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Life of a Saint

The Venerable Bhikshuni Mahaprajapati Gautami (vegan): The First Buddhist Nun, Part 1 of 2

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Today, we will journey to beautiful and picturesque Nepal to explore the fascinating life of the Venerable Bhikshuni Mahaprajapati Gautami, the first Buddhist nun ordained by the Worshipped Shakyamuni Buddha. Mahaprajapati Gautami was the stepmother and maternal aunt of Shakyamuni Buddha. She has been referred to as the “Mother of All” and is considered one of Lord Buddha’s most important disciples. As the first female to ever be ordained by Shakyamuni Buddha, she was also the founder of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the nuns’ monastic order. At the time of her birth, court astrologers prophesized that she would one day have a large following, and so the princess was named Mahaprajapati, meaning “leader of a great assembly.”

After achieving enlightenment, Lord Shakyamuni Buddha returned home to teach the Dharma to His parents, King Suddhodhana and Mahaprajapati Gautami. Upon the passing of King Suddhodhana, Mahaprajapati Gautami decided to renounce the world and receive ordination from the Buddha. At that time, she had achieved sotapanna, the first of the four stages of awakening, or enlightenment, in Buddhism.

Mahaprajapati Gautami then led the wives of the 500 young men to seek ordination into the Sangha from the Buddha. However, the Buddha did not agree and continued His journey to Vesali. Steadfast in their determination, Mahaprajapati Gautami and the 500 women visited a barber to have their heads shaved. They then donned saffron-colored robes and followed Shakyamuni Buddha to Vesali on foot, where they arrived with wounded feet, dust-covered bodies, and tear-stained faces.

Touched by Mahaprajapati Gautami’s resolve, Ānanda met with Gautama Buddha and respectfully asked if women had the ability to obtain realization through spiritual practice: “Lord, are women capable of realizing the various stages of sainthood as nuns?” The Buddha replied, “They are, Ānanda.”

The Buddha then ordained Mahaprajapati and her 500 followers. As such, she became the very first bhikkhuni, solidifying the establishment of the first sangha, or monastic order, for women. Following Mahaprajapati Gautami’s full ordination from the World-Honored One, the Buddha gave her instructions for meditation. Soon after, Mahaprajapati Gautami obtained arhatship and became fully enlightened.
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