Reunion of Mother and Son

Art of The Woman Who Raised the Buddha

Just as Mahaprajapati’s life was upended when Maya died, it was about to happen all over again. Twelve years had passed since Siddhartha left home. For him, those years were momentous indeed: he became a fully enlightened buddha, began to teach the dharma, and garnered a vast following of monks and laypeople as his emerging ministry took root (the order of nuns had not yet been established). In contrast, his family back home in Kapilavastu languished in a cloud of sadness: Suddhodana was still without an heir; Yasodhara was in limbo as a wife without a husband; Rahula had never known his father; and Mahaprajapati bided her days in heartache waiting for her son to come home. While Siddhartha’s family did not understand his reasons for leaving, they remembered his promise to return. Mahaprajapati would probably have been in her sixties when this finally took place.*

The Buddha Returns to Kapilavastu

Word reaches Kapilavastu that their prodigal son has become a famous saint, teaching a new doctrine of truth called dharma throughout the regions of Magadha in India to the south and west of the Sakya kingdom. Suddhodana hears the news with delight and anticipation. He misses his son very much and determines that if Siddhartha is spreading good will in distant lands, it is high time he come home to share some of that beneficence with his family. The king dispatches the family confidante, Kalodayin, to relay his wishes:

Say respectfully to Siddhartha: You formerly promised to come back after enlightenment. Now I hope you will keep your former promise and come back at the right time to see me.¹

After a rapid exchange of messages, his son—now the Buddha—makes the long trek home, accompanied by a retinue of more than five hundred monks. Joyfully anticipating his son’s arrival, the king has his ministers prepare a large, well-appointed encampment outside of town called the Nigrodha (Banyan) Grove. He further instructs that the streets of Kapilavastu be lavishly festooned with banners and flowers to welcome their prince:

The Buddha will come. You have to adorn the city and make it clean to the utmost degree, clean the streets, erect flags and banners all over the city, provide abundant flowers and perfumes and wait for consecrating him.²

Overjoyed to hear that her son has returned, Mahaprajapati rides out to the Nigrodha Grove in a chariot with her husband and Yasodhara to welcome him. Recall that she is blind. Although she cannot see the festivities, she is thrilled to hear the loud jubilation of the crowds. A throng of eager Sakyas has already gathered to see their prince, but some of them are skeptical. What’s all the fuss about Siddhartha’s alleged accomplishments? His uncles, the Sakya princes, in particular are arrogantly expecting that their nephew will pay them and the king obeisance by bowing down to them in the tradition of their caste and tribe.

Through his direct insight, the Buddha knows this to be the case. However, he also knows that everything has changed—for real. No longer is he a scion in the lineage of the Sakyas, but the successor in a long line of enlightened buddhas. Not only would it be untoward for him to bow to family members, but their heads would split open into seven pieces if he were to do so (this same conundrum arose earlier when the infant Bodhisattva was taken to the temple to pay homage to the clan goddess, Abhayadevi). Sizing up the predicament, out of compassion for his family, the Buddha preemptively rises into the air and performs miracles, manifesting the supernormal powers (siddhis) that naturally arise as a side effect of enlightenment. Not only does this prove his attainments to them once and for all, but surreptitiously, by rising above the Sakyas’ heads, he does their prostrations for them.

As Mahaprajapati’s chariot approaches, the Sakyas are shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” over the miracle of water streaming in jets from the Buddha’s body. Because she cannot see what is happening, she asks her daughter-in-law to explain:

What is the meaning of these thousand shouts of bravo?

Cupping her hands together, Yasodhara collects some of the blessed water and replies,

Here is the Exalted One standing in the air and performing various and diverse miracles. . . . But you cannot see them. Come, I shall contrive that you see them.³

Yasodhara gently bathes Mahaprajapati’s eyes with the sacred water, and lo, her blindness is “pierced through the virtue of the Buddha.”⁴ Her vision restored, Mahaprajapati and her son are reunited at last. Her joyful gaze clearly sees the radiance of the Buddha, who is still Siddhartha in this mother’s heart. Bowing down at his feet, she reverently pays homage to him, then joins her husband sitting to one side, as parents and son catch up on news.

Turning to the Dharma

Meeting with their son in the Nigrodha Grove was just the first step in the family becoming reacquainted. Quite understandably, no one knew what to make of Siddhartha’s transformation. What exactly did becoming a buddha mean? How were family members to resume their former relationships with him? What was different, and what was the same? What did it mean to be the father, mother, wife, or son of a buddha? To address questions such as these, ancient storytellers skillfully spun anecdotes that clarified the family’s “new normal,” not just for what it meant to them but also what it meant to their Buddhist audiences.

In one such story, the king is aghast to hear that his son, the newly arrived Buddha, is passing from door to door in Kapilavastu begging for alms. Embarrassed and outraged, Suddhodana meets his son in the street and upbraids him for his unprincely conduct, an indignity both to the family and their proud line of Sakya ancestors. Why not just come home to the palace for dinner? In the conversation that follows, the Buddha gently explains that his behavior and allegiance no longer stem from family bloodlines but from his karmic ancestry and that of the enlightened buddhas. He is no longer beholden to the Sakya clan but to the Buddha clan. The king has more struggles ahead before he can accept that his relationship with his son is forever changed.

In a related story, we learn that Yasodhara desperately hopes for a reconciliation with her husband. She is still furious that he left and has been unhappily coping with life as an abandoned wife and single mother. When the Buddha accepts his father’s invitation to dinner in the palace (bringing along his assembly of five hundred or so monks), she refuses to appear, saying that he must come to her private quarters instead. Out of kindness, he does so with two attendants in tow, even allowing her to embrace his feet, which normally would be forbidden. (These were necessary karmic steps, he had earlier explained to his monks, preparing Yasodhara and other harem women for eventual ordination.⁵) Despite Yasodhara’s tears and anguish during their encounter, there is no turning back. He is not going to return as her beloved husband. Yasodhara’s new normal is to give up any hope of saving her marriage and to face the future alone.

Only Mahaprajapati takes her son’s return in stride. There are no rough spots for her, when all she has ever wanted is to see her cherished son again. Siddhartha or Buddha, he is simply her son. Rejoicing in his presence, her mother’s love for him flows forward effortlessly and unconditionally as demonstrated over and over in the stories that follow.

What exactly did becoming a buddha mean?

After their first meeting in the Nigrodha Grove, Mahaprajapati too invites the Buddha and his monks to dinner. Here we catch a glimpse of harem life, as her invitation is for the monastics to take a meal in the women’s quarters of the palace, the queen’s personal domain as chief consort. She has been the matriarch of this all-female community since the time of Maya’s death, more than forty years earlier. Many of these women would have been Siddhartha’s former consorts too. No doubt they recalled the night of his Great Departure, their seductive efforts to keep him home, and the sorrow that followed in the palace and kingdom. We can only imagine their emotional responses to the prince’s return, but we’re told they followed Mahaprajapati’s lead in welcoming him back. The following story is found in the Mahavastu.⁶

Unlike her husband and daughter-in-law, Mahaprajapati readily grasps the utter transformation that has taken place in her son. Bowing to his feet with humility and reverence, she says, “Let the Exalted One consent to eat tomorrow at my house.” Overflowing with joy when he consents, Mahaprajapati sets about all manner of effusive preparations. Just as the king had Kapilavastu festooned in welcome, her house is swept top to bottom, draped with fine cloth, strewn with heaps of flowers, and made fragrant with the finest incense. A worthy seat is specially prepared for her son, with careful attention to seating arrangements according to rank for the attending monks.

The Buddha and his retinue arrive dressed in simple mendicant robes, holding their alms bowls. Even though Mahaprajapati is queen and always doted on by servants, she serves her guests piously and joyously with her own hands:

And Mahaprajapati Gautami with her own hands regaled and served with plentiful solid and soft food first the Buddha and then the company of his monks.

What happens next is of special significance not just to Mahaprajapati’s personal story but to the story of the founding of the nun’s order. In detail not found elsewhere, we’re told the Buddha gives his mother and her assembly of women their first dharma teaching:

When the Exalted One had finished eating, washed his hands and put away his bowl, and the company of monks had done likewise, he gave Mahaprajapati Gautami and the women of the court a graduated discourse on dharma.

What exactly does that mean?

Now this is what the graduated discourse of exalted Buddhas is, namely, a discourse on charity, a discourse on morality, a discourse on heaven, a discourse on merit and a discourse on the fruition of merit.

An arrow of insight pierces Mahaprajapati’s heart. Instantly she understands the meaning of her son’s words. So the Buddha continued:

And then the Exalted One revealed to her the four [noble] truths of ill, the arising of ill, the cessation of ill, and the Way leading to the cessation of ill. And while she sat there on her seat, Mahaprajapati Gautami won a clear dharma-insight, pure and unsullied into things.

Mahaprajapati is struck with profound understanding and attains stream entry, or the first stage in the four levels of realization leading to arhatship from which there is no turning back.⁷ In that moment, presiding as queen and surrounded by a close-knit community of women, her life turns inexorably to dharma.

What did it mean to be the father, mother, wife, or son of a buddha?

Mahaprajapati was undoubtedly the first Sakya woman to become a laywoman, or upasika, in the burgeoning community of faithful that comprised early Buddhism. The texts don’t comment on the reactions of the harem women after this first dharma teaching, but we know the experience transformed them too, since in stories that follow they also became upasikas and looked to their queen for leadership as the new faith took root and flourished among the Sakyas. Later still, many of them joined Mahaprajapati in taking the added step of ordaining as nuns.

With the Buddha’s return, Mahaprajapati’s star was rising again. No longer the mother of an errant prince who had disrupted the kingdom and disappointed his kin, now she was the mother of the Blessed One, the Buddha, the newly minted minister of dharma, who fulfilled his promise to return to his people with messages of truth that would free them from worldly suffering. In her twin roles as mother and queen, she was now the most intimate relation—female or male—to both a buddha and a king.⁸ It is worth a pause to reflect on this turning point in her life. Momentous for her, of course, but we’re also seeing further seeds of Buddhism planted as Mahaprajapati is the one who will eventually partner with her son to help bring his fourfold community to its completion.

As we shall see, Mahaprajapati eased into her new role with grace and dignity. She never faltered in the limelight, rather she expanded her personal power over time into assuming responsibility for hundreds, if not thousands, of women who trusted her for her compassionate guidance in bringing them to the dharma. Her role as the mother of the Buddha had only just begun, but it was one that Mahaprajapati would fill with selfless dedication, generosity, and wisdom until the end of her life.


  1. Xianlin, Fragments of the Tocharian, 12.
  2. Xianlin, Fragments of the Tocharian, 12.
  3. Jones, Mahavastu, 3:116.
  4. Jones, Mahavastu, 3:116.
  5. Hardy, Manual of Buddhism, 203–4.
  6. Jones, Mahavastu, 3:245–46.
  7. Bhikkhu Analayo, “Gotami-sutta,” in Madhyama-agama Studies ( Ta i p e i : Dharma Drum Publications, 2012), 470; Bigandet, Legend of Gaudama, 177.
  8. Damcho Diana Finnegan, “‘For the Sake of Women, Too’: Ethics and Gender in the Narratives of the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya,” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison (2009), 126.

*The texts are contradictory about her age throughout.


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Wendy GarlingWendy 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, 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.