December 9, 2020

Review: The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns

The First Free Women

Translated by Matty Weingast
Foreword by Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi
Available now from Shambhala
Review copy

The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns is a new translation of selected poems from the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, a Buddhist religious text from about 80 BCE, written shortly after the life of Buddha. The women who wrote it had once been rich, poor, mothers, daughters, wives, sex workers, but all came to walk the Path and become Buddhist Nuns.

I have not read any prior translations of this text, though I am now curious about picking some up to compare the renditions. Weingast's goal, as laid out in his introduction, is not to provide an academic translation, but one that maintains the poetry of the originals for a contemporary audience. I appreciate that he is up front that this is a translation that takes liberties. He did consult the Buddhist Nun Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi (who wrote the foreword) in his work.

Though The First Free Women is a slim volume of less than 200 pages and most of the poems fill a mere fraction of the page, this work took me several nights to read. These are poems that spoke to me, and made me think. Few sophisticated literary techniques are used, but poetry can be plainspoken and still ignite the mind with its ambiguities.

I am not Buddhist, but I feel there was still much for me to find within these pages. These women are focused on their religious journey - how they came to it, whether they questioned it, their advice - but each poem offers a fascinating glimpse into their lives.

Weingast's introduction notes that Buddhist Nuns still aren't accorded the respect of Buddhist Monks and that they have had to fight for ordainment that sometimes isn't recognized. I do not know who could read these words and think women less than men. But I know the world, and I do not doubt it.

The First Free Women is a fascinating read, and I am quite glad it found me.

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