Yvonne Rand: A Profile
an excerpt from Meetings with Remarkable Buddhist Women by Lenore Friedman
For twenty years, ever since she met Shunryo Suzuki-roshi in 1966 and became Zen Center secretary four months later, Yvonne Rand has been intimately involved with the San Francisco Zen Center. She has held virtually every administrative office one can hold there, as well as working closely with Suzuki-roshi in a hundred ways for the rest of his life. Most recently she has lived and worked at Zen Center's facility in Marin County, Green Gulch Farm. Yvonne is an articulate, forthright, down-to-earth woman with whom it is invigorating to talk.
Shunryu SuzukiAmong her most important teachers, she told me, have been a series of older, ill, and dying people-both ordinary and extraordinary- with whom she's worked closely over the past fifteen years. The first was Suzuki-roshi, who died in 1971. Two years ago it was Lama Govinda, the renowned author and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. Before he died, he said to her: "Be willing to give up all the forms we've been accustomed to following, and go back to the original teachings of the Buddha." Yvonne was struck by this advice and it has guided her ever since. As a result, she has been incorporating into her own practice and teaching a variety of methods originating not only from Zen, but from the vipassana and Tibetan traditions as well.
For her personally, two of the most important have been the practices of breath-walking and of the "half-smile," each of which she learned from the gentle Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. "Learn to walk as a Buddha walks, to smile as a Buddha smiles," he says. "You can do it. Why wait until you become a Buddha? Be a Buddha right now, at this very moment!" Yvonne now practices the half-smile at stoplights and in grocery lines. Having breath-oriented practices that can be done for one to three breaths in the midst of activity has helped her experience a connectedness between the states of mind that arise in formal meditation and those arising in everyday life.
Other practices, especially with the precepts ( or rules for conduct), have been useful in examining deeper levels of herself, levels beyond action and language and thought. Layers of resistance and denial had to be plumbed, but now she experiences a much wider range of connection with other people. A vipassana forgiveness meditation, for example, has been useful in working with her "fierce, judging voice"-that voice so peculiar to American and Western minds, which Yvonne perceives as a wall or hindrance to being awake.
The precepts are "absolutely necessary ground" for her. "I can't be calm if my behavior is 'off.' " Sometimes she will use one precept as a mantra. Or she will hold, in the background of her mind, the image of a sieve, each of whose wires are the precept, through which she passes everything she does or thinks or says during the day. This ''creates a grid-large holes or smalldepending on the gross or subtle material which I intend to pass through it." This image came out of her working in her garden and noticing how different gradations of sieves determine the soil one can make. Images have more liveliness, she believes, if they come out of concrete experience.
Yvonne respects the way "practice grabs us. One of the precepts often jumps off the page at me, from an intuitive, barely conscious awareness of exactly where an 'edge' is at any moment." For instance, the precept about not stealing, or not taking what is not given (a translation Yvonne prefers), has expanded for her into an acceptance of things-as-they-are, which has been "very, very powerful." She says the precept acts like a rope along a pathway, and has allowed her to move through and be done with old patterns more effectively than any other single practice she has done up to now.
With its constant reminders of impermanence, she says, Buddhism helps us cultivate nonpossessiveness toward everything, including our personalities, or ''who it is we think we are."
Mindfulness practice, with its emphasis on being awake to whatever arises, teaches us to relate to our "stickiness and corruptibility" as grist for the mill. Aversion is an obstacle to seeing things as they are. Seeing leads to the possibility of transformation. "We're all corruptible," she says. But the degree to which we know our capacity for corruptibility ( that is, the roles and masks we wear that cause disharmony or harm to ourselves and others) is the degree to which we don't act on it.
Meetings with Remarkable Women
By Lenore Friedman
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The Teacup and the Skullcup
There is a Tibetan practice called the "inner offering" that Yvonne finds very useful here. Imagine, she said, a bowl carved out of a human skull. ( She recently brought one back from India.) Fill it with whatever stands for the "dark side" in you: blood, bones, shit, instruments of mayhem and torture, whiskey, demons. With a chopper, chop it all into tiny bits until it is transformed into nectar-which then can be an offering. In the same way we can chop up our corruptibility and transform it into an offering, says Yvonne.
Working with these different approaches from other schools of Buddhism has brought her back, refreshed, to traditional Zen practice. She is now interested in reexamining some of its formal aspects, such as dokusan and certain rituals in the zendo. She asks penetrating questions about power, authority, dependency, and relationships within the community of practitioners. How can we cultivate interdependence while, for example, we are doing retreats and giving lectures?
"Over and over, in meditation centers all over the U.S., issues of authority and projection are coming up. In our understanding of the Zen tradition as coming from Japan, we include robes from Tang-dynasty China, shaved heads, formality in meeting, hierarchy in the authority structure, and a tradition which, in its ideal form, includes long periods of living a daily monastic life with one's teacher. If I give a lecture in my traditional robes, I can feel an increase in the degree of authority which the people listening to my lecture attribute to me. They edge toward accepting what I say as true, without really examining and questioning it. Subtle changes, but they go deep, begetting a kind of handing-oneself-over. This is sometimes useful in one's learning process, but it is also dangerous to student and to teacher alike if not really conscious and within clear boundaries.
"Each of us needs to be in a feedback system. Without that we can fool ourselves about what we are actually doing to ourselves and to others. I find a deep resonance with the Buddhist tradition of being a spiritual friend. I can be on the path with another and offer what I have found in my practice. If my experience can be helpful to another, that is great. And if it is not useful or helpful, that is all right too. We can, in any event, walk this path together." Some very specific, bold, and concrete questions have been surfacing. For example, Yvonne wants to know, "How do those of us in teaching positions get others to shed light on our shadow side so that we ourselves can see it?" She's been encouraging students to do this recently, but that's not enough, she feels. It needs to be done with peers as well. "We need to hear what our peers have to say, no matter how discomfiting." One suggestion she makes is for weekly peer consultation groups for people at Zen Center who conduct practice interviews with students. What, she wonders, would constitute an environment safe enough for looking at our shadow side? The group would have to be small, but not too small ( five people would be the perfect size, she believes). There would have to be agreements about process-for example, a commitment to self-revealing and real contact with each other, a shared interest in each other's development, a willingness to attend each other's lectures and interviews and to share critiques: in other words, a totally open process that would be revolutionary in most traditional Zen settings, and certainly at Zen Center.
Yvonne's teaching activities at present include Sunday lectures at Green Gulch once every four or five weeks; leading a day of mindfulness once a month (including zazen, breath-walking, half-smile, and simple physical work); periodic workshops and weekend retreats on Zen and mindfulness practice at Green Gulch and elsewhere; retreats on death and dying, and workshops using pain as a teacher; and profession-specific retreats for people in the helping professions, lawyers, nurses, and doctors. She is primarily interested in working with "householders"-lay people practicing in ordinary life.
Since she was a child Yvonne has felt a special affinity for adolescents and old people, when "developmentally things are up for grabs, challenging and yeasty," and she wants to continue working with these age groups. In the future she also wants to work with people in mainstream work situations, giving longer, more intensive retreats in business and industrial settings. She says she wants to explore "visible versus invisible practice," and her trajectory seems to be to extend herself farther and farther into the ordinary world from the intentional community that has been her base for twenty years.
Yvonne is also profiled in Jan Chozen Bays' Jizo Bodhisattva
By Jan Chozen Bays
$24.95 - Paperback
In response to my "updating" questions, Yvonne Rand wrote me the following letter, which I have lightly edited:
You ask me where is my life right now? Where is my practice? "My home path continues to be Soto Zen, with significant amplifications from the stream of the Elders and the heartcentered practices of Himalayan Buddhism. Beginning in the winter of 1985-86, I was fortunate to meet and begin studying with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Venerable Tara Tulku, then the abbot of the Tibetan monastery in Bodh Gaya, India. Over the years, until Tara Tulku died, I was able to study closely with him and, most important, to study him and his life. I learned more than I probably yet know from his great and deep mind and heart and especially from his continuous expression of boundless compassion. He supported me in staying with my home path in a way that now seems remarkable. He took interest in teaching me about how and what to teach. And with him, I had a taste of what a truly androgynous person looks and feels like.
I have been teaching at Redwood Creek Dharma Center in Marin County since the late eighties. Our center is small and eccentric, set in the midst of a beautiful garden with places to meditate both outdoors and in. Developing this center has given me a chance to express my artistic inclinations to create a place filled with beauty and fun. The situation has grown slowly and organically and is small enough so that I can know the people I practice with quite well.
I also have the great good fortune to be studying with a Zen teacher who is a real yogi, Shodo Harada, Roshi, from Sogenji Temple in Japan.
Since the early nineties, I have met regularly with a number of teachers from various Buddhist schools and traditions. The contact and friendship that have grown out of these meetings help me keep an eye on my own capacity for self-deception and other pitfalls that lie in wait for anyone occupying a teaching seat. I value the company and feedback from colleagues and friends willing to speak up when they notice something I might need and want to notice myself. We discuss our teaching lives and give each other suggestions and inspiration.
In the fall of 1997, I was diagnosed with a cancer and subsequently had surgery. The entire journey from diagnosis through recovery was a great teaching and a chance to go deeply into breath practice of the most ancient and reliable sort. I found affirmation that dharma practice is exactly the resource I have always known it to be. The challenge of this time was learning to receive help, to be helpless with grace, and to taste the extraordinary experience of being prayed for.
I am now old enough for the teachings on impermanence to have become more than theoretical ( as though they were ever other than what is so). My mother died last year, in her nineties, after a long and unhappy life. Despite all the experiences I have had being with people as they die, I found her passing remarkable and difficult.
Today, I lead retreats, both long and short, give dharma talks fairly often, enjoy working both individually and in groups with all sorts of people, cultivating an authentic spiritual life. I continue to lead a ceremony for children who have died through abortion, miscarriage, and sudden infant death. I do this ceremony once a season and find that more and more people, as they hear about it, respond to the container it can provide for the grief and suffering that otherwise may linger unresolved for years.
In the past several years, I have been invited to teach in situations that are not identified as Buddhist and have found the forays into the larger American secular world quite stimulating. A long-standing interest for me has been to find ways of talking about the Buddha dharma in language and with images that arise out of our own cultural context and to find ways to make Buddhism accessible to people in the mainstream. I am currently writing a book on right speech. I find writing as another form of teaching quite enjoyable, and at the same time, the process of writing is teaching me.
Recently, I have been exploring how to live a life that is less busy and less scheduled and has, consequently, more opportunity for spontaneity. The long time I had for recovering from surgery taught me a lot about the high price we Americans pay for our dense and busy lives. I have worked all of my life since I was thirteen years old. This is the first time I have truly 'just stopped' for an extended period of time. I notice a vast difference in my life, inner and outer. For example:
I am meeting individually with a rather small number of students these days, and I notice that with few appointments, I have large blocks of time that I can now spend writing or studying or working in the garden. I have time to sit in the morning sun or to watch the birds. I experience creative energy arising often and in ways that leave me surprised and delighted. For years, I have aimed to do more of less. Now I am beginning actually to get the taste of what this way of living feels like. There is an enriching of the day's experiences that seems to come without any special bidding or expectation on my part.
And my teaching is different, goes deeper, as a result. There is a price to pay for this shift, but I think a simpler lifestyle is exactly what is needed to cultivate the heart/mind deeply. And I like it. In addition to writing, I am drawn back to my old friends, clay and stone. I do not know what will become of this shift toward quietness, but I do know I am very much enjoying my life now."