Sujata: The Buddha’s Last Teacher

January 20, 2018, marks the second anniversary of the Women’s March. On this day, let us remember and honor the woman who gave Gautama the final teachings necessary for him to become a Buddha.

That teacher was the young woman named Sujata. She found Gautama close to death, next to a small stream where he had passed out. She was on her way, so the story goes, to make offerings to a local god that lived in a particular tree.

SujataSujata found the sickly Buddha-to-be and was moved by compassion and kindness. Instead of taking her food offerings to the local god, she gave them to Gautama.

There are several versions of this story. Some say the woman was a goddess or an emanation of Tara. In the tantric tradition, Tara takes the Buddha into a celestial realm and gives him the final teachings on tantra.

In other traditions, the woman is wealthy and beautiful and petitioning the god for a husband and (of course) a male child. When she encounters Gautama, the food that she offers him — in a gold bowl no less — instantly and miraculously restores his strength and health. Further, this single meal is said to have sustained him for the next seven weeks.

I don’t like either of these stories. They are too simple, too fable-like. They remove us from the gritty reality of life with its sorrows, joys, and difficult choices.

I imagine that Sujata actually spent several weeks nursing the Buddha-to-be back to health. Remember, she found him on the verge of death. He was so weak that he had fallen into a shallow stream and nearly drowned. In addition to giving him food, she probably had to help him find shelter from the elements so he could convalesce. Maybe she brought the Buddha ointments and medicines. Perhaps she made him a fresh set of robes. She might have done all of this by herself, but I doubt it. It is likely she told her family. Together, they cared for this stranger, whom we would later call the Buddha.

As the Buddha recovered, he undoubtedly observed the care he was receiving. These people were not fleeing the world — as Gautama had — in response to encountering dukkha: difficulties, sickness, and death. Instead, they were responding to the reality of dukkha with compassion, concern, and generosity.

The young woman, Sujata, was Gautama’s great and final teacher. Until meeting Sujata, Gautama had pursued only Wisdom through his intense asceticism and yogas. However, to become a Buddha one must have both perfect Wisdom (prajna) and unconditional Compassion (karuna). Gautama, had not yet trained in compassion.

It was Sujata that gave the Buddha the teachings on Compassion. She did not give him an elaborate, theoretical teaching or complicated meditations, rather she demonstrated compassion through her actions. Her kindness changed his entire approach to the spiritual path. Without Sujata, Gautama would not have become the Buddha, both because he would have died and because his realization would never have been complete. Without Sujata’s teachings on compassion, Gautama would have been just one of many now forgotten, world-denying ascetic yogis that lived in ancient India.

We can — if we want — call Sujata a manifestation of the great, compassionate female Bodhisattva Tara. Not a magical, fairytale manifestation, but rather a real woman who lived her compassion daily. A bodhisattva that offered a dying stranger food, shelter, and kindness. A woman whose compassionate actions have been felt by innumerable Buddhists throughout history.

Peace, Paul

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