In an article titled Self-Reliance and Liberation from Poverty for the Parliament of Religions, you stated that "[w]hen we talk about [the] enlightened mind, we do not make any distinction between male and female. Enlightenment is beyond gender. This realization is very powerful and enables each one of us, male or female, to strive with equal perseverance toward this spiritual goal." Your life work is an embodiment of these words. How can we balance the roles of males and females within our respective spiritual traditions in a patriarchal-based society?
Reading through Buddhist texts, we are overloaded by patriarchal values. We, as Buddhists have to realize this. The texts were completely in the hands of male monastics. For this, it is important that female monastics record our work now for the future.
Reading Buddhist texts. we have to take it with a grain of salt; in the context of writing down the texts, it was at least 450 years after the Great Passing Away of the Buddha. It gathered patriarchal values from Indian and Sri Lankan culture. We need to read it with this understanding. It is important that we understand the core message of Buddhism which remains the same through the passage of time—that is, suffering can be freed. When we talk about Nibbana, it is the mental stage of total freedom accessible to all, both male and female beyond time.
We, as female monastics, need to keep our goal straight ahead of us and not get sidetracked with so much value-added patriarchal society.
At the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, you are affectionately referred to as Luang Mae which translates to Mother Abbess. What is the symbolic significance of the feminine when it comes to bridging divides in communities?
To be in touch with the positive aspect of feminine and express it through our heart, speech and body. Nobody can turn away from the soft and cooling air of motherhood. When in a confrontational circumstance, we can simply address the issue which is seemingly from “the other”, and then, with the positive energy of the feminine, we can slowly draw them to their interest, which is also our interest, and indeed the interest of all.
You are a signatory of the Global Buddhist Climate Change. How can we realize our interconnectedness with nature, animals, and the environment—not from a selfish standpoint for the preservation of our species, but from a selfless, compassionate, all-embracing love for all life?
Indeed, the nature of human being is dependent—connected and inter-connected. We are from the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. But we only borrow these four elements from the larger existence which is Nature. When we die, we simply have to return what we have borrowed from Nature back to Nature. We are the small version of nature as part of Nature. Realizing this interconnectedness is important for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of Nature, which includes you and me.
Travel is a part of your lifestyle. How have your encounters with those within and outside of the Buddhist faith shaped your worldview?
I am so grateful that I had much exposure to the larger world view not only through my textual study but also the actual exposure to the many countries to which I have travelled. My heart is open to see the sameness in all. While in Argentina, I encountered a kind and gentle black African man who attended the same conference on Ecology; and through this experience of talking to a friend, overlooking completely that he was black and that he was African.
While in Canada, studying towards my Ph.D., a very dear friend was a white French lady who took me to attend mass every Sunday.
With such exposures, to name only a few, I felt comfortable and safe among friends of different races, cultures, languages and religions. Also, there is the realization that there is much to learn from them, much to learn from those who are seemingly different. The difference is only in the packaging and not the essence. We are from the same essence.
Several people today view activism as a form of resistance. As an activist yourself, how can you help us change this perception and see it for what it is: a diamond in a mine?
Activism arises out of the condition of mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others.
Thus, the Buddha said for such a person, he or she is a great person. The true activist is one who is activated out of compassion. The best picture of compassion is a mother breastfeeding her baby.
From her own blood, she is feeding the baby; that is an expression of total giving of herself.
Christ on the cross is also a picture of action out of total compassion, giving up his self for the suffering world.
Many of us are conditioned to believe that our way is the truth. The further we go along the spiritual path, however, the more our consciousness expands. We begin to realize that the truth is one, but the paths are many. In your opinion, how can we transfer this individual realization into the collective thought matrix?
We became Buddhists with a strong faith in the Buddha; we believe that Prince Siddhartha was enlightened. That enlightenment is true for him and it can also be true for us. With his open hand, he showed us the path, but we need to walk the path ourselves. While on the path, we also extend our hands to show others.
Do we need to be enlightened ourselves before we help others? This is an attitude found among many Theravada practitioners. If I have learned A, B, C, D, E, F I have not gone to Z yet, but I can still share with others my knowledge of A, B, C, D, E, F. Do I wait until I myself am enlightened before I could teach others? With such an attitude, I end up not helping others at all throughout my whole life and I am still not enlightened.
The Buddha taught us 84,000 Dhammas. Put the dhamma—even one of them—into practice, and we can teach others from our own practice based on what we have witnessed.
Unity begins inside us. What tip can you give us to resurrect it and manifest it in our reality?
As monastics, we lead a contemplative life. When our contemplation is full, it overflows. It overflows naturally to action. This contemplation allows me to tap into others and allows others to enter into my realm. There is no you and I; there is only we who are serving the course of the practice. The Buddha, after enlightenment, still served for 45 years. We Buddhists have such a great example before our eyes.
And finally, how can we live in a heart-based paradigm?
The Buddha spent forty-nine days after enlightenment pondering how to make his spiritual discovery accessible to the masses. He chose to begin his teaching from a heart-based experience—that is, suffering. Suffering is common to all; it comes from the heart and not from the head. Wisdom is from the heart, always. Only that which is from the heart can truly bring about changes. We need to make a great shift, a paradigm shift from our head to our heart.