Beauty & the Buddha: the Royal Courtesan Visits Siddhartha

A woman of exceptional beauty came to see the Buddha. He was not there when she arrived, so the monks invited her and her son to wait for his return.  A monk named Kaludayi had never seen a more lovely woman in his life.  Having taken his vows as a monk not long before, he was distracted and averted his eyes towards the ground.  He was not sure how a monk should act before such an elegant and exquisite woman.

The Buddha arrived and  received the guests.  He recognized her as Ambapali and the boy as King Bimbisara’s son.  The Buddha welcomed her and looked directly into her eyes.  The monks observed the sincerity of his gaze, the warmth of his voice, and the natural manner of their interaction.

Ambapali_a_renowned_courtesan

Renowned Courtesan Ambapali meets Siddartha (Buddha)

Ambapali had heard much about the Buddha so she came to see him, but with little expectation for the meeting, because all her experience with men had the same result:  embarrassment or desire.  She was surprised to discover that her visit with the Buddha was unlike any encounter she had experienced.

The Buddha spoke with her son about his interest in medicine and he found the boy thoughtful and more intelligent than the young prince, though they shared the same father. The boy beamed at the teacher’s openness and affection.

Ambapali’s eyes filled with tears.  She felt that the Buddha could see into her very heart and  understood her completely.  She exclaimed, “This is happiest day of my life.”

She told the Buddha that she had fallen in love with the young Prince Bimbisara, gave birth to their son, but left the palace. Despite having money and material possessions, humiliation, jealousy, and rumors caused her a life of suffering.

The Buddha spoke softly.  He explained that external beauty arises and passes away like everything else, fame and fortune alike.  The true happiness of peace, joy, and freedom come from meditation.  He told her to “cherish and take care of all the moments left to you in this life. Do not to lose yourself in forgetfulness or idle amusements.”   He said, “she could arrange her life in a new way — breathing, sitting, and working in a spirit of mindfulness, and observing and practicing the five precepts.”

Ambapali was supremely happy.  She invited the Buddha and the monks to her mango grove, hoping that he would pay her the honor of visiting such a peaceful and lovely place.

After the guests left, Kaludayi sat before the Buddha and others joined the gathering. Another monk asked how they should regard a woman’s beauty and whether it was “an obstacle to spiritual practice.”  The Buddha said that through the eye of an artist anything may appear ugly or beautiful. “But perhaps no beauty has more capacity to distract a man’s concentration than a woman’s beauty.  If one is obsessed with a woman’s beauty, he can lose his way.”

When a monk has found the Way, he is no longer bound by appearances. This fades.  Appearances come and go and you will recognize the impermanence of all things.  You are liberated from what may be beautiful or what may be repulsive. 

Yet there is only one kind of beauty which does not fade or cause suffering.  This is the beauty of compassion and a liberated heart.

Compassion is the ability to love unconditionally, demanding nothing in return.  A liberated heart is unbound by conditions.  A compassionate and liberated heart is true beauty. The peace and joy of that beauty is true peace and joy.  Bhikkus [ordained monks], practice diligently and you will realize true beauty. (Hanh, 221)

 

Ambapali, the royal courtesan, followed the Buddha’s teachings and became enlightened.  Her story is told as part of the Jakatas, some of the earliest Buddhist literature dating to the 4th century BC.  This  tale is based on the story in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha.

This story is a powerful one, especially in this age and in this country.  The digital world and traditional media shape our ideas about beauty:  what it is, what it should be, or what it is imagined to be.  Beauty is a virtue, but only when it is grounded in truth and goodness.  The Buddha shares this wisdom with Ambapali and the monks:  true beauty is compassion and personal liberation.

Nov 21, 2014

4 Comments

  1. Mary Garcia

    This is so beautifully written, MyLinh! I felt a sense of peace reading it. Isn’t Thich Nhat Hanh the monk you and Mark got to hear speak one time? Sending love to you!

    • mylinhshattan

      We listened to him in NYC, yes. In this book, Hanh writes about the Buddha’s life and teachings directly from the Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese sources.

      I read many versions of a parable/story before I write them, but Hanh’s details and style soothe and calm, as you say, showing as much compassion and heart for his readers as the story contains. Thank you for the kind words.

  2. Roy Schulman

    Why does it turn out that the male component of the species passes on the wisdom in Buddhist teachings?

    • mylinhshattan

      Buddha was a prince, a young man, who learned. He explains it well: that”perhaps no beauty has more capacity to distract a man’s concentration than a woman’s beauty.” And women also fall prey to this desire. The obsession with beauty and youth is ubiquitous in society today.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

Stay Up to Date

Rise above the tedium with the TreeHouseLetter. Always learning with a bit of fun.

Latest Posts

Superior to Saint, Scientist, Philosopher, and Poet?

8 Min read 1 book rec Improve and enrich your life 3 books that damaged the prestige of Communism AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * The novel provides "truths of an important kind unavailable elsewhere." Joseph Epstein Who is superior to the saint, the scientist, the...

An Alabama Road

3 Min read Music Writing for the senses Songwriting AVAILABLE ON PODCAST SPOTIFY Each singer stepped towards the front of the stage, put a hand on the mike, and burst into five-part harmony. There are stars in the southern skySouthward as you goThere is moonlight and...

Town Mouse and Country Mouse

9 Min read 3 book recs 1 film rec True story: Coffee with "Josh" The Music in Prose: Willa Cather on town and country Wordnerd special AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * The town mouse and the country mouse. Distress and agitation of the town mouse. Meditations, Book...

Living Outside the Page

5 Min read Pickleball 3 short books by prize-winning authors Historical fiction, fiction, nonfiction AVAILABLE ON PODCAST SPOTIFY * If I don't write things down, they haven't been carried through to completion, they have only been lived. Annie Ernaux * Happy 2024! I...

Books for the Casual or Serious Reader

7 Min read Gift list 15+ Books Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction Books on Writing Classics AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify * I read because to not read is to live one life. To read is to live many lives. Then, I ask, what should I read and with whom should I spend my...

Involved and Implicated: Narcissism and Poetry

6 Min read Poetry on a December afternoon 1 Book rec Word nerd special AVAILABLE ON PODCAST Spotify If you're like me, you can use a bit of poetry. I've had a few days to consider this collection, its after shocks, surprised at my evolving response. Tony Hoagland's...

Munger on Learning and the Art of Swearing

In memory of Charles T. Munger, who passed away at the age of 99, I am sharing a TreeHouseLetter from last year. Munger was a man who believed in always learning. In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the...

Topics

Inoculate yourself against the absurdity of life with a dose of the best ideas and writing. Always learning with a bit of fun.

TreeHouseLetter

Always learning with a bit of fun

 

 

Readers receive one to two letters a week, with 2 to 10 minute read time. Includes regular features:

 

The Music in Prose
Poetry for Emergencies
Toolbox

 

 

Be inspired by the best writing and ideas, and become better readers and writers in the process.

Thank you for joining! Please check your email for a confirmation.