On Mother’s Day, we celebrate the devotion and love that mothers have shown to their children throughout time.
But did you know the Buddha also had a mother? In fact, he had two?
The Buddha’s mothers are more than a sidenote in Buddhism – they are important to the story of the Buddha himself.
The Queen of Buddhism: Māyā
Her beauty sparkles like a nugget of pure gold.
She has perfumed curls like the large black bee.
Eyes like lotus petals, teeth like stars in the heavens.
— From the Lalitavistara Sūtra
When we talk about the Buddha, we often only think about him and little else. After all, he is the founder of the religion and whose sermons and teachings we follow.
Yet, the Buddha was still a man – a human being.
And to be a human being, he needed a mother. And that is where Māyā comes into the picture.
Māyā was the wife of Śuddhodhana, who was the elected leader of the Śākya clan in the region where the modern-day countries of Nepal and India are located.
She had an extraordinary dream where at the end of it a white elephant, holding a white lotus flower in its tusks, entered into her right side. She awoke and knew the meaning of the dream meant something great and remarkable.
What was the meaning? According to Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha-to-be was residing as a Bodhisattva in Tuṣita heaven. He had decided that the conditions were right for a new Buddha of an era to be introduced into our world, and came down in the form of a white elephant. This was to be his last birth in our world.
She later traveled to her birthplace (which was a tradition) to give birth. As she stepped under a Sal tree, she reached up to its limb and gave birth to the future Buddha: Siddhārtha (“He who has accomplished his goals”).
Although she did not know he would become the Buddha, she gave birth to a remarkable child that would teach one of the world’s great religions.
Around seven days after she gave birth, Māyā died.
While Māyā’s story was short in Siddhārtha’s life, it didn’t end there. According to Buddhist tradition, she then resided in Tuṣita heaven and was, later on, taught by the Buddha after his enlightenment, and even was there for his parinirvāṇa (final Nirvana).
This was, perhaps, Sidharrtha’s first experience with Dukkha. While he was too young to even know his mother, the loss of his birth mother likely would have been a seed of unsatisfactoriness in his life.
Despite his father’s attempts to shield his son from the harsh realities of life (due to a prophecy where he would either become a great ruler or a great holy person), this singular event could not be hidden. His mother was forever gone from him. He would never know her kindness, love, touch, or affection.
While tragic, her death could have been the seed that eventually led him to sneak out of the palace four times (“the Four Sights“) which eventually sparked his desire to seek the holy life, rather than that of a great ruler. For without her death, there may never have been the seed of sadness, despair, and loss that spurred Sidharrtha into action to find the truth (Dharma).
Due to that event, it is my opinion that Māyā was not only the Buddha’s mother – I regard her as a mother to Buddhism.
The Mother Who Became a Nun: Pajāpatī
If, Ananda, Maha Pajapati Gotami would accept the Eight Conditions it would be regarded that she has been ordained already as a nun.
Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Pajāpatī) was Māyā’s stepsister and Siddhārtha’s aunt.
After his mother died, Pajāpatī became the foster mother of Siddhārtha after marrying his father, Śuddhodhana.
She nursed and raised him along with her own children, and treated him with love and compassion.
With Pajāpatī’s guidance as a mother, Siddhārtha grew up with the mother he needed. Indeed, he was an intelligent man who was also skilled in various athletic skills and martial arts.
Yet, it was the compassion that he was provided by the women in his life that I believe left the most fundamental mark on him. Since compassion and loving-kindness are the hallmarks of Buddhism, these influential women provided him the path to the truth that nobody else could have.
After Śuddhodhana (his father) passed away, Pajāpatī is well known in the Buddhist tradition to become the first female to request and receive ordination (as a Bhikkhunī, which is a nun).
This was no easy feat, even being the aunt and foster mother to the Buddha!
His cherished attendant, Ananda, had to ask the Buddha several times regarding the ordination of women in some skillful ways. Eventually, the Buddha conceded and Pajāpatī became the first nun.
While this may sound unusual in our modern times, it was revolutionary in the Buddha’s time. Women had little to no rights, nor were believed to have the capabilities of men.
Fundamentally the Buddha rejected that notion that women were different than men, along with rejecting the notion at the time that there are different ‘castes’ of people and that determined their capabilities.
The exchange between Ananda and the Buddha went like this, with Ananda first talking to Pajāpatī (“Gotami”):
“Gotami, why are you standing here like this?” he asked.
“Venerable Ananda, it is because the Blessed One does not give permission for women to become nuns,” she replied.
“Wait here, Gotami, I’ll ask the Blessed One about this,” Ananda told her. When Ananda asked the Buddha to admit Maha Pajapati Gotami as a nun, the Buddha refused. Ananda asked three times and three times the Buddha refused.
So Ananda put the request in a different way. Respectfully he questioned the Buddha, “Lord, are women capable of realising the various stages of sainthood as nuns?”
“They are, Ananda,” said the Buddha.
“If that is so, Lord, then it would be good if women could be ordained as nuns,” said Ananda, encouraged by the Buddha’s reply.
“If, Ananda, Maha Pajapati Gotami would accept the Eight Conditions it would be regarded that she has been ordained already as a nun.”
The Buddha was initially reluctant to ordain women apparently due to the societal challenges (and stigma) they would face. Yet he became the first religious leader to not only allow women in the role of spiritual disciples (nuns) but also that they had the same exact capability as men!
This was, in the Buddha’s day, unheard of.
To blunt the blow to society and protect the nuns from any repercussions, he imposed more precepts (rules and guidelines for monastics) for women than men. While many of these continue in our modern world, progressive traditions such as those in Mahayana have done away with some of the precepts that may have made sense in the Buddha’s time, but not today. In fact, women have even become Abbesses of major temples in Mahayana!
Pajāpatī eventually attained arhantship (an enlightened being) – just like her male counterparts.
Her example led the way in original Buddhism for women to escape the lives they were in for that of the monastic lifestyle and towards enlightenment.
While it may first appear that giving up everything for the homeless life (that of a monastic) would not be best, women actually found it freeing considering the difficult lifestyle they faced in marriage. In fact, there were stories found where they rejoiced at this freedom of life – and the freedom to achieve awakening.
What We Can Learn
These two remarkable women helped the Buddha of our Era (Shakyamuni Buddha) “be”.
Without them, in both of their roles, we may never have been blessed with his teachings that have resulted in one of the world’s largest religions with over 350 million followers.
It also shows us that we should leave our perceptions at the door. Clinging and craving to the belief in an unchanging and independent “self” is one of the fundamental roots of Dukkha, and we have seen that with the treatment by men of women throughout time.
The Buddha led the way not only for the rights of women spiritually but also with a fundamental universal truth that was 2,600 years early: women are sentient beings and are as capable as men. And even more foundational as it relates to Buddhism: they are able to achieve awakening and enlightenment on equal footing as any man.
On Mother’s Day, we should also celebrate these two remarkable mothers who gave birth (in different and complementary ways) to Buddhism itself.
I dedicate this article to my mother who left this world too soon many years ago. She taught me the strength, courage, wisdom, compassion, and love that only a mother can.
As we learn in Buddhism nothing arises from nothing, nor does it fade away to nothing.
While she is physically no longer here, the seeds she left in my consciousness and in my heart have been with me all my life and will continue on.
I hope you find this article is also filled with the love and compassion she shared with me.
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