Returning to Our Core Values

A Response to the Online Critique of “The First Free Women”

 

Many of you will know about the online storm that erupted around the book “The First Free Women” (TFFW) by Matty Weingast earlier this year, the height of which happened while I was beginning a three-month retreat. The core concern was that the book, a personal and free interpretation of the Therigatha, could be taken to be a literal translation, since it had a misleading subtitle – “Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns” – and had been miscategorized with the Library of Congress (LOC) as a translation, putting it in the same category as the suttas. The publishers heard these concerns and retracted the book, which will be re-issued as “original poetry” on June 22, 2021. You can find Shambhala Publications’ public statement HERE.

Personally, I was slow to hear and respond to the concerns of a fellow bhikkhuni in regard to this book being misleading, and while presenting the poems, I have not been clear enough about the nature of the work. Some of the poems are close to the originals, others are similar with shifts here and there, while others carry a few lines from the original then move into free improvisation, sometimes wandering quite far from the originals. I love these poems and feel that they can be a powerful support for the Path, and I regret that the ambiguity of their nature and of my own presentation has caused rifts in the Sangha. I apologize for the part I have played in causing or adding to the confusion and upset around this book. I understand that it was alarming and distressing for some to have it categorized as a translation and am happy that changes are being made to rectify that.

At the core, I believe that we all share a deep love of the Buddha’s teaching, the Path of practice and the potential for Liberation. This will be embodied by each of us in different ways.

Unfortunately, the criticism of the book went far beyond the errors of subtitle and categorization. Accusations of profiteering, racism and sexism, along with other slights, were made publicly.  While mistakes were made in the presentation of this book, the poems in TFFW were never meant to be taken as literal translations. The author addresses the nature of the poems in his “Brief Note” at the front of the book.

The framing of Matty Weingast as a ruthless profiteer who unscrupulously exploits the suttas for personal gain is an accusation that falls far from the truth. (I’m referring to the essay “A Buddhist Literary Scandal” by Bhante Akaliko.)

The Buddha and his disciples give us a wise and compassionate method of how to respond if one is concerned that a member of the community is doing harm or is expounding a wrong view. This begins with seeking out the person to have a conversation with them. Then, in regard to what has been seen, heard or suspected of that person, one checks it out and asks the person directly “Is it true?”. This gives an opportunity for dialogue and the potential for that person to clarify, if it is not true, or to see and acknowledge their fault and to realign with the Path. Sometimes of course, a person holds fast to their wrong view, this invites a deeper attempt to guide them in the right direction, out of compassion. Here are a few references to this practice, (SN II, 16. 6, SN III,22.85, MN 38) and many more can be found throughout the suttas. Unfortunately, these steps were not taken before these public accusations were made.

Having heard the accusations of profiteering, I asked Weingast what he received from the sale of The First Free Women. In addition to the $2,500 from the publishers for the rights to the book, the author received $1,400 in royalties. All royalties were donated to NGO’s long before accusations of profiteering were made. He agreed that I could share this information publicly. Weingast worked on the poems as a labor of love for three years. They were intended to benefit and inspire people. Anyone who knows Matty Weingast will know that he chooses to live a simple life, having no more possessions than he can carry on his back. He is generous by nature and looks for opportunities to give. The fictional character that Bhante Akaliko ascribes to the author of these poems in his essay is not one I would be interested to work with, and not someone the bhikkhunis of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery (mis-called Aloka Hermitage in the essay) would tolerate as a guest for very long.

Further accusations were made by Bhante Sujato in his YouTube video “When is a Sutta not a Sutta”.  Bhante Sujato begins by expressing his love of the suttas. He has spent much of his life translating the suttas to make them freely available online through SuttaCentral. This is a remarkable and generous gift that benefits many people, including our monastic community here. I believe that we could all find common ground in our love of the Buddha’s teaching. Bhante Sujato goes on to express his concern about TFFW being misleading because of the subtitle and categorization, a valid concern that is being remedied. Unfortunately, in his video, Bhante Sujato went beyond expressing this concern and made a case for “gratuitous racial erasure” based on Weingast’s translation of the name of bhikkhuni Bhadda Kapilani as “Red Hair”, stating that this was “purely from Weingast’s imagination”. The Pali Text Society’s Pali-English Dictionary says this: “Kapila (adj.) [Sk. kapila, cp. kapi] brown, tawny, reddish, of hair & beard.”.

We know that in the Buddha’s time the Aryans had settled in parts of Northern India, as there are frequent references to this in the suttas. The word “Iran” means ‘the Land of Aryans’ and red hair can be found naturally occurring in Iran. In fact, one theory is that red hair arrived in Europe with the Iranic-speaking Steppe tribes who lived in the areas north of and around the Black Sea from 4,000 years ago to the 6th century CE. So, it is quite possible that Bhadda Kapilani’s name meant “Red Hair” and that, rather than being “racial erasure”, this was an indication of her ethnic background.

My point is not to try to prove whether Bhadda Kapilani had red hair or not, that would be impossible, but that we need to make room for different interpretations. Asserting that our way of seeing things is the right way and the only way, ends up increasing division. Instead, can we open up and make room for difference? Can we put our own views to one side for a while in order to listen and hear something new? I admit that it is not always easy to do, but when we open to a greater diversity of experience and understanding, we invite the possibility of discovering more than we already know, and can move towards greater inclusion instead of greater othering.

Accusations of sexism were also made in that video, based on the assertion that Weingast was “pretending to be a woman”. In his “Brief Note” at the beginning of the book, Weingast writes: “Not surprisingly, the question that has come up most often is about my being a man working with the verses of the first Buddhist nuns.”. This is a link to his bio on Shambhala Publications. Do you see a man pretending to be a woman? I know Matty Weingast and “sexist” is not a term that fits. About a week before the video was made, Weingast reached out to Bhante Sujato asking to have a one-to-one conversation with him about the concerns, but the invitation was declined.

The “Guidelines” for SuttaCentral’s Discuss & Discover, where both the essay and video were posted, states: “This is a friendly place for Dhamma discussion. Participating in this forum should be taken as an opportunity to practice Right Speech.” This sounds safe and inviting, and yet, the communications around TFFW on SuttaCentral have been far from friendly. The aggressive style of communication has created an echo-chamber where those who agree with the dominant voices speak up, while those who do not agree, keep quiet or speak among themselves. I get to hear from the people who are afraid to speak their views on SuttaCentral out of fear of receiving the same treatment that Matty Weingast received. I also hear from people who put aside their intuitive understanding because a man confidently told them what was true and what was not true. This is not a healthy situation. How did core Buddhist values get lost on this discussion forum?

Preserving the scriptures is precious and essential. We are now in a time when the suttas are more widely available to ordinary folk than they have ever been before. A blessing in these challenging times. It is also essential that we embody those teachings as best as we can and that we make room for different forms of expression. Compassion and wisdom are at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. Let those qualities be our guiding lights.

For those wishing to learn more about the Therigatha, you can find a list of English translations on Ayya Sudhamma’s website HERE. There is a list of translators in the Acknowledgements at the back of the TFFW, for those who have a copy of the book. Bhikkhu Bodhi introduces Prof. Charles Hallisey HERE, who speaks about his translation of the Therigatha. Recently, a “Therigatha Festival” was also held online, which you can find HERE.

The Theris shared their stories to encourage and remind us that Awakening is possible. They were women of all walks of life, with different characters and propensities, whose practice took many different forms. With the support of the Dhamma and with wise reflection, may we each find our way to Freedom and be a source of safety in this world.

Anandabodhi Bhikkhuni
www.alokavihara.org