Therigatha – Poems

Tonight I wanted to read several poems from the suttas and a specific section of the suttas known as the Therigatha or the Poems of the Enlightened Nuns. These were women at the time of the Buddha who had reached enlightenment and there are poems that are the lion’s roar of each of these women as a statement upon their realization. There is a similar book for the monks but this has been drawn from a translation by Charles Hallisey called the Poems of the First Buddhist Women. I will be sharing three of the poems tonight of varying lengths from very short to quite long. 

            There are a number of ways you can look at these, either as poetry, for their imagination and emotional content, as a dharma teaching, or as a bit of information about a specific person in their place and time. We have little pieces of background for each of them. Sometimes you meet them in other parts of the suttas as well. I have included those to give some character to who these women were. These women were Theri’s “senior ones” among the ordained Buddhist women of the time. Honored for their spiritual achievements and wisdom. As Charles Hallisey points out, this is quite possibly the earliest example of women’s literature that we have.

Uttara

Uttara was born into the Sakya royal family and a relative of the Buddha.

Self-controlled with the body, 

With speech, and with the mind, 

Having pulled out craving down to the roof, 

I have become cool, free.

Chitta

Chitta was born into a rich family but spent much of her adult life practicing in solitude in the forest.

Even though I am emaciated, exhausted, and very weak,

Still I go on, leaning on a stick, climbing the mountain.

I have thrown off my outer robe

Turned my bowl over

I leaned against a rock

After splitting open

The mass of mental darkness.

Soma

Soma was the daughter of the chief minister of King Bimbasara who was a great friend of the Buddha. She became a lay follower as a young adult and then became a nun. She achieved enlightenment quite quickly and this is after Mara came to undermine her achievement.

Spoken by Mara:

It is hard to get to the place that sages want to reach,

It’s not possible for a woman, 

Especially not one with only two fingers worth of wisdom.

Soma replied:

What does being a woman have to do with it?

What counts is that the heart is settled

And that one sees what really is.

What you take as pleasures are not for me

The mass of mental darkness is split open.

Know this, evil one, you are defeated, you are finished.

Mittakali

Mittakali came from a high caste family but cared more about reputation and honors until the realization of death came to the forefront.

I went forth in confidence from home to homelessness

I wandered about, looking for gain and recognition.

I ignored the highest goal, taking to any low goal instead,

Ruled by defiling compulsions, I never knew what an 

ascetic’s goal was.

Then while I was seated in my hut I began to fear the 

Inevitable, 

I knew I was on the wrong road, under the rule of craving.

Life is short,

Old age and illness already crush me, 

There’s no time to waste

Before this body is broken by old age.

Looking at a person and

Seeing that a person is made only of impersonal parts,

Seeing those as they changed over time, 

Waxing and waning,

I stood up, my mind freed,

The Buddha’s teaching done.

Ambapali

A beautiful woman who was made a prostitute and fought over by princes in her old age after becoming a nun:

The hairs on my head were once curly, 

Black, like the color of bees,

Now because of old age

They are like jute.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

The hair on my head was once scented

Like a perfumed box filled with flowers, 

Now because of old age

It smells like rabbit fur.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

It was beautiful the way it was held in bunches by pins

Like a thick and well-planted forest grove,

Now because of old age

It is sparse in many spots.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

My head was beautiful, decorated with braids,

Adorned with gold amid the masses of black

Now because of old age

It has become bald.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my eyebrows were beautiful

Like the contour lines drawn first by a good artist

Now because of old age

They are bent out of shape by wrinkles.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

My eyes were black and innocent

Like jewels that are beautiful and brilliant,

Now struck by old age, they do not shine.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

When I was young my nose was beautiful, 

It was delicate, high, and was perfect for my face

Now because of old age

It is like a strip of wet leather.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

My earlobes were beautiful 

Like well-crafted bracelets, finished to perfection,

Now because of old age

They are bent out of shape by wrinkles.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my teeth were beautiful

They looked like plantain buds,

Now because of old age

They are broken and yellow.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once I could sing sweetly

Like a cuckoo about in a dense forest

Now because of old age

At times my voice cracks.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my neck was beautiful

Like a polished and smooth conchshell,

Now because of old age

It is bent and misshapen. 

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my arms were both beautiful

Like the round iron crossbars for holding doors shut, 

Now because of old age

They are gray like the park of the patali tree.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my hands were both beautiful, 

Decorated with smooth rings made of gold

Now because of old age

They are like tree-roots and root-vegetables.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my breasts were beautiful

Full, round, close together, high,

Now they sag down

Like empty waterbags made of leather.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my body was beautiful

Like a polished slab of gold.

Now it is covered

With very fine wrinkles.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my thighs were beautiful

Like the trunk of an elephant

Now because of old age

They are bamboo sticks.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my calves were beautiful

Decorated with smooth anklets made of gold,

Now because of old age

They are like sesame switches

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

Once my feet were beautiful

So soft they seemed filled with cotton

Now because of old age

They are wrinkled, with calluses cracked.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.

This body was once like that,

Now feeble with age and fallen from its pride.

It is the home of many sufferings

Like an old house, the plaster falling down.

It’s just as the Buddha, the speaker of truth, said, 

nothing different than that.