Maha Khema Theri – Wisdom-Holder
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in London published an article in 1893 entitled, Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation that offered a translation of Manoratha Purani, Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the Anguttara Nikaya by Mabel Bode. Maha Buddhaghosas’s Commentary on the fourth chapter of the Anguttara Nikaya tells us that a very long time ago Khema was born in the city Hamsavati that was ruled by the Pratyekabuddha called Padumuttara and – independent of all Great Arhats who had done likewise - made her first resolve to attain perfect realization then. Upon seeing one of “the two chief disciples of that Blessed One going his round for alms, she gave him three sweet meats. And that very day, she had her own hair cut off, and (bartered it for) gifts which she gave to the Elder, uttering the prayer: ‘Hereafter, at some time when a Buddha appears in the world, may I become full of wisdom like you.’
“Thenceforth, spending her life zealous in good works and wandering from world to world among gods and men for a hundred thousand aeons, she re-entered existence at the time of Buddha Kassapa1 in the palace of Kiki, King of Kasi, as one among seven sisters; and for twenty thousand years she lived there a life of chastity and, with her sisters, had a dwelling place built for the Blessed One.”2
                Hellmut Hecker, a remarkable scholar on life-stories of Great Arhats, wrote, “Another time – so it is told – she was daughter-in-law of the Bodhisattva (Jataka 397), many times a great Empress who dreamt about receiving teaching from the Bodhisattva and then actually was taught by him (Jataka 501, 502, 534). It is further recounted that as a Queen she was always the wife of who was later Shariputta, who said about her: ‘Of equal status is the wife, obedient, speaking only loving words with children, beauty, fame, garlanded, she always listens to my words.’ (Jataka 502, 534.)
“This husband in former lives was a righteous king, who upheld the ten royal virtues: Generosity, morality, renunciation, truthfulness, gentleness, patience, amity, harmlessness, humility, justice. Because of these virtues the king lived in happiness and bliss. Khema, too, lived in accordance with these precepts. Only because Khema had already purified her heart and perfected it in these virtues in many past lives, she was now mature enough and had such pure and tranquil emotions that she could accept the ultimate Truth in the twinkling of an eye.”3 
Maha Buddhaghosa continued: “Then, having passed the interval between that time and the birth of the next Buddha, wandering from life to life in the worlds of gods and men, she was reborn in the time of this Our Buddha in the royal family in the city of Sagala in the Maddha Country (Magadha).
“Now when she came of age, she entered the household of King Bimbisara.4 The king thought to himself, ‘I am a chief supporter of the Master. Yet she, the consort of so leading a disciple, does not go to see him who has the ten Powers of Wisdom. I don’t like it.’”5 So the king had an idea, a tale recounted in The Dhammapada:
King Bimbisara asked Khema to go to the monastery at Jetavana to pay homage to Lord Buddha, but she had heard that the Buddha always spoke disparagingly about beauty and therefore avoided him. Knowing this, the king asked his musicians to sing praises of the monastery. They did and their songs roused Khema’s curiosity. Aware of her thoughts when she arrived, Lord Buddha created a celestial nymph who fanned him while he was teaching the Dharma. Only Khema perceived the heavenly maiden and saw her fade and wither away; in the end only a corpse was left to be seen. Khema instantly realized the truth of impermanence. Lord Buddha then told her, ‘O Khema. Look carefully at this decayed body which is now only a skeleton of bones and had always been subject to disease and decay. Look carefully at the body which the foolish cherish so much. Look at the worthlessness of this young woman’s beauty.’
Having listened attentively, Queen Khema attained sotapatti fruition.6 Then the Buddha spoke the verse: “Beings who are infatuated with lust fall back into the stream of the craving they create, and they resemble a spider trapped in the web it has spun. The wise, having vanquished craving, go the way with determination and leave all ill behind.” (The Dhammapada, verse 347.) Having listened attentively, Queen Khema became an Arhat.7
Maha Buddhaghosa wrote: “Now, he who attains to Arhatship while he is yet a layman must pass away in death that very day or enter the religious life. She therefore, understanding that the end of her days was near, thought to herself, ‘I will ask permission to forsake the world myself.’ And, making obeisance to the Master, she returned to the palace and, saluting the king, stood before him. The king, feeling from her very manner that she had reached the noble state of Arahatship, said to her, ‘Queen, have you then really been to see the Blessed One?’ She answered, ‘Oh great king. What you have seen is of little moment. But to me the Blessed One has been fully revealed, even to the utmost. I pray you, let me forsake the world!’ And the king granted her request and sent her in a golden palanquin to the nunnery, where she should dwell.
“While still a laywoman and called Khema,8 she attained Arahatship. It became noised abroad that she must have been one gifted with great wisdom. This is the story thus far.
“Now afterwards, the Master, seated at Jetavana, when assigning places, one after the other, to the Bhikkhunis (the nuns), gave to the Theri Khema the chief place among those who are full of wisdom.”9
The Story of Khema from The Dhammapada
“One night, when Lord Buddha was residing at Gijjhakuta Hill10 (one of the five hills encircling Rajagriha and a favourite resort because of its solitude), King Sakka and his followers came from Trayastrimsha, ‘Heaven Thirty-three,’ to pay homage to the Buddha. Maha Khema flew through the sky to pay homage to the Buddha too, but seeing Sakka and his followers, she just paid obeisance and left the same way she came. Sakka asked who the nun was, and the Buddha replied: ‘She is one of my pre-eminent disciples, known as Khema Theri. She is matchless amongst the nuns in wisdom and she knows how to differentiate the right way from the wrong way.’ Then the Buddha spoke in verse: ‘Him I call a Brahmana, who is wise and profound in his knowledge, who knows the right way from the wrong way, and who has attained the highest goal of an Arhat.’” 11
The Nabhasa Pali Dictionary tells us that one day King Pasenadi was told that Maha Khema could answer questions he had on his mind, “whether or not the Buddha existed after death. She explained the matter to him in various ways.”12 The article Women at the Time of the Buddha offers the arguments she brought forth in response to the king’s question. The conclusion of this article states: “’The Exalted One has not declared that an Awakened One exists after death.’ Pasenadi responded, ‘Then an Awakened One does not exist after death?’ Khema answered, ‘That, too, the Exalted One has not declared.’” King Pasenadi asked the two more logical questions that Nagarjuna also answered with regard to phenomena on neither/nor and both together.
“Thereupon the king wanted to know why the Buddha had rejected these four questions, and Khema explained that all four formulas presuppose the existence of an ‘I’ distinct from the world, while in reality ‘I’ and ‘world’ are part of the experience which arises because of consciousness. Only the Enlightened Ones can actually see this or those who have been disciples, and unless this understanding is awakened, the assumption is made that an ‘I,’ a permanent ‘self,’ is wandering through samsara, gradually ascending higher and higher until it is dissolved, which is liberation - this is a belief held by some. Others conclude from this that the Buddha teaches the destruction of the ‘self.’ But the Buddha teaches that there is no ‘I’ or ‘self’ that can be destroyed. The way to liberation is to stop speculating about the ‘I,’ to become free from habitual views and formulas and to come to the end of the mind’s illusory conjuring. Maha Khema told King Pasenadi, ‘Not through increasing the thought process about phenomena, but through mindfulness of the arising of phenomena, which leads to the reduction of mind’s chatter, can liberation be attained. Everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think, anything that can be contained in consciousness, no matter how wide-ranging and pure, is subject to decay and dissolution.’
Maha Khema tried to explain this to the king with a simile. She asked him whether he had a clever mathematician who could calculate for him how many hundred, thousand, or hundred-thousand grains of sand are contained in the Ganges River. The king replied that it would be impossible. The nun then asked him whether he knew of anyone who could figure out how many gallons of water are contained in the great ocean. That, too, the king considered impossible. He replied that the ocean is mighty, deep, and unfathomable. ’Just so,’ said Khema, ‘is the Exalted One. Whoever wishes to define the Awakened One could only do so through the five aggregates. Released from clinging to form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness is the Enlightened One, mighty, deep, and unfathomable as the great ocean.’  Khema continued, ‘Therefore it is not appropriate to say he exists, or does not exist, both exists and does not exist, or neither exists and does not exist after death. All these designations cannot define the ineffable. And just that is liberation: liberation from compulsively stabilizing the self as being the aggregates that only appear to exist due to mental formations.’
“The king rejoiced in Khema’s explanation, met the Enlightened One and asked him the same questions. The Buddha responded just as Khema had done – he even used the same words. The king was amazed and recounted his conversation with Maha Khema in the Samyutta Nikaya Sutra.”13
Venerable Sayadaw U Panna Vamsa concluded a short account, “Well-respected for her penetrative insight and wisdom, Arahant Khema Theri could not ever again be tempted by sense pleasures, not even by Mara who was disguised as a handsome celestial youth.”14 The Nabhasa Online Pali Dictionary closes its short account and states that Maha Khema “is mentioned as the highest ideal of womanhood, worthy of imitation, and is described as the nun par excellence.”15
Sincerest gratitude to all. 
Selected, arranged & written by Gaby Hollmann, June 2006

1 Kassapa Buddha is the “twenty-fourth Buddha, the third of the present aeon and one of the seven Buddhas mentioned in the Canon.” Nabhasa Pali Dictionary, Kassapa.
2 Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation (from Monaratha, Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the A.nguttara Nikaya). Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1893. Scanned & edited by Christopher M. Weimer, 2002, in the site: Internet Sacred Text Archives. - “At the time of the Budddha, the city of Kasi had been absorbed into the kingdom of Kosala, and Pasenadi was king of both countries. The Mahavagga, however, mentions a Kasika-raja (king of Kasi?) who sent a robe to Jivaka. Buddhaghosa says that this was a brother of Pasenadi and son of the same father. He was probably a sub-king of Pasenadi. Pasenadi's father, who was king of Kosala, on giving his daughter in marriage to Bimbisara, allotted her a village of Kasi as bath money. Even at this time, however, the memory of Kasi as an independent kingdom seems to have been still fresh in men's minds. There seem to have been frequent wars between the countries of Kasi and Kosala, victory belonging now to one, now to the other. The traditional name of the king of Kasi from time immemorial was evidently Brahmadatta, and references to kings of that name abound in the Jatakas. The capital of Kasi is generally given as Baranasi. Kasi was evidently a great centre of trade and a most populous and prosperous country. Frequent mention is made of caravans leaving Kasi to travel for trade. One highway went through Kasi to Rajagaha and another to Savatthi. Kasi was famed for silks, and Kasi-robes were most highly esteemed as gifts.” Nabhasa, Kasi.
3 Women at the Time of The Buddha: Khema of Great Wisdom by Hellmuth Hecker. Translated from the German by Sister Khema. Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1982; Access to Insight, 1994; The Wheel Publication No. 292/293.
4 Bimbisara was “King of Magadha and patron of the Buddha. He ascended the throne at the age of 15 and reigned in Rajagaha for 52 years. The Buddha was five years older than Bimbisara, and it was not until 15 years after his accession that Bimbisara heard the Buddha preach and was converted by him.” Nabhasa, Bimbisara.
5 Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation, ibid. 
6 Sotapanna is the Pali term for a “stream winner” as described in the Theravada Tradition, i.e., “a person who has abandoned the first three of the fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth and has thus entered the ‘stream’ flowing inexorably to Nirvana (the Nirvana of Cessation), ensuring that one will be reborn at most only seven more times and only into human or higher realms. The three fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth are (1) self-identification views, uncertainty, grasping at precepts and practices; (2) sensual passion, resistance; (3) passion for form, passion for formless phenomena, conceit, restlessness, and unawareness.” Glossary of Pali and Buddhist Terms, in: Access to Insight, 2005.  - See also footnote 7.
7 See The Dhammapada Stories, XXVI (29). Translated by Daw Mya Tin, Burma Pitaka Association, Yangon, 1986, in: & 02.  - "By the path of stream-entry (sotapatti-magga) are abandoned: (5) denigration, (6) domineering, (7) envy, (8) jealousy, (9) hypocrisy, (10) fraud. By the path of non-returning (anagami-magga): (2) ill will, (3) anger, (4) malice, (16) negligence. By the path of Arahatship (arahatta-magga): (1) covetousness and unrighteous greed, (11) obstinacy, (12) presumption, (13) conceit, (14) arrogance, (15) vanity." The Life of Shariputra. Compiled & translated from Pali texts by Nyanaponika Thera, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1987, The Wheel Publications No. 90/92, page 58.
8 Khema is a title that means “well-settled” or “composed” and is synonymous with Nirvana. See Women at the Time of The Buddha: Khema of Great Wisdom by Hellmuth Hecker, ibid.
9 Women Leaders of the Buddhist Reformation (from Monaratha, Buddhaghosa’s Commentary on the A.nguttara Nikaya), ibid.
10 The Gijjhakuta was so called either because its peak was like a vulture's beak or because it was the resort of many vultures. See Nabhasa, Gijjhakuta.
11 The Dhammapada Stories, XXVI. Translated by Daw Mya Tin, Burma Pitaka Assoc., Yangon, 1986, ibid.
12 Nabhasa, Khema Theri. - Pasenadi was king of Kosala. He was the son of Maha Kosala, and was very well educated. His father was “so pleased with his proficiency in the various arts that he made him king. As ruler, Pasenadi gave himself wholeheartedly to his administrative duties and valued the companionship of wise and good men. Quite early in the Buddha's ministry, Pasenadi became his follower and close friend, and his devotion to the Buddha lasted till his death.” Nabhasa, Pasenadi.  
13 Women at the Time of The Buddha: Khema of Great Wisdom by Hellmuth Hecker, ibid.
14 Dawn of Buddhism: The Achievement of Enlightenment by Ven. Sayadaw U Panna Vamsa, Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple, Penang, Malaysia, in the site: 02.
15 Nabhasa, Khema Theri.