Khema, the arhat, the teacher, the nun, and the consort to the King

Khema was another nun of the Therigatha. She was mentioned in the texts as becoming an arhat immediately; at the time the Buddha showed her the inevitable demise of her beauty. In doing so, she surpasses many male disciples.
Little backstory is given in the texts about her history, as is true for many of the women around the Buddha that are mentioned from time and again. She comes into light already as a beautiful Courtesan to King Bimbasara, the King of the mahapada (kingdom) of Magadha. The largest city in that mahapada.

What happens is that one-day, she is coerced to come and dance for the Buddha. She is a skilled and talented dancer, a quality of many courtesans at the time. In the garden, where she meets him, she has an awakening. The Buddha has tricked her. He has created a fabrication of a women that is much more beautiful than she. Given that Khema has never seen a woman so beautiful she is taken back. Then, before her eyes the beautiful sight is transformed. She begins to age, and her beauty then falls away. She becomes hollow, a shell of her former self. Khema watches this in shock. It’s this moment where she had as complete realization. What is written in the texts is that she became an arhat. She spontaneously had a revelation and was enlightened.

This story leaves out some details about Khema that happened before her. One is that she becomes instantly enlightened, but this tells us little about her before hand. How did this awakening actually come about? In the later Mahayana sutras, we find out that this was not her first rodeo. She, like the Buddha and other ahrats and other lifetimes. In this lifetime the causes and conditions were ripe for her realization in this one.

But what was it that she saw? Impermanence. No-self. True awareness. It was the perfect storm of her own merit and what she needed to become awake.
Khema earned the title of one of the first awakened disciples of the Buddha. She became a leader among the theri, a teacher, a mentor and skilled adept.

Many of these women in the earliest days of Buddhism had similar stories. So why did the Buddha decree that by his letting women to enter into the sangha, increases the likelihood of demise of Buddhism to 500 years? Why even suggest that knowing what tremendous spiritual feats these women are capable of? Many scholars think the answer to this contradiction lay in the time it took to codify the stories of the Pali Cannon (over 100 years after the Buddha’s death) and the political atmosphere at the time. Perhaps at the time, there was a reason for blaming or even pushing women out of their place among the sangha.

 

 

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