When The Best American Poetry 2015 hit the shelves, mainstream media bloomed with stories of a hot new literary scandal: one of the poems in the collection, published under the name Yi-Fen Chou, was actually the work of a middle-aged white American man named Michael Derrick Hudson. The poem was widely seen as a racial appropriation of the voice and identity of a young Chinese woman, one that the author undertook after failing to publish widely under his own name and identity.
Half a decade later, a new literary scandal has poked up its head, this time in what is known as the Buddhist Anglosphere, and it is far a more extensive transgression. Please make yourself acquainted with one Matty Weingast, a white American man, whose release of The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns—originally marketed by Shambhala Publications as a translation of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns), an important work of Buddhist scripture composed by the first awakened women—initially met generous fanfare that soon boiled over into a frothing controversy as more Buddhists familiar with the original text read Weingast’s book more carefully.
Counted among those Buddhists is this article’s author—a writer of short stories, a Vietnamese American raised in Mahayana Buddhism, and an armchair historian of early Buddhist texts—who was, at first, incredibly excited to hear of this new translation. In Buddhist tradition, an awakened being typically composes a gatha, or verse, commemorating their enlightenment. The Therigatha is an especially sacred collection of these awakening verses, because the poems are said to be authored by the very first community of Buddhist nuns, led by the Buddha’s stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami. All extant lineages of Buddhist nuns are believed to trace back directly to her and the first community of nuns that she established. Emerging from a time and setting where many of the surrounding cultures did not think it was acceptable for women to practice religious asceticism, and some held that it was impossible for women to attain liberation, the Therigatha stands out as one of the earliest anthologies of women’s literature in human history and, for Buddhists, a testament to the spiritual ferocity and capacity of women.
Tradition holds that, after the Buddha was at first reticent to ordain a community of nuns, fearing for their safety living in secluded forests, Mahapajapati and the women that would become the Elder Nuns walked barefoot from Kapilavastu to Vaisali—a distance that today covers over 220 miles—demanding he reconsider. Realizing that his concern was mistaken in the face of the aspirant nuns’ determination, the Buddha agreed and ordained his stepmother as the first nun. The Therigatha, maintained in the liturgical language of Pali, is a 2,500-year-old tome of power, a rare transmission of women from the ancient world speaking in their own voices to triumphantly declare that they have conquered death. Any new translation of this immensely powerful text is highly significant in Buddhist communities.
To market the book, Shambhala Publications, which is the leading mainstream publisher of Buddhist literature in America and distributed by Penguin Random House, collected blurbs from some of the biggest names in American Buddhism, including Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Thubten Chodron, among others, many of which lauded it as a fresh new translation of the Therigatha. But it is not. The First Free Women, Weingast’s book, is not a translation of the Therigatha at all—it is entirely a work of original poetry, composed by Weingast himself.
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).
The great gulf between Weingast’s poems and the sacred verses they claim to represent was first publicly noted by the Venerable Ayya Sudhamma Theri, an American nun and the founder of the Charlotte Buddhist Vihara, on the popular blog Fake Buddha Quotes in November. She wrote, “Weingast’s poems may mislead readers into a soft feel-good version of early Buddhism, without rebirth, without psychic powers, and, it seems to me from what I’ve read of it, without celebrating the promise of complete liberation. In Weingast’s version, the lioness’s roars of the ancient nuns have been muffled into sweet new-agey purring.”Plucking poetry or religion or anything else from one culture and transposing it to another does not give one the liberty to re-imagine it entirely, then masquerade this new product in the original’s identity.
While there is no shortage of commercial reviews of the book that have praised it for providing access to “rarely heard female voices” (in the words of one reviewer), it is important to note that Weingast, by colonizing the voices of these revered Asian women, ultimately binds them further within a power dynamic that privileges the male gaze.
This is no more apparent than when Weingast’s version of the poem composed by the Buddha’s stepmother, Mahapajapati, is compared to any valid translation, such as the version by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a prominent Pali translator in San Diego who teaches and practices in the Thai Forest tradition. The original poem makes no reference at all to Mahapajapati acting as a mother figure to the Buddha, which more than one past translator has noted; yet, Weingast’s poem foregrounds her maternal role to the Buddha, writing (in Mahapajapati’s voice), “What mother doesn’t see a Buddha in her child?” Bhante Sujato, an Australian monk and translator of Buddhist texts, comments on this, saying: “Weingast puts in Mahapajapati’s mouth the idea that universal motherhood is the Buddhist path. She is no longer a free woman, but one bound by the limitations of a man’s understanding.”
In the past, Weingast has admitted he isn’t qualified to translate the text. Last May, Pamela Weiss, a prominent meditation teacher associated with the San Francisco Zen Center and the Insight Meditation Society, published an interview with Weingast that was held at the San Francisco Insight Meditation Community in front of an audience. In regard to his writing process, Weingast said, “I had no idea what I was doing, so it just kind of allowed me to just make it up as I went along […] So it was kind of always just this seeing what it was, seeing what it was for me, that was the important part.”
In response to a question about how Weingast chose specific English words to interpret their Pali originals, Weingast responded, “Not so much [in reference] to Pali, because she [the chief editor] doesn’t have Pali,” admitting that neither he nor the editor have any expertise in the text’s source language. He then described a process of reading and re-reading the verses aloud in different ways, trying different words based on what “rings true.”
In November of 2020, Weingast said in the Creative Dharma Newsletter, “My approach was to read a poem many, many times… then reconstruct the poem around that primary image or the instruction.” He added, “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.”
Between these two interviews is a full admission that Weingast was not trained in Pali translation, did not work with anyone who was, and composed the book based on intuition without any concern for resembling what was supposed to be the source material. He explained on the podcast, “Besides their importance as a historical and religious text, the Therigatha is a beautiful work of art. […] When you have that depth of meaning, you can see it from a thousand different angles and it’ll be true from any point.” This position is rooted firmly in the imperialist perspective of Buddhist modernism, wherein the Buddhadharma is seen as so malleable a set of teachings that it can be anything. In this modernist perspective, the ultimate goal of extinguishing birth and death is shed away, regarded as an extraneous primitive and superstitious cultural baggage that accumulated like dust onto a pristine, “purer” version of Buddhism, one accessible only through the superior western rationalist gaze. The dharma, then, is re-packaged to the masses as a suite of secularized self-help exercises, composed of curated cherry-pickings from revised, re-imagined, or wholly apocryphal texts.
But of course, Weingast and the entirety of the modernist project are wrong in this: plucking poetry or religion or anything else from one culture and transposing it to another does not give one the liberty to re-imagine it entirely, then masquerade this new product in the original’s identity. That is textbook cultural appropriation. It is fraud. It is sacrilege.
Hoping to defend himself after Ayya Sudhamma’s analysis began attracting more attention in the Buddhist Anglosphere, Weingast invited her, and others who were getting involved in the discussion, to a Zoom conversation on December 28. In Ayya Sudhamma’s account of the call published on Bhante Sujato’s website, Weingast repeatedly side-stepped the question of whether his work is or isn’t supposed to be a translation. He noted that he had been concerned, at one point, that people might mistake his book for a translation; he also described a process of composition that involved sitting in meditation and taking note of the feeling he intuited from each original poem.
This writing process recalls other attempts at shamanistic divination and channeling as they were undertaken by Western interlocutors, such as the mediumship and séance practices that emerged with Henry Olcott and the Theosophists in the 1800s, during one of the West’s earliest attempts to spiritually appropriate Buddhism. And yet, after acknowledging that the work is not a translation, Ven. Sudhamma recalled that Weingast stated “adamant[ly]” that he would not change the title, nor the front or back covers of the book.
Some readers have noted that Shambhala Publications, ultimately, bears responsibility for the book’s title, covers, and marketing campaign. On January 17, a small coalition of Buddhist monastics, translators, scholars, and authors (this article’s author included) sent an open letter to Shambhala calling for the removal of the book from publication on these grounds. In their response, a brief letter that was received by the co-signatories, Shambhala called the book a “work of poems inspired by the Therigatha,” acknowledged an awareness of the issue, and stated they “are in the process of adjusting [their] online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation.” After that, the publisher added a note on the book’s page, saying its description had been “updated to clarify this is not a literal translation of the Therigatha.”
The implication from Shambhala is that the publisher never intended to market the work as a translation in the first place, when all the language around the book shows otherwise, including its title, original marketing copy, the cataloguing metadata sent from Shambhala Publications to the Library of Congress (which describe it as a translation), and numerous blurbs, which call it a translation, while the promotional copy on the back cover declares the poems “transmit the words of these liberated women,” that “their voices are all here,” and that Weingast is “offering readers a rare glimpse [at] the spiritual literature and poetry of the first female disciples of the Buddha.”While it is destined to be lost to us, the Therigatha has survived and endured for 2,500 years—it will not be erased today.
Bhikkuni Canda, a British nun and spiritual director of the Anukampa Bhikkuni Project, recently released a public statement on her Facebook account to “acknowledge that I made a mistake by endorsing the book without reading it properly and apologise for that. I have contacted Matty and the publishers, Shambhala, to ask that my endorsement be removed from the book.”
Recently, a second open letter was sent to the publisher from 42 co-signatories at the time of this article’s writing, with more still adding their names, who outlined the group’s grievances and demands for remediation. Among the list of demands are calls for Shambhala Publications to: withdraw the book in its current form from publication; issue a public apology explaining how this deception came to be and why it was defended; release the book under a different title if it is to be re-released; ensure any marketing material related to the book makes clear it is not a translation of any kind; remove the existing subtitle from any version of the book; work with the Library of Congress to ensure the book is catalogued as a work of original poetry; and others.
Several days after I reached out to Shambhala Publications for a comment for this article, their team directed me to two public letters, both released just before the deadline that Lit Hub’s editors had given them to respond. The first, a public letter from Shambhala Publications president Nikko Odiseos and addressed to signatories of the open letters, states, “Although it was certainly not our intention to mislead readers regarding the nature of this poetic reimagining of the Therigatha, we see that many were, in fact, unclear about this point, and we fully acknowledge our misjudgment in how we presented this author’s work. … We did not present [the book] as we should have, for which we are sorry to both the author and to readers who very reasonably expected something different.”
The publisher also said that, in consultation with the author, the book will be reissued “clearly and unambiguously as an original work, rather than as a translation.” While failing to provide an explanation on how this situation came about, Odiseos promises that Shambhala “will also be updating the subtitle, cover, descriptive copy, and the Library of Congress information,” and that they have begun reaching out to everyone that provided an endorsement “to give them the opportunity to revisit their endorsements before the new edition comes out.”
A separate public letter, a general note on the book’s first edition also issued Monday, acknowledges the controversy around the book, noting, “the provenance and classification of the book as an ‘adaptation’ or ‘loose translation’ has become the subject of debate.” This is a soft capitulation, still trying to frame this as a misunderstanding, rather than an explanation as to why the book was clearly and fraudulently marketed as a translation.
Tradition holds that the teachings are destined to be forgotten in this world, to be rediscovered in a distant time and future by another Buddha, when we are all long forgotten. In an early text, the historical Buddha warns of the teachings’ disappearance, telling us that “when the counterfeit of the true teaching appears in the world then the true teaching disappears.” He adds, hopefully, “The true teaching doesn’t disappear like a ship that sinks all at once,” exhorting to his followers that the appropriate defense against counterfeiters is to diligently maintain their respect and reverence for the teachings and transmission. In this way, the teachings’ fade from the world is slow and gradual. Ultimately, while it is destined to be lost to us, the Therigatha has survived and endured for 2,500 years—it will not be erased today, not by this one act of forgery, not as long as Buddhists, and friends of Buddhists, who respect the teachings take notice and speak out.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated Weingast does not know Pali; however, Weingast claims to be self-taught.