It was unseasonably warm, 62º, when I arrived in Otego on February 20 to photograph Elizabeth Callahan, a well-known translator of Tibetan Buddhist texts. She and I had postponed from the previous Saturday, when it had been breathtakingly cold, the temperature never breaking out of single digits.
I had been assigned by Liza Matthews, the amazing art director of Lion’s Roar magazine (which had recently changed its name from Shambhala Sun), to shoot portraits and environmental photos of Elizabeth in and around her house, where she meditated, where she worked.
Elizabeth’s 1809 farmhouse was set back from the small country road (designated a county highway). It had been a strange, nearly snowless winter in upstate New York and the ground was bare. Her pond, where she often meditated, was shiny and frozen and chard and kale were sprouting in her large hoop house.
It was a wonderful day, shooting indoors and outside with Elizabeth (who was welcoming, warm, fascinating and funny) and her two dogs Dogen and Tilo. The article, “Dharma 24/7,” by Zen teacher and priest Koun Franz ran in the July issue of Lions’ Roar (excerpted by permission):
The history of Buddhism, by and large, is a story of full-time practitioners. It stars the monastics, priests, yogis, and hermits who left behind what most of us call “ordinary” life to dedicate themselves solely to Buddhist practice and study. Laypeople, meanwhile, are nearly invisible in the traditional Buddhist narrative. A few entered the lore…but they are rare, celebrated explicitly as exceptions to the rule.
Today in the West, the story is reversed. The vast majority of Western practitioners–and most well-known Buddhist teachers–are lay men and women, trying to keep a commitment to practice while simultaneously devoting themselves to family, work, and participation in the culture. Monastics and other full-time Buddhist practitioners are the exception in the West, trying to make their way in a society that doesn’t necessarily support–or even understand–their path.
Monasteries in China and Tibet used to house up to ten thousand monks and nuns at a time. Those days are behind us. Yet every age, including ours, has its renunciates. They are the ones who give up what the rest of us won’t or can’t in order to place spiritual practice at the center of their lives. They remind us of the hard choice between “’having it all” and having what you most deeply want…
If you were Elizabeth Callahan’s next-door neighbor in the Catskills, you might imagine she’s simply a quiet person who works from home. And you’d be half right. But the other half is more interesting.
Like many people, Callahan discovered Buddhism in college. But unlike most people, that discovery catapulted her directly into intensive, full-time practice, a path from which she hasn’t veered in thirty-five years. “I didn’t have a clear idea of ‘I want to be a monastic’ or ‘I want to be a scholar,’ nothing like that,” she remembers. “But I saw very quickly that if you want to get into it fully, you have to make that your life’s path. And for that, you need in-depth training.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, the traditional path of intensive practice begins with a three-year group retreat, after which one can be called a “lama.” Every day for three years, retreatants wake up at 4:00 a.m. and spend all day meditating, studying, and listening to teachings…
Callahan did one three-year retreat at a Buddhist center in upstate New York, and after a year in India, returned to the U.S. to do another one…When her second retreat was finished, she decided not to move into a dharma center…“I was more interested in practicing and studying, so it was more conducive to live on my own or with my partner.”
Her ten years of meditation practice had involved an intensive study of Tibetan. “Nothing was translated in those days,” she says (so)…translation was a natural fit…“Combining the scholastic study with practice–it’s like two wings of a bird,” Callahan says. “The self-benefit part is that it allows you to study something in-depth in a very intimate way…But you hope that you’re doing it to serve others, to communicate the dharma to them.”
Alone in her home in the Catskills, Callahan is on her own time, though she structures her translation work as a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five job… She describes her path as “very slow and very internal”…“If you want to do something fully, then you have to give a lot of time to that, and you can’t do other things. You can’t do all the things you want to do.”
Why does someone step away from the comforts of intimate family relationships, or the implied freedom of the American Dream, to make a life of our own design, into the tight container of a tradition not of one’s own creation–not just for a weekend or a month, but for years, even a lifetime?…When pressed, Callahan resists the question of why. “Why do this at all?” she asks. “That’s hard to answer without sounding rather banal.” But she tries to explain it, and in doing so speaks clearly of why anyone chooses Buddhist practice, in any form: “If the Buddhist vision captures our mind, our heart, our imagination of what can be, if it lights up our mind and sets it free somehow, if we see in it a path that increases qualities and traits we appreciate, then we dive in.”