A lotus for you, a "Theri" to be

The Buddhist Channel, 20 March 2023

Bangkok, Thailand -- For so long, the Buddhist teachings have resonated in the voices of the males. Many perhaps are not aware, that an equally inspiring Dhamma resonance came from their female counterparts.

These female Dhamma practitioners are called "theri", a term referring to a female elder or nun in the Buddhist monastic tradition. Specifically, it denotes a bhikkhuni (female monk) who has achieved a significant level of spiritual development or enlightenment.

The term is used in the Therigāthā, which is a collection of verses uttered by enlightened female disciples of the Buddha, expressing their joy, wisdom, and liberation from suffering through their spiritual practice. These theris, through their profound insights and experiences, contribute significantly to the Buddhist teachings and serve as inspiring figures for both monastic and lay practitioners.

The Journey of Enlightenment

The Therigatha is not just a collection of poems; it's a testament to the spiritual prowess and determination of early Buddhist nuns. These verses, numbering 73 poems across 522 stanzas, are poignant narratives of struggle, enlightenment, and liberation. They serve as a beacon of inspiration, reminding us of the potential within each of us to overcome suffering and attain Nibbana.

The following are some inspiring poems and stories from the Therigatha, highlighting the challenges faced by these early Buddhist nuns in their quest towards enlightenment.

Patacara's Story of Loss and Liberation

One of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately inspiring stories is that of Patacara. She lost her entire family in a series of tragic events, leading her to the brink of madness. Yet, it was this profound suffering that brought her to the Buddha, and under his guidance, she found solace in the Dhamma. Her verses express the depth of her despair and the liberation she found through insight:

"Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower the man who lives for the pursuit of pleasures, who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated." (Thig 112)

Kisagotami's Tale of Grief and Understanding

Kisagotami's story is another poignant narrative. She came to the Buddha in despair, carrying the dead body of her only child, seeking a way to bring him back to life. The Buddha instructed her to find a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. Through her impossible quest, she realized the universality of death and suffering, leading to her eventual understanding and acceptance. Her verses reflect the transformative power of confronting impermanence:

"This dart of grief is difficult to bear. A tide carries me away... Seeing the danger in the world, I go for refuge to the Buddha." (Thig 216)

Ambapali's Reflections on Aging and Renunciation

Ambapali, once a renowned courtesan, offers a different perspective. Despite her wealth and beauty, she recognized the fleeting nature of sensual pleasures and the inevitability of aging. Her verses capture the moment of her insight, leading to her renunciation and pursuit of the path:

"Though I am adorned, I am not at peace. The body is withered, the old woman limps along, supported by a staff. The beauty of youth is gone." (Thig 240)

Sumedha's Determination for Enlightenment

Sumedha's verses speak to the determination and aspiration for enlightenment. Her commitment to the path, despite the challenges, serves as a powerful reminder of the potential for liberation within us all:

"With strong effort and determination, I trained my mind. The Buddha has shown me the path, leading out of the cycle of birth and death." (Thig 350)

The Universal Message of the Therigatha

The Therigatha is more than a historical record; it's a source of timeless wisdom and inspiration. The struggles of these early nuns resonate with us even today, reminding us of the transformative power of the Dhamma.

Their feminity belies the steely strength that they have mustered from deep withn themselves to bring forth the light of awakening through insight and wisdom. Their stories encourage us to look within, confront our suffering, and embark on the path towards enlightenment.

In their verses, we find a reflection of our own potential to overcome adversity, to find peace and liberation. The Therigatha teaches us that enlightenment is not a distant ideal but a tangible reality that can be achieved through dedication, insight, and the practice of the Dhamma.

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