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How to Attain Enlightenment at the Kitchen Sink
Full disclosure: I can’t say I’ve attained full enlightenment, either at the sink or anywhere else. But I have made peace with those dishes, with the help of an unsung role model.
This past week, my play “The Buddha’s Wife” had a staged reading at Centenary Stage Company in New Jersey. Enough members of the audience had questions about the genesis of the play — and about the story within it — that I wrote this essay.
The unsung role model mentioned above? Yasodhara, the wife of the Buddha. Yes, THAT Buddha. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea he even had a wife.
Yasodhara introduced herself to me from the pages of a children’s book about Buddha’s life. I read the story to my three small children one evening, and they listened with great interest. Almost as soon as Yasodhara was mentioned, however, she disappeared. My kids and I were curious. Where did she go? Thus began my search.
What I found were millions upon millions of words written about the Buddha’s early life, his awakening to enlightenment, and his subsequent teachings, and virtually none at all about his wife. There are novels, now, and more information about her. But at the time, there was almost nothing.
To be fair, she was not the Buddha. But she did become a Buddha. Here’s what I learned about her own singular yet universal path to enlightenment.
Legend has it that Yasodhara was born on the same day, at the same time, as her cousin the future Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. At sixteen, they married, and lived in royally splendid seclusion for 11 years. Siddhartha then left to seek the answer to the source of life’s suffering (“dukkha” in Sanskrit), just days after the birth of their son, Rahula.
In most accounts, this is where mention of Yasodhara and Rahula ends, except to say that later in their lives, both of them became disciples of the Buddha. This seemed like a glaring omission to me. I was mystified… what happened to them? How could Siddhartha simply walk away from his wife and infant son, whom he adored, to seek enlightenment? What were those seven years – the time he was gone – like?
I had my own personal reasons for finding the answers to those questions. Feelings of abandonment crept in as soon as I gave birth to my first child; by the third, those feelings were rampant.
The final straw was a frightening health diagnosis for my husband, which sent him off upon his own quest -- to seek not enlightenment, but a medical solution. Though still physically present, mentally and emotionally he might as well have been as far away as India.
At home with three children under the age of 5, I felt completely alone. This was not the life I had imagined for myself! Hadn’t I gone to a good college and done well? Where was my career, my life of purpose and meaning?
As I changed diapers and swept floors that never seemed to stay clean, I grew increasingly angry and depressed. By the time I read that children’s story to my kids, I was in a very dark place. I not only wanted to know what had happened to Yasodhara, I needed to know.
Within a few ancient accounts, I found out. Yasodhara was utterly devastated by the departure of her beloved husband. Only 27, she was still young enough to remarry, yet she chose to remain faithfully married and look after Rahula.
She chose also to honor Siddhartha’s path by following his example within the confines of her role as mother and wife; she too donned the robes of a monk, ate one meal a day, slept on the floor, and renounced all material comfort.
Hold it. So wasn’t this a similar quest for enlightenment, except at home? As Siddhartha was learning in his own way that “life is suffering,” she was experiencing that same immediate truth. Not only was she feeling the pain of separation from the one she considered her soulmate, she was also, essentially, a single mother.
(Granted, she lived in a palace and had attendants, but still.)
By the time Siddhartha returned as a Buddha seven years later, Yasodhara was on her own path towards greater understanding and enlightenment. She continued her studies and meditation practice and eventually established a nunnery. Legend has it that by the time she died at age 78, she had attained supernormal powers and could perform miracles.
This was fascinating to me. Why hadn’t I ever heard of this before? I began to dig deeper.
My search ultimately led me to Dr. Jeanne Sommer, a professor of Women and Global Religions at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Her studies of the legend of Yasodhara led her to conjecture that:
“there were actually two narratives of liberation going on in the Buddhist story: one for the Buddha, a heroic journey of separation and discovery; and one for the Buddha’s wife, a domestic tale of wisdom gained through the ordinary sufferings of a woman.” [Italics mine.]
Yes! I knew I had changed since my children had been born, but I couldn’t quantify it or even find the words to describe it. My resume hadn’t grown at all, yet I knew I had. “Wisdom gained” seemed an excellent way to sum it up.
Sommer also suggests that the tale of Yasodhara might actually have been intended to accompany that of her husband. She reminds us:
“Jesus is quoted in the New Testament to have said that whenever we tell his story we should also tell the story of the woman who washed his feet with tears, in memory of her.”
I started imagining how Buddhism and Christianity would have evolved if their stories of enlightenment had been recounted in that way. Would those societies have valued the contributions of women more? Would gender equality have arisen organically? Would those societies have encouraged the honoring of the feminine and the masculine within each of its members?
Kind of a mind-blower.
And yet… even though Yasodhara and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet were female, there’s a larger message at work here.
A dual narrative of enlightenment speaks to anyone, male or female, who is tethered by responsibilities. Grand, “leave it all behind” quests, such as the one Elizabeth Gilbert recounted in Eat, Pray, Love, can often be exactly what the soul needs to find itself.
Those quests are also the ones most often highlighted by history. But as any caregiver knows, the liberty to pursue such a quest is not always available. (That book first inspired and then totally pissed me off when I realized there would be no such quest for me.)
To know that Yasodhara had consciously transformed herself through her circumstances, rather than despite them, was profoundly inspirational. As I began to understand and embrace the path of motherhood, I also found my darkness begin to lift. Encouraged, I searched and found other liberation stories to light my way.
I was most moved by the words of Dean Sluyter, Buddhist, former film critic and longtime meditation teacher. In his beautiful book Cinema Nirvana, he tells us that as his wife Maggy battled cancer, his life increasingly revolved around caring for her full-time.
As he describes it:
“work, play, writing, my so-called meditation, everything else had to give way. And that was great. … I found myself melting into each moment of service, letting go of past and future, hope and fear, including the hope that my efforts might do any good.”
The path of service to his wife became his teacher and his bliss. He concludes:
“Service is serene freedom from the lifelong ping-pong game of sukha [happiness] and dukkha. It is the acid bath in which desire and self dissolve.”
This is the other side of the Buddha’s enlightenment story, the one history seems to have ignored. Because the Buddha’s story is so one-sided, so focused on the grand quest, we miss the other half.
Oh, well, we say. To be truly spiritual I would have to give up my life as it surrounds me now. If I weren’t so caught in the web of duty, I could be an enlightened being.
That is the “renunciate path,” the path of Siddhartha: renounce everything to find Grace. The term for Yasodhara’s path — one that I learned from co-writing Tantra Yoga: Journey to Unbreakable Wholeness with Todd Norian — is the “householder path.”
Neither path is better than the other. What Yasodhara teaches us is that the household path is always available. Grace is possible, now, within the context of our daily lives.
Transformation and growth take place daily, if we allow them. From taking care of young children or aging parents, we can learn patience and commitment. From service to the sick and dying we can learn compassion and hope. From doing the dishes, we can learn humility and gratitude.
What Sluyter didn’t say, but I infer, is that service like that springs from love. His love for Maggy made any other option moot. And so, at the heart of all of service, really, is an understanding and experience of what love – true, unconditional, limitless love – is.
And isn’t that what any path to enlightenment is really about? Finding and then embodying limitless love?
Which brings me back to the kitchen sink. I don’t love those dishes – in fact, sometimes I downright despise them. But doing them is an act of service, and ultimately, of love. I believe that any time we choose to act from that kind of love, we take one tiny step closer to enlightenment.
Now when I think of Buddha, I think of Yasodhara too. I am reminded of the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire observation: that Ginger did everything Fred did, but backwards and in high heels. Yasodhara inspires me to believe that enlightenment is possible for anyone, anywhere… even at the kitchen sink.
If you’re interested, Centenary Stage Co. has posted a video of the livestream reading of “The Buddha’s Wife” here. The reading starts around 13:00, and the sound improves over time… :-)