Poets are magpie scholars.

They follow their obsessions.

I am obsessed with what I call “hag energy” and am constantly on the scent of the ripened and withered female adept who cackles and rejoices in her freedom, going “beyond” her own vanity, grasping, fixation. The dakini, a Tantric energy principle, frequently manifests as hag, both a survivor and a teacher, who appears in old-woman guise as a means to waken the concept bound mind-sets around her. Her ugliness, her cronelike appearance, is a challenge to anyone. The 11th-century teacher Tilopa appeared to his principal student, the great Indian Buddhist scholar and yogi Naropa, as a hag. From the Buddhist perspective, the hag’s appearance is a teaching on the nature of impermanence. Every young woman, when she looks in the mirror, should see her face wise with desiccation. This is not a morbid suggestion. On the contrary, it’s recommended that as human beings we be “haunted by impermanence.” It generates compassion for others, makes you more generous, less stingy. There’s a Buddhist ceremony called the amrit-kundali, in which children are blessed and splashed with a ritually prepared liqueur of deathlessness as they stand in front of a mirror. The “zap” is meant to cut their perception of themselves as solid entities, disclosing the insubstantiality of their projections, in this case the mirrored reflection.

Sangha Speaks

Home I’ve left
Child I’ve left
Cherished herds—far behind Lust—even lust—left
Left ill will too
Gone ignorance
Ignorance back off
I’m okay without you


Soma

It’s hard to get
the perspective of a sage A two-fingered woman’s intelligence won’t do
(like the child-woman who needs to
test the rice with 2 fingers)
Should being a woman be a problem?
No! My mind’s set
I’ve insight on the Path
I’ve seen the woman light


Tissa Speaks to Herself

Tissa,
Get with it
Don’t let “it”
pass you by

Those who miss “it”
grieve
when they’re
stuck in hell

When I first came to the Therigatha, or the Psalms of the Sisters, I couldn’t believe my ears. Here were texts composed on the tongue by Buddhist women that captivated my attention and imagination so completely that I could literally feel their presences hovering close by. These women seemed vivid inhabitants of the apparitional realm or “enjoyment body” the Buddhists call sambhogakaya, whose attributes are compassion and communication. The poems—really a collection of many diverse expressions of spiritual aspiration—were based on a much earlier oral tradition.

Legend places some at the time of the Buddha, though they were not committed to writing until 80 B.C.E., when they entered the Pali canon. There is difficulty ascertaining the historicity of the Sisters; to further complicate matters, the legends occasionally extend back to the nuns’ former lives. The prenatal legends, rich and luminous, apparently derive from distant unknown sources. There is a good deal of conjecture about the texts. Some of the poems seem to reveal the hand of deliberate literary artifice. Some use tag phrases, Buddhist slogans, party-line didacticisms. yet what sings through are the goading circumstances that drive women to seek the dharma and the relief they feel having entered upon their chosen path. “Free at last” is the most common refrain.

These tender and tough poems reflect an active community of women who breathed the spiritual atmosphere, who chose anagarika, or the homeless life, as an alternative to prostitution, widowhood, despotic marriages, or to a life spent grieving over a dead child. These women were not virgins; they weathered life in real and very dramatic ways, and ultimately woke to the “wisdom eye.” They understood, they lived, and they crossed over the “truth of suffering.” One of my favorite poems is by Subha, in which the nun upon entering the tantalizing Jivakamba man- go-grove is accosted by a young lothario, who engages her in a lengthy debate concerning the celibate versus the sensual life. Aroused by her dark lovely eyes, he seems about to rape her, at which point she plucks out one of her eyeballs. He recoils in horror, his amorous advances thwarted. This is a priceless and shocking and luminous detail, be it actual or legendary, and carries the sting of the hag. Another favorite is the dramatic monologue of the aging excourtesan Ambapali. Singing of the inevitability of beauty’s decay, her poem is every woman’s nightmare, every woman’s liberation. Again, the stain of the hag.

Not being a scholar of Pali, and the type of Pali of the Therigatha being of a particularly ancient type, I’ve relied on earlier, largely outdated translations, as well as brief excursions into relevant documentation of the period. I’ve also consulted with Buddhist scholar-translators, hoping to arrive at modest and highly personal versions that might carry some of the original energy and aspiration of these cheerful and authoritative “awakening ones.”

Citta Speaks

(Heaping up good karma in many lives
Citta had been born
a fairy in the 94th aeon)

Although I’m thin & weak
Spring in my once lively gait gone
I’ve climbed the mountain
leaning on my walking stick
I throw the cloak off my shoulder
Overturn the little begging bowl
Against this rock I lean & prop
the self of me
Break through the gloom
that boxed me in AHHHHHHH


Virnala,
the Former Courtesan, Speaks

I used to be puffed up
high on my good looks
intoxicated by a great complexion
my figure, my beauty …
I was haughty, vain,
looked down on other women
I was very young
All painted up
I stood at the brothel door
(like a hunter laying snares, showing my wares)
Many a secret place was revealed I conjured, I mocked people Today I’m bald
Clad in an outer robe,
I go begging
Sitting at the foot of a tree,
I’m not even reasoning anymore All ties have been cut
I said, cut


Mutta Speaks

I’m free. Ecstatically free
free from three crooked things:
the mortar
the pestle
& my hunchbacked husband
All that drags me back is cut-cut!


Ambapali Speaks

Once my hair was black like the color of bees
Alive—curly
Now it is dry like bark fibers of hemp
I’m getting old
This is true, I tell you the truth

Covered with flowers, my head was fragrant
Like a perfumed box
Now, because of old age, it smells like dog’s fur
Thick like a grove it used to be beautiful—
Ends parted by comb & pin
Now it’s thin, I’m telling the truth

This was a head with fine pins once,
Decorated with gold, plaited, so beautiful
Now bald

My eyebrows were like crescents
Exquisitely painted by artists
Now because of old age they droop down with wrinkles
Ah, I’m telling the truth

My eyes used to be shiny, brilliant as jewels
Now they don’t look so good

My nose was like a delicate peak
Now it’s a long pepper
This scarecrow is telling the truth

My earlobes once—can you believe it?
Were like well-fashioned bracelets
Now they’re heavy with creases

Formerly my teeth were pearly white
like the bud of a plantain
Now they’re broken & yellow
Indeed, this is the truth

Sweet was my singing like the cuckoo in the grove
Now my voice cracks & falters
Hear it? These words are true

My neck used to be soft like a well-rubbed
conch shell
Now it bends, broken

My arms were round like crossbars
Now they’re weak as the petali tree

My hands were gorgeous—they used to be
used to be gorgeous—
Covered with signet rings, decorated with gold
Now they are like onions & radishes
This is true, I tell you

Formerly my breasts looked great—
round, swelling, close together, lofty
Now they hang down like waterless waterbags

My body used to be as shiny as a sheet of gold
Now it is covered with very fine wrinkles

Both thighs—& this was once considered a compliment—
looked like elephants’ trunks—very interesting
I swear I’m telling the truth
Now they’re like stalks of bamboo

My calves too, like stalks of sesame

My feet used to be elegant
like shoes of soft cotton wool
Now they are cracked & wrinkled
This hag speaks true

Once I had the body of a queen
Now it’s lowly, decrepit, an old house
plaster falling off
Sad, but true

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