What is Buddhism ?
Buddhism cannot be categorised. No label suits it.
Buddhism is not a religion, at least not in sense that we generally use the word. In fact, it does not at all presuppose belief in the existence of one or several gods, and in a more general way, categorically rejects the idea that there is anything to believe in without being able to submit it to analysis through reasoning.
Buddhism is not a philosophy either, because it is not limited to an intellectual or conceptual approach. It teaches, in fact, that to understand is not enough. One must also experience and eventually “realise”. That is the spiritual dimension of Buddhism.
Buddhism is not a cultural, political or social phenomenon either.
Culture, of which one could say that art in all its facets is the superior expression, is rooted in worldliness, whereas Buddhism goes beyond the worldly. Within culture, art is an end in itself; within the framework of Buddhism it is a means. Art is minor when compared to wisdom. In other words, Buddhism is timeless and beyond worldliness, whereas culture or art is rooted in a given time and society.
Buddhism is not political, that is, it does not know the limits of frontiers or of groups. It is not based on opposition between people. It does not come “from somewhere”. It transcends continents and groups of humans. Nationality, colour, social class and membership of one party or another etc. do not constitute pertinent criteria in its eyes. The process is, on the contrary, to show that fundamentally all people, and more generally all living beings, share the same fundamental nature, the same emotions, the same aspirations and the same fears.
It is not a social phenomenon either. Buddhism is an individual quest for perfection. The Buddhist looks for himself. He evolves in the solitude of his own spiritual path. The Buddhist message influences, of course, the attitude or the behaviour of those who study and practice it, but it does not have a social aim. It does not intend to be a pressure group and does not set out rules about the organisation of society.
Lastly, is Buddhism a science? The sciences, in any case those which we describe as pure, are turned towards the exterior world, the diverse phenomena that we perceive. Buddhism is, on the contrary, turned towards “the interior”; that is to day, it is attentive to the mind. That is why it is said sometimes that Buddhism is a “science of the mind”. As with all expressions, it has its limits.
I prefer to say that Buddhism is unclassifiable; that it eludes categories and comparisons.
Historically, Buddhism is the teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived in India more than two thousand five hundred years ago. With the passing centuries the teachings was transmitted, translated into diverse languages and enriched by numerous commentaries. In this way, Buddhist literature is incomparably extensive.
More profoundly, Buddhism is the thought or thinking of the Buddhas, which is summed up by two great principles: compassion and wisdom. Buddhism is, therefore, a way of thinking. Buddhists are those who aspire to finding this good way of thinking and train in it. Buddhas are those who have succeeded.
One could also say that Buddhism is essentially reflection on happiness and the teaching of the causes of happiness. After having shown how much we deceive ourselves, how much we lose our way because of how we conceive the world and ourselves, Buddhism wakes us up to a new vision. It makes us see things in another way and leads us progressively to the realisation of the true nature of phenomena and of the mind.
This realisation is precisely at the origin of the cessation of all suffering and of all fear. A Buddhist is, above all, a serene person. He has no fear. He is also a good person, open to others. Theses three qualities -wisdom, serenity and goodness – are, moreover, linked one to the other and come one from the other.
Buddhism is, therefore, a voyage towards wisdom, serenity and goodness.
Sharon Salzberg, Barbara Rhodes, Judith Simmer-Brown & Pat O’Hara on what it means to be a woman dharma teacher and how they’d like to see Buddhism in America evolve.
Melvin McLeod (Editor, the Shambhala Sun): To begin with, maybe you could each tell me something about how you became a Buddhist teacher.
Sharon Salzberg (Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author): I went to India in 1970 to look for a meditation teacher. It was an incredible time. As Westerners there, we felt like a group of adventurers. We were interested in practical teachings-it wasn’t a question of becoming a Buddhist or adopting a dogma, but really bringing something into our lives.
Most of my early teachers were men, but I didn’t feel much gender bias. The person who actually told me to teach was my first woman teacher, Dipa Ma. She had led an extraordinary life, with a tremendous amount of suffering and very little control over her life in an ordinary Western sense.
When she told me to teach, what she actually said was, “You really understand suffering; therefore, you should teach.” I think that reflected not only what she’d been through in her life, and what I’d been through in my life, but also something within her experience as a woman-an understanding of the depths of suffering and the transformation of suffering into compassion that seemed unique. She was the model for me of how to take the losses, the tragedies and the difficulties of life, and actually use them as enrichment for my understanding of the dharma.
Judith Simmer-Brown (Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Naropa University and senior teacher (acharaya) in Shambhala International): I learned Zen practice from Suzuki Roshi and felt completely in love with the absolute present quality that he had. After his death, I met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and felt the same kind of connection with him. As time went on, Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged me to teach dharma and to step as fully as possible into that role. He always encouraged women teachers.
In those days I never really thought much about women versus men teachers, because there were a number of both in our community. It was when my meditation students began to talk to me about the obstacles that they faced as women that I began to think about it more, and I talked to Trungpa Rinpoche about it. He had incredible sympathy for the situation of women. You got a kind of direct transmission from him that on any ultimate level, the issue of being male or female was not a problem, while obviously in our relative experience this was something that we all had to deal with.
As time went on, I realized I had a lot to figure out about what particular strengths I could bring to situations as a woman, and what support I could provide to both male and female students to sort out this issue of gender. I was helped a great deal in this by Khandro Rinpoche, a woman Tibetan teacher. There is one quote from her that I find very helpful, and consider a kind of slogan or koan for my life as a woman teacher: “If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered.” That helps keep me from being snagged by my sense at times that being a woman is an obstacle, and it also helps me appreciate the qualities as a woman that I can bring to my work as a teacher.
Barbara Rhodes (Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen): I met the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn in 1972. I didn’t feel any obstacle being a woman, as he didn’t seem to treat anybody like a woman, particularly. It was more like we were all a bunch of really yang Koreans. If you’ve met him, he’s pretty yang, and there weren’t a lot of women around, but I liked him. I really loved his teaching. He just kept stressing: Believe in yourself. Only go straight. Don’t know. Ask yourself who are you. It was pretty much an androgynous practice.
At one point I asked him if there were any women Zen masters in Korea, and he said, “Oh no, of course not. Women can’t attain enlightenment.” He said it with a really straight face and then walked into the kitchen. I followed him in and said, “I’ve been with you for two years and you’ve always said just to believe in yourself. How can you say women can’t get enlightened?” He just stared at me and pointed his finger and he said, “So you’re a woman?” In other words I had grasped man/woman concept. He was saying that you can’t attain enlightenment if you hold on to that self identity. I really liked that approach.
He made a few of us dharma teachers when we were pretty young students-we’d only been practicing with him about three years. He didn’t distinguish whether we were men or women; he just had us start teaching.
Pat O’Hara (Soto priest and resident teacher of the Village Zendo, New York): I started reading dharma books in the late sixties, but as a single parent I found it extremely difficult to enter into any Buddhist community with a young child. It was a difficult time because I knew that I had a passion for the dharma, but I couldn’t find a home that seemed conducive to my idea of mothering.
Finally, when my son was old enough in the early eighties, I began to practice at Zen Mountain Monastery with John Daido Loori Roshi, and right off he started talking about my starting to teach. My attitude was, no, I’m just here to face the wall, thank you, but he was very encouraging.
As an American teacher, he didn’t have any issue of men versus women, and whenever the gender was vague in a koan, he encouraged us to switch it to female. So initially I wasn’t really aware of the incredible marginalization of women that had occurred in the history of Buddhism, of all the women who had been forgotten and their names left unsaid.
Then when I began to study with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, it was like studying with a woman. It was very peculiar. He was this wonderful feminine energy and we would sit in this darkened dokusan room and cry together [laughs].
Melvin McLeod: The prominence of women in Western Buddhism now is unique in the history of Buddhism. How did it come about?
Pat O’Hara: Well, the whole feminist movement was going on at the same time Buddhism was coming to the West, and there had to be leakage back and forth.
Sharon Salzberg: What I’ve seen happening in the Theravada tradition is a kind of movement back to the people. So much of what was taught over the last couple of centuries didn’t necessarily reflect the actual teachings of the Buddha. As a woman you were told to create merit so maybe in your next life you could be a man and get ordained and become enlightened. As Westerners began practicing, that idea exploded. There was the sense that if liberation is really possible, I want to explore it. I don’t want to think about someone else doing it, or doing it in my next life. I want to know how I can actually transform my life now. So the movement toward women teachers is also a reflection of the belief that liberation is real, a real possibility for everyone. For most women teachers I know, there was no self-conscious decision to transform Buddhism. It came from wanting to change our lives, and discovering a tradition that said we really could.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I discovered feminism before I discovered Buddhism and it gave me a sense of confidence and desire for liberation. I very quickly saw that liberation would not come through feminism, but I appreciate what I learned about myself from it. It gave me an enormous yearning to be free from confusion.
Feminism inspired a sense of confidence among so many people in the seventies, and women didn’t hold back spiritually. They may have held back in other areas, but in the spiritual movements, women really have sought liberation.
Melvin McLeod: To what extent is the predominance of women teachers attributable to the character of the particular Buddhist teachers who came to the West?
Judith Simmer-Brown: I’ve studied with quite a few Tibetan teachers and not many of them have shown the kind of encouragement toward women that I experienced from Trungpa Rinpoche. He encouraged women to overcome any sense of shyness and really step into teaching roles.
Barbara Rhodes: I’ve already described Zen Master Seung Sahn. I don’t think he has too many feminine bones in his body. But in Korea, the nuns just love him and most of his students there are women, the ones who practice seriously with him. He has actually empowered women much more than other Zen teachers in Korea. I have to give him credit where credit’s due. He’s that kind of a person.
Pat o’Hara: Maezumi Roshi came to this country as a young man and just fell in love with the freedom and real thirst for the dharma here. He seemed very open to the new traditions, and part of it was that he empowered a lot of women. It’s wonderful.
Melvin McLeod: I’m surprised, because it sounds like overall you haven’t experienced a lot of obstacles in becoming teachers.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I think that at times women face more obstacles from other Western students than from the teachers. My women meditation students tell me about the difficulties they’ve had in many different settings in the Buddhist community. They can find it very difficult to hold their own and have confidence in a variety of situations.
Melvin McLeod: Do women teach the dharma in different ways than men? Are there issues you address in your teaching that are particularly close to your heart because you are a woman?
Sharon Salzberg: I teach so much about loving-kindness, and people often say to me that it’s because I’m a woman. I actually like to think not. I like to think it’s more a reflection of something very basic in the teachings of the Buddha. Now, was I drawn to teach about love and compassion because I am a woman? Maybe, but look at the Dalai Lama. Compassion is what he embodies and teaches, and what people seem to long for. So I’d say no, it’s not about my being a woman.
Barbara Rhodes: I refer a lot in my dharma talks to what I learn from working as a nurse at a hospice, and from being a mother and a daughter. I can’t help but draw on my experience of these roles, and I think if someone compliments me as a teacher, it’s usually because they appreciate how I draw my hospice stories and my mother stories and my daughter stories into the teaching of Zen.
I lead a lot of meditation retreats and I feel so gratified that men come in for their koan interviews and there doesn’t seem to be any thought of whether I’m less than or different; there’s just a nice sense of flow back and forth. Sometimes people do say, “I’m glad you’re a woman,” because maybe I spent a little more time with them, or I said, “Oh you look sad,” when one of our male teachers might not have said that. Sometimes I think that’s a gift, but sometimes I think one of our male teachers might have given a sharper interview that would have been just as or more helpful.
So there is some difference. I think I have rounder corners than a lot of the male teachers and that can be a blessing sometimes. When my daughter was little, I would pick her up all the time, and I think I pick up my students in a way-not physically, but with that same sense of patience and loving their weaknesses if they’re vulnerable, just feeling that and going into it. But of course, fathers have that quality too, and people who don’t have children will have those gifts also.
Judith Simmer-Brown: In the Tibetan tradition, the wisdom aspect of the teachings is associated with the feminine, which is depicted in the form of the dakini, while the skillful means aspect of compassion is more masculine. Without joining the masculine and feminine aspects we can’t become fully enlightened, and I’ve reflected a great deal about how this relates to my gender being female.
One thing I’m aware of is how easy it is to get hooked on gender as concept, and yet how easy it is to ignore gender altogether. In my life, I’m trying to identify the ways in which my gender might be helpful to wake things up for myself and others, and at the same time, trying to step over the ways in which my gender might be an obstacle-getting stuck in particular states of hesitation or emotionality or whatever.
For instance, I have been reflecting on how emotion can be an obstacle for women, and yet how it is also the wisdom aspect we have to offer in many situations. I’m interested in how emotions can be empowering for myself and for others-really seeing emotions in an empowered way, without falling into extremes of emotional indulgence. I have been doing a lot of teaching on romantic love and on working with the emotions of intense domestic situations, such as parenting, and in this I think there are things in my temperament and experience as a woman that might be helpful.
Melvin McLeod: What is distinct about the way a woman teacher relates to her female students, and what is different about the way she might relate to her male students?
Pat O’Hara: For me it’s more about the type of person who is drawn to a woman teacher. In particular, the kind of man who is drawn to a woman teacher is probably a little different than the kind of man who is drawn to a male teacher. I asked some men students why my teaching appealed to them, and most of them said they wanted something that was open to the masculine, yet without the martial quality of traditional Zen. They liked the softer approach I offer, particularly in terms of body work-meditating in a position of ease as opposed to a position of tension, that kind of thing.
Barbara Rhodes: Women will often find me… I don’t know if hard is the right word, but I’ve stuck with this practice and it’s not an easy practice. To stand for this practice is what I try to do as a teacher, so I think they might find me an inspiration, but also too hard.
To generalize, I think women can become overemotional sometimes and men can have a hard time bringing up their emotions. So if there is some overemotionality, maybe I can inspire a woman to move toward the center, to find the strength men often have to overcome emotionality. It’s not that one way’s better than the other, but I do help women to realize that it doesn’t help when you’re overemotional. And it’s the same thing with men. I encourage them to cry. I know they’re right on the verge of tears and I’ll kind of bring out the Kleenex box and encourage it, whereas a male teacher might not.
Sharon Salzberg: I think women tend to bring up their life situations and the traumas they’ve suffered more easily than men. In her very first meeting with me a woman might say, I’ve had a breast cancer diagnosis, or my son died, or something like that. A man might also have a tremendous source of suffering in his life, but it will be much later before he says, this is weighing on me, or I don’t know what I’m going to do, or I feel like such a failure. There’s not usually the same degree of vulnerability and openness expressed right away by a man.
Judith Simmer-Brown: It seems to me that initially in relationships with students there might be more sense that my gender or their gender is an issue. But once you get beyond the first couple of conversations it seems pretty irrelevant. I was talking with a woman just the other evening about her new pregnancy, her fear about being a mother and that kind of thing, and obviously there are certain life situations where gender is very relevant. But it seems the really deep issues of meditation practice are not so gender-oriented. To me, it seems important to get beyond gender-related issues to those core issues that we all share as human beings. The issues we’re experiencing in our meditation practice are usually much more fundamental than these gender-related issues.
Pat O’Hara: I agree with you so much, Judith. I remember giving a talk about not being heard and not being seen as a woman. After the talk, this man came up to me and said, you know, you’re talking about me and my life. That really helped me to see that in dealing with issues of sexism and racism and homophobia and that kind of thing, we’re talking about everybody’s experience.
Melvin McLeod: As women, what changes would you like to see in the way Buddhism is practiced in the West?
Pat O’Hara: I feel I haven’t been paying enough attention to the incredible pain a lot of women feel about the lack of a matriarchal lineage in Buddhism. Women are not often written or spoken about in Buddhism. In our community, we started chanting the names of women throughout Buddhist history, and I saw the faces of the women in the room bathed in tears. Seeing their faces in tears is what woke me up to how important this is to many women.
Now I and other dharma sisters in the Zen tradition have a different attitude towards the texts, the legends and the stories-a little bit more quizzical, a little bit more ironic. You know, how could they all be men? Come on now. This is a constructed quality of all these texts, and we have to know that. It changes the way we talk about things and it changes our attitudes towards forms and services and hierarchy, the whole power relationship. Everything begins to shift a little bit, I think.
Judith Simmer-Brown: I know that women students who find themselves visualizing deities and lineage trees that are all men feel a sense of incredible loneliness and a longing for lineage figures who are female. But also, as the institutions of Western Buddhism get larger and more complex, women are finding it hard to hold their own in a variety of situations. I hear a lot of stories from my students of struggles to be included in the service of visiting teachers and in various teaching situations. These kinds of stories touch me very deeply because it’s easy to miss, especially when you’re a woman teacher. But it’s not necessarily that way for all the women in the community.
There’s another thing that needs to be remembered about the phenomenon of women in leadership positions in American Buddhism right now. There’s a pattern whenever you have a new religious movement that women are often influential at the beginning, but one or two generations later they’re gone. As these movements become institutionalized, the structures become increasingly patriarchal and women are moved out. So we have women Buddhist teachers now, but that may not be true for our children and grandchildren.
Barbara Rhodes: In our tradition a lot of the centers have the same basic type of mural, which is all men. There’s the Buddha and all these deities, who are all men with beards and mustaches and swords and shields. I think I’m out of touch with how programmed I’ve been to accept that. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a teacher who seems to have really respected me, but it’s good to hear what you both just said, because I forget how much this has on some level demoralized me and a lot of other women. I’m just used to it. I need to look at that issue more deeply.
Sharon Salzberg: The motivation that brings so many people to the dharma is looking for a sense of connection. What they find is exclusion rather than inclusion, and that’s a source of tremendous suffering and heartache. So it seems very important to reach into the various traditions and bring forth the elements that provide inclusion and connection and welcoming.
Pat O’Hara: I want to say a little bit about hierarchy, because it comes up all the time in my tradition. I see my dharma sisters doing a lot of work around the teacher not always being at the apex of some hierarchy, but having a different role in different situations. People are working in groups to share the dharma, not assuming that only the teacher is going to be able to say the appropriate thing.
I think that’s a very important aspect of what women can bring to Buddhism. As outsiders, not part of the hierarchy, we feel that we can criticize it, and then we begin to live that criticism and it changes the way things are done. I think that’s an important element also.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Hierarchy is very important in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet there are ways in which hierarchy may not represent the genuine mandala principle of center and fringe. There can be privilege granted in hierarchy that is different from a true sense of spiritual authority.
I think that’s an area where there may be changes, but it’s hard to know what kind of changes they will be. It’s extremely important for the vajrayana practitioners in American Buddhism to honor our teachers, the lineages, and the hierarchical forms that allow us to really understand what spiritual power is. And I would view the democratization of American Buddhism as a problem if we began to make everything the same for the sake of whatever problems we might have with hierarchy. But there are appropriate hierarchies and there are inappropriate hierarchies, and trying to figure that out is really important.
Sharon Salzberg: I agree. I think we need something like a hierarchy of function which doesn’t demean or denigrate anyone. The distinction really needs to be made.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Earlier, Pat talked about how difficult it was for her to be member of a Buddhist community as a single parent with a two-year-old. I would love to see a solidly lay Buddhism in America that is much more receptive to the needs of families, that incorporates the whole sense of the domestic life, both for mothers and fathers. We need a Buddhism that is much more accommodating to a lay family model, one in which serious practice is still very much the foundation. Our centers and communities need to work with this in an ongoing way, becoming more creative about it.
Pat O’Hara: That’s absolutely on our plate to do. Buddhism is predominently lay in this country and people have families, so for Buddhism to really grow we’re going to have to find those forms that include the family. That’s happening a little in different centers now, but I believe it will happen more.
Sharon Salzberg: And along with that we have to plant the seeds of a viable monastic community. Particularly for women, that’s the container where a sense of lineage and of tradition can be passed on.
Melvin McLeod: Which relates to Judith’s warning that women’s roles can be diminished as Western Buddhism becomes more established.
Sharon Salzberg: I was thinking about that. I was thinking about the young women I know and how, because of the degree that feminism has seeped into our culture, they’re very different than I was at that age, in terms of their sense of confidence in themselves, their right to be included and their sense of self-respect. Reflecting on what Judith said about women’s roles diminishing, I was thinking maybe that won’t happen-not because of Buddhism and not because of institutions, but because of the actual women involved.
Judith Simmer-Brown: Maybe it won’t happen. That would be wonderful.
What’s the Relationship Between Emptiness and Beautiful Nails?
An interview with Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, the First Female Tulku Reborn in the West
by Andrew Cohen
I first heard about Jetsunma Ahkön Norbu Lhamo, the first Western woman to be recognized and enthroned by Tibetan lamas as a tulku (an enlightened teacher who reincarnates in whatever form can most benefit all beings), when I read about her in Vicki Mackenzie’s book Reborn in the West four years ago. Touched and inspired by what I had read, I knew that one day I wanted to meet the remarkable woman miraculously discovered by Penor Rinpoche, the current head of the Nyingma sect, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jetsunma was born to a Jewish mother who was a grocery store cashier. Her stepfather was an Italian truck driver who drank too much. Both parents beat the kids. She was baptized a Catholic and went to a Catholic school. Even though she experienced an inexplicable attraction to Buddha statues, she claims to have known absolutely nothing about Buddhism until her destined meeting with Penor Rinpoche when she was thirty-six. “There was no one who put me in touch with Buddhism,” she told Mackenzie. “The only thing that could have connected me, but didn’t, was that my mother took me to Coney Island, and a palm reader there told me I was an old Tibetan. That was all. I had no idea about Tibet. Not a clue. When I thought about Tibetans, I thought of smelly old men on rugs!” At seventeen, she ran away from home and went to Florida, where she got married and had a child. She and her family then moved to an isolated farm in North Carolina.
It was there that her spiritual depth began to reveal itself. First she had a series of prophetic dreams in which she was “told” what to do. Eventually she was instructed to begin her meditation practice. “I knew that if I prayed for guidance, I would get to learn how to meditate, as the dream instructed. That was the start of my real spiritual training.” Constantly praying for and receiving guidance, she systematically practiced different kinds of contemplation that she would ultimately discover were Tibetan Buddhist in form. Finally, after a relentless questioning of the meaning and significance of human life, she lost all fascination with mundane existence and turned her back on worldly pursuits. Her contemplations continued to deepen and she began to meditate on the absolute nature of reality. “I didn’t have the words for it, but I knew it wasn’t like God, the old-man-on-the-throne idea. What I was meditating on was a nondual, all-pervasive essence-that is, form and formless, united, indistinguishable from one another. I saw that it was the only validity-that and the compassionate activity that was an expression of it.” She continued to meditate intensively for several years, during which time she lived a householder’s life. When she was thirty, she had a spiritual experience that made clear to her that her personal life was over, and that she had been born solely to be of benefit to others. “After that,” she said, “people started coming to me.”
Jetsunma moved with her family to Washington, D.C., in 1981, where a group of new age seekers soon discovered her. In order to support her teaching work, they formed an organization called the “Center for Discovery and New Life.” One day, her group was introduced to a Tibetan lama who was selling carpets to raise money for his monastery in southern India. The money was mainly for young monks who needed clothing, books and food. Even though Jetsunma and her students knew nothing about Tibet and little about Buddhism, they decided to raise money for the monastery. They managed to sponsor seventy-five Tibetan children in southern India, and a correspondence followed. A year later they received a letter from the monk who had sold them the carpets, informing them that His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, the abbot of the monastery that they had been helping to support, was making his first-ever teaching trip to the United States, and he wanted to visit Washington to meet and thank the people who had sponsored so many of his young monks. Also apparently, ever since he was a young man, Penor Rinpoche had prayed to meet the reincarnation of Ahkön Lhamo, the Tibetan yogini who with her brother had founded his own lineage, the Palyul sect, back in 1652. He had already met the reincarnation of Ahkön Lhamo’s brother, a Tibetan who was teaching in Oregon.
When Jetsunma first saw the five-foot-three-inch Tibetan master, she burst into tears. “Now I’m not the sort of person who usually does this sort of thing, you understand. I’m a hard-headed lady. I’m from Brooklyn, for heaven’s sake! But I just could not pull myself together. I cried and cried. I just looked at him and thought, ‘That’s my heart . . . That’s my mind . . . That’s everything.'” Penor Rinpoche then went with Jetsunma back to her house where he interviewed all of her students in great depth, probing to find out exactly what she had been teaching them. When Jetsunma herself asked the lama where her teaching was coming from, he said, “In the past you were a great bodhisattva, a person who works throughout all time to liberate sentient beings. You have attained your practice to the degree that in every future lifetime you will not forget it. You will always know it; it will always come back to you. It is in your mind and will not be forgotten.” He then proceeded to tell her that she had to buy a center. “You’re going to think you can’t afford it,” he said to her, “but you will find a way. Have faith. It will be all right eventually. . . . Buy the one with the white pillars in the front.” After he left, they looked for property and, remarkably, the center they found had six white pillars all along the front. A year later, Jetsunma went to visit Penor Rinpoche at his monastery in southern India, where he officially gave her her new name, Ahkön Lhamo, saying, “I now recognize you as the sister of Kunzang Sherab. Her name was Ahkön Lhamo. In that life she and Kunzang Sherab cofounded the Palyul tradition. I recognize you as her incarnation.” He also handed her another certificate, authorizing her to teach. “This is important,” he said. “People will say you haven’t been studying the dharma, that they have never heard of you. They will not understand. With this paper no one will doubt that you are capable of teaching the dharma.”
When she returned to America, she formally assumed her new identity and began to teach Buddhism. Some of her followers found the change disconcerting and left, but most survived the transition. In 1988, Penor Rinpoche returned to Washington and conducted an official enthronement of Jetsunma. It received wide media attention, covered by newspaper reporters and television crews, and was featured in the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post and People magazine.
In 1994 Jetsunma was further recognized by Lama Orgyen Kusum Lingpa as an incarnation of Lhacham Mandarawa, the Indian spiritual consort of Padmasambhava, the tantric master who established the Buddha’s teaching in Tibet. While still maintaining her main temple in Poolesville, Maryland, Jetsunma now lives in Sedona, Arizona, where she spent the last year on “semi-retreat.” I interviewed her there last April.
I had wanted an excuse to interview Jetsunma for a long time now, and finally I had one: What could be more compelling than to ask an “American dakini” about the relationship between gender and enlightenment? After asking her organization innumerable times to send us a video of Jetsunma teaching, we began to wonder why it was that her always friendly students never seemed to get around to actually putting it in the mail! In the meantime, a little research revealed that Jetsunma seems to be quite a controversial figure in Western Buddhist circles. First, a highly respected Buddhist journalist told us that the American Buddhist establishment, which is largely comprised of well-educated, upper-middle-class white people, considers Jetsunma to be “white trash” because of her blue-collar roots! This rather bizarre comment really piqued our curiosity. Then we found a Buddhist scholar who called her “a new age bimbo cashing in on a lucrative trend.” Amidst the swirl of our ever growing confusion, her video finally arrived. Upon watching it, it soon became clear that Jetsunma was an unusually passionate and inspired teacher who seemed to be appealing to the listeners’ very soul. I watched her video several times, trying to make sense out of why it was that she had attracted so much criticism. And yet, no matter how much I tried to see her as the opportunistic prima donna she was accused of being, time and again all I could see was bodhicitta, a deep and powerful compassion that was literally heart-wrenching. Still, as I traveled to Sedona, I couldn’t help but be troubled by the echo of her critics’ protestations.
The woman I met there was disarmingly free from pretense. Not only that, she was radiant, clear, simple and unwavering in her strong vulnerability. Ironically, for a woman who has been condemned for her vanity because of her unapologetic adherence to maintaining her feminine appearance-she is known for the great care she gives to her hair and nails-what she emanates powerfully transcends any notion of gender. At the end of the interview, when I asked her point-blank about her critics’ accusations, she never lost her composure and seemed genuinely surprised that there was so much controversy, while at the same time making it clear that the only thing she cared about was her students’ liberation. Indeed, she said, “I feel that knowing that I would die for them, knowing that I care for them to the nth degree, empowers me to do whatever is necessary, and that’s the basis of the agreement I have with my students.”
I don’t know all the facts of Jetsunma’s story, but it is intriguing that even though world-famous, highly revered, master lamas of the modern era have been accused of far greater detours from the straight-and-narrow than this Jewish-Italian bodhisattva, many in the Buddhist community seem much less forgiving of her. Is it because she is a woman? This is one of the questions I wanted to ask her. And in the following interview, I did my best to give this American dakini a hard time, for I really did want to know the answers to some very tough questions. She didn’t disappoint me.
Andrew Cohen: In general, women don’t speak with the kind of confidence and authority about enlightenment and the spiritual path that you do. In our last issue, on self-mastery, we spoke with developmental psychologist Beverly Slade about how, in our culture, women often shy away from publicly demonstrating their own competence and authority. She said, “They find that people are threatened by their ability and may want to avoid them. Given women’s position in the culture at large, they probably regularly face people who are trying to undermine them, because people are threatened by competent women.” What has your experience been? Do you find that because you’re a woman who has been recognized as a great teacher and who also speaks with unusual confidence and authority, people are threatened because of that?
Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo: My experience with the gender question has been pretty interesting. When I was first recognized, upon performing the actual crowning ceremony, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche said, “Many Westerners have been wondering: ‘Where are the women in Tibetan Buddhism?’ Now I’ve answered their questions.” And at that time he said something that was very interesting and that helped to explain why we don’t see women conventionally being recognized as heads of monasteries. In Tibet, he said, normally the dakinis [female enlightened beings] would often stay in retreat or they would have a small, select group of students and would tend to be isolated off by themselves, whereas the men would stay and run the monasteries. So the women’s lineages were not followed as well as the men’s. And many of these women didn’t even write or read; they had oral traditions. So they weren’t literate in that sense, but they were considered very high tantric masters.
Now when I was recognized and enthroned, my experience was that the traditional monks had a kind of squeamishness or almost discomfort around me. When I went to the monastery in India, His Holiness did an amazing, wonderful offering ceremony. He introduced me to all of the monks and said, “This is the cofounder of our lineage. She’s come back.” And all the monks then came up and offered prayer scarves. And it was interesting; some of the monks had this amazing surrender because here was this dakini and that was that. But the other monks actually felt a little embarrassed, not accustomed to being around women, not sure how to act. Many of them stumbled over their words and almost walked up backwards so that you wouldn’t know whether they were coming or going. And having asked other teachers about it, I found out it’s just fairly rare for a woman to be held up in that way.
But in terms of how Americans and other Westerners acted-actually, His Holiness once said to me: “Because I have recognized you and I have the right and the responsibility to do so, there will never be any conflict with any Tibetan teacher or practitioner who knows who I am. But,” he said, “actually, your own kind, the Westerners, will probably crucify you.”
AC: Has that been your experience?
JAL: I’ve had both.
AC: Is it because you’re a woman?
JAL: I think so. When I was first discovered, I was a very Western woman, as I still am now. I used to paint my nails, I had makeup on-which I don’t do anymore-I had all these unusual characteristics that one doesn’t associate with a teacher. And so there was a lot of criticism questioning whether I was spiritual or worldly. And at first I tried to please everyone. I tried to ascertain what the expectations were for me. I was kind of naïve in that way, just wondering what it was that people wanted in a spiritual teacher. And I discovered that people had problems with women who were “womanly,” who were very feminine in their presentation. They also had problems with the fact that I wasn’t a nun, that I was married.
AC: But Nyingma [the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism] lamas have often been married. It’s not against the rules.
JAL: Male Nyingma lamas. It’s easier to think of married male lamas than it is to think of married female lamas, for some reason.
AC: And haven’t many great dakinis been described as being ravishingly beautiful and also sexually attractive?
JAL: Tara [a revered Tibetan deity] herself is seen with beautiful adornment. And she has taken a vow that said, “When I appear in the world, I will appear in this way so that beings can understand that all can approach the dharma. And I will always appear as a woman.” So there’s definitely precedent for that, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts, it’s another matter.
AC: It seems, from what I’ve read, that from the very beginning of your teaching career you have never pretended to be other than who you are. You said, “This is who I am,” and you were always unapologetic about it. And when Penor Rinpoche recognized you, that was part of the package; everything was really on the table.
JAL: Yes, exactly. It was really on the table, and it was very unusual. During the enthronement ceremony, His Holiness even allowed news stations to come in and film it. He said, “This has never happened before. And the reason why I’ve done this is that you were born as a Westerner, as a woman. Obviously that’s where your mission lies.” In the beginning I asked my teachers what they thought I should do-how I should change or what should happen. And they suggested that I wear dharma clothing such as chubas [Tibetan dresses] and things like that, which I usually do when I’m teaching. But what I found was that there’s no point in not being natural. There’s no point in faking yourself and becoming something else because then you’re just allowing discursive thought or conceptualization to basically run your life. What I came to eventually is that this is my job. My job is not to be a traditional Tibetan teacher. If that was my job, I would have come as a traditional Tibetan. I feel that my job is to be a bridge between Easterners and Westerners. I’m very good at translating abstract ideas, and I feel that the reason why I appear in the way I do is that other women and men who are Westerners and have no plans to change their culture or their cultural affiliation need to know that it’s possible for them also.
And personally I have no attraction to the Tibetan culture. All of the other Western Tibetan teachers I know are crazy about it. They all dress up in dharma duds and they walk the company walk and talk the company talk. But I really don’t. And I don’t feel sorry about that. I think that’s for Easterners.
AC: How does Penor Rinpoche feel about that? Does he respect your independence and your interest in bringing the Buddha-dharma to the West in a way that is as free from cultural overlays as possible?
JAL: Well, at first he sort of suggested that I become more traditional. He said, “Not many dharma teachers paint their nails red; maybe you should go for pink or something like that.” He tried to modify a little bit. Then after a while I said, “Well, Rinpoche, you know, I’m an Italian American. This is how my people dress. I would feel stupid not being like this. This is my way.” And he absolutely understood it.
AC: To me, that brings up an interesting question and the question is: What is the relationship between enlightened mind and expressions of gender? What’s the relationship between emptiness, or freedom from all notions of self, and culturally prescribed norms for the expression of masculinity and femininity? Some teachers of enlightenment have stressed the need to abandon any identification with self-image. For example, there are men and women monastics who shave their heads and abandon all worldly possessions in order to leave behind attachment to culturally prescribed images of masculinity and femininity. And then there are others like yourself or the great J. Krishnamurti, who was known for giving a great deal of attention to maintaining his always elegant appearance. I honestly think this is a very intriguing question. What is the relationship between inner freedom and the desire to express one’s masculinity or femininity in a conventional yet unselfconscious way? What’s the relationship between emptiness and beautiful nails? Does the path to enlightenment, which is freedom from all notions of self, ultimately demand that we all unconditionally abandon any attachment to gender and care for our appearance, or is there room in enlightenment for a demonstration of masculinity and femininity that expresses beauty and dignity?
JAL: I like your use of the word “room.” I like to think that the path to enlightenment is a bit more spacious than it is confined by a lot of absolutely this’s and absolutely that’s. Fundamentally, I feel that when bodhisattvas [those dedicated to the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all beings] come into the world to do a job, they do it in the best way that they can. I think they appear in a way that is not foreign, a way that speaks to us. If the bodhisattva comes to teach Westerners, then it would be appropriate to appear as a Westerner. If the bodhisattva comes to teach Easterners, then it would be appropriate to appear as an Easterner. I could never say that there’s a direct relationship between lipstick and emptiness, but I could never say that there is no relationship between lipstick and emptiness.
AC: What do you think the relationship is, though?
JAL: I’d have to say that the relationship is. There is just no other way to look at it.
AC: It’s an intriguing question because if someone was established in the enlightened mind or a liberated view, they would be, at least theoretically or ideally, free from any and all attachment to notions of self. So then the question is: What does that look like? Obviously there are some very rigid ideas that have come to us from the East.
JAL: I can say that a person who dresses up as a renunciate, who doesn’t wear makeup and wears robes, can sometimes actually be in a position of increasing the strength of their ego because they are so virtuous and are so convinced of it. And the same thing can happen when a person dresses up in clothes “to die for.” So I hold the whole appearance issue kind of lightly. I feel like I’m not grabbing on to it in one way or the other. For me, there would be a level of discomfort if I were to radically change the way I dressed. The women I grew up with wore hoop earrings. They all wore lipstick. They had a ‘do. For me to not do that seems more effortful and more concerned with sticking to a rigid code. It seems like putting on some sort of elaborate disguise. To me it seems to be easier, better, more natural to dress the way I came and to just be the way I am.
AC: What if a man or a woman came to you and asked to be your student and, after observing them over a period of time, it became apparent to you-let’s say, for example, it was a woman-that they seemed to be too invested in their appearance, in the way that they dressed, in the way that they moved, in the way that they walked and talked, and they seemed to express an overidentification with their own feminine nature. Would you tell them to question it?
JAL: If I saw that there was too much ego clinging and too much self-absorption, sure, I would always address that. I wouldn’t indicate to them how they should dress. Except in one case. Actually, one of my nuns, before she became a nun, was a really sharp dresser. She was one of those “outfit” persons. She always looked really sharp and wore all the cool things. And even after she became a nun, her shirt over her shantab [robe] would always match her socks. And I did talk about identity issues with her. She was the only person I’ve ever told how to dress. She’s very beautiful, very exotic-looking, and she realized that most of the suffering in her life was because of her identification with her looks and her sexuality and so forth. And so eventually it came to the point where she decided to become a nun.
AC: She came to that decision on her own? You didn’t encourage her?
JAL: Well, I encourage by my high esteem for the ordained. I have tremendous esteem for them. And even my teachers have said, “How is it that you’re a laywoman and yet so many of your students go for ordination?” I really think it’s because I hold monks and nuns in such high esteem. I feel that, however I appear, in my heart I’m a nun.
AC: A renunciate.
JAL: A renunciate. A nun. Yes, in my heart.
AC: And a definition of that would be?
JAL: A definition of that would be someone who is so completely bound to the spiritual expression that there really isn’t much else going on. So, in “pure view,” you could say that was an ordained person.
AC: Do you think that it’s possible for a human being to come to a point in their spiritual evolution where they’re finally freed from any fixation on or attachment to their gender identity while at the same time not in any way avoiding or denying the fact of their maleness or their femaleness?
JAL: Absolutely. I feel that as we move farther in our practice and we come to the point where we awaken to the natural state, in that natural state, by definition, there is no gender. There is no bias whatsoever. For instance, supposing that I had come to that state-now I’m still a woman and I still dress like one, but the whole question of gender identity doesn’t seem like an issue that should be taken up. It simply is what it is. It has no particular emphasis. But you wouldn’t fight against it either.
AC: How does gender identity express itself in someone who’s no longer particularly identified with the fact of their gender?
JAL: I think it expresses itself naturally for the world we live in. I feel that bodhisattvas who are in the state where they’re no longer identified take on the demeanor and the ideas and concepts of the society that they come to. And since in this society it is natural to identify with either one gender or the other, I believe that’s why it happens. In a sense, a bodhisattva, an awakening being, would be like somebody who doesn’t smoke going into a room full of smokers. They come out smelling like it, and they even breathe a little bit of it, but they don’t themselves have that habit.
AC: This is something that personally intrigues me a lot. What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Most of the ideas that we have about who we are in relationship to gender are culturally imposed, so it’s a big question. What does it mean to be a liberated human being, and what does liberation have to do with the expression of gender? So much of our identification with gender, whether we’re male or female, has to do with the fact that we’re always living up to culturally imposed shoulds-“Because I’m a woman, I should be a particular way,” “Because I’m a man, I should be a particular way”-and most of the time, this so inhibits the individual that they really have no idea what the natural expression of their own gender would be. So, to me, it would seem that an expression of gender that is liberated would have to be entirely free from this kind of self-consciousness.
JAL: I agree with you completely. And peculiar questions like, “Should I be more male? Should I be more female? Should I dress up? Should I dress down?” I think, to be perfectly frank, are questions that have to do with the tightness of our minds and our conceptual proliferation-that habitual tendency to constantly compare everything and make notes and put things in boxes. That quality of mind, that tightness of mind, is not synonymous with liberation. It is preliberation, so all of those ideas are also preliberation. I think with liberation comes a certain spaciousness, a certain acceptance, a certain floatingness-without meaning spaced out-a certain ease of expression. Everything is looser and more spacious. Our habitual tendencies are not so automatic, so tight and so kicked in that we have to identify with something!
AC: You’re a teacher of the Buddha-dharma. There is much to suggest that the Buddha felt that women were spiritually inferior to men. In the Pali Canon [a scriptural record of the Buddha’s early teachings], the Buddha is reported to have said, “Ananda, if women had not obtained the Going Forth from the house life into homelessness in the Law and Discipline declared by the Perfect One [acceptance into the Buddha’s monastic order], the Holy Life would have lasted long, the Holy Life would have lasted a thousand years. But now, since women have obtained it, the Holy Life will last only five hundred years. Just as when the blight called gray mildew falls on a field of ripening rice, that field of ripening rice does not last long, so too, in the Law and Discipline in which women obtain the Going Forth, the Holy Life does not last long.” It is also traditionally held that in the monastic community that formed around the Buddha, the most newly ordained male novice monk was to sit in a superior position to the most senior female nun. This seems to suggest that women definitely had a second-class role. Now Buddhism is becoming more and more popular in the time that we’re living in, and more and more women are being attracted to the Buddhist path for many good reasons. But personally, what I’ve always found interesting is that often this particular question of the Buddha’s bias or apparent bias-we can’t really know for sure-is something that many women never really deal with. Because the Buddha has been called the “Perfect One,” his enlightenment was supposed to be complete and perfected. And the point is, if one such as he had such strong notions of gender bias, then it seems that we would have to conclude that either his understanding or his realization wasn’t perfect, or there was something true about what he was saying and we needed to come to terms with it. How do you feel about this statement?
JAL: Well, my understanding-and this is something that I have discussed with some of my teachers and with khenpos [Tibetan scholars]-is that the Buddha taught in stages. Lord Buddha taught perfectly and appropriately for the context that he was in. And to take a teaching out of its original context and isolate it may be inappropriate. At that time, there were cultural realities that were practically insurmountable. The Buddha was dealing with many caste structures, not only gender. He was accepting into his ranks untouchables-telling Indians that untouchables could be touched. There were many, many issues happening in his time that he was really right against. And the gender issue was one of them. Back then in India, women were still getting burned with their husbands when their husbands died. The prejudice was there; it was predisposed. The cultural difference between men and women was so extreme that if it were automatically the case that women were put in the same position as men, I don’t think it would have been allowed. I don’t think it would have been okay. I think that things had to happen in a progressive, stage-by-stage way. Later on, through the evolution of the path, Buddhism developed all the way up to the tantric and Vajrayana elements in which males and females were exactly equal.
AC: Okay, but the only thing is, if it’s true that the Buddha actually said this, then apparently he felt that if he allowed women into the sangha [monastic community], what he was trying to do was going to be severely impacted for the worse. Because according to the canon he literally said, “My teaching won’t last a thousand years. It will last only half as long.” Now he did it anyway, so obviously he cared more about the liberation of women than about whatever detrimental effect he felt that women were going to have. But if the canon is correct, then I think we still have to come to terms with this dilemma: Either he was right that women are spiritually inferior or he had a wrong view.
JAL: No, I don’t think either one is correct. I feel that he was speaking to the time. When the Buddha appears on the earth in whatever form, it’s like the medicine that’s given as an antidote to whatever suffering is there. And I feel that was absolutely pure, absolutely correct at that time. It was meant to grow and engage the way that it did. And I think the view has grown and developed and we’ve come to understand it better. I don’t think he was mistaken and I don’t think he held women as inferior. I think his enlightenment was perfect.
AC: The Tibetan Buddhist system has also been accused of being extremely patriarchal, with a structure that traditionally keeps women in second-class positions. One of the most outspoken critics of that system even went so far as to say that “the patriarchal structure of Tibetan Buddhism literally depends upon the subjugation of women.” Even though historically there indeed have been renowned female tantric masters, for the last five hundred years, strong female tantric voices have largely disappeared from public view. As a female representative of that tradition, what has your observation been? Is Tibetan Buddhism a man’s world?
JAL: I have to say that I really don’t agree with the view that women are subjugated under the Tibetan system. Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism] himself has said that, in fact, in the tantric tradition, it is women who have the highest potential for liberation. He has said that culturally, throughout time, women have been trained in such a way that spiritual surrender is easier for them. Letting go of certain fixed, rigid things to stand on is easier for them.
AC: Are you saying that the Tibetan monastic system isn’t held together by a patriarchal structure at all?
JAL: The Tibetan monastic system is. But the left hand of that monastic system is another system of dakinis who are held very, very highly. In fact, in thangkas [Tibetan Buddhist paintings], when you see a representation of someone practicing tantra, while you’ll never see a male practicing alone, you will see dakinis practicing alone. And the reason why is that the woman is considered to be a display or an emanation of primordial wisdom. She’s held in very high regard. I think the people who are saying that the monastic system is so oriented toward males understand only one aspect of it.
You have to understand, each of us is viewing the situation with our own preconceived ideas and prejudices. I think if I were inclined to feel demoted as a woman or less than as a woman, perhaps I would see that male superiority, but I don’t. I do see that traditionally the form has the man on the throne in the monastery, but I don’t in my practice or in any other way see a male superiority. For instance, when most males are enthroned, they are enthroned with the crown of their lineage. When I was enthroned, I was enthroned with the crown of the five primordial wisdoms. From one perspective, you could say, well, maybe the five primordial wisdoms are much higher than the male lineage crown. But I just don’t think there is any value in looking at it in that way. The male is the head of the lineage-that’s how the Buddha appears in the world. The woman with the five primordial wisdoms as her crown-she’s the dakini. These are all the appearance of the Buddha. How can they be unequal? To me, the Buddha appears. Period. That’s the event. We’re sitting here with our cultural bias and our gender bias and we’re looking at that and we are interpreting it. “He gets to sit on the throne. She gets to sit in the cave.” And we put our meanings on that. But I’m telling you, the only event that occurs is that the Buddha has appeared, and that’s how I see it. I would be unfaithful to my practice if I tried to distinguish and make one higher than the other.
AC: In a previous issue of WIE, we spoke with Buddhist scholar Miranda Shaw about gender roles in the practice of Tibetan tantra, which is considered by many to be a powerful and even essential vehicle for reaching enlightenment. She made the intriguing statement that in tantric practice, conventional male/female gender relationships are reversed and, specifically as part of the practice of sexual yoga, the primary role of men is to serve women, acting as their devotees, servants and even slaves. In tantric practice, Shaw writes, men are to “take refuge in the vulva of an esteemed woman” and are to literally worship her as a goddess. By worshipping her in this way, she told us, “He’s also realizing his innate divinity and his Buddhahood; only he believes that the proper expression of his Buddhahood is to honor her divinity. In this worldview, it is the role of the female to channel enlightened energies, the energy of transformation, into the world in a powerful way. It is the role of the male to be the recipient of those energies and to honor them and their source.” According to Shaw, that is the tantric view. In your own experience as a dakini and an incarnation of Mandarawa, perhaps the most renowned Tibetan yogic consort of all time, are women the source of enlightened energy for themselves and for men?
JAL: Wow! Well, I can’t say that I agree with her interpretation. I don’t feel that men actually worship and become enslaved to women. I think that what really happens is that there is a mutual recognition of the view. The female and the male become inseparable; they become unable to practice fully without one another. They are a unit in union. They are primordial emptiness and its display, inseparable. And that being the case, there is a mutual viewing of one another as that. The dakini recognizes the daka [male counterpart of a dakini] as the source of her energy; the daka recognizes the dakini as the source of his energy. It is a symbolic picture of primordial emptiness and the display or emanation of that emptiness, like the sun and the sun’s rays: completely inseparable. Any words or any thoughts that separate them or put one higher than the other are simply conceptual proliferation and really have no place in that kind of practice.
AC: In general, what do you see as the fundamental differences between men and women on the spiritual path? Do men have any particular advantages over women on the path to enlightenment? Do women have any particular advantages over men?
JAL: Yes and yes. I really feel that I understand and vibe with what Guru Rinpoche said about women having, through our cultural experience, been trained in surrender a little bit better. This is simply my own observation. But in looking at the great weight of the male population as practitioners and as people in our world today, I do think that men are having a little problem with their footing. I think that certain things have been expected of them and that they haven’t known how to get beyond that. There are certain kinds of strengths that men are supposed to have and certain ideas that men have as to how to have those strengths. And sometimes they can be counterproductive to getting past our exterior ego identity.
AC: Do you mean that certain culturally imposed ideas about manhood become obstacles to liberation?
JAL: Yes, I think they do. Men are expected to be strong, they’re expected to be controlled, they’re expected to be producers. And judging from a lot of the students I have taught, I think that psychologically a lot of men have to go through a period where they have to accept this intuitive, spiritual, feminine part of their natures in order to go even one step farther. But that’s not really something women have to do. We’re taught that’s okay for us, so we don’t so much feel that we have to get to that point before we let go. I think if there is a difference, it isn’t because there’s any fundamental potency or strength that either gender has over the other. I think the two are equal and meant to function in union. But I do feel that culturally, men have been biased toward a more materialistic life than women have.
AC: So do you feel that because it’s more culturally accepted for women to be intuitive and vulnerable, they therefore have less to let go of on the spiritual path?
JAL: I definitely think that’s a factor, but again, you have to take everybody case by case.
AC: In the Buddhist teaching, enlightenment is said to be directly related to the recognition of the inherent emptiness or insubstantiality of a separate personal self. In a previous issue of WIE, the renowned Indian woman sage, Vimala Thakar-the only person who the great J. Krishnamurti ever asked to teach-spoke in detail with us about her observation that women tend to have greater difficulty letting go of attachment to a personal sense of self than men do. She said, “Nothingness, nobodyness, emptiness-even the intellectual understanding of this-frightens women. Because of our physical vulnerability, because of our secondary role in human civilization, on a subconscious level, there is fear. If I mature into nonduality, into nothingness, into nobodyness, what will happen to my physical existence? Will it be more vulnerable? Will I be able to defend myself in case of difficulty, in case of some attack against me? Consciously, intellectually, women understand everything because regarding the brilliance of the brain, there is no distinction such as male and female. But psychologically, at the core of their being, is this fear.” In my own experience as a teacher I have also noticed that women do seem to have greater difficulty than men in letting go of the habit of what I call the personalization of their experience. Now I certainly don’t mean to imply that this means men, as a gender, tend to be fearless heroes who are willing to jump into emptiness and abandon any and all notions of self at the drop of a hat. Men and women struggle with the same fear of nonexistence. But it’s been my experience or my impression that women seem to have greater difficulty being able to see directly into the impersonal nature of all human experience than men do. As a woman and as a teacher of enlightenment, is this also your experience?
JAL: At a certain point in our path, there’s a kind of grieving that both men and women have to go through. When we leave the party and begin to really practice renunciation, begin to practice recognition of what samsara [cyclic existence] really is, there’s a grieving that comes from that. And I think for men and women it’s a different grief. I think that men have to let go of certain kinds of expectations that are made of them and that they have of the world. And I think that women have to grieve about the letting go of another kind of expectation, which is a more personal one. Women are culturally biased toward being in relationship to, and so their best way of understanding themselves is in relationship to. However, at a certain point in our practice, when that grieving is finished, we are every bit as capable of allowing that to pass, and approaching the ground view and letting go of identification with self-nature as being inherently real. I think at a certain level of practice, after that grieving is done, our abilities are equal.
AC: Would you consider that to be, relatively speaking, quite a high level of practice?
JAL: Yup. (Laughs)
AC: In this issue, in addition to exploring the relationship between gender and spirituality, we’re also looking into the relationship between sexual orientation and the path to enlightenment. In our time, there are many gays and lesbians who view their experience of sexual orientation as the very basis of the spiritual path. Do you think that giving spiritual relevance to sexual orientation is a help or a hindrance on the path to enlightenment?
JAL: I think maybe I should speak personally about my experience with this whole issue. First of all, I’d like to say that I have been very disturbed by the way in which some of the conventional religions that are present in our time have kind of lopped off their gay population and considered them not fit and inappropriate and bound for someplace bad. I feel a tremendous amount of grief about that. When I developed the temple and even before His Holiness recognized me, I made it very, very clear that any sexual orientation did not preclude being a member of my temple. I made it very clear that whether you were gay or straight, tall or short, thin or fat, it didn’t matter to me at all. When that word got out, a lot of people who were gay who were looking for a spiritual home took refuge in my temple. I now have some nuns who are gay. They’re not practicing, of course. They’re celibate.
Now my experience has been that, of the people who came to my temple at first, some of the ones who were suffering the most were a lot of the gay people. They were deeply ingrained in finding an identity and gathering it around themselves and making a box out of it. It was as if they were less free than those who didn’t feel the need to find an identity. They were just encumbered by this need.
AC: They were encumbered by their gay identity?
JAL: Yes. Not by their homosexuality itself, but by the need to express it in one way or another, or to not express it-either coming out of the closet or not coming out of the closet-whatever their phenomena were about that. That was what oppressed them, not their sexual proclivity. And what I’ve tried to do is to let them know that they shouldn’t put themselves under such pressure to express themselves in one way or another but rather they should identify with the original nature that we’re trying to reveal. I feel that people have to be who they are. In the same way that I didn’t want to lose my Jewish-Italian American identity and start wearing Tibetan chubas, I don’t expect my gay practitioners to act like straight people or to lose their sense of gayness. But I feel that just as being a Jewish-Italian American is not going to get me enlightened, neither is being gay going to get them enlightened. My feeling is that we all have to drop that stuff and go for it!
AC: What you’re saying has also been my observation-that often a gay identity tends to be just another expression of ego. That doesn’t mean that one has to necessarily deny one’s sexual preference. But one has to maybe question the ego’s investment in any particular sexual preference.
JAL: Totally. That’s totally it. What keeps us from functioning as awakened beings is the fundamental belief in self-nature being inherently real. Self-nature as defined by anything-gender bias, sexual bias, emotional, cultural, anything. Whatever form it takes. So in giving that any validity, any lip service-what’s the point? We’ve already got that in the world. Let’s move away from it.
AC: Father Basil Pennington, a highly respected Trappist monk, whom we also interviewed for this issue, made an intriguing statement about the relationship between spiritual freedom and sexual orientation. He feels that “all men and women are ultimately bisexual and that therefore, a person who is really free knows that he or she is bisexual and can relate with others in whatever way is appropriate, that they’re not bound by any particular sexual orientation.” In your experience, is Father Pennington on to something when he says that there’s a direct relationship between spiritual freedom and liberation from a rigid adherence to any particular sexual orientation?
JAL: He is absolutely dead on. Absolutely correct. Because again, the bodhisattva, when it appears in the world, appears in the form of compassion, in whatever form is needed. So if you need a banana, the bodhisattva is going to appear as a banana. If you need a person with a certain kind of orientation, the bodhisattva is going to appear in that way. I really think that at a certain level, the bottom line, the only thing that matters is the bodhicitta [aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings]. The only thing that matters is the appearance of compassion in the world.
AC: So would you agree with his assertion that if someone is free, they know they’re bisexual and that would be expressed in whatever ways are appropriate?
JAL: I would say that if a person is free, they know that the human condition is to be sexual and they don’t have a determined bias as to how that sexuality should be expressed. However, I wouldn’t say that a person knows himself to be bisexual. To recognize yourself as bisexual is, I would say, a preliberated state. If you are free, you can’t even recognize the concept of bisexual. A person who’s truly liberated isn’t going to spend all that much attention on thinking about what box to put their sexuality in. If you are free, your sexuality, like anything else, is an adornment that you wear in order to be of benefit to others.
AC: So in this way of looking at it, the expression of one’s sexuality would somehow have to be for the sake of someone else?
JAL: As a bodhisattva, everything is for the sake of all sentient beings. I think that for a person who is a liberated bodhisattva, if it were required for them to be homosexual at a certain point in time, that would not be a foreign concept. I think that would be a perfectly okay thing to do because that’s the way the bodhicitta would appear. I feel for myself that if it were needed for me to function in a homosexual way, I’m sure I could. I’m sure I would. And that would be part of my sexuality. It would be real.
AC: Marpa, the guru of Milarepa, one of the most revered Tibetan yogis of all time, is widely known to have been a fierce and demanding teacher. Tales of his ferocity in the service of his disciples’ liberation are legendary. Not only did he repeatedly humiliate Milarepa but he even was known to beat him physically in order to awaken him to his own true nature. You too have a reputation for being a fierce and demanding teacher and have even been criticized for the lengths to which you have been willing to go to keep your students on the straight and narrow. The whole notion of crazy wisdom, meaning that the teacher will go to any lengths necessary to awaken his or her students-including that which often appears to be incomprehensible to the unawakened mind-is revered by Tibetans as a powerful method of spiritual instruction. Some of the most widely respected male Tibetan teachers of our time have been accused of far greater abuses of their disciples than you have, and yet the Buddhist world at large seems to be much less forgiving in your case than in theirs. Is there a double standard in place? Does the fact that you’re a woman make it unacceptable for you to be a fierce and uncompromising teacher? Or are your critics correct in saying that sometimes you go too far?
JAL: I have to say that I don’t have a particular view on the subject except that in looking at each student individually I see that each one of them has a particular capacity and a particular set of obstacles. And sometimes, something really unusual or outrageous might be the very thing that provides the hook on to the path, or the very thing that provides some amazing ripening. When it happens that this kind of student comes together with a teacher who is capable of seeing it and maybe delivering what is needed there, I think that is the most fortunate of circumstances. I think that is an outrageously rare thing and an outrageously fortunate set of circumstances. So when that has happened, I have dived on it. But my teachers have also done that with me.
AC: They’ve been very fierce with you?
JAL: One time when I was newly recognized, my teacher was extremely wrathful with me and it was about something that never even happened. It was so outrageous and it tore me up so badly but it also, I think, added years on to my life because health obstacles that were happening to me disappeared like magic after that. So I believe that sometimes those two circumstances come together and when they do, it is the teacher’s responsibility to take advantage of them. There have been circumstances where I have gone to amazing lengths to befriend and stay with and hook on to the path some student of mine, to the point where the other students will say, “Gee, you didn’t do that for me!” But that’s just because of the way the karma has ripened. That’s because at that moment in time, there was a window and there was a way to go through it. When one of my nuns was first ordained, a series of things happened where I really took her to task and yelled at her. It upset her very badly and yet the very next day she was totally able to see it, and there was an amazing change after that. I don’t think a person should make an issue about such things. I think that once a student entrusts themselves to a teacher and trusts that teacher to the degree that they have confidence in their qualities, then at that point, you kind of have to make a deal that it’s not always going to be roses; sometimes you’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear and it’s going to be painful. And it’s a student’s responsibility to somehow let that input come into their lives.
AC: Someone engages in a committed relationship with a teacher of enlightenment because they’re saying that they want their ego killed. So that’s not necessarily going to be a painless process. I mean, most of the time, it’s actually horrendous. And it’s very hard, it seems, for most people to make that kind of commitment where they say, “This is it.”
JAL: Right. And it’s difficult to teach in that way, with that kind of passion, in a world where it has become very fashionable for people to file lawsuits about everything. Anytime anyone goes to a counselor, I guarantee that counselor will find out that they have been abused. That’s kind of the popular thing. The idea that people are being victimized or being abused is very much in style. To write a really hip pop psychology article, you’ve got to talk about abuse, and sexual abuse if you can! You know, at a different time, in a different place, it would be different. Even in my family-Italian Americans are very tough on their kids-but they’re also very loving and very friendly. It’s the way a mother shows how much she loves that child that she is willing to not be a good guy in a particular situation.
JAL: And I’ll tell you, I have been willing not to be a good guy in a situation that I thought would protect a student. I think of myself as being like a Jewish-Italian mother in that way. If I do come to a point where I show wrath toward a person, at the same time I’m feeling so much love for them. I feel like you don’t have the right to show wrath to a person if you don’t know how much you love them. And I feel that knowing that I would die for them, knowing that I care for them to the nth degree, empowers me to do whatever is necessary, and that’s the basis of the agreement that I have with my students. They know that if the time comes that they need it, they’re going to hear from me. I have a number of students who are recovering alcoholics. Now they’re monks and nuns. One woman, whom I love dearly and think very highly of, not too long before she met me was living as a homeless person under a bridge, an alcoholic. And now when I see her wearing the robes of the Buddha, and I think about what it took-how much wrath and how much love and how much of everything it took to get her to that point where she’s not only not under the bridge but she’s benefiting others-when I see something like that, you know, I think this is an amazing opportunity. This is fantastic. And I don’t think I could live with myself if I hadn’t taken advantage of that. I don’t think I could live with myself if I hadn’t been strong, if I hadn’t been wrathful, if I hadn’t said, “Sit down. Listen. Now I’m going to tell you the truth.” I don’t think I could watch someone pass through their neuroses if I have a karmic connection with them and not do something about it. I feel that every karmic connection I have with a student is an opportunity. I feel that I have a passion about that opportunity and I’m going to take it. And I’m not going to apologize.
I want to thank Vickie Mackenzie for allowing me to quote liberally from her chapter on Jetsunma in her fascinating book Reborn in the West.
Get Over It!
A Men’s Movement Pioneer Calls for the End to “The Gender Game”
An interview with Sam Keen
by Craig Hamilton
“The idea of total liberation is a bad and very destructive idea,” the gruff voice on the other end of the line announced, adding, “One of the things I frankly don’t like about your magazine is the holding up of these people who are supposedly ‘in the absolute’ and totally liberated.” While our commitment to investigative journalism often finds us in unexpected territory, I had to admit that this was a new one. Not five minutes into what was scheduled to be a one-and-a-half-hour interview, and already our magazine and the very aspiration on which it is built were under fire. Fortunately, I thought to myself, I hadn’t called Sam Keen to ask him about his views on enlightenment. And having discovered firsthand that he was not a man to mince his words, I was all the more eager to ask this modern-day master of myth-one of the most influential figures in today’s burgeoning men’s spirituality movement-our questions on the role and influence of gender in spiritual life.
Our introduction to Keen’s work had come only a few months before when, while beginning our research into gender and spirituality, we picked up his book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. A rich, almost lyrical blending of autobiographical anecdote and psychological theory, the book-which in the early nineties had served as a rallying point for thousands of men bent on breaking free of the culture’s male mythos-soon had us under its spell. For several weeks, our basement sauna was transformed into a private sweat lodge of sorts, as the male members of our editorial team gathered there by evening with our spiritual teacher to read aloud Keen’s riveting analysis of the social and cultural influences that have molded the psyche of late twentieth-century man. Having each managed to miss out on all but the broadest strokes of the men’s movement, we found our own experience often powerfully illuminated by Keen’s detailed tour through the rites of war, work and sex-the three arenas he feels have come to define our conceptions of what it means to be a man in today’s world.
Using his own pilgrimage as a template, in the book Keen also goes to some length to outline what he sees as the way ahead for modern men. Not content with the popular men’s movement mantras, “embracing our feminine side” or “unleashing the wild man within,” he points somewhere between these two extremes to a redirecting of “the fierce warrior energies . . . that men have honed for centuries . . . toward the creation of a more hopeful and careful future.” In his “new vision of manhood,” he leaves little room for the endless self-centered probing that many associate with “men’s work,” calling instead for a new breed of heroic, passionate and “virile” men to rise up and take responsibility for confronting the ecological and social crises of our times.
By his own description, Keen is a “philosopher of the sacred.” Hailing from the likes of Harvard and Princeton, with a string of advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, he has authored over a dozen books and has for years been a prominent figure in the American human potential movement. It was through his experiences leading workshops at Esalen Institute, as a contributing editor for Psychology Today, and as cofounder of a men’s group called SPERM (Society for the Protection and Encouragement of Righteous Manhood) that he began to formulate many of the ideas that would fill the pages of his books.
In the larger body of his work, Keen informed me, Fire in the Belly is perhaps best characterized as his answer to the psychological dilemmas of modern man and, as such, is not in itself focused primarily on the spiritual dimension of life. It was only in his 1994 book Hymns to an Unknown God that Keen attempted to chart the waters of the spiritual quest-a journey he sees as common to both sexes-which only can begin after the psychological “wounds of gender” have been healed. Describing the book, he writes: “[It] is a map of the path we travel together, when the questions of masculinity and femininity, male and female roles, have been left far behind.” Keen’s approach to spirituality, along with Jungian analysis and many body-centered “transpersonal” therapies, does not count itself among those spiritual paths aiming for final enlightenment, but falls instead under the broad umbrella of what has come to be called “sacred psychology.” Attempting to bring the individualistic ideals of Western humanism into a spiritual context, Keen and other authorities in this increasingly popular school of thought point to a life of meaning found not in surrendering to a God greater than oneself, nor in an effort to slay the ego through the renunciation of self-centered impulses, but through a personal confrontation with one’s own existential questions and a reckoning with the shadow-world of one’s unconscious. Keen writes: “My quest . . . is driven primarily by a personal-existential need to discover how I fit within the scheme of things, not by a . . . need to understand how human beings fit within the cosmos. . . . The dignity and meaning of my life involve the discovery and creation of my way, my truth, my destiny.” Although some traditional enlightenment teachings do find expression in Keen’s work, the ultimate goal of spiritual life as he defines it is not the dissolution of the separate sense of self, but the empowering of it.
During the course of our conversation last spring, Keen related some of the details of his own personal struggle first to prove his manhood and later to shed the rigid notions of masculinity in which he found himself bound. Having spent the better part of his life going against his own deeply sensitive nature, he recounted, it was only when a therapist pointed out to him that his “manliness is [his] sensitivity” that he was able to begin to make his own “journey beyond gender.”
Having heard Keen’s description of this pivotal moment in his search, it struck me as perhaps slightly ironic that his phone manner seemed to fall somewhere on the spectrum between John Wayne and General Patton. In the course of our conversation, Keen made it clear that he does not suffer fools-or opposing viewpoints-gladly, as he forthrightly shared his informed and often scathing critique of everything from radical feminism to Jungian psychology to the very men’s movement which gave him his fame.
And while I can’t deny that I was still glad I wasn’t interviewing him about enlightenment, there was nonetheless something about the straightforwardness, and even boldness, with which he spoke that I couldn’t help but appreciate. For one meets few people who have lived their questions as Keen has. And his thinking on many of the central themes surrounding our inquiry into gender and spirituality showed not only an unusual clarity and precision but a passionate conviction and a refreshing depth and breadth of hard-earned common sense.
WIE: In Fire in the Belly, you call upon men to undertake a spiritual journey that culminates in “the celebration of a new vision of manhood.” What defines this journey, as you see it?
SAM KEEN: Well, a large part of my work is focused on the way in which the myths of a culture shape and inform the way we live, the way we think about ourselves and the way we feel. What I’m doing in Fire in the Belly is dealing with the myth of gender and specifically with the myth of male gender. And you have to understand that when I talk about a spiritual journey in that context, I’m not talking about a total spiritual journey; I’m talking about only one aspect of it. My ultimate message for the men’s movement or, as far as that’s concerned, the women’s movement, with regard to spirituality and gender is: Get over it! Because the spiritual journey starts on the other side of gender.
Now let me say what I mean by that because I think my perspective is different from that of most people. I’ve got to start with the idea of myth, that a myth is like the software that is inserted into us by the society, by our family. Nature gives us certain hardware. There’s male hardware and there’s female hardware. But the moment we’re born, people start shoving these software disks in, saying, “Here’s what a real man is. Here’s what it means to be a man. Here’s what it means to be an American man,” and things like that. That’s what gender is. And those gender divisions, for roughly the last four thousand years, have been largely circulating around warfare. The division between men and women has been the division between warriors and nurturers. The male has been artificially conditioned to be tough, to be aggressive, to be hostile, to be willing to either kill or die for the tribe. The most poignant symbol of this, of course, is circumcision, which is a way of saying that to be male is to be wounded and to be willing to be wounded, whereas the female has been conditioned to be the servant of the warriors, the bearer of the children, the nurturer of the society, and in that sense to be inferior to the male. So when we’re talking about gender, we’re largely talking about injuries that have been done to male persons and female persons in the effort to perpetuate a way of life based upon warfare, aggression, domination and control. And all of that, from the point of view of the life of the spirit, is a mistake. It’s this we have to rise above in order to begin to have any notion of what the spirit is.
WIE: Would you say, then, that the spiritual path is the same for men as for women? Or is it different?
SK: I would say it’s the same, although it demands that we get over different illusions. The male has got to get over the illusions of manhood, and the woman has to get rid of the illusions of womanhood, to go beyond them, to go beyond the cultural stereotypes that have shaped them and to realize that, at the level of the life of the spirit, there isn’t a difference-that it’s equally difficult for us to transcend those things, to grind up the whole shadow, to delve into our unconscious and to transcend our conditioning. I think of the life of the spirit, in a sense, as that which begins to emerge on the far side of the mythologies that have shaped and informed us.
The first place I can remember that this question was raised was many, many years ago when Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian, wrote an essay about pride, about how we have to get over pride because pride is a chief sin. And a woman who must have been one of the first feminist theologians wrote and said, “Wait a minute, that may be true for men. But it’s not true for women. Women, by and large, have a problem of low self-esteem, of not having enough pride because that’s what the culture has done to them; it says that you’re second class.” So in that sense, there is a different emotional agenda that attaches to a woman freeing herself and a man freeing himself, just in large terms.
Let me tell you another way in which this topic is talked about that I think will distinguish how I think about it differently from other people. Of course, Western spirituality has until recently been almost exclusively male in its metaphors. The metaphor of “God the Father” is perhaps the strongest example. And Mary Daly came along some twenty-five years ago and said, “This is a big mistake. Talking about God the Father is just a way to smuggle your politics and your sense of male gender superiority into theology.” It was like dropping a bombshell into theology because suddenly you realized that these male-biased metaphors really said that “masculine” traits, such as control and reason, were better than “feminine” traits. Like all males, I resisted her stuff in the beginning. Then I began to realize she was absolutely right about it. But the problem is that the feminists then said, “Oh, God the Father. That’s right. That’s a baaad way to talk. Now, let’s talk about God the Mother. Let’s talk about the Goddess.” Now, I think that Mary Daly should be as critical of that as she has been of the notion of God the Father. We do not begin to get on a spiritual journey until we go beyond the gendered metaphors for God. For instance, tell me what in the world it could possibly mean to say Mother Nature? What’s motherly about it as opposed to fatherly or brotherly? It’s a metaphor, and it’s a metaphor whose time has passed as far as I’m concerned. I say that we need to get beyond that and to get back to the much more basic kinds of metaphors of knowing, of compassion, of loving.
The second book I wrote was called Apology for Wonder. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder. The same thing is true about the life of the spirit. The life of the spirit begins in wonder, the wonder that there is anything, the sense of gratitude to be in a world that is filled with all of these marvels. And if the life of the spirit begins in wonder and awe, then what could it possibly mean to say that’s either male or female? It’s irrelevant. Maleness and femaleness are irrelevant to the basic fact that there is this marvelous universe.
WIE: You were speaking about how we all have strong ideas of what it means to be a good or real man or a good or real woman, ideas that have been implanted into us by culture. And while people generally tend to put a lot of energy into trying to live up to that gender ideal, spiritual liberation teachings stress that we have to be willing to give up all of our preconceived ideas and live in a state of perpetual unknowing, a condition of genuine openness to the discovery of what is. One of the things we’re exploring in this issue is what this kind of unknowing would mean in relation to our gender identity. Would it be possible, for example, for an individual to come to a point in their spiritual development where they were completely freed from any fixation on gender differences while at the same time felt no need to avoid or deny whatever differences might actually exist?
SK: Well, yes and no. In the first place, the idea of total liberation is a bad and extremely destructive idea.
WIE: It is?
SK: Yes, because it’s something to aim at that you’re never going to hit. To be free from the crippling effects of gender is a good ideal and we should work in that direction, but you’re also always living within a society where those distinctions are operative and continue to be wounding to you and to others. And part of what it means to live the life of the spirit is to work to overcome that. But no matter how far you go, you’re always going to have an unconscious, you’re always going to have a shadow, you’re always going to have something that has the tendency to draw you back into those distinctions because you were formed that way in the beginning. In a sense, it’s sort of a countercultural act to get free of them.
So in terms of the notion of total liberation, I don’t have the foggiest idea what that would mean. One of the things I frankly don’t like about your magazine is the holding up of these people who are supposedly “in the absolute” and totally liberated. I don’t know whether you remember, but for many years I was the person at Psychology Today who interviewed all these gurus. And so I’ve had a good bit of experience with a fair number of them-Chögyam Trungpa, Oscar Ichazo, Muktananda and others. And if these are all examples of people who are totally liberated, I say give me slavery because they were people with enormous illusions and who were cultivating enormous illusions in their followers. By and large almost all of them were totally unclear about three important things: sex, money and power. And they could play like they were liberated as long as they had a whole cult of disciples who did everything for them except wipe their asses-and probably that, too. And most of them were on enormous power trips. So I think the idea of total liberation is sort of like the idea of perfection. It’s an idea that is more crippling than helpful.
WIE: But in your chapter “Taking the Measure of Man” in Fire in the Belly, you write about the “Hall of Exemplars,” about the extraordinary men and women who, in their rare demonstration of “elemental virtue[s],” stand as “harbingers of hope” for all of us who aspire to live a greater life. You state that what’s significant about these men and women is that “their lives are our strongest evidence that human beings are spiritual creatures, that we are able to transcend the conditioning of both biology and culture.” So what I’m asking you is: What does it mean to transcend biological and cultural conditioning, specifically where gender is concerned?
SK: Well, let me take one of my good examples: Georgia O’Keeffe. Now, Georgia O’Keeffe, right from the beginning, did not follow the path that one was supposed to follow to be a nice girl. She wasn’t sugar and spice and everything nice. She wasn’t getting the coffee for anybody. She wasn’t asking anybody how she should draw. Right from the beginning of her life, she had a vision and she pursued it. And she pursued it in such a way that she broke many of the taboos of her time. When she wanted to marry Stieglitz, she got married; when she needed to be in New Mexico, she went to New Mexico. Today that would not be all that shocking, but back then it was pretty radical stuff.
WIE: So in this sense of the word “transcendence,” you’re not speaking about an absolute transcendence as it’s been conceived by the great mystical traditions, but more specifically about a willingness to break with the status quo?
SK: Well, yes, but it’s about self-understanding, too. And, you know, there are millions of quiet exemplars to look to as well. As a matter of fact, I have much more trouble looking at the official examples than I do at unofficial ones. We all salute these official sort of semi-saints but, I mean, who knows what the Dalai Lama does on the side?
WIE: Coming back to the question of gender differences, a number of contemporary thinkers and practitioners have asserted that women are, by nature, predisposed to pursue a path of immanence-which involves deeply connecting to their bodies and to the cycles of nature and finding the sacred in relationship-while men tend to seek transcendence of all that is worldly, to look beyond themselves for the sacred mystery that lies at the source of all existence. Seemingly in support of this idea are certain religious traditions that adhere to a kind of tantric model in which there are strictly defined spheres that are said to be divinely ordained for men and women. In Orthodox Judaism, for example, the men devote themselves to study and prayer and the women are expected to find their spiritual fulfillment in bearing children and maintaining the sanctity of the home. According to this paradigm, it is only by each sex giving themselves wholeheartedly to the fulfillment of these preordained roles and then coming together in their differences that divine union can be achieved and God’s will can become manifest on Earth. Do you feel that this notion of distinct paths for men and women bears out in practice?
SK: No. I think that’s sort of like saying it’s intrinsic and God-given that women should wear skirts and men should wear pants. I think it’s just about as culturally conditioned as that. I mean, come on, give me a break! Women are more immanent than men?! Tell that to van Gogh! Tell it to Audubon, tell it to John Muir, tell it to Agassiz, tell it to any of the poets. I don’t know where people get off making this kind of generalization! I mean, what could that possibly mean? I’m sitting here, as a matter of fact, this very moment, looking out my window at the stream and the beautiful greens with the sun on them-so I guess that kind of makes me like a woman!
Almost every year I take groups into Bhutan. It’s marvelous because there you see that men and women, especially in rural areas, practically do almost exactly the same things-the same kind of work. Their bodies even look kind of the same. And it’s not a big deal. You get the sense that sexuality and everything goes much more easily. I don’t ever hear anybody saying anything that would be vaguely like, “a real man does this or a real woman does that.” There are some role divisions in the society, of course. Male monastics are uppermost in the establishment. And there are some put-downs of women in the tradition, including the assertion that it’s harder for women to get enlightened and things of that kind. But I just think that generalizations like that are repressive. And let me tell you why I think they’re repressive, why I’m so passionate about this idea.
As a young man, I was unusually sensitive. I loved birds, I loved nature and I was sensuous. And gradually it occurred to me that this was something I had to be ashamed of, that it was kind of sissy. So I put that stuff away for a long time. Through my teenage years I took Charles Atlas courses and learned to wrestle to toughen myself up so I could be a man. And it wasn’t until I began trying to work through some of these ideas that I began to realize, in retrospect, what bullshit that was, what destructive cultural stereotyping it really was. When this first really began to open up for me was actually during a bioenergetics session with Stanley Keleman. I was going with a woman at the time who was giving me all kinds of trouble. I just wasn’t manly enough for her, in my view. And Stanley looked at me one day and said, “You don’t get it, do you? You just don’t get it. Your manliness is your sensitivity.” And I realized I had been misidentifying where my “Sam Keen” strength was all along, that all these “feminine” parts that I had thought were not worthy of me were really where the juice of my life was, and that I had to learn to be more accepting, more surrendering and softer and more sensuous.
So I think that those notions are really destructive to individual people. In my seminars, I frequently have women come up and talk about how deeply shamed they are because they’re aggressive, competent women and they maybe even look kind of manly. They say, “I have all this competence and everything else but, you know, I just feel like maybe I’m not feminine enough.” And I look at them and I say, “You look like a pretty attractive woman to me. What do you mean?” They say, “Well, you know, I’m not x, y and z, and all these other things.” You see, it’s injurious to put these kinds of cookie cutters over ourselves.
WIE: It seems to be common practice today to label qualities such as compassion, receptivity, sensitivity and intuition as “feminine” and qualities such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, ambition and reason as “masculine.” Near the end of Fire in the Belly, in writing about what you call “the gender game,” you speak at length about these binding polarities that have come to define our conceptions of gender. You state: “Manliness and womanliness are both defined by a process of decision, and denial. Each gender is assigned half of the possible range of human virtues and vices. . . . We do not know what human beings would be like if encouraged to develop their innate promise without the systematic crippling effect of the gender game.”
SK: Yeah, well, in the first place, I go on to say there that I think that no self-respecting person who’s thought about these things should ever use the word “masculine” or “feminine” and attach any kind of general predicates and virtues to it. That’s just nonsense. It’s time to get rid of that stuff. It may be helpful on the spiritual journey to ask myself the question: How have I been crippled by my effort to become a man or a real man, or a woman or a real woman? That’s not a bad question to begin with. But there is a far, far more important question which is far more subtle and that is: Who am I? Who is Sam Keen and what does he experience and what does he need to do and where are his injuries? So much of my approach is the effort to go beyond mythology to autobiography, to take my own story and the uniqueness of my own situation, my own gifts and my own wounds, with a kind of ultimate seriousness. In other words, to put it metaphorically, God does not issue something to me that says, “To whom it may concern,” nor does he say, “To all men” or “To all women” or “Directive to twentieth-century man.” No, the still, small voice addresses me with my name: Sam Keen, do this. Sam Keen, experience that. It’s individually tailored, you see. And the fact is that my way of being a man is probably different from your way of being a man. And it’s my task to find out what that is. I’m always going to be a man. Biologically, I’m going to be a man. I have the male equipment. But what that means is going to be so governed by my own experience as to be something that would be almost totally, perhaps, strange to you.
WIE: Along these lines, at another point you state, “Far better to remain with the real mystery of man and woman than the false mystification of the masculine and the feminine.” What do you mean by “the real mystery of man and woman?”
SK: I don’t know. I know what the false mystery is. The difference between a false mystery and a real mystery is that you can tell what a false mystery is, but I’m not sure that you can ever say what the true mystery is. It’s like when I’m in the presence of a woman who has gone beyond the gender crippling stuff in herself, and I am at least endeavoring to go beyond it in myself, and we face each other, no longer as masculine and feminine, but as unique individuals, then there is the real mystery of that other person. I think I said in the book it’s sort of like what Satchmo said when somebody asked him what jazz is; he said, “Man, if you don’t know, I could never tell you.”
WIE: Jungian psychology holds that within each of us, male or female, there are both masculine and feminine energies, which need to be brought into balance if we are to become whole. For instance, Marion Woodman in her book Leaving My Father’s House states, “We all function with these two different energies. As health and growth depend on both dark and light, so maturity depends on an inner balance between yin and yang, Shakti and Shiva, being and doing.” Do you agree with this notion that a fundamental polarity of masculine and feminine energy exists in the psyche?
SK: No, I think it’s boring-it’s a boring idea. I could put it this way. There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world up into two columns and those who don’t. I am a person who does not believe in setting the world up in terms of two columns and then saying, “But you see, there’s a little of the yin in the yang and a little of the yang in the yin, and we have to get the two columns together.” Well, why start with two columns? Why start with making your basic concepts about the human psyche goose-step along? I think that’s intellectual tyranny. It’s not helpful! It is helpful for me to say, “Now, Sam, what are you experiencing?” It’s helpful for me to sit quietly in meditation and try to get in a witness space and to identify my feelings and images. It’s totally unhelpful for me to say, “Now I’ve gotta get my yin balanced with my yang! Am I too yang or too yin?” And again, to label these virtues and/or vices as masculine and feminine is part of the problem. Don’t start with an artificial separation. Think in different categories. If all I can think of is, “I’ve got to do this or that,” if all I think of is masculine or feminine, it’s a shotgun to my head. That’s why I don’t like Jungianism-just like I detest the idea of archetypes.
WIE: Why is that? There are more than two of those.
SK: All right. Let’s take the most recent thing. Tell me what the archetypes of man are?
WIE: The king, the warrior, the lover and the magician.
SK: Now, the idea is that these archetypes are different ways of structuring our experience that we all somehow have to go through. To show you how ridiculous that is, let’s go back to the earliest notion in the West of what constituted the dignity of a human being, which was what? The citizen. In the Greek world, the word for “idiot,” as a matter of fact, meant somebody who was not a citizen. Now tell me, why isn’t the citizen in the archetypes? Because the Jungians are apolitical, because they’re interested in inner psychodrama. They’re not interested in the transformation of the world. You see, if those are the four archetypes, then we don’t have to worry about what’s happening in Kosovo or anywhere else. That’s just stuff that’s going on over there. We don’t have to worry about the educational system deteriorating because that’s something citizens worry about. Give me a break! King as an archetype?! That’s why we came to this country-to get rid of those archetypes! That’s what America was all about, “Screw kingship! Screw dominion!” And the warrior? That’s the hair of the dog that bit us. That’s what’s been driving us all along. If the Jungians would say, “There are endless numbers of metaphors that help us to understand ourselves, and here are four,” I’d say, “That’s a good start. Now give me five or six. How about giving me, oh, garbageman.” Now, that’s a good archetype, right, because isn’t half of the problem cleaning up the trash in our psyche? Well, sure it is! Separating the wheat from the chaff, you know. Or how about fool or hobo or wanderer or friend? How about friend! Now, that’s an interesting archetype. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has a great deal to do with friendship, philia. I’m not much of a fan of Jungian thought because it ignores two things: politics and the body. They’re largely a disembodied movement.
WIE: It seems as though much of the men’s movement has centered around Jungian thought.
SK: That’s right. It has. And I don’t think it’s helped them.
WIE: In this issue, in addition to exploring the relationship between gender and spirituality, we’re also looking into the relationship between sexual orientation and the path to liberation. In our time, there are many gays and lesbians who view their experience of sexual orientation as the very basis of their spiritual path, a path employing unique forms of practice and worship. Some advocates of a distinctly gay spirituality have even suggested that because the male and female polarities are theoretically more fully integrated and balanced in homosexuals, theirs is an inherently superior form of spiritual practice. Andrew Harvey, one prominent spokesperson of this view, states that “in earlier times . . . homosexuals . . . were seen as sacred-people who, by virtue of a mysterious fusion of feminine and masculine traits, participated with particular intensity in the life of the Source.” What do you think of the notion that sexual orientation constitutes the basis for a distinct and separate spiritual path?
SK: I don’t like it at all. I think that sexual orientation is an individual thing that shouldn’t be politicized. And I don’t think, in that sense, it should be spiritualized, either. In the life of the spirit, the question isn’t whether somebody is gay or straight. From a spiritual perspective, I think that’s meaningless. In the life of the spirit, the question is whether you’re loving or unloving, and to what degree you can enter a relationship with the fullness of who you are. And this theoretical construct that the polarities are more balanced in gays and lesbians? Well, who says that and by what possible jump can we get there? Maybe they just don’t have the polarities. To make gay or lesbian a category is itself a sin. It’s a mistake and a sin. I have friends who are largely homoerotic who would never call themselves gay. And people who are homoerotic are as different from each other as people who are heterosexual are. I’m all for anybody being able to do what it is that they want with any consenting adult of either gender, but let’s not raise it to the level of something superior. Let’s not make homosexuality or heterosexuality spiritually superior. It’s not the issue.
WIE: In our research for this issue, we also came across the idea among Jungian psychologists, some feminists and a number of contemporary spiritual thinkers that our ultimate human potential is the realization of a kind of androgyny in which all human qualities find equal expression in everyone, regardless of gender. Describing the fruition of the spiritual path as the birth of what he calls the “sacred androgyne,” Harvey, again, writes: “The main mystical traditions agree that this birth of a new being can only take place through a long, arduous, and increasingly conscious intermarriage of the masculine and the feminine within each one of us, male or female,” and that “only such an intermarriage can give birth to the sacred, androgynous, free child of the Source that is potential in each of us.” Do you agree with Harvey’s view? Is the fullest expression of our spiritual potential the realization of androgyny?
SK: HO HUM. I mean, why try to press every old idea into service? Why not try to think about things differently? The idea of androgyny is just the romantic myth taken into the interior. “Oh, boy. Finally, now, the man in me and the woman in me are going to get together and have this marvelous romance and I’m going to be whole.” It’s like thinking with wooden blocks. I mean, that idea comes up all through the alchemical tradition, and it was okay to talk about it then. But isn’t it time to think creatively, to get some new categories, new ways of thinking, instead of just trying to knit new wool on these old needles?
WIE: You brought up Mary Daly earlier. She and other radical feminists hold that most if not all of the ills in our individual psyches and in society at large are the result of the overwhelming influence of men-male values, attitudes and dispositions-on everything from the structure of government and commerce to the structure of language. Citing the widespread, catastrophic effects of patriarchy on not only the status of women but on the quality of life on this planet, they call for a return to a gynocentric spiritual culture with values and institutions akin to those of the peaceful, agrarian world that existed thousands of years ago. Is Mary Daly right? Would placing all power in the hands of women be enough to bring about a peaceful, harmonious culture rooted in deeply spiritual values?
SK: Yeah, yeah. Of course. I mean, you know what they did to build the pyramids-they went out and they got union labor and they asked for volunteers because it was all a “cooperative culture.” And in those matriarchal cultures, they also asked people if they wanted to be human sacrifices because they were nice and kindly in those days. You know . . . it’s the chalice and the blade.
What all of that really is is a disguised rewriting of history in order to do male bashing. Men and women have been in this thing together all along. If you want to bash patriarchy, you can bring it right up to the modern era and speak about how these brutish men, these terrible men, went over to Vietnam and killed all those people. I mean, they were nineteen-year-old kids who had no more choice about what they did than Mary Daly did. Anytime that you put the blame on one of the genders, you have rendered the other inferior. If it’s true that men just dominated women all that time and women had no power, then they probably needed to be dominated.
WIE: Do you think putting the blame on men is a complete misappropriation?
SK: Yes. But I also want to say that I do believe that Mary Daly is one of our great prophetesses. I have learned enormous amounts from her. I want to affirm so much of her analysis, but I don’t want to affirm her anger. It takes a good deal of courage for a man to really read Mary Daly and to open himself up to her arguments. Many of them are brilliant and are necessary medicine to help most men to understand the injuries that women have experienced in this culture. But there are certain feminists whose anger gets in the way of their clarity.
WIE: I think they would argue that they’ve got a lot to be angry about.
SK: And they do. They do.
WIE: In your view, what does it mean to go beyond gender?
SK: Again, it means get over it! This question of gender is something, by and large, to be gotten over, to get on the other side of. I don’t ask myself the question: Am I a man? Am I manly enough? I ask myself the question: What am I about? In other words, I think we need to stop making gender a primary way of asking the question: Who am I?
WIE: What do you think becomes possible within the individual and between human beings when we do “get over it,” as you put it?
SK: Well, I would ask-and this question is at the very center of Buddhism and Christianity-What does it mean to be wise and compassionate? That’s a hard question for me to answer. In my daily life, how do I be wise and compassionate in relationship with my wife when I’m in conflict, or with my children or my friends? What do I do about Kosovo and my government to be a decent human being? This is an age in which, somebody said, you have to become heroic just to be decent! And that isn’t a gender question. What’s injuring the world here isn’t gender. In America, women are just as injurious to the world as men are. They’re out there in the malls. The mall is where we vote about values. Why did we do what we did in Iraq? So we could drive to the mall. And again, I think what I object to about your magazine is the lack of the real political kinds of questions. All afternoon you haven’t asked me anything about the politics of gender.
WIE: Well, our magazine is about enlightenment.
SK: Well, that’s what’s wrong with it, then. Frankly, that’s what’s wrong with it. It’s kind of narcissistic. There’s a lot of spiritual narcissism, I think. Now, that’s not to say it’s completely that way. You do come out of it and you do have the courage to speak with people who aren’t particularly in sympathy with your major point of view. But let me ask: What would it be like if, on your cover, underneath the words “What Is Enlightenment?” you put: “One definition of an enlightened person might be that the first question they would ask is: What is just? How do we establish justice?” Because that takes us into the political realm. That takes us beyond the obsession. And the obsession with enlightenment can be just like the obsession with gender. People who are obsessed with enlightenment are never going to get there.
WIE: This is a common argument against the pursuit of enlightenment. But I don’t see the question “How do we establish justice?” as being in any way removed from the question “What is enlightenment?” If we look at the human condition, if we look at what’s behind the atrocities in Kosovo or Nazi Germany, it seems to me that we have to confront the question: How is humanity’s problem going to be solved without individuals making a change, without individuals coming to a reckoning with themselves, with their own motivations? Our magazine is actually founded in the idea that there is a strong moral and ethical component to liberating ourselves from delusion.
In this issue, for instance, we’re questioning the core of gender identity because, as you’ve pointed out, it seems that the strong identification most of us have with gender is one of the fundamental structures underlying the conflict we see in the world. And the idea is that if enough light can be brought to something so fundamental to our makeup, then hopefully we can begin to see, and even respond to, another possibility.
SK: Well, good. Transforming the self and transforming our society are warp and woof of the same tapestry. It takes both to weave anything hopeful, beautiful and new.
Helping the daughters of Buddha
Interview with Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh
by Monte Leach
An interview with Thai activist and author Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh about her work in expanding women’s awareness of their potential, particularly in the context of Buddhism’s dogmas.
Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh is a scholar and activist in social justice and women’s issues in Asia. She is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and author of the book Thai Women in Buddhism. She is also past President of Sakyadhita (Daughters of Buddha) International, a Buddhist women’s organization. Monte Leach interviewed her for Share International.
Sl: You speak often about the spiritual potential of women. Could you elaborate on that?
Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh: The Buddha was the first religious leader who came forward to say that women are equal to men in their spiritual potentiality. As Buddhists, we should take this opportunity to express this potentiality at its best. But in certain countries, Buddhist women haven’t been able to receive ordination – for example, in the Theravadan Buddhist countries like Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. We haven’t had an ordination lineage for a long time. For the full participation of women in the religious field, we should provide them with the spiritual space so that they can express themselves equally to men.
SI: Do you see being able to become ordained as a Buddhist nun as being key in expressing one’s spiritual potential?
Dr CK: Yes, but to be ordained is not an end in itself. It is only a means. Once a woman has that ordained status, she can engage herself in doing many good works for society, like teaching, preaching for women, and so on.
SI: What do you mean by preaching for women?
Dr CK: Giving Buddha’s teaching to women. Some of the problems that women have cannot be handled by monks. If I have a problem about abortion or menopause, for example, the monks cannot handle these kinds of questions. If ordained women helped the monks guide the women, it would be much better. There are certain kinds of work, like running an orphanage, taking care of young children, that monks cannot do – at least they haven’t been doing them in my country. If we have fully ordained nuns, we could open up the horizon of different activities for women.
SI: Is there a certain respect that being ordained confers on someone?
Dr CK: An ordained person becomes a ‘field of merit.’ People believe that if they make an offering to a monk, they get merit. But if they make an offering to a woman, they don’t get merit, because women are not ordained. When there is this kind of belief in society, you have to provide a space for women to be ordained also – so that they can better heal the ills of society.
SI: Healing the ills of society is one of the goals of your work?
Dr CK: Yes. I see that we are living in a world full of crisis. We are being hypocritical about many things. When we have so many crises facing us, how can we say: “You are a woman, don’t do that, it’s only for men.” Why can’t men and women help each other so that we can have a better society, live in a better world, and enter the new century in a better fashion?
SI: What’s been the response in Thailand and throughout the world to this approach?
Dr CK: Internationally, people tend to understand better. In my work in Thailand, I do not talk about ordination of women because that is a very sensitive issue. I have to work at the grassroots, and talk at the level of people’s understanding. I realize that women in my country are not ready yet for ordination because they are not prepared. Right now we are giving them Buddhist education and training. When they are committed enough in their own practice, they will be committed enough to start wanting to lead a committed life, and then they will ask for ordination. Then we will go to the next step.
People don’t understand what the connection is between this ordination problem and the problem of prostitutes, for example. I try to bring this out in my presentations. When women cannot become ordained, because the image of women is so negative, that pushes women to the other end of the spectrum. That’s why the door to brothels is open for women. But why are the doors closed for women to become nuns? I talk about the need to see social issues as holistic – you cannot separate them.
SI: It is clear that women are considered second-class citizens in many cultures. Can you speak about how that relates to your work?
Dr CK: For example, women are told that they are unclean. This has nothing to do with Buddhism, but it has been passed on in our society as Buddha’s teaching, in Thailand, and most Buddhist countries. Women are not allowed to circumambulate at the holy places, for example. The problem is that women menstruate, and the men cannot understand that, so therefore they bar women. They cannot differentiate between menstruating women or non-menstruating women, so they bar all women from entering the holy places. This separates people, and gives negative values to women. Women who are born into this kind of tradition don’t have a critical mind – they just believe that they are born lower, unclean.
Further, people say that women are an enemy to the monks’ purity. This is true in the teaching. But the next line says that men are also an enemy to the purity of women. But in our country we have only monks, so monks quote the first phrase, but never the second. The result is that women tend to have a very negative image of themselves. “We are the ones who become obstacles to the monks’ spiritual development.” It is as though we don’t have spiritual development for ourselves. This type of social value needs to be re-examined.
SI: How do you help change that?
Dr CK: It is very difficult. In my own small work, I conduct retreats. Women who are interested in Buddhist practice come and discuss these issues, and try to get rid of these negative ideas. But some of these ideas are so ingrained that even three or four retreats help only a little. Educated people tend to change more easily, but educated people are only the minority.
SI: Are there any other points that you think are important for our readers to know about your work, or about women and Buddhism?
Dr CK: First, it is very important, not only for Buddhist women but for women in general, to realize their own potential. Second, women should be able to generate what you call ‘positive energy’ much more than they are doing now. Positive energy means feeling positive in your work, feeling positive about your life, feeling happy about being. Women must feel positive about being women. We have to start building this energy. For instance, when I talk to you I feel positive, I have no fear. When I have no fear, I can talk to you openly.
This is the positive energy that women must learn to build in themselves, through education and practice. When I say practice, I mean Buddhist practice if I am a Buddhist, Christian practice if I am a Christian. We must go back to the spirit of Christ, rather than church, because sometimes church becomes an obstacle. Go back to the spirit of Christ and try to understand what Christ meant to you. When you do that you are strengthened, and you become a wholesome person. It’s very important not only for women, but for both men and women, to be wholesome. I believe that there is an energy radiating from each person. When you talk to a positive person, you are happy because of the positive energy coming from that person. When you talk with someone who’s very negative, you feel like a flower that has hot water poured on it.
It’s very important to look to the future with positive energy. It’s very important that we do not leave our brothers behind. There’s so much to be done in this world, we have to help each other. We have to feel responsible for the future of the world, together.
SI: You also talk about selfless action in your public talks.
Dr CK: In order to have selfless action, first of all you must have faith in something. For myself, I have faith in the Buddha. I believe that he was enlightened. But his enlightenment is not good enough for me. I must also believe that I can be enlightened. This faith is the foundation of my commitment. The faith becomes commitment when I leap into action. If I have faith and don’t express that faith, it’s no good. Faith must come with action. In the Buddhist practice, there’s the teaching about letting go of yourself. In one interview I had with a German journalist, he asked me how I deal with ego. It’s very important when you work that you watch yourself all the time and don’t let your ego blow up. This ego looms large very easily. I was telling the journalist that I keep a needle with myself all the time to puncture this balloon.
Often, especially in my meditation before I give a presentation, before I give teaching, I make a very committed wish that this is not for my own glory, this isn’t for myself. Whatever I say, may it be for the good of others. In this group of 100 people listening to me, if one person picks up my words and improves their life, that’s good enough for me. The talk is not for the glorification of myself but for the good of others.
At the same time, you get involved in the action of helping others; it goes together. Being socially engaged, without watching your ego, is no good, because you can get caught up in this clinging onto yourself so easily. If someone says something critical about you, you cannot accept it because your ego has become so much bigger than yourself. Practice in meditation helps you to balance yourself, come down to earth, and puncture this balloon. Keep puncturing this balloon all the time, don’t let it get bigger than yourself, so that you can continue on with your selfless action.
SI: How did your faith lead to action with you?
Dr CK: If someone says: “I have faith in Jesus Christ but I never lead my life according to what Christ said,” that’s only lip service. In Buddhism, you take refuge in the Buddha as a teacher, you take refuge in the dharma, His teaching, and the sangha, His disciples, who would lead us towards the path.
When I say I take refuge in the Buddha, I am not talking only as a teacher. He is dead and gone, 2,500 years ago; He can’t be of any help to me. But I take refuge because I believe in His Buddhahood, I believe that He was an enlightened person. I believe that that enlightenment is real – it was real then, it’s real now, and it’s real for me. This is the conviction, when you take this into yourself.
In my life, I aim for enlightenment. But not for myself. I want to be enlightened, only because once I’m enlightened I would have much more capacity to help others, to help all sentient beings. This kind of conviction must be very strong in order to lead you to action.
From the December 1994 issue of Share International
Liberation Without a Face
An interview with Andrew Cohen
by Elizabeth Debold
Feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings. Years ago, I bought a button with this slogan on it at a conference because I found the saying both poignant and outrageous-funny, sad and maddening. On the face of it, it seemed nonsensical. Of course women are human beings. Did it need to be said? Yet, there was the rub. Somehow it did. I didn’t take this to mean that men held the secret of “human being,” but there certainly was some very real way that, in the world in which we all lived, who men were and what they did mattered in a way that wasn’t available to women.
And I stood at ground zero, the center of a seismic movement, a wave of righteous rage and blazing passion that was going to tear up the very ground where we all stood, rip the moldy fabric of society and forge new bonds between women and between women and men to create an entirely new, unknown possibility for both women and men to matter. Nothing else on the planet was important but this. This was the movement for women’s liberation in the late seventies and early eighties. I was part of it; I was a feminist. This was utter, complete revolution.
Or so I thought. Something happened on the way to the revolution. It didn’t happen. Not that the social world hasn’t changed somewhat, but the radical promise of women’s liberation for all humanity has been swallowed up by the status quo without much more than a bit of indigestion now and again. In my naïveté and fervor, I would never have predicted that. Nor would I have predicted that I would be thrilled to interview a man about true human liberation beyond gender. Twenty years ago, had someone made that prediction, I would have laughed-oh, yeah, right! Amazingly, much to my surprise and joy, Andrew Cohen’s call for the total, absolute liberation of women and men holds the true promise of revolution that the women’s movement only hinted at.
Feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings. I don’t know when the term “feminism” was first used, but in the popular press, and in my high school, the movement or ideology or hope for women’s freedom was known as “women’s lib” (or, too often, “women’s lip”). “Feminism” seemed to take the word “feminine” and give it a kick. But a difference has evolved between women’s liberation and feminism. In the past twenty years, women’s liberation, a movement for social change, became feminism, an ideology. In that transition, it moved (as I did, too) from the streets into the academy, from whispers in the women’s room to endless discourse in gender studies, from a nuanced realization of shared experience to an aggressive individualism further fragmented by identity politics. I began to fear that feminism was rapidly becoming a confusing set of ideas that divided us as human beings. Somehow, the passion had gone out of the revolution.
For me, the movement had always been about passion. It seemed perfectly obvious to me, from a very early age, that something was very wrong between men and women. My mother, smart and strong as she was, was a victim and my father, as sweet and funny as he could be, really wanted it that way-even to the point of getting pleasure out of his dominance. Even as I sided with my mother, I never lost touch with the pain evident in my father’s stance of domination. Women’s liberation obviously had to be a movement to liberate women and men from the distortions and limitations that turned us into dangerous strangers, the Other to each other. From where I stood, it never was a competition between women and men. It wasn’t a zero-sum game: If women win freedom, men then lose. Yes, we were often angry (and some of us, unfortunately, still are) as we came to see just how deep and how oppressive is this system accurately called “patriarchy.” And that anger was often directed at men. But feminism’s radical idea didn’t mean that men were either the enemy or the standard for human being. To me, it meant that I knew in the deepest part of myself that what was happening between men and women, who men are and who women are, had to change and could change. And that it would transform life as we know it.
But what was that change? Did it mean that men and women were simply human beings and there would no longer be a sense of men as a group or women as a group? Then the differences among men and women would be as pronounced as those between men and women. Or did men and women being human beings mean that women then could have access to all of what men had (which would make what men were doing now the standard for human being)? Did it mean that women’s roles should be valued as basic cultural values, not just relegated to the ghetto of women’s work? If so, an unimaginable shift would have to occur at every level of society.
It was beyond the imagination. We were trying to dig into something that was so core in all of us that we had no perspective. How could we tell what was real, true, authentic from what we had learned? The contradictions began to pile up. I remember a colleague working on a landmark case about domestic violence who told me of another woman lawyer on the case breaking down at one point because nearly every night when she went home, she was harassed and beaten by her husband. Or our constant struggle to keep women a priority while in a relationship with a man. Or the endless, often unvoiced conflict and falsehood among ourselves as “sisters”-and the rifts between us based on differences in race, ethnicity and class. The deeper we went, the more resistance there was-and often that resistance was in ourselves. Feminism’s idea lost its radical edge and revolutionary passion as we all found out that change was hard. We wanted what was familiar: We felt secure in playing sexual games, depending on men, having power as mothers.
Feminism has no answer to the question: What self is it that’s liberated? Our imaginations couldn’t go beyond what we knew-male roles or female roles, traditional masculinity or femininity, or some form of androgyny that is both together. Yes, feminism may be the radical idea that women are human beings, but the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is: What does it mean to be a human being? Over the last twenty years, feminists have come to different conclusions about what this means. Some are just beginning to say aloud what they whispered in private: My god, do you think it’s all biology? In this, we are simply intelligent animals who, with our enormous brains, have the possibility to transcend our lower nature, but it’s useless to fight those biological drives that set men and women apart. And others have held on to the view that who we are is all a social construction, that everything that we are-from what we think to how we walk to what we value to how we experience ourselves in our bodies-has been learned from culture. There is nothing that is truly masculine or feminine. In fact, there is nothing real, true or authentic about us at all because we’ve been socially constructed. In this view, liberation comes from creating ourselves anew-getting our own construction permit, deconstructing the old self and making ourselves into whoever or whatever we want to be. One construction is as good as another because nothing in our experience has any inherent truth or reality to it. Our only guide to self-invention, according to postmodern gender theory, is pleasure-whatever feels good, exciting, forbidden. We are free to play or perform genders, to do whatever we want without shame just because it’s a thrill. Neither of these views, to me, held forth the promise of human being that I had experienced in being alive. Neither seemed to offer a truly human liberation for men and women together.
By the time I met Andrew Cohen, I had come to a point where my fire for women’s liberation was nearly extinguished by cynicism. In my own research, I was more convinced than ever that questioning gender meant questioning the roots of society itself. The questions raised by the women’s movement twenty years (and longer) ago went to the core of everything in society. Gender holds the heart of culture. No wonder it was so difficult! I had come to understand the mechanisms by which we become psychologically almost inextricably attached to our identities as men and women. So much, but how much I didn’t know, of who we think we are came from cultural conditioning. Because we, as males and females, had such different experiences of culture, our psyches were differently shaped to fit into culture and so created us as if from different planets.
But there seemed to be no way out. I watched friends from the movement turning away from consciousness raising and collective action into a soothing “gynocentric” form of goddess spirituality. I found myself withdrawing from leadership as I saw feminism become a respectable profession-just another job-through which women competed (particularly with each other) for attention and power. The rifts between women of different classes and different racial/ethnic backgrounds seemed almost wider than ever before. I felt despair over the fact that I had never worked with a group of women who truly supported and trusted each other. So many of my friends were either stay-at-home moms or holding interesting jobs while having primary caretaking responsibility for the kids. They said it was just easier that way; besides, their husbands weren’t really interested. Our identities as women had become ingrown, turned in on themselves so that more than ever we identified with being women and hung on to whatever we felt that should mean. The questions were still so important, the stakes so high, but I didn’t see any answers.
My first actual meeting with Andrew Cohen came about after being interviewed for this magazine several years ago. From that experience, I knew that Andrew had a commitment to women’s freedom that was very unusual. I went to a one-day retreat that Andrew was leading in New York City and had a short conversation with him afterward. During the retreat, Andrew spoke a little about what he was discovering about gender conditioning-and each time he did, I almost leapt out of my seat because I was so thrilled. In my entire life, I had never been more nervous about meeting a person than I was in meeting him. Our meeting was fairly short-mostly because I was so anxious-but it had an extraordinary impact on me. During our talk, Andrew spoke passionately about his commitment to women’s real and profound liberation. He invited me to join him at a longer retreat if I found what he was saying interesting.
I found what he was saying more than interesting; it stirred something deep within me. Reflecting on the conversation, I realized what a huge commitment Andrew was making. Thinking about my experiences with Christianity and Buddhism, while I knew that both Christ and the Buddha taught men and women (which was extremely radical at the time), neither of their legacies has made a commitment to ensuring women’s freedom. In fact, in my own family, I had seen how Christianity had become a rationale for accepting oppression. Oh my god, I thought, he’s really going to take this on. I was deeply moved. Suddenly, I had the sense that the two main forces in my life-women’s liberation and spiritual seeking-might be connected in some very real and mysterious way.
Later, I realized that my experience of meeting Andrew was the first time I had met with a man (or woman) in a position of authority who respected me completely as a human being and wanted nothing from me except for me to express my full humanity. I was actually stunned by that realization. Andrew’s radical idea is that men and women both are human beings-and the reality of being a human being takes us far beyond anything that I could imagine. But it is always available to be experienced. I had to be in this. I realized that to not join Andrew in moving toward freedom for women, and women and men together, would make a lie out of my entire life.
I did go on a longer retreat with Andrew (more than one, in fact). And I have the extraordinary privilege to be a student of his. As students, Andrew has asked us to come together as women-to make real the promise of sisterhood that is the lost soul of the women’s movement. I am often reminded in this of the consciousness raising that first broke the isolation of my experience years ago. It’s only by coming together that something can change because our separation-from both a spiritual and cultural perspective-is what holds everything in place. And I’ve come to see my own experience as women’s experience in a way that radically implicates me and who I have thought myself to be. Through Andrew’s commitment to the freedom of women and men together, the revolution is finally alive and burning. In the following pages, Andrew reveals far more than a radical idea. He reveals a radical reality that challenges each of us individually and collectively to go beyond our known identities into the revolutionary heart of an unknown possibility for human being that destroys separation and otherness. There may be nothing else on the planet more important than this.
Elizabeth Debold: The first question I have, Andrew, is about how our identification with being men or women is so primary; it’s so central. Freud observed that this basic identification was the core of personality development and of civilization the way it is now-that it is the basis of who we think we are. You have a teaching that you call “liberation without a face,” in which you state that one of the fundamental obstacles to liberation is this gender identification. Could you explain what “liberation without a face” is all about?
Andrew Cohen: In the liberated condition, what one is ultimately identifying with transcends any and all notions of self, including gender. And for most of us, one of the most fundamental components of the experience of a separate sense of self stems from overidentification with gender. We have been very conditioned by the cultures that we come from and are usually very identified with the particular gender that we happen to be a member of.
Now in the context of liberation, identification with any notion of self is recognized to be an obstacle to true freedom. So the goal would be to get to that point where we ultimately have no notion of who we are, yet where we discover who we are in every moment through being free from any prior notion of who we are, including that of being a man or a woman.
In relationship to these notions of gender, most men who we meet are very attached to the idea of being male, and usually experience a lot of fear and insecurity around the idea of being a man. In the same way, most women who we meet are very identified with their gender, with their sex, and also experience a tremendous amount of fear and insecurity in relationship to the fact that they’re women. Most men and most women give a great deal of energy and attention to being a man or being a woman. And many men and women give a tremendous amount of energy and attention not only to being a man or being a woman, but also to becoming a better man or a better woman, or to living up to some idea or ideal of the kind of man or woman that they want to be. But in relationship to the possibility of being a liberated person, all of this energy and attention, which stems from a fundamental sense of insecurity, is seen as a big distraction and as a fundamental impediment to a liberated condition.
The teaching of liberation without a face tells us that ultimately, our true nature is free of any and all notions of gender, of any notions of difference whatsoever. And it tells us that in order to discover the natural state, the natural and unself-conscious state or condition of man or woman, all the ideas and all the attachment we have about being a man or being a woman, as well as all the fear and insecurity that go along with that, have to be abandoned. We have to literally allow ourselves to forget who we are while at the same time not in any way deny the fact of our gender-that we are male, that we are female-and then discover after the fact who or what is the natural expression of our gender.
What I’m pointing to here is very subtle and very delicate. What I’m speaking about is: What would the expression of male or female gender look like and be like if it was free from any and all traces of self-consciousness? Obviously there are inherent differences between being a man and being a woman; along with the physical differences there are particular expressions of maleness and femaleness. But in order to discover what the natural manifestation of these gender differences actually is, we’d have to become so interested in our own liberation that we’d be willing to give up any and all attachment to being whatever gender we happen to be, and in doing so discover innocently what it’s actually like to be a man who’s not attached in any way to being a man, or what it’s like to be a woman who’s not in any way attached to being a woman. But at the same time, that man and that woman are not in any way hiding from or denying the fact of their gender and any differences or particular qualities there may be inherent in that. I’m speaking about an unselfconscious, utterly natural state of being that in no way avoids or denies the fact of gender, but that simply allows the natural expression of gender to reveal itself.
What I’m pointing to is something that has to be discovered through surrender, really. It’s through surrender and taking the enormous risk of not knowing. It’s a very big question. I’m speaking about giving up any and all notions about who we are in relationship to our gender, and then being willing to find out: What does it mean-what does it really mean-to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man who’s not attached to being a man, but at the same time is not in any way denying or avoiding the fact that he’s a man? What does it mean to be a woman who’s not in any way attached to being a woman, but at the same time is not avoiding or denying in any way the fact that she is a woman? This is something that is very unknown; it’s uncharted territory.
ED: Yes-I think we don’t really know what “man” or “woman” is. Can you say more about this fundamental insecurity that you were speaking about, which comes from all the ideas that we have about being a man or a woman?
AC: Well, from the perspective of liberation or enlightenment, any notions we have about being a particular person that we may feel that we are not living up to, or that we feel that we must, that we should or that we want to live up to, create a tremendous sense of insecurity and self-consciousness. And in that state, our relationship to reality and our relationship to our experience is all based upon the ideas in our mind that we’re always trying to live up to.
The attachment we have to ideas about who we feel we should be, or who we want to be, or who we might not be, creates a constant distraction for the mind and for our attention. And in a sense, we’re always trying to play a role; we’re always trying to live up to some idea about who we think we should be in relationship to notions of gender, notions of maleness and femaleness. So many of the ideas that we have about being men and women have nothing to do with our own natural condition. I think that’s something that most of us really don’t even have a sense of; it’s not something we’ve ever experienced. Again, what I’m pointing to is very subtle: It would be a condition where the man or the woman would be rooted in identification of Self that was free of gender, and yet at the same time they would be aware constantly, in retrospect, of their own reflection in time and space as being male or being female, and would see, after the fact, “Oh, this is who I am; this is what I look like.” They would see the reflection, or they would see the action, of a male or a female who was not attached in any way to being a male or a female. They personally would be free from any idea of being male or female in their innermost self. And then the expression of what it means to be a man or a woman would be a manifestation of liberation itself, literally.
ED: Only in this reflection would we find out what that is.
AC: Yes, one would be in a state where one was constantly finding out what that is, and there would be an inner revelation of what gender really is and what it means. It would be a sense of innocence for men and women alike. A man would constantly be discovering what it is, what it really means, to be a man. And a woman, in the same way, would also be in a state where she was constantly discovering what it means to be a woman. She wouldn’t be doing what most people do, which is trying to live up to preconceived ideas based on cultural imperatives. It would be something that, in a sense, would be constantly discovered and rediscovered, and defined and redefined, literally in every moment. There would be a sense of innocence, you see, in relationship to the notion of gender. And that’s what is missing, almost always, for men and women alike. For most individuals this whole notion of being a man or being a woman is so pregnant with ideas that are painfully fixed and rigid that there is literally no sense of innocence whatsoever, and that’s one of the many reasons why it’s so difficult for men and women to be able to get along together. It’s why it’s so difficult to really make any kind of rational sense out of this whole notion of gender anyway.
ED: Or what we’re doing here together.
AC: Yes. Yet the goal of liberation without a face is a natural state or a natural condition. And what that is, one doesn’t know, but it’s something that one would want to find out. Who am I as a man? Who would you be as a woman? Who would we be as man and woman if we were not in any way attached to the fact of our biological difference, and yet at the same time were in no way denying or avoiding that difference or whatever that may imply? That’s something we’d be interested to discover. But the only way we’d be able to do that is if we were willing to step beyond any and all notions of gender and of self altogether first, and be willing, once we did that, to actually stay there. So it’s a big price to pay to find out what a natural condition of man or woman would be.
ED: Especially since our whole culture is based on gender arrangements, it’s a big thing to realize that we don’t even know what being naturally male or female really is. Our ideas about gender are so present, yet still they have nothing to do, necessarily, with something that’s natural or spontaneous.
AC: Well, no. I think not only does it have nothing to do with anything that is natural or spontaneous, but almost all the ideas we have about being a man or being a woman are so burdened with pain, anxiety, fear and self-doubt. For many of us, the confusion around this question is excruciating because it is usually unending.
and Liberation without a Face
ED: Andrew, I’d like to bring in and speak about some other perspectives from feminist theory and gender theory. There generally seem to be two goals that are offered as the goal of women’s or men’s liberation: One is the liberal perspective, which basically says that the goal is for men and women to be equal and, in other words, that there should be no difference in what they can do and what they can express.
AC: So the goal would be some form of androgyny?
ED: I think actually it’s more that everyone looks a lot more like men. I think that ends up being what it really means, because basically, in this view, the structure of society doesn’t change. You put women into the structure that’s already there. So what you get, mostly, are people who look more like men, the way we understand men right now. And the other perspective is the radical perspective, which says that men and women are different, and that we hold very different values as a result of those differences. In this perspective, what needs to happen is that those differences need to be acknowledged and made room for so that a bigger range of humanity, of human being, can be manifest, and that would require a radical transformation of the structures that we live in. There’s something very fundamental about how we think about ourselves that seems to be bottled in these two different perspectives. Are we equal? Or are we different? And what does that difference mean? I’m wondering, how do these two views relate to your teaching of liberation without a face?
AC: I don’t know if I understand the second one clearly.
ED: The second one is where we look at and acknowledge the differences that exist here now, but we also acknowledge that in the system that we’re in, since it values men and the way men think and function more than women, both maleness and femaleness are twisted in a certain way.
AC: So the second one respects fundamental differences that apparently exist-
ED: That apparently exist in order to make room for something larger in a human being. But it also argues that fundamental changes need to happen in society in order-
AC: To make room for those differences and to respect those differences.
ED: Exactly. So maybe we could look at these views one at a time.
AC: Well, the first view obviously forces women to conform to questionable patriarchal ideas and conventions. So that would seem to be very skewed. And a skewed approach to a bigger view would, I think, just help to perpetuate more gender confusion. The second view makes a lot of sense. But the question I would have is, from the point of view of liberation without a face: What are those differences really all about-based on a primary interest in liberation first and in gender second? Because when liberation is primary and the significance of gender differences is a secondary matter, then the context changes-and it changes the picture completely.
ED: I think that’s where feminism has often gotten stuck. And I think what’s happened as a result of that, actually, is that then the differences become paramount; they become the most important thing. And then there’s a celebration of, “I’m completely different than you are.” I have these qualities. This is what female is or feminine is, and this is what we should be celebrating. But you’re celebrating something that’s been skewed in the system already, so it becomes very confusing.
AC: Exactly. But what I’m speaking about takes more. I mean we really have to be willing to find out who we are instead of rebelling for the equal rights, in a sense, that we’ve been denied, that we do deserve. I’m speaking about something that transcends that completely. And so in liberation without a face, we have to be willing to give up the past. And we have to be willing to give up all the injustices of the past that did exist-that did exist, and that do exist right now. But you see, when we become interested in liberation, we then become interested in that which transcends time. And that points to a very different approach to discovering what equality really is.
ED: In the radical feminist view, you ultimately get to some kind of equality.
AC: Yes, but what that equality is based on is a presumption of fundamental difference, and the inherent difference is about as deep as it gets. The depth that transcends any and all difference isn’t there as a foundation, and that’s why it would be very different from what I’m speaking about.
ED: Actually, what you’re speaking about seems to be the only way out of the whole conundrum of how do you find out what’s true about being a man or a woman given the mess that we’re in right now.
AC: Right, in liberation without a face, we’re speaking about something very particular, because we’re speaking about liberation itself as the primary foundation for the inquiry into any and all notions of difference, including gender difference-that’s the foundation. From a place of no difference, from a perspective of no difference, from an interest and passion in no difference, then we look into the world of differences and really see what they’re all about.
ED: And from a point of no difference you’re not talking about androgyny-are you?
AC: No. I’m not talking about androgyny because there will be differences, because men and women are not the same. But what those differences actually are going to look like when they’re utterly free from self-consciousness is something that I think we have to find out. And even when we discover what they are, what an unselfconscious expression of manhood or womanhood is, we still have to be willing to leave those differences alone and remain firmly established in the perspective and place of no difference. Because the minute any sense of difference becomes too important to us, even if it’s subtle, we lose that seat of liberation and we fall back again into the world of differences. So it’s a very delicate business.
ED: Absolutely. I can feel my own desire to know: “What are those differences, what would they be?”-and in that you pin something down and immediately lose touch with the delicate perspective that has just opened up.
AC: Right, but I’m speaking about a place where, from the point of no difference, differences are recognized. They’re recognized because they’re being expressed, but still there’s no attachment to them, and that’s the tricky part of it. Because whenever there is this investment in being different, in being a man or being a woman versus being that fullness of Self that’s free from any notion of difference and that lacks nothing, then we’ve fallen out of heaven and we’re in the world of becoming once again. And then liberation suddenly has a face again, and the unselfconscious, natural expression of gender isn’t possible anymore because then we’re attached to our difference rather than to that part of our self that could never have a face, that could never be different, that’s free from gender.
ED: One other question that I’ve thought a lot about and wanted to ask you is: What is the relationship between movements like the women’s movement or the men’s movement and the pursuit of enlightenment? Do they relate to each other at all?
AC: No, not at all.
ED: Could you say more about that? Don’t these movements open up some sense of possibility?
AC: They open up a tremendous sense of possibility, but one’s attention in the men’s movement or in the women’s movement is on inherent difference. It’s on the fundamental, inherent difference.
ED: It’s also on a set of problems.
AC: Yes, it’s on a set of problems, and those problems do exist. Those problems are real. And so, for example, in the women’s movement, women are coming together and courageously responding to oppression and subjugation. And in the men’s movement, a lot of men are recognizing that they have been forced to conform to a very narrow and rather two-dimensional picture of maleness and manhood that they have never had the freedom to question. But the point is that in both the men’s movement and the women’s movement, the focus is on becoming; one is still identified with being a woman or being a man, and one is trying to improve, for many of the right reasons, one’s personhood as a woman or as a man. But what I’m speaking about here is something very different-although there are many similarities and points where they meet. What I’m speaking about, as I’ve been saying all along, is putting our attention on that place where any and all notions of gender disappear, and then being in a condition where we’re discovering really who and what we are. We’re not rebelling-we’re not rebelling and we’re not identifying with being wounded. Many women identify with being wounded and being oppressed, and now men are identifying with being wounded because they feel they’ve been forced to conform to a certain mold that suffocates their humanity. This is all true. But in liberation without a face, one is endeavoring, ideally-and it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do-to leave the past behind.
Male and Female Paths
ED: Andrew, a number of thinkers and practitioners have spoken about a gender difference in spiritual pathways. These pathways seem to relate to men’s and women’s different experiences of embodiment. Women, they say, best pursue a path of immanence, deeply connecting to their embodiment and the cycles of nature and finding the sacred inherent in daily life; and men, on the other hand, seek transcendence, which often involves a mastery of or sometimes control over mind and body in order to reach the mystery beyond mind. Based on your experience as a spiritual teacher, do you feel that the path and the goal are fundamentally the same for all people?
AC: I have no doubt that they’re fundamentally the same for all people, assuming that the goal is enlightenment. But if the goal is anything less than that, then the path is going to be different, because then the whole notion of gender and difference, and the exploration of and fascination with what those differences are, is going to be a very big part of one’s spiritual path.
ED: What about at the level of practice? Are there different practices that seem to be more effective with women or men?
AC: Not when we’re speaking about enlightenment. If we’re thinking about any other kind of human development, then I think obviously the answer is yes. But when we’re speaking about seeing beyond the known, all human beings have to walk the same path and pay the same price.
ED: I’ve really been curious about some of the female mystics who seem to have had enlightenment or ultimate liberation as their goal, but the kinds of things that they were drawn to in order to get there often seem to be very different from what men are drawn toward.
AC: Well, I’m not familiar with whoever it is you’re referring to, but I’m suspicious of any man or woman who approaches their own liberation with any kind of gender bias.
ED: I don’t know if that’s where they’re coming from. I think it’s more that they’re questioning, where are my shackles, what is it that’s holding me? And I think for women, because of our greater identification with our bodies, there’s something particular that needs to be untied. And is it untied in the same way?
AC: Is it untied through more identification with one’s body? (Laughs) I don’t think so.
ED: Or fasting or certain things that allow a woman to see through her identification with her body?
AC: It is true that women tend to be more identified with their bodies because in this crazy world, too often, both men and women measure women’s value as human beings in relationship to their physical appearance. But in spite of that painful fact, a path to spiritual liberation that puts too much emphasis on any notion of difference as a starting point is bound to only strengthen the ego or the false and separate sense of self.
ED: I’m also thinking about, in addition to the women’s and men’s movements, the gay and lesbian liberation movements, and that there’s often an identification with sexual preference or the experience of sexuality as the basis of the spiritual path. What do you think about this approach?
AC: Well, I see profound disadvantages in this approach, because we’re making far too big a deal out of our sexual preferences, and in that we’re giving far too much attention to difference. It’s just another form of narcissism, and I think it can be a big problem and a tremendous obstacle. There is a danger in becoming too fascinated with any of these differences, because as I’ve already said, the degree to which we’re going to do that is the degree to which we’re never going to get near any kind of liberation. You can see there’s a tremendous temptation to become very fascinated with what these differences may be and lose touch with something that is far more important.
ED: This is something that is very subtle and very tricky. It seems like an incredibly fine line to walk down.
AC: Yes, because even in this conversation, when you asked this question about different paths for men and women, I could see that there was an excitement in that for you-you were saying, “I have a special path that’s unique for me.” And you see, in all of that is the problem. That should be a sign that it’s the wrong road. Because what you’re getting excited about is not no face, but a feminine face. It’s having a special road for the feminine vehicle that addresses her needs. And as long as that’s going to excite you as a woman, or as long as I’m going to get excited about a particular path that’s going to be unique to me as a man, then we’re still in the world of samsara [cyclic existence]. We’re still in the world of differences, and that’s what we’re going to get. What we’re going to get then is women’s liberation and men’s liberation.
ED: Right. And there’s no human liberation in that.
AC: Well, there’s no liberation without a face. So whatever examples that we may hear about of men and women who appeared to have achieved a state of liberation but who seemed to have had different paths are, I feel, ultimately irrelevant to the point I’m really trying to make. Because when a human being becomes very still-very, very still-so still that they begin to lose awareness and consciousness of their particular gender, and they are simply looking into that abyss where there is no notion of self whatsoever, the world disappears, and so does everything along with it. And that’s really the only place to go, and it’s the only place to remain. The excitement that you were feeling about a special, unique path for yourself as a woman is all part of your identification with and attachment to being female. And that’s ultimately all ego. So we have to be careful about that.
You see, what I’m speaking about is something that is not really from this world. It’s something that transcends it. And if you find that place, and then you look at this particular topic from that place, you’ll see that any fascination with difference is just more samsara, it’s just more ignorance.
Difference, Wholeness and Emptiness
ED: I wanted to ask you about the idea in many religious and spiritual traditions in which there are strictly differentiated roles for women and men, and where men and women strive to fulfill the ideals of these separate roles and then come together in some kind of wholeness. The idea is that men and women, individually, don’t express the unity of God’s vision for humanity, that it’s only through men and women coming together that this wholeness can be experienced and manifest. Do you see any strengths in this view?
AC: Well, the strength of that kind of perspective is that it presents a very holistic view of human life in the cosmos that’s very pleasing, very satisfying. It’s like opposites coming together, and in coming together they both experience wholeness. When you come together with your other half, you immediately experience a sense of wholeness and completeness.
But in my teaching, I don’t speak about two halves coming together in this way; there’s nothing tantric about my particular view on life. In the teaching of liberation without a face, the necessity of men and women coming together in order to become an expression of wholeness is a secondary priority. This is secondary because I feel that for men and women to be able to come together at all, men and women as individuals have to first become liberated from the need to have to come together with anyone, with any other. This experience of wholeness or completeness is something that, in my teaching, each man and each woman has to experience independently of any sense of relationship or relatedness to any other-especially to anyone of the opposite sex. I think that completeness first has to be found in our own Self. We have to consciously experience with utter doubtlessness that everything is already within us, that the whole universe is already within our own Self. And when we begin to experience some confidence in that, then we’re not going to be afraid of the other and also we’re not going to be burdened by the conviction that we need their presence or their embrace in order to experience any sense of fullness. And that’s what creates a forum for a kind of coming together and being together that is free from fundamental need and that’s quite revolutionary.
ED: You have beings who are whole coming together, not individuals who are desperately needing from each other.
AC: Yes, exactly. That’s the whole point. That means as a liberated man, as a liberated woman, I am already inherently full and complete as I am. Man doesn’t need woman and woman doesn’t need man in order to experience his or her inherent fullness. And it’s only when a man and a woman have experienced their own fullness of being, independent of any other, that it would be at all possible for them to come together in any kind of equality. Without that as a prerequisite, real equality, which means real partnership, is not even conceivable.
ED: What do you think about the view that there are important distinctions between male and female energies?
AC: Well, distinctions or differences between the male energy and vibration and the female energy and vibration obviously exist. The male energy and the female energy are an inherent part of being either male or female. And obviously there’s a certain polarity, and those polarities attract each other. This is part of the way the universe works. But the liberated perspective sees beyond all polarities and rests in a state of nondifference. So we can recognize these differences on a gross or subtle level, and see that in and of themselves, they don’t necessarily mean that much. We’re not denying those differences in ourselves or in the other, but that’s not where our attention is primarily directed if we want to be free.
ED: It’s just that the differences are there? They exist, they’re real.
AC: There’s a male form and a female form; and there’s a red rose and a pink rose, etc.
ED: What do you think about the view that both male and female energies exist within each man and woman, and that in order to become whole, men and women have to balance these male and female energies or qualities within themselves?
AC: Well, first of all, I’m not convinced that what are traditionally considered to be “male” energies or qualities or “female” energies or qualities really have as much to do with gender as many people think they do. In my experience, men are not necessarily less sensitive or compassionate than women are, and women are not necessarily any less aggressive or competitive than men are-as a matter of fact, often they are more so! (Laughs) I mean, one of the most extraordinary things about being a spiritual teacher is the rare privilege of being able to look deeply into the very souls of many human beings at the same time. It gives one a unique perspective on the human condition, some of which is breathtakingly glorious, and some of which is frighteningly destructive. These different energies or qualities that seem so distinct, while being very real, are more superficial than I think many people are aware of. The only thing is, not that many of us get beyond the superficial layers of our own being, and that’s why these differences appear to be so significant.
As for the need to “balance” male and female energies within ourselves in order to achieve wholeness . . . from the point of view of liberation without a face, the very notion of trying to “balance” any particular sense of self with another with the mind is the very self-consciousness that is the antithesis of the kind of brave leap into bold innocence that I have been speaking about. You see, we want to find out what it would be like to be a whole and fully integrated man or woman without being attached to the idea of being a man or woman-whatever that means. We don’t want to create this “balance” with our minds. We want to find out what it would look like without being attached to any preconceptions.
ED: It seems like trying to balance these different qualities can be an incredible trap for the mind.
AC: That’s right. And again, I think that making too much of a big deal out of these differences-as interesting and fascinating and compelling and relatively true as they may be-if one wants to really find out what it means to be a liberated human being, will tend to be just a big distraction.
You see, there are certain facts about maleness and femaleness that men and women are both very attached to. And to some degree these real differences are going to continue to exist-because men are still going to be men and women are still going to be women, no matter how liberated they become. But the individual male or female is no longer going to be identified with or attached to these differences. We are aware of these differences, but the ultimately empty nature of their significance is something that’s seen very directly. And that’s the whole point: When their ultimately empty nature is directly seen, the apparent significance falls away. At the same time, it’s not denied. I personally believe very strongly that unless one really sees through this with a lot of depth, it’s going to be almost impossible to get off the wheel of becoming. And I think that very few people actually do, because this is one of the hardest things to see through. A lot of people in spiritual life use the awareness of difference, and the spiritual glorification of difference, as a justification to indulge in that which is ultimately unreal.
As I’ve been saying, in the liberated vision, the liberated view, one sees beyond any and all notions of difference to an inherent fullness that is beyond all pairs of opposites, including male and female. That’s the liberated mind, that’s the liberated state, that’s the liberated perspective. And in liberation without a face, that’s the state of consciousness and the perspective that one strives to realize and experience directly for oneself-and, once realized, that one endeavors to live wholeheartedly in a world that recognizes only differences.
Elizabeth Debold received her doctorate in human development and psychology from Harvard University in 1996 and is author, with Marie Wilson and Idelisse Malave, of the best-selling Mother Daughter Revolution: From Good Girls to Great Women. She is a founding member of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girl’s Development (directed by Carol Gilligan), former Vice President of the National Organization for Women in New York City, and a consultant to the Ms. Foundation. She is currently working on a book entitled Beyond Gender: Psychology, Culture and the Possibility of Transformation.
No Man’s Land
An interview with Mary Daly
by Susan Bridle
“Even if I were the only one, I would still be a Radical Feminist!” proclaims the feminist revolutionary Mary Daly in her latest book, Quintessence. Described as both “a prophet” and “the grande dame of feminist theology,” Daly has, for more than three decades, committed her every waking breath to a single purpose: seeing, naming and dissecting the structures of patriarchy in order to liberate women’s minds, bodies and spirits from its oppression. One of the most revered visionaries of the contemporary women’s liberation movement, Daly, who holds six graduate degrees, including three doctorates in religion, theology and philosophy, lectures throughout the world, is the author of seven groundbreaking works of feminist philosophy, and has taught much-debated women-only courses in women’s studies at Boston College since 1974. No stranger to controversy throughout her illustrious career, Daly is making headlines this year because Boston College, now under pressure from a conservative Washington, D.C., legal foundation, is demanding that she begin to admit male students into her classroom-or retire. The Boston Globe described Daly’s latest stand against the Jesuit-run institution-from which she is not budging-as “a battle of principle, a fitting finale to a career that has sought no less than to alter the course of world civilization.”
Six months ago, when we first started working on this issue of WIE, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who could bring a penetrating feminist perspective to the subjects of women in religious traditions and the role of gender identity on the spiritual path. We soon found that while much important research has been done in this field over the past thirty years, if you want to speak with someone unrelentingly passionate about liberating women from the confines of patriarchal institutions and unabashedly zealous about establishing a feminist spiritual vision, all roads lead to Mary Daly.
The radical nature of Daly’s work infiltrates the very groundwater of the consciousness of patriarchy and attempts to unearth what holds it in place-and what is so close and so taken for granted that most, before encountering her ideas, never consider questioning. She speaks the unspoken, cataloging with razorlike acuity and freight-train force the history of ritualized oppression and violence against women, and drawing clear causal connections to patriarchal religions and gods with male names and male faces. Lauded as “a demolition derbyist of patriarchal ‘mindbindings,'” she has penetrated into the structures of language, thought and image; she tears away veils upon veils; she confronts, rattles, inspires-and demands that the issues she raises be dealt with. “I came to see that all of the so-called major religions,” she writes, “from buddhism and hinduism to islam, judaism, and christianity, as well as such secular derivatives as freudianism, jungianism, marxism, and maoism-are mere sects, infrastructures of the edifice of patriarchy. . . . That revelation continues to work subliminally, inspiring my humor and stoking the Fires of my Fury not merely against the catholic church and all other religions and institutions that are the tentacles of patriarchy but against everything that dulls and diminishes women. Through me, it shouts messages meant for all women within Earshot: ‘Tell on them! Laugh out loud at their pompous penile processions! Reverse their reversals! Decode their “mysteries”! Break their taboos! Spin tapestries of your own creation! Sin Big!'”
I was naïve enough to think, when I first approached Daly for an interview, that she would be eager to have a platform to express her views in a respected spiritual magazine dedicating an issue to the subject of gender. I couldn’t chave been more misguided. When she saw the word “enlightenment” on the cover of the sample issue I’d sent her-and even worse, when she saw a photograph of the Dalai Lama-she immediately pegged the publication as a cog in the machine of patriarchy and wanted nothing to do with us. Furthermore, the idea of gender includes “men”-a word she is loathe to utter-and even the word “spiritual” is to her but another trapping of the patriarchal ideologies she left behind long ago. But after numerous telephone conversations in which I pleaded our case, she finally relented, partially through the force of my persistence and partially because she knew that I had been affected by reading her books; she sensed in me a fledgling feminist who could perhaps be “saved.”
When I eventually met Daly in person, in her small, cluttered apartment near Boston College, shelves, tables and hairs tumbling with books, radical feminist manifestos and posters inciting revolution curling off the walls, wide desk piled high, I met a woman who is every bit the radical feminist separatist she is renowned to be. Fierce, unbound by convention, and willing to risk everything for the sake of her mission, she is a woman who has gone so far with her ideas and her commitment to them that she truly seems to have stepped outside of the world as we know it. Championing deep identification as woman with distinctly woman’s experience, she seeks to invoke an “other reality” and establish a “homeland of women who identify as women.”
Thrilled to finally have the opportunity to speak with her, I came armed with some challenging questions that were sure to be provocative and sure to shed light on that delicate territory where spiritual liberation meets (or doesn’t meet) women’s liberation. I was also very curious to find out if she really believed, as it seemed from her books, that the cause of every possible problem in this world, both inner and outer, is the evil of patriarchy, or, in other words, men.
Meeting Mary Daly, if you are a woman, is meeting a muse, a Siren, who beckons you to step through the mists of time into an enchanted, gynocentric other reality, an Avalon of only women’s making. If you are a man . . . well, hold on tight.
For Mary Daly is still, at age seventy, a labrys-wielding force of nature who will not rest until the world as we know it is turned upside down. As she writes in her philosophical autobiography, “There are and will be those who think I have gone overboard. Let them rest assured that this assessment is correct, probably beyond their wildest imaginations, and that I will continue to do so.”
WIE: In this issue of our magazine, we’re exploring gender identity in relationship to spiritual realization or enlightenment. We’re speaking with a number of people who have very different perspectives on this subject, and we were very eager to speak with you because you are one of the most radical and outspoken feminists alive today as well as a visionary theologian.
MARY DALY: Well, I would never create a magazine or a journal with that as a subject. It feels foreign. And I’m not trying to put you down, but what makes me feel alien from it is that it’s so much in the patriarchal mode. Even to talk about “gender identity”-what the hell is that?
WIE: That’s what we’re interested in finding out.
MD: You see, I don’t care. It really doesn’t interest me much. I am a woman. I know that. No one’s going to disabuse me of that.
WIE: What is your concept of spiritual liberation?
MD: It’s not an expression I ever use.
WIE: Another way to approach this would be to speak about spiritual aspiration.
MD: Radical feminists who talk to me ask me questions in my language. You’re asking: “What is your concept of . . . ?” Well, I don’t have a concept of that because I’m not one of you. There was a point a few years ago when I stopped using the word “spiritual.”
WIE: Why is that?
MD: Because it sounds too much like dichotomizing mind/body. And, in fact, when I do speak of spirit and matter, I often hyphenate it: “spirit-matter,” for the reason that I don’t like to dichotomize. I think matter is extremely alive and spiritual in the deepest sense. And so “spiritual” usually just doesn’t do because it seems to carry with it that baggage of dichotomizing. So whenever possible I use the word “elemental.” By “elemental” I mean a lot of things; the four elements: earth, air, fire, water-but also the ether. And in ancient Greek philosophy the primal sounds of the alphabet were called elemental, and angels were elementals. And the universe, the earth, stars, other planets and the suns were also called elements, or “stoicheia.” It’s something vast. My work follows in that tradition of bonding-recognizing and realizing, meaning also actualizing, our connection with the universe. So, the word I commonly use for the ultimate reality-I won’t say “God,” that’s dead-is “the universe.I’ll say “spirit,” but meaning a principle of life within all being, including rocks. And I have used capital “B,” Be-ing, to represent the verb God.
WIE: Can you explain that a bit further?
MD: A thousand years ago, when I was studying standard scholastic philosophy, God was called the “supreme being.” And that made him a noun and something on high. Hierarchical. Yahweh. The hairy claw coming down. And that obviously is unsatisfactory. It always has images hanging around that are undesirable. Then I realized, with the help of a friend of mine, Nelle Morton, that “being” is a verb, and it should be hyphenated [be-ing]. When you do that, everything changes. I would also say that the universe is a verb. There are other ways of describing this ultimate/intimate reality. It’s a mode of existence in which we profoundly realize and actualize our connectedness in multiple ways. It’s Be-ing, capital “B,” but understood as luminous, joyous, what Aristotle called the harmony of the spheres; representing an aspect of integrity, integrity beyond integrity. I think it’s beyond spiritual. I mean, my cat wouldn’t be concerned with “spiritual liberation”; she’s all spirit, she’s absolutely in-spirited. I used to talk about the women’s movement in the seventies as a “spiritual revolution,” and that’s better than “liberation” to me. But then I got over that too and moved on.
WIE: It sounds like the vision you’re describing is a sensitivity to and a connectedness with the life force or presence in everything, animate and inanimate.
MD: Yes, and it’s a recognition of our connection with the entire universe-microcosm and macrocosm. We don’t necessarily have to know everything that’s out there-that isn’t the point-but it’s a sense of striving for connectedness and a joy in that. I look at the sunset here, or experiences of nature, aesthetic experiences, and experiences of creativity and of the power of fighting, overcoming fear.
WIE: Do you believe that there are differences between men’s and women’s capacities to realize and embrace what you’ve just been speaking about?
MD: Okay . . . I could give you some sort of answer, but it’s not the kind of question that intrigues me because I don’t think about men. I really don’t care about them. I’m concerned with women’s capacities, which have been infinitely diminished under patriarchy. Not that they’ve disappeared, but they’ve been made subliminal. I’m concerned with women enlarging our capacities, actualizing them. So that takes all my energy. I’m not interested in the differences between women and men. I really am totally uninterested in men’s capacities. If you’ve read my books, you might notice that I don’t talk about their capacities. They talk about it all the time and they try to make it inclusive: “Oh, yeah, you’re included, too.”
But I’m talking about something else. I’m trying to name something that can only be recognized by women who are seizing back our power. But the words have been stolen from us-even though perhaps they were originally our words-they’re our words, but they’ve been reversed and twisted and shrunken. I see myself as a pirate, plundering and smuggling back to women that which has been stolen from us. But it hasn’t simply been stolen; it’s been stolen and reversed. For example, the christian trinity is the triple goddess reversed. The trinity is aptly described as a closed triangle. It doesn’t go anywhere. It’s clonehood.
WIE: What do you mean by “clonehood”?
MD: “The father, son and holy ghost, the three men I admire the most . . .” In catholic or medieval theology, the father generates the son, and the son and the father together “spirate” the holy spirit. That’s technical Thomistic terminology. They’re coeternal, so although there’s this illusion of activity, nothing is happening. It’s utterly male in its stagnation and utterly male in its repetitiveness. So it’s not surprising to me that ultimately they would come, in their destruction of the earth and of all living beings, to cloning. Because sameness is the name of patriarchy; it’s the name of the game.
WIE: You see cloning as a product of patriarchy?
MD: It’s the living out of patriarchal myth. They live it out through their technology as well as through their religion, their art, their societal structures, their economies and their wars. It’s always the same. Their wars are the same. It’s infinitely the same. “Getting their big gun off,” as Valerie Solanas said.
WIE: While I understand that this isn’t a focus for you, I’d like to come back to the question of differences between women’s and men’s approaches-
MD: You know, I don’t mean to be unpleasant, but we’re coming from different worlds. I was trained in that world of thinking, a certain christian or Western philosophical way, but I don’t want to be drawn into talking that way because I don’t relate to it and it irritates me. What I love is the way women think. And what’s so precious about my space at Boston College is that it’s women’s space. When you get a teacher and students who really want to be with women, and we seize the space and read philosophical works and literature by women, they begin to think like themselves. They feel as if they’ve come home again. And that is the very groundwork of radical feminism. So if our space is taken away from us, which is what they’re attempting to do at Boston College, then so is the possibility of that kind of, I won’t call it dialogue, that kind of spinning conversation, of matching experiences. It’s not debating, which is a male thing. Something new begins to happen, and that’s why new words have happened for me: because the old language, the patriarchal language, does not contain words that are adequate to name women’s experience. And it is so exciting. I’m talking about women’s elemental experience.
I was brought up in the patriarchal way of thinking. I spent years in school getting degree after degree after degree taught by patriarchs. At Fribourg I was with all male fellow students: two hundred seminarians and priests and me. I know how they think and I abhor it.
WIE: So would you say that women inherently have a greater capacity to realize the interconnectedness of the entire universe that you’ve been speaking about?
MD: Comparisons with men are beside the point. I think women have a great capacity to realize that interconnectedness. I have not seen this in men. There may be exceptions, but I’m not interested in that.
In the early seventies, Susan Griffin wrote a book called Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, and it was totally about the connectedness of women and nature. And I have always emphasized that myself. But one of the horrible, self-censoring and destructive events within women’s studies and the so-called women’s community that happened-and I’m sure it was imbedded from some alien source-was that any woman who said that women have a special connection with nature, or that there’s anything like a “female nature,” was called an “essentialist,” and that was the “worst” thing you could possibly say. I have been accused of being an essentialist, and so has anyone else I respect.
But I’ll also argue that whether or not they’re inherent, the fact is that the differences between men and women are there, even if it’s just through millennia of conditioning. I, of course, think it’s inherent. But even if it were cultural, the fact is that this is the way to go if you’re biophilic. What I’m concerned with is the war between biophilia and necrophilia. It’s love of life versus hatred of life. Necrophilia translates strictly into love of death, or loving the dead-actually f-ing corpses. And in general, patriarchal culture is necrophilic, fixated on hatred of life and love of death.
WIE: It sounds like you’re defining the male mode of expression as necrophilic and the female as biophilic. That’s quite an extreme distinction.
MD: Look, turn on the news anytime and see what is going on. Kosovo-are women doing that? Look at anything; it’s so omnipresent that it’s laughable that one would not see it. How many women rape? I’m just telling you that if I say that in a simplistic way, everyone will be on me for being an essentialist. That’s why, on a certain level, my book title “Quintessence” is a joke title. I mean it profoundly for what it is. But also, I can always say, “Ah, I’m not an essentialist, I’m a quintessentialist”-I’m worse than you ever could imagine!
WIE: What do you think of the idea that one is a human being or spiritual being first, and then one happens to be male or female?
MD: “Human being” I got rid of a long time ago. No. Absolutely not. It’s alien. I’ve been through that. I’ve been there. I’ve thought about that.
WIE: What do you feel are the limits of that way of thinking?
MD: I wrote about human beings in The Church and the Second Sex, which was published in 1968. I wanted to liberate “human beings,” and I found out that the whole thing was fallacious because there’s a false inclusion, as if there were greater similarity between women and men than there is difference. Let me try to put it in a way that may convey some of the landscape. If we lived in a gynocentric society, first of all, it wouldn’t be matriarchal; it wouldn’t be like patriarchy transposed with big mama on top instead of big papa. It would be totally different, and I believe that it was before patriarchy came-this evil. And men would be different, too. They would not have been socialized into this-assuming that they have been socialized into it and they’re not all mutants-they would be different because the female way of seeing things would be, I don’t want to say “dominant” because that’s a patriarchal word, but it would be all-pervasive. And you do meet some men like that-I never fully trust it-but you do. Some are less tinged by the patriarchal mode.
So having that in your mind, and living to some extent already in that future, an archaic future that is rooted in a deep past, I have a sense of identity that isn’t easily described in this kind of discourse. These kinds of questions are always too crisp. They seem very logical, but they’re not. In my opinion, they’re not. I would never ask what identity is primary. In the past somehow I made a switch from being “a human being who happens to be female.” But I never really believed “happens to be” because at the core of my being I’m female. I know who I am, and therefore I could not be other than a radical feminist once that idea was available to me.
You’re taking what I consider to be a very primitive set of ideas and asking me to speak about what I might have thought about those ideas twenty or thirty years ago. You see, “human being” doesn’t really say much of anything to me. I don’t know if I’m getting it through to you or not, but I’m not a member of a class called “human being.” There is a tremendous uniqueness, but that uniqueness surfaces only when you have a predominantly female mode of being that is at the same time daringly, forcefully breaking out of the patriarchal mode of thinking. So, no, I don’t feel at all like a human being. I hate the “human species”-look at it! I hate what it is doing to this earth: the invasion of everything. The last two frontiers are the genetic wilderness and the space wilderness; they’ve colonized everything else. It’s a totally invasive mentality-rapist. That is alien, and insofar as I’ve internalized any of that, I’m sorry. I’m contaminated by it. We all are. But I try not to be, and with every step I at least try to be biophilic, which is what would be required to break out of the human species.
WIE: In your book Beyond God the Father, you call into question the image of the male-gendered God. You write: “The biblical and popular image of God as a great patriarch in heaven, rewarding and punishing according to his mysterious and seemingly arbitrary will, has dominated the imagination of millions over thousands of years. The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.” Your challenge of the image of the male-gendered God has without a doubt made many people deeply question the idea of a God with a male face, as well as the limiting and damaging effects of this image on our social, political and cultural structures. Now, many feminists have responded to this by replacing the word “God” with “Goddess,” and by replacing the image of God as Father with the image of Goddess as Mother. Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, whom we also interviewed for this issue of our magazine, said that “we do not begin to get on a spiritual journey until we go beyond the gendered metaphors for God. What in the world could it possibly mean to say Mother Nature? What’s motherly about it as opposed to fatherly or brotherly?” While he specifically said that he appreciates the work you’ve done to dismantle the image of God the Father, he also said, “I think Mary Daly should be as critical of [God the Mother] as she has been of the notion of God the Father.” What do you think about this?
MD: You see, I don’t care what Sam Keen thinks. Do you understand? If that seems like the epitome of arrogance, so be it. How can I care what he thinks? He doesn’t get it.
WIE: Right. Well, I’m not so much specifically asking about him personally, but about the idea that gendered images for God-male or female-are ultimately limited.
MD: Well, it’s not totally adequate because it assumes that there are two sexes throughout the universe. These are the models for reality, and I don’t know if there are a hundred sexes or if sex would be of any interest whatsoever in some system other than our solar system. How can I know? So it’s limited, but insofar as our experience gives us images, certainly the female is more appropriate for talking about nurturing life, loving and creativity on every level. If you have to choose between the two, female obviously is better. And I don’t even have to choose between the two; I mean, the other isn’t worth consideration anymore. It’s just hanging all over putridly. So, I wouldn’t call the book “Beyond God the Father” now, I’d just say “Beyond God.”
Keen’s perspective, aside from the fact that I would totally disagree with it, is dated. The patriarchs have more sophisticated kinds of arguments now. Particularly the postmodernists: “I’m a person gendered as feminine.” Think how disempowering that is. You can’t get out and say, “I’m for women. Women’s liberation.” It’s “the liberation of persons gendered as feminine.” There’s nothing in that that makes your blood roar! There’s no power in it.
WIE: As you know, Buddhism is becoming increasingly popular in the West, particularly among men and women who for various reasons are critical of the views and structures of Christianity. Many believe that Buddhism is more in line with modern humanistic ideals. And the Dalai Lama is almost universally revered for his embodiment of what are considered by some to be exclusively “feminine” qualities-qualities such as nonviolence, compassion and concern for the environment. Interestingly, however, a number of statements attributed to the Buddha seem to reveal that he had strong convictions about the spiritual superiority of men. This has been very challenging for Western women coming to Buddhism, and has often been set to one side if not completely avoided. In the Pali Canon [principle Buddhist scriptures], the Buddha is reported to have said: “Ananda, if women had not obtained the Going Forth from the house life into homelessness in the Law and Discipline declared by the Perfect One [acceptance into the Buddha’s monastic order], the Holy Life would have lasted long, the Holy Life would have lasted a thousand years. But now, since women have obtained it, the Holy Life will last only five hundred years. Just as when the blight called gray mildew falls on a field of ripening rice, that field of ripening rice does not last long-so too in the Law and Discipline in which women obtain the Going Forth, the Holy Life does not last long.”
MD: It’s just the same old song in a different language: “Women pollute.”
WIE: My question is: How do you think that Gautama the Buddha could have come to such an extreme position about half of the human race? What would you say to a Western Buddhist woman wrestling with the apparent incongruity of such an enlightened being holding such a woman-negative view?
MD: As I wrote in Gyn/Ecology: all patriarchal religions are patriarchal-right? They take different forms. What would I think? There’s nothing to think about. It has taken another form-seductive, probably, because christianity is so overtly warlike and abusive. And furthermore, I don’t know what “enlightened” means. It’s not a word that’s in my vocabulary. This is like a christian woman being upset over something that Paul said, instead of seeing that of course he’s an asshole. He’s one more very macho asshole described as a saint and as enlightened, and once you get over that, you get over it. You see it for what it is and you don’t worry about why he would say such a thing. Of course he would say such a thing. That’s what he is. It’s really extremely simple. Stop wrestling with it; it’s not interesting. Get out of it. That would be my approach to it. Misogynists! Hateful! All of them! I studied them. And finally I just didn’t try to reason with it anymore. Boston College was most enlightening to me. The experience of being fired for writing The Church and the Second Sex introduced me to the idea that it’s not going to change. That’s the way it is-leave it.
WIE: In the past couple of decades, there has been increasing interest in prepatriarchal agrarian societies that worshipped female deities. While there is evidence that these societies were more egalitarian in their views of and roles for men and women, some people criticize the current fascination with these goddess cultures as a rewriting of history, a creation of a fictional paradise lost. Once again, Sam Keen writes: “We need to question the historical romanticism of feminist ideology. . . . When God was a woman-Isis, Ishtar, Artemis, Diana, Kali, Demeter-she was a terrible mother, as bloody as God the Father. . . . If nature is the goddess we must claim her dark and demonic sides, and not merely her nurturing qualities. . . . Slavery, forced labor, injustice are not modern or ‘patriarchal’ inventions.” What is your response to Keen’s assertion that the lauding of these matrifocal societies is “historical romanticism”?
MD: First of all, if it’s only matrilineal and matrifocal, it’s not really prepatriarchal. Prepatriarchal would be really ancient-gynocentric. And so what he’s speaking about, as I understand it, is already patriarchy on the way. I’m talking about a really woman-centered society of which we have no direct memory. But, as Monique Wittig said, “If you can’t remember, invent.” Part of it has to be created because most of the records have been destroyed. All of what he’s talking about is an intermediary stage.
WIE: Because you also speak about inventing an image of an idyllic prehistoric culture, it sounds like you’re not concerned with any risk of romanticization.
MD: What is the risk? I mean, we live in hell. This is called hell. H-E-L-L-patriarchy. Do you watch TV and see the stuff from Kosovo? The ethnic cleansing, genocide-watching them get on trains and go off to nowhere and starve and die and have the shit bombed out of them by NATO. Is it romantic to try to remember something better than that? There’s a reality gap here. How can I make it clearer? We’re living in hell and he’s talking about a danger of romanticism in imagining something that is a hope for something better in the future? I think that the question comes from not looking deeply enough at the horror of phallocracy, penocracy, jockocracy, cockocracy, call it whatever-patriarchy. If you experience the horror of what is happening to women all the time, it is almost unbearable, right? All the time! And a lot of it is mental horror, spiritual horror, together with the physical horror and the atrocities that I’ve analyzed in detail. Then, when you are acutely aware of that and desire to exorcise it, the exorcism welcomes, requires, some kind of dream. The accusation of romanticism belongs to a detached intellect, not seeing the desperate need for escape from where we are. And when I speak, it’s out of desperation; I know it! I know what women’s lives are like! Intuitively, instinctively, experientially, I know. I don’t have to have been there in prison and had my genitals cut up and experienced the horrors that happen to women now-I am existentially aware of it. So I don’t have patience with that.
WIE: Some people say that exclusively blaming men for the patriarchy is misguided. Transpersonal theorist Ken Wilber, in an article entitled “Don’t Blame Men for the Patriarchy,” writes: “‘Patriarchy’ is a word that is always pronounced with scorn and disgust. The obvious and naïve solution is to simply say that men imposed the patriarchy on women. But alas, it is nowhere near that simple. . . . If we take the standard response-that the patriarchy was imposed on women by a bunch of sadistic and power-hungry men-then we are locked into two inescapable definitions of men and women. Namely, men are pigs and women are sheep. . . . But men are simply not that piggy, and women not that sheepy. One of the things I try to do . . . is to trace out the hidden power that women have had and that influenced and cocreated the various cultural structures throughout history, including patriarchy. Among other things, this releases men from being defined as total schmucks and releases women from being defined as duped, brainwashed and herded.”
MD: Usually for someone at that state of consciousness-which is unconsciousness-if anything would work, it would be to make the analogy with racism. Because that’s back where he is in that. It would be like saying, “Well, that this is a racist society is the fault of blacks, too, and you can’t just blame white people for a racist society. The others must have collaborated in it.” And the fallacies become immediately obvious, don’t they, when you speak of that case. So it works for me to just make that comparison and see if they can flounder their way through it. You could say certainly that some blacks would appear to have collaborated in that, but it’s shallow sounding. It doesn’t work, although there have been “Uncle Toms” and all that. So that’s the way I would approach it.
WIE: Along similar lines, Sam Keen told us: “Men and women have been in this thing together all along. . . . Any time you put the blame on one of the genders, you have rendered the other inferior. . . . In America, women are just as injurious to the world as men are.” He has also written: “Are we to excuse womankind from complicity and active participation in the spoiling of the environment? Go to any mall and watch the frenzied buying of the latest fashions, any landfill and see the mountain of disposable diapers and trash, any thrift store and count the discarded items of serviceable but no longer ‘stylish’ clothes and appliances, and it will be obvious that womankind is as compulsive a consumer as mankind. . . . There is an existential and moral fallacy involved in seeking to transfer all the blame . . . onto the shoulders of men. The issue is not genderal. We all have dirty hands.”
MD: I can’t stand it. He’s too smart for me. It’s just not worth answering. Each sentence is full of falsities. Again, it’s like saying the blacks get the benefit of supermarkets over here and things that they don’t have in the jungles and villages of Africa-so what?
It’s true that to be a feminist now absolutely requires being an ecofeminist or what I would call a “Radical Elemental Feminist.” There’s no way that you can accept the pollution and the destruction of animals and the harm to nature out there because what happens to nature is happening to us; we’re sisters. But I just want to say that in with this “frenzied buying” statement there is nothing about the context. Why are women so frenzied to buy the latest fashions? Because their lives are so empty and they’ve had no opportunities. Because their self-image has been so damaged. I can go on and on about the damage that has been done to women under patriarchy. And then women are blamed for going out and buying all the time, but there’s nothing left for them when their creativity has been smashed. This is very woman-hating, the way it’s written.
It’s not that I don’t get mad at women for their complicity, but it’s not the same level of being mad. I can get so angry at tokenized women-women who sell their sisters out. It happens all the time on a more sophisticated level, but I always have to remind myself to go to the source. It’s more annoying to see women doing it because I believe they have the inherent capacity to do better than that. But I also see how they’ve been smashed down, and so I always go to the source. Why are women the way they are, the ones who are woman-hating, who have all of those hideous qualities that women get in patriarchy? I hate that, too-to have to see women in that condition is hateful, it’s disgusting.
But you see, I have great respect for the inner power in women that can grasp far more than is attributed to them. I don’t just think that I’m smarter than Sam Keen. I think many, many women are smarter than Sam Keen. One of the typical ironies of patriarchal society is that he gets to have a voice, while you can walk around and talk to many highly intelligent women on the street whose voices are not heard and who have insights he lacks. Yet he gets to have a “name”; that’s the joke of it. And for me to honor that is ridiculous. No woman who is really on track would be wanting to read these men-they’re boring. I think that emphasizing male authors in this context serves no purpose. Why not take some radical feminist texts and talk about them? Maybe you’re writing for the wrong audience. Look, are we trying to raise the energy level, to convey joy in life, to convey biophilia and encourage the biophilia that’s in women? Or are we trying to just go on dialoguing with these men? What I try to do is speak to women on the highest level of vibration that there is, and those who can hear, who can sense, on that level do get it. And then they can spread it to others; there’s a ripple effect. Women, my tribe, radical lesbian feminists-the women who get it-are overjoyed to have their lives affirmed. And I want that joy to exist because that inspires courage and movement forward and creativity. That’s my job.
WIE: In your latest book, Quintessence, you describe a utopian society of the future, on a continent populated entirely by women, where procreation occurs through parthenogenesis, without the participation of men. What is your vision for a postpatriarchal world? Is it similar to what you described in the book?
MD: You can read Quintessence and you can get a sense of it. It’s a description of an alternative future. It’s there partly as a device and partly because it’s a dream. There could be many alternative futures, but some of the elements are constant: that it would be women only; that it would be women generating the energy throughout the universe; that much of the contamination, both physical and mental, has been dealt with.
Also, my favorite word is not “postpatriarchal.” It’s “metapatriarchal.” The prefix “meta” has four meanings. It’s transformative of, in the background of, beyond, or transcending. It isn’t just post or after in linear time. So we can, right now, even though patriarchy is all around, try to live metapatriarchally. You can try to be metapatriarchal by not succumbing to all the rules and roles and games of patriarchy.
WIE: In Quintessence, your idyllic continent is inhabited by women only, but the rest of the world is inhabited by women and men.
MD: I didn’t say how many men were there.
WIE: Which brings us to another question I wanted to ask you. Sally Miller Gearhart, in her article “The Future-If There Is One-Is Female” writes: “At least three further requirements supplement the strategies of environmentalists if we were to create and preserve a less violent world. 1) Every culture must begin to affirm the female future. 2) Species responsibility must be returned to women in every culture. 3) The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately ten percent of the human race.” What do you think about this statement?
MD: I think it’s not a bad idea at all. If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.
WIE: Yes. I find myself now thinking that’s a bit shocking.
MD: Well, it’s shocking that it would be shocking.
WIE: So it doesn’t sound like your vision of a separate nation for women is something you see as an interim stage that would eventually lead to men and women living together in true equality.
MD: No. That’s a very old question. I answered that to audiences twenty-five, thirty years ago. I just don’t think that way. See, right now, I would be totally joyous to have a great community of women-whether men are somewhere out on the periphery or not. I don’t have this goal of: “Oh, then we can all get together again!” That doesn’t seem to be a very promising future. So why would I think about it? I think it’s pretty evident that men are not central to my thought.
WIE: I have one last question. At the beginning of this interview, you spoke about the experience of being deeply at one with that which animates all of life. I wanted to ask you what you think about the possibility of becoming identified with that as who one ultimately is, having that as one’s ultimate resting place, or ground, so to speak, and where one’s gender would no longer be a primary reference point.
MD: I don’t know if that has anything to do with my experience. I have my own experience of oneness. Sometimes I have ecstasy and a kind of active repose in connection with nature. It’s tremendous. But I never forget that I’m a woman, because this is me. I know who I am. I have Female integrity.
A Conversation for the New Year with Gen Kelsang Lekma
The New Year is a time for introspection, reflection and commitment to creating change.
Gen Kelsang Lekma, The Principal Teacher at Khandakapala Buddhist Center engaged in this conversation with writer and practitioner Kevin Koffler to discuss New Year’s resolutions, deepening one’s spiritual practice and the exciting plans that the center has in the works for 2004.
From a Buddhist perspective, is the beginning of the New Year an opportunity for rebirth?
Everyone thinks about the New Year as a chance to start a fresh- it is an opportunity for rebirth in terms of establishing new determinations. At the center, the month of January is a month of retreat.
This is an excellent way to strengthen your own daily practice. We have retreat here, which obviously we encourage people to come to. But if you can’t do formal retreat, it is good to emphasize more contemplative and meditative things as opposed to rushing out to do a million things-to reduce what we are doing, slow down a little bit, and have a chance to gain some deeper experience from our meditation. For me, the experience of doing the retreats in January are what feed me for the rest of the year. They can really help us understand where we went wrong in the previous year, and enable us to set deeper determinations.
Are New Year’s resolutions a form of delusions?
It depends. Most people who set a New Year’s resolution have forgotten what it is after the first week of January.
It also depends on what resolution we set. If our resolutions are to improve our bodies, find better paying jobs or to meet the new partner of our dreams, then they are rooted in delusion. If our resolution is a wish to improve ourselves, to increase our ability to treat our boss with compassion or to increase our ability to give and to receive love, however, then they are not. Most people’s resolutions are to improve themselves in some way.
I think that our resolutions are rooted in wisdom if they are more internal-a wish to improve ourselves, and to do things better, and they are also more likely to succeed.
What virtuous minds would be most effective to help facilitate the New Year’s resolutions?
I would say two of them: the mental power of aspiration and the mental factor of effort. If we want to actually make enough changes in order to fulfill our New Year’s resolution, we need to really understand why we are doing it. Aspiration feeds effort. Without a strong understanding, and a really deep wish-not just, I ought to do this, I better be nicer this year, without really thinking about it-change is not possible. We should really think about our resolutions, and not set unrealistic goals like, “I want to be enlightened by the end of the year.” We need to make our resolutions very realistic and attainable. Then, our aspiration becomes strong. When we have strong aspiration, then the effort is just like putting a key in the car– it will come in dependence upon our strong aspiration.
What are your personal New Year’s resolutions?
I usually set my New Year’s resolutions in the summer when I go back to England for TTP. We have three weeks of intensive study, and I have an opportunity to reflect and contemplate. This year, I had strong determination to really focus more on watching my mind, and recognizing my more precise, deeper delusions. When we studied that over the summer, I realized it is easy for us to recognize the gross delusions, but it is much more difficult to go deeper. So that was my resolution this year, as well as to improve my abilities as a teacher.
During one of upcoming talks in Los Angeles, Gen-la Samden will be speaking on deepening our faith and reliance in Buddha and Sangha. What guidance to you offer to people who want to deepen their spiritual practice at the start of the New Year?
I think when we have a sincere wish to start practicing so that it begins to change us, and to ultimately change our lives, then I would say use all the help we have available to us. I think this involves developing a deeper relationship with our Sangha, our center and our teacher.
Often, when we first start practicing, we are not really sure if we want to change. We like meditation, and we like listening to teachings, but changing our entire life is a whole different bundle of goods. Many of us also have quite a bit of resistance to understanding and practicing powerful devotional practices such as the chanted meditations. “Uh,” we think, “it’s becoming a bit like religion now.” But developing faith in Buddha, which is developing the mind of faith, is what is going to really deepen our practice.
Obviously, we are going to have many questions, and are going to experience many obstacles-and that’s fine. Developing a deeper practice is about not being afraid to ask those questions, nor exploring those obstacles, without allowing them to stop your daily meditative practice. It is also about using the sangha, and getting to know them so that they can support us. Hopefully, if we have good sangha friends, they will not allow us to get away with being obnoxious. It helps our sense of shame, and it helps our practice by hanging out with people who know when we know we should be behaving in a different way. Finally, I think when you become more honest with your teacher, you can develop a deeper and deeper relationship, and then they can guide your more precisely.
If people can make one or two small changes in their formal daily practice that could have maximum impact on their spiritual life in the coming year, what would you suggest those be?
If they are not reciting the Prayers for Meditation or the Prayers for Heart Jewel, I would emphasize that. Those have extraordinary unseen benefits. Even if they don’t understand what these prayers mean to begin with, gradually they do, and their wisdom begins to develop. Reciting prayers is quite a small adjustment, but it can have a profound effect.
Also, maybe if they are using The Meditation Handbook as part of their daily mediation, they can pick up Joyful Path of Good Fortune or Transform Your Life at night before they go to sleep, and slowly, slowly begin reading through those texts to help deepen their understanding of the mediations that they are doing. Joyful Path in particular should be read two or three pages at a time and no more-savored, like really delicious food. They should not worry if they do not understand everything, but rather just let it seep in slowly.
In my own experience, the Prayers for Meditation done on a daily basis work like magic.
They do, indeed.
Tell us about the one day meditation workshop you have planned for the beginning of January, and the spiritual retreat that will unfold for the following week. What is benefit of attending a retreat, and is there value from attending parts of the retreat (if one is unavailable to attend all of the sessions).
The one day workshop is designed to start the retreat. I will explain how we can mediate more effectively and correctly, and I will break down mediation in other ways so that we can check, “am I mediating correctly?” I will then explain why we need retreat in our lives. In the afternoon, we will actually start the retreat with two guided meditations so that we can get the experience of it. The importance of retreat, I would say, is like filling up your tank with fuel for the whole year. By doing sequential meditations without too many interruptions, and by just having a chance to contemplate on dharma, it gives us the confidence to go more deeply, and to discover the wisdom that is waiting. We have already have understanding, but we don’t always know how to join the dots.
Many of Buddha’s teachings resonate with people, but not enough to help really change our behavior and to stop our negative thinking, behaving badly, speaking badly and so forth. I would say these retreats help us have more confidence, and understand on a deeper level. It’s almost as if light bulbs go off. A retreat is a chance to bring the teachings into your own mind, and to create your own wisdom. And again, it’s like feeding our aspiration, which feeds our effort. When we actually join the dots, and it makes sense to us, then we are far more likely to be able to have the enthusiasm that promotes the effort to help us change.
There is definitely benefit from attending just parts of the retreat. In previous years, some people have come to one or two sessions per day, and they have gotten benefit from that. If you can not come every day, then the next best thing is to attend sequential sessions-two or three in a row. When you can get them close together, it has maximum impact because each of the meditations dovetails and supports each other. The meditations are from Transform Your Life. You really get to increase your ability to develop cherishing love with compassion. With a beautiful sequence of meditations , we begin to understand how to develop that mind that more deeply.
You must be very excited about Gen-la Samden’s upcoming visit to Los Angeles. What can sangha members expect during Gen-la Samden’s three day visit?
Gen-la is magical; he is an incredible teacher. But he is a bit like Geshe-la, you predict one thing, and another arises. I would say that what they can expect is that you will feel like you are meeting a very good friend. He’s very warm. He speaks at a very profound level, so you will be able to deepen your understanding. I don’t know if this is an appropriate metaphor or not, but there’s an advertisement for a beer in England. It’s slogan is that “it reaches a part that other beers can’t reach;” Gen-la’s wisdom is able to do that. It is able to touch you on a very personal level. It reveals things that maybe before you may have been a bit scared of seeing, but then you see it, and it becomes a bit like taking a thorn out of your skin. He has a real ability to very practical while being very profound-like Geshe-la, really. He is so approachable and real. He is like one of your friends, yet a very extraordinary friend. So you get confidence knowing you can achieve the same thing.
In addition to Gen-la Samden’s visit, what other special events do we have to look forward to in the coming months?
We are very lucky, Gen-la Dekyong, who is the spiritual director of the United States, has accepted our invitation to come the center during the first week of March to give the Thousand Arm Avalokiteshvara empowerment. Avalokiteshvara is the Buddha of compassion, and Gen-la Dekyong has an amazing connection with compassion. Finally, Geshe-la will be giving Buddha’s medicine empowerment in the spring in England, and some of the students have requested that I grant that after I’ve been, so I will come back before the summer festival to grant that. So, those are the some of the things we have to look forward to.
What book will be used for the first general program class series of 2004?
We will be using The New Meditation Handbook, and going through the cycle (more or less) in thirteen classes.
What are some of the center’s goals and plans for the coming year? Are there plans for expansion? What can people do to get involved?
The ongoing plans for the physical center are that we are just going to carry on with the improvements. Once we have the office finished, then we definitely need help with manning the phone and help with day to day running of the center. We can always use help with just cleaning, washing a window, that kind of thing. We still have our arbors to build and painting. It is like the Seventh Bridge-you start it, you finish it, and you start it again. So, that’s the physical center here. We do plan on opening a couple of more branches in the new year-one I’m hoping to continue is in Encino, and one I hope to start is in downtown-we are looking at venues at the moment.
Is there anything else that you would like to add Gen Lekma?
I think that about covers it. I would like to wish everybody a very happy new year.
A Conversation with Lama Surya Das
by Guy Spiro
A leading spokesperson for the merging of American Buddhism and contemporary spirituality discusses the enabling techniques of various types of meditation.
The ancient, timeless teachings are …old wine and need new bottles. The essence doesn’t change but it needs new forms.
The Monthly Aspectarian: Your story is an interesting one, being an American who has attained the rank of Lama. Can you tell us how it all happened for you?
Lama Surya Das: Basically, one comes to Lama in one of two ways in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. One, like the Dalai Lama, is by being recognized as a reincarnation of the previous sage or Lama, and the other is by training. I became Lama through 20 years of monastery and eight years of meditation retreat training.
I was interested in these things in college in the late ’60s and was part of the peace movement. My friend, Allison Crouse ??? was killed at Kent State in May, 1970. Also, another kid I knew, Jeffrey Miller, my namesake from Long Island was shot and killed that day when four kids were killed by National Guardsmen during protest against the secret bombings in Cambodia.
TMA: We’ve all seen the famous pictures.
LSD: Yes, right, and that’s Jeffrey Miller lying there with the girl crying over him. My parents took part in a demonstration with me for one night because of Jeffrey and my friend at Kent State. That was a life changing experience. I graduated from college in ’71 seeking spirituality and inner peace and God and doing some meditation and yoga. I met Buddhism and chanting and Eastern philosophy.
I started to think about the contradiction in fighting for peace and wanted rather to find peace and become peace, so I went to Asia. I stayed there for about ten years and then became a Buddhist monk in a monastery with Tibetan Lamas and trained as a Lama and then went into the three-year, three-month retreat that is a formal Lama training.
TMA: Were you at Dharamsala?
LSD: I have been to Dharamsala. I met the Dalai Lama in 1972 and studied with him a little bit. But I had other teachers I worked with in Darjeeling and Nepal and in Tibet and other places, too. I still do things with the Dalai Lama, like next week we’re having a Western Buddhist teachers conference in California for four days and he’ll be there for two of the days. There will be over 200 teachers there.
He and other of my teachers endorsed me as a Lama, and that’s how I became a Lama. I lived over there in monasteries and ashrams and studied and also met a lot of the great Hindu saints and went to Japan and Burma and other places during those 15 or 20 years.
Around 1990, people started inviting me to teach at meditation centers and give lectures at universities, and lead workshops and meditation retreats and give motivational talks worldwide. I’ve been doing that ever since.
TMA: I spent some time lately with Awakening to the Sacred, your recent book, and I’ve been really enjoying it. I see that you are an — iconoclast would be too strong a word —
LSD: Something like that. Most Buddhist teachers don’t talk much about God. I think if we talk about spirituality in English today, we have to use the words we have, we can’t talk in Sanscrit.
TMA: That, and as you say in so many words, if Buddhism is going to transmitted in the West, it needs to be transmitted in Western! Because we’re not Tibetans and we’re not Indians. I have the greatest respect for the Dalai Lama, but when I hear him say that one should settle on one path and stick with it rather than take the smorgasbord approach, I have to disagree.
LSD: It’s good advice, but it’s not really American melting pot advice. It’s living in isolation until 1959 advice. It’s not dealing with the culture we live in. Just today a gay and lesbian magazine wanted to interview me and I said, “Why are you calling me?” and she said, “The Dalai Lama seems to be against homosexuality. What do you have to say? Can we practice meditation and get enlightened if we’re gay?” Of course I said yes. So that is iconoclastic. The Dalai is a great saint but he is a monk and is from a culture that lived in the Middle Ages until ten or 20 years ago. He’s placed in medieval culture, and suddenly landing in the 21st century is a huge culture gap.
I try to teach contemporary dharma, not just Buddhism, but I’m a Lama, a Buddhist teacher, [and I see that] many people want to deepen their spiritual quest. They’re praying to God, they’re doing yoga, they may still do something related to their religion of origin — that’s fine. I’m trying to maybe help people make the next step on their path. We can talk about enlightenment and those bigger things later and help people become more committed and more evolved and more studious. But for now, I think people are looking for a better life and a better world. To experience a transformation, not just a new bunch of beliefs to believe in.
I think teaching spiritual practices and answering people’s questions about them and showing people how to practice them is very important
today Then people get results. It’s almost like exercise. You feel the results quick enough not to have to wait until the next life to feel the benefits.
TMA: People need different teachings and different practices at different times in their life.
LSD: Yes, that’s true.
TMA: And everyone brings their own special combination of qualities to a practice.
LSD: I see the Buddha with the Light in everyone, and that’s an important part of Tibetan Buddhist practice. I’m not just the answer man to fix people up. Like everybody else, we’re all equal before God and before Buddha. Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses and people do have a lot of natural spirituality and love and wisdom in them already. I try to respect that and midwife or facilitate to bring that out. That’s where the path comes in, whether it’s a formal path or an individual search. People need to find it within themselves and within each other and within their relationships and their work and families . . . and that’s very much my message: How to make the spiritual connection today, how to awaken the heart of wisdom and compassion in themselves and not just give them a new set of dogmas that they have to believe in.
TMA: What kinds of things do you find yourself mainly focusing on these days?
LSD: Trying to teach deeper and fresher, attuning to the people who come to me, not just teaching what I’ve heard and learned. And writing and meditation and prayer, of course, and my own poetry and sensing the beauty and the joy of spirit through life, through relations, through love, through sex and children, through nature — all of this is part of the path. And I’m practicing this myself. I’m not a monk anymore, so it’s important to learn how to integrate these things into daily life.
These ancient, timeless teachings have a lot of very timely truths and can provide solutions, I think, for today and tomorrow. But it’s old wine and needs new bottles. The essence doesn’t change but it needs new forms. We need to know how to apply it in our life and in our society, so I’m also working on that. I’m also online, meeting the young people. I’m active on the Internet; I have a website, www.surya.org, and a Buddhist organization site, www.dzogchen.org. I led an online column for spiritual political belief every week. That’s where I meet the young people. I’m also thinking about the future generations and leadership and values and a better life. Not just meditation but some sort of leadership in that direction also. I think that’s very important for the future.
TMA: I read in your book, Awakening to the Sacred, where you mention that there are just countless ways to meditate and one needn’t sit for an hour.
LSD: That’s just one way and may not even be the best way. I like to jokingly say that sitting so long and solemnly is positively unAmerican. Chanting and walking meditation and eating meditation and yoga meditation and things like gardening and ocean-gazing and star-gazing can be meditation.
TMA: Even driving your car.
LSD: Driving can be meditation, but keep your eyes open, please.
TMA: I play golf as a meditation.
LSD: People tell me that. That’s why they like golf. People tell me bird-watching is one of the best meditations; they get very still and quiet and wait for any movement; it’s like watching the mind. Whatever you’re open to; I think that’s important to realize. Then we find we’re relating to other things in our life: we know how to focus; that’s one of the things we do a lot. I’m not into fishing because I don’t like to kill animals and fish, but a lot of people go and stand in the water all day by themselves and fish and most of them couldn’t do that without having little activity because little activity keeps them in a meditation space. That’s why they like it. It’s quiet, you’re undistracted and it’s peaceful. It’s a beautiful way of being.
TMA: What is meditation but directed consciousness?
LSD: That’s a very good question, Guy. You’ve obviously thought about this. I always say meditation is the intentional use of awareness, so that’s directed consciousness. It depends where you direct it to, of course. If you direct your consciousness towards negative ends, then I don’t know if you’d call it meditation, but it could be called concentration. But meditation has a spiritual goal, the goal of awakening, of enlightenment, of directing your consciousness to the present moment and toward things as they are, not as they ain’t. Basically, it’s mindfulness, living mindfully rather than mindlessly, with total presence of mind rather than going absent-mindedly through life. Paying attention, pays off in many ways. We can be mindful while we’re eating or while we’re talking or walking, mindful while we’re washing dishes or the diapers. We don’t have to sit with our eyes closed in meditation to be mindful.
That’s the clarion call or the wakeup call of American Buddhism, I think. Not just Buddhism but meditation and yoga and people doing it . . . it helps them get enlivened to goals in life and be more conscious, more wakeful rather than sleepwalking. More attentive, more peaceful, more clear and calm. It brings all these benefits. Along with enhancing your performance, it increases your focus and concentration.
Phil Jackson, the basketball coach, Tony Robbins, all kinds of performance coaches use meditative techniques because it helps us focus and concentrate and be more effective. So even in a more general worldly way, there is benefit. Of course there are health benefits to meditation . . . we all know that.
TMA: Are you personally seeking to merge with the Void and not come back?
LSD: Oh no, that’s just kind of a concept. I have a mission and I’ll probably be doing it forever. Even though my body might die I’ll go on doing this in some form or another, I think.
TMA: I went through that phase when I was younger that this was going to be the last time on the wheel for me for sure.
LSD: Rebirth control?
TMA: Rebirth control . . . I like it! (laughter) Then I came to a point where I don’t even think about that. I want to do as much good as I can and if I pile up karma doing it, then so be it.
What would you like to tell our readers?
LSD: I’ll probably be coming to Chicago next year after the publication of my next book, Awakening the Buddhist Heart. I have friends and followers there and I like Chicago. Things are happening . . . if they can’t come then, they can come next time. This isn’t just a one-shot deal. They can connect on my website. There’s a lot of good stuff there free. If people can’t come one weekend to something I’m doing, they can tune into something else I’m doing in the area.
I would like to say something about what I call my six building blocks of a spiritual life. A spiritual life is a well-rounded whole life, it’s not just about meditation or yoga or being like a Sunday Christian, but there’s another six and a half days of the week. My students have a training program where they commit themselves to a daily practice of some form. It could be meditation or it could be yoga or prayer or scripture reading, but a daily practice of some form. And also some spiritual study, something requiring introspection. Reading, tapes, lectures, however it comes in. And third, inner growth work. It could be through therapy, conscious eating or an exercise regimen or men’s or women’s groups or 12-Step Program. It could be journal writing, keeping a dream journal, creative arts and so on — anything that’s inner growth oriented. And fourth, sometimes group practice so they don’t feel isolated, being part of a group or having a spiritual friend because it’s hard to do it alone and it’s very supportive to have a spiritual friend. Relating to a mentor or spiritual guide or somebody a little more experienced who can help us to grow and stay on a good path.
And fifth, relating to teachers. And sixth, serving the Highest by serving humanity; giving back, and there are various ways to do that . . . volunteering, charity work, community making or just being an informed parent or working for the environment. Whatever we can do to give back in service has always been part of the high road to awakening. We don’t have to do all of those; even if we do only one or two a day we’ll see that all life will be transformed.
Lama Surya Das, a leading spokesperson for the merging of American Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, is a poet, translator, and full-time spiritual teacher who leads lectures, workshops, and meditation retreats worldwide. He is the author of three books, including the national bestselling Awakening the Buddha Within, is active in interfaith dialogue, is a regular contributor of Tricycle magazine, Yoga Journal and The Shambhala Sun. Lama Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications including New Age Journal, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times.
A Conversation with Robert Thurman about Infinite Life
Q: How is this book different from your previous book, Inner Revolution?
A: It goes further in the direction of empowering the individual to practice the inner transformations that underlie the social-historical changes tracked out in Inner Revolution. It’s a sort of “how to make the Inner Revolution happen within yourself” follow-up. It also can work for someone without their having read Inner Revolution, though some might naturally want to.
Q: Your title refers to the Buddhist belief that our lives continue in some way for eternity. Why is this belief so critical? Isn’t it a big stumbling block for many Westerners?
A: Some modern people, Eastern as well as Western, might think the idea of personal continuity beyond death a “stumbling block,” since they’ve been sold on the idea of death as a terminal disconnect by the scientific culture of the last few centuries, which pretends to have the keys to “the good life.” But this idea is more imprisoning than liberating.
Q: There’s a popular misconception that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to become so enlightened that one then withdraws in bliss from the rest of the world. Yet you say that this is simply not so. Please explain.
A: There is an elementary form of Buddhism for individuals who feel intimidated by the vastness and complexity of life that allows them to think (although it is careful not to directly say so) of Nirvana as a final withdrawal into a disconnected bliss. The mainstream form of Buddhism teaches that ultimately Nirvana is not a place apart from the relative world, but rather a way of being in the world. When your wisdom has seen your selflessness, you become full of the bliss of ultimate freedom, which then naturally enables you to overflow with the universal love that wishes such bliss for all other beings. In short, in mainstream Buddhism you can have your bliss and share it, too!
Q: You write that people don’t necessarily need to become Buddhists to apply Buddhist teachings to their own lives, that the teachings are compatible with other religions or no religion. How does this work?
A: “Becoming a Buddhist” implies adopting some sort of conventional identity and label that associates you with a historical institution. Such identities and associations don’t always help everyone. The aim of the Buddha was to provide people with an education in ethics, mind, and wisdom, which would help them become freer, less selfish, and happier. Once they feel better and do better, they can choose their ways of being and their associations, depending on what best serves self and other in particular circumstances. In most societies, it is best to be harmonious with the mores and beliefs of the other people, and try to make things better within the existing forms of life.
Q: You are a passionate supporter of Tibet and a founder of Tibet House in New York, which seeks to preserve that nation’s endangered civilization. Aside from humanitarian concerns for the Tibetan people and their welfare, what is unique about Tibetan culture?
A: Tibetan culture is based on a set of principles from the heart of the Buddha’s movement – individualism, nonviolence, educationalism, altruism, and egalitarianism – and could be said to have made not the perfect but the best effort so far in embodying those principles in social reality. This is what makes it so specially worthy of preservation and restoration – though all human cultures are of great intrinsic value.
Q: You have been a close friend of the Dalai Lama for several decades. What is he like?
A: The Dalai Lama is a great guy – highly intelligent, kind, and good-humored. He is also invariably illuminating and inspiring. It is a privilege to know him and an honor to try to help him.
Q: You became the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk back in 1965, ordained by the Dalai Lama himself in India. Then you returned to the United States and became a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University. But you are often in the public spotlight as an advocate for Tibet, and you’ve been called the most influential voice of Buddhism in the West. You regularly hobnob with movie stars like Richard Gere, and your own daughter, Uma Thurman, is a famous actress. How do you reconcile these very different sides of yourself? Or aren’t they very different?
A: Though I do have different sides and am still a highly imperfect individual, I don’t see any dichotomy between aspiring to practice Buddhist virtues, studying and teaching about the nature of the mind, reality, and history, and having good friends, whether famous or not. Of course, having a wonderful daughter like Uma is a special bit of good karma – and we are very proud of her.
Q: When you were a young man, it seemed as if you were headed for a rather conventional future as the well-educated son of a prosperous and socially prominent New York family. Then you lost an eye in an accident, and turned in an unexpected direction. What did that event mean to you, and how has it caused you to change?
A: “Conventional” was certainly the heading I was on, though I also had a lot of fun as a wild youth. The accident was a deep shock, an introduction to mortality and suffering, and it helped me awaken to the deeper possibilities of life. My old teacher used to tell me to go ahead and answer this question by saying that “the loss of that one eye helped me to develop the sight of a thousand eyes”! I think he meant the thousand eyes associated with the wisdom of selflessness and the universal compassion that cares for all beings.
Q: What do you think accounts for the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West? Can Westerners really understand Buddhism and practice it fully?
A: The Buddha encouraged us all, especially human beings, that we do have the capacity to understand – not only Buddhism, but ourselves, and even all reality – fully and completely. Of course, we have to develop that capacity, and that takes work and sustained effort. However, in no way should it be specially hard for westerners to gain such understanding and put it into practice. “Baby steps, baby steps,” as Bill Murray says in his funny film What About Bob?
Q: In your book, you give very specific instructions about how to practice the Buddhist virtues. Can you explain what the main virtues are, and speak a little bit about their roles?
A: Wisdom is the key to unlocking the ability to practice all the other Buddhist virtues: generosity, just morality, patience, creativity, concentration, and artful activity. Explaining how to practice them and how they help you reach true happiness is what the book itself is about. First, understand what is real about you and your world. Then give to others as much as you can. Be sensitive to their needs and feelings, and interact with them fairly, justly, and harmoniously. When they step on your toes, be patient and don’t add to the stress by getting mad. Be creative in expanding your own happiness and in sharing it with others. Learn to concentrate your attention and mind to develop a deeper appreciation of and insight into life. And as your wisdom itself gets deeper and deeper, you will become more and more artful in your way of living and sharing.
Q: The title of your book also refers to the Buddhist belief that all life is interconnected, and that we each bear some measure of responsibility for enlightening and improving the whole world. How does one begin to go about such a daunting task?
A: The task is not at all daunting once we realize that “We are the world,” as the song says. There is no escape. We will keep on experiencing it all. It is possible to ensure that we experience happiness for ourselves and those we love. And so we just do it. An ancient proverb says that the journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step. It is every step. We change the world every day, with every breath. Might as well see to it that it’s as much as possible for the better!
Interview provided by Riverhead Books, publishers of Infinite Life.
A Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi
Ajahn Brahmavamso & Gil Alon
interviewed by Rachael Kohn
“The Spirit of Things” radio program,
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Sunday 09 March 2003
Two Westerners who became Buddhists could not have chosen more different paths.
Details or Transcript:
Ajahn Brahm of the Thai Forest Tradition is the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia – a retreat for many a weary traveller and roaming Buddhist. Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi who travels the world as a theatre director and drama coach, and for whom Zen is the perfect philosophy for life on stage.
Rachael Kohn: How different can two Buddhists be? Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn and this is The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National. A Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi; the first prefers the tranquillity of a rural monastery; the other takes his tranquillity to the stage, where he acts and directs theatre.
In fact, this is one of the exercises that Israeli-born Zen Roshi Gil Alon teaches his acting students.
Gil Alon: One of the very basic Buddhist ideas which is not only Buddhist, but we use it as an example, they talk about the one-ness, the one-ness that everything is one, everyone is one, and of course you can talk about it for hours, but if you do not experience it, it’s worthless. So one of the exercises I ask my students to find a partner, each one to find a partner and seat one in front of the other, folded legs, holding hands in a very relaxed way, and for something like 10 or 15 minutes, just to stare at their partner’s eyes. That’s it. And immediately they are embarrassed, and it’s difficult because we don’t do it usually.
And I ask them not to talk while they’re doing it, not to look in other directions, not to make funny faces and not to move with the background music that I play, but I tell them surprisingly you are allowed to laugh, because laughter is out of embarrassment, so when laughter is coming just laugh it out until its finished. But in one condition: don’t use the laughter to remove your eyes from your partner’s eyes, just laugh into his eyes or her eyes.
And then after five minutes or so, it comes down, and people experience the real one-ness, because just staring into the other eyes for a certain time without removing your eyes, you discover endless depths of mutual one-ness. And then when they share what they’ve been through, each couple can tell you a different story, but they all share the experience of this one-ness. This is only one example.
Rachael Kohn: How does that help in the acting situation?
Gil Alon: It helps, according to my perception of acting, that they start to drop judgements, they start to drop competition because real acting, real creativity on stage happens only when you give yourself totally to your partner, and the partner is giving himself totally to you, and you both give yourself totally to the objects on stage and to the audience. And then creativity appears, not by competition, not by trying to show off or all these kinds of things. This is my perception.
Rachael Kohn: I remember doing one of those exercises; once you stop thinking you’ll go crazy, it’s quite good. That was Gil Alon, and later in the program we’ll hear how one of Israel’s television personalities became a Zen Roshi, off and on the stage.
* * *
Finding peace in the fast lane of the entertainment world is quite different from the kind of life that Ajahn Brahmavamso chose as a young man. Born in London and educated in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, he became a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. Now the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery, in Serpentine, Western Australia, he’s in demand as a speaker and is known for his story telling.
Although simplicity is the essence of monastic life, and that’s particularly so in the rural setting of Serpentine, the whole point of Buddhist insight is to find tranquillity in the midst of chaos. And that’s how it was when I c aught up with Ajahn Brahm in the Bodhikusuma Buddhist and Meditation Centre located in the noisy inner city suburb of Chippendale in Sydney, where the transport trucks rumbled by just outside the door.
Ajahn Brahm, you’ve been a monk for some years now, was it when you were 23?
Ajahn Bramavanso: When I was 23, I decided I’d had enough of the world and became a monk. I used to be a schoolteacher before, and that’s enough to make anyone leave the world and become a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Now I thought you had been studying physics at Cambridge University.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, that was before I became a schoolteacher. I thought I’d do something good with my life, instead of making bombs or things like that. And so I decided to try schoolteaching. However, after a while the whole feeling for a monastic life, or for something spiritual, was very strong inside of me. And one of the lovely things about Buddhist monastic life, in the Thai tradition was you can become a monk just for a short time.
So I decided I would take a couple of years off my career life, and then go off to Thailand, become a monk, get it out of my system, and then go back to the world again. But once I became a monk, something happened very quickly that I realised that’s what I always wanted to do, I felt so comfortable in the role of a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Were you actually taking refuge as it were, away from the school life, I mean teaching children? What was it that really made you take quite a radical step.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, what really made me take that step was a realisation that deep inside there was much more to life than just getting on in one’s career or in relationships. Perhaps one of the most moving experiences in my life was one of my first meditation retreats. I did get into a very deep state of meditation, which was so joyful, it was so much bliss. And that never left me, and I wanted to find out what exactly that meant and how it fits in to the scheme of things. So that degree of deep meditation was something which changed a lot of perspectives on the meaning of life. I wanted to explore those perspectives more, and that could only be done in monastic life.
Rachael Kohn: Well the description you give of life in Thailand doesn’t exactly sound joyful. I mean you spent a lot of time building monasteries, in fact I think it totals to about 20 years building monasteries, in rather difficult circumstances.
Ajahn Bramavanso: It was difficult physically, building the monasteries, but there was always a lot of fun around, and it was done joyfully. For example one of my stories was when we were building the main hall in my teacher Ajahn Chah’s monastery, there was a lot of earth left over and we had to move that earth from one place to another because Ajahn Chah, my teacher, said it didn’t look good over there.
It took three whole days of very hard work from 9 o’clock in the morning until about 10pm with hardly any breaks. We’d already eaten our meal for the day, and that was one day after the other in the tropical heat. When we were finished, we were very happy but then Ajahn Chah left for another monastery. The following morning, his deputy abbot came up to us and said he thought the soil was in the wrong place and we had to move it. So for another three days we moved it to another spot, and again I was very happy when it was all finished.
But the next day, Ajahn Chah came back and he said, ‘What did you put the soil over there for, I told you to leave it over here.’ And so for another three days we had to move the soil again. And of course by this time I was getting very angry and upset. And being a Westerner, in an Asian monastery, I could swear in English without anyone understanding. But they did understand because they could see my body language.
And I always remember one monk coming up to me and saying, ‘It’s pushing the wheelbarrow is easy, it’s the thinking about it which is hard.’ And that’s changed the whole perspective of what I was doing. As soon as I stopped complaining and moaning, it was easy to push that wheelbarrow, in fact it felt much lighter. And this is actually how I learned about the secrets, one of the secrets, of monastic life. Didn’t matter what you were doing, whether you were sitting for hours and hours and hours in your hut, whether you were working building a monastery, there’s a thinking about it which made it hard.
Rachael Kohn: Well it also sounds like one of the secrets of monastic life is learning how to take orders. I mean it’s positively torture, isn’t it? to be told to do one thing and then to undo it and then re-do it again?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well sometimes. If you look from my perspective it seems like it should be, look for another perspective, it wasn’t at all. It was just again, one can make anything torture, one could make sort of eating torture, or being interviewed torture, but it’s one’s attitude which is the most important thing, and this is one of the things you really found in monastic life, it’s how you approached it. And a lot of times you had a choice. If you were going to keep those old silly ways of looking at life, then you would suffer. But if you actually changed the way you looked at life, in other words you did learn some wisdom, you find it was no problem at all.
Rachael Kohn: Were you always interested in your attitude to things? I mean were you always a kind of perfectionist, to try to find just the right sort of happiness, because when I think of happiness and most of us are quite content with some happiness and some unhappiness, you know the combination is what life delivers in most cases. But you seem to be going for the kind of almost magical solution to find happiness in all things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Correct, yes, because I always thought that the search for happiness is the underlying force of life. No matter what we’re doing in our world, in our life, it’s always a search for some sort of happiness. Then again, one of those early experiences of deep bliss in meditation gave me a taste of some happiness which was out of this world. And so once you’ve tasted that you wanted to make even a deeper search into the meaning of happiness.
The meaning of happiness is the meaning of life. And so it wasn’t just the meaning of happiness in meditation, it was also the meaning of happiness in anything you were doing. Because even sometimes your body gave you orders in saying, ‘Now you have to sleep’ or ‘Now you have to be sick’ or ‘Now you can’t do what you want’. So it didn’t matter whether there was something else in life which stopped you doing what you wanted to do. That was like the orders of life, and you had a chance there to actually let go, to surrender to the moment when you can’t change things, and be content. And that’s one of the wonderful things which I found in Buddhist practice. You can be happy, no matter what’s going on.
Rachael Kohn: In fact you tell a story about going to a prison and speaking to prisoners, where you described your life to them, and they’re so shocked, they actually say, ‘Gee, come and live with us, it’s a lot nicer here than a monastic life’. In fact stories are quite important to you, in the way that you communicate.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Life is lived in stories, not in thoughts. Thoughts are almost like a second-hand report of what actually happens in your life. So if you can take the stories of life and illustrate from them the meanings of life, I think people can relate to it much more easily. So I like those stories.
Just to actually complete that story which you only mentioned in part when one of my monks, it wasn’t myself, another monk was teaching in jail, after the session they asked him about what it was like in a Buddhist monastery in the West, and we told him we get up so early in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning and then we have to go to this cold hall to sit for hours cross-legged, meditating, and doing some chanting. And then only afterwards, maybe at 6.30, we might get a cup of tea, and then you have to work for three or four hours, hard work, before you can get some lunch. And that lunch is just what you’re given, you’ve got no choice, and it’s all eaten in one bowl, all mixed together. So it’s not very delicious at all. And in the afternoon it’s usually more work in those days. And then you can’t watch the television, there is no television or radio, and you can’t follow sport, you can’t play sports, you can’t play music or listen to music. There’s no movies to watch, and there’s nothing in the evening, you can’t eat in the evening, except just to go to the main hall and to sit in more meditation, cross-legged on the hard floor for hours, and when you do go back to your hut to sleep, it’s on the floor, in the cold.
And so when I said this, or when this monk said this, the prisoners were very shocked, and this is when one of the prisoners forgot where they were and said, ‘That’s disgusting, that’s terrible, that’s awful; why don’t you monks come and live in here with us, in the jail?’ which was crazy, they forgot where they were. But the important part of that story was the reason why my monks and other people who visit the monastery like to stay there, and it’s because they’re content, they don’t look upon a monastery as a prison, simply because it’s where they want to be. Whereas prisoners in a jail, because they don’t want to be there, therefore it is a prison.
Rachael Kohn: It’s all about freedom, isn’t it, about our perspective on freedom, what constitutes freedom. I mean when I think about what constitutes freedom for me, it’s spontaneity, it’s learning, it’s choice. What is it for you?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well there’s two types of freedom. The freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, and most people in the world only know the freedom of desire, the freedom of choice. In Buddhism, especially in meditation, we’re looking at the freedom from choice, the freedom from desire.
So one is so content, so at peace, that desires don’t come up. One is free from the tyranny of these desires always pushing or pulling you, and telling you what to do. And it’s those are the orders which are coming from inside of each one of us, ordering us to be somehow different, ordering the pain to go away, ordering us to achieve some sort of goal, which we don’t really know why we’re reaching for this, but we’re supposed to do it. So these are the orders which in meditation we’re becoming free of.
Rachael Kohn: Did you always know why you were reaching for this goal to be a Buddhist monk, to be an abbot.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No, an abbot just happened by bad luck, but being an Buddhist monk, I’d always had an inclination, that even though you saw many, many people who had so many things, that they did seem to have the opportunity to live their dreams, their dreams never stopped, they were never free from this, always reaching out, this stretching, this hunger, this thirst, and that hunger, that thirst, like any hungry person or thirsty person, is not all that comfortable. Sometimes we want to end thirst, we want to end hunger and be satisfied forever, but that never seemed to happen. But when I came across some Buddhist monks, they were the happiest people I’d ever seen.
They appeared to be free, and even though that many wealthy people, successful people in the world, they are looked upon as being icons, looked upon as being people we try and emulate. If you actually asked them, or interview them and ask the question ‘Do you really feel free?’ then I think they would give some very interesting answers. But if you ask a monk who lives in a monastery with many rules, and many things you can’t do, if you ask a monk ‘Do you feel free?’ actually the feeling is freedom. So the ideas of freedom, the freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, in our modern world, we’ve got so much liberty to follow our desires and actually achieve those desires, basically we can do almost anything we want. But how many people feel free?
Rachael Kohn: It all depends on what we expect from life. I know that your message is often about happiness, and how the point of life is kind of like that song, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, which is all about changing one’s attitude, not really about changing the world. And yet you would know, that that kind of an attitude can also be breeding a certain indifference to the world.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, well I don’t think this relates to indifference at all, because many people change their attitude and the world changes with it.
Now the attitude of anger, of trying to get rid of problems, is like the attitude to the pest exterminator, and the attitude of the pest exterminator is instead of trying to live with nature, he always wanted control and eliminate all those things which create problem for us, and that could be a husband or a wife or it could be sort of some enemy which we perceive as being our pest. And you find you can’t eliminate all the pests in the world, nor can you eliminate the pests in your own body, like cancers and other sicknesses. Nor can you eliminate the pests in the world. Some time there comes a time to learn how to leave at peace and in harmony with nature.
Rachael Kohn: Does Buddhism ever teach a resistance to things which are dangerous, which are bad, which are evil?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, we teach a resistance to anger, we teach a resistance to jealousies, we teach a resistance to stupidity. Those are the things which we should really be resisting, you know, the anger and the feelings of revenge, the hurt, the grief, the guilt inside of us, all those negative emotions which make our world. Those are the things which we want to resist, to understand, to overcome, by letting go. And so those things aren’t there any more.
Rachael Kohn: I like the story that you tell about the lecturer who comes into the classroom and brings a jar full of rocks. Can you tell that story?
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, yes, that’s actually from the internet, so many of your listeners will probably know that one, but it’s a good story. There was a lecturer at a university who was showing just how broad his wisdom was, and instead of reading out his lecture notes one morning, he came with a big jar and put it on his desk. And while everybody in his class was wondering what he was up to, he started to put in some stones from a bag, one by one, into the jar until he could get no more in. And once he could get no more stones into his jar, he asked his class ‘Is the jar full?’ and the class said, ‘Yes, it is.’
He smiled, and from under the desk he got out another bag, and that bag was full of gravel, small stones and one by one he managed to fit those small stones in the spaces between the big rocks. And once he could get no more small stones in, he looked up at his class and asked ‘Is the jar full?’ Now they all shook their heads and said, ‘No’. They were on to him by now. And so he smiled and got another bag, of sand. He poured that sand on top of the big rocks and small rocks, shook the jar, much of the sand went into the spaces between the big rocks and small rocks. After he could get no more sand in, he asked once more, ‘Is the jar full?’ And gain the class said ‘No’. And he got some water and poured that in. And after he could get no more water in, he stopped, he asked the class, ‘What am I trying to prove? What is the purpose of this demonstration?’
Now this was a business school, so one of the students in the class put up their hand and said, ‘Sir, it shows to us that no matter how busy our schedule, we can always fit something more in.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, that’s not what I’m trying to show. What I’m trying to show is if you want to fit the big rocks in, you have to fit them in first. Don’t leave them to the last, otherwise you will never get them in.’ It was a story about priorities, what you should really fit in to your schedule of your day, of your life first of all.
So there are some things which many people realise are the precious stones, the big rocks of their life, like their family, like their relationships, like their peace of mind, whatever it is, and sometimes we leave them till last in our day, in our week, in our life, we find we never have the opportunity to fit them in. And that’s one of the reasons why people don’t find happiness. Their priorities are not correct. We should always remember that story of the stones in the jar, and put into our life what’s very, very important first of all. The other things you can always fit in, but later.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, are there any more things that you want to fit into your jar?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Fit into the jar? Just peace and happiness for myself and for others. I mean after all, that’s what’s most important to me in my life, is the happiness of myself and the happiness of others, but what I found after many years of life as a monk, I cannot distinguish between the happiness of others and the happiness of myself. So that’s why I go out and serve as much as possible, to give talks, to tell stupid stories to make them laugh.
Rachael Kohn: You’re very good at it.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Thanks very much.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, we’re sitting in front of what looks to be a fairly traditional altar I suppose, with the great Golden Buddha in the centre, and lots of lotus flowers around. Can you explain the symbolism of this?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes certainly. I mean we have at the very top there, a golden Buddha sitting in meditation with a bit of a smile on his face, and obviously that’s a symbol of peace, and when people see images like that, it’s meant to engender a very soft and gentle feeling inside of them of peace. We have the candles on the sides of the Buddha, that’s always been like the symbol of wisdom, because you have to light a candle to dispel the darkness, and for a long time that has been a symbol of enlightenment, so the wisdom is there, no-one owns wisdom, but we need to have a candle in order to actually see it for ourselves.
We have also on our shrine here, the lotus. The lotus is also a very potent symbol of Buddhism. Some of the lotuses we have there are ornamental, with many, many leaves on them, many petals, which is a symbol of the thousand petalled lotus, which is one of my favourite symbols for meditation, because to open the petals of a lotus, it means that the sun has to maintain its warmth on the thousandth petal before that opens up to reveal the 999th petal, and the sun has to stay on that thousand petal lotus a long time before it starts to open up the innermost petals.
The innermost petals of a lotus are the most fragrant, the most subtle and the most beautiful, and if you’re lucky, and the sun maintains its warmth long enough, then the heart of the lotus can really open up and you can see what is called the jewel in the heart of the lotus. That is the very old mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, om mani padme hum, Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus. It’s a symbol for meditation because you have to have mindfulness, unremitting, without any interference or stopping for a long time, to open up this thousand petalled lotus of your mind and to see what’s truly inside, the jewel in the heart of you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No trouble, thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahmavanso was my guest on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National. I’m Rachael Kohn, and you can find details of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, on our website.
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Rachael Kohn: Gil Alon is an Israeli-born entertainer, who started earning his living as an actor from the age of 16. He had an unusual but very popular television show for 8 years which you’ll hear about. But his main work is now as a director and acting coach. In the midst of all this, Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi in the Soto School of Buddhism.
His interest in Buddhism was sparked by a collection of Chinese stories that he read at the age of 21.
Well to make him feel at home, I met Gil in a rehearsal studio down in the Sydney Wharf Theatre Complex under the Harbour Bridge. There he told me about the unexpected appeal of those Chinese stories.
Gil Alon: I don’t think it’s something logical. There were sort of what they call koans, you know, pointless stories, so-called. I think I was puzzled by the fact that although I didn’t understand them, it didn’t bother me that I don’t understand them. Which was unique, because I have to understand, and somehow with these stories, I said, OK, I have no idea, no clue what is the meaning of these stories, so fine, OK.
Rachael Kohn: So was it something in the challenge of being an actor that made you turn again, once again, to those stories?
Gil Alon: Well later on, yes, but first of all, as looking for means to quieten the hectic life of an actor was the first reason to look for something to be relaxed, to find kind of technique, meditation or whatever. Because I knew that my schedule daily started at 7 in the morning, ends 1 o’clock after midnight. And I loved it so much, but I wanted to find the way to continue this kind of schedule, but with tranquillity. Then when I found the Japanese Zen meditation, it was again very natural for me.
Rachael Kohn: What did your Zen training involve?
Gil Alon: Well first of all when I started to look for something, I discovered that one of the alternative medicine colleges in Israel opened a Zen and High Awareness Department. So I went there and I started to study, and there was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher there because we had lots of teachers and we had kind of introduction, including all kinds of spiritual paths which are not Zen Buddhism. That’s how we got glimpse and opened windows to all other kinds of disciplines.
So it was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher who was a Korean monk for seven years in a Korean monastery. Then gradually, as his disciple, I became his assistant and then when he could not attend the classes, one day he told me, ‘This is your time, now you take it.’ And I had to face the class. And then he took me with him to other parts of Israel where he would teach and yes, gradually it started to develop.
Rachael Kohn: But becoming a Zen Roshi is fairly demanding; did you think that you’d be able to maintain your acting career as well as being a Zen Roshi?
Gil Alon: Well I didn’t mean to, it happened. You know, when I started to travel and to study in other countries, because I was interested in other kinds of Buddhism, and finally when I arrived to Japan I found the master and this master, being recommended by my teacher in Israel, and when I found this 83-years-old Japanese Master, again it was immediate contact, and something was very strong there. But again, I was there to study, that’s it. So he has a centre which has no discipline, which I like so much.
Rachael Kohn: What do you mean ‘has no discipline’? Surely all Buddhism has some form of meditation and study.
Gil Alon: They have the formal Zazen meditation which is the meditation that if you don’t know nothing about it, the nun who’s taking care of this centre will show you once how to do it, then they leave you alone, they have four times a day in a regular day, official times for meditation, but nobody forces you, it’s up to you how many times you meditate, how much time you spend in the library studying, and how many hours you spend with the Master, it’s up to you, and this is what I like, because I don’t like people telling me what to do. So when I have a free frame, I do more. So I spent hours upon hours with my Master, nagging him, asking, asking, and nagging, and then I understood that I’m going to convert, and I took the Buddhist precepts and became officially Buddhist and continued to be with him.
And suddenly one day, he said, ‘OK if you want Dharma transmission, we do it.’ And I still didn’t know what does it mean exactly. And they have more bombastic title for this, which for me was very frightening, because I said, ‘So what does it mean?’ He said, ‘You will become the 91st Patriarch of the Lineage’, and I had the transmission and I flew immediately to South Korea because I had a tour planned for me, going all around the country teaching theatre groups. So I had no time to adjust, I didn’t understand what happen. And I was in kind of a panic, because I said, ‘What shall I do with this title? What is it?’ And then, kind of an understanding appeared that this is only a title, it’s a door. Now I should start to walk, and then I started to calm down a little bit.
Rachael Kohn: Is that when you decided to somehow make your Zen part of your technique of acting, or something that you could impart to acting groups?
Gil Alon: Well yes, again I can say looking backwards it was a process of realisation because I was approaching from two different angles to the same point, and concerning art, I was always concerned, is it possible to be the art? Go on stage without all the rubbish that all the actors have in their mind, (‘I’m better than him’; ‘I’m very bad today’; ‘The people laughed less than yesterday’; ‘The director is in the auditorium, today I’m very bad, I will not get the role in the next production’) all this kind of rubbish is going inside our mind while uttering the text, while playing the scene. So is it possible just to be the art itself, in the moment, in the now. And this is my exploration.
Rachael Kohn: So in fact what you’re saying is that there’s a certain affinity between Zen Buddhism and the art of acting?
Gil Alon: Of course. With all the arts, but with the art of acting as well. I’ll give you an example of what I do with my students. Part of the introduction exercises, I play a piece of music and I ask them to move, but let the music move you; try not to decide, try not to judge, don’t be dancers, don’t make choreography, every movement is acceptable, and see if it’s possible if you have an idea how to move your hand, do something else. And try to conquer the thoughts which most of us are haunted by. Just do. And we all face this very moment that we stand there, ‘What can I do? I have no ideas’. When you think that you have no ideas, or your ideas are finished, this is only your opinion, there’s nothing to do with reality because if you just do something physically, then ideas will come and you understand that ideas are endless, it’s not possible that your ideas will be finished.
Rachael Kohn: How different is it from some of the traditional methods that actors use to prepare for a role, such as method acting, when you try to grasp the essence of a character. Is this Zen approach very different from that?
Gil Alon: Yes. I mean Zen approach is also inclusive, and when you work on a character there are many, many angles that you combine to one character finally. But I believe that each one of us as an actor or as a human being, we have all the emotions that exist in the world, it doesn’t matter if they are repressed or on the surface, but we have everything now. So there is no need to remember my grandmother who passed away 20 years ago in order to cry, it’s not necessary to remember something funny that happened to me, or someone tickled me yesterday and I have to remember this in order to laugh now. Just do it. And it’s possible. Cry now. Laugh now. Feel pain now. Because everything is now in everyone.
Rachael Kohn: It sounds like some of your workshops probably look like group therapy sessions.
Gil Alon: Well I will not call it like this because I never deal with personal problems, I never ask someone to talk about himself. But it is emotional, yes. People cry, people laugh, because they discover themselves, and because there is a big relief when I say ‘Please don’t be good. Don’t compete, I’m not interested, and I will never tell you if the exercise was bad or good, because if you manage to do what I ask you to do, you’ll learn something about yourself, and if you cannot manage to do what I ask you to do, you also learn something about yourself. So it’s not possible that a wrong exercise will appear in our workshop.
Rachael Kohn: Well the approach you take not to judge someone’s performance is probably very attractive to the actor who is often quite sensitive about judgements.
Gil Alon: Yes. We are all educated not only in the arts field, all our life to build our confidence with things from outside, you know, people love me, I feel better; I’m criticised, I feel sad; if 3,000 people came to see me in the auditorium, I’m good, if only 8 came I’m bad, but art doesn’t care. It’s you who cares. So that’s what I’m trying to investigate and to share with the students.
Rachael Kohn: Gil, you’re from Israel, and I wondered how much Buddhism has made inroads into Israel?
Gil Alon: Well the spiritual trend in Israel is extremely big, and wherever you go, everyone is into meditation, reiki, aromatherapy massage, self-development, New Age stuff, whatever you want. So it’s a secular country, everyone can practice whatever he wants, so it’s there.
Rachael Kohn: Do you find any unusual affinities between Zen Buddhism and Judaism?
Gil Alon: Well as far as I understood from my other studies, when you go into the roots, the crystal root of the philosophies of the religions, they come to the same point from different angles. And for me this is the same, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Did you find the Zen koans or the Zen stories have any similarities to Jewish stories?
Gil Alon: Yes, I mean if you are familiar with the stories of Bal Shem Tov and the Rabbi Nakhman of Braslav, they are Zen stories, they are Zen koans in a way. And I think one book of the Bible, I hope I can pronounce it correctly in English, in Hebrew it’s …
Rachael Kohn: Ecclesiastes.
Gil Alon: Yes. So this is a Zen book.
Rachael Kohn: What’s the quality, say of Ecclesiastes, which makes you see it as a Zen document?
Gil Alon: First of all this is my point of view, and second, I think it’s a tricky book and it’s up to you because you can choose to read it optimistic and you can choose to read it pessimistic. And it’s up to you.
Rachael Kohn: You’ve been in many theatre productions in Israel, such as ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera. Is there any one that for you has a strong kind of Buddhist outlook or ethic?
Gil Alon: Well after my first tour in South East Asia when I came back to Israel, I got a role in a new Israeli production which opened new Israeli theatre up north and my role was a monk, a Taoist monk, crazy Taoist monk. So that was a very, very direct expression of what happened to me and it was amazing. And the play was so good, by an Israeli who knew nothing about Taoism and nothing about Zen, and it was amazing because he wrote it, you know, just like this. And I said ‘How do you know what’s written there?’ He said, ‘I don’t know’, and I opened the Scriptures that I got from Japan and I told him, ‘It’s the same, you talk about the same words, even the same words’, and it was really, really a fascinating experience.
Rachael Kohn: Does the theatre mean something special, something more to you than entertainment?
Gil Alon: Well what is entertainment and what is theatre? These are kind of labels, because I did entertainment as well. I had a one man show that ran eight years where I used to tell jokes according to subjects from the audience, and this was in one hand pure entertainment, but on second hand I felt like military service because I was never relaxed, because I could be always surprised, and I had to keep myself on the edge all the time. It was unbelievable laboratory for me. Again it was an entertainment but I also consider it as a Zen experience because many koans are jokes, and a joke is a glimpse of enlightenment. This is one example; entertainment we consider lighter than theatre, more simple than theatre, or more shallow than theatre, but again, it depends on you what you do with it.
Rachael Kohn: Does your Buddhism serve your acting, or is it the other way round?
Gil Alon: I started to reconcile it in myself as an actor, and to find the way how can I go on stage and be the art, not bothering with the ideas, with the commentaries, with the reactions, I mean it’s very nice when people clap you and laugh but not losing confidence if it’s not. But it’s an endless process.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think you’re a better actor now that you’re a Zen Roshi as well?
Gil Alon: I will leave it to the others to say, but I hope that I can be more connected to art itself than all the things around that we are burdened with usually.
Rachael Kohn: How does the Zen community actually feel about you being an actor? Are you breaking any kind of rules there, or is that the essence of Zen anyway, to break rules?
Gil Alon: Well first of all personally I think that rules are meant to be broken, and it’s a must to break rules. But in Israel I don’t know anyone who is into Zen and acting, but since I started to travel, I found, and I gave a Dharma talk in Perth, in the Zen community in Perth, and they told me, ‘Oh, we have an actor in our group’, and they introduced him to me, a musician is there, and a singer is there, and we all know it from all over the world, not only Zen but more and more artists are practising Buddhism in this way or another.
Rachael Kohn: Is there a certain philosophical affinity between the acting life and Buddhism? Because it seems to me Buddhist outlook talks about the transience of all things, that things are born and pass away, and the actor is also making a world that disappears after two hours, it’s just, you know, he’s inventing a world. Is there a kind of natural affinity there?
Gil Alon: Yes, and I totally agree with your definition, and I would continue it by saying that both my Zen and my drama masters used to say that the way to transcend this, what you said, is through action. Just the now is important, only what I say now on the stage. I cannot rely on the fact that I was good yesterday. Who cares? Or I will be good tomorrow. Now is needed. So this is what I heard from all my drama education, and suddenly I started my journey into Zen and I hear the same, in a way. So I said, ‘Oh, something is similar here; it should be investigated.’
Rachael Kohn: And Israeli theatre director Gil Alon has never stopped investigating it, to the benefit, it seems, of his students.
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That’s The Spirit of Things for this week. The program was produced by me and Geoff Wood with technical production by Stephen Tilley.
With the world spotlight currently on Iraq, next week we take a look at one of the ethnic minorities there, the Kurdish people and their complex and ancient religious history. In fact they might have been the very first monotheists. That’s the Kurds next week on The Spirit of Things.
Till then, so long from me, Rachael Kohn.
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Guests on this program:
Ajahn Brahmavamso is the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Buddhist Monastery in Western Australia, and Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. He trained as a monk in the Thai Therevadan tradition under the guidence of the renowned meditation master Ajahn Chah.
Gil Alon is an Israeli actor, theatre director and Zen Roshi in the Soto tradition.
A peaceful mind
Venerable Kelsang Lodro is the Principal Kadampa Buddhist Teacher for the London area. He became a monk ten years ago, after several years of training at one of the largest Buddhist colleges in Europe.
He is known for his powerful teachings, his heart of compassion and the way he challenges and inspires others to transform their minds and their lives.
The meaning of life Q&A
Do you believe in life after death?
Yes, most certainly.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A rock star!
Have you ever had a life-changing moment?
When I attended my first Buddhist Teaching I felt that finally I have come home.
What will your funeral be like?
Not interested as I won’t be there. People can do what they like to dispose of this revolting carcass.
How will you be remembered?
Hopefully with fondness.
Where did it all begin?
Good question: impossible to answer because our mental continuum is beginingless and endless.
If you could be someone else who would you be?
Who’s made the biggest impact on your life?
Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso*
What three things would you save from your burning house?
Flat screen TV, DVD player and mobile phone..I’m joking!
When was the last time you cried?
Whenever I meditate on the suffering of all living beings
What makes you angry?
Anger is something I am trying to completely abandon, because it is so harmful. I prefer to remain patient and happy
When were you happiest?
Right now, because I am busy helping others.
What you do differently if you had your life again?
Meet the Dharma* earlier, save me a lot of grief.
What are you reading?
‘Transform Your Life’ by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
What are you listening to?
The sound of wisdom
Do you believe in fate?
We are the architects of our own experiences. By understanding the law of Karma, actions and their effects, we can choose to respond in the most beneficial way, thereby creating good conditions for ourselves in the future
Who is your god?
What do you mean by god?
What do you do to relax?
What do you never leave home without?
Laptop, mobile phone, and a good intention to help everyone I meet.
*Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition.
**Dharma – Buddha’s teachings and the inner realisations that are attained in dependence upon them. ‘Dharma’ means protection. By practising Buddha’s teachings we can protect ourself from suffering.
A Question of Skill
An Interview with Thanissaro Bhikkhu
by Insight Magazine Online
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also known more informally to many as Ajaan Geoff, is an American-born Theravada monk who has been the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, CA, since 1993. He teaches regularly at BCBS (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies) and throughout the US and has contributed significantly to the Dhamma Dana Publications project with his books Wings to Awakening, Mind Like Fire Unbound, and a new free-verse translation of the Dhammapada.
Ajaan Geoff, thirty years ago you were a student at Oberlin College. Now you’re the abbot of a Buddhist monastery near San Diego. Could you tell us a little about how you got from there to here?
The route was a lot less roundabout than you might think. Like many college students, I was obsessed with deciding what to do with my life. Business, government, academia: I couldn’t see myself finding happiness in any of them. I didn’t want to lie on my deathbed, looking back at a life frittered away. Fortunately, in my sophomore year, I was introduced to Buddhist meditation, and I took to it like a duck to water.
After graduation I decided to take a break in my education to go teach in Thailand-to get some perspective on my life, and maybe find a good meditation teacher. While I was there I met Ajaan Fuang, perhaps the first truly happy person I had ever met. He embodied the dharma [the teachings of the Buddha] in a way that I found appealing: wise, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and with a sly sense of humor. Whatever happiness and wisdom he had, he told me, was due entirely to the training. That was when I realized I had found something to which I could devote my entire life. So I ordained to train with him, and I’ve never regretted my choice.
Ajaan Fuang trained you as a meditation monk, but for the past several years you’ve also been translating and explaining the Pali sutta(s)[the early Buddhist texts]. How do you find that studying the suttas helps with meditation?
The Buddha in the suttas asks all the right questions. We all know that what we see is shaped by the views we bring to things, but we’re often not aware of the extent to which our views are shaped by the questions we ask ourselves. The Buddha had the good sense to see that some questions are skillful-they really do point you to freedom, to the total cessation of suffering-while others are unskillful: they take you to a dead end, tie you up in knots, and leave you there. The suttas are helpful in showing how to avoid getting involved in unskillful questioning. If you listen carefully to their advice and take it to heart, you find that it really opens your eyes to how you approach meditation and life in general.
There are currents in modern dharma teaching that de-emphasize the importance of the historical discourses. One might say, for example, “Don’t we often hear that the Buddha said not to believe texts and traditions?”
Well, he didn’t say to reject them out of hand, either. Have you ever noticed how American dharma is like the game of Telephone? Things get passed on from person to person, from one generation of teachers to the next, until the message gets garbled beyond recognition.
I once received a postcard on which the sender had rubber-stamped the message, “‘Don’t believe anything outside your own sense of right and wrong.’-The Buddha.” That was apparently meant to be a quote from the Kalama Sutta, but when you actually read the sutta, you find that it says something much more sophisticated than that: You don’t believe something just because it’s handed down in the texts or taught by your teachers, but you don’t accept it just because it seems logical or fits in with your preferences, either. You have to put it to the test, check it in terms of actual cause and effect. If you then find that it leads to harm and is criticized by wise people, you stop doing it. If it’s beneficial and praised by wise people, you stick with it. Notice, though, that you don’t go solely by your own perception of things. You look for wise people and check your perceptions against theirs. That way you make sure you’re not simply siding with your own preconceived notions.
And so the suttas can serve as kalyana mitta(s), or “wise friends?”
There is no real substitute for spending time in close contact with a really wise person, but the suttas can often be the next best thing-especially in a country like ours where wise people, in the Buddhist sense of the term, are so few and far between.
You mentioned that the suttas label certain questions as unskillful. Some of these may be fairly obscure philosophical issues that no longer interest anyone, but can you point to any that are relevant to meditators at present?
The big one is, “Who am I?” There are dharma books telling us that the purpose of meditation is to answer this question, and a lot of people come to meditation assuming that that’s what it’s all about. But the suttas list it as a fruitless line of inquiry.
Why is that?
Good question (laughs). As far as I can see, the response is this: What sort of experience would give you an answer to that question? Can you imagine any answer to that question that would put an end to suffering? It’s easier to be skillful in any given situation when you don’t saddle yourself with set ideas about who you are.
Might the anatta doctrine be considered the Buddha’s answer to the question, “Who am I?”?
No. It’s his answer to the question, “What is skillful?” Is self-identification skillful? Up to a point, yes. In the areas where you need a healthy, coherent sense of self in order to act responsibly, it’s skillful to maintain that sense of coherence. But eventually, as responsible behavior becomes second nature and you develop more sensitivity, you see that self-identification, even of the most refined sort, is a form of clinging. It’s a burden. So the only skillful thing is to let it go.
How would you respond to those who say they get a sense of oneness with the universe when they meditate, that they’re interconnected to all things, and that it relieves a lot of suffering?
How stable is that feeling of oneness? When you feel like you’ve come to the stable ground of being from which all things emanate, the suttas ask you to question whether you’re simply reading that feeling into your experience. If the ground of being were really stable, how would it give rise to the unstable world we live in? So whatever it is you’re experiencing-it may be one of the formless states-it’s not the ultimate answer to suffering.
On an affective level, a sense of connectedness may relieve the pain of isolation, but when you look deeper, you have to agree with the Buddha that interconnectedness and interdependence lie at the essence of suffering. Take the weather, for instance. Last summer we had wonderful, balmy weather in San Diego-none of the oppressive heat that usually hits in August-and yet the same weather pattern brought virtually non-stop rain to southern Alaska, drought to the Northeast, and killer hurricanes with coffins floating out of their graves in North Carolina. Are we supposed to find happiness in identifying with a world like this? The suttas are often characterized as pessimistic in advocating release from samsara, but that’s nothing compared to the pessimism inherent in the idea that staying interconnected is our only hope for happiness.Yet so many people say the desire for release is selfish.
Which makes me wonder if they understand how we can be most helpful to one another. If the path to release involved being harmful and cold-hearted, you could say it was selfish; but here it involves developing generosity, kindness, morality, all the honorable qualities of the mind. What’s selfish about that? Everyone around you benefits when you can abandon your greed, anger, and delusion. Look at the impact that Ajaan Mun’s quest for release has had for the last several decades in Thailand, and now it’s spreading throughout the world. We’d be much better off if we encouraged one another to find true release so that those who find it first can show the way to anyone else who’s interested.
And the way to that release starts with the question, “What is skillful?”
Right. It’s the first question the Buddha recommends that you ask when you visit a teacher. And you can trace this question throughout the suttas, from the most basic levels on up. There is a wonderful passage where the Buddha is teaching Rahula, his seven-year-old son [Ambalannhika Rahulovada Sutta, M 61]. He starts out by stressing the importance of being truthful-implying that if you want to find the truth, you first have to be truthful yourself-and then he talks about using your actions as a mirror. Before you do anything, ask yourself: “Is what I intend to do here skillful or unskillful? Will it lead to well-being or harm?” If it looks harmful, you don’t do it. If it looks okay, you go ahead and give it a try. While you’re doing it, though, you ask yourself the same questions. If it turns out that it’s causing harm, you stop. If not, you continue with it. Then after you’ve done it, you ask the same questions-“Did it bring about well-being or harm?”-and if you see that what originally looked okay actually ended up being harmful, you talk it over with someone else on the path and resolve never to make that mistake again. If it wasn’t harmful, you can take joy in knowing that you’re on the right track.
So the Buddha is giving basic lessons in how to learn from your mistakes.
Yes, but if you look carefully, you’ll see that these questions contain the seeds for some of his most important teachings: the role of intention in our actions; the way causality works-with actions giving immediate results along with long-term results; and even the four noble truths: the idea that suffering is caused by past and present actions, and that if we’re observant we can find how to act more and more skillfully to a point of total freedom.
And how would you apply this to meditation?
It starts with your life. We all know that meditation involves disentangling yourself from the narratives of your life so that you can look directly at what you’re doing in the present. Now, some narratives are easier to disentangle than others. If you’re acting in unskillful ways in daily life-lying, having illicit sex, taking intoxicants-you’ll find that you’re creating some pretty sticky narratives, all coated with denial and regret. So you apply the Buddha’s line of questioning to your day-to-day life in order to clean up your act and provide yourself with new narratives that are easier to let go.
At the same time, in doing this, you’re developing the precise skills you’ll need on the meditation cushion. Getting into the present moment is a skill, and it requires the same questioning attitude: observing what the mind is doing, seeing what works, what doesn’t work, and making adjustments where needed. Once you get into the present moment, you use the same line of questioning to investigate the present, taking it apart in terms of cause and effect: present action, past action, present results. Once you’ve taken apart every mental state that clouds the brightness of your awareness, you then turn the same questions on that bright awareness itself, until there’s nothing left to question or take apart any further-not even the act of questioning itself. That’s where liberation opens up. So these simple questions can take you all the way to the end of the practice.
Was this how you were taught meditation in Thailand?
Yes. The one piece of advice Ajaan Fuang stressed more than any other was, “Be observant.” In other words, he didn’t want me simply to follow a method blindly without monitoring how it was working out. He handed me Ajaan Lee’s seven steps on breath meditation and told me to play with them-not in a desultory way, but the way Michael Jordan plays basketball: experimenting, using your ingenuity, so that it becomes a skill. How else can you expect to gain insight into the patterns of cause and effect within the mind unless you play with them?
Are there any other questions from the suttas that strike you as particularly relevant to the American dharma scene?
Two jump immediately to mind. One has to do with evaluating teachers. The suttas recommend that a student look carefully at a person’s whole life before accepting him or her as a teacher: Does this person embody the precepts? Can you detect any overt passion, aversion, or delusion in what this person says or does? Only if someone can pass these tests should you accept him or her as a teacher.
This calls into question an attitude that’s becoming increasingly prevalent here in the US. A teacher once said, not too long ago, “As long as a teacher points at the truth with one hand, it doesn’t matter what he or she does with the other hand.” Now, is the dharma something you can point to with only one hand? Can the other hand ever really be invisible? There’s a real drive at the moment to turn out teachers to fill the demand for retreat leaders, but if they feel they can afford a one-handed attitude, we’ll end up with teachers who are little more than mindfulness technicians or yogi-herders: people whose job is to get students safely through the retreat experience, but whose personal life may be teaching an entirely separate lesson. Is that what we want?
If it is, we are setting people up for trouble. So far the mindfulness community has avoided many of the scandals that have ravaged other American Buddhist communities, largely because it hasn’t been a community. It’s more a far-flung network of retreat clientele. The teachers’ personal lives haven’t had that much direct bearing on the lives of the students. But now local communities are beginning to develop, where students and teachers have close, long-term contact with one another. Can we imagine that what each teacher does with that other hand is not going to have an impact on the students’ lives and their respect for the dharma? If we don’t start now to rely more on the suttas’ method for evaluating teachers, we’ll have to start reinventing the dharma wheel after people get hurt, which would be a great shame.
And the other question?
Renunciation. What do we have to give up if we want true happiness? Do we have unlimited time and energy to pursue an unlimited number of goals? Or do we need to sacrifice some of the good things in life in order to gain the most valuable form of happiness? This is a huge blind spot in American Buddhism.
Once, just out of curiosity, I went through a pile of Western dharma books and magazines, looking up the topic of renunciation. Most of them didn’t even mention it. From the few that did, I learned that renunciation means, one, giving up unhealthy relationships; two, abandoning your controlling mindset; and three, dropping your fear of the unknown. Now, we don’t need the Buddha to tell us those things. We can learn the first lesson from our parents, and the other two from a good therapist. But the Buddha recommended giving up a lot of things that most well-meaning parents and therapists would tell their children and patients to hold onto tightly. And yet you don’t see any mention of this in American dharma.
Is that because Americans tend to live more comfortable lifestyles?
Not necessarily. Modern mass culture, whether Asian or American, is a lot more indulgent than traditional culture, but that may be because it’s a lot more frenetic and stressed out as well. The Buddha himself said that, when he was starting out on the path of practice, his heart didn’t leap up at the idea of renunciation. Nobody wants to hear that true happiness involves giving up the things we like, but at least in Asia there are dharma masters who, through their words and actions, keep pumping that lesson into the culture. So it’s always there for honest, mature, reflective people to hear. But here in the West, the dharma has been so shaped by the marketplace that the lesson is very seldom modeled.
Last year Tricycle printed an article bemoaning how the dharma is being used to sell mass-market commodities, but a deeper problem is that the dharma has become a commodity itself. I was in a bookstore recently with a student, and as we looked at the many shelves filled with books on Buddhism, he asked me, “Do you get the impression that these books were written to make money?” How can you expect to learn the hard lessons of renunciation from a book that had to get past marketing directors and sales reps? And given the financial needs of most teachers, how can you expect even well-meaning teachers not to shape their message to conform with what people want to hear, as opposed to what they should hear?
You’ve written on what you call the “economy of gifts,” in which the dharma can be offered freely with no strings attached. How do you think such an economy could be implemented here in America?
It’s a long, uphill process, but yes, it can happen. You have to start small-a few good monasteries here and there, a few dana-based organizations such as the Dhamma Dana Publication Fund and now the Dharma Seed Tape Library and eventually people will catch on to what a good thing it is. Of course, the fact that dharma is free doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s going to be top-quality, but at least it hasn’t been filtered through the sort of bottom-line concerns that we needlessly take for granted. It’s only when we appreciate the need to have the bottom line totally out of the picture that American dharma will have a chance to mature. Which makes me wonder if Dana-based dharma will always be something of a fringe phenomenon in our country.
From our discussion so far, you seem to see the Pali suttas as offering not only right questions, but also right answers.
The right answers are the skillful choices you make in your life as you pursue the right questions. I think it was Thomas Pynchon who said, “As long as they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” There should be a corollary to that: As long as you honestly stick to the right questions, you’re sure to arrive at answers that will make a difference.
Of course, many people in our society are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong–especially in the area of religion.
I don’t think it’s so much that they are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong. It’s just that they’ve shifted their reference points. Being judgmental is now wrong; being non-judgmental is right. This, I think, comes from two factors. One is that we’re tired of fervid monotheists who demonize anyone who differs from their view of The One True Way. We’ve seen the harm that comes from sectarian religious strife, and it’s obviously pointless. So we want to avoid it at all costs. The other factor is that we ourselves have been subject to evaluation all of our lives, some of it pretty unfair-in school, at work, in our relationships-so when we come to retreats we want respite.
This becomes a problem, though, when people confuse being judgmental with the act of exercising judgment. And again, the difference is a question of skill. Being judgmental-hypercritical, quick to dismiss the opinions of others-is obviously unskillful. But in our rush not to be judgmental, we can’t abandon our critical abilities, our powers of judgment. We have to learn how to use them skillfully. It’s all very fine not to pass judgment when you’re on the sidelines of an issue and don’t want to get involved. But here we’re all out on the playing field, facing aging, illness, and death. Our skill in exercising judgment is going to make all the difference in whether we win or lose. The team we’re facing has never been taught to be uncritical. They play hard, and they play for keeps
The Buddha himself was quite critical of teachers who wasted their time-and that of their students-by asking the wrong questions. He was especially critical of those who misunderstood the nature of karma, because how we comprehend the power of our actions is what will make all the difference in how skillfully we choose to think and act. So refraining from judgment is not the answer to the question of how we face the differing teachings we find available. In fact, a knee-jerk nonjudgmental stance can often be a very unskillful way of passing judgment.
It’s a refusal to take differences seriously, and that totally short-circuits any attempt to develop skill. You often find this associated with a lowest-common-denominator approach to the truth: the assumption that whatever the major traditions of the world hold in common must be true, while their differences are only cultural trappings. But that’s assuming they’re all asking the same questions, or that the only important questions are the ones they all ask. Where does that leave people who think outside the box?
I’ve seen some elaborate attempts to create a perennial philosophy from the common ground of the world’s great traditions, but they center on the question, “Who am I?” That, they tell us, is the question at the heart of everyone’s spiritual quest. But the training I got from Ajaan Fuang taught me to question the assumption that that’s a fruitful line of inquiry. Does the fact that everybody else is asking it mean he was wrong?
Another approach is to assume that all traditions take you to the same place, but that they’ve found different skillful ways of doing it-the old “many paths lead to the top of the mountain” idea. But the reports we get from people who have been up this mountain say that it has plenty of wrong turns, false summits, and sudden drop-offs. One tradition will say, “When you reach this point, turn left.” Another will say, “If you turn left at that point you’ll get stuck at a dead-end.” If we plan to stay on the valley floor, it’s okay for us to stay out of the argument. But can we claim some sort of higher moral ground for not getting involved in the fray? Do we have more comprehensive maps of the mountain showing that dangers are imaginary, and that left turns and right turns are all okay?
Or suppose that one tradition says, “The summit looks like this.” Another says, “No, that’s a false summit. The real one looks like this.” The first one responds, “No, you’re at the false summit.” Do we know the limitations of language better than they do, so that we can dismiss their differences as purely linguistic? If we want to go up the mountain, we have to choose one guide or the other-or maybe a third guide, if we decide that the first two were both on the wrong path.
So how would you choose?
One, take a good look at the teachers. If people are skilled mountaineers, they should have no trouble negotiating the valley. Can they get around without injuring themselves or others? Has their experience of the summit been so overwhelming that they’re willing to sacrifice personal comfort so that others can get there as well?
Two, look at the tradition. What kinds of questions does it focus on? What kinds does it allow? What kinds does it not allow? Why? Does it encourage the tenacity and maturity needed to stick to a hard line of questioning? Does it foster the kind of ingenious, observant mind that would recognize a false path or figure out a way past an unexpected obstacle?
Finally, take a good look at yourself. Are you up for the adventure? It may sound more than a little intimidating, but the Buddha asked of his students simply that they be honest enough to admit and learn from their mistakes, and sensible enough to give up a lesser happiness when they see that, by doing so, they’ll gain a higher one. Are you up to that? If so, you’ve got what it takes.
A Ripple in a Pond
An interview with Ajahn Sucitto
Insight Magazine Online
I know how reticent monks are to talk about themselves, but I cannot help but begin by asking about your own Jàtaka story. How did you wind up as a Buddhist monk living in England?
Well, where does it all begin? I suppose around the age of six or seven I started to recognize something of what death was about: that we all die. I remember talking to my brother about it and he said, “Oh, don’t think about it, it will be all right.” Now he is a businessman and I’m a monk. (Laughs.) I remember even then not feeling interested in the general flow of society; feeling, “Well, what are we doing here? Just passing the time.” You wonder where it all begins…
After graduating from university (English and American literature at Warwick) I thought I owed it to myself, having done 18 years of schooling, to just move out of the program and see the wider view of things. I spent about four years traveling around. This was the sixties and seventies, so things were pretty wild. After awhile I thought, “Well no, this isn’t it. I need to find some proper way of cultivating clarity.” So the only intuition I had was-“go to the East.”
So you hit the road and went to India?
I went to India when I was twenty-four with the thought, “Well, you’ll find it here somewhere.” But, I just got very ill; so I escaped India. I had a Traveler’s Guide to the World which had one paragraph about Thailand in it. Thailand sounded like it was cool and friendly, while India was very chaotic and wild. So, I jumped on a plane to Thailand. After only one day in Bangkok I took a train to Ayutthaya (ancient capital) and found myself wandering among the ruins-colossal Buddhist remains, big pagodas, gigantic Buddha statues. And I thought to myself, “Well, what’s this?”
A few days later I was in Chiang Mai. I saw a sign in English saying, “Meditation Classes Being Taught.” I thought, “That must be part of what it’s about. Learn to focus, get your mind together. I’ll do that. I went to one meditation class and there was a monk teaching in this vihàra [monastery]. He was an English monk. He was sitting by a window which didn’t have any glass in it. He had an oil lamp beside him. I noticed that flying ants were coming in through the window and crawling all over him as he was talking. He was very carefully picking them off his skin, occasionally out of his mouth, without getting upset. To me it looked so irritating but it didn’t seem to bother him. We only did about 15 minutes of meditation; and just in that time the obvious realization came, “Hey, there’s all this thinking, and there’s a silence that’s not thinking, a silence that’s attending to this. What’s that?” I thought, “I must investigate that.”
So you got a taste of…what?
Some awareness, some silence, some quality of attention. I mean, whenever you put it into words it doesn’t quite work, does it? You find you’re in a different key than you were before: before you were very much in the music and now, somehow, the music’s happening but you’re not moving with it.
So I talked to the monk afterwards and said, “I’d like to do more of this.” But I recognized that I was not going to do this while staying in a cheap hotel with five other guys smoking dope and playing guitars. So I asked, “Can I come and stay in your monastery?” A couple of days later I just packed up and hitchhiked a couple hundred miles down the road to where he was living and wandered in. He gave me a kuñi [meditation hut] and came down the next day to give me some teaching instructions. He was teaching the Burmese satipaññhàna [mindfulness] method.
Did you take to meditation from the start?
Yes, I did. I was really interested in the mind and in exploring. It wasn’t a decision, really; it was innate. I’d always been interested in it, but I hadn’t had a framework. Within about a week I started to piece things together: “Well, you know, this is not bad. You’re in this little hut. They’re pretty nice. They bring you food. And you get to work on clearing your mind.” I felt happy. I recognized that whatever you do in life, basically you want to feel you’re doing something with purpose and you want to be happy. I wasn’t really missing out on much by being in the monastery. I didn’t need much. I’d come from a working class background, which means that you work hard your whole life. Working class people have to activate a lot of effort and energy and attention and aggravation to get the four requisites [food, shelter, clothing, and medicine] together-and there at the monastery that was just laid on. It was simple, but laid on. So I thought, “I’d like to do more of this.”
So you stayed on?
I actually had to leave Thailand to get a new visa. I thought I’d have a look around while I was out, so I traveled around Indonesia for a while-but with an increasing sense of nibbidà, or world-weariness. I was doing all the things you’re supposed to do to make life enjoyable. I was going to some very beautiful countryside, to mountains, beaches, and lakes. But it just was not connecting; it wasn’t sinking in. It was like looking at everything through a glass. I was somewhere else. I ended up living in Bali, where everybody was hanging out. But I just couldn’t go through that whole scene anymore. There was no energy for it. I found that all I wanted to do was meditate-sit and walk. I thought, “This is crazy, doing it in this place.” So I went back to Thailand. It was a very instructive excursion.
After three days at the monastery I shaved my head and became a sàmaõera, a ten-precept novice monk. It’s a much less highly calibrated discipline than full ordination, but the basic stuff is there. Then I got into meditation. After about six months or so there were other Westerners who had turned up, and they were all interested in becoming bhikkhus [monks]. I was happy where I was. But the others would say, “You’ve been here longest. You should become a bhikkhu before us.” I said, “No, no, I’m fine.” I didn’t like the idea of being somebody.
However…I was living in a very secluded part of the monastery, and both the teacher and I felt it would be good to go on alms-round because that’s part of what being a monk, even a novice, is about. So I began going out every day on piõóapàta-alms-round. And that was really tremendous. I suddenly got the whole social aspect of it, which is very potent. We’d go out early in the morning. People were just getting up, getting themselves together. They’d come out with bowls of rice to put food in our bowls. The people were eager, concerned to make sure they got their rice in your bowl. I could see that there was a tremendous focus of attention. You create something for people. You set up their day. If a monk didn’t go by, they would be very upset. So you’re part of some greater meaning than the personal. The fact of being that kind of focus is an incredible spur to practice.
Can you say more about why that’s so? Is it a feeling of gratitude for what you’ve been given, or the service you’re providing to the people?
It’s partly gratitude, but it’s not exactly that. It’s more like recognizing you’re part of something very big that’s gone on for thousands of years and is holding a society together in some form. It’s holding people’s minds together, giving them a sense of direction. It’s certainly not given to one personally: “Hey, I like you. Here’s some food.” People don’t even look at you. They just see the robe, the bowl. You don’t say anything. It would be very inappropriate to start conversing. But bearing the sign of the monk you realize that somehow you’ve stepped into something very, very big. These people are born and will die with that sign in their mind. They grow up as toddlers with that sign in their mind. When they’re in trouble, that sign in their mind will come back to them.
In the West, my experience had been of being very much out of context. You’re one fragment with a bunch of other fragments around you. The bonding is minimal, perfunctory, and mostly out of functional necessity. Suddenly you are part of something whole. And it is carrying people’s values. As a monk your values are simple things: Rather than get angry, I’ll calm down. Rather than cheat, I’ll be honest. Rather than kill, I’ll refrain. Very simple stuff. And yet, you’re carrying that for a society in some way. So you think, “My bit in this situation is to be worthy of alms by carrying the sign of goodness.”
It’s not an obligation. Nobody’s asking, nobody’s checking up. It’s a real level of connectedness in which something…is transformed. You get to points in your meditation where your mind could go flaky-but it doesn’t. It comes back into the good because of that connection to goodness. There are times when you could just think, “Oh, forget it.” But you say, “No, keep going.” It’s intuitive. It’s something you feel in your heart.
How did you wind up accepting full ordination?
The specific cause was a response to the local community. Twice a year the monastery hosted hundreds of women to come to the monastery and meditate. They would all wear white, take the eight precepts, and sleep wherever a spare patch of floor could be found-there just weren’t enough kuñis. And they would do a ten-day meditation retreat. Now, aspects of the feminine play a big part in monastic culture-either through women themselves or through the receptive and suffusive elements of Dhamma practice. The feminine offers a key to transformation. My own ordination was a good case in point.
The Thai women stepped forward, very eager to offer support-making that offering meant a lot to them. For a Westerner to go forth was regarded as significant and impressive because it’s not part of our culture, not something we would do as a matter of course. So the women were very keen to sponsor a Westerner to become a bhikkhu. They thought, “You’ve got so much. You’ve got education, and money, and so many other things. And you’re giving it all up.” And I felt, “Well, they’ve given so much. I’ll do it, for them.” So the result was that everyone was uplifted. Like the Buddha, a monk “leaves home” to take up the holy life-but sponsorship is a later development. It connects the “Going Forth” to the society-a very “feminine” thing. Anyway, I was a bhikkhu. I stayed where I was and continued to practice meditation, but I also joined in more with the community life of the Sangha.
One of the most inspiring things about being a bhikkhu was that once a fortnight we would go to the pàñimokkha recitation. We’d sit in a hall listening to one monk recite the training rules at high speed. (It takes about forty-five minutes nonstop.) We’d just sit there, with our hearts open, listening. And at that time I felt this incredible sense of bonding with all these humans; and also with people like the Buddha, Sàriputta, and all the people who have been doing very much the same thing for 2500 years. They all listened to and lived according to these rules being recited. The recitation is a chance to acknowledge one’s own failings or weaknesses, and incline towards clearing the effects and doing better. You feel again that you’re part of the human need, the human urge to do good, which is an urge as basic as our more sensual urges. Because it’s low volume, we don’t normally hear it. But I think the urge is intrinsic: we want to do good.
So, except for what circumstance would you still be there to this day?
Well, my father died, so I went back to England to see my mother and sort out any family affairs. You know, my own personal stuff. And at that time Ajahn Sumedho was living in London. I had met him briefly in Thailand on one of my visits to another monastery. He struck me as someone with some accomplishment. His presence was peaceful; it was gentle; it was warm and spacious; it was resonant. So when I found out he was in Britain, I thought I would go see him. He was staying in a little place in London near Hampstead Heath, and I went down there and stayed a few days. There were two other monks there as well. I liked what they were doing. They were forest monks-whereas the place I had been trained was more a city monastery. And they brought with them a sense of fuller application to things like making robes, to a whole way of living. I found that interesting. So I thought, “While I’m in Britain, I’ll stay a bit longer-three months ought to do it.” (Laughs.) That was 22 years ago.
Was it distracting to your life as a monk to have to deal with the social newness of what you were doing in the English culture?
If you go back to the idea of receiving alms-food: I recognized that I was part of something big, a ripple in a pond. My experience in meditation was revealing a lot of the difficulties-hindrances, confusions, wrong views-that needed to get worked out in a wider, social context. So living with a group of monks and engaging was very helpful. It helped to open things up, work things out, take things in; to feel the sense of a larger sphere. English culture wasn’t really a problem because it places a high value on non-intrusion. People don’t tend to come in on you unless they’re invited. And there’s a place for monasteries in the culture.
It still must have been quite a change for you. You mentioned the sense of connecting to a long social tradition in Thailand, and this would have been very different in England.
Ajahn Sumedho is a very gifted teacher, in that he talks about Buddhism from the perspective of what’s happening now. Where are we at now? How are we mindful of what’s happening now? How do we find harmony? He teaches from the earth up, rather than from the sky down. He set a good example for us. People could relate to the goodness of what we were about. Then the vinaya [guidelines for the monastic life] helped to guide the connections between bhikkhus and the society, and the sanctuary of the monastery provided the situation for meeting.
After living in London we moved to a derelict house in Chithurst, West Sussex, which we had to work together to rebuild. That was more of a challenge, really, because all I’d ever done before was formal practice. Here we had to do a lot of manual work, we had to talk with people. We didn’t have much time for formal practice. And because English people generally didn’t know what bhikkhus were all about, we’d often have to be more forthcoming to warm them up and make them feel okay and not nervous.
In a lot of what you’ve been saying you’ve indicated the importance you give to human relatedness, the value of other human beings. This also seems reflected in how much people seem to want to be around you and in the care you give them. What do you see as the place of relationship in your path?
Well, we’re all bobbing around in the pond… Maybe awareness of relationship begins there. I think how we relate to others is a key issue nowadays: the instruction to be our own refuge, to go into solitude, etc., has to be balanced against the Buddha’s frequent use of dialogue to teach, his having disciples live and work with their teachers, and his establishing the Sangha [the monastic community]. Nowadays, a perception of “the other” can bring up anxiety, fear of judgment, competition, etc., and the teacher as “The Other” can be the implacable judge, the parent for whom one was never good enough. All this clogs up Dhamma practice. So I try to enter the practice field with the group and stay connected and responsive-action and speech follow from there. And silence…in a shared silence Dhamma seems to spread by osmosis. I enjoy group practice; maybe that comes across.
What would you say about the relationship between what has come to be called formal practice-intensive meditation in a retreat environment-and what has come to be called everyday life?
There are different forms for Dhamma practice. Or perhaps you can think of it like Chinese boxes-one is inside another, which is inside another. In my situation, I’m coming out of meditation into a more open form, but another formal training, which is the vinaya. The vinaya is continually steering and nudging: “Don’t go here; things are done in this way; be aware of what you’re doing now.” I’ve got that happening all the time-not just at the level of a precept, but in observance and manner. “That’s not the way to treat your bowl.” Or, “That’s not the way to talk in this context: softening the voice would have a better effect. That’s not the way to walk in; come in more gently.” And as a mendicant, I learn to let go into insecurity. These things offer a great advantage for cultivating the Dhamma.
It is more perilous for a lay meditator who is on a formal retreat and then comes out into a situation which has no training guidelines. They’ve just got to work it out themselves. They come out of a situation where the skin is being peeled off; they come out all pink and sensitive, and suddenly they’re in the circus and they have to perform. Insecurity has to be denied. So in the last decade or so, people are addressing more the issue of daily life context. Having experienced some of the uncovering that occurs on a meditation retreat, the questions become, “How do we practice in relationship? What is right livelihood?”
Actually this is pretty much the way the process unfolded for the Buddha and his early followers. He taught the meditation and the Dhamma first, and then the vinaya evolved from that. You can see the same sort of things happening for the lay community here. After some practice, people begin to see, “We’ve got to have precepts. We’ve got to set standards. As teachers we have to be honorable. That has to be very clear.” So a kind of vinaya culture, more or less, starts to happen. There’s a natural interest in it.
So you see some evolution in the Western lay person’s encounter with the Dhamma?
Oh yes, there is now a much wider field of corroboration. There is inquiry into things like, “How do we have families? How do we raise children? What constitutes a lay vinaya?” It’s not just a set of precepts or a code. It’s a culture, a Buddhist culture. The culture of awakening. We have a Buddhist school now in Britain. Alms-food gets offered on the streets. There are people who’ve grown up as Buddhists and are familiar with these things.
Is it the meditation practice that is so transformative, or is it the core values of the entire Buddhist tradition?
In certain respects the culture and the meditation practice are happening on different levels, although they overlap in the personal context. To integrate the two is the major practice. The culture is carried “externally” by the society (though it doesn’t always live up to its ideals). When you’re in a social context you are often dealing with functional requirements, language, and a conventional reality, which is not set up for Awakening. And we’re often relating through the convention of personality. So establishing some sound norms for these connections is basic sanity.
With meditation, you’re getting nearer to the core. Meditation practice is intimate. It’s really taking you past the ideals and the socialization of values. In the meditation practice you get back to something primary: “I feel this. I know this.” So, it’s a place of release. It’s the place of encountering hindrances intimately, and of firing up the enlightenment factors. Aspects of Buddhist “culture”-patience, generosity, letting go, for example-really support that penetration. Then, as you calm down and get closer to a core experience, the convention of personality starts to unfold into energetic patterns-patterns that are ephemeral but kammically potent when they’re held onto. Buddhist values are a crucible; but if you just put the material in it and don’t heat it up-you won’t get the gold.
With meditation you develop samàdhi [concentration]. You’re getting past thinking, getting underneath sense contact, getting to an experience of your body which is different. You experience yourself more like an energetic sphere of sensitivity than as a six-foot tall vertebrate who’s a man or a woman. You’re coming to something much more primary. The mind itself becomes different. If you meditate properly, the mind is much more sensitive. It is there, in the pond, part of what’s going on. In samàdhi you don’t get the sense of the mind being some separate thing that thinks and decides. You realize that thinking and deciding are part of the ripple. You can undo that and become more intuitive, more attuned to sensitivities.
I see samàdhi as essentially a deconstruction of the mind. From that, one can come back
to dealing with things in terms of conventional entities, duties, responsibilities, time, place, and so forth. When you’re in a more constructed state, you use mindfulness and the clarity that has arisen, and then some stored guidelines which act as your conventional guides. But in the context of a lot of kammic activity the mind is much more likely to be in a stressed or tense state, and on the level of social construction you often have to deal with all sorts of emotional strangulation.
The course you’re teaching here at BCBS (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies), on energy or viriya, addresses this issue. How are you approaching the subject?
From my own experience over the years, as well as working with others, I have come to realize just how damaged we all tend to be, both physically and emotionally. As such, many people haven’t got the resources to apply themselves to Dhamma. It’s rather like lifting weights. You come in and you haven’t warmed up. You try and lift a weight, and you just rip a muscle. It’s not that you don’t want to lift the weight. It’s not that you aren’t trying. The body just isn’t primed for it.
People’s bodies are pretty damaged energetically. They’ve sat in chairs all their lives; they’ve been wired to unnatural energy for decades. People often find it difficult to even know where their bodies are. Their mind has abstracted itself from the body. So when you meditate, you’re in this kind of disembodied experience-a frantic mind is pumping out thoughts, but you’re not getting any energy from the body. You meditate and meditate, but you’re basically cut off, disembodied. So it’s not just a matter of effort. It’s a matter of accessing the resource of balanced energy in the body.
The other issue is emotional. We do sharing and devotional practices because often people’s emotional energies are out of whack. They feel isolated, fragmented, alone, competitive. Everybody’s looking at each other, perhaps feeling annoyed because somebody is sniffing or rustling. You know, you’re in your own little box. It’s like going out on the freeway, and everybody’s in their little box driving along. In that sort of situation people’s emotional experience is not extensive, it’s not unfolding, it’s very much folded up with personal interest and personal protection. Often people find devotional practices help to restore a quality of natural connectedness and emotional resonance.
When these two bases of body and heart are restricted, I don’t know where you get the energy to practice. Perhaps its just idealism, or will power; but people run out of that. Because of it’s restraint and discipline, Theravada Buddhism can seem heartless, cerebral, world denying, and body denying-a very cramped thing. But when you read the texts, you find the Buddha talking a lot about joy, bliss, rapture, tranquility, vitality. So people have to tap into this field, this pool of uplifting energy, and they can only do this by healing some of the damage done by our modern world. So I teach body and heart practices to open them into this field of energy.
You have often mentioned returning to the suttas [texts]. Is this important only for teachers, or for all practitioners?
My own personal interest has been in trying to look into the suttas and to get past the cultural accretions. I think an interest in what the Buddha said naturally develops from living and practicing in this tradition.
It might start with a simple curiosity, “What did the Buddha say on mindfulness? Well, let’s have a look-Oh, the Satipatthàna Sutta.” And that leads you on to, “What does he mean by feeling? What does he mean by citta [mind]?” You start to check the Pali against the English. So often you think you understand, but you’re not getting the entirety of it. You find that citta and “mind” don’t exactly relate. So you have to investigate that. For me it’s been very much a process of, “What do I need to know?” And then I can check a scripture and see what the Buddha said, which isn’t always the most populist “Buddhist” message.
I still think meditation is the leading edge. But you need right view to know where to apply that. And certainly right view is enhanced by some accurate study. So you owe it to yourself to go back to the Buddha. You’d be foolish not to try to get as close as you can to the Master.
Interview with HE Kyabje Lati Rinpoche
HE Kyabje Lati Rinpoche is one of HH the Dalai Lama’s spiritual advisers and the Root Guru of Trijang Rinpoche Yangsi – Trijang Rinpoche is the present Dalai Lama’s junior tutor
The interview is conducted by Kunga Nyima on 26 December 2000 at Sakyamuni Dharma Centre
VEGETARIANISM IN BUDDHIST MONASTERIES
Q: In recent years, we heard that there are plans to convert the diet of the three great Gelugpa monasteries into full vegetarianism. What is Rinpoche’s view of this plan and for that matter, for Buddhist monasteries in general, to become full vegetarian?
A: I am very happy the monastic authorities want to make this huge change. That is really appreciable. I really support this type of change coming up.
Q: Why does Rinpoche feel that it is better to be vegetarian?
A: If the number of people who consume meat is reduced, it then automatically reduces the number of people who kill the animals to meet the demand. In this way, by becoming vegetarian, we contribute, to some extent, the reduction in the number of animals killed.
Q: Why is it then in old Tibet that the monasteries are rarely fully vegetarian?
A: In Tibet, there are many people who are strict vegetarian. Even in the big monasteries where there are huge gatherings of monks, they never eat non-vegetarian food. In the monk’s individual quarters, though, there might be some monks who eat meat as some food.
Vegetarianism is something not very new in Tibetan society. Generally, in the old Tibetan society, most of the people try to avoid taking the meat specifically killed to feed individual person. This is evident in every level of Tibetan Society.
Even in the scriptures of the Buddha, we have to avoid taking such meat which is killed specially just to feed ourselves. The texts prohibit us from taking this type of meat. That is the common way of practice and instructions in the Buddha’s teachings. Especially in the Mahayana teachings, when a person does intensive practice of Bodhicitta, they are advised or prescibed to avoid taking meat.
INTRODUCTION OF THE BHIKSHUNI ORDINATION INTO TIBETAN BUDDHISM
Q: What is Rinpoche’s view about introducing the Bhikshuni ordination into Tibetan Buddhism?
A: If the tradition of the Bhikshuni ordination is an authentic and valid one that can be traced back to the Buddha, such a lineage of the Bhikshuni ordination is indeed worthy of my support for introduction back into Tibetan Buddhism. I really support it. On the other hand, if the Bhikshuni ordination is something that we are not very certain of in terms of its lineage, history and others, then I think it is not proper to introduce into Tibetan Buddhism.
The issue of the Bhikshuni ordination is a very much discussed and investigated subject not just in Tibetan Buddhist circles but also in Burmese Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism and so on. All these different traditions of Buddhism are all doing serious investigations into the present surviving lineage of the Bhikshuni ordination. The important thing is that we need the continuation of the ordination “blessings” or the valid lineal connection all the way back to the Buddha. If we are able to trace this without doubt, we can really support it.
Q: What is Rinpoche’s view on the Buddha’s alleged answer to Venerable Ananda that with the establishment of the Bhikshuni ordination, the period of time where the world will have the Dharma, sometimes called the “True Dharma Period”, will be reduced by half?
A: We find such stories or historical events allegedly happening in the Buddha’s lifetime. We are not sure what is the main objective behind this type of advice given by the Buddha to Ananda. We will need to find out what is the real meaning behind such advice given by the Buddha.
Q: So does Rinpoche think this is true?
A: Anyway, these accounts happen more than 2,000 years ago. Even if these accounts are true, we will not know what is the main objective or meaning about this alleged statement from the Buddha to Ananda.
Q: Does Rinpoche think that these accounts are true?
A: I have never encountered such accounts or stories in the Buddhist scriptures. I will believe in these accounts when I really find them in the Buddha’s scriptures. I have read many different Vinaya texts. But I have never seen this alleged conversation before.
Q: What is Rinpoche’s view on the so-called “Eight Pure Vows” that all Bhikshunis need to observe? For example what does Rinpoche think of one of these eight vows which states that even the most senior Bhikshuni need to bow and be subordinate to even a newly-ordained monk?
A: I have also encountered this question in the west.
I told them that this specific vow is given by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. This advice is acceptable to the then social practices.
However, later on, the society changes. Due to the change in the society, the mentality of the people correspondingly change. The female sex begins to emphasise on equal rights. At that time, this advice is given in conformity to the situation of the society and the mentality of the people then. But in today’s society, as the mentality change, it seems not to be appropriate to follow this advice.
Q: So, do the nuns need to follow this advice?
A: The Buddha has drawn a borderline for the Bhikshunis: if you want to be a Bhikshuni, you must follow a certain type of lifestyle. Now, if you do not follow these precepts, you will break the precepts.
These precepts cannot be changed. These borderlines set up by the Buddha 2,500 years ago cannot be changed by someone 2,500 years ago later.
These issues are mainly aggressively campaigned by a small minority of nuns. The majority of nuns are still faithfully following the precepts. If they follow the Buddha’s precepts, they will gain merit. If they don’t, they gain demerits!
MORE CENTRES – GOOD ?
Q: In recent years, Singapore has witnessed a great blossoming of many new Buddhist societies, especially those affiliated with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
There are 2 views about this: One is that having many centres weakens the original centre and we end up with not one strong centre but numerous weak centres.
The other view is that these different centres are supported by different people and so the original centre is not affected adversely.
Moreover, different centres cater to needs of people with different karmic links and that these many centres is a favourable sign of the proliferation of the Dharma just as is the case with other religious groups.
What is Rinpoche’s idea on this?
A: It is difficult to adopt one single standpoint on this issue. In my trip to Malaysia during my previous teaching tour to South-east Asia, I attended a religious seminar. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammad, was also present then. Dr Mahathir said that He gives full endorsement to the existence of numerous centres of all different faiths throughout the land because these different centres are educating the public to be good people. These centres contribute towards the peace and happiness of the society. I feel that this is reasonable and logical.
I personally feel that it is good idea to have many centres.
FLYING TO OTHER CENTRES ?
Q: According to some resident teachers of some of the Buddhist centres, they do not encourage their students or members to visit other centres or to participate in other centres’ programmes.
These people claimed that their own centre already provides all the teachings that are needed and that going to these different centres will be confusing.
It has been suggested however that these people are simply afraid of losing their followers or sponsors to new centres.
What does Rinpoche feel about this?
A: It is very difficult to say something about this because we can hardly know what are the motivations or intentions of these people. It is very difficult to say this is good or bad.
Deep in their mind, when they give these instructions to their students, if they think that if these students go to other centres, they may be coming into contact with the wrong teachers or instructions, if the advice is coming from such feelings, then it is fine.
But if the advice is coming from other less noble motivation such as worrying about losing followers or sponsors to other more attractive teachers, this is then a very bad act.
Q: What does Rinpoche feel about a centre helping out other centres in their programmes in terms of logistics, co-ordination and the like even should they come from different traditions?
A: Helping each other out is totally appreciable and good.
Q: Can students of one tradition attend teachings from established or realised masters of other tradition?
A: If they go to attend the teachings from these great masters through their own interest and needs, we have to be appreciative and supportive of it. If they are not willing to, of course, we cannot push them! Even in the case of high tantric Initiations, if the students are capable of practising them, it is highly appreciable for them to attend even if they are of different lineages and traditions.
BUDDHISM MISINFORMED – WHAT TO DO ?
Q: In certain countries and contexts, certain religious groups are busy propagating misinformation on Buddhism and other faiths in attempts to increase their own religious groups’ following. What should we as Buddhists do?
A: One important fact here is that we always need to avoid feelings of animosity towards these groups of people. We always have to avoid these feelings. It is destructive karma if we have negative feelings.
The real action we can take is to have compassion for the people who misinform and people who have been misinformed or misled. Teach them the real facts about Buddhism. We have to try to open their eyes to the bad “advertisements” that they have been exposed. We must point out to them whatever is untrue. We should try to reach out to them and tell them the facts. Let them get into the right path and practice. This is what we need to do.
However, even after such efforts, they still feel that other religious practices are more suitable for them, then this is their choice. Religion is a matter for the individual. We cannot make laws to stop conversions!
This is what we can do.
SIX-REALMS OF EXISTENCE IN EXISTENCE ?
Q: Some Buddhist scholars have put across that the 6 Realms of Existence according to the Buddhist teachings are not to be taken in its literal context but should be interpreted in a figurative manner. For example, they put forward that hells do not exist below the earth under Bodhigaya but can be found say in the sufferings experienced by final stage cancer patients.
What does Rinpoche think about this?
A: The existence of the 6 Realms is true and factual in samsara. It is not a mere ideological theory.
It has been perceived by many great practitioners in the past. These great practitioners have seen the 6 Realms with their eyes. If these things do not exist, the Buddha will not have taught about them. The Buddha does not need to lie to us.
Q: Does Rinpoche think that we can also take the 6 Realms in a figurative manner also? It is said that the hells can be found in hamburgers with the pigs getting sliced and roasted.
A: I think it is not a good idea to take the 6 Realms in a purely figurative way because there are real hell realms existing. We don’t need to interpret the 6 Realms in such a way simply to justify the existence of them to others. These realms truly exist.
The hells exist due to the bad karma of others. The Buddha in many sutras and Shantideva in the Bodhicharyavatara said that the creators of hells, the fire, the iron castles, the burning flames and others are created by the sinful mind. The hells are produced as a result of individual bad karma. The causes of hells have been thoroughly explained.
Q: What has been counter-argued is that we are never going to find the hells underneath Bodhigaya as stated in the Abhidharmakosha, right?
A: Well, no one has dug that deep! It is not a good reason to say they do not exist simply because we cannot see them or have not seen them. For example, there is moisture in the air though we cannot see them. Whether we see them or not, there is moisture in the air. Science has yet been able to account for everything in the world!
“YOU NEED MORE MERIT FOR MY TRADITION”
Q: These years, there are a few very famous teachers who said that to be able to meet with their own tradition’s teachings, beings will need especial extra merit. Those with less merit can never meet their tradition’s teachings.
For example, they say that Milarepa has to undergo great hardships to gain enlightenment because He has no merit to meet with Je Tzongkhapa’s teachings. This, according to them, is contrasted to Gyalwa Ensapa who gained enlightenment relatively easier because He has enough merit to practise according to Tzongkhapa’s tradition.
Citing another example, some other teachers claimed that their “termas” are much superior to other teachings and even other similar “terma” in their own tradition. These masters may think that saying so encourages their students to practise hard. It sometimes has the unfortunate effect though of making their students extremely conceited about their own lineage and being unfairly condescending towards other lineages.
Statements like these from these famous teachers have unfortunately created some minor havoc in the Tibetan Buddhist circle.
What is Rinpoche’s viewpoint on this?
A: Generally, to have a human rebirth, we need a lot of merit. To come into further contact with the Buddhist teachings, we need even more merit. From this point of view, we need much merit to come into contact with Je Tzongkhapa’s teachings, some of the “terma” teachings mentioned above and for that matter, any Buddhist teachings of all the other traditions. We need huge amount of merit to come into contact with teachings of every tradition. From this point of view, what is said is acceptable. If we use common sense, we will be able to understand it well.
On the other hand, we cannot say that we will need more merit to come into contact with Je Tzongkhapa’s teachings and we will only need less merit to come into contact with teachings of other traditions. We also need much merit to come into contact with teachings of all other traditions!
If we say that not everyone is coming into contact with Je Tzongkhapa” teachings, neither is everyone coming into contact with some of the “terma” teachings. This kind of “quantifying” merits in relation to traditions is inappropriate.
Milarepa has to undergo great physical hardship to purify much non-virtuous deeds accumulated earlier on in His life. Besides this difference, both Gyalwa Ensapa and Milarepa worked hard! It is not true that Milarepa worked hard but Gyalwa Ensapa has it easier! Gyalwa Ensapa did put in maximum effort to attain Enlightenment. If people claimed that Gyalwa Ensapa did not put in much effort to gain Enlightenment, then this is wrong. These people have the wrong understanding.
REVISIONIST TENDENCIES – GOOD ?
Q: Amongst many Gelugpa centres around the world today, there is a trend to practise only the Solitary Yamantaka and the Vajrayogini of the Naropa Tradition or more commonly called the Naro Kachod.
There are 2 view points on these: One is that this is all we need to practise to attain Buddhahood. Anyway, these practices seem relatively simpler in terms of their presentation and appear to be more appropriate for busy people in a modern industrialized society.
The other one is the concern that only concentrating on these two practices are diverting from and diluting the essence of the Gelugpa tradition as traditionally, the Gelugpas’s main practice focuses on the 13-Deity Yamantaka, Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja.
What does Rinpoche think about this matter?
A: If someone is capable of carrying out the practices of the 13-Deity Yamantaka, Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja combined as taught by Je Tzongkhapa Himself, this is the best and highly appreciable.
If someone is not as capable, has not enough time or does not feel capable enough, well, he or she still needs to do some Dharma practice. For these people, the Solitary Yamantaka and the Vajrayogini is also good. It is like you have to eat what is most suitable for your stomach. Not everyone can eat everything!
But if the people can do it, it is best that they do the 3 great tantras.
Interview with His Holiness the 101th GandenTripa
What is the most fundamental thing for a Buddhist?
A Buddhist should know that samsara is suffering. We need to realize that samsara is suffering first before we will try to obtain liberation from it. The only way to liberation from samsara is through following the Dharma. According to the texts, only by following the Buddhist teachings can there be an ultimate liberation from samsara.
What is the most important thing a Buddhist should remember?
A Buddhist should always remember the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. A Buddhist should clearly internalize the supreme qualities of the Three Jewels. In general, the Buddha is like a doctor, the Dharma is like medicine and the Sangha is like nurses and assistants to the doctor. We, sentient beings in samsara, are like the patients. We need to take the doctor’s prescription to get well. Moreover, we also need to rely on the nurses and his assistants too. A Buddhist needs to always take refuge in the Three Jewels as well as to remember their qualities.
How do we sustain bodhicitta?
To put the teachings into practice is difficult. If we can put the teachings into practice, this is real bodhicitta. If we cannot, this cannot be genuine bodhicitta. To give rise to bodhicitta, we must first cultivate loving-kindness – wishing all beings to have happiness and the causes of happiness, and compassion – wishing all beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Next, we must think of the kindness of our mother. Then, we need to remember the kindness of all beings as they have acted as our mothers in countless past lives. Following, we need to cultivate the wish to repay the kindnesses of all these uncountable mother sentient beings. Then, always try to sustain a good-heart. Do not be bothered about what others do. Just try to sustain a good-heart. This is the way of the true Buddhists.
Is vegetarianism compulsory for Buddhists?
In general, Lord Buddha has taught three differing points with regard to vegetarianism. In the first one, in the Theravada tradition, it is taught that we cannot take the so-called three categories of “impure meat”: (a) that we perceive through our eyes or ears the killing; (b) that we suspect is killed for ourselves; (c) that we know has been killed for us. Besides these three categories, we are permitted to partake of the rest..
In the second one, in the Mahayana tradition, it is taught explicitly that taking meat is necessarily unskillful and wrong. So vegetarianism is compulsory here.
In the third one, in the Vajrayana tradition, it is taught that practitioners of the Path could take meat. The reason for this is given in the texts and requires extensive explanations. It is not appropriate for me to elaborate here. Students of Buddhism can choose to follow any of these three points. It is not possible for me to dictate which points students should follow.
What a Buddhist centre should concentrate on – social work or spiritual practices ?
Doing both social work and spiritual practices are not contradictory but are in fact complementary. Both have their own reasons. Shantideva said in his “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” that the perfection of generosity does not mean that one can only perfect the practice of generosity after one has alleviated the poverty of all sentient beings. Lord Buddha has already perfected the practice of generosity. However, there is still poverty in the world. Therefore, this proves the point as elucidated in “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” that to perfect the practice of generosity means to be able to perfect the activity of generosity from the point of view of one’s spiritual practices rather than from physical completion of the alleviating of poverty of all other beings. Following this point of argument, cultivation of generosity through various spiritual practices is important. Even if I can help, I can only but help a minute proportion of beings through doing social work. Even if I can help 1000 beings, this is still a small proportion relative to the population of Singapore and the number of beings in the whole universe.
There are 3 sets of vows: (a) the self-liberation vows; (b) the Bodhisattva vows; (c) the Vajrayana Vows. All these 3 sets of vows contain the practices of the Six Perfections including the practice of generosity. Some examples of how we can exercise the vows include assisting any beings who fall sick or have other difficulties. From this point of view, social work is therefore an essential part of dharma practice.
In addition, however, we must also remember Shantideva’s teaching that the accomplishment of the Perfections lies in one’s mind through spiritual practices also. Therefore, there are valid and good reasons for social work as well as spiritual practices. There is no need to split them into two different groups.
Buddhists build too many big statues, stupas, centres and monasteries ?
All are good. All can accumulate merit. Building hospitals or monasteries are good. Both activities are not wasteful.
Will there be an end to samsara?
It is difficult to say if there will be an end to samsara. However, it is mentioned in the texts that all beings will eventually become Buddhas. But before that samsara is there. It is also mentioned in the texts that there does not exist a time where all beings will be free from samsara.
What is the state of Buddhism in the West?
Buddhism has been taught and transmitted in the West but it is difficult to ensure that every teaching has been taught and learnt well. There is definitely room for improvement in terms of the way the Buddhist centres are being managed, the way the Western students are learning the teachings, the way these students are practising the teachings, the way in which the teachings have been taught, and others. Another matter of concern is that many Tibetan teachers in the West have no place of their own.
Interview with john angelori
Taken from an interview with John Angelori conducted by Fabio Novelli on 29/10/00 for his thesis entitled “The Spread of Vipassana Meditation and its Development in Italy in both Monastic and Lay Settings”, Sociology of Religion Department, Prof. M.I. Macioti.
FN: How did you get interested in Buddhism?
JA: I got interested in Buddhism in the early 70’s. I was going to college in New York and studying philosophy and I had to take some courses on Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on. While I was there, I also got involved in research that my friends were doing in the Psych Department under Dr.Richard Davidson on the effects of meditation on learning, attention and relaxation. They taught us a couple of basic techniques and I was a test subject. A friend of mine at the time, Cliff Saron, who was part of the research group, offered me a weekend retreat at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts as a birthday gift. That was very generous of him and it put me in contact with an environment that was pretty much influenced by Buddhist meditation practices. I was really taken in by what I experienced there and went back over the following months and years for retreats with Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield (who had been a disciple of Ajahn Chah). I don’t know about now, but then IMS and their teachers were all inspired by the Thai Forest tradition and by teachers from the great Burmese tradition.
However, that first weekend retreat with Sharon at IMS helped me understand two important things: one was that despite my earlier experiences with meditation, I really didn’t know how to practice; the other was that the practice was going to be challenging. So I continued going back, doing retreats and reading things about Vipassana meditation. I remember that I didn’t really have a very well developed practice and I didn’t really understand what I was doing or what motivated me to continue doing it. I also wasn’t very skilful in the way that I lived my life. Things started to change for me and practice became clearer when I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and it was easier for me to get to IMS and to practice more frequently with the Cambridge Insight Meditation group that was made up of people like Larry Rosenberg, and others, who had come from the IMS culture.
It was over those first few years of the 1980’s, as I started to spend more time with the Cambridge group, hearing talks and developing a practice, that I started to have some sense of what I was doing. I also took a leave of absence from work and did my first long retreat at IMS then.
That 3 month retreat felt essentially like a failure at the time. I just hadn’t developed yet, not enough to be on retreat for such a long time, to sustain such a long and intensive period of practice. I felt like such a hopeless case. In any event, it didn’t dissuade me much and I continued practising afterward.
Looking back, IMS was really pivotal for me and my development as a Buddhist meditator. Not only did I have contact with qualified teachers, but the conditions that definitively influenced my path, existentially and spiritually, were able to mature because of my experiences at the centre.
I met Ajahn Anando, a then senior monk from the Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah, there in 1984 or ’85. I did a metta meditation retreat with him that was kind of a breakthrough for me. During my interview with him, we talked about my interest in monastic Buddhism and he helped me to clarify a number of things that led to my eventual decision to live at the monastery in England and take precepts as an anagarika. I thought that maybe it was necessary to go to Asia to really get training; but he suggested another way. He invited me to come to Chithurst for a monastic retreat so that I could taste monastic life and training without having to struggle with all of the cultural obstacles or problems like food or disease I might have had to face in Asia. I was thrilled but I didn’t accept until I saw him the following year on another retreat at IMS again. So in ’87, I went to offer support as a lay person for the 3 month monastic retreat that winter. I stayed on a couple of months or so after the retreat to get a better feel for monastic life outside of a retreat type situation as well.
The experience of monastic life was extremely positive, I must say, and I decided to return there and become an anagarika as soon as I could square away my worldly life back in the States. I did get back after a little more than a year and took the 8 training precepts. I had the opportunity to do another monastic retreat and, because I was the only anagarika with a driver’s license, I often got to accompany the senior monks around afterwards when they were invited to teach. This was very fortunate because I had lots of time in the car to ask questions and observe.
In 1989, there was a combined invitation by AMECO in Rome and the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Italy to establish a Theravada monastery there. Ajahn Anando asked me if I was interested in going along to help Ajahn Thanavaro, an Italian national and senior monk, who had been chosen to go and I said yes. I was very excited but I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. I met Ajahn Thanavaro the day before we left – so I had never really had any contact with him – and when we got to the new “vihara”, we set out to just try and make it comfortable and appropriate. We spent a lot of time framing pictures of our Ajahns and building a small shrine, and generally clearing out stuff that was left in the house before it was given to the Sangha. The rest was really a matter of getting into the monastic routines – going out for our daily symbolic “pindapat”, morning and evening chanting and meditation.
The early going was difficult for me and reminded me of stories I had heard of other start-up vihara’s in England or of Western monks adapting to conditions in Asia. There was nothing quite as austere, of course – we had hot and cold running water and electricity – but we just had our sitting cloths to sit on the cold marble floors and, because the house had been built for the summer, there was no heat and it was pretty cold. Also, I didn’t speak or understand Italian and, aside from the weekend guests from the Sri Lankan embassy and an occasional Italian from Rome, there weren’t many visitors. It was definitely a period of adjustment for me, not being in the larger monastery and pulled along by the routines and inspiration of being with monks I already knew and liked.
In November of 1990, my one year commitment as an Anagarika was about to end. I felt pretty sure that I did not want to continue as a monastic but I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want to return to the US and my life there. I had had what I like to think of as a transformative experience and I couldn’t see myself fitting back into the lay life I had left before coming to Europe. Besides, I was in Italy, the land of my ancestors (my grandparents had immigrated to America in the early part of the last century). I thought I should at least have a look around the country before deciding on my future.
I decided to accept the invitation of a painter, who had come to the vihara occasionally and became friends with the monks, to live in house he had built some years earlier, as a kind of mountain retreat, but which he had never completely finished and never lived in. He used it, more or less, as a storage shed for tools and old furniture; but it had a cold water tap, a wood burning stove and a simple toilet. There was no electricity and it was a bit dusty and cold; but it fulfilled the basic requisites for housing and it gave me a chance to sort things out and continue practising with a very simple life. I spent most of my time alone there – a little like Thoreau – reading, writing, practising and occasionally stopping to try and speak with people I met walking up and down the track that led to the house. It was during the two years or so that I lived there that I decided to stay in Italy where I still live today.
FN: What were the things that motivated you the most to take up and develop an interest in meditation practice?
JA: I believe that the strongest motivation I had could be traced to a very deep discomfort I had with life when I was in my early twenties. It was like a very deep, existential need I had to understand something important about my life, and to make a decision about what I wanted to do with it. Looking back now some years later, I think I really started to understand that I was suffering and that the moment had arrived to understand the nature of this suffering more completely. Buddhism offered me the instrument to confront this sense of discomfort I had with life. Despite the fact that I really had a pretty rich and full life, and lots of promise to do or be a lot of things – I played music semi-professionally, I worked out and played competitive sports – I still had this overriding sense of dissatisfaction with it all that I just couldn’t stand any longer. This lack of understanding also led me to live my life in ways that just seemed to compound that dissatisfaction as well.
FN: What were some of the difficulties you had practising meditation?
JA: I think I went through the same things that mostly everyone does when they first start to practice. When you first start to practice you seem to go through periods of both physical and mental discomfort. Just the stopping to develop an appreciation for practice seems difficult because it goes against the grain of so much we are taught to do and believe about our lives. The more you practice, the more this discomfort seems to grow – initially.
When I first started to practice, I was pretty obstinate and I wouldn’t give up despite a variety of things that I did and ways that I thought that didn’t really help me very much. I also had a strong desire to practice despite all of the physical pain I had in my legs and back; but it was like teeth clenching desire and I was pretty distracted by everything that went on in my body and mind. Nevertheless, I continued to do retreats and courses, without realising that I was probably my own worst enemy. It really made long periods of practice tortuous. I remember the metta retreat that I spoke of earlier with Ajahn Anando. They were ten days of incredible suffering: stabbing back pains, knees that blocked up and hurt and a constant, deadening weight and pressure in the chest that got worse as the retreat went on and the sittings got longer. I was a mess while everyone else seemed to be blissing out with loving kindness for all sentient beings. I remember that the last sitting of the last day of the retreat, all of the tension I was experiencing in my body and mind exploded and evaporated away. I guess I was happy that the retreat was over.
Over time I tried to use everything I could from little mantra’s like “Be more like the Buddha and less like a Buddhist” – an IMS slogan that people used around the place – to deepening my understanding of the basic teachings and everyday attitudes one could develop as a practitioner. Basically, I tried to live the teachings, use them as everyday reflections of how to live life. So the most common difficulty was overcoming the basic hindrances, as they were called: laziness, agitation, doubt, irritation and frustration, etc.
There weren’t many other problems I experienced really; nothing like what someone here in Italy might experience trying to learn about and practice a foreign religion in the heart of this Catholic country. Though practising meditation and the cultural trapping associated with it were a little odd for my family at first. My father always had his ideas about why I would light incense, for example, and never made the connection to a religious practice or creating atmosphere. He still has some difficult even today. But we laugh about it now.
America, being a multi-cultural society, didn’t present any social problems for an up-and-coming Buddhist meditator. Also, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, seemed so ideal to me. Because there many famous universities in the area, it is a very rich cultural environment where so much learning about different religions, cultures, traditions was available just walking down the street. Much like New York, in that way. Also, when I first started to learn about Buddhism and meditation, it was post-Viet Nam and many of the teachers or friends I met at IMS or at university had had direct contact with Buddhist cultures as soldiers or Peace Corp volunteers. There was a great desire to share and teach what they had learned about Asian culture and philosophy and there was the possibility to do so at universities, colleges or other learning centres all over the country.
FN: To what degree have you been able to integrate the Buddha’s teachings and meditation practice into your daily life, if at all?
JA: In this, I have been profoundly influenced by monastic life and, I guess, to some degree, by the religious training I received as a child in the Catholic Church. But Buddhist monastic life gave me the opportunity to put a lot of attention on practice in the context of everyday life, in a simple but effective way.
For example, in the beginning, I had a job at the monastery to cut and stack wood, something that would sometimes take the whole day and was very tiring. It could also be a great pleasure, almost like sports; but if I had to use a chain saw, for example, it was particularly exhausting. I would come in for the evening chanting sometimes, still vibrating and agitated from the machinery or just plain exhausted from hard, physical labour. It wasn’t the easiest thing to balance out with moments of formal practice. But as time passed, it was valuable to reflect on how practice was more than just sitting on the cushion at the evening sittings or to allow gratitude to fill the heart for the support of the monastic environment. I’m not sure how I would have to pressed on if I had to struggle with these same conditions as a lay person.
In lay life, I and lot’s of people have this idea that practice is sitting. So when you have to work through physical tiredness, for example, you may find yourself saying, Oh, I’ll practice tomorrow, when I feel better or there are better conditions. Instead the practice is right there in that moment. I think this is what sets up this artificial dichotomy for people too. Since practising in lay life requires a certain degree of organisation and commitment, it’s a lot easier to put practice into a box – like formal retreats, for example – instead of trying to use the richness of everyday life, just watching the breath and inclining to the present. This is overlooked. I think monastic life really gave me the opportunity to get into some good habits, like being regular, as well as, helping me to live the basic teaching in everyday life situations, or as it’s stated in the sutta’s, “standing or walking, seated or lying down.”
When I went back to New York that first time after the first monastic retreat, I also realised monastic life – disciplined and dignified and based on simple and trustworthy relationships – was such a contradiction to the chaotic way I lived life in America and so many of the values connected with my life there. I started to wonder if how I wanted to live and how I wanted to train in the Buddha’s teachings was somehow inconsistent with this frenetic lifestyle. So after 10 years of practising, at that point, and this brief period of monastic life, I started to see that it might have been useful to deepen my understanding of some basic principles, like using precepts, living simply and so on. This too was the great help of monastic training, let’s say, for integrating practice, the fact that in the monastery, your life is organised around these basic principles and you have an ongoing and growing understanding of how they can be integrated into your ordinary life.
I think when I went back to England and became an anagarika there and in Italy, it really helped me to internalise this attitude toward myself and practice. Monastic life is an excellent exercise for learning to develop a greater sense of awareness toward the activities of daily life. Most of the time you’re just doing simple domestic chores like cleaning up after meals or taking care of the buildings and grounds in the context of the daily rites and rituals of the religion like morning and evening chanting, taking care of the senior monks and so on. Also, the silence and solitude I experienced at Santacittarama, because it was just the two of us for so long and because I didn’t speak Italian, was a great influence.
But I think that I have always been sensitive about wanting to integrate the practice in my life – from trying to use little things like the “answering the phone practice” that Larry Rosenberg gave me when I was working in an office for a period, to remembering the suggestions of all of our great teachers to use the breath as an anchor in every moment to cultivate a sense of “here and now”, to reflecting on the importance of developing ‘sila’, using moral precepts.
This is still my basic practice now, to watch the breath as often as possible during my day, trying to balance the tendency that all of us have to do too much, move too fast, and use the mind to obsessively look far into the future of our lives or back at the past. I try to maintain this attitude of being present as much as possible; and I look at intensive practice situations, like retreats, as opportunities to develop an even stronger experiential understanding of what it means to continually incline toward the present moment.
I guess what I want to say is that I don’t think that it’s possible to integrate meditation practice into our lives without trying to seriously practice in everyday life situations and cultivating this attitude of meditation as a part of normal life activities. That’s what I try to do anyway.
FN: You have been practising quite a number of years now. Has meditation practice influenced your lifestyle and/or the way you live in general?
JA: Absolutely. Yes. After 20 some odd years of practice, I look at meditation as the compass that has guided many of the important decisions of my life and shapes my lifestyle today. Buddhism has also been, without a doubt, a fundamental element in my own personal growth and an instrument for recognising and developing my inner life. Again, monastic life has had the most impact. First, it was a big deal to go off and live with the Sangha and it influenced the course of my life. I’m in Europe because of that choice. It has also helped me to order other priorities in my life, to dedicate myself to Dhamma practice and let it guide and filter the way I live life. Monastic life helped me to understand that there was a different way for me to conduct my life; it gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself, how I lived, leave America and experience life outside American culture. Dhamma practice has certainly helped me to simplify things and appreciate the essentials more.
I remember one aspect of monastic life that has been so helpful for me in lay life. Initially, monastic life was so new and I was carried along by the enthusiasm of being with wise teachers and good spiritual companions. As I’ve said before, the routine kind of pulls you along at times too, helping you to stay on track in moments of doubt or uncertainty. There’s just the energy of community life and wanting to do the right thing that helps moving you ahead. But as time went on, and especially when I came to Italy, I had to fight against this feeling that I really wasn’t doing anything special. It seemed like life was starting to pass me by and there I was hiding away in the solitude and austerity of the monastery, wondering if I was doing anything worthwhile and interesting.
I say that this has been helpful for me, and a holdover even in lay life, because there is this tendency to think, Well, life should be more interesting, I should be doing something else and feeling more stimulated. I remember monastic life as a holding environment of sorts, where you just have to work your way through these feelings and you really don’t have a lot of distraction. So, when I have those same kinds of doubts in lay life, I try to use the same attitude.
Of course it’s more of a challenge in lay life because you can just go out and do all sorts of things to distract yourself from all kinds of feelings. But now I have this other experience too that sometimes helps to balance things out. It’s a feeling that I associate with having faith in the teachings, a sense of perseverance, and a willingness to continue to use the so-called “skilful means” of the Buddha’s teachings, like developing moral principles, to continue to transform the inner training into outer behaviours.
FN: One of the fundamental objectives of vipassana meditation practice is that it transforms and shapes the moral behaviour of the practitioner. Has this been true for you during you evolution as a practitioner?
JA: Yes. At least I hope so. As a practitioner continues to develop greater awareness, which is really characteristic of practice as it matures in the person, you inevitably become more sensitive to how your behaviour impacts on you and the world around you. It’s like a long term internship about your inner life that continually puts your attention on what motivates you, how you respond to things and which then necessarily transforms ongoing acquired behaviours and conditions into more wholesome personal growth. This process is, of course, influenced by all kinds of factors including, culture and khamma.
I have some personal examples that are not very easy to talk about but which I think might be useful to note. For example, I remember after my experience of monastic life, I had a number of difficulties in rediscovering what I think of as a balance between a healthy sexual appetite and an expression of those desires. I personally got a little bottled up. So my moral behaviour was transformed but I had to find the right balance between restraint and repression.
In America, I grew up in a social environment in which sexual expression and relationships between the sexes was lived rather freely, despite the intricacies and problems that arose, and friends might talk about or even share experiences, even when they were not in an ongoing relationship. Again, I’m not sure if all of that was good or bad; but I had some difficulty accepting, in myself, after monastic life, sexual expression linked exclusively to the pure pleasure of it all and that which might be an expression of a moral or virtuous union between two people, based on commitment, a life together, marriage and so. I am still trying to work that one out. The other is using intoxicants.
I have become more conservative, let’s say, in both these areas of my life and have a sense that some of what was seen as freedom of expression in the past might actually have been damaging at the heart level or created suffering for myself and others. They are, in any event, things that need to be engaged in wisely if they are to lead to understanding instead of just fuzziness and agitation.
I think though, that a practitioner develops a more rigorous moral responsibility as a natural consequence to this commitment to Dhamma practice because you start with this promise to cultivate and understand behaviour that is not harmful to yourself and others. As your conduct along these lines develops, you really can’t help but widen the circle to not only your own life but to reflect, at least, on how your behaviour influences the world in which we live. In any event, it’s an ongoing practice and often I find it helpful to set aside parts of the day or week to practice conscious but simple ways to improve my sensitivity regarding worldly behaviours like pledging to drive the speed limit no matter what, or being especially thoughtful in the line at the supermarket check-out, or letting people in front of me at the post office, not using vulgar or injurious language, and so on.
FN: What do you think about the growing interest in Oriental religions, philosophies and spiritual practices, in particular Buddhism, in the West? Do you think that this a passing phase or something that is gradually taking root in our culture?
JA: I think the growing interest in Buddhism in the West is related to the fact that over the last century, more and more people have been rejecting or, at least, calling into question the systems that influence how we live our lives both in the world and in our religions. I think people want to be free and answer to themselves. But people also have a sense that it’s good to have a model to work with, or a compass to point the way.
In Buddhism, there is a major emphasis on our ability to develop, on our own, a path of personal discovery, guided along by a process of inner transformation and the sense of psycho-physical well-being we experience gradually along the way. This isn’t the traditional religious approach, that many of us have experienced in our own religious traditions, of beginning with belief in some divine entity who judges our lives from the outside and then trying to match yourself up. Instead, practitioners and Buddhists follow a set of guidelines that are more or less specific depending on your interest, level and character, that have been articulated through the personal discovery of the Buddha for your own personal discovery, by helping us to sweep away afflictions that cause us to suffer in our lives. In this way we are really guided along by our own actions and the ability to develop an increasing sensitivity to how we feel and live.
This growing interest in finding social and spiritual alternatives is evident in the number of meditation centres and associated activities cropping up all over Europe and America in the last 10 or so years as more and more people look for some kind of support and want to know more about these teachings. In Italy, Santacittarama is a particularly auspicious development because it is a stable reference point for those who wish to know more about traditional Theravada Buddhism.
Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be much more of a boom in Italy, anyway, regarding the expansion of Buddhism in the near future. And while there is growing interest in the monastery and support for the monks at Santacittarama, I don’t see that there is any particularly strong motivation for Italians to take on the monastic form as a way to develop their own practice. It’s a strange thing, but historically, there have been very few Italian Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition anyway. I personally don’t see the social-cultural conditions here that motivate people to leave everything, to drop their own traditions, and to completely dedicate themselves to the monastic form. Italy is changing though. Who knows what will happen in the future?
FN: What do you think is the importance and usefulness of having a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the West?
JA: I firmly believe that Santacittarama gives people the same possibility to deepen their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings by living in a monastic training environment, that is sane and wholesome, like the one I had living in the UK as an anagarika. Apart from the fact that it’s in a very beautiful location, far from the city and surrounded by a fair amount of wooded area, the possibility to stay there and practice alongside the resident monks and live the teachings in the context of the ancient Forest Tradition, is a living example of committment to the Dhamma.
The place is now organised well enough to accommodate a number of people, for short or long periods of time, to give them the opportunity to get closer to the Buddha’s teachings, not just intellectually, but through actual direct contact with qualified teachers, in an environment geared for training. I also think that just being able to see how the monks live the training rules and so on provides a concrete, observable example of what the Buddha taught. I think it’s really essential.
As far as I’m concerned, having Buddhist monasteries in England gave me the opportunity to do something that I might never have done if I had had to go to Asia, for example. So I think that it’s fundamental if people are to develop a natural path of practice in their own countries to have traditional Buddhist environments instead of having to mix it all up with cultural and other environmental difficulties one may encounter going to the East. I, for one, am very, very grateful for what was available to me in the past and in the present.
FN: Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?
JA: I’m always a little embarrassed to define myself that way. But I guess I am. I was sitting around with Ajahn Sumedho and some other monks a couple of years ago at Amaravati talking about the spread of the Nichi Ren tradition in Italy and how it seemed misleading that people thought of them as Buddhists. Tan Ajahn just laughed one of those deep laughs of his and pulled my leg saying, “Oh John. You’re no heretic. You’re a “traditional” Buddhist.
On a conventional level, it makes sense for me to say that I am a Buddhist, to better define in certain social situations how I live and the religious choices that guide my life. In this way, I use the Buddhist label, knowing that it doesn’t really fully explain all of the meaning and values I associate with being Buddhist. One of the things that has always made me a little uncomfortable though is that it also has other associations for people and I have often been tagged “alternative” or even “New Age” as a result. I’m uncomfortable with that because I actually am quite conservative.
Personally and in my heart, I do consider myself a Buddhist because I try and live the teachings of the Buddha in all that I do and it is always a reference point for me in my day and in my life. I feel particularly close to Theravada Buddhism because of its simplicity and authenticity; and because I have found true spiritual friendship in the people I have met in the centres and monasteries where I have practised – monks and lay people alike – who have helped my faith in the teachings to mature.
FN: What do you think Buddhism is: a religion, a philosophy, or a lifestyle?
JA: It’s not very easy for me to answer that question. I don’t think that we can consider Buddhism a religion in our conventional sense of the word, partly because you don’t start from a belief in some transcendent being which is typical of monotheistic religions. However, we also find a number of similarities to traditional religions – the mythological stories about the Buddha and his life, moral training and ethics, rules and guidelines for life, and so on. In this sense, the teachings of the Buddha all add up to religion as it is commonly understood.
Nevertheless, there seems to be more attention put on providing the instruments necessary for developing an experiential spiritual life, and less attention put on what might be considered the metaphysical aspect of religion. Therefore I think we can get a little lost in our experiences in the past of other religious traditions when we think of Buddhism as a religion or a philosophy or a lifestyle. I think what we can say is that through the practice of the Buddha’s teachings we are able to develop a deeper appreciation of certain values that allow us to get closer to what the Buddha was pointing at, that give us the possibility to understand more clearly what our existential experience is about. This is not a rational thing, but an intuitive process and a gradual revealing through our lives and relationships and choices.
Interview with John Robbins
On vegetarianism, nutrition, and conscious eating
By Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher
John Robbins is the bestselling author of Diet for a New America, May All Be Fed and Our Food Our Future. He is an educator, pioneer and founder of EarthSave, an organization dedicated to the transition to more healthful and environmentally sound food choices.
The Share Guide: Are you yourself a vegetarian, or do you eat all natural foods? And do you really try hard to eat only organic foods?
John Robbins: I’m actually vegan. I don’t eat any animal fat, and we grow a lot of our own food on our land. The food that we buy, we try to get it as organic as we can. We do a pretty good job of it We’re fortunate because we live in the Santa Cruz area, which is a part of the country where there’s a great deal of organic agriculture. I travel a lot throughout the U.S. and the world–and interestingly, in most parts of the United States it’s much harder to find organic food.
The Share Guide: We are blessed in California.
John Robbins: Right, but to many people Organics is just something that is an outgrowth of the hippie movement. It’s something that’s fringe or marginal. This is the kind of the attitude you get in some parts of the country. But interestingly, from a global perspective, the organic explosion is extraordinary. The European Union probably leads the global organic explosion with a 35 fold expansion in organic area since 1985–with an average annual growth rate of 30%. Organic agriculture now accounts for 3% of the total European Union agricultural area. There are other areas that are even higher. In Austria for example, 13% of the farmland is now organic. There are other European nations, such as Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Italy that are also leaders. In those countries 5-10% of the total agricultural area is now organic. It’s really sweeping the world. It is truly an organic explosion.
The Share Guide: What percentage would it be in America?
John Robbins: Only .2%. In fact, only in the U.S. and Canada has it lagged behind. Although even here, the organic area has grown 15-20% a year throughout the 1990’s.
The Share Guide: So you’re saying that throughout the 1990’s it caught on?
John Robbins: Yes. What’s happened is retail sales of organic produce and products in North America have been growing 20% annually. They are now at about $10 billion a year. Let me remind you that it’s driven by market forces. It’s consumer demand. But in Europe you have two forces driving it. You have consumer demand–people who are not willing to expose their bodies to pesticide residues and not wanting to contribute to poisons in the food chain and the water and soil and farm worker exposure and so forth–but also, in Europe there is substantial preference and support. The growth in organics in the United States has come in spite of virtually no government support.
The Share Guide: I thought a lot of that was agricultural lobbying. Don’t they have that problem in Europe also?
John Robbins: Not nearly to the same extent. In the U.S. the Agrichemical conglomerates have far too much pull in Washington. It’s just not comparable in other countries. There’s chemical industries in these countries, and surely they’re big and powerful, but they’re bound in those other countries by the elected officials. They are not so much being bought and sold by Industry. The U.S. is uniquely corporatized in that sense. Our public policies are uniquely tailored to fit the corporate agenda. In the other countries the public policies represent a balance between the corporate agenda and the public interest. It’s not automatically assumed elsewhere that what’s good for Industry is good for the economy. In this country it’s often assumed by elected officials, that what’s good for General Motors is good for the public. Yet we see time and time again that’s not true. Organics is growing rapidly in the U.S., but not nearly as rapidly as in Europe. This is very important thing to realize. Europe has witnessed the Mad Cow Disease (in the United Kingdom), and therefore people are much more conscious and much more concerned about food safety and whole foods than they are here. They don’t want to buy foods that are genetically modified and are not labeled, that have been irradiated and are not labeled, that have been filled with poisons and are not labeled. In Europe the genetically modified foods have to be labeled. In Japan the same applies. Actually, in most of the industrialized world that’s the case, but in this country the biotech industries have fought that successfully.
The Share Guide: Another comment about pesticides before we go into biotech issues. I know that tons of pesticides are shipped abroad and come back in our imported goods.
John Robbins: This is called the “Circle of Poison.” Some of the worse pesticides, particularly the chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides (the DDT family) are extremely long living in the soil. They don’t break down, they don’t biodegrade. They accumulate and concentrate in the food chain. They go up the food chain, and are very toxic, very dangerous substances. As such they have been largely banned for use in food production in the United States.
The Share Guide: But they’re still manufactured?
John Robbins: Yes. There’s been no decline in production. Now they are shipped to other countries, particularly Latin America, where they are used and then exported back to the U.S., which is why we call it the Circle of Poison. We export the poison, they export back to us the food grown with that poison, carrying all that toxic residue. Commercially grown bananas, coffee, tropical fruits–produce in general for that matter–grown in Mexico and Latin America are likely to carry extremely high concentrations of the most poisonous of the pesticides. Therefore, people who are trying to reduce their exposure need to be aware of this. You should really think twice about consuming commercially grown produce.
The Share Guide: Even though it looks beautiful.
John Robbins: That’s right. It’ll look beautiful, but looks are deceiving. This is one of the things about the commercialization of our food supply–there’s this huge emphasis on cosmetics, on making it look good–the tremendous lack of concern about the nutritional quality, and about the presence of poisonous residues.
The Share Guide: I was just in Mexico recently on holiday. Do you think that the Latin American people are probably eating produce with pesticides, primarily because we’re exporting it down there? In other words, are they getting poisoned too?
John Robbins: Yes, they are. Not only are they getting it in their food, they’re getting it in their air and in their water.
The Share Guide: So by and large the developing nations are stuck in our wake, and Europe is the most aggressive toward change–but the rest of the world is where we were a generation ago?
John: Exactly. Although there are some exceptions and they’re nice to note. In Cuba partially as a result of the boycott, there’s been a nationwide shift to organic markets. There’s over 30,000 urban gardens which produce vegetables for city dwellers. It can be done even in countries which are not the most industrialized. In Uganda, oddly, there has been a doubling of organic agricultural area in the last 5 years. Actually Uganda, which is a small backward country, now produces 10% of the organic cotton on the world market. Believe it or not, Uganda is producing more organic cotton than the United States!
The Share Guide: It’s good to see some of the smaller countries jumping past some of the problems, because by and large in my travels to the Third World, I’ve seen them a few decades behind us going down the same nasty paths.
John: That’s more typical, but I point out the exceptions because they’re so important, and they show that it can be done. Argentina is another example. Ten years ago there was no organic agriculture in Argentina. It was simply following the lead of the United States. But in the past five years organic production in Argentina has jumped 7000%. Argentina will be exporting more than $100 million in organic products this year. In Africa there is an organization called the Export Production of Organic Products Association started in Mozambique and Tanzania, now also in Uganda and Zimbabwe. It’s funny, but everywhere else in the world, there is a tremendous recognition about the value of organic farming. There is amongst the U.S. population as well, but the United States Department of Agriculture does not deem developing organic agriculture relevant.
The Share Guide: Organics are in demand by the public, but there’s a vested interest in the methods which are being used now, which leads me to ask this: For countries with huge populations, is it really possible to get the yields that we need by farming organically?
For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, where you’d have to replant everything and do away with monoculture (because the bugs love that one giant crop).
John: Well, this is a key question. Monoculture, being a very large area growing only one crop, is not a natural way of growing things.For example, if you have thousands of acres of only cabbage, the cabbage moth can wreck havoc. It does take some shifting of land, but there’s no law that says you have to plant thousands of acres of cabbage with nothing else interspersed.
The Share Guide: There’s no law, but they do it for efficiency?
John: Yes. But recent studies have shown that yields from organic production are comparable to conventional methods, especially over the long term. When you combine that with the high prices organic produce often fetches, and the money that the farmers are saving from not having to pay for the pesticides, organic systems are becoming generally more profitable. There was one recent study regarding organic grain and soybean production in the midwest which found that organic systems were often more profitable even without the price premiums–because of the low input costs, the greater diversity of products being sold than available under monoculture and a greater yield stability.
The Share Guide: Without monoculture you avoid that problem of maintaining insects and parasites that resist the pesticides.
John: Exactly; it’s a huge problem. We are actually losing a greater percentage of our crop to pests (the very pests our pesticides target).than we did before we ever used pesticides, because bugs have mutated and developed resistance. Their lifespans are very short compared to humans. They go through many generations very rapidly, and that gives them the opportunity to develop resistance and mutate, and they’ve done it–just as surely as the micro-organisms have developed resistance to antibiotics. Then they develop second and third generation pesticides that are more toxic, and create more problems. All of this, by the way, is poisoning our farming communities and causing a great deal of health problems amongst the farm workers. This is something that is sometimes hidden from consumers because they only see the product in the supermarkets and in the restaurants.
The Share Guide: And the groundwater and the downwind crops are also affected.
John: Yes, and eventually everyone is affected. When pesticide-based agriculture was first developed, they hybridized what they called the Green Revolution. It seemed like a miracle, because we were suddenly doubling the crop yield. It’s actually similar to injecting some amphetamine into a human being. They are going to suddenly feel a tremendous rush of energy. If they don’t have some sanity and common sense they may think, “Oh this is incredible! I’ll just plug into the energy of the universe.” But a drug induced addiction is not stable and it’s not sustainable, and it’s not healthy. In agriculture we have become addicted to chemicals in the form of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides.
The Share Guide: Seems like the same thing on a larger scale. So it’s an unnatural forcing of things which yields to crashing?
John: Exactly. I think that we’re eating foods that are laden with chemicals but lack nutritional value. For example, the synthetic fertilizers replace the nitrogen and phosphorous and potassium which are the three primary mineral requirements of the plants, but they don’t replace the boron, the molybdinum, the great plethora of micro nutrients and trace minerals. It looks good, it’s big, but it’s not nutritionally balanced. I’m wondering if some of the bizarre emotional and physical problems that people are experiencing are a consequence of those imbalances.
The Share Guide: And other changes. I’ve been reading about things like early puberty in girls.
John: Right. Eighty years ago (and still in traditional indigenous cultures today) women had their first menstrual cycle at the age of 17, sometimes 16, sometimes 18. This is traditional. This is how the human being seems to have been designed to develop. But in Western cultures today we have a large number of girls 8, 9 and 10 beginning their menstrual cycles. The average in this country is 11 1/2 right now. This has been directly traced to three things: the increasing fat level in our diets; the use of hormones in animal production (particularly in beef production); and thirdly, to the presence in the environment of certain estrogen mimicking chemicals.
The Share Guide: Do you know what the status is of organic certification? What concerns me is the idea of someone having an organic farm and being next door to one that is not.
John: This problem you mention is a real one and is particularly daunting And if the neighbor next door is growing genetically engineered foods there is a threat due to pollen drift. It’s a real issue that has not been dealt with at all adequately. Unless the organic grower’s fields are huge, vast acreages, that’s going to be a problem. The wind is going to carry some of spray over into the organic fields. We’re all interconnected, we’re inseparable. What we do to ourselves we do to our neighbors. What our neighbors do they do to us. We are part of each other and this is one of the great revolutionary realizations of our time–.just how interconnected we all are. Our ecologists for years have been telling us that. What we do to each other, we do to ourselves. What we do to the natural world comes back to us.
The Share Guide: Yes, we are all One People.
John: I think it’s not just a New Age cliche but a fundamental biological law. We’re learning the consequences of ignoring that we are all one.
The Share Guide: Getting back to my last question. Are you pretty comfortable at the state of the art now in organic certification? I know we have to worry about that trend problem, but aside from that.
John: Even including that, I’m basically comfortable. I think that there will be small infractions here and there, but by and large the Organic industry is a lot more credible than sometimes recognized.
The Share Guide: Well, I feel more comfortable with it myself. It’s an intuition with me though. I don’t have hard facts behind it. I feel like there’s much more going on in the movement and it’s much more controlled.
John: That’s true. There are people who try to exploit the organic movement and use it as a marketing scam, but the backlash against those who try to exploit the turf deceitfully has been very severe. People have known that the integrity of the word “Organic” is critical. If that’s lost then everyone loses.
Interestingly enough, a few years ago the FDA recognized that every state had its own version of organic standards, and that most companies operate along the same line, saw the problem there. The Organics Standards Board was set up to arrive at a definition of Organic that would allow for a true national base and standard. But then the USDA proceeded to totally ignore them and come forward with another idea which would have included sewage sludge, and genetically modified stuff, and irradiated food as “organic.” This would have diluted the term, and totally pulled the rug out from under the Organic Industry. I think it was the Chemical Manufacturers Association essentially behind that.
However, what happened was extraordinary. The Secretary of Agriculture received over 280,000 communications, an all-time record for a Federal official on a given subject. They were all essentially saying the same thing: “This is not organic; you’re screwing us! Don’t do it!” He recognized it and this is one of the great examples of citizen power, the citizenry opposing a corporate agenda. Although we don’t have it finalized yet, it’s very clear that the National Organic Standards will not allow the inclusion of sewage sludge, will not allow the inclusion of genetically engineered material and will not allow for the inclusion of irradiated products.
The Share Guide: At first I had problems spending more money on an organic banana than on a commercial banana. It really bothered me sometimes, there was a high price difference. But now I’m starting to feel like you vote with your dollars and every extra bit that I’m giving supports the movement.
John: Yes, you do vote with your dollars, but also with everything you put in your mouth, you create your future.
The Share Guide: It’s “digging our graves with our teeth” as Dr. Andrew Wiel says.
John: Think about medical costs…think of the extra costs of organic produce as true health insurance. Bananas are a great example. They cost more, and they don’t look as pretty usually. I don’t know if they taste better either, but the bananas, being tropical fruits, are grown commercially in Central or South America, where toxics sprays are allowed. They are extremely toxic. Sure, you can peel the banana, but some of the toxics are absorbed through the skin. Furthermore, a lot of these poisons are systemic. They’re taken up by the plant into every cell of the plant, which you then incorporate into your body.
In the long run the advantages to your physical experience in terms of suffering and in terms of medical problems are probably vastly greater than what it’s going to cost you in terms of higher prices at the cash register.
The Share Guide: I totally agree. But sometimes, when you’re thinking about your wallet, you might say, “Well, that’s a long term benefit, and right now it’s a bit expensive.” What pushes me over the edge all the time now is realizing the importance of supporting the farmers in the movement, as well as my own guts.
John: That’s a wonderful thing. The more people feel that way and see what you’re seeing, the more you’ll feel included in a movement to create a better world. Some of the loneliness and alienation–that’s found around living in a culture that doesn’t reflect that compassion and highest values and our desires for a better world–starts to ease. A lot of us feel is that alienation from the greater society, and it just seems so trivial, and so consumption-based, and so materialistic, and so exploitive. When you start voting your life choices at the ballot box, what happens is you start to be a part a very great movement that’s occuring in our times.
The Share Guide: It’s a beautiful thing.
John: It’s a very beautiful thing. By being part of it you make it bigger.
The Share Guide: You contribute to the rebirthing of a more conscious way of living.
For more information about John Robbins, please visit EarthSave, an organization dedicated to the transition to more healthful and environmentally sound food choices.
Interview with Kyabje Trijang Chogtrul Rinpoche
by Dario Tesoroni, in 2001
I was recognized as a reincarnation of Trijang Rinpoche by the present Dalai Lama, trough a divination with dough balls and also by Dorje Shugden oracle. Actually there were 500 candidates but they were looking for a candidate with particular signs. After the first screening one hundred candidates were left; then again 10 candidates, then 3 and lastly myself. For this examination they showed to us some personal belongings of the previous Trijang Rinpoche; we had to choose the right ones. At that time I was 2 years old. They showed to me the picture of the previous incarnation and they asked: “who is this?” and I answered: “This is me!” Another time they showed me a picture of a group of Lamas and they asked: “Where are you?”. I pointed to the right Lama in the picture.
One of the follower of the previous Trijang Rinpoche was a teacher in the Central School for Tibetans in Dalhousie. He had a relic, a tooth of Trijang Rinpoche, completely wrapped in a cloth. He showed it to me and asked: “What is inside here?” and I answered indicating my teeth. There were many other proofs of this kind, many signs that I was the right reincarnation but now I don’t remember them all.
Do you remember your previous life?
Most of the Tulkus have very vivid memories, a very clear mind of their previous lives when they are very young but then, as they grow up, they start to forget: things of this life become more important, predominant. If it was not like that, no Rinpoches would need to study! If I have to express my personal experience, I do not feel I am a reincarnation. I just feel I am a lucky child. Being a reincarnation brings many benefits: for example when I was a child I received many toys. But there are also many responsibilities.
The previous Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was a promoter of Dharma. He helped the Dharma to flourish, especially of the Gelug School; so most Tibetans are directly or indirectly his followers or disciples. I myself feel that he was an omniscient being, very learned and that his morality was flawless; so I am always trying my best in order not to spoil his image. My responsibility is not to let the Buddhadharma degenerate especially of the Gelugpa tradition; and to have it flourish everywhere. It is a big responsibility and is also a responsibility of many Gelugpa Lamas. I always pray that everything will turn out the way I feel and pray.
Which is your daily schedule?
In the morning I recite some small prayers, the Arapatsa mantra [the wisdom mantra] and Migtsema [Lama Tsong Khapa mantra] then I take my breakfast. After that I start my main studies: for 1 hour and half I memorize texts. Then I have a class with Geshe Tsultrim on the Commentary to the Well Explained Essence of Definite and Interpretative Meanings. Then lunch and after lunch I have another class with Geshe Tsultrim on Tantra. Later I study Tibetan grammar and composition and in the evening, after dinner, I recite the texts memorized in the morning. My day ends with my daily prayers.
Chogtrul Trijang Rinpoche’s message for the web
I am very glad that you created these web pages because I feel that this web site can be very helpful, especially for the follower of the Buddhist path. Peace can be established in the world only by Dharma, by spiritual path. It is true that the world is undergoing a lot of progress, a lot of technological and military development; but there are also many pitfalls and disadvantages. Material progress is very limited, it is just external development related to external happiness. Inner happiness can be brought about only by Dharma.
There are many religions in this world and it is important that whatever religion a person choose he (or she) has to pursue it with enthusiasm, without criticizing other religion. That is wrong.
If we talk in a Buddhist context or perspective, Buddhadharma is very comprehensive and profound. It is impossible to learn Dharma in a short time, in a month or something like that. It is the same with spiritual studies or with worldly studies. In order to achieve something you need to study day by day, with the right teacher.
We can say that the essence of Buddhadharma is not to harm anybody. If we can benefit sentient beings of course it is very good but, if this is not possible, at least we should not harm. If we apply this in our daily life, in our daily practice, it is possible to progress in our spiritual path.
In fact it is not enough just to study the Dharma. We need to put it into practice. The reason for studying the Dharma is to tame the mind. If we do not put these precious instructions into practice, they can inspire hatred or competitiveness. So it is important to understand that the reason for studying is to tame the mind. If we do not tame the mind, by not putting the spiritual teachings into practice, then there is no peace and this brings many consequences like conflicts and so on.
So my personal request for the people who visit this web page is not only to study spirituality but also to put it into practice. I will pray that everyone will find achievement into their practice. I will pray that peace will prevail on Earth and that all the people pursuing a spiritual path my find success in it and in all their spiritual activities. Many tashi delek.
Chogtrul Trijang Rinpoche
Interview with Lama Surya Das
on Buddhism, Spirituality and The Eightfold Path
By Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher
Lama Surya Das is the most highly trained American Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is the author of several best-selling books including Awakening the Buddha Within and Awakening the Buddhist Heart. His work communicates the wisdom of Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker.
The Share Guide: First, I have a few questions about your spiritual tradition. I know that you’re American born, but do you primarily practice Tibetan Buddhism?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, I am a lama in a Tibetan Buddhist Order. But although I’m a lineage holder in Tibetan Buddhism, I try to teach Buddhism for the West including non-sectarian but mainly, yes, Tibetan Buddhism.
The Share Guide: What is a lineage holder?
Lama Surya Das: It means that I’m a trained and authorized representative and transmitter of the tradition, not just “I like Tibetan Buddhism, and I saw the Dalai Lama on television once.”
The Share Guide: What makes Tibetan Buddhism different? I know there’s a number of different branches.
Lama Surya Das: Buddhism is an old religion, older than Christianity, so over the centuries and millennia it developed different traditions in different countries and cultures. It’s like Catholicism and Protestantism and then the new religions in America such as Mormonism, Baptist, Christian Science, whatever, that came out of Christianity. Buddhism has different schools, sects, lineages–some monastic, some lay, some traditional. Some are more reformed or experimental and it’s different in each country. As Buddhism moved from India to Nepal and Tibet, then to China, Japan (where it became Zen), it evolved and changed.
The Share Guide: So some of your rituals and ceremonies may be different but essentially it’s the same teaching?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, we use the same tenets and practices and the three enlightenment trainings and ethics trainings. Plus the meditation trainings and wisdom trainings that I’ve written about in Awakening the Buddha Within and Awakening the Buddhist Heart. Tibetan Buddhism has Tibetan Yoga practices, Dzogchen, massage and things that don’t exist in any other part of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism emphasizes chanting and visualization, and energy work and healing work more than other forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes philosophy, and Buddhist logic and mind training.
The Share Guide: Is this the same form or school that the Dalai Lama practices?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, the Dalai Lama is the head lama, the chief…not exactly the pope because we’re not that hierarchically structured. In general, he’s the head of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Share Guide: And you’ve done some work directly with him?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, I’m a student of his, as well as every lama’s and I’ve also organized conferences with him with the International Buddhist Teachers Conference.
The Share Guide: Those are the week long conferences in Dharamsala?
Lama Surya Das: In Dharamsala and occasionally in America now as well. We just had one last year at Spirit Rock in Marin County.
The Share Guide: Although you live on the East Coast in Massachussets, you come to teach in Northern California regularly, don’t you?
Surya Das: Yes, I have a group or sangha that meets in Mill Valley on Thursday nights.
The Share Guide: Another person I’ve been studying as well as the Dalai Lama is this being called the Medicine Buddha, who is an ancient healer. I’m not sure if he’s a real person or a mythical one. Can you tell me a little about him?
Surya Das: There’s actually a new book called In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Unlike the historical Buddha, the Medicine Buddha is more like the historical Buddha taking a visionary form. It’s called Sangye Menla in Tibet. He’s depicted as being lapis lazuli (blue-like) in color, holding healing herbs in his hand. We consider it Dharma, which heals what ails us on all levels, spiritually as well as physically, emotionally…so that this Tibetan Buddhist medicine actually coming from what we call the Four Medical Tantras taught by the Medicine Buddha, and which forms the foundation of Tibetan Medicine. It’s related to the six yogas of Tibet and other practices that includes purification, fasting, special diets, astrology, collected herbal formulas and medicines.
The Share Guide: The reason I mentioned him is that I read recently in Buddhism Today that his teaching included four levels of medicine and the highest or fourth level was Spiritual Medicine. So, I was wondering why it’s considered that Spiritual Medicine provides the deepest healing?
Surya Das: It’s related to the idea that healing at the soul level heals you for eternity.
The Share Guide: So working on the spiritual level is the most important thing?
Surya Das: Working on the spiritual level brings us more into our eternal home, and gets us in touch with our natural state of inner health and completeness– beyond birth and death. In other words, you may be very sick, but soul healing will bring you into peace even though you might die of the illness. You can be healed that way…not healed and live forever, because nobody can live forever, but healed spiritually, which transcends birth and death and goes on. We need to realize that we are deathless.
The Share Guide: In this lifetime, we’re helping our spiritual growth by focusing on the spiritual, but from what I can tell, the spiritual focus also helps with mental, emotional and physical ailments?
Surya Das: Right, it’s a holistic healing.
The Share Guide: I’ve heard Dr. Larry Dossey talking about how people who have a better attitude are more loving and respond better to physical treatment.
Surya Das: Yes, it’s all related, of course. That’s the point of spiritual healing– it’s a generally a more holistic approach than the allopathic, cover-it-up kind of healing. Recognizing, for example, that stress and tension, anger and negative emotions and so on contribute to illnesses of various kinds. Love and friendliness and unselfishness also heal on other levels and connect with our inexhaustible souls. Violence and aggression harm ourselves as well as others, so it hurts us in various ways. We need to heal the divisions between ourselves and others. That’s why the Buddha said something like “Love and kindness is the greatest medicine.” One of the meanings of the ancient word Dharma is “that which heals.” (Usually we talk about Buddha Dharma, meaning Buddha’s teachings or Buddha’s wisdom, but that’s one of the etymological meanings.) As far as the Medicine Buddha goes, there’s initiations and empowerments you can receive from lamas to extend your longevity and vitality and help you heal–and particularly, to help you practice the Medicine Buddha meditation yourself. So you can actualize and develop your inner healing capacities on yourself and on healing others.
The Share Guide: My office is full of spiritual pictures and statues. A lot of these brass statues are from India–Shiva, Krishna and Medicine Buddha. I have them around my work station to keep me thinking high thoughts even during printing deadlines and so forth.
Surya Das: That’s great!
The Share Guide: It feels like they help, so I want to encourage people to think about that…making your office and your home an altar can help you to manage the stresses of the day. I’d like to turn our attention to your latest book, Awakening the Buddhist Heart. Thank you for the answering general Buddhist questions before we got to the new book. In this book you suggest developing spiritual intelligence. How can we cultivate spiritual intelligence and find our spiritual center?
Surya Das: Spiritual intelligence is innate in all of us. It’s a matter of how much we develop it–just like we all have muscles, but some are flabby and some are firm from exercise. Spiritual exercise helps us develop our spiritual muscles. We can develop our spiritual intelligence in various ways: by thinking and connecting more to the bigger picture, rather than just living for instant gratification or seeing things as separate and discrete events, without recognizing the bigger patterns and universal laws. We should see these connected to ourselves and others. A lot of this book is about bringing spirituality into our relationships through all of life’s connections. We should develop our spiritual intelligence by finding our spiritual center either in ourselves or a religious way, thanking Jesus or Buddha or God or service or yoga or meditation or prayers as the center of our life.
The Share Guide: So this should be our focus point?
Surya Das: Yes, and there’s a lot of ways to do this. We need to distinguish the real from the unreal and go more towards the Light and away from Darkness. Then we can start to understand the universal laws of cause and effect and why things happen. Once we understand our karma, we can be masters rather than victims of circumstances and conditions. We can be more grateful for all that’s given and not just take it for granted. We need to recognize our precious human existence as a cherished life, and prioritize the now, and respect and cherish life in all forms. And practice non-violence and so on. In a way, we could do a spiritual IQ test and see what our spiritual IQ is–where we are as far as selfish or unselfish, loving or hateful and mean-minded, generous or tight fisted and so on. This is regardless of what “ism” you believe in, or even if you’re an atheist or agnostic but have some humanist sensibilities.
The Share Guide: In your books you say that we’re blessed with life. But there are a lot of people who don’t see life as a blessing. What can you do about this if you’re stuck there?
Surya Das: As Buddhists we don’t proselytize. We only teach when asked, so people need to be questioning, so we can discuss things. If people are asking, then we can explore and inquire together to see if human life is a blessing or a curse. And maybe we can count our blessings and not just feel resentful, bitter or victimized.
The Share Guide: So if people are stuck and they’re not enjoying life, they should ask for help from the spiritual teachers in their community?
Surya Das: Exactly. We have to look at our own belief systems. Does life really suck? Are we just seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full? Buddhism is neither optimistic or pessimistic. We try to be realistic and take things as they are. There’s a great freedom in that, and with freedom comes responsibility.
The Share Guide: What are samskaras and how do they affect our spiritual health?
Surya Das: Samskaras mean karmic imprints or deeds or habits that are in our psyche–the stored consciousness like Jung talks about. In other words, the imprints that are in us and push our boundaries, so that we react in a conditioned fashion the same way to certain stimuli. It’s like the stimulus/response reaction, which keeps us from being free. When somebody says critical or nasty words about us, we instantly react and get mad rather than having more detachment or equanimity. We need to be able to consider the criticism in terms of how that might be true and helpful or whether it’s false–and thus keep our balance, be centered and mindful rather than just reactive. The samskaras are like the buttons that get pushed as we continually are bombarded by stimulus (outer and inner), and not just from others, but also from our own inner emotions and thoughts and memories. As we become more aware through meditation, self-inquiry and mindfulness practice, we start to have more space and more clarity to be able to manage our reactions and to choose more skillfully whether we kick back or not when somebody steps on our toe. That’s the child level of reaction, but we do the same thing at the adult level–if people look at us funny or cut us off in traffic, we get road rage.
The Share Guide: When I recently interviewed James Van Praagh, he mentioned something he termed the “physical seed atom,” which is this residual element we have that carries our karmic imprints between incarnations. It sounds like your samskaras. . .what you carry over with you into the afterlife and the next life.
Surya Das: Yes, it is like karmic seeds. That’s why I say it’s stored in the unconscious–it’s bigger than any of us. . . Jung calls it the “stored consciousness”. If we haven’t learned the lessons we need to learn, we come back to learn them again.
The Share Guide: So the samskaras can continue with you from one life to the next?
Surya Das: Yes, negative karma as well as good karma. If we have an intention to serve others, to be a shepherd like the Dalai Lama and the incarnate lamas in Tibet, the physical body can only go so far, 50 or 90 years perhaps, but one can be reborn and carry on that mission. So that’s the idea of the reincarnated one. In the case of lamas of Tibet like the Dalai Lama, those karmic seeds ripen in the next life in a positive way, to complete the unfinished mission for the benefit of all.
The Share Guide: So samskaras aren’t necessarily a negative trait?
Surya Das: Right, there’s good karma and there’s bad karma and there’s neutral karma. Let’s say there’s wholesome and unwholesome karmic seeds.
The Share Guide: The Bodhisattva path, can you discuss what it is, how it can heal and give meaning to us?
Surya Das: The Bodhisattva path is the highest spiritual ideal that I’ve ever encountered. It’s predicated on the recognition that we’re all one. And the common ground of all beings is that we all want to be happy and well, and have our loved ones be protected and safe and happy and not harmed. We’re all joined in that way, therefore we dedicate ourselves to the greater welfare of all, not just for our own selfish, temporary welfare in this short life. When we take the Bodhisattva vow, we make ourselves a spiritual servant, like a saintly or peaceful warrior working for peace, enlightenment and the betterment of all beings. And not just human beings, but all beings of all kinds throughout all lifetimes, in all possible worlds and universes. It’s really a saintly, cosmic aspiration of service and dedication to the highest good for all (as opposed to the temporary gratification or the materialism of this life). That’s really the basics of Tibetan Buddhism–the Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle or Great Boat. The vehicle intent on universal liberation, not just individual relief or individual enlightenment. It’s realizing that as long as any being is suffering or is imprisoned, I too am not completely free. So we pray, “May we all together complete the spiritual path. We vow not to go to Nirvana or complete our spiritual work until all beings get there.” So as long as there is any suffering in the world, there is still spiritual work to do. That’s the Bodhisattva vow and the Bodhisattva aspiration and that’s the heart of the Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism really has three schools and Mahayana is probably the biggest.
The Share Guide: Do all lamas take the Bodhisattva vow?
Surya Das: Yes. It’s common in Tibet, China, Japan and other Mahayanist countries. But there are Buddhists everywhere who take it, not just in Mahayana countries.
The Share Guide: I guess we can say that we should open our hearts and our spiritual love for others as lay people even if we’re not lamas.
Surya Das: Yes, it’s not just an ordination amongst the lamas. I urge my students to take this vow everyday. We take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha–the teaching and the practice of Enlightenment. Also, when we take the Bodhisattva vow we’re not just thinking of ourselves selfishly; we totally include all beings in our prayers and practices and in our heart’s embrace, so that we dedicate ourselves selflessly in service and altruism and compassion as well as wisdom.
The Share Guide: Where might one find a copy of this Bodhisattva vow in print?
Surya Das: That’s a good question. I have a short prayer called the Millennium Prayer at the end of Awakening the Buddhist Heart, before the appendix. That’s my version of the bodhisattva vow. You can find it more formerly in Awakening the Buddha Within where I’ve translated it from the Japanese form which has four lines and says “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transcend them. Dharma teachings are boundless, I vow to master them. The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.” That’s the Bodhisattva vow, the four lines from the Japanese Zen Tradition. The best part is you can say it everywhere, even if you’re commuting in traffic or you’re on a long trip, or you’re waiting for a meeting or an elevator, a movie; you can just say it to yourself. It’s a good way of integrating spirituality into everyday life, not just waiting until you have time to sit down on your meditation mat and do it in the morning.
The Share Guide: Exactly. The world is your meditation mat. Here’s another question for you: How is self-acceptance and self-love related to health and well-being?
Surya Das: That’s a good question, especially for Americans today, who have so much self-hatred and low self-esteem and self-harming behavior patterns, conscious and unconscious. I think if you can’t love yourself, how can you love and respect others? Self-hatred and negative self-image and low self-esteem and the illusions we have about ourselves really undermine us fulfilling the possibilities of love–of meaningful connections, true communication, heart to heart, mind to mind, mingling with others–that life really offers. I think we have to train ourselves a little bit. We have to learn not just mentally but physically, such as with yoga. And we have to learn emotionally through attitude transformation or therapy or other kinds of spiritual work to see through our self-illusions and our limited self-concepts and find out who we truly are through self-inquiry and introspection. This can help us out a lot. Dream work and dream yoga while we’re sleeping (knowing we’re dreaming) can help us a lot. This opens subconscious storehouses so we can come to a more full appreciation and understanding and then finally acceptance of ourselves and of others. We’re all working to transform and become better people in a better world. Of course, we want to be better people, live a better life and contribute to a better world–but acceptance goes a long way towards helping us to be more clear and more centered while we go about that good work. Otherwise we support the contradictions and hypocrisy like “fighting for peace” which is a contradiction in terms. We need to make peace with ourselves before we can work for peace in the world. I think we need to think globally about these big issues, but begin working locally, with ourselves and each other. There are actually Buddhist practices like loving kindness and compassion meditations that include forgiveness and love and kindness to yourself. They really help us forgive and remember, not forgive and forget–and learn from our experiences. We can become wiser with years of experience and accept and forgive and be more patient and gentle with ourselves. There’s a lot of learning we can do in that way, through loving kindness and compassion meditation.
The Share Guide: There are self-esteem issues that many of us have that are left over from youth, and that can undermine our courage to do bigger tasks of service. So it seems that you’re saying that until you’re happier with yourself, you can’t take as deep a breath and jump as high, whether you’re just working to be a millionaire for yourself or to serve the world.
Surya Das: That’s right, it’s at every level. If you’re unhappy with yourself then you can put on a smiley face and do good work and all that, but it’s kind of like having termites gnawing at the foundation of the house. So there’s a huge cost that ties up a lot of our energy, which brings us back to the health question. These issues gnawing at us inside–they are keeping us tense and preventing us from being authentically ourselves, being open and vulnerable and truthful. There’s all kinds of games we play based on fear. We’re hiding. There’s all kinds of persona we project–all kinds of co-dependence and narcissistic syndromes, not to mention heavier things like addiction and pathological behavior.
The Share Guide: It’s definitely to be remembered that when you say you’re going to serve all beings consciously with the Bodhisattva vow, that includes yourself. Otherwise you’re just sort of draining yourself.
Surya Das: That’s right, you can become a martyr, like the co-dependent wounded healer.
The Share Guide: In your book you mention an excellent practice called the Day of Right Speech. Now I try and do that all the time. Can you tell our readers about this?
Surya Das: You’ll excuse me for quoting Jesus again, but I think he’s an important teacher for all of us in the West. Jesus said, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out.” I think there’s a lot of damage we do with our mouths and with our words–with lies and deception, but also with gossip, sniping and slander. We are unconsciously doing all kinds of damage, so practicing Right Speech is one of the steps on the Traditional Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. Right speech, right action, right livelihood, that translates as wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood–it is a part of the ethical and moral training of Buddhism. It’s a good thing to concentrate for one day on one step in the Path. Take one day where you really observe your speech–not just your verbal speech but your inner dialogue, your expressions and everything that comes out of you–including your gestures, your looks and glances–and see what you’re creating and projecting in the world and its results. This can be very enlightening and enlivening.
The Share Guide: Since you mentioned it, can you touch on the Eightfold Path. You’ve said three of them: right action, right speech, right livelihood. What are the others?
Surya Das: The Eight Steps are: right view or right understanding, which is seeing things as they are; second is wise intention, being more unselfish with the bigger mind, bigger heart. So much depends on our motivation and intention even before our actions. Third: wise speech; fourth is wise action; fifth is wise livelihood or wise vocation–growing ourselves spiritually and in every way while we grow our business or our profits. The sixth step is wise effort, not just sweating and straining but also knowing how to sustain and balance effort, and knowing how to relax. The seventh is wise concentration or wise attention; and the eighth step is wise mindfulness, wise meditation–being more mindful, conscious, reflective rather than going through life mindlessly, unreflectively, not learning the lessons of life. The Buddha didn’t really found a religion. The Buddha pointed the way to Enlightenment, and of course it became a religion. It’s more of a practice, like an ethical and psychological philosophy of awakening. If you ask how the Buddha got enlightened or awakened, the Buddha and all Buddhist teachers say by the three trainings: Ethics training, Meditation training and Wisdom training. I’ve laid this out in Awakening the Buddha Within in the table of contents. So these eight steps are the Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. It is the common backbone of all Buddhist traditions we have in the world today. Buddhism has only one purpose, and that’s enlightenment or Nirvana– awakening from delusion and realizing a deathless peace. Buddha taught that this is the Path to Peace. Anybody can benefit by these healthy, wholesome, intelligent and wise practices, with or without converting from any other religion. I have rabbis and priests and Catholic nuns who come to my retreats. They want to learn these practices so they can go deeper into their own spiritual life. That’s why meditation, self-inquiry, chanting and yoga can be complementary, not contradictory, to their own spiritual quest. So these are very good non-sectarian practices for today. It helps with awakening and illuminating our minds, and also helps to open our heart. It is very important for us today in terms of bringing more wisdom, compassion and love and peace into this world.
The Share Guide: I have always wanted to know more about the Eightfold Path. I think Right Livelihood is the one I heard of in college and that got me off and running. What we have to do is raise ourselves up by our boot straps with these practices and change our lives. Do you want to talk a little about spiritual alchemy?
Surya Das: It helps us love even those we don’t like, and helps us transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones like the cliche we hear “turning lemons into lemonade.” In other words, even though we can’t change the winds of karma we can learn how to sail with them better. So you don’t just float away. The spiritual alchemy is like the tantric transformation that Tibetan Buddhism talks about–where we transform the base metal of our animal nature into the gold of spirit which is its true nature. That’s why it’s not just a transformation but a transmutation. It is transmuting our monkey-like animal nature into the divine nature: realizing that God, Buddha, the Light is in each of us. Each of us can imitate the life of the Buddha and become as loving as they are, as wise as they are. That’s the promise of Buddhism, that anybody who becomes enlightened is the Buddha. And millions have done this. That’s the Great Transmutation. We can actually find our inner center so we live in our own inner spiritual thoughts. Spirituality goes wherever we go so we’re at peace and one with whoever we’re with, wherever we are in a noisy, polluted city or in the beautiful, quiet country or anywhere at any speed. Because great peace is beyond the dualism of noise and quiet. Great peace is something we should experience on a more mystical, inner level that remains with us anywhere.
The Share Guide: I have another question. On the book Autobiography of a Yogi there is a picture of Yogananda’s face on the cover. Many people say they have been awakened just by the look in his eyes on that cover.
Surya Das: Right. That’s an ancient spiritual principle called Darshan–vision of the guru or vision of God–being awakened by a touch or a sight or a connection. But the real darshan is the vision of reality or the vision of God. The guru or the temple is just the gateway, so having the picture on the book is like the gateway that resonates with something in you that can access something transcendent. It is a personal thing. And it’s not just with the great Yogananda.
The Share Guide: So it relates to developing a loving look in your eyes. You know sometimes people glance at you and you might have a harsh look without even doing any bad speech. It’s sort of like beyond right speech. You can bite your tongue but it’s pretty hard to hold back your eyes if you’re not in a good space.
Surya Das: That’s probably why the main Buddhist archetype of Tibet besides the Buddha is the Buddhist form of Compassion, in Tibetan, Chenrezig. In China she’s known as Kuan Yin. In Japan, Kanon. These are all the same, personifying Compassion. The Dalai Lama and my own guru, the Karmapa Lama, are considered incarnations or embodiments of the Buddha of Compassion. Out of compassion Chenrezig’s loving eyes are gazing with love over all like the mother keeps the children in sight and guards them that way. It’s the Buddhist idea of compassion, not personal desire–rather transcendent divine love, unconditional love, that’s the word. This is something in Buddhism that we can develop ourselves by practicing Chenrezig’s meditation. Through cultivating loving kindness, forgiveness, joy, rejoicing in the success and pleasures and benefits of others. The Four heartitudes or divine attitudes of heart that Buddhists cultivate: compassion, loving kindness, joy and forgiveness–these four heartitudes activate compassion. Compassion is a verb, as somebody said; it’s not just an ideal. It means doing something, being unselfish.
The Share Guide: So the essence of spiritual healing is love.
Surya Das: That’s right, and I think we can heal ourselves through love and find completeness in love. And that may not involve another person. It may be between my True Self and I or between me and God, to put it in theistic terms. Of course, we can experience this by being transported by the beauty of nature or a sunset. I think the arts are a great way of awakening the heart today. Service and generosity, giving of ourselves is one of the best ways, one of the high roads to Enlightenment. It always has been. Kabir, the poet saint of India sang “Try to live the Path of Love.”
Interview with Nina van Gorkom
by Robert Kirkpatrick
Nina van Gorkom was born in 1928 to a family of socialist intellectuals. Her father was a member of the Dutch parliament. She studied at Leyden University and during this time she became a catholic. In 1952, she married Lodewijk van Gorkom, a Dutch diplomat.
In 1965, Lodewijk was posted to Thailand and Nina started learning Thai language. She took a keen interest in Buddhism, attending classes for foreigners at Wat Mahathat. There she met, in the summer of 1966, Sujin Boriharnwanaket. Impressed by the profundity of the Buddhist teachings, she became convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s words and later assisted Khun Sujin in discussions about Buddhism for Thai radio stations. These talks were later published as Buddhism in Daily Life, her first book.
Nina and Lodewijk left Thailand in 1970 and lived in Japan, New York, Indonesia (where Lodewijk was the Dutch ambassador) and Austria. Lodewijk retired in 1990 and they now live in The Hague in Holland.
Nina’s writings are well-known amongst English speaking Buddhists, and she is highly respected in Thailand where several of her books have been translated into Thai language with (after many reprints) over one hundred thousand copies now. Her books have also been translated in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal and Germany.
What started your interest in Buddhism?
When I came to Thailand, I was impressed with the kindness and graciousness of Thai people. I wanted to understand their culture. Once I began to study Buddhism, I wanted to apply it to my life rather than just learn it as a philosophy. After I met Sujin Boriharnwanaket I was able to ask any number of questions. I just kept coming and asking. Her answers always related to nama and rupa (mind and matter), to the realities that we experience every moment in daily life.
How did studying Buddhism affect your life as a catholic?
Khun Sujin told me to continue going to church. She said that by studying nama and rupa I would come to see what was most helpful in life. After a while I just stopped going to the church and spent all my time in Buddhist activities.
What attracted you about Khun Sujin?
She explained so clearly the realities that arise at the different doorways. She always reminds us “what about this moment now, what appears?” What is the aim of vipassana: to get something for ourselves? The aim is detachment from the self, from the beginning. Khun Sujin helps us to notice the subtle clinging to self. Even now, Lodewijk and I go regularly go to Thailand, to meet with Khun Sujin and other teachers, to discuss aspects of mind and matter. In October we are meeting Khun Sujin and other friends, in India, for Dhamma discussions.
When you write about the development of vipassana, you don’t speak about concentration methods or sitting practice.
Vipassana, insight, is actually panna (wisdom) which has been developed to clearly understand realities as they are, as non-self. It is not some special practice, it is not sitting or breathing. If one wishes to induce calm by sitting one still wants to get something. There is subtle clinging which can pass unnoticed. The aim of vipassana is to have less ignorance of realities, including our defilements, even subtle ones. Therefore it can and should be developed in daily life; any object can be an object for mindfulness and understanding.
But can’t sitting quietly be an assistance for mindfulness to arise?
Even mindfulness is anatta, non-self, it cannot be induced just by concentrating or trying to be calm or by sitting quietly. The conditions for mindfulness to arise are listening to the Buddha’s teaching, discussing, considering and pondering over realities. And it develops by studying realities as they appear in our daily lives. Some people find it difficult to accept that one cannot force sati to arise, and they wonder whether this means idleness. The Buddha taught us to develop all good qualities, such as generosity and metta, along with right understanding. It is understanding, actually, that should be emphasized.
Nevertheless, the Buddha taught concentration practices such as anapanasati–breathing mindfulness. Doesn’t that suggest that they are important?
We read about this in the scriptures because in the Buddha’s time there were people who were able to concentrate on the breath. This is a very subtle rupa, which is produced by citta. It is most difficult to be aware of breath, before one knows it one takes for breath what is something else, air produced by other factors, not breath. The commentary to the Kindred sayings V, The lamp, states that only Maha-Purisas, the great disciples can practice it in the right way. Thus, the Buddha did not teach that everyone should practice it. To those who were gifted, who had the accumulations to do so, he taught it. He explained that there is no self who is breathing, and that breath is only rupa.
How should we practice vipassana?
The situation is not: that a teacher tells you first what to do, that you “practise” together, that you do this, then that, at a certain time, in a special place. There is no rule, there is no special technique. In fact, we don’t use the words practising vipassana, but rather: developing understanding of realities little by little, and that, quite naturally, in daily life. We should see the advantage of understanding different realities, different momentary conditions, to realize that there is no “me” who is developing but that wisdom gradually develops. That this development can only happen if the right conditions are present. It can’t occur because of wanting or forcing or pretending to ourselves that “we” are making progress. However, understanding will gradually grow if there are the right conditions. It is anatta, not controllable by any self.
You write exclusively within the Theravada tradition. What is your feeling about other Buddhist traditions?
Khun Sujin explanations are based on the scriptures and commentaries of the Theravada teaching. But we do not have to name it Theravada, that is just a label .We should consider whether the teaching helps us to understand whatever reality is appearing at this moment. That is the test of truth – this very moment.
Interview with Rabten Tulku Rinpoche
Interview by Dario Tesoroni, in 2001
What does it mean for you to be a Tulku?
You must be very lucky to be a Tulku. It is very precious, you can meet many important people, precious masters and you can get many precious teachings. There are no problems; whatever you want to know, you have the right master to get the answer. Not many people can have this. On the other hand it is a big responsibility. Of course when you are a child you cannot take all your responsibilities, but you have to be trained for them. You have to learn how to take the responsibility of the previous Lama who had done a lot of precious works. He has left a lot of work to be continued. Because of that, Tulkus have to be prepared very well, to continue the job. If you learn well, if you prepare yourself well, it is not so difficult. And if you really understand there is some kind of joy.
How is your daily schedule?
My daily schedule is like that: From 8 in the morning to 10.30 I recite my daily prayers. Then until 12 I have to memorize texts. From 2 to 3 p.m. I recite the texts I have memorized. After that I have teaching from Geshe Buga and debate. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I also study English for one hour and mathematics for another hour. Then I have puja and in the evening the recitation of memorized prayers.
How many languages do you speak?
For me the easiest, besides Tibetan, are German and English. I can understand French but pronunciation is a little complicated.
What kind of sports do you like to do?
During summer I like to swim (in Rabten Choeling we have a swimming pool) then I like to play football and do some skating. In winter time I like snowboard.
A message for young people
I am very lucky because I am a Tulku, but you need to understand that also to be a normal human being is a great fortune. It is not just because we can talk or go around doing many things, but because our mind is very powerful. You can use it in a very good way. You can make projects or build many things thanks to your mind. Animals too can think, but they are unable to go further then “now”. We are human beings and we can think about our future; this is something very precious.
Another thing is very important for us. Nowadays many people are not very nice with their parents. Maybe now we do not understand but it is good if we respect our parents. Mothers and fathers are very precious, they only appear once and when they are gone there are no more chances. This is very important to remember.
Interview with Sylvia Boorstein
On Buddhism, Meditation, and Mindfulness
Sylvia Boorstein is Buddhist Teacher and a cofounder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. She has a Ph.D. in Psychology and teaches and lectures widely. She is the author of several books, including That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist and Pay Attention, For Goodness’ Sake. She lives in Sonoma County, California.
Interview by Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Publisher
Share Guide: Could you tell our readers something about your own search for enlightenment and how you came to be on the Buddhist Path?
Sylvia Boorstein: I discovered mindfulness meditation in 1977. It is the typical meditation that the Buddhist’s have. In the Pali Canon, which is the compilation of the earliest teachings of the Buddha, there are two principle teaching sermons where Buddha says, “This is what you should do.” One of them is the Mindfulness Sermon and the other one is the Lovingkindness Sermon. What is interesting about the whole lesson of the Pali Canon is a continuing narrative of the life of the Buddha: where he went, whom he taught, and the different teachings that he gave. For the most part he did not give instructions for practice, he just probed his vision of the truth, of what a healthy, happy or a fulfilled life would be. It is tremendously uplifting to read them because in many instances, he teaches and then the narrative describes how many people became completely free of all conditioning and became completely liberated. The Mindfulness Sermon gives instructions for paying attention in your life in a really awakened and consistently conscious way.
Lovingkindness, which is a facet of mindfulness, is paying attention most specifically to the climate of your heart. Is it open and loving or is it closed up and in self-serving mode? You need to determine if it is frightened, overwhelmed, confused, and then do what you need to do. It is a very simple teaching. I started it because it was the 1970’s and people were doing all kinds of meditative practices for the first time. It was a really wonderful time of spiritual surge in this country. There were all kinds of things to do. I tried a lot of them mostly because my husband was a tremendously spiritual seeker and adventurer and he would come home with great ideas to try. I would go and be initiated into this or that. Nothing was ever bad, but nothing actually captivated me until this did. I went on a Mindfulness Retreat in 1977 and I have never left.
Share Guide: From my study with local Buddhist teachers, it seems to me that this teaching is more about daily practical living rather than abstract principles and studies.
Sylvia Boorstein: That would be fair to say. It is based more on daily living, but also on a daily sustained meditation practice that is quite simple and doesn’t require abstract thought. You could explain it to anyone: Take some time quietly during the day by yourself. You can choose to walk back and forth in some place that clearly defines you, just paying attention to the sensations of your body and discovering how that makes you present and more awake–not only in that moment but in the rest of the day that follows. Alternately, find a place to sit quietly for some period of time and focus on your bodily sensations and the coming and going of the breath. Notice that your attention and focus becomes settled and refined in that very quiet and simple experience of just existing and sitting and breathing and being alive. Then you are more aware and alert as you go about the rest of the day.
Share Guide: What does enlightenment mean to you?
Sylvia Boorstein: I like to think I have an enlightened moment when I see clearly and respond wisely, when my actions are not colored by greed, hatred or delusion. It’s when wisdom predominates and not ignorance. I think of those as enlightened moments. I have more of them now than I did when I began studying the Buddha’s teachings. The mind freed from greed, hatred, or delusion is not a complicated thing. We have plenty of times to recognize them, as these are liberated moments. I’d certainly like to have more enlightened moments in my life.
Share Guide: When I read the life story of the Buddha, it seemed that the central feature of Gautama Buddha’s life was his enlightenment. Can you explain more about his enlightenment experience?
Sylvia Boorstein: I think that the Buddha’s enlightenment was a moment in which he fully understood the causes of suffering and the ends of suffering. He realized the possibility of the end of suffering, and the path of practice to get to the end of suffering. In that same enlightenment experience he also had complete clarity about all his previous lives. And he had a full understanding of karma and the way in which that works.
Share Guide: I’ve seen that depicted by artists. Was that the moment when he was sitting under the Bodhi Tree and touched the earth?
Sylvia Boorstein: Yes. It is a great story, called Through the Watch of the Night. Buddha sat down, having finished six years of practice with two different renowned teachers of the time, each of whom had taught him everything that he knew and had acclaimed him as being equal to the teacher himself in terms of meditative skills. He could do the severest austerities. The legends about him were that he was so skinny from fasting that he could feel his backbone by touching his belly and that he could sit out in the hottest sun for long periods of time. Yet he said at the end of that period of practice: “I knew that even though I had mastered these great stages of consciousness in which I had control over my physical body in an amazing way, and also a complete ease of mind, that I had not discovered what what I was searching for, which was the cause of suffering and the end of suffering.” The whole journey that brought Buddha to this realization was motivated by the kinds of feelings we all have about how difficult it is to be a human being and live in the world. I am thrilled about the Buddhist complete enlightenment experience. My life is wiser and freer and clearer much of the time.
Share Guide: So you have more moments of light than darkness, even during traffic jams and other daily challenges?
Sylvia Boorstein: Right. In daily challenges, I can at least recognize that I am annoyed or challenged!
Share Guide: It makes sense that we will have more moments of enlightenment as we practice. I don’t think I have reached a higher level, but I see it as a path. I have more light now than when I did when I was younger, because I am working on it. But I have a long way to go.
Sylvia Boorstein: One more thing I want to say about this: Although Buddha’s experience was far more dramatic, sublime and complete than mine, I think his motivation was not that different than all of ours. Sooner or later in our lives, we all ask, “What is this all about?” We all get born, like it or not. We are all going to do this whole trip, which is really about trying to accommodate the changing circumstances all the time. We have to adjust to challenges, and even like it, even enjoy it, and have leftover energy so we can help other people! And in the end, we all die. We want to be able to live life with energy, with determination, with fervor, and with spirit.
Share Guide: The first teaching, which the Buddha gave after declaring his enlightenment, is called Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth. This was the first one in which he elucidates The Four Noble Truths. I will list them for our readers. The first one is “Suffering is a part of life.” The second is “The cause of suffering is the mind struggle in response to the challenges of life.” The third is “The end of suffering is a possiblity.” And the fourth is “The path to the end of suffering, which is the Eightfold Path.” Would you say that this first sermon is considered the essence of his teaching?
Sylvia Boorstein: I think that it’s fine to say it is the essence of his teaching. It is elaborated on in other teachings.
Share Guide: In your book, Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, you focus on the Ten Paramitas, stated as generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and equanimity. How do the paramettas relate to The Four Noble Truths? And why did you choose to do a whole book on this?
Sylvia Boorstein: The Paramitas relate to the life of the Buddha and the discovery of The Four Noble Truths. The Buddha is said to have developed these particular capacities of heart in lifetimes before his life as Siddhartha Gautama. There is a body of literature called Jataka Tales, which are children’s stories that are part of the compendium of Buddhist folklore from early times. They are stories about previous lifetimes of the Buddha in which he was a water buffalo, a monkey, etc., and in the stories it is clear that the water buffalo or monkey is the Buddha in a prior incarnation doing some completely selfless or wise task on behalf of others. The stories are meant to inspire the cultivation of that same capacity in one’s self. It’s like the story we are taught in school about George Washington. We’re told that he never told a lie, and that when he chopped down the cherry tree, he admitted that he did it. These stories are meant to inspire children and adults to cultivate the same qualities in one’s self. It’s interesting to think that these are the things the Buddha did before he had his enlightenment. It is not necessary to wait until we have that vision that releases us from the prison of self preoccupation. We can practice being good people first. If we practice enough–maybe we’ll have the vision, maybe we won’t–at least we will have the pleasure of leading a life that is much more fun, and much more a cause of happiness. It’s a joy to notice that there is a whole world out there, and we can help to take care of other people. For me, the point of becoming enlightened is to be able to act without greed, hatred and delusion in the world. It doesn’t mean to forget about taking care of yourself; it means to somehow be free of the captivating habits of self preoccupation which are so limiting. The Dalai Lama always says “It’s a much better gamble to be interested in the well-being of others than your own because the odds are six billion to one.”
Share Guide: There is a story in your book about the Dalai Lama, where he is asked “what kind of religion is Buddhism?” He responds by saying, “My religion is kindness.” Do you see kindness as the foremost quality here?
Sylvia Boorstein: I do. And I think there are all forms of kindness. Kindness comes up in the word metta in the ninth Paramita, which is lovingkindness. The word metta actually means friendliness, and friendliness, patience, equanimity, and truthfulness are all forms of kindness. When you think about the kindnesses you can do for somebody, if you tell them the truth, you level the playing field. You do not hold an extra card up your sleeve. If you are patient, it is also a kindness to people. Here is a mundane example. I go into a dry cleaner one evening to pick up a sweater I plan to wear when I give a lecture that night. I come with a ticket and I say, “Here I am,” and they look and say, “The sweater is not back yet.” Then I say, “but it’s Tuesday,” and they look at the slip and say, “Yes, it’s Tuesday, but it’s not back yet.” There are other customers around me listening to this. At that moment if I say, “That’s okay, I’ll come back tomorrow; I’ll find something else to wear,” then the whole tension level in the dry cleaners goes down. It’s a relief not only for the dry cleaner who doesn’t have the sweater, but also for the people there who are anticipating an escalation of tension. It’s also good for me, because I could have gone ahead and escalated the tension to no avail, because the sweater is not there! And it’s not going to suddenly appear if I am impatient. I could create a fuss, upset everybody else there, and upset my own heart. Really, the central point in all the Paramitas is to behave in a way that is kind and that keeps your own heart from getting upset. It looks like it is good for other people but actually, it is good for you as well.
Share Guide: After college I lived with Swami Muktananda, back in the mid-70’s. Muktananda once said, “You say I am so selfless all the time, but I’m really the most selfish amongst you.” Everybody gasped and then there was silence in the hall–it sounded like sacrilege! He smiled and said, “The only difference is that my self is all of us, it’s one big self, so I am selfish for all of us.” I thought that was so cool that I never forgot it.
Sylvia Boorstein: Good story. I like to think that cultivating the Paramitas happens both because you make a conscious effort to try to do them, and because ultimately a loving and kind heart makes you happy. In order to achieve this, there is a way of practicing as if you already are, and watching as the impulse for lack of generosity arises in the mind and then you over ride it. You can practice in a way that comes from really understanding the joy of not feeling needy–or realizing the ease in the mind in which no desire arises. This is a meditative experience. I was at a meditation retreat, an ordinary day, actually, and I was sitting on a bench outside the building just before lunch. I was a little hungry, the cement bench was hard, and it was cold and foggy. I had been sitting and my mind at that point was so relaxed and so peaceful that I heard the bell ring for lunch but I didn’t move. Usually, when a bell rings for lunch and you are hungry, you get right up. I realized that even though I had heard the bell, nothing jumped up in me–not in my mind, and not my body. I was just sitting there. I sat for a while more and then I got up and had lunch. But that moment was a learning moment, showing that when the mind is relaxed, it does not feel needy. It has feelings but it doesn’t want anything in particular. I realized that the overriding feeling in that whole experience was a sublime peace, such that I had not felt ever before. It was really my first moment of knowing the third Noble Truth: peace is possible.
Share Guide: So you were having the experience but you weren’t attached to it?
Sylvia Boorstein: Right. I had the experience without the need arising to change it in anyway. It’s the non-neediness which is so liberating, and the awareness that intense neediness is so painful. The sense of non-neediness is so happy, it makes you really want to practice generosity. Any cling that arises in the mind, you want to get over it, because what the Buddha meant by that cling is suffering! The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is craving. Suffering is the incessant craving in the mind for anything.
Share Guide: Wanting more?
Sylvia Boorstein: Wanting different, wanting more, wanting other.
Share Guide: I think this is why people go shopping when they aren’t feeling good. There are different ways to get peace of mind–one is to buy stuff, and we are taught to do that in this society. We are not taught to sit down and enjoy the moment and not buy anything.
Sylvia Boorstein: Yes, to enjoy a moment of non-neediness!
Share Guide: I need to ask, why not just lead a life of service? Why bother with meditation and mind training?
Sylvia Boorstein: That is a very good question. For me, I think actually I can’t do it without some mind training, because of the amount of despair, dismay, and disillusionment that comes up in me when I look at the amount of pain in the world. If I did not have a practice that kept my heart buoyant enough, to keep it going, I would be overwhelmed by it. I need something to keep me reminded that this incarnation is beautiful, amazing, and thrilling and has a lot of potential to it, and that people’s hearts can change. Look at the times we are living in! But I have a fundamental belief that human beings are good-hearted. When it seems like someone gets pleasure out of hurting, I think there must be something out of tune in that person’s heart and mind. I believe that the natural impulse of the heart is compassion. What am I teaching these days are the things that I think are really important to do in these difficult times. I don’t want to spend any time blaming anyone. The real culprits are greed, hatred and delusion–and ignorance. I want to tell people that human beings can wake up, that they have in the past, some of them completely. Many of us have woken up enough to be dedicated to kindness. We can do it!
Share Guide: In other words, the meditation and mind training that keep you buoyant are like a source of inspiration to counteract all the negative stuff in the world.
Sylvia Boorstein: That is exactly so. I like to use the definition of hope that Vaslav Havel gave. He said, “Hope is the ability to say no to what’s exactly in front of you–which is not a denial that it’s happening, but it’s a denial of the idea that it’s all that is happening.”
Share Guide: You define mindfulness as “paying attention.” Can you expand on this?
Sylvia Boorstein: The definition of mindfulness which I like most is the awake attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom. When my own mind has closed up because it got startled into some self-serving stance, then I don’t think clearly and I don’t respond kindly. That is actually my test for whether I am seeing clearly, which is to see if I am feeling kind.
Share Guide: You mention in your books that you come from a Jewish background, and still consider yourself a Jew. I have come across a number of people raised in a Jewish family that are deeply involved in Buddhism. Are there facets of Judaism that somehow meld with Buddhism more than Christianity or Islam or any other major religion? How do you account for so many Jewish Buddhist’s being around? There’s Ram Dass and Lama Surya Das, for example.
Sylvia Boorstein: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s partly serendipity. A lot of Jews were in the Peace Corps and went to Asia in the 60’s, and then came back and taught Buddhism in the 70’s. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, the earliest real interest in Buddhist thought and meditation came from the Catholic Contemplative community. Thomas Merton was writing about it, and people like William Johnston, Aelred Graham, and many Catholic monastics were interested in it. As a discipline of mind training, Buddhism has been very interesting to all people dedicated to religious practice as a way of connecting their heart practice with direct immediate experience. My own experience is that I had a traditional upbringing in a Jewish family, and was raised in in the Jewish tradition. I like it. I never considered that my practice of mindfulness or study of Buddhist thought would make me any less of a Jew.
Share Guide: The Dalai Lama has said that enlightenment can be achieved through a number of paths and it’s not wise to be jumpy. In other words, if you are born in the West and you are raised as a Christian or a Jew, you may need to go back to the roots of your own tradition to find the truth for you.
Sylvia Boorstein: I think of myself as a Jew whose life has been tremendously enhanced by my practice of mindfulness, by my understanding of what the Buddha taught. I would like to think that Buddhism and Judaism are both lineages dedicated to kindness and compassion. And I’m sure that Christianity is too, although I’m no expert.
Share Guide: You have a Ph.D in Psychology. Buddhism, with it’s emphasis on mindfulness, seems to appeal quite a lot to the Western mind and Western psychology. What are your thoughts on this?
Sylvia Boorstein: I agree. I think the Buddha was a pre-eminent psychologist and that interested me enormously because I was a practicing psychotherapist for many years. The Buddha has a different understanding of how the mind works, but it did not replace my understanding of psychodynamics, or child development, or any part of Western psychology that I had learned. I came to learn how the Buddha understood the mind and the afflictions of greed, hatred, upsets of peace. This offered a different template for understanding the human mind. This was knowledge I used in addition to and not instead of what I knew as a Westerner. It was of tremendous help to me as a therapist. From the outside my practice may have looked the same, but I was much better informed after I learned what the Buddha taught. I actually think the Buddha had a brilliant understanding of the nature of the human mind and heart, and this was two millennia before Western psychology began!
Share Guide: In your books, you talk about how amazing it is that life exists, and with this viewpoint it seems that kindness is the natural way to live. But we see so much of nature that’s “red in tooth and claw,” like the old poem says–in other words, based on survival of the fittest. Seeing the clashes of man against man, it seems our species is just as violent as the rest of the animals. How do you reconcile this with living kindly?
Sylvia Boorstein: I honestly don’t know. I really take the biggest hope from my faith that human beings in the end are compassionate. At least when we are not confused, we are compassionate. But we are often confused by the very strong impulses of greed and the hatred that comes up when protecting that greed. I think fundamentally it’s greed more than anything else that is the problem.
Share Guide: The story of the Buddha is very inspiring. It shows the possibility of freedom and happiness, but in our daily lives the uplifting feeling comes and goes. Sometimes we feel enlightened and sometimes worldly responsibilities wear you down like a flickering candle. So what can we do to stabilize our awareness and try to be more enlightened in our daily lives?
Sylvia Boorstein: The key word is stabilize. I think about stabilizing and I think about reinspiring our spiritual faculties. The Buddha had a list of five spiritual faculties. One of them is concentration– we could concentrate a little bit more because the mind needs to calm down from whatever overwhelms us. Also, if we pay a little more attention, we see a bit more and what accrues is wisdom. Not perhaps enduring wisdom of the world, but a wisdom of what is the wise and appropriate response in a given situation. Then we see we are not trapped, because when we feel trapped, we are paralyzed. When we see something left to do, even if it’s an internal move and not an external move, we can have the energy to do it. Then we see clearly again, which re-inspires our faith. This is a doable concept. That is what the Buddha taught: peace is possible in this very lifetime.
Sylvia Boorstein is one of the cofounders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. The Center is dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the Vipassana tradition. The practice of mindful awareness, called Insight or Vipassana Meditation, is at the heart of all the activities at Spirit Rock. The Center hosts a full program of ongoing classes, daylong, and residential retreats. For more information , please visit www.spiritrock.org.