A Buddhist Literary Scandal; the Curious Case of ‘The First Free Women’ · The Monastery at the End of the World

A Buddhist Literary Scandal; the Curious Case of ‘The First Free Women’

statue of patacra theri

The First Free Women?

Last year a book was released called The First Free Women; Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, authored by Matty Weingast and published by Shambhala Press. Usually, poetry books receive very little attention from the world, especially poems about women who lived in ancient times. However, curiously, this one managed to become something of a sensation and was taken up with great enthusiasm by the global Buddhist community. A year later, the book is everywhere—it seems to be a roaring success for the author, publisher and for women in Buddhism.

On closer examination, however, this popular book is not what it claims to be at all. Recently the book has come to the attention of people who have viewed it with a more critical lens, including Ayya Suddhamma, who penned a post on the forum of suttacentral.net (a website for early Buddhist texts) calling into question the veracity of the translations. It turns out the praise and success the book has received has been based on a false premise. The glossy marketing and glowing reviews have deceived us. Our friends who loved the book and recommended it so heartily were in fact deeply misled. It seems that a great travesty has been allowed to occur which threatens the authenticity of our Buddhist scriptural tradition. The fact is The First Free Women is nothing short of a literary scandal.

So What’s the Problem?

In brief, Weingast’s book has been widely promoted and praised as being a new translation of the canonical Buddhist collection, the Therīgāthā, a historical collection of verses by enlightened bhikkhunis from around the time of the Buddha. However, it turns out this book is not a translation at all. It is not the voices of these ancient women, and does not accurately reflect the Dhamma spoken by them in the Therīgāthā.

Yet, despite this, somehow, Weingast’s poems have been marketed and lauded as the translated voices of these ancient nuns. Worryingly, the book has quickly become deeply enmeshed in the international Buddhist scene. These poems are being taught in Dhamma centres around the world—as the actual words of the women of the Therīgāthā. They are being used as inspirational texts for women’s meditation retreats, read by women’s reading groups, and taught in gender studies courses at universities. The book is being shelved in bookshops under the category “Women in Buddhism” and placed in shops and libraries next to canonical texts as if it were a real translation; a curious situation, indeed.

The real Therīgāthā is an important Buddhist sacred text, celebrating the enlightenment experiences and lives of 73 bhikkhunis, an amazing historical record of the achievements of renunciant women. These texts have been carefully and authentically preserved for over 2500 years and they continue to be a great inspiration for practitioners today. Contemporary Buddhists have benefited immensely from the careful preservation of the Dhamma in the Buddhist scriptural tradition. Buddhists everywhere have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of Buddhist sacred texts for future generations. Unfortunately, Weingast’s book does the opposite.

Comparison 1

Comparing Weingast’s poems side by side with the original Pali text and a reputable translation by K R Norman is a good way to demostrate concerns with Weingast’s approach. Here we look at the poem of Dhira:

The original Pali (Dhīrātherīgāthā Thig 1.6):

“Dhīre nirodhaṃ phusehi, saññāvūpasamaṃ sukhaṃ; ārādhayāhi nibbānaṃ, yogakkhemamanuttaran”ti.

A translation by K R Norman:

Dhīrā, attain cessation, the stilling of evil notions, happiness; gain quenching, unsurpassed rest-from-exertion.

And Weingast’s version:

Look closely, my heart.

See how all things arise and pass away—

even that which is turning the shapes on this page into the sounds and thoughts you are right now silently speaking to yourself.

When you no longer need to read the signs to find your way, you’ll know for yourself that books and maps can only get you so far. There is a direct path.

From just this one example, it should be clear; this book is entirely new and original poetry by Weingast, not a translation of the Therīgāthā at all. Yet for some reason it has been being dishonestly marketed and sold as a translation by Shambhala press and an ancient scriptural tradition is being corrupted for commercial gain.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants to Market a Lie

The official Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data lists this book as part of the historical Buddhist canon (‘Tipiṭaka. Suttapiṭaka. Khuddakanikāya. Therīgāthā. English.’) It is categorised as a ‘translation’ and a ‘Pali Translation into English’, crediting Weingast as the ‘translator’. The publisher’s blurb, also calling the book a ‘translation’ is included in the listing:

“This new and captivating translation of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Buddhist Nuns) is a modern rendition of classic stories from the very first Buddhist nuns. Reflecting on their lives and revelations, these women wrote countless poems as they embraced their new lives as nuns. Heartwarming, enlightening, and sometimes tough in all the right ways, these poems have now been translated to reach a modern audience”– |c Provided by publisher. Source: Library Of Congress

catalogue data from the ibrary of congress

This cataloguing information is important because it is the tool used by libraries to help them place the book on ‘right’ place on their shelves and also how their patrons will access the book when searching a catalogue or browsing the collection. This book can be found in hundreds of libraries across the world under the false classification of Tipitika in translation. The cataloguing information has been supplied by the publisher, which is not only disappointing because it is inaccurate, but given the commercial context, it is also fraudulently deceptive. The same data is used by bookshops to help them classify the book and promote it online.

Calling it a translation in this way will have the effect of misleading a whole generation of readers. This problem cannot be over-stated. The book was endorsed by veritable who’s-who of the contemporary Buddhist literary world, including luminaries such as: Jack Kornfield, Ruth King, Larry Yang, Sharon Salzburg, Sebene Selassie, Joseph Goldstein, Thubten Chodron, and numerous others. Many of the reviewers refer to it as a translation, or as the voice of ancient nuns. Their respected positions as authorities and high profile media presence have undoubtedly swayed people into buying the book.

Further, the vast majority of online reviews on Amazon, and Good Reads make it abundantly clear that readers from the general public genuinely believe this to be an actual translation of the Therīgāthā. Here’s a handful of responses from Good Reads:

  • This is a lovely translation of the poetry of the early Buddhist nuns
  • This is a new translation of poems by the first Buddhist nuns.
  • A great historical collection of early buddhist women’s poems.
  • This is a new translation of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns), one of the oldest collections of women’s literature in the world.
  • Stunning, honest feminist poetry of early Buddhist nuns.
  • These translations of 2500 year old women’s poems are powerful and touching. I have ordered copies for my women friends.
  • This collection is a new translation that should resonate with modern readers

Examining the book’s poems and the high proportion of Weingast’s interventions, it is astonishing that the Shambhala had the audacity to label it a translation in the first place. Seeing so many reviews that mistake it for a translation is disheartening, but at least these people have simply been deceived by the publisher’s marketing. After all, not everyone is a Pali expert, and Shambhala constantly places references to the real Therīgāthā front and centre of their publicity. Is it any wonder people are confused about the truth of this book? How could this have happened? Why on earth would they choose do this?

The truth is this: poetry books by unknown translators and first time authors simply don’t sell all that well. The author and publisher have unscrupulously exploited the name of the Therīgāthā in their marketing, purely for commercial and personal gain. This is a deceptive act of cultural insensitivity and a disrespectful cultural appropriation of a sacred text. Weingast’s original poetry certainly would not have enjoyed such popularity if it had been released on its own merits, without the tenuous connection to the original Therīgāthā. This is a shameless example of standing on the shoulders of giants, simply for the pursuit of sales.

Sadly, the snake oil seems to have worked. Throughout 2020, the book spread just like the covid-19 pandemic. A summary of its online spread makes for depressing reading. The book is everywhere, and in almost every case it is being promoted, reviewed and talked about as a translation. Just as other events in 2020 have shown us, the internet has a way of creating an echo chamber of ideas. People can be easily duped by the prevalence of marketing spin and online reviews. This rapidly becomes a tsunami of misinformation, completely wiping out the truth. It is a great tragedy that this has occurred. The horse has bolted and much damage has been done. It may never be able to be corrected.

A Slippery and Disingenuous Ambiguity

Whilst on the one hand the publisher is labelling it a translation, on the other hand, the publisher uses ambiguous and deceptive terms in their marketing materials to disguise the fact that this is not a translation, such as: ‘rendering’, ‘reimagining’, ‘re-envisioning’, ‘fresh’, ‘contemporary’, and, ‘radical’. For many readers, these terms would feel like fairly innocuous synonyms for translation, but as disambiguation they only really make sense when you already know it is not a translation. This may have been a weak attempt to pre-empt any blowback without actually coming clean about the truth of the work, but since the publisher is simultaneously promoting the book as a translation, these slippery terms have merely ended up misleading reviewers and buyers anyway.

To be fair, some of the online reviews note that it is not an actual translation. These reviewers use words like ‘loose translation’ or ‘poetic translation’ and say things like, ‘Matty Weingast embraced artistic freedom.’ This points towards another conundrum; when does a translation stop being a translation? How much artistic freedom can a translator take before they end up creating an entirely new work? And if creative liberties have been taken, how can it in good conscience continue to be labelled a translation?

There should be some clarity in these things. After all, translation is a sacred art. And this is a sacred text. There is responsibility to the original material and an obligation to the audience. It is a matter of trust; a reader needs certainty that the translator has faithfully and accurately provided us with a truthful version to the very best of their ability. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Translating poetry from Pali is difficult. As a first time translator, it seems Weingast was ill-equipped to handle the responsibility of working with an important text of the Buddhist scriptural tradition. He talks about being out of his depth:

My approach was to read a poem many, many times, to find the essential teaching each enlightened nun was trying to communicate. Then reconstruct the poem around that primary image or the instruction. In many ways it became something other than a translation, more in the line of what Coleman Barks did for Rumi. Some poems remained close to the original, some spun off.

I had no training in this, and I wasn’t telling people what I was doing because the whole thing was so weird. But something allowed me to say: let’s see where this goes. I was in over my head, not properly trained to do this, but that allowed it to turn into whatever it wanted. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was certain of that. And I really think that’s the best, whether in our practice, our life, or in the creative process. It’s so clear that that place of not knowing is where we want to be.
Source: Creative Dharma Podcast

It’s worth noting that Coleman Barks makes a dubious mentor for a newbie translator. Barks has been heavily criticised for his interpretation of Rumi’s work, because he does not know Arabic or Farsi, the two languages Rumi wrote in. In addition Barks takes an excessively free approach, changing whole texts and removing references to Islam from Rumi’s poems. As for Weingast’s nebulous praise for the state of ‘not knowing’; this is exactly the opposite of where a reader wants ‘to be’. The whole purpose of having a translation is to know what the text says.

Comparison 2

Let’s have a look at another poem, this time the verses of Saṃghā Therī.

The original Pali (Saṃghātherīgāthā Thig 1.1):

Hitvā ghare pabbajitvā, hitvā puttaṃ pasuṃ piyaṃ; Hitvā rāgañca dosañca, avijjañca virājiya; Samūlaṃ taṇhamabbuyha,

A translation by Bhante Sujato:

Having given up my home, my child, my cattle, and all that I love, I went forth. Having given up desire and hate, having dispelled ignorance, and having plucked out craving, root and all, I’m quenched and at peace.

And Weingast’s poem:

When I left the only home I’d ever known, I thought I’d left everything behind.

But I was still carrying all the years of running back and forth and around in circles after this or that.

Just sitting still, those circles have broken apart and been carried away by this simple wind blowing in and out.

All your old thoughts like snow falling on warm ground.

Just sit back and watch.

Once again Weingast’s poem departs considerably from the source material, removing large chunks of the original and adding many elements of his own. Clearly this poem goes way beyond what could even be regarded as a ‘loose translation’ and moves well into original content territory.

So, how should we view this type of work? Is it an adaptation? Hardly. Adaptation is a literary genre that allows for a fair degree of flexibility with source texts to create new meaning and resonances across cultures and times. However, an adaptation needs to be reasonably faithful to the source text if it is going to be promoted as such. If not, then it’s better for the version to be promoted as an entirely new work in its own right. This is common practice with plays and movies which are given a different title and the terms ‘based on’ or inspired by’ appear in the credits. This makes sense, rather than trading off an original title that it no longer bears any resemblance to, which would lead to audience disappointment.

In the case of Weingast’s book, the title, concept and marketing firmly tie it to the Therīgāthā, but as the majority of Weingast’s poems depart so fundamentally from the source texts, even the broadness of scope that the term adaptation provides would be dubious label. As the examples above show, Weingast’s method is to take a Therīgāthā poem of just one or two lines, and then add dozens of completely invented lines of his own. Elsewhere he removes whole portions of texts. He frequently omits key doctrinal messages and also changes the meaning of the poems. This is not an adaptation; it is more like a creative writing project where an author is loosely inspired by a text and then goes on to craft an entirely original response with a life of its own. Ordinarily this might be a valid creative process, but it is certainly a stretch to call Weingast’s version an adaptation and it is certainly nowhere near a translation— but curiously, that is what this book is being marketed as.

Crossing a Sacred Line

It’s important to remember that this is not just any creative project. After all, the Therīgāthā is not just any book. It a sacred text of the Buddhist scriptural tradition, that has been faithfully preserved for 2500 years. Buddhists are a fairly easy going bunch. If an artist or poet wants to respond to the suttas or meditation experience with an original poem it’s not going to be a problem. Or if someone wants to make a movie of the life of the Buddha, or a cartoon of some jataka stories, we are not generally bothered. However, if someone wants to mess with the sacred scriptures? No. There we need to draw a line.

Knowing just where that line is would be clear to the majority of Buddhists around the world, especially in countries where Buddhism has flourished for centuries. No-one from Sri Lanka, Thailand or Myanmar would think to do what Weingast has done to the Therigatha. Further, no publisher there would ever touch it, let alone promote it as a translation as Shambhala did. People in countries where Buddhism is relatively new might not have the same regard for Buddhist scriptures; there may be some blindness about these matters which might lead to cultural insensitivity. So, it’s possible that many Americans or Australians (for example) might not quite know where the line is between a sacred scripture and an original work of poetry. However, one person who should know exactly where that line lies is a translator.

In the book’s introduction, Weingast himself says:

Many of the poems here closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees. Others are more like variations on a classic tune. Though these are not literal translations, even in the freest renderings, I do not hear my voice. I hear Uppalavanna, Khema, Mahapajapati, Anopama, Patachara, Siha, Dhammadinna, Isidati…
Source: The First Free Women

The idea that Weingast was somehow ‘channelling’ the voices of these long extinguished enlightened beings needs to be challenged. Saying ‘I do not hear my own voice,’ is simply disingenuous. It is a mystical, romanticising tactic used to justify his immoderate interventions. Such a fuzzy, insouciant approach might work in a creative writing class at college, but his words cannot be given any real credence in the context he was working in. To be clear, the voices he was hearing in his head are very much his. They are his invented version of what he believes these women to be. They are fictional characters of his own imagination, nothing more.

Weingast is happy to blur the lines between translation and invention, and muddy the line distinguishing the voices of the nuns and his own. He uses their names, but obfuscates their words. Yet, he doesn’t seem to think this is problematic; some poems are ‘close’ to translations, he says, others are not—that’s all. It seems to Weingast, this ambiguity is unimportant. All these words will all be treated as if they were from the same source. Consequently, the reader will remain oblivious to the distinction between the words of Uppalavanna or Mahapajapati and the voice of Weingast. He becomes the sole arbiter of the value of these women’s poems. He alone decides what is kept and what is omitted. He determines how much we will be allowed to read of their lives and how much he will invent for us. Weingast will speak for them. In the end, he inserts himself into the verse so totally that it becomes entirely his work.

In a revealing interview with Pamela Weiss, Weingast talks about his writing practice and demonstrates he was very much aware of blurring the line between translation and his own content:

Weingast: …Oh, I’ll just make it something, but a little bit more accessible. It got way wider than that. How wide? Some poems are wider than others and depart more from the texts, you know, [some] are fairly close and some are not. That’s a whole other discussion. That’s as clear as I go.

Pamela Weiss: Could you give an example of a line or couple of lines that like what a literal translation would be like and what, as an example of what you did?

Weingast: Uh, [deep sigh] I mean, it’s almost, it’s almost gets even wider than that really. So yeah, I mean, like, luckily I had no idea what I was doing, so like, it just kind of allowed me to just make it up as I went along and I spent a long time doing it and a lot of time editing them, some of these poems, I rewrote, you know, a hundred, 150 times more. So it was kind of always just this seeing what it was, seeing what it was for me, that was the important part. And then trying to kind of let that come through, how much of it was me and how much of it was the originals, something in between there. Yeah.

Source: Interview with Pamela Weiss

With every insertion and re-write Weingast made, the line protecting the integrity of a scriptural tradition that has lasted thousands of years was incrementally eroded, until it simply became irrelevant. In the end, that line was deliberately disregarded by Weingast and his scared responsibility as translator was completely discarded with it. As Weingast says himself:

…the whole thing was really crazy. There was a lot of doubt, you know, and I was like, well, what business do I have doing something like this? You know, and it’s, you know, I shouldn’t be doing it anyway. And like, what am I doing? It did take on a life of its own but people are, anyways, people are going to have feelings about it one way or the other, not everyone’s going to like that I did this or the way in which I did it. I have friends who were pretty hardcore monastics and some of them are going to think what I did wasn’t good. but at this point, I’m okay with that. It was definitely the coolest thing that I’ve been part of in my life and the thing I most had the most joy from. So yeah. You know, I wouldn’t take it back now…

Source: Interview with Pamela Weiss

Perhaps Weingast sees himself in the mould of the heroic modernist artist, struggling with his individual creative genius. Unfortunately, this role overshadows the creative talent of the women whose work he appropriates. He doesn’t seem to view himself as part of a historical and global Buddhist tradition, rather he is outside it, an exception. Despite professing respect for the enlightened women of the Therigatha, he is willing to take radical liberties with their work, simply because it was creatively expedient, because it felt good for him, because it was ‘cool’ to do. Whilst this might be seen as misguided creativity or cultural naiveté, it’s clear from his own words that he was very much aware all along that his approach was controversial. He knew it would lead to valid objections in the Buddhist community, but he went ahead and did it anyway.

Erasing the Buddha Dhamma

The importance of maintaining the Dhamma faithfully and accurately is repeated many times in the scriptures. In the sutta called The Counterfeit of the True Teaching, the Buddha states that the disappearance of the true teaching won’t happen like a ship that sinks all at once, but rather, it will disappears gradually, bit by bit. Looking at Weingast’s approach above, where step by step he strayed further and further away from the source text and introduced his own versions, one can see how easy it is for the true teachings to become lost. The widespread distribution and popularity of Weingasts’s book is a great concern, because people will end up being more familiar with Weingast’s so-called version, whilst completely unfamiliar with the actual poems of the Therīgāthā. The Buddha compares this situation to people unknowingly being fooled by counterfeit gold:

The true teaching doesn’t disappear as long the counterfeit of the true teaching hasn’t appeared in the world. But when the counterfeit of the true teaching appears in the world then the true teaching disappears.It’s like true gold, which doesn’t disappear as long as counterfeit gold hasn’t appeared in the world. But when counterfeit gold appears in the world then real gold disappears.

In the same way, the true teaching doesn’t disappear as long the counterfeit of the true teaching hasn’t appeared in the world. But when the counterfeit of the true teaching appears in the world then the true teaching disappears.
Source: Saddhammappatirūpaka Sutta SN 16.13 Trans. Sujato

It’s important to remember that this book is not Buddhist scripture. Like Colema’s Bark treatment of Rumi whic removed references to Islam, Weingast systematically erases fundamental Buddhist doctrinal concepts from the original texts, often changing the meaning and doctrinal message entirely. He frequently removes references to the Buddha’s instructions from the poems; despite the nun’s themselves including these teachings, after all, those instructions helped them attain enlightenment, yet they are extraneous to Weingast. He also removes essential Buddhist concepts like the Eightfold Noble Path, the three enlightenment knowledges, stages of attainment, and the super-human powers claimed by the women themselves. References to Mara, rebirth, people, and place names are frequently omitted. Even the Buddha himself is unceremoniously excluded!

Comparison 3

A good example of the pattern of addition and removal in Weingast’s poems can be seen in the case of Mettikā Theri:

The original Pali (Mettikātherīgāthā Thig 2.6):

Kiñcāpi khomhi dukkhitā, dubbalā gatayobbanā; Daṇḍamolubbha gacchāmi, pabbataṃ abhirūhiya.

Nikkhipitvāna saṅghāṭiṃ, pattakañca nikujjiya; Nisinnā camhi selamhi, atha cittaṃ vimucci me; Tisso vijjā anuppattā, kataṃ buddhassa sāsanan”ti.

A translation by Bhante Sujato:

Though in pain, feeble, my youth long gone, I climb the mountain, leaning on a staff.

Having laid down my outer robe and overturned my bowl, sitting on a rock, my mind was freed. I’ve attained the three knowledges, and fulfilled the Buddha’s instructions.

Weingast’s Version:

I know my older sister passed this way.

At the top of the mountain, I spread my outer robe where perhaps she once spread hers.

I set down my bowl— and there was her staff.

The twin of my own.

Using both staffs, I lowered myself down and leaned back against a large gray rock.

I let go of the staffs— and my hands were empty.

The mountain went on holding me.

Then it let me go.

My staff I also now leave behind. Just in case you’re ever passing this way.

In Weingast’s poem, we have the invention of a sister, an extra staff and a hug from the mountain. But more concerning is what is left out: the experience of Mettikā’s freed mind (atha cittaṃ vimucci me ), her attainment of the Three Knowledges (Tisso vijjā anuppattā) and her completion of the Buddha’s instructions (kataṃ buddhassa sāsanan ). These are markers of the experience of enlightenment itself, an incredibly rare and precious attainment. This is the very reason Mettikā recites the poem—to let us know about her enlightenment experience. This achievement was recorded and passed down the generations to inspire others. But this essential aspect of Mettikā’s poem and her life is omitted, her enlightenment is obfuscated and the Buddha’s teachings are left unmentioned.

Instead, we have Weingast’s watered down, counterfeit version of the Dhamma—an extra staff, empty hands and a contrived experience with a mountain—but nothing more than that; no clear mention of enlightenment, no Buddha Dhamma—nothing.

This pattern is repeated throughout Weingast’s collection. Instead of the powerful teachings that helped the nun’s attain liberation, he introduces his own invented and inaccurate versions of doctrine. These often have no basis in the text, no relationship to the poem’s meaning, and are frequently pseudo-spiritual platitudes. This is a dumbing-down of the fierce and potent doctrines espoused by the nuns and a shockingly inept corruption of the teachings. The Buddha Dhamma is replaced with ersatz versions, which might make a good poem, but are completely lacking the nun’s profundity and wisdom.

It’s important to be aware that Weingast himself becomes our Dhamma teacher in these texts, not the Buddha or the great nuns of the past. We should be cautious about accepting these teachings uncritically. Just as Weingast’s translations cannot be relied upon for authenticity, his poetic teachings should not be relied upon to describe an enlightened being’s experience. Nor can we have any conviction that Weingast’s words have the ability to lead us to Nibbana, unlike the words of the original Therīgāthā poets and the Buddha.

It is for such reasons that the Buddhist sacred scriptural tradition is not to be tinkered with lightly. If we start changing things and introducing our own versions of the teaching, who knows where we will end up? If these poems were not being promoted and sold as the Therīgāthā, but soley as the work of Matty Weingast, the issue of authenticity or accuracy would not be such a big concern; people could assess its merits solely on its own terms, instead of it being conflated with the Therīgāthā. As it stands, it’s somewhat difficult for people to judge whether the lesson’s contained in Weingast’s poems are useful or not. However, despite the title and despite the marketing, it needs to be stated and restated over and over again: this is not the Therīgāthā, these poems are not by enlightened nuns, and this is not the Buddhist scriptural tradition.

thai mural painting of bhikkhunis

Mansplaining Women’s Enlightenment

Given what we know about the about Weingast’s interventions to the poems, one of the more perplexing aspects of the book’s success is that it has repeatedly been praised for representing the voices of women in Buddhism. An even more curious thing is that the book’s most energetic and enthusiastic supporters are women. This shows the yearning thirst for women in Buddhism to see themselves reflected by the tradition and culture of Buddhism, which is understandable. But given the actual content has been written by a man, it seems a curiously peculiar state of affairs to end up in.

The many Buddhist famous teachers who wrote blurbs for Weingast’s book appeared unaware that they were promoting original poems written by a man, rather than authentic translations of ancient poems written by women. Here are some examples from the promotional reviews:

  • the voices are distinctly female
  • rarely heard female voices
  • voices of the first bhikkhunis in this contemporary rendering of the Therīgāthā
  • Hearing the awakened heart expressed in such distinctive strong, clear, fem­inine voices
  • voices of these awakened Buddhist women can be heard
  • the words of these liberated women
  • These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life
  • renditions of the enlightenment songs of the early Buddhist nuns
  • fresh rendering of these ancient words will be of interest to anyone looking for feminine Buddhist voices

Given Weingast’s work is not a faithful translation of the actual words of the ancient female arahants and is almost entirely original content, this book is more a movement away from representing the voices of nuns, or women generally. Whose ‘voice’ are we actually listening to here?

The historical Therīgāthā represented the diverse voices of 73 different renunicant monastic women. They came from a broad diversity of backgrounds, class, occupations and ages, each with her own unique and individual lived experiences. Weingast’s book—in sharp contrast—is entirely the words and imagination of one person only, Weingast, a lay man living in contemporary America. By discarding their words and imposing his own versions, Weingast actually erases the voices of 73 women and replaces them with his. That he has been embraced and praised by women for doing this remains a ongoing mystery.

Weinsgast was aware of this problem. He has spoken about his ongoing personal discomfort in co-opting women’s voices:

You know, like the best I could do was kind of be quiet, you know, and allow, especially female voices to kind of guide things for a while, because as we know, male voices have been doing the guiding and that’s been a big part of the problem. So it wasn’t really conscious where I was like, Oh, I want to be involved in this. And I want to be part of this, you know, but it was playing somewhere in the background. And, but then once it started to happen and then, yeah, it was very uncomfortable for me knowing that I didn’t want to be one more male co-opting female voices. Um, there’s been a lot of that in for thousands of years, this has been going on and I knew that one way or another, if I was going to do this project, I would be one more male co-opting female voices.

And still to this day, I’m still very uncomfortable with it.
Source: New Books Podcast

In another interview, Weingast again speaks of his discomfort and his awareness that what he was doing was controversial. Yet he seems to make out that the process was somehow out of his control:

I was very uncomfortable knowing I was a man trying to interpret these poems by our female ancestors. I was even more uncomfortable when I saw that the poems were coming out as adaptations or interpretations. I imagined that many people would find that offensive, very presumptuous of me. This was a daily battle for me.
Source: Dharma Podcast

In the end, this awareness and his own doubts did not prevent Weingast from continuing to work on the text, a process that took many months, and then to go and publish the book and publicise it widely.

The challenges of men writing women are well known. How can someone accurately depict an experience that is largely unknown to them? The same is true when claiming to write the experiences of any group, such as white people writing as BIPOC voices, or straight people writing queer voices, or cis people writing about trans folk’s experiences. It seems from Matty’s interviews that he publicly identifies as a cis man. If Matty identified as non-binary or trans, the issues of gender raised here might be a different story. A trans person writing in their genders’ voice would be fine, but—just like any author—they would still need to distinguish between their own personal voice and not purport to represent the voices of 73 others when it is entirely their own invention.

When writing the voices of other groups, it’s possible to do so in an ethical way by acting as an ally. On the surface, it seems that this is how Weingast saw himself and his role. He is clearly a passionate and ardent supporter of the bhikkhuni sangha and women in Buddhism generally. There is still great opposition to full ordination for women and ongoing sexism and oppression in Buddhism all around the world, so this support is something to be applauded. In several interviews, Weingast talks of consulting with the nuns from Aloka Hermitage, where he stayed whilst working on the book. In particular, he worked closely with the co-leader of the hermitage, Ayya Anandabodhi and says that all the residents had some input into the text:

Weingast: I became friends with them, you know, and, um, getting to hang out with them and working on the poems with them too. And [Ayya Anandabodhi] became a massive part of this project and she became chief editor of the work. So she was going, we were going over all of these poems together and she would be like, not that word, not this line. Let’s try something else. Let’s try something else. I can’t tell you how many hours we did it, you know? Um, so all of these things combined, and then it just…

Audience member: It was her interpretation of the word or, not this word or that word?

Weingast: Not so much to Pali, um, because she doesn’t have Pali actually. Um, so at that point we were just kind of reading the drafts that I had and it was kind of like, no, this one doesn’t ring true. This one does. And what can we do? You know? And then I would kind of go back to the drawing board and kind of see what else, and then we would be and she would be reading them aloud and I’d be like, read it aloud this way. We know that that way she’d be like, how about this way? How about that way?
Source: Interview with Pamela Weiss

By taking what seems a consultative approach, Weingast positions himself as a good guy, a feminist and as an ally to the bhikkhuni sangha. This is praiseworthy on many levels, but it must be remembered that his responsibility as translator and poet was not so much to the nuns of Aloka Hermitage, but rather to nuns of the Therīgāthā and their poetry. Whilst it’s great that he wanted to get the Aloka Hermitage nuns involved, perhaps a different creative project could have showcased their words rather than Weingasts. His ally-ship in the context of this book should specifically have been to those women from ancient India; and his responsibility was to protect their legacy in the Buddhist scriptural tradition.

In the end it is Weingast’s name alone listed as author of the book. Sure, the nuns of Aloka Hermitage are credited as one big group in the book’s forward but this is a half hearted attempt at inclusion. They very much remain in a secondary position and the labour they did for Weingast has been hidden. Instead, the Aloka nuns become a group of unknown, anonymous women, stripped of their names. Meanwhile, the names of enlightened bhikkhunis of the Therīgāthā remain in the book but their words are taken away from them and their stories, too. These women’s names, which were recorded for posterity to celebrate their enlightenment, are now just used as props to build invented stories on. Ostensibly, this book is all about them, but in reality it is all about Weingast, and the nuns of the Therīgāthā are muted. Erased.

This is not what it means to be an ally. The golden rule for ally-ship is to always use your privilege to amplify an oppressed group’s voice, rather than centering one’s own voice. An ally should tell a groups’ story as they want it to be heard, without changing their words, or altering their histories. Just as with translation, ally-ship also comes with responsibilities. There is a big difference between acting as an ally—where one accurately presents the views of a group—and crossing a line to speak for them, let alone speaking as them as Weingast does. This case is particularly appalling because the women of the Therīgāthā have already spoken for themselves in their own words. Yet in his work, all their words are discarded, their voices are silenced in an attempt by Weingast to improve them, or help them make more sense. Weingast literally speaks over the top of these women, imposing his own imagined versions of their lives. Essentially, he mansplains what it is to be an enlightened woman.

Weingast sincerely wants to be an ally but contradictorily, he ends up making it all about himself. It’s his creative and spiritual journey that he prioritised, and this is what is spoken of in his interviews—his struggle as a poet—rather the poetry of the nuns. The book is his idea of these women’s stories, and his decisions of what is kept and added to their stories. Weingast is certainly not a misogynist, but despite his seemingly good intentions, he acts just like any other man who refuses to give up his own privilege and instead takes over the space women should inhabit. It’s no wonder there has been criticism of his process. This was not unexpected by him, and whilst writing the book, his method did not go unchallenged. In interviews, he mentions encountering strong resistance to his unorthodox approach:

But, I would say, I’m here to do the best I can. If for any reason people want to disagree – and some people have strongly disagreed – that’s an important conversation. Let’s empower ourselves to disagree. We all learn from that conversation.

Source: Creative Dharma Podcast

Weingast knew that he was over-stepping the mark both as a translator and as an ally. He knew what he was doing was—in his own words—‘offensive’ and ‘very presumptuous’ yet he did it anyway. Instead of listening to those who questioned his method and understanding their concerns, he continued to centre himself in the ‘conversation’, rather than prioritising the voices of the women he purports to represent. He wants us to believe that it is empowering to ‘disagree’ about what translation is, whose voices these are, or if it’s okay to mess with sacred texts. However, this is simply repositioning his male privilege as a right to do whatever he wants with these women’s voices, whilst denying them the same empowerment he enjoys—having their own voices heard. When people questioned his methods, he went ahead and did it anyway. As such, there is no evidence to show that he actually learnt anything from these conversations at all.

If the aim was to undertake a project that actually reflected those women’s voices, then this is a stunning failure. Now there is a growing wave of criticism in the Buddhist community about the problematic nature of the work, and there are calls for it to be withdrawn from publication. One way to have avoided all these problems would simply have been for Weingast to faithfully and accurately translate the words of the enlightened women’s poems to the best of his ability, just as he started out to do. But Weingast took a different direction.

Step by Step to a Scandal

It’s curious to think about how we ended up here: A sincere Buddhist practitioner discovers the Therīgāthā and is inspired to try his hand at translation. Slightly out of his depth, he steps away from translation—a fateful movement— and begins to walk away from the Pali poems of the Therīgāthā altogether, toward a fantasy in English. Little by little he works and re-works the texts, adding whimsical stories of his own invention, and subtracting the actual stories of the ancient enlightened women.

Next, he shares his poems with others, who suggest this or that change here and there. Each and every alteration is a tiny step that takes him a little farther away from the sacred scripture he started with… but that doesn’t matter anymore; what matters now is the creative journey of the man who has inexplicably become the centre of this work, the one and only voice of the book. A publisher gets involved—now there’s some commercial pressure and a marketing strategy is needed, so it’s just another step to sell it as a translation, even though by now it certainly is not. Then, get big name reviewers involved and people who don’t know better to help promote it, have a huge publicity campaign, and hit the airwaves. Suddenly it’s everywhere; a bestseller!

Sure, it’s not the poems of the enlightened nuns. Sure it’s not women’s voices at all. Sure it’s nowhere near Buddhist scripture… but no one seemed to notice all that much, so maybe it simply doesn’t matter at all?

This is how—step-by-step—our sacred Buddhist scriptures can be lost. The scandal is that we allowed it to happen. But if we don’t do something about it now, to firmly say that this crosses a line and stand up for the integrity of our scriptural tradition, then it won’t just be a scandal; it will be a tragedy.

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