Sona was the son of a rich businessman. He liked most of all to listen to lute music and to play the instrument. He had been raised in wealth and luxury, so his skin was very delicate and soft. It was even said that hair grew out of the skin of his soles. The rumour was so strong that Sona was once brought before King Bimbisara, who wanted to see the unusual feet he had heard so much about.
Sona lived near the Vultures' Peak Rock in Rajagaha, where the Buddha stayed during some rainy seasons. One day, Sona went to the Vultures' Peak Rock to listen to the Buddha's discourse, which was about the happiness experienced from non-attachment to worldly desires. As he wanted to experience this happiness, Sona asked to be ordained as a monk.
After becoming a monk, he was taught to be constantly mindful, even when walking. Sona was very enthusiastic. Every day he walked to and fro in meditation in the monastery until one day his feet developed blisters and bled.
But even after all his efforts Sona did not experience happiness, only pain and disappointment. Thoughts of craving for worldly things still came to his mind. "It is no use," Sona said to himself. "I have tried so very hard, but have still not achieved what I wished for. It is better for me to return to lay life and enjoy the happiness I used to experience by performing charity."
When the Buddha heard about this he went to see Sona. "Sona," he said, "I have heard that you are not getting good results from your practice of mindfulness and want to return to the lay life. Suppose I explain why you did not get good results, would you stay on as a monk and try again?"
"Yes I would, Lord," replied Sona.
"Sona, you were a musician and you used to play the lute. Tell me, Sona, did you produce good music when the lute string was well tuned, neither too tight nor too loose?"
"I was able to produce good music, Lord," replied Sona.
"What happened when the strings were too tightly wound up?"
"I could not produce any music, Lord," said Sona.
"What happened when the strings were too slack?"
"I could not produce any music at all, Lord," replied Sona
"Sona, do you now see why you did not experience the happiness of renouncing worldly craving? You have been straining too hard in your meditation. Do it in a relaxed way, but without being slack. Try it again and you will experience the good result."
Sona understood and stayed on in the monastery as a monk and soon attained sainthood.
At the time of the Buddha there lived in Savatthi a woman named Sona who had ten children. She had spent her entire life occupied with the welfare of her children. She had enjoyed nursing them, feeding them, educating them and when they were older, finding suitable partners for them. Her whole life centred around her children and soon she was known as ‘Sona with many children’.
Sona’s husband was a lay devotee of the Buddha. As his children were all married and his responsibilities reduced, he spent more and more time studying and practising the Dhamma. Before long he was totaly inspired by the Teachings. He decided to join the Holy Order. It was not easy for Sona to accept this decision, but instead of holding him back she decided that she too would lead a more religious life. With this in mind she divided up her wealth and land among her children and asked them to support her by providing her with the bare necessities of life. She then spent her time in religious activities as a lay devotee of the Buddha.
For some time all went well. Then, one by one, her children and their spouses began to feel that she was a burden to them. They had never really accepted their father’s decision to join the Noble Order and they resented supporting their mother who was now spending most of her time in religious devotion. Forgetting how much she had done for them, they started quarrelling amongst thenselves on an equitable division of her support and care. They all felt that it had been an unfair arrangement in which each of them had to bear an unfair proportion of her support. To them the mother who had sacrificed so much became a nuisance and a burden.
This ungrateful treatment caused great suffering to Sona, who had sacrificed her entire life for her children. She became bitter and angry. She had expected her children to support her in her old age as was the custom in India. Having distributed her wealth among them she had no means to support herself. Disillusioned, she decided to seek solace from the Buddha.
After listening to one of the Buddha’s nuns, Sona began to analyze her feelings and disappointment in her children. Had she sacrificed her life for them and nurtured them selflessly or had she done it with expectation of return? Had she given unconditional love to her children? How did her feelings compare with the compassion and loving-kindness the Buddha advocated?
Sona decided to join the Buddha’s order of nuns to practise and develop selfless love and virtues. Following her husband’s path, she became a nun. Before long, however, Sona realized that she had taken her old habits with her into the order. She was an old woman who was set in her ways. Joining the order had not changed her as a person. Often she was a target for criticism by younger nuns as she had difficulties in changing her ways. Sona realized that attaining spiritual purity was no easy task.
Sona began to practise mindfulness and self-observation in earnest. She had to be aware of her emotions and weaknesses and discipline her mind. Because she had entered the order in her latter years Sona knew that she had to work with effort. She practised meditation with urgency, often passing the entire night in sitting and walking meditation. So as not to disturb others, she started to meditate in the lower hall in the dark by guiding herself with the pillars. Before long her determination and effort resulted in Sona attaining Arahanthship. She describes her attainment in her own words:
"Then the other Bhikkhunis
Left me alone in the convent.
They had given me instructions
To boil a cauldron of water.
Having fetched the water
I poured it into the cauldron.
I put the cauldron on the stove and sat,
Then my mind became composed.
I saw the aggregates as impermanent,
I saw them as suffering and not self.
Having expelled all cankers from my heart,
Right there I attained Arahanthship."
-- ( Apadana 234-236)
When the other nuns retuned they asked Sona for the hot water and she realized that she had not as yet boiled it. Using the supernormal powers that she now possessed and the fire element Sona heated the water and offered it to the nuns, who reported her extraordinary feat to the Buddha. The Buddha declared Sona as foremost among the nuns who put forth great effort and praised her effort and attainment by saying:
"Though one should live a hundred years
As a lazy, sluggish person,
Better it is to live a single day
Firmly arousing one’s energy."
-- (Dhammapada 112)
Sona describes her life in the Therigatha as follows:
"I bore ten children in this body,
In this physical frame of mine.
Then when I was old and frail,
I went up to a Bhikkhuni.
She gave me a discourse on the Teaching,
On the aggregates, sense bases, elements.
Having heard the Dhamma discourses from her,
I shaved my hair and then went forth.
Whilst still a probationer,
I purified the divine eye.
Now I know my past abodes,
Where it is that I lived before.
With one-pointed mind well composed,
I developed the sinless state.
Immediately I was released,
Quenched with the end of clinging.
The five aggregates are well understood,
They stand cut off at the root.
Fie on you, O wretched aging,
Now there is no more re-becoming."
-- (Therigatha 102-106)
Sona’s story is one from which we can all learn. Children who read this should reflect on their responsibilities to their parents. Our parents took care of us when we were too young to take care of ourselves, taught us right from wrong and showed us the Dhamma. The Buddha said that even if we carried our parents on our shoulders for our entire lifetime (shoulder the responsibility of their care and comfort) we would not be able to settle the obligation we owe them for what they have done. The effects of what one does to one’s parents have forceful results. Both the wholesome and unwholesome deeds we perform towards our parents have serious consequences.
For parents there is much to learn from Sona. We do not own our children. How can we, when we do not even own ourselves? Children should fulfill their obligations to their parents. We should show them by example. But bringing up children in Western society is even more difficult than bringing them up in the East. If our children don’t fulfil their duties we must remember that the Buddha said that we are our own saviours. Nothing is gained by reflecting on their omissions and getting bitter and angry. But much can be gained by disciplining ourselves and purifying our own minds. The cause of suffering – craving lies within us. All we can do is to ensure that we have done our best for our children. We cannot save them just as they cannot save us. In the end each of us is our own saviour.