Personalities of the Buddhist Suttas
(DPPN: She was declared chief among women disciples with respect to the wearing of coarse robes (lukhacivaradharanam).
Her famous story, from The Psalms:
In this Buddha-era she was reborn at Savatthi, in a poor family. Gotami was her name, and from the leanness of here body she was called Lean Gotami. And she was disdainfully treated when married, and was called a nobody's daughter. But when she bore a son, they paid her honor. Then, when he was old enough to run about and play, he died, and she was distraught with grief. And, mindful of the change in folk's treatment of her since his birth, she thought: 'They will even try to take my child and expose him. [in the charnel field]' So, taking the corpse upon her hip, she went, crazy with sorrow, from door to door, saying: 'Give me medicine for my child!' And people said with contempt: 'Medicine! What's the use?' She understood them not. But one sagacious person thought: 'Her mind is upset with grief for her child. He of the Tenfold Power will know of some medicine for her.' And he said: 'Dear woman, go to the Very Buddha, and ask him for medicine to give your child.' She went to the Vihara at the time when the Master taught the Doctrine, and said: 'Exalted One, give me medicine for my child!' The Master, seeing the promise in her, said: 'Go, enter the town, and at any house where yet no man hath died, thence bring a little mustard-seed.' 'Tis well, lord!' she said, with mind relieved; and, going to the first house in the town, said: 'Let me take a little mustard, that I may give medicine to my child. If in this house [I do not have the Pali, buy my guess would be that the word here was 'family' — even in those days, when people stayed put, there must have been new houses now and again.] no man hath yet died, give me a little mustard.' 'Who may say how many have not died here?' 'With such mustard, then, I have naught to do.' So she went on to a second and a third house, until, by the might of the Buddha, her frenzy left her, her natural mind was restored, and she thought: 'Even this will be the order of things in the whole town. The Exalted One foresaw this out of his pity for my good.' And, thrilled at the thought, she left the town and laid her child in the charnel-field, saying:
'No village law is this, no city law,
No law for this clan, or for that alone;
For the whole world — ay, and the gods in heaven --
This is the Law: All is Impermanent!'
So saying, she went to the Master. And he said: 'Gotami, hast thou gotten this little mustard?' And she said: 'Wrought is the work, lord, of the little mustard. Give thou me confirmation.' Then the Master spoke thus:
'To him whose heart on children and on goods
Is centered, cleaving to them in his thoughts,
Death cometh like a great flood in the night,
Bearing away the village in its sleep.'
When he had spoken, she was confirmed in the fruition of the First (the Stream-entry) Path, and asked for ordination. He consented, and she, thrice saluting by the right, went to the Bhikkhunis, and was ordained. And not long afterwards, studying the causes of things, she caused her insight to grow. Then the Master said a Glory-verse:
'The man who, living for an hundred years,
Beholdeth never the Ambrosial Path,
Had better live no longer than one day,
So he behold within that day the Path.'
When he had finished, she attained Arahantship. And becoming pre-eminent in ascetic habits, she was wont to wear raiment of triple roughness. Then the Master, seated in the Jeta Grove in conclave, and assigning rank of merit to the Bhikkhunis, proclaimed her first among the wearers of rough raiment. And she, reflecting on what great things she had won, uttered this Psalm before the Master, in praise of friendship with the elect:
Friendship with noble souls throughout the world
The Sage hath praised. A fool, in sooth, grows wise
If he but entertain a noble friend.
Cleave to the men of worth! In them who cleave
Wisdom doth grow; and in that pious love
From all your sorrows shall ye be released.
Mark Sorrow well; mark ye how it doth come,
And how it passes; mark the Eightfold Path
That endeth woe, the Four great Ariyan Truths.
Woeful is woman's lot! Hath he declared,
Tamer and Driver of the hearts of men:
Woeful when sharing home with hostile wives,
Woeful when giving birth in bitter pain,
Some seeking death, or e'er they suffer twice,
Piercing the throat; the delicate poison take.
Woe to when mother-murdering embryo
Comes not to birth, and both alike find death.
'Returning home to give birth to my child,*
I saw my husband in the jungle die.
Nor could I reach my kin ere travail came.
My baby boys I lost, my husband too.
And when in misery I reached my home,
Lo! Where together on a scanty pyre,
My mother, father, and my brother burn!'
O wretched, ruined woman! All this weight
Of sorrows has thou suffered, shed these tears
Through weary round of many thousand lives.
I too have seen where, in the charnel-field,
Devoured was my baby's tender flesh.**
Yet she, her people slain, herself outcast,
Her husband dead, hath thither come
Where death is not!
Lo! I have gone
Up on the Ariyan, on the Eightfold Path
That goeth to the state ambrosial
Nibbana have I realized, and gazed
Into the Mirror of the holy Norm.
I, even I, am healed of my hurt,
Low is my burden laid, my task is done,
My heart is wholly set at liberty.
I, sister Kisa-Gotami, have uttered this!
*A footnote here explains that Kisa-Gotami is here incorporating and speaking from the point of view of Patacara in expanding on her theme of the woes of woman's lot.
**"Bloated, black and blue, and rotting; being pecked at by crows and ravens and vultures, being eaten by dogs and jackals and various small creatures ... "