Tag Archive | Susan Murcott

Mahapajapati

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.

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Renunciation

Jizo 19My catalyst in this life to becoming a Buddhist occurred when I was a teenager visiting Asia with my parents. In Nepal, we encountered Tibetans in exile, who radiated the most amazing peace and joy despite having lost everything in their flight across the Himalayas. I spent my fifteenth birthday with three new friends, an American woman, an Australian man, and a Nepalese man who were all practicing Tibetan Buddhists. They took me on a tour of the awe-inspiring Buddhist sites of Bodhnath and Swayambhunath and gave me an living example of Western converts to Tibetan Buddhism.

For a few years afterwards I corresponded with the American woman, who was in process of ordaining as a nun. She expressed great joy when I took refuge (formally converted to Buddhism), but when I wrote to tell her of my impending engagement to my now-husband, she was the only person who didn’t offer me congratulations. The gist of her reply was that if I got married I would be tying myself down with ever-increasing attachments that would bind me to samsara, this world of suffering. She urged me instead to embrace spiritual practice. Only through devoted practice, preferably as an ordained nun, could I achieve enlightenment quickly and thus benefit not just myself or a few people but all people.

I was eighteen and in love; I didn’t like her response and I didn’t know how to react to it. I stopped writing to her. A couple years later I got married to a wonderful man. I considered myself incredibly lucky (and still do). But I have to admit, she was right. I am thoroughly tied to samsaric existence. The height of my spiritual practice is striving to be a virtuous householder; I am a long way from renunciation. Continue reading