Did you know the Buddha had a brother? Actually, a half brother. Well, actually maybe a ¾ brother. When the Buddha’s mother died after childbirth, his father Suddhodana married Mahapajapati Gotami, the younger sister of his first wife. They had a son named Nanda. Quite a family tree!
Both Mahapajapati Gotami and her son Nanda eventually ordained. Mahapajapati Gotami was (arguably) the first Buddhist nun, and a very important person in the Bhikkhuni sangha. But Nanda was not an important figure in the early sangha. But there is a pretty great story about his enlightenment. Rather than give you a direct translation of the sutta, I offer here a retelling of this all-too-human story.
Nanda, the Buddha’s brother had been a monk long enough to know that he didn’t like it. The other monks at the monastery saw him moping around with his shoulders hunched and a mouthful-of-lemons look on his face.
“What’s the matter?” they asked.
“I am miserable, friends!” he replied. “I can’t stand being a monk. There are too many rules! Too little pleasure! I am going to give up, disrobe, and go back to lay life.”
One of the monks, worried about his depressed friend went to the Buddha to ask his advice. The Buddha smiled and told the young monk, “Go to Nanda and tell him, ‘The teacher calls for you.’”
Nanda came, and the Buddha told him what he had heard.
“Yes,” admitted Nanda, “I am miserable. It’s time for me to disrobe.”
“What really brings this on? Why are you so miserable?”
“Well,” confessed Nanda, “when I was leaving home to become a monk, I saw a girl from the village. She was so beautiful there with her hair half mussed. And as I left she said to me, ‘I hope you will be home soon.’
“Now every time I sit to meditate all I can think of is this lovely woman with her hair half mussed. What can I do? Every time I think of her I am miserable.”
The Buddha took Nanda tenderly by the arm and said, “Let me show you something.”
Instantly, the were transported to the Tavatimsa Heaven. And there was Sakka, the king of the devas with 500 heavenly nymphs there to bring him every pleasure.
The Buddha turned to Nanda who was staring at the scene with his jaw hanging nearly to his chest.
“What do you think?” asked the Buddha. “Who is more beautiful, the lovely Sakyan girl with the half mussed hair or each of these 500 nymphs?”
Nanda replied, “She isn’t even 1/10 as pretty as these nymphs! Compared to these nymphs that Sakyan girl looks like a monkey with its ears and nose missing! These nymphs are so beautiful, so perfect!”
“Well, Nanda, I personally will guarantee that if you follow the path, you will be reborn in this heaven with these nymphs.”
“Well,” said Nanda with a sly smile crossing his lips, “this changes everything. If I am sure to gain his heaven and these nymphs, suddenly the holy life doesn’t sound so bad after all.”
In an instant, Nanda and the Buddha were back in Jeta’s Wood.
From that day, all the monks noticed that their friend Nanda was smiling and diligent in his practice. He didn’t walk around depressed with hunched shoulders but instead with a sly smile on his lips.
And of course they heard the rumors that the Buddha himself had guaranteed that Nanda would be reborn in the Tavatimsa Heaven surrounded by heavenly nymphs.
But instead of admiring Nanda for his newfound diligence in practice, the other monks mocked him. “You are only practicing the holy life for the sake of heavenly nymphs. You could care less about wisdom or liberation. You aren’t a real monk, just the Buddha’s flunky.”
Nanda was ashamed, but he only practiced harder. And before long, while living in a secluded spot, spending many hours every day in meditation, Nanda achieved liberation. He joined the arahats as a truly enlightened being. He had achieved nibbana.
The next day, Nanda went to the Buddha. The Buddha knew at once that Nanda was liberated. Nanda bowed to the Buddha and said, “Gracious teacher, once you promised me 500 heavenly nymphs in the Tavatimsa Heaven if only I diligently followed the practice. Well, I have come to free you from that promise.”
“Of course,” said the Buddha, “I was free from that promise the moment you were liberated. When you were freed, so was I.”
(Nanda Sutta, Udana 3.2)