Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Buddha's Mothers

Wisdom Quarterly

The Buddha-to-be, Siddhartha, was born to a beautiful queen of good conduct. Her name was Maha Maya Devi -- the Queen Great Beauty. As minor royalty, she was not the king's only wife. Another of his wives was her sister, Maha Pajapati.

A week after the Bodhisat's birth, framed in legend as a sala tree dryad in a divine (devic) event marking the birth of a future world mo or chakravartin king, Queen Maya died.
The future Buddha was left without a mother -- but not for long.  Her sister, Maha Pajapati, the king's other wife, handed her maternal responsibilities to another and she herself raised the Bodhisat as her own son.
She would go on to become the world's first Buddhist nun and founder of the Bhikkhuni Sangha, the Buddhist Monastic Order of women.

Rather than growing up motherless, Siddhartha grew up surrounded by Shakyan women. He was married off according to custom at 16 to Princess Yasodhara. His palaces were populated by dancing girls and female musicians. Warrior princesses were stationed as his protectors, standing by as guards to the upper floors of his homes.

The Buddha met his mother again, for she dwelled in space, in the Celestial World of the Thirty-Three.

And he went there to teach for her benefit, just as he had led his father to profound realization and liberation. Her birth in the human world was later explained as an act of will to facilitate the Bodhisat's birth. She was a "virgin," a terribly misunderstood word. She had sex; she got pregnant by virtue of having sex, but she was a "virgin" in this one sense: for seven generations back there was no trace of sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara).

 In that sense was she "sexually pure." She was undefiled, untainted, "chaste," and wholesome. Even Christianity does not mean what we mean by "virgin," and St. Issa's story is largely borrowed and informed by what happened to the Bodhisat.

Buddhism is sexist, but it was not meant to be. It was not set up that way by the Buddha. It was marred and adjusted to fit with the times. 

The Monastic Order of men, and possibly the community at large, would not stand for an equal female Order. They subordinated it and credited the Buddha with that. But the Buddha said his dispensation would not be complete until he had four sets of disciples: female and male lay hearers (savakas) and female and male monastics. 

Sadly, sexism taints all the world's religions, And the belief that Buddhism managed to remain untainted will only lead to an unpleasant surprise. As Westerners we often impute the purity we do not find in our own traditions on the East or in native customs. But Western archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and historians have brought the taint of sexism with them to the investigation as colonizers. 

Had they found sexual equality, they would have buried it, misunderstood it, or simply obscured it. It is the job and privilege of Western Buddhists to restore the Dharma to its egalitarian roots. We are bolstered by the fact that at heart Buddhism was revolutionary and gave women equal status. But additional rules (garudhammas) were added subordinating women and sex differences codified into the "religion." 

Just as the flavor of the sea is one, that of salt, so the flavor of the Dharma is one, that of freedom.

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