The Body in the Theragatha and the Therigatha

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The ultimate goal of the Buddhist way of life is the attainment of nibbāna or salvation. The body, in Buddhism is seen as a composite thing which is thus, transient. The Theragāthā, written by Buddhist monks and the Therīgāthā, written by Buddhist nuns both echo this view.

Women, in Buddhism, were seen as the embodiment of the pleasures of the body – as ones who distract bhikkhus from their path of abstinence and thus, bind them down to the world of material things. This, coupled with the concept of subordination of women, which entered into Buddhism from Hinduism, had resulted in the inferior status of women in the Buddhist tradition.1

The Pali canon, says Kathryn R Blackstone, is filled with passages and incidents in support of the Buddhist misogyny.2 An example of this, is Buddha’s prediction that women’s entrance into the Sangha would half the life of true dhamma. The first of the four Pārājika offences was sexual intercourse with a woman. Women were seen responsible for this offence as it was their sexuality which was contaminating, defiling and seducing. For a monk, the punishment for this offence was immediate expulsion from the sangha. The bhikkhu who first transgressed this rule became ill and began to waste away.3 A man would commit asadhamma if he indulged in sexual intercourse with a woman. Nothing, as such, happened to the bhikkhuni in the first instance of her breaking the rule. Asadhamma for indulging in sexual intercourse was reserved wholly for the man.

The Theragāthā is comfortable in its position of denouncing women and it does so vehemently. Bhikkhus view women as objects of seduction, whose only goal is life, is to distract men from the more important values of life and bhikkhus from the goal of liberation. The portrayal of this general misogynist view of Buddhism, however, becomes problematic in the Therīgāthā, as women themselves are writing it. It is their own bodies which are accused of being contaminated and contaminating. The theras recorded their experiences of transcending the bonds of the contaminating woman. The therīs, however, did not view men as a distractions and thus, could not record this experience. Instead, they talk of overcoming the material bonds of their own bodies by means of which, they can cease to become objects of distraction for men.

A central theme in the Theragāthā and Therīgāthā is realizing the transience of the physical body. The body is essentially composite. Its attractiveness detracts one from the true path of life – it is an illusion preventing one from focusing on the important goals of life, by means of desire and seduction. The transient nature of the body is emphasized by looking at the body as a combination of bones, flesh, membranes and fluids. Desire for the body is thwarted by means of corpse meditation. Decomposed bodies in cemeteries are observed to realize the actual components of the body which remain after death and mingle into the earth. Desire is overcome by perceiving what the body turns to, eventually, and understanding its worthlessness.

Both the Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā employ imagery which is repulsive, to combat desire for sexual pleasures. Both contain descriptions of the “evil-smelling”, “full of worms”, “oozing” and “rotten” body. For the theras, however, the “rotting” body is not just any body at the cemetery; it is the body of another, mostly that of a woman’s. Echoing the first Pārājika offence, women’s bodies are seen as the primary enemy and equated with snake imagery such as when Sabbakāma says in Th.457:

“But he who avoids them as one avoids a snake’s head with one’s foot, he being mindful overcomes this attachment to the world.”4

To succumb to the attractions of a woman is a grave offence and the theras predict death for such an offence as does Sabbakāma in Th.457

“Those ordinary individuals who with impassioned minds pursue them (i.e. women), fill up the terrible cemetery. They heap up renewed...
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