An interview with Cecilie Kwiat

Women in Western Buddhism

by Julia Milton

My first meditation teacher, Cecilie Kwiat, is a 60-year-old Calgary-born woman of Polish ancestry. Although she is not widely known, she has been a powerful influence and inspiration in the lives of many North American Buddhists — particularly women practitioners. Cecilie is a living example of how beautifully the Tibetan religious tradition has been preserved, transplanted and translated in North America by Western teachers.

Although she is not Tibetan, Cecilie was personally chosen by H.H. the 16th Karmapa to be the first resident teacher of the Karma Kagyu Centre of Toronto, which at that time had the largest membership of any Tibetan Buddhist centre in North America. Her first and main teacher was the late Namgyal Rinpoche, a Canadian-born teacher of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has received teachings from other teachers in the Vajrayana School (H.H. the Dalai Lama, H.H. Karmapa, H.H. Sakya Trizin), and has also studied Zen Buddhism (she spent nine months in Japan sitting in a Soto temple with Uchiyama Roshi) and Theravada (21 months in Thailand doing practice and studying the Theravadin path). As she has been privileged to meet with so many precious teachers, Cecilie is honoured to practice generosity with the Dharma she has received.

This interview took place in March 1991. It first appeared in the May 1991 newsletter of Gaden Chöling Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre in Toronto, Canada. This introduction was updated in March 1999. I took the above photograph in 2000, when Cecilie visited Vancouver to attend H.H. Sakya Trizin’s precious Lam Dre teachings. — Julia Milton

Julia Milton: Many women have come from traditions where they have faced a lot of discouragement. Some women are told that they can’t even reach enlightenment as women

Cecilie Kwiat: Fairly early in my introduction to Buddhist teachings I met a chalkhoun — a Southern school teacher of great merit – and asked him that question shortly after it was introduced to me for the first time: whether or not women could awaken. And his answer was really wonderful: he said, “Do you see yourself in life, or do you see life in yourself?” And that remained a very powerful koan, because it put the question back on me. Do I think that women are lesser?So that even when I met that view (which is I think a very culturally bound view rather than a Buddhist view), that women had to work hard so that they could be reborn as men [laughing] and awaken, I always considered that the people who were trying to get me to believe that, most of the time, were men and they didn’t have the right physical equipment to be good judges. They could probably tell me more about whether men could awaken than I knew, but I would probably be able to tell them more about whether women could awaken than they knew. And I always believed in second opinions, but trusted the first opinion [Cecilie points to herself] first.

So I looked to my own heart first. Even with teachers – when I meet someone who is a great teacher I look at my heart to see if the teacher is reflected there. Maybe that’s lacking, a lack on my part, but it’s the way that I move most surely.

Do you find a difference in the response of male and female students to you or to Buddhist teachings generally — is there a different approach to Buddhist practice, that women are more inclined to do retreats, that kind of thing?

Generally speaking, women are more inclined to trust you first; women are more inclined to trust themselves, to experience. Men are more inclined to want to know whether it’s good before they do it; men want to know what they’ll get from it before they do it, and men have a value kind of structure more often. Whereas women are inclined to shop, men want to buy.

There are certain things I like to know very much when I’m working with someone, and I will know them, and I will point them out, and I will be involved, and I will be right in there. And then there are whole other areas where I just won’t bother looking, because I don’t want to know about it. And I think for women there’s more trust of that process, of when you get involved or when you don’t; and for men there’s more of a sense of it being a challenge, or as if there were some sort of confrontation that they do battle about. There’s a little less graciousness in accepting that. Again, these are all general statements. So you have to work a little harder, in some ways, with men.

But it’s also true that if you give women a meditation to do, they’ll do it, but they often tend not to think about it, and you have to push them, and you have to push them into utilising their intellect, articulating and looking for detail, and just taking it that one little step further and bringing the conceptual mind in — in a way that doesn’t block the experience, but that will give the experience more ground to work with. Whereas, for men, they will conceptualise all over the place but they tend not to feel their bodies, they tend not to take their bodies with them; so sometimes their concepts don’t have good foundations on which to rest.

Again, these are very general statements; and I certainly don’t think that they apply right across the board at all. But I think often men are more inclined to think that there’s a challenge if I say something to them in the way of a teacher speaking to a student, whereas women are more inclined to actually take it and think about it and then come back with a response.

Tsultrim Allione mentions, in her book Women of Wisdom, that because in Tibetan Buddhism the female principle is associated with prajna, wisdom, and the male with upaya or skill and means, she thinks it might be a good idea for women and men to focus on developing the other enlightened aspect — for women, in order to compensate for our natural inclination, to focus more on developing upaya.

I agree. That’s what I mean about articulating. That’s exactly what I was referring to, that women can be in a being state really easily, which is a wisdom state — but how to name it specifically? And many women feel very edgy about being namers: exactly how many in-breaths and how many little jolts [in the breathing], how many curls were there in the headdress of the Tara that you saw above your head? Just that kind of specific paying attention to detail — women tend to feel it might diminish the state of being.

Is there a particular yidam, meditational deity, you think women could especially learn from?

No, I don’t, although I must say that I like the principle of doing a male figure, and then a female figure, and then doing a yab-yum [male-female couple] … whether you’re male or female. I like that principle of: when you work on one, then work on the other. And if you find yourself arguing, enjoy the argument, but don’t let the argument change the detail of what you’re working with. If you find that you’re doing Chenrezig [the Buddha of Compassion] and you say to yourself [Cecilie speaks gruffly] “why should Chenrezig be male,” leave that as an open question but keep Chenrezig as a male.

Do you think there’s any place, ever, for changing that? Do you think that tantric figures in the West could ever be other than what they are according to Tibetan iconographic tradition?

I think that what happens depends very much on the continuum of the being who is meditating. If in the continuum that is manifesting in this lifetime there is a lot of influence from Egypt or from Europe or from Salem, Massachusetts — what lifetime’s experiences are coming into being in this one, what memories, what racial memories are being evoked by calling on these principles in an archetypal energy form — then it can be amazing what symbolic doors will open.

And perhaps one will be doing a meditation on Chenrezig and suddenly there will be a whole opening of the Virgin Mary, or Isis will suddenly arise and you’ll be in a desert looking into a well in an oasis and see the stars of space opening forever, and just plunge headlong through the endless vistas of stars hung in all their dimensionality in deep space — and it will start from one meditation.

Especially in North America, where you have such mixed backgrounds of continuum. I mean, who is to say whether it may be a Native American opening which might occur — say you are doing a meditation on Yamantaka [a buffalo-headed meditational deity] and suddenly this buffalo comes into being, a major buffalo initiation arises — why should it not be so? And then that can pass away, and that can be just one doorway that opens; it is the same principle.

And that’s why these deities are very specifically set up, drawn geometrically, symbolically, and you work on them — they are like doorbells. You don’t know who will answer the door, but it is very important to push the doorbell right.

While it’s laudable that Buddhism is a non-proselytising religion, the people who hear about it and become involved are largely middle- or upper-middle-class, college-educated, white people. Buddhists often shrug and say it’s either someone’s karma to encounter Buddhism or it’s not. Doesn’t Buddhism have a lot to offer domestic workers, blue-collar workers and so forth, and is it sufficient simply to be a good Buddhist oneself, or to cite karma as a determining factor with no consequent personal responsibility?

It’s a good question. It’s a very good question. I don’t think I’m interested in sponsoring Buddhism, but I am interested in alleviating suffering. So for me, I talk to people everywhere. I look at people, I talk to everybody; they were teasing me last night about talking to the cab driver, but I was just sitting in the cab right behind him, and I could feel his energy, and I had some idea of the thoughts he was thinking, so I just spoke to him. I do that with bus drivers — some of them I don’t ever speak to, because there’s nobody there to speak to, they’re too busy — but quite often, there’s somebody there, and you just speak to them. And to me it doesn’t have anything to do with Buddhism, it has to do with suffering states, and the possibility of bringing awareness into that.

It isn’t up to me to save the world, because the world isn’t lost. But if I meet somebody who really wants to get through the door and they keep trying to go through the wall, I can walk in and out of the door a few times with a brass band, or sit there beside them and offer them band-aids when the blood starts obscuring their vision too much, and meanwhile mutter things to them about “gee, it’s a really nice view over where the door is.” But you have to also be aware of when someone is really intent on trying to go through the wall, and that they have the full power, the full bodhicitta, within their being to continue to try to go through the brick wall. And it is their right to do that.

One of the things you have to learn, if you’re going to do what they call “teach,” is that you never really actually teach anybody. You start talking to the people who want to hear what you have to say, but you can’t “teach” anybody. You can answer questions. And that’s why Buddhists don’t bother converting; because it doesn’t exist, conversion doesn’t exist. Either there is a mind that is curious and moving towards awakening — in which case it’s going to awaken anyway, and you do whatever you can to help that — or you get someone who is looking for a system that they can have an answer for life: either an answer to guard them from fear, or to depend on other people to bolster them up.

And if it’s the second, it’s not compassionate to help them; they can make their own evidence. The world is endlessly compassionate, continuously gives people excuses. And it also will continuously reward you with insight and with compassion, if you look for that. That turning point is in each individual being, and so in that way I agree with the non-activist. Some people are just very close to seeing “oh yes, that’s the doorway and that’s the brick wall,” and so I agree with the activist.