An interview with an awakened master
The Singular Quality of an Ordinary Monk
by Vatana Supromajakr, M.D.
If you had had the chance to meet Luangpor Teean, you would probably have seen him as just another elderly monk, one who was calm and spoke little, very like other elderly monks that can be met with in this country. But if you had given some attention to observing him, you would have noticed that, along with his calmness, he was at all times very collected, alert and aware of himself.
In 1957, when he was nearly forty-six, Luangpor Teean left his home with firm determination not to return unless he found the Truth. He went to Wat Rangsimukdaram, Tambol Pannprao, Amphur Tabon in Nongkai Province and practiced a simple form of bodily movements except that he did not follow the formal rituals and recitation of the words like others did. What he did was only being aware of the movements of the body and mind. Within a couple of days, on the early morning of the eleventh day of the waxing moon, the eighth month of 1957, his mind reached the End of Suffering completely without traditional rituals or teachers (source).
we had the chance to ask him about various problems, we experienced the uniqueness
of this ordinary monk, a person who was nearly illiterate and who emphasized and
taught the single subject of sati (sustained awareness of oneself) at all times.
He exhibited very clear wisdom of the most penetrating kind in responding to our
questions. His answers to all questions were remarkable to such an extent that
we could label it 'incredible' that a person lacking the formal education that
we so value had the ability to answer and explain in a way that was at once so
simple, clear, deeply meaningful, precise and clearly understandable, explanations
capable of fully putting our doubts to rest.
How we label or categorize Luangpor Teean is of no importance. What is important is his teaching. His answers, even to very simple and basic questions, are full of value, just like the lighting of a lamp in a dark place: they dispel the darkness, creating a brightness that helps us to see the way and gives rise to the illumination of wisdom. His answers will be of benefit, to a greater or lesser extent, to those who aspire and are in search, those who are lost in darkness: unknowing, doubtful, not understanding.
During the final five years of Luangpor Teean's life, I and my medical colleagues who were caring for him asked him questions from time to time in order to ease our doubts. The following answers, teachings and views have been gathered and recorded in order to make them available to those who might find them of use. There is no intention here to praise or display devotion to Luangpor Teean, nor to promote or try to create faith in him: it is the reader's responsibility to consider the following with deliberation and discrimination, to examine and understand by oneself -- this is a responsibility and a right that we should all respect.
Luangpor Teean said of religion that "religion is the person". When we heard or read this, we failed to understand, therefore we asked him, "Is religion really 'the person' or not?"
He answered as follows: "'Religion' is merely a word that we use to label the teaching of a person by a person who is considered to understand the truth or nature of human life. Such teachings are various. If we speak of 'religion', it might give rise to doubts and arguments and disputes, therefore please allow me to not speak of this. But if you want to know about the actuality, the true nature of our life (Dhamma), I will tell you; when you have understood, your doubts about 'religion' will disappear."
2. Why Did He Search For Dharma?
I once asked Luangpor Teean how it came about that he was inspired to search for Dharma. He explained that he had strictly followed traditional practices his whole life, had observed the moral precepts devoutly, made merit and practised generosity at every opportunity, and offered Kathina robes each year, but that on the last occasion that he had organized the Kathina offerings, a dispute concerning the merit-making arose between him and members of his family.
I therefore," he continued, "considered as follows: how was it that, having kept the precepts, made merit, and practised generosity to the fullest, I could still have suffering arise within my mind? In light of this, I decided from that moment on to seek true Dharma, that which would free me from the grasp of dukkha (Suffering)."
3. Dharma Is Not Clothing
Luangpor Teean once told us that for a long time he had believed, incorrectly, that Dharma was something outside our body, something external like clothing that has to be sought for and then put on and worn. But in actuality, Dharma is already present within us right now.
4. The Study Of Dharma
Referring to the study of Dharma, Luangpor Teean said, "To study the Dharma merely for the purpose of discussion and debate is of little use. We have to apply and use it, and practise it to the fullest, then it will yield great benefit."
5. The Story Of Venerable Ananda
I was always in doubt as to why the Venerable Ananda, in spite of listening to, hearing and knowing the teachings of the Buddha (i.e. the Dharma) more completely than anyone else, was not fully Awakened to actual Dharma.
Luangpor Teean explained: "Venerable Ananda knew a lot about the Buddha, that is true, but he did not yet know himself. After the Buddha passed away, Ananda studied to really know himself, and therefore succeeded in attaining full Awakening."
Luangpor Teean Teaches "Outside the Texts"?
I once mentioned to Luangpor Teean that, whereas people generally hold strongly to the Tipitaka (the Pali Canon) as the authoritative text when studying Buddhism, when he himself taught he hardly ever mentioned the Tipitaka.
Luangpor pointed out, "The Buddha's Teaching was recorded in the Tipitaka several hundred years after the Buddha passed away, and this text was then copied and recopied over a period of thousands of years. The teachings were probably recorded very well, but it is possible to doubt that the reader will now understand what those who recorded the teachings meant. For me to refer merely to the texts all the time would be like guaranteeing the truth of the claims of another, claims of which I am not certain. But the things that I tell you I am able to guarantee, because I speak from my own direct experience.
The text is like a map: it is suitable for those who don't know the way to go, or have not yet arrived at the destination. For one that has arrived, the map no longer means anything.
Another point about the Tipitaka is that it was written in the language used in a certain region of India, and was consequently appropriate for people from that area or for those who have learned to read that language. But Dharma taught by the Buddha is not something that can be monopolized by anybody: it transcends language, race, gender, and era. If we really know Dharma, we will teach it and express it in our own language, in our own words.
The study of the Tipitaka is good in itself, but don't attach to and get lost in the specific words used. Mangoes, for example, are referred to by different words in different languages; don't fall into dispute over words and interpretations or become obsessed with the notion that only one word correctly names the fruit, while meanwhile neglecting the mango and letting it go rotten. Anyone that eats a mango must know the actual taste of the fruit, no matter what name it is given, or even if it is given no name at all."
7. Deceived By Thought
Luangpor Teean said that we human beings are always thinking, just like the ever-flowing current of a river. Being lost in and deceived by thought is like scooping out water and storing it up. But if we have sati (awareness) seeing thought immediately as it really is, it is like the water flowing freely up and passing on by. Being lost in and deceived by thought gives rise to suffering.
In discussing Samudaya, the cause of suffering, someone once asked Luangpor Teean to explain what suffering was. Luangpor placed an object on his hand and then clenched the hand tightly, making a fist. He then turned the fist over and opened the hand. Indicating the thing that had dropped from his hand to the ground, he pointed out, "This is suffering."
The questioner understood immediately that suffering is a thing that we conceive and assume and then seize hold of firmly, and that it can be released. Luangpor said that someone who can understand this quickly is one with wisdom.
9. What Is It Like When "The Rope Breaks"?
In reading Luangpor Teean's account of his experience of practising Dharma, it is difficult to understand what is meant when, in describing the final stage of his practice, he uses the simile of it being as if a rope that had been stretched tightly between two posts suddenly broke in the middle and could never again be reattached.
When questioned about this, Luangpor elaborated: "Words are merely sounds that are used by convention to mean certain things, but the words that can explain the 'state' about which you are asking don't exist. If we were to place a certain amount of white paint one centimetre away from a similar amount of black paint and to mix them until they were thoroughly blended, we would name the colour in the middle 'gray', wouldn't we? But if the white paint were placed ten metres away from the black paint and the two were gradually mixed until well-blended, you would find that there were no words to explain the shade of the colour at any one point in such a way that another person would know that shade: the colour must be experienced directly.
Have you ever looked at rain clouds? They appear to be different shapes and forms. But if we are in an aircraft and fly into the clouds, we don't see them as we did before we entered.
There are no words to explain the 'state' you are asking about: it is beyond language. It's useless speculating or trying to imagine it, or thinking to oneself that it has to be like this, like that: you must know for yourself, you must see for yourself, you must experience it."
10. Trivial Problems
Luangpor Teean once commented that many of the people who came to see him asked him only about trivial problems, such as how much merit they would acquire by doing such-and-such, or whether it was true that they would be reborn to a new life after death, and so on. It was seldom that somebody would ask what Buddhism really teaches and how that teaching was to be applied in practice, or would ask what it was that needed to be done in order to reduce suffering. Luangpor responded only to what he was asked: it would, he felt, have been inappropriate for him to himself raise and answer questions of substance.
11. Reality And Supposition
Luangpor Teean said that humans are long-lived, and think and remember much more than do animals. When people live together in large communities, it becomes necessary to establish rules and conventions for the sake of social harmony. As time passes, however, later generations come to regard these conventions that have been created by the human mind as being independent reality. When someone points out that, far from being reality, these things are actually shared suppositions, most people will refuse to see this: this refusal is very common.
What is called 'money', for example, is actually paper," Luangpor remarked. "When we try to use it, people accepting it gives it its value; if people won't accept it, then it is no more than paper. In our current society we use money as a means of exchange. Anyone who has no money will find it difficult to live. With money we can buy convenience and comfort, but the extinction of dukkha (Suffering) is something no amount of money can buy."
12. The Practice Of Dharma
I once asked why Dharma is taught and practised differently in different meditation centres, even though we all have the Buddha in common as our original teacher.
Luangpor Teean replied, "This is quite normal. It is said that even in the Buddha's time there were 108 different groups, each one claiming that its teaching was correct and that the other 107 groups were following wrong views. We must use our intelligence and consider carefully for ourselves. To be either gullible or sceptical and of closed mind, each is equally misguided. Any way of practice that leads to the extinguishing of dukkha (Suffering) is proper and correct. As far as Dharma itself is concerned, all who know its actuality will have the same perception."
When somebody asked whether various forms of Dharma practice other than the one he taught were good or not, Luangpor answered, "Good for them, but not for us."
13. Does Practising Insight Meditation Lead To Madness?
We once asked Luangpor Teean whether it was true, as some psychiatrists had charged, that practising vipassana (insight) meditation caused people to become mad.
Luangpor answered, "A person who doesn't know and isn't truly familiar with his or her own mind as it actually is, that is a mad person. Practising vipassana meditation is studying to know one's own real mind. If practising meditation ever does lead to madness, it is not vipassana."
Luangpor Teean told us of a conversation he had once had with a layman who, after an act of making merit, expressed the wish that his merit-making result in him entering Nirvana (the extinction of Suffering) in the future.
Luangpor asked him, "When do you expect to arrive at Nirvana?"
After I have died," the villager replied.
Do you really want to get to Nirvana?" Luangpor inquired.
Yes, I really want to get there."
Luangpor then said, "Well if that's the case then you should die as soon as possible and then you'll reach Nirvana very quickly."
The villager was bewildered: "But I don't want to die yet."
But since you want to go to Nirvana, why don't you want to die quickly? This shows that you have misunderstood," Luangpor pointed out to the villager. "The Buddha never taught people to go to Nirvana when they had already died, but he taught living people to reach Nirvana while still alive."
15. Why Did He Ordain?
Since apparently Luangpor Teean had understood Dharma while he was still a layman, why had he ordained as a monk? "The monkhood serves as the institution representing or symbolizing those who practise the Buddha's Teaching well, the true Sangha," Luangpor explained. "Being a monk makes it much easier to teach people about dukkha (Suffering) and its extinction."
16. A Rock Pressing Down The Grass
I once asked Luangpor Teean about the usefulness of sitting practising Concentration Meditation. He replied that this kind of meditation was widely practised before the time of the Buddha. "Such meditation gives rise to a tranquil state of mind, but that is only temporary. When we emerge from the concentrated state, our mind is still subject to greed, anger and delusion, it has not really changed. It is like placing a rock upon the grass. Even though the grass under the rock may wither, as soon as it is exposed to sunlight the grass will grow again. This is different from Insight Meditation (vipassana), which gives rise to knowing and understanding, to wisdom, the mind changing to a fundamentally better, more normal condition."
We once asked about the case of Vessantara, who is traditionally held up as the very model of the perfection of generosity. Yet what he did seems to be an act of great irresponsibility towards his wife and children. Is it true that his act of giving away his family led to him being reborn as the Buddha?
Luangpor Teean answered, "The story of Vessantara is a story that has been passed down through many, many generations. If you think that it is true, then you should follow his example, and give your wife and children to the labourers or farmers in order to help them in their work, and thus you will perfect yourself and become a Buddha. But let me present to you the following comparison: that what you have with you now, what you are as bound to as to your children or wife, are greed, anger and delusion: give them away, relinquish them completely: are you able to understand this?"
Luangpor Teean always said that we should neither believe something immediately nor reject it immediately: we should consider and deliberate very carefully first, or put it to the test, and then either believe it or not.
Luangpor remarked that the history of the Buddha provides examples on this point. Angulimala was someone who believed too readily. He always followed his teacher's instructions, and even when ordered to kill a great number of people, he did so. On the other hand we have the case of the recluse Upaka, who was the first person to meet the Buddha after the Buddha's Awakening. Even though Upaka recognized in the Buddha characteristics that aroused trust and confidence, he was not willing to believe that the Buddha had become Awakened by himself, and so went on his way, and missed the opportunity to learn from the Buddha.
19. Those Who Understand His Teaching
We once asked Luangpor Teean about the number of people who, after hearing him teach Dharma or after having been instructed by him, could understand his teaching. "Probably no more than ten to fifteen percent," Luangpor answered. "This is quite normal. A person who is developed will be ready and able to understand. But most people interested in Buddhism are still firmly attached to customary practices, such as the making of merit."
20. People Protect Morality / Morality Protects People?
Luangpor Teean often asked, "Why do we observe moral precepts in a manner similar to taking care of a glass so as to prevent it from breaking? Why don't we live and practise to have morality, that is, the mind that is normal, truly in our lives? Morality will then take care of us, rather than we having to worry about looking after morality."
I asked Luangpor Teean, "Does making merit really give me merit?"
Luangpor asked in turn, "What do you understand merit to be?"
When I told him that I understood merit to be a good outcome or destiny that we receive after we die, in exchange for the good that we have done, he asked, "Have you ever heard the monks' chant that lists the benefits of making the Kathina offering, that it will lead to us reaching heaven where the sprites, numbering 500 or 1000 beings, will be our dedicated followers? Now consider the number of temples that there are in Thailand. If there is a Kathina offering every year in every temple, where could enough sprites be found for everyone who made merit? We imagine in this way that monks are like bank accountants responsible for calculating the interest owed to us after we die, do we?"
I further inquired of Luangpor, "If this is so, what is your view of the making of merit by giving material things, as is generally done nowadays?"
He answered as follows: "Making merit by giving material things is a good thing to do, but it is like husked rice, which is of use only for growing seedlings. If we are to benefit from eating rice, we must eat boiled or steamed rice, not uncooked or husked rice. To be attached to making merit by giving material things in a superstitious way is one form of delusion: to be lost in darkness, even if in this case it is in contrast to Dark Luminosity, a white darkness.
Merit at its highest, in its consummation, is to really know oneself, to be without dukkha (Suffering)."
I once invited Luangpor Teean to go to teach a man whom I respected, a person who had strong faith in and attachment to traditional forms of merit-making. When Luangpor returned after meeting the man, I asked about their encounter.
That man is inflexible," Luangpor responded, "a person of closed mind. Have you read the history of the Buddha? When the Buddha was newly Awakened, before he went to Benares to teach his former companions, the Five Ascetics, he had thought to seek out his former teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, in order to teach them the liberation he had attained, but then he came to know that both these teachers had already died. This is something I have some doubt about; since the Buddha-to-be had parted from his two teachers not so long before, I am not certain whether their deaths were physical or not: but what had certainly died were their minds."
23. Monastic Ranks
In the time of the Buddha there were no such things as monastic ranks. Why, we asked Luangpor Teean, do we make so much of hierarchy and rank in modern Thailand? Is it a good thing or not? He answered, "Monastic rank is the creation and concern of society. You could call it either good or bad, whichever you wanted to, but we have to live in their society."
24. Can Studying Buddhism Make Somebody A Bad Person?
We once inquired why it was that some of the men who ordained as monks, studied to a high level, and subsequently left the monkhood, could later behave in evil ways, often worse than ordinary people who had never ordained and studied Buddhism.
Luangpor Teean answered, "Such a person studies only books, studies only theory, but never studies himself and therefore never knows himself."
25. Bowing In Respect To The Orange Robe
I once mentioned to Luangpor Teean that it is hard for us to know whether a monk really is a true monk or merely a parasite upon the religion; we simply see someone with his head shaved and wearing the orange robes, and we immediately pay respect.
Luangpor gave his point of view: "If we bow in respect only to the orange robe itself, then when we pass through Sao Ching Cha, where the whole length of the road is lined with shops selling monks' requisites, wouldn't we have to bow to each and every such shop, from one end of the road to the other?"
Luangpor Teean told us how on one occasion, while leading the ceremonial chanting for auspiciousness in a villager's house, he had asked for a very large bowl to use in place of his small alms-bowl in the making of holy water, an integral part of the ceremony.
When the chanting had been completed, and the water in the bowl had been made into holy water, instead of sprinkling it over the people present, as is customarily done, Luangpor took the large bowlful of holy water and threw it all over the floor of the house, saying, "Everybody, please join together and help to put things in order, help to clean the floor: this is what is auspicious. Using holy water merely to sprinkle upon ourselves, we might suffer allergic reactions to the leaves floating in the water, break out in an itching rash, and have to waste money on buying medicine to treat ourselves: now how could something like that be auspicious!"
27. The Funeral Ceremony
Once we asked Luangpor Teean, "When we hold a funeral ceremony, does the dead person benefit from the ceremony that we perform for him?"
Luangpor answered, "The funeral ceremony is just a tradition created by those who are still alive because they are greatly perturbed by the death of a person. Whether the dead person will benefit from the ceremony or not is something that will always be open to doubt. But what is certain is that the officiating monks will benefit. Do we think that the monks can fulfil the functions of postmen?"
28. A Monk Bows To A Layperson
Luangpor Teean related how once, when he was in Laos, he accepted an invitation from a villager to take part in a ceremony where traditional chants for extending a person's lifespan were to be performed for the villager's mother. But at the ceremony Luangpor did not chant, so the sponsor did not offer him the usual requisites.
Luangpor then explained to the villagers that in order to extend the lifespans of our parents we must behave well towards them -- it's not enough to merely invite the monks to chant, in the hope that our parents will consequently live long lives. And he then led the children in bowing to their parents for the first time, he himself setting the example.
The villagers present at that time immediately became very agitated, considering what Luangpor had done to be a violation of tradition: they had never seen or heard of a monk bowing to laypeople. Luangpor therefore explained to them, "When I led the children to follow me in bowing to their parents to pay them respect, I did not bow to the laypeople at all; rather I bowed to myself, because I was capable of teaching people to understand the true way to actually prolong life."
29. The Spirit House
I once asked Luangpor Teean about the guardian spirit of the land one's house is built on, who is considered to reside in the spirit house that we provide for it. Does, I wanted to know, the spirit really have supernatural powers such that it can either benefit or severely punish the person that owns the house?
Just think," said Luangpor."If the guardian spirit really does have supernatural powers, why doesn't it create a house for itself, why doesn't it create its own food to eat, why does it have to wait for people to build a house for it and to provide it food in supplication? And the food given to it is always such a tiny amount: would the spirit ever be able to satisfy its hunger?"
30. Buddhist Amulets
Before I got to know who he was, I met Luangpor Teean at a time when I was deeply interested in Buddhist amulets. With the purpose of requesting an amulet from him, I tried to impress him by showing him a very special and valuable amulet that I owned, boasting that my amulet was very ancient, having been made 700 years ago.
What," he asked me, "is this amulet made of?"
I told him that it was earthenware, made of baked clay that was extremely hard and the fine brown colour of tamarind paste, and that it contained a rich abundance of various minerals.
Luangpor responded, very simply, "Earth of all kinds originated at the same time as this planet came into being. Your amulet is actually no more ancient than the soil we trod upon before we entered this house."
Just that one statement alone made me free to take that amulet from around my neck, relinquishing, with the highest confidence, my attachment to such things.
When someone once asked if it was good to wear a Buddhist amulet around one's neck, Luangpor replied, "It's good, but there is something much better than wearing an amulet. Would you like that?"
Luangpor was on one occasion asked by a man whether the amulet he owned really had the supernatural, miraculous power widely attributed to it.
Is its maker still alive?" Luangpor asked the man.
When informed that the amulet's maker was long dead, the amulet having been passed down as an heirloom, Luangpor commented, "Since even its maker himself has died, how can we hope that this thing can help us to avoid death?"
31. Ordaining And Disrobing
I had to cut out almost the whole of Luangpor Teean's stomach in order to remove the malignant tumor that had developed there, so I subsequently advised him that he should eat food in small quantities but at frequent intervals. Luangpor stated that to do so would involve eating after midday, which would constitute laxness in the Discipline and would invite gossip and censure; in such circumstances he would prefer to disrobe, because it made no difference to him whether he was a monk or not: his mind was stable and would change no more.
32. "Do You Know Luangpor Teean?"
Luangpor related how one day, while he was at Ramathibodi Hospital waiting for a session of radiotherapy, a man seated nearby struck up a conversation with him, at an early point of which he asked Luangpor whether he was acquainted with Luangpor Teean.
Luangpor replied, "Well, yes, I know him somewhat."
After they had discussed Dharma for some time, the man became suspicious and asked, "You are Luangpor Teean, aren't you?"
Luangpor admitted it was so.
33. The Concerns Of The Buddha
We once discussed the nature of Sarira, the relics of the Buddha, whether they were bone that had transformed itself to crystal or merely burned bone. When asked for his opinion, Luangpor Teean remarked, "The concerns of the Buddha are not our concerns. Our concerns are not the Buddha's concerns. But the Buddha taught us that we should know fully all that concerns us. When you really know about yourself, whether the Buddha is present or not is immaterial."
34. The Awakened Individual
Luangpor Teean said, "As regards the body, there is no difference between the Awakened individual and the ordinary person. It is only in regard to the mind, to the nature and quality of experience, that the Awakened individual is better off and superior to the ordinary person."
35. Following The Way Of Others
We once asked Luangpor Teean why people, despite nowadays studying to high levels and having much knowledge, cannot solve the problem of their own suffering.
He replied, "Most people follow the way of other people, they don't follow the path of their own mind and heart, so things are as they are."
36. The Dead Can Be Of Little Use
Luangpor Teean said that the study and practice of Dharma needed to be pursued here and now. We shouldn't wait until we arrive at death. "After we have died, we can do nothing for ourselves, and our words and example can benefit others only a little. It is while still alive that we can truly benefit ourselves and others."
37. Abstaining From Eating Meat
I once asked Luangpor Teean whether abstaining from eating meat would help one's practice of Dharma. He replied, "If we are to practise or to know Dharma, it doesn't depend on or concern what we eat or refrain from eating. Consider Prince Siddhartha: in attempting to realize Dharma he abstained not merely from meat, he refrained from eating rice and drinking water until he nearly died, yet this brought him no closer to knowing Dharma. Practising and knowing Dharma is a matter of wisdom."
38. Attachment To Meditation Methods
Luangpor Teean once warned, "Attaching to a technique or a method of practising meditation, no matter what technique or method it might be, is like taking a boat to cross a river and then, even though it has arrived at the opposite shore, refusing to leave the boat, because of being caught up in a continuing fascination with the boat and its engine."
39. Doing Good, Doing Bad
I once mentioned to Luangpor Teean that some people doubt the truth of the old saying, "Do good and you'll receive good in return, do bad and you'll receive bad in return."
He pointed out, "It is society that stipulates what is to be regarded as good and bad. What is considered good in one place may be condemned as bad in another. Rather we should establish a new and more accurate understanding, thus: 'Do good, it's good; do bad, it's bad'."
Luangpor Teean once classified people who had been educated into two groups, and compared them as follows. In the first group are those who know clearly or really know: they are wise, and when they speak one can understand immediately. The second group comprises those whose knowledge is a matter only of familiarity and memorizing, so when they speak they will talk at great length and in a way that is evasive and extravagant, or else they will cite the texts a great deal in order to induce others to believe them: this is because they don't really know the truth for themselves.
41. Past, Present, Future
Luangpor Teean always said that the past is gone, incapable of being changed or rectified, while the future has not yet arrived: whatever we do, it must be done in the present. If we act well now, today will constitute a good past for tomorrow. And tomorrow, when it comes, will turn out to be a good future for this day in which we have already done good. It is useless to worry about things that are past and cannot be put right and just as useless to worry about things that have not yet happened: to worry about things that cannot eliminate suffering in the only place it is found, in the present. What is important is to continue to have set into motion the correct set of principals in the past so the fruit beared from those endeavors would be favorably impacting the present. To have that present be a positive experience the suggestion, extracted from the sutras, goes something like:
1.) From the first generate only thoughts with the right escort.
2.)Support right thoughts already risen.
3.)From where thoughts arise, generate no thoughts that carry negative escort.
4.)Dispell any negative thoughts already risen (source).
According to the texts, just before his Awakening the prince Siddhartha accepted food from the laywoman Sujata and, having eaten, placed the tray in the nearby river and made the following resolution: if he was to become fully Awakened, a Buddha, the tray should float back against the current of the river. And it happened that the tray did float back against the river's current. I asked Luangpor Teean his opinion of this, since it seems to be contrary to the way of nature.
Luangpor pointed out, "Everything must drift along carried by the current of the river. But this story refers to going against the current of the stream of thought as it pours forth. If we were to look back to the source of thought, then we would know the truth this story is pointing to."
43. Working With Awareness
Luangpor Teean constantly declared, "All of us have duties and responsibilities that the society we live in requires us to fulfil, and this is normal. Performing our duties with sati (sustained awareness of oneself) will produce results that are completely satisfactory, the best possible results."
44. The Lamplight
Towards the end of his life, when Luangpor Teean's health was deteriorating, my wife expressed to him her deep concern about the teaching of Dharma: what would be the situation after his death?
Luangpor responded, "You needn't worry about this at all. As long as humanity exists, there will from time to time be those that come to know Dharma, because Dharma is not a personal possession that can be monopolized or owned. Dharma was present long before the Buddha's time, but the Buddha was the first to bring it out to teach and propagate. An individual that knows Dharma can be compared to a lamp that lights up brightly in the darkness: one who is close will see clearly, while those further away will see less clearly. After a period of time the lamp's light must be extinguished, but then from time to time the lamp will again be lit, again providing illumination."
45. With Whom Should We Study?
During Luangpor Teean's final hospitalization at Samitivej Hospital, he remarked that now his illness was very advanced all he himself needed to do was to maintain awareness of his breathing, watching for when it would cease. I therefore asked him quite directly, "When you are no longer available, from whom do you recommend that we should study Dharma in order to obtain the best results?"
Luangpor replied, "Go and study Dharma for yourself: watching your own mind is by far the best thing to do."
Luangpor Teean was an Enlightened master from the modern era and his Awakening experience transpired outside formal rituals, thus then, outside formal doctrine as stated in the quote at the top of the page. Others have reached similar heights citing similar experiences. For those who may be interested eight such experiences are presented by going to The Awakening Experience in the Modern Era.
Saint in Hollywood
or Women, Sex and Religion
Cosmopolitan (Germany) Interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche March 1994
"I am very familiar
with the energy of women. I have been a women several times in previous lifetimes."
- Super-Star Lama Khyentse, The Guru of "Little Buddha"
A Chosen One. He has already been through 72 lifetimes. Now he is the reincarnation of a famous Buddhist Master. His path began in the holy mountains of Bhutan and led him to Hollywood. The 34 year old Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche lives in two worlds. In his Asian home he is honoured as a high-ranking Lama. In the West, as a teacher and adviser, he is increasing the fascination in Buddhism that already exists amongst more and more people. The young Lama sits relaxed on his bed in the luxury Parisian hotel, Regina. All around him are packed suitcases, outside on the streets we can hear the noise of morning rush hour. But DJK remains completely untouched by the chaos and noise. Sometimes the dark red robe slips off his shoulder revealing a fine white vest. When he replaced the robe for the third time in a few minutes he laughed.
Born in Bhutan and educated in India, he now lives in London, but most of the time he jets around the world. He teaches Buddhist philosophy at universities and seminaries for a generous fee, in America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Two days ago he was in Melbourne. Tomorrow, after a stop over in Singapore, he's flying to Bhutan for two weeks to help with the construction of a hospital. After that he will have talks in Taipei. The theme will be the Philosophy of the Middle Path. The message, one would neither accept nor reject the world, but remain unattached and to tame greed which causes all suffering. Khyentse lives what he teaches: meditation and enthusiasm. He meditates for weeks in India and then he jets from world capital to world capital. "Normally Lamas are much more humble than I am," he says self-critically. "Some even call me a jet-set Lama."
The agile openness to the world of this young Lama was, for director Bernardo Bertolucci "A gift from heaven." "When I met Khyentse for the first time, after ten minutes I knew that with the help of this extraordinary person, I could make the film, 'Little Buddha' into a big event." After another ten minutes Bertolucci had won the co-operation of the passionate movie-goer.
That was a wise decision. The film tells the story of a young boy from Seattle who is considered to be the reincarnation of an enlightened Lama by an old monk, and is taken to the Himalayas. There the young Buddha, played by Keanu Reeves, appears to the little boy in a vision. Khyentse gave Reeves a foundation level course in Buddhism. He took care of the authenticity of the movie, starting with the arrival of the monks at the airport in Seattle, until the ritual scenes in the monastery in Bhutan. The firm cost 35 million dollars, but no money in the world could have bought permission to shoot in Bhutan. Bertolucci's crew could only enter the country and shoot film because the King of Bhutan holds Khyentse I such high regard.
Again the robe is slipping off his shoulder. This time he doesn't pull it up. In his white vest the Lama looks even more like a boy. At the beginning of the interview I try to address him with his whole name, but I can only manage to stutter it. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche smiles forgivingly and gives me some help. Dzongsar is a monastery in Bhutan, Jamyang means Soft Voice, Khyentse is compassionate wisdom and Rinpoche (Jewel) is the honorific title given to incarnate Lamas.
Cosmo: How did you know that you are the incarnation of a famous Buddhist master?
DJK: My incarnation was prophesied to a Lama in a dream. In Buddhism these visions of incarnations are quite normal. A Lama dreams about you, your name, or the names of your parents, maybe your star sign as a rough guide to your date of birth, then on top of that hints about the place, the shape of a mountain range, a certain rock or a river. After this dream the Lama starts to search and when he finds you the test begin.
DJK: The Lama doesn't tell you that you could be an incarnation - he tests you. I was three years old when the Lama came and the tests lasted until I was nine years old.
Cosmo: What kind of tests did you have to do?
DJK: Again and again I had to meditate on my former life and I had to talk about what happened and what I experienced. I was very carefully watched to see how I dealt with the people around me. Buddhist philosophy was of course also on the menu. My education was very hard. No holidays, like in Europe, no free weekends.
Cosmo: How long did your education last?
DJK: It never stops. There is no Master degree, only a life time of practising.
Cosmo: Who trained you?
DJK: I had 12 teachers and they were very tough with me. If I did something well they said that it was normal because I was an incarnate Lama. If I did something bad, or wrongly, they said sarcastically: "So, you want to be an incarnate Lama?"
Cosmo: You come from a family that has enormous religious influence in Bhutan.
DJK: Yes. My father is also a Lama and a poet.
Cosmo: Did he agree with your Hollywood adventure?
DJK: (smoothing the wrinkles in his robe) He knows my passion for movies. If its in India, America or Europe, at every opportunity I creep into the cinema. I like almost all movies, even bad ones.
Cosmo: What do you think of "Little Buddha"?
DJK: Buddhism is a difficult theme. You cannot possibly communicate the whole truth, especially not in two hours on the screen. But still, this movie has made the most of its limited possibilities. It has a clear message of love and compassion and also is an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, culture and tradition.
Cosmo: How big a role does tradition play in Buddhism?
DJK: I'll tell you a story as an example. Tradition and Buddhist philosophy are like a cup and tea. You can drink tea out of a cup, or directly out of the pot, or out of a flower, but you must never overestimate the value of the vessel. The tea, the teaching, is the main thing.
Cosmo: In the West...
DJK: Yes, I know. In the West the outward appearance of Buddhist tradition is often overestimated. Buddhism teaches renunciation. That doesn't mean that you shave your head, change your name and that you have to join some kind of monk's club.
Cosmo: What do you advise people that come to your tea meetings.
DJK: Expect less sense and meaning from life, don't be so heavy.
Cosmo: That sounds Californian - take it easy.
DJK: It only sounds like this. But it means that you don't put yourself or others under pressure with expectations and accusations. That maybe the main problem in the West. There are many people who struggle so long and hard, even in sex. They are beaten by extreme emotions and pushed by expectations and desire for self expression (laughing and shaking his head). This self doesn't even exist.
Cosmo: There is egosim, but no ego?
DJK: The ego is just an illusion. There is this man that dreams of a monster that wants to eat him. Fearing death he asks it what he is supposed to do. The monster replies, I don't know man, it's your dream (he laughs). That is the Buddhist concept of Ego illusion.
Cosmo: Could you be more specific?
DJK: I could, but I won't. It would be irresponsible of me to make your reflections too cosy.
Cosmo: Now in the West, Buddhism is really "in". Superstars like Richard Gere and Tina Turner publicly declare that they are Buddhists. Is the jet-set Lama Khyentse ever asked by prominent people for Buddhist advice
DJK: (shrugs his shoulders and smiles).
Cosmo: Is your silence an expression of profound humility? Or don't you want to expose your prominent students to gossip?
DJK: I'd prefer to answer a question that hasn't been asked yet. Buddhism is flourishing in the West. There are more and more Buddhist centres and we are trying to make it easier for people to relate to these complicated teachings. The Bertolucci movie is contributing to this. But we should not be trendy. That would damage the teachings. They have nothing to do with New Age or obscure magic. Buddhism emphasises reason and everybody is inter-dependent. Everybody needs everybody, even the so called enemy. This awareness creates compassion and love.
Cosmo: Compassion and love are really female qualities. Are women better Buddhists?
DJK: According to the pure teachings, the female is the symbol of wisdom. But the world was and is not fair to women and neither is the cultural tradition of Buddhism. In Tibet, men are dominant. Some monasteries are even off-limits to women. Often it is the women's own interpretation of their role that stands in their way to becoming a student or a teacher. They feel guilty when they are in competition with men.
Cosmo: A strange thought.
DJK: Yes. Many problems only come up when you think them. However, I would like more women to be my students and to be in the same position as men, as Lamas or monks.
DJK: Do you see any improvements?
DJK: Yes, there are some strong women in Buddhism, high ranking teachers, like Jetsun Chime and one of her students. She now lives in Canada, but when she was very young she taught in Tibet where 400 monks lay at her feet. In Tibet that is incredible. In Western society women are more developed and they fight for their rights. Unfortunately most of the time they fight too hard and forget to live.
Cosmo: In the movie "Little Buddha" two boys and a girl are all the incarnation of a famous master. Is that realistic?
DJK: Of course! With me it is similar. I am one of three parallel incarnations of the same Lama.
Cosmo: Do you know how often you have been reborn?
DJK: So far, I have had 73 incarnations. By the way, in some lives I was a woman.
Cosmo: What does a Buddhist teacher do about sex
DJK: There are Lamas that are married and have children.
Cosmo: So celibacy is not obligatory?
DJK: No. But I am absolutely against Lamas having affairs with female students and justifying by saying it is spiritual closeness.
Cosmo: Do you have relationships with women?
DJK: Yes. But if I have a relationship with a woman it is only out of passion, out of pure desire.
Cosmo: Is there "the " woman in your life?
DJK: (laughs) No. It doesn't work to try and have me as a stable partner. Maybe for a few weeks, but at some point I would disappoint all the expectations. I know myself. The woman would suffer through my mistakes.
Cosmo: Which ones?
DJK: I am selfish and very convinced about my own opinions. A woman would always only get a little bit of my soul because I appreciate my freedom too much. I would hurt the woman. Also because I am always on the road.
Cosmo: If you are not meditating you are jetting all around the world. How do you manage to radiate so much calm?
DJK: The secret of the Buddhist teaching helps me. If I give people energy, I get back double.
Cosmo: Does a Lama have dreams?
DJK: Of course. I want to make movies, for example about Buddhism.
Cosmo: With Khyentse as the leading actor?
DJK: Preferably not. In "Little Buddha" I have a small role at the end when the old Lama dies, and I explain what death is.
Cosmo: What is death?
DJK: Death is a phase of life, not the end.
Cosmo: And what is love?
DJK: Love... that's hard work.
Practice On and Off the Cushion
An Interview with Kamala Masters & Steve Armstrong
Kamala Masters and Steve Armstrong have been teaching mindfulness retreats together, both at IMS and worldwide, for more than ten years. They live on Maui, where they are developing a Dharma sanctuary and hermitage Ho'omalamalama (the ground for awakening). In talking with Insight Newsletter, they offer their perspective on the relationship between intensive practice and householder life.
Over the last decade, you've offered introductory courses for those new to the practice, as
well as longer retreats for advancing students. How do you meet the needs of students in different stages of meditation experience?
Steve: Kamala and I respect and teach from a Burmese model of understanding how students progress in their Dharma practice. The distinguished Burmese meditation master Mahasi Sayadaw, a pioneer in teaching meditation to those in a lay or householder life, outlined this model about 55 years ago. Prior to that, meditation instruction was not easily available to those outside the ordained community of monks and nuns. He taught that householders can develop the essential practice of the paramis, those positive forces or skillful qualities of mind such as generosity, renunciation, effort, truthfulness, lovingkindness and balance of mind.
These are the forces which, through various Dharma practices, can become our default setting - our first response to situations - rather than emotional reactivity, resulting in less harm and suffering. In Burma, householders practice the paramis in their everyday life, raising children, on the job and among their neighbors and friends. As these qualities ripen through ordinary daily activities, the ground is prepared for the deeply liberating insight that arises through sustained vipassana retreat practice.
Kamala: So we encourage the cultivation of the paramis at home, at work and in our social and civic interactions. While one or more paramisare practiced, other virtuous qualities are simultaneously nurtured. For example, whenever we remind ourselves to practice patience - the parami the Buddha called "the supreme virtue" - we not only create harmony in the outer conditions of our lives, but in addition support the growing inner presence of lovingkindness, equanimity and renunciation.
We also encourage students to sit a silent vipassana retreat every year, whether it's for nine days, or a month, or longer. When we take the time to temporarily disengage from household activities and move into a semi-monastic environment, the momentum towards progressively deeper levels of freedomin the mind joins forces with the momentum gained from strengthening the paramis in our heart.
Steve: The Dharma lifestyle of householder parami practice combined with intensive meditation retreats is a middle path between a full monastic way of life, and a full householder life without any spiritual practice. It is a form that seems to suit Western lay people. We have noticed significant maturation in our students who sit annual retreats, not only in the depth of their liberating insight, but also in their skillful application of Dharma understanding in daily life.
Kamala, can you say a little about the impact of your practice in Burma?
Kamala: Over the last two years, I've traveled to Burma three times - twice to undertake some months of intensive practice with my teacher and meditation master, Sayadaw U Pandita. The third trip involved sutta and Pali study at Sitagu Monastery.
For a long time prior to that, as I reflected on and practiced the paramis, the quality of renunciation resonated deeply in my heart. As I gave this more energy and attention, the wish to ordain arose - to shave my head, don the nun's robes and utterly simplify my life. I was interested to see if outer renunciation would help the inner renunciation of abandoning greed, hatred and delusion. So, I traveled to Burma in 2001 and ordained for two months with Sayadaw U Pandita. I did this again early this year. These two times have been amongst the happiest of my life; the simplification of my activities together with his monastery's clearly defined practice regimen allowed the constrictions of heart and mind to easily let go.
While in Burma I realized how supportive and strengthening it is for me, as one who guides others, to have my own guide. Of course, the bottom line is that the Dharma is our truest guide. There is, however, immense value in turning to someone much wiser who can, with fierce compassion, tell me where to refine the practice; a teacher who can direct and help me reach new horizons without embellishment or coddling. Two important things Sayadaw U Pandita said to me were, "You must be willing to be admonished," and "You must be willing to invest everything you have in the practice."
Is it possible to undertake intensive mindfulness practice while in a household situation,
fulfilling parent, partner and financial responsibilities?
Kamala: Being a mother and respecting family needs are primal forces within me. Nevertheless, while raising my children I also honored a deep need to take time out now and then for intensive retreat. Sometimes, I had to plan for this up to three years in advance. I didn't shirk that inner responsibility. So, yes, with careful preparation it is possible to fulfill both worldly obligations and intensive practice needs.
Recently, on the way to Burma, I visited India, and had the opportunity to talk with Dipa, the daughter of an extraordinary and wonderful Indian woman, Dipa Ma, whose teachings and practice have contributed greatly to my own development. I asked Dipa what was the most awesome thing that she remembered about her mother. She told me that when she was a child she and her mother were at the Mahasi meditation center in Burma. Her mother's teacher, Munindraji, instructed her mother to practice for three days, while Dipa was being cared for by friends there. This was not a weekend retreat of sitting and walking, with breaks in between; it meant Dipa Ma sat down for three days solid, without moving. Dipa said "She didn't even get up to go to the bathroom or to eat!"
This story inspires me, because it validates my own efforts to be both a devoted parent and a devoted meditation student - though I'm not sure I'll ever sit for three days without moving!
Another simple yet profound practice that helps create a seamless process between householder life and retreat life is known as 'Mindfulness of the Four Postures' - sitting, walking, lying down and standing. Munindraji, my other teacher, who passed away in October last year, often reminded me to practice a general awareness of the entire body as it sits, walks, bends or turns throughout everyday activities. I have found this technique brings about a significant continuity of mindfulness.
Steve, you were a monk in Burma for many years. How did this prepare you for developing a new sanctuary on Maui?
Steve: I spent five years in robes, doing intensive practices with Sayadaw U Pandita in Yangon. This was while Kamala was raising her family. Now, while she is undertaking intensive practice, I find myself much more involved in householder activities. Our roles have reversed.
We are in the process of building a Dharma sanctuary on Maui, which requires a lot of raising money, managing finances, and communicating with supporters, neighbors, contractors and the local government. The practices I did in Asia provide essential tools for skillful interaction in these often challenging situations. My household work is the test of my Dharma practice.
Do you see the teachings of Burmese masters continuing to influence Western Buddhism?
Steve: Most definitely! While Kamala and I were in Burma two years ago, we heard about a book in Burmese by the late Mahasi Sayadaw that had never been translated into English. It is a two volume work called Practicing Vipassana; a definitive book from the Buddhist teachings on how to practice vipassana, and much of its content is generally unavailable to Western students. In it, Mahasi Sayadaw discusses the preparatory practices that householders can develop and experience both in theireveryday lives and on retreat.
We have undertaken subsidy of the book's translation and publication. In January, Kamala asked Sayadaw U Pandita what he thought about making it available in the West. He responded, in English, "The sooner, the better." Not only will it provide a valuable resource for Dharma students and teachers alike, it will also establish a baseline in the West for reviewing our own practice and gauging its authenticity.
How relevant is the Buddhist understanding of mind today?
Steve: In our view, its relevance is just beginning to be appreciated, at least here in the West. Last September, Kamala and I attended the Mind and Life Conference with the Dalai Lama in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Western scientists of psychology spoke with the Dalai Lama and senior Tibetan and Theravada monks and scholars about the nature of the mind. It was a fascinating dialogue to witness- Western scientists are just startingto document, through their scientificmethod and machinery, what Buddhistshave been experiencing for millennia, through their meditation.
For further information about Kamala and Steve's Dharma activities, please visit www.vipassanametta.org.
An interview with Stephen Batchelor, Author of Buddhism without Beliefs
by Andrew Cohen
"I was walking through a pine forest, returning to my hut along a narrow path trodden into the steep slope of the hillside. I struggled forward carrying a blue plastic bucket filled with fresh water that I had just collected from a source at the upper end of the valley. I was then suddenly brought to a halt by the upsurge of an overwhelming sense of the sheer mystery of everything. It was as though I were lifted up onto the crest of a shivering wave, which abruptly swelled from the ocean that was life itself. 'How is it that people can be unaware of this most obvious question?' I asked myself. 'How can anyone pass their life without responding to it?'"
This experience, which befell Stephen Batchelor some twenty years ago during his tenure as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, India, and which he later recorded in his book The Faith to Doubt, was not, he says, "an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear. For it gave me no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question." As a result, it seems, Batchelor became something of a "Renaissance monk," reading widely in Western philosophy, psychology and theology, and pursuing with particular interest "the ways in which existentialist concepts were used to understand religious experience." His intriguingly spare interpretation of his own experience was ultimately to provide the long-term model for an agnostic approach to spiritual life perhaps best articulated in his credo, "Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves." It is an approach he has pursued quite actively ever since, and to which, no longer as a monk but as an influential author, scholar, meditation teacher and director of the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England, he remains unwaveringly faithful to this day.
The essence of Batchelor's view is that there is no truly authentic response to human life that does not acknowledge its inherent and underlying existential uncertainty. Western practitioners of Buddhism cannot hope to become truly free, he insists, as long as they walk the Buddhist path in thrall to an accumulation of unexamined dogmas-dogmas that have obscured and distorted their perception of the Buddha's message and inhibited their ability to give fresh and authentic cultural expression to their own distinct existential "perplexity." The aim of Batchelor's radical approach to the Buddha's teaching is therefore to liberate it from all the nonessential trappings of "religion" and "spirituality" that have effectively choked off what he takes to be its no-frills revelation of the existential dilemma of human life. "As in the beautiful parable of the raft," he writes, "the dharma [teaching] is merely a temporary device to get you from one side of a river to another. Its meaning is completely distorted if it is raised to the status of an end in itself. For myself, the end for which the Buddhist path is the means can only be the penetration of this mystery of being thrown into birth only to be ejected again at death."
With the publication of his book Buddhism without Beliefs, Batchelor hopes to propel the ever evolving teaching of Gautama the Buddha forward into yet another-the lightest and least encumbered by orthodoxy to date-of its unique historical incarnations. "While we may find certain stylistic aspects of his teaching alien . . . the wheel of dharma set in motion by the Buddha [has] continued to turn after his death, generating ever new and startling cultures of awakening," he writes. "The challenge now is to imagine and create a culture of awakening that both supports individual dharma practice and addresses the dilemmas of an agnostic and pluralist world."
Without question, Batchelor's blueprint for the future of a secularized Western Buddhism is daringly bold and revolutionary. And one can only admire his courageous willingness to stand alone, within his own chosen tradition, against the unquestioned adherence to Buddhist doctrines and practices that have lost their meaning for contemporary practitioners. Nevertheless, the fact that Batchelor sees his reformulation of the Buddha Dharma as an adaptation to the pluralistic climate of Western postmodernism caused us some existential perplexity of our own. The most salient characteristic of contemporary Western culture would seem to be an obsessive preoccupation with such noble ideologies as relativism, subjectivity and personal autonomy. It may well be, in fact, that Buddhism in all its globetrotting has never encountered a culture quite so at odds with the austerity and selflessness traditionally thought to be crucial to the pursuit of enlightenment. This prompted us to wonder whether the adjustments Buddhism might have to make in order to become truly "postmodern" could ever lead to anything other than the loss of its very heart. Could a teaching whose goal is enlightenment really be accommodated to the individualistic imperatives of the contemporary West? The answer to this question hinges, we realized, on a determination of what the "heart" of Buddhism actually is, and ultimately on our understanding of the nature of enlightenment itself. It is in light of the incredible variety of contrasting views on this subject, which seem to be able to coexist within even a single tradition such as Buddhism, that we have asked: What is enlightenment? Is it, as Andrew Cohen believes, the discovery and realization of a singular and timeless absolute context for all human experience which, once it is recognized, can only be surrendered to? Or is it rather, as Stephen Batchelor's existentialist reading of the Buddha's attainment seems to suggest, a more relative matter-a courageous willingness to confront, over and over again and in an endless variety of circumstances, the inherent emptiness and essential mysteriousness of existence? Is it the final and irrevocable realignment of a human consciousness with the ultimate meaning and purpose of life-or the unobscured perception of a random and contingent reality in which any sense of purpose is a product of human invention?
are subtle but vitally important questions, because the ability to distinguish
that which is absolute from that which is relative, far from being a matter of
mere semantics, could be said to be the foundation for any clear understanding
of what enlightenment is and is not. This crucial distinction between absolute
and relative is the subject of the fascinating dialogue you are about to read,
which, in the subtlety of its discrimination and the urgent liveliness of its
back-and-forth, resembles nothing so much as the "dharma debate" said
to have been an important feature of Buddhist life in the bygone eras of its rich
and varied history.
Buddhism without Beliefs
Andrew Cohen: After reading your book, Buddhism without Beliefs, it was clear to me that you could be seen as a revolutionary in the field of contemporary Buddhism in that you seem to be trying to present the essence of what the Buddha taught free of any cultural baggage, including all forms of what could be regarded by the contemporary mind as superstitious ideas or beliefs.
Stephen Batchelor: Yes, some people might say that, I suppose.
AC: Before we begin, though, I'd like to be certain that I have as clear an understanding as possible of exactly what you mean by "Buddhism without beliefs."
SB: Yes, good. The expression "Buddhism without beliefs" is not meant to suggest that beliefs are completely dispensable in every sense of the word "belief." One still has to believe-if one is doing a practice, for example-that it has value, that it's worthwhile, that it's worth sitting on a cushion; and that is definitely one form of belief. But the way I'm mainly using the word "belief," as you've correctly understood, is to express the idea that the practice of Buddhism is somehow contingent upon buying into certain metaphysical beliefs. We may or may not think of such beliefs as superstitious, but they usually are views of the world that we are expected to accept on the basis of a kind of blind devotion or faith, without actually having any experience of our own on the basis of which to accept or reject them. So "Buddhism without dogma" would perhaps be more precise. I don't think it really matters, you see, what one's metaphysical views are, because the practice of Buddhism, as I try to make clear in the book, is to my mind a practice of freeing ourselves from certain psychological delusions.
AC: I see. And since you are advocating what you refer to as a kind of "agnostic Buddhism," and devote an entire chapter of your book to a discussion of "agnosticism," could you please define how you're using that term?
SB: Well, agnosticism I understand in two different ways. Firstly, I use the word "agnostic" in the way that it's fairly conventionally understood in the West, and I know that in that sense it is problematic because to many people "agnosticism" and "atheism" are sort of blurred together as a kind of dismissive attitude towards any kind of spiritual practice-and some people have complained that "agnostic" is therefore too confusing a word and automatically gives a negative slant. But the way in which the word "agnostic" has traditionally been used since about the nineteenth century is very much about not taking anything for granted unless it can be somehow demonstrated through experience-holding a view, in other words, in which you acknowledge a kind of unknowing, or not knowing, which I think is very parallel to the Buddhist idea of "no-mind" as it is found in Zen. It has to do with being able to accept and acknowledge within yourself primary questions about life to which you do not know the answer, and this, to me, is a far more genuine starting point than beginning a practice on the basis of something that some teacher or some religion or some tradition has told you to believe. It is a fundamental acceptance of unknowing, of not knowing.
AC: Even though it's obvious, as you said before, that in order to begin practice in earnest one would have to have some faith, for example, in the possibility of awakening.
SB: Oh, sure. I distinguish between "belief" and "faith," although that may not come out clearly in the book. "Belief" would be, as I said, a particular holding on to certain metaphysical ideas as necessarily true-and this could apply also to a practice if it was intended only to confirm the validity of those views-whereas "faith" is really nothing more than a trust in the capacity of the human being to transform itself from a deluded to a less deluded or even an awakened state, "awakening" being a metaphor for the relinquishment of delusion. As I said, there clearly has to be some kind of belief in the possibility of that kind of transformation and that opening of experience. The difference is that from an agnostic position one doesn't have any preconceived ideas as to what that transformation will lead to. Practice is too often premised on the idea that if I meditate I'll become omniscient or something, or arrive at some state of mind that has been described in some religious texts to be like A, B, C, D or E.
AC: Including a Buddhist text?
SB: Oh yes, certainly. Of course, the whole idea of a genuine awakening, at least as I understand it, is that it must necessarily be a journey into the unknown. But I tend to think that many people practice religion-Buddhism or Christianity or Hinduism or whatever-with a subconscious or perhaps even a conscious expectation of what the outcome of their practice will be, whereas if one has a genuinely agnostic starting point, a profound acceptance of "I don't know," then one has made room for the possibility of deep questioning. To really think about it, to really question-to say, "What is this? Who am I?"-is an acknowledgment, in that very moment of questioning, of not knowing. We wouldn't need to ask a question, after all, if we knew any kind of answer.
AC: Of course.
SB: So to me the spiritual quest has as its driving engine a questioning which is necessarily impregnated with a kind of unknowing. And a Buddhist text, for example, or a religious text of any tradition for that matter, can perhaps give us clues and pointers, and maybe very supportive metaphors, but a danger arises if we in any way literalize those metaphors and treat them, as it were, as if they were adequate representations of what it is that our practice is leading towards.
Clarity or Perplexity?
AC: Would this process of inquiry and questioning that you've so eloquently described lead to the discovery-since we're talking about enlightenment, after all-of an answer that has the potential to finally liberate? Or would it simply lead to an inner position from which one recognizes that no answer will ever be found? Is the answer that one is searching for something that could be called "enlightenment," or is "enlightenment," in your view, only the discovery of the fact that one will never know the answer?
SB: I think one would have to suspend both possibilities and begin to question without an expectation of either.
AC: Fair enough. The only reason I'm asking is because in your book you do seem at times to be implying that it wouldn't be possible to find a final or absolute answer. Is that your view?
SB: As I said, that's not a point about which I think it's particularly helpful to speculate.
AC: I understand that, but I just wanted to clarify it because it seems to be an implication of your frequent and favorable-sounding use of the term "perplexity" in your book that the "not knowing" you've been speaking about is the appropriate attitude or relationship to one's experience if one wants to awaken, if one wants to be free in relationship to one's own experience. So I'm left wondering if this perplexity, or not knowing, is supposed to be a final resting place or is just a means to an end.
SB: Okay, it's a good question. I prefer the term "response" rather than "answer." Maybe that's making a rather minor semantic distinction, but the process of questioning, the process of awakening that I'm interested in, is one that leads to a response to the matter of, let's say, birth and death. My own experience is that that perplexity is something that one not only starts out with but that actually stays with one. But that does not preclude the possibility, you see, of a very profound and authentic response to what it is that one is perplexed about. And the term "answer," to me, particularly if it's prefixed with an adjective like "absolute," introduces an element of finality that I'm uncomfortable with, because I am quite profoundly concerned about any suggestion of a kind of stasis, a fixed state or position that comes, as it were, as a final answer to that perplexity. I'm more of the mind that perplexity is in fact the key trigger for authentic responses to life, to death, to being here-to experience, to existence.
AC: But that "response," if it was the expression of an awakened mind, would not be an expression of what we understand "perplexity" to be, would it? Even though that perplexity may well have been the catalyst for it, wouldn't it rather be the expression of some kind of profound clarity, of a very clear and accurate perception?
SB: I don't see a contradiction there.
AC: Oh, good. It's just that this relationship between perplexity and a very clear response didn't seem to be very clear in your book.
SB: Okay. Well, perhaps we could say that we start with perplexity, and perplexity leads to responses to our experience, and the clarity that emerges out of such responses does not render the world less perplexing. In a strange way-and to me this is very central-that kind of clarity of mind reveals the world to be even more mysterious than we may at first have assumed it to be. And awakening, for me, is not about rendering the world unmysterious. It's about penetrating the mystery of life, not canceling it out as though it were a problem that you've somehow solved. Clarity and insight enrich and deepen our sense of the profound mystery that we are. And in terms of our rational capacities, our intellectual capacities, I think it's quite legitimate and meaningful to say that we don't arrive at some kind of answer. But that does not mean that we do not arrive at an authentic response that radically transforms our sense of being in the world and our capacity to be with ourselves, with others, with society. We do, but not in a way that is fixated on any position or stance.
AC: Would it therefore be fair to say, and please help me with this, that in your view a profound enlightenment would still be a relative matter?
SB: I think there's a certain problem with terms here.
AC: I appreciate that what we're speaking about is very subtle and delicate, and I'm aware of the inherent dangers in both directions when speaking in terms of relative and absolute, but-
SB: I'm just not happy with this distinction between absolute and relative. I find it somewhat dualistic. I know Buddhism has used that language-although it seems that in fact the Buddha himself never actually used those terms, at least in the early discourses-but, again, I'm concerned about the possibility of fixing a term like "enlightenment" in any kind of absolute position. I find it a little too simplistic, because I feel that those sorts of distinctions seem to fade away.
AC: What do you mean?
SB: I don't claim fully to understand this at all, but my intuition and experience lead me much more to a sense that the absolute/relative dichotomy is something that actually needs to be let go of, and that the awakening, as it were, is an awakening to, in a way, the letting go of precisely that dividing of reality between those two poles. And that's why I prefer this idea of response. The response to experience through, say, insight or awakening may open up to us the depth of reality, and the profound mystery of reality, but not in a way that alienates us from the contingencies and the exigencies of the relative, ambiguous world that we inhabit. But perhaps all I'm saying is that we lack any ability within the categories of conventional language to really speak coherently about what is essentially mysterious. Does that make sense?
AC: It makes sense, but in terms of this whole notion of the Absolute, or an absolute-which, as you've acknowledged, you feel very uncomfortable with-it does need to be stated that from the perspective of those who do see or perceive awakened consciousness from a perspective that is absolute, the approach you're describing would probably be construed as the relativization of an absolute perspective, and that's simply a different way of seeing it. But I still think what you've said is very clear and very intriguing, and perhaps we can move on, since basically most of my questions are concerned with this anyway.
SB: Okay. All right.
Relative or Absolute?
AC: In your chapter on "Awakening," you write: "Despite the Buddha's own succinct account of his awakening, it has come to be represented (even by Buddhists) as something quite different. Awakening has become a mystical experience, a moment of transcendent revelation of the Truth. Religious interpretations invariably reduce complexity to uniformity while elevating matter-of-factness to holiness. Over time, increasing emphasis has been placed on a single absolute truth such as 'the Deathless,' 'the Unconditioned,' 'the Void,' nirvana, Buddha-nature, etcetera, rather than on an interwoven complex of truths." Could you please explain what you mean?
SB: Well, I suppose what's coming through there is, in a sense, my Buddhist faith and the fact that I'm speaking from within a Buddhist tradition, but in that context trying to clarify not just the questions the Buddha himself asked but also how Buddhism as a system has responded to, and has subsequently articulated, the early Buddhist tradition. And in particular, I'm trying to make it clear that when I am speaking about the Buddha, from my point of view there are limitations inherent in that.
AC: What do you mean by "inherent limitations"?
SB: What I mean, in the book and also for the sake of this conversation-since in your magazine you try to represent many different perspectives-is that because I'm coming from a Buddhist perspective, certain questions may not be so intelligible. I'm not going to be able to talk very meaningfully about anything to do with God, for example, and I don't want to get drawn into areas that I'm not particularly concerned with myself. The whole point of what I wrote there is that questions, for example, of an "absolute," although they refer to an idea that has come into Buddhism, are not central nor even particularly pertinent, really, to what I think the Buddha was trying to get at.
AC: That could be true, I suppose, but what intrigues me, and what is, speaking for myself personally, the thrust of my whole life and investigation, is what the word "enlightenment" means, and the point of my question is that "enlightenment"-which is supposedly what Buddhism is about-does generally refer to something that is absolute. Now I understand that from your point of view, for example, that may not be true. But I think if we said that an absolute component could never be a part of what enlightenment is and means, that would take away some of the power inherent in that word.
SB: What do you mean by "absolute"? I have, actually, some difficulties in understanding what you mean.
AC: That which would be final, unequivocal-something like that.
AC: Transcendent, yes, but not in the sense of being separate from.
SB: Separate from the world.
AC: Correct-not in that sense at all.
SB: Right. Okay, well, let's go back, then, to the passage that you quoted. The reference there to "the Buddha's own succinct account of his awakening" is to the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta, which means "the turning of the dharma wheel." It is supposedly the first discourse the Buddha gave, and it contains a very, very clear statement in which the Buddha declares that until he had come to a full awareness and understanding of the Four Noble Truths in three particular ways, he could not claim to have realized full awakening. In other words, this is a very basic starting point from which to begin any attempt to understand a Buddhist perspective on awakening or enlightenment; in fact, this experience of the Four Truths is the defining characteristic of what the Buddha understands by awakening.
Now what's interesting about that is that the Buddha is not laying claim to an experience of some absolute as the defining characteristic of what awakening is, but rather to an interwoven complex of truths that have to do with suffering, the origins of suffering, the ending of suffering and the path that leads to the ending of suffering. It's that whole complex that defines what it means to awaken. And what I find distinctive about that, and profoundly inspiring and resonant with my own experience, is that his concern is not with defining the answer in terms of a revelation of God or faith or an experience of an absolute-be it a transcendent or an immanent absolute-but rather a vision of the dilemma that human beings experience, which he calls dukkha, or suffering; a vision of its origins; a vision of a resolution or response to that dilemma, which he understands as the cessation of its origins-the cessation of craving, momentary or otherwise; and, finally, a vision of a way of life that is conducive to such cessation.
So if we were to use the words "final" or "definitive" in the sense that you're using them, there might be some legitimacy in applying them to the Third Truth-I agree with you there.
AC: You mean freedom from craving?
SB: Yes, I mean the freedom that the Buddha spoke of-the freedom of the heart and mind from craving-which he describes as the breaking of the ridgepole of a house that, as a result, can never be built again. There is certainly something very definitive about that.
SB: Very, very definitive-but he doesn't make that into the defining element of what he calls "awakening." Awakening is far more encompassing than that. His process of awakening is one that embraces as much the dilemma of life as it does a resolution to that dilemma. In other words, it's a holistic sense of the world, a sense of one's place within the world that includes insights and understandings that are both relative and also, as you say, somewhat more ultimate, as well as a way of life.
AC: A clear and right relationship to the world of time and space.
SB: Exactly, yes.
Existential or Transcendent?
AC: A little further on in the same chapter, you state: "The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks." Then you say, "Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening."
SB: That's right, yes.
AC: So my question would be: Given that the experiential recognition of the Four Noble Truths is, as you've just stated, the most important element of awakening in the Buddhist path, it would have to be more than a strictly intellectual revelation-right?
SB: Yes, of course.
AC: What would be the component, then, in the revelation of the Four Noble Truths that would make it more than merely an intellectual insight or recognition?
SB: The component that would make it more than a merely intellectual recognition would be the fact that the momentum, let's say, or the driving force that propelled the Buddha to this awakening, was the question of life and death. In other words, the concerns that were resolved through his awakening were not philosophical questions, and they were not psychological or religious or spiritual questions. They were deep existential questions, which we find perhaps best illustrated through the legend of his encounter with the four visions of the corpse, the old person, the sick person and the monk. In other words, the Buddha's quest was an existential quest and, as I see it, we can only understand awakening as something that is a resolution to the primary existential dilemma that every human being faces-the fact of having been born and the fact of death. So if we understand the Buddha or any practicing Buddhist of today as setting off on this path, I feel its authenticity is registered to the extent that it is an outcome of that individual's deep, almost preconceptual response to being, to what the Chinese call "the great matter of birth and death." And in responding to such questions, the intellect can be helpful-it can give us useful ideas and so on-but fundamentally this is a matter that grips our entire body/mind and is, as it were, the basis upon which we then focus our attention through meditation or spiritual inquiry or whatever it is that we're doing. And it's the unrelenting honing in on, focusing in on, that existential sense of questioning that triggers and awakens the mind to another response to birth, sickness, aging and death, which historically, for the Buddha, was the revelation of these Four Truths.
AC: But in what we could call this heroic or, even though I know I shouldn't say it, absolute confrontation with these existential questions-which obviously few human beings actually have the courage to engage in-would there not have to be a transcendent element of the sort you refer to in your book as "the Deathless" or "the unconditioned," the discovery of which creates, shall we say, an experiential context that transcends a merely three-dimensional sense of what life is? Wouldn't it be the direct experience of this fourth dimension, which some have also referred to as "the supermundane," that would empower the discovery of these Four Noble Truths-that would give them their liberating power-and that would enable one to recognize the truly liberating power that is inherent in them? Is there not, in other words-and this is just a question-another element that empowers this profound existential inquiry?
SB: Well, I think there's a danger here of getting caught up in certain linguistic problems. Of course you start out, let's say, with a question, and the reason it's a question, or a dilemma, is because you're unable to step out of it. You're unable to see a way out of a situation to which you have no response. And clearly, if you're going to find a response that addresses that question at the depth from which it is asked, then you're going to have to discover a perspective that is not "mundane." But "mundane" simply means the condition in which we find ourselves stuck, so any kind of resolution to a question of such an order is going to require that you somehow transcend the limitation that has stuck you with that question. To that extent, one could say, yes, of course, there must be some degree of self-transcendence. But transcendence, to me, is a relative term. In other words, one can say that one has a transcendent experience only in relation to that in which one was previously trapped. To then reify that notion of transcendence into some kind of state, I think is a mistake.
AC: Again, though, in the way I'm speaking about it, the supermundane would be an experiential context that would reveal the ultimate power to liberate inherent in the Four Noble Truths. So I'm simply asking if there's not another element besides the profound or even heroic confrontation with these existential questions that you have described.
SB: I think not, actually. I'm not entirely sure what you mean, but I guess that really my answer would be no.
AC: Okay, fair enough. But just to pursue this a little further, there are several passages in the Nikayas [the earliest recorded recollections of the Buddha's teachings], which you're no doubt very familiar with, in which the Buddha describes what he himself calls "the Deathless": "Where water, earth, heat and wind find no footing, there no stars gleam, no sun is made visible, there shines no moon, there the darkness is not found; and when the sage, the brahmin, himself in wisdom knows this place, he is freed from happiness and dukkha." And in another passage, he says, "Monks, there is that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned. Monks, if there were not that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned, there could be made known no escape from that which is born, become, made, conditioned here. But since, monks, there is that which is not born, not become, not made, not conditioned, therefore the escape from that which is born, become, made, conditioned is made known." Obviously, the Buddha is here very directly and clearly pointing to the profound importance and significance of the experiential discovery of a mystery which, at least in these formulations, alone makes liberation possible.
SB: I know what you're getting at, but that passage-the second one-is quoted endlessly, and the interesting thing is that it only appears once, and in a relatively minor text found in a subsection of the Khuddaka Nikaya. I therefore take such passages to be primarily inspirational in nature rather than literal.
AC: What does that mean?
SB: It means that if you read through the Buddhist sutras, of which there are so many that it's unlikely anybody's read them all, you'll find all manner of passages which appear, actually, to be at odds with many other passages. And I think it's particularly striking how Western interpreters of Buddhism have latched on to that last passage you've just quoted. It's endlessly reiterated and yet, as I said, it only occurs once in all of the canon. It's a passage that I think is attractive precisely because it lends credence to a kind of mystical absolutist interpretation of Buddhist doctrine that is actually not so widely found elsewhere in the texts. If one reads through the Majjhima Nikaya, for example, you won't find that sort of language very widespread. I'm not saying you can't find passages elsewhere that use that kind of language, but even leaving aside contemporary views on Buddhism, there have been commentators as far back as two thousand years ago who shed doubt on the legitimacy of such passages and saw them as inspirational rather than literal. In other words, for many people that kind of language inspires them to reach beyond themselves. It inspires them to believe in the possibility of something quite other than the sort of experience they feel trapped and stuck in at the present. But that those inspirational injunctions of the Buddha are meant to be taken literally, I personally find problematic.
The problem with Buddhism, you see-and I think this is not only historical but contemporary as well-is that you do not have a single consistent voice running through the tradition. What you have is a plurality of voices that articulate understandings of say, awakening, of the path, of the nature of reality and so on, which are not internally consistent. So we ultimately find "Buddhism" to be really a sort of generic term that points not to any single view but to a diversity of strategies and tactics that different followers of the Buddha throughout history have adopted, some of which are religious or devotional or inspirational in nature, and others of which are more pragmatic or, one could almost say, relativist-down to earth. And what that suggests to me is the sense of a community, a sangha, which is able to incorporate a diversity that reflects the different temperaments and dispositions of those who are inspired by the Buddha to follow their paths in ways that authentically respond to their particular language and the particular experiences that they themselves have had. I'm very resistant to the idea of trying to reduce Buddhism to one particular dominant voice, because I see it as a pluralistic culture of awakening which allows for a diversity of possibilities. Now of course that doesn't mean that we can't have debate and discussion and disagreement. In fact, it's precisely the fact that we are having this kind of conversation that is to me the positive thing.
AC: Your own feeling, though, is that you question the notion that the Buddha put any emphasis on the significance of an absolute or transcendent dimension.
SB: Yes, my own reading of the text-and I know that there are passages like the ones you mentioned-is that those are in balance fairly marginal comments that are actually at odds with the thrust of the Buddha's message that speaks to me. So while I see those passages, as I said, as having inspirational value, I personally can't take them literally because I feel that they would put Buddhism back into the context of religious experience that we find, say, in the Upanishads [esoteric Hindu scriptures], which for all its beauty is not something that I think the Buddha was endorsing.
The Revealed Path
AC: In your chapter on "Imagination," you write that awakening is "by its very nature . . . free from the constraints of preconceived ideas, images, and doctrines. It offers no answers, only the possibility of new beginnings." My question here would be: Doesn't genuine awakening clearly and unambiguously reveal that perfect middle place between all pairs of opposites, in other words, the revealed path, the knowledge of which is the source of all genuine doctrine?
SB: That's not the language I myself would use. Again, though, I think I know what you're getting at, but maybe you could explain what you mean by "the revealed path."
AC: By "the revealed path" I mean that in profound insight it would always become clear what the only right response could possibly be.
SB: Okay, yes, I would sort of accept that and I think, in this case, that we're not actually saying much that's totally different. When I say that it gives no answers, only new beginnings or the possibility of new beginnings, I think that what you've just described is really the same thing I'm pointing to.
AC: Okay, but the reason I'm pursuing this is because when you say that it "offers no answers," again-and I might be misconstruing or misunderstanding it-the implication seems to be that there really isn't any Answer with a capital "A."
SB: That's right.
AC: Whereas what I would say is that what I'm calling this "perfect middle place between all pairs of opposites" would be the answer. In other words, one would never be able to know beforehand specifically what the appropriate response would be, but that place from which it is revealed at any given moment would be discovered to be always one and the same.
SB: Well, I don't know . . . maybe. Again, you see, I think this is not language I find so helpful. When I say, for example, that awakening does not give answers, only the possibility of new beginnings, what I'm getting at is that any kind of genuine insight experience-whether you call it awakening or anything else-is something that will only ever find expression in response to the specific and unique demand of the situation in which one finds oneself. The form that it takes will always be different because our situations are always changing due to the fact that they're fluid, they're contingent on different factors, there are different demands and so on and so forth. But I still think we're probably quibbling over words here.
AC: Well, no, because again, what I'm suggesting is that the insight itself-that depth of insight that is free from all fixed ideas-is the answer. But I get the sense in reading your book-and I think it's because you obviously feel strongly, and for many very good reasons, about staying away from anything that is absolute-that you believe there simply couldn't be one. Now that's fair enough, but it is my own experience that there is indeed an answer, and that answer is the discovery of that place-which, interestingly enough, I do agree you might be pointing to-where there are no fixed ideas. My point, though, is that when we are able to discover that place, it becomes possible for us to always know, or to always find out, what the right response actually is.
SB: Well I can accept that as long as we don't literalize that place as something that we can fix, as it were. I mean, I'm rather at home with the notion in Zen that one constituent of the awakened mind is that it is one in which there is no place to rest. And I think that what I'm trying to get at here is that I feel that the Buddha was always shying away from the idea that there was some kind of final absolute resting place-that although he recognized that through various disciplines and practices and lifestyles you can free yourself from the constraints that hold you in particular places and lock you into positions and fixations and so on, still, that process of liberation is not in itself a place but a possibility. It's an opening to a fresh and unprecedented response to the contingencies of the world. In other words, I see Buddhism and Buddhist practice as operating within a very dynamic context, one that is not concerned with, and in fact is highly suspicious of, the rhetoric and language of place, of ultimates, of absolutes, of positions of any kind.
AC: Well, as you say, when we're using language we can sometimes get into a little bit of difficulty. But when I say that the place I'm referring to is between all pairs of opposites, it ought to be pretty clear that from the point of view of the rational mind, it's not really a place that can be imagined, because it's inherently free from all the constrictions of any view. And yet, it is precisely the discovery of that "no-place" that makes a truly enlightened response to life possible.
SB: Yes, okay. In that way I can go along with it, I suppose. But to me, the point is really about freeing myself from fixations that trap one in a fixed set of images, ideas, views, patterns and so on, and once that style of being or way of being is realized, it's not as if you've discovered a place to rest, but rather an openness to responding to the world in a way that is not cluttered and labored and tied down with fixations and places.
Re-imagining the Self
AC: In the same chapter, "Imagination," you go on to say that the "notion of a static self is the primary obstruction to the realization of our unique potential as an individual being." Now it wasn't completely clear to me when I read this whether by "static self" you were referring to notions about the ego/personality or about the Self Absolute. But in either case, while I can understand why the notion of a static self could easily be "the primary obstruction to the realization of our unique potential as an individual being," it isn't so clear to me why the realization of our "unique potential as an individual being" would be so important to begin with, particularly in the context of enlightenment.
SB: Well first of all, in that particular passage I suppose I'm primarily referring more to a notion of ego. But at the same time, I would also include metaphysical and religious ideas of a kind of absolute Self, only with rather more caution because I know that that concept can be understood in a number of ways that are not at all similar to the way we hold an ego. I do believe, though, that for many people the notion of Self with a capital "S," however it is defined, is in many ways a kind of consolatory device to give one something to hold on to, something that you can identify with as being "me." Otherwise, I don't really see why someone would feel any particular need to perpetuate the use of the "S-word." For me, you see, one of the attractions of Buddhism is that the Buddha is fairly ruthless in refusing any kind of legitimacy to the term "self," and I think that whether we're speaking in terms of a contemporary psychological experience in which we're trapped in a kind of egoic, narcissistic self-preoccupation or in terms of the more mystical stance of resting in one's true Self with a capital "S," the problem is still the same. And that is that one is still trapped in a language of things and points and places rather than allowing oneself to become open to the possibility of imagining things otherwise. You mentioned that the passage we're speaking about came from my chapter on imagination, and I'd like to pursue that because for me, imagination is the key issue here.
Again, it's my understanding that the experience of insight or awakening is not something final in itself, and should not be thought of as an answer in itself, and the reason for that is that it's not really complete, really fulfilled, until it finds a form in the world, and that form is realized through the activation of the imagination. In other words, an authentic response is found not through satisfaction or fulfillment for me in my own personal domain, my own personal territory-be it the ego or the mystical Self-but at that point where I reenter the world of images, ideas, forms, suffering, pain and confusion that is all around me-all of which is, after all, not in my own psyche but in the world I inhabit. Awakening, therefore, if we're to expand the word out further, is not an exclusively subjective or private experience. It is actually an experience that embraces one's own personal expression as one pole of it, but then expands imaginatively through and into words and acts and images that take form in the world we share with other beings. And that is really, I feel, another way of expressing the more traditional idea of the integration of wisdom and compassion, which states that awakening is not just about wisdom but is the unification, the integration, of these two. So I don't see awakening as a private state at all, but rather as a description of a way of being in the world. The breaking down of these borders of self is tantamount to an opening to, an exposure to, a vulnerability or transparency to, the plight of the world, of the other-and that to me is really the core of what I understand by awakening. So I hope that helps to explain some of my critical points.
AC: That's very beautiful; it's what I would call a truly nondual view. What you're describing is truly holistic in that it's inclusive rather than exclusive.
SB: Yes, exactly.
AC: At the same time, I find it interesting that you're putting a great deal of emphasis on the autonomous individual's freedom to realize his or her unique capacity for personal and social fulfillment. Of course, from a certain point of view it definitely makes sense; the only question I have about it has to do with the fact that at some point, if someone is truly interested in becoming a liberated person, even the notions of autonomy, individual freedom and personal fulfillment are going to have to be left aside in order to find out what it actually means to be in the unknown-wouldn't you agree?
SB: I agree, but I wouldn't say "left aside." This is an important question, I think. I don't feel that the status of the individual and their personal autonomy are notions that need to be abandoned so much as radically reconstrued. In other words, one needs to recognize that one's sense of personal autonomy or individuality, from a deluded or nonawakened state, is one that is premised on the idea that underpinning one's sense of who one is is some kind of esoteric substance called "me," some kind of fixed, static point within my experience that represents the ground of my being. Now through exploring and inquiring into the nature of self, into the nature of who or what one is, that image is exploded in the sense that one begins more and more to recognize that who I am, which is unique and individual to a degree, is not what it is because of some fixed point within me but because of the unrepeatable matrix of conditions and causes and contingencies and so on that differentiate this being here from that being there. In other words, it's a recognition that who and what I am is a unique reflection of the whole, a unique reflection of everything else that is.
Now obviously, a notion of individuality or autonomy such as this is radically different from the more commonsense, gut-feeling notion of individuality or autonomy that we normally hold. I am who I am, in this case, not because of a deep sense of me, but because of my unique position, as it were, in relation to everything else-even physically. I mean, each person stands on the earth and looks at the world in a way that only that person could see the world.
What Defines a "Culture of Awakening"?
AC: It's obviously true that in a certain sense a liberated human being would be, and should be, a very clear example of a person who had realized his or her creative autonomy. The only point I'm trying to make is that if an individual is truly interested in awakening, then in order to take that leap into the unknown-which, as we all know, is not necessarily an easy thing to do because there is a profound existential fear of not knowing-they have to find a way to avoid the temptation of seeking solace in the belief that no matter what happened, they didn't have to worry because they were always going to remain quite unique. Quite often what we human beings are most afraid of is losing our uniqueness, precisely because, as you pointed out, this is what we hold on to in order to be able to recognize ourselves. So in order to become free, we obviously have to get to that point where we're no longer so compulsively looking to find ourselves.
SB: That's an important point, and it takes us back to the notion of what it actually means to pursue existential questions in a radical sense. What it means, of course, is to put everything up for question. And if you're not prepared to do that, then you're not really prepared to open yourself to another response to life.
AC: Absolutely true.
SB: But at the same time I think it's important to remember that it's a sequence of steps that is implied here, and initially the very possibility of making those steps depends upon the person feeling empowered to act, to take a step. Now it could be that the next step you take is one in which you then begin to radically question every assumption you have about yourself or your individuality, your personhood, and clearly, I agree that that is a very necessary part of the process, and that it is a very radical, unsettling and scary thing to do. But as I said at the beginning, one would only take that step were one confident in one's own personal power and ability, as it were, to do so. So these two things-autonomy and radical questioning-somehow go hand in hand, and for that reason I'd be reluctant to accept that there is any kind of language sufficient for all instances and all phases of the process itself. One needs to value and recognize different vocabularies, as it were, at different stages of one's engagement with this process.
I'd like to add to this another idea I believe I mentioned earlier, that of the "culture of awakening." I think there's a tendency in the West to sometimes give too much importance to the centrality of the individual embarking on a heroic quest, rather than looking from more of a historical distance and seeing that the possibility for that heroic quest rests on there being a place in the culture that values and supports it. What I see as the role of Buddhism in society-and of other traditions, too-is not as some kind of personal strategy for individuals but rather as the foundation for a culture in which such behavior is legitimized, valued, clearly articulated and encouraged in all strata of our society. And that, I think, is in many respects a far more important challenge for those of us who are engaging with these ideas today than always bringing it back again and again to the heroic individual quest. Now some people will, of course, feel that to be the prime motive for their response to their own existential or spiritual concerns, and I have no problem with that. But it does somehow exclude or put in second place those who are more concerned, perhaps, with creating structures that will give rise to a culture of awakening that will hopefully, over a much longer term, provide us with a means to transform this highly materialistic and very narcissistic culture that we live in at present into one that supports the kinds of values that we're discussing at the moment.
AC: One would think that they would go hand in hand. But unless at least a few are willing to be so heroic as to go beyond the known completely, what exactly the vision of those new structures would be couldn't become very clear-could it?
SB: Yes and no. Of course that element is crucial, without a doubt. But I think it also perhaps underestimates, or doesn't sufficiently value, the innate intuitive capacities of creative people-poets and artists and others-who may not be drawn toward that kind of intense spiritual practice but are nevertheless somehow intuitively in touch with other possibilities and forms, which, to me, also represent very legitimate forms of practice. So again, it's a question of recognizing that this awakening thing does not necessarily correspond to the model you seem to have of the heroic individual striving to let go of all of their stuff and embrace the unknown and so on as very much the solitary quest. That kind of approach, the heroic quest, is very much one that values transcendence over immanence. Clearly that's crucial, but it's important to recognize that awakening is also something immanent. It's also something that is in a sense already present in the ordinary mind. And it's there, I think, that the artist comes into his or her own. There are forms of practice, and forms of expression of these kinds of things, that are not reducible to the insights of people who've had intense transcendent spiritual experiences. I think that awakening percolates through, and is percolating through, in our time in history, in forms of culture, music, literature and art that are not even necessarily self-consciously engaged in that kind of heroic quest but are simply trying to express an intuitive kind of gut feeling of something else, something other. So I would say that a culture of awakening embraces and values both.
Autonomy or Authority?
AC: I appreciate the model that you've presented. My point, though, is that any genuine "culture of awakening" is obviously going to be defined by the realization and the deepest insights of the individuals involved, and those insights that make it a "culture of awakening"-if it really is one-are most likely to come from the individuals who've gone the farthest. But what you've said helps me to make a little more sense of the fact that despite your apparent dislike for the notion of the "solitary quest," you consider it a positive development that contemporary dharma practice, as you write in your book, "is becoming individuated," and that "in valuing imagination and diversity, such an individuated vision would ultimately empower each practitioner to create his or her own distinctive track within the field of dharma practice."
SB: That's right.
AC: What you describe there is a view that seems to be very popular these days, particularly in Buddhist circles. My question is: How could a dharma practitioner who is sincerely seeking enlightenment truly be able to create his or her own distinctive path? Isn't the evolutionary movement toward awakening a movement from the gross to the subtle, from the known to the unknown? Unless there is a profound and heartfelt willingness not to know, how could anyone ever get enlightened in the first place? Even in the relationship with a spiritual mentor-assuming, of course, that the mentor is enlightened-isn't it essential that the student be willing to submit to the mentor's guidance in order to find his or her way to the unknown-in other words, to liberation? Otherwise what we're left with is something on the order of, "Master, my inner Buddha is telling me that what suits my awakening today is to sleep in."
SB: I would cite, in this instance, the famous passage from the end of the Buddha's life, where he refuses to appoint a successor and gives expression to this whole idea of being "a lamp unto yourself," of taking the dharma as your guide-which is what speaks to my heart, as it were. But actually this discussion quite accurately reflects the whole Buddhist tradition if we look at how it tracks out historically, because it always has been caught in precisely this tension between the valuing of individual responsibility and self-reliance on the one hand, and the recognition, on the other, of the value of discipline-of giving yourself over to monastic orders, let's say, or giving yourself to the uncritical following of a teacher or a guru or a guide, whether it be a Zen master or a Tibetan lama or whatever.
Every historical phase of Buddhism has had to deal with responding to the past, to the tradition as it has been handed down, and that tension is always going to be there, and every response is going to be, to some extent, a new beginning. So while I personally find myself to be more in harmony, and more comfortable, with the path of self-reliance, I certainly wouldn't suggest that this alone is sufficient. And I value very highly the importance of giving oneself to the guidance of those who are wiser and more awake and enlightened than oneself. That, I think, is an unavoidable component, and if you take it away, then the whole thing does just become whatever you want to make of it.
AC: Exactly. And that's the question I have about the thrust of much of what you've written in your book. I feel that when push comes to shove it could too easily boil down to exactly that, because as you know, many people think they want to be free, but when they start finding out what it really entails, they often start backpedaling. It is at those times that are most critical that one often needs to be willing to take great risks in order to make that unimaginable leap into a completely different relationship to life.
SB: I think it's also a temperamental thing. I mean, some people do seem to have such a capacity for isolation and self-reliance that they have relatively little to do with communities and teachers and so on, and others have the very opposite temperament and require that sort of support as a precondition for any kind of progress along the path. But again, I wouldn't want to reduce the process to one extreme or the other. We need to recognize that in practice, it's a question of acknowledging and recognizing the shortcomings and advantages of both. And just as you can follow a very wise teacher and fall into dependency and a kind of disempowerment and a rather unhealthy reliance upon some authoritarian figure, following purely your own intuition and instincts and impulses can lead you to a kind of narcissistic absorption in your own fantasies.
AC: That's for sure.
SB: So it's a question, really, of finding a balance. I still feel, nonetheless, that the aim of the practice is freedom, and that includes freedom from being in the throes, as it were, of an authority figure to whom one endlessly defers.
AC: Even the Buddha, you mean?
SB: Yes, even the Buddha, sure.
AC: But if the Buddha was really the Buddha, would it be possible to be in that kind of a relationship with him, if he was who he is supposed to have been? I mean, would such a thing be possible?
SB: Oh, I don't know.
AC: To be disempowered in the way that you're describing?
SB: Well, yes, actually, I do think that's possible, and again, I don't want to elevate the Buddha into too much of a sort of superhuman person. He certainly was a very good organizer and probably ran a very tight ship, but what has always been telling for me are those injunctions he gave at the end of his life, where he actually said, in a sense, "Well, I've done my job. You get on with it." At that point, he rather seems to be emphasizing self-reliance over anything else. But I also think we have to see this in the context that it's somewhat dangerous to try to define what true Buddhism is, as it were, by locating it within a certain body of older texts. I see Buddhism as a 2,500-year ongoing experiment in awakening that is continuously trying out new things. It's continuously adjusting and changing, modifying, questioning what it's doing, and that to me is precisely where the richness of the tradition lies: that you can have Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism, all of which are amazingly different and yet nonetheless retain the core, the primary threads, of that which was set in motion by the historical Buddha.
The Buddha unleashed into history, as it were, a whole series of cultures of awakening, all of which would have been completely unpredictable in the Buddha's own time, each one reflecting the needs and specificities of the different situations in which the dharma found itself. So the kind of dharma that is going to emerge in our culture is not going to be like anything else that's happened before. It's going to have its own peculiar characteristics, and our challenge is to somehow keep aware of the diversity of approaches that we inherit and not allow ourselves to get drawn into one particular aspect of that and lose sight of the whole. And that, I think, is the great opportunity that we have in the West, because we can see that bigger picture perhaps better than it's ever been seen before; we can see Buddhism as an historical movement, as a series of contingent cultures.
AC: In your book, you describe the situation of being in your kitchen and then going out for some milk for your tea and coming back to drink it. Even though something like this obviously could never happen, if, when you went out for your milk one morning-and you hadn't even quite woken up yet because you still hadn't had your tea-you suddenly saw the Buddha before you with a throng of ten thousand monks, and he came up to you and said, "Stephen, your time has come. Follow me."-would you do it?
SB: Well, it's such a hypothetical question, I can't really answer. . . . I probably would, yes. . . . Yes, sure-why not?
Interview by Roger Wheeler
I first met Ajahn Sumedho at the Centre for Higher Tibetan Studies in Switzerland in the spring of 1979. He had just finished giving a ten-day course in the mountains near Berne, and was invited to spend a couple of days at the Centre by its Abbot, Geshe Rabten.
One person who attended Bhikkhu Sumedho's course liked to be around him because 'he is just such a nice guy'. It was heartening for me to see a monk who kept strictly the rules of discipline, the Vinaya, yet maintained a softness and naturalness behind his observance of them.
To illustrate Sumedho's resoluteness about the importance of practice and meditation: While we were both walking around the hillside near the Centre, overlooking the French and Swiss Alps with Lake Geneva below, he asked me whether I had a desire to return to India. I answered that I would go if it were for the purpose of improving my Tibetan. I could then return to the West and act as an interpreter for a Tibetan master or work as a translator of Tibetan texts. His only response to that was: 'Why don't you just get enlightened?'
When Ajahn Sumedho ('Ajahn' is the Thai equivalent of the Pali/Sanskrit Achariya, or 'Master') came to the Insight Meditation Society in May of 1981, he conducted an eight-day work retreat. As the following interview will show, there is nothing special that is cultivated in the meditation; there is no particular technique that is taught. One's only responsibility is to remain mindful in all activities throughout the day. Live simply, be natural and watch the mind are the keys to his practice.
During the retreat the students performed various tasks around the Centre for two hours every afternoon. Some painted, some cleaned the building, others worked in the garden. We chanted prayers every morning and evening, and I was rather surprised to see how the twenty-five participants (most of whom were new to meditation) so quickly and easily adapted to the bowing and ceremony that the two monks, Sumedho, and the young English monk, Sucitto, who accompanied him, asked them to perform.
Ajahn Sumedho inspired the retreatants with his three daily impromptu talks, and casually spent his lunch hour and the one and one-half hour tea break willingly answering their questions about Dhamma practice and entertaining them with stories about monastic life in Thailand.
What was most encouraging for me was to see that there are monks who have the determination and the motivation to maintain the purity of a tradition. Many of the questions that I raised in my paper concerning the shortcomings of conformity and blind obedience to spiritual organizations and teachers were skilfully and wisely dealt with by Ajahn Sumedho. I appreciated his humour and patience with my persistent questions concerning organised religion. His views on the values of tradition and monastic life enabled me to see this matter from a different perspective.
The following is the major part of our three interviews.
RW: What attracted you to Buddhism? What did you feel it had to offer?
AS: The path of liberation.
RW: Had you tried other paths or methods as well?
AS: At one time I was quite a devout Christian, yet I later became disillusioned with Christianity, mainly because I did not understand the teachings and was not able to find anyone who could help me to comprehend them. There did not seem to be any way to practise Christianity, other than just believing or blindly accepting what was said.
What impressed me about Buddhism was that it did not ask one merely to believe. It was a way where one was free to doubt. It offered a practical way of finding out the truth through one's own experience, rather than through accepting the teachings of other people. I realised that was the way I had to do it, because it is my nature to doubt and question, rather than to believe. Therefore, religions that asked one to accept on faith were simply out. I could not even begin to get near them.
When I discovered Buddhism, it was like a revelation for me, since I saw that one's religious inclinations could be fulfilled in this way. Previously, I felt a sense of sorrow in the fact that I knew the material world was not satisfactory for me and yet the religion I had been brought up in offered no alternative way of practice other than just blind faith. Buddhism was quite a joyous discovery.
[Ajahn Sumedho mentioned being inspired by D.T. Suzuki's books, and having encountered Buddhism in Japan while in the navy during the Korean war.]
RW: Upon completion of your naval service, did you remain in California or did you return to Asia?
AS: After I left the navy, I went back to the University of Washington to finish my bachelor's degree in Far Eastern Studies. I then went to the University of California at Berkeley for an M.A. in Asian Studies. When I completed that in 1963, I went into the Peace Corps.
RW: What attracted you to Thailand more than to Japan, for example, where Suzuki's teachings originated?
AS: Well, I was in that part of the world. Also, I remembered the cold winters of Japan. Since Thailand had such a nice, sunny climate, I felt I might as well see what it had to offer, because I dreaded having to live through those cold winters.
RW: Did you immediately go to Ajahn Chah's monastery?
AS: No, I went first to Bangkok where I practised meditation as a layman. During the mornings I taught English at Thammasat University and in the afternoons I went off to practise meditation.
I later decided to ordain, but I did not want to live in Bangkok because I did not find it very suitable for me. While I was on vacation in Laos, I met a Canadian monk who recommended that I ordain in a Thai town across the Mekong River. So, I followed his advice and ordained at a temple in Nong Kai. That year I mainly practised on my own, without a teacher. The following year I met a disciple of Ajahn Chah, a Thai monk who spoke English. He then took me to meet Ajahn Chah.
RW: And you remained at Ajahn Chah's monastery for ten years?
RW: You mentioned that it was the doubting aspect of Buddhism that attracted you to it. One was able to doubt. It very often happens that people are attracted to the Tibetan tradition because of the personality or wisdom of the teacher. Does the teacher have such a significant role in the Theravada tradition?
AS: No. They try to de-emphasize that; yet people are often attracted to teachers, which is very natural. However, the discipline itself is arranged so that one is not to adore a teacher. One keeps within the discipline by respectful attitudes and compassionate actions towards any teacher or anyone. I was not really looking for a teacher. I did not have the feeling that I needed a particular kind of teacher. Yet I had confidence in the Buddha's teaching. When I met Ajahn Chah, my confidence in him grew when I realised what a wise man he was. At first I liked him but I did not feel any great devotion. But I stayed there and I really do not know why because there were many things I did not like about the place. Yet, I just seemed to stay there... for ten years!
RS: How would Ajahn Chah instruct the disciples under him?
AS: Ajahn Chah set up a monastery which provided the opportunity for people to ordain and practise Buddhist meditation. So mainly what he offers is a place, a conducive environment.
The teaching itself is just the traditional Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths. He adheres to the Vinaya discipline. Part of the agreement to live there is that the monks adapt their behaviour to the traditional discipline. I felt that was what I needed very much. It was an opportunity to live under a convention of that kind. My background was very permissive and freewheeling and I realised that was a great weakness in my nature. I resented authority and did not know how to conform to discipline in any way. So I was quite glad to have the opportunity to do that. It was a good challenge for me and I knew that was what I needed to do. Much conceit still existed in me, wanting to live on my own terms. Ajahn Chah was very strict. We had to live on the terms established by the monastery. I learned to do that there.
Ajahn Chah does not stress method. He stresses just being aware during the day and night, being mindful and watching the impermanence of conditions as one experiences life.
During the first year while I was in Bangkok, I meditated alone. Since I understood the meditation technique, when I went to Wat Pah Pong [the name of the monastery], Ajahn Chah just encouraged me to keep doing what I had learned in Bangkok. He did not demand that I adapt my behaviour to any particular form or technique other than the Vinaya discipline of the monks.
* * * * *
RW: I would like to read to you something from Krishnamurti concerning tradition. He says: 'To carry the past over to the present, to translate the movement of the present in terms of the past destroys the living beauty of the present. There is nothing sacred about tradition, however ancient or modern. The brain carries the memories of yesterday, which is tradition and is frightened to let go because it cannot face something new. Tradition becomes our security and when the mind is secure it is in decay. One must take the journey unburdened, sweetly, without any effort, never stopping at any shrine, at any monument, or for any hero, social or religious, alone with beauty and love.'
Now, Sucitto's and your presence here has been an obvious display of the carrying on of a tradition that has been going on for over 2500 years. Concerning this quotation, I wonder if one could get too caught up in form, missing the intended purpose? Or, another way of stating it, how does one avoid getting caught up in form?
AS: Well, it is like driving a car. One could dismiss the convention of a car and say, 'I am not going to depend on that because it is from the past. So I'll just walk on my own to New York City.' Or, 'I'll invent my own car, because I don't want to copy someone else and take something that is from the past and bring it into the present.' I could do that, and maybe I would succeed. I don't know.
The point is not so much in the vehicle that is used, but in getting to New York City. Whether one goes slow or fast, one should take what is available, whatever vehicle one finds around oneself. If there isn't any, invent one, or just walk. One must do the best one can. But if there is one already around, why not learn to use it? -- especially if it is still operable.
So, tradition is like that. It is not... clinging. One can also cling to the idea that one does not need tradition, which is just another opinion or view. Quotations like that are tremendously inspiring, but they are not always very practical because one forms another opinion that traditions are wrong or harmful.
The problem, you see (I am sure Krishnamurti must realise this) does not lie in the tradition, but in the clinging. This body is a conventional form that came from the past. The language that we use, the world we live in, and the societies we are a part of are all conventional forms that were born in the past. So, one could say that one does not want anything to do with them. In that case one should stop talking completely. Krishnamurti should stop having books published.
RW: He asks his listeners, 'I don't know why you buy these books.'
AS: We live in a conventional world. It is not a matter of depending on conventions, but learning how to use them skilfully. We can use language for gossip, lying, and becoming obsessed speakers; we can become perfectionists, fuss-budgets with language. The important thing to understand is that language is communication. When I communicate something to you, I try to speak as directly and clearly as possible. It is a skill. But if my tongue were cut out, I would just learn to live without speaking -- that's all. That would not be any great sorrow, but a bit of an inconvenience -- for some things; it might be convenient for many other things.
Religious traditions are just conventions that can be used or not, according to time and place. If one knows how to use it through the tradition, one is much better off than another who does not know, who thinks that they are all just a waste of time. One can go to a Christian church, a Theravada monastery or a Synagogue, and respect, get a feeling for the convention that one finds oneself with, without feeling that it is bad or wrong. It is not up to us to decide about that. They are all based on doing good, refraining from doing evil. Therefore, if one clings to them, then one is bound to them. If one regards religion as just a convention, then one can learn how to use it properly. It is the raft that takes one across.
RW: You mentioned that traditions can be used according to the time and place. I noticed that you and Sucitto go on 'alms round' in Barre in the morning. On the one hand, I find this quite admirable. On the other hand, I wonder what kind of effect this has on a society that is not Buddhist. To the average householder, a person wearing orange or red robes could be anything from a Hare Krishna devottee to -- whatever.
Is following the tradition, at this time and in this place, doing more harm than good? Could it be offensive to these people? Would it have been offensive for me to go and listen to Krishnamurti in Saanen wearing my robes (which, in that context, I chose not to do)?
AS: Well, the intention is good, the time is now, and the place is here. Some people will be upset; some will find it very nice. In England it upsets some people, but sometimes people need to be upset. They need to be shaken a bit, because people are very complacent in these countries.
Going on alms round also attracts good people, who seem to like it. Since our intention is not to shock or harm, how my appearance affects others is their problem. I am modestly covered and am not out to lure them into any kind of relationship or harm them in any way. On the contrary; it gives them the opportunity to offer dana (charity) if they are so inclined.
In England, admittedly, most people do not understand it. Yet it seems to me that making the alms round is one of the religious conventions that is worth maintaining, because the people in countries like this have forgotten how to give. It is like putting juice back in the religious body again. It is getting monks moving within the society.
When the Buddha was a prince [before he was enlightened], he left the palace and saw four messengers who changed his life. The first one was an old man, the second was a sick person, the third was a corpse and the fourth was a monk meditating under a tree. I look at this as a message. I do not carry it around as a duty I have to perform, but just part of my life, the way I live my life. If people object and find it very wrong, if it is causing people all kinds of problems, then I will not do it. That has not happened yet.
People thought that I should not go on alms round in the village. They thought it was stupid. Some English people, as well as Buddhists, felt that we should adapt to the English customs. However, I decided to take it as it came. Rather than deciding whether or not I should adapt to the English customs, I simply brought the tradition and played it by ear. I felt it would take its own form, accordingly. If one trims the tradition down before even planting the seed, one often severs or slightens its whole spirit. The entire tradition is based on charity, kindness, goodness, morality... and I am not doing anything wrong. I may be doing things that people do not understand...
RW: In my own mind, and I imagine in the minds of others as well, the alms round might seem to be a type of clinging to form, to tradition.
AS: Then one is not being mindful. It would just be clinging to a method. Yet it is still better than what most people cling to, isn't it?
RW: I am not sure. Is it possible to place a value judgment on clinging? However how does one keep the mind awake, day and night? While performing certain rituals, chanting or on alms round, how can one avoid the repetitive, mechanical routineness of our daily existence?
AS: Daily existence is mechanical and routine. The body is mechanical and routine. Society is that way. All compounded things just keep doing the same thing over and over. But our minds do not have to be deluded by those habits anymore.
RW: Krishnamurti says that 'religious people, those who live in a monastery, in isolation, or go off to a mountain or a desert, are forcing their minds to conform to an established pattern.' You said earlier that at Ajahn Chah's monastery, you were conforming to an authority because you felt that previously...
AS: One is conforming one's bodily action to a pattern. That is all.
RW: Yes, Krishnamurti says: 'forcing the minds to a pattern.' Minds do conform to an established pattern, not just the body. They are dependent.
AS: Right. That is samatha [tranquility, concentration] practice: believing in doctrines and absorbing into conditions. But that is not the purpose of Buddhist meditation.
RW: Samatha practice is conforming to doctrines?
AS: If one believes in doctrines, the thoughts in one's mind to accept certain doctrinal teachings, and reject those which do not fit. Then there is also the samatha practice of tranquility, where one trains the mind to concentrate on an object This practice calms and steadies the mind.
RW: And you are calling that 'an established pattern'?
AS: Yes. The normal rhythm of one's breath is an established pattern that you cling and are attached to, isn't it? It gives some tranquility to the mind.
RW: One does not 'cling' to the breath. Breathing happens naturally. One might say that one observes the breath...
AS: One focuses solely on the breath. At one particular moment one is concentrating and not noticing any other object.
RW: I do not quite follow. What does that have to do with the mind habitually following dogma?
AS: Whatever is a pattern or a condition [sankhara], if one believes in that sankhara, one becomes that. If one attaches to any object, then one becomes that object. So, when one is concentrating on the normal breath, then one becomes that normal breath. Mentally, one's form takes that, one becomes one with that object for as long as the concentration lasts.
The same holds with doctrines. They are the worlds of forms, conventions and habits. One can be likened to a (doctrinal) belief in the thoughts of others, in teachings and creeds, in what other people say, in Krishnamurti (which is the problem with his disciples).
Mindfulness is not clinging. What Krishnamurti is pointing to is the awareness of the changing nature, the way things really are in the moment. But he seems to delude people by the fact that he started [teaching] from a very high place. Most people, even if they think about what he is teaching, cannot understand it.
It is something one knows through letting go -- even of believing in Krishnamurti, or of trying to figure out what he is talking about. One has to come down to a very low level of humility, what Ajahn Chah calls an earthworm, just being very simple and not expecting any results. Doing good and refraining from doing evil with body, speech and mind, and being mindful.
RW: Why do religions degenerate?
AS: Because they are only conventional truth. They are not ultimate truth.
RW: But people do not practise. They practise mechanically. When a teacher conducts a course here, the question often arises, 'Buddhism is known as a peaceful religion, and it is said that a war has never begun in the cause of Buddhism.' But look at Tibet and Cambodia. People were massacred. In Laos the monks are working in the field. One visiting Cambodian monk said that, basically, people do not practise, and that is why it falls apart, why there is so much trouble.
AS: Well, why is the world as it is? Why did they annihilate two million Cambodians? One can speculate. But the only thing that one can know is that the conditions of one's mind -- greed, hatred and delusion -- are the reflection of the world, the way it is. The world has murders, death, atrocities and destruction because we do it all the time in our minds, too.
What did you do before you ordained, or even while you are ordained? You try to annihilate a lot of things out of your mind, don't you? If you have anger, jealousy, nasty thoughts, you annihilate them, because you think that is the way to solve the problem. One annihilates that which one thinks is the cause of one's suffering.
Now apply that to a country like Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge government believed that the middle class bourgeoisie was the cause of all suffering so the government annihilated it. It works on the same principle.
Buddhist teachings are non-violent. One does not annihilate the pests, but understands that even the pests of the mind are impermanent and non-self. They will disappear on their own.
Many things that we are frightened of are really our best friends -- like fear itself. We are afraid of the unknown, but the unknown is the way to enlightenment. Not-knowing is what brings terror into people's lives. Many people spend much of their life just trying to find security in some form or another, because of fear. Fear drives them to become this, or get hold of that, to save up a lot of money, to seek pleasure or a safe place to live, or to find some ideal person they hope will make them happy forever. That is fear of being alone, fear of the unknown -- of that we cannot know. In meditation, when one is mindful, that very fear -- seeing it as it really is -- leads us into the deathless, the silence. Yet fear is something that we react to very strongly.
So, if one cannot be at peace with the pest of one's mind, one cannot very well expect a stupid government like the Khmer Rouge, or most elements of the world, to be any better. We have no right to point the blame at such things as big as society. To find fault with America -- that is easy to do -- or with Cambodia or Tibet... because the monks did not practise hard enough or the Cambodian people were not good Buddhists... that is a bit silly, actually.
What are you doing about it? That is what I am saying. I cannot help Mr.Pol Pot's screwed-up version of the world. How he intended to solve the problem was idiocy. But I have seen that very same idiocy in myself: the desire to wipe out that which I do not like or that which I think is the cause of the world's or my own suffering. That is where one can see what the problem arises from. One can say, 'Oh, the monks weren't good enough', but that is not fair, really.
[The next question was not recorded].
AS: I have had a very fortunate experience with a Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, and I see what a very happy, tolerant and harmonious being he is. Of course, many of his disciples do not understand what he is teaching, either. Yet he certainly makes it all very clear and offers them every occasion to practise and find out.
When one talks about dukkha [suffering], the first noble truth, one is not talking abstractly about dukkha out there, that exists as some sort of nameless thing. I am talking about that very feeling in one, in here [points to himself], that does not feel quite happy or feels a bit upset, worried, discontented, insecure, or ill-at-ease. One experiences the first noble truth within oneself.
One is not pointing to dukkha as some sort of vague thing that hovers over the world. If one really looks at one's mind, one finds discontentment, restlessness, fear and worry. That is something one can see oneself. One does not have to believe. It would be idiocy to say 'I believe in the first noble truth', or, 'I don't believe in the first noble truth. I believe that everything is wonderful.' It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving, but rather one looks inside and asks oneself, 'Do I always feel wonderful and happy? Is life just a constant source of joy and gaiety? Or do I sometimes feel depression, doubt, fear, etc?'
Just speaking from my own experience, I could very much see the first noble truth. It was not that I wanted a more depressing ideology to accept. I recognised that there was fear, uncertainty and uneasiness in myself. Yet the first noble truth is not a doctrine. It is not saying 'life is suffering', but rather it is just saying, 'there is this'. It comes and goes. It arises (the second noble truth), it ceases (the third noble truth), and from that understanding comes the eight-fold path (the fourth noble truth), which is the clear vision into the transcendence of it all -- through mindfulness. The eight-fold path is just being mindful in daily life.
RW: Yet mindfulness itself is not a wholesome factor.
AS: Neutral. It does not belong to anybody. It is not something one is lacking; it is not a personal possession.
RW: There are wholesome and unwholesome mental factors, and there are factors which are always present, like mindfulness. Mindfulness is not innately good.
AS: It is awareness of good and evil as change. By using the wisdom factor of discriminating alertness (satipanna), one sees the conditions of good and evil as impermanent and not-self. This mindfulness liberates one from the delusion that these conditions tend to give.
RW: I would like to return for a moment to the role of tradition. Do you feel that adherence to a particular tradition would naturally tend to separate one from another tradition that has a certain set of values?
AS: Well, on the level of convention, everything is separate anyway. You are separate from me as a person, as a body. That can only be solved when we merge by developing wisdom. With conventional form there is only separation. There will always be men and women and innumerable religious conventions. These are all on the level of sense perception, which is always discriminative and separative. It cannot be otherwise. Yet if one is mindful, those very conventions take one to the deathless, where we merge. There is no 'you' or 'me' there.
RW: 'Deathless' -- how do you use that term?
AS: It just means that which is never born and never dies. There is nothing more one can say, really, because words are birth and death.
RW: Could one say that the deathless is synonymous with the end of clinging and grasping?
AS: Non-attachment to mortal conditions.
RW: I find it more the case than the exception that when belonging to a group, there is a tendency to feel secure, and to condemn, belittle or speak condescendingly to those who do not share one's own religious beliefs or philosophical dogma. I was quite concerned about these matters when I left the Centre in Switzerland... How does one overcome this feeling of separation, form versus the essence? How can one be free from getting enmeshed in form, whether it be in a study or meditative environment?
AS: Well, just be enlightened. It would solve all your problems.
RW: Thanks a lot.
AS: One has to make the best of all these things. Even here [at the Insight Meditation Society] the meditation is kind of spoon-fed. It is like sitting in a high chair and having your mommy come and dish it to you on a little plate. It is idealistic. For meditators there is hardly any friction; everything is secure and provided.
In places like Tharpa Choeling [the Tibetan Centre in Switzerland] there is more friction, much more to forgive, much more confusion to the mind. Chithurst is a good example of being neither the best nor the worst place. It is adequate. Some people will make use of it, some will not. I do not want it to be too perfect or ideal, because people need friction. Otherwise they become complacent and dull. One has to give people space to work through their biases and hang-ups.
In my own life I saw how I became attached to the teacher, the tradition and the rules. If one is serious and watching dukkha, then one begins to see that and let it go. That does not mean one has to throw away the tradition; it just means that one can be at ease with it.
I enjoy monasticism. I like being a monk. I think it is a very lovely way to live as a human being. But if it does not work anymore, when the time comes to end it -- it will end. That is it. It does not matter that much.
Yet there is no need to throw away the ordination either. I have grown because of it. I have not as yet seen a better way to live one's life. So I stay with this one until it is time to change. When the time for change comes, it will have to come on its own. It is not up to me to decide, 'Well, I'm fed up with this. I'm going to try something else.'
One can see the whole tenor of the life of a monk is very good. It is harmless, it is honourable; it is useful in society too. I know how to use it. I can teach through this tradition. I can teach people how to use the tradition, which I think is a good thing to know how to use. One can learn how to use conventions instead of just rejecting them.
If I give you a knife, you can use it for good or bad. It is not the knife's problem, is it? If you use it to murder me, would you say, 'The knife is bad'? The knife might be a very good knife, a well-made and useful tool. The same with the Theravada or Tibetan tradition; it is learning how to use them skilfully -- and that is up to you!
One has to recognise that Asian teachers come from a society (Tibet, for example) where everything is more or less taken for granted. They have been raised in a society that thinks and lives Buddhism. Whether they are devout or not does not make any difference. Nevertheless, it affects their whole outlook on themselves and the world. Whereas you come from a country which is materialistic, and where the values -- based on greed and competition, and trust and faith in conceptual learning -- have affected your mind. Our faith in America is in books, isn't it? In universities. In science. In conceptual learning. In being reasonable.
RW: Do you find that type of learning to be invalid? Or can that also be used properly?
AS: No. Right. It is learning how to use things like that correctly, with wisdom. Nothing in the universe is a waste. It is all perfect. There is nothing in it that needs to be rejected or added. There is nothing wrong, really.
One is looking for perfection, yet it is in the imperfect where most people go wrong. If one is looking for perfection in a Buddhist teacher or in a Buddhist tradition, one will be greatly disillusioned by it. If one looks for perfection in Krishnamurti or in anyone, or in the perfection of one's own body and the conditions of one's mind... it is not possible! One cannot force the mind to think only good thoughts, or to be always compassionate and kind, without giving rise to even an impulse of aversion or anger.
The mind is like a mirror -- it reflects. So the wise man knows the reflections as reflections, and not as self. Reflections do not harm the mirror at all. The mirror can reflect the filthiest conditions and not be dirtied by it. And the reflections change. They are not permanent.
Filth and dirt also play an important part. Hatred and all the nasty things in one's mind are like manure. Manure stinks. It is not nice and one is not happy to be around it. Yet it does give a lot of good nourishment to the roots of the plants so that they will have beautiful flowers. If one is able to look at the manure and see it for what it is, rather than saying, 'Ugh, get it out of there! I don't want anything to do with it', then one can appreciate its value.
Even hatred is Dhamma teaching us that it is impermanent and not-self. Everything takes us into the ultimate truth, through seeing that whatever arises passes away. So even the dirtiest thought in one's mind is just that; it is merely that condition changing. If one does not resist or indulge, it arises up from the void and goes back into the void. It is perfect. There is nothing that is wrong and that is why there is nothing to fear.
If one starts trying to think of ways to change the world so that it will be perfect, one will become very bitter and disappointed. People get very upset when I say that, because they think that I am just not going to do anything. What needs to be done, I am doing. What does not need to be done, I leave undone.
Just this condition: One does good and refrains from doing evil. That is all I can be responsible for. I cannot make the world (my concept of world) anything other than it is. That concept of world will change as we arouse wisdom within ourselves. We will then be able to look at the world as it is, rather than believe in the world as we think it is.
The truth is not Buddhist. It is not that Buddhists have any special insight into the truth. It is just that it is a way that works.
* * * * *
RW: You mentioned that the emphasis at Ajahn Chah's monastery is on the maintaining of the Vinaya, the monks' discipline. Do any of his monks study scripture: the Abhidhamma for example? Does he find that necessary or place any importance on study at all?
AS: The monks do study. There exist for monks the governmental examinations, of which one can take up to three levels. Ajahn Chah encourages the monks to take these examinations, which are a basic intellectual understanding of the Dhamma and Vinaya. So he encourages the monks to do that much.
Ajahn Chah will send those monks, who have the inclination and aptitude for learning the Pali language, to a special monastery where the language is taught. However, he does not go out of his way to encourage that because he realises it is not necessary to know Pali grammar in order to attain enlightenment.
It is a very individual thing. One cannot make just one suit of clothes to fit everyone. However, the general pattern encouraged at the monastery is to develop one's mindfulness while living under the Vinaya discipline.
RW: Does Ajahn Chah expect his monks to teach at one point or another?
AS: When they are ready, he has them start teaching.
RW: Then, most or all of the monks will one day teach?
AS: It also depends on the monk. Some monks cannot teach; they just do not have that kind of ability -- that is, in a structured way. Some teach in other ways, just by their living example.
RW: You said earlier that you had many difficulties when you were at Wat Pah Pong. What were they? Of course, in the beginning you could not speak the language at all. I am sure that was a big one.
AS: Well, it is just a strange culture and language. In that situation one has to give up practically everything that one is accustomed to in one's own life.
RW: How did you deal with that?
AS: I just did it, actually. I do not quite know how to say how I dealt with it. If one wanted to stay and learn from that place, one just did what one had to do. I managed to change my ways to adapt to their ways.
The Thai monks were always very kind. It was not a place where people made things difficult for one. There was always generosity and kindness. It was just getting used to doing things in different ways, eating strange food and speaking a different language.
RW: Sometimes, when people from two different cultures meet, a kind of cultural arrogance may arise from one side or the other, or both. Did you encounter this?
AS: Well, yes. The Thai people have feelings like anyone else about their culture and society. However, we all shared in common living in a monastery, where the emphasis is not on cultural inheritance but rather on the Buddha's teaching. So the cultural differences did not seem to be of any great significance to anyone.
I was much more sophisticated than they were. I had travelled a great deal and had lived in different places and knew much more about the world in general. Their superiority to me was in their ability to live so well and to coordinate in the only tradition that they knew. Oftentimes I felt very clumsy and foolish, like a very oafish person, because I did not tend to have the physical coordination or agility in bodily action that they had.
RW: We were talking the other day about traditions and routines, and how a complacent attitude may arise towards one's practice. There is often the tendency for a young monk to be very strict about his vows and to keep a strict discipline. Later one finds one is not really digging in or doing the practice seriously. One tends to become mechanical in one's actions and maybe that will to discover the truth becomes stifled by the weight of the organisation or the tradition. Did you find that kind of degeneration at Wat Pah Pong?
AS: Well, I did not find it for myself, because I had plenty of motivation on my own -- and I did not let any tradition stop me. Yet I could see that some monks were not very motivated. They were in it just because it is their tradition. Therefore, they tend to sink into habitual living as a monk.
Ajahn Chah is quite an expert at pushing people out of ruts. Yet he cannot keep doing that all the time. One cannot expect him to play nursemaid to all the monks. I think he did that very much at first. I noticed that he now takes it all much easier and leaves it pretty much up to the monk to develop. That is the way it should be. This is a very mature practice. The teacher should not be constantly called up to prod and arouse the students. We should do that ourselves. Yet there are Thai and Western monks who just seem to sink into habits. They would do that anywhere they were. They do not have that 'urgency' in their lives.
RW: I think you are poking fun at me... Krishnamurti says, 'The guru's role is to point out. Finished. Then let the person learn. If he inquires, he will find out. But if you tell him everything, then you are treating him just like a child. There is no meaning to it.'
AS: Right, right.
RW: In your position as abbot, how would you instruct your monks to prevent the possibility of taking things for granted, especially receiving charity from lay supporters? How do you advise them to guard against things becoming routine, matter of fact, secure; the feeling that it is just a nice, comfortable life?
AS: Well, it is not exactly a comfortable life. In England the problem does not lie in sinking into a routine, because there is no tradition there to sink into. It is new and fresh. So, it is not a case that one can really sink into anything.
In England there is not the security that there is in a Buddhist country. Life as a monk in Britain is risky, a chance; it is not guaranteed. One then needs to be much more alert, whereas in Thailand one can take it all for granted because it is so established and secure there.
All one can do is to encourage and keep reminding people -- because they forget. But how they develop is really up to them. As they say, 'you can take a horse to water...' And that is all one can do.
RW: Yet for some people there might be a gap between their own tendencies and inclinations, and the ideology that they are following. How can that gap be bridged?
AS: That is why one has to allow people space. That is the real value of the monastic life. One has to allow people time and the opportunity to develop, rather than to expect them to make great changes all at once. Some people understand immediately; for others it will take years. That does not mean that one will teach only the ones who understand immediately -- they do not need to be taught very much!
One can also provide in the monastery a place for people to live at least a good life in a wholesome way. Eventually something will filter down to them. At least it is good kammically. One is not doing any harmful actions. That kind of environment encourages one to do good and refrain from doing evil. It is a moral environment. The emphasis is on paying attention, being alert, and watching; confronting one's life as one experiences it, looking at it, and learning from it.
How determined and resolute one is in that practice is an individual matter. Some are very quick, others are very slow; some are neither quick nor slow. In the monastery one can allow for the fast and slow. It is not that one is selecting only the best, the quick ones. The advantage of having a monastic community is to have the opportunity for many beings to develop. Some may not ever be enlightened but at least they can develop harmlessness in their lives.
In Thai monasteries, sometimes very 'heavy' people ordain, criminals and the like. Monastic life is a refuge for them where they are all the time encouraged to do good. Whether they attain enlightenment or not, who knows? At least it is a more skilful way of dealing with these types of people (who have enough faith that they would ordain) than to lock them up. Some monks tell of their past, which can be quite shocking. When one asks them why they ordained, they answer: 'I have faith in the Buddha's teaching and it is the only way that I can break from my old ways and habits.' In worldly life they tend to get pulled back into their old patterns.
RW: You would not think, then, that a community of monks would be like a crutch or a bondage, preventing a person from growing?
AS: No. Anything can be a crutch or a bondage. It all depends on whether one uses it or leans on it. People think that having crutches is bad. Crutches themselves are not bad. Sometimes we need them.
Imagine saying to a new-born baby, 'You have two legs. Get up and walk! I'm not going to pick you up, feed you or do anything for you. You're now in the world. You have to learn to take care of yourself!' The baby is just not ready yet. Understanding the situation, one feeds it and takes care of it.
As soon as the baby starts crawling, one would not say, 'If you depend on crawling, you are going to crawl the rest of your life and never get anywhere. Get up and walk!' But the baby cannot. He is not ready. He is not strong enough.
By crawling and waving his arms and legs, pulling himself up on the chair, and mommy taking his hand, etc., he is developing strength and growing until it is time to take his first step. When he starts to walk on his own, he does not want to use crutches anymore, naturally. When children learn to walk independently they throw away their crutches. They do not want to hold mother's hand anymore.
In the spiritual path, too, sometimes crutches and refuges are deliberately provided for strengthening. When one is strong enough, one starts walking independently.
RW: You gave the analogy of a baby crawling, developing slowly, gradually. A person who is within the system, just conforming to the pattern of it without really digging in -- how can that system or organisation help to shake him out of the rut he is in... Well, I am just talking about myself, you know... Sometimes I feel it is necessary to make a break for the sole purpose of shaking up what can be a complacent life-style.
AS: Life itself is ever-changing. It is not that structures and conditions themselves change. Some monks have to disrobe and leave. Some, after years, find nothing in it for themselves and seek something else to do. All that one can ask them to do is to try to be as honest as possible about their intentions. Each individual has to work out his own life...
If someone feels one has had enough of monastic life and wants to do it another way, that is quite alright; it is one's choice. But one should be honest about one's intentions rather than just using an excuse. That is important. The only thing that is not nice to hear is when someone leaves [the monastic order] but is not honest about why one is leaving. One may justify one's leaving by putting down the tradition. Yet sometimes people leave for justifiable serious doubts.
RW: As Abbot of Chithurst, how do you advise your monks to view ceremonies and rituals that might seem rather remote to the actual practice?
AS: I personally like rituals. They are quite pleasant to do; they are calming. One does them with a group of people. It is doing something that is pleasant, together and in unison. The intention is always good: to radiate kindness and to chant the teachings of the Buddha in Pali. It tends to uplift and inspire the minds of many people. That is its only function as far as I can tell.
I think ceremony makes life much more beautiful. I have seen Dhamma communities which do not have ceremonies. They are a bit gross, actually.
AS: Gross. People just do not have a sense of etiquette, a kind of refinement, a lovely movement, a sense of time and place that one has when one understands the value of precepts and ceremonies. They have their beauty.
The bhikkhu form is a kind of dance one does. One learns to move. It has its own beautiful form, which is a way of training the physical form in beautiful movement, the mental and the physical combined. However, it is not an end in itself. It can become silly if it is an end in itself. And it is not necessary, either. If it does not fit or if people do not want it, then one just does not use it. It is something one can use or not use according to time and place.
If one has never used ceremony or does not understand its purpose, then when one is faced with a ceremony, one might reject it, thinking, 'I don't like it', or 'ceremonies are wrong'. But they aren't! There is nothing wrong with ceremonies, they are quite alright to have. To feel one should not have ceremonies is just as much an opinion as to feel one should. It is not a matter of having to say one should or should not have them. They are a part of our tradition, so we use them if they are appropriate. If they are not appropriate, we do not use them. It is a matter of knowing, rather than of having opinions about it.
RW: How do you view your role as abbot? How do you see yourself as a figure of authority at Chithurst?
AS: Well, I really do not think about it. I act very much like the abbot. It is my nature to appreciate dignity and hierarchical structures. I do not find those unbearable. Actually, I find [the role of abbot] great fun. It is a pleasant position to be in. It has its disadvantage in the sense that one gets everything thrown at oneself.
Yet I quite like serving others, too. I like to go back and be number ten in the line. In Thailand it was very nice to be nobody, without always having to be up in front of everybody.
However, our training is to adapt, not to choose. It was not easy to be an abbot at first. It was difficult for me to accept that position because many feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt arose. So I penetrated it. I worked with these feelings, making them my meditation to the point where my position became easy for me. I adapted to the position rather than believing the thoughts, 'Oh, I'm not ready for this', or 'I don't want to do this'. Becoming attached to the role of abbot would also be an easy thing to do; that is, taking oneself to be someone important.
If one is mindful, one is checking and watching; these things are just the changing conditions of samsara. Sometimes one is the abbot, sometimes the servant -- everything is changing. If one has no preferences, then one has no suffering when conditions change. But if one is determined not to be an abbot or to take a position of responsibility, then when conditions arise where one is supposed to do that, one suffers.
On the other hand, if one wants to be someone important, but is only number ten in the line, one also suffers, because of feeling resentful and jealous of those who are above oneself. So one also has to watch for that.
The point of Buddha's teaching is to have that awareness of suffering. Everyone suffers, so we all have to watch this. It is not to choose any position in the line as 'mine'. One has to be able to move up or down or stay, depending on time and place.
RW: How did you meditate on this 'inadequacy' that you felt? How did you confront that?
AS: I just watched. I just brought up and listened to the complaining, whining conditions of my mind that kept nagging, 'I'm not ready' ...
RW: Again, during this morning's meditation anger and resentment were arising. This time I just let it come, watched it, looked at it... arising and passing... without identifying with it, without getting caught up in it. And it went (and will surely come back again!) Is that all the practice is: a continuous, steady, constant watching of the arising and passing away of phenomena?
AS: It is just awareness.
RW: And these hindrances will just peter out, dissolve after some time?
AS: Right. If one is not acting on it, the habit will just fade away.
RW: But even though one is not acting on it, because the propensity or tendency is present for a particular mental disturbance to arise, is there not action being created from that?
AS: One cannot help the conditions that are present which make that delusion arise in one's mind. One of two actions may follow: either one reacts by getting caught up in the action or one represses it.
If one tends to repress the unpleasant, listen to the guilt or self-hatred. Bring up the mood, 'Oh, I'm hopeless, stupid, I can't do anything right, I'm wasting my life...' Just listen to it! Keep bringing it up and listening to it. One sees it by skilfully bringing it up and looking at it. And it goes away. Otherwise one tends just to repress it.
RW: Even though the delusion or emotion is not arising at the time, because one knows that it is a predominant condition that causes one continuous agitation, does 'bringing it up' simply mean letting it arise?
AS: I would even go seek it. About seven or eight years ago I had a problem of jealousy. I hated the jealousy. I had the insight that jealousy was a problem so I tended to try to annihilate it. When that condition would arise I would think, 'Oh God, here it is. I've got to try to deal with this now. What do I do?' Well, one is supposed to have sympathetic joy (mudita) for those of whom one is jealous. So I would think, 'I'm really happy for so-and-so. I'm really happy he's successful.' But I did not mean a word of it. I was just lying through my teeth. It was not solving the problem. I would repress it, annihilate it, and it would always come back bashing on me.
Finally, I realised that the problem was not with jealousy, but with my aversion to it. I just hated myself for having that. I felt I should not have that condition; I was ashamed of it.
When I had that insight I started being jealous of everything. I started bringing it up, thinking of everything that made me jealous. I kept looking at it. After doing that for some time, the problem was no more there.
Lust is something we have greed for, it is something we enjoy. One does not have to keep bringing up lust to look at, because one will get lost in it; it is too easy to absorb into lust.
However, emotions like anger and jealousy are a nasty kind of experience for me. I simply do not like them and do not want them. So instead of pushing them away, I had to bring them to me, just so I could see them.
I deliberately thought of past experiences with jealousy; I just brought up all the memories that that particular problem caused. I did not analyse it and try to figure out 'Why?', but simply looked at the impermanent nature of it. This movement toward neutralised the habit I had developed of pushing away. Then there was no more problem.
That is why wisdom (panna) is necessary. When one understands the movements of attraction and aversion, then one really knows how to practise. Finding the balance between drawing near and pushing away comes from trusting the wisdom here [points to his heart]. I am just giving a guide to consider using. See if it works!
RW: How do your monks relate to you? Is it a similar type of relationship as you had with Ajahn Chah?
AS: The monks who are now with me are quite respectful. They are a very good Sangha. I have had on occasion monks who gave me difficulties. But one learns from that also. Difficult monks who do not like or respect one can teach one an awful lot. They cause friction.
RW: But could that not cause problems in the Sangha?
AS: Well, we learn to deal with problems rather than create ideal environments.
RW: How would you advise one of your monks if he had qualms about following certain precepts? For example, if one of the monks felt it would be better to don layman's clothes instead of wearing the robes when going into London?
AS: We would never wear lay clothes.
RW: Then, no advice is necessary.
AS: Unthinkable. But generally, it is a very individual thing. One has to take into account many things. However, the whole point is to get the monk to know his intention, to know what he is doing, rather than forcing, compelling or conditioning people.
We are just using these particular customs and traditions as a standard of reflection, as a way of looking at ourselves. It is not a matter of making everybody obey the rules, but to try to arouse the honour in a person, to be responsible for his conduct in the community and in the world. One can make people, out of fear, obey rules. They would be afraid to break them because they would be caught, chastised and humiliated. But that is not arousing integrity and honour in a man.
On the other hand, one does not want to make it lax, either, letting everyone just do what he wants. One wants a kind of strictness, an impeccable standard, from which one can learn. Otherwise, people tend to think, 'Oh well, the robes don't make any difference', 'Oh well, eating in the afternoon is ok', 'Oh well, carrying money is alright'. One can rationalise anything.
There are good reasons for breaking all the rules as far as I can see. What if a family next door is starving to death? Why should I not be able to go steal a loaf of bread from a rich man to give it to them? There is always a good reason to justify the action. So it is not the rationalising that we are trying to develop, but the sense of honour and wisdom. That can only be done by conditioning them through fear, binding them to a set of rules that are so inflexible and rigid that they just become rats in a maze.
RW: I used to think that Theravada monks interpreted the vows very literally. Yet when I observe you and Bhikkhu Sucitto, I see that the Vinaya can be used as a lesson in the development of mindfulness. That is all it is.
AS: Right. It is really quite a good vehicle.
RW: But as you mentioned, precepts can become a neurotic discipline.
AS: Right. At first it has to be like an exercise. One trains oneself. When one learns to play the piano, it is not possible to start with the variations of themes. First one must learn the themes. In the beginning one needs to develop skill and become coordinated. One has to do repetitious things, like sitting for hours, until one acquires the skill. One can then play the standard themes simply by following. Eventually, as skill increases, one does not have to follow or imitate anymore. It is natural. Then one can play the variations, and it becomes a joy to listen to. But if one tries to play variations before one knows the theme, it can become very unpleasant -- for everybody.
That is why Vinaya discipline is like piano exercises. The first few years are boring. One has to listen to it over and over: everything has to be done in a certain way. Although it all looks a bit fussy and irrelevant to anything grand, once one learns how to do it, one does not have to think about it, wondering, 'Should I press this key or that one?' It is automatic. One already has the skill with that particular instrument. From that point on, one is free from it; one can use it.
Some monks, like piano players, just play the standard theme over and over because they are afraid to let go of the standard. They are not confident; they lack wisdom; they have only conditioned themselves. The point of the Vinaya is not to condition one but to give one complete freedom -- not freedom to follow desire but freedom to be spontaneous. One can only do this through wisdom and not through desire. One cannot be spontaneous with desire; one just becomes overwhelmed by it.
The Vinaya is a way of training body and speech, of giving them beauty and form, and of establishing relationship with others. For example, many people criticise the rules concerning women: 'Why can't monks touch women?'; 'Why can't monks be alone in a room with a woman?'; 'Why can't I have a woman up here and talk to her alone in a private interview?'; 'What is it about women? -- Was Buddha a male chauvinist pig?' Questions like this often come up. It is a matter of establishing a proper relationship so that the Dhamma can be taught. (Most women here have forgotten how nature works. The female attracts the male. It is a natural condition).
Also, if I have a woman up here in the room, even though thinking 'I don't have a problem with lust anymore', how would that look to others? If Bhikkhu Sucitto sees a naked woman walking out of my room... well, it looks bad. It is a way of protecting women, of keeping their reputation from being gossiped about.
Moreover, women often fall in love with teachers and figures of authority. For monks who are still very attracted to women, women have a tremendous power to draw them in, especially if the women are discussing their own personal problems. One can easily get emotionally caught up in that.
Buddha did not say that a monk cannot teach women. He said that a monk should establish a relationship in which teaching can be given. This I have found very helpful in training the monks at Chithurst. There are no scandals or problems there. When women come, they know the conditions for instruction and accept them. Therefore, the teaching of the Dhamma can be given without emotional involvement and all kinds of gossipy problems.
Many bhikkhus in England, both Thai and Western, have lost their reputation due to their laxity with regard to women. That is a very strong natural force. When I went to England, I also thought it would be a problem. I felt that Western women were going to hate and resent the regulations. But they do not. When they understand them, they respect them very much. Our four nuns at Chithurst are more meticulous than we are. They are very careful about the Vinaya because they really want to do it correctly.
In our monastic community there is no jealousy about women. Such as, Venerable Sucitto has a girl friend or favours one of the nuns! Situations like this, where jealousy arises is a traditional world problem, isn't it? Men fighting over women is a natural condition, too, This kind of training avoids those difficulties.
RW: You teach everyone equally, don't you?
AS: Yes. In Chithurst the nuns are very much a part of the monastic community. They come to all the functions and have the same training.
* * * * *
RW: Do you feel that Westerners are more suitable to the satipatthana practice than to the study of philosophical analysis?
AS: Satipatthana is the whole point of the Buddha's teaching. One need not spend much time reading about it. I certainly do not feel it is necessary [to study], even though it is quite alright to do that. I have nothing against it.
However, some people feel inclined toward scholarship and approach the practice in that way. I can only speak from my own experience. I felt that just the basic training was enough: the Four Noble Truths and the satipatthana practice. I needed the Vinaya discipline and the satipatthana practice in order to know the Buddha's teaching through experience rather than through theory. Otherwise, it is like reading maps all the time without going anywhere.
RW: In Tibet, however, the practice seemed to develop quite differently. There was much memorisation of root texts and commentaries, and the debating upon them.
AS: Not having been born or lived in Tibet, I cannot very well speak for a Tibetan. Yet they obviously must have their reasons for their ways. I can only speak of my own experience. But to this day, the idea of spending years just studying about the Dhamma... I would not do it. I just would not! To me it is like reading cookbooks without preparing any meals.
RW: I mentioned to you about the Lam-rim: a systematic outline of the Buddha's sutra teaching. It is a graduated series of meditations that is taught as a method for attaining liberation. By studying and integrating it in one's mind, habituating the teachings to one's thinking, investigating though critical analysis -- do you feel this approach can cut through mental distortions?
AS: I really cannot say. I just don't know about it. I have never tried it out.
RW: I find the Lam-rim to be an excellent framework for the satipatthana practice. Having taken a number of courses here during these past six months, it is possible to do the sitting and walking practice, but I wonder if there is a deep understanding of what one is doing and why one is doing it. A conceptual framework can give one a good basis for understanding what the practice is all about. The reflective meditations are also a good motivating force, helping one to understand the rarity and meaning of having taken a human form, its impermanent nature, and the sufferings of cyclic existence.
AS: I agree. This type of study is very good. I cannot see why the two cannot go together. I cannot see myself just studying it without doing it. In Thailand I have seen monks study and learn Pali for forty years, not doing the actual practice, and then even disrobing. But that is their problem.
The fact is that one does not need to know an awful lot. The teaching is so simple. That is why for many people the practice is enough. Yet I also seriously doubt whether people understand the point of the walking and sitting practice. It is still rather spoon-fed when people are dependent upon being told what to do and having everything arranged for them.
When I now read the Suttas and Abhidhamma, I can understand them. I know what is being said. Before I practised meditation, I read many of the texts but just could not understand what they really meant. When one is practising, one is actually taking the teachings of the Buddha and really looking at oneself. When one investigates the nature of suffering, one is not taking someone else's definition but is looking at the experience in here [points to himself]. The Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path and Dependent Origination all become very clear when one meditates upon them.
I do not want to be quoted on any opinions because they are just that. I can only speak from my experience. Some people seem to be able to get great benefits from studying Abhidhamma. Now I have just no interest in Abhidhamma as a subject that I would study.
RW: In Tibet, the study of Abhidhamma came last on the list. However, the process of debate, as a skilful means for sharpening the mind -- two people confronting each other in a quick, concentrated exchange -- is like taking a dull knife (the mind) and sharpening it so that it can then be used as a sword to cut through ignorance.
Presumably, many Tibetans have attained realisations through using philosophical analysis as a tool to prepare their minds for meditation. The Gelug tradition, however, is often ridiculed by the other three sects of Tibetan Buddhism for its heavy emphasis on study. For those who are capable of pursuing such a system of learning, it seems quite valuable.
AS: In your life here at the Insight Meditation Society, you will find your Tibetan tradition to be more meaningful and useful if you learn to use it and have more confidence in it. So do not be just blindly attached to the satipatthana practice. You are already established in a tradition and trained in it. So when you have had enough of sitting and walking...
Chanhphy Panyano Manivong
My past ten years involvement with the Buddhist Discussion Centre (Upwey) Ltd.
I came to visit the Buddhist Discussion Centre (Upwey) Ltd. on 21st March 1991, the date of my birthday. I was invited to stay and did so for one week's meditation practice. No talking, and abstinence of all food was part of this practice.
When I awoke in the fragrant surrounds of the Centre, I walked with my monk's bowl around the garden, and was offered food and sustenance by the Heavenly Devas.
I would then walk to the Wooden Dragon Buddha, which was facing the Eastern Gate, where water offerings had been placed by Dhamma practitioners. I sat down in front of the Dragon Buddha and used this water to clean the Sangha bowl, and drink the contents. This was heaven food for the monk who wishes to do the right thing in the future and stop suffering.
I turned my attention to the fact that Australia is new to the teachings of the Buddha, and what I could do to sustain and build the good things for this Buddha Sasana, for the benefit of all beings in this country. Why? Because Buddhism is newly born in this country.
The Buddhist Discussion Centre (Upwey) Ltd. was officially inaugurated in 1980.
The Centre had acquired numerous Buddhist artifacts, icons and statues, but I felt the need to offer more to help the people remember and practice Dhamma.
The fact also that Australia is a multicultural country directed my efforts in acquiring these Buddhist statues from various Buddhist cultures around the world, which is in line with the multicultural, non-discriminatory policy and culture of the Centre.
The genuine enthusiasm to learn the Buddha Dhamma by the people of Australia in general and the students, pleased and encouraged me to help leverage the efforts of the Centre by upgrading and expanding the resources available for practice.
The many overseas and local Buddhists who visit this Centre regularly recognise their own Thai, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Japanese or other Buddhist cultural artifacts presented within this Centre, and so feel at home, honoured, and at ease.
My first gift was to offer approximately 20 chairs, so it would be easier for students to sit in the garden and listen to the Dhamma.
I later traveled overseas and taught the Dhamma in many different countries. I taught persons of many nationalities, including Laotians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sri Lankans, Cambodians and Australians.
The Chinese people have a strong belief in Quan Yin. The Thai and Sri Lankans are strong believers in the Walking Buddha. Therefore, my first gift was a Quan Yin, and then a Walking Buddha, 110 cm and 120 cm high respectively, both made of bronze.
I returned from overseas to visit and pay respect to the founder, John Hughes, on his birthday 9th September 1993, and offered the Walking Buddha to the Sangha on behalf of John, so that the merit and blessings would keep him safe, healthy, and have a long life.
I again returned overseas. More Vietnamese people visited the Centre. The Vietnamese people are strong believers of Buddha Was Born. I then ordered and brought the Buddha Was Born image to the Centre. This statue weighed 359 kg, was 110 cm high, cast of bronze, overlaid with gold paint and cost AUD $ 13 000. It also had seven lotus steps accompanying the image, also cast of bronze, overlaid with gold paint, and each weighing 50 kg.
I returned overseas in 1998 and brought back the Dragon Buddha statue. This image was 550 cm high and 120 cm wide, and weighed over half a ton. It cost AUD $ 16 000, and was made of bronze and painted gold.
An additional AUD $ 500 was donated for the roof and maintenance of the Bodhi tree and the protective surrounds, and a donation of AUD $ 200 towards the upgrading of the Centre's electrical system, and 6 cans of gold paint valued at AUD $ 85 each, were also given.
In 2000, the Centre's students, under the guidance of their teacher, constructed a Stupa in the garden. I was happy to donate AUD $ 3500 towards the bronze roof construction. Included in this donation was AUD $ 300 donated by Jocelyn Hughes, and AUD $ 200 donation by Vanessa McLeod.
Further on, I came into possession of 1500 Buddha relics, of which I gave 69 to the Centre.
In the year 2001, I donated the Reclining Buddha, which cost AUD $ 18 000. The length of this image is 150 cm and it weighs over 400 kg, is cast of bronze, and is copper in colours. Pam Adkins kindly donated AUT $ 300 towards this gift.
Returning to earlier days, 1991, I wrote the book entitled "The Way Your Are Looking For". This was a difficult process, as my English was not extensive. John Hughes helped in translating this book to English, correcting many of the grammatical errors, but it still wasn't perfect. This was not John's fault, but my lack of understanding of the conversion of Pali and Lao texts into English. The pressure of time in which to publish was also a major factor to the lack of grammatical editing.
Once published, I gave the Centre 2500 copies, which they could sell to visitors or others, for AUD $ 12 each. All monies were used to help fund and run the Centre.
" "The Buddha Dharma For You" (200 copies donated to the Centre)
" "The Emptiness You Are Looking For" (250 copies donated to the Centre)
" "Insight Meditation Vipassana - The Middle Way Meditation of the Six States of Consciousness (Bhumi 6)" (250 copies donated to the Centre)
All monies raised by the Centre from these publications went to helping the Centre.
These are some of the good things I have been able to contribute for you to remember the Buddha, and to strengthen the Buddha Sasana in the world.
I wish I could do more for you all, but now, of course, I am old. Which is why I ask each and every one of you, to practice now, to do the good things, now, tomorrow may be too late for you. Why? Because no one sees you tomorrow, only your name remains. If you want to do the good thing, start now, don't wait for tomorrow. There are only 365 days in one, year, and then a new year begins. When will tomorrow arrive?
These gifts have brought great joy to me. No other rewads are necessary. What the students think of me I do not know or worry about, as I know I have done my best to help the Buddha Sasana.
This story is written only to help the Centre and the Buddha Sasana. I believe John Hughes knows a lot of Dhamma, and is a master Teacher. I wish in the future he ill bring more of the good things like I have done for the Buddha Sasana and the Centre, more and more. He knows many monks from all around the world, including Australian. At the time when I first came here. I believed I could help in those areas which have been mentioned. In the future I wish that the Sangha will continue to bring the good things to the Centre, to keep strengthening the Buddha Sasana in Australia for many years to come.
It is unfortunate, but due to the business of the Centre, unavoidable not to be able to have had this celebration of my birthday, the 21st March 2001. But, I am happy to celebrate with you today, Tuesday 17th April, 2001.
I am happy to recollect my first memories of the Centre 10 years ago until today. Much has changed, I remember all these changes a I am sure all of you who have been at the Centre for the period will acknowledge the improvements in the buildings and garden surrounds.
I walk around the Centre happy to see all the good things. The work and efforts of you and your teacher can be seen everywhere.
I walk in the garden and see the Dragon Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, the Stupa and it's protective surrounds. I enter the hall, I see Quan Yin, the Walking Buddha, and as I exit through the back door I see the Buddha Was Born. I will never forget these images, I will remember them forever.
But I still remember back to 10 years ago, when I look at the picture of myself and John and students, meditating in the front garden of the Centre. You look at the picture from 10 years ago, and look now. What is different? This, I want to give to you, to remember the past and now, make you more happiness and remember forever. It makes me so happy, and I think it makes all of you happy, too.
That is a review of my past 10 years with your Centre. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and all the Buddhamamaka in Australia and around the world, to bring your minds here to join in these blessings and offerings. To help me do the good things and bring all your minds to enjoy and make you happy and at peace, and make one another happy to enjoy all the good things I have done over the past 10 years. I wish all the good things I have done, I want to send to the Buddhamamaka and the Heaven worlds, Deva world, Naga world, Human world and Hell world. All to come and enjoy, make you happy in the good things I have done, sending to them. All this on my wish. Whoever has a problem, stop the problems. All have happiness, keep going to become more happy. I wish the god, humans and animals to be kind and live together and take care of themselves, have happiness and long life. Take care of yourself and make yourself happy.
SADHU, SADHU, SADHU, ANUMODHARMI.
Chanhphy Panyano Manivong
17 April, 2001
in science can learn from Buddhism
B. Alan Wallace, a scholar, Tibetan Buddhist monk and interpreter for the Dalai Lama, has taught Buddhist theory and meditation throughout Europe and America since 1976. Wallace has an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science from Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford. His most recent books are Buddhism with an Attitude: The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind-Training and The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. At the Mind and Life Conference in Dharamsala, India, Science & Theology News' Geetinder Garewal caught up with him to discuss where science and Buddhism intersect.
Science & Theology News: What is the Buddhist view of the self and how does it relate to Western scientific notions of the same?
B. Alan Wallac: There is strong difference in background between the scientific and the Buddhist views.
The scientific view is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of an immortal and immutable soul. But as scientists study the mind and brain they find no evidence for an individual soul or self.
This looks like a direct undermining of Judaism, Christianity and possibly all religions.
In Buddhism there has never been a notion of an independent, immutable soul or self. Buddhist analysis of human identity consists of an ongoing flow of psycho-physiological events. It is held that there is a mind-body interdependence and also interdependence with the environment.
Here we find a resonance with science in the profound relationship of interdependence between our genes and environment. Science has plenty of empirical evidence for the mind-body-environment interaction.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, explains that Buddhism does not hold that there is no self at all, but that there is no autonomous individual soul or ego identity. This is very compatible with the modern scientific position.
STN: Buddhism talks of subtle levels of consciousness, which modern science has not encountered yet, how are these states experienced?
BAW: The Dalai Lama spoke of the methods of exploring consciousness from the first-person perspective. This is done by first achieving the ability of lucid dreaming. This entails apprehending the dream-state as a dream, while you are aware that you are dreaming. You deliberately let the dream vanish without losing your lucidity or your knowledge of what is happening. You watch the whole dream state vanishing and what is left is the possibility of realizing the clear light of sleep. And then you come upon the naked nature of awareness without the aggregation or addition of language, physical sensation and mental concepts.
STN: Can this phenomenon be explored in the waking state?
BAW: His Holiness explained that it is possible to do this practice in the waking state too, but for that you need to be an advanced yogi. The yogi develops a powerful samadhi [meditative absorption] and then, withdrawing all the senses enters into such a state of primordial consciousness of clear light. But this is much more difficult because in the dream state, your senses are already withdrawn and you do not need to do that by the power of samadhi, so it gives you an easier platform for realizing the very deep level of consciousness.
His Holiness also pointed out that this type of insight into the clear light nature of awareness is really a preparation for the dying process when this phenomenon naturally unfolds.
STN: The dying process? Could you explain this?
BAW: During the death process your dying brain is gradually shutting down; it is no longer able to support your cognitive, affective and sensory faculties. From a Buddhist perspective, when your breathing stops and your heart ceases functioning, the deepest dimension of consciousness - the clear light nature of awareness - is still present, it is not contingent upon the brain. This is very difficult for scientists to accept.
STN: Why do you think that is?
BAW: The reason is that they have no experience in this area. This is because they study only the structure and behavior of the brain. How can you have experience of the clear light nature of awareness when all you are doing is looking at neurons, synapses and so on? They have no evidence because they are looking in the wrong place with the wrong methods.
STN: Is the mind absolutely contingent upon the brain?
BAW: The Dalai Lama's position is that on the level of thought, mental imagery, emotion, definitely "yes."
So this is quite close to science, but the deeper you go into the study of consciousness like the clear light of sleep and the clear light of death, there is a shift. The Buddhist belief is that there is a continuum of very subtle consciousness, which carries on after this life into the next life. This is the reason that there are cases reported of children with very detailed memory of a past life with tremendous accuracy. If all the evidence would be presented to a jury they would say "beyond all reasonable doubt".
STN: What about the question of ethics and the study of the brain?
BAW: To define ethics as being honest about your data seems too limited. My plea is for greater ethics without bringing in any religious creed and dogma. But there could be a much greater sense of social responsibility, an altruism in science.
In Buddhism, whatever one's daily activities are going to be - whether they be engaging in philosophical debates about very abstract concepts or cleaning the monastery - we start the day by setting the motivation: "May all my activities today bring about greater happiness to all sentient beings": a motivation of altruism.
Scientists can set a daily motivation that says, "May our research - whether it is basic research or applied research - may this be for the benefit for all." And I feel this is not just a sweet idea, nor is it simply a utopian or idealistic notion. I think it is much more serious because scientists now have an unparalleled responsibility to humanity because they are being given enormous resources by governments, by private corporations, but basically the money comes from us. So, I think they are indebted to humanity because that provides them with the possibility of doing the research.
STN: What role can scientists play?
BAW: Scientists all over the world speak with unparalleled authority about the nature of reality. Everybody knows that knowledge is power, so they are our primary sources of knowledge, they are our belief systems. Knowledge is so easily translated into power, and power can easily fall into the hands of people who are profoundly unaltruistic or patriotic in the worst possible sense; where patriotism takes on a nasty connotation because it is really national egotism, as if the well-being of one country is independent from the well-being of the world. It is lunacy, but there are political leaders who are not aware that it is so. These lunatics treat science as ethically neutral and turn it over to the highest bidder - to the corporations who totally focus on exploitation, or the government that focuses on getting more and more power for themselves and suppressing everybody else. When the stakes are so high, scientists have great responsibility to bring in a sense of altruism.
The point of this knowledge is not so that the corporations can make it big, or governments become more powerful or the scientists themselves get prestigious positions. The point of knowledge is to bring about benefit for the whole world, human beings, non-human beings the whole ecosphere.
An exclusive interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama
in mufti swarm around the plush hotel room in Delhi, crackling wirelesses in hand.
Spared routine security checks, we are ushered into an antechamber and politely
asked to wait-His Holiness the Dalai Lama is meeting a foreign diplomat.
Minutes (that seem like centuries) later, we are led to an inner suite, a temporary abode of the Yeshe Norbu ('Wish fulfilling jewel') of Tibet. We await him with a mixture of awe and reverence compounded by the presence of his somber attendants. Nothing prepares us for the boisterous, maroon-robed monk who walks in, greeting everyone loudly and shaking hands warmly all around. We are finally face to face with the Presence (Kundun in Tibetan).
The next hour is spent in communion with the man, his beliefs, his faith, and of course, his laughter. It seems that His Holiness has perfected the 'art of laughing', if one may call it that. He uses it to punctuate philosophical debate, at times to bridge the awkward silence as he thinks up a suitable reply to a question, but most of all, to convey his innate joie de vivre. It is infectious and we join in heartily each time his laughter booms out. We are fortunate to partake of the Dalai Lama's reservoir of loving-kindness, if only for a few fleeting moments.
seem to exist on numerous planes-as a world figure, the temporal and spiritual
head of Tibet, a world-renowned spiritual master. Yet you often refer to yourself
as a simple monk. Who is the real you?
I see myself as a monk first, then as a practitioner of the Nalanda (the world reknown Buddhist education center of India, established around 200 B.C.) tradition of wisdom. Masters of Nalanda such as Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Aryasangha, Dharmakeerti, Chandrakeerti and Shantideva have written the scriptures that we, as Tibetan Buddhists, study and practice. They are all my gurus. I feel that I might have interacted with them in previous lifetimes. When I read their books and meditate upon their names, I feel a connection. At this point, I don't say that I belong to the Hinayana or the Mahayana traditions, but to the lineage of Nalanda.
are called the 'living Buddha'...?
The term 'living Buddha' is a translation of the Chinese word 'ho fu'. In Tibetan, the operative word is 'lama' which means 'guru'. A guru is someone who is not necessarily a Buddha but is heavy with knowledge. I believe that previous Dalai Lamas were manifestations of Avalokiteshwara (the Buddha of compassion) and the fifth Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of Manjushree. I am fortunate to be the reincarnation of all these great lamas! (laughs)
Can anyone become a Buddha?
Oh yes! All sentient beings have the seed of the Buddha within them.
It is also said that eventually all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood?
Yes, this is so because all negative emotions of the mind can be eliminated. Once the mind is purified, you are a Buddha.
would you describe the Buddhist concept of shunyata?
Shunyata is different from Buddhahood. It is the ultimate reality of everything. To purify the mind it is essential to know the nature of reality, which is shunyata. Negative emotions arise from a misconception of reality. In order to remove suffering, you have to meditate on shunyata.
our world need to become a better place?
Undoubtedly we need to be more compassionate.
How can we practice compassion?
Through awareness! I think that ignorance and afflictive emotions, called klesh in Sanskrit, give rise to unwanted circumstances. As far as ignorance is concerned, not just Buddhism, every religion recognizes it as the source of suffering. All over the world, much effort is put in education. It is something sacred as it helps to get rid of ignorance. But we have to be careful about the kind of education we impart to our children. Now I see well-educated people who are so unhappy. Sometimes, I think those who use their minds too much are unhappier than the simple people who don't. Why do they become unhappy? It is because of too much desire, hatred, and jealousy. The antidote to weaken that is increasing the right kind of knowledge. I think, perhaps knowledge coupled with a warm heart brings wisdom.
Compassion, or karuna, stems from wisdom. For instance, animals with their limited intelligence, are happier and more peaceful than we are. Even so, I have observed that animals become aggressive during the mating season because there is now attachment to the mate. Attachment awakens feelings of klesh within them. Similarly for us, if there is less attachment and jealousy, we are able to focus within.
believe that whether a person follows any religion or not is unimportant, he must
have a good heart, a warm heart. This is essential for a happy life, which is
much more important than Buddhahood. This is part of what I call 'secular ethics'.
Are we not conditioned by our past karma that may not allow us to be loving and compassionate? How can karma be transcended?
By acting with awareness.
How can we live in awareness?
Analyze! Let's take the example of Mahatma Gandhi. Physically, he was frail. Although he was well educated, there are others who are better educated than he was. Why then did he become a mahatma? It was because of his heart. He did not act for himself or in his own interest; that is karuna. Karuna, I think, is the main element in becoming a good person. Stalin, Lenin, Mao Zedong were powerful leaders. But they lacked karuna and became unpopular.
Compassion automatically brings happiness and calmness. Then, even if you receive disturbing news, it will be easier to take, as your mind is still. But if you are agitated, even a minor happening will upset you greatly.
does one bring about calmness?
Hatred, jealousy and excessive attachment cause suffering and agitation. I feel that, again, it is compassion that can help you overcome these to move into a calm state of mind. Compassion is not being kind to your friend. That is attachment because it is based on expectation. Karuna is when you do something good without expectations, even without knowing the other person. It is in realizing that the other person is also just like me. That recognition is the basis on which you can develop karuna, not only towards those around you but also towards your enemy. Normally, when we think about our enemy, we think about harming him. Instead, try to remember that the enemy is also a human being. He or she has the right to be happy, just as you do. Talking about myself, maybe I too have some enemies.
talking about China?
No, no! I am talking hypothetically. If one has an enemy, one would want him to suffer. Whenever you feel hatred towards the enemy, think of him as a human being. That is actual karuna because you are feeling it for your enemy. You don't have the other's kindness to base your compassion upon; the other is actually harming you! That is why I say real karuna is unbiased. What we normally feel is biased karuna, as it is mixed with attachment. Genuine karuna flows towards all sentient beings, particularly towards your enemy. You must keep in mind that developing karuna might not benefit the other directly. If I try to develop karuna towards my enemy, he might not even be aware of it. But it will immediately benefit me! How? By calming my mind. On the other hand, if I keep thinking how awful everything is, I will immediately lose my peace of mind.
And that will help the enemy?
It is not necessarily helping the enemy as much as harming yourself. By changing your thoughts, you immediately get inner peace. Many people also think that the practice of karuna benefits others and not oneself. That sort of thinking is a grave mistake. It must be overcome through awareness, which, as I mentioned earlier, comes from analyzing.
Even modern medical researchers have come to the conclusion that peace of mind is vital to good health. Experiments show that it is easier for those who practice love and compassion to regain a peaceful state of mind after being agitated.
In May this year, I witnessed an experiment performed on a monk at Wisconsin University who was subjected to a loud sound. It had little impact on him and he was able to regain his composure without much difficulty. This goes to prove that the practice of compassion actually calms you down considerably.
I am not saying that compassion must be practiced because the Buddha taught it. No. It must be practiced equally by the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Jain, the Christian. It is part of the 'secular ethics' that I talk about. There is nothing sacred or religious about aspiring to a calm mind. People just need to realize that it is good for our health! My approach is to promote values that enable the individual to have a calm mind.
Having a calm mind actually works wonders. Recognizing this would help me want to develop it.
This has to be made clear to every individual, even to children. It is important to make the child realize that if he loses his temper, he will suffer. If he is able to be more compassionate, he will feel more joy even while playing. If you smile, life becomes sweeter. After all, if I smile at you, you will smile back!
Don't you ever experience anger?
Oh yes, I do. Negative emotions come and go. I do not think they remain within me for long. If you let anger remain within you, it leads to ill-feeling and hatred.
How do you deal with anger?
Through my clear conviction about compassion. I think negative emotions are part of my mind. It is quite natural to feel angry when faced with problems. But you can change.
we say that awareness of your emotions helps in dealing with them?
If you are able to recognize the moment when anger arises, you will be able to distinguish the part of your mind that is feeling anger. This will divide your mind in two parts-one part will be feeling anger while the other will be trying to observe. Therefore anger cannot dominate the entire mind. You are able to recognize that anger is harmful and maybe develop an antidote to it. View your anger objectively. Try to see the positive side of the anger-causing person or event. All these ideas are not Tibetan inventions, they are Nalanda inventions, your inventions! (laughs uproariously) We Tibetans are the chelas (students) and India is the guru. But today, our guru is getting too materialistic, perhaps becoming too orthodox on one hand and too westernized on the other. I think it is time that Indians get Indianized!
Since you have been stressing 'secular values', would you not prescribe spiritual practices because they owe allegiance to some tradition?
I would recommend what I call 'analytical meditation'. It is scientific, as the main job of a scientist is to analyze. When you meditate, you shift your focus from the external to the internal, emotional world.
That's why the Buddha is said to be a great psychologist?
Undoubtedly, because he taught the science of the mind.
What is the goal of human life? What are we born to achieve?
To be happy!
What is the purpose of existence?
Happiness for others or ourselves?
Take the example of a plant. What is the goal of its existence?
Service to others?
May be the plant just is! It doesn't have fixed goals. It just grows. The plant has no mind, so to speak. Animals also seem to have happiness as their aim.
Nature never remains static; growth is essential for a human being. Why do we always say 'Happy Birthday' and never 'Happy Deathday'? Because we don't want to see the end. The human mind is attracted to growth, beginning and freshness. Compassion thus is the force of growth and development while anger is destruction.
the goal of life is happiness, where does nirvana fit in?
Now you are talking about another level. At the first level, you need to practice basic human values. Then, you can talk of nirvana, which means permanent cessation of suffering. So we come back to happiness!
How can nirvana be made possible?
(Laughs) It is possible because it is possible to eliminate all negative emotions! When Buddha Sakyamuni experienced mahaparinirvana, his mind ceased and he was freed from the karmic cycle of birth and death. Nagarjuna says clearly that the pure mind has no counterforce, and only those that have a counterforce can cease, like matter. The mind, and space too, have no counterforce and so have no reason to cease. In the case of other afflictive emotions, they might end if they have strong positive counter forces. But in case of the mind, we cannot say that it will come to an end, as it is difficult to find a strong antidote that will hinder its existence, as in the case of space. Here, you could argue by saying that in that case, could we put an end to loving-kindness or compassion because they have strong counter-forces? On investigation, we will realize that kindness and love usually accompany wisdom whereas anger and hatred might seem strong but have no praman (proof/basis). Everything that is good and right is the result of valid perception. Based on this, the more you analyze, the more you will be able to hold on to reality. If it is something wrong, however strong it appears, as you analyze it, its falsehood will be revealed.
Suppose you feel angry with a person called Gupta, ask yourself: 'Who is Gupta?' 'Is he a body, or is he a mind?' You will see that there is no answer. Immediately, the feeling of hatred subsides, as it has not found a target. But karuna (compassion) is different as it is not dependent on identifying a target. Because of this, Buddhist philosophy refers to karuna as the mind that does not perceive the object. Maitri (amity), karuna and bodhichitta (the matured soul) do not perceive any object. Did you get the point? (laughs)
Of course, this is the Buddhist explanation and is very precise. I think it is because of the richness of Sanskrit, which is highly developed in this (metaphysical) aspect.
Aren't the original Buddhist teachings in Pali?
All the Nalanda masters wrote in Sanskrit but Vinaya and Abhidharma teachings are in Pali.
Buddha was silent on the question of God. What about you?
Why did the Buddha not say anything about God? Because he talked about the law of causality. Once you accept the law of cause and effect, the implication is that there is no 'creator'. If the Buddha accepted the concept of a creator, he would not have been silent; everything would have been God!
Who caused the law of causality?
About that, the Buddha would say 'the mind', never God or dharmakaya or even the Buddha himself.
How did the mind come
The source of mind is nature. The word that been used for existence is 'interdependent arising'. Talking of God, who created God? There is no point arguing. Dharmakeerti and Shantideva debate the existence of God and reach the conclusion that if we believe in a benevolent creator, how do we explain suffering? I remember a funny incident. In Tibetan drama, criticism is allowed and even the Buddha is not spared. There was this man acting on-stage and he was saying that he did not believe in God. If God made us, he said, instead of putting both the eyes in the front, one should be at the back! We would have been more efficient that way. Jokes apart, the idea is not to disrespect any religion but to analyze the nature of reality.
Do you see any common ground between Buddhism and Hinduism?
Historically, Buddha Sakyamuni was a Hindu. So I would like to call Hinduism and Buddhism twin brothers. Then there are common practices like samadhi and vipassana. The demarcation comes in the concept of shunyata. Whereas Hindus believe in atma, Buddhists believe in anatma. In practicing ahimsa, Jains are more thorough than either Buddhists or Hindus.
Aldous Huxley talked of 'perennial philosophy'-the common mystical ground of all religions. Do you believe in that?
That is difficult to say. At one level, all religious traditions have the same aim-to transform the individual into a positive being. At another level, theistic religions do not have the concept of nirvana.
You travel all over the world. Do you think that by and large, the world is moving towards being more positive?
I would like to quote Britain's Queen Mother on this. On her 96th birthday, I asked her the same question. She said that it was becoming better because when she was young, for instance, nobody was concerned about the environment, human rights or the right to self-determination. Today, these have become universal values. When Gandhiji implemented ahimsa, I think everyone took it as a sign of weakness. Now the entire world, except perhaps China, accepts nonviolence and practices it, like Nelson Mandela. India has not only given birth to great religious tradition like Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism but has also sheltered many, like Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity. The religious tolerance we see around the world is also an Indian tradition.
Do you think that China is changing?
Yes, I think China is also in the process of changing.
message for the readers of Life Positive?
Life can be pleasant or miserable. To lead a fruitful life, and to make it positive, practice analytical meditation. And remember that calmness and compassion are an important part of human life. I hope that all Life Positive readers will pay greater attention to inner values.
interview with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Excerpted from Tricyle Magazine.
Ordained at age twelve in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the Venerable Henepola Gunaratana trained as a novice for eight years and as a bhikkhu (monk) for seven years before leaving Sri Lanka in 1954 to work with untouchables in India. In 1968 he came to the United States and became the Honorary General Secretary of the Buddhist Vihara Society, an urban monastery in Washington, D.C., while earning a Ph.D in Philosophy from The American University, where he later served as the Buddhist chaplain. He has been teaching Buddhism throughout the world for over forty years. His books include Mindfulness in Plain English from Wisdom Publications. In 1988, Bhante Gunaratana became President of the Bhavana Society in High View, West Virginia, a center to promote meditation and the monastic life. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Helen Tworkov at the Bhavana Society last November (1994). Bhante is a Pali word equivalent to Reverend in English.
Tricycle: Nowadays, in the West, many people find that hierarchical distinction between the monastics and the laity outdated, old fashioned; something that developed in Asia but that has no place in the West.
Bhante Gunaratana: The monastic path is better, not in a political sense or as a power structure, but better for spiritual growth. Monasticism nourishes, supports a frame of mind for practice. If you want to live in a non-monastic community, it cannot be called monastic, and you cannot expect to do the practice in the best way. Life today has so many commitments, and people get into very difficult situations, emotionally and otherwise. Everyone has so many things to do. You have to have a space to grow, to improve your spiritual practice. That is why the Buddha said, "Have few duties." When you have few duties, you have time to practice, you are not all the time tense, uptight, and nervous, worrying and destroying your health.
Tricycle: Are there ways of encouraging a monastic life in modern times?
Bhante Gunaratana: To update the monastic tradition, people don't have to be totally cut off from their societies. Even in monastic lives, there are certain things that people can do in order to make it more lively. In early days, monastic life seems to have been very grueling, very dark. The monks sat under trees or in caves and meditated all the time. One of the accusations that we get here from some very strict monastics is that we are too relaxed. Not that we have lost sight of monasticism, but that we try to update it by making certain adjustments.
Tricycle: Such as?
Bhante Gunaratana: We drive if necessary. Sometimes we go shopping if there is nobody else to go. And we have monks and nuns living in the same place. As long as we maintain our discipline and rules, these adjustments are possible. Sometimes people say, all religious principles, not only monastic principles, are out of date.. Morality is no longer an important issue in some places, some societies, because people do not want to discipline themselves. They do not want to be responsible, honest, sincere. But honesty, sincerity, responsibility never become out of date. We want to preserve the essence. Compromise doesn't mean to throw the baby out with the bath water. Every rule prescribed by the Buddha is for our own benefit. Every precept we observe is in order to cleanse the mind. Without mental purification, we can never gain concentration, insight, wisdom, and will never be able to remove psychic irritations.
Tricycle: In the West there is a pervasive psychological perspective which suggests that celibacy is unhealthy and therefore that monasticism attracts not people inspired by a spiritual quest, but those with sexual problems.
Bhante Gunaratana: At the same time, we can see that people who are obsessed with sex are always in trouble. Everywhere. Getting involved in all these natural urges and giving in to them is also not healthy. Somebody who very carefully, mindfully trains himself to restrain himself, too discipline himself, can live a very healthy life. People try to justify greed, hatred, and delusion. Many people become gullible.
Bhante Gunaratana: You know, "gullible" is a very beautiful Pali word. In Pali, it is called galibaliso. Gali means swallow, baliso means bait. When you have the attitude that you don't have too discipline yourself, that whenever you feel a sex urge, you can go and have sex with anybody you like; that when you get angry, you can express it any way you want, and even use violence if you like. These kinds of attitudes lead society downhill. I feel that is what is happening. Trying to introduce discipline, sincerity, honesty, religious practices, and so forth, that kind of work has become like trying to stop a stream with a piece of paper. Our mind is like liquid. Liquid always goes down, it never goes up by itself by its own force. Similarly, the mind always goes to the wrong thing. This is why the Buddha said the real practice of dhamma is like "going upstream." Not an easy job.
Tricycle: Is that just as true in or out of the monastery?
Bhante Gunaratana: Yes, but the sole purpose of monasticism is too give a chance to people to discipline themselves. It is like a laboratory. We don't want every nook and corner to have laboratories, but there have to be some laboratories, some sort controlled atmosphere for a person to grow in if that person really wants to be disciplined for the sake of his or her own inner peace. America is still like a teenager, a juvenile, just trying to grow, and that spiritually immature state has been taken as a standard for the whole world to follow. I don't think that is a healthy way of thinking. Only when we attain our state of responsibility and freedom are we all equal.
Tricycle: We are not born equal?
Bhante Gunaratana: We are not born equal, are not created equal. We are divided by kamma. We are born different, and live different, and die different, because of our different kamma. Kamma divides us into high and low, rich and poor, intellectual and non-intellectual, attractive and non-attractive, skillful and non-skillful, and so forth. But when somebody comes to the order of monks and nuns, they give up their distinctions and become equal. When they attain stages of enlightenment, they all are equal. There is no difference in the attainment of enlightenment. When we attain nibbana, we all are equal.
Tricycle: The Theravada tradition has a long history of inequality between the sexes, even within the realm of spiritual understanding. In fact, it is my understanding that women cannot attain full ordination in your tradition.
Bhante Gunaratana: That is an adjustment that l would like to propose. We've had a problem introducing fully ordained nuns into the order. It has become a very big controversy because many women would like to enter the Theravada nuns' order and receive full ordination, but that has not been possible so far.
Tricycle: Where is the opposition coming from to day?
Bhante Gunaratana: From the Theravada Buddhist school.
Tricycle: Because of the traditional ways?
Bhante Gunaratana: Yes. Actually, the tradition for fully ordained women once existed, but disappeared.
Tricycle: How are Theravada nuns ordained now?
Bhante Gunaratana: It is not a full ordination, but a novice ordination. In a country like the United States, where Buddhism is still new, full ordination for women should be established.
Tricycle: What do your brothers in Sri Lanka think about your supporting this? Do they think, "Oh, maybe he has just spent too much time in the West'?
Bhante Gunaratana: [laughing] Yes. Yet in in one famous discourse, the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha says, "Don't believe in tradition, don't believe in mere hearsay. Don't accept anything because things are in the scriptures. Don't accept anything because the teacher appears to be a very honorable, sincere person. Don't accept anything because it appeals to intellect, to logic or philosophy. Don't accept anything because you like it. Check with your own experience, investigate, discuss, meditate upon, and question. And then, if what you learned is good for yourself, good for others, good for both, then accept it. If it is not good for you, not good for others, not good for both reject it." So the freedom of inquiry is very strongly advocated by the Buddha. And, therefore, using that information, I make these suggestions.
Tricycle: I'm sure that many women in the West and in Asia will be very appreciative of this view. And yet, even in those societies that sanction full ordination for women, the rules for women are still twice as many as for men, and the women are still considered inferior to the men. Even here, I have observed that the men leave the meditation hall before the women, and that they are served food first.
Bhante Gunaratana: We don't have fully ordained nuns. The women here are all novices. In monastic hierarchy, whoever has stayed in the order the longest is considered to be the senior-most person, and that person leads the group. He goes first. He sits first and so forth. The hierarchy is established only by seniority.
Tricycle: If full ordination of nuns were reestablished, would you also support full equality between men and women?
Bhante Gunaratana: I support it. I support it. Fully ordained nuns should be able to do the same things as fully ordained monks. That's the kind of equality I support. The Buddha introduced extra rules for women, because without giving some concessions, without introducing some rules, there would have been an enormous upheaval and opposition coming from other monks as well as lay people. To silence them, he introduced these regulations. But in modern society these things can be modified.
Tricycle: Can the changes you recommend be adapted in Asia?
Bhante Gunaratana: My hunch is that in Asia full ordination will never happen because the tradition, the habit, is so strong. The only possibility exists in societies like this one, where Buddhism is new. Once it is established here then perhaps slowly it can be introduced to Asian Buddhist communities.
Tricycle: What are the things that you think should not be adjusted, that you think must not change?
Bhante Gunaratana: Dhamma can be translated into simple, modern, language. But the meaning should not be changed to suit people's requirements. Some aspects of the rituals can change, but for instance, wearing robes must not change. Even in the time of the Buddha, civilian dress was quite different from monks' robes. And it is the same today. This robe protects us. As human beings we are not perfect. And when we have the robe, it reminds us of our place, and stops us from getting into wrong situations, wrongdoing.
Tricycle: Other Theravada communities have altered certain traditions, such as chanting only in Pali, or not eating after twelve noon; why have you chosen to preserve these rituals?
Bhante Gunaratana: If you do not preserve the form of Theravada Buddhism, the original form, eventually people won't even know what it is.
Tricycle: What most distinguishes the Theravada tradition from the other great vehicles of Buddhism?
Bhante Gunaratana: The Theravada tradition tries to maintain the Buddhism present in the Pali texts. It emphasizes morality, concentration, and wisdom practice as close to the Buddha's own teaching as possible without interpreting them, distorting them, or translating them into different ideas. As Theravada Buddhists, we are trying to preserve the Pali language and use it in our dhamma sermons, in our daily devotional services.
Tricycle: And the benefit is maintaining the language of the Buddha?
Bhante Gunaratana: Yes. The benefit is that when you have any doubt about the teaching, any gray area, you can always go to the Pali. And always you keep Pali as your reference language in order to clarify certain dhamma terms. If you do not have that kind of background, or that kind of reference, you have to rely on translations. If the translator has made a mistake, it is carried on generation after generation. That is what has happened to some other branches of Buddhism. Because they don't study the original language, they have to read the third, fourth, fifth interpretations, or translations, and sometimes they lose track of the original teaching. Original teaching is preserved in the Pali tradition. No question about it.
Tricycle: Many people feel that the absence of the Bodhisattva Vow in Theravada, the vow to save all sentient beings and to place others before oneself diminishes the role of compassion that we find in some of the other traditions. Can you address that?
Bhante Gunaratana: You know, while we are trying to attain enlightenment, we must help others. We cannot wait. Suppose we are going on a journey, and somebody on the way needs some help. Food, water, or somebody is sick and so forth. We cannot simply say, ''Oh, I am going on a journey, you have to wait until I finish the journey." You cannot say that. You've got too help that person. That is your human, moral obligation. That is what the Buddha did. He became perfect by doing what he was supposed to do. He practiced in human society, with other people. Teaching, preaching, helping, serving, and doing everything that he had to do to help the world. And that helping, that practice, reached perfection. We don't have to wait until we have attained enlightenment.
Tricycle: Do you think that some Westerners misunderstand Theravada Buddhism because of the absence of an actual Bodhisattva Vow?
Bhante Gunaratana: Exactly. Although Theravada Buddhists don't have any special Bodhisattva Vow, in practice it is almost impossible to ignore helping others. And you know, this idea of helping others is not only Buddhist. Is there anything Buddhist in generosity? You don't even have to be a human being to practice generosity. You might have seen animals sharing their food with other animals. To make this kind of distinction between Mahayana and Theravada is not a very practical, realistic way of seeing things. The challenge is making people understand the basic teachings, like selflessness, soullessness, and non-believing in a creator god. The first aspect, impermanence, is really easy. If you read any book on physics, chemistry, or science you will learn all about impermanence. But selflessness and not believing in a creator god, these two are extremely difficult to teach.
Tricycle: Can a society as a whole become a little less egotistical, or is it only at matter of individual practice?
Bhante Gunaratana: It is individual practice, actually. Even when the Buddha attained enlightenment, greed, hatred, and delusion were not less than they are today. His sole purpose in attaining enlightenment was to serve the world. But as soon as he attained enlightenment, he became so disappointed. He thought, "How can l teach this dhamma to these people? They are so full of ignorance, greed, hatred, jealousy, fear, tension, worry, and lust, how can they understand this?" But he started teaching. And he was never able to eliminate all the suffering in the human world. Never. He eliminated the suffering of certain people, but compared to the number of people in the world, the number of people he helped to attain enlightenment is insignificant. Now, with more population, more desirous things produced by technological advancement, more things to promote your desire, promote your greed, selfishness, fear, tension, worry, it is actually more difficult to practice pure dhamma. And this is not just the problem of the dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha. It is the problem of all religions. Religious people are trying as much they can in their own limited capacities. At the same time, in the material world other people are trying to promote their own productions, increase people's greed. There are more televisions, more computers, more this, more that. So you have to compete with this.
Tricycle: How can the dhamma best be protected in this environment?
Bhante Gunaratana: One who protects the dhamma will be protected by the dhamma, just like one who protects an umbrella will be protected by the umbrella. To protect the dhamma, what should one do? Each and every individual must practice it. To the degree and extent that a person practices dhamma, to that degree and extent that person gets protection from the dhamma. We can never get protection from anything else, no matter how much security, or insurance, or how many secure locks we have,.. never.
Tricycle: Do you have a particular goal for yourself?
Bhante Gunaratana: I say that Buddhism is like a tree. A tree has its canopy, leaves, flowers, you know, little branches, and the trunk, and the bark, and softwood and hardwood, the roots, and so forth. And we should want the hardwood, the pit of the dhamma, just like wanting the pit of a tree. Everything else can conceal the truth. There are so many things around the true dhamma. And people can easily get deluded, confused, misled by those very many, many varieties of things. The Buddha said very clearly, "Until artificial gold appears in the market, pure gold shines. As soon as the artificial gold appears in the market, nobody knows which is pure gold, and which is artificial." So I want to show people this pure gold, so that they cannot be deluded by everything that glitters. That is my purpose.
Interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi
by Venerable Kantasilo
Venerable Kantasilo conducted this interview at the Palelai Meditation Center, Singapore, on Sunday, June 20, 2001.
Thank you Bhante for talking to us. Could you tell us about your early years, where you were born, your lay name, your parents' names?
- I was born in NYC in 1944, my civilian name was Jeffrey Block, and my parents were a middle class Jewish family living in Brooklyn.
Could you tell us where you went to school, your primary education?
- I went to a public elementary school quite close to the family house, also to junior high school, high school in the neighborhood, which is Borough Park, in Brooklyn. And then I went to Brooklyn College ...
And you got your bachelors degree?
- I got a BA degree in Philosophy.
What year would that be?
- I completed my BA degree in 1966.
And then after that?
- And then I went to Claremont Graduate School. This is in Claremont, California.
- Yeah. Again I specialized in Philosophy and completed my doctorate degree in 1972.
You were telling me earlier that you had met a Vietnamese Buddhist monk which was probably your first introduction to Buddhism?
- Actually I had become interested in Buddhism in my junior year in college, mainly just by strolling in bookshops and looking at book titles and then somehow I became interested in a few books on Buddhism that I could find there. I think this interest in Buddhism arose from the kind of surge or quest for some deeper understanding of human existance that was offered by the materialistic philosophy of modern American civilization, and I wasn't satisfied with my ancestral Jewish religion, and also I didn't find much long term value in Christianity. But I was drawn at an early period, say during my junior year of collage to the religions of the east.
I began reading some of the Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, then I found in the bookshops some books on Buddhism. These were by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts so they were mainly on Zen Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Then when I went to Claremont Graduate School my interest in Buddhism continued and I felt increasingly a deeper need to lead a spiritual life. At the same time I always had an underlying doubt or skepticism about any type of spiritual philosophy.
But finally when I was in graduate school I met a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who was attending the same school and living in the same residence hall in which I was living. I became friends with him, and I approached him as a teacher and from him I received my first instructions in Buddhism and meditation.
Do you remember his name?
- His name is Thich Giac Duc. I have not heard from him in many, many years, so I'm not sure whether he is still alive. In fact, when I was still living in Washington D.C. at the Washington Buddhist Vihara he was in the Vietnamese temple, which was a few blocks right up the street, and he was the monk in charge of that temple.
Is that the temple that's on the same street as the Washington Buddhist Vihara?
- The one on the same street as the Washington Buddhist Vihara, not the Jetavana temple.
No, no, but there is a Vietnamese temple just right down the street from the [Washington Buddhist] Vihara and has a very big Kuan Yin [image located] in the precincts there. Is that the same temple?
- It must be the same temple. It was called ... something like ... the Vietnamese Buddhist Church of America, or something like that.
Yes, that's probably it.
- Yeah, he was in charge of that at the same time that I was in the Washington Buddhist Vihara, just by pure coincidence that we wound up on the same street after several years of separation. But he was getting into an increasingly antagonistic relationship with the Vietnamese community. I think mainly because of the different political affiliations ... because Vietnamese monks had very strong political affiliations.
And this was at the time the United States was involved in the ...
- No, this was years after the Vietnam War - this was 1981, perhaps early 82. He came to the United States in 1975 just at the very time that Saigon collapsed and fell to the Viet Cong. And that he was educated in the United States and he had somewhat pro-western sympathies compared to those monks who took a more radical stance against the United States. His life was in danger because once the Viet Cong took power they would have singled out or weeded out those monks who were known to be sympathetic to the west, or to the United States, and [would have] eliminated him physically and so he had to escape Vietnam immediately.
Were you practicing any type of Vietnamese meditations [at this time]?
- He started me off with Anapanasati. What is interesting is Vietnamese Buddhism is Mahayana but I think because of the proximity to Cambodia, or perhaps because they've also received a stream of transmission from Indian Mahayana, not only Chinese Mahayana coming down from south China to Vietnam, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism tends to have a stronger strain of classical Indian Buddhism within it. So the meditations he taught me were basically mindfulness of breathing, the meditation on loving kindness, and a meditation based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness which is ... its sort of a line, each foundation of mindfulness links up with a particular one of the four perversions or distortions. To contemplate the body as being essentially impure - asubha, to contemplate all feelings as being suffering, to contemplate every state of mind as being anicca - impermanent, and to contemplate all dhammas as being without self.
And you were ordained as a samanera?
- Yeah, after I became friends with him and I began the practice of meditation, through the practice my skepticism and doubts about Buddhism or the spiritual life dissipated. I became convinced that this is the proper path for me to follow. And so then I asked my friend, teacher, if he could give me ordination as a monk. Also, I have to confess that there was an underlying pragmatic motive as well. I wouldn't say that was the main reason why I wanted ordination, but this was a period when America decided it had to beef up its armed forces and it was expanding its roll-call of people subject to the draft. And so I also thought it might be an extra security measure to have a formal ordination as a monk in order to be able to submit some kind of document to receive exoneration from the obligation to serve in the armed forces.
- It wouldn't have been conscientious objector, it would have been a ministerial deferment.
And you were ordained for about two months before you went to South Vietnam?
- No, I was ordained by him only as a samanera in May 1967, five years before I left for Asia.
- In the United States.
And then ... ?
- And I remained as a samanera for five years in the United States.
I see. And then you traveled straight to Vietnam?
- I was planning to go to Asia all along, from the time that I received ordination. It was not exactly certain where I would go for ordination or training, though my teacher, my Vietnamese teacher, had some contact with Sri Lankan Buddhists ... with Ven. Narada - famous monk Venerable Narada. And he was always constantly advising me to go to Sri Lanka to ordain and to receive training.
But as a Vietnamese monk ... or?
- At that time it was unclear but I think he thought I should take reordination as a Theravada monk but then eventually I should come back to Vietnam and then ordain again in the Mahayana Order as a Bhikshu.
So how long were you in South Vietnam?
- Okay, so this is after I completed my graduate studies and then I had to teach for two years ... this was while I was working on my dissertation, I was teaching in order to earn money to pay back debts that I had incurred from loans to support my education.
So you were already a samanera, and you were working, and you were still working on your dissertation ...
- Yeah, yeah, I was completing my dissertation. Then when I completed it ... I completed it in February 1972 and I continued to work through the end of that academic year, then I was ready to leave for Asia. And by this time I had also come into contact several times with Sri Lankan Buddhist monks who were passing through Los Angels. After my first Vietnamese teacher left the United States he had a friend, another Vietnamese monk who was living in Los Angeles. He had originally gone to teach Buddhism at U.C.L.A. and then he established a Buddhist meditation center in Los Angeles.
Do you recall his name?
- His name is Dr. Thich Thien An. He died from cancer in 1980. In 1971 I went to stay and live at that meditation center with Dr. Thich Thien An. And while I was staying there I got to know a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka who was passing through Los Angeles and we invited him to come to stay at our meditation center and to give a series of talks over a period of a week. This was Venerable Piyadassi of Vajirarama in Columbo.
I became friendly with Venerable Piyadassi and I drove him around Los Angeles. I introduced him at talks and I brought him to my classes at the university to teach, to give lectures. And then when we parted at the Los Angeles airport he suggested to me that some time I should come to Sri Lanka and he could arrange for me to stay at a Buddhist monastery.
And then some time later I met another monk named Venerable Ananda Mangala who is actually a Sri Lankan monk but he was stationed in Singapore. Then I became friendly with him, he stayed with us also for about a week. Then there was Dikwella Piyananda who was at the time chief monk at the Washington Buddhist Vihara, he also came to stay with us for a few days and I became friendly with him. And so it seems I have some deep underlying karmic connection with Sri Lanka, which was getting reinforced by these visiting monks.
And so then when I decided to go to Sri Lanka, I wrote to Venerable Piyadassi and told him about my intention and asked him if he could recommend a place I could go to ordain and study. Then he recommended to me a monk, Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya,
Who later became the Sangha Nayaka ... ?
- Actually, at that time he was the Mahanayaka of the United Amarapura Nikaya. He had become already the Mahanayaka Thera of the Amarapura nikaya, this would have been in early 1972. I think he received that appointment ... it must have been 1969 or 1970. Because I remember he was the holder for a five-year period and then he relinquished ... that period came to an end in 1976. So he might have had the appointment in 1971.
I was under the impression that after you gained samanera ordination in the Vietnamese tradition you left California to visit your monk friend in Vietnam.
- Actually I hadn't reached that point yet in my narrative. I had written to Venerable Piyadassi and he gave me the name of Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. I wrote to Venerable Ananda Maitreya asking if I could come and stay with him to ordain and to study and he wrote back saying I was welcome. So then in August 1972, I left the United States and my plane came first to Thailand and so I spent one week in Thailand at Wat Pleng Vipassana. From there I went to Vietnam in order to visit my friend, the first Buddhist monk that I had contact with. This was Venerable Thich Giac Duc.
Then I stayed in Vietnam for two months, mostly in Saigon, a few weeks I went up to Hue in central Vietnam.
Were there any meditation centers in Hue or were you just sight-seeing?
- It was more sight-seeing. There were monasteries in Hue but everything was in a rather hectic and chaotic state at that time because of the Vietnam War. The monks were very uncertain about the future of Buddhism and the future of the country itself.
So from Vietnam you ... ?
- Then from Vietnam I went to Sri Lanka.
But at this point, I want to make it clear you were a Mahayana samanera.
- I was a Mahayana samanera still and I arrived in Sri Lanka wearing my Vietnamese style robe. My teacher wanted me to wear the yellow robe when I came to Sri Lanka since with the brown robe I might not have been recognized as a Buddhist monk. So I wore this flowing yellow robe. Then, after a week or so in Colombo I went out to Balangoda to stay at the monastery of my ordination teacher - Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. Then a few weeks later I took a new ordination into the Theravada Order as a samanera.
How long did you remain a samanera in the Theravada tradition?
- The samanera ordination took place in November 1972, then I took the Upasampada ordination in May, 1973. So it was six months.
Can you give us you preceptor's name?
- My preceptor was Venerable Bibile Sumangala Nayaka Thero. He was a prominent monk in the upcountry Amarapura Nikaya. But he was not known outside of the upcountry Amarapura Nikaya. He did not have an international reputation.
Did you have a relationship with him?
- No, no. No relationship at all. His function as the upajjhaya at the upasampada ceremony was purely ceremonial or a formal function. My real close relationship was with Venerable Ananda Mettreya.
Can you tell us about that relationship?
- Well, I came to him because he had a great reputation as a scholar and also as an outstanding monk. When I first came to him and found out that he was 77 years old I was a little apprehensive because I was coming here as a young monk and I thought that I would have to spend five years of study with him and I was worried that at the age of 77 he might die at any time. But he wound up going on to live till the age of almost 102 and he was very strong and vigorous.
And while I was staying with him I found out one of the secrets of his excellent health was going for long walks several times a week, about twice a week. His temple was located about two miles in one direction from the town of Balangoda itself, in a village, in one direction and he also had a pirivena, a monastic school, two miles in the other direction, on the other side of Balangoda. But by that time he had retired from his function as the principle of the monastic school and he left it in the charge of his pupils.
But he kept his library there. He was a very avid reader, always doing research on different subjects. And so twice a week he would walk from his temple to the pirivena, the monastic school, with a bunch of books under his arm. And quite often he would ask me to go along with him and so we would walk about four miles in one direction - four miles going and then we would rest and have a cup of tea, then walk back another four miles. And he was quite fit and vigorous I was quite surprised.
So he was a very influential person in your life?
- I would say so, definitely so. And it was with him I began my study of Pali and Buddhism. Though I have said pretty much I learned Pali on my own, he didn't give me formal lessons in the grammer. But I'd work with some textbooks and he would check my exercises. Then once I'd learned enough Pali to start going through the texts ... we went through certain texts together.
Such as ... ?
- We started with the first part of the Samyutta Nikaya, the collection with verses, then we went through some suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya, then he took me through the Abhidhammatthasamgaha.
And you would translate what was already Pali into English or vise-versa?
- I would just translate it to myself. At that time I was not yet doing written translations.
So you were reading the Romanized Pali?
- Actually, he wanted me to learn the Burmese script, which I did, because he had the entire Burmese Sixth Council Edition in his library. He was one of the monks who participated ... in fact, he was like the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation during the Sixth Buddhist Council. And so he urged me to learn the Burmese script, which I did and then we worked through texts ... those texts in the Burmese script.
I think I remember reading somewhere that you had a very close relationship with Venerable Nyanaponika?
- Venerable Nyanaponika each year would go to Europe for a month or two, he started making these trips in the late 1960s up till 1980. I had met Venerable Nyanaponika first when I made a visit to Island Hermitage. This was shortly after my ordination. Just by coincidence he happened to come down there. He was staying in Kandy, at Forest Hermitage, but each year at the time when the Island Hermitage held its Kathina ceremony, he would go down to Island Hermitage. And so just at the time I made my visit to Island Hermitage he was visiting there and so I had some talks with him.
Then occasionally when I had questions about points on Dhamma, I would write to him to get his views. Then in 1974 when he was going to Europe, he asked if I would come and look after the Forest Hermitage in his absence. And I agreed to do that, and in this way I became friendly with him. And then in 1975 I left Sri Lank and I went to India, to Bangalore, and stayed in Bangalore for ten months at the Maha Bodhi Society there, which was under Acariya Buddharakkhita.
It happened that while I was staying with Venerable Ananda Mettreyya in Balangoda, an Indian monk came to stay at the same monastery. His name was Saddharakkhita and I became friendly with him and he told me that his home monastery was the Mahabodhi Society in Bangalore. And so when he had completed his studies in Sri Lanka, and decided to go back to Bangalore, he suggested that I go along with him. And also I wanted to go to India because I wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy sites.
And so I came along with him to Bangalore and I stayed altogether for ten months at the Mahabodhi Society there which I found quite inspiring because his teacher, Venerable Acariya Buddharakkhita spoke English very fluently, had very good understanding and knowledge of Dhamma, and each week he would give very very good Dhamma talks. At that time there were three western monks staying with him... er... I'm sorry, actually there were five or six monks there. One of them received ordination only toward the end of my stay there under the name Sangharatana. But later he came to Thailand and became reordained as Silaratana, staying with Ajaan Maha Bua. I think you know him. They call him Phra Dick now - Richard Byrd.
Yes, I know him very well.
- So he was there, and then there were two young Indian monks, and a Sweedish monk who was even senior to myself named Lakkhana. And Venerable Buddharakkhita ... Actually, at that time Venerable Lakkhana was very into Abhidhamma, and I was into the study of suttas. And so he had Venerable Lakkhana teach the Abhidhamma to all the monks and he had me teach the suttas to all the monks, even though I didn't have much knowledge at the time, but it really forced me to prepare talks on the suttas and to study the suttas carefully and learn how to explain them. And then occasionally Acariya Buddharakkhita would ask us to give the Sunday public Dhamma talk in place of himself, and that forced us to learn how to give public discourses.
While I was staying in Bangalore, it became clear that our visas would not be renewed another year so I had to find another place to go. And meanwhile the Venerable Nyanaponika wrote to me and told me that if I decided to come back to Sri Lanka I would be welcome to stay with him, and so I decided to do so. So then I came back at the very end of 1975, I came back to Sri Lanka and went to stay with venerable Nyanaponika. Actually in the place right next to ... there are two places about 100 meters apart within the same precincts. One is the Forest Hermitage where venerable Nyanaponika stays, the other is called Senanayakarama, where Venerable Piyadasi would stay when he came to Kandy.
And so I was staying in Senanayakarama since Venerable Nyanaponika had only one guest room, and he was expecting to come within a few months none other than, Venerable Phra Khantipalo. And so then I stayed ... Anyway, I stayed all together close to two years with Venerable Nyanaponika in that place. And Venerable Khantipalo stayed with us for about a year.
When I took ordination, my parents were extremely upset with this. And they would write to me frequently, sometimes angry letters, sometimes letters of grief and sorrow, sometimes letters critical of Buddhism and of myself, sometimes letters pleading with me to go back. And so I actually decided that I wouldn't be able to continue as a monk and that I would disrobe and go back to the United States. And I told this decision to Venerable Nyanaponika and he regretted it very much. But he thought that I had to make my own decisions so he didn't try to compel me, though he felt that I would have been justified in continuing as a monk rather than conceding to my parent's wishes. But I felt that maybe this was necessary to do. I actually fixed the date that I would disrobe. I was already making arrangements with my parents to get the ticket for the trip back to the United States.
It was about two or three weeks away from the time I was scheduled to disrobe and one day I was sitting up in my room ... at this point I was living in the Forest Hermitage with Venerable Nyanaponika - this was after Venerable Khantipalo left Sri Lanka. Then I was just thinking that the whole purpose of my life was to live as a Buddhist monk and if I were to disrobe just to satisfy my parent's wishes it would be like nullifying all that was of value and of meaning, of significance in my own life, just to fulfill their expectations. So I told this to Venerable Nyanaponika and he said 'in that case go back but go back as a monk', and I thought 'why not'.
So then I went back, this was in August 1977, then I went back to the United States as a monk. And when my parents, who were expecting me to come down in lay clothes, saw me coming in my saffron robes with an alms bowl on my back and the monk's umbrella in my hand ... this is what my father told me later, they had seen me before I saw them. My mother said to my father, 'that's not our son, let's go' and she actually started to walk away from the airport but my father held her back and they took me...
So they took you home?
- Yeah, yeah. But of course they were very unhappy with this.
And this was in NY or this was in ... ?
- At this time they were living in Long Island, outside NYC.
But you went to stay for some time at the Sri Lankan Buddhist Vihara, so was this at the very beginning of that stay?
- No. You see the first place I stayed when I went back to the United States was called the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America.
- It's in New Jersey. In a place called Washington, New Jersey. It was established by a Kalmuk lama named Geshe Wangyal who was one of the first ... You see there was a Kalmuk community which had come to the United States, I think during the period when Stalin was persecuting the Kalmuk Mongolians, or it could even have been immediately after the Bolshevik revolution - I'm not sure when. But they had come to the United States and settled in southern New Jersey.
..and set up a center?
- The Buddhist centers would have come some time later. And Geshe Wangyal he was a Kalmuk Mongolian. He had studied in Tibet and China then they had set up a monastery for him and he attracted to himself some of the first Americans who studied Tibetan Buddhism. Later they became quite prominent scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, like Robert Thurman, Jeffrey Hopkins - they were originally students of Geshe Wangyal.
So how long did you visit your parents?
- Well, I stayed with my parents a couple of weeks then I went to stay at this Lamaist Buddhist monastery. And I wanted also to study some aspects of Indian Mahayana Buddhism through the Tibetan. So actually I studied Sanskrit and Tibetan there - to some extent. But then I visited Washington D.C., this would have been Vesak 1978, and I visited the Washington Buddhist Vihara and met monks there.
Some of the lay followers, the American lay followers of the Washington Buddhist Vihara, then requested me to come and take up residence at the Washington Buddhist Vihara. And so then I left New Jersey and I came to settle in Washington D.C. This would be in May 1979. Then I stayed at the Washington Buddhist Vihara for three years till 1982.
Then I felt that I wanted to go back to Asia in order to do more intensive training and meditation. My original plan was to go to Burma and to practice meditation with Mahasi Sayadaw. And I started to make plans to go to Burma. Several years earlier, Burma started to loosen up its visa policy and they were giving long term residence visas to foreigners who would come and stay at Buddhist monasteries and meditation centers just for the purpose of practicing meditation, or studying Buddhism. And so I was hoping to ride in on that wave. But just when I started to make the application, then Burma went through one of these paranoid phases and threw all the foreigners out of the country and was refusing to give any long term visas.
Yes, I remember that. They ordered all foreigners to leave the country within 48 hours.
- Yeah, yeah.
Yes, I remember that very clearly.
- I think that there were some Americans who said that they had planned to come to Burma for the purpose of meditation and then after they would do a period of meditation then without permits, without the approval of the authorities they would just on their own started to travel about. And then the Burmese government became afraid that these were spies going about disguised as monks. And they started to ... the safest policy was to just get them all out of the country. Okay, so then I had to reroute my trip and so I decided to come back to Sri Lanka. It was in May 1982, that I arrived back in Sri Lanka.
When were you made head of the B.P.S.?
- Well, I became the editor of the B.P.S. in 1984. When I first came back to Sri Lanka, I spent my first Vassa together with Venerable Nyanaponika. But after the Vassa I went to a different monastery. This was a meditation monastery called Nissarana Vanaya, Mitirigula Nissarana Vannaya ... and I stayed.
Is that Mitirigula?
- That's Mitiri ... yeah. A place called Mitirigula. But now there are two monasteries in Mitirigula.
So Mitirigula is the name of an area?
- Mitirigula is a village, and the monastery itself is called Nissarana Vanaya - Nissarana Vana, the Grove, or Forest, of Deliverance. But then on the hill just beyond Nissarana Vanaya, another monastery was started. Originally, that was to be a study monastery but the study program never worked out there ... never worked out successfully. Then the Burmese monk, the pupil of Pa Auk Sayadaw named U Agganya was invited to go there and give meditation training to Sri Lankan monks. And he was very popular, quite successful. Because now this other monastery that was originally set up as the study center turned into an intensive meditation center teaching the Pa Auk system of meditation.
The other monastery still functions more or less as a meditation monastery but after the death of Venerable Nyanarama the quality of meditation training there has declined. It is virtually turning into an old-age home for monks, rather than a place for younger monks who are really keen on intensive practice.
During Venerable Nyanaponika's last years you were ... he was living with you... or?
- Well, I'd say that I was living with him. While I was at Nissarana Vanaya I stayed with him on and off for about two years ... close to two years. Then in 1984 Venerable Nyanaponika was already was in his 80s, getting quite weak, and I felt that I should go to stay with him to look after him.
And then about a month after I came to stay with him he told me that he would like to pass on the editorship of the BPS to me. I wasn't quite prepared to take it but I agreed to do so. And so he retired as editor but he remained president for another four years till 1988 then he decided to retire from the presidency and he asked me to succeed him as president, which I did. But he continued to live on till 1994, he was 93 at the time of his death.
So you've brought us up to 1984 ... can you bring us up to the present? Any other interesting anecdotes or events in your life?
- Okay, well in 1984 then I took over as editor for the Buddhist Publications Society. In 1988 I became president then I lived on constantly there with Venerable Nyanaponika, very rarely leaving the Forest Hermitage, in looking after him quite diligently. He remained in quite good health up till the last few weeks of his life, because he was getting weaker and his eyesight had deteriorated. His eyesight really started to go in 1988 and by about late 1989 he was not able to read anymore. So each evening we would have our evening tea and I would read to him for about one hour from various books and I would also record what I read so that later he could listen again. And I tried to obtain tapes from various teachers for him to listen to. My own life I think is rather flat.
I don't think so! I think its event packed.
- No, if I were to write a biography from that period on it might be difficult to fill two or three pages.
So you've completed several very important translations from the Pali Canon ... being the Majjhimanikaya and the two volume set of the Samyuttanikaya.
- Yeah, yeah.
So that's quite ... and some other editions that I haven't mentioned, some smaller booklets, and you do the very important ... uh..is it the B.P.S. newsletter?
Is that four times a year?
- Well, now it comes out three times a year.
That I wouldn't call flat ...
- How the edition of the Majjhimanikaya came about ... Well actually the proposal for the Samyuttanikaya came out even earlier than the Majjhimanikaya. And it was none other than Phra Khantipalo, who initiated that. He felt that there was an urgent need for a new translation of the Samyuttanikaya, and I had already started this practice of translating Canonical suttas from the Canon and attaching to them translations of large portions of the commentary and sub-commentary.
The first work in this genre that I did was the Brahmajala Sutta together with its commentary and sub-commentary. I did this on the urging of Venerable Nyanaponika, he was very keen to have this done. And many years earlier he had translated large portions of the commentary and sub-commentary to the Brahmajala Sutta, which he had kept in a notebook. So I really learned very much, to read and understand the commentaries and sub-commentaries from these notebooks of Venerable Nyanaponika.
The style of the commentaries and sub-commentaries, particularly the Tikas can be quite difficult ... because the sub-commentator writes in the style of the classical Sanskrit commentator. You know, like Shankhara, well he preceded Shankharacariya, but its in a similar style, very terse, using very complex sentences with a lot of abstract nouns linked together by various indirect cases. So it's quite a project to translate the sub-commentary sentence by sentence ... I really learned to understand the sub-commentarial style from these notebooks of Venerable Nyanaponika. And then I put together this Brahmajala Sutta with the commentary and sub-commentary.
And that was printed by itself once.
- It is, it still is printed by itself. It's called the Discourse on the All Embracing Net of Views. Then after that I did the first Discourse of the Majjhimanikaya, this is the Mulapariyaya Sutta and its commentary and sub-commentary, then the Mahanidana Sutta, that's the Great Discourse on Causation, and the Samannaphala Sutta, the second discourse in the Dighanikaya -- The Discourse on the Fruits of Recluseship.
So Venerable Khantipalo liked my translations and he proposed to me that I do a new translation of the Samyuttanikaya for the Pali Text Society. But I was somewhat doubtful that the Pali Text Society was interested in taking on new translations. Bhikkhu Khantipalo wrote to Richard Gombrich who was then the secretary of the P.T.S. asking him to write to me to assure me that they would be interested in new translations. And Gombrich did so. This was in 1985. But just about that same time Wisdom Publications had written to Venerable Nyanaponika ... you see, Venerable Khantipalo had put together 90 suttas from the Majjhimanikaya that were translated by Bhikkhu Nyanamoli and these were published in Bangkok in three volumes by Mahamakut Press called A Treasury of the Buddha's Words.
Nick Ribush of Wisdom Publications found out about those three books, these three volumes, and he had the idea to have an entire translation of the Majjhimanikaya published. He asked Venerable Nyanaponika if he would be able to edit the remaining 32 discourses of the Majjhimanikaya that Venerable Nyanamoli had translated. But Venerable Nyanaponika, at this point, was in his mid-eighties already and he thought it was just too much for himself to take on. And he asked me if I would be willing to do it and I said okay.
And so I started doing this in 1985 and as I went through then I felt that some of Venerable Nyanamoli's terminology had to be altered. He was using a rather experimental terminology, which would not have been so readily comprehensible to an ordinary reader in English. I made these alterations with the approval of Venerable Nyanaponika who totally endorsed them. So I worked on that from 1985 till about early 1989 because I wasn't able to do this full time. I also had to do the editing for the Buddhist Publications Society. It was April 1989 that I sent the completed manuscript off to Wisdom Publications and it remained in limbo with them for about three years since they couldn't find anybody to oversee the project. This was the age before computers had come into general usage, at least in Sri Lanka. And so what I submitted to Wisdom was a typed script, typed on a manual typewriter. And so, they had various people enter the text into computer format using different computers and different editorial styles. And then they needed someone to oversee the whole project but they couldn't find anybody for several years and it remained in limbo till one person named John Bullitt came along and he took the responsibility for overseeing the text preparation, copy editing of the whole work. So finally it came out in 1995.
After I finished the Majjhima, several months later I started translating the Samyuttanikaya ... this would have been about June 1989. I started doing the Samyuttanikaya not with the first volume, which is the collection of verses, since the verses can be very difficult and I thought that if I started doing the verses first I would quickly get discouraged and give up on the project. And so I started with volume two, the first of the prose volumes and so I did volume two and three pretty quickly but then I got involved in other projects, books at the B.P.S. had to be edited, also various things came, even for several years I couldn't return to the Samyuttanikaya for so many years. Then I would return to it for periods then back to other things. Not that I was wasting my time or throwing my time away on trifling enjoyments, but various other projects called for my attention and deflected it away from the Samyutta. So I couldn't return to that, sometimes for several years, then I would work on it.
I must have finished the first draft in 1993. Then I had to prepare the notes and the verse collection was very, very difficult I went through it several times making drastic alterations, as I compiled the notes then I saw places where I interpreted certain verses wrongly and I had to retranslate the verses. And the preparation of the notes was very time consuming, a year was spent on the notes alone. And so it was completed ... I was ... diddling on again accepting invitations to various projects, to various engagements, and so on.
So finally, Wisdom Publications gave me a deadline, which was in a way a lifesaver, in that it forced me to put my attention wholeheartedly on the Samyutta and complete it. I think the deadline was something like September 21st, 1999, and I completed all of the work ... you know, everthing that had to be done ... and put everything on disks and sent the disks off to them by courrier on September 17 so that the disks arrived at their office on September 21.
That's what we call a close call.
- Yeah, but nothing would have happened if I missed the deadline. They wanted to enter it into their catalogue for a particular release date. So if I missed the deadline then it wouldn't have gotten into the catalogue and so their release would have been postponed for another season. Their releases are done three times a year, so that it would have had to have been postponed from I think a spring or summer release to a fall or winter release. It wouldn't have meant that I would have been killed [laugh] ... for missing the deadline.
So you've brought us up to the present ...
- But one thing I didn't mention is the problem with the headache. This seems to be some type of karmic destiny that I've had which is ... I've repeated this story so often to different doctors it gets boring to repeat it in detail over and over. But starting in 1976 early 77 I started to get this headache condition which gradually grew worse, and I consulted various doctors.
First, the problem developed around the eyes so I thought something might be wrong with the eyes so I saw optometrists and they led me on to EMT specialists who thought that there could have been inflammation in the sinuses and they passed me on to neurologists thinking that something could have been wrong with the nerves. But none of these doctors could find anything organically wrong. Then I tried different types of medical treatment, not only western medicine but Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Sri Lankan herbal medicine, Chinese acupuncture, homeopathic medicine, Tibetan medicine. Now here in Singapore, along with western medicine I'm also trying Chinese herbal medicine and massage therapy. So this headache has been quite a major obstruction to my work and other activities through the years.
So hopefully through the power of your punna these will soon come to an end.
- It seems that it will take a lot of punna [laugh].
One of the reasons that I wanted you to tell us your story is that in the past there have been many western monks, this is not a new thing, and with the passing of Venerable Nyanaponika ... I think that we lose a lot without asking pertinent questions at the right time. So I'm very glad that you've agreed to tell us your story. And he [Suchao Ploychum] wanted me to ask you about your views of Buddhism in Sri Lanka ... what are your impressions, do you think it will remain a vital place for westerners to seek ordination and training there?
- Okay, well rather sadly I have to say that my impression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is that to a large extent it has deteriorated. In the older generation you could find monks who were quite good scholars and sincere practitioners. Now, because of various changes, political changes in the country, economic changes the large impact of westernization I would say that the quality of the monastic life has declined a lot.
There are still pockets of monks who are very good, very earnest, very dedicated. Particularly within this community or organization called the Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sanstava which is a distant cousin of the Dhammayut nikaya in Thailand.
Could you repeat that name clearly?
- Okay, Sri Kalyani Yogashrama Sanstava. Sanstava is something like association of the Yogashramas ... meditation monasteries. Sri kalyani ... I think its name comes from the Kalyani river in Burma in which the ordinations were performed by the monastic community which is the parent of the Ramanyanikaya ... it must be in the Ramanyadesa of Burma. This was a kind of association of monasteries established by one Venerable Jinavamsa who is still alive today at the age of ... could be 95, 96, and Venerable Sri Nyanarama who was the meditation master at Mitirigula Nissarana Vanaya monastery.
The original motivation for the starting of this organization was to revive the true monastic life in Sri Lankan monastic Buddhism based on close adherence to the Vinaya, study of the texts ... very precise and careful study of the text, and the practice of meditation. And this particular monastic community has been in rather close contact in recent years with Pa Awk Sayadaw in Burma and some of the monks from this organization have gone to Burma to practice with Pa Auk Sayadaw, and others are studying in Sri Lanka under Pa Auk Sayadaw's disciple U Agganya. So I'd say that this is a quite healthy stream within the Sri Lanka sangha.
Otherwise, ... outside of this organization there are other good monks here and there. But by and large I have to say that monasteries have become rather depressing places. Many of the younger monks get ordained solely for the purpose of pursuing their education, if they are capable they go to the universities, get their degrees, then disrobe. Others remain as monks but they work at salaried jobs as teachers, which I would say is not so condemnable in itself but other monks who are rather clever and enterprising become involved in various activities which go quite against the whole grain of the monastic life, involvement in business, finance, politics.
So for westerners who wish to ordain and receive proper training I find it rather difficult to recommend Sri Lanka. Though there are a few places I could suggest, like Nissarana Vanaya, if a monk is capable of taking care of himself with a little outside guidance, then its still a suitable place. The other place connected with the strict meditative training ... I say that its too narrow in its focus for a new monk who needs a broader base of training, some guidance in the monastic rules, a general introduction to the teaching, the Dhamma, in a place like that one doesn't find the training, one finds only the exclusive teaching of meditation according to a particular technique. A place like that is suitable for a monk who has already completed his basic training and wants some intensive practice in meditation.
So the opportunities for a foreigner coming to Sri Lanka ... there are opportunities to ordain ... often monks will have no hesitation to give the formal ordination to a candidate but once they get ordained they largely have to make out on their own to get proper instruction in the Dhamma.
Are there any closing statements you would like to offer?
- I think I've covered everything.
Thank you, Bhante.
interview with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche
The following interview took place in his quarters at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal, in late November, 1996.
Rinpoche, could you please shed some light on the importance of structured studies in your tradition of Buddhism?
Our main teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, is the truly and completely enlightened one and is often described as the "the loving kinsman of all sentient beings, who even without being requested works for their welfare." As the Fourth Guide of this aeon, he gave us, his followers, the Dharma Wheels of the three vehicles. It is both an immense fortune and great merit that we can study, reflect, and apply these teachings.
There are several things we need to gain a thorough comprehension of these flawless teachings. First need a good deal of learning. Next we need to reflect upon what we learnt. Finally we need to give rise within our stream of being to the knowledge resulting from meditation training. It is difficult to accomplish an accurate knowledge resulting from meditation training without having the basis of learning and reflection.
There are a few different types of approaches to learning and reflection. For instance, if someone simply wants to study and reflect for the sake of being able to practice personally, he or she doesn't need to engage in detailed studies. On the other hand, someone may feel the need to understand the entirety of the three vehicles taught by the Buddha. For such an individual we have at hand the detailed teachings of Buddhism: the Kangyur and the Tengyur, and, in brief, the major scriptures of Sutra and Tantra. Since the words of the Buddha are both deep and vast, we cannot gain a full comprehension of their depth and vastness without some study of these major scriptures of Sutra and Tantra.
At the present age of the planet Earth, there is an increasing number of people, from all countries, races and tongues, who have interest in and fondness for the Buddha's teachings. During my travels through Europe, America, Southeast Asia, and especially during my two visits to Russia, I heard again and again these sentiments, "I really want to study the Buddha's words! I saved up money for three or four years; I have had this intention since five or six years to really learn Buddhism! Isn't it true that one needs to come to India and Nepal? What kind of place do you have for me to come and study?" I have encountered these types of inquiries numerous times.
Honestly, around fifteen years ago I had the plan to form a study center here in Nepal. This is a special country, the land in which Lord Buddha was born, and so I felt it appropriate that Nepal should harbor a center for higher studies of both Sutra and Tantra. I envisioned a facility that would be open for people of all races. It has my sincere wish that such a learning center would be actualized. Until now I haven't succeeded in carrying out this aspiration.
During the years many of my students have learned Tibetan and among them several can act as translators and interpreters. Other of my students can read the scriptures in Tibetan and understand their meaning. However, we haven't formed an institution that could accurately be called a Shedra, a Center of Higher Buddhist Studies.
Buddhists are of many different types, and have various aspirations: some want to gain a comprehensive understanding, some want to chiefly focus on practice. They seem to study less, only what is beneficial for practice. There is nothing wrong in that; it is perfectly all right.
For the people who wish to do in-depth studies of both the Sutra and Tantra systems, the most conducive environment is that of a Shedra. Without a Shedra, in-depth studies rarely happen. To undertake the forming of a study center, I presently have several very good teachers, several khenpos, as well as teachers for the general topics of knowledge. We definitely have an appropriate number of teachers available. The first steps now are to fix a time to begin, a study program, and a curriculum.
The other day I had a meeting with a number of my students and they rejoiced in the idea. I therefore feel that the opportune time here in Nepal has come for teaching and studying the major Buddhist scriptures as the main body, and the general topics of knowledge as secondary points. This will be very satisfactory for the students. Moreover, such a study center can provide a basis for a thorough and complete body of studies in the Buddha's flawless words. This will be taught and disseminated to whoever has interest throughout the world. That would be the effect.
The impact of a proper study center is to remove the veils of lack of understanding, partial understanding, misunderstanding, and doubt, and to gain a correct and exact comprehension of the Buddha's flawless words. These are the reasons for why a Shedra is of such a substantial importance.
In earlier days of Buddhism in India, there has been an untold number of learned and accomplished masters who appeared from the study and practice centers of Nalanda and Vikramashila. They were like the stars in the sky at night. In Tibet also, innumerable centers for learning and practice at the various major monasteries were established. From these an enormous number of learned and accomplished masters have appeared, like a lake overflowing.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to follow these past examples. What an opportunity to facilitate the engendering of a number of learned and accomplished masters here in the Kathmandu Valley. Certainly such activity will further peace in the world at large. Ultimately, it will move us all in the direction of liberation and the unexcelled state of omniscient enlightenment.
In short, let me make clear that it rarely happens that someone achieves the exact and unmistaken knowledge resulting from meditation training without some basis of learning and reflection. Therefore it is my deep-felt wish and aspiration to create a learning center in which study, reflection, and meditation training are practiced hand in hand.
A learning center is the support for the teachings of Lord Buddha and for the happiness and welfare of sentient beings. I undoubtedly expect that my students will rejoice and take interest in this plan. I feel confident that this project grows out of a pure altruistic intention. I pray that it will come to completion. Moreover, I am also asking all of you to add in your well-wishes and assistance. Tashi delek!
Please give us a summary of the first texts you intend to have taught at this Shedra.
After having become a Buddhist, what should be our main practice? We should focus on compassion as the most eminent method and the realization of egolessness and emptiness as the most eminent knowledge. There is one scripture of major importance in which compassion and knowledge are taught in combination, and that is the great bodhisattva Shantideva's Bodhicharya Avatara, Entering the Way of a Bodhisattva.
Anyone who studies the Bodhicharya Avatara and continues by applying its meaning in his or her life will have a tangible result. The effect will be that we become more gentle, disciplined, loving and compassionate. Particularly our insight will deepen. At the same time, attachment, aggression and delusion will decrease. This text is not only a major scripture, it is personal advice as well. There are so many reasons for why I consider it excellent to study, reflect upon and practice Bodhicharya Avatara.
Another text is the Mipham Rinpoche's Khenjuk, Gateway to Knowledge. It contains the summary of all the sutras, and unravels the difficult key points that form the basis for both Sutra and Tantra. It is very complete. Furthermore, it is a dictionary of Dharma terminology, and a condensation of all major Buddhist scriptures. In this way the Khenjuk is like a key in the sense that, if someone knows it, he or she can understand the technical terms in most other scriptures. This is why it is most helpful for reading any of the other major Buddhist texts. It is like having the door opened to all of them. Accordingly, it is called Gateway to Knowledge. I consider the study of this text of an immense help to anyone who wants to gain a thorough comprehension of the Buddhist scriptures.
What do you require of someone who wants to join the Shedra?
It would be better for the students to have some prior knowledge of Tibetan writing, meaning some degree of reading ability. It is all right not to know the Tibetan language. As long as you can read, you can absorb the Dharma terminology, the Buddhist key words.
Many learned people have told me that the majority of Buddhist scriptures exist in the Tibetan language. Second is Chinese; after that there is Japanese, Pali, and so forth. Nevertheless, Tibetan is foremost in quantity. Someone who wants to do detailed studies, can study to their heart's delight in the Tibetan medium, without running out of texts.
At first glance, there seems to be a large number of works in the various European languages containing translations of the Buddha's words and the panditas' commentaries. On second thought, we cannot really say that the number is large -- when stacked up against the amount of literature found in the Tibetan Tripitaka, the Kangyur and Tengyur, this number is extremely small.
When comparing with the past number of translations, it seems like a lot of Buddhist books are finding the light of day. Unfortunately, I don't feel the Western world has succeeded in achieving a complete curriculum consisting of root text and commentaries in perfect translation. There are still only fragments.
In the Tibetan language, we don't have this problem. Consequently, someone who comes here after already being able to read Tibetan, can immediately be taught the scriptures. Otherwise, he or she first has to learn the Tibetan alphabet and reading skills.
Will someone without prior knowledge of Tibetan get a chance to receive teachings and Tibetan language lessons?
For sure they will! We always have translators for people who don't understand Tibetan during a Dharma discourse. However, for someone who intends to study a wider range of important scriptures interpreters won't be satisfactory. They won't suffice. It is difficult to maintain a uniform vocabulary during on-the-spot translation of a variety of texts. Also, isn't it true that the Dharma terminology has yet to be finally established in the European languages? That is a problem. For instance, words like 'dharmakaya' haven't found a conclusive Western form.
Will enrollment fees
Our primary objective in creating a Buddhist institute is to facilitate the students' learning and education. At the same time, the teachers need to be supported. I want to keep study fees at a reasonable level, neither too high nor too low. The Western teachers do have expenses for visas. The guideline is to keep a level that is reasonable and appropriate.
you aim at educating people to be qualified Buddhist teachers or simply more qualified
in their personal practice?
A Buddhist Shedra should cover both objectives. Learning and reflection definitely help in one's personal practice; it helps against misunderstanding and sidetracks, as well as being able to progress quickly and smoothly. Someone who really takes the understanding to heart is able to reach deep levels of experience and realization in a very short time.
On the other hand, don't think that Buddhist studies are only meant for individual practice, for the personal attainment of liberation and enlightenment. It is meant to be of benefit for countless sentient beings, and therefore it is important to share one's understanding of the Dharma with others. It is important to be a teacher who helps others to understand the Dharma. I feel that is valuable when some does so in a way that corresponds to their individual learning, insight and realization.
A great percentage of Westerners'
practice seems to be focused on Vajrayana. Do you plan to include Vajrayana scriptures
in the curriculum?
The Sutra system is the foundation, the support, for Vajrayana. At first it is good to thoroughly establish the nature of all things by means of scriptural statements and intelligent reasoning according to the Sutra system. Once having done this, it is much more easy to comprehend the intent of the tantras; more easy to gain confidence and certainty; more easy to accommodate the depth of meaning. That is the reason why traditionally one studies the Sutra system before delving into the tantric studies. We will therefore also go through some amount of Sutra studies at the beginning.
Vajrayana is of the primary importance, and for sure we must learn, reflect and practice Vajrayana! But it does come later. I plan to include scriptures such as the Guhyagarbha Tantra, the Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, and the Hevajra Tantra.
How will the curriculum be structured?
The first couple of years will cover the most important root texts of the Sutra system. After that will be Vajrayana. There will not be time enough for many details, so we will concentrate on the scriptures of vital importance.
A few days earlier, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche had expressed the wish to provide better facilities for foreigners' study of Buddhism in Nepal by establishing a Shedra, a center for higher Buddhist studies. He encouraged his students to take it upon themselves to make his aspiration a reality. In this spirit, Erik Pema Kunsang requested and translated the replies to the above questions.
interview with Dr. Nick Ribush for Eastern
This interview appeared in the January-April, 2003, issue of Eastern Horizon, a publication of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia.
Dr Nicholas, thank you for coming all the way from America to share the Dharma with us. In order to expand further your talk at the Global Conference (http://www.lamayeshe.com/about/articles/heart.shtml), permit me to present a few questions to you.
No, thank you for inviting me to Malaysia to meet old and new Dharma friends. I'm happy to try to answer a few questions but I'm afraid I don't know much.
Many teachings of the Buddha were meant for the monks. Does this make Buddhism more relevant for the monastic rather than the common laity?
First of all, I think we could say that anyone, even a layperson, who takes an interest in and practices Buddhism is far from being ordinary, or common. Such people are extremely fortunate. They also have the extra responsibility to use the Dharma for the benefit of others. However, just because certain teachings were given to an audience of monks doesn't mean they are not relevant for others. We can say that certain Vinaya teachings were meant for monks, but there are others that are equally applicable to the laity. For example, the five precepts that lay people take in order to become serious practicing Buddhists are the first step on the path to enlightenment.
What are the preliminary practices for someone who wishes to be a Buddhist but also wants to remain a householder with a job and family?
The first preliminary practice is to take refuge. However, refuge should be taken with understanding, not simply because one's family is Buddhist, one's friend is a Buddhist, one's country is Buddhist, or for some other ritualistic purpose. Taking refuge is a natural outcome of the recognition that samsara is suffering. There are two causes for taking refuge. The first is the fear of suffering, which kind of pushes us from behind. There are actually three kinds of sufferings to fear and therefore three levels of cause for taking refuge. The first suffering to fear is that of the three lower realms: the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms. The second is one's own suffering in any realm of existence, not only lower but also upper. Here, one takes refuge in order to attain nirvana; this is the motivation for self-liberation. The third level of fear is that of not only one's own suffering in samsara, but that of all other sentient beings' suffering. In this case, one takes refuge to attain enlightenment in order to free all other sentient beings and lead them to enlightenment. Whichever level of suffering we fear, we see that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are the solution to it.
The second cause for taking refuge is full confidence in the Triple Gem to save, or protect, us. This confidence, or faith, sort of pulls us along the path from in front. There's kind of a carrot and stick approach when taking refuge. Fear is the stick; faith is the carrot. We understand how the Buddha overcame his own suffering and with compassion shared his teachings with all of us. The Buddha is like a doctor for our minds, which are full of greed, hatred and ignorance. We also understand how his teachings, the Dharma, can lead us out of samsaric suffering to complete enlightenment and are medicine for the deluded mind. Thus, Dharma is the actual refuge. Finally, we understand the qualities of Sangha, the community of monks and nuns. Actually, there are absolute and relative Sangha. The community of monks and nuns constitutes relative Sangha, while absolute Sangha is anyone who has realized the ultimate nature of his or her mind and has therefore transcended ego. Sangha is like the nurse who helps us take our medicine--those who help us along the path.
Once we have become Buddhist by taking refuge in the Triple Gem, our obligation is to follow the law of karma: to purify past negative karma and refrain from creating any more. To guide us in this, we need to know the ten non-virtuous actions: three non-virtuous actions of body--killing, stealing and sexual misconduct; four non-virtuous actions of speech--telling lies, speaking harshly, divisive speech and gossiping; and three non-virtuous actions of mind--ill will, covetousness and wrong views. Understanding and avoiding these non-virtuous actions helps prevent us from creating negative karma. This is where we take the five precepts, as I mentioned before, vowing not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual misconduct, not to tell lies, and to avoid intoxicants. This keeps us firmly on the Dharma path. Preliminary practices help us purify negative karma, avoid planting more negative seeds, accumulate virtuous actions and enhance the virtuous qualities that we already have. Preliminary practice can be summarized as: "Avoid evil, do good, and purify your mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha."
In addition to the practice of morality, which we do on the basis of refuge, as lay practitioners we also engage in meditation to calm, control and understand our mind. Most of us don't live in a cave, monastery or retreat center, so to practice meditation effectively it's best if we can reserve a small room or corner in our house for meditation. Set up a small shrine with a Buddha statue to represent the Buddha's holy body, a sutra text to represent the Buddha's Holy speech and a stupa to represent Buddha's holy mind. For added inspiration, we can also put a picture of our personal teacher on our shrine. On or in front of the shrine we can make daily offerings of flowers, incense and so forth. In the Tibetan tradition, each morning we also offer seven bowls of water. We can also put a money box there and make daily money offerings to the Triple Gem. Then, on auspicious days, like Vesak, we can take the money out of the box and offer it to our teacher, monks or nuns, or our temple or Dharma center. Making offerings like this is an excellent way of developing the all-important practice of giving.
In the Tibetan tradition we also have the formal preliminaries that can be practiced by monks, nuns or lay people. In the Geluk tradition, which is one of the four main Tibetan schools, there are nine preliminary practices: prostration, mandala offering, Vajrasattva recitation-meditation, refuge, guru mantra recitation, Samayavajra recitation-meditation, Dorje Khadro (Vajradaka) fire puja (where we symbolically burn our negativities of greed, hatred and ignorance by offering black sesame into the mouth of the deity Dorje Khadro visualized in a bed of red-hot coals), water bowl offering, and tsa-tsas (little votive images of buddhas, bodhisattvas and so forth made of clay or plaster). We do 100,000 repetitions of each in intensive retreat or daily practice, gradually accumulating the required total. Each practice, however, entails using body, speech and mind.
These preliminary practices purify or enrich our mind so that when we do more direct meditation on the step of the path to enlightenment it is easier to gain realizations.
Would you classify these practices as ritual?
You imply that there's something wrong with ritual, but it's not necessarily so. What we have to do is try to make whatever ritual practice we do meaningful. The rituals I am talking about have been practiced by Dharma masters for centuries and have come down to us because they work. It is important to stress these practices have to be carried our properly with the right motivation, concentration and dedication. What I've been taught is that bodhicitta--the determination to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings is the best motivation. Good concentration means not letting our minds wander, while being constantly aware of what we are doing. We also meditate on emptiness, or ultimate reality, in order not to get caught up in ordinary appearances. When we finish the practice we are doing, we dedicate the merits to enlightenment of all sentient beings. Thus, motivation, concentration and dedication are all in harmony with our overall aim.
Are there many stories of householders who led spiritually enriching lives during the Buddha's time?
I don't know if there are many such stories or not. Many of the teachings that have come down to us from the Buddha's time have been transmitted by monks, who might have a tendency to omit or diminish the role played by householders. In the Buddha's time, there might not have been as many householder practitioners as there are now. In those days, people's karma was better and more of those who were interested in Buddhism became monks. One famous householder was the bodhisattva Vimalakirti, whose wisdom may be found in The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, translated by Professor Robert Thurman, where he expounds both the profound and extensive aspects of the Mahayana to many hundreds of thousands of bodhisattvas, arhats, gods and others--an inspiration to the rest of us lay people that you don't necessarily have to be a monk to realize and teach the Dharma.
In our modern society, what values can we apply in our lives as householders?
Modern society exhibits a tendency towards competitiveness, greed, materialism and aggression. As Buddhist householders, we need to counter these tendencies, at least in ourselves, thereby offering a positive example to our children and anybody else we come into contact with. We must keep our precepts and meditate daily to maintain our calm. We also need to develop a good heart, and show kindness to and have compassion for others. Furthermore, we need to uphold the Dharma and make it more available to all. We need to support our Dharma center and the Sangha. In addition, we should be less materialistic and try to live simply, using only what we need for basic shelter, food, clothing and so forth to take care of ourselves physically. We should be content with less, and whatever extra we have, should share it others.
In terms of social responsibility, we need to speak up if politicians are doing something wrong, especially on behalf of the poor, hungry, homeless, disadvantaged, disabled, sick and so forth. We should also speak up for disarmament and against war and violence, promote interracial and inter-religious harmony and say and do whatever we can to protect the environment. Overpopulation is another social problem that seriously affects the Earth. We need to slow down or even arrest population growth so that the planet can heal. Maybe all us householders should become celibate monks and nuns!
In all of this, the Dharma center is very important. Here, like-minded people can come together to discuss important social issues that affect their society and, as a group, see how they can work together with other groups to seek solutions to the problems that affect us all.
We need to have a way of transforming our daily actions into Dharma. In his book, Making Life Meaningful, Lama Zopa Rinpoche speaks about the importance of right motivation and how to generate it. He also talks about the actual practice, how to generate bodhicitta every moment, no matter what we are doing. For example, since we do a lot of walking, Lama Zopa tells us how to walk with emptiness, with dependent arising, walking with impermanence and so forth. When we understand how to walk mindfully in such ways, we can apply the same principles to our other daily activities, such as working, taking care of our child, eating, sleeping, experiencing sickness, and so forth.
The first thought that should come into our mind when we wake in the morning is how fortunate we are to still be alive. We should think, "How many people died in their sleep last night? How fortunate I am to still be able to alive to be able to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. This could be my last day on Earth, therefore, I am going to make every moment as meaningful as possible by never separating from the precious bodhicitta." In this way we always remember impermanence and death and create great merit by imbuing every action with bodhicitta.
In the book, Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaches three levels of positive motivation. The lowest level of positive motivation is simply to gain a good rebirth as a human or a god. This is quite limited, because even though it allows us to avoid lower rebirths, we are still in samsara. The second level of motivation is the aspiration to attain liberation from all of samsara, nirvana. The highest level of motivation is to seek not only our own liberation, but also that of all others. In this beginningless cycle of death and rebirth, other beings have helped us in every possible way, especially with our Dharma practice and liberation, and it is selfish and cruel to ignore them and seek our own happiness alone. Therefore, we must work for the greatest happiness of others by saving them from the cycle of death and rebirth and leading them to enlightenment. In other words, we seek our own enlightenment to gain a tool by which we can lead others to enlightenment. This book is available on our Web site, www.lamayeshe.com. Here, the free book can be ordered or downloaded as a pdf file.
Whether we are monastics or laity, we all face problems in our everyday life. Is there a Buddhist approach to solving problems that arise?
Of course. The entire Buddhist teaching is the answer to this question. I believe that even when the Buddha was asked abstruse metaphysical points, he would refuse to answer and simply say, "I teach one thing and one thing only--suffering and the relief of suffering." In this question, you mention "problems," but problems and suffering are the same thing.
It's true: whether we are ordained or lay, we all face problems. These tend to arise from our pursuit of ordinary happiness, pleasures of the senses. However, such happiness is merely suffering in disguise. For example, when we are hungry, we eat food, we feel happy. We identify such change as happiness, but it is not true happiness, just less suffering. Actually, our entire mind-body complex, which is created by delusion and karma, is the home of suffering. We need to see this and generate renunciation not only of the result, suffering, but its cause: delusion and suffering. We have to see that this world of cyclic existence is suffering and in it, there is no true happiness, no security.
Once we understand this, we can also appreciate the suffering that others are going through. Thus we can develop not only renunciation of our own suffering, but also develop compassion for other sentient beings, who, like us, since beginningless time, have been experiencing the dreadful sufferings that we have.
The First Noble Truth teaches us the various levels of suffering: suffering of suffering, suffering of change, and pervasive suffering. The Second Noble Truth explains the cause of suffering. If we do not want suffering, it is only logical that we understand the cause of suffering, which is created not by others but by our own mind. Because our mind is full the three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance, we create negative karma. Sooner or later, this ripens into suffering. Therefore, if we don't want to suffer, we must stop creating its cause.
Furthermore, since we have been creating negative karma since beginningless time, our mind is full of unripened seeds of future suffering. In order to eradicate these, the Buddha taught the four opponent powers. These are the antidotes to future suffering. However, not only do we have to destroy the seeds of suffering planted in this and previous lives, we also have to stop planting more. As I said before, as lay people, we take the five precepts to help us avoid creating negative karma.
However, when problems arise, as they inevitably do, we can also learn to experience them with happiness. We can think, "This suffering I am experiencing is the ripening of past negative karma that I created. That particular negative karma has now finished. How lucky I am." We can also take the suffering we experience as a teaching on karma--on how we alone create our own suffering and how, therefore, it's up to us alone to alleviate it.
We can also use our suffering to develop bodhicitta, the cause of enlightenment, by thinking, "As I am experiencing this problem, so too are many others. May I experience it on their behalf. May my experiencing this problem free others from this and all other sufferings." Instead of wishing with attachment to comfort and aversion to discomfort for it to stop, we should wish for all other beings' sufferings to ripen on ourselves. This is experiencing problems with compassion, with bodhicitta.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says, "We are all selfish, but let us be wise in the way we're selfish." If we know how to be selfish, selfishness is good. What is selfishness? Selfishness is wanting the best for ourselves. If we really want the best for ourselves, what we need to do is to forget about our own happiness and, instead, devote ourselves to the happiness of others. This is wise selfishness. Forgetting about ourselves and dedicating ourselves to the welfare of others brings us the greatest happiness. This is the nature of reality. This is what the Buddha did in his journey through samsara, and we can do the same.
The Buddhist approach to solving problems is to understand problems, know their cause, realize that there is a condition free from problems, and follow the path that leads to that freedom, not for oneself but for the sake of others; to experience the path and then share it with others.
The most difficult problem we face is accepting change. What is the Buddha's advice on how to manage change that affects us?
I don't know if accepting change is the most difficult problem we face, but like all problems, the difficulty in accepting change comes from ignorance, not understanding reality. We want reality to be something other than it is. The reality is that all conditioned things are impermanent; intellectually we know this. Still, when somebody dies we feel shock or regret. But death is natural and we cannot change it. On the gross level, things appear not to change because as they do, something similar arises. What the Buddha teaches is reality and we need to live in accordance with it.
In the Buddhist tradition, our human life is regarded as highly precious. What is the significance of this teaching?
Human life is precious, because it is very rare and extremely useful. There are countless beings in the six realms of cyclic existence and most of them are in the three lower realms. In the three lower realms, most of them are in the hell realm, suffering unbearable heat and cold for numberless eons. Most of the sentient beings that are not in the hell realm are hungry ghosts. Of those that are in neither the hell nor hungry ghost realms, most are animals. Thus, the vast majority of samsaric sentient beings are in the lower realms.
Of those that are not in the lower realms, most are gods. Only a small minority is found in the human realm. The reason for this is because the cause for being born human is very hard to create. Negative karma, which brings lower rebirths, is much easier to create. It is natural for us to act out of ignorance, attachment and anger.
Human life is precious because it is free from the suffering of the lower realms and has the potential to practice Dharma. What Buddhism regards as precious is not just the human life but what we call the perfect human rebirth. Most humans' lives are wasted because they are unable to practice Dharma for various reasons. Humans have been on this Earth for millions of years but the Buddha's teaching became known only about 2,500 years ago. All the human beings born before that time had no opportunity to practice Dharma. Such times are called dark periods because no Dharma teachings are available. The teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha will soon disappear. Humans born after that time will again not have the freedom to practice Dharma. Therefore, just being born human is not enough: you have to be born at the right time and in the right place with the right frame of mind.
Even during the Buddha's time, some people were born in the wrong place. Even many of those born in the right place died before they could listen to the teaching of the Buddha. Even many of those born at the right time and place had impaired senses and were unable to get the full benefit of the Buddha's teachings. Others' minds were closed so that they could not accept the truth of the Dharma. For example, many people today suffer from scientific materialism and believe in no religion. Thus, just being born human is not enough.
There are many other conditions that constitute the precious perfect human rebirth: to be in a place where the lineage of the ordinations exists; to not have created any of the five so-called inexpiable negativities; to have faith in the Tripitaka; to follow the teachings; and to receive the kindness and compassion of Dharma friends and teachers.
In short, there are eighteen attributes, and if we have them all, we must rejoice in our ability to practice Dharma to the full. Even if we don't, we must do the best we can and make sure to create the causes of what's missing for future lives. In this way we can avoid being reborn in the lower realms; we can end the beginningless cycle of death and rebirth and attain the everlasting bliss of nirvana; and, best of all, we can attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. This perfect human rebirth allows us to gain all the realizations of the path to enlightenment: impermanence, karma, renunciation, emptiness, bodhicitta--so many things than no amount of money can ever buy.
Meditating on the perfect human rebirth allows us to overcome loneliness, boredom, depression, anxiety, alienation, low self-esteem, suicidal tendencies and so many other negative states of mind. It gives us the right perspective on our place in the universe and helps us generate compassion for those who do not have this great opportunity to practice Dharma and makes us want to work for their benefit more. In the traditional Tibetan presentation of the steps of the path to enlightenment (lam-rim), meditation on the perfect human rebirth comes right at the beginning and is the rocket fuel that propels us to higher levels of the path and on to enlightenment itself.
We also need to appreciate the rarity of the perfect human rebirth. Why is it hard to get? Because it is hard to create its cause: practice of the six perfections and stainless prayer. Prayer isn't asking the Buddha to give us something for nothing. Prayer is like pouring water on seeds that we ourselves have planted. Prayer links the karmic cause with its certain result. It brings the result closer and makes it ripen sooner. But of course, if we don't first create the cause, our prayers are empty.
Is there a difference between the bliss of nirvana and the bliss of buddhahood?
Yes, there is a huge difference. The greatest bliss that we can experience in samsara is the bliss of single-pointed concentration. On the basis of morality, we can achieve single-pointed concentration, where bliss pervades our entire body and mind and is far greater than any pleasure of the physical senses. Far beyond the bliss of single-pointed concentration is that of nirvana. This is achieved by generating renunciation the whole of samsara, developing single-pointed concentration and meditating on the ultimate nature of the mind. Thus, we cut through the veils of ignorance, transcend our ego and put a final end to the sufferings of samsara. The motivation that leads us to this state is based on limited renunciation of our own suffering. A far greater motivation is renunciation of the suffering that all beings experience. Because the object of the happiness we seek is not just one sentient being, oneself, but all sentient beings, the bliss of buddhahood is far greater than that of nirvana.
Is bodhicitta practiced in the Pali Canon?
I don't know. The practice of bodhicitta may not be in the Pali Canon but the practice of compassion is definitely there. Bodhicitta is based on the compassion for all beings. But the teachings in the Pali Canon are not the only teachings that the Buddha gave. The Buddha taught at different times, in different places and to different kinds of people according to their need and level of mind. The Buddha gave the Mahayana teachings in Sanskrit; he gave Vajrayana teachings in the esoteric form of a deity. Some Buddhist schools do not accept the teachings of other school, but this is very dangerous. One of the worst karmas we can create is to denigrate or belittle the teachings of other schools. At one time or another on our journey to enlightenment we will need all the teachings of the Buddha. If at this time we reject some of the Buddha's teachings we will create an obstacle in our mind to receiving them, and when the time comes that we need them, they will not be there. So even though we may not need certain teachings right now, we should still honor and respect them. Actually, we should rejoice at the existence of all the other religions of the world, even though philosophically, some of their teachings may be contrary to ours. Religion exists to make the world a better place. Sentient beings' minds are so complicated that there is a need for all the various religions of the world. There could not possibly be one religion that suited everybody. Even in Buddhism there are different schools, and in any particular school there are also subdivisions. Out of his great wisdom and compassion, the Buddha taught vast varieties of practices in order to reach as many people as possible. Anyway, from what I've been taught, the main difference between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is the practice of bodhicitta.
What must we do to ensure we live a noble human life so that we have a good rebirth?
We need to live a life based on pure morality. If we want to make the most of our human life, we should probably become monks or nuns, taking as many of the pratimoksha precepts as we can. In addition to those, there are also the bodhisattva and tantric vows. The more precepts we take and keep purely, the better will be our chances of a good rebirth.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama often says that Buddhism can be summed up in the phrase "If you can't help others, at least don't harm them." A noble human life is led on the basis of ahimsa-non-violence; not giving harm to others. On the basis of not giving harm, we should then try to help others as much as we can: materially, physically and mentally. However, the best way to help others is by giving them Dharma. Therefore, we should support our Dharma center, support the propagation of the Buddha's teachings and, best of all, transform our minds themselves into Dharma.
But the purpose of living this life should be more than simply seeking a good rebirth. It should be to free all sentient beings from suffering. In order to do this, we need to become enlightened. It's pretty unlikely that we'll be able to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, so we need to ensure that we'll be able to continue practicing Dharma in future lives. That doesn't mean simply gaining a good rebirth. Rebirth in the god realms is considered a good rebirth but that's not what we want, because we can't practice Dharma there. What we want is an unbroken series of perfect human rebirths until we realize bodhicitta or reach enlightenment. That means we have to make sure we create the right causes, which I mentioned before: practicing the six perfections and making stainless prayers to achieve enlightenment for the sole purpose of enlightening all sentient beings. This is the truly noble life. Unfortunately, not one I lead myself!
Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu, for allowing me to pick your mind on the Dharma.
An Interview with Dr. Robert Thurman
Q: What was it that first drew you to Buddhism?
Thurman: I first became interested in Buddhism because, to me, it provided a rational basis for spirituality. I had grown up with the reason vs. faith dichotomy and Buddhism seemed to resolve that-at least in my thinking. I was more on a philosophical quest than a religious one.
Q: We have heard a lot about the 4 Noble Truths. [italics]1-Life is suffering, 2-This suffering has a cause, 3-There is freedom from suffering, and 4-The way or path to end suffering. Do you have any advice to help people move past the suffering towards freedom?
Thurman: Well, I don't think it is a matter of moving past. All too often, I think that the way Buddhism is taught is to make the suffering thing the big news. That is a mistaken way of teaching Buddhism.
In the 4 Noble Truths, the reason that the truth of suffering goes first is because it is the symptom of the unenlightened state.
Buddha considers the most important thing in his whole teaching the 3rd Noble Truth, the cessation of suffering. His announcement that it is possible to end suffering and to really become happy and to lead a happy existence was his great discovery and why Buddhism has been popular over the millennia. It's a method of becoming happy. An art of happiness, as the title of the recent popular book says, very rightly.
Q: So it is better to look at them as a whole instead of 4 individual pieces?
Thurman: Yes. But we face suffering all the time with or without Buddhism. Buddha's idea was that when we do face it, we can use the occasion as a way of helping us rise above it and overcome it.
Very few teachings in the world teach that it is possible to really overcome suffering.--to do it ourselves in the here and now. They teach that you have to die first and go to heaven, or you have to die and then you become obliterated and nothingness and that's the end of the problem.
Q: What would you say is the first method? Something people can start with.
Thurman: Well, I think the first method is to try to appreciate their own fortune-in being people.
Buddhism agrees with evolution, sort of Darwinian type teaching that all life forms are interconnected. Buddhism adds the dimension that any being could be any other being, will be other beings, and has been other beings. So when you are a human, you can take stock of yourself and say "Gee, I'm a human being here alive." We don't really appreciate what a miraculous and marvelous thing that is.
People who are having a hard time in their daily lives grumbling, complaining and unhappy-one thing that they don't do is count their blessings enough. People don't have any sort of encouragement or inspiration to try to do something, to try and change themselves because they feel unempowered, incapable, and stuck in a routine of just having to react. They are taught systematically by the culture to feel hopeless, that they can't do much about anything. So the first thing is to realize how incredibly lucky, incredibly capable, and incredibly positive our current existence is.
Q: So in this evolutionary progression where we continue to grow and expand is there a line that we might cross where suddenly the ego kicks in and we begin to see ourselves as more "advanced"?
Thurman: Yes, there could be. Unfortunately, most people surprisingly are very insecure about themselves.
People drive too fast and risk death and do all sorts of things because they don't really care for themselves that much.
Of course, there might be a little danger of becoming egotistical if all you did was count your blessings. The much greater danger, however, is that by not appreciating what you have, you might throw it away.
Furthermore, if you aren't loving towards yourself, then you are not going to genuinely love others.
Q: Is there any other technique for staying conscious in the day-to-day world?
Thurman: Yes. Another technique-but only after you really appreciate yourself and are very careful about your life-is to concentrate on death. To face the fact that they are going to die, that they are impermanent, always changing, and they realize they are not going to live in this form forever. They think of all the people they know who have died. They think of the scientific fact of their own mortality. They look into this reality and realize every moment could be, if not the last, at least close to it. This gives the person an awakening incentive, a kind of intensity about life, to realize how fragile and fleeting it is.
They should understand this and try to make their life meaningful in the present-because it is impermanent. It does not matter if they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu. Whatever religion they might be, they can look into the literature and find quite a bit that calls this to their attention because all the world's teachings do make a big fuss about it.
Q: In Buddhist thought, would you say that the experience after death is more important than what we face here in this life?
Thurman: In a way it does in the sense that this life from an evolutionary perspective-spiritual evolutionary perspective-this life is only a moment in an infinite extension of life from the past and into the future. So it is like the blink of an eye.
On the other hand, the whole goal of becoming enlightened or awakened in Buddhism is to actually see the beauty and the joy and the happiness in the moment. The moment really becomes all-important but not without caring about the future. It's done in a way that leads to even more great moments in the future.
Q: If you could tell the world one thing about Buddhism or enlightenment, what would that be?
Thurman: It would be that
the good news of life is that there was a wonderful person who found out how human
beings can overcome suffering and be happy. We can track the footsteps of this
person and then follow the teachings of this person and find more happiness our
life. We don't have to just take it lying down and just keep on going through
the same miseries that we have been going through. There really is this useful
The final piece of good news is that we don't have to give up everything we know, everything we like. We don't have to change our religion, we don't have to give up our job or what we are doing. To find it from that source was like discovering a new Freud who has a new psychology that really works, and it is a great thing to let people know. That is what I would let them know.
Copyright 2005 Gaiam.com, Inc.All rights reserved. The information contained in the gaiam.com article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of gaiam.com.
Interview with Hannah Nydahl
In 1969, Lama Ole Nydahl and his wife Hannah became the first western students of His Holiness the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpai Dorje, one of the greatest yogis of this century, and the head of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness had a profound influence on their lives. He asked Hannah and Ole to bring Buddhism to the West. For the last 22 years they have been traveling non-stop, teaching and setting up meditation centers around the world.
Hannah Nydahl is a much sought after translator and interpretator of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. She divides her time between translating for the lamas at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, India, participating in various Buddhist text translation projects, organizing schedules and visits of high Rinpoches in the lineage, and traveling around the world with Lama Ole.
Kagyu Life International: How did it happen that you spent so much time in Asia?
Hannah Nydahl: Ole and I went to Asia the first time in the 60's. We connected with Buddhism and stayed there for a few years. There was no Tibetan Buddhism in the West then, so the connection with the East was still very important. My function became to translate for the Tibetan lamas, and help them organize their schedules. Also, for many years, Ole and I arranged pilgrimage tours to the East, taking approximately 100 people at a time, every year or two. This gave me a lot of contact with Asia. For the past five years I have also been involved as a translator for Tibetan teachers at KIBI (the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute) in New Delhi.
For people starting on the Buddhist path today, the situation is quite different. You can become a Buddhist in your own country, and learn and practice everything there. It may be good for your development to go on a pilgrimage, in order to visit places carrying a special blessing such as Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha's enlightenment. But it is not necessary to go and live in the East. I only go myself when I have work to do there.
How did you learn Tibetan?
In the late 60's when we met with Buddhism, very few texts were translated, and few teachers spoke English. We had to learn Tibetan ourselves, and I started by learning the alphabet from Tarab Tulku at the University in Denmark. Then, when we stayed in India in the Himalayas and did our practice, we had to translate all the meditation texts ourselves. When we did the Ngondro practices we started with the prostration text. I looked up almost every word in the dictionary and slowly translated the text. It was the same with the other parts of Ngondro. At that time we were in a retreat-like setting and did not talk much to people, so we did not get to practice any spoken Tibetan. To practice speaking it we had to stay in the Tibetan camps where nobody knew English.
Later, we invited the lamas to Europe and there was no one to translate, so I had to learn more Tibetan in order to translate for them. It was a natural process. Translating became part of my role, and Ole went into the teaching activity. He is a born teacher, and not a born translator (Hannah laughs). If he were to translate, he would give his own teaching (still laughing). So it fits like this.
Again, the situation today is very different. Now many teachings and texts are translated and many translators are available, so one can easily practice Tibetan Buddhism without knowing Tibetan.
How and when did you decide to give up the traditional family role? Did it happen early in your marriage?
When we went to Asia on our honeymoon and met with Buddhism, we stayed there several years to learn and practice the Buddhist teachings intensively. Later, we got the position of working full time for the Dharma. H.H. the 16th Karmapa was very precise in his instructions to us. He wanted us to go back to Europe and work for the Dharma. At that time it was not possible to combine this work with normal family life - it was a matter of making a choice. The choice was easy, there are enough children in this world, and what we were doing at that time was more important than having our own children. Today it is a different situation. Becoming a Buddhist does not mean changing one's lifestyle as we did.
You and Ole were the ones who actually brought Tibetan Buddhism to Europe.
It became our responsibility because there was no Tibetan Buddhism available in Europe at that time. Our development was not a typical one, it was a specific function at a specific time.
How do you maintain your balance when so many people make demands on your time, and your every move is watched as being significant?
Making demands on one's time is OK, and actually this is not a big problem. Concerning people watching one's every move, I would like to mention something of general interest. In the West we have a tendency to become a little artificial and fanatic around our teachers. We look at the teacher, watch every move he makes, and give special meaning to each word he utters. In Europe we have this tendency quite a lot; I don't know how it is in the States. We should try to be more natural towards teachers, towards Rinpoches. Our devotion can be kept internally - it does not have to show on the outside in an extreme way. It is not necessary to be physically close to the teacher, or look at him all the time. If one has trust or devotion, this does not have to be shown outside. It is important that, as Buddhists, we give more care to the kind of impression we make on the outside world, since people already have a hard enough time understanding what Buddhism is, and we don't want to be confused with the many cults coming up these days.
How do you maintain your balance living in the shadow of such powerful men as Ole and Shamar Rinpoche?
No problem! (she laughs) I do not have ambitions in that way. I don't see myself as being in anybody's shadow. I am just myself.
In your practice of Buddhism over the last 25 years, what are the stages of development you have seen in yourself?
From the moment I first met with pure Buddhist teachings, it was like a revelation. Since childhood I always had many questions in my mind - I wondered about the meaning of existence and such things. Denmark is a Christian country, but not very religious, and the Christianity I met there did not give me the answers I was looking for. I could not accept the concept of one creator God, the rhetoric that if you did not believe in God you were doomed forever, or that people who did not believe in God were lost. This never made sense to me. I was also very concerned about what happened to the mind when one died. I wondered a lot about these things when I was very young.
Later in puberty, I was involved in a lot of mundane activities (she laughs). I got distracted, and was not so occupied with these questions. Then, I met Ole and we started taking psychedelics. For me this was a continuation of looking for answers and especially trying to explore the mind. Apart from breaking some rough concepts about the world being solid and real, and thus getting a taste of the illusory nature of things, psychedelics did not give any answers either. The problem with them was that one clung to the experiences as being real instead, which was even worse and more difficult to purify.
The first direct Buddhist teachings I read were in a book called Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines in 1968. In the beginning of the book was a text by Gampopa The Garland of Precious Jewels, translated by Evans-Wenz. This is a collection of teachings presented in sets of advice that starts on an ordinary relative level and takes you through to the absolute teachings. It gave answers to all the things I had wondered about. It was a very strong experience for me, like coming home.
After that, we met our teacher the Karmapa, and started to practice. Ever since then, it has been a process of trying to integrate the teachings as much as possible. It is amazing how vast and profound the teachings are, there is no end to them. Every instruction and practice I was given always confirmed the truth of Buddha's teachings and took me deeper into understanding. Feeling how much the Dharma has helped me, and seeing how much benefit it has for other people too, I feel extremely grateful to be able to use my life the way I do.
Have you ever doubted or been discouraged about the Dharma?
No. If something unpleasant or disappointing happens, it only confirms what the teachings say about the impermanent and changing quality of everything conditioned. As a child, I had an easy life, which maybe is not always so useful for learning to deal with difficulties, but at the same time it helped me gain some inner stability which has been useful in my later work.
How can one maintain a pure view and not be naive?
This is where the Dharma helps you. If you do not know the Dharma, then you tend to live in some unrealistic illusion and think that things are what they are not; you give things a permanent existence which they do not have. You may think something is wonderful, then suddenly it is not wonderful anymore. Or you see defects, start judging and thinking everything is terrible, there is no solution and you want to commit suicide or whatever. I can understand how people can get desperate if they don't know the Dharma - those who look at the world without seeing the whole picture can be terrified by what they see. But once you know the Dharma, it is not so bad. You can see the potential in people, get the right perspective. Even when there are wars and catastrophes, you know, at least theoretically, that this is not how things really are, and it is only a question of everybody understanding the true nature of things for these sufferings to stop. If you meet people who behave strangely, you do not take it personally. You think more of how you can advise them. It is no longer a private thing. This is how the Dharma helps us. To have the pure view means to see how things are in their essence.
What about the situation when people who are close to you turn against you?
The teachings say that we can understand impermanence by seeing how friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into friends. This is very true. Of course it is sad when a good friend turns against you, something is destroyed, but this has not happened to me as much as to Ole. Because of his function and dominant appearance, he is in more situations where people either adore or hate him. Some people like to see him as their idol and try to imitate him. Sometimes it is these exact same people who turn against him out of pride and jealousy - they suddenly make Ole into the devil. Ole does not take this personally. It is a pity when it happens but we learn a lot through this. One learns about the mentality of people and about the different approaches people can have. You learn how to deal better with situations, how to relate to people, and how to prevent these things from happening again. You can see certain tendencies in people and then be more careful about the kinds of relationship you have with these people - for their own sake.
Do you have any plans to write a book?
I have had different suggestions from people about this. One suggestion is to write a book about Dharma experiences, and another is to write about being a woman in Buddhism. It might be useful, but it is a question of time, it takes time to write a book. Ole is better at utilizing every single second - he can produce books simultaneously with his other activity. I cannot do that, so we will see what becomes possible.
Could you speak about the special role of women in the Dharma?
When you practice Buddhism, it is a very individual thing and not so much a question of whether one is a man or a woman. Each individual has his or her capacity and conditions - both outer and inner. In the West I do not see a big difference between men and women. It is more in the Eastern cultures that there is a big difference in their roles. Concerning the Buddhist methods, there is not much difference, one just has to use them. Generally, attachment is more difficult for a woman to dissolve, and men have to perhaps work more with aggressions - but it is very individual. We are all human beings, and most have a combination of disturbing emotions. So there is not that big of a difference between man and woman when it comes to practicing the Dharma.
You hold so much knowledge and wisdom from being around teachers and translating for so many years. Why don't you teach more?
There is only so much time and I am involved in many different kinds of activities already. Once one starts something, one should do it properly. I do not mind teaching, but when I am together with Ole, it is more natural that he teaches. When I am not with him, I mainly translate and organize for the Tibetan lamas. Somehow, teaching has not been part of my activity yet. Also, His Holiness was very specific about the importance of Ole and I working together, and, if I was to have an independent teaching program on top of everything else, the already too little time we spend together would be reduced to zero.
Every teacher has a different style. This can be difficult since we tend to prefer one style and disapprove of others.
The confusion may have to do with us not distinguishing between the different kinds of teachers and thinking the teacher must be a Rinpoche or somebody very well known before we bother to listen to his teachings. One's main teacher will naturally be somebody one likes and in whom one has confidence. It is psychologically normal to learn better and be more attentive if the teacher has a style one feels at home with. But we don't always seem to understand that we need to study the basic teachings in order to understand and practice the path in a correct way. For this we can listen to teachers who are not necessarily enlightened or especially charismatic. In such cases the main thing is that he knows what he is talking about. If we focus more on the Dharma than on the person teaching it, we also protect ourselves against spiritual manipulation, which is good for everybody.
Interview with His Holiness Sakya Trizin and Ratna Vajra Rinpoche
On Lamdre Lobshey, Uncommon Lamdre.
July 2000 (published in Snowlion newsletter, Spring 1999, Volume 14, Number 2)
Linda Tokarchuk: Your Holiness, Can you describe what the Lamdre teaching is?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Lamdre is actually the most important teaching in the Sakyapa Order. Lam means The Path, and Dre, The Result. It actually means the complete teaching from the base, to the path and then to the final results.
It is a complete teaching of how an ordinary person can enter the path, the Vajrayana Path. The complete teachings include the preliminaries and the main practices up to the final achievement. The Mahasiddha Virupa received this teaching. Mahasiddha Virupa is one of the very famous Indian masters, who received this teaching directly from the deities. Since them it was passed down through Indian masters and then to the Tibetan translators and thus it came to Tibet.
L: How is the master Virupa related to the Sakya lineage?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Not in the physical reality, but the Sakyapas consider themselves to be the main teaching holders of Virupa. As Virupa's main teaching is the Lamdre, the Sayapa's main teaching is the Lamdre too.
L: Within the Lamdre teachings, what is the difference between the Common Lamdre and Uncommon Lamdre?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: In early Sakya Tradition, Lamdre was actually one teaching. Later, during the time of Muchen Kunchog Gyaltsen, when he gave Lamdre teachings, he gave the most esoteric, essential and important teachings to his inner most disciples in his private room, whereas for the assemblies he gave the common one. Since then there have been two Lamdres.
L: Is the uncommon Lamdre more complicated?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Yes, It is much more profound and elaborate in explanation.
L: Because of the difficult times, these days, with so many distractions, it is very difficult to be able to practice, as in the past. Do you have any advice for people practicing the Uncommon Lamdre? How hard is it, can people today have the opportunity to practice it properly?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Yes, well it depends on the individual. Some people can practice very, very seriously. Some people can't. So you can't say to everybody one thing. It all depends on the individuals. I think that today with so many distractions, it is very important for practitioners to first train well in concentration before starting anything else. Your mind will sort of become calmer, more relaxed and steadier. Then you practice will be better, even the common practices.
L: Unfortunately today, not many people are even at that level. So, what then? If someone were having trouble to even calm their mind, would they still be able to benefit from going to the teachings?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Of course. Without studying, how can you practice? Without studying, we even don't know what to practice, what to discard, and what to take. So through the hearing, through the study, you gain knowledge, through the hearing you will know what to do. So therefore, of course, for those who are interested it is beneficial.
L: the uncommon Lamdre was very rarely given before?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Yes. Nowadays, it is given to quite a large number of people.
L: Is there any reason for that? Why did it change?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Because the audience has increased. More people are interested to receive the teachings.
L: That's wonderful, I would think.
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Yes.
L: Can you go into more detail about what the Lamdre teaching is, for students who are interested in the teaching?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: You see it has everything Ð the ground the base. Then the Path, the person who is dwelling in the Samsara will enter the Path. It has all the preliminary practices. And then how that person enters the Vajrayana path, to receiving initiations, and support. And then you have all the higher practices such as the process of creation, the process of completion, etc. As you enter the higher, more advanced path, and finally there is the result, which is Enlightenment.
L: Is there anything that you feel is particularly important for students who would like to receive the teachings to know about or to understand?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Yes, People want to study Buddhism in order to overcome the sufferings, isn't it? Ad they want the highest teachings. They want to practice the Vajrayana teachings, teachings such as the Lamdre. I am not saying that Lamdre is the only teaching. Other schools don't have the Lamdre, but they have similar kinds of teachings. So the teachings like Lamdre are very important to receive and to practice.
The teachings explain the qualifications of the disciple. There are different levels, but the minimum qualification is someone who has an unshakeable faith in the teachings. This is very important. Without faith you can't grow any of the other qualities. And also, this faith is not just a kind of blind faith.
In Buddhism, we explain different types of faith. But the most important faith is what is known as a believing faith Ð when through you own intelligence, through your own wisdom, you investigate and then realize that this is the genuine teaching, this is the real teaching.
It is not what somebody told you to believe, but through your own investigation that you come to the conclusion that this is a genuine teaching. When you have such faith you can receive teachings. So, it is really important to make such preparations.
L: What can people do over the next year to prepare themselves properly?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: Study and practice the common teachings and general Mahayana teachings. For example, the Bodhicharyavatara, and the Parting from the Four Attachments. Such teachings are very important, and if you study these, it will help to receive the Lamdre teachings.
L: Can you tell me about some of the great masters of past and present who have practiced Lamdre?
H.H. Sakya Trizin: The Lamdre Lineage holders begin with Mahasiddha Virupa, then there are five Indian masters Krishnapa, Damarupa, Avadhutipa and Gayadhara. The frist Tibetan to bring Lamdre, Drogmi Lotsawa, the great translator. Then his disciples Seton Kunrig and Shangton Chobar.
And then there is the five great Sakyapa masters Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, his two sons, Sonam Tsemo and Drakpa Gyaltsen, Drakpa Gyaltsen's nephew Sakya Pandita and Sakya Pandita's nephew Chogyal Phagpa. The great lama Sachen Kunga Nyingpo received the Lamdre from Shangton Chobar.
Thus the teaching was passed down. Then there is the great master Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo the founder of Ngorpa. Then later, there is Tsarchen Losel Gyaltsen, the founder of Tsarpa School or sub-sect of the Sakyapa Order.
Today, the greatest practitioners of Lamdre teachings are His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, His Eminence Luding Khen Rinpoche, Khenpo Appey Rinpoche, Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, etc. There are many more masters, khenpos and practitioners too.
Ratna Vajra Rinpoche
L: I would like to ask you, when did you receive the Lamdre teachings?
Ratna Vajra Rinpoche (H.H. Sakya Trizin's elder son): Actually I have received Lamdre four times, all from His Holiness. The first one was in Puruwala in 1980, or something like that. And the second one was in 1996, in Sakya centre. And the third one was in Australia, in 1997, and the fourth one also in 1997 and in Singapore.
L: His Holiness has given the Uncommon Lamdre only a few times, is that right?
RVR:: Yes. I think only three times. His very first Uncommon Lamdre was in Puruwala, I think. And the second in 1984, and third in Australia.
L: What is so profound and special about Lamdre teachings?
RVR:: I think, the Lamdre teachings, includes all the essence of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings.
L: And could you, for people who don't know, describe what you mean by Triple Vision and Triple Tantra?
RVR:: Actually, the triple vision is like a preliminary teaching. You can receive the triple vision before you receive any initiation. It is not a Vajrayana teaching. It is like the Bodhicharyavatara. In the Triple Vision text, thee are many quotations from Bodhicharyavatara. The Triple Tantra is a secret teaching. It belongs to Mantrayana.
Normally when you receive Lamdre, you receive Triple Vision, and then after that you receive the cause initiation. Hevajra Cause initiation is a wan chen Ð a two-day initiation: the preliminary and the main initiation. After that you receive the Triple Tantra. During the Triple Tantra teaching, you receive the Havajra path initiation.
L: And that is the pinnacle of the teachings, the result? Path is Lam, and Dre is the result?
RVR:: Yes, for example. Everybody has the capability to attain the enlightened state. But if you don't meet with the right cause and conditions, then you won't be able to attain it. For example, if the seed of the rice is kept in the box, then there cannot be a sapling from this seed as it has not met with the right causes and conditions, like water and so forth.
The method, the Body Method Tantra is like the Path. To bear the fruit, you need to practice the teachings. For example, if you plant the seed on the fertile ground, then you need to put water, and fertilizers and so forth. And if you have met all the right causes and conditions, then you will bear the fruit. So like this, if you practice with all the right cause and conditions to gain the result, then finally you will get the result, which is the third Tantra, the Non-ordinary or Result Tantra.
L: What are the benefits of receiving Lamdre teachings?
RVR:: Lamdre teachings will lead sentient beings from suffering and dissatisfaction to temporary and then ultimate happiness. If you practice Lamdre in a right way, then you will be happier. Your mind will be happier. You can practice more. And you can decrease the defilement, at the moment.
And finally, you can eliminate all the defilement that is within our own mind. And also, it makes our physical body healthier because in Lamdre, there is also a physical practice. So if you do this, then you will not get any illnesses. And you'll be healthier. And finally you will attain the highest, and the ultimate happiness, for both the mind and the body.
L: What is the physical practice?
RVR:: In Lamdre teaching, there is a kind of yoga practice. Actually one difference between the Common and the Uncommon Lamdre teaching is that in Uncommon teaching, there is a physcial practice like a Yoga whereas in common, there isn't one.
L: Are there a lot of practices to do afterwards? Like for example you said that part of the practice afterwards is the physical Yoga?
RVR:: Actually after receiving the initiations, the Hevajra inititiations, you have to do a daily Sadhana.
L: So people need to be prepared to make a serious commitment then?
RVR:: Serious commitment Ð in the sense that people have to do practice daily. For someone who receives the Triple Vision teachings and not whole path, that is also okay. I mean, if you don't receive the initiation and just the Triple Vision teachings then you don't need to do the daily sadhana.
L: It is a great honor or special and extraordinary blessing to be able to receive the teachings from His Holiness. Could you comment on that?
RVR:: His Holiness is a great master. As he is born as a member of the Khon lineage and we believe that he is an emanation of Manjushri and also of Padmasambhava. Ther is no contradiction in being emanation of Padmasambhava and Manjushri, as both of them are in reality, Buddha. He is also a very great and learned master. He showed extraordinary abilities when he was very young, which ordinary people cannot do at that age.
For example, I think he has done the Hevajra retreat when he was eleven years old, I think, for about 8 months, waking up at about 3 o'clock in the morning, and doing practice until night. So, it indicates that he is not just an ordinary person. When he was born, there were many auspicious signs that appeared.
I think his guru prophesied that he was a great master. Hi is also the one who keeps the Collection of Tantra teachings alive. Nowadays, it is difficult. There are not many great teachers who have received Collection of Tantra teachings and initiations. He is one of them. There are great teachers who have received all, but they are old, so they cannot bestow again. But, he can bestow the teachings, so he is the one who has kept the Collection of Tantra lineage alive.
L: And I think it is special for the West, as he speaks English too.
RVR:: Yes, he can speak English. And for many westerners say that he speaks very clear.
L: Is there, anything more you can comment about the teachings for people who are going to receive them?
RVR:: Yes, I think it is very, very great opportunity to receive the profound Lamdre teachings from a very great master. Because, the present times is a time of degeneration. So, it is very rare to receive Lamdre teachings and it is very hard to meet a great teacher too. Nowadays, there are many, many causes and conditions that lead us in a wrong way and interrupt our practice.
So, in order to practice well, it is important to have a teacher. Without a teacher we cannot practice properly. Without a teacher we cannot practice properly. Without a teacher we cannot practice properly. You cannot practice teachings just by reading a book, without meeting a good teacher or without having a good guide. How can we practice? So, it is important to have a teacher. And it is important not just to meet the teacher, but also to receive profound instructions from a good teacher. And as we have this opportunity, it is important to receive the Lamdre?
Interview with Jhampa Shaneman:
by Lura McCallum
LURA MCCALLUM: Jhampa, you spent 14 years in India studying Tibetan Buddhism, can you tell us something about this time.
JHAMPA SHANEMAN: In 1970 I decided to travel and see the world. My journey ended up in India with the Tibetan Buddhists. I was excited with Tibetan Buddhism and what it had to offer. By 1971, I became an ordained monk and started to learn the Tibetan language. There were no English texts and very few translators available at that time.
LURA: Who were some of the teachers you studied with?
JHAMPA: My first teacher was Lama Thubten Yeshe. He was inspiring and gave me a powerful image of what it meant to be a Buddhist. As time passed I studied with his teachers, such as Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargaye. By my third year in India I became a pupil of the senior tutor of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Ling Rinpoche, and continued studying with him as my principal teacher until 1984. I also studied other Buddhist practices and with other lineages as the years passed. I have now translated and become familiar with all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
LURA: What happened after 1984?
JHAMPA: I completed a three year retreat in 1983, the same year Kyabje Ling Rinpoche died. This motivated me to return to Canada as I had lived in India for 14 years. I started a small meditation center, Thubten Choling. I had studied astrology in India and so in Canada I started to read astrology charts as a source of income. It was difficult to make ends meet so I also worked in a hardware store after a few years. I continued teaching Buddhism at the meditation center and my astrology practice while working a regular job.
LURA: You have always referred to yourself as a Buddhist astrologer, in what way is this different?
JHAMPA: After studying Western astrology while in India my teacher asked me to read his astrology chart. He was curious to see how well I had grasped the information. I surprised him with my interpretation style because it was different. I presented a Buddhist approach to the material. I used the Buddhist philosophy and practices I had gathered over my years of study. This made me realize that there was a new and unique way of presenting astrology. In Canada, I have always used a Buddhist approach to reading astrological charts. I find it practical when tied with meditation practices.
LURA: How can a Buddhist astrology chart benefit me?
JHAMPA: One does not have to be a Buddhist to benefit from the reading. The emphasis of Buddhism is with awareness and wisdom. Everyone has some level of self-awareness and wisdom. That awareness and wisdom dictate how one experiences their life. When you consider astrology, you apply mindful awareness and wisdom to astrological influences. There are different schools of astrological thought. Some believe life is predetermined and others support an expression of choice and free will. I fall into the category that emphasizes astrology is a circumstance of influence. Astrology effects everyone's life, but an individual's awareness and wisdom can filter those influences. The Buddhist interpretation would benefit anyone because it emphasizes key astrological points from a practical perspective.
A Buddhist could harmonize their practice with the interpretation. The awareness of astrological transits, cycles and fluctuations better prepare one to utilize their innate wisdom. The greater the scope of awareness generated, the better one handles life. Important decisions are made without unconscious factors of influence. One can see on a personal level the dynamics of planetary interdependence.
LURA: Can Buddhist astrology shed light on ego and the manifestation of suffering?
JHAMPA: Yes. First there is the natal chart interpretation showing the dynamics that influence the formation of personality. These dynamics mix with factors like the birth family, education and social economic influence. Astrology is just one of the factors that create the individual. The chart's interpretation continues with major astrological transits from client's birth to their present age. That section often invokes surprise. People see how interdependent they are with the world around them. Astrology plays a role in that interdependence.
A Buddhist understands samsara is fraught with uncertainty. Suffering is created by delusion. Astrological influences can increase the impact of delusion. Awareness of upcoming influences can prepare one. Specific meditation techniques can be implemented to balance things. Foreknowledge can diminish the disruptive effects of astrologically stressful times.
Another component is to utilize this foreknowledge in a positive way. One could deepen their practice and understanding with beneficial astrological transits. The planetary influence can augment love, compassion or insightfulness. Certain planets stimulate these feelings and wisdom. It all depends on the attitude and awareness of the individual.
LURA: If one has major suffering in their life, can you direct them?
JHAMPA: I am frank with my clients and if there are astrological inclinations affecting the personality that cause suffering, then I would explain these clearly. I would give strategies and Buddhist options that help one understand the causes of suffering. For example, if someone has a difficult time with their feelings, which could involve a transit of Uranus to Venus, then I identify areas that require conscious awareness. I give positive feedback to compensate for the transit and Buddhist tools to enhance the natal chart strengths.
LURA: Can you explain what astrology the Tibetans study?
JHAMPA: Tibetan astrology has a seven year program which is connected to the medical college. Tibetan astrology is based on two systems, the Indian and the Chinese. There is also an indigenous form used by farmers. They read the chart incorporating a compilation of these traditions. The Tibetan tradition connects the health and well being of any individual to their astrological chart. A doctor knows astrological transits to a certain degree and can access individuals in the medical college who are trained to read full charts. There were references made to astrology during my studies, but I focused on the meditative techniques and philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism. I was drawn to the Western astrology as it was not such a long program and more accessible to me. The western presentation is natural to our mind and attitude.
LURA: You have just completed your first book, which is based on Buddhist astrology. I believe you are working on a second book based on your interpretation of a world renowned Buddhist's astrological chart.
JHAMPA: Yes, I requested H.H. the Dalai Lama to be the principal subject for the second book. I will focus on a Buddhist interpretation of his astrological chart and the transits during his life. My interview was interesting because H.H. confided that he does not believe in Tibetan astrology. This came as a surprise to me. I explained I was working from western astrological principles and interpreting the material from a Buddhist point of view. H.H. knows his Tibetan chart and can compare it to the western style. H.H. has agreed to this and will even write the foreword for the book.
LURA: Can a Buddhist astrology chart strengthen my Buddhist practice?
JHAMPA: Yes, because we are interdependent with the world around us. H.H. says we should look at the planet earth as our home and that we are interdependent with this world. It opens our mind to the greater scope of our life and the influences that effect us. A study of astrology is a study of interdependence and that increases wisdom.
The planets, which relate to being a bodhisattva, a person wanting to work for the benefit all sentient beings, are the Moon and Jupiter. The Moon relates to compassion, receptivity and empathy, while Jupiter can inspire optimism, enthusiasm and a positive attitude towards life. Bodhicitta is an attitude that develops the ability to see the positive possibilities of all beings. It is a desire to benefit others.
Saturn relates to wisdom. A Saturn placement in the third or ninth house would be excellent for the development of wisdom. It broods and reflects on issues and this generates wisdom. Saturn is often called the planet of hard knocks. We learn valuable lessons from difficult times in our lives. Saturn can help develop our insight and the practice of guru yoga. An understanding of one's chart can assist enhancing personal awareness.
LURA: On a final note, where do you see yourself in the future?
JHAMPA: As long as I am capable I would like to continue teaching Buddhism and doing astrology readings to help direct people to a better understanding of their own nature and the influences that affect them. I give lectures for psychologists regularly and I think Buddhism, astrology and psychology all have ground for an inter-disciplinary dialogue.
Interview With Jusan Frankie Parker
by Jean Crume
April 11, 1996
Jean Crume is the editor of The Ecumenical Buddhist, a publication of The Ecumenical Buddhist Society, Little Rock, Arkansas.
As I recall, you received a copy of the Dharmapada from a Corrections Officer when you had asked for a Bible? Could you tell us that story and the effect it had on you?
I discovered the Dharmapada in December of 1988 while in "the hole." I was a mad, mean and very cruel inmate. I was always giving everyone a hard time. The guards had to throw me in the hole and I was yelling and screaming and cussing then and I demanded a Bible. The only book you're allowed in the hole. During the day they would take your mattress away from you so you have very little to do, so I'd read the Bible when I wasn't pacing the floor, hating everyone for doing this to me. The guard, thinking he was screwing me over, threw in a copy of the Dharmapada at me and said. "here's your God damn holy book", and laughed. Then he closed the door real fast so I couldn't throw it back at him. I yelled and screamed, then, when I got tired, I sat down on the floor and looked at this "heathen book." It was simply the greatest gift I had ever received! Later, maybe a year later, with tears in my eyes, I thanked that guard for his gift. He, naturally, thought I was quite insane. From that day on, I've tried to live a life in concert with Buddha nature. "Inside the Buddha there is a sentient being; Inside the sentient being there is a Buddha." I kept that copy of the Dharmapada until about a month ago when I gave it to a friend, one who has started his journey as a seeker. That Dharmapada led me to other books and an even deeper thirst for the Dharma.
What did your early practice consist of?
I used to sit and try to meditate based on the instructions in "We're All Doing Time", a book on spirituality for inmates by Bo Lozoff 1. Then a friend got me the address of Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii. Aitken Roshi sent me additional books. My "meditation" consisted of sitting on a folded blanket and counting my breath. I still can't sit in the full-lotus posture, and I go back to my breath-counting practice on occasion. My practice is perhaps more Zen in style rather than Vajrayana, but I suspect that it all leads to the same thing.
How has that practice changed?
Well, now I have a shrine in my cell, and on it resides a six-inch brass Buddha which Anna Cox generously gave to me. I have decorated the shrine with origami paper flowers that I've made, and a photograph of Lama Tarchin Rinpoche who gave me the Three Refuge Vows. I now fold up the end of my mattress and I practice sitting for about 25-40 minutes at a time, twice a day. Four in the morning is the best time to practice; it is the quietest time of the day on Death Row. In 1990 I decided to shave my head as a devotion to the Buddha. I knew that it would help me to live a life that would reflect my Buddha nature, in hopes that others who saw me on a daily basis would want to be like me, i.e., a Buddhist (I was a real proselytizer; I was convinced beyond doubt that what was good for me was also good for others!) What I did learn was: If you're going to have a shaved head and have been indoors all winter, when it's sunny out, wear a hat! My head is burnt!
What practical impact has your practice had on your life in prison?
I think it would be better if someone else answered this question. I will say I've tried to live as the Buddha taught we should. Through contemplative practice I've learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important thing a sentient being can learn - how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the state. I'll die with a smile on my ugly old face; they may not understand, but you'll know.
What has been the most difficult obstacle in your practice?
The publication review committee that approves books for prisoners is composed of Fundamentalist Christians. They used to stop books I'd ordered from coming to me. This activity caused me stress and tested me. I tend to view all obstacles as a test. I had many talks with the committee and my attorney. We finally came to an agreement.
I've had to fight with the facility administration and employees every step of the way. I've had to fight a warden who lied to have me put in the hole to ruin my record. He's no longer here; he was fired. The warden who followed him said something to me that made me the proudest I've ever been in my life. He said he wished that all the inmates were Buddhist if they would live like me.
I find that when I think of you and your dedication to practice and the Dharma that I experience tremendous compassion for all beings who are struggling to make sense of life. But, in spite of your difficult situation, you always seem to find the positive aspects of even the worst events. Could you tell us a little about how you see your role in spreading the Dharma?
Good question. I used to think, "Boy! as soon as I reach enlightenment I'm going to teach!" Then I realized that that day was too far away so I'd better try and do something now. People see me practicing Tai-Chi in the yard. They see me at peace with the world and they see me always smiling. That, my friend, is how you spread the Dharma - smile, be happy. I once read a book where the question was raised, "How do you spread the Dharma if the person you meet is blind and dumb?" - the answer is a hug! Kindness, a hug, is a smile, a smile that can be felt. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a science. It is example. It is a method of liberation. I feel liberated, and soon my be liberated from this world. I change, as all things change.
Thank you for taking this time with me. Is there anything else you would like to share with the Sangha?
Yes. Thank you all for accepting me into your family - a person you knew to be the worst that society could offer, yet you have accepted me nevertheless. I trust that I have not let you down in any way, I trust that this world will be helped in some way by my death. I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha gave me refuge. Thank you my friends. Y'all take care . . . live by example!
The Ecumenical Buddhist Society is a non-profit, non-sectarian meditation and education group which promotes Buddhist practice. Teachers of many Buddhist traditions come to Little Rock through the sponsorship of the society to offer teachings. If you wish to receive more information, please write to EBS Buddhist Center, Gans Place Carriage House, 1010 West 3rd Street, Little Rock, AR 72201
interview with Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche
With kind permission of the Karma Kagyu Dharma Society, Kuala Lumpur
Question: How is the structural ranking of Khenpos, Rinpoches and Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: In Tibetan Buddhism one finds mention of reincarnated masters and teachers who have the title Rinpoche. The tradition of a line of reincarnate masters began in the 12th century in Tibet.
So, to begin with, there were not as it is today, a lot of reincarnated lamas. That string of events took place throughout the centuries on the basis of that more and more monasteries were constructed and that a lama who constructed a monastery would have made quite an impact in the region. Thus, after his passing away, disciples would request masters with the capacity to find the reincarnation. Thus, a great number of reincarnated lamas came about as more and more monasteries were onstructed to date to about 6000.
Then, there is the title Rinpoche which has nothing to do with a master being a reincarnate but a way of addressing a person respectfully.
Then there is the position of a Khenpos, in the Western system would correspond approximately to a Doctor of Divinity. Someone would be appointed to this position on the basis on his merits on Buddhist studies and his conduct as well as on his capacity to teach.
Different monasteries would have slightly different systems in terms of the education resulting in someone being appointed as a Khenpos. However in the Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya school, the systems are similar. So, the person starts out studying at a young age, first, there is a general education in Language and so on. Then, that is followed by an approximately 9 years education in Buddhist philosophy. In a group of students who go through this 9 years course, one of the students, the most apt, is chosen in the position of junior Khenpos. That person will for a period of approximately 5-6 years act as an assistance to the head Khenpos of the monasteries where he will develop experience in teaching. So, if it turns out that he has the capacity to teach he will then be appointed to the position of a Khenpos. Having acted as a Khenpos, having taught for approximately 5-10 years, if the person's teachings were beneficial to the students he will be appointed as a head Khenpos. In the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, the position of a Khenpos involves a longer period of study and gaining teaching experience. The person first take the degree of a Geshe which involves the study of 21 years. He then for yet another couple of years will study the Buddhist Tantras after which he may on the basis of his merits be appointed as a Khenpos of his monasteries.
Then there is the position of a lama. That position is obtained on a basis of a practitioner having done meditational retreat over long periods of time. There is a tradition of an individual doing 3 years retreat after which they are given the title lama. However everyone with the title of a lama is of course not the same. The quality of the practice vary from individual to individual. However this is in general how someone obtain the title of a lama.
Question: Do Tulkus have to go through the same stages of studies before they can actually be recognised ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Most reincarnated individuals are recognised as children. However someone who is recognised as a particular lama should engage in the studies. But it does not always happens. That is quite individual.
Question: In Buddhism we emphasise so much on non-duality and emptiness, why is the hierarchy system in Tibetan Buddhism still so important ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: If one looks at the Buddhist viewpoint in terms of how the true nature of reality is asserted, then these different structures where you have a religious hierarchy is not important. There is the structure set up by the historical Buddha Sakyamuni in terms of what one may call a hierarchy. There are 2 aspects. The first relates to realisation. That is to say that the individual has attained the state of an Arhat, thus, he has develop the realisation of an Arhat. And thus he is regarded as superior when compared to a practitioner who has not attained this state. Then there is the aspect of ordination. There are different types of ordination in the Buddhist system. When one looks at the system in terms of ordination. Someone would be regarded as an elder on the basis of having taken ordination and upheld the ethics of that ordination for a longer period of time. So, there the system is based on how long the person has upheld a certain type of ordination. The longer the more respectful, he will be treated. But that system set-up by the Buddha Sakyamuni do not have a system of people where because of their achievements in realisation, or in their achievements in upholding their ordinations, are being seated on thrones of different heights.
So that system set forth by the historical Buddha Sakyamuni was maintained in India at the various Buddhist universities such as Nalanda and other Buddhist institution. That system one also finds in Tibet. However during the 12th century in Tibet a connection was made between Buddhism and the Chinese Imperial court through the mediation of the then Tibetan King, Drogon Chogya Pagpa. So during the 12th century, the Yang Dynasty ruled in China, then the Ming and Qing Dynasty. Because of Tibetan Buddhism, from the 12th century onwards, being linked-up in politics in the Chinese Imperial courts there was an influence. That's how the tradition of Rinpoches, Lamas and reincarnated masters started to sit on high thrones. That tradition originated from the Chinese Imperial courts on the basis of political ties. So, in fact the hierarchy one finds in Tibetan Buddhism has nothing much to do with Buddhism. It is not at all important. In fact, it has become a source of problems, rather.
Question: Could you explain when and how did the Tulku system originated ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It originated in the 12th century in Tibet. This system is particular to the Tibetan Buddhism. It is not part of any other Buddhist system in other countries. It originated from the Karmapa. The line of Karmapas, is the line with which this system originated. The second line of reincarnated masters in Tibet is the line of the Sharmapas. So, it originates with the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Question: Is this system still suitable for our modern society ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It depends on the Tulkus as an individual. All Tulkus are not the same. If a Tulku is authentic, that is to say, acts and works in accordance to the Buddhist principles, then that system is adaptable and suitable in today's world. However, it has become a problematic issue because many Tulkus act on the basis of political motivation and again other Tulkus act on the basis of amassing wealth, gaining personal benefits and so on. So because of the action of these individuals, the system has been tarnished. It has become problematic. Someone I knew, a Tulku who went to Taiwan, having spent some time there I met him in one of his visits in India. This Tulku advised me that when I go to Taiwan I should see to it that I am addressed as Tulku Rinpoche, because as such I would be able to make a lot of money.
Question: Could Khenpos tell us how is the procedure of finding and recognising Karmapas from the past up to now ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It depends. 7 of the previous Karmapas left written instructions behind. 5 of them left oral instructions with a disciple of their choice. 4 of them left neither written nor oral instructions. The reincarnation in those cases themselves made clear who they were. So there wasn't a procedure of finding them on the basis of any written or oral instructions left behind. 3 of the previous Karmapas were identified by 3 of the previous Sharmapas. 1 was identified by one of the heads of the Drugpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. One was identified by a Nyingma master. The head of the Drugpa Kagyu and the Nyingma master were assisted, in their quest, by various Kagyu lamas, such as one of the Situpas, one of the Jamgon reincarnation and one of the Khyentse reincarnation. So the identification in those cases were made on the basis of the combined effort of these people whereas in the case of the Sharmapas, it was done without the assistance of other Buddhist masters. For example, the 13th Karmapa was identified by a Nyingma master Khathok Rinzin Zherwang Lodrop. He approached the then Situpa and informed him of his thoughts then in combined effort they identified the 13th Karmapa on the basis of this Nyingma master's findings. Then there is the 14th Karmapa, who was identified mainly on the basis of the effort of the then head of the Drugpa Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism Kunzig Chokyi Namwar. However he consulted Situ Pema Nyingche, the 9 Situ reincarnation, so in combined effort they made public their findings. However it was mainly based on the effort of the then Drugpa Kagyu head that the 14th Karmapa was identified. Then we have the 15th Karmapa, who was mainly identified again by the then head of the Drugpa Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, Kunzig Mingyur Wangyi Dorje. However he did consult Jamgon Lodro Thaye and Khyentse Wangpo and one of the Pawo Tulkus, so it was again a combined effort. However in the 3 cases in which the Karmapas being identified by 3 Sharmapas, the identification processes did not take place on the basis of a combined effort but were conducted by the Sharmapas alone.
Question: We know that now there is presently 2 Karmapas, one found in India and another in Tibet. Can Rinpoche explain under what circumstances the Karmapas are found ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: I have spent 22 years with the 16th Karmapa as from the age of 9. I studied Buddhism and my meditation practice under the personal guidance of the late Karmapa. I was also appointed the position of a Khenpos by the previous Karmapa. After the late Karmapa passed away I have since then been in charge of all the activities associated with the position of a Khenpos in the monastery Rumtek in India for a period of 12 years, I have been the head Khenpos of the Nalanda Institute of Rumtek monastery as well as the educational director of the Karmapa Institute in Delhi. As to the young Tibetan boy appointed as a throne holder of the throne of the Karmapas in Tibet, the Zurphu monastery, that's a political appointment in that it was done by the Chinese authorities. The young child at Zurphu monastery was appointed the reincarnation of the late Karmapa by the communist Chinese. So it is a political appointment. The Dalai Lama has given his consent and seal of approval and that is also politically motivated. The present Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche has done all he can in order to find the authentic reincarnation which he was able to do and one finds the authentic reincarnation of the late Karmapa in Delhi. It is not something that I just say without having a reason for saying such. As I have said, I have spent the major part of my life with the late Karmapa, so I have a certain capacity to look at a propose reincarnation and investigate this child to see if he is the possible reincarnation. I have done so in the case of the reincarnation in Delhi and I am fully convince that he is the authentic reincarnation of the late Karmapa.
For me, there is no benefit in siding either Situ Rinpoche or Shamar Rinpoche. I have nothing to gain from siding either of them. What I have achieved in this life, I have achieved on the basis of the kindness of the late Karmapa. I am fully capable of leading my own life and need not be lead by either of the Rinpoches. What is important to me is to find the authentic reincarnation. My opinions are based purely on this. On my previous experience gained from having lived such a long period of time with the late Karmapa and on the basis of me being an independent person having nothing to gain and not even wanting to gain anything from anyone, have I arrive on this decision. In terms of what I can achieve in religious social status in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, I have achieved this already. So I don't have to put my hopes in either Situ Rinpoche or Shamar Rinpoche to give me some sort of position because I was given that by the late Karmapa. And in terms of my financial situation, I have what I need, I don't need financial support from either. In terms of communicating with Buddhist students, the problem is rather that I am unable to attend all the programmes as requested for me to conduct. So the problem is rather that there are many requests by Buddhist students for me to teach which I do not have the opportunities to teach, so I don't need assistance from anyone.
Question: Could Khenpos elaborate a little about the meaning of "political decision" as in relation to the Dalai Lama ? I have read in an article by Situ Rinpoche's supporters that the Dalai Lama saw the boy Karmapa in a meditative vision.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The Dalai Lama in terms of Tibet's status, would of course like to achieve independence for Tibet presumably. If that's not possible, He would go along with the status of Tibet as an autonomous region. However as the leader of that region, He would like to have full political power over the region. If he were to achieve that, it would be of great assistance to have a historically well-known person in your hands which the young boy in Zurphu would be such a person as the Dalai Lama has given his approval as the head of all the Kagyu School of Buddhism.
Question: That means he did not see the Tibetan boy in a meditative vision ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Isn't it the case that when the Dalai Lama said that "I have given my seal of approval on the basis of my wisdom vision", the reality of the background of this appointment is that all Kagyu representative concerned were not in harmony. How is it that his wisdom vision did not perceive that. Also if it were to be a true wisdom vision, why was the procedure of voting initiated by Situ Rinpoche and his representatives. Why did then people have to vote about who is the real Karmapa when the Dalai Lama's wisdom vision had already decided this. Its quite contradictory.
Question: So, how is this issue affecting the Buddhist practitioners ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Quite a number have left Buddhism simply because their Buddhist background is not very well establish in that they have not really studied or practice Buddhism very well. So because of this problem they have chosen to leave Buddhism altogether.
If we look at the Buddhist institution that the late Karmapa established in exile in India, which was aimed to preserve the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. During his lifetime and a few years after, whether one was looking at the monasteries, the educational institutes or any other Buddhist communities established by the late Karmapa, members would more or less be involved in Dharma activities 24 hours of the day. Now all that has been destroyed. There is nothing left. For example, if we look at Rumtek monastery, it is now a tourist spot for Indian tourists. That's all that's left of what the late Karmapa accomplished in exile. So, from one aspect, this is what has happened due to the current issue.
However one can look at this issue from another perspective which is the perspective that the Kagyu followers who are genuinely following the Karmapa, have ended up in one group and that may be quite constructive as to the future of the Karmapa. Because people in this group are genuinely concern with the authentic Karmapa. At times I'm quite depressed about what has happen but at times I think it may not be that bad after all because now it has become very clear who among the reincarnated masters, lamas and Rinpoches are concerned with the authentic Karmapa. Now one knows who is who, so to speak. In fact I feel as if I have broken up from the sleeve of ignorance regarding my perception on the various reincarnated lamas and Rinpoches who have shown their preferences in this matter. So I just hope I will never again fall into that sleeve of ignorance.
Question: How have this issue affected Karmapa's monasteries, for example the monastery in Rumtek and the one in Zurphu ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: As to the Rumtek monastery I have just explained that there is nothing left of what His Holiness had established there. Its been ruined...destroyed. As to the Tsurphu monastery, at this point I feel I can't say too much as I really do not have the connection with the people in Tsurphu. There is no on-going communication. However, I am of the opinion that slowly it would become clear who is the authentic Karmapa and things would change on their own accord.
Question: So in relation with this problem, is it proper for individuals like Khenpos and Rinpoches to come out of the monasteries and set up their own centres and monasteries and what would be the long term impact on this kind of a set-up ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Individual lamas, Rinpoches and Tulkus who in fact lived and were educated in Rumtek monastery, many of them today established their own monasteries, centres and so on and have been doing so for many years. That is one of the reasons why we have this present problem. The late Karmapa's intention was that Buddhism should spread and develop. One should maintain the Tibetan Buddhism on the basis of a common effort. Now, some of the individual Tulkus, Rinpoches and lamas seem to desire otherwise. So they have acted otherwise, that is to say, in an opposite way. And that is one the reasons why we have problems.
If we look at Thrangu Rinpoche, for example, in the past, quite a few years ago, he established his own centre here in Malaysia. At the time, the Karmapa Charitable Trust contacted Thrangu Rinpoche, informing him that it would be preferable that his centre was a member of the general Karma Kagyu organisation, which he refused. Furthermore, later on, he associated himself with the appointment of Urgyen Trinlay in Tibet as reincarnation of His Holiness. And, he claims that his centre here in Malaysia is the head centre of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. So, in his case you can see what happens with just one person and how many games have been played and why it has become a problem. So because of causes of action like that of Thrangu Rinpoche, and in cases of other Rinpoches, Karma Kagyu today is shattered.
Question: Will there be a happy ending to this ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It would be difficult for me to predict the future.
Question: What is the actual role of the Karmapa Charitable Trust and who was the one who set up the Trust ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: His Holiness the late Karmapa fled to India in 1959, and in 1961 he set-up the Karmapa Charitable Trust. So, the late Karmapa was the sole trustee of the Trust. Then there was yet another 7 trustee whom he appointed himself. At the time in 1961, Sikkim was still an independent country. One of the seven trustees appointed by the late Karmapa was then one of the ministers of the King of Sikkim, Vhanya Tashi Thrangu Denshapa because this particular family to which this minister belonged had been associated with the Karmapas since the 7th Karmapa. Also the family is well-known for being an honest and decent family.
There was Yarma Sherub Gyaltsen who at the time was the secretary of the department of the religious affairs in Sikkim. He later became the Chief Secretary of the State of Sikkim after Sikkim became a part of India. He was appointed as one of the trustee by the late Karmapa. He was also well-known for being an honest and decent person.
There was another trustee, Ashok Burma who is Indian. He is well-known in India as the owner of the Tabor Company a well-known medical company. He became a student of the late Karmapa during a travel of pilgrimage to India by the late Karmapa before Tibet was occupied by Communist China.
The other trustee was a Nepalese gentleman, Mr. Gyal Jothi. He went to Tibet before it was invaded by communist China. And he was already then a disciple of the late Karmapa. His Holiness in the case of these four trustees made the following arrangements. Namely, in the death of one of these trustees, the oldest child of the deceased person would take the position of the deceased trustee.
Another trustee who was the then general secretary of the Karmapa Dangchub Yondub, and another trustee appointed was Trakbar Yondub, the present general secretary Topga Rinpoche. Topga Rinpoche was the son of the late Karmapa's sister. He was the Vajra master of the Tsurphu Monastery. He has very high qualifications in terms of the Karmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. Another trustee was Jamgyal Namgyel Gompu ,who was the son the of one the late Karmapa's uncle. And before Tibet fell he was one of the ministers to the king of Delgyer. And he was well known for his honesty and decency. These seven individuals were appointed as trustees by the late Karmapa. So the late Karmapa made the following arrangements, in the case of the death of himself, the Karmapa Charitable Trust would take charge of whatever is associated with the Karmapas until the reincarnation came of age. That is to say 21 years old. So the Trust is suppose to, according to the instructions of the late Karmapa, be in charge of whatever the late Karmapa created until the 17th Karmapa become 21 years old.
As for the general secretary Dangchub Yondub, Jamgya Namgyal Gompu and Topga Rinpoche, in the case of their death, they will be succeeded by a new trustee chosen among the disciple of the Karmapa. After the death of one of the above of either Dangchub Yondub or Namgyal Gompu, his place as trustee was taken over by the late Jamgon Rinpoche. Situ Rinpoche became the trustee for the other. Mr. Ashok Burma, the Indian gentleman resigned at one point, and Shamar Rinpoche took up his position as trustee. All this happened after the passing away of the late Karmapa. So we can actually make a consideration. During the life of the late Karmapa, none of the four regents were appointed Trustee. They only became Trustees after his death.
Question: What was the reason behind him not appointing the four regents for this purpose ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It seems that the Karmapa was aware of the problem that would surface now.
Question: Would you say that this was a precautionary step that he had taken ahead of time ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It is possible.
Question: Is the Karmapa Charitable Trust having the full co-operation of the Kagyu Rinpoches and lamas.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Most of them not. The problem it seems, for those people, is that the Trustees are too honest. It doesn't suit their purposes.
In November 1992, there was a meeting in Rumtek monastery called by Situ Rinpoche aimed at dissolution the Karmapa Charitable Trust. To put it out. It was uncomfortable for him. However because of the laws of India, he was not able to do so. It wasn't legally acceptable.
Question: Is it true that there can be only one Karmapa ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Well, at one point in time hundreds of millions of manifestations may manifests. However, historically, in terms of holding the name Karmapa, there is only one. There are at this particular point, two who hold the title Karmapa. As to the young Tibetan boy in Tsurphu, who has been appointed to this position, his appointment was affected by Communist China. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. China is a powerful country. Also, why would one want to do anything about it. Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche himself had said he has nothing against this young boy in Tsurphu holding this position. It is perfectly all right. However, one can also not do away with the authentic Karmapa. The authentic Karmapa is a great Bodhisattva. So it is improper to change that. So at this point in time there are 2 with that title. It maybe beneficial in the long run.
Question: Can Khenpos tell us about the search and the efforts of Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche for the authentic Karmapa in India.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: I cannot go into details at this point of time because some of the details cannot go public as yet. However, at the age of one year and 8 months, the Karmapa in Delhi did at a number of occasions said "I am the Karmapa". There are people who witnessed this who can substantiate that claim. At the age of 3, he naturally without ever having been taught the text of the Madyamaka Avattara, recited the whole text. And that was also witnessed by a number of people who can substantiate that. This particular treatise is one of the great treatises of Buddhism. It is about the Madyamaka school of thoughts. Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche resorted to a number of traditional methods in order to find the authentic reincarnation. Amongst others, he supplicated his Yidam and stayed in meditation and in this way obtained advice as to the whereabouts of the authentic reincarnation. Furthermore there is a song of realisation written by the late Karmapa at the age of 22, which contains instructions pointing to the whereabouts of the authentic reincarnation and these instructions in the Song of Realisation accords with the background of the reincarnation in New Delhi. There is a treasure revealer in the Nyingma school of Tibetan who lived in this century, Silnang Lingpa, who also wrote down indications as to the whereabouts of the 17th Karmapa and his indications is also in accord with the background of the reincarnation in New Delhi. Also, Thaye Dorje's father, Mipam Rinpoche, is the reincarnation of the late Mipam Rinpoche, one of the greatest Nyingma masters of the century and previous century. The previous Mipam Rinpoche left a letter of instruction behind where he gives details of his next reincarnation. That is to say, the father of His Holiness is in possession of this letter and the instructions in this letter also accords with the background of the reincarnation in Delhi. So in general, those were the circumstances. I would not at this point want to go into further details. I have thoroughly investigated the circumstances before taking my decision. It becomes clear from the records during the Karma Kagyu's conference that Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche didn't make up his mind in one day. He applied himself to a process of investigation for many years. From 1986 to 1993, Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche made investigations in which he only made up his mind in 1993 having started his investigation in 1986.
Question: Since the authentic Karmapa is found, what would happen to the supporters of the other "Karmapa" in Tibet ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: I can't predict the future. However, a lot of changes have already taken place. When the 17th Karmapa Thaye Dorje arrived in New Delhi, there were approximate 10 Tulkus who agreed with this. This year as the Kagyu Monlam was held in Bodhgaya, there were approximately 50 Tulkus. It seems quite a few have changed their minds so far.
Question: What advice would Khenpos Rinpoche give to Buddhist practitioner in the light of this problem ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism is one of the division of Buddhism. As a Buddhist, one always should follow the truth. So wherever the truth is, there one goes. Perhaps some of you may feel uncomfortable because it maybe that one of your lamas are supporters of Urgyen Trinlay. If one has taken teachings from a lama or Rinpoche and one's opinion differs in this particular case, there is no need for speaking bad of that lama or Rinpoche. One should avoid such. However there is also no need to follow someone not seeking the truth. So it doesn't need to be a problem. I myself was a student of Thrangu Rinpoche for many years. Thrangu Rinpoche taught me a lot of Buddhist philosophies. I see no need to speak ill of Thrangu Rinpoche at all. However I do not also fear speaking the truth, because when Thrangu Rinpoche taught me Buddhist philosophy he taught me true Buddhist philosophy. So he taught me the truth. As to this Karmapa issue, we hold differing opinions. I don't fear stating my opinion as I am convinced that this is the truth. Also, my devotion for Thrangu Rinpoche as teacher of the Buddhist scriptures has not diminished because Thrangu Rinpoche is associating himself with Urgyen Trinlay.
Question: What are the differences between the 3 vehicles of Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: These 3 approaches in Buddhism were taught by Buddha Sakyamuni in relation to the fact that the disciple are of different disposition. It is not possible to explain the differences in just a few words. However one of the differences pertains to the fact that some of the approaches in Buddhism involves a greater number of methods than other approaches.
Question: What is the significance of the Karma Kagyu lineage within the Vajrayana tradition ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan originated from the 1st Karmapa Dusum Kyenpa who practised and mastered the instructions originating in Tibet with Marpa the translator. Dragpo Rinpoche was the first Karmapa's root guru. And from Dragpo Rinpoche, Dusum Kyenpa obtained instructions regarding 2 particular phases of practising the Buddhist tantra. One relating to the phase on visualisation practice. Here the particular instruction are mentioned in the context of the union of appearance and emptiness, which one may also refer to as the union of awareness and emptiness. Then there is another set of instructions relating to the phase of tantric practice where the individual rests in the state without a reference point. Here, the particular instructions pertain to realising the inseparability of mind and prana. This is an extensive subject and there is nothing one can say in just a few words to be of benefit.
Question: Why is the Kagyu Lineage considered unbroken and why is it called a whispering lineage?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The word whispering may not be a correct phrase to use here. Certain teachings were given from masters to particular disciples who had the capacity to master the teachings. They were not given on a large scale. It was not as if the teachings were whispered to some students. The lineage originates from the Indian master Tilopa referred to as a person of very profound esoteric knowledge and capacity. He studied with a number of great Indian Siddhas at that time. There is mention of that he studied with Indian Siddhas who held the teachings of what became known as the four special transmissions. Now, Tilopa did not just studied with these Buddhist masters. He also realised and mastered the meaning of the teachings he had received. At one point, as a result of his high realisation he encountered Buddha Vajradhara and obtained teachings from this Buddha. The teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage has then onwards been passed on from master to disciple in an unbroken line up to today. This is the reason why there were never any period of interruption in the lineage and it is considered unbroken.
Question: How do you explain some of the reincarnates that are considered to be an emanation of certain Bodhisattvas and Buddhas ? How one knows that ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: I find it difficult to comment on individual cases. However in the autobiography of Jamgon Lodro Thaye, he himself says that he is recognise as the great Tibetan translator, Vairocana, by many lamas. However he himself said that he is not the reincarnation of Vairocana even though many recognise him as such. He said the fact that some made this recognition could possibly come from the fact that he possesses the Buddha nature and that he in the past have had a very close connection with this particular Tibetan Translator. So, in that sense, there could have been this sort of recognition so to speak. However it is also recorded in his autobiography he himself knew fully well that he was not.
It could be, he said in his autobiography, by affording him this recognition, the consequence in terms of him as a practitioner would be that he would be very careful in his practice of Buddhism and that would maybe bring about in the future that he will become as great as the translator Vairocana. So maybe, it was for that type of reasons some lamas recognised him as the reincarnation of Vairocana.
Its recorded in the scriptures that Milarepa, Tibet's great yogi, at one point, spoke of his life said to Rechungpa and some other of his students. Having heard about Milarepa's life, his students said that "you must be either the reincarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva". Milarepa answered, "What you have just said amounts to disparaging the Dharma. I'm not at all a reincarnation of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. I'm quite an ordinary individual who have practised the path. And as a result of my practice, I have obtained Buddha the Enlightened state".
Question: How can we know if someone is enlightened ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: An ordinary samsaric person entertains obscuring states of mind that produce sufferings whereas an enlightened individual has done away with the obscuring states of mind that produces sufferings. If someone looks at a Bodhisattva, one knows that a Bodhisattva is on his way to Buddha the Enlightened state. So one should not equate a Buddha to a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas do have certain obscuring states of mind, however not at all to the extent as ordinary samsaric beings.
Question: What is the origination of the 4 foundation and the importance of it ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The 4 foundations are important because they prepare the practitioner for the practice of Mahamudra. So it is a preparatory state. However, the practice is important but not the number of times that one does those practices. It is not impossible to attain Buddha the Enlightened state without the practice of the 4 foundation.
In order to attain Buddha the Enlightened state, the individuals must attain realisation of emptiness. In order to attain the first Bhumi, the individual must also attain the realisation of emptiness. For a person to be able to attain the realisation of emptiness, there are 3 principal causes, without which it is not possible to realise emptiness.
The first is that the practitioner has been able to turn his back on the samsaric way of life and that he has unshakeable trust and confidence in the triple gem. Also, the individual must have brought about a change of state in his mind in order to be able to realise emptiness. That is to say he would have to be a person who on the basis of his practice has done away with a great deal of karmic consequences as well as obscuring states of mind. The third cause is that the practitioner has created good or positive potential to a very great extent because without having brought about positive potentials, there is no possibility of being able to perceive emptiness. It is for the sake of developing these three, the four foundations were created. However, it is not the case that one cannot attain the state of Mahamudra without having practised the four foundations. If one develops these three on the basis of other methods, the result would be the same. At the time of, for example, Marpa the translator, the practice of the 4 foundations doesn't seem to have assisted. In spite of that, Marpa attained realisations. So, he must have done it on the basis of other practices.
Question: The practitioners are normally asked to do the 4 foundations for a certain amount of times. So one can hear practitioners claiming the number of times they have done a certain foundation. Some says, for example, one prostration in Bodhgaya is equivalent to 10,000 times in other places. What is the view of Khenpos Rinpoche on this kind of perception ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The number of times one does the practice is not important. It is the quality of the practice. If one does millions of prostrations while distracted that won't produce an effect even though one did many. Whereas if a person does this practices on the basis of genuine trust and confidence, even though he might not do the practices many times, but it will bring about an effect.
The Prajna Paramitas made mention of that, a Bodhisattva on the 2nd Bhumi and onwards has the capacity to imbue an area with his spiritual influence. Thus, doing practice in places where great beings have spent time, it means that the place has an effect on one's practice because the place, so to speak, is influenced by the spirituality of that Bodhisattva or that Buddha.
Question: Should there be a certain mode of behaviour when one is attending a puja or Dharma session ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: When attending various events one should regard oneself as a person afflicted by illness. The illness of obscuring states of mind and the Dharma as the medical treatment and the teacher as the physician. Also one should resolve to attend the ceremony and listening to the teachings for the sake of becoming able to benefit beings in numbers as vast as the sky. For the sake of becoming able to lead them to Buddha the Enlightened State. Also, one should be respectful and act in a respectful way while attending these ceremonies.
Question: When a person prostrates in the beginning of a puja or a Dharma session, what should his state of mind be ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: You should contemplate bodhicitta.
Question: Before a master starts a puja or Dharma session, the practitioners will normally prostrate. Are we prostrating to the master, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas or the Dharma that he teaches ? What should be our frame of mind ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: One should prostrate to the Dharma. Of course one should be respectful to the teacher. However, the main aspect is the teaching. Today it is quite difficult to tell if the teacher is authentic or not. So why prostrate to the teacher. It is better to prostrate to the teaching.
Question: So if we are not sure if the teacher is authentic, we are also not sure if his teachings are authentic. Can we just not prostrate until we are sure ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Yes. It is okay if we do not prostrate. No point in forcing oneself. Buddha Sakyamuni said that the teachings he made, he made available for the purpose of giving an opportunity for the beings to tame their minds. That is the purpose of his teachings. So if a teacher's teachings has an effect that one's state of mind improves, it probably means that the teachings are authentic.
If the teacher appears to be interested in amassing wealth, money and so on, if he appears to be a person of that calibre, it means he is not authentic. There are many variations here. The teachings may be authentic even though the teacher is not. You may have a situation where both teacher and teachings are authentic. You may have a situation where the teacher and teachings are both not authentic.
Question: At the end of a Dharma session, should we prostrate ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Some do and some don't. At the end of a course of teachings, it's a tradition to do that. Some do it after every teaching and some don't. There are no fixed rules.
Question: There is a saying that Milarepa when he left Marpa, he prostrated, after which he did not have the chance to meet Marpa again.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: He probably did not, not meet him again just because he prostrated to Marpa in their last meeting. That wasn't the cause for them not meeting again. So, that might have been some special kind of prostration ! Of course, in terms of Tibetan culture, we have various ways on the basis of which people claim to divine the future. Some people, for the sake of setting up future connections, would do certain things like, for example, if the teacher teaches certain things like the Jewel Ornament of Liberation during the last session, he would again give an explanation that illucidates the name of the scripture that he is teaching even though he has already done that at the beginning of the course because that is said to set-up the conditions for teaching the same scripture at some point in the future.
Question: In the Vajrayana practice, we speak of this Guru-disciple relationship. Can Rinpoche elaborates on this relationship.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: For there to be a relationship, the lama must be authentic to begin with. Both the teacher and the student, for them to have a proper relationship should have appreciation of one another. The student should regard the teacher as a parent and the teacher should regard the student as his child.
The teacher should be concerned with making efforts for the sake of making it possible for the student to free himself of samsara. And the student should regard the teacher as someone who acts for the sake of freeing him from samsara.
It's important to remember, be mindful of and practice the instructions that give you the possibilities to attain freedom from samsara. Nowadays, it's very often the case that a teacher establishes connections with people he calls his students for the sake of obtaining influence, wealth and so on and there are many Buddhist students who refer to themselves as the disciples of a certain lama but who in fact uses the lama for their personal purposes.
Question: Is a Root Guru necessarily an ordained person ? Can a lay person become one's Root Guru ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Why not. Marpa and Milarepa are not ordained.
Question: Often we hear people talking about opening up our hearts to our gurus. So, what does it actually mean?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Well it means that as you practice under the guidance of someone, you should not conceal anything but you should tell your teacher of your experiences and so on, that you have a meditation. This is not a phrase one uses at all times. It's a phrase used in the context of seeing Mahamudra. As one practices, one will have various experiences and it's important to discuss those experiences with one's teacher. In order to find out whether a certain experience is a hindrance or something that will would contribute towards developing further. So that's why it's important not to conceal anything. And that's what this phrase implies.
Question: What is the quality of a Root Guru that the disciple should look for and what is the quality of a disciple the Guru should look for?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It's difficult to make a general statement because it depends on what type of guru you're talking about. Whether it's a Guru in the Theravada tradition, the Mahayana or the Tantra tradition. Thus also if one looks at the characteristics of a student, then it depends on what practice the student is doing. There is nothing general. There are different types of spiritual friends. There are teachers and spiritual friends who are quite ordinary, then there are teachers and spiritual friends which are Bodhisattvas on any of the Bhumi. In brief, the Guru must have a profound knowledge and understanding of the teachings he expounds.
The Guru's behaviour must accord with the teachings he gives. His conduct should be in accordance with the advice he gives to students. Also he must teach because he wants to free the students from samsara. There should be no other motives to his teachings. In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, we find a chapter devoted to explaining the qualities of a spiritual friend. In that text one can find a more extensive explanation. And the student must have trust and confidence and who is capable of making efforts in his practice.
Question: What are Samaya vows?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Samaya, to begin with, is a particular feature of the Buddhist Tantras. It is not of all Buddhist school of thoughts. If a practitioner is capable of upholding his samaya being the various commitments he has made in relation to a particular tantra that he practices, the effect would be that he accomplishes and masters those teachings and he attains realisations. On the other hand if he is not able to maintain the commitments, he has committed himself to maintain, he will not obtain any result. When one looks at the Buddhist Tantras, in relation to each tantra there is a great number of different commitments. For there to be samaya, in terms of a guru and disciple, the guru must be an authentic guru of the Tantrayana and the disciple must be a disciple capable of practising whatever Tantras at hand. Otherwise samaya doesn't happen. Receiving empowerment is said to be the gateway to the Buddhist Tantrayana and most empowerments are made up of 4 stages. There are 4 empowerments that make up urn empowerment. Now each empowerment is associated with a particular prospective of the true nature of reality. That empowerment is meant to have the effect that the student when in the process of receiving empowerment, has a glimpse of that particular aspect of the true nature of reality. If that doesn't happen during empowerment, samaya doesn't happen. Each of the 4 empowerments that make up urn empowerments has samaya or a set of commitments. Its a code of ethics associated with viewpoint, conduct and meditation. So, its quite a few commitments associated with each empowerment.
The student has to be introduce to each and everyone of these commitments, otherwise how can there be samaya. How can someone uphold a set of commitments that he doesn't know. Furthermore, as have been mentioned earlier, for someone to qualify as a Root Guru, the case must be that as a consequence of the Guru introducing the student to the true nature of reality, the student has a short insight or glimpse of Mahamudra. If that happens, then the lama becomes a Root Guru. Otherwise not. Also for anyone to be associated with samaya, relating to a particular aspect of a tantric practice, there are certain conditions and circumstances that must be fulfilled, otherwise it doesn't happen.
There is often frequent mentioning of transgressing samayas. One should be aware of that here as well, it's not as simple as it is often made up to be. Cause again, there are certain circumstances that must come together for that to happen. It doesn't happen easily.
Receiving teachings and taking refuge and so on makes the person who gives the teaching or the refuge a teacher, a lama, a spiritual friend and by no means a Root Guru. And by no means a guru of the Buddhist Tantras. If one asks the question of whether one should accomplish whatever one is told to do by this person, the answer is, well, if what you are asked to do is in accordance with the Buddhist principles, yes, otherwise, no.
Today we have quite a few lamas who very often tell people that they have received some samayas of some sort. If they don't follow whatever he says, they will end up in Vajra hell and what nots, this is not true. As was explained, samaya is not easily obtained and furthermore if one doesn't know what the commitments are, how can one break them. Its also not the case that its just the student having samayas. The Gurus also have samayas to uphold. Its not a one-way street. Through their combined efforts samaya may be upheld.
Question: When we receive empowerments, we may be asked to follow in recitation of certain prayers. And at the end of the empowerments, there are some commitments. When some lamas give initiations, we are just asked to chant and we will follow like parrots. Does this pertain to samaya ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Its not authentic. No. It could be that some lama gives this advice in the hope that it will have a positive effect on this person to do this recitation. It is a virtuous action and this would help the person to develop on the basis that this person has received some spiritual influence to practice. But it is not samaya.
Question: How many Root Gurus can one have ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: How could there be more than one because you do not need more than one to recognise the true nature of mind. Once you've recognise, you'd know it. So, there couldn't be more than one. However one can have many gurus in general. The great Khyentse Wangpo has 150 gurus.
However, for a beginner, it is not very constructive to take teachings from a lot of different teachers. Its a matter of not ending up with too many teachings and too much confusion. This was said by the Indian Buddhist master, Atisha. On a more advanced level, its all right to have a lot of teachers because one has stabilised oneself in the practice of the Dharma. He is no longer subjected to confusion in the same way as a beginner.
Question: Does it mean that even if a Guru is not specifically giving instructions and the student perceives his own true nature of mind that this guru is considered his Root Guru ? Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: No. It would happen on the basis of the guru giving the instructions and the instructions having the effect on the student having a glimpse of the true nature of mind. It won't happen in the absence of instructions.
Question: Is this nature of mind that Rinpoche mentioned a state of Mahamudra ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: No. Its different. That's why its called a "glimpse" of the true nature of mind because its not a realisation. It means that for a few moment, you catch a glimpse of mind's true nature but that vanishes. That's why you have to continue your practice. It meant that while receiving such instruction you may have become mature enough to for a few moments see the true nature of reality. However, that's not final realisation. Its just the beginning stage. So the point is, once you have a perception of mind's true nature, then you know what it is. Then you can cultivate it. And to cultivate that perception so that it becomes a continuous perception, what people call meditation. But the word actually means to cultivate. So you familiarise yourself more and more with the nature of reality.
Question: Is the true nature an awareness without conceptualisation ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It's not just a non-conceptual state. Its a state of mind where you recognise what mind in fact is ultimately. So, its a state of recognition. Its not just a state where you have no thoughts.
A lot of people seem to think that to rest in a state free from thoughts is to practise Mahamudra. In fact, this is not the case. Mahamudra is not just being free from thoughts. That's a simplification of Mahamudra.
Question: If one is practising Mahamudra in the Kagyu lineage, can we say that ultimately our Root Guru would definitely be Karmapa being the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: There has been a great Tibetan master, Karma Charme who went off to the land of Sukavati. He didn't even leave his body behind. He seems to have said, to begin with, the Karmapa would not become each and every Karma Kagyu practitioner's Root Guru on the basis of him being the main figure of the lineage. However, the Karmapa, were throughout Tibet's Buddhist history, referred to as Buddha Karmapa. So, he had been regarded as fully enlightened. Now, even if you receive instructions as to the true nature of mind from anyone else. It is according to Karma Charme, advisable to regard this teacher to be inseparable from the Karmapa himself. If one looks at the teacher in this way, it means one has the possibility of receiving the spiritual influence of the Karmapa. In these times, regarded as very degenerated, its good to cultivate this kind of perception, says Karma Charme, because otherwise one will probably find faults with the Guru. But if you look at him as inseparable from the Karmapa, this will prevent one from finding faults with the teacher as well as it being possible to receive the Karmapa's spiritual influence.
Question: Can the Root Guru and Disciple disown each other ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: You can't really eliminate a connection you have already established. Because, even if you don't meet the person in this life, you may meet him in another life. You can't really terminate a connection you have established with somebody. It is not within your power to do so.
Question: So does it depend on the karma of both parties to determine the future development of the relationship ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: No. Because once you have a connection with somebody, you will meet that somebody at one point or another. When the karmic circumstance for meeting this person again are present or have gathered, then you will meet this person again, whether in this life or in another life.
Question: Once having perceive a person as our Root Guru, later we find faults and we would like not to be associated with this person and not perceive him as our Root Guru anymore. Maybe take his picture down from the shrine or something of that sort. Can we do that ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: To begin with, you have to make sure whether he is your Root Guru as described. Of course you can avoid him. You don't have to go to places where he is. But to terminate the relationship, from the perspective of karma, that would be rather difficult.
The Indian Buddhist master Santideva said, its good to approach receiving instructions in the same way that honeybees collect pollen from flowers which they manufacture into honey. A bee flies from flower to flower to collect the pollens, then it brings back to the beehive and makes honey out of it. In doing so, it is not at all attaching itself to the flowers. He just collects what good the flowers have, what it can use and flies off. It's good to have a relationship like that. You receive the instructions and then you don't need to hang about your lama. You will find faults with him.
Question: Can Rinpoche explain a little on Guru devotion.
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It means that one finds out about the good qualities of the Guru and on the basis of one's knowledge of the Guru's exceptional qualities, develops trust and confidence in him.
Question: If the transmission or empowerment have not been received for a certain practice, can one go ahead to practise them ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: No. One should not do practices in the absence of receiving instructions, empowerments and so on. It's not a good idea. Especially not on the Buddhist Tantras. The practice won't be authentic of course.
Question: The general Chinese Mahayanists do chant some mantras without instructions and transmissions. How do we view this ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: That's okay because Chinese Buddhism has a different approach. Simply because its not the Buddhist Tantra. It is not Tantric. So, one doesn't need the lineage thing. Empowerments, transmissions and so on is part of the Buddhist Tantras. So that's why it is important in Vajrayana. As Chinese Buddhism is not tantric. It is not required.
However in general, it is always preferable to receive teachings on the basis of there being the background of a lineage of transmissions because if one tries to become a physician by just reading theories from medical books and no particle practices, it would not be advisable that one practices medicine. This would not make one a physician.
Question: What does a Yab Yum practice represent and what is the correct view on these practices ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: In general we have 3 aspects of the Buddhist tantric paths. There is the foundation, the path and the fruition. When one speaks of the foundation, one is speaking of the fact that the true nature of reality exists from the very beginning with all enlightened qualities. In relation to the foundation, there is mention of what is called the union of appearance and emptiness. Then, we have the aspect of path , mentioning the union of a state of well-being and emptiness. Then we have fruition, being, attaining the kayas. The Dharmakaya and the 2 form kayas. So the Yab Yum figures symbolises these. They are symbols of these.
Question: We come across many scandals from reading the medias, some considered highly realised masters having consorts claiming to be their tantric practices. What is the view of Rinpoche on this ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Well, there is this aspect of the path where the practitioner contemplates on the union of both state of well-being and emptiness. There are different states of well-being that one may experience. One of them being the sensation produced during copulation. There is a practice in the Buddhist Tantras where the practitioner uses this sensation in order to perceive emptiness. So it has nothing to do with the ordinary kind of sexual activities. For a person to be able to do this sort of practice, the person must have developed in his practice to a point where he is in full control of the subtle energies that flows throughout the subtle channels in the body. It is quite an advance stage and it would probably be quite rare to come across a person who has this capacity. I cannot judge if so and so has accomplished this. However, its very likely that some of the people who claim to do this practices are in fact attached to the pleasures of the senses. That's not at all permissible on the context of it being a tantric practice. Its counter productive and may not be engaged in.
Question: Is having a physical consort an outer part of the practice and different from the inner and the secret practices?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: If what is at hand is someone capable of doing this particular tantric practice, its an inner practice. Also, the Tibetan word for consort is not consort but in fact secret consort. The practitioner is supposed to keep this a secret. So, people who present a girlfriend or a wife as a secret consort, who knows if that is truly the case.
Question: For a practitioner to be able to engage in yab yum, he must be highly realised. But if one is highly realised why does he still need to have these practices ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: No. Its not that high a level. One develops the capacity to control the flow of prana in the body during the paths of unification. The 2nd of the 5 paths. So, its not an enlightened state. Compared to the ordinary person, of course this would be a very high level. Also, one can practise the Buddhist Tantras and attain realisation without ever relying on a secret consort. Its not absolutely necessary. There is for example the practice of Tummo, where this is not required. There are other Buddhist Tantric practices too. So it is not absolutely necessary. Some do and some don't.
Question: What is the definition of a Dakini ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: The definition of a Dakini is a witch.
Question: And Dakas ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Its a male witch.
Question: Are there different types of Dakinis ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: Yes. There are good and bad ones. There are good witches and bad witches. The word itself means "witch". That's what it means.
Question: Why is visualisation so important in Vajrayana ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: In order to tame the mind, one needs to practice shamata and vipasyana. Visualisation is a form of shamata practice to which you obtain the capacity to rest in a calm state.
Question: If during the completion stage of visualisation of a Yidam , one does not dissolve the visual and contemplate emptiness, is there any effects on the practitioner ?
Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche: It means your tendency to see things as real is too strong.
Interview with SBS's First Trainee Monk
Venerable Kumara is SBS's first trainee monk. Here, Tan Guan Soon from Sarawak interviews him via the electronic mail.
when did you first set foot in SBS?
When I first stayed with Bhante Aggacitta, SBS wasn't ready yet. That was about late January last year. We stayed at Khemarama. Later on, in early February, Bhante Aggacitta shifted to SBS to supervise the construction.
The first time I set foot in SBS was a few days after I had first arrived in Taiping, when I accompanied some Malaysian visiting monks for a visit. After that, I went up about once or twice a week to discuss Pali and Vinaya with Bhante.
I started staying here for long periods only after late June 2001. That was the time when we had our sima making ceremony.
were your first impressions of SBS? And have they changed since then?
Well, experience had taught me not to be taken in by first impressions, as they tend to be wrong. So, I remember trying to suspend any judgement, though at first sight from across Sungai Tupai, it did look well okay.
Anyway, when I actually hiked up SBS with Bhante Aggacitta from Spritzer Mineral Water Factory (where we got our pindapata) for the first time, the 'first impression' that really stayed in my mind was that it was very, very steep. That wasn't the right picture, though. We took a rather steep uncharted way up after wading through the stream. No one walks there now. I certainly wouldn't want to!
Actually, I thought SBS had a serene atmosphere, most ideal for people who like quietude. Now, I still think it is such a place.
your arrival in SBS, have you ever encountered any significant problems?
None that I can think of, except perhaps a 'mousy' problem in my kuti. Still can't manage to outsmart the two mice that come gnawing here and there. Trying to chase them away by banging where they're gnawing would only make them angrier, and they'd start gnawing at various places for no apparent purpose. Bhante asked me to radiate metta, which I did, but it seemed to work just for a few seconds. After that, they'd go back to their gnawing. I'll have to come up with better strategies.
are your plans for the future? Would you consider making SBS your permanent residence?
If by 'permanent' you mean 'long-term', yes. It'll take some years for me to be properly equipped as a monk. After that, I don't think it would be fair to leave without taking on some teaching duties in return. So, I suppose you could expect me to be here for quite a long while.
Nonetheless, I do intend to take some months off in between for 'sabbatical' meditation retreats.
the infrastructure at the sanctuary has been completed to a great extent, but
our local monks who are eligible are not coming forward to participate in SBS's
training programme. Can Bhante explain the reasons for such a response?
I don't think it's accurate to say that none are coming forward at all. There've been a few who came and stayed and even participated in our classes, but they have left for different reasons. I believe a couple of them may return later.
I think what you're saying is that the response is poor, considering the grand total enrolment of one monk.
Why is the
response poor? I've a few ideas about that based on my interactions with some
monks who have been here.
First of all, some monks say that they prefer to just meditate. They believe that meditation practice should be done in an intensive retreat. SBS is not a suitable place for intensive meditation because it is a monks' training centre requiring students to do Vinaya studies as well as attend to other monkish duties.
Then a number of them admitted that they have no interest in learning the Vinaya in detail. Quite a few believe that it is adequate to just follow the norm of whichever monastic community they are in.
Another reason is that some monks prefer to move from place to place. This was quite a common practice during the Buddha's time. However, based on the rules, I think it was a case of students following the teacher, or travelling in search of a qualified teacher. Another possible situation is that the monk has fulfilled the minimum prerequisites of independence and is therefore "licensed" to go on his own. It's somewhat sad to see that many Malaysian monks seem to travel all over on their own even when they have yet to qualify. I think that's rather detrimental to the strength of the Sangha in Malaysia.
see. Actually I was expecting more practical reasons, like not being able to adapt
physically to the lifestyle here.
Well there are some monks who shy away from SBS because of the expectation here to practise some dhutangas (ascetic practices). I must admit that I too felt somewhat intimidated by it as it did sound tough. However, after observing the practice for some time, they don't seem that difficult after all. Obviously, it was a case of false perception.
Practising dhutanga has its advantages and is much encouraged here, but it is not insisted upon without due consideration for individual capacity. If a monk has a certain health problem that makes a certain practice unsuitable, he is free to set it aside until such a time when he has gained back his health. We don't torture monks here.
Another thing is the demand on fitness. I remember a visiting monk candidly telling me that he couldn't manage the daily hike for pindapata. I must say that it was certainly quite demanding earlier on. But since we shifted our pindapata venue to the Hokkien cemetery and started going down through a shortcut, it's easier now. Going down takes less than half an hour, and coming up about 45 minutes. It shouldn't be too difficult for a person of average fitness. Besides, we usually make some adjustments for monks who are not used to it.
there been any complaint about the overall atmosphere at SBS?
Yes. Some say this place is somewhat noisy because of the ongoing construction works. A monastic residence should of course be ideally quiet, but I suppose it's something we have to live with for the time being. Actually, one tends to get used to the noise after a while. Besides, the noise is not there all the time. It's rather peaceful off working hours.
All these reasons,
which Bhante has just mentioned, appear to be quite lame on the surface. I think
with such a qualified teacher as Bhante Aggacitta here, these reasons shouldn't
deter them from coming; don't you think so?
I agree but I don't think my opinion would make any difference here. One reason I've heard quite recently was Bhante Aggacitta was too busy with worldly duties, such as supervising the construction and attending to administrative matters. Actually, despite having to do all those things he still finds time to teach. We've been having classes almost every day.
what are the areas that you would recommend looking into to boost the intake of
trainee monks and postulants at SBS?
I've given quite some thoughts to this issue. It's an important issue for me, because if no other monks were to be trained here other than me, I can be accused of being a very expensive monk to train.
I'm not sure what the committee can or should do, but for us monks, there seems to be just one proper thing to do: be good monks. To me, that seems to be the only way to attract good monks here.
your advice to our young Malaysian monks and those potential recruits out there?
I suggest that they choose their preceptors and mentors well. It's the most important thing for them to do. Be discerning in evaluating whether such-and-such a monk has the qualifications to be a mentor. Does he behave well in accordance with the Dhamma-vinaya? Is he capable of teaching the Dhamma-vinaya? Bear in mind that it takes a discerning mind and a long period of observation to be certain of a person's true character.
As the Buddha had made quite clear, the whole of this holy life depends on right association. So, be a bit fussy. Choose carefully.
If any of them thinks of coming here, I suggest that he doesn't listen to what other people say about this place-good or bad. Just come and see it for yourself.
interview with the Dalai Lama
by Pico Iyer
I was lucky enough to visit the Fourteenth Dalai Lama at his modest, colorful cottage in Dharamsala for the first time in 1974, when I was still a teenager. Since then, I've tried to return to the northern Indian town as often as I can, partly to witness the Tibetan struggle, and partly to enjoy the presence and wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Like more and more people these days, I've also been fortunate enough to see and hear him in Los Angeles, in Malibu, in New York and New Jersey, at Harvard and in San Francisco, but there's always something special about listening to him at his home, the snowcaps in the distance, and the hopes of Tibetans palpably, poignantly, in the air.
One recent autumn, I went to conduct a series of interviews with His Holiness during a rare respite in his schedule when he was officially on retreat. Dharamsala is radiant in the fall, the days dawning sharp and cloudless and the nights so full of stars that the real world can feel very far away. I wanted to know how Tibetan Buddhism was changing as its exile deepened, as its practices and teachers got sent around the world, in person and in the movies, and how, in a new global age, with more pressures and possibilities than ever before, the Dalai Lama could keep up his uniquely difficult balancing act of serving as political leader and spiritual teacher at once.
Every day we met in his room at 2 p.m., and over tea talked for as long as I had questions and he had time. Whenever my cup of tea was empty, His Holiness noticed it before I did. -Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer: I think the last time I was in this room was eight years ago. How have things changed since then?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Less hair, I think. Both of us! I think at a global level there is perhaps more hope, in spite of these very tragic things, like Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Regarding Tibet, I think on the positive side there is much more awareness, and as a result, concern and support are growing. Even some governments-publicly, as well as behind the scenes-are making an effort to do something for Tibet. On the other hand, inside Tibet the Chinese policies are very hard, very destructive. So overall, I am very optimistic regarding Tibet. For the near future, no hope. But in the long run, definitely. It's only a matter of time-things will change.
And in your own life, things must have changed a lot in the last eight years.
Not much. My general physical health is very good. My spiritual practice-not much opportunity. But as usual, I carry on. So I'm still the same person. You also are the same person. I am very happy to have a reunion with an old friend I've known since your father's time.
Yes, in fact, my father came to visit you just after you came to India.
Yes. Very early.
Your Holiness is officially on retreat at the moment. It must be difficult to find the time for your spiritual practice because of all the things you have to do out in the world.
Yes. Also, each time I receive some new teaching, that adds something to my daily practice. So nowadays, my daily recitation, compulsory, normally takes about four hours.
Usually I wake up at 3:30 in the morning. Then immediately I do some meditation, some exercise-prostrations-then bathe. Then a little walking outside. All this time I am reciting some mantra or doing some meditation. Then at 5:15, I breakfast and at 5:30 listen to the Voice of America Tibetan language broadcast. The BBC East Asia broadcast often mentions something about Tibet or China, so I usually listen to that.
After breakfast, I do some more meditation and then usually study some Tibetan philosophy or important texts. If there's some urgent business I come here to my office, and sometimes before lunch I read newspapers and magazines-Newsweek, Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, some Indian newspapers.
Oh, yes. At 7:30 I always listen to the BBC world news. Always. I am addicted. When I visit some foreign country and I can't listen to it because of the time change, or not having enough time, I really feel something is missing that day. I feel I don't know what's happened in the world. The BBC is always very good, and, I really feel, unbiased.
After my lunch I come here to my office until about 5:30. Then at 6:00 I have my evening tea-as a Buddhist monk, no dinner, sometimes just a few biscuits or some bread. At that time I always watch BBC television. Then evening meditation for about one hour and at 8:30, sleep. Most important meditation! Sleep is the common meditation for everyone-even for birds. The most important meditation. Not for nirvana, but for survival!
Nowadays, it must be almost impossible for Your Holiness to pursue some of your previous hobbies, like photography.
No longer any interest. Until early 1960, I had some interest in photography, but not since then. Of course, I still love different flowers. And occasionally I do some manual work, some repair work, of watches and small instruments.
No previous Dalai Lama has faced your situation of being responsible for a diverse, worldwide community. There are those still in Tibet, who are cut off from you in some ways; there are exiled Tibetans scattered all around the world, and there are all the new Tibetan Buddhists in the West. It must be difficult to keep in touch with all of these groups and make sure things are going in the right way.
More and more people are showing interest about Buddhism, and there's an increase in the number of Buddhist centers. But unlike the Catholic system, these are more or less autonomous. I have no responsibility. Of course, if occasionally people come here and ask me something, I give some suggestions. Otherwise, there's no central authority. They're all quite independent.
But if perhaps they're practicing in an unorthodox way, or doing things that you think are not in the true spirit of Buddhism, that must be difficult for you, even if you're not responsible for them.
Generally, no. Of course, there were some scandals-money scandals, sexual scandals-and at that time, some Westerners told me they were seriously concerned that because of these accusations all Buddhism may suffer. I told them, "Buddhism is not new. It is more than 2,500 years old, and during that time such scandals have happened. But basic Buddhist teaching is truthful. It has its own weight, its own reasons, its own beauties, its own values. If individuals, even lamas, are doing wrong things here and there, it will not affect the whole of Buddhism."
But it's also important to have discipline, especially those people who carry responsibility. When you are teaching others, when you are supposed to improve the quality of others' lives and their mental states, first you should improve yourself. Otherwise, how can you help other people? And perhaps because of these scandals, it seems there's more discipline, more self-restraint.
It must be a great worry of yours that Tibetans will lose their connection with their culture-both those inside Tibet, and in a different way, the ones outside Tibet. It must be hard to keep the continuity.
Inside Tibet, yes. There are clear signs of the degeneration of the Tibetan traditions, and of moral principles. In recent years, there have been a number of murder cases in the Tibetan community in India. All of them took place among people newly arrived from Tibet. This shows the degeneration of the spirit of tolerance and self-discipline. And then in Tibet itself, there is gambling and also prostitution. I was told there are many Chinese prostitutes, as well as some Tibetans. And also drugs-the refugee community has some, and it seems there are some drugs in Lhasa and the bigger towns in Tibet.
My main worry is the preservation of Tibetan culture. Tibetan political status is of course important, but to keep alive the Tibetan spirit, the Tibetan cultural heritage, that's my main concern. This not only benefits the six million Tibetan people, but also is of interest for the larger community-particularly, in the long run, to the Chinese. There are millions of young Chinese who are sometimes called the "Lost Generation." I feel that particularly in the field of human values, they're completely lost. In that vacuum, Tibetan Buddhist culture can make a contribution.
Do you think that Tibetan Buddhism is going to have to change as it's practiced by more and more non-Tibetans?
No, I don't think so. Some Westerners-even some Tibetans-have told me that they feel it needs some kind of modification. But I feel there's no need of such things, as far as the basic Buddhist teaching is concerned. Buddhism deals with basic human problems-old age, illness, suffering. These things, whether in today's world or a thousand years ago, whether in India or China or America, they're always the same.
Though Buddhism is now being practiced in countries with very different cultures and histories.
In any religious tradition, there should be two aspects: one is the cultural aspect, the other is the teaching or religious aspect. The cultural aspect, that can change. When Buddhism reached other countries from India, the cultural aspect adapted according to new circumstances. So we refer today to Japanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly, we will eventually have Western Buddhism. That, naturally, will come.
But where the basic teaching is concerned, I think it should be the same. For example, all authentic Tibetan scholars, whenever some important matter comes up, always rely on quotations of an earlier Indian scholar. Without that, we do not believe it's authentic. So you see, the teaching has been the same for 2,500 years. That's why I feel it's not correct to call Tibetan Buddhism "lamaism." With this incarnation, the Dalai Lama has been called, especially by the Chinese, "living Buddha." Now that is totally wrong. The Chinese word for "lama" means "living Buddha." But in Tibetan, the word "lama" is a direct translation of "guru." So "guru" and "lama" have the same meaning-someone who should be respected because of his wisdom, or because of the indebtedness one owes to him. So the rough meaning is "someone worthy of respect." No implication of "living Buddha." Some Western books also sometimes say "living Buddha" when they describe me, or "god." Totally wrong!
I remember you once said that among the Buddhist virtues, humility was perhaps more easily practiced in Tibet than in the West. I was wondering whether there are other values that are more difficult to practice in this new context?
In a Western society, it might be difficult to undertake a good meditation practice because of the fast pace of life there. But then you see, the solitude of some Christian monks and nuns is more remarkable than in Tibet. These monks and nuns live in their monasteries or nunneries all the rest of their lives, with no contact with the outside world. One monastery in the south of France has no radio, no newspaper. Completely cut out! And meals also are quite poor. And no proper shoes, only sandals. So most of them, for the rest of their lives, remain there almost like a prisoner. Wonderful!
So eventually Buddhist monasteries in the West can establish a similar pattern to some of these Christian monasteries. Then I don't think there will be any difficulties. They can spend all day on meditation.
These days you probably spend more of your time talking to non-Buddhists than to Buddhists, because you travel so much and you're speaking to so many different audiences.
Perhaps yes, perhaps yes. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk or speak outside the Tibetan community, my basic concern is with secular ethics. I make a distinction between spirituality with faith and spirituality without faith-simply to be a good human being, a warm-hearted person, a person with a sense of responsibility. Usually I emphasize the secular ethics, and it seems this is beneficial. I explain the basic human values, or human good qualities, such as compassion, and why these are important. I explain that whether one is a believer or a non-believer is up to the individual, but even without a religion, we can be a good human being.
I notice the majority of the audience appreciates this-with or without faith, just being a good human being. They're more receptive. That is important. The majority of people in the world are non-believers, and we can't argue with them and tell them they should be believers. No! Impossible!
Realistically speaking, the majority of humanity will remain non-believers, and it doesn't matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost or ignore the deeper human values, such as compassion and a sense of responsibility. Then we really are faced with a problem. That is our big concern. Wherever there is a society or community or family without these good human qualities, then even one single family cannot be a happy family. That's perfectly clear.
Certain emotions, such as hatred, create such a clear demarcation of "we" and "they." Immediately, there is a sense of enemy. There is so much competition, so much negative feeling towards your neighbor, and on your neighbor's side, also a negative attitude towards you. Then what happens? You are surrounded by enemy, but the enemy is your own creation!
Recently I am emphasizing that due to the modern economy, and also due to information and education, the world is now heavily interdependent, interconnected. Under such circumstances, the concept of "we" and "they" is gone: harming your neighbor is actually harming yourself. If you do negative things towards your neighbor, that is actually creating your own suffering. And helping them, showing concern about others' welfare-actually these are the major factors of your own happiness. If you want a community full of joy, full of friendship, you should create that possibility. If you remain negative, and meantime want more smiles and friendship from your neighbors, that's illogical. If you want a more friendly neighbor, you must create the atmosphere. Then they will respond.
So we need to be reminded of our most basic, most fundamental, responsibilities.
That's my main emphasis. I really feel the important thing is the promotion of secular moral ethics. That's what we really need. Those emotions or actions which ultimately bring happiness or satisfaction, they are positive. Because we want happiness. Those emotions and actions which ultimately bring suffering, we should consider negative. Because we do not want suffering. These are basic human values-no connection to Creator, no connection to Buddha.
Do you worry that in the Tibetan community, so much responsibility falls on you personally that even if you try to spread the responsibility among more and more people, they're reluctant to take it because they hold you in such high regard? It's hard to change those age-old beliefs.
Yes, that's true. I often tell people "You should carry your work as if I didn't exist." Sooner or later, that day will come, definitely.
You must be concerned about what happens when you are not around anymore-the likelihood of the Chinese just choosing their own Dalai Lama.
No, there isn't much problem! In the long run, yes, the Chinese want to control the future selection of the Dalai Lama. There is also the possibility there will no longer be any Dalai Lama-according to some information, the Chinese are thinking like that. Okay. Whatever they like, they can do. Nobody can stop them. But that won't affect the Tibetan mind. So it doesn't matter.
There's nothing you can do to protect your incarnation from the Chinese?
The Chinese certainly may recognize one Dalai Lama, but to the Tibetan people, that won't be the Dalai Lama. They will not accept him. So I am not much concerned. And the very institution of the Dalai Lama-whether it should continue or not-that's up to the Tibetan people. At a certain stage, the Dalai Lama institution will cease. That does not mean the Tibetan Buddhist culture will cease. The Tibetan Buddhist culture will remain, and should remain, I think, as long as Tibetan people remain. But institutions come and go, come and go.
Nowadays, so many people want to talk to you and they may have a whole variety of different motives. Is that a difficult thing?
For me there is no difference. Of course, sometimes they have different motivations, that's possible, but for me that's no problem. I treat every human being the same, whether high officials or beggars-no differences, no distinctions.
Along similar lines, you always stress that it's important to put everything to the test of reason, and not accept things automatically. I wonder if more and more people are inclined to take you as a teacher, and just to accept everything that you say.
Yes. A kind of blind faith! Yes, that also is happening. But I never feel that I'm a teacher. I never accept anyone as my disciple, including Tibetans. I usually consider them as my dharma friend. In a few exceptional cases, if we've known each other many years-if there's some kind of genuine trust on the basis of awareness-then sometimes I accept to be their guru, and they consider themselves as my disciple. But usually I consider them as my spiritual friend. So many foreigners ask me to accept them as my disciple. And I say, no need for that kind of acceptance. Just to be a dharma friend is much healthier, much better, and I also feel much more comfortable. Usually that is my response when someone requests me to accept them as a disciple.
One of the English poets once said, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." I wonder if Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism are more subject to distortions, because lots of people in the world now know just a little bit about them.
Yes. There are some new opportunities to exploit this location. In the field of Tibetan medicine, in some Tibetan arts, and in Buddhism also, some people are making claims for themselves without having the proper knowledge. Some Tibetans lived in India or Nepal with no record of any teaching, but after a few years in the West, they became very great lamas. I think some foreigners are a little bit surprised. They consider their lama very great, but when they reach India or Nepal, they inquire of some Tibetan, "Such and such a lama, where is he?" The Tibetan doesn't know, and sometimes says, "That's not a lama, not a great teacher." It happens, but okay, no problem. So long as it benefits someone, that's good.
There are lots of movie stars who are interested in Buddhism, and, as Your Holiness knows, there are even Tibetan monks represented in advertisements and fashion magazines. I wonder if, as Tibet has become better known, that has become a difficulty because people associate Tibet with rich and famous people?
If there are people who use Tibetans or the Tibetan situation for their own benefit, there's very little that we can do. The important thing is for us not to be involved or associate with these people for our own interest.
Some reporters are curious about actors who are showing a keen interest about Buddhism. In fact, they imply that I'm becoming almost a celebrity myself. But my feeling is that I don't care about people's background, so long as they have sincere motivation, honest, clean desire. Then, of course, I will give them an opportunity, and I will treat them as a friend. I do not pay importance to what their background is.
The important thing is that on our side, our motivation should be very clear, should be very honest. Personally, I am a Buddhist monk. I am a follower of Buddha. From that viewpoint, meeting one simple, innocent, sincere, spiritual seeker is more important than meeting a politician or a prime minister. These reporters usually consider politics as something most important, so meeting with a politician becomes something very significant for them. But for me, meeting with ordinary people, making some contribution to peace of mind, to deeper awareness about the value of human life-that, I feel, is very important. When I see some result, then I feel, "Today I made some small contribution."
Your Holiness has such a complicated life, because there are so many different roles you have to play. What do you find most difficult?
Meeting with politicians is one experience I feel is rather difficult. I have to meet these people and appeal to them, but there's nothing concrete that I can tell them about Tibet because the situation is so complicated. The problem is so big that even if these leaders sincerely want to help, they can't do anything! But if I don't meet with them, that also is wrong. It's better to meet.
The worst thing is that occasionally some formality is also involved. That, I don't care for. Once, at Salzburg, they invited me to speak at a festival, and I told them some of my usual thoughts, about the difficulties, the gap between rich and poor, and these sorts of things. Afterwards, the Austrian chancellor said that I broke all the taboos. It was a festival, so I suppose some praise, some nice words, were expected.
It's a good thing, to broach some serious topics.
I felt, here everything is very nice, very beautiful, but at the same time, human beings in some other part of the world are still facing starvation. So this is the gap-rich and poor, south and north-that I talked about. It seems my informality-my radical informality-sometimes helps people. Some of these problems are in their minds also, but they do not find it easy to speak out about it. Perhaps.
Are you disappointed by what the governments of the world have managed to do for Tibet?
Of course, I do feel they could do more, but at the same time, I see clearly their difficulties. China is a big nation, a very important nation, so you cannot ignore China. You have to deal with China.
To isolate China is totally wrong. China must be brought into the mainstream of the world community. In the economic field, the Chinese themselves want to join, but we in the world community also have the moral responsibility to bring China into the mainstream of world democracy, which the Chinese people themselves also want. When we deal with China, we need to create genuine, mutual trust, and within that, we should make these wrong things clear. Certain matters of principle should be very firm, within the friendly atmosphere.
I feel the greatest obstacle is Chinese suspicion, over-suspicion. So long as this suspicion remains, you can't solve this problem. So first remove suspicion, then close relations, close contact. Not confrontation, but rather persuasion and interaction.
So you see, relations with China for these Western nations are very delicate, very complicated. Under such circumstances, I feel the amount of support we receive is very, very encouraging. We have no money, we have no oil, we have nothing to offer. Tibet is a small nation, we are bullied by the Chinese, and we have suffered lots of human rights violations and destruction. The world's concern comes not from economic or geopolitical interest, but purely from human feeling and concern for justice. I think that is very encouraging. It is genuine support that comes from heart. I think it is a great thing.
I tell audiences a few reasons why they should support Tibet. One is ecology. Because of Tibet's high altitude and dry climate, once the ecology is damaged, it takes a longer time to recover. The Chinese are very eager to exploit Tibet and the possibility of damage is great. Because so many important rivers have their source in Tibet, this would eventually affect large areas in this part of the world.
Second, Tibetan culture, Buddhist culture, creates a certain way of life, based on peaceful relations with fellow human beings, peaceful relations with nature, peaceful relations with animals. I think that kind of culture is necessary, useful, for the world at large. Such a cultural heritage, which can help millions of people, is now facing extinction.
Finally, if we believe in peaceful solutions through non-violence, then we should support the success of the Tibetan struggle, which has been a non-violent approach right from the beginning. If it fails, then it's a setback on a global level for a new pattern of freedom struggle through non-violence. The only way to solve conflict is through dialogue, through non-violent principles. Once the Tibetan non-violent struggle eventually succeeds, it can be an example of that.
Do you think Your Holiness will see Tibet again?
Oh yes, certainly! Certainly. If I don't die tonight, or in the next few years. Oh, definitely. Another five years, ten years, I think things will change. I think there's real hope.
The challenges that you have had to face over the last 30 or 40 years-would those be part of the Dalai Lama's karma?
Yes, of course. And also, I think, common karma.
So does that mean there's a kind of purpose or a reason for the difficulties being faced?
Purpose, I don't know. That's very, very mysterious, very difficult to say. These karmic consequences-in some cases, they have some meaning, some significance.
But it is useful to look at tragedy from a different angle, so that your mental frustration can decrease. For example, our tragedy-becoming refugees, a lot of destruction in our country-this also brings new opportunity. If still we were in Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism would not be known in the outside world like it is. From that viewpoint, the more exposure, the better.
For the world, it has been a great gain, because before we didn't have access to Tibet.
The knowledge about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism now existing in the world is because of the tragedy that happened to Tibet. So there is one positive result of that.
And that inevitably means that some people with sincere hearts can learn a lot, but there will also be distortions.
Truth has its own strength. So as time goes by, something truthful starts to grow, becomes stronger and stronger. Like the Tibetan cause, or also my position regarding Tibetan Buddhism, or some of our activities in India. At the beginning, perhaps it wasn't very popular, but as time goes on, it becomes well accepted. When something is truthful, its truthfulness becomes clearer and clearer.
My last question: Your Holiness has always been so good at finding a blessing or a teaching in anything that happens, even in suffering. I was wondering, what is the saddest thing that's happened to you in your life ?
I think when I left the Norbulingka for exile that late night, and I left behind some of my close friends, and one dog. Then another was the final farewell when I was passing over the border into India. Saying farewell to my bodyguards, who were determined to return to Tibet-which meant facing death, or something like that. So these two occasions were of course very sad. But also, some occasions now when newly arrived Tibetans explain about their life stories, and tortures, and there are a lot of tears. Sometimes, I also cry. But usually, my tears come on a different occasion-that's when I talk about compassion, altruism, and about Buddha. I quite often become so emotional that tears come.
But I think sadness is comparatively manageable. From a wider Buddhist perspective, the whole of existence is by nature suffering. So, suffering is some symptom of samsara. That, also, is quite useful. That's why I sustain peace of mind!
Thank you so much.
view on whether Tibetan Buddhism is working in the West
by Tara Carreon
A former American convert
to Tibetan Buddhism for over 20 years speaks her mind. Her viewpoint is that,
although American Tibetan Buddhists have made the decision to adopt traditional
Tibetan Buddhist beliefs because they seem authoritative and reliable, this decision
has been a mistake. First, she finds that Tibetans themselves suffer from ethnocentrism
and cultural arrogance that blinds them to the virtues of Western culture and
predisposes them to favor all things Tibetan. Second, she finds American students
far too willing to abandon the advantages of our intellectual training and democratic
culture of equality in favor of medieval concepts still espoused by Tibetans due
to their cultural backwardness. The solution, this student says, is to abandon
Tibetan cultural belief systems, stripping Buddhism to its core values of straightforward
inquiry and insight into appearance and emptiness, supplementing these values
with Western virtues of optimism, creativity, and the scientific method. Such
a change in spiritual approach can lead to real cause for optimism and freedom
from outmoded notions that merely lead to psychological subjugation.
I'm writing this article from the viewpoint of having spent the last 26 years immersed in Buddhism, 22 of those in Tibetan Buddhism. For virtually all of that time, I was extremely devout, did my practice compulsively, and usually held monthly pujas in my home, to which other students were publicly invited. I hosted scores of lama events, helped raise many thousands of dollars, sewed clothes and cooked meals for my teacher, typed transcripts of tapes, and even edited an entire book of teachings. I traveled to India and Nepal. I helped build a traditional four-story Tibetan temple in Ashland, Oregon, one of the biggest and most authentic temples in the West. I received the entire transmission of Nyingma teachings from beginning to end, including the Dzogchen Trekchod and Togyal teachings, and at the end, my teacher declared that I needed no further teachings, and should simply practice what he had taught me.
My immersion in Tibetan Buddhism ultimately led to a psychological stalemate between my impulse to be a perfect Buddhist and my inability to see any truly "enlightened" developments in my psyche after these many years of effort. Three years ago I began a radical reevaluation of my relationship with the dharma, and those two other far more troublesome "jewels," the lama and the sangha. At some point, I began to feel that I had been duped, and began to unpack my psychological baggage. I discovered that I was seething with resentment over the years of self-abasement, and humiliated by the fact that I had aided my captors. While this language, and some of the language that I use in my essay below, may seem harsh or accusatory, I believe that I feel about these things just as any other ordinary person would feel after the years of effort turn out to have been invested for no good reason. Additionally, the inner compulsion to perform ritualistic practices in which I had lost faith, and the need to overcome the fear that abandoning these practices would cause me to suffer terrible consequences, has made for many painful days and nights. The process of self-deprogramming has taken me to the edge of despair, and beyond. The truth is that one who delivers their belief into the hands of others risks having to fight to get it back. Having fought that fight, it is my desire to save other people from wasting their time, energy and happiness in what I now view as a bad investment in the realm of faith. I would suggest that sincere spiritual seekers return to themselves and appreciate the good aspects of our own Western culture in order to achieve spiritual satisfaction.
MY RESPONSE TO ALAN WALLACE'S RECENT ARTICLE IN TRICYCLE MAGAZINE
I was inspired to write this article after I read an interview in Tricycle Magazine the other day with Alan Wallace, entitled "Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is it Working?" The title excited me. Finally, I thought, someone is going to reveal the trouble behind the scenes, and we can start to get these things out into the open. Since I know and like Alan Wallace, and admire him greatly as a translator, I was very interested to hear his views.
Alan left too much unspoken, to say the least. For Alan, it's apparently too delicate to discuss. I can understand why Alan plays it safe, being a professor of Tibetan studies and a recognized spokesperson for Tibetan Buddhism. He has a reputation to cultivate. An academic and a translator, he receives a share of the veneration that is paid to the lamas. On the downside, no one wants to be an accused heretic, like Stephen Batchelor. Like Alan, many Tibetan Buddhists are very careful about what they say. Among those who know, the threat of "samaya injury" from saying the wrong thing has a very chilling effect on speech. More generally, it is no surprise that those on the path of "secret mantra" enjoy playing at having secret information that they are forbidden to disclose. Therefore, Tibetan Buddhists are unable to get their problems into the open where they can examine them in the clear light of day. As always, silence and secrecy breed ignorance and denial.
Alan blames Western students for what I see as the Tibetan failure to adequately communicate the teachings. Granted, Alan is simply repeating what he's been told, and I do not believe he is distorting the message. Real insiders often hear from Tibetan lamas how little they respect Westerners. Sometimes, it seems that beating up on Westerners is one of the Tibetans' favorite pastimes. However, the lamas rarely open themselves to criticism about their own ways. They can even get testy if pressed. Most students don't speak up unless they want to be called heretics, and shunned from their communities forever. Only people who don't have a reputation or position to protect can speak the truth. That virtually precludes people with vested interests in the existing system from saying anything meaningful at all -- at least if it's critical thinking we value. The "authorities" have, and will continue, to report only the "official story."
The Dalai Lama [author's note: "whom I no longer have any respect for whatsoever after reading Victor and Victoria Trimondi's book, "The Shadow of the Dalai Lama" -- 11/13/04] says we should have open dialogue, and hash out our differences. In response to the question: "In your recent book 'Ethics for the New Millennium,' you called for a 'spiritual' and then an 'ethical revolution. Are you willing to emerge as a prophet?," the Dalai Lama replies:
"[T]oday, this is not the business of any one individual. Everywhere there are all sorts of organizations that are concerned with these things. Everyone has the same responsibility now -- I think it's the democratic way. With increased awareness, with a stronger sense of concern, every person must come forward and join together as one body, each one cooperating with every other. There are some individuals -- some intellectuals, some religious persons and quite a few scientists -- who all have real awareness of the critical situation in the world. But one problem is that they each just express their own view and then let a few organizations carry the burden as best they can. Now, if we could more often come together, discuss the problems in depth, make some appeals for positive action or even offer stronger criticism of wrong actions, and even tell the U.N. or some important governments -- then that's the way to have some positive effect."
Robert Thurman, Rolling Stone, May 24, 2001.
This is how we refine our viewpoint through free speech and debate. But while free speech is the soul of democracy, it is very much against the usual Tibetan party line of "shut up and put up." The Tibetans have never known and fundamentally distrust democracy. At the Tibetan temple where I invested 22 years, there were no "members." We weren't allowed to vote on anything, or to elect our "leaders". Theocratic by tradition, Tibetan lamas rule by fiat. Even the Dalai Lama's speech is cautious and diplomatic.
At the start of the interview, Alan tells us what Tibetan lamas think about Westerners. The lamas' complaint is so familiar it invokes a yawn: Westerners in "a consumer society, a business-oriented society" become "dilettantes ... dabbling in one flavor after another, without gaining proficiency in anything." We're "impatient, superficial, and fickle" and "in Tibetan society, fickleness is considered to be one of the worst of vices." This description is more ethnocentric, and less compassionate, than most students would expect of the Dalai Lama's fellow-clerics. However, if you spend enough time with Tibetans, you'll learn they feel quite superior. Tibetan lamas are comfortable sitting on thrones, eating good food, and having people serve them. And it seems that many Western Tibetan Buddhists are more than willing to intern as domestic servants and handymen. Having come from a prosperous Western tradition that is in stark contrast to the Tibetan lifestyle, Western students are willing to disavow it all to become members of the enlightenment club. Or perhaps they have been dying for an opportunity to serve, to work off their "White Man's Burden" with a little self-abasement.
Alan continues to faithfully communicate the sad fact that the "finest lamas" are quite disgusted with us. "The finest lamas are now refusing even to come to the West, because they figure they could be spending their time either teaching Tibetans in Asia, or they could simply go into retreat and meditate." The lamas believe that "devoting time to people with such fickleness and so little faith is time not very well spent." This is rather snitty. Westerners are the only eager consumers of mystical practice, and even minority Americans aren't attracted. (When was the last time you saw a group of African-Americans at an empowerment?) Young Tibetans want jobs and secular education, not trinkets and blessings. Alan's comment presumes that the great lamas have "bigger fish to fry." The fact is, that due to the financial support they have received from Westerners (and the Taiwanese), they can afford to remain esconced in relative splendor in Kathmandu and Bhutan. Now let us take each of Alan's comments in turn.
First, to self-slander our culture as merely a consumer and business-oriented society, ignores the fact that our country is the most religiously tolerant nation in the world. In cities across the nation, people from every faith live and worship down the street from each other, which would be impossible in their respective countries of origin. The combination of government-protected freedom of religion, plus tax incentives and an actual interest in Buddhism, makes our country a place where Tibetans are quite eager to live. They recognize that in addition to religious freedom, having a refrigerator, a warm place to sleep, and clean water, have spiritual as well as worldly advantages. While lamas often criticize the "material" Western lifestyle, waxing eloquent about how their own people live happily on little, due to their religious faith, most are eager to secure residence, land, cars and temples. There is every evidence that the lamas seek in America exactly what they had in Tibet -- wealth and leisure -- remembering always that according to a helpful doctrine, seeking leisure to pursue the spiritual path is an unimpeachable motivation.
The complaint that we shop for Dharma is rather disingenuous. The lamas themselves turned the Dharma into a traveling show, selling tickets to empowerments with vague promises of spiritual benefit, revealing only after the fact in empowerments, students take on weighty "samaya" commitments that obligate them to eternal fealty to their initiators. This "bait and switch" method always evokes a certain number of grumbles in the crowd of newbies, but the eager smiles of older students are usually sufficient to overcome most objection. After all, who can resist getting conked on the head with religious objects by a wise old lama on a throne, while young acolytes circulate holding incense and other magical items? And you get a knotted red string to wear around your neck as a token of your commitment! Increasingly, you pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of attending an empowerment, for which all are presumptively qualified, who have the ability to pay. There is no question of qualification or readiness, or spiritual sincerity. The students manning the door want to see real dollars, not earnest entreaties. Possibly we should blame Americans for this venality. Probably not. The teachers chose the teachings, the place and the time. The students came, paid money, and listened. According to Alan, however, they blundered. Somehow, the criticism seems unwarranted.
Tibetan lamas are equally vulnerable to criticism on grounds of "fickleness." Tricycle has reported enough about "competing tulkus," "the Shugden schism" and countless other instances of petty clerical infighting to establish that if fickleness is a vice, Tibetan clerics are ridden with it. Gossip is a staple in Tibetan Buddhist circles. In our center, we were always getting the word from the top about "Who's hot, and who's not." The list of disgraced students and rival lamas grew over time, until one day I found my own name added to the list. I think "fickleness" usually occurs when two lamas vie for the attentions of a single wealthy donor.
Alan suggests that if the supply of sincere students dries up, the lamas will go away. I suspect that those lamas who would leave have already departed. And what did they expect from us, anyway? Did the lamas really expect students to learn Tibetan, memorize rituals, join the clergy en masse, and build large temples everywhere? If they want that type of performance they need to stick with their own people. Do Christian missionaries pack up and leave when their prospective converts don't learn all the hymns? Put simply, this is a harsh, judgmental response that does too little to honor the sincerity of students who often surrender family and livelihood to the pursuit of Tibetan Buddhism. Does it seem compassionate to write off an entire culture as fickle, and return to the mountain fastness to engage in "more productive" contemplation? But Alan delivers this harsh declaration without blinking. You can see that, by controlling entry and status into the lofty world of lamas and their "entourages," Tibetans can induce Westerners like Alan to tacitly adopt their own prejudice. You might start to think that one can get approval from Tibetans by criticizing Westerners.
Make no mistake about it, the lamas are sure they know best, and will likely not be impressed with your own speculations or reflections about spirituality. In this regard, Alan warns us that in seeking to ascertain spiritual truth, "one extreme is ... individualism."
Let's play that back again. Would it sound different if I told you I was quoting Mao, or an Orwellian Big Brother? Can an American be saying this? Individualism is the basis of our Constitution, of all our civil rights and humanitarian values. Each person's individual buddha nature is the basis of dharma. Is individuality not the beauty of our unique existence in this universe?
Why this paranoia about independent thought? Is it really not possible for an individual to realize the truth without a prescription? Buddha, presumably, was an individual, who through the exercise of his own mind, found freedom. Yet Thinley Norbu criticizes Americans for having "freedom habit." Must we choose between Buddhism or freedom? Perhaps in some brand of Buddhism, appropriate to a feudal system, peasants do not ask these questions. Americans, however, would probably choose freedom, thereby choosing, I believe, true dharma as well.
Alan denigrates our ability to think for ourselves, saying that with respect to making spiritual decisions, we will always be like "a kid going into a restaurant and saying, I'll just take what tastes good." This metaphor implies that students are children who just want to eat candy. But this assertion is illogical. We must trust ourselves to make spiritual choices, else we could not even make the first decision to rely upon the doctrine. Alan's view is that although we were smart enough to select the Tibetans to be our teachers, now that we've found our true "parents," the lamas, we will always and forever be children. Thus we can never grow up, and must rely totally on the lamas. Says Alan: "That's the core issue in Buddhism." I strongly disagree. The core issue in Buddhism is not our ignorance, but rather our intelligent, enlightened nature.
While on the subject of being treated like a child, I've often heard the lamas say, "it's time to grow up." This is where they get you coming and going. If you become a high-maintenance disciple, showing lots of devotion, or having many questions, you're called a baby. If you think for yourself, you're a deluded individualist. As in all double-bind situations, the issue isn't whether we are children, but rather, whether the lamas shall tell us who we are. Western students deserve dignity and respect, and they do not receive it from the bulk of lamas. On the other hand, they clearly have not demanded it.
The rest of Alan's interview is full of nice questions about whether Buddhism is working in the West, and how we must make Buddhism work for Westerners, but he gives no answers. So the whole interview basically boils down to "No, Tibetan Buddhism isn't working, because Americans aren't doing it very well." Well, that clearly is the official story.
WHY TIBETAN BUDDHISM ISN'T WORKING
Am I alone in saying there is a humongous culture clash between Tibetans and Westerners? That's not so embarrassing, is it? So let me ask you another question: Do we live in Tibet or in the West? And if we live in the West, isn't it fair to ask Tibetans to understand our culture somewhat before they criticize us extensively?
At the sound of these words, I can see the true believers heading for the aisles, thinking, "This is effrontery, this is sacrilege; I want nothing to do with it." Which is not a good sign. Cultural isolation crystallized Tibet into a theocratic state of lettered tulkus ruling over a vast illiterate peasantry, creating a culture so unified with its religion that it lacks virtually all secular cultural expression. This "union of Church and State" creates innumerable problems. Western students, who are not serfs or shepherds, should not be dealt with in the same way. Still, in your average Dharma center, the lama's word (or his wife's word) is law. Questioning is disobedience, and disagreement is heresy. If you think I'm exaggerating, I'll give you a list of centers to visit.
Few of us took vows of refuge with various lamas because we longed to chant in a foreign language and bow before enthroned teachers. Those who did should have no complaints. But most people were trying to find some inner peace and self-understanding. If we're not getting that from involvement with the lamas, it isn't sacrilege to say so, and return to our original spiritual concerns. We are entitled to ask, "WHAT IS BUDDHISM?" After 22 years of being a "Tibetan" Buddhist, I'm finding it hard to answer that question. Actually, it would be hard for any Tibetan Buddhist to answer this question. Tibetans have little need for the Buddha, who has been eclipsed by Padmasambhava, the Karmapa, or whatever tulku-dynasty is revered by the sect. So Tibetan Buddhists know about as much about the Buddha as Mormons know about Jesus Christ (not much).
If you learn Tibetan Buddhism, you learn more about Tibet than about Buddha. As long as we believe that the colorful and exciting Tibetan culture is Buddhism, we will be unable to find true Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is not working for us because we are unable to find its essence in the complex and colorful Tibetan way of life. Tibetan symbols do not speak to us, nor do we learn from reciting a sadhana in a foreign language. (It took the Catholics until the 1960's to stop saying the Mass in Latin, though, so this folly is equally the result of our own cultural absurdity).
There's no question but that, if you become a Tibetan Buddhist, you get a lot of stuff. You get a red string tied around your neck right off the bat. You get sacred practices, protector deities, mantras and visualizations. But what are we surrendering? I would suggest we are surrendering something very valuable -- our belief in objective, empirical reality, as revealed through scientific knowledge. We take this belief for granted of course, because it is second nature. But if you become a Tibetan Buddhist, this sense of reality can begin to slip away, little by little, replaced by a patchwork of myth, fantasy, and what passes for meditation.
From the viewpoint of an educated American, Tibetan culture is anachronistic: young Tibetans are dazzled and overwhelmed by our modern world. The older lamas are bemused by our culture, and turn away from it too quickly to learn much about us. They live, psychologically, on a flat earth, without the benefit of scientific knowledge. Often their lectures are rather quaint, as they present fallacious arguments to support the doctrine. Many are sweet, sincere, and so hopelessly out of touch that Steven Segal managed to pass himself off as a tulku. Can we seriously rely on teachings from that culture?
The Tibetans themselves suffered greatly due to their blind faith in a theocratic system that failed utterly to provide two essentials of governance: (1) good foreign relations, and (2) a reliable military. As a result, two million Tibetans have died due to Chinese aggression that has gone basically unredressed by the international community. Tibet was unable to meet the challenge of the twentieth century. It had no independent-thinking intelligencia. But for the efforts of Heinrich Harrer to give the young Dalai Lama an education about the world beyond the walls of the Potala, it is questionable whether Tibet could have fielded even one political leader to explain its situation to the world. None of this is to justify the murderous outrages of the Chinese, whose conduct is so vile as to defy expression. However, Tibet's political leaders owed their constituents a modicum of protection from foreign aggression, at least through diplomatic avenues. Unfortunately, the ingrown monastics of Tibet were unsuited to international political life, and practiced the defense tactics of an ostrich.
Due to what can only be seen as misguided confidence, Tibet's inept leaders wielded political authority nonetheless, leading to a cultural disaster. As the Dalai Lama explained in a recent interview with Robert Thurman, the routine integration of the clergy in the secular economic fabric damages society:
"Some Tibetans also say that in the past, the way of life was that the dharma almost served as a livelihood or a routine profession. The Buddhist was not thinking of nirvana, not caring for liberation, just how to make a living. Officials used it for their lives, monks, nuns and lamas for their lives. Inside, in their inner world, they were like ordinary people, lusting and hating. So the dharma became a poison in this way.
When there is too much focus on the Buddhist institution, and the country goes to waste, that's what it means when people say Buddhism ruined the country."
(Rolling Stone, May 24, 2001)
Now, in this country, Tibetans are making a similar mistake. In Tibetan Buddhist dharma centers all over America, lamas give orders to a tight hierarchy of appointed followers, who are often chosen for their willingness to donate time, money, real estate and property. Students are encouraged to adopt a medieval mind-set, and to abandon belief in their ability to make their own decisions. Lamas advise on who to marry, when to divorce, what jobs to take or quit. Many students request "divinations" of future events, and even pay money to have monks recite volleys of prayers to "eliminate obstacles."
What is difficult to understand for those who haven't been immersed in Tibetan Buddhism for a long time, is that this religion is obsessed with controlling outcomes by the use of magical invocations. This religious model is most like the Christian feudal religion of medieval Europe, linked to a large agrarian serfdom. This religious model also carries with it a powerful anti-logical seed: the belief that favorable outcomes of desired events are controlled by the intercession of supernatural powers.
The red robes, the chants, the tormas, the deities, the colorful temples, the instruments, the sadhanas, the codes of conduct, the lamas, the teacher-disciple relationship are products of Tibetan culture. These symbols were created by Tibetans and likely can only be understood by Tibetans. We Westerners will never be able to understand these things, or translate them into our culture. Fire pujas, exorcisms, prayers to oath-bound protectors. These practices are beautiful, but non-translatable. Period. We do not need to obtain supernatural aid to make the crops grow and the lambs fat. Reciting long lists of protector deities and invoking their aid does not rank high on my list of contemplative activities. These practices are not only unhelpful for most students; there is substantial evidence that people can develop bizarre habits from long repetition of activities that they do not understand, and are pursuing solely due to "faith" that the practice will produce some magical benefit. The Dalai Lama responded with unusual candor recently when asked, "What prevents people from understanding [the essence of Buddhism]?":
"When people think it's all about doing tantric visualizations and rituals. When I talk about the Buddhist dharma, I'm not talking about just chanting and rituals. If it's thought to be a philosophy, it's not that, either. The dharma, it's just the mind. I'm afraid that among the Tibetans, the Chinese and also some Westerners -- the new Buddhists -- in many cases they consider the practice of Buddhism is simply to recite something and perform some ritual, putting false expectations on the esoteric magic of tantra: 'Oh, if I do this, I may get something amazing!' So they neglect the basic instruments that actually transform our mind. These instruments are the altruistic spirit of enlightenment [bodhicitta], the transcendent attitude, renunciation, the realization of impermanence, the wisdom of selflessness. People who think they have a magic gimmick neglect these things. So their inner world, their inner reality, remains very raw. Sadly, use of ritual can feed that neglect. Knowledge of philosophy can also feed that. It's a great tragedy."
SEPARATING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF
Most of us came to Tibetan Buddhism because it seemed to be a reliable repository of ancient Buddhist wisdom. Along the way we discovered it is actually a vast cultural tapestry with more of the medieval than we originally expected. Assuming there is more here than culture and folklore, can we separate the wheat from the chaff? Can we find the core Buddhism in the midst of the Tibetan glare?
Core Buddhism can only be that which is indestructible and not based on form, i.e., that which the Buddha taught that relates to the mind, because only that is universal and (hopefully) can translate from culture to culture. As the Dalai Lama said, "The dharma, it's just the mind."
What did the Buddha teach about the mind? I remember one thing from my studies, and that was first and most importantly, that the Buddha abandoned established religious practices, and looked at mind for himself. This seems like the quintessential "individual" act. The Buddha apprehended the truth of appearance and voidness and taught the Prajnaparamita mind teachings which state that there are no inherently existing self, or objects, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The story of the Buddha's life is a story about Indian society, including injunctions to refrain from teaching to "blonde-haired people," and the detailed rules of monastic conduct. These cultural trappings are not worthy of special reverence. Buddha's acts of cultural defiance are far more inspiring: his abandonment of kingship, his rejection of existing doctrine, his transcendence of gurus and asceticism. His self-reliance, in a word.
Like the Buddha, who called everything into doubt, we too should question for our whole life. But the lamas tell you not to follow the Buddha's example, telling you you're arrogant to think that you are like him. They urge you to question for about one minute, then insist that you make up your mind to rely on the lama's authority and abandon questioning for the rest of your life. As a practical matter, such questioning is as bad as none at all.
As history unveils the future of Tibetan Buddhism in this country, we are not going to see a careful translation from Tibet to the West. Tibetan Buddhism is finished for Westerners. Along with Japanese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, and the rest.
We don't need lamas. We don't need any authority figures. We don't need temples. We don't need a lot of books. We don't need to give anyone money. We don't need someone holding our hand. We have everything we need to realize our true nature already inside us, because we have our minds and individuality. We need to love ourselves, and trust ourselves.
OUR OWN SPIRITUAL INHERITANCE
We Westerners and especially we Americans have a hidden dharma tradition to inspire us right here in our own culture. Our aspirations -- to save the planet, feed people, release wrongly imprisoned people, give women the right to vote -- are wholesome. Our belief in principles of equality, fairness, justice, and freedom of speech and belief are all "Buddhist" principles without having that name. As a guide for social governance, the U.S. Constitution is far superior to King Trisong Detsun's code, which provided harsh punishment, even death, for those who violated Buddhist rules. We have a very good understanding of what it means to be a "bodhisattva," but we don't call it that. We call it being a "humanitarian" or a "social activist." If we supplement the core Buddhist teachings with these noble traditions, and unite knowledge of the union of appearance and emptiness with the clear-eyed view of the scientific method, we have a very adequate philosophy of positive development. Once we agree that science provides a better explanation for phenomena than superstitions involving supernatural forces, there is plenty to agree on in this universe. Rather than cleaving to old ways, retaining magical notions as doctrinal elements, a viable religious philosophy joins with the current knowledge of the day to open a way to live creatively and optimistically, thus providing concrete benefit to all.
Some of us might even find that our view of "enlightenment" must embrace more than the Buddha is said to have taught, to encompass all of the fruits of human knowledge, from astrophysics to nanotech, from the genetic origins of life to the ecology of the planet. Medievalism, even of the Buddhist sort, will not serve this quest for integration. Perhaps "enlightenment" itself is evolving. Then again, maybe there's something inherently wise about our "natural" and "ordinary" mind. Someday, if we explore directly for ourselves, we might even be able to take these "mind" teachings out of the realm of philosophy, conjecture and fantasy, into the realm of reality. To do that, we're going to have to work with our culture and knowledge, and test these old ideas against scientific observations of mind. Contrary to what the Tibetans think, that their doctrine has codified absolute and immutable principles, I think rather that they can be improved and developed. Maybe the Tibetans had a much lower expectation about everything than do we Westerners, not only culturally speaking, but also spiritually speaking, and we can do them one better.
We can be optimistic about our ability to learn new things based upon new investigations. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly observed that Western science may be able to help fill in gaps in Tibetan Buddhist knowledge of the mind's nature, which however accurate, is fundamentally intuitive, subjective, and unconfirmed by outer observations. Everything from Tibetan descriptions of the states before and after death to the phases of meditative insights, are fundamentally a compendium of traditional lore. Western science has just begun to observe the physically confirmable evidences of mental activity Biofeedback studies of Zen students actually provided fascinating confirmation of the observable effects on brainwave function associated with Zen meditation. In this way, empirical and intuitive knowledge can support each other to establish a solid foundation for human self-improvement, one that does not require vast investments of "faith."
TRADITIONAL TIBETAN FAITH-BUILDING EXERCISES MAY INHIBIT MEDITATIVE EFFORTS
While faith in doctrinal pronouncements is certainly the order of the day in semi-literate feudal cultures, it carries little convincing force for people raised in a rational scientific culture. We are far more likely to feel comfortable in a 747 than flying on a magic carpet, even in the company of a Tibetan lama.
There is a fundamental need to rest easy in your beliefs, especially if you are trying to meditate. Dropping conceptual thought is much more difficult if you are uncomfortable with your assumptions about reality. Thus, making a lot of medieval assumptions about reality, cause and effect, and the need to propitiate the protector deities is not necessarily good preparation for non-conceptual meditation of the sort universally practiced by virtually all Buddhists. In this way, the Tibetan Buddhist emphasis on arcane rituals can definitely set an aspiring meditator off their stride, making meditative accomplishments seem all the more difficult. It's like putting on a large weight pack before starting to climb a mountain. Why do it? We will climb higher, and enjoy it more, without this baggage.
Compounding the problem for Westerners trying to develop faith in the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is the fact that the traditional faith-building exercises do not work for Westerners. The standard prescription for developing faith is to contemplate the virtues of the "lineage gurus" and to develop devotion to one's own guru as the living embodiment of a lineage of wisdom masters going back to Vajradhara, Padmasambhava, or Shakyamuni. The usual practice, of reciting lineage prayers in Tibetan, is about as faith-building as reading the "begats" from Deuteronomy in the original Aramaic. Of course, if I had listened to tales of Guru Rinpoche from the days of childhood while eating tsampa around a yak-dung fire, the effect would likely be otherwise.
Logically, it makes no sense to attempt to invoke strong emotional feelings based on childhood conditioning that does not exist. The heroes of my childhood were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and other Western culture heroes. No injection of doctrine and myth is going to transfer that type of deep admiration to a Tibetan historical figure, and the attempt to stimulate such emotions is misguided. I can tell you from 22 years of personal experience that, no matter how much Tibetan history you imbibe, and how earnestly you attempt to give rise to the appropriate feelings of reverence and awe, the results will be unsatisfying. You may refine your yearning and obsession to an impressive degree, but nagging doubts will grow in tandem with your efforts to suppress them. Ultimately, the purported "prerequisites" for meditation will eclipse the view of non-duality altogether.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE TIBETAN CLERICS?
The Tibetans may need to humble themselves. They've entered a new world about which they know nothing. While it's fashionable to attend the chanting exhibitions of the Gyuto "Tantric choir," and there is no doubt the cultural display of old Tibet is charming and beautiful, that culture is of the past. Besides nostalgic yearning, Americans have no need to provide a cultural hothouse in which to preserve a displaced theocratic culture. It will be humiliating for Tibetans to continue to sell their traditions on stage for small change. Better to move on. Old things are lost forever. And often times, this is not a bad thing. Things die so that new things can be born. The Tibetans can let new ideas be born in themselves. Why hold on to old ways that aren't useful or relevant any longer? Indeed, young Tibetans are like young people everywhere. They have no desire to follow the ways of a culture that has left its roots in the distant soil of the Tibetan heartland, particularly if they can actually move to the West. If their religion works for them, great. If they can find adherents who also find value in Tibetan Buddhism, their religion business may also prosper in the marketplace of ideas. I think it likely, however, that Tibetan Buddhism will survive only in stripped-down forms, once the cultish fascination with arcane rituals has dissipated. The Tibetan clerics should prepare for this development. While possibly not as devastating as the failure of the dot.coms and the electricity crisis is for California, the effects will be felt as the West burns through yet another religious fad.
DHARMA FOR THE WEST
Now that I am no longer a "Tibetan" Buddhist, and have learned to think for myself, and am not hammered down by negative views of myself and the universe, like sin and samsara, etc., the World seems very exciting to me in a way I never knew before. Human beings are marvelous creations, so very intelligent and creative. I think there is tremendous hope all around us and ahead of us. Besides the fact that the world and our minds spontaneously exist without our having labored to create them, which should be enough of a miracle for anyone, there are reasons for optimism about the prospects for a good life for humanity on earth. Slowly, we are all speaking the same language. Since war often is the result of miscommunication, with fuller communication among the nations, war could become obsolete. As war decreases, resources are going to be freed up, which will enable us to improve the lot of people and the planet. As we communicate with each other about our similar needs, and global resource competition meets with a world pool of intellectual capital, standards of living may equalize. Science is allowing us to see the wonder of the universe and of our selves in a way that has never happened before. Our visions are expanding. Someday we'll be able to travel through the universe. And who knows, maybe someday we'll even agree on what it means to meditate, and who we are.
We can open ourselves to a world that will truly inspire us. We should be careful about adopting a world view that equates the outer world with ugliness and evil (samsara), and which urges "retreat" into "meditation" as the only refuge from a doomed existence. Quite simply, we shouldn't use Buddhism to become depressed about the state of the world. We should believe we can make things better for everyone and everything. If everyone can be a bit of an activist, and do their part, I feel sure we can change the world to be a better place for everyone. For me, that's Dharma.
I want to thank my husband, Charles Carreon, who has traveled the Buddhist path with me for almost as long as we have been married, which is 27 years, for his enormous contribution to this article.
Buddhists hope to journey to nirvana
by Sharon L. Schmeling
In a modern townhouse in a new subdivision of Macungie Township, a handful of people meet weekly to seek a better understanding of one of the world's oldest religions.
They are Buddhists journeying on the path to enlightenment.
While their modern setting may seem incongruous with Buddhism's ancient roots, members of the Buddhist Association of the Lehigh Valley say the religion is as relevant today as when it was founded nearly 2,500 years ago.
"The real problems of life never change. Those problems are the same whether you are the same whether you are living now or (at) the time of Christ or anytime. Buddhism is one method of approaching those issues," said association president Chien Hsiung Chang.
Although Buddhism is one of the world's major religions and is older than Christianity, many North American are unfamiliar with it because it is more commonly practiced in Indian, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. About 250,000 people practice Buddhism in North American.
Locally, there are between 30 to 40 members of the association. Weekly meetings at Chang's home in Macungie usually attract ten. Chang and his wife, Diana, have donated space in their house to store the group's 300 audio tapes and books on Buddhism.
"We act as a tutorial on Buddhism." says Chang, a native of Taiwan who came to the Lehigh Valley six years ago from Georgia Tech to work for a Bethlehem company.
He joined the association in May 1987 when it was formed by Dr. Gordon Chen, who has since moved from Allentown back to Taiwan.
Weekly meetings begin with the airing of a tape, which is followed by a group discussion. It ends with 15-minutes mediation.
Although the majority of the members are natives of Taiwan and China, many did not actively pursue Buddhism until they moved to the U.S.
"I sort of assumed because they were Chinese - many of them grew up either in China or Taiwan - that they would really know Buddhism very well," said Franks, who is one of the few Caucasians in the group. "But we're all very much beginners."
Franks said he first learned about Buddhism during a semester of college study in England.
"For a long time I just thought it was kind of a mysterious, semi-magical thing. I also sort of associated it with 1960's hippie interests."
He dispelled that notion after attending a meeting of Buddhists in Britain's premier city.
"The first people I met were these very proper, British older men and woman who were sitting around in an old wood-paneled library in London. It's not the image you would have thought. We weren't sitting around humming strange tunes and smoking pipes." he said.
Perhaps because of the hippie movement and the modern New Age religion movement - both of which incorporate elements of Buddhism - people have misconceptions about it.
"Buddhism has very little to do with magic... and sometimes people get that impression," said association vice president Margaret Tsao, who immigrated to U.S. in 1967 from Taiwan.
Buddhism was founded in India in about 500 B.C. by Gautama Siddhartha. He was named Buddha, which means Enlightened One, by his followers.
There are four major sects of Buddhism. Each stresses a different path to nirvana, which is a state of ultimate enlightenment and peace.
Instead of trying to avoid hell or strive for a place in heaven, Buddhists journey to nirvana. Until Nirvana is reached, believers cannot be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Since Buddhism is more of a philosophy of living that helps develop spiritual purity and mental clarity, it is often difficult to explain the process of seeking nirvana.
"Language sometimes is too rough, too coarse, to explain something that (is) very fine, very deep. It 's not easy to explain that, but that's why we get together every week to discuss that," Chang said.
Understanding also comes from meditation. But when Buddhists bow before a statue of Buddha, they are not praying to an all-powerful deity, Franks said.
A lot of teachings are based on the premise that no body can help you but yourself. Buddha can't save you. Buddha's not like a savior. He can show you a way," Franks said.
"Buddhism has the reverence of religion but it doesn't have the worship to a powerful deity. That's not involved at all," he said.
Chang agreed, saying "when we mediate... We try to clear our mind so we can get rid of illusion and confusion. It's a tool."
Some of the guidelines for achieving nirvana include not killing, not stealing, not lying or slandering, not insulting, not coveting, not avoiding an unchaste life. Followers are urged to work toward right understanding, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Chang said he believes Buddhism offers him more than just a religious denomination in which to associate himself.
"I realized that I can see things clearly and that I have peace of mind... You don't worry so much. You can better handle stress."
Two tenets of Buddhism that give Chang strength are the teachings of compassion and wisdom.
"Compassion is the power that makes you do something. Wisdom is the knowledge to get the job done. Those two are the major factors of Buddhism. Compassion is to care for people around you. And it's not just human beings but all living beings."
Caring for others ties in with the Buddhist belief in the law of cause and effect, Chang said.
"Destiny is controlled by your hands, you take the sequences whatever you do," he said.
Franks said the idea of cause and effect is important because it underlines how individuals must take responsibilities for their everyday actions.
"At every moment, you are the result of other causes and ... things that you do will have other effects. It doesn't just vanish."
That philosophy has a ripple effect that could change the world if everyone took it to heart, said Tsao.
"When you are a good person, everybody around you will be better off, too. If everyone is like that in the whole world, you will not have suffering or war."
The Buddhist Association of the Lehigh Valley meets every Friday from 7:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, call 965-9402 or 435-5685.
Note: This article was published on Morning Call of Allentown Pennsylvania in March, 1990. Regular meetings of BALV are held in different member's house as of 8/30/97. Please contact us for most recent contact info of BALV if you are interested to attend weekly meeting.
Theology Professor John Makransky is a lama in the lineage of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche.
In his book Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars
(2000), coedited with Roger Jackson, he invites Buddhists to consider their tradition's
relationship with modernity.
An interview by Robert Cohen
Does Buddhism have anything like God?
Sometimes apologists, trying to interpret Buddhism to a secular, postmodern world, too quickly say, "No, there's nothing like God in Buddhism, and therefore it should be very interesting to you." But I wouldn't agree with that.
There are certain qualities usually associated with God in other religions that are ascribed to the Buddha and to those who followed in his footsteps in the various Buddhist traditions--such as the most revered Zen masters and Tibetan lamas. Buddhahood implies a penetrating insight pointing the way to ultimate freedom, or nirvana. The qualities that follow on that insight--unconditional compassion and love, spontaneous generosity, an unstoppable will to be offered up to the world--are analogous to qualities of God or of someone who has become receptive to God in Christian or Jewish tradition.
But there are also aspects of the Christian or Jewish God that would not be accepted within Buddhism. Buddhism does not have the concept of a God who created the universe. In a way it substitutes for that notion the doctrine of "dependent arising," which says that anything we experience arises in dependence upon its own causes and conditions, including our patterns of thought and action. Buddhists focus on the notion that we mistake our thoughts of the world for the world, construct our experiences accordingly, and suffer for that. A quick example: When someone cuts me off in traffic, I may have an immediate perception of that person as a simple jerk. That may lead me to feel wrenched up in anger or to cut him off in return. It seems in that moment that I really am the center of the world.
The Buddhist path around that would require seeing into the actual reality--recognizing that the other driver, like me, is what Buddhists call a "conditioned" being, a product of many causes, including habits of thought that put him in the center of his own thought-constructed world. Maybe he was thinking about a fight he had with his wife that morning, or maybe he was anxious to get to work because his boss is overbearing. He's no longer a jerk to be angry at. If we see things as they actually are--how profoundly conditioned we all are, and how much we all suffer for it--then our reaction will be empathy or compassion.
there any counterpart to a judgmental God? Are reward and punishment absent in
There is a Buddhist analog, in a way, in the teaching of karma. Karma is the Sanskrit word that literally means action and intention behind actions. Although we mostly are not conscious of it, our every intentional action has the profound and subtle effect of imprinting within us the capacity to be happy or unhappy, and the capacity to discover our inmost nature of compassion or to be lost to it. Therefore our actions, virtuous or nonvirtuous, matter very much. But karma does not involve a deity who stands above or apart, judging our behaviors as good or bad. It is simply a natural law.
you mentioned that there are various Buddhist traditions. What do Buddhists disagree
The diversity within Buddhism is comparable to the diversity within the other great religious traditions, such as Christianity. Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught four noble truths: The first was the truth of suffering; the second concerned the causes of suffering, including karma and self-clinging patterns of thought; the third was the cessation of the causes of suffering, in mind and body, or nirvana; and the fourth was the truth of path, which is the discipline through which one can awaken into freedom from suffering and cease to be a conditioned, reactive person. These first teachings are shared among all the Buddhist traditions, but the interpretation of them in the various cultures of Asia has become quite diverse.
A Buddhist in, say, Sri Lanka, may have a hard time understanding a Buddhist in Japan. Sri Lanka has a conservative Buddhist tradition that focuses primarily on ethical disciplines and aesthetic monasticism, as well as on higher meditation practices of stable attention and insight into the impermanent nature of phenomenal reality. By contrast, certain kinds of Japanese Buddhists pray to a cosmic Buddha named Amida. They rely in faith totally on the Amida Buddha to liberate them at the time of death and draw them to his pure realm. There they believe they will receive special teaching and enlightenment, not so much through self-discipline as through the power of Amida Buddha's Buddhahood.
the differences in doctrine express themselves in concrete ways, in ordinary life?
In Asian cultures, Buddhism is very much a practice. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists are not highly schooled in doctrine. But from a very young age they are taught how to bow, how to make offerings to the Buddha or to the religious community, simple forms of meditation, ways of chanting sacred prayers and ancient sacred sounds in order to make them more receptive to the unconditioned, transcendent dimension.
When I was living in Nepal and hiking through parts of the Himalayas, I sometimes would hear the sound of a whole village chanting the most common mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, om man-ni pad-me hum, om man-ni pad-me hum. It's the prayer of the Buddha of compassion. You could hear it at a distance--the people all chanting together as they worked in the fields--almost like the hum of a thousand bumblebees. I would argue that for them this is a way of understanding doctrine, even though they may not be able to talk about it like a trained monk or scholar. They are actually practicing the doctrines with their bodies.
your book, there is a chapter about "engaged Buddhism" that looks at
Buddhist political and social activism. Is there a long history of such involvement?
Well, yes and no. There have always been populist movements rising up in the name of Buddhism against social oppression--for example, the Mahayana movements that spread from India in the first centuries C.E. to Central Asia, then to China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet. Mahayana traditions in those lands put special emphasis on the capacity of all for spiritual liberation. A follower of the Buddha will be profoundly concerned about social justice because the fundamental Buddhist concern is to make the possibility of freedom available to others. And how can anyone possibly explore that possibility while struggling just to survive?
But "engaged Buddhism" is a modern term. It refers to a contemporary development very much like what happened within Christianity and Judaism after the Enlightenment in the West, when new frames of social, economic, and political analysis had a profound effect on the understanding of how Christians or Jews ought to participate in the world as Christians or Jews.
In Sri Lanka, in Thailand, in Burma--in fact, all over the Buddhist world--you now find movements to explore Buddhism's relevance for social and economic development and its role as a prophetic voice for human rights and against oppression.
The prominent Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, was a leader of a nonaligned movement during the Vietnam War trying to bring together political and social forces for peace. And the Dalai Lama belongs to boards and councils all over the world that involve themselves with human rights. He's been very concerned about threats to the environment, and he has been reevaluating the structures of power within Buddhism regarding women and men and religious and lay people. And of course he's working hard to get the current Chinese government to deal with the problem of Tibetan freedom. He's also, like Aquinas, of the view that the truths of reason--which include science--and the truths of faith should not contradict one another. He's open to reinterpreting aspects of Buddhism in line with findings in neuroscience, cognitive science, and even physics.
modernity subverting Buddhism, as one of the contributors to your book puts it?
Perhaps to some degree. I also suspect that, as in the past, the principles of Buddhism have a tendency to subvert whatever culture they enter. Buddhism, in whatever form, says that human happiness depends upon virtue and an openness to the transcendent dimension of being that is unconditioned by temporal, self-clinging habits of thought. In that way, it's analogous to Christianity: It appears to be the opposite of secular, modern, Western understandings of happiness based on the accumulation of material things or the achievement of a good reputation.
Buddhism is subversive because it requires those who study it to look deeply into assumptions about where happiness originates, and to alter their behavior accordingly. How that works out in each culture can vary.
I gather there's been a considerable increase in interest in the Buddhist path in the United States. Is a distinctly American Buddhism taking shape? I think it's beginning to. Generally speaking, the emphasis in the West and in the United States is on fundamental meditation practices. Lay people, both men and women, are interested in learning what effect meditation can have on their lives, how it can be a tool for becoming more present to one's spouse, to one's children, and to one's community, and offer an alternative to being lost in the sufferings of self-concern.
Americans are drawing from a range of Buddhist traditions. There's been a strong interest in so-called insight meditations from Southeast Asia, in Zen meditation from China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and in the basic meditations of Tibetan Buddhism. In the inner cities, we find the Japanese tradition called Soka Gakkai, which emphasizes chanting the name of a certain scripture and the possibility for one's life to be transformed through ritual practice.
Another Western distinction is the very strong involvement of women. In Asian cultures, women have had the opportunity for higher learning in Buddhism, but not nearly so much as men. Here, you tend to see about equal numbers of men and women--maybe even higher numbers of women.
There's also a broader sense of democratization, a tendency to be skeptical of hiearchy. I think what attracts many Westerners is that Buddhism provides entry to an inquiry into the very nature of reality, into the very heart of spirituality, and perhaps even into the very heart of what religion is supposed to be about--without someone stopping them at the door with, Do you believe in X, Y, and Z? Will you memorize the following?
There's a book called Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, written by a contemporary Western teacher named Lama Surya Das, that identifies 10 distinctive trends in Western Buddhism, if you want to read more about this.
brought you to Buddhism?
Initially, when I was young, in my twenties, I was caught by the teaching within Buddhism that life the way we live it ordinarily is suffering. That may seem strange, especially here in the United States where we have the means to get whatever we want. Yet no matter how much we get of whatever we want, we're still not finally happy. My experience as a young man was that life seemed pretty hard a lot of the time.
But over the years what I've come to appreciate the most about Buddhism is that it has such specific and concrete ways of looking, of paying attention, and of meditating to open the possibility that the inmost nature of human beings--unconditional compassion--can be discovered within each individual.
a Buddhist like you doing in a Jesuit institution like this?
When I came to Boston College and first interviewed for a teaching job, I sensed something about this institution that deeply attracted me. I later came to realize that Boston College provides a space for a sacramental vision of the world. That's a Catholic expression, meaning that there is an understanding that all of the different kinds of studies--whether English, biology, sociology, or physics--are ways of expressing the very ground of our being; are all potential expressions of God. In Buddhism, there's something very analogous to that: The ordinary is a doorway into the extraordinary. Each aspect of the world offers potential entry into nirvana, into a glimpse of freedom beyond the concerns of self-clinging.
The deep spirituality and rigor that inform faith in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition are tremendously interesting to me. They support my own sense of the world, and they inspire me.
Robert Cohen is a freelance writer based in Boston. His interview with sociologist David Karp appeared in Winter 2001.