Dwell upon the thought of death,
mindful of your mortal state.
For in the case of beings like us,
Death is certain, life uncertain;
All existing things must pass, subject to decay.
Therefore be heedful day and night.
– The Bodhisattva, who later became Śākyamuni Buddha, to Khemā, who was his wife then
(Jātaka 354) (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Khemā was one of the chief consorts of King Bimbisāra. Said to be extremely beautiful, she was also extremely attached to her looks. Although the King already attained stream-entry, and even donated Bamboo Grove to the Saṅgha, she fretted meeting the Buddha, worried that he might admonish on her vanity and indulgence in sense pleasures.
However, the King devised a skilful means to urge her to see the Buddha, by getting singers to praise the peaceful scenery of the grove. Hearing their songs and due to her love of nature’s beauty, she finally decided to visit it.
Fully decked with a silk dress and sandalwood paste, she felt drawn to where the Buddha was teaching. Using his supernormal power to read her mind to decide how to teach her, the Buddha manifested a beautiful young girl’s form, who appeared to be fanning him. Amazed by her appearance, Khemā was surprised that she did not even have a single small part comparable to her great beauty.
She also thought that claims that the Buddha ‘disparages’ beautiful forms must be ‘slandering’ him. (In truth, what the Buddha taught was to not be attached to appearances, not that wonderful appearances are ‘not good’ by themselves.)
Knowing she was entranced, the Buddha made the image gradually morph, from a young girl to a middle aged lady, then to an old woman, with teeth chipped, hair greyed and skin wrinkled, until she fell dead to the ground, even beginning to rot. (Intriguingly, the Buddhas was multitasking by giving a verbal talk to the rest of the audience while giving a visual demonstration to her.)
Khemā then realised the futility of attachment to beauty, which is impermanent, like her life itself. If even such a wondrous form is fleeting and can be wrecked thus, her impure body will undergo the similar. The Buddha uttered that she should see this heap of elements, which succumbed to sickness and decay, seeping with impurities, to be craved only by the foolish. Hearing this, Khemā attained stream-entry.
The Buddha continued his teaching (with Dhammapada verse 347), ‘Those who are lust-infatuated fall back into the swirling current (of rebirth) like a spider on its self-spun web. This, too, the wise cut off. Without any longing, they abandon all suffering and renounce the world.’ (tr. Acharya Buddharakkhita)
Understanding this completely, Khemā attained Arahantship. With the King’s agreement, she joined the Saṅgha as a Bhikkhunī, even becoming the female monastic disciple of the Buddha foremost in wisdom.
This incident that presented the fantastically fast-forwarded yet realistic process of impermanence progressing towards death calls to mind these questions… Which ‘you’ do ‘you’ truly love? The ‘you’ now in your prime, near-prime or… ?
Which other ‘love interest’ do ‘you’ truly love? The ‘love interest’ now in his/her prime, near-prime or… ? If your love is conditioned by a ‘fixed’ set of aggregates, which inevitably warps and deteriorates, how truly enduring is your love? Does ageing with the beloved make change more acceptable, or equally terrible?
Khemā did not attain such swift self-liberation by mere ‘chance.’ It turned out that her potential for awakening, as nurtured for many kalpas through many past Buddhas encountered was ready to ripen. Despite her initial resistance to meet the Buddha in her final life as an ordinary being, she was actually previously attracted to the Dharma, so much so that she was always born where a Buddha arose.
In fact, during Vipassī Buddha’s era 91 kalpas ago, Khemā was once a Bhikkhunī who taught the Dharma! Almost lost to vanity, this is also a cautionary tale on the recurring existential horror of forgetting past lives, and if not realising enough of the Dharma in time in this ever-shortening life! By reaching Amitābha Buddha’s (阿弥陀佛) Pure Land (净土) by the end of this life though, there will be recollection of all past lives, thus progressing swiftly without retrogressing spiritually.
I am repelled and humiliated
By this putrid fleshly body,
Afflicted by illness, so very fragile;
I have uprooted sensual craving.
Sensual pleasures are now like sword stakes,
The aggregates are their chopping block.
That which you call sensual delight
Has become for me no delight at all.
– Khemā to Māra the seducer
(Therīgāthā 140–141) (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
How Death Hinders Progress To Liberation
Are You ‘Recycling’ Yourself Every Three Lifetimes?
How A Great Beauty Realised Greater Beauty