Who Was The Buddha’s Wife, And Did She Matter?
“Dear One, what might have been the benefit, what teachings and practices offered, had two or more sat together under the Bodhi Tree?”
This is the epigram for my new book, The Buddha’s Wife. They are imaginary words spoken to the Buddha by his wife, Princess Yasodhara on his return to the palace after his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, seven years after he left her on the night of the birth of their son, Rahula.
This story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, has come down through the ages through his teachings of Buddhism. The Buddha’s Wife seeks to weave a spiritual parable of her journey to awakening, and the first half of the book begins with the first person, fictional narrative of Yasodhara who, along with the other members of the palace community, was left behind.
For Yasodhara, the first step of abandonment, desperate grief, and traumatic loss was to call forth her family and community and to build a spiritual circle of compassion to hold and accompany her through her suffering. This Path of Right Relation becomes for her and the circle of community, an alternative path to wisdom and compassion that emphasizes awakening together rather than in solitude or individually.
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While the teachings of the Buddha speak of the necessity of taking refuge in community or the sangha, his awakening was a deeply internal path, which he took alone leaving behind his attachments and relationships.
“My question to you, dear one, is this: Is there another path, the Path of She Who Stays, the Path of Right Relation? Is it necessary to go forth alone and leave all you love behind in order to be holy and whole?”
Yasohara speaks to him of the split in the path, the way of relationship as a vehicle of awakening. She questions and challenges the assumption that he had to leave behind his identity as her husband Siddhartha and his other relationships to become enlightened.
She asks him: “Can these paths be woven together?”
Could his path and her path unite into one, hand-in-hand, complementary? Might we have a path that is no longer split, instead whole and fully realized, where the individual and relational aspects of this human experience are honored? In our contemporary world, many teachers are beginning to teach this path of awakening in community and relationship as the challenges of division, hatred, violence, and inequality in our world increases and cries out for a path of connection, kindness, and compassion.
For many of us, the foundation of our lives rests in our commitment to “being with” and accompanying others through this life— walking together, holding, and bearing the suffering together while working to find solutions. We cannot ignore the fact that our lives are met with daily, ordinary interactions and relationships— we do not live in isolation. The crucial question becomes: who are we in these everyday moments…who do we want to be in these relational exchanges? It is the Path of Right Relation that we imagine was the foundation of Yasodhara’s life as her heart opened in great pain, her connections with others grew in depth, love, and strength that held all of them and allowed her and the others to live a life of integrity, spiritual maturation, and courage.
Many have walked this path. In this book, we recognize, value, and map such a life’s practice through the story of Yasodhara as well as explore the teachers and communities today who are part of the “Great Turning” toward deepening and sustaining connection and community.
In the second half of the book, we offer some of these practices and lessons.
Becoming a Relational Activist
The split in the Path has been deeply gendered, and it has been the story of many disenfranchised groups marginalized and violated by the dominant culture. The book offers a new vision, new possibilities, and new practices for those whose lives and hearts are devoted to healing and transforming this relational path. At this moment in our history, it may be exceptionally important to lean in to this Path, and become what we call relational activists in this hurting world.
There is nothing more important and urgent for the lives of those we love, our neighborhoods, communities, and the Earth itself are at stake!
The Buddha’s last words are said to be:
“Be a light unto yourself; seek your own salvation with diligence.” Yasodhara’s last words might have been: “Sometimes you need the light of others to see the way. Sometimes you need to be a light for others. And always, the light will shine more brightly with two or more gathered in spirit.”
And what about the shared path? We might say:
“Every doorway opens to the path. All are necessary. There is no right door or right way. Sometimes in the dark night, we need to find our own way, or to lead the way alone; sometimes we need to rely on others. Always, we can share our light and find a new brightness in community, which will reveal to us what we are only beginning to see alone.”
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