In the time of the Buddha, Vesali was an important town. Northern India was divided into a number of states and political groupings and one of these was the Vajji Confederation and Vesali was its capital. We can imagine it as a rather colourful and lively city with several dominant clans competing, mostly in a good spirited way. They had to co-operate defensively because across on the other side of the Ganges was the ever ambitious kingdom of Maghada. So the politics of Vesali were an on-going balancing act between the different families and between the different small states that were members of the alliance. This circumstance, however, made for creativity through the competition of ideas and styles. Each of the great families wore a characteristic colour, and had corresponding banners, so that you immediately knew which “team” people belonged to. The town was colourful in a quite literal way.
Soon after his illumination, Shakyamuni Buddha started to visit Vesali and attracted a following there. There were also followers of other philosophies in the town. It was one of those periods in history when many schools compete and there is a lively cultural and artistic life. In the realm of religion, as in other dimensions of culture, ideas and styles were in a creative dialectical ferment. We do not know for sure, but it is certainly conceivable that the development and elaboration of both Buddhist and Jain philosophies at least owe much to this melting pot.
There are a number of stories about the Buddha’s activities in Vesali and today I want to talk about the experience of one particular woman, Ambapali. The word Ambapali refers to the fact that she was a foundling. She had been abandoned by her mother, left under a mango tree (amba). It seems that she was brought up under the protection of the city. She will have been given a foster mother, but legally belonged to the city. She apparently grew into a stunningly beautiful young woman with large eyes, sensuous lips, a fine figure and long sleek black hair. In those days the status of women was subordinate and many men wanted to possess this alluring creature. It was soon realised that this was a potential source of trouble. Which family was going to get her? We can remember the Trojan War - conflicts over a woman can have disastrous consequences. How was this to be solved? These were different times from today. The city council decided that the only equitable solution was to make her into public property.
Ambapali became a courtesan. She was given a rather fine house and servants and her work was to entertain gentlemen. Thus she made money for the city and received a steady flow of rich gifts from admirers for herself. She became famous. The reputation of Vesali for beautiful women and especially for the most beautiful of all, Ambapali, spread and added to the attraction of the city. The prosperity of the city depended substantially upon its position in the middle of one of the main trade routes in the Ganges valley. Merchants now had yet another good reason to include a stop in the city in their itinerary. Ambapali grew rich. She acquired enough surplus to buy the mango grove where she had been left as a child and thus became the protector of the mangoes that had protected her. She seems to have enjoyed her role, the luxury, the flattery, and the comfort of her position. However, she was also haunted by existential anxiety. She knew that all this indulgence depended upon her looks and looks do not last forever. As she matured she could, to a degree, substitute acquired charm and intelligence for sheer beauty, but, nonetheless, time takes its toll and time was inexorably slipping by.
Of course, she heard all the news and gossip and the talk of the town was the sudden emergence of a new guru, said to be a completely enlightened sage, who came from the Shaken land to the West. It was said that he was virtuous and wise, that he had started a sangha of dedicated spiritual practitioners, even converting some other well-established teachers and all their disciples by his magical powers. It was said that he had been an ascetic and mastered all the ascetic practices but then rejected them and now taught a so-called Middle Way, “lovely in its begging, lovely in its development, lovely in its consummation”. Finally, and most tellingly, she heard, his teaching seemed to be based upon a profound understanding of the matter of impermanence. Ambapali listened to these stories intently. They spoke to her condition.
The next time the Buddha came to Vesali, Ambapali offered him the use of her mango grove. Mango groves were good places for groups of wanderers to set up camp as the big spreading trees provide plenty of shade. The Buddha received the message and was happy to accept. When news came that the Buddha sangha were arriving, Ambapali got into her carriage early in the morning and went quickly to the grove to make sure that all was in order to receive her precious guests of whom she had great hopes. When she saw the Buddha she was deeply affected. He had a quiet dignity and, although he clearly carried great authority in his own community, he was approachable and seemed completely free of affectation. She was used to men viewing her as a sexual object but here was a man who seemed untouched by her sexual charm yet open and friendly nonetheless. He spoke to her of virtue, of the calming of the mind and of a wisdom that is deeper than mere appearance or cleverness.
Ambapali was delighted by her conversation with the sage and invited him to come with his sangha to take a meal at her house later in the day and give teachings there. He accepted. Seeing that all was in order, she got back in her carriage and sped back into town to get everything organised for the reception of the sangha later in the day.
As she was hurrying home along the road, there were, coming the other way, carriages of young men from the grand Vesali families pelting along in a race to be the first to get to the Buddha, each wanting to be the one that won the prestige of entertaining the famous sage at their house. They had not expected traffic coming the other way and there was a collision. We can imagine the pandemonium, raised voices, horses neighing, accusations, tears and confusion. In the course of the subsequent exchanges, the young nobles came to realise that they had been up-staged by a prostitute and that the Buddha had already accepted her invitation. Now the course of the dialogue changed with the young men offering all kinds of inducements to get Ambapali to relinquish her claim on the Buddha. They realised that she would be a hard bargainer but could not believe that she could not be persuaded if enough money were forthcoming, but Ambapali would not budge. She said that even if they gave her half the city she would not relinquish her privilege of having the Buddha eat and teach at her house.
And so it was. The Buddha came with his friars and all sat down on the prepared seats and Ambapali’s servants served the monks food and she herself served the sage and after a silent and dignified meal all the lay people and monks present settled to hear the Buddha speak. He gave a profound discourse on impermanence. It was exactly what Ambapali needed to hear. He told how peace of heart was not to be found by relying upon ephemeral things but by taking refuge in eternal ones and how such a secure refuge is naturally expressed in a virtuous life, a pure heart and a practical wisdom grounded in fundamental truth. Then he administered the five precepts appropriate for lay followers of the Dharma. Ambapali was again completely satisfied and uplifted. She said that the sangha could have free usage of the mango grove whenever they were in Vesali and this thus became another centre for Buddhist activity in the region.
After the Buddha had left and gone on his way to another city, Ambapali treasured and pondered upon his teaching and her experience of her encounter with him. There was something very special about this man that transcended normal experience. She felt, as so many others did, that she had been in a presence that, while deeply human, was also somehow also super-human. This transmission she cherished and kept in her heart. The more she reflected upon it the more right the path of the Buddhadharma seemed and the more shallow her life of luxury. She felt very bashful of making such a radical change, but one day, following a strong inner compulsion, she made her way to visit the Buddha again and begged to be admitted to the Buddhist Order as a nun. She gave all her finery back to the city that had nurtured and protected her and set out into the homeless life.
In the text the Therigata, which records the words of the nuns, is recorded the verses that she spoke in old age: "Once my hair was beautiful, now it has fallen out; once my skin was smooth, now it is covered in wrinkles, once my feet were dainty, now they are cracked and shrivelled, once my teeth were fine, now they are yellow and broken, the words of the truth-speaker are eternally valid."
Ambapali lived a vibrant life despite initial adversity and, when inspired by the Tathagata, valiantly followed her heart, disregarding material advantage, The mixture of being driven by an existential koan and inspired by a glowing example is the template of so many stories of spiritual enlightenment. In our liturgies we call her, "Ambapali, foremost in understanding impermanence”. Having just come out of hospital myself following an experience demonstrative of human mortality, I can well appreciate this classic story.