Visakha: The Chief Female Benefactor of the Buddha
by Dr. Asoka Bandarage
This year marks the centenary of Visakha Vidyalaya, the renowned Buddhist girls’ school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, named after the chief female benefactor of the Buddha. The Buddha remarked, “Visakha stands out foremost among my women lay supporters… of the Order.”1 The generosity (dana) of royal and wealthy patrons such as Visakha and Anathapindika, the Buddha’s chief male lay disciple, contributed greatly to the preservation and spread of the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) over the centuries. In light of contemporary debates over such issues as the ethics of wealth and the roles of women, it is inspiring to reflect upon the life of Visakha, the great Dhamma practitioner who was the Buddha’s chief benefactress.
Visakha was born into a wealthy family in the Maghada kingdom and grew up in Saketa, a lovely city built by her father near Savatthi, located in the Kosala kingdom. In Savatthi, she married into a family of great wealth. In addition to her riches, Visakha was renowned for her beauty, charm, poise, and physical strength. She possessed the five maidenly attributes of beauty – exquisite hair, teeth, skin, youth, and form – that her husband Punnavaddhana had required of his bride. After marriage, Visakha gave birth to ten sons and ten daughters, who in turn gave birth to a great many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Visakha was an exemplary wife and mother, and a compassionate caretaker of animals. She was also a person of wisdom, kindness, generosity, and other attributes of inner beauty. Though she lived in a patriarchal society, Visakha maintained her own independent business and was known for her managerial and communication skills. Among all of Visakha’s virtues, most noteworthy was her devotion and support for the Buddha and the sangha – the monastic community of monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis).
Visakha first met the Buddha, listened to his teachings, and entered the path of the Dhamma when she was just seven years old. From then on, until her death at the age of 120, she used her wealth and talents to tirelessly and generously serve the sangha. Visakha’s father-in-law Migara was a devout disciple of the Niganthas, a sect of naked ascetics. The story of how she convinced him to accept the Buddha’s teachings attest to her sense of humor, intelligence, and audacity.
One day, a Buddhist monk came to Migara’s doorstep as he was eating out of a golden bowl and Migara refused to offer him any food. Embarrassed, Visakha said to the monk, “Pass by, Venerable Sir, my father-in-law eats stale food.” The enraged Migara demanded an explanation. In her calm voice, Visakha explained that Migara was eating the benefits of his past good deeds without doing anything to accrue further merit. Visakha also said that, given her unshakeable faith in the teachings of the Buddha, she did not feel comfortable living in a house where monks were not welcome. If she did not get permission to invite the monks to the house, she would leave.
Reluctantly, Migara agreed to invite the Buddha and the monks to a meal at his house. When he heard the Buddha’s discourse at the end of the meal, Migara entered the Dhamma path. He expressed gratitude to his daughter-in-law for helping give birth to his spiritual liberation and declared that henceforth Visakha would be like a mother to him. Thus, Visakha came to be known as Mother Visakha or Migaramata, the mother of Migara. In time, she built the magnificent Pubbarama (Eastern Monastery) and donated it to the sangha. The monastery came to be known as Migaramatupasada, the terraced abode of Migara’s mother.
Visakha always tended vigilantly to the well-being of the sangha, attending to the needs of both monks and nuns. She requested the Buddha to grant her eight boons. As long as she lived, she wished to give robes to monks during the rainy season, rice gruel to the monks daily, meals to monks who entered Savatthi, meals to monks who left the city, meals to sick monks, medicine for sick monks, meals for monks tending the sick, and clothes for nuns to wear while bathing. The Buddha granted Visakha these eight boons when she disclosed her pure intention. Her request was not motivated by self-promotion. Instead, she wished to develop the five spiritual faculties (pancha indriya) – faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom – and the seven factors of enlightenment (sapta bhojanga) – mindfulness, keen investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.
As the leading female disciple of the Buddha, Visakha played an influential role in activities pertaining to the sangha. A number of monastic precepts were promulgated due to her intervention. For example, she questioned those monks who refused to ordain novices during the rainy season. She told the Buddha, “The Dhamma is timeless. There is no time when the Dhamma cannot be followed.” Thereafter, the Buddha allowed ordination during the rainy season. Visakha played a especially important role in managing the bhikkhuni sangha. Sometimes the Buddha allowed her to settle disputes among the nuns. Some precepts for the nuns were set forth on her advice.
The story of how Pubbarama came to be built is fascinating. One day, while Visakha was listening to a Dhamma discourse at Jetavana Monastery, built by Anathapindika in Savatthi, she set aside a valuable jeweled cloak that was part of her bridal jewelry and forgot it there. When she discovered the loss, she refused to take it back and instead sought to auction it off to raise money to support the sangha. When she could not find anyone in the whole of Savatthi with the means to buy her expensive cloak, worth some 90 million pieces of gold, Visakha bought it back herself. With that money and an additional 180 million, she bought land and built Pubbarama at the eastern gate of Savatthi. The building had two floors, with 500 rooms on each floor, and a pinnacle of solid gold at the top that could hold 60 water pots. It is said that the building was very tastefully furnished and completely carpeted. Pubbarama was donated to the sangha in the 31st year after the Buddha’s awakening.
On the day that Visakha dedicated Pubbarama to the sangha, she circumambulated the monastery with her children and grandchildren, singing elatedly. Seeing this unusual behavior, some monks asked the Buddha whether Visakha had lost her mind. The Buddha responded that Visakha had not lost her mind; she was simply reciting some verses of exultation over the fulfillment of her aspirations in past and present existences. The Buddha then spoke a verse extolling the merits of putting one’s resources and abilities to good use. This well-known verse is known as “Visakha Vatthu”:
"Just as from a collection of flowers many garlands can be made by an expert florist, so also, with wealth, faith, and generosity, one who is subject to birth and death can do much good”.2
Pubbarama is mentioned frequently in the Buddhist texts. The Buddha spent many rainy seasons there during the last 25 years of his life and delivered many important discourses. In the Agganna Sutta, which was delivered to two brahmins, the Buddha refuted caste ideology. He explained how humans became bound to the wheel of samsara life after life and how the practice of Dhamma, which is universal, allows anyone from the four castes to attain enlightenment. It was also at Pubbarama that the Buddha gave permission for the patimokkha, the basic code of conduct for the sangha, to be recited in his absence.
One full-moon night, while the Buddha was residing at Pubharama and the kaumudi white lily was in bloom, the Buddha delivered the Anapanasati Sutta to a vast community of silent monks. In this discourse, which is central to the Buddha’s teaching of meditation, he explained mindfulness of breathing in detail:
“O bhikkhus, the full awareness of breathing, if developed and practiced continuously, will be rewarding and bring great advantages. It will lead to success in practicing the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. If the method of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness is developed and practiced continuously, it will lead to success in the practice of the Seven Factors of Awaking. The Seven Factors of Awakening, if developed and practiced continuously, will give rise to understanding and liberation of the mind”.3
Over time, due to a confluence of factors, Buddhist teachings and culture disappeared from India. These factors included internal dissension, loss of patronage from the royalty and wealthy donors such as Visakha and Anathapindika, the revival of Brahmanism, and Muslim invasions. Like most other Buddhist monasteries and sacred sites, Pubbarama was destroyed. Thanks to the pillars built by Emperor Asoka in 3 BC, important Buddhist sites throughout the Indian subcontinent can still be identified.
The ruins of Pubbarama and the stupa that houses Mother Visakha’s ashes are yet to be excavated. Ironically, today what now marks Pubbarama, the site where the Buddha spoke out against caste ideology and taught mindfulness of breathing, is a broken Asokan pillar in the shape of a Shiva lingam, worshiped by Hindu villagers. Appreciation and respect for Visakha’s contribution to human spiritual advancement calls for the excavation and restoration of Pubbarama by the Indian authorities, with the support of the international Buddhist community.
Courtesy, Sakyadhita (International Association of Buddhist Women) Newsletter
1. Anguttara Nikaya 1, chap.14.
2. Dhammapada, verse 53.
3. Anapanasati Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 118.