Back when the Buddha was alive, women and men who attained enlightenment sometimes composed exultant verses about how it felt to be liberated. Each of these songs, as collected in the Therigatha and Theragatha, is embedded in a life story. (Theri means “enlightened woman,” thera, “enlightened man,” and gatha, “verses.”) The stories tell of hard lives—domestic servitude or prostitution for the women, farm labor or commerce for the men—all tightly bound by India’s ancient caste, family and clan structure.
While our lives differ in crucial ways from the daily existence of these ancient women and men, and while their stories are often quite extreme—taking us into the darkest realms of desire and suffering—still we may recognize our own obsessions, griefs, appetites and sorrows writ large in the misfortunes of Patacara, the lust of Rajadatta. These stories operate on several levels: they bring us information about the hearts and minds of ancient followers of the Buddha, but also they may inspire us to persist in our practice, their very larger-than-life quality shocking us out of our habitual mind-states. For me, Patacara’s “Nibbana of the little lamp” offers particular inspiration: attention to the simplest action can be an opening to liberation.
Typically a woman’s moment of awakening happened while performing humble duties—cooking the curry, carrying a jug of water, snuffing the lamp. Or if she was a prostitute, she might foresee the eventual transformation of her beautiful firm body into that of a wrinkled, toothless hag. The gist of the awakening usually was an experience of anicca, impermanence. The women’s songs express a transcendent sense of relief and joy.
Oh free, indeed! O gloriously free
Am I in freedom from three crooked things:—
From quern, from mortar, from my crookback’d lord!
Ay, but I’m free from rebirth and from death,
And all that dragged me back is hurled away.
Here is one of the women’s stories that I find most powerful:
After countless former lives of practice, Patacara was reborn in Savatthi, a village in Northern India. When her second child was due, she and her husband set out for her family home. But a great rainstorm blew up, and as night was coming, her husband went off to cut grass and sticks to make them a shelter. In the dead of night she gave birth to the baby by herself on the muddy ground. Next morning, carrying the newborn and with the toddler following behind, she started on her way and found her husband dead by a snakebite in the forest.
Lamenting, Patacara plodded on until she came to the river, swollen by rain, where she set the toddler on one bank and forded the rushing water to put the newborn on the opposite shore. But when she was halfway back across to retrieve the little boy, a hawk dived down, picked up her infant and flew away. Then the little boy toddled into the river and was swept under. Patacara came weeping into Savatthi, having lost her husband and both children. When she searched in desperation for her parents and siblings, she found that during the storm their house had collapsed and all had been killed.
She went mad. From that day on she wandered in circles, her clothes falling from her, the townspeople taunting her and pummeling her with refuse and clods of dirt. But when the Buddha gave a talk near Savatthi, he saw Patacara and recognized her attainment in previous lives. Through the strength of his own mind he stabilized hers. She told him the reason for her madness, thinking he would comfort her. But instead he said, “With that I cannot help you,” and told her why: “You’ve been shedding tears for the death of children and others in countless previous eons, lifetime after lifetime, your tears more abundant than the waters of the four oceans.” He then offered his essential teaching: “No child or other relative can be a refuge or hiding place for you. Therefore, purify your conduct and accomplish the path leading to nibbana.”
Patacara became a nun and practiced hard until the moment of her enlightenment, which she described in this song:
One day, bathing my feet, I sit and watch
The water as it trickles down the slope.
Thereby I set my heart in steadfastness, [. . .]
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!
The men’s verses often tell of their sexual desire and their efforts to quench that fire. (Culturally, it speaks volumes that there are no comparable verses by women. One could speculate that the wives and prostitutes of that time were not allowed the luxury of sexual desire and pleasure.) One favorite male method for extinguishing lust was to meditate in graveyards to observe the decomposition of corpses. Others tell of the freedom to be won through choiceless awareness.
I came down from my
into the streets one day
to beg food
I stopped where a leper
was feeding himself
With his rotted leper’s hand
into my bowl
he threw a scrap
into my bowl as he
one of his fingers broke and also fell
I simply leaned against a wall
Taking whatever scraps
in cow dung
beneath a tree and wrapped in
only a man like that
walks free in all the four
only a man like that
Rajadatta, the merchant, came to ruin from giving all his money to a beautiful prostitute. After he heard the Buddha’s teachings, he became a monk and went to the charnel ground to practice austerities. That same prostitute was arrested and killed for stealing, and her body was thrown into the graveyard where Rajadatta practiced. When he came upon what was left of her corpse after the dogs and jackals had eaten parts of it, he was horrified to find himself sexually aroused, and he ran away. Then he sat in meditation to look at his experience, and through great effort he achieved liberation.
Quicker than boiling rice
overflows the pot
I fled the graveyard
fled that poor dead creature
fled until I reached
a safe secluded spot
and cross my legs and
calm my mind
considered the hungry ignorant acts
that brought it where it lay
considered the tangle of worms
I stared into countless
rounds of suffering
stared into greed and hunger
stared on vanity
stared until desire
blinked like a lamp
and went out
Lust no longer assailed me
I made wisdom my own then
yes I accomplished
to be done
Patacara’s story and translation of women’s verses from Caroline Rhys Davids’ 1909 Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Volume I: Psalms of the Sisters.
Men’s verses translated by Andrew Schelling, from Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha by Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman. Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications.