Poems of the First Buddhist Women: Q&A With Charles Hallisey

March 1, 2018
Poems of the First Buddhist Women: Q&A With Charles Hallisey
HDS Professor Charles Halliday

After teaching in the Department of Theology at Loyola University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, and in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, Charles Hallisey joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 2007 as the Yehan Numeta Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures.

Since then, he’s won the Outstanding Teacher Award twice, in 2013-14 and also 2015-16. In a department filled with brilliant scholars and excellent teachers, winning this award twice in three years alone speaks volumes about how much Hallisey is treasured by his students and the HDS community.

In 2015, Hallisey published Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, published as a key work in the Murty Classical Library of India series by Harvard University Press. Considered the first anthology of women’s literature in the world, and sometimes seen an empowering feminist text, Hallisey’s Therigatha made quite a splash in both the Buddhist world and literary culture, and was covered by the likes of The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and many other esteemed publications. The editor of the Murty series, Sheldon Pollock, said Hallisey’s translation is “of an explosive power.”

HDS student Randy Rosenthal met Hallisey in his office to discuss the Therigatha, the lives of women at the time of the Buddha, and whether religious poetry should be funny.

Randy Rosenthal: The first thing that struck me about your translation of the Therigatha was something in your notes, where you write that several of the nuns were royal concubines in the future Buddha’s harem before he set out on his quest of enlightenment. (I counted up to 10.) I haven’t read this anywhere else. How did you come to this conclusion? That the Buddha a) had a harem, and that b) the nuns of the Therigatha were part of it?

Charles Hallisey: It’s all coming from Dhammapala’s commentary, but I have to confess that until you mentioned it just now, it didn’t strike me as even noteworthy. Based on my experience of studying kingship historically in South Asia, I felt that there would always be an assumption that a king or a prince would have more than one consort. Within the social spaces in which a king moved, there would be the antepura or the antargṛha—the “inside of the house.” It was generally restricted to women, to a king’s consorts and their attendants. So, that’s what I have in mind when I speak of the future Buddha’s harem—a place for women only. The only men that go into that restricted space would be the king and eunuchs. It was just part of the arrangements of royal places as social spaces.

Just to be clear, however, I’m not making an argument about the historical figure Siddhartha and how he may have lived. I’m just talking about the history of the imagery that would be here.

Dhammapala is writing his commentary five or six centuries after the verses were written down. The verses themselves are later than the historical figure of Buddha. So, we’re talking about a great deal of time difference between the life of the historical figure that we call the Buddha and when the accounts are being written about him and the men and women that were part of his life.

What that means, then, is that what we’re talking about are patterns in historical memory, not “historical fact.” So, I wouldn’t want even to suggest that this is a fact about the historical figure that we can be certain of. Rather, I would leave it with saying: But how could it not have been remembered to be this way, based on what we know about other historical figures from that time and place broadly?

RR: What did you find out about the life of women at the time of the Buddha through retranslating these poems in a particularly contemporary, if not racy, way? When you translate a word, for example raga as a “desire for sex,” rather than its usual translation of sensual desire, you’re pushing a very sexual, rather than sensual reading.

CH: In the introduction to the translation, I write about the Sinhala novelist Martin Wickramasinghe. He translated some of the Therigatha in the 1950s. It’s the only translation Wickramasinghe ever did, and it’s the only thing that he ever wrote that was in free verse. Wickramasinghe wrote an introduction about why he decided to translate the poems he did.

I read Wickramasinghe’s Teri Gi, together with Liyanage Amarakeerthi, a professor of Sinhala in Sri Lanka and a major literary figure in his own right. This was a way for me to educate my imagination about what might be possible when doing a translation. It was so eye-opening, even destabilizing, to read Wickramasinghe talking about what he was doing. You could see him getting inside the poems and pushing them hard to see more clearly things that were going on. One of the things I quote from him is where he says, “Poems have to be really guided by a sensibility that belongs to the poetry itself, not by some historical thing.”

When I was translating Wickremesinghe’s own engagement with the Therigatha, for example, they don’t know how to translate the word “taste,” which is a key term for him about the experience of reading the poems of the first Buddhist women. It’s not a problem with the word “taste” in itself, but I actually think for Wickramasinghe it is something like “tasting the real”: that when you are reading these poems, when you have a certain pleasure from reading them, you’re tasting what is real and the pleasure comes from that.

You can see the key issue just in that small choice—should I translate Wickramasinghe’s term asvadaya as “taste,” which is what it “literally” means? Or should I try to feel, “Oh, this is how we should engage these poems and others like them”? It’s about tasting what is real. I think we can get even more from the term from pushing on Wickramasinghe harder: it’s about tasting what is more real than the real itself.

That’s what reading is about, for Wickramasinghe. And once you get into that kind of reading and translating and you find yourself kind of pushing the poems, you find that the poems are pushing back. And so, some of this stuff about, say, translating raga as passion, craving, desire, instead of desire for sex, it’s a similar kind of thing.

When I spoke to the editors of the Murty series about doing this translation, what they said was, “You should try to communicate what someone who knows the language would know, that’s kind of beyond the words—that goes with the words.” So, that was part of what was happening for me when I was making the innumerable small choices about translating particular words.

The biggest surprise for me in reading all the poems together is that I had thought—just by casual reading of the Therigatha—that the poems and their division into sections were arranged in a quite arbitrary way, simply by the numbers of verses each poem had, going from shorter to longer. But actually reading the poems in sequence, together with Dhammapala’s commentary, you see the arrangement is drawing attention to things that are not obvious at first.

Most notable for me is the persistence of relations between individual women over the course of their changing social statuses. Women who are friends as laypeople ordained together and remained friends. The persistence of female friendship in the Therigatha really caught my attention and actually excited me. I thought this is an important thing, as a document about monastic life that we don’t pay a lot of attention to, just how important friendship is both literally and figuratively. So much so that in much of traditional Buddhist discourse, when one talks about what a teacher is, the teacher is referred to as a beautiful friend. That’s true of the Buddha, too. He is a beautiful friend even to me. That language of friendship is always there.

Here translation choices are present again. One could say that when a text says “friend,” it just means “teacher.” Well, maybe not. Maybe the imagery of friendship that’s going on is something that we really want to try to pay more attention to, and that’s what the arrangement of the poems start to do. It makes us pay attention more to friendship between these Buddhist women and to friendship itself as a Buddhist felicity—to use Steven Collins’s beautiful expression.

We start to see that there’s relationships between people of all sorts in these poems. There’s also shared suffering; there are women who had children who had died and they are living together. You can say, “Oh, we understand that.” We have cancer support groups and things like that. Then the poems begin to inhabit a world that’s familiar to me.

RR: These poems as a collection are considered scripture, but do you think they would stand up on their own, in a literary sense, regardless of whatever Buddhist themes are in there? Could you, for instance, publish them individually?

CH: One of the things to remember is that they’re a part of a series on literature. I should acknowledge to you that it wasn’t my idea to translate the Therigatha. I really had not much interest in the Therigatha until Sheldon Pollock, the editor of the series who is also a friend, called me and said, “Can I get you to do this?” Sheldon is one of a number of people in my professional life that I’d never say no to. So the emphasis on the literary quality of the poems in some sense comes from the Murty series itself, but in some sense it also comes from my own interest in Buddhist literature.

I think the Therigatha works well in terms of a general way of thinking about the human phenomenon of scripture. That is, not taking the poems as “oh, these are scripture” before we read them, but to say, there may be features of the poems that can create the conditions for which they can become scripture to someone at a particular time. The one poem that I talk a lot about in the introduction is one that Wickramasinghe taught me how to read and he talks about it in his own book, Teri Gi, is Ambapali’s.

Wickramasinghe gives a very striking interpretation of what it means when Ambapali says, “When I was young, my hair was curly and the color of bees. And now, it’s coarse, and the color of jute.” And it’s within the conventions of, you can say, secular love poetry in South Asia, the head to foot description. But many, including myself, immediately say that verse on its own is about impermanence, and impermanence is, of course, a key Buddhist concept. Wickramasinghe, however, says, “You know, everyone says that it’s about impermanence, but they’re wrong.” And then he says about Ambapali, “What’s she saying is, ‘I was beautiful when I was young and I am beautiful now.’ ” It made me happy when I read this, for all kinds of reasons, including personal ones. My wife’s hair was going gray at the time, she was sometimes unhappy about that. When I shared Wickramasinghe’s insight with her, I also said, “Read this. This is true. You’re beautiful now, too.”

But in trying to get inside of Wickramasinghe’s head and see what he was seeing, it took a while to figure that out, to learn how to think his thoughts with him. I’m not saying I know exactly what he was thinking, of course, but I had to make what he said make sense to me, for example when he said about Ambapali’s poem that, there are two sensibilities in it, each one trying to outrace the other—one about impermanence, and the other about beauty. That—the presence of two sensibilities, each one trying to outrace the other—may be a pretty important condition of any text that can become a scripture. That there are two sensibilities in a text, and it’s not about one winning, because they’re always outracing the other. I think readers enter into that race.

Coming to the question about whether one can read the poems on their own, I think it is important to remember that the Therigatha is an anthology, and reading the poems all together thus has a certain effect. But some of the poems also work extremely well on their own, as individual poems. One I find incredibly moving is Chandra’s, in which we see that she’s begging on the streets and she sees the nun Patachara and asks to become ordained. That, I think, works very, very well on its own, in which, basically, if you come to it and you’re reading poem, you come to see it as an answer to the question, “What makes life possible?” A beautiful answer to a very basic question. And I think that’s why, say, all the kind of Marxist Buddhist thinkers in the mid-twentieth century who rediscovered the Therigatha and started reading the poems, they were really entranced by the Therigatha’s answers to what makes life possible. And a lot of the Therigatha is about kindness, very ordinary kindness. Human kindness in response to the sufferings of other people. The Therigatha reminds us that that’s what makes life possible: that people reach in and help someone. 

I wrote in the introduction that the Therigatha wears its Buddhism pretty lightly. The longer poems at the end are more Buddhist in varieties of ways, but especially because doctrinal things are more on the surface. The shorter poems, which are very powerful, are just really, to me, celebrations of human freedom—freedom from yourself, freedom from other people. The happiness of escaping. Some of them are funny, too. 

RR: This is what we look for in literary poetry anyway, these kinds of things. Celebration, mood, freedom. And humor.

CH: You and I can ask ourselves about this: Why is it that we think that religious poetry shouldn’t be funny? Why should I think that religious poetry shouldn’t be sarcastic, shouldn’t be biting?

Mahinda Palihawadana, a Sri Lankan scholar of Buddhism, was my first teacher of Buddhism. In a conversation with him one time, we were talking about the Canon, and he said, “I know all of the theories about the historical evolution of the Canon, that things are added to it over time. To an extent those theories are right. But still, when I read the suttas, what I see is a consistent sense of humor, and the evolution and editorial work does not produce a sense of humor.”

What he was saying there is that, in this kind of consistent sense of humor, when you go and look for that sense of humor, it is biting, even mean-spirited at times. Sometimes when you see it, you go, Wow, that’s really harsh. And so, we don’t pay a lot of attention to that, perhaps because it doesn’t meet our expectations of what the Buddha should be. When I share those ideas with other people in Buddhist Studies, some say, “That just can’t be.” Or they don’t like the tone of the Buddhist sense of humor that the text has. Some say the Buddha shouldn’t have had that kind of sense of humor. For me, it can seem like he’s just sick of being challenged by others, and especially by Brahmins. And he’s just had enough of it for a day, and he just lets loose with a really biting and offensive comment.

—by Randy Rosenthal