“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!

 

 

8 thoughts on ““The First Free Women” as literary fraud”

  1. You can add me as a signatory. Thank you for your excellent work over the years.

    Justin Kitchen, M.A.
    Lecturer of Philosophy, San Francisco State University
    Lecturer of Philosophy, Cal State University Northridge

  2. Ven. Akaliko makes an interesting point about how no one in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, or Thailand would have thought to publish something like this. While we live in a secularized society which puts less value on reverence than they do, I can’t help but wonder how anyone who has at least some faith in Buddhism couldn’t have at least some trepidation about sexualizing arahants in such a way.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. This book seems to be a great example of how the spiritual experience gets ruined by interpretations, agendas and words. It is upsetting to envision those new to the practice being misled. The seasoned Buddhist will accept that everything is impermanent, including these original poems, and will trust that each individual will find the truth inside themself. The rest of us can go rate this book on Amazon and try to set the record straight. 🙂

  4. Much gratitude for the heroic work of you and others on this.

    Though I’m happy to see the fashionable ad hominem attacks usually used by feminists here used to defend the authentic words of the theris, there’s a danger in this approach. The cover comic endorses an approach that is often a combination of ad hominem and straw man. A feminist says something, a man points out a flaw in what she said, and she says something like, “How dare you mansplain my lived experience to me!” In reality, of course, much of the time he did no such thing, though Weingast did here. Whether one is a man or a woman has nothing to do with the veracity of what is said, and people sometimes pass off erroneous statements as being their experience, and thus above criticism.

    1. Mansplaining — men explaining to women things that the women already know, and that may in fact be things they know better than the men doing the explaining — is unfortunately very common. I’m sure it’s far more common than the case of a man being unfairly accused of mansplaining.

      The extent to which men are uninterested in actually hearing women’s voices is, I think, reflected in the results of the Bechdel Test, which asks the question: In this film, TV show, or other work of fiction, is there an instance of two women talking to each other about something other than a man? It’s a laughably low bar for representation, and yet apparently half of films fail the test. Often women or absent, or they don’t talk to other women, or they talk to other women but only about men — because it’s men who are (in the scriptwriter and director’s eyes) important.

  5. Thank you for calling this kind of behavior out. This whole affair reminds me of the work of Carlos Castenada and his separate reality fiction that became a reality or L. Ron Hubbards fiction that became his reality. Both of these examples are of authors whose egoic hubris, perhaps to the point of narcissism, created an out-of-control religious movement based on a lie at worst and self-delusion at best.

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