16.1 Sumedhā Therī (448-512)


448. In the city of Mantāvatī there was Sumedhā, a daughter of King Koñca’s chief queen; she was converted by those who comply with the teaching.

449. Virtuous, a brilliant speaker, having great learning, trained in the Buddha’s teaching, going up to her mother and father she said, “Listen, both of you.

450. “I delight in quenching; existence is non-eternal, even if it is as a deity; how much more non-eternal are empty sensual pleasures, giving little enjoyment and much distress.

451. “Sensual pleasures, in which fools are bemused, are bitter, like a snake’s poison. Consigned to hell for a long time, those fools are beaten, pained.

452. “Because of evil action they grieve in a downward transition, being evil-minded, without faith; fools are unrestrained in body, speech, and mind.

453. “Those fools, unwise, senseless, hindered by the uprising of pain, not knowing, do not understand the noble truths, when someone is teaching them.

454. “They, the majority, not knowing the truths taught by the excellent Buddha, rejoice in existence [, mother]; they long for rebirth among the deities.

455. “Even rebirth among the deities is non-eternal; it is in the impermanent existence; but fools are not afraid of being reborn again and again.

456. “Four downward transitions and two upward transitions are obtained somehow or other; but for those who have gone to a downward transition there is no going-forth in the hells.

457. “Permit me, both of you, to go forth in the teaching of the ten-powered one; having little greed I shall strive for the elimination of birth and death.

458. “What have I to do with existence, with delight, with this unsubstantial worst of bodies? For the sake of the cessation of craving for existence, permit me, I shall go forth.

459. “There is arising of Buddhas; the inopportune moment has been avoided; the opportune moment has been seized. As long as life lasts I would not infringe the rules of virtuous conduct and the living of the holy life.”

460. So Sumedhā speaks to her mother and father; “Meanwhile I shall not take food as a householder; if I do not go forth I shall indeed have gone into the influence of death.”

461. Pained, her mother laments; and her father, smitten [by grief], strives to reconcile her, [as she lies] fallen to the ground on the roof of the palace.

462. “Stand up, child; what do you want with grieving? You are bestowed. In Vāraṇavatī is King Anīkaratta, who is handsome; you are bestowed upon him.

463. “You will be the chief queen, the wife of King Anīkaratta. The rules of virtuous conduct, the living of the holy life, going-forth, are difficult to perform, child.

464. “In kingship there are orders to give, wealth, authority, happy enjoyments; you are young; enjoy the enjoyments of sensual pleasures; let your marriage take place, child.”

465. Then Sumedhā spoke to them, “May such things not be; existence is unsubstantial. Either there will be going-forth for me or death; not marriage.

466. “Should I cling, like a worm, to this foul body, impure, smelling of urine, a frightful water-bag of corpses, always flowing, full of impure things?

467. “What do I know it to be like? A body is repulsive, smeared with flesh and blood, food for worms, vultures, and other birds. Why is it given to us?

468. “The body is soon carried out to the cemetery, devoid of consciousness; it is thrown away like a log by disgusted relatives.

469. “When they have thrown it away in the cemetery as food for worms, one’s own mother and father wash themselves, disgusted; how much more do common people?

470. “They are attached to the unsubstantial body, an aggregate of bones and sinews, to the foul body, full of saliva, tears, excrement, and urine.

471. “If anyone, dissecting it, were to turn it inside out, even one’s own mother, being unable to bear the smell of it, would be disgusted.

472. “Reflecting in a reasoned manner that the elements of existence, the elements, the sense-bases are compounded, have rebirth as their root, and are painful, why should I wish for marriage?

473. “Let three hundred new[ly sharpened] swords fall on my body every day. Even if the striking lasted a hundred years it would be better [than not being struck], if in this way there were destruction of pain.

474. “He should submit to this striking who in this way knows the teacher’s utterance, ‘Journeying-on is long for you, being killed again and again.’

475. “Among deities and among men, in the realm of animals, and in the world of asuras, among ghosts and in hells, unlimited beatings are seen.

476. “There are many beatings in hells for a defiled one who has gone to a downward transition. Even among the deities there is no protection; there is no [happiness] superior to the happiness of quenching.

477. “Those who are intent upon the teaching of the ten-powered one have attained quenching; having little greed [for sensual pleasures] they strive for the elimination of birth and death.

478. “This very day, father, I shall renounce the world; what have I to do with unsubstantial enjoyments? I am disgusted with sensual pleasures; they are like vomit, made like a topless palm-tree.”

479. In this way she spoke to her father, and at the same time Anīkaratta, to whom she was betrothed, surrounded by young men, came to the marriage at the appointed time.

480. Then Sumedhā cut her black, thick, soft hair with a knife, closed the palace door, and entered on the first meditation.

481. Just as she entered on it, Anīkaratta arrived at the city; in that very palace Sumedhā developed notions of impermanence.

482. Just as she was pondering, Anīkaratta went up into the palace quickly. With his body adorned with jewels and gold, with cupped hands, he begged Sumedhā,

483. “In kingship there are [giving of] orders, wealth, authority, happy enjoyments; you are young; enjoy the enjoyments of sensual pleasures; happiness from sensual pleasures is hard to obtain in the world.

484. “My kingship has been bestowed upon you; enjoy enjoyments; give gifts; do not be depressed; your mother and father are pained.”

485. Then Sumedhā, unconcerned with sensual pleasures, and free from delusion, said this: “Do not rejoice in sensual pleasures; see the peril in sensual pleasures.

486. “Mandhātar, king of the four continents, the foremost of those who had enjoyment of sensual pleasures, died unsatisfied, nor were his wishes fulfilled.

487. “If the rainy one were to rain the seven jewels all around in the ten directions, there would still be no satisfaction with sensual pleasures; men die unsatisfied indeed.

488. “Sensual pleasures are like a butcher’s knife and chopping block; sensual pleasures are like a snake’s head; they burn like a fire brand; they are like a bony skeleton.

489. “Sensual pleasures are impermanent, unstable; they have much pain, they are great poisons; they are like a heated ball of iron, having evil as the root, having pain as the fruit.

490. “Sensual pleasures are like the fruits of a tree, like lumps of flesh, painful; they are like dreams, delusive; sensual pleasures are like borrowed goods.

491. “Sensual pleasures are like swords and stakes, a disease, a tumour, evil destruction, like a pit of coals, having evil as the root, fear, slaughter.

492. “In this way sensual pleasures have been said to have much pain, to be hindrances. Go! I myself have no confidence in existence.

493. “What will another do for me when his own head is burning? When old age and death are following closely one must strive for their destruction.”

494. Opening the door, and seeing her mother and father and Anīkaratta seated on the ground lamenting, she said this:

495. “Journeying-on is long for fools and for those who lament again and again at that of which the end is immeasurable, at the death of a father, the slaughter of a brother, and their own slaughter.

496. “Remember the tears, the milk, the blood, the journeying on as being that of which the end is immeasurable; remember the heap of bones of beings who are journeying on.

497. “Remember the four oceans compared with the tears, milk, and blood; remember the heap of bones of one man for one eon, equal in size to Mt. Vipula.

498. “Remember the earth, Jambudipa, compared with that which is without beginning and end for one who is journeying on. Split up into little balls the size of jujube kernels the number is not equal to his mother’s mothers.

499. “Remember the leaves, twigs, and grass compared with his fathers as being without beginning and end. Split up into pieces four inches long they are indeed not equal to his father’s fathers.

500. “Remember the blind turtle in the eastern sea, and the hole in the yoke to the west; and remember the putting on of it [= the yoke] as a comparison with the obtaining of human birth.

501. “Remember the form of this worst of bodies, unsubstantial, like a lump of foam. See the elements of existence as impermanent; remember the hells, giving much distress.

502. “Remember those filling up the cemetery again and again in this birth and that. Remember the fears from the crocodile; remember the four truths.

503. “When the death-free exists, what do you want with drinking the five bitter things? For all the delights in sensual pleasure are more bitter than the five bitter things.

504. “When the death-free exists, what do you want with sensual pleasures which are burning fevers? For all delights in sensual pleasures are on fire, aglow, seething.

505. “When there is non-enmity, what do you want with sensual pleasures which involve much enmity? Being similar to kings, fire, thieves, water, and people [who are] unfriendly, they involve much enmity.

506. “When release exists, what do you want with sensual pleasures, in which are slaughter and bonds? For in sensual pleasures, unwilling, people suffer the pains of slaughter and bonds.

507. “A grass fire-brand, when kindled, burns the one who holds it and does not let go; sensual pleasures are truly like fire-brands; they burn those who do not let go.

508. “Do not abandon extensive happiness for the sake of a little happiness from sensual pleasures; do not suffer afterwards, like a puthuloma fish which has swallowed the hook.

509. “Rather, just control yourself among sensual pleasures. You are like a dog bound by a chain; assuredly sensual pleasures will treat you as hungry outcasts treat a dog.

510. “Intent upon sensual pleasures you will suffer both unlimited pain and very many distresses of the mind; give up unstable sensual pleasures.

511. “When [that which is] free from old age exists, what do you want with sensual pleasures, in which are old age and death? All births everywhere are bound up with death and sickness.

512. “This is free from old age, this is death-free, this is the state [which is] free from old age and death, without grieving, without enmity, unobstructed, without stumbling, without fear, without burning.

513. “This death-free has been attained by many, and this is to be obtained even today by one who rightly applies himself; but it cannot be attained by one who does not strive.”

514. So Sumedhā spoke, not obtaining delight in the constituent elements. Conciliating Anīkaratta, Sumedhā simply threw her hair on the ground.

515. Standing up, Anīkaratta with cupped hands requested her father, “Let Sumedhā go, in order to go forth; she will be one with insight into the truths of complete release.”

516. Allowed to go by her mother and father, she went forth, frightened by grief and fear; she realized the six supernormal powers while still undergoing training, and also the foremost fruit.

517. Marvellous, amazing was that quenching of the king’s daughter; as she explained at the last moment her activities in her former habitations.

518. “In the time of the blessed one Konagamana, in the Order’s pleasure park, in a new residence, we three friends, women, gave a gift of a vihāra.

519. “Ten times, one hundred times, ten hundred times, one hundred hundred times we were reborn among the deities. But what need is there to talk about rebirth among men?

520. “We had great supernormal powers among the deities. But what need is there to talk about powers among mankind? I was the queen of a seven-jewelled king; I was his wife-jewel.

52 I. “That was the cause, that the origin, that the root; that very delight in the teaching, that first meeting, that was quenching for one delighting in the doctrine.”

522. So they say who have faith in the utterance of the one who has perfect wisdom; they are disgusted with existence; being dis gusted with it they are disinterested in it.


I was wearing a new white dress

on the morning I first heard the Dharma.

Something was calling,

but I couldn’t quite make it out.

I started spending more

and more time

alone in my room.

One morning over breakfast,

my mother asked me what was going on—

so I told her.

The Buddha’s Path isn’t easy to follow,

my mother said,

especially for someone accustomed to getting

whatever she wants.

Marry the good King Anikadatta.

Enjoy all the things young ladies enjoy—

dressing up,

being waited on,

and going to expensive parties—

like weddings.

“Today you want to dress this body up

and sell it at a wedding,” I told her.

“But soon enough they’ll be selling it to the graveyard

for nothing.

We are cows chasing the axe.

We are soft flesh chasing the cobra’s fangs.

We are dry straw chasing the torch.

We are lovers chasing our own reflections.


We are walking food.

The vultures circle,

we lie down,

and the feast begins.”

My parents watched

as I took a long sharp knife

and cut off my long black hair.

Just then King Anikadatta walked in.

He looked at me—

blade in one hand,

a couple feet of hair in the other.

Then he smiled.

With your hair cut short, Sumedha,

you look even more beautiful.

Soon all the women in our kingdom

will be cutting their hair

just like yours.

Come, my love.

The whole world is chasing happiness.

You and I will be among the lucky few

who win the race.

“Good King,” I said,

“If we spend our lives

running after the things of the world,

we will die

and keep right on running—

stealing the things we mean to earn,

setting fire to the things we mean to protect,

drowning the people we mean to love,

and turning into enemies those most like ourselves.”

I threw my hair to the ground.

Anikadatta knelt down,

picked up a few strands,

and let them fall.

Then he stood and turned to my parents.

You who would have been my mother.

You who would have been my father.

Let Sumedha go.

May she find the Path.

And may she one day return—

to show us all the way home.

It’s getting dark now, my sisters.

The sun’s going down,

and soon we’ll all be going

our separate ways.

Can we sit here together

just a little while longer,

not saying anything at all?

The Path will go on

rising and falling

like a song—

and in the end

you will find yourself

as one lost at sea

finds herself

finally washed ashore.


Can you hear that?

The sound of the wind

in the leaves,

like a wave coming on.

Go on.

Shake up the world.

Set yourself free.


1 comment

  1. Although word count does not show the real difference in content between the Therigatha text and Mr. Weingast’s poem, it may be good to note. For this Theri, Norman’s translation is 2085 words. Weingast’s is 464 words. Importantly, one should note that Weingast did not simply remove words of the real nun, but he added his own, so the removal is much greater than what the numbers show.

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