2600 years ago, the man Guatama became a Buddha, ‘one who is awake’. The stories say he perfected himself over many lifetimes and when he experienced the ‘four heavenly messengers’ (old age, sickness, death and a wandering monk), he determined to seek the causes of human suffering. He left the comforts of his royal life and set foot on the path that led to his awakening. On the night of his enlightenment he was tempted by Mara but took refuge in the Earth herself as a witness to his deep understanding of the human condition. He could have chosen to live the rest of his life in seclusion but he chose to bring the wisdom to all who came seeking what he had learned. For 40 years, he taught what we call the Dharma., the teachings which offer liberation from suffering. And he offered the teaching to men and women equally.
Most stories of the Buddha are depictions written and translated by men. When I travelled to India and Nepal, I read a series of stories of the Buddha’s life, including one of his birth. He was apparently delivered from his mother’s armpit while she leaned against a tree. Maya was alone while this remarkable and wholly unrealistic event happened. Mythology serves a valuable function in any wisdom teaching. Implicit in myth however are the prevailing attitudes of class, gender and power imbedded in the culture.
What would have been a more plausible story? Women of her time would have traveled to their family homes to give birth surrounded by their relatives and friends. There would have been a ‘wise woman’ or midwife there to encourage the mother and offer skilled support, as women have birthed for centuries. The grove where she would have labored and birthed would have been full of attendants, probably most of them women.
Women’s voices and rites of passage have been ignored, belittled and trivialized. In a world out of balance, masculine energy has led us to the brink of global catastrophe. Our oceans are dying, ice caps melting, species are disappearing and humans continue to oppress and abuse one another. But there is a rising of the feminine that counters the destructive path we have been following. Women are immersed in the Me Too movement, the environmental movement and social justice movements of all kinds. Buddhist nuns have taken full ordination with sympathetic elder monks who realize that women were never meant to be excluded from that process. As the Buddha has said, there are four legs to the stool of the Dharma: monks, nuns, lay men and lay women.
The sacred feminine is within each of us. The qualities of tenderness, nurturing and healing are needed to balance and subdue the untethered masculine energies that have brought us to the edge of global annihilation. It’s time to return to Maya’s garden where the Buddha was born. There, with a wise balance of male and female energies, we can study and practice what the Buddha offered freely, to all who asked.
Stars at Dawn, by Wendy Garling