Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother, represents the quality of the fierce feminine: deep compassion and a maternal, nurturing kindness, matched with the qualities of perseverance, grit, tenacity, and courage. 

The Buddha’s story goes that Mahapajapati and her sister Maya, who was the Buddha’s mother, were married to the same king or clan head, Suddhodana. As far as we know, Maya died very soon after Prince Siddhartha’s birth, probably from complications of childbirth, and Mahapajapati took him in and raised him along with her own son.

I always imagine what that must have felt like for Mahapajapati, to have these twin events of the loss of her beloved sister and at the same time being handed the responsibility for raising her young nephew. I wonder how she was able to engage with her grief. 

Mahapajapati is often understood in the Zen tradition as this great nurturing force, what’s sometimes called robai-shin, or “grandmotherly mind.” But she’s not only known for that—she’s also the founder of the bhikkhuni order, or the sangha of Buddhist nuns. The story goes that Mahapajapati asked the Buddha to ordain women three times, and he said “yes” only after the third ask. (In mythic language, three can be understood as “many.”) Traveling from her home to Vaishali in present-day India, where the Buddha and his sangha were staying, she asks the Buddha to join the holy life, but he declines to fulfill her request the first two times. The third time, or perhaps after many attempts, she brings a group of other women with her. Again, she implores her stepson: “Please, we’d like to join the sangha.” And again, he says no. She returns outside the gates of the sangha to greet the group of women, all of them exhausted after walking long distances, with bloodied feet and dusty robes, and they begin crying and wailing.

Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and trusty attendant, hears their cries and asks Mahapajapati what is going on. She tells him, and he is apparently so moved by their plight that he goes and takes a stand. He pleads their case to the Buddha—but again, the Buddha says, “No. It’s not going to happen.” However, Ananda doesn’t take no for an answer. 

“Isn’t it true that women can attain awakening just as easily as men?” he asks the Buddha. 

The Buddha says, “Yes.” 

Ananda asks, “Isn’t it true that Pajapati fed you at her own breast?”

And the Buddha says, “Yes.” 

Ananda says, “So then, how can you not allow these women in the sangha?” This is apparently enough to persuade the Buddha, and although he tacks on some extra rules and prohibitions for the women to abide by, ultimately Mahapajapati and her group of women are allowed to join the community, and become nuns. 

Despite the importance of this mythic history of the founding of the Buddhist community, this story has been discounted, and sometimes downplayed, in so many ways. Women have been relegated to a lesser role in the Buddhist hierarchy from the moment the Buddha finally said “yes” through the present. Nonetheless, before he died the Buddha is reputed to have said that he “will not pass away until [he is] confident in the creation and founding of the fourfold sangha [of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen].” This fourfold sangha was part of the Buddha’s larger vision for his community, something he deeply wished to establish. 

Mahapajapati’s dual capacity for kindness and care, as well as courage and perseverance when she’s turned away is what is needed on the path: we have to be patient and not give up, to keep going, to not be deterred by a “no” even in the face of difficulty. How might we embody the fierce feminine qualities of a grandmotherly mind when we are faced with despair and rejection? 

And like Ananda, how might we turn and listen to cries of those who are less fortunate, unseen, or unprotected? What might it look like for us to become an ally and an advocate, as Ananda did, in order to support a vision of inclusivity and fullness for a community in our own lives?


Adapted from Pamela Weiss’s Dharma Talk, Awakening the Fierce Feminine 

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