Long read article: Who was Queen Shrimala and Why is the Shrimaladevi Sutra important?

Lama Shenpen is teaching online on the Shrimaladevi Sutra as part of the Annual Berlin teaching event 6-9th May. For more information & booking form CLICK HERE

Queen Shrimala was a Buddhist Queen, purportedly contemporary with the Buddha, i.e., nine centuries before the text was written. Her father was King Prasenjit (spelt Pasenadi in Pali) of Kosala, who features prominently in both the Pali and the Mahayana sutras. His wife was Queen Mallika, the beautiful daughter of the chief garland-maker of Kosala.

As is very common in Buddhist literature, there are various inconsistencies about the historical details. The purpose of the historical setting is not to give an accurate historical record in the sense that we would understand it. Its purpose is to inspire faith and reverence, making people want to follow the example of the characters in the story, rejoice in their punya, and receive their adhishtana. If all this works, the historical facts in that sense are totally irrelevant. The important thing is that there is a real sense of connection between the characters in the story, the Buddha and his teaching, and the people hearing the story. The Shrimaladevi Sutra embodies these features perfectly.

It is highly significant that according to the Shrimaladevi Sutra, the Queen had already met the Dharma even though she had not heard that the Buddha was around in the world. Then, at her first meeting with the Buddha she displays high realisation before the Buddha has taught her anything.

Thus the message of the sutra is that not only had she met the Buddha countless times in past lives (as the sutra itself says), but that in this very life, before encountering the Buddha, she already had a profound understanding of Dharma. Furthermore, the sutra explains that this arose outside the monastic assembly. The sutra is about an esoteric process of transmission directly from the Buddha through faith and realisation. It also clearly indicates a sangha community that at the time existed outside the monastic sangha, if not before the time of the Buddha.

Queen Shrimala assures us that genuine practitioners within such a gana [an assembly of people – see the end of the post for a further explanation] can certainly gain the vyakarana (i.e. meet the Buddhas face-to-face, make their pranidhana – aspirational prayer – in their presence, and receive the vyakarana or prophecy of their future Buddhahood). In other words, it is not necessary to be within the monastic sangha to succeed on the path.

The Queen hinges her discourse upon a type of koan. A koan is a kind of paradoxical question which is used in certain Chinese and Japanese Zen schools. The idea of the question is to take it to heart and ‘worry it’ to the point where one comes to some insight which goes beyond words and concepts. This is done through the medium of a face-to-face encounter with the Awakened master.

As well as the presence of the Awakened master, a quality of openness or faith on the part of the disciple is also essential. This is how transmission is able to happen from mind-to-mind or heart-to-heart down the ages after the Buddha has disappeared from the world. Queen Shrimala stresses throughout the need for faith and openness with the humility of acknowledging one’s own ignorance and the need to have a direct encounter with the Buddha and Buddhajnana – the non-dual ultimate nature of Reality as realised by the Buddhas. 

She ends her discourse with her ‘koan’ pointing out that a moment of awareness or consciousness cannot be covered by veils (kleshas) because the awareness and the veils never come into contact with each other. She poses two questions that relate to the two most difficult matters to understand. The first is, ‘What does an intrinsically pure mind mean?’ The second is, ‘How can an intrinsically pure mind become veiled or deluded?’

The rest of the sutra leads up to these questions by introducing various doctrines that are based on the fact that Nirvana or ultimate reality is changeless and without distinctions. Therefore, the moment you ‘seize’ this reality, you are it and your Awakening is assured.

This is the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Nature) which is the true nature of all beings. As soon as one puts one’s faith in it, one’s future liberation is assured; you already are a child of the Buddha lineage. As the Buddha points out, this is a very profound doctrine which few are going to truly understand. In the light of this, it is wonderful that so many generations of Buddhist practitioners have been able to use this sutra as the basis for their practice and realisation.

Why do we recite the Shrimaladevi Sutra as part of the Awakened Heart Sangha feast practice?

After the usual opening liturgy, we read a section from the Shrimaladevi Sutra as an invocation to Shakyamuni.  This section of the sutra tells the story of how she called (or more or less commanded) Shakyamuni to appear before her out of compassion.  She just said ‘If you have compassion for me then please come’. And he came. I always find that wakes me up. I realise that when I ask the Buddhas to come, they do actually always come. 

Their compassion and the power of their past pranidhanas makes it impossible for them not to come.  But of course, I don’t see them.  That is not their fault, but the fault of my blindness.  My concepts are so strong, that even when the Buddha is standing right there before me, I can’t see him.  I blame him for not coming, but what can he do? 

It is like the C.S. Lewis’s story of Narnia where the children are sitting in this wonderful grassy heavenly place and there is a group of miserable people huddled together complaining about how stuffy and smelly it is in their hut. But they are not in a hut.  The children try to get them to see the heaven all around them and wave flowers under their noses, but they just find that a further irritation. They just cannot see, because of their strong concepts to the contrary.  I find that story a very graphic image for how, even when the Buddhas come, I cannot see them. 

My idea is that when reading from the sutra, it’s enough just to listen to the story of the Queen Shrimala asking the Buddha to come and his coming. You don’t have to make yourself believe it, for the story to have power.  You just have to listen to it and it brings its message of truth.  Something happens just from hearing the story told again and again and even more so when you recite it in this way.

Why did I choose the Shrimaladevi Sutra? There are, after all, many sutras with invocations in them that I could have chosen.  I particularly like this one, because it is so simple and straightforward and because I want us all to connect to Queen Shrimala.  Why?  Well first of all she is the Sutra source for the main teachings in the Ratnagotravibhaga [The RGV is a compendium of teachings on the Tathagatagarbha doctrine concerning Buddha Nature].

We begin every meditation session with the Verses in Praise of the Three Jewels and end with what I call the Meditator’s verse and all that comes from the RGV. So we have a very strong connection with this text.  I wrote my Doctoral thesis on this text under Khenpo Rinpoche’s guidance. 

The Ratnagotravibhaga is a very important text in the Tibetan tradition because the Ratnagotravibhaga is the only commentary the tradition has on sutra sources for Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Nature).  When you look at the RGV and its auto-commentary (RGVV) you realise that its main teachings all come from the Shrimaladevi Sutra.

So this makes the Shrimaladevi Sutra a very important source for our tradition that goes right back to a person who lived at the time of Shakyamuni. It is great that that person is actually a woman and not a monastic.  That feels very refreshing somehow. I don’t say that because I am a woman particularly. I think everyone, men and women, like to see that it is not just men and not just monastics that are powerful practitioners. 

The Queen comes over as a very intelligent and confident person who is able to expound the deepest truths with tremendous eloquence in front of the Buddha himself, without fear of contradiction. And what she says conforms in so many ways to Dzogchen teachings that she is clearly speaking from our own tradition.  That is why I was delighted to find in the Life of Mandarava, the Yogini companion of Guru Rinpoche when he was in India, that she is identified with Queen Shrimala.  She was a very intelligent, confident and powerful woman teacher with qualities equal to Guru Rinpoche himself.

It is great to find that it’s acceptable in our tradition to think of Queen Shrimala and Mandarava as the same person.  Sacred history is all about helping us link into deep spiritual connections in the right way.  It is not about what happened in the past particularly. It is about the reality of now, the timeless present and how to link into the deep connections that are there and to become an integral part of the whole story of the tradition.

It is not just a tradition in the sense of something being passed down from one generation to the next. It is a tradition in the sense of a living reality, a mandala of deep connections that are drawing us towards Awakening and empowering us to be able to work forever to Awaken all beings.  That is why we are inviting the figures of the tradition to our feast. Maybe we shouldn’t really call it tradition.  It sounds too much like a sociological phenomenon.  Maybe we should call it something like our spiritual family.

After the Omsay has read the opening part of the piece from the sutra, we all recite together the words she utters in praise of the Buddha.  I have taken a bit of a liberty in this section by translating ‘jnana’ (which is usually translated as wisdom or primordial wisdom) as Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity.  I have decided to translate it as three words instead of one because I don’t think ‘wisdom’ captures enough of the meaning of jnana.  In the Living the Awakened Heart Training Awakened Heart Sangha students get a very good understanding of what jnana is but I don’t use the word. But when I say that Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity are inseparable aspects of one reality, then that is what jnana is.  It is that one reality.  I am not sure we would call that wisdom particularly would we?

I chose this praise of the Buddha because I find it very inspiring and also because in a way it is quite impersonal or non-personal while at the same time being intensely personal since the Queen is actually meeting the Buddha face to face.  But she is not praising him as if he were just this person appearing in the sky before her.  She is praising his nature beyond conception, beyond the conceptual limited and limiting mind.

She is praising his creative living essence (rtsal) that enables him to appear in this way. This is his essence beyond the limiting concepts of time and space, self and other, existence and non-existence and so on. He just appears there in all his glory and she is able to talk to him directly, even though in another sense he never moves away from where he was.  There is tremendous inspiration in this for us. 

We could call him and meet him in the very same way. We may not see him appear in his glory but that creative living essence would be the same and would connect us to him in just the same way as he told the Queen that he had connected her to the Dharma many times in the past and would continue to do so in the future. She then gives her word of truth and he then gives his vyakarana concerning her future Buddhahood.  To understand the significance of this you need to look at the booklet Mahayana Sutra Principles by Rigdzin Shikpo.

At the end of the piece from the Sutra that we recite together, we all recite the Shakyamuni mantra together.  I introduced this custom so that we could use the opportunity of listening to Queen Shrimala’s meeting with the Buddha to strengthen our connection with Shakyamuni ourselves.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Gana – means an assembly and here it refers to an assembly of practitioners who practice together within the same mandala. Lama Shenpen chose to call the circles within the mandala structure of the Awakened Heart Sangha ‘ganas’ – Shrimalagana and Mahayanagana – because of a reference in the Shrimaladevi Sutra to ganas of practitioners in the “Dark Age”. The implication is that if the Members of these ganas keep good samaya connections and have faith in the Buddha then the Buddha will always be present with them and they can meet the Buddha face to face.

The first part of this post is an extract from Lama Shenpen’s introduction to her transalation of the Shrimaladevid Sutra, translated for her students and available to buy as a booklet here. The second part is an extract from Lama Shenpen’s booklet on the Mahahana Feast Practice, as a resource for her students, members of the Awakened Heart Sangha. It can be bought here.

Find out more about joining Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

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