Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women
Translated by Charles Hallisey
Harvard University Press, 2015
336 pp.;$29.95 (Cloth)
Not many people resort for counsel to the songs (gathas) of the elder women, the theri, of Buddhism. Poets once in a while take to their poems, as they might to Sappho and Corinna from Greece, or to Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki from Japan—women who wrote at the outset of a great classical tradition. But on the whole modern Buddhists say little about these women, the earliest female Buddhist practitioners, who in their songs left behind vivid accounts of their anguished lives, resolute quests, and crisp realization. Collectively, their songs are known as the Therigatha (“verses of the elder women”): a compilation of mind-bending poems that is the earliest anthology of women’s spiritual poetry. Charles Hallisey, a lecturer on Buddhist literature at Harvard University, has just published a good, streamlined, bilingual version of it, as one of the inaugural volumes of Harvard’s new Murty Classical Library of India, a project that aims to release translations of 500 works of Indian literature over the next century.
The Buddhist canon holds a companion volume, the Theragatha, poems of the first Buddhist men. Early Western commentators refer to these disciples as monks and nuns, which is not really accurate. They did not reside in a monastery. In fact, they lived nowhere, a wandering herd of mendicants following the homeless life. At certain times they would gather to hear the Buddha speak, then break into small bands to spread his ideas. They owned a few key items, generally listed as three: a patchwork robe, a begging bowl, and a razor for tonsuring the head.
Most of the theris were direct students of Shakyamuni Buddha. Some took vows with women close to him, including his own mother, Pajapati. They wandered the dirt tracks and ox-cart highways of India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Probably they composed their gathas—songs or poems (the word can mean either)—in the Magadhi language. These were passed along orally until 80 BCE, when they were written down in Pali, the literary language that became the repository for early Buddhist scripture. None of the Buddhist texts or, for that matter, rock-carved images of the day suggest they carried books or notebooks. It’s a good indication that the poems were indeed spoken aloud, and not written. But at this distance in time we have no way of knowing for sure whether the theris sang, chanted, or recited the gathas; whether they ritually sang them in groups, repeated them as mantras, or ruminated on them in solitude.
What we can deduce is that one practice these women followed was to compose a kind of enlightenment verse. Archaic India made continual use of language that rises above or dips beneath conscious understanding. Yoga, tantra, poetics, mantra, magical syllables—all found subliminal ways of affecting the listener; ways in which words exceed their meanings. When heard, the poems create echoes, shadows, hair-raising sensations. It is quite possible that the early Buddhist gathas were formed not just to tell a harrowing story—as many accounts of these women’s lives do—or to give literal instruction, but to transmit an electric flash of insight. A poem, after all, is a state of mind.
The Therigatha’s distinction as a volume of exclusively women’s poetry likely brought about its first translation into English, in 1909, by the British Pali scholar and feminist Caroline Rhys Davids, who titled itThe Psalms of the Sisters. Rhys Davids served nearly 20 years as president of the Pali Text Society in London, a group of scholars, visionaries, dreamers, poets, and oddballs. She ardently practiced Spiritualism, performing psychic communication and participating in séances, which colored her writings on Buddhist thought. She also insisted that one of the basic tenets of Buddhism—anatta, or the absence of a permanent unchanging self—was a hoax, a late insertion to Buddhist philosophy. Useful at the time, her translations read poorly today—a muddle of neo-Victorian verse and quasi-biblical language, with traces of occult belief.
In 1991 Susan Murcott, a meditation teacher, peace activist, water engineer, and research scientist at MIT, published The First Buddhist Women, a translation and commentary on the same poems. Murcott shifted the originals around. They’d come in the form of palm leaf manuscripts, grouped into poems of various lengths—one-stanza poems, two-stanza, and so forth—which she found boring, useful for conserving an oral tradition, but unimaginative. She arranged them into themes: old women, wives and mothers, prostitutes. Her translations read clearly and lie embedded in extensive commentary. Her book is really a volume of dharma talks that use the poems as reference points.
Now, over two decades later, we have Charles Hallisey’s translation, which is the first I know, outside India, to include the original verse. Pali, cognate to Sanskrit, can be put into any of a range of alphabets, so long as the script reproduces the sounds accurately. Here the original poems appear in roman script, so if you don’t know how to read Devanagari or any of the other Indic writing systems, that’s OK. You can sound out the originals from this book.
In its traditional arrangement, the Therigatha bears that pragmatic organization Murcott found unimaginative. First come gathas of one stanza (stanzas occur as two lines in the original, or once in a while three lines); then come gathas of two stanzas, three, four, and on to “poems with about twenty stanzas,” about thirty stanzas, then forty. The book is capped with “The Great Chapter,” a poem 13 pages long. Hallisey keeps this traditional arrangement, an order that may have been devised by the Buddhist commentator Dhammapala (c. 5th century CE), who also provided a great many background stories, which he fitted on as prose introductions to the poems. The stories, which he picked up from oral tradition, seem of a piece with the poems. They are rife with biography, folklore, heartrending events; they are brisk, colorful, spicy. In Buddhist tradition, though, while the Therigatha poems are canonical, the background stories provided by Dhammapala are not viewed as scripture. Thus, Hallisey, in his edition, has kept the poems together, unadorned, and gives the background stories in notes at the end.
Unfortunately, when you separate the stories from the gathas, some of the poems lose their impact. Take this gatha by Kisagotami, who, while talking to herself, gives voice to something chilling but doesn’t say exactly what:
Wretched woman, your family is dead too,
suffering without end has been yours,
your tears have flowed
for thousands of births.
What does not appear in her poem, but only in Hallisey’s endnote, is her scorching and finally liberating confrontation with death. Born poor, to a low-caste family, Kisagotami had married early, into a family who treated her cruelly because of her low status. She eventually gave birth to a son, the reason she would have been tolerated by the new family at all, and the in-laws treated her better. But the child died and Kisagotami went mad. She had lost everything. She took the little body onto the streets and like some Crazy Jane accosted everyone she met, asking for a medicine that could heal the lifeless child. Someone pointed her toward the Buddha and she went to find him. Approaching in a delirium, she begged for medicine to cure her son. I can make such a medicine, the Buddha told her, but you must fetch me a white mustard seed from a house where nobody has died. She lurched from house to house, in search of a family untouched by death. But every house had experienced “more deaths than could be counted.” Not one had been spared. Finally the truth sank in and restored her to sanity. Done now with her abusive in-laws and her hateful husband, no longer insane at the death of her son, she took the Buddha as teacher, practiced fiercely, and attained the great goal. The story has circulated for 2,000 years among Buddhists, but few poets have delved into the lore that surrounds the poems. (A little selection I did with the North American poet Anne Waldman in the 1990s is the only attempt by poets listed in Hallisey’s bibliography.) This is too bad, because the gathas cry out to be transformed into living poems.
If you read Hallisey’s new translation, you’ll notice an extraordinary amount of repetition from one woman to another. Repetition, or slight variation. The same terms, the same phrases, circulating from poem to poem. Poetry is a very precise way of transmitting nonverbal states of mind and body by using speech; repetition is one of its secrets. I think it difficult for those of us who grew up in a reading-and-writing culture (and an instant Google look-it-up culture) to sense how oral poems entered a person and became part of the psyche. The women wanted vivid insight compressed into memorable rhythmic language. Thus, the effect of reading Hallisey’s translations feels close to what happens when you play a sequence of old blues songs. Words, images, lines, whole stanzas, echo from one poem to the next. I got my mojo working; born under a bad sign; look out the candyman; the black cat bone.
Like many lyrics that come from an oral tradition, the continual recurrence of words and phrases sets a challenge. If you look at Hallisey’s very readable versions, you’ll notice how short the originals appear compared to the number of words or lines used in English. Partly this is due to the extreme compression of Pali. (As in its cognate, Sanskrit, compound words of nugget-like density occur everywhere.) Partly it’s due to how many specialized terms and formalized phrases the Buddhists used. I think such formulas are seed-words, a sort of magic or protective word-amulet. They are tough to translate, much less explain without losing the coiled, nut-like texture of the original.
The word raga, for example, shows up repeatedly. It’s the same word used for India’s music. It meant “red” in ancient times; then “desire”; then a host of longings, hungers, hankerings. Thirst for pleasure; craving for wild musical tones; powerful urges. Hallisey gives raga as “passion for sex”; this clarifies things but feels limp compared to the original. Tamokkhandham, dark heap or dark skandha (a technical term referring to the composite of psychological and karmic traits that make up a human being), also appears often. Hallisey gives “the mass of mental darkness.” Two words that come paired, dibbacakkhum visodhayum, another formula, he renders, “they cleansed the eye that sees the invisible.” Looking over those compressed terms, you can envision meditations, analyses, debates, as experiences got whittled to precise compact words. Nothing in them seems transparent, not without a fair amount of grounding in what the Buddha taught.
Another practice in the shorter Therigatha poems that might require some investigation is the magic of religious naming, in which women received spiritual names, often directly from the Buddha. These naming poems seem the slightest in this collection, until you dig a bit deeper and see they are based on puns, hidden meanings, and tiny magical codes of syllable. I think the poems served as personal mantras that would have kept the singer from stumbling on the spiritual path. “The name you are called by means friend, Mitta.” “The name you are called by means auspicious, Bhadra.” Both of these poems, each only two lines in Pali, have the same second line, a kind of fast-paced recitation of instruction. It takes Hallisey five lines to wrestle out meaning from the single other Pali line, as though he’d released a cobra from a pebble.
The most intriguing of these naming poems is Mutta’s verse—“the name I am called by means freed.” It contains a kind of wry, witty insult. She sings, “I am quite free, well-free from three crooked things, / mortar, pestle, and husband with his own crooked thing.” Mortar and pestle in old India stood for a woman’s grinding labor. They also show up in several old Indian poems as an image of sexual violence. In fact, a surprising number of the theris’ songs show the woman’s relief in springing free from her husband. This was not a society given much to romantic love, especially among ordinary people. In a rigid social system based on caste and arranged marriage, a husband was often just a kind of owner of his wife; she was generally consigned to childbearing and household tasks, left at the mercy of her mother-in-law, who ran the household. Violence and sex would have been inseparable for some. At home the women might have felt more like chattel than wives.
Possibly a direct response to Mutta’s song of the three crooked things is by a woman known as Sumangala’s Mother:
I too am well-freed from the pestle;
my shameless husband, even the sunshade he worked under,
and my pot that stinks like a water snake all disgust me.
As I destroyed anger and the passion for sex,
I was reminded of the sound of bamboo being split,
I go to the foot of a tree and think, “Ah, happiness,”
and from within that happiness, I begin to meditate.
Moments like that leap out. Who could forget the stinking pot? It is a detail as sharp and compressed as haiku. Long after we’ve given away our books and forgotten the complicated metaphysics and analyses that fill up Buddhist lectures, that pot will stink like a water snake. And the crack of bamboo? Cicciti ciccititi vihanami! A child would make a nursery song of those words: Crack! crack! the bamboo!
Hallisey’s translation of the Therigatha is one of the first publications of the Murty Classical Library of India. The decorated India scholar Sheldon Pollock serves as general editor, and the whole effort is thanks to what must be an enormous grant from the computer scientist Rohan Narayana Murty. All of the Library’s publications will be bilingual, with texts from a range of languages, including Sanskrit, Pali, Panjabi, Persian, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Urdu. The wise decision to make the volumes bilingual means that anyone with a bit of training can use them, and libraries across North America can carry works of Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi spirituality, as well as mythology, history, secular poetry, plays, epics, whatever the subcontinent has produced that could be thought classical.
I wonder what the early Buddhist women would have thought of the Murty enterprise. It places them in a bright historical pageant, teeming with religion, folklore, literature, ranging through dozens of languages. It would have seemed huge to them, a gigantic roiling samsara. They probably did not think of themselves as classical. They certainly did not foresee vast libraries and search engines on some far-off continent. Their songs were matters of life and death, this present moment, not literary manuscript. The draw of their individual poems has little to do with that stormy pageant. It resides in the distinct voices, crying out a personal pain and hope, like a flash of purple lightning from a far-off time: a shivery image, a hard-won victory.
Whatever solace Buddhism provides does not yield easily, and these women’s poetry shows how hard it is to come out victorious. A figure that emerges in several of the longer, ballad-like gathas is Mara, the tempter. His name means “death,” or “death-in-life.” If he can’t scare the women from their resolve, he tries to lure them with offers of unforgettable sexual pleasure. When he confronts Uppalavanna, she does something formidable: she turns the tables. Here is the type of courage you get from the Therigatha—it’s what makes Hallisey’s collection worth reading. Facing Mara, the lady levels her gaze:
Maybe I will just disappear
or maybe I will get inside your belly,
maybe I will stand between your eyebrows,
but wherever it may be,
you won’t see
where I am standing.
I have my mind under control,
powers beyond normal are mine to use,
the six powers have been attained by me,
the teaching of the Buddha is done.
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