We call her Queen Vaidehi. Actually we do not know her name. At the time, twenty-five centuries ago, the word vaidehi probably meant a consort of the king, but she is now established as Queen Vaidehi. She was the mother of Ajatashattru. Ajatashattru means broken hand, on account of a deformity he had. Vaidehi was the wife of Bimbisara, the king of Maghada. Bimbisara was a friend and patron of the Buddha.
A member of the Buddha’s sangha, Devadatta, who was a cousin of the Buddha, was jealous of the master and came to believe that he himself should become the leader of the Buddhist sangha. There are stories that he even attempted to assassinate the Buddha. Eventually, Devadatta created a schism in the Buddhist sangha and he and five hundred monks left to form a separate sangha that was to continue in India until the middle ages. As part of his attempt to thwart Shakymuni, Devadatta sought to create conflict between Bimbisara and his son in the hope that when Ajatashattru succeeded to the throne he would patronise Devadatta rather than Shakyamuni. Devadatta told Ajatashattru that the reason that his hand was as it was was because when he was a baby and the Queen presented him to his father a soothsayer had said that this chld would kill his father and that Bimbisara had been so enraged that he threw the baby out the window, the hand being broken in the fall. Ajatashattru came to hate his father and, when the opportunity came, he seized power and had his father imprisoned without food, intending to starve him to death.
Queen Vaidehi was now deeply distressed by this conflict between her husband and son. She smuggled food in to the prison for Bimbisara. She did this by smearing her body with a nutritious paste and filling her jewellery with fruit juice, so that when she went to visit him she could feed him. After a while, Ajatashattru asked if his father was dead yet and came to discover what his mother was doing. He then became enraged with his mother and started to draw his sword to kill her but was restrained by his counsellors who told him that while there were many precedents for sons killing their fathers, to kill one’s mother was regarded as the ultimate in wickedness.
Ajatashattru put his mother under house arrest. In her extremity of distress she prayed to the Buddha who was at that time not far away. Buddha was at Vulture Peak preaching the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha heard her prayer and went to see her accompanied by his disciple Ananda. The dialogue between the Queen and the Buddha begins with her reflecting, “What must you and I have done in previous lives to deserve such relatives as these in this one!” Thus there is a basis for an immediate sympathy between the Queen, suffering from the acts of her son and the Buddha from those of his cousin.
The Queen expects not to live long and to be reborn somewhere in her next life, but does not want to be reborn in a world like this one where such dreadful things happen, and wants to know from the Buddha if there are other, better realms and how one can attain to them. The Buddha knows that there are pure abodes that can be attained either by having completely pure karma or by deep contemplation, but he says that Vaidehi cannot proceed by either of those routes as she is a worldly woman who has not mastered such contemplations nor does she have pure karma. We can easily imagine that, as a queen, she will have been involved in many less than perfect actions. However, because of her great faith, through the Buddha's power she is nonetheless immediately permitted to see the pure abodes of many Buddhas and, overwhelmed by this vision, she chooses Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha.
Ananda, who is witness to all this, is struck by the transformation that has come over Vaidehi and asks the Buddha what she has experienced. The Buddha then gives Ananda a teaching consisting of a series of visualisations by which he can mentally construct a sense of Sukhavati. The Buddha and Ananda then return to Vulture Peak to continue delivering the Lotus Sutra teachings.
Later, Ajatashattru comes to visit his mother, bringing his own baby son along. Mother and son converse. Ajatashattru has his baby on his lap. The baby has a nasty boil on his leg. Ajatashattru tries to suck the poison out of the boil with his mouth, a rather unpleasant task, but one that demonstrates the love he had for the child. Queen Vaidehi starts to cry. “What is it, mother?” “I can’t help it… you look so much like your father when he did that for you when you were a child… he loved you so much.” Ajatashattru is touched. He feels remorse. He calls a guard and tells the guard to bring his father. The guard goes away. There is a lot of emotion in the room. The guard returns and says, “Unfortunately, your father passed away just this hour.” Ajatashattru and Vaidehi are deeply affected and full of grief.
Ajatashattru became king and he and his mother continued to patronise the Buddha.
THE IMPORTANCE OF VAIDEHI
Most of this information comes from the Contemplation Sutra. The sutra does include the contemplations that the Buddha taught to Ananda. However, the real importance of the sutra lies in the fact that it was Vaidehi, not Ananda, who had the vision of Sukhavati. She attained access to the pure land of Amitabha as a direct result of her faith which came to the fore in the midst of her distress at the cruelty of this world.
How many of us have pure karma? How many of us have mastered the dhyana contemplations to the point where we can enter the bliss of the Buddhas at will? Few if any. Like Queen Vaihehi, we need another route, but what will motivate us to call out in faith in the way that she did? The way of Vaidehi is possible for ordinary people because she was an ordinary person. She had not done years of meditation training, nor kept the moral precepts. She was like us in that respect, so she is a best model for the ordinary person.
She worshipped and called out to the Buddha. Pureland Buddhist practice, therefore, centres upon calling out to the Buddha. We may call to Amitabha - Namo Amida Bu! - or to Shakyamuni - Namo Buddhaya! - or any other Buddha, but Vaidehi chose Amitabha because he is the Buddha of all acceptance, and the essence of this story is that it is about being accepted even though one has not scaled the spiritual heights of pure mind and complete renunciation. Amitabha is the Buddha for people like us.
Queen Vaidehi, therefore, is, in a sense, the patron saint of ordinary people. She was a woman, which was an inferior status in India, and, furthermore, she was unavoidably caught up in the dark deeds of rich and powerful people, yet, still, even she could reach out to the Buddha and receive solace, grace and assurance both for here and hereafter. This is a demonstration that the door is open to everybody, not just to a spiritual elite.
THE NECESSARY AND SUFFICIENT CONDITIONS
Although the Vaidehi story illustrates that the “gateless gate” is open to all, we can, nonetheless, see that the conditions of entry are rather distinctive. Although the door is open, few enter. Why is this? As one of my spiritual friends says, “Why aren’t people queuing up?”
From my observation, it appears that certain conditions are particularly conducive, but these are not ones that one can contrive by deliberation. Vaidehi’s awakening of faith stands at the point where desperation and inspiration coincide and the activity that epitomises this point is prayer, the expression of longing. These three elements, therefore, are the key - recognition of our own faulty condition, inspiration by a higher truth and the will to call out across that divide.
There is a seemingly paradoxical sense in which Vaidehi does actually attain to the highest samadhi and the purest renunciation. Her renunciation is in her disenchantment with herself and this world borne of a recognition of her own karma and of the actions of her son and Devadatta. Then her samadhi flows naturally from her faith that the Buddha has the key. The relation between them is exceedingly touching in that it is intimate and human at the same time as being one of the deepest respect. Her reverence is centred upon him as her inspiration. His respect is simply one distinct instance of his universal unconditional compassion. Thus there is a samadhi - an intense concentration of love and recollection of what is most fundamental in life - created like nuclear fusion in the crucible of dire circumstance.
Such spiritual awakening is, I suggest, the essence of all real spiritual awakening, not just in Buddhism yet it is, perhaps, especially difficult for modern people. On the one hand, we are too cushioned and comfortable. On the other, we are educated to think that we should be able to do everything by our own wit and desire. All of this is fatal to the spiritual life. We have to recover the faith that we had before we were educated out of it.
I said above that the necessary conditions cannot be contrived. They are adventitious. Vaidehi did not plan the plight she found herself in. So is there anything we can do? We can certainly remove some obstacles, but this requires courage and motivation. Really it is mostly a matter of living life as honestly as we can and taking the risks that that entails rather than settling for half-truths and comforting illusions that we know deep down are not really authentic. Life in earlier times was more raw than it is in our materialist consumer society. Reality is the ultimate teacher and we are enlightened by our collisions with it.
We can also, as Buddha advises, keep good company. Even when we cannot do this physically, we can, like Vaidehi, centre the prayer of our life upon a saintly presence, and, when it is possible, we can put ourselves in the presence of teachers and exemplars. Even here, however, there are difficulties, because many spiritual groups can easily themselves become comfort blankets.
So, have faith, keep good company, turn the mind toward the Buddha, be willing to learn the lessons life sends, call out to the awakened. If one has this kind of life, then when adversity strikes there is a possibility that one will actually call out not just as performance of a recommended practice - like Ananda - but actually from the bottom of one’s heart, like Vaidehi. Only that.
Namo Amida Bu.
Very moving, very inspirational, deep bow, what a painful but also so happy and beautiful story!
In hell we are most motivated to call out, to see and to give ourselves in the hands of other-power. First we have to really feel in flesh and bones how powerless we are, how bombu we are.
If we can see on that terifying moment the other side, how good it could be if we could live in love and peace, what a grace! It can make our hearths light and open again to love and compassion.
Thank you to share
Namo Amida Bu
Yes, thank you.
Remembering this story and touched by the way you have recounted and explained it has touched me deeply. Namo Amida Bu