Updated: Feb 15
Her name is the first name we chant in the lineage of the women. Her story is beautiful and important. Some of her story is found in the Pali Canon. Some of it has been woven into the words, art, and into the fabric of culture and passed from woman to woman through the ages.
I now pass it to you.
Her name was Gotami and she came from a privileged family who lived in the mountains above Kapilavastu. Her sister was Maya, and together they traveled from their mountain village down the mountains to the flat land of Kapilavastu to live with King Suddodhana. They both became pregnant by the king. Maya gave birth to a healthy son and then tragically died a few days later. Her sister Gotami took the baby, and nursed him with her own son, whom she had given birth to three days later. She grieved the loss of her sister, but stood gracefully as she held the baby at his naming ceremony, where he was given the name Siddhartha, meaning “one who has accomplished his goal”.
Siddhartha and his cousin, Devadatta were raised together as privileged sons of the king. So fearful was the king that something should happen to Siddhartha that he forbade the servants from taking him outside the palace compound. Siddhartha was never to see the outside world, never to see sickness. He was never to see death. He was kept from seeing poverty or sadness, or grief. The whole of the palace worked together to keep up the ruse.
As he grew from boyhood into a man, his curiosity about what was beyond the palace increased. Siddhartha was raised to be a man of great privilege and wealth. He was raised to be a great leader of a household and kingdom. He married Yasodhara and they had a family together. Still, he was not content. He was to know the world outside of all he knew to be “home.
The storytellers say, and I agree that Gotami must have known. She raised him, after all. She had to have seen and felt his restlessness, his need to know more. So when he snuck over the wall one night, at the age of twenty-nine, her grief at his leaving must have been balanced with the knowing in her heart that he was gone.
Many years passed. After a long period of time (five or six it is said), Siddhartha returned from the outside world a changed person. Many people of the household wished to follow the way of living Siddartha had discovered and were converted. This included Gotami, who from that time forward was known as Pajapati, “Mother of a great child.” When Siddhartha left for the second time, he took many of the converted men with him, including his son Rahula, his cousin, Ananda, and his youngest half-brother, Nanda. I have to think their mother’s hearts broke to see them leave, not knowing when or if they would see them again.
Suddodhana died, and then the women were truly alone.
This had to have put them in a vulnerable position. Before long, the women who were left by the men who followed Siddhartha found Pajapati. They came by the hundreds - 500 to be exact. They had been left where they were and were struggling to support themselves. They begged Pajapati to find the Buddha and ask him to admit them to his following. As the seasonal rains stopped, Siddhartha came back to Kapilavastu. Pajapati asked to speak with him, and when they met she asked that she and the five hundred women join him. After giving it some thought, the Buddha answered her, “Give up this idea Mother. Do not ask this of me.” She insisted though, knowing the plight she and the women were in. Again he told her no and told her to go home. Pajapati was not to give up. She and Yasodhara sat down on the dirt, cut off their hair and put on yellow rags. Then they and the 500 women started out together to follow the Buddha. They walked and walked, day by day for 150 miles to the gates of Vesali. When they arrived they were thirsty, travel worn and sore. They sat and cried at the gates.
This time Ananda came to the gates and asked, “Mother, what are you doing here?” Pajapati implored Ananda to help them! They had no place to go and Buddha had denied their joining his following. Ananda relented and went to Buddha and asked, “Aren’t women as wise and competent as men? Can’t they understand the same as men can?” “Of course,” the Buddha answered. The stories I have heard and read say that Ananda made a case for his aunt, Pajapati, to the Buddha. I can imagine Ananda asking him to not forget about the woman who raised him, and finally, the Buddha agreed to let the women join. The stipulations were many. They ate only by begging. They wore rags. They slept under trees. No matter how young a monk was, every woman needed to bow to him. Monks could criticize the nuns, but nuns could not admonish a monk. Each woman’s ordination had to be approved by a man. There were many more rules to follow and the punishment for breaking them would be greater than if a man broke the same rule. Pajapati, steadfast in her beliefs, obeyed the rules and led the women. She is to have said, “ I’ll pick up and carry these rules like a garland of blue lotuses on my head.”
The Buddha sat with Pajapati every day and taught her as she had once taught him. One day, she told him she had reached a place where the world was still. She stood up and recited this verse:
"For a long time, I have wandered, through lives,
being mother, father, brother, son, grandparent,
never understanding things or finding what I needed.
But now all that is done.
Shattered is the sound of rebirth.
This is the last body. No other Pajapati shall come to be."
Pajapati became the first ordained nun of the Buddha's sangha. She lived for 120 years.
I’m so grateful to Sallie Tisdale, for writing, Women Of The Way: Discovering 2500 Years Of Buddhist Wisdom, a book I cherish and make part of our study practice at Rising Lotus Sangha. I’m grateful to Susan Murcott for writing, First Buddhist Women: Poems And Stories Of Awakening, another of our study materials. I’m grateful to the women who told these stories and to all the women who continue to tell the stories of these important women.
May we each be a blessing.
photo of Maha Pajapati found at: saraniyasangha
Artist: Denise Morrison