Having recently reviewed Matty Weingast’s attractive collection of poems from the Therigatha, I was somewhat surprised to see that Shambhala had decided to reissue an newly-expanded version of Songs of the Sons and Daughters of Buddha (1996), given that the female half was already available in Weingast’s excellent and sensitively-handled new version. However, in addition to the fact that this edition includes male poets, the choice of female poets is not always identical, and of course it’s also interesting to see how different translators treat the same poems.
Andrew Schelling, a poet, professor, and translator, has translated Erotic Love Poems from India (2019), and Anne Waldman, herself a Buddhist, is the author of more than fifty books of poetry. For this reissue, the translators have added a number of poems and expanded the introduction, explaining why they have added some descriptive titles to the poems, which in their original form were only identified by the writers’ names. Their stated objective is “to free these elders—buried under piety, interpretation, poor translation and neglect—to breathe again.” And, as poets themselves, we may assume that they have both the skill, the knowledge, and the sensitivity to do just this.
We’ll start by making a comparison of two translations of the same poem, with the caveat that I don’t know Pali, and can therefore compare them, at least technically, only as English poems, although what they express and its cultural implications can be quite easily discerned in spite of a lack of knowledge of the original language. The poems of both the men and women discuss universal and timeless themes such as freeing oneself from the bonds of marriage, birth, death, and even the sex trade to embark on a spiritual journey. The transitoriness of earthly things is another concern, and of course it’s a central theme of Buddhist writings as well as featuring prominently in the teachings of the Buddha himself, as is the idea of spiritual enlightenment or “awakening”, so prevalent in these poems. These are certainly matters which remain accessible to modern readers. As Sharon Salzberg writes in her back cover note, “I see my own path reflected in their search, my own highest aspirations reflected in their awakening.”
The poem I have chosen is by a woman known only as “Another Mutta”. Here it is, in Weingast’s version:
So this is what it feels like—
to be free.
from playing the mortar
to my crooked husband’s
crooked little pestle.
For my mother.
For my daughter.
And for all the daughters
I might have had.
The cycle ends here.
And in Schelling and Waldman:
I’m free. Ecstatically free
I’m free from three crooked things:
and my husband with his own
All that drags me back is cut—cut!
These two versions are radically different, so different that one wonders whether the translators were working from different originals. Either Weingast has added more material, which suggests that Mutta, whose name, we are told, actually means “freed”, sees herself as a spokeswoman for others in her family, or Schelling and Waldman, for whatever reasons, have simply left out a section; not having access to the Pali original makes it difficult to judge which rendering comes closest to what Mutta actually wrote.
The sexual pun, with its scorn at Mutta’s husbands “little pestle”, has been amended to “his own crooked thing” by Schelling and Waldman, which reduces its contempt. The sense of wonder that Mutta feels when she realizes that she is finally free of material restraint is well-expressed in both versions, although “ecstatically” seems more unrestrained, and thus the persona in the second version seems more emotional than the Mutta who simply notices that there’s a difference in what she feels now that enlightenment is upon her. Mortars and pestles, obviously enough, work well as sexual symbols, but they also stand for the actual work designated for women, grinding things in a pestle for food, or even the “daily grind” of women’s work in general. In their Afterword, Schelling and Waldman extend the metaphor and suggest that it may also imply “humiliation and abuse”, a likely state of affairs when women were often married off at a young age to older men who treated them as chattels and baby-makers.
And what of the men? Candana, for example, sees his former wife or girlfriend:
Draped with gold fabric
a child on her hip
her troop of maids trailing behind her
I saw my baby’s
come through the charnel field
A pleasant enough sight, one assumes, but that isn’t the way Candana sees it after his enlightenment; just as Mutta has put the chores of marriage behind her by changing the meaning of words, so does Candana, evidently a formerly prosperous man, change the effect this pleasant sight has on him now:
O evil snare
I saw cause and effect approach
I saw in her gait the root
but I’ve gone
the way the ancient buddhas went
I’m out of reach
The woman and child now symbolize “cause and effect”, presumably the desire for sex and its consequence, and the woman, carrying his child, will suffer all the hard work of child-rearing. Her “gold fabric” and the maids stand for worldly possessions and social hierarchy, which add to the “suffering” she must now undergo and from which he, recently enlightened, is “out of reach”. The “evil snare” is an interesting phrase; does it mean the physicality of the woman or her symbolic connection with cause and effect and worldly suffering? Candana does not make this clear.
These poems, whether written by men or women, are about renunciation and how it leads to enlightenment. The writers seem very sincere, and their emotions range from the celebratory to the wistful, emphasizing that many of them were struggling, doubting sometimes whether they were doing the right thing. And they are often tempted by the world; Sundara-Samudda, for example, is approached by a beautiful prostitute who has been asked by his mother to get her son back on track, that is back to the material world.
Got up in silk and flowers
jewels on her breasts,
she tells him that
You are young to have gone forth
young for Buddha’s precepts
and that he should
Stay awhile and learn
the rules and precepts I follow,
I’ll teach you to love.
She suggests that when they get old and ugly and can no longer have sex, “we can go forth together.” However, Sundara-Samudda turns the tables upon both the woman and himself; at first, when he
heard her plead
smelled her robe and perfumes
it was a snare of death at my feet.
He struggles with the temptation and desire, and finally triumphs over it as
A deeper hunger shook me
I saw cause and effect come into focus
which is exactly like the experience of Candana as he, too, saw a woman beautifully-dressed. “My mind fought free,” he says,
On the spot I conquered three knowledges
O I did what Buddha taught me.
It’s at that moment that Sundara-Samudda becomes aware of his past lives, realizes that everything is transitory, and frees himself from all desires and mental defilement; those are the “three knowledges” that Buddha teaches.
The translations in this book are lively and vivid; as Jan Willis states in the back cover notes, “What a wonderful difference it makes when real poets translate poetry!” There may well be a caveat here, which some may call awareness of “poetic license”, and readers who don’t know Pali must take it on faith that this is an honest translation, free (mostly) of the poets’ own ideas and embellishments, which it certainly appears to be, and one can safely assume that the originals were as lively, vivid and poignant as these English renderings make them out to be.
With Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman we are in good hands for this poetic journey into an ancient world which nevertheless shares with us recognizable aspects of our own humanity, its fallibility and its potential for seeing past those things which may oppress its spirit. Mittakali said,