ntroducing the Therigatha:
THE WRITTEN LEGACY OF THE FIRST BUDDIST WOMEN
By Rev. Valerie Grigg Devis
The Therigatha is the oldest historic text by and about Buddhist women. The text itself comes from the Pali Canon, which was passed down to us through oral and then written form, together with the teachings of the Buddha. From this same source, we learn about the lives and spiritual quest of the Buddha's nuns or female followers, known as “Bhikkhunis”. An account of the arrival of the first Bhikkhunis is told in chapter fourty-five of Old Path, White Clouds, a re-telling of the Buddha’s life story, by Thich Nhat Hahn, as follows:
"Early one morning on his way to the lake to get some water, Ananda met
Gotami and fifty other women standing not far from the Buddha’s hut.
Every woman had shaved her head and was wearing a yellow robe. Their
feet were swollen and bloody. At first glance, Ananda thought it was a
delegation of monks, but suddenly he recognized Lady Gotami. Hardly able
to believe his eyes, he blurted out, “Good heavens, Lady Gotami! Where
have you come from? Why are your feet so bloody? Why have you and all
the ladies some here like this? Gotami answered: “Venerable Ananda, we
have shaved our heads and given away all our fine clothes and jewels. We
no longer have any possessions in this world. We left Kapilavatthu and have
walked for fifteen days, sleeping by the roadsides and begging for our food
in small villages along the way. We wish to show that we are capable of
living like bhikkhus. I beseech you, Ananda. Please speak to the Buddha on
our behalf. We wish to be ordained as nuns.”
It is quite fascinating that the Therigatha provides more detail about the lives of the early Buddhist nuns than we know about the Buddha’s closest monastic companions – including such familiar names as Sariputta, Anuruddha and Moggallana. Have you heard of Bhadda, Vimala, Yasodhara and Mahapajapati
Gotami? Perhaps it is time to be introduced.
Among them were women of royal family, slaves, untouchables, prostitutes, courtesans, and spiritual seekers from other religious sects. They included the displaced wives, royal concubines, sisters, and daughters of the men who followed the Buddha into a life of “homelessness”, as well as female relatives of the Buddha himself - including his wife and his foster mother.
Much of the Therigatha consists of poems commemorating the life and enlightenment experiences of each woman. In fact, the earliest English translation refers to them as “Psalms,” like the “Psalms of King David” found in the Old Testament Bible.
These early Buddhist women, even when grieving over a lost child or a failed marriage, do not see themselves as victims. Instead, they turn their hardships and tragedies into steps on the spiritual path. Vasetthi, for example, was so deeply tormented over the loss of her son that she:
wandered the streets
naked with wild hair
and lived on trash heaps, in a graveyard,
and by the highways.
But by the end of the poem, she has “realized great joy” by making the Buddha’s
teachings her life practice. The nuns also speak with self-confidence about the
most painful moments of their lives. As Canda says:
I was in a bad way
no children, no friends,
no relations to give me food and
Touchingly, the poems include final words of enlightenment on behalf of an unnamed elderly women, or
“She Who Went Forth Later in Life”:
Sleep softly, old lady,
wrapped in the robe you sewed yourself;
for your desire has been quelled,
you’re cooled and quenched.
Many of the issues faced by these women are as vital today as they were twenty-five hundred years ago. They speak of growing old, of depression, motherhood, childlessness and menopause, of temptation and of loss. They reject materialism and celebrate friendship and community. The spirit that permeates their poems is fiercely antihierarchical. The words of the Venerable nun Nanda ring out:
"Get rid of the tendency
to judge yourself
above, below or
equal to others".
From the very beginning, women have realized the truth of their own Buddha nature and demonstrated indisputable spiritual accomplishment. They manifested leadership - including the authority to organize themselves, to teach the Dharma, to hold positions within the Sangha and to lead others in the practice. The many hundreds of nuns who followed the path during the Buddha’s lifetime lived a simple way of life, just as the monks did, reminding us to take up a sustainable way of living.
Following their introduction into the Sangha, many nuns were recognized by the Buddha himself for their spiritual attainments, including brilliant Dharma discourse, deep wisdom, compassion and insight. They did so in spite of the prejudice of the society in which they lived and initial reluctance on the part of the
exclusively-male Sangha in which they took their rightful place. These women thought and acted for themselves, seek and attaining an enlightened life. In short, from the very beginning, women have co-created Buddhist practice as we know it today.
To learn more about our female Buddhist ancestors, here are several readings which have the Therigatha as their source material:
(1) MURCOTT, Susan.
The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha.
Parallax Press. 1991. This book includes some of the fascinating stories associated with the first Buddhist nuns, which offers us insight into the amazing lives they lived. It also includes some historic context and commentary, which allows us to better understand the significance of their spiritual accomplishments.
(2) The Lives of the Elder Nuns – (*NEED REFERENCES for the book: Author, Press and date) This book is available at the Mt. Adams Zen Temple gift and book shop (at the entryway). It includes the history and words of many of the first Buddhist nuns.
In addition, there are several free translations of the Therigatha available on-line.
A NOTE ON TRANSLATIONS: Just like the English translations of the rest of the Pali Canon, the readability of the translations of the Therigatha varies. If you have difficulty with one translation, it is worth seeking another one that speaks to you.