To be a woman is to recognize the heavily male-centered annals of history as the original fake news. In their disregard and erasure of women’s lives, stories, and accomplishments, male historians have long perpetuated a wicked, pernicious form of misogyny.
To help correct the record about the most important person in the Buddha’s life, Wendy Garling would like you to meet his mom, Mahaprajapati, the subject of Garling’s The Woman Who Raised the Buddha. Through her research and sublime prose, we learn that the Buddha was a fierce advocate for equal rights to the dharma: men, women, monks, and nuns, as part of a four-fold community. And while he lived, incredible progress was made, but all the Buddha could do was set the movement in motion. As Garling says in the interview below, he “provided the blueprint for the new faith, but it was up to subsequent generations of disciples to follow through. Unfortunately, male monastics largely took control from then on, and Buddhism reverted to a patriarchal model that has persisted until today.”
But she is also optimistic. Recently, she says, there has been “a significant challenge to the patriarchal status quo. It is mostly women now who are calling for a return to the Buddha’s original intention: a non-hierarchical, equal, four-fold community of lay and monastic women and men.”
Please tell our readers a little about your background and your spiritual path. What first drew you to Buddhism, and why is it still your spiritual practice of choice?
I may seem an unlikely candidate to write The Woman Who Raised the Buddha since my roots are both Christian and Midwestern going back several generations. Yet, when I was twenty, I had the good fortune to travel to Asia, where I immediately experienced a very strong feeling of “coming home,” especially in India, but even more so in Nepal. Buddhists ascribe that sort of experience to past life memory, but everyone has their own take on such things. Anyway, my life changed on a dime after that. I returned to Wellesley College, where I switched to a double major, and at the same time—this was the early 1970s—was drawn to all kinds of Eastern spirituality centered in Cambridge, MA. In search of a personal path, I tried everything from Sufi dancing to devotional chanting to meditation with Ram Das. Finally, on a retreat in the French Alps, I met a Tibetan lama for the first time. I still don’t have words for it, but that was my second coming home, and it rapidly became obvious to me that not just Buddhism, but Tibetan Buddhism, was my spiritual path. That has never wavered, and many decades later it is still just as true.
Your book makes it clear that the Buddha’s intent was to establish a four-fold community that would include lay women and men as well as monks and nuns, all with equal access to the dharma. Why were his intentions not brought to realization by his followers after his death, and is there anything being done currently to bring them to fruition?
The Buddha’s best shot at fulfilling that vision was during his lifetime, and I think he knew that. His egalitarianism with regard to gender (as well as caste and economic status) was unprecedented in that part of the world at that time. While he attracted many followers, there was always a tension between his teachings and existing patriarchal and class norms. In other words, unenlightened folk—in this case, misogynistic men—tended to bring their baggage with them—true then, true now! Nonetheless, the Buddha’s efforts met with measurable success, and over the forty five years of his ministry both lay and monastic women were welcomed to the dharma. Much credit for this goes to Mahaprajapati, leader of the women and the Buddha’s adoptive mother, as I recount in my book. Just before his death the Buddha declared that he was satisfied that his vision of a four-fold community had been realized.
We have to remember that all he could do was set it in motion, and that it was up to his followers to carry on his legacy. He provided the blueprint for the new faith, but it was up to subsequent generations of disciples to follow through. Unfortunately, male monastics largely took control from then on, and Buddhism reverted to a patriarchal model that has persisted until today. Only in recent decades, as lay and monastic Buddhist women find their voices and their power, has there been a significant challenge to the patriarchal status quo. It is mostly women now who are calling for a return to the Buddha’s original intention: a non-hierarchical, equal, four-fold community of lay and monastic women and men.
As a twenty-first century Western woman, how do you handle the gender-based inequalities that still exist in Buddhism? What effect, if any, do they have on your personal practice?
I handle them by writing books! There has been a sense of isolation, as Buddhist women have struggled with gender bias mostly alone or, if in community, still under the controlling mantle of Buddhist men, whether in lay dharma centers or monastic settings. My intention in writing my books is to investigate the original model of an equal four-fold community, highlight forgotten stories of women and women role models, and open lines of dialogue that may help move the needle back to the egalitarianism the Buddha intended. As for my personal practice, I have to say I have been very fortunate to have had wonderful teachers—all of them male exemplars of true dharma, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama—whose actions and teachings have empowered me to take the direction I have chosen in my writing.
How was misogyny expressed/experienced in early Buddhist culture, and what did the dharma teachings do to further women’s equality at the time?
The Buddha lived in an era we can call pre-history since there was no literacy and no written records for several hundred more years. Everything from his time, including his dharma teachings, was held in oral traditions until eventually recorded in different parts of the Buddhist world at different times. So, our guides to earliest Buddhism are stories, not histories, per se. That said, we learn from stories that women of the upper classes lived under the protection of aristocratic patriarchs in vast households, where the “women’s quarters” would include all women and children, including the patriarch’s principal wife (or wives) and children. An aspect of the women’s quarters was also the harem, seemingly women from all classes who were consorts of the patriarch, but they never had names and nothing is really known about them. So, this was indeed a patriarchal society. We best get a sense of the lives of the women from the poems of the Therigatha, found in the Pali canon, which is said to be the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. In these poems, nuns describe their life experiences—often beset with struggle and grief—before ordaining as monastics.
With no real records, it’s hard to say how the dharma affected the lives of laywomen, but at least we can imagine there were lively dinner conversations with their husbands! Monastic women shed their previous lives as laywomen and were all equal “daughters of the Buddha.” The prologue of my book addresses these themes. It is clear from the early canonical texts that the Buddha strongly advocated for women’s dharma education. There are stories of him running interference and chastising monks who tried to denigrate or take advantage of nuns; for example, monks would assign nuns menial tasks like washing their robes, when the Buddha insisted monks should wash their own robes, and women’s time should be spent studying and practicing the teachings. In these stories the nuns appear to be much better disciplined and committed as serious practitioners than the monks.
Do you, or any of the female Buddhists with the whom you have contact, feel the lack of a female lineage in Buddhism, and if so, does it affect your practice in any way? What would it take for women to be included in the Buddhist lineage, or for a separate lineage for women to be researched and developed?
It’s hard to miss what you’ve never had or even knew was possible. It’s like an orphan never knowing what it was like to have parents. Of course, there is a tremendous sense of void or loss once you think about it. When I first came to Buddhism, I, like most women then, just took the patriarchal bit for granted. That began to change for me as I began to find and see the feminine on my own, through practice and study and spending time in Asian Buddhist cultures. I definitely felt a sense of longing to identify with women lineages and role models. A life-changing turning point came in 2007, when I went on pilgrimage to Tibet, “In Search of the Sacred Feminine,” with a small group led by Lama Tsultrim Allione. We followed in the footsteps of realized Tibetan yoginis of the first millennium, like Machig Labdron and Yeshe Tsogyal, meditated and slept in their caves, walked their paths, and practiced their practices in situ, just as they had practiced. That experience fueled my commitment to the feminine, and no doubt underlies much of my writing.
In terms of researching women’s lineages, well, written records are sparse to non-existent. And remember, scribes were typically monastic men who did not think women’s lives and experiences were worth recording in the first place. Also, so much scriptural material, as well as many actual lineages, have been destroyed through wars and the destruction of monasteries and libraries across Asia since the Buddha era. What has partially survived—but still is very much in jeopardy—are some female oral traditions and lineages. I think it would be wonderful and very timely for those to be further researched to examine how links in the lineage chain can be pieced together and continued. My books profile the first generation of Buddhist women about as far as the literature currently takes us, which provides a basis for studying women and the lineages that came after.
Why do you think it is that patriarchy has had such a stranglehold on everything from religion to social, political, and cultural life? What do you think it would take to bring about true equality?
Well, those are big questions I’m not really equipped to answer. Patriarchy is certainly not an exclusively Buddhist problem—it has been a global phenomenon for millennia. With perspective, one can see there are cycles in time, and now we are seeing that the patriarchal era has reached its unfortunate climax and is in the midst of demise, just as the voices and activities of the sacred feminine are on the ascendant. I don’t think “true equality” is possible as a condition that is stable and permanent. Everything is in flux—the good and the bad, the masculine and the feminine. But I welcome the new era where women’s voices are increasingly being heard speaking for healing and the interconnection of life on the planet. It is desperately needed as we continue to face horrendous warfare and the degradation of our planet.
What is there in Buddhism that can contribute to this change? What might Buddhist women do to help it happen?
I don’t think it’s as much about being Buddhist or any other faith, as it is about internalizing a spiritual approach to life (I would describe it more as the sacred feminine) where all sentient life is universally respected and valued, with the recognition that everything and everyone belongs here and is in relationship with one another. In Buddhist terms, this would be called an understanding of our fundamental interdependence. Sentient life is a web, a matrix, not a hierarchy, and we need each other to survive. People of any faith, also atheists, can reach this conclusion with introspection. If Buddhists—women and men—do authentic practice, this sort of inner realization will come naturally. Then, one would hope, constructive, beneficial attitudes and behaviors would follow that will bring real healing, rather than destruction to our world, and more kindness and equanimity toward each other. Reversing climate change is a huge example of how badly we need the voices and activities of the sacred feminine to save our planet.
Do you think that Buddhism, as it is practiced today, translates well into Western culture? Why or why not?
Buddhism has made its way through many different cultures since it began its spread from northern India 2500 years ago. Every step of the way it has adapted and changed while retaining the Buddha’s original teachings at the core. Today there are many different “Buddhisms,” but the highest teachers, for example the Dalai Lama, will denounce sectarianism and make the call for unity among schools. In this way, Buddhism has transformed again as it has become assimilated into Western culture. And the West has become transformed too, as it has assimilated Buddhism. So too have Eastern teachers had to adapt to the ways of the West and the habits and expectations of Western students.
The Buddha’s teachings were not culturally specific and not gendered, but were intended for human beings who wish to transform their minds and the experience of being human away from suffering and toward equanimity, compassion, and wisdom, bringing one eventually to Buddhism’s ultimate, intended result of freedom, or nirvana. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often begins his teachings with the universal truth that all beings want happiness and don’t want to suffer. Cultural and gender differences are altogether secondary and different, although that’s where we unenlightened folk often get stuck with our biases and negative reactions. I would say Buddhism translates fine to the West. It has proved very useful and beneficial here—but it’s always a work in progress!
What might a twenty-first century, feminist, fully-inclusive Buddhism look like? Does such a thing exist anywhere today? What might it take to get there?
Monastic women would be best suited to answer that question for themselves, as I have no idea what specifics they might call for to meet a definition of “fully inclusive.” Sitting here as a lay practitioner, I would say that overall the women’s movement appears to be headed in the right direction in both lay and monastic settings, as women are powerfully calling for an end to patriarchy, full stop. Also, key male leaders, such as the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa are openly condemning embedded misogynistic and patriarchal systems and behaviors within Buddhist communities, while also supporting women’s power, women’s voices, and women’s dharma education. Social justice with regard to racial and economic inclusivity is also under the microscope in Buddhism right now, and clear efforts are being made across dharma centers, at least in the US (all I know) to ensure that doors and hearts are open to all who wish to participate.
The Buddha is said to have had 500 followers with him when he returned to his home town. His adoptive mother, Mahaprajapati, led 500 women who had studied the dharma for six years to the Buddha requesting ordination. What is the significance of the number 500 in Buddhism?
Ha-ha, yes, the 500. That number is a trope used in the literature simply to denote “a lot” when exact numbers cannot be known or aren’t important. It’s used quite a bit. As far as I know it has no mystical meaning.
The Dalai Lama once implied that it’s not impossible that the next Dalai Lama might be a woman. If that were to happen, what do you think might be the effect on Buddhism worldwide?
Well, there would certainly be backlash, both within the Buddhist world and generally, now that HHDL is such a prominent global figure. I’d predict patriarchal fireworks, in spades. And skepticism—there would be doubters and naysayers all over the place (talk about disrupting the status quo!). HHDL knows that, but that does not mean it could not happen. He will choose the gender of the next Dalai Lama based on what would be most beneficial and effective in bringing the Dalai Lama’s work of serving humanity to fruition. Since the time of the first Dalai Lama in the 15th century, it has been “a man’s world,” thus the DL’s work has been best suited for a male body. If that is not the case in the future, then he would take a female body. It’s really just a practical matter. But it must be added that while HHDL’s taking rebirth is definite, his choosing to be another Dalai Lama is not. He has also questioned the usefulness of the role of Dalai Lama in the future. He may choose a rebirth that is altogether different, one where being male or female is less of an issue.
What is the most important message you would like readers to get from your book, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha?
I would love to ask my readers for their key takeaways once my book has been out for a while. I have found there are often reactions I would never think of myself, sometimes very emotional. My books can be experienced as somewhat disruptive, and from disruption all kinds of responses emerge. Generally, I want people to know that the Buddha’s life story has been fossilized, frozen in time, and the popular version we have learned not only mostly excludes women, but portrays the Buddha, inaccurately, as solitary and self-made, when in fact he was surrounded by community, in particular women, for much of his life. Tied to this, at the same time, Buddhism itself is presented as almost entirely androcentric from its inception, whereas my book uncovers the indispensable role that his mother Mahaprajapati, and other women played. A corrective to these long-held, inaccurate versions is overdue and may bring some healing to the patriarchal imbalances that persist today.
In my previous book, Stars at Dawn, I rewrote, or rather “restored,” as best as possible, his life story according to ancient stories that had been dropped from most later narratives. In my current book I bring back his mother—an exceptionally important and influential figure, not just in his life, but at the founding of Buddhism. She has been almost entirely erased from traditional narratives. How differently Buddhism would have evolved and been understood had she been part of the narrative all along. I was fortunate to find sources that allowed me to bring her back with the confidence that, to some degree, I was telling the story of Buddhism’s founding much the way it was originally told in the oral traditions before literary accounts androcentrized the whole thing.
I hope Buddhist women will gain a sense of our foremothers, and that particularly the story of Mahaprajapati will be of benefit to them in their practices and in their lives. Not only did she raise a wonderful son, she was a leader of women who never wavered from her own spiritual commitment and path. Of course, I would hope the story of Mahaprajapati would be of benefit to men too, as she was indeed the Mother of Buddhism as well as the mother of the Buddha. One more thing I hope to do is change the fossilized languaging around women in the literature. For example, I really want to stop describing Mahaprajapati as the Buddha’s “aunt.” Well, yes, that is technically accurate, but for millennia that word has served to distance her emotionally from her son. She was the Buddha’s adoptive mother—the only mother he ever knew, and a mother who we know from the stories loved him deeply as her own. I also have come to realize that the first generation of Buddhist women is a unique cohort and should not be lumped together with “early Buddhism,” which has unfortunately served to shoehorn them into one sectarian school. The first generation—those women who knew the Buddha and studied with him—are the foremothers of all Buddhist women in all schools, past and present, across Asia and the West. Their lives serve as exemplars and role models not just to Buddhist women now but to all spiritual women, really.
Your work, whether books, articles, or interviews, is certainly bringing greater understanding of women’s role in early Buddhism, and the contributions they continue to make. Is there another book on the way? What is its topic?
Lots of thoughts churning, but no news on a book! I have written some articles and enjoy giving talks. It’s like scattering seeds. I hope these stories of Mahaprajapati and the women in the Buddha’s life will be retold and become part of a new Buddhist narrative. Then another book from me may not be necessary, but others can take it from there.