The Way of Commitment: A Woman’s Journey into the Dhamma

An interview with Shaila Catherine

While visiting New Zealand in the fall of 2006, Shaila Catherine offered a residential retreat in Christchurch and a weekend nonresidential retreat in Wellington. In addition she gave a dharma talk to a packed Thursday evening sit at the Studio in Island Bay focusing of her path of practice and was interviewed by Ramsey Margolis.

INSIGHT Aotearoa: Welcome to New Zealand. The retreat you taught is something quite different for us: a study retreat. This is not something I believe has been done before in New Zealand. Can you tell me from where you got those ideas and how long you have been teaching this way?

Shaila Catherine: The focus of that retreat was loving kindness practice, the practice of metta. A metta retreat is an opportunity to develop the heartfelt quality of friendliness and love. I find it is also important to understand the contexts in which the Buddha taught these practices so that we cultivate metta intelligently and understand the purpose and effects of developing deep friendliness. I find it inspiring to reflect on the contexts in which the Buddha introduced metta — he taught metta as a way of overcoming fear, as a skillful response to verbal and physical abuse, as an object for concentration, as an expression of a peaceful mind and as a basis for insight.

Usually retreats are either study oriented and scholastic, or are silent and introspective; I think it is fairly rare to integrate the two approaches. Although there is no inherent conflict between study and meditation, a mildly anti-intellectual bias has often relegated these two approaches to separate worlds. In 1990 I began reading the suttas and loved to contemplate the texts while in self-retreat. In my own practice I was integrating a contemplation of texts with deep meditation, so these two worlds of study and practice do not feel separate for me. I started teaching this combined approach around 2000. During the last six years or so I have offered numerous weekend programs that address various Buddhist themes through a combination of guided meditations and contemplation of the discourses.

Q: And for those of us who aren’t able to get to your retreats because they are not in New Zealand, how can we best benefit from sutta study here?

Shaila: Read the texts; read them slowly with an interest in contemplation not consumption. Excellent translations are available in English now. The Middle Length Discourses, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Nanamoli, is probably the best collection to begin with because it’s composed in a narrative form, has a wealth of humor imbedded in the discourses, and presents vivid spiritual teachings that are relevant for contemporary life. The suttas are not difficult to comprehend, but one must open the book and read them. It may take a little adjustment, perhaps a little patience and curiosity, because usually we expect to understand the meaning very quickly. Perhaps we read newspapers, magazines, or novels that do not challenge us to reflect. Reading the discourses of the Buddha requires a contemplative attitude, a willingness to mull over the meaning, to allow the teachings to affect our lives. Once you get used to the literary style, the discourses become tremendously beautiful and inspiring. We begin the study by reading the suttas.

Q: On the retreat you had us read out loud, going around the room. Maybe one good way to do it would be to form small groups ourselves and read to one another. Clearly you feel there is value in reading it aloud rather than reading it silently to oneself. If one is reading alone should one read it aloud or just silently?

Shaila: That’s an important point—the discourses of the Buddha originated as an oral tradition. They have been preserved for many generations orally, so when we hear the phrases and explore their meaning in community, we are participating in that tradition. The teachings come alive when discussed and read aloud. Generally readers today are impatient and have no tolerance for repetition, but Buddhism has a rich tradition of recitation, whether in verse, chants, storytelling, or narrative prose.

When I offer study groups at home, I often ask students to memorize parts of the texts. Students who have good memories may memorize the entire discourse; some people can do that and it’s very useful. Everybody can memorize at least a few lines. When we memorize something we have to say it to ourselves a number of times. Each time we repeat it, we contemplate it, we let it sink in, we mull over its meaning. Then it becomes a resource. It is a teaching that we can draw on while we are walking down the street, when we feel an impulse to do something, when we are trying to make a decision, when we are on the verge of getting angry. Teachings can pop into our minds when we are far from the meditation hall and need their wisdom.

Q: In one of the talks you gave, which is available live on audiodharma, you said that there is more to Buddhist practice than just sitting and watching one’s breath. And certainly what you taught us over the weekend, which was cultivating metta and looking at the textural references to loving kindness within the writings, there is a lot more. So apart from sitting watching the breath or doing metta, how can we engage as Buddhists in the world?

Shaila: Actually I think the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is simpler than saying metta phrases or sitting watching the breath, or studying and reading. The Buddha taught us to engage every moment in our lives without clinging. And if we see the mind start to attach to something — to solidify an opinion, to take a standpoint through a view, to identify as being the person who is wanting this, or not liking that, or commentating about things — we just unravel that bit of attachment. We learn to let go of the clinging and identification.

Whatever the technique, whether mindfulness of breathing, loving kindness, or studying the discourses, the practice is to free the mind from clinging. We notice… “Oh, the mind is clinging again,” and we let that suffering unravel and release. Then there might be peace for a while until the mind clings again and identifies with something else, or tries to possess something. The practice of mindfulness and awareness is not limited to what we do in the sitting posture, it is a vigilance regarding how we construct “I”, “Me” and “Mine” in our day by day lives.

If we don’t have a strong formal practice, it is easy to forget to notice how these forces of attachment, identification, and suffering arise. The formal practices of sitting in silence, cultivating metta, and contemplating the discourses of the Buddha, provide a reference point that is clear and peaceful—a place for attention to rest and intimately experience moments of understanding and equanimity. The real work is done in every moment, whether we are sitting in meditation, walking down the street, working in an office, or talking on the telephone. With clear observation we know what builds up attachment and we cultivate the wisdom of release.

Q: One of your teachers is Christopher Titmuss, who has been to New Zealand and offered a seven day residential retreat at Te Moata in 2000, which I was fortunate enough to attend. I’m curious that with all the wonderful teachers you have close by in America, you have chosen the British teacher Christopher Titmuss. What is it about his teachings that you find has touched you?

Shaila: I do consider Christopher my mentor. I have usually sat at least one retreat with him per year for more than 20 years, whether in California, India, or England. I’ll practice with any teacher, and I do. I’ve learned from dozens and dozens of western vipassana teachers as well as Asian masters. Over time, however, I came to acknowledge that I have had tremendous insight working with Christopher. He consistently encourages me to keep the faith in awakening in a most direct and immediate way. He has a knack for pointing out moments when my mind goes into some attachment, expectation, judgmental or limiting view. His questions help me abandon the contracted pattern immediately.

Christopher has been a terrific teacher for me. I don’t think we can pick our teachers. I would not have sat down and said, “I am looking for X, Y and Z as qualifications in a teacher and I’m going to attend retreats until I find somebody who has X, Y and Z.” I just practice with everybody; I sit as many retreats as I possibly can. Over the years, when I look back, the gratitude that I feel for Christopher is undeniable. It is in reflection that I came to see him as my mentor. Then in 1996 he invited me to teach, so the process of growing into the teacher role and working together has created a framework for more active mentorship.

Q: Do you think you might come back to New Zealand? Can you see yourself establishing a relationship with the sanghas here, or is that too difficult a question to answer right now?

Shaila: Oh no, it’s an easy question to answer because I’d love to come back. As soon as I am invited I’ll say “yes”. Actually, I don’t like what I call “hit and run dhamma”, where I come to a group, give a talk and then am off to some place else, never to return. That might happen if there is no connection, but I feel a nice connection with the sanghas in Wellington and Christchurch. I’ve met many interesting people who are sincere about their practice — people I would like to know better. I have an impression now, a sense of how to support the practice that is sprouting here. The sangha is fairly young here, newly established, without a lot of history and baggage. It’s a very exciting and dynamic time, a time that I would love to be involved in. You could just listen to talks over the internet or on tape and gain instruction from your local teachers, but periodic connections with outside teachers can have an enormously beneficial impact on the growth of the group and the development of individuals. In a single visit I can come in and offer the teachings, but it is through repeated visits that a teacher learns what a community needs on deeper levels and more skillfully nurtures the realization of the dhamma.

Q: With Christopher, part of his practice is encouraging us to engage with those with whom we might otherwise not engage. So for instance in Israel he would encourage Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to get together to develop dialogue. This is something one might call a political engagement. How do you see your practice or how do you see people developing this way?

Shaila: Although I do not bring political issues into the teaching contexts as explicitly as Christopher does, Dhamma teaching is intimately involved with how we live. This cannot be separated from social politics. Teaching in Israel is an amazing encounter with the dhamma in a place of strife. It is the most demanding place I have ever taught, yet I feel a deep appreciation for the people there, and love offering retreats in Israel. There is a great deal of intensity in Israel. Tensions run high. There is entrenched cultural hatred, deep personal grief, and conflict all around. The Israeli sanghas are strong and dynamic; they really want to learn and practice the dhamma because they need it. They need a route towards peace that transforms not only their hearts and minds but also their culture and engagement in their communities. When people come on retreats they are dedicated to deep, lasting, and real transformation. I find no complacency in the retreats in Israel; the students practice late into the night. I wander into the meditation hall in the wee hours of the morning and find students still meditating at 2am or 3am. They are dedicated to awakening, and are deeply moved when they experience clarity, calmness, and inner peace. Whatever depths a meditator may touch during retreat reflects upon and informs how they live.

Many of my students are engaged in very active political work: ecologists, political activists, politicians, social services, hospice care, and different kinds of service work. I try to support each to do whatever they can to improve their world.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to finish with?

Shaila: There is just one other thing I’d like to add, since you asked about Christopher’s influence on my approach to teaching. One of the things that Christopher teaches, and that I, in my own way, emphasize, is to deeply inquire into things: to use the silence of the meditation to see into how suffering forms. That may mean questioning personal patterns and belief structures; it may be reflecting on a relationship with work, the ecology, our lifestyle, and the world we live in; it may invite one to accept emotions, open to a boundless experience of love, or dive into the bliss of the calm mind. We can inquire into anything. Encouraging active inquiry, experimentation, and profound exploration is fundamental to how I teach the Dhamma.

It’s too easy for people who love to meditate to sit with their eyes closed and find their calm, happy, peaceful place. I know, because I love meditation and delight in those happy, calm states. It is essential to have the ability to sit calmly and peacefully, to rest at ease with things, because inquiry is most powerful when supported by a depth of stillness. We look into the mind because that is where we will see how greed is formed, how hatred is formed, how delusion is formed. We’ll see the roots of ignorance and attachment. When we see the roots, we will understand the myriad manifestations of ignorance clearly. Then we can make the kind of change that is not limited to personal growth but is the kind of change that transforms not only our consciousness but transforms our relationships in the world as well.

Liberating insight happens when there is a balance of deep stillness and concentration, clarity of mindfulness, and the interest to investigate. If the mind doesn’t investigate but just hides in the stillness, all we’ll get is a little bit of happiness and bliss. On the other hand if we are only inquiring, doing, and fixing things, we can grow restless, agitated, and not discover the end of suffering. We need the balance. We need intelligent meditation, wise calm, active peace. The factors of mindfulness, concentration, and investigation come together to create the conditions conducive to liberating insight.

— Shaila Catherine spoke with Ramsey Margolis in Wellington during October 2006. This interview was printed in the newsletter of Insight