In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Motherhood

  • Introduction
  • Mothers of the Buddha: Māyā and Mahāpajāpatī
  • Other Mothers
  • The Paradox: Love All Beings Like a Mother (But Don’t Get Attached)
  • Motherhood and Mortality
  • Abortion Practices in Buddhism
  • Motherhood and Renunciation
  • Child Protection, Magic, and Ritual
  • Polluting Motherhood
  • Filial Piety

Buddhism Buddhism and Motherhood
Vanessa R. Sasson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0266


Motherhood is a relational concept by its very nature. Biologically, it is tied to the children a woman produces. It is tied to concepts like fertility, pregnancy, abortion, and loss. But motherhood is more than a biological fact. The way motherhood is imagined and interpreted affects women’s direct experiences socially, politically, and medically. When motherhood is limited to a biological fact, it can limit women’s lives. But as this entry will hopefully make clear, motherhood is more than that. It is also a paradigm, a metaphor, even a religious practice. Among the themes highlighted here, we will consider specific mothers first—the Buddha’s two mothers (Māyā and Mahāpajāpatī [Skt. Mahāprajāpatī]), along with other famous mothers in Buddhist narrative (such as the mother of the Buddha’s son). We will consider one of the most important doctrines related to motherhood—namely, that one must love all beings the way a mother loves her only son—and the paradox such a teaching embodies. Pollution is an important challenge presented by motherhood (with the famous Blood Pond Hell that all mothers are destined for), along with filial piety (so that sons might save their mothers instead). Buddhist literature often shatters the concept of motherhood with tales like that of Kisā Gotamī, who only achieves awakening after losing her son, and yet motherhood is also sometimes carried over into discussions of renunciation, as monastics might embody motherhood (or parenthood) despite shaved heads. Some of the themes discussed here appear in other entries of this bibliographic collection, because when we study one piece of a tradition, we inevitably find ourselves studying all of it.

Mothers of the Buddha: Māyā and Mahāpajāpatī

The Buddha’s story is obviously central to the Buddhist tradition. Every aspect of his life is given great importance. This is certainly true where his birth story is concerned. Māyā, the Buddha’s biological mother in his last life, dies seven days after delivering him. Her story is often highly idealized, in narrative as well as visually. The Buddha was then raised by Mahāpajāpatī (Māyā’s younger sister). Both of these mothers play important roles in the Buddhist imaginary. Mahāpajāpatī, however, has the added prestige of leading a group of women in their communal quest for ordination. This led Walters 1994 to argue that she functioned as the head of the women’s monastic community just as the Buddha was at the helm of the men’s.

  • Anālayo, Bhikkhu. Foundation History of the Nuns’ Order. Freiburg, Germany: Projekt Verlag, 2016.

    Anālayo is a prolific writer who has devoted much attention to the question of women’s ordination history and Mahāpajāpatī’s role therein. This book may be the most comprehensive study of her request for ordination as it is depicted across various sources.

  • Bautze-Picron, Claudine. “The Lady under the Tree: A Visual Pattern from Māyā to the Tārā and Avalokiteśvara.” In The Birth of the Buddha: Proceedings of the Seminar Held in Lumbini, Nepal, October 2004. Edited by Christoph Cueppers, Max Deeg, and Hubert Durt, 193–237. Lumbini, Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2010.

    As an art historian, Bautze-Picron investigates the evolving manifestations of the image of a woman under a tree, from pre-Buddhist representation, through the many Māyā images, to the Tārā and Avalokiteśvara interpretations. She suggests that these images are often expressions of compassion and they eventually come to demarcate the limit between sacred and profane spaces.

  • Coningham, R. A. E., K. P. Acharya, K. M. Strickland, et al. “The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: Excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal).” Antiquity 87 (2013): 1104–1123.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003598X00049899

    A concise overview of recent archaeological investigations in Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birthplace. Coningham discusses the discovery of pre-Asokan structures as a potential Buddhist shrine, but also the presence of what may be the earliest tree shrine.

  • Dhammadina, Bhikkhunī. “The Parinirvāṇa of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and Her Followers in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.” The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 16 (2015): 28–61.

    The first part of a two-part study, this article translates and discusses Gautamī’s parinirvāṇā (along with her 500 followers) as it appears in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. She emphasizes the communal aspect of her death, while at the same time highlighting Gautamī’s illustrious role and miraculous powers.

  • Dhammadina, Bhikkhunī. “The Funeral of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and her Followers in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya.” The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies 17 (2016): 25–74.

    Following her previous article, this piece translates and discusses Gautamī’s funeral as it appears in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. Her body (along with the bodies of her 500 followers) appears young in death, despite her 120 years. Dhammadina considers the reasons for this miraculous quality. She also explores the filial implications of the Buddha’s participation in her funerary procession.

  • Durt, Hubert. “L’apparition du Buddha à sa mère après son nirvāṇa dans le sutra de Mahāmāyā et le sūtra de la mère du Buddha.” In Du Dunhuang au Japon: Etudes chinoises et bouddhiques offertes à Michel Soymié. Edited by Jean-Pierre Drège, 1–24. Geneva, Switzerland: Librairie Droz, 1996.

    One of the few studies that focuses on Māyā specifically; Durt considers two Mahayana sutras that feature the Buddha’s biological mother. In these, the Buddha first visits her in heaven during the rains retreat to provide her with teachings (and her breasts burst with milk at the sight of him), and then she visits him at his funeral.

  • Ohnuma, Reiko. Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery in Indian Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199915651.001.0001

    Ohnuma covers a wide range of themes associated with motherhood in this book. She looks at the two mothers of the Buddha, Māyā and Mahāpajāpatī, and she considers examples of deep “mother-love” in the literature, along with examples of mother-grief, and debt to the mother for both.

  • Sasson, Vanessa R. “Māyā’s Disappearing Act: Motherhood in Early Buddhist Literature.” In Family in Buddhism. Edited by Liz Wilson, 147–168. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013.

    A close look at Māyā’s representation in early hagiographical literature, from the Jātakas through to her final life story as the Buddha’s mother. Sasson argues that Māyā is rendered invisible in the literature. Māyā functions as a perfect example of Buddhism’s paradoxical relationship with motherhood: on the one hand, the mother is idealized and romanticized; on the other, she dies without achieving awakening.

  • Walters, Jonathan. “A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha’s Mother’s Story.” History of Religions 33.4 (1994): 358–379.

    DOI: 10.1086/463377

    A pivotal article. Walters argues that the early tradition did not necessarily seek to eliminate gender distinctions, but sometimes sought to emphasize them. He focuses on the Gotamī-Apadāna and argues that Gotamī is here positioned as the Buddha’s counterpart, the female leader to the nuns just as he is the male leader to the monks. Gender distinctions are thus maintained, but this places a female monastic in a position of authority similar to the Buddha.

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