Dharma talk at Access to Zen Sangha on March 8, 2021 on Zoom. I was initially invited to offer analysis of the Dhira poem from Weingast’s The First Free Women, and added analysis on Samanera (Anagarika) Mahendra’s translation, with reflection on questions surrounding Weingast’s book about translation.
“O Dhira, appeasing of perceptions is happiness”
Prepared notes for my talk / Loose transcript
Happy International Women’s Day. I’m so honored to be speaking with you all tonight. I know this space usually is framed as a talk with Q&A afterwards, but I’d actually love to start off by inviting a bit of feedback from you all. As the new person entering into a conversation, I really invite your thoughts and ideas in those spaces of feedback.
It was a few weeks ago when Rev. Liên invited me to speak on The First Free Women. Just that week I had started to hear the online buzz that there were deep questions about this book. Is it a translation or not? What does it mean to have some white guy today do interpretative poems of Asian nuns from 2600 years ago?
It sounds like you all have been talking about this. I’m curious to hear from a few people who have been following along with this study — what has been your arc of engagement with this book?
How did you feel about it when you started reading? How did you feel when you heard critiques about this not really being a translation? How are you feeling now?
[Hear from students, recording is turned off]
Thank you for your reflections!
Tonight we’re going to study the poem “Dhira ~ Self-Reliant.” We could do that by trying to read and listen to how this was originally written in Pali, the language in India that a lot of early Buddhism was written down in.
Dhire nirodhaṃ phussehi saññā vūpasamaṃ sukhaṃ,
Ārādhayāhi nibbānaṃ yogakkhemaṃ anuttaraṃ.
[Itthaṃ sudaṃ dhīrā therī gāthaṃ abhāsitthā’ti.]
I don’t know about you, but my Pali translation skills are not very good. There might be a word or two I recognize, and I might have pronounced some of that correctly.
We could look at a more ‘accepted’ translation which attempts to stick more literally from what’s said in Pali to what’s said in English. And we’ll look at that a little bit tonight.
But anyone who speaks more than one language knows that there’s never a 1-1 match for words and meaning, even between modern day languages, much less working across ancient Pali and modern English. As one example in Buddhism, we talk often about the difficulty of translating even a core word “sati” into “mindfulness” because in English we think about heart-mind as separate things, while in Pali heart-mind is all one field. The connotation is not the same. We lose a lot in translation.
And then there is the poetry that Matty Weingeist has offered us. Now, we could decide this is just trash, and throw it out. I know I looked at the long list of teachers who had read the book and shared glowing praise. Many of these are my dharma teachers. So even as I hear the critiques about whether to think of these as translations, I feel curious about what he is offering here that is perhaps a different doorway toward liberation.
Given that today is International Women’s Day, I’d like to explore a couple of gender nuances that feel present in the critique of this book, that I don’t hear people naming or taking care around. In exploring this, I want to name pretty explicitly that I am not actually interested in defending Matty Weingeist. The more I read about it, it feels helpful to distinguish his writing from other forms of translation.
But there are a couple of things in the shadow of this critique that feel important to name and be attuned to how they might be amplifying the scale of critique to a much larger call out.
So .. what am I talking about? One: While I feel irritated by the race dynamics of a white dude writing and rewriting Asian bhikkhuni poems, the people online who’ve seen be most livid about it are white people, particularly white women. And that’s often a red flag for me to double check my own intentions. While it’s part of my work as a white anti-racist person to speak out against injustice, it’s also part of my work to check my saviorism. The academic Gayatri Spivak describes this in colonial contexts as “white women saving brown women from brown men.” Or in this case, white women saving brown women from white men. Something I’m tracking — who is the angriest about this?
Two: That question also lifts up another dynamic in the public conflict, where it’s a lot of monastic voices critiquing a project that has been in deep communication with a particular set of American Theravada Buddhist nuns. On the cover, we see that Ayya Anandabodhi has written the foreword. Do you know the history of how these bhikkhuni nuns are pariahs within the most strict monastic orders? In the Theravada Buddhist traditions across Thailand and Sri Lanka, the order of bhikkunis, the lineage of nuns, died out over 1000 years ago. In a strictest reading of the Vinaya, the rules for monks and nuns, there was no formal way to re-establish this lineage. With the bhikkhuni lineage extinct, no new bhikkhunis could be ordained since there were no bhikkhunis left to give ordination. The bhikkhuni lineage was just revived in the last 25 years in 1996, when 10 nuns were ordained by Sri Lankan monks. The Thai tradition has been much more strict. Just 12 years ago in 2009, Ajahn Brahm ordained bhikkunis to practice in Australia and Northern California, and was kicked out of his Thai Forest lineage for his action. Matty Weingeist’s partners in this book are not just any Buddhist nuns. Ayya Anandabodhi was ordained in 2011 within this nearly banished lineage of Thai Forest nuns. When I think through this history, and the precarious positionality of Ayya Anandabodhi and other nuns in her community, I have to pause and wonder — how does her positionality as an outsider impact people’s quick and fierce critique of this work?
Again, I want to slow this point down and reaffirm that I am trying to find a middle path here. Some significant critique of Weingast’s book and the broader marketing plan by Shambhala is absolutely essential here. I want people who are coming to this book for the first time to know they are getting something different than what they will get from other translated sources of the Therigata.
And … when my anger escalates to just throwing the book out entirely as trash, I find it critical to scan. What other feelings and impulses have been stacked onto this opportunity, but actually might be about something different?
This brings us back to Dhira, the nun we are connecting with tonight.
I’m going to put a couple of translations into the chat for us to look at together — one from Samanera Mahendra, and the poem from Matty Weingeist.
Samanera (Anagarika) Mahendra, 2017
Contact cessation, O Dhira, appeasing of perceptions is happiness;
Attain nibbana, the unsurpassed refuge from fetters.
Matty Weingeist, 2020
Dhira ~ Self-Reliant
Look closely, my heart.
See how all things
Arise and pass away —
which is turning
The shapes on this page
Into the sounds
When you no longer need
To read the signs
To find your way,
You’ll know for yourself
That books and maps
Can only get you so far.
There is a direct path.
In Samanera Mahendra’s translation, we’re getting pointed to how to contact freedom, or the cessation of suffering. You might be familiar with this already, but I want to break down this phrase “appeasing of perceptions” (or sanna in Pali) points to a host of teaching about the five aggregates. If we want to understand how we’re relating to something, it can be helpful to break it down into component parts. We can use Matty Weingeist’s book as an example of something that we’re relating to:
- Form or matter: it’s got a cover, paper pages, ink
- Feeling: That’s changed for people over time, as pleasant, unpleasant, neutral
- Perception or labeling: There’s a lot of labels you could give this book. You might name the book as blue or name your emotion about the book as angry.
- Mental formations or conditioned things: Like I just talked through, there’s usually some other residual past conditioning that shapes our perceptions. In this case, it potentially shapes why we’re so angry about this book. It’s helpful to articulate that clearly.
- Consciousness or sense contact: We have 6 sense doors for relating to the book — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. We can get information about the book from any of those points of consciousness. (I suppose you can taste it if you want to!!!)
In breaking this down into 5 parts, Dhira keeps it simple and says that the more we ease up our labeling, the more happiness we can have.
I’d like to look at how Matty Weingeist gives us an example of that. [Read poem out loud].
I actually find his imagery of “the shapes on this page” to be a really powerful way to distinguish the form of the ink, from the perception of a particular word that we have learned how to read in English, from the mental formations that happen when these words collide with the historical connotations that we apply to them based on our personal experiences. He also pushes us to be attuned to the forms of consciousness or sense contact that are at play for us when we read. Is it just through our eyes? Is it something we hear through our ears if we’re whispering quietly? Does our experience change when we have different points of contact? How is it in contact with our mind and thoughts?
I especially find his example helpful for anyone who might read Samanera Mahendra’s translation, and not fill in an understanding about what perception means from other readings.
As we’re reading, I invite you to stay in touch with your own feelings about this poem, which can be totally different from mine. What I want us to pay attention to is how something so seemingly benign as “the shapes on this page” can evoke such a range of emotion. This is an essential teaching, that even before we see the shapes on this page we can show up with a story about who wrote them, what they are about, and how we’re going to allow ourselves to be impacted by them.
We first had a story about these words being directly from liberated Asian Buddhist nuns. Now we might have a story about it being some white dude who is faking it. The shapes on the page have not moved, have not changed. But our perception of them as positive, negative, or neutral has shifted, and might even be shifting again. And they might get shifted again.
This is a deep lesson of the Buddha that what our eyes come in contact with, what our senses come into contact with, ‘the shapes on the page,’ are not some kind of pure information out there. You take in the shapes differently based on the story you have about what this book is, and what past conditioning you might apply to it. Can you feel that?
This doesn’t just happen when some white dude is overreaching what should be named as translation. This is happening ALL OF THE TIME. With everything our senses come into contact with.
It can feel overwhelming if you attempt to try to keep track of all of it.
I appreciate the reminder from Matty Weingeist that in this practice toward liberation, “That books and maps / Can only get you so far.” Certainly his book is only going to get us so far. I return to this piercing clarity from Dhira to practice “appeasing of perceptions.” When I think I know what something is named or labeled, is there space to leave that up for consideration? Can I notice how that offers me a measure of freedom?