MahapajapatiThis is a photo of one of the lovely statues at Upaya Zen Center. The first few times I passed, I thought it was a Buddha statue. Then I sat down next to a fellow retreatant and really looked at the statue. A smile broke across my face as I read the inscription, Mahapajapati Gotami, and realized this was a statue of the historical Buddha’s maternal aunt.

I’d never seen a statue of Mahapajapati before, but I know her story well; I retold it for children in a chapter of In the Garden of our Minds entitled The Value of Persistence: The Story of Mahaprajapati (I used the Sanskrit transliteration of her name, rather than the Pali). Most of my knowledge about her comes from the wonderful book The First Buddhist Women: Poems and Songs of Awakening by Susan Murcott, which provides historical and spiritual context to accompany translations of the first Buddhist women’s enlightenment verses.

Mahapajapati raised the Buddha after his mother (her sister) died. When the prince was twenty-nine years old, he left home to seek enlightenment, leaving behind his wife Yasodhara and infant son, Rahula; Mahapajapati would have remained closely involved in their lives. When the Buddha eventually returned home, Mahapajapati welcomed him back and together with her husband (the Buddha’s father) converted to the Dharma. Many years later, after Mahapajapati’s husband had died and her son and grandson had both become monks, the Buddha came home to settle a violent water dispute. Many local men became monks as a result of the Buddha’s resolution of the conflict, leaving more women without husbands and sons in their homes. Mahapajapati asked the Buddha to ordain her and a large group of other women as the first Buddhist nuns. The Buddha refused her three times, finally departing with his entourage of monks to Vesali, a town about a hundred and fifty miles away.

Mahapajapati would not be deterred. She cut off her hair, put on monastic robes, and together with hundreds of other women who wished to be ordained, walked to Vesali, where she stood outside the Dharma hall in tears. This time, Ananda, the cousin and closest personal attendant of the Buddha, intervened on her behalf. Three times the Buddha refused Ananda’s request. Finally, Ananda asked if women were capable of attaining enlightenment. The Buddha agreed that they were. Ananda respectfully suggested that, in that case, it would be good if women could be ordained as nuns. The Buddha said that if Mahapajapati would agree to eight special conditions that place nuns subordinant to monks, they could be ordained. She agreed, and thus Mahapajapati became the first Buddhist nun.

As I discussed in my last blog, I was recently at Upaya to attend a retreat on service to the dying, with Roshi Joan Halifax and Frank Ostaseski. During one discussion session, we talked about the sense of betrayal that can sometimes arise during caregiving, such as if the person for whom we are caring not only fails to express gratitude for our care but rails and rages against us. A sense of betrayal can also arise when we feel that we have betrayed our own integrity, such as when we regret not having reacted to some person or situation in a more skillful way. Either type of sense of betrayal can hurt our morale and engender futility, undercutting our ability to provide compassionate care.

I have never sat at the bedside of a dying person, but I have co-parented two children with many of the difficulties and challenging behaviors typical of internationally adopted post-institutionalized children (most of whom have experienced significant early childhood loss and trauma). I am quite familiar with both types of the sense of betrayal. I have been on the receiving end of overpowering rages both external and internal, and they have hurt.

Now, thinking of my own experience, discussions at the retreat, and the statue of Mahapajapati, I am drawn even closer to her story. By the time she asked the Buddha for ordination, she was an older woman of status in a society in which women expected that after a lifetime of service to others they would be cared for in their old age by their husband and sons. However, her husband had died and her sons were monks – both the son she bore and the son of her sister who she had (as Ananda would remind the Buddha at Vesali) nursed on her own breast.

Years previously Mahapajapati had dried the tears of Yasodhara when the would-be Buddha left her and his infant son to seek enlightenment; now she was drying the tears of women whose husbands had recently left to become monks. I’ve blogged previously about my struggles to understand these renunciation decisions and the deep emotional impact on those left behind. Mahapajapati had weathered those storms and clearly understand the suffering of samsara, but when she herself wanted to pursue release from suffering, she was denied. What sense of betrayal must she have felt, standing before the Buddha, three times asking to pursue a spiritual life and three times turned away?

At the retreat, Frank and Roshi Joan discussed ways in which we can skillfully work with a sense of betrayal. We can realize that a sense of betrayal arises from a lack of sense of agency (lack of control), but that the sense of agency is itself illusory. We can say to ourselves: Not only do I not have control over this situation, but there is no self-sufficient, independent “I” to have control. They said that at first, our realization will be largely philosophical, but through practice we can acquire direct personal insight into the truth of impermanence and lack of inherent self. Once we have directly tasted boundless interconnectedness and the lack of inherent self, any lingering sense of betrayal will melt away because it has nothing to stick to.

I don’t think Mahapajapati had personally experienced that realization when she stood before the Buddha as he refused her request for ordination, over and over and over again. I say this because Susan Murcott’s translation of the Cullavagga Sutta reports that at this point Mahapajapati, “thinking that the Blessed One would not allow women to enter into homelessness . . .  bowed to him, and keeping her right side towards him, departed in tears.” Was she not feeling a sense of betrayal, arisen from lack of agency in the moment and her personal and socio-cultural expectations? How did she work with these emotional edges?

Frank and Roshi Joan explained that we can apply direct antidotes to a sense of betrayal, such as saying to ourselves (when confronted with a raging caregiving recipient, for instance), “May I offer love even though it may be met with ingratitude”. This is a practice right out of Shantideva, whose chapter on patience in the Bodhicaryavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) I consider to be the gold standard on that topic (I love the Stephen Batchelor translation, but here’s a free translation available online).

In my own experience, another effective antidote in a situation in which someone else is directing rage at me is to remind myself that this is happening only because I am a convenient target. For instance, some adopted children hold a lot of anger towards their first parents, but their first parents aren’t around for them to express that anger. So they take their negative emotions out on their adoptive parents. From what I learned at the retreat, similar situations can arise when caregiving to a dying person. I know first-hand how difficult it can be in the moment of someone raging to remember this! However, cultivating compassion for the suffering that the person has gone through can help to inform a more appropriate and compassionate response.

An even more important antidote for me (yet one that I struggle to remember) is reflecting on the dangers inherent in expectations. Most of the times I have felt most betrayed (both by others and by myself), I set myself up for failure by expecting a certain outcome from an interaction or situation. I expected someone to react in a certain way – and when they did not, I felt betrayed. I expected myself to react in a certain way – and when I did not, I felt betrayed. The lesson for me is to drop expectations completely. Only when I stop distracting myself with a story about the outcome I thought should be, can I be in the situation that actually is.

As Frank and Roshi Joan told us in the context of being with someone who is dying, don’t try to figure out what to do – find the stable place within yourself that can be with whatever comes. They assured us that we can find that place through practice; we can find out what we have in ourselves and use that to see us through chaos – not by intervening to manage the chaos, but by having the courage to stay with and accompany it. As Roshi Joan said, “It’s stepping off the hundred-foot pole, living with radical uncertainty . . . being wide open to the whole catastrophe.” They told us to become an ally of uncertainty, cultivating a quality of fundamental confidence, not through ideas about our role or through planning, but confidence in our capacity to be with whatever arises.

Back to Mahapajapati. I recognize that the situations I’m describing (dealing with a raging caregiving recipient/asking the Buddha for ordination) are not inherently congruous, but I feel definite parallels. Mahapajapati has been rejected. She had an expectation (that the Buddha would ordain her and the other women, as he had ordained so many of their husbands and sons) and when she was met with an unexpected response, she was devastated. She did not, however, either crumble or rage. Instead, she stepped off the hundred-foot pole. She shaved her head, she donned robes, she walked one hundred and fifty miles barefoot, and she tried again.

Frank and Roshi Joan told us that one very important component of being able to cultivate the inner strength necessary to to keep our hearts open in the presense of suffering is to cultivate a selfless intention (aspiration or motivation) and then keep that intention front and center as a guiding star. What aspiration did Mahapajapati have that sustained her on her long and difficult walk? I feel that she was alive with aspirations that continued even after the Buddha finally agreed to her ordination. Susan Murcott recounts the lesser known story that Mahapajapati later returned to Ananda to ask him to ask the Buddha to lift the first special condition he had imposed on nuns, so that instead of requiring the most senior nun to pay reverence to even the most junior monk, the monks and nuns would pay respect to each other on pure basis of seniority. The Buddha refused unequivocally. That wasn’t the last of Mahapajapati. As she neared death, she requested that the Buddha, her son, come to see her, although another rule forbid monks from visiting sick nuns. He went. The rule changed.

At the very beginning of the retreat, we took refuge and the five precepts together in order to create, as Frank put it, an environmental of respect and safety, to ground us all in moral sensitivity. Frank shared with us a different way of thinking of the refuge vow, which is traditionally expressed as I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha. Frank suggested thinking of this as: There is a home. There is a way home. There is a group of people trying to get home.

This formulation really resonated with me. I like to think of the Sangha not just as the group of Dharma practitioners I practice with, or as the current Buddhist monastic community around the world, but as an unbroken chain of spiritual ancestors stretching all the way back to the time of the Buddha, and through lifetimes and lifetimes beyond that. Thus Mahapajapati, this remarkable inspiring woman who fulfilled all the duties of her lay life and then diligently pursued spiritual awakening, is one of my Sangha sisters even now.


Mahapajapati’s poem of enlightenment from The First Buddhist Women: Poems and Songs of Awakening by Susan Murcott:

Homage to you Buddha,
best of all creatures,
who set me and many others
free from pain.

All pain is understood,
the cause, the craving is dried up,
the Noble Eightfold Way unfolds,
I have reached the state where everything stops.

I have been
knowing nothing of the truth
I journeyed on.

But I have seen the Blessed One;
this is my last body,
and I will not go
from birth to birth

Look at the disciples all together,
their energy,
their sincere effort.
This is homage to the buddhas.

Maya gave birth to Gautama
for the sake of us all.
She has driven back the pain
of the sick and the dying.


Note: you can also get the first edition of the book, The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha on Amazon for literally pennies

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