Articles May 1, 2022

Women in Dharma History: Mahāpajāpatī

Sean Oakes

In the enlightenment poem attributed to the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, she writes about her insight into interconnection and attainment of full liberation. She had become the first Buddhist nun (bhikkhunī) after famously convincing the Buddha—who she nursed and raised after her sister, the Buddha’s mother Māyā, died—to allow women to join the monastic community. She realized full liberation, became a venerated teacher, and when she died the Buddha carried her ashes ceremonially in his own alms bowl.

Mahāpajāpatī’s most famous contribution to the Dharma is as the founder of the women’s monastic lineage. After the Buddha’s awakening, he visited his family, and his aunt was so inspired by his teaching that she asked to join the Saṅgha. The Buddha refused, saying that women could not join, and left to continue traveling. She persisted, walking 200 miles barefoot with 500 other women, to ask again, proving their strength and devotion. Ānanda, the Buddha’s cousin, helped the Buddha to change his mind, and the women were admitted. Mahāpajāpatī became the most senior bhikkhunī, attained full awakening, and lived to 120, her wisdom preserved in one of the most beloved poems in the canon:

All pain is understood,

The cause, the craving is dried up,

The Noble Eightfold Way unfolds,

I have reached the stage where everything stops.


I have been

mother,

son,

father,

brother,

grandmother;

Knowing nothing of the truth

I journeyed on.


But I have seen the Blessed One;

This is my last body,

And I will not go

From birth to birth again.


—Mahāpajāpatī (from Therīgāthā 6.6, tr. Murcott)

The story of Mahāpajāpatī and the many important women in the Buddha’s life are collected in several inspiring books, including The Woman Who Raised the Buddha and Stars at Dawn, both by Wendy Garling, Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women, and new translations of the ancient Pāli collections known as the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Women) and Therī Apadāna (Legends of the Elder Women).

In the Therī Apadāna we can read the story of Mahāpajāpatī’s passing, which is said to have occurred on the waning half moon in February, less than three months before the Buddha’s own death. In the moving scene of her last conversation with her nephew, she asks to see one last time the body of the child she raised, and the Buddha asks her to perform miracles in order to dispel anyone’s doubt around the possibility of women becoming fully awakened. The details of her death, in which she entered the meditative absorptions in forward and reverse order before finally passing away, mirror the Buddha’s own, indicating her extraordinary status and position in the lineage.

You can learn more about Mahāpajāpatī and the history of the bhikkhunī sangha through the Alliance for Bhikkhunīs, and if you’re in California, visit our local bhikkhunī monasteries, Dhammadharinī in Santa Rosa, and Āloka Vihāra in Placerville.

Our Dharma inspirations this month include talks by Spirit Rock teachers Kaira Jewel Lingo, Grace Fisher, Noliwe Alexander, Christiane Wolf, Kate Munding, and Tuere Sala. We are grateful for the deep contribution of all of our female-identified teachers to the flowering of Dharma in the West, and to all the Buddhist women for 2600 years who pushed through resistance and oppression in order to practice and preserve the Dharma as a path of liberation for beings of all genders.


Sean Oakes

Sean Oakes

Guest Teacher

Sean Oakes, PhD, teaches Buddhism and Yoga focusing on the integration of meditation, trauma resolution, and social justice. He received teaching authorization from Jack Kornfield, and wrote his dissertation on extraordinary meditative states. His current research explores identity, ancestry, and rebirth, and working with the body in contemplative inquiry.