As we continue our series of great women in Buddhist history, the story of Khema, a woman who lived during the time of the Buddha. Khema's journey is a testament to the transformative power of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, reflecting the essence of the teachings that resonate with us to this day.
Khema was born in the ancient city of Sagala. This city is now known as Sialkot and is located in what is now Pakistan's northern Punjab province, over 600 miles northeast from the Buddha’s birthplace in southern Nepal.
She was born into a noble family. Blessed with beauty and intelligence, Khema experienced the luxuries that accompanied her privileged upbringing. She became a person not unlike other women in her caste, busy at home, and concerned with her outer appearance and material things.
At a young age, Khema was married to King Bimbisara, ruler of the Magadha, and became his chief consort. The Head Wife. This made her even more concerned with her beauty, position, and material life.
I would imagine though, that beneath the surface of opulence, Khema was grappling with her own feelings of impermanence. She strove for beauty and to keep her outer appearance youthful because she knew that she would eventually be replaced by someone younger, and prettier than she.
The turning point in Khema's life occurred when she encountered the Buddha.
The Buddha made several trips to the Magadha royal court. When he stayed in Magadha, he spoke about how wealth and physical appearance didn’t matter. And Khema, finding these discourses irritating, had no time for that. She would avoid the Buddha and his talks if she could. But the wheel was beginning to turn…
Sometimes what we resist the most, is what we most need to hear.
As much as those talks got under her skin, she was curious. And those court poets! They had been writing songs about how lovely the hermitage was where the Buddha was staying. So the king arranged for a visit. The hermitage was indeed beautiful. Cool and shaded in the woods but surrounded by well-designed, magnificent gardens. Full of color and lush foliage. It was truly a respite from the busyness of the city and court life.
The Buddha was standing in the garden and as she went to him she noticed a beautiful woman - more beautiful than she, appear next to him. As the Buddha spoke to Khema and the king, Khema watched in amazement as the woman standing there changed from an exquisite beauty to the roundedness of middle age, to the wrinkled, sunkenness of an old woman, to her disappearance altogether. As she stood there, astounded, Khema felt the bottom drop out from under her. A seismic shift in her very being was happening.
All at once, she woke up to the Buddha’s teachings. She found solace and wisdom that transcended the confines of her material world. Inspired by a deep yearning for liberation, Khema approached the Buddha with heartfelt questions about the nature of suffering and the path to enlightenment. The Buddha, in his infinite compassion, responded to Khema's with timeless truths. He spoke of the impermanence of all things, the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, and the path leading to its cessation. Khema, absorbing the teachings with a receptive heart, embarked on a transformative journey that would define the course of her life.
Khema's spiritual awakening led her to make a life-altering decision—to renounce the material comforts and privileges that bound her to the material world. She asked King Bimbisara for permission to leave court life in order to follow the Buddha. The King, though reluctant, relented.
With a heart full of determination, she embraced the monastic life, knelt before the monks and nuns, and was given the robe and bowl of a bhikkhuni, or a female monk. This choice reflected her commitment to the path of liberation and her desire to break free from the shackles of desire and attachment.
The path Khema chose was not without its challenges. As a bhikkhuni, she confronted the same inner demons that plague all humans—greed, hate, and ignorance - The Three Poisons. Khema recognized the need to confront these obstacles head-on, with diligent practice in generosity, compassion, and wisdom.
We can imagine that in training and practice, Khema delved into the depths of her consciousness, unraveling the layers of conditioning and habitual patterns that obscured the clarity of her true nature. Khema's enlightenment came as she understood a profound realization of the ultimate truth of impermanence and interconnectedness. Her journey mirrored the Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, underscoring the universality and benefit of the Buddha Way.
Soon after, she became Pajatpati’s closest assistant in establishing the women’s order. Khema, whose life began as a king's wife, as someone obsessed with position, power, and beauty, was now able to see into emptiness and impermanence. She was given the right to ordain other women and preach to the community.
After her awakening and ordination, Khema dedicated herself to the welfare of others. With a heart filled with compassion, she traveled the villages and towns, sharing the teachings with all who were willing to listen. Khema embodied the essence of meeting people where they are, recognizing the diverse circumstances and struggles that each individual faced.
Khema's teachings resonated with the practicalities of everyday life. She offered guidance on cultivating mindfulness in the midst of challenges, finding peace amidst chaos, and embracing the impermanence that defines human existence. Khema's approach was rooted in empathy, understanding, and a genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of those she encountered. Khema became known as the wisest among women.
Khema's life can serve us today as an inspiration for people on the path of self-discovery. Her journey from privilege to renunciation, from inner turmoil to enlightenment, exemplifies the transformative power of Buddhist practice, wisdom, and compassion.