In this Creative Dharma, Jan Rivers looks at fiction by a Buddhist practitioner, Brad Parks shares his elemental perspectives, and Ramsey Margolis dissects an interview with novelist Philip Pullman. But first, Ronn Smith speaks with Matty Weingast about his new translation of the Therīgāthā. ⁂
A new translation of the Therīgāthā by Matty Weingast
by Ronn Smith
The Therīgāthā (Verses of the Elder Nuns) occupies a unique position in both Buddhist history and world literature. Besides being a collection of poems by and about the first Buddhist nuns, it also contains, according to noted scholar Charles Hallisey, some of the first poems composed by women in India and is the first anthology of women’s literature in the world.
Numerous translations exist, some of which purport to be word-for-word renditions of the original Pali, while others exhibit a ‘looser’ or more creative interpretation. Matty Weingast’s The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns (Shambhala Publications, 2020) falls squarely within this second group. His translations are both contemporary and bold, and some may find them uncomfortably radical. What follows is from an interview conducted on 17 November 2020.
Ronn Smith: How did these poems come to your attention?
Matty Weingast: They’re in the Pali canon, which I had been studying for quite some time. But they really caught hold when I was on a three-week self-retreat in southern Vermont. One of the books I had was a translation of the Therīgāthā, and one morning I was curious about how a particular word was translated. I read the English translation and then the Pali version, thinking: But couldn’t it also be this, couldn’t it also be that? I started playing with it, and that’s how it began.
RS: Can you describe the process you went through? Which poem was the first to catch your attention?
MW: The first poem was ‘Dantika – the elephant’. It’s a beautiful poem about a nun who is watching a man and an elephant by a river. The elephant has just come out of the water, and the nun is inspired by what she is seeing there.
I have a background in literature, which has always been a massive part of my life. It has informed me in how to navigate my world. Before I came to Buddhism I was learning from Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickenson, and so many others. Even though I’d become a serious Buddhist practitioner by this time, I had yet to find that place in the Pali canon that spoke to both sides of me – the practitioner and the lover of literature. I’m not saying that the Pali canon can’t appeal to people in both ways, and I’m not saying that it isn’t great literature, but for me it felt like I had segmented myself into two bits.
I didn’t realize I had done this. But when I discovered the Therīgāthā, when I had more mental space for the project, I realized it was the work I had been looking for in the Pali canon. It touched that part of me that loves great works of art and literature, as well as that part of me that was a practitioner looking for concrete instruction, looking to be inspired by awakened beings. For me, the Therīgāthā is the missing piece which allowed those two sides of me to be brought together.
RS: It’s interesting that you were using a text by a group of women who existed 2,600 years ago to reconfigure that relationship.
MW: The poems of the Therīgāthā were teaching me how to do that. These women were saying you have to make this practice your own. You don’t need to look or act or think like everybody else. It was this wonderful thing where the beauty of the poems was sweeping me away and making me feel whole. The instructions were right there.
Many English translations of the Therīgāthā are quite good, but most are rather formal and academic. The translator’s relationship seems to be to the historic and religious importance of the poems; they wanted to make as ‘faithful’ a translation of the poems as possible.
My approach was to read a poem many, many times, to find the essential teaching each enlightened nun was trying to communicate. Then reconstruct the poem around that primary image or the instruction. In many ways it became something other than a translation, more in the line of what Coleman Barks did for Rumi. Some poems remained close to the original, some spun off.
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. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was certain of that. And I really think that’s the best, whether in our practice, our life, or in the creative process. It’s so clear that that place of not knowing is where we want to be.
RS: An open, empty space, full of possibility. It’s that curiosity that’s part of our practice. The translations are a very clear example of what can happen in that open space.
MW: It can be a very uncomfortable place to be. For me, a massive part of the process of working on these poems was learning how to deal with doubt and uncertainty. I was very uncomfortable knowing I was a man trying to interpret these poems by our female ancestors. I was even more uncomfortable when I saw that the poems were coming out as adaptations or interpretations. I imagined that many people would find that offensive, very presumptuous of me. This was a daily battle for me.
But, I would say, I’m here to do the best I can. If for any reason people want to disagree – and some people have strongly disagreed – that’s an important conversation. Let’s empower ourselves to disagree. We all learn from that conversation.
RS: Was there a particular point where you realized you weren’t going to let those interior voices stop you?
MW: No, I could never set this issue aside. But I realized in working with these poems that I was finding the joy and inspiration I needed for my own meditation practice.
After having worked on them for a year, I shared the manuscript with Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi and another Buddhist nun. I didn’t know what I’d do if they said I shouldn’t have done what I did. But they came back with unwavering support for the project. I just can’t tell you what that meant for me. By then I was living with the voices of these nuns in my ear, and then to have these two living, breathing manifestations of our ancestors say ‘good, this is worthwhile’. It gave me the confidence to continue.
RS: It’s a testament not only to the work you’ve done, but to the original text as well. The poems are there to be opened, and there’s a depth in these poems that allows them to support your interpretation.
MW: Besides their importance as a historical and religious text, the Therīgāthā is a beautiful work of art. And in a way my work was easy because these root texts are so beautiful and, like Shakespeare, so full of possibility, multiple interpretations, with deep, deep meaning. When you have that depth of meaning, you can see it from a thousand different angles and it’ll be true from any point. That’s when you see that the Therīgāthā is a seminal work of art that is absolutely timeless.
RS: On a personal level, what changes occurred as a result of doing this project?
MW: That’s a great question, and maybe the most important question. The main thing was seeing that there was a way in which I could bring all parts of myself into my practice and onto the path. That happened in two ways: how I was learning to relate to the poems, and also in the instruction these poems were putting forth. These are women from all walks of life, and they all had different practices and different relationships to the path. Reading these 73 poems by 73 women, you see that there’s no one right way to walk the path.
My artistic and my spiritual concerns overlapped when translating these poems. I could be an artist and a practitioner at the same time, and get fed by the same activity and material. That is what I would wish for all of us: that all of these parts of ourselves could come together, and that we would feel comfortable making things new in a way that will benefit everybody, and keep these teachings new for ourselves. ⁂
Ronn Smith lives in Cambridge, MA, USA. He can be reached by email here.
Dantika ~ the elephant
While walking along the river
after a long day meditation on Vulture Peak,
I watched an elephant splashing its way
out of the water and up the bank.
Hello, friend, a man waiting there said,
Scratching the elephant behind its ear.
Did you have a good bath?
The elephant stretched out its leg,
the man climbed up,
and the two rode off like that –
Seeing what had once been so wild
now a friend and companion to this good man,
I took a seat under the nearest tree
and reached out a gentle hand
to my own mind.
Truly, I thought, this is why
I came to the woods.
– translation by Matty Weingast, from The first free women
And the emptiness turns its face to us and whispers, ‘I am not empty, I am open.’
– Tomas Gösta Tranströmer
WRITING DOWN THE DHARMA
If a Buddhist writes fiction, what makes it
a Buddhist novel?
By Jan Rivers • Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand • publicgood.org.nz
A lot of Buddhist writing comes in the form of teaching, or advice. These books are often intended as a guide to the process of meditation and an encouragement to start out on the journey, or they offer a fresh perspective for its continuation. Often wise and accessible, they can be very helpful as insights on the path. Two of the more interesting books I’ve read in recent years, though, were by the Sydney secular Buddhist teacher, Winton Higgins, and both are historical novels. They are Rule of law (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2016) and Love death chariot of fire (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020).
Are there ways in which fiction can provide insight into dharma practice, or the gaining of wisdom, or stillness, or observation? I’ve considered these books in terms of the eightfold path: appropriate action, appropriate speech, appropriate relations, and so on. They do cover those things, and by showing rather than telling, as well-written fiction is supposed to do.
My childhood in the decades after the second world war was heavily informed by the ‘never again’ thinking that dominated that period, and the pressing social change and enrichment in the lives of ordinary people that arose across Europe and North America. As a result, I believe that public policies which enable people to realise their best qualities and to live rich and fulfilled lives are an important part of the prescription for a healthy world. This, in turn, supports the development of all sorts of qualities in people who can help to create a more equitable world. Understanding bipartisanship, social solidarity, internationalism, the benefits of living by shared rules, and the insights that come from philosophy are all things that, I think, can arise more readily when one doesn’t have near-term threats to be concerned about.
When I take the long view, and have mutualism and altruism as part of my framework, other things become possible. It’s all very well accepting ‘what is’ under awful circumstances, but my life – each life – is more properly about creating for myself / for ourselves and our fellow earthlings something better than mere survival. In short, all of this seems to be deeply interwoven with the eightfold path in which appropriate behaviour, thinking and mindfulness would bring about appropriate action and work.
Fraught with difficulty and danger, not the least of which are the danger of groupthink and claiming the moral high ground, I can only say that this is a project that is neither simply nor trivially but deeply interwoven with what I understand of the dharma, and yet in a way that is rarely spoken about. Higgins’ novels explore some of these areas from the point of view of two significant events in recent history.
Rule of law is about the first Nuremberg trial that took place after the second world war. It covers the lead-up to the trial through to the sentencing. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the city is broken, and the people who staff the court, recently released from military service themselves, are still traumatised. The trial technology – including simultaneous translation – is put through its paces, and the courtroom drama described.
Love death chariot of fire covers the development of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane in the years before that war, and focuses on the rise of fascism in Europe. The events take place in the decade between 1927 and 1937, and at its centre is the professional, family and medical life of Reg Mitchell, senior designer and leader of the team at Supermarine which developed the Spitfire. His life is described in the round: family and professional relationships, a serious illness managed with courage and dignity as Europe edges towards a seemingly inevitable war.
There is plenty of evidence elsewhere that describes how clearly people were aware of what was at stake throughout the 1930s, and while the racing planes that Mitchell’s team designs are for competition, their speed and the strength of the design were fundamental as they defended Britain during the Battle of Britain. The Spitfires in Love death chariot of fire did go into mass production, they did defend Britain against the rise of fascism, and they played a huge part in changing the course of the war.
On the other hand, many pacifists in Britain throughout the 1930s were hoping to tame the rise of fascism, rather than fight Germans. The decision to prepare for war or to pursue peace was a hugely difficult moral choice, and one that today’s dharma practitioners would need to grapple with in relation to current events.
In Rule of law, though, battle-weary war veterans were setting in place the building blocks for the institutions and treaties that arose from that war. The United Nations, the International Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Criminal Court came about in large part because of the rule-of-law approach taken at the end of the war to the Nuremberg trial, even though there was a strong desire by many to have summary retributive justice.
In each novel, moral choices loom large, and each involves real people involved in real events. Winton Higgins’s research is meticulous: not just the biographical details, but the settings – the cities and the domestic – are described with great care. Historical events are woven into the detailed scene setting; what real people said and did, and what they thought about it is the main focus of both books.
These books describe a time in history when participants were indisputably drawing a line under the chaos and misery that had come before. I think Winton wrote it well aware that it described a high point of public morality that the USA, with its summary executions of leaders across the Middle East, has tragically not followed in recent years.
In the current period of growing authoritarian leadership across many countries, the causes for the harsh, extra-legal decisions, and the hardening of attitudes away from bipartisanship are too little analysed – let alone understood. This was the case in the 1920s and 1930s too. Though we purport to understand the reasons for this earlier period as well as for the post-war reversal, surely a kind of societal desperation exists in both cases with the search for certainty.
I know also that it’s unwise to bind rightness or a sense of progress to a particular worldview. ‘If only everyone was more like us’ is always a grave error. What I see at the end of both Rule of law and Love death chariot of fire, and what I imagine Winton is alluding to, is the sense of working with the conditions at hand, and doing what is possible. In dharma terms, this is perhaps what is suggested by appropriate speech, appropriate action, and appropriate relations. ⁂
Jan Rivers is a recently retired public servant and a feminist who lives and teaches meditation in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand
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A BODHI COLLEGE ONLINE COURSE
After Buddhism and beyond
Running online from February through June 2021 and taught by Stephen Batchelor, each three-hour session of the Bodhi College online course After Buddhism and beyond will include talks, short meditations, breakout groups, and a question and answer period with the entire group.
In semester one, using selected passages from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age, Stephen will consider the emergence of a secular dharma within the history of Buddhism, offer a humanistic account of the historical Buddha, Gotama, and examine the key ideas that inform a skeptical, agnostic, therapeutic and pragmatic understanding of Gotama’s teachings.
He will present secular dharma as a creative way of radically reconfiguring the dharma to address the conditions of modernity and the crises facing the survival of life on earth. Founded on an ethics of uncertainty, it seeks an appropriate response to the suffering of our times without any appeal to metaphysical or religious beliefs.
During semester two, Stephen will explore how the project of imagining a secular dharma is evolving as a practical philosophy to engage with the existential crises of our time. In preparation for these sessions, participants will be sent passages from Stephen’s work-in-progress, provisionally titled The ethics of uncertainty: a post-Buddhist Odyssey.
Enabling students to continue their explorations of the topics introduced in the course, participants will be invited to take part in home groups with students in the same time zone. Attempts will be made to ensure people in these groups speak the same language. Bodhi College recommends that these groups meet between the sessions on a Monday or a Tuesday evening.
A reading list along with links to relevant audio and video recordings will be provided and each seminar will be recorded and made available for participants after the event.
At the public launch of After Buddhism and beyond, hosted by Tricycle: The Buddhist Review at the end of January, Stephen Batchelor will discuss the seminar series with Tricycle editor James Shaheen. ⁂
For more information and to register click here.
A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.
– Paul Cezanne
EARTH - AIR - WATER - FIRE
by Brad Parks, Santa Barbara CA, USA • satisangha.org
Earth. Air. Water. Fire. As scientifically-informed individuals, in contrast to those in many earlier cultures, we no longer consider these four primary elements to be the physical constituents of our world. We are more inclined to envision atoms, molecules, energy and gravity, though all are invisible to the naked eye. The ‘natural world’ in all of its sensory immediacy disintegrates in some fashion beneath our modern scientific gaze. However, those original four elements – with such a long and illustrious history – continue to occupy our imaginative landscape.
Elemental earth is our ground. In meditation practice we often seek grounding in our sensations, our body. We can have a sense of returning to something continuous, reliable, physically present – the sheer fact of our bodily existence. Feeling ungrounded can create an experience of being cut off from ourselves, out of touch with who we are or how we are. But the stability of earth in the midst of constant change is reassuring, comforting and encouraging. Here is something we can depend on, something we can trust. In meditation it is often the quality of physical solidity that allows us to rest, even relax, while our thoughts and emotions swirl around us. Earth, and its gravity, offers a deep refuge.
Most of us are hungry for a solid foundation on which to understand our past, to build our future and navigate our present. We look for, in poet T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘the still point of the turning world’. But as some of our planet’s residents know from experience, even earth can shake, rattle and roll. Although solid ground can nourish and support us – just as our body and sensations do – we may discover that at the deepest levels there are tectonic plates shifting and moving in relationship to one another. At any moment the ground beneath our feet can open up and surprise us with its own groundlessness. The self we have built on the earthy foundation of sedimented habits and views is not as solid as we imagine.
The element of air offers another sort of refuge – the refuge of space. Unlike earth, air has no boundaries. It is everywhere and it enters us and leaves us with little effort on our part. We cannot touch it and we cannot see it, yet it sustains us with every breath. As our body is to earth, the mind is to air, like the sky overhead. While the stillness of the body provides a focused stillness, the stillness of air is the vastness of space. Although air eludes our grasp, it can touch us and make its presence known through its effects: we feel the breeze on our face, we see the wind in the trees. We are surrounded and embraced by these unpredictable movements. Our thoughts and reactions often surprise us in the same fashion. Where do they come from and where do they go? Space does not discriminate.
Just as we can become mired in the earth of our habits, we can drift aimlessly in the endless possibilities of mind. In our metaphysical quest for ultimate realities we run the risk of entering such high and refined atmospheres of thought that air disappears, and we can no longer feel the earth beneath our feet. In human experience, the air element comes into awareness through its transformation by the body: we breathe in and we breathe out, an exchange of earth and air. Space without the flesh of human embodiment is an abstraction. In meditation the air of spaciousness permeates and enlarges our limited perspectives in such a way that the apparent solidity of our self becomes lighter and more transparent.
Water, like time, flows. We speak of the stream of consciousness, with its eddies and cascades. Undertaking the eightfold path is often named stream-entry, as we immerse ourselves in the swift flow of views, thought, action, speech and the whole range of life. Famously, we never step into the same river twice. Just as we sometimes do in the quiet moments of meditative rest, water can become a calm mirror reflecting depth and clarity. By contrast, if it is not refreshed from a deeper source, water can become murky and stagnant. When we cling too tightly to the comfort of meditative tranquility, we risk cultivating complacency out of a natural resistance to change and uncertainty. How do we honour our need for both movement and stillness as we navigate the flow of time?
The world is on fire. And inside, within our hearts, our minds, we feel and know the fires of greed, of hostility, of confusion. The smell of ash has set us on edge and we can’t help but wonder if we’re destined to go up in smoke. There is an urgency to this moment we find ourselves in; we are fired up and hope that our meditation practice will quench the flames without extinguishing our passion to live. What are we called to do in the heat of the moment?
We can bring a cooling awareness, imbued with tenderness and courage, to the rigid views and the anxious reactions which fuel our defensive sense of who we are. The flickering flame of self-making, mesmerizing and insubstantial, may never be extinguished once and for all, since the little light it casts may sometimes be the only guide we have. But we needn’t be afraid of the dark. Earth supports us. Air inspires us. Water refreshes us. And the warmth of your heart, your passion for justice, the fire of your imagination: guard them with your life! ⁂
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
– Marc Chagall
REASON AND MEDITATION
Science, meditation, emotion, creativity
by Ramsey Margolis, Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand • tuwhiri.nz
Not long after the notion of a contemporary, secular approach to the dharma had announced itself, the project risked breaking in two as two divergent tendencies seemed to be developing among its sympathisers. Described as ‘interpretive’ and ‘scientistic’, that the scientistic form of secular Buddhism didn’t come out of nowhere is clear. After all, a widely held view persists that the dharma embraces scientific investigation and so it needs to be understood as an adjunct of empirical science.
This view, I would suggest, leaves little room for creativity or the imagination in our endeavours to interpret and express our human experience. We need to address this issue, particularly as we’re trying to imagine how the dharma can become part of our lives in such a way that it helps us respond to the issues we’re facing today as living beings on this planet: climate emergency, social inequality and exclusion, species extinction (including our own), and much more.
⬆︎ a still from the documentary ‘A joyful mind’
Conversations between monks and scientists may be interesting but how, I wonder, do we encourage greater dialogue between the dharma and creative artists, writers, poets, musicians? Creativity is an essential component of my dharma practice; I’d suggest that a regular, creative meditation practice makes a practitioner more of an artist than a scientist.
In a New Scientist interview, the novelist and secular humanist Philip Pullman speaks about how his stories delve into difficult questions about our existence. It’s well worth reading. He often doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the interviewer, and those moments of disagreement are intellectually provocative and highly enjoyable.
Pullman believes that fiction can fill the gaps left by science. While science was a source of inspiration and metaphor for his trilogy of novels, His dark materials, consciousness presented him with an intriguing problem: ‘Finding the bit of the brain that lights up when you’re hungry or frightened isn’t the same as being hungry or frightened.’
Asked whether he believes science may be incapable of talking about a huge range of human experience, without hesitation Pullman responds:
We’ve got there already. You read it in Shelley, and Keats, and Shakespeare. You hear it in Debussy and Stravinsky. Poets such as Blake are saying something that is as true as E = mc2. It’s highly joyful, encouraging and healthy.
Referring to ‘Galileo’s error’ – the insistence that all things are measurable – Pullman states that mathematics can’t deal with qualities, with experiences, ‘How do you explain nostalgia?’ he asked the interviewer. That Galileo took the mind out of matter may have been good for the science of matter, but for Pullman it was not so good for the science of the mind.
According to Pullman, many of the matters that science is either sceptical or dubious about, or excludes altogether, are experiences that are well expressed in literature or music, poetry or the visual arts. He argues, though, that science is a field in which the imagination can be triumphant:
If someone works hard at it every day, the ideas are more likely to come to them, they’ll be more likely to see connections between things. You’ve got to have a bit of a gift for seeing resemblances between things.
As for religion, he tells the New Scientist journo:
I’m extremely interested in religion. Always have been. I don’t believe in a god, but the questions that religion poses, and tries to answer, are the important questions about human life. Where do we come from? Is there a purpose in our living? How can we be good? Do we have to be good? What happens if we’re evil? A story will help us make sense of anything but a story is a story. You don’t have to believe everything in a story and it’s satisfying.
Referring to the poet William Blake’s ‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s’, Pullman states that:
We have a system, most of us, but it’s a rag bag of different things. Memories, superstitions, inclinations, things we’ve worked out for ourselves, things we’ve bought wholesale from the nearest church. A thing that helps us to live in a meaningful way.
As creative dharma practitioners, where might we go with Pullman’s suggestions?
Stephen Batchelor suggests that a dharma practitioner who commits to practising the fourfold task ‘enters the stream’ and, in time, becomes independent of others in their practice – autonomous – while still enjoying the benefit of spiritual community. This practitioner can think for themself; they are free to imagine creative ways of doing things. This is empowering; it values creativity, and enables us to engage positively with the imagination in both our meditation practice and our creative lives.
The four bases for creativity can be found in the early teachings, according to Batchelor, they are: aspiration (in terms of desire or longing); perseverance or effort (which needs stamina); tapping into our deepest intuitions; and experimentation (in which we try out different approaches). We abandon many as not fit for purpose, while some actually work very well. Often we find the right solution by trial and error. Could this be the foundation of a scientific approach to creativity?
Whatever the answer to this provocative question, let’s leave the last word to Philip Pullman. At the end of his New Scientist interview he says: ‘I love talking about science because I know so little about it.’ What a great ending! ⁂
➡︎ Philip Pullman’s New Scientist interview is here, and it’s also on YouTube in full:
THE TOP 10 REASONS
Why ‘The Top 10 Reasons’ are simply irrelevant
by Mitch Ditkoff • ideachampions.com
Reason is highly overrated.
If you need even more data to prove your point, you’ll never have enough data to prove that point.
Anyway, you’re going to follow your gut.
By the time you put together a business case, conditions have changed and the market has left you behind.
‘Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.’ – William Bruce Cameron (sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein)
The scientific method came to René Descartes in a dream.
Most reasons are collected to prove to others what we’ve already decided to do.
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ – George Bernard Shaw
I am, therefore I think.
An artist’s failures are as valuable as his successes. By misjudging one thing he conforms something else, even if at the time he does not know what that something else is.
– Bridget Riley
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