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Great Teacher Sundari Nanda

Beautiful young Buddhist nun with shaved head in brown robes standing next to a tree.

Picture generated with AI by Ishy Comar

When Sundari Nanda was born to King Suddodhana and Mahapajapati, there must have been great rejoicing and some trepidation. Mahamaya, the king’s first wife, died seven days after giving birth to their son, Prince Siddhartha. Although heartbroken, the King had a second wife, Mahamaya’s sister Pajapati. Some years later when Pajapati became pregnant and gave birth, there was great joy and praying, hoping that this time mother and baby would survive. Fortunately, they did. King Suddodhana and Mahapajapati welcomed their daughter Sundari Nanda into the world, with elaborate celebrations. 

Sundari Nanda was raised as a princess, and treated with the utmost deference and respect. She had everything she ever wanted and two parents who loved and doted on her. She was known for being graceful, beautiful, and well-mannered. As she grew, she very much enjoyed the privileged life of her status. Then her half-brother Siddhartha left the palace in the middle of the night, became a wandering ascetic, and later The Enlightened One. Her life would change forever. 

Siddhartha, as the oldest, had been expected to take over as king when his father died. It had been prophesied as his destiny and was considered his birthright and responsibility. So when Siddhartha defied his father, tradition, and the royal interpretation of the Sage Asita’s words, it must have confounded his family and broken their hearts. 

Siddhartha wandered for five years as an ascetic before sitting under the fig tree for forty-nine days, experiencing an awakening and finding the answers to suffering and the end to suffering.

Sometime after his enlightenment, Siddhartha returned to his home at Kapilavastu.  It was seven years after his Enlightenment that the Buddha, at the request of his father, who missed him dearly, returned to his home city of Kapilavastu. His father was ill and aging. Siddhartha wanted to see him before he died. While visiting, he began talking to anyone who would listen about suffering and the way out of suffering, telling stories of all he had learned. It is said that his brother Nanda, his cousins, all of the men of the household, and many from Shakya followed him when he left. He was changing many lives, including Sundari’s, forever. 

When the king died, the women of the royal household; Mahapajapati, Sundari Nanda, the royal harem, and the female servants, were left in the palace, but without income and protection. There must have been wealth stored within the palace, but that wouldn’t last forever. The women in the surrounding village of Shakya were left with no sons or husbands as they too had followed Siddhartha. Culturally, this left the women unable to support or protect themselves. Some stories suggest that King Suddodhana had been something of a war-lord and the threat of the army had kept other leaders in check, never mind the local bandits. Grief-stricken, hungry, needy, and fearful, the women and children of Shakya stood outside the palace gates. What could Pajapati do? She let them in.

This had to be an unsettling time for Sundari Nanda. What had happened to the life she knew? Now there were so many women and children! So many mouths to feed! So many who needed her mother's attention! In addition, Sundari and the women must be more careful as they were now open to attack by neighboring kingdoms, who by now knew they were left alone and unable to defend themselves. 

A decision was made. Mahapajapati went to Siddhartha for refuge, as the representative of what was left of Shakya, but was turned away. This did not stop the women. Mahapajapati and 500 women shaved their heads, put on plain robes, and left to find Siddhartha. Sundari among them. She had no choice but to go with her mother, and her aunt Yoshadara (Siddhartha’s wife). I can relate to her here. As a teenager, I was forced to move away from my hometown, home state, all of my family and friends when my mother remarried. I did not go happily. I can imagine that this would have been true of Sundari Nanda too. She was going from the luxury of the palace to sleeping in the forest, in all kinds of weather, and with all the wild animals too. What was worse, the animals or the bandits? Where else did she have to go?

Most of us know the stories about how the women were admitted into the Buddha’s monastic community. It was largely due to Pajapati's persistence, and to Ananda, who pleaded the women’s case, that they were allowed to stay at all. Even when they were accepted, the Buddha (and the male sangha) made it difficult. The women were subjected to more rules than the men and it was harder for them to ordain. Still, they stayed. They worked hard. They practiced harder.  

All but Sundari.

The legend goes that Sundari was having none of this. She wanted her old life back. She rebelled against monastic life. She got others to do her chores. She refused to sit in meditation. She hated working to peel vegetables, knead bread, and cook meals. Sew robes? She had always had someone to do that for her! She was more interested in making friends than in doing what was asked of her. She felt out of place and at odds with herself. She wasn’t happy as a nun, and wanted to leave the new community, but where else could she go?

One day the Buddha said he wanted to speak to each of the nuns individually. Sundari, thinking she was in trouble, evaded the Buddha until the very last. He sent the other nuns for her. She couldn't be found. He sent attendants for her. Each returned empty-handed. In the end, he went and found her himself. Instead of lecturing or berating her, he told her all the good things about herself. He encouraged her and held her up. Then he spoke to her of impermanence and the way to end suffering in a way that spoke to her. She was changed in that moment and became enlightened not long after. Sundari was known throughout the community as being the foremost in meditation. She was compassionate and taught many women. She was remembered as a positive influence in her community. 

This story reminds me of how I felt, the rug taken out from beneath me when my mother announced that we were to move 350 miles, and forever away from our family, friends, and life we had. The feeling in our gut when life changes on a dime.  That’s impermanence.  I felt the same on the day my mother died. I felt similar when I was going through a divorce. We have two choices at these times: grasp, resist, rebel, and be miserable, or acknowledge, open, and move forward. Neither is easy.  

I can also relate to Mahapajapati as a mother of daughters. In her leaving her own home and comfort of Kapilavastu, she was taking Sundari and the other women and children to safety. Leaving something we love almost always has trade-offs. Change is about compromise. Children can not be expected to understand adult decisions. It’s our job as adults to be the adults and make the changes necessary for the health of the family. 

Sundari's story spoke to me about how we resist practice. We don’t like the self-discipline it takes. We know meditation practice can positively affect our lives.  We’re afraid of what will change. We see it as giving stuff up rather than fainting a more peaceful existence. When we can finally open ourselves, well, that is nirvana, isn’t it?

Finally, this story spoke to me as a Zen teacher and priest. Buddha met Sundari where she was. He encouraged her. He did no harm. These are the three tenets of teaching my current teacher has passed to me as well, and I practice to uphold them.

What did Sundari Nanda’s story say to you?

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Shinjin (Shuso)
Shinjin (Shuso)
3월 01일

Recalling that in Sunday's dharma talk you mentioned the way Buddha spoke to Sundari reminded you of Unbuntu.

Sundari Nanda's story reminds me to take the sacred pause when I'm feeling the resistence or noticing that someone else is.

And that kind words work wonders.

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