Myoshin, you have been teaching at IMS and other retreat centers quite a bit these past few years. How did you first get involved with Buddhist meditation?
I grew up in Western Canada, and from a very early age was drawn to nature. I found a sense of belonging there, a refuge from a chaotic and often painful world. It was in high school that I first read the book Siddhartha [by Herman Hesse]. This book touched a sense of possibility in me that I’d also felt from being in nature. Something was stirring. At that time I also read some books on Buddhism, which I found interesting. I started to meditate, out in nature by myself. But this was without any formal guidance. Then in 1975, at the age of 20, I had an opportunity to do a weekend retreat with a teacher.
Do you remember what it felt like during this time?
I really didn’t have a clue what was happening! I remember I sat very still, which a few people commented upon; and I remember an interview with the teacher in which he said, “Thoughts should be like clouds moving across the sky.” The effect of this retreat was immensely inspiring. I had a sense of not just hearing about the teachings—I could actually practice this. The feeling was quite empowering. I eventually went to Asia and spent time with an Indian guru, where I also practiced other forms of meditation.
Did you first go to Asia to pursue meditation practice?
I first went to go trekking in Nepal, beckoned by my love of the mountains. I had a profound experience at the summit of one of the passes in the Annapurnas: I felt like l had come to a level of contentment and completion. Up until that point I had pretty much done whatever I wanted; now there was the sense of “What does life want of me?” The next step turned out to be the cultivation of a spiritual life. Soon after this experience, I met some people who were talking about a teacher in a way that interested me, so I went to his ashram in India.
What inspired you there?
The first thing I did was a ten-day intensive meditation retreat. It was not vipassanā [insight meditation], but was a more eclectic and active synthesis of techniques. It opened my eyes. One of the most striking realizations I remember from that period of time was that I was living a very pleasant life. I lived out in the country, I had outdoor work (this all fulfilled my love of nature), and I had great friends…yet I saw that I was just backing myself into a corner. There was so much of life that I wasn’t opening my eyes to, that I was avoiding. Meditation was a way for me to open to the wider picture, to both the difficulty and the joy.
And this led eventually to vipassanā?
Vipassanā continued to filter in through that period, but it wasn’t until many years later that I sat my next formal vipassanā retreat in Australia. Prior to this retreat, I had been suffering with chronic fatigue for several years. People who have experienced a debilitating illness understand that sickness is a continuous practice in letting go. You cannot plan ahead. You are living in a body that is constantly screaming out. You are faced with the very real possibility of dying. I was trying everything to get better: the diets, the exercise regimes, the new age treatments. l did it all! And I still suffered. The ‘doing’ was exhausting.
When I got to this retreat and sat on my cushion, I stopped doing. The most striking thing was that all I did was be with my breath. There was no great experience or realization, just a simple sense of deep acceptance. Amazingly, the symptoms of my illness virtually disappeared! l knew then that this practice was something I wanted to look more closely at.
Over the next few years l began to practice intensively with both Sayadaw U Pandita and Sayadaw U Janaka. I was drawn to their type of practice because it was so obviously helpful in my daily life. I remember people saying, “What has happened to you?” Through my previous experience with meditation I knew it was possible to drop into very pleasant blissful states but still have no wisdom. What was unfolding for me through practice with the Sayadaws was a wisdom that was evident both on and off the cushion. Eventually I decided to go to Burma.
What was it like in Burma? It must have been difficult, in some ways.
Arriving in Burma for the first time was like stepping into another world in another time. It was a fascinating blend of dilapidated remnants of British colonization with traditional Asian culture. There were very few cars on the road then, and communication with the outside world was extremely difficult. Seeing so many monks and nuns of all ages on the streets wherever I went left a special impression on me.
I immediately noticed the diligence of the nuns and laywomen in Sayadaw U Janaka’s monastery, where I was to do my practice. There were many old and young women; often teams of mothers and daughters meditated side by side. I had never experienced this before; being in a country that was so supportive of practice. Both the wealthy and the poor showed such joy in offering meals to everyone in the monastery, so these teachings could be continued. This generosity of spirit provided the container for my practice and sustained me when things started to get harder.
I became humbled by what I saw inside my own mind.
Things got very hard. My body started literally disappearing before my eyes. I lost a lot of weight, which happens to many foreigners in Asia with the change of diet. Although I had some intellectual understandings of the culture before I arrived in Burma, my Western framework of expecting and receiving relative equality as a woman got challenged. I started to notice and become reactive to the way women were treated.
There was a disparity, where women seemed unduly subservient and men seemed unduly elevated. This didn’t feel a healthy situation for either, and brought up strong feelings in me of anger, rage, frustration and disappointment. There was the impression that no matter how realized a woman might be through her practice, she was still always less than a man.
So how did you cope with that?
I continued on with my practice for another three months, working with anger, working with the pain. There was a rage in me that I had never thought possible. I had always considered myself a reasonably kind person. I became humbled by what I saw inside my own mind. I knew it was made of the same stuff that fuels wars. There were fleeting moments of compassion, as I understood this was not limited to my own situation but was shared by all beings caught in delusion. However there was little stability, so the rage would return. I left Burma feeling somewhat hardened and bitter, carrying a heavy weight on my heart.
It was not long before this weight was too much to live with. It was unbearable. Since I knew l couldn’t change thousands of years of Asian culture overnight, I knew a resolution had to lie within. So I started to turn towards this weight; to face the pain and sorrow. It became my point of inquiry.
By feeling the heart’s contraction and its accompanying sensations of heaviness and pressure, as well as the mind states of subdued energy, some spaciousness arose.
I was then no longer so caught up in the justification of my beliefs. I was able to see how much my own relationship to the situation was creating added layers of suffering: Judgement and aversion had cut me off.
Almost a year later it happened that I had another opportunity to sit with Sayadaw U Janaka in Australia for a one-month retreat. I decided to go and check it out; to give myself permission to leave if it didn’t feel right, but to see if I could re-connect with this form of practice. Just in the moment of paying my respects to him, I felt as if everything I’d been carrying from the past simply dissolved. I immediately settled down and got right into the practice again.
Not long after, I decided to return to Burma for further practice and found that a lot of what had disturbed me before did not create the same suffering this time. On the contrary, I felt the embodiment of the feminine, and a strong sense of ease.
I started to turn towards the pain and sorrow. It became my point of inquiry.
Several years later I went back to Burma a third time and ordained temporarily as a nun, which is something I couldn’t have conceived of earlier! At the moment my head was shaved, a sense of grace descended; a knowing that I was doing the right thing. With putting on the robes came a sense of protection that I had never felt before. It was a total surprise. Even though there were still aspects of the culture that did not sit well with me, they were not an impediment in any way to the unshakable strength of heart that I felt.
How were you treated as a nun?
As a foreign nun I was very well treated. The Burmese are so appreciative that women are willing to leave their families, their homes, travel to a foreign country, shave their heads and wear robes. They really value this. So wherever I went I felt great care.
With putting on the robes came a sense of protection I had never felt before.
A lot of my time was spent in a nunnery in Sagaing Hills. It was important for me to live as a nun amongst nuns. I wanted to have a taste of what it was like to follow in the footsteps of the daughters of the Buddha. I found myself deeply touched by the devotion and sincerity of so many nuns that I met. The conditions for them are not always easy, and yet their strength of heart abounds.
Other than the Burmese Sayadaws U Pandita and U Janaka, what teachers have most influenced your practice?
Around the same time as meeting the Sayadaws, I was introduced to Zen Master Hogen Daido Yamahata, or Hogen-san as he is often referred to. He was regularly visiting Australia, and in addition to sitting several sesshins with him, I had the opportunity to take care of him during his visits. This was immensely helpful, as he seemed to be able to turn any event in life into a dharma teaching. He is the one who gave me the name Myoshin, which means “mystic beauty of heart/mind.”
How did working with a Zen teacher go for you after all your classical Theravada training?
He helped me to see where I was taking on some of the teachings that I had not understood directly. I lived as if certain things were true, but I did not really know it for myself. He was somehow able to direct me into the truth of my own experience time and time again. Humor and playfulness are a few of the tools he works with, combined with the unwavering Zen shtick. Quite a combination! It helped me to bring these same qualities into how I practice, and to keep from taking it all too seriously.
How did you begin teaching in the vipassanā tradition? And what kind of training have you been getting?
I was first asked in 1995 by Joseph [Goldstein] and Steven [Smith] if I would help in a retreat they were teaching, and so I began training with them and with Sharon [Salzberg], Since then I have continued to teach with them at retreats both at IMS and around the country. My training has included giving meditation instructions to groups of students at the retreats, offering dharma talks, taking questions and suggesting answers, as well as sitting in on the interviews conducted by the senior teachers. I began by assisting with retreats, and then later moved into teaching retreats around the country on my own or with other teachers. Much of the training also involves a continuation of my own practice.
Study also became important to me. To be able to go back to the words of the Buddha himself, as described in the traditional texts, has been insightful. I tend to be a person who does not take easily to academic studies, but I found that reflection on the basic suttas helped to clarify my own direct experience. I also started to attend some courses over at the study center [BCBS] and found these invaluable. They helped me get an overall perspective of life during the time of the Buddha and the development of the varying traditions in Buddhism.
One of the fascinating aspects of study has been looking at the Pali roots and nuances of many of the terms relating to practice. There are so many words that do not have just one direct translation. The many nuances give a fuller meaning and “felt sense” of the words. If I were a person who could more easily pick up languages I would be really inspired to study Pali.
And what are some of the biggest challenges of teaching?
It forces me to be really honest and accepting of who I am. I am not the historical Buddha! By this I mean that one can’t live one’s life according to another’s. It takes a lot to do this kind of work, to share in the unfolding of wisdom of so many different kinds of people. I have learned that part of taking care of others is taking care of myself.
My earlier illness has left me with a sensitivity of body that I need to pay attention to. There is so much traveling involved; it can be hard just to keep up enough energy to travel from place to place and to have the freshness to meet each yogi in such a deep space.
I have also had to learn a lot about communication skills. I’m a very quiet person by nature, so for starters I’ve had to summon a certain amount of courage to speak out. At a very early age I came to believe the adage that the truth could not be spoken, and so to suddenly have to speak to others from my deepest experience was excruciating. I’ve had to find a whole vocabulary for my inner life in order to convey my understandings.
To me teaching is very intimate and revealing. What enables me to feel at home in that intimacy is a total trust in this practice and the liberation that is possible. There is something so valuable to be shared. It allows me to go through all the discomfort that I often experience in exposing myself.
Do you think being a teacher today is any different from 25 years ago?
When the first generation of vipassanā teachers began to lead retreats in the West, it was a situation of new teachers guiding new students. But now, 25 years later, you have very experienced students sitting together with very new students. Some of these new students can be a little overawed and intimidated in the presence of the senior teachers. It makes their own possibility of insight and liberation seem remote and distant. The struggles a newer teacher has had with their own practice are fresher, and so it can be helpful for those starting out in the practice to get the sense of possibility from junior teachers. I’ve had people say to me, “If you can do it, so can I.”
These days, a relatively new teacher may find themselves in front of students who have many years of mature meditation experience, and this too brings its own set of challenges. I need to find ways to guide people so that they don’t feel belittled or put down by someone who may not have been in this tradition as long as they have. I don’t wish to cause offence. On the other hand, I sometimes find that I can say something to such a yogi, and feel that it is not taken seriously. However, if a senior teacher says exactly the same thing, in the same context, it might be listened to with greater receptivity.
Does what you teach come from your own teachers?
When I first began teaching, most of what I said seemed to come out in the ways I had heard it from my teachers. But these days I am more comfortable using my own expression, which comes from my own direct experience. When I speak from a place of emptiness, there is an ease of expression and a recognition that we each have something unique to contribute. But I still want to be very careful that the essential teachings are not diluted. This is a period of great transition, and it is important that the purity of the dharma is transmitted.
Do you find your own practice furthered through your teaching, or do you find you benefit more by being able to go on retreat yourself?
It’s totally essential to do both. Each one strengthens the other. When I am teaching I do that as my practice, and when I am sitting that is my practice. There are times when they are so closely intertwined that I don’t see them as very different, though of course each is unique. One involves interaction; the other lets me stay focused on my own process. But the quality of emptiness is just the same.
What’s it like to get to know the people that come on retreats? Why are people coming, what are they looking for, what are they discovering and what brings them back?
Many people at some point in their lives get a glimpse, in a variety of ways, of something deeply meaningful. This can seem out of step with their daily life, where there isn’t an easy access to greater understanding. So time passes. And then, apparently by chance, they might hear about Buddhism and its emphasis on investigation and direct experience. Something resonates with that earlier glimpse, and an intuitive sense of possibility arises. The teachings offer a framework and support to go within, to challenge habituated patterns of confinement. So people come to the practice, like I did, with an appetite for truth.
How much of a role does “Buddhism” play in the practice?
The Buddha’s teachings lay out a map of the mind. Practice, for me, is the art of following that map. whether this is Buddhism or not, I don’t know!
In my first retreat with Sayadaw U Pandita I was struggling with doubt. In my initial interview he sensed this and asked me, “Could it be you doubt this practice is for you?” I was stunned at his level of perception, as he had hit the nail right on the head. He went on to tell me that this practice had worked for many people for thousands of years, people who had no conscious faith. It could be treated as a scientific experiment.
This gave me an easier container from which to explore and investigate. I only needed to follow the instructions as best I could, nothing more. This was such a relief, and in contrast to my imaginings that a set of particular beliefs was required. It became a ‘come and see’ practice.
It is a danger in any religion or ‘ism’ to blindly follow. I think the beauty of this practice is that one becomes aware of deep-seated beliefs, even the ones we didn’t realize we had. In this way we let go of limiting views. It often feels uncomfortable when this happens, and yet it is essential for real growth to occur.
Have there been any recent teachings that have influenced your practice?
Over the last few years I have been sitting with Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Dzogchen master. I haven’t found great differences in the actual practice of Dzogchen, but something in the language has helped me to find a greater immediacy to the mind of no clinging.
One of the benefits I have found from practicing in different traditions is that there is no patent on freedom. They all offer techniques for recognizing that which hinders or obstructs the mind from clear seeing. The Buddha had the power of omniscience to be able to see what would help each person that he met. As a result, there are many practices that can be done in the service of liberation.
Where do you think all this is headed? Some see dharma as profoundly transformative of our culture, others view it as a passing interest that will soon be absorbed. What’s your perspective on this issue?
I think we are in the midst of a unique time right now, in that people in the West are asking themselves, “How is it that I have so much affluence, and yet I’m still not happy?”
The culture constantly insists that we should be happy. To admit to not being happy is a huge step. When we become really honest about our dissatisfaction, these teachings, which are centered on the truth of suffering, validate our experience. They help break the tendency of identifying personally with our unhappiness. When we’re not so lost in trying to control our lives, trying to get it right, we can begin to examine how things actually are. This comes as a great relief.
For anyone sincerely willing to look into the nature of suffering, the dharma can be profoundly transformative. And there are now lots of people who have been practicing very diligently at IMS and elsewhere for many years. Out of their dedication these yogis come to retreat after retreat. I think a time will come when the fruits of all the practice done by these people—the wisdom and compassion—will be evident. It’s already starting to happen. There are many yogis out in society who are bringing the insight and mettā they have developed to their work and family environments. I can’t help but think Buddhism will become much more embodied in this country.
The creation of the Forest Refuge in Barre is a great contribution to this future potential, and I am really happy to see it emerging. It offers the opportunity for practice that we otherwise don’t have unless we go to Asia, and it allows people to meditate intensively who might not have the means or the health to spend long periods in Asia, it will be helpful to all of our practice, and out of this endeavor many more teachers will come and hopefully at least a few fully enlightened beings.
Images of Mara
Dancing in oneness
Embracing the sky
Melodies of delight.
Any part that is touched
Holes in the fabric
The grasping, the wanting
For this, for this.