New Steps, Hidden Passages

Indonesia 2015 060

In all of my travels I have always searched for the hidden, the not easily seen: the cafe or bar or bookstore, hidden away down a tangle of streets; the concealed beach; the faintly marked path. The key that would unlock the mystery of a place, and thus render it intelligible to me, and at the same time reveal its heart. I have wandered city streets and far off the beaten path, seeking the elemental, the numinous.

I have found spaces that resonated with me, where I felt at home, physically and emotionally: the Medieval sections of Paris, for example, or traditional Hawaian homes. It did not occur to me, in my wanderings, that I was looking for a place to call my own.

In the 1980s, I traveled frequently around the U.S. in my previous corporate life. In every city or town I visited, I tried to imagine what my life would be like in that place: what kind of house I might live in; what sort of clothes I would wear; what work woud be available; what my hobbies might be. In every place I visited I was able to envision the structure of a life. And on my travels outside the U.S. I have found places I would happily live (or so I think): Italy, France, Thailand, to name a few.

More and more, I find myself in environments that do not especially resonate, but neither do they feel foreign or uncomfortable. Although I still prefer some places over others, for reasons that are idiosyncratic and personal, I have come to feel at ease wherever I am, everywhere in the world.

There is nothing more to achieve, or any place to go. I will continue to enjoy exploring, though I am no longer searching for anything.

In my wanderings I have been searching for the distal shores of my own heart. And all of the places I have been have illuminated a facet of my own self. It is time to rest at home, in that liminal, timeless, unchanging place where all dwell in one.


© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.


The Value of Resilience Training for Aid Workers


I recently wrote a blog post for WhyDev on my experiences conducting resilience training for aid workers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, as well as expat colleagues. The training took place in Rwanda. You can read about it here:

Photo by Jennifer Ambrose.

Notes from the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women

Wednesday, Jun 24, 2015
As featured in the The Garrison Institute Blog

Above: Karma Lekshe Tsomo gives a keynote speech at the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women.

By Teri Sivilli

Yogyakarta, Indonesia
June 23, 2015

The iPhone has failed me. It doesn’t update the date and time on wireless networks, only on cellular. And so my phone was still on Tokyo time when I went to bed in Yogyakarta on the night of the solstice. Which means two things: it wasn’t 1 am when I went to sleep last night, merely 11 pm, and it is now 5:30 am, not 7:30 am, and I am 90 minutes early for breakfast. But I am happy to see the soft shadow play of dawn.

I have come to Yogyakarta for the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women to present a paper on the Garrison Institute’s CBR Project. It has taken two days of mostly hassle-free travel from the U.S. to get here. I haven’t attended this conference before, and this is the first time the Institute will be represented. The other U.S. participants know of the Institute, and I answer questions about programs and retreats during meals.

It’s not just the mix of monastics and lay people that makes this conference unique, but also that it is not strictly academic and yet still adheres to a high level of rigor in the presentations. It’s a delicate balance to strike, between process and outcome, inclusion and rigor. Oh, and that this is a conference about women, produced by women, attended mostly by women. In contrast to many similar events, almost every presenter and participant is female. The multiplicity of traditions is expressed most vividly in the robes of the nuns: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Indonesian. A few men attend the conference, often accompanying their partners, and a few will present. They look adorable carrying the pandan bag that the conference provided: it’s tied with a batik bow.


I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, coming here. While I myself practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I work at the intersection of secularized practices and science in the United States. I am only one of a handful of presenters at this conference working in this area, rather than in Buddhist studies. As a group, we are educating the others about the spread of secularized meditation practices in the west. In return, I am taking a deep dive into Buddhist scholarship and the ways that the dharma is applied in a variety of settings, including health care, education and prisons, in countries where the Buddhist origin of the teachings is appreciated.

This is a gathering of scholars and practitioners, seeking to learn from each other. That women are struggling for full equality within Buddhist traditions is a given. There’s no point in debating the reality of history. We’re here celebrating the role of women in Buddhism.

Yesterday I sat with a professor from the U.S. who said she had avoided this event for many years, fearing it would be too “woo-woo.” It’s anything but “woo-woo.” And in contrast to many conferences, where people tend to stick to the tribe they came with, people are genuinely interested in reaching out, being welcoming. No one sits alone for long.

The conference days are long: presentations begin at 9 am, and the bus back to my hotel won’t leave until 8:30 pm. Thoughtfully, a rest area has been provided.

At the opening ceremonies, in the Governor’s Residence, Karma Lekshe Tsomo noted that 1,000 people have gathered from 40 countries for the conference, representing all of the Buddhist traditions, working together in harmony. “Never in the world have we been more in need of the qualities of compassion and social justice, as intolerance, violence, and cruelty increase.”

“All spiritual paths help us curb the darkness inside, and to cultivate the good,” she continued. “No spiritual tradition does not inculcate goodness. When we adopt the form of spiritual practice without working for inner transformation, the essence is lost.”

“When we have 1,000 women together, let the voice of sanity and compassion be heard. In this century, finally, the voice of women is being heard.”

In her keynote address, she explored what we mean by compassion, what we mean by social justice, and how these two are related.

Buddhism defines compassion as the wish for others to be free from suffering, while love is the wish for other beings to be happy. The first step in generating compassion, clearly, is to be aware of the suffering of living being. This is the first connection to social justice: understanding that a great deal of the suffering in the world comes from the simple fact that we don’t all have equal resources and opportunities. According to the UN, 60% of the work in the world is done by women, but they only hold 20% of the world’s wealth, and 1% of its land.

Economic justice is an aspect of social justice. We will need just governments, just processes, and to have women’s voices represented equally in governments.

Many Buddhists are compassionate and generous, but social justice isn’t about giving rice to the poor. It’s about changing the structures that keep people poor. No one knows exactly how many people in the world practice Buddhism; the estimate is 600 million, which means there are 300 million female Buddhists. That’s a huge potential force for good.

Photo by Oliver Adam