The Woman Who Raised the Buddha, The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati
By Wendy Garling
Mar 23, 2021
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.
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 email@example.com.
- Wendy Garling on Mahaprajapati (Vimeo, 9 min.)
- Mothers in the Buddha’s Lifestory, Wendy Garling and Prof. Vanessa Sasson LumbiniMuseum.org (Youtube)
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.
- The Stories about the Foremost Elder Nuns (AN & AA 8.51-53)
- Three Discourses concerning Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (AN 8.51-53)
- Therigatha with commentary, Psalms Of The Sisters, By Mrs. Rhys Davids, M.A.
- The Mahavastu (great story) by J. J. Jones | 1949
- Legends of the Buddhist Saints, Apadānapāli, Translated by Jonathan S. Walters, Whitman College
- The Nidānakathā, or Introduction to the Jātaka Stories
- The Buddha Carita or The Life of the Buddha E.B. Cowell’s translation of Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita
- The Play in Full [Lalitavistara]. 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2013.
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.