The Importance of Genre: A Poetic Scandal in Contemporary Buddhist Literature

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.” — Günter Grass 1

Fair warning. This post is long and tends to ramble, but I think it is worth the read.

One year ago, almost to the day, Shambhala Publications published and distributed a book of poetry by Matty Weingast entitled The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. The Amazon blurb for the book describes how Weingast has “reimagined” the poems of the Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns), poems composed by the first Buddhist nuns about 2500 years ago.

I have taken inspiration from and enjoyed the poetry of the Therīgāthā for years. Like most readers, I am in awe of Subhā’s dramatic story rendered in roughly thirty verses (read here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.14.01.than.html ). 2 That said, at this stage of my life I resonate more with verses about aging by Ambapali (read here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/thig.13.01.than.html). The verses of this collection narrate Buddhist experiences as lived by women in harsh, patriarchal times. They represent lived Buddhism. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu’s translations linked herein are respectful of the original verses and cognizant of their context. I also appreciate Charles Hallisey’s 2015 translation that you can find on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Therigatha-Poems-Buddhist-Classical-Library/dp/0674427734/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=therigatha+charles+hallisey&qid=1613138212&s=books&sr=1-2

The contextual importance of the poems of the Therīgāthā, originally written in Pāli, cannot be overstated. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu describes the Therīgāthā as the “earliest extant text depicting women’s spiritual experiences” because some of the poems date back to the late 6th century BCE. And these poems are considered sacred text by Buddhists. The 73 poems in 16 chapters are part of the Pāli Canon and can be found in the Khuddaka Nikāya section of the Sutta Piṭaka. In fact, you can read them in Pāli and in translation by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu on the Access to Insight website here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html When you do read them, receive them respectfully, in their specific cultural and historical contexts. For as I aim to reveal in this post, approach matters.

What was the context of Weingast’s reimagining? What does this reimagining entail? Not translation, apparently. Weingast has noted that he cannot translate Pāli. He read translated versions of the poems and reimagined their essential meanings while he was practicing meditation and living with a group of Buddhist nuns. This situation does not constitute a replication of the context out of which the Therīgāthā was written. So how does a white American male begin to think that reimagining poems originally written by the first female Buddhist nuns living in an ancient culture in what is now southern Nepal/northern India is a good idea? And how does a Buddhist publication house like Shambhala support this reimagining?

The copyright page of Weingast’s book shows that the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data lists him as the translator, which formally categorizes the book as a translation. Under “Subjects” is clearly written: “Buddhist poetry – translations into English” and “Pali poetry – translations into English.” In effect, even though Weingast’s poetry is described as a “reimagining”, Shambhala is marketing this book as a translation.

I first learned about these translation transgressions from Twitter tweets, but Bodhipaksa of Fake Buddha Quotes states that Buddhist nun Ayya Sudhamma was the first to bring the issue to light last November in a discussion forum post on Sutta Central (link here: https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/from-lioness-roars-to-purrs-a-review-of-the-first-free-women-by-matty-weingast-therigatha/17940 )

In a later post on the website Fake Buddha Quotes, in an effort to more clearly explicate the situation, Bodhipaksa compares, word for word, Weingast’s reimagining of a poem by the nun Nanduttarā against a seminal translation of the same poem by K.R. Norman. In Weingast’s reimagining, Nanduttarā is unenlightened, still afflicted by sexual longings of a past promiscuous life, and trying to talk herself into staying on the Buddhist path. In Norman’s translation, Nanduttarā mentions nothing about a sex life, juxtaposes her past polytheistic ritual behaviours against her current path, and highlights the peace of mind from snuffing out all desire that is a hallmark of her enlightened state. Bodhipaksa asks of Weingast’s reimagining: “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” (link here: https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/the-first-free-women-as-literary-fraud/). Weingast’s transformation of the poem has changed the meaning of it altogether. The poem has been decontextualized and detraditionalized, rendering the important juxtaposition of religious behaviours moot. Further, there is no inference of Buddhist principles in Weingast’s version which desacralizes Nanduttarā’s poem. All of this amounts to demythologization on a meta narrative scale.

An Tran, whose short story anthology Meditations on the Mother Tongue was reviewed in 2017 on the Buddhist Fiction Blog wrote a great piece chronicling the critiques and defenses of Weingast’s poems. 3 He summarized the poetic scandal thusly: “Weingast’s poems bear little to no resemblance to the poems of the Elder Nuns. They often strip away concepts like rebirth, karma, and spiritual attainments, replacing these key Buddhist doctrines with distortions derived from Buddhist modernism, the post-colonial revisionist movement originating in the 19th century, which sought to re-imagine Buddhism in the guise of rationalist philosophy and romantic humanism (a more appealing approach in the West).” Tran does an excellent job of tracing this literary scandal and perfectly critiques the text. Please do read his online article at Lit Hub to get a better sense of how disingenuous is this text and its marketing.

Consequentially, Weingast spent time in interviews and on podcasts explaining his method and obfuscating the distinction between his concept of reimagining the poems from the publisher’s categorization of the work as a translation. And then, after many communications of concern from Buddhist practitioners and scholars alike, on 1 February 2021, Shambhala issued a note about The First Free Women, stating that it was not their intention to mislead readers about the generic disposition of the book. They are reissuing the work with a different sub-title and under different meta-data for categorization. But there was no true admission of wrongdoing.

If you have made it this far into this post, you may be asking why I’m writing about poetry on a fiction blog. I’m writing about poetry because, in this case, perhaps it should be categorized and marketed as fiction, or at the very least, poetry in response to readings of the Therīgāthā, but definitely not Buddhist. Fiction as we know it is Buddhist when it represents and inscribes Buddhist principles into the literature of any language. More often than not, these principles are represented intertextually. That is, there is a narrative thread of Buddhist sacred text or traditional story that drives the fictional plot. And fiction itself, at its best, opens a third space for grappling with life, suffering, intersecting cultures and religious adaptations. There is truth in fiction, but it is not real. Thus we approach reading fiction differently than the way we approach reading a sacred text. We suspend our disbelief for fiction so as to allow the imagery and symbolism to inform our imaginations and glean insight from and through the experiences of characters unlike ourselves. We approach sacred text like the Therīgāthā very differently. We mine sacred text for truth. This is why undertaking translation requires an exhausting goal of veracity to the original, so that, as Grass said, the language and reader are transformed, yet (and I dare say because) the meaning has not changed.

How should a reader approach this text? My first answer is, really, not at all. But if I had to assign this in a Buddhist literature class, I would ask students to read with a view to give examples of demythologization derived from decontextualization, detraditionalization, and desacralization. I would ask them to compare the different forms of patriarchy revealed in good translations of the poems of the elder nuns versus Weingast’s work and expect to hear of contemporary entitlement, sexism, and erasure. And I would ask them if, as An Tran suggests in his Lit Hub article, the Shambhala tome is a sign of the decline of the dharma.

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1. Grass G. Archipelago Books. 2012. Available from: http://archipelagobooks.tumblr.com/post/28908475284/translation-is-that-which-transforms-everything-so.

2. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) (2015) Poems of the Elders, p. 3. Available from: https://www.scribd.com/document/375978299/Poems-of-the-Elders-An-Anthology-from-the-Therag%C4%81th%C4%81-and-Ther%C4%ABg%C4%81th%C4%81 or read the Therīgāthā on Access to Insight here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html

3. “How a Poetry Collection Masquerading as Buddhist Scripture Nearly Duped the Literary World” by An Tran, 3 February 2021 https: //lithub.com/how-a-poetry-collection-masquerading-as-buddhist-scripture-nearly-duped-the-literary-world/?fbclid=IwAR0Cc1TEoi-rRAODtihfFoSPwsMeoUwilc6q8Gi83kimuUK5MDTd-yiU95U

3 responses to “The Importance of Genre: A Poetic Scandal in Contemporary Buddhist Literature

  1. Given that others have created re-imagined narratives about Buddhist persons and themes, I’d say the issue here is misrepresentation by the publisher. Creating a truer version of the book’s subtitle and metadata is definitely a suitable remedy. However, being a Buddhist publisher, I can also say that we are presumably held to a higher standard than secular presses.

    • Thank you for your comment, and for holding yourself to higher standards. Yes, I agree, the publisher is definitely responsible for misrepresentation. Yet I cannot help but wonder about the audacity of the author who thought it a reasonable enterprise to re-imagine a Buddhist sacred text originally written by women.

  2. Pingback: Post Script on The Importance of Genre: A Poetic Scandal in Contemporary Buddhist Literature | Buddhist Fiction Blog

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