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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
(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.
In search of privacy
Shall prefer the forest dwelling,
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
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
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
All his desires will fade out
And come to an end.
(The English translation of the gathas quoted here are by the writer)