Monday, July 11, 2011

Sumana's 13 Existences

A recent email conversation with a friend touched on past lives' memories. She was very intrigued by past life knowledge and posted many questions. Arriving at work 40 minutes early Monday morning after dropping by the local Travel Clinic, I began reading Sayadaw U Pannadipa's "Five Ways To Cultivate A mature and Stable Mind", a copy that I picked up at the Tathagatha Meditation Center the day before at the end of a weekend meditation retreat. There, inside this book, are the many answers to my friend's questions so I typed up this story and emailed it to her and decided to post it here as well.

Splendor in Brahma Abodes and 
Munching Away in a Feeding Trough

Regarding this point, there is a traditional saying in Theravada Buddhism, thus:
"One might be glorious and dignified as a Brahma in the Brahma abode at one time, but he might also be munching away in a feeding trough for pigs at another time."

Following is a story related to the above saying:

Once, the Buddha went out for alms-food in the city of Rajagaha. While on alms-round, the Buddha saw a sow and smiled. When the buddha smiled, his teeth emitted white rays. Venerable Ananda walking behind the Buddha knew that the Buddha had smiled. Threfore, he respectfully asked the Buddha, "Veneralbe Sir, why are you smiling?"

The Buddha replied, "Ananda, look over there. Do you see that sow?"

Venerable Ananda answered, "Yes, Venerable Sir. I see it."

The Buddha said, "Ananda, the sow you see over there right now was once a woman at the time of Kakusandha Buddha. She was later reborn as a hen near a dining hall. One day, a falcon swooped down and caught her. She died suddenly. As she had heard and appreciated a meditative verse recited by a meditating monk, she developed merit and was reborn as a princess named Ubbari in a Royal Residence. Later she became a Pabbajjika, a female ascetic. As an ascetic, she at one time contemplated death and decay through feces full of maggots. Seeing the maggots with the perception of detestation and disgust, she attained the first stage of Jhanic trance, a stage of absorption and deep concentration. After she died as a female ascetic, she was reborn as a Brahma. When that lifetime ended she was reborn as the daughter of a millionaire. After that existence, she was born as the sow that you see before you now. In knowing all of these successive events, the passing from one existence to the next, I smiled." 

Upon hearing this, all of the monks led by the Venerable Ananda felt tremendously sorry for sentient beings in samsara (cycle of rebirths). Then standing on the path where the monks traveled for alms, the Buddha expounded six verses. The first of these verses is as follows:

Yathapi mule anupaddave dalhe, 
Chinno pi rukkho punareva ruhati
Evampi tanhanusaye anuhate,
Nibbattati dukkhamidam punapunam.

Just as a tree again becomes prosperous,
Though its branches have been cut off,
If its roots are fixed and firm.
So does suffering arise in each new existence
As long as the roots of craving for new existences have not yet been cut off.

In the same way, the princess Ubbari or the ascetic Paribbajjika was not able to dispel the craving for sensual pleasures for more than a short time. As an ascetic, she was free from the craving of sensual pleasures temporarily thanks to her attaining the first stage of absorption as a result of her contemplation on the loathsomeness of maggots in feces. However, the craving for existence had not been totally dispelled in her, so she was reborn again later as a millionaire's daughter. Unless a being attains a full enlightenment, the craving for existence continues to exist throughout the cycle of rebirths even if the being has already achieved states of absorption or deep concentration.

Depending on one's own kamma or the wholesome and unwholesome deeds in the past, one will receive corresponding results whenever suitable conditions arise. This is the natural law of cause and effect. So long as the roots of craving exist, one will wander through countless existences. With the craving still existed and along with her own kamma, the millionaire's daughter  was later reborn in the human world as a sow. In reference to this event and others mentioned in Tipitaka literature, the Maha Theras of the olden days used the following saying, "Splendor in Brahma abodes and munching in pig's feeding troughs."

Life as a pig in the animal realm or life in any of the lower existences such as ghost (petas) or hell realms, however, cannot directly follow the Brahma existence. Due to the power of the cultivation and development of wholesome actions associations with states of deep concentration (jhana) or neighborhood absorption (Upacara Samadhi), one may only be reborn into wholesome abodes such as celestial realms or the human world.

The sow was a millionaire's daughter in a previous life. At that time, she was very haughty and disrespectful to noble ones. Such demeritorious and unbeneficial actions may have been the cause for her rebirth as a sow.

When the sow died, she was reborn as the princess of a royal family in the Suvannabhumi region. After that, she was reborn as a woman in the city of Baranasi, India. She later took birth as a woman in the Vanavasi Division, now the southeastern part of Bombay. Then she was reborn as a daughter of a horse trader in Port Supparaka, now on the coast of northern Bombay. Following that death, she became a daughter of a boat-leader in another port town, Kavira. In her next life, she was a female official in governing body of Anuradha City on the Sinhalese Island. 

In another existence, she was reborn as a daughter of a millionaire in Bokkanta village. She was named Sumana, meaning "bright mind." Later, her father transferred to a village called Mahamuni in Dighavapi State and the family moved there. On one occasion, while Sumana was living in this village, a minister of King Dutthagamani named Lakundaka Atimbara came to visit. The minister saw Sumana and, upon seeing her, loved her and married her in a grand and elaborate ceremony.

Sumana's new husband then took her to his native village called Mahapunna. While she was living there, a monk named Maha Anuraddha Thera, who was staying at a nearby monastery, came to town for alms-food. He stood at the entrance of Sumana's house for alms and saw her. He immediately exclaimed to his followers, "How wonderful and marvelous it is to see the sow of the Buddha's lifetime as the wife of a minister in the present!"

When Sumana heard these words from Maha Thera, she recalled all of the events of her previous existences, one after another, and became filled with remorse. Consequently, she asked her husband's permission to become a bhikkuni. At the Tissa Mahavihara Monastery, Sumana learned the MahaSatipatthana Sutta. Following the teachings in the Sutta, she practiced ardently and attained Sotapatti path and fruition. 

Later, during the reign of King Duttagamani, Sumana returned to her native village of Bokkhanta. While she was staying there, she happened to hear the Asivisopama Sutta at the Kalla Mahavihara Monastery. While paying deep attention to the sutta, she became an Arahat.

Our great benefactor, Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, composed a Myanmar verse regarding the thirteen existences of Sumana so that they could be easily taken into memory. 

To reflect on the events and rebirths of Sumana, once a sow, is quite insightful. When she died as a human being in the lifetime of Kakusandha Buddha, she left behind all of her wealth and property, family and attendants to be reborn as a hen. What a dreadful change! In her life as a hen, she may also have had young to care for; but, snatched up by a falcon, she died suddenly and in a tremendously unpleasant way.

Then, due to the power of wholesome actions such as listening to the recitation of Dhamma verses, Sumana became a princess in her next existence. Although a hen may not realize the profound meaning of a Dhamma verse, the mind may still become serene and reverent at the moment of hearing it. Because of this wholesome cause, she was then reborn as a princess. What great benefit comes from listening to the Dhamma! She later became a Brahma and then the daughter of a millionaire in the human realm.

Again, when, as the daughter of a millionaire, she died, she had to leave behind all of her property and wealth, and family, friends, and relatives, despite clinging to them and desiring not to leave them (tanha). This is indeed suffering! to be reborn as a human being after having been born into the Brahma realm is inferior. Even more so is to be reborn as a sow after having been born as a human being! All beings who have not attained the first stage of enlightenment are subject to be reborn in lower existences. The Buddha related this story of the sow in order for us to give deep attention to the Dhamma and to be tired of worldly conditions. Indeed, this story has a happy ending. In her last existence as Sumana, she became a fully enlightened one, an Arahat.

In learning of such a cycle of rebirth, we should try to know the cause of one existence following another. It is craving for existence that produces rebirth. If we are attached to it, we will continue to experience rebirth again and again throughout the cycle of rebirths, samsara. It is essential that we practice the Noble Eightfold Path in order to eradicate craving (tanha).

In the aforementioned story, Sumana heard the Maha Satipattana Sutta and followed its teachings to practice meditation and attain the first stage of enlightenment, Sotapatti Magga and Phala. Then, upon hearing the Asivisopama Sutta and consequently contemplating the meaning of the Dhamma, she became fully enlightened as an Arahat. Craving (tanha) had been eradicated form her mind. As a result, there was no more succeeding existence for her. She was finally free from rebirth.

When Sumana was near death, she informed her fellow bhikkhunis that she was going to die. Both bhikkhus and her fellow bhikkunis asked her to relate the events of her past. She described to them all of her previous existences from the life of a woman during the lifetime of the Kakusandha Buddha up to her rebirth as woman living in Bokkanta village. She then urged all of her Dhamma friends to practice intensive meditation with arden effort in order to be freed from the cycle of rebirths (samsara) and to attain the ultimate freedom of Nibbana.

She said: "As I said earlier, I have experienced all of the good and bad thoughout these thirteen past existences. In this final existence, due to my fear of Samsara, the cycle of rebirths, I ordained as a bhikkhuni and strived to become an Arahat, a fully enlightened one. I kindly urge you all to strive diligently in your meditation practice and to cultivate your moral conduct (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (panna).

She then took the noble demise of Parinibbana, death with no return.


  1. Thank you for sharing an inspirational stories. Sometimes l feel not motivated to do my daily meditation. But as l's all worth it. We are so lucky to be born as a human being. Only a human being can progress in the dhamma practices . l'm so grateful to know the universal truth.
    With Metta, David H

  2. Thank you for sharing your thought. In combating my sloth and torpor, I find recalling the six difficulties in the Path to be very helpful; namely, 1) to be born as a human being, 2) to encounter the Dharma, 3) to have six healthy faculties, 4) to have access to the Sangha or Buddhist monastics, 5) to develop truth faith in the Dhamma, and 6) to have wholesome friends or kalyanamitta in our close circle. Indeed, we are very blessed!

  3. Hello again, just want to express my thanks to you because l'm now part of the "First Giving" members. You gave me your blogpage website at the Sacramento Temple during the Vesak Day. Because of that, l'm inspired to share the BUDDHIST GLOBAL RELIEF with friends and families.
    May the Lord Buddha bless you with your endeavor.
    With metta, David

  4. Ah, David, you are most welcome! Sadhu sadhu sadhu for joining First Giving and helping to promote BGR's missions. We are truly blessed to be able to help others. May your meritorious deeds bring you peace of mind.