Articles January 1, 2001

Interview: “It’s a good use of this life—teaching. It’s a real privilege”

Erin Treat

SR: Can you share a bit about your background?

ET: I was raised in Fargo, North Dakota and grew up in the Unitarian Universalist church. As part of the Unitarian curriculum, in high school I was encouraged to go to religious services of different faiths, so that I could make up my mind for what was right for myself, and I really appreciated being supported in that kind of exploration. But there was a deeper hunger in my being, a felt sense that something more was possible, a more meaningful way of being in my life that I wasn’t touching directly. When I was 20, I was in massage school in Santa Fe and I took a class on developing presence in our body work—how to work with the suffering in our bodies and hearts. I remember being exposed to compassion practice, to Tonglen practice, and it was a turning point in my life. It was a radical idea for me as a young woman to not run away from my suffering but to instead use suffering as a gateway to awaken compassion. I started meditating daily, and moved to Durango a couple of years later. I was in college and practiced at the Durango Dharma Center, sitting retreats with Guy Armstrong and Carol Wilson, and I also sat a few retreats with Deborah Chamberlain Taylor in Durango. We were so fortunate, Guy and Carol have come to Durango regularly over many years, and their support of the Durango Dharma Center allowed me to start engaging the practice in a much deeper way and to be exposed to vipassanā practice. This and the support of my dharma center really grew my practice. We have a wonderful, vibrant community and over time it has deeply nurtured my unfolding in the Dharma.

SR: Then was it just a natural progression to move into teaching?

ET: I feel like teaching kind of found me. It was never something on my radar that I necessarily saw myself doing, but some years ago my community in Durango asked me to do the Community Dharma Leaders program. I was already doing a lot of dharma service in the community and they wanted a younger person in leadership because our saṅgha was made up of older people and there weren’t many young people in the community that were involved in our saṅgha. So I was invited to offer beginning meditation classes and dharma talks as part of my dharma service, and over the years that’s all flowered. I was really, really honored and delighted to be invited to be part of the Spirit Rock/IMS Teacher Training a few years ago. I learn so much in the process of working with yogis and with all that teaching requires.

SR: In what ways is it a practice for you?

ET: Teaching something keeps me at my forward edge of understanding. When I teach a particular topic I take time to turn it over, to investigate it, to be able to articulate my understanding. Also just the practice of being in a dharma space with other students, dharma friends, and yogis is a form of relational practice that is so rich to me and that shines the light on places in my being that would go unnoticed if it wasn’t for those dharma friendships. It’s a great gift. It’s a good use of this life— teaching. It’s a real privilege.

SR: You are going to be teaching on the Spirit Rock retreat, “Reclaiming the Wisdom of the Mother of All the Buddhas.” Can you please tell us a little bit about that and how that is for you, teaching with these other wonderful women, Joanna Macy, Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, and Anna Douglas?

ET: Oh, it is a great honor. It is such a joy, and a most precious opportunity to teach with these incredible women who have pioneered a retreat format for women. I feel like my generation of women practitioners and teachers stand on their shoulders in a certain sense. And also to have the very great good fortune to be with Joanna Macy, who I really do see as a living bodhisattva. It is so precious to be in her presence. I just want to say just how much I celebrate the forms of practice that these women have pioneered; to sit in a circle, and have images of the sacred feminine, and to fully include embodiment and relational practices as an equally held part of the retreat format, woven in with sitting and walking and everything else that happens on retreat. Something I appreciate about this particular retreat is that it’s a bodhisattva training of sorts, a training for how to respond to the world as it is today. We honor the feminine aspect and we place a rupa of Prajnaparamita in the center of our circle as a representation of what’s inside of us to be developed and to be known. So we come together and practice mindfulness in all of our activities, to gather with the practices of awareness, attention, and care which lead to wisdom and compassion. It’s such a special kind of retreat, this blend of traditional forms of practice with innovative forms of practice

SR: How do you see different issues that you and women of your generation might grapple with as opposed to the pioneering women of Joanna Macy’s generation?

ET: The first thing that comes to mind as you ask this is the truth of climate change, the truth of what’s happening with our species and all species and the living earth. More and more, I see people coming to the practice seeking a way to deal with the feelings that are arising and wanting to cultivate a skillful way to respond. There’s often a collective, deep-seated anxiety, fear, or concern that comes forth as we allow the truth of how things are to more fully impact our bodies and hearts and it’s unprecedented in the human species to be facing the potential of our own demise, consciously, as a result of our human actions—actions which are born from mind states. Maybe the truth of this condition as it relates to the living earth was at work in consciousness 20 or 30 years ago, but it’s so much at the forefront now, not just for women but for more and more people in general who are coming to the practice. So it is a great support to turn to the practice to make room for the messiness, the depths of what touches inside of us and to develop a sustainable response, both individually and collectively.

SR: What are the benefits that you see of a women-only retreat?

ET: The women’s retreats are a dharma gate for so many women. This is an important, valuable gate because there are many women who would not come to practice on retreat without this particular container. Many women feel especially safe coming to an all-women’s retreat. I see over and again women sharing with us a kind of ease and relaxation that is new to them in a retreat setting from the experience coming on a women’s retreat. I’ve heard similar stories of this experience in retreats that are held for other specific populations such as People of Color and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex (LGBTQI). Often inside of our brains and bodies we carry this tension, this question that wonders “is all of who I am welcome here”? On women’s retreats I find that women speak more freely about their lives. They explore what awakening looks like for women in particular, and just to be sitting with women teachers who have navigated for themselves the experience of being a woman in the Dharma, there’s such a beautiful container for our deepest liberation, which is of benefit to so many women. I’m really grateful that Spirit Rock schedules and supports these women’s retreats and I hope this continues and matures well into the future.

SR: At the risk of generalization, do you think women bring different qualities to practice?

ET: I think it’s a difficult question. Sure, we do all bring different qualities depending on our lives and depending upon how the past shows itself through each of us in our human journeys. First of all, I just want to be mindful that there can be a lot of pain and suffering with assuming that women bring a particular set of qualities to the practice and men bring another set of qualities to the practice. This carries the potential to become its own prison of identity.

That being said, there are qualities that we associate with the feminine principle, qualities of being relational, exploration in the emotional realm, qualities of embodiment, you know, we tend to associate with the feminine principle. But that principle itself is not unique only to women. It seems important to include that ultimate reality really isn’t masculine or feminine, yet we live in the truth of these male or female bodies and with that we carry with us all the socializing that accompanies this, for men, women, and however we identify in terms of gender. And gender is real. We wake up in these bodies, and for me, the experience of living in a life-giving body, a feminine body, carries with it a particular truth, story, and power. Just living in a body with a capacity to bear children, to breastfeed, a body that menstruates and it is messy. It’s often the women that do the work of caretaking of aging parents and tending to young ones. This may bring a particular quality of embodiment to the practice because the body is so central to these activities. But I do want to be careful not to assume that that’s true for all women. I’m really speaking from my own experience here.

SR: Do you see any particular challenges practicing a religion from a traditional Southeast Asian culture and how to make that relevant for people, women, in the 21st century in the West?

ET: I do feel that there’s a process of translation that needs to happen to make the teachings relevant for our lives today, for all of us. Women’s voices and women’s stories are generally underrepresented in the teachings and in how we hold that in our sharing of the teachings. It’s helpful to bring forward the stories of women, awakening and awakened women on the path. You know, Susan Murcott’s book The First Buddhist Women is such a wonderful sharing of the stories of women at the time of the Buddha. Again, I just want to celebrate all that the past generation of teachers have done to begin bridging this gap. A lot of the issues involve how we are understanding the teachings and how they’ve come down to us since the time of the Buddha. The Buddha’s actual teachings have been translated, and it’s often in the process of translation that the misogynistic pieces have been added. So for me this process of making the teachings relevant today is really a deeper way of engaging the practice. It doesn’t actually abide in the pages of the suttas as much as it lives in how we’re practicing and engaging with these liberating teachings. This invites a much larger conversation, and there’s a lot more work to be done here to be untying the knots, to be supporting the full ordination of women and equality of women in our spiritual communities and the world. Not only women, but all communities who have been marginalized and continue to be.

SR: Can you talk about the paradox of teaching in Buddhism on non-self, the teaching of emptiness, with the very real need to address the real causes of suffering around sexism or gender identity?

ET: It’s such an important question. For me personally, the deeper my understanding of the nature of this mind and heart, the more deeply I understand emptiness, the more I experience and come face to face with the profound truth of our interconnectedness in a lived way. And from this understanding what naturally comes forth is responsiveness. Pure, unencumbered responsiveness. That’s all. It is simple. So from here there’s an appreciation of not just my suffering but the suffering, the collective suffering, all the isms—racism, sexism, gender identity, consumerism—gone awry, and so, so much more that I am not naming just now. From this place of deep understanding arises compassion. This is, to me, why practice is so crucial to ground our action in a place of deep wisdom and in our deepest understanding, and to move beyond the dualities of the mind so that we can enter a larger sense of being that can really embrace the truth of what’s come to be. And this can only happen in a real way when we courageously embrace our identities, images, the conceit of “I am” and how it presents in a personal, unique way for each of us. The guidance of deep dharma helps us navigate the process. The women’s retreats include facing suffering that is particular to women and using all of these aspects of the Dharma as gateways. So our practice is so valuable in providing a way to respond to suffering that is active, engaged, and non-harming, and to hold a larger vision of freedom than just individual freedom, but really of collective freedom that’s reflected in our institutions and communities and economic systems. In my own experience, it’s a paradox if I try to really think about it, but when I look directly I don’t see it as a paradox at all.

SR: Which aspects of the Dharma do you feel drawn specifically to teach?

ET: I realize how vast my interests in the Dharma are in terms of teaching. I am dedicated to teaching long retreats because the breadth of teachings is so available now in the West and I feel it’s really important to preserve, to nurture the depth of the practices that unfold on long retreat, and I love working with yogis over time on long retreat. I also have a special place in my heart for teaching the practice in wild nature. I have been teaching backpacking retreats for many years in Durango and do a lot of teaching at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, a retreat center in northern New Mexico that is beloved to me. Yogis have been going to the forest to do their practice since the time of the Buddha. This is no mistake. When someone from the city comes and sits at the foot of an 800-year-old ponderosa pine with their spine at the base of the tree, and feels the tree flowing with the wind just bit by bit, rooted and moving, there is something we know in our bones that makes words less important. Practicing in wild nature allows for a softening of the boundaries of ego and of the ways we hold ourselves as separate. It doesn’t happen through thinking about it. Nature does us in this way, as does the Dharma. To practice in an extended way in nature fosters a deeper relationship with the natural world, which is a clear, powerful mirror of our own deepest nature. To save this world, we must love this world, so I really love teaching in the natural world. I also find great joy teaching relational Dharma and working in community settings. It’s been so rich in my own life and practice to work in Durango with my beloved community over time and the many, many gifts that come from serving the Dharma together and being part of participating in and receiving the collective wisdom that can arise when we really live in the jewel of Saṅgha.

Erin Treat

Erin Treat

Residential Retreat Teacher

Erin Treat has been practicing Buddhist meditation for nearly 30 years and is the guiding teacher of Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center in northern New Mexico. She is a long-time student of the Diamond Approach. Erin teaches the practical and the profound, from a heart grounded in respect for mystery and the many faces of awakening.