“The First Free Women” as literary fraud

From Nicole Tersinger’s Men to Avoid in Art and Life (2020).

I recently posted the message below (which I’ve edited lightly) on a forum for members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’m a part of. It offers more thoughts on a literary fraud that’s being perpetrated by Shambhala Publications, the largest publisher of Buddhist books in the west, and suggests a few courses of action.


A lot of people in Triratna — especially women — are very excited by Matty Weingast’s book, “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns,” which was published early last year by Shambhala Publications, and now seems to be gaining great popularity.

The book is endorsed by many respected contemporary teachers, who say things like, “Here we meet the sages of old through these rarely heard female voices,” “Though the voices are distinctly female, the revelations, inspirations, and encouragements are wholly human,” and “Though thousands of years old, the voices of these awakened Buddhist women can be heard with fresh­ness and clarity.”

The publisher’s blurb on the back cover begins, “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.” (Emphasis added.)

There’s just one problem. Despite the book’s marketing, the Theris cannot be met in these pages. There are no “female voices” for us to hear. That’s because this book is not a translation of the Therigatha. It’s not even a “free translation” of the Therigatha. It’s a collection of original poems written by a contemporary American man.

Let’s look at poem 5.5 as an example. There, in Matty Weingast’s version, we have Nanduttarā saying the following:

I spent most of my teenage years
running from one bed
to another.
Any sign of warmth would do.
Each worked for a while,
until they got possessive
or mean
or boring—
or I did.

Then I got new friends,
shaved my head,
and started eating once a day.

During the long lonely nights that followed,
I would remember all the nice warm baths,
all the late nights and long mornings
waking up next to beautiful warm bodies.

One night,
shivering on the ground,
I started to cry.

It’s not fair.
No matter what I do,
the other thing
always looks better.

Listen, my heart.
I know how exhausting it all gets.

Don’t give up—
until you’re ready
to give up
for real.

How touching this is! Nanduttarā is confessional about the hollowness of her promiscuous past. She shares the difficulties of her spiritual path, and the sexual longings that afflicted her after her going forth. She cries. She talks to her heart. She’s not enlightened yet, but she’s determined to keep going.

Now here’s a literal translation, by K. R. Norman:

87. I used to worship fire and the moon and the sun and divinities. I went to river-fording places and used to go down into the water.

88. Undertaking many vows, I shaved half my head; I made my bed on the ground; I did not eat night-food.

89. Delighting in ornament and decoration, by means of bathing and anointing indeed, I ministered to this body, afflicted by desire for sensual pleasure.

90. Then obtaining faith I went forth into the houseless state, seeing the body as it really was. I have rooted out desire for sensual pleasures.

91. I have cut out all existences, and wishes and longings too. Unfettered from all ties, I have attained peace of mind.

(If you’d like to see another literal translation, try Bhikkhu Sujato’s.)

Now Nanduttarā doesn’t say anything here about her sex life. She doesn’t say anything about craving sex after going forth. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t talk to her heart.

And she is, unlike in Weingast’s version, enlightened.

Is this a “free translation”? No. A translation doesn’t have to represent the original word for word, but it should at least communicate the meaning of the original. What Weingast has done is to create an entirely new poem based on a few words plucked from the original. So yes, we have beds in both versions, for example, but the meaning around those beds has been completely changed. In the original the bed is ascetic. In Weingast’s version it’s erotic. Yes, there is sensual desire in both versions, but again the meaning and context have been changed (and the sensuality has been sexualized).

Weingast has replaced what Nanduttarā said with a completely different set of statements.  In doing this he’s omitted what she actually said. He’s silenced her. The reference to rebirth has been edited out. He’s even taken away her awakening.

There is no possibility of meeting Nanduttarā here, because she’s absent. There is no female voice to hear: just Weingast’s male voice doing an imitation of what he thinks modern women might like to hear (and apparently doing a good job, given the book’s reception).

This is not an anomalous instance. I’m not cherry-picking. I could do this with virtually every poem in the book. There is only one of them that arguably could be described as a free translation. That’s the first one. The rest are, to a greater or lesser extent, fabrications.

Here’s another example, from Weingast’s “free translation” of Muttā Therī’s words:

So this is what it feels like—
to be free.

Forever free
from playing the mortar
to my crooked husband’s
crooked little pestle.

Enough.

For my mother.
For my daughter.
And for all the daughters
I might have had.

The cycle ends here.

It’s so earthy! How daring for Muttā to compare herself to a mortar, having to endure her husband’s cooked mortar of a penis. And that dedication to her mother, daughters and (most touchingly) the daughters she gave up on having because of going forth! And that declaration, “The cycle ends here”! How inspiring! She’s determined to be enlightened!

Except what Muttā says, literally, is this:

I am well-released, properly released by my release from the three crooked things, from the mortar, the pestle, and my crooked husband. I am released from birth and death; everything which leads to renewed existence has been rooted out.

How disappointing! No sex. (But they say that sex sells.) No dedication to her mother and daughters. And there’s a reference to rebirth, no doubt removed by Weingast because it might be off-putting to some non-Buddhist readers, as well as some contemporary Buddhists, even.

Once again, in Weingast’s version, she’s no longer enlightened. Weingast strips Muttā of her awakening. In his version she’s merely declaring her intention: “The cycle ends here.” Yes, it’s relatable. No, it’s not what she said.

Some people say, “Ah, but Matty says quite clearly in the introduction that these are adaptations, not literal translations.” But remember the book’s subtitle, “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” The subtitle sets up your expectation of what the book contains. It’s false advertising. Remember the blurb from the back cover, that started, “Composed around the Buddha’s lifetime, the Therigatha (Poems of the Elder Buddhist Nuns) contains poems by the first Buddhist women … Their voices are all here.” Really, they’re not! Remember the pages of endorsements your eyes skim over on the way to the poems; many of them refer to it as a translation or imply that it is by referring to how these “feminine voices” speak to us. You’ll also, on the way to the poems, see Weingast explicitly credited on the copyright page as “translator.” You’ll also see there the book categorized (twice) as a translation. The foreword also refers to it twice as a translation in the second paragraph and refers to “other translations” a little later.

By the time you read the introduction you’re conditioned to expect that the poems that follow are translations. Probably ones that are exceptionally good.

One does not accidentally create a book that so strongly implies — and often states — that it is a translation, when one knows that in reality it isn’t.

This is deliberate. This is a case of literary fraud.

Weingast himself is a bit more circumspect than Shambhala in describing the nature of his creation. In the book’s introduction he says “Many of the poems in this book closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there of varying degrees.” (Actually, none of them closely resemble the originals.) And he says, “Though these are not literal translations…” which suggests they are translations of a sort. But when you take some key words from an original poem and create new meanings around them (also dropping the existing meanings) you don’t have any kind of translation at all. You have a new work, which is the creation of the author — Weingast.

He wants to eat his cake and still have it. He wants to imply this is a translation of some sort but also to say that it isn’t.

That last quote from Weingast continues, “…even in the freest renderings I don’t hear my voice. I hear Uppalavanna, Khema, Mahapajapati, Anopama, Patachara, Siha, Dhammadinna, Isidasi.” And here we have the key to a question that may have entered your mind: “How do we get from there (the original) to here (the fake)?”

In an interview, Weingast says, “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…”

In his understanding, it’s good idea not to know what you’re doing. This allows for more creativity.

In the same interview he says, “My approach was to read a poem many, many times, to find the essential teaching each enlightened nun was trying to communicate. Then reconstruct the poem around that primary image or the instruction. In many ways it became something other than a translation, more in the line of what Coleman Barks did for Rumi. Some poems remained close to the original, some spun off.” Again, none of the poems stayed close to the original. This is an untruth he repeats frequently.

(Coleman Barks has been widely criticized for his so-called translations of Rumi. He can’t read the languages the poems are written in, and he tends to omit references to Islam.)

In a telephone conversation (which I wasn’t present on, but which I’ve heard first-hand reports of by reliable witnesses) it seems that Weingast really does believe that the nuns are speaking through him. He believes he’s channeling them. There’s a worrying level of delusion there.

So essentially, what Weingast does it try to intuit what a nun 2,500 years ago really meant to say, and then says it for her, keeping just few words from the original (where a pestle and mortar are kitchen utensils, for example) and constructs a new poem around those (where a pestle becomes a penis and a mortar a vagina —again, sex sells).

That’s how we get from there, the original, to here, Weingast’s original poetry, which silences the nuns.

Now many women in particular are reading this book, thinking it’s a translation, and believing that they are hearing the authentic voices of Buddhist nuns from 2,500 years ago. Of course they aren’t. They’re hearing the voice of a 21st century American male, who has imagined women’s voices.

Weingast seems to have had some reservations about this. In a talk at the Cambridge (Massachussets) Insight Meditation Center he says:

“And when it first started, I thought it was, I was a little bit uncomfortable, the whole idea, being a male, and translating the voices of women, more than a little bit. And I actually still feel pretty uncomfortable with the whole situation. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t really like reading them and why I really love hearing them being read. It doesn’t sound right, coming out of my mouth.”

In an interview with Yakir Englander he shows that we was aware that he was co-opting women’s voices:

“it was very uncomfortable for me knowing that I didn’t want to be one more male co-opting female voices. There’s been a lot of that in for thousands of years, this has been going on. And I knew that one way or another, if I was going to do this project, I would be one more male co-opting female voices. And still to this day, I’m still very uncomfortable with it. But on a personal level, I was gaining so much out of the experience. There was so much joy for me that was involved in working with the poems and spending so much time with the poems … And I was just, so there was just so much that I couldn’t stop because of that. I was getting too much out of it to stop.”

So he was aware he was co-opting women’s voices, silencing them, fantasizing about their lives, and speaking those fantasies on their behalf, but he was having so much fun with it he couldn’t stop.

One of Weingast’s ploys is to adopt this kind of candid approach. It’s his shtick. He’s so touching and vulnerable! He didn’t know what he was doing! He was uncomfortable! He doesn’t like to read the poems in his male voice (even though they are his voice)! This artful vulnerability engenders trust.

And we see him above admitting to the con: “I knew … I would be one more male co-opting female voice … I couldn’t stop.” The best con artist is the one who tells you he’s a con artist. He’s told you the truth about himself, right? And if he tells you the truth that means you’re special, unlike the people he’s conning. Since you’re special and he’s being honest, and you’re not one of his marks, surely he’s not going to lie to you?

To be on the safe side, though, he implies that he’s been in some way authorized or empowered by women monastics to do what he did:

“I shared the manuscript with Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi and another Buddhist nun. I didn’t know what I’d do if they said I shouldn’t have done what I did. But they came back with unwavering support for the project. I just can’t tell you what that meant for me. By then I was living with the voices of these nuns in my ear, and then to have these two living, breathing manifestations of our ancestors say ‘good, this is worthwhile’. It gave me the confidence to continue.”

Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi knows no Pali, according to Weingast himself. I’m sure she’s a lovely woman, but her imprimatur on this project can in no way validate the silencing of the Theris and the replacement of their voices with Weingast’s.

Weingast says in the book that in the four months that he spent with Anandabodhi in her monastery, “All of the nuns and guests contributed to the shape and the feel of these poems in one way or another.” This is probably meant to validate the book, but it may also be an attempt to spread the blame.

So I’d encourage you to be aware of all this.

Beware of Literary Stockholm Syndrome

The book is popular. That’s not surprising given how good a con job it is. People are raving about it.

Stockholm Syndrome is where hostages develop a psychological bond with their captors. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Shambhala and Weingast have captured many minds. They’ve induced pleasant feelings in many readers. People bond with books they like.

But reveal to those readers that they’ve been conned by deceptive marketing, and they don’t like it. It’s unpleasant to know you’ve been misled. Tell them that the book hasn’t offered them any contact with the nuns whose poems it purports to contain, and they often don’t want to hear, because that knowledge threatens to undermine the pleasant feelings they’ve experienced. So they’re often tempted to defend the book and dismiss the deception and delusion surrounding it. It’s worth remembering that dynamic and being explicit about it, so that people can “unhook” from their bonding.

What You Can Do

  • I wouldn’t deign to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t teach, but be aware that if you use this book for study purposes, or even as an inspiring reading, you’re not putting the listeners in touch with the Theris. You’re exposing them to a modern man’s fantasies about ancient nuns. I’m not sure that has much value.
  • If you buy this book you’re financially rewarding the publisher for their deceptions. So I hope you won’t. Maybe you could ask for your money back if you have? I think that would be fair enough.
  • I’d hope that our centers won’t stock this book.
  • I’d hope that if you hear someone is reading or recommending this book you’d let them know its true status.
  • If you’re interested, Bhikkhu Akaliko offers a much better explanation than mine of the problems with this book. You’ll find it here. It’s worth reading.
  • If you feel moved to write to Shambhala about this, you can contact the editors at editors@shambhala.com, or the president, Nikko Odiseos, on nodiseos@shambhala.com.
  • There’s a campaign afoot to get Shambhala to withdraw the book in its current form and to republish it more honestly. You can add your name to an Open Letter to Shambhala here.
  • If you want to see more comparisons. you can visit the website, https://firstfreewomen.org

A Progress Report

So far several people who endorsed the book have withdrawn their endorsements. Most haven’t yet learned about the book’s true nature, so I imagine that more withdrawals will follow.

Shambhala have made some minor changes to the book’s online listings, but the book is inherently deceiving (e.g. the subtitle: “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns”), and Shambhala’s responses have so far resembled PR spin in their slipperiness.

Shambhala are the largest publisher of Buddhist books in the west, and it’s concerning that they were marketing this book dishonestly to begin with, and that they’re not taking full responsibility for that. Those of us who are putting pressure on them would like to see them adopt a more confessional stance so that they can realign themselves with the practice of truthful speech. Hopefully they’ll be willing examine their culture and make sure that in the future they present their books in a way that isn’t deceptive and manipulative, and so that they can regain the trust of the wider Buddhist community.

PS: Why Didn’t Shambhala Just Market This as Original Poetry?

If Shambhala had published this book as original poetry inspired by the Therigatha, that might have raised my eyebrows. Essentially, though, I’d shrug and continue on my way. The problem is, however, that Shambhala does not publish original poetry. That’s their stated policy.

I suspect what happened here is that they saw the potential sales from this book, knew that they couldn’t publish it as a collection of contemporary poems without changing their rules, and so they decided to publish it as a translation. In case you have any doubts about this, here’s how they initially described the book, as preserved in the records of the Library Of Congress:

“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 — Provided by publisher.”

Unless Shambhala changes that policy they are in a bind, because withdrawing the book and bringing it out again in an honest way is not possible. And they probably don’t want to change their policy.

But if they were to change their policy and market the book in an honest way (tentative title, “Mansplaining the Early Buddhist Nuns”) it probably wouldn’t sell very well. That must suck for them. Eventually I think they’re going to have to withdraw the book, though, because they’re going to have to restore the trust they’ve violated.

Credit to Ayya Sudhamma

I am only one of many people protesting this literary fraud. The first person to do so, to my knowledge anyway, was a nun, Ayya Sudhammā, the founder and abbess of Charlotte Buddhist Vihara, who brought this issue to light in a discussion forum post on Sutta Central. I’m grateful to her for highlighting the problems with this book so clearly and for starting (and keeping) the ball rolling!

 

 

An open letter to Nikko Odiseos, president of Shambhala Publications

IMPORTANT NOTE: The following letter was written to protest the way in which the book, “The First Free Women,” was inaccurately presented by Shambhala Publications as a translation of a Buddhist scripture (the Therigatha), when in fact it was a book of original poetry, loosely inspired by the early Buddhist nuns whose poems are collected in that work.

As as result of this protest (not just the letter here, but the work of many individuals, Shambhala has agreed to withdraw the book from sale and to republish it in a firm that makes it clear the book is an original work rather than a translation. You can read two different announcements regarding that decision here and here.

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, firstfreewomen.org, where you can see comparisons between Matty Weingast’s original poems and actual translations.


Dear Nikko,

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:

Dear Friend,

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.

Shambhala Publications

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.”

First, Norman:

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.

Now, Weingast:

Truly strong
among those
who think themselves
strong.

Truly unafraid
among those
who hide their
fear.

A hero
among those
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.

Sincerely yours,
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.
Akāliko Bhikkhu.
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.
Seniya, Volunteer translator and contributor to Dhammacitta and SuttaCentral.
Fiachra Harte, Pāli student.
Vessantara, Buddhist teacher and author of ‘A Guide to the Buddhas‘.
Piotr Płaneta, Lay meditation teacher from Poland, Kraków.
Dharmacarini Maitripala, Melbourne. Triratna Public Preceptor.
Dharmachari Mokshapriya, Buddhist teacher and film maker.
Medhahshri, Member of the Triratna Buddhist Order.
Gottfried Helms, Retired university lecturer.
Douglass Smith PhD, Doug’s Dharma on YouTube and Director of the Online Dharma Institute.
Jinarakshita, Triratna Buddhist Order.
Claralynn Nunamaker, MA in Buddhist Studies, trustee of Friends of Early Buddhist Teachings.
Justin Kitchen, M.A., Lecturer of Philosophy, San Francisco State University, Lecturer of Philosophy, Cal State University Northridge.
Kalyanaprabha, co-editor of Sangharakshita’s Complete Works.
Elizabeth Norton.
Robert Hunt (Chair) and the Board of New Zealand Buddhist Council (NZBC).
Richard Shankman, Buddhist teacher and author of “The Experience of Samadhi”, published by Shambhala Publications.
Peter Joseph (Dharmachari Priyananda), former director (2010-2020), Windhorse Publications, UK.
Ani Palmo Rybicki, Buddhist Nun, Director and Resident Teacher, Songtsen Gampo Buddhist Center of Cleveland.
Jessica Nelson, Mitra training for ordination, Triratna Buddhist Order.
Mike Reid, Dharma Practitioner, New Zealand.
Venerable Pasada, Dhammasara Nuns Monastery.
Venerable Acala, Dhammasara Nuns Monastery.
Christopher Handy, PhD, Researcher, Leiden University.
Amala Wrightson, Zen teacher and former Chair of New Zealand Buddhist Council.
Ācārya Malcolm Smith.
Dharmachari Sujiva, Buddhist practitioner & teacher.
Amy Austen, Religion and Ethics Teacher, Mitra at Ipswich Triratna Buddhist Centre.
Thomas 正念 DeZauche, MA Religious Studies.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche on verifying teachings

A few minutes ago I stumbled across the following words from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:

I think that people in the West don’t ask questions about whether or not a teaching was taught by the Buddha or has references in the teachings of the ancient valid pandits and yogis. For them it doesn’t seem important to check the references. When Western people listen to Dharma, they’re happy if it’s something that is immediately beneficial to their life, to their mind, especially if it’s related to their problems. It doesn’t matter whether it is something that Buddha taught or a demon taught. They don’t question or check. For them it is about getting some immediate benefit to their mind when they listen; they will then stay. Otherwise, after a few minutes they leave, especially during my talks. But generally speaking, in the East, people are more careful to examine whether something was taught by Buddha. They check the references so that they can see whether or not they can trust the practice, whether or not they can dedicate their life to this. They think about the long run, which is very important. In the West, the main concern is to immediately, right now, taste something sweet.

A Teaching on Vajrayogini

I’m not sure whether people in Asia are actually better at verifying sources, but I appreciated his perspective on seeking immediate gratification from teachings. One of the things that the Buddha (apparently) taught was that we should seek to verify quotes in the scriptures before taking them on board:

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.

Maha-Parinibbana Sutta

There is no “anatta doctrine”

Bhikkhu Thanissaro—prolific translator of Buddhist texts and a member of what I called the League of Extraordinary Gentle-Bhikkhus—has a great article in Tricycle debunking the idea that the Buddha taught that there was no self. Not only that, but he shows how a teaching the Buddha rejected became seen as his central doctrine.

This emphasis on the self not existing is often paired with the expression “anatta doctrine” or “no-self doctrine,” as if this was something the Buddha actually taught.

Here are the first three results for “anatta doctrine” that came up on Google.

The first, from Wikipedia, says “According to the anatta doctrine of Buddhism, at the core of all human beings and living creatures, there is no ‘eternal, essential and absolute something called a soul, self or atman.'”

The third says that this supposed doctrine “lies at the center of Buddhist thought.”

And yet there is no “anatta doctrine” in the Buddha’s teachings.

He used the word “anatta” a lot, but this is a word that means “not yourself.” Here are typical examples of how it’s used:

  1. Then there is the case where a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma assumes about form: ‘This is not me, this is not my self [anatta], this is not what I am.’ [Source]
  2. Now both the internal earth property and the external earth property are simply earth property. And that should be seen as it actually is with right discernment: ‘This is not mine, this is not me, this is not my self [anatta].’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with right discernment, one becomes disenchanted with the earth property and makes the mind dispassionate toward the earth property. [Source]
  3. Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self [anatta].’ [Source]

The Buddha isn’t saying “there is no self.” He’s encouraging us to stop identifying anything as being our selves, which is a very different way. The purpose was to get us to let go of having any view of self. It was not to come to the realization “I have no self”— which would be just another view of self.

A more general statement of the principle behind the quotes given above is found in Dhammapada verse 179: “‘All things are not-self’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.”

Again, this is not saying that there is no self. Just that we should see nothing as constituting a self.

It would be odd for the Buddha to have a “central doctrine” that he somehow forgot to teach, and that he also contradicted in various places, such as in The Sabbasava Sutta:

The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self … This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

So, again: the view that there is no self is a hindrance to insight, just as the hindrance “I have a self.”

Now I confess that sometimes I do say that the self doesn’t exist, but I try to be careful to qualify that by saying that this means “the kind of self you think you have doesn’t exist.” We like to think that there’s something in us that is unchanging, separate, and has agency, and that this constitutes our essence, or true self. Nothing like that exists. And that’s what the Buddha is pointing too. Perhaps my talking in that way is potentially misleading, so I’ll rethink whether perhaps I should change the language I use.

Anyway, do go check out Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s article. It’s worth a read.

Spotted in the wild!

Someone wrote to me today to let me know that they’d received a copy of the book from Parallax. I was surprised, since the release date is Nov 6. Hopefully this means I’ll have a copy in my hands soon.

If you don’t have yours, you can order it from:

The excitement is building!

I just received this email from Amazon…

Do pre-order! Even if I say so myself “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha” is a great read, and would make a fantastic holiday gift.

You can pre-order “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” from:

“Fan mail”

If you’re still on the fence about buying my book on Fake Buddha Quotes, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha, which you can preorder now, check out the following comments from fans of this blog!

“After your death you definitely suffer in the hell. 10,000% sure about that.” Cherith Iran

“Your words are spurred by hatred. I feel sorry for you.” Anon.

“You are extremely argumentative, you come across as angry, & this website is divisive … Why the specificity to Buddha? Just more proof that underlying tones of racism against asians by a white male pretending to know more about our culture and telling us we’re wrong.” Min Jung

“Fucker don’t insult our supreme maha lord Budda. He is the best. He is good an kind and all the words are as good as dimond because he is all the words he say are true. Who insult lord Budda is a bitch, fucker, shit and will go to hell forever when he dies and never become a people again.” Min Pyae Sone

“You need more study. Stop passing wrong information to people.” Anurag Ingle

“This commenter knows nothing of Buddhism.” Mauriku Valentinus

“If you are a Buddhist and believe in the law of kamma you should be more careful by making statements about the Buddha that are factually not true. You harm yourself and those who believe you.” Sebastian

“Fuck you.” Anshul

“You seem like a stuck in the mind, egotistical, scholarly charlatan.” Warren

“Why do you feel the need to be judgemental, especially with things that are positive change and help people?” Apollo

“What makes a person who is interested in Sanskrit and the Buddha also possess a feeling of anger and superiority at others who have given a loving attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s work?” Crescent Rose

“Oh please go sit in silence, then go out and do something real to relieve as much suffering as you can.” Liz

“You seem willing to pull Buddha down, but not look at what was really said. To me this betrays an agenda – although I suppose that’s obvious seeing as you bothered to set up a website about it.” Tiny

“Clearly, you have no mindfulness or personal affinity for and understanding of Buddhism.” Amy

“You are so wrong on so many levels it’s not even worth proving it to you.” Teeto

“I think your ignorance has become fairly prominent.” Brandon

“Ignorant idiot.” Shankaran

“This is a club for like-minded sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals who are here to argue ad infinitum … I’m not in the contest that you want me to be in. My ego is not involved.” Greg

“Pointless junk.” Jesse

“Your article delivers your ignorance on the subject.” Benjamin

“I will try to force you to leave this road to hell.” Johann

“Some things you will never understand my friend. You are just a little kid who try to find write and wrong in the world.” Tharindu

“U are presenting hateful writings.” Samar

“All your Prejudices and stereotypes show how ‘poor’ you still are.” Dave

“Could have gotten it all out in a sentence or two.” Jayla

“Everything you’re saying on here is outright false.” Sara

“Of course nonbelievers only think things are fake. What is fake. The Bible itself is fake because it is man-made. Slandering the truth. But, your words are spurred by hatred. I feel sorry for you.” Minh Chai Tran

“This article/post is everything Buddha taught against.”
Manvi

“It seems you’re EGO is steering your actions to show how knowledgeable you are in matters of Buddhism. Let things go. Let it be. You’re not a designated defender of the Buddhism teachings and quotes. Always being correct about “truths” makes you closed off from the real TRUTH – Love.”
John Hooke

“I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” is now available for preorder!!!

Yay! After many weekends and evenings of slaving over a hot MacBook Pro with 2.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3, and 256 GB SSD, my book on Fake Buddha Quotes is now on its way to the printers and available for preorder!

  • “I couldn’t put it down!” — Winston Churchill
  • “I never tire of reading Bodhipaksa.” – Abraham Lincoln
  • “So this is why you’ve been too busy to call? You’ll be sorry when I’m gone, Mr. Fancy-Pants Author!” — Ethel Fischbaum

If there’s a mildly pedantic Buddha Quote Fan in your life (and we both know I’m talking about you) this will make the perfect gift! And if you have friends who annoy you by sharing Fake Buddha Quotes on Facebook you can annoy them right back by giving them a copy!

You can pre-order “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” from the following emporia:

Fake Buddha Quote book

I have some good news!

I have a contract with Parallax, a noted publisher of Buddhist books, to put together a book about Fake Buddha Quotes. Work is going well, and in fact I’m close to having finished the first rough draft.

I understand it will be published in October of next year, just in time for Christmas.