Zen priest Kritee joins us to speak about what it’s like being an Indian woman priest in the Zen tradition.
As the world becomes more of a global community, people are becoming more exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas, and ways of living than ever before. This is a wonderful opportunity for people to find that which resonates most with their world view, aligns with their values, and best challenges them to grow in sometimes difficult but fruitful ways. And sometimes this raises questions of cultural appropriation, as there are an increasing number of ways in which these threads of our lives can create a more rich and colorful fabric. Intersectionality is one way there might be recognition of this diversity of the aspects of our lives which work best for us.
Kritee (dharma name Kanko), is a Zen teacher, scientist, activist, dancer and permaculture designer. She directs and teaches Boundless in Motion Sangha in Boulder in the Rinzai-Obaku Buddhist lineage of Cold Mountain and is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha. She is also a co-founding teacher of Earthlovego, a community of meditation practitioners, teachers/professors & environmental advocates from different backgrounds seek ways to deepen synergy between their spiritual practices and their activism through annual workshop at Lama Foundation in New Mexico. Kritee trained as an environmental microbiologist and biogeochemist at Rutgers and Princeton Universities, and has done over ten years of research on mercury pollution. She currently works as a senior scientist in the Global Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund and is helping implement environment and climate-friendly methods of farming at large scales in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation and adaptation among small scale farms. She places deep importance on the need of diversity, and the alignment of climate advocacy with social justice movements.
So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Juniper tea.
- Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center
- Boundless in Motion
- Secular Activism and the Sacred: a Common Ground
Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez
The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.
With special thanks to Jennifer Hawkins for her support, care, and efforts in ensuring this interview and this transcript were produced, and to Kritee for her review and updates throughout.
You are listening to episode 283 of The Secular Buddhist [music]. Welcome to The Secular Buddhist. I’m Ted Meissner. The Secular Buddhist is the official podcast of The Secular Buddhist Association, a grassroots-driven effort to answer the needs of secular teaching and practice for contemporary society. The podcast has interviews and round table discussions pertaining to Engaged Buddhist training and practice. The SBA website has show notes for each episode along with resource materials. Though the podcast focuses on core practices from a secular viewpoint, more traditional teachings are welcome and openly discussed. Zen Priest, Kritee, joins us to speak about what it’s like being an Indian woman Priest in the Zen tradition [music].
Hi, everyone. Before we begin today’s episode, I want to mention that I will be teaching a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, course live online through the PresentMomentMindfulness.com website starting in January. This is offered on a donation basis, not at a set cost, and will be held on Saturdays from noon to about 2:30 in the afternoon Eastern US time. If you’re interested in finding out more or applying for the course, details and links to apply will be posted on PresentMomentMindfulness.com and on our social media presence. Hope you’re able to join me and my co-teacher, Amy Balentine, in 2018. As the world becomes more of a global community, people are becoming more exposed to a greater variety of cultures, ideas, and ways of living than ever before. This is a wonderful opportunity for people to find that which resonates most with their world view, aligns with their values, and best challenges them to grow in sometimes difficult but fruitful ways. And sometimes this raises questions of cultural appropriation, as there are an increasing number of ways in which these threads of our lives can create a more rich and colorful fabric. Intersectionality is one way there might be recognition of this diversity of the aspects of our lives which work best for us.
Kritee (Dharma Name: Kanko), is a Zen teacher, scientist, activist, dancer and permaculture designer. She directs and teaches Boundless in Motion Sangha in Boulder in the Rinzai-Obaku Buddhist lineage of Cold Mountain and is a Co-Founder and Executive Director of Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha. Kritee trained as an environmental microbiologist and biochemist at Rutgers and Princeton Universities, and has done over ten years of research on mercury pollution. She currently works as a senior scientist in the Global Climate Program at Environmental Defense Fund and is helping implement environment and climate-friendly methods of farming at large scales in Asia with a three-fold goal of poverty alleviation, food security and climate mitigation and adaptation among small scale farms. She places a deep importance on the need of diversity, and the alignment of climate advocacy with social justice movements. So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Juniper tea.
[Ted] Our guest today is Kritee. Welcome to the podcast. Nice to see you.
[Kritee] Nice to see you, too. Thank you so much for having me.
[Ted] So glad to have you here. After our Community Director, Jennifer Hawkins, was on [a Zen] retreat with you and made a wonderful introduction to us, I knew that her sensibilities were quite correct. And we really wanted to have your voice here for a number of outstanding reasons that we’ll get to, but why don’t we start by having you tell us about your background and a [laughter] quite rich background it is too.
[Kritee] Sure. I grew up in India. I had a single mom. One huge influence I’m sure will come up again and again as we talk is my maternal grandfather, [Mool Chand Jain], who was a Gandhian Freedom Fighter. I don’t know if we spoke about him earlier, but he was a lawyer and statesman and [went on to became a political leader in the country]. And I got my [inspiration] and strength for fighting for justice from him. He would use all his talents and energy resources to serve folks who didn’t have anyone, whose back was not [laughter] taken care of by anyone else, so to speak. And that was primarily a Hindu/Jain background in my childhood. I call myself sometimes a multi-religious Buddhist, and I’ll get to that. I don’t know if you had heard of Jainism. Jain folks might even wear a piece of cloth around their mouth because they don’t want to kill bacteria as they are breathing in and out. And Jain tradition is also very meditation-focused, though not as much as Buddhism, but that was in the mix. So those were my early influences, and then I came to US 2001 a week before 9/11. And things were shifting for the country. Yeah. Yeah [nodding]. And as soon as I came, within a few months, I got depressed because [laughter] I was trying to make sense of this world and US with this giant materialistic, consumerist society. And the giant wheels of consumerism were churning all around me. I went, and guess what, that’s where Zen entered my life [laughter].
[Ted] What’s that story? How did it come in at that point?
[Kritee] Well, I was just hanging out with some friends at school where I was enrolled for Ph.D. who said, “Would you like to try meditation?” And I actually used to meditate in India, but it was in a Hindu context. We used to chant. In India, they say, “Ram(a)-nama,” so you repeat just name of Rama again and again. And believe it or not, even that takes you to Samadhi. You can talk to some Buddhist teachers, and they have their favorite mantras. I find that it is pretty effective for a teenager. But I came here [and started meditating in Zen tradition], and I just immediately, within a week, I was laughing again. I just fell in love with sitting. My root teacher is a professor at Rutgers University. His name is Kurt Spellmeyer, and he’s a teacher in Rinzai Zen lineage called Cold Mountain. If I look back, for 15 some years my life was very very Zen-centric. It was like 5 long retreats a year, each 5 to 7 days long, and sitting 3 times in the evening with that group. So yeah, that’s how I got into it. And sort of, you, at some point, you feel so [loyal?]. You feel [better?] to the sitting [laughter], [inaudible] to sitting, that’s how I felt. And now I live in Boulder for 4 and a half years, and that’s when I sat.
[Ted] So you did decide at some point in this to become ordained. What was that like? What made you decided to go the route of taking robes?
[Kritee] I’m really, really fortunate in that my teacher and his teacher (my teacher’s teacher) have been very light with respect to the rituals and outer form. After I practiced for long with my root teacher and he gave me permission to teach, I started exploring and sitting with other Sanghas, including other Zen groups. And a lot of sanghas have a lot more ritual and a lot more sense of ‘This is the form that our lineage follows.’ And my teacher didn’t have that. He used to wear robes, but only at long retreats. He never even wore his Rakusu (bib like garment worn by Zen monks and priests) even for all day sits [called zazenkai]. And our group was very ritual-light. I don’t know if I would have gotten ordained (taken robes) if there was a lot more form and structure in our sangha. I know that when people who are used to mindfulness tradition the way it happens out here in the West come to sit with our sangha [Boundless in Motion] in Boulder, they might still experience some sense of ritual, but it is nowhere close to what other Rinzai or Soto traditions can have. And my teacher was quite casual. So for me, getting ordained was really about my love for just sitting. I felt very dedicated. I simply loved koan practice and how it transformed my own mind and I love the potential I see it holding for others. So it really was a statement of friendship and commitment to sitting practice because there wasn’t such a strong sense of lineage. Is it was any other lineage in my early years, I’m pretty sure I would not have gotten ordained. I was actually talking to my teacher’s teacher [Glenn Kangan Webb] a few weeks ago and said, “If you ever feel that I’m not being a good priest, I’m not attached to being a Zen priest [laughter] because I think I can carry on with how I think I can serve without being a priest.” And he was absolutely clear, “No, you define your path the way you like and the way you like to serve.” And I was saying, “I feel like I’m more of an activist, and I just want to use the spiritual depths to guide myself and others who can be guided.” And he said, “Go for it [laughter].” So does that answer your question about why I got ordained?
[Ted] Yeah, yeah it does. And your answer is very timely because, as you and I had discussed before when we got together, that this isn’t in any way a condemnation of more formal structured programs or people who resonate with that. That’s fine. That’s great. Folks are actively encouraged to do so in their lives, [and there are] lots of places where they can. It’s simply the recognition that that’s not your engagement with Zen.
[Kritee] No it’s not, and I absolutely, yeah, want to reiterate that I sit with sanghas where a lot more structure, form, and ritual is followed. And I see beauty in it. As a dancer, I respect choreography. And to me, a lot of ritual is choreography. And it helps people be mindful of each other, notice each other, embody a sense of community. Bowing together can be like a little dance. We all engage in something together, and there is a beat being given to it all by the bells and gongs. When held right, ritual can also be a deep form of practice of letting go. It is lovely but it’s not something that I want to keep paying too much attention to all the time. Yeah.
[Ted] And it’s interesting to hear your teacher’s teacher encouraging you in this exploration of your own engagement with the Dharma.
[Kritee] I was very happy. I didn’t sense any hesitation in him saying, “Go for it.” And it’s partly because of the way he himself and my own teacher, how they have led their lives. They don’t have shaved heads. I don’t think they ever shaved theirs. I cut my hair very short when I was ordained, several months before that, actually, but they never asked me to consider it. And they themselves have led rich, very really [lay] lives, not paying attention to how many times they wear their rakusu’s or robes and do they have the right kind of gongs and clappers. So the resources and the energy didn’t really go into that. And I’m very grateful for that because coming from India….my mother, my family was very secular in another way, not in the sense of Secular Buddhist but we, on our family altar, had symbols of all religions. We had a cross. We had gurus from the Sikh tradition, and on and on. So we were not tied to any specific rituals. And that was my family’s reaction to Hindu India being highly ritualistic. So if I had come to a Zen tradition, a sangha, where there was a lot of ritual being followed initially, (now I do have a renewed sense of respect for ritual) I would have said, “This is just ritual. There can’t be deep meaning in it [laughter].”
[Ted] Yeah. And it’s fascinating the different ways in which we can find some ritual to be very supportive of our practice at the right time. And it’s not always the right time for that. And there’s a, I think, value in some sensitivity to one’s cultural and personal history around this. And also to say that this is, and I’m asking you as well, not as spiritual bypassing, you’re not taking what’s most convenient or just things you like, you’re still doing the hard work of sitting.
[Kritee] I would say so, yeah. It took me a while to understand why I didn’t appreciate ritualistic settings at first, but certainly, yeah. I still do multiple 5-7 day retreats a year. And Rinzai schedule gets pretty crazy rigorous. We have very short, one hour work periods, and you’re practically practicing in seated posture from 4:30 AM to 11 PM, really. And I really love sitting, right [laughter]. Yes, it sure was hard work initially, and you would get tired. But yeah, I don’t think that that was bypassing.
[Ted] So I want to shift a little bit in our discussion to this idea of intersectionality, to use a term our friend, Lama Rod Owens, uses quite often in describing the multiple aspects of our characters and who we are. So for you, you’re in a Japanese Zen tradition. Are there other Zen Priests of Indian tradition that you know of?
[Kritee] Not in US. I have never encountered an Indian Priest or teacher of Indian descent. And a month ago, someone actually came to me and said, “You are very really…..[crosstalk] strange [laughter] You are an Indian, and you are a Zen Priest. Like—“
[Ted] You can’t do that [laughter]!
[Kritee] You could be a Theravada person, right. You could have carried Buddhism from India here and been a typical Asian Buddhist, yeah. So there is one Indian Zen Priest teacher in India, I think, who trained directly in Japan, directly because Zen tradition came from Japan. And I think he might be in his 70s or 80s. He went to Japan when he was very young. And he was born in a Christian family or had Christian upbringing. But other than that, I’m not even aware all over the world if there are any other Zen priests who are of Indian descent. I find that fascinating. Early in my training, it’s fascinating to have people in the US describe Indian culture or Buddhism and use Sanskrit or Pali words that I grew up with and sort of get that explanation back. So it’s interesting. I learned a lot from my root teacher. He really studied Buddhism and early Buddhist teachers very well. But there were also times where the interpretation I received was not how we grew up with them culturally.
[Ted] It’s so fascinating to me this tremendous strength, I find, in the diversity and the story of how someone can come from India without a background in Buddhism because it’s not as dominant in India [laughter], come to the United States, encounter a Japanese branch of Buddhism, become an active and lively part of that. To me, that’s wonderful [laughter]. That’s perfect testament to the strength of what Buddhism, many different branches of it, has to offer. It resonates with us because it’s about how we are as people.
[Kritee] Absolutely. And I think it’s also a testimony to the ground or the soil that this land, this country, America, provides. As much as we could be critical about what’s happening and the foreign policies of the country for decades, this is wonderful. Yeah.
[Ted] So how do people respond to your Buddhist practice as a Rinzai Priest that might be considered divergent from what they’re expecting [laughter], from your family heritage? How is that showing up?
[Kritee] I’m always curious how people are receiving it. So one big difference that comes up, even before my Indian descent, I think, is that I am a woman. I am the first female teacher in our lineage who is teaching independently. There are other female priests that my teacher ordained and who helped/help him at different times. So a lot of the changes that I’m introducing as a teacher have to do with me being a woman and sort of inhabiting the feminine and also me being an activist. I don’t know how much my Indian descent has to do with it, except that I’m consciously embracing this multi-religiousity. My husband comes from a progressive [Shia] Islamic background, right, and we have both loved sufism so that’s another aspect of us being multi-religious Buddhists. Our sutra book has poems and chants from many different traditions, we have one poem by Rumi. We also have a poem by Kabir, who was a Bhakti Movement spiritual leader in India. I love that poem. That’s totally like Heart Sutra. I placed it next to Heart Sutra. So I guess I’ve enumerated all ways, really three ways…I am just thinking of aloud, in which the way I approach Zen might be different: me being a woman, an activist who’s really, really passionate about this interface of spirituality and activism, and this multicultural, multi-religious kind of background. I’m always happy to hear how people perceive it. There’s some people who look at sutra book and say, “Wow [laughter]! This is different from traditional Zen chanting.” There are a lot of traditional Zen chants as well, but we don’t recite them three times a day, we might just do it once.
[Ted] So I’m also wondering, in what you bring up here, and I appreciate these aspects are important to you as a woman, and with activism, and it’s a wonderful articulation of all of those are important aspects of who you are, how you engage with others, I’m wondering if you’ve been in conversations about cultural appropriation because that comes up a great deal. And there’s an open question about where’s that line, and I suggest there might not be a line, between appropriation and inappropriate use that is, perhaps, disrespectful, I’ve see that as a thread, as a suggested delineation, and appreciation. So I’m wondering how you’ve encountered that. What’s that been like?
[Kritee] Yeah. This comes up so often, and certainly, respect, using something in a proper context is important. I love people seeing wearing, let’s just pick up a not so stark example, just people who like to put dots on their foreheads like Indian women do. And that’s totally fine, but if you put that bindi on your lip, it’s sort of inappropriate. And there can be much, much more significant examples: like wearing headdresses, Native American headdresses, just as a Halloween costume or something. For me, where there’s most, which has come out, and I think someone recently wrote an article about it in, I think it was Current Affairs, it boils down to who is getting power and money out of the process because the [cultural] exchange is important. Me being able to learn about Japanese Zen. After 15 years of training, I don’t think I’m appropriating something that was born and blossomed in Japanese culture. I really have taken time to understand the practice of meditation that evolved in that culture. But if I start making money without respecting the culture and without giving it back to the culture where something had evolved, and it gets really complicated in this neoliberal economy. I love American friends, friends from all cultures, who are teaching yoga in this country. And I don’t know too many yoga teachers who are making too much money out of it. Many of them are barely making their living. But if someone is, it’s same thing with Buddhist practice, for me, that is a bigger problem, if we are just totally being oblivious to the context — And it’s not a problem of exchange of ideas, and learning from different cultures, and appreciating the culture. It’s that when that appreciation is appropriated for concentrating wealth and power. And it’s a symptom of just what our neoliberal system has become.
[Ted] Yeah. It’s interesting you bringing up the finances to it because this, of course, enters into the conversation many times that, yes, there are businesses, they’re selling stuff, Dharma Crafts as an example. And again, not a condemnation, this is simply what they do when they have a lot of stuff that is from different cultures, and they may be making money off of that. And there may be teachers, what I see is accusations of teachers of mindfulness, “Oh, you’re just stealing this from Buddhism. You’re in it to make a lot of money.” I, as a mindfulness teacher, know of almost no one who’s in this for the money because there isn’t. It’s a two billion dollar industry where teachers are not making a great deal of money. And bringing out an occasional, why yes, there are some who are. Great. That’s simply how it is. And when I push back on comments about, “But the Dharma is free, and that’s wrong, and you shouldn’t be making money for that.” I’m like, “Well, first off, we’re in a society where going on takuhatsu to completely support you, it doesn’t work. And please note, here’s a couple of Buddhist places, CBS as an example, again, not a condemnation, a recognition of the realities of it, where they’re charging for $1000 for a retreat with particular teacher because they need to.” And when that’s brought up, that’s kind of the criticism falls silent, and there’s, “Don’t engage.” It’s just very interesting how this continues to come up. And there doesn’t seem to be sincere and honest dialogue about what we’re seeing.
[Kritee] Yeah. Going back to my teacher — He’s a full professor at Rutgers, does his full time day job, and then he does these five Zen retreats [sesshins] a year. He’s never taken a penny as dana, even as dana, right. So I’ve grown up with that model. And we keep our retreats that happen at home free and everything, and my hope is that it will always stay donations-based. But I know my friends who do not have a full time job and who are totally dedicated practitioners. They need to ask for five hundred or even thousand dollars. So I used to hold judgment in my mind, but you’re right, we need more honest dialogue. And what’s the way to be a monk in this society [crosstalk] [laughter]. You can’t really do begging for alms [takuhatsu] here.
[Ted] Yeah, so I want to shift a little bit to your social activism and what else you’re working on that you’d like to share with the listeners.
[Kritee] Well, in many different ways, I’m just involved in this one thing, which is this interface of spirituality and activism. So we have, I am Executive Director of this group called Boulder Eco-Dharma Sangha, right. So that’s number one. Number two, I am on the founding board of Rocky Mountain EcoDharma Retreat Center. And I know some of your group members, listeners, might have heard about it from David Loy as well. And then I’m also working with several other groups, including a group that teaches at Lama Foundation in New Mexico. And the common thread in these different initiatives is the interface of spirituality and activism. There are two aspects to this: How do our spiritual practices, traditions, and sanghas, how do they need to change given what is happening in the wider world, right. And second, given our spiritual practice and the depth that we can touch when we really practice sincerely, deeply, and open-heartedly, how does it inform us as activists. I have sort experienced those two without each other, and for me, that’s a dead place. So as an activist, before I started doing Zen, actually, going back to my grandfather, I so badly wanted to be an activist and a leader who works for change and justice like him, but I totally became arrogant, burnt out, isolated, friendless, on and on… angry, bitter. So activism without inner work didn’t work. And if I just stay in my spiritual bubble, it’s very easy to stay in a spiritual bubble, you can reach a certain kind of depth, you can feel like you are being joyous, and you’re spreading peace, but that becomes dead very easily too, where you’re just [staying within hyper-individualistic middle-class culture], I think this has been talked about. So for me, the cutting edge is Buddhism is looking at both together. As it evolved, I think Buddhism was helping us look at our individual level suffering and delusions. And what we are encountering now, as David Loy, my dear friend and mentor, always says, “We are facing institutional greed, and delusion, and aggression.” And how does Buddhist philosophy, thinking, and practices help us create systems that can encounter the neoliberal systems is a cutting edge for me. That’s what I love to keep bringing up. We cannot work with the systems we are encountering as enlightened individuals. We need enlightened systems to encounter the systems that are harming our planet and these thin layers of air, soil, and water that make all the life possible. So, yeah. I could go on and on, but that’s the root thing that we are just discovering in many different ways. And I learn a lot from the permaculture community, not just permaculture in the sense of working with the gardens. People hear the word permaculture, and they think gardens. It’s about just how do we see everything as an ecosystem and work as coalitions and build community. So for me, that’s the cutting edge, building communities where both inner spiritual work and outer system level work can go together.
[Ted] Well, thank you for that. And for those who are listening, if you want to find out more, have a couple of links to Kritee and her work. Thank you so much for being here.
[Kritee] Thank you, Ted. Thank you so much [music]!
Thanks for listening. If you’d like to hear more about something you’ve heard in today’s podcast, please come visit the SBA website at SecularBuddhism.org, and you’ll find an entire web page devoted to this and every episode. Discussion about this episode can be found on the episode page itself along with show notes. Sound editing, mixing, and mastering provided by the generosity of Anthony Dominello of StructureFromSound.com. The music for The Secular Buddhist is used by permission from John Kaizan Neptune’s CD, Steps In Time. Additional music is provided courtesy of Monty Levenson of Tai Hei Shakuhachi and Rodrigo Rodriguez. Their websites are linked on the SBA site on the About Podcast Music page. Until next time, remember, every moment you have a choice. Make it the best you can. See you next time on The Secular Buddhist [music].