In a brief lull between writing and editing deadlines I have been catching up on some reading. I recently finished Reiko Ohnuma’s new book Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (OUP 2012). It was a thoroughly enjoyable read – Ohnuma writes in such a clear and engaging way. It was also great to see another scholar carrying out a wide-reaching yet selective study. Her statement about how she went about selecting her sources would apply to my own recent work too: ‘I have followed my own interests and inclinations, allowing my exploration .. to meander in whatever direction it happened to take’ (p. 5-6). I only hope that my own meanderings will be as engaging and thought-provoking as those of Ohnuma when they finally reach print.
Much of the book is taken up with a comparison between the Buddha’s two mothers: Māyā (the birth mother who then conveniently exits the scene allowing her to remain pure) and Mahāprajāpatī (the more problematic and demanding foster-mother to whom the Buddha retains a debt of gratitude). The extended comparison is thoughtfully made and convincingly presented. And Ohnuma’s conclusion is somehow pleasing: that although Māyā remains pure, she is ultimately stuck in her purity (and divinity), whereas the louder and more complex Mahāprajāpatī is able to follow her own spiritual path and eventually attain nirvana. The book also contains other useful discussions, namely about the grief-stricken-mother motif, the use of pregnancy as a metaphor for enlightenment, and breast-feeding as a metaphor for compassion. It ends with a snapshot of “motherhood on the ground” in which Ohnuma examines the role of maternal relationships and other family ties in monastic life past and present.
This title has the honour of being the first ever book that I have ordered for the library at my new institution! I am sure the students will appreciate its accessible style and captivating contents.