A couple of sore points on the Mahavastu

I am fixing up the html file of the Mahavastu. In one section, the ‘Buddha to be’, Dipamkara, was in Tusita (heaven) surveying peoples and lands for a suitable place to take birth.

On page 177 the following verses appear:

While he is still
dwelling in Tuṣita,
the Bodhisattva exercises
great mindfulness in his search
for a mother whose karma is good.

For he must descend
into the womb of a woman
who has only seven nights
and ten months of her life remaining.

And why so?
Because, says he,
it is not seemly that she
who bears a peerless one like me
should afterwards indulge in love.

According to these verses, it would be unseemly for the Bodhisattva’s mother to indulge in ‘love’ (that is, sex) after giving birth to him. Why I ask? To me this is sexist.

In addition, it is borish (to me ), the description the text gives as to what is a ‘proper’ family for the Bodhisattva to be born in to. According to the text, the family must be endowed with sixty qualities, such as “of high birth and lineage…pre-eminent among families, and has ascendancy over other families…is rich in wealth, treasuries and granaries, elephants, horses, cattle and sheep, in female and male slaves and servants.”

What is wrong with, say, your average working class family?

I know the Mahavastu is a late text. (Incidently, this section of the Mahavastu has many similarties to a number of suttas in the Digha Nikaya where there are descriptions of elaborate and highly ornate palaces with gold, silver, and so on – also considered to be late). But with this kind of rhetoric, what kind of impressions and perceptions does it create? I’m just putting it out there, but I find these things counter productive to the world that many good people are trying to create, ie, one that does not set some up to be more priveleged, to the detriment and suffering of others.


I couldn’t agree more. The same kinds of ideas are found in Theravada texts, and seem to have been widespread in later Buddhism.

At Ud 5.2, we have a short sutta that deals with the passing away of the Bodhisatta’s mother. There’s none of that mystical purity nonsense. Instead, the Buddha takes it as a reflection of impermanence.

It goes without saying, in pre-modern times (which still exist in much of the world) death in childbirth was horrifyingly common for both mother and child. There’s no need for any other explanation.

I think this sutta has a deeper implication. Siddhattha’s first experience of love and happiness was taken from him, cruelly and suddenly, before he could even comprehend what was happening. It can’t be a coincidence that his later teaching would so heavily emphasize the pains of death and loss. This experience, I think, was deeply and lastingly transformative.


There are quite a few suttas where respected Brahmins bring out the fact that “the ascetic Gotama” is from a respectable family as a justification for even going to listen to him. I suspect that if the Buddha had been born as a poor woman for example, all of us would not be doing what we are doing today.

Sexism and classism were just much more accepted than they are in our current society. And even in our “tolerant western world”, I suspect people are pretty much the same under the hood, they just don’t show it publicly until they see that it’s okay to do so. The rise of Trump is a pretty good example of that and also these statistics.


Sure, it is sexist and elitist, but we can’t apple modern values to the Ancient Indic society where the Early Buddhism spread. I mean, both you and me are certainly not racist and loathe racism in any way, shape or form, so phrases like ‘stupid nigger, go pick your cotton’ sound so appalling to us. 150 years ago they sounded much more natural to so many people.

Think about Makkhali Gosala and Niggantha Nataputta: “Born in a stable” and “Sound of a dance girl”. These names were considered a pretty serious criticism of these people even back at the Buddha’s time. Heck, even Jesus’ Jewish descent and dishonourable death was a stumbling block for Romans for such a long time.

I think the most honest way to deal with these problematic Buddhist ideas would be to admit they did exist and were completely wrong, which only proves how human the Dhamma is. Other religions can try to make an air racism, murder and unfair prosecution have never happened in the long course of their history, but I think Buddhism is better than that :slight_smile:


in MN 115 it’s also categorically said that the buddha cannot be a woman

Aṭṭhānametaṃ anavakāso yaṃ itthī arahaṃ assa sammāsambuddho, netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjatī

it is impossible, there is no chance, that a woman would become a worthy fully self awakened one

but it’s just one of perhaps as many as two instances of this statement in the entire Canon, another one is in AN 1.279 (AN 1.278-286)

True words. Today, the Buddha would have it really hard in any case: if he were born as gay, poor, female, or even as white, heterosexual and male. The society is just as divided as always, and there always be large groups of population that just won’t listen to you just because of something you don’t have any control over. Homophobes will hate a formerly gay Arahant, many Europeans and Americanc will be highly suspicious of an Arahant speaking with a thick Asian or Spanish accent, radical feminist and radical racial minority activists will never accept a white guy from a wealthy family teaching them how to live their lives properly. This is really sad :sweat: On the other hand, this is exactly why we all turned to Buddhism in the first place, isn’t it?

By the way, if the Buddha were born in a Western country, it would still be hugely lucky for the world. Imagine what would happen if he were born in North Korea, the Soviet Union, or Saudi Arabia :confounded:


if the buddha-to-be is capable of choosing his birth place and conditions i’m sure he chooses the most convenient and favorable for carrying out his upcoming mission and for this reason his emergence cannot be thwarted by anything

so if he can and being born to a noble, wealthy, high placed, successful, influential family provides the best starting conditions (as is usually the case in the world) to further his spiritual development, it seems only natural that this is where he’ll be born

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On the other hand, compare it to the Christian or Muslim tradition. In the latter case, it was Allah who decided where the last Prophet should be born, but it doesn’t change much on the substance of my argument. In both of these religions, the humble birth of their founders is often considered to have a deep spiritual meaning. I think, in some respects, the imagery of Jesus born in a manger as well as the humble beginnings of the early Christian community could possibly contribute to the popularity of egalitarianism and democratic ideas in post-mediaeval Europe.

It seems to me, the whole paradigm of the Buddhas being born in noble families is akin to Christian attempts to fabricate Jesus’ family tree as leading directly to King David. It is merely a question of prestige: humble birth could be okay theologically, but having noble ancestors never hurt back in the day. I think if a founder of an influential religion were born these days and his Grampa turned out to be a Nazi criminal, in two or three hundred years the community of his followers would take great pains to forget everything about the Nazi grandfather. Think about how the biographies of L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith are re-thought within the Scientological and Mormon communities. It’s just an issue of prestige, that’s it.

Maybe a bit off topic, but I thought I’d share this thought: racism, sexism, classism etc. seem to boil down to something pretty simple - people distrust and fear what they don’t know or understand. That seems pretty natural and in itself perhaps isn’t even that blameworthy. We all have our unconcious biases. It’s when these fears make contact with a certain harmful ideology and find justification and acceptence when things seem to get out of hand and really bad stuff starts happening.


and what they’re not attached to, not cling to (because attachment inspires a sense of certainty, security and confidence)

only that unlike Evangelical Jesus, Siddhattha Gotama appears to have been born to this by the local standards more or less type of family, or do you think that his familial background of local nobility has been fabricated

Thanks for sharing this. Interesting points, and I agree that it seems like these descriptions are designed to endorse the Buddha’s authority.

Also agree about latent prejudice and the importance of recognizing how it affects us and our views.

That’s interesting! A thought that has occurred to me before is that it seems as though female sexuality is rather taboo, misunderstood, and… idealized or something?

Sorry, it’s a bit embarrassing to mention cos I’m pretty sure all the rest of y’all are dudes :flushed:
I hope some Buddhist women will have more to say on this in the future.

Hmmmbrrmmm, ahh, ahem, carry on then…


No, not at all. I really do think the Buddha was born into a pretty well-to-do and politically influential family. His father’s status seems to have been exaggerated (from one of the chieftains to a fully fledged king) some time later in history, a situation analagous to Muhammed’s ancestor being praised as more influential than they really were. Still, it’s not a fabrication.

However, the whole concept that the Bodhisatta can choose where to be born and is consequently born in a wealthy and influential family could be a later development, not to say anything about Dipamkara’s biography. Is it an outright fabrication with all the negative connotations that the term has? First, it could be 100 % true. Second, even if it is not, just as in Christianity, it could be one of those ‘pious lies’ so typical of ancient mentalities. In the eyes of ancient Buddhists, such an exalted being as a Tathagata could not be born in a lowly shudra family, just as so many people can’t imagine today a prophet could be born in a racist family or, say, among the Romani people.

In that latter case, it would be non-factual but it could be considered true even by the originator of this idea. I would really recommend reading the commentary on the Gospel of Matthew by John Chrysostom, particularly the section on Jesus’ genealogy to see how these things get fleshed out by later generations of commentators and even start sounding really convincing.

I think it has partly to do with the sanctity of a Tathagata’s high person. Imagine how people would react to someone defecating under the Bodhi tree or taking a leak right next to the Buddha’s tooth. Now, the womb and vagina of the Tathagata’s or Jesus’ mother (sorry for all of these technical details) would be an especially sacrosanct and special place, so putting male genitalia with all the bodily fluids accompanying the act into it had to sound really horrible for a pious person back then and still is for Catholic and Orthodox Christians today.

I mean, it may seem odd to us today, but ancient people could spend years discussing whether Jesus had an anus, what a Tathagata’s faeces look like, all that stuff. Mentioning theoretical objects unavoidably produced by holy figures of the Christian or any other religion - like Holy Semen, Holy Faeces, Holy Vaginal Discharge - will still make 99.9 % of the religious people uncomfortable. Just think about the Holy Prepuce. So, is the death of a Tathagata’s mother accounted for by the ancient idea of the female sexuality? Maybe, but I think at least not exclusively.


yes it could, this however in turn compels us to agree that emergence of a buddha in the world and of Gotama Buddha in particular is pretty much a fortuity without any grand scheme to back it up behind the scenes, one which traditionally has been thought as underpinning the cycle of buddhas in the nature

Well of course. That’s what it’s all about. But presumably no-one seems to have any problem that Suddhodana moved on pretty quickly after fathering the Buddha and losing his first wife? And obviously using his Sacred Bits and the same ‘seed’ to father more children. Not that that’s a bad thing but just drawing the contrast. Why didn’t these stories write in that Suddhodana spontaneously became a eunuch after the Buddha’s birth because a Buddha can have no siblings? There’s no comment on a requirement for sexual restraint for him, because, I am guessing, none was expected.

I’m not sure what you mean about all the other hoo-ha’s and what not’s. As far as I can see the Holy Prepuce is an object of veneration! I don’t see any Maya Womb Relics 'round here!

Obviously there are a range of reasons given for the death of the Tathagata’s mother, but in this text, the necessity for sexual purity is explicitly mentioned which is why I draw attention to it.

As to the trend in general, this is not the only place I’ve noticed it. But I acknowledge there are complex and varied factors contributing to it. I merely say that would be useful for women, particularly those embarking upon a life of celibacy and even beforehand, to have some straightforward, no-nonsense instruction about it, from a Buddhist point of view.


There is a Holy Prepuce but no Holy Semen or no Holy Excrements (the Buddhists in Thailand do have Holy Faeces, however). Moreover, mentioning the Holy Prepuce to any Catholic you know and watch their reaction. I don’t think they will have a particularly pious facial expression after hearing about it.

That’s an important point as well, because I have never seen any Sutta directly mentioning the Buddha’s birth as being a result of sexual intercourse. Instead, the focus is on Maha Maya’s elephant dream. It reminds us of the immaculate conception: a motive found in so many other religious traditions. So, the question of whether the Buddha’s father could or could not have sex possibly had no sense since he potentially wasn’t considered the Buddha’s biological father. So, Mahapajapati who wasn’t the Buddha’s biological mother but is still often referred to as ‘mother’ in the Suttas did have sex with Suddhodana all right.

Quite possibly, the idea of the Tathagata or any other exalted semi-divine figure like Zoroaster being born due to a mere seminal discharge was not so welcome in many religious circles, especially those tending to value asceticism highly. The problem was sexuality per se, not exclusively the female sexuality - otherwise Mahapajapati as described in the Suttas would be the most celibate person ever.


Ah well, if we assume immaculate conception then I guess you’re right.

Allow me to simply clarify that I don’t think female sexuality is a problem, it just seems to be misrepresented, and this may lead to issues.


Yeah, my intuition tells me that if you talked about Suddhodana’s biological fatherhood in technical language to a Buddhist back then, you would get this weird ‘don’t-talk-about-Jesus-defecating’ look :blush:

If you come to think about it, the weird stance to the female sexuality is more prominent in the biography of Yasodhara. I think her life story would serve as a better example to serve your point than Maha Maya’s. But then again, the counter argument would be that Rahula became a monk and died a virgin. In other words, the Buddha’s biological relatives and His spouse could not be tainted with sexuality. My feeling is that the traditional biographical account of the Buddha’s life presents us few if any insights in the Ancient Indic views about the female sexuality but rather gives us a good idea of how people treated holy things and figures back then - not that different from today.

I think that some Vinaya texts and those Suttas about the ‘evil nature’ of women are a much better source for misconceptions about the topic. My impression is that some guys back then had some big issues with female sexuality :slight_smile:

@LXNDR Yes, that could be pretty much the case :slight_smile:


then that in itself and the demolition thereby of part of the Buddhist edifice are kind of depressing :disappointed:

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I guess one on the key questions for me is, whether sections of the Mahvastu such as this one discussed are authentic or not? Were they meant to inform or simply entertain? For example, in DN17 (a sutta considered late), the Buddha supposedly described how wonderful and fantastical Kusinārā was at one point in history.

If we say Buddhas-to-be ‘choose’ particular women to be their mothers (one of the factors necessary says the Mvu is that she be of ‘pure body’ - what does that mean anyway? And does this have any connection with a long held belief that women’s bodies are somehow inherently ‘impure’), particular continents, countries, regions, families etc, then we accept (at least a portion of) the so-called ‘Bodhisattva ideal’ even though there is no support for such an ideal in the EBTs.

Therefore, like many late suttas (eg, as previously mentioned, DN17), the Jatakas and so on, we are left with questions as to who created theses discourses and why? Why would someone imply a Buddha-to-be was a chauvinist because it would be unseemly for him to have a mother who would have sex after giving birth to him?