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Buddhist Publication Society
Kandy • Sri Lanka
Published in 2000
BPS Online Edition © (2008)
Digital Transcription Source: BPS Transcription Project
For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis, and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.
The study presented here was originally published as a two-part contribution to the Buddhist Studies Review (vol. 12, nos. 1 & 2, 1995), the biannual journal of the Institut de recherche Bouddhique Linh Son (France) and the Pali Buddhist Union (Britain), under the title, “Therigatha: On Feminism, Aestheticism and Religiosity in an Early Buddhist Verse Anthology.” Reproduced with the kind permission of the editor of the Buddhist Studies Review, Russell Webb. The notes in this version have been slightly modified in a few places by its author.
Vijitha Rajapakse was born in Colombo and received his undergraduate education at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, where he read Honours in Philosophy. His graduate studies, focused on philosophy of religion, were pursued in North American universities. He has been awarded M.A. (Western Ontario) and M.A., Ph. D. (McGill). He presently resides in the United States.
The ancient Buddhist verse anthology known as the Therigatha (Thi) attracted the attention of some of the earliest Western Pali scholars  and actually became the focus of many admiring comments from a very notable woman among them, Caroline Rhys Davids (who also rendered the anthology into metrical English).  Inquirers into the status of women within the Theravada tradition in particular have time and again drawn this remarkable text  into their various disquisitions.  Yet its content (which has a complex significance and, especially when viewed from present-day perspectives, encompasses many strands of meaning), does not seem to have been very closely scrutinized so far. Indeed, though Thi can be said to present an unusually attractive context for multidisciplinary investigation, it is doubtful whether this has been seriously recognized by modern researchers in Buddhist studies. The discussion in this article endeavours to make some amends for this situation by initiating a brief (though nevertheless somewhat broad-based) reflective analysis of the anthology which might serve as a catalyst towards a more thorough-going revaluation of Thi and its Commentary. What follows will first highlight the feminist dimension in a selection of the gathas (whose women authors not unnaturally were often acutely conscious of their femininity, itthibhavo); next, draw attention to the character and scope of the philosophic viewpoints and aesthetic and poetic perceptions that are woven into some of them; and finally, dwell on the religiosity that suffuses and indeed gives unity to the anthology, underscoring above all the Buddhist  inspiration and roots of this religiosity. The discussion in the sequel is mainly sustained by a process of primary reflection on Thi; yet our clarifications will on occasion acquire a comparative character, entailing not only a consideration of the insights developed in other Pali textual sources, but also those set forth in a fairly wide range of Western philosophical and literary works as well as religious writings. 
Conventional approaches allow little room to assume that the articulations of religious and philosophical perspectives are notably affected by gender considerations, that is, by the biological differences between man and woman, male and female. Yet the distinctive gender character of both thinking and viewing has on occasion been strikingly highlighted in certain philosophical circles  and it is, in any event, an important recognition among contemporary feminists. Now when viewed against the background of these circumstances in particular, Thi strikes one as an interestingly instructive text. For what is encountered here is not only an ancient religious verse anthology of women’s authorship, but also one which, more significantly, often bears witness in revealing terms to women’s distinctive association with and appropriation of the Buddha’s soteriological teachings. Feminism as a stance that focuses upon and argues for the rights of women in the social world is of course not seriously underscored or projected in this text (though, as will be shown shortly, it is noteworthy that it does on occasion stress the equality of women and men in the mental sphere in somewhat rhetorical terms). However, feminism in another sense is very much in evidence in the work: indeed, Thi is replete with articulations that record some characteristic viewpoints, experiences, attitudes, and thought patterns of women.
How exactly does feminism thus understood manifest itself here? As already hinted, notwithstanding the frequent contemporary use of Thi to clarify the backgrounds of the earliest members of the Buddhist Order (and also for the larger purpose of gaining insights into women’s association with Buddhism during its early formative stages),  the various distinctively feminine perspectives that figure in these gathas do not seem to have attracted much specific attention in recent times. Notable cross-culturally conceived feminist critiques of this decade show no awareness of Thi,  and the characteristic preoccupations with womanhood and the feminine that come to the fore in this setting are also apt to be overlooked in conventional expositions of Buddhist thought (where sensitivity to gender considerations is still non-existent or inchoate).  Yet there is much that is noteworthy in the feminine perspectives that find expression in Thi, and an examination of them is perhaps the most appropriate point of departure for our present discussion.
Considered overall, what the verses of Thi record in different ways is just one central thing: the success of committed Buddhist soteriological endeavours. Hence the Buddhist character of this text might impress many as not only paramount, but may finally overshadow the feminine origins of its contents. However, it needs to be repeated that the fact that the endeavours in question were those of women, though admittedly of mainly secondary importance to a purely religious estimation of the text, is nevertheless of great significance to a gender sensitive inquiry. For many verses of individual theris (especially when viewed against the background of the relevant commentarial clarification) indeed reveal fascinatingly distinctive feminine perspectives, the likes of which are rarely seen elsewhere in Pali canonical contexts. That the Buddhist spiritual exertions depicted here are those of women tends, to be sure, to be unmistakably emphasized in the gathas, giving them a feminine stamp that is difficult to ignore. Yet the actual terms in which this is done are by no means uniform. On the contrary it can be said that in Thi, women’s distinctive gender consciousness is projected through a complex range of images, perceptions, and thoughts. Let me highlight a few characteristic examples.
The essential femininity of their authors is sometimes prominently and assertively proclaimed within the gathas, a circumstance all the more significant once the strongly patriarchal social milieu in which Buddhism originated and developed is recalled.  The articulations of Subha, for instance, begin with a poignantly invoked reference to her standing as a female:
A maiden, I, all clad in white, once heard
The Norm, and hearkened eager, earnestly,
So in me rose discernment of the Truths. (PsS, p. 142) 
To anyone conversant with the negative estimations of women set forth in such writings as the Kunala Jataka,  the sensitive awareness as well as understanding acceptance of the feminine seen in Thi will no doubt present a sharp contrast. Indeed, in this setting where female nature and womanly traits were viewed from within, none of the flaws of character attributed to women by (mostly male) critics were either perceived or acknowledged, “How should woman’s nature hinder us?”, asked one theri bent on winning emancipation, and proceeded firmly to rule out doubts raised about female capacities, both intellectual and spiritual. 
Complementing this attitudinal stance, there is also a striking reliance on what is perhaps best described as feminine models of experience and reflection (backed by images and symbols that can likewise be linked to them). In this connection, the ways in which some common preoccupations of women (both practical and emotional) are brought to bear on the interiorization of Buddhist doctrinal emphases merit particular notice, for they afford many evidences of this distinctive reliance. It is significant that one theri, it appears, came to recognize the universality of impermanence (anicca) as taught in Buddhism initially amidst domestic chores, actually in the course of what emerges as a cooking mishap.  Another, the sister Ambapali—courtesan of great beauty in her lay life—arrives at a similar recognition in an even more strikingly feminine fashion: through a contemplative consideration of the faded charms of her formerly much admired body. The sensitively juxtaposed focusings on the graces of the youthful female figure and the unlovely changes wrought upon it through the passage of time evident in her articulations (see PsS, pp. 121–26) deserve to be viewed as some of the most arresting examples of Buddhist reflection rooted in feminine self-perceptions. Through a refined use of mainly natural imagery (the aestheticism that comes to the fore here is examined separately below, in Section IV), each detail in the female physique is depicted in Ambapali’s utterances both in its welcome youthful aspect, and again in the conditions of unsightly woe in old age. Of her hair (which it must be noted is a cherished symbol of femininity in traditional South Asian societies, frequently adorned, and always worn long), for instance, she thoughtfully reminisced thus:
Glossy and black as the down of the bee my curls once clustered.
They with the waste of the years are liker to hempen or bark cloth …
Fragrant as casket of perfume, as full of sweet blossoms the hair of mine.
All with the waste of the years now rank as the odour of the hare’s fur …
Dense as a grove well planted, and comely with comb, pin and parting …
All with the waste of the years disheveled the fair plaits and fallen …
Glittered the swarthy plaits in head-dresses jewelled and golden.
All with the waste of the years broken, and shorn are the tresses … (PsS, p. 121) 
Then again, it is on the basis of a portrayal of a characteristic set of unhappy feminine experiences (no doubt deeply felt in the contemporary world) that Buddhism’s parallel emphasis on the pervasiveness of suffering (dukkha) is highlighted in Kisa Gotami’s gathas: sharing home with hostile wives, giving birth in bitter pain, suicide resorted to by some to avoid it, and the sad fate reserved for still others when mother and child “both alike find death” (PsS, pp. 108–9), are identified here as suffering associated with femininity, the woes of womanhood (dukkkho itthibhavo). 
Significantly, the “Buddhist feminism” that one can discern in Thi also entailed on occasion an inversion of male paradigms.  Perhaps reflecting their largely male authorship, in many Buddhist writings females are cast in roles of seductresses, bent on weaning away men from their spiritual quests.  But here, in Thi, there are evidences of a veritable role-reversal: far from fostering passion, in its verses women proclaim piety and dispassion to worldly and passionate men. Some sayings of the theris Subha and Sumedha (see PsS, pp. 142ff. and 165ff.) are particularly illustrative of this rather striking circumstance. Accosted by a would-be male seducer in her jungle retreat, Subha intoned in the following manner:
Me pure, thou of impure heart; me passionless, thou of vile passions;
Me who as to the whole of me freed am in spirit and blameless.
Me whence comes it that Thou does hinder … (PsS, p. 150) 
Indeed, it is women’s success in overcoming the temptations of men and their considered attempts to divert women from spiritual endeavours, that the verses of both the above theris most strikingly record.
Finally, it is necessary to observe that “liberty”, “liberation,” and “free womanhood” are ideas that are broached in a fair number of Thi contexts.  Indeed, that the bonds and burdens imposed on them by culture and social structures on account of their gender are severed and overcome was the ecstatic cry of quite a few of the theris (and in this connection, the sense of relief expressed by some on their release from domestic servitude and kitchen drudgery is certainly noteworthy).  Yet in the last analysis the liberation celebrated here was most importantly a religious one: understood and projected in a typically Buddhist fashion, it entailed freedom from “rebirth and from death”, from “lust and hate”  —in short, an attainment of spiritual emancipation through an inner grasp of the system’s “saving truth” (vimokkhasacca).  And it is useful to remember that it is again a basic Buddhist emphasis that spurred the women of Thi to think positively about their potentialities and speak openly and without inhibitions in a patriarchal age. For it was the Buddha’s position that anyone possessed of the necessary mental and spiritual qualities—“be it woman, be it man” as a striking canonical statement affirms  —can find deliverance in Nibbana.
Any attempt to probe into the philosophical content of Thi must of course take particular account of the work’s character and roots. To reiterate a point already made in the phraseology of a recent study,  what tends to be presented in this anthology in either “terse, pointed words or in longer details” are the statements of women in the Buddhist fold who had reached the crowning goal of their religious endeavours, the arahant state. On analysis, these statements reveal in various ways the experiences that preceded the attainment of that goal, the learning processes that were brought to bear in winning it, and how those who attained the unique state actually felt. Now evidently, this is not a context of self-expression within which elaborate, systematic expositions of Buddhist philosophy can be expected and, to be sure, nothing of the kind in the strict sense is to be found in Thi: even so basic a doctrine as that of the Four Noble Truths (cattari ariyasaccani), for instance, is not expounded, but rather tersely mentioned here. 
Still, there is little room to say that philosophical standpoints are not projected in Thi. On the contrary, all those who read the text carefully will no doubt note that attitudinal stances with philosophical undertones, and thoughts that have discernible philosophical implications, are very much in evidence in many of its verses. Put otherwise, what needs to be recognized in this context is this: it is possible, for one thing, to give philosophical characterizations to many features in the distinctively concrete, subjectively engaged quests for spiritual deliverance that are articulated in this work, and for another, there are several striking doctrinal emphases here which, though unsystematic, nevertheless offer important insights into the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism. A few instances of both these manifestations of philosophy broadly conceived such as are encountered in Thi warrant some probing and elucidation.
Those conversant with the thought frames of European existentialism  would perhaps recognize that there are good grounds for viewing the strikingly solitary and intensely personal soteriological endeavours of the authors of these verses against the background of certain characteristic emphases found in the writings of such philosophers as Kierkegard, Heidegger, Marcel, and Sartre. It is significant, for instance, that much like Kierkegard,  the theris as a whole can be said to regard truth as a subjective and inward experience best approached through personal engagement rather than discursive thought or ratiocination (and leading to a transformation which is radical).  In this connection the distinctive terms in which some of them recognize and contrast their inner natures in early “unconverted” and later “converted” states are especially noteworthy, for they can be given philosophical meaning within Kierkegard’s celebrated differentiation between the “aesthetic” and the “religious” (or “ethico-religious”) as elucidated in Either/Or and elsewhere.  Indeed, the Kierkegardian view that there is a plane of living which is lacking in purpose, disconnected, and without direction or satisfactions, and another which is opposite in character—namely, unified, coherent, focused, and satisfying—tends to be clearly anticipated in the following verses of the theri Vimala:
How was I once puff’d up, incens’d with the bloom of my beauty,
Vain of my perfect form, my fame and success ’midst the people,
Filled with the pride of my youth, unknowing the Truth and unheeding!…
Today with shaven head, wrapt in my robe,
I go forth on my daily round for food;
And ‘neath the spreading boughs of forest tree
I sit, and Second-Jhana’s rapture win,
Where reas’nings cease, and joy and ease remain. (PsS, pp. 52–53) 
The attitudinal patterns that inform many utterances in this ancient anthology can be linked to or viewed within still other existential thought frames. Existentialist categories of freedom, choice, commitment, and authentic existence in particular are indeed discernible underpinnings at many levels of the text. It is noteworthy, for instance, that several theris here embark on their religious careers after making agonizing choices by and for themselves, highlighting in the process an acknowledgement of their essential freedom. Striking testimony to this is found in the verses of Sumedha (PsS, pp. 65ff.): resisting both parental pressure and a king’s love, Sumedha spurned marriage and adopted the religious life of a nun all on her own. Again, each one of the theris of the anthology displays a singular commitment to spiritual self-culture and the consummation of its admitted goals. Now these goals, as will be evident from our discussion below (Section V), are of course rooted in a soteriological concern—an aspiration for deliverance—which is characteristic of Buddhist religiosity. Yet a final consequence of their consummation seems to be a consciousness of an accession to a truly authentic realm of being highlighted by the “cool”, “calm” and “serene” condition of the arahant. 
The distinctively subjective, practical orientation given to Buddhist teachings in Thi settings is clearly the source of the existentialist dimension that one can recognize there. And this orientation can again be viewed as a necessary key to an understanding of the text’s wider philosophical scope. As indicated at the outset of this section, systematic expositions of Buddhist doctrines are not presented in Thi. Yet no-one is likely to fail to notice that the theris here frequently project some of their basic emphases in philosophical terms,  and in particular bear witness to an inner cognition of those informing ideas of the system’s world-view, namely, impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and insubstantiality (anatta). Characteristically, in some contexts one encounters references to a combined grasp of the significance of all “three signata” (tilakkhana).  However, elaborations on these “signata” in other contexts are sometimes quite revealing, especially when their manifestation in living experience is dwelt upon or otherwise brought to the fore. In this connection the ways in which some Thi verses highlight anicca and dukkha as influences felt in life are perhaps particularly worthy of our notice.
Thus, viewed philosophically, in Ambapali’s verses cited above to draw attention to their feminine perspectives, the main doctrinal point emphasized is of course impermanence. But how is it treated and presented? Clearly not as an abstract principle, but rather as one that affects one’s being intimately, and as a result is amenable to inner apprehension. Indeed, what emerges from the series of poignant contrasts drawn between the body’s youthful beauty and its later decline into a pitiful state which is “weakly and unsightly” and a “home to manifold ills”  is an intimate knowledge of anicca that is imbued with transformative, soteriological meaning. 
There is evidence that other theris came to this knowledge as well.  But the focusings on dukkha carried in Thi are no less striking; besides, as will be indicated below, at certain levels they provide important insights into Buddhism’s philosophy of consolation, in other words, perspectives on the ways in which one might bear with and finally rise above one’s particular suffering. Of course, in Buddhist thought suffering is not altogether unrelated to impermanence. Distilling canonical insights, Buddhaghosa in his famous Visuddhimagga represented the transitoriness inherent in life as an aspect of suffering (viparinama-dukkha).  In any event, that pain and adversity often constitute a veritable backdrop to life is an idea that is stressed in a variety of settings in Thi. In the articulations of Punna and Isidasi, for instance, the burdens of domestic labour (with which poor women in particular were commonly charged) are clearly related to the dukkha Buddhism held to inform and undergird existence.  And, as already indicated in Section II above, Kisa Gotami, while dwelling on confinement experiences, goes even further through her identification of suffering that touches womankind specifically, dukkho ittibhavo. 
Since its articulations, as repeatedly noted, are inspired by committed Buddhist living, it is, however, also possible to detect in Thi insights and emphases which are more positive in their philosophical implications. For instance, there are clearly in evidence here adumbrations of what might fairly be called a Buddhist philosophy of consolation: in a philosophical appraisal of the text one must not overlook the fact that the particular elaborations of anicca and dukkha just referred to ultimately have happy outcomes, for the theris engaged in them finally accept the impermanence and suffering encountered in experience and tend to integrate them into their lives. Finally, it is well to observe that details of this integrative process—which actually led to the acquisition of a definitive “saving truth” (vimokkhasacca)—though mainly religious, are not without philosophical significance. For the truth thus acquired is very much a transcendent vision imbued with ultimate meaning. However, this is a matter that merits discussion in relation to our wider examination of the religiosity projected in Thi. Next I propose to turn to a consideration of some aspects of aestheticism reflected in the text.
Aestheticism in its most basic sense entails a sensitivity to and an appreciation of beauty.  The degree to which these attitudes manifest themselves in Buddhism is not a matter that seems to have come under much sustained scrutiny.  In any event, discerning readers, I think, should be able to recognize many evidences of aestheticism in Thi. At what levels in the anthology are these evidences most notably seen? And how exactly should they be examined? While identifying aesthetic objects (aesthetics), aesthetic experiences (aesthesis), and aesthetic making (poesis) as three pivotal conditions that are necessary for “aesthetics, of any sort to be an intelligible enterprise,” Brown, in a recent study, has indicated that in “specifically religious aesthetics” these conditions must be religiously grounded or have religious import.  This overview indeed seems to offer a useful interpretative frame for anyone interested in exploring the aesthetic dimensions of Thi.
Some especially striking textual evidences of aestheticism manifested here are perhaps best recognized if the “conditions” referred to by Brown are considered in reverse order. Thus, given its character as a verse anthology, Thi can fairly be taken as an exemplification of “aesthetic making” associated with Buddhist religiosity; and in viewing things from this angle, the technical merits of the verses of many individual theris need to be especially borne in mind. Since what is offered here is not a literary study of Thi, it is unnecessary to dwell on this aspect of the matter.  But the particular ways in which the anthology tends to encompass “aesthetic objects” and “aesthetic experiences” certainly deserve clarification.
Since they were primarily concerned with and moved by things spiritual, the ascetic authors of Thi cannot of course be credited with inclinations to “celebrate” beauty for its own sake.  Yet the versified compositions in this work do frequently project cultured sensitivities to beauty in both the above senses.  And it is not difficult to identify evidence of such sensitivities (within which “aesthetic objects” as well as “aesthetic experience” can actually be discerned) in some of the contexts already cited. Thus, in Ambapali’s gathas, the youthful female body is clearly perceived as an object of beauty, though transient or non-abiding, and the imagery invoked to highlight that often reflects an unmistakable parallel sensitivity to the beauty manifested in the wider world. 
Delicate perceptions of beauty, both human and natural, are woven into Thi in other ways as well. The aestheticism that finds expression in the proto-dialogic setting of Subha’s verses, for instance, is in some respects more striking than that recognizable in Ambapali’s verses. Indeed, though she prefers not to be influenced by them, Subha nevertheless tends to articulate through her would-be male seducer some fine sensitivities to the loveliness of the female form and the attractive charms of nature. In her verses the would-be seducer finds her maiden body “like a gold-wrought statue” (PsS, p. 151) and is above all captivated by her eyes:
Eyes hast thou like the gazelle’s, like an elf’s in
the heart of the mountains—
’Tis those eyes of thee, sight of which feedeth the
depth of my passion.
Shrined in thy dazzling, immaculate face as in
calyx of lotus,
’Tis those eyes of thee, sight of which feedeth the
strength of my passion.
Though thou be far from me, how could I ever
forget thee, O maiden,
Thee of the long-drawn eyelashes, thee of the eyes
Dearer to me than those orbs is naught, O thou
witching-eyed fairy! (PsS, p. 152) 
And the world of nature where Subha sought seclusion for her spiritual exercises is likewise perceived by her would-be seducer as an arena offering delights of its own Hence his call was:
Young art thou, maiden, and faultless—
what seekest thou in the holy life?
Cast off that yellow-hued raiment and come! In
the blossoming woodland
Seek we our pleasure. Filled with the incense of
blossoms the trees waft
Sweetness. See, the spring’s at the prime, the
season of happiness!
Come with me then to the flowering woodland, and
seek we our pleasure.
Sweet overhead is the sough of the blossoming
crests of the forest
Swayed by the Wind-gods. But thou an goest
alone in the jungle.
Lost in its depths, how wilt thou find aught to
delight or content thee? (PsS, p. 150) 
It must be remarked that beauty observable in nature is not always linked in Thi with sensuality, as is the case in the above verses. On the contrary, the serenely sailing moon in clear skies, for instance, is actually depicted in a few terse gathas as a symbol of emancipation won.  On the other hand it is worth noting that this anthology—quite unlike the complementary Thag—does not bear witness to any striking attempt to connect the perceived beauty of the natural world with the vital concerns of spiritual growth and fulfilment.  In appreciating beauty, Thi typically tends to project a con-comitant awareness of its necessary ephemerality; and if one adopts Coomaraswamy’s perspective,  it is possible to say that what is thus articulated is a veritable defining feature in the way Buddhist religiosity relates to aestheticism and aesthetics. In any event, it would be opportune now to leave these latter themes aside and attempt to take stock of the religiosity manifested in our text.
Though it is widely recognized that what lies at the heart of Thi is a distinct religiosity, few matters relating to it seem to have been sorted out or scrutinized so far.  Now a comprehensive inquiry into the present subject will no doubt have to raise and answer many questions. However, a grasp of its basic orientation and emphases such as is sought here might be fairly served if attention is narrowed to just a few: What are the dominant traits of the religiosity that finds expression in Thi? How is it typically nurtured, and what are its characteristic results? The sequel, accordingly, proposes to address briefly these particular questions.
An early Buddhist text of the Theravada tradition, Thi highlights the religiosity inculcated within this tradition in almost paradigmatic terms. Certain modern analysts of religion have turned out harshly negative assessments of Theravada goals,  but their actual pursuit as reflected here bears witness to a spirituality that is vibrant and has echoes in the wider practice of esoteric religion.  In any event, the dominant traits of the religiosity that finds expression in Thi can be easily identified. Though its verses frequently invoke the Three Jewels (tisarana) as refuges, this religiosity in the final analysis is not grounded on faith in the typical Western sense, but rather is an inwardly propelled striving for personal liberation modelled on Theravada doctrinal teachings. 
An invariable starting point of such striving was renunciation—a total severing of mundane ties.The manner in which it was effected is indeed a theme upon which several theris dwell, sometimes in revealing terms. What Subha records in this regard is striking and serves to bring to the fore an essential implication of renunciation:
So I forsook my world—my kinsfolk all,
My slaves, my hirelings, and my villages,
And the rich fields and meadows spread around,
Things fair and making for the joy of life—
All these I left, and sought the Sisterhood,
Turning my back upon no mean estate. (PsS, p. 143) 
Of course, renunciation in Thi is not an end in itself. Rather, it is projected here as having its final raison d’étre in the committed pursuit of the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya atthangika magga), the Buddha’s way to peace and liberation from the sufferings of Samsara.  Now it would be useful to point out that the factors that constitute the Path  are in turn commonly held to “aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training, and discipline’ (which are identified in a broader classification as ethical training, mental culture, and wisdom, sila, samadhi, pañña).  In any event, in reviewing Thi from a religious angle, what stands out most strikingly are attestations of the cultivation of these latter two essentials (samadhi and pañña), and the actual acquisition of ‘saving knowledge” and the consequent attainment of liberation in the arahant state.  Accordingly, I propose to confine the remainder of this discussion to an elucidation of some pertinent details on this score. It would be well to emphasize that what are encountered at this level are some of the most notable shared features found in verses of our anthology: the attainment of liberation as an arahant through spiritual self-culture is a feat that every theri celebrates here, sometimes amidst uniquely personal amplifications on the nature or implications of that liberation.
While ethical living is its veritable bedrock, Buddhist spirituality in the Theravada tradition, especially in its higher reaches, is actualized through specialized forms of meditation practice—most notably samatha-bhavana (which is considered to lead to the development of mental tranquillity), and vipassana-bhavana (which is held to result in the acquisition of higher religious insight).  In keeping with its position as a Pali canonical work, the influence or the application of these particular approaches to self-culture is very much in evidence in Thi. In terse remarks several theris here draw attention to their firm adherence to the moral norms (sila) as stressed in Buddhism.  Efforts directed towards disciplining their minds and attaining higher insight, however, are focused upon in greater detail as the deepest concerns of their religiosity. Indeed, the pursuit of inner mastery and control is the most salient emphasis in some of the initial short articulations carried in the text. 
But such mastery and control were not easily achieved. As the verses of Sama and Uttama (PsS, pp. 34–35, 36) indicate, many, to acquire the peace of mind (cetaso santim) which they sought, had to engage in arduous struggles which, on occasion, were of long duration. Those of Sama and another anonymous theri, it appears, stretched for twenty-five years; the confession the latter makes in this regard is revealingly poignant:
For five-and-twenty years since I came forth
Not for one moment could my heart attain
The blessedness of calm serenity.
No peace of mind I found. My every thought
Was soaked in the fell drug of sense-desire.
With outstretched arms and shedding futile tears
I gat me, wretched woman, to my cell. (PsS, pp. 50–51) 
To be sure, against the uncollected psychological comportment that Buddhism recognized in common situations of mundane living, what it characteristically demanded of the serious religious aspirant was “systematic attention” (yoniso manasikara).  Accorded definite soteriological implications in Nikaya settings,  this attentive attitudinal stance is basically meditative in orientation and plays a pivotal informing role in the spirituality articulated in our text at many levels. Though they do not use the phrase, the liberating penetration into the nature of things which Ambapali as well as others, such as Abhirupa-Nanda and Sundari-Nanda,  finally proclaim indeed appears to be predicated on “systematic attention”. And insofar as it is shown to have furthered the development of insight in their cases as well as others, there is reason enough to view its basis and function in relation to vipassana-bhavana.
In any event, since what the discipline and training adumbrated above aimed at was, of course, spiritual liberation as an arahant, it would be instructive next to focus on our text’s more prominent articulations on this important subject. Much like other Pali canonical works, Thi allows no room to conclude that Nibbana attained and experienced as an arahant is amenable to definition or description within the frames of ordinary discourse. Still, its verses sometimes encompass noteworthy statements on the implications of the liberation the arahant wins; and these, it is possible to say, convey certain instructive clues about the crowning achievement of Buddhist religiosity. Let me elaborate.
Though Buddhism’s quintessential religiosity has been identified loosely and uninformatively as “mystical” in certain modern interpretations,  a careful reading of Thi indicates that accession to spiritual perfection is depicted in its articulations as entailing an acquisition of “gnosis” (añña),  replete with higher epistemic capacities. Given specific scope, the more striking elements in these capacities are often collectively referred to as the “triple knowledge” (tisso vijja, tevijja).  And, as often happens, when a theri proclaims, “the threefold wisdom have I gotten now,”  what exactly was meant? Significantly, these higher capacities are traditionally taken to be: (i) knowledge of one’s previous existences in Samsara (pubbenivasanussati-ñana); (ii) knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings under the influence of their kamma (sattanam cutupapata-ñana); and (iii) knowledge of the destruction of the cankers of attachment, or “influxes” (asavakkhaya-ñana). 
But a particular knowing was not the only consequence of becoming an arahant. Many theris here seem to refer pointedly to a distinct state of being as well. Indeed, when they joyfully proclaim that they are “free,” or that their minds are “liberated,”  what is implied, there is reason to infer, is an accession to a realm of being that transcends the one experienced in ordinary life. Escape from the repeated cycle of birth and death (punabbhavo) was of course one admitted attibute of the new being” of the Buddhist saint  (who was projected as having rooted out all lust, sabbo rago samuhato, Thi 34). Recognized as ineffable, its essential transcendence, however, is frequently conveyed by a set of terms which appear on first analysis to carry a larger content of symbolic than of referential meaning. Thus, Thi again and again depicts the arahant as one who has reached a condition that is “cool” (sitibhuta) or “calm and serene” (upasanta). 
What has been brought to the fore in the paragraphs immediately preceding strikes me as some of the more outstanding features in the religiosity projected in Thi. Obviously, there are many other things worth noting in this connection. In any event, to conclude the present segment of this inquiry, I would like to draw attention to a few additional considerations that anyone probing the religiosity manifested in this text should take into account.
Clearly, highly motivated individual application is the main driving force behind the religiosity encountered here. Still, it is noteworthy that quite a few theris acknowledge the assistance of preceptors, sometimes going so far as to ascribe crucial guiding roles to them.  Then again, one must not overlook the apparent suddenness with which the liberating insight dawns on many theris. This comes to the fore rather strikingly in the following verses:
One day, bathing my feet, I sit and watch
The water as it trickles down the slope.
Thereby I set my heart in steadfastness,
As one doth train a horse of noble breed.
Then going to my cell, I take my lamp,
And seated on my couch I watch the flame.
Grasping the pin, I pull the wick right down
Into the oil …
Lo! The Nibbana of the little lamp!
Emancipation dawns! My heart is free! (PsS, p. 73) 
Lastly, though I myself do not propose to delve into the matter as it would be necessary to go too far afield to do so, it is nevertheless well to point out that the existence of certain discernible variations in the ways different theris of the anthology reach the final liberating vision poses a challenge of no small significance to all who seek to come to terms with the religiosity of Thi. There is room to ask whether these variations are directly relatable to the famous distinctions early Buddhist literature encompasses as regards modes of attaining liberation. (Nikaya sources, it should be observed, distinguish between cetovimutti, paññavimutti, and ubhatobhagavimutti .) 
To sum up, I think that the brief analytical and evaluative considerations relating to Thi presented in the foregoing discussion establish an important point: this ancient anthology of Pali verse is a unique Buddhist composition which admits of examination from an interesting variety of angles. The main conclusions of our examination are significant. Authored by individual women members of the Buddhist Order, Thi bears a feminine stamp that comes to the fore impressively at certain levels. But the work also encompasses a notable philosophic dimension. And here, what can be detected are not only the classic emphases of Buddhist thinking, but also a striking delineation of the experienced transitions in the consciousness as it evolves from an ordinary state into a spiritually attuned one, such as is focused on the attainment of its higher potentialities.
Moreover, as a versified composition, Thi bears witness to a many-sided aestheticism: there are identifiable sensitivities to beauty (poetic, human, and natural) in many of its verses, though considered overall these sensitivities are mediated through an overarching Buddhist perspective which underscores the evanescence of things temporal.
There remains, finally, the religiosity. Though treated last, this is clearly the most important and consistently encountered feature in the utterances of varying length and content gathered in Thi. For the women who authored them were without exception committed Buddhist renunciants engaged in a shared soteriological quest. And the goal they aimed at and attained—liberation as an arahant—was again not only the same, but was also depicted in their verses in broadly similar terms.
Though this inquiry has focused on feminism, philosophy, aestheticism, and religiosity in Thi, it would be well to mention that its verses are not without insights on other concerns. For example, the anthology at several levels might be regarded as an important canonical work which clarifies some crucial, finer points in early Buddhism’s approaches to knowledge. Indeed, the uniquely personal terms in which access to supernormal knowledge and the character and scope of this knowledge tend to be detailed here might have few exact parallels elsewhere, except of course in the complementary Theragatha.
Then again, in one context in particular, this work merits notice from anyone probing early Buddhism’s gerontological perspectives. The context in question is Ambapali’s verses where they receive striking articulation, along with what amounts to a veritable semiotic of aging rooted in Buddhist soteriological reflection. Yet the anthology’s relevance or value as a textual resource for the study of these subjects seems to have been lost on those who have investigated them recently.  Perhaps one general constraint that has operated against the wider use of Thi in latter-day discussions is its origins and character: what it offers are not discourses or disquisitions on Buddhism, but rather insights into Buddhism as practised through subjective appropriation by the committed religious. For this very reason, Thi, one might say, is a work for whose fuller appreciation an empathetic understanding of Buddhist spirituality in its deepest sense is very much demanded.  That Buddhist studies sustained by narrow interests in ideas or linguistic details have often tended to ignore it, therefore, is not altogether surprising. Yet there is good reason to invite serious students of Buddhism to read and revalue the Therigatha text. For as our inquiry has sought to adumbrate, this text of short compass traceable to women contains many interesting strands of meaning, all underwritten by a practised religiosity which displays paradigmatic early Buddhist features.
… kalaka bhamaravannasadisa vellitagga mama muddhaja ahunm
te jaraya sanavakasadisa …
…vasito va surabhikarandaka pupphapuram mama uttamangabhu
tam jaraya sasalomagandhikam …
kananam va sahitam suropitam kocchasuvicitaggasobhitam
tam jaraya viralam tahim tahim …
sanhagandhakasuvannamanditam sobhate su venihi alankatam
Tam jaraya khalati siram katam … (Thi 252–55)
The closing refrain in the English version cited above is “Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer”. It translates the original’s repeated allusions to the veracity of the Buddha’s teachings (saccavadi-vacanam), which stress universal impermanence or the ineluctability of decay. [Back]
matta vannena rupena sobhaggena yasena ca yobbanena c”upatthaddha añña samatimaññi “ham sajja pindam caritvana munda samghatiparuta nisinna rukkhamulamhi avitakassa labhini. (Thi 72, 75)
The verses of Siha which follow nest serve to project the mental orientation in the first of the two stages referred to above in revealing terms, and merit notice as a further context which bears out the presence of proto-existentialist insights within the Buddhist spirituality articulated in Thi. Indeed, Kierkegard’s analysis of the operation of the consciousness at the “aesthetic stage” in particular might be instructively recalled in reading Siha’s account of her former self, distraught, divided, and in despair (and hence displaying many symptoms of “sickness unto death” in Kierkegard’s phrase), and the final dawn of the liberating vision in the course of an attempted suicide, detailed thus:
Distracted, harassed by desires of sense,
Unmindful of the “what” and “why” of things,
Stung and inflated by the memories
Of former days, o’er which I lacked control—
Corrupting canker spreading o’er my heart—
I followed heedless dreams of happiness,
And got no even tenour to my mind,
All given o’er to dalliance with sense. (PsS, p. 54)
Ayonisomanasikara kamaragena addita
ahosim uddhata pubbe citte avasavattini
pariyutthita kilesehi sukhasaññanuvattini
samam cittassa nalabhim ragacittavasanuga. (Thi 77, 78)
It should be noted, however, that viewed within the doctrinal frames of early Buddhism itself, the “unconverted” mind can be said to reflect the proclivities and the psychological makeup of ordinary persons (puthujjana); and the “converted,” those of the spiritually awakened élite (ariya). Cf. Compendium of Philosophy (Abhidhammatthasangaha), tr. Shwe Zan Aung and C.A.F. Rhys Davids (PTS 1979), Introduction, p. 49. [Back]
Thus, early Buddhism’s devaluation of sense-pleasure, for instance, is very much underscored in the verses of Sela:
Like spears and javelins are the joys of sense
That pierce and rend the mortal frames of us.
These that thou callest “the good things of life” —
Good of that ilk to me is nothing worth. (PsS, p. 44)
sattisulupama kama khandhanam adhikuttana
Yam tvam kamaratim brusi arati dani sa mamam. (Thi 58)
Sumedha expatiates on this theme in three verses (PsS, pp. 171–72), expressing similar thoughts. [Back]
Framed within early Buddhism’s meditational attitude towards one’s body—which Sue Hamilton (“From Buddha to Buddhaghosa—Changing Attitudes toward the Human Body in Theravada Buddhism,” in Religious Reflections on the Human Body, ed. by JM. Law, Bloomington, 1995, p. 52) rightly describes as neither positive nor negative,” but “purely annalytical”)—Ambapali’s verses are particularly significant to aesthetic theory for this reason: the formal inspiration behind them, one may argue, is the perception traditional to South Asia (and projected in its literatures) that the attractive woman is a possessor of “five attributes of beauty” (pañca kalyanani) defined in terms of hair (kesa), flesh (mamsa), teeth (atthi), skin (chavi), and youth (vaya). Cf. Pali-English Dictionary, p. 199. This, evidently, is an analytically structured perception of bodily beauty (the general approach exhibited here might be interestingly reviewed in relation to certain viewpoints in Western aesthetics, cf. G. Dickie, Introduction to Aesthetics, An Analytic Approach, Oxford, 1977). And it appears, in any event, to be the veritable subtext to the shifting details in the above verses, whose aestheticism, one would do well to note, is enhanced by evocative natural imagery so tastefully selected and artistically deployed. The equally evocative imagery through which the hideousness of decay is apt to be driven home in these gathas must not, of course, be overlooked either; the use of poetic craftmanship to inculcate a characteristically Buddhist sensitivity to the unpleasant (asubha) indeed becomes specially evident at this level. It would be well to observe that once detached from its Buddhist soteriological moorings, Ambapali’s delicate grasp of the decay to which physical beauty is subject might be interestingly set beside the variously articulated “ruminations” on “ruin” found in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Viewed poetically, Ambapali’s basic recognition in regard to physical beauty, for instance, tends to be strongly echoed in one context here:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o”ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower? (Sonnets, 65) [Back]
dahara ca apapika c”asi kim te pabbajja karissati
nikkhipa kasayacivaram ehi ramamase pupphite vane.
madhurañ ca pavanti sabbaso kusumarajena samuddhata duma
pathamvasanto sukho utu ehi ramamase pupphite vane.
kusumitasikhara ca padapa abhigajjanti va maluterita
ka tuyham rati bhavissati yadi eka vanam ogahissasi. (Thi 370–72)
The clash and contest between spiritual commitment and worldly urgings that figures prominently in the above setting, it is instructive to remark, is a much worked theme in the tradition of English metaphysical poetry in particular. Projected within Christian theological frames, it is, for example, basic to Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure”; cf. GM. Hopkins, “Golden Echo and Leaden Echo.”. [Back]
For some pertinent Th affirmations on this score, see PsB, pp. 99–108, 154. The latter context is very striking, for the thera Culaka intones here:
Hark! How the peacocks make the welkin ring,
Fair-crested, fine their plumes and azure throat,
Graceful in shape and pleasant in their cry.
And see how this broad landscape watered well
Lies verdure-clad beneath the dappled sky!
Healthy thy frame and fit and vigorous
To make good progress in the Buddha’s rule.
Come then and grasp the rapt thought of the saint,
And touch the crystal bright, the subtly deep,
The elusive mystery—even the Way
Where dying cometh not, ineffable. (Th 211–12) [Back]
hitvan” aham natiganam dasakammakarani ca
gamakhettani phitani ramaniye pamodite
pahay” aham pabbajita sapateyyam anappakam. (Thi 340)
An analogous confession is woven into the verses of Sukula (PsS, p. 61); see also those of Sangha, Uppalavanna, Sundari, and Sumedha (PsS, pp. 21, 113, 139, 167) for still other articulations on renunciation. Typically, the religious renunciants of Thi lead homeless lives in secluded places in ways that conform to the famous injunction set forth in the Mahavagga (I, 30). Though some (like Mittakali and Patacara, PsS, pp. 59, 73) refer to their particular dwelling places in general terms, quite a few live in the open air, choosing their “seat and abode” (senasana) in classic fashion under the “foot of a tree” (rukkhamula), a striking case being Vimala (PsS, p. 53). Cf. Patrick Olivelle, The Origin and Early Development of Buddhist Monachism, Colombo 1974, p. 13. It is well to add that the nuns of Thi do not merely embrace eremetical asceticism focused on inner culture, but actually come forward on occasion to defend it against the cavils of sceptical critics. The verses of Rohini (PsS, pp. 126 ff.), for instance, exemplify this: she marshals here an array of religiously impressive arguments to establish why “recluses are dear to me” (me samana piya). Significantly, some of these arguments are reminiscent of the points made in a notable Digha Nikaya context which focuses on the fruits of Buddhist renunciant religiosity, namely, the Samaññaphala Sutta. Cf. Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Discourse on the Fruits of Recluseship, The Samaññaphala Sutta and its Commentaries, Kandy 1988. [Back]
“Divine eye” or “heavenly eye” (dibba-cakkhu) referred to in many Thi contexts cited immediately above (Thi 179) is usually taken to mean clairvoyant power basic to the second of the “knowledges” clarified in the preceding. Like classic Nikaya discussions (cf. Samaññaphala Sutta), Thi too considers the higher knowing entailed in “gnosis” (añña) to encompass in all a total of six supernormal capacities (it is well to remark that tevijja represents three characteristic factors within them). Some of Uppalavanna’s verses (PsS, p. 113) tersely highlight this matter:
How erst I lived I know; the Heavenly Eye,
Purview celestial, have I clarified;
Clear too the inward life that others lead;
Clear too I hear the sounds ineffable;
Powers supernormal have I made mine own;
And won immunity from deadly Drugs.
These, the six higher knowledges are mine.
Accomplished is the bidding of the Lord.
pubbenivasam janami dibbacakkhum visodhitam
ceto paricca ñanañ ca sotadhatu visodhita.
iddhi pi me sacchikata patto me asavakkhayo
cha me abhiñña sacchikata katam buddhassa sasanam. (Thi 227–28)
For useful background information on this issue here treated, see D.J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Albany, N.Y. 1967, Ch. 10, “Analytic Yoga.” [Back]
pade pakkhalayitvana udake su karom”aham padodakañ ca disvana thalato ninnam agatam tato cittam samadhemi assam bhadram va janiyam tato dipam gahetvana viharam pavisim aham seyyam olokayitvana mañcakamhi upavisim tato sucim gahetvana vattim okassayam”aham padipasseva nibbanam vimokkho ahu cetaso. (Thi 114–16)
Given the noted role which the idea of “sudden enlightenment” plays in Mahayanist traditions (notably Zen, cf. DT. Susuki, Zen Buddhism, New York 1956; see also S. Park, Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment, Albany, N.Y. 1984), the above evidences that point to its anticipation in Thi merit particular notice. Though it has not been viewed from this angle, contemporary esoteric religiosity associated with the Theravada tradition itself seems to have generated patterns of illuminative understanding which dawns in a sudden fashion; cf. R. Gombrich and G. Obeyesekere Buddhism Transformed, Religious Change in Sri Lanka, Princeton 1988, pp. 353 ff., and also the present writer’s review of this book in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 13, 1990, pp. 149–50. [Back]