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

The phenomenon of original poetry passed off as translation and artfully described as a “rendering” also applies to Thomas Byrom’s “Dhammapada,” which is more Byrom than it is Buddha. And both of these books are published by Shambhala. I believe journalists go by the rule that you have to have three instances of something before you can call it a trend, but I’m wondering if there is a trend with this particular publisher.

I maintain the website, fakebuddhaquotes.com, and Byrom’s “rendering” is one of the largest sources of fake quotes that I’ve commented on there. I’m wondering, Ayya @Charlotteannun, if you would be willing to grant me permission to reproduce your post on my website, fully attributed, of course. I think many people would find it helpful and I’d like to help put it in front of a wider audience.

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Yes you may use my analysis, thanks for asking.

If possible, please highlight for your readers this link to an excellent translation by Anagarika (now Samanera) Mahendra - it’s sadly obscure due to the translator’s wish to distribute by free download (hence no mainstream publishing) while also being determined to keep all his explanatory notes (hence not possible to publish on SC).

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Many thanks. I’ll make sure to highlight that link. I thank you for providing it; I’ll read the book with great interest.

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This seems the heart of the problem. People like @anon36724545 and me might be moved by the modern poems and inspired to learn more but do not know immediately from reading Matty’s poems that a) they aren’t translations or even “renderings” , b) they are omitting rebirth, and c) there actually are literal translations available for comparison.

Much gratitude to @mattyweingast and Ayya @Anandabodhi for your work. One additional suggestion on top of @sujato is that the next print edition could include the explicit explanation that these aren’t translations and tell folks where to go (for free!) to read the originals, too.

I personally see complementary roles for both–what a wonderful opportunity to shed even more light on the inspiring words of enlightened nuns.

:pray::pray::pray:

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I shared your post here. Thanks again for allowing me to do this, and for having taken the time and effort to write about this “rendering.”

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Murcott’s effort is also not really a translation, but rather an interpretation inspired by Rhys Davids’ translation. It’s riddled with errors and came in for generally negative reviews from Pali scholars.

Lily de Silva:

The expression sabbe kāmā samacchinnā ye dibbā ye ca mānusā is translated “I have ended the hunger of gods and humans” (p. 53), though it means: the desire for all pleasures both divine and human has been eradicated. Lūnakesī pankadharā is translated “I cut my hair and wore the dust” (p. 46), though the rendering misses the point that what is referred to are two austere Jain practices of plucking out the hair and keeping the teeth unclean. She renders the term uddhamsotā as “entered the stream” (p. 64), which she explains as stream-entry, when the term actually means “gone upstream” and refers in this context to a non-returner. There are many such instances throughout the book where simple consultation of the Pali Commentary, or the accurate prose translation by K.R. Norman with its extensive annotations, would have prevented misunderstanding. Her commentary to the verses is also of an uneven quality. While she provides us with many interesting points of historical information on women in ancient India and on the background to the verses, she is also prone to fall into factual error and ill-considered judgements. Thus she assumes that the precepts which a sikkhamānā—a probationer to bhikkhuni status—has to observe (pp. 43, 197) are identical with the five precepts of a layperson (with the addition of the abstinence from food after midday), and thus concludes that a sikkhamānā does not have to reject the company of men (p. 43). In fact the third precept of a sikkhamānā is changed from the layperson’s abstinence from unlawful sex to the rule of strict celibacy. A Western feminist point of view has coloured the author’s comments on Ven. Moggallāna’s rebuff to Vimala’s overtures (pp. 123–26).

Moggallāna only spoke of the real nature of the human body and such realistic understanding is absolutely essential for the attainment of the ultimate goal of Nibbāna. Her accusation of cruelty and defensiveness against the great disciple hardly makes sense in relation to a man who had extinguished all defilements. Her speculation that Vimalā may have accepted Moggallāna’s rejection because of her own self-hatred is hardly plausible: it is clear she did so because the elder’s comments made her realise the repulsiveness of the body and the hollowness of sense pleasures.
https://www.bps.lk/olib/nl/nl022.pdf

And Tessa Bartholomeusz:

The First Buddhist Women - Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha.by Susan Murcott.pdf (287.3 KB)

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One of my favorite websites, I refer people to it all the time!

Yes, I think her purpose was more to tell the stories and put them in context.

One of the puzzling things about this phenomenon is that KR Norman’s translations exist, and they are virtually built for exactly this purpose. Translating Pali verse is never easy, and I often refer back to Norman’s translations and notes. They are brutally literal, and quite intentionally so, which makes them a perfect starting point for someone who wants to create a more poetic rendering.

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Not exactly. I appreciated the podcast. I haven’t read his poetry yet and I haven’t read translations of the Therigatha yet. I came in contact with the Therigatha whilst listening to this podcast. Weingast is a young man with a Jewish background and a meditator with an interest in Buddhism and female voices in religion, that’s all quite close to my world. I found it fascinating that he started learning Pali because of his interest in the Therigatha. It’s quite clear that the poems read out in this podcast can’t be translations of 2500 years old texts. It’s mostly the interviewer, Yakir Englander, who presented them as such.

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Hi All,

As Matty Weingast offered above, we will be having a Q&A with him via Zoom on 2020-12-28T19:30:00Z

If anyone is interested in attending please message me @JimInBC and I can send you the Zoom info.

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Could you identify the podcast please, so that others can find it if they wish? :smiley:

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Hi Gillian, sure! It’s a publication of The New Books Network. Yakir Englander is the interviewer, doctor in modern Jewish philosophy with a focus on gender issues and an interest in interfaith dialogue. This is the link New Books Network | Matty Weingast, "The First Free Women: Poems of….

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Thanks.
Will listen to it.

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What I think would be wonderful is for modern day bhikkhunis to collect their poetry together into a volume or two. Heck, it could be a periodic analogy. Then there’s no confusion or trouble with trying to bridge the ancient voices with the modern ones, and the modern ones can be just as sacred.

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Well, modern bhikkhuni poems will be just as sacred [as] the ancients’ as soon as ours are also voices of arahants

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So … you’d better get on with that then! :pray:

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Actual laugh out loud :rofl:

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I’m trying to come up with some objective ways to compare the poems of Weingast with an actual translation. Not because it’s debateable that this is a translation—it’s not. But I think there may be some statistical ways to show the stark contrast. One of them is word count. Here are a few

Sujato-Walton Weingast
complete including Theri names 12969 8283 63.87%
2.2 Jentā Therī 49 105 214.29%
2.3 Sumaṅgala’s Mother 50 68 136.00%
6.1 Paṭācārā Therī, Who Had a Following of Five Hundred 168 124 73.81%
8.1 Sīsūpacālā Therī 191 112 58.64%
14.1 Subhā of Jīvaka’s Mango Grove 951 198 20.82%
15.1 Isidāsī Therī 1199 477 39.78%
16.1 Sumedhā Therī 1895 464 24.49%

One of the most shocking is Sumedhā Therī’s verses, arguably one of the most powerful teaching on the need to take up the life of a nun. MW’s poem is a mere 24.5% of the actual verses.

If anyone is interested in this kind of analysis and would like to help gather word counts, let me know.

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@Snowbird @sujato
No, please, numbers cannot convey how very badly Matty has misspoken for many famous bhikkhunis and misrepresented the enlightened voice in general. Although his short poems tend to be similar to the original, perhaps close enough to pass, Matty’s longer poems are off the rails. This can be conveyed through concrete examples.

Compare, for example, the respected Harvard translation by Charles Hallisley of Mahapajapati Gotami’s words (Thig 6.6) with Weingast’s verses re-written in Mahapajapati Gotami’s name:

Harvard ed. by Charles Hallisey pp. 85-87 (18 paragraph breaks removed for convenience)
Praise to you, hero among Buddhas, best of all beings, you freed me from suffering, just as you did so many other people.
All suffering is known, the craving that is suffering’s cause has been destroyed, the eightfold path of the Noble one has been traveled and cessation reached:
The four noble truths/ each one done/ all done by me.
I had already been a mother, a son, a father, a brother, and a grandmother, but not knowing things as they really are, I was reborn and reborn, never having enough.
As soon as I saw the Bhagavan, I knew that this is my last body, that the realm of births is finished, that now there is no rebirth for me.
When I look at the disciples assembled together, energetic, resolute, always making an effort, I see that this is how Buddhas are rightly worshipped.
Mahamaya gave birth to Gotama for the sake of many, to drive away the mass of suffering of all those struck down by sickness and death.

Weingast’s supposedly same verses pp. 77-78 (39 paragraph breaks removed for convenience)
I know you all. I have been your mother, your son, your father, your daughter. You see me now in my final role – kindly grandmother. It’s a fine part to go out on.
You might have heard how it all began – when my sister died and I took her newborn son to raise as my own.
People still ask, Did you know then what he would become? What can I say? What mother doesn’t see a Buddha in her child? He was such a quiet boy. The first time he reached for me. The first time I held him while he slept. How could I not know?
To care for all children without exception as though each will someday be the one to show us all the way home. This is the path.

Not only did MPG not say Matty’s words, she absolutely never would have said most of them, nor would any enlightened person speak such worldly non-Dhamma. Matty’s wholesome mundane sentiments posing as MPG’s voice may cause readers to sigh and feel good but won’t help break them out of samsara.

The Therigatha was the first EBT from which I read, handed to me by a Buddhist monk at a Burmese monastery I was visiting. (He saw me reading Jataka tales, shook his head, and brought out a few other scripture books which he placed in front of me, ordering, “Read this!”). After perusing the Therigatha a little while [edit: for about an hour], I picked up another book, the PTS translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, and opened it to “Simile of the Snake” (MN ). <— (will add citation later)

Then I set the book down and pondered, with dissatisfaction, “Why were the Buddha and those enlightened nuns so down on sense pleasures? What’s wrong with them?” [edit: ie, “what’s wrong with these supposedly enlightened people?”] Then the thought hit me: “Maybe they were right; maybe sense pleasures really are that dangerous!” Goosebumps arose on the back of my neck, my shoulders and arms, then whole body. In that moment I became an avowed celibate for life. About a year later, in late 1997, I left home seeking a monastery that would give a woman a chance.

You think Matty’s version of the Therigatha would drive a woman from ordinary lay life to seek a solution to the rounds of rebirth?

So not only is Matty fooling women’s studies departments, history buffs, and lovers of poetry by passing off his new poems as translations, he is teaching a false Dhamma in the name of the elder enlightened bhikkhunis, causing incalculable loss of potential wisdom.

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I wasn’t able to attend the zoom session, how did things go and conclude? Thank you.

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Hi @owl, funny you should ask, as I was just about to post this message that happens to address your question of how the meeting went.

Matty’s creative process by which he wrote the First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, as I understood him to explain, was this. After having read multiple translations, he then:

  • read each poem in Pali,
  • read Ven. Thanissaro’s translation,
  • sat in meditation;
  • took note of “the feeling” the poem gave him, then
  • wrote a new poem to convey that feeling.

He believes that his writing was guided by the bhikkhunis themselves. In his preface he wrote, “even in the freest renderings I don’t hear my own voice. I hear Uppalavanna, Khema, Mahapajapati, [etc].” (p. xvii)

During the December 28th meeting on Zoom that Matty requested with his critics, he defended calling the creative work a translation, saying, “I feel like it is a translation!” Throughout the meeting, he sidestepped and dodged concerns. He offered many platitudes (isn’t it great we can “agree to disagree”). He made justifications (including the gem, “Choices were made that were made,”) and minimized concern about misrepresentation saying that’s just an “opinion” that differs from his. He said repeatedly that we critics are simply “dissatisfied” with “the many steps [he] took to make sure there would be no misunderstanding” about the nature of his creative work. He also made excuses, such as insisting that he had pondered the possibility of people mistaking his book for a translation and made efforts to prevent it, and that he had to negotiate with the publisher and didn’t get the cover the way he wanted it.

Matty also said, “There are lots of good translations. [My book] is so far from these, so different, that those familiar [with the Therigatha] would know it is not a translation.”

(So why are universities placing his book alongside the Middle Length Discourses and other actual scripture, not with modern poetry? And how did he get the book to bear the Library of Congress label of “translation”?)

The last thing I heard Matty say (before I dropped off the Dec 28th call) was his adamant statement that he will not ask the publisher to make changes to fix the misrepresentation - “I will not change the title, will not change the front cover, will not change the back cover…!”

Since Matty refuses to correct the fraudulent presentation of his poetry book that is being sold as authentic translation of scripture, we have a few recourses. First thing is to complain to the publisher Shambhala. Then to inform sites on which the fake translation is for sale.

At this point, in my opinion, it is too late for mere new labeling to convince fans of the book that it is not a translation, particularly since Matty himself won’t lead the effort; only a retraction of the book will do the job, and that’s what everyone should request. (Also, since it is against publisher Shambhala’s policy to accept original poetry for publication, they may be reluctant to change the labeling, making it more an all or nothing call for them.) To clean up the damage, it’s also important to raise awareness generally, particularly among interested professors and university departments that have been fooled into embracing the book.

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