My teacher Sudharma always taught me that in the stillness and silence of meditation, each of us is alone with our practice. At the same time, we are supported by the presence of others whom we know to be encountering similar demons of regret and longing, fear and doubt, drowsiness and the insistent habit of constructing a self-identity through the mental activities of remembering, planning, and imagining. We think our experience is unique, and often we suffer in our isolation. But once we make contact with others and share our stories, we discover that we are not alone. We can learn from others, and they can learn from us. As I’ve often mentioned, Sudharma was a proponent of stories as examples of experience. Below, is the story of Patacara, a story I have chosen in honor of Sudharma and of the women who often dedicate their lives to so such great causes, often forgetting about the most precious gem that lies within their own hearts. I dedicate this story to my Acariya and my friend Jill who are each far more enlightened then they can imagine.
Patacara’s story of loss was important initially only to her…..significant because it was through that experience that she lost her right mind and then regained it in the presence of the Buddha’s infinite wisdom and compassion. When she joined the order of nuns, her story became important to others. Among the seventy-three poems in the collection known as the Therigatha, more verses refer to Patacara than to any other nun. “I went to a nun I thought I could trust,” are the words of Uttama. “She pulled out the arrow hidden in my heart,” says Patacara Pancasata. Through her practice, Patacara was able to move from the particular details of her own loss to an understanding of the universal truth of impermanence. As a teacher and mentor to other nuns, she demonstrated that transformation is possible.
At the time of the Buddha, in Ancient India, the city of Savatthi lay on a great trade route leading south to Ujjain and north to Rajagaha. It was here that the Theri (fully ordained nun in Theravada), the nun known as Patacara, was born. Her name at birth is lost to us, but not her story.
Patacara’s father was a wealthy merchant and treasurer in Savatthi. Patacara and her brother grew up in luxury, attended by many servants. Among them was a boy from a nearby village, just a little older than Patacara. His daily task was fetching water and sweeping the courtyard. Playful and clever, he became the children’s companion and playmate. The three children formed a close friendship.
Patacara was a beauty. Even before she came of age, she drew attention whenever she went with her mother to the market. When she was sixteen, her parents resolved to marry her as soon as possible. One day, they informed her that they had chosen a young man of her own caste. But Patacara’s heart was already taken. She had fallen in love with her childhood friend, and the two had formed a plan to run away.
One evening Patacara slipped out of the house while her mother was bathing. Taking a few small valuables…..a carved ivory pendant and a collection of silver bangles…..she went to meet her lover at the city gates. For three days they journeyed on foot to his home village, where they set up their household. In time, Patacara became pregnant. As the baby grew within her, so did her longing to return to her family for the birth of her first child.
“Sami, my lord,” she said to her husband, “let us go to the house of my family.” Her husband nodded and agreed, but every day he made some excuse to delay their departure. At last, Patacara said to herself, “This dear fool will not take me.” She put the house in order and, asking the neighbors to inform her husband, she set off alone.
When her husband returned from cutting firewood and learned where she had gone, he blamed himself: “Because of me, my beloved wife is on the road without protection.” Following her footsteps, he soon caught up with her. But they had waited too long. Patacara’s child was born right there on the road. As soon as her child was born, Patacara’s desire to see her family lessened, and she willingly turned back to the village with her husband. A year later, all happened a second time as before: she became pregnant, and the same longing returned…..to give birth in her family home, with her mother at her side. Again, her husband delayed. Again, Patacara set out on her own, heavy with child, carrying her young son on her back.
It was the start of the rainy season. Her husband caught up with her as a great storm arose and her labor pains began. Lightning flashed all around, and great thunderclaps echoed in the sky. Rain began to fall in an unending torrent.
“My lord,” she said, “Please find us a place that is sheltered from the rain.”
Her husband went looking here and there and found a thicket, where the ground was covered in dry leaves. Quickly he built a rough shelter and led her there. Then, taking his axe, he went to cut some sturdy branches.
Meanwhile, Patacara gave birth on the bed of dry leaves, while the rain continued to fall. All night, she huddled there, holding her newborn child and her young son close to her and waited for her husband to return. When daylight came, there was still no sign of him. Weak from giving birth, she went in search of him and found him, dead, by an anthill, bitten by a poisonous snake. In great grief, Patacara continued on her journey to Savatthi, blaming herself: “It is because of me that my husband has died.”
Towards midday day they came to the banks of the Aciravati. The river was swollen with rain following the storm. Patacara knew she hadn’t the strength to carry both children across at the same time. She took her older son and sat him down a good distance from the water, on the bank, telling him to wait for her. Then, with her newborn wrapped close and high on her chest, she waded into the raging river, taking care with each step. Reaching the other side, she climbed the bank, sat down and nursed her son. Tenderly, she set him on the ground. As she went down to the river, she kept looking back to where her infant lay. How could she leave him there, unprotected? Halfway across the stream she saw a great hawk circling, drawn by the sight of the flesh-colored bundle lying on the ground. Fearful, Patacara raised both hands in the air and called out, “Su! Su! Be gone!” Again and again she cried out, making a great sound. But the hawk paid no attention. Swooping down, it gathered the infant up in its talons and carried it away.
Meanwhile, Patacara’s older son, hearing his mother call out, and seeing her raise her hands in the air, thought she was calling to him. Joyfully, he ran down the bank and into the river, where the current swept him away.
Patacara wept and wailed. She made her way to shore and climbed the bank to rejoin the road to Savatthi, sobbing and repeating, “My husband has died on the road. Both of my sons are dead: one was swept away by the river; the other was taken by a hawk.” As she went along, she saw a man approaching.
“Good sir, are you a resident of Savatthi?” she asked, clinging to the thought of her family and the comfort they would give her.
“Indeed I am,” he replied.
“In Savatthi,” she continued, “there is a certain street. Do you know it? In that street is the house of my family. My father is the treasurer of the city. Do you know him?”
“I do,” he said quietly, “But please, do not ask for news of your family. Ask for news of any other family in Savatthi.”
Terrified, Patacara insisted, “But they are my family. I am asking you for news of my family.”
“Dear woman, did you see how the heavens poured down all night long?”
“Indeed, I did, sir. Why do you ask this question?”
“I will explain. Something has happened in the house of the treasurer.”
“In the storm last night, the house collapsed, crushing and killing the treasurer, his wife, and son. All three are burning on the funeral pyre as we speak. From here you can see the smoke.” He pointed towards a dark cloud in the distance.
It was at that moment that Patacara lost her mind. She began to wander, unaware that her clothes were falling from her, muttering and repeating:
“Both of my sons…..their time is done.
And on the road, my husband, dead;
My mother, father, and brother
Lie burning on the funeral heap.”
Seeing her, men called her “Madwoman,” and threw sweepings at her, clods of earth and other refuse. Stumbling and weeping, driven here and there, she came to the outskirts of the city where she wandered into the grounds of Jetavana, the Buddha’s monastery.
It was the rainy season, and the Buddha was in residence. Seated in the midst of a great assembly, he was teaching the Dhamma. He saw Patacara at the edge of the gathering, naked and filthy, her breasts swollen with milk for the child she had lost. Despite her appearance, the Buddha perceived her readiness for insight. Drawn by the Buddha’s voice, Patacara ceased her babbling and approached. The crowd saw her and cried out, “Do not let that madwoman come any closer.” But the Buddha said, “No. Do not prevent her. Let her come.” As she stood before the Buddha, he spoke to her directly, saying, “Sister, come to your senses.” So it happened. Through the power of the Buddha, she recovered her mind.
Immediately, she became aware that her clothing had fallen off. Filled with shame, she crouched down and covered herself. A man in the crowd threw his cloak to her. Wrapping herself in the cloak, she bowed to the Buddha.
“Bhante,” she said, “be a support to me. I am friendless, childless, without parents or family or home.” She recounted her sorrows: “One son was taken by a hawk. One was swept away by the river. My husband died on the road. My mother, my father, and my brother were killed when their house collapsed. All three were cremated on the same funeral pyre.”
The Buddha replied, “Patacara, each of us will die. Neither our sons, nor husbands, nor any relative can be a shelter, protection, or refuge for us. The path to freedom is accomplished by attending to our own actions, through restraint and purification of conduct.” He spoke these verses:
“No children will be a refuge,
Nor any relations at all.
The one who is taken by death
Will find no shelter among kin.
Knowing this, understanding this,
the wise one, restrained by virtue,
quickly clears the obstacles
on the path that leads to freedom.”
As the Buddha finished his teaching, Patacara attained the first stage of enlightenment…..the fruition state of stream-entry. She requested permission to enter the order of nuns. The Buddha brought her to the Bhikkhunis and ordained her himself.
Patacara then devoted herself to the practice of insight. One day, she took a clay jar, filled it with water, and washed her feet. When she poured the water out, she noticed that it made a path in the dust. The stream went a short distance and stopped. A second time she poured the water out. This time the path made by the stream of water was longer. A third time she poured the water out and watched as the water went further still. Memories of her family came back to her. “Just as the first stream was short, so was the life of my children. Just as the second stream was longer, so were the lives of my husband and brother. And the third stream, longer than the others, is like the life-span of my parents, who lived into old age.”
Deeply penetrating the truth of impermanence, Patacara was fully awakened. She spent her time with others, both inside the community and outside, comforting and teaching them. She became a great teacher and guide. Her poem of awakening comes down to us through the ages:
Young Brahmins, they enjoy their wealth, caring for their families.
Seeds of grain are sown in the ground and the field is tilled by the plough.
Why do I, endowed with virtue, following the Buddha’s teaching,
Neither indolent nor proud, still not attain release?
When I washed my feet, late at night, three times I poured the water out.
I watched and saw the path it made, from the higher ground to the low.
Whereupon, I composed my mind like a noble steed, a thoroughbred.
Taking my lamp in hand, I rose and entered my simple abode.
I checked the bed, as I do at night, then approached the couch to rest.
What happened next? I took the needle and lowered the wick, like this.
With the quenching of the lamp-flame my mind was completely freed.