Chandra Easton

Feminism, Sexual Misconduct, and the Guru in Buddhism: An Interview with Chandra Easton

(This is a transcript of a podcast interview. If you notice any mistakes, please let me know.)

Chandra Easton and Michael Taft talk about gender and sexual misconduct in Buddhism, why compassion must be a part of spiritual practice, and the place of the guru in modern culture. Chandra shares her personal story of dealing with sexual misconduct at the hands of her teacher, tantric practices as a technology for awakening, internalized patriarchy, and how love and kindness is the whole point of spiritual practice. Also included are guidelines for choosing a teacher, reimagining Tantric practices in non-binary ways, and much more.

Chandra Easton studied Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and Tibetan language at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India, and translated Tibetan Buddhist texts on meditation with B. Alan Wallace. Chandra has taught meditation and yoga since 2001. She has studied with many Tibetan and Western Buddhist teachers such as H.H. Dalai Lama, H.H. Karmapa, Lama Tsultrim Allione, B. Alan Wallace,Tulku Sang-ngag Rinpoche, and Jennifer Welwood. She is currently the Assistant Spiritual Director & Head Teacher at the Tara Mandala Retreat Center. To learn more visit www.shunyatayoga.com and www.taramandala.org.

Michael: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, Chandra.

Chandra: Thank you. It’s nice to be with you.

Michael: Yeah. I haven’t seen you in a long time. I used to run into you there every once in a while at Against the Stream in San Francisco.

Chandra: Yes, it’s been awhile and lots of changes there as we know.

Michael: I was there last night teaching and the students took over and formed the San Francisco Dharma collective so it’s no longer Against the Stream, it’s a sangha-led teacherless group that will be functioning out of that same space at 2701 Folsom. So, I’m very excited about that that that will be great.

Chandra: I think that’s a great next step. I think that’s probably where a lot of sanghas or spiritual communities could go.

Michael: Yes. So, you haven’t been there in a while. I think you’re in Colorado?

Chandra: Yeah, interestingly enough has the changes began at Against the Stream. I was in process of packing up our home in Berkeley, California and planning and making the move to Durango, Colorado, something we have been planning for over a year. And so, the transition was happening on many levels, away from the bay area and also into a new chapter of my life. I just accepted a new position at Tara Mandala Retreat Center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado founded by Lama Tsultrim Allione as the Assistant Spiritual Director working with her to help bring her vision into being. I’ve been working with Tara Mandala for many years and as a lead authorized teacher and a Lopön here, which simply means teacher and helping to continue the teaching. So, it’s been a wonderful move. I’m falling in love with Colorado. I have to say it’s taking my breath away, the fall colors, the change of the seasons, and Durango is about an hour and a half away from Pagosa Springs and Tara Mandala is a nice little town to raise kids. It’s family-friendly, it has just enough culture. I do not have total culture shock. We’ve been out of the bay area so it’s been a good move and we’re really enjoying being here.

Michael: Yeah. I lived in Colorado for about 15 years in Boulder and it is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I just love the nature there. I love the mountains, the air, the sky, the whole thing. It’s just amazingly beautiful.

Chandra: Without a doubt.

Michael: So, you are at Tara Mandala which is a women-led sangha, correct?

Chandra: Yeah, I guess you could say that. It was founded by Lama Tsultrim Allione who is a Western woman, who was the first Western woman to be ordained by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa in the 60’s. And she was in her early 20’s, was a nun for many years and then eventually found it was more suitable for her to give her vows back and continue practicing as a lay person. And she sees it during her years as a nun living in India which if you’ve been to India, you know how challenging that can be in terms of not just culture shock but also health-wise and other factors. She had a vision of creating a community, a practice community in America where people could come and not have to travel so far and leave their families and put up with the different stomach bugs that you might get when you’re in India. And so, she had this vision and then in the 90’s she co-founded it with her husband. So, it was co-led, you know, by her and her husband, Dave Petit, who tragically died about 10 years ago at age 55, died in a sleep. We think it’s a heart attack. So, she is now leading it on her own but it was definitely co-created by them both as a place where people could come and do deep retreat. We have solitary retreat cabins here.

We have other structures and a residence hall where people can stay and there’s a three-story temple, it’s called the Tara Trikaya Temple or the three form or three body temple, meaning the nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya. So, each level represents those three bodies or three dimensions you could say of reality or perception. And there are 21 three quarter life-size Tara statues in the nirmanakaya, the ground level temple. And then, the central figure on the shrine or the altar is Machig Labdrön who founded the Chöd lineage and Tibet in the 11th-century. A woman yogini and teacher who taught on meditation, nature of mind but she’s most well-known for the teachings of Chöd which means severance, traditionally done with a bell and a drum.

Michael: Allowing the demons to devour your body if I recall.

Chandra: [chuckle] So, I wouldn’t put it that way. What you do [chuckle] that sounds really interesting but it’s like that, but what it is is in the process of the meditation and the prayers is the practitioner imagines that their body becomes nectar. And then, they offer that nectar to the demons, those karmic debtors, obstacle makers, illness bearers. But first before that, you offer to the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas, the protectors, and also beings of the six realms or six classes. So, it’s like a big feast and it’s all done through visualization of course, it’s not literal. And the other thing is is that before you offer, you know, before you transform your body and the nectar, your consciousness leaves the body through the crown aperture like in the Phowa practice and other practices you would find throughout tantric traditions in India where one leaves the physical form and either becomes a deity or moves from one body to the next and it’s called Phowa into then are transfer in subconsciousness. So, there’s an aspect of Phowa in the Chöd practice where one leaves the material body and becomes the blue-black dakini, Krodikali, or a Throma. And then presides over the feast as the blue-black dakini of Throma. So, it’s a very dynamic and transformative practice that helps to let go of attachment and overidentification into one could say our small sense of self and open into something greater and then cultivate generosity, one of the paramitas as you know generosity, one of the perfections or the practices within Buddhism of offering that which we normally hold most dearest which is our body. So, visualizing offering that and feeding all demons, the Buddhas, the six class beings, the humans, the animals, and so and satiating them until complete satisfaction. So, it is kind of like an active generosity, and extreme act but it’s a visualize act [laughs].

Michael: In a delightfully shamanic and trippy. Isn’t it originally from the Bön tradition?

Chandra: Yes. They say that the practice of Chöd is a combination of the Shamanic Bön or the indigenous tradition within Tibet as well as very much rooted in the Mahayana teachings of Prajñāpāramitā and emptiness because really in order to do the practice effectively, you have to really understand emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomenon to full emptiness one would say in the Mahayana teachings. And so, because if you’re still grasping at a solidly existing self, then it’s hard to imagine that you would even want to dissolve your body into nectar and offer it to others, right? But if you understand that we are interdependent arising and we are not just this body, then you can open up into a greater potential. So yes, it’s very Shamanic but it’s also very much rooted in the teachings of the Heart Sutra, you will find that within the Prajñāpāramitā corpus of teachings that came out of the Mahayana era of Indian Buddhism.

Michael: And is this the kind of thing that because it’s a tantric practice, you need like 30 years of initiations before they let you do it or is it more available to the average practitioner?

Chandra: That’s a great question because different teachers have different approaches. The Chöd practice is found within all the main lineages in Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, the Kagyu, the Sakya, and the Gelug. It’s one of the only teachings that permeated all those four traditions and there are hundreds of different styles and kinds of Chöd practices. And so, there are different ways of teaching it depending on what lineage, what teacher you’re sitting with. Lama Tsultrim learned the Chöd practice from one of her main teachers who was kind of an iconic class, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche who just passed away in fact. And he was one of the first Tibetan tulkus or reincarnated lamas to come to the West and teach Buddhism. And he was sent to Italy by His Holiness Dalai Lama to teach with Giuseppe Tucci at the university in Rome. And Namkhai Norbu was a scholar, a linguist, and an incredible practitioner, and his main kind of rebellious or revolutionary approaches was to not require 30 years of preliminary of foundational practices and all of that. He felt that Dzogchen and also Chöd was appropriate and very useful for our time. And in fact, there was an old prophecy from Padmasambhava, the great tantric add up that came from India, it’s about who brought tantric Buddhism from India into Tibet in the eighth century. And Padmasambhava said that when the iron bird flies, Dzogchen or the great perfection teachings will travel to the West and benefit many people.

And so, Namkhai Norbu was working from that perspective. And so, he angered a lot of the traditionalist by teaching Dzogchen and Chöd and did not require a lot of preliminary practices which I think has its merits. Some people if they have karma or connection with the teachings and they’re ripe and ready, it’s gonna be very appropriate but for other people not so much, but they say that this teachings of Chöd and Dzogchen for example and others are self-secret. What it means is that they will remain secret for those who are not ready to grok them or go deeper into them. And even if a teacher is teaching the highest teachings to a group of a 100 people, if only one or two of those people are ready for those teachings, they’ll get that and then the others in some way because these teachings are what we called self-secret, they’ll just kind of go over their heads, you know. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience but I’ve definitely had that experience where I know I’ve received teachings or heard various topics in the past but I didn’t get it until years later, then it suddenly opens up and becomes more accessible.

Michael: I think it’s all like that. I mean, I feel like I hear all the most important teachings early on and understood none of them.

Chandra: Right. [Laughter]

Michael: In all these years later, some of them are starting to finally make sense.

Chandra: Yeah.

Michael: Now, you know, for many listeners, this style of practice like dissolving your body into some kind of omerta or nectar and then allowing Buddhas and various beings to devoured and all that just sounds like complete nonsense and total fantasy land. And so, I’m curious, are you personally encountering this as some kind of ontological statements about reality or as simply an effective and scope of visualization or something else?

Chandra: I totally hear you and I sympathize with people who feel like, I don’t wanna do that or that doesn’t make any sense. In my experience, I do teach it. So, in my experience with students, some people love it and they’re like, oh this is so amazing and I really connect with it and feel it intuitively. And other people like, this is a little too far out for me. And I totally respect and appreciate both of those reactions. And I do feel like this practice as well as other tantric practices where you’re working with sound and visualization and mantra and energy and light for example, visualizing light streaming from your heart and then receiving it back from various deities or seed syllables, puja, mantras, and so on. It’s a technology that was developed in India many years ago. It arose, you know, both within the Vedic tradition and the Buddhist tradition. My research shows that it started arising maybe as early as the 4th and 5th century CE but didn’t really get codified and written down until the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. But tantra in and of itself was a tradition that brought for this various technologies into both the you could say patriarchal or structured Vedic tradition as well as the more structured and patriarchal tradition of Buddhism at the time. So, it also brings another elements such as honoring the feminine and masculine equally, and a lots of changes like integrating the sensory stimuli that coming through our senses into the path of awakening. So, not just trying to be completely pure and turning away from samsara or the cycle of existence, something that’s bad and only leads to suffering but actually turning towards it and using the emotional life, the sensory input as fuel for waking up. And so, this technology of Chöd is very much based on that and I do think it is skillful means one could say or upaya for those who have a connection with it or resonance with it. It can help transform our perception of who we think we are.

One of my Tibetan teacher said there are many different ways to realize emptiness which is a core goal you could say and in all of the different streams of Buddhism, whether it’s the early, middle, or later streams, one would use different languaging depending on which stream or teaching era you’re in. But the main point of Buddhism is really to release our grasping and craving onto pleasures or release our version and like hating on or pushing away those things that we don’t like and to drop into our deeper wellspring or source of Buddha nature one would say or Nirvana achieve enlightenment, right, and the way to do that is to purify and to let go of our clinging on to things as being solidly real and permanent but rather to recognize the empty nature of our own persona, our own being, our own body and mind matrix and also the empty nature of all phenomena that appear outside of us, and ultimately to see that it’s a co-arising, that everything arises due to my perception of it in terms of my own personal experience of the world and my sense of self. And so, this teacher said, you can contemplate emptiness and impermanence kind of mentally and realize, oh everything that’s born eventually dies so therefore it’s not permanent. You can analyze your five skandhas or the five different aspects of our psychospiritual makeup which is the traditional way of realizing the empty nature itself, the five skandhas or five heaps in English. What I’m trying to say is that Chöd is another way of realizing emptiness, where we let go of our normal way of identifying with who we are and we let ourselves become something different. This whole idea behind Deity Yoga which is for a period of time, you just imagine, oh I’m Tara and how does it feel to be an enlightened Buddha or I am Avalokiteshvara. How does it feel to be of being of light fully embodying love and compassion? And this is another way of shaking your normal sense of self or the structure of who you think you are and allowing space for something different.

Michael: Yes. So as we learn that the ego is essentially a construction, the sense of self is a fabrication out of various streams of experience and sensory input, it’s possible to play around with that and take a new senses of self, a new egos, even egos of deities is kind of an interesting way to play with reconstruction.

Chandra: Yes and all of that is always influenced by the motivation of compassion, right? We’re doing this so that we can heal and wake up and become more integrated people and beings so that we can be a benefit for others. And so, that motivation always needs to pervade no matter what practice we’re doing, whether it’s sutric or tantric, early or later teachings in styles and practices.

Michael: And why would you say that it needs to be part of every part of practice?

Chandra: Well, you know, going back to kind of more of just an understanding of karma which literally means cause and effect action is the root of karma is kr which means action.

Michael: To do something.

Chandra: To do something, yeah. I know in modern vernacular people say, oh that’s my karma. It’s always got this negative connotation, not always but can have that. But it doesn’t, it’s kind of a neutral things. There can be positive neutral and negative karma depending on what we do but also more deeply depending on our motivation for what we do. And so, in really early teachings even in the Buddhist teachings, he taught on karma and how important it is to have a good motivation when we do actions. So even kind of a seemingly fierce or angry action, if it’s done with love like a mother saying, “Don’t run out into the street,” or something like that, if it’s done with compassion, then it has a positive repercussions, right?

And so, that becomes more prominent in Mahayana in the middle phase of the Great Vehicle. The emphasis on motivation becomes more prominent than before. It’s less about following the rules and the vows and more about what is your motivation behind your action? And then, this idea of bodhicitta becomes even more prominent. It was always there of love and compassion but this word bodhicitta means the spirit or the mind of awakening for the benefit of all beings. And so, not just for our self although we’re included in that all beings category. And so, the why, the why is that this is the whole point. The Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness.” Great masters throughout the ages have said it’s all love, you know. I mean, Jesus that the absolute nature of who we really are is that of love and practice is about coming back to that and realizing that, and not getting caught in the drama or the struggle of trying to win over others to gain our own happiness but rather to see that my healing and my awakening in my life is interrelated and wrapped up in everybody else’s.

And so, recognizing that is a very important part of the practice and when you get into tantra, this becomes even more imperative to have that nice, good foundation in love, loving, kindness, Mettā, and compassion, Karuṇā and so on because it said that the tantric path is very powerful. You’re working with energy, you’re working with sound, and you’re developing what are called paranormal abilities even you could translate the word siddhi as that type of being able to read minds, being able to speed-walk, being able to be clairvoyant into the future or prospectively or retrospectively see into the past. And so with this potency of the powers that can accumulate in the tantric path, if one’s heart isn’t in the right place, it can go astray, it can lead the teacher and then the student as well into very dangerous and hurtful places, and I think we see that in a lot of the Tibetan community, it’s not a lot but in some of the Tibetan communities, we have the truth coming to the surface of misconduct by the so-called guru or the lama, the teacher or the leader of the spiritual community and I think that the key problem is that the heart, the compassion, and the discipline, and the conduct of the teacher has become very lax and I’d love to talk more about that.

Michael: Yeah. So, here you are at Tara Mandala and Tara is, of course, a female-gendered deity or non-deity, whatever we wanna say.

Chandra: You can say Buddha.

Michael: Buddha and, you know, the main teacher there, Tsultrim Allione, a woman and the practice that you, Chandra, teach quite often is Chöd which again was created by a female teacher a long ago. So, there’s a lot of feminine energy going on in the work you’re doing and I’m curious if you feel that there’s any relationship to this whole idea of guru misconduct or what you have to say about the feminine in Buddhism which as far as I can tell has been greatly oppressed?

Chandra: Yeah. Thank you for that question. This is the topic that’s really close to my heart, you know, I was raised from the age of five on as a Buddhist by my mother who became the student His Holiness the Karmapa in the late 70’s, and I have very wonderful memories of that time and I feel a very rich connection to this tradition. But then in my early 20’s when I began to take my path more seriously and I met a teacher in the early 90’s, a Tibet Lama who would come from Eastern Tibet. He was a Tertön, a treasure revealer, very magnetic and powerful teacher, and there was a lot of kind of frenzy about all these great teachers coming, he has never come to the West before, my parents came down to study with him, I became a student of him and I received my Ngöndro from him, the preliminary practices and instructions on how to begin my path and everything was really great. And then one day, I was in his quarters with a bunch of other students and a translator and we were discussing dharma. And then suddenly out front, this is Los Angeles, and the dharma center was in a home that one of this students have given to this community to form a dharma center and so out front of the house, there was this big screech and a car crash, and everybody looked up, oh my God, what is that? What happened? Everybody ran out of the room to go check and I was getting up to go and follow them and the lama said to me, “No, stay,” and he beckoned me to him and he was sitting on this bed. And I thought, wow, does he need something? What does he want? so, I went up and he kind of beckoned me closer to him so I got real close up to him as if he was gonna whisper something into my ear. And instead of doing that, he put his hand on my shirt and grab my breast.

Michael: Whoa.

Chandra: And yeah, and I jumped away, pushed his hand away and kind of slapped his hand and I said, “No”. And he didn’t speak any English and he kind of chuckled and I was really flustered and taken off guard. So, I walked out and at the time I thought he was a monk, I didn’t know. Later I found out he was married actually to a Tibetan woman back home and had children but I thought at this time in his life, he was monk. I was kind of naive. So, that was shocking but even then, it’s not okay, right? That even though he wasn’t a monk, it doesn’t mean that that kind of behavior is appropriate especially for a teacher [chuckle] to a young woman.

Michael: Yeah.

Chandra: You know, I was probably 40 years younger than him. And so, what ensued for me was very painful because I confided in one of my dharma sisters, one of my friends there, I said, “Please don’t tell me but I really need to talk to somebody about this.” And so, I told her what happened. Well, she was so upset then she told a lot of people, and it caused a huge division in the community and I was called back into this teacher’s room with the translator about a week later. I was still there trying to figure out what am I gonna do? You know, because my family was involved. I hadn’t quite told my mom yet and I was still wanting to go along as if well, this was just kind of a silly thing, you know, but I wasn’t feeling good at all but I was there, still involved with the community. And he calls me into the room and he choose me out through the translator and tells me that I am ruining his dharma activity because half of the community has left because of how angry they are. And so, he’s blaming me for disrupting his quote dharma activity of raising money so he can create a big stupa in Eastern Tibet and, you know, Buddhist Shrine, [inaudible 00:28:49] in Tibet. And so, he is putting the blame back on me and it was a very confusing time for me because I was young, you know, I was in my early 20’s. And I said, “I’m not trying to ruin your dharma activity, you’re the one who made the mistake. You shouldn’t have done that to me,” and he wouldn’t have it. And so, basically I left the sangha and my parents did too eventually and everything.

Okay. So, what happened for me was it made me feel very dissolution with the path and I almost left Buddhism all together. But then what was happened was I went to India and I studied with some wonderful teachers and I continued because my interest in it went beyond the small yet powerful and hurtful event for me. But I became very dissolution with studying with men because it was painful for me and I didn’t wanna enter into the dynamic again.

And so, [crosstalk] yeah, yeah, so then I have met Lama Tsultrim. She was a woman, she was like me, she was a Westerner who was devoted to Buddhism in a serious way. She had had children and I had by the time I met her, I was pregnant with my first child. So, I found that I was very drawn to her as a role model. And so, in 2004 I did a Chöd retreat with her and after the retreat I said, how can I help you with your work? I’m very much also devoted to elevating the place of women in Buddhism because I think that we have a lot to give and I think that the tradition is out of balance because of its patriarchal focus and women not being empowered to teach, to hold the lineage, to have authority within the tradition. And so, ever since then I’ve been doing this and I feel very good about it. I feel, you know, some teachers will say, oh, it’s dualistic being a feminist or focusing on women. It is not, it’s just an attempt to elevate the voice of women so that there’s equality and one could say, well, isn’t thousands of years of patriarchy dualistic? [Laughs]

Michael: Even though the historical Buddha himself must have been involved in the same dualism since he had a lot of different teachings about women and we could say perhaps a really bad attitude about women.

Chandra: That’s a great question. I’ve really thought a lot about that. Even though Buddha, you know, 500 CE resisted ordaining women as nuns, the story goes to his stepmother asked him again and again and again and finally at the urging of the Buddha’s assistant, Ānanda, did he changed his mind and say yes. And he never said that women could not attain enlightenment or full Buddhahood, he never said that. Later, the sutras, in various sutras that were written down began to use more of the vernacular or viewpoints on women that was really prevalent in India at the time and before the Buddha’s life as well that women are basically their husband’s property, they should obey their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, their sons even as they grow older, all of that sit back in and you see in some sutras language saying that women need to be reborn as men before becoming fully enlightened Buddhas. But the Buddha himself didn’t say that that he did resist it. Yeah, he did resist it and I’m not totally giving him, you know.

Michael: Kinda sounds like you’re giving him a free pass.

Chandra: I kinda sounds like I’m giving him a free pass but who knows why, but what I speculate based on my reading is that at the time already his teachings were very revolutionary in many ways, no God, no self, and then his ordaining thousands of monks. And so, it’s shaking up and challenging the social structure, and the knew that if he was to ordain women also it would really go against the grain and shake up the social structure in terms of families and so on. And some say that that might have been his resistance but the irony is he did give women more cows than men and he did say that they needed to obey the monastics so that even if the five-year old newly ordained monk comes in to the temple, that monk because he’s a man would be able to sit in front of the women monastic and receive the alms and the food first. So, yeah, it’s not a great history. But the thing that is interesting to me is that there’s no record of the Buddha himself saying that women in a female form cannot become enlightened so that’s interesting and it’s not until the Mahayana and then later the tantric era where women are more elevated and in the Mahayana, the middle period around the first century CE teachings saying that men and women can attain full Buddhahood, that you don’t have to be a monastic in order to attain full Buddhahood. So perceptions began to change and then in the tantric period, you see full on empowered women as teachers and mentors for men and women.

Michael: Yes and you seemed to be over the opinion that I share which is that tantrism was originally its own movement independent of the Vedic tradition or the Buddhist tradition and it’s seems like the female focus or even the strong positivity towards women is something that came along with the tantric tradition itself into this highly patriarchal traditions?

Chandra: Yes. Yeah, I do share that. I have written papers and done a lot of research on this and what I find is that certain well-respected scholars like David White posit that tantra in and of itself was its own movement, its own tradition that infiltrated both Vedic tradition and later becoming what we know of is today called Hinduism, of course, they didn’t call themselves Hinduism, it was an English labeling of the tradition of the time of the people who practice certain religious traditions of the Indus Valley, the Indus Valley, it’s a Hinduism is an English label like Buddhism is. So, the Vedic tradition was infiltrated by this earlier one could say pre-Aryan or linked to a Dravidian culture and Dravidian traditions that existed in India before the Aryan invasions came down, the Aryans came from the North, the North West you could say and brought in the whole idea of the caste system which literally means color so differentiating people based on the color of their skin, that didn’t exist in India before the Aryans came. And so, yeah, it’s seems that the ideas of tantra, the image that comes to me is a merge about of the soil of India because it never was lost and it influenced both the Vedic tradition and the Buddhist tradition and Jainism as well.

Michael: Yeah, that book by David Gordon White called ‘The Alchemical Body’, I believe that’s the title, it goes [crosstalk] great detail, very fabulous work.

Chandra: Yes, yes, yes.

Michael: I’m just wanna clear the deck and say so what is it like for you being a woman in Buddhism and what would you like to see change?

Chandra: Yeah. I think that my experience with being able to study with a woman was very powerful for me and you see this also happening with diversity as well, you know, people learned from and connect with people who’ve looked like them, yeah. And so, by having a role model, a woman teacher of color, a man of color, different backgrounds, also different ages is very important so that we can see ourselves in them you could say. Of course, there’s also the magic of the foreign [chuckle] like people with the Tibetan lama, they’re such a charisma or the foreignness of it is so magical and enticing. But then if we really drop down and start to inhibit our own capacity to awaken, I find that we also need to find or at least have echoes or role models in the world that help draw that uniqueness out like I remember, I realized in my early days of really meditating, the early 20’s of sitting, meditating a lot, I had this realization I have idealized the awakened person as an old man with a beard and I will never be an old man with a beard. I just… I might grow a beard as I get older but probably won’t… I won’t be a man unless I do a gender, you know, transition which now is more possible but if you don’t wanna do that, then why? You know, I had to burst that illusion and start to find examples of symbols, and beings, and teachers, and stories that reflected more of my capacity and who I am in this particular lifetime.

And so, I think more of that is important, teaching, cultivating, empowering women to have that leadership is very important, and that’s what we’re doing here at Tara Mandala, you know, Lama Tsultrim herself was a trailblazer and wrote women of wisdom in the 80’s the first book of its kind. She told her own story, she told the stories of great women masters of Tibet in that book and that was very groundbreaking and opened up many doors for a lot of us. And also within this small, you know, apprenticeship program that Lama Tsultrim has founded here at Tara Mandala about 75% of the apprentice teachers and authorized teachers are women. And so, it’s not that we don’t welcome men and love men, you know, and non-binary, and transgender and welcome. What my experience is is that as women’s voices become more available, women’s perspectives being told more and more because we have been you could say the underdog for so long. We have this natural interest and capacity to also recognize that there are other underdogs and other people in the world whose voices have been suppressed and need to come to the mic, you could say come to the forefront. And so, that in my experience as I get more exposure and have more leadership capacity, I want to help other people do the same and I think that men have that capacity to do that as well and as a privileged person in a male body in this lifetime, I would like to invite the men to take advantage of their privilege, to welcome and help boost and expose the people, that help uplift their voices whereas in the past, they didn’t get that opportunity which is I think what you’re doing in this podcast with many other people you invite in.

Michael: We can only hope that that is happening and I’m curious beyond this very important quality of understanding the position of the oppressed and hoping to bring that voice forward, what other qualities do you find are noticeably different in a women-run and very women-friendly sangha?

Chandra: It’s a good question because we always grapple with the internalize sexism, right? Internalized racism and that’s something I’m really interested in asking myself and my teachers and my peers as how have we internalized the patriarchy? What kind of structures are we buying into in order to have more stature or have the sit at the table so to speak? So, I wanna wake up more to that, you know, Lama Tsultrim has been so innovative in breaking down those structures and really speaking her own voice no matter how hard it has been in this first wave you could say. And I wanna go even further and really look at hierarchy, look at the power dynamics, and especially I think that women have a capacity to do that. In my experience, you know, I don’t go to a lot of other dharma centers so maybe I can’t really compare it to others in that sense but what my gut feeling is to answer your question is that there’s more of a relational experience here. The way we structure our sanghas is using the structure of the Mandala which is a circular structure. You know, there’s a center and a periphery so it’s not a vertical structure, it’s a horizontal structure. And so, all of the people on the sangha committees have equal say and we come to agreement based on consensus. So, you have the central position which is the Buddha family that might be the teacher, the authorized teacher in their community. And then, you have the position of the East which is the Vajra and that is… the person has to do with curriculum development and education. So, each direction has different themes and so we have our own structure like that. I’m more interested in the horizontal way of relating rather than the vertical and I think that you would feel that in our sanghas and feel that at Tara Mandala more than maybe others.

Michael: That sounds really interesting. I’m curious in a lot of Tibetan practice. There’s this very archetypal gender binary type visualizations, a man and a woman, both has gender, both, you know, involved in this polarities, how do you work in your group with people who don’t wanna do those kind of visualizations because they are gay or they’re non-binary gendered or they just find it oppressive in some way? Are you reimagining these practices in a way that’s more open for people?

 

Chandra: Yes and there’s still lot of work to be done with that but as this issue becomes more and more prominent in our community, these types of innovations, I think a very much needed, I think the important thing is to recognize that this secret masculine and feminine within Tantric Buddhism, it more has to do with qualities rather than actual gender embodiment. And so, even somebody who’s gay or lesbian can cultivate the opposite within themselves so to speak as a way to bring more balance. So, of course, there are problems with these kind of categories and adjectives that we attribute based on our cultural conditioning of what is feminine, what is masculine. And so, that’s an interesting area to explore, but, you know, traditionally and to that in Tantric practices, the monastics, say they were bunch of men in the monastery, they would visualize themselves as a female deity at times in different practices like Vajrayoginī, and there wasn’t such a hang up about that. There wasn’t so much of a kind of solidify the identification into what’s masculine and what’s feminine.

And so, there are practices where we imagine ourselves as a male and then supplicate or pray to a female deity. There’s the opposite, we imagine ourselves with some female deity and supplicate or pray to a male deity. And then, there are practices where it’s called the Yab-Yum where you visualize or imagine yourself as in union with the so-called consort. So if you’re the female, you could imagine male, male, you could imagine female and then you switch it to base on what the practices are. And the whole point is to realize and cultivate the balance dynamic of the yin and the yang within oneself. And I think there is much room to grow in terms of people for example, we have some sangha members who are non-binary and on certain days, they may identify more with the masculine, another days they may be identify more with the feminine. And so, what we would say is on the day that you choose, you know, and then explore what it feels like to embody that quality on this given day. And then on the next day if you identify more as the opposite, then explore what it feels like to embody more of that.

But then, of course, they’re always needs to be this understanding that on the absolute level, there is no gender and that’s the teaching of Buddhism is that on the relative level, we have subject, object, black, white, male, female, you and me, this kind of binary construct but that ultimately isn’t real, that the absolute and the absolute state or absolute realization, all of those dualities collapse. The traditional phrase in Tibetan is collapsing the “cave of dualism” so the structure of dualism collapses in this moment of opening into a full awakening or even just a taste of awakening when one experiences the non-dual state. And so, that’s when the genders fall apart, the structure collapses. So, in most Tantric sadhanas that is the goal of the completion stage of practice is to realize non-duality.

Michael: Well, as we talked about earlier Against the Stream just completely collapsed based on a sex scandal with the founding teacher and we’ve had Shambhala community struggling greatly with sex scandal with their teacher and actually some of the other teachers in the tradition. And then, we’ve got at least two, maybe three major, major Tibetan teachers including Sogyal Rinpoche and other big figures who have just been embroiled in massive sex scandals. So, what is going on here Chandra? Why do we have these major teachers in the Buddhist tradition falling prey again and again to some kind of real trouble with their sexuality. Presumably these people have some level of awakening and something to teach and yet they are really struggling and causing real harm and.. What do you think is going on there?

Chandra: Of course, I’m not omniscient and I’m not an authority on this types of dynamics so I can really only speak from my experience. And when you asked that question, what comes to mind is that these people have somehow lost their way, and that the power that they have accrued as a result of their position and also the structures that support that power dynamic within Buddhism and primarily Tantric Buddhism does lend itself to this type of misconduct, that it doesn’t only exist there and, of course, we have the Catholic Church as a horrible example of this as well but I’m gonna stand more within the Tibetan Buddhist situation right now because I feel more familiar with that and as I said earlier, I’ve experienced a certain degree of that abuse and the repercussions of that abuse and had to find my own way as a result of that.

First of all, power does tend to corrupt. I think that studies confirmed that. And so, the teacher needs to be very careful and very honest and very disciplined. And what is happening with Tibetan Buddhism coming to the West is that Westerners, I’m gonna speak from my American perspective, I don’t know if it’s the same in Europe, I would assume it is in another parts of the world, there’s the kind of a magical projection of a distant land of enlightened beings and so we give up our power of judgement to this foreign teachers who seemed very majestic and enlightened and we lose our sense of right and wrong. And then, when something like this happens, we get confused, we question ourselves, am I a good student? Why can’t I transmute this into awakening? You know, the whole teaching is about transmuting adversity into the path of awakening. Well, this can be real adversity at times when we’re confronted with abuse from our teacher who we’ve idolized and put on the pedestal. But a lot of us know that as soon as you put somebody on a pedestal, they’re unstable and the eventual reality that they’ll fall is pretty eminent.

And so, one thing that I wanna share is that it is so important for the student to not lose themselves in the face of the teacher and to actually know that built-in to the Tantric tradition are very clear instructions and guidelines on how to choose your spiritual teacher particularly in the Tantric practices, this is so important because we are taught to see the teacher as the Buddha. And that even if they fart or make a mistake, we’re supposed to see that as enlighten expression of that Buddha. And the idea behind that is pure perception, meaning that everything that we see around us looks one way but if we can shift our perception, seeing nature as light and sound, seeing trees and hearing like for example, the chirping of the birds as mantra, seeing everything as a play of light and energy, that that is called pure perception, that we’re actually tapping into the way things really are. And through extension also seeing those around us as enlightened beings like see your partner as a dakini or enlightened feminine expression of mind or see your male partner as the daka, enlightened masculine expression.

So, we’re working towards pure perception and it said a lot of profound transformation can come through that and it’s beautiful, beautiful teachings, but if the teacher is not holding their integrity and holding their vows and their discipline, then this can go wrong really fast and I think that’s what we’re seeing with the Sakyong and the Shambhala tradition, Sogyal Rinpoche and many other teachers. I also wanna say that, of course, there are many good teachers still teaching out there with high integrity and, of course, we tend to only hear about the negative so I also don’t wanna give people the perception that Tantric Buddhism is destined to fail and is a horrible, unsafe place. For the most part, there’s a lot of good in it and I’m experiencing that and I have experienced that with many teachers, both male and female. But the one thing I’d like to say is just share with people some of these traditional guidelines for how to choose a spiritual teacher because it’s there, I think a lot of Westerners just don’t get access to it or don’t even know about this. And generally, what they say is that before choosing a Tantric teacher, you should watch them, examine their behavior for at least three years before becoming their student. And then, if you feel like they have integrity and they’re walking their talk and they have compassion and wisdom, then you ask them, can I be your student? And then, they are supposed to watch you and examine you for three years. And then, at the end of that three years, so six years total, if both of you still feel like it’s a good relationship, then you watch each other for another three years.

So it’s a nine year process of really committing to a teacher-student relationship, that is the traditional way. I mean, if you think about it, we don’t do that, nobody does that. Somebody goes to a teacher and gets enamored by their teachings and goes up to them at the end say, I wanna be your student after just a couple hours.

Michael: Isn’t that exactly what you did?

Chandra: Well, I did that after about four days of retreat and then having read and followed her life and career for many years before that. But that’s a good point, Michael. I didn’t do that nine-year process but there are times when, you know, you’ve been on the path for a while and you have a sense of what integrity looks like and what integrity doesn’t look like and you can make a judgment. It doesn’t have to follow that exact structure of the nine years but with that structure gives is a sense of perspective of like how to slow it way down, slow it way down and really take your time before you commit. So yeah, I don’t think I’ve done that for nine years structure with any of my teachers but it helped me understand that this process needs to be done very delicately and conscientiously.

Michael: It certainly something that our culture hasn’t adapted too well so far. I remember working, of course, in a guru tradition in India and spending a lot of time in India around people who were with my teacher or with other teachers and it was really almost shocking to me how frank the sangha would be about the teachers behavior or other teachers behavior even though they understood the viewpoint of the teacher’s God and, you know, their farts are golden and, you know, nectar. But they also would be like, yeah, he hits his wife or yeah, you know, she makes this or that mistake and they were very honest about it. And I realized that that’s what it looks like when a culture had grows for a hundreds of years like there’s an ability to cut through the dream of it and that that was necessary feedback for a lot of people to understand like who was trustworthy and who wasn’t and they were just so frank about it. And I think that the thing you’re bringing to light which is when we as a Americans or Westerners encountered, Tibetans encountered people from these other cultures who are part of these very mystical traditions we tend to get very starry eyed about it and not have those frank conversations that we need to have about whose really doing what behind closed doors.

Chandra: That’s so true. It’s so true and there are ways that people cope with these kind of seemingly paradoxical qualities of a teacher like you could call it compartmentalizing. You know, for example, I work very closely with my teacher and I see that she’s very human and I like that actually, I’m fine with that. I don’t need a perfect pedestal teacher. Given my experiences, I actually prefer having a teacher who feels human and I can learn from in various ways, how does she grapple with challenges or running an organization is very challenging so there’s a lots of opportunities for learning in that. But then when the teacher is, you know, teaching, one can shift into another state of mind, this teacher is teaching the beautiful teachings of truth or leading out of suffering or how to become a more integrated human being. And so, letting go of all of those other memories and opening to receive the blessings in a way that feels very integral and beneficial both for a student and teacher and that’s a very interesting dynamic but it needs to be done with intelligence, with the agency, and a wakefulness within it, not a blind belief but a faith that is born from testing out the teacher and seeing how do they handle things under pressure. So, I wanted to also share some interesting qualities of teachers that one should kind of bear in mind when we’re looking or studying with teachers, looking for teachers. Do you mind if I share this because it’s so interesting?

Michael: We should.

Chandra: Okay. So, you know, this is really under that category of the first few years when you meet a teacher you’re interested in and you think it could be a good guide for you and your spiritual path. Here are some things to keep in mind asking, does the teacher have a quality of purity? And that’s not like in terms of being totally perfect in every way but in terms of vows so not breaking his or her vows to be a benefit to others, to be honest, to not have sexual misconduct, not become so intoxicated that you’re completely drunk and can’t control what you’re doing. These are basic vows that all teachers within Buddhism take, those are just a few examples. So, do they have that kind of purity and a good sense of having integrity I guess you could also call it? The other one is are they learned? Are they well-educated in what they’re teaching? Basic, you know, do they know the sutras, the tantras, and so on? And then, do they have compassion? That’s a very important one and not just for their close sangha but does that compassion extend to all beings? The exact wording is their heart should be suffused with compassion in a way that this teacher loves each and every being like they were his or her own child, this feeling of love and compassion for all beings. And then, have they integrated and realized the teachings? Are they really putting what they’re teaching into practice? And then, have they gained some kind of fruit, realization based upon that practice? The other one is are they generous? Is their language pleasant? And then, do they have the capacity to teach each individual according to their needs? So, adapting the teachings, getting to know their students. And then, basically, do they walk their talk? Do they act in alignment with what they teach? So, these are basic things to look out for when you’re looking for a teacher, when you’re following a teacher.

And then, there are more within the Tantric tradition too, you know, if it’s tantra, then there’s some more higher bars that need to be held. So, for example, in the situation of the Sakyong, the son of Trungpa Rinpoche, I read his apology letter, his acknowledgement to the community after the accusations were made public and he acknowledges that he was given power too soon and his development. And one way he coped with the dynamic of being famous, you could say and having all of that power is he turned to alcohol, and when he drink, he would do things that were bad. And so, this is why outstanding from intoxication is a very important vow within Buddhism because when we get intoxicated, we lose our control and we may do things that are harmful for others. And so, he acknowledged that he had broken that vow and that was a part of why he behaved in that way. And so, that’s an example of how power can corrupt and how it’s important to really… it’s our job as students to hold the teacher to that high integrity just as much as it’s the teacher’s job to hold the students to high integrity. It’s a two-way street and I think in our culture, as Buddhism is coming to the West, we need to really talk about that side of the equation. I was just in a teaching with another Tibetan teacher, wonderful teacher, total integrity, 18 years in solitary retreat but when he taught about the student, he said all these things that the students need to do in order to be good students didn’t utter a word about the responsibilities of the teacher and I think that’s what’s missing is we need to really talk about this and students need to know these are the qualities that the teacher should have and if they don’t have them, then don’t study with them, don’t give them that power.

Michael: That will make sense Chandra and yet some part of me wonders whether the entire model of the guru and the student is applicable to us in the West or applicable anywhere at all anymore? It seems like it has beautiful elements and I understand from being, you know, for many, many years in a guru tradition myself, thankfully female guru for me that was really wonderful and at the same time even coming from within it and understanding that can be positive. It seems antithetical in so many ways to what we hope practice will do for ourselves and people in our culture and also we see so many problems and so much difficulty coming up with this particular dynamic and definitely begs a question, can’t we come up with a better way of teaching and learning this stuff?

Chandra: I think that for most people, this more tantric approach to seeing the guru as the Buddha is not suitable. I don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate from most people in the West, in our modern culture. And so, I would like to explore that and see what are other ways we cannot throw it all out, right, but keep elements of it that are beneficial but that don’t make the power dynamics so out of balance and make the student and the teacher so vulnerable to abusive power, and the earlier teachings, the Theravada and all the other traditions of the earlier phase of teachings from the original time of the Buddha for 500 years after him than the wave of Mahayana. All of those that middle era and the early era, none of them required seeing the teacher as the Buddha, as a prerequisite for awakening. However, all the teachings do say we need to rely on a spiritual teacher or the Kalyana Mitra is a wonderful idea, Kalyana Mitra in Sanskrit, it is the spiritual friend, it’s somebody who knows a bit more than you do and can help you on the path. Maybe they know a lot more than you do.

Michael: The Anam Cara as it were.

Chandra: Yes, tell me more. What is the Anam Cara?

Michael: It’s a similar idea really it comes from the Irish Christian tradition way back when like 6-700 CE when monastic Christianity was sort of hiding out in Ireland, they developed this system where older monks would help younger monks work with their spiritual growth and they called it the Anam Cara or soul friend. I learned this from John O’Donohue, the wonderful Irish priest that was friend of mine before his untimely demise. And his book on the topic is just wonderful but that idea of Kalyana Mitra or the spiritual friend always reminds of Anam Cara, the soul friend.

Chandra: That’s beautiful. I didn’t know about that. I think that that’s a really important aspect of our community and of our personal growth and progress along the path. They say even the children learn better when they learn peer to peer. There’s something about that that shouldn’t be underestimated and it’s not to say that you wanna study with somebody who just knows a little more than you because, of course, you wanna study with somebody whose knowledgeable and has done a lot of the practices for many, many years but also having more of a peer-like relationship or the spiritual friend, I think is a really wonderful way to learn about yourself and learn about the other and to take more responsibility you could say in your own process and then gain more confidence in what these profound and sometimes esoteric teachings mean to you. So, I do think that we don’t need to believe that the guru is the Buddha especially if it doesn’t feel right for us. There are some people who may be okay with that and they may have the good fortune to have a teacher who maintains all of these wonderful qualities I just listed and can benefit and open up a channel to receive blessings through that so-called pure vision because it is a co-creation if I might say. There’s the story of the old Tibetan grandma who became enlightened based on her reference of an old dog’s tooth. Do you know that story?

Michael: I’d love to hear it.

Chandra: This is such a great story. So, it goes like this, there was a Tibetan man, a traitor and he would go once a year to India over the Himalayas gather up his goods and bring them back to Tibet and sell them. And one year before he was to set out on his journey, his mother, an elderly, very devout Buddhist practitioner, she said to him, “Dear son, India is a birthplace of the Buddha. Please bring back a relic for me to honor and pray to in my prayers.” And so he said, “Sure mom, I’ll do that.” And he went to India, he did his business, came back and as he was approaching the house, he could see the house in a distance, he realized, “Oh no, I forgot to get a relic for my mom.” So, when he got there, she said, “Welcome back, son. Where’s my relic?” He said, “I’m sorry, mother. I forgot.” And she said, “Okay, next time you go, you have to bring back a relic.” And he said, “Sure.” So, the next year he goes and then comes back, same thing, as he is approaching the house at a distance, he realizes, oh my God, I forgot the relic again. And then when he got to the house, he said, “Mother, I’m so sorry, I forgot, I will not forget again.” and she said, “If you forget one more time, I’m gonna kill myself in your presence. Please don’t forget.” and he said, “Okay.” So then, the next time he went to India, same thing. He does his business, he is coming back and at a distance he sees the house and he realizes, oh my goodness, I forgotten my mother’s relic. What should I do? He looks around on the ground to see what there is around him, what can he bring back as a relic and there’s an old dog corpse rotting, dried out actually, the bones are dried and the skull is there and the teeth they’re showing and he realizes, “Oh, I can take a tooth from this old skeleton, wrap it up in some silk and I’ll tell my mom this is the tooth of the Buddha.” And so, he does this.

When he gets home, he gives her the relic. She’s so happy, she places it at the top of her shrine and makes offerings light’s incense and candles, and make offerings every day. She practices and honors this old tooth as if, you know, she really believed it was the tooth of the Buddha and it’s said that at the moment of her death, she achieved rainbow body, full liberation in the Tantric tradition common experiences for the physical form of a practitioner, great practitioner’s body to reaves or back into the five elements what you represent it as the five lights. So, this old grandma who nobody would have known was a great practitioner through her devotion to this old dog’s tooth became awakened in a bardo in the intermediate stage between one life and the next. And so, the whole moral of the story is it actually doesn’t matter if that teacher is an actual Buddha or not, it doesn’t matter if that relic is really a relic of the Buddha, if you have devotion and faith, if you open your heart to such a great extent, then you will receive an equal or that extent of blessings. And so, that’s an interesting story and I think about that when I think of the whole guru disciple dynamic. Of course, that probably brings up a myriad of other questions that you could ask me [laughs].

Michael: Certainly at points to a certain openness of heart that is required and at the same time it seems to point away for the need for any embodied human being to be the focus of that devotion.

Chandra: That’s true. It’s said the most important thing is the teaching is not the teacher and that’s an interesting thing. This is more from the earlier teaching, it’s a sutric teachings in Buddhism. So, you could say that the Tantric has flipped it on its head and said the most important thing is the teacher not the teaching but they don’t say that, they don’t go to that extreme, of course, the teachings are very important like I just said in my list of qualities of the teacher. But the teachings are whether preserved through the writings of the sutras and those, you know, change of course from maybe addition to addition but shouldn’t necessarily change, that those of the preserved words of the Buddha in terms of the sutric teachings at least, the sutras. And so, I think that statement recognizes that we will always encounter teachers who have less integrity than we would hope. So, rather than putting all of your faith in just the teacher, pay attention to the teachings. What are they teaching? What are the text teach? And keep the tradition alive with integrity as much as possible by focusing more on the teachings than the teacher. What do you think about that?

Michael: Well, as I said I feel like I was lucky and had a good experience and yet I also, you know, don’t practice in a guru tradition anymore and feel like it’s that wonderful opened devotional heart and the feeling of almost like a reawakening of innocence that can be, for me, it was very hard coming from a very intense punk rock, iconoclastic, skeptical, jerk kind of background to, you know, really begin to just hear what to my ear with fairy stories and be told to be loving and yet over many years of working with that, I found, you know, that my heart really could become innocent again and open again and feel that kind of non-cynical and non-ironic actual sweetness and compassion and love and just plain old kindness. And that was for me a kind of a miracle. I mean, I wasn’t so jaded that those things didn’t exist, they were certainly there previous to that but they were kind of surrounded by this crust or rind of a lot of sarcastic cynical defendedness. and so, you know, that kind of milieu environment of devotion really actually worked for me and yet as time went on I realized that it was also encouraging the kind of abdication of any sense of responsibility for anything, encouraging and abdication of any kind of intellectual clarity about anything, and a whole further list of things that I just couldn’t really get behind. and so, I think the story that you told which I of course, love stories like that, points to the thing that for me that I brought up which is you could have devotion to your husband or wife or your partner in life, you could have devotion to the tree in the yard, you could have devotion to a rock. And as long as you’re bringing some purity and kindness and openness and let’s say freshness of mind to that, it’s gonna have the same quality of awakening. There’s a kind of archetypal force and power that’s available when the devotion is toward someone that you’re literally putting on a pedestal and who’s literally wearing a fancy hat and who is literally covered in silk robe and so on, it does have an archetypal resonance for human beings that is quite powerful. And yet it’s absolutely not necessary and as you said most people it’s not gonna work for and as we see over and over again at least in our society very often it goes horribly awry. In my opinion, it’s time for us to just be done with that whole way of learning and teaching at least in the West.

Chandra: I am very close to agreeing with you on that. Of course, it’s an individual matter. Some people might not wanna be done with that completely and who are we to decide that for them? But in our teaching, on our writing, I think there’s a lot of space and potential to move things forward and evolve this in a very interesting way through conversations like we’re having right now.

Michael: When we start to talking, we were talking about Against the Stream and turning into its own new sangha and I sort of just throughout the title that they had come up with which is the San Francisco Dharma Collective but I have to say I’m extremely excited and happy that they are taking the reigns as the students to say, we’re gonna set up the space and invite teachers and it’s okay that there’s teachers but this is not a community that’s about any particular teacher. I feel really honored that they want me to teach there and yet even more excited that it’s this new way of working at least for this group, a new way of envisioning the whole thing which is that it’s more of a community, it’s more of a sangha or we could say a spiritual community, and it has its own horizontal structure, and that there is no room for some kind of charismatic teacher to come in there and begin abusing people. Furthermore, there is room for people to have open interactions and to come into their own power and for women, people of color, and people of various gender identities, and non-identities to come in and be welcome and find their own expression there. And even with that, there’s still respect for the teachings and still respect for teachers and, of course, we need to learn from people who already know some of the stuff. But, you know, a few months ago, I was joking with them about in class where I kept calling it the Soviet of Meditation teachers and deputies. We were talking a lot about this flat structure. So, I just found it really beautiful and fund last night when they declared the dharma collective, the San Francisco Dharma Collective, I’m like, there it is. You guys did it. It’s fabulous. So, we’ll see how that goes.

Chandra: That’s very exciting. It warms my heart to know that they rallied around and were able to take this next step and I think it’s an important step in the history of dharma coming to the West quite frankly.

Michael: What do you think should happen or could happen or are you working to have happened with the role of women in Buddhism? It’s just been so froth for so long, you know, the whole controversy where Theravada and nuns don’t even exist supposedly even though there are thousands of them, they aren’t allowed to be ordained formally. There’s the whole, you know, intensely patriarchal structure of all three vehicles. What is really to be done and what would you like to see happen, Chandra?

Chandra: I feel like education is the most important thing, giving Himalayan, Tibetan, Indian, Asian, and Western nuns the opportunity to study with the best teachers to become teachers themselves, to go on depth retreat, to be inspired and encourage to put these teachings into practice and realize them. I think that’s really the most important thing because it will changes things from the inside out, from the foundation up and if a woman has a title, fine, you know. It’s a part of the structure or if she just wants to be a yogini meditating in her home or a cave, that’s fine too. All of it is welcome and all of it needs to happen. And I think that encouraging through various means and supporting women to do that is of utmost importance. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is another great example of a Western woman who became a Tibetan Buddhist nun. She wrote a book called ‘Cave in the Snow’ about 12 years of retreat she did in the cave in the Himalayas, and her mission is educating and giving nuns who are Tibetan, Indian, Napoli opportunities for higher education. So, that’s her focus. So, more people like that, more women from the West who have that kind of background or privilege you could say, of experience of what’s possible in an integral way helping those who have less support and experience in that realm, to become elevated in terms of their view, their way of thinking.

The prison is really mental. I thought English to Tibetan nuns in Dharamshala in ’96, 1996 and they were so shy. Most of them are so shy, they wouldn’t even try to speak the lesson that I was teaching them. They put their books in front of their faces and giggle. There’s this kind of quality of shyness and insecurity that limits women across the globe really in terms of their personal growth and evolution and curiosity and confidence. I would tell the nuns, I would say, “Wait, don’t you want to be able to communicate with others and tell them your story of coming out of Tibet and exile, of talking about your trials and triumphs and all of that?” Yes, they want to, they would nod their head. Yes. Well, then you’ve got to have the guts to make mistakes and speak out loud, use your voice. And I would inspire them and then I’d come back a week later and they’d be shy again [laughs] you know, it was like, that little tiny steps, week by week and some of it ripped off on them I think but it was an interesting experience for me to see how just that kind of basic fear of speaking, fear of using your voice can hold you in a prison, can hold us in a prison. And I think we need to start breaking that down. That’s my answer. And I’m sure there are a lot of other great things that need to be done. People are doing but that’s I think education just like in all other fears of people who have been underrepresented, underprivileged, education is very important.

Michael: Thanks for coming on the show, Chandra. I really appreciate it.

Chandra: My pleasure. Thank you, Michael.

 

 

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