The Buddha's Mother's Day

By Rev. Jon Turner

            On Sunday, May 12, 2019, it will be Mother’s Day.  I had always thought that this was a day for all mothers to celebrate.  But this is not how Anne Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day had intended it.  In 1908, she envisioned a much more personal day.  A day where each person would remember their own mother.  You can see this reflected in the name of the holiday.  Anne Jarvis specifically chose the singular possessive Mother’s Day rather than the plural possessive Mothers’ Day.  The difference is merely the placement of the apostrophe either before or after the ‘s’.  Before is personal while after is communal. So rather than a day for all mothers, it is instead a day for each of us to remember our own mothers.

            In Buddhism, there is a very famous, and special mother.  Her name is Mahapajapati.  This name is a compound.  “Maha” means “great” while “Pajapati” means “Leader of the Sangha”.  So she was a great leader of the Sangha.  But what Sangha was this?  Well her last name “Gotami” is a clue.  She was the foster mother of Prince Siddhartha Gotami, the historical Buddha. But she is also famous in her own right, not merely due to the fame of her adopted son.

            We celebrate the Buddha’s birth at Hanamatsuri.  He was born Prince Siddhartha on April 8, about 2,500 years ago.  But tragically, his mother, Queen Maya, died on April 15, one week after his birth.  Likely due to complications from childbirth. His father King Suddhodana was a warrior who was now a single father.  Fortunately, Queen Maya had a loving sister named Pajapati, the Buddha’s aunt.

Pajapati also becomes Siddhartha’s surrogate mother.  She raises Siddhartha as her own first-born son.  She would later have two children of her own, a daughter named Sundari-Nanda and a son named Nanda.  She was a wonderful mother to each of her three children. She treated each as her own.  This is motherhood as a profound bond between two people rather than merely of birth.

On December 8, we have Bodhi Day, the day Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.  He was 35 years old and had awakened to the truth of impermanence.  There is a collection of texts called the reconciliation texts where the Buddha returns to his home town of Kapilavatthu in order to reconcile with all his friends and relatives after six years of being a wandering ascetic.  It goes so well that many of them also become practicing Buddhists.  For example, his father, wife and son all begin to practice the way.

            This was especially true of his mother Pajapati.  Over time she attracted 500 female students of her own.  “500” is symbolic in Buddhist texts for “many, many” students.  She was a gifted teacher with the authority that comes about naturally when one sincerely practices.  Women also identified with a female teacher.  She understood their struggles and difficulties in life. 

At that time, gender roles for women were very limiting.  Women who were widowed or not married or without children had very little opportunities.  Buddhism gave these woman a meaningful alternative.  Pajapati was surrounded by “displaced wives, widows, consorts, dancers and musicians.  Lacking other kin, these women were turning to her and to one another. Having fully grasped this situation, Pajapati decided to take …”[1] action.

During this time the monastic order of male monks was growing and becoming more formalized. Pajapati began to wonder why women can’t become nuns and equal members of the Buddhist Sangha.  She asks the Buddha three times to allow women into the Sangha and she is denied each time, likely because the Buddha was worried that having women living within the monastic community might disrupt the practice of the monks. 

So Pajapati takes more extreme measures.  She actually shaves her head, wears the saffron-colored robes of a monk and heads towards Vesali where the Buddha is practicing.  Along the way, hundreds of other women join her march towards the Buddha.  This march attracted large crowds as they continued from town to town.  Upon arrival, the Buddha finally agrees to allow the establishment of the order of Buddhist nuns.  Pajapati could not be denied any longer.

There are two theories as to why the Buddha had a change of heart.  The most common explanation is that it was his mother and he owed her for a lifetime of care.  But I like the alternative.  That Pajapati was a future Buddha destined for awakening.  Thus, there was no way the Buddha could deny her request.  Pajapati had earned this status rather than receiving it as a favor.

This is how Pajapati becomes Mahapajapati, the “Great Leader of the Sangha.”  She is even referred to as the “Founding Mother of Buddhism.”  Today, she is considered the most important female in the history of Buddhism.  This is why Siddhartha was able to have the best Mother’s Day every day of his life.  It is this bond rather than birth that gave Mahapajapati her place within our tradition.

                  In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner