The Heart of the Way (2002 Interview with Myotai)

The Heart of the Way: Interview with Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei

Mountain Record: When you first entered the monastery [Zen Mountain Monastery, Mt. Tremper, NY] twenty years ago, what came up for you, specifically as a woman? heartofway01

Myotai Sensei: A great deal. Like all of us, my heart was stilled and my mind was stirred to a deeper place. Zazen became inarguable as something I wanted to study the insides of for the rest of my life. And at the same time I was also aware that entering this tradition is entering a patriarchal tradition, which I knew from experience would be challenging. I used to be very involved in women’s studies and had enough experience in other institutions, religious and otherwise, to know that this wouldn’t be completely smooth sailing, even with an American teacher as devoted to equality as Daido is. I felt a great dedication to merging my spiritual path and my feminist path into one path. This had to happen or I would always be divided in my heart and that wasn’t what I was after.

MR: What did you leave behind?

Myotai Sensei: There was a point when I recognized that having come into this, it would be the center of my life and I wanted to give myself to it fully and that had consequences. One consequence was that I wouldn’t in this lifetime have children. And I worked with that. I actually ended up doing a liturgy for my unborn children to acknowledging their brightness in my mind, and that helped me get ready to really let it go. I’d been told all my life that I had certain gifts, and that my life was about giving back to life. I had to feel sure that I wasn’t running from that.

Also significant for me was the understanding that upon entering into ordination, taking my vows, I would not be working toward my own financial independence; that did feel significant to me because in patriarchal culture as I understood it, one of the few ways for a woman to purchase real freedom of choice is to have genuine financial independence. Not having that usually means that male others have control over you, in overt or subtle ways, and that made me a little nervous. Entering into dependence on the sangha, the teacher, the Way and being homeless was ultimately very freeing though. In ordaining you vow to learn how to fly without any net underneath you; no safety. No guarantee, no nest, no way to secure the self. That’s why it’s called becoming unsui, “clouds and water.”

In terms of family responsibility, first I want to say that the way we hear about the Buddha leaving his family is very much a cultural hearing, that as you study Indian culture and his position at that time, I think that his paternal role was not a very active one. He was a noble with layers upon layers of people between him and his daily caretaking, and I don’t know that we should superficially identify what the significance of his leaving was. I think of those of us today who enter religious life, to ordain, we do have to make a kind of a radical shift in how we take care of those we love. You enter a situation where you are taking a vow of poverty, for instance, and several of us both male and female, had to really work with the question of our responsibility to our aging parents.

MR: Do you have any sense of how different traditions might call women differently?

Myotai Sensei: On one level, it seems like wherever the dharma touches you, you begin to pay attention and you work with whatever the problems are of that particular tradition or situation. I have since recognized how fortunate I am that the way the dharma reached me through Daido Roshi’s teaching in this particular lineage carried with it, through him and through Maezumi Roshi, an extraordinary dedication to the equality of men and women. Roshi would probably say, “Yeah, you are all equally shitheads.” In general, I think any monastic discernment process is essentially the same — there’s nothing else that strikes the same deep chord. Some will resonate with a tradition, and find the difficulties within it to be the ones they’re here to work on. I find a kind of juiciness to the Zen tradition and the call of being unsui, even when there are problems. It may be that men, for whom the tradition was designed, might not be as aware of the difficulties and discrepancies between the deeper teachings and their surface manifestations. Maybe.

MR: The form has been built over the centuries, largely by men. Do you think that it’s easier for men to practice within this form?

Myotai Sensei: Probably. It’s probably like wearing a shirt that’s designed for your kind of body. Being a woman in culture is kind of like being a left-handed person in a right-handed world. The desk is going to twist your spine a little bit more and the scissors are not going to cut for you and there are differences in the way your brain is organized, the way your body works. But I think the more significant question is whether ‘more difficult’ is better or worse? Maybe the fact that we are being called to this quality of attention and vow within something that wasn’t designed to fit us may give us even a better training in waking up and being responsible, learning to trust the self in the deepest, most profound way. To not follow, by giving away your power and yet, to be willing to not know — is both incredibly rich and incredibly difficult. Women will be experiencing things we recognize were developed for a boys’ club. It’s not enough to do it like the guys do it; and there are a million small and large ways in which that is made the standard. As women in patriarchy, we don’t even know what “a women’s way” would look like, feel like. So it’s also not enough to just change everything to what might seem more fitting for women in training. But there are some places where change is gradually happening. I wonder, for instance, about even trivial things like the length of the kinhin period: is it, since it’s also when bathroom breaks are taken, the length it would be if it were designed to be consonant with the needs of females who are in their menstrual years? Even those basic kinds of plumbing issues are embedded in the discipline, and are part of how women open up the tradition. Until a left-handed person arrived in the classroom, you’d never notice that the desks were designed for only part of the population.

MR: What are some of the changes these left-handed people have inspired?

heartofway02 Myotai Sensei: Changes. I think we are very much in the middle of it right now so it’s hard to stand back in any really cunning way and point. I think we are all learning how to accept, in a very visceral way, following and leading in different ways. Women and men tend to experience voice in distinct ways, and have very different experiences with authority. This affects both receiving and giving teaching. I think the presence of women at this monastery is affecting how instruction is given, and how training positions are assigned. It is very easy to slot people into different jobs according to what they are good at or familiar with, which tends to then reinforce gender roles. So attention has been paid to throwing people into roles where they don’t know so much. Some people have never been asked to attend to someone else’s daily needs, for instance, as a jisha, which is very similar to the classic training of wives: be there with the hot cup of coffee, know when the slippers are needed. Putting oneself in that caretaker role is very different as a man or as a woman; what it triggers is different, and so how it awakens us tends to be different. I think a lot of the changes here are happening just by devoting ourselves to being attentive. I’m particularly curious to see how a better understanding of how men’s and women’s brains are “wired” might have implications for training methods. But that’s the future.

MR: What can we do to bring out the stories of women throughout history?

Myotai Sensei: Pay attention and keep asking, “Where are the women, what are they doing. What’s their experience?” It’s an old practice from feminism. It’s the way you watch a movie, it’s the way you read a book and it’s the way you enter an institution. You notice: are there women on the Board of Directors? Who is served the coffee and who is pouring the coffee? You notice whether the rhetoric has gendered elements to it —does it sound more like what men say, does it equally reflect the images and experiences of being in a woman’s body? Are women’s stories being told in terms of what happened to them, or what they did? And as you notice, you see the edge, the places of blindness, but you also get these amazing shots to the heart when you become aware of a female elder — these dignified, valiant, humor-filled, bright minds who have a female body, which is significant only because they have been so long hidden from our awareness by history’s perversions.

MR: Can you tell us one of the stories from the past of women who have inspired you?

Myotai Sensei: Well recently I have been thinking of Mahapajapati and really feeling her, her sore feet. She’s the stepmother of the Buddha and the founder of the nuns’ order. Her sister had died, and she took to her breast her abandoned child, Siddhartha. She gave life to the Buddha in a very physical, literal way. Later she met him as a teacher and saw the clarity of mind that was forming and she was drawn to that path of wisdom. She persevered in breaking down that unseen wall in the Buddha’s mind that was dividing male from female. When “no” was everywhere in the air — No, don’t consider it. No, it’s impossible. No, you can’t — she followed her heart. She went ahead and shaved her head. She put on the golden robe of a wandering mendicant and she followed the teaching. And at that point it was her stepson, Siddhartha, now the Buddha, who said no. But women began to follow her. The Buddha couldn’t allow it; the complexity of what this would open up seemed unskillful to him, but she brought it to a deeper level. She kept making the case that was undeniable: This is the heart of the way. Your pain, my bleeding foot, the suffering life of all living beings. You can’t turn that away. And I often think that if it weren’t for her, her clear, bright, unstoppable heart, that so much less would have come to us from that time, and so much slower. She gave it her whole life and she recognized that no one, male or female, can stop that heart. She really gets me.

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