SuttaCentral

When is a Sutta not a Sutta: Facts & Fantasy in translations of the Therigatha

A talk I gave analyzing Weingast’s poetry, which masquerades as a translation or adaptation of the Therigatha. It’s on the main thread for this topic already, I’m re-upping it for prominence! Thanks Damith for recording it and posting online.

I go into a number of issues, including the racial and cultural appropriation in the book. But perhaps the most surprising thing for me was how, in a book relentlessly marketed as feminist, Weingast chooses to systematically diminish or eliminate the spiritual achievements of the women, shifting the focus to traditional gender roles of motherhood and marriage.

fact_and_fantasy.zip (515.3 KB)

Also re-upping the action points.


What can I do? (a note from Ayyā Sudhammā and Bhante Sujato)

A volume of original poetry is being sold as a translation of the Therigatha. If you’d like to voice your concern over this, here’s some actions you can take. You don’t have to be an expert: your voice matters.

  • Share this thread and the information with your circles and social media.
  • Contact Shambhala Publications directly:
  • Leave a review at Goodreads.
  • Leave a review at Amazon.
  • Add your voice to the reddit thread.

We are sure we don’t need to say this, but we will anyway: be polite and succinct. Share your perspective, background, and reaction. And most of all, stick to the facts: it’s not a translation, but it’s being sold as one.

Note! There are lots of organizations called “Shambhala”, make sure you contact the right one. It’s Shambhala Publications.

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Just a note to anyone who may want an easy to copy summary,with the main points and examples, the slides are fantastic :smiley:

Many thanks and Sadhu Bhante :pray:t2:

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The introductory remarks that explain to those who may not entirely understand why it is so important to preserve the record of what the Buddha and his contemporary followers said as correctly and precisely as possible are great too.

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Here is a quote from an interview Weingast did. It’s revealing.

And just so you don’t have to look it up…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coleman_Barks#Criticism_of_Bark’s_interpretation_of_Maulana_Rumi

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Umm… no? I mean, try flying aeroplane or driving a car without knowing what you are doing. Or even a bicycle.

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I think it’s clear that this is the opposite of the Buddhas teachings - where the goal is to move beyond Ignorance and delusion - and thereby stop continually travelling round and round in samsara…

Hence the tragedy, as so many have said, is that where the poems of of the Enlightened Bhikkhunis of the Therigatha, tell of how they moved beyond delusion and ignorance, Weingasts reinterpretations conversely often focus on and romanticise those very things that they actually overcame. Thus perpetuating “that place of not knowing”. Therefore, given how the book is marketed, as a translation of an ancient Buddhist text, this book actively becomes a counterfeit Dhamma, and an obstacle to awakening.

I feel very sorry for all the people who read it not knowing these things, and who are mislead in this way. For practicing Buddhists this is no joke and no small matter.

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I am one of those people who read the book, not understanding the full extent of how far it ventures from the actual Therigatha text. No need to feel sorry for me though, luckily I also found this forum!

For which I am immensely grateful, in general (!), but also very much so for the threads related to this topic. I have followed them with great interest and they have opened my eyes. More importantly, they have inspired me to start reading an actual translation of the Therigatha poems.

It has made me reflect on the blessing of being able to have access to early Buddhist texts, how important it is to protect them, and how easy it is to end up on a slippery slope - and that it’s important to keep my eyes open.

I own a copy of Matty Weingast’s book. Not because of the publisher’s marketing, but because it featured in several online sessions that I attended, that touched and inspired me deeply. All these sessions were offered by monastics who I greatly admire. They read from the book and used it as a basis for a Dhamma talk. I also joined a 3-day retreat completely structured around Weingast’s poems, offered by another monastic. The book has also been mentioned by fellow lay participants in other online sessions, in general conversation or as a suggested reading, so it definitely feels like it is out there.

I was aware that it wasn’t a literal translation, but only now start to realise the implications (on so many levels) of not minding so much. I am very grateful to Ayya Sudhamma, Bhante Sujato and other people for their extensive analysis. Also for bringing attention to the wider issues, like a white contemporary male “channelling” Asian women’s voices from the Buddha’s time. And not just any voices, but enlightened voices. All this has made me appreciate the actual translations - how incredibly powerful and incredibly precious they are - much much more. Thank you all.

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Hi @Annemarie, thanks for sharing your story.
Could you point us a link to these online sessions and/or some more background on who are those monastics using this suboptimal text as a reference for teachings?
It may be the case that some of us could reach out to them and bring to their attention the issue.
:anjal:

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Yes. Sadly I think the “here is another genius white guy who really figured out the true meaning after thousands of years” approach is here to stay, and will probably become more prevalent. As I said in Bhante’s other thread … if you’re a book maker, ya gotta sell books. As a spiritual friend said to me once, Barnes & Noble Buddhism is where many of us started, but sadly the selection is becoming quite muddied.

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Dear @Annemarie :slight_smile: Thank you so much for your feedback :pray:
I am so very glad that this process has been has turned out well you, and while this may be the case for others as well, given the reviews of the book, it is clear many are mislead.

I have no problem with Weingasts book of poetry, as long as it clear what it is, and does not mislead people. And as you say can be a great tool for study, as long as it is in it’s correct context.

With much metta and the very best wishes for you. And thank-you :pray:, I can go from 'feeling sorry for ‘you’… to having much mudita (joy) at your good outcome :smiley: :pray: :sunflower: :dharmawheel:

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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.

This whole “not knowing” sensibility in some Zen circles as an explanation for doing something unskillful or unethical, or ridiculous… If these are truly Weingast’s words, it’s shocking that he would take this project on with such a reckless approach. It’s like he was on a tour of a nuclear plant, and just decided to pull some switches and push some lighted buttons, just to see what might happen. Equally shocking is the fact that Shambhala and its editors decided to publish this atrocity as a translation, and recruited all of these other Buddhist “teachers” to shill for the book.

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If anyone here is interested in signing an open letter to the president of Shambhala, please either let me know here (indicating your name and any qualifications/affiliation you’d like to appear on the letter, or post a comment on the online version of the letter.

I will be periodically sending updates to Shambhala regarding new signers, so it’s never too late!

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Outstanding letter, especially the “What must be done” section.

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That section was adapted from another person’s post here. Unfortunately I can’t remember who that was, and I haven’t been able to find them by searching through the various public threads and private message threads. I’m owe whoever it was my heartfelt thanks, since it made my work a lot easier.

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Maybe this is the one?

Thinking that it would be a good idea to reach out to centers where this book might be in circulation, I sent this email to the teaching staff at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City California and Spirit Rock:

Dear Gil and the teaching staff of Insight Mediation Center,

If you’re not already aware, a very serious literary scandal has arisen around a popular new book entitled “First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns” written by Mattie Weingast and published by Shambhala Publications. This book is represented and perceived as a translation of the sacred Buddhist scriptures of the Therigatha when it is not.

Since IMC is an influential hub of the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures, the truth needs to be known to you before this book is incorporated any further into any Buddhist teaching anywhere.

Below are some links, the first an open letter to the president of Shambhala Publications and signed by a robust list of Buddhist translators, monks, nuns and others. Please take some time to become aware of what this is about and why it’s so important.

  • [actual links not quoted here to avoid clutter]

an-open-letter-to-nikko-odiseos-president-of-shambhala-publications

from-lioness-roars-to-purrs-a-review-of-the-first-free-women-by-matty-weingast-therigatha/17940/12

first-free-women-a-bogus-translation-of-buddhist-scripture/18681/28

a-buddhist-literary-scandal-the-curious-case-of-the-first-free-women/18715/12

with metta,

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The one I cribbed from had the action points as a bulleted list, and it definitely wasn’t by Bhante Sujato.

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Sounds great! I just wrote a long post on a forum for members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (aka “my lot”). I just hit publish, so there’s been no time for responses yet. It should have a wide reach, though.

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FYI Gil doesn’t believe in or teach rebirth. So not sure much of a stickler he’ll be for a modernist rewrite.

https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/should-i-believe-in-rebirth/

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The book has been used in study and meditation groups so I think it’s useful to bring the issue to light and let the hearer do what they will. I also sent it to Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.

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