THE STORY OF VENERABLE UPPALAWANNA MAHA ARAHAT THERI
Just as the Buddha had appointed two chief disciples in the order of monks, Venerable Maha Arahat Sariputta Thero and Venerable Maha Arahat Moggallana Thero, Buddha likewise named two women his foremost disciples in the Bhikkhuni Sanga, the order of nuns. These two were the Bhikkhunis, Venerable Uppalawanna Maha Arhat Theri and Venerable Maha Arahat Khema Theri the former excelling in psychic power, the latter in wisdom (AN1, chap14).
The Story of Arahat Uppalawanna Maha Theri
Dhammapada Verse 401
“Like water on a lotus leaf, or mustard seed on needle point,
Who so clings not to sensual things, that one I call a Brahmin True.”
This religious instruction was given by the Buddha while the Buddha was in residence at Jetawana with reference to Arahat Bhikkhuni Uppalawanna. The story has been related at length in the Commentary beginning with the words, ”As sweet as honey thinks a fool an evil deed,” For it is there said:
When the Arahat Bhikkhuni Uppalawanna was raped by a kinsman of hers the monks began wondering whether Arahats are susceptible to sensual pleasures. It was said, “To be sure those that have rid themselves of the depravities gratify their passions. Why should they not? For they are not Kolapa trees or ant-hills, but are living creatures with bodies of moist flesh. Therefore they also like the pleasures of love.”
At that moment the Buddha drew near and after hearing this the Buddha said,” No monks, they that have rid themselves of the depravities neither like the pleasures of love nor gratify their passions. For even as a drop of water which has fallen upon a lotus-leaf does not cling thereto or remain thereon, but rolls over and falls off, even as a grain of mustard- seed does not cling to the point of a needle or remain thereon, but rolls over and falls off, precisely so two- fold love clings not to the heart of one that has rid himself /herself of the depravities or remain there.” And Buddha, joining the connection, preached the Dhamma with the above stanza.
Uppalawanna, the other Chief disciple of the Buddha, was a very beautiful young Princess. She was named after the “blue lotus” flower—Uppala - Vanna, Uppalawanna, because of her beautiful complexion.
Uppalawanna was born in a wealthy family and when she came of age, proposals for marriage came from all quarters. Many princes were interested in marrying her and came to take her hand. But the parents found it too difficult to decide on which one. The harassed father did not wish to offend any suitor by a refusal. To the father, ordination in the Noble Sangha was the only solution. They, with the consent of Uthpalawanna, decided to ordain her as a nun. The daughter, true to her destiny, agreed. She became the highest Bikkuni amongst all who perform Miracles using the astral body.
Upon being ordained, she was kept in charge of the convocation room where the nuns assembled for the confession of lapses. She had to tend the lamps. She observed that the light was sustained by the wick and the oil. Sometimes, the light goes out by going short of either or by a gust of wind. So life was due to karmic force. This kept her thinking till she became an Arahat. She remembered her former past lives.
It was while living alone in a forest, a young shepherd named Nanda, kinsman of hers, got infatuated with her and committed a sexual offence as soon as she returned from a round of alms. Coming from the noon day glare to the dark cave where her abode was, she could not see hence, she was taken by surprise despite her protests. He committed the dire deed and was immediately born in the hell (niraya) when the earth yawned and swallowed the foolish young man. He was however, dead before the yawning of the earth.
It was after this incident the Blessed One prohibited the female disciples of the Noble Sanga to live in isolation in the forest.
Not long afterwards, the Buddha addressing the monks, declared Arahat Uppalawanna Maha Theri, foremost for psychic power who performs miracles using the astral body.
The Buddha has held up these two as the models and examples for all the nuns to emulate, the standard against which other nuns could evaluate themselves. (SN17:24)