Western Buddhist Review

Buddhist Women’s Verses

On Sun, 10 January, 2016 - 13:51
Dhivan Thomas Jones's picture
Dhivan Thomas Jones

We present below a review by Sarah Clelland of a new translation by Charles Hallisey of the Therīgāthā – verses by female followers of the Buddha, preserved in the Pāli language.

Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women (Murty Classical Library of India vol.3), translated by Charles Hallisey

Harvard University Press, 2015, 336pp., hardback £22.95

Review by Sarah Clelland

The Murty Classical Library of India is a new multi-volume series of translations of the great literary works of India. This third volume – and the only Buddhist text out of the twelve or so listed as forthcoming – is the Therīgāthā. So what is the Therīgāthā, and why is it significant?

The Therīgāthā is a collection of gāthā – verses – by and about therīs or elder Buddhist nuns. It is part of the Pāli canon, and, dating from around the 3rd century BCE, it is the earliest surviving Indian poetry by women. The poems contain a wealth of historical detail of the lives of women from a period when we have few other sources. Wives, courtesans, mothers, daughters, old and young, they use oil lamps and cooking pots, wear make up and jewellery, and discuss bride price and the cost of a courtesan.

To Buddhists, these verses are significant because they are the inspired utterances of enlightened women. Given contemporary debates over the position of women in Buddhism, these poems are especially relevant today. The verses show ordained, awakened women, teaching other women and leading them to insight. They show women in every way the equals of men in the spiritual life. In Somā’s verses, when Māra says, of awakening, ‘It’s not possible for a woman’, Soma replies: ‘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’ (p.45). Among the current discussions about bhikkhunī ordination and the continued marginalisation of women in some traditions, these verses speak to us across the centuries.

More than that, they are actually good literature. Charles Hallisey, the translator of this volume, says: ‘How a literary text from more than two millennia ago can have the capacity to give us pleasure, to speak to us about ourselves and about our world in astonishingly fresh and insightful ways, is not easy to explain, but there is no doubt that the poems of the Therīgāthā have proved capable of doing so’ (p.ix). He sets out to bring that pleasure and insight to 21st century readers in his translation.

There have been several previous translations of the Therīgāthā into English. So what does Hallisey bring to the table in this new translation? Why a new translation at all? To give you a feel for the differences, I’m going to compare how previous translators have dealt with one of the single verse poems, by Visākhā:

The Buddha’s will be done! See that ye do

His will. An ye have done it, never more

Need ye repent the deed. Wash, then, in haste

Your feet and sit ye down aloof, alone.

– Caroline Rhys Davids

Do the Buddha’s teaching; having done it one does not repent;

Wash your feet quickly, and sit down on one side.

K.R. Norman

Practice the Buddha’s teaching;

You won’t regret it!

Right now wash your feet

And sit down beside him.

– Susan Murcott

Do what the Buddha taught,

There’s nothing to be sorry about after doing it.

Quick, wash the feet, sit down off to one side.

– Hallisey (p.13)

In this example, there is no important difference in meaning between the translations, but a great difference in style. Caroline Rhys Davids uses iambic pentameter in a high Victorian style with echoes of the King James Bible; K.R. Norman is accurate and prosodic, if sometimes a little clunky; Susan Murcott’s translations are modern, often looser and more poetic.

Hallisey’s translations are modern and direct. They use a minimum of Buddhist terminology, mindful perhaps that people who read their way through the Murty Classical Library may be more interested in the history of Indian literature than the intricacies of Buddhist doctrine. You will not find the poems full of untranslated technical terms. The names of the nuns, of course, remain in Pāli, but here there is a difficulty for the English reader because many names have a literal meaning which is the basis of word-play in the poem. Hallisey has emphasised the significance of the names and made this meaning accessible to an English reader. He explains in his ‘Note on the text and translation’ (p.xxxix):

It should also be noted that in some cases I have made explicit in the English what is obvious but only implicit in the Pāli. This is especially the case in those poems where there is a pun on the theri’s name and the verse indicates that the name a theri has is literally appropriate for her…

What this means is that quite a number of the poems have an extra sentence explaining the meaning of the theri’s name, worked into the poem itself rather than as a footnote. For example, ‘Muttā’ means ‘freed’. Muttā addresses herself by name in two poems about freedom. Hallisey begins one of these poems (p.3):

The name you are called by means freed, Mutta,

So be freed from what holds you back… 

The first line is added by the translator – it’s not really there in the Pāli original – but it means the reader in English can appreciate the reference without fishing around in the notes at the back of the book. This is an ingenious solution to one of the perennial problems of translation – how on earth do you express the wordplay and connotations of one language in another? For the reader with a little Pāli, the original text on the left hand page makes it easy to pick out which lines are Hallisey’s additions.

However, I felt that sometimes in trying to make the poems accessible, Hallisey has obscured the Buddhist meaning of the text. Let’s talk about ‘sex’ – a word that Hallisey uses more than any previous translator! Some of the poems, of course, are quite openly about sex, or the desire for it. For example, a ‘rake’ tries (unsuccessfully) to persuade Subhā into a liaison (p.183). However, several poems which do not otherwise discuss sex use the words kāmacchanda, rāga or kāmarāga.  Hallisey translates these as ‘urge for sex’, ‘passion for sex’ or ‘desire for sex’ where previous translators have interpreted the words as the broader desire for the pleasures of the senses. I think that focusing on one kind of sensual pleasure distorts the meaning of some poems.

For example, Nanduttarā (p.57) alternates between extremes of asceticism and indulgence before her enlightenment. Vexed by ‘the urge for sex’ (in Hallisey’s translation), she indulges in ‘baths and massages / and delight in jewelry and finery’, that is, in the pleasures of the senses. Why, we wonder, if she had the urge for sex, did she not indulge that instead? It seems more likely that her desire was for sensual pleasure, comfort and luxury. And indeed, K.R. Norman translates this as ‘desire for sensual pleasures’ and Susan Murcott as ‘sensuality’.

More profoundly, is this just a poem about a randy nun? To me, it is actually about the human condition seen through Buddhist eyes – a microcosm of the Dhamma, in fact. In Buddhist terms, we all react to sense experience with aversion or desire due to basic ignorance, and so find no peace. Only by overcoming that ignorance can we be free. In Hallisey’s words (p.57):

All existences are cut off, wants and aspirations too,

Every tie untied, I have attained peace of mind.

This universal quality of the poems – their ability to speak about human nature in a way that is still true today – I think is what does speak to us over so much time and difference. The great joy of a new translation is seeing another human perspective shed new light on familiar verses.

Hallisey has written a modern, accessible translation which treats the poems primarily as literature rather than emphasising the Buddhist context. I am concerned to find, however, that a number of errors mar this otherwise enjoyable translation. For example, Hallisey writes (p. 65):

Chinna, Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Kasi and Kosala –
for fifty years I enjoyed the alms of these places,
never incurring a debt.

But ciṇṇā (which Hallisey anglicises as ‘Chinna’) is not a place, it is a past participle of carati, and means ‘travelled’ or ‘wandered’. K.R. Norman has instead:

I have wandered over Aṅga, and Magadha, Vajjī, Kāsi, and Kosala. For fifty years without debt I have enjoyed the alms of the kingdoms.

The number of such errors suggests that perhaps this translation was not proofread carefully. I hope the publisher will consider a second edition to correct these mistakes.  In the meantime, you might like to read this alongside another translation for comparison. Or even better, why not get out your dictionary and dip into the Pāli words on the left hand pages?

Sarah Clelland is a Buddhist and student of Pāḷi.

Log in or register to take part in this conversation