Encounters with the Possible
An interview with Charles Hallisey
Charles Hallisey is the Yehan Numata Senior Lecturer on Buddhist Literatures at Harvard Divinity School. His research focuses on Theravada Buddhism, Buddhist ethics, and the pleasures of reading. His most recent book is a translation of one of the oldest surviving anthologies of women’s literature, composed over two millennia ago and collected within the Pali canon. Sarah Fleming, MDiv ’21, sat down with Hallisey to talk about the pleasures of translation, friendship as a spiritual practice, and future possibilities for Buddhist scholarship.
From the start, these poems were a pleasure to read. They almost exude delight. How has pleasure guided you in the process of translation?
Throughout the whole process of translating the Therigatha, from the very, very beginning, I was inspired by the example of the Sri Lankan novelist Martin Wickramasinghe and his translation of some of the Therigatha into Sinhala in the 1950s. It wasn’t my idea to translate the Therigatha—a friend asked me to do it, and he is a friend I never say no to. Once I agreed, I looked at other English translations, but I also looked at Wickramasinghe’s Sinhala translation. I found it to be amazing—the boldness of his reading, and especially his challenge to read the Therigatha as poetry. Wickramasinghe said that to read the Therigatha as poetry was to be guided by pleasure. Explaining what inspired him to translate some of these poems, he writes:
On the many occasions that I was happy just being lazy, it was usually to Guttila that my hand reached out and I would read whatever caught my eye wherever I happened to open the book. That satisfaction and comfort that I used to get from Guttila I now get from some of the verses of the Buddhist nuns. . . . The songs of their hearts can be heard even now by reading their poems. Because of the pleasure that my mind received from reading them, I wanted to share those songs by translating a few of them into Sinhala. There was pleasure for me even in translating these few verses.1
What is clear here is that Wickramasinghe wasn’t translating these poems to give access to something from a long time ago, another time or place, another way of life. That’s there, but there is something more immediate, more present, that the translation can convey—something of the pleasure that he had reading these women talking about the pleasure that they had. And he was confident that this pleasure could be carried across translation. Things would be lost, of course, but he knew that translation could be a vehicle for pleasure. For Wickramasinghe, part of this pleasure was that these women had things that they wanted us to hear, and often they weren’t things we had heard before.
What are some of the things that you feel like these women are saying that you didn’t expect to hear?
Wickramasinghe gives us one example that made a big impact on me: the poem by Ambapali. Ambapali’s poem is a very accomplished piece of literature in the way that it uses received forms to unsettle our expectations. The basic form of the poem sets it in the realm of South Asian erotic poetry. It is written in a meter that would later be called rathoddhata, which is associated with springtime and attraction—what we might call spring fever. Ambapali begins by describing the hairs on her head and then works her way down her body, part by part, another convention of this style. The very movements of the poem set in motion expectations about what will happen next.
But then within this conventional erotic form, Ambapali begins to talk about her body in terms of aging:
The hairs on my head were once curly,
black, like the color of bees,
now because of old age
they are like jute.
She continues on with different parts of her body: it once looked like this, now it looks like this. And she makes a pronouncement: “It’s just as the Buddha, speaker of truth, said, nothing different than that.”
Wickramasinghe says that everyone says that this verse is about impermanence, which is true. But he says, actually, they’re wrong. What he hears her saying is, “I was beautiful when I was young, and I’m beautiful now.” And that’s a very striking claim—especially since it is not telling us what we expect to hear—that, rather than what we expect to hear, Ambapali is delighting in her beauty.
The poem continues, and the images of aging become more visceral as she moves down her body: her once perfumed hair now “smells like rabbit fur”; her nose, once delicate, is now “like a strip of wet leather”; earlobes, teeth, and neck are wrinkled and bent; her breasts sag down “like empty waterbags made of leather.” By the poem’s closing, Ambapali’s body, “now feeble with age and fallen from its pride,” is “the home of many sufferings, like an old house, the plaster falling down.”
With each body part, it becomes harder to see what Wickramasinghe means when he reads Ambapali as saying, “I was beautiful when I was young, and I’m beautiful now.” But that’s precisely the point: we have set perceptions of things as attractive and unattractive, and the poem is unsettling all of them. Wickramasinghe describes this as two sensibilities racing against each other, “each trying to outdo the other”: this is attractive, this is unattractive; this is a poem about impermanence, this is a poem about pleasure.2 As these sensibilities race against one another, the poem is leading us into a space we can’t keep up with. It’s daring us to keep up with it, as the experience of the reader becomes increasingly at odds with the voice of the poem. The experience of the reader is, “Oh, that goes too far.” And then the voice in the poem says, “I know. But you have to come to where I am, and when you get to where I am, you’ll see what I can see.”
The power of the poem is that it beckons us into something we have no way of anticipating, because it’s beyond our experience. And this is part of the pleasure of reading: when you get to the end of a poem and say, “I didn’t know that this could be possible.” Through grappling with these poems as poetry, we can catch a glimpse of what Ambapali saw and what she gives us a chance to see through her poem—an alternative and very powerful example of Buddhist insight.
Another thing I wasn’t expecting concerned the arrangement of the poems. At first, it seems like a relatively ordinary, conventional organization determined by the length of the verses: poems with one verse grouped together, poems with two verses grouped together, and so on. But once I got into translating the poems and seeing which women were placed next to each other, I realized there were all kinds of other connections between them—shared experiences, friendships, and other forms of relationality. Just by going through the collection systematically, this whole other vista came into view.
These connections were highlighted by the sixth-century commentator Dhammapala; it would be going too far to say that it is something held in common by every individual nun who speaks in the Therigatha. In his commentary on the Therigatha, he offers further backstories on each of the women and the relational threads between them. In approaching this translation, I felt that both Dhammapala and Wickramasinghe were always in the room with me, commenting on what was possible. Both of them are brilliant readers. Whenever something was difficult, I deferred to Dhammapala. He was, after all, struggling with the same text, asking, “How do we make sense of this?”
It’s striking that you position translation fundamentally as an act of following: being led by the voices of these women, even when it means hearing what we don’t expect, and then being guided by Dhammapala. How does this notion of following fit into your approach to scholarship more generally?
I might say that what happened in working on the translation of the Therigatha is only different in degree from the general orientation I have in encountering Buddhist texts. Wickramasinghe said that to read these poems required “to remember that these verses must be read with a sensibility that is guided by the poetry itself.”3 To put that more generally, I believe that every text has its own user’s manual about how it wants to be read, and part of what it means to read a text is to try to figure out what that user’s manual is and to attend to it and learn from it. Everything I’m reading, I’m always trying to figure out what that user’s manual is and how it can guide me.
It’s fair to say that I don’t read the Therigatha doctrinally. Some might say that this means I’m secularizing the poems. But to say that would be to assume that having a literary sensibility is not part of a Buddhist life, that it’s somehow outside of it. It could end up reducing these poems to the Buddhism, to the doctrines, we know of from elsewhere, rather than listening to what these women are saying, attending to how their poems want to be read.
My general orientation toward reading Buddhist texts is relatively conservative in the sense that I assume that I can’t go directly to a text, but instead I must go through its reception history: reading what commentators have written about the text. In reading commentators like Dhammapala, I’m not asking what they got right or what they got wrong, but rather I’m following their instructions and trying to learn from the way they read. Similarly, reading Wickramasinghe meant seeing the Therigatha not as an early Buddhist text but as part of a continuing tradition of reception in contemporary Sri Lanka that exists in Sinhala as well as in Pali and English.
The way you describe these received histories through Dhammapala and Wickramasinghe, it sounds as if they’re friends to you, guiding you along the way. What has reading these poems alongside Dhammapala and Wickramasinghe taught you about friendship?
Friendship is a central theme of the Therigatha. It runs through the very structure of the anthology but also through each of the poems. We see this most explicitly in the poem by Rohini. Rohini recalls a conversation with her father, who opposes her desire to become ordained and join the ascetics. He can’t understand what she sees in them. Perplexed, he asks her, “What is the reason why ascetics are so dear to you?” She goes through a long list of reasons: their wisdom, their virtue, what they know and what they do. But she concludes by saying that they are dear to her because they come from all over the place, “from various families and various regions,” and become friends with each other.
Her father is saying to her, “We have a relation that is a given, and you want to leave it. Tell me why.” And her answer is because there’s another possible relation that is not a given that overcomes the gaps between people and offers true connection. And that’s why. She wants to live in this more intentional way.
Is Rohini drawn to the fact that these women go forth into homelessness and become unconnected? Partly, but she’s also drawn to the ways that they become more connected, and more connected in ways that heal them from the harms caused by the given connections that have been imposed on them. Robert Frost writes that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”4 In the Therigatha, these women have discovered that home is actually the place where they don’t have to take you in, yet out of friendship or even the possibility of friendship, they do.
There’s a really beautiful poem by one woman, Canda. Her children have died, her husband has died, and she’s destitute, living on the street. Another woman, Patacara, reaches out to her. Canda sees Patacara and asks her, “Make me go forth into homelessness.” She’s already homeless, but now she goes forth into homelessness in an intentional way—in a way textured by friendship—and discovers a home.
The Therigatha celebrates the power of these intentional communities of friendship against the backdrop of the disappointment of other given relations, biological relations, things that we’re born into but that let us down. Canda and Patacara and all of these women celebrate finding another way of living that is possible for them. This way of living is not for everyone, but in reading these poems, we can take pleasure in seeing that it is possible.
Especially for so many of these women who have been forced into homelessness or severed from their families, these alternative kinship structures serve as a reminder that they still have the capacity for intimacy and joy.
That’s right. And it’s not only that they still have the capacity—it’s that they discover the true capacity. They discover what is true intimacy: they were incapable before, and now, through this suffering, through this homelessness, they are capable. Finding a friend draws these possibilities out of them, often possibilities that they didn’t know were there. Sometimes what happens in these poems is quite unexpected—people have certain intentions, yet what ends up happening is something else entirely. This is what the Therigatha is celebrating: that openness to something that is not what we already know.
Often we fear that tomorrow will be just like today. What these poems are conveying to us is that tomorrow actually won’t be like today, because everything changes. But it’s also that tomorrow doesn’t have to be like today. We can choose another tomorrow to live into. Often, for these women, this tomorrow emerges through the connections of friendship. That’s an important insight into human possibilities.
The first poem in the collection is attributed to an unknown theri. She’s addressed as therika. K. R. Norman, on good philological grounds, notes that the ending -ka is a diminutive, and so he translates the term as “little sister.” Dhammapala, on the other hand, takes therika as a proper name and explains that this woman was given the name Therika because when she was born, she was strong as a baby. Theri can also mean strong, so naming a child Therika would be like naming them Rock Solid or Firm.
But the suffix -ka also holds another possibility: it can be a possessive ending, in which case therika means someone who belongs to the theris. This woman was given this name Therika, Rock Solid, as a baby, but then when she grows up, she belongs to these women. In my translation, I phrased this as, “Now that you live among theris, Therika, the name you were given as a child finally becomes you.” Now that she is among theris, she sees what she was meant to become.
It’s not accidental that this is the first verse. I think there’s some intention to its placement: it sets in motion the idea that we should read all the poems not as poems about individuals, but as poems about women who belong together, that they belong to an intangible community of shared experience, shared aspirations, and shared becoming.
What has struck you about reading these poems as being by women who belong together?
One thing that emerges through reading these poems—and through reading Dhammapala’s commentary—is the central role of Patacara in gathering these women together. Patacara’s story is famous throughout the Theravadin world: over the course of a single night, her husband, children, and parents and brother all died. Mad with grief, she encountered the Buddha, who was able to soothe her grief and restore her to her senses. She soon became a guide for women who had lost children and family members, as we see with Canda. Patacara was at the head of a community of women bound together by shared sorrow, and this comes into view when you read their poems side by side.
Reading the Therigatha as a collection also brings into view what I mentally call unwritten Buddhism. Often you see people creating meditation topics out of whatever is at hand, a sign of the irregularity of certain ways that these women are living together. We see this in Patacara’s poem: while washing her feet, looking at the water moving on the ground, she understands herself better. Through concentrating on its movements, she finds freedom from grief and guilt.
In another poem, Dantika watches a man commanding an elephant. The man says, “Hold up your foot,” and the elephant puts its foot forward so that he can climb on. She’s amazed at the close connection between the man and the elephant, and she realizes, “I can do that with my person. I can command my person.”
This is an idiosyncratic meditation topic: she simply sees what is before her and takes it up as an object of contemplation. It is an encounter with human freedom. People are constantly looking at the world, observing things, drawing lessons from it, and creating new possibilities for themselves.
They can turn with attention to whatever it is that’s in front of them and encounter their own possibility. And it’s striking how this unwritten Buddhism often emerges in the aftermath of grief and loss. What can we learn from these women about how to respond to grief?
There are different kinds of grief at work in these poems. Some of it is individual grief, contingent grief—the sorrows of women who have children who die and families who die. Then some of it is what we would now call structural grief: moments where these women are saying, “This happened to me because I’m a woman and have the constraints that come with being a woman,” or “This happened to me because I’m poor.”
This is part of the freshness of the Therigatha. Did these women have the language for structural suffering? No. Did they know it? Yes. And they paint it so vividly so that when you see it, you immediately recognize it. It’s different, but in some sense it hasn’t changed.
They don’t depict the structural inequality to change it, but instead they create worlds in which it no longer applies. In the process, they beckon us into different kinds of possible futures. These poems are bearing witness to this injustice with the sense that it’s not all there is—without any Pollyannaish sense of trying to paper it over, they just say, “This is bad. But that’s not all that exists. Other things are possible.”
Often these structural inequalities show up in relations with other people. Outside of the friendships between women, most of these women’s relations are structured by inequality and constraint: fathers imposing marriages upon them, suitors hitting on them, husbands making demands on them. Things are happening to them through no fault of their own but just because of where they find themselves. And that is very vivid. Even if we say the circumstances and concrete conditions are different, there’s still a sense of recognition: none of us are free from the claims that other people make on our bodies, on our persons. None of us are free from the malevolent designs that people have on us. And so the women of the Therigatha are saying, “That’s what we escaped. That’s what we transcended.”
That’s really powerful—that transcendence is specifically transcending the strictures of structural inequality and the very real facts of suffering specific to being poor or being a woman.
That’s right. And it’s not that these women are individually getting out of harm’s way. It’s that, together, they create another possible world that can’t be interfered with by people who have designs on their persons.
In American Buddhist communities, people often ask each other, “Do you practice?” You can imagine that in the world of the Therigatha, if someone were to ask these women this question, they would answer, “I do practice,” but their answer is not in the sense we might expect. What they practice is friendship. They might say, “It’s not that I have a meditation practice; it’s that I have friends, and I have friends who are friends to me, and I’m a friend to other people, and we live as friends.” That’s a different understanding of what we might typically call into view when we say, “Do you practice?”
Practice can include chatting with friends, washing your feet, or staring at the elephant trainer—these poems open up a broader view of practice grounded in the embodied experience of these women.
That’s right. If you go from the Therigatha to the Theragatha, the poems of the first Buddhist men, the differences are quite striking. The Theragatha is beautiful in its own way, but it’s clear that the experience of these men is quite different than the experience of the women in the Therigatha. They don’t have the same richness of human sociology, the same vividness of the pains of structural suffering. Their everyday world is more indistinct. And these differences are quite revealing—they suggest that we can’t flatten out what the practice of Buddhism is for what we now acknowledge is a whole range of genders. The Therigatha teaches us that embodiment is a crucial part of how practice is actually experienced. This is a lesson that academic Buddhist studies is still struggling to learn.
In light of the failures of contemporary academic Buddhist studies, what would a model of scholarship that’s grounded in the embodied experiences that you find in the Therigatha look like?
To return to where we began, to speak about reading the poems guided by poetry and pleasure doesn’t mean that everything is saccharine. It doesn’t mean that you’re always reading stuff that makes you feel good. There are lots of things that you encounter when reading the Therigatha that you can’t help but feel as just wrong. You may go even further and say, “That pisses me off. That’s messed up.” It’s not possible to be indifferent to the things they’re describing, to just be an observer, and encountering these things opens up the possibility for an academic Buddhist studies that actually cares about justice. This is part of how the poems work—how they speak in their own time and in ours as well.
If you asked someone within academic Buddhist studies what should be the first thing you read to learn about “Buddhism,” some, maybe even many, might say the Buddha’s first sermon or the Satipatthana Sutta. But what if instead we answered that the first thing should be the Therigatha? I think we would have a really different Buddhist studies—one of human possibility. Rather than seeing Buddhism just as a technology of the self, we would see it equally as a protest movement, one that said things in ways that are both familiar and completely unfamiliar.
There was an issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies a few years ago in which a number of Womanists read the poems of Therigatha as resources for Womanist life. Tracey Hucks, an accomplished scholar of African American religious history, takes up the poem of Subha, the silversmith’s daughter. Quoting Alice Walker, she writes, “Buddhist practice, sent by ancestors we didn’t even know we had, has arrived, as all things do, just in time.” Hucks then goes on to claim Subha as a Womanist ancestor “we didn’t even know we had.”5
That, I think, is a mark of the roominess of the Therigatha: that a woman from thousands of years ago can help Hucks to be a Womanist today. Academic Buddhist studies needs to become able to take into account how it is possible that someone who is not at all saying “I’m a Buddhist” rightly says, “This is a Womanist ancestor.” Reading the Therigatha as poetry—as Wickramasinghe did, as Hucks does—can open up space for new models of scholarship that do just that.
- Martin Wickramasinghe, trans., Tēri gī (Tisara, 1952), 203. Translation by Liyanage Amarakeerthi and Charles Hallisey.
- Ibid., 210.
- Ibid., 207.
- Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man,” North of Boston (David Nutt, 1914), 14.
- Tracey Elaine Hucks, “Wombu: An Intellectual Exercise in Womanist and Buddhist Reading,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 36 (2016): 43–47.
Sarah Fleming, MDiv ’21, is an interfaith chaplain and writer based in Cambridge. She studies synergies between religious reading practices and models of caregiving.