The story of Patacara (pronounced Pah-tah-char-ah) comes from the Therigatha, a collection of 73 poems written by some of the first Buddhist nuns that form a section of the Pali Cannon, the earliest Buddhist literature. This version of her story is adapted from The First Buddhist Women by Susan Murcott.
Patacara was born into a banker’s family in India at the time of the historical Buddha. Her parents arranged for her to marry a young man of equal rank, but she fell in love with one of the family’s servants and ran away with him. They set up house in a remote place, and they were poor but happy. Patacara became pregnant and began to dream of returning to her mother’s home for the birth, as was the custom. Her husband procrastinated on bringing her back to her family, perhaps worried that he would lose her if they returned. One day when her husband was away she set off for her parent’s home, but he overtook her midway and her labor began. She gave birth and together they returned to their simple hut in the forest.
Later, she again became pregnant. As before, she missed her family and wanted to return home for the birth, but her husband was reluctant. Again she snuck away, this time with her toddler in tow. He caught up with her just as she was going into labor, and at that moment a great storm arose. They needed shelter, so her husband went into the forest to cut branches to make a simple shelter. While he was collecting branches, a poisonous snake bit him and he died. The storm raged on and Patacara gave birth with her terrified toddler clutching her, alone in the forest, not understanding why her husband had abandoned them. All through the night she used her own body to shelter her children from the storm, and in the morning found her husband’s corpse. She was paralyzed with grief for a day and a night, but then realized that her children had to have food and water, and mobilized herself to continue her journey to her childhood home.
On the way, she had to ford a river swollen with floodwaters. She was too weak to carry both children across at once, so she carried the infant first and left him at the far bank, returning for the toddler. Halfway back across the river, she saw a great eagle swoop down and carry off the newborn. Hearing the mother’s screams the older child thought she was calling for him, and he fell in the river and drowned. On the outskirts of her home town, she met a neighbor who delivered the sad news that her parent’s home had burned to the ground; the entire family had been killed.
The weight of these successive tragedies snapped Patacara’s mind, and she became mad with grief. She wandered around in circles until her clothing became ragged and fell away. The townspeople drove her away with sticks and rubbish.One day she wandered into Jeta Grove where the Buddha was preaching. Those who had gathered to listen wanted to keep her away, but Gautama followed her and put himself in her path. As she encountered him, he said, “Sister, recover your presence of mind.” Lucid mind returned to her, and under the Buddhas’s care she began her long journey back to wholeness and beyond, becoming spiritually transformed and fully awakened in her lifetime. She became a nun and a beloved and powerful teacher. She left behind this poem, which recounts her moment of awakening:
Young brahmins plough fields,
nourish their wives and children,
Why can’t I find peace?
comply with the teacher
not lazy or puffed up
One day washing my feet
I watched the water as it
trickled down the slope
I fixed my mind
they way you’d
train a thoroughbred horse
Later, taking my lamp
I enter my cell
sit on my bed and
watch the flame
I extinguish the wick
with a needle
The release of my mind
is like the quenching of the lamp
O the nirvana of the little lamp!
— Patacara, from the Therigatha, translated by Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman
To learn more:
Murcott, Susan: First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening (1991, 2006)
Obeyeseker, Ranjini: Portraits of Buddhist Women: Stories from the Saddharmaratnavaliya (2001)
Schelling, Andrew and Anne Waldman (translators): Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha(1996)
Tisdale, Sally: Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom (2006)