Ambapali was a courtesan living in the city of Vesali who is portrayed in the Pali literature as a woman of considerable wealth and influence. She had been left to die as a baby in a mango (amba) grove, no doubt the illegitimate offspring of influential people, but was discovered and rescued by the gardener or guardian (pali) of the mango grove, from whom she got her name. She grew up to be a woman of great beauty, and princes fought over who would have the privilege of marrying her. Their disputes were settled only when she became a courtesan and could be shared by them all. She received large sums for her companionship because of her beauty and accomplishment, and she became famous throughout the land.
We are told that she had a son by Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, and when he reached the appropriate age he joined the Buddha’s order of monks. Ambapali heard the Buddha’s teaching from her son at some point and became herself a great follower and supporter of the Buddha. On his last visit to Vesali, she met with him in person, prepared a meal for him and his followers at her house the next day, and donated to the order of monks a park of considerable value that became known as Ambapali’s Park.
Ambapali left us 20 stanzas of poetry in the Therigatha, the collection of verses by the earliest women followers of the Buddha. Presumably composed when she was very old, well after the passing of the Buddha, her verses speak of the former beauty of her body, noting how each feature has withered with age. Each verse concludes with the same line, stating that she is only saying what is true, nothing more. We do not get the impression that she is lamenting the loss of her beauty or complaining about the current state of her great age; her wisdom has carried her beyond such things. Rather, she is just speaking the truth of impermanence and of the inevitable changes of the human body.
So how do we gain access to the heart of this woman? How do we reach across the many degrees of separation that stand between the time of her composing these verses in ancient India and the moment of our reading or hearing them today? These are questions of translation.
All the early Buddhist texts that now make up the Pali canon were originally passed on orally for centuries, so that what was received from the Buddha and the first generation of his followers (5th to 4th centuries BCE) was not written down in Sri Lanka until about three hundred years later. The earliest manuscripts tended to present the letters (more precisely, the syllables) in an uninterrupted stream, and so the Pali language has no capitalization, no punctuation, and not even any breaks between words. These are all conventions created by later editors. Thus in its rawest form the first stanza of Ambapali’s poem, transliterated into our own alphabet, would look something like this:
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