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A radical and vivid rendering of poetry from the first Buddhist nuns that brings a new immediacy to their voices.
The Therigatha ("Verses of the Elder Nuns") is the oldest collection of known writings from Buddhist women and one of the earliest collections of women's literature in India. Composed during the life of the Buddha, the collection contains verses by early Buddhist nuns detailing everything from their disenchantment with their prescribed roles in society to their struggles on the path to enlightenment to their spiritual realizations. Among the nuns, a range of voices are represented, including former wives, women who lost children, women who gave up their wealth, and a former prostitute.
In The First Free Women, Matty Weingast revives this ancient collection with a contemporary and radical adaptation. In this poetic re-envisioning that remains true to the original essence of each poem, he infuses each verse with vivid language that is not found in other translations. Simple yet profound, the nuance of language highlights the beauty in each poem and resonates with modern readers exploring the struggles, grief, failures, doubts, and ultimately, moments of profound insight of each woman. Weingast breathes fresh life into this ancient collection of poetry, offering readers a rare glimpse of Buddhism through the spiritual literature and poetry of the first female disciples of the Buddha.
About the Author
MATTY WEINGAST 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 completed much of the work on The First Free Women while staying at Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery in northern California.
“Like opening a window and letting a clean, fresh wind blow through my being.”—Joanna Macy
“In wholehearted and vibrant language, the words of these liberated women are transmitted across centuries, allowing us to sense fully the freedom and joy inherent in their ancient experiences.”—Sebene Selassie, Dharma teacher and writer
“‘Just keep going. Sometimes the most direct path isn’t a straight line.’ Against all odds and much prejudice, these women forged ahead with the winds of the Dharma at their backs. Honest. Courageous. Inspiring. These reflections can’t help but touch the hearts of all who read them.”—Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness and Real Happiness
"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. If we have the courage to shine light into those forsaken places and welcome whatever we find there, as Rohini says in her poem, 'then you will know the true welcome that is the very essence of the Path.'"—Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi
“These are fresh, powerful, poetic translations that bring our ancient wise women to life. Let their beautiful songs of freedom inspire your own heart.”—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart
“A must-read for all women and those who love them. This inspiringly poetic translation of timeless wisdom reminds us of our freedom and how we can live free together.”—Ruth King, author of Healing Rage and Mindful of Race
“These renditions of the enlightenment songs of the early Buddhist nuns cannot help but remind us that the awakened heart is possible for us all. A masterful job of combining contemporary language with the Buddha’s transformative understandings. These nuns accomplished their final goal—and so can we. A wonderful offering!”—Joseph Goldstein, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
“Here we meet the sages of old through these rarely heard female voices. The power of the awakened mind comes through these poems, resonating through time and space like a clear bell. This book will stop you in your tracks.”—Kittisaro and Thanissara, authors of Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism and cofounders of Dharmagiri, South Africa
“Curl up with a cup of tea and let these poems speak to your heart. Then let your heart follow the path to freedom.”—Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, author of Buddhism for Beginners and founder of Sravasti Abbey
“Warmhearted, authentic, uplifting, and moving. This gem of a book deeply affirms why and how we keep practicing through periods of darkness and light. Weingast has adapted these poems from the original Pali with wisdom, love, and poetic intelligence based on years of practice and insight.”—Nirbhay N. Singh, editor of the journal Mindfulness
“This collection of poems shifts our perspective and opens doors where before there were only walls. The metaphors are simple—a bowl, falling snow, a warm blanket, a knock at the door—and the unfoldings inside us profound. Though the voices are distinctly female, the revelations, inspirations, and encouragements are wholly human. This is a book to share. As one poem suggests, some rivers we must cross together.”—Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, author of Naked for Tea, Even Now, and The Miracle Already Happening
“This powerful, beautifully translated collection of poems gives us direct insight into the lives of bhikkhunis at the time of the Buddha and their very human struggles and breakthroughs on the Path to Nibbana. A treasure trove of inspiration that will uplift the hearts of sincere seekers everywhere, reminding us that we, too, have the potential to be truly free.”—Bhikkhuni Canda, founder of Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project, UK
“An amazing rebirth of the Therigatha—deeply rooted in ancient times, yet also refreshing and meaningful to contemporary hearts. A new way of looking again.”—Bhikkhuni Santacitta, cofounder of Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery, California
“The voices of the first bhikkhunis in this contemporary rendering of the Therigatha are vulnerable, tenacious, and ardent. Through the poems the women are felt and alive; they viscerally impact me. Because of the recent revival of full ordination for women, there are not yet many elders within modern burgeoning bhikkhuni communities. The intimacy, intensity, and insightfulness of these voices help to fill the gap.”—Bhikkhuni Ahimsa
“A glorious portrait of the human condition through the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural experiences of women in Dhamma. The first Buddhist nuns saw value and relevance in the mundane, highlighting subtleties that men have historically ignored in the panorama of spirituality. The inherent wisdom of the female reality combined with natural storytelling instincts is elemental, intense, and sensitively direct.”—Bhante Buddharakkhita, author of Planting Dhamma Seeds: The Emergence of Buddhism in Africa and founding abbot of Uganda Buddhist Center, Entebbe
“This inspiration of the Therigatha carries the sweetness of freedom, the angst of pain and suffering, the exhilaration of humor, the depth and pith of profound wisdom, and the delicate tender care of pure love. These women remain powerful archetypes for our path—past, present, and future.”—Larry Yang, cofounder of East Bay Meditation Center and author of Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community
“Though thousands of years old, the voices of these awakened Buddhist women can be heard with freshness and clarity in this new interpretation of the Theri-gatha. These brief poems boldly proclaim the path to liberation, inspiring us to rededicate ourselves to our own paths and practices.”—Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Buddhist teacher and author of “Daylighting the Feminine in American Buddhism” in Innovative Buddhist Women: Swimming against the Stream
“A profound, earthy, at times playful, and always inspiring collection of poems. Hearing the awakened heart expressed in such distinctive strong, clear, feminine voices is a major contribution that all Buddhist practitioners will appreciate, especially in these times. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!”—James Baraz, Spirit Rock cofounding teacher and author of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to Happiness
“I could feel these women all around me and was completely immersed in the courageous mystery of the ancients, as well as the deep bond of giggling, couch-sitting sisterhood. I am beyond honored to be part of this legacy.”—JoAnna Hardy, cofounder of Meditation Coalition, Los Angeles
“There is a wondrous healing alchemy at work here, available for us to participate in if we can listen deeply. While reading these poems silently to myself or aloud to others, I am touched by their beauty and truthfulness.”—Caroline Jones, resident teacher at Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge
“I felt as though I was walking the path of practice right beside these women. Their struggles and their release from struggle were palpable and resonant. These poems ring with authenticity and timelessness. I love this collection.”—Susan O’Brien, Dharma teacher at Insight Meditation Society
“This book is a treasure trove of women’s voices expressing the path to liberation and liberation itself. It brings to life the earliest expressions of this tradition through the feminine perspective.”—Brian Lesage, guiding teacher at Flagstaff Insight Meditation Community
“Weingast’s fresh rendering of these ancient words will be of interest to anyone looking for feminine Buddhist voices.”—Publishers Weekly
“These are women who sought out enlightenment long before it was safe to utter ‘women’ and ‘liberation’ in the same sentence, yet Weingast has given voice to them in a way that renders the distance of two and a half millennia inconsequential. They speak as though they are here and now, about matters that still concern us here and now. These poems of forgiveness, grief, kindness, yearning, and wisdom are timeless, but they are also the stories of those who came before us and blazed the way forward.”—Buddhadharma