Verses of the Senior Nuns: a reflective life

Verses of the Senior Nuns: a reflective life

Bhikkhu Sujato, 2022

  1. The Complex Question of Authorship
  2. The Therīgāthā as a Women’s Text
  3. A Celebration of Freedom
  4. The Dramatic Verses
  5. A Brief Textual History

The Therīgāthā or “Verses of the Senior Nuns” is the ninth book in the Khuddhaka Nikāya of the Pali Canon or Tipiṭaka. It is a collection of 522 verses associated with seventy-three senior nuns, most of whom were alive in the Buddha’s time.

These verses celebrate the bliss of freedom and the life of meditation, full of proud and joyous proclamations of their spiritual attainments and their gratitude to other nuns as guides and teachers. The verses express the Dhamma through images that are immediate and personal. They speak of the fading of the hair’s lustre rather than of impermanence; of the trembling of failing limbs rather than of old age; of “searing and sizzling” greed and hate rather than abandoning them.

The Therīgāthā is one of the oldest spiritual texts that record primarily women’s voices. It stems from the same general period as the Hebraic Books of Ruth and Esther, and like those books, it is a natural touchstone for those who wish to reflect on women’s roles in ancient religion.

It is a pair with the Theragāthā, the “Verses of the Senior Monks”. Together these collections constitute one of the oldest and largest records of the voices of contemplatives.

The verses mostly stem from the time of the Buddha or a little later. Some have tried to argue that these collections were generally somewhat late. But it should be noted that in the Introduction to his 1971 translation, K.R. Norman, with his unparalleled historical and linguistic expertise, dismissed most of the arguments for lateness. He accepted that most of the nuns were alive during or soon after the Buddha’s time, and identified archaic Magadhī features in some verses. He concluded that the text was probably composed over a three hundred year period from the late 6th century to the late 3rd century.

However, this appears to rely on the so-called “long chronology” of the Buddha’s life, which puts his death around 480 BCE. Under the “median chronology” which is accepted by many scholars currently, the Buddha’s death was closer to 400 BCE. Adjusting for this, and noting that Norman rejects the argument that any of the texts must be post-Ashokan, we should probably round the period of composition closer to two centuries, from the mid-5th century to the mid-3rd century. Most of the verses stem from the early period, with only a few, readily identifiable, texts being added in the later stages.

In my introduction to the Theragāthā, I gave a general background. Most of those remarks apply equally here, so in this essay, I will focus on those things that are specific to the Therīgāthā and refer you to the Theragāthā for the basics.

The Complex Question of Authorship

It’s unfortunate that, even within the limited scope of the Therīgāthā, one of the shorter verse collections in the canon, many of the verses are not, in fact, by the nuns themselves. It’s difficult to count the number exactly, as attribution is not always clear, but roughly 100 of the 524 verses are not actually by the bhikkhunis. Rather, they were spoken to them by the Buddha or another interlocutor, or about them by a third party or narrator. In a few cases (noted below) the commentary says verses were added by the redactors at the Council.

In other cases, even where the bhikkhunis are speaking, the verses echo or paraphrase teachings from elsewhere in the canon. There is also some confusion about to whom certain verses belong. Some of the nuns share the same name; in other cases the name is unknown. Certain verses are sometimes said to be spoken by certain bhikkhunis—in the Therīgāthā, the Bhikkhunī Saṁyutta, the Apadāna, or the commentary—yet they do not appear under those names in the Therīgāthā itself.

Some of the bhikkhunis appear both in the Therīgāthā and the Bhikkhunī Saṁyutta (SN 5). The selected verses there are framed as a series of encounters between ten of the nuns and Māra in the Dark Forest near Sāvatthī. The verses are mostly similar to the corresponding portions of the Therīgāthā. But some of them appear in a slightly different form, while in other cases, especially the “Cālā” sisters (Cālā, Upacālā, and Sīsūpacālā), the verses are assigned to different nuns.

There was no copyright in the Buddha’s day, and everyone, including the Buddha, freely repeated the sayings of others. The nuns were no different. What are we to draw from this? On the one hand, we would love to hear more about the lives and personal experiences of the nuns, making the few cases where they do speak of these things even more precious. On the other hand, it shows that for the nuns, what mattered was the Dhamma, not their own lives. If we over-personalize and over-dramatize their lives, making that the centrepiece, we are not listening to what they are trying to tell us.

In most cases, we know little about the nuns apart from the verses themselves. In some cases, the nuns are known from elsewhere in the Suttas or Vinaya, and in addition, some information, albeit legendary, is added by the commentary. All this must be handled with care.

The Therīgāthā as a Women’s Text

The Therīgāthā is feminist in the sense of foregrounding women’s voices and experiences, and on occasion pointing to the specific ways that the suffering of women is due to gendered discrimination. The overall tenor of the Therīgāthā is vibrant, proud, and celebratory. At the same time, though, these are the voices of women in a very different time and place whose words do not exist to serve our agendas. There’s nothing feminist about eliding, paraphrasing, or interpreting away the voices of women because they’re not saying what we would want them to say.

The Therīgāthā remains our primary source of information about ancient nuns, along with the Vinaya, the code of monastic discipline. The Therīgāthā presents women generally in a positive light and in their own voices, whereas the Vinaya is by its nature concerned with bad behaviour. In addition, the Vinaya has been passed down through the monks’ community and bears the signs of their editorial hand, but this is not the case in the Therīgāthā.

Let’s look at an example of how the monks’ editorial hand reveals itself in the Vinaya. The Vinaya retains a terminology around women’s ordination that is quite distinct from that of the monks. Where the monks call their preceptor an upajjhāya, the nuns have pavattinī. Where the monks’ student is a saddhivihārī, for the nuns it is sahajīvinī. And while the monks call ordination upasampadā, the nuns call it vuṭṭhāpana.

How are these terms related? To understand this we need to know that the Vinaya texts are historically layered. The most clear-cut example of this is the distinction between the monastic rules (pātimokkha) and the analysis of those rules (vibhaṅga), which evolved after the rules were laid down. This was established by scholars in the 19th century, and the evidence that has come to light since then—such as comparative studies of different Vinayas—has confirmed the validity of the original insight. It is based on multiple independent grounds and is one of the firmest and most widely accepted consensus opinions in Buddhist studies.

Now, what we find when we look at these different layers is that in the portions that are earlier, such as the list of rules (pātimokkha), the nuns’ special terms are used. In the portions we know are later, such as the analysis of the rules (vibhaṅga), the nuns’ special terms are explained as being equivalent to the monks’ terms. In other words, the monk editors explained the unfamiliar bhikkhunī vocabulary in terms that they understood. What they didn’t do, however, was go back and change the pātimokkha itself, even though it would have been a simple and perhaps justifiable standardization. In some schools, this may have happened, but in the Pali, it didn’t: the Theravāda school was particularly scrupulous about such things.

It is the term for ordination itself that is the most significant here. The meaning of the word itself doesn’t matter. What matters is contextual usage. When the nuns’ word vuṭṭhāpana is used, only nuns are mentioned as performing ordination. When the monks’ word upasampadā is used, nuns’ ordination must be performed by both nuns and monks. In other words, a procedure which was originally done by nuns for themselves was usurped by the monks, who made themselves the gatekeepers for the ordination of nuns, and hence controlled who can be a nun and who cannot. Since ordination is the only way that a celibate community can “reproduce”, this is a vital issue of reproductive rights for the nuns’ community.

So when the monks made changes to the bhikkhunī Vinaya texts, they left traces. We have reasonably firm grounds for identifying such changes, and when we do, they pertain to the later layers of the text. And we have no similar grounds for saying that the editorial hand of the monks is visible in the Therīgāthā; for example, there is no mention of monks ordaining nuns. For this reason, if we want to understand the life of the bhikkhunis, the Therīgāthā must be our primary source, not the Vinaya.

The Therīgāthā offers a clear and inspiring call to the spiritual life, one that belongs firmly to the women. In modern times, it has become a key text in developing feminist perspectives on early Buddhism as history, and on modern Buddhism as potential. These voices have foregrounded the Therīgāthā in new ways, opening a new chapter in Buddhism, one that better represents the full spectrum of Buddhist practitioners both in ancient times and the present. Yet academic feminist studies are undermined by a lack of familiarity with the source material, which leaves them riddled with factual errors and mistaken assumptions. On such shaky ground, they read theory into the text, all too often eliding the voices of the women instead of hearing them. These theory-laden readings become rapidly outdated as the preoccupations of gender studies shifts, with the only constant factor being that the lives, voices, and beliefs of the ancient bhikkhunīs are subject to judgment and scrutiny by modern theorists, while modern theory is never subject to scrutiny in light of the words of the ancient bhikkhunīs.

One systematic problem that dogs studies of gender in the Therīgāthā is credulous reliance on the commentary by Dhammapāla. The commentary stems from a millennium later, in a different country thousands of kilometres away. Yet it is too often treated as a reliable record of information about the nuns’ lives. It isn’t. Unless a story has independent corroboration in other sources—and few of them do—the stories depicted in the commentary should be regarded only as the stories told about the bhikkhunis in the Theravāda community. They tell us not about the bhikkhunis, but about how the commentators, who of course were male, responded to the lives and teachings of the ancient nuns of legend.

The very first verse of the Therīgāthā illustrates this well (Thig 1.1. A similar verse at Thig 1.16 is spoken to an elder nun.) The text attributes it only to a certain unnamed nun, identifying neither the speaker nor the nun spoken to.

Sleep softly, little nun,
wrapped in the cloth you sewed yourself;
for your desire has been quelled,
like vegetables boiled dry in a pot.

The words record a tender and personal moment between two women with a rare warmth and intimacy. The kitchen metaphor speaks to a shared experience, an assumed closeness. The speaker is a woman who is drawing from her life and who does not need a man’s authority to express words of gentle comfort. Her friend is lying down to sleep; perhaps the sleepy nun is unwell, or perhaps she is weary after a long journey or hard work. The verse has a tenderness that belies the confidence of what she is saying. She addresses the sleepy nun with the unique diminutive therike (“little nun”), but she employs this familiar form to affirm her friend’s enlightenment. It is at once bold and quiet, understated and momentous.

We know so little about these women that even to know that her name was unknown is a significant detail. But the commentary, relentlessly backfilling the spaces in the text, says she was actually named Therikā even before ordaining, due to her sturdy body (the root can carry the sense of either seniority or solidity). The commentary is not consistent on this point, as it sometimes also refers to her as an unnamed nun. This indicates that there were multiple commentarial sources whose viewpoints are not fully resolved in Dhammapāla’s edition.

The commentary goes on to identify her with the so-called “Maṇḍapadāyikā” of the Therīpadāna (Thi Ap 3). But the name Maṇḍapadāyikā is obviously artificial: it just means “giver of a pavilion”. Late texts like the Apadānas often invent names to frame a pious story of making merit. Since there never was anyone called Maṇḍapadāyikā, the name is conveniently available for identification with our unknown nun of the Therīgāthā. Once that is done, the commentary can trace her spiritual path to an act of merit in a far distant age of a past Buddha: a woman’s journey must begin with an act of service to a man.

The commentary then tells us that in this, her final life, she was married to a husband who would not agree to her desire to go forth, until a conflagration in the kitchen caused her to deepen her insight into Dhamma and reject sensual desires. After this, seeing that normal home life was now impossible, her husband allowed her to go forth. She cannot decide for herself but must rely on a man’s choice. Now, of course, there is a long history of women being subject to the choices of their husbands. But there is an equally long history of men compiling texts that frame women’s compliance as a sacred duty. The verse itself says nothing of a husband, so the commentary must reframe her story to fit the moralizing expectations of the male commentators.

Remember, this is the first text in the Therīgāthā. The commentary is not just explaining this verse: it is setting expectations for the whole collection and by implication, the whole bhikkhuni order. The permission of the husband is one of the criteria for women’s ordination that was added to the Vinaya at some point, just as the requirement that ordination is certified by monks was added. The commentator is deliberately importing this despite its irrelevance to the text, making us read the Therīgāthā through the lens of the Vinaya, reminding students that compliance with male authority is required before a woman may take ordination and seek freedom. It has to do this because nowhere in the Therīgāthā is there anything about getting permission from a husband.

Indeed, husbands make an appearance in only a few poems: as a loved one tragically lost (Thig 10.1), as a lazy ingrate (Thig 15.1), or as an object of disgust (Thig 1.11, Thig 2.3). Sometimes a husband is not mentioned even when we might expect it, as in the verses of the nuns Saṅghā (Thig 1.18), Sakulā (Thig 5.7), and Guttā (Thig 6.7), which speak of leaving behind all that they find dear—home, children, and wealth. Or else take the poem of Bhaddā Kāpilānī, where she begins by praising the spectacular attainments of her former husband, Kassapa, only to boldly claim to have realized the exact same attainments (Thig 4.1). She’s not speaking of her need to get his permission, but of the fact of her spiritual equality. In other poems, it is the husband who is set on his path by the wife (Thig 13.4).

Returning to the commentarial account of our sleepy nun, it says that after her ordination, she was brought to the Buddha, who spoke the verse. This is highly incongruous: why is the Buddha talking to her about sleeping? There’s nothing in the backstory to justify it. The verse sounds like the voice of a friend to a friend, not like the address of a teacher to a student. But for the commentary, the verse belongs to a man.

To sum up: the verse records the fond words of one woman to another. The commentary, ignoring this, claims that she started her path with an offering to a man, invents a husband whose permission she needed to go forth, and attributes her verse to a man.

This doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from the commentary. But it does mean that the voices of the bhikkhunis in the Therīgāthā and the voices of the commentators are two quite different things. The commentary should be critically assessed as a male response to the Therīgāthā, not as an essential framing for it.

When the bhikkhunī Vimalā recalled her former days as a sex worker, she positioned herself, not as the victim of a man, but as the agent of her life (Thig 5.2:3). She had a toxic relationship with other women, despising those less beautiful and famous. And she used her beauty to entice men, laughing at them as she manipulated them to get what she wanted.

akāsiṁ vividhaṃ māyaṁ
I created an intricate illusion

It was through her work, her agency, that she did her job of enticing men. This is no mere sophistic detail, as it speaks to the heart of Buddhism, that we are agents who form our own world, and do not merely passively occupy it. She was the one who choose to create a world of illusion that ensnares, and she was the one who decided to use her wisdom to find the truth that frees.

In the case of the bhikkhunī Khemā, the sensual temptation by a “man” came after she was ordained. The young man—who turned out to be none other than Māra—harassed her, as he did so many of the nuns, playing the nice guy who wants to take her to see a band (Thig 6.3). Khemā objects, pointing out that her body is “rotting, ailing, and frail” and saying that she is “repelled” by it and has given up sensual desires. Māra the “terminator” (antakāra) is summarily vanquished by Khemā’s power. What Khemā sees and Māra does not is that, even while she is still young and beautiful, the body already has the nature of impermanence and decay. She’s not seeing it with the physical eye, but with the eye of insight, while Māra is still trapped in the realm of the senses.

Māra features as the fall guy in several other poems that serve to illustrate the fearlessness of the nuns. They always see through his disguise but rarely does he get taken down as hard as when he tried to gaslight Somā with his sexist putdowns. He tells her that women are too weak to attain the state realized by the sages. Many men have tried this one since, but it doesn’t really work when you’re speaking to a woman who has already attained that goal herself.

What difference does womanhood make
when the mind is serene,
and knowledge is present
as you rightly discern the Dhamma.

The theme of leaving behind womanhood also features in the verses of Mahāpajāpati Gotamī, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother (Thig 6.6). Later generations have seen her as either an icon of womanhood, the founding leader of the female Saṅgha, or else as a morality fable for why women should not be ordained. In the Vinaya, she features at the very start of the bhikkhuni community. And she re-appears throughout the Vinaya as an active force of leadership, a crucial mediator between the nuns and the Buddha.

It is a curious thing, then, that not a single one of the bhikkhunis mentions her at all. They frequently speak of the women who have taught them the Dhamma with gratitude and love, yet Mahāpajāpati somehow never comes up. I believe that this is because she was not, in fact, the founder of the bhikkhuni Saṅgha. I think that she joined the Saṅgha when she was already elderly; that she was conceited about her status as the Buddha’s mother; and that, as was the case for several of the Buddha’s relatives, special rules were laid down to ensure she fitted in properly.

And I think she was raised up as an icon following the Buddha’s death—specifically, around the time of the Second Council—as interest in the Buddha’s teachings waned and interest in his life grew. Her story became the lens through which the story of all the bhikkhunis was seen, as it still is today. Some monks at the time, seeking greater control over the bhikkhuni community, took the rules imposed on her for good reasons, extended them, and applied them to all bhikkhunis for no good reason. These rules dominate patriarchal discourse about bhikkhunis to this day, yet once again, no bhikkhuni in the Therīgāthā sees fit to mention them. The bitter pill was wrapped in a human interest story of drama and pathos. And a spectacular story of Mahāpajāpati’s death was invented for the Apadāna in the hope that people would be distracted by shiny things.

The entire Therīgāthā, including the verses of Mahāpajāpati herself, stands completely outside this discourse. Mahāpajāpati says nothing of her role in founding the bhikkhuni Saṅgha, nor does she acknowledge any of her supposed bhikkhuni students. She doesn’t position herself as a female leader or role model. Instead, her own words send a rather different message.

Previously I was a mother, a son,
a father, a brother, and a grandmother.
Failing to grasp the true nature of things,
I transmigrated without reward.

Since I have seen the Blessed One,
this bag of bones is my last.
Transmigration through births is finished,
now there’ll be no more future lives.

She echoes the famous lines of her son immediately after his awakening when he recalled his long “journey without reward”. It is in not the state of womanhood or any other that freedom is to be found, but only when all such limitations have been left behind.

A Celebration of Freedom

The Therīgāthā is a proud celebration of free women, unembarrassed and unashamed. We have already discussed at some length the first verse of the collection. Here I’d like to highlight some further verses.

The second verse (Thig 1.2) shifts register but keeps the focus on freedom. Here the nun is being addressed and exhorted to find freedom. It’s a simple verse, which doesn’t aim to convey doctrine but to encourage. The rubric (a special tag in prose that follows the verses) identifies the speaker as the Buddha and the nun as a “trainee” (sikkhamānā). This was special ordination status established primarily for girls of eighteen, rather than the usual twenty years for bhikkhunī ordination. Older women are sometimes said to have also undertaken this stage (Thig 5.8). This is to be expected. As Buddhist ordination procedures evolved, requirements introduced for a limited purpose rapidly became applied universally. And I think that is the case here. Certainly not all did, for Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā was called to full ordination directly by the Buddha (Thig 5.9).

Only this verse and Thig 2.1 explicitly say that the nun was not the speaker, and in both cases they were trainees. It suggests that the Buddha himself took the time to give heart to these women who were new on the path, to assure them without hesitation or qualification that they could attain the same freedom that he had found.

The nature of the speaker also affects the reading of the third verse (Thig 1.3). Here, a nun called Puṇṇā is addressed with a similarly bold and encouraging call to destroy ignorance. The tag line that identifies the speaker, however, says that “Puṇṇā” spoke these verses. The commentary, contradicting the rubric, says it was the Buddha speaking. The next series of verses, up to Thig 1.10, are also addressed to the nuns, and according to the commentary, the speaker in all cases was the Buddha. These verses all lack the intimate touch of the opening verse; they rely on standard imagery, and where they are personalized, they merely pun on the women’s names. This is just the kind of thing a teacher would do to personalize teaching if they knew little about them but their name. I do it all the time.

Thig 1.11 brings us the first poem in first person, and a return to the personal voice; a poem, it seems, by a nun for nuns. Rather than the tender comfort of the opening verse, however, here we have what seems to be a winking adaptation of a verse by the monk Sumaṅgala at Thag 1.43. Sumaṅgala celebrates his release from three crooked things—sickles, ploughs, and hoes. It’s pretty straightforward, which is why I think Muttā adapted her verse from there, rather than the other way around. She similarly celebrates her release from three crooked things, one of them being her husband. But that’s only the start of the innuendo. The other “crooked” things are the mortar and pestle. On the surface, it’s an allusion to kitchen drudgery; but inescapably, it’s also about sex. It’s a mortar and pestle.

The line is constructed knowingly, with sly humour; the reader is led to expect a threefold listing of kitchen appliances, then along comes the husband, suddenly recontextualizing what came before. It’s the classic rule of three employed so often when telling jokes.

An odd problem with the line opens up a further layer of innuendo. When the monk describes three crooked things, the tools he mentions are, in fact, crooked. But a mortar and pestle are not crooked; the PTS edition of Rhys Davids’ translation even includes a photo of a distinctly uncrooked mortar and pestle (plate facing page 14). The commentary seems to be aware of this, and it allows that khujja can mean something that is crooked or something that makes you crooked. (Commentary to Thag 1.43: khujjasabhāvehi khujjakērehi vā; commentary to Thig 1.11: khujjakaraṇahetutāya tadubhayaṁ “khujja”nti vuttaṁ.) The commentary explains that the husband was a hunchback and hence is crooked, whereas the kitchen tools make you crooked due to long hours bent over them. If the dual sense proposed by the commentary is to be accepted—and I believe the context demands it—then it’s problematic to translate it as “three crooked things” per Norman and most other translators, for it leaves us with a line that doesn’t quite make sense.

Now, given that the three items in the line work as a whole, and that they aim to set up a punchline about the husband, it makes more sense to me if all three items are things that make you crooked, rather than assuming that the third item, the husband, is crooked. It rather sours the verse if she ends up just making a dig at a disabled husband. I think the point of the verse is more sly: the drudgery of the kitchen bends you over no less than the drudgery in the bedroom.

Most of the poems are much more straightforward. Jentā announces that she has developed all the factors of awakening and will not be reborn (Thig 2.2). An Uttamā makes the same claim, and in addition, claims to be the rightful daughter of the Buddha. Dhammā (Thig 1.17), Cittā (Thig 2.5), and Mettikā (Thig 2.6) speak of the triumph of their insight despite the failing of their bodies. Selā (Thig 3.7) is just one of many nuns who proclaims her triumph over delusion.

Some nuns found peace only after travelling through the depths of despair (Thig 2.10, Thig 3.1, Thig 3.1, Thig 5.1, Thig 5.3, Thig 6.8). Ubbirī is distraught in lamenting her daughter (Thig 3.5), Paṭācārā and Vāseṭṭhī in lamenting a son (Thig 6.1, Thig 6.2), while Sundarī has overcome the grief even at losing many children (Thig 13.4). Candā was a homeless widow who endured seven years of hardship on the streets before meeting a nun to inspire her (Thig 5.12).

This should not be overinterpreted. The women speak of these things to show how they triumphed over them, not to romanticize them or encourage others to follow such a path. Most of the nuns do not have such dramatic stories to tell. For Dantikā, insight came when seeing an elephant at a ford (Thig 3.4); for Paṭācārā, when she saw a lamp going out (Thig 5.10). The experience of suffering as a woman is something that the early Buddhism texts acknowledge with compassion since it is the reality of those women’s lives. It acted as a spur to practice, or simply to contrast the freedom that they now experience. It doesn’t mean that anyone, especially a woman, has to undergo such extremes of suffering.

The long poem of Subhā does not speak of any existential despair. Rather, as a young woman she immediately understood the Dhamma as soon as she heard it (Thig 13.5). Sometimes all it takes is a single teaching. Coming from a wealthy family, she speaks eloquently of the trap of money and how it breeds conflict and corruption. She declares that she will cross over on the same path travelled by the great sages. The poem finishes with verses in her praise. The final verse, which according to the commentary was added by redactors at the Council, attributes the verses of praise to no less a figure than Sakka, the lord of gods.

Not all the verses focus on the personal journey of the women. The verses of Sukkā, for example, record an unnamed third party complaining that too many of the folk of Rājagaha are as if drunk on mead, not paying attention properly to her teaching, which is like nectar of cool water (Thig 3.6). The verses of Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā include praise for a layperson who made much merit by offering a robe to one as holy as her (Thig 5.9).

Puṇṇikā’s poem is not about her path, but about how she gave a lesson to a deluded brahmin (Thig 12.1). The framing of the verses is not quite clear. According to the commentary, the opening verses—where Puṇṇikā tells the brahmin how as a water carrier she feared her mistresses, and proceeds to ask him what he’s afraid of—were spoken by Puṇṇikā before she was ordained as a nun. But the only clear indication of tense is the use of the aorist in the past tense, which suggests, rather, that she is already a nun and is telling an anecdote of her past. This would explain why she speaks with such boldness, and also why the brahmin addresses her with the respectful bhoti. Even though the very basis of his religious beliefs is being challenged, the brahmin listens and responds well. Puṇṇikā’s verses include the classic rebuttal to the efficacy of bathing for purity:

Would not they all go to heaven, then:
all the frogs and the turtles,
gharials, crocodiles,
and other water-dwellers too?

Closely related to this is the poem of Rohinī (Thig 13.2). In this case, the recalcitrant brahmin is her father, who objects to his daughter’s devotion to the “ascetics”, arguing that they are lazy good-for-nothings. In this case, Rohinī must not yet be ordained, because her father observes that she says “ascetics” even when falling asleep and waking up. The assumption is that she would later go on to ordain; and while the text itself does not confirm this, her father hints at it when he says she “will become an ascetic”. She responds, not as an obsequious and obedient daughter, but by extolling the virtues of ascetics at length.

The verses of Cāpā give a unique twist to this scenario (Thig 13.3). Here we are thrown in the middle of an argument between a man and his wife, who are torn between their desire for each other and their aspirations for a spiritual life. The fight gets so vicious they even threaten their child. Yet ultimately Kāḷa, the husband is set on his path and Cāpā conveys her blessings. The poem doesn’t say that she ordained.

In yet another case of a man being redeemed through his encounter with a woman, the brahmin Sujāta marvels at how Sundarī can respond with such equanimity even when she has lost seven children. She attributes her calm to the teaching of the Buddha, upon which the brahmin went forth, and she later followed suit (Thig 13.4).

Sometimes the path of the nuns has not been from domestic or emotional travail, but from one religious practice to another. Such was the case of Nanduttarā, who recalls both her devotion to meaningless worship and mortification, as well as her infatuation with her appearance: the two extremes (Thig 5.5; see also Mittā at Thig 2.7). Khemā also reports a fruitless former practice of worshipping stars and serving the sacred flame (Thig 6.3). For Mittākāḷī, genuine insight only came long after ordaining for the wrong reasons (Thig 5.6).

In addition to the notable scarcity of husbands, there are few references to monks. When acknowledging teachers, the nuns mention either the Buddha or another nun: Paṭācārā (Thig 5.11, Thig 5.12, Thig 7.1), Uppalavaṇṇā (Thig 13.5), Jinadattā (Thig 15.1), or else an unnamed nun (Thig 3.2, Thig 5.1, Thig 5.8, Thig 6.8, Thig 13.4). Typically these nuns are said to have conveyed the central teachings of Buddhism such as the four noble truths, the aggregates, elements, and so on. These are the central topics of the Saṁyutta Nikāya, and we can therefore conclude that this, or its ancestor, was carefully studied by the nuns.

Only Sakulā reports learning the Dhamma from a monk, and that was when she was still a laywoman (Thig 5.7). This is especially noteworthy given that, according to the Vinaya, the monks were supposed to be teaching the nuns every fortnight. Yet somehow these regular sessions are never mentioned by the nuns, just as the procedure of ordination by monks is never mentioned.

The Dramatic Verses

Since the poems of the Therīgāthā are arranged from short to long, and since there is a general tendency for texts in Buddhism to grow over time, it’s fair to assume that the final poems of the collection are somewhat later than most. This applies especially to the final three poems, each of which develops a complex dramatic scenario. These dramatic elements appear in earlier poems also, but not to the same extent.

These literary compositions distinguish the Therīgāthā from the Theragāthā. There, most of the long poems are produced by simply compiling several shorter passages of verse, which often have no relation to each other. The Therīgāthā has only one, rather modest, poem in this style, that of Uppalavaṇṇā (Thig 11.1).

Of course, in describing these verses as “dramatic” I am not suggesting that they were used for actual stage performances. There’s no evidence for theatrical presentations in the Saṅgha at such an early date. Nor is it historically meaningful to analyze how such texts were shaped by “Indian aesthetic theories” since there is no evidence of any such thing until at least half a millennium later, and even then, no evidence that the theories ever influenced Buddhist literature. Nonetheless, anyone who has ever given a Dhamma talk has, in some sense, made a dramatic presentation of the Dhamma, and knows how important it is to hold an audience’s attention through the narrative fundamentals of emotion, engagement, conflict, and humour.

The most dramatic confrontation of all is that between a rogue and the young nun Subhā (Thig 14.1; this is not the same Subhā we have met before at Thig 13.5). The lateness of the poem is suggested by the setting verse, an unusual feature for poetry, which was ascribed by the commentary to the redactors. The rogue blocks her path, and despite her strong objections tries to seduce her. But she is having none of it, even with his lengthy and admittedly eloquent evocation of the sensual joys they will find together. He lavishes special praise on the beauty of her eyes, probably thinking he is being romantic. But he is really not prepared for what she does next.

The long poem by Isidāsi sets the scene with a private conversation between two nuns. The conversation is rather unusually given a location, which is in Pāṭaliputta. This immediately sets the dialogue at a date considerably after the death of the Buddha, as in his time Pāṭaliputta was just a small village. In confirmation, the commentary states that the narrative verses were added by the redactors at a Council. It doesn’t say which one, but it must be the Second or Third. As Norman points out, this only tells us when the narrative frame was added to the poem, which must have been composed earlier.

The poem builds an extended narrative, which is unusual in the early texts, discussing the specific results of past kamma over many lifetimes, which again is something we don’t see often. It mentions three nuns—Isidāsī, Bodhī, and Jinadattā—none of whom are met elsewhere in the canon. All this means that while we can safely say that this poem is later than most in the collection, we cannot fix the date with any confidence.

The poem has Isidāsī pleading her case to go forth with her father. She uses a rather specific phrasing (Thig 15.1:32.4):

Kammaṁ taṁ nijjaressāmi
I shall wear that bad deed away.

Rhys Davids says her aspirations are “Jainistic” (Psalms of the Sisters, xxii) and Norman concurs (Elders’ Verses II, 176). And it is indeed true that the wearing away of past kamma is regarded as a core teaching of the Jains. But what makes a practice truly Jain is that this wearing away is done by self-mortification, of which there is no hint here. In fact, in a dialogue with a Jain, the Buddha, always apt to adapt and respond to the language used by other religions, reframed the idea of “wearing away kamma”. Instead of wearing away by self-mortification, it can be done by letting go the defilements that underlie the creation of kamma (AN 4.195:6.3). Such passages don’t show any hidden influence of Jainism. Rather, they show how the Buddhists were very conscious and deliberate in how they responded to the language and ideas of others.

Nonetheless, it remains the case that such language is more characteristic of Jainism. It’s an unusual choice of words. Since it was put in the mouth of the young Isidāsī before she went forth, maybe she was just using words she had picked up about kamma without a clear understanding of the differences between the schools. After all, modern Buddhists do this all the time. Perhaps; but it seems like an unnecessarily complex linguistic conceit.

Isidāsī’s long take of woe recounts how before ordaining as a nun, she had been married, but despite being the perfect wife, her husband just couldn’t stand her. She was kicked out and handed from husband to husband, each one a less appealing catch than the last. Finally, they were reduced to tempting a homeless ascetic into discarding his vows for her, but even after that he still couldn’t stand to be with her. She swore to her father that she had done nothing to deserve such treatment. It’s as if there is something wrong with her inside, something that she cannot see, and that no amount of effort on her part can overcome. But then the nun Jinadattā came to her house for alms. She was so inspired she took ordination herself.

She became enlightened and could recollect the seven lives that had led her to this point, including the one that started it all. Long ago, she had been born as a man and had sex with another man’s wife. This was the root bad kamma that drove her to a series of distressing rebirths. Repeatedly she was born as a male animal who suffered castration, then as a slave who had neither male nor female genitals. Eventually, she was born as a girl subject to violence and abandonment.

The depiction of kamma and its effects here is subtly different from the normal presentation in the early texts. Normally the idea is that if you do a bad deed, you will experience bad results because of that. For example, you might be born in a lower realm, or if you are born in the human realm—which is always the result of good kamma—you might still have the bad kamma to be born suffering a chronic illness.

There are two fallacies to be wary of here.

First, the fact that kamma creates some results does not mean that all results were created by kamma. In other words, if A then B does not imply if B then A. The Buddha listed multiple causes for illness, for example, only one of which was kamma. Unless we are like Isidāsī and have the psychic ability to recollect past lives, we do not know. What we do know, however, is that transmigration is long. And in that long journey, all of us have done many good things and many bad things.

This is important in the current case because it is one of the few examples in the early texts that might be used to argue that being born as a woman is a result of bad kamma, a belief that is commonly held in Buddhist cultures today. This might also be held to apply to intersex people, since in one birth she is biologically neither male nor female. But in such delicate cases, it is crucial to not overinterpret the text. Looking at the lives described in the text, in each case it is not the mere fact of biological sex that is painful. She was reborn in a life of suffering, and in her case, sex characteristics were part of that.

The very next poem, discussed below, appears as a counterpoint, perhaps deliberately, to this fallacy. Sumedhā is repeatedly reborn in a happy life as a woman because of her good kamma as a woman. The entire framing of Isidāsī’s text shows how as a woman she triumphed over her circumstances and found freedom from all this. She must have performed good kamma in the past to be born as a human with the capacity to understand and practice the Dhamma. And so have we. The real question facing us is, what are we choosing to do about it?

The second fallacy is to think that kamma determines the choices of others. No: kamma determines what you experience, not what others do. Yet in Isidāsī’s telling, her bad deed in the past determines how others treat her in her many past lives. When she was born as a monkey, she did not have any unusual sex characteristics. It was the monkey chief who castrated her at seven days of age. How is that her kamma forced the monkey chief to do that? Is he not responsible for his own deeds? The same pattern plays out in life after life. She is badly mistreated, mostly at the hands of males. Yet in each case, their kamma is their kamma and is not forced upon them by her misdeeds.

This misunderstanding of kamma is very prevalent in the Buddhist community today. We hear, for example, that Moggallāna died being set upon by bandits due to his past kamma which he could not escape. But this story from the commentaries never addresses the problem: how did Moggallāna’s misdeeds cause others to commit murder?

So we can add doctrinal evolution to the list of reasons for concluding that this text is late. Of course, this does not mean it is worthless. It means it is a record of a teaching by women from the period after the Buddha, which is even rarer than teachings from the Buddha’s life. The question of authorship is a complex one: is the teaching by Isidāsī? Or is it related by her friend Bodhī with whom she shared her story? Who was it that cast the story in verse? My intuition is that the text was composed within the women’s community to reconcile women’s circumstances and struggles with the more deterministic understanding of kamma that was already evolving a century or two after the Buddha.

In this light, the casual reference to the “wearing away” of kamma, while not formally contradicting Buddhist doctrine, takes on a new light. A deterministic reading of kamma is not present in the early texts, yet it became common in schools such as Theravāda. Why? Was it purely a result of internal doctrinal developments? Or was it influenced by encounters with followers of other religions, such as the Jains? The distinctions made by the Buddha in the early texts are often subtle and debated even among scholars, not to speak of regular Buddhists. By itself, this one passage cannot be decisive, but it does belong in a broader discussion of such issues.

The final poem, attributed to Sumedhā, is also late, but as with the poem of Isidāsī, it is not possible to date with any precision. The poem quotes liberally from the prose Suttas, including not just general doctrines such as we find commonly in the Therīgāthā, but multiple detailed specific references to particular passages. She urges her folks to “remember” these, implying that they were commonly known teachings. But this doesn’t tell us much, as such teachings may have been well known even in the Buddha’s life; the Suttas are full of such cross-references.

The nations and the kings don’t help with dating, as they seem to be otherwise unattested. Certainly, they are not part of the normal roster of places and people familiar from the early texts. Sumedhā is the daughter of King Koñca of the city of Mantāvatī, about which I can find no information. Her betrothed is King Anīkaratta of Vāraṇavatī. A Varaṇāvatī is mentioned in the Atharvaveda, but it is unclear what it is; perhaps a river. The Mahābhārata mentions a Vāraṇāvata, but this does not help us much. If it is the same city, we only know that, according to the Monier-Williams dictionary, it is about an eight-day journey from Hastināpura. Hastināpura is located on the Ganges in modern Uttar Pradesh, about 100km northeast of Delhi. Eight days journey is around 300km, so even if this identification were correct, it would only tell us that we are in northwest India, not far from the scope of the early Buddhist region. So the most we can say is that this story may have been set in a region into which Buddhism had expanded a century or two after the Buddha’s death. Such tales often serve as the “conversion story” for a country.

The story is a variation on the universal folk tale of the young woman betrothed against her will. It is constructed with melodramatic flair: the hapless parents, the brilliant and wilful daughter, the handsome king, and the mysterious kingdom. She is probably a teenager at this point, and while the sympathies of the story lie with her, I can’t help feeling sorry for the poor parents, subject to a relentless haranguing by a girl convinced that she knows it all.

The climax of the story builds tension by splitting into two narrative frames: the relentless approach of the royal suitor, and Sumedhā’s equally relentless ascent to jhāna and insight. It’s a brilliant narrative device. The king begs for her hand through the door, but she just delivers another scathing takedown of the futility of the world’s delights. She opens the door, only to see the lot of them sitting on the floor and weeping in despair. But she’s still not done. She tells them that this is nothing; they’ve cried much more than that in the long journey of rebirth. She gathers up the hardest of the hard core teachings from the Suttas and launches them in salvo after salvo at her dear and beloved as they huddle on the floor in tears.

It worked: the handsome king got up and begged the parents on Sumedhā’s behalf to let her go forth. She did so and rapidly attained Nibbāna.

Years later, on her deathbed, she revealed her past lives. She and Isidāsī are the only two to speak of details of their past lives in the Therīgāthā, although many nuns say they can recollect them. Unlike Isidāsī, here she is not speaking of any bad kamma. On the contrary, she tells of how in the far distant age of the Buddha Koṇāgamana she made merit together with two female friends. They offered no less than a new monastery, regarded as the greatest of material offerings. As women, they had access to considerable wealth, which they used to benefit others. As a result, they all experienced many good rebirths before realizing enlightenment in this final life. This kind of narrative appears very rarely in early texts but became the standard template for the Apadānas, so it is yet another sign that this is a late poem.

In the story of Isidāsī, she committed bad kamma as a man, and consequently experienced suffering in many lives as a woman subject to the brutality of men. Here, Sumedhā does good kamma as a woman, together with her female friends, and consequently experiences happiness in many good lives as a woman. There is no single, simple narrative around kamma, sex, and gender, and early Buddhist texts do not try to construct one. The only narrative they are concerned with is that doing good leads to good results. In this way, the Therīgāthā finishes on a high note, a lavish and exultant celebration of the determination, intelligence, and spiritual capacity of an extraordinary human being who happens to have been a woman.

A Brief Textual History

The Therīgāthā was published in 1883 by the Pali Text Society, as edited by Richard Pischel, one of the greats of 19th century German Indology. He made use of four manuscripts, two in Burmese script and two in Sinhala, as well as a manuscript of the commentary, which embeds the full text within it.

He notes that all these sources share serious blunders and that they must all stem from a single source. This is not unexpected, as we know that the Sri Lankan texts were re-introduced back from Burma. He found that one of the manuscripts, part of the Phayre collection in London, is in all respects superior to the rest. The textual corruption goes back a long way, as he notes there are several places where even the commentator of 500 CE had before him a corrupt text. As a result, his footnotes contain a profusion of variant readings, even though he Germanically avers that he only included those that seemed “really important”. So difficult was the task that he said, “without the commentary, I should hardly have ventured to publish this text at all.”

The second edition of this text was published in 1966 (reprinted 1990) with two new Appendices: additional variant readings supplied by K.R. Norman, and metrical analysis by L. Alsdorf.

The Therīgāthā has since attracted a substantial body of translation and study. The first English translation was by C.A.F. Rhys Davids as Psalms of the Early Buddhists, I: Psalms of the Sisters in 1909 with the Pali Text Society. Her translation was enthusiastic and informed by a serious study of Pali. Much of her commentary, however, is inevitably dated, and her flowery translation style was deliberately archaic even when it was made. And her decision to embed the translations within what she described as the “legends of legends” of the commentarial stories was, I think, unfortunate. Better to let the verses stand for themselves, and keep the commentary for a separate work.

In 1971 K.R. Norman published his translation Elders’ Verses II: Therīgāthā with the PTS. This was part of his extraordinary series of editions of Pali verses. It included a detailed analysis of metrical, textual, and linguistic issues to accompany his admittedly dry translation style. His analysis brings together a huge amount of relevant data which is an invaluable point of reference. His analysis of composition, dating, attribution, and the role of the commentary are essential backgrounds for any serious study.

In his preface he acknowledges the advances in understanding the Therīgāthā since Pischel’s text, especially noting the improvements from “oriental editions” which appeared in the last “sixty years” (i.e. between 1910 and 1970). Most of these are the various editions that emerged from the Sixth Council, in Burmese (3rd edition, 1961), Cambodian (1958), and Devanāgarī (1959), as well as the Thai edition of 1926–8 and the Hemaviratne edition of the commentary in Sinhalese characters (1918). While acknowledging the “many excellences” of the Burmese Sixth Council edition, he cautions that it “gives the impression of having been subjected to a considerable amount of normalization, which naturally greatly reduces its value”. My translation is based on the Mahāsaṅgīti edition, which is a digital version of this text.

The balance between readability and accuracy that is sorely lacking in the PTS editions was finally realized in 2015, with Charles Hallisey’s Therīgāthā: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, published by the Harvard University Press as part of the Murty Classical Library of India series. This is an elegant and mature translation, which includes a useful introduction as well as the Pali text.

A further full translation by Anāgārika Mahendra under the title Therīgāthāpāḷi: Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis was published in 2017 through Dhamma Publishers. This edition includes Pali text with translation and notes.

Readers should beware of a literary fraud masquerading as a translation. The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns by Matty Weingast was published by Shambhala Publications in 2020. It is a work of original poetry, apparently made in the belief that channelling inspiration from the ancient bhikkhunis was a valid translation approach. The resulting work was ecstatically received by many Buddhist teachers who praised the uplifting of an ancient scripture of distinctively female voices, unaware or uncaring that it was composed in 2019 by a man in California. The publisher revised their fraudulent marketing somewhat after public pressure, but as of May 2022, their webpage for the book is still full of claims that it is a translation.

There have also been some partial translations. The best known is Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening, published through Parallax Press in 1991. She translated most of the poems and presented them together with her own reflections as well as paraphrases of the Pali commentary. As a feminist reading, it highlights the problematic status of women in ancient India as reflected in the Therīgāthā. But its analysis is inevitably blunted by its closeness to the commentary, which frames the lens through which the texts are seen. For example, the first verse draws from the commentary for its title “An Unknown Wife”, whereas the verse itself says nothing about her being married.

Thirty-two of the poems were translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu in his Poems of the Elders, An Anthology from the Theragatha and Therigatha of 2005.

A 2009 translation of fourteen poems by Francis Booth Songs of the Elder Sisters offers some of the most delightful passages in a refreshingly simple and unburdened form.

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This is the latest, and second-last, of my essays intended as introductions to my translations.

I revised my ideas and approaches several times during the writing! While doing so I also revised my Introduction to the Theragatha, which you can see here.

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The feature of SN 5. Bhikkhuni Samyutta (and its Chinese version SA 1198-1207) is very similar to SN 4. Mara Samyutta.

Bhikkhuni Samyutta is about bhikkhuni, but in most cases is that Mara tries to interrupt and disturb Bhikkhuni’s concentration; this is followed by the individual bhikkhuni and Mara challenging each other in ‘verse’; and finally Mara, after being identified, departs defeated and disappointed. The individual bhikkhuni and Mara talked to each other in verse!

One thought: It seems Bhikkhuni Samyutta is more about the notion of Mara rather than Bhikkhuni. It is the early Buddhist adaptation of general Indian religious beliefs about divine beings (devas), and one of them is Mara. The adaptation style is presented in verse in the early Buddhist texts.

Cf. Choong Mun-keat on Mara Samyutta: “A comparison of the Pali and Chinese versions of the Mara Samyutta, a collection of early Buddhist discourses on Mara, the Evil One”, The Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies , vol.10, 2009, pp. 35-53. https://www.academia.edu/42299965/A_com … e_Evil_One

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:fire: Love it!

I’m really sorry to ask, but could you add a proper bibliography? I’d love to look up the Norman scholarship you mention. Thanks for the great essay, Bhante! :pray:

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I just looked up Thig 2.1, and its rubric doesn’t use the word sikkhamānā but refers to Nandā as a therī:

Itthaṁ sudaṁ abhirūpanandā therī gāthāyo abhāsitthāti.

Thanks, I’ll add this detail.

The Norman book and other major works are mentioned in the final section.

Perhaps I should make a bibliography section. But I dunno. I think a lot of authors put in huge bibliographies because it looks impressive, but they don’t actually read them, or at best they skim them. I mean I’ve actually heard writers joke about this. It’s a bad habit inculcated at article-acceptance-school AKA university.

So I prefer to have a short description of actually important works in a form that is helpful for the reader.

Here’s my note on this:

The MS edition is apparently alone in taking the nun as a bhikkhunī and as the speaker of the verses. It’s odd that no variants are recorded, especially given that even the parent edition (VRI) says she is a sikkhamānā. Perhaps this is a rare instance of a simple oversight in MS.

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Sure, that works too! “In the introduction to his 1971 translation, he accepted that most of the…” would have been sufficient for me. There was just no indication at all where this scholarship could be found. :blush:

And thanks for the note on the MS. :pray:

Congrats, Bhikkhu Sujato! As far as I could read today this seems to be a very serious, sensical and possibly productive text; I’ll have to translate it to my mother tongue to be able to really digest and metabolize it in all its facets - perhaps I can then even make a lifelong friend interested in it who is many years engaged in the feminist world. (Just a short response here of my initial delight… :slight_smile: )

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Thank you for the essay, Bhante. Noting a few small errors below.

Should be Thig 1.11.

One “only” should be enough.

One mention of the translator’s name is enough too.

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…translated the text to german language (automatic translation by DeepL.com, few manual improvements) If this is interesting, I could make a pdf-version and put it here. But before that I’d like to have someone else to proofread this, maybe there’s something that I didn’t get correctly - I have it in word-format as table, left column english, right column german text, sentence by sentence in matching cells, so it should be comfor-table ( :wink: ) to work with.

Ahh, ok, yeah, I’ll clarify.

Hey thanks Nessie!

Thanks, I’ll fix these. FYI, I’ve started running my essays thru Grammarly to pick up errors, by still, your eagle eye caught some!

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Sorry, many, possibly all, links into the Therigatha have the wrong url-header (towards discourse/suttacentral… instead of suttacentral.net) Perhaps this could be repaired automatically?

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That’s expected, for all these essays, links within the same collection are relative. They’ll work when they are in their proper context.