I particularly enjoyed reading the poems from the Theragatha and Therigatha collections, as I felt that while they gave an incredible insight into the theories and beliefs of Buddhism at that time, but also the way that these are carried out on the personal and community level. I have been incredibly interested in the examples gender and women in Buddhism that we have seen in class thus far, and the differences between monks’ and nuns’ poetry particularly caught my eye. There were several marked differences between the themes of poems by monks and those by nuns in terms of descriptions of the physical world, spirituality and monastic life. One particularly salient difference that I noticed while reading the collections was the role of nuns as role models and helping nuns in their journey in monastic life.
Much more than the poems by monks, poems by nuns often involved an older, wiser nun who helped the narrator begin with monastic life or provided an example of Vinaya, “the division of Buddhist scriptures devoted to monastic ‘discipline’” (Gethin 86). In one poem, the narrator “went to a trustworthy nun./ She taught me the Dhamma:/ aggregates, sense spheres, & elements./ Hearing the Dhamma,/ I did as she said” (Thig 3.2). Another encourages the narrator: “exhorting me,/ urged me on to the highest goal./ Hearing her words,/ I did her bidding./ Her exhortation was not in vain” (Thig 5.12). There are many other examples of nuns as support and serving as strong representations of the monastic community. It is more difficult, however, to find such representations in the poetry by monks. Most of their descriptions of pravrajya, or going forth into homelessness, as self-sustained efforts or as efforts inspired purely by the Buddha (Gethin 87). One poem describes a new monk as “steadfast in himself” (Thag 1.7) while another “returns to the hillside intent on seclusion” (Thag 1.23). These representations of the monks’ experience make it seem as if monastic life from the perspective of a monk as much more focused on inward struggles and less on interdependence and mentorship.
What drew my eye to this small pattern in these two different collections was wondering if subtle differences exist between the different genders within Buddhism. When designating an order for nuns, the Buddha reportedly laid down eight special rules, or garudhamma, that only nuns would have to obey (Gethin 90). They would also be subordinate to all monks, regardless of age or status (Gethin 90). Regardless of gender, the Sangha heavily relies on the existence of a hierarchy, which Gethin calls “rules and regulations designed to curb greed, aversion and delusion” and set followers on the correct Buddhist path (93). However, what does it say about a person’s spiritual journey when their rules, regulations, expectations and achievements are treated differently based on their gender? How does this dynamic, in turn, affect the Vinaya—the relationship of monastics with the wider lay community?