First Buddhist Women traces the journey of the wives, mothers, teachers, courtesans, prostitues, and wanderers who became the first female disciples of the Buddha. Susan Murcott’s lively translation and commentary of the Therigatha, the earliest known collection of women’s religious poetry, is surprisingly timeless, addressing issues of spiritual enlightenment and societal expectations that are still relevant today.
An outstanding contribution to Buddhist studies. —Midwest Book Review
A compelling and poignant record of the poems of the Therigatha…resplendent with images of great beauty.
—Tricycle: A Buddhist Review
Murcott’s scholarship…provides excellent material for a fuller understanding of these women and their poems.—Mountain Record
An extraordinary work.—Diana Winston, Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens
From the new Introduction by Diana Winston, author of Wide Awake.
Like any good feminist, in my early years of practice, I warily approached Buddhist history. Sure, I’m into Buddhism. Yeah, I love those teachings, but give me a break, the canon is dripping with sexism. Inspiring women are in there, somewhere, I think, if I just dig deep enough. Then one day, somewhere, somebody passed me a copy of The First Buddhist Women. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
At last, an intelligent feminist scholar was tackling the subject with sincerity and insight. Susan Murcott took the Therigatha, songs of the nuns from the time of the historical Buddha, and explored the political, social, and cultural climate. She explained the history. She asked the right questions, the ones I wanted answers to anyway. Her astute analysis helped me understand what made the nuns’ order what it was. Her translations were simultaneously down-to-earth and mystical. But best of all, she brought to life the nuns. She retold the stories of their lives in detail and re-translated their poems and songs of awakening.
This is a poem by a prostitute who became a nun. Murcott comments: “In the fourth stanza of her poem, Vimala says, ‘I, my same self.’ This detail suggests that she has not rejected the person she once was, but instead is affirming a continuity in her life. From this point of view, the line, ‘I have cut men and gods out of my life,’ instead of implying that she has built an impenetrable wall around herself, shows rather that she is no longer ruled by inside images or outside forces.”
intoxicated by my own
my gorgeous looks,
and famous too,
I despised other women.
Dressed to kill at the whorehouse door,
I was a hunter
and spread my snare for fools.
And when I stripped for them
I was the woman of their dreams;
I laughed as I teased them.
I, my same self,
sit at the tree’s foot:
I have cut men and gods
out of my life,
I have quenched the fires.