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Thera-Theri Gatha:
Inspired utterances of Buddhist monks and nuns

GATHA: Thera - Theri Gatha belongs to the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka in the Pali Canon. The Pali term khuddaka has been defined as 'minor', but it should not be understood as 'insignificant' or 'unimportant'.

The Khuddaka Nikayawas probably considered as 'minor' in relation to the actual teaching in the other texts in the Pali Canon. As Prof. Oliver Abeynayake observes: "It is in fact an integral part of the great tradition."

Even a cursory glance at the Thera-Theri Gatha will convince a reader that these theras and theris had been a group of people disciplined by a mainstream philosophy and culture whose utterances cannot be considered 'minor' in the usual sense of the term.

Thera-Theri Gatha come to us in verse-form because they were passed on in the oral tradition as such. It is a feature in the Pali Canon that in certain places profound concepts of the Dhamma are explained with simple similes, emotive language, striking phrases and a narrative style mixed up with prose and poetry.

Moreover, although Buddhism grew amidst an atmosphere of considerable intellectual activity, writing was not used to record its products, and the tendency was to convert all utterances that were deemed important into metrical form.

According to Rhys Davids, canonical books were the result rather of communistic than of individual effort. Similarly, even in the Thera-Theri Gatha there is internal evidence that reveals the hand of the invisible compiler such as the presence of duplicate names in the text, ascription of identical stanzas to separate theras and the repetition of stanzas.

Moreover, some of the writings now found in the Dhammapada, Thera Gatha and Theri Gatha had been scattered over the Nikayas before they were finally incorporated in the present texts by the learned compilers.

Scholars conclude that the verses collected in the Thera Gatha and Theri Gatha were uttered over a period of 300 years, from the end of the sixth century to the middle of the third century BC.

During these centuries Gathas were probably added onto the original stock or underwent alteration. A selection and revision were done at the Third Council in pataliputta, and it is this version that has come down to us.

Some gathas, of course, suggest that they come to us almost in the form they were uttered, while others reveal the hand of a compiler or a literary composer. Mrs. Rhys Davids points out that the verses of TheriSumedha and Theri Isidasi show unmistakable signs of literary craft.

This kind of compilation or revision is to be expected in a body of literature that was passed on mainly by oral tradition. But this should not mean that was passed on mainly by oral tradition.

But this should not mean that these utterances were never made by the theras or theris concerned and were the compositions of some others. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth.

The importance and relevance of this body of literature lie not in who uttered them but in the utterances themselves. In the words of Mrs. Rhys Davids: ".... these are for the history of human ideas the really precious truths, however legendary or lost the genuine sources may have become". It is in this sense, I believe, that these verses should be read and understood.

Thera-Theri Gatha have also been called sravakaudanas. Dhammapala in his Commentary on the Udana defines it as an "accumulated thrill wave of strong emotion, of thought directed and diffused (itakkavippahara), which the heart cannot contain, when it grows to excess cannot stay within, but bursts forth by way of the door of speech, regardless of who receives it - in fact an extraordinary expiration - that is called "udana".

Udana is obviously a religious emotion (dhamma samvega) but scholars define it in several ways. Winternitz renders it as a 'pithy saying'. Woodward as 'verses of uplift', and Jayawickrema as 'utterances of joy'.

But, to my mind the most revealing definition has been given by Mrs. Rhys Davids when she says: "By whomsoever compiled, the contents of the Psalms are profoundly and perennially interesting as expressions of the religious mind, universal and unconquerable; a mind which is so intensely alive."

It is this quality of the mind being alive that renders the verse their unique expressive beauty. And it is only a mind that is intensely alive that will experience the present moment.

Apart from the profound thoughts expressed are evaluated as excellent specimens of poetry. Winternitz refers to them as "religious poems which, in force and beauty, are fit to rank with the best production of Indian lyric poetry, from the hymns of the Rgveda to the lyrical poems of Kalidasa and Amaru."

Mrs. Rhys Davids considers some verses as word-music and claims that "we may place (them) without hesitation beside any passage of Keats and Shelly."

Martin Wickremasinghe sees them as good poetry and says that "it is sensibility guided by intellect that responds to the truth as differently perceived by the saint and the poet." In fact, he says that the Sinhala poets should have sought inspiration from them rather than from Sanskrit poetry.

However, Ven. Karahampitigoda Sumanasara, who translated the Thera-Theri Gatha into Sinhala, strikes a discordant note. According to him, the world-view of the theras and the poets was far apart. He argues that Thera Culaka's gatha or Thera Suppaka's gatha reveal that what is interpreted as beauty by a poet inspired the theras to meditation.

He adds: "So the peacocks, their singing, green grasslands, flowing streams and cloud-covered skies evoke in Thera Culaka not a 'worldly' emotion but an inclination to meditate. Thus, the thera and the poet viewed the same world with different eyes.

Ven. Sumanasara's argument is valid in the sense that although most of the theras are enthralled by nature, and speak enchantingly of mountains, flowing streams, singing peacocks, green grasslands, cool breezes and so on their minds respond to these external stimuli in an entirely different way from those of ordinary human beings.

As Ven. Sumanasara rightly points out, the theras see in nature not 'pleasure' in the sense that we understand the term, but inner peace, 'oneness' with nature, something far removed from personal attachment or feeling.

The point that when the theras or the theris uttered these sentiments they were not thinking in terms of poetry or expressing ordinary emotion need not be stressed.

As an example Thera

Talaputa's verses may be cited:

(When will the rain cloud

In the rainy season

Rain upon me and my robes

with fresh water

As I follow this forest path

taken by the sages?

When will this wish of mine

be fulfilled?

To the call of the peacock

in this forest

And meditate on the

impermanence of things?

When will this wish of

mine be fulfilled?)

Here the thera is inspired by Nature to nobler contemplation than mere delight. If this is poetry, it is poetry in the Aristotlean sense, which is that the end purpose of poetry is not stimulation but purging of emotions. The entire verse comes as a dialogue between the thera and his own mind, battling against sensual pleasures. Addressing the mind, he says:

(When after the rains

The grass is four fingers high

When the grove is in full

flower like rain clouds

Like a tree I will lie

Among the mountains

And the carpet of grass

will console me)

Following is a sample of an inspired utterance by Thera Upasena.

The monk

In search of privacy

Shall prefer the forest dwelling,

Uninhabited, quiet

And sought by wild animals

He shall wear his robes

Sewn from rags

Picked up from dust-heaps,

The cemetery and the street

With sense-doors well guarded

And pride subdued

From house to house he shall go

Begging his alms

Content he shall be

even with coarse food

Nor shall he be greedy;

For the mind of him

who is greedy

Will not be inclined to meditation

Desiring little

He'll be content with

what he gets

And live in tranquillity,

Alone and apart

Amidst the assembly of monks

The learned monk will keep

A low profile

Speak he will not

More than necessary

He will not reproach

Nor hurt anyone

Disciplined by the observances

Of patimokka

He will be temperate in food

Well-versed in concentration

He will understand the

origin of the mind;

In proper time

He will engage in meditation

Of tranquillity and of perception


Rest he will not

Until he had gained Nibbana

Living thus,

All his desires will fade out

And come to an end.

(The English translation of the gathas quoted here are by the writer)

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