By John Malkin, Interview with Gabriel Constans, Source: Free Radio Santa Cruz, July 29, 2009, Published on the Buddhist Channel, Nov 5, 2009
Buddha’s Wife by Gabriel Constans
Robert D. Reed Publishers
Soft cover, 192 pages, $14.94
Publication Date: August 24, 2009
"This book is an awesome read, insightful, woman loving - a challenge to all spiritual seekers to rethink, re-vise, and dream anew". - Bell Hooks, author
JM: I’m so happy to read Buddha’s Wife – a story that is alluded to in a lot of Buddhist books and Buddhist teachings. It is sometimes mentioned that Siddhartha left his wife and son and then usually not much more is explained. Your book takes off from that point. Buddha’s Wife is a fictional story based somewhat on historical facts. How did you come to write this in the first place?
Gabriel: When I was sixteen I became a Buddhist at a monastery at Mount Shasta Abbey. There was a woman who was the abbot there, named Jiyu Kennet. She was one of the first woman priests ordained in Japan in the Soto Zen tradition. Ever since then I always remember hearing about the Buddha leaving his family.
About twenty years ago I was visiting a friend in Sweden and he was reading a book called Mary Magdalene, which is a fictional book about the life of Mary based on a lot of historical scholarly information that her life was very different than portrayed in modern texts and what life was like from her point of view. For some reason I remembered all of this and I said, “Wasn’t Buddha married?”
It dawned on me that I didn’t know anything about his wife, his family and as you said, I had also read lots of books and stuff on Buddha for many years and I vaguely remembered that he had been married and he’d left them one night to seek enlightenment. Everybody focuses on him seeking enlightenment and teaching for over forty years; the dharma and the truth and all that brought. But nobody said anything about his wife and her life. I thought, “I want to find out more about her.”
When I came back to the States I started looking and doing research to find out about her. At the time there was no internet, about twenty years ago, so I went to Stanford and Berkeley libraries and found any text I could. I only found a few lines written about her from some Pali texts that were translated into English. All it said was that she was the daughter of so and so and he was the son of so and so, both of their parents were kings, they were married when she was nineteen and he left them both in the middle of the night after there only child was born, named Rahula, which means “a hindrance” or “to hold back.” I think that’s interesting. That’s about all that was mentioned. I thought, “My gosh, that must have been upsetting! This would be a fascinating book to write from her perspective.” I wanted to write about what life was like for her.” Over the years I formulated the story and found a lot of historical fact – as much as I could – about their family members and how they did react that’s been passed on in oral traditions and stories for many years.
JM: You’ve been giving book talks. How is the story being received?
Gabriel: I just got back from Toronto where I was at a large Indian festival; Masala! Masti! Mehndi! It was exciting. A lot of folks from south Asia were very interested in the story.
JM: There’s a lot of different people who are interested in Buddhism and who identify themselves as Buddhist and who might have a variety of ways of viewing how you’re writing about Yashodara, the Buddha’s Wife, and the Buddha himself. Because you’ve chosen the point of view of Yashodara, the wife that’s been left behind with the son, there are parts of the book where she’s expressing anger towards the Buddha. At some points she is saying out loud, “I’d like to kill Siddhartha!” Also, you’re story points to Yashodahra and other women’s ideas about the Buddha’s enlightenment and the idea that he was maybe missing some qualities. At one point they’re sitting around talking and they’re angry about the Buddha leaving and other things. The women are saying that Siddhartha chose to love many but is unable to love one person in a loving relationship; his wife. How are people receiving these ideas?
Gabriel: Some of the things you just mentioned are the main questions that I had and hopefully portrayed some idea of what they may have felt. I wanted to present some thoughts and feelings for making Siddhartha, who was known as the Buddha, more human. And not present him as so idolized and perfect as some folks have made him. Some people have made him into an idol, which is the last thing he wanted or talked about doing.
The reactions to Buddha’s Wife have been mixed. For the most part ninety or ninety-five percent of folks really appreciate the insight into the relationships that were connected to him and how his choices affected his family and others. And the choices they made after he left and how, as time went on, they healed their grief and loss from the pain of his leaving. And the compassion they developed afterwards.
But some people only perceive the feelings and emotions directed towards Buddha as vilifying him. It’s been a very small amount of fundamentalist Buddhists, which I didn’t really think of before. They feel that he was a perfect human being and everything he did was absolutely correct. Generally it’s a not that way here because in Northern California and North America in general it’s much more open and there’s not so much rigidity around Buddhism as there still is in some areas of some countries. A woman from Sri Lanka wrote to me and said that she was outraged. She said that this book had nothing to do with the Buddha and none of this happened and, “How can you say this?” and “I don’t want anything to do with it!” She told me not to talk any more about this.
I relayed back to her that this was a fictional story with much historical facts included, but it was nonfiction. It’s not an historical account of everything that happened per se. But even historical nonfiction stories that have been passed down for years talk about the reactions of Siddhartha’s family, including his father and Yashodhara and his step mother. They were very upset and very angry and couldn’t understand why he went away and left. They were very angry. Even the nonfiction traditions that have been accepted by fundamentalists speak about it also.
I was sort of taken a little bit off guard with the response from this person. There’s been one or two other people that focused on the historical inaccuracies in the book as opposed to the main line of the story that to me is partly about how important people’s choices are and how these choices affect individuals and close relationships. I think it’s difficult for some people that are really well known to have close, intimate individual relationships, even though they may be really good with lots of people on a whole. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi and Amma from Southern India and the Buddha and Jesus and a lot of people engaged in social action or other religious things.
People might say that the choices these people have made was for the greater good and that they influenced and helped thousands and thousands of people to find meaning and depth, truth and peace in their lives. And at the same time, maybe it didn’t. Maybe other people could have done the same thing. Maybe other women could’ve been just as well known if they’d been allowed to teach in the same way that those men were in their time and place. For the most part, people really appreciate the different view point presented in Buddha’s Wife and there has been a little bit of uncomfortableness with some people’s perceptions of it.
JM: The book is partially dedicated to “all women throughout history who have been minimized, ignored or solely remembered as an appendage to their family or spouse.” There is one realm of your book that I have heard about quite a few times: the idea that women were coming to the Buddha wanting to receive teachings and were told that they wouldn’t be accepted. The story is that Ananda, the Buddha’s assistant, helped persuade the Buddha to allow women into the Buddhist order. Talk more about the historical accuracy of that and what the meaning is for you around that component of the story.
Gabriel: That part is historically accurate, as much as history can be. Alot of these stories were passed on orally for many hundreds of years before they were written down in Pali language. There were lots of witnesses for his teachings in the order for over forty years, so there’s a lot of corroboration that these things actually happened. I’d forgotten about a lot of that, too, until I started researching and looking into it. Siddhartha, the Buddha, was very reluctant to have women involved as nuns, as followers, in the same way that he allowed men to leave their families and become what at the time was called stream enterers and become monks. He didn’t want the women to become nuns in the same way that he allowed men to become monks. He even said that they would be the downfall of the order. Where in fact, the closest thing that got to a downfall of the order was a big dispute between two monks!
He refused to allow women for many years until his mother in law came and kept following him and saying, “I want to become a follower.” I think her name was Pajapati and the Buddha said “no.” She followed him for days and she was exhausted. This was after years of him not allowing women. Ananda heard about this and said to Pajapati, “Why are you dressed like this? Why are you shaving your head and why are your feet all torn up? What are you doing this for?” She told Ananda, “I want to be a follower. There are a number of other women that want to do this also. Why can’t we? Can’t women be just as enlightened and discover the truth like men?” Ananda answered, “Well, I guess so. I don’t see why not – let me go talk to the Buddha about it.”
Ananda went and sort of intruded on this talk the Buddha was giving and he asked him a number of questions about enlightenment; “Can animals attain enlightenment?” The Buddha said, “Yes, they can.” And can so and so become enlightened?” The Buddha said, “Yes, they can.” And then Ananda kind of sprung it on him, “Well why not women?” And Buddha said, “Well, I guess they can.” Ananda said, “Then why don’t you allow them to join the order?” He finally agreed, but he added on eighteen or twenty-eight rules that the women followers had to follow that the men didn’t have to.
Looking at this now, there’s a couple of important things: you have to take it in context. In our time and place in North America we may think, “What do you mean they weren’t allowed equal rights? Why did it take so long? Why was there even a question about it?” But at that time, women didn’t even travel alone, let alone with other groups of women. They were always with a male, an escort or with other people. We forget that in many parts of the world this is still true. For about half of the world that still exists. In some ways it was very revolutionary for the Buddha to finally agree to allow them to study the dharma.
The other big thing that he did at the time, which was huge, was that he allowed all castes to follow him. He taught to everybody regardless of background, caste, family, nobility or non-nobility. That at the time was also a great leap forward. It was unheard of and there was a lot of flack toward him, especially from the upper classes and the Brahmans and the religious people. So, for him to then take that other step, even though it took longer than we would now think was necessary, in some respects it was also very incredible.
JM: There are a few parts of Buddha’s Wife where you’re having the characters talk about desire and pleasure. At one point Yashodara, Siddharta’s wife, is talking about Ananda and the Buddha. She says, “He, like Siddhartha, is afraid of desire…” Later Yashodara and another woman are making fun of this whole thing about desire being a negative thing in spirituality. The women also talk about the sexuality of Buddha and Yashodara speaks about how handsome he was and this other woman becomes a little jealous, in a playful way. What’s important and interesting there is the stuff about desire: In going to Buddhist teachings myself and reading Buddhist texts, I can fall into the idea that it’s helpful to suppress pleasure and desire. In spirituality and religion as a whole, this can be a direction that people go. You’re playing with another perspective on pleasure and desire.
Gabriel: I think they joke that, “Desire is a trap and desirelessness is the way to liberation.” In reality what actually happened – I changed the story somewhat – in reality Yashodara and many of the Buddha’s family later became follower of him. She became a nun herself and stayed in the order. And his son was also a follower, which I completely changed in this story. But when his son was sixteen, he also became a follower.
Siddhartha was married when he was nineteen and they had known each other since they were sixteen. He was a really handsome, good looking prince. They lived together and were married. That was part of their life, even though they didn’t have a child for ten years after they married. And at that time it wasn’t unheard of for princes or kings to have numerous wives, also. But he stayed with her and didn’t want to be involved with anybody else. There’s this sense, and again in the West some people embrace what I was talking about there, that desire can be fully accepted and embraced and part of our lives. We revel in it and also can realize that there’s something beyond it. Or that we can experience a place that goes beyond our attachment to the desire. That’s the difference. Sometimes people are afraid of being attached or stuck in desire, because it can become a trap. It becomes the thing they’re seeking over and over and over. Whatever the desire is: whether it’s for cigarettes, some other addiction for somebody or something. We can get so focused on that thing that we miss everything else. Or we aren’t able to see beyond that. But I think you can also be totally present and at one with the moment and experiencing the desire and whatever it is that is between you and another person at a specific time - sexual or otherwise, in an intimate relationship - and celebrate that and embrace it and also understand that it is not everything. It’s a dichotomy. It’s “Yes, and…” Yes, this is wonderful and that’s not all there is. Desire is not something that has to be avoided or feared, shunned or put away. We don’t have to remove ourselves from it to find the truth because it is part of the truth!
JM: You write about enlightenment in the book. Many of us create a vision of enlightenment. I might visualize enlightenment as being over there, somewhere else, and occurring sometime in the future. It has a particular feeling to it and it’s not the feeling that I’m experiencing over here, now. Sometimes our definition of enlightenment can be boxed in. There’s a part where you’re writing about all of the “baggage and lies” of enlightenment; “You couldn’t trust anybody who said they knew what it was. They didn’t have a clue.”
Gabriel: You said that so well. What do you think enlightenment is?
JM: I often think of “light” and “lighten.” It’s an enlightening, a loosening of holding, a lightening in one’s experience. It sounds easier and freer. There are less attachments to the comings and goings of experience: the pleasures happen and the displeasures happen. Lightness sounds wonderful.
Gabriel: Yeah. Yashodhara and Siddhartha both taught that it’s not something over there. It’s something within the act of being present and paying attention. Waking up now, being light, having the light go on. Waking up here and now, not looking for it somewhere else. Both of them had everything and they left it all behind. They had all the external material things anybody could ever desire and they left it all trying to go somewhere else because they thought it was somewhere else. They both discovered after years that it wasn’t outside themselves. No matter what practices they did.
Yashodhara found that it wasn’t her husband that was going to provide the answer for her. It wasn’t him coming back to her that was going to give her peace. And for him it wasn’t becoming a sadhu and starving himself to death for years and doing all of these other practices. It wasn’t something that was going to all of a sudden happen. They both found their own way and they did that by living exactly where they were.
JM: The whole story comes and goes through the eyes of Yashodhara, who is dying. People are journeying to her to meet with her before she passes away. I know that you have put a lot of attention towards grief and dying in your lifetime and in other writings. Tell me about deciding to include that element in Buddha’s Wife.
Gabriel: I thought it worked perfectly as a context to hear all the different people’s different experiences and stories and for her to be remembering her life and therefore revealing it. In the stories, she’s revealing it to her cousin Kisa, who is caring for her, and Ananda, Buddha’s number one guy, his attendant. They’re both caring for her. She’s relaying to them things that have happened and how she felt and what is going on. And through this she brings other people into the story, including Ambapali, who she had a big outing with because of a perceived thing that happened to her and Siddhartha. Ambapali was one of the first women accepted to become a nun.
It was a great way to deal with and look at all the connections between everybody’s lives and tell the story of Yashodhara’s life. It’s a story that most people don’t know about. I had her talking to people who actually did know a lot about it already, at the time; her family, other nuns, her son. A lot of them did know about her life and what she’d gone through, to an extent. Nowadays, people don’t. It was a great way to do it.
JM: It’s wonderful for me to see the name “Bodhi” in a book, as I named my son Bodhi two years young. I like seeing that name. Who was Bodhi in this story?
Gabriel: In this story, Rahula, Siddhartha and Yashodara’s son, has seen or perceived that his father was not all that he’d been told he was and Rahula gone into exile out of his own choice to Sri Lanka. This was during many years that Buddha was still teaching. In Sri Lanka Rahula marries Savarna, whom I took from a wonderful friend of mine – I’ve always loved that name. They have a son that they name Bodhi. In the story, Rahula and Savarna and Bodhi are making their way back from Sri Lanka across the straights to the north of India to see his mother before she dies. They were sent word by Ananda that this was going on. They go through a number of trials and tribulations on the way and also learn a number of things about his father from different followers as they’re traveling. They survive stampedes, floods, robbery and attack – all kinds of different things – on their route. That story of that family making their way to his parent’s home is interspersed back and forth between Yashodara speaking about her life in the hut as she’s dying. It alternates between those two. In some ways, this is really an inspirational, romantic adventure story. It’d be a great story for Ashawari Rey, the famous Indian ballywood actress to play. (laughter)
JM: Are you trying to make that happen?
Gabriel: Yes, we are. My publisher is in the process of approaching a number of directors: Mira Nair, who’s made a number of movies in the States including The Namesake and Bend It Like Beckham. And some other directors here and in London and some producers in India. We’ll see what happens.
JM: In Buddha’s Wife Yashodara says, “You didn’t have to leave to find yourself.” She is speaking directly to the Buddha. Earlier, the Buddha said, “I have to walk my own road without a map.” I appreciate these things because I do easily concretize my ideas about what Buddhism is, who the Buddha is and what enlightenment is, as if there can be a definite map and then I can follow it. It is really about freedom. How can we have freedom if we’re not freely engaging in it? I appreciate you pointing these things out.
Gabriel: Yeah. I appreciate you recognizing that in there. I get caught in that also and have for many years. Guatama, the Tathagata – the different names he has been given, he always said to find your own way. He never said that this is the only way. He said, “This is what I discovered and this is the dharma, the truth, of what I discovered and found out. If you practice, see if this does the same for you. Follow these guidelines, but if it’s not happening, then don’t do it.” He never said, “Keep following all my dogma until you die.” (laughter)
In some ways I think that’s what the Dharma Punx and Noah Levine are talking about. “We’ve heard all this stuff and there’s probably some truth to it.” But they also said, “It has to be done in a place from freedom and discovery and finding your own way and without being attached to all of the religious dogma and doctrine around it. This is especially interesting coming from Noah because his fathers was teaching for so many years and now Noah is teaching from what he’s found, doing the same thing with Buddhism itself, to bring it more present and real. So, I think that was real important.
There’s also this idea that you have to make a choice between religious life - following a bunch of guidelines - and then a life in the world. I was really caught in that for many years. I was sort of pulled in different directions. I knew since I was sixteen that I wanted to be a parent and have kids and a family. That was always really important to me and I always knew that. But I always got pulled: “I want to become a monk because I want to find this thing called enlightenment.” Later on when I was in Santa Cruz and in love with this girl who was Catholic and I started going to co-workers of Mother Theresa and getting involved in all that and I saw the movie Brother and Sister Moon before there were videos and DVD’s. I saw it at the Nickelodian Movie Theatre in Santa Cruz eighteen times! Every time I came out I’d think, “I want to go join an order and become a priest.” But then I’d remember the part in the movie where there’s this follower of his, this monk, looking in on this woman making bread and he’s desiring her. Saint Francis comes by and sees him looking in the window at her and says, “It’s okay. You don’t have to become a monk. If everyone became monks, what would happen to the human race? What would happen if every man was a celibate monk? Go – multiply! You can still be a good person, be religious. You can still live your life!” I still remember that. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.