She was the daughter of a businessman from Savatthi (Shravasti). She was named Uppalavanna because her complexion was that of a blue lotus. She was so beautiful that when she came of age, powerful and wealthy suitors sent messengers to her father asking for her hand. Not wanting to displease so many people, he suggested that she become a bhikkhuni. She agreed and became a nun. She quickly progressed in meditation and became an Arahant (fully liberated).
Life as a nun
Buddha declared her to be the foremost in supernormal powers among the nuns.
Samyutta Nikaya V.5, the Uppalavanna Sutta, is attributed to her:
Then the bhikkhuni Uppalavanna, having understood, "This is Mara the Evil One," replied to him in verses:
Though a hundred thousand rogues
Just like you might come here,
I stir not a hair, I feel no terror;
Even alone, Mara, I don't fear you.
I can make myself disappear
Or I can enter inside your belly.
I can stand between your eyebrows
Yet you won't catch a glimpse of me.
I am the master of my own mind,
The bases of power are well developed;
I am freed from every kind of bondage,
Therefore I don't fear you, friend.
Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, "The bhikkhuni Uppalavanna knows me," sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.
Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna Theri
Like the story of Khema Theri the First Chief Female Disciple, Uppalavanna was born in Savatthi to a prosperous banker and his wife. They named her "Uppalavanna" because the colour of her skin resembles the hue of the blue lotus flower. Upon her becoming of age, her father received many marriage proposals from suitors both rich and poor, from all over the land. He was at a loss of what to do and to choose a suitable husband to wed his only beautiful daughter. Not wishing to offend any suitors or their families, he continued to procrastinate. Finding no solution to the problem, he then called his daughter to him and explained his dilemma to her. He further asked her if she would be willing to forsake marriage and be ordained as a Bhikkhuni.
Uppalavanna was destined to achieve Arahantship in this life, so she readily agreed to renounce the world. One day it was her turn to sweep the Uposattha hall. She took a lamp there and set about doing her task. When she had finished her work, she sat down to meditate. Fixing her eyes on the lamp, she took the flame as an object for the fire kasina meditation. She kept up her vigil on this exercise until she attained all the jhanas and then went on to attain Arahantship.
With this attainment also came the profound knowledge of the Dhamma, the powers of intuition as well as the great psychic powers. Soon after, the Buddha appointed her His Second Chief Female Disciple, declaring her to be foremost in these powers, among the Bhikkhunis.
There were also some episodes in her life to promote a better understanding on the dangers of sensual desire. In this connection, she used to recite a verse whereby the mother and her daughter, who loved the same man, treated each other as rival enemies, vying for the love of that man. This composition of verses reminded people about the dangers of craving for sensual pleasures.
In another incident Uppalavanna was dwelling alone in the forest hut. The childhood infatuated cousin hid inside her hut and waited for her to return at dusk. He then raped her while she was sleeping and ran out of the forest to escape. His mortal sin however only allowed him just a few steps from the hut before he was swallowed up by a fierce flame that shot up from the bowels of the earth. He was wrapped up by the flame and sucked into Avici Hell.
Mara in a separate incident, tried to tempt and seduce Uppalavanna Theri but was thoroughly rebuked and sent packing back empty handed, dejected and disappointed. Arahant Uppalavanna Theri declared to Mara that since her mind was pure, having self-control, possessing the six higher knowledges and had abandoned all craving for sense pleasures, she could no longer be enticed by sensuality earthly or divine.
The Buddha said that if anyone were to look up to someone as an exemplar of holy life, they should regard Theri Khema and Theri Uppalavanna as such.
Uppalavanna was the unusually beautiful daughter of a rich merchant. Her skin was the blue- black colour and texture of the calyx of the blue lotus. Because of the unusually beautiful colour of her complexion, her parents named her Uppalavanna or ‘one with the hue of the blue lotus’. When she came of age her parents had her married to a young merchant from a wealthy family. As was the custom at the time, she moved to her husband’s home in Savatthi.
Uppalavanna lived happily with her in-laws until her husband had to travel to Rajagaha for business. Neither Uppalavanna nor her husband were aware that she was with child when he left. When her pregnancy became noticeable, her mother-in-law accused her of misconduct. Despite her pleas of innocence, Uppalavanna was cast out of her home by her mother-in-law who now despised her. Uppalavanna, who had not done any wrong, decided that she would go to Rajagaha in search of her husband.
The journey was long and difficult. Accepting the hospitality of strangers who felt compassion for the beautiful woman who was heavy with child, she walked slowly from city to city until her labour pains started. Resting in a hut on the way-side she delivered a baby son. Tired and weak, Uppalavanna wrapped the new-born in her robe and rested. Then, leaving the baby in the hut, she walked to the river close by to wash.
A stranger who was passing by heard the faint cry of her baby. Seeing the little baby with no parents in sight, he decided to adopt the child. When Uppalavanna came back to the hut she was devastated. Weeping in sorrow she ran about looking for her child, but was unable to find her baby son.
Uppalavanna was desolated. She knew that she could no longer go to her husband. He would surely kill her if he found out that she had lost his son. A first-born son was the head of the family who carried on the lineage. In the male-dominant society of India this was a very precious child and his birth a celebrated event. Uppalavanna knew that she had no hope of being forgiven for her carelessness. Having no place to go, she decided to go home to her parents. She was walking through a thick jungle when a robber who was hiding out in the jungle caught sight of her. Attracted by her unusual beauty, he decided to take her as his wife. The desperate Uppalavanna agreed.
Before long she conceived again and gave birth to a baby girl. Her life, however, was not a happy, comfortable one. Her husband was often violently angry with her. He continually reminded her of her past and his gracious hospitality towards her in taking her as his wife. After one such long and furious argument he stormed off in anger. Uppalavanna, who was furious with her husband, jumped up and threw her baby daughter who was resting on her lap on to the bed. The baby flew off the bed, on to the floor and cut her head. Blood gushed from the wound as the baby lay unconscious. Uppalavanna was sure that she had accidentally killed her daughter. She knew that her husband would never believe her. She feared for her life for she knew the wrath of her robber husband. She decided to run away again.
Earning her keep by performing menial jobs the beautiful Uppalavanna scraped a living. Her former wealth and beauty were of no use to her. She was a fallen woman, ashamed to go back to her parents and afraid to go back to her husband. She lived thus for many years in great poverty. One day as she was gathering firewood a handsome youth saw her. Attracted by the older woman’s beauty he decided to take her as his wife. Uppalavanna, who was tired of her insecure life, agreed.
Uppalavanna and her husband lived together in harmony for some time. Then one day he had to leave on business. When he came back he brought with him a second wife – a very beautiful woman who was in the flush of youth. Uppalavanna accepted the younger woman reluctantly. Men often had their way with women and having more than one wife was a common occurrence. The two women formed a shaky friendship. Uppalavanna was grooming the younger wife’s hair one day when she noticed a large, jagged scar on her head. The young woman then informed her that she was the daughter of a robber and that she had injured her head when her mother had fought with her father. Uppalavanna was horrified. This was her own daughter whom she had left for dead many years ago. The thought that she and her daughter had shared a man sickened her. Unable to bear the shame of her degrading life she went to the Buddha for solace and comfort. Uppalavanna then decided to join the Noble Order of Nuns.
Soon afterwards it was her turn to unlock and clean the assembly hall. After she had lighted the lamp and swept the hall the flame of the lamp attracted her. Concentrating on the element of fire, she went into deep meditation and attained Arahanthship together with the analytical knowledge.
Because of her comprehensive supernormal powers Uppalavanna was declared by the Buddha to be foremost in supernormal powers among His nuns. She was also His second chief female disciple. Together with Khema she helped the Buddha with the teaching and administration of His growing congregation of nuns. Uppalavanna, who had suffered greatly in her youth because of society’s treatment of women, helped other young women attain freedom from suffering. Her experience of the unique suffering faced by women made it easy for her to empathise with others in similar situations.
To understand Uppalavanna’s quick attainment of enlightenment we need to go back many aeons to the time of the Buddha Padumuttara. At the time of the Buddha Padumuttara, Uppalavanna was born to a wealthy family in the City of Hannsavati. She had seen the Padumuttara Buddha appoint another nun foremost in supernormal powers and appoint her as His second female disciple. Inspired by the nun, Uppalavanna had provided meals and the requisites to the Buddha and His retinue for seven days. She had then made the aspiration to be the second chief disciple of a Buddha. The Buddha Padumuttara, seeing that Uppalavanna would fulfill her aspiration, prophesied that under the Buddha Gotama she would be the second chief female disciple and foremost in supernormal powers. From this time onward Uppalavanna had performed meritorious deeds earnestly and worked towards her aspiration.
The text documents some of Uppalavanna’s past births. At the time of the Kassapa Buddha, the Buddha who preceded our Gotama Buddha, Uppalavanna was born to the royal family in the city of Benares as the daughter of King Kiki. She had been a devoted follower of the Buddha and had performed many meritorious deeds, including the building of a beautiful monastery for the Buddha. At death she was reborn in a divine realm and enjoyed heavenly bliss for a long time.
Her next documented birth is as a poor woman. Between the time of the Supreme Buddha Kassapa and the Supreme Buddha Gotama there had appeared on earth many Pacceka Buddhas. A Pacceka Buddha who had been in deep meditation for seven days in the Gandhamadana Mountain had descended from the mountain in search of alms. At that time Uppalavanna had just picked some blue lotus flowers and rice which she had then made into popped rice. On seeing the Pacceka Buddha she had offered Him the popped rice and the beautiful blue lotus flowers that she had just picked. Then, full of joy, she had aspired to be as beautiful as the blue lotus. Accepting the meal and the flowers, the Pacceka Buddha had returned to the mountaintop, using astral travel. At death Uppalavanna was reborn in a heavenly realm where she enjoyed heavenly bliss for a long time.
She then passed away from the heavenly realm and was born again in the human realm. No record exists of her parents or her birth. The text documents that a hermit who lived in the forest near a lake where blue lotus flowers grew had found the beautiful baby by the side of the lake, beside the flowers. The baby, who was very beautiful with skin the colour of a blue lotus, was named Uppalavanna by the hermit. He then decided to adopt the helpless infant. Uppalavanna grew up to be exceedingly beautiful and resembled a celestial nymph. She led a sheltered life alone in the forest with the hermit.
One day, a traveller who was passing through the forest saw the unusually beautiful girl and inquired from the hermit as to her origin. When the hermit explained that she was an orphan and that he had brought her up as his own child he went back and informed the king of the exceptionally beautiful maiden who lived in the forest. The King decided to make her his consort. Together with his courtiers, he visited the hermit and asked Uppalavanna to be his queen. She agreed. Leaving the forest, she moved into the palace and soon became his favourite queen.
The next documented birth is when Uppalavanna was reborn in Rajagaha as the wife of a farmer. At this time eight Pacceka Buddhas had appeared in the world and Uppalavanna had the good fortune to offer them alms. She had prepared a meal of fragrant rice and was taking it to her husband who was tilling the land when she saw the eight Buddhas seeking alms. She had immediately given the Buddhas the meal that she had prepared for her husband, and invited them to her home for their meal on the following day. She had then prepared fragrant food and picked eight bunches of blue lotus flowers, which she had offered to the Buddhas after the meal. For the second time, she aspired to be as beautiful as the blue lotus.
The next documented birth was in Savatthi at the time of our Gotama Buddha. The aspiration made at the time of the Padumuttara Buddha was to bear fruit. Her degrading life was too much to bear. Sharing her husband with her daughter weighed heavily on her mind. She decided to join the order of nuns under the Buddha. Even though the text documents two instances of Uppalavanna’s aspiration to be as beautiful as the blue lotus it is most likely that she also renewed her original aspiration to be foremost in supernatural powers and the second chief disciple of the Buddha. Fulfilment of such an aspiration requires great effort and many meritorious deeds.
It is likely that her unusual colouring and exotic beauty attracted more attention, which resulted in the preservation of this section of the text. The fact that Uppalavanna immediately agreed to be a nun under the Buddha Gotama and that she attained Arahanthship shortly thereafter, indicates that there must have been many other instances when she had developed wisdom and spiritual insight and renewed her aspiration after performing meritorious deeds. These, however, were not available in my research.
At that time it was common for nuns, as it was for monks, to retreat into the forest to meditate. Uppalavanna returned from her alms round and entered her hut in the Dark Forest. Unknown to her, a former admirer named ananda, who was in love with her, had entered her hut and hidden under her bed. Shortly after she had laid down to rest, catching her by surprise, he climbed on top of her and overpowered her. Despite her pleas and protest, he abused her and had his way. He then left, slinking out unseen as he had come in.
The evil of abusing an Arahanth, however, was too powerful. Tormented by his evil deed, ananda died burning in the fires of his desire and was reborn in the Avichi Hell.
Uppalavanna composed herself and informed the nuns of her ordeal. The nuns in turn informed the Blessed One. The Buddha’s worst fears for His Order of Nuns had come to pass. Uppalavanna, His chief disciple, had been overpowered, abused, and treated with disrespect. Approaching King Pasenadi Kosala, the Buddha requested that he build a residence for the nuns within the confines of the City. He then made it a monastic rule that nuns should not meditate and reside alone in the forest. From this time onwards nuns resided only within the city.
Sometime later the monks assembled in the Dhamma hall and began to discuss this incident. There arose a debate as to the needs of Arahanths to gratify their passions. The Buddha then cleared up their doubts by informing them that the desire between a man and woman is quenched in those who have attained Arahanthship and described an Arahanth (Brahmin) thus:
"One, who like water on a lotus leaf
Or mustard seed on a needle point,
Clings not to pleasures sensual –
That one I call a Brahmin (Arahanth)."
Uppalavanna explains her suffering and final attainment of release as follows:
"Both of us, mother and daughter
Of me there was religious excitement
Amazing hair raising.
Woe upon sensual pleasures
Impure, evil-smelling, with many troubles
Mother and daughter were co-wives.
Having seen the peril in sensual pleasures
And (seeing) renunciation as firm security,
I went forth at Rajagaha from the house
To the homeless state.
I know that I have lived before
The divine-eye has been purified
And there is knowledge of the state of mind
The ear-element has been purified
Supernormal powers too have been realized by me
I have attained the anhiliation of craving
(These) six supernormal powers have been realized by me
The Buddha’s teaching has been done.
Having fashioned a four-horse chariot by supernormal powers
Having paid homage to the Buddha’s feet
The glorious protector of the world
I stood on one side."
-- (Therigatha 224-229)
Uppalavanna was often desired by many admirers because of her extraordinary beauty. The fact that she was a member of the Buddha’s Holy Order did not deter them. The following verses illustrate the insistence of an admirer and Uppalavanna’s response.
"You who are so beautiful
Seated beneath a sal tree with blossoms crowned
So aware of your own loneliness
Do you not tremble when seducers come along?"
"Though men like you, seducers
A hundred thousand should approach
No single hair of mine will turn
Nor will I quake with fear
And so, tempter, coming alone
Of what effect are you?
I who possess supernormal powers
Can make my form disappear
Between your eyebrows or your belly
I could lodge and stay
How then, Mara, can you see me?
My mind I have so disciplined
Clairvoyance, I have cultivated
The fourfold path I have realized
I know the Buddha’s words and ardently I follow.
Lusts as deadly weapons, rend and tear apart
These our bodies, heirs of senses
Desires of which you speak
Lack all desire for me.
I have conquered all desire
And rent apart
The murky gloom of ignorance
Know, tempter, I have triumphed over you."
-- (Therigatha 230-235)
The exotic Uppalavanna, who could relate to the unique suffering that women faced, was a great asset to the Buddha. Using her supernormal powers and her gentle pleasing nature, she helped many thousands of women in their emancipation. Many, drawn by her beauty, compassion and gentleness, emulated the great Arahanth and attained their own enlightenment.