Monday, August 15, 2016

Interviewing Buddhist Women: Jacqueline Kramer, Part 1

Photo Courtesy of Luboš Račanský, "Love." Creative Commons.
In this two part series, Ven. Adhimutta interviews Jacqueline Kramer, author of Buddha Mom and 10 Spiritual Practices for Busy Parents. Stay tuned for Part 2 in September.

Ven. Adhimutta: What led you to be interested in Buddhism? 

Jacqueline Kramer: I was led to Buddhism at a very young age. I had the good fortune to have a mother who was a mystic and spiritual seeker. She was meditating and practicing yoga in the late 1950’s. My birth religion is Judaism and my mother taught Sunday school at our local temple. They didn’t have her continue teaching because she was too ecumenical for them. She imparted this openness to all wisdom paths to me. When I was around 11 years old, she asked me if I wanted to commit to Judaism and become batmitzvahed. I told her there were certain things Judaism taught that I couldn’t go along with. She said, that was fine, but I had to continue my religious training somewhere. I chose a Vedanta temple I had visited in Hollywood. This is the wonder of my mother - she drove me to that temple to hear the sermons every weekend. Then in junior high, I got hold of the Paul Reps book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and carried it around in my purse. I loved its direct, clear expression and have since returned to the koan practice it introduced to me.

VA: How have you found your life transformed through your practice and study of Buddhism?

JK: Buddhist practice has seeped into every aspect of my life. At this point it’s hard to even imagine what my life would be like without the Buddhist practices and wisdom I’ve had the great fortune to encounter. The practice has, for over 40 years, seen me through many painful situations with a brighter, happier heart than I would have had if I did not have the perspective it offered. It taught me to turn pain into medicine. Buddhist wisdom and practice continues to transform my life. I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of meeting this great storehouse of wisdom.

VA: Which Buddhist practices are you particularly drawn to? 

JK: At this point I’m drawn to Zen and koan practice. It is a brilliant system that leads one through the various angles and aspects of awakening. The use of words as meditation objects appeals to me as a lover of language. I like the shikantaza, or mahamudra, meditation-just sitting.

VA: What particular Buddhist practices and approaches did you find helped you through painful situations? 

JK: The first meditation I learned was transcendental meditation, when I was about 14 years old. It helped me get centered and calm. I went on to vipassana when I was in my early 20’s. This was after much study and practice in other traditions such as Kabbalah and Religious Science. The first time I encountered vipassana was on a week-long, silent meditation retreat. It was like sitting on a bed of coals, I wanted to run away so many times. But I stuck it out; and, when I returned home, everything looked different, clearer, brighter, more exciting. I started a pattern of going on retreat once a year with my teacher Annagarika Dhamma Dinna, then meditating and studying the literature back home. When meditating at home I’d go into a state of bliss. It sounds great, but felt uncomfortable. I didn’t understand what I was feeling or know how to integrate it into my life. I later learned that the Zen name for what I was experiencing is "Zen sickness." Even though my personal life was being turned upside down, everything felt manageable, including very difficult things like giving birth, divorce, family problems, and illness. It was all fodder for awakening. There was a consistent joy that permeated even these painful times. I realized that this practice was the greatest gift anyone could receive. Even in a prison cell, and at times my life felt like a prison cell, with this tool, joy was just a breath away. I went on to practice Zen shikantaza meditation and koan work. They deepened my understanding and made my experience more ordinary. My feet were finally on the ground and my bliss was grounded.

VA: Are there any situations you would like to share when Buddhist practice was particularly transformative?

JK: There were many times when my Buddhist practice was transformative. The most dramatic was while giving birth. During the 20 hours of intense labor, rather than use drugs or Lamaze or other birthing forms, I used vipassana. Imagine meditating for 20 hours straight, under the most intensely painful conditions. Towards the end of labor, when I was getting ready to push the baby out (the strongest part of the birthing process) the pain subsided and I started feeling great ease and bliss. When my daughter came out, I met her in joy and clarity.

Photo courtesy of Rajesh Pamnani, "Mothers Love-Unconditional." Creative Commons.

VA: What led you to writing Buddha Mom?
JK: Buddha Mom arose out of the experience of buoyancy I felt during my pregnancy and birthing. After giving birth, filled with the bliss of meditative absorption and awash in oxytocin, I was filled with gratitude for the practice and for being alive. It was an arising of sympathetic joy that made me want to share this information with others so that others could also find joy in even in the most difficult situations. I wasn’t sure how to do this. When my daughter was 6 months old, I was out in our back yard looking at the neighbor’s cow. In an instant I realized that life is short and there is nothing more worth doing than sharing this practice. Soon afterwards Buddha Mom (my title was Rekindling the Hearth) starting coming through me. I’d find myself in a diner without paper, grabbing at a half- used napkin to scribble down chapter ideas or ideas for phrases. It was weird and I didn’t fully trust the process. Why me? I wasn’t a writer. I had been a professional singer and artist. I had no interest in writing-didn’t even keep a journal. But these ideas and practices wanted to be shared so I set about learning how to write. The first 10 drafts are horrible! 20 years and many rewrites later, the book took the form it is in now. Since the books release, I’ve grown a lot. I see that the book was written while still in the state of Zen sickness. I am moving towards writing a new book to share these thoughts from a different, broader, perspective.

VA: What did you enjoy most about writing that book? 

JK: I really enjoyed learning how to write. In the 20 years it took me to write Buddha Mom I often used my own writing to lift me up and remind me of the practice. I enjoyed my contact with others around the material, learning how other women also felt transformed after giving birth. Hearing from women who resonated with what I had experienced was probably the best part

Photo courtesy of teamtrendier.com.

I’m reminded of the Madonna or whore aspect of womanhood, not only in Buddhism, but throughout religious history. The archetypes have not been very appealing - either an ideal that is unattainable for a human woman or a woman whose life is wasted by motherhood. When I was a young mother, 34 years ago, I couldn’t find anything written about how being a mother informs and awakens a woman and how a spiritual practice puts the mothering experience into a larger context. That is what really interests me, not history, because it’s not been friendly to mothers, but the everyday reality in the context of practice. What better place than mothering to develop unconditional love, generosity and selflessness? Mothering can add rocket fuel to one’s development when tied to a deep practice.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in September, 2016.

Jacqueline Kramer

Jacqueline Kramer has been practicing and studying Buddhism for more than 40 years. Jacqueline holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in painting and sculpture from Bennington College. She teaches art and music appreciation to seniors. Jacqueline sings with a swing big band and performs one-woman shows. She is a freelance writer and the director of the non-profit Hearth Foundation, a place for parents who wish to develop more awareness, calm, and joy in their family and everyday lives.

You can find Jacqueline's blog at https://awakeningathome.org/.

Other Awakening Buddhist Women Articles by Jacqueline Kramer:

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