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Singing the Dharma? - Bodhi College

by Andrew Olendzki

Ambapali was a courtesan living in the city of Vesali, and is portrayed in the Pali literature as a woman of considerable wealth and influence. She had been left to die as a baby in a mango (amba) grove, no doubt the illegitimate offspring of influential people, but was discovered and rescued by the gardener or guardian (pali) of the mango grove, from whom she got her name.

She grew up to be a woman of great beauty, to the extent that princes fought over who would have the privilege of marrying her. Their disputes were only settled when she chose to became a courtesan and could thus be shared by them all. She received large sums for her companionship because of her beauty and accomplishment, and hence became famous throughout the land.

We are told that she had a son by Bimbisara, the king of Magadha, and when he reached the appropriate age he joined the Buddha’s order of monks. Ambapali heard the Buddha’s teaching from her son at some point and became a great follower and supporter of the Buddha. On his last visit to Vesali, she met with the Buddha in person, prepared a meal for him and his followers at her house the next day, and donated to the order of monks a park of considerable value that became known as Ambapali’s Park.

Ambapali left us twenty stanzas of poetry in the Therigatha, the collection of verses by the earliest women followers of the Buddha. Presumably composed when she was very old, well after the passing away of the Buddha, her verses speak of the former beauty of her body, noting how each feature has withered with age. Each verse concludes with the same line, stating that she is only saying what is true, nothing more. We do not get the impression she is lamenting the loss of her beauty, or complaining about the current state of her great age; her wisdom has carried her beyond such things. Rather, she is just speaking the truth of impermanence and of the inevitable changes of the human body.

So how do we gain access to the heart of this woman? How do we reach across the many degrees of separation that stand between the time of her composing these verses in ancient India and the moment of our reading or hearing them today? These are questions of translation.

All the early Buddhist texts that now make up the Pali canon were originally passed on orally, so that most of what was received from the Buddha and the first generation of his followers (5th–4th centuries BCE), were not written down until about three hundred years later in Sri Lanka. The earliest manuscripts and inscriptions tended to indicate the letters (more precisely, the syllables) in an uninterrupted stream, and so the Pali language has no capitalisation, no punctuation, and not even any breaks between words. These are all conventions created by later editors. Thus in its rawest form the first stanza of Ambapali’s poem, transliterated into our own alphabet, would look something like this:


Because we know that this stream of syllables is made up of words, we can place spaces between the words to make what we are looking at clearer:

kālakā bhamara vaṇṇa sādisā vellitagga mama muddhajā ahuṃ te jarāya saṇavāka sādisā saccavādi vacanaṃ anaññathā

Next, we need to know that early Indian poetry was shaped by a highly developed aesthetic sensibility and that these verses conform to well-defined metrical forms used by the ancient poets. Ambapali’s verses are in a particular meter that consists of four lines of eleven syllables each. So the string of words can be grouped this way:

kālakā bhamara vaṇṇa sādisā
vellitagga mama muddhajā ahuṃ
te jarāya saṇavāka sādisā
saccavādi vacanaṃ anaññathā

The metres of this poetic tradition are based upon the principle that the language has embedded in it a particular rhythm or timing. Each syllable is considered either long (or ‘heavy’) or short (or ‘light’). This indication does not refer to emphasis or stress, as in English, but of the duration of the pronunciation of each syllable. Long syllables are held for two beats, while short syllables last one beat. This means that when reading or speaking any Pali, whether poetry and prose, there is a built-in tempo. There are variations, of course, but for the most part a syllable is long if it has a long vowel (written here with a macron over it), is followed by two consonants together, or ends with an ‘ṃ’; otherwise it is short. So if we represented Ambapali’s first stanza in terms of its cadence, this is what we would get (+=long; -=short):

+ – + – – – + – + – +
+ – + – – – + – + – +
+ – + – – – + – + – +
+ – + – – – + – + – +

We immediately see the pattern. Each line has the same rhythmic structure, and this gives us a much better idea of how it is to be spoken. If we combine the words with the rhythm, this is what we get (bold=long):

la bhamara vaṇṇa di
vellitagga mama muddha ahuṃ
te jaya saṇaka di
saccadi vacanaṃ anaññathā

This pattern is invisible on the written page but would jump out at any listener who heard the verse spoken with correct pronunciation.

The next challenge is to see if any of this can be captured in English translation. At first glance, it seems impossible. The syntax and cadence of Pali and English are just too different. One of the 20th century translators of the Therigatha, K.R. Norman, does not even attempt to address the metre; he translates the entire collection of poems in prose form. His rendering of our verse:

My hair was black, like the colour of bees, with curly ends; because of old age it is like bark-fibres of hemp; not otherwise is the utterance of the speaker of truth.

Another well-respected translator of this material was Caroline Rhys Davids, the wife of the founder of the Pali Text Society and a formidable scholar in her own right. She does render the verse as a poem, but she casts it into a form meant to be pleasing to her contemporaries (c. 1909) rather than trying to capture anything of the ancient poetics. Her rendering:

Glossy and black as the down of the bee my curls once clustered.
They with the waste of years are liker to hempen or bark cloth.
Such and not otherwise runneth the rune, the word of the Soothsayer.

The American-born Theravada monk Ajahn Thanissaro, one of the great contemporary translators of Pali, takes another approach. He makes use of graphic placement of words on a page to help give shape to some of the structures of the verse, though it does not take into account any of the metrical information of the original.

Black was my hair
— the colour of bees —
& curled at the tips;
with age, it looked like coarse hemp.
The truth of the Truth-speaker’s words
doesn’t change.

The most recent translation of this verse, by Harvard professor Charles Hallisey, is crisp and clear, but he too makes no attempt at rendering the metre:

The hairs on my head were once curly,
black, like the colour of bees,
now because of old age
they are like jute.

It’s just as the Buddha, speaker of truth, said,
nothing different than that.

I always try to translate Pali poetry in the same number of syllables as the original. This does not capture the subtleties of the metre, of course, with its unique pattern of long and short syllables, but it at least leaves us with a version in English that more or less matches the Pali in length and preserves some of the relative values of the original. There just does not appear to be any way of matching the tempo of Pali to English … or is there?

In the earlier metres, of both pre-Buddhist and Buddhist texts, the number of syllables was fixed (11 per line, in this case), but the distribution of long and short syllables in each line could be variable, so that the beat – the pronounced rhythm – would not always quite line up. For example, you could have one line of all short syllables (this never happens, but just to illustrate the point), which would yield a metrical value of 11 beats, followed by a line of all long syllables, which would add up to 22 beats. This is not a problem, and the variations that ensue contribute greatly to the diversity and nuance of the poetry.

A significant innovation was introduced into Indian poetics around the time of the Buddha, however, with the development of a series of new ‘musical’ metres. In these metres the number of beats per line was fixed along with the number of total syllables, allowing the verses to be cast into a stable time signature. As it happens, the verses of Ambapali are a prime example of this new trend. Might it be the case that Ambapali, as a courtesan and presumably a skilled musician, was singing her verses rather than speaking them?

So let’s try translating the rhythm of the poetic cadence into musical notation, making each long syllable a whole note and each short syllable a half note:

♩ ♪ ♩ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♩ ♪ ♩ ♪ ♩ – four times.

If you tap this out for yourself, you’ll get a good sense of the pattern. Now let’s see if we can find a way of translating the Pali such that it not only has the requisite number of syllables, but also places the stress on each syllable in a way that does not seem entirely unnatural in English. I come up with the following translation, with the longer notes marked in bold:

Black just like the colour of a bumble bee,
Curling up upon their ends, my lovely hair.
Now with age it’s like the bark upon a tree,
– These are words telling the truth and nothing more.(1)

This feels like it is getting closer to Ambapali’s original poetic intent, and we can match her rhythm and almost breath along with her as she speaks these words. It still does not feel entirely natural to recite the verse in this way, though, and it is not truly a song without a melody. This is where the process inevitably becomes arbitrary, for there is nothing in the original or in the culture to help us decide how the melody sounds – that is, where the whole and half notes are to be placed vertically upon the stave. Almost any tune can be draped on the scaffolding of the metre, not to mention all the possible variations of arrangement and instrumentation, and I encourage readers who are more musically adept than I am to experiment with making their own song.

Ambapalī's Song

Ambapalī’s Song

But for the sake of completing the illustration, here is my rendering of Ambapali’s Song. I picture her as a very old woman, singing alone in the forest, unaccompanied, her fingers perhaps reflexively picking the strings of an imaginary lute as she may once have done in her youth. I think of her singing it very slowly, and have left a rest between lines to give time to linger on the in breath. Remember this is only the first of twenty verses, all more or less following the same design.

The song might be heard by some as a sad lament to the ravages of time, and even be depressing. But I see Ambapali as a wise woman, an arahant, an awakened one, beyond any such yearning for the past or concern about the future, and beyond grasping after the way things used to be or should be. I hear her singing about the changes of age with light in her eyes, a soft smile, and a deep artistic appreciation of the poignancy of the human condition.

1. My rendering of the last line differs from the four examples given because they all take saccavādi, an agent noun, to refer literally to the Buddha, while I take it as referring more figuratively and poetically to the words themselves (vacanaṃ), with the double intention that the Buddha, as the speaker-of-truth, is of course also implied.

• Andrew Olendzki is an independent scholar, teacher and writer, and has started the Integrated Dharma Institute as a vehicle for continuing work in the the field of the teachings of the historical Buddha.