A Vast and Mysterious Reality

Walking in the footsteps of the first Buddhist women

I felt in need of a great pilgrimage so I sat still for three days.

—Hafiz

These days, I would say that life itself is my teacher.

—Tracy Cochran

On the first night of our pilgrimage, my fellow pilgrims and I sat around a big table in a dining room at the Lotus Gems Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal. The hotel is located in a district encircling the vast Buddhanath Stupa, which is said to hold the remains of Kassapa Buddha, who is believed to have lived for thousands of years long before Sakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of our age. He is the twenty-seventh of twenty-nine named Buddhas.

Day and night, Buddhist pilgrims circumambulate the huge mandala stupa, saying mantras and prayers, turning prayer wheels. Monasteries and guest houses like the Lotus Gem ring the stupa, which is located on an ancient trade route from Tibet. 

We fell asleep and woke to the sound of bells and drums and chanting. Time feels different here. Reality feels different here, deeper. The giant eyes painted on the four sides of the stupa tower are all-seeing Buddha eyes. We were reminded that there is not just one Buddha but twenty-nine named Buddhas, and the twenty-ninth, Matraiya, has not yet come. Time is circular here, days and eras arise and pass away. Reality is vast and mysterious. 

In this place, and in this particular company, saying that life is my teacher seemed small and irreverent. Most of the pilgrims at the table were Tibetan Buddhist nuns or serious practitioners, including independent scholar Wendy Garling, author of The Woman Who Raised the Buddha, our guide on this historic pilgrimage. 

The other women (and one man) named their principal spiritual teachers, representatives of ancient Tibetan Buddhist lineages. These lamas and rinpoches were empowered to impart esoteric practices and teachings that opened their students’ hearts and minds, greatly expanding their sense of reality. How could the insights that come from the ten-thousand joys and sorrows of ordinary life as mother, wife, friend, seeker possibly compare?

Claiming that life is my teacher also sounded stark and strange in this gathering because we were embarking on a historic pilgrimage—the first time Buddhist pilgrims set out to retrace the steps of Mahaprajapati Gautami, who raised the Buddha after his mother, Maya, her sister and co-wife, died a few days after giving birth. This great queen led five hundred women on foot hundreds of miles through dangerous terrain, leaving ordinary domestic life to seek the Buddha and a new reality. 

The nuns and practitioners at this table revered Mahaprajapati as a trailblazer and ancestor, opening the door for women in the Buddhist community to experience full acceptance into the monastic community. 

Among the teachers named at the table was a woman who was still carrying on the work of training and educating young nuns and seeking their full ordination. At the end of dinner at the Lotus Gems, we learned that she was flying from a hospital in Delhi to join us later that night. 

“I’m happy to announce that Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is on her way,” Garling announced, looking radiant and relieved. “She was having tests in the hospital but she is feeling better and is determined to join us. For those of you who don’t know her, this should give you a sense of what she is like.” 

Born in England in 1943, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is a bhikkuni, or fully ordained nun, in the Drukpa lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The author of The Heroic Heart and other books, she is also a deeply accomplished yogini and the founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. 

Everyone at the table in the Lotus Gem, but especially the dozen nuns from that nunnery, looked radiant and relieved at this news. Young women from Himalayan countries, they were on this pilgrimage for inspiration, invited by Garling with Jetsunma’s hearty approval. 

“We always call her Jetsunma,” a young nun said to me. In 2008, she explained, the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa gave her teacher this rare title, which means reverend master (or lady master).

In 1964, Jetsunma became only the second Western woman to be ordained in the Vajrayana tradition, receiving the name Drubgyu Tenzin Palmo, or “Glorious Lady who Upholds the Doctrine of the Practice Succession.” But after spending six years as the sole nun among one-hundred monks in a monastery, she left. 

Banned from fully participating in monastic practice due to her “inferior rebirth” as a woman, she made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female form, no matter how many lifetimes it took. With her teacher Khamtrul Rinpoche’s blessing, she spent the next twelve years in a cave in the remote Indian Himalayas. She read Tibetan texts and undertook ancient yogic practices. Following strict protocol, she didn’t lay down, sleeping for three hours a night sitting up in meditation posture in a wooden box. The last three years were spent in complete isolation.  

She loved it. Freed from all distractions, her meditation became deeper and deeper. She saw the nature of mind. By all accounts, she emerged from that long retreat friendly and free. She saw a reality few of us see.

In the face of this example, I couldn’t begin to imagine the determination of Mahaprajapati and the five-hundred women. I pictured them hacking their way through dense jungle, barefoot and bleeding, encountering elephants and tigers, braving hardship and death.

What could I experience of their reality in a two-week trip? Pilgrims go where others have gone before. We would retrace their great journey, visiting sacred sites not often visited by Westerners but known to other pilgrims since ancient times. At every stop Garling, and often Jetsunma, would tell us stories of great events that happened over 2,500 years ago. 

A pilgrim is not a trailblazer but also not merely a tourist. We travel wishing to remember. We seek to feel a connection with a deeper reality. 

In the days ahead, I would learn that we are all born pilgrims.

The next morning, we flew to Lumbini, in southern Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. By late afternoon, we were at the Mayadevi Temple, the site of the Buddha’s birth. Sunset deepened as we filed through the shadowy temple with Buddhist pilgrims of every sect—Theravada, Zen, Tibetan Buddhist. We slowly circled what was believed to be the exact site in the Lumbini grove where Queen Maya, supported by her sister Mahaprajapati and a sacred Sala tree, gave birth to the boy who would Wake Up. But it was emerging into darkness in the Sacred Garden Area that reminded me why I came. In every direction there were people sitting on the ground, chanting, praying, and meditating by candlelight and firelight. 

“This could be thousands of years ago,” my friend said to me. I nodded, thinking it might even be hundreds of thousands.

We sat on the ground encircling a mandala of lit candles. In the distance near the temple stood the pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka marking this holy place. A great convert and patron of Buddhism, Ashoka ruled the Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 BCE, spreading this new way throughout his kingdom.

We sat surrounded by other circles of pilgrims, representatives of every Buddhist sect and many countries. The scene felt ancient, a mutual remembering. One heart, one mind, one body, one dharma.

The next day we traveled by bus to the Devadaha region, where we visited the Buddha’s maternal homeland, including the Rohini River, and the Ramagrama stupa, where one eighth of his ashes are buried. 

Stupa is a Sanskrit word meaning heap. The Ramagrama Stupa in Lumbini really looks like a mound that is part of the earth. As his death approached, the Buddha asked that his cremated remains be divided among eight stupas but only the portion buried here in his maternal homeland remains untouched. 

According to legend, King Ashoka sought to break open this stupa as he did the others, seeking to redistribute the precious ashes farther and wider across the kingdom. But this place was protected by  great naga or serpent king. This serpent protector appeared to King Ashoka in a dream, warning him to leave this stupa undisturbed. He did.

A great tree grows from the top of the stupa. Draped in prayer flags, it is actually four trees intertwined, embodying the Buddha’s teaching about emptiness as interdependence or mutual belonging. 

There were few people at the stupa when we arrived. As the other pilgrims in our group circumambulated or sat in meditation, I sat apart. After a time, I kicked off my sandals and walked through the cool grass with bare feet, walking on the Buddha’s grave. I hugged the great four-in-one tree. 

I started out on this pilgrimage reminding myself that I wasn’t going to be time traveling. The land is different now. Mahaprajapati and the five-hundred women would have been hacking their way through dense jungle, braving tigers. The climate has changed, and so have cultural expectations and possibilities. 

Yet as I stood there barefoot, I remembered that we humans are capable of experiencing a reality that is ancient and timeless. This extraordinary entwined tree itself conveyed the interdependence and mutual belonging that is the true meaning of no-self.

 Later, Garling shared that the tree seemed to be a symbol of the four-fold sangha that the Buddha envisioned, including lay and monastic communities, all genders and walks of life. Garling compared its embrace to a mother’s all-embracing love, adding, “and we are part of that belonging now, rooted in it, wherever we are.”

At times that sense of belonging felt uncanny. In the ancient city of Kapialvastu, we visited the archeological site marking the palace grounds where Prince Siddhartha lived until he left home at age twenty-nine. Defying all fact and reason, my body seemed to know this place on a cellular level, resonating with some vibration. Gravity felt strange. It was as if energy was surging up from the earth, meeting each step I took. I felt as if I knew this place. But stranger still, I felt as if it knew me. 

“Did you feel a power coming up from the earth?” I asked Garling at dinner that night. “I felt like it knew I was walking there.”

“You’re talking to the right person,” she said. “I do think the earth remembers what happens.” 

The pilgrimage Garling planned was unique from other Buddhist pilgrimages not just because it emphasized the women in the Buddha’s life, but because the sites we visited and the stories she told honored the earth, sacred trees, rivers, gardens, ponds, including a pond that is said to have sacred waters where the Buddha as young Siddhartha and his family swam and bathed. We walked around this pond, watching for cobras, mindful that he may have done the same. 

This pond was said to have been a gift to the Buddha’s maternal family from the Devas and to be protected by them. I was touched by how fresh and healthy it looked. Nature communicates a living truth that monuments cannot.

“Do you feel a special power on the palace grounds?” I asked Jetsunma. “Well of course,” she said, fixing me with a bright blue gaze. “Think of all the people who have come here with reverence and love. This can be felt.”

 What did that power that I experienced mean? Was it necessary to “agree” with the concept of rebirth? Something paradoxical happens when we travel, especially on this pilgrimage: it dethroned me from the center of the story. I was part of a greater landscape and a greater story. Even before my thinking decided what it believed, my body and heart knew. 

This place invited me to remember the momentousness of what happened here. The Buddha walked here. Siddhartha was loved and raised here, and he left through the Eastern Gate. I walked through that gate, imagining him leaving in the dark of night and all that followed. I felt that strange pull of gravity, wondering if the extraordinary reality of this place was opening a deeper reality inside me.  

A short walk from the palace grounds stood the graves of the Buddha’s parents, Queen Maya and King Suddodhana. They are not great monuments like Ashoka’s pillar, and the scale of them brought home the reality that this was a family compound, grand in its time but still human. A little ways away on a hill covered in brambles is the grave of Kanthaka, the white horse who carried Siddhartha away and came home again without him. 

Walking down a dusty road with the other pilgrims, surrounded by local children, it registered that the Buddha’s compassion and his search grew out of his real life on this land. It was here that he experienced maternal love. It was just beyond the family compound that he saw the sights that led him to find a way out of suffering. We wake up not in spite of our bodies, hearts, minds, families, loved ones, but through them.

Five years before their great journey, Gautami (Mahaprajapati) and the five-hundred women walked from the Eastern Gate to Nigroda Grove, a banyan grove where the Buddha stayed when he visited home nine years after leaving to seek enlightenment. His mother and the other women sought permission to attend the teachings he offered, which the male members of the community, including their spouses, wanted him to refuse. This he granted. 

According to legend, all of the women who listened to his teachings achieved that glimpse of ultimate reality that in Buddhism is called “stream entry.” Five years later, the women made that same walk to Nigroda Grove, this time seeking permission to enter the monastic sangha. The Buddha refused. He told the women to wear white and shave their heads, living and practicing like nuns while staying home. 

The Buddha’s refusal to admit the women, including his mother, is the subject of much discussion and debate, including on this pilgrimage. Their husbands were gone, either following the Buddha or in the case of Mahaprajapati, dead. Could an enlightened being be misogynistic?

“I think he meant ‘not now,’” said Jetsunma, explaining that in his wisdom and compassion the Buddha didn’t want women taking vows of homelessness and wandering around unprotected. But the women wouldn’t take no for an answer.

 “Why didn’t Mahaprajapati and the women do as the Buddha recommended?” I asked Jetsunma. “Why didn’t they wear white and stay home and meditate?”

Don’t we have all the conditions we need in ordinary life? I had read that Jetsunma encouraged people to see this—to see that we have human bodies and minds, that we are the teachings and teachers and aspiration. Why was this insight insufficient for this group? 

“Think of the karma!” she said with spirit. “You have to consider the lifetimes of effort that went into this.”

In Nigroda Grove, the night before we left Nepal for India, retracing the long final journey of Mahaprajapati and the five-hundred women, we modern pilgrims gathered together by candlelight. Garling told the story of their arduous journey, reminding us that much remains a mystery. How many were lost? How did these well-born women survive in the wild? 

Dressed in white like those ancient women, I tried to imagine the determination that drove them. Jetsunma reminded me that they were determined not in the sense of an emotion or an act of will but in the root sense of an inevitable result. Innumerable causes and conditions led them to become the first Buddhist nuns. 

The fourteen-hour bus ride that followed was a meditation on impermanence. Crossing a border that didn’t exist in the time of the Buddha, bouncing over rough roads, horn blaring to move water buffalo and warn pedestrians, we made our way through a landscape that was much changed. 

“Those women would have been hacking their way through dense jungle, facing elephants and tigers,” said Jetsunma. 

We drove through farmland and tiny villages, hazy in the smoky season. Everything is always changing, I realized. I had changed from the beginning of the pilgrimage, flying here carrying my little vessel of doubt and hope about what I would find. 

The end of our formal pilgrimage came in Vaishali, India. Here Gautami and the five-hundred women met the Buddha and received ordination. This sacred site, now farmland, is marked by yet another great tree. We walked in single file as close to the tree as we could, but the land was flooded. 

We were accompanied to our final destination by kindly local people; two boys bailed a canoe, offering to ferry us to the tree. But we stopped nearby and heard stories of the women arriving barefoot, dirty, and ragged, of Ananda’s compassionate intervention, of acceptance into the monastic sangha at last. We learned that this site was also where Gautami and the five-hundred women returned to ask the Buddha’s permission to leave this life. 

I wondered if the local people who walked with us and sat listening to the stories were descendants of the people who lived here in the time of the Buddha and the great queen who raised him and the five-hundred women. Everything and everyone is constantly changing-cultures, conditions, the earth itself. And yet there are constants, I realized. We humans are born with hearts and minds and bodies that are capable of opening to a reality that is far greater than we know. ◆

This piece is excerpted from the Summer 2024 issue of Parabola, REALITY. You can find the full issue on our online store.

By Tracy Cochran

Tracy Cochran is editorial director of Parabola. For more information, please visit tracycochran.org.