Women Disciples of the Buddha

Remarkable Women and Their Stories

Asian culture, as many cultures are, is strongly patriarchal. Institutional Buddhism in most of Asia remains male-dominated to this day. Yet time has not silenced the voices of the women who became disciples of the Buddha.

Early scriptures contain many stories of women who left their homes to follow the Buddha. Many of these women, the scriptures say, realized enlightenment and went on to become prominent teachers. Among them were both queens and slaves, but as followers of the Buddha they were equals, and sisters.

We can only imagine what obstacles these women encountered in that far-away time. Here are some of their stories.

The Story of of Buddhist Nun Bhadda Kundalakesa

Painting of Two Women
A painting on the walls of Tivanka temple, in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sri Lanka. © Tuul and Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

Bhadda Kundalakesa's spiritual journey began when her husband tried to kill her, and she killed him instead. In her later years she became a formidable debater, freely traveling around India and challenging others in verbal combat. Then the Buddha's disciple Ananda showed her a new path. 

The Story of Dhammadinna, the Wise Buddhist Nun

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

Some of the early sutras of Buddhism are about enlightened women who teach men. In Dhammadinna's story, the man was the enlightened woman's ex-husband. After this encounter, the Buddha praised Dhammadinna as "a woman of discerning wisdom."

Khema, the Queen Who Became a Buddhist Nun

Nun of Vietnam
A Buddhist Nun in Linh Phong Pagoda, Da Lat, Vietnam. © Paul Harris / Getty Images

Queen Khema was a great beauty who overcame vanity to become a nun and one of the chief women disciples of the Buddha. In the Khema Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Samyutta Nikaya 44), this enlightened nun gives a dharma lesson to a king.

Kisagotami and the Mustard Seed Parable

Jizo Bosatsu With Baby
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is, among other things, a protector of deceased children. This statue of the bodhisattva is on the grounds of Zenko-ji, a temple in Nagano, Japan. © Brent Winebrenner / Getty Images

When her young son died, Kisagotami became crazed with grief. In this famous parable, the Buddha sent her on a quest for a mustard seed from a home in which no one had died. The quest helped Kisagotami realize the inevitability of death and accept the death of her only child. In time she was ordained and became enlightened.

Maha Pajapati and the First Nuns

Statues at Leshan, China
A woman contemplates statues at Oriental Buddha Park (Dongfang Fodu Gongyuan), Leshan, Sichuan, China. © Krzysztof Dydynski / Getty Images

Maha Pajapati Gotami was a sister of the Buddha's mother who raised young Prince Siddhartha after his mother died. According to a famous story in the Pali Vinaya, when she asked to join the sangha and become a nun, the Buddha initially refused her request. He relented and ordained his aunt and the women accompanying her at the urging of Ananda. But is this story true?

The Story of Patacara, One of the First Buddhist Nuns

The story of Patacara illustrated in Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U, Burma (Myanmar). Anandajoti, Wikipedia Commons, Creative Commons License

Patacara lost her children, her husband and her parents in a single day. She overcame unimaginable grief to realize enlightenment and become a leading disciple. Some of her poems are preserved in a section of the Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

The Story of Punnika and the Brahmin

Buddhist Nun in Burma
A Buddhist nun at Mingun Pagoda, Burma. © Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

 Punnika was a slave in the household of Anathapindika, a wealthy lay benefactor of the Buddha. One day while fetching water she heard a sermon of the Buddha, and her spiritual awakening began. In a famous story recorded in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, she inspired a Brahmin to seek out the Buddha and become his student. In time she became a nun herself and realized enlightenment.

More About Women Disciples of the Buddha

There are several other women named in the early sutras. And there were countless women followers of the Buddha whose names have been lost. They deserve to be remembered and honored for their courage and their persistence in following the Buddha's path.