Wendy Garling tells the story of one of the Buddha’s foremost female lay disciples, Khujjuttara, and her early contributions to the survival of the buddhadharma.
No other single thing exists
Like the hindrance of delusion,
Which so obstructs humankind
And makes it wander forever.
Those who have abandoned delusion,
Cleaving through this mass of darkness,
No longer roam and wander on;
In them the cause is found no more.
—Khujjuttara, as quoted in the Itivuttaka of the Pali canon, translated by John Ireland, BPS Pariyatti Editions, 1996
I live on the coastal landscape of New England, where one of my favorite activities is taking a stick and poking along the wrack line of the beach, looking through the flotsam and jetsam deposited by the previous high tide. The usual bounty consists of soggy seaweed, a miscellany of broken shells, and tangled plastic detritus. I’m thrilled by the smallest victory: a fragment of finely honed sea glass, a rusty hinge off an old ship. On the rare occasion, there will even be a treasure like the tiny, scarlet chunk of Mediterranean coral I found at one grungy boat landing.
Recently, the beachcomber in me has turned to researching the first generation of Buddhist women, combing and sifting through the stories of the women who lived in the time of the Buddha. All kinds of treasures have turned up along the way. At each turn, I feel closer to these women as I peer into their lives, imagine their worlds, and feel their worlds touch mine. Living in a man’s world wasn’t easy back then. Living in a world raging with social injustice wasn’t easy either. The women at that time had life experiences in many ways like ours today. They also had the Buddha. What do we find in these stories when all of these worlds collide?
Khujjuttara’s extraordinary contribution is worthy of our deepest respect and gratitude.
A favorite story that has recently crept into my heart and practice is the story of Khujjuttara, an enslaved woman who worked in the royal household of Queen Samavati of Kosambi. The story tells us that Khujjuttara was extremely clever and capable. We’re also told she was “ugly” and impaired by a curved spine. As the story opens, her mind is as crooked as her body since she is a thief. Each day the Queen gives her eight gold coins to buy flowers in the market and each day Khujjuttara puts four coins in her pocket and returns to the palace with four coins worth of flowers. This goes on for some time. The Queen, renowned for her kind and gentle heart, suspects the deception, but says nothing.
One day Khujjuttara goes to town to buy flowers and comes across the Buddha giving a discourse. She becomes transfixed, hearing every word as if it were meant just for her. On the spot, her mind transforms and she attains “stream entry,” a direct experience of nirvana. She becomes joyfully imbued with an unshakable faith in the Triple Gem. With regret for her long-held dishonesty, she spends all eight coins on an abundance of flowers that she returns to the Queen, while confessing her previous transgressions and explaining her change of heart. The delighted Queen invites Khujjuttara to share the Buddha’s teaching with the five hundred ladies of the harem and instructs that a magnificent, high seat be prepared for the occasion. She bathes Khujjuttara in perfumed water and dresses her in the finest cloth.
And so Khujjuttara’s fortunes were forever changed. It was her task to attend the Buddha’s teachings whenever he preached nearby and repeat them verbatim back at the palace. So keen was her memory and adept was her skill in teaching that Khujjuttara brought the Queen and all five hundred women to stream entry. No longer a lowly servant, she was revered as “mother” and dharma teacher to them all.
The reach of Khujjuttara’s teachings was immeasurable. As she taught the Queen, so the Queen taught the King, and over time the entire kingdom converted to the new faith. Fully aware of Khujjuttara’s pre-eminence as a female lay teacher, the Buddha cited her “Foremost Among Those Who Are Learned” as noted in the Anguttaranikaya in the Pali canon. A similar list in the Chinese Ekottarikagama, names her “Foremost of Those … who are Supreme in Wisdom.” Further, the Buddha admonished his lay disciples to hold her up as a role model to inspire their daughters: “Dear, you should become like Khujjuttara the lay follower … for this is the standard and criterion for my female lay disciples….”
Khujjuttara’s flawless memory, comparable to Ananda’s, was so accurate that her teachings were deemed buddhavacana, with 112 sutras spoken by her comprising the Itivuttaka in the Pali canon. Several of these are truly unique as they contain passages without counterpart among other Pali discourses. With her combined talents of perfect recall and peerless instruction — the requisites for survival of the buddhadharma at that time — Khujjuttara’s extraordinary contribution is worthy of our deepest respect and gratitude.