SuttaCentral

From Lioness Roars to Purrs - A Review of The First Free Women by Matty Weingast (Therigatha)

We gained a new Therigatha (elder nuns’ poems) translation in 2020, The First Free Women by Matty Weingast.

Or at least we gained something that is lovely and inspiring, involving bhikkhunis, and generally relating in some way to the original poems. But is the book really a translation? And if not, does that matter?

While studying the Therigatha with a group throughout this past year, we compare up to half a dozen translations and often delve into Pāli phrasing. Several months ago a student began adding Weingast’s poems to the mix, and his were jarringly different. One poem that specially caught my attention when read aloud to us was Thig 4.1, the poem of Bhadda Kapilani.

Bhadda Kapilani’s poem is the only Therigatha poem of 4 verses, hence the sole poem in Chapter 4. Her four stanzas in Pāli, below, are each followed by an English translation by Ken Norman. I’ve come to rely upon Norman’s work, though not the most uplifting, for straightforward, literal translations easy to compare with the Pali. (He has passed away since I first drafted this sentence. May he enjoy all the karmic benefits of bringing true Dhamma to many people!)

(Additional translations by Bhante Sujato and Helmouth Becker/Ayya Khema are here)

# Bhaddākāpilānītherīgāthā
Bhaddā Kāpilānī

Putto buddhassa dāyādo,
kassapo susamāhito;
Pubbenivāsaṃ yovedi,
saggāpāyañca passati.

Kassapa, the son, the heir of the Buddha, well-concentrated, who knows that he has lived before, and sees heaven and hell,

Atho jātikkhayaṃ patto,
abhiññāvosito muni;
Etāhi tīhi vijjāhi,
tevijjo hoti brāhmaṇo.

and has attained the destruction of rebirth, is a sage perfected in supernormal knowledge. Because of these three knowledges he is a Brahmin with triple knowledge.

Tatheva bhaddā kāpilānī,
tevijjā maccuhāyinī;
Dhāreti antimaṃ dehaṃ,
jetvā māraṃ savāhiniṃ.

in just the same way Bhaddā Kāpilānī, with triple knowledge, having left death behind, bears her last body, having conquered Māra and his mount.

Disva ādīnavaṃ loke,
ubho pabbajitā mayaṃ;
Tyamha khīṇāsavā dantā,
sītibhūtamha nibbutā”ti.

Having seen the peril in the world, we both went forth; with āsavas annihilated, tamed, we have become cool, quenched.

In the first 2 verses of her poem, BK described extraordinary powers of her former husband, the revered elder Mahā Kassapa (“MK”), one of the greatest and most famous of the arahants. She poetically listed the “three knowledges” possessed by MK:

  1. knowledge of past lives
  2. seeing heaven & hell (which I infer to mean the power to see beings reborn according to their kamma), and
  3. destruction of the taints.

She further affirmed MK’s position as one who has attained the “Triple Knowledge” (a phrase borrowed from Brahmins’ different idea of the highest state) of these psychic powers.

In the 3rd verse BK declared that she herself matches MK’s powers - a shrewd approach to making controversial claims of greatness in a society reluctant to recognize spiritual might among women. She then further clarified her qualities of full enlightenment.

The 4th and final verse summarized her and MK’s shared history of urgently going forth, annihilating the taints, and becoming free.

This poem is a bold lion’s roar! It probably would have stunned her listeners.

Norman didn’t translate her name, but Bhaddā Kāpilānī means “Fortunate Kapilan Lady”.
Bhaddā = lucky or auspicious
Kāpilānī = lady of the Kapilas (a wealthy clan)

Matty Weingast’s poem:

Bhadda Kapilani ~ Red Hair

After our wedding,
my husband and I put on robes together
and soon went our separate ways.

Not exactly what most would call
a honeymoon.

Is that what love looks like?

Maybe –
when you see what love is
and what it isn’t.

Marriage is hard.
The good times come and go.

True love doesn’t throw a curtain
over the whole world
and imprison whoever it cares about the most
on an empty stage.

When the mind is free,
it’s free of expecting
more than is reasonable
from any one person.

Yes, this purports to be the same poem, I didn’t make a mistake!

Weingast’s version apparently incorporated parts of the commentarial background story. In brief, BK and her husband, both from wealthy prominent families, had both been reluctant to wed anyone, and maintained a celibate marriage. They left their great wealth and home to seek an end to suffering, and after joining the Buddha, each attained enlightenment. The Buddha declared BK foremost in the ability to recall past lives. Many of her past lives were shared with the future Mahā Kassapa; several of their shared past lives were detailed in the Apadana. SuttaCentral

It’s a mystery where the name “Red Hair” came from; neither bhaddā nor kāpilānī have any secondary meaning related to hair or any color. Red hair did not appear among people of India in ancient times, unless perhaps colored by henna. (The detailed commentarial account of her life made no mention of her hair.)

Only the idea of their going forth together is preserved in Weingast’s version. Incorporation of parts of the poet’s legend arguably may be okay - but certainly not if nearly the entire original poem gets left out!

Descriptions of this amazing bhikkhuni’s full awakening and her delight in it - gone! Every reference to her superpowers - gone!

Gone too are her multiple direct and indirect references to rebirth - “knows that he has lived before”, “sees heaven and hell” - ie, sees rebirth according to kamma, “has attained the destruction of rebirth”, “these three knowledges”/“triple knowledge” - two of which involve recalling or observing rebirths, “having left death behind”, “bears her last body”.

A couple of my students affirm that Weingast consistently left out references to rebirth. This seems particularly hurtful when done to the words of the bhikkhuni named by the Buddha as foremost in the power to recollect past lives.

From this and numerous other poems shared with me from his book, Weingast appears to me to offer a collection of consoling, sweet poetry with little in common with the powerful original text. And also little in common with the ideals of early Buddhism, seeming more in tune with Western feel-good spirituality and secular sensibilities.

As a book of modern poetry that’s generally inspired by stories of the elder nuns, it stands up well and is worth reading. Yet it is sold as a translation of scripture.

The book’s subtitle calls it “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns”. The copyright page gives the LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Heading) as “Buddhist Poetry - Translations into English | Pali Poetry - Translations into English”. In his preface the author acknowledges that “these are not literal translations,” but this sounds like humble self-effacement, not a contradiction to all the signs that you’ve been sold a translation.

Amazon describes the book:

A radical and vivid rendering of poetry from the first Buddhist nuns that brings a new immediacy to their voices.

The Therigatha (“Verses of the Elder Nuns”) is the oldest collection of known writings from Buddhist women and one of the earliest collections of women’s literature in India. Composed during the life of the Buddha, the collection contains verses by early Buddhist nuns detailing everything from their disenchantment with their prescribed roles in society to their struggles on the path to enlightenment to their spiritual realizations…

In The First Free Women, Matty Weingast revives this ancient collection with a contemporary and radical adaptation. In this poetic re-envisioning that remains true to the original essence of each poem, he infuses each verse with vivid language that is not found in other translations. (emphases added)

This book is indeed poetic, it is quite a bold re-envisioning, and indeed you won’t find Weingast’s language in other translations! But perhaps so much originality should be a red flag.

My expectation of a translation is that if all copies of the text were lost except this translation, the text would be saved by it. Plenty of ancient texts have come down to us only in translation. To connect with the ancient wisdom in those otherwise lost texts, we depend upon the translators’ skill and their allegiance to the original lost documents.

My understanding of translation work has evolved, thanks to Bhante Sujato’s guidance, to accept that it doesn’t have to be true to the original word for word. Strict literal adherence often misleads, widening the gap of understanding instead of bridging it. Different phrasing may work just so long as the translation conveys the essence of the original - which the Amazon description claims Weingast has accomplished.

Has he? How does Weingast’s book stack up to this standard: if his were the only extant version of the elder bhikkhunis’ ancient poems, would their words be preserved or lost?

These ancient poems would be utterly lost. Given that one translation of various texts has, at times, actually become a community’s only copy, or even the whole world’s last copy of a precious text, this matters, and now more than ever. The world - and the West - seems to be in for a hard ride from climate change. In our future of predicted disruption there will be few books of Therigatha translations to be found, whereas many thousands of copies of Weingast’s replacement poems are already in people’s hands all across the West.

A few earnest students of Buddhism told me that they read Weingast’s translation believing they were reading a true translation of the Therigatha, and felt shocked to encounter the original Pāli poetry to which his book bears only a superficial connection. The likelihood of Weingast’s book being mistaken for a translation makes it hazardous for the long-term preservation of this scripture - a blow against the generations of monks who diligently labored across 2500 years to recall or write carefully every word of scripture with absolute precision, trying not to corrupt a single phrase.

Further, Weingast’s poems may mislead readers into a soft feel-good version of early Buddhism, without rebirth, without psychic powers, and, it seems to me from what I’ve read of it, without celebrating the promise of complete liberation.

In Weingast’s version the lioness’ roars of the ancient nuns have been muffled into a sweet new-agey purring.

By the way, a beautiful yet unfortunately obscure actual translation that’s available in free pdf is Anagarika Mahindra’s Therīgāthāpāli Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis, a Contemporary Translation.

Edit: typo fixed (in link), quotes reformatted

22 Likes

I wondered the same thing. It’s beautiful and it speaks to the modern condition. There’s bound to be an element of interpretation in the closest of translations, but when does the time come to describe a work as “inspired by” rather than “translated from”?

9 Likes

Just wanted to say thank you to Ayya Sudhamma for making this post and highlighting the issues with Weingast’s “translation”. :anjal: :heart:
I’ve also seen a few of his verses and felt very uneasy about them. They were recommended by other bhikkhunis, and I’m now very happy to hear a different point of view and to see a discussion here.

10 Likes

That looks like writing original poetry, perhaps using the Therigatha as a prompt, which is a common way poets get inspiration. I noticed that on Amazon they are careful not to say it’s a translation, but then in the Foreword Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi immediately begins telling us the story of how he approached her about his translation. This is not translation. It’s an original work. It’s unfortunate that it will confuse people when it’s otherwise probably a perfect good work of poetry standing on its own.

Looking at the first few of his poems, I see that they stick closer to the original with embellishment and modern emotionalism added to them. I suppose that could count as translation on a looser stylistic level, but not really to me. A translator is an interpreter between two people; in this case an ancient author long gone and a modern person. The ideal interpreter recedes into the background of the conversation they are mediating, not stand in-between.

10 Likes

As one of the students in Ven. @Charlotteannun’s class I’ve had the joy and privilege of hearing many translations of each poem each week. I find myself most drawn to Bhante Sujato’s translations, but love the rich variety of translations–from Ken Norman’s more word-by-word approach to Mrs. Rhys Davids’ flowery translations.

I like the backstory of Weingast’s poems–working with the nuns of a monastery to produce the poetry–and I think some of the poems are very moving and humanizing. I also have a special place for them because they inspired me to join Ayya’s class and learn about the Therigatha.

That said, now that I’ve read translations, I don’t think of Weingast’s poetry as being translations. They sexualize a number of the poems, and do away with references to rebirth (or anything that doesn’t fit a secular worldview). So I do find myself wishing the Weingast poems were consistently presented as inspired by the Therigatha rather than translations.

10 Likes

:smile: I remember making that comment!

6 Likes

Thank you for this analysis dear Ayya @Charlotteannun :pray::pray:. I agree with everything you say about translation and the thrust of your critique here.

It’s often been said that translation is a sacred art and I think the expectation of the reader who doesn’t know the original language is that it should be faithful to the original text. Or, if the translator decides to not go down that path, then it should be explicitly stated as such.

This is something that happened to the well-known Sufi poet, Rumi. Many of us might be familiar with his work—or think we are familiar— but most likely we have read a “translation” by Coleman Barks, who has dozens of books with versions of Rumi’s poetry published, but as it turns out, Barks doesn’t know Farsi, nor Arabic, the languages Rumi wrote in. :astonished::cry::joy: Barks simply freestyled his interpretation of Rumi’s work based on impressions he gained from much much earlier English translations from the Victorian era. And as the article below shows, much that was essential to Rumi’s poetry was omitted or minimised in the process, particularly any religious references, which is astounding because Rumi was an Islamic scholar whose largest body of work was several volumes of religious treatises on the Koran.

Anyway, I add this story here, even though it’s slightly off topic, because it might be of interest and gives a bigger picture of this problem especially with making religious texts (can we say that’s what the elder nuns and monks poems are? :thinking:) more palatable to a broader readership, which is a strong pressure for commercial publishing and for other reasons too.

11 Likes

The comment I made about this edition in another thread, that I find the poems inspiring, is based on a very small number of them that I heard presented in Dhamma talks. It was immediately clear to me that these are not translations. But what I haven’t been aware of so far is that the author actually claims they are translations, and this is indeed very unfortunate.

There is no problem with making one’s own inspired poetry based on something else, but things should be called by their real name.

Thanks for posting your essay, @Charlotteannun.

5 Likes

Hi Venerable, this is definitely a very common problem in today’s new age book market. It’s a sad case of cultural appropriation, and uses the prestige of the Dhamma to sell one’s own work. I believe this case (among others in the spiritual book world) is a case of cultural appropriation, because of the distortion or outright replacement of the original text and meaning. In this sense, it is deceptive to claim this is a translation at all or to insinuate it in so many ways.

This phenomenon has been discussed by scholar practicioner Christopher Wallis in an article on a original work written based on the Shaiva text called the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra that has been passed off as a translation by one Lorin Roche recently.

You can read his critique here: A Hippie in Bhairava’s Clothing: the dangers of cultural appropriation by C

I think what we have with this book on the Therigatha is a similar case of cultural appropriation.

8 Likes

Sadly the title of “world religions” ( urgh!) has given some quarters to use other people’s religious beliefs in ways that strip away the context and depth of those beliefs.

I doubt that publishing houses would approve if someone did this to the religious poetry of John Donne or William Blake ( unless they were making a book for children)

5 Likes

I couldn’t agree with your assessment more, @Charlotteannun. It’s disheartening (to say the least) to see Weingast’s book - often resembling the Therigatha in superficial details alone - gain such popularity, while so much of the actual teachings in the Therigatha remain unknown, despite The First Free Women readers thinking otherwise.

And that last part is challenging, because there’s often no way to push back against it (not for a relative newcomer such as myself, at least) - you run into this brick wall of, “well, why should I trust your translation over mine? Who is this Bhante Sujato anyway? I’ve never heard of him!” that isn’t easily surmountable if they’re 1) not well-versed in other translations at all, and 2) not inclined to change their mind anyway.

I’ve seen people sharing Weingast’s versions who are inconvincible that the discrepancies they’re presented with are authentic; that surely the book in their hands, with its nudge-nudge-wink-wink penis references and lamentations about how gosh-darn difficult marriage is, is the Real Deal ™️. Shameful.

Weingast’s poems may mislead readers into a soft feel-good version of early Buddhism, without rebirth, without psychic powers, and, it seems to me from what I’ve read of it, without celebrating the promise of complete liberation.

Couldn’t agree more. Personally (and rather cynically), I wonder if it was fluffy, feel-good, New-Age kinda-sorta-Buddhists who were Weingast’s target audience from the start.

Anyway, so it goes.

(Edited to include paragraph two)

7 Likes

Wonderful review Ayya Sudhamma . It was important to write and I’m glad it’s out there now.

Sadly, it is not limited to the Therigatha either. A new and increasingly popular “translation” of the Mahayana Diamond Sutra by Alex Johnson suffers the same defects. He did not even go back to the original languages but piecemealed it and now sadly, if you search google, it will be the top translation found.

Matty deliberately removed any perceived religious elements and made Buddhism sound fully secular. While the work on the Diamond Sutra I mentioned doesn’t go that far, key terms like “Bodhisattva” are replaced with generic and seemingly less technical words like “disciple” instead and adding lines non-existent in the original which in both cases change the philosophical and ethical meanings. Hopefully, this trend of simplifying Buddhist base-texts does not grow too large…otherwise it will birth many followers with no clue what they’ve read is inspired poetry and not translation.

I am quite eager for Bhante Analayo’s newest work which will address among other topics, the increasing secularization of Buddhism and how it’s adherents attest to understanding Buddhism better than (insert branch here) because they are not “constrained” by rules and rites.

No branch is perfect if it has some humility to laugh a bit, but the concept that every branch got it wrong and secular heroes must rescue the Buddha’s teaching…I’ll stop there but it’s disconcerting. Thank you again for great analysis!

10 Likes

Thank you so very much for this, it is an essential critique. Clearly this work is not a translation, and is creative writing loosely inspired by the Therigatha. Given the misrepresentation of the material, and the fact that it poses as a work of traditional sacred literature, I agree it is cultural appropriation.

It’s a bit disheartening to see how the promotional materials rely so heavily on pablum like “he infuses each verse with vivid language that is not found in other translations”. The work of genuine translators, all of whom care about presenting the text in a way that honors both the source and the reader, is dismissed. This includes, let us not ignore, the work of women such as Caroline Rhys-Davids, Susan Murcott, and Jessica Walton.

As for the poetic virtues of such “vivid” language, I mean:

Marriage is hard.
The good times come and go.

Seriously? If you’re going to just make something up and pass it off as a translation of an ancient spiritual text, you could at least think of something fun. The background story in the commentary is full of vivid and mythological imagery, so there’s plenty to draw on for inspiration.

My translation says:

… destroyer of death
she bears her final body

Now that’s poetry!

Weingast’s work steals the radicalness of the bhikkhunis, turning them into relatable Californians. The Kāpilānī of his imagination is defined by her relationship with a man. The actual Kāpilānī was defined by her own accomplishments equaling those of a (famous and extraordinary) man.

In “infusing” the work with his words and ideas instead of the words of the women themselves, Weingast is not conveying their voices to a new audience, which is surely the job of a translator. Rather, he is replacing their voices with his own. Thus the voice of a white male layman silences the voices of Asian female renunciants.

I’d also take issue with the title, which seems to be demeaning of the lives and voices of ancient women. I understand he is implying the specifically Buddhist sense of “free”, but of itself the title does not make that clear, and in normal usage a “free woman” means something quite different. Gargi Vachaknavi would surely have seen herself as a free woman, and she was but one of many.

As it happens, just yesterday I was delighted to receive a copy of Gregory Kramer’s A Whole-Life Path, to which I contributed a short blurb. All respect to Gregory for his lovely book! But when I opened it and saw the huge list of blurbs I was like, uggh, everyone’s just writing blurbs on each others’ books. Call it the blurb industrial complex.

How meaningless it all is is highlighted by The First Free Women, which contains a long list of blurbs all raving about the book. In addition, I’ve looked through the Amazon reviews, and only one actually says that it isn’t a translation.

There is room for a whole spectrum of creative responses to a rich and evocative text like the Therigatha, and the modern western tradition deserves credit for raising this work out of obscurity. There should be literal translations, free translations, “inspired by” retellings, novelizations, drama, films, music, paintings. Heck, I wrote Dreams of Bhaddā, my own free retelling of Bhadda Kundalakesa’s life as a “historical novella”. (It’s awesome, check it out!) All you have to do is to clearly say what it is that you are doing. It’s not that hard. Market this as “not another translation, but verses inspired by the Therigatha” and there’s no problem.

14 Likes

It is indeed. It’s patronizing and orientalist.

6 Likes

Thanks for highlighting this, Bhante, as that was my reaction as well.

But I don’t think it’s “appropriation.” I define cultural appropriation as profiting from a cultural heritage uninvited by its bearers. As Matty Weingast did receive the blessing of a Bhikkhuni to publish, I don’t think his book is cultural appropriation as such. I agree that it’s inappropriate to market the book as a translation, but misrepresentation is not (necessarily) appropriation.

No, as the OP pointed out, it was more disappointing how bland the poetry was. There were a few nice lines (“by the time I got anywhere, I’d be someone else”) and the author seems to have an earnestness which could make for powerful verse, but mostly I found the book lacking — both in fidelity and originality, caught in the uncanny valley between translation and authenticity.

3 Likes

Yikes :flushed:.

I was first introduced to this book in the Aloka Vihara New Years retreat January 2020. Ayya Anandabodhi, Ayya Santacitta, and Ayya Dhammadipa all read from the book. I found the poems focused on awakening and the path extremely inspiring and moving.

Ayya Anandabodhi also worked with Matty on the book and the translations. I wonder if she has any thoughts to add to this discussion.

It’s disheartening to hear how far the creative liberties went, and especially the omission of rebirth. At the same time, I have found this rendering inspirational so feel grateful for it.

Hence, yikes.

4 Likes

No doubt my excellent bhikkhuni friends from Aloka Vihara are careful to make the distinction between actual translations of the scripture and Weingast’s book of poetry inspired by the scripture & related commentarial stories.

The marketers who promote sales by creating a false impression [edit: are to blame but] probably don’t know the distinction.

What needs to happen are small efforts by many people to -

  • educate the sellers,
  • leave clarification reviews on all the sales sites, and
  • push the publisher to change the book’s designated Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH) to remove the words “translation” and “Pāli Poetry”. (The book’s Library of Congress Subject Heading or LCSH is “Buddhist Poetry - Translations into English | Pali Poetry - Translations into English”.) It should simply convey “Buddhist Poetry - English”.
9 Likes

Maybe of interest to this topic, an article of Matty Weingast in which he relates the process of creation:

He ends with:

Although I worked with the original Pāli texts, these are not literal translations. Some closely resemble the originals. Others are more like variations on a classic tune. For those interested, there are several very good English translations, especially those by Charles Hallisey, Susan Murcott, and Bhante Sujato.

2 Likes

Good suggestions, but may I propose one change:

efforts by many people the author

He needs to take responsibility for his work.

Indeed. It’s not the first time a Buddhist text has had rebirth stripped from it. It’s indefensible. AN 2.23:

“Mendicants, these two misrepresent the Realized One. What two? One who explains what was not spoken by the Realized One as spoken by him. And one who explains what was spoken by the Realized One as not spoken by him. These two misrepresent the Realized One.

Well at least we agree on one thing. :wink:

3 Likes

Ayya Anandabodhi gave a talk about it on Tiloren’s iSangha. Here’s the link:

2 Likes