Ambapali (5th century BC)

  • The transience of beauty

    According to various sources, Ambapali was a courtesan in north India in the 5th century BC. She was famous for her beauty and her talents as a dancer. As a young woman she became a follower of the Buddha. Later she entered his order and finally attained enlightenment.

    The mystical path in early Buddhism was not something open only to a particular elite. All humans, explicitly including women, could follow this path and attain enlightenment, the liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Sources suggest that Ambapali did precisely that and accordingly many stories and legends were woven around her life.

    All sources agree that Ambapali was of extraordinary beauty: her eyebrows were “curved, as if finely drawn by an artist”, her teeth “like plantain buds in their colour”, her thighs “smooth in their lines”, and her breasts “swelling, round, firm, and high”.

    With age, her beauty inexorably faded. This helped Ambapali to comprehend one of the most important laws of the world which was proclaimed by Buddha: that all things of this world are transitory and subject to constant change. Starting from her own body as metaphor, Ambapali's insights have been handed down to us in beautifully poetic language.

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    Audio (German): “Ambapali” from Gautama Buddha's monks' and nuns' songs.