A response to the interview with Matty Weingast

Suzanne Franzway, Adelaide

When I first read Ronn Smith’s interview with Matty Weingast I was charmed by the poem Matty cited as his original inspiration for his book, The first free women: poems of the early Buddhist nuns (2020). “Dantika – the elephant” evoked for me the way so many of us talk to the animals in our lives. However, talking over the debate about the book with my colleague Nadine Levy, I think it is worth opening up the issues for more discussion in the newsletter.

There are three main issues receiving the most commentary.

1) That the book is represented as a translation, by the publisher and by most reviewers and commentators although Weingast himself describes his work as a reconstruction, a rendering or as a result of channelling the nuns’ voices. The introduction to the interview describes the work as ‘a “looser” or more creative interpretation’, but then refers to its content as ‘translations’. Some commentators have contacted the publisher requesting that the book be rebadged and catalogued.

2) That the book is written by a man who in his own words is ‘trying to interpret these poems by our female ancestors’. To counter this concern, Weingast spent a great deal of time working on his poems with Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi (and an unnamed nun) at the Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery in California. Although these two nuns contributed to the work, Weingast is cited as the author, while Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi contributes an admiring foreword: ‘These poems you hold in your hands are like jewels to me’.

This ‘new rendition’ makes the ‘dry and dusty’ academic texts of previous translators ‘come alive’. Having now read some of these translations myself, this seems rather dismissive, especially when we contrast them with the extremely wordy texts of so many of the suttas.

Although I am not very concerned with the gender of the author, I am nevertheless struck by the kind of feminine voice with which he claims to be speaking. For example, compare Weingast’s rendering of the poem, ‘Samgala’s Mother’ with the versions by Charles Hallisey and Bhante Sujato.

Samgala’s Mother

1 – Charles Hallisey, (2015 21)

I too am well-freed from the pestle; my shameless husband, even the sunshade he worked under, and my pot that stinks like a water snake all disgust me.

As I destroyed anger and the passion for sex, I was reminded of the sound of bamboo being split, I go to the foot of a tree and think, “Ah, happiness,” And from within that happiness, I begin to meditate.

2 – Bhante Sujato (https://suttacentral.net/thig2.3/en/sujato)

I’m well freed, well freed,

so very well freed!

My pestle’s shameless wind was wafting;

my little pot wafted like an eel.

Now, as for greed and hate:

I sear them and sizzle them up.

Having gone to the root of a tree,

I meditate happily, thinking, “Oh, what bliss!”

3 – Matty Weingast (2020 26)


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.

Mine has taken

A little longer-

And came with

The sound

Of straight bamboo

Being cleanly sliced

Into two even pieces.

I now know for myself

Where true release

Comes from, and where it leads.

A seat at the foot of any tree.

As Kyung Peggy Meill explains, the mother is an older, poor woman who was married to a rush-plaiter, probably when very young, and had a son who became a monk (Meill, 2020 59). The pestle signals the tough labour of food preparation and she likely barely eked out a living making sunshades and baskets out of bamboo sticks. But Weingast transforms the verse into being entirely about hetero sex. His rendering leaves no room for the monk’s mother to speak of how she has achieved dharmic happiness.

3) This brings me to a third issue that is arising in response to this book, which is that the poems at most speak to a very thin or shallow Buddhism. For some commentators, the absence of Buddhist understandings in the poem is evident by the very limited references to a world that includes rebirth. My concern is much broader since the Buddhism on display here is severely diluted by discourses of universal norms which obscure historical, gendered and racial specificities.

Consider for example, the poem with which we began:

Dantika – The elephant

1 – Thanissaro (https://suttacentral.net/thig3.4/en/thanissaro)

Coming out from my day’s abiding

on Vulture Peak Mountain,

I saw on the bank of the river

an elephant

emerged from its plunge.

A man holding a hook requested:

“Give me your foot.”

The elephant

extended its foot.

The man

got up on the elephant.

Seeing what was untrained now tamed

brought under human control,

with that I centered my mind –

why I’d gone to the woods

in the first place.

2 – Sujato (https://suttacentral.net/thig3.4/en/sujato)

Leaving my day’s meditation

on Vulture’s Peak Mountain,

I saw an elephant on the riverbank

having just come up from his bath.

A man, taking a pole with a hook,

asked the elephant, “Give me your foot.”

The elephant presented his foot,

and the man mounted him.

Seeing a wild beast so tamed,

submitting to human control,

my mind became serene:

that is why I’ve gone to the forest!

3 – Weingast (2020 40)

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.

As I noted, Weingast’s version certainly creates a very pleasant scene, but it leaves out completely the key move of the poem, namely that when asked by the man, the elephant extends its foot. The man has trained the elephant to do this, and it is for the man’s convenience so that he can climb up and ride the animal.

The essential point is to learn that if it’s possible to train such a large animal, it’s also possible to train one’s own mind and become serene. Of course, dharma teachers encourage us to befriend our minds, and to treat our minds with gentleness, but training requires some strength, even a hook or pole, as well as instruction. This central advice is overtaken by Weingast’s stress on the woman’s gentle hand.

The publication of this book and its very warm reception by so many teachers, meditators, lay and monastic practitioners as well as scholars raises critical questions about Buddhism in our time. If we are to benefit from Weingast’s efforts, then we certainly need to pay close attention to the words, but also to tough questions about cultural and political assumptions and discourses.

For example, why dilute the dharma of the Therigatha, an acclaimed anthology of some of the earliest Buddhist women? Why ignore that they were Asian women, living during a specific historic period? What discourses of femininity and feminism are in play? Given that the book has been endorsed by some of the most well-known Buddhist teachers, what does this say about their knowledge of significant texts? Does the fact the book is connected to one of the very few classics by women affect the way it is read?


Hallisey, C. (2015). Therigatha: Poems of the first Buddhist women. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Meill, K.P. (2020). Diversity in the Women of the Therīgāthā (2020). Mindfulness Studies Theses. 29. https://digitalcommons.lesley.edu/mindfulness_theses/29. (Mindfulness Studies), Lesley University. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.lesley.edu/mindfulness_theses/29.

Weingast, M. (2020). The first free women. Poems of the early Buddhist nuns. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.

Expand full comment

yes. Ramsey. lovely issue. I particularly liked the poem, Dantika - the elephant. It evoked for me the way so many of us talk to the animals in our lives. I also enjoyed your piece riffing on Philip Pullman (whom I have never read) and scientism as a strand of secular Buddhism. This was useful for me as it clarified some of the ideas that are quite widely circulated on this topic.

Expand full comment

Wonderful issue of Creative Dharma! Thank you, Ramsey and all the other authors.

I enjoyed Ronn Smith’s thoughtful interview with Matty Weingast. I appreciated the contrast between the friendship and gentle hand in Weingast's translation of “Dantika—the Elephant” compared to the stern goads and emphasis on human control I subsequently found online in other translations. It reminds me of Winton Higgins’ lovely paper in Tricycle in which he translated the Buddha’s last words as “Things fall apart, tread the path with care;” arguing convincingly appamada, usually translated as something like “diligence” or “vigilance,” is better understood as “care.” (Higgins, Treading the Path with Care, Winter, 2016).

Thank you, Jan Rivers for inspiring me to read Winton’s novels and Mitch Dikoff, for making me smile in such an edifying way. Congratulations to Brad Parks for so richly conveying the value of exploring the four elements in our practice. I appreciated the quotations scattered through the edition.

I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful discussion, Ramsey, about the Philip Pullman interview and then watching it afterwards. I read His Dark Materials more than once many years ago and was blown away by how wonderfully creative and darkly iconoclastic Pullman can be, although I thought he (understandably) lost control of it in the end. I am grateful for how your article and the interview itself help to bring into focus and make more accessible this challenging topic of how science, as valuable as it is, renders us impossible in a way that tends to contribute to uprooting us from our lived experience.

I loved where you went 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."

As the philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin so ably demonstrated, we humans while shaped by systems and cultural patterns, also already exceed them in our daily lives, although we need help to learn to think for ourself and live in truly creative ways. I’m excited about how your project Creative Dharma seeks to contribute to this.

Expand full comment