Mahaprajapati and the Philosophers’ Stone, a talk given by Madelon Bolling (May 8, 2016)

Posted by on May 15, 2016 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on Mahaprajapati and the Philosophers’ Stone, a talk given by Madelon Bolling (May 8, 2016)

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion.
That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.

(Dogen: Genjo Koan, Aitken and Tanahashi trans.)

Mahaprajapati and the Philosopher’s Stone   

The first of the women ancestors honored in our dedication chant is Mahaprajapati Gautami, foster mother of Shakyamuni Buddha and founder of the women’s order. In a sense she’s ancestral mother of all who sit and practice here. Today I’ll tell a little of her story—and though the Philosophers’ Stone seems like something belonging more to the world of Harry Potter than that of Dharma Gate, it is an image of transformation. In high school when I heard that the Philosopher’s Stone was said to change ordinary stone or metal to gold, transforming the very elements, my first reaction was, “One mineral or another—who cares?” But transforming the ordinary is deep: it is essential Zen work.

Imagine being a beautiful 16-year-old young lady in the wealthy ruling family of the Koliya clan way back in the 5th century BCE, two thousand five-hundred years ago…long long ago and far away. You are told that you and your elder sister (who was probably only 17 or 18) have been promised to King Shuddhodana, chief of the Shakya clan that rules the region across the river. Your sister Mayadevi is to be first wife to the king, and in the same ceremony you are to be made second wife. This alliance was probably planned when you were infants, so though it represents a major transition in your life it is no surprise, and in any case you have no choice in the matter. Like many ruling houses around the world, the Koliyas and the Shakyas had a long-standing tradition of intermarriage—Koliyas only marry Shakyas and vice-versa, thus keeping the royal blood . . . royal, and political alliances solidified.

Unfortunately, Mayadevi died just a few days after giving birth to her first child, Siddhartha. Mahaprajapati accepted the role of foster-mother to this first-born son of the first wife of the king, a configuration of great importance in ruling families. Some stories say that she sent her own first-born son to a wet-nurse during his infancy so that she could raise Siddhartha. There are romantic notions that Mahaprajapati was cosmically drawn to Siddhartha from the first, favoring him even over her own child, and that her actions were pre-determined or at least linked to overwhelming cosmic purpose. Be that as it may, there were enough socio-political forces in place at the time to make this outcome likely anyway.

Still a teen, she nevertheless bore a great weight of tradition and duty, the expectations of generations: two whole clans of regional rulers were keeping an eye on her every move. All of this is set in a context of wealth and luxury, the necessary appearances of ruling status.

We can’t really know how it was in that very different world but I would feel very restricted indeed, if my every move were dictated by tradition. Luxuries like rich fabrics, fine furniture, gold jewelry, beautiful scents and flowers, fine foods and servants—all of these would not make up for that reality—and in any case these things belong more to the clan than to the individual.

Well, you know the story—there was a prophecy that Siddhartha would either be a great military conqueror or a great religious leader. Preferring the former, Shuddhodana kept his son from leaving the palace grounds by providing entertainments and distractions so he wouldn’t see the existential realities of sickness, old age and death… In due time, Siddhartha was married to a cousin, his mother’s brother’s daughter, Yasodhara, and they had a son, Rahula. One day Siddhartha went AWOL and encountered the very conditions his father tried to keep him from encountering. I can’t help wondering if Mahaprajapati had somehow encouraged him to see what was really outside the walls. But—probably not. In any case, this excursion produced an intense desire to find out what life is all about, to find ultimate truth if there be such a thing. So, having done his duty to the kingdom by producing a son, Siddhartha left home. He was 29.

When King Shuddhodana died 6 or 7 years later, Siddhartha had already tried and rejected asceticism. He had already sat in determined contemplation and awakened to true nature. Something about the way he spoke of awakening drew people from far and wide.

Just as Siddhartha had had the rug pulled out from under his world when he encountered sickness, old age and death, Mahaprajapati suffered loss after loss which constantly reminded her of her helplessness before the power of king and cosmos. Her son Siddhartha was gone on his quest. And now her husband the King had died. Whether there was any affection in their relationship or not, I suspect Mahaprajapati lost a sense of belonging as the relationships that defined her life disappeared. Who am I, what am I doing, where do I belong? Such questions appear in the grieving heart. Now a widow and free of immediate duties to the realm, Mahaprajapati journeyed—some say she went on foot, barefoot, with hundreds of other women, for 350 miles—to find the son she raised, the leader who spoke of awakening.

When she located him, she requested that women be allowed to become renunciates in his order. After many refusals, he finally agreed to allow women to enter the sangha if they accepted eight additional rules. These were:

  • A nun must always pay respect to monks (even the most junior)
  • A nun must spend the rainy season in retreat where monks are staying
  • Nuns must ask monks to give them official teachings twice a month
  • Nuns must perform the end of rainy season ceremony in front of nuns and monks
  • Serious breaches of the rules must be dealt with by monks and nuns
  • Once a trainee has completed her training, she must ask both the monks and nuns for ordination
  • Nuns are not to abuse monks
  • Monks may criticize nuns (regarding disciplinary matters), but nuns may not criticize monks.

Though these rules are sexist, that was not unexpected, and given her lifelong training in acquiescence to tradition, Mahaprajapati agreed. In doing so, she may have felt like Macbeth when he learned his wife had just died on the eve of  a battle he expected to lose. Devastated, he rants:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. (Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5 scene 5)

Sort of an Elizabethan form of, “What ev-er.”

But Mahaprajapati saw that the eight additional rules for women were the price of contact with teachings that promised liberation, the price of inquiry into why things are as they are: unfair, unsatisfactory, and impermanent—and how to get unstuck from suffering.

She received teaching from her son outlining the Four Noble Truths, and he gave her a subject for meditation. She practiced focused contemplation on this subject diligently and reached awakening. We don’t know what instructions the Buddha gave her, or what the subject for meditation was, but the simple sequence of these events is significant: loss and grief, a massive infusion of uncertainty, the notion that there is a way out, contact with an awakened guide and intense focus—driven by desperation—on meditation. Awakening, transformation ensues. Nothing is gained or achieved. There is simply a turning inside out, or I should say, outside-in, manifesting what is already there: waking up. Everything changes and nothing has changed.

Like the Philosopher’s Stone koan work transforms the ordinary. Not by changing lead to gold—but by changing the whole world of subject and object into the whole world as perceiving without a perceiver. Dogen says, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”

Though by their nature koans can produce massive uncertainty and some of the disorientation of grief, in my opinion having large losses or fear of impending loss in addition, really helps move the koan process along. Hakuin Zenji began his search as a child after hearing a fire-and-brimstone preacher graphically describe the various hells that were in store for him; Dogen entered the search following his mother’s death when he was 7. . .

In esoteric alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone is said to be made of materia prima or first matter, the formless base of all matter, comparable to the anima mundi, or world soul, an intrinsic connection between all living things. We would call it Buddha-nature, as in the dedication that says, “Buddha-nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here now…” or “There is a reality, even prior to heaven and earth…”  Buddha nature even questions or transforms our notions of living and non-living, as in the dedication verse that says, “The Buddha and his teachers and his many sons and daughters turn the Dharma wheel to show the wisdom of the stones and clouds.”


Yasutani Roshi defined Buddha-nature in terms of the emptiness and impermanence of all dharmas:

Everything by its very nature is subject to the process of infinite transformation – this is its Buddha- or Dharma-nature. What is the substance of this Buddha- or Dharma-nature? …ku or shunyata, which is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality or personality—the matrix of all phenomena.  (Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen, p. 74. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967)

This materia prima, the formless base of all matter, matrix of all phenomena… where is it? Can you put your finger on it? I say you can’t not put your finger on it! Try it now: put your finger on the cushion or touch the floor or your knee. Right here is the materia prima, the formless base of all matter, matrix of all phenomena, emptiness itself which is not merely a vacuum but the living moment of manifestation. You are essential to this moment, you are touching-the-cushion, cushion-being-touched. Thus myriad things come forth and experience themselves.

Koan after koan explores this very nonduality and helps us practice a new stance where we and the world are one verb (perceiving or appearing—maybe manifesting would be a better term) instead of multiple nouns…  Changing our experience of who or what the seeker is transforms each ordinary thing—rather different from changing one objective material (lead or mercury or stone) into another (gold), and even more astonishing:

Subject and object are no longer distinct and separate: this changes the whole world, each and every bit of it. And yet not a thing is changed: The robin sings from the branch in your heart; the cherry tree stands up and moves out in kinhin; the waters of the Sound enter and wash through you. Or as Shih Shuang said, “Towering waves sweep near and far, their foam flooding the heavens.” (BCR case 55) This exhilarating dropping away of body and mind does not exclude the horrible, the unfair, the tragic side of experience—losses, addictions, afflictions of all kinds, pain and the death of innocent creatures. Because of that we vow to save all beings, to intensify our work here driven by our own desperation… always remembering the Buddha’s words on seeing the morning star:

How strange! All the many beings are endowed with the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata, yet simply because of their delusions and preoccupations, they cannot bear witness to their endowment. [Aitken, Morning Star, p. 6]

What Changes?

Inseparable from the morning light,
the cat’s soft approach,
a dark sense of loss,
this breath going out;

Alluring, it draws us in,
draws us on . . .

a turning toward that is also
turning away.

Oh! I must . . . my love –
that faint glow – that way . . .

So the worm finds a tasty fallen leaf
and the sky-blue, the coruscating opal –
captures the eye.

In each moment, a sense of where to go;
new, varied and complete—

this is the ordinary:
shifting, shining.

–Sunday, 3/6/16