YASODHARA book review

Books Women Women in Buddhism Youth

Yasodhara Sumeru review

Yasodhara and the Buddha
Vanessa R. Sasson

Bloomsbury Academic 2021
Paperback: 304 pages / ISBN: 978-1350163164 / 6.08 x 0.62 x 9.29 inches

From the Publisher

By combining the spirit of fiction with the fabulism of Indian mythology and in-depth academic research, Vanessa R. Sasson shares the evocative story of the Buddha from the perspective of a forgotten woman: Yasodhara, the Buddha's wife.

Although often marginalized, Yasodhara's narrative here comes to life. Written with a strong feminist voice, we encounter Yasodhara as a fiercely independent, passionate and resilient individual. We witness her joys and sorrows, her expectations and frustrations, her fairy-tale wedding, and her overwhelming devastation at the departure of her beloved.

It is through her eyes that we witness Siddhattha's slow transformation, from a sheltered prince to a deeply sensitive young man. On the way, we see how the gods watch over the future Buddha from the clouds, how the king and his ministers try to keep the suffering of the world from him and how he eventually renounces the throne, his wife and newly-born son to seek enlightenment.

Along with a foreword from Wendy Doniger, the book includes a scholarly introduction to Yasodhara's narrative and offers extensive notes along with study questions, to help readers navigate the traditional literature in a new way, making this an essential book for anyone wanting to learn about Buddhist narratives.

The Sumeru review

If you look up Vanessa Sasson’s historical novel about the Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara and the Buddha, in Google Books, you might be shocked to find it listed under the genre of fairy tales. I was. Yet in a sense, that in itself reveals the essential value of her book: to give voice and humanity to a story that has long passed into myth, seen from the perspective of character whose presence has always been little more than a plot device.

Writing an historical novel is an immensely difficult task. One must balance good storytelling with what actually happened, while sidestepping all the tropes of fan fiction. Sasson does a great job of this. The facts are gleaned from her long experience teaching about Buddhism as a professor of Religious Studies in the Liberal and Creative Arts and Humanities Department at Marianopolis College, in Montreal. In fact, there is a delightful appendix, in which she elucidates all of her sources for each of the vignettes in the book with approachable anecdotes.

While this is her first novel, she is the author of many other academic works and magazine features (including writing a regular column for Buddhistdoor, as I do). As a teacher, I can relate to having to tell a good story to captivate a room full of distracted young people. It is clear that when it comes to animated and engaging delivery, Sassoon has honed her abilities well.

I confess that as I began to read about Yasodhara’s childhood in the beginning of the book, I had some misgivings, fearing that I was entering into another version of a romance novel, not a genre that has ever held my interest. But I recognized that while I may not have been Sasson’s imagined perfect reader, I could still enjoy the ride and learn a lot in the process; so, I stuck with it. As I read, I repeatedly had to check my expectations and open myself up to the story. That was hard. Perhaps if I were new to Buddhism and had not accumulated a lifetime of personal Buddhist baggage, I might have slipped more easily into enjoying the book, although recognizing its excellence was never a problem. It just wasn’t written for me.

In trying to imagine myself in Yasodhara’s shoes, with a husband who walked out on her and their charmed life, only to return seven years later to take custody of their son, I was painfully reminded of my own divorce and alienation from my children years ago. And I began to realize that Sasson’s novel was putting me in touch with the messy, painful and all-too-human realities of life – not sugar-coated, and not seen through the rose-coloured glasses of 20/20 hindsight.

Ironically, we are currently in the midst of seeing and hearing the modern spectacle of Prince Harry, Duchess Meghan Markle, and their famous split with The Royal Family. Parallels abound between their pop culture woke fairy tale and our imagined relationship with the heroes of the past (worldly or spiritual). A great deal of ink is being spilt reveling in the sordid worldliness and come-uppance of it all. Pundits across the spectrum are working themselves into a frenzy.

It’s our expectations that get us into trouble. That is an oft-repeated theme in Buddhist teaching, and Sasson explores it in many ways in Yasodhara and the Buddha. Writing historical fiction about a religious figure bears the extra burden of not being allowed to veer too far from dogma. That’s not what the faithful want to hear. Buddhist readers will find themselves checking what they are reading against their understanding of the Dharma and listening anxiously for a false note.

If we don’t get stuck there, what lies beyond? My thoughts go to the violent acts of racism to which we’ve all been subjected, not just in our lifetimes, but daily in the news. To me, the hatred at the root of these horrific acts is unimaginable. I literally cannot imagine the mindset of these people. A quote I read recently has stuck with me: “People hold on to their hatred so tightly because if they let it go, they would have to face their own pain.” We humans find it incredibly difficult to imagine ourselves in others’ shoes, equally as victim or perpetrator. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that until we can do so – until we can see ourselves interbeing in either role – we won’t be able to free ourselves and others from violence.

In the same way, Dharma practice is not about accumulating more hours on the cushion, more knowledge of “the story” or more karmic gold stars. It’s not about whittling away our humanity to achieve some super-human state, renouncing our interbeing to become a solitary hero or a kind of spiritual bypassing. Like it or not, we are constantly reminded: no mud, no lotus. At every moment we have to engage authentically with life as best we can, inventing as we go, while recognizing (like Dōgen) that we’re making one mistake after another.

Pondering Yasodhara and the Buddha through that lens, Sasson has done a splendid job of speaking to us moderns about our contemporary existential quandaries. (I’m reminded of fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen’s lyric from Sisters of Mercy, “I think I can see how you’re pinned”.) Society may have changed, but human nature has not.

Most recently as I write this, the airwaves are full of commentary about the multiple murders of Asian women working in massage parlours in Georgia. The United States is no stranger to gun violence, from shootings in schools, theatres, shopping malls, and so on. But all of the coverage is focusing on the ethnicity of the victims in the Georgia killings, their profession, and racism in general. Nobody seems willing or able to take on the deeper issue of gun control and disarmament.

It is deeply saddening to think that for all the #MeToo victories, the White Ribbon campaigns, the men vowing to end violence against women, ending misogyny is a struggle against a challenge as intractable as gun control, a pandemic, global warming and mass extinctions. Nevertheless, we persist. In that regard, Yasodhara and the Buddha deserves accolades for bringing a uniquely Buddhist voice to the quintessential interplay of women and men.

Patriarchy is alive and well in Buddhism. One has only to read a few biographies or to dip into the difficulties women have had being accepted as fully ordained Buddhist nuns to see that. Sasson brings Yasodhara to life and shows us the story of Siddhattha with entirely fresh eyes – hers: his leaving home and Awakening, and the subsequent conversion decisions their son Rahula, she herself, and others make to follow Siddhatha’s new spiritual path.

Taking Refuge is, of course, one of the tenets of becoming Buddhist. In our current obsession with identity, intersectionality, and debate about whether or not a ‘two-Buddhisms’ approach for western converts versus Asians born into Buddhist families and societies is a valid epistemological construct, we may miss the point: the purpose of Buddhism is doing Dharma practice, as opposed to being Buddhist. Taking refuge, or taking vows, is an intensely personal and transformative experience, metaphysically akin to childbirth. If we only see Buddhism in the cognitive realm, or imagine it aesthetically from afar, we miss the point.

There are many stories in Buddhist history of ‘coming to practice’, Awakenings, Dharma transmissions, and the like. But once you get past the Therigatha, stories of women’s practice are few and far between. Hearing women speak about their experience of Buddhism is extremely important for all of us as we strive for wholeness. And I’m not just talking here about women dealing with men as they practice, but about their relationship with practice itself.

Similarly, there are many stories in Buddhist history of wrestling with demons, from Siddhattha’s vanquishing of Mara to Milarepa’s conquest of local Bön spirits. Wrestling with spirit beings is a story that springs up in many religious traditions. But in the normative telling of Siddhattha’s night of Enlightenment, he first has to vanquish his desire in the form or Mara’s beautiful daughters. One is left to wonder, then, what a female practitioner would have to work around to get beyond that characterization.

Kudos, then, to Sasson, for not settling for a frothy beach read of a book or a narrative hewing too closely to normative renderings of the tale. Instead, Yasodhara and the Buddha is a text to wrestle with, and there too, the author has provided an appendix of study questions making the text more useful in educational and book club settings.

If there’s a young person in your life who is beginning to explore the awakenings of adulthood, this is a compelling tale!

Professor Sasson responds

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. You raised all kinds of interesting points that had me thinking, but the one that jumped out at me was about the difficulty of writing about characters that we all know so well already. It was a challenge I was particularly aware of throughout the writing process. How do I describe beloved characters like Gotami or Kanthaka the horse, when they are already fixed in our minds?

I don't quite have an answer to that question. In fact, I eventually had to let the question go, because if I let myself wonder or worry about other people's fixed ideas of these characters, I would never write the book. So I let myself imagine them as best as I could instead. I returned to the classical texts over and over again, to see where they might guide me in the details, but at the end of the day, these imaginings have to be my own. And in that sense, I think your closing point may be right on point: the book may be most appealing to someone who does not know these characters yet. For those of us who see them clearly, it might be a jarring experience to meet them in such a new way.

That being said, I might close this response with a challenge of my own: if we do have fixed ideas of who these characters are, what they looked like, what they sounded like, how they behaved... then perhaps the onus is on us to expand our imaginations. To try to see them differently, to let ourselves get swept away by the old stories one more time. Because if we don't, if we never read the material with fresh eyes, it might mean that the stories have little life left to offer us anymore. And that would be a shame.

With great appreciation!

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