📘 The Woman Who Raised the Buddha, By Wendy Garling

The Woman Who Raised the Buddha, The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati

By Wendy Garling
Mar 23, 2021
ISBN 9781611806694
Shambhala Publications

From the Publisher:

About The Woman Who Raised the Buddha

The first full biography of Mahaprajapati Gautami, the woman who raised the Buddha–examining her life through stories and canonical records.

Mahaprajapati was the only mother the Buddha ever knew. His birth mother, Maya, died shortly after childbirth, and her sister Mahaprajapati took the infant to her breast, nurturing and raising him into adulthood. While there is a lot of ambiguity overall in the Buddha’s biography, this detail remains consistent across all Buddhist traditions and literature.

In this first full biography of Mahaprajapati, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha presents her life story, with attention to her early years as sister, queen, matriarch, and mother, as well as her later years as a nun. Drawing from story fragments and canonical records, Wendy Garling reveals just how exceptional Mahaprajapati’s role was as leader of the first generation of Buddhist women, helping the Buddha establish an equal community of lay and monastic women and men. Mother to the Buddha, mother to early Buddhist women, mother to the Buddhist faith, Mahaprajapati’s journey is finally presented as one interwoven with the founding of Buddhism.

About the Author

From her page on the publisher’s website.

Wendy Garling is a writer, mother, gardener, independent scholar, and authorized dharma teacher with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016, Shambhala Publications), a groundbreaking new biography of the Buddha that relates his journey to awakening through the stories of Buddhism’s first women. For many years Wendy has taught women’s spirituality focusing on Buddhist traditions, while also pursuing original research into women’s stories from ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature. As a freelance writer and editor, Wendy was on the editorial team at the Boston Women’s Health Collective for the 2005 edition of Our Bodies Ourselves and several subsequent BWHC publications. She also wrote business articles for The Palladium Group, published through Harvard Business Publishing.

A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Wendy has studied with teachers of different schools and lineages, foremost her refuge lama His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (who gave her the name Karma Dhonden Lhamo), her kind root lama, the late Sera Je Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom she first met in 1979. From 1991-92 she coordinated the Georgia chapter of the International Year of Tibet, helping to bring many Tibetan cultural and religious events to Atlanta and Emory University. Pilgrimage has played an important role in Wendy’s life: in 2007 she journeyed to the sites of women saints in Tibet, and in 2012 and 2018 to sacred sites of the Buddha in India. Her dream is to bring back the stories of Buddhism’s first women, reawaken their voices, and ensure that they are not just remembered, but valorized as integral to the roots of Buddhism. Wendy lives in Concord, Massachusetts and can be reached at

Book Reviews



From the Introduction, p. 38

Assembling the stories of Mahaprajapati for this book was like making a crazy quilt, with swatches of different sizes, colors, patterns, and textures, some tattered and torn, others like new, spread out on a table then pieced together with threads of the aforementioned instinct, intuition, and common sense. By no means a conventional—and certainly not an academic—approach, but one that allows for each piece to take its place in a whole that would be greater than the sum of its parts. Too, this method allows for new ideas, patterns, and stories to emerge. That said, many gaps and inconsistencies in Mahaprajapati’s story persist despite my best efforts to present the arc of her life and at least begin to color in those areas that have been neglected, such as her years as a sister, queen, and mother before she ordained as a nun. As always in the vast and fascinating corpus of Buddhist literature, there is plenty of room for further research, translation, and discourse. May this book provide a helpful resource. May it also provide an entry point for a deeper understanding of the subjective layers, such as mother’s love, that became woven into the foundations of Buddhism.

Related primary texts cited in the book

Is anyone else reading this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts. The author uses both EBTs and later texts so I thought it was appropriate to discuss here.


Thank you. I have added “Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī” to Voice and EBT-Site examples for search. I had not realized that she was the woman who raised the Buddha.

In retrospect, we’ve decided to not include this in examples, which are ideally focused on studying the Four Noble Truths. Perhaps at a later date we can pick up the task of perusing the suttas for biographical information as a separate effort. That task doesn’t lend itself to finely tuned search examples (e.g., “Sariputta” overwhelms) and deserves further consideration.

Nevertheless, thank you again for a most fascinating read.


Really!? That’s a great perspective because the author is frequently commenting on things as “not generally known,” and I’m thinking that can’t be the case. I guess I’ve been lucky that I’ve known about the lives of the great disciples from the beginning of my explorations of Buddhism.


Up until today, my thought had been, “oh, that aunt, a relative”. I saw my own aunts only now and then–every few years as we came back in country. :laughing:

Now, THAT aunt, the woman who raised him. :open_mouth: :fireworks:


Right. We can find it explicitly in the Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅgasutta

When he said this, Venerable Ānanda said to the Buddha, “Sir, please accept the new pair of garments from Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī. Sir, Mahāpajāpatī was very helpful to the Buddha. As his aunt, she raised him, nurtured him, and gave him her milk. When the Buddha’s birth mother passed away, she nurtured him at her own breast.


Folks may be familiar with this passage from the Acchariyaabbhutasutta

I have learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘When the being intent on awakening is conceived in his mother’s belly, she becomes naturally ethical. She refrains from killing living creatures, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and alcoholic drinks that cause negligence.’ This too I remember as an incredible quality of the Buddha.

I have learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘When the being intent on awakening is conceived in his mother’s belly, she no longer feels sexual desire for men, and she cannot be violated by a man of lustful intent.’ This too I remember as an incredible quality of the Buddha.

I have learned this in the presence of the Buddha: ‘When the being intent on awakening is conceived in his mother’s belly, she obtains the five kinds of sensual stimulation and amuses herself, supplied and provided with them.’ This too I remember as an incredible quality of the Buddha.

Garling makes this interesting observation, which I had never thought about (emphasis mine):

Once again, we catch a glimpse of the women’s community as much more nuanced than a stereotypical “brothel” or enclave of female servitude. A powerful sense of women’s spirituality is introduced here, far earlier in the narratives than is normally represented. We can’t know the dynamics of what was going on in the women’s quarters during Maya’s pregnancy, but her sister Mahaprajapati would have been there. So many questions arise. What was the nature of the relationship between the sisters? Did Mahaprajapati take the lead among the women while Maya was under their care? How did this group of women evolve their own relationships and practices, living communally as they did, undisturbed for many months? How did their spirituality take root such that it would give rise years later to their enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teachings and their trust in Mahaprajapati as their spiritual preceptor and leader? While we can’t know the answers, we can imagine that causes and conditions established at the time of this women’s retreat of eight or more months during Maya’s pregnancy would have flowed forward to influence events four decades later when Mahaprajapati and many of these women would form a separate spiritual community, first as laywomen and then as nuns. In a concluding note, while the accounts of the time of Maya’s pregnancy usually emphasize the women’s somber piety, other texts describe a festive time of music and dance when the women celebrated together and enjoyed each other’s company. (page 77)