Monday, July 7, 2014

Interviewing Buddhist Women: Lama Willa Miller

Harsha Menon

Lama Willa leads a retreat at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge.

Lama Willa Miller is a Tibetan Buddhist lama and scholar living and teaching in New England, USA. She is the founder of the Natural Dharma Fellowship nonprofit and Wonderwell Mountain Refuge, a Buddhist retreat center in Springfield, New Hampshire. Under the direction of her teachers Kalu Rinpoche and Lama Norlha Rinpoche, she completed two three-year intensive retreats and is the author of three books. Harsha Menon sat down to talk with Lama Willa on a cold winter day in January.

Over cups of tea, they discussed the role of women in the Dharma and how this is an auspicious time as a result of emerging opportunities. For example, recently in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition women have, for the first time, been able to study toward the degree of Geshe-ma, a rigorous monastic training, equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. This degree was previously only available to Buddhist monks. This, along with a worldwide engagement of initiatives and interests in development for Buddhist women, gives Lama Willa a sense of hope:
My hope is we will look back on this . . . block of fifty years and say that was the time when things changed and truly there became a situation of equal opportunity for women in Buddhism.

Wonderwell Mountain Refuge

Lama Willa says that canonical sources indicate women have been reaching the highest goal of the tradition—enlightenment—since the time of the Buddha. But they have not, until this century, been afforded the same educational opportunities as men. Even when they did manage to receive an adequate religious education, women in the Asian context have not been recognized for their achievements in comparison to their male peers. This self-perpetuating disparity has prevented women from living up to their full potential as leaders and transmitters of the Dharma.
I think that it’s not just an education issue; it’s a social issue. Even now, disparity persists. For things to change, we need to look freshly at the entire system of Dharma transmission in each Buddhist tradition. If any forms still exist that prevent one half of human society from becoming equal in status as leaders, teachers, or transmitters of the dharma, we must carefully re-examine these forms. We must consider which aspects of education, which titles, which vows, which leadership roles have been denied to women. These are part of this self- perpetuating disparity. To rethink the system is not just about uplifting women. It benefits everyone. Men and women have to start to become educated about the advantages of having equal opportunity in leadership for both sexes.

So Buddhist women, in addition to having access to titles, should also acquire training in the administration of organization of sanghas and monasteries. Such training would allow them to transmit the Dharma. In this way, the Dharma will become infused with the gifts of female leadership, for Lama Willa points out that Buddhism is a tradition of transmission:
The transmission happens through people, and Buddhism is kept alive through people.

Lama Willa sees this as a work in progress in that institutions and systems are already in an evolutionary process that will ultimately strengthen and push the Dharma forward in this regard:
When you open up institutions to the possibility of leadership on the basis of talent and not on the basis of gender, or more relative identity markers, then you increase the strength of your entire institution because you are now relying on who is actually suited for this position, not who is suited for this position who is of a certain gender.

Another topic discussed was the nature of longing for awakening on the Tibetan Buddhist path. When asked what is the correct place for longing, she responds:
There is definitely this idea of longing to awaken that you find in many Buddhist texts. This longing for awakening takes the form of a monlam (or aspiration) to awaken. That is a very meritorious state of mind. Aspiration gives us somewhere to put our longing.

But she also says that—at least from the perspective of some forms of Buddhism—we are already primordially awake, that we are in fact longing for something we already have.
We can waste time looking for awakening outside ourselves—in the community, in the guru, or in a concept. It may be closer than we think.
Wonderwell Mountain Refuge

Yet it is the skillful use of the longing that can indeed bring us to the goal of Buddhist awakening. For Lama Willa, the key lies in the discernment:
I think there is a place for longing and a place for letting go. Perhaps the spiritual path is all about this: knowing when to aspire and when to release into your natural wakefulness.

Lama Willa Miller

Lama Willa received exposure to Buddhism as a child growing up in Berkeley, California. As a student at Vassar College she traveled for a junior year abroad to Nepal. She completed her PhD in Buddhist studies at Harvard University, and leads a sangha through her Natural Dharma Fellowship. You can read more about her practice groups, scholarship, and teaching schedule through Natural Dharma Fellowship and Wonderwell Retreat Center.




Harsha Menon

Harsha graduated with a master's in Theological Studies (South Asia concentration) from Harvard and holds a BA in Religious Studies from New York University. She attended the 2013 International Sakyadhita Conference in Vaishali, India and is a member of Sakyadhita International. Harsha has worked for many years on issues of women's empowerment in South Asia and the United States. She is also a documentary filmmaker specializing in using film for social impact.

Photo credit:
Photo of Lama Willa Teaching by HB Black
Portraits by Sharona Jacobs
Photos of Wonderwall by Chuck Kendrick

1 comment:

  1. Wonderwell Mountain Refuge looks like a fantastic place for meditation and reflective contemplation. Maybe we could share our favorite spots for retreat in the form of introductory articles for the benefit of other readers (and writers).