Ambapālī was a wealthy and accomplished courtesan of Vesāli and widely recognized as one of the great beauties of her time. She was described as ‘good to look upon, charming, with a flawless complexion and skilled at singing, Dancing and lute playing ‘ (Vin.I,268). She also owned a large mango grove on the outskirts of Vesāli where The Buddha and some of his Monks occasionally stayed (A.IV,100; S.V,141; 301). When The Buddha was in Vesāli during his last journey, Ambapālī donated this grove to him to be used as a Monastery (D.II,95-7). Some time after this, probably in her old age, Ambapālī became a nun and, according to tradition, eventually attained Enlightenment. In the Therīgāthā there is a poem in 19 verses by her in which she poignantly compares her Beauty as it once was with how she looked in her old age (Thi.252-70). A thousand years after this, when the Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang was in Vesāli, he noticed that the Monastery built in Ambapālī’s grove still functioned and that the woman herself was still remembered. See Prostitution.
She is said to have come spontaneously into being at Vesāli in the gardens of the king. The gardener found her at the foot of a mango tree - hence her name - and brought her to the city. She grew up so full of beauty and of grace that many young princes vied with each other for the honour of her hand. Finally, in order to end their strife, they appointed her courtesan. Later she became a devout follower of the Buddha, and building a vihāra in her own garden, gave it to him and the Order. This was during the Buddha's last visit to Vesāli shortly before his death. It is said that when Ambapālī heard of the Buddha's visit to Kotigāma near Vesāli she and her retinue drove out of the city in magnificent chariots to meet him, and, after hearing a discourse, invited him and the monks to a meal the next day. The Buddha accepted this invitation and had, as a result, to refuse that of the Licchavis of Vesāli.
While returning from her visit to the Buddha, Ambapālī was so elated at the idea of having the Buddha to a meal the next day, that she refused to make way for the Licchavi princes who were on their way to the Buddha. She refused to give up her invitation for anything in the world. The DA. says that just before Ambapālī's visit to him, the Buddha admonished the monks to be steadfast and mindful, lest they should lose their heads about her (DA.ii.545).
It was after this meal that Ambapālī gave over her park, the Ambapālivana, to the Buddha and the Order. The Buddha accepted the gift and stayed there some time before going on to Beluva. Vin.i.231-3; D.ii.95-8; the two accounts vary in details, e.g. in the Digha version the Buddha was already in Ambapālivana, and not in Kotigāma, when the courtesan visited him.
Ambapālī had a son, Vimala-Kondañña, who was an eminent Elder. Having heard him preach one day, she renounced the world and, working for insight by studying the law of impermanence as illustrated in her own ageing body, she attained arahantship (ThigA.206-7).
Nineteen verses ascribed to her are found in the Therīgāthā (252-70).
In the time of Sikhī Buddha she had entered the Order. While yet a novice, she took part in a procession of Bhikkhunīs, and was doing homage at a shrine when an arahant Therī in front of her hastily spat in the court of the shrine. Seeing the spittle and not knowing who had committed the fault, she said in reproof, "What prostitute has been spitting here?" It was owing to this remark that she was born as a courtesan in her last birth (ThigA.206-7).
The Apadāna (quoted also in ThigA) gives some more details about her. She had been a daughter of a Khattiya family in the time of Phussa Buddha and had done many good deeds in order to be beautiful in later births. As a result of the abuse of the nun (referred to above) she had been born in hell and later had, for ten thousand lives, been a courtesan. In Kassapa Buddha's time she had practised celibacy (Ap.ii.613ff. ; ThigA.213f).
It is said that she charged fifty kahāpanas a night from her patrons and that Vesāli became very prosperous through her. It was this that prompted Bimbisāra to get a courtesan for his own city of Rājagaha (Vin.i.268).
Among Ambapālī's patrons was Bimbisāra, and he was the father of her son Vimala-Kondañña (ThagA.i.146).
In the Theragāthā (vv.1020-21; ThagA.ii.129) there are two verses which, according to tradition, were spoken by Ananda in admonition of monks who lost their heads at the sight of Ambapālī. Whether this was before or after she joined the Order we are not told.