This transcript should not be considered the authoritative version of what was said. Towards the end the time stamps may be a few minutes off. It is left intentionally only lightly edited. The spelling of “Annika Ecklund” is a guess since she is not credited in any printed material.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Welcome to the new books network. And today’s episode’s focused on poetry in Buddhist studies. My name is Yakir Englander and today we will focus on the book of poems, The First Free Women poems of the early Buddhist nuns published by the Shambala publishing house in 2020. When we think about Buddhist teachings, philosophy and art, we mostly go to male teachers from the Buddha, the monks and others. As in many other traditions, the voice of women practitioners and teachers is almost never heard. Composed around the Buddha lifetime, the Therigata verses of the elder nuns contains poems by the first Buddhist women. Here, you will find princesses and courtesans, tired wives of arranged marriages and the desperately in love, those born into limitless wealth. And those born with nothing at all. Their voices are all here. Matty Winegast revives these ancient collection.
With a contemporary and radical adaptation that remains true to the essence of each poems and highlights the struggle and doubts as well as a strength and profound compassion embodied by these courageous women. Since both Matthew and myself are men, we invited my dear friend and therapist Annika Ecklund to be part of our dialogue and to read the poems. Matthew Winegast is co editor of Awake at the Bedside and former editor of the insight journal at the Bare Center for Buddhist Studies with almost two decades of meditation experience. Matty completed much of the work on the first free woman while staying at Aloka forest monastery in Northern California.
Annika Ecklund: The First Free Women, page 31,
Another Mittā ~ Friend.
[See side by side comparison]
My mother always told me,
and you’ll get
Now I eat once a day
and wear only
a shaved head
and double robe.
It took some strength.
It took some courage to try
and see for myself.
The younger me would never have believed.
But these days I’m good
without having to wonder
Thank you, Matt. Welcome.
Matty Weingast: Thank you care. Good to see you. Good to see you Anika. Great to be with both of you.
Dr. Yakir Englander: It’s such a gift to have you, can you share with us before we dive into these poems, can you share with us a little bit about your spiritual religious background and how you came to translate to Buddhist nuns’s poems.
Matty Weingast: Yeah, sure. Um, um, I would say like my, uh, you know, my whole journey here isn’t so, um, isn’t so different from a lot of people’s. I grew up in a fairly secular Jewish household in New Jersey and, uh, you know, we celebrated the holidays you know… We, but Judaism was more of a cultural, um, uh, enterprise than it was spiritual for, at least for, in my, in our household, you know? Um, but as in many Jewish households and in the Jewish traditions, you know, for, for a long, long time now curiosity, um, was encouraged, um, and questioning was good and, um, and reading was encouraged.
Um, so those things were definitely instilled in me from a very young age. Um, and, and I, you know, I was naturally curious about a lot of things. Um, and I was a big reader as a young person, you know, and I, I became a big reader, um, through high school and through college to, even in college, I was studying engineering for some time, but, you know, that was when I started kind of, Oh, I found this copy of the Tao Te Ching, Oh, I found this copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hess. Um, these kinds of books that a lot of us come across. Um, it was also around that time that I started going to services on Friday night, um, when I got to university. Um, and that was also a time where I, you know, I began my college at Columbia university and it was, it was a time where I was around a lot of other Jewish people, you know, so it was, it felt quite natural where I was when I grew up there, there weren’t that many Jews around.
Um, so it was, it was under, it was also a time where I was understanding that, Oh, the community is really an important part of whatever we’re calling our religion or spirituality or just what we’re calling our life. Um, so I began to understand, you know, going to services as this kind of community thing. I would go with friends of mine. Um, and, uh, so it just kind of began on rolling slowly like that. Um, just one book after another and one conversation after another. And I was never shy about asking questions. You know, when I went to services, I had a lot of questions, you know, and then I would meet people. I would meet rabbis and I had a lot of questions for them and they were very patient with me, you know, and I have a lot of gratitude for them and being willing to withstand, you know, the barrage of questions that I had.
And from there, things just kind of unrolled. Um, I kept reading, I went on to study literature, um, and then, you know, kept reading in both Judaism and, but then more and more in Eastern traditions. Um, and then finally I found myself on a 10 day meditation retreat when I was about 23 or so. Um, and then from there, you know, I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, but you know, things have just kind of led themselves down this path, you know, where, um, you know, looking back at all feels, it’s kind of hard to imagine, you know, how one thing leads to another, but at the time it was just, it was just, Oh, I have this question, I’ll read this book, I’ll try to, I’ll try to learn to meditate. You know, this question, I’ll go in this arena to look for it. You know, looking at philosophy, looking at history, looking at literature, especially for me. Um, and just continuing to follow that thing that I was looking for. And it’s exactly what I’m still doing today. And it was exactly, uh, it was exactly what I was doing when I ended up, um, unexpectedly, um, translating this, uh, this collection of poems by the first Buddhist nuns.
Dr. Yakir Englander: So how did you come to these poems? And as I understand, we have some older translations, right, of these poems. So can you share with us a little bit more about, um, what touched you, what made you to decide to translate this specific poems, um, and to choose to translate poems all written by nuns?
Matty Weingast: Um, yeah, honestly, it’s a very interesting, um, it, it’s kind of hard to imagine how it actually did happen for me. Um, I had been studying Pāli, um, for some years at that time, Pāli is the language that the earliest Buddhist texts come down to us as, um, it’s a close cousin of Sanskrit. Um, and really Pāli’s only function now, um, is that it’s the language of the first Buddhist nuns. Um, so I had been studying that language specifically because I wanted to read the early Buddhist texts in their original language. And, um, without really thinking of ever becoming a translator myself that had really never occurred to me. Um, but then I was on a self retreat at a friend’s cottage in, uh, Southern Vermont. And it was just after leaving a job, I’d been working at a job for a few years at a meditation center and I was just leaving that job.
So, you know, it was kind of one of these very transitional moments where I wasn’t really sure what was going come next. And then, you know, there, I was on self retreat for a few weeks and plenty of time to think about things and, you know, plenty of time just to sit there, watching the snow fall. And I just happened to have a copy of the Therīgāthā which is what this collection of poems is called, um, uh, with me and I had the copy of it and Pāli and I had a copy in English translation. And I just remember looking at both and kind of, you know, playing with Oh, but you know, that word could also be like this and just started playing with one of the lines. And then there was a rough draft of one of them. And yeah, then, you know, a week later I had done a couple more and, but I wasn’t, I told myself, I wasn’t really working on this, this wasn’t something I was taking this seriously, but…
Dr. Yakir Englander: Can you share with us, it’s such a unique opportunity to speak with a translator. So you see a … You see a poem in English, right. You understand Pāli and something in you tells you I’m an unsatisfied, how it works, and then you decide, I want to give it another chance or there is something also about the generation. I mean, sometimes, you know, translation that was right. And maybe the best that could be in the 18th century just need another language to us in the 21st century. What, what is the process?
Matty Weingast: Well, yeah, Yakir, you know, I was very, very fortunate in that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. And I would, I would recommend this for anyone who’s, uh, undertaking any sort of project remotely related to this is that if you can get to that place where you are sure that you do not know what you’re doing, it’s a very, very good place to be. Um, and I feel very fortunate to have found myself in that place where I was taking on a project that I was totally unprepared to take on. Um, and also not really like telling myself that I was taking it on, you know, like I was just kind of like, but because my background is largely in literature, you know, like, like I remember when I was very, you know, I remember being 19, 20, you know, and like, you know, being in my basement, like reading Shelly and reading Edgar Allen Poe aloud to myself, reading Tennison and aloud it to myself and, you know, like reading these poems and just being so deeply moved by them, you know, and, you know, like being, you know, like having fiction and poetry and literature being such a big part of my maturing process, you know, and the way that I’ve kind of come to learn how to be in the world.
Um, so a lot of it was kind of looking at it from that perspective too. And seeing that some of the, there may be half a dozen English translations that already existed it, but then looking at them and being like, and all of them have their great qualities. And I have a lot of respect for all of them. And some of them are very, very good. Um, but seeing that like, Oh, like, but if we’re just looking at it for a minute, but from a perspective of a poem, like some of these can be a little smoothed over, you know, some of these lines could be a little bit sharper or brighter, you know, and just kind of starting from there and just seeing that there were other possibilities, um, that, that were kind of within the lines,
Annika Ecklund: How much of your hesitation to claim these poems as a project was related to that they were women’s voices.
Matty Weingast: It was a very, very big part of it. [laughing] It was a very, very big part of it. Um, and it, it looking back now, I can see how much really, like there was, it was, uh, there was a very difficult situation for me to be in, um, because you know, this was also happening around the time that the me too movement was starting to gain a lot of traction, you know, so it was very much in the universal consciousness. You know, we were all thinking about these things and to some extent that might’ve been part of my reason for wanting to get involved in it, you know, feeling like, okay, I am man, you know, um, but I care about this and I care about equality. And I wonder if there’s a place for me to be involved here, you know, and to some extent I knew my place was in the back-seat.
You know, like the best I could do was kind of be quiet, you know, and allow, especially female voices to kind of guide things for a while, because as we know, male voices have been doing the guiding and that’s been a big part of the problem. Um, so it wasn’t really conscious where I was like, Oh, I want to be involved in this. And I want to be part of this, you know, but it was playing somewhere in the background. And, but then once it started to happen and then, yeah, it was very uncomfortable for me knowing that I didn’t want to be one more male co-opting female voices. Um, there’s been a lot of that in for thousands of years, this has been going on. Um, and I knew that one way or another, if I was going to do this project, I would be one more male co-opting female voices.
And still to this day, I’m still very uncomfortable with it. Um, but on a personal level, I was gaining so much out of the experience. There was so much joy for me that was involved in working with the poems and spending so much time with the poems. These poems became my entire life for a couple years where everything revolved around these poems, it was all I thought about all day long and there was such joy and I was gaining so much out of it. I mean, my meditation practice was a big part of my life and has been for some time. And I was just seeing how much I was learning from these poems and how much my meditation practice was strengthening and expanding. And I was just, so there was just so much that I couldn’t stop because of that. I was getting too much out of it to stop.
Annika Ecklund: What, what are some examples of the things that you learned that you feel like are unique to these, to these voices?
Matty Weingast: One of the biggest ones, which, you know, I had heard several times, but it hadn’t sunk in was that there is not one single way of walking this path and whether we call it the path to Nirvana or the path to God, or the path to whatever it is, you know, whatever word anybody wants to put there, we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about this. And, you know, especially for me, in my younger years, I felt like I was always doing it wrong, you know? And like, Oh, if I was really, you know, good at this, I would be doing better or doing something different or I would be somebody different. Um, but these poems, there are 73 poems here written by 73 different Buddhist nuns. And they’re all different… People are,… these women are coming from all kinds of backgrounds. Some are very poor. Some are very rich. Some when they were young, someone, they were old, someone terrible situations, terrible marriages, others, quite joyful situations. And they all went about their spiritual lives in very different ways, even though it was all in line with the Buddhist teachings, but it was so vastly different …, 73 poems spending these years with these 73 different voices over and over and over again, it felt like they were telling me over and over again, again, there is not one way of doing this.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Wow, Matt, uh, two things that are coming to my mind. Um, one is about, um, how much it’s important in any spiritual and religious path to remind the people that being non-perfect, it’s the only way how to do the path. And I think about a beautiful letter that was written by a rabbi Yitzchok Hutner(??), who was one of the prominent … Orthodox rabbis in America. And it’s clear, there is a change letters between him and a student and probably the students ask him about that. You know, he tried to be Holy as much as he can, but sexual masturbation, et cetera, et cetera. And then rabbi Hutner said something fascinating. That speaks so much to what you said. He says one of the challenges that we have in our community, that when we share stories about our saints, about our rabbis, they’re already perfect. But what we forget is that each one of them all over their life needed to struggle, needed to struggle.
And then he said something even deeper than that. He says it’s written in the, in the Jewish text, in the Bible כִּי שֶׁבַע, יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם, (Proverbs 24:16) which means seven times a righteous person is falling and raising … You know, coming up. And he said, what we think is that even if you fall, you need to learn how to raise up and, and, and what he says, no, no, no, you don’t understand in order to become a righteous person, you need constantly to fall. And it’s so strong. And it’s so re a resonate about what you said in the second thing, which is some things that I really grieve, and this is why I’m so in love with translate with these book and your translation is, unfortunately, we don’t have these voices in the Jewish tradition with all the beauty of the Jewish tradition. We don’t have the voices of women who wrote poetry and who tell us about the different ways, how to, you know, how to become. Um, so if it’s okay, I would love if we can go and we can start to delve into the poems. And if we can please go to page four, um, I, and I wonder what we will, how do you understand this poem? So, Annika, please
Mutta ~ Free:
[See side by side comparison]
One morning after begging for my food—
looking down at one more meal
I hadn’t worked for,
hadn’t paid for,
A life of debts I could never repay
pushing in on all sides
like the weight of the sea.
Would it always feel like this?
Just as the moon rises up
from the bottom of the sea,
a handful of rice lifted itself
from the bottom of my bowl.
And my heart rose with it.
I wish I could tell you
how it tasted—
that first bite of food
as a free woman.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Thank you so much. Matt, can you share with us a little bit about this poem about this role? I think so much about the question of that since they do not work these nuns and monks, so there is a constant debt that they have towards community and how it plays in their roles as monks and nuns.
Matty Weingast: Yeah. I just want to say that Annika, I just really appreciate your reading of these poems. You know, this is really beautiful and to hear them, hear them coming out with your voice, you know, so a deep, deep appreciation to you. Um, yeah. Uh, yeah, I really loved this poem and, you know, yeah. It really speaks to, um, I mean, in the Buddhist tradition, uh, monastics, both male and female, they, they go on daily,alms round begging for their food and they’re not allowed to cook their own food. And, you know, today’s in monasteries, things are a little bit different, but still you’re, uh, you’re a mendicant you live off of the generosity of others. Um, what I really find beautiful about this poem in particular is that it actually, there’s, there’s a parallel, um, companion, um, of collection of monks poems from around the same time that include a collection of, of old, early Buddhist monks too.
But there’s, it feels to me very unlikely that a male could have written a poem like this. And of course understand like these, these poems are somewhat of an adaptation, you know? So like I was, you know, th th they were kind of going off a little bit in certain directions, but this one is faithful to the, to the, to the heart of what she was talking about this feeling of, Oh, do I deserve this? Am I good enough? You know, is it right for me to be taking, living off of the generosity of others? That is not a sentiment that a male would have been able to express whether to himself or even … Certainly in a public way. It seems very, very unlikely that a male would have been able to say something like that. And it’s an essential feeling. I know I’ve experienced this feeling many times during my life.
Oh, do I really deserve this? Am I really good enough for this other people are having to sacrifice at times for my benefit? Is that okay? How am I supposed to be okay with that? That feels very important. And it feels like it’s a very important thing to express and a very important thing to allow myself to contemplate. And by having this woman be able to express it for her, it allows me to be able to be okay enough with my own feeling, to be able to sit with it and say, yes, it is painful. This feeling. It is painful to know that other people are putting themselves out for me, let me be with this and see, you know, what can there be here? You know? Um, and I, I just think that’s one of the gifts of, um, having literature from as many voices as possible, because it w we’re, I think we’re very fortunate that these poems came down, because if we only had the monks poems, we would never get the side of things.
Annika Ecklund: Something that stands out to me in this poem and many others, is that the feeling of the word free, it, it’s hitting these, these powerful layer of, of free as a woman, uh, who is of course with less privilege and power, and then free in the spiritual sense, especially in a, in a Buddhist, spiritual sense of, of liberation. And, um, yeah, I wonder if you can speak to that in some way,
Dr. Yakir Englander: And maybe I will just add it Matt. Um, I also think about the traditional roles that women are like women provide. They make the food that normally right. And here they need to, um, like a lot of the honor of women comes by the cooking and also in many religious traditions, the place of women is that they cook for the poor and here we have, like, everything does the opposite. So yeah,
Matty Weingast: it, it must have been particularly uncomfortable for women at that time. This was 2,500 years ago. It must have been particularly uncomfortable for women of that time to be the ones who are not cooking and not giving, but rather the ones who are receiving the food. It’s really, I think, impossible to overstate how uncomfortable that must have been for them. Just like you were saying, um, women are they’re, the women are the sacrificers.
You know, women are sacrificed through giving birth and through tending to the young people and to growing up, taking care of the house, making the food, all of these things, women traditionally are those who sacrifice themselves so that things can continue. And so that things can go on. Um, the fact that like it could. And so, like, what Annika, you were talking about it, this idea of freedom on the one hand, like, you know, at least, and I think most spiritual traditions, um, there’s an idea of freedom. Whether we call that union with the divine, you know, or in Buddhist traditions, this more of a, uh, uh, a freedom from these, from these ties and or freedom from these, these cravings and these, you know, hatreds and things like that. However, we understand those to us. So ultimately that freedom in the end becomes not about whether you’re a man or a woman. Until we get there, There’s a lot of it that has to do with whether you’re a man or a woman, as we all know. And for a woman in… Living 2,500 years ago in Northeast India, you will never had a free moment, your entire life, you, as you were growing up, you belong to your father. And then once you were, once you were married, not by a person of your choosing, you belong to your husband. If your husband happened to die, you belong to your sons. So there was never a free moment for you and that whole life, you were never even taught to think about freedom, not in that way. So imagine what the idea of some, and of course, before the Buddha came along, they had their own religion. There was Brahmanism, which talked about, you know, union with Brahma and, and performing these rituals and things like that.
But to come along and say, Oh, no, whether you’re a man or woman or whatever cast you are, there is freedom for you to think of what that would even have meant to a woman at that time. It is literally impossible to imagine. You know, I, when I contemplated, I’m just my brain kind of just stops over it.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Thank you so much. Um, let’s read the two poems that focus on questions of sensuality and sexuality. So, um, Annika, can you please read for us first in page number six, and then after that, if you can read it for us in page number 49, okay.
[See side by side comparison]
Make the dark night shine.
Vimalā ~ the Virgin
[read side by side comparison]
My mother taught me how to sell my youth
for money and some sense of power—
just as her mother had taught her.
At our front door,
I answered the calls of passing men
with well-rehearsed lines,
laughing and lightly running a finger
along my neck and breasts.
A hunter with a baited trap.
Now I spend my days
sitting at the foot of this tree,
wearing only a shaved head
and double robe.
The legs of this naked mind
spread wide open—
ready to welcome whatever comes.
Matty Weingast: Yeah, it was, it was one of the really interesting parts of working with these poems. Um, some of them are very explicit about these were written by cortisans, you know, or by prostitutes. Um, and some of them also were written by unhappy wives, you know, so, so sex they’d come in, um, you know, back then, um, I mean, you know, like we were talking about before, like, yeah, things were not very good for women 2,500 years ago, but of course things are also not great for women even today. You know, the struggle very much continues. Back then to some extent from the monastic perspective, but even just in cultural society back then, it was kind of understood that women were very sensual and very sexual and always with all these passions, you know, they’re very passionate people and especially the male monastics as it’s very natural and that’s still happens very much today, would blame females for being so lascivious or whatever it was because then the males were feeling this kind of loss.
And of course, when you feel a, an emotion that you don’t want to feel, which is also painful, it’s very easy to blame that on the object of what you’re of what the thing takes, um, which is of course, totally ridiculous, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. Um, so women were pretty used to this idea that they were the problem. Um, and especially when they were nuns, the conversation didn’t stop there, especially for the men being celibate at that time. It was that much more complicated for them. And it also became in some ways that much worse for the women because they were double, triple blamed. Um, so, you know, you know, especially, especially this poem Vimala with the legs of this naked mind spread wide open, ready to welcome, whatever comes to some extent, um, there would have been a regaining of this kind of, you know, uh, wanting to engage in this conversation that they were, that was literally happening to them and saying, well, no, like if we’re going to be, if you’re going to tell us that we’re the problem and tell us every reason why we’re, we’re the thing that if we were only gone, you know, then you wouldn’t have any of these feelings anymore to flip that on its head and to shove it right back at them, you know, which seems entirely appropriate.
Um, and this was a, this was a pretty good example of that. Um, you know, there’s another one too Anika. I don’t know. I wonder if you’d be willing to read on page 45, um, Somā.
Somā ~ Happiness.
[see side by side comparison]
How could a woman,
who knows no more than how to cook,
clean, and make babies,
possibly reach the further shore—
on the way to which so many good men
have drowned or turned back?
The mind is neither male nor female.
When directed towards the arising
and passing away
of all things,
it easily penetrates
this mass of darkness.
What’s a few inches of meat
compared to the immeasurable reaches
of the liberated mind?
Matty Weingast: Uh, Annika, I wonder if you have thoughts on like this question of, uh, especially female sensuality, you know, and the conversation about that with men and also how it relates to the spiritual path?
Annika Ecklund: Hm. I don’t know if, if my feelings are tied specifically to sexuality, but, um, I, it just feels really healing to have these examples of, of femininity in this very open, inclusive way of what’s raw. And that includes sexuality and sensuality, but it also includes grief and pain and joy. And, um, that’s, that’s part of what really moved me about about these poems is that it, it feels like… It feels like resonant with my meditation practice that rips open the heart and, and th and these rip.
Dr. Yakir Englander: I think that one of the things that it’s, it’s interesting in the, in the last one that you read in page 45, um, … I think that the question of how much we try when we, when we say the two women are, are limited, right? In, in, in, in the, in the religious and spiritual tradition. And unfortunately in many of them, it was a case. And unfortunately in some of them it still, it is a case most of the time, the, the reason is one of the two or both of them together. One is that there are other things that they must to do, right. There are obligations that they have. This is by the way, the reason why in the Jewish tradition, in the Jewish laws, the Halakhah women do not need to do, all the Halakhah, because they cannot free them… they are not free.
They don’t have enough time since they have other obligations, right? So this is one, the other one is a second reason is because philosophy and theology demands a very clear answer of the truth. And there is something with colors that give different shapes of life and different layers of life, but it’s not the pure truest. Right. And I think that what. I am learning from these poems. Um, and, and again, I think we are really missing these voices in some other traditions… Is understanding that truth is… The desire for truth is very complicated. Because the desire for truth is a desire for one, and there is no one in life. I mean, we understand life by the way, how we experience life. And I think even deeper than that, and this is something that also these poems brought to my mind is many of us in … in some traditions, we are very proud of the idea of monotheism, because monotheism force us to think about the divine is something that we cannot really reach, right. We cannot even speak about. And there is only one God, right? One a god, but it’s also a price. I mean, maybe today in the 21st century. And by these poems, we see the challenge of that, that monotheism in a way, reduce the possibilities of having spirituality in thousands and thousands of different ways, how to touch life. And there are many sparks of divine and life. And I think that these poems definitely, definitely bring us something that we don’t see in male poems. And we don’t see in male theology.
Matty Weingast: Yeah. Yeah. I really agree with what you’re saying. And, um, yeah, it, that was really the other big part of what I got from working with these poems was, um. for first of all, like you, I think it comes across here at largely because I think we see it in, especially in these poems that we just looked at, because, um, for the most part, these were poems composed by women to a largest and spoken to other women. Um, because at that time they would have been more natural for their audience to be other nuns or other Lang women. Um, so things like, you know, talking about their relationship with men or talking about their relationship with sex, it seems like that would have been a really helpful conversation for young nuns to hear about from older nuns, you know? Um, and it was one of the big things that really, and that really supported me in my own meditation practice and just in my own, trying to become a person, um, was this kind of understanding that the way forward, isn’t by cutting parts of ourselves off and saying, Oh, like, Oh, we’re supposed to be leaving things behind, but we can’t just cut, cut a leg off and like start running, you know, like, you know, if we really want to make progress towards this, what you’re talking about, Yakir, this one, you know, this divine union, you know, we need to bring all of ourselves to it.
We need to welcome all parts of ourselves into that because we can’t afford not to, we need all the energy we can get, because as we all know, it’s a very difficult road and there’s going to be all kinds of challenges that we can’t foresee. So instead of as traditionally and still to this day, it is a very masculine idea to deny, or to cut off certain, certain parts that are unlikable or unattractive, or just like unsightly. That’s a very masculine kind of idea, you know, Oh, I have the answer to this chop. A much more of, and of course, in some ways this is general. In some ways I’m seeing archetype believe, but like it’s a much more feminine idea is inclusive, you know, and bringing everything in, you know, so, okay. We have, there are these ideas. We do have a sexual sensual role, but instead of cutting those parts off of ourselves or denying them and saying, Oh, I’m going to be celibate.
So I don’t care any more, bringing those energies in and using them, co-opting them for a different purpose for the spiritual path. These women understood that at a time when I don’t think many men would have, you know, and they were trying to explain that to other women and saying, it’s not about just saying, just cutting that side off of you. You can’t afford that. You need that energy. So you need to find a way of making a relationship to that energy because you have to use that energy for your other purpose. And that I think is a very central and very important role. And that I think is a very female kind of wisdom. And I think without women speakers and without women, artists and women composers, we do not get that.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Thank you so much. I want to move to another question. And again, it’s fascinating that only in, in this collection of poems, I found this voice. So one of the questions that we have in all tradition, I can speak about the Jewish tradition, is about the role of when your father or your mother, um, is a religious leader. And the fact that they dedicated themselves to the, to the community or to the end, to the divine, um, there is a price and the price are the kids. And I remember when, when we read, you know, in Genesis 22 about Abraham binding Isaac, I mean, the question is, what the hell are you doing? And, but maybe the author of the text understood deeply that in every [unclear] children of religious leaders, as Abraham who created a religion, right, they’re going to be binded and they’re going to pay a price.
And I remember when I read about, um, the Buddha who had the children and left them, right. But my question was why we don’t have the, you know, them binding of these children, why we don’t have these stories. And then you came with your incredible translation of these poems and we, for the first time I, saw a mother, a nun, and thinking about that, what does it mean to be mother nun? So if, uh, Annika, if you can please read it for us in page 90,
Vaddha’s Mother ~ A Mother’s Mother
[see side by side comparison]
My mother put on robes when I was just a child.
Can you imagine?
I was angry that she had shaved her head
and made herself so ugly.
Years later, she came back.
She was still wearing robes.
Her head was still shaved.
But somehow I no longer found her ugly.
She called me to her and said,
Just remember, my daughter.
There is only the Path.
Then she left again.
From that day on,
I could feel the Path growing inside me—
sometimes kicking and punching,
sometimes quietly napping,
sometimes gently humming to itself.
When I felt like I was going to explode,
my mother was there.
It’s coming, she said.
Say it however you want.
You carry the Path.
The Path carries you.
In the end—
when it’s your time—
the final push
from a strength
you never imagined
Dr. Yakir Englander: you know, we’re in podcasts, so we cannot be silence. Otherwise I will. What It’s like, it is what we need to hear.
Matty Weingast: Yeah. It’s really beautiful. Um, here, here, you recite the poems, Annika. I really appreciate it. Um, yeah, I mean, what you’re talking about Yakir, you know, especially with, you know, all traditions also have this, you know, not only spiritual traditions, but literature and cultural traditions have this idea of a child being sacrificed. Um, and, you know, with Abraham and Isaac and with the Buddha leaving, you know, um, his very newborn son, you know, to go in, uh, seek for enlightenment. And of course the nuns would have done the same, you know, and this is, this was one example, but there would have been many more too. Um, on the one hand, it seems to me likely that it would have been much more difficult for a mother to leave the child behind in order to go and seek, um, spiritual awakening than for a man.
But that aside personally, I can’t really, I can’t really speak towards, um, the difficulty of that, you know, and of course there’s a conversation about, you know, Oh, is it right? You know, to leave the child behind in order to own to seek your own spiritual good. I have no personal answers to that question. Other than that, it seems like a very complex and very difficult decision, but it is a decision that both men and women have made through throughout time. And we’re likely to continue to make, um, on the one hand, I think that though, I won’t say it’s the right or wrong decision. I do think that it’s important that it should be open for everyone. So if men get to make this decision, then women should be able to make this decision too. And I think that to allow them to, in many cases, we condemn the women much more than we condemn the men, which I do not think is fair.
Um, but here’s an example of a woman speaking about her experience of that. Actually it’s a daughter speaking about it from the mother leaving, um, which is really fascinating. I mean, you know, many have said that, well, the Buddha was inspired actually to leave home, to go seek awakening because of the birth of his son, because he understood that what he could provide to a son wouldn’t never would never be enough. Um, but that if he went and found what he was actually looking for, perhaps he could come back and teach that to his son. And it seems that that would be the impetus. And in this case, that seems very much the driving force between behind this woman’s mother going and returning, Um, Very complicated, being a human, very, very complicated.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Yes, Matty, we are coming to the end and I want to thank you. Thank you so much for taking these years and to translate for us and bringing us to this incredible voices of the first nuns in, in, in language that we all can be touched by. And I know that many who read this translation are fascinated and it’s a part of our meditation. Um, I would love, um, so thank you so much for, for being with us.
Matty Weingast: It was a great pleasure for me to do with you your care and you Annika, thank you so much. I really enjoyed spending time with you.
Thank you. So I would love if we can end, um, to our listeners would love if we can end please. With, um, with pager. Yes. Um, in, in page… 94, it’s a little bit longer, um, poem, but, um, I think it’s going to leave us with a very, very unique question about, um, trauma.
Uppalavanna ~ Blue Lotus
[see side by side comparison]
I hated my father.
And I hated my mother
for making him my father.
I left home to get away from him—
and then found him everywhere I went.
But I trained hard.
I learned to make
glow red with fire.
And I handled the darkness with a chain.
Then one night,
while meditating in the woods,
I was grabbed from behind.
This sal tree is in full bloom,
the man said.
And here lying beneath,
I find a sal flower
with a lovely shaved head.
Tell me, my little flower.
Aren’t you afraid?
I turned around.
He looked just like my father.
It would have taken so little,
a flick of a finger,
to make him
I looked into his eyes
and saw the billion lifetimes
that he and I
had been running around
this same circle
Then I walked
all the way down
to the darkest parts
of my own mind—
and stood in front of
the blazing roar
into the furnace.
Burn with me, my sisters.
And when you’re ready,
come up from that dark place
where you’ve gone
to be alone
The Path leads directly through
these vast worlds of fear and hate.
We have all wounded and been wounded.
We have all been made to feel weak.
There is great strength in the darkness.
The mind can be used as a knife—
or a chain.
Your whole world
Ask the lizard how long this has been going on.
Ask the sunflower and her million seeds.
The mind is more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Ask yourself what
you are really
to give up
in order to be free.
Dr. Yakir Englander: Thank you, Anika Ekland for reading and thank you so much. Matthew Weingast for translating the First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.