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The first full biography of Mahaprajapati Gautami, the woman who raised the Buddha--examining her life through stories and canonical records.
Mahaprajapati was the only mother the Buddha ever knew. His birth mother, Maya, died shortly after childbirth, and her sister Mahaprajapati took the infant to her breast, nurturing and raising him into adulthood. While there is a lot of ambiguity overall in the Buddha's biography, this detail remains consistent across all Buddhist traditions and literature.
In this first full biography of Mahaprajapati, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha presents her life story, with attention to her early years as sister, queen, matriarch, and mother, as well as her later years as a nun. Drawing from story fragments and canonical records, Wendy Garling reveals just how exceptional Mahaprajapati's role was as leader of the first generation of Buddhist women, helping the Buddha establish an equal community of lay and monastic women and men. Mother to the Buddha, mother to early Buddhist women, mother to the Buddhist faith, Mahaprajapati's journey is finally presented as one interwoven with the founding of Buddhism.
About the Author
WENDY GARLING is a writer, mother, gardener, independent scholar, and authorized dharma teacher with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha's Life (2016, Shambhala Publications), a groundbreaking new biography of the Buddha that relates his journey to awakening through the stories of Buddhism's first women. For many years Wendy has taught women's spirituality focusing on Buddhist traditions, while also pursuing original research into women's stories from ancient Sanskrit and Pali literature. As a freelance writer and editor, Wendy was on the editorial team at the Boston Women's Health Collective for the 2005 edition of Our Bodies Ourselves and several subsequent BWHC publications. She also wrote business articles for The Palladium Group, published through Harvard Business Publishing.
A Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, Wendy has studied with teachers of different schools and lineages, foremost her refuge lama His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (who gave her the name Karma Dhonden Lhamo), her kind root lama, the late Sera Je Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom she first met in 1979. From 1991-92 she coordinated the Georgia chapter of the International Year of Tibet, helping to bring many Tibetan cultural and religious events to Atlanta and Emory University. Pilgrimage has played an important role in Wendy's life: in 2007 she journeyed to the sites of women saints in Tibet, and in 2012 and 2018 to sacred sites of the Buddha in India. Her dream is to bring back the stories of Buddhism's first women, reawaken their voices, and ensure that they are not just remembered, but valorized as integral to the roots of Buddhism. Wendy lives in Concord, Massachusetts and can be reached at email@example.com.
“Mahaprajapati lived more than 2,500 years ago and resources that might shed light on her life are rare. I therefore commend Wendy Garling for her extensive research, putting pieces from multiple sources together with her personal reflections, to write her book The Woman Who Raised the Buddha.”—from the foreword by H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
“An important contribution to filling a major gap in Buddhist studies and a triumph in understanding Buddhism through a feminist lens.”—Library Journal
“A no-brainer for historians and serious students of Buddhism.”—Publishers Weekly
“Garling’s book helps restore balance to the Buddhist narrative, relying on early women’s stories translated from Buddhism’s first written languages. . . . It illuminates the turbulent life and times of Mahaprajapati, a woman who not only loved and nurtured her adopted son as her own, but had the courage and spirit of adventure needed to confront entrenched men’s dominance.”—Foreword Reviews
“Scholar and dharma teacher Wendy Garling’s groundbreaking new biography, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha draws a captivating portrait of a foundational but often overlooked figure in Buddhism. . . . Garling blends storytelling and insightful commentary to reinstate Mahaprajapati as an inspiring first mother of Buddhism.”—Lion’s Roar
“In this winning biography, researcher Wendy Garling introduces readers to Mahaprajapati. . . . Her writing is clearly informed by deep primary-source research into Buddhist texts from across Asia. Part of the joy of the book is the way she weaves together story after story—this one from Thailand, that one from Myanmar or Tibet—to piece together Mahaprajapati’s life.”—Wellesley Magazine
“By reconstructing Mahaprajapati’s life, Garling introduces us to a network of women who sought deeper connections with each other and their communities; women who were brave, intelligent, and flawed, who experienced joy and suffering, and who rallied together to fight for their rightful place in both the physical world and in the spiritual realm. The result is captivating, and Garling’s storytelling qualities make this book a real pleasure to read.”—Buddhistdoor Global
“Highly recommend this pioneering account of [Mahaprajapati], a remarkable woman’s life and legacy, not least because it introduces us to some remarkably moving and instructive stories, succeeding admirably in shifting its subject from relative marginalisation to a central role, in which she certainly belongs.”—Asian Review of Books
“A work of exceptional scholarship that has created an impressively informative biography that reads with all the compelling interest of a well-honed novel, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati must be considered as a 'must-read' volume for all Buddhists. Having an immense value for both academia and the nonspecialist general reader with an interest in the subject, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha is especially and unreservedly recommended for community, college, and university library Buddhist Studies collections.”—Midwest Book Review
“We extend deep gratitude to Wendy Garling for all her meticulous research into the story of Mahaprajapati Gautami, bringing to light forgotten anecdotes and illuminating this most important woman in Buddhist history. In this fascinating book, Mahaprajapati comes alive and we appreciate her enormous contribution—from nursing the infant bodhisattva to helping her stepson the Buddha establish his vision of the Fourfold Sangha. Who knew that the marvelous circumstances at the time of her death exceeded those of the Buddha Himself? She was indeed supreme among nuns.”—Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Founding Director of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery
“Weaving together dozens of ancient sources and informed by the very best modern scholarship, Wendy Garling’s life story of Mahaprajapati is destined to become the definitive study of this important figure. An extraordinary tale of an extraordinary woman by an extraordinarily gifted writer, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha is an important contribution to the burgeoning literature about the pivotal role women have played in the Buddhist tradition. A must-read.”—José Ignacio Cabezón, Dalai Lama Professor, UC Santa Barbara, and president of the American Academy of Religion
“Wendy Garling brings together here a myriad of stories about Mahaprajapati, the mother who raised the Buddha, and shares them with us, sometimes by quotations, other times by retelling them with elegance and grace. This in itself is a great gift, but much more is to be found here. Modelling for us how the imagination can be used as an investigative tool, Wendy Garling traces for us some of the subjective layers, such as a mother’s love and the loyalty between sisters, that are woven into the foundations of Buddhism. She teaches us how to appreciate these beautiful stories about Mahaprajapati and in doing so, she reminds us that human love as well as human suffering lie embedded together at the very core of Buddhist teaching and life.”—Charles Hallisey, Harvard Divinity School
“A groundbreaking book whose time has come! The stories of the women in the Buddha’s time hold great meaning and power. A must-read for anyone interested in the teachings of the Buddha. I enjoyed every moment of reading it!”—Spring Washam, author of A Fierce Heart
“Garling’s book transports us into the intimate and remarkable life of the most important Buddhist woman nobody knows—mother of the sage and first Buddhist nun. From a cache of newly discovered lore, Mahaprajapati inspires all women to awaken, undaunted by hesitancy or obstacles.”—Judith Simmer-Brown, Naropa University professor and author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism
“This is an important historical corrective, examining the early Buddhist world through the lens of one of its most powerful women, Mahaprajapati Gautami—the Buddha’s aunt and foster mother, wife of the Buddha’s father, queen of the Shakya republic, and initiator of the order of nuns. Garling has written a page turner.”—Andy Rotman, Professor of Religion, Buddhist Studies, and South Asian Studies at Smith College
“A brave, extraordinary, and powerful rendering of the life of the mother of the Buddha, this remarkable book is eye-opening and heart-opening.”—Roshi Joan Halifax, Abbot, Upaya Zen Center
“The Woman Who Raised the Buddha tells the story of Mahaprajapati, who enjoyed not only a familial relationship with the Buddha as his stepmother and aunt, but also shared a treasured Dharma connection as his closest female disciple who helped him to establish and educate the Order of Bhikkhuṇis (fully ordained women). As both a scholar and Buddhist practitioner, Wendy Garling skillfully weaves the story of Mahaprajapati’s life, sometimes through the eyes of a historian, other times inviting us to imagine being in the presence of these holy beings, hearing their conversations and witnessing their personal exchanges. A delightful book, like no other.”—Ven. Thubten Chodron, founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, Dharma teacher, and author of Buddhism for Beginners and Working with Anger
“The Buddha said, ‘Still there are fools who doubt that women too can grasp the truth. Gotami, show your spiritual power, that they might give up false views.’ How good it is to see this book appear now in our world. How welcome. How timely. These stories need to be told. For all those who have wanted to know more about the awesome lady who was both the mother of the Buddha and founding woman elder of the ancient Buddhist monastic order of awakened women, the Bhikkhuni Sangha—this book is for you.”—Ven. Bhikkhuni Ayya Tathaloka Theri, founding teacher, Dhammadharini Sangha
“Using numerous and varied translations of Buddhist texts, Wendy Garling has here reimagined and reconstructed a rich and inspiring life story of Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s foster-mother and the first Buddhist nun. By doing so, Garling has proven her superb skills as a storyteller and writer.”—Jan Willis, author of Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra and Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist
“This narrative rendering of Mahaprajapati’s life gladdens the heart, illuminating the silence that has concealed her remarkable achievements.”—Karma Lekshe Tsomo, professor of Buddhism and World Religions at University of San Diego
“How precious to have a deep look into the life of the most important woman in the Buddha’s life. Usually we just hear her name and know she was turned down in her first attempts to receive ordination, but other than that we have had little information. Now, through Wendy Garling’s masterful research into redacted sources and her beautiful writing, we gain a full portrait of this fascinating foremother of Buddhism. The Woman Who Raised the Buddha adds a precious missing link to the history of women in Buddhism.”—Lama Tsultrim Allione, author of Wisdom Rising: Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine
“The contemporary revival of the bhikkhuni order makes this beautiful and compelling book especially timely. Mahaprajapati, the first Buddhist nun, emerges as a strong advocate for women on a spiritual path, a wise and beloved teacher, and an accomplished practitioner with emotionally rich and caring relationships. Weaving together stories from multiple traditions, Garling invites us to reimagine the foundation and qualities of these traditions, with women at the heart of Buddhism.”—William Edelglass, Director of Studies, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and Associate Professor, Emerson College
“Wendy Garling’s The Woman Who Raised the Buddha is spell-binding. It is magnificent the way she uses extensive research to piece together the life story of Mahaprajapati, the sister of Buddha’s birth mother, Mayadevi, and the actual mother who took over his nursing and raising when her sister Maya passed away seven days after Buddha’s birth. It may be that it has always ‘taken a village’ for any individual to make a profound transformation of any society and even the world, and it definitely is the case that the women of that village are the too often unacknowledged drivers of the transformation. The men later tell the story as if the individual man did it all along, and they write it that way as history. What Garling has done in this, and in her previous work, is correct that picture, showing how the ‘network of angels’ (ḍakinijala) of the brave and intelligent women of a community make the life of the community possible. Reading this book, you are transported back into the Buddha’s life and the real herstory of how the sangha movement launched the social revolution that he sparked. This book is a delight, an illumination, and a must-read.”—Padma Shri Robert Thurman, Professor Emeritus, Columbia University