“Just as a Mother’s Milk Flows from Her Breasts”

Reiko Ohnuma

in Ties That Bind

Published in print July 2012 | ISBN: 9780199915651
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199950058 | DOI:
“Just as a Mother’s Milk Flows from Her Breasts”

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This chapter examines the use of breastfeeding as a metaphor for the compassionate deeds of buddhas and bodhisattvas. It argues that whereas the comparison between a mother’s breastfeeding and the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma is largely absent in India, it did become prevalent in the medieval Theravāda tradition of Sri Lanka, where the Buddha was often described as a “mother” who feeds the “milk” of the dharma to the “suckling babies” of the Saṃgha. In India, on the other hand, the mother’s breastfeeding is more often compared to the bodhisattva’s “gift of the body,” or the many deeds of bodily self-sacrifice the bodhisattva engages in on behalf of others. In this way, the bodhisattva’s gift of his body is subtly rendered as “physical” and “female” (akin to a mother’s breastfeeding), whereas the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma is “spiritual” and “male”—and therefore the gift of a father.

Keywords: breastfeeding; gift of the body; bodily self-sacrifice; Theravāda; Sri Lanka; buddhas; bodhisattvas; dharma

Chapter.  6316 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism

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