Fleeting in nature
is the false beauty of forms
selfishly clung by the deluded.
Khema, the chief consort of King Bimbisara, was said to be extremely beautiful. Revelling in her own exquisite beauty, she was ‘naturally’ uninterested in meeting Sakyamuni Buddha, as he was known for teaching that external beauty is impermanent – a truth she rejected. However, as the King was a devoted follower of the Buddha, he wanted her to learn from him. Using a skilful means to trick her to visit the monastery the Buddha was residing in, he got musicians to sing praises of the natural beauty of the grove the monastery was in. Being attracted to attractions sung, Khema decided to experience the grove in person. Seeing Khema approaching while teaching to a large assembly, the Buddha used his supernormal powers to manifest a beautiful maiden fanning him by his side. While engrossed in the beauty of the trees and flowers, Khema drew closer to the assembly. When she caught sight of the maiden, she was intrigued by her beauty, as it greatly surpassed hers. The Buddha then made the maiden age gradually, yet swiftly enough for her to see. Her skin wrinkled, her hair turned grey and her body collapsed in death, leaving a corpse that decayed into bones.
Finally recognising that conditioned forms were transient, Khema realised that the same would happen to hers. If even a form deemed more beautiful and precious than hers comes to pass, how could she retain hers? Her focus now shifted to the Buddha, he taught on the danger of lust for sense pleasures (as they breed spiritual complacency), and invited her to renounce them as they are fleeting in nature. Reflecting thus, she soon attained liberation as an Arhat, and became his first female chief monastic disciple, respected for her skills in explaining advanced teachings. Beyond the remarkableness of the Buddha’s means and Khema’s ability to awaken through it, this story also warns us of the possibility of spiritually backsliding in future lives. In her past lives, Khema already met and studied the Dharma from many Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Pratyekabuddhas. She also made sincere offerings, once by selling her beautiful hair, for getting alms to offer to a Buddha, and made the aspiration to be a future Buddha’s chief female disciple. Despite these and more great efforts, she almost forgot the greater preciousness and beauty of the Dharma due to vanity before meeting Sakyamuni Buddha!
Although with the near miss of neglecting the Dharma, she was fortunate to have had forged strong enough affinity with it, to be able to reconnect firmly in time. What about the rest of us? If we have learnt and practised the Dharma for some time already, we should roughly know the strength of our connections with the Dharma. Seemingly far from possible sudden enlightenment, we differ from Khema, who needed only an appropriate nudge from the Buddha. This is a compelling reason for us to aspire for birth in a Buddha’s Pure Land, where we can always learn from a Buddha and be mindful of the Dharma until liberation is attained – without the interruption of death when reborn, which causes forgetfulness of the Dharma and distractions by merits manifesting as beauty, wealth, status, power and such. As Dharma practitioners of average spiritual capacity, we are liable to repeatedly backslide, making it difficult for most to smoothly advance towards enlightenment in this life. This is why, as emphasised in the Amitabha Sutra by Sakyamuni Buddha, all Buddhas, including himself, highly urge beings of their worlds to seek refuge in Amitabha Buddha’s (Amituofo) Pure Land – where the most swift and seamless spiritual progress to Buddhahood will be enabled.
Enduring in nature
is the true beauty of truth
selflessly shared by the wise.
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