(image via Wix from Unsplash)
Dhammadinna, known as The Widow was an ordained woman whose story and enlightenment poem found their way into the Therigatha - the Verses of the Elder Nuns, so we know some of her story. She lived at the time of the Buddha, and as you will see, lived amongst the women and nuns that might have included, Maha Pajapati - (the Buddha’s Aunt and step-mother), Yasodhara, (Siddhartha’s Gautama’s wife), Sundari Nanda, (King Suddodhanna and Pajapati’s daughter), and Patacara.
Dhammadinna’s story is unique, and yet so similar at the same time. You will hear facets of her story that rang true for many women of that time, and still others that ring true today. As you read the story, pay attention to what sticks out for you. What can you relate to? What facets of this story ring true for you? What do you still grapple with in practice today?
Once upon a time, Dhammadinna was born in Rajagaha (present-day Rajir, located just south and east of Nepal). She was born to a well-respected family, and as she became of age her father arranged a marriage for her to a civil engineer named Visakha.
The wedding was done according to the customs of that culture at that time. Many of these wedding traditions still exist in India today. On the wedding day, Visakha was rubbed with oils and wrapped in brocade cloth, and he was led to Dhammadinna’s home. There, her father might have offered him a drink made from fruit, honey, rice, and herbs. Finally, he was led to his bride. She sat hidden behind a curtain in a big pavilion in the center of the courtyard.
The priests chanted mantras and spells. Visakha, without having seen his bride, promised to be faithful to her. Only then were they allowed to look at each other for the first time. They held hands and stood together, Visakha probably tied a corner of his robe to a corner of hers, signifying they were one, and they walked around the fire three times.
The stories say they lived happily together for many years. They built a relationship of trust, friendship, and love. This they did, little by little, year by year, growing together and working together in their home. They lived a peaceful and contented life.
Vishakha made a good living building roads and canals. Dhammadinna managed the household and enjoyed doing so. Every day when he came home, Visakha saw her in the window and smiled. They were happy and that was what mattered.
One day, the Buddha came near their town to speak and Visakha went to hear him. As he listened to him talk, everything changed forever. Visakha was converted by what he heard. When he came home, he did not smile. He was very serious. He told Dhammadinna he was leaving to follow the Buddha and become a monk. He told her his plan was to leave the house forever. As you might imagine, Dhammadinna was devastated. She not only loved her life with her husband but was totally dependent on him, for her clothes, her food, and the care and upkeep of her home. Her entire life was irrevocably changed in an instant.
When she asked him what she was supposed to do, his answer was to tell her to do what she wanted! He told her she could continue to live in their home and enjoy their wealth or return to her family. Visakha might have felt like he was being generous at that moment. After all, Dhammadinna had not asked for this! Or, maybe he just wanted a quick and easy way out so he could get on with his new life.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Visakha was thinking. His answer, his solution to Dhammadinna’s precise, and very fair question, “What about me?” might have worked - for him! It let Visakha off the hook, but left his wife legally a widow without children. At that time in that culture, a widow could not remarry. She couldn’t attend festivities or ceremonies. She couldn’t wear makeup or jewelry. She was supposed to sleep on the ground, eat one meatless meal a day, eat nothing sweet, and drink no wine. Widows were on the margins of a society where she would be treated like cast off. Yet she would face close scrutiny to make sure she was acting like a widow. She would have no life at all. At least the ordained enjoyed a kind of freedom and were respected. Dhammadinna made the only decision she could make on her own. She made the decision to follow him into monastic life.
And so, she went to live with the Bhikkhunis (the nuns). After she was ordained, she asked to go into solitary practice. To her, her life was over. Going into the forest was her funeral pyre. She entered the forest. She slept on the ground and stayed in the shade during the extremely hot and humid days. She went to the river alone to wash and drink. She went into the villages to beg and saw the gurus on the outskirts of those villages promising heavenly rebirth. She watched the ascetics, practicing stringently in the forest, standing for days on one foot or walking naked in the rain. Dhammadinna couldn’t see how this brought peace to anyone. Dhammadinna kept to herself, living in the forest. Somehow she was able to avoid tiger attacks and poisonous snakes and other predators. The sounds of the monkeys and birds calling and the breeze rustling through the leaves became her solace. The Banyan trees were her favorite. She admired their deep, widespread roots, and thick umbrella of shade. She took to those trees and made them her home. It was here that she was finally abv to surrender her ego. The “little self,” named Dhammadinna. It was then that she realized a new life. Her hurt and anger and grieving for Visakha and the life they had disappeared. Under a tree like all others, on a day like all others, she awakened. She was filled with peace and patience for all things. This is the poem she wrote:
She whose desire has finally come to rest,
Desire that once filled all of her,
She whose heart is not driven by desire anymore,
She shall be called Bound Upstream
Dhammadinna then returned to the nuns. She now felt at peace and was at home. She was able to live contentedly alongside the other nuns. It is said that Dhammadinna’s wisdom shone around her and was visible even in her speech.
One day, she found her way back to Rajagaha. She found a group of practitioners in the park, and started to join them, She turned around to find herself face to face with Visakha. They sat down together and began to talk. She found out that home leaving hadn’t suited him. He never became a monk. Visakha had returned to road building and had married and established another household. At hearing all this, she felt no resentment at all, for that Dhammadinna was gone.
Visakha was curious about her life and began to question her. She answered all of his questions patiently. Finally, she said to him, “You will always have questions. Why not ask the Buddha if you want to learn more?” Visakha listened to her advice and went to the Buddha. When he repeated all the questions and the answers Dhammadinna had given, the Buddha told Visakha, “I would have given you the same answers. She is very wise. You should listen to her.”
From that day Dhammadinna’s words were known as buddhavacana. “buddha words” and were recorded in their own section of the Majihima Nikaya or Middle Length Discourses, the Buddha called her a person of great insight and gave her permission to ordain. She became a teacher to many students and had many dharma heirs. For the rest of her life, which was long, she lived at Deer Park and walked among the Banyan trees.
Many themes run through this story. Themes of love, betrayal, and loss. Themes of struggle and redemption. There are themes of the rights of women and the cultural rules and traditions that limit their choices and potential. Perhaps most of all, is the theme of impermanence.
Dhammadinna, from the accounts given, lived a comfortable and enjoyable life. She and Visakha were happy. Then the unexpected happened and her world was turned upside down. Her choices, limited by the culture and the times, were two. Live as a widow, or join the nuns. Dhammadinna knew there was really no choice, and so one more time, she followed her husband into monastic life.
It seems she wrestled with her feelings for a time. She lived alone in self-imposed exile and hermithood to deal with her “self.” I can imagine the feelings: loss, grief, anger, rage, resentment, and an unlying fear.
It’s a lot like us, isn’t it? Something happens and our world is turned upside down. This kind of change happens to all of us - it’s inevitable. What is our reaction to the changes that come into our lives? When the rug is pulled out from under us, what do we do?
Our practice teaches us to do the opposite of what we want to do in the moment. It teaches us to stay. Instead of reaching for the remote, the refrigerator or the bottle or the joint, or the credit card, stay. Instead of yelling or throwing or hitting, stay.
Instead of picking up the phone, stay. Stay with the feelings. Let the tears flow, but stay. Let the anger. and resentment and fear be there but stay. And not to sound cliche, but stay and breathe. It’s scary at first because all we want to do is something else. If we can trust the Buddha, trust our ancestors and teachers, and just stay. Breathe, and be still with the feelings for a while, they lose their power over us. This process takes time, trust, and work. We start by staying. Even for just one minute, we start by breaking the cycle of our habitual running and numbing. We look to a teacher for guidance. We seek psychological therapy if we need it. We reach out and find a community of supportive people (a sangha). Little by little, like Dhammadinna, we crack our shells and the pieces fall away. Peace and wisdom remain.
Once again, I want to thank and give credit to Sallie Tisdale for telling Dhammadinna’s story in her book, Women Of The Way, Discovering 2,50 Years of Buddhist Women. I also want to give credit to Susan Murcott and her story of Dhammadinna found in, First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening.