“This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” – The Buddha
Buddha Shakyamuni gave 84,000 different teachings to various types of people based on their needs. The teachings about karma and dependent origination help us to understand birth and death. There are Buddhist practices that prepare us for death, but what about practices that prepare us for birth?
The birth of Prince Siddhartha is described in many texts as a miraculous act. The bliss that his mother, Maya Devi, experienced during his birth contradicts the pain that most women experience during delivery. Nowadays we sometimes hear about a rare orgasmic or pleasurable birth, but most women cannot completely escape all pain during this powerful moment in their life.
According to Buddhist legends, Prince Siddhartha emerged from the right side of his mother. The non-vaginal birth serves entirely the religious purpose of eliminating the “impure” connection with sexual union and the birth process. According to Buddhist perceptions, the cause of birth is directly related to samsara, the world of suffering that must be overcome on the spiritual path. In the ancient view of Theravada and Mahayana recluses, the woman was a symbol of sensual and destructive power, which created obstacles to the ultimate goal of liberation.
On the one hand, the mystery of the female body and its sexuality are considered to be dangerous and, on the other, the mother’s power is perceived as creative and compassionate. Thus, in the minds of the ancient Theravada and Mahayana followers, motherhood and sexuality were divided into “pure” and “impure.”
This paradox is avoided in contemporary Vajrayana where all phenomena, including sexual union and birth, are perceived as primordially pure.
Giving birth is the most powerful moment in a woman’s life, the biggest change and the strongest physical and spiritual experience. Yet Buddhism doesn’t provide specific practices to help women to prepare for delivery and to face all the changes that take place in her body and mind before, during and after birth.
In terms of spiritual role models, there is the Liberator Tara, female Buddha who is protector of women and mothers and also Prajnaparamita, the philosophical aspect of femininity as wisdom, who is considered as a mother of all Buddhas. There are other Mahayana goddesses and Vajrayana dakini, which inspire and empower the women but not prepare them to treat the birth process as a spiritual practice.
Even though the women in Early Buddhism are considered inferior beings with limited access to spirituality and Buddhist teachings were transmitted mainly through men to serve their spiritual needs, times are changing. Nowadays Buddhist women have more power and access to spiritual practices and it is their responsibility to pay more attention to their own femininity and to use spiritual approaches to help themselves and their kids and raise them in an atmosphere of peace, love and compassion.
Buddhist laywomen can use their intuition, wisdom and creativity to transform the powerful moment of birth into a Dharma practice. Embracing their newborn child, they can accept all sentient beings in their heart and thus develop Bodhicitta practice—compassionate aspiration to realize enlightenment for the sake of others.
Birth, motherhood and care for children open the hearts of women and teach them unconditional love, great compassion, selflessness and impermanence—the reminding of the cycle of birth and death.
The great Buddhist master Nagarjuna said, “In this world of birth and death, seeing impermanence is Bodhicitta; is the mind of awakening.”
Birth and death are two sides of one reality.
Pain during birth reminds one of death.
The womb is a passage between the worlds.
When its gates open, the mystery of existence blossoms.
Birth with awareness is a powerful empowerment.
The surrender to the birth process
Reveals the dependent origination of all phenomena,
Arising through their causes and conditions.
Through the power of karma, birth occurs
Whenever the necessary conditions are assembled
And again through the power of karma, death occurs.
When there is birth, there will be death.
With gratitude to my beloved son Kalsang Yeshe, born on 21 December 2017, who teaches me unconditional love and selflessness.