“The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns” by Matty Weingast


“Dissatisfaction with the womanly rôle,” the psychologist Alfred Adler wrote in Understanding Human Nature (1927), “is … more evident among [women] who escape from life because of some so-called ‘higher reasons’. Nuns, or others who assume some occupation for which celibacy is an essential, are a case in point.” Adler, of course, was not judging such women negatively, as he felt that women should not have to be controlled by the patriarchal nature of 20th-century society and that they should be able to develop their own roles. 

Matty Weingast’s The First Free Women, is a new translation of a collection of poems known as the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, a Pali text dating from about 80 BCE collecting together poetic utterances by early Buddhist women living shortly after the time of Buddha himself who put their “womanly role” behind them in favor of service to Buddhism as nuns, and celebrated the experience of their freedom in (mostly) short poems. Sakula wrote:


I once gave all of myself
to being the perfect wife and mother,
then I heard the teachings of the Buddha.
I saw the arising and passing of what
was wife
and said goodbye to my husband;
I saw the arising and passing away of what
was mother
and said goodbye to my children.


However, to try and make proto-feminists out of these women, particularly when they leave their husbands and children, is simply reaching (not to mention anachronistic), and the one serious reservation I have about this collection is that Weingast, as he freely and honestly admits, produces translations that “closely resemble the originals, with shifts here and there … though these are not literal translations, even in the freest renderings I don’t hear my own voice.” Unfortunately, I don’t read Pali, but it occurred to me that some of the other available translations (like this one, by men), such as those of Charles Hallisey (2015) or Thanissaro Bhikkhu, aka Geoffrey de Graff (2005) and others, might be closer to the spirit of the original than these because there is no modernist agenda, conscious or otherwise.

There’s no doubt that Weingast has made these poems accessible to modern readers, but while at times they may appear to be “like us” emotionally, but too much “contemporary and radical adaptation” (as stated on the back cover) can make readers forget the world where the poems came from. It’s true, though, that a scholarly translation can make a poem stilted and a literal translation deflate it, but how far must we take adaptation and the desire for “relevance”? If the poems do appeal, they must do so as they are, not dressed up in foreign clothes; I am willing to bet that these ones would work without “adaption.” This having been said, Matty Weingast does give these women a voice, and, as Bhante Buddharakkhita, the founding abbot of the Uganda Buddhist Centre writes, “the inherent wisdom of the female reality combined with natural storytelling instincts is elemental, intense, and sensitively direct.” This being the case, though, how much “radical adaptation” do we need?

As examples of what the above entails, consider the following. Mutta, obviously a once-married woman, writes in Weingast’s version that she is


Forever free
from playing the mortar
to my crooked husband’s
crooked little pestle.


In Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s version this reads:


So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
and crooked old husband,


which is an entirely different slant on the poem. Weingast turns the mortar and pestle into obvious sexual symbols, but Thanissaro’s rendering is more subtle and suggestive, more cleverly ambiguous if you like.

Punnika the slave (Thanissaro has “water-carrier”) who tells us


it was my job to carry water
up the hill
to my master’s house


(Thanissaro has “for fear of my mistresses’ beatings”) and asks pointedly, “Who made me a slave?”, a question she does not ask in Thanissaro’s version, which is actually in the form of a dialogue between Punikka and a brahmin. This seems to me “reaching”. However, if readers are aware of this, Weingast’s versions are lovingly-crafted and appealing.


The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, Matty Weingast (trans) (Shambhala, February 2020)
The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, Matty Weingast (trans) (Shambhala, February 2020)

I looked at a number of other poems for comparison, and concluded that these poems show that while nuns could become as enlightened as monks, even in that murky past, modern translators, as the reviewer of Hallisey’s version noted, have sometimes “obscured the Buddhist meaning of the text,” emphasizing the fact that the poems are by women escaping from the “womanly role.”

However, for the general reader who is not a scholar of Buddhism, it might actually be better to see the Therigatha purely as a work of literature rather than reflections on or paraphrases of Buddhism, and indeed many of the poems are of high literary quality, and perhaps they do have “secret rooms and passageways”, as Weingast states. In the end, the path to liberation, for these women, is not some form of ancient feminism (although sometimes it sounds like it) but that of Buddhism itself, enlightenment and seeing things as they really are, expressed in quality verses which are in turns joyful, moving, witty, ecstatic and sometimes a little sad.

Further to Adler’s point about the rejection of the “womanly role” by these writers, they do write extensively about what their lives were like before they were ordained, which will perhaps explain why they came to believe that the dharma meant freedom. As Kisa Gotami wrote in a poem not included in Weingast’s book (another is), “‘Woman’s state is painful,’/ declares the Trainer of tameable men.” Anopama was a wealthy woman with “gold coins for toys”, Ubbiri has lost her daughter and laments mournfully, “


How many days and nights
did I wander the woods/ calling your name?
 Jiva, my daughter!


Vimala is prostituted by her own mother, who


taught me how to sell my youth
for money and some sense of power—
just as her mother had taught her.


And then there is Sumangala’s mother, another woman whose sex life seemed so unfulfilling; she tells us that she’s


Finally free
from having to stroke
my husband’s little umbrella
until it stands up straight.
His releases came quickly
and with lots of grunting.


Her own release into enlightenment, by contrast, “has taken a little longer.”

Ambapali, another prostitute, writes “how one thing/ changes into another.” Before, she says, “My hair used to flow down like a black silk river,/ My body was a port for all travellers.” Now,


just see the body
as a house you’re renting
for a short time.
Make the heart your home.


These women find enlightenment in the most unlikely places, too. Sundarinanda, for example, gets it while she’s sitting on the toilet; “for the first time I saw my body,” she writes,


not just how it looks,
but what it does—
turning what is dear
into what is waste.


She concludes,


What will you bring into the world,
other than what gets washed
down the toilet?


Dantika, strolling in the woods, watches a man washing his elephant in the river and asking it whether it had enjoyed the bath, after which


The elephant stretched out its leg,
the man climbed up,
and the two rode off like that—


She realizes that what was once wild has now become tame, and


reached out a gentle hand to my own mind.
Truly, I thought, this is why
I came to the woods.


In the end, this translation does work, although the reservations remain. However, in a review of Hallisey’s translation, Dhivan Thomas Jones wrote that


The universal quality of the poems—their ability to speak about human nature in a way that is still true today—I think is what does speak to us over so much time and difference.


He also noted that “the great joy of a new translation is seeing another human perspective shed new light on familiar values.” When one looks at it this way, Matty Weingast’s translation succeeds admirably.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.