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 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.