“A Buddhist literary scandal…”

Venerable Akaliko has written a brilliant exposé of the travesty that is “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” This purports to be a translation, by Matty Weingast, of poems originally written, as you’d expect, by early Buddhist nuns who lived up to 2,500 years ago.

Actually it’s a book of poems Matty made up and is passing off as the words of those nuns.

This affair gives every appearance of being a deeply deceptive and cynical exercise by both Matty and Shambhala, the book’s publisher. Much of the deception being practiced by Matty is self-deception. He really does seem to think he’s “channeling” the voices of ancient nuns in his poetry. I suspect genuinely wants to help women and to be an ally, but his way of doing so is by setting himself up at the center of the story (as the “hero”) and actually obliterating women’s voices.

The deception being played by Shambhala is more conscious, since they state outright that the book is a translation, hint that the book is a translation, market the book as a translation, and yet it’s clear from certain things they say that they know it isn’t a translation — or anything close to one.

Shambhala describes the book on the copyright page as coming under the categories, “Buddhist Poetry — translations into English” and “Pali poetry — translations into English.” The copyright page also describes Weinberg as “translator.” And the promotional copy Shambhala sent out about the book also describes it as a translation:

“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.”

(I wrote about this a few days ago, sharing an article written by Ayya Suddhamma, a nun who first brought this issue to the attention of the wider Buddhist community.)

Ven. Akaliko’s piece is very well written and compelling. His criticisms of this book come under the following headings:

  • It’s not a ‘translation’
  • Deceptive marketing by Shambhala
  • Crossing a Sacred line
  • Erasing the Dhamma
  • Mansplaining Women’s Enlightenment.

I’d been planning on writing a longer article about “The First Free Women,” but Ven. Akaliko has done a better job than I ever could, which is why I’m sharing it here.

Actually I do plan to write an article for a newsletter of the Buddhist organization I’m involved with, and if I follow through on that I’ll publish it here too.

In the meantime, settle yourself down with a nice cuppa and enjoy Akaliko’s clear and compelling arguments.

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