By Commander X
“Yashodhara. Do you know that name?
Prince Siddhartha Gautama….Sakyamuni….Buddha.
Everybody knows these names.
~~ Pema – ‘Samsara’
In the scene above from the epic Tibetan motion picture “Samsara”, a high Lama (Tashi played by Shawn Ku) who left the monastery to marry and father a son has unwittingly recreated the moment when Gautama Buddha left his wife Yashodhara and his son Rahul. His wife (Pema played by Christy Chung) has ridden ahead of him and met him at the outskirts of the monastery. And she is about to channel Yashodhara on this wayward male in a way that will strip his poor soul down to the chassis in about eight minutes.
I was moved to a deep and abiding philosophical introspection after watching this part of the movie “Samsara”. Christy Chung, in the character of Pema – has with her amazing talent managed to channel Yashodhara in such a visceral, real, and spiritual way that one is left weeping for the incredible suffering of the long neglected wife of the Buddha. Every question Pema asks remains ringing in my troubled heart. Was Yashodhara broken hearted when Siddhartha left her so cruelly? Did she feel anger or dispair? And what did she tell their son Rahul when he got older? How did she explain to a young man a father’s choices such as Prince Siddhartha made? Why is Buddhism so silent, almost embarrassed by this saint?
There is much ado in Buddhist Scripture and commentary about how Gautama suffered from having to make such a cold decision, his Family in exchange for enlightenment. But on the subject of Yashodhara’s arguably much greater suffering we have nothing but silence in the sacred texts.
And dear Pema asks the most important question ever: would Sakyamuni Buddha have even gained enlightenment without Yashodhara? What little has been passed down to us from 2500 years ago is that Yashodhara was a deeply compassionate and even saintly person, always engaged in acts of charity with the most disenfranchised while Gautama was still cavorting in his royal palace oblivious to the very existence of suffering.
But the moment that struck me the hardest during the clip above is when Pema so succinctly describes the futility of a woman’s position in our world. Only a man could have made the choice Prince Siddhartha made when he slunk off into the night without a word. No woman is capable of so blithely walking away from their child. No amount of patriarchal reform in religion or society can ever alter this universal verity, that men will always have choices women can never have. And a woman’s suffering and despair at these times will always be uniquely their own to know and bear. A man can only bear silent and respectful witness when the heart of a truly good woman breaks with despair. At times like this, even the universe itself can not help but weep anguished tears.
Vajrayana Buddhism, like many other schools of Buddhism – has a deeply patriarchal culture. Only very recently, and due to the intense lobbying at the highest levels by a few mostly western Nuns – has the first woman in a thousand years been granted the esteemed degree of Geshe. It is still almost impossible for a woman to be ordained, much less be recognized as a Tulku – a Rinpoche (Precious One). This must change, and it is up to us male Buddhists to effect this change – and quickly. This much at least, we can do something about. If the most enlightened religion on earth can not eliminate patriarchy and treat their woman with the respect they deserve, then what hope is there for the world?
For myself, I have been deeply shaken by these thoughts and ideas precipitated by the scene in the clip at the beginning of this article. I am going to add the veneration of Yashodhara, of her beautiful heart and anguished sacrifice and suffering – to my regular Buddhist practice. And in doing so, I am going to choose to envision her as a truly enlightened Wisdom Master. Maybe she was even a Buddha. If there is any correlation between the depth of her suffering and her enlightenment, then it is almost certainly the case.
Finally, I am going to spare much more thought and reflection on the women that I myself have left behind in my quest for freedom and glory. My Sister. The lady I was with when I fled the USA. Others. For I have found now that I am as guilty of forgetting the suffering of these women in my life as everyone in history is of forgetting Yashodhara. We may never be able to completely change what it means to be men. But thanks to women in history like Yashodhara, we can be forever reminded that the universe is not always gender-neutral in it’s distribution of suffering.
Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Doyon. All Rights Reserved.