This is the first in a series of posts which will take an in depth look at some of the most interesting Vesak stamps of Sri Lanka.
The four stamp set issued to commemorate Vesak in 1996 featured four scenes from the Therigàthà which is the ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, which in turn is the fifth part of the Sutta Pitaka, which in turn appears in the first division of the Tipitaka, the sacred scriptures of Buddhism (and boy what a mouthful that was). It has a companion volume, the Theragàthà.
“Thera” is a title given to someone who has been a monk for more than ten years and means “elder”. The equivalent title for a nun is “theri”. The word “gàthà” means “verse”. Considered the earliest corpus of poetry from India composed entirely by women, the Therigàthà consists of 73 poems in which the early nuns recount their struggles and accomplishments along the road to arahatship.
The first stamp features Capa, the daughter of a deertrapper and before we get to the poem, let’s go over her backstory:
Capa’s father being a generous sort, took kindly to a wandering ascetic named Kala one day and started giving him food. When he needed to leave on a hunt, he left instructions for his daughter to look after Kala and give him his regular share of alms. Having returned from the hunt, he was befuddled when his daughter informed him that Kala had turned up to collect his alms on the first day but subsequently, disappeared. The father searched the forest and eventually found Kala, gaunt and starving. When asked what the hell he was doing, Kala confessed that he had fallen madly in love with Capa and would not eat unless she became his wife.
Now this is where your average dad would a) ask the deranged idiot what he was smoking or b) punch him in the face right?
Well, this father obviously thought marrying his daughter off to a nutjob was a great idea and gave his consent on the promise that Kala leave his ascetic ways and learn to hunt. Kala agreed and they soon became man and wife. The couple appears to have been reasonably happy for some time and even had a child together. However, a previous meeting with the Buddha had left its mark on Kala who now wanted to leave his family behind in order to seek him out. The poem focuses on this building tension between husband and wife.
“Once I was an ascetic with a stick in hand.
Now I am a deer hunter
It’s because of my own lust
that I’m in this swamp
and can’t see my way clear
to the other shore.
Capa thinks I love her;
she has kept our son happy.
But I want to cut my ties with her
and renounce the world again…”
Further verses show that Capa first tries pleading with Kala, saying that she will be his slave if only he would stay, going on to threaten to harm their child and eventually, accepting her fate. Kala leaves and eventually, the heartbroken Capa dumps the child on her father (serves the moron right) and sets out after her wandering husband. She did not expect to get Kala back, but simply wanted to meet the man who left such an impression on her husband. The story ends with her meeting the Buddha, getting ordained and becoming an arahat herself.
And that’s what you call a happy ending in Buddhism.
The poem featured on this stamp is a quick snapshot from the life of a minister’s daughter, Dantika who joined a community of nuns under Pajapati.
As I left my daytime resting place on Vulture Peak,
I saw an elephant
come up on the riverbank
after its bath.
A man took a hook and said to the elephant,
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant stretched out its foot;
the man mounted.
Seeing what was wild before
gone tame under human hands,
I went into the forest
and concentrated my mind.
This is easily my favourite. The poem is about Subha, an arahat nun living alone in the forest who is lusted after by a “libertine”. He compliments her extravagantly as he tries to use his wealth to lure her away from her faith.
“O nymph with the languid regard.
If you do as I ask, happy, come live in my house.
Dwelling in the calm of a palace,
have women wait on you,
wear delicate Kasi fabrics,
adorn yourself with garlands and creams.
I will make you many and varied ornaments
of gold, jewels, and pearls.”
She proceeds to call him a fucking moron, but nicely. As befitting a nun.
“What do you assume of any essence,
here in this cemetery grower,
filled with corpses, this body destined to break up?
What do you see when you look at me,
you who are out of your mind?”
Refusing to be deterred, he waxes eloquent about her eyes.
are like those of a fawn,
like those of a nymph in the mountains.
Seeing your eyes, my sensual delight
grows all the more.
Like tips they are, of blue lotuses,
in your golden face
Seeing your eyes, my sensual delight
grows all the more.”
She calls him on his bullshit.
“You want to stray from the road,
you want the moon as a plaything,
you want to jump over Mount Sineru,
you who have designs on one born of the Buddha.
For there is nothing anywhere at all
in the world with its devas,
that would be an object of passion for me.”
The poem then goes on to describe how she PLUCKS OUT AN EYE and gives it to him, all casual like. The dude backs down and apologises.
“Be safe, follower of the holy life.
This sort of thing
won’t happen again.
Harming a person like you is like embracing a blazing fire,
It’s as if I have seized a poisonous snake.
So may you be safe. Forgive me.”
The story ends with the Buddha actually restoring her eye so, another happy ending. Yay! Also, next time I have to take public transport in this godforsaken country, I will totally carry a fake eyeball doused in tomato sauce and brandish it at anyone who tries to grope me. For realz yo.
This last stamp features the story of Punnika and the Brahman – I am not sure why they used the word “Punna” on the stamp. It is misleading because there is another poem by a nun called Punna which draws parallels between and enlightened mind and the full moon. It is however, Punnika’s story that is featured on the stamp image.
Punnika was the daughter of a slave and her main job was to carry water from the river. One day she meets a brahman and asks him what he’s doing at the water’s edge. Taking a snooty tone, he claims that water can purify “evil karma”.
“Punnika, surely you know.
You’re asking one doing skillful kamma & warding off evil.
Whoever, young or old, does evil kamma is, through water ablution,
from evil kamma set free.”
She calls him on his bullshit – notice the trend? These nuns were pretty badass!
“Who taught you this
— the ignorant to the ignorant —
‘One, through water ablution,
is from evil kamma set free?’
In that case, they’d all go to heaven:
all the frogs, turtles,
and anything else that lives in the water.
and any other evil doers,
would, through water ablution,
be from evil kamma set free.
I believe the poem illustrates how even a slave girl with right focus, can comprehend the Budhha’s teachings and help enlighten others, even someone as knowledgable as a brahmin. Later she is supposed to have gained freedom from her master and gone on to receive full ordination as an arahat.
“Subha Jivakambavanika: Subha and the Libertine” (Thig 14.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
“Punnika: Punnika and the Brahman” (Thig 12.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013
First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening by Susan Murcott