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  • Womanist Approaches to the Therīgātha and the Therīgātha’s Influence on Womanism
  • Linda E. Thomas

This essay discusses Womanist approaches to religion and culture in the United States and the Therīgātha, poems of the first Buddhist nuns (theris) written in ancient India. Is it possible for a body of literature written by ancient Buddhist nuns to contribute to the flourishing of African American women’s lives? What happens when the Therīgātha is infused into the lifeblood of Black women’s everyday life? Conversely, what ensues when Black women uniquely appropriate texts written by ancient theris? What happens to the ancient text’s meaning when it is read through Black women’s eyes, and therefore their history and experience? Using Womanist religious anthropology, I will argue that basic Buddhist ideas found in the Therīgātha can expand, enrich, and significantly influence Black women’s lived-life texts. I will also argue that Black women’s historical radical marginality can expand, enrich, and significantly modify the interpretation of these ancient texts penned by Buddhist nuns. My aim is to show that the texts of Black women’s lives as well as the articulation of the lives of the early Buddhist nuns depicted in the Therīgātha place both contemporary Black women and ancient Buddhist nuns at the center of complex realities from which particular insight and deeply rooted wisdom dwells that contribute to the flourishing of life and enlightenment.

My argument follows the following trajectory: I will discuss the particular insights and deeply rooted wisdom that dwells in and contribute to the flourishing of life for contemporary Black women and contributed to the journey to enlightenment for ancient Indian women nuns respectively. Next, I will explain the tenets of Womanist thought and their salient concepts, followed by articulation of basic principles found in Theravada Buddhism as expressed in the Therīgātha. Thereafter, I will highlight the ways a Womanist reading of a poem penned by a Buddhist nun named Punna enriches and expands that text, followed by an examination of the ways Buddhist teachings and practice (dharma) can benefit Womanists’ lives and influence their texts. Finally, I will compare the texts of Black women’s lives with the texts of ancient Indian Buddhist nuns to articulate any wisdom and enlightenment that either espouses for the [End Page 29] other. I am ultimately interested in how African American women’s lives might benefit from the Therīgātha and Buddhist dharma, as well as offering Womanist readings and interpretations of these ancient texts and Buddhist principles.

particular insight and deeply rooted wisdom for black women in the united states

The particular insight that Black women have arises from the subjugated knowledge present in their experience that is a source for knowing. In addition, insight to knowing comes through the enduring ways that Black women now live and have lived historically. Moreover, insight comes from Black women recognizing a divine entity/ spirit in creation giving and nourishing all life. Black women draw strength from this entity’s spiritual presence within and amid all the personal and political spaces and struggles in which they find themselves.

Black Christian women find this spiritual connection in the God of Jesus Christ and in the latter’s life and ministry. Many Black women, including some Black Christian women, also draw strength and particular insight from African epistemologies in which the spirit’s vital force animates all beings and is manifested in community.

Black women are therefore heirs to receive insight from both Christian and African roots as sources of wisdom, the fulfillment of grace, and the active presence of a divine entity in their lives.

particular insight and deeply rooted wisdom for ancient indian buddhist nuns

Early Buddhist nuns received particular insight and deeply rooted wisdom from the Buddha (awakened one) and his words and practice. Before his enlightenment the Buddha, known at time as Siddhartha Gautama, lived a sheltered life in privilege and luxury. His awakening came as a result of his exposure to and witness of the vicissitudes of life (primarily, old age, disease, and death), which he recognized as unavoidable suffering. After seeing the...


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