Motherhood Is More Than a Metaphor

Sarah Jacoby examines how even though mothering has been held up in Buddhist teachings as a model of compassion, actual mothering has never gotten much respect. 

By Sarah Jacoby

Allie Morrison/Flickr

One summer a few years ago, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist master came through my city on a teaching tour. Several months before this Rinpoche arrived, I saw the announcement and began making plans to attend. I started early because the teaching lasted an entire weekend, and I didn’t have anyone to help me with childcare. I was parenting alone that year—my husband and I were teaching at two different universities very far away from each other—and paying for weekend childcare to attend a (rather expensive) dharma teaching was not an option, since at that time I was spending nearly half of my income on weekday childcare just to be able to work business hours.

Well ahead, I contacted the Buddhist center, asking, “Perhaps there are other parents also trying to attend the teaching? Perhaps we could band together and take turns watching our children, each parent getting a chance to attend a portion of the teaching?”

Motherhood can be the ideal practicing ground for working with anger, nurturing compassion, and coming to terms with impermanence, pain, and grief.

Much to my surprise, the local director of the dharma center forwarded my question directly to the visiting Rinpoche, and this was the response: “Rinpoche would like people to bring children to the program. It is important for children to be present in the shrine room to hear the dharma, no matter what age they are, and for all of us to not worry if there is noise. This is the atmosphere Rinpoche wishes to have during the teachings, and nuns will be available to help if the kids get restless during the program.”

This reply sent me into a quandary, full of contradictory thoughts: “Do they know one of my children is a toddler, and the other a six-year-old? Do they know what toddlers sound like when they are bored for a few minutes, let alone sitting in an all-day religious teaching? That can’t possibly work! And yet…”

Despite a feeling in my bones that it was a terrible idea, I showed up that Saturday morning, wheeling in my stroller, packed with snacks and toys, to the very back of the shrine room, and seated my six-year-old next to me. Rinpoche arrived. Everyone stood up and prostrated; the air of the crowded room was razor-charged with excitement, pin-drop silent, as we waited for the teachings to begin.

Except for my toddler. He was whining, not even very loud; for him, it was low-level frustration. The shift from everyone standing up to sitting in silence had startled him, and he was enjoying filling the quietness with the sound of his own voice. A few silver-haired attendees turned around and peered at us, draped in expensive-looking shawls. Rinpoche began speaking. More heads turned backward toward us. Smiles faded into stern looks. These people had traveled, in some cases, from out of state to be present for this important teaching, and had paid hundreds of dollars for the opportunity. Perhaps some of them had also spent decades child-rearing and now could finally enjoy newfound opportunities to hear the dharma. Rinpoche kept speaking, and my toddler kept softly whining. The nuns I had been told would be happy to help remained firmly planted on floor cushions flanking Rinpoche’s throne. Rinpoche calmly continued. More gray-haired heads whipped around, glaring at me, now angry. Not five minutes into the teaching, I left, children in tow.

What had gone wrong? The Rinpoche who had invited us into that situation had meant well, and later that weekend even made a point of calling my children back in and warmly offered them a special blessing. But my hopes of banding together with other parents and finding a way to balance attending the dharma teaching with looking after each other’s children fell apart completely; there were very few parents of young children there, and no other children. This despite the fact that the surrounding city is filled with young families. Why was this sangha so much older and more childless than its neighborhood? Why didn’t they try to include families in their sangha, as a way to give new generations access to the dharma they valued so highly?

Motherhood as Metaphor

My story can be understood as a modern version of a very old tension within Buddhism: on one hand, the theory of motherhood as an exalted expression of compassionate love, and on the other, the practice of motherhood as an obstacle to pursuing the Buddhist path. Euro-American Buddhist devotees have absorbed this tension and amplified elements that idealize the theory of mothering over its practice, but it is important to remember that this is not the only message available within the Buddhist tradition. Historical and contemporary women practicing within Buddhist traditions present us with richly inclusive, varied, and transcendent visions of motherhood. The more we consider how to follow in their footsteps, the sooner we will realize that childcare and family-oriented Buddhist instruction are not special interest add-ons, but fundamental aspects of the transmission of Buddhism to future generations.

Motherhood provides the Buddhist tradition with its paramount metaphor for how we should treat one another: we should love all beings as if they were our mothers, and we should mother each being as if she were our only child. Of course, from a Buddhist perspective, this is more than a metaphor, since all sentient beings are said to have been reborn as our mother at one point in beginningless time. Variations on this theme pervade millennia of Buddhist texts, going back to the discourses of the Buddha in the Pali canon. An often-cited scriptural passage comes from the Karaniyametta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving-Kindness”):

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.

In Mahayana and Vajrayana texts as well, the mother metaphor endures in its poignancy to express the intensity of loving compassion we should feel for one another, even as it takes on new forms such as Prajnaparamita, who is described as “the mother of the buddhas.” Known in Tibetan as the Great Mother, this enlightened female embodiment of the perfection of wisdom has served as a lodestar for millennia of dharma practitioners, many among them female. For instance, when the early twentieth-century Tibetan visionary Sera Khandro Dewe Dorje encountered obstacles on her spiritual path, her teacher Gara Terchen reassured her, “This body you have is that of a great female bodhisattva, a mother who gives birth to all the buddhas.” When expressed in this Prajnaparamita-infused language, the liberating potential of the female form becomes indisputable.

As Buddhism continues its age-old process of adaptation, now into European and American spaces, new forms of the Buddhist mother metaphor are emerging. In the last twenty years, popular anglophone Buddhist-inspired writings have extended the mother metaphor into an experiential model, presenting motherhood itself as a form of spiritual cultivation. This ever-increasing collection of books explores the rich ways in which experiences of motherhood and the relationship between mother and child can be the ideal practicing ground for cultivating selflessness, working with anger, nurturing compassion, and coming to terms with impermanence, pain, and grief.

Many readers of this modern library on Buddhist mothering may be surprised to learn that despite the ubiquity of mother metaphors, no comparable conception of motherhood as a modality of Buddhist practice can be found in canonical Buddhist scriptures or in noncanonical Buddhist narratives prior to the latter half of the twentieth century. In earlier Asian Buddhist contexts, there remains a deep chasm between the universalized Buddhist call to love all beings as if they were our mothers, and the intensely particular experience of actual mothering. Whereas universalized mother love is valorized pervasively in Buddhist texts, actual embodied motherhood is more often presented as an obstacle filled with suffering than a path to spiritual liberation. This chasm is deeply gendered, for the majority of those who are recognized for cultivating universal love for all sentient beings are male religious specialists, and the majority of those who have mothered flesh-and-blood children are female householders.

In her thought-provoking book on mother symbolism in early Indian Buddhism, Ties That Bind, Reiko Ohnuma concludes that “It seems fairly obvious that the failure to envision the practice of mothering as a form of spiritual cultivation stems from the simple fact that mothering is performed by women, and women, on the whole, have lacked a significant voice in traditional Buddhism.” Though women’s voices are hard to find in Buddhist canonical sources, in Tibet there are many oral and written stories about women who both mothered children and became advanced Buddhist practitioners. Perhaps the most renowned of them all is the eleventh-century yogini Machik Lapdrön, who became a mother of children as well as her own Buddhist lineage of severance (chöd). But the Tibetan Buddhist mother who wrote far and away the most about the story of her spiritual liberation is Sera Khandro (who, not incidentally, is sometimes referred to in Tibet as “the second Machik”). In her writings, Sera Khandro described life as an upper-class girl in turn-of-the-century Lhasa, as well as what happened after she decided to renounce it all in pursuit of her aspiration to practice Dzogchen teachings. With that in mind, she joined a group of pilgrims headed by Drime Özer, son of Dudjom Lingpa, who were touring central Tibet and then heading back to their homeland in the alpine pasturelands of Dartsang, Golok. Sera Khandro spent the rest of her life in Golok, eventually becoming a renowned treasure revealer (tertön), lama, and tantric consort (sangyum), as well as a mother.

As in other Tibetan Buddhist accounts of liberation, Buddhist mother metaphors recur in Sera Khandro’s writing, such as her paradigmatic presentation of all beings as “mother sentient beings.” She also uses maternal metaphors extensively to describe her relationship to the myriad enlightened female figures, or dakinis, who appear in her visions as sources of female power, wisdom, and encouragement. The dakinis lavished motherly love on Sera Khandro, but not without a good dose of motherly discipline when they perceived that Sera Khandro was straying from her spiritual path. In one such moment, Sera Khandro reports that a terrifying woman appeared before her brandishing a dagger in her right hand and a glowing red lasso in her left, cackling,

Ha, ha, he, he, From the time you were young until now, I have lovingly raised you as if you were my only child. Now based on some trifling circumstance, what is the meaning of you abandoning your intention to awaken for the benefit of others and indulging in the illusory mentality of selfishness?

If dakinis are mothers, their love not only nurtures but also breathes fire in the form of wrathful, tough love when that is what the situation demands.

But for all the ways that mother metaphors in Sera Khandro’s autobiography encapsulate the value of sentient beings (and those in female form in particular), and for all the ways that mother love vitalizes her interactions with enlightened presences, she says little about her own experiences with mothering. For Sera Khandro, motherhood was not a form of spiritual cultivation—never does she suggest that having children made her a better Buddhist, or that pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing helped her to cultivate selflessness and compassion. Instead, when we hear from Sera Khandro about mothering at all, we hear of how taking care of her children hindered her ability to reveal treasures, and how intensely she grieved for her stillborn infant and for her son Gyurme Dorje, who passed away during an epidemic at age five, leaving only her daughter to survive until adulthood.

Motherhood in Theory and Practice

There is a big difference between the way Sera Khandro describes her experiences with childbirth and motherhood, and the way that recent anglophone books present motherhood as a vehicle to accomplishing the Buddhist path. One might even interpret this shift—from Sera Khandro’s perfunctory and painful presentation of motherhood to contemporary presentations of motherhood as a valuable form of Buddhist practice—as a feminist progression from a more male-supremacist Tibetan past to a more egalitarian anglophone present. But I don’t see it that way, in spite of the ample hardships and unstated joys and insights associated with motherhood in Tibetan texts, and in spite of all the English-language self-help books about how to mother peacefully and compassionately like a good Buddhist. I don’t see it that way because many dharma centers in the United States (and elsewhere outside of the Tibetan cultural sphere) are importing the age-old Buddhist divide between valorizing as if mothering and denigrating actual mothering even more stringently than the Tibetan contexts from which their Buddhist lineages derive.

I can think of many examples of this (perhaps you can too), but the story I began this essay with sticks in my mind. One way to make sense of such experiences is to notice that the implied subject of many Buddhist convert-oriented dharma centers is an individual—most often a wealthy white one, seeking refuge from the fray of modern secular life, replete with its distractions, competition, and materialism. There is little place for families, or intergenerational exchange more broadly, in silent, meditation-heavy Buddhist spaces.

This is not the case for all American dharma centers—there are many thriving intergenerational Buddhist communities in the US. One example is the Midwest Buddhist Temple, a Jodo Shinshu temple founded by Japanese Americans who resettled in Chicago following their incarceration in internment camps during World War II. Their Dharma School for Children is an excellent model that more American Buddhist communities should emulate. Not only Pure Land Buddhists, but also Buddhists in contemporary Tibet and its diaspora find ways to bring family into Buddhist ritual domains. In Tibetan spaces, public Buddhist rituals are routinely populated by families with children acting like normal kids—laughing, talking, eating, and playing—whereas anglophone Buddhists very often expect perfect silence during dharma teachings and meditation sessions, rendering children unwelcome.

Some Tibetan Buddhist teachers are beginning to notice the absence of child-inclusive English-language dharma teachings. For example, the website affiliated with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Middle Way Education, is one such positive development. Outside of Tibetan Buddhist centers as well, forward-thinking Buddhist organizations such as Spirit Rock and Plum Village include family-oriented programming and publications. But still, childcare in any form—whether delivering age-appropriate Buddhist instruction or just coverage so parents can take part in Buddhist activities—is rarely provided in North American dharma centers that cater to convert Buddhists, requiring families to split up or forgo participating in events and practice sessions.

There is no better way to realize this body’s interdependent nature than to feel another being hiccup inside of you.

The problem is that childcare is often perceived as a laborious and costly demand for a service, when it could be seen as an essential part of Buddhist transmission that will enable today’s fledgling convert Buddhist communities to make a bigger contribution to tomorrow’s American Buddhist heritage. The devoted gray-haired disciples who listened so intently to that Tibetan Rinpoche’s weekend teaching that I so wanted to hear? Fifty years from now, they will all be gone. If we are not also ushering our children into Buddhist sanghas, the rapid global expansion and institutional networks many inspirational Buddhist teachers built in the last half-century will collapse.

Motherhood is a rich metaphor and embodied experience that aligns with Buddhist principles of compassion, interdependence, selflessness, and love. There is no better way to realize this body’s interdependent nature than to feel another being hiccup inside of you, no better way to understand that your needs are not the center of the world than being woken up all night long by a crying child, or to be unable to find the time to even go to the bathroom alone.

There is no better practice of patience than trying to work full-time while also homeschooling isolated young children who cannot play with their friends or attend school because of the pandemic. I can vouch for how quickly one’s facade of calmness breaks down into frustration, anxiety, and rage as these dark days stretch on in an exhausting blur of trying to stay healthy and tend to children’s learning and social needs, all while maintaining some semblance of professional accountability. People in intensive caregiving roles also need space to take a break, disentangle from outwardly focused priorities, and cultivate formal Buddhist practice.

Now, in this time of global pandemic, community practice of any variety, let alone with childcare, seems like a luxury. But the pandemic pause that descended upon the rhythm of all of our lives can give us the chance to reconsider what Buddhist community should look like. Is there a way to reimagine convert Buddhist sangha in the US so that it can be more inclusive of those who don’t fit the American default white, cisgender, middle-class, able individual? Is there a better way to include people who inhabit the spaces outside of that norm, including low-income people, children, people of color, transgender people, people with disabilities, and others? Is there a way to provide affordable Buddhist retreat opportunities for caregivers that include children in the retreat, so that we do not have to neglect either the goal of cultivating the capacity to love all beings as if they were our mothers, or the specific beings we are actually mothering?

Honoring the Vast Multitude of Mothers

When I think of my story of the Tibetan Rinpoche welcoming my children and the disapproval of the predominantly white sangha, a cliché comes to mind: there is no need to be more Catholic than the Pope, no need to be more Buddhist than one’s Rinpoche. As Americans new to dharma unwittingly superimpose their own cultural norms onto the Buddhist teachings, it is important to heed the expansive visions of motherhood presented by historical and contemporary women practicing within Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

Tibetan nuns from the largest Buddhist nunnery in eastern Tibet, Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, have recently published a massive Tibetan-language anthology of writings by and about Buddhist women. The first sentence of the preface to this fifty-three-volume anthology, titled the Dakinis’ Great Dharma Treasury, reads:

In general, it goes without saying that the ones who bestow the precious vitality of life to the people of the world, who rear them lovingly and give them the sweet glow of nourishment, are the vast multitude of mothers.

The Tibetan I translate here as “vast multitude of mothers” is multivalent, conveying vastness (rlabs che ba) by a word that means “great wave,” “very powerful,” and “very effective.” The vast multitude of mothers invoked by the Larung Gar nuns includes not just biological or adoptive mothers, but also spiritual mothers who birthed no children. The bestowers of life and nourishment are the women who have practiced and passed down the Buddhist teachings from the time of the Buddha’s mother through the generations up to the present day. There is much left for us to discover about the courage and strength of this history of accomplished Buddhist women, only a fraction of whose stories have yet been translated into English.

It seems fitting, then, to close this reflection on motherhood in its myriad dimensions with the prayer that one mother yogini, Sera Khandro Dewe Dorje, made to her foremother, Machik Lapdrön, as a part of her chöd liturgy:

Embodiment of the lineage, Mother Lapdrönma,
I supplicate to you—having ripened and liberated my mind stream,
bless me with the realization of selfless insight.
Bless me that I may cut the bond of ego-grasping.
Bless me that I may be able to experience the taste of happiness and sorrow as equal.
Bless me that within the magical display of my mind in which gods and demons
are nondual,
I may succeed at benefitting beings without bias.
Bless me that I may be able to transform this illusory heap, this body deluded by ego-
into a selfless one.
May the demonic forces of superficial, deluded, dualistic grasping
be fully liberated by means of great emptiness and compassion.
In the clear light expanse of the ultimate realization of the Buddhas,
may I encounter my true face—uncontrived, innate natural awareness—and
may I quickly attain the state of the Great Mother. 

All quotations from Tibetan sources are from Sarah Jacoby’s own translations, drawn from Sera Khandro’s Collected Works and the 53-volume anthology compiled by the Larung Gar nuns, Dakinis’ Great Dharma Treasury. For more detail about Sera Khandro’s accounts of motherhood and spiritual practice, see her 2021 article “Tibetan Buddhist Metaphors and Models of Motherhood” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and her book Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia, 2014).

Sarah Jacoby

Sarah Jacoby

Sarah H. Jacoby is an associate professor in the religious studies department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she specializes in Tibetan Buddhism. Her research interests include Buddhist revelation, gender and sexuality, the history of emotions, and the history of eastern Tibet. She is the author of Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro.