When I think about the injustices and inequalities reported in the Buddhist community—particularly toward women—I find myself imagining a more promising and equal future. This effort springs mostly from hope, a desire for inclusiveness, and the assumption that only the days that lie ahead, not the ones that have already passed, can be shaped and molded. I never considered that reimagining and reframing the past could bring more honor and merit to women in the Buddhist community.
In her new book Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life, writer, scholar, and dharma teacher Wendy Garling accomplishes this feat in bold ways. She first unravels the androcentric and misogynistic knots in the fabric of the Buddha’s life story, and then reweaves a new narrative that highlights and honors the many roles women played in the early days of Buddhism. Her attempts—as provocative as they are refreshing—instill confidence that these forgotten stories can be reclaimed from sacred texts and reintroduced into mainstream Buddhism. We can’t change Buddhism’s androcentric past, she writes, but we can “move to shape a gender-balanced, androgynous future.”
Garling has gathered stories from a range of Pali and Mahayana canonical texts and joined them into a coherent, chronological narrative. She begins this effort with a retelling of the Buddha’s birth story. “Buddhism got off on the wrong foot,” she writes, and introduces readers to Maya, the Buddha’s mother, who died within days of giving birth and is rarely mentioned in the traditional records. However, the stories that Garling includes—mainly from the lesser-known Lalitavistara [an early Mahayana text about the Buddha’s awakening] and the Abhinishkramanasutra [a Chinese Buddhist text that recounts the Buddha leaving the palace for the forest]—suggest that Maya and Mahaprajapati, the aunt who raised him, are two of the most influential people in the Buddha’s life. The Lalitavistara describes a story in which Maya descends from the heavenly realm and appears to the Buddha during his weakest moments as an ascetic, rousing him from an unconscious state and encouraging him to continue on his path. Scholars have also translated texts from the Pali canon that position Mahaprajapati as the leader of the early female Buddhist community. She was also “preeminent among the Buddha’s female disciples [ . . . ] as a female buddha she was the Buddha’s counterpart.”
Garling’s efforts to integrate these and other strong female characters add both tenderness and power to what has mainly been an all-male cast. The Lalitavistara also specifically portrays Yashodhara, the Buddha’s principal wife and consort, as a literate, assertive, and resolute woman. Early in their marriage, Yashodhara refused to veil her face like the other harem women. When criticized, Yashodhara “squares off in front of everyone, and in wise, elegant verse reprimands them for the shallowness of their thinking.” Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father, was “so overjoyed by her rebellious words that he offers her gifts of fine clothing and costly jewels.”
In order to understand how these stories settle into the larger narrative, we must first come to terms with the sexism that abounds in Buddhist literature. The Buddha himself didn’t suggest that a woman’s fading beauty is an appropriate example of impermanence, or that men are not permitted to receive food from the hands of women, as practiced by some Southeast Asian monastic cultures. These are remnants of what Garling calls an “androcentric editorial license”—not teachings from the Buddha himself. These examples are suggestions and traditions created by male editors, chroniclers, and monks that reflect the sexist values and attitudes of the early Buddhist population, Garling asserts, and need to be continually pointed out. Her close analysis of the forgotten or redacted stories in the early Sanskrit and Pali texts actually reveal how the Buddha honored and revered the many influential women in his life. Thus, the resulting sexism that survived in the Buddha’s biographical account does not represent the dharma, but rather the misogynistic culture that prevailed at the time it was written.
Garling doesn’t simply point out these sexist examples and walk away. She remedies them by tweaking the stories so they reflect an alternative, more gender-balanced interpretation that honors women as empowered, confident, and intelligent characters—all while remaining true to the elements in the original narrative. In one instance, she recalls a story that appears in both Pali and Sanskrit sources about the gods casting a spell on Siddhartha’s family’s palace so the harem women appear slovenly and vulgar. The intention of this was for Siddhartha, the soon-to-be Buddha, to discover the women in this way and feel disgusted, ashamed, and evermore convinced that he should leave his palace and family and pursue his spiritual path. In the reimagining Garling presents, the consorts intended to look and act this way so Siddhartha would leave his home and fulfill his destiny to become the Buddha. In this version, the harem women have agency and ingenuity and implement a clever plan to guide him on his path to enlightenment.
To support her attempts to recast the narrative and encourage readers to open their minds, Garling cites scriptural evidence that the Buddha favored equality. She reminds us, for instance, that two of the four assemblies, the faith community that the Buddha established, are female: the nuns and the laywomen. She also points out that enlightenment and bias of any kind, including gender and sex bias, cannot coexist: “It is incompatible to hold views that the Buddha was both biased and enlightened, since by definition bias cannot exist within the enlightened mind. This alone should be a source of validation to contemporary Buddhist women in their struggles against narrow, antiquated, androcentric polemics.”
For many years, storytellers and chroniclers have failed us: they abandoned a larger, more inclusive truth in favor of one that only served only a portion of the faith community. Now, millennia later, we can do better, and we must. We can choose to honor the stories Garling has gathered, and the important women they highlight, so practitioners can learn from the examples and teachings they espouse. If we follow Garling’s example and embrace these stories, we will inevitably create a more equal sangha. This very reality, after all, reflects the Buddha’s dying wish. As Garling writes, “[Buddha] would be ready to die when his four assemblies—laywomen, laymen, nuns, and monks—were equally well established in wisdom and discipline, that all four were engaged in teaching dharma to others, and that the dharma itself was esteemed, widespread, and flourishing.
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