The 7th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Vesākha is the second month of the Buddhist calendar, Vesak being the Sinhalese pronunciation.According to Theravāda tradition, Siddhattha Gotama was born, became enlightened and passed away on the full moon eve of the month of Vesākha, although this is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipiṭaka. According to the scriptures, while the Buddha was staying at Vesāli he said that he would pass away in three months time (ito tiṇṇaṃ māsānaṃ, D.II,114). As he did not leave Vesāli until the end of the rainy season (mid-October), he would have passed away no later than mid-January.
When the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsiang was in India during the 7th century, he found that while most Buddhists celebrated the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing on Vesākha, some sects did so at other times. He wrote: ‘According to the general tradition, the Tathāgata was 80 when, on the 15th day of the second half of the month of Vesākha, he attained final Nirvāṇa .... But the Sarvāstivādins say he died on the 8th day of the second half of the month of Kattika .... The Bodhisattva was born on the 8th day of the second half of the month of Vesākha .... But the Sāvaka school say that it was the 15th day of the second half of Vesākha.’
In Theravādin Buddhist countries, Vesākha is a public holiday and on that day people flock to temples to hear sermons, practise meditation and honour the Buddha with various ceremonies. See Kusinārā and Travels.
In the City of Bhaddiya, in the kingdom of Magadha, there lived an extremely rich merchant named Mendaka. In a previous birth, during the time of a famine, he and his family had given their last provisions to a Pacceka Buddha. Resulting from this heartfelt gift, Mendaka and his family, (whom kamma had brought together again) had provisions in their home which could not be exhausted despite the fact that they still continued to practise generosity to the extreme. His son, Dhananjaya, and daughter-in-law, Sumanadevi, had an exquisitely beautiful daughter named Visakha. They lived in extreme wealth and comfort and were well-known for their generosity, which they practised to all.
One day, when Visakha was seven years old, the Buddha visited Bhaddiya with a large retinue of monks. When Mendaka heard of the Buddha’s arrival he called his young granddaughter and instructed her to gather her maidservants and go out to greet the Buddha. Visakha did as she was told. She paid homage to the Buddha and prepared to listen to His teaching. The Buddha instructed Visakha on the Dhamma and established her and her entourage of 500 maidservants in the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. Mendaka, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and many other servants of the household who were present, also attained the first stage of sainthood.
The kingdom of Magadha was ruled by the righteous King Bimbisara. King Pasenadi Kosala, feeling that such a generous and well-respected family would be an asset to his kingdom, asked his friend, King Bimbisara, if Dhananjaya and his family would move to Kosala where they could be an example to his subjects. King Bimbisara complied with his friend’s request. Dhananjaya and his family moved to Kosala where they lived an exemplary life whilst practising the Dhamma. Visakha grew up in luxury with the opportunity to practise generosity and the Dhamma, to which she listened frequently.
At that time, there lived in Savatthi a rich merchant named Migara who had a son named Punnavaddhana. Despite his parents’ pleas, Punnavaddhana had refused to marry, insisting that his bride should be an exquisite beauty who possessed the five maidenly attributes: beauty of hair, teeth, skin, youth and form. Her hair had to be glossy and thick, reaching down to her ankles. Her teeth had to be white and even like a row of pearls. Her skin had to be of golden hue, soft and flawless. She had to be in the peak of youth, about sixteen. She had to have a beautiful, feminine figure, not too fat and not too thin. Migara, in desperation, sent a team of Brahmins to search throughout the kingdom for one who possessed all of his son’s requirements.
At this time, the exquisitely beautiful Visakha, accompanied by her maidservants, was on her way to the river to bathe when they were caught by an unexpected storm. The maids ran for shelter while Visakha walked calmly and gracefully to the shelter. Migara’s Brahmins, seeing the graceful Visakha, questioned her as to why she had not run to avoid getting wet. Visakha informed Migara’s men that it was not appropriate for a maiden in her fine clothes to run, just as it was not appropriate for a king in royal attire, a royal elephant dressed for the parade, or a serene monk in robes, to run. Pleased with her reply and her exquisite beauty they went back and informed Migara that a suitable bride had been found for Punnavaddhana.
Both families were happy with the arrangement. And so it was that Visakha, with great ceremony, was given in marriage by her father to Punnavaddhana. Her father, who was devoted to her, provided Visakha with many gifts and an exquisite jewelled headdress that reached all the way down her long hair to her feet, as a wedding gift. He also advised her on the appropriate conduct for a married woman. The advice he gave his daughter was as follows:
1. As long as you live with your in-laws you should not tell the faults of your husband and in-laws to outsiders.
2. If any of your neighbours speak ill of your husband or in-laws it should not be encouraged or repeated to them.
3. Lend money and articles to those who will return them.
4. Do not lend anything to those who will not return them.
5. When a relative or friend is in need you should help them without seeking repayment.
6. When you see your husband or in-laws approach you should stand up with respect.
7. You should not eat before your husband or in-laws.
8. You should not go to bed before your husband or in-laws.
9. You should regard your husband and your in-laws as a flame; carefully and with respect.
10. You should look up to and respect your husband and in-laws as divinities.
Whilst this advice that Dhananjaya gave to his daughter would not be acceptable to most modern women, it was what was expected of women at the time of the Buddha. Visakha, who abided by this advice and instruction, was considered a model wife.
As Visakha’s beauty and generosity were well-known many well-wishers came to honour the beautiful bride and shower her with gifts. With her love for generosity,Visakha distributed these gifts to the needy in Savatthi. So pleased were the people with her act that she soon became everybody’s favourite. As was the custom at that time, Visakha lived with her husband’s family.
Visakha’s father-in-law, Migara, was a devotee of a clan of naked ascetics. Even though the Buddha and His disciples lived in a monastery close to their home, they were not invited to Migara’s house. One day Migara invited the naked ascetics and asked Visakha to attend to their needs. Visakha was horrified at their lack of modesty and refused. This caused much anger among the naked ascetics who condemned Migara for bringing a female devotee of the Ascetic Gotama into his house.
Shortly after this incident, when Migara was eating rich rice pudding in a golden bowl, a Buddhist monk came for alms. Even though Migara could see the monk he ignored him and continued with his meal. Visakha, who was fanning her father-in-law, requested the monk to leave by saying, ?Pass on, Venerable Sir, my father-in-law eats stale food."
Migara, who ate rich, fresh food in a golden bowl, was furious at these words which he felt were an insult. He commanded Visakha to leave his house and go back to her parents. Instead, she called in an independent mediator to judge her conduct. She explained to the adviser that the rich food her father-in-law was eating were benefits resulting from his past good deeds. As such, instead of performing wholesome deeds which would ensure continued prosperity, he was "eating stale fare".
When Migara understood the meaning of Visakha’s words he asked her forgiveness. Visakha, however, decided that she no longer wished to live with her husband’s family. This was not the first time that she had been accused wrongfully by Migara. She decided to go back to her parents. Migara, who had finally realized the noble qualities of his daughter-in-law, was horrified. He begged her to remain. Visakha agreed to remain if she was allowed to invite the Buddha and His retinue to their home for meals. When Migara agreed, Visakha invited the Buddha and His retinue of monks for their meal and made arrangements for the preparation of rich food.
After the meal the Buddha dispensed the Dhamma. Migara and his wife, who were both spiritually developed as a result of past meritorious effort, both attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. After this, Migara, who was deeply grateful to Visakha, called her Migara Mata, or mother of Migara, and respected her as he would his own mother. He also became a devotee of the Buddha.
In great joy, Visakha continued to perform generosity to the Buddha and His retinue of monks. She had ten sons and ten daughters whom she brought up in the Dhamma. Being fond of beautiful clothes and ornaments, Visakha indulged herself, always dressing her best in exquisite garments. One day she accidentally left her priceless jewelled head-dress at the Jetavana, the monastery in which the Buddha was residing. Feeling that an item left in the monastery should not be taken back, she offered it to the Buddha. On being told that priceless treasures were of no value to His retinue of monks, Visakha offered the jewelled head-dress for sale with the idea of building monasteries and providing the requisites with the money generated. Unable to find a buyer who could afford the exquisite jewelled head-dress, she bought it herself and used the money to build the Pubbarama Monastery (also known as the Mansion of Migara’s Mother) to support the Buddha and His retinue of monks and nuns.
Visakha was overjoyed with her gift to the Buddha. On the day that she gifted the monastery to the Buddha, she sang songsof joy and walked around the Pubbarama together with her children and grandchildren. The Buddha informed the people that Visakha was singing songsof joy because she had just fulfilled an aspiration made many world cycles ago to be the chief female lay disciple of the Buddha.
The Buddha spent nine rainy seasons at the Pubbarama Monastery, during which time He dispensed many Suttas and helped many persons. On one occasion, He was residing at the Pubbarama when a disturbance attracted His attention. He saw a dishevelled Visakha in wet clothes running towards Him in tears. Visakha was bathing in the river when the news of the death of her favourite grandchild, Datta, reached her. Unable to control her grief, she ran to the Buddha for solace and comfort.
The Buddha questioned her as to the cause of Visakha’s grief and was told that it was because her beloved grandchild had died. She went on to explain how much happiness the child had brought her. The Buddha then asked her if she would be happy if she had as many grandchildren as there were citizens in Savatthi. Visakha confirmed that she would indeed be very happy as her grandchildren brought her untold happiness. The Buddha then asked Visakha how many of Savatthi’s citizens died each day. Visakha replied that many died each day. The Buddha then explained to her the impermanence of life. "Death," he said, ?comes to all living beings. Think then how unhappy you will be, for you will have so many more grandchildren, some of whom will die each day. Surely then you will be coming like this to me for comfort many, many more times."
Visakha reflected on the Buddha’s words and realized that the stronger her attachment, the greater would be her grief at separation. Understanding through realization that all component things are impermanent, she composed herself and left the Buddha. Visakha was able to understand this because she had reached the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna, at a young age after listening to the Buddha’s teaching.
Visakha also helped many noble ladies in the Dhamma. Once when she took a large gathering of ladies to hear the Dhamma she was horrified to see that they had consumed large quantities of intoxicants and behaved in an unladylike manner. She then asked the Buddha how humans had first become involved with intoxicants. The Buddha then dispensed the Kumbha Jataka, where a man had found fermented fruit and water in the crevice of a tree and started to consume the fermented liquid to obtain a false feeling of well-being.
The Buddha also helped Visakha on another occasion, when she was upset at some unfair taxes that had been levied upon her. Visakha had mailed a parcel to some relatives and the border guards had charged an unreasonably high levy on the goods. Visakha had complained to the king but, due to pressures of state affairs, he had ignored her complaint. Annoyed and angry, Visakha visited the Buddha for solace. The Buddha calmed her mind by saying:
"Painful is all subjection,
Blissful is complete control.
People are troubled by common concerns,
Hard to escape are the bonds."
These words of wisdom from the Buddha helped Visakha put this minor irritation in perspective. The Buddha’s advice is as valid today as it was 2,500 years ago. So strong are the bonds of craving and attachment that often we are angered and affected by small issues, quite a number of which are outside our control and trivial when compared to other issues of greater consequence that afflict mankind.
Visakha often questioned the Buddha on subjects that interested her, and the Anguttara Nikaya contains three suttas that the Buddha dispensed to her in answer to her questions. In one instance Visakha asked the Buddha what qualities in a woman would enable her to conquer this world and the next. The Buddha replied:
"She conquers this world by industry, care for her servants, love for her husband and by guarding his property. She conquers the other world by confidence, virtue, generosity and wisdom."
The Buddha also instructed Visakha on the appropriate way to observe the religious holidays (uposatha). Visakha had observed the religious holiday and come to Him for instruction on the best way to observe the holiday. After first informing her of the wrong ways of observing the holidays, the Buddha informed her of the correct way by saying that she should observe the eight precepts, reflect on the greatness and good qualities of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, reflect on the virtues of the Devas, and reflect on her own virtues. The Buddha then went on to describe the happy and carefree life of the Devas and concluded by saying, "Miserable is the glory of the humans compared to such heavenly bliss." The Buddha described the wonders of heavenly birth as He knew that Visakha, who was a Sotapanna, would at death enjoy such heavenly bliss.
One day when the Buddha was residing in the Pubbarama, Visakha approached the Buddha and asked for eight boons. The Buddha informed her that The Perfect One was beyond the practice of granting boons. She then informed Him that these boons would be of great benefit to the Sangha and that they were allowable boons. With the Buddha’s consent, Visakha asked the Buddha to be allowed to give the following gifts to the Order:
1. Robes for the rains, as monks trying to preserve their robes sometimes ran half-naked in the rains, which was not appropriate.
2. Food for arriving monks, as monks who had arrived in Savatthi after a long journey were tired and did not know the town. As such seeking alms would be difficult for them.
3. Food for monks setting out on a journey, so that they would be strong and well-fed for the journey ahead.
4. Medicine for sick monks, as sick monks were in pain and suffering.
5. Food for sick monks, as sick monks were not in a position to seek alms.
6. Food for monks tending the sick, as they often did not get food because they went on the alms round after tending the sick and were late for their alms round.
7. Regular distribution of rice gruel for the morning, as it was healthy and nourishing for the Sangha who do not partake in food after noon.
8. Bathing robes for nuns to bathe in the river, as nuns who did not have bathing robes often had to expose their bodies while bathing, which was not appropriate.
The Buddha then questioned Visakha on what inner benefits she expected from the giving of these gifts. Visakha replied that often the Sangha who have spent the rains at different locations come to the Buddha and ask Him about a monk (or nun) who has passed away and question Him as to the place of rebirth. The Blessed one will then explain his (or her) attainment and place of rebirth. I shall approach the monk and ask, ?Lord, did that Bhikkhu (Bhikkhuni) ever come to Savatthi? And if he answers yes, I shall conclude that surely a rains cloth will have been used by this Bhikkhu, or visitors’ food, or food for one going on a journey, or food for the sick, or food for those tending the sick, or rice gruel. And when I reflect thus, I shall be glad and happy. When my mind is happy my body will be tranquil. When my body is tranquil I shall feel pleasure. When I feel pleasure my mind will become concentrated. This will result in the development of the spiritual faculties and powers and the enlightenment faculties. This, Lord, is the benefit that I foresee for myself."
Praising Visakha for asking the eight boons, the Buddha granted her permission to give gifts to the Sangha as requested. The manner in which Visakha gives gifts is noteworthy. Not only is the intention intense but she holds the intensity during the time of preparation (before), during the time of giving and when reflecting on the gift (after) the act of generosity. This intense happiness or volition before, during, and after the act of generosity ensures maximum results. Giving with the intention of purifying oneself, developing one’s mind, and attaining Enlightenment is the proper way to give a gift and we should all learn from Visakha, the Buddha’s chief female lay benefactor, on the appropriate way to practise generosity.
Because of her generosity to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, the Buddha declared that Visakha was His chief female lay benefactor. In addition to providing the requisites to the Buddha and the Sangha, Visakha also helped with issues and disputes that arose among the nuns. She led a long and healthy life and passed away at the age of 120. Visakha, who possessed the five attributes of maidenly beauty, was said to have been exquisitely beautiful to the end, retaining her youthful form and beauty throughout her latter years.