Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 7, Summer 2015
I am on the dais in front of a large audience. It is warm and humid, my hair is ridiculously frizzy and uncooperative, and the front row of chairs is filled with teachers, leaders, scholars, and renowned Buddhist practitioners. This isn’t the first time I have addressed a gathering that included distinguished guests, and I am usually a confident speaker. But today I am nervous, with a first-day-of-school feeling in my stomach. My wayward locks are even more unruly in comparison to the neatly shaved heads of many in the audience.
But then I look more closely at the faces in front of me, and register the kindness they radiate. These people are genuinely interested in what I have to say, not baring their claws to shred my paper or my thinking. A sense of ease settles over me.
I am just outside of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, at the 14th Sakyadhita Conference, an event unlike any I had ever attended before.
I had heard of Sakyadhita before April 2014 – it had something to do with Buddhist nuns – but I wasn’t connected to the organization in any way (or so I thought) nor did I follow its activities closely. The organization would sometimes show up in my FB feed. But then, in the space of five days in April of last year, two different friends sent me the conference announcement, with the request for proposals, and pointed out the relevance of my work to the theme.
It was a busy time. At the Garrison Institute, we were preparing for two different Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) trainings in two months, one in April in the US and one in May in Ireland. After the end of a long week of training in April, I worked up an abstract, submitted it before midnight on the day of the deadline, and thought no more of it until I received the (unexpected) email that it had been received. Robyn Brentano, then executive director at the Garrison Institute, was thrilled with the news and warm in her congratulations. She had attended the very first Sakyadhita Conference in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987, where His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama had also been present and the international organization had been founded. The Garrison Institute is a retreat center and incubates programs that focus on the power of contemplation to drive individual and societal transformation, particularly in the areas of education, the environment, and individual and community resilience. Founded in 2003, it had never been represented at a Sakyadhita Conference. Now we would have an opportunity to share the work that the Institute has been doing at the intersection of contemplative practices and resilience.
I have seen Buddhism through the lenses of intellectual curiosity and study; as a transformative path; as a devotional lifestyle. Now I would see it through another lens: as a radical movement. What is more radical than to carve space for oneself, away from culturally imposed expectations, to develop one’s own mind and devote oneself to spiritual growth? In Indonesia, where Atisha traveled to recover key Mahayana teachings, Buddhism is now a minority religion. But the art of Borobudur, created 1,000 years ago, portrays monks and nuns as equal disciples of the Buddha. Yet many women today are not confident in their ability for spiritual growth. We can’t blame the suppression of women’s spiritual development solely on men; we must take responsibility for owning our own abilities.
The ordination of women in Buddhism, women wanting the same opportunities as men to study, practice and teach, is a topic fraught with controversy. Buddhism is grounded deeply in tradition and lineage, but as David Germano pointed out so beautifully at the Contemplative Sciences Symposium in Boston in 2014, the actual practice of Buddhism, at least in Tibet, was never as rigidly codified as we might like to believe. How do we hold to authenticity and evolve, simultaneously?
More than anything, I am shocked to realize that I, a convert to Buddhism living in the Southeastern region of the United States, have more access to teachers, more access to the teachings, to texts and like-minded companions, than many of the women who are trying to dedicate themselves to a life of study, practice, and contemplation. And I take it very much for granted, these hundreds of books on my shelves, the endless supply of teachings, the support I know would be forthcoming if I were inclined to ordain.
The conference itself was overwhelming for me at first. So many people, none of whom I knew. Congregating in one place, I soon realized, does not automatically create community. But little by little some faces became familiar, and familiarity developed into the beginnings of friendship, relationships that are enduring past the conclusion of the conference.
There is an attitude underlying this conference. It is non-hierarchical, empowering of the individual, and supportive of social and economic rights for all. It is…subversive, if you hold up these concepts in comparison to social structures that are hierarchical, male-dominated, and intolerant of difference.
It happened on the afternoon of the second day. After the panel, the floor was opened to questions. There were many, in response to interesting papers on the history of Buddhist women in Indonesia. And then…a man stepped up to the microphone. And, as in so many other settings, there wasn’t a question, just a long, rambling reflection.
Yes, women may sometimes be partially complicit in their own suppression. But after attending many conferences, teachings, and after many years of education, I can say unequivocally that men are 99.5% responsible for microphone-hogging.
Teri Sivilli writes and teaches at the intersection of trauma, resilience and contemplative practices. She is particularly interested in the integration of compassion meditation with psychotherapy. Formerly the Program Manager for the Contemplative-Based Resilience (CBR) Project at the Garrison Institute, she continues to consult for them while working towards a clinical social work degree. As Project Coordinator in Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Teri was intimately involved in the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) program and now co-teaches a CBCT class at a maximum security prison in Georgia. She has extensive experience in clinical trials of contemplative interventions, as well as in mental health and psychosocial epidemiology. Teri earned her BA from Barnard College at Columbia University and her master’s degree in global health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. She is a student of Tibetan Buddhism and Ashtanga yoga. You can follow her blog, www.HeartLikeaRiver.org and her Twitter feed @TeriSivilli.