Women in Buddhism (2): Queen Samavati

Speaker: Ven. Zhi Tong

Fo Guang Shan Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings, welcome to a new episode of English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Tong. Today, I would like to continue with last week’s theme of “Women In Buddhism.” As mentioned in the previous video, Buddhist disciples include bhiksus, bhiksunis, upasakas, and upasikas. The Four Assembly of Buddhist disciples are equal, and everyone can practice the teachings of the Buddha. Gender, age, nationality are not factors that contribute to a person’s liberation from suffering and attainment of awakening. Rather, one’s attitude, vows, and diligence are the keys to cultivation.

Today’s story is about an upasika, or lay woman practitioner. Her name was Samavati. I referenced the book, Great Disciples of the Buddha. I also urge you to read this wonderful book, where you will find wonderful stories of the disciples of the Buddha.

II. Finding Kindness in Chaos

Samavati was a happy, carefree girl who lived happily with her mother and father. She was known for her beauty, but she was never conscious about it. However, the happy family was forced to abandon their house and flee when pestilence broke out in their hometown. The father remembered that he had an old friend who lived in Kosambi, the capital of the kingdom of Vamsa. The friend, Ghosaka, was currently the finance minister, and they hoped that Ghosaka could help them.

Unfortunately, Samavati’s parents caught the pestilence. When they reached the city of Kosambi, they found out that the kingdom had generously set up a public alms hall for refugees, so that they had free food to eat. On the first day of arrival, Samavati took three portions of food, and on the second day, two portions. Finally, on the third day, one portion.

The man distributing the food to all the refugees had a cynical turn of heart when he saw this beautiful little girl coming over to receive food for the third time. He said, “Have you finally realized the capacity of your stomach?”

Samavati was not offended, instead she calmly explained, “On the first day, there were three of us, my parents and myself. That day my father succumbed to the plague. On the second day, I only needed food for two people, but my mother died yesterday. So today, I only need food for myself.”

The food distributor was deeply ashamed, and he begged for her forgiveness. After exchanging a few more words, he pitied this young girl, who was all alone in this world, and proposed to adopt her. Samavati was touched by his kindness and accepted his suggestion. She immediately began helping her new foster father with distributing the food. 

One could imagine the chaos in the public alms hall as refugees swarmed into it to receive food. But Samavati, already emanating a sense of calmness and kindness even at a young age, gently guided the people into order and made sure that everyone received the food that they needed. The people calmed down and took turns receiving food, content with what they had.

Soon enough, the news that the public alms hall was taking place without noise and tumult reached the ears of the kingdom’s finance minister, Ghosaka. He praised the food distributor, but he modestly replied that it was actually his foster daughter who was responsible for such a change. Ghosaka met with Samavati, and they both found out that Ghosaka was the very person whom the family was trying to seek help from. Ghosaka was quite impressed by Samavati’s calm and kind demeanor and decided to adopt her as his own daughter. Though the food distributor was sad, he knew that Samavati would have a better future if she grew up in Ghosaka’s household.

III. Others Before Self

So Samavati went to her beautiful and wealthy new home and grew up safe and happy. One day, a man saw her and immediately fell in love with her. This man was the king, Udena. Though King Udena already had several consorts, he could not forget Samavati and was determined to marry her.

When King Udena informed Ghosaka that he wanted to marry his foster daughter, Ghosaka refused even though he knew that he would be punished by the hot-tempered king for his disobedience. True enough, King Udena was enraged by Ghosaka that he stripped him of his position as the finance minister and exiled him from the country. Furthermore, he locked Samavati in her house and prohibited anyone from coming to her.

Samavati was saddened by the turns of events, but not for herself. She was sad that Ghosaka had to experience such suffering on her account. From the kindness and compassion of her heart, she voluntarily agreed to be the king’s wife. The king was immediately appeased and restored Ghosaka to his former position and glory.

Samavati did not see any inconvenience to herself in this turn of events. She did not feel wronged or suffer by agreeing to such a marriage. Her great love to all the people around her was the constant source of inner strength. Such a decision was not difficult for her, for she put the wellbeing of other people before herself.

IV. Transformed by the Dharma

Samavati’s inner peace and calm brought her harmony in her life as one of the queens of King Udena. One of the daily activities that she did was to give her servant, Khujjuttara, eight coins every day to buy flowers for the women’s quarters of the palace. Khujjutara was not an honest person. She would only buy four coins’ worth of flowers and kept the other four for herself. One day, when Khujjutara went to buy flowers as usual, the florist urged her to stay for a while, for the florist had invited the great Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciples to receive offerings in his house.

At this time, many people had already caught wind that there was a great teacher, a Buddha, a fully enlightened one, teaching people from all kingdoms and from all walks of life the way to be liberated from suffering and attain enlightenment. Khujjutara was interested and she stayed. As she gazed upon the magnificent appearance of the Buddha, and listened to his teaching of the Dharma, she found a sense of inner peace and clarity which she had never experienced before. Her pettiness and selfishness was washed away by the clear and cooling Dharma water. By the time the Buddha concluded his teaching, Khujjutara had already attained the path and fruit of stream-entry, the first level attainment of arhatship.

The first thing that Khujjutara did after such a wonderful inner transformation was to buy eight coins’ worth of flowers and confess to her queen. Samavati was surprised to see the amount of flowers that she received, but was even more surprised at the change in Khujjutara. She accepted Khujjutara’s apology magnanimously, and listened as Khujjutara shared her morning’s adventure. Samavati was sensitive to all that is virtuous and righteous, and she listened eagerly to Khujjutara’s sharing of the Buddha’s teachings. She gave a new task to Khujjutara: to visit the Buddha’s monastery everyday to listen to the Dharma and share it with her in the afternoon. Soon enough, Samavati and her other maidservants became devout practitioners of the Buddha’s teachings and each of them attained the fruit of stream-enterer.

Through the influence of the Dharma, Samavati became determined to develop her abilities of loving-kindness and compassion more intensively. She could feel sympathy for all beings and could suffuse everyone with loving-kindness and compassion. She was able to develop this faculty so strongly that the Buddha called her the woman lay disciple most skilled in spreading loving-kindness.

V. The Fire of Hatred

However, a greater test was now approaching Samavati. One of the other queens of King Udena was Magandiya. She was not jealous of Samavati’s beauty or the king’s love for Samavati, curiously, Magandiya’s hatred towards Samavati was because she was Sakymuni Buddha’s disciple. Magandiya hated the Buddha with a passion, a hate so deep and ingrained that she wanted to end anything that was connected to the Buddha, and in this way she unleashed her hate towards the Buddha to Samavati.

Magandiya devised many plots to kill Samavati. One of the more serious plots was hiding a poisonous snake in Samavati’s room. When the king came over Samavati’s room and saw the snake, he thought she wanted to kill him and was infuriated. Losing all control in his fury, King Udena reached for his bow and arrow and shot Samavati. However, through the power of her loving-kindness, the arrow rebounded from her without causing any harm. The king’s hatred could not influence her loving concern for him, and this kindness protected her like an invisible shield. 

When King Udena saw the miracle, he came back to his senses and was deeply shaken. He begged for her forgiveness and was even more convinced of her nobility of character and faithfulness to him. He became interested in the Buddha’s teachings when he saw the strength of his queen, and finally was so impressed by the Buddha’s teachings that he, too, took refuge under the Buddha.

Magandiya, on the other hand, was even more furious that Samavati had once again emerged from her evil plots unscathed. Finally, she devised a plan to burn down Samavati’s entire residence palace, with Samavati and her maidservants trapped inside. The plan was all made like an accident, and Magandiya left the kingdom on the guise of a tour so that no suspicion could fall on her. This terrible plan worked, and Samavati, along with all her maidservants, perished in the fire.

V. Whose Body is Burning?

Such a tragedy spread far and wide across the kingdom. No one could comprehend why such a beautiful, kind, and compassionate queen, beloved by everyone in the kingdom, would fall into such a tragic death. When they asked the Buddha about the future rebirths of the queen and her maidservants, the Buddha briefly replied, “Among these women, some were stream-enterers, some were once-returners, and some were non-returners. None of these lay disciples had died destitute of the noble fruits.

This means that Samavati and all her maidservants had attained different levels of arhatship. They are free from all sensual desire and hate. Moreover, Samavati was free of all identification of her body. Though her physical body burned, her soft, radiant heart, imbued with love and compassion, was unassailable and untouched by the fire. 

Samavati’s last words are, “It would not be an easy matter, even with the knowledge of the Buddha, to determine exactly the number of times our bodies have thus been burnt with fire as we have passed from birth to birth in the beginningless round of existence. Therefore, be heedful!” When her maidservants heard this, they meditated on the painful feeling and thereby gained the noble paths and fruits. 

The Buddha also explained that this tragedy was actually the fruition of a past karmic action committed by Samavati and her maidservants many rebirths ago.

V. Who is Alive and Who is Dead?

King Udena was overwhelmed with grief at Samavati’s death. He knew, after thinking much about this matter, who was the perpetrator of this terrible deed. King Udena unleashed all his fury upon his queen Magandiya and her relatives, who helped in this crime. Magandiya was punished in a most terrible way, and after death she continued to suffer in the lower realms.

Meanwhile, Samavati was reborn in the Heavenly Realms, where she would reach Nirvana, or full enlightenment, without ever returning from that world. The different results of love and hate could be seen with exemplary clarity in the lives and deaths of these two queens. When one day the monks were discussing who was alive and who was dead, the Buddha said that Magandiya while living was dead already, while Samavati, though dead, was truly alive. The Buddha spoke the verses:

Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless,
Heedlessness is the path to death.
The heedful ones do not die;
The heedless are likened to the dead.

The wise, then, recognizing this
As the distinction of heedfulness,
In heedfulness rejoice, delighting
In the realm of the noble ones.

The steadfast meditate persistently,
Constantly they firmly strive, 
Aspiring to reach Nirvana
The unexcelled security from bonds.

V. Conclusion

This is the life of Samavati, the foremost of female lay disciples who dwells in loving-kindness. Throughout her life, she showed loving-kindness and compassion not just to her loved ones, but even to those who hated her. Even upon the hour of painful death, she contemplated upon the Dharma and did not suffer from external agony. Loving-kindness and compassion are her protective armor, shielding her from external harm. Loving-kindness and compassion are also her aura, which she shone upon to those around her.

Thank you for listening to this Dharma talk. I hope you’ll find Samavati, this wonderful lay Buddhist disciple, an inspiring model.