But of course, Weingast and the entirety of the modernist project are wrong in this: plucking poetry or religion or anything else from one culture and transposing it to another does not give one the liberty to re-imagine it entirely, then masquerade this new product in the original’s identity. That is textbook cultural appropriation. It is fraud. It is sacrilege.

“I made a mistake by endorsing the book without reading it properly and apologize for that.”
Hoping to defend himself after Ayya Sudhamma’s analysis began attracting more attention in the Buddhist Anglosphere, Weingast invited her, and others who were getting involved in the discussion, to a Zoom conversation on December 28. In Ayya Sudhamma’s account of the call published on Bhante Sujato’s website, Weingast repeatedly side-stepped the question of whether his work is or isn’t supposed to be a translation. He noted that he had been concerned, at one point, that people might mistake his book for a translation; he also described a process of composition that involved sitting in meditation and taking note of the feeling he intuited from each original poem.

This writing process recalls other attempts at shamanistic divination and channeling as they were undertaken by Western interlocutors, such as the mediumship and séance practices that emerged with Henry Olcott and the Theosophists in the 1800s, during one of the West’s earliest attempts to spiritually appropriate Buddhism. And yet, after acknowledging that the work is not a translation, Ven. Sudhamma recalled that Weingast stated “adamant[ly]” that he would not change the title, nor the front or back covers of the book.

Some readers have noted that Shambhala Publications, ultimately, bears responsibility for the book’s title, covers, and marketing campaign. On January 17, a small coalition of Buddhist monastics, translators, scholars, and authors (this article’s author included) sent an open letter to Shambhala calling for the removal of the book from publication on these grounds. In their response, a brief letter that was received by the co-signatories, Shambhala called the book a “work of poems inspired by the Therigatha,” acknowledged an awareness of the issue, and stated they “are in the process of adjusting [their] online descriptions so that there can be no ambiguity around the question of translation.” After that, the publisher added a note on the book’s page, saying its description had been “updated to clarify this is not a literal translation of the Therigatha.”

The implication from Shambhala is that the publisher never intended to market the work as a translation in the first place, when all the language around the book shows otherwise, including its title, original marketing copy, the cataloguing metadata sent from Shambhala Publications to the Library of Congress (which describe it as a translation), and numerous blurbs, which call it a translation, while the promotional copy on the back cover declares the poems “transmit the words of these liberated women,” that “their voices are all here,” and that Weingast is “offering readers a rare glimpse [at] the spiritual literature and poetry of the first female disciples of the Buddha.”

While it is destined to be lost to us, the Therigatha has survived and endured for 2,500 years—it will not be erased today.
Bhikkuni Canda, a British nun and spiritual director of the Anukampa Bhikkuni Project, recently released a public statement on her Facebook account to “acknowledge that I made a mistake by endorsing the book without reading it properly and apologise for that. I have contacted Matty and the publishers, Shambhala, to ask that my endorsement be removed from the book.”

Recently, a second open letter was sent to the publisher from 42 co-signatories at the time of this article’s writing, with more still adding their names, who outlined the group’s grievances and demands for remediation. Among the list of demands are calls for Shambhala Publications to: withdraw the book in its current form from publication; issue a public apology explaining how this deception came to be and why it was defended; release the book under a different title if it is to be re-released; ensure any marketing material related to the book makes clear it is not a translation of any kind; remove the existing subtitle from any version of the book; work with the Library of Congress to ensure the book is catalogued as a work of original poetry; and others.

Several days after I reached out to Shambhala Publications for a comment for this article, their team directed me to two public letters, both released just before the deadline that Lit Hub’s editors had given them to respond. The first, a public letter from Shambhala Publications president Nikko Odiseos and addressed to signatories of the open letters, states, “Although it was certainly not our intention to mislead readers regarding the nature of this poetic reimagining of the Therigatha, we see that many were, in fact, unclear about this point, and we fully acknowledge our misjudgment in how we presented this author’s work. … We did not present [the book] as we should have, for which we are sorry to both the author and to readers who very reasonably expected something different.”

The publisher also said that, in consultation with the author, the book will be reissued “clearly and unambiguously as an original work, rather than as a translation.” While failing to provide an explanation on how this situation came about, Odiseos promises that Shambhala “will also be updating the subtitle, cover, descriptive copy, and the Library of Congress information,” and that they have begun reaching out to everyone that provided an endorsement “to give them the opportunity to revisit their endorsements before the new edition comes out.”

A separate public letter, a general note on the book’s first edition also issued Monday, acknowledges the controversy around the book, noting, “the provenance and classification of the book as an ‘adaptation’ or ‘loose translation’ has become the subject of debate.” This is a soft capitulation, still trying to frame this as a misunderstanding, rather than an explanation as to why the book was clearly and fraudulently marketed as a translation.

Tradition holds that the teachings are destined to be forgotten in this world, to be rediscovered in a distant time and future by another Buddha, when we are all long forgotten. In an early text, the historical Buddha warns of the teachings’ disappearance, telling us that “when the counterfeit of the true teaching appears in the world then the true teaching disappears.” He adds, hopefully, “The true teaching doesn’t disappear like a ship that sinks all at once,” exhorting to his followers that the appropriate defense against counterfeiters is to diligently maintain their respect and reverence for the teachings and transmission. In this way, the teachings’ fade from the world is slow and gradual. Ultimately, while it is destined to be lost to us, the Therigatha has survived and endured for 2,500 years—it will not be erased today, not by this one act of forgery, not as long as Buddhists, and friends of Buddhists, who respect the teachings take notice and speak out.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated Weingast does not know Pali; however, Weingast claims to be self-taught.
Ouch. I love Shamballa press and have many of their publications.