VTC: Interview–Working for Sentient Beings

The following interview with Venerable Chodron was conducted by Julie Rae, one of her students. The idea for the interview was inspired by meditating on “How to Rely On Our Spiritual Mentors” from teachings by Geshe Jampa Tegchok on “The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas” – in particular the section on “How to rely on our spiritual mentors through thought”:

We may wonder how it is possible to see our spiritual teachers as Buddhas. It is possible to train our mind to recognize their many qualities and to think less about their faults until we don’t notice the faults at all. For example, when we have a girlfriend or boyfriend, we easily get into the habit of seeing only the good qualities and ignoring the faults. In the day time, there are stars shining but they are outshone by the sun. Similarly if we focus more and more on our mentor’s qualities, these will outshine their faults.” Geshe Jampa Tegchok
It seems to be the tendency of beings to focus more on the faults of others than on their good qualities. When we see our teachers in this way, as ordinary beings, we may not be motivated to practice what they teach. In an effort to improve my relationship with my spiritual teacher through thought, I decided to focus on how our spiritual guides do the work of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas by working for sentient beings right now. Knowing that Venerable Chodron is away from Seattle quite often throughout the year, I asked myself the question, where is she and what is she doing? In addition, what type of work is she involved in when she is in the Seattle area? This inspired the following interview with her.

Q: As far as teaching in other places, can you tell me something about that?

A: Later on this month, I’m going to Houston, Colorado Springs and Austin. In Houston and Austin I will be teaching in Chinese communities. I feel it is important to have the connection with the Chinese communities. For me it is important because my higher-level bhikshuni ordination is in the Chinese tradition. And I have lived in Singapore and in Hong Kong. Also, I think it is important to have the connection between the Tibetan tradition and the Chinese tradition. After all, Buddhism is Buddhism.

I go to Mexico every year because there is a very strong group there – we had over one hundred people at the one week retreat.

And it looks like I may go to Israel this year, as people have been inviting me for some time. Many young Israelis go to India after they finish in the army and meet the Dharma there. Practicing Buddhism can be hard for them because they come from a particular culture and they have the tremendous mental strain of living in Israel. Teaching the Dharma to them, especially patience – when they’re actually under attack, can be quite challenging. There is a lot that needs unpacking. I’m also interested in going to Israel because of my own Jewish background. And because there are so many people of Jewish background who are Buddhists now. Visiting Israel allows a wonderful opportunity for inter-religious dialogue.

Every year I go to India. I usually lead a retreat there, either in Bodhgaya or Dharamsala. These retreats are interesting because they’re usually among people in their twenties. Here in America, it’s usually people in their forties, some thirties, and some older people. But in India, it’s usually young people who have just finished school and are traveling. They’re wide open! And they’re an international group; people can really learn a lot from people of other cultures. They’re totally out of their own environment and have the kind of space to think about changing. So I think it’s really valuable to lead these retreats. Many people in America are asking where the next generation of Buddhists are going to come from. This is the kind of thing that can really help. This is why I lead the Chapman University course every year (a one week Sociology class). It’s marvelous because you see young people coming for three easy credits and they meet the Dharma and their whole life gets transformed! So either doing the Chapman course or teaching in India, I have a chance to plant seeds for the next generation of Buddhists.

Often I go to the conferences that His Holiness has called the Mind and Life Conferences, conferences with Western scientists. There is another one in a couple of weeks but I’m not able to attend this year. When I’ve attended in the past, I’ve found them very enriching in terms of really learning about science and Buddhism and how they meet each other. And I think that helps a lot in bringing the Dharma to the west.

Also in the past I’ve attended the first two conferences of Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness.

Q: Aside from teaching Monday and Wednesday at the DFF center in Magnolia, where else do you teach in Seattle?

A: I get invitations in the Seattle community frequently. I go to many schools. Sometimes it’s teachers who are doing a unit on Asia or on Buddhism who ask me to come in as a resource. I’ve gone to junior highs and high schools, private schools and several Catholic schools. I believe it’s valuable to teach in the schools because there is so much misinformation about Buddhism. And it’s important that when kids study something that, instead of just getting an intellectual idea, they actually meet a person who is doing the practice – they feel that this is a real thing that people can do. I talk about how our mind creates happiness and suffering and I give lots of examples, for instance, how you relate to your parents. So my hope is that maybe the kids begin to think about the conflict they have at home or the conflict they have with friends and how to iron those out. I try and say something that gives them some kind of skills.

I also teach at local universities; I’m going to Seattle U next week. And I speak at Hospice of Seattle, Jewish youth groups, and various church groups. Often when churches have panels on inter-religious dialogue I’m asked to attend. I think this going into the community to teach is very important. One time I even spoke at US West at their lunch hour! Whenever people ask me in the community, I really make an effort to try and go. I try as much as possible to be a resource.

Q: What projects are you working on when you’re in Seattle?

A: I’m in the middle of editing quite a number of books. Spiritual Sisters was published privately in Singapore and now I’ve added some articles and will try to get it published in the states.

One of my teachers, Geshe Jampa Tegchok, who is now Abbot of Sera Je Monastery in India, gave teachings on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas that I have been editing and will try to get published.

And I’m working on Ven. Wu Yin’s teachings on the Vinaya which she taught at the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in India. I’m very interested in this because there is no book in English about the bhikshuni vows. There’s so little material on the Vinaya in English. I want to get that out – and Ven. Wu Yin is really encouraging me to do so – because I think it is very important to establish the monastic tradition in the West. Also at the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference, the nuns gave presentations in the evening. So, with others, I’ve transcribed those and want to make them into a volume about the Western Nuns. There are many interesting articles as the nuns have had a wide variety of experiences and come from a wide variety of cultures.

Last spring I attended Lama Zopa’s teachings on Heruka. I’ve transcribed those teachings and now need to edit them. I’d like to make a booklet out of that because they were really wonderful teachings. The many people who do that practice could benefit by these teachings. I’m also working on other teachings Rinpoche gave on the Yamantaka practice.

So there is much I want to do in terms of publishing. It seems to me that publishing is very beneficial because it takes the Dharma out to a wide group of people. DFF often sends these books to third world countries and places where people have an interest in Buddhism but have no opportunity to learn about it. The written word is an excellent way to spread the Dharma in many of these places.

Another project that I have not found time to work on yet is to make a series of tapes with guided meditations on the Lam rim. At the Cloud Mountain retreat I guide meditations on the Lam rim and a number of people have found this helpful. I think these tapes could help people know how to properly do the analytical meditations. It would be something good, too, for people who can’t come to class or people who come to class but don’t know how to meditate, or people from other countries where they don’t have dharma centers or teachers.

I also maintain a large correspondence with people from the other places where I teach, with DFF members who write to me about their practice or personal issues and with monastics who want information and teachings. I correspond with people in Singapore, Ukraine, China, Tennessee and Mexico. I sometimes wonder if I should be so available, but then I think, for some of these people, who else are they going to talk to?

I send out information about ordination when asked. I definitely try to do what I can for monasticism in America because it does not seem widely appreciated in this country. I feel strongly that it’s important for the success of Buddhism to have monastics because monastics dedicate their whole life to the Dharma. Some people have the karma and the predisposition to want to be monastics and yet where are they going to get training in America? I want to do what I can.

I also take calls from people in the DFF community about their Dharma practice. I like when people call me about their Dharma practice, because then I know they’re practicing! I’m here as a resource. One person wants to start meeting with me regularly about their practice. I really appreciate that. I hope this gives you information to help you cultivate the attitudes of confidence (faith) in, and respect (gratitude) for, your spiritual teacher. As our feelings of confidence and respect grow, we will naturally want to rely on our spiritual teachers through action. There are three principle ways we can do this: by making offerings, by offering service and respect, and by putting the Dharma into practice as they have taught. By our support of our spiritual teachers, many sentient beings benefit!