Blessed are the birth-givers

by Miranda, Shaw


Vol. 23 No. 4 Winter 1998

Pp. 48-53

Copyright by Parabola

Buddhist Views on Birth and Rebirth THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH TAUGHT by Shakyamuni Buddha is that life is suffering. The Buddha also imparted that the four primary forms of suffering are birth, illness, old age, and death. Taken alone, these pronouncements set the stage for a life-denying tradition in which birth is viewed as a descent into the vale of misery. However, these negative assessments are more than counterbalanced by the Buddha's central teaching that human life offers a unique opportunity to discover the truth. The same potential for spiritual awakening is not presented by birth as an animal, as a supernatural being, or even as a privileged dweller in one of the heavenly realms. The Buddha himself embodied the fruition of human potential: the attainment of infinite knowledge, wisdom, and compassion. Therefore, the belief that prevailed in Buddhism is that birth in human form is a rare and precious event. In place of the lamentation that one might expect, one finds that birth has been celebrated in numerous ways in Buddhist art, myth, and philosophy. The Buddhist celebration of birth first found expression in exaltations of Queen Maya, the Buddha's mother. Some accounts suggest that Queen Maya was on her way to her parents' home when she unexpectedly had to stop and give birth in a forest. Other sources, however, reveal that the queen sought out a sacred grove where all the women of her lineage gave birth under the watchful care of the grove goddess. The goddess created a suitable environment by hanging jewels and flower garlands from the trees and making lotuses bloom in all the ponds. She summoned the females of all species to bring offerings to the foot of the tree where Buddha would be born. Queen Maya bathed in a lotus pond and then grasped the branch of a fig tree, which served as her midwife for the auspicious birth. The Buddha was born from Queen Maya's right side. Scholars have interpreted this as a negative motif, a sign that the womb is too impure and defiling for a Buddha to inhabit. However, Buddhist texts explain that a Buddha by nature causes no suffering and that this was true from the very moment of his conception. Queen Maya experienced no discomfort during her pregnancy, and her son considerately emerged from her side so that the delivery would be painless. When the Buddha's mother died during the first year of his life, she merged into the goddess of the sacred grove. It is Maya's image that is enshrined in the temple at the site of the Buddha's birth in Lumbini, Nepal. Women from surrounding villages have come here over the centuries not to worship the Buddha, but to pray to the holy mother for protection in childbirth and healthy children. They honor her image with seasonal flowers and with red powder and vermilion paste signifying the life-blood with which mothers animate their children. Drinking water that has been poured over the statue is believed to cure infertility. An archaeological record reaching back thousands of years preserves the worshippers' handmade offerings of terracotta beads, bracelets, miniature horses, and human figurines. Despite the fact that one of the world's greatest religious leaders was born here, worship at the site glorifies the mother who gave birth, not the son who was born. THE Flower Ornament Sutra (first--second century C.E.), an early Mahayana scripture, further exalts the Buddha's mother in passages voiced by the goddess of the sacred grove, who witnessed the nativity. In a poetic stream of visionary ecstasy, the goddess eulogizes the miracles that took place in Queen Maya's body, beginning with an outpouring of brilliant healing light: As Lady Maya leaned against the holy fig tree, all the world rulers, gods and goddesses... and all the other beings... were bathed in the glorious radiance of Maya's body .... All the lights in the billion-world universe were eclipsed by Maya's light. The lights emanating from all her pores... pervaded everywhere, extinguishing all suffering... illuminating the universe.(n1) Queen Maya's womb attained cosmic proportions. Universes streamed forth from her body, while everything in this universe was in turn visible in her womb. All the worlds, lands, and Buddhas were visible in each of her pores. No stigma attaches here to the process of birth or to the womb. In dualistic philosophies that separate mind and body, pure spirit and impure matter, the female body and especially the womb are often negativized as the gateway into the prison of matter. However, according to the nondualistic Mahayana philosophy of emptiness, birth and indeed all phenomenal arising is miraculous and illusory. Ail things are born out of emptiness, shimmer momentarily in empty space, and then dissolve back into the cosmic source. Emptiness is the fertile womb of reality, and the human womb possesses the same wondrous power of manifestation. Perfection of Wisdom philosophy elevates the concepts of birth and motherhood above even that of Buddhahood itself. This philosophy introduces a cosmic female who embodies the radiant wisdom that gives birth to Buddhas. The goddess, known as Prajnaparamita, or Perfect Wisdom, shares the name of the literature in which she appears and the knowledge that she personifies. One of her rifles is Mother of Ail Buddhas, for she is the maternal source of saving knowledge. As the mother, she endures, while her offspring, the Buddhas, come into existence and pass away: She is the Perfect Wisdom that never comes into being and therefore never goes out of being .... She can never be defeated in any way, on any level .... She is the Perfect Wisdom who gives birthless birth to all Buddhas. And through these sublimely Awakened Ones, it is Mother Prajnaparamita alone who turns the wheel of true teaching.(n2) The Buddhas recede in importance as their birth-giver, Prajnaparamita, emerges as the supreme teacher, the source of all religious truths. Seekers of wisdom must sit at her feet and drink from the endless stream of teachings that flow from her presence. Without her, the Buddhas would have nothing to teach. She is the source and content of their teachings, the eternal font of revelation; the Buddhas are her messengers. Mother Wisdom is put forth as the highest object of worship, more worthy of reverence than a Buddha or Buddharelics, for only those who prize wisdom above all else may attain it. Buddhas and their relics are indeed holy; however, the Buddhas are sacred because she brought them into being, while the relics are venerable because they are saturated with her energy. Therefore, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, too, revere her. Recognizing their dependence upon her, they devotedly contemplate the spontaneously revealing Goddess Prajnaparamita with deep consecration and respect--revering, worshiping, and ecstatically adoring her .... The omniscience... which alone constitutes Buddhahood springs from Mother Prajnaparamita, and therefore all Buddhas and bodhisattvas are intensely grateful and thankful to her and only to her.(n3) The entire edifice of Prajnaparamita philosophy is built upon the principle that the birth-giver is greater than the one who is born. As long as there is a mother of Buddhas, there will be more Buddhas, and she will continue to exist long after they have passed away. TANTRIC BUDDHISM, which arose in about the seventh century, added its own distinctive valuation of birth. As a tradition that treasures the human body as the abode of bliss and vehicle of enlightenment, it is natural that Tantra proclaims that women, the givers of birth, are to be honored. The Candamaharoshana Tantra has harsh words for those who disparage the source of life, pleasure, and kindness: Woman alone is the birth giver, the giver of true pleasure to the Three Worlds, the kind one. Those chattering fools engaged in evil action, who now disparage her out of hostility, will, by their action, remain constantly tortured for three eons in the fathomless Raudra Hell, wailing as their bodies burn in many fires.(n4) The text pronounces that those who fail to honor women can not attain liberation, but those who render to women their due homage will be rewarded with supreme enlightenment. Toward this end, a man should seek a woman upon whom he can focus his devotion. When he finds a spiritual consort, he should approach sexual union with her as a sacred act. Envisioning her as a living goddess, or female Buddha, he should bow at her feet, beg her to grace him with a loving glance, and worship at the altar of her thighs. He should lovingly kiss her stomach, thinking, "This is where I formerly dwelt; from here I was born," and grant her any form of pleasure that she desires. Although the honor accorded to women in Tantric Buddhism goes beyond their role as mothers, the high value placed upon the human body and upon birth is the cornerstone of this--and any--female-affirming philosophy. The theme of rebirth, like that of birth, was elaborated and assumed grand proportions in the Buddhist imagination. Early Buddhism envisioned six forms in which one could be reborn: that is, as a denizen of hell, animal, human being, hungry ghost, demigod, or god. The six realms of rebirth correspond to mental drives and psychological temperaments. For example, a preponderance of hatred and aggression will lead to rebirth in hell among violent beings. Greed and perpetual dissatisfaction lead to rebirth as a hungry ghost, while excessive envy results in birth among the demigods. A person's thoughts, motivations, and behavior plant the seeds of karma that will ripen in future lives. Enlightenment offers the hope of escape from the round of rebirth. As Buddhism evolved, rebirth came to be seen a process that can be mastered and engaged in consciously. In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva aspires to become free from karmic impurities and to renounce the selfish desire for personal existence. Once freed from this desire, however, the bodhisattva does not simply dissolve into the blissful expanse of ultimate reality. The paradox inherent in this process is that, having transcended the thirst for personal selfhood, one attains the Buddhist equivalent of immortality. No longer subject to the laws of karma and rebirth, bodhisattvas are free to recreate themselves eternally, in innumerable times, places, and bodily forms, to lead others to the same state of liberation. Such beings will fearlessly descend to the hell-realms to bestow cooling water and the nectar of compassion upon their tortured inhabitants, or visit places frequented by alcoholics, derelicts, and compulsive pleasure-seekers of every description, for it is necessary to appear among those who will most benefit from even the slightest glimmer of wisdom. These bodhisattvas, too, fashion divine bodies of unspeakable beauty and infinite glory to enchant the senses and awaken spiritual aspiration. Bodhisattvas do not even necessarily take rebirth in human form. They may choose to be reborn as crops to feed the hungry, rain to end drought, medicine to cure the sick, roads and bridges to aid travelers, trees to provide shade, and houses to provide shelter. They can manifest in many forms and places at one time and travel into the past, present, and future. Having mastered illusion, illusion becomes their plaything, reality their playground, and conscious rebirth their entertaining and liberating pastime. TANTRIC BUDDHISM adds yet another dimension to the concept of rebirth. In Tantra, death and rebirth are regarded as experiences that one may undergo in one's present lifetime through yogic practices that simultaneously purify the mind and body. The subtle psychic energies that carry a person's thought and emotions are normally dispersed throughout the body. A practitioner of Tantric yoga learns to draw these energies into the central, spinal channel, where they no longer support dualistic thought. Egoic selfhood, which is predicated upon dualistic thought, is thereby deprived of its foundation and spontaneously dissolves. Further concentrating the energies into a single point, or drop, at the heart, the seat of consciousness, brings about a psychic death. The illusory self, the false ego, dies, and the clear light of universal awareness dawns in its wake. This process of psychic death and rebirth is depicted in Tantric iconography in various ways. One is the motif of a Buddha trampling upon a corpse. The corpse does not represent external beings or forces that must be defeated but rather the unenlightened self that is left behind on the journey to liberation. The Buddha pins down its chest, the seat of the mind and emotions, showing that egoic tendencies have been conquered. Above the gray, prostrate corpse, the lifeless shell of the former self, the Buddha dances in a magnificent, divine body. Tantric Buddhas are customarily adorned with skull-crowns, necklaces of skulls, and ornaments made of human bone, demonstrating that they have overcome the dualism of life and death and know the secrets of the art of rebirth. The Flame-Dancing Dakini epitomizes the Tantric understanding of spiritual rebirth. Her golden body shines with the radiance of perfect wisdom and the life-force in its purest essence. Flames burst from her body, for the fire of spiritual transformation blazes within her. She wears none of the usual adornments of deity, for only the barest naked awareness, stripped of all conceptual overlay, can accomplish this transition. Her face is drawn into an expression of supernatural intensity, for she experiences all the passions as pure energy-waves that she may ride, enjoy, and use at will. The flame-dancer emerges from a cloak of human skin with a bloody lining. She leaps free of her former self, leaving it behind like an afterbirth; she sheds it just as a snake sheds its skin, glowing with the ecstasy of rebirth. She waves aloft a ball of string, a Tantric symbol of continuity, expressing that death, or what the unenlightened regard as death, has become child's play to her--an illusory threshold that she has crossed many times. This Tantric goddess occupies the vantage point from which life, death, and rebirth are one grand process, a never-ending process of transformation. She knows that, in the face of death, there is no cause for sorrow, for there is no permanent loss or separation. Thus, she dances exultantly, victoriously, rejoicing, filling the universe with her cosmic laughter. NOTES (n1.) Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), vol. 3, pp. 266-67. (n2.) Mother of the Buddhas: Meditations on the Prajnaparamita Sutra, translated by Lex Hixon (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1993), pp. 95-96. (n3.) Ibid, p. 123. (n4.) The Candamaharosana Tantra, Chapters 1-8, translated by Christopher George (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1974), p. 70. PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The Goddess of the Grove PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): (above) The Dharana Yantra of the Goddess Tvarita; (overleaf) Chakra-vyuha, a maze pattern used to focus concentration during childbirth ILLUSTRATION (BLACK & WHITE)