The Buddha's Wife

by  Janet Surrey, PhD and Samuel Shem, MD, PhD

While little actual detail is recorded of the Buddha’s life, it is written that at twenty-nine years of age, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the northern India king Suddhodana of the Sakyan clan in the foothills of the Himalayas (now Nepal), renounced household and family on the night of the birth of his son to seek spiritual liberation. Over and over it is told that he left his wife and child in the dead of night without saying good-bye.

This great renunciation is celebrated as the Path of He Who Goes Forth.

The story of the Buddha’s wife, Princess Yasodhara, who remained behind to care for their newborn son with Siddhartha’s large extended family, has rarely been told, however, and never from her own perspective.

Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment has been chronicled in great detail over the ages, while Yasodhara’s has been invisible. Our challenge has been to imagine her journey through loss, grief, and suffering to find her own way toward enlightenment as she lived immersed in community and participated in “ordinary” relationships. The Buddha’s Wife reconstructs Yasodhara’s story of transformation through her realization of deep community and through her active participation in relationships with her mother-in-law, Pajapati; her father-in-law, Suddhodana; her son, Rahula; her own mother; a network of servants and friends within and beyond the palace community; and most importantly, the nuns who formed the women’s sangha (community) within the Buddha’s larger following. In comparison with the Buddha’s path of leaving home and renunciation, Yasodhara’s story illuminates the spiritual Path of She Who Stays.

We believe this path offers a timely and much-needed guide for contemporary living.

While traditional Buddhism emphasizes solitary meditation and spiritual seeking with community support, Yasodhara’s experience speaks of the Path of Right Relation—of growing awareness not alone but together, fully engaged with others. The seeds of this relational path practiced two and a half millennia ago have been growing in the ordinary lives of people throughout human history, passed on from one generation to another. But it is a hidden path, often unnoticed.

In this path, the movement into relation—into community— opens the person to being part of something greater than oneself. The vehicle for awakening is in the relationship itself, and everyone who is part of it is changed.

A Lineage of Wisdom in Relation

Yasodhara was left by her husband just hours after she became a mother, in the regal palace with their child and the extended royal family. We envision that from the moment of this loss of the love of her life, there was a lineage of wisdom that became available to her through the mothers and women and healers in the community. In her desperation, this gift allowed her to endure her grief, stay alive to mother her son, and ultimately, as “She Who Comes Forth in Relation,” to enter into full awakening of compassion and wisdom, reflected in a life of accompanying others and being in service to them.

In our imagined story, both the Buddha and Yasodhara walk a spiritual path and become awakened. Each journey necessitates wrestling with solitude and communion, yet each entered through a different dharma doorway: he through solitude, and she through communion. Both are necessary for a fully realized path. And while the Buddha is a figure represented in solitary meditative repose, the fact is that, except for the very few days and nights spent under the Bodhi tree, he lived his first thirty years as a prince in a busy palace; and thereafter, lived in a huge community with other monastics. And after his enlightenment, he was always accompanied by hundreds—if not thousands—of followers. Yet, he was always the one teacher above all.

Historically, there has been a split in the Buddhist path between the householder and monastic traditions, and only monks have been the teachers. This split is being integrated today in the West with many “secular” teachers. The relational path has been practiced in ordinary, domestic, householder life but could well be practiced in relationship in monastic life as well.

Melvin McCleod, editor of The Shambala Sun, writes: “Some say that these truths were discovered by one man 2,500 years ago—the man we came to call the Buddha, the Awakened One. Others say these truths have been described and rediscovered since beginningless time and will continue to be discovered forever into the future.”1 We believe this rediscovery to also be true of Yasodhara’s path and suggest that The Buddha’s Wife represents an illuminating interpretation of the Buddhist literature.

Yasodhara’s Hidden Path Made Visible Today

The Buddha’s Wife begins by offering “Book One: Yasodhara’s Story,” re-creating the events of her life along with her attendant insights and transformations. Both in the community within the royal palace and then among the Buddha’s followers, Yasodhara plays a central role: she is a figure who builds relational bridges and expands boundaries. The power of her relationship with Pajapati, forged in the time of extreme suffering after Siddhartha left, set in motion this relational path.

From the evocative scenes of Yasodhara’s life, the book distills the wisdom of her path. It traces how her teachings are being made visible today and can be applied to all manner of contemporary suffering— from the stresses of relational losses and ruptures, the concerns of parenting and caregiving, and the pain of illness and grief over the betrayal and loss of loved ones, to domestic violence and substance abuse, social and cultural systemic violence, global inequalities, oppression, and environmental catastrophe. As we trace Yasodhara’s path, the teachings of well-known contemporary Buddhists, many of whom we have studied with, will be woven throughout the book. We will also offer reflections and practices in the Buddhist tradition, to strengthen relational awareness and to lay out a way to optimize healing and spiritual health. While this path of Right Relation can be practiced by everyone, in all kinds of groups, we particularly envision groups within different spiritual or religious traditions working to integrate or align with these teachings and practices within their own community. The greatest power of this path is as a complement to all traditional spiritual practices, whether Buddhist or others.

 

About a thousand years after the first fully-ordained nuns entered the Buddha’s sangha, this Theravadin tradition died out. Over the course of 2,500 years, Yasodhara’s story was lost.

However, what is not lost is the everyday experience of those who “stay.” It is often women who deal with their suffering—whether it be abandonment or abuse or loss of loved ones through disease and death—not alone, nor by going off on a solitary heroic journey as the Buddha did, leaving his loved ones behind, but by facing suffering together with others. Whether they know it or not, these sufferers and caregivers are walking Yasodhara’s path. It is this path that can become the new doorway to the liberation from suffering offered by the Buddha.

This story, like the Buddha’s, is a mythological one that can be understood as both a historical narrative as well as a spiritual one.

His story is one of He Who Goes Forth.

Her story is one of She Who Stays and then They Who Go Forth Together.

We have come to believe that both stories are paths to awakening; one begins alone and the other in the deepening of relationship. Together they form a complementary path.

Yasodhara’s story represents an important life journey that resonates for many of us. Her story is familiar in the lives of the people—often women—that we encounter not only in history and literature but as the remarkable teachers in our current lives; and also (we have all had this experience, sometimes at the most unexpected moments) as that “ordinary” and “unheralded” person that we least expected to come forth to us—a person of humility, born of suffering, who shines with the compassion, grace, and wisdom of awakening.

Relationships at the Heart

Relationships are the heart of our lives. However, as central as they are, often bringing great moments of joy and insight, they can also feel disappointing, burdensome, stale, and frustrating. They can bring profound suffering: abandonment, loss, violation, and betrayal. One way of responding is to retreat into isolation, self-protection, or retaliation, and then despair and bitterness. We may accept disconnections in our relationships without finding ways to revitalize and restore authentic and creative connection. We see and feel the close and personal yet miss the importance of the larger cultural web of relationships around us—how our physical, psychological, and spiritual health is threatened by disconnection and isolation, and thrives in Right Relationship.

Is it possible to stay—with family, friends, and communities—and walk the path wherever you are and with whomever is there with you, and to awaken together? How can we walk the ordinary path that many of us find ourselves already on—a “hidden” path that, without great notice, can lead through compassion to a new wisdom and a new happiness? Can we create freedom, aliveness, and spaciousness in our most intimate relationships? How can we find others with whom to walk a spiritual path and cultivate awareness?

Yasodhara’s path demonstrates the potential transformative power of staying—and deepening—in relationship. Rather than “going forth” alone, it is “coming forth” together, into right, fully engaged, mutual connection. Yasodhara’s story illuminates a path that has been hidden but is available and familiar to many: a path which grows into becoming part of something greater than oneself alone. This path has the potential to become a full compliment to the Buddha’s path.

Has This Always Been So?

One of our first teachers and colleagues, psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, described in her groundbreaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women how women have been the unseen “carriers” of care, nurturance, and compassion in Western culture. This domain of care and compassion has been relegated to the private domestic sphere, hidden—even “invisible”—and both trivialized and idealized by the dominant culture. Yasodhara, calling out in the pain of being left as so many others have done, was calling forth the immense power of compassion that flows in ordinary relationships. The depth of her suffering, her cry of pain, was a step toward the doorway opening to a well-worn, proven path. We believe this path has great, untapped potential—the path of awakening in relationship.

Siddhartha chose to leave and go forth alone on what, at his time, was recognized as the traditional spiritual path. He left home and “went homeless” to live the holy life and to find a way through the suffering he had observed, seeking liberation. And through his own awakening, he would then chart a path of awakening for all beings.

With Siddhartha’s leaving, Yasodhara experienced immense suffering at her core for the first time and called out for help from her women, beginning the process of healing in relationship, until she herself began to show up and accompany others, including men, as a beneficial presence. We imagine that all of us who walk with her, in the process of communion with shared suffering, might find a way of liberation together too. This is not simply what is known by Buddhists as the “householder” path—distinguished from the “monastic” path of monks and nuns—but a path considered unlikely to lead to true awakening. Yasodhara’s relational path has been hidden, unarticulated, within “domestic life” as well as within spiritual communities. Not simply for householders, and not only in domestic realms, the relational path has the potential to evolve into a revolutionary, shared awakening in all realms of life, as it is made visible and is explored in our time.

The Split in the Path: Toward a Shared Path

With the Buddha’s departure and Yasodhara’s growth in spiritual community, “a split in the path was forged”—a split that has been furthered by the way the Buddha’s teachings have flourished in the world. Patriarchal traditions seem to have fostered this prioritizing of the internal, individual opening to the spirit. This doorway can eventually open to a full engagement with all of life and humanity, but the possibility of the human-to-human relational opening, and the doorway to the spirit within particular relationships and communities, remains the more obscured, undeveloped, and uncharted path. The Buddha’s Wife offers a possibility of healing the split, imagining into a shared inclusive path where all voices (male and female, monastic and householder, black and white, East and West) can be included and flourish. Many doorways, one path.

Some may argue that the Buddha’s path is beyond all divisions and represents a universal path. We do believe that the Buddha saw the whole beyond the divisions—the “co-arising” of all things. However, the establishment and maintenance of the teachings have been transmitted over centuries, primarily through Asian, male, monastic communities. As the Buddha’s teachings come to the West, the infusion of different voices—the sensitivity toward and the inclusion of women, people of color, different classes and sexualities, diverse ethnic and cultural groups—has begun. In this endeavor, careful and precise attention is called for. And so are boldness, courage, and creativity.

 

The Buddha’s last words are said to be: “Be a light unto yourself; seek your own salvation with diligence.”

Yasodhara’s last words might have been: “Sometimes you need the light of others to see the way. Sometimes you need to be a light for others. And always, the light will shine more brightly when two or more are gathered in spirit.”

And what about the shared path? We might say: “Every doorway opens to the path. All are necessary. There is no right door or right way. Sometimes in the dark night, we need to find our own way, or to lead the way alone; sometimes we need to rely on others. Always, we can share our light and find a new brightness in community, which will reveal to us what we are only beginning to see alone.”


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