from the Therigatha

· Creative Expression, Essays · , ,

Poems by Early Buddhist Nuns, translated by Susan Murcott


As I left my daytime resting place on
Vulture Peak,
I saw an elephant
come up on the riverbank
after its bath.

A man took a hook and said to the
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant stretched out its foot;
the man mounted.

Seeing what was wild before
gone tame under human hands,
I went into the forest
and concentrated my mind.


When they plow their fields
and sow seeds in the earth,
when they care for their wives and children,
young brahmins find riches.

But I’ve done everything right
and followed the rule of my teacher.
I’m not lazy or proud.
Why haven’t I found peace?

Bathing my feet
I watched the bathwater
spill down the slope.
I concentrated my mind
the way you train a good horse.

Then I took a lamp
and went into my cell,
checked the bed,
and sat down on it.
I took a needle
and pushed the wick down.

When the lamp went out
my mind was freed.


intoxicated by my own
lovely skin,
my figure,
my gorgeous looks,
and famous too,
I despised other women.

Dressed to kill
at the whorehouse door,
I was a hunter
and spread my snare for fools.

And when I stripped for them
I was the woman of their dreams;
I laughed as I teased them.

head shaved,
I, my same self,
sit at the tree’s foot;
no thought.

All ties
I have cut men and gods
out of my life,

I have quenched the fires.


Although I left home for no home
and wandered, full of faith,
I was still greedy
for possessions and praise.

I lost my way.
My passions used me,
and I forgot the real point
of my wandering life.

Then as I sat in my little cell,
there was only terror.
I thought—this is the wrong way,
a fever of longing controls me.

Life is short.
Age and sickness gnaw away.
I have no time for carelessness
before this body breaks.

And as I watched the elements of mind and body
rise and fall away
I saw them as they really are.
I stood up.
My mind was completely free.
The Buddha’s teaching has been done.

The Therigatha is a collection of short poems that were recited around 600 BC and are part of the Pali Canon. It is the earliest known collection of women’s literature.

Susan Murcott was co-founder and editor of Kahawai: Journal for Women and Zen for many years. She spent more than ten years researching, and translating the Therigatha. She teaches environmental engineering at MIT.

From First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott. Copyright © 2006 by Susan Murcott. Reprinted by permission of Parallax Press.

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