened nun was enjoying the bliss of meditation, Lord Buddha pointed her out to the nuns who came to worship him, saying: “Nuns! Look at the nun Subha! She has been well-trained by Theri Uppalavanna. Full of faith, she has maintained mindfulness and restrained her senses. By earnest endeavour, she has gained deliverance from the bonds. Her practice has culminated in the full attainment of Arahantship. She has reached the Three Higher Knowledges. It is only eight days since she received ordination. She is indeed a credit to the Order of Nuns!” When Sakra, the king of the gods, overheard the Lord’s words, he came with his retinue of heavenly beings and worshipped the enlightened nun Subha.