Mahaprajapati Gautami, Buddha’s Aunt

Black Tara, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

Black Tara, painting by Vladimir Pyatsky

Buddha’s mother passed away soon after giving birth to him, so he was raised by his aunt Mahaprajapati Gautami, his mother’s younger sister. Mahaprajapati had a son of the same age as Buddha Shakyamuni, and the two children were raised together, but in particular Buddha was raised by her as the future king.

After Buddha attained enlightenment his aunt became his disciple, the first among women. A few times she approached him with the request to start teaching Dharma to other women. At that time women were considered and treated as second-rate creatures, totally dependent on men and not able to learn Dharma. Most probably the Buddha wished not to stir any conflict and thus refused his aunt’s request explaining that studying Dharma is a pursuit suitable for men only. His aunt did not stop her requests and finally Buddha gave his permission to create communities of nuns and started teaching them Dharma. This event made a great impact on the future development of Buddhism, giving start to nun communities’ and making the path of studying Dharma open for women. At the age of 80 Buddha’s aunt attained enlightenment. She kept on teaching Dharma for the rest of her life. Buddha empowered her with the same authority as he had himself. In particular, he empowered her with the right to teach men as well as women, something not permitted to other disciples. At the age of 120 Mahaprajapati attained paranirvana.



When we discussed the story of Buddha and his aunt with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:

While the Buddha’s aunt was his disciple, she was also his Teacher. It is said that the Buddha attained enlightenment due to the accumulation of merit from his previous lives. That process of self-remembering was of great importance to his realization. But Buddha would not have become Buddha if not for the appropriate conditions for his development in his human existence. It is in human existence that he attained realization. Enlightenment without a Teacher is impossible in the physical world and the Buddha’s teacher was his aunt Mahaprajapati.

A Teacher in the physical world is not necessary a person possessing fullness of knowledge, though often it is the case. Rather he/she is a person who is able to change disciple’s will and to give it a proper momentum. Even after the Buddha attained realization, his Aunt remained someone who was able to point out his mistakes and convince him to change his point of view.

A disciple usually meets the Mara of Teaching from the first steps of his discipleship. The Mara of Teaching may wear the mask of devotion, and it might be difficult to recognize him. He speaks of the absolute character of knowledge, about necessity to convince the entire world of its absolute character. Initially he may look like compassion, but if not recognized and rejected he may take a form of isolation, stagnation and negation (thirst for non-existence).  A true Teacher’s function is not to let the Mara of Teaching turn a disciple into a preacher. A true Teacher liberates his disciple from the Mara of Teaching, helping him to realize that achievements without a Teacher are not possible, and, that at the same time, a Teacher’s position is not without criticism. Every authority, even Buddha, needs to have an inner space were changes of view are possible. A teacher changes disciple’s will and rids him of faith in the absolute, as faith in the absolute is akin to fanaticism – it makes the teaching rigid, inflexible, and finally leads to decline.

Buddha’s and Buddha’s teaching peculiarity lies in the fact that being very special by birth and by his realization, having attained enlightenment and realized the highest mysteries of the Universe, having a lot of disciples and associating with kings and gods as equal, Buddha did not stop his human development, did not get rigid in his attainments, and continued to change his point of view, being attentive to those around him. Even point of view of enlightened person not an absolute.

A Teacher, from a Buddhist perspective, is an absolute authority, possessing higher knowledge, but at the same time must be ready to change. It is very important to the spirit of Teaching. We can observe such a tendency: when Buddhism stopped changing it came to a state of stagnation, while periods of progress happened when Buddhism demonstrated that it is alive and capable to absorb new tendencies and to respond to changes happening in the world. That moment when Buddha changed his point of view and agreed to make teaching open for women became a turning point in the history of Buddhism.

There are other examples in the Sutras when Buddha changed his point of view due to the influence of his disciples. For example, when a new disciples came to the sangha and started to settle for the night, there raised a noise. The noise hindered Buddha’s meditation, he could not bear it, became indignant and left. He continued his meditation in solitude, far from everyone, until his disciples came to him and asked to return. Buddha refused, still ruled by the power of his indignation at the fact that his community was not able to keep a simple rule of being quiet. But his elder disciples did not stop begging him to return to the sangha: “Look, what would happen to these people without you, they’ll get lost like calves who remain without cow.” After giving some thought to it and calming down Buddha went back.

In another story: Buddha’s disciples used to say: “Bless you!” when someone sneezed. Becoming a witness of this once Buddha said indignantly: “Do you seriously mean that by mere saying “bless you!” you’ll bring blessings upon a man? This is nonsense. Is it possible that you believe in it?” And disciples were lost: “Then, how are we supposed to communicate one with another: country people are used to speak in this way. Then what are we supposed to do?” Listening to their point of view Buddha said: “This will not cause blessings, but harm it will not make as well. People are used to this wish. It makes them believe you are kind and sympathetic when you say it, so better do not destroy their belief and continue to “bless” them.”

These stories teach us that the Buddha was, first of all, human.  As a human, he sometimes made mistakes, and then as humans do, corrected them. He became aware of his own follies and was committed to learning through his entire life. This spirit, the spirit of flexibility and ability to change ones’ point of view is very important for an understanding of Buddhism and ones’ teacher.

By Marina Sherman

Translation by Ilona Erkin and Dorey Glenn