The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha

The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha

by Susan Murcott
Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1991; paperback.

Susan Murcott turned to Buddhism in adulthood because, she says, the Christian tradition in which she had been raised did not affirm that women could attain the highest religious truth, nor did it give women equal opportunity to serve as priests and teachers. When Murcott came across a 1909 English translation of the Therigatha by Caroline Rhys Davids in the library at the University of Melbourne, she realized that she had found a feminist spiritual treasure. The Therigatha is a collection of seventy-three enlightenment poems written by Buddhist nuns of the sixth century 8.C.E., contemporaries of the historical Buddha. It demonstrates, Murcott says, “that women have the capacity to realize and understand the highest religious goals of their faith in the same roles and to the same degrees as men.”

Murcott's translation from Pali into contemporary English and her commentary on the Therigatha were clearly both, as she says, “a labor of love” and a powerful feminist statement. In Buddhism, Murcott notes, women have the right to form celibate communities, teach, be ordained and ordain, preach, and gather disciples. In the opening chapter, Murcott recounts that Ananda had to ask the Buddha three times to permit women to join the sangha. However, in granting them permission, Buddha affirmed that women as well as men can “realize perfection.” or attain supreme enlightenment. Thus from the beginning, Murcott says, the Buddhist tradition acknowledged that women and men were “spiritual equals.”

Murcott's study of the poems is not simply a translation of text from one language to another. Rather it is a transference -an attempt to communicate to Western readers the sense and the spirit of the poems. Unlike the original manuscript, in which the poems were arranged according to the number of stanzas (Murcott says this arrangement was probably a mnemonic aid when the poems were part of the oral tradition), the poems are grouped into chapters based on the roles and relationships of the women. Murcott surrounds the poems with biographies and stories about the women to whom the poems are attributed, drawn from a fifth-century commentary to the Therigatha.

In the chapter “Friends and Sisters,” for example, Murcott tells the story of Vijaya, a woman from a humble back ~ground who became a nun because her dear friend Khema had become one. In the poem attributed to her, Vijaya recounts a night during which she left her cell “four or five times,” unable to achieve “control over mind.” Finally she sought the help of another nun, who taught her “the faculties, the powers, the seven qualities of enlightenment and the eightfold way.” Following her sister-nun's advice, Vijaya returns to her meditation, until she achieves at last the “peace of mind” she had been seeking:

In the first watch of the night,
I remembered I had been born before.
In the middle watch of the night,
the eye of heaven became clear.
In the last watch of the night
I to re apart
the great dark.

Vijaya's poem is thus a testimony to both a woman's capacity to achieve enlightenment and to the importance of other women as teachers and helpers on the spiritual path.

Perhaps the most dramatic and arresting poems in the book are contained in the chapter “Prostitutes, Courtesans, & Beautiful Women.” In her introduction to the chapter, Murcott recalls the long tradition of tension between male celibate monks and beautiful, sensual women. Early Buddhist art, Murcott says, contains many images of women as temptresses, who represent the world of sexuality, birth, and rebirth, through which a renunciate monk must pass before reaching enlightenment. However, the poems collected in this chapter stand this cliché on its head. Here the beautiful women speak for themselves and recount their own struggles to transcend the realm of samsara and reach ultimate spiritual development.

One of the most powerful poems expressing this theme is attributed to a prostitute named Vimala. In it, she recounts her transformation from a stance of egoism and anger to one of renunciation and true freedom:

intoxicated by my own
lovely skin…
I despised other women.
Dressed to kill…
I was a hunter
and spread my snare for fools…
head shaved,
I, my same self,
sit at the tree's foot;
no thought.

Murcott's book will be appreciated by Buddhist women and, indeed, by all people on a spiritual path. The emotional clarity and intensity of these songs of enlightenment is truly timeless. Reading them is to feel an overwhelming sense of kinship and sister hood with women seekers who have gone before.


Autumn 1992