Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a very wealthy merchant of Savatthi. When she was sixteen years old, her parents put her in a seven-story high tower on the top floor surrounded by guards to prevent her from keeping company with any young man. In spite of this precaution, she became involved in a love affair with a servant in her parents' house.
When her parents arranged a marriage for her with a young man of equal social standing, she decided to elope with her lover. She escaped from the tower by disguising herself, and the young couple went to live in a village far away from Savatthi. The husband farmed, and the young wife had to do all the menial chores which formerly had been performed by her parents' servants. Thus she reaped the results of her deed.
When she became pregnant, she begged her husband to take her to her parents' house to give birth there, saying to him that father and mother always have a soft spot in their hearts for their child, no matter what has happened. However, her husband refused on the grounds that her parents would surely subject him to torture or imprisonment. When she realized that he would not give in to her pleas, she decided to make her way to her parents by herself. When the husband found her gone and was told by the neighbors of her decision, he followed her and tried to persuade her to return. However she would not listen to him.
Before they could reach Savatthi, the birth-pains started, and soon a baby son was born. As there was no more reason to go to her parents' house, they turned back and resumed their family life in the village.
Sometime later she became pregnant again. And again she requested her husband to take her home to her parents. Again he refused and she took matters in her own hands and started off, carrying the older child. When her husband followed her and pleaded with her to return with him, she would not listen, but continued on her way. A fearful storm arose, quite out of season, with thunder and lightning and incessant rain. Just then her birth-pains started, and she asked her husband to find her some shelter.
The husband went searching for material for a shelter and set about to chop down some saplings. A poisonous snake bit him at that moment and he fell dead instantly. Patacara waited for him in vain and after having suffered birth pains, a second son was born to her. Both children screamed at the top of their lungs because of the buffeting of the storm, so the mother protected them with her own body all night long. In the morning she placed the new-born baby on her hip, gave a finger to the older child and set out upon the path her husband had taken with the words: "Come, dear child, your father has left us." After a few steps she found her husband lying dead, his body rigid. She wailed and lamented and blamed herself for his death.
She continued on her journey to her parents' house but when she came to the river Aciravati, it was swollen waist-deep on account of the rain. She was too weak to wade across with both children, so she left the older child on the near bank and carried the baby across to the other side. Then she returned to take the first-born across. When she was mid-stream, an eagle saw the new born baby and mistook it for a piece of meat. It came swooping down and in spite of Patacara's cries and screams, flew off with the baby in its talons.
The older boy saw his mother stop in the middle of the river and heard her loud yells. He thought she was calling him and started out after her. Immediately, he was swept off by the strong current.
Wailing and lamenting Patacara went on her way, half-crazed by the triple tragedy that had befallen her, losing husband and both sons within one day. As she came nearer to Savatthi, she met a traveler who was just coming from the city. She inquired about her family from him but at first he refused to answer her. When she insisted, he finally bad to tell her that her parents, house had collapsed in the storm, killing both of them as well as her brother, and that the cremation was just taking place.
When she heard that, her reason left her, because her grief was too much to bear. She tore off her clothes, wandered around weeping and wailing, not knowing what she was doing or where she was going. People pelted her with stones and rubbish and chased her out of the way.
At that time the Buddha was staying at the Jeta Grove, Anathapindika's Monastery. He saw Patacara approaching from afar and recognized that in a past life she had made an earnest resolve to become a nun well versed in the Law. Therefore, he instructed his disciples not to obstruct her, but to let her enter and come near him. As soon as she was close to the Buddha, through his supernatural powers, she regained her right mind. Then she also became aware of being naked and in her shame she crouched upon the ground.
One of the lay-followers threw her a cloak and after she had wrapped herself in it, she prostrated at the feet of the Buddha. Then she recounted to him the tragedy that had befallen her.
The Teacher listened to her with compassion and then made it clear to her that these painful experiences she had gone through were only tiny drops in the ocean of impermanence in which all beings drown if they are attached to that which rises and ceases. He told her that all through many existences, she had wept more tears over the loss of dear ones than could be contained in the waters of the four oceans. He said:
But little water do the oceans four contain,
Compared with all the tears that man hath shed,
By sorrow smitten and by suffering distraught.
Woman, why heedless dost thou still remain?
This exposition of the Awakened One penetrated her mind so deeply that at that moment she could completely grasp the impermanence of all conditioned things.
When the Enlightened One had finished his teaching she had attained the certainty of future liberation by becoming a stream-winner. She practiced diligently and soon realized final deliverance. She said:
With plows the fields are plowed;
With seed the earth is sown;
Thus wives and children feed;
So young men win their wealth.
Then why do I, of virtue pure,
Doing the Master's Teaching,
Not lazy nor proud,
Nirvana not attain?
Having washed my feet,
Then I watched that water,
Noticing the foot-water
Flowing from high to low.
With that the mind was calmed
Just as a noble, thoroughbred horse.
Having taken my lamp,
I went into my hut,
Inspected the sleeping-place,
Then sat upon the couch.
Having taken a pin,
I pushed the wick right down, and
Just as the lamp went out,
So all delusion of the heart went too.
It had been enough for her to see the water trickle down the slope, to recognize the whole of existence, each life a longer or shorter trickle in the flood of craving. There were those that lived a short time like her children, those â€” like her husband â€” who lived a little longer, or her parents who lived longer yet. But all passed by a constant change, in a never-ending rising and ceasing. This thought-process gave her so much detachment, that she attained to total emancipation the following night.
The Buddha said about Patacara, that she was the foremost "Keeper of the Vinaya" amongst the Nuns. Patacara was thereby the female counterpart of the monk Upali. That she had chosen the "Rules of Conduct" as her central discipline is easy to understand, because the results of her former indulgences had become bitterly obvious to her.
She learned in the Sangha, that an intensive study of the rules was necessary and purifying, and brought with it the security and safety of self-discipline; she learned not to become complacent through well-being or anxious and confused through suffering. Because of her own experiences she had gained a deep understanding for the human predicament and could be of great assistance to her fellow nuns.
She was a great comfort to those who came to her in difficulties. The nun Canda said that Patacara showed her the right path out of compassion and helped her to achieve emancipation.
Another nun, Uttara II, reported how Patacara spoke to the group of nuns about conduct and discipline:
Having established mind,
As other, not as self.
Uttara took Patacara's words to heart and said:
When I heard these words, â€”
After washing my feet â€”
I sat down alone.
Thereby this nun, too, was able to attain to the three "True Knowledges" (vijja) and final liberation. In the "Verses of the Elder Nuns" we have a record of Patacara's instructions to the nuns and their resultant gains:
Having taken flails,
Young men thresh the corn.
Thus wives and children feed;
So young men win their wealth.
So likewise as to Buddha's Teachings,
From doing which there's no remorse.
Quickly cleanse your feet
And sit you down alone.
Devote yourselves to calm of mind,
And thus do Buddha's Teachings.
When they heard these words â€”
Having washed their feet,
They sat down, each one alone,
Devoted themselves to calm of mind.
And thus followed the Buddha's Teachings.
In the night's first watch [*]
Past births were remembered;
In the middle watch of the night
The eye divine was purified;
In the night's last watch
They rent asunder the mass of gloom.
Having risen, they bowed at her feet,
Her instructions having done;
We shall live revering you
Like the thirty gods to Indra,
Undefeated in war.
We are with triple knowledge true
And gone are all the taints.
* [First watch of the night: 6-10 p.m; Middle watch: 10 p.m.-2 a.m.; Last watch: 2-6 a.m.]
Patacara was able to effect the change from a frivolous young girl to a Sangha Elder so quickly, because from previous births she had already possessed this faculty. During the previous Buddha's existence, it is said that she had been a nun and had lived the holy life for many, many years. The insights gained thereby had been hidden through her actions in subsequent lives. But when the next Buddha appeared in the world, she quickly found her way to him, the reason unbeknown to herself, spurred on by her suffering. Relentlessly attracted to the Awakened One and his doctrine, she entered into the homeless life and soon attained to eternal freedom.
Â© 1982 Buddhist Publication Society. Â© 1994 Access to Insight edition.Courtesy of Hellmuth Hecker, the author, and Sister Khema who translated from German. For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. It is the author's wish, however, that any such republication and redistribution be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and that translations and other derivative works be clearly marked as such.