"Tenzin Palmo...a search for
Tenzin Palmo, born as Diane Perry, is a renowned Western Buddhist nun who has dedicated her life to Buddhism. She is the first Western Woman officially ordained as a Buddhist nun and among the first few Buddhist women to have attained a heightened spiritual status by spending twelve years in retreat in a cave in the Himalayas. Palmo has "made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female form no matter how many lifetimes it takes." She has devoted and sacrificed her life to promote the struggle for women's self-discovery, self-appraisal, and spiritual enlightenment.
Contrary to most religions, Buddhism is the only major spiritual and religious movement not based on God. Buddhists believe that God is a temporary image that exists in a human mind, which can be changed and altered. Therefore, it is considered unwise to take refuge and believe in the thought of God. The Buddha emphasizes the importance of dealing with what exists in life, i.e. the suffering and mortality of life, instead of the vague ideologies related to God. According to Palmo, Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the concept of rebirth until the body achieves Nirvana, 'a state of mind of eternal bliss, tranquility and spaciousness'. The Buddha explains that life is a suffering, which is solely caused by desire. To eliminate desire and achieve Nirvana, one must follow the Eightfold Path. To follow the Eightfold path a person must follow the eight attributes outlined in Buddha's teaching, i.e. the right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right meditation.
Palmo strongly identified with Buddhism after reading her first book on the subject at the age of eighteen. At the age of twenty, she left England for India to join a Buddhist monastery where she soon found her spiritual mentor, or Lama, Kantral Rinpoche. She was the only woman among hundreds of men and realized that males dominated the spiritual tradition in Tibet. Women were forbidden to participate in certain Tibetan Buddhist traditions and rituals as they were considered subordinate to men. Based on a myth, women were considered unclean due to menstruation and were prohibited from holy places and ceremonies. These restrictions, as Palmo elaborates, had been practiced for centuries despite being in stark contrast to the true teachings of the Buddha who is considered to be the first spiritual leader to emphasize the importance of women in society, and stress the equality of spiritual liberation in the female form.
Such misconceptions led Palmo to act counter this prejudice and to break down the widespread belief that only a male body can achieve enlightenment. After much thought and support from her Lama, Tenzin Palmo decided to search for a small cave where she could spend her life meditating, and fulfill her quest to attain enlightenment as a woman. Palmo's cave in the Himalayas contained basic necessities to survive which did not include a bed. This helped Tenzin Palmo train herself as a true Buddhist meditator who can meditate without sleep. During her twelve years in the cave, she spent her last three years in strict retreat sitting upright in meditation during the nights.
Before Palmo succeeded in her secluded twelve-year meditation, most people had doubted that a woman could possibly survive the harsh conditions and temperatures of the Himalayan Mountains. She was challenged due to the lack of any experienced female guru or nun to act as her mentor. As Buddhist monks have extremely limited interaction with female members, they are not able to assist them in many women's issues. Tenzin Palmo comprehended the need of ordained nuns and the lack of spiritual guidance for female Buddhists. As a result, after coming out of her long meditation in the cave, she has decided to dedicate the rest of her life to help and promote the spiritual guidance of women.
In line with her objectives and the request of her deceased guru, she decided to take up the demanding task of building a Buddhist nunnery in northern India. This project, which is still under way, is dedicated to the spiritual development of women by teaching them the philosophy, rituals, meditation and other practices of Buddhism. In a recent interview Tenzin Palmo discussed the problems and challenges she faced in building this nunnery, including the lack of qualified teachers, a slow Indian bureaucracy and difficult fundraising. Currently, Tenzin Palmo spends most of her time in northern India at the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Tash Jong while traveling internationally from time to time to teach the Buddhist philosophy and raise funds for her nunnery.
If asked, Tenzin Palmo would probably prefer to stay in retreat and pursue her path to enlightenment, but the strong inspiration to help the women of Tibet and northern India has helped her maintain a social life. She believes that staying in retreat, as well as socializing with people have their respective advantages. Living in the cave taught her to deal with her thoughts and problems all by herself, which trained her to be independent and also helped her know herself. On the other hand, she considers that socializing helps develop qualities of love, compassion, generosity and patience in a human being. She recognizes that achieving the correct balance between these two can lead to perfection in life. She believes in living life to achieve a certain meaning, to accomplish a motive, a clarity and presence of life and not to waste life. Her belief is to deal with one's inner self and inculcate one's good qualities and withhold the bad ones.
As a Woman of Faith she advises the female members that, "it's important to use your daily life, your relationships, your family, your work, your social time, everything you do, as your spiritual practice." In an interview with her at the First Presbyterian Church in New York in May of 2002, regarding the male religious leaders she stated that, "now is the time to realize that one half of the human race is being rather overlooked and ignored that is the female side, and it is time that men began to include women voices more in their decisions and also try to work a little more into developing the feminine within themselves."
For further information, you can also visit the website: www.tenzinpalmo.com.
A Conversation with Robert Thurman about Infinite Life
Q: How is this book different from your previous book, Inner Revolution?
A: It goes further in the direction of empowering the individual to practice the inner transformations that underlie the social-historical changes tracked out in Inner Revolution. It's a sort of "how to make the Inner Revolution happen within yourself" follow-up. It also can work for someone without their having read Inner Revolution, though some might naturally want to.
Q: Your title refers to the Buddhist belief that our lives continue in some way for eternity. Why is this belief so critical? Isn't it a big stumbling block for many Westerners?
A: Some modern people, Eastern as well as Western, might think the idea of personal continuity beyond death a "stumbling block," since they've been sold on the idea of death as a terminal disconnect by the scientific culture of the last few centuries, which pretends to have the keys to "the good life." But this idea is more imprisoning than liberating.
Q: There's a popular misconception that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to become so enlightened that one then withdraws in bliss from the rest of the world. Yet you say that this is simply not so. Please explain.
A: There is an elementary form of Buddhism for individuals who feel intimidated by the vastness and complexity of life that allows them to think (although it is careful not to directly say so) of Nirvana as a final withdrawal into a disconnected bliss. The mainstream form of Buddhism teaches that ultimately Nirvana is not a place apart from the relative world, but rather a way of being in the world. When your wisdom has seen your selflessness, you become full of the bliss of ultimate freedom, which then naturally enables you to overflow with the universal love that wishes such bliss for all other beings. In short, in mainstream Buddhism you can have your bliss and share it, too!
Q: You write that people don't necessarily need to become Buddhists to apply Buddhist teachings to their own lives, that the teachings are compatible with other religions or no religion. How does this work?
A: "Becoming a Buddhist" implies adopting some sort of conventional identity and label that associates you with a historical institution. Such identities and associations don't always help everyone. The aim of the Buddha was to provide people with an education in ethics, mind, and wisdom, which would help them become freer, less selfish, and happier. Once they feel better and do better, they can choose their ways of being and their associations, depending on what best serves self and other in particular circumstances. In most societies, it is best to be harmonious with the mores and beliefs of the other people, and try to make things better within the existing forms of life.
Q: You are a passionate supporter of Tibet and a founder of Tibet House in New York, which seeks to preserve that nation's endangered civilization. Aside from humanitarian concerns for the Tibetan people and their welfare, what is unique about Tibetan culture?
A: Tibetan culture is based on a set of principles from the heart of the Buddha's movement - individualism, nonviolence, educationalism, altruism, and egalitarianism - and could be said to have made not the perfect but the best effort so far in embodying those principles in social reality. This is what makes it so specially worthy of preservation and restoration - though all human cultures are of great intrinsic value.
Q: You have been a close friend of the Dalai Lama for several decades. What is he like?
A: The Dalai Lama is a great guy - highly intelligent, kind, and good-humored. He is also invariably illuminating and inspiring. It is a privilege to know him and an honor to try to help him.
Q: You became the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk back in 1965, ordained by the Dalai Lama himself in India. Then you returned to the United States and became a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University. But you are often in the public spotlight as an advocate for Tibet, and you've been called the most influential voice of Buddhism in the West. You regularly hobnob with movie stars like Richard Gere, and your own daughter, Uma Thurman, is a famous actress. How do you reconcile these very different sides of yourself? Or aren't they very different?
A: Though I do have different sides and am still a highly imperfect individual, I don't see any dichotomy between aspiring to practice Buddhist virtues, studying and teaching about the nature of the mind, reality, and history, and having good friends, whether famous or not. Of course, having a wonderful daughter like Uma is a special bit of good karma - and we are very proud of her.
Q: When you were a young man, it seemed as if you were headed for a rather conventional future as the well-educated son of a prosperous and socially prominent New York family. Then you lost an eye in an accident, and turned in an unexpected direction. What did that event mean to you, and how has it caused you to change?
A: "Conventional" was certainly the heading I was on, though I also had a lot of fun as a wild youth. The accident was a deep shock, an introduction to mortality and suffering, and it helped me awaken to the deeper possibilities of life. My old teacher used to tell me to go ahead and answer this question by saying that "the loss of that one eye helped me to develop the sight of a thousand eyes"! I think he meant the thousand eyes associated with the wisdom of selflessness and the universal compassion that cares for all beings.
Q: What do you think accounts for the growing popularity of Buddhism in the West? Can Westerners really understand Buddhism and practice it fully?
A: The Buddha encouraged us all, especially human beings, that we do have the capacity to understand - not only Buddhism, but ourselves, and even all reality - fully and completely. Of course, we have to develop that capacity, and that takes work and sustained effort. However, in no way should it be specially hard for westerners to gain such understanding and put it into practice. "Baby steps, baby steps," as Bill Murray says in his funny film What About Bob?
Q: In your book, you give very specific instructions about how to practice the Buddhist virtues. Can you explain what the main virtues are, and speak a little bit about their roles?
A: Wisdom is the key to unlocking the ability to practice all the other Buddhist virtues: generosity, just morality, patience, creativity, concentration, and artful activity. Explaining how to practice them and how they help you reach true happiness is what the book itself is about. First, understand what is real about you and your world. Then give to others as much as you can. Be sensitive to their needs and feelings, and interact with them fairly, justly, and harmoniously. When they step on your toes, be patient and don't add to the stress by getting mad. Be creative in expanding your own happiness and in sharing it with others. Learn to concentrate your attention and mind to develop a deeper appreciation of and insight into life. And as your wisdom itself gets deeper and deeper, you will become more and more artful in your way of living and sharing.
Q: The title of your book also refers to the Buddhist belief that all life is interconnected, and that we each bear some measure of responsibility for enlightening and improving the whole world. How does one begin to go about such a daunting task?
A: The task is not at all daunting once we realize that "We are the world," as the song says. There is no escape. We will keep on experiencing it all. It is possible to ensure that we experience happiness for ourselves and those we love. And so we just do it. An ancient proverb says that the journey of ten thousand miles begins with the first step. It is every step. We change the world every day, with every breath. Might as well see to it that it's as much as possible for the better!
Interview provided by Riverhead Books, publishers of Infinite Life.
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. His web-site is: www.accesstoinsight.org readings in Theravada Buddhism.
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.
Ripple in a Pond
An interview with Ajahn Sucitto
Insight Magazine Online
I know how reticent monks are to talk about themselves, but I cannot help but begin by asking about your own Jàtaka story. How did you wind up as a Buddhist monk living in England?
Well, where does it all begin? I suppose around the age of six or seven I started to recognize something of what death was about: that we all die. I remember talking to my brother about it and he said, "Oh, don't think about it, it will be all right." Now he is a businessman and I'm a monk. (Laughs.) I remember even then not feeling interested in the general flow of society; feeling, "Well, what are we doing here? Just passing the time." You wonder where it all begins
After graduating from university (English and American literature at Warwick) I thought I owed it to myself, having done 18 years of schooling, to just move out of the program and see the wider view of things. I spent about four years traveling around. This was the sixties and seventies, so things were pretty wild. After awhile I thought, "Well no, this isn't it. I need to find some proper way of cultivating clarity." So the only intuition I had was-"go to the East."
So you hit the road and went to India?
I went to India when I was twenty-four with the thought, "Well, you'll find it here somewhere." But, I just got very ill; so I escaped India. I had a Traveler's Guide to the World which had one paragraph about Thailand in it. Thailand sounded like it was cool and friendly, while India was very chaotic and wild. So, I jumped on a plane to Thailand. After only one day in Bangkok I took a train to Ayutthaya (ancient capital) and found myself wandering among the ruins-colossal Buddhist remains, big pagodas, gigantic Buddha statues. And I thought to myself, "Well, what's this?"
A few days later I was in Chiang Mai. I saw a sign in English saying, "Meditation Classes Being Taught." I thought, "That must be part of what it's about. Learn to focus, get your mind together. I'll do that. I went to one meditation class and there was a monk teaching in this vihàra [monastery]. He was an English monk. He was sitting by a window which didn't have any glass in it. He had an oil lamp beside him. I noticed that flying ants were coming in through the window and crawling all over him as he was talking. He was very carefully picking them off his skin, occasionally out of his mouth, without getting upset. To me it looked so irritating but it didn't seem to bother him. We only did about 15 minutes of meditation; and just in that time the obvious realization came, "Hey, there's all this thinking, and there's a silence that's not thinking, a silence that's attending to this. What's that?" I thought, "I must investigate that."
So you got a taste of what?
Some awareness, some silence, some quality of attention. I mean, whenever you put it into words it doesn't quite work, does it? You find you're in a different key than you were before: before you were very much in the music and now, somehow, the music's happening but you're not moving with it.
So I talked to the monk afterwards and said, "I'd like to do more of this." But I recognized that I was not going to do this while staying in a cheap hotel with five other guys smoking dope and playing guitars. So I asked, "Can I come and stay in your monastery?" A couple of days later I just packed up and hitchhiked a couple hundred miles down the road to where he was living and wandered in. He gave me a kuñi [meditation hut] and came down the next day to give me some teaching instructions. He was teaching the Burmese satipaññhàna [mindfulness] method.
Did you take to meditation from the start?
Yes, I did. I was really interested in the mind and in exploring. It wasn't a decision, really; it was innate. I'd always been interested in it, but I hadn't had a framework. Within about a week I started to piece things together: "Well, you know, this is not bad. You're in this little hut. They're pretty nice. They bring you food. And you get to work on clearing your mind." I felt happy. I recognized that whatever you do in life, basically you want to feel you're doing something with purpose and you want to be happy. I wasn't really missing out on much by being in the monastery. I didn't need much. I'd come from a working class background, which means that you work hard your whole life. Working class people have to activate a lot of effort and energy and attention and aggravation to get the four requisites [food, shelter, clothing, and medicine] together-and there at the monastery that was just laid on. It was simple, but laid on. So I thought, "I'd like to do more of this."
So you stayed on?
I actually had to leave Thailand to get a new visa. I thought I'd have a look around while I was out, so I traveled around Indonesia for a while-but with an increasing sense of nibbidà, or world-weariness. I was doing all the things you're supposed to do to make life enjoyable. I was going to some very beautiful countryside, to mountains, beaches, and lakes. But it just was not connecting; it wasn't sinking in. It was like looking at everything through a glass. I was somewhere else. I ended up living in Bali, where everybody was hanging out. But I just couldn't go through that whole scene anymore. There was no energy for it. I found that all I wanted to do was meditate-sit and walk. I thought, "This is crazy, doing it in this place." So I went back to Thailand. It was a very instructive excursion.
After three days at the monastery I shaved my head and became a sàmaõera, a ten-precept novice monk. It's a much less highly calibrated discipline than full ordination, but the basic stuff is there. Then I got into meditation. After about six months or so there were other Westerners who had turned up, and they were all interested in becoming bhikkhus [monks]. I was happy where I was. But the others would say, "You've been here longest. You should become a bhikkhu before us." I said, "No, no, I'm fine." I didn't like the idea of being somebody.
However...I was living in a very secluded part of the monastery, and both the teacher and I felt it would be good to go on alms-round because that's part of what being a monk, even a novice, is about. So I began going out every day on piõóapàta-alms-round. And that was really tremendous. I suddenly got the whole social aspect of it, which is very potent. We'd go out early in the morning. People were just getting up, getting themselves together. They'd come out with bowls of rice to put food in our bowls. The people were eager, concerned to make sure they got their rice in your bowl. I could see that there was a tremendous focus of attention. You create something for people. You set up their day. If a monk didn't go by, they would be very upset. So you're part of some greater meaning than the personal. The fact of being that kind of focus is an incredible spur to practice.
Can you say more about why that's so? Is it a feeling of gratitude for what you've been given, or the service you're providing to the people?
It's partly gratitude, but it's not exactly that. It's more like recognizing you're part of something very big that's gone on for thousands of years and is holding a society together in some form. It's holding people's minds together, giving them a sense of direction. It's certainly not given to one personally: "Hey, I like you. Here's some food." People don't even look at you. They just see the robe, the bowl. You don't say anything. It would be very inappropriate to start conversing. But bearing the sign of the monk you realize that somehow you've stepped into something very, very big. These people are born and will die with that sign in their mind. They grow up as toddlers with that sign in their mind. When they're in trouble, that sign in their mind will come back to them.
In the West, my experience had been of being very much out of context. You're one fragment with a bunch of other fragments around you. The bonding is minimal, perfunctory, and mostly out of functional necessity. Suddenly you are part of something whole. And it is carrying people's values. As a monk your values are simple things: Rather than get angry, I'll calm down. Rather than cheat, I'll be honest. Rather than kill, I'll refrain. Very simple stuff. And yet, you're carrying that for a society in some way. So you think, "My bit in this situation is to be worthy of alms by carrying the sign of goodness."
It's not an obligation. Nobody's asking, nobody's checking up. It's a real level of connectedness in which something is transformed. You get to points in your meditation where your mind could go flaky-but it doesn't. It comes back into the good because of that connection to goodness. There are times when you could just think, "Oh, forget it." But you say, "No, keep going." It's intuitive. It's something you feel in your heart.
How did you wind up accepting full ordination?
The specific cause was a response to the local community. Twice a year the monastery hosted hundreds of women to come to the monastery and meditate. They would all wear white, take the eight precepts, and sleep wherever a spare patch of floor could be found-there just weren't enough kuñis. And they would do a ten-day meditation retreat. Now, aspects of the feminine play a big part in monastic culture-either through women themselves or through the receptive and suffusive elements of Dhamma practice. The feminine offers a key to transformation. My own ordination was a good case in point.
The Thai women stepped forward, very eager to offer support-making that offering meant a lot to them. For a Westerner to go forth was regarded as significant and impressive because it's not part of our culture, not something we would do as a matter of course. So the women were very keen to sponsor a Westerner to become a bhikkhu. They thought, "You've got so much. You've got education, and money, and so many other things. And you're giving it all up." And I felt, "Well, they've given so much. I'll do it, for them." So the result was that everyone was uplifted. Like the Buddha, a monk "leaves home" to take up the holy life-but sponsorship is a later development. It connects the "Going Forth" to the society-a very "feminine" thing. Anyway, I was a bhikkhu. I stayed where I was and continued to practice meditation, but I also joined in more with the community life of the Sangha.
One of the most inspiring things about being a bhikkhu was that once a fortnight we would go to the pàñimokkha recitation. We'd sit in a hall listening to one monk recite the training rules at high speed. (It takes about forty-five minutes nonstop.) We'd just sit there, with our hearts open, listening. And at that time I felt this incredible sense of bonding with all these humans; and also with people like the Buddha, Sàriputta, and all the people who have been doing very much the same thing for 2500 years. They all listened to and lived according to these rules being recited. The recitation is a chance to acknowledge one's own failings or weaknesses, and incline towards clearing the effects and doing better. You feel again that you're part of the human need, the human urge to do good, which is an urge as basic as our more sensual urges. Because it's low volume, we don't normally hear it. But I think the urge is intrinsic: we want to do good.
except for what circumstance would you still be there to this day?
Well, my father died, so I went back to England to see my mother and sort out any family affairs. You know, my own personal stuff. And at that time Ajahn Sumedho was living in London. I had met him briefly in Thailand on one of my visits to another monastery. He struck me as someone with some accomplishment. His presence was peaceful; it was gentle; it was warm and spacious; it was resonant. So when I found out he was in Britain, I thought I would go see him. He was staying in a little place in London near Hampstead Heath, and I went down there and stayed a few days. There were two other monks there as well. I liked what they were doing. They were forest monks-whereas the place I had been trained was more a city monastery. And they brought with them a sense of fuller application to things like making robes, to a whole way of living. I found that interesting. So I thought, "While I'm in Britain, I'll stay a bit longer-three months ought to do it." (Laughs.) That was 22 years ago.
Was it distracting to your life as a monk to have to deal with the social newness of what you were doing in the English culture?
If you go back to the idea of receiving alms-food: I recognized that I was part of something big, a ripple in a pond. My experience in meditation was revealing a lot of the difficulties-hindrances, confusions, wrong views-that needed to get worked out in a wider, social context. So living with a group of monks and engaging was very helpful. It helped to open things up, work things out, take things in; to feel the sense of a larger sphere. English culture wasn't really a problem because it places a high value on non-intrusion. People don't tend to come in on you unless they're invited. And there's a place for monasteries in the culture.
It still must have been quite a change for you. You mentioned the sense of connecting to a long social tradition in Thailand, and this would have been very different in England.
Ajahn Sumedho is a very gifted teacher, in that he talks about Buddhism from the perspective of what's happening now. Where are we at now? How are we mindful of what's happening now? How do we find harmony? He teaches from the earth up, rather than from the sky down. He set a good example for us. People could relate to the goodness of what we were about. Then the vinaya [guidelines for the monastic life] helped to guide the connections between bhikkhus and the society, and the sanctuary of the monastery provided the situation for meeting.
After living in London we moved to a derelict house in Chithurst, West Sussex, which we had to work together to rebuild. That was more of a challenge, really, because all I'd ever done before was formal practice. Here we had to do a lot of manual work, we had to talk with people. We didn't have much time for formal practice. And because English people generally didn't know what bhikkhus were all about, we'd often have to be more forthcoming to warm them up and make them feel okay and not nervous.
In a lot of what you've been saying you've indicated the importance you give to human relatedness, the value of other human beings. This also seems reflected in how much people seem to want to be around you and in the care you give them. What do you see as the place of relationship in your path?
Well, we're all bobbing around in the pond... Maybe awareness of relationship begins there. I think how we relate to others is a key issue nowadays: the instruction to be our own refuge, to go into solitude, etc., has to be balanced against the Buddha's frequent use of dialogue to teach, his having disciples live and work with their teachers, and his establishing the Sangha [the monastic community]. Nowadays, a perception of "the other" can bring up anxiety, fear of judgment, competition, etc., and the teacher as "The Other" can be the implacable judge, the parent for whom one was never good enough. All this clogs up Dhamma practice. So I try to enter the practice field with the group and stay connected and responsive-action and speech follow from there. And silence...in a shared silence Dhamma seems to spread by osmosis. I enjoy group practice; maybe that comes across.
What would you say about the relationship between what has come to be called formal practice-intensive meditation in a retreat environment-and what has come to be called everyday life?
There are different forms for Dhamma practice. Or perhaps you can think of it like Chinese boxes-one is inside another, which is inside another. In my situation, I'm coming out of meditation into a more open form, but another formal training, which is the vinaya. The vinaya is continually steering and nudging: "Don't go here; things are done in this way; be aware of what you're doing now." I've got that happening all the time-not just at the level of a precept, but in observance and manner. "That's not the way to treat your bowl." Or, "That's not the way to talk in this context: softening the voice would have a better effect. That's not the way to walk in; come in more gently." And as a mendicant, I learn to let go into insecurity. These things offer a great advantage for cultivating the Dhamma.
It is more perilous for a lay meditator who is on a formal retreat and then comes out into a situation which has no training guidelines. They've just got to work it out themselves. They come out of a situation where the skin is being peeled off; they come out all pink and sensitive, and suddenly they're in the circus and they have to perform. Insecurity has to be denied. So in the last decade or so, people are addressing more the issue of daily life context. Having experienced some of the uncovering that occurs on a meditation retreat, the questions become, "How do we practice in relationship? What is right livelihood?"
Actually this is pretty much the way the process unfolded for the Buddha and his early followers. He taught the meditation and the Dhamma first, and then the vinaya evolved from that. You can see the same sort of things happening for the lay community here. After some practice, people begin to see, "We've got to have precepts. We've got to set standards. As teachers we have to be honorable. That has to be very clear." So a kind of vinaya culture, more or less, starts to happen. There's a natural interest in it.
you see some evolution in the Western lay person's encounter with the Dhamma?
Oh yes, there is now a much wider field of corroboration. There is inquiry into things like, "How do we have families? How do we raise children? What constitutes a lay vinaya?" It's not just a set of precepts or a code. It's a culture, a Buddhist culture. The culture of awakening. We have a Buddhist school now in Britain. Alms-food gets offered on the streets. There are people who've grown up as Buddhists and are familiar with these things.
Is it the meditation practice that is so transformative, or is it the core values of the entire Buddhist tradition?
certain respects the culture and the meditation practice are happening on different
levels, although they overlap in the personal context. To integrate the two is
the major practice. The culture is carried "externally" by the society
(though it doesn't always live up to its ideals). When you're in a social context
you are often dealing with functional requirements, language, and a conventional
reality, which is not set up for Awakening. And we're often relating through the
convention of personality. So establishing some sound norms for these connections
is basic sanity.
With meditation, you're getting nearer to the core. Meditation practice is intimate. It's really taking you past the ideals and the socialization of values. In the meditation practice you get back to something primary: "I feel this. I know this." So, it's a place of release. It's the place of encountering hindrances intimately, and of firing up the enlightenment factors. Aspects of Buddhist "culture"-patience, generosity, letting go, for example-really support that penetration. Then, as you calm down and get closer to a core experience, the convention of personality starts to unfold into energetic patterns-patterns that are ephemeral but kammically potent when they're held onto. Buddhist values are a crucible; but if you just put the material in it and don't heat it up-you won't get the gold.
With meditation you develop samàdhi [concentration]. You're getting past thinking, getting underneath sense contact, getting to an experience of your body which is different. You experience yourself more like an energetic sphere of sensitivity than as a six-foot tall vertebrate who's a man or a woman. You're coming to something much more primary. The mind itself becomes different. If you meditate properly, the mind is much more sensitive. It is there, in the pond, part of what's going on. In samàdhi you don't get the sense of the mind being some separate thing that thinks and decides. You realize that thinking and deciding are part of the ripple. You can undo that and become more intuitive, more attuned to sensitivities.
I see samàdhi as essentially a deconstruction of the mind. From that, one can come back
to dealing with things in terms of conventional entities, duties, responsibilities, time, place, and so forth. When you're in a more constructed state, you use mindfulness and the clarity that has arisen, and then some stored guidelines which act as your conventional guides. But in the context of a lot of kammic activity the mind is much more likely to be in a stressed or tense state, and on the level of social construction you often have to deal with all sorts of emotional strangulation.
The course you're teaching here at BCBS (Barre Center for Buddhist Studies), on energy or viriya, addresses this issue. How are you approaching the subject?
From my own experience over the years, as well as working with others, I have come to realize just how damaged we all tend to be, both physically and emotionally. As such, many people haven't got the resources to apply themselves to Dhamma. It's rather like lifting weights. You come in and you haven't warmed up. You try and lift a weight, and you just rip a muscle. It's not that you don't want to lift the weight. It's not that you aren't trying. The body just isn't primed for it.
People's bodies are pretty damaged energetically. They've sat in chairs all their lives; they've been wired to unnatural energy for decades. People often find it difficult to even know where their bodies are. Their mind has abstracted itself from the body. So when you meditate, you're in this kind of disembodied experience-a frantic mind is pumping out thoughts, but you're not getting any energy from the body. You meditate and meditate, but you're basically cut off, disembodied. So it's not just a matter of effort. It's a matter of accessing the resource of balanced energy in the body.
The other issue is emotional. We do sharing and devotional practices because often people's emotional energies are out of whack. They feel isolated, fragmented, alone, competitive. Everybody's looking at each other, perhaps feeling annoyed because somebody is sniffing or rustling. You know, you're in your own little box. It's like going out on the freeway, and everybody's in their little box driving along. In that sort of situation people's emotional experience is not extensive, it's not unfolding, it's very much folded up with personal interest and personal protection. Often people find devotional practices help to restore a quality of natural connectedness and emotional resonance.
When these two bases of body and heart are restricted, I don't know where you get the energy to practice. Perhaps its just idealism, or will power; but people run out of that. Because of it's restraint and discipline, Theravada Buddhism can seem heartless, cerebral, world denying, and body denying-a very cramped thing. But when you read the texts, you find the Buddha talking a lot about joy, bliss, rapture, tranquility, vitality. So people have to tap into this field, this pool of uplifting energy, and they can only do this by healing some of the damage done by our modern world. So I teach body and heart practices to open them into this field of energy.
You have often mentioned returning to the suttas [texts]. Is this important only for teachers, or for all practitioners?
My own personal interest has been in trying to look into the suttas and to get past the cultural accretions. I think an interest in what the Buddha said naturally develops from living and practicing in this tradition.
It might start with a simple curiosity, "What did the Buddha say on mindfulness? Well, let's have a look-Oh, the Satipatthàna Sutta." And that leads you on to, "What does he mean by feeling? What does he mean by citta [mind]?" You start to check the Pali against the English. So often you think you understand, but you're not getting the entirety of it. You find that citta and "mind" don't exactly relate. So you have to investigate that. For me it's been very much a process of, "What do I need to know?" And then I can check a scripture and see what the Buddha said, which isn't always the most populist "Buddhist" message.
I still think meditation is the leading edge. But you need right view to know where to apply that. And certainly right view is enhanced by some accurate study. So you owe it to yourself to go back to the Buddha. You'd be foolish not to try to get as close as you can to the Master.
to Buddhist Tradition":
Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct
Leaving the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, having just met with the Dalai Lama, the words, "according to Buddhist tradition" reverberated in my head. Stepping out into the June sunlight, I felt tired, calm, enormously grateful-and disappointed.
I was grateful for the Dalai Lama's willingness to meet with gays and lesbians to discuss their concerns about Buddhist teachings on sexual misconduct, and for the press release from the Office of Tibet supporting human rights regardless of sexual orientation. But I was disappointed that he chose not to speak personally and directly, beyond Buddhist tradition, to the real harm of some of these misconduct teachings, and their irrelevance for modern Buddhists and others. I wondered, does the Dalai Lama, whom many consider the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, who "hears the cries of all sentient beings and responds skillfully," really hear the cries of sexual minority Buddhists?
The story of our meeting with the Dalai Lama begins with an article in the February/March, 1994 issue of OUT magazine, which quoted the Dalai Lama as saying: "If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion's opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay."
Gay men, lesbians, and others reveled in reading the OUT article. We copied the article, sent it home, sent it...everywhere! We reprinted it in community newsletters that made their way around the world. A major spiritual leader, "the favorite lama of the world" as a friend referred to him, had finally told it like it is. We thought.
But in 1996, North Atlantic Books published Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, a collection of talks and discussions from the Dalai Lama's 1993 visit to France. On page 46 he responds to the questions, "What are proper sexual attitudes? What do you think of homosexuality, for example?" The Dalai Lama replies: "A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else....Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact. Is this clear?"
My immediate reaction on reading this was: "No. This is not clear!" Was the natural behavior of my sexual orientation a violation of the moral precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and consequently negative karma in itself? As a sexually active gay man, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, and an AIDS services provider for the last 16 years, I asked myself, "What happens when `new' Buddhists, often refugees from harshly judgmental Divine Revelatory religions, read this? What about men and women around the world living and dying with AIDS? How will they feel?"
Although the proscriptions were not discriminatory against "homosexuality" per se, they were clearly discriminatory in their impact on homosexual men and women (and even prohibited most of the AIDS safe sex guidelines). Stating that homosexual orientation is okay, but that homosexual behavior is not, creates a terrible double bind for any gay Buddhist who believes the Dalai Lama's teachings.
On the basis of the discrepancy between the OUT article and Beyond Dogma, I wrote an open, public letter to the Dalai Lama in January of 1997, noting that many of us who so admired him were confused and distressed by the inconsistency of his statements and their worldwide ramifications. I respectfully requested that he "in whatever manner and venue he chooses, speak to the Buddhadharma, the truth of homosexuality and homosexual behavior." That letter resulted, through the agency of the Office of Tibet, in the June 11 private meeting between the Dalai Lama and seven gay and lesbian leaders in San Francisco.
At the meeting I asked the Dalai Lama about a statement he had made at a press conference the day before. A reporter had asked him to comment on the morality of homosexual behavior, and he replied: "We have to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers. From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society's point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless."
The Dalai Lama went on to say that the same Buddhist scripture that advises against gay and lesbian sex urges the same for heterosexuals. "Even with your wife, using one's mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct." He added, "The Buddha is our Teacher," the historical reference for all Buddhists.
The next morning in his diplomatic suite in the Fairmount, I asked him, "If the Buddha is our teacher, where and when did he teach that homosexual partners are inappropriate, that homosexual behavior is sexual misconduct?" The Dalai Lama candidly responded, "I don't know."
During the meeting the Dalai Lama confirmed for us another sexual proscription according to Buddhist tradition: heterosexuals are prohibited from having sex more than five consecutive times with a partner. Jose Cabezon, a gay Buddhist scholar, promptly asked him, "If the purpose of the proscriptions is to reduce sexual activity, how does it make sense to allow a man to have sex with his wife up to five times a night, while saying that it is sexual misconduct for a man to have sex with another man even once in his life?"
The Dalai Lama roared with laughter, saying,"You have a point there!" Earlier he had asked all of us, "Sex is for procreation, right?" Our collective silence was our response. When I asked, "Which of the proscribed behaviors regarding partner, organ, or excessive frequency do you personally consider most important?" he responded with a thoughtful look, not saying anything.
In preparation for the meeting the Dalai Lama had traced the sexual misconduct teachings back to the Indian Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, and said they may reflect the moral codes of India at the time, "which stress moral purity." He was open to the possibility of Buddhist tradition changing eventually in response to science, modern social history, and discussion within the various Buddhist sanghas. He urged all of us to go forth and advocate our interests, basing our action on Buddhist principles of "rigorous investigation and non-violence." He noted that he is not unilaterally empowered to change tradition: "Change can only come on the collective level," he said.
Religious teachings on sex-make that "wrong sex"-are well known to be a principal cause of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities and a primary cause of self-destructive behavior among them. This is true in the West and it is true in the East. Clearly, some of the traditional Buddhist teachings are violent to the truth and lives of Buddhist sexual minorities. It's still questionable whether the Dalai Lama, whose words carry much weight in the court of world opinion, really "gets" the impact of Buddhist tradition labeling the way we make love as "sexual misconduct." My partner of twenty-one years and I don't appreciate it. And the Buddha didn't say it at all, according to the evidence.
According to the oldest Buddhist teachings, the Buddha cautioned against "misconduct of sensual desire." He warned of mental stains from "drowning in sensual pleasure-harmful and disturbing intentions and actions arising from wrong perception and the dualistic fixation on self and other. He did not mention sex, inappropriate organs and partners. During the June 11 meeting the Dalai Lama clearly stated that "the goal for all Buddhists is Nirvana"-complete freedom of mind free of wrong perception, dualistic fixation, defilements and hindrances. He did not clarify, however, how sex as an expression of emotional intimacy, or moderate and respectful recreational sex, or gay tantric sex for that matter, in any way impedes full awakening, freedom and peace of heart.
The meeting was warm, serious and much too hurried. The 45 minutes was a 15 minute extension to the 30 minutes which the Office of Tibet originally allotted for "this historic meeting." The Dalai Lama encouraged the seven of us and others to hold conferences on Buddhism and sexuality and other pressing concerns, including Tibetan Buddhist full-ordination of women as nuns. Although the Dalai Lama opposed violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, he did not commit himself to helping correct harmful Buddhist teachings still on the books-including the conduct codes which can fuel homophobic behavior among Buddhist teachers and students. Famous for saying, "When science points to or proves a truth contrary to Buddhist teaching, then Buddhist teaching must change," he said as we were leaving his suite, "Changing Buddhist traditions will be much harder than advocating for your human rights."
So it's up to us to affect change, with lots of help from Buddhist teachers who are quite awake on the subject of sexual right action, teachers such as Khandro Rinpoche, Drukchen Rinpoche, the late Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Tarchin Rinpoche, Robert Aitken Roshi and others. We must continue to insist that the tradition change. Three years ago I asked Khandro Rinpoche, the gifted young Tibetan teacher, about her views on homosexual behavior and the dharma. This eldest daughter of Mindroling Rinpoche, and Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holder, offered the following response as part of her public teaching in San Francisco on "AIDS: Compassion and Skillful Means":
"One can grow spiritually by being a monk, through getting married, through homosexual relations. If you really love another man as a man, no problem. Within the Buddha's doctrine itself homosexuality is nothing special, nothing new. Such a thing as realization means being free from attachment to whomever it may be-a man to a man, a man to a woman, a woman to a woman, or whomever it may be. Each person is responsible for his or her own mind, own thoughts, emotions, understanding, awakening, realization. It's possible for a homosexual person. It's possible for all sentient beings."
We cannot control tradition and politics. We cannot control psychological and physical violence born of delusion. But Buddha's way is not about the "control" of suffering; it's about responding with open awareness to the whole display of our experience, including suffering. The Dalai Lama accurately observed that he is not unilaterally empowered to change Buddhist tradition. But he is empowered to speak for himself. His speaking to the irrelevant, false aspects of sexual misconduct teachings will certainly help the cause.
A Buddhist's responsibility is to insist that Buddhist oppression of sexual minorities, women and others, including heterosexual couples, end. The San Francisco-based Buddhist AIDS Project is formulating "A Respectful Request to the Dalai Lama," in the form of a petition asking him to speak directly to the irrelevance and harm of some traditional misconduct codes found in all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.
Steve Peskind is coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project in San Francisco. He is the editor of the anthology, Heart Lessons From an Epidemic: Buddhist Practice and Living with HIV, to be published by Parallax Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: PT Staff
Summary: Presents an interview with Mark Gerzon, author of 'Coming Into Our Own: Understanding Adult Metamorphosis.' Positive view of middle age; Recognition of challenges to be faced; Feelings of dissatisfaction; Focus on external; Trappings of success define success; Image of shadow and how to face it; Fears about death; Cultural paradigm--adults don't grow; Need to recognize a positive meaning to aging; Connection between spirituality and concern for planet.
as we see it in this country has a bad rap, conjuring up images ofspreading hips
and thinning hair--a post-peak slide into senescence. Basically a life of diminishing
opportunities. While this may very well be a carry-over from the 1960s, when everybody
over 30 was considered the enemy, it is also a carry-over from Freud, who popularized
the notion that children grow, but adults don't.
To Mark Gerzon, however, author of Coming Into Our Own: Understanding Adult Metamorphosis (Delacorte; 1992), the term "midlife" means just that-the middle of life. Whether it hits us on our thirties, forties, or fifties, it does not mean there is no more room for change, or growth. On the contrary, at a time when he thought his development as an adult was coming to an end, Gerzon found himself embarking on totally unexpected journey of renewal-entering what Carl Jung called "the second half of life." Granted, the baby boomers are reaching midlife, so naturally a new microscope will be focused on the subject. Yet resident boomer Owen Lipstein, tail-end boomer James Mauro, and post-boomer Matthew Scanlon all found Mark's work enlightening-and encouraging.
PT: Your book takes a much more positive view of middle age than we're used to. What does that say about our culture?
MG: We love youth. In America we're all in love with staying young. That works until a certain point in life. But if you only love what's young, eventually youth start to hate yourself. I see that happening to a lot of people, including me, in our 30s and 40s when we're no longer "young.' Either our attitude has to change, or we begin to die.
PT: Why has there been relatively little written about this time of life-except in terms of "midlife crisis"?
MG: It's true that there has been very little research done on midlife. There have been human development studies of adolescence and childhood. And there are new studies of the elderly. But it turns out that there's a period of 30 to 40 years that hasn't yet been examined-mainly the middle third of the life-cycle. Why not? Aren't those years important? In fact, they are what I call the "black hole of the life-cycle": roughly from 30 to 60 years old. As a result, we don't know what the hell we're supposed to do with those years. They're the lost years of adulthood.
The truth is we just don't know what the second half of life is for. When I interview Hindus from India they say, "Of course you have a midlife crisis. When you get to be 35 or 40, the script ends. So the only sensible thing to do is have a crisis and discover what's the purpose for the rest of your life.'
PT: How did you come to terms with your own midlife? By writing this book?
MG: For me, entering midlife followed a great success. I managed to get Hollywood and Moscow to start cooperating in the entertainment industry. Suddenly I was with all these famous people, I was on the front page of the L.A. Times, I was on the evening news. On the outside everything looked good; everything should have been a success and inside there was just the opposite. There was this feeling of hollowness and the fact that none of it mattered.
The dissonance between those two things led to my coming home from Moscow one time absolutely bone tired. I turned to my wife then and I said, "I think the first half of my life has just ended and the second half of my life has just begun." As soon as the words came out of my mouth they sounded phony, because I don't talk like that. But it wasn't phony-it was the truth.
PT: Which led you to examine the components of your life and take a fresh look.
MG: Exactly. I realized that the only alternatives our culture gives us is to be stuck in a rut or to have a midlife crisis. With those alternatives, no wonder people prefer the rut! A midlife crisis can be terrifying. It means you're having a nervous breakdown, you're going bankrupt, you're getting divorced. Generally not good news. What I do in my book is reframe the crisis as a midlife quest-as the opening shot on a journey rather than the end of the line.
PT: You use this word "quest," so it's a beginning. It's really noble, actually.
MG: It's a challenge, too. I'm challenging people to go into the crisis and through it. A lot of people going into the crisis are doing one of two things: getting stuck in it or running away form it. I'm encouraging people to go into it and through it, as you would a door. The purpose is not to walk through it, go back and do it again, walk through it, go back and do it again. The purpose is to walk through it and go on to the other side- the side that's called "The Second Half Of Life."
PT: Do people recognize these challenges?
MG: I think people are scared because they don't really understand the challenges. As I discovered, the rules of the second half of life are different from the rules of the first half. The rules of the first half are by and large inherited; while the rules of the second half are ones we have to discover for ourselves, anew.
I don't like the word "rules" because it sounds too rigid, but for me I would say that the rides of the first half were "me" rather than "we"success in a kind of a ladder framework, the distancing of death, the illusion of immortality. At the beginning of the second half, I had started to feel old, I had started to feel tired. I had started to feel the imminence of death, I had started to feel that nothing made any difference, including any of my successes. One might say that's depression. But it wasn't. It was the beginning of my re-examination of the rules of the first half of life.
PT: What is it that prompts such feelings of dissatisfaction?
MG: For me it was the realization that my success was external. I appeared to have a very reflective life, but my life was lived very much in the external: How did someone respond to me? How did my wife respond to me? How did my boss respond to me? That's an external way of living life. And then around my late 30s that whole attitude fell apart. I realized that there is something going on inside, and that I'd been so busy watching the movie going on around me that I didn't pay attention to the inner story.
PT: Isn't that inevitable, though? Doesn't everybody, early on, focus on external things?
MG: I'm never going to say "everybody?" because one point I make in the first part of the book is that each fife is different. But I would say that in the West, particularly among men (but also among women now as the success model becomes more prevalent), we tend to live a very externally oriented life. That's perceived as success. That's what makes our parents happy, what makes us get good grades, look successful, and make money. On the external we're doing all the fantastic things.
PT: You mean that the trappings of success define it for us?
MG: That's right. What I find is that, particularly for people who are highly successful, that wears out soon. One of the things we realize in the second half of life is how addicted we have been in the first half. I'm still dealing with that in my own life, realizing the numbers of ways in which I wasn't free. You can look at the whole recovery movement and learn some fascinating things about the life-cycle, because the median age in the recovery movement is around midlife. It's usually viewed in terms of recovery from substance abuse, or some other form of abuse. But I see it also as a forum for midlife healing.
PT: You talk about being addicted. What were you addicted to?
MG: I happened to be a writer and I found myself being recognized as a writer. And I became what I was being recognized and affirmed as. But there were other parts of me that were not being recognized and were being left in the shadows. It's that black bag that we drag behind us, full of the things we never were.
In our 20s we're very eager to be accepted and recognized as adults, so we put our strong suit forward. By midlife an the stuff we've put in the closet says, "Wait a minute. I'm part of Mark Gerzon, too. I want to be recognized. I want some of the light. I want some growth and change.' So all those parts that were forgotten reassert themselves.
I find a lot of people in midlife who say, 'Yeah, I was a musician in college, but I knew I had to make a living so I went into banking, instead and you know what? I've picked up the instrument again." That's a very simple story, but metaphorically it's what happens.
That's why Paul McCartney is still quoted as saying, back in the Sixties, "Who knows if when I'm forty I'll still be able to write music?" Well, there he was at almost 50 with two songs in the top ten and touring around the world. I think that's the hope of our generation-that we're not going to stop growing.
PT: What about marriage, and relationships? You describe the change from the ecstasy of a romantic partner being everything in your life to falling out of love. How do you resolve this?
MG: Our culture is in love with falling in love. We do not want to look at falling out of love. After 12 years, my wife and I reached that crucial point where we were falling out of love. It turned out that was the beginning of a true relationship. Because the person that we fell in love with was partly the truth, and partly the projection of our deepest needs. That's what men and women are there for. I imagined my wife to be things she wasn't and she imagined me to be things that I wasn't. So of course we became disillusioned, but to me that means we started to see the truth.
Some people wake up in bed next to somebody they've been married to for years, feel like they're with a stranger and think, "Well, this must be the time to get divorced.' Fortunately, my wife, Shelley, and I went through that crisis and found that the person we were with was far more interesting than the projection we had when we were young.
You might ask, "Well, how do you do that?" In our case we basically went into our shadows. We tried to bring in all those parts of ourselves that had been banished from the marriage. The first 15 years was almost a perpetual power struggle. We thought that was what marriage was, because we didn't know anything else. When we got through this barrier to the other side, we thought, hey, there's far more to this experience than we thought. We learned not to banish parts of ourselves for the supposed good of the marriage, which is what people in our culture often do.
PT: Such as?
MG: It could be your desire to have affairs, it could be your anger It could be that the man feels depressed, or that the woman feels that she's not supposed to be angry. I would say that major parts of my life were not part of my marriage. Then we started to bring those parts into our marriage, and it almost became like a second marriage. In fact, everyone I know who's been married for awhile s , "It feels like I've been married several times That's what we experienced, and when we did we found a new freedom in our marriage.
We often refer to marriage as being tied down ... the old ball and chain. Our culture's images of marriage are of giving up freedom. But my wife and I found after almost 20 years that we are now free to be ourselves with each other in a way that we had never been before. Unfortunately, too many people get divorced before they ever get to the point of true freedom and surrender with each other.
PT: You mentioned infidelity. How do you cope with those seemingly inevitable urges?
MG. Affairs are like dynamite. They get a couple's shadows out in the open. My opinion is that affairs are a last resort. If all your efforts don't help, then you or your mate will probably fall in love with someone else. How it resolves depends on your personal biographies, but you should recognize it for what it is-dynamite that's trying to wake you up. But you can't build a family with dynamite. You can't do a whole lot with dynamite except blow things up.
Of course Shelley and I are sometimes attracted to other people. Fortunately, we've found gentler, more effective ways to wake each other up than dynamite.
PT: Let's talk about that shadow. That's a very powerful image and a very personal one to anyone who's been in a dose personal relationship. What is the shadow and how do you face it?
MG: We spend, I would say, a major amount of our time and energy making ourselves look right. Interviews with people in the second half of life are interviews with people who are saying, "I don't give a damn anymore. I'm old enough to be myself." My experience is that one of the gifts of the second half of life is learning to stop posturing and to be ourselves. That, I think, is the good news about growing older-that it becomes harder and harder to hide the shadow, harder and harder to hide from death, harder and harder to fake it, harder and harder to pretend. So the incentives for being yourself truly increase.
A lot of illnesses in the second half of life are, again, to wake us up. When I was young, I'd get an ache or a pain or an illness and I would think, "Damn it. How can I get rid of this as fast as I can? What an irritation. For the last three or four years I've noticed in myself and the people I've interviewed that we're listening to our bodies and that our bodies are teaching us about our shadow. That's where we usually put the stuff that we don't like.
I tell a story in my book about a man whose heart was in worse shape in his early forties than when he was sixty. That runs absolutely counter to all my images of the life-cycle that I grew up with. My image was that your arteries get dogged, you go downhill, etc. But here was a guy at the bottom in his forties and he climbed up all the way through sixty. That's the story of healing and we're not telling that story in our culture.
PT: Taking that one step further, what about fears of death?
MG: In the second half, your awareness of your own mortality is increasing, that's why I call midlife a "nearer-death" experience. I became more afraid of it in the first flush of this experience, but then came a kind of peace because I was no longer running away from it. I felt it in my body, my own mortality. I didn't have to read Ernest Becker's The Denial Of Death to know I had been denying it. I could see it by the way I lived.
That's why people on their death beds don't say, "Gee, I wish Id spent more time at the office' " They say, "I wish Id spent more time with my wife, or with my kids, or exploring nature.'
PT: The paradigm in this culture is that adults don't grow. That challenges the premise of your book in some sense.
MG: I wrote this book because I had a war going on inside me between the voice that said, "You're finished growing, you're done, it's a done deal:' and another voice that said, "You've only begun to explore what life is about.' For me, writing this book was a way of strengthening and deepening and consolidating the voice that said, "You're going to grow for the rest of your life.' That other view-that grown ups are done growing-is a myth that needs to be retired.
PT: Which voices tell us that we're done growing?
MG: I once had this same conversation with my wife. She said, "What do you mean voices? I don't have any voices like that inside me that say we're done growing." I said, "Shelly, go back to being a child. Now tell me the story of some adult around you a profound transformation or growth experience.' She was silent for a moment, then said, "I can't think of anyone." I said, "That's what I mean.'
When I was growing up I cannot remember a single story of an adult whom I was aware of who had a positive transformative growth experience in adulthood. And if all the growth that happens is hidden from you, that's a pretty powerful message.
Another message is in our language. We call people "adults" from the age of 21 on. We have no other word to cover half a century, and when we do have other words like "elderly" or "aging" or "old fart," they're not positive. None of them are really seen as a recognition with any kind of integrity or achievement.
Television reflects this. Roughly 80 percent of the characters on television are between the ages of 25 and 40. That's demographically inaccurate. The message is "This is what life is about: people between the age of 25-40"
Our culture is built on the whole premise that to be young and to be consuming is to be living, and to be old is to be dying. I see it throughout our culture. I lived in Los Angeles and have worked in Hollywood. If you're between 40 and 60, as Shirley MacLaine has said, you can't find a role. That's why so many actresses start planning for cosmetic surgery at 25.
What does that say about our culture? The people that we look at on the screen are reflections of ourselves. And who do we want to look at? We want to look at people who are beautiful, whether it's Goldie Hawn or Elizabeth Taylor-people who keep on looking young, when we know that they could not possibly look that way without surgery. So we glorify them, even though we know what they've done to themselves had. They've cut themselves up in order to fit an image of what it means to be young.
I talked to a hairdresser who said to me, "I've got all these women coming in here to dye their hair, to stay young-looking.' You know the only problem with that? The young women can't find their elders. They can't find anyone to look up to because they all look like they do.
We've got a whole generation that's trying to pretend they're still kids. And then we say, "Why don't we have any leadership in America? Why don't we have any elders?' Well, nobody wants to look like an elder. That's why I recommend that we have a new stage of life called "elderhood." Adulthood, midlife, and elderhood. You say "elder" to some people and they take offense. They say, "You mean I look old?" No, you say, "You're someone I look up to and respect because of the wisdom of your experience. They can't even grasp this because it's so alien to our culture.
PT: That's a big thing for people to accept, a major societal sea change for people who don't have any respect. It's sort of a Western phenomenon.
MG: We see an old person and think, now there's a person who's fallen behind the times, who's out of date, who's an anachronism. In other cultures they see an old person and they say, there's an elder, there's someone with wisdom, someone with experience. That's because those are stable cultures. In our culture we say, "They don't know how to use a computer. They're before faxes, what do they know? They grew up in the Forties; they're Depression-era people. We look down on them, and it's a major loss, because we are looking down at our own future. Even our rock lyrics are filled with messages like, "I'd rather die before I get old'
The dangerous thing is that if you think that aging is meaningless-which is what our culture is saying-then your life is meaningless. If you accept that aging is meaningless, which I don't, then you've got to run away from you're own future. I think our generation is here to change that and to recognize that there is a positive meaning to aging, and that if we accepted that, it would be revolutionary. Positively revolutionary.
PT: In many ways the country right now has the same kind of ennui that we associate with midlife.
MG: That's absolutely true. At a time when the economic boom of the Sixties is dearly not going to continue very much longer, I think there's a very natural re-examination of what we get from material things. I think that's one of the reasons there is a renaissance of spiritual inquiry going on right now. People are realizing that one of the crutches we've had is our dependency on material goods. And, as you say, a lot of people are realizing that they are not going to get what they hoped they would, what they felt they were promised, in terms of material pursuits.
So now they are re-examining what growth and what success and what well-being means. They are trying to give other definitions for it because materially, they are not going to get the promotions they thought they were going to get, they are not going to get the salary increase or the splendid lifestyles or the vast estates. So the question becomes, where are you going? How are you changing? It has to become more internalized.
PT: Do you make a connection between this consciousness, this new sense of spirituality and recognition, and the sudden appearance of concern for the planet?
MG: It's no accident that we are living longer lives and talking about the second half of life at this particular point in the planet's history, because if we believe what all the environmentalists are saying, then we have to change the way we live on the Earth in the next 30 or 40 years. If we don't, our kids won't be able to live a healthy life.
The fact that we now realize we have to change the way we live on the planet, and that it is happening at the same time that a generation is reaching midlife-I don't see this as a coincidence. I see it as an essential reality that you and I own. If we were to now have the same values during the second half of life as we do in the first-if we see as much as we can, travel as much as we can, get as much as we can for ourselves and not serve the planet-we will do more to contribute to the destruction of the planet than any generation before us. But if we wake up and begin a real quest, we can contribute to a renaissance.
in science can learn from Buddhism
B. Alan Wallace, a scholar, Tibetan Buddhist monk and interpreter for the Dalai Lama, has taught Buddhist theory and meditation throughout Europe and America since 1976. Wallace has an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science from Amherst College and a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford. His most recent books are Buddhism with an Attitude: The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind-Training and The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. At the Mind and Life Conference in Dharamsala, India, Science & Theology News' Geetinder Garewal caught up with him to discuss where science and Buddhism intersect.
Science & Theology News: What is the Buddhist view of the self and how does it relate to Western scientific notions of the same?
B. Alan Wallac: There is strong difference in background between the scientific and the Buddhist views.
The scientific view is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of an immortal and immutable soul. But as scientists study the mind and brain they find no evidence for an individual soul or self.
This looks like a direct undermining of Judaism, Christianity and possibly all religions.
In Buddhism there has never been a notion of an independent, immutable soul or self. Buddhist analysis of human identity consists of an ongoing flow of psycho-physiological events. It is held that there is a mind-body interdependence and also interdependence with the environment.
Here we find a resonance with science in the profound relationship of interdependence between our genes and environment. Science has plenty of empirical evidence for the mind-body-environment interaction.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, explains that Buddhism does not hold that there is no self at all, but that there is no autonomous individual soul or ego identity. This is very compatible with the modern scientific position.
STN: Buddhism talks of subtle levels of consciousness, which modern science has not encountered yet, how are these states experienced?
BAW: The Dalai Lama spoke of the methods of exploring consciousness from the first-person perspective. This is done by first achieving the ability of lucid dreaming. This entails apprehending the dream-state as a dream, while you are aware that you are dreaming. You deliberately let the dream vanish without losing your lucidity or your knowledge of what is happening. You watch the whole dream state vanishing and what is left is the possibility of realizing the clear light of sleep. And then you come upon the naked nature of awareness without the aggregation or addition of language, physical sensation and mental concepts.
STN: Can this phenomenon be explored in the waking state?
BAW: His Holiness explained that it is possible to do this practice in the waking state too, but for that you need to be an advanced yogi. The yogi develops a powerful samadhi [meditative absorption] and then, withdrawing all the senses enters into such a state of primordial consciousness of clear light. But this is much more difficult because in the dream state, your senses are already withdrawn and you do not need to do that by the power of samadhi, so it gives you an easier platform for realizing the very deep level of consciousness.
His Holiness also pointed out that this type of insight into the clear light nature of awareness is really a preparation for the dying process when this phenomenon naturally unfolds.
STN: The dying process? Could you explain this?
BAW: During the death process your dying brain is gradually shutting down; it is no longer able to support your cognitive, affective and sensory faculties. From a Buddhist perspective, when your breathing stops and your heart ceases functioning, the deepest dimension of consciousness - the clear light nature of awareness - is still present, it is not contingent upon the brain. This is very difficult for scientists to accept.
STN: Why do you think that is?
BAW: The reason is that they have no experience in this area. This is because they study only the structure and behavior of the brain. How can you have experience of the clear light nature of awareness when all you are doing is looking at neurons, synapses and so on? They have no evidence because they are looking in the wrong place with the wrong methods.
STN: Is the mind absolutely contingent upon the brain?
BAW: The Dalai Lama's position is that on the level of thought, mental imagery, emotion, definitely "yes."
So this is quite close to science, but the deeper you go into the study of consciousness like the clear light of sleep and the clear light of death, there is a shift. The Buddhist belief is that there is a continuum of very subtle consciousness, which carries on after this life into the next life. This is the reason that there are cases reported of children with very detailed memory of a past life with tremendous accuracy. If all the evidence would be presented to a jury they would say "beyond all reasonable doubt".
STN: What about the question of ethics and the study of the brain?
BAW: To define ethics as being honest about your data seems too limited. My plea is for greater ethics without bringing in any religious creed and dogma. But there could be a much greater sense of social responsibility, an altruism in science.
In Buddhism, whatever one's daily activities are going to be - whether they be engaging in philosophical debates about very abstract concepts or cleaning the monastery - we start the day by setting the motivation: "May all my activities today bring about greater happiness to all sentient beings": a motivation of altruism.
Scientists can set a daily motivation that says, "May our research - whether it is basic research or applied research - may this be for the benefit for all." And I feel this is not just a sweet idea, nor is it simply a utopian or idealistic notion. I think it is much more serious because scientists now have an unparalleled responsibility to humanity because they are being given enormous resources by governments, by private corporations, but basically the money comes from us. So, I think they are indebted to humanity because that provides them with the possibility of doing the research.
STN: What role can scientists play?
BAW: Scientists all over the world speak with unparalleled authority about the nature of reality. Everybody knows that knowledge is power, so they are our primary sources of knowledge, they are our belief systems. Knowledge is so easily translated into power, and power can easily fall into the hands of people who are profoundly unaltruistic or patriotic in the worst possible sense; where patriotism takes on a nasty connotation because it is really national egotism, as if the well-being of one country is independent from the well-being of the world. It is lunacy, but there are political leaders who are not aware that it is so. These lunatics treat science as ethically neutral and turn it over to the highest bidder - to the corporations who totally focus on exploitation, or the government that focuses on getting more and more power for themselves and suppressing everybody else. When the stakes are so high, scientists have great responsibility to bring in a sense of altruism.
The point of this knowledge is not so that the corporations can make it big, or governments become more powerful or the scientists themselves get prestigious positions. The point of knowledge is to bring about benefit for the whole world, human beings, non-human beings the whole ecosphere.
An interview with Alan Clements
Spring 2003 Issue
Alan Clements was the first American to ordain as a Buddhist monk in Burma, where he lived for the good part of a decade, studying under both Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Pandita. Since leaving the monastery in 1983, Clements has become a spiritual maverick and a teacher of what he calls "World Dharma." In addition, he is a performing artist and an activist working for global human rights. Since 1988, Clements has played a prominent role in bringing Burma's nonviolent 'revolution of the spirit' to the forefront of international awareness through his books: "Burma: The Next Killing Fields?," (co-author) "Burma's Revolution of the Spirit," and "The Voice of Hope," a book of conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel peace laureate and leader of her country's ongoing struggle for freedom and dignity. In addition, Clements was the script revisionist and advisor for "Beyond Rangoon," a feature film depicting Burma's struggle for democracy, directed by John Boorman. Mr. Clement's current book, "Instinct for Freedom: Finding Liberation Through Living" (New World Library, 2002) is his first to deal explicitly with the Dharma: in it, he explores the nature of awakening, the preciousness of freedom, and the mysterious wonder of the cosmos.
Inquiring Mind: You were responsible for first bringing Sayadaw U Pandita to America back in 1984. How would you describe your relationship with him?
Alan Clements: My relationship with my teacher Sayadaw U Pandita, was an elegant kind of spiritual romance, if you will. I went to Burma to learn how to look at myself, and he compassionately steered me into my own being. We touched at the deepest levels I had ever known. After years of training and watching many Westerners practice under his guidance, I found that he entered meditators in ways dramatically different from anything I had previously known from other spiritual teachers. He was, in many ways, a type of Theravadan Trungpa Rinpoche-a provocateur of radical awakening, with a certain kind of crazy wisdom to him. He never coddled your ego. He asked trick questions. He was even ruthless at times. And just when you thought you were at your limit, he offered you ice cream, literarily and metaphorically. He asked you to examine whether you were practicing the dharma to confirm your egoic-identity and your sense of comfort or to really know the nature of the mind. I needed someone to help me through some very intricate styles of self?protection and he's a master at that. And as far as I could see he was propelled by one thing-nirvana, your realization of inner zero gravity.
IM: In your new book you describe a time that you were in great despair, and had lost sight of the value of that teaching.
AC: I went to Burma in 1977 as a rebellious 26 year old artist who had done a lot of psychoactive substances and was existentially on fire. I desperately wanted to know why I felt so much pain and despair. And why was there so much hatred and war? I wanted to understand the cause of suffering, both inside and outside.
A classic model of self-discovery. At that time, my desire was to study with the elders in a meditative tradition that said, 'Self-awareness is the key quality of consciousness necessary to discover yourself and the source of your pain.' Basic vipassana. And that early period of meditative training in Burma was profound. I felt that Sayadaw U Pandita was brilliant at helping me understand the colors of my own mind. As an artist his metaphor of meditation as art worked well for me. What was the color of love? The color of fear? The color of freedom?
I apprenticed with him. As such, I learned the artistry, so to speak, of manifesting a more liberated expression of being. In that process, however, there was something else that came through that I would call ideology, dogma, religion. The teachings made it clear that the world we are born into-this samsara-is as an immeasurable sea of suffering. "Birth is suffering. Old age is suffering. All conditioned phenomena are suffering. You'll know that, in time, young man. Right now you still think that desiring sense pleasure is a good thing, but soon you'll see that it's pure folly, the grandest of all follies. Desire is the very source of your suffering. And the cause for your future suffering as well." Just like that, the theory of rebirth entered the equation.
Later it was explained that existence was not confined to just this one lifetime alone, nor just this one plane of perception. Rather, samsara was hyper-dimensional-a holographic infinity comprised of four hell realms, an animal realm, a human realm, six heaven worlds, and nineteen realms of pure consciousness, or brahma lokas, as they're called. Thirty one planes of existence in all. Suddenly, here was this whole Buddhist cosmology-a doctrine of totality-right in front of me. Resplendent with karma, rebirth, heaven, hell, nirvana, psychic powers, and Buddhahood, spiritual perfection itself.
I had traveled to Burma to meditate-to explore the nature of consciousness-and here I was being taught this complete dogma. And one predicated on the belief that the Buddha was omniscient. It took seven years, but in good faith, I downloaded an entire religion. I became indoctrinated.
I remember having a number of conversations in Burma with Dipama's sister, where she explained in great detail how both she and her sister had learned how to duplicate their bodies, fly through space and appear spontaneously in a room to meet with their teacher, Munindra-gyi. Oddly, I never once questioned her claims. I think I was so enamored with her goodness that I never asked to see the evidence, "like, where's the Rodney King factor here?" Give me a display and I'll film it.
IM: What made you question the beliefs you had accepted? When did your understanding begin to shift?
AC: In 1984, soon after disrobing as a monk I began leading intensive meditation retreats in different parts of the world. At the end of one such retreat in Australia, I think it was in 1988 or so, I picked up a copy of Time magazine. On the cover was a photograph of a group of Buddhist monks with the caption that read, "Bullets in Alms Bowls." To my horror, it was a story about the democracy uprisings in Burma and there violent oppression by the military dictatorship. According to the article, the generals, fearing the power of the monks and nuns, began attacking the monasteries in Rangoon and Mandalay.
I thought that my teachers and friends may have been imprisoned or killed. Since Burma was my spiritual home-I responded, I think, as any loyal son or daughter would to their own family. I immediately went to Bangkok, hoping to get into Burma, but was told that the country had been sealed-no one was allowed in or out. I decided to go in underground. Once in, my heart cracked open. No amount of meditation or spiritual training could have prepared me for what I witnessed. I walked into a full scale "ethnic cleansing." As a result, my views about life and the dharma have never been the same. I wrote about my experiences in my first book, Burma: The Next Killing Fields?
IM: When did you meet Aung San Suu Kyi?
AC: I met Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time in 1995, four years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. It was at her home in Rangoon, shortly after her release from six years of incarceration. We were introduced through our dear mutual friend U Tin Oo, who just happened to be Aung San Suu Kyi's closest colleague. After our first meeting we realized that the three of us shared a common dharma bond-we were all closely aligned with the teachings of Sayadaw U Pandita.
Over the course of next five months Aung San Suu Kyi and I met on a regular basis. Our conversations were taped, transcribed, and smuggled out of the country. Soon after my return to Paris, where I was living at the time, the transcripts were published into a book called, The Voice of Hope - Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi.
During our conversations Aung San Suu Kyi would often emphasize how you cannot separate the political from the spiritual. At the root of both she would say is "human dignity and human freedom." She helped me to understand the human in context -we are in relationship all the time, to society, to culture, to politics, to everyday life. She revealed a revolutionary, secular dharma that dealt with how to find liberation through living, outwardly and inwardly at the same time. "Love is an action," she would say, "it is not a state of mind alone." Just as generosity is an action, so too is loving-kindness. Think about it. Who would think that generosity is successful to the extent that one merely thinks about being generous? Imagine sitting there on your meditation cushion for eight hours a day in a ten day retreat saying to yourself, "may I be generous, may I be less stingy, may all beings be less stingy and more generous." And meanwhile, all around you, you imagine seeing in your mind beggars with their hands out for food. And you go on saying to yourself, "may I be generous and less stingy." Obviously, you become less stingy by getting up and going outside and giving something to a real beggar. Being generous in 'real life' develops generosity, not simply fantasying about being generous. In the same way, love is an action. You've got to get up off your seat to express it. Otherwise it's fantasy metta.
IM: So you went from a kind of focus on individual liberation through meditation, to feeling that true liberation is generated in the marketplace or in the political field, by what you confront and how you confront it. Is that what you're calling world dharma?
AC: World Dharma is about making life one's art-finding liberation through living, creatively, passionately, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves, without distinction. It's also about being an individual-embodying the beauty of our uniqueness as humans, our personal expression of self. I see meditation as a wonderful means to help establish an intimate relationship with one's own states of mind. What I object to however, is the idea often promoted by spiritual teachers, that the dharma life is about trying to empty one's self of self?identity. I believe just the opposite. I see 'self'-our unique individuality-as the greatest gift in life.
IM: Self in what sense?
AC: Just as no two finger prints are the same, I see self in the same way. We are unique, each of us. No two of us are alike. So I mean 'self' in the sense of me being a man with a unique 'mind print.' My particular sense of self also has many idiosyncracies, contradictions, and competing appetites, including a love of life and a fear of death.
I'm also someone who knows that he'll never know the totality of anything, much less the totality of the cosmos, as we're led to believe that the Buddha knew. The classical texts state that the Buddha was 'the knower of all things that could be known.' It states that he could perform every type of power: he could predict the future and see a hundred-thousand lifetimes into the past. I know this isn't very spiritually correct but omnipotence is a fantasy, as is omniscience. There's no one who understands the whole of the universe. The projection of perfection seems to have gotten in the way of basic human understanding.
IM: Do you see the Mahasi system of Theravada Buddhism, as it is being taught here in the West, as transmitting this total belief system?
AC: I can't answer that. I don't teach Theravada Buddhism anymore, nor do I lead retreats with anyone who teaches in that system, exclusively. But my quarrel is not with Buddhism, per se. It's with teachings that promote the idea that one should escape the most intimate, beautiful aspect of life, which is self, and all of our sub-selves-our own unique relationship to being human. Why is there a preoccupation with disappearing? Overcoming self? Becoming empty? No one home? Who's going to feed the children? Who's going to steward the planet? Who's going to become the next Galileo?
My sense is that self-the circuitry of individual intelligence- is still in its infancy. Embracing self is an invitation to nurture and love and explore this universe inside and outside called life by us humans. After all, we just got up off all fours a few hundred thousand years ago, and we are just beginning to understand the most basic workings of consciousness. I love the mind. I don't want to escape it. I want to inhabit it-all of it.
I also want us to peacefully explore the universe, and hopefully discover new dimensions of this mystery. We need to demilitarize the earth and do the same with outer space. We need to create the most favorable conditions for exterterestial contact.
See, I don't feel that it is healthy to see life as samsara - a sea of suffering. Nor do I feel that empowering escape is the best way to live. As if the best life is no life. It's as if one nirvana fits all and the best life is when the last one is taken. All for what? So you can finally die forever and be a dead right spiritually correct Buddhist?
IM: From what I have witnessed, the idea of escaping the self is usually presented as simply not being attached to your own set of desires and personal goals.
AC: As far as I understand the Buddhist practice of non-grasping is meant as a means to discover anatta-that 'you' don't exist. My point is that we do exist and that we must do all that we can to learn how to embody our humanness, and not homogenize it or try to transcend it. And to me, that means cultivating both healthy human attachments and healthy human desires. We can consciously choose our desires rather than have desires rule us. It's taken me a very long to time to see and feel desire as a beautiful thing. I love drinking coffee in the morning. I love sex. I love...
IM: Don't you mean you love the satisfaction of your desires?
AC: I love both. I love desire-the heat of passion-as well as the satisfaction of desire when its met. But I can also live with restraint. I did it for years in a monastery and I do it every day of my life. And I've taken restraint to some provocative limits. In the monastery I lived for years without masturbating. It was against the rules of conduct to masturbate. But I also found a kind of satisfaction in the desire to restrain one form of sexuality for another expression it. It wasn't as if sexuality went away. You transmuted it into another form. There was something very erotic about celibacy.
There were many other forms of restraint as well. I was silent for many months at a time. Still today, I can cross my legs and sit still without moving whenever I want. I'm not afraid of myself. And to me desire and passion are vital aspects of living as a free human being.
IM: Do you actually find the feeling of desire to be pleasant?
AC: Yes, I like the vitality and clarity that it brings. I also like the raw feeling of it. It's very organic, very natural. I like feeling that I like things and want things. For instance, I like that I'm excited that I'll be giving a dharma talk this evening in Santa Cruz. And I like knowing that I'll meet new people there. I'm equally excited about being here with you having this conversation right now.
IM: Didn't you have experiences in your meditation practice where you felt desires as painful? Or are you merely willing to accept the pain because you love life and don't want to cut yourself off from any of its manifestations?
AC: Abstaining from desire in meditation was just a basic means to experience what it meant to have a mind temporarily free of desire. Okay, desirelessness was cool. I got a taste of it. Now I know that I can have desires and also know that I won't be enslaved by them. And if I do, so what?
I'm not afraid. The freedom I'm speaking about today is much larger and more natural than the absence of something as human as desire. I'm no longer interested in being celibate, sexually, mentally, or emotionally. Freedom is an inclusive condition, not an absence from something.
Another problem I have with classical Buddhism and vipassana meditation in general is its drive towards achieving a state of equanimity, as if perpetual balance is the best way to be in life. A bit too Dr. Spock-like for my taste. Flat lining the emotions isn't part of my picture. Nor am I the least bit interested in the idea that dispassion and stillness are characteristics of the highest states of consciousness or my "true nature." I'll be silent enough when I die. For now, I like singing. I like music. I like puppies. I like performing my show spiritually incorrect. I like hip hop theater. I like meditating. I like good wine.
Embodying our humanness in all our dimensions, to me, is the best we can do as humans. What else is there? So a lot of the spiritual journey has been in overcoming the contorting projection of perfection cast upon the ordinariness of being me, human. I think we can afford to relax a bit, laugh more, and enjoy the ride.
IM: I think that a lot of people would say that meditation is simply a way of getting you in touch with all of those aspects of yourself, so that you can exist within your humanness with more ease and freedom.
AC: I agree. But meditation isn't just one thing, is it? The way I see it today, meditation is a means to usher one into life and away from ideas of escaping or transcending it. But one must be careful. Meditation is not a substitute for living. I think meditation is like a simulator for an airplane. It helps you to understand yourself so that you can get out there and fly.
Do I still meditate? Generally speaking, it's no longer that interesting to sit and watch my breath. It's still cool to do every now and again, but I'm choosing to live more from the place of what a full breath affords me. I rarely, if ever, think that I need to be more quiet and still, or less engaged in this or that. Some years ago, I even got tired of introspection and self?reflection-always on myself to improve this or overcome that. Natural, impassioned self-expression is my best method of self-awakening. From there, the most liberating sense of intuitive intelligence seems to arise by itself.
Frankly, I think there should be a moratorium on intensive meditation for most long term meditators. It's so easy to go to sleep through sitting. Worse yet, one easily becomes robotic, institutionalized, predictable, cut off from themselves. I've seen this happen to many people. Such individuals should be encouraged to dive back into the world, into their flesh, and live outwardly through their understanding. Life is the best teacher, not sitting and silence, only.
IM: Are there any spiritual teachers who you've met or studied with who suggest, at some level of maturity, a cessation of formal practice?
AC: Not really, but I'm not sure I really know, because I usually don't hang out with people who call themselves spiritual teachers - teachers who have students. There's something very infantalizing about the whole deal of teachers and students. Or I should say, I don't hang out with those who consider themselves "enlightened," in any serious sense that is, nor those who see themselves as being "beyond suffering," which we are beginning to see in the West today.
IM: Are people claiming that? I don't think there are very many vipassana teachers in the IMS?Spirit Rock circles who would claim that.
AC: I'm not speaking about vipassana teachers in particular. But am I wrong in assuming that the senior vipassana teachers at Spirit Rock and IMS teach from within a Buddhist system of realizing "progressive stages of enlightenment?" Isn't that why vipassana is called vipassana? It's a system rooted within a tradition of enlightenment, right?
IM: I wouldn't define the standard vipassana teaching as being primarily about enlightenment. It emphasizes gaining wisdom about yourself and gaining freedom from your own drama and psychic traps.
AC: Hmm... I was taught that vipassana, the word itself, meant something like the incessant flow of awareness upon the mind and body in such a way that it gains insight into the three characteristics of conditioned consciousness, that of impermanence, emptiness of self, and inherent unsatisfactoriness or dukkha-for the purpose of realizing nirvana, or enlightenment.
But setting etymology aside, perhaps the funniest thing is that I've become enlightened in three different Buddhist traditions: Zen, Dzogchen, and Vipassana. And maybe more. Because when you take into account the different interpretations of enlightenment just within the many different traditions of vipassana, one sees that most of the traditions resolutely disagree with the other traditions understanding of enlightenment.
IM: What do you mean, enlightened?
AC: I mean just that, enlightened by classical standards. For instance, when I was in Nepal with a famous Dzogchen master, he gave both me and my friend the "pointing out instructions." At the end of the session we talked and he said through his translator, "You have now attained the same state of awakening as the Buddha." He also said "that doing more than twenty days of intensive vipassana meditation was generally counterproductive to this no-dual state of awakening." An interesting comment coming from the one of the greatest meditation masters of our era.
When I was in Burma practicing with my teachers I went through the classical stages of insight on many occasions and realized various states of consciousness that could be classified as nirvanic experiences. I've done Zen retreats in which I've had powerful moments of 'awakening.' Okay, fine. Now what? And making love at times has also blown my mind. As has smoking DMT and entering hyper-dimensional inner space. And witnessing genocide ripped me apart. But what does any of it show me today? What is the translation? That's all that matters.
What I've learned is that freedom is a very relative condition. It changes with the circumstances. Alzheimer's disease has shown us that one can forget their own name. And so these so called "peak" experiences are no more the pinnacle of life than putting a man on the moon is the final answer to exploring the cosmos. We have just begun to understand life. And meditation is not the final solution to existence. It is a lovely way of learning more notes in the song of our life, but it is not the final say on how best to survive as a species.
Now don't get me wrong. I think that Buddhist meditation should be awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its power in introducing humans to themselves. I'm one of the greatest fans of meditation. But there came a point when I had to examine what I knew from direct experience and separate it from both projection and what I had inherited as dogma. And so much of Buddhism is about dogma, and therefore irrelevant to me today.
Just the other day I read something by a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who may have even been quoting the Buddha, I don't remember for sure. But he was going on and on about Buddhist hell worlds, and how gruesome they are, and I was disappointed. Sure, it's fine that he speaks his mind. I'm into free speech. But enough about hell already. Don't you think? We have enough hell on earth today with all this terrorism and fear of dirty nukes. And then comes hell in our next life for not being a spiritually correct Tibetan Buddhist, or Burmese Buddhist, or Thai Buddhist. Spiritual correctness is dangerous.
Frankly, I think we should start a campaign of spiritual disobedience towards all religions and preachers and teachers who espouse "rebirth in hell rhetoric." I'll begin right now. I'm calling for the end of hell, whether it be from the Buddhists, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or whomever. Come on. There's a much better way to control people other than threatening hell in their next life. It's called living as a free human being and respecting the freedom of others, full stop. We need to inspire each other, not scare each other with threats of hell.
IM: And would you also banish teaching about heaven, nirvana or the unconditioned state?
AC: We are in nirvana right now. What else could it be? I think when we accept that life 'IS', and that we are very limited creatures, we can get on with living as ordinary human beings doing remarkable things with this one and only life that we know. But let's not get stuck in some high, singular note called nirvana and just go on singing silently forever and ever. Nirvana may be cool and peaceful, but I happen to be a complex, energetic, finite human being who happens to like being in a body at the moment. I don't like just sitting there assuming that 'stillness' is freedom. I'm an active lover of the dharma, but I believe in finding one's liberation through living in the world, where it is often messy, erratic, and harsh. We need to develop human responses to life, not transcendent ones.
IM: Is that what you mean by what you call "world dharma?"
AC: World Dharma is another way of talking about the interplay of life meeting life. So it's an empowerment of shared space. In other words, I am my relationships. It's what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls ubuntu. He says, "A person becomes a person through other persons. What elevates you, elevates me, and what denigrates you, denigrates me." It's all about interrelatedness.
I also think there should be a moratorium on fantasy metta. Don't you think it's time that we promote a style of dharma that supports people getting up off of their cushions and putting that love into action. I think the dharma of the future lies in cultivating an honest and dignified expression of who we are, instead of getting rid of ourself, or seeing ourself in the light of a particular doctrine or ideal presence. We must be vigilant against spiritual indoctrination, and unscripted presence is one of the best forms of spiritual self-defense.
IM: I would guess that this unscripted presence would not try to be any particular way, and perhaps not even try to be mindful.
AC: Being intelligent is much more important than being mindful. And generally speaking, mindfulness itself is somewhat boring to me at this point. You can be so aware of yourself that it's a burden. Always watching, watching, watching. It's okay to be yourself. Fantasy is cool state. As is imagination. I love sleeping. Generally speaking, I love my thoughts. And for the most part I try to avoid being in the now, exclusively. It's way too narrow. Sure, its okay when I'm reading a book. But I like imagination and contemplating the future. Can you imagine two or three generations from now, the kids saying, "Hey, you guys and gals, why were you so present and in the now? Why weren't you thinking of us? Why weren't you getting up off of your present moment awareness and thinking about something larger than your need to overcome yourself, or your pathological need to be silent? Why weren't you thinking about us?
IM: Why weren't you out saving the world?
AC: Yes, that too. I've come to see that love and compassion are time-based qualities. They care about things larger than oneself in the moment. But overall, all I'm saying is to be yourself-be an original, creative voice that's out there expressing the goodness of your life. Yes, of course, speak out about human rights. We must do all that we can to give back, offer some creative expression from the uncontrived depths of our soul. We must creatively exercise our freedom, and not disassociate from thoughts. So often, meditators are taught to believe that associating with the past or future is somehow wrong, an aberration of conscious living. I say go ahead, think of the future. Use your imagination to build a dream. We should use reason and reflection and intuition to develop our dharma intelligence. For me, this ideal of a disassociated peace - the absence of something - is really a very narrow expression of freedom.
IM: So what exactly are you teaching now when you lead retreats?
AC: I'm not really teaching anything, as such. I do share my thoughts. I impart what I know. But I don't teach and I don't believe in having students. I call my retreats World Dharma Natural Freedom Meditation Retreats. We meditate four or five hours a day, have lively dialogues and monologues about issues that are important to us, eat good meals, have plenty of breaks and a lot of free time to read, walk, and be in nature. And everything is optional. Mostly, what I talk about is the importance of being human. What I'm turned onto is the preciousness of being alive. Maybe I was a slow learner, but I myself have never felt this before. "Favor the question, always question." Elie Weisel said. "Do not accept answers as definitive. Answers change. Questions don't. Always question those who are certain of what they are saying. Always favor the person who is tolerant enough to understand that there are no absolute answers, but there are absolute questions." That's my challenge, to keep the questions alive.
interview with Suzanne Vega
Soho Arts Weekly
IN HER SONGS, THE HARSH REALITY OF NEW YORK, THE SOFTER CLIMATE OF BUDDHISM
By Lydia Carole DeFretos
Soho Arts Weekly, No.1, May 23, 1984
Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan there is a pretty little apartment with an adjoining patio and a garden. While this is unusual for New York City it is most apropos for the woman who resides there-singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega. There are many facets of Vega and her life that are unique: her music, her inner and outer beauty and, behind it, her faith in Buddhism.
Vega has been playing the folk club circuit for some four years now. Though some of her songs have been included on the COOP Fast Folk Albums, she is still awaiting a record deal. Where she used to be the opening act, or one of a variety of performers during a show like the COOP concerts at The Bottom Line earlier this year, Vega has now reached headliner status. 1984 seems to be her year- in the past few months she has gotten rave reviews from Newsday, The New York Times, The Boston Herald and The Aquarian.
It would be inaccurate to categorize Vega as a "folk singer," for while she does sing folk songs her music has new wave and rock and roll overtones. Vega has an interesting voice-while she doesn't have an overwhelmingly powerful range, her style is unique. Occasionally on compositions like "Straight Lines" and "Blue Marble," she sounds a little like early Karla Bonoff. But there the comparisons end.
On some of her more avant garde , tunes, "Cracking" and "Neighborhood Girls," in particular, Vega's voice is like a taut rubber band ready to snap at any moment. Without being snide or sarcastic, her phrasing can cut through you like the sharpest knife.
Vega is one of those rare songwriters who can take the most overlooked, everyday occurrences and weave stories around them. She is an observer who absorbs everything that goes on around her from the routine of breakfast at the local diner to snatches of conversation overheard on a subway. Her songs, while not political or even topical, are capable of touching something deep inside us all. Vega writes from the heart, a heart that has had its share of joys and sorrows.
For the past couple of years I have seen Vega's name on a regular basis in club advertisements. Last year, Pete Fornatale had her as his guest on his "Mixed Bag" Sunday morning show on WNEW fm. Even at that time I remember being struck by her ability to paint pictures and draw the listener into her music.
I first saw Vega at that Bottom Line performance where, although she only did two songs, she stole the show. She interested me with her music but there was something else- a special ingredient few artists have. As I observed in a recent review of a show she did at Folk City: "Every once in a while a New York songwriter hits the scene with such impact that he/she sets the world on fire." The flames are starting to burn; in fact several record companies have expressed strong interest.
Since April, Vega has been touring with her "band;" Jon Gordon on electric guitar and Steve Addabbo on synthesizer and electric guitar. With these two, Vega has given her music the extra kick it needed. It is interesting to see the looks of surprise on the audience who come expecting some nice, quiet folk songs. What they get instead is powerful, intelligent, memorable music.
I have seen Vega perform five times now; with each performance she is getting stronger, more confident and self assured. I have watched a following develop, the faces are starting to become familiar-It's a cult phenomenon that is spreading due to press and word of mouth. I have also been lucky enough to become her friend and she my mentor as a result of my having become attracted to her particular form of Buddhism.
This form known as Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, is practiced by millions of people throughout the world, and changed Vega's life. At 24, Vega has made the transformation from an extremely shy, withdrawn girl to a confident, self- assured woman.
Born in California, Vega has spent the majority of her life in New York. As the oldest of four children times were rough for Vega growing up. What many adults diagnosed as a calm, intelligent girl-she excelled in her schoolwork-was really a confused soul who felt she didn't fit in anywhere. A picture of Vega at 16 shows a slightly overweight unhappy teenager with a lost look in her eyes.
But Vega's life changed when her father came home one day, after going to a Buddhist meeting, and urged the family to go. Vega, her father Ed, two brothers and a sister went and began practicing. Soon after, Vega's mother, Pat, joined in. Musing back some nine years ago, Vega smiles as she remembers: "We all thought it was kind of strange. I just remember hearing at these meetings that you could 'change yourself by yourself.' I never grew up with religion so to me it seemed like a good thing."
While Vega wasn't obese-the most she weighed was 130 pounds which is normal for 5'6"- her weight conflicted with her desire to be a dancer. She was virtually obsessed with the idea of being thin but at the same time thought about little but eating. At 16 she was more than just your perplexed teenager: "I knew I was very ambitious but I had no confidence, no faith in my ability to do what I wanted. I hated the feeling of just being out of control."
Buddhism became crucial at this point in her life. "So, we started chanting and gradually a lot of things changed." She continues, "It took almost four years to stop thinking about food all the time-it was a gradual change." Unlike other forms of Buddhism, Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism revolves primarily around chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" and reciting morning and evening prayers, in front of a Gohonzon- the scroll inscribed in 1279 by Nichiren Daishonin.
Having practiced for nine years Vega has learned how to explain the principles of this religion in laymen's terms: "The big thing is that you challenge your dreams, you go for what you want." As I looked at Vega questioningly she went on, "I know it sounds strange to, say chant for the rent money, but what you're actually doing is chanting for the wisdom to know how to get the rent money. Eventually, you will get it.
This belief in Buddhism strengthened the family bond and also gave Vega the drive to start her musical career. She reflects back: "I started writing songs when I was 14 but it wasn't until after I started chanting that I remember thinking 'if I'm going to do this, write and sing songs-I should go out and do it.'" A few months later she got her first gig in a local church basement coffeehouse, but when she auditioned at clubs in the Village she received some unfavorable comments.
"People told me I couldn't make it if I was going to sing my own music; I couldn't make it because I was too quiet and I couldn't make it because I didn't have any technique," she sighs, "but I was very stubborn in my own way- I didn't want to learn any one else's music, learn cover tunes or sing with a band. I got a lot of criticism because I didn't know how to present myself, all I knew was what I wanted to do- I wanted to sing."
As Buddhism gave her the strength to overcome her desires for food and point her toward a career, she continued to chant ever more assiduously. She explains the impact of her faith: "One of the good things about Buddhism is you use it in your daily life. It's not only a spiritual thing. It's not only an intellectual thing, it's something you use to attack your problems." Even though there had been criticisms about Vega's early shows, in time she won acceptance from people in the Village.
"I was overwhelmed by the support that I got because there's a lot of songwriters in the Village. I didn't really realize that because I'd grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan." She continues, "I didn't know there was a whole community of songwriters. When I came down and played a lot of people really responded and it seemed like they knew where I was coming from. I got this positive response to keep going and experimenting."
At the end of the '70s Vega had a few experiences that heavily influenced her musical style. As a dancer she was exposed to a multitude of different kinds of music-Jazz, Bossa Nova, etc. But in 1979, when she was 19, she went to England for a Summer, working in the theater. That's' when she she first became aware of punk rock. She laughs, "I listened to it as opposed to thinking it was a lot of noise that I didn't want to hear."
"I was really struck by the kids in England; they seemed to be able to express themselves in their music and in their dressing in a way that seemed genuine." Still on the British youth: "The idea that these kids could express themselves in that way interested me. Even though it was angry at the same time- I could respond to that. I thought maybe I can do that and I don't have to jump around up there with a rock and roll band."
Vega acknowledges that it was also the first time she became aware that the music had changed from the '60s. Back then it was all very communal, very positive, optimistic- we all loved each other, peace and brotherhood in the world, and so on. Then all of a sudden the music changed and instead of being communal, it was individual. She elaborates, "All these different songs came out saying, 'I'm different, I'm separate, I'm isolated from whatever.' That's where I first got the idea for "Cracking" around December of 1980."
"Cracking" is one of Vega's most visual pieces, she usually introduces it a s winter afternoon in a park right after a snowfall:
It's a one time thing
It just happens a lot
Walk with me
And we will see what we have got
My footsteps are ticking
Like water dripping
From a tree
Walking a hairline
And stepping very carefully
My heart is broken
It's worn out at the knees
Hearing, muffled seeing blind
Soon it will hit the Deep Freeze
And something is cracking
I don't know where
Ice on the sidewalk
Brittle branches in the air
The sun is blinding
Dizzy golden, dancing green
Through the park in the afternoon
Wondering where the hell I have been
"Cracking" was a real change for Vega; at this juncture she was strongly influenced by the Police who were then considered "new wave." Prior to that she either wrote traditional type folk songs like "Gypsy" with a chorus and very traditional sounding or else it bordered on jazz. Another big influence on Vega's music was attendance at a concert featuring Lou Reed.
She wasn't really thrilled at the time, "First, I really hated it, I couldn't believe it- I couldn't imagine that anyone would want to go see that. I was ticked off at the guy who brought me." Looking back now she laughs, "I said to him, 'you like this music, this is just awful,' But, I was listening to his songs and I remember thinking 'how could anybody write songs about such terrible things.' But I kept thinking about it and I thought I can write about things in my life and there's an honesty there."
When Suzanne Vega performs you feel as if she's giving little pieces of herself away with each song. She comes off as the fragile female songwriter, but she confesses that she is not necessarily, as Carly Simon once phrased it, "the girl you think you see." "Offstage I'm a lot more optimistic than I seem. But because I write my own music and it's personal, a certain degree of what you hear is me." She further elaborates, "That makes some of the tension onstage which I've always felt because I was shy.
As to the question of stage fright Vega has come up with her own solution: "I come out and I feel this kind of thing-'well, what are you all staring at- what do you think you're looking at"?' She thrives on this tension, "It's something that adds to the edge of the whole thing. I want to jar the audience a little bit, make them become aware of something that may be in their own life."
But regardless of any nervousness, Vega enjoys performing. "I feel there's something confrontational about it which I like and I'll always work to keep that. On the one hand I feel uncomfortable but on the other hand you can look back at the audience almost as if to say, 'do you know what you're looking at?'" Vega chants before a show, "I chant for the gig to go well, to have a lot of energy, to be able to touch the audience and communicate with them."
Buddhism has taught Vega a valuable lesson- now she can think of an audience as people and not as a thing. "I used to think of the audience as a thing, a monster that you have to throw things at to keep them quiet. But now I try to chant to have my own life condition high enough that people can respond to it." Vega has also come to the realization that she has to learn how to demand their attention, to earn it. She faces this situation head on by starting her sets with the a capella "Tom's Diner."
"It's like 'this is what we're doing' and it just gets everyone either right into it or else they're just out of it completely." She smiles: "It tends to bring everyone into it." It's not always that way though, the recent bill she shared with Richard Hell at Folk City was difficult-the Hell fans talked through her set. I used to take it personally and get upset but the audience can see that. It's not a personal thing, you have to look at it as a profession. You're going out, you have something to offer and you know that if you're good enough you'll get respect. If you don't get it you just do the gig, get offstage. You either don't go back or you figure out what went wrong."
When I ask Vega if Buddhism has been a calming factor in her career and her life, she hesitates. "It's more than just a calming influence, it has given me confidence and more of a direction," she replies. It's also given me power and energy. I know what I want in my life. Through chanting you develop a sense of how you affect your environment. More simply, how can I change my situation."
Possibly it was the Buddhism that gave Vega the courage to write music. She reflects back to her unhappy youth: "I think I started writing songs because I couldn't express myself verbally or socially. A lot of it came out during high school with this feeling of not fitting in. People thought of me as being arrogant. I'm sure some still do and to a certain degree I am. I have a certain amount of that in my character."
And then there's Vega's hang-up on discipline as is illustrated in her song, "Straight Lines." The plot is about a girl who chops off her hair to get her life in order and set herself on the right path. Vega herself is the heroine of this work. "I remember feeling like discipline would get me through anything. All that cutting hair stuff started when I was about 12 and I did it myself. It was a specific thing, I wanted to get my life straight."
She adds: "Something in me wasn't right, so by leading this kind of disciplined life I felt that I could get myself back in line. The second time, when I was 15, I remember feeling that if I could live a pure life than I could straighten myself out. I always felt like I wanted to do something great but I didn't know how to go about doing it." That's where Buddhism intersected and became intertwined with Vega the following year.
Vega acknowledges tremendous gratitude towards Buddhism, not only for pointing the entire family in one direction but also because "it gave me a greater sense of compassion for other people and for myself. I don't feel nearly as self-destructive as I used to. I don't feel like I have to purge myself of anything. I don't feel like I'm struggling desperately to get my life in shape or in line, so to speak. In stead of that there's a bigger sense of freedom, of humanity in stead of trying to be so pure and ethereal."
Freedom is one of Vega's favorite song topics and the theme running through, what I consider to be, one of her best tunes, "Undertow:"
I believe right now if I could
I would swallow you whole
I would leave only bones and teeth
We could see what was underneath
And you would be free then
Once I thought only tears could make us free
Salt wearing down to the bone
Like sand against the stone
Against the shoreline
I am friend to the undertow
I take you in, I don't let go
And now I have you
As far as writing songs about Buddhism Vega hasn't really done that. While there is a line in "Marlene On The Wall" that is apparently from the Buddhist influences-"But the only soldier now is me/ I'm fighting things I cannot see/ I think it's called my destiny/ that I am changing" -Vega generally doesn't' know where her songs come from.
She explains: "For example, "The Queen And The Soldier"-I remember for the longest time playing with this idea in my head. I knew that somewhere there was a war going on. Then all of a sudden all the images fit together, all the words seemed to be right there, the rhythm and the meter and the rhymes fit together. I remember staying up until 3 or 4 trying to finish up. I knew it was very long and some people weren't going to have patience for it."
"The Queen And The Soldier" is one of the songs Vega wrote a few years back when, unemployed, she became preoccupied with medieval renaissance. Although she labels it a ballad, the ironic twist at the end especially jars audiences. It is a simple tale of a soldier who confronts his queen about why there is a war; he tells her he won't be fighting for her anymore. But his main concern is why she orders these men to do battle. The queen tries to explain but in the end she winds up having the soldier killed.
"I felt like it was important that I finish it that way," Vega continues. "I used to feel when I was writing songs that I was charting what was already there, like the song existed already and I just found the outline of it. Like they already exist and I was able to catch them. I don't know where these songs come from-I don't always question them."
Since February Vega has quit her day job to concentrate on her writing. As with most decisions in her life she felt that "the time was just right." Although she has been writing daily in her journal, it has taken her some time to get onto a work schedule. "I would like to be able to write songs like Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill did, I love some of the cabaret things of the '30s. I like that kind of ironic, very harsh confrontational thing that happens with the audience." She pauses, "I'd love to be able to do more of that. It's a new thing I haven't launched into yet."
While attending Barnard College Vega studied the life of author Carson McCullers. When she was 20, Vega had to come into an acting class as a character. She chose McCullers because, first of all there is a slight physical resemblance, but mostly she identified with her isolation. Vega speaks fondly of the writer: "I was really intrigued with her life, it was so tragic, I felt like I really understood her character. I didn't even really like her writing that much until I found out about her life; she wrote a lot about people suffering."
McCullers, who's probably best known for her first book, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, which she wrote when she was 23, faced a variety of difficult challenges. She drank a lot, was a chain smoker, was apparently bisexual and a chronic hypochondriac. Her husband, whom she married, divorced and remarried, committed suicide. McCullers herself died when she was in her 50s. But it's her psyche that Vega feels a kinship for: "I felt connected to her life. In some ways she was a really strange woman, a lot of her stories ended tragically and her people were always misunderstood."
But similarities between Vega and McCullers seem peripheral when one thinks of the singer/songwriters' positive attitude. Vega feels that it's up to her to make her life work. "You take the action and actually what's changing is your life. You change yourself by chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo." You see that you can change things gradually. If you have a problem, you chant about it."
Vega's blue eyes twinkle, "This is a Buddhism for all people, not just the very elite or intellectuals; it's for everybody. You chant as much as you have time for and you reap the rewards. It fits together in a way that other things don't." That's also a good description of Vega's songs, she has the rare ability to take abstract thoughts and bring them together in a framework that fits as in "Blue Marble:"
Today I am a small blue thing
Like a marble or an eye
With my knees against my mouth
I am perfectly round
I am watching you
I am cold against your skin
You are perfectly reflected
I am lost inside your pocket
I am lost against your fingers
I am falling down the stairs
I am skipping on the sidewalk
I am thrown against the sky
I raining down in pieces
I am scattering like light
As of this article Vega is still an unsigned artist. I have a strong suspicion that she will have a recording contract before long. She will be appearing at Folk City on May 25 and at Mixed Bag Vol. 2 at the Beacon Theater on June 16. See her.
This article appeared in a New York Paper called the Soho Arts Weekly. It was issue No.1, May 23, 1984. Suzanne was on the cover, and there was a caption which read, "Interview: Suzanne Vega Thrilling us softly with her song pg 32.
Thanks to Mr. Kenny Whitworth for transcribing this article.
Theology Professor John Makransky is a lama in the lineage of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche.
In his book Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars
(2000), coedited with Roger Jackson, he invites Buddhists to consider their tradition's
relationship with modernity.
AN INTERVIEW BY ROBERT COHEN
Does Buddhism have anything like God?
Sometimes apologists, trying to interpret Buddhism to a secular, postmodern world, too quickly say, "No, there's nothing like God in Buddhism, and therefore it should be very interesting to you." But I wouldn't agree with that.
There are certain qualities usually associated with God in other religions that are ascribed to the Buddha and to those who followed in his footsteps in the various Buddhist traditions--such as the most revered Zen masters and Tibetan lamas. Buddhahood implies a penetrating insight pointing the way to ultimate freedom, or nirvana. The qualities that follow on that insight--unconditional compassion and love, spontaneous generosity, an unstoppable will to be offered up to the world--are analogous to qualities of God or of someone who has become receptive to God in Christian or Jewish tradition.
But there are also aspects of the Christian or Jewish God that would not be accepted within Buddhism. Buddhism does not have the concept of a God who created the universe. In a way it substitutes for that notion the doctrine of "dependent arising," which says that anything we experience arises in dependence upon its own causes and conditions, including our patterns of thought and action. Buddhists focus on the notion that we mistake our thoughts of the world for the world, construct our experiences accordingly, and suffer for that. A quick example: When someone cuts me off in traffic, I may have an immediate perception of that person as a simple jerk. That may lead me to feel wrenched up in anger or to cut him off in return. It seems in that moment that I really am the center of the world.
The Buddhist path around that would require seeing into the actual reality--recognizing that the other driver, like me, is what Buddhists call a "conditioned" being, a product of many causes, including habits of thought that put him in the center of his own thought-constructed world. Maybe he was thinking about a fight he had with his wife that morning, or maybe he was anxious to get to work because his boss is overbearing. He's no longer a jerk to be angry at. If we see things as they actually are--how profoundly conditioned we all are, and how much we all suffer for it--then our reaction will be empathy or compassion.
there any counterpart to a judgmental God? Are reward and punishment absent in
There is a Buddhist analog, in a way, in the teaching of karma. Karma is the Sanskrit word that literally means action and intention behind actions. Although we mostly are not conscious of it, our every intentional action has the profound and subtle effect of imprinting within us the capacity to be happy or unhappy, and the capacity to discover our inmost nature of compassion or to be lost to it. Therefore our actions, virtuous or nonvirtuous, matter very much. But karma does not involve a deity who stands above or apart, judging our behaviors as good or bad. It is simply a natural law.
you mentioned that there are various Buddhist traditions. What do Buddhists disagree
The diversity within Buddhism is comparable to the diversity within the other great religious traditions, such as Christianity. Some 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught four noble truths: The first was the truth of suffering; the second concerned the causes of suffering, including karma and self-clinging patterns of thought; the third was the cessation of the causes of suffering, in mind and body, or nirvana; and the fourth was the truth of path, which is the discipline through which one can awaken into freedom from suffering and cease to be a conditioned, reactive person. These first teachings are shared among all the Buddhist traditions, but the interpretation of them in the various cultures of Asia has become quite diverse.
A Buddhist in, say, Sri Lanka, may have a hard time understanding a Buddhist in Japan. Sri Lanka has a conservative Buddhist tradition that focuses primarily on ethical disciplines and aesthetic monasticism, as well as on higher meditation practices of stable attention and insight into the impermanent nature of phenomenal reality. By contrast, certain kinds of Japanese Buddhists pray to a cosmic Buddha named Amida. They rely in faith totally on the Amida Buddha to liberate them at the time of death and draw them to his pure realm. There they believe they will receive special teaching and enlightenment, not so much through self-discipline as through the power of Amida Buddha's Buddhahood.
the differences in doctrine express themselves in concrete ways, in ordinary life?
In Asian cultures, Buddhism is very much a practice. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists are not highly schooled in doctrine. But from a very young age they are taught how to bow, how to make offerings to the Buddha or to the religious community, simple forms of meditation, ways of chanting sacred prayers and ancient sacred sounds in order to make them more receptive to the unconditioned, transcendent dimension.
When I was living in Nepal and hiking through parts of the Himalayas, I sometimes would hear the sound of a whole village chanting the most common mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, om man-ni pad-me hum, om man-ni pad-me hum. It's the prayer of the Buddha of compassion. You could hear it at a distance--the people all chanting together as they worked in the fields--almost like the hum of a thousand bumblebees. I would argue that for them this is a way of understanding doctrine, even though they may not be able to talk about it like a trained monk or scholar. They are actually practicing the doctrines with their bodies.
your book, there is a chapter about "engaged Buddhism" that looks at
Buddhist political and social activism. Is there a long history of such involvement?
Well, yes and no. There have always been populist movements rising up in the name of Buddhism against social oppression--for example, the Mahayana movements that spread from India in the first centuries C.E. to Central Asia, then to China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet. Mahayana traditions in those lands put special emphasis on the capacity of all for spiritual liberation. A follower of the Buddha will be profoundly concerned about social justice because the fundamental Buddhist concern is to make the possibility of freedom available to others. And how can anyone possibly explore that possibility while struggling just to survive?
But "engaged Buddhism" is a modern term. It refers to a contemporary development very much like what happened within Christianity and Judaism after the Enlightenment in the West, when new frames of social, economic, and political analysis had a profound effect on the understanding of how Christians or Jews ought to participate in the world as Christians or Jews.
In Sri Lanka, in Thailand, in Burma--in fact, all over the Buddhist world--you now find movements to explore Buddhism's relevance for social and economic development and its role as a prophetic voice for human rights and against oppression.
The prominent Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, was a leader of a nonaligned movement during the Vietnam War trying to bring together political and social forces for peace. And the Dalai Lama belongs to boards and councils all over the world that involve themselves with human rights. He's been very concerned about threats to the environment, and he has been reevaluating the structures of power within Buddhism regarding women and men and religious and lay people. And of course he's working hard to get the current Chinese government to deal with the problem of Tibetan freedom. He's also, like Aquinas, of the view that the truths of reason--which include science--and the truths of faith should not contradict one another. He's open to reinterpreting aspects of Buddhism in line with findings in neuroscience, cognitive science, and even physics.
modernity subverting Buddhism, as one of the contributors to your book puts it?
Perhaps to some degree. I also suspect that, as in the past, the principles of Buddhism have a tendency to subvert whatever culture they enter. Buddhism, in whatever form, says that human happiness depends upon virtue and an openness to the transcendent dimension of being that is unconditioned by temporal, self-clinging habits of thought. In that way, it's analogous to Christianity: It appears to be the opposite of secular, modern, Western understandings of happiness based on the accumulation of material things or the achievement of a good reputation.
Buddhism is subversive because it requires those who study it to look deeply into assumptions about where happiness originates, and to alter their behavior accordingly. How that works out in each culture can vary.
I gather there's been a considerable increase in interest in the Buddhist path in the United States. Is a distinctly American Buddhism taking shape? I think it's beginning to. Generally speaking, the emphasis in the West and in the United States is on fundamental meditation practices. Lay people, both men and women, are interested in learning what effect meditation can have on their lives, how it can be a tool for becoming more present to one's spouse, to one's children, and to one's community, and offer an alternative to being lost in the sufferings of self-concern.
Americans are drawing from a range of Buddhist traditions. There's been a strong interest in so-called insight meditations from Southeast Asia, in Zen meditation from China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and in the basic meditations of Tibetan Buddhism. In the inner cities, we find the Japanese tradition called Soka Gakkai, which emphasizes chanting the name of a certain scripture and the possibility for one's life to be transformed through ritual practice.
Another Western distinction is the very strong involvement of women. In Asian cultures, women have had the opportunity for higher learning in Buddhism, but not nearly so much as men. Here, you tend to see about equal numbers of men and women--maybe even higher numbers of women.
There's also a broader sense of democratization, a tendency to be skeptical of hiearchy. I think what attracts many Westerners is that Buddhism provides entry to an inquiry into the very nature of reality, into the very heart of spirituality, and perhaps even into the very heart of what religion is supposed to be about--without someone stopping them at the door with, Do you believe in X, Y, and Z? Will you memorize the following?
There's a book called Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, written by a contemporary Western teacher named Lama Surya Das, that identifies 10 distinctive trends in Western Buddhism, if you want to read more about this.
brought you to Buddhism?
Initially, when I was young, in my twenties, I was caught by the teaching within Buddhism that life the way we live it ordinarily is suffering. That may seem strange, especially here in the United States where we have the means to get whatever we want. Yet no matter how much we get of whatever we want, we're still not finally happy. My experience as a young man was that life seemed pretty hard a lot of the time.
But over the years what I've come to appreciate the most about Buddhism is that it has such specific and concrete ways of looking, of paying attention, and of meditating to open the possibility that the inmost nature of human beings--unconditional compassion--can be discovered within each individual.
a Buddhist like you doing in a Jesuit institution like this?
When I came to Boston College and first interviewed for a teaching job, I sensed something about this institution that deeply attracted me. I later came to realize that Boston College provides a space for a sacramental vision of the world. That's a Catholic expression, meaning that there is an understanding that all of the different kinds of studies--whether English, biology, sociology, or physics--are ways of expressing the very ground of our being; are all potential expressions of God. In Buddhism, there's something very analogous to that: The ordinary is a doorway into the extraordinary. Each aspect of the world offers potential entry into nirvana, into a glimpse of freedom beyond the concerns of self-clinging.
The deep spirituality and rigor that inform faith in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition are tremendously interesting to me. They support my own sense of the world, and they inspire me.
Robert Cohen is a freelance writer based in Boston. His interview with sociologist David Karp appeared in Winter 2001.
Glassman's Excellent Adventure
An interview with Roshi Bernie Glassman and Sensei Jishu Holmes
Always challenging, always surprising, Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman is one of the most provocative figures of American Buddhism. An aeronautical engineer who began his Zen practice in the late fifties, Glassman is one of the dharma heirs of Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and upon Maezumi Roshi's death, was given charge of his worldwide sangha.
Yet it seems the life of the settled Zen teacher cannot satisfy the restless, visionary mind of Roshi Bernie Glassman. At his base in Yonkers, New York, he established a multi-faceted social service agency called the Greyston mandala, showing a capacity unique in the Buddhist world to attract high profile supporters and millions of dollars in public funding.
Glassman and his students plunged into the streets of New York City to experience the life of the homeless firsthand; they sat in meditation at Auschwitz to bear witness to the crime of the millenium. Out of these powerful experiences came the three tenets of Glassman's newest project, the Peacemaker Order: Not knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and our universe; bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world; and healing ourselves and the universe.
The Peacemaker Order bears the marks of Glassman's previous work: a small start, a strong interfaith component, and a big, big vision. Right now there are only fifteen members of Glassman's own Zen Peacemaker Order, but he envisions a much larger Peacemaker community comprised of networks of Peacemaker Villages of many faiths around the world. The Peacemaker Order is co-founded by Roshi Bernard Glassman and Sensei Jishu Holmes, who is his wife. I spoke to them at their offices in Yonkers.
Melvin McLeod: Both of you have been working until recently on the social service projects at Greyston mandala in Yonkers, which would seem like a very worthwhile thing to continue doing. Why have you moved to this new project, the founding of the Peacemaker Order?
Sensei Jishu Holmes: Greyston has now entered into an operational mode, rather than the entrepreneurial beginning stages, and for both of us, that's not our forte. We're more involved in the creation and development of projects, rather than running them. Once an organization is in the operations mode, it's not as open to taking risks with new ideas. So it seems that for us to do the things that we do best, we need to go in a different direction.
Melvin McLeod: Why did you choose this particular direction?
Sensei Jishu Holmes: This came out of Bernie's fifty-fifth birthday party in Washington, D.C.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. At my fifty-fifth birthday party three and a half years ago, I decided that I would spend a week or so sitting on the steps of our Capitol, one of the energy spots of this nation. I would do a retreat there, asking myself what would be my next step in working with rejection, violence and, specifically, AIDS, because that was at the beginning of our AIDS work. I invited people to join me if they wished to pose the same questions; that would be the koan we would share.
It turned out to be the coldest week in Washington D.C. in fifty years. We slept at night at a local shelter, one of the largest shelters in the country a few blocks from the Capitol. It was really packed all the time and we slept in the huge dining hall on the floor.
At that retreat came the answer to my question-that I was going to start a peacemaker order. So that was the initial seed of this peacemaker order, and I started visualizing an environment, a friendly space, for those doing this kind of work, and those wanting to do this kind of work.
Later I went on vacation with Jishu, and during that vacation we talked a lot about our lives and the fact that in some way our work was taking us away from each other, that we were leading very different lifestyles. We decided to co-found this peacemaker order. As a team, we complement each other and we provide a lot of problems for each other. I'm basically the visionary and she starts creating forms out of those visions. We've been exploring and experimenting and having a hard time figuring out what it means to be co-founders. I get so much notoriety and I'm very aggressive and pushy. I change very rapidly; she's more consistent. What does it really mean to be co-founders? There's a lot of stuff there; it's very difficult.
Melvin McLeod: Although we do think of activism as a calling for some people, and as a spiritual impulse, why do you speak of an "order" of peacemakers?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: The reason we chose the word "order" was to make it very strong that our actions are very deeply informed by spiritual practice, rather than meaning that one needs to be a monastic. The concept of priesthood in Zen, at least in the Rinzai style, is very lay oriented, and of course these days everybody uses the word Zen in such a secular way. But we definitely wanted to make it clear that the peacemaking we were going to do was going to be based on precepts-that it was going to be based on the tenets we have of not knowing, bearing witness, and healing. It comes out of spiritual practices.
Melvin McLeod: The word "order" implies a level of commitment that isn't always found in political or social work.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, that's true. We've been exploring that and have come up with three levels of commitment. One is members of the order, and those people we're asking for a heavy commitment-financially, spiritually and physically, a lot of time and energy. If you're a member of the order, this is one of the dominant forces of your life. At the other end of the spectrum are people to be installed as peacemakers with no commitment except to take seriously the tenets of penetrating into the unknown, bearing witness and healing, and try to integrate them into their lives. Also to have at least a day of reflection once a month. In between we're looking at a middle ground of people who want to get a little closer to being actively involved. The middle ground we really haven't clarified yet.
Melvin McLeod: Is your goal primarily to teach spiritual principles in a social action context or do you hope to build a substantial network of activists on the ground?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, we're hoping to. We're linking together activists who are already operating this way. There are folks around the world doing this kind of work and my hope is to support them, and also support others who would like to do this work by having them intern in the different places, or by us running programs and workshops. When I say workshops I mean something almost like abhisekas, in that part of a workshop has to be the reality of doing the work itself. We're not looking at creating more programs about it, but showing by example how to do it.
There already exists a large network of people who have expressed to me their interest in having such a community. They may have come out of a particular sangha, but when they started to do this type of work, they sort of lost their sangha because they were looked at as being a little different. Now they're looking for a sangha of folks who are working this way.
Melvin McLeod: Tell me about some of the people who you are bringing together.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: At this point we have the initial members of the Zen Peacemaker Order who have been installed and who are interested in forming what we're calling a village, either in a virtual village way or in a physical location. They include writer Peter Matthiessen; peace activist Claude Thomas; Joan Halifax; Zen teacher and AIDS worker Pat O'Hara; Reverend Francisco Lugovina, who works in inner city development in the Bronx; Andrsez Krajewski, who will focus on peacemaker projects in Poland, and Bhante Suhita Dharma, who works with homeless people with AIDS.
We also have people who aren't Zen practitioners, and that's another network we're calling the Interfaith Peacemaker Assembly. They're not joining any particular order, but we are connecting together. Some of those people you know, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Tsultrim Allione, Bo Lozoff.
Melvin McLeod: What do you expect this community of peacemakers to do for its members?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: We would have celebrations where we could share our stories so that it becomes a peer relationship and an encouragement. We would also have places where their students or members of their community could go into internships in other places. For example, Bo would love to have some people come and do some internships in what he's doing, which is prison work. Most of Joan Halifax's work is in death and dying, but she does work in wilderness and survival and vision quests, and she'd love some of those people to come into the inner city to do some street work. I'd love some of our people that do street retreats to see what it is like to do a vision quest.
There's a group in Italy that's an umbrella for social action for dharma students. They're starting hospice work and they would like to have people train with Jon Kabat-Zinn. We have a Polish sangha which is starting hospice work and Joan's going to do workshops for them.
Locally we have a member of the Peacemaker Order who is Puerto Rican and has been doing a lot of work in the southwest Bronx and the Latino communities for a long time. He wants to build up villages with these tenets. There's a woman in the bottom of Manhattan who's working with gay and lesbian groups and AIDS work. There's Peter Matthiessen, who does Native American work and environmental work.
So there's a spreading of methodologies across these places. People will share experiences across these different types of activities.
Melvin McLeod: What practical methods do you have to teach people your tenets, or three-fold process?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: We just finished a four week intensive study in which we worked a lot with these three tenets. Of course they're very Buddhist, but I think they make sense in all mystical traditions.
The first is penetrating into the unknown: essentially these are practices that help you to let go of your fixed ideas. In Buddhism we have meditation as one way of letting us drop our attachments, our ideas. In Zen, koan study was developed as a method of trying to get you to let go of your ideas. I've instituted practices of taking people into situations like Auschwitz or living on the streets, where it is so overwhelming that you lose control of your attachment to the idea of ego. You're put into a situation where you just don't know anymore what's happening; it's an overload of the system.
Melvin McLeod: A social koan.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. There are many practices developed in the different traditions to try to get you to that place. Let's say it's mahamudra. We have many terms for that space once you've arrived there. In Zen it's shikantaza, where you have no idea: you've let go of your particular ideas and what's left is just that space of not knowing. In many traditions that's also called the source, that which can't be named. So that's our first tenet and we will work with people with practices of how to do that.
So in some concrete terms, if you want to do work with the homeless, we're asking that you forget all the methods that you know about. Not that you throw them out; they're there somewhere. But first drop all the ideas that you know how to take care of the situation you're about to enter. Enter the situation with the mindset that you have no idea how to take care of it.
The villages are made up of groups of people who are in tune with these principles. Joan Halifax, for example, takes people up to wilderness retreats. I think the same thing happens: you're in a situation where you just don't know how to handle things, and you wind up in the space of unknowing.
Then the second step is bearing witness. Sit with that situation; bear witness to it. And what we're saying is that the third step of healing oneself and others, which I would say is a metta or loving action step, will arise naturally out of that bearing witness. So we're asking that it not stop with saying, well, I want to penetrate into the unknown and I'm not going to do anything until I achieve that state. We're saying you've got to do all three things. You've got to penetrate into the unknown to the best of your ability; but independent of how well that's done, then bear witness to the situation.
Melvin McLeod: To the suffering.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: It could also be joy. I would want to have people train as clowns, for example. Abstract theatre is a world they probably have no idea about. Think back to some of the things Trungpa Rinpoche did in terms of theatre work. I'm very interested in the same stuff as ways of taking us out of our space of thinking we know what's going on.
When I first started the street work, a friend of mine, Jim Morton, then dean of St. John the Divine who had done this kind of work back in Chicago in the sixties, told me the biggest teacher when I got out there was going to be the unknown. Whatever ideas people have of what's going to happen when they go out, they're wrong, and what they learn will be from the unknown. That's always been the case; I think charnel ground practices are very similar.
Melvin McLeod: Is your goal to bring spiritual values to the activist world by teaching these three tenets, or is it to bring activist values to the spiritual world, or is it the belief that these tenets simply represent the most effective way to act under any circumstances?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: I would say all three, but...
Sensei Jishu Holmes: I would suggest the latter. It's a way of approaching any situation.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, I would agree with Jishu on that. I also have a personal goal, at least in terms of the Buddhist world. I've met so many people in this country and in Europe who I think have the wrong impression that the dharma world and social action need to be separate. They're not seeing it as practice, as one and the same. I think that's changing, I mean, I know it's changing, but I do as a teacher have this goal of showing how this is practical to the dharma world.
Also it's my feeling that a lot of social activists would benefit from this approach because it takes away the duality of the situation. When you go out on the street, you're not going there to fix any situation. You're going there to bear witness, and when you do, all of a sudden you can feel what it's like to be served by different approaches, and you know personally what works and doesn't work. You can feel it. I would say it's an experience that everybody would benefit from.
Melvin McLeod: You have also adopted four principles from the last World Congress of Religions, which are commitments to a culture of nonviolence and reverence for life; solidarity and a just economic order; tolerance and a life based on truthfulness; and equal rights and partnership between men and women. If your tenets constitute the method, it seems these commitments could represent the goal.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: After many years of work, these were the four areas, four commitments, that some two hundred world religions could agree on. These were the only four. All of our work is very inclusive and we operate in the interfaith world. So here were four commitments that two hundred religions could agree on, and we decided, let's start from this basis of what they could agree on, and see how that informs and affects our work. One of Jishu's ideas was to take these four commitments and actually divide the year into quarters by focusing on each of them in turn and looking at how we apply them to our work. In our Zen community, for example, we're looking very concretely at partnerships in terms of male and female energies.
Melvin McLeod: In practical terms, in five or ten years, what do you hope to see this peacemaker community as?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: What flashes in my mind is Indra's Net-many communities doing this kind of work around the world supporting each other, sharing what we're doing. It's important for us to figure out ways to communicate and share and to support each other. At first I had thought of this as a container for people in the buddhadharma to do this work, because I was approached by so many folks like that. But now I see it much broader. I really think there is a spirituality beyond all these particular religions and that we're moving towards that. Groups in many traditions are coming from the same basic place of the oneness of life, the interconnectedness of life, and the place of not knowing. I can see this happening all over the place and I see us spinning together a web of support. That's what I envision.
Melvin McLeod: What do you think the potential is in terms of numbers? How many people around the world are working this way?
Roshi Bernard Glassman: I've been approached by people representing maybe twenty to thirty potential villages now, each of those representing hundreds of people, sometimes thousands. There's one Soto priest from Japan doing work in Cambodia and Laos and he's got three thousand members. So I don't know; I think we're talking in tens of thousands.
Melvin McLeod: Yet it strikes me that more than actual numbers, the spreading of your tenets, of this fundamentally dharmic method of action, is potentially the most powerful effect of this project.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah, I think so. And that's where we're putting our emphasis, though we're contemplating spending time in different villages that are emerging. Our member Eve Marko would like to create a village in Israel, where I'm going to be having discussions with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He's preaching this to the world, but he doesn't have that many forms for doing this kind of work. So we're going to be talking hopefully about that.
Melvin McLeod: A spirituality that goes beyond religion.
Roshi Bernard Glassman: Yeah. This is in the air. There's many wonderful people talking this way. It wasn't like this ten or fifteen years ago. The Dalai Lama wasn't saying this ten years ago, but he certainly is now. Thich Nhat Hanh is talking that way. There are so many folks. But when we go to do the work, I think the first thing to do is to work on these three tenets. What does this really mean? How do you do this? That's the groundwork.
Or, the whiteness of Eastern religion.
By Marisa Handler
THE FRONT DOOR of the Yoga Society of San Francisco slides open at my touch. I step in and remove my shoes, edging them precariously into a corner of the overflowing shoe rack. I hear a serene voice chiming out positions and follow the sound, peeking through double doors to a studio where two bodies swerve and arch into poses. One sports several tattoos; the other is clad in a hot pink shirt and blue sweats. Both resemble my own worn stereotype of the San Francisco yoga student: they are white, young, slim, and shorn. You'd never guess we were at Folsom and 24th Street in the Mission - one of the few neighborhoods that still exemplifies the city's ethnically mixed population.
In the past decade Eastern spiritualities and practices, such as yoga and meditation, have undergone exponential growth in the United States. Buddhism exemplifies this best: according to the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification, in which the Graduate Center of the City University of New York surveyed 113,000 Americans on their religious preferences, there were just over 400,000 practicing Buddhists in the United States, composing 0.4 percent of the population. In 2001, according to David Barrett, editor of the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia, the Buddhist population has grown to 2.4 million and makes up 0.87 percent of the population. Russell Ash, author of The Top Ten of Everything (DK Publishing), has ranked Buddhism the fourth-fastest-growing religious affiliation in the United States. For a religion that doesn't send out scores of devotees to proselytize, that's wildfire growth.
Eastern forms of spirituality are evidently appealing to Westerners more and more. "America is becoming a mission field for Buddhism, Sufism, and other Eastern religions," renowned religious scholar Huston Smith said in an interview with Mother Jones magazine. Yet, as I discovered in my own spiritual forays, this "mission field" seems to have all-too-clearly delineated boundaries: in particular, there's no straying beyond the white zone. Western practitioners of Eastern religions are overwhelmingly Caucasian.
Why the lack of diversity?
According to Steeve Buehler, an instructor and marketer at the Yoga Society, at least 90 percent of his members are white. And while teachers at the Yoga Society wrestle with how to reach spiritually alienated Westerners through an ancient Eastern tradition ("We package our practice to suit any level and spirituality," Buehler said), it seems there hasn't been much attention paid to the lack of diversity within its existing membership. "I suppose we haven't made specific efforts to appeal to people of color," Buehler said. "And unfortunately, that's typical. Look at this." [He holds up a copy of Yoga Journal: the cover photo is of a lithe, middle-aged white woman, beaming beatifically out from an impossible pose.] "They design to appeal to their audience."
That audience apparently is astonishingly monocultural, especially considering that the Eastern practices and spiritualities popular in the United States tend to embrace openness. Buehler, for example, said that the spiritual side of the Yoga Society incorporates insights from different cultures, bringing in religious experiences ranging from "Christ consciousness" to insights from the Koran. The approach is amplified in Buddhism. An abiding tenet of Buddhism, in its assorted cultural manifestations, is one of openness: embrace all who come, provide them with tools, and help them follow their own course to enlightenment. Indeed, that openness is probably the key to its appeal among Westerners. Unlike Western religions, Buddhism allows its adherents to choose their path to spiritual enlightenment. Buddhism, or elements thereof, can be incorporated into virtually any lifestyle.
"The Buddha dharma [way] is not theistic," said Gen Kelsang Wangchen, a nun at the Saraha Buddhist Center. Wangchen is British. She began exploring Buddhism in her early teens and now teaches Kadampa Buddhism, a form widely practiced in Tibet. Her teacher was Tibetan, but he focused specifically on Westerners; he "thought we had some potential," Wangchen said. To Wangchen it doesn't make a big difference whether someone comes to learn to meditate or to convert. "Generally people who come here are firm in their own belief. I'm happy if they can benefit from the Buddha's teachings at all." With a dharma so accepting, anyone should feel comfortable, regardless of cultural or ethnic differences. So why is it that the "vast majority" of Saraha Center members are white? Wangchen isn't sure.
"The message isn't culturally determined," she said. "I'm not interested in being Tibetan. I'm interested in presenting what Buddha taught in a way that people can understand."
Still, people can only understand what is communicated to them in recognizable forms. And according to Marlene Jones-Schoonover, presentation is everything. Jones-Schoonover is African American. Nine years ago she joined Spirit Rock, a Buddhist retreat center in Woodacre. She came to Spirit Rock in search of a community, or sanga, with which to practice. But Jones-Schoonover wasn't wholly welcomed with open arms: over the course of her time in the community, she has encountered racism from both teachers and members.
"I have felt simultaneously conspicuous and invisible because of my color," she said. "The community is mostly white, and people of color generally haven't felt comfortable going there." Jones-Schoonover believes that racism exists in those communities precisely because the message is culturally determined: teachers here teach to their own culture. "People teaching Buddhism now were young in the '60s or '70s. They went to India, worked with a guru, and became teachers. They are white men who reinterpreted what they learned from their own perspective, which is neither multicultural nor diverse." Add to that what Jones-Schoonover terms the "notion of entitlement" - the idea that community resources belong only to members of that community - and you have a very limited, and very white, community.
Recently, and following much debate, Spirit Rock established a diversity committee to address racism in the community. "A sanga that is white and educated creates an environment that tends to keep it that way," said William Lee, a Chinese American who serves on the committee. One of the first actions of the committee was to establish retreats specifically for people of color. This was a first within Buddhist retreat communities, and the attempt to diversify has worked. More people of color are coming to Spirit Rock because the environment feels safer and more open - altogether better suited to spiritual exploration.
Still, there is another crucial factor in this equation: namely, socioeconomics. According to Wangchen, the universality of Buddhism's message matches the universality of human need. As she put it, "The issues are the same. We all suffer." Certainly, everyone suffers, but we do not all suffer equally. Spiritual exploration is less of a priority when paying rent, or buying food, is a regular challenge. In Jones-Schoonover's words, "With so many African American men illiterate, with half of the prisoners in this country being black, how would they think to seek out Buddhism? And besides, the black community is still very attached to the Baptist church." She hesitated, assumes a tone of irony. "Buddhism? 'That's not something we do.' " Within the African American community, Jones-Schoonover admits, she is generally a closet Buddhist.
Rev. (and former S.F. supervisor) Amos Brown is the senior pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, the oldest African American church in the western United States. The church has a predominantly black congregation of 1,800. In the reverend's eyes, African Americans who leave their church to explore Eastern spiritualities are, quite simply, traitors. "They are young yuppies who are disenchanted with their own background," Brown said. "They have never embraced us." To Brown, the Baptist church is synonymous with black history - "We've crafted our own spirituality out of our African roots and the experience of slavery and segregation" - and is fundamental to the survival and development of the African American community today.
Assimilation is the privilege of a community at ease. Take American Jews, for example. The phenomenon of Jews turning to Buddhism is so prevalent that the group has been endowed with a nickname: "Bujus" (or, interchangeably, Jubus). Many Jews in the United States are no longer dealing with survival issues. Those Jews are both economically and socially empowered. That is not the case with many other minority communities, for which assimilation can be a stickier matter.
Assimilation is a particularly relevant issue when you compare white Buddhists in the Bay Area with ethnic Chinese Buddhists in Chinatown. Ninety-nine percent of the people in Chinatown's Jengsen Buddhist and Daoist Association are ethnically Chinese. Almost all of the members of the Jengsen temple are first-generation immigrants, with limited English skills; the services are led in Chinese. Aside from the language differences between that temple and Western ones, there are also cultural differences. "Buddhism as interpreted by Western audiences has a different focus," said John Lin, the temple's director of religious affairs. "To us, a key form of self-cultivation is chanting and reciting scriptures. For Westerners, the focus lies on meditation, which is a universal concept that defies language barriers." To Lin, the Jengsen temple exists to serve the spiritual needs of the immigrant community; he is not concerned with issues of diversity. In his eyes, it is irrelevant what form Buddhism assumes or where people find it. "Buddhism is comprised of many different traditions, and it borrows from the culture it is in," Lin said. "Substance is more important than form."
The Chinatown Buddhist community, however, is dwindling, as the second generation of Chinese immigrants often turn to Christian churches as a means of assimilation. "Young Asians want to become more Westernized, and they seek language and social opportunities through a church," Lin said. "Their parents' minds are open: they would never force them [to stay]."
William Lee of Spirit Rock was second-generation himself: as a child raised in Chinatown and exposed to traditional Chinese Buddhism, he turned away. "They did weird, smoky, chanting things," he said, laughing. He eventually returned to Buddhism, although to a different form. When he was asked why he didn't return to his roots, Chinese Buddhism, Lee was defensive. "I'm Chinese, so there's the unconscious presumption that I should be in that community. But America's my community," he said staunchly. "I'm bicultural, but I'm an American."
A central tenet of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies is the idea that an independent self is illusory. In an absolute sense, there is no separation between "I" and "you." But obviously, even among seekers trying to live this truth, there is a strong drive to separate - this was clear in virtually every Eastern spiritual organization I encountered. That is probably related to people's cultural comfort levels: it's hard to join a new culture and a new religion at the same time. It's equally hard to completely renounce the culture you were raised in. Therefore, spirituality is no different from any other issue in a multicultural city: different cultural needs inspire different approaches or forms. And making ethnic and cultural minorities feel welcome and safe, especially when it comes to spiritual exploration, requires tremendous thought and effort. It is not easy.
As Wangchen put it, "How can you second-guess what people of other cultures and races would be interested in?" Second-guessing, when dealing with issues as sensitive as race and spirituality, is about as foolhardy as stereotyping. But in a community as diverse as the Bay Area, there is no need to guess. You can ask. Establish a committee. As Jones-Schoonover said of Spirit Rock, "It's hard. We're working toward integration, and there's a long way to go. We still need a separate space to feel safe. But the first door has opened. The people of color retreats have given us clarity and insight, and people want more."
Marisa Handler is a freelance writer.
An Interview with the Venerable Robina Courtin
by Suzanne Saucy
Kentucky State Prison is located in the heart of the Bible Belt. Inmates' quarters are cramped. The amenities that we on the outside take for granted are absent. Yet this very poverty of means can lend itself to a path of insightful self-examination, according to the Ven. Robina Courtin, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who directs the Liberation Prison Project (LPP). The LPP now serves prisoners in the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand. Courtin meets inmates in prison chapels without fear. They sit on folding chairs as she teaches them reverence for their lives and those of others. She gives death row inmates tools to prepare for their own deaths.
In Tibetan Buddhism, some revere the yogi Milarepa as the patron saint of prisoners. He himself had once used black magic to murder the family of an uncle who had cheated him out of an inheritance. Overcome with remorse for his vengeful misdeeds, he sought liberation under his guru, Marpa. Today, the LPP's work with prisoners is part of a larger movement among diverse Buddhist groups (see sidebar) to respond to the human suffering inherent in prison life. It exemplifies a long tradition of socially engaged Buddhism that is integral to the spread of its teachings and practices in the West.
Courtin's path has always combined devotion and activism. Her Catholic upbringing fed a desire to become a Carmelite nun. Her twenties brought political awareness of the social struggles faced by women, people of color, and prisoners. She became an activist. At 31, she had given up sex, drugs, alcohol, and radical politics. Following an injury practicing kung fu, she went on a retreat and learned of Buddhism. She found her teacher, Lama Yeshe, and became a nun 22 years ago.
Courtin is a feisty and compact 5' 2" Australian woman with a brilliant smile. Her sharp wit makes her speak honestly about spiritual practice. She guides those seeking food for their souls, whether inside or outside the prison walls. This interview took place at Tse Chen Ling, a San Francisco Buddhist Center where the LPP offices are located.
CG: Can you talk about how the LPP began?
RC: It was in 1996. We received a letter from a young Mexican American ex-gangster in Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison built about 20 years ago for troublemakers from the other yards throughout California. He'd read a book, seen our name, and written to us. His letter came to me. I wasn't thinking about prisons at all. They had nothing to do with my life. He was very sincere, and I eventually answered him. This is the heart of our activity. A person will hear about the LLP through the grapevine or our magazine, Liberation. By the end of the 1997, we had heard from 40 or 50 people from all over the state of California. We now get more than 200 letters every month from prisoners all over the country.
How this work evolves is a crucial point, because in Buddhism it is inappropriate to proselytize. People come to us; we don't go to them. This idea is extremely practical. You can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
CG: How many people are working with the LPP now?
RC: There are probably about 40 or 50 volunteers. In the main office in San Francisco, there are five salaried people. We receive the letters and delegate them to seven or eight teachers depending on the type of request. I am one of those, mostly monks and nuns, who become their spiritual teacher and advisor. We then write to the prisoners and take care of their practice, selecting books, tapes, and other materials to suit their individual practice and studies.
CG: So it is mostly one-on-one work?
RC: It is quite intensive from that point of view, and has grown over the years with 4,000 prisoners having written to us. Obviously, not all continue. Some have had a full-on practice for the last eight years. But everything we do starts with the letters. There are now many groups within the prisons. An individual becomes enthusiastic and goes to the prison chaplain and says, "I want to start a Buddhist group." He gets a slot in his chapel, and then others come. Eventually we'll send someone into the prison to teach the group. We now have eight people who teach in prisons in California, Montana, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia. And whenever I travel around the country teaching in our Buddhist centers, I go to prisons nearby. We are growing strongly in Australia, where Buddhism is very popular. We have small groups in England and New Zealand as well.
CG: What type of person finds his way to the dharma?
RC: I would say 98% of the thousands of people who have written to us are men. That's interesting because if you go to any Buddhist center, you'll find that 98% are women. Many of those who write to us are poor, uneducated or Latino or Afro American - people you wouldn't often find in Buddhist centers.
CG: Can we talk about the mental and emotional pain that is experienced in prisons?
RC: There are all sorts of reasons that you are in prison. You may have killed someone; you may have stolen just a small thing; maybe you were wrongly accused or committed a drug-related offense. All that aside, prisons are not very pleasant places: they're often crowded, physically unpleasant, and very noisy. What I've observed is that the major suffering stems from being at the bottom rung of society. There's great fear around you, whether or not you are to be feared. And there is an enormous loathing. There's also a strong wish that you stay there and never leave, because you are the scum of the earth, and you deserve it and had better suffer. We all know that when even one person does not like us, it can be unbearable. So to be part of a group of people that everyone broadly speaking hates - that is quite intense.
For anyone who wants to look within and who's really interested in trying to understand what the hell life is all about, the experience of being in prison can be an incredible catalyst for change. More than anything, you can say that the Buddha is dealing with psychology, even though most people think of it as a religion. If you take anything of Buddhism into your life, it can help you learn who you are and realize that you are valid in and of yourself; that you have this amazing potential for clarity, contentment, and the other human qualities that Buddha says are the core of our being. And then, in turn, you can be of use to others wherever you are.
When this young Mexican who first wrote to us turned 21, I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche, my teacher, to write him a birthday card. There he is in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay sitting in his small cell. He's there 23 hours a day, with one hour of exercise, and he has virtually no possessions or rights. What Lama Zopa wrote him was quite shocking. He said (and I am paraphrasing): "Your prison is nothing in comparison to the inner prison of ordinary people - the prison of attachment, the prison of depression, the prison of anger, the prison of pride." It sounds almost patronizing, but if we were to take a cursory look at our own lives, which is scary, then we will find this is true.
Many of the people we deal with in prison really do understand this. Many prisoners have had a so-called ordinary life, with a wife or husband, and kids, and then that's taken away. They've been stripped naked. We all experience some level of suffering, of not getting what we want. But when everything is taken away, when you have zero say about your life, you have nowhere to turn but yourself.
Have you seen that excellent book by a guy at San Quentin, Jarvis Masters, called Finding Freedom? He is on death row there. He is a Buddhist. Finding freedom is such a cliché. But it is really true.
CG: How do you see the relationship of the prisoners to the prison guards?
RC: Thinking in terms of the victim and oppressor is a trap. If I meet someone who happens to be called prisoner then I deal with that person. Equally, if I meet a person who is a victim of a crime, I deal with that person. I don't get caught up in who is doing it to them. As soon as we meet a person who is suffering, we immediately think: "Who did it to them" and we get angry - the blame mentality. This is the view of the world. There is no doubt that there is suffering; no doubt that there are people called guards who are brutal and horrible; no doubt that there are people who are called prisoners who are innocent; and no doubt there victims of crimes. But for me that isn't the issue. The issue is to deal with whoever pops in front of me in my life whether a homeless person, a multimillionaire, a victim or a prisoner and then helping them to deal with their particular suffering and take responsibility for their lives. Human beings are human beings.
CG: Will you talk a little about His Holiness the Dalai Lama's involvement with prison work?
RC: In the latest issue of our magazine, Liberation, there is an article about His Holiness's teaching in New York last September at the Healing Through Difficulty gathering. Actor Richard Gere, the founder of the Initiatives Foundation, organized a 90-minute meeting between 18 former prisoners and His Holiness. Most of the participants had connected with Buddhism during their incarceration. His Holiness is very enthusiastic that more meetings take place in a symposium atmosphere, where people could openly discuss from many different viewpoints - including victims' organizations, wardens, prison guards, legislators, and governors.
And that's also how we at the Liberation Prison Project want to be involved. One of our volunteers serves on the parole board of a state prison system. He has invited me to participate in an international parole board conference in May. They will show the film Chasing Buddha, and I will give a talk about how the work we do helps prisoners become productive human beings.
CG: Does it take a certain type of person to work in prisons?
RC: Many of my friends are filled with horror at the thought. They feel scared and have all sorts of projections. Or they just don't feel they can bear the suffering. One of my Mexican friends in prison hadn't met a Buddhist nun before and didn't know what to expect. After our meeting, he said, "I am so glad, Robina, to know you have a wild side." Maybe you need it to do this kind of work.
We characterize prisons as violent, and I recognize that anger is a strong part of my personality. It is a part of myself that I have been working with. We can say there is a good side and a bad side to all these qualities. And so, that part of me that I am learning to work with and transform to make it useful is an active, strong one and that is what you need to do this work. I have such respect for anybody who has wild, uncontrolled energy and has suffered because of it; and who is now working in the confines of a prison.
This is where we can bring together action and spiritual practice. We have this big schism in life - all the meditators on the mountain and then all the political activists. But there is this lovely saying in Buddhism: a bird needs two wings - wisdom and compassion. Internally, all the practice involves developing the wisdom wing - the work you do on your mind, using mediation as a psychological tool to know and transform yourself. The result is that you are more relaxed, more content, more clear and wise, but also more compassionate. And then you put your money where your mouth is; and you get out there to do the compassion wing, which is to benefit others.
But you can't serve others properly without the wisdom wing. When I was doing all the political work, I wasn't really qualified. I hadn't ever looked at Robina, so I was full of all this anger, hurt, and misery. I wanting to help others and I was of some use, but not really, because I was flailing about. Look at how so many who are activists or who do social work just burn out. People get exhausted and drained because they haven't done enough work internally.
Going into prisons, you see suffering and violence. We either go into the victim/oppressor mentality, or we turn away because we can't bear it. But it's possible to go in there and be of benefit and not get drained and not get angry. When I see people who are full of anger and violence, it helps me see mine. And I'm humbled by the way human beings in places such as prison can transform themselves. We are all human beings together in this big boat. So it's very inspiring. As long it is necessary, I will keep doing it.
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Pure and Simple
by Hsing Yun (Translated by Tom Graham)
In my studies of religious attitudes toward same-sex love, I have found the most gay-positive religions to be shamanism (see my book The Spirit and the Flesh), Goddess worship (especially positive for women who love women), and Buddhism.
Alone among the current most prominent world religions, Buddhism does not worship a capricious God who sets rules which must be followed. Though Buddha is certainly venerated, he is presented as a teacher rather than a deity. The emphasis in Buddhism is on the Buddha's teachings, and other Buddhist Sutras, which are presented as a guide rather than a series of commandments. The goal of Buddhism is for people to live the most happy and fulfilled life as possible.
Master Hsing Yun, a Chinese monk who is the leader of the world's largest Chinese Buddhist association, has written many books on Buddhist ethics. This book, which is translated into English by San Diegan Tom Graham, is the latest attempt by the Master to summarize Buddhism for a general readership. He writes this book as a commentary on the Sutra of the Eight Realizations of Great Beings.
This Sutra, which is one of the earliest Buddhist teachings to be translated from Indian Sanskrit into Chinese, is one of the basic texts of Mahayana Buddhism. Tradition has it that this Sutra originated from a question by one of the Buddha's wisest disciples. He asked:
"Oh Buddha, those of us who are monks know that ... we must be selfless with each other. We also know that we must treat all other sentient beings with compassion and kindness. Oh Buddha, how are people who are not monks to behave?... Please tell us how lay people are to become enlightened and how they should behave if they want to achieve nirvana" (p.14).
Buddha's answer, which is the core of the Sutra, emphasized the importance of constructing an enlightened life in this world, rather than waiting for salvation after death. Buddha's goal for his followers was for them to discover the truth of their own lives, to reach an enlightened state and thus to become a Buddha themselves. This idea of an inner light, that each person must find within themseleves, allows for every individual to decide what is right for their own life.
The first realization in the Sutra of Eight Realizations is that nothing is permanent. Therefore, we should not allow ourselves to become overly attached to any one particular thing, because the nature of the world is impermanence.
The second realization is that greed is the cause of suffering. Master Hsing Yun writes:
"Realize that excessive desire causes suffering. Healthy desires include reasonable hunger, a balanced pursuit of shelter and clothing, reasonable social activity, temperate sexuality, and a balanced pursuit of hobbies or other amusements. Excessive desire means going beyond these parameters.... Most of us know where our limits are. When we exceed them, we cause suffering. Reasonable desires do not preoccupy us, and they are not distracting or extreme. If we do not fulfill them, we do not feel that they cannot wait a little longer. Excessive desires strain our health, impair our concentration, and often cause us to become angry or envious" (p.52).
The emphasis in Buddhist teachings is thus not to avoid all desires, but to keep them in balance. The fulfilled life is to follow what Buddha called "The Middle Way," between the extremes of denial and overindulgence. This applies to sexuality as well as other desires. Buddhist ethics do not see homosexuality as a "sin."
Indeed, the closest things to sin in Buddhism are the three base emotions of greed, anger and ignorance. A good Buddhist tries to minimize those emotions, and instead to develop habits of temperance, happiness, kindness to others, education and creativity.
Another major realization in the Sutra is that the five desires, for wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep, can be harmful if they become the center of our life. That is why we need philosophies that help us avoid becoming entangled in them.
"Each of the five desires can be understood as an exaggeration of a normal and valuable human need. The desire for wealth is an exaggeration of the normal desire to have a safe home and an adequate income. The desire for sex is an exaggeration of the normal urge to have a loving partner.... Desire is not wrong if it is kept in proportion. When it is allowed to grow into a fire or transform into a poison, however, it will always lead to suffering" (p.106).
Evil is thus not in a sexual desire per se, but only when it becomes so excessive that it unbalances one's life in whole. Buddhist ethics do not concentrate on the evilness of sex, which so preoccupies Christian ethics, but on the goodness of bringing happiness into the world. Not only gay people, but the enemies of equal rights for gay people should read the following quote from an interview with Master Hsing Yun:
"The basic meaning of morality is this--do not harm or violate other sentient beings in any way. Do not interfere with them. Do not trouble them. Do not cause them to feel fear or worry.... Be in a position to actively reach out and help others. If you have not learned to restrain yourself, however, you may cause harm when you think that you are bringing help" (p.131).
Asked to give an example of this lack of restraint, the Master replied:
"Whenever people try to confine or limit other people without having a good reason for doing so, they are violating them. This is especially true when force or intimidation is used. For example, in America there are still people who use force to prevent others from getting an abortion. No one should get an abortion without good reason, but the decision of whether to do so or not should be made by the people who are most closely involved.
"Some stranger who adamantly declares that abortion is wrong is just speaking words. He is not the one who is going to have to raise the child. The woman who is pregnant is the one who should have the most say in the matter. She should consult her conscience and decide what she thinks is right. The conscience is a magnificent guide; it will rarely lead you astray. The Buddha emphasized the importance of understanding our intentions in all that we do.... Buddhism is a religion of self-awareness. This is another reason why it is wrong to force others to do what we think is right. We should encourage others to look at themselves; that is enough" (pp.131-132).
"Patience teaches us to tolerate others and to leave them alone, to not interfere with their happiness because of some belief that we have about what is right or wrong. Morality should teach us to be restrained in our behavior; it is not a guidebook for interfering in the lives of others. People who cling to rigid moral rules are no different from people who cling to wealth or fame or sensual pleasure. Buddhism is a religion that teaches the elevation of consciousness by understanding the truth. It does not teach us to cling to a single system of understanding, or a limited set of moral injunctions" (pp.132-133).
"We want to make everybody feel welcome. We want everyone to feel hope. If we cannot give hope, why would anyone want to be a Buddhist?... Our goal is to help people, not to confine them (p.135).
Asked about the morality of people living together in sexual relationships outside of marriage, Master Hsing Yun replied:
"Marriage is an institution that reflects the values of the society that supports it. If the people of a society no longer believe that it is important to be married, then there is no reason why they cannot change the institution of marriage. Marriage is a custom. Customs can always be changed. We can find the same core point in this question as we have in others -- the ultimate truth of the matter is that individuals can and should decide for themselves what is right. As long as they are not violating others or breaking the laws of the society in which they are living, then they are free to do what they believe is right. It is not for me or anyone else to tell them that they must get married if they want to live togather. That is therir choice and their choice alone.
"The same analysis can be applied to homosexuality. People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.
"However, it will still take some time for the world to fully accept homosexuality. All of us must learn to tolerate the behavior of others. Just as we hope to expand our minds to include all of the universe, so we should also seek to expand our minds to include all of the many forms of human behavior.
is a form of generosity and it is a form of wisdom. There is nothing anywhere
in the Dharma [Buddhist scriptures] that should ever lead anyone to become intolerant.
Our goal as Buddhists is to learn to accept all kinds of people and to help all
kinds of people discover the wisdom of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha"
Hsing Yun was born in China in 1927, and entered a Buddhist monestary when he was twelve years old. Since age 22, when the Communist revolution occurred in China, he has lived in Taiwan. He founded the Buddha's Light International Association, which has over one million followers and is the largest Chinese Buddhist organization in the world. In 1988 he founded Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles.
Dialogues in Psycho-analysis and Buddhism
Anthony Molino, Editor (North Point Press)
Dr. Molino has chosen thirty-two contributors --- some living, some in bardo --- to discuss psychotherapy and Buddhism. Included are such famous writers of the eastern persuasion as Jack Cornfield, Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama. From the western world, we have Karen Horney, Carl Jung, and Erich Fromm, among others. There are two general headings, "Foundations" and "Contemporary Researches, and under the latter, Meditation, Biography, Critical Perspectives, In Practice, et al.
Because it's a fat Buddha of a book, 350 pages of fairly small type, it is packed with information, some fairly abstruse, some obvious, some quite worthy. For example, Akihsa Kondo, writing in 1958, tells us that anxiety is not "an exclusive possession of the twentieth century." He tells us that Dogen, the founder of the Soto Sect, saw anxiety as "a reflection of the uncertainty of human existence...Anxiety, then, according to Dogen, is the driving force to enlightenment." The other face of this is if anxiety, pain, grief are indeed the forces that will start us on the path, perhaps western psychotherapy, with all its feel good medications, is leading us away from the initial pain that could lead to some form of enlightenment.
This split is the heart of an essay by Polly Young-Eisendrath, entitled "What Suffering Teaches." She says.
The elite ranks of medicine, psychiatry, biology, and sometimes even psychology show an almost uniform lack of interest in the value of suffering. The focus instead is on avoiding or eliminating it.
She then brings in a personal observation:
As a practicing Buddhist and psychoanalyst, I see it differently. Hardships are the major catalysts for change and development in our lives; they wake us to how we create suffering through our own attitudes and intentions, our actions and relationships.
Her treatise (stuck way at the back, when it should be right up front) is an interesting meld of east and west, a study of personal responsibility, resilience, blame, impermanence, the idealization of the self in Western life --- conjoined with The Four Noble Truths.
For instance, western psychology uses the model of the "Terrible Parent" and the "Victim Child" to construct a "cure" --- but the author suggests that we need "an ethic of suffering" that will give us a boundary between our own "subjectivity and what lies beyond our control." She cites Jung, who
talks about the difference between neurosis and authentic pain. Neurosis arises from the ways in which, conscious or unconscious, we are dissatisfied, thrown off-center, full of childish wishes and complaints. This neurotic suffering distracts us from the authentic and inevitable miseries of life.
She then lists the three major questions of life:
" Who are they? (the mystery of our parents in childhood);
" Who am I? (the perennial question of adolescence), and
" Who are we? (the exquisite question of adulthood.)
There are a mountain of insights here having to do with Buddhism, and western malaise,
Without the capacity to see how we create a lot of our own difficulties, we are morally and spiritually adrift on all levels of existence.
Michael Eigen, another practicing Buddhist and psychotherapist has contributed an essay entitled "One Reality," two case studies of clients of his --- Owen and Jesse --- but, over all, it is replete with an series of insights and a personal warmth that is quite breath-taking.
He tells us, for example, of once going to hear Martin Buber. He states that he can't remember what Buber said, but he can remember his singular way of speaking,
...entrancing --- the way he lowered his head into his arms after saying something, waiting for the next revelation.
He says that "Buber's death between utterances was anticipatory. One emptied self in order to be ready for the next Thou surge..." And then,
Emptiness and the I-Thou moment of impact. We thrive on both. We need more than one breast, more than one eye.
His descriptions of his work with Owen and Jesse are leisurely, tolerant, sometimes puzzled. Eigen's observations turn into a hesitant by-play, and his writing becomes poetic with doubt:
He [Owen] complains he feels nothing, he is dead. Perhaps he is not dead enough. Perhaps he has died the wrong way --- he so clings to his teacherly self.
And then, describing one who is handsome, well spoken, prosperous, successful in teaching Buddhism to younger men:
Life had never forced him to feel lowly. Owen had no idea what he missed by not feeling sufficiently wounded or violated. The wounded, broken boys he helps carry brokenness for him. He lives brokenness by proxy...
Some of the longer essays included in The Couch and the Tree are totally befuddling. George R. Elder writes on "Psychological Observations on the Life of Gautama Buddha," and it's so heavy with jargon (both psychological and Buddhistic) that one would have to be a master to follow it. The editor's own essay, "Zen, Lacan, and the Alien Ego," is awash in dreadful sentences like,
Much in the vein of a Hegelian dialectic whereby subjectivity --- or the emphasized "I" connoting self-consciousness --- is generated in the encounter between two egos, De Martino's reading of Zen takes the peculiarly human community of Desire, in which the interplay of subject-(object)-subject unfolds, to be constitutive of the burgeoning ego of the infant.
Mercy me! We can only thank the publishers that they restrained Molino to only one essay (and a somewhat more cogent interview) --- and were able to let so many others --- Suzuki, Watts, Eigen, Young-Eisendrath --- have their say.
--- H. T. Webber
approach to solving drugs and AIDS related issues in Thailand.
The interview was conducted on August 26, 2001 at Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Damnoen Saduak, Rajburi, Thailand. The questions were posed to the Venerable Abbot, Phra Rajyanvisith (left), by Irish citizen Mr. Tony Kenny, BA.MA (Religious Studies).
Buddhism teaches that our current situation is due to our previous actions. If this is indeed the case, has a person who has contracted AIDS been evil in a previous existence?
Not entirely evil. That person might also have done some good deeds, but the crucial deed has been an unwholesome one, which has produced a bad effect in this lifetime, in this case contracting the HIV virus.
What about unborn babies who contract the HIV virus when they are still in the womb?
I would call it an indirect result of karma. Here is an example:
'A' decides to make merit by performing a good and wholesome action. His merit-making will consequently produce good fruit, in keeping with the law of karma.
B is aware of A's good action and shows his appreciation by rejoicing in it. By doing so, he will also receive the wholesome fruit of karma. As an example, B might in his next life be offered a good job as a manager in A's company, or he might even be reborn as A's son in some future life.
When committing a sin, it works the same way. If, for instance, you see someone doing something wrong and you just go along with it, maybe even cheer and encourage it, you will receive some future bad result or demerit for doing so. Although not as serious as the person who is personally committing the sin, there will surely be some bad result. As an example, you might be born as his/her son in a future life, and maybe even be infected by the HIV virus while still in the womb.
That's what I mean by indirect karma results.
Intravenous drug abuse and homosexuality have played a large part in the spread of HIV/AIDS, as has heterosexual sex, especially on account of promiscuity, prostitution, and extra-marital affairs. Is the rise of HIV/AIDS simply a symptom of modern 21st century existence, wherein moral standards have declined and sensuality is the guiding force in people's lives?
I would like to use the word 'evidence' rather than 'symptom', because at the moment it's AIDS, and later it might be something else.
Please understand that sensuality is the guiding force only for those who are still in the dark (and admittedly they are the vast majority). When you understand that ignorance is the root cause of suffering, it is plain to see that those individuals who continually strive for sensual enjoyments not yet obtained, and indulge in those already obtained, will constantly meet with dissatisfaction.
On the other hand, those who study and, most important of all, practise Dhamma, will eventually realise the dangers of being misguided by sensuality. Please understand that Buddhism is not just a philosophy. It is a practice, meaning that, in addition to studying the scriptures, you must also accept precepts as well as practising meditation in order to develop Right Wisdom.
What would your advice be for homosexuals, both gay and lesbian?
I would advise them to accept the basic 5 precepts, and, if they were really determined to make changes within this life and aim for rebirth as a 'straight' person in the next life, I would recommend that they keep 8 precepts on a daily basis. Apart from that they should make the practice of meditation part of their daily routine. If, on the other hand, no changes are made, their present and future lives would just stay the same, or even become worse.
Can they harmonise their sexuality with their spiritual lives, or are homosexuality and Buddhism simply incompatible? Is their sexual mode of behaviour detrimental to spiritual progress?
Any extreme indulgence in sexual activities is an obstacle to obtaining a higher spiritual level. It makes no difference if it is homosexual or heterosexual activities. The bottom line is not to be attached to sexual enjoyment. A person who is careful and not promiscuous in his sexual activities will, by using the Right Effort, be able to reach higher levels of spiritual development and even become a Noble person. And that is regardless of his sexual orientation.
As I understand, homosexuality is the last stage of the bad outcome of committing adultery in some former lives. Firstly adultery will cause a person to be reborn either in Hell, as a hungry ghost, or as a dog. After hundreds of lifetimes in the planes of Suffering, he will eventually be reborn in the human world, in most cases as a woman, but a woman with a deep instinct leading her to become a prostitute.
As her mind gradually becomes more developed, she will eventually be reborn as a transvestite, then as a homosexual, and later as a regular woman. Subsequently she will be born as a male. However, if during any period that person becomes attached to his/her current lifestyle, the development will be much slower. In fact it might even get worse. Moreover, extremely unwholesome acts might even cause the cycle to be disrupted and consequently cause him/her to be reborn in Hell once more.
Phra Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and close attendant, committed adultery in a distant previous life. When he died he went to Hell and spent a rather long period of time there. Later, when he was reborn in the human world, he spent 7 lifetimes as a sterile woman. But, as his mind became more and more developed, he was reborn as a fertile woman and later as a man. The natural law of cause and effect is something nobody can protect himself/herself against.
What advice would you offer to intravenous drug USERS, both to those who are HIV free, and to those who have contracted the virus?
Right now the government has a strong policy in order to deal with this problem, and we are all doing our best to help. The first thing the government did was 'declare war' on HIV, by educating people of the dangers and how to protect themselves against it. But frankly speaking it is not very effective, because they don't teach the root cause of all this, and moreover they don't teach that by eliminating the cause you will once and for all eradicate the effect.
This is the Buddha's teaching of Cause and Effect. In brief it can be explained like this: Ignorance leads to Karma-Formations. Karma-Formations lead to Consciousness. And the chain continues progressively through Name-and-Form, the Six Senses, Contact, Feeling, Desire, Attachment, Becoming, and Birth. Birth then leads to Aging, Decay, and Death (Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair...... in short Suffering).
So I would like to emphasise that the people of the world ought to study and practise Buddhism. It would be of great benefit. If the world would accept 5 precepts, there would be no AIDS and no wars, just peace and happiness. If only people would practise meditation and Right Wisdom by visualisation, then they would clearly see the natural law of cause and effect, and see it for themselves, not merely relying on other people's explanation in books. This would in turn lead them to be mindful before making choices, thereby avoiding getting into dangerous situations in the first place.
For those who have already contracted the virus, we should have proper social centres and hospitals to take care of them. The patients should be divided into categories, according to the advancement of the disease, that is, according to the degree of symptoms, and then they should be helped accordingly. They should not be abandoned, but be guided to live as peacefully as possible. Those who are still in the beginning stages could have their family around them, thereby creating a feeling of warmth and unity.
Looking after them physically should be the duty of lay people, while the mental help and Dhamma guidance should be carried out by monks. It is important that the duties are shared. If monks do both jobs, they would be too far away from their primary duties, away from being mindful and having concentration of mind, all of which are part of the fundamental practice of a Buddhist monk.
So you see, a monk's job is to teach the patients at all levels, so that they will have peaceful minds at the moment of dying. If the last thought of a person is happy and peaceful, that person will be reborn in a happy world. Throughout a person's life all of his/her good and bad deeds are 'recorded'. The moment before dying, those 'recordings' are replayed, and the deed which has the deepest impact on the last thought will determine where that person will be reborn. So you can see why a happy and peaceful last thought is what one should aim at.
Here at our temple I am monthly teaching around 3 groups of students at all levels. They come in groups of 400-500 and stay for 2-3 days. During that time they study meditation and listen to Dhamma talks, and I also explain to them the dangers lurking in modern society today. Moreover I point out the root cause of contracting HIV and drug addiction, namely ignorance, carelessness, and neglect of the fundamental 5 precepts. Additionally I make radio and TV programs on the subject as part of our regular Dhamma programs.
On account of Buddhism's unique metaphysical view of the world (anatta; maya; sunyata) Christian theologians have often regarded Buddhists as being socially apathetic and unconcerned with this world. Is this accusation unfounded?
Yes. In fact, Buddhist organisations do a lot to help others. Loving Kindness and Compassion are both important qualities in Buddhism. But when a Buddhist temple or organisation does something good to help others it is mostly not promoted. As an example, our temple has lately been helping flood victims with food and rice, but since it didn't hit the headlines few people know.
However, as monks we mostly give long term help to people by teaching them how to help themselves.
What are Buddhists - both the ordained and the lay Sangha - doing to help AIDS victims, their families, and the bereaved?
Again Dhamma practice (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of Mind, and Wisdom) is the key word. People have to accept precepts in order to pacify their daily routine, and to meditate in order to develop Right Wisdom whereby they will understand why they contracted HIV in this lifetime. Furthermore they will thereby understand that the only person who can help them out of this unfortunate result of their past misconduct is in fact themselves. Nobody else has the power to help, other than give guidance. We all have our personal karma, and will receive the fruit accordingly. No one can flee from bad (or good) fruit of previous deeds.
We all have to join forces. The government has to do its part, and the Sangha will in turn perform its duties. It's important to educate people and teach them not only about the problems, but also about the causes. Next the patients should be given some warmth and understanding, thereby helping them to make their minds and behaviour peaceful. As stated earlier, dying with a peaceful mind will help that person to be reborn in a happy world.
Can the Sangha help the laity to become more compassionate regarding their views of AIDS patients? It must be conceded that presently in Thailand people look with disdain upon not only HIV/AIDS victims, but their families too.
People in general need more education about AIDS, especially learning about the risk of contracting it. That's why families abandon a member who has contracted the virus. They still think that simply touching the patient is dangerous. So education is crucial, but that is mostly a lay person's job. On the spiritual level, monks can teach Dhamma (Generosity, Morality, Concentration of mind, and Wisdom) to both the victims and their families, and also encourage them to keep the basic 5 precepts on a daily basis. And those who understand the law of Cause and Effect will clearly see the benefits of keeping precepts. Soon they realise that the key solutions to solving all current problematic issues in our society today can all be found in the profound teaching of our great teacher, the Buddha.
© Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, Thailand
teachings can help caregivers comfort the dying
by Bill Kettler
Frank Ostaseski says death can teach us about living.
"The presence of death gives an urgency to our lives," he says in a telephone interview from California, where he founded the first Buddhist hospice in America in 1987. "It shows us life's precariousness and reminds us not to waste it. If there's someone we love, we tell them. If there's something we want to do, we do it. We're a bit kinder to one another."
Ostaseski has worked with the dying for more than 25 years, bringing a Buddhist's sense of compassion and mindfulness to end-of-life care. His work has been featured in print and on television, and he serves as a consultant to several health-care organizations. He's in Southern Oregon today and Saturday to conduct a two-day workshop on "Being a Compassionate Companion" for Asante Hospice.
"Death is much more than a medical event," he says. "Working with the dying is much more about relationships."
Ostaseski says Buddhism's notions of "mindfulness" - focusing attention on the immediate present - and the impermanence of human existence can help caregivers develop the mental attitude to provide compassionate care during the last days of life.
draw on the Buddhist tradition," he says, "without hitting people over
the head with Buddhist doctrine."
Ostaseski says end-of-life care must address two basic fears: first, that dying will cause pain; and second, that the living will abandon the dying.
Modern medicine is getting better at treating pain, but still does little to address emotional issues such as abandonment, he says. "This is where our medicine fails. We're not accustomed to being with other people's suffering."
He says sharing someone's suffering requires "a certain amount of intimacy, a willingness not to turn away from suffering" that is increasingly scarce in modern America.
"Grandma used to die in the parlor and everybody was a little less afraid," he says. "We're missing that now."
Along with avoidance of death, Americans leave themselves little space to grieve the loss of a loved one. People in other cultures routinely have grieving rituals that give them a year or more to adjust to loss, but Americans seem to expect grief to pass like a summer shower.
"In the most progressive companies, we might have three days of bereavement leave," he says, "and then you're supposed to come back Monday and go to work."
Ostaseski came into hospice after working in refugee camps in Mexico and Latin America and helping AIDS patients. He found himself increasingly interested in the spiritual aspects of care for the dying.
"There are no generalities" when people consider their own mortality, he says. "Everyone is absolutely unique.
"Some people focus on the dying process. Others tend to think about what happens after you die. I'm always fascinated by what people think about this."
For more information about Asante Hospice, call 608-5005.
Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail email@example.com
AND LOVING KINDNESS:
SHARING THE RIGHTEOUS LIFE
A Conversation about Buddhism
(This article was published in National Cathedral's Magazine, 'Cathedral Age' - Spring 2003)
Cathedral Dean Nathan D. Baxter recently met with the Venerable Maharagama Dhammasiri, president of the Washington D.C. Buddhist Vihara, the oldest Theravada monastic community the United States. A portion of their conversation follows. This interview is the fourth in a series with prominent thinkers from the world's major religions.
DEAN BAXTER I know there is a tendency for Christians to view other faiths, particularly those outside the Abrahamaic tradition, as if they were uniform in belief and practice. Are there various traditions within Buddhism, and how do they differ?
VENERABLE DHAMMASIRI Buddhism has three major branches, and there are smaller branches within those two as well. The main three are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada is the oldest and most conservative tradition whose ultimate aim, for both lay followers as well as the clergy is Nirvana, an enlightened state in which greed, hatred, and ignorance have been overcome. Mahayana is more concerned with service to humanity and less with the attainment of Nirvana. Vajrayana is mainly a shortcut to Nirvana, through the practice of specific ceremonies.
BAXTER Conservative in what way?
DHAMMASIRI By conservative I mean the Theravadins want to preserve the original teachings and not modify them to suit the changing times. For example, Theravada Buddhists maintain the same ancient rules of religious discipline, including the color and pattern of the robes of monks. The Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists have modified some of the original teachings to suit the changing times, though the basic teachings in all traditions are largely the same.
BAXTER Westerners often wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and often the answer hinges on whether Buddhism is theistic or has a theology. Does Buddhism have a belief in some kind of ultimate being or a presence higher than the individual?
DHAMMASIRI Buddhism is neither theistic nor atheistic. It defines a god and religion in a humanistic way. Religion, according to Buddhism, is not something that has come down from heaven to earth to serve the purpose of a creator but something that has grown up on earth to satisfy human needs and to solve human problems. Buddhism does have a belief in an ultimate being and presence higher than the normal human being, and that is the Buddha. Buddhists do not see the Buddha as an ordinary human being or philosopher such as Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. He represents the 'ultimate state' in the spiritual evolution of the human being. God for the Buddhist is the ideal of perfection conceived by human beings, which they struggle to realize through the practice of religion. Buddhism does not speak of the punishments and rewards of a god. It speaks of action (karma) and its consequences (vipaka).
BAXTER When one wills an action, is that person aware of whether the intention is good or bad, or is it something one discovers later? That is to say, if I decide to do something that might be in my interest but may be harmful to my brother's, is that a willful karma or is it something else? I'm trying to find the moral principle.
DHAMMASIRI Karma is not a moral law. The essence of karma is motive, which is emotional. If one acts angrily, it will have bad consequences. If one acts kindly, it will have good consequences. That is how karma works.
BAXTER That's much like Jesus' teaching about that which comes from our hearts. It's not what comes from our mouths but from out hearts that is at the root of our goodness.
DHAMMASIRI We have the greatest respect for Jesus Christ. Many of his teachings are very Buddhistic. Take the Sermon on the Mount -pure Buddhist! And the concept of turning the other cheek, avoiding revenge, this is clearly Buddhist too. Examples like this are all through the Gospels. Some Buddhists believe Jesus is a bodhisattva or future Buddha because of the great sacrifice he made on the cross and the wisdom of his teaching.
BAXTER Let's talk about the compatibility of Buddhism with Christianity. How would a Buddhist understand prayer and worship?
DHAMMASIRI We do have worship, but not prayer as a Christian might understand it. To worship is to recognize the worth of something or some person ("worth-ship"). Worship is based on a sense of values. We do not pray to a supernatural power for things to happen or even for salvation. The worship in our temples is before the statue of the Buddha, is admiration, respect, and gratitude of what he achieved and for teaching us the way to happy and peaceful living.
BAXTER Would a Buddhist worshipper have a sense that the Buddha would hear or be aware of their expression of gratitude of their gestures of honor and respect?
DHAMMASIRI Not at all. We do not believe the Buddha can hear what we say, or know what we say in any subtle way. We do not even believe that Buddha exists after attaining Parinirvana. It is interesting to note here that the essence of God for the theist is God's "existence", but the essence of the Buddha to the Buddhist is a Buddha's "non-existence", because he has "awakened" from the "dream of existence".
BAXTER Can one follow Buddhist practice and still be a Christian, or must one reject Christianity in order to embrace Buddhism?
DHAMMASIRI Part of being a Buddhist is the practice of universal good will, and because it can be practiced by anyone, anyone can practice Buddhism even though he or she has Christian beliefs. But becoming a Buddhist is a different thing. This involves a change in beliefs.
We never proselytize or ask anyone to become a Buddhist. We never ask because we don't believe in labels. Labels don't matter; your heart matters. I always say to Christians who come to me asking this question, 'Stay a Christian. Don't change your religion, but practice those things that can make you a better Christian". Anyone can practice meditation, loving kindness, and forgiveness and express gratitude to the people who help and teach you. You don't have to become a Buddhist to practice Buddhism.
BAXTER Where do you see opportunities for Christians and Buddhists to learn and grow together? How can we deepen our spiritual lives together?
DHAMMASIRI The best way I can think of to deepen our spiritual lives is to drop all dogmatism and blind faith and to study about religion with an open mind. Buddhism is full of many beautiful teachings. Do not look for others' faults; look for the nice things and leave behind that which you find to be not so good. If someone is looking for the bad things in a person or a religion, he well only find the sand and stones. But if he sifts them properly, all the unneeded things will go away. When you use this theory to look at others' religions, it can be a very helpful way to seek peace and harmony between each other.
Editor's note: Theravada, the "doctrine of the elders" is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the texts of the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which is generally believed to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings. For centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos).
The Mahayana tradition was formed between the second century BCE and the first century CE and includes the concept of bodhisattva or enlightened being as the ideal toward which a good Buddhist should aspire. A bodhisattva is an individual who has attained perfect enlightenment but delays entry into Nirvana, in order to mark time to make possible the salvation of all other sentient beings. In Buddhist traditions the key attributes are compassion and loving kindness. The Mahayana tradition migrated northward form India and is largely practiced in China, Japan and Korea. Vajrayana is mainly practiced in Tibet.
Editor's note: Karma is sometimes defined as a universal law of cause and effect. Karma consists of a person's acts and their ethical consequences. Good deeds and right living are inevitably rewarded and evil deeds and bad living are punished. Thus, with karma, neither undeserved pleasure nor unwarranted suffering exists. Karma provides a sense of universal justice that operates through natural morality rather that divine judgment.
This online interview took place on Friday, January 26th, 1996 in the Book Review Forum on CompuServe. The online interview was conducted through a chat interface, with the questions and answers being typed.
Interview contents Copyright (c) 1996 CompuServe
Host: We're here tonight with Dr. Frederick Lenz, author of SURFING THE HIMALAYAS. We'll start with his opening comments, and then take questions one at a time. Please feel free to place questions in the queue at ANY time ... they won't interrupt the flow on the board. I'll bring them onscreen one at a time. I'll now ask Dr. Lenz to begin...
Frederick Lenz: Greetings from SURFING THE HIMALAYAS. It's my pleasure to be with you tonight to answer your questions about snowboarding and Tantric Buddhism. And also scuba diving, which is another of my favorite sports ... particularly if you're interested in deep diving.
Kat asks: In the Tales of Powder chapter you talk about soul types and auric repatterning. What would someone with an average American Buddhist soul type have to do to repattern their aura sufficiently to change soul types and reincarnate in a higher dimension?
Frederick Lenz: This really could be done at almost any time, provided you had a Buddhist teacher who had sufficient power and knowledge to help you. On the other hand, if you're doing it alone, you would have to be fairly close to enlightenment itself.
David asks: Do you think computers will attain human level intelligence during our (current) lifetimes?
Frederick Lenz: Absolutely.
you probably know, I design genetic algorithms, neural networks and artificial
intelligence systems. Software is a reflection of our own mind. As our software
improves it will not only take on the patterns of our minds more closely, but
it will also pick up the energy of our minds; in other words, I think that software
Gus asks: Can you remember the first moment or experience in which you learned of Tantric Buddhism?
Frederick Lenz: The first time I experienced Tantric Buddhism in this lifetime was when I was a child. I was sitting outside in our backyard on a summer day. I was around six, and suddenly the whole world dissolved before my eyes and I found myself in a timeless world of light. It didn't seem at all unusual or strange. Several hours later I heard my mother calling me to come into the house, and it never occurred to me that this was an experience that other children didn't have on a regular basis.
after my introduction to many different monks from a variety of styles of Buddhism,
Hinduism and Taoism, I learned to develop the innate capacity that I had to a
higher level. In SURFING THE HIMALAYAS I have not only tried to excite the world
about my favorite sport, snowboarding, but take the best things that I learned
from the Buddhist monks I have been fortunate enough to study with and make them
available in a very Western style to anyone who wants to pick up the book.
Frank asks: What is the most perfect snowboarding mountain in North America?
Frederick Lenz: In my opinion, the most perfect snowboarding mountain in North America is Aspen Highlands, but I also am very fond of what they call heli-boarding at Blackcomb BC. But this is simply a matter of taste. I like the laid back approach of the people at Aspen Highlands. And I like the extreme vertical challenge of British Colombian snowboarding.
Kat asks: Are there specific exercises that I can practice to awaken past life memories?
Frederick Lenz: Absolutely!
The first and most important exercise is the practice of meditation. Meditation occurs in three stages:
In the first stage you learn to concentrate and focus your mind on one image while ignoring your thoughts.
In the second stage of meditation you learn to stop thought completely.
In the third stage of meditation, which is referred to as samadhi, you completely transcend any sense of self or that you are experiencing meditation. In essence, what you do is you meld your consciousness with nirvana. You become one with everything.
important thing to remember is to follow the path of light. As the fictional character
Yoda from Star Wars correctly pointed out, once you start down the dark path to
power, it's very difficult to leave that path. On the other hand, the pathway
to enlightenment is filled with joy, ecstasy, and a wonderful sense of humor.
Ian asks: Can a master work with students without physical contact?
Frederick Lenz: Absolutely!
If a master were unable to work with students without physical contact, he or she would not be a master. Naturally, the receptivity of the student is also involved.
example, tonight we are all on CompuServe, but if someone is not joining us, they
don't get to benefit from our discussion. So an advanced yoga master can send
out psychic understandings, but if a student's mind is not receptive and still
enough, that is, they are not logged on, then they won't benefit from those psychic
Bill asks: The inside cover of your book says that you are involved in computer technology companies. Which companies and which technologies?
Frederick Lenz: Essentially what I do is develop artificially intelligent systems, which I license to a variety of corporations. I suppose you might say I'm coming from a Thoreauvian perspective. One of the wonderful things about the computer is that it allows us to sit at home and either write a book or a computer program. Then we can send that program or book to companies that specialize in reproducing them and distributing them.
So in essence what I do is develop artificially intelligent technologies, along with educational and game software, and let the business people take it where they will. I'm much more involved and interested in the creative process of making beautiful software and informative books, and also of writing music, and I simply don't have the time to be both an artist and a manager simultaneously.
choices, choices! Maybe next lifetime.
hdove asks: I was wondering if you've encountered many people who have had a similar childhood experience as you mentioned earlier. The same sort of thing happened to me when I was small. It is an experience which I cherish.
Frederick Lenz: Yes, the first book I wrote, LIFETIMES: TRUE ACCOUNTS OF REINCARNATION, was a book in which the interviews of hundreds of people of similar experiences appear. In my travels from radio station to television station, when I speak about reincarnation, I receive thousands of letters in which people talk about similar experiences. So in short, you are not alone.
Kat asks: Can you recommend a few power places that are just right for clarifying career goals, business strategies, etc.?
Frederick Lenz: Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford and Caltech.
I'm just being funny but not entirely. Since I am a former university professor, naturally I am a great believer in education and hard work. I find universities are very clarifying places of power, because everyone is focused on trying to figure out exactly what to do with their lives. At the same time part of the reason I go snowboarding and scuba diving is to get to places of power where I can more correctly perceive the still center of my own mind.
also like the rush and purification of extreme athletics. I find that extreme
athletics, when properly prepared for, helps to clarify your mind and, along with
meditation and positive thinking, makes it easier to be in touch with your inner
Steve asks: Dr. Lenz, is it possible to channel psychic energy through the computer modem to a person? If yes, can you show me?
Frederick Lenz: It is my belief that one of the most exciting things about the World Wide Web and CompuServe is that they allow minds, as Spock might say, to meld. The transfer of consciousness through a variety of mediums is nothing new. The printed page takes you on a journey inside another person's mind. As C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to discover that we are not alone."
So I certainly believe that one of the best cures for the ills of the modem age is people joining together on the World Wide Web and learning from each other. It is unfortunate that there are some countries that still prohibit access to the Web for their citizens. But personally I believe with the new satellite system that will be in place in two years that every person on this earth, with a small dish antenna, will have the opportunity to access the vast spectrum of human knowledge, and pick and choose, as they will, from that knowledge that which is thought provoking, entertaining or enlightening for them.
However, if you are asking me to demonstrate my psychic abilities, and in some way, shape, manner or form elevate your consciousness, because we are currently linked by CompuServe, all I can say is that I will try my best to make the resolution of the colors on your monitor a little brighter and happier.
then again, only you can be the judge. I don't think that I have a particular
talent for being psychic. I think everyone has a particular talent for being psychic.
In my new bestseller SURFING THE HIMALAYAS, there are clearly defined methods
and instructions for developing these innate abilities which we all possess.
Kat asks: Speaking of C. S. Lewis, do you find anything interesting about The Screwtape Letters from a Buddhist point of view?
Frederick Lenz: Yes. I think essentially that you're looking at what we would call Tantric Buddhism. The Buddha taught three cycles of teachings.
His first cycle of teachings cover the basics, the prerequisites. This would include the Dharmapada.
His second cycle of teachings discusses the cosmology of the universes.
But in his later years, he wrote the tantric texts. The tantras can be very confusing for a person who is new to Buddhism, and for several thousand years the rule was not to expose a person or a new monk to the tantras until they had practiced for many, many years. The Dalai Lama and other notable Buddhist teachers have now indicated that since the world has plunged into what they consider to be a dark age, the information available in the tantras, which would include the very, very powerful kundalini release techniques, should be made available to the public.
I think you will find that James Joyce's ULYSSES, a great deal of Shakespeare, and Rilke are what I would refer to as tantric. Tantric Buddhism means that we become mature adults and we learn the reality of chaos theory. Chaos theory simply suggests that what appears to most people as chaos is not really chaotic, but a series of different types of orders with which the human mind has not yet become familiar. A lot of the parallel processing software we're currently developing for supercomputers is tantric.
That is to say, we are learning more from the structure of the neurons in the brain, and both their independent and collateral interactions, and reflecting that in our ability to deal with terabytes of data. At extremely high processing speeds we are able to find patterns of order in what other people would perceive as chaos.
In other words, the human mind and the entire life process are chaotic. Chaos is not something that lacks order; chaos has varieties of order within it. Chaos only appears to be chaotic to one who does not perceive the order within chaos.
C. S. Lewis, Plato, Aristotle and many more names that I could add, including
Einstein's, were individuals who were able to see the innate order in life, which
others perceive as chaos.
Frank asks: Will there be a sequel to SURFING THE HIMALAYAS, and if so, what will it teach us?
Frederick Lenz: Yes, I have already begun the sequel to SURFING THE HIMALAYAS, and while hopefully maintaining the simplicity and purity of the tone of the original book, which has caused it to already sell more than one hundred thousand copies in the U.S. alone, I have added and am adding some new elements that I think you will enjoy.
You will notice that in SURFING THE HIMALAYAS I managed, not unintentionally, to leave out the secret meditation techniques. These will appear in the sequel. I also didn't tell you about my wonderful romance with a Swedish woman I met at the hostel, and there will be more fun and poignancy with Master Fwap, a Tibetan Oracle, and a variety of more advanced snowboarding techniques.
Interestingly enough, after diving to 235 feet in Saba last week, I visited the ravaged Virgin Islands. There, as a pure karmic coincidence, I met the inventor of the snowboard, Steve Sanders, Mr. Burton's brother, who chose not to patent the board or take stock in the company, but allowed his brother to do so, while he and his wife and lovely children moved to the Virgin Islands and pursued other dreams. What a wonderful week for me!
pure karmic chance, I spent a week with the inventor of the snowboard and we hit
it off like peas and carrots.
Grnwich White Beltz asks: Dear Dr. Lenz, you wrote about cosmic loneliness during the sunset hours, and that this is from accessing different dimensions that are opening at those times. What can you do to better accept and or change an entire day of cosmic loneliness?
Frederick Lenz: In truth, we all know that feeling. The last book that Dr. Seuss wrote, entitled Oh, the Places You'll Go!, deals with this and many other relevant subjects. I think what Dr. Seuss was trying to say, or Henry Thoreau was trying to say, is that we are not alone. The feeling of loneliness we get, which can at times be particularly acute, is really our awareness of the rest of the universe. Instead of being afraid of these moments or running away from them, perhaps we should try embracing them.
In Tantric Buddhism we believe that samsara is nirvana. That is to say, everything in the universe is part of us. And we also are part of everything in the universe. Loneliness is a feeling that is created by our ego. The ego feels separate from the rest of creation. The answer to overcoming those feelings is ecstasy. Ecstasy should not be viewed as an unusual experience, but rather a natural experience of feeling all of the living matrix of existence around us.
Unfortunately human beings have become so afraid of the unknown, themselves, and each other that they deprive themselves of that innate ecstasy and love of life, which comes with a human body, mind and spirit, by hiding behind the empty shell of their ego. In my travels, I have found two peoples, the Tibetans and the Fijians, who don't seem to have this problem. Their closeness with their environment, their religions, and their relationships with each other and nature make them feel part of everything.
Now I'll tell you
a bad joke. Once upon a time, a Zen master was walking through Central Park in
New York City. He walked up to a smallish man who was vending hot dogs. The smallish
man, in typical New York fashion, said, "What can I get fer ya, Mac?"
The Zen master paused and reflected for a few minutes. Then he responded, "Make
me one with everything."
Deanna asks: Greetings from Boston. Just wondering if "Surfing The Himalayas" will ever be seen at a theater near me?
Frederick Lenz: Quite possibly. I and my agent have received numerous proposals for making the book into a film. But since I have spent many years of my life living in Los Angeles, and since I'm also in the music business, I know that much more is talked about in Los Angeles than ever really occurs. For me the question is not so much will SURFING THE HIMALAYAS be made into a movie. Karma will decide that.
real issue is who will play me! If I had my choice, I would pick Keanu Reeves,
because then I could pretend that at that age I looked as good as he does now!
Kat asks: I love the music of your new-age group Zazen. There's a stillness in it that I've rarely experienced in music. Are there any other musicians, filmmakers or artists of any kind that you feel catch that kind of stillness?
Frederick Lenz: Yes. Absolutely.
I feel that the Tangerine Dream albums that were made during the 1980s, many of Patrick O'Hearn's albums, and also many of Vangelis' albums convey this stillness. I think you will particularly enjoy my new album coming out in February, Ecologie.
Coincidentally, Miramar, my recording company, which now distributes through BMG, has decided in March to offer a compilation of my music for snowboarding, which will have the same cover as the book does.
have found in the world of film many movies, including Beyond Rangoon, The Crow,
Gandhi, Doctor Zhivago and The Big Blue, a French film, that convey similar understandings.
I'm sure the list is endless. These are just a few of my favorites.
Ruth asks: How do you go from stopping thought into the realms of light?
Frederick Lenz: It's trickier than it might seem. What is essential is to draw the energy of love from your heart and bring it into your mind. As Saint-Exupéry said, "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Many people, including Buddhist monks, spend thousands of hours sitting in what they call meditation. In reality, what they're doing is thinking and ruminating upon their problems. I cannot criticize this, because it is a beginning in learning how to control and direct thought, but it is only when our fascination with the world around us becomes more predominant than our fascination with our reflection in the mirror that our true inner journey begins. If you seek the realms of light, the best thing to do is to meditate with love and the gentle aliveness.
Meditation should not be forced. It is not like practicing the early stages of karate. The mind has to be gently educated and directed, so that it can focus on something new, bright and beautiful. The realms of light, which in Buddhism we refer to as the higher astral or causal dimensions, exist everywhere forever. But it is up to an individual to raise their mind to a level of stillness at which they can perceive these most beautiful realms of light. Sometimes in life we have to go backward a certain distance in order to go forwards. If we have conflicts within ourselves that we have not resolved, then we will find ourselves living inside of these conflicts, not in the realms of light.
is the Tibetan Buddhist belief that all heavens and hells are created within our
own minds. It is only by learning to direct the mind toward that which is infinite
and pure, and to control the part of our nature that is destructive to ourselves
or others, that we can truly progress along the pathway to enlightenment, which
leads to the realms of light that you have referred to.
Willy asks: But why SNOWBOARDING??
Frederick Lenz: Because it's fun!
James asks: How do we get rid of that pesky ego of ours???
Frederick Lenz: You have asked the most complicated question that an ego, which is pesky, can ask. Naturally, that pesky ego senses its own limitations and wants to go beyond them, in the same way that I am sure a 386 40Mhz chip would like to be a 586 120Mhz chip. So the answer, obviously, is to call Intel! Or, if you will, your own inner intelligence. And this is where the process of repatterning that I discuss in SURFING THE HIMALAYAS becomes most important.
Meditation is a most wonderful and unusual process. When you meditate properly you are able to take your mind and merge it with the cosmos. Essentially, this causes your IQ, or in our analogy, chip size, to increase. You can't throw your ego away, but you can use its innate desire to experience that which is beyond itself to give you the impetus to meditate. In meditation, when your mind becomes perfectly still and calm, you will experience the golden light of eternity. This light will make that pesky ego go away.
Only the light of nirvana has the power to transform and ennoble us. Meditation is the conscious entrance into nirvana. It's like snowboarding the Himalayas. You climb up the mountain with your snowboard higher than you've ever been before, and then you look down. Suddenly you think to yourself, "Oh my God! I'm gonna die if I do this!"
You now have two choices. You can walk back down the mountain, which would be the correct course of action if you're not capable of becoming one with your board and surfing the mountain properly. Or you can use my method: no guts, no glory. That is to say, you can allow the mountain to guide you, take away your fear and, provided that you've had previous experiences that have prepared you for extreme snowboarding, you can have the greatest ride of your life.
Well, let me tell all of my CompuServe friends who are with us now or download this later, you don't have to get on a snowboard or dive to 235 feet to have the greatest ride of your life. Right now, you are on the greatest ride of your life, which is your life. If you are able to stop feeling sorry for yourself and to contribute to the betterment of this world and of those around us, you will experience a high that is beyond my ability to express.
I like extreme athletics, extreme meditation and extremely beautiful women. Perhaps I'm an extreme person or it's simply my karma.
I must tell you, as if you hadn't read about me in a newspaper or seen me on a
magazine format television show, there are extreme risks involved with all three.
I consider the risks worth the experience, but it's a personal choice.
Willy asks: In some very real senses, you ARE going to "die" if you do this.
Frederick Lenz: It is the Buddhist belief that at every moment the universe is not only dying but being reborn. Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
Reincarnation doesn't simply mean that at the end of this life you will move on to another life in another body. Certainly it means that, but in addition it means that the spirit of life itself is continually renewing itself and moving to a higher level. For a more complete understanding of this, I would refer you to the last chapter of my new bestseller, SURFING THE HIMALAYAS, "The Emptiness of Snow."
In this chapter I try to explain that the surface of life is a mirage. Yes, it's true! The physical world is real, but as Buddha pointed out, it constantly changes. Molecules are moving. Universes are colliding. Generations are being born and dying simultaneously throughout eternity. As one of our great American poets, Walt Whitman, once said, "I contain multitudes."
So yes, there is death in life, but of course conversely, there is life in death. Beyond this shallow surface of the water of our planet there are unfathomable depths filled with beauty. So too, beyond the little deaths that occur in our day-to-day lives, or in the physical death that we will all experience one day, there is not an ending, but a new beginning.
One of my favorite Oriental books is the I Ching. The I Ching tells us that for every ending there is a new beginning. In other words, what appears like a transition isn't really a transition, it's a continuum of existence. If you close your eyes for a moment the room will appear to go away. But does it really? Open your eyes again and the room will still be there. That's all death is. If you've had your eyes closed for a long time, new people may have come into the room and changed its decor, but you will not have changed.
I'm a great believer in life and enjoying life in all of its variegated forms I'm not in a hurry to die, because death is inevitable, and there are still mountains I have not snowboarded, software that I have not written, places I have not yet been scuba diving and beautiful women I have still not met. So what's the rush?
living, learn to control your mind, expect less, and give back more. This is the
true secret to life according to the Tantric Buddhists -- a belief I subscribe
hdove asks: Do you believe in guardian angels or their Buddhist equivalent, if there is one?
Frederick Lenz: Most certainly!
In reality, nothing ever dies and nothing ever is reborn, things simply change place. I most certainly believe that there are countless dimensions filled with beings of other orders. Now this may sound peculiar to some people, but it was only several hundred years ago that we invented something called the microscope. Since then worlds whose existence we did not suspect have become commonplace, simply by looking through a microscope. It has given us a greater understanding of how to combat disease and improve our lives.
So, too, meditation is a kind of combination microscope/telescope. When practiced properly, it enables us to see the most minute flaws within ourselves so that we can overcome them. At the same time, like a telescope it shows us that there are countless stars in the sky, stars that range on in beauty and power beyond our imagination.
We have only just begun to live, and while I certainly don't think that every vision each human being may have is valid--some might be imaginary--I am a firm believer that life exists in countless forms in countless dimensions, in places that we simply cannot see yet, and the essence of life, while it might not appear so when we watch television or watch our loved ones suffer, is good.
example, last week I was informed that my father has inoperable terminal cancer.
My father is a very religious man and once lived in a seminary. I have personally
taken him through two coronary bypass operations. Dad is now in his early eighties.
As soon as I heard the news I immediately called him up and asked how he felt,
and if there was anything that I can do for him. He said that he knew his time
had come and felt fine about it. He's lived a wonderful, full life, been in the
military, had several marriages and children, became the mayor of Stamford, Connecticut,
and had the chance to watch his children grow and develop. He told me that he
was looking forward not to dying, but to his next adventure in living. Go Dad!
Lynne asks: Things on the inner world have been moving pretty fast, and I am not a snowboarder, yet. Any suggestions?
Frederick Lenz: As we all know, who are involved with the world of meditation and what in the west is termed new age, the 1990s are a time of intense transformation. The population of the planet is increasing at an alarming rate, and yet each day human beings manage to destroy ten species. Certainly there is cause for concern, but neither you nor I have the power to alter any of this, if we're honest about it. And perhaps this is the way it should be.
What we can do, however, is we can bring our mind into a state of stillness and understanding. We can read the writings of the great masters, and at the same time read the writings of our own personal experiences each day. But certainly, with the frenzied pace in our own country, with the degenerating school system, with a crime rate that rises 30% a year, and with politicians that seem more interested in posturing than in governing, it has become more difficult, or should I say challenging, to achieve that inner symbiosis with life.
My answer is always the same, but perhaps that's because when I was quite young they sent me to Catholic school. The nuns taught me that the best thing you can do in life when things get difficult is to work, to occupy yourself with tasks that are useful to yourself and others, and you can get your mind off your problems. The worst thing you can do is to sit and brood and feel sorry for yourself. Nor should you feel wrong about doing this, since all of us do from time to time. But the best thing that you can do to deal with these high speed times is to slow down, inwardly, to take a little more time for meditation, a little more time to enjoy your morning cup of coffee or tea, and to look around at the people in your life with a little more love.
Love is the only antidote for the insanity of this world. The funny thing about love is that when someone loves you, it doesn't necessarily make you feel better, but when you love someone else, it does. So I would suggest focusing more on loving the beauty of this world and the transience of the moments of your life, and spend less time worrying about the degeneration of the ecosystem.
First concern yourself with your own ecosystem. As Buddha said, if you want to help straighten out others, you must first do a far harder thing: straighten out yourself. Love can be the only answer.
snowboarding also works for me, because I love snowboarding! And writing music
and designing software and scuba diving.
Kat asks: Today's USA Today had a story about a four year old child from Seattle who is going to head a monastery in Nepal. Have you heard about him? Is he really a reincarnation of the Buddhist master who died in Seattle in the 1980's?
Frederick Lenz: Good question!
What you are referring to is what in Buddhist terminology we call a tulku. A tulku is a Buddhist master who has left his body and reincarnated in the body of a child. Usually his former students will find him and bring him back to the monastery, because they want to be with their master again.
But first the child must pass a series of tests to prove that he is an actual reincarnation of a Buddhist master. So yes, I did read the story in USA Today, and it may be that this child is a tulku. Or it could simply be that someone wants this child to be a tulku. If the tests are properly administered, then the truth will prevail, but until those tests are given by the proper Lamaic authorities, none of us will be in a position to determine whether or not this is simply an extremely bright child or a reincarnated Buddhist master.
Do you suppose that Seattle, in addition to attracting Bill Gates and the film Little Buddha and lots of salmon, is a power spot? I used to live in Seattle, as did Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee. I lived near the arboretum. Very often I would take walks late at night by Lake Washington, because I found it very easy to meditate there. It was also very convenient since I'm a kayaker.
your guess is as good as anyone's, but rather than being overly concerned with
whether someone is a tulku or not, how about you becoming a tulku?! Why not focus
on the clear light of reality inside of your own mind, as Buddha suggested, and
become enlightened? Then in your next life, you'll be in USA Today!
Bill asks: I heard from a fellow computer colleague last year that the little Scottie dog design in the Windows 3.1 wallpaper selections was a tribute to you and one of your friends who is another computer professional. Is that true?
Frederick Lenz: As you know, I have several Scottish Terriers. I find them to be the most wonderful dogs. While I am not in a position to comment on this rumor, which most of us know to be true, I can tell you that if you're interested in matching your mind with the most intelligent kind of beast I have ever encountered, get yourself a Scotty dog. He'll get bored very fast, and it will require all of your personal power and intelligence to keep up with him.
might find a good friend.
Randy asks: Tapping into the Akashic Record ... you spoke of downloading the text of this conference afterwards; can you tell me how/ where to find this? I'd like to share this with a loved one who is off in dreamland for now. Hope this is not too mundane of a question! Many thanks.
Frederick Lenz: The Akashic Records are the impressions from all of our past lives that are available within our causal body. Some people speak of the Akashic Records as if they were on an IBM mainframe that's out there somewhere near the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But I think it's important to understand that most of Buddhism is taught through metaphor. All the records of your past lives are contained within your own mind, just as the records of your ancestors are contained within your DNA.
Records are interesting I'll admit, but today opens a new chapter in existence. We already know where we've been. At times it is useful to take a course in inner and outer history, to avoid mistakes we've made in the past and to regain past knowledge, but let's not spend so much time reading history books that we forget that we are making history, we are history in the making right now. Let us look forward to the future, which is the present, because no one really knows what is going to happen. That's the excitement.
For some people that creates a great deal of fear. I learned from the monks in my journeys to Nepal, India and Japan that fear is something that we all experience, but we must not let it control our lives. Instead what we should do is constantly question authority, particularly our own. It is very easy to point the finger of blame at someone else and be a Monday morning quarterback.
But in Buddhism we don't really believe in sin and salvation as Westerners would define them. We believe in the limitless possibilities of the present and of future moments. We try and learn from the past, so that we can make the present and the future better, but our emphasis is definitely on the now, not on the past.
So for example, about ten days ago I got down to 235 feet on a single tank of air in Saba. On my next trip I'd like to reach 300 feet. Now certainly I could watch a video over and over of what I just did, and on a really bad day sometimes that can make a bad day a good day, but to be absolutely honest with you, I'm looking forward to diving to new depths, inwardly and outwardly, and seeing things and experiencing things that I've never known.
Occasionally I do watch a video, whether it's of a past life or of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. But I'd rather be diving, snowboarding or meditating, if you see what I mean. I think we need to look forward, with our eyes wide open, as a child does. There was a very famous British poet who once said, "Grow old with me, the best is yet to be."
I don't simply think he was talking about physical aging. Rather he was talking about growing older or shall we say wiser or perhaps younger in our intelligence, and our intelligent interactions with this magical thing we call life. Yes, I too have experienced the extreme pain of living, but I have also experienced some of its remarkable ecstasy.
But the thing that I have
learned is that the ghetto is not where you live. The ghetto is inside your mind.
And anyone who tells you that you can't get out of the ghettos of your own mind
has no idea what they're talking about. So grow old with me, the best is yet to
Steve asks: What do you recommend for a person to do to improve their immune system? Thanks.
Frederick Lenz: Several very good friends of mine have died of AIDS. I spent a great deal of time with them when they went through that process. So you might say that I'm a little bit familiar with the immune system and the devastating effects that are produced when it doesn't work properly.
One or two of my friends set longevity records for people who had AIDS. What they did, incredibly hard though it was, was to practice meditation, positive thinking and they worked out physically quite a bit. I think it's an attitude thing. While Linus Pauling would have us believe, and perhaps correctly, that enough vitamin C will have us live another 20 or 30 years, I think the strongest power in the world is not vitamin C, but the power of our own thoughts.
Obviously following a doctor's suggestions, proper diet and an environment that is not filled with hostility will help the immune system, and there are certainly a variety of drugs and herbs which can strengthen the immune system. But the most powerful force to maintaining a good immune system is the power of positive thinking and not allowing yourself to be unnecessarily drained emotionally by worries and fears. In other words, you have to maintain and increase your personal power, and what will increase one person's personal power will not necessarily be the same for another.
I do know that the advanced kundalini release techniques taught in tantric meditation can boost the immune system. They did so for some friends of mine. I witnessed this personally. I am not a physician, nor can I give you a physician's recommendations. I am simply a human being who is fascinated by the life process. So I think the very best thing you can do is observe what makes you stronger and what makes you weaker.
You might also read Bill Moyer's Healing and the Mind. In the Orient we have known for thousands of years that the most powerful tonic for ill health is a happy and clear mind. We also use medicines and therapies. In the West we've discovered additional medicines and therapies that have greatly enhanced our ability to live more years, but as a terminal cancer patient will tell you, the issue is not always how long you're going to live, but what the quality of your life, in the minutes that you do live, is.
So I really feel that when you're happy your immune system is at its strongest point. When you think negatively or when you hate or allow yourself to grow emotionally out of control, you are weakening your immune system.
You've asked a question that we all must ask ourselves: how do we live well? In my book SURFING THE HIMALAYAS I have tried to combine the best insights I gained from both my Western teachers, my Far Eastern teachers and my own personal experiences. SURFING THE HIMALAYAS is not a panacea for everyone. It's a fun and happy adventurous story that teaches the basics of Buddhism and introduces the fastest growing sport in the world, snowboarding, which recently became an Olympic sport. But obviously through the medium of the book, I'm trying to suggest a certain take on life.
I am the happiest person I've ever met. I do not mean that in an egotistical sense at all. I've just never met anybody, except for Master Fwap, of course, who seems to be able to deal with the sadness of life with such optimism. This is what Buddhist Yoga and a healthy dose of reading the Declaration of the Independence, The Constitution and the Federalist Papers and anything else I could get my hands on has given me.
I would like to thank you all very much tonight for this time we have spent together, and particularly I would like to thank my typist whose fingers have more stamina than the human mind can comprehend. I hope you enjoy SURFING THE HIMALAYAS and my albums, ENLIGHTENMENT, CANYONS OF LIGHT and ECOLOGIE.
Since most of the software I sell runs on mainframes and supercomputers, and is used by multinational corporations and governments, you may not get to see that, but if I have done it properly, hopefully it will make the events in your life transpire more smoothly. And give the operators of those computers a heck of a lot better day than they usually have.
Host: I'm going to open the floor now to all speakers. First, though, thank YOU, Dr. Lenz, and thanks to all of you for coming!
Willy: Thank you, Dr. Lenz!
Jen: Ditto Thank You !!!
Grnwich White Beltz: Thanks from the Greenwich White Beltz!!!
A,F&B in CT: Thank you so much, Dr. Lenz
William: Thank you, Rama.
Peggy: Thanks! This has been a wonderful evening!
David: Many thanks!!!
hdove: I just want to thank you for an illuminating talk!
Dawn: THANK YOU FOR THE INSIGHT AND RAVE ON, BROTHA!!!
Ruth: With much, much appreciation! Thank you.
TLB: I'm sorry, I really wanted to, but I don't buy it. I will go back and read the book which I bought but I basically don't buy it.
Deanna: Thank you, Rama!
Andre: Thank you very much, Rama. Take care.
Simcha: Thanks for a beautiful meditation!
Bill: Was this a Rendezvous with Rama?
TLB: It's not real easy to buy at first. But it makes a lot more sense as time goes on and the ideas settle.
Elka: Thank you Rama.
William: Thanks Rama, that was wicked cool.
with Aung San Suu Kyi
Over the course of nine months-from October, 1995 to June, 1996-I had an exceptional series of conversations with a unique woman and, currently, the world's most famous political dissident. Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi is, in the words of Vaclav Havel, one of the outstanding examples of the power of the powerless.
Aung San Suu Kyi told me her own story in many conversations at her home in Rangoon. The full record of our dialogue is presented in The Voice of Hope, appearing in October from Seven Stories Press. It was a journey into the soul of the struggle for freedom in this southeast Asian nation of 45 million people, many of whom, at this very moment, may be risking their lives to win the right to choose their destiny.
After having spent some eight years as a monk in a Rangoon monastery, I returned to Burma in October 1995 never having met or spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet she was not unknown to me. I had written and spoken extensively on political developments in Burma, and from everything I had learned, I was fascinated by Aung San Suu Kyi, as were so many others. She offered me, as she does to all, a great vision that places self-respect, human dignity, compassion and love above material considerations. Placed under house arrest, separated from her family for years at a time, she kept silent, and so grew into a living legend. Finally, once again speaking defiantly and acting boldly to unlock the prison doors of the SLORC military dictatorship, she will not be stopped.
This is the Aung San Suu Kyi that I came to know-a dynamic woman with an unshakable conviction, inseparable from her principles and sustained by a sense of justice and duty. She abhors hypocrisy, while admitting her own shortcomings. Her compassion is tangible. The one quality that I feel best defines her is sincerity, at the core of which is her conviction in self-improvement. Aung San Suu Kyi is a seeker, one who makes her life a vehicle for an awakening to deeper and deeper truths.
She wears her spirituality quietly, unpretentiously, and with subtlety. But this casualness makes it all the more delightful. She laughs freely and easily. Her voice is harmonious and sweet; her words are so simple at times as to take you by surprise, yet spoken without equivocation. She is straight and direct.
Does she have faults? She would be the first to admit having some. Was I satisfied with my conversations with her? Ultimately I wanted more than she was willing to give. Aung San Suu Kyi is a fiercely private woman, secret about her personal life and any aspect of her inner world that she deems private. I found her to be like a sealed vault in some areas and an open universe in others. Aung San Suu Kyi is her own person in every sense and it was this aspect of our time together that I most appreciated: a woman enjoying her sovereignty and happiness while fighting for the independence of others.
Trroughout my years of lecturing on both Buddhism and Burma's struggle for democracy, I've encountered many people who wish to label you in heroic terms. Even the Vanity Fair interview with you was entitled on the cover as "Burma's Saint Joan"...
assk: Good heavens, I hope not.
Which raises my question. In strictly Buddhist terms, I have heard you referred to as a female bodhisattva, a being striving for the attainment of Buddhahood-the perfection of wisdom, compassion and love-with the intention of assisting others to attain freedom.
assk: Oh, for goodness' sake, I'm nowhere near such a state. And I'm amazed that people think I could be anything like that. I would love to become a bodhisattva one day, if I thought I was capable of such heights. I have to say that I am one of those people who strives for self-improvement, but I'm not one who has made, or thought of myself as fit to make a bodhisattva vow. I do try to be good (laughs). This is the way my mother brought me up. She emphasized the goodness of good, so to speak.
I'm not saying that I succeed all the time, but I do try. I have a terrible temper. I will say that I don't get as angry now as I used to. Meditation helped a lot. But when I think somebody has been hypocritical or unjust, I have to confess that I still get very angry. I don't mind ignorance; I don't mind sincere mistakes; but what makes me really angry is hypocrisy. So, I have to develop awareness. When I get really angry, I have to be aware that I'm angry-I watch myself being angry. And I say to myself, well, I'm angry, I'm angry, I've got to control this anger. And that brings it under control to a certain extent.
Many years ago I interviewed Burma's former Prime Minister U Nu, who stated as a matter of fact that he was a committed bodhisattva. I asked him what it was like being the Prime Minister with full control of the army and to have made the vow to become a Buddha. He said rather explicitly, if I remember correctly, that it was a major burden, a nearly constant moral dilemma. What he was saying was that being a devout Buddhist was incompatible with being a political leader who had a responsibility to use the armed forces. Don't you feel any such dilemma?
assk: No, I do not see a dilemma. I would not think that I'm in any position to even contemplate taking the bodhisattva vow. My first concern is to abide by Buddhist principles in my worldly dealings. Of course, I do meditate. That's because I believe that all of us, as human beings, have a spiritual dimension which cannot be neglected. Overall, I think of myself as a very ordinary Burmese Buddhist who will devote more time to religion in my older years.
When you reflect back over the years of your life, what have been the most important experiences and personal lessons that have had a significant effect on your growth as an individual?
assk: It's very simple. What I have learned in life is that it's always your own wrongdoing that causes you the greatest suffering. It is never what other people do to you. Perhaps this is due to the way in which I was brought up. My mother instilled in me the principle that wrongdoing never pays, and my own experience has proved that to be true. Also, if you have positive feelings towards other people they can't do anything to you-they can't frighten you. I think that if you stop loving other people then you really suffer.
How would you characterize yourself as a person?
assk: Well, I see myself sometimes quite differently from how other people see me. For example, all this business about my being so brave...I had never thought of myself as a particularly brave person at all. And when people say "How marvelous it is that you stuck out those six years of detention," my reaction is, "Well, what's so difficult about it? What's all the fuss about?" Anybody can stick out six years of house arrest. It's those people who have had to stick out years and years in prison, in terrible conditions, that make you wonder how they did it. So I don't see myself as all that extraordinary. I do see myself as a trier; I don't give up. When I say, "I don't give up," I'm not talking about not giving up working for democracy. That too, but basically I don't give up trying to be a better person.
So it's this inner drive, this determination towards perfection or wholeness that most characterizes you?
assk: Yes. People talk quite a lot about my determination but I don't think of myself as a very determined person. I just think of myself as a trier.
What does Buddhist meditation mean to you?
assk: It's a form of spiritual cultivation-a spiritual education and a purifying process. Basically, it's learning awareness. By being aware of whatever you're doing, you learn to avoid impurities.
What motivates you to meditate as a daily practice?
assk: The main reason why I meditate is the satisfaction that I derive from the knowledge that I am doing what I think I should do, that is, to try to develop awareness as a step towards understanding anicca (impermanence) as an experience. I have very ordinary attitudes towards life. If I think there is something I should do in the name of justice or in the name of love, then I'll do it. The motivation is its own reward.
How instrumental has meditation been in discovering new aspects of your interior life? Has it been a process of self-discovery?
assk: I don't know if it has been a process of self-discovery as much as one of spiritual strengthening. I was always taught to be honest with myself. Since I was quite young I had been in the habit of analyzing my own actions and feelings. So I haven't really discovered anything new about myself. But meditation has helped to strengthen me spiritually in order to follow the right path. Also, for me, meditation is part of a way of life because what you do when you meditate is to learn to control your mind through developing awareness. This awareness carries on into everyday life. For me, that's one of the most practical benefits of meditation-my sense of awareness has become heightened. I'm now much less inclined to do things carelessly and unconsciously.
How did you learn meditation?
assk: I did go to the Mahasi Thathana Yeiktha meditation center but that was long ago, when I was in Burma on one of my visits. I was in my twenties. But I never really meditated very much. My real meditation took off only during my years of house arrest. And for that I had to depend a lot on books. Sayadaw U Pandita's book, In This Very Life, was a great help.
I know that you occasionally pay your respects to the Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita at his monastery here in Rangoon. May I ask you to share some aspect of his teachings that you have found helpful?
assk: I remember everything he has taught me. The most important of which was that you can never be too mindful. He said you can have too much panna (wisdom) or too much viriya (effort); but you cannot overdo mindfulness. I have been very mindful of that (laughing) throughout these last seven years. Also, he advised me to concentrate on saying things that will bring about reconciliation. And that what I should say should be truthful, beneficial, and sweet to the ears of the listener. He said that according to the Buddha's teachings, there were two kinds of speech: one which was truthful, beneficial and acceptable, and the other which was truthful, beneficial but unacceptable, that is to say that does not please the listener.
As a Theravada Buddhist, are you still open in your spiritual attitudes to learn from other traditions, or are they fairly set?
assk: I am a Theravada Buddhist but I respect mahayana Buddhism as well as vajrayana Buddhism. Also, I have a great respect for other religions. I do not think anyone has the right to look down on anybody's religion. I'm very interested in hearing about other people's spiritual experiences and views. I've got a lot more to learn, from as many people as are prepared to teach me.
What are the elements of mahayana Buddhism that you respect?
assk: In mahayana Buddhism there's much more emphasis on compassion than in Theravada Buddhism. I'm very sensitive to this, because we need a lot of compassion in this world. Of course, compassion is also a part of Theravada Buddhism. But I would like to see more of our people putting compassion into action.
Is it fair to say that the regime-SLORC-are Buddhists?
assk: I would not like to comment on other people's religious inclinations. It's not for me to say who is Buddhist or who is not. But I must say that some of their actions are not consonant with Buddhist teachings.
assk: There's so little loving-kindness and compassion in what they say, in what they write and what they do. That's totally removed from the Buddhist way.
Removed from people?
assk: Yes. This is the problem with a lot of authoritarian regimes, they get further and further away from the people. They create their own isolation because they frighten everybody, including their own subordinates, who feel unable to say anything that would be unacceptable.
It's a matter of debate, but politics and religion are usually segregated issues. In Burma today, the large portion of monks and nuns see spiritual freedom and socio-political freedom as separate areas. But in truth, dharma and politics are rooted in the same issue-freedom.
assk: Indeed, but this is not unique to Burma. Everywhere you'll find this drive to separate the secular from the spiritual. In other Buddhist countries you'll find the same thing-in Thailand, Sri Lanka, in mahayana Buddhist countries, in Christian countries, almost everywhere in the world. I think some people find it embarrassing and impractical to think of the spiritual and political life as one. I do not see them as separate. In democracies there is always a drive to separate the spiritual from the secular, but it is not actually required to separate them. Whereas in many dictatorships, you'll find that there is an official policy to keep politics and religion apart, in case, I suppose, it is used to upset the status quo.
The Burmese monk U Wisara, who died years ago while in prison after 143 days of a hunger strike, was an outstanding example of politically motivated non-violent protest. Indeed, Burma has a long history of monks and nuns being actively engaged in political areas when it concerns the welfare of the people. However, I wonder about today. With the crisis at such a critical moment, do you think that the sangha-the order of monks and nuns-can play a greater role in supporting the democracy movement? After all, it's their freedom too.
assk: There are a lot of monks and nuns who have played a very courageous role in our movement for democracy. Of course, I would like to see everybody taking a much more significant role in the movement, not just monks and nuns. After all, there is nothing in democracy that any Buddhist could object to. I think that monks and nuns, like everybody else, have a duty to promote what is good and desirable. And I do think they could be more effective. In fact, they should help as far as they can. I do believe in engaged Buddhism, to use a modern term.
How might they be more effective?
assk: Simply by preaching democratic principles, by encouraging everybody to work for democracy and human rights, and by trying to persuade the authorities to begin dialogue. It would be a great help if every monk and nun in the country were to say, "What we want to see is dialogue." After all, that is the way of the Buddha. He encouraged the sangha to talk to each other. He said, "You can't live like dumb animals. And if you have offended each other, you expiate your sins and offenses by confessing them and apologizing."
You often refer to your democracy movement here in Burma as a "revolution of the spirit" that is rooted in Buddhist principles. How much, if at all, do you draw upon the wisdom of other religions in your approach to politics
assk: I have read books on other religions but I haven't gone into any of them particularly deeply. But I find that the idea of metta is in every religion. The Christians say God is love. And when they say, "Perfect love casts out fear," I think by perfect love they mean exactly what we mean by metta. I think at the core of all religions there is this idea of love for one's fellow human beings.
I would like to ask you more about engaged Buddhism. I spent a few months in Vietnam this year and outside the city of Hue I visited the monastery of the first Vietnamese Buddhist monk who immolated himself back in 1963. A young monk gave me a photograph of his burning and explained that the "immolation was not an act of destruction or suicide but an act of compassion; his way of drawing world attention to the staggering suffering the Vietnamese people were forced to bear during the war." There is no doubt that such an act of engaged Buddhism is extreme. But that image prompts me to ask you how engaged Buddhism, in whatever expression it may take, could be more activated today, especially among the 1,000,000 monks and 500,000 nuns in your own country?
assk: Engaged Buddhism is active compassion or active metta. It's not just sitting there passively saying, "I feel sorry for them." It means doing something about the situation by bringing whatever relief you can to those who need it the most, by caring for them, by doing what you can to help others.
Of course, the "sending of loving-kindness" is very much a part of our Burmese Buddhist training. But in addition to that we have got to do more to express our metta and to show our compassion. And there are so many ways of doing it. For example, when the Buddha tried to stop two sides from fighting each other, he went out and stood between them. They would have had to injure him first before they could hurt each other. So he was defending both sides. As well as protecting others at the sacrifice of his own safety.
In Burma today, many people are afraid to visit families of political prisoners in case they too are called in by the authorities and harassed. Now, you could show active compassion by coming to the families of political prisoners and offering them practical help and by surrounding them with love, compassion and moral support. This is what we are encouraging.
But fear so often overwhelms the heart before compassion has a chance to become active. As you have said, "Fear is a habit." Just the other day I was at a shop in the city xeroxing a letter to a friend and accidentally dropped the paper on the floor. The shopkeeper picked it up and while he was handing it back to me he noticed in capitals the letters "NLD." He panicked and began ripping the paper into small pieces. I asked him, "Why?" and he replied with a rather frightened face, "NLD means prison."
assk: You should have told him not to be ridiculous.
I don't think he's the only one who is afraid. But how can this "active compassion" express itself out on the street, to the common folk, among those where "fear is a habit"?
assk: These things are happening because there is not enough active compassion. There is a very direct link between love and fear. It reminds me of the biblical quotation, that "perfect love casts out fear." I've often thought that this is a very Buddhist attitude. "Perfect love" should be metta, which is not selfish or attached love. In the Metta Sutra we have the phrase "like a mother caring for her only child." That's true metta. A mother's courage to sacrifice herself comes out of her love for her child. And I think we need a lot more of this kind of love around the place.
I don't mean to challenge you, but I was mugged earlier this year while waiting in a Paris subway station. And if my aggressor hadn't sprayed me in the eyes with mace I certainly would have put up a fight. Afterwards, it made me think of the magnitude of violence in the world. We do need a lot more love around the place, but love is often an ideal. You use the metaphor of a mother's courage to sacrifice for her child and a love that embraces even his faults, but this "child" is slitting the throats of his neighbors...
assk: I think you have not quite understood what I've been saying. You see, we've got to make metta grow. We've got to make people see that love is a strong, positive force for the happiness of oneself, not just for others. A journalist said to me, "When you speak to the people you talk a lot about religion, why is that?" I said, "Because politics is about people, and you can't separate people from their spiritual values." And he said that he had asked a young student who had come to the weekend talks about this "Why are they talking about religion?" The student replied, "Well, that's politics."
Our people understand what we are talking about. Some people might think it is either idealistic or naive to talk about metta in terms of politics, but to me it makes a lot of practical good sense. I've always said to the NLD that we've got to help each other. If people see how much we support each other and how much happiness we manage to generate among ourselves, in spite of being surrounded by weapons, threats and repression, they will want to be like us. They might say, well, there's something in their attitude-we want to be happy too.
What is the core quality at the center of your movement?
assk: Inner strength. It's the spiritual steadiness that comes from the belief that what you are doing is right, even if it doesn't bring you immediate concrete benefits. It's the fact that you are doing something that helps to shore up your spiritual powers. It's very powerful.
Martin Luther King used the phrase "divine dissatisfaction." He encouraged his people to grow weary and tired of injustice, to become "maladjusted," as he said it, to the racist system by which they were being oppressed. Now, on one level, you speak of genuine reconciliation, but at the same time, are you also speaking to the need of the population to grow uncomfortable and to steadily increase their dissatisfaction towards SLORC?
assk: It's not really the need to grow "uncomfortable." Nor are we trying to make the people become more dissatisfied. Our principal task is to encourage the need in people to question the situation and not just accept everything. Now, acceptance is not the same as serenity. Some people seem to think they go together. Not at all. Sometimes, the very fact that you accept what you do not want to accept and know that you should not accept, destroys the sense of serenity and inner peace, because you're in conflict with yourself.
So the overcoming of complacency is the principal focus?
assk: Yes, complacency is very dangerous. What we want to do is to free people from feeling complacent. Actually, with a lot of people it's not a sense of complacency either. I think that many people just accept things out of either fear or inertia. This readiness to accept without question has to be removed. And it's very un-Buddhist. After all, the Buddha did not accept the status quo without questioning it.
Yes, he radically questioned. It's the basis of his teachings.
assk: Yes, absolutely. In Buddhism, you know the four ingredients of success or victory: chanda-desire or will; citta-the right attitude; viriya-perseverance, and panna-wisdom. We feel that you have got to cultivate these four qualities in order to succeed. And the step prior even to these four steps is questioning. From that you discover your real desires. Then you have got to develop chanda. Chanda is not really desire. How would you describe it ?
Chanda is normally translated as the "wish to do" or intention. Every action begins with it. Where there is a will there is a way.
assk: Yes. You must develop the intention to do something about the situation. From there you've got to develop the right attitude and then persevere with wisdom. Only then will there be success in your endeavor. Of course, the five basic moral precepts are essential, to keep you from straying, as it were. With these we will get where we want to. We don't need anything else.
So what you're doing is fostering a sense of individual courage to question, to analyze...
assk: And to act. I remind the people that karma is actually doing. It's not just sitting back. Some people think of karma as destiny or fate and that there's nothing they can do about it. It's simply what is going to happen because of their past deeds. This is the way in which karma is often interpreted in Burma. But karma is not that at all. It's doing, it's action. So you are creating your own karma all the time. Buddhism is a very dynamic philosophy and it's a great pity that some people forget that aspect of our religion.
I've often noticed in Burmese Buddhist culture how people speak of the suffering they face in their present circumstances as simply the bitter fruit of past unwholesome karma or actions. Such people will say "I brought this suffering on myself through my own past ignorance and therefore I must bear it in the present."
assk: I think it's an excuse for doing nothing and it's completely contrary to our Buddhist views. If what is happening now is a result of what happened before, all the more reason why you should work harder now to change the situation...
Yesterday, before your public talk began, a Rangoon University student asked me bluntly, "Should Burma's democracy movement engage in an armed struggle rather than continuing in a non-violent way?" I told him I would ask you the question.
assk: I do not believe in an armed struggle because it will perpetrate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power. Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might wins in the end. That will not help democracy.
Daw Suu, how effective is non-violence in the modern world, and more specifically, with regimes that seem devoid of sensitivity or any sense of moral shame and conscience?
assk: Non-violence means positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. You don't just sit there doing nothing and hope to get what you want. It just means that the methods you use are not violent ones. Some people think that non-violence is passiveness. It's not so.
In your country there were numerous brave young men and women who literally faced the bullets and bayonets, in their willingness to be non-violently active, yourself included. And the results left at least 3,000 dead. Do you ever have doubts about the effectiveness of non-violent political activism in the face of armed aggression?
assk: No, I don't have any doubts about it. I know that it is often the slower way and I understand why our young people feel that non-violence will not work. Especially when the authorities in Burma are prepared to talk to insurgent groups, but not to an organization like the NLD which carries no arms. That makes a lot of people feel that the only way you can get anywhere is by bearing arms. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if we do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end.
Then let me ask the question in another way. Daw Suu, I would like to understand you. Is non-violence an immutable ethical and spiritual principle that will never alter in your approach to the struggle?
assk: We have always said that we will never disown those students and others who have taken up violence. We know that their aim is the same as ours. They want democracy and they think the best way to go about it is through armed struggle. And we do not say that we have the monopoly on the right methods of achieving what we want. Also, we cannot guarantee their security. We can't say, "Follow us in the way of non-violence and you'll be protected," or that we'll get there without any casualties. That's a promise we can't make.
We have chosen the way of non-violence simply because we think it's politically better for the country in the long run to establish that you can bring about change without the use of arms. This has been a clear NLD policy from the beginning. Here, we're not thinking about spiritual matters at all. Perhaps in that sense, we're not the same as Mahatma Gandhi, who would have probably condemned all movements that were not non-violent. I'm not sure. But he did say at one time that if he had to choose between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. So even Gandhi, who was supposed to be the great exponent of non-violence, was not somebody who did not make any exceptions...
But what about choosing violence out of compassion, if it's the right word, rather than using it as an option instead of cowardice? Nelson Mandela writes "Leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons where they have become less effective." Isn't he saying that one's attachment to non-violence becomes in fact an act of violence towards one's own people, when the non-violent approach is no longer effective?
assk: It depends on the situation and I think that in the context of Burma today, non-violent means are the best way to achieve our goal. But I certainly do not condemn those who fight the "just fight," as it were. My father did, and I admire him greatly for it.
I know it's a nice belief to hold, that "in the end, right will prevail." What evidence do you have to say, "The light will have to come"? It seems like just the opposite is closer to reality, for so many millions of people around the world.
assk: Whatever you may say, the world is better. Because in this day and age you can't just drag someone to a public place, chop off his head, and not have anyone say a word about it. Which government today would hang, draw and quarter somebody, in full view of the public, and think that he'd get away with it? We are less barbaric; people as a whole are more civilized. This is not to say that horrible tortures do not go on. They go on behind the scenes but at least people are beginning to learn that this is not acceptable.
Take a place like England, which is supposed to be the mother of democracy. I'm sure there are lots of criticisms that you can make about England but if they had caught the Soviet spy, Kim Philby, and they had hung, drawn and quartered him in public, do you think the English people would have stood for it? Even though he was a traitor, those days are long gone. So people have progressed and not just in democratic countries but even in the old Soviet Union. Of course, they executed traitors but they certainly would not have taken them out into Red Square and chopped their heads off in full view of the public. So that's progress. It shows that people are beginning to understand that barbarism is not acceptable, that it's something to be ashamed of, something we must try to eliminate. You can't deny that there has been an increasing movement to control the savage instincts of man.
I would like to immediately jump in there on the issue...
assk: Oh, go on.
There have been more wars and murders in the twentieth century than all previous centuries combined. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist, was hung in full public view of the entire world. Furthermore, CNN and the BBC covered the Bosnian nightmare, twenty-four hours a day, for forty-three months of "ethnic cleansing," in full view of the public. I need more evidence of how you determine your views.
assk: Let's put it this way. The values of civilization have become more dominant.
When European civilization spread, in most places it did so based on a policy of extermination of the indigenous populations. Perhaps from that perspective, there might be more dominant values of civilization today than before. But, I'm not sure at all that I'm convinced.
assk: Take Burma under the Burmese kings: those who were out of favor with the king were executed in very cruel ways. Now, Burma has been accused of many, many human rights violations. But do the authorities ever admit them? They do not. They will say, "No, we have not perpetrated these deeds." Whereas in the days of the old Burmese kings, there was no question of denying it. They would just do it. It was their prerogative and nobody would dare to question them. And they would not think there was any need for them to even pretend that they had not done these things. So that's progress.
I think it was His Holiness the Dalai Lama who said that we should "foster an appreciation, a real love, for our shared human status." There is something beautiful and appealing about the notion. And yet it seems foreign... When I conjure up ghastly images of Auschwitz and death camps, the sea of cracked skulls from Pol Pot's killing fields, hacked-up bodies of Rwandan Hutus, or women screaming in Serbian rape camps, my heart closes. I wonder if the perpetrators of such atrocities can even be considered as human beings. Quite frankly, they seem sub-human. And, Daw Suu, you seem to live and breathe your country's suffering. How do you manage to keep your heart open to the pain?
assk: It depends on the circles in which you move. I think I'm very fortunate that the people around me have such open hearts. Because we can afford to be loving with each other, the habit of opening our hearts is always there. Also, if you know that there are people in the world who are worthy of love, and whom you could open up to without danger, I think you are more ready to accept that there are others too who could be lovable.
I'll be specific. How do you look into the eyes of SLORC without feeling a sense of outrage, really?
assk: People often come to me and ask the same question, "Why don't you feel any sense of vindictiveness?" I think some of the people who ask this question don't believe that we are actually free from such feelings. It's very difficult to explain. The other day Uncle U Kyi Maung, Uncle U Tin U and I were talking with a group of our NLD delegates and we were laughing over this. Apparently, you had asked Uncle U Kyi Maung how he felt the day he heard I was going to be placed under arrest. And he replied that he didn't feel anything at all. And you were surprised by that...
Not only surprised, but I was shocked. Because what he said was that despite the fact that armed soldiers had surrounded your house, and it was likely that you would be taken to Insein Prison, you all just laughed about the crisis and started cracking jokes.
assk: Yes, and we didn't feel anything at all. So many journalists have asked me: "How did you feel when you were released?" I have said, "I felt nothing at all." (laughing) I had a vague idea that I should feel something, but my real concern was, what should I do now? Then a journalist asked if I were elated or felt happy. I said, "No...none of these things. I always knew that I was going to be free one day. The point was, well, what do I do now?" But a lot of people don't believe me.
They assume that it's some form of denial or repression in you?
assk: Exactly. (laughing) It's very strange.
When you speak of "feeling nothing at all" after your release from detention, are you saying that the past is simply irrelevant?
assk: I don't think you can just forget the past but one should use experiences of the past to build up a better present and future.
What about the victims who don't have the resiliency or the depth of spirit that you and your colleagues have, and do feel violated and made resentful by the atrocities committed towards them?
assk: Of course. Of course. This is why we are talking about the connection of truth and reconciliation. I think that first of all, their sufferings have to be acknowledged. You can't just wipe away the past. If you try, there will always be this ocean of festering resentment within those who have truly suffered. They will feel that their sufferings have been pushed aside, as though they've suffered for nothing; as though they've undergone torture for nothing; as though their sons and fathers had died for nothing.
Those people must have the satisfaction of knowing that their sufferings have not been in vain, and this very fact, that there's an admission of the injustice done, will take away a lot of the resentment. Mind you, people are different. Some will always want vengeance and will keep on thirsting for it even if everyone says: "Yes, we know how you've suffered, or your son or daughter." There will always be people who can never forgive. But we must always try to. In Chile they had a council for truth and reconciliation and there's one now in South Africa, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I very much believe in it. The admission of injustice, to a certain extent, will prevent it from happening again. People will realize that if you do such things, they get known. You can't hide them.
Do you think it's essentially a human right that some form of justice is still required, beyond just an acknowledgment of the anguish and suffering a family or an individual has been forced to bear?
assk: Let's consider it as satisfaction rather than as a need for justice. If you talk about justice as a "human right" it could be misinterpreted as something done under the law. In many countries where dictatorships have fallen and democracies have arisen, you will find that it's not always possible to take full legal action against those who have perpetrated injustices. For various reasons there have had to be compromises. So if one talks about "justice," it might give the wrong impression that everything that has happened must be tried in a court, and that justice must be done in the legal sense. I would rather say that something must be done to satisfy the victims and the families of those victims.
Are you disappointed by the international response to Burma?
assk: No. Of course, we always hope that it will get better and there will be more sympathy and support for the principles and values that we're struggling for. However, we should consider the fact that very few people in the world even knew where Burma was before 1988.
Do you feel that it is ever appropriate or justified for one country to intervene in the internal affairs of another country whose powers are creating hell for the population? Is it the duty of a powerful country to help the weaker one in such instances?
assk: I think it is better that the international community carries out this responsibility as a whole. There are far too many complications that arise when one country is given either the responsibility or the right to interfere in the affairs of another country. But I do think that the international community as a whole should recognize that it has got responsibilities. It can't ignore grave injustices that are going on within the borders of any particular country.
On the issue of foreign investment in Burma, hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into your country, with more waiting in bank accounts. I assume that many of these business people want the truth. What would be the most appropriate way for these potential investors to cut through SLORC propaganda, and get to the facts about what's really going on in your country?
assk: They could always start by talking to us. We could give them a good idea of what is going on... if they're interested in finding out the truth. But I think a lot of people just don't want to know.
What, in essence, does truth mean to you?
assk: In the end, truth cannot really be separated from sincerity and goodwill. I cannot claim that in every situation I am able to see the truth. But one does one's best to be sincere in evaluating a situation, making an honest distinction between what is right and what is not. If you do so you are on the side of truth. But truth is a large concept. Pure truth, absolute truth, is beyond ordinary beings like us because we cannot see things absolutely and as a whole. But we try our best. I think of all of us who are on the side of truth as struggling towards it, rather than in full possession of it. Truth is something towards which we struggle all the time.
To what extent is truth subjective, vis-a-vis ultimate truth?
assk: The search for truth is in a sense the struggle to overcome subjectivity. By that I mean that you've got to remove as far as possible your own prejudices and distance yourself from them in assessing any given situation.
Learning the art of objectively relating to our subjectivity?
assk: The search for truth has to be accompanied by awareness. And awareness and objectivity are very closely linked. If you are aware of what you're doing, you have an objective view of yourself. And if you are aware of what other people are doing you become more objective about them too. For example, awareness means that when you are aware of the fact that somebody is shouting, you don't think to yourself, "What a horrible man. " That's purely subjective. But if you are aware you know that he's shouting because he's angry or frightened, that's objectivity. Otherwise, without awareness, all kinds of prejudices start multiplying.
Alan Clements is founder of the Burma Project USA and an expert on the democracy movement in Burma. He lived in Burma for eight years, for much of that time as a Buddhist monk. He is the author of Burma: The Next Killing Fields? (1991), and co-author of the photographic book Burma's Revolution of the Spirit (1991). He was an advisor on the film Beyond Rangoon and speaks frequently on Burma's struggle for democracy. The Voice of Hope will be published in October by Seven Stories Press. ©1997 Alan Clements. Reprinted by arrangement.
You Teach Buddhism?
An Interview with S.N. Goenka
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, Spring 2003, http://www.thebuddhadharma.com
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 John Daido Loori, Roshi
When Zen Mountain
Monastery was established in 1980, one of the first formal acts preformed by the
Board of Directors was to designate 80 percent of the newly acquired 200 acres
of monastery land as "forever wild." Which meant, and still means, no
manicuring, managing, or controlling it. If a tree falls it falls where it falls
and then rots. This environmental vision of "wildness" has been as much
a part of ZMM's existence as monthly zazen intensives and the daily practice of
Over the years this approach has been the driving force behind many programs and actions, such as the annual wilderness trips (started in 1989) and the creation of the "Green Dragon" - a ZMM environmental task force formed in 1991 to oppose the plan to "straighten" the Esopus River; it's still crooked. Other actions include the designation of 35 acres of new wetlands as forever wild (1991) and the creation of the Environmental Studies Site (1993) on ZMM land.
In November 2000 Zen Mountain Monastery expanded its environmental vision and purchased four acres of shoreline property on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Wilderness Preserve.
This site, the Adirondack Wilderness Camp, will be an important piece of the newly formed Zen Environmental Studies Institute. I spoke with Daido Roshi about this new purchase, upcoming activities of the Institute, and about the deeper questions surrounding the oft times misunderstood subject of Buddhist ecology.
John Kain: I want to start by looking at your list of proposed uses for the Adirondack Wilderness Camp because that site directly reflects what ZESI is all about:
1. Wilderness training camp
2. Field environmental monitoring labratory
3. Launching site for cross-country and canoeing trips
4. Nature hermitage
5. Residental presence and clout in local environmental politics
6. Special space for legislators, families, and handicapped
7. Model for integrated land use and conservation
8. Public education on Buddhist environmentalism
9. Programs for the environment
You mention setting up an environmental monitoring lab but there are many groups in that area doing monitoring and testing, most notably the Adirondacks Aquatics Institute at Paul Smith College. Are you planning to do any new data collection and will you work with the other groups?
Daido Roshi: Yes. There are several local environmental monitoring groups in the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks Lakes Survey Corporation is probably the most impressive. The father of the woman I spoke with started monitoring all the major lakes in the Adirondacks in 1984. They've got an incredible database. And they've got it published on the web - very sophisticated material. They are top notch scientists completely dedicated to this project. Looking at it, I began to realize that what we were originally planning was pretty Mickey Mouse in comparison.
But when I kept searching the web site I found out that some of the larger lakes are not seriously impaired simply because their watersheds are so huge that the earth filters out most of the contaminants before the water works its way into the basins. The acids deposited in rainfall are neutralized. The smaller lakes are the ones in jeopardy.
Raquette Lake is one of the largest bodies of water in the Adirondacks and it has reasonably good scores in terms of pollution. So it's not part of the regular monitoring program. There is only some baseline data. I think we can track major changes in the lake and many of its tributaries. We wanted a place on Raquette because it's so central to everything else in the region. There are many different rivers flowing into and out of it. We can analyze samples around key points and check for any contaminant dumping or large shifts in acidity. I'd like to do the same thing here in Mt. Tremper with our two rivers, the Esopus and the Beaverkill. Just to observe if there are any significant changes happening here.
JK: What will you do with the data?
DR: Once we know what we are doing we will publish it on our web site and we will transmit it to the other organizations. The main thing we can do is alert the other groups to major changes. We'll see where this leads us.
JK: At the very least, the new Adirondack site will be a good training ground for the sangha to learn about data collection and the local environment.
DR: Yes. In fact, I'm planning a trip this summer, first of its kind to explore nature's wild web. It's basically a canoeing and hiking study of Raquette Lake and its tributaries. We'll examine what's involved in the life of that lake. We'll travel up to some of the surronding mountain tops and the ponds that are up there, see how they drain, study the wetlands and how they feed the lake, explore the rivers. We'll begin to see the incredible interdependence of all these areas and habitats, just how connected everything is.
JK: This is a good place to touch on your ideas about educating the public about Buddhist ecology. First, what defines Buddhist ecology?
DR: It's not so difficult to define, but it is a challenge to manifest. It's environmentalism based on realization of the identity of the individual with the ten thousand things. Such environmentalism contains everything: the deer walking in the forest as well as the Brooklyn Bridge. That realization is the basis of enlightened, ecological activity - how to create a harmony so that the deer can live and the Brooklyn Bridge can live. How do you respond to that? In establishing Zen Environmental Studies Institute we maintain our attitude of respecting the land and its inhabitants. We are creating a community that allows for wildness to exist and for civilization to exist. It's a combined, shared land use that doesn't exclude any of the species.
The impetus behind the Institute's programs arises from a deep trust in the inherent intelligence of wildness. For over four billion years the earth has functioned as a self-maintaining organism that evolved into an ecologically balanced life process. It's life sustaining and it's not abusive.
JK: Yet humans are part of that equation. We have disrupted that inherent intelligence. As Jack Turner says in his book Abstract Wild, "Nature ends because it loses its own self-ordering structure, hence its autonomy, hence its wildness." The earth has this self-sustaining capacity but we are stifling that natural process. What can Buddhism do to re-establish nature's autonomy?
DR: If humans were simply to disappear from the face of the earth, the planet would re-order itself, as it does after a forest fire, a volcano eruption, or after being hit by an asteroid. Many global disasters have befallen the earth and it continues to regenerate itself. It will create new biodiversity. Our tendency is, at best, to manage it, at worst, to rape it. We need to allow for both civilization and nature to coexist.
We are intimately tied to the environment, to nature. You can look at the destruction of nature and see it as the self-inflicted wounds of the human race. It's all human created and it can only be solved by humans. But there needs to be a fundamental change in our consciousness about nature if we are to transform our actions. Legislation is a possibility. But most legislators don't directly appreciate what is going on. They are insulated and manipulated. We can plainly see that in the first hundred days of the Bush administration. Scientists keep generating facts but most people don't believe or understand the numbers, or how those numbers relate to their lives. Everybody wants more studies and information to justify their positions. It's very frustrating.
The input from the world religions has been weak, mainly because there has been no imperative in the history of those religions to take an active stand. They search for theological justifications for ecology but there's little in their histories and dogma that can be used effectively. Most of the approaches are still dualistic. We need something that goes beyond that. Buddhism, in my opinion, offers teachings and practices that can help. If we really learned to appreciate the mutual causality, interdependence, and co-origination of all things including humans, if it was something that was taught in school, then we'd have a different world around us.
JK: The history of religion has been, for the most part, controlling of nature. In America, we've also had a long tradition of viewing nature itself as religion, elevating and so externalizing it. Which essentially meant "the other." And when you abstract it like that then abuses can occur. So Americans have had a very confused attitude toward nature and religion and many think, particularly scientists, that keeping religion separate from ecology is a good thing. Now, Buddhism, at its core, cannot be separated from nature. But people still have a hard time with the relationship between themselves and nature. There's a danger here. Let me read another quote from that curmudgeon Jack Turner: "The social reasons for apathy are numerous: religious traditions such as Buddhism that glorify acceptance and condemn emotions (particularly anger) and judgement "
DR: He's full of shit. Does that settle the myth of glorifying acceptance and condoning emotions?
JK: Lets talk about this, because Buddhism is popular enough in America to come under attack for various reasons. This is just one of them. People do get apathetic, even in Buddhism.
DR: Yes, it happens. People talk about emptiness, the falling away of body and mind, but we must remember that to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things. That means to be the ten thousand things. The ten thousand things become a very personal matter. If someone stepped on your foot you'd yell ouch and you'd pull your foot out from under them. They step on it again and you'd say please don't step on my foot. They step on it again and you'd punch them in the nose and yell don't step on my foot! It's intimately personal. Right action is an intrinsic part of Buddhism. Not theoretical or abstract Buddhism but Buddhism of compassion, Buddhism of action, Buddhism of all-out reaching out. The hole in the ozone layer is not an abstraction; it's a personal matter. The devastation of the forests in South America is a personal matter. The hungry in the streets are a personal matter. With realization, all these problems, all these areas of suffering not only do not create apathy, rather they stoke the fire of action. And hopefully that action is done in a skillful way. The Buddhist precepts are not just about human relationships. They include sentient and insentient and are about our relationships with the guy in the street, and with the mountain and the river.
JK: Somewhat simplistically, can we say that zazen is the gateway into a more integrated ecological philosophy?
DR: It's one of many gateways. Particu-larly when you see zazen as a process that is not just about sitting cross-legged on the pillow. Zazen is not meditation, contemplation, quieting the mind or focusing the mind. It is a way of using your mind and of interrelating with the universe. It's a way of knowing how to combust yourself in a very complex world of relationships, from individual to individual, to individual and insentients. Ultimately zazen comes off the pillow and manifests in everything that we do. But it is one of many gateways. In order for a religion to touch the heart of our environmental crisis its moral and ethical teachings must integrate humans and nature. I think our precepts do that. Its liturgy must address and embrace that relationship. I think our liturgy does that. We have liturgy for all the activities that affect people and those that affect the environment. We have liturgies for marriages, funerals, coming of age but we also have equivalent liturgies for taking a meal (oryoki), or for protecting the buildings and grounds (hakurosan service). There's a liturgy for cutting a tree, if that's necessary; there's one for disturbing the earth, for building a building. When liturgy is incorporated in these activities it can help us become conscious of what it is that we are doing. It wakes us up. Liturgy causes reflection and generates a deep sense of community.
JK: It's my impression that many environmentalists either gloss over or don't even want to acknowledge the sense of the whole community, animate and inanimate and, most importantly, people.
DR: Absolutely. The statement on the home page of the ZESI's web site sums this up. "Based on the premise that community is the sangha of all sentient and insentient beings that inhabit this land. The land should be shared to provide a model for integrated land use and conservation."
JK: Even with best education, there are people who will not be convinced and take care of nature. Where does activism fit in your vision? There have been a couple of groups over the years, EarthFirst! for example, that have taken a radical approach to address the destruction of wildness. Recently the Earth Liberation Front burned down a ski lodge in Colorado and some homes on Long Island which were being built on one of the few remaining wild spaces in that area. How do you feel about these groups? Do you feel some of these radical acts are necessary?
DR: I think when people take action like that they are feeling really desperate. Those are desperate acts. And I wonder if they've considered creative alternatives. One of the aspects of enlightened activity is upaya, skillfull means - again, this is something that hasn't been fully realized in Buddhist social action or Buddhist environmentalism. I'm not so sure that radical acts produce positive results. I think they do increase the determination of those who are destroying the land. There have been times in history when radical action might have been necessary but consequences of radical actions have been pretty dire.
JK: There are many different kinds of radical action. Julia Butterfly lived in a redwood tree for a year and a half and she actually stopped the logging company from cutting down that swath of old growth forest. Perhaps this is more skillful - she didn't hurt anything.
DR: The point of radical action is to draw attention. But there are a lot of ways of drawing attention: living in a tree, burning down a building, doing a protest in Washington, writing a book, reading Gary Snyder, educating people, imploring legislators.
JK: This is all going to be part of ZESI. Would there be a point when you or the monks lead a protest march?
DR: Sure. We came close to that when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation wanted to straighten the Esopus River. We were organizing to go to Albany but then the state pulled back and decided not to press the issue.
JK: By buying the place in the Adirondacks, you've expanded your region of potential activism, monitoring, and outreach.
DR: We've always responded to situations organically. The reason we have a prison program is because the prisoners in New York State asked us to do it. The reason the Dana Dinner happened is because it benefits the local community. The reason the Green Dragons group was formed was because the local environment was directly threatened. We live in New York State. It has two of the major forest preserves in the country. We live in one of them (Catskills Park) and it was obvious that to have a voice in the Adirondacks Park. We needed to be a stakeholder. We now have a local voice in both places.
JK: I understand that ZESI will be a membership organization.
DR: The membership will be open to anybody, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, although the board will come from students of the Mountains and Rivers Order. There will be a modest annual membership fee and members will get the Green Dragon Howl newsletter, have access to the web site, and receive discounts on any of the workshops that we do. We will also use the Mountain Record for disseminating information. We've also got plans for a radio station that would make ZESI information available on a broader scale. We'll continue publishing books and videos on the environment and make them available to the members.
JK: What makes all of this information that you're making available different from other environmental groups? What makes it "Buddhist?"
DR: I've been scanning web sites looking at the many environmental papers being given at conferences. I've looked at many environmental journals, going back ten years. One thing that was, and is, consistently missing is spirituality. There is talk about education, science, legislative issues, even philosophy, but there are no papers on the spiritual practice dimension of environmentalism. Buddhism is about practice.
We are also paying attention to how art can shift people's consciousness and attitudes. For some people when they read Thoreau their attitude about wilderness changes more than when they read Rachel Carson.
JK: I think Jack Turner brings this subject up in one of his essays. He's an environmentalist not because of environmentalists but because of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman.
DR: Yes. He says that very eloquently. Here's one of his passages "Most of us, when we think about it, realize that after our own direct experience of nature, what has contributed most to our love of wild places, animals, plants - and even, perhaps, to our love of wild nature, our sense of citizenship - is the art, literature, myth, and lore of nature."
JK: That's a large contribution that you can make to public education - bringing both an artistic vision of nature as well as a Buddhist practice approach.
DR: Love of nature can be far more powerful motivation than legislation, science, even religion. If you are in love with something, you care about it. There is an imperative to be involved. If I could only get those legislators to sit in the woods
JK: Getting people to love nature through art brings up an interesting point. If you are sitting in an apartment in Manhattan reading a book on the majesty of Yellowstone Park, there is a real tendency to make Yellowstone and nature the "other," and to romanticize it.
DR: That is exactly why we don't stop with printing beautiful pictures of rivers and forests. Art is one way to hook people on environment. But we are also taking it in other directions. We're doing it with the urban environmental program. I'm in the midst of preparing an overview of the Hudson River watershed. It thrills me to think that the Hudson starts in a little tiny pond on Mount Marcy, 4000 feet up in the Adirondacks, a little stream that a kid can jump over, and ends up as this majestic river in New York City. This river that is reflecting the pine trees in the Adirondacks is also reflecting the skyscrapers of Manhattan. It is the same river that feeds the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Brooklyn. All the wetlands there are dependent on the Hudson. While sitting on Manhattan, it's helpful to remember that, despite all the development, it's still an island. The peregrine falcons and red-tail hawks don't seem to discriminate between a granite cliff or a skyscraper. Nature exists within and around the city. City dwellers are surrounded by nature. If they look, they will see. If people are blind, they're blind. You can take someone in the woods and they may not see a thing. They miss the hawks nesting, the snakes mating, the bugs riding the wind. You've got to have your eyes open if you're in the city or in the country. Sometimes you need a guide; that's why we have the urban environmental program. To help people recognize that the wilderness and nature are right where they are.
JK: Even in the cities the potential for wildness is always there. Wildness is always trying to creep back, like you pointed out about forests rejuvenating after fires. I remember when I was studying at Davis, taking classes with Gary Snyder, he came into the first class and said I want everyone to find out where their tap water comes from. It was such a simple statement yet it really put things into a new perspective.
DR: When we start our wilderness skills program I ask people to point to where California is. Not which way is east or west, but just point to California. Do you know where you are right now?
of Gary Snyder, he has provided such a constant and clear voice of support for
Buddhism and ecology. I want to read a quote from him: "The depths of mind,
the unconscious are our inner wilderness areas and that is where bobcat lives
right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches but the bobcat that
roams from dream to dream. The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny
territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of
what goes in and out (sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes
care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild."
He is touching on both ecology and Buddhism, and how they coexist.
DR: He's defining the Buddha nature in modern language. Unfortunately, with our civilized ways, we have suppressed many of our natural wisdoms and much spontenaity. But the freedom still exists. It doesn't take very long for it to come back. I see that when I go off into the woods. After about a week, I've acclimatized to where I am. I'm not bothered by insects or the cold. I'm tuned to what's going on around me. I feel integrated. I'm not a visitor anymore. I'm at home. When I'm deep in the woods, where cars don't go and planes don't fly overhead, my psyche comes alive. Wildness surfaces. I think that if I was in the wild for two or three months I might not return. [Laughing] I might become one of those mountain hermits living naked in a cave. I keep threatening to do that. [More laughter]
JK: Buddhist practice seems to allow people to reintegrate into the wisdom of the earth, into that inherent intelligence which allows the earth to regenerate.
DR: Keep in mind that the inherent intelligence of the earth is also the inherent intelligence of people.
JK: That's the most difficult thing for people to understand.
DR: Sure. That's why they need to get out there to experience it.
JK: There's an irony here. Getting people out into the wilderness has its own set of problems. National parks like Yellowstone are overwhelmed with people. There are some parks in the West where gathering firewood is prohibited because the places have been picked clean.
DR: In a sense, we're doing the same thing here. We take people into the wilderness and turn them on to it. If they become excited enough, they'll probably come back with friends of their own. But there is a very important difference. Our wilderness immerssion retreats are not just about recreation, but rather about developing sensitivity to things wild, to raising people's consciousness concerning our relationship with the environment. We emphasize low-impact camping and the practice of leaving no trace. We attempt to develop a deep respect for both the sentient as well as the insentient aspects of the wilderness.
JK: It's a difficult project.
DR: Sure it's difficult but not impossible. We must trust in wildness. We must trust in our Buddha nature.
JK: But there's also a responsibility that we have as inhabitants of this place. In Practice of the Wild Snyder writes, "In the Western Hemisphere we have only the tiniest number of buildings that can be called temples or shrines. The temples of our hemisphere will be some of the planet's remaining wilderness areas."
DR: That's what the Adirondack Forest Preserve and the Catskill Forest Preserve are. They were the first preserves in America, the prototypes for the National Forest Preserve. It's stunning that they have existed for over hundered years, and still exist today: six millions acres, an area larger than the state of Vermont. That's why we have established ourselves in both preserves. They are indeed temples of the teachings of the insentient, which are part of the 2500-year-old history of Buddhism. Because we are here, because this is our place, that creates an imperative that cannot be ignored. So, we rally the Three Treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and we awaken the Green Dragon in each one of us, and enter the fray. To do so is to acknowledge the hertiage of the teachings of the buddhadharma, and the land's spirituality that we have received from our Native American predecessors. It's no small thing.
John Jogan Kain is a freelance writer living in New York. He has been a MRO student since 1997.
The Journey of Cultivating Compassion:
Interview with Sulak Sivaraksa
By Diane Kennedy
This interview was conducted immediately following a weekend intensive course at the Naropa Institute, where students explored the obstacles to awakening of the heart within a context of social action. Sulak spoke about the importance of generosity of the self, giving whatever it is you might have in the form of time, money, commitment, compassion... the purpose of which goes beyond any social action into the journey of cultivating one's own compassion. It was my honor to interview Sulak and to have an experience of his generosity of self by making time for us to spend together in light of an incredibly busy schedule and a long weekend of teaching.
Sulak has been one of Southeast Asia's foremost spiritually-based social activists for many, many years, speaking out for human rights issues, environmental issues, the protection of indigenous peoples and wildlife, and most recently, the demonstrations to stop the Burmese Yadanna pipeline from entering Thailand and destroying the rainforests and disbanding the elephants who live in their natural environment. Sulak faced a court trial May 13 for peacefully protesting, and the results are still uncertain as of press date.
D: Thank you, Sulak for your time and this interview. While we know it is not so easy to be this brief, could you please give our readers an introduction to who you are and what you are doing?
S: My name is Sulak Sivaraksa and I am from Bangkok. I run an organization called Spirit in Education Movement. I am also involved with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, where we are trying to bring Buddhists to be aware that in our tradition, it is not only to be in meditation but we should also be concerned with social issues. And this Spirit in Education movement means that mainstream education only developed an intellectual power. We feel we must also develop this education in our hearts. People should be aware of the suffering in the world, should use compassion to overcome suffering nonviolently. And of course, we also deal with various religious traditions. You see, many who are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jews and the like are looking for alternatives to consumerism. We feel that we must look into our cultural roots in our traditions. In my country, we support traditional medicines, traditional arts and crafts. This is the gist of what I am doing. I am a family man with three children... it is all described here in this book, you should get a copy! Loyalty Demands Dissent.
D: The Association for Traditional Studies is focused on preserving, documenting and ensuring the survival of the art and knowledge of traditional peoples. We believe their skills hold many of the solutions to the issues our planet faces today and will continue to face in the next century. What kind of role does working to preserve traditional arts and knowledge play in the work that you do?
S: You see, this question is very near to my heart because to be in the contemporary world, it is so much monoculture. Or the other way, it is a kind of fundamentalism. "Only MY religion. Only MY tradition." I feel this way is no good. In this, the present age, people tend to think so much that you help solve problems by social engineering. You know, like the better advancement of technology is better. I feel that if we are to move to the next century positively, we must understand our traditional arts, crafts, special traditions, our roots, our land, understand our ancestors, linking our self positively with trees, rivers, mountains. All these appear in various folklore in various traditions, spiritual as well as medical and so on. So I feel that number one to preserve this is to AWAKEN people to be aware that the so-called modern, scientific, technological solutions may be useful, may be harmful. And in fact, the harmful effect is much more than people realize. Whereas traditional arts, crafts, religions, and spirituality have been very much looked down upon since the age of enlightenment. The good thing is that people are aware that this is something deep, something wonderful. So, number one, I feel you must awaken people to be aware of this. And number two, we must look out for any tradition which is still alive and support it in any meaningful way. And those which may be declining, we should try to resurrect them and that is what I do in my country. On top of that, I started an ashram. An ashram that is just 30 km outside of Bangkok. As you know, Bangkok is now supposed to be really modern. It is a concrete jungle full of pollution, traffic jams, slums. But the ashram that we started from scratch thirteen years ago grows trees, herbals, and we cultivate non-chemical vegetables. We use traditional medicines, we use meditation practice, we support yoga practice, Taiji. This is just one example of how people in Bangkok and the international community can come to have a real revival, in spirituality, in a natural environment and learn their certain arts and crafts that are carried out beautifully, mindfully, naturally, compassionately and harmoniously. From this place, we support various other practices. For example, Buddhist monks now are more involved in cultivating traditional rice-growing no chemical stuff they are now reviving traditional medicine. And if I may say so, even the Indian experts on Auyerveda have come to us and found that, in India,they have better theory. But as far as the practice, we have better practice because our practice has not been broken. The monks have been the custodians and still are the custodians of our traditional medicine. This is not only herbs, but also includes, as you call it in the west, the psychotherapy treatment. You have the medium, you have shamanism, you have holy water... not only in Buddhism, but also among the various tribes and ethnic groups. What you learn from them is tremendous folk wisdom, tremendous craftsmanship, which so far has been looked down upon by the mainstream. So, my job is to support this, try to learn from them, the tribal peoples. At the same time, I try to talk to the mainstream that they should at least understand this, respect this, and hopefully be something to be proud of. In this, I use the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness. We invite people to come each year to participate in an international conference, so that they can evaluate our arts and crafts. And with their voices, OUR people will listen. So you need these different kind of voices, interconnected in these ways, north and south, and that is what I try to do in these small ways.
D: What traditional ways are being lost in Siam today with the indigenous peoples and the Thais?
S: Indigenous peoples have been looked down upon, first of all, by the Thai mainstream. That is why I do not use the word 'Thailand' because in my country, we are not just Thai (although Thais are about 90% of the population). We have the Muslim, the Malaya (4-5%) and we have all these various ethnics that call themselves Mao, Muang, Karen... so I feel we must also come to them to learn. We felt that they were behind, you know, backward. They were just hill tribes. I think that is dangerous to think like that. Secondly, we tried to make them Thai. We even made them Buddhists (but not in a very attractive way) so that they would give up their spirit worship. But to me, that has been a very important element of their culture for hundreds of years. They had to give up their traditional dress, they lost their community, and they have now became involved with money instead of barter. We introduced foreign medicine. All of this, on the whole, I see as very harmful. Not only the government introducing the Buddhist culture, but the missionaries that made them Christian, a kind of western Christian. They told them, "Look down upon your own culture! Only one God! There are no other gods," and so on. This for me is very drastic among the minorities, on the periphery.
Over the last 150 years since we were not colonized politically, we were colonized intellectually. We were colonized economically. And we were made to feel inferior to the west and so we tried to catch up with the west. We became intellectualized. Compartmentalized. We began to follow blindly the western medicine, the western education. As you know, western education and medicine take the human being as a kind of machine. They take the human being as a kind of physical being, nothing spiritual. So, we become alienated from our own culture. Although we do pay lip service to Buddhism, we also pay lip service to our culture. But we are uprooted from our cultures. That is why I feel we must come back to the essence of Buddhism and at the same time, bring the forms that are appropriate for the modern world. The forms that are appropriate to the modern world must have roots in our traditions, in our culture, not alienated from our roots.
D: How do you see this transition happening so as not to go back to the old, but bringing something from the past into the present?
S: Not going back, but by understanding the past. Not blindly regarding the past in romanticization, but when you look at the past critically, there is so much that is positive. There is also some that is a negative element. And even some of the positive aspects may not be appropriate for the modern world. But still don't try to make any judgments until you really understand it and try to apply it meaningfully with humility, to see how it could fit. Not only for the present age, but for the future age. Wisdom from traditional cultures helps us to be humble, to be interrelated with nature and other humans.
D: Our readers are always interested in hearing about traditional arts and skills. Can you share with us a few examples of skills that people of the traditional spiritual path have and the 'modern world' doesn't have or might want to develop that you have come across over the years?
S: I feel that the traditional people I have met everywhere have a very simple lifestyle. Modern people have a very complicated lifestyle. A very wasteful lifestyle! Our lifestyle is harmful to our self, to our family, to the environment and to the majority of people in the world. There is a book called How The Other Half Died. The other half died because of the modern lifestyle. You know, the northern hemisphere, the middle class consumes wastefully, consumes in such a harmful way. Even the television we look at is full of violence, full of advertisement promoting greed, hatred, delusion, lust and so on. I feel that even in our family, the more you have television sets, the more you do not talk to each other! The more you are attached to television and computers, you only want to watch these together. You've lost that being together. Whereas, the indigenous people, the tribal people, those that are supposed to be poor and 'backward,' they are related meaningfully in the family. They have that equality as well as respect. They love and care for their ancestors; whereas the modern people look down upon old age, the sick, the poor. In the modern world, we put the sick somewhere, we put the aged somewhere else. I think the holistic approach is a simpler lifestyle. They care for seven generations which is common also to the native Americans in this American culture. You see, we use the same words. We care for our ancestors who help us, pray for us, and cultivate us and care about the children to come. I think there is a tremendous amount that we can learn from them!
D: Whether it be the monks of Christianity, Buddhism, or Daoism, the elders of tribes, or the shamans of indigenous people, all were viewed as repositories of knowledge. They were the people with skills and understanding of the arts of their peoples. What do you see as the connection between spiritualism and the traditional arts and knowledge of cultures?
S: This is what I said about a 'holistic' approach. With the spiritual, you are not compartmentalized. With these traditions, you can see everything in a holistic way. With traditional medicine, the idea is also preventative as well as curative. And curative is not only physical, but also mental and spiritual. They use charms, they use the dolls, prayers, holy water all this. Now, money has come barreling into it. The medicine man, the monk, the shaman they care for every one as an individual. You don't have everything prescribed for the whole world! Each case is individual and that is tremendous, you see. But at the same time, you must realize that sometime, the traditional is also bogged down, gets stuck to forms. You must also translate that into our modern world. For instance, in a Tibetan tradition, if you want to learn medicine, you have to learn meditation which is good. But at the same time, this concentrated meditation takes seven years, seven months and seven days, something like that. Many cannot take that kind of time. I mean, that should be ideal. But if somebody wants to take seven months or weeks, they should be able to learn something. But of course, they must also learn holistically, not just for selfish ends. A lot of young people are getting away from the traditional because the system is too slow for them, the language too awkward for them. So you need people like me to link the two. The old must also learn to respect the young. Sometime in the old traditions, like Confucianism, they tend to be a little patriarchal, not so positive with women; although in some tribes, Buddhism has been positive for women. Even so, Buddhism developed to be an exploitative side for women and this must be changed. But not changed to suit the Women's Liberation Movement here. Changed back to the roots, under the Bodhi tree, that men and women are equal. But traditions have destroyed that so we must go back to the root. What I call radical conservatism. We must conserve but at the same time, we must be radical on certain aspects of the tradition.
D: Do you feel that a cultures' knowledge and skills help define its spiritualism, or that spiritualism helps define its knowledge and skills? The obvious answer is both, but what is the balance of these two?
S: I feel that you need a balance. In some traditions, later development eliminated the spiritual elements to come into the modern world... separated the spiritual from the traditional arts and skills. Today's arts and crafts, paintings, etc., may still be traditional but often have become too much for money. When it becomes just for money, it has lost its spirit. Spirituality means that the artist, the craftsman and the object created must be something interconnected. I see that loss in many of the traditional crafts. I think we can challenge the demonic religion of consumerism, the godless development of mega-technology, the computer age...
D: How important is preserving the natural environment of people in order to protect their culture?
S: I think it is all together. Without the natural environment, people are alienated from nature. Once they are alienated from nature, the craft they produce may be traditional in form but it has lost its spirit, its naturalness. To be natural is to be normal; to be normal is also spiritual, you see. You cannot just cut down all the trees... and you cannot just have a few trees for show. You must have real forests, real parks, everything real. The animals, the elephants, all this... they must be real. They must grow naturally. All these animals must be natural so must we. That is why, when we are uprooted from our traditional spiritual depth, we become unreal. We become a mechanical being. That is why we are alienated. And once we are alienated from our tradition, from our culture, from our roots, we are even alienated from our family, our friends.
D: The web of interdependence between the environment, spiritualism, and traditional skills is tightly interwoven. Do you see areas ATS, with its focus on preservation of knowledge, and your work with its focus on spiritualism, can work together to make a bigger impact?
S: I think the best thing that we can learn from each other is that neither is the answer. In this day and age, we must see the interconnection. We should have dialogue between us, we should have respect for each other. With respect and dialogue, we can become friends. And the best in friendship is that we must also be critical of each other and at the same time help each other. I think that with this, I am pretty sure that in the future, we may have something in common.
For more on Sulak's life and work, look for "Loyalty Demands Dissent", published by Parallax Press.
Thich Nhat Hanh on Listening and Peace
by Anne A. Simpkinson
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk in the Zen tradition, who worked tirelessly for peace during the Vietnam War, rebuilding villages destroyed by the hostilities. Following an anti-war lecture tour in the United States, he was not allowed back in his country and settled in France. In 1967, he was nominated by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize. This interview will appear in a forthcoming book entitled Out of the Ashes: A Spiritual Response to America's Tragedy, to be published jointly by Beliefnet and Rodale Press.
If you could speak to Osama bin Laden, what would you say to him? Likewise, if
you were to speak to the American people, what would you suggest we do at this
point, individually and as a nation?
If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely, trust that they are really being heard.
After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.
For the American people, I would suggest that we do everything we can to restore our calm and our lucidity before responding to the situation. To respond too quickly before we have much understanding of the situation may be very dangerous. The first thing we can do is to cool the flames of anger and hatred that are so strong in us. As mentioned before, it is crucial to look at the way we feed the hatred and violence within us and to take immediate steps to cut off the nourishment for our hatred and violence.
When we react out of fear and hatred, we do not yet have a deep understanding of the situation. Our action will only be a very quick and superficial way of responding to the situation and not much true benefit and healing will occur. Yet if we wait and follow the process of calming our anger, looking deeply into the situation, and listening with great will to understand the roots of suffering that are the cause of the violent actions, only then will we have sufficient insight to respond in such a way that healing and reconciliation can be realized for everyone involved.
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made attempts to realize this. All the parties involved in violence and injustice agreed to listen to each other in a calm and supportive environment, to look together deeply at the roots of violent acts and to find agreeable arrangements to respond to the situations. The presence of strong spiritual leaders is very helpful to support and maintain such an environment. We can look at this model for resolving conflicts that are arising right in the present moment; we do not have to wait many years to realize this.
Question: You personally experienced the devastation caused by the war fought in Vietnam and worked to end the hostilities there. What do you say to people who are grief-stricken and enraged because they have lost loved ones in the terrorist attack?
I did lose my spiritual sons and daughters during the war when they were entering the fighting zone trying to save those under the bombs. Some were killed by war and some by murder due to the misunderstanding that they were supporting the other side. When I looked at the four slain corpses of my spiritual sons murdered in such a violent way, I suffered deeply.
I understand the suffering of those who have lost beloved ones in this tragedy. In situations of great loss and grief, I had to find my calm in order to restore my lucidity and my heart of understanding and compassion. With the practice of deep looking, I realized that if we respond to cruelty with cruelty, injustice and suffering will only increase.
When we learned of the bombing of the Bentra village in Vietnam, where 300,000 homes were destroyed, and the pilots told journalists that they had destroyed the village in order to save it, I was shocked, and [racked] with anger and grief. We practiced walking calmly and gently on the earth to bring back our calm mind and peaceful heart.
Although it is very challenging to maintain our openness in that moment, it is crucial that we not respond in any way until we have calmness and clarity with which to see the reality of the situation. We knew that to respond with violence and hatred would only damage ourselves and those around us. We practiced [so that we might] look deeply into the suffering of the people inflicting violence on us, to understand them more deeply and to understand ourselves more deeply. With this understanding we were able to produce compassion and to relieve our own suffering and that of the other side.
Question: What is the "right action" to take with regard to responding to terrorist attacks? Should we seek justice through military action? Through judicial processes? Is military action and/or retaliation justified if it can prevent future innocents from being killed?
All violence is injustice. The fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. The only antidote to violence is compassion. And what is compassion made of? It is made of understanding. When there is no understanding, how can we feel compassion, how can we begin to relieve the great suffering that is there? So understanding is the very real foundation upon which we build our compassion.
How do we gain the understanding and insight to guide us through such incredibly challenging moments that we are now face in America? To understand, we must find paths of communication so that we can listen to those who desperately are calling out for our understanding--because such an act of violence is a desperate call for attention and for help. How can we listen in a calm and clear way so that we don't immediately kill the chance for understanding to develop? As a nation we need to look into this: how to create the situations for deep listening to occur so that our response to the situation may arise out of our calm and clear mind. Clarity is a great offering that we can make at this time.
There are people who want one thing only: revenge. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha said that by using hatred to answer hatred, there will only be an escalation of hatred. But if we use compassion to embrace those who have harmed us, it will greatly diffuse the bomb in our hearts and in theirs.
So how can we bring about a drop of compassion that can put out the fire of hatred? You know, they do not sell compassion in the supermarket. If they sold compassion, we would only need to bring it home and we could solve the problem of hatred and violence in the world very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our own heart by our own practice.
America is burning with hatred. That is why we have to tell our Christian friends, "You are children of Christ." You have to return to yourselves and look deeply and find out why this violence happened. Why is there so much hatred? What lies under all this violence? Why do they hate so much that they would sacrifice their own lives and bring about so much suffering to other people? Why would these young people, full of vitality and strength, have chosen to lose their lives, to commit such violence? That is what we have to understand.
We have to find a way to stop violence, of course. If need be, we have to put the men responsible in prison. But the important thing is to look deeply and ask, "Why did that happen? What responsibility do we have in that happening? " Maybe they misunderstood us. But what has made them misunderstand us so much to make them hate so much?
The method of the Buddha is to look deeply to see the source of suffering; the source of the violence. If we have violence within ourselves, any action can make that violence explode. This energy of hatred and violence can be very great and when we see that in the other person then we feel sorry for them. When we feel sorry for them, the drop of compassion is born in our hearts and we feel so much happier and so much more at peace in ourselves. That [empathy] produces the nectar of compassion within ourselves.
If you come to the monastery, it is in order to learn to do that, so that whenever you suffer and feel angry, you know how to look deeply, so that the drop of compassion in your heart can come out of your heart and can put out the fever of anger. Only the drop of compassion that can put out the flames of hatred.
We must look deeply and honestly at our present situation. If we are able to see the sources for the suffering within ourselves and within the other person, we can begin to unravel the cycle of hatred and violence. When our house is on fire, we must first put out the fire before investigating its cause. Likewise, if we first extinguish the anger and hatred in our own heart, we will have a chance to deeply investigate the situation with clarity and insight in order to determine all the causes and conditions that have contributed to the hatred and violence we are experiencing within ourselves and within our world.
The "right action" is the action that results in the fires of hatred and violence being extinguished.
Question: Do you believe that evil exists? And, if so, would you consider terrorists as evil persons?
Evil exists. God exists also. Evil and God are two sides of ourselves. God is that great understanding, that great love within us. That is what we call Buddha also, the enlightened mind that is able to see through all ignorance.
What is evil? It is when the face of God, the face of the Buddha within us has become hidden. It is up to us to choose whether the evil side becomes more important, or whether the side of God and the Buddha shines out. Although the side of great ignorance, of evil, may be manifesting so strongly at one time that does not mean that God is not there.
It is said clearly in the Bible, "Forgive them for they know not what they do." This means that an act of evil is an act of great ignorance and misunderstanding. Perhaps many wrong perceptions are behind an act of evil; we have to see that ignorance and misunderstanding is the root of the evil. Every human being contains within him or herself all the elements of great understanding, great compassion, and also ignorance, hatred, and violence.
Question: In your new book "Anger," you give an example of "compassionate listening" as a tool to heal families. Can that tool be used at a national level, and if so, how would that work?
This past summer a group of Palestinians and Israelis came to Plum Village, the practice center where I live in southern France, to learn and practice the arts of deep listening and loving speech. (Around 1,600 people come to Plum Village each summer from over a dozen countries to listen and to learn how to bring peace and understanding to their daily lives.) The group of Palestinians and Israelis participated in the daily schedule of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and silent meals, and they also received training on how to listen and speak to each other in such a way that more understanding and peace could be possible between them as individuals and as nations.
With the guidance and support of the monks and nuns, they sat down and listened to each other. When one person spoke no one interrupted him or her. Everyone practiced mindfulness of their breathing and listening in such a way that the other person felt heard and understood.
When a person spoke, they refrained from using words of blame, hatred, and condemnation. They spoke in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Out of these dialogues the participating Palestinians and Israelis were very moved to realize that both sides suffer from fear. They appreciated the practice of deep listening and made arrangements to share what they had learned with others upon returning to their home countries.
We recommended that the Palestinians and Israeli talk about their suffering, fears, and despair in a public forum that all the world could hear. We could all listen without judging, without condemning in order to understand the experience of both sides. This would prepare the ground of understanding for peace talks to occur.
The same situation now exists between the American people and people of Islamic and Arabic nations. There is much misunderstanding and lack of the kind of communication that hinders our ability to resolve our difficulties peacefully.
Question: Compassion is a very large part of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. But at this point in time, compassion towards terrorists seems impossible to muster. Is it realistic to think people can feel true compassion now?
Without understanding, compassion is impossible. When you understand the suffering of others, you do not have to force yourself to feel compassion, the door of your heart will just naturally open. All of the hijackers were so young and yet they sacrificed their lives for what? Why did they do that? What kind of deep suffering is there? It will require deep listening and deep looking to understand that.
To have compassion in this situation is to perform a great act of forgiveness. We can first embrace the suffering, both outside of America and within America. We need to look after the victims here within our country and also to have compassion for the hijackers and their families because they are also victims of ignorance and hatred. In this way we can truly practice non-discrimination. We do not need to wait many years or decades to realize reconciliation and forgiveness. We need a wake up call now in order not to allow hatred to overwhelm our hearts.
Question: Do you believe things happen for a reason? If so, what was the reason for the attacks on the U.S.A.?
The deep reason for our current situation is our patterns of consumption. U.S.A. citizens consume 60% of the world's energy resources yet they account for only 6% of the total world's population. Children in America have witnessed 100,000 acts of violence on television by the time they finish elementary school. Another reason for our current situation is our foreign policy and the lack of deep listening within our relationships. We do not use deep listening to understand the suffering and the real needs of people in other nations.
Question: What do you think would be the most effective spiritual response to this tragedy?
We can begin right now to practice calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of the hatred and violence in our society and in our world, and listening with compassion in order to hear and understand what we have not yet had the capacity to hear and to understand. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts and minds, we begin to develop concrete responses to our situation. When we have listened and looked deeply, we may begin to develop the energy of brotherhood and sisterhood between all nations, which is the deepest spiritual heritage of all religious and cultural traditions. In this way the peace and understanding within the whole world is increased day by day.
To develop the drop of compassion in our own heart is the only effective spiritual response to hatred and violence. That drop of compassion will be the result of calming our anger, looking deeply at the roots of our violence, deep listening, and understanding the suffering of everyone involved in the acts of hatred and violence.
Si-fu Frankie Parker's interview - written April 11, 1996, in response to a letter interview by Jean Crume.
I would be honored to answer these questions, you've asked.
First off my execution date is May 29th. Which is rare cause its the first one they've ever set so far away, they're usually within 30 days. And also I'm at Tucker Prison, I won't be taken to Cummins death house till a week before the 29th.
Q: As I recall you received a copy of the Dharmapada from a prison guard when you had asked for a Bible? Could you tell us that story and the effect it had upon you?
A: I discovered the Dharmapada in Dec. of 1988, while in the hole. I was a mad, mean, and very cruel inmate. I was always giving everyone a hard time. The guards had to throw me in the hole and I was yelling and screaming and cussing them and I demanded a Bible. The only book you're allowed in the hole. During the day they would take your mattress away from you so you have very little you can do so I'd read the Bible when I wasn't pacing the floor hating everyone for doing this to me. The guard, thinking he was screwing over me, threw in a copy of the Darmapada at me and said here's your god-damn holy book and laughed. Then closed the door real fast before I could throw it back at him. I yelled and screamed then when I got tired I sat down in the floor and looked at this "heathen book." It was simply the greatest gift I ever received. And later, maybe a year later with tears in my eyes I thanked him for his gift. He of course thought me quite insane. From that day on I've tried to live to reflect the Buddha within me. ("Inside the Buddha there is a sentient being; inside the sentient being there is a Buddha") Of course I kept that Darmapada until about a month ago when I gave it to a friend, one who has started his journey as a seeker. That Darmapada led me to other books and even a deeper "need" for the Dharma.
2) What did your early Buddhist practice consist of?
Well I would sit and try to meditate via the instruction of Bolozoff's book We're All Doing Time. Then a friend got me the address in Hawaii of Roshi Robert Aitken. Then I got even more books on practice. (I still can't sit in the full Lotus.) I would sit on a folded blanket and count my breaths. Sometimes I still do this. I know this is more Zen than Mahayana but it all leads to the same thing.
3) How has that practice changed?
Well now I have a shrine, on it I have a six inch brass Buddha (Anna Cox bought for me), flowers I've made, a photo of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche (who gave me the Refuge vows) and I'm allowed candles. I now fold up the end of my mattress and I meditate for about 25-30 minutes at 4 AM - the only time its quiet enough to practice. In 1990 I decided to shave my head as a devotionto the Buddha and knowing it would help me to live a life that would reflect my Buddha nature in hopes others who saw me on a daily basis would want to be like me. (I.E.) Buddhist ... A real proselytizer, I was convinced beyond doubt that what was good for me would be good for others! Here's a bit a knowledge that may help. If you're going to have a shaved head and you've been indoors all winter, when it becomes bright and sunny and you decide to go out doors- wear a hat! My head is burnt.
4) What practical impact has your beliefs had on your life in prison?
I would think it better if someone else answered this. I will say I've tried to live as a Buddha taught we should. From the Dharma I've learned patience - the greatest thing you can have in a prison situation. I've learned that nothing really matters yet everything matters. I now smile instead of not smiling. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important thing a living sentient being should learn - how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I will be murdered by the state. I'll die with a smile on my old ugly face. Of course they'll not understand, but you'll know.
5) What has been the most difficult obstacle for your practice?
Fundamental Christians that run this prison. There's a publication review committee who approves books for prisoners. They used to stop books I'd ordered from coming to me. This caused me stress and tested me (I see all obstacles as a test by the Buddha). I had many talks with these people till we came to an agreement. I wouldn't kill the prison chaplain if they wouldn't stop my books! Ha Ha! It worked. Ha Ha! NO - I'm just joking. I had a lawyer friend threaten to sue them and then things lightened up.
I've had to fight these people every step of the way. Even a warden who lied to have me put in the hole to ruin my record. He's no longer here, he was fired. The warden who followed him said something to me that made me the proudest I'd ever been in my life. He said he wished all the inmates were Buddhist if they would live like me.
6) I find that when I think of you and your dedication to practice and the dharma that I experience tremendous compassion for all beings who are, like myself, struggling to make sense of life. But, in spite of your difficult situation, you always find the positive in even the worst events. Could you tell us a little bit about how you envision your personal role in spreading the dharma?
My vision of my personal role in spreading the Dharma??? Good question. I use to think, "boy as soon as I reach enlightenment I'm going to teach!" Then I realized that day was too far away so I'd better try and do something now. People see me practicing Tai-chi on the yard. They see me at peace with the world and they see me always smiling. That my friend is how you spread the Dharma - Smile. Be happy. I once read a book and the question was asked, "How would you spread the Dharma if the person you met was blind and dumb?"- the answer is a hug. Kindness! The hug is a smile - just a smile that can be felt. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy, it is not a psychology or a science. "It is an example", a way of liberation. I feel liberated and soon will be liberated from this world. I changed - as all things will change.
7) Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you would like to say to the sangha?
Yes. I thank you for accepting me into your family, a person whom you knew was the worst society had to offer, but you accepted anyway. I hope I've not let you down in anyway. I hope this world is helped by my death or at least my Sangha friends.
I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha gave me refuge. Thanks my friends.
I only know of a few of you people there. There are only four of you who are on my approved visiting list. James Rule, Anna Cox, Kathy Martone, George Crook, and of course Rinpoche. I would like to meet some of you before I die. So feel free to come see me. Since I've been a Good Boy I can now have contact visits. I'm one of ten allowed in this whole prison. So you all take care, live by example, and I'll keep you in my prayers.
Yours in the Dharma,
Si-fu Frankie Parker
with Hannah Nydahl
Virginia, July 1995
Kagyu Life: How did it happen that you spent so much time in Asia?
Hannah Nydahl: Ole and I went to Asia the first time in the 60's. We connected with Buddhism and stayed there for a few years. There was no Tibetan Buddhism in the West then, so the connection with the East was still very important. My function became to translate for the Tibetan lamas, and help them organize their schedules. Also, for many years, Ole and I arranged pilgrimage tours to the East, taking approximately 100 people at a time, every year or two. This gave me a lot of contact with Asia. For the past five years I have also been involved as a translator for Tibetan teachers at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute(KIBI) in New Delhi.
For people starting on the Buddhist path today, the situation is quite different. You can become a Buddhist in your own country, and learn and practice everything there. It may be good for your development to go on a pilgrimage, in order to visit places carrying a special blessing such as Bodhgaya, the place of Buddha's enlightenment. But it is not necessary to go and live in the East. I only go myself when I have work to do there.
KL: How did you learn Tibetan?
HN: In the late 60's when we met with Buddhism, very few texts were translated, and few teachers spoke English. We had to learn Tibetan ourselves, and I started by learning the alphabet from Tarab Tulku at the University in Denmark. Then, when we stayed in India in the Himalayas and did our practice, we had to translate all the meditation texts ourselves. When we did the Ngondro practices we started with the prostration text. I looked up almost every word in the dictionary and slowly translated the text. It was the same with the other parts of Ngondro. At that time we were in a retreat-like setting and did not talk much to people, so we did not get to practice any spoken Tibetan. To practice speaking it we had to stay in the Tibetan camps where nobody knew English.
Later, we invited the lamas to Europe and there was no one to translate, so I had to learn more Tibetan in order to translate for them. It was a natural process. Translating became part of my role, and Ole went into the teaching activity. He is a born teacher, and not a born translator (Hannah laughs). If he were to translate, he would give his own teaching (still laughing). So it fits like this.
Again, the situation today is very different. Now many teachings and texts are translated and many translators are available, so one can easily practice Tibetan Buddhism without knowing Tibetan.
KL: How and when did you decide to give up the traditional family role? Did it happen early in your marriage?
HN: When we went to Asia on our honeymoon and met with Buddhism, we stayed there several years to learn and practice the Buddhist teachings intensively. Later, we got the position of working full time for the Dharma. H.H. the 16th Karmapa was very precise in his instructions to us. He wanted us to go back to Europe and work for the Dharma. At that time it was not possible to combine this work with normal family life - it was a matter of making a choice. The choice was easy, there are enough children in this world, and what we were doing at that time was more important than having our own children. Today it is a different situation. Becoming a Buddhist does not mean changing one's lifestyle as we did.
KL: You and Ole were the ones who actually brought Tibetan Buddhism to Europe.
HN: It became our responsibility because there was no Tibetan Buddhism available in Europe at that time. Our development was not a typical one, it was a specific function at a specific time.
KL: How do you maintain your balance when so many people make demands on your time, and your every move is watched as being significant?
HN: Making demands on one's time is OK, and actually this is not a big problem. Concerning people watching one's every move, I would like to mention something of general interest. In the West we have a tendency to become a little artificial and fanatic around our teachers. We look at the teacher, watch every move he makes, and give special meaning to each word he utters. In Europe we have this tendency quite a lot; I don't know how it is in the States. We should try to be more natural towards teachers, towards Rinpoches. Our devotion can be kept internally - it does not have to show on the outside in an extreme way. It is not necessary to be physically close to the teacher, or look at him all the time. If one has trust or devotion, this does not have to be shown outside. It is important that, as Buddhists, we give more care to the kind of impression we make on the outside world, since people already have a hard enough time understanding what Buddhism is, and we don't want to be confused with the many cults coming up these days.
KL: How do you maintain your balance living in the shadow of such powerful men as Ole and Shamar Rinpoche?
HN: No problem! (she laughs) I do not have ambitions in that way. I don't see myself as being in anybody's shadow. I am just myself.
KL: In your practice of Buddhism over the last 25 years, what are the stages of development you have seen in yourself?
HN: From the moment I first met with pure Buddhist teachings, it was like a revelation. Since childhood I always had many questions in my mind - I wondered about the meaning of existence and such things. Denmark is a Christian country, but not very religious, and the Christianity I met there did not give me the answers I was looking for. I could not accept the concept of one creator God, the rhetoric that if you did not believe in God you were doomed forever, or that people who did not believe in God were lost. This never made sense to me. I was also very concerned about what happened to the mind when one died. I wondered a lot about these things when I was very young.
Later in puberty, I was involved in a lot of mundane activities (she laughs). I got distracted, and was not so occupied with these questions. Then, I met Ole and we started taking psychedelics. For me this was a continuation of looking for answers and especially trying to explore the mind. Apart from breaking some rough concepts about the world being solid and real, and thus getting a taste of the illusory nature of things, psychedelics did not give any answers either. The problem with them was that one clung to the experiences as being real instead, which was even worse and more difficult to purify.
The first direct Buddhist teachings I read were in a book called 'Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines' in 1968. In the beginning of the book was a text by Gampopa 'The Garland of Precious Jewels', translated by Evans-Wenz. This is a collection of teachings presented in sets of advice that starts on an ordinary relative level and takes you through to the absolute teachings. It gave answers to all the things I had wondered about. It was a very strong experience for me, like coming home.
After that, we met our teacher, the Karmapa, and started to practice. Ever since then, it has been a process of trying to integrate the teachings as much as possible. It is amazing how vast and profound the teachings are, there is no end to them. Every instruction and practice I was given always confirmed the truth of Buddha's teachings and took me deeper into understanding. Feeling how much the Dharma has helped me, and seeing how much benefit it has for other people too, I feel extremely grateful to be able to use my life the way I do.
KL: Have you ever doubted or been discouraged about the Dharma?
HN: No. If something unpleasant or disappointing happens, it only confirms what the teachings say about the impermanent and changing quality of everything conditioned. As a child, I had an easy life, which maybe is not always so useful for learning to deal with difficulties, but at the same time it helped me gain some inner stability which has been useful in my later work.
KL: How can one maintain a pure view and not be naive?
HN: This is where the Dharma helps you. If you do not know the Dharma, then you tend to live in some unrealistic illusion and think that things are what they are not; you give things a permanent existence which they do not have. You may think something is wonderful, then suddenly it is not wonderful anymore. Or you see defects, start judging and thinking everything is terrible, there is no solution and you want to commit suicide or whatever. I can understand how people can get desperate if they don't know the Dharma - those who look at the world without seeing the whole picture can be terrified by what they see. But once you know the Dharma, it is not so bad. You can see the potential in people, get the right perspective. Even when there are wars and catastrophes, you know, at least theoretically, that this is not how things really are, and it is only a question of everybody understanding the true nature of things for these sufferings to stop. If you meet people who behave strangely, you do not take it personally. You think more of how you can advise them. It is no longer a private thing. This is how the Dharma helps us. To have the pure view means to see how things are in their essence.
KL: What about the situation when people who are close to you turn against you?
HN: The teachings say that we can understand impermanence by seeing how friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into friends. This is very true. Of course it is sad when a good friend turns against you, something is destroyed, but this has not happened to me as much as to Ole. Because of his function and dominant appearance, he is in more situations where people either adore or hate him. Some people like to see him as their idol and try to imitate him. Sometimes it is these exact same people who turn against him out of pride and jealousy - they suddenly make Ole into the devil. Ole does not take this personally. It is a pity when it happens but we learn a lot through this. One learns about the mentality of people and about the different approaches people can have. You learn how to deal better with situations, how to relate to people, and how to prevent these things from happening again. You can see certain tendencies in people and then be more careful about the kinds of relationship you have with these people - for their own sake.
KL: Do you have any plans to write a book?
HN: I have had different suggestions from people about this. One suggestion is to write a book about Dharma experiences, and another is to write about being a woman in Buddhism. It might be useful, but it is a question of time, it takes time to write a book. Ole is better at utilizing every single second - he can produce books simultaneously with his other activity. I cannot do that, so we will see what becomes possible.
KL: Could you speak about the special role of women in the Dharma?
HN: When you practice Buddhism, it is a very individual thing and not so much a question of whether one is a man or a woman. Each individual has his or her capacity and conditions - both outer and inner. In the West I do not see a big difference between men and women. It is more in the Eastern cultures that there is a big difference in their roles. Concerning the Buddhist methods, there is not much difference, one just has to use them. Generally, attachment is more difficult for a woman to dissolve, and men have to, perhaps, work more with aggressions - but it is very individual. We are all human beings, and most have a combination of disturbing emotions. So there is not that big of a difference between man and woman when it comes to practicing the Dharma.
KL: You hold so much knowledge and wisdom from being around teachers and translating for so many years. Why don't you teach more?
HN: There is only so much time and I am involved in many different kinds of activities already. Once one starts something, one should do it properly. I do not mind teaching, but when I am together with Ole, it is more natural that he teaches. When I am not with him, I mainly translate and organize for the Tibetan lamas. Somehow, teaching has not been part of my activity yet. Also, His Holiness was very specific about the importance of Ole and myself working together, and, if I was to have an independent teaching program on top of everything else, the already too little time we spend together would be reduced to zero.
Every teacher has a different style. This can be difficult since we tend to prefer one style and disapprove of others.
The confusion may have to do with us not distinguishing between the different kinds of teachers and thinking the teacher must be a Rinpoche or somebody very well known before we bother to listen to his teachings. One's main teacher will naturally be somebody one likes and in whom one has confidence. It is psychologically normal to learn better and be more attentive if the teacher has a style one feels at home with. But we don't always seem to understand that we need to study the basic teachings in order to understand and practice the path in a correct way. For this we can listen to teachers who are not necessarily enlightened or especially charismatic. In such cases the main thing is that he knows what he is talking about. If we focus more on the Dharma than on the person teaching it, we also protect ourselves against spiritual manipulation, which is good for everybody.
Kagyu Life International, No.4, 1995
Copyright © 1995 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA
with Hilary Papworth
English Language Scholarships for Tibetans (ELST) is a charity based in Cambridge, England. It aims to advance education by the provision of English language scholarships and worskhops.
Tsering Dhondup: How did you first become interested in Tibetan issue and how did you first become connected with Tibetan people?
Hilary Papworth: I first met Tibetans over ten years ago. It was in context with religious dialogue between the Buddhism and western religious traditions. My interest in Tibetan issues came out of my friendship with Tibetans, firstly in England, subsequently in India. And of course from reading.
Tsering Dhondup: Do you believe in Buddhism?
Hilary Papworth: Although my own idea of study is within western traditions, I can see that Buddhist teachings are profound and wide-ranging. There is an obvious accord between the religions at the ethical level (being kind, good-hearted, compassionate to others, etc). What is perhaps more interesting is the accord between the teachings of religions of east and west at the philosophical level. To take an example, the metaphysical insight based on the perceptions of the two truths (ultimate and conventional) as the foundational basis of reality is necessarily universal. This perceptions and its philosophical ramifications are main-stream in the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, but are more what might you call a 'specialist area' in the western traditions. We are looking forward to the time when there are more good translations of Tibetan texts available in English.
Tsering Dhondup: You have been inviting professional young Tibetans to the U.K. for English language teachings for some years. How did this start?
Hilary Papworth: Actually the initiative came from the Tibetan side. A young doctor of Tibetan traditional medicine to whom we had discussions in India asked us for help in improving his English. On our return to the U.K., we worked with our friend Geshe (now Dr) Thupten Jinpa, translator to His Holiness and now Director of the 'Institute of Tibetan Classics', who was living in Cambridge. Together we managed to raise sufficient funds for travel costs to the U.K. and living expenses. In the end that person was unable to take leave but Dr Tenzin Kyizom from Men Stee Khang (TMAI) came instead. A friend gave accommodation and the 'Studio School of English', a language school in Cambridge generously gave a place on a 12 week full-time intensive English language course. The whole arrangement was so successful that we began to look at ways to raise more funds to offer similar opportunities to other young Tibetans.
Incidentally we accept applications not only from professionals but from any young Tibetan who is already proving his or her ability and has the potential and commitment to make a positive contribution to the Tibetan community and the wider world, for example, business people or secular or religious scholars.
Tsering Dhondup: You have seen a number of Tibetans complete ELST programme in Cambridge. Do you perceive real improvement from when they arrive in Cambridge and when they complete the course?
Hilary Papworth: In order to make real progress in only three months it is necessary to start with a reasonable standard of English. All five Tibetans who have come to Cambridge have worked hard at their English usage skills by attending language class and doing their homework. The more accomplished of them have sat and passed the 'Cambridge Proficiency in English' - this is a very tough exam. What we have particularly noticed, over and above improved language skill, is the huge improvement in confidence in speaking English. I hope this confidence continues to build even after they leave England.
Tsering Dhondup: Are you satisfied with what the Cambridge scholars have learned and with their contribution to Tibetan society?
Hilary Papworth: The ELST scholars so far who have visited Cambridge are two doctors, a monk, an administrators from Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) and a teacher from Tibetan Children's Village (TCV). When we arrived in Dharamsala recently we found that two of our former ELST scholars, Dr Tenzin Kyizom and Dr Tenzin Namdul of TMAL, were organizing high-level conference conducted in English the following day. One was giving a medical paper and the other was master of ceremonies for the whole event. Feedback from TMAI directors suggest that Doctors Kyizom and Namdul have not only made progress in language skills, but also, even more important, have gained enormously in confidence from their Cambridge experience. They are increasingly valuable to the Institute.
Two other ELST scholars, who were brought up in Tibetan institutions, are now in U.S.A. Perhaps they will return to Tibet or to the Tibetan community in India. Either way, we know that they are both sincere individuals who are not motivated merely by self-interest. We take the view that they still make a more effective contribution to the welfare of Tibetan people and the maintenance and spread of Tibetan culture because of their experiences with ELST in Cambridge.
Tsering Dhondup: Once you have invited a Tibetan for a programme of study, how do you select the teaching institution that they will join? Do you always send them to the same school?
Hilary Papworth: As I mentioned, so far, all our ELST scholars have attended the 'Studio School of English' in Cambridge. This is a large and I think happy language school. The Director, Mr Christopher Roberts, has been unwavering in his support and has continued to give free places to ELST (maximum two per year) even though he has over 700 requests each year from all over the world for scholarship places. He and his teaching staff do this as they are impressed with the quality and dedication of the Tibetan who have attended. Success builds on success. One seriously badly behaved scholar can jeopardise the whole programme!
The 'Studio School' is not part of Cambridge University but, as I mentioned, the students have the opportunity to take the 'Cambridge Proficiency in English' or a lower level of examination if appropriate, which is set and awarded by the Cambridge University Board of Studies.
Tsering Dhondup: Are there different level of courses for different standards of English ability? How are they taught? How long do they spend in the U.K. for the course?
Hilary Papworth: The 'Studio School' always make an initial assessment to determine the level of reading and writing ability. The student is then placed in a class at the appropriate level. Students at the school come from different countries in Europe and Asia so it is possible to meet and make friends with people of diverse nationalities. We also encourage the students to go on trips to places of interest arranged by the 'Studio School' and paid by ELST.
The actual course is 12 weeks, but we encourage ELST scholars to arrive few days early, to find their way around and get to know the host family, and to leave a few days after the end of the course. If the ELST scholar already has already friends in England, he or she mat arrive early or leave earlier or later by arrangement, but ELST cannot cover any extra costs outside the 13 or 14 weeks arranged in Cambridge. ELST also provides the Tibetan student with an allowance to cover everyday expenses and occasional outings. The host family provides breakfast and evening and weekend meals and the student is encouraged to become part of family life. Momos and thenthuk are becoming quite popular in Cambridge!
In exchange for experiencing many aspects of British and western life and ideas, our Tibetan visitors are also encouraged to promote Tibetan culture, by giving talks and by other means. One individual even spoke on the radio and another organised and presented, with the help of the 'Tibet Society', a major photographic exhibition which was shown at the 'Tibet Foundation' in London, and in Cambridge. These remarkable photographs had been taken secretly in Tibet. They show the environmental damage now being done by deforestation, strip mining and other programmes. The exhibition points out the potential threat to two-thirds of the world's population as a consequence of upsetting the delicate ecology of Tibet and the major rivers of India, China and South-east Asia that arise on the Tibetan plateau.
Tsering Dhondup: How do you select the students?
Hilary Papworth: ELST advertises for the Cambridge scholarships through open public advertisements. These advertisements are generally placed in January and February for places in spring and autumn for the following year. Previously we have advertised in the 'Tibetan Review' but we may also use the 'Tibet Times' in the future. This advertising material is also sent to Tibetan department and institutions. Applications are sent directly to Cambridge where they are carefully considered by the ELST committee according to the criteria stated in the advertisements: "ELST is identifying candidates who are already proving their ability and is selecting them for their potential and for their commitment to Tibetan, Indian and world communities." Short-listed candidates are interviewed by Dr Rajiv Mehrotra of the Dalai Lama's 'Foundation for Universal Responsibility' in Delhi. The ELST committee make their final choice based on Dr. Mehrotra's recommendation.
Tsering Dhondup: You have known and interacted with Tibetans for many years. What are the best qualities found in Tibetans? What in your view is the way for Tibetans to maintain our Tibetan-ness?
Hilary Papworth: There is no doubt that Tibetans are a charming people. If this were not so, then you would not have so many friends all over the world. It is my turn to ask you a question. Do you think that the qualities we westerners find so attractive in Tibetan people, such as honesty, sincerity and good-heartedness, have been brought about by many generations of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism? If this is so, then it suggests that maintaining 'Tibetan-ness' means maintaining the religious integrity of your culture. The maintenance and continuance of Tibetan Buddhist culture is not purely for the benefit for the Tibetan people but is also a special gift to the rest of the world and a world resource.
With Lama Yeshey Gyamtso
by Jim Sande
Jim Sande: Tell us about
yourself, where you are from, and anything you want to say about yourself.
Lama Gyamtso: I'm from Montreal, Canada. My parents were Canadians and had no connection with Buddhism, particularly. I went to school in Montreal and got involved in Buddhism in my late teens. I went into my first three-year retreat when I was twenty-one, the second one when I was twenty-six and came out when I was thirty. And I've been teaching and translating since then.
J.S.: How old are you now?
J.S.: Under whose guidance did you do the retreats?
L.G.: Well, the retreats I did were at Karma Thubten Chöling in Wappingers Falls. So it was under the direction of Lama Norlha. And the retreats were, in general, under the direction of Kalu Rinpoche.
J.S.: I was thinking that we could get involved in a discussion. I talked to a couple of people about the kinds of questions to ask you, and several people came up with the same kind of question, so maybe it's relevant. So I'll read to you this complex question that I wrote down and we'll take it from there.
We have tremendous expectations in our lives, maybe because we are so saturated with media images of whom we could be like or of things we could own. Many of us have a very difficult time being happy with our lives as they are. There's this big gap. Almost everyone that we meet talks about not liking their career or job, or relationship, parents, money, or their lifestyle, this is a very common kind of thing, this dissatisfaction. There is an idea of wanting a better life, and that is connected with some improvement in their career or place. And almost everyone who feels this way is simultaneously dissatisfied. And yet, on one hand, we have so much materialistically, and yet, simultaneously, we feel so terribly dissatisfied. That's one thing to respond to and maybe open up a dialogue about.
And then there is another thing which is sort of fundamental, and that is that, besides being internally at war with these issues, we seem to be externally at war with our neighbors and in adversarial relationships, and that, as a consequence, seems to make us feel, I think, terribly lonely. You can go to the mall or out driving on the highway and experience a feeling of terrible loneliness even though there are a number of people around who live in the same community and share many things, but yet we are terribly lonely in America. And I know that some people that read this can relate to this idea and would love to have some kind of relief (laughter) from these problems.
L.G.: We seem to be experiencing a great deal of pain. And when pain comes from external circumstances - being at war, being impoverished, being ill - then it's easy to account for. But, when everything is going right in our lives, and we're still not happy, it makes us investigate the situation very deeply. That is one of the things that is happening right now. And there is a great deal of hard work being done by people as individuals and people in the various helping professions in investigating what this problem is and what we can do about it. So, I think that what has to happen is an individual, either on their own or with the advice of friends or therapists or teachers or someone, has to look very carefully at their own situation and see what it is that they want that they are not getting.
Now Buddha's idea about this, as it is traditionally stated, is that the basic problem is that we are addicted to wanting. The problem is that not that we don't get what we want, but we use wanting itself as an occupation to keep us entertained, and therefore once we get what we want, it does not cure the fundamental problem. We stop wanting that, we have it, and we switch to wanting something else. So we never enjoy what we acquire and we never enjoy fully. We do enjoy, of course, to some extent, but we never enjoy fully what we experience. The way that one can transcend this, and it's easy to transcend a coarse degree of this - subtle degrees of this are another matter - but a coarse degree of this, is by somehow slowing down the speed of one's acquisitiveness, and that is one of the major reasons why people practice meditation.
There are a million different meditation techniques that people use in the Buddhist tradition and in other traditions but, fundamentally, what the proper practice of meditation is based on is somehow gently cutting through the speed of always looking for satisfaction in a future moment through some future acquisition of some kind. And that's all that's necessary in order to heal this particular problem.
Now as far as the social situation of loneliness is concerned, if you look at your own moods and at how you are with people around you, you'll see that when you're happy you are friendly and nice, and when you're unhappy you're not very nice. Especially if you feel that you are suffering more than those around you, you're not nice at all! And so what is happening is that people are becoming obsessed with their own misery. And the reason is fundamentally the same problem: we feel we shouldn't be unhappy--we have everything or most things, we know we have more than most people, and yet we seem so unhappy. And that makes us resent ourselves, we resent ourselves for feeling unhappy. And we regard ourselves as spoiled children. But we're not really like spoiled children. We're just ordinary human beings.
What is necessary from a Buddhist point of view is just simply to introduce some space into the situation. And that is the function of meditation. So if meditation is practiced properly then one becomes friendlier. One is less in a state of panicked agitation. And that makes one more able to relate to other people's needs, and more able to be sympathetic to others. Because you start to see that whatever is going wrong in our life is probably going wrong in other people's lives too. You're not the only one who's going through your particular type of pain. This gives you a sense of kinship with others that also helps minimize the suffering.
At the same time, as you relax your mind, some of what's going on starts to stop being a problem. But at the same time it's very important that people not turn meditation into some kind of get healthy quick scheme. That they have a sense - it's very important that people have a sense of their own fundamental richness, their own fundamental strength and intelligence. And this has nothing to do with who you are in particular. The very fact that you are alive is a testament to the fact that your basic nature is something good, something positive. We do not, in our tradition, regard the nature of life as neutral. We regard it as fundamentally good.
Now when we say that all experience is pervaded by suffering, we mean that there are severe problems, imperfections. But the fundamental nature of experience itself, the fundamental nature of beings having minds, is considered to be good. And this is something that is entirely traditional. We say in our tradition," kun zhi la lo chin gay wa", which means that the basic ground of experience is in its nature good or virtuous. Meditation of whatever kind has to reveal that basic ground of goodness. And if it does, then you discover that you contain the remedies to all your problems, that your fundamental mind contains, so to speak, the medicine that will cure whatever is afflicting you.
Until you reveal that ground, then you think that you are going to get the cure from outside, from your teachers, from the techniques of meditation, from books, from belief systems so forth, and teachers are necessary because teachers show one how to practice. Belief systems are less important because it has to be based on experience. But the most important thing is that practice will reveal your own basic fundamental strength, intelligence, and goodness, and because that is where the answers come from.
The answers don't come directly from books. And the answers are not conceptual, the answers are direct experience. As direct in experience as the taste of milk or the taste of sugar which can't really be described. I can say that sugar is sweet, but unless you've had it you don't even know what I am talking about. And I can describe the taste of milk but not very effectively. Well, books are like that, and, in fact, any kind of belief system is like that as well, it's only an approximation.
So meditation practice can deal with loneliness and deal with this bizarre pain that we experience. But in order to do so it has to be based on the understanding that all you're doing is revealing a fundamental excellence within you that's always been there, you're not trying to transform yourself from a bad person into a good person. All you're trying to do is remove something that is obscuring your basic nature.
J.S.: Let's see, what can we talk about? That's basically it.
L.G.: That's basically it. When you look at the various things that we are coming up with to deal with our pain, we are developing very sophisticated and, in some cases, I think, very intelligent approaches to therapy, and we're also looking at traditional disciplines such as meditation and the various things associated with traditions of meditation, and, in some cases, we are trying to find the common ground between these, but I think that the basic point of all successful approaches to healing the pain, I think what is really common to all of them is that they're based on a recognition of a fundamental excellence or goodness within the individual, him or herself. And as long as what you do is based on that I think, it will help tremendously. As long as what you do, whatever it is--it could take Buddhist form--as long as what you do is based on trying to find a cure outside yourself, something to take away your pain, I don't think it will work. So I think it depends on that, more than on what you call it, whether it's called Buddhism or not. And because as long as you are afraid to look at yourself and afraid to go deep enough in to find that ground of excellence that is underneath all this ruble that is so disturbing, then you're running away. And I think that if you stop running, and you turn back, and you start digging through the ruble, you will find that it's not so bad after all. The problem that we have is that when you say it's not so bad after all, if you hear someone say that and you're still running, you don't believe it. You think it's some kind of trick.
It's an interesting thing when Buddhism is taught to Westerners. It's very different from teaching Asians, I think, because, I can't say Asians in general, but Tibetans, unless something particularly horrible is going on, they are basically pretty cheerful people. And basically they like themselves. It's changing now because modern society is becoming much more homogenous than it used to be. The world used to be very different in different places, but we in the West at this time are always coming from a fundamental sense of poverty, a fundamental sense of depression that is poignant considering the external richness of our society.
So that means that while it may be appropriate when teaching in Tibet to lay on the fire and brimstone, because, if you lay on the fire and brimstone to a Tibetan, then he will hear the message as, "I am a fundamentally good person who needs to be careful." But if you lay on fire and brimstone in the West, people hear the message as, "I am a miserable worm who deserves misery." In fact, the message is the first, not the second, but we don't hear it that way. That's why when we teach in the West you have to be very careful to make it clear to those listening that you have respect for them and that you're not considering them to be benighted, ignorant, lost souls, miserable worms crouching in the darkness of the pit, that you recognize them as human beings who want to heal and grow. Then the whole of traditional Buddhism or any system can be taught perfectly well, but it has to be clearly presented from the very beginning that, ultimately, where you're headed is a revelation of the peoples' fundamental goodness. And that is why, for example, 'The Jewel Ornament of Liberation', begins with a chapter on Buddha nature. That's why that is the first thing presented.
J.S.: So in stepping back to what you originally said, the addiction to wanting seems to be the salient point of why there such a miserable sense of self. You find that that addiction to wanting is --
L.G.: Well, the addiction itself is not particular to our own culture and time. We just have a particular situation where it is poignantly obvious. It's easier to disguise that addiction as something else when your external circumstances are "horrific". If you are starving or if you are a political prisoner or you're physically ill, then it makes sense that you're miserable. In fact, the ultimate reason is still because of a fixation. Nevertheless, the external circumstances are very difficult. But if you're healthy and wealthy, and you're miserable, then you wonder what would make me happy? If I have all of this and I'm not happy, what do I need? And you start to realize that the one thing you lack is contentment. There's a story that - I think it was one of the emperors of China but I'm not sure - a Tibetan teacher was teaching someone in another country during what we would call the middle ages. And this person in the other country was very powerful and wealthy and who may have been an emperor of China or something similar, asked the teacher, "Who was the wealthiest person in the country of Tibet?" And the teacher said, "The wealthiest person in Tibetan history was Jetsun Milarepa." And the emperor said, "Well what did he own?" And the teacher said, "He had one cotton robe and a kind of bowl that he ate in and cooked in." And the emperor said, "Well why do you say he was the wealthiest person?" The teacher answered, "He had contentment, and that's the greatest wealth there is-- contentment!"
J.S.: It seems like we confuse the sense of contentment. Contentment for people is always the same idea, you're contented when you've had a victory or you've made a made a lot money or something.
L.G.: Well, that's sort of temporary contentment because you've filled what were your aims. But then the problem is that, once you've filled those, your aims start to expand further. And we encourage this in our society. When children grow up and go to college they are told, "Be ambitious! If you lack ambition you'll never get anywhere!" And there's some wisdom to that. There's a kind of ambition which consists of vision and is without fixation. But if it's obsessive comparison of oneself to others, then that is unhealthy because it makes you miserable. No matter who you are there will always be someone who has more or who is more. And this is true in any sphere.
So you need a kind of joyful or delighted sense of energy that keeps you moving, keeps you doing whatever it is you've chosen to do in your life. But you also need a sense of relaxation and contentment. And genuine contentment comes not from having so much, from having fulfilled certain aims that you have set out as it comes from recognizing that happiness comes from enjoying your own basic nature. Rather than enjoying something that is outside you. Because if all enjoyment in life is the temporary circumstances in which you find yourself, then there's no security, no stability in your enjoyment because they'll change. If I'm happy because I saw a good movie, then tomorrow I might be unhappy because I won't see a good movie. But if I'm happy because the movie reminded me of something fundamentally good in myself, that's different.
JS: It seems so true that people get to that point of instability, insecurity, and, in order to ease that, will just continue again to say the same thing over and over again, just continue for another goal, another acquisition, another object, another amount of money, whatever.
LG: Yeah, and that's basically the same thing that heroin addicts do. You know, you get to a certain point and that just makes you normal, so then you have to take stronger and stronger doses, until finally you overdose and die. Well, what happens to people in aggressively competitive occupations is that they--long after they have reached a level of standard of life and income, that is, that should be satisfactory to them--they are still not enjoying it because they have to, first of all, protect it from competition, and then they have to conquer further territory because they see that other people have more, and that disturbs them, prevents them from enjoying what they have.
And the irony of this kind of situation, if it degenerates into an absolute panic, is, if you have a family and a beautiful living situation, that you never enjoy them. You're never home because you've got to work more and more and more and more and more. If you don't, you're like someone driving slowly in the fast lane. I think that there is a way to take part in that lifestyle without losing groundedness. And I think that that way would consist of setting aside at least a certain amount of time every day, a small amount of time to create space. Buddhists would do the practice of meditation. And, somehow, having that little bit of space in your life would not slow down your speed of accomplishment the rest of the time, but it would relax you throughout the rest of the day because you would know that there is a bit of a gap somewhere - the domino effect of agitation--one minute's agitation produces the next minute's, and so forth--would stop. One domino would be missing, and then one of them would fall down but not knock down any other one. So I think that kind of thing is very important.
JS: It is sort of interesting when you're saying this. It is like a person, let's say, is in a position where they have acquired a lot of things, have a nice family and yet they're still driven to move forward on, conquer more territory, yet on the other hand, they could be, let's say, attacked. And that is another very common thing in the very competitive atmosphere we seem to live in. You'll read in newspapers someone is being flailed in public about their - about someone who is successful - they are vulnerable to tremendous criticism or something. It seems like when you take the case of the President, you know, he's like -
LG: That is a combination of things. Part of it is that one of the things people hold most sacred in our culture is the right to criticize those in power because the very foundation of the political culture of this country is the right to do that. And that becomes an opportunity for those who wish to discredit someone in a position of power to do so, so that it gets misused. But the fundamental right to criticize is a legitimate one, and it is unfortunate that it gets misused. But I think that, as we are seeing now, like in the case of the President, I think it is dying now to some extent.
On a more personal level, this happens to us all the time. This political philosophy is reflected now in our notion of interpersonal relationships, in relationships between men and women, and between people in general, the notion that each person has certain rights and when someone is abusing you, you have the right to give them feedback about it immediately. And while this does become a situation, occasionally, rife with misunderstandings, resentments and aggressions, I think it is still better than what we had before because even though it means people are somewhat suspicious of each other and there is sometimes a little more hesitancy to trust, it does protect people, and I think that there is a lot of good. I think that our society in general, not only in North America, but modern society, has, for the first time in human history, given a proper place to basic human rights, and that is something that does not come from any religious tradition, fundamentally. It has certainly been influenced by just about every religious tradition, and I think there is something wonderful about that, something thoroughly respectable about that. Of course, at times it gets turned into an excuse for other witch hunts with some misguided reactions to previous forms of oppression leading to new forms of oppression, but still, still, I think we are better off that way than we have ever been.
JS: One thing in circling back again and redefining another sort of feeling or observation I get, and this has to do again with the adversarial quality, the problematic adversarial quality that we are engaged in. Sometimes we see people; we don't have that friendliness or they are not friendly to us, and again we feel that loneliness. It seems almost sometimes we are unable to view other human beings simply as that, as other human beings. It is almost like there is a perception between groups of people that one group is human beings and the other group is a group of objects. It is like some kind of basis for racism -
LG: That comes from fundamental ignorance. I mean it is a fundamental fact that our basic goodness is somehow masked or filtered by ignorance, so that the light that we perceive of our own goodness is like sunlight filtered through clouds. Nevertheless, the basic nature of experience is still goodness.
Ignorance is a limitation of experience, it is not the nature of experience. Just as when you see light coming through clouds, that light is still sunlight, it's not cloud light. It's limited by clouds, the nature of that light is not clouds.
Well the nature of, I mean the characteristic of that ignorance is a lack of clarity, the fact that we don't think straight. One of the most common examples of that is we don't look at things in an environmental way, we look at things in an egocentric way. Which ironically makes us very unhappy. But we don't think that, we don't realize that. So one forgets the fact that every being equally wishes to be happy, has the same basic needs, same basic nature. And one identifies certain individuals as like oneself as a part of the retinue of I, of me, and other individuals as potential threats. And the criterion on which one makes this division is always spurious, and it can vary. Some people make it based on race, some people make it based on language, some people make it based on eye color, some people make it based on religion, political affiliation, taste in films, allegiance to sports teams, anything, we do this all the time. And we do it in subtle ways within our families, all the time. And this is the characteristic behavior of beings afflicted by ignorance which is one aspect of what we are. And there is no simple antidote to this other than learning to see oneself clearly. And if one sees oneself clearly through whatever means - meditation, therapies, a combination of the two, whatever. If one sees oneself clearly than one will see how one's thinking is muddled; how, while you and so and so are essentially the same, you have decided that you are OK and they are not because so and so voted Republican and you voted Democrat. And we are very clever at thinking up rationalizations, the biggest rationalization for prejudice is the statement, " They're prejudiced." Usually, for example, if I have liberal political tendencies, I will feel antipathy towards someone I identify as a conservative. And my rationale will be, "Because conservatives have so much aggression." And that becomes my rationale for aggression. What that means is that the fundamental nature of these prejudices is always fear. And prejudices can be individual as well as general.