made financial arrangements for the welfare of his mother, Hui-neng made his way
to Hung-jen. In his first interview, Hung-jen said: 'You are a native of Kwangtung,
a barbarian? How can you expect to be a buddha?' Hui-neng replied: 'Although there
are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference in their
buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there
is no difference in our buddha-nature'. After this, Hui-neng was accepted at the
monastery but only employed to do the most menial tasks.
Essence of Mind
One day, however, Hung-jen set his disciples a task to find out who would be best to succeed him. This would be the person who could best demonstrate through the writing of a verse that they had truly realized 'essence of mind'. One of his main disciples, Shen-hsiu wrote:
Our body is the bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them, hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.
Hung-jen's response was this: Your stanza shows that you have not yet realized the essence of mind. So far you have reached the door of enlightenment, but you have not yet entered it'.
When Hui-neng heard that this task that had been set he was filled with curiosity. Being illiterate, he had to get someone to read Shen-hsiu's stanza to him and then, composing his own, dictated it to one of the monastery officials:
There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?
It was on this basis that Hui-neng became Hung-jen's successor: 'You are now the sixth patriarch. Take good care of yourself, and deliver as many sentient beings as possible. Spread and preserve the teaching, and don't let it come to an end'.
The Southern School
Hui-neng taught 'sudden awakening', associated with the Southern School, as opposed to 'gradual awakening', associated with the Northern School of Shen-hui. Hui-neng offers an explanation of what this apparent division really meant: 'People in he world all say: "In the South, Neng, in the North, Shen-hui", but they do not know the basic reason....The Dharma is one teaching but people are from the North and the South, as Southern and Northern schools have been established, What is meant by 'gradual' and 'sudden'? The dharma itself is the same, but in seeing it there is a slow way and a fast way....some people are keen and others dull; hence the names "sudden" and "gradual"." The Northern school eventually faded away - modern Zen traces itself back to Hui-Neng and the Southern School.
In The Platform Sutra Hui-neng talks of awaking to the essential purity of the mind: 'our essence of mind is intrinsically pure, all things are only its manifestations, and good deeds and evil deeds are only the result of good thoughts and evil thoughts respectively. Thus within the essence of mind all things are intrinsically pure, like the azure of the sky and the radiance of the sun and moon which, when obscured by passing clouds, may appear as if their brightness had been dimmed; but as soon as the clouds are blown away; brightness reappears and all objects are fully illuminated'. He also writes, 'to take refuge in a true buddha is to take refuge in our own essence of mind'.
As he lay dying, Hui-neng instructed his disciples not to mourn after him but to sit together in meditation: 'If you are only peacefully calm and quiet, without motion, without stillness, without birth, without destruction, without coming, without going, without judgements of right and wrong, without staying and without going - this then is the Great Way'.
Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi
Ajahn Brahmavamso & Gil Alon
interviewed by Rachael Kohn
"The Spirit of Things" radio program,
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC),
Sunday 09 March 2003
Two Westerners who became Buddhists could not have chosen more different paths.
Details or Transcript:
Ajahn Brahm of the Thai Forest Tradition is the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia - a retreat for many a weary traveller and roaming Buddhist. Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi who travels the world as a theatre director and drama coach, and for whom Zen is the perfect philosophy for life on stage.
Rachael Kohn: How different can two Buddhists be? Hello, I'm Rachael Kohn and this is The Spirit of Things on ABC Radio National. A Forest Monk and a Zen Roshi; the first prefers the tranquillity of a rural monastery; the other takes his tranquillity to the stage, where he acts and directs theatre.
In fact, this is one of the exercises that Israeli-born Zen Roshi Gil Alon teaches his acting students.
Gil Alon: One of the very basic Buddhist ideas which is not only Buddhist, but we use it as an example, they talk about the one-ness, the one-ness that everything is one, everyone is one, and of course you can talk about it for hours, but if you do not experience it, it's worthless. So one of the exercises I ask my students to find a partner, each one to find a partner and seat one in front of the other, folded legs, holding hands in a very relaxed way, and for something like 10 or 15 minutes, just to stare at their partner's eyes. That's it. And immediately they are embarrassed, and it's difficult because we don't do it usually.
And I ask them not to talk while they're doing it, not to look in other directions, not to make funny faces and not to move with the background music that I play, but I tell them surprisingly you are allowed to laugh, because laughter is out of embarrassment, so when laughter is coming just laugh it out until its finished. But in one condition: don't use the laughter to remove your eyes from your partner's eyes, just laugh into his eyes or her eyes.
And then after five minutes or so, it comes down, and people experience the real one-ness, because just staring into the other eyes for a certain time without removing your eyes, you discover endless depths of mutual one-ness. And then when they share what they've been through, each couple can tell you a different story, but they all share the experience of this one-ness. This is only one example.
Rachael Kohn: How does that help in the acting situation?
Gil Alon: It helps, according to my perception of acting, that they start to drop judgements, they start to drop competition because real acting, real creativity on stage happens only when you give yourself totally to your partner, and the partner is giving himself totally to you, and you both give yourself totally to the objects on stage and to the audience. And then creativity appears, not by competition, not by trying to show off or all these kinds of things. This is my perception.
Rachael Kohn: I remember doing one of those exercises; once you stop thinking you'll go crazy, it's quite good. That was Gil Alon, and later in the program we'll hear how one of Israel's television personalities became a Zen Roshi, off and on the stage.
* * *
Finding peace in the fast lane of the entertainment world is quite different from the kind of life that Ajahn Brahmavamso chose as a young man. Born in London and educated in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, he became a Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. Now the Abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery, in Serpentine, Western Australia, he's in demand as a speaker and is known for his story telling.
Although simplicity is the essence of monastic life, and that's particularly so in the rural setting of Serpentine, the whole point of Buddhist insight is to find tranquillity in the midst of chaos. And that's how it was when I c aught up with Ajahn Brahm in the Bodhikusuma Buddhist and Meditation Centre located in the noisy inner city suburb of Chippendale in Sydney, where the transport trucks rumbled by just outside the door.
Ajahn Brahm, you've been a monk for some years now, was it when you were 23?
Ajahn Bramavanso: When I was 23, I decided I'd had enough of the world and became a monk. I used to be a schoolteacher before, and that's enough to make anyone leave the world and become a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Now I thought you had been studying physics at Cambridge University.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, that was before I became a schoolteacher. I thought I'd do something good with my life, instead of making bombs or things like that. And so I decided to try schoolteaching. However, after a while the whole feeling for a monastic life, or for something spiritual, was very strong inside of me. And one of the lovely things about Buddhist monastic life, in the Thai tradition was you can become a monk just for a short time.
So I decided I would take a couple of years off my career life, and then go off to Thailand, become a monk, get it out of my system, and then go back to the world again. But once I became a monk, something happened very quickly that I realised that's what I always wanted to do, I felt so comfortable in the role of a monk.
Rachael Kohn: Were you actually taking refuge as it were, away from the school life, I mean teaching children? What was it that really made you take quite a radical step.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, what really made me take that step was a realisation that deep inside there was much more to life than just getting on in one's career or in relationships. Perhaps one of the most moving experiences in my life was one of my first meditation retreats. I did get into a very deep state of meditation, which was so joyful, it was so much bliss. And that never left me, and I wanted to find out what exactly that meant and how it fits in to the scheme of things. So that degree of deep meditation was something which changed a lot of perspectives on the meaning of life. I wanted to explore those perspectives more, and that could only be done in monastic life.
Rachael Kohn: Well the description you give of life in Thailand doesn't exactly sound joyful. I mean you spent a lot of time building monasteries, in fact I think it totals to about 20 years building monasteries, in rather difficult circumstances.
Ajahn Bramavanso: It was difficult physically, building the monasteries, but there was always a lot of fun around, and it was done joyfully. For example one of my stories was when we were building the main hall in my teacher Ajahn Chah's monastery, there was a lot of earth left over and we had to move that earth from one place to another because Ajahn Chah, my teacher, said it didn't look good over there.
It took three whole days of very hard work from 9 o'clock in the morning until about 10pm with hardly any breaks. We'd already eaten our meal for the day, and that was one day after the other in the tropical heat. When we were finished, we were very happy but then Ajahn Chah left for another monastery. The following morning, his deputy abbot came up to us and said he thought the soil was in the wrong place and we had to move it. So for another three days we moved it to another spot, and again I was very happy when it was all finished.
But the next day, Ajahn Chah came back and he said, 'What did you put the soil over there for, I told you to leave it over here.' And so for another three days we had to move the soil again. And of course by this time I was getting very angry and upset. And being a Westerner, in an Asian monastery, I could swear in English without anyone understanding. But they did understand because they could see my body language.
And I always remember one monk coming up to me and saying, 'It's pushing the wheelbarrow is easy, it's the thinking about it which is hard.' And that's changed the whole perspective of what I was doing. As soon as I stopped complaining and moaning, it was easy to push that wheelbarrow, in fact it felt much lighter. And this is actually how I learned about the secrets, one of the secrets, of monastic life. Didn't matter what you were doing, whether you were sitting for hours and hours and hours in your hut, whether you were working building a monastery, there's a thinking about it which made it hard.
Rachael Kohn: Well it also sounds like one of the secrets of monastic life is learning how to take orders. I mean it's positively torture, isn't it? to be told to do one thing and then to undo it and then re-do it again?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well sometimes. If you look from my perspective it seems like it should be, look for another perspective, it wasn't at all. It was just again, one can make anything torture, one could make sort of eating torture, or being interviewed torture, but it's one's attitude which is the most important thing, and this is one of the things you really found in monastic life, it's how you approached it. And a lot of times you had a choice. If you were going to keep those old silly ways of looking at life, then you would suffer. But if you actually changed the way you looked at life, in other words you did learn some wisdom, you find it was no problem at all.
Rachael Kohn: Were you always interested in your attitude to things? I mean were you always a kind of perfectionist, to try to find just the right sort of happiness, because when I think of happiness and most of us are quite content with some happiness and some unhappiness, you know the combination is what life delivers in most cases. But you seem to be going for the kind of almost magical solution to find happiness in all things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Correct, yes, because I always thought that the search for happiness is the underlying force of life. No matter what we're doing in our world, in our life, it's always a search for some sort of happiness. Then again, one of those early experiences of deep bliss in meditation gave me a taste of some happiness which was out of this world. And so once you've tasted that you wanted to make even a deeper search into the meaning of happiness.
The meaning of happiness is the meaning of life. And so it wasn't just the meaning of happiness in meditation, it was also the meaning of happiness in anything you were doing. Because even sometimes your body gave you orders in saying, 'Now you have to sleep' or 'Now you have to be sick' or 'Now you can't do what you want'. So it didn't matter whether there was something else in life which stopped you doing what you wanted to do. That was like the orders of life, and you had a chance there to actually let go, to surrender to the moment when you can't change things, and be content. And that's one of the wonderful things which I found in Buddhist practice. You can be happy, no matter what's going on.
Rachael Kohn: In fact you tell a story about going to a prison and speaking to prisoners, where you described your life to them, and they're so shocked, they actually say, 'Gee, come and live with us, it's a lot nicer here than a monastic life'. In fact stories are quite important to you, in the way that you communicate.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Life is lived in stories, not in thoughts. Thoughts are almost like a second-hand report of what actually happens in your life. So if you can take the stories of life and illustrate from them the meanings of life, I think people can relate to it much more easily. So I like those stories.
Just to actually complete that story which you only mentioned in part when one of my monks, it wasn't myself, another monk was teaching in jail, after the session they asked him about what it was like in a Buddhist monastery in the West, and we told him we get up so early in the morning, 3 o'clock in the morning and then we have to go to this cold hall to sit for hours cross-legged, meditating, and doing some chanting. And then only afterwards, maybe at 6.30, we might get a cup of tea, and then you have to work for three or four hours, hard work, before you can get some lunch. And that lunch is just what you're given, you've got no choice, and it's all eaten in one bowl, all mixed together. So it's not very delicious at all. And in the afternoon it's usually more work in those days. And then you can't watch the television, there is no television or radio, and you can't follow sport, you can't play sports, you can't play music or listen to music. There's no movies to watch, and there's nothing in the evening, you can't eat in the evening, except just to go to the main hall and to sit in more meditation, cross-legged on the hard floor for hours, and when you do go back to your hut to sleep, it's on the floor, in the cold.
And so when I said this, or when this monk said this, the prisoners were very shocked, and this is when one of the prisoners forgot where they were and said, 'That's disgusting, that's terrible, that's awful; why don't you monks come and live in here with us, in the jail?' which was crazy, they forgot where they were. But the important part of that story was the reason why my monks and other people who visit the monastery like to stay there, and it's because they're content, they don't look upon a monastery as a prison, simply because it's where they want to be. Whereas prisoners in a jail, because they don't want to be there, therefore it is a prison.
Rachael Kohn: It's all about freedom, isn't it, about our perspective on freedom, what constitutes freedom. I mean when I think about what constitutes freedom for me, it's spontaneity, it's learning, it's choice. What is it for you?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Well there's two types of freedom. The freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, and most people in the world only know the freedom of desire, the freedom of choice. In Buddhism, especially in meditation, we're looking at the freedom from choice, the freedom from desire.
So one is so content, so at peace, that desires don't come up. One is free from the tyranny of these desires always pushing or pulling you, and telling you what to do. And it's those are the orders which are coming from inside of each one of us, ordering us to be somehow different, ordering the pain to go away, ordering us to achieve some sort of goal, which we don't really know why we're reaching for this, but we're supposed to do it. So these are the orders which in meditation we're becoming free of.
Rachael Kohn: Did you always know why you were reaching for this goal to be a Buddhist monk, to be an abbot.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No, an abbot just happened by bad luck, but being an Buddhist monk, I'd always had an inclination, that even though you saw many, many people who had so many things, that they did seem to have the opportunity to live their dreams, their dreams never stopped, they were never free from this, always reaching out, this stretching, this hunger, this thirst, and that hunger, that thirst, like any hungry person or thirsty person, is not all that comfortable. Sometimes we want to end thirst, we want to end hunger and be satisfied forever, but that never seemed to happen. But when I came across some Buddhist monks, they were the happiest people I'd ever seen.
They appeared to be free, and even though that many wealthy people, successful people in the world, they are looked upon as being icons, looked upon as being people we try and emulate. If you actually asked them, or interview them and ask the question 'Do you really feel free?' then I think they would give some very interesting answers. But if you ask a monk who lives in a monastery with many rules, and many things you can't do, if you ask a monk 'Do you feel free?' actually the feeling is freedom. So the ideas of freedom, the freedom of desire and the freedom from desire, in our modern world, we've got so much liberty to follow our desires and actually achieve those desires, basically we can do almost anything we want. But how many people feel free?
Rachael Kohn: It all depends on what we expect from life. I know that your message is often about happiness, and how the point of life is kind of like that song, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy', which is all about changing one's attitude, not really about changing the world. And yet you would know, that that kind of an attitude can also be breeding a certain indifference to the world.
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, well I don't think this relates to indifference at all, because many people change their attitude and the world changes with it.
Now the attitude of anger, of trying to get rid of problems, is like the attitude to the pest exterminator, and the attitude of the pest exterminator is instead of trying to live with nature, he always wanted control and eliminate all those things which create problem for us, and that could be a husband or a wife or it could be sort of some enemy which we perceive as being our pest. And you find you can't eliminate all the pests in the world, nor can you eliminate the pests in your own body, like cancers and other sicknesses. Nor can you eliminate the pests in the world. Some time there comes a time to learn how to leave at peace and in harmony with nature.
Rachael Kohn: Does Buddhism ever teach a resistance to things which are dangerous, which are bad, which are evil?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes, we teach a resistance to anger, we teach a resistance to jealousies, we teach a resistance to stupidity. Those are the things which we should really be resisting, you know, the anger and the feelings of revenge, the hurt, the grief, the guilt inside of us, all those negative emotions which make our world. Those are the things which we want to resist, to understand, to overcome, by letting go. And so those things aren't there any more.
Rachael Kohn: I like the story that you tell about the lecturer who comes into the classroom and brings a jar full of rocks. Can you tell that story?
Ajahn Bramavanso: OK, yes, that's actually from the internet, so many of your listeners will probably know that one, but it's a good story. There was a lecturer at a university who was showing just how broad his wisdom was, and instead of reading out his lecture notes one morning, he came with a big jar and put it on his desk. And while everybody in his class was wondering what he was up to, he started to put in some stones from a bag, one by one, into the jar until he could get no more in. And once he could get no more stones into his jar, he asked his class 'Is the jar full?' and the class said, 'Yes, it is.'
He smiled, and from under the desk he got out another bag, and that bag was full of gravel, small stones and one by one he managed to fit those small stones in the spaces between the big rocks. And once he could get no more small stones in, he looked up at his class and asked 'Is the jar full?' Now they all shook their heads and said, 'No'. They were on to him by now. And so he smiled and got another bag, of sand. He poured that sand on top of the big rocks and small rocks, shook the jar, much of the sand went into the spaces between the big rocks and small rocks. After he could get no more sand in, he asked once more, 'Is the jar full?' And gain the class said 'No'. And he got some water and poured that in. And after he could get no more water in, he stopped, he asked the class, 'What am I trying to prove? What is the purpose of this demonstration?'
Now this was a business school, so one of the students in the class put up their hand and said, 'Sir, it shows to us that no matter how busy our schedule, we can always fit something more in.' And he said, 'No, no, no, that's not what I'm trying to show. What I'm trying to show is if you want to fit the big rocks in, you have to fit them in first. Don't leave them to the last, otherwise you will never get them in.' It was a story about priorities, what you should really fit in to your schedule of your day, of your life first of all.
So there are some things which many people realise are the precious stones, the big rocks of their life, like their family, like their relationships, like their peace of mind, whatever it is, and sometimes we leave them till last in our day, in our week, in our life, we find we never have the opportunity to fit them in. And that's one of the reasons why people don't find happiness. Their priorities are not correct. We should always remember that story of the stones in the jar, and put into our life what's very, very important first of all. The other things you can always fit in, but later.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, are there any more things that you want to fit into your jar?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Fit into the jar? Just peace and happiness for myself and for others. I mean after all, that's what's most important to me in my life, is the happiness of myself and the happiness of others, but what I found after many years of life as a monk, I cannot distinguish between the happiness of others and the happiness of myself. So that's why I go out and serve as much as possible, to give talks, to tell stupid stories to make them laugh.
Rachael Kohn: You're very good at it.
Ajahn Bramavanso: Thanks very much.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm, we're sitting in front of what looks to be a fairly traditional altar I suppose, with the great Golden Buddha in the centre, and lots of lotus flowers around. Can you explain the symbolism of this?
Ajahn Bramavanso: Yes certainly. I mean we have at the very top there, a golden Buddha sitting in meditation with a bit of a smile on his face, and obviously that's a symbol of peace, and when people see images like that, it's meant to engender a very soft and gentle feeling inside of them of peace. We have the candles on the sides of the Buddha, that's always been like the symbol of wisdom, because you have to light a candle to dispel the darkness, and for a long time that has been a symbol of enlightenment, so the wisdom is there, no-one owns wisdom, but we need to have a candle in order to actually see it for ourselves.
We have also on our shrine here, the lotus. The lotus is also a very potent symbol of Buddhism. Some of the lotuses we have there are ornamental, with many, many leaves on them, many petals, which is a symbol of the thousand petalled lotus, which is one of my favourite symbols for meditation, because to open the petals of a lotus, it means that the sun has to maintain its warmth on the thousandth petal before that opens up to reveal the 999th petal, and the sun has to stay on that thousand petal lotus a long time before it starts to open up the innermost petals.
The innermost petals of a lotus are the most fragrant, the most subtle and the most beautiful, and if you're lucky, and the sun maintains its warmth long enough, then the heart of the lotus can really open up and you can see what is called the jewel in the heart of the lotus. That is the very old mantra in Tibetan Buddhism, om mani padme hum, Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus. It's a symbol for meditation because you have to have mindfulness, unremitting, without any interference or stopping for a long time, to open up this thousand petalled lotus of your mind and to see what's truly inside, the jewel in the heart of you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahm thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.
Ajahn Bramavanso: No trouble, thank you.
Rachael Kohn: Ajahn Brahmavanso was my guest on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National. I'm Rachael Kohn, and you can find details of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, on our website.
* * *
Rachael Kohn: Gil Alon is an Israeli-born entertainer, who started earning his living as an actor from the age of 16. He had an unusual but very popular television show for 8 years which you'll hear about. But his main work is now as a director and acting coach. In the midst of all this, Gil Alon is a Zen Roshi in the Soto School of Buddhism.
His interest in Buddhism was sparked by a collection of Chinese stories that he read at the age of 21.
Well to make him feel at home, I met Gil in a rehearsal studio down in the Sydney Wharf Theatre Complex under the Harbour Bridge. There he told me about the unexpected appeal of those Chinese stories.
Gil Alon: I don't think it's something logical. There were sort of what they call koans, you know, pointless stories, so-called. I think I was puzzled by the fact that although I didn't understand them, it didn't bother me that I don't understand them. Which was unique, because I have to understand, and somehow with these stories, I said, OK, I have no idea, no clue what is the meaning of these stories, so fine, OK.
Rachael Kohn: So was it something in the challenge of being an actor that made you turn again, once again, to those stories?
Gil Alon: Well later on, yes, but first of all, as looking for means to quieten the hectic life of an actor was the first reason to look for something to be relaxed, to find kind of technique, meditation or whatever. Because I knew that my schedule daily started at 7 in the morning, ends 1 o'clock after midnight. And I loved it so much, but I wanted to find the way to continue this kind of schedule, but with tranquillity. Then when I found the Japanese Zen meditation, it was again very natural for me.
Rachael Kohn: What did your Zen training involve?
Gil Alon: Well first of all when I started to look for something, I discovered that one of the alternative medicine colleges in Israel opened a Zen and High Awareness Department. So I went there and I started to study, and there was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher there because we had lots of teachers and we had kind of introduction, including all kinds of spiritual paths which are not Zen Buddhism. That's how we got glimpse and opened windows to all other kinds of disciplines.
So it was immediate contact between me and the leader teacher who was a Korean monk for seven years in a Korean monastery. Then gradually, as his disciple, I became his assistant and then when he could not attend the classes, one day he told me, 'This is your time, now you take it.' And I had to face the class. And then he took me with him to other parts of Israel where he would teach and yes, gradually it started to develop.
Rachael Kohn: But becoming a Zen Roshi is fairly demanding; did you think that you'd be able to maintain your acting career as well as being a Zen Roshi?
Gil Alon: Well I didn't mean to, it happened. You know, when I started to travel and to study in other countries, because I was interested in other kinds of Buddhism, and finally when I arrived to Japan I found the master and this master, being recommended by my teacher in Israel, and when I found this 83-years-old Japanese Master, again it was immediate contact, and something was very strong there. But again, I was there to study, that's it. So he has a centre which has no discipline, which I like so much.
Rachael Kohn: What do you mean 'has no discipline'? Surely all Buddhism has some form of meditation and study.
Gil Alon: They have the formal Zazen meditation which is the meditation that if you don't know nothing about it, the nun who's taking care of this centre will show you once how to do it, then they leave you alone, they have four times a day in a regular day, official times for meditation, but nobody forces you, it's up to you how many times you meditate, how much time you spend in the library studying, and how many hours you spend with the Master, it's up to you, and this is what I like, because I don't like people telling me what to do. So when I have a free frame, I do more. So I spent hours upon hours with my Master, nagging him, asking, asking, and nagging, and then I understood that I'm going to convert, and I took the Buddhist precepts and became officially Buddhist and continued to be with him.
And suddenly one day, he said, 'OK if you want Dharma transmission, we do it.' And I still didn't know what does it mean exactly. And they have more bombastic title for this, which for me was very frightening, because I said, 'So what does it mean?' He said, 'You will become the 91st Patriarch of the Lineage', and I had the transmission and I flew immediately to South Korea because I had a tour planned for me, going all around the country teaching theatre groups. So I had no time to adjust, I didn't understand what happen. And I was in kind of a panic, because I said, 'What shall I do with this title? What is it?' And then, kind of an understanding appeared that this is only a title, it's a door. Now I should start to walk, and then I started to calm down a little bit.
Rachael Kohn: Is that when you decided to somehow make your Zen part of your technique of acting, or something that you could impart to acting groups?
Gil Alon: Well yes, again I can say looking backwards it was a process of realisation because I was approaching from two different angles to the same point, and concerning art, I was always concerned, is it possible to be the art? Go on stage without all the rubbish that all the actors have in their mind, ('I'm better than him'; 'I'm very bad today'; 'The people laughed less than yesterday'; 'The director is in the auditorium, today I'm very bad, I will not get the role in the next production') all this kind of rubbish is going inside our mind while uttering the text, while playing the scene. So is it possible just to be the art itself, in the moment, in the now. And this is my exploration.
Rachael Kohn: So in fact what you're saying is that there's a certain affinity between Zen Buddhism and the art of acting?
Gil Alon: Of course. With all the arts, but with the art of acting as well. I'll give you an example of what I do with my students. Part of the introduction exercises, I play a piece of music and I ask them to move, but let the music move you; try not to decide, try not to judge, don't be dancers, don't make choreography, every movement is acceptable, and see if it's possible if you have an idea how to move your hand, do something else. And try to conquer the thoughts which most of us are haunted by. Just do. And we all face this very moment that we stand there, 'What can I do? I have no ideas'. When you think that you have no ideas, or your ideas are finished, this is only your opinion, there's nothing to do with reality because if you just do something physically, then ideas will come and you understand that ideas are endless, it's not possible that your ideas will be finished.
Rachael Kohn: How different is it from some of the traditional methods that actors use to prepare for a role, such as method acting, when you try to grasp the essence of a character. Is this Zen approach very different from that?
Gil Alon: Yes. I mean Zen approach is also inclusive, and when you work on a character there are many, many angles that you combine to one character finally. But I believe that each one of us as an actor or as a human being, we have all the emotions that exist in the world, it doesn't matter if they are repressed or on the surface, but we have everything now. So there is no need to remember my grandmother who passed away 20 years ago in order to cry, it's not necessary to remember something funny that happened to me, or someone tickled me yesterday and I have to remember this in order to laugh now. Just do it. And it's possible. Cry now. Laugh now. Feel pain now. Because everything is now in everyone.
Rachael Kohn: It sounds like some of your workshops probably look like group therapy sessions.
Gil Alon: Well I will not call it like this because I never deal with personal problems, I never ask someone to talk about himself. But it is emotional, yes. People cry, people laugh, because they discover themselves, and because there is a big relief when I say 'Please don't be good. Don't compete, I'm not interested, and I will never tell you if the exercise was bad or good, because if you manage to do what I ask you to do, you'll learn something about yourself, and if you cannot manage to do what I ask you to do, you also learn something about yourself. So it's not possible that a wrong exercise will appear in our workshop.
Rachael Kohn: Well the approach you take not to judge someone's performance is probably very attractive to the actor who is often quite sensitive about judgements.
Gil Alon: Yes. We are all educated not only in the arts field, all our life to build our confidence with things from outside, you know, people love me, I feel better; I'm criticised, I feel sad; if 3,000 people came to see me in the auditorium, I'm good, if only 8 came I'm bad, but art doesn't care. It's you who cares. So that's what I'm trying to investigate and to share with the students.
Rachael Kohn: Gil, you're from Israel, and I wondered how much Buddhism has made inroads into Israel?
Gil Alon: Well the spiritual trend in Israel is extremely big, and wherever you go, everyone is into meditation, reiki, aromatherapy massage, self-development, New Age stuff, whatever you want. So it's a secular country, everyone can practice whatever he wants, so it's there.
Rachael Kohn: Do you find any unusual affinities between Zen Buddhism and Judaism?
Gil Alon: Well as far as I understood from my other studies, when you go into the roots, the crystal root of the philosophies of the religions, they come to the same point from different angles. And for me this is the same, yes.
Rachael Kohn: Did you find the Zen koans or the Zen stories have any similarities to Jewish stories?
Gil Alon: Yes, I mean if you are familiar with the stories of Bal Shem Tov and the Rabbi Nakhman of Braslav, they are Zen stories, they are Zen koans in a way. And I think one book of the Bible, I hope I can pronounce it correctly in English, in Hebrew it's ...
Rachael Kohn: Ecclesiastes.
Gil Alon: Yes. So this is a Zen book.
Rachael Kohn: What's the quality, say of Ecclesiastes, which makes you see it as a Zen document?
Gil Alon: First of all this is my point of view, and second, I think it's a tricky book and it's up to you because you can choose to read it optimistic and you can choose to read it pessimistic. And it's up to you.
Rachael Kohn: You've been in many theatre productions in Israel, such as 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' by Milan Kundera. Is there any one that for you has a strong kind of Buddhist outlook or ethic?
Gil Alon: Well after my first tour in South East Asia when I came back to Israel, I got a role in a new Israeli production which opened new Israeli theatre up north and my role was a monk, a Taoist monk, crazy Taoist monk. So that was a very, very direct expression of what happened to me and it was amazing. And the play was so good, by an Israeli who knew nothing about Taoism and nothing about Zen, and it was amazing because he wrote it, you know, just like this. And I said 'How do you know what's written there?' He said, 'I don't know', and I opened the Scriptures that I got from Japan and I told him, 'It's the same, you talk about the same words, even the same words', and it was really, really a fascinating experience.
Rachael Kohn: Does the theatre mean something special, something more to you than entertainment?
Gil Alon: Well what is entertainment and what is theatre? These are kind of labels, because I did entertainment as well. I had a one man show that ran eight years where I used to tell jokes according to subjects from the audience, and this was in one hand pure entertainment, but on second hand I felt like military service because I was never relaxed, because I could be always surprised, and I had to keep myself on the edge all the time. It was unbelievable laboratory for me. Again it was an entertainment but I also consider it as a Zen experience because many koans are jokes, and a joke is a glimpse of enlightenment. This is one example; entertainment we consider lighter than theatre, more simple than theatre, or more shallow than theatre, but again, it depends on you what you do with it.
Rachael Kohn: Does your Buddhism serve your acting, or is it the other way round?
Gil Alon: I started to reconcile it in myself as an actor, and to find the way how can I go on stage and be the art, not bothering with the ideas, with the commentaries, with the reactions, I mean it's very nice when people clap you and laugh but not losing confidence if it's not. But it's an endless process.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think you're a better actor now that you're a Zen Roshi as well?
Gil Alon: I will leave it to the others to say, but I hope that I can be more connected to art itself than all the things around that we are burdened with usually.
Rachael Kohn: How does the Zen community actually feel about you being an actor? Are you breaking any kind of rules there, or is that the essence of Zen anyway, to break rules?
Gil Alon: Well first of all personally I think that rules are meant to be broken, and it's a must to break rules. But in Israel I don't know anyone who is into Zen and acting, but since I started to travel, I found, and I gave a Dharma talk in Perth, in the Zen community in Perth, and they told me, 'Oh, we have an actor in our group', and they introduced him to me, a musician is there, and a singer is there, and we all know it from all over the world, not only Zen but more and more artists are practising Buddhism in this way or another.
Rachael Kohn: Is there a certain philosophical affinity between the acting life and Buddhism? Because it seems to me Buddhist outlook talks about the transience of all things, that things are born and pass away, and the actor is also making a world that disappears after two hours, it's just, you know, he's inventing a world. Is there a kind of natural affinity there?
Gil Alon: Yes, and I totally agree with your definition, and I would continue it by saying that both my Zen and my drama masters used to say that the way to transcend this, what you said, is through action. Just the now is important, only what I say now on the stage. I cannot rely on the fact that I was good yesterday. Who cares? Or I will be good tomorrow. Now is needed. So this is what I heard from all my drama education, and suddenly I started my journey into Zen and I hear the same, in a way. So I said, 'Oh, something is similar here; it should be investigated.'
Rachael Kohn: And Israeli theatre director Gil Alon has never stopped investigating it, to the benefit, it seems, of his students.
Margaret Evans explores the blossoming interest in Buddhism in the West, particularly among women.
Our most recent census in 2001 points to this emerging phenomenon, revealing this benign and inspirational faith is the fastest growing religion in Australia, and the West generally, while mainstream Christianity languishes in its wake - at least in terms of recent growth. But while the census can give us the bare statistics, the flesh and blood reasons for Buddhism's embracing appeal are best left to others to tell
People like 25 year old Cooma-born Ani Yeshe Chodron who, at the age of 17 and reeling at the unexpected death of her father two years earlier, took herself off to India to "find out why I was here". "I realised that life was short and I had to find the meaning of it. I couldn't just go along being comfortable, so I left my Catholic girls school and my mother and headed off and tried all kinds of things like being a hippy at Byron Bay."
"Finally," explains this composed and impressive young woman who has, in the last few months, taken her novice vows on the path to becoming a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, "I went to India and met Buddhism." She was struck that people who had no money had something she lacked even though she came from a very wealthy, comfortable country. "They had a strength of spirit and a compassion, a happiness and brightness in their eyes, a joy. So I asked myself what do these people have that I don't have?" The answer, as she discovered for herself as a vulnerable teenager in India and has since woven into the fabric of her life, was "a living faith".
Now as a teacher of meditation and eloquent spokeswoman for her Tibetan lineage at Sydney's Sakya Tharpa Ling retreat and meditation centre in suburban Strathfield, Ani Yeshe (Ani means nun while Yeshe is her given name in the order) is guiding others years her senior to put aside their self doubts and become truly alive and open hearted human beings.
"The practice of Buddhism," she explains, "consists of purifying your mind, of clearing away all the junk so you can see your inner goodness. You come to a realisation that happiness can't be found from manipulating other conditions. Happiness has to be discovered from within.
"While I don't wish to disparage Christianity, what I never had in my culture was a tradition that allowed me to look into my own mind, to recognise my own inner nature and to look within. I never had that internal science."
With the compassion and acceptance which seem such appealing features of Buddhist practice, she is quick to absolve her Catholic upbringing for her teenage angst. "Perhaps I wasn't taught in a way that has inspired Catholic mystics for example. It's just that within my own Western materialistic culture, I never discovered the way to look within. And Buddhism offered that way."
Head shaved and dressed in the full length maroon robes of the Tibetan tradition, Yeshe seems assured of a future as a teacher and guide to others who seek the way of enlightenment. Yet only a few years ago, it could well have been a different story, as she jokes herself with a full throated chuckle: "If I hadn't found Buddhism I think I would have decked myself by now".
The recent visit by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Sydney among other centres was a turning point for many people still wavering in their commitment to a religion, or maybe just a way of believing, she considers - a groundswell yet to be captured in any official figures. "Buddhism is not just a religion - there's a movement now. I know Christian Buddhists, Jewish Buddhists. It's about becoming a truly alive and open hearted human being and moving towards all those inner qualities that everybody in society respects - the sort of qualities we see in Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
"In a way Buddhism is beyond Buddhism," continues Yeshe. "Mystics in all traditions have tried to move towards this state which Buddhism has attained. If you're not connected to a higher inspiration or something deeper inside, it's hard to be intelligent in your daily life. But if you can access a deeper wisdom that is timeless really . you can become very skilful in all your actions in everyday life."
The inspirational presence of His Holiness probably had an even greater effect on her older 'sister' in the order, Ani Pema Chodron. And just as this fresh faced and appealing young woman from the Snowy Mountains can distil with clarity the essence of Buddhism for a lay audience, so, too, American-born Ani Pema embodies the new accessibility of a once mysterious religion.
Well known as a yoga and meditation teacher in Sydney (Pema whose name means 'lotus' was at one time a Hindu nun), she played a key role in bringing His Holiness to Australia. Several months later, she remains clearly awed by his radiance and generosity of spirit. "He's such an extraordinary ambassador, an embodiment of qualities we don't normally see. I think he inspires people to find out what it is in Buddhism that can enable people to be like that," says Pema, the more measured of the two women. "I saw how he was with young people, with politicians, with Buddhist practitioners, meeting each person at the appropriate level. He radiated hope and integrity."
Pema explains her personal journey from tantric Hinduism to Buddhism followed the death of her Hindu teacher whom she remembers as "quite extraordinary - there was no one else of his calibre at the time" and meeting several of the highly regarded Tibetan masters now travelling widely in the West. "I was highly impressed by their authenticity and the profoundness of their tradition." Even so, separating the cultural aspects "from what is actually relevant for us as Westerners, took some time to sort out".
Recently ordained in the tiny and reclusive country of Bhutan, bordering India and Tibet, where she was the only woman among 400 or so monks and most teachings were conducted in Tibetan, Pema forms a remarkable bridge between the mystical ancient traditions of her lineage and the hustle of suburban Sydney.
The rare honour she was accorded allows her to see the kernel of truth beneath the cultural trappings and helps her dispel any confusion among new followers. "Buddhism has transferred itself to every culture - Thailand, Burma, China and Japan. In each of these countries it has a different identity, but the philosophical tenets are precisely the same. So we as Westerners have to decide it's not that I want to become Tibetan it's to find what is at the essence of this Buddhist thinking. We have to go to the heart of the philosophy and practices and pull out what is relevant for us," says Ani Pema.
She believes that many others are drawn to the same spiritual path she followed herself, beginning with yoga and meditation, in a search for inner peace. Even now as an ordained nun, she sees no conflict between training yoga teachers, which she still does, and practising and teaching her Buddhist faith. "Buddhism is very well structured - there are all sorts of safeguards to ensure teachers are authentic and their practices are genuine." She agrees with Ani Yeshe's comment that Buddhism's teachings should never be accepted on blind faith, but rather should be tested against your own experience.
But one thing that does draw her ire is the new age tendency to "mix and match" to create what she sees as a "hotchpotch where you end up with nothing". Perhaps she's speaking as much to herself as to others when she says, "If you're not really clear about what you're doing, you'll just create confusion".
Although both clearly feel more comfortable in their sanctuary at Sakya Tharpa Ling which blends effortlessly into its suburban surroundings than out on the street - Yeshe jokes the maroon robes and giveaway hairdo make them feel "we're still kind of an endangered species" - both are actively reaching out into the wider community. Their immediate goal is to improve the lot of impoverished Buddhist nuns in Bhutan, Nepal and, in Yeshe's case, here in Australia. In traditional societies, explains Pema, monasteries have always enjoyed more financial support and better infrastructure than their sisters in nunneries. The devaluation of women is a cultural thing, she says, particularly evident in Thailand and Indonesia. Even in Australia, adds Yeshe, younger monks and nuns particularly don't have the financial and other support they need to live a monastic life. So she has started a foundation towards purchasing a small country property two to three hours out of Sydney - "I got my first donation yesterday and it was from a monk." Amid the laughter though, both are buoyed by the realisation that most Buddhist gatherings and societies are dominated by women. "So when we tell those women we want to support nuns, they want to help because they want to support women in spirituality." It's the sort of open hearted generosity which seems to suggest the groundswell already measured in our statistics is unstoppable.
Balance in a busy life
West Australian Narelle Steer is typical of many more women for whom Buddhism provides a spiritual balance with the demands of a busy personal and professional life. A psychologist with a private practice in South Perth, Narelle nevertheless devotes many hours a week to teaching and "helping out" at the Dharmapala Buddhist Centre in atmospheric East Fremantle. In fact, in recent months she's made a decision to take on less professional work and "devote more time to Buddhism because this is more important to me". She considers her work around the centre as almost a full time job, in addition to the two or so hours she spends every day doing her own practice and meditation.
Narelle, now in her early 30s, began her personal journey to discover more about the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism about six years ago, developing an interest which had probably been latent since her first exploration of meditation as a university student. "I can't remember exactly when I started, but I can remember clearly why I started," she says. "For several years I had been a searcher I suppose. I did my foray into the new age world, I had a natural belief in rebirthing and an interest in spiritual things. Then I read a Buddhist book and one line in the first chapter caught my interest: "Buddhism helps you to see things in a different way".
The underlying reassurance that her spiritual wellbeing didn't demand changing the external world, but rather "changing the way you see things", prompted Narelle to enrol for her first general class on Buddhism. "Immediately it really made sense and I haven't looked back since."
The New Kadampa tradition her centre follows probably exemplifies much of the attraction of Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, for the West. Narelle describes it as a very practical tradition, "something we can practise in the context of our daily lives without having to take on a monastic life". New Kadampa's original teacher, Tibetan lama Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has actively sought to bring 'dharma' or Buddhist teachings to the West over the past 25 years and in that time has developed 300 similar centres around the world. Two are located in Australia - the other is at Elizabeth Bay in Sydney.
While Perth also has large and active Buddhist communities from other cultural traditions - Burmese and Thai are two of the biggest - it's the deliberate appeal of Tibetan Buddhism to the Western world that has made it the dharma of choice among Australians. Narelle echoes Ani Pema Chodron's view that our exposure to impressive Tibetan lamas who have bridged the gulf to the West has been an important factor. In her tradition at least, the intention is to present dharma in its pure form "without the cultural influences which as Westerners we don't necessarily need to take on," says Narelle.
The compassion inherent in Buddhism is another of its strongest appeals, she believes - "and maybe the qualities that we associate with women like nurturing, caring and mothering sit more easily with women, but it's definitely not a male/ female divide," she hastens to add. "It's just that women can see the importance of those qualities and value them."
Those attending the East Fremantle centre cover an "incredibly broad range", says Narelle. "We have mothers, non mothers, lesbians, straight women, university educated and those who aren't... our oldest student is an 82 year old woman who comes with her daughter and they support each other a little bit... while others generally range from their late teens to thirties to fifties." While there is a core group of about 20 who regularly come to classes, the centre's mailing list stretches beyond 300 people.
while women predominate in meditation and general program classes, men can take
heart that maybe they show the stronger staying power. In the more indepth foundation
program, the gender balance is about half and half. Narelle, the psychologist,
admits to being "impressed that they're prepared to develop that side of
© copyright NOVA Magazine 2004
Question of Skill
An Interview with Thanissaro Bhikkhu
by Insight Magazine Online
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, also known more informally to many as Ajaan Geoff, is an American-born Theravada monk who has been the abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, CA, since 1993. He teaches regularly at BCBS (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies) and throughout the US and has contributed significantly to the Dhamma Dana Publications project with his books Wings to Awakening, Mind Like Fire Unbound, and a new free-verse translation of the Dhammapada.
Ajaan Geoff, thirty years ago you were a student at Oberlin College. Now you're the abbot of a Buddhist monastery near San Diego. Could you tell us a little about how you got from there to here?
The route was a lot less roundabout than you might think. Like many college students, I was obsessed with deciding what to do with my life. Business, government, academia: I couldn't see myself finding happiness in any of them. I didn't want to lie on my deathbed, looking back at a life frittered away. Fortunately, in my sophomore year, I was introduced to Buddhist meditation, and I took to it like a duck to water.
After graduation I decided to take a break in my education to go teach in Thailand-to get some perspective on my life, and maybe find a good meditation teacher. While I was there I met Ajaan Fuang, perhaps the first truly happy person I had ever met. He embodied the dharma [the teachings of the Buddha] in a way that I found appealing: wise, down-to-earth, no-nonsense, and with a sly sense of humor. Whatever happiness and wisdom he had, he told me, was due entirely to the training. That was when I realized I had found something to which I could devote my entire life. So I ordained to train with him, and I've never regretted my choice.
Ajaan Fuang trained you as a meditation monk, but for the past several years you've also been translating and explaining the Pali sutta(s)[the early Buddhist texts]. How do you find that studying the suttas helps with meditation?
The Buddha in the suttas asks all the right questions. We all know that what we see is shaped by the views we bring to things, but we're often not aware of the extent to which our views are shaped by the questions we ask ourselves. The Buddha had the good sense to see that some questions are skillful-they really do point you to freedom, to the total cessation of suffering-while others are unskillful: they take you to a dead end, tie you up in knots, and leave you there. The suttas are helpful in showing how to avoid getting involved in unskillful questioning. If you listen carefully to their advice and take it to heart, you find that it really opens your eyes to how you approach meditation and life in general.
There are currents in modern dharma teaching that de-emphasize the importance of the historical discourses. One might say, for example, "Don't we often hear that the Buddha said not to believe texts and traditions?"
Well, he didn't say to reject them out of hand, either. Have you ever noticed how American dharma is like the game of Telephone? Things get passed on from person to person, from one generation of teachers to the next, until the message gets garbled beyond recognition.
I once received a postcard on which the sender had rubber-stamped the message, "'Don't believe anything outside your own sense of right and wrong.'-The Buddha." That was apparently meant to be a quote from the Kalama Sutta, but when you actually read the sutta, you find that it says something much more sophisticated than that: You don't believe something just because it's handed down in the texts or taught by your teachers, but you don't accept it just because it seems logical or fits in with your preferences, either. You have to put it to the test, check it in terms of actual cause and effect. If you then find that it leads to harm and is criticized by wise people, you stop doing it. If it's beneficial and praised by wise people, you stick with it. Notice, though, that you don't go solely by your own perception of things. You look for wise people and check your perceptions against theirs. That way you make sure you're not simply siding with your own preconceived notions.
And so the suttas can serve as kalyana mitta(s), or "wise friends?"
There is no real substitute for spending time in close contact with a really wise person, but the suttas can often be the next best thing-especially in a country like ours where wise people, in the Buddhist sense of the term, are so few and far between.
You mentioned that the suttas label certain questions as unskillful. Some of these may be fairly obscure philosophical issues that no longer interest anyone, but can you point to any that are relevant to meditators at present?
The big one is, "Who am I?" There are dharma books telling us that the purpose of meditation is to answer this question, and a lot of people come to meditation assuming that that's what it's all about. But the suttas list it as a fruitless line of inquiry.
Why is that?
Good question (laughs). As far as I can see, the response is this: What sort of experience would give you an answer to that question? Can you imagine any answer to that question that would put an end to suffering? It's easier to be skillful in any given situation when you don't saddle yourself with set ideas about who you are.
Might the anatta doctrine be considered the Buddha's answer to the question, "Who am I?"?
No. It's his answer to the question, "What is skillful?" Is self-identification skillful? Up to a point, yes. In the areas where you need a healthy, coherent sense of self in order to act responsibly, it's skillful to maintain that sense of coherence. But eventually, as responsible behavior becomes second nature and you develop more sensitivity, you see that self-identification, even of the most refined sort, is a form of clinging. It's a burden. So the only skillful thing is to let it go.
How would you respond to those who say they get a sense of oneness with the universe when they meditate, that they're interconnected to all things, and that it relieves a lot of suffering?
How stable is that feeling of oneness? When you feel like you've come to the stable ground of being from which all things emanate, the suttas ask you to question whether you're simply reading that feeling into your experience. If the ground of being were really stable, how would it give rise to the unstable world we live in? So whatever it is you're experiencing-it may be one of the formless states-it's not the ultimate answer to suffering.
On an affective level, a sense of connectedness may relieve the pain of isolation, but when you look deeper, you have to agree with the Buddha that interconnectedness and interdependence lie at the essence of suffering. Take the weather, for instance. Last summer we had wonderful, balmy weather in San Diego-none of the oppressive heat that usually hits in August-and yet the same weather pattern brought virtually non-stop rain to southern Alaska, drought to the Northeast, and killer hurricanes with coffins floating out of their graves in North Carolina. Are we supposed to find happiness in identifying with a world like this? The suttas are often characterized as pessimistic in advocating release from samsara, but that's nothing compared to the pessimism inherent in the idea that staying interconnected is our only hope for happiness.Yet so many people say the desire for release is selfish.
Which makes me wonder if they understand how we can be most helpful to one another. If the path to release involved being harmful and cold-hearted, you could say it was selfish; but here it involves developing generosity, kindness, morality, all the honorable qualities of the mind. What's selfish about that? Everyone around you benefits when you can abandon your greed, anger, and delusion. Look at the impact that Ajaan Mun's quest for release has had for the last several decades in Thailand, and now it's spreading throughout the world. We'd be much better off if we encouraged one another to find true release so that those who find it first can show the way to anyone else who's interested.
And the way to that release starts with the question, "What is skillful?"
Right. It's the first question the Buddha recommends that you ask when you visit a teacher. And you can trace this question throughout the suttas, from the most basic levels on up. There is a wonderful passage where the Buddha is teaching Rahula, his seven-year-old son [Ambalannhika Rahulovada Sutta, M 61]. He starts out by stressing the importance of being truthful-implying that if you want to find the truth, you first have to be truthful yourself-and then he talks about using your actions as a mirror. Before you do anything, ask yourself: "Is what I intend to do here skillful or unskillful? Will it lead to well-being or harm?" If it looks harmful, you don't do it. If it looks okay, you go ahead and give it a try. While you're doing it, though, you ask yourself the same questions. If it turns out that it's causing harm, you stop. If not, you continue with it. Then after you've done it, you ask the same questions-"Did it bring about well-being or harm?"-and if you see that what originally looked okay actually ended up being harmful, you talk it over with someone else on the path and resolve never to make that mistake again. If it wasn't harmful, you can take joy in knowing that you're on the right track.
So the Buddha is giving basic lessons in how to learn from your mistakes.
Yes, but if you look carefully, you'll see that these questions contain the seeds for some of his most important teachings: the role of intention in our actions; the way causality works-with actions giving immediate results along with long-term results; and even the four noble truths: the idea that suffering is caused by past and present actions, and that if we're observant we can find how to act more and more skillfully to a point of total freedom.
And how would you apply this to meditation?
It starts with your life. We all know that meditation involves disentangling yourself from the narratives of your life so that you can look directly at what you're doing in the present. Now, some narratives are easier to disentangle than others. If you're acting in unskillful ways in daily life-lying, having illicit sex, taking intoxicants-you'll find that you're creating some pretty sticky narratives, all coated with denial and regret. So you apply the Buddha's line of questioning to your day-to-day life in order to clean up your act and provide yourself with new narratives that are easier to let go.
At the same time, in doing this, you're developing the precise skills you'll need on the meditation cushion. Getting into the present moment is a skill, and it requires the same questioning attitude: observing what the mind is doing, seeing what works, what doesn't work, and making adjustments where needed. Once you get into the present moment, you use the same line of questioning to investigate the present, taking it apart in terms of cause and effect: present action, past action, present results. Once you've taken apart every mental state that clouds the brightness of your awareness, you then turn the same questions on that bright awareness itself, until there's nothing left to question or take apart any further-not even the act of questioning itself. That's where liberation opens up. So these simple questions can take you all the way to the end of the practice.
Was this how you were taught meditation in Thailand?
Yes. The one piece of advice Ajaan Fuang stressed more than any other was, "Be observant." In other words, he didn't want me simply to follow a method blindly without monitoring how it was working out. He handed me Ajaan Lee's seven steps on breath meditation and told me to play with them-not in a desultory way, but the way Michael Jordan plays basketball: experimenting, using your ingenuity, so that it becomes a skill. How else can you expect to gain insight into the patterns of cause and effect within the mind unless you play with them?
Are there any other questions from the suttas that strike you as particularly relevant to the American dharma scene?
Two jump immediately to mind. One has to do with evaluating teachers. The suttas recommend that a student look carefully at a person's whole life before accepting him or her as a teacher: Does this person embody the precepts? Can you detect any overt passion, aversion, or delusion in what this person says or does? Only if someone can pass these tests should you accept him or her as a teacher.
This calls into question an attitude that's becoming increasingly prevalent here in the US. A teacher once said, not too long ago, "As long as a teacher points at the truth with one hand, it doesn't matter what he or she does with the other hand." Now, is the dharma something you can point to with only one hand? Can the other hand ever really be invisible? There's a real drive at the moment to turn out teachers to fill the demand for retreat leaders, but if they feel they can afford a one-handed attitude, we'll end up with teachers who are little more than mindfulness technicians or yogi-herders: people whose job is to get students safely through the retreat experience, but whose personal life may be teaching an entirely separate lesson. Is that what we want?
If it is, we are setting people up for trouble. So far the mindfulness community has avoided many of the scandals that have ravaged other American Buddhist communities, largely because it hasn't been a community. It's more a far-flung network of retreat clientele. The teachers' personal lives haven't had that much direct bearing on the lives of the students. But now local communities are beginning to develop, where students and teachers have close, long-term contact with one another. Can we imagine that what each teacher does with that other hand is not going to have an impact on the students' lives and their respect for the dharma? If we don't start now to rely more on the suttas' method for evaluating teachers, we'll have to start reinventing the dharma wheel after people get hurt, which would be a great shame.
And the other question?
Renunciation. What do we have to give up if we want true happiness? Do we have unlimited time and energy to pursue an unlimited number of goals? Or do we need to sacrifice some of the good things in life in order to gain the most valuable form of happiness? This is a huge blind spot in American Buddhism.
Once, just out of curiosity, I went through a pile of Western dharma books and magazines, looking up the topic of renunciation. Most of them didn't even mention it. From the few that did, I learned that renunciation means, one, giving up unhealthy relationships; two, abandoning your controlling mindset; and three, dropping your fear of the unknown. Now, we don't need the Buddha to tell us those things. We can learn the first lesson from our parents, and the other two from a good therapist. But the Buddha recommended giving up a lot of things that most well-meaning parents and therapists would tell their children and patients to hold onto tightly. And yet you don't see any mention of this in American dharma.
Is that because Americans tend to live more comfortable lifestyles?
Not necessarily. Modern mass culture, whether Asian or American, is a lot more indulgent than traditional culture, but that may be because it's a lot more frenetic and stressed out as well. The Buddha himself said that, when he was starting out on the path of practice, his heart didn't leap up at the idea of renunciation. Nobody wants to hear that true happiness involves giving up the things we like, but at least in Asia there are dharma masters who, through their words and actions, keep pumping that lesson into the culture. So it's always there for honest, mature, reflective people to hear. But here in the West, the dharma has been so shaped by the marketplace that the lesson is very seldom modeled.
Last year Tricycle printed an article bemoaning how the dharma is being used to sell mass-market commodities, but a deeper problem is that the dharma has become a commodity itself. I was in a bookstore recently with a student, and as we looked at the many shelves filled with books on Buddhism, he asked me, "Do you get the impression that these books were written to make money?" How can you expect to learn the hard lessons of renunciation from a book that had to get past marketing directors and sales reps? And given the financial needs of most teachers, how can you expect even well-meaning teachers not to shape their message to conform with what people want to hear, as opposed to what they should hear?
You've written on what you call the "economy of gifts," in which the dharma can be offered freely with no strings attached. How do you think such an economy could be implemented here in America?
It's a long, uphill process, but yes, it can happen. You have to start small-a few good monasteries here and there, a few dana-based organizations such as the Dhamma Dana Publication Fund and now the Dharma Seed Tape Library and eventually people will catch on to what a good thing it is. Of course, the fact that dharma is free doesn't necessarily guarantee that it's going to be top-quality, but at least it hasn't been filtered through the sort of bottom-line concerns that we needlessly take for granted. It's only when we appreciate the need to have the bottom line totally out of the picture that American dharma will have a chance to mature. Which makes me wonder if Dana-based dharma will always be something of a fringe phenomenon in our country.
From our discussion so far, you seem to see the Pali suttas as offering not only right questions, but also right answers.
The right answers are the skillful choices you make in your life as you pursue the right questions. I think it was Thomas Pynchon who said, "As long as they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers." There should be a corollary to that: As long as you honestly stick to the right questions, you're sure to arrive at answers that will make a difference.
Of course, many people in our society are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong--especially in the area of religion.
I don't think it's so much that they are uncomfortable with the notion of right and wrong. It's just that they've shifted their reference points. Being judgmental is now wrong; being non-judgmental is right. This, I think, comes from two factors. One is that we're tired of fervid monotheists who demonize anyone who differs from their view of The One True Way. We've seen the harm that comes from sectarian religious strife, and it's obviously pointless. So we want to avoid it at all costs. The other factor is that we ourselves have been subject to evaluation all of our lives, some of it pretty unfair-in school, at work, in our relationships-so when we come to retreats we want respite.
This becomes a problem, though, when people confuse being judgmental with the act of exercising judgment. And again, the difference is a question of skill. Being judgmental-hypercritical, quick to dismiss the opinions of others-is obviously unskillful. But in our rush not to be judgmental, we can't abandon our critical abilities, our powers of judgment. We have to learn how to use them skillfully. It's all very fine not to pass judgment when you're on the sidelines of an issue and don't want to get involved. But here we're all out on the playing field, facing aging, illness, and death. Our skill in exercising judgment is going to make all the difference in whether we win or lose. The team we're facing has never been taught to be uncritical. They play hard, and they play for keeps
The Buddha himself was quite critical of teachers who wasted their time-and that of their students-by asking the wrong questions. He was especially critical of those who misunderstood the nature of karma, because how we comprehend the power of our actions is what will make all the difference in how skillfully we choose to think and act. So refraining from judgment is not the answer to the question of how we face the differing teachings we find available. In fact, a knee-jerk nonjudgmental stance can often be a very unskillful way of passing judgment.
It's a refusal to take differences seriously, and that totally short-circuits any attempt to develop skill. You often find this associated with a lowest-common-denominator approach to the truth: the assumption that whatever the major traditions of the world hold in common must be true, while their differences are only cultural trappings. But that's assuming they're all asking the same questions, or that the only important questions are the ones they all ask. Where does that leave people who think outside the box?
I've seen some elaborate attempts to create a perennial philosophy from the common ground of the world's great traditions, but they center on the question, "Who am I?" That, they tell us, is the question at the heart of everyone's spiritual quest. But the training I got from Ajaan Fuang taught me to question the assumption that that's a fruitful line of inquiry. Does the fact that everybody else is asking it mean he was wrong?
Another approach is to assume that all traditions take you to the same place, but that they've found different skillful ways of doing it-the old "many paths lead to the top of the mountain" idea. But the reports we get from people who have been up this mountain say that it has plenty of wrong turns, false summits, and sudden drop-offs. One tradition will say, "When you reach this point, turn left." Another will say, "If you turn left at that point you'll get stuck at a dead-end." If we plan to stay on the valley floor, it's okay for us to stay out of the argument. But can we claim some sort of higher moral ground for not getting involved in the fray? Do we have more comprehensive maps of the mountain showing that dangers are imaginary, and that left turns and right turns are all okay?
Or suppose that one tradition says, "The summit looks like this." Another says, "No, that's a false summit. The real one looks like this." The first one responds, "No, you're at the false summit." Do we know the limitations of language better than they do, so that we can dismiss their differences as purely linguistic? If we want to go up the mountain, we have to choose one guide or the other-or maybe a third guide, if we decide that the first two were both on the wrong path.
So how would you choose?
One, take a good look at the teachers. If people are skilled mountaineers, they should have no trouble negotiating the valley. Can they get around without injuring themselves or others? Has their experience of the summit been so overwhelming that they're willing to sacrifice personal comfort so that others can get there as well?
Two, look at the tradition. What kinds of questions does it focus on? What kinds does it allow? What kinds does it not allow? Why? Does it encourage the tenacity and maturity needed to stick to a hard line of questioning? Does it foster the kind of ingenious, observant mind that would recognize a false path or figure out a way past an unexpected obstacle?
Finally, take a good look at yourself. Are you up for the adventure? It may sound more than a little intimidating, but the Buddha asked of his students simply that they be honest enough to admit and learn from their mistakes, and sensible enough to give up a lesser happiness when they see that, by doing so, they'll gain a higher one. Are you up to that? If so, you've got what it takes.
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...
Alternative to Patriarchy?
Women's Search for Non-Christian Religious Routes
By Sara Webb
this century, there has been a growth of Eastern religions in this country. Although
Taoism and Hinduism have found adherents, the greatest growth can be found among
the various varieties of Buddhism. So many people have entered Buddhism in the
United States that Rick Fields, author of a well received history of Buddhism
in America, calls the United States "one of the most vital Buddhist countries
in the world" (Fields, 358).
Some Buddhists are immigrants from Buddhist countries such as Viet Nam or Korea or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. These ethnic Buddhists remain closely tied to their home cultures, and few people enter these groups who are not members of those cultures. Other Buddhist groups are composed primarily of American converts and their children. One of these, Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) mixes Tibetan immigrants or exiles with Americans. Zen Buddhism and Theravadan Buddhism, in contrast, draw primarily Americans.
Buddhism entered this country gradually, first through the writings of intellectuals and Oriental scholars and groups such as the Theosophical Society. In America, it was primarily intellectuals and people who have lived in Asian countries, such as Japan or Burma (sometimes under war conditions), who were the first to call themselves Buddhist. Teachers from these traditions arrived in the United States as early as 1905.
The numbers of students gradually increased. In the 60's and 70's, many Americans were searching for a more vital religious path, and strong groups of students sprang up around Asian teachers. Some Americans went overseas to train in monasteries; others became members of monasteries and lay groups in the United States. From these students came a second generation of American-born teachers.
In the Seventies, American-born teachers began to have centers of their own. However, almost every teacher was male. Some centers were strongly male in membership. Although others were balanced between men and women, there was a problem for women entering Buddhism: a patriarchal, hierarchical system which left women, in the words of one woman Zen student, "with a sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with our Buddhist practice and with the organizations" (Dougherty 6). Traditionally in Buddhism, women have been seen as inferior. When the Buddha was selecting disciples, he turned women away initially, even his own stepmother, and was persuaded only with difficulty to set up spiritual training for women. Some teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, explain that the Buddha was slow to include women only because he had to manage the prejudice of the people in that time, and these teachers stress that in fact he did make a way for women to enter the training (Thich Nhat Hanh, 26).
Scholars such as H. W. Schumann disagree, speculating that Buddha, as a product of his culture, himself had a low opinion of women (Wheeler, 27). This bias against women is only now changing and is so institutionalized that in some countries there are no monastic orders for women that parallel those for men. If a group follows the traditional monastic rules, where there are nuns they are subordinated to men and subjected to 84 additional rules for behavior.
Reflecting patterns that date back to the time of Buddha, the highest woman practictioner in some countries is supposed to bow down even to new male entrants or boy monks to honor the male's superior status (Wheeler 27). Only in the last few decades in Japan, reports T. Griffith Foulk, have nuns been allowed to ordain disciples or to become the heads of temples, and even now these are rare occurences (Foulk,175).
Women students who have read Buddhist history are very aware of the closed doors to women . A student at Rochester Zen Center commented, "As I read some of the older parts of Buddhism mostly Theravadin . . . , there's such hatred of women, such hatred of the body, it almost knocks you over " (Kieburtz, et al., 10). Kate Wheeler, a Tibetan Buddhist and contributing editor to the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, wonders whether after seventeen years in Buddhism she might not need her head examined. "What am I doing in a religion whose formal expression is a highly defended, medieval, male, sexist hierarchy?" she asks (Wheeler, 26). This history, she explains, makes her angry and undermines her confidence in her potential to grow spiritually. One direct result of the patriachal bias in Buddhism was a lack of female models and support.
Then in the 70's and 80's, ordained women teachers began to appear, one or two in the second generation of teachers, many in the third generation, as Buddhism began to adapt to American culture. With these teachers some of the problems eased. It became possible for students like myself, more interested in practice than history, and a student of a second generation woman teacher, to practice for years without even realizing there was a problem for women in Buddhism. Fine women teachers exist now in all the traditions, teachers like Joan Rieck and Joko Beck in Zen, and Ane Pema Chodron in Vajrayana. Women students know of these teachers, can seek out these teachers, and they no longer need wonder, as some confess they did, whether women are capable of reaching enlightenment or of being effective religious leaders.
As American Buddhism has adapted the old systems, some problems have eased, but some lines of teaching have continued in highly traditional patriarchal forms and many contain traces of the anti-woman bias. This bias can be seen in a number of ways. In some groups there is a much higher percentage of men than women; an even higher percentage of males take leadership positions in such groups.
Though it could be argued that Buddhism simply appeals more to the masculine mind than the feminine, the equal proportions of men and women in groups taught by women argues otherwise. Similarly, equal participation can be found in groups led by men teachers such as Albert Low or Thich Nhat Hanh who have made a strong effort to be sensitive to women's needs.
Sometimes the barrier to women comes in the form of outright discrimination. As one example, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, a Vajrayana teacher, chose the men out of a group of students finishing a three-year retreat and offered them the title of lama. To women he offered the lesser title, ani. It is a sign of progress that later many of these women he later changed to lama status, but some people criticized the Venerable Kalu not for the original difference in status but for his later elevation of the women (Wheeler, 32).
Worse yet, some women have been seduced by their teachers, giving rise to a string of scandals and much rethinking in centers across the country.
Some barriers are indirect. Because of the emphasis on monasticism rather than lay practice, traditionally a child was viewed as a fetter. Some women experience poor support for family participation or female caregiving. Women find themselves unable to attend lengthy training sesions. They complain that though guidance is given to the use of awareness in traditional activities like gardening or the martial arts, it is not given in caregiving and childcare as a sacred activity (Gross, 61)."Is there a place for this powerful part of being a female?" asks one zen student (Kieburtz, et al.,10).
This barrier is lessening. Buddhism is taking primarily a lay form in the United States, and although many centers started with many unmarried young people, those people have matured and most have families. "Children didn't have a place when I first came," commented one Zen student (Kieburtz, et al., 13). Now Buddhist centers have responded with family activites, ceremonies which include children, and retreats in which partial attendance is possible or childcare is shared. Still, mothers worry and feel that they must choose between sufficient care for their children and full participation in the training. One mother commented, "It meant leaving for five to seven days. And for a little kid that's an eternity!" (Kieburtz ,et al., 16 )
One subtle problem is that of language. Metaphors and examples in sacred texts, teaching talks, and books often engage males more fully than females. The Tibetans speak of Buddhist practice as the way of the warrior, a metaphor used in other sects as well. A group of women students from the Rochester Zen Center joked with each other about the inappropriateness of the language used there. They were pleased that the writing at their center was not so full of he and him any more, and one said, "It was hard as a woman to enter into that." But when onecommented, " I get so tired of hearing encouragement talks couched in terms of men," and another replied, "It's changed somewhat. Tell me it's changed," they laughed out loud.
Survival in the arctic and boxing, they said, were metaphors they "found hard . . . to relate to" and childbirth would be a metaphor they'd enjoy (Kieburtz, et al.,18-19) Some women feel the necessity to withdraw from Buddhism, or at least from a Buddhist group which they experience as a negative environment.
One woman teacher, Jaquiline Schwartz Mandell, resigned from her Theravadan Center because, in her words, she was unable any "longer to represent a system that subordinated and discriminated against women" (Fields, 363). Others women never enter a group but instead study from afar.
Bell Hooks, a Zen commentator who considers Thich Nhat Hahn her teacher and also considers him excessively traditional about family and women's roles, has held back from meeting him. She says, "I'm afraid to. As long as I keep a distance from that thread, I can keep him--and I can critique myself on this--as a kind of perfect teacher. Reading about his attachment to certain sexist thinking in a book is one thing, but actually experiencing it in a gathering would be another. That would be sad for me" (Tworkov, 51).
Since the teacher-student relationship is so vital to progress in Buddhism, Bell Hook's reluctance to meet Thich Nhat Hanh may harm her practice. When Bell Hooks says, " I can critque myself on this," what she means is that she is aware that she is to some degree trying to idealize her teacher and that is not healthy for her practice. If the teacher is above perfect, then it is hard for the student to feel capable of matching that teacher's attainment.
At a 1987 conference on women and Buddhism, Sue Schmall, a Vajrayana teacher, described what she called the "'not worthy of enlightment' neurosis" common among women, evoking groans from her audience (Dougherty, 8). She warned her students that self-deprecation was a strategy of the ego just as much as puffing up the self.
Some women students regard the situation as an opportunity to diminish their attachment to self, a chance to see when the self gets stepped on and how anger arises. They speak of "bowing, of throwing oneself away", even of "submission" (Besserman,16). At a 1990 Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice, descriptions of this solution were met with scorn (Besserman, 15), but this response works for some practicioners.
These kinds of psychological issues have outer components--fellow Buddhists who reward women students for what they perceive as humility, and groups who idealize their teacher and reject anyone who criticizes. Still, the most relevant change is an internal one. The speakers at the 1990 Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice conference urged students to observe and work with mindsets that harmed them spiritually (Besserman, 16).
Along with inner work, comes outer. By confronting the teacher or the organization, some women help a group evolve. A student writes of Thich Nhat Hanh being confronted by women students because of the traditional and patriarchal view of family that Bell Hooks writes of. She says that Thich Nhat Hanh listened carefully to the criticism and "took it seriously"(Anderson, 6).
Of course, the more hierarchical and patriarchal the group, the more difficult confronting the teacher is.
It can be done, however. In 1993, a group of Western representatives visited the Dalai Lama. Among their concerns was the discrepancy between the treatment of monks and nuns. Although the Dalai Lama was perceived to be cold to some of the comments, he promised to convene a group of Vajrayana monastics who he would encourage to change a portion of the Vinaya, the monastic rules, which subordinate nuns (Kjolhede, 6-7). This was a surprising concession from such an orthodox leader.
Solidarity with other women members has been one response. Some women seek out a woman teacher. They speak of the "tender" quality , the "humaneness," and the the balancing of an overly intellectual practice with the emotion women teachers offer (Dougherty, 7). Some women students join nuns' orders. Some meet specially as groups of women within the Traditional organizations. One such group in Robert Aitkin's sangha published a magazine for eight years called Kahawaii, aimed at women Buddhists.
Some centers offer special workshops for women, such as the Insight Meditation Society's annual Women's Spirituality Course. Conferences to discuss women and Buddhism are frequent, and many women attend them and report back. On the other hand, some women practicioners have reservations about practicing too much with women alone. A student at the Rochester Zen Center, who broached the idea of a special women's sesshin, got a mixed reaction from women at the center. Some of her hearers rejected its exclusiveness and warned that "there would be feelings of separation"( Kiebutrtz, et al., 18).
Yvonne Rand, a Soto zen teacher at Green Gulch, warns against isolating ourselves as women:
"Back in 1967, when I started practicing zen," she said, "the role models were all men. Now there are important visible women models. I don't want to be locked into practice with women only . . . especially today, when there is more of a 'feminist' mind among men practioners" (Besserman, 16).
One effective solution to the problem has been to look at the deeper teachings of Buddhism, rejecting harmful surface forms. Dr. Joanna Macy advises other Zen practioners, " We do not have to buy into hierarchical understandings of what power is, because the central teaching of Lord Buddha himself--the vision of dependent co-arising--shows that power is essentially relational and reciprocal." (Kraft, 187)
A student of Robert Aitken comments that despite barriers in the Zen group of which she is a member, her personal practice, "in the absolute realm, is non-sexist, nonhierarchical" She quotes her teacher, "When it comes to forgetting the self, there is no male or female" (Dougherty, 6) This response is shared by students in all the traditions.
Reality has two faces: emptiness and form. Though there are problems for women in the relative world of form, emptiness is beyond dualities of any kind, including male and female. The frequency of this response is not surprising since it is a search for this deeper side of reality that brings most women to Buddhism.
For this generation of Buddhist women the solution to this problem cannot remain in the hands of authority. Each woman must choose a way to respond to the situation. The drive for spiritual insight is strong in Buddhist women, and they will go through a lot to learn from this teaching. Already we have seen much change in the way Buddhism is practiced in this country, including the way women are perceived and taught. As Buddhist women continue to work for change, we should expect a great deal more of it in the next century.
(Sara Webb lives in Oklahoma, and attends sesshins at the Maria Kannon Zen Center.)
Anderson, Shelley. Letter. Tricycle Winter 1992: 6-7.
Besserman, Perle. "A Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice: One
Woman's Response to the Third Conference of Women Buddhist
Practicioners." Blind Donkey Nov. 1990: 12-18.
Dougherty, Trish. "Forming the Circle: Women in Buddhism. Blind
Donkey Nov. 1990: 6-10.
Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History
of Buddhism in America. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.
Foulk, T. Griffith. "The Zen Institution in Modern Japan."
Kenneth Kraft. Ed. Zen: Tradition and Transmission. New York: Grove Press,
Gross, Rita. "After Patriarchy: Sacred Outlook and Everyday Life."
Tricycle. Winter 1992: 58-62.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. "Opening the Door . . . and Letting the Ladies in."
Tricycle. Fall 1991: 26-29.
Kieburtz, Vicki, et al. "Female Modalities in Zen Practice." Zen Bow.
Spring/Summer 1993: 7-18.
Kjolhede, Bodhin. "The Dharamsala Conference." Zen Bow. Special
Kraft, Kenneth. Ed. "Recent Developments in North American Zen."
Kenneth Kraft. Zen: Tradition and Transmission. New York: Grove
Press, 1988. 178-198.
Tworkov, Helen. "Agent of Change: An Interview with bell hooks. Tricycle. Fall 1992: 48-57.
Wheeler, Kate. "Bowing Not Scraping." Tricycle. Winter, 1993: 26-32.
interview with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
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.
and Medical Ethics: A Bibliographic Introduction
James J. Hughes
MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics
Goldsmiths, University of London
Published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume Two, 1995
BUDDHISM AND MEDICINE
It has not gone unnoticed that the Buddhist aim of eliminating suffering coincides with the objectives of medicine (Duncan et al, 1981; Soni, 1976). The Buddhist emphasis on compassion finds natural expression in the care of the sick, and according to the Vinaya the Buddha himself stated "Whoever, O monks, would nurse me, he should nurse the sick" (Zysk, 1991:41). Buddhist clergy and laity have been involved with the care of the sick for over two thousand years. The Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka states in his second Rock Edict that provision has been made everywhere in his kingdom for medical treatment for both men and animals, and that medicinal herbs suitable for both have been imported and planted.
Birnbaum (1979) and Demieville (1985) provide good general introductions to Buddhism and medicine. Buddhism appears to have played an important role in the evolution of traditional Indian medicine (Zysk, 1991), and there are many parallels between Buddhist medicine, as recorded in the Pali canon, and Aayurveda (Mitra, 1985). There are short monographs by Haldar on the scientific (1977) and public heath aspects (1992) of medicine in the Pali sources. It is likely that as Buddhism spread through Asia it would have interacted with indigenous medical traditions promoting the cross-fertilization of ideas. Redmond (1992) discusses the relationship of Buddhism to medicine from Theravaada and Mahaayaana perspectives and compares Buddhist and Daoist concepts of disease. Discussions of Tibetan medicine may be found in Clifford (1984), Dhonden (1986), and Rechung (1976), while Ohnuki-Tierney (1984) discusses illness and culture in contemporary Japan.
Buddhism's holistic understanding of human nature encourages a psychosomatic approach to the pathology of disease (Soni, 1976), something to which Western medicine is now increasingly attuned. It may also be suggested that the Buddhist philosophy of origination in dependence is both a fruitful diagnostic model and a philosophy which encourages a preventive approach to healthcare. However, disquiet has been voiced recently about how "natural" certain forms of traditional Buddhist medicine are - notably the Tibetan "black pill" - some recipes for which specify rhinoceros horn and bear-bile among the ingredients (Leland, 1995).
Despite Buddhism's long association with the healing arts, little attention has been paid to the ethical issues which arise from the practice of medicine. A small number of monographs provide introductions to the issues and dilemmas which arise in medical practice. These are Ratanakul (1986), Nakasone (1990) and Keown (1995), and these volumes should be consulted in conjunction with the sources listed under the specific subject-headings below. Also relevant is the unpublished Masters thesis by Shoyu Taniguchi (1987a). For general discussions in the periodical literature see Taniguchi (1987b), Mettanando (1991), and Ratanakul (1988; 1990). A useful discussion of Buddhism in terms of the "four principles" approach to medical ethics developed by Beauchamp and Childress (1989) is provided by Robert Florida (1994).
The Encyclopedia of Bioethics contains articles on medical ethics in India (Jaqqi, 1987), Asia (Unschuld, 1987), and Japan in the nineteenth century (Kitagawa, 1987). Also on Japan see Umezawa (1988). On medical ethics in imperial China see Unschuld (1979) and on Thailand Violette Lindbeck (1984) and Ratanakul (1988; 1990).
The principal issues to be addressed in contemporary medical ethics may be summarised as moral personhood (the question of who is and who is not entitled to moral respect), abortion, embryo experimentation, genetic engineering, consent to treatment, resource allocation, defining death, organ transplantation, living wills, the persistent vegetative state, and euthanasia. Little systematic attention has yet been directed to these subjects by Buddhist practitioners or scholars, and some subjects have not been discussed at all from a Buddhist perspective. The arrangement of the topics below is neither comprehensive nor final. It is inevitable there will be overlap between the sections, and items which appear under one category may contain discussion of issues or principles which have broader relevance.
At this time, however, it seems useful to identify three groups of issues and related literature. These concern: moral personhood, issues surrounding life at its beginning, and issues surrounding life at its end. There is insufficient literature on resource-allocation, socio-economic issues, or other questions about general medical practice to justify a category on those topics in this review. There are signs, however, that a Buddhist perspective on certain aspects of medical treatment is beginning to appear, for example Epstein (1993) and Kabat-Zinn's (1990, 1994) integration of Buddhist meditation into medical practice, and the growing literature on Buddhism and social justice, such as Jones (1989) and Sizemore and Swearer (1993).
Personhood is both a central problem for Buddhist ethics and Western medical ethics, and consequently a very promising area for a dialogue between the two. The problem for Buddhist ethics has always been why should people act ethically if there is no act, no actor and no consequences of action (Collins, 1982). If there is no self or other, how can there be karmic consequences, responsibility, loyalty, or even compassion? Theravaadin scholars continue to be divided over whether Buddhism suggests different ethics for those who persist in the illusion of self (kammic ethics) and for those who would transcend the illusion of self (nibbanic ethics). The paradoxical unity of compassionate ethics and nihilistic insight into selflessness has been the central koan of Mahaayaana Buddhism. Tantra and Zen suggest that the person who sees that there is no "I" is beyond good and evil.
For bioethics, struggles over abortion, animal rights and brain death have brought personhood to the forefront (Nelkin, 1983). Opponents of abortion and euthanasia, and advocates for the disabled and animals, on the other hand, assert that mere humanness or merely being alive should bestow a "right to life." But most bioethicists believe that human beings and animals take on ethical significance to the extent that they are "persons." Some, such as Tooley (1984), would set a standard which would exclude almost all animals, newborns, and the severely retarded or demented. When they specify which elements of sentience and neurological integrity create the illusion of personhood, Western bioethicists begin to sound remarkably Buddhistic: "the awareness of the difference between self and other; the ability to be conscious of oneself over time; the ability to engage in purposive actions" (see, for instance, Fletcher, 1979).
At the same time, Western bioethicists have become increasingly troubled by questions about the autonomy, continuity and authenticity of the self. Do anti-depressants create an inauthentic self, or is the self more authentic when its cheerful? Is one respecting a patient's autonomy by respecting the treatment preferences they expressed when healthy, or those they express in the throes of illness? Is it ever possible for a patient to give truly free and informed consent to treatment?
The most radical challenge to Western ethics of self- determination came in 1984 with the publication of British philosopher Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons. In this meticulously argued tome, Parfit rejects the existence of continuous selves and concludes that an individual is as discontinuous from itself at some later time as it is from other individuals. Consequently, working for the future welfare of all beings is the same as working for one's own future welfare, since there will be no "I" to benefit in the future.
Bioethicists are only now incorporating Parfit's argument. For instance, researchers find that is impossible to accurately anticipate one's state of mind when one is sick or dying, much less when one is unconscious, undercutting the assumption of continuous personhood undergirding "living wills."
From a Buddhist/Parfitian perspective, the search for "real" preferences, central to the identity of the person, is a pointless one. With this acknowledgement, it is less troubling to place our trust in our family and friends to make decisions for our future selves (Kuczewski, 1994). More to the point, a Buddhist/Parfitian would encourage citizens to look beyond their personal preferences in dying, which may be to "die with dignity" but may also be to use as many resources as possible to stave off death, and instead participate in creating a health care system that served the needs of everyone in society.
Another area of potential dialogue is in the efforts to go beyond Cartesian (and Hindu etc.) mind-body dualism in defining life and death. Over the last twenty years the West has slowly accepted that a "person" is dead if their brain is destroyed, even if the body continues to function. Yet it still troubles many Westerners and Buddhists to declare the permanently unconscious "dead," believing that this is an example of inappropriate mind-body dualism. Other Westerners and Buddhists believe that only a "neocortical" definition of death recognizes the centrality of consciousness and personhood in ethics (Gervais, 1986). More challenging, some Western ethicists have begun to discuss the status of personhood as future technologies make possible the continuity of personality from one body to another (More, 1994). When medical technology offers reincarnation, Buddhist bioethics will certainly flourish.
Buddhism, like all religious and secular philosophies, focuses on two central questions concerning abortion: (a) when does the embryo or fetus acquire the property which makes termination of pregnancy "killing"?; and (b) is termination of a pregnancy, before or after this point, ever justifiable?
While there was a minority tradition in classical Hindu embryology that held that incarnation does not occur till as late as the seventh month (Lipner, 1989), most Buddhist commentators have adopted classical Hindu teachings that the transmigration of consciousness occurs at conception, and therefore that all abortion incurs the karmic burden of killing. Before modern embryology, however, in both Buddhist countries and the West, ideas about conception were scientifically inaccurate, and often associated the beginning of life with events in the third or fourth month of pregnancy (for a discussion of traditional Tibetan embryology, see Dhonden, 1980 and Lecso,1987).
Another problem in early Buddhists' embryology is their assumption that the transmigration of consciousness is sudden rather than gradual. Based on the findings of modern neuro-embryology Buddhists today might maintain that the fetus does not fully embody all five skandhas and the illusion of personhood until after birth; this is the argument developed by most Western ethicists to defend abortion (Tooley, 1984; Flower, 1985; Bennett, 1989). If the fetus is not yet a fully embodied person, then the karmic consequences of abortion would be even less than the killing of animals, which Buddhism teaches do have moral status. This neurological interpretation of the skandhas may be more consistent with Western Buddhism, which often sees the doctrine of rebirth as peripheral or interprets rebirth metaphorically rather than literally (Batchelor, 1992; King, 1994).
The second question is whether abortion always generates bad karma, or in Western terms, is it ever "justified." This relates to the debate about whether Buddhist ethics are absolutist, utilitarian or "virtuist," i.e. seeing the good in the development of personal qualities. The absolutist would hold that bad karma is incurred from any act of murder, whatever the justifications. The utilitarian would argue that murder can be a compassionate act with positive karmic consequences, taking into account factors such as the health of the fetus or mother, the population crisis, and the readiness of the parents to raise a child.
A virtue-oriented Buddhist would argue that the attitude and motivations of the pregnant woman and her collaborators would determine the ethics of an abortion. Along this line, Tworkov (1992) argues that the karmic skilfulness of an abortion is related to whether the person became pregnant and made her decision to abort without serious mindfulness. From this perspective, aborting a fetus conceived without an effort at contraception would be more karmically significant than an abortion necessitated in spite of contraception.
The much discussed Japanese tolerance for, and ritualization of, abortion appears to combine both utilitarian and virtue approaches. The Japanese believe that abortion is a "sorrowful necessity," and Buddhist temples sell rituals and statues intended to represent parents' apologies to the aborted, and wishes for a more propitious rebirth. The Japanese have reached these accommodations consensually, with little debate, and without discussion of the rights of women or the unborn (LaFleur, 1990, 1992).
The Theravaadin commentator Buddhaghosa appears to have combined all three views. He held that killing produces karma jointly through the mental effort and intensity of the desire to kill, and the virtue of the victim (Florida, 1991). Since killing big animals required more effort, and was therefore worse than killing small animals, the karma of feticide would be less than murder of adults, and less in earlier stages of pregnancy. On the other hand, for Buddhaghosa, the karma of feticide would be greater than that of killing villains in self-defence.
Buddhists have thus far given little thought to the third important question, the connection between morality and law, specifically how, and on what grounds, the state should regulate abortion. Some Buddhists have adopted the stance of many moderates in the West: abortion is murder of a person, but women should have that choice (for instance, Imamura, 1984 and Lecso, 1987). Since most Buddhists have no problem with laws to discourage and punish murder in general, implicit in this position is that murder is either justifiable when it conflicts with bodily autonomy or, since few Buddhists would imprison butchers, that fetuses are closer in status to animals. Clearly there is much room for clarification of the relationship between religious ethics and law in pluralistic societies.
Some scholars (such as Ling, 1969, and LaFleur, 1992) have looked beyond the strictly ethical concerns with abortion to examine the cultural aspects of the question. From this perspective it is sometimes pointed out that Buddhism is not "pro-natalist," i.e. does not hold that reproduction is a religious duty - quite the reverse in fact - and does not advocate "family values," at least in the sense that Confucianism did. Buddhist skepticism about family and reproduction was a central cause of Confucian and Shinto persecution. The Sinhalese embrace of contraception and abortion was so enthusiastic in the 1960s, compared to Sri Lanka's Muslims, Catholics and Hindus, that racialist monks began to argue that Buddhists had an obligation to "race-religion-nation" to reproduce.
DEATH, DYING AND EUTHANASIA
The themes of impermanence, decay and death are omnipresent in Buddhist literature. In many Asian cultures Buddhism is identified as the authority par excellence on matters pertaining to death, and is closely linked to the rites and ceremonies associated with the transition from this life to the next. Buddhist literature emphasises the importance of meeting death mindfully since the last moment of one life can be particularly influential in determining the quality of the next rebirth.
General reflections on death will be found in Philip Kapleau's 1972 anthology The Wheel of Death and his 1989 The Wheel of Life and Death. Stephen Levine is the author of several books dealing with the subject of death from a Zen perspective while a contemporary Tibetan perspective is provided by Sogyal Rinpoche's popular Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Glenn H. Mullin (1986) and John Powers (1995, Ch.10). James Whitehill (1974) discussed what can be learned from the death of the Buddhist masters, and the development of a corpus of "Great Death" stories of various Buddhist masters is examined by LaFleur (1974). Other writings on death in Buddhism include Smart (1968), Amore (1974), and Bowker (1991).
In a 1993 monograph on the subject of death in Buddhism, Becker asserts that the Buddhist tradition, especially in Japan, is very tolerant of suicide and euthanasia. Evidence of this is the Buddha's tolerance of suicide by monks (Wiltshire, 1983) and Japanese stories praising suicide by monks, samurai and laypeople. Becker suggests that Buddhism values self-determination and praises those who decide when and how they will die when they do so in order to have a dignified conscious death. Becker also concludes that the key point is not whether there is still warmth or reflexes (as suggested by some readings of the Visuddhimagga) but whether the patient's skandhas have permanently left, i.e. the patient is permanently unconscious. In other words, Buddhism would endorse a brain death definition of death. On the understanding of death in Japanese religion see also Picken (1977).
A number of issues in medical ethics turn upon the problem of defining death, but few writers have addressed the question of a Buddhist definition of death directly. Only van Loon (1978), Keown (1995), and Mettanando (1991) have argued for a specific definition: van Loon equates death with neocortical death whereas Keown and Mettanando support the "whole brain" criterion.
There has been considerable resistance to the adoption of the brain death standard in Japan, both from the public and within the medical profession, due in no small measure to its association with organ transplantation. The brain death criterion allows organs to be harvested with the minimum delay, thereby enhancing the prospects for a successful transplant. Japanese tradition, however, requires the performance of rituals over a lengthy period before an individual is regarded as having passed on, and is also reluctant to countenance plundering the bodily organs of future ancestors. Some commentators suggest that public acceptance of brain death is growing as professional groups and universities develop criteria, and as pressure from potential beneficiaries grows. Also, countries such as the Philippines have raised objections to Japanese patients going abroad for transplants rather than building an organ retrieval system of their own. The best analysis available (in English) of the Japanese situation is Hardacre (1994), but relevant material may also be found in Lock and Honde (1990), Feldman (1988), Becker (1990), and Nudeshima (1991). For discussions of the issue outside of Japan see Ratanakul (1988, 1990), Sugunasiri (1990), and Nakasone (1994).
A more positive attitude towards transplantation is revealed in Tsomo (1993). The author surveyed teachers from many different traditions about their attitudes to donation. All were very positive, and emphasized that the corpse is merely an empty vessel, and that to give of oneself is a great thing, and an act of compassion.
There are no monographs devoted specifically to euthanasia in Buddhism. There are a few periodical articles and the subject is dealt within one or two books. Relevant issues are the distinction between various forms of euthanasia (e.g. "active" and "passive") and the use of narcotics in palliative care which may cloud the mind and interfere with the process of dying (Keown, 1995; Kapleau, 1989; Lecso, 1986; Ratanakul, 1988, 1990).
Kapleau's volume The Wheel of Life and Death (1989) contains a short discussion of euthanasia in conjunction with suicide and it is suggested that Buddhism would reject the practice of either. Ratanakul concurs, reporting "a growing consensus among the Thai public that euthanasia (passive or active) is morally unjustifiable" (1990:27). Keown and Keown (1995) explore Buddhist and Christian attitudes to euthanasia and suggest both oppose it for similar reasons. Nakasone, however, is of the opinion that "Evidence indicates that Buddhists would favor the 'right-to-die' position" (1990:76). Jennifer Green's short article "Death with Dignity: Buddhism" (1989:40-41) discusses only the practicalities of funeral arrangements and does not mention euthanasia. Neuberger (1987) is likewise concerned with practical as opposed to moral issues.
Euthanasia has been a special feature in two Buddhist magazines, Raft, and Tricycle. London-based Raft, the Journal of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, devoted its No. 2 Winter 1989/90 issue to Euthanasia. Sixteen pages in length it contains short pieces by authors such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Ajahn Sumedho, Dame Cicely Saunders and David Stott, exploring the cases for, against, and in terms of a middle way. A similar range of opinions will be found in the Winter 1992 edition of Tricycle, which contains short articles by Patricia Anderson, Jeffrey Hopkins, Philip Kapleau, Chogyam Trungpa, and an interview with author Stephen Levine.
Note: not all the items in the bibliography which follows are mentioned in the discussion above.
BUDDHISM AND MEDICINE
1979. The Healing Buddha. Boulder,Co: Shambhala.
1984. Tibetan Buddhist Medicine: the Diamond Healing. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser.
1985. Buddhism and Healing: Demieville's article 'Byoo' from Hooboogirin, translated by Mark Tatz. Lanhan, Md:University Press of America.
Dhonden, Dr. Yeshe
1986. Health Through Balance: An Introduction to Tibetan Medicine. Ithaca: Snow Lion.
Duncan, A. S., G. R. Dunstan, and R. B. Welbourn.
1981. "Buddhism", Dictionary of Medical Ethics. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.
Fenner, Edward Todd.
1982. Rasayana Siddhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras. Ann Arbor, Mich: University Microfilms International.
Haldar, J. R.
1977. Medical Science in Pali Literature. Indian Museum Monographs, 10. Calcutta: Indian Museum.
1992. Development of Public Health in Buddhism. Varanasi: Indological Book House.
Jaqqi, Q. P.
1987. "India" (Medical Ethics of). In Encyclopedia of Bioethics, ed. W. Reich, London: Macmillan, 906-11.
Majupu, Trilok Chandra.
1989. Religious and useful plants of Nepal and India: medicinal plants and flowers as mentioned in religious myths and legends of Hinduism and Buddhism. Lashkar (Gwalior): M.Gupta.
1982. La medicine Tibetaine. Paris: Editions de la Maisnie.
Meulendbeld, G. Jan (ed.).
1991. Medical Literature from India, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
1985. A Critical Appraisal of Ayurvedic Materials in Buddhist Literature (with special reference to Tripitaka). Varanasi: The Jyotirlok Prakashan.
1984. Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rechung Rinpoche, Ven.
1976. Tibetan Medicine: Illustrated in Original Texts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Redmond, Geoffrey P.
1992. "Concepts of Disease in Buddhism," in Buddhist Studies Present and Future, ed. Ananda W.P. Guruge, Paris: The Permanent Delegation of Sri Lanka to Unesco, 143-159.
Soni, R. L.
1976. "Buddhism in Relation to the Profession of Medicine" in Religion and Medicine, ed. D. W. Millard, Vol.3. London: SCM Press, 135-51.
1979. Medical Ethics in Imperial China. A Study in Historical Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1987. "General Historical Survey" (of Asian Medical Ethics) in Encyclopedia of Bioethics, ed. W.Reich, London: Macmillan, 901-6.
1988. "Medical Ethics in Japan," Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy 42:169-172.
Zysk, K. G.
1991. Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
BUDDHISM AND MEDICAL ETHICS
Beauchamp, Tom L. and James F. Childress
1989. Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Third ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1993. "Awakening with Prozac: Pharmaceuticals and Practice." Tricycle Fall:30-34.
Florida, R. E.
1994. "Buddhism and the Four Principles". In Principles of Health Care Ethics, ed. R. Gillon and A. Lloyd, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 105-16.
1989. The Social Face of Buddhism: An Approach to Political Activism. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
1990. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Dell.
1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion.
1995. Buddhism & Bioethics. London and New York: Macmillan/St. Martins Press.
1987. "Medical Ethics of Japan through the Nineteenth Century," in Encyclopedia of Bioethics, ed. W.Reich, London: Macmillan, 922-924.
1995. "Bear Bile and Musk," International Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 13:16-17.
1984. "Thailand: Buddhism meets the Western Model," The Hastings Center Report 14:24-26.
1991. "Buddhist Ethics in the Practice of Medicine" in Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society: An International Symposium, ed.C.Wei-hsun Fu and S. A. Wawrytko, New York, etc: Greenwood Press, 195-213.
Nakasone, R. Y.
1990. Ethics of Enlightenment. Fremont, Ca: Dharma Cloud Publishers.
1994. "Buddhism". Encyclopedia of Bioethics. London: Macmillan.
1986. Bioethics, an introduction to the ethics of medicine and life sciences. Bangkok: Mahidol University.
1988. "Bioethics in Thailand: The Struggle for Buddhist Solutions," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 13:301-12.
1990. "Thailand: refining cultural values." The Hastings Center Report 20:25-27.
Sizemore, Russell and Donald Swearer, eds.
1990. Ethics, Wealth and Salvation: A Study of Buddhist Social Ethics. Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press.
1987a. "A Study of Biomedical Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective". MA Thesis, Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union and the Institute of Buddhist Studies.
1987b. "Biomedical Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective". Pacific World New Series 3 Fall:75-83.
1988. "Medical Ethics in Japan," Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy 42:169-172.
BUDDHIST APPROACHES TO PERSONHOOD
Chaube, D. B.
1991. Mind-Body Relation in Indian Philosophy. Varanasi: Tara Book Agency.
1982. Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1987a. "The Buddhist Perspective on Respect for Persons". Buddhist Studies Review 4:31-46.
1987b. "A Note and Response to 'The Buddhist Perspective on Respect for Persons'". Buddhist Studies Review 4:97-103.
1987. "Finding a Self: Buddhist and Feminist Perspectives" in Shaping New Vision: Gender and Values in American Culture, ed. C. Atkinson, C. Buchana, and M. Miles, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.
Koyeli, G. D.
1987. "Individual Autonomy in Traditional Indian Thought," Journal of Indian Philosophy 15:99-107.
MEDICAL ETHICISTS ON PERSONHOOD
1979. Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
1986. Redefining Death. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lizza, John P.
1993. "Persons and death: what's metaphysically wrong with our current statutory definition of death?" Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 18:351-74.
1993. "The Diachronic Self: Identity, Continuity, Transformation" (Unpublished dissertation thesis, available at gopher://gopher.etext.org:70/00/Politics/ Extropy.Institute/more.03049*
1983. "The Politics of Personhood," Milbank Quarterly 61(1):101-12.
1984. Abortion and Infanticide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
PARFIT'S DECONSTRUCTION OF PERSONHOOD
1986a. "Parfit's impact on utilitarianism," Ethics 96:760-83.
1986b. Symposium on Reasons and Persons. Ethics 96:832-72.
Kuczewski, Mark G.
1994. "Whose Will Is It Anyway? A Discussion of Advance Directives, Personal Identity and Consensus in Medical Ethics," Bioethics, 8(1):27-48.
1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
BUDDHISM AND ABORTION
1991. "Buddhist Approaches to Abortion," Asian Philosophy 1:39-50.
1984. "The Shin Buddhist Stance on Abortion." Buddhist Peace Fellowship Newsletter 6:6-7.
1989. The Social Face of Buddhism. London: Wisdom Publications.
Lecso, P. A.
1987. "A Buddhist View of Abortion," Journal of Religion and Health 26:214-18.
1985. A Circle of Protection for the Unborn. Bristol: Ganesha Press.
1992. "Anti-abortion/pro-choice: taking both sides," Tricycle Spring:60-69.
KEY WESTERN WRITINGS ON ABORTION
1989. "Personhood from a Neuroscientific Perspective" in Abortion Rights and Fetal Personhood, eds. Edd Doer and James Prescott. Long Beach, California: Centerline Press, 83-86.
Flower, Michael J.
1985. "Neuromaturation of the human fetus," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 10:237-251.
1984. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1984. Abortion and Infanticide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
WRITINGS ON EMBRYOLOGY, REBIRTH AND KARMA
"Abortion" in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Batchelor, Stephen.
1992. "Rebirth: A Case for Buddhist Agnosticism," Tricycle Fall:16-23.
1980. "Embryology in Tibetan Medicine" in Tibetan Medicine. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
1994. "A Buddhist Ethics Without Karmic Rebirth?" Journal of Buddhist Ethics 1:33-44.
Lipner, J. J.
1989. "The Classical Hindu View on Abortion and the Moral Status of the Unborn." In Hindu Ethics, ed. H. G. Coward, J. J. Lipner, and K. K. Young, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 41-69.
McDermott, James Paul
1984. Development in the Early Buddhist Concept of Kamma/Karma. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
O'Flaherty, W. D., ed.
1980. Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press.
1935. "Pali Bhuunahan," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 8:713-14.
JAPAN AND ABORTION
Brooks, Anne Page.
1981. "Mizuko Kuyoo and Japanese Buddhism," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 8:119-47.
Eiki, H., and T. Dosho.
1987. "Indebtedness and comfort: the undercurrents of mizuko kuyoo in contemporary Japan," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 14:305-20.
LaFleur, W. A.
1990. "Contestation and Confrontation: The Morality of Abortion in Japan," Philosophy East and West 40:529-42.
1992. Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1995a. "The Cult of Jizo: Abortion Practices in Japan and What They Can Teach the West," Tricycle Summer:41-44.
1995b. "Silences and Censures: Abortion, History, and Buddhism in Japan. A Rejoinder to George Tanabe," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22/1-2:185-196.
1983. The Forgotten Child. Henley-on-Thames, England: Aidan Ellis.
Rand, Yvonne, Sensei.
1994. "The Buddha's Way and Abortion - Loss, Grief and Resolution." Mind Moon Circle Autumn:5-8 (also available electronically, filename jizo.zip, original site coombs.anu.edu.au).
1988. "Buddhism and Abortion in Contemporary Japan: Mizuko Kuyoo and the Confrontation with Death," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 15:3-24.
1984 "Mizuko Kuyoo; Notulae on the most important 'New Religion' of Japan," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18:295-354.
Young, R. F.
1989. "Abortion, Grief and Consolation: Prolegomenon to a Christian Response to Mizuko Kuyoo," Japanese Christian Quarterly (Tokyo) 55:31-39.
BUDDHISM ON SEXUALITY AND CONTRACEPTION
1969. "Buddhist Factors in Population Growth and Control," Population Studies 23:53-60.
1980. "Buddhist Values and Development Problems: A Case Study of Sri Lanka," World Development 8:577-586.
GENETICS AND REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGIES
1990. "Religious aspects of human genetic information" in Science, Law and Ethics, Ciba Foundation Symposium. Chichester: Wiley.
Schenker, J. G.
1992. "Religious views regarding treatment of infertility by assisted reproductive technologies," Journal of Assisted Reproduction & Genetics 9:3-8.
DEATH, DYING AND EUTHANASIA
Amore, R. C.
1974. "The Heterodox Philosophical Systems" in Death and Eastern Thought, ed. Frederick H. Holck. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 114-163.
Becker, C. B.
1990. "Buddhist views of suicide and euthanasia," Philosophy East and West 40:543-56.
1993 Breaking the circle: death and the afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
1992. "The Jaina Ethic of Voluntary Death," Bioethics 6:330-55.
1991. The Meaning of Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1988. "Defining Death: Organ Transplants, Tradition and Technology in Japan," Social Science and Medicine 27: 339-43.
1993. "Buddhist Approaches to Euthanasia," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 22(1):35-47.
1989. "Death with dignity: Buddhism," Nursing Times 85: 40-41.
1994. "Response of Buddhism and Shinto to the Issue of Brain Death and Organ Transplant," Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 3:585-601.
1989. The Wheel of Life and Death. New York: Doubleday.
1972. The Wheel of Death. London: George, Allen and Unwin.
Keown, D. and Keown, J.
"Killing, Karma and Caring: Euthanasia in Buddhism and Christianity," Journal of Medical Ethics (forthcoming, October 1995).
LaFleur, W. R.
1974. "Japan" in Death and Eastern Thought, ed. Frederick H. Holck. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 226-256.
1987. "Religious Suicide in Early Buddhism," Buddhist Studies Review 4:105-26.
1986. "Euthanasia: A Buddhist Perspective," Journal of Religion and Health 25:51-57.
1982. Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. New York: Doubleday.
Lock, M. and C. Honde
1990 "Reaching Consensus about Death: Heart Transplants and Cultural Identity in Japan," in Social Science Perspectives on Medical Ethics, ed. G. Weisz, New York: Kluwer, 99-119.
1983. The Forgotten Child. Henley-on-Thames, England: Aidan Ellis.
Mullin, Glenn H.
1986. Death and Dying in Tibetan Tradition. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Nakasone, R. Y.
1994. "Buddhism," in Encyclopedia of Bioethics, London: Macmillan, 312-318.
1987. Caring for Dying People of Different Faiths. The Lisa Sainsbury Foundation Series, ed. V. Darling and P. Clench. London: Austen Cornish Publishers.
1991. "Obstacles to brain death and organ transplantation in Japan," Lancet 338(8774):1063-64.
1977 "The Understanding of Death in Japanese Religion," Japanese Religion (July) 9,4,48.
1995. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca: Snow Lion.
1989. "Euthanasia." Raft, the Journal of the Buddhist Hospice Trust 2 Winter:1-16.
1986. Bioethics, an introduction to the ethics of medicine and life sciences. Bangkok: Mahidol University.
1987. "Emile Durkheim on Suicide in Buddhism," Buddhist Studies Review 4:119-26.
1968. "Attitudes towards death in eastern religions," in Man's concern with death, ed. Arnold et al Toynbee, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton, 95-115.
1992. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco and London: Harper/Rider.
Sugunasiri, S. H.
1990. "The Buddhist view concerning the dead body," Transplantation Proceedings 22:947-49.
1963. The History of Suicide in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
Tsomo, K. L.
1993. "Opportunity or Obstacle: Buddhist views of organ donation," Tricycle Summer:30-35.
Van Loon, L. H.
1978. "A Buddhist Viewpoint." In Euthanasia. Human Sciences Research Council, Publication No.65, ed. Oosthuizen.G.C., H. A.Shapiro, and S. A. Strauss, Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 56-79.
1983. "Some Buddhist Reflections on Suicide," Religion in Southern Africa 4:3-12.
1974 "Mystological Death: Some Buddhist Lessons on Dying and Selfhood," The Drew Gateway:82-99.
Wiltshire, M. G.
1983. "The 'Suicide' Problem in the Pali Canon," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 6:124-40.
KEY WESTERN WRITINGS ON EUTHANASIA
Grisez, Germain and Joseph M. Boyle
1979. Life and Death with Liberty and Justice. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press.
Gormally, Luke, ed.
1994. Euthanasia, Clinical Practice and the Law. London: The Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics.
Horan, Dennis J. and David Mall, eds.
1980. Death, Dying and Euthanasia. Frederick, Maryland: Aletheia Books, University Publications of America Inc.
Humphry, Derek and Ann Wickett
1986. The Right to Die. London: The Bodley Head.
Keown, John, ed.
1995. Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical and Legal Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
1986. The End of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
An interview with Karen Wegela
interviews Karen Wegela of Naropa University in Colorado, where therapists are
trained in contemplative psychotherapy.
To some extent Buddhism and psychotherapy come from different directions. Do you find it uncomfortable bringing these two together?
When I first started thinking about how they could come together, it wasn't at all obvious. Buddhism was very much about going beyond ego and not supporting ego, and psychotherapy is often about boosting ego. But when Buddhists talk of ego they are talking about the misunderstanding that we somehow exist in a permanent solid way, and when the West talks about ego they are often talking about the ability to contact one's experience, to use logic and so on, and Buddhism has no argument with that. However, a Western psychology pretty clearly sees people as separate. Each person is separate from each other
person. The model of how things are put together is that there is all this empty space and then there are these things in the empty space and people are one of the things in the empty space and so psychology is to sort of fix the things. I think a lot of psychology has gone past that but certainly, when I was training, it was very much about helping people to adapt to their situations, a kind of mechanical approach of what's wrong and how we can fix it. Nonetheless well-intentioned for that, it has always been a pretty compassionate discipline, although I don't think that's talked about in a very direct way.
Buddhism is much more interested in being fully alive, being a whole person, being liberated from suffering and understanding that the obstacle to being liberated is this belief in a false ego, clinging to an idea of permanence, clinging to an idea that we can be happy, that there's a way to avoid pain. The irony is, of course, that when you stop struggling with the pain in your life it becomes very workable. Western psychology still has a training in getting rid of symptoms rather than seeing some sanity in them.
Are there parallels between the Buddhist approach to psychology and transpersonal and Jungian approaches?
Some but there's a difference there also. One is a difference that I would call materialism; a lot of transpersonal therapies are interested in getting higher and better and achieving some future state that is different. I know a lot of them won't say that is what they're doing, but when I listen to them I always hear these words about higher or transcending. It may be a language question, but it does seem to me to reflect an attitude. Contemplation is very much based on an understanding that materialism, or ego, or therapeutic aggression, which are all related, is the problem. To want to be someplace other than where you are is the problem, not the solution. So that is different.
The notion of brilliant sanity seems to be a core part of your approach?
Brilliant sanity is understood to be our very nature. It is understood to be who we already are in that, when we relax, that's what we experience. When we stop trying to be somebody else, it's already there, we don't have to go and find it. In fact from a Buddhist point of view it's constantly coming through, it's constantly showing up anyway. It's more a question of uncovering than developing.
Is the notion of brilliant sanity something that one would assume of oneself, others in the world and clients also?
Well, I don't know about assume. I would say investigate. Buddhism has long had a tradition of saying, don't accept anything on faith, look into your experiences and see if it is true. If not, then discard it.
Language is very important to you in not making something too concrete...?
Buddhism is quite wonderful in that, whatever concepts it presents, it also presents a practice that recognizes that concepts are only concepts. The practice actually cuts through the thing that we learned. It keeps going back to experience.
And the practice of sitting is a core part of the experience of Buddhism?
Sitting is part of the training in contemplative psychotherapy, not just the training but the ongoing practice. If I miss practicing for a time then I find myself relying on concept, rather than a direct experience of what's going on for the client. A unique feature of the Contemplative Psychotherapy program is the Maitri space awareness practice. Part of what they do is to go away as a group to a residential site and live together as a community.
And Maitri means?
Unconditional friendliness. It's a product of meditation and it's also there the first time you're willing to sit down with yourself. It's an expression of your urge to be with your experience. Friendliness doesn't necessarily mean you like it. It's that you're willing to be with and see yourself as you are. That's very friendly, the opposite of self-aggression.
As you talk there is a sense of some shared approaches with psychodynamic psychotherapy in terms of dealing with what is there in the moment with someone.
There's a lot of emphasis in my work, certainly, on what's going on in relationship in the room between me and the client. I'm not likely to have preconceptions about various theories about what it's going to be like. The whole point of meditating is to keep dropping those preconceptions. At the same time I have an expectation that people will try to run habitual patterns, they'll tend to do that with me. I don't particularly present people with a blank slate. I'm more interested in a genuine relationship, so there is some variation there. The idea of contemplative psychotherapy, of unconditional friendliness to who you are, and by extension to who your client is, and to whom everybody else is, the idea is that you are also trying to discover what your style of working is. There's no one way to do contemplative psychotherapy so some people use a psychoanalytic model, and some people do gestalt.
So you don't have to be or become a Buddhist to do this training?
There's a lot of dissatisfaction for a lot of people with the Western approach that is often to ignore your own experience as a therapist. I almost find it incomprehensible that there is training that could be based on starting to work with the client, rather than starting with what you are bringing to the relationship, what are you filtering your observations through, what preconceptions, what expectations, what unfinished issues, all of the counter-transference kind of things. It's not enough just to talk about those; you have to experience them.
It's shocking to me. I've had clients in therapy who've been students at other institutions. One client had some pretty severe problems and they sent her out on an internship. There was nothing in that training program that required that she look at her own mind. She dropped out. But I don't think that was a particularly kind way to treat her, and if she had not dropped out...?
The psychoanalytic tradition has always had this idea of looking at oneself through one's own analysis. I know some people continue doing their own self-analysis, and that seems important to me. Sitting is a really good way of recognizing what you have solidified and how you have solidified it and then letting it go again. We also have a particular style of case presentation that identifies obstacles, particularly in relation to the client and your own obstacles.
How do you understand change and healing taking place for the client?
For me it translates into helping clients become mindful. Virtually every good therapy teaches mindfulness. First, people develop the capacity to be mindful. Then they use that capacity to examine their own experience, and they start to see how patterns work, how cause and effect works. Often what happens next can have a quality of revulsion, discovering how what they are doing is harming themselves and others, and then taking some responsibility, exploring what arises in those moments and then experimenting with doing things differently, refraining from those same habits, perhaps replacing them with what might traditionally be called virtuous activities. At the same time as they refrain from whatever the negative thing is, they replace it with something less harmful, and we talk about a shift in allegiance, a shift away from neurosis towards sanity, more of a mutual collaborative relationship at that point. We work at helping people find some kind of path, some discipline of mindfulness that they can continue on their own. And along with that, and very important, is the development of maitri. Often when people reach that point of revulsion, a lot of self-aggression can come up. It is the job of the therapist to help them with that, to recognize that, and to point out that there is an alternative.
So maitri is also about friendliness towards one's own experience?
Yes, it's an antidote to self-aggression, which I think is rampant in our culture. And then people can continue on their own.
As you talk, it all sounds remarkably simple!
It is, but it is also difficult. The point is to really be there, to not push away your experience when you are with the client, that's the difficulty. To be with the direct experience of someone else, that's really what we have to offer. It's not complicated, just difficult. To be willing to experience pain, to experience not knowing, to be willing to experience wanting to take someone's pain away, but knowing that that might not be useful. We're more interested in exploring what is happening than in getting rid of it. The conviction in basic sanity is quite important. If you stay with the experience, some sanity will usually come.
quotations and the primary source of information for this lesson are from the
audio tape entitled:
"The Enlightenment Cycle - 2, Buddhism" by Rama - Dr. Frederick Lenz
Copyright (c) 1992 Advanced Systems, Inc.
Rama, who was an Enlightened teacher of Buddhism, prefaces his taped lecture on Buddhism with a type of disclaimer, saying, "It's presumptuous for me or anyone to talk about Buddhism, because it's so vast and so complete, and there are so many aspects to it." In that spirit, it is important to establish that this lesson is only a snapshot, at best, of certain aspects of Rama's 1992 lecture on Buddhism.
An important point to preface our discussion is that ultimately Buddhism is not something that can really be taught. Buddhism is a way of life and it is a practice, and no matter how much we learn from our Buddhist teachers, in the end each of us has to discover it on our own. "People can watch us practice it, they can learn how to practice it by watching, by observing, by listening, by becoming sensitive. But I think it's something that life teaches us life is the real teacher, and always remember that."
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is synonymous with the enlightenment process, the steps that one takes to move from their current consciousness to a cosmic, enlightened consciousness. There are two primary approaches to this process: so called "short-path" Buddhism and "long-path" Buddhism. Rama taught short-path Buddhism, which uses procedures that make the attainment of enlightenment possible in a single lifetime. Long-path Buddhism is more of a religious approach, with a strong emphasis on the reading of religious texts known as "sutras", along with some prayer and meditation - it is not our subject today.
Short-path Buddhism is primarily concerned with meditation, and the two best-known forms are Zen (Japanese) and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism. As Rama describes in his lesson on Power, short-path Buddhism "involves the release of the kundalini energy through the chakras, or energy centers, to create very rapid enlightenment. It is also taught with empowerments from a teacher, someone who is enlightened, who has experienced parinirvana and gone through the gradated stages of enlightenment, and has the siddhas and powers necessary to utilize in the teaching process."
Short-path Buddhism is a specialized path indeed, because enlightened teachers are so rare, and they often will only accept a very limited number of students. However, according to Buddhist cosmology, it is possible, given a very receptive student, to apprentice oneself to an enlightened teacher who is no longer "in the body", that is, to an enlightened teacher who continues to empower students even after his passing from the earth. This improves our odds as students of the short-path to make a connection with an enlightened teacher.
Buddhism is built upon a core belief in enlightenment. This requires faith on our part, as students, because we have not directly experienced it. We look to the teacher as one who has experienced enlightenment and who can help us along the way. But we must accept that enlightenment exists, in order to embrace Buddhism. "The essential premise of Buddhism is that there is enlightenment, there is nirvana. Beyond this world, beyond all worlds, there's something radiant, perfect and eternal. It creates these worlds and all aggregate formation. At the same time it is beyond them. We call it "nirvana". You could call it anything you wanted to: God, the Tao, Brahma - whatever you prefer. The names don't matter; it's that eternal reality which nothing can describe. It's beyond words."
Making progress on the short-path
What concerns us as students is the practical aspect of short-path Buddhism, the practices that have been found to lead to enlightenment. While we learn many techniques along the way, there is only one essential practice: meditation. Everything that is needed to progress along the short-path is found in meditation, when practiced correctly. When we stop thought completely in meditation, we enter into what appears to be, and what actually is, another world, a dimension comprised of perfect light. The more time we spend in this light, the closer we get to enlightenment - it's really that simple. "As you go into light for longer and longer periods, as you progress in your meditation practice, you transform, you become illumined, you overcome all limitation, all sorrow, all pain. You learn not to be bound by desire, and eventually you transcend death itself."
The short-path to the light is one of great challenge, but it is also one of great joy, humor, and grace. One of the first things we learn on the short-path is not to take ourselves so seriously, to be able to laugh at ourselves and to have a sense of humor, while at the same time having complete and utter respect for the power and beauty of the Buddhist way and for our great good fortune to be able to walk along it. "It's the process of uniting your consciousness with eternity, of being eternal, eternally aware, and at the same time being poised, graceful, balanced, and having a most excellent sense of humor!"
It is a sense of humor, along with patience and a calm fortitude which make it possible to not only progress on the short-path, but to truly enjoy the journey. If you focus too much on your own progress, you tend to become fanatical or egocentric. It is best to walk the path with brightness, and to enjoy it each and every day. This actually leads to faster progress! "What matters is the pathway - what matters is that you walk down it and enjoy it. If you're practicing Buddhism, if it's real yoga, then your life is better every day ... you like yourself better, you like your life better, you feel better. You can see every week, every month, every year an improvement in states of mind you exist in, an improvement with how you handle both difficult situations and easy situations."
There are two types of teachers of Buddhism: esoteric, or enlightened teachers, and exoteric teachers who are not enlightened but who hopefully have a deep knowledge of short-path techniques and practices. It is best to seek out an enlightened teacher if you want to make the fastest progress along the short-path. If you do not have an enlightened teacher, then your exoteric teacher can still show you many techniques for gaining and conserving the energy needed to go into higher states of awareness. But if you are fortunate enough to have an enlightened teacher, then you may also receive "empowerments", actual transfers of different gradations of kundalini energy from your teacher to you. These empowerments make it possible for you to progress much more rapidly along the short-path.
"Normally it would take a much greater period of time to amass all the power necessary to go into enlightened stages of attention. But an enlightened teacher can actually transfer power to their students in the same way that a wealthy person can give somebody money. It's something tangible: power. You can't transfer knowledge, not really. You can't transfer heart, or the sense of loving things. You can expose someone to it. But you can transfer power, certain types of gradated kundalini."
Once you have power, as Rama discussed in his lecture on Power, it is imperative that it be used to improve your own life and the lives of others. It must never be used for destructive purposes. If an enlightened teacher finds that a student is not utilizing an empowerment correctly, then that student may be asked to leave the short-path study for a "cooling off" period until they understand how to use power correctly. "Buddhism is a practice in which we learn to avoid injuring others, and ourselves. It's a practice in which we learn to respond to beauty, and to respond to difficult circumstances with patience, with a sense of calm, with clarity."
Webster's defines etiquette as "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life". This definition makes us imagine a somewhat arbitrary set of rules that restrict our behavior and force us into some kind of mold which society deems acceptable. Buddhist etiquette has nothing to do with society, acceptability, or rules. Etiquette, from a Buddhist perspective, is a way of leading one's life in order to conserve energy and stay focused on the pathway to enlightenment.
One example of Buddhist etiquette is that whenever you visit a teacher at his or her temple or monastery or home, you should bring them a gift. Of course this is not required, and a real Buddhist teacher would never make an issue out of it, but it is still a good idea. Why? Not because the teacher needs gifts, that's clear. An enlightened master has everything that they want - they are the hardest people to shop for! It's for YOU, the student. The process of selecting, buying, wrapping, and presenting the gift to the teacher, brings you into an appreciative state of mind, brings you to a feeling of gratitude, and lends grace to your first moment with the teacher. As Rama said, "Etiquette is an intelligent way of doing things."
Essentially, etiquette is a way of saving energy. Each of us has a limited amount of energy, and we need every ounce of it to propel ourselves into the dimensions of light. As Buddhists, we practice many techniques to increase our energy: we meditate and release the kundalini, we attend empowerments, and we may make pilgrimages to places of power. The intelligent approaches to life which Buddhists have evolved to help conserve that energy are Buddhist etiquette.
Another example of Buddhist etiquette is to always be extremely polite to everyone that you meet, to take the extra time to smile and say a kind word to everyone you encounter throughout the day. Politeness actually forms a shield, a force that helps prevent people from becoming emotional and negative when they are with you. Negative emotions can be handled, too - Buddhist practice makes you tough - but it helps to conserve energy if you avoid the negative thoughts and emotions of others. To a Buddhist, politeness is a tool, not a product of "good breeding"!
Where does Buddhism come from?
Unlike Judeo-Christian history, Buddhism does not have a definitive starting point. Buddhism was not started by any historical figure and it does not have a singular way or approach. It is an eclectic, broad compilation of ways that have been discovered and handed down for thousands of years. "It's a science of self discovery;" Rama said, "Buddhism is yoga. Yoga started, who knows when? A long time ago, when the first person found that they could still their thoughts and experience eternity and access the higher planes of mind and the spheres of perfection that exist in the mind of the universe, in the central nexus of nirvana."
Ever since that "first person" that Rama describes, the ways of Buddhism have been expanded and passed down from teacher to student, for the sole purpose of experiencing the enlightened states of mind. Buddhism has no other purpose. Real Buddhism does not have a social, political, or even religious structure. It exists exclusively for the purpose of achieving enlightenment.
Occasionally, a special person is born, one who actually completes the Buddhist pathway to enlightenment and then decides to teach this pathway to others. Such a person is called a "Buddha", and there have been many Buddhas throughout recorded history. The most famous of course is Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and taught Buddhist yoga in what is now modern Nepal during the 6th century BC. But in each age, there are persons who achieve the same full measure of enlightenment achieved by Gautama.
"Occasionally, in each age and in different lands, a Buddha is born, that is to say, an enlightened person they re-codify the ways, the practices, they make changes that are just intelligent changes that adapt to a new century, a new culture. But Buddhism doesn't come from anybody. It exists by itself."
Buddhism is the pathway to enlightenment, and is not dependent on anything. It exists with or without people who follow it, with or without books, teachings, and teachers. It is the pure practice of meditation and the entrance into enlightened states of mind.
"Buddhism isn't about temples, and incense, and shaved heads, and robes. It's not about church. There's aspects of Buddhism that involve that - I guess people enjoy that, that helps them, it strengthens their practice. But real Buddhism is about meditation. It's an individual experience, it's an individual journey into enlightenment."
"If you meditate, you're a Buddhist," Rama said. All the other trappings of Buddhism that you encounter along the way: the books, the etiquette, the teachers, the pilgrimages, and the schools are only devices to help you focus on the central and core practice of all Buddhism: meditation. Meditation is stopping thought, making the mind completely calm, still, and empty. "Your thoughts are like a curtain that separate you from reality. When they stop, suddenly you can see eternity. The longer you can stop your thought, the deeper is your vision and your mystical experience; the deeper your journey into realities, into higher planes of consciousness and knowledge."
Buddhist meditation leads to the planes of light, to the pure experience of what is known as the "dharmakaya", which translates roughly into "clear light of reality". The clear light of reality is not something abstract or symbolic - it is the essence of existence and we can touch it, merge with it, and even become one with it through the practice of meditation. Each time we meditate we go a little deeper into the clear light, we allow ourselves to experience a little more of reality. It takes practice, but eventually we become "conversant" with the planes of light, and begin to live in them all of the time, even outside of formal meditation practice. This makes life a very different journey from what most people experience.
"When you meditate you allow that light to filter through your being, to come into your mind, body, and spirit and essentially to purify you." The clear light actually accumulates in your being, each time that you meditate. Eventually, if you have enough light, you can achieve a type of perfection, a state of perfect mind where you no longer have to experience the pain and suffering of humanity, and you will exist quite outside the boundaries of everyday human experience.
Try to meditate twice a day, in the morning and evening. The morning meditation is the most important meditation, but if you miss it one day, then meditate in the evening. "If you meditate in the morning you will energize your body, mind and spirit, clarify your purpose, and just become happy. Then you're happy all day, successful all day." In the evening, sit down again to meditate, after you return from work, school, or your last activity of the day, "and enter into the world of light, fill yourself with light, and you'll have a perfect night."
Buddhism and Happiness
Most persons spend their lives in the pursuit of happiness, and, ironically, very few people ever achieve a deep and lasting happiness. We are taught from childhood to seek happiness in external circumstances: through career, relationships, family, possessions, and sensual experiences. And these things may provide moments or periods of happiness, of contentment. But this happiness is fleeting and transient - it doesn't last.
One of the core philosophies of Buddhism is that happiness is not derived from external circumstances. Happiness, that is true happiness, comes from meditation. "There are worlds of happiness and knowledge outside of this dimension. Meditation is a way of getting to them Meditation puts an end to the dependency for happiness on physical things, on people."
Because as a Buddhist you seek your happiness from within, it may appear to others that you are not interested in loving persons or things, in having relationships or possessions. Quite the contrary! Buddhists are great lovers of life in all of its aspects. The difference is attachment. It is fine to love, but not to become so attached to that which you love, because all things of this world eventually transform and leave us. As a Buddhist you love deeply, but when that which you loved dies or goes away, your life is not ruined, you are not devastated and broken. "Of course you'll experience sadness. That's natural. But because you meditate, and you see that there's no death, and because you experience radiant happiness in your meditation and in the practice, you'll be happy no matter what happens."
We live in a society that virtually condemns its senior members to a life of desperate unhappiness. Our old are perceived as weak, homebound, and unable to independently manage their affairs. What a travesty! There is no reason that you should not become happier, mentally stronger, and wiser each year of your life. Certainly the body ages, and there are things that you will not be able to do as you grow older that were easy to do in youth. Part of growing old gracefully is finding new activities that are appropriate to your physical capabilities.
If you meditate and practice Buddhism, then you will not suffer as many old people suffer today. Your body, with moderate exercise, will stay supple and strong, and your mind will become stronger each and every day that you meditate. "Most people use up all their energy and become old because they're so stressed out! They don't have any balance in their life. They're not grounded in happiness; they're not grounded in the spirit. If you practice yoga, if you meditate, do some exercising, lead an intelligent life, then every year you get older, every day that passes you can become more enlightened, more aware, more conscious. That's the normal way, that's the healthy way, that should be everyone's way."
Obstacles on the Path
No discussion of Buddhism would be complete without a reference to that which can go wrong, to the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy or incorrect approach to the practice. You are not perfect yet, and it is difficult to know sometimes whether you are making progress or just fooling yourself. That is why one of the most important jobs of Buddhist teachers is to help you identify when your practice has gone awry. Buddhist teachers don't usually correct our mistakes directly: usually they simply tell us what conditions to look out for, so that we can correct our own mistakes as quickly as possible.
One condition to avoid is astral travel. Some people astral travel and think they are meditating. Astral travel has nothing to do with meditation and it is counterproductive to your practice. "Some people astral travel. They go into these kind of astral states above the body where they get spaced out and disassociated and they think that's meditation. Not at all. Meditation is a beautiful and perfect state in which there's tremendous light, energy and humor."
How do you know whether you are really meditating or just spacing out and traveling into the astral? The best indicators are in your physical life, oddly enough. If each day you are happier, stronger, funnier, sharper and more capable, then you are meditating. If, on the contrary you are less precise, hazier, less capable of thinking clearly, and conversing with less sharpness and humor, then you are not meditating. You are spacing out, you're in the astral, and you are not meditating at all.
Some practitioners become very involved with the politics and structures of their Buddhist organization. They become interested in their position, status, and political power. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhism, yoga, or higher states of mind. If you see Buddhists competing for positions of power in an organization, know that while they may be learning what they need to learn at this stage in their development, they are not practicing Buddhist yoga. They are really no different from political players in any other arena.
"Pure practice is about transcendence of ego, being clear, centered, being kind; being detached also, in a positive way; leading your own life and not being afraid to; but always being a student, never being superior - [as if] you know it all and there's no more to learn and there's nothing you can learn from anyone else."
Emotions can be an obstacle on the path too, depending on how you handle them. Whenever you start to empower negative emotions with the energy that you gain from meditation, you will have problems. The increased energy that you get from Buddhist practices can be applied to anything - power is not selective. You have to decide where to place your energy. If you focus on anger, jealousy, or hate, then these emotions will be amplified tremendously and you will suffer greatly. If you focus on positive emotions, on love, on your personal happiness and the happiness of others, then this positive energy will be amplified and you will become one of the happiest persons on earth.
Finding a Buddhist Teacher
As with any technical field that you want to master, it helps to have a teacher. A Buddhist teacher will teach you the techniques of Buddhist practice, will serve as an example of correct practice, and will teach you how to laugh and enjoy yourself as you walk the pathway to enlightenment. It can take a while to become enlightened, and there really isn't any way to make it happen on your own time schedule. So Buddhist teachers give us their perspective, their humor, and their empowerments, to make our journey both enjoyable and smooth.
So how do you find such a person? It's not necessarily easy. There are many so-called teachers of Buddhism who are only capable of teaching exoteric practices, and can not empower their students. But they may not make this clear in their presentation. And there are also real Buddhist teachers who are surrounded by students who do not seem to be practicing Buddhist yoga. In this case, it may be difficult to discern that the teacher is actually genuinely enlightened.
In your search, focus on the teacher, not on the teacher's students. If the teacher is able to help you along the path, then it does not matter at all who else is studying there. Rama described this using the analogy of a university: "You go to university for the teacher, not for the students, unless you're just looking for a social experience. If the teachers are great, they'll teach you what you need to know so in yoga and Buddhism you look for the right teacher. There's no best teacher, there's no competition: there's the one that works for you."
Once you start to study with a Buddhist teacher, you may be surprised that they do not seem to care about you, that they are strict and aloof. Here in the West, we have become accustomed to a teaching style in which we exchange money for knowledge: if we pay tuition, we expect the teacher to take responsibility for our education. Real Buddhist teachers don't work this way. You have to take responsibility for your own Buddhist education, and the teacher, if you are listening, will give you plenty of pointers along the way. Ironically, if you show the teacher that you are truly taking responsibility for your own progress, then they are more likely to help you.
"In enlightenment you have to convince a teacher not only that you are worthy of teaching, but then that they should show you some of the secrets. Buddhism is all about secrets, you know. And those secrets are things that most people don't learn, because they are not enthusiastic enough, or bright enough, or patient enough, or funny enough; or still enough."
Eventually, as you spend more time with your teacher, you will start to understand the elements of a correct attitude. Taking responsibility for your progress is important, but it is only the first step. "You have to have a yen for the which is infinity, for brightness. And you have to be willing to overcome your meanness and your separativity. You have to be flexible, open-minded. And then you have what we call the apprentice's or the student's spirit - the spirit of the young monk "
Your Personal Unfoldment
If you are interested in meditation and Buddhism then you have probably practiced before, in other lives. You are picking it up again where you left off, and you are making another attempt to ascend the high peaks of enlightenment. Meditation is the key to your success. You may have knowledge locked inside of you, wisdom locked inside of you that you gained in other lives. Meditation will bring your past-life knowledge into this life, to speed you along the path.
As you progress there will be those who criticize you, who find your lifestyle or ideas or beliefs objectionable. This is all too common in our society, but don't let it trouble you. "What matters is that you meditate, you're seeking enlightenment, you're on the pathway to enlightenment, and you're having fun. Don't look for reassurance in the eyes of others. Look for reassurance in your own eyes. Only you know if Buddhist practice is improving the quality of your life. And if it is, then that should be enough."
Buddhism is a practice that has so many aspects, permutations, and sides, that it is easy to become lost in a maze of Buddhist "high talk". Don't be too impressed by those who can speak eloquently, or who seem to know the answers to all questions. All you have to do is meditate, reach for the light, and go into that light completely and with utter trust. Then you will know everything there is to know about Buddhism, because you will have become Buddhism.
"Eventually light prevails, you just have to be patient. So practice Buddhism, learn to be enlightened, put a smile on your face, go find a great teacher, meditate, and stay funny. That's the essence of all practice: enlightenment with a sense of humor."
Copyright (c) 1999 by the author.
Philosophy in Groundhog Day
By Kevin P. Albrecht
June 18, 2004
The first time you watch the film Groundhog Day, it is easy to assume you have just seen a light-hearted romantic comedy-a genre that Bill Murray, the movie's lead, is well known for. But first impressions can be misleading. While on one level, Groundhog Day does fit that description, it also functions on a much deeper level. Throughout the strange and twisted events of the film, questions about God, life, death, kindness, and what it means to be human are frequently raised. Whether it was intended or not, the story is the embodiment of Buddhist teaching. The transformation of Phil, Bill Murray's character, parallels the Buddhist teachings of karma, reincarnation, and nirvana. As in Buddhism, the only way for Phil to change and to escape his ever repeating day is to overcome the self.
The movie tells the tale of Phil, a weatherman from the big city who is assigned to go to the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the town's annual unveiling of the groundhog on Groundhog Day. Phil is characterized as a self-obsessed, sarcastic egomaniac who cares nothing about anyone but himself. As Rita, Phil's producer, says, "The only person you care about is yourself." This obsession with self is the underlying philosophy of Buddhism, and is considered to be the natural state of humanity. On Groundhog Day, February 2, a strange thing happens to Phil: he begins waking up every single day to the same day. Every day he wakes up and it is Groundhog Day. At first, he is confused; but that feeling soon gives way to elation as he realizes that "[he] can do whatever [he] wants." He goes on a spree of stealing, abusing, and manipulating others; and he thinks that his actions (have no consequence, since no one but him remembers the events of the previous day. Hundreds if not thousands of Groundhog Days pass. He soon realizes that his actions have had a consequence on himself, a concept recognized by Buddhists as karma. With every passing repeated day, he gets more and more depressed, eventually losing all concept of who he is. He tries committing suicide, but he still wakes up every single day in Punxsutawney. In desperation he says, "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore." At this point, he has attained emptiness of self, the first step in Buddhism to enlightenment. As Jacky Sach, a Buddhist writer explains, " the self is an illusion born of the ego with no reality to base itself on" (Sach 35). After realizing that he is nothing, Phil repurposes his life. He spends each day helping others. He tries to save the life of a homeless man, reunites an estranged couple, and entertains the entire town with his newly learned piano skills. All these new acts put others above his self. Finally, after he has realized the non-existence of self, he escapes the cycle, awaking on February 3. This escaping from the eternal cycle is the fundamental goal of Buddhist practice, called nirvana, which a Buddhist sees as escaping the cycle of reincarnation and becoming one with the universe.
The film abounds with symbols that support the Buddhist metaphor. Throughout the entire movie, Phil, Bill Murray's character, is always looking up to his producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. Rita is everything Phil wants in a woman and has all the attributes that he wants and needs in himself. As Rita says, she is a "go with the flow" type of person. She is always kind to others-a stark contrast to Phil's egocentrism. In one scene, as noted by Tom Armstrong, a Zen Buddhist teacher, she stands in front of a television studio blue screen (frequently used by weathermen) wearing a blue shirt and she disappears into the background on the video monitor, symbolizing her non-existence of self. Contrasting imagery is found when Phil stands in the same screen wearing a black suit and he is vividly separate from the background.
The setting, although the same throughout the entire movie, is constantly presented differently, giving the town and its buildings a different feeling in each scene. The set is constantly reinforcing Phil's feelings of claustrophobia. The town is encapsulated within a square, where most of the action takes place. When Phil tries to leave the town, a blizzard comes and keeps him trapped there. Even technology fails him when the blizzard causes the phone lines to go down, making him unable to contact the outside world.
The filmmakers put sound and music to great use in many scenes. The opening theme, "Weatherman" by Delbert McClinton, seems to summarize the entire story; it tells the tale of someone being depressed and feeling down but then being uplifted when they realize that they cannot rely only on themselves. When Phil awakes everyday, he hears a similar message in the song, "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher. The line "so put your little hand in mine/there ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb" wakes Phil every morning on his alarm clock. Both these songs support the movie's theme of overcoming egocentrism.
Special effects play a very small part in the movie, which actually helps to emphasize the actual message. If the director had overused special effects, the focus would have been moved off of the theme of the movie and could easily have become a science fiction movie. One of the only notable special effects in when the camera zooms in especially close to the alarm clock that wakes Phil every morning. The cinematographer adjusts the camera angle so that the alarm clock seems to be dominating Phil, symbolizing the feelings of helplessness Phil feels.
An especially interesting theme in the movie is a metaphor of cold weather symbolizing depression and the helplessness of Phil. In the opening song, there is a line which expresses this metaphor well: "predictions show, extended low/I'm feeling just the same." Here, the cold weather represents Phil's egocentrism which makes him feel incomplete. But the song gets more cheerful with the line, "but seasons come, and seasons go, I'll make you smile again." That line not only emphasizes the Buddhist doctrine of expressing loving-kindness to others, but it also shows the growing optimism of Phil. When the groundhog predicts a longer winter, he foreshadows the doubt and tribulations that Phil will face. Even the radio disc jockey expresses Phil's feelings of helplessness through the cold when he says, "It's cold outside! It's cold outside every day." Phil explicitly realizes this when he predicts for himself, "It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you the rest of your life." Once Phil has overcome his egocentrism, he takes a much more optimistic view of the cold winter, stating, "winter is just another step in the cycle of life." This cycle he has realized is called samsara in Buddhism (Sach 18).
The film can be compared to other movies in the same genre, but it defies all those stereotypes. Although superficially a romantic comedy, the romantic comedy aspect takes a back seat to the dilemma Phil finds himself in. The romance with Rita only serves to show how his goals change in the movie. He begins by trying to take advantage of Rita for his own selfish reasons. When he ends, however, he is only trying to please her. Another genre that it is tempting to compare it to is time travel science fiction films. Again, the movie does not really fit here either as it offers no scientific explanation for the events that occur. The time travel aspect of the film cannot be explained away by a time machine or a wormhole. Instead, it must be understood on a metaphorical level. Even though it fits in no specific genre, Groundhog Day succeeds at what it does do: present a morality tale. The Buddhist aspects of the film make it especially attractive to religious studies students because it presents the teachings of that faith in a way that anyone can understand easily.
Groundhog Day presents its Buddhist ideology in a way attractive and understandable to Western moviegoers. Its ideology-that escape and redemption is found through overcoming the self and helping others-is hardly novel, but the pop-culture representation of it certainly might be. Although the movie can be seen to specifically address Buddhist thought, one should not overemphasize that. As Harold Ramis, the movie's director said in an interview with movie critic Michael Sragow:
The response from the spiritual community to [Groundhog Day] was unbelievable. I literally got letters from every known religious organization and discipline, from yogis, Hasidic Jews, Jesuits, psychoanalysts -- all claiming the movie, all saying you must be one of us because this movie so perfectly expresses our philosophy. (Sragow)
This startling revelation shows just how close the world's religions actually are to each other. Maybe someday, presentations like this film will bring these diverse schools of thought closer together and help all of humanity understand each other better.
Armstrong, Tom. "On the Trail of the Groundhog." Zen Unbound. May 1998. 12 June 2004.
Groundhog Day. Dir. Harold Ramis. Perf. Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. 1993. DVD Video. Columbia-Tristar Home Video, 1997.
Sach, Jacky. The Everything Buddhism Book. Avon, Massachusetts: Avon Media, 2003.
Sragow, Michael. "King of Comedy." Salon.com. 2 November 2000. 14 June 2004.
to the Top of the Mountain
An interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi
Insight Journal, v. 19, 2002, www.dharma.org
You have lived in a forest monastery in Sri Lanka for many years, Bhante. What brings you to America?
I originally came to the U.S. to visit my father and sister. But for twenty-five years I have been afflicted with a chronic headache condition, which has resisted every type of treatment I have tried to date. My father suggested I arrange a consultation at The Headache Institute of New York, a clinic in Manhattan. Thus for the past few months I have been taking treatment at this clinic.
Is it true that you have decided to re-settle in this country?
I originally intended to stay in the U.S. only as long as necessary to treat the headache and then return to Sri Lanka. Over the past few months, however, two thoughts grew increasingly compelling in my mind: first, that I should be closer to my father in his old age; and second, that I might be able to contribute more to the Dhamma here in America than in Sri Lanka. At the beginning of this year I formally retired as editor for the Buddhist Publication Society, and thus I no longer felt obliged to reside in Sri Lanka.
During my first six weeks in the U.S. I had been staying in the crowded and bustling New York Buddhist Vihara. In July I met by chance an old Chinese Dharma master and his translator, a young Chinese-Canadian monk, who invited me to visit their monastery in New Jersey. I expected it to be a busy devotional temple in a run-down urban ghetto, but to my pleasant surprise it turned out to be a serious study monastery located on quiet and spacious grounds in rural New Jersey, with wooded hills all around and herds of deer grazing on the lawns. Master Jen Chun and I took an immediate liking to each other, and he invited me to stay as long as I wish.
So you will live as a Theravada monk in a Chinese Mahayana monastery?
In ancient India it was not rare for monks of different Buddhist schools to dwell peacefully in the same monastery. I have found Master Jen Chun to be one of the most admirable monks I have ever known: vastly learned, with profound understanding of Buddhism, yet utterly simple, humble, and selfless; strict in discipline yet always bubbling with laughter and loving kindness. He is, moreover, an authority on the Agamas, a body of literature in the Chinese Tripitaka that corresponds to the Pali Nikayas. Thus I find his approach quite congruent with my own. He has asked me to give teachings at the monastery on the Pali suttas and the Pali language, and the resident monks and many lay followers are keen to attend both courses. We hope to make the monastery a place where well-disciplined monks of any authentic Vinaya tradition can reside and live together harmoniously. The place, incidentally, is named Bodhi Monastery, but it is sheer coincidence that I wound up at a monastery that bears my name.
How did you first find your way from Brooklyn to Sri Lanka?
My interest in Buddhism started around 1965, when I was attending Brooklyn College, with books on Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. In 1966 I went to Claremont Graduate School in southern California to study Western philosophy. There I became acquainted with a Buddhist monk from Vietnam named Thich Giac Duc who came to stay in the same residence hall where I was living. I asked him for instructions in meditation, and he guided me in the practice of mindfulness of breathing. He also taught me the fundamentals of Buddhism - what one didn't find in the writings of Suzuki and Watts! After several months I decided that I wanted to become a monk and asked him if he could ordain me. He agreed to do so, and thus I was ordained as a samanera [a novice] in the Vietnamese Mahayana order in May 1967.
Was this a big step for you?
Of course, viewed from the outside, it was a big step, but I never had to struggle with the decision to become a monk. One morning I simply woke up and thought, "Why don't I ask Ven. Giac Duc if he could ordain me," and that was that. Thereafter we lived together for three years in Claremont while we both worked on our doctorate degrees [my dissertation was on the philosophy of John Locke!]. When he returned to Vietnam, I lived with another Vietnamese monk, Thich Thien An, at a meditation center in Los Angeles. By that time I had already decided I wanted to go to Asia to receive full ordination, to study Buddhism, and to make the task of practicing and propagating Buddhism my life work. Meanwhile, I had met several Sri Lankan monks passing through the U.S., most notably Ven. Piyadassi Thera, who recommended Ven. Ananda Maitreya, a prominent Sri Lankan scholar-monk, as a teacher.
By August 1972 I had finished my obligations in the U.S. I had written to Ven. Ananda Maitreya, requesting permission to come to his monastery for ordination and training, and he wrote back saying that I was welcome. After a brief visit with my first teacher in Vietnam, I went to Sri Lanka and took ordination with Ven. Ananda Maitreya, with whom I lived for three years studying Buddhism and Pali. Later I was invited by Ven. Nyanaponika Thera, the well-known German monk, to stay at the Forest Hermitage in Kandy. I eventually spent many years there caring for him in his old age and helping with the work of the Buddhist Publication Society.
How did you become a scholar of Buddhism?
I never intended to become a Buddhist scholar or a translator of Pali texts; in fact, I do not consider myself a serious scholar of Buddhism even now. I was initially attracted to Buddhism through the practice of meditation. It was my first teacher, Ven. Giac Duc, who impressed on me the need for systematic study of the Dhamma to serve as a proper foundation for both meditation practice and for teaching the Dhamma in the West. When I went to Sri Lanka and took ordination, my original intention was to study the texts for several years and then go off to meditate.
But I already knew that to study the texts properly, I would have to learn the language in which they were written, which meant I had to study Pali. When reading the suttas in the original, I often translated whole passages for myself - both canonical texts and their commentaries - and thus I gradually became immersed in translation. To acquire the foundation for practice, I studied the Sutta Pitaka in a systematic manner, using the material I read as topics of contemplation in order to transform my own understanding. The type of understanding I was aspiring towards was not the objective understanding that an academic scholar would attempt to acquire, but a subjective, personal comprehension of the essential meaning of the Dhamma. I was intent on seeing how the Dhamma imparted to us by the Buddha was addressing my own condition as a human being and as a follower of the Buddhist path. This eventually entailed a wholesale revision of my Western world-view to bring it into accord with the Dhamma.
Would you recommend the study of Dhamma to all meditators?
I wouldn't say that one needs a thorough knowledge of the texts before one can start to practice meditation. As with most Buddhist practitioners today, I entered the Buddhist path through meditation. But I believe that for the practice of meditation to fulfill the purpose entrusted to it by the Buddha, it must be strongly supported by other factors, which nurture the practice and direct it towards its proper goal. These factors include faith, in the sense of trusting confidence in the Triple Gem - the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha; right view, a clear understanding of the basic principles of the teaching; and virtue, the observance of Buddhist ethics, not as a mere code of rules but as a dedicated effort to radically transform one's conduct and character.
Individuals will naturally differ in the weight they assign to the complementary factors of study and practice. Some will aspire to extensive scriptural knowledge, driven by an urge to understand the principles imparted by the texts. For such people, the practice of meditation may play a relatively subordinate role in this phase of their spiritual growth. Their emphasis will instead be on deep investigation and clear comprehension of the Dhamma. Others may have little interest in scriptural study or philosophical understanding but will instead be disposed to meditation practice. I myself believe the healthiest pattern is one of balanced development.
In my own case, under the influence of my early Buddhist teachers, I have wanted to understand Buddhism in detail, in its horizontal extension as well as in its vertical depths. Despite my early ambition to plunge directly into meditation, my destiny seems to have steered me towards teachers who did not exclusively emphasize meditation but rather an integration of study, meditation, and character development. They repeatedly guided me in the direction of slow, gradual, patient practice, utilizing a broad approach to spiritual cultivation, and this has agreed well with my own disposition.
Buddhism in the West has historically been rather anti-intellectual, and it seems only recently that meditators are turning more to study of the tradition.
I see the anti-intellectual bias of American Buddhism as a natural reaction to the overemphasis on conceptual study typical of Western education, which promotes learning for its own sake or for vocational ends, without concern for the values by which we live. The rejection of intellectualism also has roots in romanticism and surrealism, two revolts against the presumptions of disengaged rationality. Indeed, the beats and the hippies, who were in some respects the forerunners of the Buddhist movement in America, were essentially heirs to the romantic rejection of disengaged rationality.
The program of study articulated in the classical Buddhist tradition is, however, quite different from that employed by Western academia. Here one uses conceptual understanding as a springboard to direct personal experience. The program begins by listening to "those teachings (dhammas) that are good in the beginning, the middle and the end." After listening, one bears in mind what one has heard, preserving it in memory. (Remember, this comes from a time when written texts were not available, so to "bear something in mind" meant that one must memorize the teachings that are to guide one's practice.) Then one verbally recites the teachings in order to imprint them more firmly upon the mind. Next, one has to examine them intellectually, to discern the meaning being conveyed by the words, to reflect on how the Dhamma applies to one's own experience. But one is not to remain content with conceptually comprehending the meaning -- finally, one has to penetrate it thoroughly by view, by insight. This brings direct penetration of the teaching with wisdom, based on the practice of meditation.
What sort of training have you had in meditation practice?
During my early years in Sri Lanka I did very little intensive meditation. This was not my ordination teacher's mode of practice; he integrated regular periods of meditation into his day-to-day life. When I later practiced intensive retreats on my own, I used anapana-sati [mindfulness of breathing] as my sole meditation subject. But after some time, I found my mind became dry and rigid, and I felt the need to soften and enrich it with other types of meditation. Thus, at different times and under different circumstances, I learned the practices that constitute the "four protective meditations": recollection of the Buddha, the meditation on loving kindness, the contemplation of the repugnant nature of the body, and the recollection of death. Throughout my life as a monk I have made extensive use of these four meditation subjects. I have also done occasional extended retreats at hermitages in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Regretfully, though, because of my poor merits and the debilitating headache condition, I have not reached any attainments worthy of a true practitioner.
Aside from the metta practice, these forms of meditation are not very common in this country.
What I find perplexing here is the use of vipassana [insight] meditation as a method in its own right, severed from the broader context of the Dhamma. In the way that I was taught and trained, vipassana meditation is the crown jewel of the Dhamma, but like any crown jewel it should be embedded in the appropriate crown. Traditionally this is the framework made up of faith in the Triple Gem, a clear conceptual understanding of the Dhamma, and an aspiration to realize the aim the Buddha holds up as the goal of his teaching. Upon this basis, one undertakes the practice of meditation to attain direct insight into the principles of the teaching. Then proper wisdom -- the wisdom that conforms to the Buddha's intention -- naturally arises and leads to the realization of the goal.
What do you make of the fact that Buddhism is becoming so popular in this country?
It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism should appeal to Americans at this particular juncture of our history. Theistic religions have lost their hold on the minds of many educated Americans, and this has opened up a deep spiritual vacuum that needs to be filled. For many, materialistic values are profoundly unsatisfying, and Buddhism offers a spiritual teaching that fits the bill. It is rational, experiential, practical, and personally verifiable; it brings concrete benefits that can be realized in one's own life; it propounds lofty ethics and an intellectually cogent philosophy. Also, less auspiciously, it has an exotic air that attracts those fascinated by the mystical and esoteric.
The big question we face is whether and to what extent Buddhism should be refashioned to conform to the particular exigencies imposed by American culture. Throughout history Buddhism has generally adjusted its forms to enable it to adapt to the indigenous cultures and thought-worlds in which it has taken root. Yet beneath these modifications, which allowed it to thrive in different cultural contexts, it has usually remained faithful to its essential insights. This may be the biggest challenge facing Buddhism in America, where the intellectual milieu is so different from anything Buddhism has ever previously encountered that in our haste to effect the necessary adaptations we may be unwittingly diluting or even expurgating principles fundamental to the Dhamma. I believe we need to be very cautious if we are to find a successful middle way between too rigid adherence to traditional Asiatic forms and excessive accommodation to contemporary Western -- and specifically American -- intellectual, social, and cultural pressures.
It might be counterproductive to attempt to import into America a version of Theravada Buddhism that retains all the customs and mores of Southeast Asia. But I believe it is essential to preserve those principles that lie at the very heart of the Dhamma, and to clearly articulate the proper purpose for which the practice of the Dhamma is undertaken. If we tamper with these, we risk losing the essence along with the extrinsic accretions. In our current situation, I think the main danger is not inflexible adherence to established Buddhist forms, but excessive accommodation to the pressures of the American mind-set. In many of the Buddhist publications I have seen, I have detected signs of a widespread program, regarded almost as obligatory, to extract Buddhist practices from their grounding in Buddhist faith and doctrine and transplant them into a basically secular agenda whose parameters are defined by Western humanism, particularly humanistic and transpersonal psychology.
Can you point to ways this might be happening?
I think we see examples of this in the use of vipassana meditation as an adjunct or companion to Western psychotherapy. Actually, I'm not overly worried about psychologists using Buddhist techniques to promote psychological healing. If Buddhist meditation can help people feel more comfortable about themselves, or to live with greater awareness and equanimity, this is good. If psychotherapists can use Buddhist meditation as a tool of inner healing, I would say more power to them. After all, "the Tathagata does not have the closed fist of a teacher," and we should let others take from the Dhamma what they can effectively use for beneficial ends.
What I am concerned about is the trend, common among present-day Buddhist teachers, of recasting the core principles of the Buddha's teachings into largely psychological terms and then saying, "This is Dhamma." When this is done we may never get to see that the real purpose of the teaching, in its own framework, is not to induce "healing" or "wholeness" or "self-acceptance," but to propel the mind in the direction of deliverance - and to do so by attenuating, and finally extricating, all those mental factors responsible for our bondage and suffering. We should remember that the Buddha did not teach the Dhamma as an "art of living" - though it includes that - but above all as a path to deliverance, a path to final liberation and enlightenment. And what the Buddha means by enlightenment is not a celebration of the limitations of the human condition, not a passive submission to our frailties, but an overcoming of those limitations by making a radical, revolutionary breakthrough to an altogether different dimension of being.
This is what I find most gripping about the Dhamma: its culmination in a transcendent dimension in which we overcome all the flaws and vulnerabilities of the human condition, including our bondage to death itself. The aim of the Buddhist path is not living and dying with mindfulness (though these are, of course, worthy achievements), but transcending life and death entirely to arrive at the Deathless, at the Immeasurable, at Nirvana. This is the goal the Buddha sought for himself during his own quest for enlightenment, and it is this attainment that his enlightenment made available to the world. This is the end at which the proper practice of Dhamma points, the end for which the practice is undertaken in its original framework.
This end, however, is lost to view when insight meditation is taught as just a way to live mindfully, to wash dishes and change baby's diapers with awareness and tranquility. When the transcendent dimension of the Dhamma, its very raison d'etre, is expunged, what we are left with is, in my view, an eviscerated, enfeebled version of the teaching that can no longer function as a vehicle to deliverance. Though correctly practiced, the Dhamma does bring abundant happiness within the world, ultimately the teaching is not about living happily in the world but about reaching "the end of the world" -- an end that is to be found not in the far regions of outer space but within this fathom-long body with its senses and consciousness.
So you do not think Dhamma is being taught as a path of deliverance?
The impression I get from what I've read in contemporary American Buddhist publications is that this aspect of Buddhist practice is receiving little emphasis. I hear of students being taught to accept themselves; to live in the present from moment to moment without attachment and clinging; to enjoy, honor and celebrate their vulnerability. Again, I don't want to underestimate the importance of approaching the practice with a healthy psychological attitude. For a person troubled by self-condemnation, who is always dejected and miserable, the practice of intensive meditation is more likely to be harmful than beneficial. The same might be said of a person who lacks a strong center of psychological integration or of one who tries to deny his weaknesses and vulnerabilities by presenting a façade of strength and self-confidence.
But I have to emphasize that the training that accords with the Buddha's own clear intentions presupposes that we are prepared to adopt a critical stance towards the ordinary functioning of our mind. This involves seeing our vulnerabilities, i.e., our mental defilements, not as something to be celebrated but as a liability, as a symptom of our "fallen" condition. It also presupposes that we are determined to transform ourselves, both in the immediate moment-to-moment functioning of our minds and in their more stable and persistent extension over time.
To take up the Buddha's training is thus to draw a distinction, even a sharp distinction, between our characters (proclivities, dispositions, habits, etc.) as they are now, and the ideals to which we should aspire and seek to embody by our practice of the Buddhist path. The mental dispositions we must acknowledge and seek to rectify are our kilesas, the defilements or afflictions: the three root-defilements of greed, aversion and delusion, and their many offshoots such as anger, obstinacy, arrogance, vanity, jealousy, selfishness, hypocrisy, etc.
So the great affirmation to which the Buddhist path points us is not the wonders of our "ordinary mind," but of the mind that has been illuminated by true wisdom, the mind that has been purified of all taints and corruptions, the mind that has been liberated from all bonds and fetters and has become suffused with a universal love and compassion that spring from the depth and clarity of understanding. The practice of the Buddhist path is the systematic way to close the gap between our ordinary unenlightened mind and the enlightened, liberated state towards which we aspire, a state which rises to and merges with the Deathless.
To reach this transcendent goal requires training, a precise, detailed and systematic process of training, and fundamental to this whole course of training is the endeavor to master and control one's own mind. One begins with the development of such fundamental qualities as faith, devotion, moral virtue and generosity, proceeds through the development of concentration, and then arrives at direct insight and true wisdom.
You mention faith as a starting point. What do you mean by faith?
Faith is an aspect of Buddhism that until recently has been neglected in the West in favor of bare meditation practice. This, I think, misses something important. One's practice should be grounded in faith or saddha -- a word I am using in the traditional sense as faith in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In some recent publications, I have noticed greater emphasis being placed on faith and devotion, but these terms seem to be used in a quite different way than I understand them. I've seen faith regarded as a quality that can attach itself to virtually any object, praiseworthy as long as it expresses the heart's deepest longings.
I know this is not a popular position these days, but as a Buddhist myself -- a religious Buddhist -- I believe that the true Dhamma of the Buddha can only be practiced as Dhamma when it is rooted in faith in the Buddha as the unique, fully enlightened teacher, and in the Dhamma as a unique teaching that discloses perspectives on reality not accessible through any other teaching. I am afraid that if faith becomes a "free floating" variable, it is just as likely to lead into futile bypaths as it is to spur one to the complete termination of suffering.
I don't think this position makes me dogmatic or intolerant. I am, I hope, perfectly tolerant of other points of view. But when I am asked to give advice on how to practice the Buddha Dhamma correctly, I would underscore the proper and exclusive object of faith as the supreme enlightenment of the Buddha and the teaching that flows from this supreme enlightenment. One's practice should also be grounded in right view, which involves other ideas that are also being disparaged in Western Buddhism: for example, the fact of rebirth; the acceptance of kamma or volitional action as the force that determines our modes of rebirth; the understanding of dependent origination as describing the causal structure of the round of rebirths.
It seems difficult for many modern practitioners to go beyond their immediate empirical experience to some of the doctrinal aspects stressed by the tradition.
Again, I think faith has an important role to play here. It allows us to place trust in precisely those disclosures of the Buddha that run contrary to our conventional understanding of the world, that conflict with our ordinary ways of engaging with the world. Remember that the Buddha's teaching "goes against the current" (patisotagami) of one's habitual assumptions and attitudes. After all, most of our habits revolve around the desire to enjoy pleasure, to avoid pain, and to preserve the illusion that the universe centers around our individual self. When one's personal experience of suffering becomes vivid enough, it will induce one to become repelled by these habits and to place trust in the Buddha's disclosures on reality as our guidelines to liberation.
Of course, at the outset of one's involvement with the Dhamma one need not take on board the full baggage of higher Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha himself often adjusted his teaching to the capacity and temperament of the people he was addressing. When teaching people not yet ready for the doctrine that leads to final deliverance, he taught the benefits of generosity, of observing the five precepts, and of treating others with kindness and respect. But whenever he saw people in the audience mature enough to receive the higher teaching, then, as the texts put it, he would "disclose that doctrine special to the enlightened ones: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path." Each person lives and learns according to their capacity, and the teachings can embrace this diversity as well in the West as they have in Asia. But what is essential, along with the diversity, is fidelity to the core insights and values imparted to us by the Buddha from the heights of his supreme perfect enlightenment.
What do you see as the prospects for lay Buddhists here in the West?
I think in the West today there are significant opportunities for lay people to become engaged with the Dhamma at higher levels than in traditional Asian Buddhist societies. In Asian countries, laypeople consider their primary role to be supporters of the monkhood, to provide food and other material requisites to the monks. They express their commitment to the Dhamma through devotional activities, but with few exceptions feel almost no incentive to plunge into the deep waters of the Dhamma. Now in the West, because of higher standards of education and greater leisure, laypeople have the precious opportunity to become deeply involved with the study and the practice of the Dhamma.
How can a person practice both as a layperson and as someone sincerely treading the path to liberation?
I recommend the five qualities of the "superior person" often extolled by the Buddha: faith, virtue, generosity, learning and wisdom. We have already discussed faith. Virtue has a much wider scope than the mere adherence to rules and precepts during the period of a meditation course. Beyond this lies the deliberate cultivation of the positive qualities of character that underlie the basic restraints of the five precepts. These positive qualities include the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion; the development of honesty and contentment; restraint over one's sensual desires and fidelity to one's partner; a strong commitment to truthfulness in all one's communications; and a sober, clear, balanced mind.
At this level the practice of Dhamma in daily life does become an art of living, not in a sense that supplants the traditional idea of a path to deliverance, but as a series of guideposts for a person living in the world. Here Dhamma becomes a comprehensive map for navigating one's way through the many difficult challenges we encounter in everyday life. It's not a body of rigid regulations, but a set of values that enable us to relate to others in wholesome and beneficial ways.
The third quality, generosity, is understood in Buddhist countries to mean making offerings to the Sangha, but I think we might give generosity a broader application by including in it the active expression of compassion for those less fortunate than oneself. One might, for instance, decide to allocate a percentage of one's regular income to charitable organizations and projects.
The fourth quality of the earnest layperson is learning or study. This entails an effort to acquire - and I'll use that expression again - a clear conceptual understanding of the Dhamma, at least of its basic framework. Even if one isn't ready to study the texts in detail, one should remember that the Buddhist understanding of existence underlies the practice of meditation, and thus that systematic study can contribute to the fulfillment of one's practice.
The fifth quality of the lay follower is wisdom, which begins with intellectual understanding and culminates in experiential insight gained through meditation.
If all this can be done as a layperson, why ordain as a monk or nun?
While there is much that a diligent layperson can accomplish within the domain of household life, those fully inspired by the Dhamma will naturally feel a pull towards the life of renunciation. When one's faith is deep enough, when one feels that nothing less than complete surrender to the Dhamma will do, the lure of the saffron robe becomes irresistible. As a monk or nun, one gains advantages that a layperson, even an exemplary one, does not enjoy: one's every moment is dedicated to the teaching; one's whole life, in its innermost recesses, is governed by the training; one has the leisure and opportunity for intensive study and practice; one can devote oneself fully to the service of the Dhamma.
Within lay life there are still many tasks and duties that keep one from engaging fully in the practice. Though laypeople today can readily undertake long-term meditation retreats, there are tangible differences between the practice of a layperson, even a dedicated one, and an earnest monk whose renunciation is grounded upon right view. I don't want to sound elitist (okay, I'll admit it, I am one!), but one danger that emerges when laypeople teach meditation and the higher Dhamma is a penchant to soften, even squelch, those aspects of the teaching that demand nothing less than the ultimate cutting off of all attachments. Instead they will be prone to offer a compromised version of the Dhamma, one that subtly affirms rather than undermines our instinctual attachment to mundane life.
I am aware that the monastic life is not for the many, and I would hardly like to see a replication in the U.S. of the Asian Buddhist social model, with its large number of routinized monastics passing time idly in the temples. But I also think monastics have indispensable roles to fulfill. After all, they do represent the Third Jewel of Buddhism, without which any transmission of Dhamma is bound to be incomplete. They wear the robe of the Buddha and conform to the discipline prescribed in the Vinaya, the monastic code. They represent, at least symbolically, the ideal of complete renunciation -- though individual monks and nuns may still be very far from such an ideal. They can be regarded almost as a reflection, albeit a pale one, of the Deathless Element in this world, "Nirvana in the midst of Samsara." In spite of the many shortcomings of individual monks (myself included), the monastic life still makes possible full commitment to the training, and thereby points others in the direction of renunciation and ultimate liberation. And finally, the monastic Sangha is "the field of merit for the world," which enables devout laypeople to acquire the merit that supports their own quest for Nirvana.
Do you have any parting advice you would like to convey to our readers?
In following the Buddhist path to its consummation, I think we need to adopt a long-term perspective, and this means developing both patience and diligence. Patience ensures that we aren't avidly intent on quick results, out to add personal achievements in meditation to our list of credentials. Patience enables us to endure for the long run, even through the hard and sterile phases that we must inevitably confront. Diligence or effort means that though the way might be long and difficult, we don't become discouraged, we don't give up or become lax. Instead we remain resolute in our determination to tread the path no matter how many lifetimes it may take, in the confidence that to the extent we strive with diligence we are making progress, even if that progress isn't immediately apparent.
To follow the Dhamma properly, I think we also need an attitude of humility. It's not through a quick study of the suttas, or even a few years of meditation retreats, that we can really claim to understand and teach the Dhamma correctly. It might be prudent to conceive of the Dhamma as a very tall mountain, and to regard ourselves as mountain climbers still in the foothills with a long way to go to reach the top. What we need is the faith that this particular path will lead us to the top of the mountain, the patience to persist day after day in climbing that path, and the diligence not to give up until we reach the peak.
By James A. Beverley
I INTERVIEWED the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, the site of the Tibet Government in Exile and the home of the Tibetan leader since 1960. Pilgrims usually get to Dharamsala by bus, train, or taxi from New Delhi, an arduous journey of up to 12 hours. Despite the difficulty of the journey, visitors from all over the world flock to what is called "little Lhasa."
Two days before the interview, I was briefed by the Dalai Lama's personal secretary, who, along with the Dalai Lama's personal translator, was present for the interview. There were no rules on protocol, and when the Dalai Lama was ushered into the interview room, he was introduced without any fanfare. After an exchange of greetings, the Dalai Lama expressed concern about the health of Billy Graham.
When the Dalai Lama arrived at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1993, his Buddhist devotees greeted him with tears, shouts of joy, and an adulation that bordered on worship. When I reviewed such incidents, as well as some Tibetan Buddhists' claims that he is a god-king, sinless and perfect, the Dalai Lama answered with one word: "Nonsense." Then he laughed.
He does believe that he is a reincarnation of a previous Dalai Lama, but he is not sure of the details. "According to some of my dreams, I have some very close connection with the 13th Dalai Lama as well as the 5th Dalai Lama." He said that he must not focus on his fame. "It does not matter whether people regard me as a very high being, almost like Buddha, or a counterrevolutionary. What matters is whether I remain a genuine Buddhist monk and accordingly make some contribution for the betterment of other sentient beings."
The Dalai Lama is remarkably candid about his personal failings. His struggles to control his temper are recounted in Freedom in Exile, his second autobiographical work. In several interviews the Dalai Lama hasadmitted that he struggles with lust. He told Tricycle, a leading Buddhist magazine, that when he thinks about beautiful women, he has to remember classical Buddhist teaching that the human body will one day be a rotting corpse.
His aides in Dharamsala tell the Dalai Lama that he works too hard, but he joked in the interview about his laziness when it comes to things he hates to do. He did admit that the demands of being a teacher and politician have forced him to give up hobbies like gardening and repairing watches. He follows a regular routine of early-morning prayers and meditation and midmorning administrative work, and then gives his afternoons to interviews and public forums. Though his schedule is tight, he is flexible. At one point in the interview, when his attention was drawn to the time, he said, "This is not New York or Washington. Let's keep talking."
Though Boston University professor Stephen Prothero has warned about a shallow and banal American "Boomer Buddhism," the Dalai Lama said he is generally not discouraged about the type of Buddhism he sees when he visits the West. He believes that people from different areas should keep their own faith. "Changing religion is not easy," he said. "Sometimes it creates more confusion." If someone in the West finds Buddhism more suitable, "It is their individual right, but it is extremely important to keep their respect towards their own traditional religion."
He did not seem concerned about the depth or style of Buddhist devotion in America, except to make a point against what he called "New Age Buddhists" who take concepts from every religion. "If they do that and make clear this is something new, that is all right. If they claim that such a mixture is traditional Tibetan Buddhism, then this is not right."
One world religion
The Dalai Lama is no advocate of one world religion. He has consistently spoken against this in his public speeches. "So if one is always trying to look at things in terms of similarities and parallels, there is a danger of rolling everything up into one big entity," he writes in The Good Heart, his book about the teachings of Jesus. "I do not personally advocate seeking a universal religion; I don't think it advisable to do so. And if we proceed too far in drawing these parallels and ignoring the differences, we might end up doing exactly that!"
But if not a universal religion, what about a universal following of Buddha? Why does he not simply urge people to follow the path of Buddha as the only truth?
He replied by citing India's pluralistic past and said that contradictions in Buddha's own philosophical teaching have forced Buddhists to realize that "one teaching or one view will not satisfy."
"To some people Christianity is much more effective, in some other case, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or Zoroastrianism," he said. "Even if I say that Buddhism is the best, that everybody should follow Buddhism, everybody is not going to become a Buddhist." He laughed.
"But you do believe Buddhism is the best, don't you?"
"Yes," he replied, "I can say that for me personally, Buddhism is best because the Buddhist approach is most effective to me."
"This does not mean Buddhism is best for everyone. No," he said when pushed further. "Now, for my Christian brother or sister, Christianity is best for him or for her." But Christianity, he said, is not the best for him. "Here, the concept of one religion, one truth, is very relevant for the individual," he said, qualifying his other statements about one religion. "But for the community it must be several truths, several religions."
He believes this solves the contradiction between religions, though he said there is a unity of all major religions on "the message of compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, simplicity, then self-discipline."
In terms of his own faith, the Dalai Lama drew a parallel between emotional love for Buddha and Christian love for Jesus. He said that his reflection on Buddha's teaching and sacrifice has led him to tears at times. Does he thank Buddha for the good things in his life?
"Frankly speaking, my own happiness is mainly due to my own good karma," he said. "It is a fundamental Buddhist belief that my own suffering is due to my mistakes. If some good things happen, that is mainly due to my own good actions, not something related to a direct connection with Buddha."
In our interview, we devoted considerable time to the identity and integrity of Jesus. The Dalai Lama seemed at ease with the questioning, even while admitting that this was possibly the toughest area for exploration between evangelical Christians and Buddhists.
I reminded him of his belief that Jesus is "a fully enlightened being" and asked, "If Jesus is fully enlightened, wouldn't he be teaching the truth about himself? Therefore, if he is teaching the truth, then he is the Son of God, and there is a God, and Jesus is the Savior. If he is fully enlightened, he should teach the truth. If he is not teaching the truth, he is not that enlightened."
As the Dalai Lama felt the momentum of the question, he laughed more than at any other time in the interview. He obviously understood the argument, borrowed from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.
"This is a very good question," he said. "This is very, very important, very important." Even in Buddha's case, he said, a distinction must always be made between teachings that "always remain valid" and others that "we have the liberty to reject."
He argued that the Buddha knew people were not always ready for the higher truth because it "wouldn't suit, wouldn't help." Therefore, lesser truths are sometimes taught because of the person's ignorance or condition. This is known in Buddhist dharma as the doctrine of uppayah, or 'skillful means.' The Dalai Lama then applied this to the question about Jesus.
"Jesus Christ also lived previous lives," he said. "So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that. Then, at a certain period, certain era, he appeared as a new master, and then because of circumstances, he taught certain views different from Buddhism, but he also taught the same religious values as I mentioned earlier: Be patient, tolerant, compassionate. This is, you see, the real message in order to become a better human being." He said that there was absolutely no lying involved since Jesus' motivation was to help people.
The True Light
I came away from the interview impressed by the Dalai Lama's charisma, intelligence and kindness -- but also with deep concerns about key aspects of Buddhism and especially about the Dalai Lama's views on Jesus. Here is the core of what separates Buddhists and Christians, and thus must remain a key element in conversations with Buddhists. Karl Barth noted: "Only one thing is really decisive for the distinction of truth and error . . . Jesus Christ."
While the Dalai Lama's claim that Jesus is a fully enlightened being offers some common ground with Christian faith, he does not seem to grasp the difficulties inherent in his position.
In the four gospels the integrity of Jesus' moral teaching is intimately linked with the accuracy of his self-identity, not only by the opponents and disciples of Jesus, but also by Jesus himself. It is impossible to picture an enlightened Jesus once a Buddhist perspective is used to evaluate his truth claims. For example, Jesus praised Peter for his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus said God revealed this to the disciple. From a Buddhist perspective, there is no God to reveal anything. If there is no God, then Jesus is not the Son of God, and Peter's confession is false. What does this suggest about the integrity of Jesus as a teacher?
Furthermore, why is it that humans in Jesus' day could not be given the same Buddhist message delivered by Gautama Buddha just a few centuries earlier in India? The Dalai Lama rightly recognizes that good teaching modifies itself to the audience to some degree. Was the karma so bad in Israel to require withholding the Buddha's teachings on reincarnation, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the nature of enlightenment?
Finally, claims that Jesus is really a Buddha in disguise are no compliment to Jesus or Buddha. How would Buddhists feel if Christians claimed that Gautama was really a Christian figure ahead of his time?
Still, it is no small matter that the most famous Buddhist on earth has a high regard for Jesus Christ. When he was asked to compare himself with Jesus in an interview with the New York Times in 1993, the Dalai Lama refused to do so. His recognition of the greatness of Jesus provides a hope for further engagement with what it really means that Jesus is a great master and a fully enlightened being. "Perhaps," one might suggest on another occasion, "Jesus is so enlightened that he is truly the light of the world."
James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, and associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California. His website is www.religionwatch.ca.
Warmest greetings for the New Year! I hope you are all well and that your aspirations are bearing
fruit for the welfare of all sentient beings. I am writing this letter based on a deep, growing
concern over a situation in the west that is extremely misleading, spiritually dangerous, and gravely
discrediting and disrespectful to Buddhism and authentic Buddhist teachers.
Although it is inevitable that there will always be those who misunderstand and misinterpret the
Buddha's teaching, this time it seems there is a group effort engaged in trying to undermine the
Buddha, the Dharma and many of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage holders. While attempting to cancel the
Buddha which includes cancelling the Buddhas of the Three Times and the 996 Buddhas yet to appear in
this fortunate age, these, individuals still refer to themselves as American Buddhists and western
Buddhist teachers. They continually use traditional terminology from the Mahayana, Vajrayana and Great
Perfection (Dzogchen) traditions. The Vajrayana, as you know through your own experience, is
particularly flexible and adaptable to the sorts of situations in which modern people find themselves
and, without losing its traditional form, has now been taught to a wide range of people all over the
world. Still these individuals seem to be compelled to send their confusing mixed messages and
literature to the general public in an extremely deluded, illogical, disrespectful and self-promoting
I remember hearing and reading about a group of so-called leading American Buddhist teachers some
years ago, and I wondered who they were and how they were chosen or designated. I also noticed that
there were many very qualified western Buddhist teachers who, fortunately, were not part of this
group. I wondered what the motivation for forming this group really was. I've also noticed that over
the years so many of these so-called Buddhist teachers have actually broken off ties with the lineage
teachers that they originally connected with who were the source of their credentials. Rather than
acknowledging their teachers as the source of their own knowledge, they were condescending and smug
about their new identities as teachers in their own culture. I noticed that anytime I read any of
their books or essays that it was a conglomeration of confusing new ideas about creating a new
Buddhism for the west. In addition, some of the books circulating are, filled with careless,
misinformed and shamelessly incorrect ideas and misinterpretations of Vajrayana Buddhism. There would
be no problem at all. if they would simply state the truth about their position and label their
My objections are grounded in the blatant disrespect being shown to Buddhism and Buddhist teachers
while they capitalize on Buddhism and their previous spiritual teachers for self- promotion and fame.
My objections are grounded in the fact that they are appealing to naive spiritual seekers who may
otherwise be interested in pure Buddhism. These unsuspecting new practitioners have an opportunity to
make a connection with the blessings of the many profound lineages in Buddhism. Instead they are being
misguided by people who are full of self-promoting claims about their years of practice and their
connections with sublime lineage teachers but who are actually ungrateful opportunists who failed to
develop faith or even a relative appreciation for the profound Dharma, Vajrayana. Through their
profound kindness, we have had the opportunity to receive empowerment, transmission and pith essential
liberating instructions. Based on receiving these transmissions, you and countless others were
authorised to begin your spiritual journey on this profound and sacred path. There is a well-known
quote that states, "The teacher is the Buddha, the teacher is the Dharma, the teacher is the Sangha.
The teacher is the one who accomplishes everything. The teacher is the glorious Vajradhara."
Why do all the sutras and tantras describe the teacher as the Buddha in person and describe the
teacher as the refuge and field of merit? This is because the outer and inner yogas of accomplishing
the teacher contain the essence of what is to be realized through the generation and completion
stages. Although the wisdom mind of a sublime teacher is inseparable from that of all the Buddhas, in
order to guide disciples, impure as we are, the teacher appears in an ordinary form. The articles,
editorials and carefully selected letters to the editor that appear in Tricycle magazine undermine the
very heart essence of this precious path that has proven to bring countless beings from all forms of
suffering to perfect liberation in a matter of a single lifetime.
For example, during an interview published in the 1998 fall edition of Tricycle, when Helen Tworkov,
the editor, asked Thinley Norbu Rinpoche to comment about the movement to diminish the role of the
teacher in the west, Rinpoche answered honestly and directly in order to help dispel incorrect
understanding. Later she criticised Rinpoche and misinterpreted his teaching in her editor's view
column. I am so thankful that a sublime spiritual guide such as Rinpoche is here in the west, willing
to speak out in order to help westerners and all beings to sustain pure Dharma practice in the face of
tremendous adversity and challenge. Is not the teacher that exposes our faults so that we have the
opportunity to purify them the most cherished spiritual guide of all? Lord Atisha said, "The supreme
lama is the one who opposes faults; The supreme pointing-out instruction strikes directly upon
faults." An ancient Tibetan proverb states, "Words of love are not always pleasing, like medicines are
not always sweet. The only medicine that treats jaundice is bitter." Did not the Vidyadhara Trungpa
Rinpoche sacrifice his body, speech and mind to bring countless westerners to the truth? Are there any
examples of someone who has attained the supreme or even the common spiritual attainments to be able
to benefit beings in these ways by practicing the new "American Buddhism" that Surya Das and others
like him are promoting? Since the Vajrayana tradition is based on faith and pure view, is it right for
Helen Tworkov to print an article that accuses the late Kalu Rinpoche, a great Vajrayana teacher of
hundreds of western Buddhist practitioners, of being a sex abuser? Even in a worldly sense it is
extremely ignoble to speak unkindly of the deceased. Those with faith and pure view know that Kalu
Rinpoche's' enlightened mind stream rests in the Dharmakaya which is beyond birth and death They
believe that he manifested in this world during that particular incarnation for the sole purpose of
benefiting beings and propagating the Dharma. They know that he will always return to meet the needs
of the field to be tamed. Surya Das, Helen Tworkov and others in this movement must think that Kalu
Rinpoche no longer exists in order to justify the statements they are endorsing about this great
teacher. There is a quote from the shastras that states, "If you try to benefit the shameless, once
their needs are met, all kindness is forgotten.
Once having crossed the river to safely reach the other shore, they discard their boat without a
second thought." Don't these actions, words and intentions of Surya Das and his followers indicate
that they have failed to understand even the basic principles of Buddhism such as believing in the law
of cause and result, past and future lifetimes and this is extremely obvious in the way that they
cancel their own teachers by claiming that their Asian teachers' form of Dharma is outdated and not
pertinent to the modern world. A glaring example of this is Lama Surya Das who calls himself the
organizer of the western Buddhist teachers network. Many of his shocking statements are referred to as
dharma teachings. He states the following in his Dharma talk entitled: "Sangha means Community,"
which is publicized on the internet. He stated, '-the coming Buddha of the future, Maitreya, will be
the community of the sangha and not just another authority figure or patriarchal boss for another 2500
years." How is it possible that Lama Surya Das still claims to be a lama of Buddhism and in particular
of Dzogchen? In his biography about himself entitled "About Me," he calls himself the founder of the
Dzogchen Foundation. He also refers to himself as the first Jewish lama in the ancient Tibetan
Buddhist order. In other Dharma talks, after referring to Kalu Rinpoche as his root Guru and someone
that he studied under for many years, he answers a question about consort practice as follows, 'Kalu
Rinpoche was screwing his translator and it wasn't consort practice. Is that what you wanted to know?
I don't think that helps. Yes, idols have feet of clay. Yes, Trungpa was an alcoholic and his main
disciple gave people AIDS. There are many other examples in the church and in the Dharma and in all
kinds of positions of power." Don't you think that Surya Das and others in this movement should be
honest about their views and label their teachings something other than Buddhism, like "spirituality
in the west" or some other catchy, popular, new age title. Why does Lama Surya Das still use a Tibetan
Buddhist title since he claims that the Buddha is patriarchal and that his Tibetan teachers are
outdated oriental imports? It is offensive to those of us who know what the term 'lama" means when
translated into English. Even from an ordinary worldly point of view, if someone shows you kindness,
as a human being it is appropriate and honorable to be thankful and express gratitude.
From a spiritual point of view he has proven that he doesn't understand the law of cause and result
because of ignorance. How can he still be called a lama? The Vidyadhara Jigme Lingpa gave an analogy
about this situation which is found in his Treasury of Noble Qualities and repeated by Patrul Rinpoche
in his Words of My Perfect Teacher, "Such people behave as though their spiritual teacher were a
musk-deer, the Dharma were the musk and they themselves the hunters. Their practice is likened to the
way they kill the deer with an arrow or a trap. They do not practice the teachings they have received
and feel no gratitude toward the teacher. They use the Dharma to ~ all actions, tying around their own
necks the millstone which will drag them down to the depths of the lower realms."
I am extremely concerned about the direction this group is taking in the west and especially because
of the harm it is causing and will bring to those who are innocently becoming involved. We must try
to prevent these people from using the sacred name of the Buddha and the doctrine, including Dzogchen
in this manner. Take for instance the so-called Buddhist review magazine, Tricycle. This magazine
now has a reputation for trying to disparage great Buddhist teachers who have been kind enough to come
to the west, teach and spread the Dharma such as the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Ven.
Kalu Rinpoche and more recently the son of HH Dudjom Rinpoche, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Hundreds and
thousands of western student's lives have been touched and changed forever by these great teachers of
not only Mahayana Buddhism but especially the relative law of interdependent origination. Likewise, is
it right for Helen Tworkov who is supposed to be the editor of a Buddhist review, even from an
ordinary worldly point of view, to criticize this great teacher of so many devoted disciples after he
has passed from this world? Does this article and style of journalism in the name of Buddhism cause
anything other than unnecessary pain, negativity and confusion? Are there any helpful or positive
results? Is it right for Helen Tworkov to continue calling this tabloid of spiritual materialism a
As practicing Buddhists, we know that the worst form of negativity is to intentionally destroy or
damage another individual's faith or pure intentions While they are so concerned about finding faults
in sublime teachers whom they have taken refuge in and relied upon in the deepest sense, these same
individuals are themselves losing morality. Morality doesn't just apply to sexual issues. One of the
five root precepts for all categories of Buddhist ordination is to abandon telling a lie which
literally means an unsurpassed lie. An unsurpassed lie is a lie that is intended to mislead others
about one's spiritual accomplishments. Is it right for those of us who have dedicated our lives to
the Three Jewels, our spiritual teachers, their legacy and the propagation of pure Buddhism in the
west to stand by and say or do nothing as these misguided self-appointed leaders of "American
Buddhism" try to promote themselves and their confused ideas that are riddled with contradictions?
In America there is freedom of speech, and no one is denying this right. My objections are directed
to the use of Buddhist terms and claims of being associated with the Buddhist tradition when the
Buddha and his teachings are being denied and gravely contradicted. Materialising the Dharma so
strongly with these obviously paranoid pro-American statements and calling this "American Buddhism" is
a disgrace. As an American practicing Buddhism, I cannot remain silent any longer while this wayward
movement gains momentum, You know as well as I that eventually there will be no results through these
unproductive efforts but it is painful to think of all the time that so many innocent westerners will
waste by getting involved. In the end, their fruitless efforts may cause bitterness, resentment and
anger, leading to more negativity and continued suffering in cyclic existence. It is not at all
necessary to mix these political ideas with the pure Dharma. Similarly, it is not at all necessary to
mix feminist ideas with the pure Dharma. The Dharma has never been biased nor will it ever be, and all
one needs to do is study, meditate with faith and devotion in order to discover this.
Like the disaster known as Tricycle, there. is a clear pattern emerging with the others who claim to
be representing Buddhism in America. If you have access to the internet then please log on to
firstname.lastname@example.org to see for yourself what Surya Das has to say. Proclaiming himself to be the
leader of the new American Buddhism, after listing all his credentials as a lama in the Dzogchen
tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, as mentioned earlier, he insults the actual Buddha by referring to
the Buddha as a 2,500 year old patriarchal boss. He refers to his lineage Gurus (the source of his own
credentials) as oriental imports and denounces the need to take refuge in the Buddha. An excerpt from
his essay entitled "America the Buddhaful says, "In my work as a Dharma teacher, I find that the
society of my peers is most helpful in keeping my priorities straight. My experienced occidental
Dharma friends and colleagues provide a sharp cutting edge of insight as clear and trustworthy a
mirror of the truth as is provided by any Asian spiritual master. And the mirror of the American
Sangha has an additional virtue: it's free of the hierarchy and cultural differences that a westerner
experiences when involved with oriental imports such as Buddhism."
If you read just a little bit of what this person has to say you will quickly discover for yourself
that his teachings are full of contradictions and self-promotion. There is no need for me to repeat
all of his heinous statements here when the entire world can read about them on the internet.
Meanwhile he has a schedule that takes him all over this country and elsewhere to teach his new
doctrine of "Evolving an American Buddhism." On this same web site there is an article by Stephen
Batchelor called "The Future Is in Our Hands." In his article the shocking statements continue on with
the same theme as Surya Das. Batchelor's take on Vajrayana teachers is so completely jaded that it is
an embarrassing disgrace. He even has the audacity to weave what he says are statements by H.H. the
Dalai Lama into his own opinions in such a way that it makes His Holiness look unskilful, unaware of
the basic principles of Vajrayana and a traitor to his own people. Does Stephen Batchelor think we can
stand by and accept this level of disrespect directed at our teachers, the Dharma, and the future of
Buddhism in America?
For many years I have chosen to just continue studying, practicing, translating and occasionally
teaching what I know of this great tradition and disregarding what seemed to be the faults I saw in
others. Over the years I have been criticized for being too traditional and not American enough. I'm
so grateful I chose tradition over confusion. I'm sure that you will agree with me that we became
Buddhists because we recognized that this was a true, blessed path that definitely produces results if
practiced accordingly. Since I became a Buddhist in 1972, I have never encountered anything or anyone
that, convinced me to take another direction other than Buddhism. This is my personal choice, and I
know it also is yours. We all have our sublime spiritual teachers to thank and honor for this clear,
faultless direction that our lives have taken. The more that we learn and practice, the deeper our
conviction to the Guru, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha becomes. After much consideration I am now convinced
that it is far more compassionate and skilful to speak out and try to expose and address these
problems, rather than ignore them, because the benefit and welfare of practitioners in this and future
generations is being threatened. Don't you think it is illogical to reject Asian teachers, after
learning from them, because they are from a foreign culture and then call this new form of Buddhism
"American" because it is in this culture? Don't you think it is illogical and tragic for a so-called
Dzogchen teacher to possess such aversion for the "old way" that he feels is ancient and attachment to
the "new way" that he feels is relevant. Is it really possible for the blessings of the Dharma to grow
old like an ordinary material substance or perishable food? One can only wonder what is being taught
in the Dzogchen intensive seminars and retreats led by Surya Das when the blessings and potency of the
Dharma are in question based on old, new, race, culture, language, hierarchy, gender and other
expressions of duality. Is this how we want the Dzogchen tradition to become known in the west? Are
these the people and views that we want to represent Buddhism in the west?
In contrast, I know that you have sat at the feet of some of the greatest enlightened teachers of this
century. Please take a moment to recall their impartial compassion and strong unshakeable commitment
to propagate the pure Dharma worldwide, without cultural distinctions. Why are these people who claim
to be modern and open minded showing such partial views towards the very source of their Buddhist
knowledge? Many great teachers are being unnecessarily attacked, even while being quiet in the comfort
and peace of their own homes. These attacks cannot possibly harm beings who have tamed the ego and who
demonstrate enlightened qualities. These attacks are ultimately harming the attackers and misleading
scores of ignorant spiritual seekers. How would you react if you heard Surya Das begin his talk on
love and forgiveness by saying, "What I want to talk about tonight is a subject we don't hear about
much in Buddhist circles. It is the real meaning of Bodhicitta." Later on in the talk he states, "We
don't hear much about forgiveness in Buddhist circles, do we? Has anybody heard of any Buddhist
teacher talking about forgiveness? How is this possible?"
I think it is time that we ask Surya Das the same question. How is this possible? Those of you who
have received the blessings of actual Dzogchen teaching already know that this doctrine teaches us the
equality of samsara and nirvana, and the truth of the inseparability of purity and equality. I cannot
sit back and do or say nothing while this great tradition is being misrepresented in such a corrupt
I have chosen to send this letter to those of you who are practitioners, teachers and leaders that I
admire and respect. Like me, I know that you are not interested in self-promotion or politics. Like
me, I'm certain you have respect for the traditional path of Buddhism, the lineage teachers and their
followers. Like me, I'm sure you have the highest regard and gratitude for your Tibetan teachers that
have given you the gift of the precious Dharma. Therefore, let me conclude by leaving you with a few
thoughts. Since most of you have been practicing Buddhism for twenty years or more, I am sure you are
dedicated in your own way to reach enlightenment and help others do the same. I am sure that you
believe that the truth of Lord Buddha's teaching is timeless, transcending all cultural boundaries. I
am sure you are personally dedicated to living and bringing that truth, without compromise, to all
beings and especially those that you have strong karmic bonds with in this lifetime. I am sure you
know that by cultivating your own indwelling Buddha nature and noble qualities, your ability to teach
and inspire others will naturally emerge so it is unnecessary to engage in demeaning attempts to
self-promote. I'm sure you agree that disparaging your supremely kind spiritual teachers to become a
teacher yourself is the greatest disgrace. I am sure you are a follower of Buddhism because this path
leads to liberation from suffering. Perhaps you will agree with me that the time has come for us to
speak out in order to straighten out these problems and especially to help ensure that pure Dharma is
being propagated in the west. If you have compassion for others, then without regard for your own
reputation, join me in addressing these concerns as skilfully as possible by offering your suggestions
and participation according to your capacity.
Concerned disciples of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche have written a letter to Helen Tworkov of Tricycle
magazine and are in the process of writing letters to Lama Surya Das and others. These letters will be
submitted from the "five dakinis" and can be found at http://www.jeweldakini.com in the following
weeks to come. I'm sure you will find the letters to be extremely insightful, illuminating, invoking
and also enjoyable.
If you would like to respond to this letter you may send mail to email@example.com or to P.O. Box
124, Ashland, Oregon 97520. Thank you for taking the time to read and consider this.
In the timeless Dharma,
You Teach Buddhism?
An Interview with S.N. Goenka
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, Spring 2003,
S.N. Goenka has been teaching vipassana for more than thirty years, but if you ask him if he's a Buddhist, the answer is, "No." Goenka talks with Buddhadharm about the technique of vipassana and his views on Buddhism and other religions.
Yes. Buddha's original teaching in Pali and the technique of vipassana were maintained for five hundred years. Later on, both of them were lost in India. There are fifteen thousand pages of Buddha's words in Pali and about thirty thousand pages of commentary. But not a single page was left in India, so the technique was totally lost.
When I went to my teacher, who was Burmese, he told me, "I'm going to teach you a very ancient technique of your country called 'vipassana.'" I had never heard that word. Vipassana, what is that? I went home and looked through my Hindi dictionary-the word was not there. I looked in my Sanskrit dictionary and the word was not there. So even the word "vipassana" was lost from the country.
The previous buddhas, and all buddhas, become buddhas with the practice of vipassana. Because there is a big interval between one buddha and the next buddha, the technique gets lost. The word was there and it kept on flowing with the stream of language in different traditions. Yet the meaning was lost, so the technique was lost.
You refer to vipassana as a pure science. Why so?
For me, Buddha was a great scientist. He discovered something which was lost, which people had forgotten. In science, there is no blind faith, no blind belief. You experiment with things. If many people experiment and get the same result, they accept it. Moreover, Buddha kept on saying, "Buddha or no Buddha, the law of nature, dhamma, prevails always." The law remains the same. If you generate anger, you are bound to become miserable. If you generate peace, love and compassion, you are bound to have peace and harmony. This law was always there, before Buddha and after Buddha.
Could you explain the vipassana technique that you teach, because it seems that it's taught differently in various cultures and traditions?
Before I give an explanation of what I am teaching, one point should be clear: I am not here to condemn any technique or to compare or contrast whatever technique people teach in the name of vipassana. I teach only what I got from the tradition.
The whole technique is investigating reality at the experiential level, within oneself. In this technique, it is very important that people stay at a congenial place where they can meditate with the least amount of disturbance. If one is connected with outside objects, one cannot go to the depth of the mind.
Continuity of practice is also very important. Today we ask people to stay a minimum of ten days in a place where they can receive guidance from an experienced person; previously students were required to spend six weeks learning this technique.
Everyone has to take five precepts: don't kill, don't steal, don't have any sexual activities, don't speak lies or harsh words, and don't take any kind of intoxicants. The precepts are not a rite or a ritual; they are part of the technique. The Buddha realized-and a good vipassana meditator also realizes-that when you break any of these precepts you do so only after generating an impurity in the mind. These impurities are like high waves that prevent you from going to the depth of the mind.
After taking the precepts you start to train your mind in concentration. Buddha talked about vikkhitta-citta, scattered mind, and sankhitta-citta, one-pointed concentrated mind. He wants us to work with one-pointed concentrated mind, and in order to get the mind concentrated we need to focus on a small area. He was clear that the first general area must be the nasal gate. But the nasal gate has many areas: the front part of the nose, the area between the nose and upper lip, and so on. It was made very clear by commentators later on that the first focus of attention must be on the middle part above the upper lip (uttara-otthassa-vemajjappadese) or at the tip of the nose (nasikagge). Attention must be on this small area. If the attention is scattered, then it is vikkhitta; it is not sankhitta. It must be one-pointed concentration.
The Buddha taught that one should focus on the awareness of respiration in this small area. There are many objects that can help to concentrate the mind, but the idea here is not merely concentration. Concentration is necessary for all the steps that we take on the path, but concentration is not the end; it is just an aid to start. The ultimate aim is to purify the totality of the mind.
By focusing attention on respiration, the mind becomes so sharp, so sensitive, that penetratingly, piercingly, it can feel sensations in the middle part above the upper lip, and then eventually sensations throughout the body. For three days one has to work on this small area with only the breath. The moment you start adding something to it there is a danger that the mind will get diverted to a particular verbalization or visualization or imagination. These things might help to get the mind concentrated, but you lose touch with the reality pertaining to your own mind-matter phenomenon because you are not working with the truth-and Buddha wanted us to be with the truth.
No breathing exercise is required. We simply work with the pure breath, mere breath-as it comes in, as it goes out. If it is deep, it is deep; if it is shallow, it is shallow. One explores the truth pertaining to the mind-matter phenomenon through breath. One must accept the truth as it is, not try to create a truth.
Why is meditating on the breath associated with truth?
In order to use an object other than what we have, we have to create it. For instance, with an image, we have to visualize the image and work on it. But from the time you have taken birth to the time you pass away, day and night, the breath is there. Breath is both conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary. Thus it is a function that can act as a bridge, connecting us from the known field to the unknown field, and to the truth about ourselves. If you work with bare breath without any kind of imposition, without any kind of creation, you find within three days the mind becomes so sharp that it starts feeling sensations in the area just above the upper lip.
At what point can one expand the focus of meditation beyond this small area?
On the fourth day of the ten-day course, you start working from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, the whole body. Initially you may not feel sensations everywhere, because the mind is still not as sharp as it should be. Or you may only get very gross sensations like pain, pressure, heaviness and so forth.
It is important to move through the body in order and not run from one part of the body to another part of the body. If at first there's no sensation, you just calmly keep the mind there for a minute and you will feel a sensation. If you don't get a sensation, it doesn't matter. You don't feel defeated; you move on. If you keep on working patiently and persistently, you are bound to feel sensations everywhere, in every part of the body.
What happens at this stage, when you begin to feel these sensations throughout your body?
Initially you may not feel very subtle sensations. You may get only gross sensations, solidified sensations. But if you keep on working and make no imposition of any kind on the natural truth, the law of nature is such that the mind becomes sharper, more sensitive, and the solidity gets dissolved. After that, you begin to feel very subtle vibrations throughout the body. So you experience the entire world, within the framework of your body, as vibrations. There is no solidity; that is the reality the Buddha wants you to experience.
There are two types of truth: apparent truth and ultimate truth. At the apparent level, it looks like there is solidity in the body. Also, within the mind it feels as though the mental contents are very solid-there are big emotions which become solidified and very intense. But as you keep observing the sensation in the body, you find the solidity gets divided, dissected, dissolved. The ultimate truth of matter is that it is mere vibration. The ultimate truth of mind and mental contents is that they are also mere vibration. All mind and matter are mere vibration.
The Buddha very clearly said that you feel reality arising and passing away. You may be experiencing a very solidified pain or pressure. It has arisen and it seems to stay for some time, but sooner or later, it passes away. It is not eternal; it is not going to stay forever. As it arises, so it passes away.
This means that when one feels a period where the gross sensation seems to stay, actually there is no such period. A vibration is there-arising and passing, arising and passing. Within that, there are very important stages of the technique. The first stage is uppadavaya-arising separately, passing separately. The second stage is bhanga, or dissolving. As it arises, so it passes away. It doesn't stay. It's arising and passing, arising and passing.
This makes you understand the entire mind-matter phenomenon and how it works. Everywhere there is arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing. You come to the eye sense door, or ear sense door, or nose sense door, or tongue sense door, or body sense door, or mind sense door-it is all mere vibration. Any outside object which comes in contact with any of the sense doors is also vibration. The sense organ is vibration; the sense object is vibration. It is vibration coming in contact with vibration, and it generates nothing but vibration.
How does experiencing the world as vibrations address the fundamental root of suffering?
The First Noble Truth says that you must go to the depth of the interaction of mind and matter. The Second Noble Truth says that you must see what is the cause of your misery, which is that you are reacting to the contact. Because of contact with sensation you start generating craving and aversion. If you like the sensation, you start craving for more and if you dislike the sensation you start generating aversion.
Buddha's technique takes us to the depth of the mind, where one starts reacting to sensations. When one has reached that depth, training the mind becomes easy. Don't react. Sensations are bound to be there. Contact is bound to be there, so long as you are alive. So when the contact is there and sensation is there, just observe. Observe objectively, without identifying yourself with this sensation, and without identifying yourself with the body or the mind, or the combination of the two. Just observe. It arises and sooner or later it passes away.
This is impermanence, which is not a philosophy of Buddha. It is the law of the universe. The training enables us to experience that. An ordinary mind, a scattered mind, cannot feel the very subtle oscillations of arising and passing. The training of the mind is very important for this purpose.
In the first ten-day vipassana course one may not be able to feel many kinds of sensations. But sooner or later, one gets to the stage where one can feel the subtler sensations. When one is aware of subtler sensation, mind is calm; one just observes the sensations.
Whatever defilement you generate in your mind disturbs the mind. The peace gets disturbed. Buddha's teaching about the precepts is very clear. You can't kill someone without generating hatred, ill will or anger. In vipassana, one understands that as soon as you generate any negativity, you are the first victim of that negativity. One becomes so miserable-there is a burning sensation, palpitation increases, tension builds up. One is creating misery for oneself and nobody wants to do that.
The teaching about precepts, about not performing unwholesome actions as a human being living in a society, existed before Buddha. Buddha's contribution was to teach us to work with the body sensations, and to understand that we are reacting to body sensations. If we forget body sensations, we are straying from Buddha's teaching.
I gather from reading some of your talks that you don't believe in using the words "Buddhism" or "Buddhist." Why?
When people ask me, "How many people have you converted to Buddhism?" I respond, "Not a single one. I'm not converted myself." They say, "Don't you teach Buddhism? Aren't you a Buddhist?" I say, "No, I don't teach Buddhism. I'm not a Buddhist." In Myanmar [Burma], my motherland, the monks were very annoyed by this in the beginning. They said, "This fellow has learned from us and now he wants to teach something of his own. He's not a Buddhist. He's so ungrateful." They were really shaken.
Fortunately, the former president came to a course in India and he found that everything I teach is according to Buddha's teaching. He was so satisfied and got such a good result from the practice that there were tears coming out of his eyes. When he returned, he told the cabinet, "People are speaking out against Goenka, but what he is teaching is the Buddha's pure teaching."
The Burmese government invited me to discuss with the leading monks the reason why I don't use the word "Buddhism." I told them that the words "Buddhism" and "Buddhist" do not exist in Pali. In the entire words of Buddha and in the commentaries, the word boddh-the equivalent of "Buddhist"-is missing. Buddha taught only dhamma. Dhamma means the law of nature, truth. Those who follow that are called dhammiko. If Buddha never made anybody a Buddhist, who am I to make someone a Buddhist? If Buddha didn't teach Buddhism, who am I to teach Buddhism? Buddha taught dhamma; I am teaching dhamma. Buddha made people dhammiko; I am making people dhammiko.
For the first two days, they said, "No, we can't believe that. Let us investigate. There must be a word for Buddhism." After two days, they said, "No, there is no such word; you are correct."
You say that people can practice vipassana regardless of whether they are Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist. But can religion in fact be an obstacle to cultivating this practice?
Some people have great attachment to their belief, and if I say, "First break your belief and then come to me," who will come to me? Nobody will come to me. Therefore, I say, "Keep your belief and work." As they work, they realize, "This is truth and our belief is far away from the truth." Then automatically they come out of it. They may not condemn that belief, and I don't want anyone to condemn anything, as I'm not condemning anything. But the truth is there, which becomes so clear: "This is the truth." So the problem gets solved.
The truth is the same for everyone, whether one is a Catholic or a Protestant or a Hindu or a Muslim. It makes no difference. Truth is truth.
Is organized religion compatible with this truth you are talking about?
In the beginning, children might have difficulty walking on their own so they hold on to something to help them walk. But when they're able to walk on their own they throw those things away. All those outer shells [of religion] are necessary for people, because they can't walk without them. But, as they get strength in dhamma, they throw them away. I don't say, "Throw them away." They throw them away on their own. These things are compatible in the beginning, in kindergarten, when they are infants. But after that, they are not.
I imagine some people would react strongly to being told their religion is like kindergarten.
That is why I can't go around shouting that your religion is kindergarten. I don't shout like that. I don't say, "Accept this because I say so." As one works, one will see, "Oh, this was helpful to me, but now it is not necessary." A child sucks milk, and uses a soother. Let him suck when he is a child, but not throughout life.
What is Buddhism, then, in your view?
Dhamma, the way of life, the law of nature, is universal. The nature of fire is to burn. This is the dhamma; this is the nature of fire. Can you say this is Buddhist dhamma or Christian dhamma? Dhamma is nature. If fire does not burn, then it is something else. Similarly, the nature of any negativity you generate in your mind is to burn, to make you miserable. It makes everybody miserable. If you generate love, compassion, good will, with a pure mind, you will have peace and harmony. Everyone will have the same thing. This is dhamma.
The law of nature is available to everyone. The sun does not shine and give light only to this person and not to the other. When the wind blows, it doesn't blow only for this person and not for the other person. Dhamma is universal.
I am not here to condemn any tradition, certainly not any Buddhist tradition. People who have not gone to the depth to realize the universal law of nature at the experiential level can at least work at the surface level and gain some benefit.
When I say this, people are offended. They hear me saying, "You are at the surface level, and Goenka is at the depth." It not just Goenka who is at the depth; if you practice, you will also find it. I got so much benefit from a mantra technique that I learned. I don't condemn that. How could I condemn it? It gave me so much benefit and it gives benefit to so many people. But I say there are further steps. Why not take further steps? Life is there for us to progress. Don't accept it because Goenka says so or the Buddha said so or the scriptures said so. Practice it, find it, and you will accept it.
If religion is, as you say, merely a soother or a pacifier, is it not then an obstacle to practicing the dharma?
It can become an obstacle. Every religion worth the name has the same inner essence. Not only Buddha's, every religion. Every religion says, live a moral life with a disciplined mind, with a pure mind, full of love, compassion, goodwill, tolerance. This is the quintessence of every religion.
But the outer shells of religion differ from one to the other. The outer shell is the rite, ritual, ceremony or celebration, and a philosophical belief that differs from one to the other. So long as people have their own rites and rituals but give importance to the inner essence, it won't be harmful. But as soon as they forget the inner essence, and give all importance to the outer shell and get attached, they become fundamentalists or even terrorists: "Accept my religion or I will kill you. The whole world will be liberated only when everyone converts to my religion." Giving importance only to the outer shell and having tremendous attachment towards it, forgetting all about the inner essence, is so very dangerous.
Are there any ceremonies or rites in your community?
What community? For those who meditate, the only rite or ritual is that they meditate and observe what is happening inside. There is no other rite or ritual.
How would you define an enlightened person?
Such a person must have understood the truth at the experiential level. They must have been liberated from all impurities, not just on the surface but in the totality of the mind. Then, by nature, they will be full of love, compassion and goodwill. We can say that such a person is enlightened.
Enlightenment is a progression. You start with some enlightenment and eventually you become fully enlightened. As much as one is enlightened, one is a good person-good for oneself, good for others.
Do you see any need for monastic training?
Certainly, because monastic people have the opportunity to learn more deeply about the dhamma. They feel that human life is very precious and want to take maximum advantage of it. As householders, they would have multifaceted responsibilities and wouldn't have enough time. So, they leave the householder's life and live as a monk or a nun.
If someone decides to live as a monk or a nun, and does not get proper training on how to live as a renunciate, there will be problems. The Buddha wanted them to have proper training. He didn't take anybody and everybody who came and asked to take robes. He would ask his chief disciples first to examine a person. Many times, he would say, "You stay with our sangha for three months and then we will decide whether to take you or not." Other times he would say, "Get permission from your parents about becoming a monk. Otherwise, I won't take you."
One should be really fit to be a monk or nun and not just do it out of emotion. And even after one has become a monk or a nun, one has to work continuously and more seriously than a householder. Training is very important for those who leave the householder's life.
The ten-day course is like monastic life. Although participants do not shave their heads or take robes, they live monastically. There are no charges for food or anything else. Like monks or nuns, the students go in line and get their food. Whatever food is given, they eat. If they were to pay fees, then they could say, "I paid fifty dollars for this? This is too spicy, this is too oily." Then it isn't a monk's life. In a monk's life, whatever comes in the begging bowl, you take it. During the ten days, participants learn how to live like a monk or a nun.
You have trained over seven hundred assistant teachers. As I understand it, they support the workshops by organizing them. But the actual teachings are presented by you on videotape or audio cassette. Why don't the assistant teachers themselves present the teachings?
The whole idea is that people should get the real message of dhamma. And it must be uniform. If one message comes from one teacher and another comes from another teacher, there are differences and the students will become confused. People listen to the lecture on video and the instructions on audio, and if they don't understand something, the assistant teacher is there to explain.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One thing that is very important, according to the words of Buddha in the Dhamma na vanim care is, "Don't make dhamma a business. Don't make it a livelihood." The moment you make it a business commodity, it loses all its efficacy, all its purity. If you want to earn money, why don't you do another business? There are so many businesses you could engage in. Why make dhamma a business?
That is why the tradition is very careful. So long as one is a monk or a nun, there is no question of making money. Their basic requirements are being fulfilled. But the householder has so many responsibilities and if they teach and they have no money, they will start to ask for money. So we are very careful. Once we find that a person in all other respects is fit to be made an assistant teacher, we also inquire whether this person has a good independent means of livelihood or not. If he or she has means of livelihood, then we will train this person to be an assistant teacher, and later a senior assistant teacher or full teacher. That is why we do not charge for the teachings. The whole tradition never charges for anything. The moment you start charging, it is spoiled.
You may say, "I charge just for running the course." No! Let people give voluntarily for the course. If people want to learn this technique, if people want this technique to spread for so many miserable people, they will give a donation. If they are not satisfied with the teachings, they will not give a donation. If people are not benefiting from the teachings, don't teach. You are not getting any benefit by teaching. The people must want the teachings, and when they demand the teachings, there will be people who will support them.
It must be all voluntary donation. No one should even ask. And only a very few should know what is donated. Otherwise, there will be competition. "Oh, he has given $100 dollars; I must give $101." That madness will be there. Give whatever you can, according to your capacity, according to your volition.
I'm told that your wife is almost always by your side during speaking engagements and interviews, as she is today. How long have you and your wife been married?
Last year, we celebrated our sixtieth wedding anniversary. And we are so happy. So long as we are alive, more and more happiness will come. It is a lifetime connection, a lifetime relation. It is not marrying today, and then tomorrow I will think about marrying someone else. That is not dhamma.
Thank you very much.
An Interview With Robert Thurman
From: Columbia University | By: Robert A. F. Thurman
INTRODUCTION | Robert Thurman is the foremost American scholar on Buddhism. Whether
writing, teaching or making public appearances, he promotes religious tolerance
and understanding with great intellectual clarity and benevolence. Thurman enjoys
a unique friendship with the Dalai Lama, with whom he studied for almost 30 years,
and has been influential in sharing Buddhist wisdom with the Western world. In
the following interview, Thurman explains the essential teachings of the Buddha
and clarifies some common misperceptions about karma and the nature of human suffering.
Question: What is the difference between Buddhism and Western religions?
Robert Thurman: There are many differences between Buddhism and Western religions, but also many similarities. Buddhism is usually classified as a world religion, but people who study Buddhism have various opinions. Some say it's a religion; others that it's not really a religion, that's it's a way of life. Others say it's a way of meditation, or a philosophy, or a science of mind. It has a multifaceted appearance.
I would say the major difference between Buddhism and theistic religion--I wouldn't compare it just to Western religions, because there are non-Western theistic religions--is that Buddhism doesn't believe that any particular god or personal agency of any kind created and controls the universe. They consider that an irrational idea and rejected it a long time ago. On the other hand, Buddhists don't disbelieve the existence of gods, angels and different kinds of spiritual beings, but none of these things is all-powerful in controlling the universe.
Also, Buddhists think that you should not believe anything that is irrational. That is to say, they are against blind faith, although blind faith in something good would be less harmful than blind faith in something evil. Still, blind faith is unstable and unreliable, so they don't encourage it. Therefore, Buddhism is mainly distinguished from religions in general in that the path to human happiness or salvation--or liberation, as they would put it--is through understanding rather than through the emotional faculties of faith and belief.
That is a big difference, because it means that, if you're going to improve your state of being in the world and achieve happiness, you have to understand the world. The point of understanding the world is to escape from suffering, to change your situation so you won't suffer. This fundamental difference puts Buddhism between a religion and a science, and also includes a way of life that is based on that same ethic. It has an ethical, religious and scientific dimension.
Q: In Buddhism, what replaces God as creator of the universe?
Thurman: Buddhists don't think there's a place for an original creator, so they don't have to replace it. They consider the notion of an original creator somewhat infantile, actually. Basically, the creator idea resembles a potter who makes a clay pot: People see that there are artifacts, and then they see the world, and so they think the world must be an artifact and someone must have made it. Buddhists think that is an unnecessary analogy.
There are several things that take the place of the idea of a creator in Buddhism. The first is the Buddhist theory of "beginninglessness." They believe that there is no beginning to the world, so there is not a need to explain the origin of everything. Instead, things have always been going on infinitely. Second, within that infinite network of causes and effects, Buddhists believe that an individual's situation, or an individual planet's situation, is determined by their past actions. You could say they have an evolutionary theory. They believed long ago (and it echoes Darwin, in a way) that human beings are similar in kind with animals--that humans have been animals, and are animals, and will be animals again.
But the difference between Buddhism and Darwinian evolutionary theory is that Buddhists believe in something subtle, a spiritual gene, which is actually not nonmaterial. It's not an invisible soul force; it is invisible to coarse perception, but not invisible to a more refined perception. There is a subtle stream of causation that permits an individual to have continuity in the world. From the Buddhists' point of view, we have been in the world beginninglessly. Our situation in this life is determined by how we behaved in previous lives, and our lot in future lives will be determined by how we behave in this life.
Therefore, some would say that God is replaced by karma, which really means evolutionary causality--as long as you understand that it is not the materialistic evolutionary causality that you have in Western thought. Only in the last century and a half have we come to believe that we are part of a species and part of a physical evolution, and that, in a way, we as individuals don't matter, since we're just carrying our genes from generation to generation. These theories create the sense that we as individuals are not really players; we disappear at death, and actually we even disappear now. Our sense of being here now is an illusion, just electrical impulses in the brain.
In Buddhism, evolutionary causality takes the place of a world creator. Buddhism is famous for the Buddha's insight that there is no soul or no self, but what he meant by that was that there is no fixed, unchanging, absolute personal identity that is not influenced by other causes and conditions. He didn't mean that people don't exist. Rather, it's a middle way between not existing and existing in an immortal or absolute way; in the middle way of evolutionary causality, people exist relatively, in a changeable way.
Q: Has the appeal of Buddhism in the West increased, and if so, why?
Thurman: As a religious denomination, I don't think that Buddhism is doing very well in the West. There is some growth of what we call Euro-Buddhists, and there are some Asian-Americans who bring Buddhism with them as their native religion, and then there's a kind of American Buddhism. There are also what we call Euro-American Buddhists, like myself, for example. I was born in a secular family affiliated with Presbyterianism, but then, by my own decision, became Buddhist out of philosophical affiliation. There are a few people like that, but not a huge number, maybe 300,000 or 400,000, maybe as many as one million, but Buddhism hasn't grown hugely.
Rather, what is becoming popular in the United States is a complex of cultural and philosophical elements that relate to Asia and are somewhat associated with Buddhism, Hinduism and Darwinism, but it is not a religious denomination. You have meditation, martial arts, yoga, tea ceremony, flower arranging--growth disciplines that are not necessarily associated with any religious group. You don't have to become a Hindu to do them, you don't have to become a Buddhist to use them, but they're quite popular now, particularly meditation.
People are coming to realize that just managing the external circumstances of your life--your diet, your household, your travel patterns, your clothing, whatever--is not really very satisfactory. You're not going to get a lot of happiness out of that if your inner world is out of control or if you're irritated, frustrated, discontented, angry or bitter.
There's something to be said for managing your mind, and that capability has been lost in the West. Religion tends to feel that man is a sinner and there's not much you can do about it but confess to the priest and then Jesus will save you, or God will take care of you as long as you hold the right beliefs. Christianity in America has lost touch with the monastic roots of Catholic Christianity, where they did have a path of purification. For example, St. Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross all had a notion of inner development or development of the soul. In Protestantism, there's not much of an idea of managing your own mind.
Then, in Western thought, Freud comes along with his materialistic psychology and argues that the subconscious is a great iceberg with your conscious mind just at the tip, and there's not much you can do about the subconscious. Well, you can't manage your mind with that, either. You can talk to a shrink for 20 years, and maybe you'll resolve a few traumas, but Freudianism argues that you can't truly control the impulses in your mind. Finally, the neuroscientists come along and argue that if you can't control your mind, you can take this or that drug. I think people are disillusioned with all of these approaches that promote a sense of helplessness about their mental and emotional states.
People are beginning to realize that you can in fact learn--just like you train to run a marathon or to run a mile in four minutes--to train the mind not to freak out all the time, not to be constantly discontented, not to nurture feelings of inferiority, insecurity and anxiety. You can do this by learning to focus and concentrate, by thinking critically and developing meditative skills. This is not something that comes only with Buddhism; it's something Christian monastics used to have, as well as Muslim Sufis, Hindus and Taoists, and it is becoming vastly popular in the United States.
Even medical authorities are realizing this. Studies prove that heart attack victims who change their mental regimen and learn to calm their emotions a little bit, to think positively and to quiet their mind for so many minutes a day improve their recovery rate to an enormous degree. The media tends to confuse this and refer to it as Buddhism. It isn't really Buddhism, but it is part of a civilizational knowledge that they had in Asia about managing the internal properties of your mind.
Q: Is it acceptable to Buddhists to manage your mind by taking pieces from different schools of thought?
Thurman: It is totally acceptable. People say that Buddhism is not a missionary religion, but that is actually wrong. It spread everywhere, not in a crusade or violently but, rather, in an educational way. A person who is Buddhist feels an obligation to try to educate other people about how their mind works.
For example, we would say that Columbia University is not a missionary institution. It is not trying to convert anybody. But on the other hand, if you get a Columbia degree, you're supposed to change your consciousness. You're supposed to give up certain types of superstitions and stupid ideas and prejudices and confusions and gain insight into how the world works. Therefore, Columbia has scholarships so that people can afford to come and have this change wrought in them through a process of education. In that sense you can say that educational institutions in our country are missionary in that they want to change the consciousness of the people they approach and the people they serve.
Buddhism is missionary in that sense--it wants people to be educated. On the other hand, Buddhists have never felt that you will become free of suffering just by being a Buddhist denominationally. Buddhists are not concerned with obtaining membership from huge numbers of people who are ignorant Buddhists. That's not their interest, and that would actually make a bad name for Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama often says that when people come to him and say, "Oh, your holiness, you're so cute," or, "Tibetan monks are so adorable; I think I want to be a Buddhist," he says, "That's a bad idea. Are you a Catholic, are you a Quaker, are you a Jew, are you a Muslim? Whatever you are, that's what your family is, that's your background, and it would create stress on you to change to something you still don't really know.
"Instead, if there is something you've learned about compassion and the human heart, about how to calm your mind and be more content, then keep that within the framework of Jesus or Mohammed or whatever it is that you grew up with." Of course, some people do become Buddhists, and Buddhists think that's nice if that's what they are, but they don't think it's good to artificially shift people around, and they're perfectly happy that people take elements from Buddhism.
Particularly at this time of history, triumphal, secular scientism has lost its promise to a lot of people. Scientists still think they're about to conquer the brain, the gene or the big bang. But the world as a whole has lost faith in the myth of materialistic progress. People are a bit disillusioned with the idea that we're going to pave over the universe and everyone is going to have aluminum lungs, a stainless-steel heart that can pump forever and a computer brain enhanced with microchips that will know everything. Therefore, religions are coming back in force. Buddhism is not growing much in this country, but evangelical Christianity is growing hugely. Islam is spreading enormously among black people and in America. Religions are coming back into power rather than withering away, as Communism and liberal secularism predicted 50 years ago.
The Dalai Lama believes that it would be totally disastrous if religions, just as they are reacquiring some respect, start competing for believers, start new crusades and jihads with modern weapons, and associate themselves with different states. That would really be dreadful. For example, the painful elements of the breakup of Yugoslavia have a lot to do with religion. Muslim, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian are the three major players in that region, and they are at each other's throats even though they were suppressed by Communism for half a century or more.
Q: Are there other aspects of Buddhism that are frequently missed or misunderstood?
Thurman: There are false stereotypes about Buddhism in the West, not only in the West but in Asia, too. As I said, Buddhism was always an educational tradition. There was always a tension between it and the fundamentalist elements in the different societies where it existed. It has the distinction of being a religion that has almost completely disappeared in its own country of origin, in India, because Buddha basically rebelled against Hinduism, which was the religion of his day.
Buddhism was always critical: it did not consider the scriptures of Hinduism to be sacred and uttered by God; it rejected the omnipotence of the Hindu gods; and it rejected also the sanctity of the class system in India. However, because India was a relatively wealthy and therefore tolerant place, Buddhism managed to open up Indian society for 1,500 years and was only driven out by Muslim invasions. The Muslims were more Western in their religious ways and therefore less tolerant than the Indians, and in that ancient period India was conquered by very fervent Turkish Muslim people.
I think people would be surprised that one stereotype about Buddhism that existed in those countries and in the West is that Buddhism is very pessimistic about life. In the Pope's book The Threshold of Hope, he wrote that he couldn't understand how anybody would ever have such a negative view of the world, believe that the world is only about suffering and that one could only obtain nirvana and obliterate oneself. He stereotyped Buddhism like that because he misunderstood it.
In actuality, the Buddha's discovery was not suffering but happiness. I think this surprises Western people when I explain and reason it through with them. Buddha's claim was that we as human beings can become really genuinely happy. We can become free of suffering--in this life and also in a boundless future--not by appealing to some omnipotent force that would automatically allow us to escape the consequences of our actions, but by developing an understanding of our actions and our mind and body and our world. Nirvana really means an extinction of suffering, not an extinction of the person. Once we really understand our world, we will be free of suffering.
It's a very outrageous claim, and there are several outrageous claims in Buddhism. One is that the individual human being has the capacity to fully understand their world. Not just to do some scientific experiments and understand how frogs replicate but to understand everything about a frog and about themselves. That's an outrageous claim right there, that one's self becomes capable of understanding anything one turns one's mind to.
The second outrageous claim is that once you understand that truth you will be happy and you will have the ability to help other beings become happy. In the end, you can't force them to be happy because they can only find happiness by understanding themselves. You can only reach them as an educator to help them understand themselves and their situation.
That's quite optimistic and surprising, that people in ancient India, who spread all over Asia in fact, believed that a human being was perfectible to a sufficient degree to be able to manage the world well, manage themselves well, live well and be happy and help others be happy. That's a very optimistic verdict about the nature of human life.
I find that belief very surprising. I don't say that it's absolutely true, because I can't verify that claim myself. I don't know everything, by any means, nor am I always happy--I'm pretty irritated most of the time. But I've investigated enough, and bought it philosophically enough, where I can at least appreciate the outrageousness of the claim and the daringness and boldness of trying to make life have that meaning.
To me, it's a more promising line of development than the idea that you'll never know anything and that some big creator will fix everything as long as you say the right prayers; or the other idea, that we will never know everything but will keep tinkering to ameliorate our situation and when we're done it can all blow up or go to the dogs. Either of those two options, the spiritualistic one or the materialistic one, are a bit simpleminded and not very promising. In any case, I think it's fascinating to study Buddhism, a tradition built on such a set of very positive, if outrageous, propositions.
©2002 Fathom Knowledge Network
Johnson Keeps the Faith
Words are often best defined by their opposites. That's especially true of such words as "faith," or "belief," which are so conceptually slippery.
One of this week's guests, Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, tells host Krista Tippett that for her, the opposite of faith is "despair." Fenton Johnson, author of the new memoir Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey, says that for him, the opposite of faith is "fear." Ultimately they mean pretty much the same thing: both despair and fear are rooted in desire.
In Keeping Faith, Johnson -- author of two novels and a lecturer at the University of Arizona -- tells the story of how, as a gay man and a natural skeptic, he became alienated from his religious community. Later, through experiences at two American monasteries: one Trappist and one Zen Buddhist, he found his way back to the spiritual life. Speaking of Faith Web editor Dan Mitchell interviewed him via e-mail.
Speaking of Faith: The title of this week's show is "Faith or Religion." You distinguish faith and belief. Is belief just another word for religion?
Fenton Johnson: There's a very important difference between "religion" (or "belief") and the virtue we call faith. In Keeping Faith, I quote Zen philosopher Alan Watts on this point: "Belief is the insistence that the truth is what one would wish it to be. Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. Faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception." In the course of my years among the monks, however, I came to see how the virtue we call faith withers in the abstract -- how it needs an architecture of beliefs in which to be housed. Our beliefs -- whether Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Transcendentalist -- provide a home in which and through which we may sustain and develop our faith.
SoF: But you go on to warn about the dangers of putting too much emphasis on belief -- especially how group belief can lead to blind adherence to dogma. You write, "when communities use belief not as an aid to faith, but as a means to establish an identity, sooner or later the guns appear." Does group belief -- or, religion -- inevitably lead to violence?
Johnson: Group belief can lead to violence -- patriotism has led the U.S. into the current war, to offer one example. But group belief can also be the inspiration for great and noble deeds. American Christian history offers a long list of examples: Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, the Berrigan brothers come immediately to mind. And American Buddhist history is accumulating its own list of role models. All enduring religions have at the heart of their teachings the negation of the self in service to the larger, community good. Any use of religion for any other means, most especially self-justification, is a violation of its basic principles.
SoF: What role does faith play in the current environment of war and general uncertainty?
Johnson: Everywhere I go in America, but especially among my students (most of whom are in their late teens or twenties) I find what I would characterize as a crisis of faith. By that I mean that I find no confidence that we can act collectively to address our problems and make for a better world. (It's of interest to note that in Buddhist texts, the Pali word "shrada," sometimes translated as "faith," is also translated as "confidence.") In its place I find a prevailing sense that the world is in decline (economically, environmentally, socially, politically) and that the best I can do is to seize whatever I can and hold it as tight as possible. But faith -- to hearken back to the Watts quotation -- is not about clinging; it's about letting go. How does one accomplish that, in a "me, mine" age? That, I think, is where our wisdom traditions enter in. One makes (as the Buddhists so aptly have it) a practice of letting go; one makes a practice of faith. I ride a bike, or embrace the homeless person not because I believe these gestures will improve the environment or comfort a troubled soul, although they may, and I hope that they do. Instead, I undertake these gestures because they are acts of faith, undertaken -- in the face of much good reason to the contrary -- from the confidence that my small gesture can and will make a difference. Done consistently, that practice becomes a habit -- the habit of faith.
SoF: Is the difference between faith and belief as you define those words simply the difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the spiritual life? How can the monotheistic religions absorb the Buddhist concept of faith -- of "letting go" -- especially given the increasing materialism of the secular West?
Johnson: I'm glad you introduce materialism into the conversation. At every turn the planet and our culture are signaling us that salvation -- in both the spiritual sense and in the very real sense of shaping a world in which we can live -- depends on our finding pleasure and fulfillment in some place other than in material possessions. That's a common ground that Eastern and Western philosophies share. Christianity is as much about "letting go" as Buddhism (Jesus: A man must lose himself to save himself). One of the Trappist monks with whom I spoke gave voice to his hope that the rising popularity of Buddhism in America would enable Western Christianity to free itself from what he aptly called "bourgeois materialism" and return to its roots in nonattachment, nonviolence, letting go. I'd like to believe he's right (though I admit it requires an act of faith).
SoF: You've written that monastic practice is "subversive." How so?
Johnson: As you've noted in your queries, we live in an obsessively materialistic culture which places unalloyed emphasis on the self. Amid such a culture, what could be more subversive than a community of people dedicated to living simply and collectively? To a person the young people with whom I spoke at the various American Buddhist monasteries told me that they had been initially attracted not by the particulars of Buddhist practice but by the notion of a collective of people committed to living out an ideal.
SoF: You say the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. What do you mean by this?
Johnson: Following on the various Buddhist translations of the word, you might also render that sentence: The opposite of confidence is fear. Fear is an almost inevitable byproduct of materialism -- the more we have, the more we want to protect it, and the greater our fear that it will be taken from us. Jesus challenged the prosperous to give up everything and follow him. I'm realistic about that (which is to say, I don't think it's likely to happen), even as I know from my own experience and that of the many monks whom I came to know that it's possible to seek and acquire a mindset of simplicity, generosity, trust, and openness. It's possible to find contentment in a simple life -- not only possible, but that life offers contentment in a way that materialism cannot. Materialism is characterized by constant hunger -- having more, we want more. Simplicity is characterized by contentment.
SoF: Your new book grew from an article you wrote for Harper's magazine in 1998. How have your thoughts changed or evolved since then -- and since 9-11 in particular?
Johnson: Keeping Faith is a road story -- the story of my journey from a place where I was literally unable to make the sign of the cross because I was so angry at institutionalized religion, to a place where I attend church and sit regularly at the neighborhood zendo (meditation hall). Through the practice of humbling myself to the rituals of two specific belief systems -- in this case, American Christianity and Buddhism -- I came to see the importance of such rituals in enabling me to maintain perspective on my place in the larger scheme of life. The other day at church I was given this little revelation: Every time I go to communion I feel like a fool. Just as at the zendo, every time I bow to the floor I feel like a fool. And for a prosperous white man living in the world's wealthiest and most powerful culture, that may well be the most valuable lesson I can receive. And the more often I receive it the better. At the heart of Keeping Faith -- at the heart of Jesus' teachings -- is the understanding that outsiders (in Jesus' time as in ours, the poor, women, sexual outlaws, refugees, foreigners, thieves, lepers) possess special access to wisdom. Keeping Faith posits that we each need to seek and live in the place where we are outsiders if we are to have access to wisdom; Christianity and Buddhism can be means to that end.
From model to monk
contemplating a new life
Dianne from Florida asks the questions
Dianne Elliott interviewed Matheson Stewart just before he ordained as a Buddhist monk in July 2000.
Born and raised in New Zealand, Matheson was working as a receptionist at an alternative health centre prior to his ordination. He had previously worked as a model and in the entertainment industry.
Dianne Elliott, a visitor from Parbawatiya Buddhist Centre in Florida, caught up with him at Heruka Buddhist Centre in London.
have you decided to go for ordination?
Matheson: I guess I have always wanted to be ordained. From as early as six years old, I used to talk about becoming a priest. But did not feel I had found the right path until I met Geshe Kelsang.
As my faith in him increased I wanted him to grant me ordination. I feel very fortunate to be able to receive ordination directly from my Guru. It's completely beyond words.
Dianne: What do you think will be the best part of being ordained?
Matheson: I have been teaching meditation for a while now and I have always felt limited as a lay person. Being able to really help others through my teaching and example will be terrific - as will watching my wordly life drop away.
Because of the technology available now we actually have the means to pervade the world with Dharma [Buddha's teachings]. It is an extraordinary moment in Buddhism, such a great opportunity to be a pioneering teacher.
It seems to me that ordination is not a choice but an obligation.
Dianne: What will be the hardest part?
Matheson: Doing battle with my delusions - mainly attachment. I know what it is to experience strong attachment. If I can just stay aware of where I am going and not be distracted by attachment I'll be OK.
Dianne: How will being ordained affect your daily life?
Matheson: Mostly I'm going to be a lot busier. There will be an enormous learning curve. I will have to learn how to be a monk instead of a lay person.
Dianne: If someone said you were going for ordination to escape from life's problems and challenges how would you answer them?
Matheson: (Laughing) There's nothing more challenging than following a strict spiritual path. Compared to that, challenges in the outside world are a dawdle.
I'm trying to escape Samsara not the outside world. Actually, staying busy with 'challenges' in the outside world can be an excuse for not confronting your own internal challenges.
Dianne: How do your parents feel about your decision to ordain?
Matheson: They are my biggest supporters. They can feel through their parental intuition that it is right for me. Often, when I have doubts, they remind me of who I am and how I was as a child. I'm deeply moved by their response.
Dianne: How do your friends feel about it?
Matheson: Most of my friends are into Buddhism and are very happy for me and supportive of my decision
My co-workers have also been enormously supportive. They support the spiritual aspect of my decision even though they are not into Buddhism. I'm starting a class near the centre where I work and many of my co-workers have signed up for it. I feel they are supporting me on a very practical level.
Dianne: You are only twenty-six. How do you feel about the prospect of a lifetime of celibacy?
Matheson: Surprisingly comfortable. I have actually practised celibacy in the past - out of choice not because there weren't any partners available. What I found was that when I am not having sex I am a happier person. My periods of celibacy were big positive growth periods for me.
Dianne: Why do ordained people have to shave their head and wear robes?
Matheson: I don't know the qualified answer to that but it seems to me that it will help me to remember my moral discipline by reminding me of who I am and what I represent.
Dianne: What can you do as a monk that you can't do as a lay person?
Matheson: Being ordained will help me see my path more clearly - it will give me clear life direction. Also it will give me an opportunity to be in close contact with Geshe-la. He gives me direct guidance and this is very important.
Whenever I meet an ordained person I automatically feel respect for them. Maybe the same will happen when others meet me. If they have more respect they might listen more closely to the teachings and apply them to their lives in a more meaningful way.
Dianne: Do you feel that monks and nuns have a place in contemporary western society?
Matheson: Yes, definitely. It is a very special place. Ordained people can show others the advantages of practising pure moral discipline. Some people can learn from those who have taken ordination because they trust them more.
We need many qualified Buddhist teachers. Monks and nuns can fulfill this function and serve as guides to those who are seeking spiritual attainment. How could anything be more important?
& Tibetan Buddhism
This interview was conducted with a Buddhist monk from the Tibetan tradition. He is now in his mid-40's and has been part of the monastic community since he was 6 years old. His studies have brought him the highest degree received in the Tibetan monastic system and he travels worldwide to teach and perform initiations. Although born in Tibet, he now is the abbot of a monastery in Nepal and is revered as the incarnation of a venerated spiritual leader. Our discussion was conducted through the help of another monk who served as translator. I have given him the pseudonym of Abbot. More detail than usual is included here because of this meeting's unique nature and the cultural learning possible by my relating a more complete story.
The nature of this cultural interview on grief makes it somewhat different from most others. Monks are immersed in their religion. It is their entire existence and culture is inseparable from religious belief (see references for a list of links discussing Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism as it relates to death and dying). Tibet is an additional confounder here, for the country spent over a thousand years developing a spiritual-based society rather than the more secular societies seen elsewhere and Tibet now has ceased to exist in that manner. The efforts toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with China have progressively forced the exiled Tibetan leadership (who are also religious leaders) to become adept at representing themselves, their country, and their religion to the rest of the world. It also has served to physically separate much of the religious community from the majority of the Tibetan people. The history of this transition is tragic and accounts can be found in His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's autobiography and The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (see references). The most important point here, as it relates to the interview, is to understand that this is a "professional's" account of how grief functions in Tibetan society, not a lay-person's story. Our discussion was not private or personal. At least one other person (the translator) was present throughout the interview; at times, others were present. My perceptions also played into the interview, as I felt that Abbot's social status, my status as a guest, and the presence of a translator discouraged too much "probing" beyond the answers provided. Therefore, I only asked some clarifying questions, but did not pursue much beyond that. Abbot's perspective as an official representative of his culture and his roles as a teacher and spiritual leader are important factors to understand when interpreting this discussion.
I was uncertain whom the interview would be with before I arrived at the monastery. My initial intent was that the contact simply be with someone who was available. To my surprise, I was told that I was very lucky to be coming and then given a time to arrive. All arrangements and subsequent discussions were done using only my first name, something that struck me given our cultural propensity to take down full contact information. Upon arrival, I handed my offering (a cultural tradition) of strawberries and pineapple to the monk who greeted me. We entered the back door of the building where I was instructed to remove my shoes and wait. The offering was prepared on a tray and I was led to a room where the translator and Abbot were waiting. Although the monastery was constructed as a standard wood structure, there was a striking mix of Western-style appointments and Tibetan religious and cultural items present. Both Western-style doors and cloth Tibetan door coverings were present; only the cloth coverings were in use. An atmosphere of simplicity and purposefulness overlaid this mix of cultures.
What follows is an edited transcript of Abbot's responses by topic.
Tradition & Ritual Commemorating a Death
Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have to commemorate a death?
If a person died today then, counting that day, seven days later we would begin performing religious ceremonies. Ceremonies would be performed again every seven days for 49 days after death (7 x 7). Then there is a break and no more ceremonies are held until the anniversary of the death. After one year there is a big ceremony that is on the anniversary of the death. The reason why the ceremonies are performed for the first 49 days is that the person goes into the intermediate state and the longest period that a person would stay in the intermediate state is 49 days. These ceremonies are specially performed for the person in the intermediate state and their intent is to help the person have a better rebirth. After one year the anniversary ceremony that is held to remember the person who died. For example, if parents lost a child the ceremony would be for the parents to remember their child.
Tradition & Ritual Leading Up to a Death
Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have which lead up to a death?
One important thing is that if somebody knows that a person is going to die, then they can prepare by doing positive works. What we can do for that person is to take all the belongings of that person and distribute them. They should be given to the poor children, the poor, and the charities. There is positive energy if the person decides before they die to give the things to others who need it. All the things-the prosperity-that one has accumulated in one's life. All this becomes more positive, more beneficial, when it is contributed to positive works. If one has not used or distributed one's things and one dies, one cannot take these things with them. One does not need all of those things.
Comfort & Grief in Times of Loss
Question: What are some of the beliefs that you hold that offer comfort in a time of loss?
The first condolence or advice offered to that person is that generally all of us have to die. So that when somebody dies there is nothing we can do externally, they should be patient with this fact. For example, if some person is dying on the deathbed, or if a person has died, then the family and friends are intolerant to grief and crying-it is not beneficial to them. The reason for that is that if a person is on a deathbed and he sees crying he will feel sad and upset. Even if that person is already dead and in the intermediate state he can see us crying and grieving for the loss and he will also feel sad. This sadness can affect the person's feelings of attachment and increase his suffering, possibly causing a less fortunate rebirth. So, instead, one should give advice that all the things one can perform for that person is more beneficial. Those actions will be beneficial for that person. Also, one can give advice that that person gave us much, he was a good person, who had a good heart, and who helped other people. One can give advice to his family that it doesn't matter that he dies, he was a good being and he will be reborn in a more fortunate rebirth. So with death in our tradition, when a person is going to die we won't allow the family and friends to cry in front of him. It will make him more sad.
Question: What about beliefs that add to the pain of loss?
For the one thing, the belief that could cause more grief to people who lost someone is attachment. The positive side is that of a strong affection toward that person and wanting to always be with that person. This is positive. The negative also is that of strong attachment toward that person. It is the nature of attachment that people or something we like, create strong bonds that cannot be easily severed. That is not good. So in the Buddhist teachings, what we call love or compassion, one has equal love toward all sentient beings or compassion toward all sentient beings. If one had this kind of teaching toward our compassion in all sentient beings, then this kind of basic teaching will create a strong grief when somebody dies, because that affection along with the strong attachment will not be working together in a positive process. So generally, all the causes of suffering in this world are from attachment, ignorance, and hatred.
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Grief
Question: How would you define health and unhealthy grief?
For example, if somebody died then the grief that death causes one would normally result in the need to perform lots of good acts and a lot of good works if one misses [grieves] all of these things. That is the negative side. If because of somebody's death, that causes a person to change a lot and try to put into practice lots of positive works. That is positive or healthy grief. This is a beneficial part of grief.
One of the positive things that can be done to help make grief positive is that one needs to remind those grieving that all of us die sometime. When I die there's nothing that can be helped and that grief does not help me for my next life. One thing that really helps me is my practice of dharma, my practice of religion, so that we can understand that. So that one practices the dharma, religion, and then one is stronger to do actions that help other beings and that is good. In the course of achieving happiness in our lives we use worldly activities to achieve that happiness, it can only be done in this life. So even if one is trying to achieve happiness in this life, one won't achieve the ultimate happiness-a happiness that won't be changeable-in that course. Something will occur and one will have suffering again. So to have a complete happiness, an ultimate happiness, one needs to bring the mind to a state of complete or ultimate happiness. Bringing the mind to the state of ultimate happiness, cannot be accomplished through worldly activities or the normal way of life. For that purpose we practice religion, or the dharma, or the faiths.
Healthy Versus Unhealthy Death
Question: How would you characterize a healthy death?
The healthy death is something that the people who are in the process of death, one died without being frightened, with no fear, without any kind of grief. One dies in a state of happiness, a state of joy. Before one dies one says that "I know I'm going to die." So he calls his friends and family and gives them advice for his death. The things I'm explaining to you, it is a natural death. This is not true for suicide. When sometime someone says "I'm going to die and kill myself," that is the worst death. Abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are all unhealthy deaths. In our conception we believe that if you harm something that is living, that is not positive, that is negative. One of the most precious things is life. Even if someone wants to create life one cannot create life. One cannot produce life. When the child is in the mother's womb, at that time it has generated one human life, the taking of that life is like killing one person.
Private Grief Versus Public Mourning
Question: What is the relationship between your private grief and your public mourning? Is group support useful?
The nature of true grief, both personal and community grief, depends upon how the loss it to her, one is a larger scope, one a smaller scope. But the nature of the grief is the same. For example, if there is a family with two persons and they experience a death, the grief only involves those two persons. If one is working for the whole community, then that person is working with resolve and intention to develop kind attitudes so that person has to take the grief of the whole community. According to the Buddhist Mahayana practice, one has to think that I am working for the benefit of all sentient beings, so I am taking the responsibility of the happiness of all sentient beings. It is the same for both the one family who has desire for their happiness and does not want to experience the sorrow and unhappiness, and for the whole community who has the desire for happiness and something happens and the whole community does not wish for that to happen or experience sorrow.
Life as a Monk
Question: How does your life as a monk impact your own view of or experience with grief?
As a monk one has a lot of potential to help eliminate the grief and sorrow of communities. The reason for that is that as a monk one is single, a bachelor, and not allowed to marry. A monk does not need to spend lots of time taking care of family-a wife and kids. One has more time. In that case, being a monk, one has more time for personal practice and also one wants to work for the community and one can work with full aspiration. As a monk one should feel content with just having a pair of clothes and something to eat.
Other Things To Help Us Understand Grieving in Tibetan Society
Question: Is there anything beyond what we've talked about here that you would like for me to know in order to better understand how grief is experienced and processed in you culture?
Any kind of grief and suffering that one faces in life, we need to understand what is the cause of that and one should abandon or eliminate that cause. Firstly, one needs to recognize what is the grief or the suffering. When one recognizes that grief and suffering are bad things, then one needs to find a method to eliminate or abandon that. For example, if one is sick or one is suffering with an illness, one needs to investigate what is the real problem, the cause of that sickness. When one finds what the real sickness is, one needs to take the right medicine to cure that sickness. If one does not recognize the real problem or illness and just takes different kinds of medicines it can make one worse. According to the Buddhist philosophy, all suffering is the result of negative karma/negative actions, and all the happiness is the result of positive karma/positive actions. When one faces any kind of suffering or grief one needs to face that thing. How one can face these problems and sufferings is that one can think, "It is the result of something I accumulated myself in my past life. I cannot accuse other people for causing that trouble." You should eventually face that. If one can think in that way it would be beneficial, you have less hatred and anger toward other people. Also in the Buddhist practice when one faces suffering, one needs to rejoice that my negative karma has now gone away. If one thinks that way in the process of the suffering, one won't abandoned the practice of religion of dharma. Also in that process one won't abandon the practice of helping other people, the actions of helping other people.
One thing is very important, when the child is very small, at a very young age and all throughout life, to have a very strong bond between the child and the parents-to have a very strong affection towards each other. Your parents in this world is one of the most kindful beings in this life and this world. When we are kids, when we are at the stage when one cannot feed oneself, and cannot walk by oneself at that time the parents are showing the most kindness-they are giving the most love and kindness. In general, when one is in the big trouble of suffering, it is at that time when someone is helpful and one should really consider that being as helpful. In that process when the parents held their kids, it is through the power of these actions towards the bond between the parents and the child-toward affection. Even when the child is grown up and the parents become very old, the bond between the two should remain the same. The affection should remain the same, because the child is still a child and the parents still parents. This is my advice.
After formal thank-you's were said and Abbot expressed the hope that the information would be helpful to those who read it, I was told to wait while the translator left the room. He later returned with the monk who was assisting Abbot. Abbot gave this monk instructions and he again left the room. (All the while I am left there not knowing what was going on or what was being said.) When the assisting monk returned he gave Abbot a tiny package and me an address sticker showing Abbot's mailing address. Abbot then blessed the small package and handed it to me. It was a silver bracelet with blue beads. After again thanking him I was led from the room to the kitchen and offered something to drink. As I drank, visitors and monks came and left the room. I departed the monastery soon afterward. The kindness and gentleness of these men were striking.
Many would consider the Buddhist approach to death unfeeling and insensitive. This conversation, if not examined closely, could imply a denial of grief over a loss. In fact, acknowledgement of suffering (grief in this case) is central to Buddhism. However, there is also the concept of attachment being a major source of suffering and that refraining from strong attachment is ideal. This does not mean a lack of love or compassion, but a worldview that sees all sentient beings as equal and needful of love and assistance. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are (see Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism @ http://www.buddhanet.net/qanda.htm ):
1. Life is suffering.
2. All suffering is caused by craving.
3. Suffering can be overcome and happiness attained.
4. The path leading to the overcoming of suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path).
" Perfect Understanding
" Perfect Thought
" Perfect Speech
" Perfect Action
" Perfect Livelihood
" Perfect Effort
" Perfect Mindfulness
" Perfect Concentration
This interview sounds as if the religious community would like for the lay community to deny their grief over the death and their feelings of attachment toward the deceased. I do not believe that this was Abbot's intention. If it were done in actual practice, such expectations would likely be unrealistic. This implication is also contrasted by the last remarks from Abbot on the parent-child bond.
Advice given by the monks would be seen as relatively unhelpful in our culture. Other contacts I have had with this culture reinforce a belief-based cultural minimization of grief. Grief is understood and dealt with, but approached in a different manner from other religions. My impression is that of it being more "cognitive" and action oriented than most religions. Also important is the concept of a unifying consciousness and the implications of a belief that the individual self is an illusion.
Actual practice, perceptions, and feelings of Tibetan Buddhist lay people remain undisclosed by our discussion here. This also only provides a glimpse of the culture and religion and much more information is needed for full understanding.
BuddhaNet: Buddhist Information Network-Gateway, http://www.buddhanet.net, (June 25, 1999).
Buddhist Teachings, Basic Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/budteach.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/qanda.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Buddhism Links Tibetan Buddhism, http://www.zip.com.au/~cee_gee/tibet.html, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Buddhist-World Wide Web Links, http://www.buddhanet.net/l_tibet.htm, (June 25, 1999).
Tibetan Studies WWW Virtual Library, http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies.html, (June 25, 1999).
Gyatso T. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1990.
Shakya T. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 1999.
Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1999.
1999, Autumn Workman-Newkirk. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
not others with that which pains yourself
By Tonia Shoumatoff
Tonia lives in Wassaic, NY.
"If your mind and heart are filled with love and compassion for all sentient beings you don't have time to indulge in selfish thought or feelings of depression. I see this as the ultimate method for realizing no self. No-self makes one compassionate toward others and compassion toward others negates self." - Evelyn Ruut, Dharma Practitioner
"Are you a good Christian? Then you're a good Buddhist." --Thich Nat Han
"Human life, lasting an instant, like a dream--it might be happy, it might be sad. Not wishing for joy, not avoiding sadness, may I truly practice the sublime teachings." ---His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche
The word for Buddhist in Tibetan is "nagpa" which means someone who looks inward. All Buddhist practices help the individual to work with unraveling negative repetitive patterns of behavior and thinking that causes difficulty and conflicts. Many people think that Buddhism is depressing because it addresses the issues around suffering and most people find it quite painful to look at the root causes of their mental and physical malaise. But Buddhist thought presents practical advice for dealing with the fundamental truths of our existence. By carefully looking at which attitudes and behaviors bring more suffering into our lives, Buddhism presents helpful methods for actually getting to the root of suffering and overcoming it. These techniques are not austere but gradual and balanced so that the individual can eventually achieve inner and outer harmony and can generate aspirations for the universal well being for all that lives.
A Buddhist friend of mine, Evelyn Ruut, recently responded to a question about whether Buddhism could offer any help in combating depression: "There are a good many Buddhist practices that I know of which seem to have a good effect on depression. I for one would recommend some of the visualized practices such as that of Chenresig, or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Why Chenresig? Because, in particular, this practice removes the focus from oneself. You are visualizing and sending out great compassionate love and imagining that you are giving all living beings what they need. It is very hard to remain self-focused and dwell upon your own miseries when you are seeing to the happiness of all beings. This is a practiced, planned, specifically organized time when you take the focus off yourself.
This practice contains a good many other helpful things which can offset depression. First of all it is a purification, in which you literally make yourself empty of all your negative characteristics, everything that has depressed or stressed you, everything that makes you feel bad about yourself, literally seeing it all pouring out, and leaving you transparent like a rainbow. Just visualizing that helps you to forget that you are depressed.
Then you see the bodhisattva sending you kindness and loving compassion and you acknowledge it. Then after that, you, in turn, send that compassionate energy out to all living beings, and imagine that everyone is sending out whatever everyone needs to everyone else. It is actually a very wonderful mental exercise and what I am describing here is only the smallest part of it.
Just think that somewhere there are tiny babies who are hungry and wet, people who have no homes or food, animals who are chained up in cages, people in horrible, inhumane prisons. There are those dying in hospitals whose illnesses have no hope of cure. Victims of war who have lost their families. As part of your visualization you can picture all of these beings receiving food, shelter, healing, peace, whatever they need. You can be as specific as you want; after all it is your mind and your practice.
The most important thing is that at the end you dedicate any merit you may have gained from generating this attitude to all living beings, and prays for this to continue to happen. Also, for the rest of you day you envision that when people see or speak to you they are speaking to the little bit of Chenresig that you carry in your heart. When you are carrying that idea with you, you are also keeping that idea and the memory of the attitudes you generated during the practice alive in your heart and mind."
Buddhism is one of the world's major religions and was inspired by the enlightenment experience of the son of a king, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived on the border of Nepal and India from 557-477 BC At the age of 29, after having been immersed in luxury throughout his life and prevented from seeing the horrors of the real world by his overprotective father, he was devastated by seeing the ravaging effects of sickness, poverty and death. He then renounced his princely kingdom, became a wandering yogi and ascetic and dedicated his life to finding a way to eliminate suffering.
After spending six years in extreme asceticism he sat down under the famous Bodhi tree, conquered the maras (or human defilements of ignorance, anger, lust, greed, jealousy, ignorance, etc.) and discovered the "Middle Way," which found a place in the mind between extreme asceticism and extreme self-indulgence. He developed techniques, which demonstrated to his followers how to live a life of balance and compassion in the world.
There are many schools of Buddhism but the three major branches are Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Hinayana, literally the narrow path, puts an emphasis on the enlightenment and liberation of the individual through purification practices, meditation and applying the original teachings of the Buddha. To this branch belong the practitioners of the original Pali Canon, the teachings of the Buddha in its original language. Most of the members of this school of Buddhism reside in Thailand, Ceylon and Burma. This school puts an emphasis on following the original sutras or teaching of the Buddha and slowly purifying one's body, speech and mind. Theravadin Buddhism is part of this school, with an emphasis on monasticism. The individual or arhat presents the inspiring example of one who attains liberation from birth and death through his own personal efforts but is not necessarily imbued with the intention to help liberate other brings through his realization.
The Mahayana or "wide path" shifts the emphasis from personal liberation to the universal salvation of "all sentient beings." Perhaps a better way of putting it is that all beings already have Buddha nature and that it is just a question of shifting their awareness to their intrinsic Buddhahood. At any rate, the Mahayana schools gave birth to the concept of the Bodhisattva who declares his or her intention to benefit all beings through his spiritual practice and eventual enlightenment. By understanding that all beings have been one's mothers in a past life there is an essential feeling of connection and unity of all that lives within the fabric of life. Thus, the Bodhisattva realizes that if he attains Buddhahood for himself alone it would be limited without extending it to everyone.
The third branch of Buddhism, is Vajrayana, or the "Diamond Vehicle," which migrated from India to China, Tibet and Japan, uses esoteric yogi practices to attain enlightenment "in one lifetime." One Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche abbot of the Woodstock, NY Karmatriyana Dharmachakra Tibetan Buddhist monastery, said that the difference between the sutrayana (Hinayana) and the tantrayana traditions are that in one you are trying remove the mud around a gem in order to be able to reveal it and in the other you leave the mud there and just reach in and grab the gem. Tantric practice entails visualizations of oneself as a deity who is the embodiment of such enlightened qualities as compassion, wisdom, healing and so on. By meditating on the deity, you come to understand yourself as being the deity. You then understand the ultimate purity within yourself and that in fact there are no defilements to be removed. In Tantrayana everything is transformed into purpose, the outer realm is imagined as a pure heavenly realm, each being is seen as a buddha, each sound is mantra and every object is seen as if emanating the rainbow light of the sacred world. If you view all beings as being composed of the constituent elements of Buddhahood then there is no need to develop anger and you can develop effortless compassion.
These three paths or branches of Buddhism are not to be regarded as different or "better" than each other, they just represent varying interlocking levels or stages of development along the path, all necessary for the evolution of Buddhist spiritual development. Inspite of the many teachers, sects, and branches of Buddhism the ultimate emphasis in all of them is on the capacity of the individual to be able to work with his or her mind to achieve enlightenment. The Buddha said: "Be a lamp unto yourself" and did not require his followers to have faith in him as some kind of savior.
Each being is believed to have Buddhanature and the ability to attain nirvana or enlightenment through spiritual practice. Even though the Buddha is definitely venerated through art and images he is not worshipped as God or a Supreme Being but rather is seen as one of three sources of "refuge" from the tribulations of life in this world or samsara (the repetitive rounds of rebirth). The Buddha is understood to have been a man who through his own efforts became fully "awake" and was therefore able to guide others. The other two sources of refuge are the dharma or the teachings that guide one along the path, and the sangha, or the community of fellow Buddhist practitioners.
Another helpful tool for working with the mind is meditation. One form of meditation is Shinay or calming the mind. This is basically a meditation on the breath which allows the thoughts that arise in the mind to be observed without interacting with them which causes the mind to settle down so that the spaciousness or clarity of the mind can be experienced. One teacher said Shinay meditation is like placing a muddy glass of water on a table; eventually the silt settles to the bottom and the water becomes clear.
As the practitioner goes deeper in working with the mind he can work with what arises through Vipassana or Insight Meditation. When the practitioner starts to experience the nature of impermanence-- an understanding that everything is constantly arising and dissolving--the mind can start to soften and open rather than tighten and grasp. One starts to understand, as Jack Kornfeld says: "The thought of a friend is not the friend: it is a thought. How many life scenarios have we created, directed, and starred in and, for those moments, taken to be the experience itself?
We also may get carried away by the intense energy of our emotions, swept up in a typhoon of the mind and body. To be lost in emotions is to not be mindful of their energy; and when there is a strong identified involvement with them there is no space in the mind for seeing clearly what is happening."
As wisdom starts to replace suffering in the practitioner's life, compassion for others starts to arise and one desires to help others to be liberated from their suffering. Unless our hearts are open to feeling our own pain then we cannot be open to the suffering of others. As compassion becomes a sincere response the Buddhist can then start integrating spiritual practice and everyday life embarking upon paths that are of service to others. As patience, kindness, sensitivity, generosity, courage, integrity and perseverance arise then the practitioner can start truly being of benefit to others. When those who practice Buddhism start to let go of their egos and stop imposing their own personal agendas on the world they start to realize the true interdependency of all beings which allows an essential healing relationship with others and the very Earth itself to take place.
Many think that Buddhism is depressing because of the emphasis that it puts on suffering, but realistically acknowledging our suffering is the first step toward finding a way out of our tendency to cling to the false materialistic hopes and dreams propounded by our society that ultimately are ephemeral and leave us feeling disappointed, empty and unfulfilled.
The Four Noble Truths state the Buddha's understanding of our human situation:
1. Our existence is by its very nature filled with unhappiness; disease, decay, death and separation from what is desired causing continual pain and suffering (dukha).
2. This suffering is caused by selfish craving. The blind demandingness of our nature leads us to act in ways that cause suffering.
3. This craving or demandingness can be gotten rid of.
4. The way to bet rid of these cravings is to understand the nature of the mind and to practice dharma or "the true path" whose stages include: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right mode of livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
What the Buddha was telling the world here was that the mere fact of being born restricts us to finite conditions that cause problems and suffering. We only have to look at the news to be aware of the immensely painful events in the lives of those around us and to understand the misery that pervades existence. But the Buddha said that rather than be overwhelmed by our continual problems and often self-created suffering that we need to recognize the source of our sufferings: dualistic mind which causes us to cling to a false sense of separate self. This mind gives in to the delusion of self-interest, putting a priority of self over others and gives rise to the six "poisons"; ignorance, anger, attachment, greed, jealousy and pride which cause beings to become lost in the ocean of repeated rebirths into what is called "samsara."
But the good news is that every being also has the innate potential for Buddhahood or "basic goodness", and can achieve liberation from samsara. The process of achieving this liberation entails clearing away the obscurations of the mind and recognizing the absolute and omniscient nature of the mind which is beyond any concept of self or other. We can eliminate the capricious promptings of our minds by gradually reorganizing our lives along the lines of the eight-fold path, which re-orients the mind. The eight-fold path helps us understand the problem of life, accept a purpose or goal toward which we are working, and builds upon that by reinforcing moral conduct, careful use of words, ethically correct livelihood, spiritual practice, consciousness of ourselves and others and ultimately enables one to experience a sense of inner peace which emanates from the awareness of the oneness of all beings.
In order to understand Buddhist cosmology, we have to comprehend one of the key concepts of Buddhism, that of "interdependence". One of the aspects of that interdependence is the relationship between humanity's consciousness and the reality we perceive around us. According to Buddhism, all the proprieties that we attribute to the phenomenal world are not necessarily intrinsic to the object itself, but are conceived by our mind and filtered through our perceptions. Thus the same reality may appear differently to different intelligences. Objects are thus devoid of intrinsic and autonomous properties and do not possess solidity and permanence. That is the profound meaning of "vacuity." It must be emphasized that vacuity in Buddhism is not nothingness as the word has sometimes been misunderstood - Buddhism has at times been accused totally wrongly of nihilism. Vacuity is the absence of independence and autonomy of things. Because of interdependence, there is the potential and capacity for phenomenon to vary in an infinite number of ways, to develop in infinite directions. The only real nature of phenomena is thus their "interdependence". Vacuity is the ultimate nature of things because phenomena are devoid of an existence that is permanent and independent of the observer.
In Buddhism, there are thus 2 distinct levels of reality, that of conventional reality, which we are all familiar with in our daily lives, and that of ultimate reality, which has the quality of vacuity. Conventional reality concerns the transformation and change of things in the phenomenal world. These changes are governed by causal laws that are similar to the physical laws discovered by science in Nature. In that sense, the Buddhist view of conventional reality is very much like that of a scientist, with the difference being that, in addition to the physical laws, Buddhism introduces the laws of karma that say that the consequences of our acts, be they positive or negative, will lead unavoidably to our future happiness or suffering. But conventional reality is mere appearance. On a deeper level, phenomena do not have an objective existence. Using poetic language, Buddha often compared reality to mirages, magic illusions or dreams.
This interdependence between the nature of reality and the mind of observer is not totally foreign to the scientist himself although we usually think of science as being totally "objective". The information that nature sends us is inevitably altered by the instruments used for observation and analysis, be it a telescope, a bubble chamber or a computer, and by the brains of the observers who interpret it. Reality is filtered through a nightmarish web of electronic circuits; it is manipulated, digitized, and reconstituted by powerful computers and complex mathematical treatments.
In 1609, when Galileo first pointed a telescope toward the sky, he had, at the beginning, a very hard time convincing his colleagues that the wonders visible through his telescope were not optical illusions. The problem of the veracity of images is a thousand times worse in modern astronomy. There have been so many steps between the raw signals and the final image that it is quite legitimate to wonder what "objective truth" remains in the image. Fortunately, there is a way to weed out erroneous observations in science. A result or observation is not accepted until it has been verified independently by other workers, using other techniques or other measuring instruments. It is highly unlikely that the same error would be repeated each time, or that the instruments or machines should fool us on every occasion.
Thus, in principle, technical difficulties are surmountable. If we could rely upon machines alone, reality could, in theory, be rendered as objective as possible. But what cannot be avoided is the human brain. Human beings cannot observe nature in an objective manner. There is a constant interaction between our inner world and the outer world. The inner world of the scientist is full of concepts, models and theories acquired during his professional training. This inner world, when projected onto the outer world, prevents the scientist from seeing the "bare" objective facts, free from any interpretation. We only see what we want to see. On that subject, Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution, told a charming story: He spent a whole day on a river bank and saw nothing but stones and water. Eleven years later, he returned to the same spot, searching for traces of earlier glaciation. This time, the evidence stuck out like a sore thumb. Not even an extinct volcano could have left more visible traces of its past activity than this old glacier. Darwin discovered what he was looking for as soon as he knew how to see.
Science goes even further: the very act of observing can modify reality. The science of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles, says so. The properties of a particle are unavoidably disturbed when it is observed because one has to shine light on it. Light and particles going through two holes behave like waves when the observer does not attempt to find out which hole the light or particles have gone through. But behave like particles as soon as one attempts to find out their precise path by placing detectors after the holes. This interdependence between observer and reality has been emphasized many times by the founders of the science of quantum mechanics.
Let's listen for example to Heisenberg who remarks: "What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning." or to Bohr who says: "As our knowledge becomes wider, we must always be prepared, therefore, to expect alterations in the points of view best suited for the ordering of our experience. In this connection, we must remember, above all, that, as a matter of course, all new experience makes its appearance within the frame of our customary points of view and forms of perception."
Not only is there interdependence between the observer and the observed, but there is also interdependence between particles in the subatomic world. This is shown by a famous thought experiment proposed in 1930 by Albert Einstein and his colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen (known as the EPR experiment). Imagine, they said, that a particle disintegrates spontaneously into two photons A and B. Nothing allows us to say a priori in which directions these two photons will propagate. There is one certainty however: because of symmetry, they will leave in opposite directions. If A goes toward the west, B will go toward the east. Let us set up our instruments and check. Yes, A goes west and B goes east. It is as expected.
But this does not take into account the indeterminacy of the subatomic world. Quantum mechanics tells us that A has no precise direction before it is captured by the measuring instrument. It was wearing its guise as a wave and could take any direction. It is only after it has interacted with the detector that A turns into a particle and "learns" that it is going west. If A did not "know" what direction to take before being captured by the measuring instrument, how could B "guess" in advance the direction of A, and arrange its trajectory so that it would be captured at the same time in the opposite direction? This does not make sense. Einstein and his colleagues concluded that quantum mechanics had therefore gone wrong. But this not the case. Laboratory experiments have always confirmed quantum mechanics, and the theory does truly account for the behavior of atoms. How then are we to resolve the EPR paradox?
The paradox exists only because we assume that reality is "localized" on each of the two particles. The paradox is no more if we accept the idea that the two photons, even if they are separated by billions of light-years, are part of a single reality before they are recorded by the measuring instruments, and that they are in permanent contact with each other by some sort of mysterious interaction. Everything is interdependent. Reality is no longer local, but global.
When the developers of this volume asked me to provide a paper about "Science and Buddhism," they probably wanted the point of view of someone who has been trained in the scientific method of the West and is a practicing scientist, but who happens also to have some knowledge of the Buddhist tradition; in other words, someone who is familiar with two totally different ways of exploring the nature of the phenomenal world: one which relies on the rational method and uses physics and mathematics as tools while the other relies on an analysis of phenomena through the contemplative method. Yet both share a common thread: both are based on experience and observation.
It is not my purpose in this talk to use science to justify Buddhism, nor Buddhism to give a mystical meaning to science. Both exist independently of one another and stand on their own: Buddhism is a science of the awakening and whether the Universe is expanding or not can not have any bearing on its philosophical underpinnings. On the other hand, science is perfectly self-sufficient and accomplishes well its stated aim - that of giving a coherent description of the physical processes operating in Nature - without the need of a philosophical support from Buddhism or any other religion. Yet both science and Buddhism aspire to describe reality, and if their approaches are both coherent and valid, their respective visions should not contradict and exclude each other but rather should complement and re-enforce each other.
The description of the phenomenal world is not the main aim of Buddhism. Buddha is a physician of the soul and his main concern is to show the way to enlightenment. He has greater preoccupation with peace of mind, kindness, compassion and the joy and happiness in ourselves and others than in knowledge that does not contribute directly to a lessening of sorrow and suffering. Knowing that the Earth is round rather than flat, or that the universe had a beginning (or not) does not contribute directly to awakening. However, in order to analyze the causes of unhappiness, Buddha uses the methods of contemplative science that allow one not only to see clearly into the nature of the mind, but also to considerably refine our view of the phenomenal world. According to Buddhism, a correct analysis of the phenomenal world is necessary because an incorrect perception of reality may result in suffering and unhappiness. For example, if we are convinced that the material world has an intrinsic and permanent existence, then we may develop a strong misguided attachment to that material world which can cause frustration and suffering.
What are the consequences of the concept of interdependence on cosmological ideas in Buddhism? The concept of interdependence implies that the elements of the conventional reality we are all familiar with do not possess an existence that is permanent and autonomous. This thing exists because something else exists, that happens because this has occurred. Nothing can exist by itself and be its own cause.
Everything depends on everything else. Suppose that there is an entity that exists independently of all the others. This implies that it is not produced by a cause, that is, either it has always existed or it does not exist at all. Such an entity will be unchanging since it cannot act on others and others cannot act on it. The world of phenomena could not function. Thus interdependence is essential for phenomena to manifest themselves.
Because the concept of interdependence implies that nothing can exist by itself and be its own cause, it goes against the idea of a creative principle, a First Cause or a God that is permanent, all-powerful, that has no other cause than itself, and which created the universe. In the same vein, Buddhism rejects the idea that the universe can be born out of nothing - a creation ex-nihilo - because the universe has to depend on something else to emerge. If the universe was created, it is because there was a potentiality already present. The coming into being of the universe is merely the realization of that potentiality. One can thus interpret the Big Bang as the manifestation of the phenomenal world emerging from an infinite potentiality already in existence. In a poetic language, Buddhism speaks about of "particles of space" which carry in them the potentiality of matter. This is strongly reminiscent of the vacuum filled with energy that is thought to have given birth the material content of the universe in the modern Big Bang theory. Material phenomenon and things are not "created" in the sense that they go from a state of non-existence to one of existence. Rather they go from an unrealized state to a realized state. Once it has come into existence, the universe goes through a series of cycles, each composed of 4 stages: birth, evolution, death and a state where the universe is pure potentiality but has not manifested yet itself. This cyclic universe has no beginning nor an end.
Evolution and Impermanence
The cosmological theory that best describes the current observations of the universe is that of the Big Bang. It is now believed that the universe began its existence some 15 billion years ago with an enormous explosion from an initial state that was extremely tiny, hot and dense and that spawned space and time. Since then, there has been a relentless ascent towards increasing complexity. Beginning with a vacuum filled with energy, through the primordial soup of elementary particles, the universe has woven an immense cosmic tapestry composed of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made in turn of hundreds of billions stars. In one of these galaxies named "Milky Way", on a planet near a star about 2/3 of the way from the Galactic center toward the edge, humanity appeared, capable of marveling at the beauty and harmony of the cosmos and of asking questions about it.
One of the most remarkable changes of paradigm that has occurred with the advent of the big bang theory is that the universe has acquired a historical dimension. We can now speak of the history of the universe, with a beginning and an end, with a past, present and future. That the universe has a history was not always accepted. Some 24 centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that the Heavens, because they were perfect, had to be unchanging and eternal in contrast to the changeable and imperfect world of the Earth and the Moon. Newton's universe in the 17th century was static, unchanging and devoid of history. As late as the 1950s, the Steady State Theory, which says that the universe is on the average unchanging both in space and time, was considered a serious rival to the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory thus introduces the fundamental idea of cosmic evolution. Stars are born, live their lives, and die. In the course of their death throes, the massive stars eject gas that shall serve as seed for the birth of a new generation of stars. Those life and death cycles last from a few million years to several billion years. The universe itself may go through cycles of births and deaths, Big Bangs followed by Big Crunches, although it is not yet clear if the universe contains enough dark matter for its gravity to halt its present motion of expansion and reverse it. The idea of ceaseless change, of constant evolution due to the never-ending chain of causes and effects, is also central to Buddhism. It is called "impermanence."
Universe Conscious of Itself
Modern cosmology has rediscovered the ancient covenant between humanity and the cosmos. Humans are the children of stars, the siblings of wild animals, and the cousins of plants and flowers; we are all star dust. Astrophysics teaches us that the emergence of life from the primordial soup depended on an extremely delicate adjustment of the laws of Nature and the initial conditions of the universe. A minute change in the intensity of the fundamental forces, and we would not be around to talk about it. The stars would not have formed and started their marvelous nuclear alchemy. None of the heavy elements that constitute the basis of life would have seen the light of day. The precision of the fine-tuning of the physical constants and of the initial conditions is astonishing. It is similar to the precision that a marksman has to exercise in order to put a bullet through a square target of 1 cm on a side located at the edge of the observable universe some 15 billion light-years away. This fine-tuning is at the basis of what is called the "anthropic principle", from the Greek "anthropos" which means "man."
The laws of physics are special from an even more subtle point of view. Not only did they permit humanity to step on the stage, but they also conferred on us the ability to be conscious and understand the world in which we live. The fact that humans do not simply and blindly endure the laws of Nature without understanding them is highly significant. Darwinian selection certainly played a role in fashioning our brain to help us cope with the many challenges of life, but the ability to ask questions about the universe and understand the mathematical laws governing it is not necessary and seems to have come as a bonus. Does this mean that humanity has reclaimed a central place in the universe? Hardly! The physical and chemical processes that unfolded on Earth and led to life and consciousness are probably not unique to our planet. An extraterrestrial intelligence endowed with scientific and mathematical knowledge would be just as suitable to give the universe a meaning.
Necessity or Interdependence?
How can we interpret such an astonishing fine-tuning of the physical constants and initial conditions of the universe that make it possible for life and consciousness to emerge? From a non-Buddhist point of view, there are two possible alternatives. One can evoke either chance or necessity.
If chance is the right answer, then the very precise tuning of the laws of physics and the initial conditions, so as to allow consciousness to arise, could be explained by the existence of a multitude of parallel universes. These parallel universes would contain all possible combinations of physical laws and initial conditions. Virtually all these universes would be barren and incapable of harboring life and consciousness ... all except ours, that, by pure coincidence, would have the winning combination, with us as the grand prize! Quantum mechanics allows the existence of such parallel universes; every time a choice or decision must be made, the universe could split into two: in one universe the Declaration of Independence would be written, in another America would remain a colony of England. In one universe the Berlin Wall would be torn down, in another it would remain. The observer himself would divide in two. There are also some Big Bang models that allow the idea of parallel universes: our universe would be only one small bubble among a multitude of other bubble-parallel universes within a meta-universe. On the other hand, if we choose the "necessity" option (i.e. reject the parallel universe hypothesis and adopt the one of a single universe, our own), then in order to account for the extremely precise fine-tuning, we must postulate a Great Architect who adjusted from the outset the laws of physics and initial conditions in order for the universe to become conscious of itself.
Both options are possible, and science cannot settle the issue. Like the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, we must make a wager: either humanity emerged by chance in an indifferent universe that is totally devoid of meaning, or our ascent was preprogrammed at the very beginning so we could give meaning to the universe by understanding it.
Buddhism offers a third alternative to account for such a precise fine-tuning for the emergence life and consciousness. As we have seen, it is not necessary to invoke a First Cause, a creative principle that has regulated everything from the start. There is no need for an "anthropic principle" or for a notion of design. According to Buddhism, consciousness has co-existed, co-exists and will co-exist with matter for all times. The same goes for the animate with the inanimate. Neither the universe nor consciousness had a beginning or end. Because they are interdependent, it is not surprising that the properties of the universe are compatible with the existence of consciousness. Two interdependent entities cannot exclude each other, but must be necessarily in harmony with each other.
This cosmic vision is in contrast to the usual picture of an ascent of the pyramid of complexity, where there is the formation of ever more complex forms of matter with the passage of time, which forms as they pass a complexity threshold become animate and endowed with consciousness. This does not mean that Buddhism rejects the Darwinian idea of evolution. Rather Buddhism would interpret the whole sequence of Darwinian evolution of ever more complex organisms as simply an increase in sophistication of the material support of a stream or a continuum of consciousness going from one form of material support to another.
In summary, the cosmological view of Buddhism rests on the basic concept of interdependence. Because everything depends on something else, there can be no entity that exists independently of all the others. Thus, there is no First Cause and no creation ex-nihilo. There is also no need to invoke an "anthropic principle" or any notion of design. The universe must be such as to harbor consciousness simply because the two are interdependent. This concept of interdependence is strongly reminiscent of the properties of interconnectedness and non-locality found in the science of quantum mechanics for subatomic particles.
Trinh Xuan Thuan
Trinh Xuan Thuan has been a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia since 1976, where he currently teaches a course in astronomy for non-scientists. He research specializes in extragalactic astronomy and he has written many articles on galaxy formation and evolution. He is the author of several books for the general public including The Birth of the Universe (1993) and The Secret Melody (1994). His latest book Chaos and Harmony, a best-seller in France, was published in English in 2000
Buddhist lama speaks on meditation
By Kelli Goldman
The Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, an author and Buddhist lama, recently spoke at Emory University on April 3. The topic was on his new book Turning the Mind Into an Ally.
Collegian: What exactly is meditation?
Rinpoche: The Tibetan word for meditation is "gom," which means familiarity. Essentially, we are always becoming familiar with something: anger, jealousy, irritation, compassion, love. In meditation we become familiar with an object (in the beginning, the breath) in order to strengthen and stabilize our mind.
Collegian: How can meditation enhance every day life?
Rinpoche: It can help us strengthen our focus on whatever we are doing: school, work, family. Furthermore, it can help us find the mental space to see our reactions before we act them out. For example, we can train in seeing our anger arise. Then we have a choice about whether we strike out with spiteful words or actions. Or we can see our attachment or jealousy arise. Then we have the choice to indulge it by going after something or somebody, or let it pass.
Collegian: What do you believe about spiritual paths, and how does a person go about discovering their spiritual path?
Rinpoche: There are a variety of ways in which one might discover one's spiritual path. However, often it comes about through realizing a certain level of bewilderment and suffering, and wanting to investigate it. I think that everybody has enlightened qualities, you know, in Buddhism we call it Buddha nature Buddha just means enlightenment.
Collegian: I'm very curious, especially with the current situation, between the United States and Iraq, and all this war and fighting, how can meditation inspire compassion?
Rinpoche: If you know who you are, [and] you know your own mind, you won't be easily distracted, and you won't be easily manipulated. And I think when we have fear, we don't trust ourselves, and we might lose sight of our compassion. The thing with meditation is teaching what's most important, whatever you have in your present mind. So I think the notion here is everybody can have peace in their mind - having confidence to look at daily life, and what happens when you do that is you realize that other people are suffering, other people are having struggles, the Iraqi's are also dying. All of the sudden the response is not to kill them more but to have compassion, ask how can we resolve this? It shouldn't result in destruction otherwise the destruction makes matters worse.
Collegian: So would it be safe to say that compassion and wisdom not only work hand in hand but they promote each other?
Rinpoche: Oh, definitely. If you're compassionate and you don't have wisdom, you kind of become a doormat. You think you should do something, but you don't know why. You have to have a little bit of wisdom for better utilizing [compassion] and you also have to know yourself. What can I handle? You can't always be extending if you don't have enough reserve - you'll wear yourself out. So it's kind of the sense of building up, building up to a combination. And if you just have wisdom and no compassion, you become too cold. Without compassion, you may use the wisdom as a way of responding the wrong way.
Collegian: Finally, what do you hope the readers of Turning the Mind Into an Ally will learn and take away with them?
Rinpoche: My hope is that the book becomes kind of a source for people to feel confident that they can meditate, that they can look at that and say, 'I can learn enough from here to be able to handle my mind'. I think it's possible, I think a lot of reasons why people don't meditate or don't feel like they have time is because they kind of feel their minds are unruly and don't even want to think about doing it because they think it's too much, it's a waste of time. And all of the sudden you can say if you think it's a waste of time, than you think you're a waste of time. And I feel like that's how it works, you know, you're relating with your mind anyway, and you've sort of figured out how to keep it at bay but it's never really going to get much better. From day to day we learn But everybody can handle their mind. In my book I go through a section about how to do different contemplative mediations, how to take meditation into your life. I think there's a tendency for people to think that mediation is sort of the end-all. It's the medium step in-between. You meditate and you become strong, and you clear and learn how to handle your mind, and then you get up from the meditation so you can apply it to your life. So meditation is not the end-all, it's like training. You work out not to work out more, but to go out and do things. So meditation is kind of helping you regenerate your battery so you can go out and do things. I think that people tend to think, 'Oh, if you're going to meditate, you're going to go off and waste your time sitting by yourself.' No, that's not really the point.
Contact us through email at Studnews@gpc.edu.
- His Holiness the 101th Sanden Tripa
Supreme Head of the Gelugpa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
The following is an interview with His Holiness the 101th Ganden Tripa, the Supreme Head of the Gelug Tradition.
The interview is conducted on the occasion of His Holiness the 101th Ganden Tripa's first official visit to Singapore.
The interview is conducted by Kunga Nyima and is translated by
Associate Professor Huang Yi Yan of Taiwan.
It is conducted on 18 June 2003 at His Holiness's residence in
His Holiness the 101th Ganden Tripa is hosted on His first
Official Visit to Singapore from 25 May 2003 to 23 June 2003 by the Charitable Assistance Society.
Q: What is the most essentially fundamental thing for a Buddhist?
A: Buddhists should know that samsara is suffering. We need to realize that samsara is
suffering first before we will try to obtain liberation from it. The only way to liberation from
samsara is through following the Teachings of the Buddha. According to the Texts, only by
following the Buddhist Teachings can there be ultimate liberation from samsara.
Q: What is the most important thing a Buddhist should remember?
A: A Buddhist should always remember the 3 Jewels: the Buddha, His Teachings [The Dharma ]
and His Assembly of Noble Disciples [ The Sangha ].
A Buddhist should clear internalize the supreme qualities of the 3 Jewels.
In general, the Buddha is like a doctor, the Dharma is like medicine and the Sangha is like
nurses and assistants to the doctor. We, sentient beings, in samsara, are like the patients. We
need to take the doctor's prescription to get well. Moreover, we also need to rely on the
doctor and his assistants too.
A Buddhist needs to always take refuge in the 3 Jewels as well as to remember the qualities
of the 3 Jewels.
Q: How do we sustain "Bodhicitta": the attitude of completely dedicating ourselves for the
welfare of others; of wanting to attain the state of Complete Enlightenment or Buddhahood
solely for the good of others?
A: To put the Teachings into practice is difficult. If we can put the Teachings into practice, this is
real Bodhicitta. If we cannot, this cannot be Bodhicitta.
To give rise to Bodhicitta, we must first cultivate Loving-kindness [ Wishing all beings to
have happiness and the causes of happiness ] and Compassion [ Wishing all beings to be free
from suffering and the causes of suffering ]. Next, we must think of the kindness of our
mother. Then, we need to remember the kindness of all beings as they have acted as our
mothers in countless past lives. Following, we need to cultivate the wish to repay the
kindnesses of all these uncountable mother sentient beings.
To put Bodhicitta into practice is difficult. If we can put Bodhicitta into practice, this is real
Bodhicitta. If we cannot put Bodhicitta into practice, this cannot be genuine Bodhicitta.
Always try to sustain a good-heart. Do not be bothered about what others do. Just try to
sustain a good-heart. This is the way of the true Buddhists.
Q: Is vegetarianism compulsory? It has been suggested that cultivating crops kill untold
numbers of insects whilst the slaughtering of only one yak in old Tibet can feed the whole
family for a week. Therefore, from the numerical point of view, this group of people suggests
that we should consume meat of big-size animals rather than eating vegetables which
inevitably entail the death of countless creatures. Moreover, some masters have insisted on
vegetarianism as compulsory for a Buddhist whilst others quoted Buddhist texts to the
contrary. What is Your Holiness point of view?
A: In general, Lord Buddha has taught 3 differing points with regard to vegetarianism.
In the first one, in the Theravada tradition, it is taught that we cannot take the so-called three
categories of "Impure Meat": a) we perceive through our eyes or ears the killing of the meat;
b) we suspect that the meat is killed for ourselves; c) we know that the meat has been killed
for us. Besides these 3 categories of meat, we are permitted to partake of the rest.
In the second one, in the Mahayana tradition, it is taught explicitly that the taking meat is
necessarily unskillful and wrong. So vegetarianism is compulsory here.
In the third, in the Vajrayana tradition, it is taught that practitioners of this path should take
meat. The reason for this is given in the texts and requires extensive explanations. It is not
appropriate for me to elaborate here.
Students of Buddhism can choose to follow any of these 3 points. It is not possible for me to
dictate which points students should follow.
Q: There have been some Buddhist centres concentrating mainly on doing social work whilst
some concentrating mainly on spiritual practices. What is Your Holiness's opinion on what
a Buddhist centre should concentrate on?
A: Doing both social work and spiritual practices are not contradictory but are in fact
complementary. Both have their own reasons for doing their respective work. Shantideva
said in "Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life" that the perfection of generosity does not
mean that one can only perfect the practice of generosity after one has alleviated the poverty
of all sentient beings. Lord Buddha has already perfected the practice of generosity.
However, there is still poverty in the world. Therefore, this proves the point as elucidated in
"Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life" that to perfect the practice of generosity means to
be able to perfect the activity of generosity from the point of view of one's spiritual practice
rather than from already physical completion of the alleviating of poverty of all other beings.
Following this point of argument, cultivation of generosity through various spiritual
practices is important.
Even if I can help, I can only but help but a minute proportion of beings through doing social
work. Even if I can help 1000 beings, this is still a small proportion relative to the population
of Singapore and the number of beings in the whole universe.
There are 3 sets of vows: the Self-Liberation Vows; the Bodhisattva Vows and the Vajrayana
Vows. All these 3 sets of vows contain the Practices of the 6 Perfections including of course
the practice of generosity. Some examples of how we can exercise the vows include one
assisting if any beings fall sick or have other difficulties, one helping to guard banks as they
contain the wealth of many beings! From this point of view therefore, social work is therefore
an essential part of dharma practice.
In addition, however, we must also remember Shantideva's teaching that the
accomplishment of the perfections lies in one's mind through spiritual practices also.
Therefore, there are valid and good reasons for social work as well as spiritual practices.
There is no need to split them into two different groups.
Q: There have been comments that Buddhists from almost all traditions, be it Tibetan, Thai or
even the west, have been building too much big statues, stupas, centres and even monasteries
and that Buddhists should instead expend more of their resources on social welfare projects
such as hospitals, animal-shelter-homes, orphanages and others that directly benefit beings
in more tangible ways. What is Your Holiness's opinion about this?
A: All are good. All can accumulate merit. Building hospitals or monasteries are good. Both
activities are not wasteful.
Q: Some Buddhist centres will only support or circulate news of activities organized by their
own centres. Some will even through either implicit or even explicit means, discourage their
members from attending programmes organized by other centres even if these programmes
are conducted by acknowledged great masters and are beneficial. It has been suggested that
these centres are trying to maintain the number of students or followers in their centres as
they are worried that their resources will be "lost" to other organizations. On the other
hand, these centres claim that they are only trying to "protect" their students from even
some of these important teachers, some of whom are even teachers of their centres' own
spiritual advisers. What does Your Holiness think about this?
A: I have no comments. If I say something, some people may get angry with me! [ laughing ]
Q: Will there be an end to samsara?
A: It is difficult to say if there will be an end to samsara. It is mentioned in the texts that all
beings will eventually become Buddhas. But before that, samsara is there. It is also
mentioned in the texts that there does not exist a time where all beings will be free from
Q: There have been allegations of conversions of Buddhists to other religions through deliberate
and aggressive inaccurate depiction of Buddhism, conditional provisions of material aid,
educational opportunities and such. What does Your Holiness think of this?
A: We have to try our best to propagate the Buddhist Teachings. We have no ability to stop
these alleged practices. It is also no good for us to stop conversions through "fair" means.
The main thing is to develop and improve ourselves. We need to establish more Buddhist
centres. We need to improve the management of existing centres. Just like how other
religions spread their teachings, Buddhists should also follow likewise. We should not think
of going against other religions however!
Conducting certain religious ceremonies or "pujas" for welfare of the Buddhist teachings is
also another method.
According to the Buddhist Teachings, it is considered negative karma to desecrate the
Buddhist teachings. Similarly, we should not desecrate teachings of other religions.
We simply need to improve ourselves with diligence. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism,
the Sakyapas will need to preserve and propagate teachings of the Sakya Tradition. The
Kagyupas, the Nyingmapas and the Gelugpas will similarly need to do likewise.
Q: What does Your Holiness feel about the state of Buddhism in the west?
A: Buddhism has been taught and transmitted in the west but it is difficult to ensure that every
Teaching has been taught and learnt well. There is definite room for improvements in terms
of the way the Buddhist centers are being managed, the way the western students are
learning the teachings, the way these students are practicing the teachings, the way in which
the teachings have been taught and others. Another matter of concern is that many Tibetan
teachers in the west have no place of their own.
Q: Does Your Holiness feel that it is timely and appropriate to introduce the Bhikshuni or
Fully-ordained Nun's Order into Tibetan Buddhism?
A: I have not much comment about this matter.
Q: Does Your Holiness feel that the "tulku" system or the system of finding reincarnated
teachers is still relevant today?
A: There are still many masters getting recognized today. I do not know whether it is still
Q: What is Your Holiness opinion of astrology and divination?
A: Some people believe in them and some people do not. I personally have not much opinion
about this matter.
Q: There have been great concerns and fear almost amongst Vajrayana students in both the east
and west, on their need to, at all cost, at least read through the meditation text of their
yidam daily as they have been told to do so by their teachers during initiation ceremonies of
which they participated. These students considered missing doing the meditation of their
Yidam or missing reading through the relevant text even for a day a serious transgression of
their vow or commitment. What is Your Holiness's opinion about this matter?
A: The main point is not to simply and blindly read through the Yidam's meditational text or
"sadhana" daily without understanding.
The main point is to keep strictly to our best ability all the commitments we have taken: the
Self-liberation, the Bodhisattva and the Tantric commitments.
It is good and important to do the meditational text of your yidam daily especially if you
have promised to do so daily but this is not the main point. The main and most important
point is to keep the above 3 sets of vows to our best ability.
If you have promised your Teachers to do certain "sadhanas" or "Practice Texts" daily, you
should definitely try to do them daily. If you really cannot do it due to sickness, it is perfectly
fine. But you should continue after you have recovered from your sickness.
If you miss your "sadhana" due to that you have forgotten to do it, you should still continue
to do it the very next day. You should also do at least 21 times the long Vajrasattva 100-
Syllable Mantra or to do the "Confession to the 35 Buddhas" the very next day.
If for whatever reason you miss your "sadhana" such as not having the time due to work,
you should let your Teacher know about it and then re-take the particular initiation again. In
the meantime, before say you can re-take the initiation again, continue with the practice. You
should also do at least 21 times the long Vajrasattva 100-Syllable Mantra or do the
"Confession to the 35 Buddhas".
If owing to work commitments you cannot continue with your daily practice of the promised
"sadhana" anymore, you should let your Teacher know about this. If you are not able to let
your Teacher know about this or your Teacher has already passed away and you still cannot
continue to do your practice daily, you should then do at least 21 times the long Vajrasattva
100-Syllable Mantra or do the "Confession to the 35 Buddhas" daily.
It is important to check if there is any commitment that comes with any particular initiation.
If you are not able to keep the commitments, you should not take the initiation.
If a student has promised to do say 5 "sadhanas" a day, the student should not decide for
himself or herself without consulting their Teachers first whether he or she can simply do
only one "sadhana" in place of all the rests daily.
However, it is also important that students should not feel unreasonably or overly upset or
fearful of missing daily practice for whatever reasons.
Q: How will Your Holiness describe Your relationship with HH the Dalai Lama?
A: His Holiness the Dalai Lama has taken care of me in my past lives. His Holiness has taken
care of me when I was just a newly-ordained monk, when I was the Abbot of the Tantric
College of Upper Lhasa, Abbot of Ganden Shartse Monastery, when I was the Lord of
Dharma of the Eastern End or the "Sharpa Choje" and even when I am now the Ganden
Tripa or the Supreme Head of the Gelugpa Tradition. His Holiness is one of my precious
Root Teachers. I have taken a photograph with HH the Dalai Lama this year [ May 2003 ].
There is nothing in the world that I cherish more.
Then, not forgetting also, that His Holiness is, in some ways, my "boss". [ giggles]
Q: Does Your Holiness practise the controversial protector Shugden banned by HH the Dalai
A: Did you not hear of the announcement made by HH the Dalai Lama in front of nearly
300,000 people in Bodhigaya in December 2002 about this? I did not do the practice of this
protector. [ laughing ]
Q: What is Your Holiness's opinion on a student being non-sectarian and doing practices or
receiving teachings and initiations from all the 4 Tibetan Buddhist lineages?
A: I feel that it is best if a practitioner can do the practices of all these four lineages without
discrimination. However, it may be difficult for some unless they have the capacity.
On the other hand, it is also possible for a practitioner to concentrate only on one lineage.
However, this latter practitioner even concentrating only on one lineage, needs to have
sincere and genuine respect and appreciation for all the other lineages he or she is not
As we are Buddhists, we all said the Refuge Prayer in which it is mentioned that we take
refuge in the Community of Noble Ones. This means the beings who have gained
Enlightenment. These beings can be found in all the different lineages. Therefore, when we
take refuge, we take refuge in these Enlightened Beings in all the lineages. If we accept only
those Enlightened Beings found in our lineage and reject those Enlightened Beings of other
lineages, what we do and say are different. I consider such sectarian attitude or behaviour a
very serious breach of Buddhist commitment.
In summary, if we have the ability, it is best if we can follow teachings from all the lineages.
Otherwise, we can concentrate on learning from any one of the lineages that we have affinity
towards but at the same time maintaining sincere and genuine respect and appreciation of
the other lineages.
The Gelugpa Tradition
Q: Can Your Holiness tell us the distinguishing characteristics of the Gelugpa Tradition of
which You are the Official Head?
A: Both in the west and the east, people recognize the Gelugpa monks by the yellow pointed hat
they wear. This is the special characteristic! [ laughing ]
The uncommon feature of the Gelugpa is that outwardly, the Gelugpa monks adopt a
subdued and gentle form of the Shravaka practitioner who live according to the Vinaya rules
of the Sutra Vehicle whilst inwardly possessing the full realization of the Generation and
Completion Stages of the Tantra Vehicle.
The Gelugpa Tradition perceives the Sutra and Tantra Vehicle as complementary and not
Q: Does Your Holiness feel that Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, the Gelugpa Tradition, has
been upheld well in exile?
A: I feel that in general, Tibetan Buddhism has been relatively well preserved. In India, the
number of monks in the great monasteries has increased due to diligent efforts. However,
efforts to make further progress beyond the current situation may be difficult as most efforts
have already been expended towards preservation itself. One of the difficulties faced by the
monks is that as they are now in exile, they have to take care of their livelihood themselves
such as growing crops in the fields. In Tibet in the past, monks only need to study and
practise without having the need to work for their own living.
Q: Does Your Holiness feel that there could be some changes introduced into the Geshe study
programme followed by the great monasteries of the Gelugpa Tradition?
A: There have been some suggestions about this. The five great texts that form the curriculum of
the Geshe study programme is not for the purpose of winning debates. The debates are not
to be only done in mouth but are to be followed by actions throughout the 20 to 30 years of
study. The debates are not mere games.
Before we can start practising, we need first to know what and how to practise and this we
can achieve through studying.
Both Lord Buddha and Je Tzongkhapa have said that before we accept any of Their
teachings, we need first to behave like a goldsmith examining the purity of his goods. A
goldsmith will first need to smelt the material under investigation. Next, he will need to
dissect the gold into appropriate sizes. Finally, he will need to shape the material. Similarly,
too, before we accept or commence any practices, we need first to investigate carefully the
sources of these practices through correspondingly adopting the above three processes,
whether they originate from the Buddha or any of the Indian or Tibetan lineal Teachers.
Study will assist in this task.
There have been suggestions too to introduce scientific study into the Geshe study
programme. In general, I feel that studying science is good. However, the study and practise
of the Buddha's teachings is the only ultimate way to the liberation of all beings from
samsara and for us to become a Buddha so that we can liberate all beings from samsara.
Towards this objective, studying the Buddha's teachings is sufficient. All the 500 Arahants of
the past have achieved this without requiring study of science. Studying the Teachings is not
to just acquire knowledge or to acquire official paper certificates. Studying the Teachings is
to free oneself from samsara and also that oneself can become a Buddha to liberate all beings
from their sufferings. Again, towards this aim, studying of the Teachings is sufficient. There
is no further need to include the study of science. However, to be a famous scholar
recognized by the world, we will then need to study both the Teachings and science!
[ laughing ]
The study of the Teachings is so that we can gain wisdom to realize Emptiness which is the
ultimate nature of phenomena. The study of the teachings entails the following three stages:
Listening to the teachings; contemplating what we have heard; putting into practice what we
have learnt. We need to listen to the teachings first before we can contemplate on them.
Before we can contemplate, we first need to listen to what has been taught. If we do not
listen, we cannot contemplate and subsequently, there is nothing for us to practise!
Therefore, first, we need to seek for knowledge through listening and studying the teachings.
I personally started to study the great texts when I was 25 years old. I am now 77 years old
and still I feel that I have not learnt enough.
In addition to the Gelugpa tradition, the other 3 traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakya,
the Nyingma and the Kagyu all contain examples of great realised masters who studied the
Teachings extensively. In the Sakya tradition, we have Sakya Pandita. In the Nyingma
tradition, we have Longchen Rabjampa. In the Kagyu tradition, the lineal Karmapas and
Dhakpo Lhaje or Gampopa are such great beings. All these masters learnt and studied
extensively the great texts and do not rely simply on merely one text alone.
In recent years, some teachers have taught that it is sufficient to rely only on the tantric
practices of the Vajrayogini [ Naro Kachodma ] and the Solitary Yamantaka. On the other
hand, it has been suggested that the current strong emphasis on the tantric practices of the
Vajrayogini [ Naro Kachodma ] and the Solitary Yamantaka instead of the combined tantric
practices of the 32 Deity Guhyasamaja, the 62 Deity Heruka Chakrasamvara and the 13
Deity Yamantaka recommended by Je Tzongkhapa are signs of the degeneration of the
tantric practices in the Gelugpa tradition. What is Your Holiness's opinion on this matter?
The Vajrayogini or Naro Kachodma practices is not introduced into the Gelugpa Tradition
by Trijang Rinpoche but popularized earlier by masters such as Pabongka Rinpoche as
Pabongka Rinpoche is considered to be an emanation of Naropa who is Himself the first
Lineage Master of this tantric cycle. Trijang Rinpoche is Himself strongly affiliated to the
Vajrayogini cycle as even HH the Dalai Lama pronounced that Trijang Rinpoche is a great
practitioner of both the Heruka and Vajrayogini cycles.
In general, Je Tzongkhapa's three meditational deities or yidams are the 32 Deity
Guhyasamaja, the 62 Deity Heruka Chakrasamvara and the 13 Deity Yamantaka. Amongst
these 3 yidams, Tzongkhapa especially meditates on Guhyasamaja and wrote most
extensively and deeply on this practice. Guhyasamaja is in fact Tzongkhapa's main practice.
Both Guhyasamaja's and Heruka's meditation texts are long whilst Yamantaka's text is
relatively shorter. The genuine good practitioner of the Gelugpa tradition must do all these
three practices inseparably.
I have personally heard HH the Dalai Lama taught before that doing the practices of these 3
yidams inseparably is not exactly to mean to read the meditation texts of these 3 yidams
separately. The point is to extract the essential and critical features of each of these 3
respective yidams and to subsequently integrate them into any one of these 3 yidams which
one has adopted as one's main yidam.
For example, if your main yidam is Yamantaka, you integrate the essential features of each of
these 3 yidams into Yamantaka and you then concentrate on the practice of Yamantaka.
Similarly, if your yidam is Guhyasamaja, you then integrate the essential features of each of
these 3 yidams into Guhyasamaja and you then concentrate on the practice of Guhyasamaja.
This applies also if your yidam is Heruka.
The past great lineage Gelugpa Masters similarly do practices of these 3 yidams inseparably.
The recent great lineage Gelugpa Masters such as Ling Rinpoche [ who is the 97th Ganden
Tripa and the Senior Root Teacher of the present Dalai Lama ], Trijang Rinpoche [ who is the
Junior Root Teacher of the present Dalai Lama ] and Zong Rinpoche all practise these 3
yidams inseparably. These great masters have definitely mastered practices of these 3
Some teachers may have taught their students only to concentrate on Vajrayogini and
Solitary Yamantaka because their students may not have the ability or time to do the
practices of these 3 great Yidams.
However, in general, genuine Gelugpa practitioners who have the ability should do the
practices of these 3 great Yidams as His Holiness the Dalai Lama advised.
Q: What is Your Holiness's opinion on mercy-killing or euthanasia?
A: To kill another being before his or her natural death involves the negative karma of killing
even if he or she themselves request to end their lives or if they are already unconscious on
life-support and their next-of-kin decides to end their life on their behalf.
Q: Does Your Holiness think that it is permissible to abort babies if they are conceived through
rape or if giving birth to the baby endangers the mother's life or if the baby is so chronically
handicapped that it will die within a few seconds or minutes of its birth?
A: Any form of abortion will involve the negative karma of killing a being.
Q: What is Your Holiness's opinion on experiments being done on animals for the alleged
benefit of human beings?
A: According to the Buddhist Teachings, giving suffering to another being is wrong.
Q: What is Your Holiness's view on homosexuality?
A: Homosexuality seems to be getting more common in the world these days. Homosexuality,
like heterosexuality, are both activities of samsara. Neither seems to be particularly better or
worse than the other. Whether a man or woman is straight or gay does not make him or her
any particularly better or worse than the other. In general, both are activities of lay people.
Not that, however, that there is no karma involved in homosexuality, only that it is just like
heterosexuality, another activity of samsara.
Q: What is Your Holiness's opinion of genetic engineering?
A: I do not know whether it is correct or wrong.
Q: Does Your Holiness think it is permissible to eradicate "pests": animals or insects which are
harmful to human beings such as mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and such?
A: All beings are the same. It is considered negative karma to kill any being. Even if these
animals infect human beings with diseases, according to the Buddhist Teachings, it is still
considered an unskillful action to harm or eradicate them. However, to say not to stop
diseases getting spread to human beings as a result of infections from these animals also
does not seem to be totally correct. It is very difficult to decide. No matter which stand you
take, it is still very difficult.
Q: What is Your Holiness's opinion of the so-called "pre-emptive strikes"?
A: There is one viewpoint that claims that crippling your enemy's military resources first before they
initiates a brutal onslaught on civilians is actually a skilful means to protect lives. The
other viewpoint is that "pre-emptive strikes" initiates aggression first from one's side
without provocation from the other and is therefore wrong.
It is difficult to decide.
Q: What is Your Holiness's wish for the world?
A: I wish all beings in the world happiness, health and also that they will live even better.
Presentation from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
short introduction to Buddhism -
Presentation from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism
The cause of samsara
Buddha, the Enlightened One, taught that all beings suffer as a result of their not recognizing the inherent Emptiness of nature.
- From their Non-recognition of Emptiness or Ignorance arises a sense of Self.
- From this sense of Self arises Self-cherishing Attitude which places oneself above all others.
- From Self-cherishing Attitude arises all the other Defilements: Anger, Attachment and such.
- As a result of creation of actions motivated by these Defilements, beings suffer from "Karma" or the Resultant Effects of their Actions.
- From their endless creation of "Karma", beings are forced to take birth, experienced inevitable death, take birth again, experience death again and so on, again and again in unending cycles of suffering.
The way to end samsara
- To realize Emptiness so that they can be free from samsara, beings will need to practise the Noble Eight-fold Path: Right View / Right Intention / Right Speech / Right Action / Right Livelihood / Right Effort / Right Mindfulness / Right Concentration.
- When beings realize Emptiness, they are then liberated from samsara.
Beings who do not only want to liberate themselves from samsara but in addition, wanting to attain Buddhahood, as this is the best manner that they can liberate all other countless beings from samsara, are known as "Bodhisattvas".
The wish to want to attain Buddhahood regardless of how long it will take or how difficult it will be solely for the liberation from samsara of all other beings is known as the "Common Bodhicitta".
Way of practice of the Bodhisattvas - Sutra Tradition
Bodhisattvas practise the Six Perfections for countless aeons so that they can attain the state of Buddhahood. The Six Perfections are Generosity / Morality / Patience /Perseverance / Meditation / Wisdom. This group of Bodhisattvas is practicing according to the Sutra Mahayana Tradition.
Another group of Bodhisattvas practices according to the Tantra Mahayana Tradition. This latter group of Bodhisattvas are motivated by the "Uncommon Bodhicitta" which is the wish to attain Buddhahood for the liberation from samsara of all other beings through any means whatsoever because they cannot stand, due to their great compassion, the suffering of any beings whilst they are progressing towards Buddhahood.
Way of practice of the Bodhisattvas - Tantra Tradition
This group of Bodhisattvas practices Deity Yoga and other tantric practices which will yield the state of Buddhahood in the shortest time possible including even this very life. In general, these Bodhisattvas practise viewing the inherent ultimate potential or purity of all beings. They do this through viewing their Spiritual Teachers as Buddhas, themselves and all other beings as Buddhas.
Humbly from the Charitable Assistance Society
28 June 2003
with Mr. Kalinga Upali Seneviratne,
Director, Global Eye Media, Singapore.
For the series "Dhamma and the New Age"
Question 1: You have a background in accountancy and business administration, worked for a Western government, and now become a monk. Can you explain why you took up robes?
First of all I would like to point out the basic advantages of Dhamma practice,
especially meditation as taught by Luang Phor Wat Paknam. This is a very efficient
method of concentration of mind. It will lead to supernatural knowledge, which
will enable us to develop Right Wisdom through seeing and knowing. Knowing from
the scriptures and lectures, and seeing the reality, whether crude or refined,
the practitioner will be able to see the suffering worlds (like Hungry Ghosts
and Hell), and also Heaven and the heavenly beings. This will then help us to
fully understand the Cause of Suffering and the Cause of Happiness.
This method of concentration of mind, leading to Insight Meditation, is a very effective method. It will remove the hindrances, and help us to develop higher and higher levels of absorption, which then will help us in developing supernatural vision and hearing.
By practicing this meditation method and seeing the results, I was able to make some important changes in my life-style as a layman. It enabled me to quit immoral conduct like social drinking and flirtation. I found that any person who can develop Right Wisdom through both visualization and knowing will be confident in the effectiveness of Buddha's teachings. In research terms it means that you get both reliable information and correct, relevant information. You can then be certain that the conclusion is right. This behavior causes you to stop bad conduct and leads to a good life with good behavior.
By practicing deeply we discover how useful this meditation method taught by Luang Phor Wat Paknam is. Not only will it help the practitioner himself. It will also help others in the community. By educating people in the law of Cause and Effect and how to meditate up to the higher levels of Vijja (Supernatural Knowledge), we can help to subdue problems. Not only personal problems, but also problems in the community. We can even help to develop prosperity. Whenever there are serious problems in our country and in the world, we try to help. It doesn't mean that we can solve all problems at all times, because there are many factors involved. However, this meditation method can positively help to develop personal peace, peace in our community, and even peace in the world.
In conclusion, I saw 3 things:
1. A very efficient meditation method, taught by Luang Phor Wat Paknam, leading to development of Right Wisdom through seeing and knowing, and thereby making us fully understand and certain of the Law of Cause and Effect.
2. The Right Wisdom enabling us to control our moral conduct, leading to a peaceful life far away from suffering.
3. The ability to subdue our problems in life, and make things prosper through good and proper practice.
So, I have decided to dedicate this last part of my life to earnest Dhamma practice, in order to remove The Cause of Suffering as much as possible before passing away. As we learn more and more, not only from practicing meditation but also from studying the scriptures, we will be able to convey this teaching to the public, helping citizens of all age groups to do good and refrain from bad conduct, and thereby helping the community to improve.
I realized already as a layman, that in the years to come more and more people will be absorbed into the Western way of life, whether good or bad, acquiring more sensual objects, which then in turn will cause higher passion and increased suffering. So, I feel that even a small person like myself should try to do my best to help the community, by practising in order to improve the Dhamma in myself and then convey the experience and Buddha's teachings to the public. Especially to the young kids, but definitely also to adults. This is what I will do during this last period of my life. As a layman many things can limit our practice, so I decided to become a monk and to sacrifice my life for the upgrading the Dhamma in myself. I have now devoted my life completely to practicing and teaching, especially through media like TV and radio.
Question 2: At the root of the Buddhist philosophy is the need to eradicate craving. Thus, is a consumerist society in conflict with the Buddhist teachings?
According to Lord Buddha's teaching, unlimited desire and not being satisfied
with what one has, will cause suffering.
If a consumerist society is in conflict with the Buddhist teaching or not all depends upon how well educated the people living in that consumerist society are. It also depends upon how much trust or faith they have in the teaching and how much they put the teaching into practice, because Buddhism doesn't force anyone to do anything. It only points out what is right and what is wrong. It is left up to the individual to choose for him/herself, and be fully responsible for his/her actions. The Buddha said: "You yourself must make the effort. The Tathagata only points out the way"
Question 3: If consumerism and Buddhism are in conflict, would you say that Thailand's claim to be a Buddhist society could be challenged?
To be considered a Buddhist you have to accept the Triple Gem as your refuge.
That's all. How you practice is up to you. If you practice in a good way you will
receive good results. On the other hand, bad conduct will cause bad effect.
As an example, I will use the so-called bubble economy. It shows clearly what happens when people don't pay attention to Lord Buddha's teachings and just follow their desires. What happens is, that many businessmen make loans far beyond their capability, in order to make a huge profit. At the same time, the banks are happily giving loans in order to get interest in return. So, when people get money so easily from the bank, they get tempted to spend an excessive amount of money on their sense desires.
However, the national economy turned into what is known as a bubble economy, The triple deficit (balance of trade deficit, balance of payment deficit, and the current account deficit) downgraded the country's credit rating, followed by devaluation of the Baht.
So, the bubble has already burst. Now, companies can't make enough money to pay off their loans, loans which have become even larger by the devaluation of the Baht. The result is, that many companies have had to shut down, and unemployment is on the rise.
This is a good example of how unlimited craving causes problems, not only to individuals, but also to the community, the nation, and the world.
Some people claim to be Buddhists, but they don't live their lives the way a Buddhist should, but that's up to them. I just want to point out, that any world being who is practicing according to the teaching will receive good results, and will thus automatically become a Buddhist.
Question 4: In what ways would you see Thailand adopting Buddhist principles in developing a modern economy?.
Answer: We should adopt "Ditthadhammikattha", virtues conducive to benefits in the present. There are four:
o "Arakkhasampada", taking good care of property.
o "Kalyanamittata", associating with good people.
o "Samajivita", balanced livelihood, knowing how to spend according to one's income, or simply just living economically. This should be applied to both Arakkhasampada (taking care of property) and Kalyanamittata (associating with good people).
We should also
o "Saddha-sampada" (being endowed with faith),
o "Sila-sampada" (being endowed with morality),
o "Caga-sampada" (being endowed with generosity) and
o "Panna-sampada" (being endowed with wisdom).
This would cause the economy to improve, and people would know what should be done, and what should not be done, what is really important and what is only superficial.
Question 5: The three pillars of Buddhism are Dana, Sila and Bhavana. In a modern consumerist society, what would you see as the minimal standards a Buddhist could apply to these three areas in order to be a practicing Buddhist?
Dana: One should sacrifice one's personal time, happiness and some property to
help others in the society. If, for instance, a natural disaster occurs, people
should get together and help with clothes, food and shelter for the victims.
Sila: One's action, speech, and thought should not be harmful to either oneself or to others. Not harming others is easy to understand, but sometimes people harm themselves without being aware of it. People who drink alcohol are gradually breaking down their physical and mental health. Corruption can cause an economic crisis, and, if applied to election results, can result in getting the wrong person into power. Then there are narcotics and casual sex. Think of the young people whose responsibility is to study to prepare for their future. Casual sex might cause them to have bad exam results. Some might even fail. These kids are destroying themselves, ruining their lives and their chances for a bright future. Sometimes they face pregnancy or abortion, not to mention the risk of getting AIDS. This will not only cause trouble for themselves, but also for the people around them.
Bhavana: One should be mindful and realize what is right and proper and what is wrong and improper. Right Conduct will lead to a good life, while wrong conduct will lead to suffering. So, be mindful and think before initiating any action, be it good or bad.
Question 6: I have heard it said often in recent times, within Thailand, that Buddhism is in crisis in the country. Do you agree?
Answer: No, I don't think there is any crisis. The majority of monks in Thailand are good monks, firm in Discipline and Dhamma. The media exaggerates and sometimes even distorts the facts. Every now and then there will always be a bad case in any community. But, why stir it up and thereby mislead news consumers to believe there is a crisis?
Question 7: If so, what do you see as the problem and what could be the solution to it?
Answer: The media should always make sure that their news comes from a reliable source and that the information is correct. At the moment I am trying to educate more and more people to understand the Four Noble Truths: Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering, and the Path leading to the cessation of Suffering. That is the best solution to any crisis, should there be one.
Question 9: Can the traditional Buddhist monastic system - which is dependent on the generosity of the devotees for survival - continue for very long even in the Asian Buddhist societies?
Answer: Yes. Definitely yes. The current problems are within the communities themselves, political or economic. Whenever there are problems like that, people have to turn to Buddhism to learn how to subdue the problems and sufferings. When an increasing number of people experience suffering, they will look for a way to alleviate their suffering, so they will turn to Buddhism for help. Then, to keep Buddhist monastic communities alive they would need to support them. Just look around you. All these buildings are built on donations. As long as you practice according to the Buddhist discipline and Dhamma, people will come and support the Sangha. Not just in this life, but in many lifetimes to come.
Question 10: Can you explain how the mobile meditation teams trained here, could help change the Thai society?
Answer: By educating the people in the whys and hows of the 3 pillars of Buddhism: Dana, Sila and Bhavana. This will help the people following us to live good lives. Those who have never practiced Dhamma before will eventually understand the 'what and why', change their minds and start practising. Those who have already gone far astray, like drinking alcohol or taking drugs will learn more about karma and eventually quit their bad habits. As an example, I can mention a young boy from Canada who opened our web site some time ago, and read a true story about my own late father - an account of how alcohol will cause you to be reborn in a suffering world. The young boy immediately stopped his own bad habit of taking drugs.
Question 11: While Buddhism in Asia may be in crisis, there is an increasing interest in Buddhism in the West. It's in fact becoming a very trendy religion for many. Why do you think that is?
people start to realize that the way they are living their lives at the moment
will only bring temporary happiness. They will have more and more desires, and
will therefore encounter more and more suffering. So now people in the West are
starting to realize that they are on the wrong Path. So they have to come back
to Buddhism, being the only religion, which teaches about Suffering, the cause
of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering, and the Path leading to Cessation of Suffering.
Lord Buddha taught that no other Path leads to the extinction of Suffering and
a peaceful life. No other way.
Just imagine what would happen, if all world beings would practice the 5 Buddhist precepts. This whole world would be a peaceful and happy place to live in.