Every mother has a birth story. The classic myth of the birth of the Buddha—or rather, of the child named Siddhartha who would grow up to become the Buddha—goes like this:
There was a beautiful woman named Maya who was the wife of King Suddhodana, the ruler of the Shakya clan of Kapilavastu in a region that now straddles the border between India and Nepal. Maya and King Suddhodana had been married for twenty years without having children. But one night the queen dreamed that a white elephant—a symbol of greatness in ancient India—appeared, circled around her three times, and entered her womb through her right side.
Queen Maya carried her baby inside her for ten lunar months, and then—as was the custom—set out to return to her mother’s home to give birth. Along the way, she stopped in a grove of sal trees and—delighted by their beauty—decided to give birth there, standing up and holding on to a branch. According to the story, the baby prince emerged from her right side, took seven steps, and proclaimed, “I am the world-honored one.” A few days later, her mission accomplished, Queen Maya died.
To me, this sounds like the version of the myth told by a man who has never given birth. The male baby is the hero of the story, not the mother who gave him life from her body. The woman is the passive vessel for a man’s awakening journey, not a heroine embarked on her own grueling quest to become fully alive. It’s a story stripped of longing, passion, pain, the mess and tangle of human hearts and human relationships, just as surely as it is stripped of sweat and vaginal juices, of amniotic fluid and blood and tears.
How might the story have gone if it had been passed down from grandmother to grandchild over the generations, along with the secrets of grinding spices and gathering dung for cooking fires? I imagine a tale that begins something like this:
Year after year, the king couldn’t quicken the queen’s womb with a baby. So many times she hoped for a child, only to see the blood staining her clothes once again! There were the four who came far too early, just clots of flesh and sorrow to be burned and never spoken of again. And then there was the one who was born perfect, but never cried, whom the king’s physicians weighted with stones and cast to the bottom of the river unburned, as was the custom with saints and lepers.
Then one year, on a visit home to her mother’s house, the wise midwife who attended all the family births gave the queen four bags of herbs to brew into tea. “Drink this one with the start of each monthly blood,” she told her. “Give this to your husband, mixed in his wine, when the moon is new. Then visit the stables at night, give this one to the charioteer, and lie down with him in the straw. And drink this next one every morning after your first missed blood.”
Her tea gave her dreams and visions. Her drugged husband fell into a deep sleep, and the charioteer came at her with the ferocity of a wild elephant, his trunk never resting. Her monthly blood stopped, and she began to grow larger.
Why imagine a fable that begins like this, riddled with disappointment, death, confusion, secrets, lust, lies? Because it says to us all, You too. Out of your broken, screwed-up, incontrovertibly human life—not the imaginary, divinely royal life of your neighbor—something vast and beautiful can be born.
We all want guarantees, in our life, in our practice, that everything is going to work out. We want to guard our hearts and say, I will only love if my heart will not be broken.
But there’s plenty of proof that there are no guarantees. Life is a free fall through an abyss in which everything and everyone we love is eventually guaranteed to disappear.
In opening again to carrying a child inside me [after having a stillbirth], I chose to step forward into this abyss. I chose to participate in bringing life into the world, knowing that every life is, in the words of the Diamond Sutra, “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.” Knowing that one day it was not just possible but certain that I and the child I treasure will be separated by death.
And that the only protection I would have is that my love would be large enough to hold even death in its arms.
Imagine the Buddha’s mother’s story continuing:
She pushed for hours, and no child came out.
She forgot that she was the wife of a great chief, the queen of the Shakya clan. She screamed and wept. She could not bear another child lost.
Fearing he would be blamed for the death of the queen, the charioteer fled, leaving his sword for the women to protect themselves as best they could.
The queen’s sister-in-law whispered in her ear, “The gates of your womb are open. But it is not a child’s head, but a foot that is emerging.”
Maya tried to smile. “Trying to walk before he is born!”
But Prajapati did not smile in return. “The baby is trapped between two worlds. He cannot live half in and half out. If he stays there, he will die—and likely, you will too.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” She gazed into the queen’s eyes.
“With the sword of the charioteer, I can slice open your side and release the child that way. And it can live.”
Prajapati shook her head.
The queen did not hesitate.
“Sister. Get the sword.”
Again and again, motherhood demands that we break through our limitations, that we split our hearts open to make room for something that may be more than we thought we could bear. In that sense, the labor with which we give birth is simply a rehearsal for something we mothers must do over and over: turn ourselves inside out, and then let go.
This is something the men who tell this story will never include: Her baby was slippery with blood and vernix. He cried as they put him to the queen’s breast. As he sucked at her nipple, she could feel the rush of her milk letting down to give him strength, even as she felt the strength drain from her own body.
The baby and the queen looked in each other’s eyes.
In a moment, a lifetime of love can flow between two hearts. In the space of a breath, infinity can spread its wings.
“You are my world-honored one,” the queen whispered, stroking his wet hair. And she closed her eyes.
From The Mama Sutra: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Path of Motherhood by Anne Cushman © 2019 by Anne Cushman. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
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