How did you first become interested in Buddhist practices?
I first began my practice in the Tibetan sedition in 1970. By a strange set of circumstances I ended up in India at 17. Totally culture shocked, I sat in a dingy hotel room in old Delhi and wondered how quickly I could get out of India. An old India hand advised me to head for the mountains to recover before I fled. Arriving in McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and a large settlement of Tibetan refugees. I was stunned by the depth of compassion, sensitivity and happiness they radiated. It very quickly occurred to me that they were surely connected with some great skill in living which was a mystery to me. They were impoverished refugees, exiled from their homeland and many had endured indescribable hardship in their journey to safety. Yet they smiled and walked with a remarkable calm and dignity. After many rebuffs I was accepted as a student by Geshe Rabten and began to study and practice Tibetan Buddhism. I can only say I experienced a profound sense of homecoming in the vision the teaching presented; its universality, its emphasis upon compassion, ethics and motivation. the unrelenting encouragement to abandon self-centeredness, greed and ignorance, all made a deep impact on me. I spent several years living in the mountains practicing. There was something incredibly special about the simplicity and silence of the place and the depth of the teachings.
What brought you to shift from Tibetan practices more towards vipassana?
There was a point after several years when I had to travel to New Delhi for some business. I had been reflecting upon and attempting t0 develop compassion for many months and, in the mostly non-challenging environment I lived in, I felt that I was beginning to feel with a boundless compassion and friendliness. It very quickly seemed to disappear when the bus conductor attempted to grab my backside and I responded by slapping him in the face. At that point it became clear that there something of a gap between ideals and actualities, and I saw there was a need for me to develop some greater insight into the nature of my own reactions, conditioning and grasping.
Living in India for a long time, everyone hears about the variety of teachings that are offered and of course I had heard about vipassana retreats being offered at Bodhgaya. It was very difficult for me to take the step of signing up for a vipassana retreat. Unfortunately I was possessed with all of the less desirable attributes of a convert. Identifying with the Mahayana path, I had considerable prejudice towards the Theravada tradition—this was the lesser vehicle I viewed with mistrust, if not derision. However, with great misgivings, I decided to take the plunge.
What was the vipassana scene like back in the day when you were in India?
Vipassana retreats were a little different in India than we often experiencing them in the West. One friend describes them as the school of hard knocks. In my first retreat, I was directed towards a small patch of concrete, overrun by the occasional rat. The day began at 3am and ended about 11 pm and there nothing to do but sit and walk. At times we were directed to sit many hours without moving. It was hard, but also wonderful. There was nowhere to hide and the immediacy of the practice was everything I needed. There were very few meetings with a teacher, and what meetings there were were not intended to be consoling but simply to instruct me to practice more, let go more, sleep less and see more clearly.
The simple truths of the teaching were impossible to deny and were possible to access. I started to do a number of retreats mixed with returning to the mountains to practice.
Each year you lead a retreat at IMS for women. How did it get started? How is it taught differently from other retreats? What special qualities or perspectives emerge from this experience?
I began to teach retreats for women about ten year ago. They really began out of the wishes of many women who had attended mixed retreats with me. I had never really given a great deal of thought to being a woman in this tradition until I went to Thailand, where it was made clear to me by others that being a woman in meditation frequently meant being regarded with condescension. In the monastery in Thailand where I was, women were primarily sent to the kitchens, expected to be devoted and quiescent, almost invisible. This is not true of all monasteries but is not a rare attitude to be encountered. Teaching in the West, I became aware to what extent the stories and models that were used in teaching were male models. The silence of many women in discussion groups and the vitality they expressed in groups for women were factors in beginning to teach retreats for women. The format of these retreats differs only slightly from any other retreat I teach; there is silence and intensive practice. But there are differences; there’s a very tangible atmosphere on women’s retreats which I can only describe as trusting. There is something remarkably powerful to be in the presence of 100 women who are dedicated to freedom, integrity and wisdom. I feel honored every time I teach a women’s retreat.
Have you faced any special challenges or difficulties in being a woman in the world of Buddhist practice?
Personally I don’t have any difficulty being a woman in the world of Buddhist practice. This doesn’t mean that other people don’t have difficulty with it. Encountering women in positions of authority challenges some very ancient and often hidden prejudices and assumptions within some people. But it’s a wonderful challenge–surely this is what the practice is about. I have had a few bouts and encounters with some
The simple truths of the teaching were impossible to deny and were possible to access.
more traditional folks. Personally I am not very impressed by hierarchies or prejudices or authority of the past. I teach the dharma because l love to share the dharma and to be together with people who love to be clear.
Do you have any perspective on the Buddha himself with regard to women practicing in the sangha?
Given the cultural condition of the time of the Buddha, he was remarkably open-minded and inclusive of women, with a little persuasion. Given the cultural conditions of our contemporary world, I do feel that the Buddhist tradition does a great disservice to itself in the lack of respect accorded to women. Buddhist teaching is a teaching of liberation and I cannot see that there is any compatibility between liberation and the holding on to prejudice.
What about the family retreats? Can you speak about teaching these?
The family retreats began with the birth of my first child 12 years ago. There are very few models which honor the path of parenting as an authentic path of deepening in understanding. Most models we encounter encourage us to depart from our families and separate our spiritual lives from our family lives. It is a lethal dichotomy. Being a parent is one long retreat. lt asks for renunciation, surrender, compassion, selflessness, and immense wisdom. The family retreat honors this. It also provides an opportunity for children to be exposed to the teachings. The family retreat is noisy and chaotic, very different from any other retreat, yet something very important takes place beneath the chaos. For the children it is a time of planting seeds—important seeds in the context of a culture that endlessly encourages them to get more, strive more, be more. lt shows another path. For the parents it is a time of community and appreciating that the challenges offered by the realities of their lives are the places they learn to live the dhanna.
You have been teaching at IMS almost since its inception. What changes have you seen over the years?
The teaching of vipassana is still a relatively new tradition in the West but in the lime I have spent teaching I have seen a process of maturing taking place. In the early years many yogis
There’s a very tangible atmosphere on women’s retreats which I can only describe as trusting.
were retreat addicts and there was for many an unhealed gap between their retreat life and their life in the world. l do feel that over time many people are appreciating the actuality that insight is only liberating if it is lived. More attention is given to the realities of applying compassion and the wisdom of creating sangha. Many yogis come to do longer retreats, and there is perhaps less of a fascination with the highs and lows of meditation experiences and a deeper interest in liberation.
You might be described as a Western Lay Buddhist Teacher. Any thoughts about this emerging phenomenon?
I know for myself coming to Buddhist teaching my interest was primarily in the experiential and contemplative dimensions of the teaching and not in the forms, rituals or cultural trappings. Most of us have been Christians or Jews and I don’t feel we’re looking for a new spiritual or religious identity to inhabit. The great gift of the dharma, I feel, is that it actively discourages us from identifying with yet another belief system, from becoming a convert or from becoming a convert or subscribing to someone else’s doctrine.
I feel honored every time I teach a women’s retreat. l see this as a gift of freedom. The dharma asks us to question, to awaken to the truth of our lives and ourselves, to be free. I feel a profound gratitude for the service the ordained sangha in Buddhism has provided through keeping the teachings alive. I feel an equally profound gratitude for all of the lay people in the dharma who breathe life into the essence of the tradition, the contemplative life that is committed to liberation.
How do you see the interface between psychotherapy and vipassana meditation? What are some of the benefits and possible dangers of doing both practices?
I do feel there are some clear parallels between psychotheraphy and vipassana. Both are concerned with healing, with bringing to an end the conditioning power of the past and with insight. There are also some points where the two practices diverge, particularly in regard to the notion of ‘self.’ There is no doubt that liberation means that there is not ‘someone’ there to own it or appropriate it as a personal description. In deep meditation experience it can be experienced very directly that all of the images and conclusions we hold about ourselves, even those with incredibly long histories, can be dissolved in the light of new understanding. The past is healed through insight into the present.
Being a parent is one long retreat. It asks for renunciation, surrender, compassion, selflessness and immense wisdom. The family retreat honors this.
The danger of combining the two practices is to attempt to use meditation as another means of self-improvement or to come to meditation with the conviction that we have to ‘work out’ everything. Meditation teaching emphasizes the need to have clear comprehension about the contents of our experience, but equally emphasizes that transformation lies not in rearranging or modifying those contents, but in the transformation within the consciousness that receives them. The benefit of having had some therapeutic experience when coming to meditation experience is that the whole area of inquiry and investigation is familiar territory and there is already a mature foundation of insight.
Encountering women in positions of authority challenges some very ancient and often hidden prejudices and assumptions within some people. But it’s a wonderful challenge–surely this is what the practice is about.
In your experience, do people tend to stay with vipassana practice year after year or is it a practice that people are attracted to for some time and then drift away from to some other tradition or another discipline?
I certainly meet people who come to retreats year after year and feel delighted by their return. One of the greatest attractions of vipassana is the absence of the esoteric, of graduated paths with lots of signposts. No one becomes an expert. no one can fail. The practice begins and ends with being awake. I do feel that this simplicity strips away the fascination with special forms or techniques that are somehow going to magically awaken us. I feel that people more and more understand that their wisdom and awakenings are born of their own willingness to see and deepen and not because they have become an ‘expert.’ I feel a profound joy when I see people understanding what it means to be ‘a light unto themselves.’
After many years of teaching Western students, do you think we are actually ‘getting it’?
Yes, Western students do get it. I am repeatedly awed by the depth of commitment and clarity of insight that Western students express and embody in their lives.