Jaya on teachers
from the Open Dharma newsletter, December 2016
On retreat sometimes people ask to hear “my story,” how it has been and how it is for me on my path and with my teachers.
I often shy away from these questions—and for good reason, as my experience is very intimate rather than very public—but I feel like sharing a few things among friends.
I am tired of the increasingly dissonant and distant way we seem to communicate in so many public forums. I am writing here publicly but personally—not from a distance so we have to shout. Like over chai.
First of all, I remember a Women's Retreat at Insight Meditation Society in the US in 1988. I was entering a period of peak intensity in my life, as early trauma began to surface through practice, and I had expected a tortuous retreat. Instead, I had 5 days of streaming peace. On the 5th evening, however, the teachers responded to this very question—what is your story? And after listening, I crashed and burned in feelings of inadequacy. (...so please don't do that!) Not that they had been through particularly amazing experiences—no levitation nor visions—but a wound got touched in me anyway. Inferiority, feeling forever kicked out of the real world of competent people. I happened to have a one-to-one meeting with one of the teachers the next day, and instead of just telling me to “be present and watch the sensations” she acknowledged: “This healing takes a long time.” That was very helpful. Not escaping into here and now. Not using the here and now to escape.
A couple years later (after getting through that fiery healing period and finishing college at the same time), at the end of a 20-day retreat in Bodh Gaya, I realized it had been important to have a woman, Sharda Rogell, on the team of 4 teachers. Despite my ardent feminism, I had somehow absorbed the Buddhist idea that women cannot be enlightened. When I thanked Sharda for helping me know that women can be enlightened, she wisely responded: “I am glad I could represent that for you.”
My mind had not yet freed itself from the assumption that anyone who is a teacher is enlightened. Her skillful response left that door open. I no longer assume every teacher is enlightened. I no longer assume that everyone on the path is kind or generous. I no longer assume that being enlightened puts someone beyond the messiness of life.
Over these last 30 years, I have had the great good luck of receiving teachings—powerful, exquisite, subtle, formal, spontaneous, charged, excruciating, ethereal, down to earth, beyond me. I feel most special gratitude for the teachings of example—and I am happily and humbly aware of how large those examples still ask me to grow in spirit. At the same time, every single teacher in my life has done things I don't like.
Sometimes it was a “Zen slap” that I came to appreciate later. Other times I am still left bewildered or angry. One of my favorite all-time modern Dharma teachers is Chogyam Trungpa, whom I have only met through books and a video. Like all of my main teachers, Trungpa understood that a teacher's job is not to make things neat and easy. Trungpa's most famous student, the beloved teacher, Pema Chodron, remembers: “If things got too smooth, he'd create chaos.”
That sounds familiar.
I often say I am glad I never met Trungpa in person—not because I am against what we called “stirring the pot” around Poonjaji—but because his provocation, his “job as a spiritual friend to insult the student,” included sex, even before he stopped being a monk, even though he or his students were married. When he slid his hand up Tenzin Palmo's leg during a meeting, she struck his foot hard with her spike heel—not because she was against casual sex, but because he was a monk. I know I personally did not have that power of self-defense, and would have likely just frozen to the spot and felt awful. That is an experience I would not wish on anyone. I am not sure that many men, unless they have been sexually abused, can really understand or take this seriously, without going so far that they lose sight of the actual, real, messy contradictory situation.
I want us to grow a collective spiritual environment where we don't fall into easy age-old traps.
Teachers and students—we all have so much to learn, and it would be so easy just to give up, because it is complex and hard to keep true to our own emerging, original ways.
I want to let you know that, in my experience, something strange is possible, and happens, and is even obvious: I really don't like some of the things that my favorite people on earth have done.
Not liking and also loving. Both are possible at once.
Pema Chodron talks about wishing to improve her devotion. While I do feel devotion, I cannot say I assume that some of my favorite people, my teachers, have always done the very best things possible. Every one of my teachers has been involved with women in ways that are questionable or worse—from the systemic gender repression in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to sexual relations with students. Some of my teachers have been grilled or punished, some not.
I think they have made mistakes.
I think life is full of mistakes.
As a mother, I finally realized this, thank goodness. So difficult to bear and so freeing. When my kids were small, every day, other people would think I or my child should be different. I would sometimes think I or my child should be different. If only I were more strict, or more gentle, or better prepared, or more something, my child would be less wild. Would stop crying when hungry or tired, would stop waking up in the middle of the night.
But at the same time, being a mother is this invitation to finally love 100%, and that is different from every other relationship I had known. Just like I had not realized my cells held the belief that women cannot be enlightened, I had not realized I had been holding back love. Everyone else gives up on a crying child, or an angry child, a child who does not “behave,” a child who gets in the way of what we adults want. But as a mother, there is no giving up. I was and am allowed to love. And that loving uncovered this fact: we don't need to earn love by being “good” or “right.” No one needs to earn it—if you earn it, it isn't love. If you get it by being “good” and “right,” then it isn't love. It is approval. It is agreement. Perhaps conformity, or obedience. Losing originality. And then I had to notice further that “good and right” is undercover violence against love. And against life.
Chodron: “I consider it my good fortune that somehow I was thrown into a way of understanding Buddhism which in the Zen tradition is called "don't know mind": Don't know. Don't know right. Don't know wrong. As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to make things right and wrong you can never even talk about fulfilling your bodhisattva vows. …
The bodhisattva vow has something to do with going cold turkey, naked, without any clothes on into whatever situation presents itself to you... Seeing all of that just increases your compassion for the human situation. We're all up against not finding ourselves perfect, and still wanting to be open and be there for others.”
Of course, as a mother, I can and do try to bring out-- or help my children bring out-- their gifts. This birthing of gifts takes more deep digging into our resources—theirs and mine—and more patience and trust in life than referring to a rule book. There is no cultural support for this digging and bringing forth. But it is the important work. I love how the Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
And then, just as with family, there is the need to grow up. I love how Tsultrim Allione grew up with her teacher. He questioned her focus on honoring the feminine within the Tibetan tantric tradition—he called her focus dualistic, and said she could not continue a teacher training that she was in the middle of, where she was the senior student. She knew her work was to honor the feminine so that there would be a balance and harmony in a masculine-dominated environment. She stayed true to her calling, and eventually the teacher saw for himself the fruits of her work. Her Tara Mandala center flourished once Allione was centered more in her own “seat,” and her teacher eventually started coming to teach in her center.
My connections with my teachers accompany me through these life passages of giving birth and growing up. The connections with my teachers do not abandon me when I go off track or branch out, when I disagree and when I grow up. They give me a feeling of family: there is no escape.
I cannot and don't just switch to a better model when I have a disagreement or disappointment. It is not a consumer system. It is living. You see how personal this is. I am not telling you what to do. This is how it is for me, so far.
I go everywhere and my teachers are here with me, right inside my space. There are nuances in, but no fundamental difference between, being near or far from them, between before and after their death: they are with me.
It is as deep as it sounds, and completely ordinary and livable. It might sound claustrophobic, but it isn't.
It can create jealousy in others who want to be the “only one,” but there is plenty of room.
Someone else might find they have only one teacher; I find several in me.
One is still alive but I haven't seen him since 1991. One of them was an army man and miner, and another told me right away he was not trustworthy. None of them is that cool, feminist woman I had hoped to meet. I would not want to be responsible for what happens to anyone else who meets them or any other teacher. It is too messy, unpredictable, unglamourous, and personal. It is not just cute messy. Things can actually go wrong.
What I hope you can hear is that you can keep on going, fully, anyway—not just in your 20s, not just when you are between relationships or jobs, not just when you feel like it—even though it is confusing and heart-breaking. Please don't give up because you can't get it “right.” Spontaneous, fresh, live teachings have made all the difference in my life, even when I don't know, I still don't know, what is right or wrong. I am learning to stay in the conversation, to stay true, to grow up, to give birth, to allow my path to be far, far more wonderful and ordinary than I could have ever imagined.