This book offers a most interesting and readable introduction to the world of the women who initially attained spiritual realization during Siddhattha Gotama’s lifetime, over 2,500 years ago. These women’s words were not committed to writing initially; for several hundred years they were passed on orally from one generation to the next until they were transcribed onto palm leaves in Sri Lanka (along with the whole body of the Buddha’s teaching and monastic guidelines) and collected into three baskets known as the Tripitaka.
Susan Murcott has done a wonderful job in rendering the words of these early renunciant women, the Therigatha, into a poetic form that is easily accessible to the modern reader. Furthermore, she has pieced together fragments of historical evidence from both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources to create a vivid sense of what the lives of these women might have been like. Although they came from a wide variety of backgrounds, their respective insights on the moment of liberation are strikingly similar, as in this verse on the deathless:
The great dark is torn apart
You too are destroyed.
Since they had abandoned the familiar and entered into the ordained Sangha, these women engaged in a common standard of discipline and renunciation. This in turn encouraged the Dhamma that is universal—far beyond personality and worldly conditioning, beyond the world of birth, death and rebirth. For some, enlightenment came quickly; for others there were long years of dedicated endeavor before the moment of awakening.
The extensive bibliography, glossary and copious footnotes as well as the inclusion of numerous quotations from the original Pali text lead one to anticipate that, besides being an interesting and enjoyable account, Murcott’s work will also prove to be a thorough, historically accurate and scholarly presentation. Clearly, much effort has gone into gathering and ordering the material—it is well thought out and beautifully presented—but there are some surprising inaccuracies, inconsistencies and omissions. These, even to my nonacademic eye, are regrettable.
For example, it would have been helpful to those of us with even just a rudimentary knowledge of Pali to find the diacritical markings included. Without them, the texts are rendered virtually meaningless, since one letter in Roman script may represent as many as four choices in Pali. Furthermore, it is impossible to gain a sense of poetic rhythm, since the stresses are also dependent on the diacriticals.
I was puzzled too by the mention that a nun only becomes a bhikkhuni after twelve years in the order. According to my understanding, the title of bhikkhuni is conferred at the time of the higher ordination (upasampada), which follows the probationary two-year training period. This relatively minor error still has the effect of casting doubt as to the accuracy of all the other fascinating details included.
In spite of these limitations, this is a wonderful book. Murcott has brought into focus the remarkable attainments of these female practitioners within the historical context of the Lord Buddha. The women come alive through her writing as an inspiration, encouragement and—in some mysterious way—as role models for women today.