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Your Pali ordination name, Dhammayasa, translates into “Gains Fame Through the Dharma.” It seems like this is exactly what is happening! What do you think is going on here? What came first, the fame or the name? Oh, gosh. Well, first of all, I don't know about the fame thing. In a lot of ways I still feel like a fan. To answer your question, though, the name came before I had any bit of professional success. When I ordained, I was unemployed, living with my parents, and the future was very uncertain. Then, within the next six months, things really took off for me: I got the job at UWest, started getting more involved in writing and teaching and so on.
At the time, I just thought my teacher, Bhante Chao Chu, was being funny when he gave me that name. He knew I would do what I did, which was to say, "No! No! It should be the other way around—I should bring fame to the Dharma!" The name made me uncomfortable. But that's often the idea, I think. The name can challenge us to see and work with parts of ourself that might need a certain attention.
What social cause do you think isn’t getting enough attention, especially from American Buddhists? I spent the past spring break finally getting around to reading Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book Half the Sky. I even did a big dharma talk about it. Every human being should read this book. It thoroughly convinced me that the oppression of women and girls worldwide is, as they say, "the central moral challenge of our time" and most urgent problem facing us all. If we can address this issue meaningfully, it will have a powerful effect on other large-scale issues as well, such as poverty and violence. Religion is not necessarily the cause of the oppression of women and girls, but it obviously emboldens it. I think, as Buddhists, the time has come for us to devote ourselves entirely to the dismantling of institutional sexism within Buddhism, which is as alive here as any other religion. As my friend Roshi Joan Halifax says, when sex scandals come to light, we need to be talking as much about misogynistic attitudes as we talk about responsibilites for teachers and the power differential. We need to continually point out that denying women the opportunity for full monastic ordination and treating them like second-class citizens clearly contributes to a global culture in which one-in-three women are a victim of sexual violence.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned through your chaplaincy—both in training and in your experiences afterward—about how to best help other people? I went to Naropa to do my Master of Divinity and much of my chaplaincy training, so the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have played a huge role in shaping me as a chaplain. I think that nowhere was he more brilliant than we he spoke about working with others. Trying to be as objective as possible, I'm really very hard-pressed to come up with thinkers who come close to that level of insight and profundity in that area. For instance, one of the things he says in the book Great Eastern Sun is:
In order to help somebody...the main point is definitely not to get them to join your organization. That is the least of the points. The main point is to help others be good human beings in their own way. We are not into converting people. They may convert themselves, but we just keep in touch with them. Usually, in any organization, people cannot keep themselves from drawing others into their scene or their trip, so to speak. That is not our plan. Our plan is to make sure that individuals, whoever we meet, have a good life. At the same time, you should keep in contact with people, in whatever way you can. That’s very important, not because we’re into converting others, but because we are into communicating.
That's Chaplaincy 101 right there. If you can practice that, you're going to be a great chaplain, and/or just a helpful person in general. It's harder than it seems, though: we may find it easy to give up certain aspects of an agenda, but not others. For example, we may be OK with not trying to convert people to Buddhism, but we still really want to teach everybody meditation. But that may not be what's especially meaningful or particularly helpful for everyone we encounter, though. They call chaplaincy "the ministry of listening," and that's because of what Rinpoche illustrates here: it's all about helping others to be good human beings in their own way, and we can't do that if we don't listen to and try to understand them just as they are.