Queen Maya, the Mother of the Buddha of our age, who before his Enlightenment was known as Siddhartha Gautama, died shortly after his birth. So the future Buddha was raised by his aunt and stepmother. It is said that the womb of the Buddha’s Mother needed to remain unsullied by further pregnancies. This is similar to the belief that Mary Mother of Christ did not bear any more children after Jesus, which is held by some Christian traditions.
In addition, the Buddha’s conception and birth were both miraculous, according to the legend and some Mahayana texts (such as the 44th chapter of the Gandavyuha Sutra). The Buddha was conceived when a white elephant entered Queen Maya’s right side, or, in the Sutra, light entered the Queen’s body. The Buddha was born from his Mother’s right side. The light was emanating from every pore of the body of the Bodhisattva Buddha, while he resided in the Tusita (joyous) heaven before descending to earth. This light reminds us of the golden rain form that Zeus took to reach Danaë in her cell to conceive Perseus, and links these two Indo-European patriarchal discourses.
In the Gandavyuha Sutra, Maya tells a Buddhist practitioner, who meets her in one of the exalted states he travels through, all about the Buddha’s conception. She mentions that not only the Bodhisattva Siddhartha entered her womb by means of his light, but hosts of other Bodhisattva entered her womb as well. Her body, she says, came to embrace the entire world. Moreover, Queen Maya reveals that not only did she give birth to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha of this world and age, but also to all the past buddhas in all other worlds, and that she will be the Mother of the future Buddha of this world, Maitreya.
The question is: how am I supposed to relate to this image of the Mother of all buddhas, past and future, whose body embraces the whole Universe? Surely I must be satisfied. This concept is so close to the idea of the Great Mother Goddess, who begets everything. And yet, this Buddhist icon is too reminiscent of patriarchal thinking to me, with too many links to other patriarchal myths.
The central concept that makes me suspicious of these stories is the obvious unease with the body. Firstly, the woman’s body: the womb for some reason is only allowed to bear one every special child, but no others. Furthermore, in the Buddhist story the yoni is not even allowed to do her job in the baby delivery process, and so the Buddha is born from her Mother’s side. This is not unprecedented in Indo-European mythology: Zeus gives birth to two of his children: Athena and Dionysus, from his forehead and his thigh, respectively. Anything to avoid mentioning the vagina.
However, this is not all. Between the lines in the Buddha’s birth story is embarrassment with a man’s body too. Somehow conceiving by white elephant is more suitable for a buddha than conceiving by penis. This awkwardness about sex on the part of the men reminds me of a much later situation, far away from India, in tsarist Russia.
I am reading autobiographical novels by Maxim Gorky. In them, he describes the appalling spiritual state of the Russian people in the late 19th century: complete absence of education, alcoholism, and, of course, rampant misogyny. Saying that women also have “living souls” is a revolutionary act for one peasant Gorky meets. This man, incidentally, is later killed by more conservative inhabitants of his village.
Women are routinely abused by their husbands and partners. Husbands beat wives for fun, clients beat prostitutes for fun. Gorky describes how men tell crass stories about their sexual victories. At the same time, Gorky very perceptively notices a degree of shyness and embarrassment behind these men and their words. It is as if they are not quite sure why exactly they do what they do to women and if they really enjoy it.
This example shows how the patriarchal take-over confused people and how this confusion had lasted for millennia and still has not cleared up. Myths have been re-told, and even basic biological functions such as conception and birth have been disfigured to the point contrary to common sense: men giving birth out of their heads???
Women suffer as a result of these manipulations, but men suffer too, as they are not sure which role they and their sexual organs play in this whole mess. After all, if vaginas and wombs are so unclean and scary, what are men doing getting involved with those?
In Buddhism, “right vision” or understanding is one of components of the Eight-fold path to Enlightenment. This right understanding usually refers to the right understanding of the Buddhist teaching, but currently, I think it should include basic understanding of scientific truths about the world that have been discovered so far.
For instance, I think it would be beneficial to understand that humans are a very particular species of animals, in which reproduction happens in a way similar to other mammals. With the exception that humans walk upright, and thus female reproductive organs have undergone a certain transformation, which makes human birth a painful and hazardous affair.
This was an example from biology. What Buddhists can pick up from history and social sciences is that no story told in human society – mythological or religious – comes from nowhere. Each story has an origin in certain historical and cultural conditions. Each story is told by someone, to someone, with a particular goal in mind.
So when I am told that the Buddha can only be born from a womb “unsullied” by a sexual act and avoiding the birth canal, I say: “Thank you, but no thank you” to that story.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organizing the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog– http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com