Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Inspiration from Enlightened Buddhist Nuns

Susan Elbaum Jootla (Buddhist Publication Society Wheel #349 via edited by Dhr. Seven, Ashley Wells, Crystal Quintero, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly
Tibetan nuns in the Himalayas, Ganden Jangchup Choeling nunnery (Reuters/
The Buddha, a Scythian from the west who was enlightened in the East, opened the Path to enlightenment and liberation to everyone regardless of sex, race, class, caste, or wealth.

Female + meditation = full enlightenment.
Let's explore the sacred gathas, verses or songs, composed by enlightened Buddhist nuns (arhat bhikkhunis and/or theris) from the time of the Buddha, looking at them as springs of inspiration for contemporary Buddhists.

Most of the verses are preserved in the Therigatha or "Psalms of the Sisters," a small section of the vast Pali language canon.

The Buddha ordained and taught nuns and female novices as well as monks (chandwimala).
Therigatha (Dr. A. K. Singh)
The Therigatha has been published twice in English translation by the Pali Text Society, London, first in 1909 (reprinted in 1980) by Mrs. Caroline Rhys Davids in verse under the title Psalms of the Early Buddhists: The Sisters and again in 1971 by K. R. Norman in prose under the title The Elders' Verses, II. (Theri literally means "female elder," an "elder" being a person of any age who has at least ten years as a monastic).

Quotations from both translations are used here, referring to Psalms of the Early Buddhists by page number and to The Elders' Verses by verse number. Mrs. Rhys Davids' translations have sometimes been slightly modified.
Amazing Buddha Girl ordained in L.A. (WQ)
This discussion also draws upon the verses of female ascetics from the Kindred Sayings (Samyutta Nikaya) included by Mrs. Rhys Davids at the end of Psalms of the Sisters.
From the sayings of some enlightened nuns at the time of the Buddha modern followers of the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment can receive a great deal of instruction and inspiration, help and encouragement.

These verses can assist us in developing and strengthening virtue, concentration, and liberating wisdom, the three divisions of the Path to complete freedom (nirvana). With their aid we are able to play-and-work more effectively towards eliminating mental defilements that hold us back life after life and towards finding lasting peace and unshakeable happiness.
Our beloved California Buddhist nuns, like Ayya Tathaloka (shown here in center) from the Bay Area, with the help of progressive elder monks like Ven. Piyananda, helped reestablish the Theravada Nuns' Order known as the Bhikkhuni Sangha (
Therigatha (K. Blackstone)
In some respects, the inspiration we can gain from these verses may be stronger for females than for males, since these are in fact women's voices speaking. (Males have an analogous text, Psalms of the Elders or Theragatha). And when the theme of the verses is the mother-child bond, this is bound to be the case.

However, at a deeper level, the sex or gender of the speakers is irrelevant. For the ultimate truths they articulate explain universal principles of reality far beyond gender or other social constructs like race, socioeconomic status, beauty, age, and so on. They are equally valid for males and females.
The "Lord of Death," rules samsara (rebirth).
The verses of the nuns, if systematically examined, can help serious Buddhist meditators understand many central aspects of the Dharma, the Teachings of the Buddha, which as a coherent Path again set in motion the Wheel of Timeless Truth.

The background to the verses, including biographical information on the nuns who uttered the inspired songs, is provided by the ancient commentary on the Therigatha by the Venerable Acariya Dhammapala.

The First Buddhist Women
Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids included some of these background stories in Psalms of the Early Buddhists. In the first part of this essay we look at these stories and consider the themes they suggest which are relevant to contemporary students of Buddhist meditation.

Then we discuss a selection of the verses themselves, which deal with many specific Teachings of the Buddha.

We in the 20th century who are seeking to attain enlightenment and final liberation will find ourselves deeply grateful to these fully awakened Buddhist nuns of the past for their profound assistance in illuminating the Dharma for us in their own distinctly personal ways.

I. The Background Stories
Samsara, the frightful Wheel of Life and Death
The ancient commentaries give us information about each nun's background and also explain the verses themselves. Two major themes of relevance to modern students of the Dharma run through these stories.

One is the immeasurably long time that we -- as males and females, as light beings in blissful worlds and miserable beasts in worlds of woe and everything in between -- have all been lost in this samsara, this Endless Round of Birth and Death.

Therigatha (Harvard)
The second is the inscrutable working out of the impersonal law of karmic causality, the truth that our actions really do have effects, which brought these women into contact with the Buddha's Teachings in what was to be their final rebirths when they finally found liberation from all further suffering. More

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