In the story of the Buddha’s final journey and Paranirvana, recorded beautifully in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta,1 we are confronted with a peculiarly interesting story: the Buddha’s meeting with the lady Ambapali.2 The story contains several meaningful hints at an underlying symbolism, which we hope to at least partially reveal here.
First the background: The Buddha’s life is recorded in several biographies,3 following the chronology of events from his birth up until, and shortly after his enlightenment. Having attained buddhahood under the Bodhi tree, he then spent over 40 years traveling throughout the Gangetic plain of northern India along with his assembly of bikkhus (monks). His travels through this time are recorded in a multitude of suttas in no particular chronolocial order,4 until we come to the beginning of the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, where the thread of the chronology is once again picked up. The story we are to examine occurs in the second chapter of this sutta, as the Buddha travels to and arrives in Vesali (Vaishali), and is one of the final stories prior to the illness and further events that lead to his passing. One may follow the text of this sutta, beginning from Chapter 2, “Ambapali and the Licchavis”;5 we will cover the main points here.
The lady Ambapali, having heard that the Buddha had arrived in Vesali, made way to him immediately and invited he and the bikkhus to join her for the next day’s meal. The Buddha assented, after which we find the tale, rather humorous in its surface meaning, of the Licchavis and Ambapali each vying to provide the meal, the Licchavis losing out at each step and eventually finding disappointment when the Buddha informs them that the meal is already promised to Ambapali. This aspect of the story couches an immensely significant symbolism, of which the initial key is given when the Buddha compares the Licchavis with the “Thirty-three gods”, which are, as defined by the ancient Master Yajnavalkya:
“Eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, make one and thirty; Indra and Prajapati make three and thirty.”6
The Licchavis, hearing that the Buddha had arrived, “ordered a large number of magnificent carriages to be made ready, each mounted one, and accompanied by the rest drove out from Vesali.” But “Ambapali the courtesan drove up against the young Licchavis, axle by axle, wheel by wheel, and yoke by yoke.” Thus the Licchavis, here standing as a symbol of the bright powers, the devas, which are, in truth, not “gods” but powers of the inner Man, are each matched by the one female, Ambapali, which we may thus view as symbolizing feminine Nature—for each power, whether in cosmos or in Man, must work through an appropriate vehicle of substance: consciousness or spirit working through matter, always. When we recall the symbolism of food from the ancient Upanishads,7 as indicating the “consuming” of outer experience—the eating of the fruit of the tree of life—we may then see further significance in that the competition between these two factions is for the prize of feeding the Buddha and his bikkhus. The Buddha’s admonition of the bikkhus prior to their meal with Ambapali, wherein he tells them “to be steadfast and mindful, lest they should lose their heads about her”8 likewise compliments our symbolism, not only associating Ambapali with feminine Nature, but, as we’ll see, more specifically with physical matter and the physical, earthly world.
A further touch on the symbolism offers itself here, which will take us to the heart of the meaning: the thirty-three—residing in Trayastrimsa heaven, at the peak of mount Sumeru,9 the highest heaven that maintains a link to the earthly world—these powers make for themselves chariots10 (in this case substantial, yet non-physical vehicles), and, coming to the Buddha (that is, descending to the earth-plane, or following the Buddha to where he has travelled (i.e. to where he has met Ambapali), as the powers of Man must follow the direction of his consciousness) they are immediately matched by a physical counterpart to their chariots (“axle by axle, wheel by wheel, and yoke by yoke”), thus taking on a physical vehicle modeled after their subtle vehicle (the inner powers of perception come into and begin to operate through physical organs). The bikkhus (representing now the powers of the thirty-three, the powers of the inner man, while embodied, while working through physical organs of perception) are warned not to “lose their heads” over Ambapali (that is, not to become attached to or deluded by their contact with physical matter). The whole scene, with this and further symbolism in mind, becomes a vivid picture of the descent of an awakened one from the spiritual plane to the physical plane, with full self-consciousness—he is able to admonish his powers during the descent, thus showing an awakened consciousness in action, a purposeful movement. This is the same movement each and every human follows when they pass from dreamless sleep (symbolized by the devas on their own plane, “vehicle-less”, or rather, residing in the causal body) into the dream state (the devas in their chariots; the powers in the subtle body) and into waking consciousness (arrival at the “meal” of Ambapali; the powers in the physical body),11 but the transit is done here with full consciousness and without attachment or delusion.
Having eaten the meal given them by Ambapali, for “Ambapali herself attended on the community of bhikkhus headed by the Buddha, and served them with choice food, hard and soft” (i.e., having gained experience in the physical world through physical powers of perception, which “eat the food of the world”, the food that is both “hard and soft”, which is the “apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) and having done so without the bikkhus losing their heads (that is, without becoming attached to or deluded by such experience), Ambapali then offers the Buddha her “park” or “grove” (i.e., the Buddha, having mastered this transit from higher to lower, while fully awakened, unaffected by contact with matter, without losing his identity in a false personality or succumbing to the delusion of separation, thus comes into full possession of his faculties in the physical world; he rules over it, is Lord over his entire lower nature, is a Jivanmukta, “free even in life”).12
Thus we may begin to glimpse a deeper significance to certain aspects of the Buddha’s final journey as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta. It seems of profound importance, symbolically speaking, that this episode is placed as the final act of the Buddha prior to the onset of the “illness” that begins the story of his paranirvana. And it seems that there is much wisdom to be unlocked throughout the Buddhist suttas if we are willing and able to keep our eyes open for symbolisms such as these, which may be hidden within many a Buddhist story.
2. For biographical information on Abmapali, see:
3. Traditional sources include: Lalitavistara, Ashvagosha’s Buddha-charita, the Nidāna-Kathā, Mahavastu, Buddhavamsa, etc.
7. “Food is, in the symbolic language of the Upanishads, a general term for experience gained and assimilated.”
“Food and water are universal symbols for bodily and mental experience, the elements which nourish the physical and psychical life.”—Charles Johnston, Chhandogya Upanishad, Introduction to Part V, Sections 11-24 and Introduction to Part I, Sections 7-13.
9. Meru (Sanskrit) Meru The mythological sacred mountain, said in Hindu mythology to be the abode of the gods. Each nation also has its own sacred mountain — Mount Sinai for the Hebrews, Olympus for the Greeks, Tai-shan for the Chinese, etc. Theosophical and Puranic teachings place it as the north pole, pointing to it as the center of the site of the first continent of our earth after the solidification of the globe: “It is the north pole, the country of ‘Meru,’ which is the seventh division, as it answers to the Seventh principle (or fourth metaphysically), of the occult calculation, for it represents the region of Atma, of pure soul, and Spirituality” (SD 2:403). It is described in the Surya Siddhanta as passing through the middle of the globe, and protruding on either side. On its north end are the gods, on the nether end are the demons or hells. Its roots are in the navel of the world, which connects it with the central imperishable land, the land in which each day and night lasts six months. The above also has its symbolism in the human body.—Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary
11. This has reference to the threefold nature of manifested existence, which we experience as three states (Jagrat, Svapna and Sushupti) in three bodies (physical, subtle/astral, causal; or Sthulopadhi, Sukshmopadi, Karanopadhi), above which is the fourth state, Turiya or seventh principle, Atma. See Voice of the Silence, Fragment I; The Secret Doctrine, I:157; Mandukya Upanishad; and the works of Sankaracharya, specifically Tattva Bodha and Atmanatma-viveka.