Two authors imagine untold story of Buddha’s wife

Columbia-Greene Media
Posted: Saturday, August 29, 2015 12:00 am
By John Mason

HUDSON — Hudson native Stephen Bergman, pen name Samuel Shem, already has many feathers in his hat, as a Rhodes Scholar, a physician, a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, and the author of four novels, including the best-seller “The House of God,” and “The Spirit of the Place,” set in Hudson.

Now in his newest book, co-written with his wife, clinical psychologist Janet Surrey, he reveals his spiritual side — he and Surrey are both practicing Buddhists.

“The Buddha’s Wife,” published in 2015 by Beyond Words, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, was inspired by a rarely-discussed fact of the Buddha’s life: That, as Siddhartha, he had a wife, Yasodhara, whom he left to seek enlightenment on the day she gave birth to their son.

The inspiration for the book was primarily Surrey’s.

“She came to me with the question: Did you know the Buddha left his wife?” Bergman said during a reading and discussion at Bodhi Holistic Spa and Boutique, 543 Warren St., Hudson, Aug. 21. “It’s in the Sutras. We both have read a fair amount about Buddha’s life. It immediately came to us — let’s write about it. We tried to imagine how she handled it.”

Bergman said they didn’t want to write the story about the Buddha stepping out of relationship as the first stage of his historic journey.

“That’s fine,” he said, “but this book isn’t about the Buddha; it’s about her. Her suffering attracts the compassion of all the women in the house. Pajipati (Siddhartha’s mother) was a woman that had known grief. She steps up.”

Surrey said the epigram is the crucial passage in the book. It is in the voice of Yasodhara: “Dear One, What might be of benefit, what teaching and practices offered, had two — or more — sat under the Bodhi tree?”

At this point, a single tear rolls down Buddha’s cheek. “In all the sutras, he never shed a tear,” Surrey said. “We gave him one.”

“I’m a clinical psychologist,” she said. “My interest is in the power of relationship to create and to heal suffering. Buddhist meditation teaches that mindfulness can be practiced relationally. Mindfulness, equanimity — these qualities can be cultivated together.”

The Buddha walks away from relationship to reach enlightenment in solitude. When he returns, he’s no longer the person he had been, having achieved a higher state.

“Is there another path, through relationality, that might be another way?” Surrey asked. “The question of the book is, can we imagine a change when two or more are sitting under that tree? Thich Nat Hanh prophesied that the next Buddha will be the Sangha, the community. The urgency of our challenges as a human species requires more than one-on-one. Is relationality an untapped power in transformation?”

Surrey said they studied all the discussions of Yasodhara in the literature, such as folk songs and poems about the grieving wife.

“When the Buddha returned, his son was 8,” she said. “Her son went away with Buddha and left her at 8. She lost him.”

Instead of falling into despair, Yasodhara and her female companions shave their heads and walk 300 miles, in “an image of going forth together,” Surrey said, to join the Buddha’s entourage as nuns.
“How does she go from a deserted, grieving wife to one who can go forth?” Surrey asked.

“The Buddha’s Wife” is divided into two books. The first is a fictional narrative of Yasodhara’s life; the second is “a reader’s companion,” about suffering, circles of compassion, the flowering of mutuality. It is divided into three parts. The first is on suffering and how it can be met with compassion and sangha, circles of compassion.

The second part is on devotional practice, Surrey said, spiritual friendships, mutuality and accompanying others through love to illness, old age and death, seeking with others to grow through this practice.

The third part, “Widening Circles, Ripples of Change,” moves out into the wider world, circles of peace, restorative justice, communities of awakening, and becoming relational activists.

In response to questions, Shem and Surrey spent some time at Bodhi talking about the process of writing a book together.

“You have to find your way into each project,” Surrey said. They had previously written a play together, Bill W. and Dr. Bob. “It was important that we work through the differences — how do you find a ‘we’ voice without sacrificing your integrity? In the play there are moments I can say, ‘That’s Steve, not me.’ I think in this book I took (on the major) authorship. It’s more my life work.”

“It’s so rare when a real story comes along that no one’s written,” Bergman said. “This is so astonishing, someone has to tell the world about it.”

There were times they got furious at each other.

“We reached a difficult point when our daughter was around,” Bergman said. “She took one look at us and said, ‘I’m outa here.’”

There are gender differences, he said.
“If you really engage in things, it’s not like you’re going to get it right. The thing we’ve discovered is that everyone gets it wrong sometimes,” he said. “It’s not what you do — it’s what you do next.”

“We spent a lot of time trying to get the structure of the book,” Surrey said. “We were in Rome; the sensuality of Italy was so helpful. Then we begin writing. One person will write something, the other person will read it.”

“I’d be at the computer, and Janet would be sitting right here,” Bergman said, gesturing over his right shoulder. “I was unused to that; I insisted she go around to the other side so she can’t see what I’m writing.”

“It’s incredibly hard to work with someone and tell them you don’t like something they’re attached to,” Surrey said.

“At the end of every chapter, there are practices, relational practices,” Bergman said. “That was her thing. I was the typist. It got to some difficult places. But it’s so valuable. It may nudge the culture a little bit; it provides ideas about connection that go to a spiritual life.”

The emphasis on connection is not a novelty in the Surrey/Bergman canon.

Their play, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, is based on the idea that neither of the two founders could do it alone.

“It’s prevalent in our society to see the ‘great individual,’” Surrey said.

“I feel we’re always pushing against the dominant culture,” Bergman said.

“Yasodhara is a footnote in traditional Buddhism,” Surrey said.
In the introduction, the two collaborators write:

“The Buddha’s last words are said to be: ‘Be a light unto yourself; seek your own salvation with diligence.’

“Yasodhara’s last words might have been: ‘Sometimes you need the light of others to see the way. Sometimes you need to be a light for others. And always, the light will shine more brightly when two or more are gathered in spirit.’”

Bergman and Surrey also appeared at Spotty Dog Books and Ale, 440 Warren St., Hudson, where copies of “The Buddha’s Wife: Her Story and Reader’s Companion: The Path of Awakening Together,” by Janet Surrey and Samuel Shem, may be purchased.

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