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Buddhadharma : Fall 2005
buddhadharma| 75 |fall 2005 in the early 1990’s, Susan Murcott did for Buddhism and feminism what the radical feminist theologians did for Christianity in the 1970’s: she expanded our notion of women’s sacred texts and brought to life a missing, hidden portion of the female religious experience. She did this through her book, The First Buddhist Women. In this extraordinary work, she retranslated the Therigatha, a compilation of seventy-three poems by nuns from the time of the Buddha. She illuminated the historical, cultural, and social context in which their stories arose – 2,500 years ago, in ancient India. She retold their lives with beauty, simplic- ity, and depth, and gave us modern trans- lations of their awakening songs. I have no doubt that when this book came out it had a huge impact on women practitioners. It certainly did on me. In the early years of my practice, I was enamored with the dharma but a little shocked by the sexism in the his- tory, monasteries, and teachings. I wasn’t too happy to read about the Buddha abandoning his wife and son Rahula (the Pali word for “fetter”) in order to reach enlightenment; or the order of nuns coming about only after Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, basi- cally twisted the Buddha’s arm; and the nearly one-third more rules for women monastics; as well as the stipulation that even the most esteemed of nuns had to bow down to a ten-year-old male nov- ice. Meanwhile, the texts I knew of were filled with stories about monks succumb- ing to temptresses. Women were clearly bad news in Buddhism. The first monastery I practiced at in Thailand displayed a life-sized paint- ing of a sexy woman. Fish hooks dangled all over her body − most tellingly located at her nipples and genitals. “What are you getting into?” I’d ask myself. “Couldn’t you have gone for a nice goddess religion instead?” Then one day, somewhere, somebody passed me a copy of The First Buddhist Women. At last, an intelligent feminist scholar was tackling the subject with sincerity and insight. Murcott had the answers to the questions I had been ask- ing. She put into words a woman’s longing for spiritual life, for true awakening, and explained why a woman might choose to give up her family life in order to ordain. She explored the tremendous pain and dis- ruption her departure may have caused – as well as the profound benefits from her lib- eration. She gave a context for the sexism of the time. Best of all, Murcott brought the nuns to life. She retold the stories of their lives in detail and retranslated their poems and songs of awakening. Her translations were simultaneously down-to-earth and mystical. One of my favorite stories was about the brilliant Bhadda Kundalakesa, who narrowly escaped a terrible marriage and joined the order of Jains. She chose to practice the strictest of ascetic practices and is said to have torn out her hair from dharMa CLassiC LonGinG for a sPiriTuaL Life The firsT BuddhisT woMen: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha By susan Murcott Parallax Press, 1991 reviewed by diana winston diAnA Winston is the Author of Wide AWAke: A Buddhist guide for teens And the founder of the Buddhist AlliAnce for sociAl engAgement. she is Also A memBer of the teAchers council At spirit rock meditAtion center.