The Buddha – Chapter 16: Maya, Mother of the Buddha

In Chapter 14, the Buddha recounted how he left his weeping parents and went off in search of a state beyond suffering. In Chapter 6, Nagasena explained to King Milinda that the universe can sustain only one buddha at a time. Things did not remain that simple. In accounts of the Buddha’s birth, it was reported that the future Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi or Queen Maya, dreamed that a white elephant had entered her womb. The bodhisattva was not born through the usual route, but emerged from his mother’s right side. Shortly thereafter, his mother died. According to some commentators, the womb of a buddha’s mother must remain unsullied after his birth (with her death apparently providing the only assurance that it would remain so). According to others, she would have died of a broken heart when her son renounced the world and set out in search of liberation from suffering. Because she was therefore unable to benefit from her son’s teachings, it is said that the Buddha travelled magically to the Heaven of the Thirty-Three (where she had been reborn) in order to teach her the dharma.

The entry of the future Buddha into his mother’s womb and, by extension, into the human realm is a momentous event in the history of the universe, and elaborate descriptions of that descent and of that womb appear in a number of texts. One of the most famous is found in the forty-fourth chapter of the Gandavyuha, a Mahayana sutra dating perhaps from the second century ce. The story has been described as a Buddhist Pilgtim’s Progress, but such a comparison does little to convey the text’s visionary qualities. It is the story of the young Sudhana the son of a guild master, who goes in search of enlightenment. Along the way he encounters all manner of exalted beings, each of whom provides him with instruction. After some fifty such meetings, he finally comes into the presence of Maitreya the next buddha, and of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra.

In the course of his journey, he meets Maya, the mother of Sakyamuni Buddha. She describes in elaborate detail how her son entered her womb, revealing that it was able to accommodate much more than a white elephant, without for a moment distorting her form. She reveals that it was not only the bodhisattva Siddhartha who descended from the Tusita (Joyous) Heaven and entered her womb. Countless identical bodhisattvas accompanied him, to become buddhas simultaneously in millions of similar universes. She reveals as well that she is the mother not only of all the buddhas of the present, but of all the buddhas of the past. And she will be the mother of the next buddha, Maitreya.

Coming out of various trance states, Sudhana circumambulated Mayadevi and her retinue; he circumambulated Mayadevi and her palace and throne. He stood before her, hands folded in reverence, and said, ‘Under the tutelage of the young Manjusri I had conceived a desire for perfect enlightenment. Manjusri then encouraged me to seek out and serve companions who could aid me in my quest. I have been going from one such companion to the next and in my search have come in turn to you. Tell me, noble lady, how does a bodhisattva, cultivating the practice of the bodhisattva, achieve perfection with respect to omniscience?’

She replied, ‘O noble son, I have achieved mastery of the visionary state known as mahdpranidhdnajndnamdydgatavyuha, the visionary state in which there are magical manifestations that come about through the marvellous workings of the knowledge of the great vows. And having achieved mastery over that visionary state, I am the mother of the innumerable bodhisattvas in their final birth, who are destined to become the buddha Vairocana; indeed in all the Jambudvipa continents in all of the different world-systems, many are the magical appearances of the births of the blessed Vairocana as a bodhisattva in his last birth. All of those bodhisattvas are born into my womb. They all come out of my right side. In fact, O noble son, in this very world consisting of its four continents, in the city of Kapilavastu, as the wife of King Suddhodana, I gave birth to the bodhisattva Siddhartha, with a display of all the inconceivable magical powers that attend upon the birth of bodhisattvas.

‘At that time, O noble son, I was in the palace of King Suddhodana. It came time for the bodhisattva to fall from Tusita Heaven, and light rays came out of each and every hair follicle of the bodhisattva’s body. These rays were as numerous as the grains of sand in countless Buddha fields; they were called sarvatathdgatqjananigunamandalaprabhavaprabhdsd, illuminations that are the source of all the wondrous virtues that belong to the mother of all the tathagatas, and they contained within them the hosts of excellent virtues that belong to the mother of all the bodhisattvas. These rays illuminated the entire world-system and then fell on to my body. They entered into my body from the tip of my head and then penetrated every pore of my body. Thus, O noble son, did those rays of light that had come from the bodhisattva, those rays of light with their many names, rays of light that give rise to the magical appearances associated with the mother of all the bodisattvas, all entered my body. And no sooner did that happen, O noble son, than those in my inner circle could see on my body the many miraculous appearances that are associated with the birth of all the bodhisattvas and that were made visible by that host of excellent light rays that came from the bodhisattva. And as soon as those rays from the bodhisattva entered my body, O noble son, then I could see before my very own eyes an entire host of bodhisattvas and their wondrous deeds; these were the bodhisattvas, the magical appearances of whose births had been announced by the rays that had come forth. That is to say, I saw these bodhisattvas seated on the most excellent seats of enlightenment; I saw them seated on the lion thrones of the buddhas; I saw them surrounded by their retinues of bodhisattvas; I saw them being worshipped by the Indras of all the worlds; I saw them turning the wheel of the dharma. And I even saw right before my very own eyes all of the previous tathagatas that those tathagatas had worshipped when they were cultivating the bodhisattva path in their previous births. I saw the magical appearances of their first conceiving the desire for enlightenment; I saw the magical appearances of their enlightenment, their turning of the wheel of the dharma, and their final nirvana. I saw the magical appearances of the perfect purity of their buddha- lands. I even saw all of the wondrous manifestations that these tathagatas, with every momentary changing thought, can produce in all of the universe; these too all appeared right before my very eyes. And, O noble son, when those light rays from the bodhisattva entered into my body, my body came to embrace the entire world. My womb became as expansive as the ether, but at the same time neither my body nor my womb exceeded normal human proportions. And then all of the magical manifestations of palaces in which the bodhisattvas are to dwell while in their mother’s womb, all of these palaces in all the ten directions, could be seen to be within my body; they could all be seen right inside my body.

‘Now, O noble son, as soon as there appeared in my body the wondrous assemblage of palaces in which the bodhisattvas are to abide while in the womb, then the bodhisattva Siddhartha himself entered into my womb, accompanied by bodhisattvas as numerous as the grains of sand in all the buddha-fields in the ten directions; these bodhisattvas shared with him the same vow and the same religious practice; they shared the same roots of merit, the same manifestations and mastery of the same visionary states. They shared the same knowledge and occupied the same level in their training; they were adept at producing the same magical appearances and had cultivated the same vows; they had also mastered the same course of practice. These bodhisattvas all had bodies of the utmost refinement and subtlety and yet at the same time had control over countless gross physical bodies; they were adept at producing magical manifestations due to their cultivation of the bodhisattva practice that was in every way auspicious. They were all positioned inside a pavilion made from jewels that came from the crests of the kings of the snakes. The bodhisattva Siddhartha was at the same time being worshipped by eighty- thousand snake kings, including the snake king Sagara; he was also being worshipped by the Indras of all the worlds. Such was the great display of wonders appropriate to a bodhisattva, that as the bodhisattva Siddhartha displayed his descent from Tusita Heaven, along with his retinue, and entered into my womb, many other wonderful things occurred. There appeared a descent of a bodhisattva from each of the multitude of Tusita Heavens, so that from every one of the multitude of Tusita Heavens a bodhisattva could be seen to descend and take birth in the various worlds consisting of four continents in all of the different universes. Thus did Siddhartha enter into my womb, with the skill in means necessary to ripen all living beings, impelled by the many deluded beings, stirred on by the existence of so many false beliefs. There appeared a mass of rays of light. There was an end to darkness everywhere in the universe and to the sufferings that were caused by every sort of misfortune; there was an end to rebirth in hellish realms. Thus did Siddhartha appear in response to the previous deeds that people had done and to save all living beings, and in such a way as to ensure that all living beings would see his body right before them.

‘And all of those bodhisattvas and snake kings and the rest of the bodhisattva Siddhartha’s retinue walked about in my womb, with steps that covered the expanse of the vast three-thousandfold universe, steps as vast in extent as the world-systems, themselves as numerous as the grains of sand in countless buddha-fields. And all of those countless bodhisattvas that formed the retinue of the bodhisattva Siddhartha scurried about in my womb in all the ten directions, seeking the feet of all the tathagatas everywhere in the entire universe; they scurried about without a stop, every second, eager to get a glimpse of the marvellous manner in which the bodhisattva was dwelling in my womb. And the four great kings, the kings of the gods, Sakra, Suyama, Samtusita, Sunirmitavasavartin, and the Brahma kings, all approached the bodhisattva as he was in the womb, in order to behold him and worship him; to pay him reverence and hear him preach the law and listen to him discourse. And my womb, accommodating all of that vast retinue, did not swell up. And my body did not look any different from any other human body. And yet it accommodated all of that vast retinue. And all of the gods and human beings could see the pure wonder of those magical manifestations of that miraculous crowd of so many bodhisattvas. And why was that? It was all a result of the bodhisattva’s vision state known as the vision state that pertains to the marvellous workings of the great vows. This is the vision state I first told you that I had mastered; indeed that vision is like a well-spoken magic charm.

‘And when, O noble son, in this continent of Jamudvipa, in this world-system consisting of four continents, when I accept the bodhisattva into my womb, I also accept him into my womb in all of the Jambudvipa continents in all of the four-continent world- systems in all of this three-thousand-fold universe. I do so with that very same host of magical manifestations that I have already described to you. And my body does not become manifold; nor does it become non-manifold. It is neither one nor many. This too occurs as a result of the bodhisattva’s vision state known as the vision state that pertains to the marvellous workings of the knowledge of the great vows. Indeed that vision is like a well- spoken magic charm.

‘And, O noble son, just as I was the mother of the tathagata Vairocana, so have I been the mother of countless other previous tathagatas. When a bodhisattva is about to be born in this world, it sometimes happens that he is born in a lotus. I become the goddess of the lotus pond and take that bodhisattva. And the world calls me the mother of the bodhisattva. Once he appeared in someone’s lap; there too I was his mother. If the bodhisattva is to be born in a buddha-field, then I become the goddess of the seat of enlightenment in that buddha-field. In this way, O noble son, bodhisattvas in their final birth can display various forms of birth as a form of skilful means to teach beings; I display similar skilful means and become their mothers.

‘O noble son, just as I was the mother of this blessed one in this world-system, when there were displayed all sorts of marvellous manifestations associated with the births of all the bodhisattvas, so I was the mother of the blessed tathagata Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni and the tathagata Kasyapa. I shall similarly be the mother of all the future tathagatas of this Bhadrakalpa Age. So, when it is time for the bodhisattva Maitreya to display his descent from Tusita Heaven, a light ray will go forth that is capable of displaying all of the miraculous appearances associated with the sojourn of a bodhisattva in the womb that will lead to his birth. When that ray has illuminated the host of worlds everywhere, then I will see clearly before my eyes those worlds in which the bodhisattva Maitreya is to teach living beings by displaying to them the appearances of his birth among human beings, in families of kings among men. In every one of those worlds I will be his mother. ’

Translated by Phyllis Granoff from the Gandavyuhasutra, ed. P. L. Vaidya, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, No. 5 (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1960), pp. 346-47.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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