31 July 2013

Sujata: An Awakener of the Buddha?

                                          Arun Kumar Sama

During Meher Baba's 1956 visit to Meher Center in Myrtle Beach, he was taken to visit Brookgreen Gardens, the beautiful sculpture garden and wildlife preserve south of Murrell’s Inlet, SC. As recounted by Filis Frederick, at one point:

Baba sat down under a fruit tree in a secluded corner of the garden and we sat about Him on the grass. . . . Baba looked almost reminiscent as He gazed at us scattered around Him on the thick verdant lawn.  “This reminds Me of the past when Buddha sat under the tree,” He gestured. “After Buddha had been fasting for so, many weeks, an old woman helped Him by giving Him a rice pudding. Following His eating of that pudding, Buddha sat under the tree, where He attained His goal. As Babajan was to Me, so that old woman was to Buddha, for just as that old woman helped Buddha get super-consciousness, just so did Babajan give super-consciousness to Me.”
Upon being asked the old woman’s name, Baba said that He did not recall it, it had not been recorded.  
[Source: “Journey of the Heart: Meher Baba's American Visit, July-August, 1956,” by Fills Frederick, in The Awakener Magazine, vol. 4, no. 4 (Fall 1957), p. 25.] 

But Buddhist tradition does record her name—Sujata. She is considered the Buddha’s first lay female disciple. She is described in the stories of the Buddha’s life  not as an old woman but as a young maiden—perhaps a milkmaid like the gopis, since she was offering a milk and rice pudding (kheer). The episode takes place before the Buddha’s enlightenment, so he was not actually the Buddha yet, but still known as “the Bodhisattva.” Here are two interesting observations about Sujata:

Pali tradition believes that every Buddha was offered milk-rice from some maiden just before his Enlightenment. For example, Vipassi Buddha accepted the milk-rice from Daughter-of-Sudassana-Setthi; Sikhi Buddha accepted it from Daughter-of-Piyadassi-Setthi; Vessabhu Buddha accepted the milk-rice from Sirivaddhana; Kakusandha Buddha accepted the milk-rice from a brahmin girl Vajirindha of the village Suchirindha; Konagamana from a Brahmin woman Aggisoma; and Kassapa Buddha from his wife Sunanda. Last in the list is Gotama Buddha, who accepted the milk-rice from Sujata.” 
[source: http://ignca.nic.in/jatak088.htm]

In the second story, we learn that Sujata believed the Buddha to be a tree deity, to whom she had prayed for a son:

Bodhi Trees (Ficus religiosa or Pippala Tree) are a common symbol for nature and for centuries they have provided shelter for man and animal alike. Tree worship was a common practice in India at the time of the Buddha. This can be seen in the story of Sujata — offering milk-rice to the Bodhisatta seated under a banyan tree on the eve of his enlightenment in the belief that he was the deity living in that tree.
[source: http://www.agt-gems.com/Trees.html]

Perhaps Meher Baba was right and her real name is lost to history, or maybe even Avatars get forgetfull as the millennia pass! My guess would be that Baba was not much pleased with the question, which was rather beside the point. What is interesting is that Baba likens the woman to Hazrat Babajan, the old Muslim holy woman whose kiss on his forehead awakened Meher Baba's realization thus implying that she was a Perfect Master who helped the Buddha to attain his full awakening. Buddhism merely celebrates her as the first lay female disciple, scarcely according her the significance that Meher Baba implies is her due—whether we know her name or not.


Talat Halman said...

Thank you for sharing Meher Baba's illuminating teaching about the importance of the role of Sujata in giving superconsciousness to the Buddha. This truth often gets drowned out in the common way of telling the story that it was the Buddha's first act after discovering and deciding to follow the Middle Way. Now you have shared the deeper significance of Sujata. That *keer* she gave him must have been some *prasad*! I also appreciate your highlighting that Meher Baba was the same Avatar as was Buddha.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely story. Jai Baba.

Zo Newell said...

Thanks for that, Kendra. This has got me thinking about the story of Shabari in a different light: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabari. I've thought of it as an example of the Avatar's compassion in visiting a poor, old, low-caste woman, as Darwin tells us He did in Arangaon in 1954; but now I wonder if Shabari played a parallel role to Sujata's and Babajan's.

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.