Insight Journal: I often hear people saying some version of, “I sit 30 minutes a day, but I want to get up to 45.” Or “I sit an hour a day, but I’d like to do two.” Are we missing something when we evaluate practice in this way?
Pannavati Bhikkhunī: I think we often misunderstand what striving is. The kind of striving that the Buddha talks about is tied up with the aspiration of the heart, not some external effort like trying harder or putting in more time. It’s more about quality than quantity. For me, meditation is like slipping away to be with a lover. There’s something about the arousal of preparing for the encounter, of knowing that in a while I’ll be there, not wanting to leave.
If you don’t have that, meditation becomes just one more of the hundred other things you do. We lose something when we make it a “practice.” You get up in the morning, you make your bed, you brush your teeth – these are things that you do. But meditation is something different.
There’s a relationship happening when I’m together with the silence – the way I’m in it, until it’s no longer me and the silence. Where does it end, and where do I begin?
IJ: Are there practical ways to stay in love with the practice and keep it from turning into one more thing on our to-do list?
PBh: I think it has to do with where we place the practice. I put meditation in the category of the heart. When we approach it from the space of the heart, initially there’s a longing. Once we taste it, and that longing is satisfied, then we have an entirely different relationship to meditation.
For most of us in the West, this means taking meditation out of the head and dropping it into the heart. So I often begin a sit by opening up my heart – finding the spaciousness to accept all beings, finding the spaciousness to accept myself. Now, I know myself, and she’s not all a pretty picture. But from this space, I can even accept her, with all of her shortcomings. I can look and say without judgment, “Hmm. Pannavati, you need to work on that.” In this way, we free ourselves from the conceptual mind that is constantly comparing or registering or judging, and we come into a space of deep, deep ease.
For instance, if I sit in a chair, the body doesn’t know if I want to read or I want to talk or I want to meditate or I want to rest. But when I sit on that pillow, every cell in my body knows what I’m doing right now. Every cell organizes around that activity.
Once I escape enough times to the same place, I’ll know that there’s a place of freedom over there. And now I’m no longer escaping. I’m deliberately going to the place of freedom. Like this, our relationship to meditation begins to change, and it doesn’t become a chore or something forced or regimented. It stays soft, malleable, and we find ourselves posited at a gateway of supermundane awareness.
IJ: Many people start a sit with some mettā practice. Do you begin each day or each sit in a certain way?
PBh: The mettā phrases never really worked for me. I recognize friendliness or kindness through feeling. So I might sit and just begin with bringing up the memory of a time when kindness was shown to me. Then I can drop the story and just hold the feeling for as long as I can. After a while, it starts to go away because as the drama goes, the feeling goes. When that happens, I bring the feeling back up. Finally, it dawns on me what loving friendliness feels like – how it’s embodied. Now, if I’m sitting there, peaceful and at ease, I’m feeling friendly towards myself, and I have nothing against all beings. I don’t feel like there’s someone out to get me behind every corner. There may be challenges at work or home, but I’m not feeling like I have to defend myself. I just need to be clear about what action to take.
So a lot of the energy that’s expended on thinking or planning – all of that just falls away, and there’s a great, overwhelming sense of ease. When that ease is there, it’s important to see it because in another few minutes, I’m going to be in the throes of business or drama or whatever. And whatever that next moment is like is going to depend on what this moment is like.
Right now, I’m dealing with a lot of external world stuff around Heartwood Refuge – major renovations, contractors, and all that. But I wake up every morning thinking, “Today: unlimited possibilities.” It just depends on whether I turn towards that or whether I turn towards something I already know. And if everything I already know isn’t good, why not turn so that something I don’t already know can have a chance to enter?
We can train the mind to lean in a certain way. After a while, it’ll go that way automatically. So, even if I have 400 emails to go through, I still wake up every morning refreshed – not carrying anything over from yesterday, not dwelling on what’s been left undone. I start the day from a space of emptiness. And when it’s time to get to work, I get to work.
You can train the mind to be right here, right now – in the bed stretching, feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, thinking, “My feet work. My legs work. The mind is working. The heart’s pumping.” And you can enjoy that for a minute. The more you enjoy those seconds and those minutes, the more you know a place of refuge and how to get there at any time.
IJ: Over and over, we’re told that one’s whole life should be the practice. But we resist doing so. Why?
PBh: Because we have not really understood and developed a propensity towards anattā (not-self). We’re trying to give up things and give up views, but if we just give up the notion of this self, then all of that goes with it. We don’t have to work on a thousand things. We just have to work on one thing. When we stay focused on the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s teaching, freedom will more and more come into our day-to-day lives.
We always say, “There’s no harm in having things. Just don’t let them have you.” But how do you really get to that place? You get there by divesting of oneself. Then you move through the world almost like the wind. Who can grasp the wind? Who can touch the wind? Who can lasso it and tie it down? That’s where the real freedom is.
IJ: The course you’ll be teaching at BCBS this August is also about not-self and effacement. What are the key points?
PBh: The Buddha was talking to a group of monks, and he said, “You call sitting on your pillows ‘effacement,’ but I don’t call that ‘effacement.’ I call that ‘a pleasant abiding here and now.’ When someone is talking down to you, how do you handle that? Can you take that without having thoughts of hatred towards them? Right there at that moment, when something happens to bring up all of your defilements, if you can recognize and subdue and uproot them right there, that’s what I call effacement.”
The Buddha is telling us that a lot of the work we think is done on the pillow is actually not done on the pillow. It’s done moment by moment in our lives. How do we relate to one another? How do we relate to what’s arising? That’s where the work is done. Then when we go to sit on the pillow, we can drop right in and sit there peaceful and at ease. When we slip into the space where we come to the absolute stilling of thought, we move beyond what the ordinary mind has the capacity to perceive, and we access certain faculties. If the only thing that you could get out of this practice was ordinary wisdom, then why bother? If it was just ordinary understanding, what’s the point? If we try to take everything the Buddha said and press it down into ordinary, run-of-the-mill intellect and framework, we’ve missed a great opportunity for awakening in this life.
IJ: Many have a hard time directly applying the early discourses to their lives or their practices. Could you talk a little about how you’ve cultivated a personal relationship to the suttas?
PBh: When I teach, I have groups recite the suttas to one another. When read aloud, they take on a whole different quality. You can detect the humor. You can see the subtleties. If you read the suttas aloud to yourself, you can both speak and listen at the same time.
Even the repetition feels more beneficial and useful when heard. In a song, we don’t get tired of hearing the chorus repeated over and over. You might forget the rest of the song, but you’ll remember the line they sing twenty times. After a while, the words get inside of you. Then when you need it, those words can rise up. Try reading the suttas aloud, and you’ll see them come to life.
IJ: You talk about the Buddha as a revolutionary, and how he brought something quite different to the world. Does the Western Buddhist world still have that revolutionary spirit? Do you think we’ve gotten a little soft?
PBh: I absolutely do. For many, it’s become an intellectual practice that has to be fit into all our other “propers.” The Dharma is now presented in a certain way, maintained in a certain way. We don’t rock the boat. We try to stay politically correct. We try not to offend anyone.
We’re becoming wimps. We’re becoming impotent. There’s no power in the practice because we’re so busy trying to be “correct” in a worldly sense. And that doesn’t work. The Buddha wasn’t trying to change the world out there. He was changing his relationship to the world. Others saw the liberating power of that and elected to do the same.
Once a group starts doing something, it eventually evolves into a tradition and an institution. But it began with just one person understanding that freedom could only come through changing one’s relationship to the world, not changing the world. That’s what’s truly revolutionary.
IJ: So what do we do then? What needs to happen?
PBh: Each person needs to decide what they can do. A monk friend of mine told me how he passed one widow’s house every day, and the house was falling down. He prayed that someone would come help the old woman, and I said, “What’s wrong with you and your hands?” His idea was that monks don’t get involved in affairs in that way. He thought his prayers could help. I thought his arms could help.
I’m for tradition – don’t get me wrong – but I’m also for change. We have to be willing to disagree and be disagreed with. People disagree with me all the time, and I totally respect their right to do so. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing what I’m doing if it’s useful, beneficial, and helping people. But if I’m doing something that’s not useful, not beneficial, and not helping people, and I get chastised about it, then I should stop that.
We all decide for ourselves how we will walk out what we say. And, you find satisfaction in living your life that way, even when it causes you to lose friends. Do we go with the status quo or with our own inner integrity? At the end of the day, did I walk in my own shoes – in the truth of the Dhamma as I understand it?
We have to start thinking for ourselves. The Buddha had to do that. Maybe one grain of rice a day was considered ascetic for him, and maybe something else might be ascetic for me. So I have to decide whether I can handle that level of asceticism. Will it help further my cultivation and development? If not, then I might have to step back from that. There’s no point in pain for the sake of pain, or denial for the sake of denial. And, if you move past what is helpful for you, it can be detrimental. Now, can you live with that when other people have expectations? Can you stay fluid?
This is when you start to go beyond the training wheels of guidelines. Because guidelines are just that – guidelines. Training wheels keep you upright, but when you go around a curve, you have to lean into it, and you can only lean into the curve properly once the training wheels come off.
IJ: Many feel unsure of how to relate to the training wheels and how to make decisions based on the Dhamma as they understand it. I heard you once say, “Be your own teacher. I don’t want any more students.”
PBh: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. And if we’re not coming to the place where we have confidence in the triple gem, that’s a clue that we missed something. Then it might be time to go back, investigate, and see what was missed, especially for people who have been doing something one way for twenty years.
I love having retreats with newbies because they know they don’t know. But mostly now I have retreats for teachers, and it can be very difficult because either they know they don’t know, but they can’t let anybody know they don’t know; or they don’t know that they don’t know; or they’ve decided they’re too far into this to make a change now.
Why are we coming together if it’s not going to inure to everyone’s benefit? A lot of teachers talk about this in private, but it needs to be talked about openly.
People tell me that I shouldn’t share certain things about my life, but the Buddha said that we should know where on the path we are. And I know where I am on the path. That’s why I love the Dhamma – because the directions are all there. Then I can choose for myself how I want to get where I’m going. I can take a shortcut or the long road, or I can picnic for a while on the side of the road.
IJ: As you know, every single Western Dharma center is holding meetings about diversity. You’re an African-American Buddhist nun. What are we all missing?
PBh: Well, I always say, “Didn’t the Buddha have any wisdom about how to handle things like this? Do we really need all of these consultants? They haven’t been able to fix the world. Why should we think they’re going to come in here and fix Buddhaland? There are suttas on effacement, suttas on how to avoid conflict, suttas on how to address conflict.”
For instance, if I’m feeling offended or thin-skinned because I think you’re being insensitive to my history, I need to be working on that. Instead, I might try to get you straight and tell you all about how I feel. But what’s first for me? Unpleasant feeling has arisen. I need to know that, and I need to be working right there. If I’m not able to reach you with my argument because of the feelings that I have, there’s no point in having that discussion.
Most sanghas I visit are entirely white, and they ask me, “Pannavatti, how do we get more people of color in our sanghas?” I say, “How many black people do you know? How many do you hang out with? How many do you invite over to your house? You can’t just put a shingle outside your center that says ‘Black People Wanted’.”
Because black people understand tokenism. If you think that’s going to endear us to you, our response is likely to be, “No, you really don’t get it now.”
If you honestly feel that because of your privilege it’s been difficult to see the disparity, then you shouldn’t be on the front lines leading the movement. You need to get in the back and let someone lead who’s actually experienced it and who truly sees it and lives it. But I don’t see that happening. In a lot of cases the people trying to lead the diversity movement aren’t trying to lead it – they’re trying to control it and see that it moves in a certain direction in a certain way.
I’ve seen a concerted effort to promote people of color and let them be spokespersons. That’s safe because we either know what they’re going to say or we’ve told them what they’re going to say. But sometimes change is going to cost you something. And right now I don’t feel very hopeful about the way the diversity issue is being managed. Because it is being managed.
IJ: What needs to happen? What needs to change?
PBh: First of all, I think that those who are leading the diversity movement who are not part of diversity need to sit down. And I think that we need to let real spokespersons stand up, not those who have been given permission and a platform to speak.
I think we need to go back to the suttas and see what the Buddha said about how to handle things like this. Because he had all kinds, all castes, all degrees of wealth. And yet he found a way to achieve some semblance of coming together. If we were really living these teachings in our lives – not just talking about it – we would see changes in our communities.
We should be strong enough for some straight talk. If we’re living the true Dhamma, what should be said should be said. And as we start to find where we have compromised or where we have not stepped into our values, there’s going to be a call, and we’re going to have to step into the call. Otherwise, Buddhism is just going to be like every other “ism”.
In the end, it boils down to the slaying of the ‘I’. If we’re using mindfulness to be happy (in a “worldly” sense) or to get ahead in business, then it’s just the same old thing. We need to be going in the other direction. Right now, I don’t think Western Buddhism is going in the right direction. Honestly.
IJ: Everyone wants our communities to be more diverse, but there’s a lot of disagreement about how that’s supposed to happen.
PBh: Because we aren’t really sure what we want the outcome to be. If I was white, and you’re encouraging me to attend a white-privilege workshop, I’m not sure that I’d be interested in coming. But it’s not about workshops. It’s about fostering and cultivating relationships.
Because I’m never going to talk like you. And I’m not trying to make you talk like me. I’m not trying to make you have my worldly experience, but maybe I want to share my worldly experience with you. And I want to walk away from there not just feeling like I’ve been heard – I want to walk away from there heard. And when I come back to that place, even though I might have a different view from you, I want to walk in feeling like I’m a part of you – that I belong to you. And that can only happen if I have touched your heart in such a way that you say, “She’s just like me.”
Now, you and I have never met before this interview. And you’re white, and I’m black. But, there is not a barrier between me and you, right now. If you ask me a question, I’m not going to find a way to tiptoe around the answer. It’s that kind of honesty that has its value even if we don’t agree on something. This is where the Buddhist training comes in – understanding that we all see reality based on how our lives have been constructed.
But it takes time. This all takes time. You’re not going to fix this by having a couple retreats or workshops or signing a paper that says something like, “I validate you, Black people,” and then sending it to me to sign on. It’s not just about you stepping up, but creating space for me to step up. What would have happened if the women’s suffrage movement was led by men?
IJ: It does sometimes feel like there’s an underlying desire to wrap up this whole diversity thing in a year or two and move on to whatever the next issue is going to be.
PBh: Exactly. But it needs to be a heart to heart thing. Some of these things were put in place a long time ago, and now they’re coming home to roost. There’s no way of getting around it. And I tell you that if we don’t deal with it authentically it’s going to destroy the credibility of these institutions.
IJ: Part of it feels like a class issue, because Western Dharma is largely middle class. But why isn’t as simple as offering more POC scholarships or having more POC teachers at our centers?
PBh: One part is that we wouldn’t have to offer so many scholarships if we lowered our fees. Or, instead of constructing another building, maybe we can work on reducing course fees as we retire debt. I’m buying a center right now, and we’ve got a huge loan with that. But I have my plan in place. And, as the mortgage gets paid off, we’re setting up the parameters to turn into an all-dāna center. By the way, not all people of color are poor! It’s a matter of misplaced priorities. I know people who by $500 handbags who ask for a scholarship. Then, to a great extent, some of the issue is just not being welcomed. I remember the first meditation center I visited. I came by myself. They were so happy I was there. The next week I brought a friend. By the fourth week when 3 or 4 of us came, they had already made us a CD that we could listen to “in the comfort of our home” instead of traveling all the way to the center!
Institutions and organizations – mine included – are going to have to ask themselves some hard questions. Can we tell the truth, even if doing so costs us? If there are bankers on your board, you’re going to get one answer. If there are other types on your board, you’re going to get another answer. This is where the rubber meets the road.
I’ve heard black people say, “I’m tired of trying to educate white people. That’s not my job.” Are we willing to commit to really understanding one another in a non-accusatory way? Because actually we have both been victims of the system and how some people have set things into place through law. Once you see that, you can take an active part in dismantling it.
We can’t just talk about this stuff in secret meetings. We have to come and sit down and talk together. And if you hurt my feelings, I need to deal with that. I went to one all-POC program, and I had a white videographer with me. They didn’t want him to come in. There were 99 of them, and one of him, and they said that they didn’t feel safe with him there. And I said, “If there’s 99 of you all and one white man, and you don’t feel safe, then you all need more help than I can give you.”
We need to find our muscle, find our courage, and find that middle way so that we can come together. This polarization has to end. “Yeah, I said it. Yeah, I did it. And I’m sorry. I can do something differently.” And then really do something different. We’ve got to come clean. With honesty as our guiding principle there is room for reconciliation.
IJ: Is there still hope for us, Venerable?
PBh: The Dhamma is such a wonderful, wonderful guide for how to live a meaningful life. I’d hate if our flimsy attempts left future generations without the chance to do something different. A lot of us do need to step out of the way. Because of our conditioning and our inability to change or understand something in a certain way, we might need to step aside and let the way be paved for a different generation to come and try its hands.
IJ: It’ll be interesting to see what things look like twenty years from now.
PBh: Twenty years from now? Five years from now. I was talking to a man who was lamenting that he had a vision , and he created something great and needed. It took a lot for it to come to fruition. But now, he owes people, and what needs to be done to keep it true to the original intention can’t be done. If that ever happens with Heartwood Refuge, I’ll walk away no matter how established it has become – and die peacefully. Not being attached to anything in this world.