An Interview with Ratnadharini

You worked for many years in team-based right livelihood. What do you think the main benefits of this have been, particularly with regard to your new responsibilities?

Ratnadharini: Well, there have certainly been times when I've considered TBRL to be my most effective spiritual practice (a fact that probably says something about my meditation practice in the past!) I worked for over eight years in Windhorse Typesetters, which was a women's business at the London Buddhist Centre, and then for another four years or so at what was then the Cherry Orchard Restaurant. I've been on the Women's Ordination Team at Tiratanaloka for seven years. For some reason I don't always think of being here as TBRL, but I guess it is. There's just been less and less distinction between 'work' and life generally as time goes on.

I remember feeling very satisfied when I began work at Windhorse Typesetters, even though the team wasn't easy and the business was struggling. I asked for ordination after the first month. It was just so much easier to have a sense of continuous spiritual practice when I was spending eight hours a day working with other Buddhist women. I was already living in a community but I somehow knew I needed more than that. What it meant in practice was that my mental states were no longer such a private matter. I think the first time that really impinged on me was one day when I was happily typing away - we had plenty of work for once - and Vidyasri suddenly announced that if I didn't stop what I was doing immediately and come down to the Burger Bar (our local cafe) with her for a cup of tea, she wasn't sure she wanted to continue working with me. I was stunned. But that was probably the first time anyone picked me up on getting over-absorbed in a task and losing awareness of other people. I like working hard, but then I do have to be careful not to justify feelings of impatience or irritation and wishing other people would go away and let me get on with things in peace.

Actually, I think I was already reasonably good at analysing my own � and others' � mental states, but there was still plenty of room for rationalisation and misinterpretation, and plenty of blind spots. Working alongside others was guaranteed to highlight such things, and then I just had to sort them out: avoiding people wasn't the option it might have been in another type of job. Sometimes situations arose that were really very painful, and it was difficult to imagine how they could be resolved, but over and over again, we'd end up understanding each other better and finding out that we were really on the same side, even though occasionally it took years. I hope that doesn't sound too agonising.

There were also times when the team I was in broke through some kind of threshold of trust, where we stopped needing to be defensive and continually negotiating with each other. We could each trust that the others had our well-being at heart, which meant we didn't need to worry about it so much ourselves. That released a lot of energy, and at those times the teams really took off.

The other thing I really appreciated, especially at the Cherry, was that simple, practical tasks such as mopping the floor or serving customers were very good at reflecting back my mental states. Sometimes I felt so sensitive that I could trace a slightly clumsy action back to a momentary negative thought. I'm afraid I got something of a reputation for breaking mop handles, which was rather a gross example of a lack of balanced effort!

I'm not sure how all of this ties up with my new responsibilities. I do think my experience of team work, including being on the Ordination Team, has given me confidence that it is always possible to make a meaningful connection with someone else who is also going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. I also believe it's possible to live and work in harmony. I think I had my strongest experience of that when I was doing a door-knocking appeal for the Karuna Trust and spent a couple of days in dhyana.

I know that meditation practice has not always been easy, can you tell us about that and how it has changed?

My very first experience of meditation was fairly positive. A friend had taken me along to the Regulars' Class at the LBC and I had no idea of what was going on. I tried to sit like everyone else, and each time the bell rang I thought it was the end of the meditation! I must have sat for 40 or 50 minutes and was fascinated and horrified to discover how out of control my mind was.

I don't know what went wrong after that, but one of the few very positive meditation experiences I had was the day I decided to stop trying, and moved one of my legs out of meditation posture, and then reflected on what it would really mean to feel metta for a friend. Apart from that, it usually seemed like a lot of effort for very little result, and I gradually lost heart. Eventually I realised that I was becoming quite alienated in the shrine-room, and just ground to a halt. I was confused and upset, because meditation was seen as the direct method of working on your mind, and if I couldn't meditate I thought I wouldn't be able to consider myself a Buddhist.

I wrote a 'help' letter to the guys at Vajraloka. Someone wrote back saying they had come across a few wilful meditators in the Movement, and suggesting I meet up with Dharmananda when he came to London. Dharmananda was very kind and I burst into tears. (I don't often cry, but I must have wept more over my meditation practice than anything else.) He reassured me that as I was working on my mental states I was a practising Buddhist, and he was sure my community would understand if I explained why I needed time out of the shrine-room. A few years later, after an exceptionally painful solitary retreat (an abscess under a tooth didn't help), I was still struggling, and finally I went to see Bhante. He was very kind and reassuring too and advised me to stop meditating, which was a huge relief. We had an interesting conversation about the relationship between meditation and insight, and he mentioned several things that I found useful over the next couple of years when I was building a meditation practice again.

I stopped meditating for quite a long time, which was difficult as I wanted to be able to do it, and didn't know what to do with myself on retreats or Order Weekends when everyone else was in the shrine-room. Eventually I began again with 'just sitting' and then took the plunge and went on retreat at Vajraloka. We had meditation interviews and I gradually began to discover what happened to me inside a shrine-room. That meant I could begin to work with it, and that began to make the whole process worthwhile. I think I'd got into a vicious circle in which I didn't really believe that meditation worked, and so I used to go completely blank rather than experience the pain of feeling I wasn't getting anywhere - which of course meant that nothing much did happen. When I did make an effort I could manage a certain level of concentration, but it often seemed dry and rather pointless. I'd rebuilt my practice by the time I moved to Tiratanaloka but wondered how it would be - being on retreat a lot and doing more meditation; fortunately I've found it very helpful.

What would you say to anyone struggling with their meditation?

I often get asked to talk to people who are struggling. Sometimes it turns out that things aren't actually too bad, and talking it through it becomes clear that there are quite simple things they could try. But if someone is really stuck, then sometimes the last thing they want is more helpful advice. They've probably already tried everything under the sun and might be feeling quite desperate. Just being able to sympathise with that is a start. They may need to ease up around what they think they should be doing, and I can reassure them that might be the best thing in the longer term.

In your talk at the last Order Convention, many people were inspired to hear that you had asked the others in the Ordination Team for feedback. How did you come to do that?

It was a train of thought that just seemed to make so much sense that I couldn't ignore it. I've often thought that Order Members could generally do much more to reflect each other back; that it was a bit of a wasted resource. We do it with people who have asked for ordination and you can see the effect: people go through huge changes before they are ordained. But I'm not sure we continue to step into each other's lives so much once we are in the Order. I certainly think I know what other people's main samskaras or blind spots are. I spend a lot of time reflecting on what makes other people tick, but I probably only communicate a small proportion of that. I'll do it if the person themselves brings the subject up, or if I have such a strong reaction that I can't avoid saying something. Otherwise I can very easily fall back on just operating around another's tendencies. My sense is that most of us do this. Of course some of my interpretations may be wrong, but usually we can detect that something's going on for someone else, even if it isn't what we thought it was.

Then one day it dawned on me that if I thought I knew what the others in my team each needed to work on in themselves, then they probably thought the same about me! And if I could pool their impressions, it would iron out any subjective biases. How amazing it would be to get that kind of objective feedback, and inviting it should mean that it would be easier to give and to receive. So one morning the rest of my team gathered to discuss me among themselves (we'd decided that would be the best way to start), and then, after what seemed like rather a long time, they invited me to join them. I'd let them know that I wanted to hear their impressions rather than just their comments on my own, and that I wanted to them to concentrate on telling me what areas they thought I needed to be aware of and work on in my spiritual life. I made it clear that I wasn't asking for positive feedback at the same time. It took the whole morning, and Anjali took six pages of notes, although everything that emerged seemed to hang around a couple of basic tendencies. What surprised me was that there didn't seem to be anything I hadn't heard in some form or other before, and also that they were all things I felt I could change. So that was reassuring, but it made me realise that I've tended to let myself get away with things that I think of as just being �how I am�. I hope now it's made it easier for other people to pick me up on them.

Would you recommend it?

Yes I would. Although I think you need to do it with a group of people who know you very well, and you need to be very clear about what it is you are asking for.

What have been the main spiritual turning points in your life?

My own ordination and the experience of privatelyordaining others must come pretty high on the list. I was ordained in 1989by Sanghadevi, with Ratnasuri as my Public Preceptor. That was one of the first years where women preceptors ordained women, which was ground-breaking (although Bhante still chose our names).

I'd struggled a lot with doubt: doubt that there was such a thing as the Transcendental (if you can call it a 'thing') and doubt that it was possible to change oneself significantly. But during one retreat I recognised that I'd had a strong response to the Dharma when I first encountered it at the LBC, and at some deeper level of myself I had no doubt at all that I would continue to work on my mental states. I also discovered myself one day arguing against someone who was insisting there was no such thing as significant transformation. I think it was weakening the fetter of Doubt that was significant in terms of me becoming ready for ordination, although that certainly didn't mean it was overcome.

My ordination retreat was a very positive experience. It was only two weeks long, but at the end of the period of silence I was surprised to find an unskilful thought cross my mind and to realise that it was the first one I'd had for several days. I'd become quite resistant to the idea of being given a new name at ordination. The puritan in me had decided that people got far too excited about what was only a minor part of the ceremony - the real part being the taking of the Refuges and Ten Precepts. I almost got up to leave the private ordination before Sanghadevi had given me my name, and when she said it to me it seemed rather long and unfamiliar. But gradually I discovered that I was being given a new, more conscious start in life, and that was very precious. After my private ordination I had a moment of wanting to do it again � a feeling that I would be able to do it better now I knew what it involved. I suppose I just wanted to be as conscious as possible of the step I was taking, but I knew too that taking that step into the unknown was unrepeatable.

When the subject of becoming a Private Preceptor myself first came up, I was shocked to discover that my immediate response was that it would mean closing the back door, that there would be no slipping away. I hadn't realised there was a door still open, but I still seemed to harbour a view - even though I was kalyana mitra to several people - that my spiritual life was somehow my own private affair and wouldn't affect anyone else. I think every Preceptor has somehow to come to terms with what it means to witness someone else's Going for Refuge while at the same time being aware of one's own imperfections. When I came to do my first private ordinations in 2001, Sanghadevi happened to be on the same retreat, so I went to her for a simple blessing before making my way to the private shrine-room. It was a significant moment: I was one of the first generation of women to be ordained by women, and was about to make her a spiritual grandmother.

Sitting waiting for the first person I was to ordain, I had a sense of having come full circle. In a way it was like being at my own ordination again, but being on the other side of the shrine I had that bit more experience. I had Bhante and Green Tara very strongly in mind, but then all I had to do was be as conscious as possible of the significance of what was taking place, which somehow meant that I was just playing my part in something that was much bigger than me.

What was it like to be told you were a Public Preceptor?

Dhammadinna took me for a walk, and halfway around the circuit she told me that she had something to say that she hadn't had to say before, and that it wasn't exactly a request! At that point I remembered that this was how she'd described her own appointment as Public Preceptor - as not being asked. Of course I immediately dismissed the thought as totally unlikely, but that's what it turned out to be.

I was very shocked, and I sensed that everything in my life had suddenly become so much more weighty. Not in the sense of being heavy, but of seeming to have more significance. At that Point, I was far more aware of the effect it was going to have on me internally, and it was some time before I caught up with the external implications - such as publicly ordaining people! Fortunately I was going on a month's solitary retreat a couple of days later and that gave me time to absorb the news. Strangely enough it was at Osel Ling, and the last time I'd been there, twelve years before, was when I had received the invitation to my ordination retreat from Bhante.

Had you ever envisioned this?

Mmm� not as such. I knew that Dhammadinna was seriously over-stretched, and that when the Ordination Team began to work as two kulas, it really meant we needed two Public Preceptors. But I hadn't even envisioned becoming a Private Preceptor when I joined the Ordination Team. On the other hand I have felt prepared to do whatever I can to contribute to the development of the Order.

Now, in retrospect, were there any signs along the way?

The most obvious one was an indirect invitation to meet up with Bhante last year. I was very happy to get to spend an hour sitting in the sunshine talking to him, although he didn't seem to have anything specific to say.

How has it affected your practice?

It's probably too soon to know, and I haven't even performed a public ordination yet. But I get the sense of a change in perspective, both in terms of my own life and in terms of how I understand the Order.

You have in a sense 'made history' by being the first person ordained by someone other than Bhante to become a Public Preceptor. How is it for you being the 'youngest' in Order years in the College?

I wondered how it would be - coming from a different generation - and hardly knowing some of the others at all, but for some reason I was confident that we would all be 'of one mind'. I've only been able to spend two days with them so far, but I felt very much at home. What was apparent was that, as the number of Public Preceptors grows, the nature of the College changes. It must have been very different when there were only five.

How have others responded?

I assumed most people would be surprised, and that many would be shocked, given that I'm relatively young as an Order Member, but in fact a lot of people had a positive response. I think people like the sense that things are open to younger Order Members. Of course I'm aware that it can be a challenge when you are older in Order years yourself, but I hope people have been able to take into account that there is a large circumstantial factor. A couple of close friends did voice reservations. And I'm sure there were people who were less enthusiastic, but who wouldn't have gone out of their way to let me know about it! Although I was expecting some comment, and took it as par for the course, there was one moment when I began to wonder whether it had all been a mistake and I should step down. But I realised you can't duck out of this kind of responsibility. In some way, the fact that I didn't volunteer for the job makes it easier.

How would you describe the work of a Public Preceptor?

Oh that's a big question, and I'm new to the job! My understanding is that the Public Preceptors share the responsibility of deciding when someone is effectively going for Refuge, and they then perform the Public Ordination ceremony, which is the point at which someone ritually enters the Order. So they need to share a sense of what it means to go for Refuge to the Three Jewels effectively, and they need to have the confidence of other members of the Order, so that the people they ordain will be accepted as such by all other Order members. Presumably that means they also need to have a reasonable level of practice themselves, and to be able to operate in harmony with each other.

Some people wonder if there should be more women on the College Council. Do you think this is an important issue or not?

My understanding of the Council was that it was formed of people who were taking significant levels of responsibility in the Order and Movement, and as there were relatively few senior women Order Members it seems understandable that there should have been fewer women on the Council. I don't think you can argue in the abstract for more women on the Council; you would need to have individuals in mind, and then be prepared to propose them. If we want to draw comparisons, the women's wing of the Order has recently been growing proportionately faster than the men's, so we don't seem to have been discouraged. Maybe the important issue is whether we are each prepared to take responsibility - in whatever context we are practising within, as well as within the Order as a whole.

Recently there have been several changes in the Movement (e.g. the Mitra system) and more positive change seems to be 'in the air'. Are there any changes/emphases that you are particularly excited about?

Maybe not so much any particular emphases, but more a phenomenon - called Subhuti. He's in a unique position in terms of inheriting responsibility from the founder of our Order and Movement, and he seems to be rethinking everything on the basis of first principles. These are exciting times, partly because of the changes he is initiating, but also because it's good to know that our Order can produce people of his calibre.

You are Private Preceptor to ten women, and kalyana mitra to several more. How do you balance personal relationships with 'institutional' responsibilities?

I think this connects with what I said before about my 'work' becoming less distinct from my life generally. What seems to happen is that relationships that start out on a more formal basis seem to develop over the years into more personal ones. Some of the people who have been kalyana mitra to me, or to whom I have been kalyana mitra, are now some of my closest friends in the Order. Like you!

I feel very fortunate that my work is about getting to know people as this is something that a lot of other people have to fit into their evenings and weekends. However being on the Ordination Team does mean that I'm getting to know more and more women all the time. I think most of us had to make an adjustment when we moved here, in terms of how many people we were used to relating to, and most of us probably wondered whether we could do it. But it does seem possible to get to know someone quite well even though you only actually meet on retreat once or twice a year.

One final question: what do you do to relax?

One problem with the work here at Tiratanaloka is that it's very sedentary, so I do like to get some exercise. We're very fortunate to live in such a beautiful place, surrounded by hills, so I get out on my bike or go for a walk when I can. I also tend a couple of flowerbeds, and right now my bedroom is covered in seed trays. There's even a good film society once a month, about seven miles away.


Dhammagita: �I was initially drawn to Ratnadharini because she looked like a studious elf and had very expressive, mobile eyebrows! Even now I still love her elfin quality - and her eyebrows. Like all the best human beings, Ratnadharini is a resolution of opposites (visible evidence in the nun's shaved head, combined with her penchant for 1950s frocks). It seemed very easy to get to know her. Although of course I have always felt a lot of respect for her as one of the ordination team, I have never felt awkward with her. In fact, I have found her very easy to relate to on a human level: we seem to communicate very easily and speak the same language. She makes me laugh — which is of course a great help in any relationship - and she always takes the opportunity to tease me about my little neuroses. I have always felt comforted by knowing that, like me, she found meditation very difficult for years - and inspired by the ways she has dealt with that. The other thing that really inspires me is her love of study. Her interest is so visible — a bit like David Attenborough — and that's catching. I so much admire the way she takes on responsibility, with great awareness of all the pros and cons, and after unhurried consideration, but in the end simply seeing it as a further shore to her practice. This brings a lightness into what might be viewed as heavy responsibilities — she seems to welcome the opportunity to grow bigger.�

Sucimanasa: �I had been invited to stay as a guest in a community, but when I arrived the person who invited me wasn't available! As a result I felt lonely and a bit of a burden. Then I met Ratnadharini in the kitchen, and she had a cup of tea with me. We had a wonderful easy-going conversation and to my surprise she talked quite openly about herself. This half-hour over tea made a real difference to me. She seemed so clear, straightforward and kind. Over time, I found her straightforwardness refreshing and reassuring, maybe because I am German. Like her, I find small talk difficult. And being an idealist, I love the fact that she�s so uncompromising. I also love her grace, her care, her capacity for hard work, her honesty and her openness.�

Sagarasri: �For a while, about twelve years ago, Ratnadharini and I lived and worked together, at what was then the Cherry Orchard. My initial response to her was mixed. She could be very direct and incisive, which I sometimes found helpful, sometimes scary! A few years ago I started writing to her at Tiratanaloka. That was a turning point in our relationship. I felt as if I could write to her about anything, and at times my contact with her felt like a lifeline. The thing I most appreciate about Ratnadharini is that she seems to have a huge amount of confidence in me. She has seen me at my best and at my worst.�

Shantidevi: I first met Ratnadharini in Melbourne in 1996, when she was there for six months. After that I kept writing to her. I find she's able to explore things with me without me realizing she's doing it. She shares her personal stories and is very good at keeping perspective. I also enjoy her humour, her mindfulness, the way she takes good care of the Order and mitras, her purposefulness, her willingness to go it alone, and her beautiful voice in pujas.