January 11, 2004: On the Subject of Sticking With It
Last December I attended a seven day meditation retreat in Providence, Rhode Island, with Zen Master Soeng Hyang of the Kwan Um school. She is a powerful, feisty, smart teacher. I wanted to practice kongans (crazy Zen questions like "What was your face before your mother was born?") with her. The retreat started every morning at 3 am for me. It ended at 10 PM. Constant hard work.
In the Kwan Um tradition there is only one dharma talk, offered smack in the middle of the retreat. The night before the talk Soeng Hyang asked me, during an interview with her, if I would do the talk. Following a long jagged inhale of breath, "Of course." In that moment I knew what the subject would be. How I manage to stay until the end of retreats without running away. The topic could as easily have been how I stick with meditation practice without running away. Same truths.
After almost twenty years of attending or leading long retreats, there is always a moment when most of me says, "This so sucks. I'm gone." By now, I know it is a result of physical and emotional exhaustion and is a sign that the retreat is working its magic, although it doesn't feel like it at the time. And every time I hear myself saying the escape words, I know to kick in three antidotes: to lean into the retreat harder; to relax; and to remember words of encouragement from a monk or nun who has lived this path before me. And every single time, I stay.
The three antidotes work miracles. Leaning in is about looking at what I'm resisting and instead of being lazy, or trying to escape, I put more energy into it. Here are two examples from the Providence retreat. Right before I left Detroit for the airport, I fell hard on my left knee. It still hurts enough to distract me a month later. I knew that a sore knee meant that sitting would be agony by mid morning. We had the option of sitting on chairs. I also knew that if I sat on a chair I would fall asleep ..a lot. So I sat on a cushion. And when I couldn't practice for the pain; I stood behind my cushion along with beginners who weren't used to long sittings. And stayed.
Leaning in example two: When I went on a pilgrimage with my root teacher, Samu Sunim, to Korea in 1999, we ate seaweed soup more than frequently. It got to the point where I was afraid to look at what we were eating. Leaving Korea, I promised myself that I would never have to eat a seaweed based soup again, health benefits be damned. In Providence, for one of the lunches, I could smell the soup before it hit the room we were in. Seaweed based. Instant nausea. A cramped stomach. When the server came around to me, however, I stuck my empty bowl out as far as I could asking for a big serving. If we were going to eat seaweed soup, I was going to eat it with gusto. The great surprise? It was delicious.
Leaning in is a lifestyle that I brought home with me. It means that I work hard to attend to details, and to deal with small problems as soon as they surface. The benefits are enormous. One of the biggest ones is that leaning in has cut down neurotic worrying by so much that I actually miss it.
The second antidote is the gift of reminding myself that I have lots of time to answer all of the kongans that get thrown my way. There is no need to rush. This antidote grew out of a long retreat in Chicago that happened almost ten years ago. At the time I was a seminary student, working on the question, "What is it?" For months I had been wrestling with the question. Every answer I took into the interview room was thrown back at me with a ring of my teacher's bell, throwing me out. Finally in one interview, Sunim looked at me and said something like, "You have twenty four hours. Go into the meditation hall and don't eat or sleep. Just do your practice."
So I did. At first I shouted it. Then I cried with frustration. Then I whispered it, matching the rhythm to my steps. Then I lay on the floor and said it to the ceiling. For twenty four hours, only practice. Only questioning. At the end of the time period, nothing. I still didn't have a response.
When it was my turn for an interview the next day, I walked into the interview room and offered my resignation as a dharma student. I had failed. Sunim just looked at me. Then with the softest voice possible, he said, "P'arang. You have ten thousand years."
thousand years. Suddenly all the pressure fell away. With ten thousand years I
could just do my best in a relaxed, there is plenty of time fashion. So I did.
And the response was right there. Since then, whenever I tense up at a retreat,
I tell myself that I have ten thousand years. Because it is true. And just keep
The third antidote is to remember or read words of encouragement from someone who has walked this path in an earlier time. In Providence, my man was Chinul, a wonderful Korean monk who lived in the twelfth century and who had enough hardships in his life to make anyone want to run away to sex, drugs and hip-hop. But he didn't. Instead he became a great wise man, weaving different Korean schools of Buddhism into one beautiful tapestry. Along the way he gave advice to the monks and nuns that, in a word, rocked. Here's a sample:
"Strengthen your will; reprimand yourself; reprove your own laziness. Know your faults and turn toward what is good. Reform and repent your bad conduct; train and control your mind. Cultivate earnestly and the power of contemplation will grow; train continuously and your practice will become increasingly pure. If you always remember your good fortune, you will never backslide. If you persevere in this way for a long time, naturally samadhi and prajna will become full and bright and you will see your own mind-nature; you will use compassion and wisdom like sorcery and ferry across sentient beings; you will become a great field of merit I urge you to exert yourselves!" (From Robert Buswell's wonderful The Collected Works of Chinul, p. 138)
For this new year, let's exert ourselves, you and I. For the sake of all beings. And because, in the end, its a blast!
to the Source
An Interview with the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua
Conducted by Karl Ray
[Originally published in Shambala Review, Volume 5, Numbers 1 & 2, Winter 1976, pp. 26-28.]
Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua (also named An Tz'u and To Lun) was born on the sixteenth day of the third month, lunar calendar, in 1918. His father, Pai Fu-bai, was a farmer the Shuang-ch'eng District of northeastern China. The Master was the youngest of eight children. After the Second World War the Master traveled three thousand miles to Nan Hua Monastery in Canton Province to pay his respects to the Venerable Master Hsu Yun, who was then one hundred and nine years old. When he arrived at Nan Hua, the two masters greeted on another; the Venerable Master Hsu Yun recognized the Master's attainment, and transmitted the wonderful mind seal to him, making him the Ninth Patriarch of the Wei Yang lineage, and asked him to serve as the Director of the Nan Hua Institute for the Study of the Vinaya.
In 1950, he resigned his post at Nan Hua Monastery and journeyed to Hong Kong where he lived in a mountainside cave in the New Territories. He personally established two temples and a lecture hall and helped to bring about the construction of many others. He dwelt in Hong Kong for twelve years, during which time many people were influenced by his arduous cultivation and awesome manner to take refuge with the Triple Jewel and support the propagation of the Buddhadharma.
In 1962, he carried the Buddha's Dharma banner farther west to the shores of America where he took up residence in San Francisco and patiently waited for past causes to ripen and bear their fruit. With tireless vigor the Master has finely planted the roots of Dharma in Western soil so that it can become self-perpetuating The following interview was conducted at Gold Mountain Monastery, San Francisco, Ca., which was founded by the Master.
Karl Ray: The first question I would like to ask is based on an article in which you suggest that Buddhists forget sectarian lines. Can you suggest practical steps that Buddhist organizations can take to bring this about?
The Master: Before the Buddha came into the world, there was no Buddhism. After the Buddha appeared, Buddhism came into being, but there was not as yet any division into sects or schools. Sectarianism is a limited view, a view of small scope, and cannot represent Buddhism in its entirety. The complete substance of Buddhism, the totality, admits no such divisions. When you divide thetotality of Buddhism into sects and schools, you merely split it into fragments. In order to understand Buddhism in its totality, one must eliminate views of sects and schools and return to original Buddhism. One must
return to the root and go back to the source.
That brings me to a question about the different teachings taught here at Gold Mountain. I understand that you teach five different schools, including the Ch 'an School, the Teaching School, the Vinaya School, the Secret School, and the Pure Land School. Can they all be taught like this together? Do they all belong to the original corpus of Buddhist teachings?
The Five Schools were created by Buddhist disciples who had nothing to do and wanted to find something with which to occupy their time. The Five Schools all issued from Buddhism. Since they came forth from Buddhism, they can return to Buddhism as well. Although the Five Schools serve different purposes, their ultimate destination is the same. It is said:
There is only one road back to the source,
But there are many expedient ways to reach it.
Although there are five different schools, they are still included within one "Buddhism." If you want to understand the totality of Buddhism, you need not necessarily divide it up into schools or sects. Originally there were no such divisions. Why make trouble when there is none? Why be divisive and cause people to have even more false thoughts than they already have?
People think that the Five Schools are something really special and wonderful. In fact, they have never departed from Buddhism itself. It's just like the government of a country. The government is made up of different departments. There's a Department of Health, a Department of Economics, a State Department, a Department of the Interior, and so forth. People may not realize that all these different departments are under a single government. All they recognize is the department, and they don't recognize the government as a whole. Their outlook is mistaken. Now, we wish to move from the branches back to the roots. In the analogy, the roots are the government, and the branches are the various departments. People should no abandon the roots and cling to the branches. If you only see the individual departments and fail to recognize the goverment, you will never be able to understand the problems faced by the country as a whole. You'll have no idea what theya re all about.
Then one should feel free to pursue any or all of the teachings?
Of course. Religion shouldn't be allowed to tie one up.
And if one chooses to follow only one certain school, can one reach the goal that all of them aim for?
All roads lead to Rome. All roads come to San Francisco. All roads will take you to New York. You may ask, "Can I get to New York by this road?" but you would do better to ask yourself, "Will I walk that road or not?"
You mentioned that the goal of Buddhism is the same for all schools. What is that goal?
The goal ultimately is to return to a place where there is "nothing to get." You go to a place where there is no more road, and then you stop going. You go no further.
What are bitter practices?*
[*k'u heng: the twelve beneficial ascetic practices recommended by the Buddha, e.g., sleeping sitting up, taking only one meal a day before noon, wearing only three layers of clothing, drinking only unadulterated water after the noon hour, etc. The more general ones are meditating, practicing the Vinaya, etc.]
Bitter practices are just what people don't like, what they don't want to do. That's why you don't come here and practice them, you'll notice.
Because I don't want to?
Because you are afraid!
But I don't know what they are yet!
Bitter practices, in general, are those which people are not willing to endure. That's why you don't want to practice them, either.
Is it not possible that in ordinary life, in life as we are living it in our everyday world, that there are many things that are bitter practices, that we choose to do even though we don't want to?
If you are involved in them, you won't realize it. The bitter practices we are discussing now are ones which are visible and which everyone can see. No one can see the internal hardships people face, and although they don't want to undergo them, they are forced to do so anyway. The external practices that everyone can see and that are suitable to undertake are those which most people do not wish to endure. I often say,
To endure suffering is to end suffering;
To enjoy blessings is to exhaust one's blessings.
I'm not sure I understand the relationship between an individual's suffering and the suffering of others. Does taking on bitter practices relieve the suffering of others?
There is such a relationship in that circumstance, yes.
Are these practices for everyone or only for monks?
Everybody can practice them.
I'd like to ask something about the Pure land because it seems to me to be one of the most neglected aspects of Buddhism in the West, unlike in the East. The question is, is the heaven in the Pure land-if I am correct in using the term-similar to the Christian heaven?
Fundamentally there is no heaven and there is no Pure Land. People imagine a heaven and a heaven exists. They imagine the existence of a Pure Land and a Pure Land exists. The Pure Land Dharma door was spoken by the Buddha in order to teach you to do away with your false thoughts. It is intended to lead you to a realization of the pure, inherently wonderful True Suchness nature. At the ultimate point, when you have no false thoughts or confused ideas, you arrive at the Pure Land. Whoever can do away with their false thoughts can reach the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Whoever cannot do that is still in the Evil World of the Five Turbidities. So, heaven is the same. We imagine how fine and wonderful heaven must be, but only on the basis of what we have heard. We also imagine the Pure Land to be as the Buddha said it was. We haven't yet seen it ourselves, except in our imaginations. As I see it, the Pure Land Dharma-door is taught only for the sake of causing you to purify your mind. That is the Pure Land. If your mind has no confused ideas, that is heaven. If you look for it elsewhere, you only show your greed.
That's one of the most beautiful definitions I 've ever heard of the Pure Land.
But it's the worst explanation ever given!
It seems the most sensible.
The really good explanation is impossible to give. If it were a really good explanation, there'd be no way to convey it to you. Anything that can be said is not ultimate. If it can be explained, it doesn't "have it." I've never heard as good a one either. (Laughter)
In other words, what is eliminated in this definition of the Pure Land is what has so often been ascribed to it as "otherworldly power. "
"Other-power" (t'a li) just refers to the power of Amitabha Buddha. "Self-power" (tse li) refers to your own ability to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. Using "vow-power" you borrow the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows to escort you to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss. This comes from relying on the power of Amitabha Buddha's vows, but the vow-power of Amitabha Buddha and the vow-power of every individual is just the same; it is of one kind. If you can purify your mind, then you will become one with Amitabha Buddha. If you can purify your mind, the Land of Ultimate Bliss appears right in front of
you. It is especially important that you cut off all desire. All your desirous thoughts, just cut them off so that you think of nothing whatsoever. If you can stop all thoughts of sexual desire, have no greedy, hateful, or ignorant thoughts, then Amitabha's power is your power as well; they are
two and yet not two;
not two and yet two.
Basically, there is no distinction, but living beings have to find something to do where there is nothing to be done, that's all.
Does not this explanation of the Pure Land conflict with the tantric practices of using sexual powers? Are they two different ways that one must choose between, or can they be practiced simultaneously?
There is no contradiction. As for one who practices tantra, if he has no sexual desire, it is all right. If he has desire, then he is just the same as a common person.
In other words, in the tantric practice one must also be detached from sexual desire?
Most definitely, yes. There must be no thoughts of sexual desire. If you have desire, you are just the same as a common person, and you will have children just the same as everyone else. That's for certain!
Can you have children without desire, without attachment?
You'd have to be a piece of wood! A piece of wood
has no attachment.
But a piece of wood doesn't have children, does it?
To do the tantric practices, one must neither be a piece of wood nor have desire. It is really not easy. Because it is so difficult, it is extremely dangerous. But most people like it, and use it to cover up their own "inner conflicts."
That brings up the question. of the teacher-disciple relationship. Can one practice Buddhism without a teacher or as the Indians say, a "guru?"
It takes a little longer.
But it's not impossible?
That depends on the root-nature of the individual.
What do you think of the prospects for Buddhism in America ?
Buddhism is like a seed. In Asia, it no longer exists. The seed has come to the West. Having come to the West, of course it will take root and grow. After growing large, it will eventually pass away in the West as well. Then it will go on from there to yet another world. This is one of the natural tendencies of the Buddhadharma. It may happen that in five hundred years or perhaps a thousand years--it's not certain how long it will be--Buddhism may go to the moon.
I was just going to ask, you said "world " and not "another country." That's what you meant?
I think I'll let you off now.
You'll liberate me? But I am liberating you! (Laughter)
I thank you. The questions were stupid.
Were the questions stupid or were the answers stupid?
Stupidity and wisdom are basically the same. When you reverse stupidity, it becomes wisdom. It's like the palm and the back of one's hand. Turn it over, and then you've got it. If you are interested, feel free to make an appointment at any time to come and discuss things.
Thank you. Maybe you can help me not be afraid of bitter practices?
Translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society
Primary translation: Bhikshu Heng Sure
Revised by: Bhikshuni Heng Yin
Edited by: Bhikshuni Heng Chen
on Black on Buddhism : Interview with George Mumford
By William Poy Lee
The Dharma is spreading to the inner city-and given Spirit Rock's location in one of the most racially diverse metro-areas of America, we are beginning to play a role in that. But who are our Dharma guides and our Dharma teachers who can help us navigate through one of the most painful and defensive non-dialogues in America, our joint legacy of historic racism?
This is the first in a series of interviews featuring people of color. The first three interviews are with Black Buddhist practitioners for whom the Dharma has been central in transforming their lives and empowering them as Black men in the often difficult interracial environment of America. Their lessons can provide insights as we at Spirit Rock start to explore this sharing of the Dharma into the inner city.
All three men are united by their love of the Dharma, its centrality in their chosen profession, and a desire to bring the transforming power of the Dharma to African American communities.
They note that there is special dukkha unique to African Americans. The statistics seem to support that this is not just a victim stance, but an objective conclusion. We are familiar with many of these statistics1 to the point of numbness. It starts with childhood:
" 58.9% of Black families are headed up by women in contrast with 17.9% of White families.
" African American kids are twice as likely to be assigned to the most ineffective teachers.·
" Black men are more likely than white men to go to prison than to college
" 71% of prisoners in California prisons and 81% of incarcerated youth are people of color, predominately men.
" 70% of California's "3-strikes" sentences are middle-age African American men and mostly for non-violent crimes, like drug addiction or petty economic theft.
Perhaps another way to answer the proposition whether Black men suffer a unique Dukkha is to ask "Which one among us who is not Black would choose to become a Black man in America today?"
Introducing George Mumford
The L.A. Lakers basketball team won the 2000 and 2001 NBA Championships under the leadership of Head Coach Phil Jackson. One of Phil Jackson's secret weapons is George Mumford, who coached the Lakers (and the Chicago Bulls) on the Inner Game. George is a Vipassana teacher, former Board member of Spirit Rock and IMS, and sports psychologist who teaches retreats nationally.
One of the most thrilling sights was the Lakers moving down court as a single organism. Shaq and Kobe's Superstar egos had simply disappeared. He got 'natta! For many young African-American males, basketball represents freedom of movement, mastery and money. Yet, it is the Game of Life that most Black men get to play. In this interview, George talks about how mindfulness practice liberated him from drug addiction and the difference the Dharma can make if properly introduced into inner city African-American communities.
How did you come into Buddhism?
I was in suffering and recovering from addiction. I had chronic pain but couldn't use pain medication because that could play into addiction. Dr. Joan Borysenko, specialist in mind-body response, suggested meditation as an alternative and referred me to an IMS retreat. I read every book on their syllabus of Buddhist books. It took all my energy o purge the drugs and alcohol. My life depended upon meditation practice, residential retreats, Buddhist readings and teachers. That was the first time I felt I had a sense of control in my life.
How could Dharma practice make a difference in inner-city lives?
I think the main benefit to African Americans from meditation is impulse control. The inner city is a pressure cooker, full of tension and anxiety. It's easy to go off or to reach for something to ease the pain. Meditation helps people understand the operation of their mind and emotions. It teaches us how to detach ourselves from outside provocation and from our habitual patterns of reaction.
Are there practices that are "unattractive" at first blush, to African Americans?
Facing your own dukkha. But that's probably true for everyone. Folks will keep coming until the dukkha is too strong. Then they leave. The thinking is "If I don't come, I won't feel it." It takes awhile to appreciate the insight that the only way out of dukkha is through.
As a sports psychologist who works with sports teams, I often find I want the players to get it more than the players do. But that's the boundary, they have to want it more than you or anyone else. You just keep the doors open and make the teachings available.
Many Buddhists of Color have stayed away from mainline centers like Spirit Rock or IMS or visit once, never to return. What are the reasons for this?
Part of the reason are teachers. Teachers get use to teaching the same type of folks for years all over the country. Many get comfortable with their pattern, because teachers are still people after all. Teachers are revered and placed on a kind of pedestal. It's easy for us to inattentively become unavailable.
Suddenly, there are yogis of color, but we don't adapt our teaching style, our examples or our words. So, we lose them. It starts to seem like Buddhism is for college educated white folks only.
What can we at Spirit Rock do, as sangha members, teachers, staff and Board members to change this?
Pay attention. Be mindful. Communicate.
Take Joseph Goldstein, for example. He's been teaching People of Color retreats at Vallecitos, New Mexico for years. Yogis of color don't know who he is and he's not revered as he usually is by white yogis. Joseph gets questioned at those retreats. He gets confronted. But Joseph sticks with it, listens and comes back. Why? Because Joseph is sensitizing himself. He's raising his ability as a teacher, to spread the dharma to new audiences.
In other words, Joseph is being a Buddhist. He's being in the moment, as it is. He's being sensitive, making adjustments. He's dropping parameters and getting out of his comfort zones. He's willing to go into the fire. Jack Kornfield is another teacher like that.
Anyone can learn about African Americans and other communities of color. You can read books and attend plays about people of color. You can volunteer in an inner city center. For teachers, you can find or create opportunities to co-teach before different audiences. Prepare yourself as much as you can.
Many Buddhists of color have family who are drug addicted, in jail or otherwise on the margins. How do we deal more effectively with our survivor's guilt?
Yeah, that's a hard one, because you care and you can't figure out why you're making it and they're not, even though you're from the same place. You're isolated. You emotionally swing one of two ways: "You don't deserve what you have" or "You're all that, but you have to fix it all." Yeah, there are core issues of feeling personal responsibility for everyone.
We have to cultivate non-attachment. Notice I didn't say detachment, but non-attachment, because you are connected. They're family. The first step is to clearly face your own helplessness. Control is an illusion. Come to accept that you have no control over their behavior or the consequences, as hard as that is to do. We want it for them more than they do.
Create an environment in which they can succeed-once they have had enough of the Dukkha. An inner-city Dharma Center creates an environment, a physical place of refuge and resources. But I mean an attitude of staying open to them, letting them know you may not like certain behaviors and may even get disappointed. But stay available and share the dharma and the practices when they're ready to hear it.
Drug addiction especially is a tough one. Slipping back into using is such a big part of recovery. But for those of us who have used meditation as a way out of addiction, it works. Meditation takes us to the place of pain, the underlying dukkha that leads us to addictions. Then, it helps us to heal, become free and lead new lives.
You can tell them about me. Tell them my story.
There is planning of an independent Dharma Center in the East Bay, which may have a limited affiliation with Spirit Rock. Oakland, California is the likely location, with a large population of African Americans. What would motivate African Americans to come to the Dharma?
Dukkha. Dukkha will motivate African Americans to come through the doors, when you're through the denial of dukkha in your life.
Accessibility. Make sure the center is easy to get to . . . and to go home from. People would see it as a resource, a quiet refuge and a place to get in touch with themselves. Eventually, they may be able to see the strong positive impact on their lives.
A lot of folks' initial motivation is to get an edge-to beat the pain and the stress like myself, or to go pro. But this experience can open the door into a deeper practice. The best pathway for an inner-city Dharma Center is to set the table and invite all to come and sup with us. Keep it simple and make the teachings available.
An interview with Traktung Rinpoche,
on the betrayal of radical critique by the Western Buddhist Movement.
Interviewer I recently heard you say that Herbert Marcuse was one of your favorite western philosophers. You said that Marcuse is the quintessential radical philosopher, and that your recent criticisms of certain trends in the "Western Buddhist Movement" have been inspired by his writings. Yet those who have criticized your writings on the Damtsig website have accused you of being politically conservative. Could you clarify this?
Traktung Rinpoche My personal politics are really beside the point. Marcuse's genius was for understanding the ways in which modern culture enforces domination and oppression through the mechanics of conformity, which numb people to any and all radical critique - societal or individual. My critique of the "Western Buddhist Movement," and most especially Surya Das and Helen Tworkov (editor of Tricycle Magazine), are rooted not in conservatism but in the fact that they are what Marcuse called "tools of the mechanics of conformity." They work, perhaps unconsciously, to destroy the radical and liberating nature of the Buddhadharma. My view of them stems from Marcuse's philosophical investigation of domination within "technological society" in his book One Dimensional Man.
Q I find it interesting that you consistently base your critique of the "Western Buddhist Movement" in Western philosophical and historical traditions rather than in Buddhism itself. Why is that?
TR It is because their distortions of the Buddhadharma arise from the western cultural, historical, and philosophical context. There is no battle between eastern and western Buddhism. The very notion is merely a cover for the racist and imperialistic tendencies of the "Western Buddhist Movement." What Surya Das, Tworkov, and others are doing, concerns the nature of domination in our culture - with how one establishes territory. It has nothing to do with the philosophical tenets of Buddhism, and has very little to do with cultural differences. What we are really looking at here is how our cultural assumptions, history, and philosophical stances affect our ability to encounter the radically liberating critique of the Buddhadharma - and to recognize when it is being distorted. How does viewing the dharma through the lens of these assumptions and stances distort the teachings and rob them of their effectiveness?
My overall critique of the "Western Buddhist Movement" is rooted in Marcuse's philosophy. My strong distaste for its founders is based on knowledge of their personal tendencies to abuse power, and to be racist and duplicitous. I noticed that in a recent Tricycle interview, Tworkov and Surya Das continued their efforts to shape the perception of this debate along cultural, or perhaps racial, lines. The interviewer said: "Certain Tibetan teachers and some of their students attack you -" This question implies that it is only Tibetans and those who are influenced by them, the pawns of their authoritarian structures, who take issue with Surya Das. I myself have never been asked by any Tibetan teacher to engage in this debate, and I personally find this presumption patronizing and racist. Ms. Tworkov and Mr. Das do not represent "the west" - as if they were the Pope representing Catholicism - in some attempt to save us from the nefarious Asians. They certainly don't represent me. There is no homogenized megalithic "western" view and so the idea of a "Western Buddhism" is absurd - as is the idea of an Eastern Buddhism. They are attempting to mold Buddhism into a "Western" harmonious pluralism where dissent can be discounted as the infiltration of unneeded "foreign influences." This is grotesque to say the least. It is also exactly the style of effort Marcuse said would be made by those working to castrate authentic radical critique in technological society. 1.
Q I am sad to say I have never read Marcuse and so do not really understand what you are referring to.
TR Marcuse was concerned with how we might live happier and freer lives. He was, at heart, a philosopher - but one who combined psychological, sociological, and political analysis. His roots are in Hegelian dialectics and in the existential phenomenology of the likes of Heidegger and Husserl. Like them, he had insights into the trends in technological society which robbed people of freedom and individuality. Marcuse deeply analyzed the fashion in which societal forces of oppression and domination strove to eliminate the possibility of "radical critique." This is accomplished by shaping the perceived needs of its populace through an amalgamation of consumerism, mass culture, ideology, advertising and constructed sentimentality. This force, which displays itself in obsessive consumerism, offers much greater satisfaction, in physical terms, to those who maintain the status quo. Surya Das exhibits this tendency in the way he "markets" Buddhism, changing it to make it more palatable to his intended market. He removes what might be considered to be radical or uncomfortable about it. He seems to think that his understanding supersedes the Buddha and Padmasambhava, because he throws out aspects of dharma that they viewed as critical to its effectiveness, such as pure view, faith, the vajra master, the non-existence of self.
In his book, One Dimensional Man, Marcuse explores the oppressive, alienating and dominating forces of "technological culture" which create a society of such conformity that all genuinely radical critique is subsumed in the integration of opposites. The result is "One dimensional man-" a culture where critical thinking is numbed and change is only allowed within the parameters of the culture itself. The "Western Buddhist Movement" is a movement whose goal is to subvert the radical nature of Buddhism, to absorb it into the culture within the parameters of the culture itself. In other words, they will allow Buddhism, but only a Buddhism castrated and robbed of anything "alien" which might act as a basis, outside of commercialized values, for radical social and personal transformation. Through strategic assimilation, the power of change is stripped while the façade is celebrated. Surya Das promotes Dzogchen with pith commercial jingoism - "Dzogchen, it's more fun!" By transforming the mirror of Dzogchen into the mirror of Narcissus, Surya Das effectively and simultaneously castrates and popularizes Buddhadharma. Being popular is then equated with being "democratic." The "Western Buddhist Movement's" emphasis on democratic values is a sham, an Orwellian doublethink, and that is why it can be combined with fantasies of collectivism. It is designed to polarize and to promote fear of the dangerous "Asian system."
At its core Surya Das' actions, like the actions of many within the "Western Buddhist Movement," stem from what he believes to be noble motives. Sadly, because those who have created the "Western Buddhist Movement" are unconscious victims of the very forces of oppression that they serve, they corrupt, co-opt, defuse, and castrate the radical critique of Buddhadharma while maintaining that they are serving it. In order to serve their new and improved, societally acceptable, neutered Buddhadharma, they can justify deceptive and duplicitous behavior as beneficial to their noble cause. Marcuse commented on the great "counter-revolutionary" force of consumerism alienated from radical critique and its power to destroy radical critique through absorption. As my grandmother said many times, "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
Marcuse coined the phrase "The Great Refusal." The Great Refusal is the refusal to sell short our potential for liberation for the paltry comforts of consumerism. In Golok, in Tibet, they say that the desire for comfort is the death of honor and truth. My denunciation of the "Western Buddhist Movement" stems not from political conservatism but from my embrace of Marcuse's Great Refusal; the refusal to trade freedom and happiness for cheap consolation. Surya Das - the Barnum and Bailey of the dharma, Helen Tworkov - the propagandist, Stephen Batchelor - the anaemic intellectual, and Thich Nhat Han - the token Asian, are merely foot soldiers in service of a megalithic delusion which shapes and controls our culture. They are sheep in lion's clothing. Marcuse wrote about their movement when he said, "The new totalitarianism manifests itself precisely in a harmonizing pluralism, where the most contradictory works and truths peacefully coexist in indifference." In the context of the struggle of the Great Refusal, I really cannot find words strong enough to express my revulsion for these peoples' activities and my disgust for their behavior.
Q That is a strong statement. It makes me think of another criticism I have read of your writing which is that you are not nice and that what you are doing is contrary to the compassionate roots of kindness at the heart of Buddhism.
TR Yes, it seems that to be "nice" one must cease and desist from all critical dissent and debate. To be nice, one must say things obliquely rather than directly, or better yet, say nothing at all. One should try to focus on points of agreement and smooth over differences in a fog of blandness. This emphasis on being nice is a form of oppression. Feminists pointed this out in the 70's and encouraged us not to teach our daughters to be "nice" because it was disempowering to them. Now we just want our Buddhists to be nice. This niceness which is being referred to is what Trungpa Rinpoche called "idiot compassion." It seems that it is fine for the Western Buddhist Movement to castrate the power of the Buddhadharma, but if anyone says "Hey, wait a minute, you are distorting the teachings of liberation," then they are branded with the scarlet letter - "not nice."
This supposed niceness is in fact merely a tool for the suppression of radical critique that often takes its form in disagreement, debate and critical discussion - all forms of interaction which are historically central to Buddhism. Are we, as Western practitioners of Buddhism, so scared of our internal rage that we imagine any serious disagreement might turn into violence? I found it interesting at the American Buddhism Conference that, while pretending to offer an "atmosphere of serious discussion and the possibility of strong disagreement," great lengths were taken to insure that there was no face to face interaction of any real depth between opposing viewpoints. The entire event was structured to protect the environment and its participants from heated debate or serious disagreement. In this fashion, we allowed ourselves the luxury and comfort of being avant-garde while saving ourselves from the discomfort of Buddha's radical critique. In other words we become, and turn Buddhism into, exactly what Marcuse predicted - tools for the mechanics of conformity (while maintaining our veneer of spiritual specialness). In short, the stance that we should not disagree or denounce is merely the command, by dominating forces, that we should conform.
This vision of being "nice and compassionate" is different from the Buddhist vision. Compassion and kindness demand strong dissension and response in the face of harmful delusion. It is, of course, a matter of motivation. The precious Buddhadharma teaches me that all people have been at one time my mother, my lover, my child, and my best friend. One day my friend becomes my enemy, and then later my friend again. When we contemplate Buddhadharma we come to a stance of vast equanimity in the midst of debate, but this equanimity does not deny the need for valid, well-reasoned response. I understand that each of these people I have mentioned, like all of us, only wants happiness. Sadly, they are ignorant as to the causes of happiness. They are excellent examples of the manner in which those who are deeply oppressed and alienated are often completely ignorant as to the existence and source of their alienation. In fact, they confuse the sources of suffering with the cessation of suffering, and so they are like moths drawn to the flame.
Is it kinder to let the moth burn alive or to point out to the moth that the object of it's obsession is, any moment, going to become the source of its greatest suffering. What is compassion? The prefix "com" means "with" and the body of the word passion, from the root pathos, means suffering. Compassion is to be with the suffering of others; not to turn a blind eye to the suffering of all sentient beings. In the Buddhist sense, compassion means to actively remove the causes of suffering as a function of love. It is not kind, loving or compassionate to see the causes of suffering and not try and remove them. The great Buddhist teacher Atisha said we should drive all blame into one. I am not saying that that the "one" is Surya Das or Helen Tworkov. It is, of course, ignorance. Compassion and kindness for all beings demands that we respond when, out of ignorance, someone is acting in ways which cause suffering; especially if that ignorance is dressed in the garments of the liberating wisdom tradition of Buddhadharma. Surya Das and Tworkov are seducing people who have a genuine spiritual longing into their sphere and then offering them a teaching which will never liberate them but only increase their ignorance and suffering - and presenting it as the precious Buddhadharma. I am reminded of an ancient Persian story:
Once, in the beginning of the world, when the archetypes lived in the heavens and the planets were young, the essential forms of beauty and ugliness decided to spend a day on earth. While picnicking next to a pond on a hot summer day, ugliness devised a cunning practical joke. She coyly suggested to beauty that, in order to cool off, they go skinny dipping in the pond. While beauty was lost in oblivious enjoyment of the water, ugliness snuck out, put on beauty's clothes and ran away. It is said that since that day, human beings have been mistaking ugliness for beauty and beauty for ugliness.
A failure to address the causes of suffering embedded in the Western Buddhist Movements" aggressively marketed vision is not kind, nor is it compassionate. So much of what Marcuse described in One Dimensional Man describes the oppressive vector of the Western Buddhist Movement. It can be seen in their cultivation of indifference in the midst of vapid harmonized pluralism or the way in which image makers such as Helen Tworkov suppress intellectual freedom by shaping public opinion so that it is hostile to or immune to oppositional thought. In order to be "Nice" to Surya Das one must cease to care about the suffering of sentient beings. That does not seem very nice to me. Surya Das has suggested to me that I take all of this too seriously. How can it be taken too seriously?
Q Oh, I didn't realize you two had met. What was the context of that comment?
TR I went to the Conference on American Buddhism in Boulder because I remembered some good advice that my father had given me. He told me once that one should never criticize another if one were not willing to meet that person face to face - human being to human being. Otherwise, he said, one's critique would be tinged with cowardice and a lack of honor. So I went to the conference in order to meet my adversary, human being to human being.
I attended a talk by Surya Das, a truly uninspired presentation on the ways in which Buddhadharma was becoming "mainstream." It was a guide map to the assimilation and castration of the radical power of Buddhadharma by commercialized culture. During the question and answer time, I asked Surya Das about the implications of some of his statements and writings. His response was to laugh and say, "Why do you take it all seriously? I don't really even know what is on my web site." Everyone laughed and the microphone never came my direction again, and so I was unable to respond publicly.
Q And what would your response have been?
TR I would like to point out that Surya Das' answer was fundamentally a manipulation of power in order to silence dissension. I have heard from several people that this form of power play - mocking, or embarrassing the questioner, is frequently used by Surya Das. It is the public forum version of Helen Tworkov's abuses of power in Tricycle magazine. In light of the common tendency to project ones own flaws onto others, it is not very surprising that Tworkov and Surya Das both fixate on the alleged abuse of power amongst Buddhist masters.
If I had been allowed a response, I would have said that I take it all so seriously because we are talking about the potential to end suffering for all beings. We are talking about liberation from delusion and the structures of delusion in society, which have caused untold horrors across the world and throughout time. What could possibly be more serious than that? Personally, the blatant callousness and smugness of Surya Das' response shocked me. Sadly, I had hoped that there might be more substance to Surya Das in person than there is to his writings. At least his writings make a pretence of caring about sentient beings and Buddhadharma. In person, his concern was limited to the market penetration of neutered commercialized pseudo dharma.
Well-reasoned dissent and debate are not unkind. I do not believe that it is unkind to criticize people for duplicity and abuse of power. It seems that Surya Das feels that it is unfair to criticize him based on what he writes, says or does. He resorts to the abuse of power to control dialogue, the denial of responsibility for his own words or simple whining about being unfairly persecuted. This last and most tedious stance reminds me a bit of a certain ox.
In addition I would have suggested that the construct of study in Dzogchen - view, meditation and action - make the careful inspection of our view very important. Dzogchen is not a mollifying force of social oppression or a marketable commodity. It requires careful and precise understanding as its foundation. Without this foundation, the view, Dzogchen practice tends to stray into forms of extremism rather than liberation. It seems from my small encounter with Surya Das that what is important to him is the analysis of market penetration and therefore analysis of "view" does not need to be taken seriously. In fact, the suggestion that it should be considered turns out to be laughable. I am not amused by the oppressive posturing of panel leaders who squelch dissent, or by the callous destruction of the most liberating system of philosophy and meditation ever offered for the ending of all suffering.
Q I am interested in your implication, earlier in this interview, that Buddhadharma is a "radical critique" along the lines of what Marcuse was talking about. Could you elaborate a bit?
TR Marcuse looked for solutions to the problems of alienation and oppression in the structures of society, but the Buddha discovered the roots of the human existential problem in the structures of consciousness itself. By discovering the cause of suffering he also discovered the end of suffering and the path to that end. The Buddha's teachings are an argument against the habitual structures of suffering. They are a radical critique of what it means to be human and to live in human society. This ancient and precious teaching is the most all-encompassing and disturbing analysis of alienation ever offered to humanity, and if we listen to its argument we will be changed forever. If we are liberated from the lie of suffering then we also cease to be the pawns of shallow and temporary consolations sold to us by the dominating and oppressive powers of delusion. This is why the most revolting act of all is to take this revolutionary teaching and transform it into little more than a Madison Avenue sound bite - "Dzogchen, it's more fun!" To turn Buddhadharma into a consumer product, just more window dressing of samsara - well - that's something even Langdarma didn't consider.
and Animal Rights - an interview
with Dr Tony Page
Buddhism is world-famous for its philosophy of compassion towards all people. Yet what precisely do its scriptures teach on the subject of humanity's rightful relationship with the animal kingdom? Dr Tony Page recently wrote a book on that very subject calling it "Buddhism and Animals".
Interview by Claudette Vaughan, August 2000.
CLAUDETTE: How difficult was it to carry out research into Buddhist morality and the practice of flesh-eating?
TONY: It was surprisingly easy. I have been a student of Buddhism for 20 years but have always been disturbed by the number of modern Buddhists who ate meat, as well as by the relative neglect of animal rights as an issue with Buddhist groups in the West. I have always understood that, given its strong principle of "ahimsa" or non-violence, Buddhism frowned upon meat-eating, since meat-eating inevitably meant doing violence to animals that were slaughtered for food.
But I found that a lot of present day Buddhist teachers and practitioners were actually trying to justify meat-eating. Clearly, something was wrong. So I decided to see what the scriptural basis for meat-eating was. I resolved largely to by-pass what later commentators on Buddhism had said on the subject (many were meat-eaters) and go back to the original scriptures to see what the Buddha himself had stated. It is always best to go back to the source, as far as possible. And I was tremendously encouraged to see that there was a wealth of evidence showing that Buddha Shakyamundi was himself against the eating of meat and was in fact a strong advocate of vegetarianism and compassion towards animals. This formed the basis of my book.
CLAUDETTE: Isn't there a difference regarding the question of meat-eating between the two big schools of Buddhism, "Theravada" and "Mahayama"?
TONY: Yes, seemingly so. The Pali scriptures of the Theravada school report the Buddha as having died from eating some rotten pork at the end of his life, and also claim that he said it was OK to eat flesh as long as you yourself have not seen, heard, or suspected that the animal was killed especially for you. On the first point, when one investigates the Pali work "sukara-maddava" - translated by meat eaters as pork - the evidence suggests that it actually means "pig's delight", ie. a type of food favoured by pigs, probably truffles, rather than pig's meat.
On the second point, if one reads the relevant Pali scripture carefully, one sees that the phrase "killed especially for oneself" is not used by the Buddha. It is interpolated (in parentheses) by later commentators. All the Buddha says is that meat might not be eaten if it is seen, heard, or suspected, it may be used. It seems very clear to me that what this means is that any meat put into a Buddhist monk's begging bowl (along with various other food items) should not be eaten if the monk actually sees, hears from others, or suspects for himself that what has been given to him is indeed meat. If by chance he does not notice this and unrealisingly goes ahead and swallows what actually turns out to be meat (it presumably being mixed in with other pieces of food), he is not committing an offence against Buddhist morality, since he is acting unwittingly.
CLAUDETTE: What does the Mahayama school say?
TONY: Things are even clearer in these scriptures. The Buddha emphatically condemns as "twisters of truth" those people who go around saying that the Buddha allows meat eating. He says in no uncertain terms that flesh eating is incompatible with the Buddhist principle of compassion.
CLAUDETTE: You mentioned the principle of non-violence or non-harming (ahimsa) as being important in Buddhism. What does this mean in a practical everyday sense to you?
TONY: It means respecting all beings - humans and animals - as having feelings, as being sentient, and not deserving deliberately to be hurt. So a Buddhist would never swat a fly or purposefully step on an ant or spider. "Non-harming" also means that one should not work in a profession that involves harming others, for example, a butcher or soldier. The main point to remember is to try and show kindness to all creatures, including of course humans. But animals are part of it too. After all, the Buddha took birth many times as an animal - sometimes a deer, or a monkey, or a fish, or a dog etc. He knew what it was like to be an animal. He also taught that we have been animals in our past lives and in fact all the animals are related to us, quite literally. At some point in the past they have been our mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins. So if we harm animals, we are actually harming members of our own family.
CLAUDETTE: What is your understanding of karma and eating animals?
TONY: Karma is the spiritual law of justice which makes us experience the good and the bad effects of what we do to others. So, if we harm animals by killing them, eating them, or experimenting on them, we will have to suffer analogous experiences ourselves in the future - or at least have to undergo some form of suffering. Only when we ourselves go through what the animals have been through will we definitely know that hurting animals is wrong. So eventually we will develop an empathy, a belief in our kinship with all sentient beings, including animals. It is interesting to note, also, that if we are kind to animals, kindness and happiness flow back to us. The Buddha says that if you perform one act of kindness to an animal, you will be recompensed a hundredfold.
CLAUDETTE: What is the climate like now in England now with regard to animal rights?
TONY: I think it is growing more favourable. More and more people are hearing about the wrongs of meat-eating, hunting and vivisecting, and recently some major animal experimental centres have been closed down. Young people in particular are turning against animal exploitation. But the Blair Government is little better than the Conservatives when it comes to animal rights. We must continue to put pressure (non-violent of course) on the MPs.
CLAUDETTE: Tell us about your own organisation Tony?
TONY: A few years ago I set up the UK Antivivisection Information Service, which is just a very small, unsalaried organisation aimed at getting the truth out about vivisection - especially how the practice is of no medical value due to its many unpredictable physiological differences between animals and humans. I have written books on the theme, plus Buddhist books, which approach the question of animal rights from a more moral/spiritual angle. So I try to distribute this kind of information to whomever is interested in it.
CLAUDETTE: In your opinion how can we best avoid oppressing our fellow non-human creatures?
TONY: Through educating as many people as possible about the suffering that animals are unfairly subjected to, and letting people know that there is an alternative - vegetarianism, veganism and natural medicines. And we must practice non-harming in our daily lives.
We should be a living example of what we preach. It is no good, in my view, to preach Compassion and then discount human suffering, for example. Animals and humans should be viewed as equally capable of suffering, so we should care about human rights and animal rights equally. This definitely gets more respect from the public. But never should any being be sacrificed involuntarily-wise, and the dire karmic consequences of harming any being, no matter what the alleged (but deluded) motives are.
CLAUDETTE: Do you have a Utopian dream regarding animals and humans?
TONY: Yes. I dream of a world where animals are viewed as sentient and sensitive people, whose right to be free from human-enforced suffering is respected and where our only relations with animals are motivated by the wish to love and help them. At the same time, I want to see a society that respects other humans much more, too, and our IQ variants, sex and sexuality. We also need to change the education system, so we are not churning out robotic, fact-and figure-filled automata, but feelingful, caring, creative and truly human beings, in touch with what the Buddha calls our innermost Buddha-Mind of Wisdom and Compassion.
CLAUDETTE: Any final thoughts?
TONY: Just to thank you all in Australia for the great work you are doing. Whether you know it or not, by being vegetarian, or better still, vegan and gently encouraging others to support animal rights you are truly helping to bring a little bit of Paradise down to our Earth. And what could be more rewarding for us all than that?
Dr Tony Page can be contacted at:
PO Box 4746
London SE11 4XF
An Interview with the Venerable Robina Courtin
by Suzanne Saucy
Kentucky State Prison is located in the heart of the Bible Belt. Inmates' quarters are cramped. The amenities that we on the outside take for granted are absent. Yet this very poverty of means can lend itself to a path of insightful self-examination, according to the Ven. Robina Courtin, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who directs the Liberation Prison Project (LPP). The LPP now serves prisoners in the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand. Courtin meets inmates in prison chapels without fear. They sit on folding chairs as she teaches them reverence for their lives and those of others. She gives death row inmates tools to prepare for their own deaths.
In Tibetan Buddhism, some revere the yogi Milarepa as the patron saint of prisoners. He himself had once used black magic to murder the family of an uncle who had cheated him out of an inheritance. Overcome with remorse for his vengeful misdeeds, he sought liberation under his guru, Marpa. Today, the LPP's work with prisoners is part of a larger movement among diverse Buddhist groups (see sidebar) to respond to the human suffering inherent in prison life. It exemplifies a long tradition of socially engaged Buddhism that is integral to the spread of its teachings and practices in the West.
Courtin's path has always combined devotion and activism. Her Catholic upbringing fed a desire to become a Carmelite nun. Her twenties brought political awareness of the social struggles faced by women, people of color, and prisoners. She became an activist. At 31, she had given up sex, drugs, alcohol, and radical politics. Following an injury practicing kung fu, she went on a retreat and learned of Buddhism. She found her teacher, Lama Yeshe, and became a nun 22 years ago.
Courtin is a feisty and compact 5' 2" Australian woman with a brilliant smile. Her sharp wit makes her speak honestly about spiritual practice. She guides those seeking food for their souls, whether inside or outside the prison walls. This interview took place at Tse Chen Ling, a San Francisco Buddhist Center where the LPP offices are located.
CG: Can you talk about how the LPP began?
RC: It was in 1996. We received a letter from a young Mexican American ex-gangster in Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison built about 20 years ago for troublemakers from the other yards throughout California. He'd read a book, seen our name, and written to us. His letter came to me. I wasn't thinking about prisons at all. They had nothing to do with my life. He was very sincere, and I eventually answered him. This is the heart of our activity. A person will hear about the LLP through the grapevine or our magazine, Liberation. By the end of the 1997, we had heard from 40 or 50 people from all over the state of California. We now get more than 200 letters every month from prisoners all over the country.
How this work evolves is a crucial point, because in Buddhism it is inappropriate to proselytize. People come to us; we don't go to them. This idea is extremely practical. You can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
CG: How many people are working with the LPP now?
RC: There are probably about 40 or 50 volunteers. In the main office in San Francisco, there are five salaried people. We receive the letters and delegate them to seven or eight teachers depending on the type of request. I am one of those, mostly monks and nuns, who become their spiritual teacher and advisor. We then write to the prisoners and take care of their practice, selecting books, tapes, and other materials to suit their individual practice and studies.
CG: So it is mostly one-on-one work?
RC: It is quite intensive from that point of view, and has grown over the years with 4,000 prisoners having written to us. Obviously, not all continue. Some have had a full-on practice for the last eight years. But everything we do starts with the letters. There are now many groups within the prisons. An individual becomes enthusiastic and goes to the prison chaplain and says, "I want to start a Buddhist group." He gets a slot in his chapel, and then others come. Eventually we'll send someone into the prison to teach the group. We now have eight people who teach in prisons in California, Montana, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia. And whenever I travel around the country teaching in our Buddhist centers, I go to prisons nearby. We are growing strongly in Australia, where Buddhism is very popular. We have small groups in England and New Zealand as well.
CG: What type of person finds his way to the dharma?
RC: I would say 98% of the thousands of people who have written to us are men. That's interesting because if you go to any Buddhist center, you'll find that 98% are women. Many of those who write to us are poor, uneducated or Latino or Afro American - people you wouldn't often find in Buddhist centers.
CG: Can we talk about the mental and emotional pain that is experienced in prisons?
RC: There are all sorts of reasons that you are in prison. You may have killed someone; you may have stolen just a small thing; maybe you were wrongly accused or committed a drug-related offense. All that aside, prisons are not very pleasant places: they're often crowded, physically unpleasant, and very noisy. What I've observed is that the major suffering stems from being at the bottom rung of society. There's great fear around you, whether or not you are to be feared. And there is an enormous loathing. There's also a strong wish that you stay there and never leave, because you are the scum of the earth, and you deserve it and had better suffer. We all know that when even one person does not like us, it can be unbearable. So to be part of a group of people that everyone broadly speaking hates - that is quite intense.
For anyone who wants to look within and who's really interested in trying to understand what the hell life is all about, the experience of being in prison can be an incredible catalyst for change. More than anything, you can say that the Buddha is dealing with psychology, even though most people think of it as a religion. If you take anything of Buddhism into your life, it can help you learn who you are and realize that you are valid in and of yourself; that you have this amazing potential for clarity, contentment, and the other human qualities that Buddha says are the core of our being. And then, in turn, you can be of use to others wherever you are.
When this young Mexican who first wrote to us turned 21, I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche, my teacher, to write him a birthday card. There he is in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay sitting in his small cell. He's there 23 hours a day, with one hour of exercise, and he has virtually no possessions or rights. What Lama Zopa wrote him was quite shocking. He said (and I am paraphrasing): "Your prison is nothing in comparison to the inner prison of ordinary people - the prison of attachment, the prison of depression, the prison of anger, the prison of pride." It sounds almost patronizing, but if we were to take a cursory look at our own lives, which is scary, then we will find this is true.
Many of the people we deal with in prison really do understand this. Many prisoners have had a so-called ordinary life, with a wife or husband, and kids, and then that's taken away. They've been stripped naked. We all experience some level of suffering, of not getting what we want. But when everything is taken away, when you have zero say about your life, you have nowhere to turn but yourself.
Have you seen that excellent book by a guy at San Quentin, Jarvis Masters, called Finding Freedom? He is on death row there. He is a Buddhist. Finding freedom is such a cliché. But it is really true.
CG: How do you see the relationship of the prisoners to the prison guards?
RC: Thinking in terms of the victim and oppressor is a trap. If I meet someone who happens to be called prisoner then I deal with that person. Equally, if I meet a person who is a victim of a crime, I deal with that person. I don't get caught up in who is doing it to them. As soon as we meet a person who is suffering, we immediately think: "Who did it to them" and we get angry - the blame mentality. This is the view of the world. There is no doubt that there is suffering; no doubt that there are people called guards who are brutal and horrible; no doubt that there are people who are called prisoners who are innocent; and no doubt there victims of crimes. But for me that isn't the issue. The issue is to deal with whoever pops in front of me in my life whether a homeless person, a multimillionaire, a victim or a prisoner and then helping them to deal with their particular suffering and take responsibility for their lives. Human beings are human beings.
CG: Will you talk a little about His Holiness the Dalai Lama's involvement with prison work?
RC: In the latest issue of our magazine, Liberation, there is an article about His Holiness's teaching in New York last September at the Healing Through Difficulty gathering. Actor Richard Gere, the founder of the Initiatives Foundation, organized a 90-minute meeting between 18 former prisoners and His Holiness. Most of the participants had connected with Buddhism during their incarceration. His Holiness is very enthusiastic that more meetings take place in a symposium atmosphere, where people could openly discuss from many different viewpoints - including victims' organizations, wardens, prison guards, legislators, and governors.
And that's also how we at the Liberation Prison Project want to be involved. One of our volunteers serves on the parole board of a state prison system. He has invited me to participate in an international parole board conference in May. They will show the film Chasing Buddha, and I will give a talk about how the work we do helps prisoners become productive human beings.
CG: Does it take a certain type of person to work in prisons?
RC: Many of my friends are filled with horror at the thought. They feel scared and have all sorts of projections. Or they just don't feel they can bear the suffering. One of my Mexican friends in prison hadn't met a Buddhist nun before and didn't know what to expect. After our meeting, he said, "I am so glad, Robina, to know you have a wild side." Maybe you need it to do this kind of work.
We characterize prisons as violent, and I recognize that anger is a strong part of my personality. It is a part of myself that I have been working with. We can say there is a good side and a bad side to all these qualities. And so, that part of me that I am learning to work with and transform to make it useful is an active, strong one and that is what you need to do this work. I have such respect for anybody who has wild, uncontrolled energy and has suffered because of it; and who is now working in the confines of a prison.
This is where we can bring together action and spiritual practice. We have this big schism in life -- all the meditators on the mountain and then all the political activists. But there is this lovely saying in Buddhism: a bird needs two wings -- wisdom and compassion. Internally, all the practice involves developing the wisdom wing --the work you do on your mind, using mediation as a psychological tool to know and transform yourself. The result is that you are more relaxed, more content, more clear and wise, but also more compassionate. And then you put your money where your mouth is; and you get out there to do the compassion wing, which is to benefit others.
But you can't serve others properly without the wisdom wing. When I was doing all the political work, I wasn't really qualified. I hadn't ever looked at Robina, so I was full of all this anger, hurt, and misery. I wanting to help others and I was of some use, but not really, because I was flailing about. Look at how so many who are activists or who do social work just burn out. People get exhausted and drained because they haven't done enough work internally.
Going into prisons, you see suffering and violence. We either go into the victim/oppressor mentality, or we turn away because we can't bear it. But it's possible to go in there and be of benefit and not get drained and not get angry. When I see people who are full of anger and violence, it helps me see mine. And I'm humbled by the way human beings in places such as prison can transform themselves. We are all human beings together in this big boat. So it's very inspiring. As long it is necessary, I will keep doing it.
Bay Area Prison Dharma Resources
LPP needs volunteers for office work and other projects that benefit the often-forgotten population behind bars. You can reach them by calling (415) 701-8500 or by e-mailing Tove Beatty
You can also visit the LLP website.
The magazine Liberation is also available from LPP.
People in prison can write to: LPP, P.O. Box 31527, SF, CA 94131
Chasing Buddha, a film about the life of Ven. Robina Courtin and the magazine Liberation, is also available through Liberation Prison Project.
Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, by Jarvis Jay Masters (Padma Publishing, 1997).
activism, and Unknowing:
a day with Bernie Glassman
(interview with Zen Peacemaker Order founder)
by Christopher Queen
Copyright @ Institute for Labor and Mental Health
A Day with Bernie Glassman
Since the 1980s, Roshi Bernard Glassman has become a familiar figure
to readers of Buddhist journals like Tricycle and Shambhala Sun. But
now the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time magazine
can scarcely report on the explosion of interest in American
Buddhism without mentioning "street retreats" - penniless week-long
excursions into lower Manhattan led by Roshi Bernie - and the
Greyston Foundation, a mandala of for-profit and not-for-profit
businesses that serve the poor in Glassman's adopted neighborhood of
Yonkers, NY. Indeed, the vision of urban renewal and human
reclamation only dimly imagined by Sixties radicals is vividly
embodied in the work Glassman and his community have done in this
often forgotten corner of affluent Westchester County.
The Zen Peacemaker Order was founded in the summer of 1996 by Roshi
Bernie Glassman and his wife, Sensei Jishu Holmes. The order is
based on three principles: plunging into the unknown, bearing
witness to the pain and joy of the world, and a commitment to heal
oneself and the world. As a university lecturer on Buddhism, I have
followed what Glassman and others have written about the rise of
socially engaged Buddhism in the West. His is a particularly good
story: a Jewish boy from Brighton Beach becomes head priest and
teacher of a major branch of Japanese Soto Zen, then contributes to
a worldwide shift in the practice of Buddhism - from a religion of
contemplative retreat and devotion to one that plunges into direct
engagement with society's discarded people, places, and problems.
Glassman started his work with those on the fringes in the 1980s,
with the Greyston Mandala. Then, the Greyston network of companies
and agencies committed to community development were fragile
startups. Today, the thriving organizations include the Greyston
Family Inn, with fifty units of permanent housing and a handsome
street-level daycare center serving fifty children; the Greyston
Bakery, a million-dollar gourmet confectioner providing job training
and employment to homeless and formerly homeless men and women;
Greyston Builders, specializing in the renovation of affordable
housing; Maitri Center and Issan House, a housing center and walk-in
clinic for people with AIDS and HIV; and Pamsula, a handicrafts
company that recycles used and discarded clothing, providing
employment for low-income women. Still growing without Bernie's
direct involvement, the Greyston Mandala is now renovating two
abandoned apartment buildings.
When I arrive in Yonkers, the Peacemaker community, which today
includes Zen teacher and hospice movement leader, Joan Halifax, is
sitting down to a picnic dinner. Some order members speak of their
plans to return to Oswiecim, Poland, for another Thanksgiving
retreat at Auschwitz and Birkenau. This, they say, is the experience
of bearing witness. Bernie is chatting affably with tablemates and
working on a plate of salad, beans, and rice. He's beginning to let
his hair and beard grow out in preparation for an upcoming street
retreat. He welcomes the newcomer warmly without being effusive. A
complete stranger, walking in, would see that Bernie was at the
center of everything, and then wonder how he does it.
Gazing around the room at the thirty order members, candidates,
students, and visitors, I am reminded of a time when small
gatherings of spiritual seekers and social misfits sat on the floors
of city brownstones, sharing visions of a new America and a world at
peace. In those days, the politics and religion were inchoate and
raw, like the drunken ravings of Jack Kerouac's Ray Smith and Japhy
Ryder and the angry memoirs of Malcolm X. Today's group is
infinitely more evolved - Buddhists with a sense of history
stretching back 2,500 years and deep feelings for the mystery of
life in its most extreme manifestations.
Later, in the Peacemaker Order's offices, I leaf through voluminous
notebooks outlining its scope: mission and vision statements,
business plans, and endless committee and board minutes and reports.
I read about a growing network of Peacemaker Villages, local groups
engaged in service and activism affiliated with the Peacemaker Order
through publications, funding arrangements, training, and planning.
Some include Upaya, a foundation headed by Joan Halifax devoted to
death and dying hospice work and environmental activism; the Latino
Pastoral Action Center devoted to inner city community development;
and the Prison Peacemaker Village, which has created a hospice
network in prisons.
I learn of plans for a Peacemaker Institute, which will offer
practical training in peace activism, mediation, community
development; academic study of peacemaking traditions; conferences
and internships for practitioners; a peace library, web site, and
publications; and a Children's Peace School.
Then, I make my way to the Glassman-Holmes home where a
NASA-style controls rests in a corner. An electrically heated,
liquid-filled toilet seat graces the bathroom. I tease the Roshi of
the Streets about these Sharper Image catalogue items. "Jishu gave
me the toilet seat for my birthday," he shamelessly replies. We
settle down on couches to talk.
QUEEN: What is engaged Buddhism, anyway? Some people say your street
retreats are just consciousness-raising for the rich - you don't
hand out blankets or food - in fact you soak up some of the limited
good will that still exists on the streets of lower Manhattan.
GLASSMAN: The same question could be raised about the Buddha. How
did he benefit mankind by sitting in meditation? This is a problem
with the term "engaged Buddhism" in a broad sense. Anything anyone
is doing to make themselves whole in their own life, or realizing
the Way, or becoming enlightened - whatever term you would use -
these are all involved in service, because if we realize the oneness
of life, then each person is serving every other person and is
QUEEN: You and Thich Nhat Hanh [a Vietnamese monk who works with
American veterans of the Vietnam War] are very non-dualistic about
this: not separating your own suffering and its relief from that of
others. But Dr. Ambedkar, the Untouchable leader in India during the
fight for independence, said no religion should romanticize poverty.
Aren't you doing that by spending a week on the street and then
coming home to a hot shower?
GLASSMAN: I think that the person who has lived with the
Untouchables can work with the Untouchables in a way that others
cannot. You can't become Untouchable in this way, of course. At the
same time I believe that those who came out of that experience have
a deeper understanding of it, and we should learn from them. I want
to figure out how to learn from those who have suffered in a certain
way, even though I can't fully enter that realm. So we go on the
streets. ! know we aren't homeless and I make that quite clear. At
the same time, those who come will experience something that is
closer to that world than those who haven't been there. This is the
meaning of "bearing witness." It's like entering a church knowing
you're not God or the priest. But you will experience something
different from someone who stays out of the church or someone who is
just hired to fix the roof.
The Magnet of Suffering
QUEEN: Why are you attracted to places of great suffering - the
inner city, Auschwitz, the notorious needle park called the Letten
in Zurich where thousands of junkies used to buy, sell, and shoot up
in broad daylight?
GLASSMAN: I don't know. The words that come to me are the desire to
learn. I don't know what it is, but it happens a lot to me when I
encounter a situation I don't understand. It generally involves
suffering. When I enter a situation that is too much for me and that
I don't understand - I have a desire to sit there, to stay a while.
QUEEN: You talk about an energy that surrounds such places.
GLASSMAN: Yeah. There's a magnet that pulls me so that I want to
stay there. I haven't figured it out, but I'm not sure it's so
QUEEN: Is it possible to imagine a twisted individual who derives
some kind of sadistic pleasure from being near human pain and
GLASSMAN: Sure. But the people and situations I'm talking about are
a metaphor for our whole society - all the attachments and
addictions. In the drug zone in Zurich the metaphor is so naked you
couldn't miss it unless you ran away. You had addicts shooting up
and dealers making money from their suffering. A few blocks away
were the large banks laundering the dealers' money, with the good
citizens of Zurich looking away, trusting their police to keep
everything under control. But if you stayed and looked, then the
human condition is laid more bare there than it is in a bank lobby.
QUEEN: Let's talk about the first precept of your order, Unknowing.
You have a Ph.D. in mathematics and have acquired expertise in
countless areas of Buddhist teaching and practice, psychology,
business management, finance, and so on. Yet you teach Unknowing. Is
this some kind of a Zen trick?
GLASSMAN: In Zen the words source and essence are the equivalent of
Unknowing, and they come up again and again. We have the absolute
and the relative perspectives about life, and Unknowing is the one
source of both of these.
QUEEN: Early Buddhism in India is very comfortable with notions of
knowledge, wisdom, and technique. Yoga, meditation, and philosophy
were all developed by experts, the virtuoso monks. But in China a
mistrust of words and concepts and intellectualism came into the
early Zen tradition from Taoism and we hear about book-burnings and
Zen masters who do wild, irrational things to break their students'
dependency on logic and learning. Is this part of Unknowing for you?
GLASSMAN: Yes, and for me it fits in with my Jewish background. In
contrast to the whole rabbinical tradition of Talmudic learning and
scholarship comes the mystical tradition of Kabbalah and Chasidism,
where all the earthly qualities and emanations come from the
infinite Ein Sof. And the Sufis have some of the same ideas. But the
important thing is that Unknowing was emphasized by my teacher
Maezumi Roshi, and it fits my temperament. It just makes so much
sense to start from Unknowing.
QUEEN: But how does this work when you are dealing with people with
no educational opportunities, who have a desperate need for
knowledge and expertise? Ambedkar was just as jealous for education
as he was for economic opportunities for the Untouchables who
converted to Buddhism in 1956.
GLASSMAN: Yeah. But the other side must be stressed. At every moment
one starts from unknowing so that all the acquired knowledge will
arise spontaneously and be used in a new, creative way.
Life in Community
That evening, the Peacemaker community participates in evening
exercises. The program was a full-dress rehearsal of the Kanromon,
"The Gate of Sweet Nectar," a traditional Zen ceremony for feeding
the hungry spirits, chanted partly in Japanese and partly in English
translation. Roshi Bernie, Sensei Jishu, and several senior order
members are in full priestly regalia, while others wear the Zen
student's bib, or rakusa. An orchestra of gongs, bells, and wood
blocks is positioned near the door to accompany the formal
procession, liturgical movements, and periodic gassho, or bowing.
Choreography is everything here, but the places, movements, and
sequences are still being worked out, as Roshi frequently stops the
whole thing to correct the person playing the wood block or the
person rounding the line of officiants slightly late.
Now, curiously, Bernard Glassman seems to be fully in his element,
teaching a motley but earnest assembly of middle-aged Americans how
to bow and play the gong, to invoke the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,
and to appropriate and internalize the tenets and precepts of
engaged Buddhism for the twenty-first century of the Common Era and
the twenty-sixth century of the Shakyamuni Buddha Era.
Raising the Budhi Mind, the supreme meal is offered to all the
hungry spirits in the ten directions throughout space and time,
filling the smallest particle to the largest space.
All you hungry spirits in the ten directions, please gather here.
Sharing your distress, I offer you this food, hoping it will resolve
your thirsts and hungers.
Christopher Queen is Dean of Students for Continuing Education and
Lecturer on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is
co-editor of Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia
(SUNY Press, 1996).
Buddhist approach to solving drugs and AIDS related issues in Thailand
The interview was conducted on August 26, 2001 at Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Damnoen Saduak, Rajburi, Thailand. The questions were posed to the Venerable Abbot, Phra Rajyanvisith (left), by Irish citizen Mr. Tony Kenny, BA.MA (Religious Studies).
Buddhism teaches that our current situation is due to our previous actions. If this is indeed the case, has a person who has contracted AIDS been evil in a previous existence?
Not entirely evil. That person might also have done some good deeds, but the crucial deed has been an unwholesome one, which has produced a bad effect in this lifetime, in this case contracting the HIV virus.
What about unborn babies who contract the HIV virus when they are still in the womb?
I would call it an indirect result of karma. Here is an example:
'A' decides to make merit by performing a good and wholesome action. His merit-making will consequently produce good fruit, in keeping with the law of karma.
B is aware of A's good action and shows his appreciation by rejoicing in it. By doing so, he will also receive the wholesome fruit of karma. As an example, B might in his next life be offered a good job as a manager in A's company, or he might even be reborn as A's son in some future life.
When committing a sin, it works the same way. If, for instance, you see someone doing something wrong and you just go along with it, maybe even cheer and encourage it, you will receive some future bad result or demerit for doing so. Although not as serious as the person who is personally committing the sin, there will surely be some bad result. As an example, you might be born as his/her son in a future life, and maybe even be infected by the HIV virus while still in the womb.
That's what I mean by indirect karma results.
Intravenous drug abuse and homosexuality have played a large part in the spread of HIV/AIDS, as has heterosexual sex, especially on account of promiscuity, prostitution, and extra-marital affairs. Is the rise of HIV/AIDS simply a symptom of modern 21st century existence, wherein moral standards have declined and sensuality is the guiding force in people's lives?
I would like to use the word 'evidence' rather than 'symptom', because at the moment it's AIDS, and later it might be something else.
Please understand that sensuality is the guiding force only for those who are still in the dark (and admittedly they are the vast majority). When you understand that ignorance is the root cause of suffering, it is plain to see that those individuals who continually strive for sensual enjoyments not yet obtained, and indulge in those already obtained, will constantly meet with dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, those who study and, most important of all, practise Dhamma, will eventually realise the dangers of being misguided by sensuality. Please understand that Buddhism is not just a philosophy. It is a practice, meaning that, in addition to studying the scriptures, you must also accept precepts as well as practising meditation in order to develop Right Wisdom.
What would your advice be for homosexuals, both gay and lesbian?
I would advise them to accept the basic 5 precepts, and, if they were really determined to make changes within this life and aim for rebirth as a 'straight' person in the next life, I would recommend that they keep 8 precepts on a daily basis. Apart from that they should make the practice of meditation part of their daily routine. If, on the other hand, no changes are made, their present and future lives would just stay the same, or even become worse.
Can they harmonise their sexuality with their spiritual lives, or are homosexuality and Buddhism simply incompatible? Is their sexual mode of behaviour detrimental to spiritual progress?
Any extreme indulgence in sexual activities is an obstacle to obtaining a higher spiritual level. It makes no difference if it is homosexual or heterosexual activities. The bottom line is not to be attached to sexual enjoyment. A person who is careful and not promiscuous in his sexual activities will, by using the Right Effort, be able to reach higher levels of spiritual development and even become a Noble person. And that is regardless of his sexual orientation.
As I understand, homosexuality is the last stage of the bad outcome of committing adultery in some former lives. Firstly adultery will cause a person to be reborn either in Hell, as a hungry ghost, or as a dog. After hundreds of lifetimes in the planes of Suffering, he will eventually be reborn in the human world, in most cases as a woman, but a woman with a deep instinct leading her to become a prostitute.
As her mind gradually becomes more developed, she will eventually be reborn as a transvestite, then as a homosexual, and later as a regular woman. Subsequently she will be born as a male. However, if during any period that person becomes attached to his/her current lifestyle, the development will be much slower. In fact it might even get worse. Moreover, extremely unwholesome acts might even cause the cycle to be disrupted and consequently cause him/her to be reborn in Hell once more.
Phra Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close attendant, committed adultery in a distant previous life. When he died he went to Hell and spent a rather long period of time there. Later, when he was reborn in the human world, he spent 7 lifetimes as a sterile woman. But, as his mind became more and more developed, he was reborn as a fertile woman and later as a man. The natural law of cause and effect is something nobody can protect himself/herself against.
What advice would you offer to intravenous drug USERS, both to those who are HIV free, and to those who have contracted the virus?
Right now the government has a strong policy in order to deal with this problem, and we are all doing our best to help. The first thing the government did was 'declare war' on HIV, by educating people of the dangers and how to protect themselves against it. But frankly speaking it is not very effective, because they don't teach the root cause of all this, and moreover they don't teach that by eliminating the cause you will once and for all eradicate the effect.
This is the Buddha's teaching of Cause and Effect. In brief it can be explained like this: Ignorance leads to Karma-Formations. Karma-Formations lead to Consciousness. And the chain continues progressively through Name-and-Form, the Six Senses, Contact, Feeling, Desire, Attachment, Becoming, and Birth. Birth then leads to Aging, Decay, and Death (Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair...... in short Suffering).
So I would like to emphasise that the people of the world ought to study and practise Buddhism. It would be of great benefit. If the world would accept 5 precepts, there would be no AIDS and no wars, just peace and happiness. If only people would practise meditation and Right Wisdom by visualisation, then they would clearly see the natural law of cause and effect, and see it for themselves, not merely relying on other people's explanation in books. This would in turn lead them to be mindful before making choices, thereby avoiding getting into dangerous situations in the first place.
For those who have already contracted the virus, we should have proper social centres and hospitals to take care of them. The patients should be divided into categories, according to the advancement of the disease, that is, according to the degree of symptoms, and then they should be helped accordingly. They should not be abandoned, but be guided to live as peacefully as possible. Those who are still in the beginning stages could have their family around them, thereby creating a feeling of warmth and unity.
Looking after them physically should be the duty of lay people, while the mental help and Dhamma guidance should be carried out by monks. It is important that the duties are shared. If monks do both jobs, they would be too far away from their primary duties, away from being mindful and having concentration of mind, all of which are part of the fundamental practice of a Buddhist monk.
So you see, a monk's job is to teach the patients at all levels, so that they will have peaceful minds at the moment of dying. If the last thought of a person is happy and peaceful, that person will be reborn in a happy world. Throughout a person's life all of his/her good and bad deeds are 'recorded'. The moment before dying, those 'recordings' are replayed, and the deed which has the deepest impact on the last thought will determine where that person will be reborn. So you can see why a happy and peaceful last thought is what one should aim at.
Here at our temple I am monthly teaching around 3 groups of students at all levels. They come in groups of 400-500 and stay for 2-3 days. During that time they study meditation and listen to Dhamma talks, and I also explain to them the dangers lurking in modern society today. Moreover I point out the root cause of contracting HIV and drug addiction, namely ignorance, carelessness, and neglect of the fundamental 5 precepts. Additionally I make radio and TV programs on the subject as part of our regular Dhamma programs.
On account of Buddhism's unique metaphysical view of the world (anatta; maya; sunyata) Christian theologians have often regarded Buddhists as being socially apathetic and unconcerned with this world. Is this accusation unfounded?
Yes. In fact, Buddhist organisations do a lot to help others. Loving Kindness and Compassion are both important qualities in Buddhism. But when a Buddhist temple or organisation does something good to help others it is mostly not promoted. As an example, our temple has lately been helping flood victims with food and rice, but since it didn't hit the headlines few people know.
However, as monks we mostly give long term help to people by teaching them how to help themselves.
What are Buddhists - both the ordained and the lay Sangha - doing to help AIDS victims, their families, and the bereaved?
Again Dhamma practice (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of Mind, and Wisdom) is the key word. People have to accept precepts in order to pacify their daily routine, and to meditate in order to develop Right Wisdom whereby they will understand why they contracted HIV in this lifetime. Furthermore they will thereby understand that the only person who can help them out of this unfortunate result of their past misconduct is in fact themselves. Nobody else has the power to help, other than give guidance. We all have our personal karma, and will receive the fruit accordingly. No one can flee from bad (or good) fruit of previous deeds.
We all have to join forces. The government has to do its part, and the Sangha will in turn perform its duties. It's important to educate people and teach them not only about the problems, but also about the causes. Next the patients should be given some warmth and understanding, thereby helping them to make their minds and behaviour peaceful. As stated earlier, dying with a peaceful mind will help that person to be reborn in a happy world.
Can the Sangha help the laity to become more compassionate regarding their views of AIDS patients? It must be conceded that presently in Thailand people look with disdain upon not only HIV/AIDS victims, but their families too.
People in general need more education about AIDS, especially learning about the risk of contracting it. That's why families abandon a member who has contracted the virus. They still think that simply touching the patient is dangerous. So education is crucial, but that is mostly a lay person's job. On the spiritual level, monks can teach Dhamma (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of mind, and Wisdom) to both the victims and their families, and also encourage them to keep the basic 5 precepts on a daily basis. And those who understand the law of Cause and Effect will clearly see the benefits of keeping precepts. Soon they realise that the key solutions to solving all current problematic issues in our society today can all be found in the profound teaching of our great teacher, the Buddha.
© Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Thailand
the Peace Stupa:
An Interview with Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche
In the summer of 1999,His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche, head of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, instructed the Sunray community to build "Peace Stupa" at the Peace Village. Since that time, Ani Drolma and a group of dedicated volunteers have worked to make His Holiness' vision a reality. In an interview with Ani Drolma this past summer, Khenchen Rinpoche discusses the significance of constructing a stupa.
Khenchen: "In the Buddha's teachings as they were preserved in Tibet, the idea is to attain complete Buddhahood, the fully awakened state. We don't seek just peace and happiness for this lifetime or for ourselves individually. We seek enlightenment for every sentient being, human beings and non-human beings alike.
Buddha is one who attained the complete awakened state. This means he purified all the delusions, negative emotions and confusion. Through this, he actualized all the infinite excellent qualities of wisdom and compassion. When one attains that state, then one is entirely and totally free from all suffering. That's why it's called the cessation of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering. The very purpose of our Dharma study, practice and teaching is for that.
The practice is not only for oneself. We cultivate that thought for every sentient being. When we cultivate that kind of altruistic thought for every sentient being, it fulfills the two purposes. First of all, for oneself, we cultivate a pure sense of love and compassion. In that state of mind, there is no space for negative thoughts like anger, hatred and resentment. When these negative thoughts are absent from the mind, then the mind has peace, joy and happiness. So that fulfills oneself.
When one gains these kind of amazing qualities of peace and happiness within the mind, then one has great possibility and ability to help others. Then that person can help all others with indomitable courage and strength. But before one gains these qualities, even if one wishes to help others, one is so limited. So, our final goal is to free ourselves from delusion, the cause of suffering, entirely, and to actualizing the completely awakened mind .
AD: When you speak of that incredible quality of mind that has no negative thoughts and has just the loving compassion, and then we think that the symbol of that kind of mind is a stupa. In America and Canada, we're just starting to see people building those kinds of monuments. We'd like to build a stupa in Vermont. Can you speak about what the importance of a stupa is?
Khenchen: As you mentioned, stupas symbolize the mind of enlightenment, Buddha's mind. Everything in the relative world, everything that we see and experience, is a metaphor. Stupa represents Buddha's enlightened mind. The enlightened mind means the mind that has the nature of complete wisdom and compassion. That kind of wisdom and compassion is indestructible.
Since it is indestructible, through cultivating that mind, then all of our negative thoughts can be purified and uprooted. No matter how powerful our negative thoughts or destructive they may be, when we encounter that with this enlightened mind, none of these negative thoughts can stay there. That's why it's called "indestructible mind."
So when you look at the stupa you can see that it symbolizes Buddha's wisdom mind. That gives a lot of people great blessings and makes a great connection. It inspires a lot of people. It can be also a great object of shrine that people can meditate near and circumambulate. It becomes an object to gather a great accumulation of merit and wisdom.
AD: We see in the tradition of Tibet that people do walk around these sacred objects. What is the purpose of that? Why do people do that?
Khenchen: Generally, in the Buddhist world, particularly in Tibet, the great bodhisattvas have such a great skill to teach the Dharma to the people so that everybody has something to do. There are some people who have fully dedicated their life to Dharma study and practice. These people go to the mountain and meditate like Milarepa. People like this can attain enlightenment in one lifetime. So that kind of possibility is there.
And there are others who are lazy, who can't study and who can't meditate well. The bodhisattvas say, " Since you are saying you have no opportunity, why don't you circumambulate the stupa and recite mantra? Do that." And in this way they get also opportunity and inspiration. As I mentioned, the stupa symbolizes Buddha's enlightenment. When you circumambulate the stupa with the motivation of love and compassion for sentient beings, and respect and devotion to the enlightened beings, that becomes a great opportunity to develop great merit. That becomes a special cause that sometime in the future that individual will make a connection to attain enlightenment.
Reciting mantra while circumambulating the stupa is a wonderful thing, you know. Especially when you grow old, for people who are retired. In the West, we're retired and then we have not many friends left because we are old. We can't walk as the young people walk, we can't enjoy as the young people enjoy. So all the young people neglect those old people. Then they feel, there's nothing to do in their life and life is meaningless. And they might feel depressed. They feel bored. They can't pass the day. One day might feel like a whole year.
But instead of feeling that, you can circumambulate the stupa,. First of all, it's very good exercise. And secondly, if you develop that kind of devotion, and you circumambulate and recite mantra, at the end of the day you feel such great joy. "Even though I'm not a great Dharma practitioner, this is such worthy way to spend my time. It's worth being alive." Circumambulating can produce that kind of joy. Such are the great benefits.
AD: At Sunray we have the Peace Village, which is from the ancient Cherokee tradition. Ven. Dhyani, as you know, carries the Cherokee lineage. We know that the Tibetans have many prophecies that the Tibetans will meet the Native American people. Can you say something about those prophecies?
Khenchen: The American Indians have their own prophecies too, I think. They speak of a brother coming from the east who wears a red hat. And that that coming will make a big difference in the world.
In the Buddhist tradition, there are prophecies too. First of all, everything is impermanent: all the changes that take place are based on different causes and conditions. The enlightened beings, since they know all the causes and conditions which will take place in the future, they can prophesize well. They came to know that in the future Tibetans will go to many different places. They spoke of the Tibetan people being scattered like ants and going to the red faced land. I think that's the red Indian land. So those prophecies are there.
AD: How do you feel Sunray can help best to create a firm foundation for the Dharma in the West?
Khenchen: First of all, Sunray has great potential. Venerable Dhyani has great wisdom and compassion. Because of that, she gathers a lot of students, and has many senior students. All the students need to take more responsibility and come together now. Because she has skill, wisdom and compassion, her students also carry that kind of ability. If her students come together and work together, if all of that power and the capacity comes together, then and it will become more powerful to will help many people in the future.
AD: Is there a particular significance at this time to build the Sangha Healing or Peace Stupa?
Khenchen: When we build the stupa as a healing and harmonizing stupa, all the people can put energy for the construction of the stupa. When everyone puts energy into that, then people get to know each other well. Then they get the inspiration through the benefits. So that there's a greater opportunity to do better things.
AD: That would be true of any stupa. Is there a particular thin about the Peace Stupa?
Khenchen: When you build a peace stupa or harmonizing stupa, you get that message in the mind. You see it and say, "Oh, this is a peace stupa." So then you reflect in your own mind, "I'm building a peace stupa, so I have to bring peace in my own mind." That's more important.
It's not that the stupa can create peace. Of course the blessings are there. But individually we have to take responsibility; this is a peace stupa, a stupa of harmonizing, so I have to work hard on how to harmonize. I have to work hard on how to bring peace.
AD: Is that true of everyone who even contributes even one little flower?
Khenchen: Even one stone or one rock or a piece of wood. It's all worthwhile. If you throw a drop of water in the ocean, until the ocean dries up, this drop of water will stay with the ocean.
AD: So one little effort stay with the stupa.
Khenchen: That's right. Because the stupa is completed not by one thing, but by many things. If one thing is missing, then the stupa will not be completed. So from the small things, the big things come, and it all becomes a part of the stupa. For the completion of the stupa you need all kinds of support and effort.
to the Top of the Mountain
An interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi
Insight Journal, v. 19, 2002, www.dharma.org
You have lived in a forest monastery in Sri Lanka for many years, Bhante. What brings you to America?
I originally came to the U.S. to visit my father and sister. But for twenty-five years I have been afflicted with a chronic headache condition, which has resisted every type of treatment I have tried to date. My father suggested I arrange a consultation at The Headache Institute of New York, a clinic in Manhattan. Thus for the past few months I have been taking treatment at this clinic.
Is it true that you have decided to re-settle in this country?
I originally intended to stay in the U.S. only as long as necessary to treat the headache and then return to Sri Lanka. Over the past few months, however, two thoughts grew increasingly compelling in my mind: first, that I should be closer to my father in his old age; and second, that I might be able to contribute more to the Dhamma here in America than in Sri Lanka. At the beginning of this year I formally retired as editor for the Buddhist Publication Society, and thus I no longer felt obliged to reside in Sri Lanka.
During my first six weeks in the U.S. I had been staying in the crowded and bustling New York Buddhist Vihara. In July I met by chance an old Chinese Dharma master and his translator, a young Chinese-Canadian monk, who invited me to visit their monastery in New Jersey. I expected it to be a busy devotional temple in a run-down urban ghetto, but to my pleasant surprise it turned out to be a serious study monastery located on quiet and spacious grounds in rural New Jersey, with wooded hills all around and herds of deer grazing on the lawns. Master Jen Chun and I took an immediate liking to each other, and he invited me to stay as long as I wish.
So you will live as a Theravada monk in a Chinese Mahayana monastery?
In ancient India it was not rare for monks of different Buddhist schools to dwell peacefully in the same monastery. I have found Master Jen Chun to be one of the most admirable monks I have ever known: vastly learned, with profound understanding of Buddhism, yet utterly simple, humble, and selfless; strict in discipline yet always bubbling with laughter and loving kindness. He is, moreover, an authority on the Agamas, a body of literature in the Chinese Tripitaka that corresponds to the Pali Nikayas. Thus I find his approach quite congruent with my own. He has asked me to give teachings at the monastery on the Pali suttas and the Pali language, and the resident monks and many lay followers are keen to attend both courses. We hope to make the monastery a place where well-disciplined monks of any authentic Vinaya tradition can reside and live together harmoniously. The place, incidentally, is named Bodhi Monastery, but it is sheer coincidence that I wound up at a monastery that bears my name.
How did you first find your way from Brooklyn to Sri Lanka?
My interest in Buddhism started around 1965, when I was attending Brooklyn College, with books on Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. In 1966 I went to Claremont Graduate School in southern California to study Western philosophy. There I became acquainted with a Buddhist monk from Vietnam named Thich Giac Duc who came to stay in the same residence hall where I was living. I asked him for instructions in meditation, and he guided me in the practice of mindfulness of breathing. He also taught me the fundamentals of Buddhism - what one didn't find in the writings of Suzuki and Watts! After several months I decided that I wanted to become a monk and asked him if he could ordain me. He agreed to do so, and thus I was ordained as a samanera [a novice] in the Vietnamese Mahayana order in May 1967.
Was this a big step for you?
Of course, viewed from the outside, it was a big step, but I never had to struggle with the decision to become a monk. One morning I simply woke up and thought, "Why don't I ask Ven. Giac Duc if he could ordain me," and that was that. Thereafter we lived together for three years in Claremont while we both worked on our doctorate degrees [my dissertation was on the philosophy of John Locke!]. When he returned to Vietnam, I lived with another Vietnamese monk, Thich Thien An, at a meditation center in Los Angeles. By that time I had already decided I wanted to go to Asia to receive full ordination, to study Buddhism, and to make the task of practicing and propagating Buddhism my life work. Meanwhile, I had met several Sri Lankan monks passing through the U.S., most notably Ven. Piyadassi Thera, who recommended Ven. Ananda Maitreya, a prominent Sri Lankan scholar-monk, as a teacher.
By August 1972 I had finished my obligations in the U.S. I had written to Ven. Ananda Maitreya, requesting permission to come to his monastery for ordination and training, and he wrote back saying that I was welcome. After a brief visit with my first teacher in Vietnam, I went to Sri Lanka and took ordination with Ven. Ananda Maitreya, with whom I lived for three years studying Buddhism and Pali. Later I was invited by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, the well-known German monk, to stay at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. I eventually spent many years there caring for him in his old age and helping with the work of the Buddhist Publication Society.
How did you become a scholar of Buddhism?
I never intended to become a Buddhist scholar or a translator of Pali texts; in fact, I do not consider myself a serious scholar of Buddhism even now. I was initially attracted to Buddhism through the practice of meditation. It was my first teacher, Ven. Giac Duc, who impressed on me the need for systematic study of the Dhamma to serve as a proper foundation for both meditation practice and for teaching the Dhamma in the West. When I went to Sri Lanka and took ordination, my original intention was to study the texts for several years and then go off to meditate.
But I already knew that to study the texts properly, I would have to learn the language in which they were written, which meant I had to study Pali. When reading the suttas in the original, I often translated whole passages for myself - both canonical texts and their commentaries - and thus I gradually became immersed in translation. To acquire the foundation for practice, I studied the Sutta Pitaka in a systematic manner, using the material I read as topics of contemplation in order to transform my own understanding. The type of understanding I was aspiring towards was not the objective understanding that an academic scholar would attempt to acquire, but a subjective, personal comprehension of the essential meaning of the Dhamma. I was intent on seeing how the Dhamma imparted to us by the Buddha was addressing my own condition as a human being and as a follower of the Buddhist path. This eventually entailed a wholesale revision of my Western world-view to bring it into accord with the Dhamma.
Would you recommend the study of Dhamma to all meditators?
I wouldn't say that one needs a thorough knowledge of the texts before one can start to practice meditation. As with most Buddhist practitioners today, I entered the Buddhist path through meditation. But I believe that for the practice of meditation to fulfill the purpose entrusted to it by the Buddha, it must be strongly supported by other factors, which nurture the practice and direct it towards its proper goal. These factors include faith, in the sense of trusting confidence in the Triple Gem - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha; right view, a clear understanding of the basic principles of the teaching; and virtue, the observance of Buddhist ethics, not as a mere code of rules but as a dedicated effort to radically transform one's conduct and character.
Individuals will naturally differ in the weight they assign to the complementary factors of study and practice. Some will aspire to extensive scriptural knowledge, driven by an urge to understand the principles imparted by the texts. For such people, the practice of meditation may play a relatively subordinate role in this phase of their spiritual growth. Their emphasis will instead be on deep investigation and clear comprehension of the Dhamma. Others may have little interest in scriptural study or philosophical understanding but will instead be disposed to meditation practice. I myself believe the healthiest pattern is one of balanced development.
In my own case, under the influence of my early Buddhist teachers, I have wanted to understand Buddhism in detail, in its horizontal extension as well as in its vertical depths. Despite my early ambition to plunge directly into meditation, my destiny seems to have steered me towards teachers who did not exclusively emphasize meditation but rather an integration of study, meditation, and character development. They repeatedly guided me in the direction of slow, gradual, patient practice, utilizing a broad approach to spiritual cultivation, and this has agreed well with my own disposition.
Buddhism in the West has historically been rather anti-intellectual, and it seems only recently that meditators are turning more to study of the tradition.
I see the anti-intellectual bias of American Buddhism as a natural reaction to the overemphasis on conceptual study typical of Western education, which promotes learning for its own sake or for vocational ends, without concern for the values by which we live. The rejection of intellectualism also has roots in romanticism and surrealism, two revolts against the presumptions of disengaged rationality. Indeed, the beats and the hippies, who were in some respects the forerunners of the Buddhist movement in America, were essentially heirs to the romantic rejection of disengaged rationality.
The program of study articulated in the classical Buddhist tradition is, however, quite different from that employed by Western academia. Here one uses conceptual understanding as a springboard to direct personal experience. The program begins by listening to "those teachings (dhammas) that are good in the beginning, the middle and the end." After listening, one bears in mind what one has heard, preserving it in memory. (Remember, this comes from a time when written texts were not available, so to "bear something in mind" meant that one must memorize the teachings that are to guide one's practice.) Then one verbally recites the teachings in order to imprint them more firmly upon the mind. Next, one has to examine them intellectually, to discern the meaning being conveyed by the words, to reflect on how the Dhamma applies to one's own experience. But one is not to remain content with conceptually comprehending the meaning -- finally, one has to penetrate it thoroughly by view, by insight. This brings direct penetration of the teaching with wisdom, based on the practice of meditation.
What sort of training have you had in meditation practice?
During my early years in Sri Lanka I did very little intensive meditation. This was not my ordination teacher's mode of practice; he integrated regular periods of meditation into his day-to-day life. When I later practiced intensive retreats on my own, I used anapana-sati [mindfulness of breathing] as my sole meditation subject. But after some time, I found my mind became dry and rigid, and I felt the need to soften and enrich it with other types of meditation. Thus, at different times and under different circumstances, I learned the practices that constitute the "four protective meditations": recollection of the Buddha, the meditation on loving kindness, the contemplation of the repugnant nature of the body, and the recollection of death. Throughout my life as a monk I have made extensive use of these four meditation subjects. I have also done occasional extended retreats at hermitages in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Regretfully, though, because of my poor merits and the debilitating headache condition, I have not reached any attainments worthy of a true practitioner.
Aside from the metta practice, these forms of meditation are not very common in this country.
What I find perplexing here is the use of vipassana [insight] meditation as a method in its own right, severed from the broader context of the Dhamma. In the way that I was taught and trained, vipassana meditation is the crown jewel of the Dhamma, but like any crown jewel it should be embedded in the appropriate crown. Traditionally this is the framework made up of faith in the Triple Gem, a clear conceptual understanding of the Dhamma, and an aspiration to realize the aim the Buddha holds up as the goal of his teaching. Upon this basis, one undertakes the practice of meditation to attain direct insight into the principles of the teaching. Then proper wisdom -- the wisdom that conforms to the Buddha's intention -- naturally arises and leads to the realization of the goal.
What do you make of the fact that Buddhism is becoming so popular in this country?
It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism should appeal to Americans at this particular juncture of our history. Theistic religions have lost their hold on the minds of many educated Americans, and this has opened up a deep spiritual vacuum that needs to be filled. For many, materialistic values are profoundly unsatisfying, and Buddhism offers a spiritual teaching that fits the bill. It is rational, experiential, practical, and personally verifiable; it brings concrete benefits that can be realized in one's own life; it propounds lofty ethics and an intellectually cogent philosophy. Also, less auspiciously, it has an exotic air that attracts those fascinated by the mystical and esoteric.
The big question we face is whether and to what extent Buddhism should be refashioned to conform to the particular exigencies imposed by American culture. Throughout history Buddhism has generally adjusted its forms to enable it to adapt to the indigenous cultures and thought-worlds in which it has taken root. Yet beneath these modifications, which allowed it to thrive in different cultural contexts, it has usually remained faithful to its essential insights. This may be the biggest challenge facing Buddhism in America, where the intellectual milieu is so different from anything Buddhism has ever previously encountered that in our haste to effect the necessary adaptations we may be unwittingly diluting or even expurgating principles fundamental to the Dhamma. I believe we need to be very cautious if we are to find a successful middle way between too rigid adherence to traditional Asiatic forms and excessive accommodation to contemporary Western -- and specifically American -- intellectual, social, and cultural pressures.
It might be counterproductive to attempt to import into America a version of Theravada Buddhism that retains all the customs and mores of Southeast Asia. But I believe it is essential to preserve those principles that lie at the very heart of the Dhamma, and to clearly articulate the proper purpose for which the practice of the Dhamma is undertaken. If we tamper with these, we risk losing the essence along with the extrinsic accretions. In our current situation, I think the main danger is not inflexible adherence to established Buddhist forms, but excessive accommodation to the pressures of the American mind-set. In many of the Buddhist publications I have seen, I have detected signs of a widespread program, regarded almost as obligatory, to extract Buddhist practices from their grounding in Buddhist faith and doctrine and transplant them into a basically secular agenda whose parameters are defined by Western humanism, particularly humanistic and transpersonal psychology.
Can you point to ways this might be happening?
I think we see examples of this in the use of vipassana meditation as an adjunct or companion to Western psychotherapy. Actually, I'm not overly worried about psychologists using Buddhist techniques to promote psychological healing. If Buddhist meditation can help people feel more comfortable about themselves, or to live with greater awareness and equanimity, this is good. If psychotherapists can use Buddhist meditation as a tool of inner healing, I would say more power to them. After all, "the Tathagata does not have the closed fist of a teacher," and we should let others take from the Dhamma what they can effectively use for beneficial ends.
What I am concerned about is the trend, common among present-day Buddhist teachers, of recasting the core principles of the Buddha's teachings into largely psychological terms and then saying, "This is Dhamma." When this is done we may never get to see that the real purpose of the teaching, in its own framework, is not to induce "healing" or "wholeness" or "self-acceptance," but to propel the mind in the direction of deliverance - and to do so by attenuating, and finally extricating, all those mental factors responsible for our bondage and suffering. We should remember that the Buddha did not teach the Dhamma as an "art of living" - though it includes that - but above all as a path to deliverance, a path to final liberation and enlightenment. And what the Buddha means by enlightenment is not a celebration of the limitations of the human condition, not a passive submission to our frailties, but an overcoming of those limitations by making a radical, revolutionary breakthrough to an altogether different dimension of being.
This is what I find most gripping about the Dhamma: its culmination in a transcendent dimension in which we overcome all the flaws and vulnerabilities of the human condition, including our bondage to death itself. The aim of the Buddhist path is not living and dying with mindfulness (though these are, of course, worthy achievements), but transcending life and death entirely to arrive at the Deathless, at the Immeasurable, at Nirvana. This is the goal the Buddha sought for himself during his own quest for enlightenment, and it is this attainment that his enlightenment made available to the world. This is the end at which the proper practice of Dhamma points, the end for which the practice is undertaken in its original framework.
This end, however, is lost to view when insight meditation is taught as just a way to live mindfully, to wash dishes and change baby's diapers with awareness and tranquility. When the transcendent dimension of the Dhamma, its very raison d'etre, is expunged, what we are left with is, in my view, an eviscerated, enfeebled version of the teaching that can no longer function as a vehicle to deliverance. Though correctly practiced, the Dhamma does bring abundant happiness within the world, ultimately the teaching is not about living happily in the world but about reaching "the end of the world" -- an end that is to be found not in the far regions of outer space but within this fathom-long body with its senses and consciousness.
So you do not think Dhamma is being taught as a path of deliverance?
The impression I get from what I've read in contemporary American Buddhist publications is that this aspect of Buddhist practice is receiving little emphasis. I hear of students being taught to accept themselves; to live in the present from moment to moment without attachment and clinging; to enjoy, honor and celebrate their vulnerability. Again, I don't want to underestimate the importance of approaching the practice with a healthy psychological attitude. For a person troubled by self-condemnation, who is always dejected and miserable, the practice of intensive meditation is more likely to be harmful than beneficial. The same might be said of a person who lacks a strong center of psychological integration or of one who tries to deny his weaknesses and vulnerabilities by presenting a façade of strength and self-confidence.
But I have to emphasize that the training that accords with the Buddha's own clear intentions presupposes that we are prepared to adopt a critical stance towards the ordinary functioning of our mind. This involves seeing our vulnerabilities, i.e., our mental defilements, not as something to be celebrated but as a liability, as a symptom of our "fallen" condition. It also presupposes that we are determined to transform ourselves, both in the immediate moment-to-moment functioning of our minds and in their more stable and persistent extension over time.
To take up the Buddha's training is thus to draw a distinction, even a sharp distinction, between our characters (proclivities, dispositions, habits, etc.) as they are now, and the ideals to which we should aspire and seek to embody by our practice of the Buddhist path. The mental dispositions we must acknowledge and seek to rectify are our kilesas, the defilements or afflictions: the three root-defilements of greed, aversion and delusion, and their many offshoots such as anger, obstinacy, arrogance, vanity, jealousy, selfishness, hypocrisy, etc.
So the great affirmation to which the Buddhist path points us is not the wonders of our "ordinary mind," but of the mind that has been illuminated by true wisdom, the mind that has been purified of all taints and corruptions, the mind that has been liberated from all bonds and fetters and has become suffused with a universal love and compassion that spring from the depth and clarity of understanding. The practice of the Buddhist path is the systematic way to close the gap between our ordinary unenlightened mind and the enlightened, liberated state towards which we aspire, a state which rises to and merges with the Deathless.
To reach this transcendent goal requires training, a precise, detailed and systematic process of training, and fundamental to this whole course of training is the endeavor to master and control one's own mind. One begins with the development of such fundamental qualities as faith, devotion, moral virtue and generosity, proceeds through the development of concentration, and then arrives at direct insight and true wisdom.
You mention faith as a starting point. What do you mean by faith?
Faith is an aspect of Buddhism that until recently has been neglected in the West in favor of bare meditation practice. This, I think, misses something important. One's practice should be grounded in faith or saddha -- a word I am using in the traditional sense as faith in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In some recent publications, I have noticed greater emphasis being placed on faith and devotion, but these terms seem to be used in a quite different way than I understand them. I've seen faith regarded as a quality that can attach itself to virtually any object, praiseworthy as long as it expresses the heart's deepest longings.
I know this is not a popular position these days, but as a Buddhist myself -- a religious Buddhist -- I believe that the true Dhamma of the Buddha can only be practiced as Dhamma when it is rooted in faith in the Buddha as the unique, fully enlightened teacher, and in the Dhamma as a unique teaching that discloses perspectives on reality not accessible through any other teaching. I am afraid that if faith becomes a "free floating" variable, it is just as likely to lead into futile bypaths as it is to spur one to the complete termination of suffering.
I don't think this position makes me dogmatic or intolerant. I am, I hope, perfectly tolerant of other points of view. But when I am asked to give advice on how to practice the Buddha Dhamma correctly, I would underscore the proper and exclusive object of faith as the supreme enlightenment of the Buddha and the teaching that flows from this supreme enlightenment. One's practice should also be grounded in right view, which involves other ideas that are also being disparaged in Western Buddhism: for example, the fact of rebirth; the acceptance of kamma or volitional action as the force that determines our modes of rebirth; the understanding of dependent origination as describing the causal structure of the round of rebirths.
It seems difficult for many modern practitioners to go beyond their immediate empirical experience to some of the doctrinal aspects stressed by the tradition.
Again, I think faith has an important role to play here. It allows us to place trust in precisely those disclosures of the Buddha that run contrary to our conventional understanding of the world, that conflict with our ordinary ways of engaging with the world. Remember that the Buddha's teaching "goes against the current" (patisotagami) of one's habitual assumptions and attitudes. After all, most of our habits revolve around the desire to enjoy pleasure, to avoid pain, and to preserve the illusion that the universe centers around our individual self. When one's personal experience of suffering becomes vivid enough, it will induce one to become repelled by these habits and to place trust in the Buddha's disclosures on reality as our guidelines to liberation.
Of course, at the outset of one's involvement with the Dhamma one need not take on board the full baggage of higher Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha himself often adjusted his teaching to the capacity and temperament of the people he was addressing. When teaching people not yet ready for the doctrine that leads to final deliverance, he taught the benefits of generosity, of observing the five precepts, and of treating others with kindness and respect. But whenever he saw people in the audience mature enough to receive the higher teaching, then, as the texts put it, he would "disclose that doctrine special to the enlightened ones: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path." Each person lives and learns according to their capacity, and the teachings can embrace this diversity as well in the West as they have in Asia. But what is essential, along with the diversity, is fidelity to the core insights and values imparted to us by the Buddha from the heights of his supreme perfect enlightenment.
What do you see as the prospects for lay Buddhists here in the West?
I think in the West today there are significant opportunities for lay people to become engaged with the Dhamma at higher levels than in traditional Asian Buddhist societies. In Asian countries, laypeople consider their primary role to be supporters of the monkhood, to provide food and other material requisites to the monks. They express their commitment to the Dhamma through devotional activities, but with few exceptions feel almost no incentive to plunge into the deep waters of the Dhamma. Now in the West, because of higher standards of education and greater leisure, laypeople have the precious opportunity to become deeply involved with the study and the practice of the Dhamma.
How can a person practice both as a layperson and as someone sincerely treading the path to liberation?
I recommend the five qualities of the "superior person" often extolled by the Buddha: faith, virtue, generosity, learning and wisdom. We have already discussed faith. Virtue has a much wider scope than the mere adherence to rules and precepts during the period of a meditation course. Beyond this lies the deliberate cultivation of the positive qualities of character that underlie the basic restraints of the five precepts. These positive qualities include the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion; the development of honesty and contentment; restraint over one's sensual desires and fidelity to one's partner; a strong commitment to truthfulness in all one's communications; and a sober, clear, balanced mind.
At this level the practice of Dhamma in daily life does become an art of living, not in a sense that supplants the traditional idea of a path to deliverance, but as a series of guideposts for a person living in the world. Here Dhamma becomes a comprehensive map for navigating one's way through the many difficult challenges we encounter in everyday life. It's not a body of rigid regulations, but a set of values that enable us to relate to others in wholesome and beneficial ways.
The third quality, generosity, is understood in Buddhist countries to mean making offerings to the Sangha, but I think we might give generosity a broader application by including in it the active expression of compassion for those less fortunate than oneself. One might, for instance, decide to allocate a percentage of one's regular income to charitable organizations and projects.
The fourth quality of the earnest layperson is learning or study. This entails an effort to acquire - and I'll use that expression again - a clear conceptual understanding of the Dhamma, at least of its basic framework. Even if one isn't ready to study the texts in detail, one should remember that the Buddhist understanding of existence underlies the practice of meditation, and thus that systematic study can contribute to the fulfillment of one's practice.
The fifth quality of the lay follower is wisdom, which begins with intellectual understanding and culminates in experiential insight gained through meditation.
If all this can be done as a layperson, why ordain as a monk or nun?
While there is much that a diligent layperson can accomplish within the domain of household life, those fully inspired by the Dhamma will naturally feel a pull towards the life of renunciation. When one's faith is deep enough, when one feels that nothing less than complete surrender to the Dhamma will do, the lure of the saffron robe becomes irresistible. As a monk or nun, one gains advantages that a layperson, even an exemplary one, does not enjoy: one's every moment is dedicated to the teaching; one's whole life, in its innermost recesses, is governed by the training; one has the leisure and opportunity for intensive study and practice; one can devote oneself fully to the service of the Dhamma.
Within lay life there are still many tasks and duties that keep one from engaging fully in the practice. Though laypeople today can readily undertake long-term meditation retreats, there are tangible differences between the practice of a layperson, even a dedicated one, and an earnest monk whose renunciation is grounded upon right view. I don't want to sound elitist (okay, I'll admit it, I am one!), but one danger that emerges when laypeople teach meditation and the higher Dhamma is a penchant to soften, even squelch, those aspects of the teaching that demand nothing less than the ultimate cutting off of all attachments. Instead they will be prone to offer a compromised version of the Dhamma, one that subtly affirms rather than undermines our instinctual attachment to mundane life.
I am aware that the monastic life is not for the many, and I would hardly like to see a replication in the U.S. of the Asian Buddhist social model, with its large number of routinized monastics passing time idly in the temples. But I also think monastics have indispensable roles to fulfill. After all, they do represent the Third Jewel of Buddhism, without which any transmission of Dhamma is bound to be incomplete. They wear the robe of the Buddha and conform to the discipline prescribed in the Vinaya, the monastic code. They represent, at least symbolically, the ideal of complete renunciation -- though individual monks and nuns may still be very far from such an ideal. They can be regarded almost as a reflection, albeit a pale one, of the Deathless Element in this world, "Nirvana in the midst of Samsara." In spite of the many shortcomings of individual monks (myself included), the monastic life still makes possible full commitment to the training, and thereby points others in the direction of renunciation and ultimate liberation. And finally, the monastic Sangha is "the field of merit for the world," which enables devout laypeople to acquire the merit that supports their own quest for Nirvana.
Do you have any parting advice you would like to convey to our readers?
In following the Buddhist path to its consummation, I think we need to adopt a long-term perspective, and this means developing both patience and diligence. Patience ensures that we aren't avidly intent on quick results, out to add personal achievements in meditation to our list of credentials. Patience enables us to endure for the long run, even through the hard and sterile phases that we must inevitably confront. Diligence or effort means that though the way might be long and difficult, we don't become discouraged, we don't give up or become lax. Instead we remain resolute in our determination to tread the path no matter how many lifetimes it may take, in the confidence that to the extent we strive with diligence we are making progress, even if that progress isn't immediately apparent.
To follow the Dhamma properly, I think we also need an attitude of humility. It's not through a quick study of the suttas, or even a few years of meditation retreats, that we can really claim to understand and teach the Dhamma correctly. It might be prudent to conceive of the Dhamma as a very tall mountain, and to regard ourselves as mountain climbers still in the foothills with a long way to go to reach the top. What we need is the faith that this particular path will lead us to the top of the mountain, the patience to persist day after day in climbing that path, and the diligence not to give up until we reach the peak.
Interview with Lillian Too
1. As a specialist author of many books on feng shui and student of Zopa Rinpoche what is your view about the fact that in Buddhism things like divination and fortune telling is unacceptable.
Answer: You know it was my feng shui book that brought Lama Zopa Rinpoche into my life. He had an interest in feng shui and a student of his passed him my book. He then contacted me to invite to India to check out the feng shui of the land for the Maitreya Project in Bodhgaya ... Rinpoche has many times encouraged me in the work as a feng shui writer and has always stressed that feng shui is good because it is something that can help many people. Also you know, Buddhism does believe in divination. HH the Dalai Lama consults the Nechung Oracle on all important issues. And if you study Tibetan Buddhism you will discover that divination plays a big role in the practice. e.g. the high lamas often use divination to determine the most appropriate puja or practice for any given problem.
2. Are there
any contradictions between feng shui and Dharma?
Answer: Not that I am aware of. Actually the two are very complimentary. Both practices are based on the notion of helping all sentient beings. Feng shui helps people in samsara making their lives easier and happier, less stressed and this makes it easier for them to practice Dharma. The practice of Dharma helps us ensure that we can continue to get a good rebirth, one that enables us to continue practicing Dharma until we attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.
3. Recently you wrote Mantras and Mudras, In Tibetan Buddhism mantras can only be practised by those who have taken initiation ... since your book is for the general public, will it be correct for them to practise without initiation?
Answer: This is a good question. Actually anyone can chant the mantras given in the book MANTRAS AND MUDRAS and in fact it is excellent to do so, for chanting these mantras will create the cause for meeting perfectly qualified gurus who can give you initiations. You see, when you take initiations you are given permission to do the Sadhana practices (visualizations) in a certain way, and the higher initiations, the practices can sometimes lead to self generation of the yidam. This does not mean that those who have not taken initiations cannot chant the mantras. But it does mean that when these mantras have been orally transmitted to you by a fully qualified lama or you have taken initiation they are much much, more powerful. I believe I have made this quite clear in my book. So even if you have never met the Dharma, simply chanting OM MANI PADME HUM will create the cause for you to meet the guru. In fact I personally believe it was because I chanted this particular mantra daily for ten years that brought my most precious Lama Zopa into my life.
4. If the Dharma were ultimate where would feng shui fit in? Can feng shui be used as skillful means to guide people to Dharma?
Answer: I always tell my students to practice feng shui with a pure and kind heart, that when one's motivation is pure it imbues the practice of feng shui with great power. This is something I am passionately convinced about. Feng shui is a living skill, a piece of knowledge that is part of my Chinese cultural tradition, and I think it is my great good karma that I find myself able to do this work - which helps people. The bonus is that having met the Dharma and having met the incomparably kind and compassionate Lama Zopa Rinpoche, I feel so inspired to use whatever influence I may have to open peoples eyes to the need for kindness, compassion and purity of motivation in whatever we do. Feng shui is important, but Dharma is incomparably vital in our lives. Dharma is not just about sitting in a corner meditating thinking up taboos of what one can or cannot do in terms of rituals and so forth. Dharma is simply practicing the good heart, the compassionate heart. As HH the Dalai Lama always says "My religion is kindness". Tell me, is there anything more inspiring or more profound, than this simple statement?
5. New Age is about healing, crystals and yoga. What is your view about this?
Answer: What's so new age about healing, crystals and yoga? These are things which have been around for a very long time.
6. Modern people are very interested in New Age things, is feng shui part of new age?
Answer: Feng shui has been around for over 3000 years. How can it be New Age ?
7. How did Lama Zopa Rinpoche influence you?
Answer: Rinpoche is incredibly inspiring. I have been most fortunate to see how Rinpoche works tirelessly for sentient beings. He works non stop. He works all the time. He works with no thought to Himself. And He is incredibly humble. I would not use the word "influenced" so much as "inspired". I am so inspired by Rinpoche. Watching, I am filled with devotion for the purity and goodness that shines from his person. I see Rinpoche as a living Buddha and consider myself incredibly fortunate to be one of his disciples. Since meeting Rinpoche my life has taken on real meaning. My life is now precious to me because I have the opportunity to do some good.
What is the proper attitude of Buddhists to things like divination and feng shui?
Should Buddhists learn such things? Or should they confine themselves to pure
orthodox teachings of Buddhism?
Answer: I am not an expert on the orthodoxy of Buddhism and I certainly do not wish to enter into a debate about what is and what is not a Buddhist teaching. My approach is very simple. I think that learning anything that can help make people's lives become happier and better must be good. It is like studying medicine, or nursing, or architecture. Feng shui is not spiritual. It is actually quite scientific so to me feng shui is nothing more than a living skill. But if you practise feng shui with Dharma motivations then you make your practice of feng shui also Dharma. The same with the doctor. When the doctor practices medicine with Dharma motivation he is practising Dharma.
9. It is said that if a person's mind is at peace, he will not be disturbed by any problems like bad feng shui?
Answer: Of course you are right but if our minds were totally at peace we would have become Buddhas. Alas we are not Buddhas ... we have not reached that level of attainment ... and so our minds ARE disturbed - when we become ill, when we lose money, when our loved ones leave us - we suffer all the problems of samsara - Buddha himself said ALL OF LIFE IS IN THE NATURE OF SUFFERING and so it is. We are living in samsara and so we are constantly affected when things go wrong. With feng shui, we can make our lives in samsara a little easier. THEREBY making it easier for us to practise Dharma. For example - if you are constantly worried where your next meal is coming from it is unlikely you will have much time to think of helping others. And if you have no money how can you be charitable? So feng shui really is a wonderful skill to acquire. Not only can you use it to help yourself but also to help others. The Buddhist meditation centres around the world that I have done feng shui for are all doing very nicely financially and I think that itself is a great indication of the usefulness of feng shui.
10. As a teacher of FS you are also a student of Zopa Rinpoche. How would you reconcile the dual status?
Answer: Easily... we are all students and teachers simultaneously. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is my Dharma teacher and my Tantric master - the most precious, the most important Being in my life, he approves of all that I do and encourages me to continue doing it because He has told me to use feng shui to help people.
11. As you a very influential person in feng shui and in Maitreya project, what is your vision for the future?
Answer: I do not consider myself particularly influential. I pray that the future will see the world more at peace. The Maitreya Buddha statue project is a reminder of this need for loving kindness. The world today with so much talk of war and hatred only makes it so much more urgent for us to build this statue as a symbol for the need for loving kindness. The statue will leave an imprint on the minds of all who see it. We are awaiting funds for it to materialize. I have no doubt it will happen. But of course it all depends on our collective karma.
12. What is the role of a teacher in Dharma and worldly dharma? Should a person as a teacher be a role model to practise what is preached?
Answer: Of course that is the ideal. As a role model we have a responsibility to those who look up to us. I try very hard to always live my life in the way of the Dharma. But alas ... I am only human and occasionally I succumb to anger, attachment and ignorance... so do we all. So we must be compassionate of ourselves and others. For in truth, none of us are Buddhas yet ... but of course, that is what we should all strive to be - to become Buddhas, to become enlightened for the sake of all beings. This is the teaching of the Buddha. This is the goal that should inspire us to live a good life, to be compassionate and to gain the wisdom understanding of the true nature of reality.
13. Between modern Dharma and contemporary spirituality what are the differences?
Answer: Dharma is about practicing the good heart with wisdom. It is also what spirituality is about or should be about. The spiritual person is someone who lives in a state of awareness of his/her behaviour, watching his/her mind making sure negative thoughts that lead to negative actions are nipped in the bud. so really there is little difference between the two.
the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
Dr William Greenberg
February 1997 Ramsey, New Jersey
"A school teacher would not suggest that pupils should disbelieve the 'round earth theory' until they had circumnavigated the globe. So the 'round earth theory' is actually accepted on faith in the West under the auspices of a scientific rationale. We have science but we allow 'faith' in science. Buddhism is an experiential science which also allows 'faith'. I would say that the similarity between the two goes further - I would say that both use 'faith' in terms of 'working hypothesis'. And that is how Khandro Déchen and I present rebirth: it's a beneficial working hypothesis. One doesn't have to believe it, but one should not disbelieve it either. To disbelieve without experiential evidence is the same as to believe without experiential evidence."
Dr Greenberg I wanted to thank you for granting me this opportunity. I've done a little bit of preparation besides two or three minutes of thinking. The thinking, of course, is: is this going to be of any use to anybody besides me? Anyway, I can't pretend to ask you any technical or elaborate questions about Tibetan Buddhism, because I know nothing. . .
Ngak'chang Rinpoche It's probably better that way. . . Many people who might claim to know something would actually be better served by forgetting it [laughs]. I feel it's good that our conversation can evolve in its own particular way. In any case, I appreciate your perspective and value the opportunity to approach things in a different way
DG I thought it might be useful to talk to you about particular things that are of concern to myself, sentiments that I had in thinking about Tibetan Buddhist practice. Specifically I should ask you about issues which grow from my own 'critical thinking' point of view - the scientific point of view. One area that I talked with you once about once very briefly, concerned the idea of surviving death in some fashion or other. . .
NR Yes. . .
DG Perhaps that of some 'identity' or 'entity' splitting occasionally, recombining. . . That came after we watched that movie, what American movie was it?
NR 'The Little Booga' [laughs]. Sorry, that's just what I call it. As you can tell, it was not exactly a film I would care to see again.
DG [laughs] 'The Little Buddha' presented a Lama who divided into three incarnations, and I thought I might take this time just to ask you to elaborate a little on this. . . Maybe I could spend a little time expressing the difficulties I have. In the background it appears that mind and brain are two different manifestations of something alike, and that consciousness probably has something to do with the brain. There seems to be a very close connection between thinking and the brain - at least with regard to brains that are alive and functioning. Imaging and science allows us to see that certain types of pathologies are manifestations of perception that appear as spots on imaging of what's happening in the brain's metabolism or electrical activity while one is hearing a voice or thinking of something. So there seems to be some real correspondence between the functioning of brains and certain types of experiential events. And I don't think there's anything in Buddhism that particularly contradicts that.
NR Mmmm. . .
DG But it makes for a kind of neat story when one goes a little further and thinks of a brain no longer functioning metabolically in its usual fashion, perhaps disintegrating, and then something perhaps non-corporeal surviving that and moving on. That's one area where, even though I can't say I can't believe that would never happen, it involves added assumptions . . .
NR Yes. . . there would naturally have to be assumptions beyond that point unless one had direct experience. I suppose Khandro Déchen and I don't really like to talk about anything to which someone can't relate directly in terms of their life experience. Buddhism, or more particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, is one subject we could discuss - but then there's the subject of what we could discuss here. I would not like to proceed merely to give a presentation of dogma. . . and it would be dogma if it lay outside your direct experience, and I was merely telling you about it.
DG Well. . .
NR This has always been an issue for Khandro Déchen and myself in terms of how we teach. We don't like to teach rebirth as 'a given'. We don't find that useful for people in terms of enabling them to approach Buddhism in a realistic manner. What seems to happen when rebirth is presented as undeniable fact, is that the audience has to make a of leap of faith immediately - then afterwards, once they've accepted something which is outside their experience, they have no real basis for questioning anything else.
DG So it is a kind of a tricky start that people have to make.
NR Yes. . .
DG How does that work in terms of the fact that you are a recognised incarnation?
NR Well. . . I am supposed to be the incarnation of somebody, but I never introduce that as a 'fact' which might somehow be relevant in terms of understanding Vajrayana Buddhism. It's not important. What is important is the nature of the practice, and where people take that in their lives. Could we maybe forget about 'me' and whatever I might be and look at the other part of your question - in terms of 'mind', 'brain', and 'consciousness'?
NR I don't think we have to take the issue as far as physical death in order to arrive at areas in which 'brain' and 'mind' are not exactly the same entity. One can be intoxicated, for example. Or one could be under the influence of a drug. One could be suffering from senile dementia. Let's take senile dementia - there's a Lama in India, Gégen Khyentsé Rinpoche, who probably has senile dementia. He cannot remember the name of any of the monks around him anymore. These monks have been with him for years, but he has forgotten who they are. . . Yet he can still teach brilliantly. When he is teaching - he is completely lucid, and his memory with regard to describing the nature of reality is faultless. But when it comes to remembering what a piece of bread might be called - he's lost that. I've spent time with Gégen Khyentsé Rinpoche, and one can certainly observe this phenomenon. But even in a less esoteric sense, there is the way in which different people handle intoxication. There are those for whom intoxication makes a radical change. They may act in very different ways, and seem completely out of control. Then there are others who seem to be able to control their behaviour no matter how intoxicated they become. The Buddhist analysis would be that those who could handle the intoxication had experience which lay outside the functioning on the brain, whilst the others would be described as having little or no ability to move out of the environment of the brain.
DG That would certainly be one explanation for why 'individual A' intoxicated is pleasant, mellow and eventually falls asleep; and 'B' is completely uninhibited with aggressive and other impulses coming out. I don't know that that in scientific terms contravenes a brain-mind duality though. If we get intoxicated with alcohol or LSD, it's affecting certain groups of chemicals and pathways, and it may still be that a mental event corresponds to a certain type of physical event or pattern in the functioning of the cells, the neurons in the brain. Individual brains are different to begin with. That's why there are people who have brains that suffer from schizophrenia: they process information differently. And even male and female brains differ in the processing of certain kinds of things. One problem that comes up, though, is that if there's a neat fit between the brain and having neurons firing corresponding to other kinds of mental events, and what happens when the brain disappears?
DG So the question would be: is consciousness really inherent in that kind of functioning or not?
NR Quite. I suppose there is a difference here between seeking proof of the separation between brain function and Mind in oneself, and seeking proofs in terms of the existing body of knowledge as it applies to the brain in Western science. Vajrayana Buddhism has never had to cope with the needs for proofs outside direct experience, and so it has never equipped itself with an approach to this kind of question.
DG Yes - I can see that. I can understand why pragmatically you don't start teachings in this way. If you did many people would say: "I'm not a Buddhist because I don't take reincarnation literally as given, or at least I question it as not fitting with other assumptions I'm making about how reality works." It's not that I'm a total non-believer in the possibility, but I come from a skeptical scientific background. One stumbling block that I have is that initially most people who consider themselves Buddhists believe that this is part of the understanding of the teaching . . .
NR Yes. . . that is true, but I wouldn't say this was necessary to seeing oneself as a Buddhist. I don't think Buddhism, according to Shakyamuni Buddha, ever required anyone to have to believe in anything. He explicitly stated that everything had to be tested. He gave the analogy of a goldsmith testing gold to see whether it was real or not.
DG Yes, of course, he did say that. . . so, why do you think there's the emphasis on it now?
NR Well in Tibet, and the other Vajrayana Buddhist countries, rebirth is fundamentally accepted. It's regarded as fact. There has been too much proof over the last thousand-odd years for any Asian Buddhist to have a problem about accepting rebirth as a fact - even if it lies outside their direct experience. Asian Buddhists would say that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, in the same way that school teachers in the West would not ask their pupils to question whether the world was flat or spherical. A school teacher would not suggest that pupils should disbelieve the 'round earth theory' until they had circumnavigated the globe. So the 'round earth theory' is actually accepted on faith in the West under the auspices of a scientific rationale. We have science but we allow 'faith' in science. Buddhism is an experiential science which also allows 'faith'. I would say that the similarity between the two goes further - I would say that both use 'faith' in terms of 'working hypothesis'. And that is how Khandro Déchen and I present rebirth: it's a beneficial working hypothesis. One doesn't have to believe it, but one should not disbelieve it either. To disbelieve without experiential evidence is the same as to believe without experiential evidence. However. . . we don't actually base many forms of 'logic' upon rebirth with regard to what we teach - in terms of generating the motivation to practice. We never explain that 'because of rebirth - therefore 'a' or 'b' we simply don't have rebirth as part of the 'conceptual technology' which explains why a person should practise. The problem, as far as I am concerned, is that those who have rebirth as part of their 'conceptual technology' can sometimes allow people to paint it with so many fabulous colours and poetic descriptions that it may have become somewhat difficult for scientific people to understand its multifarious functions.
DG. . . yes.
NR Then. . . there's another factor we need to consider. In the West we approach Buddhism as we would approach other 'Western' religions. Western religions contain 'articles of faith,' the acceptance of which determines whether one can call oneself Christian, Jewish, or possibly Islamic. So, people seem to need to experience themselves as having been converted to Buddhism, through accepting what they perceive to be the 'articles of faith'. So if they cannot take the whole package on board - it equates to being unable to authentically call oneself a Buddhist. That can be a problem. But we have added other criteria as well. There are proponents of 'Western Buddhism' who now argue that you can't call yourself a Buddhist if you're not vegetarian - as if one had to adhere to one view of Buddhism as if it were 'law'. To be vegetarian is a valid method within Buddhism, but it is not a law of some kind. This is very much a Judeo-Christian approach, and has nothing to do with Buddhism. Buddhism makes no demands about what one has to believe in order to be a Buddhist practitioner. Buddhism actually concerns itself with 'attempting.' I am a Buddhist, because I am trying to be a Buddhist - and to be a Buddhist means that one is exploring the Buddhist teachings with sincerity - and with kindness. I cannot see how it is kind to attempt to excommunicate non-vegetarians and those who enjoy a good single malt Scotch whiskey. That seems to be more in line with fascism.
DG So Buddhism, in terms of Buddhism's own definition of itself, does not require complete acceptance of all its tenets.
NR I would say so. I would say that testing the tenets in the laboratory of one's own experience is the real definition of accepting the Buddhist path. It is not a problem not to know something. If you don't know, then either to agree or disagree is somewhat pointless. To say, "I believe that," or, "I disbelieve that," is irrelevant from the point of view of Buddhism. Either one knows or one doesn't know - and not knowing is not a problem. I think people who introduce the idea that it is important to believe in rebirth are people who approach Buddhism as if it were a Western religion. Buddhism is a religion, but not in the same way in which other religions may be formulated with regard to belief in fundamental tenets.
DG I had the sense that there is some expectation that you would develop an interest in your own next rebirth, and you would prepare for that. . .
NR Yes. . . It can be presented in that way. But that is not our approach.
DG What would your response be to being asked how you could prepare for your next rebirth?
NR My response would be: "Prepare for you next rebirth by letting go of the previous moment, and by understanding that your next rebirth is the next moment'.
DG Am I taking this too literally?
NR Trungpa Rinpoche exemplified the approach to which Khandro Déchen and I aspire. He would ask: "What are you going to do with this in this moment?" Trungpa Rinpoche heroically cut through the spiritual materialism which blighted theistic approaches to Vajrayana Buddhism to which people can become addicted. Rebirth can be misunderstood in a way which encourages the idea of a 'neat and tidy universe.
DG Like saying: "We were friends in a past life and will be again in future lives."
NR Yes. This approach is a little too horribly. . . insidiously. . . comfortable. Like a vast puffy bedroom slipper with a cuddly animal emerging from the end of it in case we get frightened of the dark. I don't really believe that this approach is useful - unless one really knows rebirth directly. . . And then, the fact that you know it, might have no value at all to someone who doesn't know rebirth. You see, if you don't know, but decide to believe, merely in order to feel kosher as a Buddhist, then that belief may turn out to be problem at some later stage. It's a problem because you're having to build logical systems on an assumption. In terms of Buddhism, that is not exactly workable. It can store up difficulties with regard to having an unstable foundation. Anyone who believes anything, at some level, makes the choice to believe. If we make the choice to believe because there's a spiritually materialistic payoff in believing, then as soon as the payoff ceases to function we lose our belief. With rebirth, I would say that there is a grave danger of the payoff being connected with emotional comfort of some kind. . . and that is deadly in terms of an authentic Buddhist practice. Buddhism is not actually emotionally comfortable in terms of the need to experience continuity. If we are to call ourselves Buddhists we have to accept the practice of discovering that we are discontinuous - that the 'I' is momentary. That is not comfortable. Now. . . if our 'payoff' is eroded in some way, through loss of confidence in the emotional security of the religion in which we have decided to have faith - then everything which was built on our belief collapses. Then our logical structure falls apart. It wasn't a logical structure in the first place - because real experience of practice was missing. And then, even the many aspects of it which were logical, seem to make no sense because they were accepted emotionally rather than experientially. That's really not useful. So Khandro Déchen and I don't like to encourage the kind of faith which is based on emotionalism. Buddhism is a religion which encourages us to discover its specified realisations directly. This is 'learning faith' rather than 'blind faith'.
DG So, a Buddhist should be free not to believe, and be accepted as a Buddhist.
NR Yes. . . free not to 'have to believe' - but one cannot actively disbelieve; that would not work either. But as to belief. . . unfortunately, people seem to want to fit in - seem to want to be accepted . . .
DG And want to be respected.
NR Yes - and consequentially to disrespect others who don't fit in by virtue of the 'inability' to assume 'blind faith'.
DG And in order to fulfil these criteria they feel that they have to believe certain things.
NR Yes. Khandro Déchen and I don't encourage that in our students. Everyone accepts everyone because they are committed to following a path of discovery, and because they have enthusiasm for the lineage. But within that, we encourage respect on the basis that apprentices are simply 'as they are' - they are simply 'following a practice and experimenting with their existence in the context of compassion and wisdom'. We like our apprentices to be able to be who they are, rather than having to blindly fit into an ethos of unquestionable dogmas. We like to undermine the need to inculcate an 'artificial Buddhist personality.' We encourage personal heterodoxy rather than political correctness - for example, we have both carnivores and vegivores as apprentices. There are no unspoken rules about: whether cosmetics are kosher or not; whether 'whole-food' is the thing; whether recycling your underwear is compulsory; whether you have to join the NRA; whether you have to whistle Dixie; whether 'anything' is 'anything' - apart from authentic refuge - kindness, awareness, and realistic commitment to the lineage.
DG You seem to not only have a lack of interest in the political aspects of religion, but also you're very pragmatic. It seems, though, that in Tibetan Buddhism there's a great deal of interest in who's the next incarnation of who. . . Some people seem to believe that they can attune themselves to some departed individual's existence, and where he or she may next appear. . .
NR Well, yes. But that's not a problem for someone who approaches Buddhism from a compassionate pragmatic experimental position. One doesn't need to accept an entire package. One doesn't have to reject it either. In the areas of one's religion of which one has no direct experience, one can simply allow these areas to be - without having to accept or having to reject. One can be open-minded about the unknown - and bear in mind that it is not necessarily unknowable. One comes to know the unknown through practice. That is the main direction with Buddhism - to find out, to discover that Dharma is as it is. That is what Dharma means: 'as it is'. However. . . there is something I would like to address here in terms of how a religion functions - in terms of feeding people across a wide spectrum. From this perspective, the existence of incarnations and their sequential lives is one of the aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism which gives life meaning with regard to those who follow that path. I am not saying that it is a merely a societally useful mythical structure, you understand. I am simply saying that it remains personally mythical unless one has direct experience. Rebirth, for you, is mythical in the same way that Virginia is mythical to me. Virginia is mythical to me because I have never been there. There are 1860s battle sites there. I have read various accounts of them, but I have never seen them. However, although I have not visited these sites in Virginia, other people have, and those people have written books which I have read. These places and the people who lived there are part of a somewhat romantic ethos which is quite real to me. And that 'romantic ethos' is mythical too, because those battles were hell. There was nothing romantic about dysentery and lice, or being wounded, or being blown apart by canister fire. I've read the biography of Robert E Lee. I've also read 'Gone with the Wind' [laughs] and seen the movie a few times - that's somewhat mythical too. There are many things I appear to know about a time and place which is quite far removed from my upbringing in the South of England. This is just an example of how 'pleasure', 'fulfilment', or 'sustenance of some kind' can be derived from material which is both 'mythical' and 'actual' depending on the experience of the individual. With regard to people believing they can attune themselves to a departed Lama's existence, and to where he or she may next appear, that is also both mythical and actual depending on the experience of the individual.
DG Yes - I see that. As long as I'm on somewhat of a scientific theme, there's one related question I had. That's the interest the Dala'i Lama particularly seems to have developed in Western science. He came over here and was very interested in learning new information, and I think many Western scientists were a little nonplussed at first. But the one thing I recall that seemed to stick in people's minds was that when it came to identifying the seat of consciousness, he kept on insisting that this was someplace in the chest next to the heart, somewhat to the consternation of psychologists and anatomists who thought of course that the seat of consciousness was in the brain. If someone is given an artificial heart, most of us don't think that he or she has lost the seat of his or her consciousness. . .
NR [laughs] Sure. It's not in the actual physical organ.
DG But he was meaning something close to it, though, somewhere in the chest?
NR Yes. . . but. . . that's not quite what is meant.
DG What is that?
NR The region of the heart is actually a symbol. Calling that region 'Mind' is a method of relating. One can place Mind anywhere in terms of how one relates to Mind through practice. For example [laughs] a feminist critique of chauvinist men is that they have their minds in their genitalia. So. . . so maybe the idea of Mind being in the heart is not so surprising in a religion which emphasises compassion? Why do we in the West associate love with the heart? It's a matter of symbolism - of being able to relate physicality and conceptuality; and, of being able to link the two in an emotionally meaningful way. So, according to Buddhism, 'Mind' is pervasive throughout body, and, actually - beyond it.
DG If Mind is pervasive through body, suppose that somebody's body falls apart; suppose somebody is left, through some tragic accident, with little other than their head in functioning order, and kept alive by some artificial mechanical means. What's happened to that mind? Is that person feeling different, missing something in terms of consciousness?
NR Not necessarily.
DG Well, if mind is pervasive through body. . . I don't know what you mean . . .
NR Sorry, I should be a little more specific. I said that it pervades the body. This does not mean that it is dependent on the body. If you lose your left leg, you don't lose some aspect of Mind which was somehow relying on your left leg. You just lose leg. [laughs] That's all. Mind pervades. The symbol 'heart' is a way of relating to Mind. It doesn't actually mean that it is there. It's a symbol. A symbol is placed according to the function of the symbol in terms of method. The physical seat of consciousness is brain. But 'Mind' is spoken of as being near the heart. These are both symbols - ways of relating.
DG Mind is used as a word that's a symbol? I don't know necessarily how mind is being used there.
NR Mind is the empty basis of consciousness. When people discuss particle physics, I have heard it said that subatomic particles arise and dissolve within subatomic emptiness. Mind is like that subatomic emptiness. You could say there's 'existential emptiness' and 'experiential emptiness'. Mind is the experiential emptiness from which consciousness arises. Mind is the experiential emptiness into which consciousness dissolves.
DG Buddhism doesn't seem to have a problem with science.
NR Indeed not. You see, there's no such word as 'Buddhism'. The Tibetan word is 'chö', which, as I explained before, means 'as it is', and if science discovers something, then that could well be 'as it is'. His Holiness the Dala'i Lama has said he no longer believes in the physical location of the Six Realms, because science has shewn that there is no 'under the earth' - it's not a flat earth, it's a sphere. And there's no Mt Méru out there anywhere. He now regards that as symbolic language. This does not mean that will now issue some sort of edict to change Buddhism. The structure of the six realms is also a profound perceptual psychology. Mount Méru also represents a cogent wealth of meaning which is powerfully functional at the level of visualisation.
DG So Buddhism is always happy to look at scientific discovery, but also not to think of it as ultimate, either?
NR Yes. As Western science itself knows: every once in a while, a certain 'scientific fact' is discovered no longer to be a 'scientific fact'. Einstein turned Newtonian physics upside down - but the structure of Newtonian physics still has value. Buddhism accepts science as the very latest point of what illusion is - it's as far as we can get at the moment in terms of how reality can be described. If a more accurate form of illusion undermines some previous form of illusion, then that's fine; there really is no problem there. If Christianity had the same kind of perspective, there would be no problem between Darwin and Genesis - they would just be different versions of reality. One would be symbolic, and the other would be 'the most up-to-date illusion'. They would not be in conflict.
DG You seem to have an interest in psychology. You seem to be very practical and pragmatic in the way you get your teachings across, very flexible.
NR Both Khandro Déchen and I have some knowledge and interest in Western psychology - but, and there's a considerable 'but' here, we do not use the language and concepts of Buddhism and Western psychology interchangeably. We are Buddhists. We are Buddhists who are open to learning about what Western psychology has to offer to Buddhism. We see it as a perceptual language which functions as a tool - a method for working at the social level within the sangha. We feel that it is useful to us to understand the definitions of 'narcissistic personality disorder' and 'anti-social personality disorder'. We find that such insights are valuable to us as teachers. We have had people who have been quite interpersonally destructive and these perspectives have helped us a great deal in terms of how we have worked with people.
DG I've never met any other Lamas who are interested in the way sanghas work, and talk about issues of a sangha getting along, which I think is a courageous thing to do. Do you find your interest in psychology by having Western students - that they need to address psychological issues, or interpersonal issues, more than an Asian group would?
NR I cannot really comment on people outside our own context. All I would say is that whatever level of psychopathology existed in Tibet was well understood within that society by Lamas there. The situation with Tibetans cannot really be compared to our own, because they lived in a coherent society and we do not. Our society is extraordinarily heterodox, and we have a bewildering array of options. Although, having said that, I would say that it is not so much an issue of East and West - it's more an issue of 19th century and before - as distinct from the later part of the 20th century and beyond.
DG Do you mean that the psychological situation was stable?
NR Yes, everybody would have fitted in according to accepted mores, in which psychological pathologies would have manifested in relation to stable social criteria. So, because we don't come from a stable culture, we can be deceptive and get away with our deceptions simply through moving to other sanghas. That would not have been as easy in Tibet. In Tibet one would have got oneself a 'bad name' in the same way that one could have got a 'bad name' in Virginia in the 19th century. If one acted dishonourably in the previous century, it was not as easily possible to start fresh. At this point in history, however, and especially within the world of alternative religions, one can start fresh with frightening rapidity. It is this fact which allows people to endlessly avoid facing up to their personal pathologies. That is somewhat new. I don't think they had that problem so much in Tibet.
DG You said that if one applies one's understanding of emptiness and form to any subject, then the result is called Buddhism.
NR Yes. It's an infinite wellspring of teachings, and every teaching has its principle and function according to each misunderstanding of the non-dual nature of emptiness and form.
DG This is why the teachings of Buddhism are regarded as method.
NR I think that's something which is generally not well understood. People from other religious backgrounds tend to think in terms of religion being about truth. If one approaches Buddhism as 'truth' one will have a problem with Buddhism - because Buddhism isn't 'truth' as truth is understood in Judæism, Christianity, or Islam. Buddhism is method - and methods differ within Buddhism - and across the spectrum of the none yanas. The only 'truth' in Buddhism is tongpa nyid (sTong pa nyid), shunyata - emptiness. Truth cannot differ - and emptiness also cannot differ. If truth is plural, if there are different truths, then truth is 'form' - and if truth is 'form' then truth must change - because all 'form' changes and becomes emptiness. So 'truths' as compassionate method, arise and dissolve in emptiness. This is why Buddhism is method, and why I'm a Nyingma methodist [laughs]. If one is geared into looking at everything as 'method', then there is never any problem between different religious methods. But when one is approaching Buddhism from the point of view of 'truth', then there is always a problem with the fact that there are differences. Even an idea of what the universe is like - it's irrelevant in terms of whether it is 'truth' or not. The views of the yanas are also methods. So, what is relevant in Buddhist terms - is what effect a teaching has. One applies a method and then experiences the result of the method. One enters the dimension of a view and then experiences the result of having immersed oneself within the dimension of the view. What is the effect of entering the dimension of the view of Mount Méru and the four continents? What effect does it have to believe in rebirth? What effect does it have to believe that Ngakpa Chögyam is the rebirth of Doc Holliday, or that one's Lama is the incarnation of Stonewall Jackson? [laughs] Now. . . if entering the dimension of the view has a healthy effect, in terms of wisdom and compassion, then this can be said to be is a useful method. If it has an unhealthy effect, in terms of wisdom and compassion, then it's not a useful method. So whether it's 'true' or 'untrue', from one point of view, is completely irrelevant. So when Khandro Déchen and I teach, we want to see that the method is working in terms of how people are living their lives. If the method is merely allowing an individual to enhance their pathology, then that method is not useful for such a person. We had one person who seemed incapable to applying practices without using them to concretise his own narcissism.
DG You seem to be saying that, from your point of view, many people have taken too literally much in the way of teachings that you describe as methodology. That one focus is understanding of non-duality, of emptiness and form and how they manifest and interplay and how to experience that. And that much of the rest has to do with methodology that could very well change.
NR Buddhism looks at itself as method. One finds this in the Sutras: 'The dharma is empty'. But somehow some people seem to see dharma as form, and that can be a real problem - especially when they want to change the form to suit the West. Khandro Déchen and I try to be Buddhists when teaching Buddhism [laughs] which means that we try to answer people's questions within the context of the language they use to ask the questions. But that is not the same as 'changing Buddhism'. We are simply concerned with the linguistics - with communicating.
DG Which is probably why you don't object to people teaching in different ways.
NR Sure. Khandro Déchen and I see some people who, for example, like a pious approach. They like a quiet approach, they like people to be very gentle, they don't like raucous laughter and humour and they might not enjoy [interrupted]
NR [laughs] I wasn't particularly thinking about that aspect of our practice - I was thinking of our informal manifestations. One could find pious people who love cymbals. What I was thinking of, was more the ribald raucousness of our coffee breaks. Some people prefer serenity and a sense of peace and quietness. [laughs] I mean, even in my use of language one can tell that this isn't exactly natural to me. I'm afraid that I am not particularly demure.
DG You seem to have a natural bent towards using humour very effectively.
NR Well. . . I like people to laugh - because I feel that it helps them remember.
DG I can imagine that some people may even accuse you of being mischievous some times . . .
NR Oh, I can't imagine that! Surely not? [laughs] I suppose I like things better if I'm enjoying myself. . . and I assume other people like that too. But, of course, some people don't. Some people like to go off for a weekend where they can be serene. Some people like their involvement with Buddhism to be noticeably different from everyday life. Some people need an air of sanctity. . . and Khandro Déchen and I don't really provide that [laughs] Neither of us are keen on manufacturing atmospheres of undue holiness with regard to ourselves.
DG How do you manage to accommodate the amazing number of different inspirations you're entertaining, about how to reach people? How do you deal with a group retreat? How do you deal with all these people with different expectations, wishes - what works for them, in the context of having a period of getting together?
NR Well, Khandro Déchen and I ask people to ask us questions. We try to make them responsible for what they get from the weekend. We attempt to apportion the responsibility between ourselves and the audience. There is actually no way we could accommodate a group of 30 different people. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and other great Lamas are capable of that, but not us. Fortunately for us most people who attend our Open Teaching Retreats seem to be there for what is on offer - they are kind enough to accept the experience for what it is. And for our part, we try to incite them into asking questions. If we succeed in inspiring them to ask questions then we're happy. We try to help everyone get something from a retreat, and it's been rare that someone leaves because they find it useless. It's an impossible task, really. I can only present as I present - and remind people from time to time that it's my presentation and that they should not judge the Nyingma tradition on Ngakpa Chögyam - the inconsequential eccentric yogi.
DG If they're coming from some totally different direction and they've heard from some Lama something very different, then you seem to show them how these two views are not antithetical to each other.
NR I am happy that this comes across. That's very important. In fact, I think that this is one of the most important things. For people to have the space to understand that people can be different. . . That is so valuable. That people can hold different views which are at one level completely antithetical, but at another level don't have to fight with each other. For me, spirituality apart, that is what is meant by being adult. I feel that is really important. I've always felt that there were two kinds of tolerance: naïve or childish tolerance, and mature or adult tolerance. Naïve tolerance says: "I accept everything as valid because everything is really the same - all religions are one." Mature tolerance says: "I can let allow conflicting notions to coexist. I don't have to dismiss your idea simply because I disagree with them from a contrasting perspective." Mature tolerance say: "Whoa, Dr Greenberg thinks that! I wonder why?" I could be intrigued. I could try to find out more and say: "Well, he's an charming gentleman; but he has an idea which I find preposterous. Politically, I take exception to his idea, but I wonder why he holds it? Maybe the view I hold isn't quite as watertight as I previously assumed it to be? Maybe there might be some other reality? Maybe we could talk about that?" It's easy from the intolerant point of view just to hate you and to get angry and to walk out and to say: "I don't like your politics, I don't like the kind of person you are." To me this is low level psychological behaviour. It should be intriguing that someone could hold a very different view. So we like to encourage this kind of appreciation as much as we can, and implement that by talking about the radical differences between the nine yanas. It's an important subject. It is crucial really. It's vital for Buddhists to understand how every expression or practice has a different experiential base. If one understands the base, then one can understand the path and the fruit. One can understand how the paths can be in conflict, because their bases are different - yet recognise that their fruit or result is the same.
DG There were many questions around that at the retreat last week. There were several people there who study with other Lamas, and then you spent a lot of effort to put what you said into a context that wasn't going to cause them a problem when they went back to their Lama.
NR I try my best along these lines because if there is misunderstanding then people will either have a problem with their Lama, or they'll have a problem with Khandro Déchen and myself.
DG Sometimes people want a problem.
NR Yes. Sometimes people find multiplicity a bit too overwhelming, and they'd rather retreat and retrench into some kind of fundamentalism.
DG They refuse to hear an explanation which shews that a multiplicity of approaches is possible?
NR Yes. But that is rare these days. That happened more often in the 1980s. I would like to make an admission here [laughs]. I would hate to give you the impression that I knew something about psychology. My entire input comes from reading two books [laughs] and maybe from talking to some psychologists I've picked up some language here or there. The two books were written by John Cleese and Robin Skinner from their taped discussions. So my way of speaking about Buddhism in relation to psychology is based on that. Anyhow, to relate this to the idea of the peaceful and creative co-existence of a multiplicity of views, Cleese and Skinner were talking about how a group of 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' people were brought together for a conference. They described how these people strongly disliked each other until they were actually in a room together, and had to listen to each other. Obviously these people chose to go into the experiment, so they must have had some degree of openness. It was an interesting experiment in terms of looking at what happened with body language - and how people at first weren't trying to listen. They said that in the end, it was not that they came to change their minds, but that they came to understand each other and to accept that there was an uncomfortable area of grey. They were psychologically healthy enough to be able to go away more confused than they were when the arrived. So. . . we somehow have to be adult enough to allow ourselves to be confused. I feel it's important, that people open up a little, across a broad range of issues. It's actually the only way we'll ever have peace in the world.
DG This is off on one of a series of tangents [laughs]. But there are some people who have worked with a teacher, and been granted some imprimatur in some ceremony stating they've become enlightened and who then choose not to teach, or to teach very little. And others, like yourself, whose life seems to be that every moment has something to do with teaching - not necessarily self-consciously. Does that have something to do with the way people are before they've gone through a process of understanding more? Or does this indicate something complete in some individual's understanding. I'm not sure I'm expressing this terribly well, but I'm not sure what to make of some people preferring to just be by themselves or have a life focused on other things, or make themselves known as a teacher. . .
NR What would be the problem with there being a difference?
DG I don't know. I'm not even sure I know where this question comes from, it's on such a ridiculous tangent [laughs]. I just wondered. . . Many Buddhist vows have to do with, for example, vowing to free all sentient beings. I just wondered how some people like yourself and Khandro Déchen manifest the rest of their lives as a Lama for people . . .
NR Well, one can accomplish that by many different means.
DG You consider yourself at one with the universe, I guess, but for yourself you free all sentient beings. . .
NR 'Being at one with the universe' is a concept I find a tad elusive in terms of how it might apply to me. I don't feel estranged from my surroundings, if that will serve as an answer. . . the degree to which I may not be estranged is probably a matter for conjecture [laughs]. I mean, I could be counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike - they've all gone to look for America; haven't they? [laughs]. But as to freeing all sentient beings - I think it's a matter of the time scale; what a person is; what kind of influence they are allowed to be by those around them. Someone who might, for example, spend the rest of their lives in retreat, might be far more of an influence than I have been, am, or ever will be - simply by their presence on the earth. For example, Milarépa never met many people. He lived high in the mountains most of his life. He didn't travel much. He only taught people who found him. But his biography still exists and offers great inspiration. His spiritual songs exist. The Dala'i Lama named Milarépa as the most widely known name of any Tibetan master. Who the hell will remember Ngakpa Chögyam in a hundred years? [laughs] And even if they do remember him, the memory might not serve any worthwhile purpose: "Wasn't he the Lama who wore a Stetson?" [laughs] I don't think that will evoke much inspiration somehow. Anyhow. . . I would say that 'realisation' doesn't have to manifest in any particular way. Some people are more communicative than others. Some people don't operate particularly verbally. People are inspired in many different ways. Also, in terms of teaching, there are always the five certainties: the right Lama, teaching, time, place, and retinue. Sometimes it's not the right time or place; one realises that one's particular manifestation has no particular use. I think this also a sociological issue at some level, and probably reflects the chaotic nature of human societies as they have evolved in the world. This may be a huge loop in another direction but I have a somewhat crude theory of the human species. It's a theory which is based on the idea that the transition from 'hunter-gatherer community' to 'farming community' was too quick. . . and we've never properly caught up with ourselves. We're continually lagging behind our own progress - both physically and emotionally. I would hazard the guess that the cities evolved far too quickly from those primitive beginnings, and that sociologically we've never adapted to large groupings of people. And it's gotten worse - all the way down the line. I think physically we're little different from hunter-gatherers. We may have less hair - maybe that's changed. . . But . . . for example, I get overweight very easily - and there's a cause for that. If I had to go hunt everything I ate I wouldn't get overweight. But instead of hunting I teach, and then I go home and have to work out on the stair machine. Then there's the emotional sphere. Emotionally we're less evolved than we are intellectually. So we're being dragged along by the intellect. Sometimes it's rational and humanitarian, sometimes it's neo-Nazi pathology. Some people really drive themselves crazy with their own intellects. Some people make good use of their intellects - they seem to have some kind of emotional balance. But in general I see the human species as being out of control. It is sad. I often feel that all I can do is try to introduce a little sanity.
DG I think we've wandered into areas that we weren't designed for. I think we're more highly evolved in some ways, though not necessarily more highly evolved than the cockroach, which is also considerably more successful. But as you say, we were evolving as a species that did well in hunter-gatherer societies. Now we're evolving as 'ants who live in nests of thousands', and we're not designed for that. The brain, I think, evolved not to think intelligently but to be more successful at reproduction and survival. But I agree with you that the pace of change seems to be speeding up as well as changes in technology; more dangerous, the crowding seems to be increasing, and it seems it hardly brings out the best in us.
NR It's also moving into massive heterodoxy, which brings its own problems. When you're looking for a partner, there are so many criteria with regard to choice! Does this man or woman eat the same food, like the same music, follow the same religion? Each individual is almost becoming an endangered species in his or her own right. Where does one find a mate out there? It used to be simple in the nineteenth century - or so I surmise.
DG I guess one needs the Internet these days [laughs]. A world-wide search.
NR Maybe it will balance itself out, maybe there are balancing mechanisms which I'm not seeing, but. . . I live a very odd life-style. I love coming to the States, but theoretically, philosophically, with regards to my rôle as a Lama I would rather live in Penarth. I would rather never leave Penarth to teach. I would rather have all the apprentices living in Penarth. But life doesn't work like that - so Khandro Déchen and I have to globe-trot. . . which is delightful in many respects. It's not problematic, but it's not ideal either. [pause] Although, having said that. . . maybe it is ideal. Maybe it has valuable functions within it of which I am, as yet, unaware. Khandro Déchen and I are open to both sides of that question. Maybe it's more creative to travel and to have apprentices in different parts of the world. Maybe it's useful to have an international community in terms if the colourful and variegated interactions which are engendered. The Confederate Sanghas of Aro are certainly far more vivid than a community of people from South Wales may have been. The folk from South Wales and Manhattan certainly enjoy each other prolifically [laughs].
DG It certainly does put people in touch with each other from different parts of the world; and I think that is very healthy.
NR There are always pros and cons to every manifestation of form. I was aware when our son arrived that he had precious few relatives. It occurred to Khandro Déchen and myself that: Düd-dül Dorje - Robert - needs uncles and aunts; he needs an extended family. Robert doesn't have one; he has very few relatives, and that's not healthy for him. So we have instituted the rôle of 'tsé-kyong' which means 'life-protector' - it's a Vajrayana version of 'god-parent'. The tsé-kyongs are people who agree to take an interest in Robert as he grows up - not specifically in terms of Buddhism, because he may not want to practise Buddhism, but in terms of enriching his experience of the world. So one may take him bird watching in Maine, and one get him slapping oil paints around on a huge canvas. One may give him archery lessons and one might teach him to cook exotic meals. But apart from that we see it as valuable that Robert is moving into a world where people travel a lot more - where people are less insular. So travelling to America will be healthy for him. It will be good for him to see how different people walk differently and eat differently. How people live in different styles and speak in different accents and languages. Hopefully, that way, he won't become too English [laughs]. Because, you know. . . it's a tragedy being too English.
DG [laughs] Open-mindedness, I think, is probably helped by travel - being exposed to different things. Like growing up in New York City with so many different cultures, so many different ideas, helps one get away from the idea of the absoluteness of your own concepts being right, and other individuals being demonised and misled.
NR Yes, I feel it is crucial that people have opportunities to question their bigotry, racism, sexism, and spiritual sectarianism. Khandro Déchen and I try to foster openness whenever we can - and that seems especially important in terms of never expressing the way we manifest the teaching as being in some way superior to the way the teachings are manifested elsewhere. I tend to see human society as an almost undirected, on-going, accelerating experiment, which is abortively seeking to establish equilibrium. Each time human society alights on some way stabilise in whatever respect, everything's changed yet again, and the change has come more quickly than the last. Maybe this pattern will settle down in some point in the future. Maybe not. It is hard to tell what will happen. I am hoping that this process of accelerating change will eventually bottom out, but that may not be within our lifetimes.
DG How do you see Buddhism within that process?
NR Well, I see Buddhism, particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, as being very much part of that process. The wonderful quality of Vajrayana is the way in which it approaches every aspect of human existence as being fundamentally workable. Whatever the situation happens to be, it can be transformed through the practice of Vajrayana. We do not have to be afraid of what is manifesting and neither do we have to confuse ourselves with the idea that Buddhism needs to be adapted for the West. Ideas of this nature do not relate with Vajrayana and the methodology of transformation. If one really understands Vajrayana - one understands that every culture is actually ideal for Vajrayana.
DG I would also say that there isn't any threat to Buddhism from science. I think science at its best is just a constant process of exploration. It's trying to understand what it's all about. Science is about using critical thinking, which just means a sense of not being misled by what you want things to be like rather than the way that you actually find them. It's about not interjecting your own wishes and fears into understanding what's happening.
NR That sounds perilously like Buddhism [laughs]. Differences often seem to be a question of language and emphasis.
DG Yes. I think we often think our language is there to indicate and describe things to others, and to aid in thinking. But I think it's actually often being used in the service of one prejudice or another.
NR [laughs] Quite so.
DG Words and ideas are things that carry meaning or value, but very often the purpose is not communication, it's self-delusion or just rationalisation.
NR Right - we find that a great deal within the expositions of the Western Buddhist teachers at the moment - the 'Conference Buddhism' of the 80s and 90s - the Western Buddhist psycho-egalitarian sangha. Like the word 'share' for example. The word 'share' actually signifies that one has something of value, and that one wishes give part of that valuable thing to another. The result of sharing should therefore be that one has less of that valuable thing. 'Share' does not mean that I spend an hour and a half telling you about some 'Western Buddhist' theory of 'relying on the collective wisdom of the sangha as a means of diminishing the rôle of tha Lama' which: a) someone wants to tell me, b) I don't want to hear, c) I don't consider valuable, and d) I sincerely regret having heard. [laughs] That is not 'sharing' [laughs]. That according to my definition is called 'taking' - one person taking the time of another. So if this sort of person comes along and says: "I want to share something with you." I feel inclined to reply: "I think you're too generous. You'd better keep this treasure to yourself!" [laughs] Language can be sneaky or we can be sneaky with language. A word like 'share'. . . oh how nice that sounds. . . 'share'. [laughs] It sounds so worthy and gentle [laughs] but what often transpires when the word is used can be gruesomely different. From my point of view I would say that this kind of 'sharing' was a breakage of the second precept - which requires that we refraining from stealing.
DG What frightens me a little more is in this country there are some groups that have pulled themselves away in the mountains and have found others of like mind. . . And these people believe in some kind of paranoid ideas about the United Nations or something orchestrating a massive take-over of this country, and that they need to hold themselves up as paramilitary groups. I guess that people feeling more connected, not that separate from others, would work against some of those excesses.
NR Yes - that is worrying. . . and in some sense, I see the 'Western Buddhists' as being part of the continuum which includes such people. I feel that the network of Western Buddhist teachers could look at themselves in comparison with survivalist groups or paramilitary groups and ask themselves: "What is the nature of my mind-set? What is the karmic vision? What is there within myself that is similar to these survivalist groups? What do I need to do to undermine that tendency in myself?"
DG A lot of people I deal with seem to be stuck someplace, so taken with some particular fear, some particular idea, some particular prejudice, something they can't let go of. On occasion I've tried to recommend meditation without much success. People are so stuck that they are afraid of change and don't want to try something a little different.
NR I'm not sure that I would ever recommend meditation for anyone who wasn't fairly psychologically healthy. . . We knew a man who meditated for several hours a day, and he ended up displaying characteristics which appeared to be symptomatic of anti-social personality disorder. We have known several people in fact who would have done better to have worked on a farm or garden. We would often recommend psychologically damaged individuals to find 'space' in a different way - engaged in practical work in the open air. Maybe the work should also be hard and tiring enough to promote sound sleep. If the work were not physically demanding enough, I would imagine that it would still allow room for a lot of thought, and that would be counterproductive. I think that if one can engage in exertion of a positive nature - such as weeding in a 'positive' environment where plants require care to grow - that would help much more than mediation for someone with psychological problems.
DG It used to be that even the state hospitals would be like little cities, and patients who were there would be growing their own food and gardening and tending to other things that would have to do with the upkeep of the facility. On a variety of bases, that doesn't happen any more. Probably a lot was lost, even the sense of being useful.
NR Indeed. We can but try to leave the world a little happier than it is through our practice of Buddhism. I guess, at the moment, we're just counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. Maybe we should go look for Buddhism in America - because it's not in the 'American Buddhist magazine'. Maybe Buddhism could be out there somewhere - somewhere where they've not heard about 'Conference Dharma' - maybe in Brooklyn.
Cuc Nguyen is a Vietnamese Buddhist nun and artist who lived in solitary in the mountains after the War. She is currently working on a Masters in Asian Art History. She has had many exhibitions of her work in California and plans to return to Vietnam to teach.
Describe your life in Vietnam. Did you live in the city? What did your family do for a living?
Before the war ended in 1975, we lived in Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City]. My father was a colonel in the former regime's military. My mother stayed home as she is disabled. My brothers, sisters and I were students until 1975. I became a Buddhist nun at an early age. After 1975, my father went to an internment camp for several years. I was back and forth then between home and the monastery to help my family since I am the oldest. We had to move to my grandparent's village at the countryside and work in the fields. Most of the time, our students' hands could not produce enough food to eat until the next crop because of subsequent droughts, flood, and insects.
time I reflect back to those years, I am still amazed how we could survive until
now. I helped my family and led my monastic life simultaneously. I taught French
and took care of a temple. When I got cancer, I had to give it up. After the surgeries,
I decided to go to hermitage for several years before leaving for America.
What led you to become a nun
That was the apex of the war. I was fortunate enough to live close to a Buddhist temple and soon absorbed the teaching of Buddha and the philosophy of Buddhism. The destruction of the war, the fluctuation and the impermanence of life, were factors that contributed to my decision.
Tell us about your experience of living alone in the mountains.
I think that was the best years in my life. Solitude heals and enriches my soul. Of course, I have lots of friends: snakes, scorpions, lizards, birds, flowers, and the sea. Nature has also been my best friend, my consoler and my muse. During this period, it was necessary for me to grow my own food and receive support from my family.
When did you realize that you had an artistic talent? What this before you became a nun?
Art is always in my blood. When I was very young, I used to draw whenever and wherever I could. Art materials in my country were expensive; so I had only pencil and charcoal, but people who knew me always appreciated my drawings and paintings. I gave them all away. Mostly I drew to express my emotions, to entertain myself or sometimes I drew Buddha and the Bodhisatvas so people can put them on their shrines. Since I came to America, I have determined to pursue my education in Fine Arts and Art History. For me, art is one of the most beautiful forms in human expressions. It is truly compatible with religious faith.
Under what circumstances did you come to the U.S.?
In 1992, after my father¹s release from the internment camp, my family was granted the permission to come to America under the Humanitarian Organization Program reserved for former military prisoners.
Describe your experience in adjusting to life in the U.S.
It was very hard the first year. Lots of efforts, depression, nostalgia-but the willing to restore our broken lives, the expectation to find a better future, and ultimately freedom have helped us overcome obstacles. The most important thing is to learn the best of western culture and to be able to maintain the essence of our culture. Never stop learning and thriving. Make the best of every day.
What has been the biggest hurdle of living in America?
Stress and the cost of living.
Can you describe your art technique?
I cannot confine myself in one medium. I try every medium that I can and love all the effects that each of them can help me to express my artistic emotions. I work in all mediums: Chinese calligraphy and painting, batik art, oil painting, watercolor, photography, black and white oil on silk, book binding, pencil, charcoal, French black powder, card making, collage, embroidery, natural materials (leaves, flowers, grasses, and twigs), and computer graphic art (designs on Photoshop, Quark Express, Illustrator),.
What have you been studying?
I have studied art history and graphic design (B.F.A. in Graphic Design) and have completed an M.A. in Asian American Studies with a concentration in Asian Art History. About Fine Arts, I am a self-taught artist.
What is your goal?
Being an artist, an art history professor, and an autobiographer.
For further information contact Cuc Nguyen by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
is Independent of Culture
Ngakma Shardröl Du-nyam Wangmo interviews Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen on the published views of the Carreon's.
I read the text of Another View on Whether Tibetan Buddhism is Working in the West, by Tara Carreon and her husband, to Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen and requested their responses. I mentioned specific quotes on which I particularly wanted comment and clarification in terms of Vajrayana; however, Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen declined to address some of the quotes from the article since they considered them to be too pointless or trivial even to refute.
Ngakma Shardröl: Rinpoche, Khandro Déchen, I would like to ask you if you would comment on this article. I know you don't like to comment about specific people - but could you perhaps respond to some aspects of what's being presented here in order that I can get a better understanding of how people arrive at their own forms of confusion?
Khandro Déchen: Most of those who make pronouncements on this matter know who the representatives are on either side - but, if we may restrict ourselves to the concepts presented, we have no great objection to the sources of the comments being apparent.
Rinpoche: To a degree, it is no longer possible to speak without reference to individuals, especially when they themselves are commenting on other writers. We skimmed the interview with Alan Wallace in Tricycle, and... we can see why some people would take objection to it.
Firstly we would say that whilst there is certainly room to criticise Western people's approach to Dharma - there should also be room to look at the many fine practitioners of Vajrayana in the West. There are many, but they tend to be low key in terms of making public statements. We have a number of excellent students who have been with us for almost twenty years, and we have seen no signs of fickleness in them. From our association with various Tibetan Lamas in the West, we can say quite definitely that they have a high regard for their committed Western disciples. Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche in particular has been highly supportive of Western Lamas in connection with Tharchin Rinpoche and Chag'düd Tulku Rinpoche. As far as we are concerned, Vajrayana is working extremely well in certain places in the West. One only has to look to Tsogyelgar in Ann Arbor, Michigan to see the magnificent way in which Traktung Rinpoche and A'dzom Rinpoche are integrating Vajrayana into a Western setting. There are certainly problems - and some Western students are exactly as infantile and fickle as described in Alan Wallace's interview. People are people wherever they are, and it is not useful to make hard-line generalisations. But one of the major dangers with regard to Tibetan Buddhism in the West is the 'new age' appropriation of its teachings and the falsification of its functions by people such as the author under discussion.
Secondly we must say that we were concerned with regard to Allan Wallace's commentary on the way in which Vajrayana was introduced to the west by Tibetan Lamas. The picture he gives would appear to lean heavily in the direction of an institutionalised approach in which monastic training - or something approaching it - is deemed indispensable.
Q: From reading the interview I noticed that he was once a monk. It seems that people like Allan Wallace and Stephen Batchelor and some of the others who make crucial comment on Tibetan Lamas are ex-monks. At the Naropa Conference and in other places it seems to be some kind of qualification to have once been a monk of a nun. I don't really understand that as being a qualification.
R: Well, quite - but I would rather not comment on this. I am more concerned with the way in which Alan Wallace speaks as if he possessed the grand overview. It is not that I entirely disagree with what he describes as the desperate nature of the introduction of Vajrayana - it is simply that it is a partial account and makes no reference to the fact that many thoroughgoing programmes of study and practice were established alongside the fleeting visits of high Lamas. Many people who met these 'briefly visiting' Lamas went out to India and Nepal to study with them - and to a certain extent this replicates the situation as it was in Tibet. Personally - I see no great room for complaint in terms of the manner in which Vajrayana was introduced, nor do I think that anyone has sufficient historical perspective at this point in time to make any useful analysis. If I may make a final observation on the Alan Wallace interview, it would be a fundamental concern with the idea that the East and the West are so very different from each other that we all need to have ongoing conferences and discussions about it. I feel that this makes much too much of the issue - and plays into the hands of those who seem intent on leading Buddhist up a psychotherapeutic backwater.
KD: To speak of cultures as being so problematically different is to neglect the Buddhist view that we are all busy creating samara from the ground of being. There may be a Tibetan-style samsara, and an English-style samsara and an American-style samsara - but they have one thing in common which is addressed by Buddhist practice. I have the feeling that it is not useful to approach Buddhist practice by concentrating on our special status in being different.
R: There are cultural differences, but these differences seem to be more concerned with linguistics - and very few people seem interested in addressing that point. We try to write and teach in contemporary language - but we appreciate that we could be criticised for this in the same way in which we have criticised placing too much importance on cultural difference. However that may be, we took our lead from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's writings - and so we feel that this tangent has some basis in necessity beyond our own need to be different.
Before you begin to ask us about your particular chosen quotes from this article by Mrs. Carreon, I would like to comment on one statement which piqued my interest. The author says, 'Only people who don't have a reputation or position to protect can speak the truth. That precludes people with vested interests in the existing system from saying anything meaningful...' or words to that effect. Now this is an excellent point at which to begin because Ngakpa Chögyam does not have a good reputation or any position at all, as far as Tibetan Buddhism is concerned - especially not in the West. Ngakpa Chögyam is regarded with suspicion and resentment in many quarters, and so I have nothing at all to lose - whatever I say. Khandro Déchen and I are pariahs with little welcome in most places. There is one notable Buddhist publisher and distributor who will not even list our books - so no one can say we have any position to defend.
Khandro Déchen and I function as independent Lamas - that is to say, independent of any directly imposed hierarchic direction. This - although common in the Nyingma tradition - is maybe not a common situation for Western Lamas. Our own Lamas, Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche and Jomo Sam'phel, are not well-known in the West and have left us to evolve our own situation with students. As Western Lamas, we are aware of certain cultural issues which effect the integration of Vajrayana into the West - but it is perfectly clear to us that Dharma is independent of culture. Dharma may be presented through cultural forms to a certain degree - but these are only the container of Dharma. All the great Lamas we have known have stood outside culture as teachers of Dharma. Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche in particular, of all the Lamas I have known, stressed continually that I must understand the principle and function of practice, and this has helped me not only in understanding the nine yanas - but also in understanding the value of other religions and systems of human evolution. Whatever we have to say on this subject is said without fear of praise or blame. If we receive blame - we are well used to it, and if we receive praise - it will be something of a surprise. So - to your questions.
Q: This, as you know, was a website response to an interview which appeared in Tricycle. Tara Carreon - the author - is a disgruntled ex-student of a Tibetan Lama. She seems to want to justify her disgruntlement by discrediting Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Lamas so that no blame can be attached to her, and she can view herself as a victim. She makes quite a few statements, some of which make unhelpful generalisations and others which seem to be the result of personal prejudice. For example, she begins by saying that 'American Tibetan Buddhists have made the understandable decision to adopt traditional Tibetan Buddhist beliefs because they seem authoritative and reliable. This decision has been a mistake.'
R: An understandable decision? That is strange... Why would this be expected? It could only be understood if the people of whom she is writing were alienated from their own culture. Maybe this is true of the hippie generation. Although I am of that generation, I was never exactly a card-carrying hippie, and so my own interest in Vajrayana never excluded the richness of my own culture. I never really related well to the 'born-again-Tibetans' who went to India and Nepal - and to be honest they didn't relate well to me either.
KD: I was too young to be a hippy and a little too conservative to have had any interest in the 'new age' - so rejection of Western culture passed me by. My interest in Vajrayana arose accidentally through meeting Rinpoche in social circumstances rather than through having an interest in Eastern religion. I was not a 'spiritual seeker' and had never considered the need to find the 'inner peace and self-understanding' for which Tara Carreon was searching. Why look to an Eastern religion for 'inner peace and self-understanding' when the religions of your own culture already contain teachings which address this? The Quakers and the Unitarians have the egalitarianism she wants, and the silent sitting can be found in the Julian Movement within Christianity.
R: Both Christianity and Judæism have esoteric teachings too - so why not look a little deeper into Western culture before approaching teachers of Buddhism with regard to needs that might not be met according to your preset notions of what you expect? I never wanted 'inner peace and self-understanding' either - so maybe that is why Khandro Déchen and I have not been disappointed.
Q: It sounds as though she took a kind of retail approach to her spiritual life - like she had this goal of inner peace and self-understanding, which is not actually even a Buddhist concept as I have ever heard it expressed, and then she felt cheated when the product she bought didn't deliver what she wanted.
R: That is certainly the impression she creates. I would also say that finding your home in any religion is the surest way of being at ease. Lack of 'inner peace' is caused by feeling driven and embattled. It ought to be possible simply to be happy to be 'a practitioner without ambition'. I have never judged Vajrayana because of my own lack of capacity. I am quite content to be a loser who has failed to understand himself. If I understood myself, there would then need to be a self to understand, and I think that I'm better off without that. I know that I'm greedy, irritable, obsessive, quirky, and occluded. These are the five obstacles we all have to one degree or another - so self-knowledge is not really the issue. As to the nature of Mind - that is empty, and so there is nothing to know or not know. There is only the immediate experience. There is only the transmission I have received, and continually returning to that.
Q: It seems as though she thinks that being a Buddhist means accepting a belief system, on someone else's authority, when I thought the whole point was to practise in order to experience things for yourself.
R: Yes. One is given the structure and the means of verifying that structure. One has to take the structure on faith - through inspiration - in order to gain personal realisation of the structure - and, discover that it is not a structure. I suppose in some sense what she says is true - many people do seem to have accepted Buddhism as if it were a belief system - but that is reflective more of those persons themselves than of Buddhism. Buddhism is not a belief system. Buddhism does advocate faith, but not blind faith. Buddhism advocates reasonable faith - that is to say, faith based on experience. Faith must be based on study and practice, so that reasonable faith gradually becomes direct knowledge. That must be clearly understood. It should also be understood that faith is required in every aspect of life - you even need faith to bite into a pastrami baguette. How do you know it's not poisonous? How do you know you'll like it? Someone you like and respect says: "This is a good place to buy a pastrami baguette." And so you proceed on faith to buy one and take the first bite out of it.
There is never any certainty about any act or a course of action until we enter into it. It is only the foolhardy who plunge into projects without intelligent research. It is also dubious to accept information because it seems authoritative and reliable. Door-to-door sales representatives turn up every day seeming authoritative and reliable. I have had such people tell me that their plastic window frames are superior to my old wooden sash windows - but I don't believe a word of it. We need more than something 'seeming' to be 'authoritative and reliable' before we buy it. I have actually never met a Lama who has not continually underlined the need for study and practice - and if one studies and practises then one develops intelligent faith in the lineage one follows.
KD: We say this to students all the time - that they should continually compare their study and practice in order to make sure that they are confident in how they proceed. So to proceed without experience born out of study and practice is a mistake.
Q: So basically she's making a tautological statement - she's saying that people made a mistake in making a mistake.
KD: That's a good way to put it - but more that that, you have to ask why people made that mistake in the first place and why they persevered in their mistake. There must have been some kind of reward for persevering with mistaken beliefs.
Q: Well, the writer says that she 'received the entire transmission of Nyingma teachings from beginning to end, including Trekchod and Togal teachings.'
R: Then that is likely to be the answer. Her perseverance would appear to have lasted until the final Dharma commodity had been acquired.
Q: The retail approach again.
R: Quite. Does she say that she did more than receive these transmissions? Does she make any comment on what she gained from practice?
Q: Quite the reverse - she says that she was unable 'to see any "truly" enlightened developments in [her] psyche' after 22 years of effort.
R: That seems an extremely long time to persevere without reward... It strikes me that there must have been other rewards which she does not discuss - because no one proceeds with anything for which there is no reward. That is not psychologically feasible. Does she mention anything at all?
Q: Well, she says that she was 'extremely devout' and 'did her practice compulsively'. She seems to have been involved in fund-raising and building gompas and transcribing teachings. She says she edited a book of teachings and held practices at her house to which other people came, so I guess she must have had some kind of status in the group.
R: This 'extremely devout'... now, there's a phrase... I wonder what that means, and on what her devoutness was based? Then the 'compulsive' nature of her practice - that is also strange. It seems like a rationalisation in retrospect. If one was genuinely devout, then compulsivity would not come into it. One is either devout or compulsive - the two terms are mutually contradictory. One can only say that one was compulsive in hindsight - and then at the same time one would have to say that one's devoutness was equally pathological. One cannot make the two statements at once. I am sure that to some degree the writer has looked at herself and that she has come to what she feels are honest conclusions about her experience - but remodelling one's history to suit one's present mindset is a common self-protective phenomenon and often carried out almost unconsciously. It is not possible for me to say how honest or dishonest the writer may be - all I can say is that there are some serious experiential and logical discrepancies in her account.
KD: I am simply amazed that anyone would put so much effort into something which then seemed hollow. Surely there must have been some more gradual process involved unless she was in severe denial - and then, I would tend to feel that the process of denial is now merely operating in reverse: she is unable to see any of the benefits she received. So what went wrong?
Q: She doesn't really say. She doesn't actually give any kind of adequate explanation of what it was that caused her to change her mind so radically about something that had been so important to her for 22 years. It's the same in the autobiographical material she and her husband present on their website. They give a history of the typical 1960s seeking in which they meet there Lama - and then they skip 22 years to the point when they leave for no accountable reason apart from the accusations she makes against Tibetans. She says that 'Tibetans suffer from ethnocentricity and cultural arrogance that blinds them to the virtues of Western culture and predisposes them to favour all things Tibetan.'
KD: This of course could be said of any nationality. I am sure that some Tibetans suffer from this as well as Americans or the British. There are French people who would like to see all English words expunged from their language.
R: This is nothing unique to Tibetans - but more to the point, we are not really discussing culture when we discuss Vajrayana. Vajrayana is not Tibetan. Vajrayana is not English or American either. I am not really concerned with cultural differences or whether one culture is better than another. But actually I've heard many Tibetan Lamas be highly appreciative of Western culture - Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in particular loved Handel's Messiah and was notably keen on Pavarotti. I wouldn't say that there are no Tibetan cultural supremacists - but I can say that I have never met such a person. On the other hand, I have met plenty of Western people who disparage Western culture - in fact it was a highly popular position to adopt in the 1960's and early 1970's. I once had a sitar myself. [pause] You know . . . It's often Western people who gives their Tibetan teachers a picture of the West. Many Western people speak of their own culture in a disparaging way and so it is not entirely surprising if some Lamas come to accept their students' descriptions.
Q: Yes - at the conference of Western Buddhist teachers in McLeod Ganj Yvonne Rand told the Dala'i Lama quite a story about the horrors of rock music, how it was terribly loud and disturbing and that people became mindlessly devoted slaves to the musicians. There were other comments like that too - all negative about the West.
R: Yes [laughs] I remembered a certain degree of derision when I responded that I liked cowboy movies, in answer to a 'round-the-table' question on favourite films.
Q: It's almost as if a lot of Western Buddhists are embarrassed about being Westerners. They long to leave their rapacious materialistic culture behind and find something simple and pure and foreign. Maybe the author of the article was one of these people and she's now swinging back all the way in the other direction, rejecting everything foreign and going back to her American roots. That leads on to the next quote: she finds 'American students far too willing to abandon the advantages of our intellectual training and democratic culture in favour of medieval concepts...'
R: I would tend to agree with that in part. Among some Westerner people there would seem to be a romantic intrigue with the 'ancient world' which was born out of the idea that the 'modern world' was corrupt and that science had in some way 'gone too far'. I think that Western people often do abandon their intelligence in favour of a wide variety of 'new age' and or anachronistic pastimes. But this is not actually possible with Buddhism. Buddhism demands the most rigorous employment of intelligence that I could imagine. I find rather that most people with a grudge against Vajrayana are actually severely lacking in intellectual discipline. The arguments they put forward have been - as far as Khandro Déchen and I have seen - logically deficient to a surprising degree. So - how does she suggest we proceed?
Q: She says that we should 'abandon Tibetan cultural belief systems, stripping Buddhism to its core values...' [interrupted]
R: So she is still interested in Buddhism then? That is singular... I wonder what basis she has for continuing with Buddhism after 22 years of admittedly fruitless practice? Sorry to interrupt - pray continue.
Q: '... stripping Buddhism to its core values of straightforward inquiry and insight into emptiness, supplementing these values with Western virtues of optimism, creativity, and scientific method. Such a change in spiritual approach can lead to real cause for optimism and freedom from outmoded notions that merely lead to psychological subjugation.' It's interesting that she sees the scientific method as antithetical to Buddhism. It seems to me that in practice Buddhism is actually quite scientific - in terms of each practitioner verifying what they have been taught by practising it themselves and achieving or not achieving results.
R: Yes. She is evidently unhappy - and I am sorry for that, it is sad to see anyone in such obvious pain, but if she has not seen that Dzogchen Trek gÇod can already be said to strip Buddhism to the core - then she never understood the teachings she received. I find it improbable that anyone who ever studied Dzogchen - let alone practised it - could write in such a way. It makes no sense to me whatsoever.
Q: It seems that Surya Das agrees with her, and he advertises himself as a teacher of Dzogchen. Part of the same internet material contains a letter from Surya Das in which he says: 'Thank you for speaking out clearly, honestly and well. You should publish this somewhere.'
KD: That does not surprise us so much anymore.
R: I don't like to be censorious with regard to individuals . . . but it would seem that Surya Das could not be said to be lacking in having something of a vested interest in the publication of such critical material . . .
Q: Yes - Surya Das has positioned himself at the forefront of a movement which seems to be out to corner the market on Buddhism in the West. It looks like some sort of takeover bid by those who failed to get what they wanted to get from Buddhism and who are now attempting to become the new gurus of dissatisfaction.
R: This material so far, has all the trappings of victim-as-hero or victim-as-heroine. All you need in certain circles is to cry pain in a passably articulate manner - and you have an immediate audience. I am not saying that no one was ever abused - I have emphasised this before - but we do live in a society where you can sue McDonald's because you gripped a Styrofoam cup of coffee between your thighs and scalded yourself. That is not exactly the most brilliant and worthwhile aspect of Western culture. If she's so keen on Western culture - let her emulate the real heroes and heroines of our culture. Let her emulate Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Joan of Arc, Boadicea, or Annie Oakley. Why give credence and respect to someone who allowed herself to be psychologically subjugated for 22 years? If she had 'shed the trappings of orthodoxy', gained liberation and come back with her story - I might buy it as an intriguing read. But what is being offered here is merely a thesis based on failure and subsequent psychological processing.
It is not that I have no sympathy for suffering - Khandro Déchen and I have often given time to people who have been badly treated in the spiritual context - but on all but a few occasions our time was not particularly well spent. Our experience has mainly been that those who like to complain are merely seeking a new audience from whom they can squeeze personal value as a result of their suffering.
Q: It seems like her main point is that she feels she wasted 22 years of her life on something she got nothing out of and now, rather than look at herself and why she did that, and what were the hidden benefits that kept her there, she's decided that there can be nothing of value in Tibetan Buddhism for anybody. Somehow she's not content just to say it wasn't right for her, she wants to discredit the whole thing in order to avoid having to look at herself... [interrupted]
KD: Before we go on, I would like to say something about her idea of optimism being a Western virtue. I think it's actually rare to find any work of modern Western literature that has a happy ending. Jane Austen wrote happy endings but that no longer seems to be the trend. A great deal of Western art seems to revel in suffering - so I find her statement quite disconnected from Western culture. Tibetans, on the other hand, have always seemed to me to be surprisingly happy and positive in spite of their condition as refugees.
R: Yes. When I was first in India in 1970 I was inordinately impressed with the Tibetan temperament in general - and I lived amongst them for almost seven years. To me, the Bodhisattva vow is amongst the most optimistic, positive, and creative drives that could be imagined - and that seemed to be the vector of sheer chutzpah that I found so often amongst the yogis and yoginis I have known. It also exists amongst the ordinary Tibetan people - whereas in the West it's often the so-called intelligentsia who make a virtue of depression. Take Woody Allen for example - some people find him funny...
KD: I'm afraid I don't find depression and despair funny. And I'm not saying this because I don't appreciate Western humour which looks at the negative aspects of being human - I find John Cleese hysterically funny in 'Fawlty Towers'.
R: I appreciate the tragic both in opera and blues. I value a great deal in terms of Western creativity, so I simply find her statements unacceptable as a reflection of the reality of Tibetan culture. It seems to me that many of the statements I remember from your reading of the article are as naively positive about Western culture as she must have been originally about Tibetan culture. Neither culture, however, can be regarded as innately superior, and Dharma can flourish in both. Of that I am completely certain.
Q: The next line that stood out for me was her suggestion that 'sincere spiritual seekers return to themselves and appreciate the good aspects of our own culture in order to achieve spiritual satisfaction'.
R: It's hard to know where to start with a comment such as this. What, for example, does it mean to return to yourself? That is what we do continually in order to justify ourselves.
KD: Perhaps it would be better if she really returned to her own culture and took up the Christianity or Judæism of her parents or grandparents. But maybe that would be too demanding in terms of 'spiritual satisfaction'...
R: That is quite likely. Christianity and Judaism are also not as accommodating in terms of allowing people to be special and unusual - so interest in these religions would require more humility than is perhaps available.
Q: I can't help thinking that her phrase 'spiritual satisfaction' once again sounds as if she's talking about some sort of business transaction: 'I failed to experience spiritual satisfaction; I want my money back'. The next comment really surprised me - she describes His Holiness the Dala'i Lama as 'the most progressive of all Tibetans.' What do you think that means?
R: It's hard to say. I do not know how the word 'progressive' is being used. When I was young 'progressive blues' meant that it had gone electric. I think that progress - in Western terms - relates to things like scientific and sociological advances. It is not fitting that I comment on His Holiness the Dala'i Lama in this or any other respect - what is more to the point is how this idea reflects upon the author of the article in question. As I recall from your reading, she quotes His Holiness the Dala'i Lama in the context of world-wide social concerns, rather than spiritual issues. In this context the question of democracy is highly pertinent - especially with regard to the Tibetan people and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. It is obviously important for people to discuss such issues. There is not much more I can say on that subject as my knowledge of politics is severely limited.
Q: The next quote I have for you is '... lamas are sure they know best, and will likely not be impressed with your own speculations or reflections about spirituality.' It sounds as if she wants Lamas and their students to be in some sort of chummy discussion group 'sharing' their ideas and insights with each other as if they were all equally interesting and valuable.
R: Our five year old son Robert often likes to tell us his ideas about reality - and it's really quite charming and delightful to hear.
KD: Why would a brain surgeon be interested in unqualified untrained speculations and reflections on the best way to remove a tumour? I'm sure brain surgeons are also sure that they know best - and I'm sure that we also know that they know best, otherwise we would not have sought their help in the first place.
R: Yes... If you go to a Lama for instruction - particularly in the context of Vajrayana - you are obviously in a position in which you know precious little about the subject and are assuming that the Lama is someone who knows more. Also - if a Lama does not know fundamentally that he or she 'knows best', then he or she should not be accepting students. I think that the author is attempting to inculcate some kind of 'we're all in it together' ethos - as if democracy had any application to spirituality. Democracy has its place in the ordering of mundane human arrangements such as governments and food co-ops - but it has as little place in spirituality as it does in science. You can't vote about the nature of scientific discovery, as if the majority were right. "OK folks which is it to be? Flat earth or round earth - cast your ballots." This whole issue of democracy - I believe - is a means of creating a knee-jerk response in people. Accuse Vajrayana of being against democracy and it will upset people. Let me make this very clear: Vajrayana has no issue against democracy in terms of the way in which it is employed to order human affairs. But it has no place in the relationship between a Lama and his or her disciples.
Q: She seems to feel that there is some problem at the level of human freedom, though. She says: 'Buddha, presumably, was an individual, who through the exercise of his own mind, found freedom. Yet Thinley Norbu criticizes Americans for having "freedom habit". Must we choose between Buddhism or freedom? Perhaps in some brand of Buddhism appropriate to a feudal system, peasants do not ask these questions. Americans, however, would probably choose freedom, and thereby, I believe, true dharma as well.'
R: Not quite The Gettysburg Address - but a rousing speech nonetheless. There are several points here. Firstly, when Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche commented on 'freedom habit', I understood him to mean just that: the habit of having to be free. The habit of having to be free is not freedom. I can choose the freedom to have my entire body tattooed. I am free to blow my brains out with an eight-gauge shotgun. I am free to damage myself in countless ways and to engage in any manner of idiocy I choose. I am also free to accept discipline in order to change. If I want to lose weight, I am no longer free to eat whatever I want and as much as I want. So as to 'Must we choose between Buddhism or freedom?' - this is a manipulative construction - an artificial choice. The answer, if we have to answer it, is that those who take Refuge choose both. Discipline of any kind requires the temporary relinquishment of freedom. Even to engage in silent sitting requires that we temporarily relinquish the freedom to engage in some other use of our time. To get married is to relinquish the freedom to have other relationships - yet no one who is happily married would say that was an imposition on their freedom. I could go on. This whole idea of freedom is another red herring to decoy the unwary. My Lamas never trapped me in any way. All the vows I took, I asked to take - and my Lamas asked me to think seriously before taking them.
The second point is that it is not so simple to describe the cultures of those countries which followed Vajrayana Buddhism as feudal and their inhabitants as peasants. Take this quote from an inhabitant of Golok:
To advice of strangers we will not hearken. Nor will we obey ought but the heart with which each Golokpa enters the world. This is why we have remained as free in the past as we are now. We are slaves of none - neither Khan nor Dala'i Lama. Our tribe is the mightiest in the land of snows, and it is our birth-right to disdain Chinese and Tibetans. We regard them both with contempt.
This hardly sounds like a downtrodden peasant - yet this man was also devoted to his Lama.
Q: Is there a reference for that Rinpoche - that I can quote?
R: Yes... it comes form a book called 'Civilised Shamans' although I cannot give you the chapter or page. I have seen it quoted elsewhere too. Traktung Rinpoche once quoted it as well when he was talking about Golok and the family history of DoKhyentsé Yeshé Dorje - so what I have quoted here is probably a hybrid version from various sources.
KD: I imagine this may be a surprising quote for many Western people - in terms of common ideas about Tibet - but it illustrates the fact that it is not feasible to describe Vajrayana as suitable only for 'feudal peasants'.
R: The final point is that Dharma is true freedom and that to artificially separate them is merely another of the author's ploys to disparage Vajrayana.
Q: She talks at one point about lack of inspiration and says that 'We should be careful about adopting a world view that equates the outer world with ugliness and evil (samsara) and which urges "retreat" into "meditation" as the only refuge from a doomed existence.' It sounds as though she has about as much understanding of Buddhism as the Pope, when he wrote that book about how Buddhism was negative and anti-life.
R: Yes - and Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche addressed that issue extremely precisely - in his book 'Welcoming Flowers', so there is no reason why anyone should be unaware this life-negative view is utterly inaccurate - especially someone who studied with Gyaltrül Rinpoche, and would therefore have read this book.
KD: It was published in 1997 - and written in highly accessible English - so we can really say that this life and world negative issue has been concluded.
R: Yes - and into the bargain, this is a person who has received transmission of Dzogchen Trek gCod? I find that implausible. The equal purity of samsara and nirvana is fundamental to Dzogchen teaching. Also fundamental to Dzogchen teaching is Lhundrüp - the meditation in which everything is integrated into the non-dual state. If it is true that the author has received teachings on Dzogchen, then all I can assume is that she is deliberately ignoring every aspect of the teachings which do not suit her argument. This is a typical manuvre in political polemic - but not one which gives rise to sympathy or respect in terms of spiritual integrity.
Q: And I suppose Surya Das must have been aware of this when he praised this piece of writing. There is another point I forgot to mention. When I compared Mrs. Carreon's article with the interview with Alan Wallace, I found that she had not quoted him accurately in various places - and that her misquotes always seemed to serve the purpose of furthering her argument.
KD: Can you give us an example?
Q: Yes - it's when she quotes Alan Wallace as saying that 'The finest lamas are now refusing even to come to the west..." Alan Wallace does not say that - what he says is: 'So a few of the finest Lamas are now refusing even to come to the West.'
KD: I think at this point we have probably addressed all we need to address.
R: I think you are absolutely right. There is little more that can be achieved by giving this material any further time. It is said that if one argues with a fool one becomes a fool oneself - so maybe if one argues with a political manipulator one has to enter too far into their world. I am sorry for whatever pain this lady has experienced - but I do not believe that she will help herself by taking the course she has adopted. I believe that if she were actually through with Vajrayana, that she would be getting on with her life. If she has now discovered happiness - why is she wasting her time writing about her pain? She may feel it benefits others, and if that is her intention then that at least is good in some way - but I find it slightly hard to believe that she does not realise that what she has written will be disturbing and hurtful to the many good people who have no problems with their Lamas or their spiritual home in Vajrayana Buddhism.
Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen
Thursday 13 February 2003
BBC Four: What attracted you to making a film about Buddhism?
Werner Herzog: I was not attracted to make a film about Buddhism. I was rather reluctant to step in because I have very little knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. I find it a strange idea for Westerners to become Buddhists. Even the Dalai Lama speaks out against that. [He says] you should not leave the religion of your traditional culture. But then there were some signals by the Dalai Lama himself that he would welcome me to do that so there was no way out any more. I must say that once I stepped into and arrived among half a million pilgrims in all their devotion and fervour in Bodh Gaya in India I did not regret for one minute that I did this film. It was fantastic work.
BBC Four: How did the film come about?
WH: I was originally invited by this group in Graz who were planning to hold the Kalachakra Initiation in Austria and I immediately said that it didn't sound right for me - it's all Westerners and I do not understand too much about Buddhism, it should be expanded much more. These are great festivities that belong to a traditional culture and ambience. There was quick agreement over that so I started to do the film.
BBC Four: What sort of differences did you experience between Bodh Gaya and Austria?
WH: It's obvious in the film that there is a different attitude among those who have adopted Buddhism as their religion. Which is fine, but in my opinion there's something strange about it. Wouldn't it look strange if you were in Bodh Gaya and saw 10,000 Tibetans in Hassidic outfits celebrating Yom Kippur? I must confess I am exaggerating but I try to think the other way around as well. Yet of course I fully agree with the Dalai Lama on one of his basic views that he voices over and over again - only through understanding other religions will we eventually create lasting peace on this planet.
BBC Four: Did you feel you could personally relate to the devotion in Bodh Gaya?
WH: I always relate to devotion because I had a very dramatic religious phase in my own youth. I converted to become a Catholic and got baptised at the age of 14. From this experience I do very deeply understand religious impulses, religious devotion and fervour. It comes very easily to me. I truly understand these people and I truly like it a lot and you can see that in the film.
BBC Four: That's especially true of the scenes at Mount Kailash. Did you feel a divine presence there?
WH: No, but I could tell that they felt a divine presence there and I had a deep affinity to that.
BBC Four: You've said in the past that you're continually seeking new images in your films. Was being able to film Mount Kailash a factor in you agreeing to make Wheel of Time?
WH: Partially yes, I think so. There was this spirit of exploring the unknown for me and that's also something deeply imbedded in me. At Mount Kailash I added to the film even though it doesn't fully belong in there and yet it's somehow the pivotal element in the film. This we have to believe is not just a sacred, symbolic cosmography like the mandala but it has to do with a landscape that is felt to be sacred for the Buddhists and the Hindus and others as well. It was a deep curiosity to show a truly sacred landscape. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to shoot Mount Kailash by myself. I was my own cinematographer for these sequences.
BBC Four: The film is full of wonderful images. Do you have any particular favourites?
WH: I must say I like the whole film as it is. Sometimes an image that looks extraordinary is only extraordinary in the context and the build-up of sensibility of the audience. When you see a monk sitting on a pillow with empty pillows all around him it is, per se, an insignificant image. In the context of the film it becomes a very, very big moment and one of the best and finest and biggest moments I've ever filmed. An image like the sacred lake from Bodhi Sarovar with lights glittering at its surface as if on a TV the dots dancing late at night when the station has switched off; it looks so strange and so unreal and in context all of a sudden it becomes so big. Many of these images have their beauty but they don't have this kind of deep significance of something you do not forget easily.
BBC Four: The music complements the images perfectly. How much of it is new?
WH: Some of it is from Nepal. There is one piece of music by Popol Vuh and Florian Fricke, who has done music for many of my films. Unfortunately Florian died a year ago. When I visited his widow I asked if she had some music I had not heard yet and I came across this piece and I knew immediately that this was the music I needed for my film. So not only does the music fit wonderfully in the film and transports the images somehow, it is also a bow in the direction of my friend who died.
BBC Four: Is it fair to say that you're not very fond of the term documentary?
WH: Not in the context of my films no. With documentaries on television you always think about animals in the Serengeti or a journalistic documentary. This is not really applicable to what I'm doing.
BBC Four: Do you differentiate much between your fiction and non-fiction films?
WH: No, I do not see the borderline. It's very blurred and things in my [non-fiction] films are partially staged. It's not just a position of observing and recording. One of the very beautiful scenes in Wheel of Time, the lonesome bodyguard at the end who seems to be forgotten and not called off his duty and protecting no one from not much of a crowd. That is staged. The distinction between what I see and record just as an observer and what I stage and the way I narrate the film and use music and the way I create a certain climate is all different from what you would normally expect from a documentary.
BBC Four: Some people might argue that your approach is slightly deceitful...
WH: I've always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise you will end up with what cinema-vérité does - they are the accountants of truth. I'm after something deeper. I call it the "ecstatic truth" - the "ecstasy of truth". Wheel of Time is an example of that.
BBC Four: You ask a monk who was imprisoned for 37 years what he thought when he saw the Dalai Lama for the first time. What was your reaction?
WH: When I saw him I saw a very kind, warm-hearted human being. I think it strikes everyone who meets the Dalai Lama. Obviously there are people who feel the radiation of something much deeper and more powerful which I do not. I see the person and I wish there were more like him.
During his formal training as a Buddhist monk in
Burma, Alan Clements had the good fortune to study with two of the most respected
meditation masters of our time, the late Mahasi Sayadaw and his successor Sayadaw
U Pandita. Since then, Clements' experiences in the genocidal conflicts in both
Burma and the former Yugoslavia have led him to expand his teaching outside the
realm of classical Buddhism, into an area he calls "the dharma beyond Buddhism."
His tireless efforts on behalf of oppressed peoples worldwide have led Jack Healy,
former Amnesty International director, to call Alan "one of the most important
and compelling voices of our time." He is the author of The Voice of Hope:
Conversations with Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu
Sounds True: What do you mean by "natural freedom"?
Alan Clements: As fragrance is innate to a flower, so too is freedom innate to the heart. Freedom is our essence. This is as obvious as standing out in nature and asking, "Where is nature found?" It's all around you, and in you. When you know "true nature" as such, you wake up, you begin living again, and in some way, you stop dying inside. The Buddha called this realization Nirvana, or the "deathless." This is something you don't actually learn, so much as "feel into" as a progressive set of realizations. It comes from the inside out, and flows through the pores of your entire being. Herein lies natural freedom. Remembering we have nothing to fear when we are true to ourselves. The authentic spiritual life is not about fitting in, or transcending some imaginary self. It's about being a person, obliterating fear, and doing something remarkable with our lives.
ST: How does this relate to classical Buddhism?
AC: To me the Buddha is a metaphor for radical courage and self-honesty. Blazing your own trail, following your most natural calling: the instinct for freedom. Furthermore, these teachings are rooted in a concept the Buddha explained as his basic attitude as he pursued liberation. He said that he made each and every person he met his ultimate object of reverence. In other words, we cannot become free in isolation. Thus we must become devoted to life and not to dogmatic theories or teachings.
We no longer need to be confined by the motifs of spiritual vs. nonspiritual, dharma vs. adharma, American vs. Tibetan. We are bigger than that. It's time we evolved a new language of world truths, world dharma, that transcends culture and nationalism, politics and religion, and all forms of tribalism. Natural Freedom is my attempt to open a door to a truly universal dharma one that is transcultural, nonsectarian, and utterly human.
So, from the standpoint of my classical Buddhist training, Natural Freedom is both a distillation or essence of the past, as well as evolutionary, an expansion beyond it.
ST: What are the critical things we will learn on Natural Freedom?
You may have had the experience of certain music that can elevate you effortlessly
beyond yourself, beyond identity, and other limiting filters. That is what I've
tried to do with Natural Freedom: create good, intuitive "music" that
is deeper than your mind, your thoughts, and all constructs. It consists of seven
guiding principles (like songs on a CD), each with its own
ambience and texture to be felt and absorbed over a lifetime not a doctrine to remember. Simply, what I'm teaching is a radical transformative spirituality, with one overarching message: empower your entire being, live fully and in the present, make yourself irresistible, honor the innate beauty of being, and, most of all, make every aspect of your life a dance, an opportunity to liberate yourself and others from fear, narrow-mindedness, and ignorance, as well as expanding into compassion, open-mindedness, and understanding.
ST: Given the world today, where can we start as spiritual activists?
AC: As Dostoevsky once said, "The battlefield is the heart of man." The activist knows this and enters the battle where it really happens, inside the heart.
Activism, like meditation, is an inner dance; the outside is merely a personification of one's ignorance or wisdom. So firstly, you must celebrate your own dignity and innate beauty. If we cannot rejoice in our own freedom, we cannot understand and creatively support the hopes and aspirations of others, which is the basis of authentic activism. Secondly, we must be present, right here and now, with whomever we are engaging.
Activism means the ability to show up with your heart, purpose, and passion, ready to serve, to help, to touch and be touched. Thirdly, you must try to communicate the preciousness of all life. Do not be fooled that enlightenment is a state beyond this world: it isn't. The dharma is seen in the eyes of the person right in front of you. That is where activism becomes enlightened: finding liberation through living, right now.
Interview with Venerable Master Hsin Yun
on the Inauguration of Fo Guang Shan Seventh Head Abbot
1. Venerable Master, can you please explain for us the Buddhist ideals behind passing on the lineage of Fo Guang Shan to the next generation?
Answer: In ancient times in the political arena, it did not matter how long an emperor remained on the throne, eventually he had to step down. Although they used to say 'a reign of ten thousand years', but in truth, no one is actually able to live for ten thousand years. In the succession of the emperor, if the heir was inhumane, then it would lead to a great many atrocities and the nation would be unable to be ruled or maintain peace for long. The most terrifying aspect of this sort of succession was that they did not prepare for and organize it while still alive, but only relinquished the position on death. Because of this lack of preparation, many problems and crises arose, and there was often no end of the ensuing strife and disorder. Take the ten sons of Emperor Kangxi for example. Because he did not appoint an heir and successor ten or so years before his demise, the brothers later fell into feuding, and destroyed and slew one another. There is also the tragic case of Emperor Taizong, who assassinated his own brothers in his claim to the Imperial throne.
Buddhism takes the matter of lineage very seriously. In India, the Buddha transmitted the treasury of the true Dharma eye to Most Venerable Mahakasyapa, which generations later was transmitted to Bodhidharma, the Twenty-eighth Patriarch of India and the First Patriarch of the Chan School in China. The transmission continued until the Sixth Patriarch, and although the flower of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng bloomed into the five petals of the next generation and the formation of the Five School and Seven Orders, there was still much importance placed on the continuation of the Dharma lineage. From the Dharma lineage of Fo Guang Shan, the Linji Order, there is the saying 'the sons of Linji will fill all beneath heaven'. This symbolizes the many branches and leaves of the tree of Dharma, which have culminated in Fo Guang Shan being the forty-ninth generation. We can thus see that Buddhism has continually done a good job of passing down to the next generation. Presently, Fo Guang Shan is simply undergoing the process of structuring, in hope of having a positive influence on the social climate in general, perhaps even to the point of the future development and growth of the nation, and its future economic planning. This will be a role model for all of humanity in passing down the light to those yet to come.
2. Venerable Master Hsing Yun, what feelings and hopes do the former Head Abbots have regarding this succession?
Answer: Succession is passing down to the next generation. When one sees the successes of the younger generation and their ability to take responsibility, one naturally feels very pleased. There are also expectations. I expect them to: Firstly, skillfully lead the community and be vigorous in guiding them on the Buddhist path. Secondly, take pride in the peace of the monastery, that all may live together in harmony without discord, and establish a Sangha of the six harmonies. Thirdly, to continue in the spread and dissemination of Fo Guang Shan's Humanistic Buddhism, to work together in creating a Pure Land in the human realm.
3. Venerable Master, is this the first time that this system of passing on to the next generation while the elder generation is still present has been put into effect?
Answer: If we look at history we see that it is usually the case of one person holding onto a position for 'ten thousand years', before passing it on. In the end, the results are not good. For example, the 'ten thousand years' of the Chairman of the Chinese Buddhist Association, (actually holding the position for over forty years), abbots of monasteries in their 'ten thousand year' tenures, company CEOs at the reins for 'ten thousand years', members of parliament in office for 'ten thousand years', and the like. This is because they do not understand that great rivers have many rivers pushing behind them, and that the young need to come forward to replace the old. But in human endeavors there seldom are early successors, a passing on to the new. If streams, rivers, lakes and seas have no fresh water, how can they flow freely? If they cannot flow freely, how can there be fresh water?
When I was young, I studied at Mount Qixia and Mount Jiao for ten years, and I saw that there were many reasons why the monasteries at Mount Qixia and Mount Jiao were able to grow and develop. Within those many reasons, there were five or six changes of abbot within a ten year period. This realization of the importance of passing on responsibility is the main cause and reason for their success. Because of this historical development, and being influenced very positively during my own formative years, I therefore promote the ideal of passing on responsibility to the next generation.
4. Venerable Master, as the founder of Fo Guang Shan, may we ask you what sort of requisites a Head Abbot should possess?
Answer: They themselves must possess: Firstly, a virtuous heart. Secondly, a sense of giving and contribution to the community. Thirdly, loving kindness and compassion to all living beings. Fourthly, sincerity and honesty towards the monastery. Fifthly, they must have Bodhicitta in their spiritual cultivation (practicing the Buddha path).
In addition, a Head Abbot needs to be in accord with the people, and lead people to what is right and good. Generally speaking, right and goodness should flow forth from them. I have said before, 'members of Fo Guang Shan must have religious sentiment, must understand the concept of cause and effect, must have the virtues of humility and shame, and must have the graceful capacity to tolerate others.' These ideas are all explained in detail in Hsing Yun's Hundred Sayings Series, and How to be a Buddha Light Person. Also, the Treasury of Teachings from the Chan Monastery contains clear directions on how to be an outstanding abbot. It really is a classic in how to be an excellent abbot, and every Head Abbot should really study it quite thoroughly.
5. If it is not taboo to ask, originally, many devotees supported Fo Guang Shan because Venerable Master was the founder and Head Abbot, the spiritual guide of Fo Guang Shan. Will the change of abbot raise doubts or second thoughts in the minds of devotees?
Answer: It is exactly because of the possible crisis in people's faith due to the succession of people, and the corresponding influence on the community, that I have made such structuring into a habit. When I stepped down some twenty years past, I told the devotees: 'People have birth, aging, sickness and death, people come and go. Only the Dharma is eternal and unchanging. Therefore, rely on the Dharma and not on the person.' If an organization establishes a structure for the benefit of all rather than the individual, then succeeding generations will even be able to exceed the preceding generation, and the future will be bright. Most secular academics will be able to see that there have been seven terms of abbotship from the founding of Fo Guang Shan up until the present Head Abbot. They will know that Fo Guang Shan has already made passing on to the next generation as part of its management policy. My deepest and most heartfelt concern, is that the Dharma lineage and transmission of Fo Guang Shan will continue forever.
& Tibetan Buddhism
This interview was conducted with a Buddhist monk from the Tibetan tradition. He is now in his mid-40's and has been part of the monastic community since he was 6 years old. His studies have brought him the highest degree received in the Tibetan monastic system and he travels worldwide to teach and perform initiations. Although born in Tibet, he now is the abbot of a monastery in Nepal and is revered as the incarnation of a venerated spiritual leader. Our discussion was conducted through the help of another monk who served as translator. I have given him the pseudonym of Abbot. More detail than usual is included here because of this meeting's unique nature and the cultural learning possible by my relating a more complete story.
The nature of this cultural interview on grief makes it somewhat different from most others. Monks are immersed in their religion. It is their entire existence and culture is inseparable from religious belief (see references for a list of links discussing Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism as it relates to death and dying). Tibet is an additional confounder here, for the country spent over a thousand years developing a spiritual-based society rather than the more secular societies seen elsewhere and Tibet now has ceased to exist in that manner. The efforts toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with China have progressively forced the exiled Tibetan leadership (who are also religious leaders) to become adept at representing themselves, their country, and their religion to the rest of the world. It also has served to physically separate much of the religious community from the majority of the Tibetan people. The history of this transition is tragic and accounts can be found in His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's autobiography and The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (see references). The most important point here, as it relates to the interview, is to understand that this is a "professional's" account of how grief functions in Tibetan society, not a lay-person's story. Our discussion was not private or personal. At least one other person (the translator) was present throughout the interview; at times, others were present. My perceptions also played into the interview, as I felt that Abbot's social status, my status as a guest, and the presence of a translator discouraged too much "probing" beyond the answers provided. Therefore, I only asked some clarifying questions, but did not pursue much beyond that. Abbot's perspective as an official representative of his culture and his roles as a teacher and spiritual leader are important factors to understand when interpreting this discussion.
I was uncertain whom the interview would be with before I arrived at the monastery. My initial intent was that the contact simply be with someone who was available. To my surprise, I was told that I was very lucky to be coming and then given a time to arrive. All arrangements and subsequent discussions were done using only my first name, something that struck me given our cultural propensity to take down full contact information. Upon arrival, I handed my offering (a cultural tradition) of strawberries and pineapple to the monk who greeted me. We entered the back door of the building where I was instructed to remove my shoes and wait. The offering was prepared on a tray and I was led to a room where the translator and Abbot were waiting. Although the monastery was constructed as a standard wood structure, there was a striking mix of Western-style appointments and Tibetan religious and cultural items present. Both Western-style doors and cloth Tibetan door coverings were present; only the cloth coverings were in use. An atmosphere of simplicity and purposefulness overlaid this mix of cultures.
What follows is an edited transcript of Abbot's responses by topic.
Tradition & Ritual Commemorating a Death
Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have to commemorate a death?
If a person died today then, counting that day, seven days later we would begin performing religious ceremonies. Ceremonies would be performed again every seven days for 49 days after death (7 x 7). Then there is a break and no more ceremonies are held until the anniversary of the death. After one year there is a big ceremony that is on the anniversary of the death. The reason why the ceremonies are performed for the first 49 days is that the person goes into the intermediate state and the longest period that a person would stay in the intermediate state is 49 days. These ceremonies are specially performed for the person in the intermediate state and their intent is to help the person have a better rebirth. After one year the anniversary ceremony that is held to remember the person who died. For example, if parents lost a child the ceremony would be for the parents to remember their child.
Tradition & Ritual Leading Up to a Death
Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have which lead up to a death?
One important thing is that if somebody knows that a person is going to die, then they can prepare by doing positive works. What we can do for that person is to take all the belongings of that person and distribute them. They should be given to the poor children, the poor, and the charities. There is positive energy if the person decides before they die to give the things to others who need it. All the things-the prosperity-that one has accumulated in one's life. All this becomes more positive, more beneficial, when it is contributed to positive works. If one has not used or distributed one's things and one dies, one cannot take these things with them. One does not need all of those things.
Comfort & Grief in Times of Loss
Question: What are some of the beliefs that you hold that offer comfort in a time of loss?
The first condolence or advice offered to that person is that generally all of us have to die. So that when somebody dies there is nothing we can do externally, they should be patient with this fact. For example, if some person is dying on the deathbed, or if a person has died, then the family and friends are intolerant to grief and crying-it is not beneficial to them. The reason for that is that if a person is on a deathbed and he sees crying he will feel sad and upset. Even if that person is already dead and in the intermediate state he can see us crying and grieving for the loss and he will also feel sad. This sadness can affect the person's feelings of attachment and increase his suffering, possibly causing a less fortunate rebirth. So, instead, one should give advice that all the things one can perform for that person is more beneficial. Those actions will be beneficial for that person. Also, one can give advice that that person gave us much, he was a good person, who had a good heart, and who helped other people. One can give advice to his family that it doesn't matter that he dies, he was a good being and he will be reborn in a more fortunate rebirth. So with death in our tradition, when a person is going to die we won't allow the family and friends to cry in front of him. It will make him more sad.
Question: What about beliefs that add to the pain of loss?
For the one thing, the belief that could cause more grief to people who lost someone is attachment. The positive side is that of a strong affection toward that person and wanting to always be with that person. This is positive. The negative also is that of strong attachment toward that person. It is the nature of attachment that people or something we like, create strong bonds that cannot be easily severed. That is not good. So in the Buddhist teachings, what we call love or compassion, one has equal love toward all sentient beings or compassion toward all sentient beings. If one had this kind of teaching toward our compassion in all sentient beings, then this kind of basic teaching will create a strong grief when somebody dies, because that affection along with the strong attachment will not be working together in a positive process. So generally, all the causes of suffering in this world are from attachment, ignorance, and hatred.
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Grief
Question: How would you define health and unhealthy grief?
For example, if somebody died then the grief that death causes one would normally result in the need to perform lots of good acts and a lot of good works if one misses [grieves] all of these things. That is the negative side. If because of somebody's death, that causes a person to change a lot and try to put into practice lots of positive works. That is positive or healthy grief. This is a beneficial part of grief.
One of the positive things that can be done to help make grief positive is that one needs to remind those grieving that all of us die sometime. When I die there's nothing that can be helped and that grief does not help me for my next life. One thing that really helps me is my practice of dharma, my practice of religion, so that we can understand that. So that one practices the dharma, religion, and then one is stronger to do actions that help other beings and that is good. In the course of achieving happiness in our lives we use worldly activities to achieve that happiness, it can only be done in this life. So even if one is trying to achieve happiness in this life, one won't achieve the ultimate happiness-a happiness that won't be changeable-in that course. Something will occur and one will have suffering again. So to have a complete happiness, an ultimate happiness, one needs to bring the mind to a state of complete or ultimate happiness. Bringing the mind to the state of ultimate happiness, cannot be accomplished through worldly activities or the normal way of life. For that purpose we practice religion, or the dharma, or the faiths.
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Death
Question: How would you characterize a healthy death?
The healthy death is something that the people who are in the process of death, one died without being frightened, with no fear, without any kind of grief. One dies in a state of happiness, a state of joy. Before one dies one says that "I know I'm going to die." So he calls his friends and family and gives them advice for his death. The things I'm explaining to you, it is a natural death. This is not true for suicide. When sometime someone says "I'm going to die and kill myself," that is the worst death. Abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are all unhealthy deaths. In our conception we believe that if you harm something that is living, that is not positive, that is negative. One of the most precious things is life. Even if someone wants to create life one cannot create life. One cannot produce life. When the child is in the mother's womb, at that time it has generated one human life, the taking of that life is like killing one person.
Private Grief Versus Public Mourning
Question: What is the relationship between your private grief and your public mourning? Is group support useful?
The nature of true grief, both personal and community grief, depends upon how the loss it to her, one is a larger scope, one a smaller scope. But the nature of the grief is the same. For example, if there is a family with two persons and they experience a death, the grief only involves those two persons. If one is working for the whole community, then that person is working with resolve and intention to develop kind attitudes so that person has to take the grief of the whole community. According to the Buddhist Mahayana practice, one has to think that I am working for the benefit of all sentient beings, so I am taking the responsibility of the happiness of all sentient beings. It is the same for both the one family who has desire for their happiness and does not want to experience the sorrow and unhappiness, and for the whole community who has the desire for happiness and something happens and the whole community does not wish for that to happen or experience sorrow.
Life as a Monk
Question: How does your life as a monk impact your own view of or experience with grief?
As a monk one has a lot of potential to help eliminate the grief and sorrow of communities. The reason for that is that as a monk one is single, a bachelor, and not allowed to marry. A monk does not need to spend lots of time taking care of family-a wife and kids. One has more time. In that case, being a monk, one has more time for personal practice and also one wants to work for the community and one can work with full aspiration. As a monk one should feel content with just having a pair of clothes and something to eat.
Other Things To Help Us Understand Grieving in Tibetan Society
Question: Is there anything beyond what we've talked about here that you would like for me to know in order to better understand how grief is experienced and processed in you culture?
Any kind of grief and suffering that one faces in life, we need to understand what is the cause of that and one should abandon or eliminate that cause. Firstly, one needs to recognize what is the grief or the suffering. When one recognizes that grief and suffering are bad things, then one needs to find a method to eliminate or abandon that. For example, if one is sick or one is suffering with an illness, one needs to investigate what is the real problem, the cause of that sickness. When one finds what the real sickness is, one needs to take the right medicine to cure that sickness. If one does not recognize the real problem or illness and just takes different kinds of medicines it can make one worse. According to the Buddhist philosophy, all suffering is the result of negative karma/negative actions, and all the happiness is the result of positive karma/positive actions. When one faces any kind of suffering or grief one needs to face that thing. How one can face these problems and sufferings is that one can think, "It is the result of something I accumulated myself in my past life. I cannot accuse other people for causing that trouble." You should eventually face that. If one can think in that way it would be beneficial, you have less hatred and anger toward other people. Also in the Buddhist practice when one faces suffering, one needs to rejoice that my negative karma has now gone away. If one thinks that way in the process of the suffering, one won't abandoned the practice of religion of dharma. Also in that process one won't abandon the practice of helping other people, the actions of helping other people.
One thing is very important, when the child is very small, at a very young age and all throughout life, to have a very strong bond between the child and the parents-to have a very strong affection towards each other. Your parents in this world is one of the most kindful beings in this life and this world. When we are kids, when we are at the stage when one cannot feed oneself, and cannot walk by oneself at that time the parents are showing the most kindness-they are giving the most love and kindness. In general, when one is in the big trouble of suffering, it is at that time when someone is helpful and one should really consider that being as helpful. In that process when the parents held their kids, it is through the power of these actions towards the bond between the parents and the child-toward affection. Even when the child is grown up and the parents become very old, the bond between the two should remain the same. The affection should remain the same, because the child is still a child and the parents still parents. This is my advice.
After formal thank-you's were said and Abbot expressed the hope that the information would be helpful to those who read it, I was told to wait while the translator left the room. He later returned with the monk who was assisting Abbot. Abbot gave this monk instructions and he again left the room. (All the while I am left there not knowing what was going on or what was being said.) When the assisting monk returned he gave Abbot a tiny package and me an address sticker showing Abbot's mailing address. Abbot then blessed the small package and handed it to me. It was a silver bracelet with blue beads. After again thanking him I was led from the room to the kitchen and offered something to drink. As I drank, visitors and monks came and left the room. I departed the monastery soon afterward. The kindness and gentleness of these men were striking.
Many would consider the Buddhist approach to death unfeeling and insensitive. This conversation, if not examined closely, could imply a denial of grief over a loss. In fact, acknowledgement of suffering (grief in this case) is central to Buddhism. However, there is also the concept of attachment being a major source of suffering and that refraining from strong attachment is ideal. This does not mean a lack of love or compassion, but a worldview that sees all sentient beings as equal and needful of love and assistance. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are (see Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism @ http://www.buddhanet.net/qanda.htm ):
1. Life is suffering.
2. All suffering is caused by craving.
3. Suffering can be overcome and happiness attained.
4. The path leading to the overcoming of suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path).
" Perfect Understanding
" Perfect Thought
" Perfect Speech
" Perfect Action
" Perfect Livelihood
" Perfect Effort
" Perfect Mindfulness
" Perfect Concentration
This interview sounds as if the religious community would like for the lay community to deny their grief over the death and their feelings of attachment toward the deceased. I do not believe that this was Abbot's intention. If it were done in actual practice, such expectations would likely be unrealistic. This implication is also contrasted by the last remarks from Abbot on the parent-child bond.
Advice given by the monks would be seen as relatively unhelpful in our culture. Other contacts I have had with this culture reinforce a belief-based cultural minimization of grief. Grief is understood and dealt with, but approached in a different manner from other religions. My impression is that of it being more "cognitive" and action oriented than most religions. Also important is the concept of a unifying consciousness and the implications of a belief that the individual self is an illusion.
Actual practice, perceptions, and feelings of Tibetan Buddhist lay people remain undisclosed by our discussion here. This also only provides a glimpse of the culture and religion and much more information is needed for full understanding.
BuddhaNet: Buddhist Information Network-Gateway, http://www.buddhanet.net, (June 25, 1999).
Buddhist Teachings, Basic Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/budteach.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/qanda.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Buddhism Links Tibetan Buddhism, http://www.zip.com.au/~cee_gee/tibet.html, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Buddhist-World Wide Web Links, http://www.buddhanet.net/l_tibet.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Studies WWW Virtual Library, http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies.html, (June 25, 1999).
Gyatso T. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1990.
Shakya T. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 1999.
of Vietnamese Buddhism: chief monk
On October 29, the Most Venerable Thich Thanh Tu, permanent deputy president of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha's Executive Council and National Assembly (NA) deputy of the Hanoi constituency, spoke before the NA about the current situation of the Sangha. To shed light on his speech, Lao Dong (Labour) daily newspaper interviewed the Most Venerable on the sidelines of the NA. Following is the interview:
Q: How do you judge the Party and government's policies towards religion, including Buddhism?
A: The Party and government's policies towards religion, including Buddhism, are quite proper. It was not now but right after we seized power from the French colonialists, that President Ho Chi Minh issued an ordinance on religious affairs. I must note that it is not Vietnam alone but every country in the world that has a body in charge of religious affairs. In some countries, the responsible body can be a religious council. In Vietnam, the government's Committee for Religious Affairs functions to help religious congregations nationwide practise their religion.
Q: However, there are still a small number of Buddhist people using slander and lies against our religious policies. What are your opinions to this effect?
A: Regrettably, some people hide under the name of religion to distort the Vietnamese government's policy on this matter. Some Buddhist people, who are unhappy with our policy, have been manipulated by ill-willed people outside our country. Those who do not support our regime and do not want to see stability and development in our country, have used many methods to sabotage her. Buddhism has over the past 2,000 years followed the tenets of supporting the nation and reassuring the people. As early as the Dinh Tien Hoang Dynasty, there were bonzes who gloriously served the country. This tradition lived on in the Tran and Ly dynasties and especially since the August Revolution, their service to the nation has been very significant. However, there are people who have been unaware of this fact and incited by ill-willed people to act negatively.
Unifying all Buddhist sanghas into one organisation is an issue of paramount importance in compliance with the desire of generations of Buddhist monks, nuns and followers and has been done on a voluntary basis without any imposition from the government. Nine Buddhist organisations have voluntarily merged into one. There is no reason to have nine Buddhist organisations in one country. However, some have intentionally ignored this organisation. In my opinion, the root cause of this, is their being manipulated by ill-willed people.
Q: Has the State ever interfered in the Sangha's internal affairs?
A: Our regime differs from those in the past. The feudal and colonialist regimes adopted the policy of "divide and conquer." The smaller they divided an organisation the more easily they could rule.
Because our State's line highlights solidarity, the unification of Buddhist organisations is a proper decision. The Vietnamese government supports rather than interferes in the Sangha's internal affairs.
Q: What has the government done to facilitate the Sangha's operation?
A: Vietnam's Buddhism has a 2,000-year history and its two most prosperous periods were during the Ly and Tran dynasties. In my opinion, those periods were not really as prosperous as at present when Vietnam's Buddhism has peaked in its quantitative and qualitative development. All Buddhist places of worship have been restored, including those that were bombed during wars. The people's freedom to practise religion has been enhanced. The government has helped Buddhist and Catholic churches build training schools. How can a religious organisation develop if it does not train personnel?
Q: Certain foreigners have hidden under the name of Buddhism to speak ill of the Vietnamese State. They even threatened that they would request international organisations to break relations with Vietnam. What are your comments?
A: They cannot represent us because they have nothing to do with the domestic Buddhist congregation. I want to warn you that they have not only incited subversive actions inside the country but have also taken advantage of hostile forces outside the country. We must always stay alert.
Q: Of the six targets set out by the Sangha, what is the most important?
A: The Sangha's current targets are to disseminate Dharma, uphold the national unity, consolidate ideology, promote patriotism, and stay alert to distortions and attempts at manipulation by ill-willed forces. The Sangha is additionally working to train a younger generation fully aware of the schemes used to cause dissension and sabotage to the nation. (VNA)
The Dalai Lama
CBC News Online | April 16, 2004
From The National April 19, 2004
Since he arrived in Canada this weekend, people can't seem to get enough of the smiling monk with the rock star appeal, and it's no secret why. Behind that grin is one of the most influential voices in the world. The Dalai Lama is the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, a disciple of non-violence and a living icon. He spoke with the CBC's Hana Gartner.
Hana Gartner: He calls himself a simple Buddhist monk. And that's how he arrived in Vancouver. No fanfare, no official welcome. Just some faithful followers anxious to get a glimpse of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. He'll meet with government leaders who finally decided they would see him despite China's objections. When he's in the States, this Nobel Peace Prize winner gets the star treatment. Presidents and celebrities line up to get a private audience and a picture. Tibet's exiled spiritual and temporal leader has become an icon. His message of peace and happiness is more self-help than religion, and that is turning his books into bestsellers and turning him into a celebrity. Why is there this hunger for a spiritual hero?
Dalai Lama: That's an unrealistic expectation! Of course, usually... Of course, the peace of friendship is in everybody's interest. Everybody loves that. Everybody wants that. My approach is to analyse our life and also analyse the world of our emotions, analyse. Through awareness, you get a certain attitude. That's the way, you see, to achieve more peaceful, more compassion, more friendship through that way.
Hana Gartner: In China, they don't think of you as a hero. You have accused the Chinese government of cultural genocide. Why is it that no world leader, including our own, stands beside you and says, I support him? Why is it they treat you like some kind of a political hot potato?
Dalai Lama: Many leaders actually are showing genuine sympathy. Also, whenever they have appropriate time, they always raise Tibetan issues. Now Tibetan issues means human rights violations and also the preservation of Tibetan culture, heritage, these kinds of things.
Hana Gartner: Why can't they do it out front? Why do they have to say to the world, we're only seeing him as a spiritual leader, we're really not seeing him as a political leader?
Dalai Lama: For me also, that's better.
Hana Gartner: It is?
Dalai Lama: My own sort of case, 80 per cent... I think 80 per cent of my energy and time is spent on spiritual field. I always introduce myself as a Buddhist monk. Nothing else. So when someone, they consider me as a Buddhist monk, I'm very happy. If someone considers me as a politician, that's not very correct.
Hana Gartner: You're not comfortable with that robe of a politician. You're less comfortable with it?
Dalai Lama: I am not a politician. A kind of sort of work which I'm involved is national struggle. Freedom struggle.
Hana Gartner: That's political. That's very political.
Dalai Lama: And also, now, here, my main concern for Tibet is preservation of Tibetan culture, preservation of Tibetan spirituality. I'm not much concerned about political field, whatever political status, OK, so long the preservation of Tibetan culture, preservation of Tibetan spirituality and environment fulfilled, then political status doesn't matter. Not much important. Personally, I have no interest in the political status of these things. I made it very clear, I think in '92, I made it very clear, when time comes for our return with certainty of freedom, then I will hand it over, all my religious authority to the local government. I have nothing to ask about myself.
Hana Gartner: But I guess that's the question: when the time comes. There are a lot of young Tibetans who are now asking themselves, can you really fight force with faith? Can you overcome hate with hope? They've been trying that for half a century, and they say maybe it's not working. Maybe the middle way doesn't work. They would like freedom in this lifetime.
Dalai Lama: Yes, that is their argument. Of course, understandable. Not only young people, but even the elder people now more than 50 years since I left, since we've become refugees, in a lifetime, not shocked. Meantime, inside Tibet, even today, some sort of human rights violations, a degeneration about our culture or our spirituality and also environment. These things are happening.
Hana Gartner: With so many ethnic Chinese going into Tibet, now Tibetans are a minority in their own country.
Dalai Lama: So things are serious. So these other people, now more frustrations. So their patience now becomes thin like that. But I always used to telling them, more patience, more patience, and now, you see, here I am not fooling these people. I really feel, look global level. The later part of 20th century, much positive things changed. Much positive things happened. The totalitarian sort of systems, including Soviet Union, have changed. Now democratic society, although a lot of difficulties there. Now China, People's Republic of China, today's China, compare 30 years ago or 20 years ago, much changed. There are awareness about outside world and other values, including spirituality and individual freedom. Now these also begin in their mind. So these are some kind of peaceful evolution. Evolution gradually changes. This definitely will come. On the other hand, due to too much impatience, what we'll do, what could do? Fight?
Hana Gartner: Some want to.
Dalai Lama: Us? Fight? Self-destruction. Suicide. And whether we like it or not, in Tibet, they have to live side by side with our Chinese brothers and sisters. Now, in order to live harmoniously, happily, friendly, with mutual respect, we must carry our struggle through non-violence and try to achieve mutually agreeable solution. If we use common sense, I think that is the only way.
Hana Gartner: I keep interrupting you. I'm impatient. Forgive me.
Dalai Lama: You also represent those people who have less patience.
Hana Gartner: I'll work on it. I know that you believe that people are essentially benevolent and peaceful. You do. But then help me, as a parent, how do I explain to my children about 9/11, Madrid, Iraq, the Middle East, the horrible examples of anti-Semitism that we're experiencing right here?
Dalai Lama: Some crisis or violence here and there, it will always happen, always happen to human beings on this planet. This is a problem, all this happens. But then we have to look at whole picture. I think if you look at whole picture, I think today's world compared to early period 20th century, I think today much better, because I think awareness, I think, and because I think human way of thinking more widened.
Hana Gartner: But isn't it hard to tell somebody who is suffering who is in pain, be patient, it's going to get better? That's very hard.
Dalai Lama: Now two levels to come to these things. One, yes, we need immediate help to these people. Of course. On another level, we have to think how to prevent this in future. These two things are very important. Now, in some cases - now, for example - in the condemnation for terrorists, some using some violence. Yes, in particular circumstances, under particular circumstances, yes, it could be justified. However, this is not the full answer for long run.
Hana Gartner: But this is extraordinary. The Dalai Lama said violence under certain circumstances you could see as justified?
Dalai Lama: Possible. Look, First World War, Second World War. I think Second World War, at least, although millions of people killed, suffer, immense, but really I was against war because war is some kind of legalized maximum violence. I'm always against. However, and like Second World War and Korean War, at least to protect the rest of the democratic civilization, and Korea, South Korea protected. As a result, more prosperity and democracy, freedom, these things. So sometimes... But then I think the difficult thing is when violence is started, eventually there's always a danger the situation become out of control, chain reaction, chain violence like Vietnam. All those same motivations, same strategy, same goal, but fail. Therefore, I always believe right from the beginning, must avoid violence.
Hana Gartner: But while you can concede that sometimes it's necessary, there are those in Tibet who believe there is justification that if you do not stand up, if you just are a pacifist, you empower the person who is oppressing you.
Dalai Lama: Individual case? For example, if mad dog coming, almost certain now bite you. Then if you say, non-violence, non-violence and compassion
Hana Gartner: You get bitten!
Dalai Lama: That's kind of foolish! You have to take use of self-defence. But without harming, without serious harming another, I think that's the way I feel. If someone try to shoot on you, then there is no possibility to run away, then you have to hit back. Then possibly not on head, but leg or something like that. So that's not serious hit back, but more lenient way, more gentle way.
Hana Gartner: Have you ever asked yourself if your spiritual message of compassion and forgiveness has undermined your success in the political field?
Dalai Lama: No. No, I don't.
Hana Gartner: You've never doubted... asked, did I do the right thing?
Dalai Lama: I have no sort of regret or I do not find in my major decisions, I do not find some mistake. Minor things. Later I found, oh, that's a mistake. But major decisions, now 55 years since I took responsibility, the major decision now seems right decision.
Hana Gartner: I thank you very much for your time.
Dalai Lama: Thank you.
Hana Gartner: It's a pleasure meeting you.
How did you find Buddhism?
I was doing practicing karate which was quite a central aspect of my life and used to read lots of karate books and there seemed to be lots of connections to Buddhism. When I practiced karate I felt so happy because of the discipline and focus, I practiced a few hours a week and those were my happiest moments.
How old were you when you discovered karate and then Buddhism?
I was about 16 when I discovered karate and at 17 decided to call myself a Buddhist although I didn't really have any understanding as to what that meant. I wanted a philosophy to follow that would bring me the happiness I found in karate and started reading Geshe Kelsang's books. I tried to practice on my own but found it quite difficult.
How did you find Geshe Kelsang's books?
There was a big display in Waterstones bookshop and couldn't believe how many books he had written and how clear they were. Previously I had only been reading the books about Buddhism from my university library but they were all written in old English my Westerners. I still have my notes that I took from those books and it still doesn't make sense to me, it certainly didn't' t change my life or anything. I found Geshe Kelsang's books to be much simpler to understand like Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation Handbook, so I just tried to work from those. However, I was at my first year of university and found other things took priority over my practice at that time.
So how did you find Thekchen Centre?
One of my flat mates in my third year of university happened to pick up a leaflet at her campus that someone had left there and knowing that I was a Buddhist gave it to me. So I came along.
How important has teaching been to you?
Teaching has been an incredible learning curve because you become more familiar with the teachings, as Geshe Kelsang said at the last festival, part of our practice is about going over the teachings repeatedly and familiarsing yourself in that way. So by teaching you really have to bring it to heart and try to understand it. What I feel when I am teaching is really that I am not teaching but Geshe Kelsang is teaching everyone in the room at that time and we all have the shared karma to receive particular teachings at that tim. So it's quite special.
What do you think people get out of the meditation classes?
I think they get some sort of relief from whatever they are experiencing. I remember very clearly what I got out of my first class. What I got out of it was just reassurance because I just remembered Gen Thogme's smile and could not believe how happy she looked. I just couldn't believe how peaceful she looked. I just thought wow this is fantastic. I don't think any of what she said went in at the time but I just remember what an amazing example she set.
What is Thekchen Centre all about?
It is a way of bringing a Sangha community together. Community is an important part of Buddhist practice, without that community it is very difficult practice. So firstly, the residents can practice Dharma with each other because at the end of the day we are 12 very different individuals living together in one house, so we need to practice Dharma! That's really important. Secondly it is about providing a service for Southampton. Being here to serve our Dharma Centre and the wider community. And to show how we can all live in harmony with each other. It's great because this community living just doesn't compare to ordinary living.
So you don't miss your old way of living?
No, not at all. You always have friends here and immense support as well is what I found because we can all relate to many of the same things. If I am experiencing a bad mind, I can just say that and there is an understanding from others, there is no attacking and there is a sincere wish to help one another that makes it very easy to live here.
What are the challenges of community living?
It's the self-cherishing mind that says- I want things to be done in my way is challenged a lot. Whereas maybe living alone, you could possibly run your household in exactly the way that you choose. But it doesn't make you happier, it just increases self-cherishing tendencies. So it can be harder in that your self-cherishing is challenged more but it's better in that it is challenging it and therefore in the long run creating more peaceful minds and also the ability to get on with others. By living in a community you definitely have to learn to cherish others.
How have your goals and aspirations changed as a result of coming across Buddhism?
They have change quite a bit. My goals really now is just to try my best to take Buddha's teachings to heart and to practice them and do what I can for the Centre.
What were your goals before?
Before I had quite a set goal that I wanted to achieve, I was very politically active and I wanted to change the major global institutions that I viewed as taking advantage of developing countries and saw a huge divide between rich and poor countries. I wanted to see some kind of global justice brought about. However at the same time, because I was mainly motivated by anger rather than compassion or wisdom it was becoming a harmful obsession for myself and for others that I encountered because I was always so angry about it.
A kind of righteous indignation?
Yes, I guess. When I actually looked into it, lots of the issues were not about caring for others but it was about me, I didn't like certain things about the world and was angry about it. When it came down to it, did I really care about people? I think I care more about people now then I did then.
What do your family and friends think about your practice?
I think most of my family are quite supportive because they can see that I am happy from My friends are supportive and have really accepted it, they have been really amazing.
Do you think they have benefited in any way?
Yes, I think whereas before, if they had come to me with problems I would have suggested solutions that tend to make problems worse like indulging in either food or drink. I think now - I am able to be a little more helpful like try to look at things in a different way and so on.
Does Dharma have a role in the work place?
Yes, because I think that work becomes much more pleasant when you stop thinking, what can I get out of it and just think instead, how can I cherish this person that I am working for and in that way you will be more conscientious and feel better about doing the job and the person you are working for will like you better.
What do you hope will be the future of Thekchen Centre?
I hope it will grow and that all Thogme's wishes will be fulfilled regarding the Centre, what ever those are, I just hope it will happen.
How does living at Theckchen Centre compare with living elsewhere?
Before living here, I lived in shared student flats, I did that for about four years before I moved in here. Previous to that I live with my family and found both those set-ups pretty hard. Even living with flat mates, I kept my independence but that always seemed to come into conflict with my other flat mates who were also very independent and had their own interests. Living at the Centre, where people are a lot more cherishing and easy going and just that completely transforms the situation. There is no blaming and there is a lot of empathy and compassion that we all have for each other and that really changes things. There is hardly any bad feelings or conflict, people just tend to get on with each other. I have never experienced that with any other household that I have lived in, even when I shared my student flat with my best friends there was still conflict and arguments.
What's the big picture?
Spreading world peace through training our minds, developing peaceful minds ourselves, we can help others do the same. This will have a dramatic affect in this life and create causes for positive results in future lives. So overall, any small thing that we do here at Thekchen Centre is bringing us closer to world peace.
Interviewed by R Thind
Did you have any spiritual or religious background?
No, it was pretty much non religious, although I do remember going to Sunday school. I had a fairly open mind about religion.
What events led you to find Buddhism?
I came across Buddhism through a working holiday, I found a brochure for working at Manjushri Centre which happened to be in the Lake District which was where I had wanted to go walking for many years. So I didn't have any real interest in Buddhism at that time. My working holiday, which was helping with preparation for the Spring Festival, I met many of the residents there and became good friends with one person in particular and ended up staying for the festival. It was quite a powerful experience and wanted to find out more. I was left questioning; I felt I needed to find out more about it. I came back to Southampton and found there was a Centre here, so I started coming along to the classes.
What was it that inspired you about the teachings? Did you connect with something in particular?
A lot of what was being said at the teachings was common sense and very positive and incorporated a lot of my own kind of thinking. I enjoyed coming along to the classes, there was the social side of it as well. I started coming along to pujas on the weekends, when we would do some prayers and sing and then have lots of nice food. I started getting more involved in decorating and helping out in the Centre which felt like something really useful to do. I didn't have a lot of understanding of dharma, I just knew I enjoyed it.
So at what point did you decide you wanted to move in to Theckchen Centre?
I had been coming to classes for about two years. I was living in a flat on my own and there were no rooms available at the time that I was interested in moving in so I had to wait. I was used to living on my own and being very independent, so I wanted to learn to live with other people. So it was a big change to move in with eight people at the time.
Now you have lived here four years, how have you found it?
I thought it would be quite difficult because it was such a big change for me but the ease at which I settled in here was really quite positive for me. It was easy because personally I had developed through my counseling training and my spiritual practice.
Coming from a counselling background yourself how does Buddhism fit into that?
It was a struggle at first because I lacked understanding of dharma and I kept trying to fit the two together somehow to be able to compare. But eventually I found that they wer quite equally supportive of each other, in terms of wanting to help peole deal with their minds and so on. Now I have more experience there is no conflict between them, they are both ways of cherishing people and helping people to help themselves through getting them to look at their minds and behaviour. It is helping people to take responsibility and bring about changes.
How has meditation helped you in your life?
It helped me stop worrying and let go of addictions, it has helped me to be more positive about life and enabled me to take responsibility for my happiness, showing me that it is my own mind that creates my unhappiness. It has given me stability, calmness and peace in my mind. I used to be a real worrier, always worrying about something.
What about teaching, why do you teach?
I enjoy teaching the most because I have belief in what I am teaching and I know that this is my way of giving to others. After a few years of teaching and receiving feedback from people, I know that it is helping people. I get inspired myself when teaching and it is a real quick path to understanding dharma because I have had to gain strong conviction in what I am teaching before I can teach it to others. Whilst I am teaching I am really enjoying it, I am not focused on myself at that time, just on giving dharma and knowing that I am helping people.
What can people expect to get out of coming to a meditation class?
These are not my teachings but Geshe Kelsang's and people will get what they need out of the teachings. Some people come along for the first time and really connect with the teachings, others take more time. It brings a connection between people, like a support, for some it is the only respite they get away from work and family where they can focus on their own minds. For others it is the beginning of a spiritual journey.
What a Dharma Centre all about then?
I think it's about walking your talk and putting Dharma into practice. It's an opportunity to put Dharma into practice, not just here with the residents but also with the external community as well. It's about giving in many different ways.
You mentioned the external community, what is the main benefit to this community?
Well, it's about being mindful all the time, being considerate of others all the time. When I was living on my own I only had to think of my needs, living in a community it about thinking about the needs of others. You can't live in a community without practicing Dharma really, otherwise problems will arise. However saying that living in this community is rally very easy. People here are really trying to put the teachings into practice. It's about flourishing the dharma and give everyone the opportunity to find that there is peace and stillness within their own mind and to raise awareness of this.
How has Buddhism changed your goals and aspirations in life?
My goals and aspirations has always been to move towards my potential. My aspirations have changed in that I have learnt to let go of a lot of my idealism and unrealistic dreams about how to find my happiness. It helps me to understand in my search for happiness that it's not out there, as such, it's not about changing jobs, getting more money or having a good relationship and so on, it is really about my mind. So my goal, to reach my potential has not changed but the means to getting there has.
Have your family and friends been supportive in your spiritual journey?
My family is very supportive, as long as I am happy they are happy.
For a couple of years you have had quite a high responsibility role at the Centre, what has been the outcome for you?
Learning how to communicate with others and realizing that everyone is different so it is important to communicate to different people in different ways on order to achieve what needs to be done at the Centre. I used to think that the way to get things done was to be bossy or demanding but I have learnt that it's not necessary to be tough to make things happen. Rather I can be kind and gentle and still get results; everyone is different, so skillfulness is also necessary.
What about Dharma on a global scale, do you think that it can have wider affects than just the immediate community?
On a world scale, with people training in meditation, this is the way forward for world peace. Coming back from the international festival in the Lake District is a reminder of how much Dharma is growing in the world.
How did you first come across Buddhism?
I first came across Buddhism seven years ago. It was a free introductory meditation class held at the Friends Meeting House in Winchester. I went to regular classes after that and got a lot out of it.
you about the meditation classes?
I felt it was real and that it worked but I wasn't sure why. I had been searching but hadn't found anything. I had looked into Buddhism a few years earlier, into the Hinayana traditions and thought it was quite special but it didn't really make a lot of sense to me. It didn't touch my life at that time. Then when I went to some classes and heard the greater vehicle teachings or Mahayana, it rang a bell inside.
Can you explain what you mean by Hinayana and Mahayana?
Hinayana is traditionally more to do with the monastic communities and is based on individual liberation whereas Mahayana is based more on liberation for all beings, I think that's the main difference.
How have the teachings and meditation practice influenced your life?
They have influenced my life on all levels. Geshe Kelsang, is such a pure being. He just wants us to follow the same path that he's on. I feel sometimes that I am in the presence of someone who is so special I can't really put it into words. I just know it's somebody who has no angle, no side, no deception; he's just very pure. He is someone who has realised the stages of the path to Enlightenment.
Why did you decide to move into Thekchen Centre?
I went back to live in Winchester and there were no classes running locally at the time so I came to Thekchen Centre for the day courses and classes. So really it was a way of getting back in touch with my practice on a more practical level. I had been living in Winchester on my own and doing my practice on my own and I think I needed some more motivation and felt that living with like-minded people would help.
So living in a dharma community has helped?
Yes, it's the Sangha Jewel, we are all headed in the same direction. It's great, we all help each other along this path.
Can you explain what you mean by the Sangha Jewel?
There is a useful analogy; Buddha is the doctor that provides the cure to suffering, the Dharma is the medicine that we can take and the Sangha Jewel are the nurses that help us. So if you take the Sangha out of the equation it just doesn't work because it is all inter connected. After living on your own and then going straight into a community of 11 residents, what were the challenges involved in community living? Being mindful of each other. Although we are all following the same path we are all very varied in our characters and backgrounds. We are all quite individual. So it is just having an appreciation for that and making space for each other. All said and done, we're a friendly bunch and really get on well.
What about teaching, why do you teach?
Teaching is fantastic. It really validates your practice. Flourishing Dharma in anyway is wonderful and teaching I think is the main way to do that. It is a direct way to get through to people. I hadn't thought of teaching until Gen Thogme asked me. I was quite happy to come along to the classes and felt very privileged even to listen to Dharma but having been given the opportunity to now teach; it takes Dharma practice to a different level. It makes the teachings more immediate to you because, basically you have to know them in order to teach them. You have to be quite precise with the teachings and they are so beautiful and have such a pure lineage that if you teach Dharma you can only benefit people and that's such a wonderful thing to do.
What do you think people get out of coming along to a meditation class for the first time?
You can't expect too much, it may be just learning to relax a bit more. People have different expectations from meditation, some may just want to clear their minds a bit or develop some space or time away from the family to put their minds in order. The results will manifest in different ways for different people; one woman mentioned to me that she was sleeping better after coming along to meditation, so that's a practical benefit that she has taken from it. Some find they are less grouchy with the kids, or a bit more patient at work just small things like this.
Your vocational background is care work, in what way does your Dharma affect your work?
It is very interconnected. On different levels it is cherishing people. Whether it is personal care, helping people to wash themselves, eat and so on, it is a very basic human thing, and not necessarily a Buddhist thing, it is the care we generally have for one another as human beings. Dharma helps nurture this caring, it brings it out. When I care for people I have never told anyone that I am a Buddhist. Especially working with elderly people, it's not really appropriate to tell them if they have not come across it before. So I am a Buddhist through my actions, when I am caring for people. I also direct my prayers for their happiness when I am working for them and recite mantras.
Why did you decide to become ordained?
The thought of ordination had been arising for some time. The defining moment was during the Vajrayogini retreat.
What does being ordained mean to you?
Taking robes has such a great meaning. For example, the upper garment or donka was designed by Je Tsongkhapa himself. The robes are very blessed, you definitely feel different wearing them.
How has ordination affected your life and dharma practice?
Ordination has affected all aspects of my life. It is a privilege and a responsibility. Some people seem to be more open to practicing meditation and following Buddhist advice from an ordained Sangha. Therefore I am naturally inclined to be more mindful myself.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a monk?
There is nothing of course in itself challenging about being a monk unless I give it the energy to disturb my mind. If this arises, remembering why I requested ordination from Geshe Kelsang and how happy I was when he accepted, always uplifts my mind.
What do your friends and family think about you being a Buddhist monk?
They are all really quite positive. I don't see my family in Scotland as much as I would like to so they don't really see the changes that it has brought about but they can see that I am happy and that I am getting a lot out of it. Most of my friends are supportive and there are some who are not but that's ok as well.
your practice of Buddhism change your overall goals and aspirations in life?
I didn't have anything specific that I was aiming for; I just wanted to be happy. What I had achieved in my life, I knew it was lacking in some way, lacking of real meaning. Now that I have come across dharma I can understand why that was. That in fact it is natural for things not to go your way all the time. Buddhism really frees me up by helping me not to go chasing after things that won't bring happiness.
What is the purpose in your view of a Dharma Centre?
It's getting a sense of inner peace yourself and then giving it to others. It's wonderful to find something within yourself that's so powerful and so beautiful; you just want to help people find the same path. It's not idealistic either because it is possible to get to such a state where those negative minds don't arise.
What about dharma on a global scale?
Coming back from the International Festival at the Lake District really brings to mind just how many people around the world are benefiting from dharma. It's really inspiring.
Interviewed by Sarina Mann
How did you first become intrested in Buddhism?
I was challenged by a book I saw in a shop, The Art of happiness, and I thought I was happy so I read this book to see what the definition of Happiness was. It was from here my intrest grew and I read and more and more books on Buddhism and thats when I found Geshe Kelsang's Transform your life. Then found out about the classes here and got in contact.
Do you notice any change in yourself due to coming to the classes?
Initially it was my wife and fellow work mates who noticed. I run my own business which can be stressfull! And the practical advice is helping in the work place, but I might not remeain peaceful all the time, but its helping. My friends paniced thinking I was going to come into work with a shaved head and maroon robes!
What was your impression of the Monday night classes?
At the begining when I arrived I saw lots of women at the class. I thought it was mainly a womens only class, but then I as I eventually kept coming I got to meet the people who come here. They are ordinary people with familys, jobs and face the same stress in life as everyone else. The prayers also were a little strange at first too, but then I thought it would sound odd and unfamiliar to a Buddhist to go into Salisbury Cathederal and hear Christian prayers for the first time!
Todays been your first time to come to the indepth study class (Foundation Programme), whats your experience
My experience has been good but again the prayers and ritual side is always a bit strange at first. I hadnt a clue what the Foundation Programme was about or how it worked. I spoke to the monks at Thekchen centre to get their opinion and experiences. From there I went to check on the Kadampa.org website and read Geshe Kelsangs six page Introduction to the Foundation Programme which I reccommend to people wanting to come to the Sunday Indepth class. But the beautiful thing about Buddhism is you can take what you need from it in your own time and the same applies to the FP, if you come along and feel its not for you - you dont have to.
Buddhist lama speaks on meditation
By Kelli Goldman
The Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, an author and Buddhist lama, recently spoke at Emory University on April 3. The topic was on his new book Turning the Mind Into an Ally.
Collegian: What exactly is meditation?
Rinpoche: The Tibetan word for meditation is "gom," which means familiarity. Essentially, we are always becoming familiar with something: anger, jealousy, irritation, compassion, love. In meditation we become familiar with an object (in the beginning, the breath) in order to strengthen and stabilize our mind.
Collegian: How can meditation enhance every day life?
Rinpoche: It can help us strengthen our focus on whatever we are doing: school, work, family. Furthermore, it can help us find the mental space to see our reactions before we act them out. For example, we can train in seeing our anger arise. Then we have a choice about whether we strike out with spiteful words or actions. Or we can see our attachment or jealousy arise. Then we have the choice to indulge it by going after something or somebody, or let it pass.
Collegian: What do you believe about spiritual paths, and how does a person go about discovering their spiritual path?
Rinpoche: There are a variety of ways in which one might discover one's spiritual path. However, often it comes about through realizing a certain level of bewilderment and suffering, and wanting to investigate it. I think that everybody has enlightened qualities, you know, in Buddhism we call it Buddha nature Buddha just means enlightenment.
Collegian: I'm very curious, especially with the current situation, between the United States and Iraq, and all this war and fighting, how can meditation inspire compassion?
Rinpoche: If you know who you are, [and] you know your own mind, you won't be easily distracted, and you won't be easily manipulated. And I think when we have fear, we don't trust ourselves, and we might lose sight of our compassion. The thing with meditation is teaching what's most important, whatever you have in your present mind. So I think the notion here is everybody can have peace in their mind - having confidence to look at daily life, and what happens when you do that is you realize that other people are suffering, other people are having struggles, the Iraqi's are also dying. All of the sudden the response is not to kill them more but to have compassion, ask how can we resolve this? It shouldn't result in destruction otherwise the destruction makes matters worse.
Collegian: So would it be safe to say that compassion and wisdom not only work hand in hand but they promote each other?
Rinpoche: Oh, definitely. If you're compassionate and you don't have wisdom, you kind of become a doormat. You think you should do something, but you don't know why. You have to have a little bit of wisdom for better utilizing [compassion] and you also have to know yourself. What can I handle? You can't always be extending if you don't have enough reserve - you'll wear yourself out. So it's kind of the sense of building up, building up to a combination. And if you just have wisdom and no compassion, you become too cold. Without compassion, you may use the wisdom as a way of responding the wrong way.
Collegian: Finally, what do you hope the readers of Turning the Mind Into an Ally will learn and take away with them?
Rinpoche: My hope is that the book becomes kind of a source for people to feel confident that they can meditate, that they can look at that and say, 'I can learn enough from here to be able to handle my mind'. I think it's possible, I think a lot of reasons why people don't meditate or don't feel like they have time is because they kind of feel their minds are unruly and don't even want to think about doing it because they think it's too much, it's a waste of time. And all of the sudden you can say if you think it's a waste of time, than you think you're a waste of time. And I feel like that's how it works, you know, you're relating with your mind anyway, and you've sort of figured out how to keep it at bay but it's never really going to get much better. From day to day we learn But everybody can handle their mind. In my book I go through a section about how to do different contemplative mediations, how to take meditation into your life. I think there's a tendency for people to think that mediation is sort of the end-all. It's the medium step in-between. You meditate and you become strong, and you clear and learn how to handle your mind, and then you get up from the meditation so you can apply it to your life. So meditation is not the end-all, it's like training. You work out not to work out more, but to go out and do things. So meditation is kind of helping you regenerate your battery so you can go out and do things. I think that people tend to think, 'Oh, if you're going to meditate, you're going to go off and waste your time sitting by yourself.' No, that's not really the point.
of John Cage
John Cage seems more clearly than ever to be
the single indispensable figure in the experimental culture of the
postwar era. As philosopher and provocateur, multidisciplinary artist
and father of contemporary chance-determined music, Cage has inspired
generations of artists East and West to bridge the gaps between Art
and Life. The prime catalyst of this "Cagean revolution" was Zen
Buddhism, specifically Cage's attendance (from 1949 to 1951) at
D.T. Suzuki's classes at Columbia University. Suzuki's first class in
New York, the reigning cultural capital, concerned itself with the
Buddha's final teachings, emphasizing the interdependence of all
things in a world of phenomenal abundance. This was the world and
sensibility that Cage embraced in all his subsequent writings and
works, doing as much to introduce a deliberately Buddhist view into
the cultural discourse of the West as any artist alive.
Laurie Anderson is even less conventionally Buddhist than
John Cage. Her engagement with Buddhism, emerging from the SoHo art
world of the seventies, has continued to be a strong personal interest
two decades later. Widely identified as the artist who brought
performance art into the cultural mainstream, Anderson works today as
an activist, composer, filmmaker, photographer, raconteur,
philosopher, and comic. Her newest project, a performace-opera
entitledHalcyon Days: Stories from the Nerve Bible, is scheduled to
open the Seville Festival this summer. Anderson initiated a discussion
with Cage forTricycle early in March 1992; I came for a second session
not long afterward, joining them in his comfortable, sky-lit New York
City loft, surrounded by abundant houseplants, paintings, and books,
and drinking his Cafix-a fig and grain beverage that Laurie also
drinks at home. The common ground was wide: irreverent, funny, and
terrific company, both epitomize ideals of cultural leadership and the
phenomenon of the avant-garde.
Coe's book Post-Shock: The Emergence of the American
Avant-gardewill be published by W.W. Norton this year.
Anderson: You seem like such a hopeful person, do you think human
beings are getting better?
Cage: What can we say but yes. There's no other answer.
A: To go on? To be able to go on?
Not to be able to go on, but to go on. As D.T. Suzuki said once,
"There seems to be a tendency toward the good." Isn't that beautiful?
There seems to be a tendency toward the good. He never explained what
he meant. And we never asked him.
A: What led you to study with him?
I was very fortunate. I had readThe Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.I
became interested, in other words, in Oriental thought. And I read
also a short book by Aldous Huxley, calledThe Perennial Philosophy,and
from that I got the idea that all the various religions were saying
the same thing but had different flavors. For instance, Ramakrishna
spoke of God as a lake of people coming to the shores because they
were thirsty. So I browsed, as it were, and found a flavor I liked and
it was that of Zen Buddhism. It was then that Suzuki came to New York,
and I was able to go to Columbia once a week for two years to attend
his classes, which were, if I remember correctly, at 4:30 in the
A: Pleasant time of day.
Suzuki was not very talkative. He would frequently say nothing that
you could put your finger on. Now and then he would. When I say now
and then I mean one Friday or another, but on any given day, nothing
that you could remember would remain.
A: Did you ask questions?
C: I don't remember doing that.
C: Once in Hawaii, at a meeting of philosophers sitting around a table
discussing reality, several days passed and Suzuki said nothing. And
finally the chairman said, "You've been silent all this time. Would
you say something about reality." And Suzuki didn't say anything. I
think he may have looked up. Finally the man said, "Well, is this
table real?" And Suzuki said "Yes." And then the man said, "In what
sense is it real?" And Suzuki said, "In every sense."
When the Dalai Lama was at Madison Square Garden [for the
Kalachakra initiation in October, 1991] a lot of people asked him
questions but they were not questions. They were really things to show
him what they knew. So you'd listen to these questions and the people
asking them didn't want to know anything. Then came the last
question. The Dalai Lama was on a big stage with all the lamas and
there was a big golden pagoda on the stage, closed. All these people
were asking questions, very esoteric questions about Buddhism, and he
was being very generous about answering them. But the best question
was, "What's in the yellow pagoda?" It was such an obvious
question. This big thing was sitting there and no one would ask what
was inside of it. He just described what the sand painting was like
that they were working on inside. And it changed everything. It was
the only honest question at the Kalachakra....The teachings were
tricky. They would almost trick people into taking vows. I took one. I
promised to be kind for the rest of my life. I walked out the door and
said what does this mean? Then a friend got a hold of a monk, and she
said, "Did I promise too much, too little?" He told her, "You know,
the mind is a wild white horse, and when you build a corral for it,
make sure it's not too small." He was so practical. The Dalai Lama was
saying that he felt very fortunate to have earned so many merits in
his past live, and that was the reason he was having such an enjoyable
life....Do you feel that someone before you gathered merits so that
you could have an enjoyable life or that you're gathering ones so that
someone, your descendants, can have one too?
C: I don't have any knowledge of that.
A: So you're not curious?
C: I'm not curious.
In using chance operations, did you ever feel that something didn't
work as well as you wanted?
No. In such circumstances I thought the thing that needs changing
is me-you know-the thinking through. If it was something I didn't
like, it was clearly a situation in which I could change toward the
liking rather than getting rid of it.
A: Would you
think of it as a kind of design whose rules you just
I was already thinking of one rather than two, so that I wasn't
involved in that relationship. And that what was actually annoying me
was the cropping up of an old relationship, which seemed at first to
be out of place. But then, once it was accepted, it was
extraordinarily productive of space. A kind of emptiness that invites,
not what you are doing, but all that you're not doing into your
awareness and your enjoyment.
A: So you did, in fact, make a kind of judgment on yourself.
Yes, instead of wiping out what I didn't like, I tried to change
myself so I could use it.
C: The big difference between the city and the country is the sound of
traffic and the sound of birds. Actually, I find the sound of traffic
not as intruding, really, as the sound of birds. I was amazed when I
moved to the country to discover how emphatic the birds were for the
A: You mean they range in melody?
No. Because they were so loud. And they really compete with the
sirens when they fly around and come close...
C: I keep manuscripts that are clearly no good because they must have
some reason for existing too.
A: In what sense do you mean no good?
Not interesting. Where the ideas aren't radical, where they don't
have likeliness or-what Bob Rauschenberg says-"they don't change you."
And I think that the idea of change, or the ego itself changing
direction, is implicit in Suzuki's understanding of the effect of
Buddhism on the structure of the mind. I use chance operations instead
of operating according to my likes and dislikes. I use my work to
change myself and I accept what the chance operations say. The I
Chingsays that if you don't accept the chance operations you have no
right to use them. Which is very clear, so that's what I do.
A: How has the response to your work changed over the years?
Well, I don't have to persuade people to be interested. So many
people are interested now that it keeps me from continuing really. I
asked a former assistant a few days ago how I should behave about my
mail that is so extensive and takes so much time to answer? If I don't
answer it honorably, I mean to say, paying attention to it, then I'm
not being very Buddhist. It seems to me I have to give as much honor
to one letter as to another. Or at least I should pay attention to all
the things that happen.
A: What did you decide to do about it?
C: To consider that one function in life to answer the mail.
A: But it could take the whole day.
But you see, in the meanwhile, I've found a way of writing music
which is very fast. So that if we take all things as though they were
Buddha, they're not to be sneezed at but they're to be enjoyed and
A: But this is a huge challenge.
It's a great challenge. The telephone, for instance, is not just a
telephone. It's as if it were Creation calling or Buddha calling. You
don't know who's on the other end of the line.
C: The question of social activism is a large question because it has
so many different kind of actions. I prefer to do what I'm doing for
itself rather than to do what I'm doing for another reason. If I want
to help say, getting rid of AIDS, it would seem to me more effective
to support the research than to change the music.
Yeah, although a lot of artists say the opposite. They say, "Well,
I'm going to work on it in my own way in my work." How does that
convince people or help them? I think giving money to research is so
That's how I do it. Rather than complaining about the politics, I
think that we should become actively disinterested in government. It
seems to be the most active thing to do now.
It's been so confusing to me the last few months trying to get
involved in politics and going "I don't know....really I'm not very
good at is." And yet, I can't say I should just do it in my work.
No, I think you can. I think your work is very, very important and
very much used by society. This is the marvelous thing. Because you
can perform and be seen, you see. I mean, the flow is taking place and
you can increase it.
For me, being in a political group, particularly a women's group,
is sort of like answering mail. I feel that I should do this-I should
C: It gives you a sense of responsibility.
C: But your
real responsibility is the one that you discover. However
you work. Your best work is what you yourself discover.
Why did you develop an interest in Dharma?
Because I started to understand that all my problems were coming from my mind. Having repeated unhappiness throughout my life, including depression and trying to change my life externally all the time, it would work for a little while but that's all. I used to go out drinking a lot, change my job, my partner, my lifestyle but not my mind. So I found that all my anxieties and hang-ups were merely a creation of my mind. I was very shy of religion but I had to agree with what Buddha was saying, no one else is saying the same thing. He gives the answer to the problem; change your mind - change the situation.
So has it solved all your problems?
I feel I am solving my problems. Gaining control of my mind and my uncontrolled delusions that arise over and over again.
What do you mean by delusion?
Harmful states of mind. Anger, attachment, ignorance, self grasping characterized by inappropriate attention, that is when there is a delusion present in your mind you can't stop thinking about it. Maybe you have split up with your partner and you just can't stop thinking about it; this is inappropriate attention. When we think of a persons faults we are creating a faulty person from our own mind.
What led you into Buddhism?
I left school and became an aircraft fitter so I worked as an engineer and did a lot of drinking and partying as well. Things began to fall apart because these things weren't making me happy. I changed jobs to sell computer parts but this was just temporary relief from the suffering of my previous job, so I moved into care work and found this to be quite fulfilling. I felt there were a lot of expectations in society like getting a career and so on. There was nothing I could see that would make me happy.
What's it like living in a Dharma community?
It's an incredibly social environment. It's the first time in my life that I don't feel lonely. It's very special living in a community. Life becomes very meaningful and therefore very satisfying. For the people who come here as well, it affects them and their families and friends. People become more relaxed with each other and this is something that will spread from a Dharma Centre. It also encourages people to look at the positive side of life. It is very small at the moment and many people need Dharma.
Did you have any spiritual or religious background before coming into Buddhism?
Yes, I was brought up Catholic and I went to church every Sunday and went to Catholic schools etc. At the time they were an object of blame but in reality the Church was helping me a lot and I experienced a lot of happiness through that. All my problems when I was younger came from my own mind as well, my insecurities and so on. It's easy to blame the Church or parents or childhood but now I understand it wasn't any of those things.
What interested you about meditation?
Well, I was trying to understand why I was having these repeated problems in my life. I kept putting it down to my dyslexia and attention deficit, so I tried really looking into it and questioning how these conditions affected my mind. In fact it was my mind that was the problem, modern science tells us that the reason we get angry or depressed is because of chemical imbalances in the brain but the reason we get these imbalances is because anger and other delusion are present in are minds in the first place. That's the source of the problem.
What were the main benefits of meditation that you experienced?
Hope. And learning how to be positive and how to develop a positive mind and correctly, Buddha's teachings are coming from wisdom. Also learning how to identify negative views. It's not an overnight cure, it's gradual change. If you get discouraged and think I can't change, nothing will go away and suffering will continue. We have this view that this holiday or this person will make me happy but with an uncontrolled unhappy mind this is impossible. It's possible to have a very happy life but not whilst negative minds are present. The mind as it is the source of all our suffering is also the source of all joys.
What's your view towards possessions?
We need worldly things because we are worldly beings. So we need certain necessities in life but there is a limit of what you actually need. If I am happy I need less, since most of my life now revolves around Dharma, I spend less money and have to work less and am more occupied by Dharma so I get less bored. This brings me happiness, just to study Buddha's teachings.
Does being ordained curb your freedom?
It give me more freedom. This is because samsara traps you with problems. So this less that you are involved by the external world then the less you are trapped by it. With a relaxed mind things don't seem so bad. Everyone wants to do what they enjoy and I enjoy Dharma.
What do your fiends and family think about you becoming ordained?
Well my mother has been very supportive. In fact she has been really inspiring because she has always tried to live by her own religious teachings and bring them to heart, which takes a lot of strength. Both my parents have lot of strength and are very good people. My Dad and brother are also supportive in their own ways.
Do you wear your robes all the time?
I don't wear them to work, but generally I try to wear them as much as possible. It was challenging at first but it gets less so particularly if you worry less about what others are thinking about you. We don't know what people think about us normally and even if we do it doesn't matter. Wearing robes is a good way to abandon self-cherishing.
What's the main goal for you now?
To become an Enlightened being, a Buddha. Basically to overcome all delusions, understanding that I will never have the happiness that I seek until I am free from delusion. By understanding my own mind I can develop the ability to help others. If I look around me at friends, family, people I work with I can see that they are all suffering the same kinds of problems.
What about teaching, why do you teach?
Because my teacher told me to. I was pretty horrified at first but it was a really good challenge for my self-cherishing. I get a lot out of teaching, it's the fastest way for me to learn Dharma, how to become a Bodhisattva and cherishing others. Teaching others shows me that Dharma works. I have a wish to learn Dharma so I can fulfill that wish through teaching and at the same time help others. Dharma is to make people happy.
What are your wishes for Thekchen Centre?
I look forward to watching Dharma grow. I just hope that people start taking Dharma to heart and really start enjoying it. It will be a lot of fun in the future. It would be nice to see the community grow and flourish, it's really beautiful. The purpose of Mahayana Buddhism is to bring happiness to as many living beings as possible.
Interviewed by Sarina Mann
to monk Tae Hye
(Taken from n.51 of the magazine Paramita, year 1994)
Which existential reasons and spiritual motivations led you to Buddhism?
Since my youth I have been looking for a way which would lead to harmonize the intellectual, emotional and practical aspects of life; between human beings and nature, the way towards a sincere happiness. Buddhism seemed to offer the most reasonable philosophy and a higher morality based on non-violence. I was especially impressed by the love towards animals and all conscious beings. In the unity of life there is no separate self, independent from the interrelation with life as a whole. At the age of sixteen I started considering myself a Buddhist, even if at that time I didn't know any other Buddhists and had only a few books translated in Finnish.
What are your experiences in the study and practice of the Dharma?
As in Finland there were no Buddhist temples, I decided to visit Buddhist centers in other countries. In 1980 I reached the Lama Institute Tzong Khapa in Italy and stayed there for a few months. I understood that Tibetan Tantrism is too complicated for my simple mind, but the community life of the Institute was very illuminating and I felt I wanted to live following the monastic way of life, trying to help people as a monk. I later received the vows as novice in Thailandia and in 1987, after some years of travelling, I received the vows as monk in Korea. In my practice, the vipassana meditation naturally evolved into the zen of the single mind, the dhyana of the quid. The "home" of my life without a home is Songgwan-sa, a Korean Zen monastery, 1200 years old, where many other Western monks and nuns have practiced under the guidance of the deceased Kusan sunim and the present teacher He Kwang sunim.
How is the Korean Zen tradition different with respect to other Buddhist traditions and in particular Japanese Zen (Rinzai e Soto)?
The Korean Zen school chogye-son takes its name "chogye" from the residence of the sixth patriarch Hui Neng. "Son" is the Korean pronunciation of the word "dhyana", contemplation. The chogye school represents the school of Hui Neng, the original zen preceding the division in many branches. Its foundation goes back to the seventh century. It is said that if one wants to experience what zen (chan) was in ancient China, one should go to Korea, as the ancient way of life of itinerant monks and nuns has been best preserved in the mountains of Korea. The spirit of Koran zen is less militaristic than the Japanese spirit. The rules of the meditation hall are less formalistic, but the moral principles are more emphasized. Monks and nuns of the chogye order live in celibacy in accordance to the rules of the vinaya. As in the Rinzai school, the most common practice is the meditation on the existential doubt (hwadu), but some habits, like for example sitting facing the wall, are similar to the ones in the soto tradition. Korean zen is not unidirectional. In addition to the hwadu method one practices also the recitation of mantras, the awareness of breathing and the serene clarity (just sitting). The teachings were mainly passed on by the Chinese Lin-chi school (Rinzai).
How is monastic life in the Korean tradition?
In the Korean temples live many kinds of individuals: postulants who work in the kitchen, novice monks and nuns (one stays novice for three or four years), fully ordained monks and nuns, lay-people who practice and in some small temples there are also orphans or old poor people. "sunim" is the general term of respect to indicate monks and nuns. Many novices study Sutra and philosophy for some years in monastic schools. After the final vows, a sunim may begin a period of intensive zen in the meditation hall or work at the temple. Some carry out the duty of teaching, some become specialists in ceremonies and some meditators reach the mountain hermitages for solitary retreats of long periods. Life in the temple is divided in four seasons: winter and summer for the retreats, spring and autumn for other activities. During the three-months retreats, those who stay in the meditation hall, practice eight, ten, almost twelve hours every day. In the days of full moon or new moon, the masters give a talk on Dharma. Lay-people often visit the temple, take part in the activities, support the temple with offers. Many lay-people who practice are women and especially many old women practice intensely zen meditation, the recitation of sutras and prostrations.
What is the essence of contemplation?
The essence of contemplation is to reach the "non-mind", the nature of Buddha, instant by instant, to be aware of the present moment. Zen master Shen Hui, a disciple of Hui Neng, wrote: "Know by yourself that the intrinsic essence is quiet, empty and without attributes. It is without home or attachment and is the same as the space, and there is no place it cannot pervade. This is the body of the quid of the Buddhas. The quid is the essence of the non-thought"
We should continuously investigate what the mind without a home is, what is the clear mind without discriminations, what is true freedom. From freedom derives true morality, true meditation and true wisdom.
How is the practice at the Pagoda?
The Pagoda temple is a small and modest temple, with one or two monks and two cats. Rather than organizing group retreats or courses, we base our activity on a daily program. People who practice can come and share our life consisting of contemplation, brief ceremonies, work and study. We generally dedicate Sunday to intensive practice. The study is centered on the reading and in-depth study of the writings of the ancient masters: Hui Neng, Huang Po, etc. Guests at the Pagoda must respect the five precepts and the principles of meditative life, for example not eating meat and not drinking alcohol. Visitors can make voluntary offers to support the temple.
Which do you think should be the lines of evolution of Buddhism in the Western world?
In the Western world there are already many Buddhist centers for lay-people. Now the monastic life should be developed to a greater extent. Living as a monk in Europe or America is difficult. In some Buddhist centers the monks have more or less the functions of hosts. It would be important for monks and nuns of different schools to have frequent contacts, developing in this way a model for monastic life suitable to the Western world. Concerning the main Buddhist scriptures, translations in western languages differ from school to school and are not always reliable. I think that an agreement among various schools that would develop a unique and correct version would be convenient. For example, the Heart Sutra is used in the same version in China, Korea and Japan (the only difference is in the pronunciation). The Italian, English, etc translations, are on the other hand different from each other.
The base of the teaching of the enlightened is very simple: to be aware, observing reality as it is here and now. In 2400 years many Buddhist traditions have developed complex forms of doctrines, methods and rituals. We Western people can go back to the simplicity of the origins. I believe the future of Buddhism in the world will be characterized by a return to the essential teachings.
The most profound method is the non-method of the non-school. With an empty mind one can comprehend.
with a Buddhist
Rob Lengfeld recently became a resident at Heruka Buddhist Centre. Rob is also the teacher at our Watford branch.
Annabel Corbalan finds out why and what it means to him.
Annabel: How long have you been involved in Buddhism?
Rob: About six years.
Annabel: What made you want to move into Heruka Buddhist Centre?
Rob: Due to a cancer scare, I was led to believe I was terminally ill. I thought I wouldn't have long to live and gave myself four months. I kept thinking, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if I had ten years to practise Dharma!'
When you have death hanging over you like a shadow your spiritual practice becomes very strong, very focused. It becomes a 24-hour practice, focusing on every moment. I wasn't experiencing a sense of sadness, just a wish to really apply my practice.
So when I heard the good news that it was benign, I thought, 'Well, what's the best way to try and put this into practice?' and I realised that all the conditions I needed were right there in the Dharma Centre. You have all the conducive conditions you need and plenty of challenging conditions as well - its all there. You have to transform everything into spiritual practice.
Annabel: What have you found to be the benefits of living in a Dharma Centre?
Rob: Not having to travel to the Centre, which was time consuming. It's all on your doorstep. You can attend all the pujas and if you're doing a retreat you have your own room to rest in.
The structure of the scheduled pujas is very helpful, the power of group pujas generates great positive energy for yourself and for the Centre, which benefits everyone.
I think it's quite important if you live at the Centre to try to attend all the pujas you can. It is a way of showing why the Centre exists.
Annabel: How does living in a Dharma Centre compare with living in your own home?
Rob: Your space is curtailed - you can't bring all your worldly possessions with you.
Annabel: Do you feel you've had to make any sacrifices?
Rob: To be honest, no.
Annabel: Do you miss TV?
Rob: I gave my TV away about three and a half years ago and don't miss it at all. I left my radio at my flat, but you've got to keep in touch with what what's going on so I read a newspaper once a week.
Annabel: What about sharing a kitchen and bathroom with other people?
Rob: I've had no real problems. Making that switch wasn't difficult. In the past I was in a relationship for twenty years which obviously implied sharing and considering another person, not just pleasing myself.
Annabel: Do you think sharing living space is helpful?
Rob: Yes, you're aware of others' needs and you see jobs that need doing. Maybe someone's left washing up to do. You know the place is open to the public and visitors could come at any time, and you don't want to leave it dirty for them.
Ideally I don't think you need rotas if you treat the house as public property. If you realise people from all walks of life come to the Centre you see how important it is to maintain standards.
I think it's very positive to look at the Centre as special, as Geshe-la's home. It's not an ordinary house or community, it is special.
Annabel: Would you recommend living in a Dharma Centre to others?
Rob: It depends on the individual. What suits one person does not necessarily suit another.
But if you want to engage in Dharma practice seriously, living in a Centre provides you with every opportunity Everything's tailor-made for you.
We're really very fortunate to have the opportunity to live in the Centre. It is a great privilege. Its a privilege anyway to have a roof over your head, but to have the good fortune to be in a Dharma Centre as well makes me feel really grateful.
It's the ideal environment for listening to Dharma teachings, meditating, and putting the teachings into practice. I hope Dharma Centres flourish and that many people have the same opportunity. But it doesn't suit everybody.
Annabel: Is it a supportive community?
Rob: People are very supportive and wish the best for you. If you're not cherishing an individual in the community you're not cherishing the community. If you undermine one member of the community, you're undermining the whole community. This is true in any community, but obviously the emphasis in a spiritual community is very much on cherishing others.
I feel it is very important that we're all mutually supportive and respect each others' wishes, treating others as we would like to be treated, and respecting others.
Annabel: So, no regrets?
Rob: No, not at the moment, [giggles naughtily!] I'm very happy in the Centre.
Si-fu Frankie Parker's interview - written April 11, 1996, in response to a letter interview by Jean Crume.
I would be honored to answer these questions, you've asked.
First off my execution date is May 29th. Which is rare cause its the first one they've ever set so far away, they're usually within 30 days. And also I'm at Tucker Prison, I won't be taken to Cummins death house till a week before the 29th.
Q: As I recall you received a copy of the Dharmapada from a prison guard when you had asked for a Bible? Could you tell us that story and the effect it had upon you?
A: I discovered the Dharmapada in Dec. of 1988, while in the hole. I was a mad, mean, and very cruel inmate. I was always giving everyone a hard time. The guards had to throw me in the hole and I was yelling and screaming and cussing them and I demanded a Bible. The only book you're allowed in the hole. During the day they would take your mattress away from you so you have very little you can do so I'd read the Bible when I wasn't pacing the floor hating everyone for doing this to me. The guard, thinking he was screwing over me, threw in a copy of the Darmapada at me and said here's your god-damn holy book and laughed. Then closed the door real fast before I could throw it back at him. I yelled and screamed then when I got tired I sat down in the floor and looked at this "heathen book." It was simply the greatest gift I ever received. And later, maybe a year later with tears in my eyes I thanked him for his gift. He of course thought me quite insane. From that day on I've tried to live to reflect the Buddha within me. ("Inside the Buddha there is a sentient being; inside the sentient being there is a Buddha") Of course I kept that Darmapada until about a month ago when I gave it to a friend, one who has started his journey as a seeker. That Darmapada led me to other books and even a deeper "need" for the Dharma.
2) What did your early Buddhist practice consist of?
Well I would sit and try to meditate via the instruction of Bolozoff's book We're All Doing Time. Then a friend got me the address in Hawaii of Roshi Robert Aitken. Then I got even more books on practice. (I still can't sit in the full Lotus.) I would sit on a folded blanket and count my breaths. Sometimes I still do this. I know this is more Zen than Mahayana but it all leads to the same thing.
3) How has that practice changed?
Well now I have a shrine, on it I have a six inch brass Buddha (Anna Cox bought for me), flowers I've made, a photo of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche (who gave me the Refuge vows) and I'm allowed candles. I now fold up the end of my mattress and I meditate for about 25-30 minutes at 4 AM - the only time its quiet enough to practice. In 1990 I decided to shave my head as a devotionto the Buddha and knowing it would help me to live a life that would reflect my Buddha nature in hopes others who saw me on a daily basis would want to be like me. (I.E.) Buddhist ... A real proselytizer, I was convinced beyond doubt that what was good for me would be good for others! Here's a bit a knowledge that may help. If you're going to have a shaved head and you've been indoors all winter, when it becomes bright and sunny and you decide to go out doors- wear a hat! My head is burnt.
4) What practical impact has your beliefs had on your life in prison?
I would think it better if someone else answered this. I will say I've tried to live as a Buddha taught we should. From the Dharma I've learned patience - the greatest thing you can have in a prison situation. I've learned that nothing really matters yet everything matters. I now smile instead of not smiling. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important thing a living sentient being should learn - how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I will be murdered by the state. I'll die with a smile on my old ugly face. Of course they'll not understand, but you'll know.
5) What has been the most difficult obstacle for your practice?
Fundamental Christians that run this prison. There's a publication review committee who approves books for prisoners. They used to stop books I'd ordered from coming to me. This caused me stress and tested me (I see all obstacles as a test by the Buddha). I had many talks with these people till we came to an agreement. I wouldn't kill the prison chaplain if they wouldn't stop my books! Ha Ha! It worked. Ha Ha! NO - I'm just joking. I had a lawyer friend threaten to sue them and then things lightened up.
I've had to fight these people every step of the way. Even a warden who lied to have me put in the hole to ruin my record. He's no longer here, he was fired. The warden who followed him said something to me that made me the proudest I'd ever been in my life. He said he wished all the inmates were Buddhist if they would live like me.
6) I find that when I think of you and your dedication to practice and the dharma that I experience tremendous compassion for all beings who are, like myself, struggling to make sense of life. But, in spite of your difficult situation, you always find the positive in even the worst events. Could you tell us a little bit about how you envision your personal role in spreading the dharma?
My vision of my personal role in spreading the Dharma??? Good question. I use to think, "boy as soon as I reach enlightenment I'm going to teach!" Then I realized that day was too far away so I'd better try and do something now. People see me practicing Tai-chi on the yard. They see me at peace with the world and they see me always smiling. That my friend is how you spread the Dharma - Smile. Be happy. I once read a book and the question was asked, "How would you spread the Dharma if the person you met was blind and dumb?"- the answer is a hug. Kindness! The hug is a smile - just a smile that can be felt. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy, it is not a psychology or a science. "It is an example", a way of liberation. I feel liberated and soon will be liberated from this world. I changed - as all things will change.
7) Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to say to the sangha?
Yes. I thank you for accepting me into your family, a person whom you knew was the worst society had to offer, but you accepted anyway. I hope I've not let you down in anyway. I hope this world is helped by my death or at least my Sangha friends.
I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha gave me refuge. Thanks my friends.
I only know of a few of you people there. There are only four of you who are on my approved visiting list. James Rule, Anna Cox, Kathy Martone, George Crook, and of course Rinpoche. I would like to meet some of you before I die. So feel free to come see me. Since I've been a Good Boy I can now have contact visits. I'm one of ten allowed in this whole prison. So you all take care, live by example, and I'll keep you in my prayers.
Yours in the Dharma,
Si-fu Frankie Parker
with Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, founder and director of Drepung Loseling Institute
Geshe Lobsang Tenzin is one of a few individuals who have achieved the highest academic distinctions in both the Tibetan and the Western worlds. He holds a Geshe Lharam degree from Drepung Loseling Monastery in India, and a Ph.D. from Emory University in the U.S. His interdisciplinary dissertation focused on Tibetan and Western approaches to the emotions and their impact on health.
Geshe Lobsang has represented Tibetan Buddhism at numerous interfaith forums and conferences, including the Gethsemani Encounter, an historic Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He has lectured on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, psychology, meditation and the mind-body connection in universities and institutions around the world. He has also served as expert commentator on Tibetan Buddhist art and culture at various events including two of the Smithsonian Institution's summer exhibits: "Tibetan Culture: Beyond the Land of Snows" and "The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust."
Geshe Lobsang is the founder and director of Drepung Loseling Institute, which serves as the North American seat of Drepung Loseling Monastery. He was instrumental in establishing the historic affiliation between Emory University and Drepung Loseling Monastery which was inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1998.
He presently teaches at Emory University, oversees the training programs at Drepung Loseling Institute, and leads meditation retreats and workshops on a regular basis. AsiaSource spoke with him about the significance of the sand mandala and the basic principles of constructing one. Tibetan Monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery, South India, will construct a mandala sand painting in Asia Society's Aron Gallery over a ten-day period to commemorate September 11, 2001.
Where does the sand mandala tradition originate? Can you explain the creation of the mandala as a practice within your tradition?
The Buddhist sand mandala originated with Tantric Buddhism going back probably 2000 years in India. Tantric Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the mid-7th century and from there Buddhism became the practiced religion in Tibet where all aspects of Buddhism, including the mandala sand painting and the meditations associated with the mandalas, became part of the spiritual tradition in Tibet.
What is its significance and has it transformed with modern times?
The mandala is understood as the divine world consisting of the central deity and its residence and environment. The original purpose for making the mandalas was to introduce the trainees to a specific deity meditation and practice. For that purpose, sometimes three-dimensional or two-dimensional drawings with sand or even on canvas are created. The paintings were made to provide an aid to the trainees so they can visualize the three-dimensional mandala with its deities and other features. The making of the mandala with sand became quite popular because there are certain Tantric traditions such as Kalachakra that require the building of sand mandala paintings to confer the initiation into that specific deity practice.
The significance hasn't really change that much. But in present times, Tibetan monks have been making mandalas not strictly in the context of an initiation ceremony but also for tours in the West, making mandalas in museums and other places together with prayers and meditation for healing and peace.
What are the steps involved in making the sand mandala?
The sand mandala begins with an opening ceremony where the monks do some meditation, chants, and rituals to prepare the site. It's a Buddhist idea that before making a sacred symbol like the mandala you need to select the site and then examine it to see whether it is a suitable place or not. Then it is important to acknowledge the other beings that are invisible to our eyes who might also occupy the space and obtain their consent. Then the place is blessed to make it conducive for creating the mandala sand painting.
Once that ceremony is concluded, the monks begin the mandala by drawing the basic outline, which could take a couple of hours. Then they begin pouring sand from the center outwards and that can take many days depending on the size and intricacy of the design.
When the mandala is finished, often there is a consecration ceremony so the mandala is seen as the actual abode for the deities. Prayers are recited in the place and traditionally the empowerment would be conferred by a Lama who gives the initiation. Students are led through many steps of visualizations and meditations for cultivating certain attitudes and mind sets. Then when this empowerment is conferred, the purpose of making the mandala as a basis for the deities to reside, as well as a visual aid for the trainees, is accomplished, and therefore the mandala is dismantled. There is a dismantling ceremony at the end where the monks, with meditation and chants, request the deities to depart to their natural abodes. These wisdom beings are the actual deities that have come. The commitment beings, the beings that are visualized before invoking such wisdom beings, dissolve into oneself. Symbolically, when dismantling the mandala the monks pick up sands from different parts of the painting, which are seen as the deities, and put the sand on top of their head to symbolize the dissolution of such enlightened beings into oneself. The sand is then collected and given to the audience as objects of blessings.
The rest of the sand is taken to a flowing body of water. There is a brief ceremony to invoke what are known as naga spirits. Naga spirits are the living forces associated with the water elements. When you invoke them and offer the healing sands, they find healing through receiving this sand. Offering it to the water, being the source of fertility and growth, makes their forces become healthier and energized and therefore water can reach the great oceans and spread the healing sands all over the world. Healthier waters promote growth. It is a symbol for sharing the prayers and blessings with the whole world.
How are the designs of the sand mandala determined? Are there particular symbols that are always used?
Mandalas are the abode of the deities as well as the deities themselves. They're often derived from the visions of great meditative masters so in making the mandalas, there are very specific instructions and steps that one has to follow in accordance with the scriptures. There is really not much room for the spontaneous creativity of the artist because the symbols are very specific and are based on ancient understanding of symbolism. But there are some elements in the mandala that I have heard allow the artist some freedom to make it as elaborate as they want.
There are many different symbols in the sand mandala. The very center depicts the actual deity, which can be done with a drawing of the actual deity, or symbols associated with that deity, or a syllable, known as the "seed" syllable. It depends on what they choose to draw in the center. Very often one would draw symbols such as a vajra, which is a Sanskrit term. For example, the vajra is drawn for the deity of Akshobhya, associated with unshakable resolve. Akshobhya Buddha is translated to mean an unshakable victor and this is an enlightened quality embodying the resolve in the midst of crisis and negativity. Vajra is the symbol of an indivisible state of wisdom and bliss. In the Tantric tradition, an enlightened state of mind means reaching an indivisible state of bliss and the wisdom of emptiness.
There are other symbols like the lotus, jewels, swords, a wheel, or basic symbols depicting different families or groups of deities. For example, you would have a lotus flower or a ring of vajras or a ring of flames. These three are the basic symbols representing the fundamental steps for inner transformation. Lotus symbolizes the mind of renunciation; vajra symbolizes the bodhichitta, "good heart"; the ring of flames symbolizes the wisdom that cuts through the ignorance. These three are important factors for bringing inner transformation. There are other auspicious elements such as victory banners, which again point to different elements of one's psyche or different spiritual elements involved in bringing inner transformation.
Can you give some background on the Drepung Loseling Monastery?
The Drepung Loseling Monastery that the monks come from now was relocated in South India, in the state of Karnataka. It was reestablished in Karnataka in 1969. Originally the monastery was established in Tibet in 1416, near the capital Lhasa. This was one of the biggest Tibetan monasteries and at its zenith it had about 10,000 monks in training. But in 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet, thousands and thousands, including this monastery, were closed. Many of its monks were imprisoned or killed. A few hundred managed to escape into exile in India and that is where they gathered for ten years in Eastern India in a place called Buxadura. They continued with their traditional contemplations and religious studies. Eventually the Indian government found places for Tibetans to resettle. Camps were formed in South India and eventually monks moved and built their monastery.
This monastery in South India has now about 2,500 monks. Back in 1988 the monastery sent a group of monks to share Tibetan sacred arts and culture with the West so they traveled on a Mystical Arts of Tibet tour. As a result of that, someone offered a piece of land in Georgia, not far from Atlanta, to build a meditation center and monastery. So in 1991, the Drepung Loseling Insititute, as a seat of that monastery, was officially established in Atlanta.
What is the mission of Mystical Arts of Tibet?
Mytical Arts of Tibet has been an ongoing tour since 1996. Before we had been on a few tours but not every year. The tours have three basic purposes. Firstly, to promote peace and healing in the world by performing Tibetan sacred arts, chants, and prayers. Secondly, we hope to raise awareness about the current Tibetan situation in hopes that increased awareness will result in some peaceful resolution in Tibet. Thirdly, to raise much needed funds to provide the basic needs and education for the ever-increasing monks at the Drepung Loseling Monastery as well to raise funds for other Tibetan institutions in India.
Do you feel that American understanding of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism has grown significantly?
It is absolutely growing. The awareness about Tibet has changed dramatically. Back in the late 1980s when we made our first tour, there were many places where people had no idea where Tibet was or basic principles of Tibetan Buddhism. But now I think there is a tremendous amount of awareness about Tibet and basic understanding of Buddhism. Clearly meditation has become so popular in the US, even within the scientific communities. Not just the Buddhist forms of meditation are studied. But there certainly have been many studies specifically on Tibetan Buddhist meditation and its benefits for health and well-being. So for various reasons, I think there is a tremendous interest in contemplative Eastern traditions.
This Sand Mandala event at the Asia Society is a gift to New York City. What message do you want to send on this two-year anniversary of September 11?
It is a gift for New Yorkers, but also for all Americans on behalf of Tibetans. Our purpose is to create this mandala with prayers for peace and protection. We would like to convey that Tibetans really feel the pain of so many of the victims no matter where these types of tragedies occur. Our hope in creating this sand mandala is that it will bring some benefit in terms of healing and peace for the people who died on September 11 as well as people who are still suffering their losses.
Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of AsiaSource.
Interview with Gonsar Rinpoche
Gonsar Rinpoche: a life dedicated to Guru Devotion
Interview by Dario Tesoroni, in 2001
The most venerable Geshe Rabten Rinpoche was an outstanding Tibetan master of our times. He was the master of many Tibetans and also of many Westerners. He was one of the first pioneer of Buddhism in the West, especially of our tradition. For me personally he was not only my root Guru, but also my spiritual father; not only a spiritual father but like a real father and mother too, a teacher and a Buddha; all in one.
I had many great fortunes: I was born as a human being in a country where Dharma flourished, in a family of practitioners. I was recognized as a Tulku and so I came in contact with so many teachings of Dharma and so many teachers, but still out of all this fortune the greatest fortune I had in my life was to meet Geshe Rinpoche. From the beginning Geshe Rinpoche came to me, (thanks to Trijchang Dorje Chang, who chose him as my teacher) because I was a Tulku. Usually Tulkus, especially of a certain rank, have the great fortune of having their private teacher always with them. Instead monks have to go to special places to receive teachings.
But of course, for some other Tulkus, this was not necessarily very pleasant because they had very strict teacher living with them. I knew that many of my friends Rinpoches had very good, learned and wise teachers but still, when I was looking at them or listening to stories, I understood that it is not easy to find a master as kind as Geshe Rinpoche. This is not only true for me but for all his disciples.
I was really very fortunate. When he came to me I had no idea if he was a strict teacher or what. But from the very first day he showed kindness and love; and then of course in a very skilful way he brought me up with so much patience, so much love and care, something that surpassed even my kind full mother.
I never had a father because he passed away when I was three months old but I was always with my kindful mother (and I am lucky because she is still with me) but Geshe Rinpoche's kindness was even greater than my mother's; it was really extraordinary. I was a lazy child but Geshe Rinpoche brought me up with so much wisdom, patience, love and kindness that I can say that if there is anything positive that all came only from him. In Tibet masters are very strict; it is very common for them to beat their pupils. All my colleagues Tulkus often receive this kind of blessings! But Geshe Rinpoche never beated me. When I was doing something really wrong, he just showed a slightly upset face. It was enough, it had always a very strong effect.
His special quality was that he was very kind. Not possible to be more kind. But at the same time he was like a mountain. It was natural for people around him to have respect. He never needed to show anger. He had this kind of radiance, and he was so compassionate with all sentient beings, with animals too. He was continuously showing so much care for all beings that normal people could not even think about.
I lived 33 years with him, almost every day, till the last breath. I received all kind of teachings from him, starting from the alphabet. But the most important teaching was his own example. For example I have received Lam Rim teachings from him, but most important than that, he was demonstrating Lam Rim continuously in his own daily life, starting from a strong, unchangeable Guru devotion.
He had few masters: the very famous Geshe Jampa Kedrup, one of the respected senior disciples of Pabongka; Ling Rinpoche; the former Gonsar, my predecessor and the former Jampa Rinpoche (known as the manifestation of Maitreya) who gave him both ordinations. But his principle Root Guru was Trijang Dorje Chang, whom he always consulted for everything and whose advices he always followed.
When he was living in the monastery, while following the monastery programs - teachings, debate and so on, all daily programs - at the same time he was doing so many practices, like all the preparatory practices: few hundred thousands prostrations, many hundred thousands mandalas... all those things. Not only that. Whenever he had a vacation he would do a retreat, like Yamantaka or Vajrayogini and Lam Rim meditations. He was really combining the intellectual studies with the practice.
Sometimes he was physically not well but he was still doing prostrations, circumambulations and mandala offerings. He was already a senior monk and he was still doing all that. His ethical behavior too was so pure, exceptional. Very rare to find even in the great monasteries. His life was a perfect demonstration of the whole Lam Rim path. I have been watching this every day, for 33 years. And the last moment, how he passed away, was like the final perfect conclusion. Till the last moment I was sure he was an Enlightened master.
Geshe Rinpoche spent all his life to help us (his disciples) and now I can see very well that one of the reasons why he passed away was for the benefit of his disciples. His story is really like Buddha's life. Buddha could have lived as much as he wanted, benefiting so many sentient beings. But he lived for 80 years. Sentient beings, due to their ignorance, did not understand how precious was to live near the Buddha, they took it for granted. In such a situation Buddha left his body, so they had to think. Not only to think; everybody had to work hard and within a short period, after Buddha had passed away, many people became Arhat. It was a big push.
In a similar way it happened to me. Suddenly he passed away and it was for me a very great shock. At the beginning it was impossible even to think about continuing without him at all. But somehow we had to continue. So many responsibilities fall on my shoulders and this obliged me to take care of everything. It was very difficult without him, but still somehow I tried to fulfill his wishes. Without anybody pushing I had to push myself, especially after he came back. What Geshe Rinpoche could not make me doing things during his life, he made it by showing his passing away and then coming back.
This I knew since the very beginning that he would come back. Now I am responsible also for his upbringing. Now I have to do lot of things which I never did before. Many times I am thinking: "This is one of Geshe's tricks to put me on the right direction". Even at the practical level I have to do a lot of things, like getting up earlier. I can see the skillfulness of Geshe: I did not follow him then, so he used another method.
He is just continuing same thing with another method. Before he was coming as my teacher, telling me to do the right things and to avoid the wrong ones. Now he comes as a child, like my student - because now I am supposed to be a teacher - and still he is pushing me in the right direction. I do not see any difference at all: he is absolutely the same, with a slightly different form.
At the time when Trijang Dorje Chang passed away Geshe changed his attitude. Many times he was repeating : "Well, I am just a person of few years" like a joke and at one point he was saying something about the need of collecting together all the teachings he had given; all the cassettes and everything. He was giving many indications, it was very clear for me; but there were also many indications that he would come back. In fact he was conceived exactly one year after he had left.
I was convinced since the very beginning that he would come back, but I wanted to be really sure. I did not want to spend my whole life looking after a child, calling him my teacher, without knowing if he was really my teacher. Of course to help anybody is good but this is something else. Since the very beginning I consulted H.H. Dalai Lama, other Rinpoches and the Oracle. All of them said: "He will come back". Since the very first time His Holiness said: "Do not hurry; a child will come and will show himself." Also the Oracle said the same: "No rush, be patient. He will come in a family with pure Dharma bonds with the previous one." This was some kind of indication: I had not to look into all the Buddhist families of the world!
I never had special dreams in my life, or anything like that. After Geshe passed away, at a certain moment I had many dreams. I was responsible for the discovery of the new reincarnation and because of that I had many signs, many clear indications. They were so clear that I could have found him just following my dreams, but I did not want to make any mistake. I am a very skeptical person and I never believed in many strange things. Because of this skeptical mind I had some dreams, but in the beginning I did not pay so much attention.
But later I was surprised: many and very clear signs were coming to me. Other disciples too had this kind of signs. For example Helmut had a dream - later we calculated it happened exactly at the time when Geshe was conceived. In this dream a kind of nice space ship was descended carrying Geshe to a house. Me and Helmut went there: it was a Tibetan family with few children and Geshe was one of them. When we came out, Helmut glanced back and saw the house number. When he woke up he could still remember that number. Later, in India, we were looking for this number but we could not find it. When we finally discovered Rabten Tulku Rinpoche we saw that the number was his family telephone number! In India they have short telephone numbers; just three or four numbers. It was very strange!
We had many signs like that. Many times in my dreams I would go to Trijang Rinpoche always asking about Geshe. He would always answer: " Do not worry, he will come back." One time he told me: "He will take birth in a rich family." Actually he is born in Ama Losang family. Geshe Rinpoche's mother is doctor Losang Drolma's daughter (she is also a doctor); for Tibetan standards they are a well to do family. They have also very pure Dharma bonds because Ama Lobsang's root Guru was Trijang Dorje Chang.
I went many times to India on his search. First we checked if he was born in a Tibetan or in a Western family. But at one point it was clear that he was born again as a Tibetan. There was also an indication about the year of birth. I saw a lot of families with children born in that year; it was a good chance to meet many Tibetan people. I went everywhere: many Tibetans had so many stories about their children... "I have dreamed lotus flowers or Buddhas... and so on". Some of these children were really special. One of them, later, was recognized as a reincarnation of another Lama.
The very first time I met him, he was very little and very calm. His family too was very calm. His family is very special, very nice people. When he was not yet two years old, it became very clear that he was Geshe Rinpoche. I was completely sure he was the right one. But the final decision was of H.H. the Dalai Lama; and he chose Ama Losang's grandson: Rabten Tulku Rinpoche.
Some time later - Rinpoche was just able to walk - we went back to India and Rabten Tulku Rinpoche came to my hotel and he stayed there all day. Next morning he came by himself, very early. I was afraid because he was so small and the hotel was at certain distance from his home. Every morning someone had to go to pick him up; he was always ready, waiting. Every evening we brought him back, because I thought that, during the night, a child want to be with his parents. But after a few days he said: "I want to sleep here".
One day he asked to go to Geshe Rinpoche's retreat house above Dharamsala. We had already planned to go there, but he wanted to go right away. So we took him there. We carried him on our shoulders and on the way there were many flowers and he was saying: "pick them up". When we arrived at the house we had lot of flowers and as soon as he entered the room he became so excited. He took all the flowers and he started throwing them around; that little room became full of flowers! Usually he was, and he is, very quiet; but that time he was jumping and throwing rhododendron flowers everywhere in the room! It was very strange and beautiful.
When he first met other Lamas he was always a little shy and difficult to make prostrations etc., but when he went to see Trijang Choktrul Rinpoche (his previous life's root Guru) he ran into the house before us. He was so busy making prostrations; so busy, so full of joy and respect. The loving bond between these two young reincarnations is also something so moving to observe. Trijang Choktrul Rinpoche also cares for him like an older brother would do to his younger brother.
Many times he told me things that only Geshe Rinpoche could know and he also recognized each of his disciples exactly as they were.
He was and he is extraordinary. Not in the sense that he was doing some miracles but that he was so uncomplicated, wise and calm. He came to live here, in Europe, when he was a little child, three years old. The family stayed here with him, only for six months. Everything was good for him. When they left, to go back to India, he wasn't sad at all and so easily and joyfully gave his farewell. Comparing to myself, at the same age I was so complicated: I had to see my mother very often and when she would leave I would become sad. I wanted to do this and that and, if I could not, I would feel sad, like many children. But he is so uncomplicated; I never had any problem. The only problem I have is with food, he is not eating enough.
Never demanding, never upset, never unhappy or sad. I have never, never seen a child like that until now. He is also very intelligent. I really feel like I am not teaching him but just reminding him something. He has no any problem with studying. Many children do not want to study, they find it very boring and they complain. He does not care. He is so uncomplicated. He does everything so well, also pujas. He performs pujas like an old Lama and he can go on all day. No problem for him.
He is mentally very strong but, at the same time, very soft. He is a grown up person: this is quite peculiar since he is only 13 years old. In fact he is so wise that I ask him advices about important questions; he is very thoughtful. Of course he likes to play games; he is very good in sports like skiing, snow boarding, swimming and so on. He is very joyful with his playmates and good at making jokes. He also draws very well, things like comics or graffitis; very fascinating drawings. He does not spend much time with that, but he likes it.
I am so happy about him, I always pray for his long life.
When he came back, it was like life coming back. This is something really precious and wonderful in our tradition: Masters always coming back; never abandoning us!
Interview by Dario Tesoroni
An interview withThich Nhat Hanh
Art and the Practice of Compassion and Mindfulness
As the 1990s began, so too did the "culture-wars", as conservative politicians and religious leaders fought to cut funding channels to the arts. In that decade, artists and arts administrators lobbied hard for freedom of expression. Art spaces were challenged to refrain from self-censorship in order to maintain funding. With these external forces at work, some centers buckled due to internal rifts, as artists and administrators re-figured their work in the era of funding cuts.
I witnessed implosions due in part to unchecked egos but also due to a failure to remain true to community-based missions. In one of the centers, new policies were developed that weakened artists, participation in the center and control over their work. Un-met pleas for dialogue were followed by petitions, marches and a three-year boycott that is still in place at the time of this writing.
I visited Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally known Vietnamese Buddhist Monk at Deer Park Monastery, with a question fresh in my heart -- how to respond to the conflict in my artist community. After all, I knew the current strategies to build community, audiences and the organizational funding base. But how do you respond to your respected colleagues that have become embroiled in organizational conflicts? I thought that Thich Nhat Hanh might give some direction. I have heard him say "do not run away" from a crisis. Instead, use the crisis to practice compassion and develop peace.
I met with the Venerable Zen Master at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. Known worldwide for his social and political activism, Thich Nhat Hanh entered monastic life at the age of 16, and began his activism during the Vietnam War in Saigon when he founded the School of Youth Social Service. It was a relief organization to re-build shelters, establish schools, medical services, and services to people displaced by war. He was exiled from Vietnam in 1966 but his efforts for non-violence continued, moving Martin Luther King, Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
Eloissa Leonna: I am confused that artists working to build community could become enemies with each other. Taking a position seems to make it worse. How can one respond to such conflict?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Any attempt to change a situation either politically or otherwise should be based on the transformation of our own consciousness. If we don't know how to listen to ourselves and to each other we are not going to go very far. It is clear that you have to listen to yourself, your own suffering, your own aspirations. You have to understand yourself to some extent, and to the people in the communities, to their deepest desires, their suffering. That kind of deep looking will bring about more understanding of self and of the community. Understanding will make acceptance and tolerance and compassion possible. With that kind of understanding and compassion possible, the quality of life in the community will improve. You learn to look not with individual eyes, but with the community eyes. Because the collective insight is always deeper than individual insight. In the Buddhist community, the sangha eyes are always clearer than the individual eyes.
(Note: a sangha is a group people that meet regularly to study and practice Buddhist teachings. Lay practitioners do not need to convert to Buddhism but may use the practice to enhance their lives and existing spiritual/religious practice.)
Thich Nhat Hanh: You have viewpoints, you have experiences, you have insights. You try to offer the sangha all that you see and you feel, and you allow all the people in the sangha to have the same opportunity to express their insights, their views, their experiences. So, practicing listening deeply to each other is very important and practicing using the kind of speech that can make other people understand you. With pride, with arrogance, with irritation, you cannot help the other people to understand you, your insight, you view, your experience. So, there are two things to practice: listening deeply with compassion, and trying to express yourself with kind, loving speech that can convey your insight. It's very beautiful.
As you continue to progress on the path of mutual understanding and acceptance, you become an instrument for social and political change. If you do not succeed in your community, don't hope for quality, because without that base of operation you cannot achieve much. People are motivated to do things, there are plenty of them, but without the capacity of listening, of understanding, of being compassionate, what they do cannot help. They can make the situation worse. So, goodwill is not enough. There must be the capacity of understanding, of compassion, and of working together in harmony before you can hope to do something.
What I propose is that you go back to your community and use your talent of listening and of loving speech to help other individuals to improve their quality of listening and talking and learning how to surrender their individualism to the collective insight. Then the quality of life of the group will improve. If you are happy together, harmonious among yourselves, then we can move forward to change society. Peace and social change must begin within your community.
Listening deeply and with compassion is an art. Speaking with loving kindness is also an art. Other things like painting or music can serve that purpose (of compassion). When you sing a song, the song should have an effect of sangha beauty, of building mutual understanding and compassion. That's what we try to do in our sangha. We write poetry, we write songs, we perform dances, we do chanting. Everything we do is to help bring more harmony and mutual acceptance into our sangha. Slowly we become brothers and sisters to each other. Without that we cannot go far.
I always tell my monastics to be authentic. You can share with people what you have already practiced. What you have practiced in harmony, tolerance, mindfulness, joy and peace within the community. If you don't have these things, don't go out, because you have nothing to share. Even if you can speak with eloquence that is not what people need. They need something true.
It's like a psychotherapist who is not capable of living happily in his own family. How can he help a patient? Or a politician who cannot listen to his own wife and children. How can he help other nations? This is our experience of practice.
Eloissa Leonna: Can you speak about people's attachment to suffering? Sometimes people are so identified with their struggles that they are unwilling to release them.
Thich Nhat Hanh: It is very important to come out of your suffering and there must be ways to get out of that kind of suffering. Suppose you suffer because there's so much violence and despair in you. If you know nothing about the art of transforming your anger and your despair, if you don't have a real taste of happiness, how do you expect to help other people not to suffer? We need to reduce the amount of suffering within us and in our society. Life has meaning only when you see a path that leads you and other people out of suffering. In the Buddhist tradition, understanding suffering is very important. Suffering is the first noble truth. If you look deeply into it, you can discover the second noble truth, the making of the suffering, the cause, the root of suffering.
When you understand the nature and the root of your suffering, the path of emancipation can be seen. To suffer and not to understand your suffering -- suffering in that case has no meaning, has no value, has no use.
Understanding the nature of your suffering, you begin to see the path leading to emancipation. When you have the path, you have the energy and the courage to practice and to help other people. And in that case, suffering is helpful. But if you don't understand suffering, if you are drowning in the ocean of suffering, suffering is not a very noble truth. You can't be proud of your suffering because it does not help you. It does not help anyone. You must look deeply into your suffering and understand it. When you understand your suffering, you see the path of emancipation.
People from all religious denominations and backgrounds have learned the technique of mindfulness taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is a practice of slowing one's movements, becoming aware of the breath and of the present moment, "I am at home. I have arrived." The practice of mindfulness is key to cultivating peace in the individual. Thich Nhat Hanh's newest book is "Teachings from the Lotus Sutra". In it he teaches that every person has a Buddha nature and tells the story of the "Never Despising Bodhisattva" who shouts to the people who drive him away with insults and beatings,
"I do not hold you in contempt!
You are all treading the Path,
And shall all become Buddhas!"
Two special retreats will be led by Thich Nhat Hanh at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California this spring. "Nurturing the Creative Heart" for people in the film/television industry, March 19-21; and "Colors of Compassion", a retreat for People of Color, March 25-27, 2004. For details check the internet at www.esangha.org or call (760) 291-1003.
Eloissa Leonna (formerly Eloisa de Leon) is a videomaker and journalist for In Motion Magazine from San Diego, California. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
Published in In Motion Magazine - January 25, 2004
Emptiness and Being: A Comparative Analysis of Parmenides and Naagaarjuna
The two philosophers Parmenides and Naagaarjuna both represent fundamental paradigm shifts that they are credited with setting in motion. While the Eleatic Dilemma of Parmenides quickly became the measuring stick for subsequent Greek philosophers and physicists, Naagaarjuna's combination of a negative "tetralemma" in his dialectics with new insights on the nature and significance of emptiness were to leave an indelible imprint on the Buddhist world. His theories later helped establish what is today one of the main branches of Buddhism, the Mahaayaana. Although these two thinkers arose from different cultures, many of their basic tenets bear a striking similarity. In comparing and contrasting both systems of thought, it is hoped that a new clarity can be brought to how such significant contributions to the legacy of human thought are interpreted.
Initially, the first comparison that can be quickly drawn is that both thinkers are ancient. Problems also begin to rise when seeking to establish exact dates for either of their lives. The date of birth that can be inferred from Plato's Parmenides is about 515 BC, while according to another source, that of Apollodorus, Parmenides was born about 515 BC (Philip 35). He was a native of Elea, a Greek city in southern Italy (Robinson 107). According to the account given by Diogenes Laertus, he was also of a good family and very wealthy. Based on the approximate time of his life it can be said that he was inevitably familiar with the Pythagorean doctrines of that time in the Greek world, and his later theories are sometimes thought to have been a response or refutation of certain Pythagorean concepts, though it can be said that his criticisms seemed to refute everyone in Greece equally (Philip 35). The only movement he could really be said to have founded was the gate of his refutation that the attempts of later thinkers sought to pass through, which they proceeded to do with rather mixed results. Even intellectual giants such as Plato and Aristotle struggled to address his ideas, and some later Western thinkers will attribute him the title of "the father of dialectics."
In seeking to establish the estimated date of Naagaarjuna's lifetime, there lacks the peer literature that is present in the case of Parmenides. Aid is provided by recent archaeological discoveries in South India, hinting at a time during the latter part of the second century and the early part of the third century AD (Kalupahana 160). He is understood by many scholars to have founded the Maadhyamika (Middle Doctrine) school of Buddhist philosophy, and is held in high esteem by at least two of the major Buddhist traditions of the world (McFarlane 1). The Tibetan and Mongolian traditions regard him as the founder of the most important philosophical systems of the Buddhism they practice, and the Ch'an and Zen traditions of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam regard him as one of the earliest of their patriarchs (Santina 1). A version of his Middle Doctrine school also later arose in China called the San Lun (Three Treatise) school, based on three translations of his works (De Bary 293). Different accounts exist both of Chinese and Tibetan origins as to the details of his life, although both perspectives share the idea that he grew up as a brahman (priestly caste), the highest and most privileged caste in the India of that time (Kalupahana 161).
So far, the comparison can be drawn between the two of a relatively prosperous background that perhaps enabled them the leisure time to explore the avenues of thought of which they are known for. However, modern readers are limited to whatever written accounts have escaped the ravages of time. In Parmenides' case, his legacy comes down to us in limited fragments of his original works (Prologue, The Way of Truth, The Nature of What Is, The Way of Opinion, The World-Order, and Thought and Being), in addition to later references to him in both Plato's Parmenides and Aristotle's Metaphysics. The written records of Naagaarjuna, on the other hand, include a considerable corpus consisting of texts addressed to lay audiences, letters of advice to King Gautamïputra Saatakarni of Saatavaahana, and the set of treatises for which he is most known, the Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa, or Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way, abbreviated hereafter as the "MMK" (Garfield 219). It suffices to say that enough remains of the original thoughts of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna to ascertain the core of their respective theories, especially in regards to existence and nonexistence, and the definition of "Being."
A starting ground for a comparison between the two thinkers entails understanding the cultural background that pervaded around them. In investigating cultural backgrounds, however, the distinct possibility of an attitude of determinism comes into play that should be avoided. Neither the legacies of the Ionian physicists nor the doctrines of the Pythagoreans totally determined Parmenides' priorities or biases. Likewise, in the case of Naagaarjuna, neither brahmanic Vedaanta Hinduism nor the Buddhism of his day were determinants of his emerging philosophy.
For example, in the Greek world of Parmenides' time, any deduction made begins with the dual assumption of existence and the earlier assumption by assorted Ionian physicists and Pythagoreans: that what exists has a soul (Taran 97). This assumption of active existence does indeed influence him, and at the same time gives him much to respond to or elaborate on. Although there have been minor scholarly debates about whether or not Parmenides sought to single out the Pythagoreans for attacking or disproving certain commonly held beliefs, the position remains questionable (Taran 99). The supposed conflict stems from the Pythagorean concept of how the "One" of existence was created. The Pythagorean genesis of the world was formed when this "One" inhaled or absorbed the surrounding void, which credited the void with quite a high honor (Burkert 77). It cannot be inferred, however, that the Pythagorean void which they considered to be air itself is defined specifically as "non-Being," or that Parmenides interpreted the Pythagorean void in such a way. Ionian physicists are also seen as targets of Parmenides because their cosmological theories seemed to entail multiplicity of elements and an eternal ratio of dual, shifting energies. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he claimed early on in his Prologue that his works were meant for all "the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief" (Robinson 109).
Naagaarjuna's surrounding environment was composed of several schools of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, all of which he was certainly exposed to as the required education that was part of a brahmanical upbringing. Among these include a school of Hinduism known as Vedaanta, which focused on the Vedas, the ancient oral traditions of Hinduism. This was a mystical school in Naagaarjuna's time whose basic concept of Being moved toward the transcendentalist perspective that Being was neither Being nor non-Being, a totally indescribable situation that is beyond both speculation and investigation (Kalupahana 6). Although the fact that such theories were basically acceptable in Naagaarjuna's culture perhaps made it more possible for him to develop his later theories, another fact remains: that an overwhelming Buddhist influence pervaded his life. The Buddhists of his day, however, neither came to similar conclusions nor inferred similar meanings to the Buddha's teachings as he later did by pioneering his Middle Doctrine. He was to change the face of Buddhism forever with his introduction of suunyataa (emptiness) as "Being", to the extent that even his Maadhyamika followers were sometimes referred to as suunyavaadins, or "exponents of the doctrine of emptiness" (De Bary 293).
Middle Doctrine lies between the two theses that life "is" and "is not": emptiness has neither Being nor non-Being, which would be considered extremes that stray from the Middle Way itself (Jaspers 115). However, the path that is walked is not of endless denial or negation. The "Ultimate Truth" is the eventual goal, only by gaining freedom from wiping out all views altogether, leaving no intellectual hindrances to pure existence (Jacobson 61). The emptiness that is espoused is in a Buddhist context, used as a technical term for "the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things" (Garfield 219). To realize this emptiness is to gain freedom from suffering, and eventually to gain freedom from any notion of emptiness. In this way, at the very point that Naagaarjuna and Parmenides seem to contrast the most, in some ways they actually converge.
The "One Being" of Parmenides, though bearing striking similarities with Naagaarjuna's suunyataa (emptiness), also provides for the most profound contrasts. Both thinkers have been described as skeptics, although what they are skeptical about seem at first glance to be polar opposites. Parmenides lays out guidelines and strict boundaries for possible views, while Naagaarjuna aims at wiping out all views as they arise. At the same time, both of them still share a fearless, vast, and all-devouring skepticism.
The most obvious mutual target for the skepticism of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna is the world of appearance, or the sensory realm that humans easily perceive. This realm is understood by both to be an illusion, albeit a necessary one. While Parmenides' attitude is that the material world around us should not be taken as a granted reality, merely a product of sensory perception, he does attach both truth and reality to what he feels is a realm of pure thought, or "Mind" (Phillips 546). This Mind is intensely both one and changeless, rendering the apparent kaleidoscopic characteristics of the known world behind as a rejection of the testimony given by the senses (Taran 17). If the reality of the phenomenal world is denied in such a way, then the solitary "Is" precludes it, and this "Is" must be concentrated on by withdrawing from the world of the senses (Burkert 285).
However, withdrawal does not necessarily entail total denial. This is also a factor that both thinkers share, spoken to Parmenides by the nameless goddess who shared with him the truths he proclaims: "Appearances have to be acceptable, since they pervade everything" (Robinson 109). If all human conceptions and interpretations are merely empty names for something that bears a deceptive appearance, then it makes sense that this realization descended upon Parmenides from the lips of a goddess who bears no name at all.
Sensory perception in Naagaarjuna's view is true only pragmatically, only real in a qualified sense for practical purposes, a point that he indeed shares with Parmenides. This goes against the traditional Buddhist view of an ultimate reality consisting of chain events or elements that make up all phenomenal beings or objects (De Bary 293). The world of the senses was already declared as delusion (samsaara) in a Buddhist context, a massive and inescapable wheel of suffering, the only way out being extinction (nirvaana). This strict dualistic delineation between the chains of the phenomenal world and the freedom that is beyond it is a traditional mainstay of most of the world's religions, though with Naagaarjuna is found an exception.
Naagaarjuna was committed to explaining the radical notion that nirvaana and samsaara were identical, an idea that would be difficult for many of his contemporaries to accept (Birch 2). According to him, the root of all suffering lies in imagined separation taken as real, supposed division assumed as a given, and the ignorance of clinging to the relative while calling it solely absolute (McFarlane 1). All of these can be directly applied to the traditional concept of nirvaana being somewhere other than in the very midst of samsaara, the result being that they both occur simultaneously and are therefore no longer separate things. Just as Mind takes place in the midst of the phenomenal world, more than one truth is present.
Although there is limited similarity here between both views of sensory perception and the phenomenal world, Naagaarjuna proceeds to depart from Parmenides' limit imposed by his insistence on the inherent existence of Being. A standard Buddhist concept of the time is the notion that the sensory world is not only illusion, but is not essentially real. It is the resting place of emptiness, suunyataa. In the context of Parmenides, this is the deceptive sensory world that is illusory and does not reflect the Mind of Being. However, because of Naagaarjuna's infusion of both samsaara and nirvaana, both are inherently tainted or marked with the illusion of the phenomenal world; hence they neither totally exist nor not exist. Since Naagaarjuna's criticism has revealed contradictions leading to suffering in clinging to both inherent Being and inherent non-Being, in the end we can neither absolutely assert nor absolutely deny the existence of the self that perceives these states. We are left with his Middle Way, passing between the extremes.
This cancels all exclusive claims to existence or truth, including the One, the Mind, or the Being of Parmenides, and even including the notion of suunyataa that helps one realize this cancelled state in the first place. Naagaarjuna systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things. He does this just as Parmenides eschews negative ones, demonstrating that any such thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality (Garfield 220). Rather, what counts as real depends precisely upon our conventions; this despite of what some goddess may say, or even some Buddha.
As both thinkers slash away at the cosmological or phenomenal views that they claim are illusions, they do so with the power of their own thought. For both, thought and knowledge alike are significant issues that merit consideration. For Parmenides, thought itself is Being; Being is the cause or total condition of thought (Phillips 552). This is tricky, however, which Karl Jaspers describes quite well: "If we think something, we must at the same time think something else, from which the first something differs to or to which it is related. For Parmenides this thinking is the source of illusion through separation and name-giving. The truth must be thought as inseparably one, but in the thinking, differentiations are born" (Jaspers 24).
Another impact of Parmenides' view on thought is in regard to his concept of Mind as an all-pervasive thing. Everything is contained in and not separate from Being, so everything is contained in and not separate from thought. If thinking and Being are the same, then first, everything that thinks "is", which is quite trivial; but if it follows that everything that "is" thinks, all boundaries crumble and Being is what remains, which is also thought. This only applies to thought that is not distracted by untruths or illusions, however, and Parmenides has already been told by his goddess that everyone around him is already mistaken (Robinson 109). So it is not enough to say that thought is Being; to truly think this takes a special kind of thought.
This idea of thoughts having various levels of meaning or importance can also be seen in Buddhist concepts that serve as a backdrop or starting point for Naagaarjuna's theories. He accepted certain ontological and epistemological presuppositions that are fundamental to Buddhist religious life. The first of these is that there is a radical dynamism in reality; or, stated otherwise, "Becoming" transforms all suggestions of "Being." Already this shows an idea totally opposite of Parmenides. A second is that knowledge and "Becoming" are coextensive; one "Becomes" what one knows, and one can know only what is available to one's "Becoming." A third presupposition is that there are two kinds of truth: the mundane truth, valid for practical living, and the Ultimate Truth, which is the beginning and end of release from worldly turmoil (Streng 36).
What Naagaarjuna does with the above presuppositions is twofold, corresponding with his two truths. On one level, thought is inexorably tied in with the mind-body complex, which in turn is a mere aspect of the phenomenal world. Inherent existence is therefore wrongly applied to the entire structure, causing the individual who thinks to feel unrelated to the organic, dynamic course of personal life and depriving the latter of all significance. This is obviously in Naagaarjuna's eyes a fruitless endeavor that causes undue suffering. So what is left? It is the true realization of suunyataa, or Ultimate Truth, a realm in which "reason is used to destroy itself" (Humphreys 145).
It is obvious at this point that one of the most fundamental differences between the two thinkers is the relative importance that they place on thought. Or is it? If personal thought according to Parmenides can either be wallowing in confusion or perfectly in tune with an essentially mental Being, then it could be said that two truths therefore arise, that of true and perfect thought existing and false, lost thought that is thoroughly deceptive and unreal (Phillips 559). On the other hand, if according to Naagaarjuna the Ultimate Truth is not a positive position at all, but comprises of reducing all things (including thought) to pairs of negatives and then denying them, then no such positive assertion as "Being" can be completely accepted or clung to.
So if Parmenides' "Being" is indeed shown to be a positive assumption, it becomes necessary to understand how he views it. It does not begin and end with thought, in fact he wants to suggest that the mind revolves around or pivots on it (Mourelatos 193). Mind is limited to a property of lower level processes, and contains within it the possibility or option to think on "Being" exclusively and being in perfect harmony with the truth that it encompasses (Randall 5). Furthermore, if Being is an indivisible One that can also be likened to the shape of an indivisible sphere, then it can neither be limited nor unlimited (Knight 526). If it were limited, then by definition nothing would exist beyond those limits but non-Being, which is a huge no-no to Paremnides, who said "it is not possible for it not to be" (Robinson 110). However, if it were unlimited, then by definition it would entail an infinite number, and therefore not be an indivisible One.
It is Parmenides' point, not that Being is thought whenever we think, and therefore whatever we think is true; but that to only think Being is true (Taran 80-81). Consequently whatever else, besides Being, our thoughts conceive is only deceptive appearance. Here thought is potentially as empty as the sensory or phenomenal world that the thoughts partake in. The consequences of the doctrine of Being are now reached: since Being is the only thing there is, the language of mortals is void of meaning and the world in which they live is the result of convention (Taran 191). This realization extends beyond language and the world to affect the preconditions of the phenomenal world themselves, such as time, change, and motion. Parmenides snubs his nose at such illusory notions, and through his rule of non-Being not allowed to exist or be spoken of, sets up his refutation. Although Naagaarjuna's refutation is fourfold negation, not a banning of negation of Being, it can be shown that they both shower scorn in their own ways on such basic constructs.
The basic structure of time as it is understood consists of the three tenses: past, present, and future. What arises is "temporal becoming and perishing." Things existed in the past that no longer exist in the present and will not exist in the future. Things exist in the present that did not exist in the past and may or may not exist in the future. Things will exist in the future that may or may not have existed in the past and may or may not exist in the present. The critique that Parmenides puts forth asserts that time is not real, because in order to make it real, one is required to affirm that what is ostensibly real both "is" and "is not" (Hoy 579). If we cannot conclude anything in regards to earlier stages of Being, or that it "came to be," then temporal becoming is simply not allowed room to exist, and all that it left to be said about Being is that it "is" (Philip 36). One can conclude from this endeavor that because Being is what is real, then Being by definition transcends time, which in turn is instantly converted to illusory rubble (Hoy 573).
Naagaarjuna's reflections on the notion of time likewise reduce it to rubble, not by establishing rules of Being and non-Being, but by giving time an identity crisis that is impossible to recover from. To him, time lacks self-existence, because it lacks defining characteristics. The past, for example, cannot be independent because it is nonsensical if it does not terminate in the present and future. Therefore, time in and of itself can never be grasped. It seems to exist or to have come into existence, but is not an existent thing apart from anything else, so one ends up with the conclusion that it is both existing and non-existing. But there is not an existing-and-non-existing thing that does not have the properties of an existing-and-non-existing thing. Time lacks properties because it lacks defining characteristics that are (as entailed by definition) independent of other defining characteristics. It is not a self-existing substratum or arena in which independent events occur. So time is not existing, not non-existing, nor both existing and non-existing (Birch 4).
Unlike Parmenides, Naagaarjuna is aided by his own culture in addition to his own reasoning in reaching his conclusions about time. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions have a view of time as related to the law of causation, or karma. Karma implies a construct of time in which our present condition is defined by our past actions, and our future condition will be defined by both our past and present actions. This may seem at first to back up a belief in the independence and self-existence of time, but in fact it is shattered by the Buddhist concept of anityataa, or impermanence (Kalupahana 65).
Entailed in this notion is the First of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that the world in itself is impermanent. In the context of the Maadhyamika school, this entails that all things are empty of inherent existence, conditioned, and relative; because we cling to them as if they were permanent and substantial, there is suffering (McFarlane 4). Time is part of the world, and therefore partakes of this impermanence. Nothing appears that is produced by either itself or another thing; everything appears by the operation of multiple causes and manifold conditions acting together to produce the momentary "now" (Jacobson 70). Hence, according to the law of impermanence, things arise and cease.
Naagaarjuna disagrees. He seeks to show that the common sense view of causality involves contradictions. If causality can be shown to be self-contradictory, then the "things" which reputedly participate in the chain of causality either have no Being or do not participate in causality at all. Causality in general, all the "production" in the world, cannot be the result of so-called causes because of the effects that are already contained in the causes (Birch 2). This is similar to what Parmenides suggests, who claims that neither becoming nor ceasing to be are real because what exists is motionless and unalterable (Knight 524). It follows that both motion and change are also major subjects that both philosophers tackle, with similar details but different outcomes.
In order for change to take place, the positing of two forms must take place, the cause of change and the product of change. Parmenides insists that the mistake of mortals is in asserting the sole existence of these forms, which denies the necessity of asserting that both forms are united in Being (Taran 223). This is what Aristotle would later interpret as Parmenides' claim of two causes and two principles of truth, one that exists and one that does not exist because it is false: " he thinks that of necessity one thing exists, the existent and nothing else, but being forced to follow the observed facts, and supposing the existence of that which is one in definition, but more than one according to our sensations "(McKeon 699). In interpreting this quote a parallel with Naagaarjuna's two truths reveals itself. In fact, they both mutilate the idea of change in different ways. Parmenides states that Being cannot be changed in the end, because Being cannot give rise to anything but itself (Taran 104). Naagaarjuna follows by insisting that neither a oneness nor a difference of cause and product are possible, because the things themselves (apart from conventions of individuation) are nothing more than arbitrary slices of an indefinite spatio-temporal perception (Hoy 583).
If change is a haphazard misunderstanding, a false assumption on the part of mortals, this brings up the issue of motion. Just like change, motion requires plurality to occur, for only if existence were made up of different things would anything have anywhere to move away from or close to, and a requirement that Democritus later insisted as the "void" must be present to give an individual thing room to actually move in (Knight 524). But motion is simply a weak attempt at explaining or defining reality, according to both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna.
Motion implies materialism. To establish what Parmenides thought on this matter, his theory on Being must be further explored. He claims that it is like a well-rounded sphere, causing some scholars to insist that the materialism of Being was then justified (Robinson 116). However, if the idea of a spatial limit were maintained in regard to Being, he would've been confronted with an issue that must then be considered. If there is a limit, then something must be beyond this limit, which cannot be Being because then there would be no limit. It also cannot be non-Being, because that would be inconceivable. Therefore the concept of a spatial limit is impossible. Being is neither at rest nor in motion, contraries that are vague and unsettled that would not be right to attempt to name (Mourelatos 86).
Naagaarjuna shares Parmenides' fundamental distrust of the separate essences and attributes that allow for assumptions to be made about the occurrence of motion, but with a strategy and a set of goals that differ. It is his basic mission to reveal that the notion of the ultimacy and separateness of basic elements through which we comprehend motion is not only devoid of ground but is contradicted by the very nature of the things assumed to be in motion (McFarlane 3). The world in which motion takes place is actually the result of nonexistence of any independent self-established substance (Jacobson 75). There are no "things," either sensible objects of the life world or subjective components of consciousness, that are not relative or dependent and therefore are capable of containing a separate substance to move to begin with (Birch 2). In the MMK's commentary on motion, his logic becomes apparent:
I. A moving entity moves.
II. A non-moving entity moves.
III. A moving and non-moving entity moves.
The first of these represents absolute identity between two events determined on the basis of motion, the second assumes absolute difference, and the third is a combination of the first two. An existing mover does not carry out the movement in any of the three ways. Neither does a non-existing mover carry out a movement, both existing and non-existing, in any of the three ways. Therefore, neither the motion, nor the mover, nor the space is evident. (Kalupahana 162-163)
Through this process of denial, propositions about reality are shown ultimately to hinder one from knowing what the conditions of existence actually are. The reader is asked through such denials to redefine basic questions, since the concerns with essences and attributes do not apply to the actual situation (Streng 163). A parallel motive is therefore shown between the denials of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna: the actual situation that our own ontological and epistemological presuppositions place us in is not to be assumed as real. Whether Parmenides' Being and Naagaarjuna's Ultimate Truth (both of and beyond emptiness) can be equated somehow is basically a dead issue. This is because even these two great and ancient philosophers carry with them the inevitable baggage of their own presuppositions and definitions that they believe lead them from confusion to clarity. The Eleatic dilemma and the Maadhyamika school's tetralemma both reveal the motives and goals of their respective authors.
From the perspective of Parmenides, his achievement was in showing the inherent falsehood of the cosmological explanations of his day through stating that nobody can assert that non-Being exists (Taran 39). The concept of "non-Being," however, is not to be interpreted as the Pythagorean void. In fact, no clear identification with void and non-Being occurred until the later works of the Atomists Empedocles and Anaxagoras, who understood void as the absence of what they considered to be Being (Taran 99). Despite this, his dilemma did respond to the Pythagoreans, because he asserted as part of his position that Being occupies the whole of space, and so would obviously and inevitably fill "void" up, so that it would no longer be void (Knight 524).
The fact that Being exists is taken by Parmenides as a tautology, a given (Taran 37). However, Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, will later raise significant issues that Parmenides regretfully is unable to respond to: "If unity-itself is indivisible, it will be nothing. For that which is neither when added makes a thing greater nor when subtracted makes a thing less is asserted to have no Being" (McKeon 728). Aristotle was very good at debating people who happened to already be dead, so that none of the subjects of his critiques could offer up much of a rebuttal. The original truth of Being is the foundation for Parmenides to refute non-Being as conceivable or even mentionable. It follows that if something is done to tamper with that original truth, then Parmenides is left with nothing to defend.
His argument stands on the ground of helpful advice and guidance for the hapless mortal masses, and at the time it was composed it may have been exactly what his peers needed to hear. Non-Being can complicate things. Imagine if, looking at a map, someone were to attempt to locate non-Athens. Obviously, a bigger map would become necessary. In this way, an intellectual adventurer who seeks non-Being in terms of what-is-not cannot even mark, descry, or set a bearing on the goal, and no guide could ever show the way. The journey to what-is-not is one that "heads for everywhere and nowhere" (Mourelatos 78).
Naagaarjuna's position, on the other hand, rests with not exploring a map of Being nor non-Being. But nor is he against using maps, exploring the possibilities and meanings of what we perceive and the speculations of what we do not see. The trick is that release comes not from burning whatever map is in use, just knowing when to put it down. There is no positive definition here, no assurance and no friendly advice. He does not positively define emptiness in the same way the Parmenides stakes his claim on Being. His Middle Way involves not subscribing to extreme views, which are shown to lead to contradictions that circle back around to emptiness (McFarlane 4). Keeping in mind the relative and ultimate truths that he describes, even saying that things are empty or have no essence falls short. In fact, if to be empty is to be empty of essence, emptiness fails on that count to be empty, because emptiness and essence are not two (Birch 3). Naagaarjuna used the term "emptiness" with a keen awareness of the problems involved with expressing the inexpressible, so a study of the way it was used to articulate transformative awakening may provide an insight.
In the Majjhima-nikaaya, part of the oldest written record of the teachings of the historical Buddha, a precedent for Naagaarjuna's fourfold negation, or "tetralemma", can be seen when the Buddha responds to a question that a monk has about rebirth:
Gotama, where is the monk reborn whose mind is thus freed?
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is not reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is both reborn and not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is both reborn and not reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is neither reborn nor not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is neither reborn nor not reborn. (Robinson 54)
This can basically be seen as a refutation of an idea as being, as nonbeing, as both being and nonbeing, and as neither being nor nonbeing. The belief in any of the four is an extreme and must be transcended by a higher synthesis through the dialectic method until the ultimate void is arrived at, which is the Absolute Middle, the Maadhyamika (De Bary 295). Thus the ultimate reality shown by Mahaayaana Buddhists is the absolute voidness that is devoid of all qualifications and about which no conceptual determination can be formed (Nakamura 55).
What Naagaarjuna did with this dialectic was to apply it to any given concept, including the spiritual goals involved with doing so. This process, he felt, cannot just cease with a realization of emptiness and a negation of all thought. The next step is negating the negation itself, relinquishing the notion of emptiness as soon as it is realized. He acknowledged the accepted Buddhist doctrine that all things are destitute of individual essence and are "marked with emptiness," but went further to assert that even the emptiness is hypothetical, unsubstantiated, and therefore should also be negated (Nakamura 187).
To judge him as a nihilist or wallowing in negativity would not be giving a true account. However sharp his skepticism may seem, in his texts and letters a balance was kept between combating false assertions and emphasizing the importance of traditional Buddhist morality (Santina 2). It is in the context of the very insubstantiality of things that true Buddhist compassion can flourish. If money is no longer clung to or absolutized, then the virtue of giving can take place. The same goes for personal views, emotions, and opinions. If they are all emptied of their importance, then they will no longer obstruct clarity with delusion.
Delusion, however, has an importance all its own, one that Parmenides does not acknowledge. For how can truth exist without falsehood? Such extremes have a way of supporting one another. This is another Buddhist truth that Naagaarjuna mentions and describes in his works, that of prataatyasamutpaada, or "dependent co-origination" (Garfield 221). This basically denotes the interdependence of phenomena in which events depend on other events, composites depend on their parts, and everything has a remarkable way of sustaining everything else. Naagaarjuna defines this in his own dialectic style:
Impurity cannot exist without depending on purity so that we explain purity by impurity.
Therefore purity by itself cannot be attained.
Purity cannot exist without depending on impurity, so that we explain impurity by purity.
Therefore impurity cannot exist by itself. (Nakamura 61)
In the same respect, Naagaarjuna's truths interlock and support one another. Subject and object are mutually conditioned, and the essences of both are beyond verbal definition or intellectual comprehension. If not for relative truth, absolute truth would be unattainable (Stryk 284). This is the one positive assertion that can be made in response to Parrmenides' Being: we are not bound forever to our conditioned nature because we, as conditioned entities, already are in our ultimate nature the unconditioned reality.
Some of these points actually ring true with Parmenides. His system of Being must require that our sense of separateness is an illusion, and it entails that if we could always manage to think perfectly, we would think only as Being thinking of itself (Phillips 558). He concedes that language fails in many attempts, and continuously falls short of the awareness of the whole of existence as a single, continuous, undivided and unchanging unity (Randall 2). If mortals were mindful of this, annoying things like "non-Being exists" would have never been said to begin with. Thus, he persists in criticizing any doctrine that cannot distinguish Being from non-Being; if they are the same and yet not the same, then they are said to be "backward-turning" (Taran 72). So although the two thinkers may agree that language is at best inadequate, Naagaarjuna would have been described by Parmenides, had they met, as a very, very confused individual.
Still, similarities persist. The highly negative dialectic and the cryptic verse form of Naagaarjuna's MMK are indeed forbidding, and his tactic of arguing not only against each extreme but also that the contradictory extremes are in fact mutually entailing can be adverse to anyone attempting to assert anything whatsoever. But the way Plato presents Parmenides is not exactly easygoing either: "It seems that, whether there is or is not a one, both that one and the others alike are and are not, and appear and do not appear to be, all manner of things in all manner of ways, with respect to themselves and to one another" (Hamilton 956). This is not only reminiscent of the relative and absolute truths of Naagaarjuna, but also of prataatyasamutpaada (dependent co-origination). Also, in describing Being, Parmenides uses the descriptive phrase: "Evenly balanced in every direction from the middle" (Robinson 122). One is reminded of the very school that Naagaarjuna founded, that of the Middle Doctrine.
While these two sharp critics of their own relative disciplines may seem quite similar, still this is no assurance that they would have agreed with one another. Naagaarjuna is quoted as saying, "Those who deny emptiness and find fault with it are like a horseman who forgets that he is on horseback" (Stryk 286), while Parmenides' rule of not mentioning "non-Being" at all would most certainly have provided Naagaarjuna with reason enough to engage in perhaps the most challenging dialectical debate in human history. Cultivating awareness in what we assume or what we say, however, is always of utmost importance, so we must honor these ancient thinkers for providing us the chance to do so in a penetrating and unflinching manner.
Burkert, Walter. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Trans. Edwin L. Minar, Jr. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.
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De Bary, Theodore, Wing-Tsit Chan and Burton Watson, comps. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.
Enlightenment and Time: An Examination of Nagarjuna's Concept of Time. Ed. Anthony Birch. 1999. 31 Oct. 2000. http://members.tripod.com/ SpEd2work/nagarjuna.html.
Garfield, Jay L. "Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness." Philosophy East and West 44 (1994): 219-250.
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Hoy, Ronald C. "Parmenides' Complete Rejection of Time." The Journal of Philosophy 91(1994): 573-598.
Humphreys, Christmas. Buddhism: An Introduction and Guide. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1951.
Jacobson, Nolan Pliny. The Heart of Buddhist Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.
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Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1992.
Knight, Thomas S. "Parmenides and the Void." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 19 (1959): 524-528.
The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna's Philosophy. Ed. Thomas J. McFarlane. 1995. 31 Oct.2000. http://www.rahul.net/intsci/sacredscience/SS_sunyata.html.
McKeon, Richard, Ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle . New York: Random House, 1970.
Mourelatos, Alexander P.D. The Route of Parmenides. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970.
Nagarjuna: A Good Friend. Ed. Peter Della Santina. 31 Oct. 2000. http://www.ecst.csuchico.edu/~dsantina/friend.htm.
Nakamura, Hajime. Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples. Ed. Philip P. Weiner. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 1964.
Parmenides' Principle. Ed. Alan F. Randall. 1997. 10 Oct. 2000. http://home.ican.net/~arandall/Parmenides/Parm.comment.html.
Philip, J. A. Pythagoras and Early Pythagoreanism. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966.
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Taran, Leonardo. Parmenides. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1965.
© Daniel Trent Dillon 2003
Group Ministry as a Spiritual Practice
Recall a time when you were filled with joy. Where were you? At home? At a concert? A party? Maybe you were in a religious service or on vacation. Perhaps you were on a hike or seated on the sand at a beach, watching the tide roll in. Were you alone or was someone with you? Maybe you were making love, or gardening, telling a joke, jogging.
Now pay attention to how you recalled this time. You found things: memories, sensations, experiences. You gathered them together and by so doing filled a moment of time. You packed it full of thoughts and feelings, places and things and bound them together as yours.
This recollection and binding process is a spiritual act. It is your ability to open up time by giving it the texture, content, feelings and ideas actually present when you experience time. This way of packing time, this way of giving time texture, detail and dimension, this saturation of time is the essence of every spiritual practice. This process slows time down by filling it up with the full presence of life as one extended lived duration-one full moment of your life.
Small group ministries are about this spiritual practice. They make moments matter again. In these small group gatherings of six to ten persons meeting twice a month, each member of the group holds onto the same moment of time through personal sharing and by asking for or by listening to the details of someone's experiences. As persons pay active attention to the small details of each other's lives, this gathered community extends a moment of time until it is filled to overflowing with the thoughts and feelings, ideas and sentiments that turn time into an experience that is not fleeting, but abides, because we are now fully present in each moment of our lives.
Sacred time begins here.
The opening ritual at the beginning of each covenant group meeting calls forth this time by creating it. As the members sing a song together, light a chalice, offer a prayer, pay attention to their breath, notice the sounds in the room, hear their own heart beating, feel the rhythmic breathing of each member become one unified breath, sacred time begins: the time when how we do something, the manner in which we say something, the tone of voice we use when speaking are as important as what is done, said, or discussed.
We must understand sacred time because it is the heart and soul of small group ministry. Let me be clear here. Sacred time is not the opposite of profane time. Sacred time is the opposite of fleeting time.
Fleeting time is the kind of time in which we are distracted, racing around and trying to catch up as we fall farther behind. It's the kind of time that passes when we sit in a worship service--isolated and remote at the back of the sanctuary and off to one side--so that we can balance our check book. Fleeting time is working at the computer while a friend talks to us on the phone. On the other hand, sacred time is noticing a shift of tone in a person's voice and asking what's wrong. It's paying attention to what's going on when it occurs. It's being in the moment. It's full presence. It's what happens in a Covenant Group when we discover how to find and stay present to life again.
Sacred time is biological time. When we pay attention to biological time, we focus on the science and the art of spiritual practice.
Let's begin with the science, as described by Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen, who is a physician, author, and co-founder of the Omega Institute, the largest holistic education center in the country.
In his essay called "Timeshifting," Dr. Rechtschaffen begins his scientific investigation with a simple question: "Do you have enough time in your life?" Few persons in his workshops and seminars answer this question affirmatively. At a Fortune 100 gathering in which he raised this question, As Dr. Rechtschaffen reports, "not one of the one thousand persons present raised a hand to say yes."
So what's so difficult about having enough time? Dr. Rechtschaffen uses two sets of exercises to help us answer this question. First he asks us to think of a red balloon. Try it right now. Next, think of a pink elephant, he says. Do it. Now he asks us to pay attention to how long it took us to shift from one thought to the next. Not long: "tiny fractions of a second." Dr. Rechtschaffen calls this split-second kind of time "mental time."
Now let's try his second set of exercises. Here are his instructions: "Feel sad." "Now feel angry." Now "feel rapturously in love." How long did it take? Dr. Rechtschaffen says that we're still probably trying to make the first shift. Dr. Rechtschaffen calls this kind of time "emotional time." Emotional time is not quicktime thinking; it's longtime feeling. Emotional time takes so long, Dr. Rechtschaffen explains, because feelings can't be conjured up just like that. Feelings are experienced by way of chemical communication within the body. They are a hormonal surge, a wave that washes over us. It takes `emotional time' for them to emerge. And to adequately deal with real feelings takes more time - so, when we are rushed, it's much easier to habitually go to our mind and repress our feelings.
The mind, with its lightening-quick synapses, seems to get the job done. Feelings just get in the way - and given full rein, we fear they might pull us under and drown us. So when we pause and unpleasant feelings inevitably bob up, we bolt from them - by turning on the TV, eating sugar, making a phone call. Anything to not be in the moment (180-81).
Dr. Rechtschaffen helps us think about timeshifting as a science. As science, timeshifting refers to our innate ability as human beings to alter the kind of time in which we live, simply by paying attention to the way in which we make our way through a moment of our own life. Do we navigate this moment as "mental time" or do we navigate this moment as "emotional time"?
If we resolve to pay attention to the way in which we timeshift and if we also make the commitment to enter into "emotional time," then our scientific analysis of time turns into a personal practice. Here, our personal practice of stress reduction begins. Dr. Rechtschaffen explains how this stress reduction occurs:
Being open to and accepting of our emotions allows us to sit quietly in the present. And then we experience something quite remarkable that is key to living at ease with time: in the present moment there is no stress.
Stress comes from resisting what is actually happening in the moment - and what is usually happening is an emotion or feeling. Our continued effort to change what is so in this moment is, in fact, the very cause of the stress we wish to avoid. Pain, either emotional or physical, may be present right now, however, it's the resistance to it that causes stress, while acceptance causes relief. If, for example, you're going through a divorce, a job loss, a painful illness, problems with children, etc., and you don't allow yourself to feel the pain, then the suppressed pain becomes a lens through which you see all of life. And life seen like that holds little but stress." (181-2)
This personal practice of paying attention becomes a spiritual practice in small group ministry.
In covenant groups, we practice stress-free living through the actual experience of stress-free moments of our lives. These moments are the product of small group ministry as spiritual practice.
Small group ministry as a spiritual practice begins with a biological fact. Our bodies matter. They are the way we experience sacred time. I learned this hard lesson several years ago when I accidentally slammed a door on my finger. My finger pulsed with excruciating pain. I did everything I could to ignore the pain. But I was with a friend who, unknowingly, had walked around for three years on a broken leg because her doctors had mistakenly assumed that the source of the problem was elsewhere. So my friend had to learn how to deal with pain - all the time - for three years, until her leg injury was, finally, surgically corrected. Now, my friend saw me trying to pay attention to everything except the pain and she said, "stop."
"Pay attention to the pain," she said. "Concentrate your entire attention on the pain because your body is trying to tell you something. It's signaling distress. Danger. Your body is telling you to get out of harm's way. The pain will decrease as your attention to it increases," she explained. "Your body wants to make certain you have received the message. So it's trying to get your attention through pain."
I stopped everything I was doing, gave up all the distractions and concentrated full attention on the pain so that my body would be fully satisfied that I had received its message of distress. As I did this, quite to my surprise, the pain began to subside. Here's why: I paid attention to an actual moment of my life instead of avoiding it. My finger still hurt, but not as much as before because I now felt the rest of me. I was fully present in this moment. My finger was now part of my full life again and my whole life was wider than this immediate pain. As I discovered and then entered this difference between the pain and the rest of my life, my stress level was reduced.
Small group ministry is a de-stressor. In our Covenant Groups, we pay attention to aching souls. And the attention is healing. This kind of radical attentiveness is the foundation of therapeutic work. The healing power of group therapy was given vivid account in a New York Times article on January 15, 2004. The story described a group therapy program for H.I.V. positive and AIDS victims in a remote area of Uganda. Western psychologists trained local facilitators to lead group discussions with such persons. In these groups, the depression, sadness and despair of these persons began to recede. Why? As one member put it: "This group didn't take the virus out of my body .. I still fall sick. I am still weak. But at least now I'm living." Or as another group member put it, "The group told me my life was worth something." She no longer tosses and turns at night, but sleeps peacefully.
The reporter gives us the key concept: beloved community. "The therapy sessions drew participants together so effectively that many have continued meeting [after the outsiders left]. Some have also used their counseling groups to start business ventures together. Women weave multicolor mats. Men pool their money to buy chickens and goats."
Covenant Groups are not group therapy sessions, but they do create beloved community among their members. Covenant Groups are the "work of the people": liturgical acts that bring persons back into the moments of their lives in order to abide there. When they abide in this reality they discover the rest of their lives. They touch life itself and are renewed.
The difference between small group ministry and therapy groups, 12-step groups, or other problem-focused group sessions is spiritual practice. In Covenant Groups, personal practice becomes a spiritual practice. Small Group Ministry focuses on process, not problems. It treats all content of a person's life in the same way: as a moment worthy of one's full, undivided attention. Small group ministry does not offer advice, guidance and direction. It does not resolve personal problems. It simply stops time so that the FULL presence of each person is acknowledged and appreciated in that moment. Problems are not "worked on." Feelings are shared. Treatments aren't offered; attention is given. Each moment is packed full of the joys and sorrows, the victories and defeats, the thoughts and ideas that make each lived moment of our life an experience worthy of our time.
This is the spiritual power of small group ministry. It is presence, the feeling of life itself.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, calls the source of this feeling of life itself our "background body states." Here, in this feeling of life itself, here in this moment of life itself, timeshifting ends. We no longer reflect; we experience. We no longer observe; we are.
In Damasio's words, background feeling is not what we feel when we jump out of our skin for sheer joy, or when we are despondent over lost love; both of these actions correspond to emotional body states. A background feeling corresponds to what happens between emotions . When background feelings are persistently of the same type over hours and days, and do not change quietly as thought contents ebb and flow, the collection of background feelings probably contributes to a mood, good, bad, or indifferent (Damasio, 150-1).
Without this foundational feeling, Damasio concludes, the "very core of [our] representation of the self would be broken" (Damasio, 150-1). Our world would become mere abstraction. We would believe our life consists of "mental time." We have only to remember the story about René Descartes at a cocktail party to understand this point. The hostess asked him if he would like another cocktail. He said, "I think not," and disappeared. We are more than our thoughts. We are more than our ideas. We are alive.
Developmental psychologist Daniel N. Stern uses Damasio's description of "background feelings" to help describe the actual content - the physical states that accompany and thus have input into our mental activity. This input, says Stern,
includes the momentary states of arousal, activation, tonicity, levels of motivational activation or satiety (in various systems), and well-being. This input is what Damasio . . . has called 'background feelings,' which are similar to the 'vitality affects' ."
Stern reminds us that the body "is never doing nothing." It's blinking, breathing, pulsing; muscles are contracting and relaxing. Stern calls all of these feelings together our feeling of being alive, our "vitality affects," and he uses musical references to explain them. Here's what he says:
All these body signals come from the self - [and for the newborn infant,] an as-yet-unspecified self. Such signals need not be attended to. They need not enter into awareness. Yet they are there in the background. They are the continuous music of being alive. That is why I refer to changes or modulations in this music as vitality affects. . .. It is this music that will permit the emergent self . . . to appear. But first it must be yoked with a mental activity (Stern, xv-xvi).
Stern's musical metaphors include a literal claim. These movements are our soul's music, the harmonics and dis-harmonics of engagement. When we are directly and immediately aware of the music of our soul, we are in sacred time.
A story can help us under this sacred time. The story is about an experience in the life of experimental musician and composer John Cage recounted in his book Silence. The story begins, almost 50 years ago, when Cage entered a small, six-walled, echoless chamber constructed by Harvard University engineers using special soundproofing materials. Once inside the chamber, Cage heard two sounds: one was high pitched, the other was lower. Afterwards, Cage was told what he heard: the sound of his own nervous system in operation and the sound of his own blood circulating through his veins.
This experience led Cage to conclude that, as he put it, "Until I die, there will be sounds." But Cage went on to draw a second, less obvious conclusion. These sounds, he concluded, "will continue after I die." To make sense of Cage's second conclusion we have to focus our attention on what Cage's body felt.
In the chamber, Cage felt, audibly, more than these two sounds alone. The floor and his shoes and the skin on his feet met and altered the pattern of his nervous system. The quality and temperature of the air in the room affected his breathing and thus the flow of his blood.
The color of the walls and thereby its light patterns altered his retinas and thus his nervous system. Each sound he heard was thus an alteration of himself by the world about him and thus within him. Cage heard the way he and the world meet. He and the world were amplified together.
Cage felt this meeting place between himself and the world. He thereby heard that which would continue after he died: the room. Cage's feelings and the room had mingled. He was not absolutely alone (the room was present); he was not absolutely still (his blood flowed and nervous system chimed). His body thus made a joyful noise to life itself - a joyful noise of life itself.
In reflecting upon his experience, Cage described what he discovered: the universe: "This psychological turn leads to the world of nature, where gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained."
Two hundred years ago, German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher used strikingly similar words to describe this eternal moment in his book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Here's what Schleiermacher said:
Observe yourselves with unceasing effort. Detach all that is not yourself, always proceed with ever-sharper sense, and the more you fade from yourself, the clearer will the universe stand forth before you, the more splendidly will you be recompensed for the horror of self-annihilation through the feeling of the infinite.
For Schleiermacher, the human foundation of this "feeling of the infinite" was a physical feeling directly related to the human nervous ystem. Each neural shift of feeling was an affect, the amplification system within the self that announces a changed state. Schleiermacher made this neurobiological fact of human nature -- affect -- the foundational referent for religious experience and belief. Schleiermacher called this experience "the natal hour of everything living in religion."
This attention to our vitality affects, to biological time, to the living content of our life, this attentiveness to the full range of the physical content of our lives let Schleiermacher discover what all religious creeds, all theological reflections and all faith statements have in common as human experiences: affective feeling. This binding principle of our lives is the place where theists, atheists, humanists, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Pagans, and others meet. Their ideas describe the moment and thus the theological differences. This is "mental time." Their bodies live the moment and thus enter into the experiential unity of sacred time.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh invented the word "interbeing" to describe sacred time. In any and every human experience, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us in the opening pages of his book, The Heart of Understanding, everything is present. Just think of the paper on which his words are written, he advises his readers. Look into the paper. Really look and you will see everything there: -- everything except the paper because the paper is all of these events together.
Your mind is in here and mine is also . You cannot point to one thing that is not here - time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. "To be" is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
One very easy way to understand this concept of "interbeing" is to think of the recipe for chocolate cake. It calls for flour, sugar, butter, milk. Missing from this recipe is an ingredient called "chocolate cake." You are not instructed to add two cups of chocolate cake to the recipe in order to make chocolate cake. Thus, everything is present in the chocolate cake except chocolate cake because it is the interbeing of all these other ingredients together.
Small group ministries are concentrated experiences of interbeing. Each moment of our life together in these groups is a moment of full presence in which our life is filled with everything except our lives alone.
Martin Buber said this is where we find God - between us - in the "sphere of the between," in the space between I and Thou. This sphere of the "between" is a pure duration of time.
French philosopher Henri Bergson uses the simple example of making lemonade to show us how pure durations of time occur. Imagine, Bergson says in The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics, that tomorrow at noon, you are going to make a glass of lemonade for yourself. The time you imagine - noon - Bergson says, is an abstraction. It is abstract because it is empty of the feelings your will actually have, the sentiments, thoughts, sensations and ideas that will move through your body and flow through you mind as you actually make the lemonade and then drink it.
"Your imagination," Bergson says, "perhaps evokes the movement to be gone through; but what you will [actually] think and feel in doing it you can know nothing of today, because your state tomorrow will include all the life you will have lived up until that moment, with whatever that particular moment is to add to it. To fill this state in advance with what it should contain you will need exactly the time which separates today from tomorrow, for you cannot shorten psychological life by a single instant without modifying its content. Can you shorten the length of a melody without altering its nature? The inner life is that very melody".
Our soul is this melody. Our soul is rhythm, pause, movement, sound, silence, space, interval, measure. This is our grace, the ever-present moment that theologian Paul Tillich calls "the eternal now." It is our experience, as Schleiermacher would say, of the infinite in the finite. This measure of our life is the spirit of life. It is our reverence for life.
So why do we need small group ministries to do this work? Why can't we do this work alone? It takes a village to sustain a soul. I use an extreme example to make this small point. The story is recounted by psychoanalyst R. D. Laing during his work with a catatonic schizophrenic patient.
Each day, as Laing made his rounds, he would sit next to the immobile man and say something like this: "If my mother had locked me in a closet for all of those years, I wouldn't want to talk to anyone either."
Day in and day out, Laing made such statements to the man and then would move on to his next patient.
And then the day came. Laing sat next to the man, told him he would not want to speak to anyone either, if he had been treated the way this man had been treated by his mother. And the man turned to him and said "Yeah."
The man had heard another person say to him "You are sad and for good reason." This man had been left alone for so long. His feelings and thoughts had been gutted of content and he had become an abstraction of time, an experience without thoughts, feelings, or an inner life because no one was there with him; no one was there who cared.
In Covenant Groups, members say to each other "I am lonely, and for good reason" and the group is there with them and says "Yeah."
Someone says "I feel sad and for good reason." And the group is there with them and says "Yeah."
Someone else says "I need more love, more compassionate engagement, more attentive care - and for good reason." And the group says "Yeah."
Small group ministries are a spiritual practice because they restore time, extend and expand each moment of our life. Small group ministries are a spiritual practice because they create sacred time: loving time, joyful time, painful time, thoughtful time, present time. Small Group Ministries are a spiritual practice because they replenish our souls by making each moment of our lives matter.
Gifts of Zen Buddhism
An Interview with Robert E. Kennedy
Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., is an American Catholic priest and a Zen master (Roshi). Ordained a priest in Japan in 1965, he was installed as a Zen teacher in 1991 and was given the title Roshi in 1997. Kennedy studied Zen with Yamada Roshi in Japan, Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles and Bernard Glassman Roshi in New York. He is chairperson of the theology department of Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., where he teaches theology and the Japanese Language. In addition to his work at the college, he is a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, a representative at the United Nations of the Institute for Spiritual Consciousness in Politics and the author of two books, "Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit" and, forthcoming in November, 2000, "Zen Gifts to Christians." Kennedy Roshi sits with his Zen students daily at the Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City and with students in 12 other zendos located throughout the tri-state area. He conducts weekend and weeklong sesshins (Zen retreats) at various centers in the United States and in Mexico. Anna Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Saint Peter's College, conducted this interview.
[Q] How did you become involved in Zen?
I became involved in Zen through my work in Japan during the late 1950's and early 1960's. At that time, there were many Jesuits who were engaged in interfaith work with Zen Buddhists. It was through these Jesuits that I came upon the Buddhist ideal of the enlightened life.
[Q] What is an enlightened life?
"Enlightened life" is a Buddhist term for a life that is based upon wisdom and compassion. Specifically, it is a Jesuit ideal to bring gifts of greater worth to the church. This experience of wisdom and compassion is a great Buddhist gift that I thought could enrich the church in an interfaith manner.
[Q] With whom did you study Zen while you were in Japan?
I studied with Yamada Roshi in Kamakura, Japan. Father Kakichi Kadowaki, a Jesuit Roshi, who, at that time, was also a student of Yamada himself, sent me to Yamada. I mention my work with Yamada because a distinctive characteristic of the study of Zen is both personal practice and an intimate sharing of that practice with a teacher. In addition, I was convinced that Yamada embodied, on many levels, the Buddhist ideal of an insightful and compassionate life. The reality of the enlightened life that he had realized and enfleshed beautifully was the gift that I wanted to share with the church.
[Q] What does it mean to "study Zen?" How does one go about it?
Zen must he understood as a verb. In other words, it is the act of doing. What you are doing when you study Zen is nothing other than practicing a compassionate life.
More specifically, the practice of Zen is the practice of paying attention in a way that is both sustained and communal. As we know from the work of Simone Weil, prayer is nothing other than paying attention.
The Buddhist practice of daily zazen, sitting meditation, encourages its practitioners to make attention a priority in their lives. Let me emphasize here the importance of training in Zen. Usually, there is nothing that can be done in life without sustained practice and training. There is no language learned, no art form mastered without effort and a competent teacher. In Zen, experienced teachers have themselves trained for many years. Their qualifications and ability to teach have been ratified time and time again over decades of their work with experienced masters.
Though we sit quietly when we sit zazen, it is not a period of time that we use to catch up on our sleep! It is, rather, a period of time in which our minds and bodies are employed fully at the highest level. Zen is an active effort to develop the unique and full-bodied contribution to life of which each of us is capable. What we attempt to move away from are the tired and repetitive responses to life that we may have carelessly accumulated throughout the years.
[Q] You were installed as a teacher of Zen in 1991. What has been your experience of teaching Zen since then?
The teaching of Zen is really the act of paying exquisite attention to the person who is sitting right in front of you. Through such attention, I try to empower students by helping them to realize their own unique gifts and qualities.
There is no Zen "itself." Zen is always the life of the individual at the highest level of that very life. It is not about teaching facts, but is about helping each person to find his or her own strengths. This is always based upon experience and allowing each student to experience the practice in his or her own way. Teachers must never attempt to clone themselves through their students. A teacher is simply a mirror to the student's own insight.
Once students are capable, they may become facilitators of a community of Zen practitioners and reach out to share their understanding of Zen. I have trained 30 facilitators now who are my students and who are leading such groups in the United States.
[Q] What do you emphasize in your interfaith teaching of Zen, particularly with those who accompany you on the weekend and weeklong Zen retreats that you conduct frequently throughout the year?
I ask students to trust in themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen. Through self-reliance the student comes to see and to appreciate the many gifts that have been given to each. Is it not God's will that each of us comes to maturity and confidence in what we have been given? That we come to act like Christ through our daily work and relationships with others? We do so, I believe, when we learn to speak in our own voice.
Now having emphasized self-reliance and the expression of God's will through our own voice, I balance this emphasis by stressing, finally, the unknowability of God. Through Zen we are able to come to grips with the apophatic tradition, or the recognition of the utter mystery of God. Certainly, in our Christian faith, we are familiar with the apophatic tradition, the tradition of prayer that is beyond words. That God is unknowable, that knowledge of God is beyond words, beyond discussion, was clearly taught by the Greek Fathers of the Church. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, writes, "The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life; for he has been diverted from true being, to something devised by his own imagination."
[Q] The balance you strike between self-reliance and not knowing seems to help your students better appreciate two other gifts of Zen that you emphasize in your book, "Zen Gifts to Christians," the gift of impermanence and the gift of emptiness.
Yes, that balance may work well for us when we come up against what is inevitable in life, when the impermanence of life is brought fully home in sickness and death, for example. Self-reliance means that the student comes to realize that his true nature is within himself. To cite a fundamental insight of Zen: there is no thing but the self and this self contains the whole universe. Accordingly, this gift of self-reliance makes one stronger in the determination to live ones own true nature to the fullest extent possible.
There will be moments in our life, of course, when we must draw upon such strength. When the reality of sickness and death hits us full force, we have the opportunity either to sink or swim. Zen offers a way to swim within the currents of life.
Content to walk along the path of not knowing and confident in her abilities, the Zen student is now ready to face the flux of impermanence and the reality of emptiness. To face the flux of impermanence means that the student appreciates the impossibility of clinging to things--all things must pass--and is encouraged to participate in the process of life. Let us look to the 27th koan of The Blue Cliff Record to illumine this point. In this koan, a young monk asks his master, the great Master Unmon, "What will it be when the trees wither and leaves fall?" This question cannot hide the pain the monk feels as he faces the question of his own death. Unmon does not lie to him about the painful reality of death but does offer this: "Become the golden breeze of autumn and the wind that blows across the plain, the soft rain that clouds the sky."
Furthermore, in coming to terms with the reality of emptiness, the student realizes that "fundamentally, not one thing exists." In other words, there is no free standing universe but rather a universe that is one with the mind that co-creates it moment by moment.
[Q] When you speak and write about the Zen gift of emptiness, you exercise great care. Why is this?
I do so because out of all of the gifts of Zen, this one is perhaps the one that is most misunderstood in the West. By "emptiness of all things" the Zen Buddhists mean the co-origination of all things; that is, nothing is separate. Let me emphasize that emptiness, as the Zen Buddhists understand it, is not a vacuum. Emptiness is all forms: men and women, mountains and rivers, moon and stars, but all seen as interdependent and integrated.
The great fear that we often experience in life derives from our misperception of emptiness as a vacuum. But in reality, therein may lie our greatest treasure. Our misperception of emptiness is that it means isolation; but in fact it is the revealer of our greatest intimacy, our connection with everything else.
Perhaps the Zen teaching of emptiness can help us understand that the command of Christ to deny our very self is not a harsh moral command but a compassionate invitation to experience that our true self can never be independent. Our true self is unthinkable apart from its union with the whole Christ.
[Q] St. Augustine exhorts Christians, when they partake of the Eucharist, to "become who we are." We are encouraged not to wither behind words or symbols but to embody Christ.
Yes, and I will as far as to say that enlightenment is also our birthright not just as Christians but as human beings. The fact that another tradition has preserved and developed this insight and way of living is not something that should arouse our suspicion. Instead, it should provoke our gratitude.
We have here, also, the opportunity for something that is simply imperative in the world today--the friendly accommodation between the Catholic Church and Asian religious institutions, devoid of the pitfalls that have ensnared efforts at accommodation in the past.
For the Jesuits, this kind of interfaith work is an apostolic priority. This is recognized formally in the Decree of the Thirty-fourth General Congregation, in which Jesuits are called to wholehearted cooperation in promoting and supporting the truths found within the multiplicity of our world's religions.
[Q] Both in your writings about Zen and in the teisho [brief talk] that you give during sesshin, You cite the dictum of St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel always, and use words if necessary." Implied here is an active engagement in compassionate service to others. Is that the hallmark of your interfaith work in Christianity and Zen Buddhism?
From the hands of the truly enlightened person flows the work of compassionate service as naturally as the rivers of the earth flow through their muddy banks. The Ox Herding pictures, which date from the 12th century in China, illustrate this point. These pictures trace the process of human development and transformation that one undergoes in the practice of Zen Buddhism.
In the 10th and final picture of the series, the ox herder, the seeker after truth, enters the marketplace with open hands. He is able to enter with open hands because he is a complete human being, or one who knows he is one with all that is.
One who understands himself as complete in this way does not turn his gaze from the afflicted face of the other. His gaze upon the face of the afflicted other is steadfastly attentive. For him, that face is all that exists at that moment. In such a situation, words of sympathy or encouragement do not suffice. The seeker of truth now becomes a seeker of justice and attends, without trace of self-seeking, to the material needs of the other.
To serve the other without trace of self-seeking is the living embodiment of a Zen understanding of emptiness. It is then, to cite Master Kakuan, the artist and poet of the Ox Herding pictures, that we make "the withered trees bloom."
October 19, 2000
Zen Master Seung Sahn
Primary Point: You often use the phrase Yaksa Yorae Bul when discussing healing. What does this phrase mean?
Zen Master Seung Sahn: Yaksa means Medicine Teacher; Yorae means Buddha Nature; Bul means Buddha. So Yaksa Yorae Bul is the "Teacher of Buddha-Nature medicine," or "Medicine Buddha."
PP: What is the origin of this Buddha?
ZMSS: Hinayana Buddhism refers only to Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhist beliefs there are many Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as many demons. Hinayana Buddhism means attaining a very simple mind - if you are not holding anything, you already become Buddha. If you achieve non-self, you become Buddha. But Hinayana Buddhism was originally geared to monastic practice, whereas Mahayana Buddhism evolved with a strong lay influence. In society there are many kinds of individuals; they want something - money, sex, fame etc. Much desire, much thinking. With each thought, one Buddha "appears," also one demon "appears." If you have no thinking, Buddhas and bodhisattvas are not necessary. If you have much thinking, many demons appear, so many Buddhas and bodhisattvas appear to help you. That is Mahayana Buddhism.
PP: From a Buddhist point of view, what does it mean to be sick?
ZMSS: There are three kinds of sickness: body sickness, mind sickness and dharma sickness. Body sickness means my body gets hurt and I have some kind of pain. Sometimes we create body sickness through lack of control; for instance, the mouth wants food but our stomach says, "No, no." So mouth and stomach fight; we eat too much and sickness appears from this imbalance.
Mind sickness means I am attached to something, or want something very badly. All human beings have these five basic desires - fame, sex, food, sleep, money. These five desires make mental sickness. Sometimes body sickness will follow - you cannot eat, sleep or digest your food.
PP: What if someone with a body sickness "puts it all down" but is still sick?
ZMSS: If you put it all down, you may still be sick or in pain, but you do not suffer. If you attain not-moving mind, pain and sickness do not produce suffering.
PP: Does all body sickness come from karma?
ZMSS: Sickness comes both from "before-life" karma and from this-life karma. Before-life karma means: every day I act correctly, but my body doesn't function properly. For instance, my eyes and ears are no good. But my actions are correct. That's before-life's karma.
This life's karma means I have made bad actions in this life - anger, desire, ignorance. Then sickness appears. This kind of sickness is made by your this-life karma.
PP: What if the sickness comes from your parents?
ZMSS: As I said before, my eyes and ears are no good. That's another sort of before-life karma, karma inherited from your family, what you call genetic.
PP: What does it mean when a baby is born, becomes very sick and dies?
ZMSS: This is before-life karma. This baby had very short karma with its parents, so it had to appear and finish that karma.
PP: Is it important that someone understand whether they are sick from before-life karma or this-life karma?
ZMSS: Yes. If you practice, this will become clear. During an interview someone asked me, "I want to do correct practice, but sometimes this mind will appear: 'I want to kill someone!' This style of thinking never appeared before; it only came up during meditation. What's happening?"
So, I told him it was his before-life karma. During meditation your mind becomes more clear, so the old karma becomes uncovered and comes to the surface. This karma was already present in your consciousness. If you practice, you get to see and understand this karma already present in the mind. But if you don't practice, someday this karma will control your life.
PP: What is dharma sickness?
ZMSS: When you become a teacher of a religion or ideology, and say "I already understand all of this, I have no problem. You must listen to me." That's dharma sickness.
PP: So believing in some idea, some teacher, is a problem?
ZMSS: Being attached to something, making something is always a problem. Many Christians become attached to "God." "My God and your God are different." So you make your "God." Zen means put it all down. Don't make anything. If you meet God, kill God. If you meet Buddha, kill Buddha.
PP: How does the Medicine Buddha help in eliminating suffering?
ZMSS: All sickness comes from the mind. If mind disappears, sickness disappears. If you put it all down, there will be no sickness, and you attain freedom from life and death. But it is hard for us to let go of our mind. Mahayana Buddhism teaches that if you cannot let go of your mind and your desires, a Buddha or a bodhisattva will "appear" to help you. So, if you try the Yaksa Yorae Bul mantra, all your sicknesses - whether of body, mind or dharma sickness - will go away.
PP: You often suggest different mantras to help different people. What do these different mantras mean?
ZMSS: According to Mahayana practices, if you try certain mantras, certain bodhisattvas will help you. For instance, if you have great suffering, try Kwan Seum Bosal mantra; then Kwan Seum Bosal (the bodhisattva of compassion) will help you. Or you may not have much suffering but need wisdom for your direction - what is truth and correct life? - then try the mantra for Munsu Bosal (Manjushri), the bodhisattva of wisdom. If you have wisdom but don't understand correct action then you cannot help other people. So you must use the mantra for Pu Hyon Bosal, the bodhisattva of action. That will give you energy for moment to moment, correct action. Then you can help other people. Ji Jang Bosal is the great vow bodhisattva; his great vow is to save all beings. When you die, Ji Jang Bosal helps you get a good rebirth. Thus each bodhisattva has a separate job.
PP: Nowadays there is a controversy about people being kept alive by advanced medicine or technology. They can stay alive, but have no brain - only a vegetable. So many people ask, "Is this person alive or dead?" Or, "Should we let this person die?" Is that correct action or not correct action? What does Buddhism say about this kind of situation?
ZMSS: The question in this kind of situation is: how much energy does the sick person take from other people? Sometimes with some energy, a very sick person can be saved. Sometimes despite all the energy being given, the sick person cannot be saved. When this person dies, they must in a future life "return" all of this energy they took. If you die without taking so much energy, you do not "owe" as much the next time. If someone is dying and taking so much energy, it is not incorrect to allow them to die. But if they are not taking people's energy, why die? The teaching of Buddhism is: does my action help other people or does it take too much energy from them and cause them a problem?
PP: Sometimes people are in a coma - cannot see, hear, taste, touch. They are attached to a machine, but there is some consciousness working. The machine is keeping them alive. Why live?
ZMSS: That is a basic question for everyone, not just the sick people. Why do you live? Why do you die? Why does a tree or a cat appear? Why does this tree or cat die? If you practice, you understand your correct job, direction, and situation as a human being. If you are not practicing, how are you different from a tree or a cat?
PP: If someone pulls the plug on this man who is in a coma, does he have sufficient consciousness so that he will have some emotion inside, like anger or happiness?
ZMSS: This consciousness is like half-tree, half-animal. In this consciousness there is no like or dislike; because they don't have like or dislike, they cannot create any karma.
PP: So will this kind of person have a good rebirth, because they have no karma when they die?
ZMSS: They are dying with no karma in that moment but they may have very strong consciousness (residue) from this lifetime. That consciousness is like mercury; it may separate into different "globs" like mercury does; sometimes these globs remain separate, but sometimes they may join with similar consciousnesses and be reborn as a strong personality like Gandhi or Hitler.
PP: Nowadays many people have problems with drugs and drinking. What kind of karma is this? How can these people be helped?
ZMSS: Sometimes it may be before-life karma, but sometimes it may be because of doing "together action" with others: "I don't want to use drugs or alcohol, but my friends say, 'you try,' and so I do that." This kind of mind already understands that drugs or alcohol are no good. So if they want to fix their mind, they can fix it with meditation. But if they don't care and are only interested in having a good time, they cannot fix it. Your mind makes everything. Buddha said, "All things are created by mind alone." So your mind creates sickness and you fix your sickness with your mind. That's interesting, no?
PP: Yes. Thank you very much.
By Ajahn Pasanno
A talk given at the Ottawa Buddhist Society in 2001
The problem of the mind is really it's propensity to proliferate or add to things. At a certain level there's really nothing wrong with the mind at all. It's just what we keep adding to it. There's a quotation of the Buddha in the graduated discourses where the Buddha states that the mind is intrinsically pure or intrinsically bright but it's defiled by adventitious defilements. Defilements come in and out of the mind. They're visitors to the mind. We keep getting caught up with the visitors. Part of meditation practice is to be able to separate and understand what is the actual nature of the mind itself and what are the visitors to the mind that we keep getting caught up in.
There was a bumper sticker going around California a few years ago which expresses it fairly well: "Having a wonderful time. Wish I were here." It sort of says it all. On a certain level, even if we're having a good time we're not actually present. We're not really there to appreciate it, or we're comparing it to something else or some other experience. Practice is learning more clearly what are the moods of the mind. What is the actual quality of the mind on its own, when it's not stimulated and proliferated on or not added to? This is something that Ajahn Chah talked about a lot in his teaching and training. It was something that was very important to him in his practice.
When he was training as a young monk, trying to meditate, he was getting himself tied up in knots. He had the opportunity to pay respects to a very well-known meditation master at the time, Ajahn Mun. One of the things that Ajahn Mun pointed out to him was to start to separate out and pay attention to what are the moods of the mind that come in and out and what is the mind itself. Notice what is the underlying quality of the mind when we don't conceptually proliferate, when we don't add to it or don't cover it over. We won't ever really understand what the fundamental nature of mind is until we pay attention to what comes in and out of the mind. Mindfulness is to apprehend what's actually going on in the mind. Usually we're so swept up in it, so caught up in it, that we don't recognize what's going on. Be attentive when we're holding an opinion or a view - usually we're not even aware that it is an opinion because we're right, of course. Our opinion is right. Our view is right. "That's the way the world is. This is how that person is. They've always been that way." We carry on like that and believe in it and then wonder why we suffer all the time.
The Buddha pointed to three fundamental drives that tend to cause the mind to fall into proliferation. The first one is around sensuality: the seeking after sensual gratification, pleasure, comfort. It isn't to say that being comfortable or experiencing that which is pleasant is wrong in some way. But it's when the desire is there, then we lose our freedom. When we sense that we have to experience this or we have to get that in order to be happy, when we're not happy on our own, then we're overwhelmed by sensual desire. That's what desire is. The mind is always compelled to seek something that's more comfortable, something more pleasurable, something more gratifying. The whole nature of our economy is built on that. The advertising slogan for American Express is: take the waiting out of wanting. You know, they're very successful. Canada pretty much functions like America. The society is driven by credit card debt. You can't really stop working because you've got payments to make. There is that compunction to try to fulfill or gratify ourselves in some way. It covers many areas of our life.
It is important to make a distinction between experiencing that which is pleasurable and being driven by sensual desire. Because the development of pleasure is also fundamental to the Buddha's teaching. In many of the Buddha's discourses, there is a progression of mental states which are focussed around well-being. This quality of well-being in Pali is called pamojja and indicates a lightness of mind. A quality of well-being is the condition for a quality of joy or piti in Pali. The quality of joy is a condition for the establishing of tranquillity or passaddhi. The quality of tranquillity is a condition for the establishing of happiness or sukha. The establishing of happiness is the condition for samadhi or concentration of mind. All these very positive states of well-being culminate in samadhi or meditative firmness of mind. The Buddha repeats in many places that the happy mind is easily concentrated. So it's important that we cultivate this quality of happiness or well-being. But it's also important that we be attentive to what is the intention in the mind. If the happiness that we're seeking is coming from, say, a desire for gratification and possessiveness or gain out of the material realm, then it just shatters and makes the mind unsatisfied.
The Buddha recognized the tendency of the human mind to proliferate and seek for gratification in the world around. He also recognized that happiness is essential. It's important to be attentive to the quality of mind that is seeking happiness. Try to come back to a quality of relinquishment, of motivation which is circumspect and is grounded in these virtuous, wholesome qualities such as lovingkindness, compassion, and generosity. These are all qualities which lead to happiness. They need to be cultivated because they actually make the mind experience well-being which is what it wants. So often when we practice meditation, we go about it backwards. "If I really got my concentration together, then I'd be happy." We really need to shift that and be attentive to: "How do I actually experience happiness in a settled and firm way?" When the mind is content and happy within itself, then it's very settled and clear. We need to be attentive to the proliferating tendency of sensual desire and how we get caught up in it.
The second basic drive that the Buddha pointed to as proliferating the mind is very difficult to translate into English. Mana is usually translated as conceit, but it really means the tendency to establish the comparison of self. In the typical thoroughness of the Buddha, there is this wonderful description of what mana is:
Being inferior to somebody and considering that one is inferior, being inferior and considering that one is equal, being inferior and considering that one is superior; Being equal and considering that one is inferior, being equal and considering that one is equal, being equal and considering that one is superior; Being superior and considering that one is inferior, being superior and considering that one is equal, being superior and considering that one is superior.
Basically, any stand of self and comparison to others brings this sense of self-importance, or holding a self view. In some ways, one can be better or worse at something than others and its really not a problem. It's just the way it is and it's not a fixed thing anyway. The problem is in establishing a sense of self and looking around and worrying about: "Am I better? Am I worse? Am I equal?" We all know how that feels. That's uncomfortable.
When we say that there shouldn't be any establishing of self, does that mean there's no personality, or no display of any particular differences? Well not really. Consider how it was at the time of the Buddha. All the great disciples had very different temperaments and personalities. Sariputta was this wonderfully wise being but was also very attentive to the affairs of the Sangha. He looked after his disciples in a very particular way. The Buddha said that Sariputta is like a nurse with his disciples and Maha Moggallana is like a mother. Sariputta will teach and train them until the point of stream entry, first level of enlightenment, and then he'll let them practice on their own. Whereas Maha Moggallana will be with them, take responsibility for them, and really look after them until they attain arahantship. Different temperament. The Buddha wasn't saying that one method was bad or anything.
In one discourse the Buddha praises Maha Kassapa for his compassion. The usual temperament that he displayed was an ascetic tendency, strictness in the dhutanga or ascetic practices. He was quite fierce. He criticised Ananda for wasting too much time. So the great disciples are not just floating around jelly-like without any kind of personality. They have very clear personalities. But not the need to compare: "Am I better? Am I worse? How am I shaping up? How am I looking?" That's the addition that creates suffering and torments us
Be attentive to qualities which are appropriate for the path and meditative training such as: putting in effort, patience, wisdom, discernment, reflective investigation, restraint, lovingkindness. But again, not to carry them around as a self. "Was I as kind as I should have been?" That's where we create problems. We do something and then we worry about it. We get caught up in the judgments and give ourselves points all the time. It gets really complicated. That's the way to suffer. It's quite all right to even miss one's shot and blow it. Really. There's a wonderful scenario in a discourse where Sariputta and Moggallana come to pay respects to the Buddha and they bring their disciples with them. They meet up close to where the Buddha is and get into conversations which make a lot of noise. The Buddha notices the racket and says: "What's this noise in the monastery. It sounds like a bunch of fishermen at the wharf." He calls them in, reams them out, dismisses them all, sends them off. Their behavior was inappropriate, accepted as such, and then life goes on. Eventually they're called in again to receive teachings from the Buddha. There was a recognizing of that which was unskillful as unskillful and making amends and a reestablishing in what was appropriate, but not having to carry it around. I'm sure that Sariputta and Moggallana weren't going around and creating a whole lot of suffering about it. They probably taught and trained their disciples, admonished them, but didn't make it a source of extraordinary suffering, not a source of complication. Just recognizing what's appropriate and what's the way to establish oneself consistently in that which is appropriate. Not creating a self. Not having to carry around this sense of me in comparison with others all the time. There is tremendous freedom in that because the mind isn't proliferating. It isn't creating problems where there aren't problems.
The last drive which the Buddha pointed to as proliferating the mind is the tendency to views or opinions. The holding of a view. Obviously we have to have some sort of perspectives and views. The Buddha is concerned here about holding views like: "This is right. I'm right and everybody else is wrong." "This is right and it has to be this way." "This is true and good. Nothing else is." It's that very fixed quality of mind in terms of view and perspective which shuts out the nature of things as being a continuum of causes and conditions. On a certain level, we would love to simplify things and hold a view, e.g. "This is right. This is how it is. This is really true." because it relieves us of having to take into account the nature of truth that everything is in its flux. How do you force it to stop? You can't do it. One of Ajahn Chah's consistent teachings that he continually pounded into our heads is the uncertainty of things. "This is not a sure thing." The nature of the mind is to overlay our experience with a view. Particularly to try to make things a bit more certain, a bit more clear, a bit more secure. But in truth security comes from the ability to hold in consciousness the fact that everything is changing. Our view of things, however we view it, is going to be the way it is anyway. Rather than getting in the way with our clinging and preferences, we may as well just open up to all experience and be attentive so that we can apprehend it clearly.
These tendencies to proliferate the mind are what cause suffering. They're the things that create difficulties. How do we work with that? Just being really attentive with that sense of: "What arises and what passes away?" "What is stable? What is unstable?" To start to be attentive to that. The unstable is what the Buddha described as agantuka in Pali, which means a visitor or guest. The defilements are visitors. We can only be attentive to what comes in and goes out of the mind if we have the quality of clarity and stillness. If the mind is reacting blindly, then it latches onto the moods and either piggybacks on them or runs away with them. It's interesting how people will talk about meditation practice sometimes.
Some will say: "Well, my mind is always running off here and there. My mind just carries me away." Usually what happens, if that's the case, is that one is running after the mind and bringing it back over and over. It's very tiring. If you just come back to establishing attention, that's where the mind was anyway. Attention has shifted. The mood was impermanent, insubstantial. As soon as you establish awareness, that's where your mind is. Experiment with that. When you think that your mind has got caught up in something over there, really feel that. Then be attentive to that quality of just being present. "Ah, here I am." "The mind is right here." As soon as you recognize that, the mood just passed already. You can recall it or you can get caught up in it again. But in that moment, there is that quality of presence and clarity right there. Be attentive to that quality of presence and nurture it.
The Buddha's most fundamental teaching is the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Suffering is that quality of distraction, dissatisfaction, agitation, discontentment. When we're attentive to that, then we can start to recognize: "Where did this come from?" It has a cause. It isn't fundamental to the mind. Starting to investigate. "Well, what were the causes? It was that grasping after gratification. It was that view that I had. It was holding that sense of self so strongly. Oh, right. That causes suffering." There is also the duty that is appropriate to each Noble Truth. Suffering is to be known and the cause of suffering is to be relinquished. It's quite simple but if you start to pay attention, then you notice that what we try to do is to let go of suffering, or drop it, or annihilate it. As long as the cause hasn't been seen clearly, then it's not going to be dealt with properly. So, the suffering has to be known. That takes a certain directness of mind, courage and patience. Who wants to suffer? Nobody likes it. But as long as we haven't really felt it and been present for it, then we don't clarify the cause well enough. When we see and know suffering clearly, the cause becomes apparent. That's what we can let go of. That's what we can drop. If we want to annihilate something, then go to the cause.
The other part of the Noble Truths is the cessation or ending of suffering and then the path leading to the ending of suffering. We're really good at paying attention to suffering. We're not very good at paying attention to the ending of suffering. So start to take interest when suffering isn't actually present or when suffering ends. If we were really suffering all the time, we wouldn't be let out onto the streets. We wouldn't be able to function. We don't really take that much interest in the ending of suffering, but we should. We really need to. When there's that quality of spaciousness, the quality of clarity, the quality of peace. Oftentimes we'll fill it up with something else. When we sit in meditation and we want to be peaceful. Suddenly, the clouds part and we start to feel "Oh, wow. This is kind of peaceful." and then the mind starts to look for something to grab onto or to fill it up with. "Peaceful" is usually too peaceful for us and not suffering is unfamiliar. We're not used to it and so we just fill it up again. Notice how perverse the problem is. By not understanding it and by not being able to comprehend it clearly, we get really spun out. Pay attention to the ending of suffering. How does it manifest? How does it feel? That's where you start to recognize that: "Oh, I can do something about this to bring about this feeling of non-suffering."
Then there is a whole path to follow. There are qualities of training and establishing the mind in virtue and restraint, or in meditation and mindfulness, or wisdom and the circumspection of investigation. These are all supportive of non-suffering. As we start to pay attention to that, we become able to separate out the moods of the mind that just keep coming in and going out and the underlying fundamental mind which is still, knowing, clear and present. It's there to be experienced at all times. If it weren't - if it were something conditioned and had to be created all the time, then it wouldn't be something that would be worthy of calling liberation. But because it is present and unconditioned, then it's accessible. One of the qualities of the Dhamma that comes up in our chanting is: "To be experienced for each wise person for themselves." The Dhamma is there. It can be experienced. There needs to be a certain wisdom and understanding there. That's our path. That's what we need to do.
I offer these words for your reflection this evening.