Riding a Guilt Trip to Heaven: Buddhist Childbed Practices and Women’s Salvation in Medieval China
Jessey J.C. Choo, University of Missouri-Kansas City
Abstract: Few women in medieval China went to childbed secure in the knowledge they would survive. They could, however, be assured of their salvation especially if they died in childbirth with the help of some interesting Buddhist liturgies. According to various accounts of the life of the Buddha, Queen Māyā, the birth mother of the historical Buddha, died only seven days after giving birth to the great savior. Her pregnancy was smooth and comfortable, and she suffered from no discomfort while gaining great religious insights. All this contrasts sharply with her demise after the childbirth. Given the medieval Chinese view that any child who had caused the death of its mother was inauspicious and unfilial—some children were not even raised for this reason alone—monastic scholars were hard-pressed to explain why Queen Māyā died if all signs suggested that her son was the embodiment of the wonderful Buddhist teachings. Doctrinal wriggles aside, liturgical texts show that many found this embarrassing episode in the Buddha’s life is ripe with salvific potential.
The Buddha was said in several sūtras to have met with his dead mother twice. On the first occasion, he went to the Trāyastriṃśa Heaven and preached the Dharma to Queen Māyā, who achieved ultimate salvation as a result. Then, after supposedly passing into nirvana at the time of his death, he rose from his coffin to salute his mother when the latter descended from heaven to lament his passing. Both meetings—the second one appearing only in Chinese apocrypha—affirmed the Buddha’s guilt and therefore Queen Māyā’s inevitable salvation. By pairing the transaction between the Buddha and his birth mother with that of any child and mother, Buddhist liturgies provided expectant mothers the guarantee of enlightenment even in the event of death. This paper examines the context in which liturgies with this particular salvific strategy evolved. It also analyzes how this strategy squared with that used in other contemporaneous but better known Buddhist and Daoist liturgies that rescued women only after they had been condemned to hell for their role in the childbirth.