Women’s Songs of Enlightenment

The earliest women ordained into the Buddha’s sangha some 2,500 years ago, experienced profound transformations that they rendered into poetry. Their poems came to be compiled as the Therigatha, literally ‘stories of women elders’. The 73 poems of the Therigatha delineate as if an inner courtyard, where the women shrug off the veils of personality and ego-self, bare their innermost experiences, and swap stories about their struggles and insights. This personal, feminine space frees their voices to speak of what is important to them, in an idiom they are comfortable with. One can almost picture a huddle of women with shaved heads, some young some old, sitting companionably during a vessa (monsoon) retreat, talking their hearts, revealing their selves.

They lament the darkness that hung heavy upon them, woven of loss and sorrow, dissatisfaction and frustration, until the light of dharma set them free. The famous parable of the mustard seed, where a mother learns to accept the truth of death, is one such. The mother, Kisa Gotami, begs the Buddha for a miracle that would revive her dead son. The Buddha says he will, provided she brings him a mustard seed from a home never visited by death. Kisa Gotami hunts for such a home to no avail, and by the time she returns, has understood the play of change and impermanence woven into the nature of life. She says:

It’s not just a truth for one village or town,

Nor is it a truth for a single family.

But for every world settled by gods (and men)

This indeed is what is true – impermanence.

[Thig A X.1, translation Andrew Olendzki]

The soul-songs of the Therigatha provide an intimate view of the concerns and issues particular to women on the path in a non-preachy, non-judgmental way. These have little by way of pulpy, lethargic sentimentality, nor are they dry and clinical. One could describe them best as examples of ‘telling it like it is’, with a clarity of mind and memory that might be expected of an arahat (realised being, which most of the theris were). Perhaps this is why the concerns mentioned therein feel immediate and true even across the chasm of centuries.

Whether it is Patacara mourning the loss of her family, or Gutta who pines for a child born of her womb, or Vimala the courtesan who exults in her beauty, or Anopama the heiress who is restless with her materialistic lifestyle, the theris articulate a uniquely feminine perspective on life, and life on the spiritual path. Their contexts might be dated, but when they speak of the imbalance of uncontrolled emotionality, the debilitation of obsessive attachment, the rigours of relationships, bondage to the body and its appearance, women of any era cannot but find their own challenges reflected in the theris’.

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This evening…

This evening

flickers with

a strange restlessness…

Is it the pigeons

fluttering within the roof

the birds

calling

in glossolaliacal tongues

across this valley

Is it the

grey warmth

of the fading sun

that lies heavy

on the

cheery, sunny green

of these unfolding hills?

Is it

the waning energy

of children at play

tiring of their games

in this quiet twilight?

Or is it

the Friend

who went away

who receded

across the mountain

like the sun

after a grey day?

A Himalayan Wanderer

A wanderer

ashen grey

rises from the east

and finds our

emerald green valley…

Shiva, as if

spreads is matted locks

over our quiet world

and descends

from Himalayan heights

to watch

our small stories

our laughable lives…

In this

mountain retreat

we laugh

we love

we eat

we struggle

with roof leaks

and water works

— the taps have too little

the floors too much…

We too dance

the dance of life

a being and becoming

a staying and wandering

In our own way

we keep pace

with the cosmic ascetic

that ashen grey

cloud of a yogi

who sometimes throws

a bolt here

a love there…

A little girl

A little girl

brushes crumbs

off her skirt

Carefully, patiently

gathers them

in her tiny palm

And squats before

a line of ants

weaving their way through

the single-window room.

Here, take this,

she whispers,

in language

that’s still babytalk

and folds her hands

and bows her head…