Sayadaw-gyi (Teacher), how much longer until I reach nibbana?
Sayalee (Sister), we do not know. Practice harder, practice as if your hair were on fire. Let go of this fleeting world. Let go of all attachments.
At thirty-two, after a decade of hard-core dhamma practice, I upped the ante and ordained as a Buddhist nun in Burma. I sacrificed my hair, my belongings, my sexuality, albeit only for a year. But I was determined to find liberation, so any of that could wait. College friends had babies years before, not to mention high-powered and lucrative careers. My dhamma friends, most of whom had grown children or had no interest in having children, were my role models. These fellow practitioners were seeking the place where there is no foothold—the ultimate Theravadan release.
Sayalee, there is no time for worldly pleasures. If you do not reach nibbana soon, you may end up in the hell realms.
At forty-two, after another decade of practice and teaching, I gave birth to a daughter. Until then I had no plans to have children. Kids would only interfere with my desire to consummate my spiritual practice (yes, that’s pretty much all I wanted to consummate back then). Daily life meant just biding my time until I got into retreat, when I could work for enlightenment. My biggest fear: if I had a child, I could not practice. No nibbana for me! But then at thirty-nine—a textbook case—the ticking of my biological clock grew insistent. After a three-year internal battle, negotiations with my partner, deep soul searching, loads of therapy, prayer, ritual and some fertility acupuncture, Mira Lucia Matzinger was born.
For me as a new mom, practice takes on a whole new cast, as does my understanding of nibbana. And it certainly makes me muse and wonder, if the Buddha had been a mother, what would her perspective on enlightenment have been?
Sayalee, you do want to leave samsara, don’t you? Samsara is only suffering.
The Buddha said, “Birth is suffering.” Yes, with birth in the human realm comes suffering. In the poignant and painful ups and downs of humanness, we suffer. (And in the metaphorical sense, every time we “take birth” in a sense of self, we are suffering—which, to be frank, is how I much prefer to understand that teaching.) But the sweaty, messy, bloody, stinky, visceral giving of birth, which can be a lot of suffering (ouch!), is a lot more than suffering too.
Maybe had Buddha been Buddhette, she would have known and taught that giving birth can be pain—and also ecstasy, joy and freedom. That after hours of staying true to yourself through contraction after contraction, of using every ounce of your meditation skill to practice amidst pain, the moment of giving birth can be an extraordinary, blissful state of arrival as a human being falls through you to Earth.
To allow this little human to pass between my legs—how profoundly my mind had to open. Pushing her out paralleled moments deep in retreat: sheer joy in my heart and body, an extraordinarily clear and lucid mind, utter ease and willingness to open to whatever would happen, and a sense of pure boundless being.
Now that I am at home with her— it varies from day to day, of course—the awakening moments don’t seem to let up.
Be mindful, Sayalee. The only way to freedom is mindfulness, one moment after the next. Be vigilant!
I tap into my daughter’s natural presence. When I’m with Mira, mindfulness is never something to work at. I simply incline my mind in her direction and tune into hers. Of course, I’m not under any illusion that babies are liberated—for where is their wisdom, their equanimity? On one hand, she’s a screaming mass of urges, yet on the other, she meets existence with fullness, openness, curiosity.
Joining her in this place of profound connectedness brings me there too. Mira is like a mini Zen master chiding me when my focus wavers. Just try turning away while breastfeeding. She demands deep eye-gazing. She might wap me with her pudgy hands or cry or yelp if I don’t give her my full and utter attention.
Formal practice as I knew it has been obliterated. But a hundred times a day, as I offer her my attention, I slip into her radiant nature.
Sayalee, those are the deva realms. Do not waste your time there in joy and ecstasy. You must let go of everything, even the bliss.
I am amazed each day by the love. Did I feel this before I had a baby? I don’t think I actually knew what metta was until she was born.
Sitting with this baby in her sweetness, watching my heart unfold and unfold, saying yes to her rosebud lips and apple cheeks, witnessing her roll over, pull up, smile. Is this attached loving? Yes, I am profoundly attached. Will I suffer because of it? Yes, I will suffer. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. But just maybe this love, when coupled with the deep wisdom of impermanence and selflessness, is not only samsara-laden, attached loving but something more holy.
Anicca, anicca, anicca, Sayalee. All is impermanent. Practice harder!
Impermanence is inescapable. I live both in mourning for who this little being was last week while in awe of each magnificent iteration. (My god, her hair has grown overnight, have you ever actually watched hair grow? I have.) All those years of practicing tracking the transitory nature of things; who knew a little munchkin would drive home the point just as clearly as any retreat?
Each day is a lesson in giving up self, giving up control—filled with multiple, minute-by-minute letting go of things being the way you thought they ought to be (a perfectly Zen baby who never cries, never gets sick, sleeps through the night . . .). Isn’t this relinquishing, this letting go, in fact the mind waking up more fully with each passing release?
Along with the usual teachings, might Buddhette also have preached mama liberation? Oh please, I’m no Buddha, and I’m only speculating, partly for fun. But when I look back on my own understanding in years of Theravada retreat practice—the basket in which I placed all my tender eggs—I find that my sense of enlightenment has now shifted some.
For me, nibbana now seems far broader, including life, in all its messiness: changing the millionth poopy diaper with care and patience, waking up again and again since I have no more self left to care about sleeping, bathing in the love—the undeniable sweet baby-metta suffusing every nanosecond, living in an infant’s natural presence and attuning to her moment after moment, seeing the astonishing transient nature of things before my own eyes without missing a beat—yes, all this might have a tiny bit of the stink of enlightenment. A mild scent perhaps. A breeze. Or more.
I used to think I wouldn’t be able to practice if I were to have kids. Perhaps the better question would have been: How can I not practice?
Maybe these are all the late-night ramblings of a sleep-deprived new mom. Even so, I can’t help wondering: Had the Buddha been a mother, wouldn’t she have shared the very same dhamma, the Mamanibbana Sutta of the awakening that comes through baby?