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 again.
Maya Giving Birth to Guatama from her side
photo by D. Bowman, Bangkok National Museum
When Pajapati was born she was recognized an exceptional child and it was predicted she would become a great leader or the wife of an emperor. Many years later she and her sister Maya would become wives of the Sakya clan leader, Suddhodana. Maya would give birth to a son Gautama, and like his aunt, it was predicted that he would be a great material or spiritual leader. Maya died seven days after giving birth and Pajipati raised Gautama as her own.
We know the story of Guatama leaving his riches and royal standing for the life of a spiritual seeker. After seven years and his final enlightenment under the Bodhi tree he returned home as an awakened one, the Buddha. His teachings electrified his family and eventually his father and son, Rahula, along with many of the men of the clan followed him.
Pajipati also wanted to follow her adopted son and sought his blessing to establish a nun’s group. Turning her down, he went on to Vesali to continue his teachings. Pajipati was not to be dismissed and along with a great gathering of 500 women, they donned the saffron robes and walked barefoot 150 miles to make another plea.
Three times the Buddha turned her down until Ananda interceded. As a realized one and also a friend of the family he asked the Buddha, “Are women capable of leading the holy life and attaining liberation?” The Buddha replied, “Yes, yes of course they are.” Ananda then asked, “so why are you creating an obstacle for them?” And the Buddha said, “Okay, so be it.”
In sharing this conversation between Ananda and the Buddha, Tenzin Palmo, a recognized teacher in the Tibetan tradition, states how this is the only recorded occasion when the Buddha changed his mind.
Pajipati, became known as Mahapajipati, or the great Pajipati. She is recognized as the first woman leader of Buddhism and an awakened one, a Buddha herself. Her words are recorded in the Therigatha, the songs of the elder women. Speaking of her many lifetimes and her awakening the final words of this verse commemorate her sister Maya:
Maya gave birth to Gautama
for the sake of us all.
She has driven back the pain
of the sick and the dying.
We can draw inspiration from Mahapajipati’s generosity, insight and determination. She is a mother of the Buddha and a realized teacher. Other realized women of the Therigatha sing her praises. We are lucky to have their voices, the first recorded spiritual teachings of women in the history of the world.
WOMEN AND BUDDHISM: Talk and Slide Presentation with Deborah Bowman
October 28, 7-9, 100 Arapahoe Ave., Suite 6, Boulder, CO