The following letter was sent to the president of Shambhala Publications on January 26, 2021. For a fuller explanation of the background on the issue being addressed, please see Ven. Akaliko’s essay, A Buddhist Literary Scandal; the Curious Case of ‘The First Free Women’.
Also, please visit the website, The First Free Women, established by Ayya Sudhamma, where you can see comparisons between Matty Weinberg’s original poems and a literal translation.
If you’d like your name to be added to this letter, please post your name and affiliation or qualifications in the comments below.
We know you’ve received a number of messages expressing serious concerns about a book you published in February, 2020 — Matty Weingast’s “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” Some of us have been already signatories to such letters, but felt that a fuller response was in order.
Although this letter is critical in nature, we would like to emphasize that it’s offered in a spirit of kalyana mitrata and out of love for the Buddha’s teaching. It’s also written with respect and gratitude for the work that Shambhala Publications does in spreading the Dharma.
Many of us have expressed concerns that “The First Free Women” is being marketed as a translation of the sacred scripture called the Therigatha, when it is in fact no such thing. You and Matty have both at times denied that the book is marketed as a translation. In what follows we shall show clearly that that is false.
An accurate description of the contents of the book would be that it contains original poetry by Matty Weingast, very loosely inspired by the poems of early Buddhist nuns. The poems in the book are in no way translations.
Few Buddhists would have any problem with an author composing poetry inspired by the scriptures. Anyone is free to do that. However, Shambhala has, and continues to, market these original poems as being translation.
Shambhala’s Response to Critics is Part of the Problem
In a standard reply you’ve been sending out to people who have expressed their concerns about the book, Shambhala has been saying:
In February of 2020, Shambhala Publications released The First Free Women, by Matty Weingast, a work of poems inspired by the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, that is part of the Pali Canon of Buddhism.
As Matty notes in his introduction, “Many of the poems in this book closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees. Others are more like variations on a classic tune…these are not literal translations.”
While the book has been widely praised across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers, we have recently been made aware of concerns about our positioning of this book. We are thankful for this feedback and are taking steps to remedy this.
To that end, we are in the process of adjusting our online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation. We appreciate the feedback from our readers and remain proud to be the publisher of this original and inspiring work.
While we’re happy to see that you are to some extent taking on board some of the concerns about the book, and how it’s marketed, we’re disquieted by this response, which in some ways merely perpetuates the problems critics are concerned about.
The quote you’ve pulled from Weingast’s introduction seems to suggest that there has been transparency from the start that this book is not a literal translation. However, a reader would almost certainly have to buy the book, believing it to be a translation, before reading Weingast’s comments.
Additionally, the quote is simply not true. Weingast says, “Many of the poems in this book closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees.” In fact, there is perhaps one poem (the first in the book) that is close to being a literal translation.
Weingast’s words, “these are not literal translations,” implies that these are still, in some sense, translations. They are not. They are original poems, arising from Weingast’s imagination. The content of Weingast’s poems is very, very different from that of the Elders.
Here, for example, is a comparison between Norman’s literal translation of poem 1.7 and Weingast’s poetic “interpretation.”
You are Dhīrā because of your firm (dhīra) mental states; you are a bhikkhuni with developed faculties. Bear your last body, having conquered Māra and his mount.
who think themselves
who hide their
who talk of heroes.
Don’t be fooled by outward signs—
lifting heavy things
or picking fights with weaker opponents
and running headfirst into battle.
A real hero
walks the Path
to its end.
Then shows others the way.
It’s not enough to say that this is “not a literal translation.” Weingast’s version bears almost no resemblance to the original. This is not a “translation” but an original composition. Much has been omitted and much has been added.
References to Buddhist concepts have been removed. For example Dhīra’s reference to the end of rebirth and to Māra’s mount have been removed.
What has been added is pure fabrication, only tangentially related to Dhīra’s actual words.
Readers are being misled into believing that they are having an encounter with the personality of an ancient Buddhist nun. But the true Dhīra has been obliterated. A false Dhīra has replaced her—an imagined Dhīra created in Matty Weingast’s imagination. There is no possibility, reading Weingast’s poem, of “meeting” Dhīra. Dhīra has been silenced. The only person we can meet in this poem is Weingast himself, impersonating a 2,500-year-old nun.
This happens over and over again to all the Elder Nuns. Their voices are silenced. This is a “translation” that annihilates.
You write, “the book has been widely praised across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers.” Looking at the book’s endorsements, one will certainly see the names of very famous teachers, both male and female, from a number of traditions. However it seems from the wording they used that many believed that they were endorsing a translation:
- “This inspiringly poetic translation of timeless wisdom reminds us of our freedom…”
- “…the words of these liberated women are transmitted across centuries…”
- “…as Rohini says in her poem, ‘then you will know the true welcome that is the very essence of the Path.'” [The real Rohini of course says no such thing.]
- “These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life.”
- “This book is a treasure trove of women’s voices…”
At least two people who endorsed the book have asked that their endorsements be removed, because they were under the misapprehension they were reviewing a translation. We’re sure more will follow.
Moreover, there are serious criticisms of this book from “across the spectrum of Buddhist teachers, including many monastics, lay figures, and teachers.”
You write, “we are in the process of adjusting our online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation.”
Removing ambiguity around the question of translation is an impossible task. As long as this book continues to be published, ambiguity around the question of translation will persist, and even worsen.
Here are some reasons why:
- The subtitle of the book is “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” This inevitably suggests that the book contains the poems of early Buddhist nuns. Unless the book’s subtitle is changed, readers will continue to be misled into thinking that that’s the case.
- Weingast is listed on the copyright page as “translator.” This will continue to mislead readers as long as the book exists in its current form.
- The copyright page twice categorizes the book as a translation, using the Library of Congress categories, “Buddhist Poetry – Translations into English,” and “Pali Poetry – Translations into English.” Until the book is reprinted, readers will continue to be misled by these categorizations.
- Because of those Library of Congress classifications, bookstores and libraries will continue to present this book as a translation.
- As we’ve seen, many of the endorsements printed in the book refer to it as if it were a translation. As long as those endorsements remain in the book, readers will continue to be misled.
- The second paragraph of the foreword mentions how Matty came to Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi and told her “he’d been working on a translation of the Therigatha.” The same paragraph tells us that Ven. Anandabodhi had a feeling “that this was going to be a translation unlike any [she] had read before.” For as long as this book remains in publication, anyone reading the first two paragraphs of the book will be misled.
- Further down the first page of the foreword, Ven. Anandabodhi positions Weingast’s book among other “English translations,” which she disparages as “academic,” and although “literally accurate,” lacking in the ability to inspire. Not only does this position the book among other translations, but it claims that it is in some way superior to them. As long as the book remains in publication, anyone reading this will be seriously misled into thinking that this is not just a translation, but a particularly good one.
- The book description on the back cover starts “Composed around the Buddha’s lifetime, the Therigatha (Poems of the Elder Buddhist Nuns) contains poems by the first Buddhist women. Here you’ll find princesses and courtesans, tired wives of arranged marriages and the desperately in love, those born with limitless wealth and those born with nothing at all. Their voices are all here.” One would have to be a very careful reader indeed to recognize that these words are not talking about the book that lies inside the cover those words are printed on. There is a level of almost lawyerly deception here.
- Numerous reviews written by readers refer to the book as a translation. It is understandable that they have done so, given that they have been misled by the marketing described above. Since these reviews cannot be removed from sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, they will continue to spread the tragic misunderstandings that surround this book as long as it remains in publication.
That last point is perhaps the most telling in this affair. Shambhala has, in the very subtitle of the book, and in words contained within the book itself— created a false narrative which has taken on a life of its own and gone viral. As Mark Twain didn’t say, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth can put its boots on.”
It’s clear that in the minds of readers there is no “ambiguity” about this book’s status. They unambiguously take it to be a translation. The book itself—in its title, subtitle, foreword, copyright page, introduction, and endorsements—misleads. “Adjusting your online descriptions” will do nothing to change this. The marketing embedded in the book will continue to promulgate the false notion that it is a translation.
This book in its current form is inherently misleading. It is irredeemable.
Harm Is Being Caused
Considerable harm has been done by the publication of this book.
Presenting a book of original poetry as being part of the Buddhist sacred scriptures does harm to the Buddhist tradition. The early Buddhist scriptures are our most direct link with the historical Buddha, and to his early disciples, such as the Elder Nuns.
Although some find Weingast’s poetry inspiring and uplifting, the goal of the scriptures is not to induce a vague and temporary sense of “inspiration,” but to offer guidance that leads to Awakening. No one would want to be operated on by a surgeon whose training was based on a “creative rendering” of surgical procedures.
The Buddha himself was very concerned that the scriptures be passed on accurately. He presciently foresaw (SN 20.7) that people would gravitate more toward the words of poets than to the genuine sacred scriptures:
[I]n a future time there will be mendicants who won’t want to listen when discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—are being recited. They won’t pay attention or apply their minds to understand them, nor will they think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing.
But when discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases, composed by outsiders or spoken by disciples—are being recited they will want to listen. They’ll pay attention and apply their minds to understand them, and they’ll think those teachings are worth learning and memorizing. And that is how the discourses spoken by the Realized One—deep, profound, transcendent, dealing with emptiness—will disappear.
Many thousands of readers have been deceived into believing they are reading the profound, transcendent accounts of the Elders, which they are in fact reading “discourses composed by poets—poetry, with fancy words and phrases.”
The Buddha urged us (DN 16) to reject teachings that purported to be scriptural, but in fact weren’t:
Without approval and without scorn, but carefully studying the sentences word by word, one should trace them in the Discourses and verify them by the Discipline. If they are neither traceable in the Discourses nor verifiable by the Discipline, one must conclude thus: ‘Certainly, this is not the Blessed One’s utterance; this has been misunderstood by that bhikkhu — or by that community, or by those elders, or by that elder.’ In that way, bhikkhus, you should reject it.
Thousands of people, reading Weingast’s poetry, genuinely believe they are reading a sacred Buddhist scripture. Believing that they have access to the Therigatha, they are unlikely to dig further and encounter the genuine voices of these ancient Realized women. If they do somehow pick up a more literal translation of the Therigatha they are likely, having been exposed to Weingast’s poetry, to find it strangely inaccessible and uninteresting.
The genuine words of the Elder Nuns are generally sparse and austere. Any Dharma practitioner who chooses to work past this in order to explore and reflect upon them will find them a rich source of information about early women Buddhists’ lives. They will find themselves touched by these women’s sometimes painful paths to awakening. They will find the Elder Nuns’ declarations of attainment inspirational. But if they have first encountered “The First Free Women,” and been conditioned to believe that ancient Buddhist nuns uttered verse that’s akin to modern poetry, they’re unlikely even to make the effort to explore the genuine teachings. Shambhala, in offering “discourses composed by poets” instead of the actual translated words of the Elder Nuns, is effectively dissuading people from reading genuine Buddhist scriptures.
Deception itself is unskillful and harmful. It erodes trust. Harm is done when a respected publisher perpetrates a literary fraud. How are we to know that the contents of other books brought out by Shambhala are authentic? How are we to know if your marketing of other books is not deceptive?
The trust of readers has been betrayed.
Women have bought this book believing that it connects them with the voices of early women practitioners. There are no such voices to be found there.
Teachers have bought this book and led retreats and study groups on it, believing it to be a translation, when it is not a translation. Misinformation has been proliferated.
Women’s Studies departments have bought this book, thinking it to be a powerful example of women speaking from the depths of their spiritual experience. They have been deceived.
Bookstores have shelved or listed this book among genuine Buddhist scriptures. This is not a genuine Buddhist scripture.
Shambhala’s website states, “Authenticity and integrity are paramount.” It seems clear that you have fallen short of those worthy ideals.
What Must Be Done
If Shambhala Publications is to live up to its ethos, restore trust, and attempt to undo the harm that has been done, the following steps must be taken:
- The existing book, being irredeemably misleading, must be withdrawn from publication. Continued sales will simply compound the harm done.
- Shambhala Publications must issue a public apology for the deception that has taken place. An explanation of how this deception came into being, and how it came to be defended, is urgently needed in order to restore faith in Shambhala Publications.
- If Shambhala Publications chooses to republish Weingast’s poems, it must be under a different title. Existing reviews of the book, perpetuating the myth that this book is a translation, cannot be removed from online bookstores, Goodreads, and so on. There must be a clean break from those existing pages and the reviews they contain, otherwise any new version of the book will continue to be framed by misleading information.
- The subtitle — “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns” — must be changed. This book does not contain the poems of the Elder Nuns. It should be clear to someone who does no more than glance at the cover that this is not a translation of a sacred text.
- The new title and subtitle must not imply that the poems in the book are translations. It must be clear to potential readers that they are original works composed by Matty Weingast.
- All promotional material, and especially the wording on and in the book, must explicitly state that the book is not a translation and clearly indicate that this is a collection of original poetry. It must be crystal clear that there is no question of them being translations.
- The use of “weasel words” that might imply that the new work is a translation — “radical adaptation,” “creative rendering,” and so on — must be avoided. The language used must be truly unambiguous.
- Shambhala Publications must work with the Library of Congress so that the subject headings indicate that this is an original work of poetry.
- Existing endorsements should not be transferred to the new book. New endorsements must be sought from advance readers who are aware that this is a book of original poetry, and who are under no illusions that this is a translation or adaptation from a scriptural source. Those endorsements should not imply or state that the book is a work of translation.
- The titles given to the poems should not imply that these poems were composed by nuns, as the existing titles inevitably would.
If “authenticity and integrity” are truly “paramount” to Shambhala, then these are necessary steps.
Bodhipaksa, Dharma teacher and author.
Bhante Sujato, SuttaCentral.
Ven. Canda Bhikkhuni, Spiritual Director of Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project, UK.
Dr. Gillian Perrett PhD.
An Tran, Author of Meditations on the Mother Tongue.
Khemarato Bhikkhu, www.buddhistuniversity.net.
Dheerayupa Sukonthapanthu, Buddhist translator.
Venerable Sorata, Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery.
Richard Daley, Simsapa Grove Meditation Society.
Tasfan, Indonesian Buddhist Translator and Interpreter.
John Kelly, Pāli teacher and assistant Pāli translator, MA Buddhist Studies.
Dhammānando Bhikkhu, former Chairman of the Buddhist Association of Iceland.
Dr. Jake Mitra, former President Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils and former president of the Buddhist Council of WA.
Michael F. Roe, Esq.
Lynn J. Kelly, Dhamma teacher.
Adrian Tee, President of The Buddhist Society of Victoria Inc.
Dr. Leon Goldman.
Ven. Vimalanyani Bhikkhuni, Vihara Kanda Hermitage, Sri Lanka.
Ajahn Brahmali Mahathera, Translator of the Vinaya Piṭaka, Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery.
Richard P. Hayes (Dayamati Dharmachari), Professor Emeritus, Dept of Philosophy, University of New Mexico.
Sophie Voillot, Literary Translator and Lay Buddhist practitioner.
Dr. Justin Whitaker, PhD.
Bhikkhuni (Ayya) Sudhamma Theri, Founder, Charlotte Buddhist Vihara.
Jonathan Dresner, Associate Professor of Asian History, Pittsburg State University, Kansas.
Paññādīpa, Novice monk.
Upasika Viveka, Khemavara Sanctuary.
Gabriel Laera, Volunteer translator and contributor to SuttaCentral.