The Story of Dhammadinna

The Nun Whose Wisdom Was Praised by the Buddha

Dhammadinna and Visakha as a married couple, from a mural at Wat Pho, a temple in Bangkok, Thailand. Anandajoti / Photo Dharma /, Creative Commons License

What's a woman to do when her once-contented husband suddenly decides to leave her and become a disciple of the Buddha? This is what happened to Dhammadinna, a woman of 6th century BCE India who, eventually, became a nun and a respected teacher of Buddhism.

Oh, and one of the people she "schooled" was her ex-husband. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

Dhammadinna's Story

Dhammadinna was born into a respectable family in Rajagaha, an ancient city in what is now the Indian state of Bihar. Her parents arranged a marriage for her to Visakha, who was a successful road-builder (or, some sources say, a merchant). They were a contented and faithful couple living a comfortable life, by 6th century BCE standards, although they had no children.

One day the Buddha was traveling nearby, and Visakha went to hear him preach. Visakha was so inspired that he decided to leave home and become a disciple of the Buddha.

This sudden decision must have been a shock to Dhammadinna. A woman of that culture who lost her husband had no status and no future, and she would not have been allowed to re-marry. The life she had enjoyed was over. With few other options, Dhammadinna decided to become a disciple also, and was ordained into the order of nuns.

Read More: About Buddhist Nuns

Dhammadinna chose a solitary practice in the forest. And in that practice she realized enlightenment and became an arhat. She rejoined the other nuns and became known as a powerful teacher.

Dhammadinna Teaches Visakha

One day Dhammadinna ran into Visakha, her former husband. It had turned out that a monastic life hadn't suited Visakha, and he had remained a lay disciple.

He had, however, become what Theravada Buddhists call an anagami, or "non-returner." His realization of enlightenment was incomplete, but he would be reborn in the Suddhavasa world, which is part of the Form Realm  of old Buddhist Cosmology. (See "The Thirty-One Realms" for further explanation.) So, while Visakha was not an ordained monk, he still had a good understanding of the Buddha Dharma.

Dhammadinna's and Visakha's conversation is recorded in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Culavedalla Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 44). In this sutta, Visakha's first question was to ask what the Buddha meant by self-identificataion.

Dhammadinna replied by referring to the Five Skandhas as the "aggregates of clinging." We cling to physical form, sensations, perceptions, discriminations and awareness, and we think these things are "me." But, the Buddha said, they are not a self.  (For more on this point, please see "The Cula-Saccaka Sutta: The Buddha Wins a Debate.")

This self-identification arises from the craving that leads to further becoming (bhava tanha), Dhammadinna continued. Self-identification falls away when that craving ceases, and the practice of the Eightfold Path is the means to end the craving.

The conversation continued at some length, with Visakha asking questions and Dhammadinna answering. To his final questions, Dhammadinna explained that on the other side of pleasure is passion; on the other side of pain is resistance; on the other side of neither pleasure nor pain is ignorance; on the other side of ignorance is clear knowing; on the other side of clear knowing is release from craving; on the other side of release from craving is Nirvana.

But when Visakha asked, "What is on the other side of Nirvana?" Dhammadina said he had gone too far. Nirvana is the path's beginning and the path's end, she said. If that answer doesn't satisfy you, seek out the Buddha and ask him about it. Whatever he says is what you should remember.

So Visakha went to the Buddha and told him everything Dhammadinna had said.

"Dhammadinna the nun is a woman of discerning wisdom," the Buddha said. "I would have answered those questions exactly the same way she did. What she said is what you should remember."

To read more about Dhammadinna, see Women of the Way by Sallie Tisdale (HarperCollins, 2006).