The First Free Women is a collection of poems written by the first female Buddhists. These poems, collectively called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, were composed around the Buddha’s lifetime, and their themes of freedom and love have endured until today. In this new translation, Matty Weingast revives the collection with a modern adaptation that preserves the original wisdom and feminine voice of each work.
From the foreword by Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi:
These poems….are like jewels to me. They call us to remember our greatest potential—our potential to be free.
They first arrived in my life at the end of a monthlong retreat. Matty, who was also sitting that retreat, mentioned to me with some trepidation that he’d been working on a translation of the Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns). I had a feeling from the few words he shared that this was going to be a translation unlike any I had read before, so I asked to take a look.
As I was reading those still-unfinished poems, chills ran through me over and over again. Some of the poems touched my heart, others shook me up, and some revealed teachings that I hadn’t seen so clearly before.
I had been waiting a long time for a rendition of the Therigatha that would speak directly to my heart. There are several English translations, but most have been done by scholars who have remained in a formal relationship with these poems composed by enlightened women 2,600 years ago. While these academic translations of the Therigatha may be literally accurate, and with some effort the inspiring teaching can be found, for me they miss the quality of transmission and so remain as words spoken long ago, now dusty and dry.
Reading through this new rendition, feeling the visceral response, and experiencing the sense of clarity and connection that came through, I realized that Matty had taken these poems far beyond what I had hoped for.
At times it has been a struggle to make my way as a Buddhist nun. Both the support and the modeling that elders can give has been missed. Much of our history and the legacy we receive through the Pali canon can be pretty tough. Nuns are often framed as being a problem, simply by fulfilling our aspiration to give ourselves wholly to the path of awakening. It’s challenging when a purehearted intention is met with opposition within the very community to which you belong, just because of your physical form.
There were times when the challenges and misunderstandings felt insurmountable. For a while, all of the nuns in the community where I lived were being publicly admonished for not understanding the teachings, for being overly identified with our gender, and for not being sufficiently grateful. I would sit and feel the impact of that while staying strongly connected with my clear intention to practice for awakening.
Staying present with the dissonance between my inner experience and those outer challenges became like an alchemical process. There was a sharpening and strengthening of spiritual qualities under this intense fire. For a time, I was able to use that experience as a tool for transformation. But at some point, one has to align one’s inner truth with the outer environment—and move on.
Over the past thirty years, a worldwide revival of the Theravada bhikkhuni order has been evolving. Slowly but surely, the opportunity for women to take full ordination is opening up again. It is a natural reemergence of what has been kept down for so long—a birthright that can now, at last, be reclaimed.
Scholars are gradually unearthing a less prejudiced history of these courageous women. Scholarly work and literal translations are essential, but we also need transmissions of the heart that can speak to us directly in this contemporary time. The First Free Women provides a link to the founders and lineage holders of this order. These renditions carry the voices of our enlightened foremothers, women from all walks of life who found the path to Freedom. I can hear them. I can feel them. They have come alive.
Living as a nun for the past twenty-five years, I have felt that I should present to the world what’s good, what’s inspiring, what’s beautiful. In order to do that, I sometimes have to push away or put on the shelf parts that are not so beautiful and inspiring. I feel as though my spiritual practice has gone to a whole other level since becoming involved with these poems—both because of the joy they’ve given me and because they invite a wholeness that I had never quite allowed before.
There are so many different kinds of women speaking here—princesses and sex workers, young lovers and wives in arranged marriages, women who were quick to gain insight and women who had to struggle for years, until one day it finally opened.
Somehow, they all found the Path. They all realized awakening.
For me, these poems have been an invitation to bring light to the hidden corners and the broken parts, to the confused parts and the angry parts, to all the parts that have been pushed aside. Because it’s only when we bring everything onto the Path that the Path can truly transform us. Most likely it will be messy at times. It won’t always look the way we think it should look. But if we have the courage to shine light into those forsaken places and welcome whatever we find there, as Rohini ~ Wandering Star says in her poem,
you will know
the true welcome
that is the very essence
of the Path.
May these poems bring you joy, insight, inspiration, and guidance along the way, just as they have done for me.
The Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns) is one of the sacred texts of early Buddhism and the world’s oldest collection of women’s literature. It consists of seventy-three poems composed by some of the first Buddhist nuns—women of all ages, backgrounds, and temperaments who traveled widely varying paths. Each poem bears the author’s name as its title. A few samples:
Mutta ~ Free
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.
Tissa ~ The Third
Why stay here
in your little
If you really want
to be free,
a thought of freedom.
Break your chains.
Tear down the walls.
Then walk the world a free woman.
Sumana ~ Flowering Jasmine
When you find
here your circling ends.
About the Editor/Translator:
Matty Weingast, MFA, is co-editor of Awake at the Bedside and former editor of the Insight Journal at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. With almost two decades of meditation experience, Matty is currently a resident at Aloka Vihara, a nuns’s monastery in northern California.
About Bhikkuni Anandabodhi:
Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi first encountered the Buddha’s teachings in her early teens, igniting a deep interest in the Buddha’s Path of Awakening. She lived and trained as a nun in the Forest Tradition at Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries in England from 1992 until 2009, when she moved to the US to help establish Aloka Vihara, a training monastery for women. Her practice and teaching are guided by early Buddhist scriptures and through nature’s pure and immediate Dhamma. In 2011 she took full Bhikkhuni Ordination, joining the growing number of women who are reclaiming this path given by the Buddha.
This article is excerpted from The First Free Women (c) 20202 Shambhala Publications by kind permission of Matty Weingast and Shambhala Publications. Our special thanks to Matty Weingast and to Mindy Zoltnick, for first bringing the book to our attention and connecting us with Matty.