The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990

This page describes Story of Sirima the Courtesan contained within the book called the Great Chronicle of Buddhas (maha-buddha-vamsa), a large compilation of stories revolving around the Buddhas and Buddhist disciples. This page is part of the series known as the Buddha’s Seventeenth Vassa at Veḷuvana. This great chronicle of Buddhas was compiled by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw who had a thorough understanding of the thousands and thousands of Buddhist teachings (suttas).

Part 1 - Story of Sirimā the Courtesan

Prologue: After taming and converting the ogre Āḷavaka while observing the sixteenth vassa at Āḷavī city, the Buddha exhorted and taught those beings who were worthy of His Teaching. When the vassa came to an end, He journeyed from the city of Āḷavī and reached the city of Rājagaha eventually and He stayed at the Veḷuvana monastery of the city to keep the seventeenth vassa.

Here a brief account of Sirimā the courtesan which should be known in advance: Merchants of Rājagaha who belonged to a trading guild, having personally witnessed the splendour of the city of Vesālī, which was due to the courtesan Ambapālī, told King Bimbisāra on their return to Rājagaha that a courtesan should be kept in their city too. When the King granted permission to do so, they appointed a very pretty woman, Sālavatī by name, courtesan with appropriate ceremonial emblems and duly recognized by the King. A fee of a hundred coins was charged for those who wanted to enjoy her company for one night.

When the courtesan first gave birth to a son, the infant was abandoned on a road but was picked up, adopted and named Jīvaka by Prince Abhaya. On coming of age, he went to Takkasīla and studied medicine under a prominent teacher till he became accomplished in it. He was, in fact, to be famous as physician Jīvaka, and his name is well-known even today.

Sālavatī’s second child was a daughter. As a daughter could follow her mother’s occupation as a courtesan, she was not abandoned (unlike in Jīvaka’s case) but nurtured well. The name Sīrimā was given to her. On her mother’s death, Sīrimā succeeded her and was recognized as courtesan by the King. Those, who wished to seek pleasure with her for one night, had to pay a thousand coins. This is a brief account of the courtesan Siramā.

The Buddha’s Discourse in Connection with Sirimā

While the Buddha was keeping the seventeenth vassa at Veḷuvana in Rājagaha, Sirimā was a lady of great beauty. What was peculiar about her was this: During one rainy season, she did something wrong against the Buddha’s female lay devotee (upāsikā) Uttarā, who was daughter-in-law of the wealthy merchant, Puṇṇa, and who was a noble sotāpanna. In order to beg Uttarā’s pardon, she confessed to the Buddha who had finished His meal together with members of the Sangha at Uttarā’s house. One that very day, after listening to the Buddha’s discourse, given in appreciation of the meal, she attained sotāpatti-phala when the verse beginning with “Akkodhena jine kodhaṃ” uttered by the Buddha came to a close.

(This is just an abridgment. A detailed account will be given when we come to the section on Nandamātā Uttarā Upāsikā in the chronicle of female lay devotees, in the Chapter on Sangha-Ratana.)

The day after her attainment of sotāpatti-phala, the courtesan Sirimā invited the Order of Bhikkhus with the Buddha at its head and performed alms-giving on a grand scale. From that day onwards, she undertook permanent (nibaddha) giving of alms-food to a group of the eight bhikkhus. Beginning from the first day of her invitation the eight bhikkhus went in their turn to Sirimā’s place constantly for food. Saying respectfully: “Please accept butter, Venerable Sirs! Please accept milk, Venerable Sirs!” Sirimā offered by putting her supplies to the brim of the bowls of the eight monks who came as it was their turn. The food received by a monk (from Sirimā’s house) was sufficient for three or four. Sirimā spent sixteen coins each day for offering food.

One day, one of the eight monks went to Sirimā’s place as it was his turn, had his meal there and went to another monastery that was more than three yojanas away from Rājagaha. One evening, while the visiting monk was sitting at the place reserved for waiting upon, the Mahāthera of the monastery, his fellow monks, asked him in their speech of welcome (paṭisandhāra): “Friend, where did you have your meal and come over here?” The visiting monk replied: “Friends, I came after having the meal which is the permanent offering made to eight monks by Sirimā.” Again the monks inquired: “Friend, did Sirimā make her offering attractive and give it to you?” “Friend, I am not able to praise her food fully. She offered the food to us after preparing it in the best possible manner. The food received by one from her is sufficient for three or four to enjoy. It is particularly fortunate for one to see her beauty rather than to see her offering. That woman, Sirimā, is indeed one endowed with such and such signs of beauty and fairness of limbs, big and small?” Thus the visiting monk replied, extolling Sirimā’s qualities.

Then one of the monks, after hearing the words in praise of Sirima’s qualities, fell in love with her, even without actual seeing. Thinking: “I should go and see her,” he told the visiting monk his years of standing as a bhikkhu and asked about the order of monks (who were presently due to be at Sirimā’s house). “Friend,” replied the visiting monk, “if you go now you will be one of those at Sirimā’s place tomorrow and receive the aṭṭhaka-bhatta

(the food for the eight).” Hearing the reply, the monk set out at that very moment, taking his bowl and robe. (Though he could not reach Rājagaha that night, he made great effort to continue his journey.) And he arrived in Rājagaha at dawn. When he entered the lotdrawing booth and stood there, the lot came to him, and he joined the group to receive the aṭṭhaka-bhatta at Sirimā’s residence.

But Sirimā had been inflicted with a fatal disease since the previous day when the former monk left after having Sirimā’s meal. Therefore she had to take off her ornaments that she usually put on and lay down on her couch. As her female servants saw the eight monks coming according to their lot, they reported to Sirimā. But she was unable to give seats and treat them personally by taking the bowls with her own hands (as in the previous days). So she asked her maids, while lying: “Take the bowls from the monks, women. Give them seats and offer the rice-gruel first. Then offer cakes and, when meal time comes fill the bowls with food and give them to the monks.”

“Yes, madam,” said the servants, and after ushering the monks into the house, they gave them rice-gruel first. Then they offered cakes. At meal time, they made the bowls full with cooked rice and other foods. When they told her of what they had done, Sirimā said to them: “Women, carry me to the Venerable Ones; I would like to pay my respect to them.” When they carried her to the monks, she did obeisance to the monks respectfully with her body trembling as she could not remain steady.

The monk, who had became amorous with Sirimā without seeing her previously, now gazed upon her and thought: “This Sirimā looks still beautiful despite her illness. How great her glamour would have been when she was in good health and adorned with all ornaments.” Then there arose in his person wild lustful passions as though they had accumulated for many crores of years. The monk became unconscious of anything else and could not eat his meal. Taking the bowl, he went back to the monastery, covered the bowl and put it at a place. Then he spread out a robe on which he lay down with his body kept straight. No companion monk could request him to eat. He starved himself by entirely cutting off the food.

That evening Sirimā died. King Bimbisāra had the news sent to the Buddha, saying: “Exalted Buddha! Sirimā, the younger sister of the physician Jīvaka is dead.” On hearing the news the Buddha had his message sent back to the King, asking him: “Do not cremate the remains of Sirimā yet. Place her body on its back at the cemetery and guarded it against crows, dogs, foxes, etc,” The King did as he was instructed by the Buddha.

In this way, three days had passed and on the fourth day, Sirimā’s body became swollen. Worms came out profusely from the nine openings of the body. The entire frame burst out and was bloated like a boiling-pot. King Bimbisāra sent the drummers all over the city of Rājagaha to announce his orders: “All citizens, except children, who are to look after their houses, must come to the cemetery to watch the remains of Sirimā. Those who fail to do so will be punished with a fine of eight coins each.” He also sent an invitation to the Buddha to come and observe Sirimā’s body.

The Buddha then asked the monks: “Let us go and see Sirimā’s body!” The young passionate monk followed no advice of others but starved himself, lying. The food (kept in the bowl four days ago) had now gone stale. The bowl also had become filthy. Then a friendly monk told the young bhikkhu: “Friend, the Buddha is about to go and see Sirimā’s body.” Though he was oppressed by hunger severely, the crazy young monk got up as soon as he heard the name Sirimā. “What do you say, friend?” he asked. When the friend replied: “The Buddha, friend, is going to see Sirimā. Are you coming along?” Answering: “Yes, I am,” he threw away the stale food, washed the bowl, put it in the bag and went along with other monks.

Surrounded by monks, the Buddha stood on one side at the cemetery. There were also groups of nuns (bhikkhunīs), members of the royalty, male and female lay devotees, standing on other sides. When all had gathered, the Buddha asked the King: “Great King, who was this woman?” “Exalted Buddha, she was a young woman named Sirimā, sister of the physician Jīvaka,” answered the King. “Was she Sirimā, Great King?” the Buddha asked again.

When the King affirmed, the Buddha said:

“Great King, in that case (if she was Jīvaka’s sister) have the announcement made by beating the drum that ‘those who desire Sirimā may take her on the payment of a thousand coins.’ ”

The King did as instructed by the Buddha. But there was no one who would say even ‘hey!’ or ‘ho!’ When the King informed the Buddha that “Nobody would like to take her,” the Buddha said: “Great King, if there is none to take her for a thousand coins, reduce the price,” the King then had it announced that those who would like to take her by paying five hundred. Again none was found desirous of taking her by paying that amount of money. Again the price was reduced to two hundred and fifty, two hundred, one hundred, fifty, twenty-five, five, one coin, half a coin, one fourth of a coin, one sixteenth of a coin, just a gunja seed. But nobody came out to take her body. Finally it was announced that the body might be taken free, without making any payment at all. Still no one muttered even ‘hey!’ or ‘ho!’

The King reported the matter to the Buddha, saying: “Exalted Buddha, there does not exist a single person who would take it free of charge!”

The Buddha then sermonized as follows:

“You monks, my dear sons! Behold this woman (Sirimā) who had been dear to many. Formerly in this city of Rājagaha one could seek pleasure with her by paying as much as a thousand coins. Now nobody would like to take her by paying nothing at all! The beauty that was so highly valued has now come to destruction. Monk, through your eye of wisdom observe this physical frame that is always intolerably painful!”

Then the Buddha uttered the following verse:

Passa cittakataṃ bimbaṃ,
arukāyaṃ samussitam
Āturaṃ bahusankappaṃ,
yassa n'atthi dhuvaṃ ṭhiti
.

(O my dear sons, monks!) There is no such a thing as nature of firmness or of steadfastness in this body frame, not even the slightest bit. The body frame which is made pleasant and exquisite with dress and ornaments, flowers and perfumes and other forms of cosmetics; which is composed of limbs big and small, beautiful and proportionate, giving a false impression of splendour, which can stand upright because of its three hundred bones; which is constantly painful and intolerable; which is wrongly thought by many blind worldlings to be pleasant, befitting and fortunate as they know no truth and have no intelligence, and which is unpleasant as the whole thing is disgustingly full of loathsomeness, trickling down from the sore-like nine openings. With your penetrating eye, have a look at such a body, studying repeatedly!

By the end of the discourse, eighty-four thousand beings realized the Four Truths and attained emancipation. The young monk who had loved Sirimā became established in sotāpatti-phala.

(The above account is extracted from the Story of Sirimā, Jarā-Vagga, Second Volume of the Dhammapada Commentary.)

(In connection with the story of Sirimā, the account contained in the Vijaya Sutta, Uraga Vagga of the first volume of the Sutta Nipāta Commentary, will be reproduced as follows, for it has so much appeal.)

While the young monk was starving himself, Sirimā died and was reborn as Chief Queen to Suyāma Deva of Yāma celestial abode. The Buddha, in the company of monks, took the young psychopathic monk and went to watch the remains of Sirimā that was not cremated yet but kept by King Bimbisāra (under the Buddha’s instructions) at the cemetery where dead bodies were thrown away. Similarly, the citizens as well as the King himself were present there.

There, at the cemetery, the people talked among themselves: “Friends, in the past it was hard to get your turn to see and enjoy her even by paying a thousand coins. But now no person would like to do so even for a guñja seed.”

The celestial Queen Sirimā accompanied by five hundred divine chariots came to the cemetery. To the monks and lay people who had assembled there at the cemetery, the Buddha delivered the Vijaya Sutta and to the young monk He uttered in His exhortation the verse beginning with “Passa cittakataṃ bimbaṃ” as preserved in the Dhammapada.

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