Patācārā

The story of Patācārā sounds like a tale of the rich girl who falls for the poor boy and then suffers for breaking social norms.  None of the versions I have seen or heard (Sri Lankan, Burmese, Nepalese, Tibetan) draw that kind of moral from her story.  Of course, this would be consistent with the Buddha’s challenge to the caste system.

That her husband had been a servant in her parents’ household makes no difference to the point of the story, although it affects the outcome because he was afraid what might happen to him if he went back there.  As a result, both times Patācārā became pregnant he kept procrastinating about bringing her back so that she could have her babies in her mother’s house, as was the custom in India.  Both times Patācārā finally got fed up with his delays and took off for her parents’ home on her own.  Each time she had the baby beside the road because she had waited too long on her husband.  After the first baby was born, he found her along the road and she agreed to return to their place since the point of the trip was moot now.  On the second trip he found her just before the baby was born in the middle of a terrible rainstorm.  After making a flimsy shelter for Patācārā and her babies, her husband went to find more material in the woods to make a better shelter.

Patācārā waited through the night, but her husband never returned.  Weak as she was, Patācārā could only start again towards her parents’ house.  Shortly she came upon the body of her husband, who had been killed by a poisonous snake.  Then, as she was trying to cross a flooded stream, her new baby was carried off by an eagle and her first-born was swept away by the current.  As if these losses were not enough, when she finally made it to her parents’ town, she learned that they along with her brother had been killed when the storm collapsed their house.

Patācārā went mad with grief over the loss of her babies, her husband, her parents, and her brother.  She wandered around naked.  She was mocked and shunned by the people until she came upon the Buddha and his followers.  Some of them tried to send the naked woman away, but the Buddha asked her to approach.  One of the followers gave her a cloak to cover herself.  According to the story, the Buddha’s teachings not only brought her peace, she became one of his followers, eventually becoming one of his two most trusted nuns.

Patācārā is very much the embodiment of grief.  In this post, however, I am not going to focus on how we grieve.  That question will be addressed in posts under “I will miss you.”  Right now we are focusing on how we imagine pain.  In this case Patācārā’s pain was grief over her losses.

From the Book of Job through the phenomenologist Buytendijk, the first question Westerners seem to ask when they experience pain is: why me?  That question never comes up in the Buddhist story of Patācārā.  Although she did not marry according to her parents’ wishes, Patācārā was still a dutiful daughter who wanted them to share in the birth of their grandchildren, and she was a dutiful wife who put off leaving for her parents’ while she tried to get her husband’s consent.  Yet, in the end she lost everyone through factors outside her control: a snake, an eagle, a storm, and a flood.

Even the way I just seemed compelled to look at Patācārā’s story in terms of control and blame is very Western and does not appear in the way she is imagined in the Theravada tradition.  Not only is there no fault-finding, there is no pretence that her suffering serves a higher purpose, which also means there is none of Job’s problem about reconciling evil with an all-powerful God.

The Dhammapada is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, collection of sayings directly attributed to Siddhattha Gotama, the historical Buddha.  The story of Patācārā is linked to two of the verses in the Dhammapada.  The first might be summarized as “things fall apart.”

Though one should live a hundred years without comprehending how all things rise and pass away, yet better, indeed is a single day’s life of one who comprehends how all things rise and pass away.  Dhp. 113

The other verse might be characterized as “everyone dies alone.”

There are no son’s for one’s protection, neither father nor kinsmen; for one who is overcome by death, no protection is to be found among kinsmen.  Dhp. 288

In the Patācārā story included in the expanded Dhammapada, she is “relieved and calmed” when the Buddha expounds on all the tears we shed in this round of birth, suffering, and death.  (Dhammananda 237)  This collection of teachings (samyutta)  has a Pali name which means a beginning which is “unthought-of” or “unknown.”  (Bodhi 795 n. 254)  Also translated as “unimaginable,” “inconstruable,” and “not evident.”

This group of suttas on the round of birth, suffering, and death “without discoverable beginning” (Bodhi 651) presents simile after simile to imagine an unimaginable beginning.  Make a pile of all the grass, wood, branches, and foliage in all of India.  Then count each piece as a human generation, and you still would not have reached a point where suffering began when you finish counting the umpteenth generation in that pile.  Or try to count how far back by making small pills out of all the dirt in this world.  All the tears we have shed are more than all the waters in the oceans.  And so on.

Previously I quoted a similar passage from the story of the Buddha’s passing, in which the Buddha admonished his disciple Ananda not to weep because all things are passing.    My tendency has been to take comfort in the doctrine of impermanence because I take it to mean that evil comes to end.  But that’s not what the Buddha tells Patācārā about our wandering through rounds of birth, suffering, and death.  Not only is “a first point … not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving,” this cycle will never end on its own.  We have to let go of our ignorance and craving.  (Bodhi 651)  Yes, the Buddha teaches that there is a way to end suffering, but that is not just going to happen on its own.  Yes, the Buddha teaches that everything changes, nothing is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that suffering will just go away if we don’t do something, i.e., paradoxically, let go.

So, in the story of Patācārā we imagine the depth of her suffering.  Through the Buddha’s teaching to Patācārā, we understand and act on (i.e., order) suffering much differently than our Western culture has predisposed us to do.  There is no story of a creation of the world.  There is no original sin that explains why people suffer.  There is no Savior who comes to end suffering.  Rather, “for such a long time … [we] have experienced suffering, anguish, and disaster, and swelled the cemetery.”  Now it is enough to let go and become free.

Of course, letting go is easier said than done.  We have many more posts to go to explore what it means to let go.  For the moment, let’s leave the story of Patācārā with a poem she wrote that points us in the direction she took to become free of her pain and suffering.

“My son!” you weep, for one whose path
You do not really comprehend
—Whether he’s coming or going.
From where has that son of yours come?

And yet for one whose path you know…
For him you do not grieve at all
— Whether he’s coming or going.
Such is the nature of creatures.

Uninvited, he came from there;
Unpermitted, he’s gone from here.
And having come from who knows where,
He lived for but a few short days.

But though gone from here by one (path),
He goes from there by another.
Departed, with a human form,
He will go flowing on and on.
As he has come, so has he gone.
What is there here to grieve about?

…  Without hunger, I’ve become quenched.
To Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha,
I go to the sage for refuge.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.06.01.olen.html

This poem comes from a collection of poems attributed to the Buddha’s senior nuns.  Since Patācārā’s husband was a source of both love and pain for her, I cannot resist noting that I see some proto-feminism in the way the nuns talk about finally achieving freedom in a few of these poems.

I.11 — Mutta {v. 11}

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.

II.3 — Sumangala’s Mother {vv. 23-24}

So freed! So freed!
So thoroughly freed am I —
from my pestle,
my shameless husband
& his sun-shade making,
my moldy old pot
with its water-snake smell.

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