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Mar 1, 2022

Women in Dharma History: Mahāpajāpatī

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
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.

Equanimity and Loving Our Enemies within the Framework of the Four Brahmavihāras

January 12, 2021 - Retreat Talk

My teacher Thich Nhat Hanh describes upekkhā as the practice of inclusiveness. It’s the ability to stand firm, and at the same time not take sides, to include many perspectives. He emphasized the need for openness and not being ideological, dogmatic, or imprisoned in our views. Being inclusive means we both give and have spaciousness. But how do we face the world as it is, especially in these times, and keep our hearts spacious?


Listening has become an almost radical act—a stand against the barrage of superficial noise and fixed views. Deep listening is a commitment to slow down, to be curious with a desire to understand and connect. It’s an antidote to the fears and rage that plague our culture. And like most radical acts, it begins with us on the individual level.

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Where Does It Hurt?

July 03, 2020 - Cultivating the Wisdom of the Heart

Has the thirst and fire lying within your spirit reached a point of alchemy where they have joined together to search out ways to quench and douse the flames? Have the common threads that pull us closer into our sorrow been woven so tightly, or can they be untied? Has dukkha—suffering—been the precursor and the theme to our stories?

Shame, Self-compassion, and the Body

August 20, 2018 - Finding Freedom in the Body

For many of us, the body doesn’t feel like a safe place, or parts of the body don’t feel like a safe place. Surviving and healing trauma is held in the body. And as we’re paying attention to the body, memories come up, and a lot of memories for most people are associated with one of our least favorite emotions, which is shame. Living in a female body is associated with a lot of shame or shaming in our society. So as we explore, I will invite you all (not just those who identify as female) to think about the messages you heard as a child about your body and who you are.

Holding Loss, Grief, and Impermanence with Tenderness

November 12, 2020 - Finding True Refuge in Uncertain Times

Part of this practice is normalizing the particular truth that impermanence is found in everything. Nature is impermanent. Everything about us is impermanent. We see this in really simple ways, like looking at the breath, or what’s going on in the mind. We also see it in more difficult mind states and body experiences. Through practice, we stretch our ability to find some okayness with all of it—that within the instability of life, there’s a place to find ease, a place to rest.

Practicing With Equanimity Around Social Justice

December 23, 2019 - Exploring the Qualities of Mind

Everything about this moment in time is precious. Everything. We can only really see that if we let life move as it moves. It’s very difficult to do this when times are difficult, because the mind holds difficulty as permanent, holds it as solid: this is it, we have to fix it, it’s a problem! And we can’t let it go.

We’re not trying to stand in the middle of something and know that the situation will pass, we’re trying to stand in the middle of it and know that our overwhelm will pass. That’s what’s passing. The situation itself may take a long time, and we have to do some effort in it. But what we’re aimed at as practitioners is to first let our overwhelm pass, let it be, let it rise and fall as all emotions do.

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