2000: Sylvia Wetzel

Lama Yeshe

Sylvia Wetzel, Feminist Buddhist teacher in Duitsland
Tekst en foto’s door Marlies Bosch

Toen ik een video bekeek van de Dalai Lama in gesprek met westerse Buddhist teachers in 1993 trok Sylvia Wetzel, een duits feminist van de eerste generatie, mijn aandacht. Ik was niet de enige.


Sylvia Wetzel

She surprised the Dalai Lama and her colleagues, like Robert Thurman, Tenzin Palmo, Jack Kornfield and Stephen Batchelor with a very unusual visualization. She called on everyone present to imagine themselves in a Buddhist world in which all Buddhas, deities, and most importantly teachers were women. They were first in rank and made the rules. Now, she reminded them, you are all males entering into this totally female space. How does that make you feel? The Dalai Lama couldn’t really give an answer. He merely said it was an interesting picture about which he would have to think more. Her western colleagues in Buddhism however caught her message loud and clear. They chuckled.


Conferentie in Duitsland

Seven years after this video was made, at a conference in Cologne I actually met Sylvia Wetzel. There, in March 2000, for the first time in German Buddhist history, she and Sylvia Kolk, both well known within the Buddhist Communities In Germany and in Spain, organized a Conference for Buddhist women. They come from two different traditions: Mahayana-Vajrayana (Wetzel) and Theravada (Kolk). For many years they both have been giving courses and teachings for men and women who want to educate themselves in Buddhist matters. Much to my surprise over 1200 women crowded in the City Hall of a Cologne suburb to attend the opening ceremony on March 28th. It set off a fast-paced four day program on different Buddhist workshops during which many well known Buddhist teachers, like Joan Halifax and Tsultrim Allione, were asked to present. Already aware of her striking appearance on the videotape I had seen before, I was impressed by the way Sylvia Wetzel presented herself. Dedicated and down to earth. It was difficult to get some time with her for an interview. She was busy during the four days of the Conference. But on Saturday I was lucky: I was granted a short twenty minutes for an interview. After we sat down on a mattress in one of the rooms back stage, we talked for almost an hour.


Last night during the opening ceremony you mentioned that you were a student of Lama Yeshe’s. I have heard so much about him from a friend of mine who was one of his first students. How was meeting him for you?


Lama Yeshe


Sylvia Wetzel: ‘Lama Yeshe was the great spiritual love of my life, the best thing that ever happened to me. He was very inspiring and encouraging. I met him in Dharamsala in 1977 on a stop over from China on the way home. With a women’s group we had been checking the situation of women in China. For me it was the second journey to the east.

In Dharamsala I went for a walk with a girlfriend and we ran into two enrobed monks, Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe as we soon found out. They were very friendly. Lama Yeshe said to us: ‘Hallo, what are you doing, where are you staying?’ We told them we stayed at the Tibetan Library and that we were studying Buddhism. ‘That is very good’ he answered, ‘and what are your plans for the future?’ We told him we were planning to go to Nepal, to the Kopan Monastery, to study. Then Lama Yeshe asked us who our teachers were. My friend said: ’the Tibetan Lama at the library’. His answer came quickly: ’then you better stay here’ and then to me: ‘and you?’ ‘I have no teacher so far’, I said. ‘You come’, he answered. So that is what I did.

I went to Kopan to study with him. He was different from all other lamas I have ever met. While I was working with him I was convinced that every lama would be as open as he was. Every time he opened his mouth, what he said made sense. And I had no difficulties understanding him, the way I experienced later with some other lamas. Often, being a feminist at heart, I couldn’t relate to what they said. Only after Lama Yeshe had died in 1984 I realized what a special man he had been. At the time I found it quite normal that we could communicate so well. His courses in Kopan were just perfect for me. I stayed in Kopan for two years to study with him.

In 1981 I became the director of his German Buddhist Center for eight years, the Arya Tara Institute. I translated most of the tapes with his English talks into German. So I spent half my adult life listening to his voice and his teachings. Even long after he had died he was still very close to me.’

Lama Yeshe

What did he teach you that you didn’t know already, being a feminist and all?

Sylvia Wetzel: ‘He had a certain way to support and expand my self confidence. He showed me my good qualities and pointed out what I had to offer. One day in his Nepalese Monastery at Kopan I heard a nun telling others that she had been praying to be reborn male in the next life because that was considered better for the practice of Buddhism. Can you imagine, me being a feminist, hearing that! I was so angry that I left the room and stayed outside for half a day. Fortunately I ran into Lama Yeshe, who said, ‘How are you dear?’ I answered: ‘Lama, I am very angry.’ ‘What is it’, he asked. I blurted out: ‘Is it true that a female rebirth is of less value than a male rebirth?’ He looked into my eyes penetratingly and then he asked softly, ‘Sylvia, are you having any problem being a woman?’ Then I was silent for a long time. When I look at it now I can see that this was my introduction to understanding his approach. In this one minute my whole world changed. I didn’t know how to answer this question. If I said yes, then I couldn’t tell him what problems I was having being a woman. But if I said no, then he would ask ‘so what is the problem then?’ With one question he made the whole thing clear. And then he said: ‘Sylvia, it is much better to be a woman’. Only then he told me everything I wanted to hear. But first he asked that question. With this one question he pinned down the many, many dimensions of that problem on the exact level where I was. For me that was the most astonishing experience I ever had with a teacher. I had never had that before. No teacher had such deep impact on me. He was a positive man. He had the ability to emphasize your strong qualities without forgetting your weak ones. He was empowering. That was his main quality. He had a down to earth approach, and he was so very relaxed. He would say: ‘Let us not talk about Buddhism. I am not interested in Buddhism. I don’t care about Buddhism. I don’t care about enlightenment. I want to cope with my life day by day. That is important. That is the way I teach the Dharma.’

Whatever I teach nowadays is very much inspired by his approach. My background is very different from his — feminist, psychological, political, philosophical –, but this joyful, practical and down to earth approach inspires me strongly still. Meeting him was like meeting a person I had known for centuries.’


Is that why his centers are spread all over Europe and the United States?

‘I guess so. It was his joyful approach to life. He knew how to live it. That way he attracted westerners, so today there are more than one hundred centers all over Europe, in both Americas and in Asia, all inspired by his example. When I talk about him in courses, sometimes I have tears coming into my eyes, and my voice cracks.’


I have a completely other subject I would like to talk to you about. When I look around at this conference, I can see that a great part of the women here are gay. But what I miss is the issue of homosexuality and Buddhism. I heard the Dalai Lama talk about it with westerners, I know in general homosexuality it is not accepted in Buddhism, but in your program it is not even mentioned. For me it would be interesting to know how you made your choice of subjects for keynote speakers and workshops.

Sylvia Wetzel

Boeddhisme en homoseksualiteit

Sylvia Wetzel: ‘There were so many subjects we wanted to have on the program but we had to make a choice. Buddhism and lesbian life was on the first list. Then we searched for women who could talk about it. Out of more than thirty women to whom we presented this list none chose the lesbian issue. Only after we had finalized the list of teachers and workshop leaders we received a letter from a woman teacher from California, Carol Osmer Newhouse. She had been a speaker at the 1998 conference of Sakyadhita in the USA.. She offered to do a workshop on the subject. But by then the program was already set.

In addition to this, when I was a feminist in the seventies, I was never active in the lesbian scene. I don’t identify myself through my sexual identity. I have lived with a woman for many years, I have also lived with a man, but I never was a political lesbian. I am a woman and I love a woman, but I could fall in love with a man too. To be quite honest, I didn’t like the political lesbian scene in Berlin in the 70’s. It seemed to be very aggressive, very much complaining and rigid, so I couldn’t relate to it. Of course, I have many lesbian and gay friends. In Berlin there is a strong gay community. The majority now is not so political, so I rather focus on how women relate to their own gender in terms of respect. That is more important to me.

In my buddhist meditation courses, one third of the women live with women, and the others with men. The main focus is: these women have a strong wish to find a stable, and flexible identity as women. That is what I was referring to last night when I mentioned the necessity that women develop horizontal, vertical and transcendental forms of relationships between women in order to have a strong and flexible identity as women. They need sisters, women teachers and female images of awakening or female buddhas. This dimension I have always found much more interesting and challenging than the lesbian issue. I never really got the point of the political lesbian issue.’


Don’t you think it has to do with oppression, especially sexual oppression?

Women had to do what their husbands wanted, they were used, even abused. Women were also brought up in a world where it was accepted to be close to each other in terms of hugging and cuddling, so it was only a small step to become a lesbian after leaving an oppressive relationship. They went onto the barricades, they wanted to be liberated of male oppression. That is what I think made the political scene so strong at that time. The other group of ‘old lesbians’ also felt oppressed because of how society treated them. They wanted some rights too.

Sylvia Wetzel: ‘Well, that could be true. The main reason why we left out the lesbian issue however, was because none of the women teachers was really actively interested in the subject. And since no teacher came pushing for it, and the two of us, Sylvia Kolk and me, not having a big issue with it, we decided to focus on what connected women, not on what separated them.’


How do you think lama Yeshe would have reacted if he had known you lived with a woman?

There is a thoughtful silence. Sylvia Wetzel: ‘He blessed me and my girlfriend in 1981. We went to him and I said: this is my girlfriend and we run the center together.’


But did he know you were having a relationship?

Sylvia: ‘Oh yes.’ He said: ‘Two women together are good’. One day he asked me: ‘Sylvia, how come all these feminist women come to me?’ And I answered: ‘That is easy to understand, lama. You like strong women. You can handle strong women. That is why we come to you.’ He was very open. During a discussion with a group of students, of which one-quarter were lesbians, one woman asked him: ‘In the teaching it is said that homosexual relationships are considered negative, why is that?’ Then he answered: ‘What? Why should homosexual relationships be negative? Greed is negative. Anger is negative. But if you have respect for each other and you are kind to each other, why should such a relationship be negative?’ So that was his public point of view.’


But that means he went against the view of the Dalai Lama

Sylvia Wetzel: ‘Well. He would say: ‘There are other things written in the texts, but I think.. and, ‘I first tell you what the teachings say and then I tell you what I think .. about suppressing emotions, about anger, about sexuality. Now I tell you what I think. That is what I learned from him too, to distinguish very clearly between what tradition tells and what I think. The teachings say blah, blah, blah. But I think. That is so clear. I often get questions about this issue. But you have to understand the spirit of the letter and learn not to take things too literally.’

Boeddhistische nonnen in het westen

I have another topic, that I would like to discuss with you. I feel a bit bewildered after my recent trip to Nepal. I saw Tibetan nuns in Kopan enjoying games and having fun. But I also met western nuns who seemed to behave holier and more enlightened than the Buddha himself. It looked to me like they were so rigid in their attitude.

Sylvia Wetzel: ‘That has very much to do with the weak identity that many western women have, their low self esteem. Many women have weak self-confidence. Then they tend to try to balance themselves through identifying with others. So when Western women become nuns in the Tibetan tradition they become more Tibetan than the rest of the world. This is like the right wing life-protecting Christians. I always feel that when women are hard and rigid, it shows that they have a weak identity. Also, when you are weak, you want to be in control. You don’t give other nuns any space to grow. You have an authoritarian attitude. That is a pity.’


Sylvia Wetzel


How do you see the future of nuns in the East and in the West?

Sylvia: I had a Tibetan teacher who was a monk. When I asked him about the need for ordination, he told me: ‘You have to consider time and space’. To become a nun or a monk is a personal decision. Concerning nuns in the East, I am very practical. When Tibetan nuns ask me to help, I help. I met Surya Toro, a woman who runs the new Mahabodhi Nunnery in Leh, Ladakh at one of my courses in Spain. She told me a little bit about the nunnery there. They empower the nuns who live in this nunnery. Four of them are now fully ordained. It is important to realize what you want to accomplish. If you teach them in the way you teach children, then it doesn’t work. You have to look at the effect in the end. We have to aim at empowerment. In that respect, we can be supportive. I could see it happen at the Sakyadhita founding conference in Bodghaya in February, 1987. Within three days I could see the attitude of the Tibetan nuns change completely. The first day, they spoke very softly and timidly and listened intently when the Westerners spoke. The second day they talked as loudly as the others and the third day, it was them who gave the talks. We set an example through our teaching and talking style and they took it right up. I found that a very positive experience. I always look at the effect our cooperation has on the nuns from the East. If it is beneficial to them and they can grow and mature, it is okay. If they become dependent on us, it is not okay.


And what do you think about the future of Buddhist nuns in the west?

Sylvia Wetzel: If you look at monasticism in the west, it will have less importance than in the east. I strongly believe that monasticism belongs to a feudal social system. Feudalism and monasticism belong together. It is like in the Middle Ages in Europe. Now in the west we have a modern society with city life and education. Here we don’t need to work for fifteen hours to be able to live, so the situation is completely different. I think the focus in the west will be on lay practitioners and on lay teachers. In Asia there is a difference between ordained professionals and lay non-professionals. Well, in Tibet they do have a third life style: yoginis and yogis who are not ordained but dedicate all their life to practice. They are considered professionals, too. Here in the West the distinction between (non professional) lay people and (professional) nuns and monks are not really fitting any more. I am not a lay person, because I am a professional Buddhist teacher. But I am not ordained (any longer). We have no word for professional Dharma teachers who are not ordained. Therefore, I just call myself a Buddhist teacher. Another difference with us here in the West is that we have more women teachers and less hierarchy. Of course, there is a certain level of hierarchy in each student- teacher relationship, but in the west, it is not modeled after the feudal pattern of lord and servant. In the west also there might be a few nunneries and monasteries, suitable for people who like communal celibate life, but it will have very small importance compared to the lay teachers and the lay communities. That differs from the situation in India and Nepal. There you still have an economical problem. Before long, that will change as well.


Why do the Tibetan traditions focus so much on monastic life? Why do they seem so conservative despite some forty years in Western countries?

Sylvia Wetzel: Well, I guess that has a lot to do with their background and their specific situation. It will change. When societies change into modern societies, when people get more focused on city life and education, then everything changes automatically. Men in Middle Age Europe and men in Tibet went to a monastery to get an education. However, if they can have a secular education, then they don’t have to go to a monastery any more. Today Tibetans enter monasteries in India and Nepal to maintain their heritage of Tibetan culture. They are people in exile. In 1959 they were transferred from the Middle Ages to modern times. That may contribute to a certain conservative attitude in the Tibetan traditions. I guess, it is quite normal to become very conservative when you are coming from the Middle Ages and are thrown out of your country, and have a very, very complex tradition to uphold and transmit. So it is understandable they keep up the old system with monasticism in such a strong way.

Steun uit het westen

There seems to be a problem with the question of Tibetan monks and nuns depending so much on western support. On the one hand of course, we want to help. But on the other, we should also want to empower Tibetans to become self supportive in the long run. What is your view on this matter?

Sylvia Wetzel: Tibetan nunneries and monasteries in India and Nepal are not self supportiving. They still only function if they have strong financial support from the west. There it is not like here in Germany, where we have to pay taxes for the Christian churches. The monasteries in Tibet were functioning within a feudal system. The monasteries had either feudal rights over the surrounding villages or protection and financial support from feudal landlords. The Tibetan nunneries and monasteries exist nowadays outside of their own country so they have no protection at all. That means that it is very difficult to be self-supporting for a contemplative community in the society in which they live. It is not easy. Some of the western support replaces government support. In Europe Christian churches have their own funds. The churches pay the salaries. The Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in India and Nepal live on gifts, and sometimes they get paid for their prayers, mainly by their own Tibetan community. It is difficult to survive without support. In the future, however, monasteries will have to learn what activities they can develop to support themselves. Some already do.


In the middle of her last sentence two western nuns come in, laughing out loud and contradicting on the spot my former assumption most western nuns are so terribly serious. It is apparent to me the interview has come to an end, so I have no more time to discuss one last topic: about how westerners tend to idealize Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. We seem to have created this picture of the last great, quiet refuge on earth, the sacred Shangri-La, named Tibet. The Tibetans want to conform to this picture, in order to have our support. The downside of this misconception is, that we will never really get to know each other as human beings with all our human frailties. And isn’t that what this is all about? Meeting with another culture, in order to mutually enrich our spiritual life?