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Therikā’s Meditations on a Ruined Meal

By | 8/10/2022
Consider one of the more obscure disciples of the Buddha described in the Pāli canon and its commentaries. Her name may have been Therikā, but it is impossible to be sure. A poet, she left only a single four-line verse that has survived to modern times. Yet by following several different threads in the ancient sources it may be possible to understand something of her life and accomplishments, both literary and spiritual.

The ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikāya, known as the Therīgāthā or “Verses of the Elder Nuns,” is a collection of poetry composed by early Buddhist nuns, known as therīs, during or shortly after the time of the Buddha. It is an extraordinary document. Charles Hallisey, who in 2015 published a new translation of the Therīgāthā, calls it “the first anthology of women’s literature in the world.” Steven Collins has claimed that it provides “the earliest extant evidence of women’s experience in any of the world’s religious traditions.” The Pāli Text Society’s edition contains 522 verses, nearly all in the form of quatrains (gāthās). In an arbitrary manner typical of the Pāli canon, the therīs are arranged in the text by order of the number of their surviving verses: those with one verse in the first chapter, those with two verses in the second, and so on. The sixteenth and final chapter consists of seventy-five verses by a single author named Sumedhā. Most verses appear to have been composed by the nuns themselves. A smaller but significant number are addressed to a particular therī, and it is conventionally assumed that the Buddha or some other contemporary composed these verses. Hallisey suggests, however, that in reality even these verses were composed by therīs who chose to speak of themselves in the second person.[1]

The historical linguist Kenneth R. Norman, who among translators of the Pāli canon has a reputation for extreme literalness, has translated the first verse of the Therīgāthā, that of Therikā, as follows:

Sleep happily, little therī,
clad in the garment which you have made;
for your desire is stilled,
like dried-up vegetables in a pot.[2]

Norman published his translation of the Therīgāthā in 1971. The first English translation of the Therīgāthā had been done by Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids, one of the pioneers of Pāli studies in the West, and published in 1909 under the title Psalms of the Sisters. (A 1989 edition, reprinted in 1997, brings together the two translations in a single volume.) Rhys Davids worked at a time when it was conventional to translate ancient and medieval texts using a flowery and somewhat archaic style of English reminiscent of the King James Bible. Her version of Therikā’s verse, done in lines of ten syllables each, reads:

Sleep softly, little Sturdy, take thy rest
At ease, wrapt in the robe thyself hast made.
Stilled are the passions that would rage within,
Withered as potherbs in the oven dried.[3]

In the original Pāli, Therikā’s verse takes the same basic metrical form as the majority of poetry in the Pāli canon. Composed of four lines (or in some editions half-lines) known as pādas, it has precisely eight syllables per pāda:

Sukhaṃ supāhi therike,
katvā coḷena pārutā;
upasanto hi te rāgo,
sukkhaḍākaṃ va kumbhiyaṃ.[4]

But the artistry of Pāli poetry involves much more than simply counting syllables and depends on the rhythms created by complex patterns of long and short syllables. For native speakers of English, it can be difficult to appreciate the poetics of a mora-timed language in which long syllables take twice as much time to pronounce as short syllables. To hear what this sounds like one can listen to the audio recordings of Bhikkhu Ānandajoti, who has also published one of the best available introductions to Pāli prosody under the title “An Outline of Metres in the Pāḷi Canon.” He has not recorded the Therīgāthā, but a great place to start is his performance of the first chapter of the Dhammapada.[5]

The Buddha lived in a preliterate society. Much like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Indian poetry of his day was oral poetry, created without the aid of pen and paper. Research begun by Milman Parry in the early twentieth century and later extended by Albert B. Lord found that oral poetry in many different cultures displays similar traits and draws on common techniques that allow the poet to compose the work even while performing it before an audience. “In the case of a literary poem there is a gap in time between composition and reading or performance; in the case of the oral poem this gap does not exist, because composition and performance are two aspects of the same moment.”[6] The key to such performances is the “formula,” a stock line or half-line learned in advance that can be placed when needed, depending on the meaning and meter of the song. The bard (vetālika in Pāli), a professional or semiprofessional poet, might spend many years mastering the craft and memorizing a sufficiently large repertoire of formulas to articulate the subjects that he or she might be called upon to sing about. Oral formulaic poetry is thus composed not so much of individual words as of reusable half-lines. Lance S. Cousins, a student of Norman, was the first to point out that the verses of the Pāli canon appear to have been composed in the same manner.[7] (Here the pāda corresponds to the Greek or Anglo-Saxon half-line.) Consider verse sixteen of the Therīgāthā, that of the Therī Sumanā (again in Norman’s very literal translation):

Lie down happily, old lady,
clad in the garment which you have made;
for your desire is stilled;
you have become cool, quenched.[8]

Sumanā’s second and third pādas are identical to those of Therikā. Looking further, Sumanā’s fourth pāda, “you have become cool, quenched” (sītibhūtāsi nibbutā), is nearly identical to the fourth pāda of verse fifteen, that of Uttarā: “I have become cool, quenched” (sītibhūtāmhi nibbutā). A statistical study of all the pādas in the Pāli canon would probably show that most occur multiple times, but not all. Therikā’s fourth pāda, “like dried-up vegetables in a pot,” occurs nowhere else in the canon and appears to be her own invention. It may involve a play on words since the adjective “dry” (sukkha) sounds similar to the adverb “happily” (sukhaṃ) in her first pāda.

Apart from the Buddha himself, the most celebrated Buddhist poet of his day was Vaṅgīsa, whom he proclaimed “the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples among those who compose inspired verse.” Prior to his conversion, Vaṅgīsa appears to have made his living as a bard, singing tales of gods and heroes before rapt audiences:

Drunk on poetry, I used to wander
From village to village, town to town.
Then I saw the Enlightened One
And faith arose within me.[9]

After his conversion, he used his art to create religious verse. According to the Saṃyutta Nikāya, which devotes an entire chapter to him, Vaṅgīsa had the remarkable ability to compose lengthy, sophisticated poems without preparation. Often after hearing the Buddha deliver a complex sermon in prose, he would immediately rise and render it in verse. “An inspiration has come to me, Blessed One!” he would say. “Then express your inspiration, Vaṅgīsa,” the Buddha would reply. On one occasion the Buddha asked explicitly, “Had you already thought out these verses, Vaṅgīsa, or did they occur to you spontaneously?” Vaṅgīsa insisted that they had occurred to him spontaneously.[10] He represented the pinnacle of poetic art as it was understood in his society, but he was far from unique. The great number of monks and nuns whose verses found their way into the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā demonstrates either that skill in oral formulaic composition was widespread in ancient India, or that it was an important part of the training that they received after ordination. Indeed, the Buddha himself must have been trained in poetics as a young man, since the corpus of his surviving verses is one of the largest of any ancient poet, East or West. As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu points out, his “skill in composing extemporaneous poetry shows that he was trained in the literary arts, too.”[11]

Therikā’s name is something of a mystery. Certainly therike, as it appears in the poem, is the vocative declension of therikā, which is a diminutive of the feminine noun therī meaning “female elder,” “venerable,” or simply “nun.” But in this instance, is the word intended as a common or a proper noun, therikā or Therikā? Ancient Indian scripts make no distinction between lowercase and uppercase letters. The rubric of the Therīgāthā describes the subject of this verse as “a certain unknown therī” (aññatarā therī apaññātā), which implies that therikā is simply a descriptive, and Norman thus translates it “little therī.” The commentator Ācariya Dhammapāla, however, rejected this interpretation. As it happens, the word therī (like its masculine counterpart thera) had a secondary meaning of “firm” or “sturdy.” The commentators of the Pāli canon loved such double entendres. Writing more than a thousand years after the time of the Buddha and basing his information on an earlier tradition of Sinhalese commentaries that may have contained as much legend as fact, Dhammapāla claimed that her parents “called her Therikā because of her firm, peaceful body.” In English, Rhys Davids thus assigned her the name “Sturdy” with a capital S, and even at one point “Sturdykin.”[12] Hallisey’s new translation of the Therīgāthā often incorporates information from the commentary into the verse itself in order to create an English poem that, though somewhat less true to the original, can better stand on its own without the support of his footnotes. In this case, without explicitly mentioning the secondary meaning, he retains the point that Therikā received her name from her parents. His translation of her verse reads:

Now that you live among the therīs, Therika,
the name you were given as a child finally becomes you.
So sleep well, covered with cloth you have made,
your passion for sex shriveled away
like a herb dried up in a pot.[13]

Dhammapāla relates that Therikā was born during the time of the Buddha to a wealthy khattiya family in the city of Vesāli, and that she married a young man of the same caste. Vesāli lay in one of the most powerful states in India, the Vajjī republic. While most Indian republics of that time were dominated by a single clan, Vajjī was a confederation of several clans. The largest of these was the Licchavī clan, and Vesāli was their capital city. Adult male khattiyas like Therikā’s husband were expected to attend meetings of the political assembly that governed the republic with the full powers normally belonging to a monarch, the gaṇarāja, which the Buddha toward the end of his life cited as a model for his monastic sangha. “Ānanda, as long as the Vajjians meet in harmony, break up in harmony, and carry on their business in harmony, they may be expected to prosper and not decline.”[14] Therikā became a lay follower of the Buddha after hearing him speak in Vesāli. Later she met Pajāpatī Gotamī, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, and despite her wealth and privileged station she decided to take ordination. The second pāda of her verse describes the homemade robes that Therikā wore as a nun, robes that, according to Dhammapāla, she would have made from cast-off rags. They were very different from the clothing she was used to wear as the wife of a warrior-noble.

One day, while she was still a householder, a curry cooking in Therikā’s kitchen accidentally caught fire and burnt to a crisp. Rather than scold the kitchen maid she decided to focus her mind on the ruined supper. “Making this her support [for contemplation], she thoroughly considered the arising of the characteristic of impermanence. Then she established there the concept of misery, impermanence, and no-self.” Here then is perhaps the true meaning of her verse. The dried-up vegetables mentioned in her final pāda are not simply a simile, but her chosen meditation subject. Dhammapāla insists that Therikā was one of the “ordinary disciples”: “But unlike the chief disciples and the leading disciples, they cannot be measured; it is to be understood that there were many hundreds, many thousands of them.” Her story demonstrates the possibility for ordinary people to find the Dhamma even in the most mundane phenomena.[15]

[1] Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, trans. Charles Hallisey (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015), vii, xl; Steven Collins, “Introduction,” in Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therīgāthā), trans. Caroline A.F. Rhys Davids and Kenneth R. Norman (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1997), vii. More recently, a new translation of the Therīgāthā has been published as Therīgāthāpāḷi: Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis, trans. Anāgārika Mahendra (Roslindale, MA: Dhamma Publishers, 2017). It is available for free download from Pariyatti Books: store.pariyatti.org.

[2] Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns, 165.

[3] Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns, 6.

[4] Therīgāthā 1.1. The Pali Text Society transcription of the entire Tipiṭaka with its commentaries and sub-commentaries in the original Pali is available at: www.tipitaka.org.

[5] Bhikkhu Ānandajoti’s website is https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/index.htm. Originally published in 2000 in Indologica Taurinensia, volume 26, his “An Outline of Metres in the Pāḷi Canon” is downloadable in a revised edition at https://bit.ly/2ueI3Wr. His audio recording of the first chapter of the Dhammapada is downloadable at https://bit.ly/2uGBHPH.

[6] Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 13.

[7] Lance S. Cousins, “Pali Oral Literature,” in Buddhist Studies Ancient and Modern, ed. Philip Denwood and Alexander Piatigorsky (London: Curzon Press, 1983), 1-11.

[8] Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns, 168.

[9] Saṃyutta Nikāya 8.12, in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000), 293.

[10] Aṅguttara Nikāya 1.212, in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2012), 110; Saṃyutta Nikāya 8.6, in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, 286. See also John D. Ireland, Vaṅgīsa: An Early Buddhist Poet (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1997).

[11] Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff), Buddhist Romanticism (Valley Center, CA: Abbot Metta Forest Monastery, 2015), 18.

[12] Ācariya Dhammapāla, The Commentary on the Verses of the Therīs (Therīgāthā-Aṭṭhakathā Paramatthadīpanī), trans. William Pruitt (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1999), 9.

[13] Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, 3.

[14] Gunapala P. Malalasekara, Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names, 2 vols (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1983), 2:813-814; Dīgha Nikāya 16.1.4 in The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, trans. Maurice Walshe (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 232.

[15] Dhammapāla, Commentary on the Verses of the Therīs, 10, 383.

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