. . . Let me tell of Patacara as an example of [one of many women who joined Buddha’s order of female Sangha].
Before she joined the Order, Patacara had roamed in streets without clothing and was known as the little mad woman. Folk told me that she came of good family, but had formed an alliance with a serving-man, that she had given birth to two sons, but that husband, sons, and kinsfolk were now all dead. She was a pathetic figure, but only a few had pity on her and gave her scraps of food; most drove her away when she came near them. Then it happened that [the Buddha] came to Savatti. He was teaching a large gathering in Jeta Grove when Patacara came towards him. On seeing her, some of the congregation said: ‘Suffer not the little lunatic to come hither,’ and others got up and would have driven her off. But the Buddha said: ‘Forbid her not,’ and he ceased his teaching and rose, and waited for her to come near. Then he stretched out his hand towards her and his compassion seemed to envelop her like a mantle. She stopped her aimless wandering and looked at him.
‘Sister,’ he said with indescribable tenderness, ‘recover your reason.’
As she looked at him the crazed expression on her face passed from her, and there came instead a great calm and sweetness. You could have heard a leaf drop, so great was the hush that fell upon those that saw the miracle that was taking place. Gradually she became conscious of her body and perceived that it was naked. A blush of shame spread over her face and she stooped, crouching on the ground, until the man who was nearest threw her his outer cloak, which she gathered gratefully around her. Then she came and bowed at the feet of the Buddha, saying:
‘Master, help me. My husband is dead of a poisonous snake; one of my babes was carried off by a hawk and the other was drowned, and my parents and my brother were killed when the roof of their house fell upon them, and there is none left with whom I can take shelter.’
The Buddha sat down and Patacara sat at his feet, and when she was still, he said: ‘Think not that this is so. There is no shelter, no refuge in husband, children, parents, or brother, nor in any blood-bond. For always death must overtake them, and ever must your ceaseless rounds of births and deaths have tears fallen because of the loss of those that are dear. But I can show you a shelter and refuge that never fails.’
Patacara had been listening intently, but sorrowfully. Now she sat up straight and looked deep into the Buddha’s eyes, saying: ‘Is there such a shelter? Tell me of it.’
It is the shelter of Nirvana. It is the shelter of the Dharma., the way which leads to Nirvana. Treading that way, nothing can harm you.’ Then the Buddha told Patacara of the Eightfold Way, and she listened in rapt silence. Before he concluded, a wonderful radiance overspread her face, and we knew that she had seen with the Pure and Spotless Eye of Truth and entered the stream which leads to Nirvana. When at length he ceased speaking, she asked if she might join the Order, and he took her to the Sisters and she was ordained.
The second time I saw Pantacara was many years later and in a distant place. In the interval she had found liberation and was widely regarded as a saint . . . Indeed, when I saw the beauty of compassion that illuminated her face as she taught, it was as though I were in the presence of the Master himself. Many who listened had lost their own children, and they knew that she spoke as one who had suffered as they had . . .
Yasa, the sixth disciple of the Buddha
from Footprints of Gautama the Buddha