There was a housewife in Savatthi who had ten children. She was always occupied with giving birth, nursing, upbringing, educating and arranging marriages for her children. Her children were her whole life. She was therefore known as "Sona with many children."
She was rather like Migara's mother of the same city, though the latter had twenty children. We may find such an abundance of offspring in one family somewhat strange today. However, this was not uncommon in Asia and even in some parts of the West.
Sona's husband was a lay follower of the Buddha. After having practiced moral conduct according to the precepts for several years while living the household life, he decided that the time had come to enter into the holy life, and so he became a monk. It was not easy for Sona to accept this decision, yet she did not waste her time with regrets and sorrow, but decided to live a more religiously dedicated life. She called her ten children and their husbands and wives together, turned her considerable wealth over to them, and asked them only for support for her necessities. For a while all went well. She had sufficient support and could spend her time in religious activities.
But soon it happened that the old woman became a burden to her children and children-in-law. They had not been in agreement with their father's decision, and even less did they agree with their mother's devout attitude and religious speech. Indeed, they thought of their parents as foolish because they would not indulge in the pleasures their wealth could purchase. They considered their parents mentally unstable, religious fanatics; this attitude made them despise their mother.
They quickly forgot that they owed all their riches to their mother, that she had lavished many years of care and attention on them. Looking only at the present moment, they considered the old woman a nuisance. The words of the Buddha, that a grateful person is as rare in the world as one who becomes a Noble One, proved true again in this case.
The increasing disdain by her children was an even greater pain for Sona than the separation from her husband. She became aware that waves of bitterness arose in her, that reproaches and accusations intermingled. She realized that what she had taken to be selfless love, pure mother's love, was in reality self love, coupled with expectations. She had been relying on her children completely and had been convinced that she would be supported by them in her old age as a tribute to her long years of solicitude for them, that gratitude, appreciation and participation in their affairs would be her reward. Had she not looked at her children as an investment then, as an insurance against the fear and loneliness of old age? In this manner, she investigated her motives and found the truth of the Enlightened One's words in herself. Namely, that it was a woman's way not to rely on possessions, power and abilities, but solely on her children, while it was the way of the ascetic to rely on virtue alone.
Her reflections brought her to the decision to enter the Order of Nuns so that she could develop the qualities of selfless love and virtue. Why should she remain in her home where she was only reluctantly accepted? She looked upon the household life as a gray existence and pictured that of a nun as brilliant, and so was ready to follow here husband's path. She became a nun, a Bhikkhuni in the order of the Buddha's followers.
But after a while she realized that she had taken her self-love along. The other nuns criticized her behavior in many small matters. She had entered the Sangha as an old woman and had dozens of habits and peculiarities which were obstacles in this new environment. She was used to doing things in a certain way, and the other nuns did them differently.
Sona soon realized that it was not easy to reach noble attainments, and that the Order of Nuns was not the paradise she had envisioned â€” just as she had not found security with her children. She also understood that she was still held fast by her womanly limitations. It was not enough that her weaknesses were abhorrent to her, and that she was longing for more masculine traits. She also had to know what to do to effect the change. She accepted the fact that she had to make tremendous efforts, not only because she was already advanced in years, but also because until now she had only cultivated female virtues. The masculine characteristics which she was lacking were energy and circumspection. Sona did not become discouraged, nor thought of the Path as too difficult. She had the same sincerity and steadfastness as her sister-nun-Soma, who said:
What's it to do with a woman's state
When the mind, well-composed
with knowledge after knowledge born,
sees into Perfect Dharma clear?
For who, indeed, conceives it thus:
A woman am I, a man am I,
or what, then indeed, am I?
Such a one can Mara still address.
It became clear to Sona that she had to develop courage and strength to win victory over her willfulness and her credulity. She realized that it was necessary to practice mindfulness and self-observation, and to implant into her memory those teachings which could be at her disposal when needed to counteract her emotions.
What use would be all knowledge and vows if she were carried away by her emotions, and her memory fail her when it was most needed? These were the reasons which strengthened Sona's determination and will-power to learn the Buddha's discourses. Through many a night thereby she attained the ability to memorize them. Furthermore, she took pains to serve her sister-nuns in a loving way and to apply the teachings constantly. After having practiced in this way for some time, she attained not only the assurance of non-returner, but became an arahant, fully-enlightened, a state she had hardly dared to hope for in this lifetime.
It happened without any special circumstances to herald it. After she had made a whole-hearted commitment to perfect those abilities which she lacked, no matter what the cost, she drew nearer to her goal day by day. One day she was liberated from the very last fetter. The Buddha said about her that she was foremost of the nuns who had energetic courage.
In the "Verses of the Elder Nuns" she describes her life in five verses:
Ten children having borne
from this bodily congeries,
so I, now weak and old,
approached a Bhikkhuni.
The Dharma she taught me â€”
groups, sense-spheres and elements, [*]
I heard the Dharma,
and having shaved my hair, went forth.
While still a probationer
I purified the eye divine;
Former lives I knew,
and where I lived before.
the Signless [**] I developed,
unclinging now and quenched!
Knowing the five groups well,
they still exist; but with their roots removed.
Unmovable am I,
on a stable basis sure,
now rebirth is no more.
*[The five groups (or aggregates), the twelve sense spheres and the eighteen elements.]
**[One of the three gates to freedom the other two being the Desireless and Emptiness.]
Sona's sister-nuns, who had formerly been her severe critics, and who had thought that because of her age she would not be able to change, now apologized to her sincerely and endeavored to follow her good example.
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.