Compassion and Wisdom
Compassion and Wisdom
"The human heart is basically very compassionate, but without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective."
As human beings, we all try our best to bring about a world based on kindness and compassion. What seems to go wrong, however, is that what I want, what I personally would like, becomes more important than the benefit of the whole community.
Whether we look at religion, philosophy, science, development or politics, wherever there has been human society it has manifested wisdom and compassion. But because of our tendency to be involved with our own selfishness, our own likes and dislikes, we develop walls and isolate ourselves from others.
We do not allow the openness that can be felt between human beings to express itself because of two fundamental things: hope and fear. All of us want some happiness and no one wants to suffer, so every action we take is motivated by the thought of how can I be happy, how can I avoid pain. In a world already divided in so many ways, we create a world of our own. A very selfish attitude develops.
All philosophies and religions in the world aim to break through this wall of self-isolation, so that we can work with one another with real care and compassion. From a Buddhist point of view, we examine ourselves carefully—not as a way of blaming ourselves for having created this division, but as a way of working with the root cause of the problem.
The problem is not with the world, or with other people, but with ourselves. Wisdom is innate in us; it is not something that can be bought, heard or received from outside. But our involvement with the external environment and the distraction of our own emotions causes a kind of layering or veiling that prevents us from observing ourselves carefully. We do not give ourselves enough time and space to use our innate wisdom to observe ourselves before we act.
However, through meditation, to use an Eastern term, or examination or analysis, to use more Western terms, there exists the possibility for wisdom to arise within every human being. Meditation is the process of looking inward, of refraining from our dualistic tendency to pay more attention to external issues than to the internal issues we don’t want to work on.
A society based upon peace, harmony, wisdom and compassion is not going to come about unless each person begins with themselves. Through our ignorance, our failure to use our innate wisdom, we make many excuses for not starting with ourselves. The biggest excuse we use is that we require the other person to change before we do. So if I get up in the morning and things don’t happen the way that I want, everything gets blamed on my external world. On days when everything goes right, people look good to us and appear kinder.
If we reflect on it, we realize that our perception of the external world has much to do with our internal attitude. Our mind makes excuses based on external circumstances that reflect what we feel inside. When we see a person and he does something we like, then he is a good person. But if this same person does something we don’t like, then he is a bad person. So transforming the external environment must begin with transforming the inner self, because only when the self is tamed and a fair amount of awareness exists within us will we have the strength to relate properly with others.
The human heart is basically very good, very generous, and very compassionate. But it may not always work together with wisdom. The result is that we have many people ready to go out and change the world for the better, but who still view philosophy, religion, and politics according to what they like, according to what they want.
Even in matters of spirituality—where we struggle to attain some selflessness and to let go of attachment, ignorance and selfishness—even there we assert that what we think is wisdom is correct. We assert that what we think is compassion is the correct compassion. Even at the very peak of meditation, we may still have these same opinions, but we use the excuse that it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings. The endless struggle with the self creates this same problem over and over again.
Realizing the innate wisdom in every human being must begin with training the self. To break through ignorance requires breaking through ignorance in all of its forms.
Ignorance is not something that comes from others. Ignorance is something that comes from the projection of the self. In Buddhist philosophy, we speak a lot about illusion, which refers to how human ignorance, or the human mind, creates a lot of external phenomena, and how once that illusion is created, we see it as very solid and permanent.
In meditation, we break through that illusion of external phenomena by analyzing its dream-like nature. The first step is to understand how we create our own illusion—to see how this human mind works to create and solidify the world. If then we can let go of our attachment to that illusion, we will be free from pain, free from our own expectations, and free from our own hope and fear.
Until that level of awareness is achieved, however, every moment of your life, everything you use or consume, comes about from dependence on others. You sit on chairs which were made by other people. You wear clothes which were made by other people. You eat food cooked by other people, which in turn was grown by other people. As much as you would like to believe that you are your own person and have achieved things through your own efforts, the truth is that you are linked with all other beings.
This awareness of our interdependence leads directly to a sense of responsibility, and letting go of our self-grasping. Until we have achieved true selflessness, completely free from ignorance, we can begin in a smaller way by giving back to others what we have received in order to benefit others the best way we can.
Whether we call it compassion, love, caring or a Buddhist term such as bodhicitta, it means the same thing: that in your actions, speech and thought you put others before yourself. Some of us practice meditation to achieve this understanding; others are able to understand this without formal meditation. But no matter how good compassion sounds when you talk about it, it really comes down to practicing it. And no one understands you as well as you do. You need the wisdom to look inward to see what kind of a person you are.
Compassion means letting go of your self-identity, letting go of proving that identity all the time. Compassion means you work in the way the wind works, the sun works, or the air works. Take, for example, how the air assumes the shape of the room. The air does not say, “I will give you this breathing space provided you breathe the way I want.” Everyone enjoys the benefit of being able to breathe in the air. It is the same way with the sun: the sun does not stop shining when there are clouds in the sky.
In that same way, selflessness free from attachment, or compassion used with wisdom, means that one goes beyond the way you want to do things. If you can let go of making yourself the most important person in the world, there will be more capacity and spaciousness within you to work with others. You will find more space, time and energy within yourself.
For example, because of your good heart and kindness, you go to work in a hospital or a hospice. But you find that there are restrictions and you can’t do things the way you want to. You find yourself fighting against the system, and you reach the point where you are exhausted by your efforts. You conclude that your compassion is not being used in the best way.
What needs to be understood at this point, by applying wisdom to your compassion, is how much solidity you are bringing to the situation. Because you are holding on to how you think things should be, your feelings of frustration have overshadowed the creativity you might apply to the situation.
When we want to generate compassion, we ultimately end up working with our own emotions. We discover that any situation which overwhelms us does so to the degree that we solidify it. So without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is what enables us to be unconditioned and unbiased in our actions. With wisdom, we are not limited to a single cause or purpose; we do our best in a given situation, and then we move on.
Without wisdom, we too often become focused on one single problem or issue, which we think is the most important thing. But we live in a world that is populated by human beings, and as long as there are billions of human beings at work, there will not be a single thing that everyone accepts. There will be many things that are not done or said exactly the way that you like. If you look at different philosophies—whether Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism—all of them arise from compassion. But I believe this one is correct, you believe that one is correct, someone else believes another is correct. Even with such a universal concept such as compassion, Buddhists feel it necessary to call it bodhicitta, Hindus feel it necessary to call it karuna, Christians feel it necessary to call it love. We stick to our own terms.
Wisdom teaches us that these differences should not cause us to pull back. They should not stop us from exercising our compassion with even greater strength and motivation. When the Buddha first gave teachings, how many people understood them? None. Because of that, he refused to give the teachings for a period of seven weeks, but then he began to teach again.
If the Buddha had refused to teach because no one listened to him, we would not have the Buddhist religion today. Similarly, if I insist that my words and my compassion have to be accepted by everyone, that really would be decadent wisdom. That would be wisdom for me and no one else. But real wisdom is letting go of the fixation on what I think is right, in order to see more clearly what is really helpful. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective, what truly needs to be practiced by all humanity. This is very necessary. This is something that we need to practice.
Wisdom requires that we work with the inner self, in order to act in accordance with the basic goodness we all have. And when we meet with obstacles or difficulties, we can use them to develop more inspiration, for if we sincerely value kindness and caring, that belief will give us the courage to overcome all obstacles. Wisdom is being able to use obstacles in this way. Otherwise, wisdom becomes some sort of museum piece, and we end up collecting philosophies, logics and teachings just like people who collect old furniture.
The wisdom of all the world’s traditions needs to be nurtured and cared for, not collected. Our innate wisdom needs to be developed, understood and sharpened. Each person must develop the quality of fearlessness so that wisdom can cut through their ignorance. The best wisdom is that which you have the courage to apply to yourself. Only then can you really understand human beings as they are. Then you can give yourself and others the chance to grow individually, to think as they want. All of us need space to develop.
We can all learn together to some degree, but the transformation of the world must begin within ourselves. Compassion and wisdom need to function together, combined with skillfulness, tolerance and patience. If we give ourselves the time and space to really observe our own thoughts and actions, good can come about. We give ourselves and others a lot of space in which to function properly; rather than act selfishly, we act selflessly.
Much of this is easy to say. Practice definitely begins with ourselves. When we look into a mirror, we usually know what we want to see, and so we see only what we want. To see what is really in the mirror, good or bad, and to work with what we see, is very important and very necessary. It takes some courage.
So think carefully, because times change. Every moment of life, we lose someone that we know. Time does not wait for anyone, and because there is change in every moment, frivolousness harms only ourselves. But if, in our short lives as human beings, we are able to be of some benefit to someone else, then that is the activity of an enlightened being.
The Ven. Khandro Rinpoche is one of the most prominent women teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. She is a holder of the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages of vajrayana Buddhism; her root teachers are the late Sixteenth Karmapa, the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and her father, Mindrolling Tichen Rinpoche. Fluent in English, Khandro Rinpoche teaches regularly in North America and Europe.
Six Kinds of Loneliness
Six Kinds of Loneliness
To be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. It is also called enlightenment.
In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or the other. If I can't go left or right, I will die! When we don't go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox center. We're alone, cold turkey with all the edginess that we've been trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty heavy.
However, years and years of going to the left or right, going to yes or no, going to right or wrong has never really changed anything. Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. It's like changing the position of our legs in meditation. Our legs hurt from sitting cross-legged, so we move them. And then we feel, "Phew! What a relief!" But two and a half minutes later, we want to move them again. We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the satisfaction that we get is very short-lived.
We hear a lot about the pain of samsara, and we also hear about liberation. But we don't hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It's the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily every after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.
As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we've been avoiding uncertainty, we're naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there's a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.
The middle way is wide open, but it's tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don't want to sit and feel what we feel. We don't want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.
Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises in our mind. In fact, we are encouraged not to even grasp whatever arises in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.
The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings, it's very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them. We want victory or defeat, praise or blame. For example, if somebody abandons us, we don't want to be with that raw discomfort. Instead, we conjure up a familiar identity of ourselves as a hapless victim. Or maybe we avoid the rawness by acting out and righteously telling the person how messed up he or she is. We automatically want to cover over the pain in one way or another, identifying with victory or victimhood.
Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.
There are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness. They are: less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activity, complete discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security from one's discursive thoughts.
Less desire is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood. Practicing this kind of loneliness is a way of sowing seeds so that fundamental restlessness decreases. In meditation, for example, every time we label "thinking" instead of getting endlessly run around by our thoughts, we are training in just being here without dissociation. We can't do that now to the degree that we weren't willing to do it yesterday or the day before or last week or last year. After we practice less desire wholeheartedly and consistently, something shifts. We feel less desire in the sense of being less solidly seduced by our Very Important Story Lines. So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior. That's the path of bravery. The less we spin off and go crazy, the more we taste the satisfaction of cool loneliness. As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said, "One can be lonely and not be tossed away by it."
The second kind of loneliness is contentment. When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose. We don't have anything to lose but being programmed in our guts to feel we have a lot to lose. Our feeling that we have a lot to lose is rooted in fear—of loneliness, of change, of anything that can't be resolved, of nonexistence. The hope that we can avoid this feeling and the fear that we can't become our reference point.
When we draw a line down the center of a page, we know who we are if we're on the right side and who we are if we're on the left side. But we don't know who we are when we don't put ourselves on either side. Then we just don't know what to do. We just don't know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. Contentment is a synonym for loneliness, cool loneliness, settling down with cool loneliness. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. We can just be lonely with no alternatives, content to be right here with the mood and texture of what's happening.
The third kind of loneliness is avoiding unnecessary activities. When we're lonely in a "hot" way, we look for something to save us; we look for a way out. We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That's called unnecessary activity. It's a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don't have to feel any pain. It could take the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit of gossip into the six o'clock news, or even going off by ourselves into the wilderness.
The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves? What about practicing not jumping and grabbing when we begin to panic? Relaxing with loneliness is a worthy occupation. As the Japanese poet Ryokan says, "If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things."
Complete discipline is another component of cool loneliness. Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we're willing to come back, just gently come back to the present moment. This is loneliness as complete discipline. We're willing to sit still, just be there, alone. We don't particularly have to cultivate this kind of loneliness; we could just sit still long enough to realize it's how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions—all our ideas about how things are—keep us from seeing anything in a fresh, open way. We say, "Oh yes, I know." But we don't know. We don't ultimately know anything. There's no certainty about anything. This basic truth hurts, and we want to run away from it. But coming back and relaxing with something as familiar as loneliness is good discipline for realizing the profundity of the unresolved moments of our lives. We are cheating ourselves when we run away from the ambiguity of loneliness.
Not wandering in the world of desire is another way of describing cool loneliness. Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us—food, drink, people. The word desire encompasses that addiction quality, the way we grab for something because we want to find a way to make things okay. That quality comes from never having grown up. We still want to go home and be able to open the refrigerator and find it full of our favorite goodies; when the going gets tough, we want to yell "Mom!" But what we're doing as we progress along the path is leaving home and becoming homeless. Not wandering in the world of desire is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.
Another aspect of cool loneliness is not seeking security from one's discursive thoughts. The rug's been pulled; the jig is up; there is no way to get out of this one! We don't even seek the companionship of our own constant conversation with ourselves about how it is and how it isn't, whether it is or whether it isn't, whether it should or whether it shouldn't, whether it can or whether it can't. With cool loneliness we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That's why we are instructed in meditation to label it "thinking." It has no objective reality. It is transparent and ungraspable. We're encouraged to just touch that chatter and let it go, not make much ado about nothing.
Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want to be or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. Then loneliness is no threat and heartache, no punishment.
Cool loneliness doesn't provide any resolution or give us ground under our feet. It challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying. This is called the middle way, or the sacred path of the warrior.
When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
Click here for more articles by Pema Chödrön
Discussion led by Melvin McLeod
Sharon Salzberg, Barbara Rhodes, Judith Simmer-Brown & Pat O'Hara on what it means to be a woman dharma teacher and how they'd like to see Buddhism in America evolve.
Melvin McLeod (Editor, the Shambhala Sun): To begin with, maybe you could each tell me something about how you became a Buddhist teacher.
Sharon Salzberg (Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author): I went to India in 1970 to look for a meditation teacher. It was an incredible time. As Westerners there, we felt like a group of adventurers. We were interested in practical teachings—it wasn’t a question of becoming a Buddhist or adopting a dogma, but really bringing something into our lives.
Most of my early teachers were men, but I didn’t feel much gender bias. The person who actually told me to teach was my first woman teacher, Dipa Ma. She had led an extraordinary life, with a tremendous amount of suffering and very little control over her life in an ordinary Western sense.
When she told me to teach, what she actually said was, “You really understand suffering; therefore, you should teach.” I think that reflected not only what she’d been through in her life, and what I’d been through in my life, but also something within her experience as a woman—an understanding of the depths of suffering and the transformation of suffering into compassion that seemed unique. She was the model for me of how to take the losses, the tragedies and the difficulties of life, and actually use them as enrichment for my understanding of the dharma.
Judith Simmer-Brown (Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Naropa University and senior teacher (acharaya) in Shambhala International): I learned Zen practice from Suzuki Roshi and felt completely in love with the absolute present quality that he had. After his death, I met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and felt the same kind of connection with him. As time went on, Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged me to teach dharma and to step as fully as possible into that role. He always encouraged women teachers.
In those days I never really thought much about women versus men teachers, because there were a number of both in our community. It was when my meditation students began to talk to me about the obstacles that they faced as women that I began to think about it more, and I talked to Trungpa Rinpoche about it. He had incredible sympathy for the situation of women. You got a kind of direct transmission from him that on any ultimate level, the issue of being male or female was not a problem, while obviously in our relative experience this was something that we all had to deal with.
As time went on, I realized I had a lot to figure out about what particular strengths I could bring to situations as a woman, and what support I could provide to both male and female students to sort out this issue of gender. I was helped a great deal in this by Khandro Rinpoche, a woman Tibetan teacher. There is one quote from her that I find very helpful, and consider a kind of slogan or koan for my life as a woman teacher: “If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered.” That helps keep me from being snagged by my sense at times that being a woman is an obstacle, and it also helps me appreciate the qualities as a woman that I can bring to my work as a teacher.
Barbara Rhodes (Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen): I met the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn in 1972. I didn’t feel any obstacle being a woman, as he didn’t seem to treat anybody like a woman, particularly. It was more like we were all a bunch of really yang Koreans. If you’ve met him, he’s pretty yang, and there weren’t a lot of women around, but I liked him. I really loved his teaching. He just kept stressing: Believe in yourself. Only go straight. Don’t know. Ask yourself who are you. It was pretty much an androgynous practice.
At one point I asked him if there were any women Zen masters in Korea, and he said, “Oh no, of course not. Women can’t attain enlightenment.” He said it with a really straight face and then walked into the kitchen. I followed him in and said, “I’ve been with you for two years and you’ve always said just to believe in yourself. How can you say women can’t get enlightened?” He just stared at me and pointed his finger and he said, “So you’re a woman?” In other words I had grasped man/woman concept. He was saying that you can’t attain enlightenment if you hold on to that self identity. I really liked that approach.
He made a few of us dharma teachers when we were pretty young students—we’d only been practicing with him about three years. He didn’t distinguish whether we were men or women; he just had us start teaching.
Pat O’Hara (Soto priest and resident teacher of the Village Zendo, New York): I started reading dharma books in the late sixties, but as a single parent I found it extremely difficult to enter into any Buddhist community with a young child. It was a difficult time because I knew that I had a passion for the dharma, but I couldn’t find a home that seemed conducive to my idea of mothering.
Finally, when my son was old enough in the early eighties, I began to practice at Zen Mountain Monastery with John Daido Loori Roshi, and right off he started talking about my starting to teach. My attitude was, no, I’m just here to face the wall, thank you, but he was very encouraging.
As an American teacher, he didn’t have any issue of men versus women, and whenever the gender was vague in a koan, he encouraged us to switch it to female. So initially I wasn’t really aware of the incredible marginalization of women that had occurred in the history of Buddhism, of all the women who had been forgotten and their names left unsaid.
Then when I began to study with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, it was like studying with a woman. It was very peculiar. He was this wonderful feminine energy and we would sit in this darkened dokusan room and cry together [laughs].
Melvin McLeod: The prominence of women in Western Buddhism now is unique in the history of Buddhism. How did it come about?
Pat O’Hara: Well, the whole feminist movement was going on at the same time Buddhism was coming to the West, and there had to be leakage back and forth.
Sharon Salzberg: What I’ve seen happening in the Theravada tradition is a kind of movement back to the people. So much of what was taught over the last couple of centuries didn’t necessarily reflect the actual teachings of the Buddha. As a woman you were told to create merit so maybe in your next life you could be a man and get ordained and become enlightened. As Westerners began practicing, that idea exploded. There was the sense that if liberation is really possible, I want to explore it. I don’t want to think about someone else doing it, or doing it in my next life. I want to know how I can actually transform my life now. So the movement toward women teachers is also a reflection of the belief that liberation is real, a real possibility for everyone. For most women teachers I know, there was no self-conscious decision to transform Buddhism. It came from wanting to change our lives, and discovering a tradition that said we really could.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I discovered feminism before I discovered Buddhism and it gave me a sense of confidence and desire for liberation. I very quickly saw that liberation would not come through feminism, but I appreciate what I learned about myself from it. It gave me an enormous yearning to be free from confusion.
Feminism inspired a sense of confidence among so many people in the seventies, and women didn’t hold back spiritually. They may have held back in other areas, but in the spiritual movements, women really have sought liberation.
Melvin McLeod: To what extent is the predominance of women teachers attributable to the character of the particular Buddhist teachers who came to the West?
Judith Simmer-Brown: I’ve studied with quite a few Tibetan teachers and not many of them have shown the kind of encouragement toward women that I experienced from Trungpa Rinpoche. He encouraged women to overcome any sense of shyness and really step into teaching roles.
Barbara Rhodes: I’ve already described Zen Master Seung Sahn. I don’t think he has too many feminine bones in his body. But in Korea, the nuns just love him and most of his students there are women, the ones who practice seriously with him. He has actually empowered women much more than other Zen teachers in Korea. I have to give him credit where credit’s due. He’s that kind of a person.
Pat o’Hara: Maezumi Roshi came to this country as a young man and just fell in love with the freedom and real thirst for the dharma here. He seemed very open to the new traditions, and part of it was that he empowered a lot of women. It’s wonderful.
Melvin McLeod: I’m surprised, because it sounds like overall you haven’t experienced a lot of obstacles in becoming teachers.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I think that at times women face more obstacles from other Western students than from the teachers. My women meditation students tell me about the difficulties they’ve had in many different settings in the Buddhist community. They can find it very difficult to hold their own and have confidence in a variety of situations.
Melvin McLeod: Do women teach the dharma in different ways than men? Are there issues you
address in your teaching that are particularly close to your heart because you are a woman?
Sharon Salzberg: I teach so much about loving-kindness, and people often say to me that it’s because I’m a woman. I actually like to think not. I like to think it’s more a reflection of something very basic in the teachings of the Buddha. Now, was I drawn to teach about love and compassion because I am a woman? Maybe, but look at the Dalai Lama. Compassion is what he embodies and teaches, and what people seem to long for. So I’d say no, it’s not about my being a woman.
Barbara Rhodes: I refer a lot in my dharma talks to what I learn from working as a nurse at a hospice, and from being a mother and a daughter. I can’t help but draw on my experience of these roles, and I think if someone compliments me as a teacher, it’s usually because they appreciate how I draw my hospice stories and my mother stories and my daughter stories into the teaching of Zen.
I lead a lot of meditation retreats and I feel so gratified that men come in for their koan interviews and there doesn’t seem to be any thought of whether I’m less than or different; there’s just a nice sense of flow back and forth. Sometimes people do say, “I’m glad you’re a woman,” because maybe I spent a little more time with them, or I said, “Oh you look sad,” when one of our male teachers might not have said that. Sometimes I think that’s a gift, but sometimes I think one of our male teachers might have given a sharper interview that would have been just as or more helpful.
So there is some difference. I think I have rounder corners than a lot of the male teachers and that can be a blessing sometimes. When my daughter was little, I would pick her up all the time, and I think I pick up my students in a way—not physically, but with that same sense of patience and loving their weaknesses if they’re vulnerable, just feeling that and going into it. But of course, fathers have that quality too, and people who don’t have children will have those gifts also.
Judith Simmer-Brown: In the Tibetan tradition, the wisdom aspect of the teachings is associated with the feminine, which is depicted in the form of the dakini, while the skillful means aspect of compassion is more masculine. Without joining the masculine and feminine aspects we can’t become fully enlightened, and I’ve reflected a great deal about how this relates to my gender being female.
One thing I’m aware of is how easy it is to get hooked on gender as concept, and yet how easy it is to ignore gender altogether. In my life, I’m trying to identify the ways in which my gender might be helpful to wake things up for myself and others, and at the same time, trying to step over the ways in which my gender might be an obstacle—getting stuck in particular states of hesitation or emotionality or whatever.
For instance, I have been reflecting on how emotion can be an obstacle for women, and yet how it is also the wisdom aspect we have to offer in many situations. I’m interested in how emotions can be empowering for myself and for others—really seeing emotions in an empowered way, without falling into extremes of emotional indulgence. I have been doing a lot of teaching on romantic love and on working with the emotions of intense domestic situations, such as parenting, and in this I think there are things in my temperament and experience as a woman that might be helpful.
Melvin McLeod: What is distinct about the way a woman teacher relates to her female students, and what is different about the way she might relate to her male students?
Pat O’Hara: For me it’s more about the type of person who is drawn to a woman teacher. In particular, the kind of man who is drawn to a woman teacher is probably a little different than the kind of man who is drawn to a male teacher. I asked some men students why my teaching appealed to them, and most of them said they wanted something that was open to the masculine, yet without the martial quality of traditional Zen. They liked the softer approach I offer, particularly in terms of body work—meditating in a position of ease as opposed to a position of tension, that kind of thing.
Barbara Rhodes: Women will often find me… I don’t know if hard is the right word, but I’ve stuck with this practice and it’s not an easy practice. To stand for this practice is what I try to do as a teacher, so I think they might find me an inspiration, but also too hard.
To generalize, I think women can become overemotional sometimes and men can have a hard time bringing up their emotions. So if there is some overemotionality, maybe I can inspire a woman to move toward the center, to find the strength men often have to overcome emotionality. It’s not that one way’s better than the other, but I do help women to realize that it doesn’t help when you’re overemotional. And it’s the same thing with men. I encourage them to cry. I know they’re right on the verge of tears and I’ll kind of bring out the Kleenex box and encourage it, whereas a male teacher might not.
Sharon Salzberg: I think women tend to bring up their life situations and the traumas they’ve suffered more easily than men. In her very first meeting with me a woman might say, I’ve had a breast cancer diagnosis, or my son died, or something like that. A man might also have a tremendous source of suffering in his life, but it will be much later before he says, this is weighing on me, or I don’t know what I’m going to do, or I feel like such a failure. There’s not usually the same degree of vulnerability and openness expressed right away by a man.
Judith Simmer-Brown: It seems to me that initially in relationships with students there might be more sense that my gender or their gender is an issue. But once you get beyond the first couple of conversations it seems pretty irrelevant. I was talking with a woman just the other evening about her new pregnancy, her fear about being a mother and that kind of thing, and obviously there are certain life situations where gender is very relevant. But it seems the really deep issues of meditation practice are not so gender-oriented. To me, it seems important to get beyond gender-related issues to those core issues that we all share as human beings. The issues we’re experiencing in our meditation practice are usually much more fundamental than these gender-related issues.
Pat O’Hara: I agree with you so much, Judith. I remember giving a talk about not being heard and not being seen as a woman. After the talk, this man came up to me and said, you know, you’re talking about me and my life. That really helped me to see that in dealing with issues of sexism and racism and homophobia and that kind of thing, we’re talking about everybody’s experience.
Melvin McLeod: As women, what changes would you like to see in the way Buddhism is practiced in the West?
Pat O’Hara: I feel I haven’t been paying enough attention to the incredible pain a lot of women feel about the lack of a matriarchal lineage in Buddhism. Women are not often written or spoken about in Buddhism. In our community, we started chanting the names of women throughout Buddhist history, and I saw the faces of the women in the room bathed in tears. Seeing their faces in tears is what woke me up to how important this is to many women.
Now I and other dharma sisters in the Zen tradition have a different attitude towards the texts, the legends and the stories—a little bit more quizzical, a little bit more ironic. You know, how could they all be men? Come on now. This is a constructed quality of all these texts, and we have to know that. It changes the way we talk about things and it changes our attitudes towards forms and services and hierarchy, the whole power relationship. Everything begins to shift a little bit, I think.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I know that women students who find themselves visualizing deities and lineage trees that are all men feel a sense of incredible loneliness and a longing for lineage figures who are female. But also, as the institutions of Western Buddhism get larger and more complex, women are finding it hard to hold their own in a variety of situations. I hear a lot of stories from my students of struggles to be included in the service of visiting teachers and in various teaching situations. These kinds of stories touch me very deeply because it’s easy to miss, especially when you’re a woman teacher. But it’s not necessarily that way for all the women in the community.
There’s another thing that needs to be remembered about the phenomenon of women in leadership positions in American Buddhism right now. There’s a pattern whenever you have a new religious movement that women are often influential at the beginning, but one or two generations later they’re gone. As these movements become institutionalized, the structures become increasingly patriarchal and women are moved out. So we have women Buddhist teachers now, but that may not be true for our children and grandchildren.
Barbara Rhodes: In our tradition a lot of the centers have the same basic type of mural, which is all men. There’s the Buddha and all these deities, who are all men with beards and mustaches and swords and shields. I think I’m out of touch with how programmed I’ve been to accept that. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a teacher who seems to have really respected me, but it’s good to hear what you both just said, because I forget how much this has on some level demoralized me and a lot of other women. I’m just used to it. I need to look at that issue more deeply.
Sharon Salzberg: The motivation that brings so many people to the dharma is looking for a sense of connection. What they find is exclusion rather than inclusion, and that’s a source of tremendous suffering and heartache. So it seems very important to reach into the various traditions and bring forth the elements that provide inclusion and connection and welcoming.
Pat O’Hara: I want to say a little bit about hierarchy, because it comes up all the time in my tradition. I see my dharma sisters doing a lot of work around the teacher not always being at the apex of some hierarchy, but having a different role in different situations. People are working in groups to share the dharma, not assuming that only the teacher is going to be able to say the appropriate thing.
I think that’s a very important aspect of what women can bring to Buddhism. As outsiders, not part of the hierarchy, we feel that we can criticize it, and then we begin to live that criticism and it changes the way things are done. I think that’s an important element also.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Hierarchy is very important in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet there are ways in which hierarchy may not represent the genuine mandala principle of center and fringe. There can be privilege granted in hierarchy that is different from a true sense of spiritual authority.
I think that’s an area where there may be changes, but it’s hard to know what kind of changes they will be. It’s extremely important for the vajrayana practitioners in American Buddhism to honor our teachers, the lineages, and the hierarchical forms that allow us to really understand what spiritual power is. And I would view the democratization of American Buddhism as a problem if we began to make everything the same for the sake of whatever problems we might have with hierarchy. But there are appropriate hierarchies and there are inappropriate hierarchies, and trying to figure that out is really important.
Sharon Salzberg: I agree. I think we need something like a hierarchy of function which doesn’t demean or denigrate anyone. The distinction really needs to be made.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Earlier, Pat talked about how difficult it was for her to be member of a Buddhist community as a single parent with a two-year-old. I would love to see a solidly lay Buddhism in America that is much more receptive to the needs of families, that incorporates the whole sense of the domestic life, both for mothers and fathers. We need a Buddhism that is much more accommodating to a lay family model, one in which serious practice is still very much the foundation. Our centers and communities need to work with this in an ongoing way, becoming more creative about it.
Pat O’Hara: That’s absolutely on our plate to do. Buddhism is predominently lay in this country and people have families, so for Buddhism to really grow we’re going to have to find those forms that include the family. That’s happening a little in different centers now, but I believe it will happen more.
Sharon Salzberg: And along with that we have to plant the seeds of a viable monastic community. Particularly for women, that’s the container where a sense of lineage and of tradition can be passed on.
Melvin McLeod: Which relates to Judith’s warning that women’s roles can be diminished as Western Buddhism becomes more established.
Sharon Salzberg: I was thinking about that. I was thinking about the young women I know and how, because of the degree that feminism has seeped into our culture, they’re very different than I was at that age, in terms of their sense of confidence in themselves, their right to be included and their sense of self-respect. Reflecting on what Judith said about women’s roles diminishing, I was thinking maybe that won’t happen—not because of Buddhism and not because of institutions, but because of the actual women involved.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Maybe it won’t happen. That would be wonderful.
Bringing It All Back Home
Bringing It All Back HomeBy:
“Homesickness is a rich and genuine thing, because it reflects the truth that whatever we admire is decaying and slipping from our grasp, even as we admire it.”
Things last for awhile and having passed they leave a residue, a mark we call the past. We regard it as a kind of home, the source of our identity. The pain of trying to return to this home is known as nostalgia, a bittersweet longing for something that cannot be done, a place that cannot be reached. The weather-beaten cliché that you can’t go home doesn’t stop us from trying, and since we can’t do it, we are perpetually homesick.
Such homesickness is a rich and genuine thing, because it reflects the truth that whatever we admire is decaying and slipping from our grasp, even as we admire it. It’s not a depressing prospect. It’s simply true. The world’s very vividness and poignancy results from the momentariness of our experience. The beauty of a living thing springs directly from its frailty, its coming and its going. If we don’t see that, we simply haven’t waited long enough.
Real nostalgia is as much about the algia, the pain, as it is about the nostos, returning home. Real nostalgia is a loamy fertilizer, the brew of decaying life that we walk through in an autumn forest. Faux nostalgia denies the pain and avoids the depth it brings. It can be a smarmy clinging to the past, like the magazine called Good Old Days, which celebrates “the Happy Days Gone By” with articles extolling the virtues of the gramophone and the icebox. It can also be a wallowing in the past and all the wrongs it wrought, a desire to return and settle the score, to remake what we regret.
I recently spent a day in the town where I grew up, a small town in Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. I had not been back in eighteen years. When you’ve grown up in a town and visit after an eighteen-year hiatus, there are no quick conversations. People need to get their bearings. You’re almost scary to them, like a ghost emerging from the shadows. I went into a used bookstore and chatted with the proprietor. By the time I entered another bookstore a block down Main Street, the owner, an old friend, said, “I heard you were in town.” A drop-by lingered into an hour.
My perceptions of the surroundings were gauzy and shifting, and I understood that time really is a dimension. It’s hard to notice day by day, but when you leave and come back it’s unavoidable. The A&P grocery store where I worked is now a bingo hall. The nuns who taught me have been superseded by young teachers in college sweatshirts. The girl’s school where my brothers snuck in at night is an old age home. The delightful English garden next door is two very ordinary houses.
On my way out of town, I drove by the house I grew up in, a ten-room brick fortress with a two-story brick barn in the back. The barn had once been a dairy and when the house was built, everything beyond it was farmland. By the time I lived there, it sat in the middle of a bustling residential neighborhood.
I was just going to drive by and leave it at that, but I noticed someone working on the barn, so I pulled over and asked whether he owned the house. Indeed he did, a retired FBI agent who had moved up from Washington and was eagerly refurbishing our house. When he found out I had lived there, he was full of questions.
He was particularly interested in who had installed the kitchen, since he just had torn it out that day. I told him it had been my father, if it was the same kitchen that was there when we vacated twenty-three years before. He took me into the barn and there lying around in no particular order were the kitchen cabinets I had grown up with. As I reached for one of the knobs, memories gushed in Technicolor. How silly and mundane to remember the thousands of times I reached into the cabinet. Yet they were embedded there, inseparable from the worn varnish.
He urged me to come into the house to look at what he was doing. We entered the kitchen, which was stripped bare, and there on the wall in large carpenter-pencil strokes it read:
Don Boyce Jr.
Nov. 2, 1957
A little time capsule left by my late father. I stood stock still and drank it in, running my fingers over it almost in disbelief.
A few day’s later at my niece’s wedding in Virginia, my brother told me he was there when my Dad wrote this and proclaimed in an authoritative voice, “Brian, some day 50 years from now someone is going to read this and know what we did.”
That little message had been hidden there my whole life, waiting forty-three years to be delivered and to vanish once again. When the past speaks, it says hello and good-bye all at once.
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.
Path Without a Goal
Path Without a GoalBy: EDIT: THIS ARTICLE REQUIRES IMAGES! VISIT THE ORIGINAL URL AND INSERT THE IMAGES!
“Using the rhythm of the breath, we can join movements together into a flowing sequence that has no peak experience and no non-peak experience.”
I’m rolling the car down the ramp of Exit 70, but in my mind I’m already at the beach and it’s spring again. I luxuriate in the texture of the sand as my toes celebrate freedom from winter’s prison of shoes. I think about the beach beings I’ve met—jelly fish, joggers, park rangers, cartwheeling kids, dogs and their identical people-parents—and the adventures we’ve had, including the time we spent an hour rolling a big log all the way back to the car because we mistakenly thought it would make a great end table, and of course, the usual headstand or two to look at the waves upside down. No matter what the weather, we rest our eyes on the horizon and we rest our breath on the tide.
But really I am only to the end of Exit 70 and just coming up on the McDonalds. The vibrancy of my actual experiences at the beach are in direct contrast to the hour and a half drive it takes to get me there on the very long Long Island Expressway. I try to escape the boredom of the journey by listening to the radio, mentally processing my week and engaging in other “out-of-body” activities that remove my mind from its premises.
But I question the wisdom of ignoring the huge portion of my life that is not a peak experience—not to mention the advisability of paying so little attention to my driving. How can I wake up to my own life at the same time that I am living it?
The answer may lie in breath awareness and manipulation—the invisible bridge connecting body and mind. In OM yoga we use the tidal quality of the breath to initiate each movement and we join them all together in flowing sequences traditionally called vinyasa. This technique encourages us to see and feel everything along the way to and from each pose, so that the transitions and the positions are of equal interest. There is no peak experience and no non-peak experience. There is only the physical expression of path without a goal.
To experience this for yourself, try the following sequence, which is appropriate for any level of yogi, including yoga virgins. This vinyasa creates heat in your body, which softens your muscles and increases the range of motion in your hips, shoulders, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, toes and the entire spine.
Each movement should take as long as each breath, so you never stop breathing or moving. Try to make your inhalations and exhalations slow and equal in length, so that your movements are balanced. If you want to stay in any position for more than one breath, that’s fine. The idea is to stay focused on your breath and to experience the richness of each moment, whether it’s challenging, strenuous, energizing or relaxing. Let your body unfold on each breath and see what it feels like to be you today.
1) Assume the ever-popular all-fours position. Check that your wrists are directly below your shoulders and your knees are directly below your hips. INHALE.
2) Cow. As you EXHALE, drop your head and tuck your tailbone way under. Feel your belly lift up toward your spine.
3) Cat. As you INHALE, lift your chest and sitting bones up to the ceiling. Feel your spine being absorbed into your body.
4) Downward Dog. Maintaining the Cat tilt in your pelvis, EXHALE and lift your hips up as you press your palms down and lengthen your heels toward the floor. The Downward Dog position is a partial inversion, which improves digestion, massages your heart and enhances mental clarity.
5) Keeping a sense of upward lift in your hips, INHALE and gently lower your knees back to all-fours on the floor.
6) Child’s Pose. EXHALE as you press your hips back over your heels into the Child’s Pose. This pose massages the abdominal organs, rests your brain, and stretches the shoulders and hips. As you INHALE, come back to all-fours and repeat the entire sequence. Try to do it four times in a row.
Practicing this vinyasa will help develop flexibility, strength, coordination, balance and rhythm. At first you might feel stiff or weak or uncoordinated, but that will change over time and by paying attention to your process, you might even notice when your body starts to open, your energy flows more, and your balance arrives.
This method of combining the breath awareness techniques of Buddhist mindfulness tradition with the breath manipulation exercises of hatha yoga can be applied to your everyday life. For years I lived on the sixth floor of a building in New York’s East Village with such steep stairs that it was a little bit like rock climbing. My boyfriend used to huff and puff and always ask me, “How can you stand to do this every day?” Then one day on the landing of the third floor, he had an epiphany and said, “Oh, I get it. This is just what you’re doing right now.”
And he was right. Over time, my yoga training had organically led me to deepen my breathing as I went up those steps. My inhalation helped my torso and spine feel lifted and supported and my exhalation grounded my feet down on each stair. Letting my mind ride on those deep breaths helped keep it in my body, rather than racing ahead to the top of the stairs where it would then look down on my poor struggling physicality dragging up flight after flight.
So here is a homework assignment: Take the stairs, or if you don’t have that option, you can do this biking, jogging or with any physical activity that you always wish was over long before it ends—such as carrying laundry or groceries for a few blocks. Don’t try to change your experience but rather, change your approach to it. Deepen your breathing—inhale through the nose for upward movements and exhale through the nose for downward movements. And when life calls your name, say “Present!”
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and creator of Yoga in a Box, available from the One Spirit Book Club.
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