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 I 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 vipassana [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 vipassana?
Vipassana continued to filter in through that period, but it was’nt until many years later that I sat my next formal vipassana 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—I 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! I knew then that this practice was something I wanted to look more closely at.
Over the next few years I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 stick. 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 vipassana 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 sutras [discourses] 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....