Since the 80’s, Barbara McHugh has studied and practiced Buddhism. However, unlike most Buddhists, she also attends a Christian church.
“I think [both] these religions are basically the same thing, no matter how much they like to think it,” notes McHugh over the phone from her home in Berkeley, California. “This idea of how we get out of the prison of the self: Buddhism has one way, Christianity has another, and they overlap a lot.”
Spirituality is central to McHugh’s life. The poet and novelist, who also spent 20 years as a writing coach and “book doctor” with individual clients, workshops and intensives, holds a doctorate in religion and literature from the University of California at Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. She sits on the board of directors of Marin Sangha, a local Buddhist community, and teaches meditation. And in her new novel, Bride of the BuddhaMcHugh puts a feminist twist on the myth of Yasodhara, the woman who abandoned Siddhartha, along with the couple’s infant son, to become the Buddha.
“It’s a story of forgiveness,” McHugh says. “It’s a story about the conflict between transcending the world and embracing the world, and [of] what makes her choose both? [actions] throughout her life. I think that’s important because it’s a conflict that occurs in all religions.”
According to McHugh, the common story is that Yasodhara eventually joined the Buddha’s community and became a nun. However, in Bride of the Buddha, Yasodhara disguises herself as a man named Ananda and becomes a monk, taking an active role in convincing the Buddha to ordain women after her son decides to follow in his father’s spiritual footsteps. She also becomes aware of hidden dangers that threaten the life and teachings of the Buddha.
McHugh delves into Yasodhara’s origin story, including the deaths of two of her sisters and her lifelong quest for enlightenment for herself and for other women:
But I couldn’t have had this freedom without the belief in the possibility of awakening, where my body was different from an essential self that would be irreparably damaged by forced sex. This was the faith the Tathagata had bestowed on me by allowing me to become a monk. Not that all women had to turn into monastics, but I truly believed that nothing but the existence of fellow women seeking complete enlightenment could give them the confidence that they, too, were something other than their bodies; they were part of the mystery that all beings shared.
Why did McHugh choose to rewrite the story of a woman she thinks barely appears in the Buddhist canon? “I didn’t want to just use the hagiography and make it passive,” McHugh says. “I wanted to make it [Yasodhara’s] own story.” The author also has tradition on her side. “There is evidence in the scriptures that Ananda and Yasodhara may be the same person, partly because [there are] certain anomalies in Ananda’s life,” says McHugh. “Here is an unenlightened young monk persuading the Buddha to admit women! So what’s going on here that Ananda is driving him to?” The two also have great similarities, McHugh claims: “extreme” physical attractiveness and a first-cousin relationship with the Buddha.
There’s also a lot of potential in myth rewriting, McHugh thinks. “A myth is like a big house,” she says. “Millions of people live in it, and they can use that myth as a starting point. If people live in that myth, they can see the universe from a safe place.”
She does not see the need to do away with the story of the Buddha’s wife altogether. “Breaking down a myth is like being left with a big hole, to a toxic degree.” However, reimagining a myth is analogous to renovating the house and thus challenging that safe space. †[It’s] like renovating a house [and] let in more light,” says McHugh. “You try to find the truths that have been lost in the historical view of the facts. The legend, the myth, may begin to block out light, but a myth has so much potential.” It was equally important to make this myth a “page-turner of a novel” that people would want to read, says McHugh. “The older I get, [the more] I feel that fiction is so important when it comes to portraying values and getting to our core.
“I like to think that novels change people,” she recalls. “In this book, it shows them how to be sacred, for a woman to move beyond her feminine identity and become more of a central person on the primary spiritual path.”
Kirkus Reviews praised Bride of the Buddhacalled the book “a touching drama with a message of women’s empowerment at its core” and “an edifying look at the patriarchal limitations of the genius of Buddhism.”
For her part, McHugh hopes her novel will show readers “the possibilities of being” and what she calls the “infinite” learning curve of life.
“I always quote this woman from the church I go to who said, ‘I’m so glad I’m eighty-five. When I was eighty-two, I just couldn’t do it,” McHugh says with a laugh. “In my book I try to show that over the years there is always a new way of learning and new challenges.”
Lauren Emily Whalen lives in Chicago and is the author of four books for young adults.