Friday, May 20, 2016

On Vesak: Venerable Patacara

Author Anonymous

Vesak Day honors the birth, Enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.

It is very useful to regularly reflect on how the things we do affect our minds. When you have done something well, how do you feel about it? There is a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. In turn, this feeling of happiness supports your daily practice, as well as a cause for a successful meditation practice. When we know what habits support the generation of good states of mind we are inclined to develop those habits.

Again and again, looking at the mind, we can see that the actions, tendencies, and habits are very important. The actions and habits we cultivate in the mind are all important factors contributing to the success of our meditation.

Illustration from thebitterstickgirl.sg
Today being the day we commemorate the birth of the Buddha (Vesak), I want to recount a story that will remind us of the qualities that the Buddha possessed. 

This is the story of Patacara, a very important female disciple of the Buddha. In fact, she became the chief disciple of the Buddha with the role of taking care of the training of the monastic rules (vinaya) for female disciples, i.e. the bhikkhuni sangha. According to the story, once she realised all that had to be realised, she became the vinaya expert. Over time Patacara had a huge following of female disciples and students, all of whom also bore the name of Patacara.

We won't go into detail now about the life of Patacara, so I'll just say that in general I don't think there could be anything worse than what she went through. We can just imagine that what she wanted was freedom from her suffering. She just wanted freedom! She was from a rich family. She had everything that she wanted most probably, but she also had the pressure of her parents and having being born into in the upper class of society. She had parents wanting her to marry the type of person that was agreeable to them according to her caste and to her social status.

But as a teenager and as a young adult, she was strong minded, independent and she decided to do what she wanted to do. So, she went away with her lover who was just a servant. But they loved each other, and they wanted freedom. They wanted happiness.

Venerable Patacara
Image, thefemalebuddha.worpress.com

As you may know, as the story goes on, they did not really find happiness. In fact, after all the dramas of the death of her children, the death of her husband, the death of her parents. She became quite simply mad. Nearly naked, she went from village to village, crying and lamenting.

Psychologists today would say that someone in that state would have to go into a mental hospital. But in the society of that time they didn't have psychiatrists. Who were the psychologists of those days? They were philosophers. And philosophy was not only something that was talked about, it was practical. So in one respect, the Buddha was a philosopher, in as much as we can say that his was not a philosophy of speculation, his was a philosophy of practice.

So she eventually came to the Buddha. And, just by being in his presence, and in the presence of the monks and the nuns all around him, she calmed down. She came back to her senses. What happened here? What did the Buddha tell her? We don't know. The story, taken from the commentaries doesn't say exactly which type of dialogue occurred between them.

The Power of Listening

But what I would like to suggest is that the Buddha was listening to her. He was listening to her story. He was listening to her suffering. He was listening to her discouragement, the depression, the madness that she was going through. He was listening. Just listening. The power of listening.

Listening has the reciprocal quality of bringing understanding to the person who is being listened to. So when we listen to someone, we are also listening to ourselves. So to have someone listen to us makes us aware of our story, makes us aware of what is happening in our mind.

The few words of encouragement that were probably spoken by the Buddha were probably to the point. Just what she needed. Why? Because he was very aware of her situation. He knew her very well. He could feel intuitively by listening.

The questions to ask here relate to ourselves. Do we listen in life? Do we listen to other people? Do we listen to the birds? Do we listen to ourselves? Do we listen to our minds, to our moods, to our emotions, to our feelings? Do we listen to our body -- to all that is happening inside us? To all that is happening outside us? That's life! Are we aware of all this? Do we allow space for the observation? That observation that will bring us to understanding? Do we have that space within ourselves?

When we are able to observe in an unbiased way, then understanding comes of its own accord. There is great acceptance because observation leads to the idea of perspective, and when we are open minded, we are able to see many sides of a story. And this story is all about understanding.

So, just by listening to the Buddha, Patacara became peaceful. She came back to her senses; and, then with the help of the other nuns and monks, she put herself together once again. We can imagine that eventually she was ordained and lived her life out as a nun.



Ven. Patacara approaches the Buddha

As a nun, do you think she was fussing around? This food is no good. These people are no good. My house is not good. That kuti (meditation hut) is no good. For one who has really faced death in its depth, such a person is not fussy any more. There is a direct experience of disenchantment with everything. Everything is clear cut at this point.

At that time there were torrential rains that caused the rivers to swell and flood, destroying her parent's house. After the rains the sun appeared, but what was the sun for Patacara? It was not her sons. Instead, the Buddha was the sun that brought light to Patacara's life. He was the source of inspiration. The source of dedication. The source of joy.

Some people say that the training of the monastics involves a lot of rules, but the most important thing is the aspect of ahimsa: the aspect of non-violence, of non-harming.

So we see in the vinaya that what is related to motivation, to intention, is part of sila (moral conduct), and is one of the aspects of metta (loving-kindness).

Any action that is done with the spirit and with the volition of metta is generally a very good action, because at that time, we care for the other person. At that time we don't have greed, and at that time we don't have hatred, and most of the time also there is no delusion there. So metta cetana (kind intention) and the cetana sila (the thoughts of one who refrains from killing) are very important aspects of sila (moral conduct), an aspect of ethics and morality.

Patacara was also endowed with that aspect of discipline.

What can we learn from these stories? We have heard about the Buddha, we heard about that great lady, Patacara, but what is left for us? We have memory which we can use as a reflection.

Four Reflections

Here we can say in general that among other things we have four reflections that we can develop. These four reflections can protect our practice and our life. The first protection for both monastic and lay people is the reflection on the Buddha, Buddhanusati. So we pick any quality of the Buddha, then we remember it, and we get inspiration from that quality;  any one of the Buddha's qualities.

"We listen to ourselves, we understand ourselves, we accept ourselves, and that feeling of acceptance becomes the quality of metta."

We are able to love ourselves a little bit more, because we consider ourselves and our needs. The second reflection, is the reflection on death. One day or the other, we are going to pass away. Every moment is uncertain; we never know when we are going to die. Reflecting on our eventual death brings us a sense of urgency, a sense of not wanting to waste time. Our time is very precious. What is there in our life that should be given the most importance? What is the most important thing that we want to do with our life? Thinking about the fleetingness of life brings us that sense of urgency. It is important not to fool around with our time. It is important to do the things that are essential.

The third reflection is the reflection on the foulness of the body, or asubha bhavana. We can reflect that this body is just a corpse, a bag of parts. Our anatomy is quite disgusting really, if we don't wash it it smells bad, its a pain in the neck; this body is really not attractive. But from time to time if we have a lot of desire for sense pleasure we can create self-discipline by reflecting on the repulsiveness of the body.

The fourth reflection concerns metta, or loving-kindness. The daily practice of metta is very important. Sometimes we can be upset or in a bad mood; that's normal. We have seen that the practice of metta begins with ourselves. Are we really kind to ourselves? Are we really able to understand our problems? Why we are creating our own miseries, and why do we get into so much trouble sometimes? Why is that? The listening, that I mentioned earlier, is also a practice of acceptance and a practice of understanding, as well as a practice of metta. We listen to ourselves, we understand ourselves, we accept ourselves, and that feeling of acceptance becomes the quality of metta. We are able to love ourselves a little bit more, because we consider ourselves and our needs. We understand and then we care. So, by caring about ourselves, we see that all beings are not only the same, but all beings want the same thing. By generating a sense of well-being for ourselves we can also generate a feeling of metta towards other beings.

These four reflections can be developed in great detail and also can be a source of great potential, or great concentration if we like. I won't go into detail here. It's up to you to choose whether you would like to emphasise or develop one of f these four meditations, but, in general, they have to be considered and practiced every day.


We covered a lot of material, but all four of the reflections need to be included in our daily practice, especially meditating on the Buddha and cultivating all aspects of listening to ourselves. We need to remember that listening to ourselves will increase our understanding of ourselves and others. This is the key to our practice, because it creates more maturity and helps us begin to put the pieces together.

There is no break in our meditation practice, just as there is no break in life. Life is happening all the time. If we can be conscious, we can be aware that the quality of our mind and our consciousness needs to be the best it can. Through meditation we can improve the quality of our minds.

There are many ways to continue now that you have started. You can continue practicing in a good way. Never take a break from your practice, because you are training your mind in order to better  understand, adjust and develop. You might ask, towards what are you developing your mind? Like the Buddha you develop greater wisdom and understanding. You also develop metta and peace for yourself and all beings around you. All beings in the universe.

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