Statue of Mahaprajapati Gautami at Upaya Zen Center, USA. From womeninbuddhismtour-india.blogspot.com
Mahaprajapati Gautami was the aunt and foster mother of prince Siddhartha. She raised him after the death of her sister, the Buddha’s mother: Mayadevi. The meaning of the Sanskrit name Mahaprajapati is “The great patroness of all beings” and Gautami is the female equivalent of Gautama, the family name of prince Siddhartha. After she was ordained as a Buddhist nun (Skt. bhikshuni) by the Buddha, she accepted the name of Mahaprajapati Bhikshuni.
The story of Mahaprajapati is mentioned in several biographies of Buddha Shakyamuni, mainly in regard to the time after his enlightenment. Very little information is available about the early stage of her life, before becoming the foster mother of prince Siddhartha, and also regarding the period of his upbringing. After Shakyamuni attained enlightenment and founded the Buddhist monastic community, Mahaprajapati begged him to be allowed to join. Initially, he rejected her wish to be ordained as a nun. Later his disciple Ananda persuaded him that in spiritual matters women are on a par with men and should have equal opportunities to follow the path to enlightenment.
The Buddha agreed with his trusted follower and ordained Mahaprajapati as the first Buddhist nun along with several women from Shakya Dynasty, who shared her aspirations. The traditional account states that after leaving her home and family, Mahaprajapati established an order of Buddhist nuns. Her goal was to create an organization, which will assist women in following the Buddhist path on their way to enlightenment. Therefore, the aunt of the Buddha not only became the first Buddhist nun, but also the first woman to head a Buddhist female monastic order. She is traditionally considered to be the “mother” of the Buddhist order of nuns, much in the same way that Shakyamuni is respected as the founder of the order of monks.
Following the example of Mahaprajapati, large numbers of women left their homes in order to devote their lives to Dharma and to the abidance to a strict code. The community of nuns flourished under the leadership of Mahaprajapati and thousands of women achieved the state of arhat by purifying their minds and attaining liberation from the suffering of countless births.
The Buddha preached the path of mental purification, which, according to the Buddhist teaching, is equally effective for men and women alike. Theoretically, women have the same potential to achieve liberation, but probably owing to the then patriarchal society, discipline among nuns is much stricter in comparison to that of the monks. Mahaprajapati had to accept eight special rules, which place bhikshuni in a subordinate position to the order of monks. With the development of the Sangha of bhikshuni they were obliged to abide to about a hundred rules more than the monks. Nevertheless, nuns had their own rights as well, separately from the monks, such as the opportunity to elect new members of their order and to make independent decisions.
The independent life of Buddhist nuns offered a new form of social freedom to women at the time of the Buddha. Dedication to the Buddhist practice became a method not only for attaining spiritual liberation, but also for achieving freedom from the hardships of family life. At that time the obligations of married woman included complete subordination to her husband, bearing a number of children and laborious household chores.
At the age of one hundred and twenty Gautami alone decided to leave this world, which confirmed her high spiritual accomplishment. She carefully prepared her disciples who, at the time, numbered more than five hundred nuns and plenty of laywomen. In her last sermon she convinced them to follow devotedly the path of renouncing worldly vanity and describes her achievements.
Shortly before her passing away, she went to the Buddha and acknowledged her great debt to him as well as her determination to attain complete liberation. He encouraged her to demonstrate her supernatural powers in order to disperse the doubts of those who claimed that women could not perceive the final truth. What is truly remarkable about her death is that she was followed by five hundred nuns, who chose to leave the world together with her. Due to her support they achieved supreme spiritual realization and acquired the ability to pass consciously into another dimension of existence, following their spiritual leader.