Monday, March 31, 2014

Builder of Bridges: An Interview with Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

Barre Center for Buddhist Studies

I'll start with an obvious question, Taraniya: How did you get into all this?
As far back as I can remember I was interested in what we now call the spiritual path. It took many forms in my early years, but I can tell you what led to my interest in Buddhism and how I first got exposed to it.

Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I had been interested in facilitating change through political, social, and economic systems. I wanted to work in fields that served people in a positive way. In my early thirties I even went back to school for a master’s degree in public administration and soon thereafter went to work for the governor’s science advisor in North Carolina. I had always been interested in science and technology, and this position offered a natural blend of science and public policy. Through this office and another agency, which was a spin-off of our office, I worked to promote biotechnology as a new technology for North Carolina.

At first these new technologies seemed to fit nicely with my wish to improve human life; they offered hope for providing food for the hungry, medicine for the sick, and other good things. But for me, something was off the mark. I began to realize that my heart wasn’t satisfied working at political and economic levels. I wanted, even needed, more distinctly heart-based approaches to addressing human suffering. Coming to this kind of clarity didn’t happen overnight. I went through a period of frustration and discouragement. My chosen occupation did not fit my idealism, and I needed that kind of fit. Yet, it took me time to sort out what was “off.”

At this time I started doing yoga as a way to calm myself and deal with the conflict I was having about work. I eventually got quite skilled at yoga, holding the postures longer and longer—particularly the lotus posture. At one point I thought, “I think I’m meditating! Maybe I should get some meditation instruction.” I asked my yoga teacher for guidance and he directed me to a weekend retreat on insight meditation. The retreat was taking place within a month and very near my house, so I went. Well, talk about coming home! I was so happy, I cried half the weekend. When I did walking meditation for the first time, I was ecstatic. I know this sounds dramatic, but it was that powerful for me.

What was it about the experience that you found so compelling?
When I took my first mindful step in walking practice, I realized that I had never really been aware of a single step I had ever taken. The meditation instruction was so simple: “Breathe, and know that you are breathing. Walk, and know that you are walking.” And in ways that are difficult to articulate, I just had a sense of something being put right that had been terribly off the mark. I found the Buddha’s teachings to be beautiful! They addressed the means for cultivating presence of mind, as well as loving, kind, and generous states of mind. I felt as though the whole experience was calling me to live more fully, and to adopt a life for which at some level my heart had been yearning.

And did meditation practice affect your yoga in any way?
I realized that despite the fact that yoga is clearly a spiritual practice, I had been using it much as one might use aerobic exercise to either expend bottled-up energy or offset stress. I wasn’t really connecting with it in a spiritual way. With the mindfulness practice, I took that leap. With it I was learning to use my observing capacity to see into the things that seemed to be creating the distress in my life, and to try to understand them rather than to simply relax around them.

What happened next?
My life took a sharp turn. That first retreat was in April of 1986. I spent the following summer doing every retreat that time off from my job would allow. In October I quit my job, broke off a relationship, sold most of my possessions, and moved to Southern Dharma, a retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina. My idea was to fully immerse myself in the practice rather than just go on retreats. I worked as the manager of that center for nearly a year.

But I soon learned that while the retreat center did an excellent job hosting retreats, it offered no guidelines for resident staff on how to live together as a form of practice. And we, the staff, were left to try to work that out for ourselves. There was no resident teacher, and no specific forms to guide us. We ended up fumbling and grumbling terribly.

I thought my time could be better spent doing intensive solitary practice, so I went to IMS [Insight Meditation Society]. I extended my first three-month retreat into long-term practice, staying on as a “long-term yogi” for the better part of two years. For most of that time I lived in a brick room in the basement affectionately called “the cave.” Just outside my door was the old bowling alley, which became my own private walking lane. In order to keep the container of my practice very tight, that is, to secure the mindfulness and the concentration, I didn’t move around the building much at all. I just focused my practice on “lifting, moving, placing” and “breathing in and breathing out” in a very focused way.

What was that like to do so much continuous practice? Many people would just boggle at that.
I know. Even now I look back and ask, “How did I do that?” I had tremendous determination. One of the staff members at the time used to call me “Hardcore.” I’ve always been a willful person—not always skillfully so! But here that willfulness was an advantage because it made it possible for me to sustain this kind of practice for a long time. I can honestly say that I was rarely lax in applying myself, and really used the structure of retreat to facilitate insight.

It wasn’t all fun and games. At times I found myself writhing around on the floor in pain over some mental torment, some condition of my life or mental pattern from which I couldn’t free myself, or the memory of harm I had done or that had been done to me. It was as if I was opening to all the undigested food of my emotional life.

But of course there were blissful moments as well. When one is focused in this way over long periods of time, one can’t help but stumble into the jhànas [meditative absorptions] and enjoy some of that kind of pleasure. And there were very powerful moments of seeing into the truth. For example, one time when I was doing walking meditation on the concrete wall of what used to be the sunken swimming pool at IMS, I saw very directly that a future-oriented thought I was thinking was actually just a thought in the present moment. “It’s just a thought!” I exclaimed internally. “There is no future! The future has no ultimate reality!”

Breaking out of that kind of view of the world has a very powerful effect. It weakens the pull of tomorrow, the habit of what Buddha called “becoming.” Over the many months of practice one begins to experience all aspects of the body and mind—sensations, feelings and thoughts—with greater and greater impartiality. This brings about gradual but radical adjustments to one’s self-definition.

I began, through those months and years of practice, to get some semblance of detachment from this whole thing that, up until that point, I had known as “me.” I was forging a completely different relationship with it. The lure of both pleasure and pain was beginning to weaken; I was whittling away at coarse levels of defilement, and I was deepening in the understanding that comes with practice.

Every three months or so I would stop practicing in this way and go out into the world for a few days or a week, just to get a reality check. I learned a lot from coming and going like this. I could see firsthand how incredibly stimulating the world is, how alluring and yet painful that stimulation can be, and what it feels like to be ensnared by it. I could see, for example, the ill effects of less than loving speech. When you first come out of retreat and start speaking, anything that is even remotely coarse feels like black gunk coming out of your mouth. And one time when a store clerk spoke harshly to me, I broke out in tears! I could see that I was getting a lot more sensitized to the things we do that hurt each other.

So where do you go after practicing like that?
The seed for what came next actually occurred during my long-term practice at IMS. Except for the occasional Dhamma talks at night, I rarely participated in the retreats that were coming and going in the halls above me. I found that the state of my own mind was very still and it was disturbing to move about with meditators who were coming from situations that are more frantic. But then along came a retreat led by two monks from the Amaravati community in England, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Karuniko. Somehow I felt compelled to participate.

I’ll never forget my experience when I saw these two monks walk into the hall that first night. There was an incredible welling up from deep within me. My body wanted to move into the bowing posture and my hands went into anjali. I assumed respectful poses. I remember that I was very moved by their chanting and I could hardly wait for certain lines in the chanting that particularly thrilled me. It all felt very good to me.

As the week progressed it was obvious to me that there was something very different about these people. More than the way they communicated the teachings—which was very heartfelt, drawing from their own practice and direct experience—I got a sense that they were embodying the Buddhist teachings in a way that I had not seen before. They lived an incredibly renunciant lifestyle and yet they were so happy! Being a so-called greedy type, I had to adjust my thinking in order to wrap my mind around that. In some small way I felt I was experiencing what the fourth heavenly messenger, an ascetic, must have been for the Buddha. [The first three messengers were a sick person, an aged person, and a corpse.] The monks inspired me. I came away from the retreat with a sense that the fruits of this practice are possible. I loved the feeling of that. I hung on every moment of that retreat and wept when they left, but before they left I asked Ajahn Sucitto if there was a place for a woman at the monastery and he said, “By all means, come and visit when you have finished lifting, moving, and placing.”

It took more than a year before I finally went to Amaravati [in England]. The first time I went I stayed for six months. Since then, I have visited one or another of the monasteries in that tradition [the lineage of Ajahn Chah] nearly every year, usually staying a month to three months.

What is it that you find so compelling about the practice environment at the monastery?
Well, first let me address some aspects of the form. When you go to the monastery as a layperson, you have to agree to live by established standards and guidelines. For laypeople this involves living by the eight precepts [the five precepts, including celibacy, plus not eating after noon, not listening to music or going to shows, not adorning yourself with perfumes or jewelry]. For someone like me who grew up in a house full of women who loved to eat and dance and get dolled up, that was a big step! For my first trip to the monastery, I packed a huge suitcase. I thought I would need a lot of outfits! But one soon learns how little we really need. The joys of renunciation may be hard-won at first, but soon one finds oneself delighting in simplicity and being content with little.

Then there were the devotional practices each morning and evening. This was new for me and I was surprised to discover that I had a lot of devotional energy. Being at the monastery and taking part in daily puja [meditation and chanting] provided a structured outlet for a storehouse of devotional energy that I realized I had been suppressing. Looking back, I think I needed a form to express my inspiration.

But for me the most compelling aspect of practicing at the monastery was living in community and how this both revealed places where I needed to grow, and pulled forth and accented my natural goodness. Doing solitary practice was great, but when I had to interact with human beings again, I could see that I still had a lot of rough edges! Monastic life provided an active and yet very safe and supportive environment to become aware of these edges and work through them.

I remember trying to engage a novice monk in unskillful speech—you know, having a less-than-kind opinion about somebody and wanting to get a nasty conversation going. His skillful reluctance to pick that up, his non-participation in the harm I was attempting to generate was very noticeable to me. I was left standing there with this crud all over me. The beautiful thing about this exchange was that I didn’t get the sense of being reprimanded or criticized or judged for my unskillful behavior. I actually had the sense that the novice monk was standing back from it, allowing it, so that it could move through. I’ve experienced this kind of support over and over again at the monastery—particularly with the nuns with whom I live when I am there. One begins to understand what true spiritual friendship is all about. With this kind of skillful support, your heart, your actions and speech just start to incline towards the good.

I also find the pace of activity at the monastery to be very supportive and utterly sensible. What drives the pace with which projects get done is the degree to which one can be mindful within them. It’s not that there aren’t times when we have to push to beat the clock or that the pace is so relaxed that we are just lolling about. It’s just that the need to get things done is kept in the proper perspective. There is not a hurried feeling; one isn’t racing through an activity or from one project to another. Daily life is not obsessed or driven. I found that I was automatically taking a lot more care with things because there was more spaciousness around activity. And I could see by contrast when I left the monastery how frenzied my life could be. Over the years I have found that I do less, and am much happier because of that. There is a greater spaciousness in my life that comes from giving more care to what I am doing.

Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
Have you ever found yourself inclined to be ordained as a nun?
When I first went to the monastery that was in the back of my mind. But I wasn’t moved to do it. And I noticed that over the next few years and several trips to the monastery, I still did not request the “going forth.” I have to admit that this was a puzzle to me. Clearly, I was drawn to monastic life. But it didn’t seem to be happening for me.

I labored over the question for ten years—all the while comparing myself with the nuns and monks, and coming up short. For many years I thought lay life was what was left over after I couldn’t make the decision to be a nun. But several years ago something happened to snap me out of this comparing mode.

Over the years I had experienced tremendous gratitude towards the nuns and monks in this lineage in general, and towards two individuals in particular, [the monk] Ajahn Sucitto and [the nun] Ajahn Siripanna. For many years they had been my primary teachers. I wanted to offer them a special gift. The thing that made the most sense to me was to arrange for each of these individuals to have an extended individual retreat away from the demands of running monasteries, away from all their responsibilities, and which I would support. As abbots of monasteries, they were constantly serving the wider community, and it was actually quite rare that they would get an opportunity to do a sustained, solitary meditation retreat.

Ajahn Siripanna left the monastic life before she could accept my offer, but in the winter of 2000 I was able to support a six-week retreat for Ajahn Sucitto. I had arranged for him to have a solitary retreat in one of the forest cabins at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and made a commitment to ensure that his basic needs and requisites were provided every day for the six weeks.

During this period of such direct service to the Sangha, I experienced a dramatic shift in my attitude. The strength of my respect, devotion, and generosity helped me see more clearly how I had actually been relating to the monastics for all those years: I loved supporting them. And once I stopped measuring my life against theirs, I could see that I was actually incredibly happy being a lay supporter. I loved what it was doing to my heart. I had not seen that very clearly before.

Since the time of that offering to Ajahn Sucitto, I have investigated the Buddha’s teachings on lay life much more closely and am endeavoring to learn about and to live the Buddhist life as a layperson more fully. This makes me very happy.

But your life as a layperson still centers on the monastic Sangha?
Yes, I am definitely holding it in that traditional way. I can’t imagine a life as a non-monastic Buddhist, that is, not in relationship with a monastic community. That is the way the Buddha set it up—the fourfold assembly, that is, lay and monastic, females and males. And it is clear to me that this relationship is pivotal. Lay Buddhism without the monastics feels rudderless to me and I can’t imagine that it could endure; and monastic Buddhism without the laity feels cold and isolated and surely would not survive. Monastics preserve the tradition by embodying it. Their lives, their example, draw out a certain goodness in each other and in the lay community that supports them.

Do you think that monasticism needs to be more firmly rooted in the West for Buddhism to blossom?
I can’t imagine Buddhism surviving in the West without a strongly rooted monastic base and this would necessitate a strong lay/monastic relationship. Based upon what I have seen over the years, I think the forecast for this relationship is promising. People have become more and more interested in monasticism, largely through the model and the example of the monastics themselves. You can’t be around them and not feel the power of the form and the effect of its skillful use. So the more contact the lay community has with nuns and monks, I believe the more people will be drawn to them and support them in the years to come. If Buddhism is of value . . . if monasticism is of value . . . if the lay/monastic relationship is of value . . . these will all prosper and grow.

Can you give examples of this growing interest in the traditional forms of Buddhist practice?
I have seen considerable change in simple things like bowing. Years ago there was resistance or reluctance to do this. I think people were shy about bowing because it is unfamiliar to our culture. They may have been a little embarrassed to bow to the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, not to mention bowing to individual nuns or monks. Yet when you look around the room these days—not just at monastic retreats, but at all the retreats—there is a lot more bowing going on.

In 2003 I was helping Ajahn Amaro with a retreat at IMS, and he said, “Why don’t you do a little training at one of the sittings and invite people to reflect on what the bowing is all about? Show them how to do it properly and just offer the invitation to do it.” What I offered was a brief explanation of what it is and a gentle encouragement, “Try it if you like.”

The response I got from several individuals after that was something like, “I was afraid to do it because I didn’t know if I was doing it right.” It was very helpful for them just to learn how. One woman experienced “a powerful feeling of surrender and release and letting go.” In this simple devotional practice she could immediately see the symbolic relationship between bowing and letting go of one’s view of the self. It was a very moving experience for her. That sort of thing is happening more often. There is a lot more interest in chanting these days as well.

I’ve also seen people’s relationship with pindapat [offering food] change through the years. On retreats we often set it up so that retreat participants serve the food—not only to the monastics but also to each other. At first, I think people were afraid to participate in that, but now there is always an abundance of people who want to serve. Once one has the experience of offering the food, of actually placing it in the almsbowl directly, one experiences the beauty and wisdom of this simple tradition. The experience draws from the wellspring of our natural, innate wish to be generous and kind. The direct experience of that is so rich and so attractive that one begins to incline towards it.

I think people genuinely want to be good and to feel good, and the lay-monastic relationship is set up as an opportunity to express that goodness regularly. It makes one very hopeful and directly affirms the innate goodness of humanity.

How did you end up teaching?
It is common for people who have spent several years doing this practice and experiencing this tradition to get filled with a tremendous amount of gratitude and appreciation for the teachings. In my own case, seeing how much Buddhism had benefited me, it felt stingy to keep that all to myself. I was moved to share what I had been learning by offering the teachings to other people. I discussed this with one of the senior monks, who is now one of the abbots at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California [At the time of this interview in 2003, Ajahn Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro were co-abbots. Since that time Ajahn Amaro has moved back to the UK and is now abbot of Amaravati Monastery] and he encouraged me to follow my heart. For several years I offered classes in an eclectic spiritual center near my home in North Carolina, and later I was invited to be the resident teacher at IMS—a position I held for three and a half years. Since then I’ve been teaching at several local centers in the United States, primarily the northeast and south.

And now? Where do your greatest interests lie?
I am very much interested in the suttas—studying the teachings and learning more and more about what the Buddha said. I have the good fortune of participating in a program organized by Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Pasanno through Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. The program called CALM (Community of Abhayagiri Lay Ministers) is actually a training program for a handful of longtime lay supporters of the monastic community—to train us in the suttas, in various meditation practices, and in ceremonial traditions of Theravada Buddhism. I also have the good fortune of coming here to the study center in Barre several months a year, not only to teach but also to engage in my own research into different aspects of the teachings. I teach what I am most interested in, both in my practice and in my life.

Right now I am particularly interested in the “gradual training” taught by the Buddha. He offered this model for laypeople and monastics alike, and it places a great deal of importance on foundational practices such as dana [generosity] and sila [virtue]. I experience for myself that the more skillful I am in these, the happier I am and, I might add, the better my meditation! The happiness that comes from serving and living well is affecting my meditation tremendously. I feel it maturing through the months and years of practice.

I am also very interested in the power of the reflective mind, and how it is that we gain insight. The mind looks back upon itself, and it is constantly putting things together and figuring things out. With the helpful guidance of the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, we have wonderful and precise pointers to help us know what to look at and to help analyze what we see. I guess you could say that in addition to seeing how virtue supports meditation, I am also very interested in seeing how meditation grows into wisdom. In fact, I have begun working on a book of personal practice stories that describe how we slowly gather insight into the teachings.

One final question . . . how did you get your name and what does it mean?
The 1999 monastic retreat at IMS was a particularly moving experience for me. I felt as though my sense of commitment and faith in the Buddha’s teaching took a huge leap. At the end of the retreat I asked Ajahn Sucitto for a Pali name as a symbol of this deepening of faith. He gave me the name Taraniya, which means “one who makes a crossing over possible, the bridge builder, one who carries others over.” He said it was held by several arahants (all men, but that’s okay) whose paramis [moral perfections] centered on either ferrying a Buddha across a flood or building a bridge. He also said that it is held by one who is steeped in greathearted Bodhisattva cultivations. Obviously, I have to grow into that part! But I do love having a Pali name. I think it has helped me a lot.

The above interview originally appeared in the Insight Journal a publication of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. We are grateful to the Center for allowing us to reprint.

Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia is a student of the Western Forest Sangha, the disciples of Ajahn Chah. She is a lay Buddhist minister in association with Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in California and serves as a core faculty member at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies where she does most of her teaching. She served as resident teacher of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts from 1996 through 1999 and has been a Dhamma teacher since 1990. Readers who want to know more about her teaching can sign onto the Study Center website at the Barre Center or write to her at the Study Center. She also teaches in Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and North Carolina. Many of her recorded talks are at Dharma Seed.

Photo credit:
Photos courtesy of Karen Jensen
Bio photo courtesy of Gloria Taraniya Ambrosia

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