Women’s History Month: Spotlight on Yasodara

:: Post contributed by Myo On Susan Hagler ::

Hello, dear friends,

As this is Women’s History month I was invited to contribute a piece on Buddhist Women.

My thoughts immediately went to Yasodara, Shakyamuni’s, wife. She was integral in the Buddha’s life before he left home and after, as well. Using the book “Old Path, White Clouds,” a biography of Shakyamuni Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh, I’d like to share some insights about who Yasodara was.

The story many of us have heard is that Shakyamuni left in the middle of the night without letting Yasodara and their newborn son know; that he abandoned them.

A different version of what went down is conveyed in “Old Path, White Clouds” and other online sources. It is said that Yasodara was born on the same exact day as her cousin Gautama. It was foretold that she, too, would be an extraordinary person. She, too, was raised in a royal household and, like her cousin, wasn’t comfortable with the bells and whistles that come with such a birthright.

When she was a teenager, she was known to go into impoverished neighborhoods to help alleviate the suffering which came with hunger and disease, and was particularly interested in helping children. It was conveyed that Shakyamuni came upon her when she was out and about and was deeply impressed by what he saw.  At that point he knew that Yasodara was the woman he would want as his wife.

After they were married, Yasodara continued to go into impoverished neighborhoods. She also studied the vedas and meditated with her husband as they also carried out their royal duties. They were of one mind. As their lives evolved she knew that one day he would leave the household in search of the truly awakened way for humans to live in peace and harmony. This was something that they discussed and were aligned on. When the time came for Gautama to set out on his journey, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the way that Yasodara helped him prepare to go. She laid out his travel clothes and let Channa (his attendant) know that he should prepare the horses and carriage to take Siddhartha to the edge of the forest.

 After her husband left, Yasodara mirrored his practice within the container of the household. She meditated and studied and lived simply while raising their son, Rahula, and taking care of her royal duties. She bonded closely with her mother-in-law, Gopa (Mahapajapati), who was also in sync with this way of living.

When her son was eight, the Buddha came home to visit and see his family. At that time she urged her Rahula to connect with his father and receive his “inheritance.”   He did and ended up going with his father, the Buddha, to live as a novice monk. After a number of years, when her responsibilities in the household were fulfilled, she too left home, following her mother-in-law in becoming a bikuni (a nun.)

I am inspired by Yasodara’s way of practicing in the midst of everyday householding. To not need to physically leave home in order to be deeply devoted and realize the path of complete well being.

Although she eventually did become a nun, she practiced the bodhisattva way much of her life.    Yasodara was a remarkable woman who we can all look to as an example of how to live our everyday lives authentically.

With a deep bow and a broad smile,

Myo On

Myo On began Zen practice in 1980 with Katagiri-Roshi and the MZMC sangha. She took time off from formal practice while raising her family in the 1990s,  participating in family practice at MZMC and practicing at home. In 1999 she returned to MZMC more formally and was ordained by Tim Burkett in 2003. In 2010 she began practicing with Dokai Georgesen at Hokyoji Zen Practice community. MyoOn received dharma transmission from Dokai in 2018. In 2020, she joined the teacher-ryo at Clouds in Water. Myo On works with Zen students at all levels from lay to ordained. She can also officiate at marriages and memorial services. She has lived in Minneapolis with her spouse, Duane Peterson since 1986. They have 3 adult children and 3 grandchildren who bring them great joy.

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