Many people may find Nhat Hanh's teachings Utopian, but he is convinced they are practical and proven. He has opposed violence for more than 50 years. Martin Luther King, Junior nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Nhat Hanh insists he is a monk, not a politician. But as he toured the U.S. he spoke not only of Buddhist practices but also -- often and critically -- of American policies in the Middle East.
We caught up with Thich Nhat Hanh during late afternoon rush hour on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he practiced his customary attentive, so-called mindful walking -- to the Library of Congress to talk to Members of Congress, and others, about peace in a world of terrorism. He said since 9-11 the level of hate and violence has gone up. He blamed America's use of force.
THICH NHAT HANH: Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way. America has to wake up to that reality.
ABERNETHY: That's not a sentiment you hear everyday at the Capitol. Nor is Nhat Hanh's recommendation to this bitterly divided Congress that its members practice what he calls deep listening (to each other) and gentle speech.
Nhat Hanh became a Zen Buddhist monk when he was 16. His title "Thich" means, symbolically, in Vietnamese, that he is a member of the Buddha's extended family.
During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh actively opposed the fighting, offending all sides. He developed what he called Engaged Buddhism: going beyond meditation to campaign for peace, care for refugees and help rebuild bombed villages.
NHAT HANH: If you hear the bombs falling, you know, you know that you have to go out and help.
ABERNETHY: Because of his anti-war activities, Nhat Hanh had to leave Vietnam. In the 1980s, he founded a Buddhist community in France and has spent most of the years since teaching, leading retreats and writing. In all, he has written more than 75 books.
Nhat Hanh's message emphasizes simple practices. Concentration on every activity -- walking, breathing, eating, everything. He says this mindfulness leads to understanding the roots of suffering, which encourages compassion that can dissolve anger.
On this year's U.S. visit, he led private retreats for several members of Congress in Washington, and for police officers in Wisconsin.
I asked him what Buddhism has to say to people of other religions.
NHAT HANH: I think if Buddhism can help, it is the concrete methods of practice. We have the same kind of teaching, but in Buddhism there are more concrete tools.
There are ways to transform and to reduce the amount of suffering in our families, in our schools. We, as practitioners of transformation and healing, we know how to do it, how to reduce the level of violence.
ABERNETHY: Are there times when it is right to use violence in order to protect yourself, or your family, or nation?
NHAT HANH: If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her to do so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, of your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key.
ABERNETHY: Can a person be both a Buddhist and a Christian?
NHAT HANH: Sure. There are many, many Christians who practice Buddhism and they become better and better Christians all the time.
ABERNETHY: Nhat Hanh thinks violence in America has increased in recent years. He says one reason is too much production and consumption of the wrong kinds of things -- movies and television, for instance, that stimulate craving and violence.
NHAT HANH: I think we have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom, people have done a lot of damage. I think we have to build a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast in order to counterbalance. Because liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. We are not free to destroy.
ABERNETHY: The continuing struggle in Iraq triggered questions for Nhat Hanh everywhere he went.
NHAT HANH: I think America is now caught in Iraq, like in Vietnam not very long ago. And you believed that search and destroy is the right path. But the more you continued that kind of operation, the more Communists you created, and finally you had to withdraw. I am afraid that you are doing exactly the same thing in Iraq.
The only way for Americans to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations would take over the problem of Iraq and the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that.
ABERNETHY: At the Washington Hebrew Congregation, and elsewhere, Nhat Hanh made the same appeal for more UN authority. He also urged Americans to lobby their elected officials.
NHAT HANH: We have to offer them our insight, our compassion. We cannot just afford for them to be surrounded by advisers who do not have that insight, that compassion.
ABERNETHY: There was no way to tell how many people here agreed with Nhat Hanh, but there was no doubt about their interest in what he had to say.
Thich Nhat Hanh has scheduled a retreat for Israelis and Palestinians next month in France. He has done this before, and he says -- for those attending -- it always brings reconciliation.
Q: What is it that you teach, and that Buddhism teaches, that Christians and Jews and Muslims should listen to?
A: I realize that many elements of the Buddhist teaching can be found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam. I think if Buddhism can help, it is the concrete methods of practice. We have the same kind of teaching, but in Buddhism there are more concrete tools [to] help you to realize what you want to realize, namely more understanding, more compassion, and absence of discrimination.
Q: Can a person be both a Buddhist and a Christian?
A: Sure. There are many, many Christians who practice Buddhism, and they become better and better Christians all the time. In my retreats over in Europe and America, there have been Catholic priests [and] Protestant ministers receiving the teaching and practice formally. They even receive the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts, and they don't see any conflict between the teaching of the Buddha and the teaching of Jesus.
Q: But Christians believe in a personal God and in the divinity of Jesus. How do those beliefs fit with Buddhism?
A: There are many levels of Christianity. There are many notions about God. To believe that God is a person is just one of the notions of God that you can find in Christianity. So, we should not say that there is one Christianity. There are many Christianities.
Q: Do other religions have teachings that are helpful to Buddhists?
A: Sure. When you learn about the teaching and the practice of another tradition, you always have a chance to understand your own teaching and practice.
Q: Are all religions true? Is one religion truer than the others?
A: Well, if we are to speak about cooking traditions, we can see that there are good things in every tradition of cooking, but there are a lot of differences. A tradition may become corrupt, and we should try to heal the corruption. We should try to dig in order to restore the best values of that tradition. And this must be done in every tradition, including Buddhism. Buddhism can get corrupted, and the true values of Buddhism could be corrupted by the wrong practice, the wrong teaching. And that is why there should be always effort to free Buddhism from these wrong teaching and practices in order to develop, to unearth, to restore the true values. And this should be true in other traditions, as well.
Q: Is it possible for you to sum up the essence of the true values of Buddhism?
A: Buddhism teaches us not to try to run away from suffering. You have to confront suffering. You have to look deeply into the nature of suffering in order to recognize its cause, the making of the suffering. Suffering is the First Noble Truth, and the making of the suffering -- namely, the roots of suffering -- is the Second Noble Truth. Once you understand the roots of suffering, the Fourth Noble Truth -- the path leading to the transformation of suffering -- is revealed. And if you go on that path -- namely, the path of right thinking, right speech, and right action -- then you can transform your suffering.
If you practice in a community, you help the community to transform suffering. And if you practice as a nation, you help the whole nation to transform suffering.
The Buddha spoke about suffering in terms of food. Nothing can survive without food, even your love. If you don't feed your love properly, your love will die. Your suffering is there because you have been feeding it. If violence, hate, despair, and fear are there, it is because you have been feeding them by your unmindful consumption. Therefore, if you know how to recognize the source of the nutrients of your suffering, and if you know how to cut off that source of nutrition, then the suffering will have to vanish.
is a very important teaching for our time, because the amount of violence and
craving in us and in our children comes from our practice of unmindful consumption
-- watching television, reading magazines, having poisonous conversation. We bring
a lot of poisons and toxins into our body and into our consciousness. If you don't
stop producing these toxic items, and if we don't know how to protect ourselves
by mindful consumption of these items, there's no
Q: For everybody and particularly for Americans you would recommend what? Less consumption? Less television?
A: Not less, but right consumption. There are very wonderful television programs that can water the seed of understanding, compassion, joy, and happiness in us. We don't have to consume them less, but we have to refrain from consuming the kind of television programs that can mean to our body and mind a lot of craving, a lot of violence, and despair. It's not a problem of less or more, but right or wrong -- right consumption, mindful consumption.
Q: How do you define "engaged Buddhism"?
A: Engaged Buddhism is just globalism. When you have enough understanding and compassion in you, then that amount of understanding and compassion will try to express itself in action. And your practice should help you to cultivate more understanding and compassion. If not, it's not true practice. When you have these two kinds of energies, they always seek to express [themselves] in social action. And that is called "Engaged Buddhism" -- Buddhism applied in your family life, in the life of your society.
Suppose you sit in meditation, and you hear the bombs falling around, because meditation is to be aware of what is going on in yourself and around you. If you hear the bomb falling, you know that you have to go out and help. But you try to help in sucha way that you can be keen, be calm, and at peace, with the concentration in you, and not lose yourself in the act of service. That is what we call "Engaged Buddhism" -- active, but still maintaining the spiritual element within yourself.
Q: We have violence all around us. As you observe what is going on in the world and in this country, does it seem to you we are becoming more violent?
A: Yes, the level of violence in society is very high -- violence in families, violence in schools, violence on the streets. We do not seem to focus our efforts in order to transform that violence; we are trying to seek violence outside and to invest all our time and energies and money in order to fight violence outside. But we don't know that violence is there within ourselves, within our society.
are ways to transform and to reduce the amount of suffering in our families, in
our schools; but people have not done much in order to do that. We, as practitioners
of transformation and healing -- we know how to do it, how to help reduce the
level of violence in our families, in our schools. And we don't need money to
do it. We need only people who know how to do it in order to make the plans, and
to do it on a national level. I hope that people in this country will
begin to think about that seriously and will move quickly in orderto help in that direction.
Q: Are there times when it is necessary to use violence in order to protect yourself, or protect your family, or your country?
A: If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her from doing so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key point. If you need to use force, you have to use it, but you have to make sure that you act out of compassion and a willingness to protect, not out of anger.
Q: After 9-11 two years ago, Americans generally wanted to respond right away with force. Were we right, or not, to attack Afghanistan?
Well, if you look deeply, you see that you have not been able to remove terrorism,
especially in the mind of the people. You might have created more violence, hate,
and fear in the mind of people. You have not succeeded in removing terrorism,
both in [its] appearance, its _expression, and in the mind of the people. That
is why you have to reflect deeply on the situation and see whether there are different
ways of doing it more effectively.
Q: Were we wrong to attack Iraq?
A: I think America is now caught in Iraq, like in Vietnam not very long ago. You believed that search-and-destroy is the right path. In Vietnam, the United States tried to search-and-destroy the communists in the North and in Cambodia. But the more you continue that kind of operation, the more communists you have created; and, finally, you had to withdraw.
I am afraid that you are doing exactly the same thing in Iraq. You are investing a lot of money, human lives, time, and resources in Iraq. You may think that there are states, there are countries, that sponsor terrorism around Iraq. There are six or seven countries listed by the State Department as sponsors of terrorism. If you continue to think in terms of search-and-destroy, you will have to bring troops into these countries also. That is a very dangerous way of thinking. Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way.
America has to wake up to that reality. America has to see other means. America is powerful enough to help with peace and reconciliation, not with violence.
Q: So, what should we do in Iraq now?
A: I think America should invest in making the United Nations into a real peace organization with enough authority. America should allow other nations in the world to participate actively in building the United Nations as a community of all nations. And America should transfer problems like the Middle East, Iraq, Afghanistan to that international body of peacekeeping. That is the only way to get out easily and with honor; and that will be applauded, appreciated by all of us in the world.
Q: You mentioned the Middle East generally -- Israel and the Palestinians. It seems that one act of violence there produces another. What would you recommend?
A: We have been inviting Israelis and Palestinians to come to our practice centers, and we always succeed in helping them in becoming brothers and sisters; removing wrong perceptions; cultivating brotherhood and mutual understanding. If that can be done on the international level, we can succeed. But our political leaders are not trained to do these kinds of things. They are trained in political science. They are not trained in mindfulness, deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech.
That is why it's very important to bring a spiritual dimension to our political life. In a family, if two brothers are fighting each other and trying to kill each other, other members of the family have to come in order to prevent that kind of mutual killing.
The United Nations, representing the human family, has not done that. America seems to be doing the job alone. I think that is because we have not invested enough in the United Nations as a peace organization, and we only want to manipulate the United Nations for our national interest.
Q: You led a retreat for some members of Congress. What did you tell them about responding to violence or the threat of it?
A: I did not tell them anything, except offering them concrete tools in order to have more time for themselves, more time for their families; so that they can release the tension in their daily life, bringing some joy and happiness into their daily life so that they can serve better their nation and the world. I am not a politician. I am not going to prescribe a political solution for them. I am only a monk, and the best thing I can do is to help them to be more of themselves -- more peaceful, more compassionate. That is enough for me and for them, well, as a purpose in the retreat.
Q: It seems to me that there's a real problem in what can be expected of one individual. Your teachings can be wonderful for an individual and that person's relations with the people in his family. But then when you begin to consider the policies of a large organization, like a government or a large corporation, the personal element seems to be more difficult to bring into it. How can you apply the teachings for personal behavior to the policies of a large organization like the United States government?
A: Our practice as a monk is not only to improve the quality of a person, but also to improve the quality of the life of a community. Community building, sangha building, is our true practice. And without a community, your practice cannot be strong enough. That is why it's not true that Buddhism only offers a practice for individuals. Everything you can achieve as an individual can profit our community and our nation. And that is why, if a community, if an organization like the Congress applies the same kind of techniques, the same kind of principles, there will be improvement in the life of that community. It will bring much better result in their work, whether they are in business or in politics.
We have offered retreats for businesspeople. We have offered retreats for law enforcement people -- not only to help individual businessmen, individual police officers, but to help them as a community, because if a community does not have mutual understanding, communication, then they cannot realize what they try to realize.
Q: Would you go beyond that to some kind of direct action? For instance, during the Vietnam War, there was a great deal of direct, organized protest -- marches, demonstrations.
A: Yes. Individual insights help bring about collective insight. And with collective insight, there will be group action. But there should be harmony.
Q: What came out of your recent session with law enforcement officials in Madison, Wisconsin? What was the result of police officers learning more about how to be nonviolent?
A: Police officers learned to go home to themselves and release the tension in their body; release the fear, the despair in the mind; learn how to get in touch with the positive elements of life that are in them and around them for their nourishment and healing, so that they can better relate to their families, their colleagues, and so that they can serve better the people. They are called "peace officers," and they should be -- they should have enough peace in themselves in order to do so.
During the retreat, we all practiced the basic Buddhist practice, like mindful breathing; mindful walking; embracing our pain, our sorrow -- the negative things -- in order to transform. And transformation is healing, is possible. I think in that retreat, the police officers had the first chance to really listen -- by such a great number of participants. And they had the first chance to release, to make known the suffering and difficulties. They have learned many things in order to protect themselves and their families, and to have more peace in order to serve in a better way.
Q: Some see a conflict between what is necessary for a police officer to do, which is violent sometimes -- to enforce the law, on the one hand, -- and your teachings on the other.
A: Well, you carry a gun, but it's perfectly possible to carry a gun with a lot of compassion inside. You carry a gun to say, "You should not do that. If you do that, you may get into trouble." But that is a message that can go together with compassion.
We know that violence cannot replace violence. The work of the police officer, as it is now, is only to deal with the symptoms. That is why we have to look deeply and to find the practice that can deal with the roots of violence. If you rely on police officers to keep the peace, well, you are truly too naïve. They can do only the things on the surface, but the violence is always there, trying to explode. That is why you have to use other means, to look deeply and to eradicate, to remove violence from a street.
That is why I have spoken about the kind of retreats, the kind of workshops that help parents, teachers to transform and to bring peace and reconciliation into these institutions of society. If the government and the Congress are aware of that, they will support the kind of practice of peace and reconciliation that is characterized by compassion and nonviolence. This is possible. Our spiritual leaders, our religious leaders have to be capable of helping in that direction.
We expect very much from church leaders, temple leaders, to do this job, because that is their job, to bring a spiritual dimension to our social-political life.
Q: When you travel around this country, there are a lot of things that are different, I think, than at Plum Village in France. How does it make you feel to be here? Is it stressful?
A: Yes, it is much less pleasant to travel in America now. In 1962, '63, it was very pleasant to travel in America. Now it's much, much less pleasant. We have allowed violence to grow and to overwhelm us, and there's a lot of fear and anger. I don't think that with money you can deal with that problem. It is with spiritual practice.
Q: Would it be possible to show me about mindfulness and breathing? Is that something that you can demonstrate?
A: You're breathing always, but you are not aware of that. While you breathe in, you become aware that you are breathing in. And you may enjoy breathing in, because breathing in shows that you are still alive. That is called mindful breathing in. When you breathe out, you focus your attention entirely on your out-breath. That is called mindful breathing out, and that practice alone can bring you home to the present moment and help you to be fully present, fully alive. It can be very healing and nourishing. It's a pity if you don't know how to do it ... Everyone can practice mindfulness without becoming Buddhist.
Q: What is so tantalizing about talking to you is the wonderful promise of your teachings at the personal level, and the frustration of not seeing how it can change the policies of big institutions, such as government.
A: It is the individual who can effectuate change. When I change, I can help produce change in you. As a journalist, you can help change many people. That's the way things go. There's no other way. Because you have the seed of understanding, compassion, and insight in you. What I say can water that seed, and the understanding and compassion are yours and not mine. You see? My compassion, my understanding can help your compassion and understanding to manifest. It's not something that you can transfer.
If you want Mr. Bush to have that, you have to touch the seed of compassion and understanding in him. You cannot transfer yours to him. It is like a father -- the wisdom of a father you cannot just deliver to the son. It is very frustrating. You have to help him to develop his own wisdom. It is always like that.
with Matthew Fox
By Sharon Callahan
Matthew Fox, a spiritual theologian, has been an ordained priest since 1967. He holds Masters degrees in philosophy and theology from Aquinas Institute and a Doctorate in Spirituality, summa cum laude, from the Institute Catholique de Paris. A liberation theologian and visionary he was silenced by the Vatican and later dismissed from the Dominican order. After dismissal he was received as an Episcopal Priest by Bishop William Swing of the Diocese of California.
Matthew Fox is founder and president of the University of Creation Spirituality which is located in downtown Oakland, California, in order to bring hope to the downtown area and diversity and racial harmony. In January 1999, the Naropa Institute of Boulder, Colorado, and UCS co-created an educational and spiritual alliance and community. The outcome is the Naropa Institute Oakland Campus, offering an innovative Master of Liberal Arts program.
Matthew is author of twenty two books, including the best selling Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Reinvention of Work and Natural Grace with scientist Rupert Sheldrake. His most recent book is Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh. His forthcoming book on deep ecumenism has been inspired by Thich Nhat Hahn's book Living Buddha, Living Christ.
A great deal of credit for the awakening of interest in the work of Hildegard of Bingen in recent years goes to Dr. Fox. He was the first to translate her work into English in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, 1985 and Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs,1997.
A lecturer who travels throughout North America, Central America, Europe and Australia Matthew has brought his message of ecological and social justice, mysticism and blessing to eager and ever growing audiences.
Matthew Fox received the 1994 New York Open Center Tenth Anniversary Award for Achievement in Creative Spirituality. In 1995 he was presented the Courage of Conscience Award by the Peace Abbey of Sherborn, Mass. Other recipients of this award include the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Ernesto Cardenal and Rosa Parks. In 1996 he received the Tikkun National Ethics Award in recognition of contributions made to the spiritual life of our society. He has twice received the Body Mind Spirit Award of Excellence for outstanding books in print: in 1996 for the Reinvention of Work and in 1997 for Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest.
With a commitment to honoring the wisdom in all faith traditions Matthew practices deep ecumenism. Father Bede Griffiths has a tremendous respect for Matthew's work. He has also been a good friend of Brother David Steindl-Rast and has dialogued with Joanna Macy and others on engaged Buddhism and engaged Christianity focusing on the relationship between mystical traditions and issues of social and ecological justice. He quotes Meister Eckhart who said, "Compassion means justice . . .The person who understands what I have to say about justice understands everything I have to say."
Matthew, do you believe that animals have souls?
Of course! The word itself, anima means soul. All the pre-modern people including the medieval mystics and theologians believed in the soul of nature. Thomas Aquinas says that what animals and humans have in common is the soul. So it is only the modern age that took soul out of everything. Not only took it out of everything, but even in humans put it up in our heads - the pineal gland.
How does our relationship with and treatment of animals relate to our own spirituality and enfoldment as human beings?
Animals love. They love their being. They strive to survive, to celebrate, to propagate . So certainly something we learn from animals is love. To survive and to celebrate, propagate and to love life. To be the best we can be - the right to be here and the responsibility to be the best dog or bear or horse that they can be. Humans have the tendency to self pity that other animals don't indulge in.
I know I have learned a lot from animals about meditating and just being still.
Yes. Just being and being still, being themselves - just being when its time for being, eating when they are hungry - and rejoicing.
What can the average person who is concerned about animals and nature do to enhance the spiritual lives of their animal companions and other animals especially in the world that we are living in that if far from a perfect place for them?
Well, obviously when it comes to wilderness animals we have to make an effort to preserve what areas we can that they can be themselves in. Its come to a point though, clearly, where some species have to be cared for By humans if they are not going to disappear altogether. Of course, when it comes to domestic animals, I think that it is important that humans acknowledge our relationship with them and our interdependence with them.. How the very health issues that we look at for our own species are also theirs. For example issues of healthy water, soil, plants, air and forests. These are issues for our children, but also for our fellow creatures as well. The bridling of human greed and anthropocentric ignoring of the needs of other species is very evident for example the ways that we are fishing out the oceans and so we have to slow down our greed and corporate greed and look at the bigger picture and realize if the animals keep disappearing we will become very lonely and our children will have much less beauty in their lives.
Many people I talk to in my work feel very discouraged and dis-empowered, feeling that somehow as an individual they cannot make a difference because it is just too big a problem. What would you say to someone like that? How would you advise them?
We should think beyond just being individuals think in terms of neighborhoods, families and communities, the places where we work, the kind of work that we do. To be asking the question what is the relationship of this work that I do to the other species, to the health of the planet. The ecological questions that are the real ethical or moral questions of our time need to be raised in all of our work worlds and our relationships. And its about how we train our children and grandchildren. There has to be a big change in human consciousness to connect to the deep spirituality of creation. For this our forms of education have to change, and our forms of worship have to change, and the way we approach our professions. This is what we are trying to do with our new university in downtown Oakland (University of Creation Spirituality). To create a new model for university, for education, one that includes the rest of creation and sensitizes ourselves to our lower chakras where we connect so much to the Earth. The same is true of worship.
One of the things I will be doing at the Kinship conference in July I'm not just going to talk, but lead a ritual a techno-ritual where we will be dancing and praying with the animals, bring in their spirits. Its very important that we not just talk about this, but that we bring it into our bodies and tell our bodies also what we have in common with animals.
Are you an optimist about the future? Do you think we can turn things around?
I'm not an optimist but I think it is all conditional . Lester Braun at the World Watch Institute says that we have eleven years left to change our ways. So, can we change in eleven years? My reading of human history is that we change when we have to. If the word were to ge out, the media is not educating us but if we really understood how really desperate things areyea I think we can change in eleven years. I think there is a lot of good will to do it but its not a guarantee by any means. There are many forces such as those of greed, fear and envy that are very strong in the human psyche and history which we're up against.
The book I wrote this year "Sins of the Spirit Blessings of the Flesh" examines those areas of greed and so forth and what we can do about it. I think we have to be consciously combating those forces, because those are the real forces that keep preventing things from happening.
Matthew, I just read that your upcoming book was inspired by Thich Nhat Hahn's book Living Buddha, Living Christ? If Buddha and Christ walked the Earth today how do you think they would feel about the way we have treated animals and cared for the Earth?
Well, I think they have some pretty good representatives in the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn to name two in the Buddhist tradition. Living Buddhist traditions are quite alive today there are a lot of good Buddhists. I think they'd be saying the same thing, that its about compassion - learning compassion . Compassion is not about pity but its about entering into the common joy that we share with the other creatures and the common suffering. Once you enter into that, its hard to deny it and it could motivate us to change our ways and to get moving. So I do think that not only Francis of Assisi in the Christian tradition but Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen and others in the Christian mystical tradition all realized the kinship that we have with the other creatures, and how divinity reveals Itself through the animals not just through books.
You have been instrumental in the awakening of interest in the work of Hildegard of Bingen. I have a wonderful iconographic painting of Hildegard sitting with a cat. It seems to me that all of the illumined ones like Hildegard, Francis, Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, St. Francis, The Karmapa and so many others through their lives offer us examples of reverence for all of life and they all adored animals. Why do you think it is that we are so slow to take their example when it seemed to be such a large part of their life and being?
I do think a lot of people are very attached to their pets these days. It is as if they are the remnant of the rest of nature hat is disappearing so rapidly. Often its not spoken about, but I think there is often a great kinship in people's lives with their pets and I think its going to get stronger as the crisis gets more severe.
Yes, I see that in my work. Its as if the animal becomes the surrogate for all of nature.
Ah, yes, that's right and you know Rupert Shelldrake new book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home demonstrates that a lot of people deep experiences of love in relationship with their animals and vice-versa. The telepathy that friends have between them. I asked Rupert what the scientific response was to his book. He laughed and said that they had been unusually mute. Usually scientists scream when he writes a book but he said that they were silent because they have pets or they have kids that have pets. He said they are so schizophrenic That in the laboratory they are still running on the old science which says that animals don't have souls, but at home they know that their animal does have a soul! So he says the truth of the matter has shut them up for a change, but they still won't confess that therefore the whole paradigm has had the rug pulled out from under it.
Do you have animal companions Matthew?
I had a dog that I was very, very close to but he died a few years ago. Even his death was very special. His name was Tristan. He still comes to me in dreams.
What gifts did you and Tristan give each other?
Its so much really. He gave me wisdom, a sense of play, joy, ecstasy without guilt, the love of the moment, affection, honesty guarding, protecting. He gave me very through friendship and I tried to give him the same. When he died it was interesting. He had a collapse and when I took him to the vet she said "well we may not be able to do anything for him.." I said I didn't want him to suffer. She said "you go home and call me in an hour and a half." I called her and she said "no we can't do anything." I said "why don't you prepare him and I'll get down there." I arrived in fifteen minutes. When I walked in the vet said "your dog is dead." I was very upset, because I'd wanted to hold him and say good by and thank him. I said to the vet "what is the meaning of this? What is the meaning of this? " She said "You and your dog must have had an amazing relationship and communication because when I hung up the phone he had died. He was waiting for your permission ." That was so much like Tristan. He was not going to let the humans put him to death. He was going to go and all he wanted was my permission. The fact that he knew. He wasn't on the phone, she was on the phone, but he knew what I had said. I found that very beautiful and meaningful. That was special and his life was special.
You are taking part in the Kinship With All Life Conference in San Francisco in July. What do you think the significance of such a conference is?
I think its terribly important. I think animals have so much wisdom to teach us at this time. Its just the wisdom that we have been ignoring. We have a lot of knowledge, but we are low on wisdom. A shaman I met two years ago said to me "The four legged ones are very worried about us two legged onesvery worried. So much so that they are having many, many conferences about us and they have concluded that they have to do something to help us. One thing they are going to do is to appear more in our dreams. The other thing is just to make themselves more visible and play a bigger role even in our domestic lives." So I think this conference is a sign of that. It's the humans responding to the pain and the call of Gaia and the creatures that we better change our ways and wake up - get smart. So I think it's a very important conference. I'm very much looking forward to it. I do a lot of speaking and I must say that this conference is something I'm looking forward to more than most.
We are honored to have you come.
I'm sure there'll be a great interest. People do know that they learn a lot from their animals and they want to learn more about it. It's all part of this paradigm shift, moving from this modern notion that humans are the only ones with souls to realizing that the whole planet has soul, and every being on it. I think it is a very important conference. I hope that a lot of people come and that they have their lives changed by it.
with Miranda Shaw
May 24, 1994
(I drove to Richmond and met Miranada at the Museum, we found our way to a coffee house.)
(T ) Tell me about the origins of your interest in Tantra.
(M) I was a lost sophomore at college, already interested in Hinduism when I went to an exhibit of Tibetan paintings and became fascinated by the female figures that I saw in the art because they looked very powerful to me and they also seemed very mysterious because I'd never seen anything like them. So, I wanted to find out who they were and what they were. Academically this led me to major in Art History, and specifically Asian Art History to try to understand the meanings. And spiritually this led me to search out some Tibetan Lamas at the earliest opportunity and I started to study with them. So I was studying the art academically and I was studying with Khempo Karthar he had just come to the US and showed up in Columbus. I met him and was very impressed by him and helped to found the Buddhist Center in Columbus Ohio which is still there. But before I graduated I had become very disillusioned with the masculinist orientation and presentation, that even though there were these fantastic female images in the art it seemed like most of the teachers were men and there was a hierarchical structure that seems to be very appropriate perhaps to feudal Tibet, but didn't quite resonate with me as an American. And the hierarchy was also very gender oriented with men at the top and women at the bottom. So I became extremely disillusioned with the institutional side of Tibetan Buddhism, because it really didn't work, so I basically left Tibetan Buddhist as a practice but I retained my intellectual fascination with it and I still wanted to understand who these women were, and I had a very strong intuition that there were, ...that the origins of the movement must have been very different for them to have produced art like that of these totally blazingly powerful females. And so I really set out to explore the origins of the tradition rather than the modern Tibetan expression of it. So after I completed my degree in Art History I decided that the way to explore the religious meaning more deeply would be to actually study religion, the discipline of religion. So I went to Harvard Divinity School and pursued Sanskrit and Tibetan languages and studied the available texts and translations. I really didn't know this was going to be a life long search at this time, I really thought it was going to be a matter of going into the available scholarship and the available translations but it did dawn on me as I reached the end of my masters degree that no one else had done this work and that I didn't do it, no one else was going to do it, and so I applied to the PHD Dept at Harvard University, and I admitted that this was my goal to document women and gender at the origins of Tantric Buddhism in India. They did admit me and then I spent several years really learning how to translate texts, and I thought that once I knew how to translate the texts for myself that I would have the key to what I was looking for. And it slowly became clear to me that I couldn't translate those tantric texts unless I had guides to their meaning. Because tantric texts are very mysterious.
(T) And secret, it's an oral tradition.
(M) Hm mm , so then I realized that I would have to go to where they were written, in India, in the Himalayas and try to find living masters. And so that is what I did in 1987 and 1988. So I had a physical journey as well. And I went from one teacher to another, trying to find someone who was familiar with the Yogini Tantra teachings and all the passages in the texts on Women. So it took me six months to find months to find someone and I found him in Ladok. When I first met him I was consciously simply looking for someone who could guide me in my intellectual, historical search, but he saw me not only as this scholar but also as a spiritual seeker and so our work together quickly attained a spiritual dimension, because that is the level on which they are used to working. I had already decided that if I did turn to the practice of Tantric Buddhism that it would be with a teacher who fully respected the spirituality of women, and the inherent Buddhahood of women and the capacity of women to attain Buddhahood in the present lifetime and in the female body. So I interviewed him at great length about his views on women and gender and he passed all my contemporary twentieth century tests.
(T) Which were?
(M) I questioned him at great length about the female body, the innate capacity of the female body, was there any great incapacity? Was there any emotional incapacity? Did they see any inherent problems.
(T) Because I guess you had heard that they say things like women have a lower birth?
(M) No! They absolutely do not.
(T) Somewhere they do.
(M) In Tibet they say things. But there is a difference between what ancient texts say and what living modern Tibetan Lamas say. So my search was to find out what the ancient texts say. There was no statement anywhere in any Tantra. The reason is that the Tantras have a Gynocentric World View. They focus on women as worthy of honor and respect and those who practice Tantra must follow and accept this philosophy. They must honor women and femaleness in order to follow the Tantric path. If you want to denigrate femaleness then there are other paths, there are ascetical paths, there are monastic paths. The modern people who do pronounce upon the inferiority of women are generally monks who had to build up psychological resistance and barriers to women. And that has nothing to do with Tantra. And this was some of the confusion that I wanted to unravel.
(T) And so he was definitely not in that league?
(M) No he had studied the tantras in great depth and with his teacher...
(T) What was his name?
(M) His name is Lama Sonam Jorphel Rinpoche. He took me to his hermitage in Ladok and spent hundreds of hours with me going over these texts; The Cakrasamvara Tantra especially. So I spent hundred of hours going over these texts with a Tantric Master.
(T) How do you see the male and female aspects of Tantric divinity?
(M) An enlightener is how I see it. In Tantric Buddhism I see the male principle as the consort to the female in the sense of a supporter, an upholder, an honorer, a respecter. I see the female as consort to the male in the sense of enlightener. In guide, in bliss bestower. So I don't interpret the word consort, I don't use the same word for male and female. And therefore I simply don't use the term for the most part for the female cause that is what I use spiritual companion, spiritual guide, Guru. Because in the west if you look in the dictionary, Consort implies subordination. So I use it for the male, because in the Tantric text the male is subordinate to the female in the sense that the female is more likely to have a direct unalienated relationship with reality by virtue of having a female body which is an extremely complex intricate instrument of reality calibration.
(T) In terms of the Tibetan words, Daka and Dakini how do you translate those words.
(M) In Sanskrit there is only one word, Dakini. Daka is an abbreviation of Dakini. There are only female Dakinis. If you are talking about both male and female they have other sets of terms, such as hero and heroine, yogi and yogini, sadaka and sadaki. But there is no male dakini, it is an impossibility and a contradiction in terms.
(T) So all the consorts are dakinis. And pictorially don't the dakinis have consorts?
(M) The consort of a dakini is a hero, a yogi. In Sanskrit, daka is simply an abbreviation of Dakini, because in Sanskrit texts, in sacred texts, every line must have the same number of syllables. So if they needed to drop one they will simply say Daka instead of Dakini.
(T) Modern times, these times that we live in. What advise do you have for women who are on the spiritual path, say they are studying with very enlightening teachers who happen to be male.
(M) (That's a great question. Wow!) My advice is to be very careful in choosing a teacher. There is always an element of surrender in the teacher student relationship because you are surrendering your present personality and your present ego structure for the higher realizations that will emerge. Therefore before you enter the level at which surrender will occur I advise women to scrutinize and test the teacher very carefully for his views on femaleness and on them of women. And I would question at great length. Don't just ask one simple question; "Do you think men and women are equal?" Anyone can just say yes to that question and it may not be true. Women may not be equal to men, women may be superior to men in some way and he should know that. Test very carefully before accepting them. I really tested my teacher for a number of months, daily before really accepting him.
(T) I tested Kalu and I tested my new teacher for a long time too.
(M) Good because I know some people meet a teacher and they are very impressed by the charisma and the of the teacher. Simply because someone is charismatic and powerful doesn't mean that they have the degree of impeccability that would be required to lead you to complete enlightenment.
(T) In terms of your world view on men and women and the soul, do you think that men and women need each other in modern life. Many men have gone off to caves historically. Do women need to self-empower finding their own way to go to their own caves?
(M) Men and women desperately need one another. And if we don't learn to co-operate and enlighten and uplift one another I don't think we'll survive as a race. Women need to empower ourselves because men will not empower us. But once we have empowered ourselves it is important to share what we have learned with everyone, each other and the men in our midst, the men who have the wisdom to apprentice themselves to us. Because we have something to teach them, a perspective that they have lost.
(T) What do you think that is, essence wise?
(M) The value of human life, the purity and blissfulness of the human body, the capacity a harmonious complimentarily between the sexes rather than a relationship of domination or exploitation and the capacity for a communication and sensitive interactions with other creatures and nature and the earth itself.
(T) What about sex. How do you see sex in terms of modern spirituality. Obviously you regard sexuality as sacred, Tantra teaches us that it is the gateway to transcendence.
(M) Sexuality can be central to one's spiritual path. Because sexuality is the paradigm of how one relates to life on every level. In other words, whatever problems you have with life, or with your body or with your emotions become magnified and symbolized in the realm of sexuality. And similarly as you work to enlighten your sexuality you are enlightening your being on every level. And so I feel that sexuality is the key to spiritual growth in these times.
(T) So you don't recommend that people be celibate.
(M) If people chose to become celibate they have to do so with the realization of the perils of that path. The perils are profound alienation from themselves and from life and from the opposite sex. People may become celibate for a short time in order to emphasize or explore some other dimension of their being, but I think when people take on celibacy as a lifetime path they should simply consider the over-arching philosophy which would render that celibacy desirable. Often such a philosophy is a life denying, anti-matter and often an anti-female gynophobic philosophy because women create bodies. We create and nurture life. We often become the target of life-denying, ascetical philosophies. And so I think people should question what is being offered by such a philosophy, what would they be gaining? And just evaluate it.
(T) I think people have a lot of questions about sexuality and intimacy in terms of Tantra. Many people are offering Tantric workshops, there are a lot of books out there with Tantra in the title, which are more about the location of the G-spot. There are a lot of books which have Tantra in the title which are about sex.
(M) Which are not about spirituality. There are very few which are genuinely about spirituality. It's a very hot topic right now and I think it just represents the fact that people are lost sexually right now, that we have had so much sexual freedom and it simply made us realize that we are still not getting it. And so we are looking, we are open to other paths.
(T) My teacher says he is celibate because to him there is no other, everyone is a dimension of himself so that is his version of celibacy. But this doesn't necessarily mean his is non-sexual.
(M) Well for a spiritual teacher to be celibate, for a person to take on teaching as part of a teaching path is a very different thing from someone taking on celibacy as part of their spiritual path.
(T) Well Kalu was definitely celibate but he was the most tantric person I ever met.
(M) he was celibate on the physical plane. The Dakinis loved him.
(T) Would you agree though that Woman have for so long denied their enlightening states, do you walk your talk?
(M) It's not something one needs to say directly. If people find you enlightening then you are enlightening. It's not something you need to announce.
(T) Do you have students? Do you teach anyone?
(M) I teach at the University of Richmond. I teach Buddhist studies and Goddess traditions and World Religions so of course I have a ready made audience for spiritual principles that can bring wholeness and healing of women as women and the relations between men and women. If anyone reads my book or attends a talk and finds that enlightening to the degree I am enlightening.
(T) Do you think it's important for women to actively entrain, even though once you reach a certain level of awareness you aren't doing anything anymore, it's either happening or not happening.
(M) Yes and I think it's important for women to remember that in the Buddhist tradition, The Tantric tradition arose in non-hierarchical circles led by women and in which there was a preponderance of women to which men aspired to be admitted and on occasion were and then those men became the great "founders" of the tradition. So women have a historical basis for questioning discriminatory institutional arrangements. It is not simply that they are modern discontented feminists as they are sometimes labeled, but they are drawn by the vision, the egalitarian vision at the heart of the spiritual tradition that they instinctively recognize. They are drawn by the heat of that vision.
David Germano teaches at UVA in C'Ville. His position is Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Traditions. He teaches Tibetan language and also Tibetan literature, which is often Tantric in nature. His graduate seminars focus on Tibetan Tantric Buddhist Traditions because this is the main field where he has his own specialized research. As well this complements what other people are doing in the department. He is translating and studying the Tantric tradition of the Nygima Tzokchen texts.
Tashi: What is that you teach that grabs the student most in terms of how the subject of Tantra translates into contemporary society?
David: The conversations between myself and my students these days revolve around three issues: embodiment, the aesthetic use of language and the issues of self-identity. Looking at the role of embodiment, and how this plays out in our own way of thinking it does seem that many contemporary movements privilege the human mind and its capacity for language as well as the preeminent place where knowledge takes place. So we interject a Tantric perspective, to instead, at least for a moment, valorize the human body and our embodiment in a very diverse sense of what the human body might be. There is in part our physical body but then there is the body of our feelings, our emotions and our moodedness that tend to get suppressed or marginalized when we privilege the mind and language for the place where human knowledge takes place.
We look at Tantra as a way of interjecting a more bodily based epistemology. What capacity do our bodies have for knowledge? What capacities do our bodies have for morality or for ethics? Just to get away from thinking all this stuff has to play itself out in self-conscious linguistic capacities. How might our body have things to say? Many people see the body as this empty cipher where other things play out their moves and our bodies have no capacity to interject their voices into the situation. So we look at what does this mean in very concrete day to day terms?
Secondly we often look at the issue of different types of use of language, in particular poetic types of language. Buddhist Tantra seems to me to be to be associated with an interjection of the body in a very value positive way into the mainstream of Buddhist thinking and discourse and practices. You also have an interjection of aesthetics. Language itself in the primary Tantras is a language that seems to have more concern for aesthetic issues. It is more poetic in nature, often more aphoristic. It values the piling up of homologies and of seeking the playful connection of the piling up of things. Often in some Buddhist Tantra traditions you get the suggestion then that Tantra as a whole is a practice; A way that more powerfully implements a truth stated elsewhere in more appropriate linguistic format, which talks about emptiness and uses more analytic modes of looking at our experience.
Tantra doesn't add much to that? It gives us techniques to realize this emptiness in a more powerful way. That is not generally how I look at Tantra however, because the type of language that Tantra is using to express itself however is saying different things. It is coming out of and building upon previous and contemporary Buddhist movements of at any given time. I think it really is pursuing different models of truth and so different things are coming up that weren't coming up before. I think Tantric Nygima scholars through the ages were pursuing serious competing types of themes through the medium of Tantric language, this more poetic aphoristic type of language. They aren't saying any one way is the only truth! They put forth Tantric texts as an alternate way to pursue, through language, the issues of trying to come to term with our own identity.
So the third thing we talk about in our classes a lot and that I see as very important to Buddhist Tantra is the issue of how Tantra construes self-identity. This is definitely linked to the previous two issues. We discuss how notions of "selfness" and notions of "otherness" play out. A most striking thing we see in Buddhist Tantras is the subject of the "Great Self." Supposedly Buddhism is often infamous for this kind of rejection of the self. They'll talk about the "Great Self" in the Tibetan language, or they'll talk about Divine Pride for example and this is usually a pejorative term, but in the Tantric context it becomes something positive. If you look at Tantric meditative practices we can see why they might be effecatious, or assuming they do something to change your experience of yourself, how might they do so?
I usually start out by looking at the preeminent way in which a Buddhist culture identifies "self." However we might fill in that space called the "Buddha" it is always a place of immense authority in Buddhist culture. Within all life there is Buddha nature and yet you really have no sense of it, other than perhaps a vague sense within you, but basically it is a complete "otherness" because we have no idea what this Buddha might be. We are told it is there. This immense source of authority is within us and yet we experience it as a complete otherness to begin with. We are told that because it is the Buddha, this is somehow our ultimate self-identity, the deepest sense of ourself, or that ultimately authoritative aspect of ourself. So we discuss this premise that we should be seeking to unfold this vast identity yet is completely other to us because we have simply no idea of what it might be.
Tashi: So how do you think that your students or modern people could be assisted by what we have discerned from Tantra? One of the things that we talk about so much in the ET is how the 60's and the 70's and the spiritual revolution which we are all still integrating in the 90's into a part of their living spirituality. What do you see that people take to heart from Tantra.
David: Since I teach at a University there are two different things, I am not encouraging them to go off and do spiritual practices, I am a teacher. So in terms of some value we might we retrieve in terms of what is going on with our experiences right now, I tend to pursue with students by coming back to our daily experiences and sometimes our extraordinary experiences with people dying. with sexuality, with dreams, how we communicate with one another.
For example we might ask what is the mandala principle? A mandala in a Tibetan means a periphery and a center which dictates the periphery around him or her which can be a very troubling thing. Is a mandala static or is it moving. There is very big issue in Buddhist thought and Buddhist practice. Should we for example pursue Tantric practice as taking someone else's dreams, nightmares or whatever? They are still someone else's forms so should we impose them upon our own imagination, which would be a static mandala. If I bring in my suitcase I give it to you, you stick it in your mind, you give it to someone else. Or rather is a mandala something that is kind of changing form over time, that is actually changing, that would actually have a place for your past, for your memories, for your feelings, for your body of experiences to actually come into being? This is a very big issue that is the source of a lot of tension and conflict in Tantric Buddhist culture in Tibet. We can look at this issue right now in our own lives. In that way Tantric thought immediately yields contemporary benefit.
Tashi: Well I think that is very fascinating to Westerns because they are so Guruphobic, so authority-phobic.
David: That's right and so what does the Mandala tell us about our experience of authority? We often get into these stalemates like cross-fire on CNN where we have this antagonistic debate that happens where two polarized people just scream at each other over and over. By interjecting a Tantric perspective which is so foreign to our mainstream cultural zone often it can shake up false polarizations that emerge and cause us to begin thinking again. Simply by the Tantric perspective I think you have a powerful voice of otherness that inserts itself into some of the dialogue and can displace the assumption that this is the only way we can express a conflict.
The issue of authority is a very good example because these issues were very common in Tibet. A lot of conflict and blood was shed over the whole notion of what constitutes authority and what constitutes being the periphery. What would be a Tantric take on that? Well there are many Tantric takes on that because the Mandala is a place where contested different visions of what Tantra might be. There is no Tantric take, no Tantric perspective on women, on authority. There are many different takes. I don't think Tantra actually exists. But in terms of what the Tzokchen tradition would say, which is the tradition that I have been doing most of my work on recently, I think they have a very complex picture of what the mandelic picture might be and it is very clearly a moving principle. I don't think it is a very static picture where the text projects a homogenous narrative structuring of our experience. It is a very coercive thing almost. If we take the mandala as a principle of Tibetan society, again we have the Guru coercively saying, okay Tashi you are there, you are not over there, that is your place right over there and you are going to stay there. David you are over here and coercively determining all of us in this manner. Instead what happens when the Tzokchen tradition of Tantra is looking at this they see the mandala as a place that is moving. The way this occurs is through the practice of visualization that they do which are these very simple element yoga visualizations that tend to have a lot of dynamism. What you find is that you stare into a fire or a waterfall or whatever, the message that is being communicated is our relationship to exteriority or to an other, or a partner is not a passive other. It is an other that is moving. It is not an other that we can predict. We cannot say where that fire is going to go or what sound is going to be next. Fire has so many different sounds that happen. It is not simply a passive waiting acquiescent figure that just sits there It is not one that we passively yield ourselves to it, or we appropriate it and it remains rather passive. Instead we have these moving mobile forms that are telling us something quite different. That the kind of ultimate goal is not to develop a partnership between two passive sides or a passive and a dominant side but that rather outside there are moving mobile kinds of forms and we simply need to enter into a dialogue with it.
Tashi: You said that you don't know that Tantra is anything? What do you mean?
David: Well there all a lot of Tibetan ways to articulate what is the nature of Tantra? How might we weave together all these heterogeneous things and say that they are somehow Tantra. We have this Tantra seminar that is being developed at the American Academy's of Religions annual conference. Last year we had this meeting where we were talking about coming up with definitions of Tantra. People put forward all these definitions of Tantra. They were all different and no one was even the slightest bit happy with any of them, so I am not saying don't talk about Tantra or don't try to come up with something very traditional like the Buddhist notion of talking about continuity. There is the ground, the path and the fruit and Tantra is what evokes the continuity, that acts like a thread throughout all of these. I could come up with mine, embodiment, aesthetics and using the Buddha as preeminent image for otherness. That could be my take. But where it all comes from historically is such a controversial subject. Everyone has a different take, academically.
Tashi Well I think Westerns for the most part think it just mean sex. Which is such a joke.
David: Yeah, it's not about the G-spot.
with Nina van Gorkom
by Robert Kirkpatrick
Nina van Gorkom was born in 1928 to a family of socialist intellectuals. Her father was a member of the Dutch parliament. She studied at Leyden University and during this time she became a catholic. In 1952, she married Lodewijk van Gorkom, a Dutch diplomat.
In 1965, Lodewijk was posted to Thailand and Nina started learning Thai language. She took a keen interest in Buddhism, attending classes for foreigners at Wat Mahathat. There she met, in the summer of 1966, Sujin Boriharnwanaket. Impressed by the profundity of the Buddhist teachings, she became convinced of the truth of the Buddha's words and later assisted Khun Sujin in discussions about Buddhism for Thai radio stations. These talks were later published as Buddhism in Daily Life, her first book.
Nina and Lodewijk left Thailand in 1970 and lived in Japan, New York, Indonesia (where Lodewijk was the Dutch ambassador) and Austria. Lodewijk retired in 1990 and they now live in The Hague in Holland.
Nina's writings are well-known amongst English speaking Buddhists, and she is highly respected in Thailand where several of her books have been translated into Thai language with (after many reprints) over one hundred thousand copies now. Her books have also been translated in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal and Germany.
What started your interest in Buddhism?
When I came to Thailand, I was impressed with the kindness and graciousness of Thai people. I wanted to understand their culture. Once I began to study Buddhism, I wanted to apply it to my life rather than just learn it as a philosophy. After I met Sujin Boriharnwanaket I was able to ask any number of questions. I just kept coming and asking. Her answers always related to nama and rupa (mind and matter), to the realities that we experience every moment in daily life.
How did studying Buddhism affect your life as a catholic?
Khun Sujin told me to continue going to church. She said that by studying nama and rupa I would come to see what was most helpful in life. After a while I just stopped going to the church and spent all my time in Buddhist activities.
What attracted you about Khun Sujin?
She explained so clearly the realities that arise at the different doorways. She always reminds us "what about this moment now, what appears?" What is the aim of vipassana: to get something for ourselves? The aim is detachment from the self, from the beginning. Khun Sujin helps us to notice the subtle clinging to self. Even now, Lodewijk and I go regularly go to Thailand, to meet with Khun Sujin and other teachers, to discuss aspects of mind and matter. In October we are meeting Khun Sujin and other friends, in India, for Dhamma discussions.
When you write about the development of vipassana, you don't speak about concentration methods or sitting practice.
Vipassana, insight, is actually panna (wisdom) which has been developed to clearly understand realities as they are, as non-self. It is not some special practice, it is not sitting or breathing. If one wishes to induce calm by sitting one still wants to get something. There is subtle clinging which can pass unnoticed. The aim of vipassana is to have less ignorance of realities, including our defilements, even subtle ones. Therefore it can and should be developed in daily life; any object can be an object for mindfulness and understanding.
But can't sitting quietly be an assistance for mindfulness to arise?
Even mindfulness is anatta, non-self, it cannot be induced just by concentrating or trying to be calm or by sitting quietly. The conditions for mindfulness to arise are listening to the Buddha's teaching, discussing, considering and pondering over realities. And it develops by studying realities as they appear in our daily lives. Some people find it difficult to accept that one cannot force sati to arise, and they wonder whether this means idleness. The Buddha taught us to develop all good qualities, such as generosity and metta, along with right understanding. It is understanding, actually, that should be emphasized.
Nevertheless, the Buddha taught concentration practices such as anapanasati--breathing mindfulness. Doesn't that suggest that they are important?
We read about this in the scriptures because in the Buddha's time there were people who were able to concentrate on the breath. This is a very subtle rupa, which is produced by citta. It is most difficult to be aware of breath, before one knows it one takes for breath what is something else, air produced by other factors, not breath. The commentary to the Kindred sayings V, The lamp, states that only Maha-Purisas, the great disciples can practice it in the right way. Thus, the Buddha did not teach that everyone should practice it. To those who were gifted, who had the accumulations to do so, he taught it. He explained that there is no self who is breathing, and that breath is only rupa.
How should we practice vipassana?
The situation is not: that a teacher tells you first what to do, that you "practise" together, that you do this, then that, at a certain time, in a special place. There is no rule, there is no special technique. In fact, we don't use the words practising vipassana, but rather: developing understanding of realities little by little, and that, quite naturally, in daily life. We should see the advantage of understanding different realities, different momentary conditions, to realize that there is no "me" who is developing but that wisdom gradually develops. That this development can only happen if the right conditions are present. It can't occur because of wanting or forcing or pretending to ourselves that "we" are making progress. However, understanding will gradually grow if there are the right conditions. It is anatta, not controllable by any self.
You write exclusively within the Theravada tradition. What is your feeling about other Buddhist traditions?
Khun Sujin explanations are based on the scriptures and commentaries of the Theravada teaching. But we do not have to name it Theravada, that is just a label .We should consider whether the teaching helps us to understand whatever reality is appearing at this moment. That is the test of truth - this very moment.
with Paul Haller
Head of Practice at the San Francisco Zen Cente
with Brian Bunch, transcribed by Wanda Hennig
Robert Aitken Roshi recently made some statements about caregiving within the context of a letter to the editor of Turning Wheel. Those statements were: "How about the revolution? If we limit ourselves to caregiving, we are just patching up the status quo. And look at it! What a mess!" My first question is whether or not hospice work is just patching up the status quo?
I think the simple answer is, yes and no. If you interpret that question to mean, "Does hospice work address some of the fundamental issues that caused a large number of young gay men, and in the short term future, drug users and people of minority, to become HIV+," then the answer is no, not directly. But that's the key. Not directly.
It brings us back to a fundamental question of efficacy in spiritual practice. From one perspective, one's own integrity and effort is simply an example and inspiration. Each one of us personally takes on the responsibility of manifesting an allegiance to the integrity that spirituality asks of us. To avoid being selfish and greedy and given to harming others and to try to be aware of, but restrained in fulfilling, our own needs, and to approach the world with kindness and thoughtfulness.
However we can never be certain what sort of example we're offering, because each person may look on us and see something different. Some people may look at our behaviour and be inspired, while others can look at exactly the same behaviour critically. So from this perspective, we just make a diligent effort to be in tune with our own practice, and then trust that it informs and helps the world.
So how would it affect the status quo indirectly?
Our lives are linked, we affect each other, influence each other's thinking and consequently behavior. Actions have significance and consequence.
Caregiving asks of us generosity and kindness and respect and so it draws us close to this way of being. It sets in motion a positive influence that touches many people -- clients, family, etc. -- and all of us see a way to avoid harming and to promote caring. When we look at it from that perspective, we do address the status quo.
If you take Aitken Roshi's question and turn it into an admonition and interpret it as saying the status quo needs to be addressed directly, its consequences are not okay, and there needs to be proactive, specific response to them, then the challenge there is to take that fundamental formless nature of our practice and turn it into form and be particular . To look at the situation, to be clear-headed and observant about what is going on and to respond to those particulars. This is the situation. What is the most appropriate response?
Okay. So in the last memorial service one thing that came up for me was a lot of anger that so many people had died, especially of AIDS, AIDS phobia, homophobia, cancer, and a lack of resources and commitment having to do with those diseases. So how does someone deal with their anger if they're doing hospice work but there doesn't seem to be room in their life at this point to pursue, say, these direct measures that would impact the system of the status quo?
Firstly, to take responsibility for our own reaction, meaning to be clear-headed about how any particular situation affects us and then to look more closely. So maybe, as you said, it brings up anger. Well, what is it about this situation that is bringing up my anger? To look at that closely and to identify what it is in our society that we may feel is not okay and needs to be addressed. From the reactiveness of anger we might address the situation in a haphazard way or be blinded by our anger.
Or to put it at another way, if we let go of our anger we can still address the situation and probably address it more skillfully and effectively. I think people like Gandhi and Thich Naht Hanh and the Dalai Llama are wonderful examples of people who address situations proactively but don't do it from a place of anger. They haven't created an enemy that's the object of aggression or condemnation. They show us the skillfulness of noticing our response and learning how to act upon what we find inappropriate and realizing that it doesn't have to come from a place of aggression or aversion.
It is true that we may feel like this is an enormous problem that we're powerless to correct. But perhaps a more useful response is: any contribution I can make is a step in the right direction. There's an old Chinese story about a monk wandering in the forest and the forest floor is littered with leaves and he lifts up one leaf and says, "This is one leaf less lying on the forest floor."
We can always do something. Even the smallest action, if all you can make is one phone call a year to someone or write one letter a year, that's better than no letter or not making a phone call. If you can contribute a quarter to a cause, it's better than not contributing.
It's important to counteract our sense of powerlessness. For each of us to take seriously our role in society and to act, in our own little way or big way, it is a great contribution. If everybody who felt the discomfort or dissatisfaction of a particular situation made some effort, the voice of the populace would be much more consequential.
The next question is directly related to what happened at one of our Guest House volunteer meetings, where a lot of the general comments that came up, especially among some of the new people, were about how close they seemed to get to the patients and how attached they get and how painful that can be in many respects. One woman brought up a kind of fear and anxiety it brought up for her. Then Frank came in at the very end of the meeting and made a comment that the way we learn about nonattachment is to make strong attachments. So my question to you is not so much delving into what that may mean to Frank, but what his comment and those concerns of the volunteers bring up for you.
What occurs to me now is to generalize that statement and take it beyond the hospice context to the wider context of our lives. Often we look at a situation and we find it brings up perplexity or difficulty or something that's not quite comfortable. Then in the spiritual context we may think, well, my spiritual practice should give me some kind of mastery or control or antidote to that.
That's not the primary concern in spiritual practice. The primary concern is to not separate from the experience of the moment. When we're not separate, we're part of. We are open to being influenced positively or negatively. We're open to joy and pain. We are vulnerable. We are impressionable to what's going on. Quite naturally we are open and feel connected in an environment like hospice. Then in its wonderful way it asks of us to be generous. It opens our hearts almost whether we like it or not. That's how it nurtures us. It supports and inspires us by immersing us in the human condition. We start to get a sense that we are also under the influence of that condition. We too will suffer impermanence and the difficulties that go along with it and so there's a kinship that comes with it.
And the potency of that situation opens the heart. We start to cherish the people we meet in that situation. We cherish the people who are in the beds and the people who do the work with us. As you know, this is the wonderful gift of the situation. However, when you open your heart, your heart becomes vulnerable. You become vulnerable to being heartbroken. It's a package deal.
We may feel like we want to avoid the difficult part, being disappointed, being heartbroken when a person dies, or flung into attachments that then don't evolve in a satisfactory manner. "I don't want that part. I just want the nice part. I just want the part where I feel it works and there's love flowing back and forth. Where I feel my own selfishness become less of a problem. When I feel this genuine warmth and friendship and the kindness coming out of me. I want that part. Not the other."
But it's not the nature of it. The nature of it is you get both. They're a natural pair. So one way to say it is that it's in attachment that we discover what non-attachment is, because these two aspects of being open-hearted go along together. And so Frank's statement applies to feeling the warmth, the generosity and so forth and also feeling the disappointment when it's cut off. When you lose that, when the person you've genuinely grown to care for and love dies, you feel difficulty and hardship. So hospice work both inspires us and makes our life difficult. It brings both nurturing and hardship.
But I also feel that it's not just the fear of loss, but it's also the intimacy itself. The intimacy with the patients that can be in some ways kind of scary. It's like when I go into hospice I've discovered that if I'm not somewhat centered, say I've had a very rough day, going into that intimate situation can be unsettling in some ways. Because here you're out in the world in the hustle and bustle and the impersonality and the tension of it and then you go in to this very intimate setting and the intimacy of it can bring up a certain discomfort if you're not prepared to enter that world. How would you respond to that?
Being intimate is a scary proposition. It's potent. Sometimes it's unmanageable. Sometimes it brings up levels of intensity and vulnerability that are hard to cope with in that moment. Sometimes we just want to have a manageable and safe experience.
Naturally, we want to make our life manageable. Naturally, we want to have some sense of power. From a self-centered point of view, empowerment has to do with control. From an interconnected point of view, empowerment has to do with being fluid and capable of being in the situation and trusting in what's going on. Usually we come to a situation with a personal need. We need to have it be manageable. We have a subjective sense of, "this is what I can cope with," or we need to have some sense of control in the situation. Often we feel in hospice work that it's going to dictate the situation and ask us to meet it on its terms. Sometimes, it just sweeps us up and doesn't leave us the mental space to consider our own concerns or reservations, and sometimes we can feel the edge of wanting to dictate the nature of our experience.
When we experience grief as a consequence of losing someone we have deep feelings for, we may ask "How will I fix this?" From one point of view, nothing needs to be fixed. It's just how things are. If something that we treasure disappears, it makes us unhappy. That's just how life is. There isn't something to be fixed. There isn't something that went wrong.
So we come back to this point of empowerment that you also dealt with in the first question, and if I hear you correctly, you're saying that there's an empowerment that comes from a certain fluidity. An empowerment of being present and of somehow accepting what's presented to us.
Yes, it's a curious proposition because it's not exactly personal empowerment. As a consequence of being willing to be part of what's going on, there is a subjective experience which feels, simply put, that "this is okay." And in a way you could call that feeling a kind of empowerment.
Is it possible that some volunteers actually go in and do become too attached to the work? That it becomes a kind of co-dependent relationship? Is that something that we can also look at and be aware of?
I hope so!
Okay, then in what way? What would be the signs to look for to indicate that was happening?
Let me tell you an anecdote about co-dependence. I remember very clearly a case where one of our volunteers got very involved in the life of one of the people staying in Laguna Honda. The patient was a drug addict, who had AIDS, but as sometimes happened, he started going out and using. Our policy is you can't stay if you're using. So we asked him to leave. This volunteer stayed in contact with him, visited him and took a very active interest in his life. She started to visit him every day. And it was pretty clear to us that she had become over involved in his life. And actually, sadly, it became clear to us that she was being manipulated by him. In a way that's secondary, but indicative. She became enmeshed in his life, trying to satisfy her emotional, personal and psychological needs in this relationship. Seeking approval. Feeling, "this person really needs me. I can save this person."
We advised her in very definitive terms that we did not think this was appropriate and gave her an ultimatum: to stop this relationship or leave the program. She chose to stop being part of the program and to go with this person. And it had a awful result. It turned into a colossal mess for both she and the patient. This to me is indicative of a co-dependent relationship. Wishing for your needs to be filled is to be expected, but once they become a defining characteristic in the hospice relationship, they can bring up codependent relationships that are not anyone's best interests.
So you're saying there's a balance, really, in bringing your own needs to hospice work.
The challenge of hospice work is to notice. I think it's too much to say, "just be infinite kindness and generosity." I think it's more realistic to say, "try to notice our needs." Our need to control or find approval, or whatever other sense of unfulfillment that we hopewill be satisfied through the relationships with clients. So I think it is reasonable to ask ourselves and ask each other to be attentive to that and not allow them to dictate how we are in a situation. They'll always come up for us but when they start to dictate the nature of our relationships then that's too much.
That is leading to my last question which refers to the previous interview done for the hospice newsletter with Raja. To me one of the main points he was making was to go into hospice work without a lot of preconceived notions -- even being wary of this idea of helping someone else. And then in your class we're studying the Bodisottva vow and Chogyam Trungpa's teachings and one of the things he says is that taking the Bodisottva vow is dedicating your life really to the well-being, and the relief of suffering of other people -- even over that of your own concerns. So my question then is how can opinions of Raja and Chogyam Trungpa be reconciled?
It's a great question. So how do you come without any agenda and come with an agenda to alleviate the suffering of others? Sometimes we call Buddhism finding the middle way and so that's one guide. We could say, how do you find the middle way? How do you embrace both those admonitions?
And how would you characterize those two admonitions?
I think Raja is pointing out, "Don't come to fix somebody." Don't come into the situation thinking I know what should happen and my job is to make it happen. That puts constraints on the situation. That limits it. So that's part of it.
Then Chogyam Trungpa's admonition is pointing at our tendency to be as we were just saying -- letting our needs dictate the situation. This leads to codependency and other unhealthy or simply unhelpful dynamics. So when you come with the agenda of addressing the other person's needs, this will help us to not get stuck in making our own needs primary in the situation.
Both approaches are pointing at how we experience the interconnected nature of existence. They're both addressing ways in which the situation can get out of balance. How we lose the middle way and drift over to the self. In Buddhism, these admonitions, when we truly aspire to them, are called perfections. Any time we aspire to perfection, we see imperfection. When we bring forth the guideline of not having any agendas, we start to see the agendas we have. But this is a much healthier situation and much more supportive than being oblivious to them.
That anecdote I told you, Frank talked to the volunteer, as did Eileen and myself, and to each one of us, for whatever reason, it became apparent that she couldn't hear what was being said. For many reasons we can be oblivious to the situation. Trying to be guided by admonitions can help us see the agendas we are bringing forth, and hopefully this awareness will show us how to have some restraint in terms of our own needs.
So what way can going in to a situation and trying to be mindful of the patient's needs, in what way can that be nourishing to one's own needs, the volunteer's own needs.
The question, "Okay, what's in it for me?" is very different from saying, "How can I help?" You have a different experience of the situation.
We're getting an opportunity to experience life in a different way, and when we embrace that opportunity, we often find ourselves experiencing the benefit and the nourishment of being generous. Of having our hearts be more open. Of having ourselves being more caring. We realize that not only is this not a deficit, but that it is actually a nourishment. There's something in that way of meeting that nourishes us. So we also experience the benefit. A gift. Our act of service becomes a gift and a joy.
So a volunteer goes in with a certain intensity and then finds out what's needed is someone to cook the dinner or someone to empty the waste cans. So to use your example, accepting that situation as an act of generosity, doing those things, can be a nourishing experience.
Yes, and sometimes nourishing is even too glamorous a word. Sometimes it just lets you see, as Raja was saying, we do have an agenda. Most of us want an intense intimate exchange that's deeply meaningful, and then someone says, "could you empty the garbage?" And we feel, "this isn't meaningful, this isn't intense, this isn't what I want." And then we could say, "Oh, I see, I have expectations. I want something from this situation."
So in some ways noticing our agenda can be a strict teacher. And in some ways it shows us that to be of service is to be of service. Generosity is giving. Giving without making it a trade. And that's just how it is.
So in opening the situation we define what giving is.
Yes, exactly. That's a great point. I remember someone complaining to me, "All I do is take people out to smoke cigarettes. And I hate smoking and I don't think its good for them." What could I say? A box of matches is a very useful item for a volunteer to have.
with Peter and Penny
by Lynn Marie Lumiere and John Wins
LM: Peter, you titled one of your books Intrinsic Freedom. What is intrinsic freedom?
Peter: Intrinsic freedom is a translation of a term that comes from the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. The Tibetan term is "rang drûl", which can also be translated as "self-liberation". Intrinsic freedom is a state of being in which we are free and spacious no matter what our external circumstances or internal condition may be. It is a state of being that cannot be enhanced or degraded by the presence or absence of thoughts, emotions, or any sensory stimuli. In other traditions it is called "ordinary mind", "no mind", "primordial wisdom", "emptiness", "source consciousness", and so on. The Tibetan concept also refers to the capacity for reactive emotions and limiting thoughts to naturally release themselves when they are experienced without any attachment or resistance.
Unfortunately, as soon as we distinguish an experience like this, it immediately sounds very attractive. But if our image of this experience is attractive we are missing the mark. Our image doesn't correspond to the reality. Intrinsic freedom isn't something that we can be attracted to, because if we try and find it, it simply doesn't exist. This is why traditions like Zen and Dzogchen say that enlightenment isn't an experience, or even, that enlightenment doesn't exist. The great Indian Dzogchen master Manjushrimitra said, for example, that, "The state of pure and total presence of the Joyful One does not exist. It is a magical apparition of that state that appears to those who are deluded."
Concepts like freedom, liberation, and enlightenment are terribly seductive. The idea of permanent happiness can stimulate tremendous grasping and attachment. It did so in my own life. For many years I wanted nirvana more than anything else. I was fixated on the idea that I could escape all present and future suffering. I deeply wanted to be someone different from who I was, and this just intensified my dissatisfaction with what was happening for me in the here-and-now.
These days when we share our work we tend to talk about an experience of "spaciousness" or "openness" because these concepts don't carry quite as much spiritual baggage as "liberation", "presence", "awareness", or "enlightenment". It's not possible to hang quite as many expectations on these concepts.
LM: What is enlightenment?
Peter: I appreciate this question because it gives me an opportunity to experience my attraction and aversion to the concept of enlightenment. This is the same opportunity that is afforded us when people project that we are, or are not, spiritually realized in some way.
Generally, we are confined to thinking that we are, or are not realized. We think that there is something to get, or nothing to get. We buy into the extremes positions that enlightenment does, or doesn't exist. We also tend to think about enlightenment in very dualistic terms. We think someone has, or hasn't, got it. This is what Chûgyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism".
It would be very convenient if this was the case because if someone was enlightened we wouldn't have to think about the quality of their actions ever again. We would never need to exercise any discrimination. We could trust them totally. When we look for an enlightened teacher, in part we just want to relieve ourselves of the need to ongoingly discern the quality of a teacher's realization. The idea of being able to sit back and bask in a teacher's aura can be very appealing. But, generally it's not as simple as this, because most people, including most spiritual teachers, move in and out of more expanded ways of being.
LM: Is this your experience-moving in and out of more expanded ways of being?
Peter: If I think that I am expanded, that presupposes that there is a state of liberation, and that I'm in it. But as I've just said, this is an extreme notion of liberation because it reifies it as a state that we can have, or be in. On the other hand, if I say no, I'm not in an expanded state, this ignores the fact that right now I don't have any concern about whether I'm liberated or not. And clearly, this is a different state from believing and feeling that "something is wrong or missing".
When people "knowingly" talk about enlightenment, I really don't know what they are talking about. I just figure that they must know more about enlightenment that I do! At this moment, when I look at my own experience there is nothing that tells me if I'm in a state of bondage or liberation. Those concepts don't make any sense because I have no idea what I could be bound by, or liberated from. This certainly isn't a state of bondage, because there is nothing that needs to be changed or liberated. But nor is "this" a state of liberation because nothing has been liberated. Now, if I begin to think that this is a good space to be in, then I do have something to be liberated from-namely, the belief that this is good.
Even though I increasingly live in a space in which there is no preoccupation about getting IT and losing IT, I also periodically think that I have actually achieved something, at which instant I lose whatever it is that I think I had. My eight year old daughter is very good at waking me up in this way, by showing me that "my" experience of unconditioned freedom, is in fact conditioned by very specific circumstances and situations. I can rely on her to do things that I think she shouldn't be doing. Penny also helps me in this way. She lets me see the limits to my experience of spaciousness, by showing up in ways that trigger me to reconstruct the experience that "This isn't how things are meant to be!"
Penny: I think there is also a great flow of experience, so that the moments of coming in and going out, the shifts between clarity and non-clarity don't seem as sharp. We have come to appreciate our flow of experience without getting intense about things being simple rather than complex. Right now it is appearing as an oscillation and yet, it doesn't have to be feeling that it is an oscillation. So there is an ease with things being as they are.
JW: I'm interested to hear you both say that you move in and out of a more expanded way of being, because this sounds a little different from other people's story. Some of those we have spoken to say that something happened, and from then on there has been no sense of a personal self. What you are describing is much more accessible in the sense that the experience you are talking about can be cultivated.
Peter: Perhaps. But again you are beginning to talk about awakening as something that exists and which can be developed. From our perspective the discipline is to observe how we fall into the extremes of assuming that there is something, or nothing to do, from a spiritual point of view. It is true that we can arrive at a space in which nothing more needs to be done because there is no where else to go. You could say, we return to a place in which we see that everything we have ever done to get there was irrelevant and unnecessary because in fact there is nothing to get. Yet, if we hadn't done what we "thought" we needed to do, we would be back in the experience that "something is missing".
We do this, here in the United States and elsewhere, through our dialogues and courses. It takes some skill to open up a space of emptiness but it can be done. The most mysterious thing about it is that in fact we are creating nothing. This really is the challenge in our work because everyone is wanting and expecting "something". We have a tendency to want to reframe the most pristine and natural experience as some esoteric realization. Even when we arrive in a space, where there is nothing to do, we feel we have to do something with it!
LM: More and more people, is seems, are longing for freedom, freedom from suffering. Materialism didn't do it, drugs didn't do it, and psychology hasn't done it. People feel that something is missing and they want to know what to do. What do you have to say to them?
Peter: Over the years I discovered that many of the methods that are offered in Eastern systems of self understanding weren't really doable for many people, including myself. There is a big gap between what one is meant to be doing, and what is actually possible. For me that is a limitation because the gap creates a sense of incompletion. The methods seemed to feed into a belief that fulfillment was dependent on being able to enter a meditative trance at will, perfectly identify with a visualized image, and so on. This is why I have focused more and more on developing a synthesis of the practical wisdom from the East that is doable. When I say "doable", I mean doable in the regular sense of something that we can do. But I also mean doable in that they lead directly into a state in which nothing needs to be done.
It is so easy to focus on fancy concepts such as the union of bliss and emptiness, the clear-light nature of mind, the experience of one-taste, secret empowerments, and mind-to-mind transmissions, and miss the real essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen, and Advaita. Also, we listen to these concepts and think they must be referring to far out, cosmic experiences that only buddhas and bodhisattvas can enjoy. We create and recreate that enlightenment is "totally radical", which in a sense it is, but only because it is so effortless and non-eventful.
Buddhism, for example, can be defined as living in a space that isn't disturbed by the eight mundane aspirations of loss and gain, pain and pleasure, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. Texts from non-dualistic traditions such as Dzogchen and Advaita also continually talk about coming from a space in which we neither validate nor invalidate our own and other people's experience. Living in such a space is the real heart of these traditions. But, very often people read about a state of spiritual equanimity and think, "Oh yeah, that sounds great but you need to have full self-understanding, or have realized emptiness before you can be like that."
Yet, if we just focus on such principles it is easy to bring forth a space in which we are neither appropriating nor rejecting the flow of experience that arises for us. We observe our reactions as they are manifesting in the here-and-now. We become sensitive, at an energetic level, to how we make things right and wrong, through agreeing and disagreeing with what others say and do. We become aware of the obvious and subtle ways in which we try to attract attention towards ourselves, or divert attention away from who we are, and what we are doing. By gently directing our attention to how these reactions manifest in our bodies and thoughts we enter a free-flowing space which is free of reactive emotions.
Penny: We also notice our tendency to adopt a very active and "hands on" approach to this type of practice because it can feed right into our need to be doing something. If this is happening we allow a gentle correction to occur without falling into the opposite extreme of thinking there is nothing we need to be doing. In this way we enter a space that isn't biased in favor or doing or not doing.
LM: Often times people hear or read that "There is nothing to do, things are perfect as they are." But this can bring about an experience of hopelessness and despair, because people know they are suffering and "doing nothing" sounds irrelevant or counterproductive. There is a space in which there is nothing we need to do, that is alive, vibrant, conscious, and completely full, but to introduce this as a possibility when people simply can't hear it is stupid and even cruel.
Penny: It is certainly helpful if there is congruence between what we suggest as a possibility and someone's capacity to implement it. There is no point in suggesting that someone should do something that they can't do, since this can make them feel more inadequate.
LM: I agree. So can you work be learned?
Penny: Well, yes and no. It seems that we can become more familiar with an experience of our original, preconditioned mind. Generally, we can't just fall into that experience at will because fear and other emotions often arise in the face of uncertainty. You could say, we learn how to unlearn, or acquire skill in entering that state of not knowing, by realizing that there is nothing to know, and nothing not to know.
LM: Yes, your work does do that. It supports the experience of not-knowing, whereas nearly everything else supports our need to know.
Penny: A rich set of distinctions and sensitivities sit in the background of our work, even when we are in a shared space in which there is nothing to do, or understand. These distinctions are present as a transparent set of possibilities that guide our interactions with people in a way that continues to keep the space open. At the same time we experience that we aren't doing anything special at all.
JW: Yes. And in my experience so far, your work is unique. I don't know of anyone who is doing anything quite like this. Nothing as sophisticated anyway.
LM: Any fixed construction of reality will limit your capacity to be in that space of an infinitely textured openness. For example, believing that you have "something" to teach will distort that space.
Peter: In a sense nothing can distort the space, because the space doesn't exist. The space is the container for whatever thoughts, feelings and perceptions are arising within it. But yes, if we believe that we have something, or nothing to offer, we introduce an agenda into the space in the sense that we push it in the direction of being purposeful, or purposeless. Consequently, we check any tendency to get wired up, or even enthusiastic, thinking that we need to communicate something to someone. But nor do we sit around like stuffed zombies, thinking that we have nothing to say, or do. As you know, our work can shift quite quickly from being very animated to very serene.
JW: Something I've noticed in working with you is that when I see that I am holding what I'm thinking to be true, a space opens up in which everything that is occurring-my body, my voice, other people's bodies and voices, and the space between us-is composed of the same emptiness. Can you say something about that. Should I deconstruct that?
Peter: Deconstruct what? You now are doing what you have just described. You are holding your interpretation about things occurring as an expression of the same fundamental emptiness, as being true, or at least meaningful. Your interpretation comes out of a residual energy to know that is happening. Some level of intellectual inquiry is still entering this space. And as you know, this can settle into an experience in which there is nothing that needs to be understood, because there is nothing to understand. Skill is needed in being able to recognize that state, to point it out, without stimulating any need to interpret it.
JW: It is easy to overlook it.
LM: In working with you some fear arises from time to time. My mind doesn't know what is happening. I drop into an experience in which nothing is happening, and I get scared. I'd like to know what's happening. I feel like all my ground has disappeared, and I'd like you to tell me that this is okay.
Peter: The first thing to notice is that your query is hypothetical, because you aren't actually feeling fearful at the moment. You anticipate that you might, or will, become anxious again in the future, and you would like to feel more comfortable in being with an experience that may never happen. Also, in our culture we want to make everything meaningful. If we are feeling uncomfortable we want to know why.
Fear is a natural consequence of moving into unknown territory. Compared to the experiences you are familiar with through the Advaita approach, our form of inquiry leaves you in a less structured space. Like everything, fear can play a positive and negative role in our spiritual development. Often people only recognize the limiting role of fear. They view it as an obstacle to awakening that must be overcome at all costs. Some texts actually talk about fear as our worst enemy. But fear can be an appropriate reaction to threats to our integrity.
Walking the spiritual path isn't without it's dangers, and fear can signal if we're overstepping the mark. Throughout history, many seekers have jeopardized their spiritual growth by pushing themselves too fast and too far. It is easy to lose our bearings and place ourselves at some physical and mental risk. I have definitely done this.
Some people specifically try to increase their exposure to threatening situations, believing that this is the fastest way to expose their ego, and achieve egolessness. These days some people become fanatical about busting their patterns or living outside the comfort zone, and end up flat on their faces. They over-estimate their capacity to live with no concern for preserving their ego, and end up freaked out and demoralized.
Penny: Rather than view fear as an obstacle, fear can sometimes act as a mechanism that allows people to take care of themselves at a physical and emotional level. If people become anxious around us, we respect their fear because it might indicate that they aren't ready for our approach. If they aren't ready for our work, their fear takes care of them by directing them away from us, and towards something that's more suited to their temperament and experience.
Peter: Also, we appreciate that it is very difficult to inquire into the formless structure of our experience if we're fearful or agitated. When fear is too intense we just want to be somewhere else. So the challenge with our work is to do something to reduce the intensity of our emotions, before we are consumed by them, but also without giving into our need to feel comfortable. We suggest that people neither play it safe, nor put themselves at excessive risk.
On the negative side, fear can be a major handicap to spiritual development, because the message we often read into our fear is that we would have to be crazy to continue in the direction we are headed. Because the spiritual path challenges our need to change, or stay the same, it can trigger a whole range of feelings and emotions-fear, loneliness, anger, excitement, and so on. Obviously, if our main concern is to minimize unpleasant feelings we will actively avoid situations that challenge our beliefs about who we are.
Penny: When we are frightened our mind throws up all sorts of wild and unrealistic projections, that push us in the direction of maintaining the status quo. For example, people often think that if their limiting beliefs dissolve they will become handicapped in some way. We've seen people fear that if they become fulfilled in the moment that they might lose all motivation for action and never get out of the seat they are in!
Peter: Of course, the reality is that as our attention becomes less fixated it increases our capacity for effective action. The deconstruction of our fixed frameworks of interpretation allows for the emergence of more finely textured distinctions. The more space we create the more we can see and appreciate at an energetic, emotional and intellectual level. We develop a richer repertoire of responses. In a quite effortless way we become much more attuned to the impact of our speech, the tonality of our voice, the particular words and concepts that we use, and the way we use our body, so that our relationships can be much more rewarding.
JW: So if we begin to contract from a more spacious way of being out of fear that we are losing our grounding, what should we do?
Penny: The idea of having a fool-proof technique to free up our experience can be very attractive. It feeds into our fantasy about being able to control our lives. But, I'm sure you have also noticed that most of the time we can't implement the different methods we have acquired over the years, when we would like to. Our capacity to self-liberate unpleasant feelings is limited by their intensity. When the crunch comes our methods often won't work their magic. Also, if we have a new tool kit we need something to use it on. If we are attracted to the idea of "deconstructing our fixations" or "naturally releasing our reactive emotions" then we need some fixations in order to use our new transformational technology. If necessary we just declare something is a problem in order to keep ourselves busy.
JW: What I'm doing at the moment is observing how I become fixated in an extreme. I also notice how I could slide to an opposite extreme. I then somehow let the fixation dissolve by itself.
Penny: Uh huh. I am wondering if you have become a little fixated about the idea of fixations, at this point. Taking the idea of fixations seriously is a fixation, in just the same way that ignoring them, shows a bias or fixation. Taking our limitations seriously gives us something to do. It keeps us busy and off the streets! It also keeps the feeling of boredom at bay. The challenge is to neither give our fixations any energy, nor ignore them.
LM: I'd like to return to the experience of "non-self". Many of the people we have been interviewing talk about an experience in which there is the absence of a personal "I" or self, which results in the loss of a doer. How does this relate to your perspective?
Peter: In the space we are talking about the presence or absence of an I doesn't seem to be a problem. I know this is a little surprising given my past involvement in Buddhism. I mean, I have had ample time to acquire a belief in my own non-existence! From my point of view, I am here because if someone asks where I am, this is where I am. I'm not in the next room, or back in Australia right now. But if I try and find where I am, I'm not here, because they is no here or there. So, I'm here and I'm not here.
In fact, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the idea of "non-self" in Buddhism. Many people think that "non-self" refers to an experience in which there is no personal self, but to the extent that people defend this interpretation, it is only a belief. In the teachings of the Buddhist Middle Way, or Madhyamaka school, self and non-self are both extreme positions. These two positions are philosophical expressions of our need to maintain or avoid our existence. In the Middle Way tradition we can't say if there is, or isn't a self.
LM: So what is this loss of a personal self that people who have awakened talk about?
Peter: The experience of "no self" occurs when we look inside (or outside) ourselves and cannot find anything that corresponds to the "I" or self. Also, when people have an earth-shattering insight in which all their familiar frames of reference breakdown, they look for a way of describing this experience. In order to distinguish it from our ordinary experience they can end up saying that there is no self. But it is premature to conclude that there is no self. This is what some Hindu philosophies do. They conclude that the personal or individual self is an illusion and therefore that we are a transpersonal beingness-what they call the atman.
Many Westerners who become involved in non-dualistic Indian traditions end up cultivating a belief that they do not exist. This way of thinking can produce a quite liberating experience, because it disconnects us from the pain and confusion that can be associated with our bodies and minds. When people are dissociated from their mind and body in this way, you feel as though the person talking to you is about two feet behind their actual body.
Penny: It's easy to cultivate this experience by spending time with teachers who offer this particular interpretation.
Peter: Buddhist Middle Way practitioners such as Nagarjuna went one step further than their many of their Buddhist and Hindu counterparts. They said, okay when we try and find the personal self it doesn't exist. We are not our thoughts and feelings. But what about the experience of non-self. Does that exist? Is there really an experience of not having any personal reference point? When we try and discover "what" the transpersonal experience actually is, we discover nothing. It doesn't exist. The experience of being "no one" is just as elusive as the experience of being "someone".
In our own work people often feel they are resting in some form of transcendental insight, such as the experience of "no personal self", or the "I am That" experience of being the universe. When this happens we invite them to look further into the nature of what they are actually experiencing in a way that destructures even their very rarified interpretations. This lets them move into a experience that is even more open and spacious.
LM: But what if people say "no self" is their actual experience; not something that they believe?
Peter: I think it is useful to distinguish between what someone experiences and their capacity to communicate it in language. Some people have very profound experiences, but an impoverished language for sharing them. Other people may have had less dramatic experiences, but have great skill in communicating them. It is also very easy for people to learn to talk the talk. In our own work we are sensitive to whether people are trying to talk themselves into an experience by mouthing esoteric words or phrases they have heard on the spiritual path, or whether they are saying what is so for them in the moment. It can be quite beautiful to hear someone who is completely uneducated in non-dualistic literature, surprise themselves by saying that "nothing seems to have changed, but things are completely different".
LM: Their speech is coming from a fresh place.
Peter: Exactly. And because they have never read what they are telling you, you know that is where they are.
JW: What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Peter: For us personally? Probably the fact that there is no pre-existing model for what we are doing. While our work is continuous with the timeless wisdom embodied in Advaita, Zen, Dzogchen, Mahamudra, the Middle Way or Madhyamaka, and the Perfect Wisdom tradition of Buddhism, we don't defer to any particular lineage or teacher. This is challenging because the only resource we can rely on is the quality of our own awareness in the moment. It is also challenging because we continue to push the envelope in terms of doing more, with less. I suspect that what we are doing is a forerunner to a new style of spiritual work that will become quite significant in coming decades.
Penny: For those who work with us, I'd say that the most challenging aspect of our approach is that we don't feed people's need to know, and be doing something concrete or tangible. The way we neither validate nor invalidate people's breakdowns and breakthroughs also requires some adjustment.
Peter: It is evident to us that the two of you have a good appreciation of our work, just from what you have been saying. We have said a lot, but I'd be more interested to hear what you have to say.
LM: For me it has been enormously helpful to sit in a space that neither validates nor invalidates my constructions of who I am, what I think is missing, and what I need to get. What has been a tremendous eye-opener is seeing the spiritual constructs I was holding. As you would present the opposite position, I found myself adamantly defending my position. In that, I saw that what I has held as "Truth" had been made into a concept. Once that was seen clearly, it was finished. Even though this occured many months ago now, certain spiritual concepts have not been able to take hold since.
The space you create is like a mirror held up in front of me so that I can see these constructions as they appear, simply for what they are. In that mirroring they seem to deconstruct. It brings things back home, to just being here now, being present, as is. There is nothing to do, just being-as is. It is such a pure simplicity that even this feels like saying too much.
JW: The only thing I'd like to add to what Lynn Marie shared about your work is that beyond creating or disclosing a space in which whatever a person brings to it becomes revealed as a bias or a construct, there is also a lot of skill that you apply in terms of first bringing that construct into the foreground of someone's awareness, and then short circuiting the tendency to slide to the other polarity and thereby leaving them somewhat confounded with nothing to cling to. This ultimately reveals the presence of a something/ nothing, that Lynn Marie just spoke so well. Also, what is most remarkable in my opinion, is that this self-correcting mechanism continues on. It is a natural process that is going on all the time, actually. And once this is revealed in your work it continues on its own.
LM: ... naturally and effortlessly.
Extracted from a forthcoming book by John Wins and Lynn Marie Lumiere titled The Awakening West, copyright Clear Visions Publications, 1997. This book includes interviews with various non-dualistic teachers such as Francis Lucille, Gangaji, Christopher Titmuss, Isaac Shapiro and Lama Surya Das.
Archarya Samuel Bercholz
by Kathleen Gregory
Acharya Samuel Bercholz was recently in Melbourne as a visitor at E-Vam Institute, teaching at the annual Buddhist Summer School, E-Vam Institute and Maitripa Contemplative Centre. Sam is a long-time student of Buddhism, receiving teachings and empowerments from many of the great Tibetan teachers of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. He was a close student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and since Trungpa Rinpoche's passing, has been a student of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. He established Shambhala Publications, which has become the leading publisher of Buddhist books in the western world. He is co-editor of the book, Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and his Teachings. This was Sam's first teaching tour to Australia.
Ordinary Mind: Could you please start with saying something about your early years, where were you born?
Samuel Bercholz: I was born in the southern tip of Sweden, in Malmo, after World War II as a displaced person. My parents were refugees from the concentration camps of Poland and were reunited in Sweden, shortly after which, I was born. At the age of seven, my family moved to California and I grew up in San Francisco. That is my life story!
OM: How did you first come in contact with the Dharma?
SB: As a young man I was extremely interested in Democratic Party politics and was very politically active. I was a precocious teenager: at thirteen I become part of the American political world by actively working in the campaign for the election of Kennedy for President. By circumstance, I served as an assistant to Ted Kennedy and his secretary, who were running the western states campaign from San Francisco. Amongst my jobs was to organise gatherings of students to appear at political speeches by John Kennedy. I was also allowed to attend meetings with the Kennedys, various senators and congressmen - my main job being to get their favourite brand of cigars from the local tobacconist. After graduating high school, I went to attend university in Washington, D.C. I was extremely idealistic, but while I was there, my idealism was smashed by the reality of what politics really was. It was 1965 - the Vietnam War era - and I could see that my idealistic heroes were involved in backroom antics that were both deceptive and damaging.
I was an avid, young reader and my political reading changed to spirituality, including all the different world religions, the occult and so on. Buddhism looked most promising and this soon became my interest. I was able to find a Buddhist temple in San Francisco - I had moved back there by then. In Chinatown there was an old Ch'an temple that had been established in the 1850s and there was a Ch'an master, Abbot To Lun, and an American teacher, Joe Miller, and they were teaching on the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. I found a home - I was very interested in that sutra and I learned how to meditate. Studying that sutra in that context was wonderful.
OM: Can you say something about that sense of 'finding a home?'
SB: Mahayana Buddhism just made a lot of sense to me, and meditation also made sense. I was an extremely disillusioned and confused young man. Dharma provided an antidote to my confusion. I also was just interested in a lot of things; and Dharma made sense.
OM: You actually became ordained as a Buddhist priest. How did that come about?
SB: By circumstance, a Korean Zen master named Kyung Bo Seo-sunim came and visited the Ch'an Temple and, in a flurry, declared my friend and myself as having been disciples of the Sixth Patriarch in a 'previous lifetime' - who knows if any of that is true. But he immediately made us Zen priests in the Korean Chogye Order. He took our measurements, sent off to Korea for robes, gave us certificates and the right to teach Dharma, perform weddings, et cetera. It was a little bit of a joke - we were barely twenty years old!
OM: Where did you go from there?
SB: At that time I was going to university in San Francisco. I was a book maniac. I spent all my money buying books and reading. I became very interested in wanting to spread information about Buddhism and other contemplative traditions, so I started a bookstore called Shambhala Booksellers, in Berkeley, California, right next to the University of California. This is when I was still twenty. I had no money, of course, and there was a large bookstore in Berkeley and the fellow who owned it allowed me to open an offshoot in the back annex of the bookstore. Later on in early 1969, I became interested in publishing books on Buddhism because there weren't enough good ones. By circumstance, a manuscript came my way when I was visiting in London called Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa. I thought it was absolutely the most wonderful Buddhist text I had read. The publishing house was started by publishing that book with a very small edition of 1,000 copies for America. At first, they were mainly for sale in our own bookstore.
Trungpa Rinpoche told me a couple of years later that he was extremely surprised when he received a copy of the American edition of his book (he was still living in Scotland at the time) because it said 'Trungpa Rinpoche - Meditation in Action - Shambhala' and he happened to be the holder of the Shambhala lineage. He said to me that when he saw 'Shambhala' on the spine of the book he had to put the book down because he thought he might be hallucinating! We had this interesting auspicious coincidence that brought us together.
OM: How did you meet Trungpa Rinpoche?
SB: I received a 'phone call from one of his students saying that Trungpa Rinpoche had arrived in America, and asking if I would sponsor a talk in San Francisco. Of course, I said 'yes.' He came to San Francisco, I met him at the airport and we immediately became good friends. Gradually, over the next couple of years, I became Trungpa Rinpoche's student and a practitioner in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.
OM: Can you speak about those years with Trungpa Rinpoche?
SB: Trungpa Rinpoche was a rather unbelievable person. For me, it was too good to be true that there was someone from this tradition who was so well-versed in the ways of the western world. Meeting him that first time at the airport, I was expecting someone in flowing robes with Pidgin English. However, I met someone in a tie and coat who spoke the Queen's English. My preconception of what this Tibetan lama would be like was totally blown away. There was a kindness and softness to him that was incredible. He was of an extremely artistic temperament, soft-spoken and a lot of fun. In the early days I was just his friend, I didn't have a relationship with him as a teacher. Later, when I saw how he taught, the power of his message, I began to see him not as an ordinary person, but as someone who embodied the qualities of the Buddha.
Actually, I remember the exact time when my mind changed. He had been giving a poetry reading with these famous poets at the University of Colorado. It is a very famous poetry reading because the so-called 'Naropa Poetry Wars' began at that reading. He was reading with Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Nanao Sakai.
That evening, Trungpa Rinpoche was totally outrageous. While the other poets were seriously reading their poetry, he was making faces and, at one point, he put the meditation gong on top of his head and was pretending to bang it. He was apparently making a statement about the smugness of the poets and their presentations Afterwards, Rinpoche invited the poets and a couple of his friends, including myself, to his apartment. All the poets were extremely mad at him for causing so much laughter in the auditorium, and told him he was just like Jack Kerouac - a brilliant poet, but a drunk. Contrary to them, I saw this person as a spiritually realised being. I think I cried during the whole evening. What happened to me was that I fully became his student at that point, because my experience of him was completely different. I think Allen Ginsberg had a similar experience later; I don't know what happened with the other poets.
OM: Can you say a little more about that shift from friend to student?
SB: It is extremely subjective. In the books, it is said that it is 'entering the mandala of the guru.' I could see that this was the teacher, and for me, the ultimate teacher. Suddenly, I was in that sphere and it was unmistakable. There was no question in my mind - this person was my teacher, my Vajra Master. This was the equivalent of meeting the Buddha in person.
OM: How did Shambhala Publications develop?
SB: By a set of consequences some of Shambhala's books, including those by Trungpa Rinpoche, started becoming popular. The turning point was in 1973, when we published a little cookbook that came from Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre, Shunryu Suzuki's Zen monastery in California (the first Zen monastery in America). The head-cook Ed Brown had written a book called The Tassajara Breadbook. Ed had a unique way of talking about Zen through this cookbook and it became a runaway best-seller, selling something like one million copies - and putting Shambhala Publications on the map. Then Trungpa Rinpoche's books started doing extremely well, particularly Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The company, which had started on a shoestring - literally three people investing US$500 each - began growing. By a set of good circumstances, almost every major publisher in New York became interested in distributing Shambhala Publications. We entered into a good arrangement with Random House, who is now the largest publisher in the world, and they have distributed us for over thirty years. So, this tiny thing became a major force in publishing. We have published well over a thousand titles and nowadays we sell over a million books a year, and it is still growing. A lot of it was simply hard work and another part of it was just being in the right place at the right time.
OM: Can you talk about combining business and Dharma?
SB: This was one of Trungpa Rinpoche's teachings - how to live in the world and live in a Dharmic way. Always with Shambhala Publications we tried to apply principles of Dharma to the way we dealt with people - whether they were employees, suppliers or authors. We worked hard and we tried to do things in a Dharmic way - it's just basic - don't cheat anyone, respect others' situations and so on. It is no big mystery, but it does work. We had times when we were totally, financially strapped, but our intention was always to be fair to everyone and I believe we always are. Shambhala has grown to be a very solid company after thirty-four years.
OM: Can you comment on the development of Trungpa Rinpoche's enormous legacy in America, for example Naropa University?
SB: Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in America in 1970 and passed away in Nova Scotia in 1987, so there was this seventeen-year whirlwind of Dharmic activity and establishment. In addition to teaching Dharma to thousands of students throughout North America and Europe, he established Naropa University in Colorado, which is now a fully accredited university. He established various art programs for his students - there is a photography society, a tea society, an ikebana society, an archery society, et cetera. He established Shambhala Training to present meditation in a secular manner. He also developed a Dharma language, a way of using English so that Dharma could be presented, and which spoke to people and was translatable into other European languages.
He taught unceasingly and worked with so many different students to establish a basis for Dharma, especially Vajrayana, in the western world. It is hard to imagine that all of that could be done in seventeen years. I've heard that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said that if Trungpa Rinpoche hadn't done what he did in the west, it would have taken at least a hundred years longer for the Dharma to be established as firmly as it is now.
OM: Can I ask you something about when Trungpa Rinpoche passed away?
SB: In those seventeen years we were very close. When I lived in California, whenever he came to Northern California he almost always stayed at my house. And when I visited in Colorado, I stayed at this house. In 1976, I accepted his invitation to move to Boulder, Colorado, to become more closely associated with him and his activities. With most of his closer students, there was an intimacy in spending endless hours and days with him. In fact, we thought it would go on forever - it had that sort of flow. By circumstance, I was extremely fortunate in being involved in administrative things and helping establish his various centres and so on. I just was one lucky guy. His passing was a shock, even though he had described many years before how he would do things in the end. He said he would appoint a successor and then just watch for a few years without interfering, and leave us to sort things out for ourselves.
OM: Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is now your teacher. Could you say how that came about?
SB: Trungpa Rinpoche gave a complete outline of the Buddhist path. Actually, he was kind enough to teach everything. However, he left certain things for his students to find out for themselves regarding the tantric teachings. After he had passed away, I went with a friend to the airport because his teacher Dodrup Chen Rinpoche was coming to Boston and my friend wanted me to meet him. I went to the airport and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche was also there. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche started shouting at me at the top of his lungs; complaining about me (I had never meet him before), and about Vajradhatu and Dharmadhatu.
Somehow, years before, Trungpa Rinpoche had given me instructions on how to respond if a Tibetan lama ever accosted me. I remember thinking at the time that this was a very strange instruction, but somehow in this moment I remembered what the instructions were. I did what Trungpa Rinpoche had told me to do and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche started laughing. The whole intensity of the situation changed; he became extremely friendly and I was invited to have a conversation with him in another part of the airport.
It certainly made an impression on me. I mentioned this to one of my Dharma friends and then I went on retreat for three months. While on retreat, my Dharma friend sent me this note saying that he couldn't get what had happened at the airport out of his mind. He said, 'This man is making you an offer and you should take him up on it.' At the end of the retreat I went to visit my friend in Cambridge, England - he was studying with Ato Rinpoche at the time - and I asked Ato Rinpoche to give me instruction in Mipham Rinpoche's Guru Yoga of Padmasambhava, which he was kind enough to do. Somehow, after doing that, I realised that my friend was right; I should go and find out more about this lama who had accosted me.
I did, and by good fortune, this man has been my second teacher and I have been with him for about eleven years. Trungpa Rinpoche is my root teacher and my mentor for the early period of my life; Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is my second root teacher and has given me instruction for the rest of my life. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is an extremely profound teacher. In terms of practice, his main instruction to me is to put into practice what Trungpa Rinpoche taught me. He has also been wonderful in filling in what I thought were loose ends.
OM: How many years were there before you became a student of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and what were those years like?
SB: There were about three or four years. It was a confusing era because all kinds of things were happening in Trungpa Rinpoche's community. There were issues about his successor and all kind of political issues - that if one allowed them to, took away from one's practice. Fortunately, at one point I decided to get out of the politics and to just try and put the teachings into effect. I have to be frank; I became ill and depressed by some of the politics that happened. It was a breath of fresh air to be pointed back to practice with pure Dharma as the main focal point.
OM: What plans might you have for the future?
SB: The only worthwhile plans I have are trying to put the teachings of my teachers into practice. I have simplified my life; I only work occasionally at Shambhala Publications. I am mainly trying to put the teachings further into practice and learning how to practise properly. My future plans are to do more of that, this includes doing more teaching, also. I am still very actively involved in teaching in Trungpa Rinpoche's centres and in other venues. I feel a certain responsibility to teach, because Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged that so much.
with (the late) Owen Mickelfield
By Ed Bircumshaw
Do you have any early
memories of a spiritual dimension to your life? It would be true to say that throughout
my life I was interested in the unexplained, metaphysics. But try though I may,
I could never get my head round the God issue. It just didn't add up to me; that
this one being could create everything, be responsible for everything and yet
allow such dreadful things to happen. There was a paradox there as far as I was
concerned. I think I always felt there had to be something else other than flesh
and blood. I was always convinced there was more to human beings than the physical
form or even cognitive thought. I searched I suppose, most of my life for answers.
And it wasn't until I was forty-eight that I felt, I'd found what I'd been looking
for - that being the three jewels. When I was an apprentice joiner I worked for
the,(as many at that time did), the local builder who was invariably also the
local undertaker; so I did my share of what we used to call "body-snatching".
We used to have to go and pick people up in the black van who had died. So at
sixteen and seventeen I saw dead bodies. I think that struck me quite profoundly
because I realized that when I looked at these things, whilst I was looking at
what had been a human being, there was something missing, something gone.
How did you first contact the dharma? Quite by accident. Contrary to my educational short-comings, in later life I really switched on to reading, and Cath, my wife, was a reader and we were members of a book club. Between my first major operation and my second, a period of about sixteen months I ordered a book - "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" by Sogyal Rimpoche, and it stayed in the cellophane packet for at least nine months; I never touched it. I had a back-log of reading to do and it was always "I'll not bother with that one just yet." And then I realized one morning, instinctively, my problem had come back. I remember getting up and saying to Cath, "It's back, I know it's back"; and we subsequently found it had. So within quick fire time I was in hospital again for my second major operation. This was a bigger one than the first. I had a stay in hospital for ten or so days and I took some books in. I started to read the "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying", and it just completely blew my mind. You know, I'm turning pages over thinking - I didn't think anybody felt this way but I've felt this way all my life. Every part of my life was on those pages in black and white, I could not believe it. And that was it. I was hooked. I read that book and then another and another. I wasn't well. I had to go for a consultation which potentially was going to be pretty bad news. That particular night before the appointment with the consultant, I just couldn't sleep. I was in really, really bad mental states. I remember looking at the clock and it being three in the morning and thinking - crikey, am I going to get through tonight, am I going to get through tomorrow? And I didn't know at that stage whether or not you prayed as a Buddhist, whether you asked the Buddha's of the past or the future for help, I didn't know any of this. But I remember saying, "If there are Buddha's out there, if there is a Boddhisatva that can hear me, that can help, I need it now." And the next thing I remember was waking up in the morning. And I thought, that'll do for me; that's good enough. I had also said that if you help me tonight, I promise I'll find somewhere to practice. I kept my side of the bargain because I looked, and I chased, and I rang; I rang London, Norwich, all too far away for me. Then I was in a book shop in Leeds and I found the FWBO leaflet for Leeds and I contacted you.
What changes has contact with the Dharma made to your life? Everything. I don't think there is one part of my life or being that hasn't changed profoundly. I was a very, very materialistic person; ran a business; wanted a bigger car; wanted a better salary; wanted a better holiday; feed the ego; wanted people to look up to me; all that changed, practically over night, it just left me, and it freed me. I didn't put that sort of pressure on myself. So I became happier. And that happiness has stayed with me, throughout probably the most difficult period of my life as well. And that is down to the dharma and to the three jewels.
How important is Faith to your practice?It's the corner-stone because without Faith you have nothing. Without belief you have nothing. The first part of the Noble Eight-Fold path, (it's obvious why it's the first part) because without faith, without belief, nothing else can follow.
So do you equate Faith with Vision?Oh yes, very much so. To see the truth is Faith to me, and to be convinced by the truth, consumed by the truth, is Faith, is Vision, it's one in the same.
Can you say anything about what you have Faith in?I have Faith in the Dharma because it makes sense to me. Whilst it's a spiritual thing, very much heart felt, as far as I'm concerned it's also a practical thing. So it's a combination of having spiritual faith and a pragmatic point of view about what the Dharma tells you. So that combination to me is everything.
How important are meditation and reflection?Meditation has always been difficult for me. It is something that I have worked at for about four years. Initially the first two years it was maybe once, twice a week, then three times a week. And then I got into a regular daily practice. I wish I could say I looked forward to getting onto the cushions and really having a good sit but I never looked forward to it. I did it because I thought it came with the territory. Reflection on the other hand is something that I value and enjoy and feel helps me develop as a person, as a being. But I see the two as being two sides of the same coin, in that reflection for me is very creative and helps me to develop and move forward, but I also accept that without a daily meditation practice I lack the discipline, and I think that's important. You have to have both sides of the coin working at the same time.
What place do old friends, family and sangha hold in your life?I think there is some balance necessary. For me that is the family, particularly Cath. Cath is not a Buddhist and does not necessarily agree with some of the philosophy; she sees it as being selfish. And I know a lot of people view it that way. So that has been a difficult one. And purely because of my lack of strength I have had to accept that if it came down to a choice between the Dharma and Cath, then the Dharma would lose, and I'd have to try again in another life. Old friends are different because on finding the three jewels I started to change immediately and I found I no longer had anything in common with ninety percent of my old friends. Consequently they fell away.
Was that a painful experience?It was a difficult one because some of the things I'd done in the past, I didn't want to do. I didn't want to go and get drunk, I didn't want a drink. I tried desperately to keep my precepts. It was only difficult because of the effect it was having on Cath, it was easy for me. But it did narrow our world. But that's past now.
What has been your experience of Sangha? The Sangha has been a source of utter joy. I've never had friends like I've had in the Sangha. I've had what I now realize were acquaintances, business friends but never friends like I've had in the Sangha. And the support that I've received particularly from the Going for Refuge Group, I never thought I would find in this life time. And without it I don't know where I'd be. So very, very important to me.
How long have you been ill?This has gone on for me now for quite a long time - five and a half years since I was first diagnosed. My local GP gave me a year. I didn't know that until just recently. They said to me, "Are the people at Cookridge Hospital surprised that you are still around?" and I said, "I don't know", because they are very clever; they never slip up or make mistakes, like making rash statements about whether you should be here or not.
Pain? Of course there are different kinds of pain; there is the physical pain and there is the mental pain. The physical pain is like a cloud with a silver lining because whilst you are enduring it it is of course dreadful but the joy when it leaves you is just wonderful. It must be like being on drugs, although I've never taken them, because it's just , wow, it's going, it's going. So you can always find something that is positive, that's worthwhile; that is my experience.
What about the medical professions attitude towards illness and death? It's first class. I get the impression that my consultant and his team and everybody whose been associated with my treatment won't give up until I close my eyes for ever, until the last breath. I'm confident they won't give up. There was a time when I'd say that if I had a choice between not having the Cancer and not finding the Dharma, I'd stick with the Dharma, and to hell with everything else.
Some people with serious illness sometimes say that it has made them appreciate life more fully. Do you think that is true of you? In a way it makes you appreciate life. But it's not really clear to me, it's not a clear vision that I have - ie. before getting ill everything was bland and afterwards I can see all the greenery and hear the birds and all the rest of it - it's not like that. But it focuses the mind. It concentrates the mind on what's important, what really is important, and the rest of it you can throw away. So from that point of view, yes it makes you appreciate life.
What did you learn from all your years as a business man? I learnt that you cannot achieve happiness externally. And no matter what, you would experience dukkha (suffering). It was there all the time and to a certain extent the more money you got the stronger the dukkha.
What pursuits/hobbies do you have that you enjoy? Before my limitations came in, (which are getting more pronounced as the weeks go by) Cath and I enjoyed walking, the Dales, that sort of thing. I personally have always enjoyed motor sports and motor cars. But it's changed throughout my life as time's gone on. There was a time when I enjoyed boxing. But that changed. And you do change. It's not just the Dharma that changes you, you change for all kinds of reasons as you get older. I compensate my physical limitations with the fact that I love to read. It's a passion I get a great deal out of, which I'm glad about because I would hope that no matter how physically restricted I become, that will be the last thing I will have to give up. I have a good friend called Nev Daley, a very successful business man. He was an accountant. He's retired now and seventy. He comes up to see me, and I remember a few years ago saying to him, "What stage of your life did you enjoy best Nev?" And he said, "Every one, every part, because each one, like the seasons of the year, brings in different delights. All you've got to do is learn how to appreciate them. I feel a bit like that.
To Buddhism For African & African/Americans
By Anthony "Amp" Elmore Sr.
The Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist religion is a universal religion for all people. This writing is not official, sanctioned, authorized, encouraged or even suggested by the Nichiren Shoshu religious order. This writing is from the heart and mind of one single African/American who has practiced Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for 25 years and I do not claim to be an expert or authority on Buddhist teachings. This writing is only my personal insight into the character and nature of Buddhism as I have learned for the past 25 years. I claim not to be an expert on Buddhism, but I am an expert at being an African/American Buddhist and I feel I can share some insight of Buddhism to other African and African/American Buddhist. In one Nichiren Shoshu publication I saw a Korean page, a Chinese page and somewhere I saw a Spanish page. At this time in Nichiren Shoshu there is no African or African/American Nichiren Shoshu publications or writings. One African/American female Nichiren Shoshu member practicing in Washington D.C. indicated to me that she could not give an experience on this African/American Web Site because her Nichiren Shoshu practice has taken her beyond cultural, racial and political boundaries. Although I am a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist I do have my cultural preferences that I take pride in. I heard a concern that this African and African/American Web Site could possibly cause some racial division and some African/Americans are scared to express their cultural preferences. I make this point clear I am a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist and a proud Black Buddhist. At Tozan (pilgrimage) at our head Temple in Japan , many racial and cultural divisions worship to the same object of worship the Dai-Gohonzon. This writer of "Introduction To Buddhism To Africans & African/Americans" cannot understand how anyone can suggest that a writing of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism by an African/American to other Africans could be a problem. The suggestion of teachings Ebonics to African/American students in the American school system caused a lot of concerns and controversy. On this Web Site Ebonics is encouraged. For the Japanese or white people who may read this article, Ebonics means speaking Black African/American English. Ebonics is not just words but also the Black attitude. This article "Introduction To Buddhism To Africans & African/Americans" is not about Ebonics but simply and attempt to introduce my sister & brothers or my homees to Buddhism. Homey is a Black term that the brothers & sisters understand, but if you do not understand about the brothers & the sisters you would not know about homey or what it means to give some skin or five this is all Ebonics. This page is not racial but cultural. Right On Home!!!!
Introduction To Buddhism Black Style
If you find yourself reading this article, based on the Buddhist teaching it is no accident. The Buddhist religion is a religion based of the universal law of cause & effect. Another explanation for the law of cause and effect is the term Karma. Karma is the sum or total of causes and effects. Buddhism teaches that we all enter this world carrying causes & effects from past generations. The difficult thing about Buddhism is that it contradicts western thought or the way we were brought up. For the most of us we were taught that God created us and if we follow his teachings one day we will be blessed and go to heaven when we die. For most African/Americans it has not come out that way, but this is our most common belief system.
For the Average African & African/American Buddhism Is Revolutionary
Most African/Americans were brought up in a Judeo- Christian society in more common terms many African/Americans have herd the quote "Baptist born, Baptist bred I will be a Baptist until I am dead". The thought of an African/American practicing Buddhism in America is very uncommon and very little has been written about the subject and very few African/Americans have been exposed to Buddhism. Buddhism is revolutionary because it runs counter to the thinking in America and in the African/American community Buddhism is even more revolutionary. In 1974 when I began practicing Buddhism although I belonged to no religious affiliation or church when I began chanting the Buddhist phase Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo and chanting to the Gohonzon I was looking over both shoulders hoping that a bolt of lighting would not strike me for chanting. Many African/Americans or Americans for that matter do not have a basic common sense knowledge about Buddhism. To further complicate the matter when I refer to Buddhism I am talking about Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. When one thinks of Buddhism instantly various images of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni born in India comes to mind. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and the Buddhism of Shakyamuni Buddhism can be best explained by my illustrating the concept of the caterpillar and the butterfly. Shakyamuni's Buddhism is like that of the caterpillar in that it served its purpose, but its relevance today is in its form as a butterfly; Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Worldwide the concept of Buddhism is that of the Caterpillar and not that of the Butterfly.
Nichiren Shoshu Is The Butterfly Of Buddhism Not The Caterpillar
On April 28, 1253 the Butterfly of Buddhism emerged in the form of Nichiren Daishonin who we refer to as the True Buddha Nichiren Daishonin, The Person, The True Buddha is not Shakyamuni born in India. I understand Nichiren Daishonin and Shakyamuni are as one as the Caterpillar and Butterfly and they are as different as the Caterpillar and the Butterfly. On October 12, 1279 the True Law of Buddhism emerged in the form of the True Object Of Worship; The Dai-Gohonzon, The Law. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism teaches a concept of the oneness a person and the Law. If a human can become one with the law that person can achieve an enlighten life condition and become like a Buddha; enlighten.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism Equates To Freedom
Practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is not only revolutionary but also equates to freedom. In Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism you learn that you are responsible for your own life and that your fate or destiny is in your own hands. Accepting Buddhism is the equivalent of moving from the dark ages to inter-galactic travel as seen in the Star Wars and Star Trek movies. Star Trek and Star Wars corresponds very much to Buddhist teachings. Concepts of heaven, hells, commandments and austerities as taught in Christianity and Islam are identical to antiquated or what is call Hinayana Buddhist concepts. In the Star Wars and Star Trek movies there is no mention of God, Allah, or Jesus . However in those scientific movies the law of cause and effect is apparent. Advance civilizations are products of the law of cause and effect as well as primitive societies. Most of the religious thoughts of today are primitive in nature and could not past the test of scientific cognition. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism on the other hand deals with human nature and offers a practical solution to change one's destiny and to shapes one's nature by providing a means for an individual to fuse his or her life (subject) with an object (Gohonzon) to change one's reality. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism equates to freedom because each individual learns that they themselves are the masters of their own faith and inside they posse the freedom to change without waiting on an outside entity. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism offers a mirror as a catalyst to each individual to look inside his or her own life to develop the power, wisdom and fortune to change inside and to effect a change outside.
The Difficulty Of Accepting The Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist Faith
There are millions of religions and people attempting to sell a brand of religion. Many religions are very clever at attracting converts and converts are bamboozled or in ghetto terms pimped or played upon. I believe it was P.T. Barnum that said "A Sucker is born Every Minute" and many religions simply sucker converts. Navigating through the perilous religious minefield is a difficult task. Most people are Grand-fathered into religions, in other words they just accept their family's religion. Many change a church due to re-location ,demographics and the solving of social needs. In other words it is good business for many individuals to belong to a particular church or religion. Some join a church for social reasons, some churches offer prestige, some offer comrade, some churches offer comfort. In the African/American community the histrionics and theatre of worship are traditional. The African/American preachers have a long history of oratorical skills. In addition to the preachers oratorical skills, African/American Churches offer a tradition of immaculate and angelic singing which encompasses traditional African/American worship. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism differ in culture, tradition and practice of traditional faiths in the African/American community. In addition to one rejecting traditional faiths in the African/American community, there is the fear that Christianity teaches with states in effect "place no other Gods before me or you will burn in hell ect.". Also transferring to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism from traditional faiths will lead to being rejected, put down and often shamed by your friends and family. These are just a few of the factors and difficulty Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. The most common factor of the difficulty of practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is that in a lifetime many will never be exposed or introduced to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism or have the mind to accept. If you have been introduced to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism consider yourself very, very fortunate.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism In America
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in America is not mass marketed via traditional marketing media's. There are six temples in the Americas and the propagation efforts are shared by Nichiren Shoshu Priests and its Hokkeko lay members. The propagation efforts have no high pressure sales techniques, the Nichiren Shoshu Priests are not articulate orators like the African/American preachers. There is no choir to cheer you up and no promises of a mythical world absent of problems. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism does offer a means for each individual to change his or her life at the core. This religion goes beyond the car you drive, the house you live in or the bank account you may or may not posse. This religion goes beyond that wonderful mate or honor or award you may strive for. From your life's deepest level via Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism you can understand your reason for living and prepare yourself for this life and other existences to come. Many in America have nice homes, cars, jobs, mates, money and things unimaginable years ago. Despite our wealth and growing income status people are becoming less happy each day. Drugs are rampant, not only are there illegal drugs being sold on the corners of the Ghetto, but it seems that legal drug stores are manifesting on every major corner in America. Each day there is a quick fix solution scheme to solve life's problems. Nichiren Shoshu Priests with the assistance of Nichiren Shoshu lay members are dedicated with a religious solution to help each individual to look within his or herself to bring absolute happiness and to help everyone to find the Buddha nature in his or her life.
The African & African/American Buddhist Destiny
In my personal life I searched for Buddhism prior to being introduced to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. I had purchased Buddhist books and when I went to my first Buddhist meeting I joined the Buddhist faith and I never looked back. The one question that I wanted answered was why was I born Black. Christianity never answered my question because I never could believe in my heart how a God could allow any people to experience the horrors of slavery. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism answered my question and I now understand via this Buddhism why I was born black. This introduction to Buddhism for Africans & African/Americans is not my personal experience but you my want to know why I was born black, its simple, I chose to manifest this life as a Black man. During my late teenage years I was a Black Revolutionary and as well as a Japanese warrior. During my karate days I practiced Old Japanese Shotokan karate and lived by the Japanese Bushido code. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism helped me to put my revolutionary ideas, Japanese culture in balance.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism Is the Destiny Of Black People
In February of 1998 the first Nichiren Shoshu temple opened in Africa in the country of Ghana. This temple opening in Ghana is significant for African people. Ghana's history and destiny signify the beginning of a new era for African and African/American people. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is in Africa opened just in time for the new millennium. It is estimated that 100 million Africans died on the middle passage coming to Americas as slaves. Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism will free the spirit of the African people who died on the middle passage. Many of the Nichiren Shoshu priests in America could not understand why African/Americans wanted to travel to Ghana to attend the Nichiren Shoshu Temple opening and many priests in America discouraged or did not support African/Americans going to Ghana. This idea of African/Americans desiring to travel to Africa is a foreign concept to Japanese Priests. In August of 1998 I was at the Nichiren Shoshu head temple with thousands of other overseas believers. During my visit I could understand why the Japanese people inherited the Buddhist law. More importantly High Priest Nikken Shonin taught us the importance of praying for our deceased ancestors. While in Japan performing this ceremony as taught by the Nichiren Shoshu Priests for my deceased ancestors I really appreciated high priest Nikken Shonin teaching us about such a ceremony. In the African culture such ceremonies are performed, but not in America. While performing the special ceremony I was thinking about my deceased ancestors who died in the middle passage in Africa. My personal desire to visit Africa is because my spirit is uneasy and I must pray for my deceased ancestors. I realize that High Priest Nikken Shonin understands the pain that many of us Africans and African/Americans feel about slavery and the suffering of our people and it is the responsibility of us living to pray for our deceased and change our karma. We Africans & African/Americans made a cause and we as a people receive the effects.
Ghana Helps African/Americans To Understand Buddhist Destiny
During the February 1998 Nichiren Shoshu temple opening in Ghana I was shocked and amazed at the amount of Africans practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. During my visit I produced a video documentary of the temple opening and I talked to many Ghanaians. Ghanaians were not only broad in Buddhism but they could go deep into complicated Buddhist theory and they far surpassed Americans or African/Americans in Buddhist practice. I learned from many African chiefs that Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is akin to traditional African religions and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is natural to the African people. In Ghana they integrated African culture with traditional Nichiren Shoshu teaching. The result of integrating the African culture with Nichiren Shoshu teaching manifested a rapid growth of Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in Ghana. The destiny of Ghana is changing for the better because of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism in Ghana.
How To Be An African/American Buddhist In America
We who are African/American Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist in America are only in our infant stages as Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist. We who joined Nichiren Shoshu many years ago was introduced to Buddhism by a former now excommunicated Nichiren Shoshu lay organization called the SGI or Soka Gakkai International who is now a new Buddhist sect who is officially Nichiren Sekai Shu or World Nichiren Sect. Our research and introduction to Buddhism by the Nichiren Shoshu Priests introduced a genuine and sincere Buddhist religion. Americans and African/Americans had to simply start over and learn the pure and direct Nichiren Shoshu teachings from the Nichiren Shoshu Priests. For just the few years of practicing with the Nichiren Shoshu Priests Americans and African/Americans had to be literally deprogrammed from the SGI purposeful brainwashing and manipulation of the SGI. There is no single way to be an African/American Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist in America, however our brothers and sisters in Ghana has given us a fine example of people of African decent practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. We African/Americans can learn a great deal by following the Ghanian example. Nichiren Shoshu of Ghana general director Joseph Asomani the first African to practice Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism and the man who lead Ghana members to defeat SGI oppression in Ghana by the 125 Billion dollar rich SGI, in a recent interview in February of 1999; Mr. Asomani commented to a woman years ago whose husband was a former SGI leader in an African country who had been a victim of SGI racial oppression. Mr. Asomani advised the former African SGI leader to be patient, sincere and to study hard and his time would come. In Ghana the members were sincere, patient and they studied Buddhism hard. Today Ghana has the largest Nichiren Shoshu Temple outside of Japan in the World. In Ghana the Nichiren Shoshu members African culture is in tact. The SGI attempted to destroy the African culture with SGI manipulation but their attempt failed. In Nichiren Shoshu African/Americans must study hard. African/Americans must delineate between Japanese Culture and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism . African/Americans must practice hard to perfect the Buddhist teachings. Nichiren Daishonin writes "Practice & Study arrives from Faith without Practice & Study there can be no Buddhism " To be a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist in America African/Americans do not have to emulate Japanese culture, however one does have to practice and study Buddhism as taught by the Buddha. African/Americans are delineating Japanese culture from Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. In Nichiren Shoshu even our Nichiren Shoshu Priests are having to make adjustments. Attitudes and teaching approaches taught to Japanese is received or could be perceived as insulting to Americans and Nichiren Shoshu Priests are learning each day. We African/Americans are learning to put our teachings in proper perspectives. The Hokkeko movement is in it infant stages in America, in a short time we all will move past racial and cultural differences. We African/American Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist must be ourselves (true to our culture) while at the same time Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist. Many African/American Nichiren Shoshu members are demonstrating wonderful faith and cultural pride at the same time.
Direct Teachings By Nichiren Shoshu Priest Have Helped Members To Change Perspectives Of Buddhism
Earlier in this writing I said that the Nichiren Shoshu Priests did not have the oratorical skills like the African/American preachers but when it comes to their writings and lectures on Buddhism these Priests are brilliant and their knowledge of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism is masterful. In addition to these Priests knowledge they posse a power of influence to teach just by one being in their environment. Without the fanfare or a passionate sermon Nichiren Shoshu Priests are visiting homes of each individual Nichiren Shoshu member and patiently teaching Buddhism by their demeanor, action and respect for the Gohonzon. The Buddhist teaching is not just theory and there are Nichiren Shoshu practices that have been carried out by Priest and lay believers for nearly 750 years. By taking faith, studying, and practicing the Nichiren Shoshu teachings with the Priest one will come into a clear understanding of this religion and will be able to lead a happy and productive life.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism For The Black Dilemma
African/Americans often speak of the Black dilemma or poverty, racism, in-equalities, injustice and a series of other dilemmas. My brothers often complain the white man this, the white man that. Slavery, racism, poverty and any of the Black dilemma is a matter or our own Karma. Buddhism is based on the law of cause and effect and if African/Americans would do a serious study of Black history they would find that Black people once ruled planet earth and we are getting back some of the causes we made. Religions today only penetrate the surface of problems and never get to the essence. People are still waiting to die and find peace in an after life. Buddhism teaches that heaven is a life condition and via this practice you can find heaven on earth despite your personal circumstances. It is difficult for a white person or a Japanese to understand racism. In my personal case it is difficult for me to understand how a person could take drugs or alcohol. Buddhism teaches that each individual has his own fate or karma and each individual has the power to change that fate by practicing Buddhism. We as African/Americans have collective karma as a people but individually we have individual karma both good and bad. All black people do not suffer racism, poverty, drugs. Some people are poor and happy and others are rich and miserable. In the African/American community I notice many women who have the education, the jobs, the house the car, but no mate. On the other hand there are many brothers who look to have everything but gives everything thing up for women, drugs, gambling or other bad habits. Some people have material things but have poor mental or spiritual health. Everything in life boils down to our Karma or the causes we have made in the past that is determines our present, and the causes we are making today determines our future. Practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism will help you to improve your circumstances. In Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism you will not be dazzled with grand emotional preaching, or your soul will not be set afire with good gospel singing. But if you are looking to change your life on a root level Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is the way. When you first start to practice it may be a bit scary but as you get into the practice you realize that you are getting into yourself and the hardest person to change is yourself. We who are contributing to this web site understand that it is hard seeming that you are our there by yourself. We kind of put this we site to support Nichiren Shoshu so you kind get a Black prospective from other African/Americans and we hope that we are offering some encouragement. Every week we will be adding information to this site, so check us out at lease once a week. If you have an experience you would like to share please contact us. In the meantime ask a lot of questions and read a lot. Good Luck!!!!
Sources from http://www.proudblackbuddhist.org
Opening the 2004-05 University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum season will be Karen Armstrong, one of the leading religious thinkers of our era. The Armstrong appearance will also serve as a kickoff event for Cathedral Heritage Foundation's Festival of Faiths, which begins on November 7.
Armstrong's most recent publication is the Penguin Classics edition of BUDDHA, a compelling blend of religion, biography and philosophy, offering a examination of the relevance of Buddhism for our own times. Her other books include the New York Times bestsellers A History of God, Islam and The Spiral Staircase.
A former Roman Catholic nun, Armstrong teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism and received the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. Since September 11, 2001, she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and through the media on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam. She lives in London.
For years Armstrong was tagged the "runaway nun," the rebellious ex-Catholic with outspoken opinions about religion. Her life in a British convent is 30 years behind her. She spent seven years in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, Through the Narrow Gate (St. Martin's Press, 1982) that bemoaned the restrictive life. (The frightened nuns did not know the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had ended for several weeks; they were not allowed to inquire about the outside world.)
A more recent book, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, tells of her spiritual journey after the convent and string of discouraging setbacks and fruitless dealings with psychiatrists. Finally, in 1976, she was diagnosed with epilepsy, given proper treatment, and released from her "private hell." Writing became her true calling and her own inner story and spiritual quest began to emerge.
Armstrong searched for the links that Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common. Three of her books-A History of God (Ballantine, 1993), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Knopf, 1996) and The Battle for God (Knopf, 2000)--show what unites the faiths. Each, Armstrong writes, has developed the image of one Supreme Being who was first revealed to the prophet Abraham. All have historic links to Jerusalem. And more recently, each has built up a rigid conservative strain as a reaction against the modern world. Armstrong has received honors as a bridge builder who promotes understanding among the three faiths.
A History of God follows the footsteps of pagan idol worship in Babylon as it gradually evolved into Judaism, and how Christianity, and then later Islam, branched off this monotheistic tree. Armstrong's history addresses how humans have imagined God, probing the universe for meaning. To her, "God" is not a personal figure, no dictator in the sky - neither a He nor a She - and that to "personalize" the notion of God is to wrongly and dangerously project our own prejudices and human limitations onto a non-human divinity.
It was her first trip to Jerusalem in 1983 that piqued her interest in commonality among faiths. "I got back a sense of what faith is all about." At the time she was an atheist who was "wearied" by religion and "worn out by years of struggle." Born a Roman Catholic in the countryside near Birmingham, England, in 1945, she gave up on religion after her time in the convent. "I was suicidal," she said of life in her late 20s. "I didn't know how to live apart from that regimented way of life."
With an undergraduate degree in literature from Oxford University, she began teaching 19th and 20th century literature at the University of London and worked on a PhD. Three years later, her dissertation was rejected. Without it, she did not qualify to teach at the university level and took a job as head of the English department at a girls' school in London. Not long afterward, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. "After six years at the school I was asked to leave, but nicely," she said. "My early life is a complete catastrophe. It all worked out for the best."
She left the school in 1982 and began working on television documentaries. The story that took her to Jerusalem set her on a new career path and changed her earlier impressions about God. She went from atheist to "freelance monotheist" but has never returned to the Catholic Church or joined any other.
"It's inevitable that people turn to more than one religious tradition for inspiration," she said. "It's part of globalization." She recently read from the Buddhist canon of teachings for her next book. "Religion is like a raft," she said, explaining the Buddha's view of it. "Once you get across the river, moor the raft and go on. Don't lug it with you if you don't need it anymore." She knows that mode of travel: Leave one raft behind to pick up the next just ahead.
Buddha ("the awakened") was the title given to Siddhartha Gotama, the son of a Nepalese rajah. According to tradition, Gotama left a life of luxury at age 30 and devoted himself to years of contemplation and self-denial, finally reaching enlightenment while sitting beneath a tree. Henceforth known as Buddha, he spent his life teaching disciples about his beliefs (embodied in the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of achieving the enlightened state of Nirvana.
Armstrong's account of Buddha reveals him as both the archetypal religious icon and as a man who eschewed his noble caste in pursuit of peace in the midst of worldly suffering. Renouncing his family and the comforts of his home, he chose to don the robes of the homeless religious ascetics. By practicing rigorous meditation and self deprivation, Gotama experienced a profound spiritual transformation, shedding egotism and selfishness. She carefully ties the Buddha's time to our own and champions his spiritual discoveries with an understated dignity.
Robert Siegel, host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," will interview Armstrong at the forum. Siegel has worked with NPR for more than 20 years, delivering news and interviews with both a wry wit and precise attention to detail.
The Japanese phrase kosen-rufu expresses a centrally important concept for members of the SGI. It is often used synonymously with world peace, and has been informally defined as "world peace through individual happiness." More broadly, it could be understood as a vision of social peace brought about by the widespread acceptance of core values such as unfailing respect for the dignity of human life.
The phrase itself is of ancient origin and appears in the 23rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra, which states, "In the fifth five hundred years after my death, accomplish worldwide kosen-rufu and never allow its flow to cease." Here, the phrase kosen-rufu is written with four Chinese characters that could be rendered, respectively, as "widely," "declare," "flow" and "promulgate," and in its most literal sense it means the widespread flow and spreading--and application--of the teachings contained in the Lotus Sutra. Kosen-rufu implies an approach to Buddhist practice that is deeply engaged with the affairs of society and the world.
Nichiren (1222--1282) was distinguished from the Buddhists of his time by his frequent use of this term. The stress placed by Nichiren on kosen-rufu typifies his approach to Buddhist practice; that our personal happiness--enlightenment--is inextricably linked with the peace and happiness of our fellow humans and of society as a whole. He rejected the idea that enlightenment is something to be cultivated as a private, inner virtue. He also rejected the idea that the proper goal of Buddhism is to garner reward in the afterlife. What these two ideas have in common is resignation regarding our ability to overcome suffering and positively transform society. For Nichiren, this represented an unacceptable turning away from the core Buddhist tenet that people are capable of realizing genuine happiness in this world. Both approaches were the target of his critique.
view, enlightenment is not so much a goal or end in itself, as a basis for altruistic
action. The life-state of Buddhahood--a condition of limitless vitality, wisdom
and compassion--is one which is expressed, maintained and strengthened through
committed action to contribute to the well-being and happiness of other people.
Nichiren's emphasis on kosen-rufu also reflected his understanding of the nature of the times in which he lived. It was widely believed that history had entered the period of the "Latter Day of the Law" (Jp. mappo). Said to start 2,000 years after Shakyamuni Buddha's passing (thus the injunction "in the fifth five hundred years after my death"), it was predicted that this would be a period of degeneracy, in which the Buddha's teachings would lose their power to save people. Calculations by Japanese Buddhists had put the start of the Latter Day of the Law at 1052, and the arrival of this dread age was greeted with widespread anxiety.
nature of the age and the failure of the Buddhist law seemed to be confirmed by
events. In 1221, for example, a year before Nichiren's birth, a cloistered emperor
had tried to overthrow the samurai-dominated government, enlisting the established
Buddhist sects to pray for victory. He was easily defeated and spent the rest
of his life in exile. In the popular imagination, this represented an unthinkable
defeat for the secular authority of the emperor and the religious authority of
official Buddhism. Violent natural disasters, political unrest, famine and plague
continued to occur throughout Nichiren's life, providing a backdrop to the development
of his thinking.
However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Nichiren did not regard the Latter Day as a time of resignation to inevitable suffering. He focused instead on those passages in the sutras predicting that the Latter Day would be the time when Buddhism would be revived in new form, and would spread widely to benefit the people. In practical terms, he saw the Latter Day as an age in which happiness solely for oneself was no longer a viable option. The only path to happiness, in his view, was one of actively challenging the root causes of unhappiness afflicting all people and the whole of society.
In our day, globalization, the deepening interaction and interdependence among the world's peoples, is making it increasingly clear that peace and prosperity cannot be enjoyed only by a limited group or by the inhabitants of any country in isolation. The simple truth that humankind will all stand or fall together, is gaining widespread acceptance.
A Vision of World Peace
Nichiren's vision was not limited to Japan. From around 1273, the phrase "the western return of Buddhism" starts appearing in his writings. This phrase, closely linked to the idea of kosen-rufu, indicates that Buddhism, having spread east to Japan, would eventually spread (return) to India and countries to the west, reaching the entire world.
In 1274, Mongol forces first attempted to invade Japan. In 1279, the Mongols defeated the Southern Song on the Asian mainland, bringing an end to that dynasty. Many Buddhist priests fled to Japan as refugees, and their graphic reports of the invasion heightened the sense of dread gripping Japan. For the first time in its history, Japan was caught in the vortex of world history, and this formed the background for Nichiren's call for propagation of his teachings far beyond the confines of Japan.
While Nichiren may stand out among Japanese Buddhists for seeking the global acceptance of his ideas, in the history of the world's religions, this is far from unique. Over the course of history, many religions have arisen with a message of universal salvation, which they have sought to actualize through universal propagation.
In this sense, it is important to clarify what kosen-rufu is not. It does not mean the conversion of all Earth's inhabitants, without exception, to Nichiren Buddhism. While the members of the SGI, deeply confident in the validity of Nichiren Buddhism, are eager to share its benefits with family and friends, faith is not seen as a stark demarcation between those who are "saved" and those who are not. Because the lives of all people are interconnected at the most profound level, a fundamental change in the life of one individual will have a positive influence on all the people with whom that person has contact, especially those sharing an intimate connection. Just as the light of a single beacon can guide many ships to safety, the example of a single person shining with confidence and joy can help many people find direction in life.
In our world today, the darkness that most requires dispelling is the entrenched inability to recognize the dignity of life. Ideologies teaching that certain people are without worth, that certain lives are expendable, undermine the common basis of human dignity. The failure to recognize one's own true potential and worth is always linked with the denial of these qualities in others. Violence has its wellsprings in a gnawing lack of self-confidence.
Thus, for the members of the SGI, kosen-rufu means the ceaseless effort to enhance the value of human dignity, to awaken all people to a sense of their limitless worth and potential. It is for this reason that efforts in the fields of peace, humanitarian aid, educational and cultural exchange are all seen as vital aspects of the movement for kosen-rufu. For these promote the values that are integral to human happiness.
Finally, it should be understood that kosen-rufu does not represent a static end point. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda noted in 1970, "Kosen-rufu does not mean the end point or terminus of a flow, but it is the flow itself, the very pulse of living Buddhism within society."
In this sense, the "attainment" of kosen-rufu does not suggest the end of history or of the inevitable conflicts and contradictions that drive history. Rather, it could be thought of as building a world in which a deeply and widely held respect for human life would serve as the basis on which these can be worked out in a peaceful, creative manner. This is not something, however, which we must passively wait for.
Buddhism teaches that it is something that we can begin to implement right now, wherever we are.
name is Tony Kenny, and I come from Ireland. Like most Irish
people I was raised a Catholic, and, I always took a very active interest in religion,
maybe it was because of the utter conviction that I always had that there is far
more to life than what meets the eye. Who knows? My interest in religion never
declined and when I was eleven or so, I announced that I wanted to be a priest.
My wise father smiled knowingly and said, "No Problem" he simply wanted
me to wait until my teens before I entered the religious life. Little did I know
that he was light years ahead of me, and, once my testosterone kicked in, the
life of priesthood lost all its former appeal!
Once I got to university however I still decided to study Religious Studies/ Theology, despite the advice of my friends, "Tony, what the hell will you do in life with bloody Religious Studies?" I was always top of the class however, whereas my classmates found a lot of the material boring, it was nourishment to me - I couldn't get enough of all the great wisdom on offer, everything from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita to the Islamic Koran. Wow! When I was twenty, I took a year out of college and I worked with Catholic nuns in the Philippines. On a daily basis I taught English to the street-children of Manila, or, tried to entertain them with my childish antics in the evenings. I returned to Ireland a new man, with a new spring bubbling inside me. As I looked more closely at life, I was sadly forced to concede that Christianity did not provide the answers that I needed. Sure, I thought that Jesus was an amazing person, a Bodhisattva maybe, but I was a theologian who could no longer make sense of the cross, creation, redemption, the sacraments, judgement and all the other complex facets of Christian theology. Eventually my faith was exposed for what it was, a pile of intellectual concepts that shattered like a delicate vase when I stopped trying to protect them. Faith should never merely be some pile of intellectual concepts, rather it should be something that resonates with one's heart, experience is where the truth dwells.
In my final year in university we compared the anthropology of St. Paul with that of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, we looked at the different views that each tradition had regarding the fundamental make-up of humanity. I had always read the teachings of Lord Buddha in the past, but at this auspicious moment in my life the Dhamma intoxicated me. I felt like a child who had come home after a long separation from his parents. Everything made sense and the words were soothing to my weary ears. As the Tibetans say, "Emaho!" or "Marvelous!" I was so inspired, that I even embarked upon a two-year research MA in order to explore this subject matter more closely. Before I knew it I was a member of a Tibetan Buddhist Sangha, and the rest is history I guess. I am passionate about the Dhamma - the teachings of Lord Buddha - and I truly believe that the gift of Dhamma surpasses all others (Sabba Danam dhammadanam jinati). I feel immense gratitude to the Buddha the gift that He has not only given to me, but to all of mankind.
A Buddhist approach to HIV/ AIDS
During the course of my Masters studies, I sadly observed that on account of Buddhism's existential view of the world - especially the teachings on non-substantiality (anatta) and the illusoriness of existence (maya) - Christian theologians have long misinterpreted the Dhamma, and consequently believe Buddhists to be "socially apathetic," "other-worldly," "mystical," "world-rejecters" 1. This misunderstanding seriously needs to be addressed , so I hope that this interview reveals just how active Buddhist social consciousness actually is.
On August the 26th I interviewed Phra Rajyanvisith, the Venerable Abbot of Wat Luang Phor Sodh Dhammakayaram, regarding the important issue of HIV/ AIDS. This interview dealt with many important topics; namely, drug abuse, homosexuality and the issue of moral culpability, in other words, if I contract the HIV virus does that mean that I did something evil in a previous life? It is certainly a rare occasion to witness such a prominent bhikkhu's candid reaction to these sensitive issues. Not only does Phra Rajyanvisith prove that Buddhism has a unique social consciousness built upon the sound principles of Loving Kindness and compassion; he also proves that the Dhamma is the most effective antidote to all the social-ills and suffering we experience because It is the only path that enables one to help oneself.
I hope that you enjoy this remarkably candid interview and that it opens much needed dialogue between the Sangha - the community of monks - the government, and the various non-governmental bodies. May I stress that HIV/ AIDS is not only a "Thai" problem, rather it is a menace that causes suffering for people worldwide.
Tony Kenny (MA: Religious Studies/ the University of Limerick)
Building a Community of Love
bell hooks Meets With Thich Nhat Hanh to Ask: How Do We Build a Community of Love?
As teacher and guide Thich Nhat Hanh has been a presence in my life for more than twenty years. In the last few years I began to doubt the heart connection I felt with him because we had never met or spoken to one another, yet his work was ever-present in my work. I began to feel the need to meet him face to face, even as my intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuitive self kept saying that it would happen when the time was right. My work in love has been to trust that intuition knowledge.
Those who know me intimately know that I have been contemplating the place and meaning of love in our lives and culture for years. They know that when a subject attracts my intellectual and emotional imagination, I am long to observe it from all angles, to know it inside and out.
In keeping with the way my mind works, when I began to think deeply about the metaphysics of love I talked with everyone around me about it. I talked to large audiences and even had wee one-on-one conversations with children about the way they think about love. I talked about love in every state. Indeed, I encouraged the publishers of my new book all about love: new visions to launch it with postcards, t-shirts, and maybe even a calendar with the logo "Love in every state." I talked about love everywhere I traveled.
To me, all the work I do is built on a foundation of loving-kindness. Love illuminates matters. And when I write provocative social and cultural criticism that causes readers to stretch their minds, to think beyond set paradigms, I think of that work as love in action. While it may challenge, disturb and at times even frighten or enrage readers, love is always the place where I begin and end.
A central theme of all about love is that from childhood into adulthood we are often taught misguided and false assumptions about the nature of love. Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that love means we will not be challenged or changed. No doubt this is why people who read writing about racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, etc. that challenges their set assumptions tend to see that work as harsh rather than loving.
Of all the definitions of love that abound in our universe, a special favorite of mine is the one offered in The Road Less Traveled by psychoanalyst M. Scott Peck. Defining love as "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth," he draws on the work of Erich Fromm to emphasize again and again that love is first and foremost exemplified by action-by practice-not solely by feeling.
Fromm's The Art of Loving was published when I was four years old. It was the book I turned to in my late teens when I felt confused about the nature of love. His insistence that "love is the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love" made sense to me then and it still does. Peck expands this definition. Knowing that the world would be a paradise of peace and justice if global citizens shared a common definition of love which would guide our thoughts and action, I call for the embrace of such a common understanding in all about love: new visions. That common understanding might be articulated in different words carrying a shared meaning for diverse experiences and cultures.
Throughout the more than twenty years that I have written on the subject of ending domination in whatever form it appears (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism), I have continually sought those paths that would lead to the end of violence and injustice. Since so much of my thinking about love in my late teens revolved around familial and romantic love, it was not until I was in my early twenties writing feminist theory that I began to think deeply about love in relation to domination.
During my first years in college Martin Luther King's message of love as the path to ending racism and healing the wounds of racial domination had been replaced by a black power movement stressing militant resistance. While King had called for non-violence and compassion, this new movement called on us to harden our hearts, to wage war against our enemies. Loving our enemies, militant leaders told us, made us weak and easy to subjugate, and many turned their backs on King's message.
Just as the energy of a racially-based civil rights liberation struggle was moving away from a call for love, the women's movement also launched a critique of love, calling on females to forget about love so that we might seize power. When I was nineteen participating in feminist consciousness-raising groups, love was dismissed as irrelevant. It was our "addiction to love" that kept us sleeping with the enemy (men). To be free, our militant feminist leaders told us, we needed to stop making love the center of our imaginations and yearnings. Love could be a good woman's downfall.
These two movements for social justice that had captured the hearts and imagination of our nation-movements that began with a love ethic-were changed by leaders who were much more interested in questions of power. By the late seventies it was no longer necessary to silence discussions of love; the topic was no longer on any progressive agenda.
Those of us who still longed to hold on to love looked to religions as the site of redemption. We searched everywhere, all around the world, for the spiritual teachers who could help us return to love. My seeking led me to Buddhism, guided there by the Beat poets, by personal interaction with Gary Snyder. At his mountain home I would meet my first Buddhist nun and walk mindfully with her, all the while wondering if my heart could ever know the sweet peace emanating from her like a perfume mist.
My seeking led me to the work of a Buddhist monk Martin Luther King had met and been touched by-Thich Nhat Hanh. The first work I read by this new teacher in my life was a conversation book between him and Daniel Berrigan, The Raft Is Not the Shore.
At last I had found a world where spirituality and politics could meet, where there was no separation. Indeed, in this world all efforts to end domination, to bring peace and justice, were spiritual practice. I was no longer torn between political struggle and spiritual practice. And here was the radical teacher-a Vietnamese monk living in exile-courageously declaring that "if you have to choose between Buddhism and peace, then you must choose peace."
Unlike white friends and comrades who were often contemptuous of me because I had not traveled to the East or studied with important teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh was calmly stating: "Buddhism is in your heart. Even if you don't have any temple or any monks, you can still be a Buddhist in your heart and life." Reading his words I felt an inner rapture and could only repeat, "Be still my heart." Like one wandering in the desert overcome by thirst. I had found water. My thirst was quenched and my spiritual hunger intensified.
For a period of more than ten years since leaving home for college I had felt pulled in all directions by anti-racist struggle, by the feminist movement, sexual liberation, by the fundamentalist Christianity of my upbringing. I wanted to embrace radical politics and still know god. I wanted to resist and be redeemed. The Raft Is Not the Shore helped strengthen my spiritual journey. Even though I had not met with Thich Nhat Hanh he was the teacher, along with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who were my chosen guides. Mixing the two was a fiery combination.
As all became well with my soul, I began to talk about the work of Thich Nhat Hanh in my books, quoting from his work. He helped me bring together theories of political recovery and spiritual recovery. For years I did not want to meet him face to face for fear I would be disappointed. Time and time again I planned to be where he was and the plan would be disrupted. Our paths were crossing but we were never meeting face to face.
Then suddenly, in a marvelous serendipitous way, we were meeting. In his presence at last, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude that not only was I given the blessing of meeting him, but that a pure spirit of love connected us. I felt ecstatic. My heart jumped for joy-such union and reunion to be in the presence of one who has tutored your heart, who has been with you in spirit on your journey.
The journey is also to the teacher and beyond. It is always a path to the heart. And the heart of the matter is always our oneness with divine spirit-our union with all life. As early as 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh was sharing: "The way must be in you; the destination also must be in you and not somewhere else in space or time. If that kind of self-transformation is being realized in you, you will arrive."
Walking on love's path on a sunny day on my way to meet my teacher, I meet Sister Chan Khong. She too has taught me. She felt my heart's readiness. Together we remembered the teacher who is everywhere awakening the heart. As she writes at the end of Learning True Love, "I am with you just as you have been with me, and we encourage each other to realize our deepest love, caring and generosity . . . together on the path of love."
* * *
bell hooks: I began writing a book on love because I felt that the United States is moving away from love. The civil rights movement was such a wonderful movement for social justice because the heart of it was love-loving everyone. It was believing, as you taught us yesterday, that we can always start anew; we can always practice forgiveness. I don't have to hate any person because I can always start anew, I can always reconcile. What I'm trying to understand is why are we moving away from this idea of a community of love. What is your thinking about why people are moving away from love, and how we can be part of moving our society towards love.
Thich Nhat Hanh: In our own Buddhist sangha, community is the core of everything. The sangha is a community where there should be harmony and peace and understanding. That is something created by our daily life together. If love is there in the community, if we've been nourished by the harmony in the community, then we will never move away from love.
The reason we might lose this is because we are always looking outside of us, thinking that the object or action of love is out there. That is why we allow the love, the harmony, the mature understanding, to slip away from ourselves. This is, I think, the basic thing. That is why we have to go back to our community and renew it. Then love will grow back. Understanding and harmony will grow back. That's the first thing.
The second thing is that we ourselves need love; it's not only society, the world outside, that needs love. But we can't expect that love to come from outside of us. We should ask the question whether we are capable of loving ourselves as well as others. Are we treating our body kindly-by the way we eat, by the way we drink, by the way we work? Are we treating ourselves with enough joy and tenderness and peace? Or are we feeding ourselves with toxins that we get from the market-the spiritual, intellectual, entertainment market?
So the question is whether we are practicing loving ourselves? Because loving ourselves means loving our community. When we are capable of loving ourselves, nourishing ourselves properly, not intoxicating ourselves, we are already protecting and nourishing society. Because in the moment when we are able to smile, to look at ourselves with compassion, our world begins to change. We may not have done anything but when we are relaxed, when we are peaceful, when we are able to smile and not to be violent in the way we look at the system, at that moment there is a change already in the world.
So the second help, the second insight, is that between self or no-self there is no real separation. Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also. That insight is very powerfully made in the practice of no-self.
bell hooks: I think one of the most wonderful books that Martin Luther King wrote was Strength to Love. I always liked it because of the word "strength," which counters the Western notion of love as easy. Instead, Martin Luther King said that you must have courage to love, that you have to have a profound will to do what is right to love, that it does not come easy.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Martin Luther King was among us as a brother, as a friend, as a leader. He was able to maintain that love alive. When you touch him, you touch a bodhisattva, for his understanding and love was enough to hold everything to him. He tried to transmit his insight and his love to the community, but maybe we have not received it enough. He was trying to transmit the best things to us-his goodness, his love, his nonduality. But because we had clung so much to him as a person, we did not bring the essence of what he was teaching into our community. So now that he's no longer here, we are at a loss. We have to be aware that crucial transmission he was making was not the transmission of power, of authority, of position, but the transmission of the dharma. It means love.
bell hooks: Exactly. It was not a transmission of personality. Part of why I have started writing about love is feeling, as you say, that our culture is forgetting what he taught. We name more and more streets and schools after him but that's almost irrelevant, because what is to be remembered is that strength to love.
That's what we have to draw courage from-the spirit of love, not the image of Martin Luther King. This is so hard in the West because we are such an image and personality driven culture. For instance, because I have learned so much from you for so many years of my life, people kept asking me whether I had met you in person.
Thich Nhat Hanh: (laughs) Yes, I understand.
bell hooks: And I said yes, I have met him, because he has given his love to me through his teachings, through mindfulness practice. I kept trying to share with people that, yes, I would like to meet you some day, but the point is that I am living and learning from his teaching.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, that's right. And that is the essence of interbeing. We had met already in the very non-beginning (laughs). Beginning with longing, beginning with blessings.
bell hooks: Except that you have also taught that to be in the presence of your teacher can also be a moment of transformation. So people say, is it enough that you've learned from books by him, or must you meet him, must there be an encounter?
Thich Nhat Hanh: In fact, the true teacher is within us. A good teacher is someone who can help you to go back and touch the true teacher within, because you already have the insight within you. In Buddhism we call it buddhanature. You don't need someone to transfer buddhanature to you, but maybe you need a friend who can help you touch that nature of awakening and understanding working in you.
So a good teacher is someone who can help you to get back to a teacher within. The teacher can do that in many different ways; she or he does not have to meet you physically. I feel that I have many real students whom I have not met. Many are in cloisters and they never get out. Others are in prison. But in many cases they practice the teachings much better than those who meet me every day. That is true. When they read a book by me or hear a tape and they touch the insight within them, then they have met me in a real way. That is the real meeting.
bell hooks: I want to know your thoughts on how we learn to love a world full of justice, more than coming together with someone just because they share the same skin or the same language as we do. I ask this question of you because I first learned about you through Martin Luther King's homage to your compassion towards those who had hurt your country.
Thich Nhat Hanh: This is a very interesting topic. It was a very important issue for the Buddha. How we view justice depends on our practice of looking deeply. We may think that justice is everyone being equal, having the same rights, sharing the same kind of advantages, but maybe we have not had the chance to look at the nature of justice in terms of no-self. That kind of justice is based on the idea of self, but it may be very interesting to explore justice in terms of no-self.
bell hooks: I think that's exactly the kind of justice Martin Luther King spoke about-a justice that was for everyone whether they're equal or not. Sometimes in life all things are not equal, so what does it mean to have justice when there is no equality? A parent can be just towards a child, even though they're not equal. I think this is often misunderstood in the West, where people feel that there can be no justice unless everything is the same. This is part of why I feel we have to relearn how we think about love, because we think about love so much in terms of the self.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Is justice possible without equality?
bell hooks: Justice is possible without equality, I believe, because of compassion and understanding. If I have compassion, then if I have more than you, which is unequal, I will still do the just thing by you.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Right. And who has created inequality?
bell hooks: Well, I think inequality is in our minds. I think this is what we learn through practice. One of the concepts that you and Daniel Berrigan spoke about in The Raft Is Not the Shore is that the bridge of illusion must be shattered in order for a real bridge to be constructed. One of the things we learn is that inequality is an illusion.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Makes sense (laughs).
bell hooks: Before I came here I had been struggling with the question of anger toward my ex-boyfriend. I have taken my vows as a bodhisattva, and so I always feel very depressed when I have anger. I had come to a point of despair because I had so much difficulty with my anger in relation to this man. So yesterday's dharma talk about embracing our anger, and using it, and letting it go, was very essential for me at this moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh: You want to be human. Be angry, it's okay. But not to practice is not okay. To be angry, that is very human. And to learn how to smile at your anger and make peace with your anger is very nice. That is the whole thing-the meaning of the practice, of the learning. By taking a look at your anger it can be transformed into the kind of energy that you need-understanding and compassion. It is with negative energy that you can make the positive energy. A flower, although beautiful, will become compost someday, but if you know how to transform the compost back into the flower, then you don't have to worry. You don't have to worry about your anger because you know how to handle it-to embrace, to recognize, and to transform it. So this is what is possible.
bell hooks: I think this is what people misunderstand about Martin Luther King saying to love your enemies. They think he was just using this silly little phrase, but what he meant was that as Black Americans we need to let our anger go, because holding on to it we hold ourselves down. We oppress ourselves by holding on to anger. My students tell me, we don't want to love! We're tired of being loving! And I say to them, if you're tired of being loving, then you haven't really been loving, because when you are loving you have more strength. As you were telling us yesterday, we grow stronger in the act of loving. This has been, I think, a very hurting thing for Black Americans-to feel that we can't love our enemies. People forget what a great tradition we have as African-Americans in the practice of forgiveness and compassion. And if we neglect that tradition, we suffer.
Thich Nhat Hanh: When we have anger in us, we suffer. When we have discrimination in us, we suffer. When we have the complex of superiority, we suffer. When we have the complex of inferiority, we suffer also. So when we are capable of transforming these negative things in us, we are free and happiness is possible.
If the people who hurt us have that kind of energy within them, like anger or desperation, then they suffer. When you see that someone suffers, you might be motivated by a desire to help him not to suffer anymore. That is love also, and love doesn't have any color. Other people may discriminate against us, but what is more important is whether we discriminate against them. If we don't do that, we are a happier person, and as a happier person, we are in a position to help. And anger, this is not a help.
bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?
Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire-to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live. So if you realize that the other person is a human being too, and you have exactly the same kind of spiritual path, and then the two can become good practitioners. This appears to be practical for both.
The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person. The Buddha always reminds us that our afflictions, including our fear and our desiring, are born from our ignorance. That is why in order to dissipate fear, we have to remove wrong perception.
bell hooks: And what if people perceive rightly and still act unjustly?
Thich Nhat Hanh: They are not able yet to apply their insight in their daily life. They need community to remind them. Sometimes you have a flash of insight, but it's not strong enough to survive. Therefore in the practice of Buddhism, samadhi is the power to maintain insight alive in every moment, so that every speech, every word, every act will bear the nature of that insight. It is a question of cleaning. And you clean better if you are surrounded by sangha-those who are practicing exactly the same.
bell hooks: I think that we best realize love in community. This is something I have had to work with myself, because the intellectual tradition of the West is very individualistic. It's not community-based. The intellectual is often thought of as a person who is alone and cut off from the world. So I have had to practice being willing to leave the space of my study to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community.
Thich Nhat Hanh: Right, and then we learn to operate as a community and not as individuals. In Plum Village, that is exactly what we try to do. We are brothers and sisters living together. We try to operate like cells in one body.
bell hooks: I think this is the love that we seek in the new millennium, which is the love experienced in community, beyond self.
Thich Nhat Hanh: So please, live that truth and disseminate that truth with your writing, with your speaking. It will be helpful to maintain that kind of view and action.
bell hooks: Thank you for your open-hearted example.
Thich Nhat Hanh: You're welcome. Thank you.
Experience and Spiritual Practice:
A Buddhist Perspective
An Interview with Jack Kornfield
by Robert Forte
"The goal, cannot be stressed too often, is not religious experiences: it is the religious life. And with respect to the latter, psychedelic theophanies can abhort a quest as readily as, perhaps more readily than, they further it."
-- Huston Smith Forgotten Truth
RF: Jack, thanks very much for sharing your perspective. With so much said about psychedelic experience and spirituality it may help to look at psychedelics from within an extant spiritual discipline. There is a great deal in Buddhism that can illuminate psychedelic phenomena and help us to understand the curative effect - when there is a curative effect. Maybe a Buddhist perspective can help us to maximize the positive effects of psychedelic experiences and improve or reduce the negative ones.
JK: There are a couple of things I want to start with, some thoughts I have had on the subject, and we can go on from there. The first is a statement in answer to your question which asks for a Buddhist point of view on psychedelics. It is important to say that there is no Buddhist point of view on psychedelics. They are rarely found in the Buddhist tradition, if at all, and generally would be lumped in the precepts under "intoxicants." In Zen, Vajrayana, and the Theravada traditions, the three largest living traditions, there is very little mention of them, very little written, and there is no traditional point of view about the use of them. It is important to understand that. What points of view we have come from our understanding of Buddhist masters and teachers based on contemporary experience. But there is not a traditional body of knowledge in relationship to these substances that I know of.
A second point to make is that, unlike in Hinduism, which at least in its modern form uses a variety of mind-altering substances - particularly things like hashish that some sadhus use sitting by the river Ganges smoking a chillum - the fundamental relationship to psychedelics in Buddhist practice and tradition is as intoxicants.
The precept in Theravadan Buddhism for dealing with intoxicants is one of the five basic training precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to speak falsely, not to engage in sexual misconduct, and lastly, to refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness. It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit. It is interesting that it is worded that way: to not use intoxicants to the point of loss of consciousness or awareness. There is another translation of it which says not to use intoxicants which remove that sense of attention or awareness. Then it is left up to the individual, as are all of the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.
A third thought I have to start the conversation, and I think I mention this in Living Buddhist Masters, is that practice in the West has taken a reverse direction from spiritual practice in the Asias; particularly Buddhist practice, but Hindu as well.
In Asia the tradition has three parts. You begin with sila or virtue. This is the foundation upon which any spiritual life is built. People take care with those precepts; they do not harm. There is a development of ahimsa; which is a respectful, caring, and nonviolent relationship to the people and beings around. This allows the heart to open and the mind to quiet. Out of sila comes the various spiritual practices. They are built on that as a foundation.
The second step comes after you are living a moral and a harmonious life - without which you can not really have a quiet mind or an open heart. When your actions are in harmony, then you begin to train yourself through yoga, through concentration practices, through all different ways to begin to tame the wild and untamed monkey mind, and to use that training to open up the inner realms. This is samadhi, or concentration.
The third domain is the domain of wisdom, prajna, from which arise the kinds of insights and understandings of the play of consciousness in the realm of human experience, based on the foundation of a moral life and the training in various disciplines. When those insights arise and wisdom comes they are established on a base so they become available to you easily. They already have become integrated in your life by your discipline and your prior training - and you have a context to understand them in. What has happened in the West seems to be a reverse of that.
Many people who took LSD, mushrooms, or whatever it was, along with a little spiritual reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or some Zen texts, had the gates of wisdom opened to a certain extent. They began to see that their limited consciousness was only one plane and one level and that there were a thousand new things to discover about the mind. There are many new realms, new perspectives on birth and death; on the nature of mind and consciousness as the field of creation, rather than the mechanical result of having a body, the biological result; and on the myth of separation and the truth of the oneness of things. Great kinds of wisdom opened up, and for some people, their hearts too. They began to see the dance in much greater perspective.
People's obvious experience was that in order to maintain this they had to keep taking the psychedelics over and over, generally speaking, that is what happened. Even though there were some transformations from these experiences, they tended to fade for a lot of people, at least aspects of them. We might want to discuss this further....
Anyway, this is a kind of simplistic analogy to the East and West but I think there might be some crucial points to it. Following that people said, "If we can't maintain the highs of consciousness that come through the psychedelics, let's see if there is some other way." And so people undertook various kinds of spiritual disciplines. They did kundalini yoga and bastrika breathing, or they did serious hatha yoga as a sadhana, raja yoga, light and concentration exercises, visualizations, or Buddhist practices as a way to get back to those profound and compelling states that had come through psychedelics.
RF: Are you saying that it instilled in people a thirst for experiences?
JK: A thirst, that is correct.
RF: Would you say this the same thirst considered to be the cause of suffering in terms of the Buddha's second noble truth? Buddha taught that we suffer because of our desire or thirst for sensual or mental experience. Suffering is inevitable because everything is transitory, yet the thirst goes on. Even the highest mystical experiences can lead to suffering because of our tendency to become attached to that which is transitory. In other words, I wonder if these experiences can actually inflate the ego or tempt it with the possibility that even "God" is within its grasp.
JK: Well, the thirst has two sides to it. There is a useful thirst as well. When it is involved with a lot of grasping and attachment - to the extent that there is grasping and attachment - there is suffering. But psychedelics awakened in people not just a thirst, but a sense of the possibilities in exploring the mind and body, and living in a different way. Then they began to have those sensitivities and those visions without repeatedly taking psychedelics, by undertaking some spiritual discipline, yoga, or meditation. People began to see what was necessary was to take care with their speech, with their relationships, with their family, with their actions in the social community and the political world, in a way that was non-harming and that was conscious. So we have gone backwards in a way to discover that the roots of fundamental change has to do with our physical body, with our behavior, and with all those things that are called "virtue," followed by a systematic discipline. Those are the supports for long lasting or genuine access to these transformative experiences.
I would not say this is true for everyone. There may be people who actually have used psychedelics as a sadhana, as a practice. But I have been around a lot and it is really rare.
RF: Stanley Krippner once said that LSD may be an important cause for the importation of Eastern spiritual practices into this country during the 1960s. Because of LSD, as you are saying, young people sought out those maps and practices which could enable them to understand their experiences.
JK: They certainly were powerful for me. I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth though I was studying Eastern thought even before then, but they came hand-in-hand as they did for many people. It is true for the majority of American Buddhist teachers that they had experience with psychedelics either right after they started their spiritual practice or prior to it.
I even know of cases where people were genuinely transformed by their experience in the way that one would be from an enlightenment experience. They are rare. Of the many hundreds of people I know who took psychedelics I know of a few cases where people had radically transformative experiences. These were as much as an "enlightenment" as any other kind of "initial enlightenment," using the terminology of a system that has a few major satoris and then finally full enlightenment. This is something you are welcome to print. However, along with it print that I am reluctant to say it because it may be misleading. It is like winning the lottery. There are not a lot of people that win. A lot of people play and not so many people win. But the potential is there. I am not sure if it is helpful for people to hear that.
RF: There is a story about a Buddhist master who was asked if you could use drugs to attain enlightenment. He said, "I sure hope so." And when Zen Master Soeng Sahn was asked what he thought about using drugs to help in the quest for self knowledge he said: "Yes, there there are special medicines, which, if taken with the proper attitude, can facilitate self-realization." Then he added: "But if you have the proper attitude, you can take anything - take a walk, or a bath. "
Could you say more about sadhana? What is the right attitude? What are those qualities of mind and action that are basic to the Buddhist path?
JK: Okay, I am thinking if there is some linking question that comes in between these two. There is really. I will mention it briefly and then I will go into the development of sadhana.
First of all, I have the utmost respect for the power of psychedelics. They are enormously powerful. They have inspired and opened and awakened possibilities in a lot of people in really deep ways. They have provided transformative experiences. In taking a tempered view of them it does not mean that I do not have a lot of respect for them, and for the work that researchers like Stan Grof and others have done.
My sense from my own Buddhist practice and from the tradition as a teacher for many years is that people underestimate the depth of change that is required to transform oneself in a spiritual practice. It requires a very great perspective called "a long enduring mind" by one Zen master - which means it can be days, weeks, months, years, and lifetimes. The propensities or conditioned habits which we have are so powerfully and deeply ingrained that even enormously compelling visions do not change them very much. Therefore, the system of liberation taught by the Buddha, and other great masters, draws on several different aspects or elements of life to help empower such a deep transformation. The Buddha said at one point, "Not good deeds, nor good karma, nor merit, nor rapture, nor visions, nor concentration, nor insight. None of these are the reasons I teach; but the sure heart's release, this and this alone." The possibility of human liberation is the center of his teachings. The liberation from greed, hatred, delusion, and the liberation from the sense of separateness and selfishness. This is a very compelling possibility for humans and it is quite profound.
To come to this level of illumination, first one has to discover the power of those forces in the heart and mind that bind us. In the beginning it may sound like the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion are a little dislike of this and wanting of that, and not being so clear about things, being confused, or not seeing so deeply. But when you have undertaken a deep spiritual practice of whatever kind, and I will include psychedelic experiences as part of that, you begin to realize that what is meant is Greed with a capital "G," the most primal kinds of grasping; and Hatred meaning Hitler and Attila the Hun in the mind; and Delusion meaning the deepest dark night. The forces are tremendously powerful. So then how does one encounter these forces and transform them in a way that leads to genuine liberation?
First, you have to have a lot of respect for them. And a lot of people use psychedelics in very misguided ways, with wrong understanding. Some modern researchers like Stan Grof have a much greater sense for set and setting and of the power of the forces that one can deal with. Similarly in spiritual practice one needs to respect the depth of these experiences. Secondly, one has to make a conscious commitment to the journey of spiritual change - through whatever inspiration - meeting an inspiring person, inspiring reading, faith, or through psychedelic experience.
Lama Chgyam Trungpa once spoke to a group in Berkeley and when he began he said: "My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and it is too demanding. What I would suggest, if you haven't already begun, is to go to the door, ask for your money back, and go home now." He said, "This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you and you should understand that from the beginning. So it is best not to begin. However," he said, "if you do begin, it is best to finish." He is such a lovely teacher.
For those who through some vision, faith, or reason have started, the next thing that is required, after seeing the power of these unconscious forces and of suffering in the world, is to make a commitment to the path of liberation, the path of the Bodhisattva, the path of the transformation of our being. To make that commitment wisely one has to realize that it encompasses every domain of life. This is the ground of spiritual discipline.
Spiritual discipline is based on our actions, our speech, and our relationship to people, animals and plants in the environment. It is related to our inner thoughts; to whether our minds are filled with hatred, jealousy, and greed, or of kindness, tenderness, and compassion. It has to do with our intimate relations to our families, lovers, friends, and to the people we work with. All of this is a fundamental part of spiritual practice.
So there is seeing the forces, making a commitment to transformation, and seeing that the path is really a deep and fundamental one. There is realizing that the work of transformation takes place on all the levels of body, speech, and mind. Then there is the beginning of a spiritual sadhana.
Now your question comes in: What are the kinds of disciplines, what are the parts to it? Again, this is a kind of elaboration of what I started on.
The ground for systematic spiritual practice is virtue. Virtue doesn't mean commandments and/or moralistic teachings, it is an understanding that one have the proper - John Lilly would call it the "launching pad," or to have the earth base covered. And so one begins here.
Sadhana means to keep the five basic precepts in mind: not killing or harming living beings; not stealing, not taking that which isn't given - not being piggy basically in a world of limited resources. To use proper speech, that is, words which are both true and helpful - not brutal honesty - but to see that one's speech is both true and useful. Speech is very powerful. Words can heal. Many people have been healed by a word from their estranged father, a great teacher, even from a stranger in certain circumstances. And words have the power to create tremendous harm and to start wars. To refrain from sexual misconduct means to take care with the great power of sexual energy. Sexual energy can be associated with greed, compulsion, lust, denigration, exploitation, or it can be associated with intimacy, care, communion, attention, and love. So make sure that energy is used in a non-harming way. Finally for intoxicants: not to use intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, which means not use them to escape, to cover over one's pain or difficulty, or in a regular or addicted way in which one has to use them. There has been tremendous suffering in the lives of many million alcoholics, drug abusers, and great suffering for their families. The unnecessary pain, misuse, and widespread addiction to substances generally has been a concern of legitimate spiritual traditions for thousands of years.
Even among the relatively conscious explorers of contemporary psychedelics, addiction and attachment has sometimes been a problem. Even more critical is the overly positive message about both the spiritual and the casual use of these drugs that has been adopted by quite a few people who could not handle them well at all. As many of us who have used psychedelics have discovered, it is not an easy path. What matters from the point of view of this precept is to make their use non-habitual (which probably means occasional). If one uses these substances, whether it is a glass of wine, a joint of marijuana, LSD, or mushrooms, this precept says to make that a conscious and careful part of your life. Without these precepts, if one even begins the journey, they will get lost or go off the track. You can not complete the journey until you get the basics right. This is really a very simple message...
Given the fact that in your tradition there exist states of clarity and there
are reports of people experiencing this more subtle state of mind, my question
is two-fold: first, do you think that such non-cognitive states of mind could
in theory be observed with our external tools? For example, if we were to place
a meditator who is in a state of clear light into one of our modern machines with
magnetic resonance, using new brain-imaging techniques, would we be able to see
something, some sign of this subtle state? Perhaps we do not yet know how to do
this but, in theory,. do you think it would it be possible? If so, what, in your
opinion, would be the relation between the two levels, gross and subtle, in the
field of interdependence? We do not want to succumb to a new dualism, that of
grossness and subtlety. What is the nature of causality between these two levels?
A: I think it may be difficult to measure the activity specific to the mind that consists of reflecting one's object and knowing it. But as the experiences of the gross consciousness appear in the activity of the brain and can therefore be observed as such, it seems to me that it should also be possible to study the physical manifestations of the more subtle states of mind. The subtle level of consciousness, referred to by the term "clear light," appears among other things at the moment of death. Those who have practised ahead of time are able to remain voluntarily in this state for several days after death, and for the duration of this time their bodies do not decompose. Modern scientific instruments would be able to observe this phenomenon, and in fact this has already occurred in India. Although it seems to me that it would be difficult to observe the subtle mind in its entirety using these methods, I think all the same that this might give us an idea.
To answer the second question, concerning the relation between the gross mind and the subtle mind, you must know that the degree of subtlety of the mind will depend in part on the degree of subtlety of its physical support and on the particular ruling condition, the six senses. But the faculty shared by all perceptions -- to reflect an object and know it -- comes from the subtle mind. In this way it is possible to understand the fundamental relation that exists between the subtle and gross levels of the mind. Sensory and mental consciousnesses are produced depending on ruling conditions specific to each of the six senses: visual sense for visual perceptions, mental faculty or sense for mental knowledge, etc. Because the grossness of their support is. greater, sensory perceptions are relatively gross compared to mental consciousnesses. Still, all h ave the ability to reflect their object and know it, an aptitude which derives from their common underlying foundation, the subtle mind, clear light. The tantric texts of Buddhism comment on the manner in which the gross levels of the mind are linked to the subtle mind. It is explained how eighty states of consciousness correspond to four stages of absorption of the gross mind into the subtle mind, during death for example. The links between the different levels of the mind are illustrated, but it is a very complex subject which would be difficult to go into at this point.
Q: I am particularly interested in the question of the validation of phenomena by consciousness, and therefore in the conditions of their integration. I would like to ask if, apart from certain limited analogies -- which are very interesting -- between the Dharma and contemporary sciences, Buddhism has something more fundamental to offer the West. I am thinking here of the practice of meditation in particular: a renewed open-mindedness and sense of space and time which might give scientific information access to a more truly conscious "reality, "so that it would no longer be merely a fascinating "fiction" related to matter/ energy, the space/time curve, the nonsubstantiality of phenomena, etc.
A: I have no immediate answer to your question, but I do have a few ideas to put before you. It would be interesting to refer some of these ideas to certain types of phenomena mentioned by Buddhist philosophical texts. There are physical phenomena, forms, which are not made up of gross matter (one of the properties of which is solid obstruction), but which are, rather, subtle forms, which may be classified into five categories. The first are forms deriving from an assembly, infinitesimal particles such as atoms. Their form is described as being spherical, but their colour is not mentioned. Next we have the mental appearances of space, that is the appearance with which the sky appears to mental perception. I think that modern science could provide more explanations on this subject and have greater success in making it comprehensible. Will it, in reality be particles of space or of light? These two first types of subtle physical phenomena are accepted by all and are not solely creations of the mind.
The third type of subtle form includes those which are imagined and might appear, for example, to a person meditating, but which only the meditator can see and which cannot fulfill their usual functions. The next category is that of forms created by the powers of concentration; these are phenomena which originate from the four physical elements through the force of meditation practised by those who have been very successful in developing their powers of concentration. These phenomena may be experienced not only by the meditator but also by other people. Through meditating in this way it is possible to create fire, for example fire which can fulfill its function of burning and heating. It may seem strange, to say the least, that forms can be produced through the power of concentration. I do not know exactly how they can be interpreted or understood, but I do not think they last for very long after they have been created, probably only for the duration of the meditation. These third and fourth types of form should give scientists matter for reflection! If these phenomena exist, how are they produced?
Up to now we have talked about information contained in the Sutras. We could also examine them in the light of the Tantras, the esoteric aspect of Buddhism which deals at length with the nature of more or less subtle energies.
Q: What is the concept of time in Buddhism?
A: Excuse me, I misunderstood the Tibetan translation of the question; in our language the words for "demon" and "time" are pronounced almost identically, and I was about to give you a talk about what a demon is from a Buddhist point of view!
Regarding the Buddhist concept of time, our philosophy has. adopted several positions. The Sautrantika school, also known as the "Holders of Discourse," affirms that all phenomena and events exist only in the present moment. For this school, past and future are nothing other than simple concepts, simple mental constructs. As for the Madhyamika-Prasangika school, the Consequence School of the Middle Way, it generally explains time in terms of relativity, as an abstract entity developed by the mind on the basis of an imputation, the continuity of an event or phenomenon. This philosophical view &scribes, therefore, an abstract concept whose function is dependent on the continuum of phenomena. From this point on, to try to explain time as an autonomous entity, independent from an existing object, proves impossible. That time is a relative phenomenon and can claim no independent status is quite clear; I often give the example of external objects which can be easily conceived of in terms of the past or future, but of which the very present seems inconceivable. We can divide time into centuries, decades, years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. But as the second is also divisible into multiple parts, milliseconds for example, we can easily lose our grasp of the notion of present time!
As for consciousness, it has neither past nor future and knows only present moments; it is the continuum of a present moment being trans . formed into another present moment, whereas with external objects the present disappears in favour of notions of past and future. But further pursuit of this logic will lead to absurdity, because to situate past and future we need a frame of reference which, in this case, is the present, and we have just lost its trace in fractions of milliseconds.. . .
Q: If consciousness has neither beginning nor end, and if it is not permanent, does it age like an old house, changing with each moment? And if it has neither form, nor colour, nor odour, bow can it be transformed?
A: First of all, let us try to agree on the problematic notion of consciousness, of the mind. We have only a gross and partial intellectual understanding of consciousness. Our desire to perfect that understanding through analytical research will lead us to the discovery of the luminous, clear, and knowing nature of consciousness. It is extremely important to know how to identify clearly the object we are analysing, in this case the nature of consciousness. Once we identify the nature of consciousness with its immaterial and non-obstructive characteristics, we will be able to use it to confront external objects and a third category of phenomena, abstract concepts such as the notions of time and change which have neither the nature of consciousness nor that of material objects. Keeping these three classifications well in mind -- physical objects, the mind, and abstract mental constructs -- we will be able to identify consciousness by comparing it to the two other categories of phenomena. Once we have clear knowledge of its nature, it will not only be possible to have a conscious experience of the process of change occurring within consciousness, but also to understand how consciousness and the experience of consciousness depend on a preceding moment of consciousness. Only the preceding instant of consciousness may lead to a subsequent moment of consciousness nothing else has that faculty.
I do not think we can talk about the continuity of consciousness solely in terms of chronology. The very idea of chronology, and thus aging, only has meaning in relation to material phenomena, such as the body. On the level of different individual consciousnesses, such as sensory faculties, we can use the term "aging" to refer to the physiological basis, the body of a human being; in the case of sensory consciousnesses, aging in large part progresses in keeping with the individual's physiological condition. The two evolutions are not independent. To speak of the "aging of sensory consciousnesses" is possible if we associate this affirmation with a biological, physiological process, something we cannot do when we speak of mental consciousness.
I think it is very important to reflect on the nature of consciousness, to know the different types of consciousnesses and their natures. Buddhist scripture holds that sensory perceptions, such as visual consciousness, are direct and not conceptual; a visual perception perceives a form, without however discerning between its good or bad, desirable or undesirable, aspects. The discernment takes place on a conceptual level, which constitutes a far more interpretative process than. that of simple sensory perception.
As far as mental consciousness, the world of conceptual thought, is concerned, we distinguish different levels of subtlety, from the gross to the most subtle, well-documented in the tantric system The brain, neurons, synapses, etc., are connected to consciousness, and this opens onto a vast terrain for investigation when we connect them with what tantric literature calls energy (Tibetan: lung; Sanskrit: prana).
Research into the exact nature of the relation between the brain, consciousness, and energy proves to be very interesting. When all the functions of the brain have stopped and physiological conditions have disappeared, it would seem that a form of the process of consciousness continues to exist. This has been observed in the experience of certain realized lamas whose bodies, although declared clinically dead, do not decompose and remain fresh for several days or even several weeks. At this stage, the Buddhist point of view maintains that the individual is not altogether dead, that he is continuing to evolve through the process of death, and that he remains in a state of subtle consciousness. I think scientists ought to seek logical explanations for these cases when the body does not decompose even when the functions of the brain and the body have stopped.
The texts also give accounts of meditators who have learned to develop a supernatural ability to create physical objects with their mind, or produce elements such as fire and air, perceived not only by their creator but also, apparently, by other people. Other types of mentally created objects are only perceived by the meditator. I do wonder what the substantial, material cause of these external objects might be. If there is a result -- a mentally created physical object -- it must be preceded by a cause and conditions of the same nature. I also wonder if these objects exist solely during the practitioner's meditation, and cease to exist as soon as he leaves his meditative absorption. I cannot say what the material cause of this type of mentally created object might be. It is a question I address to the monastic community: can consciousness become a substantial cause of material objects? The Tantras, such as that of Guhyasamaja, speak of the illusory body and its substantial cause, which is purported to be subtle energy, as subtle energy is part of the material world. I must say that this
Q: How did illusion begin?
A: As the continuum of the mind has no beginning, ignorance does not have one either. If it did, we would have to discover from within a state of consciousness that predates ignorance and is different from ir in an enlightened mind, therefore -- a cause resulting in ignorance. This makes no sense.
Q: Is there a primordial cause for all causes?
A: No. Generally, causes have no origin, and for this reason effects have none either. We can nevertheless say, in the context of a very specific point, that in some cases causes and effects have a beginning. When we establish that the continuum of the mind is without beginning, to want t o discern a beginning to causes would be an obvious contradiction! You know, Buddhist logicians are quite rigorous. From the moment they accept that the mind has no beginning they can affirm logically and resolutely that neither causes nor effects have one either.
The material on this page has been collected from the recent book, "Beyond Dogma: The Challenge of the Modern World", (c) 1996 North Atlantic Books, translated by Alison Anderson and Marianne Dresser from talks given during His Holiness's visit to France end 1993.
Radio Interview of Chan Master Sheng-yen with Lee Hixon
cup fell to the ground
The sound was perfectly clear
was smashed to pieces
The mad mind abruptly came to a halt.
Burning the hand, the cup was smashed to pieces
When the home is destroyed and the family all dead
It is hard to say anything.
spring arrives, flowers blossom, the scent pervading everywhere
Mountains, rivers and the great Earth are all the Tathagata
--Master Hsu Yun
On December 16, Master Sheng-Yen along with two of his students (Marina Heau and Dan Stevenson), was a guest on WBAI radio's 'In the Spirit' program with Lex Hixon. During that interview, Shih-fu spoke about the kind of help he had received from both his Grand Master, T'ai Hsu and his Great Grand Master, Hsu Yun. First-hand accounts of their enlightenment experiences, including the above two poems, were read and discussed. Shih-fu also commented on the various levels of experience in meditation and about his relationship with his own students.
Because of the interested response from many of the listeners following the broadcast, we have decided to include portions of that interview in this publication, especially for those who may not have had the opportunity to listen in on that Sunday afternoon.
Shih-fu : Inevitably there are many different levels of meditation experience and the depth of an experience can be judged by the person's feelings of the experience. If the experience is shallow, then the person would still feel the existence of the external world and the internal world and even the distance between the two. A deeper experience would be when the distance between the two actually disappears. And in an even deeper experience, not only does the distance itself disappear, but the whole thing completely disappears. And yet everything is still very clear.
Lex : Shih-fu, when you saw these two people (Dan and Marina) practicing, could you tell that they were going to approach an experience like this and were you able to help them by pushing them a little bit?
Shih-fu : Usually I can know if someone is about to have an experience. I am not one with super powers, but very often I will have a natural response so that I realize what will occur with certain students and am able to use appropriate methods to help them along.
Lex : Because, as you said earlier, Shih-fu, the sense of outside and inside disappears, you must feel that you are not outside your students and whatever they are experiencing is just as intimate to you as what you are experiencing.
Shih-fu : That's right. The students are just the Shih-fu himself.
Lex : We are going to be looking at two enlightenment experiences of a very high order. The first one that we'll read is that of Shih-fu's Grand Master, his Grandfather in the Dharma, and the second one will be of his Great Grandfather in the Dharma, his Grand Master's Master. These are first-person accounts from great Chinese Masters of our times essentially. We are always reading of the old Zen Patriarchs of hundreds and even thousands of years ago, but these are people who are completely comparable to the original Patriarchs. Shih-fu, let's read your Grand Master first. This was his first enlightenment experience, while reading the Sutra in 1908, when he was 19 years old. And then he had a second or a deepening of his experience when he was 28 years old, in the winter of 1916 --
'I had been reading the Parinirvana Sutra for more than a month and was just about finished with it. During this time my body and mind had gradually become concentrated, stable, at peace. One day while reading the Sutra, suddenly my body, mind and world disappeared. I entered into a condition where nothing existed. An extremely bright and pure light appeared which extended without limit. Within this limitless, bright and pure light there was clearly manifested innumerable, incalculable transparent worlds. All this existed within the great emptiness. I sat like this for several hours, which seemed to pass in an instant. After this experience, for many days following, my body and mind were still extremely happy, light, pure and peaceful.'
that time I was sitting in meditation every night and the previous enlightenment
experience which I had had while reading the Sutra regularly reoccurred. However,
this time I applied the method of viewing the experience itself as empty. The
method gradually took effect and became uninterrupted. One night, as I heard the
sound of the Ch'ien Monastery evening bell, my mind suddenly disappeared. When
my awareness returned, there was nothing but limitless, indescribable sound and
light. From a condition where there was nothing, no external, no internal, no
subjectivity, no objectivity, gradually subjectivity, objectivity, inner and outer,
near and far, and the longness and shortness of time all reappeared, and I returned
to my original condition of sitting in the meditation hall. A whole long night
had passed from the time my mind had disappeared till my awareness returned. It
was not until I heard the sound of the morning bell that I regained awareness....
From this time onward, my mind was firmly established in an extremely pure emptiness
and was filled with a very bright and clear awareness. This was completely different
from my previous experience in which I had merely seen many phenomena within the
emptiness and bright light.'
Lex : Each teacher, each lineage has a kind of specialty you might say. What, would you say, was the special thing that he gave to your teacher and to you?
Shih-fu : The important guideline that he had given to my Master was that of Buddhist theories. At that time the methods of practice were actually incorporated in Buddhist theories, so he did not teach any specific way of meditation but rather the conception of Buddhism and the direction of Buddhism. I have been significantly influenced by this Master's ideas.
Lex : That's why he had his first enlightenment experience while reading the Sutra. He must have felt that actually reading the Sutra itself had some sort of power.
Shih-fu : Enlightenment does not come necessarily from meditation. This Master became a monk very early in life, so at the time he was reading this Sutra, he had also been meditating everyday. Much time was spent in meditation. In fact, for many of the great Ch'an Masters that we know, in most cases their enlightenment did not come directly during meditation, but rather, building on the foundation of meditation, they came into contact with something, some sound, or they might have been reading something, and suddenly became enlightened.
Lex : One of the backgrounds of Master Sheng-Yen is that you went to Japan and took a doctorate degree, and therefore you qualify as a fine scholar as well as a meditation master. I think it is an important combination because today many people think that Zen can just do away with all the teachings and the Sutras and just go straight to the direct experience. But it seems to me that this would be making it more narrow, and this particular Master emphasized the value of Buddhist doctrine.
Shih-fu : From my point of view, the doctorate degree was not very important or useful to me. In fact, I acquired the doctorate degree in Japan in a relatively short time. So my emphasis is on practice and not on scholarly work. However, where we look into historical figures, most of the great Masters and Patriarchs had very deep foundations in the theoretical works as well. A doctorate degree is not useful to me. However it is useful for helping me to spread the Dharma and Ch'an practice.
Lex : Now we will go to Master Sheng-Yen's Great Grandfather in the Dharma. This was his enlightenment experience that happened when he was 56 years old, in 1895. And again, I remind you of a very important cultural point, that there are Zen masters in China. There is an unbroken transmission there. It is the country where Ch'an, or Zen, really flourished and began and still has an unbroken transmission. And Shih-fu, Master Sheng-Yen, is a living embodiment of that tradition.
'After I had been meditating for more than twenty days all my thoughts disappeared. I was working intensely moment to moment, day and night without interruption. When walking I moved like the wind. One evening when the bell was rung to signal the beginning of the sleep period, I opened my eyes and looked around. Suddenly I saw a great light as if it were broad daylight. I could clearly see both the inside and outside of my body. I saw a monk urinating on the other side of the wall and another monk relieving himself in the outhouse. A long distance off I could clearly see a boat moving on a river, as well as the trees along the banks. Then suddenly I heard the sound of the morning boards. A whole night had passed. The next day I asked the two monks if they had really been where I saw them the night before. They answered 'yes'. After several more weeks had passed, one evening during the meditation break a monk was pouring hot water into my cup. The water spilt and burned my hand, causing the cup to fall and break. As soon as I heard the smashing sound, I became enlightened. I felt that in this life I was extremely lucky. It was like awakening from a dream.'
Lex : Master Sheng-yen, you told us a little about your Grandfather in the Dharma and the special gift that he gave you. Now this Great Grandfather in the Dharma you mention came from a different lineage; what would you say the special gift of this Great Grandfather was?
Shih-fu : I have never met this Master, but my Master in this lineage had a very deep relationship with him. The relationship that I had with my Master was actually very interesting because during my practice I had a lot of experiences but couldn't explain them well and just couldn't be certain about them. And so I met this Master. We just stayed together for a few evenings. One evening I asked him a few questions and he gave me very short answers. With just a few short sentences, he explained away everything, all the doubts that I had had in my mind. With my so-called Great Grandfather in the Dharma, the relationship was indirect. But because of what I had received from this Master, I was very grateful to him. The most important thing that I had received from my Master were two Chinese characters which mean put down. At that point I had many questions to ask him, but he simply told me to put down. Right away I felt the problems disappear, although daily life would still continue as usual. My whole personality changed just after these two words. This experience has never before been told to anyone.
Lex : Shih-fu, anyone else could say those same two characters, or those same English words, put down. What is the difference when an enlightened Master says that? What gives the power to that?
Shih-fu : First, I had absolute faith in the Master, and at that point I had a lot of things in my mind that I could not put down. And, of course, the Master and the disciple must have a good karmic connection. At that moment, the Master recognized that my time had come, so he just told me to put down. In fact, if those words had been said at any other time, it would not have been as powerful. This is Ch'an. There must be a right opportunity and karma, and the minds of the Master and disciple must unite.
Lex : As Master Sheng-yen said earlier, he knew when Dan and Marina were about to have those experiences, and actually he said that they were none other than his own. That is a very deep thing that he told us. Is it true that the Zen Master experiences all experiences as his own somehow?
Shih-fu : Ch'an Masters have various levels of attainment; some have reached a very high level, some have just barely passed the first barrier. Ch'an Masters are not necessarily completely enlightened people, so it cannot be said that they can experience everything. However, when a Ch'an Master has disciples who are making progress, then inevitably the Master will also be making progress and vice-versa. When a Master himself is practicing hard and making progress, there is also a better chance for him to bring his disciples forward.
Lex : So there's no end to this process of deepening?
Shih-fu : For me this is probably true. But ultimately if there is an end, that end point is also the state where there is no end.
group affiliation at root of conflicts
By Shiochi Habu
Chief of General European Bureau, Yomiuri Shimbun
This is the 10th in a series of interviews with distinguished intellectuals concerning problems in contemporary civilization in relation to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In this installment, biologist Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford University, is interviewed in London.
Yomiuri Shimbun: The history of humanity can be described as a series of wars. As humans are not the only animals that kill each other, is there any biological or scientific explanation for wars among the same species?
Dawkins: Firstly, I think it is a misconception that other species don't kill each other. This was a theory put forward by Konrad Lorenz and several of his disciples. The idea grew up that somehow humans were the only species that actually killed each other. But other species do.
If they don't kill each other, it is not for the good of the species, as Lorenz said, but because (the resulting retaliation) would be too dangerous.
If you look at human aggression, you see two very different things going on. You see fights in pubs between drunken men. That is much more like animal aggression.
But warfare is completely different. If you look at the psychological emotions of the people who are doing the killing in warfare, they are not actually feeling aggressive. They are not losing their tempers. They are not feeling furious with the person they are killing. They are part of a large organization and the person who does the killing is just pressing a button.
Therefore, it is confusing to link warfare with aggression. It is maybe confusing to link warfare with any thing in any other species at all. The nearest example I have ever seen is ants, who seem to have wars between separate nests.
I am not sure that biology, at least in a naive sense, has much to say about war. I think there is something very unique about it.
Is a sense of affiliation with a certain group a cause for war?
We could say that war is helped by a biological tendency to identify 'in groups' and 'out groups'; to identify with people who belong in your own group and feel hostility to anyone who belongs in the wrong group.
There is some experimental evidence of this. Experiments have been set up which take some sort of society, such as a school or a prison, and arbitrarily divide people into two groups, called the greens and the blues. There is nothing different about them except some are told they are greens and the others are told that they are blues. Maybe they might wear a green or a blue uniform.
They begin by just playing games against each other, perhaps football or some kind of intellectual game. After a while, it develops into a kind of extreme hostility between the greens and the blues.
There does seem to be a strong biological tendency in humans to identify with a team or group to fight against another team or group.
This is one thing that religion does, even in cases like Northern Ireland, where the hostility is not actually about theological disagreement. I mean, when a Protestant terrorist throws a bomb into a Catholic pub they are not saying, "Take that you transubstantiating, nationalist Tridentine bastards."
It is just that they are the other group.
In societies like Belgium, where you have two different languages, where half speak Dutch and half speak French, language is the equivalent of the greens and the blues.
In Northern Ireland, religion is the equivalent of the greens and the blues. People will say, 'It's not about religion, it's about economic oppression, it's about politics, it's about a long history of oppression"
Religion is providing the equivalent of the greens and the blues.
You are famous as an antireligionist. Do you think the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have proved your argument that religion is evil?
"Prove" is a strong word. But I think it is very compatible with that view in two different senses. The minor sense is that faith gave the hijackers the courage to perform a suicidal act. I think there is very little doubt that this is true.
The major point is that I expect a lot of the underlying motivation for committing an act like this comes in the first place from religion.
I think that Sept. 11 has cleared the minds of people like me who had hitherto been against religion, but nevertheless polite and respectful (toward it). I now no longer feel polite and respectful. I think it has (steered me toward) the direction of wanting to come out into the open and be actively hostile to religion.
Do you say the problem lies with all religions, not just Islam? In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks you pointed out that religion is not harmless nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.
Yes. And you can quote that. I forget where I said that.
After the Sept. 11 attack, it was reported that the number of churchgoers increased. Does this surprise you?
No. I am not surprised, and that is another aspect of the situation. In America, they held various days of prayer, which actually made me quite sick. It seemed to me that, on both sides, the same evil was being revered with neither side realizing that this kind of faith was fundamentally responsible for the attack in the first place.
So, yes, I am sure you are right about an increase in churchgoing.
Do you believe there is still a taboo in Western society about denying God?
Yes, especially in America. I have read that people who admit to not believing in God may be ostracized in their social group or their children may get bullied in school. That doesn't happen in the U.K.
Do you deny other religions such as Buddhism?
Maybe Buddhism is not a religion at all, but a philosophy. When Buddhism was first heard about in the West, the word "philosophy" was hardly known. It was introduced as though it was a religion, but maybe if it had been called Buddhist philosophy, we would be treating it very differently now. I don't know. I am just raising that question. It seems to me so different from what we ordinarily think of as religion, where there are actual supernatural gods involved. Perhaps the word religion is not appropriate for it.
According to your book "The Selfish Gene" human beings are just vehicles to carry genes. In my understanding, your theory is often mistaken as genetic determinism. Your book is still very popular in Japan, but when I told people I was going to interview you, they wanted me to ask you about the theory of genes dictating all human actions.
No. That only comes from people who haven't actually read it. It is nothing to do with determinism.
The reason why I wrote "The Selfish Gene," and the reason why Darwinists like me are so obsessed with genes, is not that we think genes have a deterministic influence on development. It is that only changes in gene frequencies are of evolutionary interest.
You define the human brain as rebelling against dictation by genes.
Through most of evolutionary history it has been possible to look at animals, their brains and their behavior, and say in a fairly simple sense: "This helps the animal to survive. This helps the genes to survive."
The same is true of brains and the same was originally true of human brains. The human brain, like the human eye or the human foot, is an adaptation to (help the organism) survive and to reproduce.
But the human brain became so large that it became possible for it to take things into its own hands. It could do things that might not actually benefit survival and reproduction.
An obvious example is contraception. What contraception does is profoundly anti-Darwinian. Darwinian selection has built into our brains an enjoyment of sex. If it had built into our brains a desire to have children--which maybe it has to some extent, maybe especially in women--then that would be fine. But it seems that a very strong desire for sex was built into males. As long as there is no contraception, this will produce children--so it works.
When there is contraception, it doesn't work. But nevertheless, the rule that has been built into the brain, which is to enjoy sex, still works and still plays out. So this is a kind of rebellion.
That is a very simple kind of rebellion. You can make the same argument for much more complicated kinds of rebellion.
What other rebellious actions can the brain take?
By the same token, our brain is powerful enough for us to consciously rebel, to say something like, " I actually think that a Darwinian world is a very bad world in which to live."
It is the world which led to us in the first place. It is Darwinian selection which gave rise to us in the first place.
We can explicitly rebel and say, "The Darwinian world, the world of natural selection, the world of dog eat dog, a sort of Margaret Thatcher type of world, is not a pleasant world in which to live." We can consciously and deliberately rebel and we can even set up organizations, which are called things like a socialist party, which are kind of rebellious parties.
You could think of a welfare state as an anti-Darwinian social system, and it is a system that I support.
Darwinism in the past was eugenically abused to justify fascism. Fascists, during World War II, interpreted Darwinism as justifying their policies through eugenics.
Darwinism shouldn't be used as a justification for anything. Darwinism is just the explanation of how life came to be the way it is. That doesn't mean we have to follow it.
Talking about perfecting the human race by killing off inferior types is not a thing that any Darwinian has to follow.
What's your prediction for this century?
It is almost impossible to imagine the changes in technology.
I have looked in a much more amateurish way at the (changes) in genetic technology. If you extrapolate this into this century--and again we don't know if we are justified in extrapolating, but geneticists I have spoken to think we probably are--out as far as 2050, what you find on that extrapolation curve is that it will be possible for every individual human to have their own human genome project. When you visit the doctor today, he or she will give you an x-ray. For the same price as an x-ray in 2050, you will be able to have a complete genome sequence.
It means that people will have to get used to the idea of not just knowing that they are going to die sometime, but when. Everybody will be in the same position as a cancer patient who is told, "You are going to die at this time."
Academically, this genetic equivalent of Moore's Law (a theory holding that the processing power of computer chips doubles every 18 months), will mean that in my own field it will be cheap to get the sequence of any animal or plant. It won't be possible to argue any more (whether) evolution is a fact. It will be completely obvious.
As for other aspects of biotechnology, I suppose cloning will become easier and my guess is it will become common.
Is it an exciting time?
Yes, I suppose it is an exciting time.
Dawkins was born in 1941 in Nairobi. He has become known as a combative atheist. His book "The Selfish Gene" has been a longtime seller.
An interview with Ajahn Pasanno
FSNL: Do you have any general comment on establishing monasteries in the West?
Reflecting on the development of the Western monastic community, I think it's
really important to consider that there are kammic consequences in establishing
places - you have to look after them. If the monks don't feel comfortable taking
responsibility, or they feel comfortable but aren't competent in doing it, it's
really problematic for the rest of them as well as for the lay community.
I think we have to really remember what our goal is - it's practising this Dhamma-Vinaya and trying to understand the teachings of the Buddha: how to apply them, so that there's a clear acknowledgement of the fact that there is suffering and there is the end to suffering and be able to experience liberation. I think it must be oppressive for monks if they have to view their life as a career - that they're slotted into that pattern. If that was my perception of what I'd have to do - to fulfil the external duties of the and finally become an abbot - that would be oppressive. Because, really the emphasis always has to be on how we can live this way of life so we can participate or partake in the virtues of wisdom, compassion and purity. Without that it turns into a job, or a duty, which is even worse than a job in that you have to do it, and that is quite burdensome.
FSNL: It's quite specific, isn't it, to be able to listen to a lot of people, make decisions, act as a go-between with lay-people, between this monk and that monk, and also have an eye on practical things. I mean, it's not just a matter of if you can meditate, you can therefore be the abbot of a monastery.
Yes, right, in terms of abbot-ship, it's really an art: learning how to listen
to people, learning how to communicate, how to administrate, how to harmonise
the community, learning how to be patient with things. I mean, that's an on-going
sort of learning - when do you push people, when do you try to push the community,
and when do you just have to sit back, be patient and let it unfold and work itself
out? That's something that you're always learning.
It's hard to get a balance, because sometimes people really need to be pushed and encouraged to make or do something better than what they're doing and other people just need to be left to go on their own. We've been thinking more and more of the necessity of screening, in terms of the training before people get ordained, because the longer that I'm a monk I see that it's not actually for everybody. It's not something that everybody is either happy doing or wants to do, and even if they sometimes feel they'd like to, sometimes they're not cut out for it.
The reason why you keep moral precepts is in order to be happy, to be free from a sense of oppression from the things that agitate the mind. This sense of restraint is to allow the mind to really dwell in well-being, so it's not bounced around all the time. If one practises meditation, the whole reason why samadhi actually establishes itself in the mind is because of happiness. If the mind isn't happy, then meditation doesn't come to a point of fruition.
FSNL: What do you see as the different ways that monks can develop? First of all they have to learn the basics of the vinaya but then after 3 or 4 years or even 5 years or so, what lies ahead for them?
I think that is something we've not been very clear on, and I think there should
be more structure to support this development. You know, having places and situations
where people can study, can have opportunities for meditation - not just as a
part of everything else that's going on, but to have the time to really focus
on aspects of study, on consistently developing meditation, like taking anapanasati
or metta bhavana, for example, and over 6 months, a year, 2 years, really getting
it clear just how to use those tools.
You do need to be able to get good foundations in both the theoretical and experiential aspects of the teachings of the Buddha to really understanding how the Four Noble Truths work, what the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are and how to apply them, and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment - what do those mean? How can you relate them to the other teachings the Buddha gave, so that then they become something you can really apply and therefore a foundation of saddha (confidence). Now, as Westerners, we come from a background where we have so much information and knowledge, that it takes a long time to clear the clutter away. Once we have a basic understanding of how to use the tools: how to live with the community; how to use the Teachings in that way - because that takes a lot of the rough edges off - then, to have a period of being able to settle into consistent study and consistent practice. Having time to delve into it not as some research project, but as a practice.
FSNL: Do you have any situations in North East (Thai) branch monasteries where you can do that?
AP: Well, there are places
like Poo Jom Gom and Dtow Dum on the border with Burma. Those two places are very
quiet and inaccessible; there's not a lot of coming and going and once the monks
are there, they can settle into longer periods of practice.
Once a monk has gone and done a bit of tudong, visited some of the other teachers who are available - and I think it's very important for monks to see other places of practice and other teachers - then it's good to have a place where they can come back and settle into periods of retreat and practice on their own. And that can be balanced out with periods of helping at Wat Pah Nanachat, which is the main training place.
FSNL: Do you think that's possible in the West, or do you feel we're still at the stage where there's a lot more work to get things going?
Just from my period of stay in Britain, I think it'd be really useful to have
one of the branch monasteries where the majjhima monks (those with five to ten
years training) could go, study and practise, and be in an environment where they're
not seeing the same old situation, with the responsibilities and activities that
go on around that. I think people would benefit from it and appreciate it a lot.
I think especially in the West where there are so many external pulls and where
the pulls go into very diverse directions, it's important to take the opportunity
to really focus on the Theravada teachings.
Here there's a whole range of Buddhist teachings and teachers, and this Hindu teacher and that Swami and that guru and these Christian ones; and they're doing this and they're doing that, and that's interesting and we can learn something from all that; but then to be able to come back and focus really clearly on the Theravada teachings - this teaching as it is available to us, the teachings of the Buddha in the Theravada tradition. They're a bit stodgy, so you actually have to make an effort to investigate them, and it's when you start looking at them clearly that you really start to appreciate the directness and the clarity and the focus - the quality of it. There's a real integrity to these Teachings. Sometimes the commentary, the explanations and the overlay of things can be dry and you have to sift through things. Sifting through a lot of sand you come to some real gems!
FSNL: Don't you think that the situation in Thailand would favour that a lot more, because there, for a start, the very context is so very solidly Theravada Buddhist, in a way you're much more hard-pressed to actually find anything else anyway - whereas this is a cosmopolitan, multi-cultured society. Also, the monks and nuns have to be available to some extent to physically run the places, to do maintenance work, which perhaps isn't so necessary in Thailand.
That's true, I mean we're pretty blessed in Thailand to live in the situations
we have and to be supported so completely. Here in the West there is the necessity
to be involved in so many ways. But I think that's also why it's important to
bring up as an option a situation where people could focus more clearly. Because
the more clearly you can focus on the practice and the teaching of the Buddha,
then the more clearly you're able to give that reflection back to the lay community
and channel their interest. And as you get more clear in the practice and the
Teachings, people recognise that, want to follow that and be like that. That's
why we're all here. But the level of our minds tend too much to chaos and busy-ness,
it's just so easy to get lost. But as soon as you see a reflection and something
reminds you of that, then you get back down to it.
I think that it's useful for us as senior monks to take the time to have periods of retreat. Then that emphasis on the roots of the practice acts as a focal point for everybody else.
When you're leading a community, if you're doing it as a practice, you're really doing it completely and making yourself completely available all the time. And as a practice you really learn a lot from that. But then I think it's quite necessary as a balance to that, to have the time to meditate in a consistent way. Because when you're always available for everybody, you don't have this same sort of time to develop the meditation consistently, or time to just sit down and read the scriptures. You have to be able to sit with them and chew them over and really investigate them. And when you're taking on all sorts of responsibilities for the external aspect of the monastery and the monks and the lay-people there, then you've got so many things on your mind, it's difficult to have the continuity of reflection.
So it's quite necessary for senior monks to have periods of time - some months, a year, two years, because it takes time when you do go into retreat to just settle down and get into it - so that you can clear out all the stuff you've been carrying around. We can only help the community to the point to which we ourselves have developed. So we need time as well to come back and consider our own development.
FSNL: Do you think there are commonly held wrong views about Theravada - particularly in the West it can often be portrayed as a rather stale and life-denying experience?
That is a perception, definitely how some people see it. Again, we get a lot of
our perceptions from books and that's how it's presented. But, especially in Thailand,
we've been blessed to have a teacher who was a model of how to live the Teachings
and what the results of the practice were. Maybe written down it looks like that,
but when it's lived, it's lived like this and the results come about like this.
You've got a living tradition. So there's a more clear sense of how to apply it.
I think it's important how human these teachings are. I think that the general perception of the goal as it's sometimes presented in Theravada Buddhism is as some sort of miserable extinction! I don't think that accords with the teachings, once you start delving into them. It doesn't really accord with the way the Buddha presented it, but it's how it's been presented. In a society like Thailand that presentation can act as a balance because within the whole society there's a tremendous life-affirmation and enjoyment of life. But as Westerners, we have a pretty miserable world-view to begin with and we take that perspective and it turns into something really dreary!
But if one goes back to the scriptures, you start realising that there is a stress on the importance of happiness. The reason why you keep moral precepts is in order to be happy, to be free from a sense of oppression from the things that agitate the mind. This sense of restraint is to allow the mind to really dwell in well-being, so it's not bounced around all the time. If one practises meditation, the whole reason why samådhi actually establishes itself in the mind is because of happiness. If the mind isn't happy, then meditation doesn't come to a point of fruition. And your clear-seeing of the true nature of reality is the source of tremendous happiness. So the whole path is a path of happiness and often that's not seen or understood.
FSNL: How about Thailand? I mean, if we're looking at, say, an example of how Theravada Buddhism works in a society, sometimes you get some pretty grim reports: AIDS, the drinking, the rabid development, de-afforestation, crime rate, child prostitution and so on, and also quite a lot of reports of the Sangha seemingly not living up in any way to what the Buddha would have wanted them to live.
I think the Buddha would be pretty horrified by what he'd see. I mean you can
definitely see those things; they're definitely there. I think it's like a natural
phenomenon in a religious society - a religion tends to get old and creaky and
corrupt, and it doesn't matter whether it's a religion, a bureaucracy, a government,
or whatever - the seeds of their own destruction or degeneration are sown within
them. So it's an old tradition and it's getting pretty rickety and falling apart
in certain aspects.
On the other hand, there are some really vital things going on in Thailand, in terms of Dhamma, in terms of practice. People who are most interested in Buddhism in Thailand are middle-class or upper-class people, educated people who have a really sincere interest. In Bangkok you've got Buddhist groups established in various places. Government ministries, hospitals, banks, private businesses, will get a Buddhist group together and then try to get a monk or a nun, or a lay-man or a lay-woman who is knowledgeable in Dhamma, and a group will form. There are different teachers, they'll hear so-and-so is coming to Thailand and so-and-so is giving some teachings, then these different groups will invite different people, so in Bangkok there are always places where you can go and listen to Dhamma. And there are monasteries which are doing a similar thing, that get really large groups of people coming to listen to talks and who want to practise meditation.
When I first went to Thailand over 20 years ago, there was very little interest in meditation within the society at large - it was seen as something that was for the monks. Now that's not the case at all. You've got places where people want to practise, they want to get the tools, so they can go home and meditate and find out more about the Buddha's teachings. You've got not just meditation groups, but study groups, sutta study groups, you've got Abhidhamma study groups - it's very active that way. And that is something really promising.
FSNL: Do you get some kind of trickle-down effect, say from the lay interest in meditation and the suttas into something that's working in terms of dealing with their social problems, like welfare, employment or charities?
One of the things that works really well in Thailand is the charities and different
things that people can support. The whole concept of dana is just so strong in
Thailand that people are very willing to give, to help with things.
A really good example is a monk called Phra Phayom who lives on the edge of Bangkok. He's built a kind of hostel beside his monastery. Normally when the country people come into Bangkok it's very easy for them to be taken advantage of and badly abused in various ways. So he's made a hostel where anybody who comes to the city can have a place to stay, to be safe. Because he's a well-known teacher, various companies and businesses will let him know when they have jobs available, so he'll make sure these people get jobs where they won't be taken advantage of. If somebody's in Bangkok, without a job and doesn't know where to go, they can go to that monastery and be looked after. There are other groups that take in all sorts of second-hand things and make them available to poor people very cheaply, such as food and clothing. All these things are done through Dhamma groups and monasteries.
FSNL: And you've been doing some work in terms of preserving natural forest?
Yes, particularly around the Poo Jom Gom area. I'd been in Ubon say, 15 or 16
years at the time and I thought that Ubon province was all flat paddy fields with
scrubby trees scattered around, but this is one area that is left. It's along
the Mekong River and up until recently was very inaccessible, so there's still
existing forests left and a National Park has just been established. We established
the monastery there before the National Park was made legal, so we started to
try to help preserve that area of forest, because it's definitely encroached on
and threatened, as any forest in Thailand - it doesn't matter whether it's a National
Park or not. The forests are disappearing incredibly quickly.
There are eleven villages surrounding this large area of forest and in order to protect the forest, you've got to educate the villagers, you've got to have the co-operation of villagers. Basically you've also got to be able to give the villagers some means of making a living without destroying the forest, because right now, it's a very poor area of Thailand so they survive by poaching the logs and shooting the animals and eating them or selling the skins, so you've got to have alternatives for them to actually make a living. And this is something that has never been done before. Generally, when a National Park was set up, the policy was to keep everybody out of it; and then all that did was to alienate the villagers. The forestry officials don't have the manpower or the power within the society to change things, so they just get swamped and the forest just keeps being destroyed.
FSNL: So what can the monks do?
can act as arbitrators. Senior monks are respected, so we can act as a go-between,
between the government bureaucrats and the villagers. There are people who are
actually hired to work in public health, but often with these outback villages,
the civil service or the government never really gets there, or when they do get
there they come in and lord it over the villagers, or the villagers get taken
advantage of by the civil service, so you've got to re-establish a relationship.
The monks can do that.
And then also the monks can get volunteer groups involved. Right now there are students from the teachers' college and the technical college, who put on plays and skits concerning ecology, the environment and looking after the forest. So once you get the kids involved, then you get the teachers involved. The teachers are quite important in terms of the society. Then once the kids are talking about things, the parents are involved, so it has an indirect effect on things.
We've got the involvement of the Population and Development Association and the head of the Family Planning has committed his organisation to helping us by focussing on alternative livelihood for the villagers. Then there's the nature care group that started with me, we're focussing on education... but it's about everyone working together, and a monk can be very effective in bringing all these different groups together. It's one of the functions of a monk and a monastery to be a meeting place for different levels of society and different groups of people. Cittaviveka October 1994
Thurman Doesn't Look Buddhist
From The New York Times Magazine
ALL AND IMPOSING, IN A DARK BLUE SUIT and bold red-and-yellow tie, Prof. Robert A.F. Thurman, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and New Yorker to his bones, marched to center stage at Carnegie Hall. Thurman, who is also the president of Tibet House, was introducing the organization's annual benefit concert. He announced to the sold-out house, with a certain wry hilarity, the Tibetan New Year of the Fiery Rat. He praised the evening's performers, Michael Stipe and Emmylou Harris among them, for "putting a shield of poetry around the heart of a suffering people." Later on, Thurman kicked and shuffled his way across the stage, eyeing his feet nervously, arm in arm with the singers Natalie Merchant and Patti Smith as Dadon, an exiled Tibetan balladeer, led them in a Tibetan New Year's dance. After the concert, Thurman rushed upstairs to introduce reporters to one of his daughters, the actress Uma Thurman, and to Harrison Ford, hosts of the late supper party to come. There, Thurman held forth energetically, in a swarm of rock stars, models, movie stars and other wealthy patrons of Tibet House.
When I asked him how a meditative Buddhist type could handle so much action, Thurman said, "There's a stereotype that Buddhism is quietistic: leave the world, drop out -- drop dead basically." Then he laughed and talked about how meditation can also release enormous amounts of energy. Thurman enjoys his contradictions. To him, Buddhist enlightenment is "the tolerance of cognitive dissonance, the ability to cope with the beauty of complexity."
Cognitive dissonance is Thurman's way of life. Though a highly respected scholar -- he is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University -- Thurman can also come on like a dharma-thumping evangelist. In fact, he has emerged as the most visible and charismatic exponent of Tibetan Buddhism in America: he is a prolific translator and writer ("Essential Tibetan Buddhism," an anthology of key texts in translation, was just published by HarperCollins), a powerful advocate for the liberation of Tibet and the Dalai Lama's cultural liaison to America.
In San Francisco recently, he talked four hours straight over lunch until a vacuum cleaner made it clear that the restaurant was completely empty. We then raced across town in his rented red Mustang, and he spoke for another three hours on dharma, the Buddhist teachings, at the California Institute for Integral Studies. His lectures are multivocal psychodramas. Prof. P. Jeffrey Hopkins of the University of Virginia, Thurman's colleague and fellow translator, calls him "the Red Skelton of Tibetan Buddhism."
Thurman's large head is framed with wavy, reddish blond hair, which curls back over his ears in wings. After a while you notice that his right eye roves, while the left stays fixed. Ask one question and Thurman's booming, reedy tenor rises off at odd angles and zooms into open rhetorical space. Speaking about the Buddha after his enlightenment, for instance: "He was a seething energy field. His skin was all gold. You know this little tuft of white hair, this third eyebrow that he had? It came into its own finally, like a transistor -- zzzzzz -- and light rays would beam out all over the place."
Thurman, at 54, seethes with energy himself. Natalie Merchant, a family friend, remembers Thurman singlehandedly clearing a huge boulder from his country house in Woodstock, N.Y.; his son, Dechen, recalls his father shimmying up a tree with a chain saw, cutting off a limb that was threatening to crash into a window. "He was a monk, and monks take 252 vows," says Thurman's wife, Nena von Schlebrugge-Thurman, who serves as the treasurer for Tibet House. "And a lot of those vows have to do with not thinking about yourself and being there to help other people. He has developed a bad tendency to say yes to everything. So the entire family is joined together in a desperate effort over all these years to get him to cut down on these things, and he's become much, much improved lately."
Well, maybe. In the past two years, Thurman published a new translation of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," wrote the text for a picture book called "Inside Tibetan Buddhism" and published "Essential Tibetan Buddhism." Another book, on Tibetan politics, is in the works. A few years ago, he helped mount a major traveling exhibit of Tibetan art, "Wisdom and Compassion."
Thurman says he believes that the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism -- as lived by the present Dalai Lama -- can help save us all. Among Thurman's greatest passions is Tibet House, which he, along with the actor Richard Gere and two others, founded in 1987 at the Dalai Lama's request. It serves as a cultural embassy for an occupied nation; among other projects, Tibet House is creating a museum without walls -- a library and an archive of artwork and ritual objects -- that could eventually be returned to Tibet, and is sponsoring a peacemaking conference in California, to be attended by the Dalai Lama.
In his earlier years, Thurman felt little obligation to support the Tibetan political struggle. "I thought, Tibet had done me the kindness of preserving the dharma from ancient times in India and handing it to me," he says. "I woke up to how callous that was about 15 years ago and decided that I could try to repay their kindness, by helping to get the world's attention focused on this massive injustice."
Thurman, with his intellect, savvy and high-profile connections, is particularly qualified to undertake such a task. Yet as a young man, he spent years as a celibate monk. As he tells it, in his 20's, Thurman was as intensely set on leaving the world as he now seems to be on changing it.
THURMAN GREW UP IN A HOUSEHOLD shaped by romance and drama. His mother, Elizabeth Farrar, dropped out of college to pursue an acting career; his father, Beverley, left his doctoral studies at William and Mary to follow Elizabeth to New York, and wound up working as an editor for the Associated Press. Augustin Duncan, the dancer Isadora's brother, conducted weekly dramatic readings in the Thurmans' home, where Robert and his brothers read parts alongside guests like Laurence Olivier. But Thurman also sneaked comic books inside his Shakespeare folio. In April of his senior year at Phillips Exeter, he ran off with a friend to enlist with Fidel Castro. Fortunately, Thurman says, for the revolution's sake, the boys were turned back at Miami. Exeter expelled him for that adventure and he waited out a year in Mexico before entering Harvard in 1959.
That spring, he married Christophe de Menil, heiress to a considerable fortune and fine-art collection. In the late spring of 1961, while Thurman was changing a flat on his car, the tire iron slipped and destroyed his left eye. It was a turning point; Thurman realized he did not want to waste his life "drinking Champagne and staring at Rouaults." He made a young man's vow -- fed by his readings of Nietzsche and Buddhist texts -- to act on his highest aims. "I was ready to go to the East," he says, but "my wife was nervous, scared of the whole thing. I then started identifying with Buddha, left my wife and child and went over there. I was very sad about that, but I felt -- even as a father -- what's the use of not being enlightened?"
Dropping out of Harvard, Thurman wandered toward India through Turkey and Iran, "like a beggar." His mother thought he was crazy, but his father, for whom St. Francis was a spiritual ideal, defended him. "You're doing what I always wanted to do," his father said.
"I was already by about that time like St. Francis," muses Thurman. "I had an empty socket, long hair and a scraggly beard. I wore black baggy Afghani pants, a T-shirt with a white shawl thrown around me and leather sandals." In India, he was hired to teach English to exiled tulkus -- young reincarnated Tibetan lamas. "I was in heaven, because the minute I met the Tibetans, I knew they had what I wanted."
But Thurman was called back to New York by his father's sudden death. He visited the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America, in Freewood Acres, N.J., and met his first guru -- a 61-year-old Mongolian monk, Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. (Geshe is a monastic title indicating years of advanced study.) Thurman was moved by the monk's quiet intensity and began to study with him. "That was a rebirth for me," he says. "I learned to speak Tibetan fluently in 10 weeks."
Thurman helped his mentor build a temple. He meditated. "I'm not saying I attained nirvana -- I still don't know what that is -- but I attained a sense of relief," he says. "I still had many of my bad egocentric habits, and one of them was that I fanatically wanted to be a monk, because I wanted to live like this for the rest of my life."
Geshe Wangyal advised him against this career move, but he agreed to take Thurman with him to Dharamsala, India. "Since you are so stubborn, I'll tell the Dalai Lama you want to be a monk," he said. "Maybe he'll think that's not a bad idea."
THUS BEGAN AN EXTRAORDINARY relationship. Thurman was 23, the 14th Dalai Lama, 29.
"You don't really study with the Dalai Lama," Thurman says. "If you're under his protection in the community, he assigns this or that teacher. He wanted to see me a lot. I soon found out it wasn't to teach me but because I spoke Tibetan. Basically he got my Exeter and Harvard education over that year and a half. We met once a week. Every talk I'd say, 'What about this problem in madhyamika thought?' And he'd say: 'Oh, talk to blah blah about that. Now what about Freud? What about physics? What about the history of World War II?' "
Thurman was personally ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1965, becoming the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk. He returned to the United States with a shaved head and maroon robe: "Uma said recently, after seeing a photograph of me in my monk phase, 'Oh, look at Daddy -- he looks like Henry Miller in drag.' " That phase lasted only about a year. Geshe Wangyal asked Thurman if he thought the world truly needed -- or wanted -- a white geshe. "He convinced me that the alternative was to become a Protestant monk," Thurman says. "That is, a professor."
Thurman met Nena von Schlebrugge, Timothy Leary's former wife, at a party in New York, and they were married in 1967. (They have four children and now live in Manhattan near Columbia. ) Thurman returned to Harvard, completed his degree and enrolled in graduate work at the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. "I created the field of Buddhology," he says. "I just wrote it down on the form and they said, 'We don't have this field here, but I guess it's all right.' "
Tibetan, Zen and Theravada are the three most popular forms of Buddhism among Westerners today. Of the three, Tibetan Buddhism is probably the most difficult and exotic path, with its emphasis on prostrations, visualizations, guru worship and deity yoga, in which the practitioner identifies with Tibetan deities as a path to higher states of consciousness. Tibetan Buddhism now has four main groupings, of which the Geluk, the Dalai Lama's order, is considered the most philosophical and scholarly.
Thurman's major contribution to understanding Tibetan Buddhism is his translation of "The Essence of True Eloquence" (now published as "The Central Philosophy of Tibet"), by the 14th-century Tibetan sage Jey Tsong Khapa. Thurman had returned to India in 1970 to work on this project, spending hours with the Dalai Lama, who provided the benefit of his personal notes. Thurman speaks of translation in Tibetan terms as lotsawa -- "a world eye," or window on a new world.
To some observers, a tremendous opening of the Buddhist "world eye" has occurred in the West over the past 30 years. Tibetan Buddhism in particular has been well served by pioneer professors like Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins, both of whom have established successful graduate programs. A new generation of Tibetan textual scholars has come forth, and mainstream publishers produce a steady flow of translated Tibetan dharma texts.
Much of the interest must be attributed to the tremendous appeal of the Dalai Lama. But other Tibetan teachers have influenced the West, including Chogyam Trungpa, who founded the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colo., and Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the best seller "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." The success of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a slick magazine devoted to contemporary dharma and profiles of prominent Buddhists, has also contributed to the movement.
But no wave arrives without some froth. Donald S. Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of "Prisoners of Shangri-la," a forthcoming study of the effect of Tibetan Buddhism on the West, refers to a recent J. Peterman catalogue as a case in point: "They're selling something called a Tibetan shaman's jacket. The first line of the ad said: 'It's official. Crystals are out. Tibetan Buddhism is in.' "
Tibetan Buddhism has also attracted its share of celebrities, most notably Richard Gere, who serves on the board of the International Campaign for Tibet, a political action group in Washington. Gere is a frequent visitor to Dharamsala and a serious student of the Dalai Lama's. On the other hand, few of the celebrities who attend Thurman's Tibet House benefits are actual Buddhist practitioners, as they made clear. "Just because people want to help Tibet," Thurman says, "doesn't make them Buddhists."
As a scholar, Thurman is especially critical of fuzzy thinking in popular Buddhism. As an example, he cites a 1992 article in Tricycle by Helen Tworkov, the magazine's editor, in which Tworkov acknowledges strong anti-abortion teachings in Buddhism but also writes that "dharma teachings can be used to validate either pro-choice or anti-abortion politics." To Thurman, "that's simply incorrect. It's the taking of life. The fundamentalists do have it emotionally right -- the killing of fetuses is a mass massacre from the Buddhist point of view. It is not a fuzzy issue in Buddhism."
Some of the confusion among Westerners has arisen, Thurman says, because Buddhism was introduced in this country primarily as a meditation technique. "Western people who were anti-Christian or anti-Jewish were thinking of it as a system that seemed religious but didn't have a lot of rules," he says. "That is simply wrong. In Buddhism, the foundation of meditation is a strong ethical system."
To Thurman, Buddhism is primarily an educational program, and the monastery remains the Buddha's great social invention. The monastery made spiritual seeking a credible alternative to the military ideal and fostered a nonviolent religious revolution in India. When Buddhism was wiped out there during the Muslim invasions of the 8th through 12th centuries, the monastic ideal and its philosophical curriculum found refuge in Tibet.
As Thurman sees it, the ultimate triumph of Buddhist monasticism came with the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama, known as the Great Fifth, who assumed power in 1642. "For the first time in Buddhist history, a monastic took the throne of a nation," Thurman writes in "Essential Tibetan Buddhism." "The military was gradually phased out, with three centuries of relative peace, a unique, mass monastic, unilaterally disarmed society." While some scholars, including Donald Lopez, see a danger in overidealizing Tibetan history, Thurman remains unabashed. He says he believes the current Dalai Lama is taking Buddhist teaching onto the world stage.
Thurman and the Dalai Lama share a relationship whose warmth and depth is palpable. I saw them together in 1990 in Dharamsala at a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of Jewish rabbis and scholars. While the Tibetans treated their leader with extreme reverence, Thurman openly teased him, laughing and making him laugh, tweaking the Buddhist master for being too modest.
Thurman feels that the Dalai Lama, in his continuous nonviolent struggle for Tibetan autonomy, provides a new definition of heroism. Humans have succeeded on this planet in the past, Thurman argues: "because people have been heroic enough to sacrifice their lives for a group. At this moment, with the development of nuclear weaponry and technology, heroism has to be redefined as developing the power not to blow up in hatred." That, Thurman asserts, "is the Dalai Lama's teaching to the planet."
Presenting the concert at Carnegie Hall, Thurman passionately echoed this idea of "cool heroism": "We who claim we want peace should not reward violence. We should reward those who insist on making peace their method as well as peace their goal."
Still, while the post-concert party was raging around him, I thought of the young man who set off for India in Afghani pants and returned as a Buddhist monk. With so much lecturing, writing and advocacy, does he miss the quiet, contemplative life?
"There are things you can't develop in yourself if you just meditate apart from people. . . . " Thurman shouted above the din. "You have to get out there where people annoy you and injure you. Then you have to take and tolerate that injury. As the Dalai Lama would say, If there's no enemy, then you can't develop tolerance. And if there are no people who need gifts, then you can't develop generosity."
A Tibet House donor approached, and Thurman turned to greet him. "Being a Buddhist does not mean leaving the world," he called over his shoulder, "it means. . . . " And whatever else he wanted to add got swallowed up in the crowd.
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of "The Jew in the Lotus," a best-selling account of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. With the film maker Laurel Chiten, he is working on a documentary based on the book.
Thurman, An EAA Interview
by Lucien Ellington
© 2001 by the Association for Asian Studies, Inc. - Materials may be reproduced for classroom use only.
This article is reprinted here with permission of the Association for Asian Studies, Inc.,
the publisher of Education About Asia (EAA). This article originally appeared in a
special section of Education About Asia, Vol. 6:3 (Winter 2001), a section that was
produced with the financial support of The Infinity Foundation.
Robert A. F. Thurman has become one of America's leading voices for the teachings of Buddhism, making these teachings more meaningful to Americans in a manner unequaled by any other Westerner.
Time magazine chose him as one of its 25 most influential Americans in 1997, and described him as a "larger than life scholar-activist destined to convey the dharma, the precious teaching of Siddartha, from Asia to America." The New York Times recently said Thurman "is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism." His unique take on the relevance of Buddhism to American culture and politics, as well as his wit and creativity in weaving ancient Buddhist wisdom and popular Western ideals, make his knowledge entertaining, useful and informative.
most recent book, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness
(Riverhead Books, 1999), was chosen by Publisher's Weekly as one of the best books
of 1998. Thurman has often been placed front and center with the news media, and
is regularly interviewed by newspapers and magazines throughout the world.
Thurman's work and insights are grounded in more than 35 years of serious academic scholarship. He has B.A., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard and studied in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India and the United States. In 1962, he was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, but gave up his robes after several years feeling he could be most effective in the American university system. He is a popular professor in the Religion Department of Columbia University where he holds the Jey Tsong Khapa chair in Indo-Tibetan Studies.
Eleven years ago, Thurman co-founded Tibet House New York, a serious nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who calls Thurman "an old friend." Thurman serves as president of Tibet House, which attracts visitors from around the world.
We are pleased to publish this EAA interview with America's most distinguished popularizer of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. We would like to thank Tom Yarnell for his assistance in the procurement of this interview.
Lucien: Would you please inform our readers a bit about your early life and how you became interested in Indo-Tibetan
Robert Thurman: I was raised at a Presbyterian Church, the Brick Church in New York, but never had faith in a creator
god-disagreeing with parents and pastors. I did like Jesus and his teachings. I loved philosophy and romantic novels, read a lot in school, and wanted to be a novelist, poet, and playwright. I learned languages easily and at age fifteen ran away to travel. I married early and had a child. At twenty years of age, I lost an eye in a garage accident, and immediately decided to renounce my ordinary life and go to India and seek enlightenment from the yoga or Buddhist traditions, and Sufism. I encountered His Holiness the Dalai Lama and an elder Mongolian lama, Venerable Geshe Wangyal, and began to study Buddhism. I liked it for philosophical more than religious reasons, the practicality of the four noble truths and the logical compellingness of the critical insight into selflessness and voidness and compassion. I have been studying it ever since, with ever-increasing pleasure and appreciation.
Lucien: Since you have both academic and practitioner-oriented training, how do you think your background impacts the
way you approach Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and the way practitioners, academics, and students approach you?
Robert Thurman: Fortunately, the way I understand Buddhism, it requires clear thinking and critical scrutiny, not dogmatic adherence or blind faith. Therefore, it is an educational tradition more than a religious one. So there is very little conflict for me in teaching about Buddhism as an academic subject. I do so in a religion department, due to the categories of American academia, but would just as soon do so in a department of philosophy, or psychology. Students read Plato in core curriculum courses, and no one thinks they are practicing Greek religion, worshipping Apollo or consulting the Delphic oracle. So the great thinkers of the Buddhist tradition contribute to our understanding of reality, the human condition, ethics, psychology, whatever. They, along with Hindu, Confucian, Muslim, and Taoist writers, should be part of our general liberal arts and sciences curriculum, just like the Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, and other European thinkers.
Lucien: What, in your opinion, is significant about the fact that Buddhism's origins were in India?
Robert Thurman: India was said by Bertrand Russell to have been the supreme culture for philosophizing about the human
being, reality and psyche; the Greeks were good on nature, and the Chinese on social thought. Due to the greater population,
wealth, and tolerance of the Indian subcontinent's societies and rulers, Toynbee considers that Shakyamuni Buddha was the
most successful of the "Axial Age" (ca. sixth through fifth centuries B.C.E.) teachers of the whole Eurasian oikumene, meaning
the inhabited world as known to those in Europe and Asia. Western Europe, a relatively backward area until the past 500
years or so, began its renaissance when it discovered the ancient humanism and natural sciences of the Greeks. This renaissance
may perhaps reach completion when our current discovery of the "inner sciences" of the Indians helps us overcome the philosophical and scientific materialism that now holds us back.
Lucien: In what ways do you think Buddhism influences contemporary India?
Robert Thurman: Buddhism's current influence in India is mainly through its embeddedness in Hinduism. One thousand years ago the Iranian and Turkish invasions of India began to obliterate the network of Buddhist monastic universities that served as institutional anchor of Buddhism within the culture. However, after 1,500 years of being closely integrated with the Vedic Hindu traditions, Buddhism had imparted its metaphysics of non-dualism, its psychology of liberative contemplation, its educational epistemology
that privileges experience over dogmatic theory, and its ethical nonviolence related to the emphasis on vegetarianism. Today, Indians are ambivalent about Buddhism, respecting Buddha as an incarnation of God, and such foreign Buddhists as the Dalai Lama as holy persons, while feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the Buddhist critique of the caste system, insistence on nonviolence and antimilitarism, focus on asceticism, nonacceptance of a creator god, and so forth.
Lucien: Probably the two most wellknown Buddhist sects in the West are now Zen and Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. What
major similarities and differences in these two sects do you think it is particularly important for high school and university
instructors to understand?
Robert Thurman: I don't think "sect" accurately describes almost any Buddhist movement, since the word implies that its
adherents think that other Buddhists outside their group are not followers of the same religion or philosophy. All Buddhist
schools, orders, or movements follow Shakyamuni Buddha in his central teaching of selflessness and compassion, take refuge
in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and seek liberation from suffering in Nirvana by following the eightfold
noble path. Their differences lie in some details of their philosophical theories, ritual practices, and favorite scriptures. Zen
Buddhism of Japan and its parent, Ch'an Buddhism of China, have many points of similarity with some aspects of Tibetan
Buddhism; mainly, (1) a strong emphasis on critical wisdom as the vehicle of liberation from ignorance and suffering; (2) a
focus on asceticism in practice of long contemplative retreats; and (3) a tradition of compassionate social service on the part of
those considered to have attained high realization. Both have a language about sudden breakthroughs on the path, and both teach
arduous, lifelong practices which involve systematic, gradual development.
Lucien: The current Dalai Lama is, in my opinion, one of the important reasons that Indo-Tibetan Buddhism has such a high
profile in the West. I know that the two of you have a long-time friendship. Would you inform our readers about aspects of
Robert Thurman: The Dalai Lama is, of course, a great exemplar of the benefits of practicing Tibetan Buddhism. He is a
humble Buddhist monk of great erudition, ethical rigor, and philosophical depth and creativity. He is also a leader of a people
under genocidal pressure whose land is occupied by a vastly superior force, unchallenged by world governments, eager for commercial and strategic relationships with the occupier - yet he has steadfastly refused to adopt violent means of redress, persevering tirelessly with the path of patience and dialogue. I began with His Holiness as a friend and fellow student (he is six years older than I), and gradually became his disciple in the context of spiritual teachings, as he advanced significantly beyond me over the years, in knowledge, accomplishment, and teaching ability. I also remain his friend-we occasionally have time to share a good laugh-
as well as colleague in the difficult work of preserving Tibetan culture and making Tibet's remarkable traditions better known
to the world.
Lucien: Of course, the whole question of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism is influenced by the policies of the People's Republic of China toward Tibet. What aspects of that geopolitical issue do you think are important for readers to consider?
Robert Thurman: I think all peoples and cultures are precious and should be preserved, just as should all species of animals
and the environment itself, the heritage to be passed along to the future. Among endangered peoples and cultures, the Tibetans have many unique qualities and perform a special function in their preservation of the living traditions of Indian Buddhism into modern times. They are not simply a "primitive," "backward," unfortunate people; they had a well-organized, literate nation and civilization, had developed an alternative form of modern society which is non-industrial and nonmilitaristic, and therefore much more environment friendly and neighbor friendly than most of us. Therefore, there is a special urgency about preventing "modern development," coming from China or anywhere else, completing the destruction of Tibet and its civilization. Unfortunately, our own industrial and militaristic hubris and our commercial and strategic interest in China has so far kept us from giving the saving of Tibet a sufficient priority, leaving the communist Chinese government in its sunset desperation to continue to pursue its genocidal program for Tibet.
Lucien: I found your writing on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism to be illuminating and educational. Please inform readers a bit about your own books and any other works on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism that are appropriate for educators with little or no prior background on the subject.
Robert Thurman: I recommend of my own works, The Central Philosophy of Tibet, Inner Revolution, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, and so on. I recommend even more highly any of the works of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, especially The Art of Happiness, Ethics for the New Millennium,
and his personal autobiography.
Lucien: By most accounts Buddhism has significantly increased in popularity in the U.S. over the past decade or so. Why do
you think that many Americans are choosing to embrace this belief system at one level or the other?
Robert Thurman: I perhaps go against a media trend in that I don't think Americans are embracing Buddhism that much as a "belief system." A key Buddhist belief is karma, the evolutionary cause and effect of ethical and unethical actions in determining one's biological structure and destiny over a continuum of lives-and very few Americans subscribe to that belief. Another Buddhist cardinal tenet is the value of the monastic calling, and Protestant-"no free lunch"-America has a hard time understanding monasticism.
However, the contemplative psychology, philosophical profundity, and ethical ideals of Buddhism are gaining a wider hearing and are satisfying peoples' need for greater self-understanding, understanding of the world, and critical evaluation of our leadership and institutions.
Especially in this time of intensified soul-searching in the wake of the devastating terrorist attack on New York and Washington, the Buddhist view of reality can provide a helpful perspective from which to try to make sense of the deepening crisis of
industrial modernity, essentially arising from excessive technological power in the hands of people with very little control over
themselves and their ideologies and emotions. Buddhism can reinforce our vague sense that violence is not the answer; while
there should be short-term law enforcement measures to restrain criminal destructiveness, large-scale retributive violence will
only increase future terrorist activity. It can encourage us to root out the causes of despair and hatred, in poverty, ideological
confusion, and prejudice.
Lucien: On behalf of our readers, thanks so much for the interview.
Jon Kabat Zinn interview
Jon Kabat-Zinn: As the planetary citizens we are rapidly becoming-following on 10,000 years, or approximately a mere 350 generations, of history and what passes for civilization-we've reached a point where it is probably critical that we refine and make better use of our genetic capacity as a species for self-knowing, our capacity for awareness, which is presumably more refined than that of any other species. We've also reached a point where we've created possibilities for self-destruction that are increasingly ominous, so that the question becomes: Can our capacity for consciousness as a species hold our shadow side in such a way that we don't succumb to the "dis-ease" that is actually us. Can we come to our senses?
We have some excellent resources at our disposal for awakening, both ancient and modern, if we are motivated to make use of them. The First Noble Truth names the dis-ease of our species, which I look at as a kind of autoimmune disease, where we are, ironically, both the victim of the pathology and its source. You could look at the Buddha, as Alan Wallace has emphasized, as a scientific genius, born in an era when the only instruments at his disposal for investigating the nature of suffering and the potential for liberation were his own mind and body. He chose to explore and map that interior landscape and its functioning, and he made extraordinary use of those tools, as we know, first through a process of stabilizing the mind so that it could become a useful instrument adequate for the task, and then through a process of systematic self-investigation and inquiry. Drawing on those ancient tools and maps that have been handed down in an unbroken lineage to this day, as well as on what has been learned in the past thirty years in medicine about the mind-body connection, it's becoming clearer and clearer in medical and scientific circles that virtually anyone is capable of mobilizing those innate powers of mind that we possess as a species to move in the direction of greater health and well-being. We've learned this in part by utilizing within mainstream medicine the very approaches the Buddha developed and articulated. Having seen over 16,000 medical patients in our stress reduction clinic over the past twenty-four years, we can safely say that pretty much any individual with adequate motivation can learn to be less reactive and less stressed by cultivating mindfulness. In the process, one's interior world can be influenced and modulated to one degree or another-whether we are talking of blood pressure, the functioning of the immune system, emotional balance, or even self-compassion and making wiser and healthier choices in one's life.
But it is becoming equally clear that we also need to do this as a species. As a first step, perhaps we need to have a global conversation about such a potential shift in awareness through intentional practice, about the possibility of waking up and, while we still have the chance, of coming to our senses, and of healing ourselves from the autoimmune disease that is us. Ultimately, it is a matter of liberation from our own persistent ignoring of our true nature as a species.
Inquiring Mind: Are you saying that by awakening to our senses-seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching-we gain sense, as in "common sense," and that we are really talking about liberation? If so, it's quite a double entendre.
JKZ: I am not saying that common sense equals liberation. But I am very much intending the double entendre. Coming to our senses really means waking up to what is. I am speaking of the potential for liberation arising out of the core "paying attention" that mindfulness practice is grounded in. One can argue, and of course many Buddhist teachers say it, that there are really only six things happening at any one time and that all together constitute our experience in any moment: Seeing that which is here to be seen, hearing that which is here to be heard, etc.-the five senses plus what the Buddha included as the sixth and most important and unifying sense, which is the capacity of the mind itself for nonconceptual knowing. As a species, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, a double dose of knowing, from the Latin "sapere," interestingly, to taste, to know, to be wise. We only know through sensing and, of course, through the activity of mind.
Each of the senses is a miracle. Take seeing, for instance. It's a miracle that light is focused onto the retinas at the backs of our eyeballs and excites certain cells that send signals to the brain that will then create a fairly good three-dimensional representation of the world out there, so that we don't get eaten by something! But no one understands even how we go from wavelengths of a certain energy coming into the eyes to our experiencing of the color blue, for instance, never mind to a three-dimensional universe from upside-down two-dimensional images on the backs of our eyeballs. And of course, as we all know, we can be fooled by our senses, too. And we can see without seeing or hear without hearing-in other words, have no awareness of what is actually beating on our eardrums. We can, and sometimes do, make a whole life out of that unawareness, constructing stories about what is so and who we are without being fully tuned in to the actuality of things, and frequently without any appreciation for our own sentience.
That appreciation comes about through bringing mindfulness to the moment and point of contact with the sense object, and then to the whole chain of dependent origination that follows in its wake. It is that moment which defines the opportunity for freedom, if held in awareness, or for clinging, if unexamined and conditioned, especially by those mind-habits that go by the terms "greed, hatred and delusion." Focusing on the senses themselves can bring this into focus so that we can actually begin to train ourselves to see and know what is here to be seen, rather than only what we want to see.
IM: Some people mistakenly believe that the Buddha was teaching denial of the senses, interpreting withdrawal from the sense world as the key to freedom.
JKZ: That is a hugely debatable point, of course. Denial of the senses is a somewhat parochial interpretation. Another view is that the Buddha was pointing out that suffering arises not from the sensing itself but from the grasping or aversion that so easily follows in its wake. So the senses are not problematic in and of themselves, and sensing is not the problem either, as long as we understand that the experience, whatever it is, is temporary and basically empty. In fact, when there is no clinging, the senses are a definite source of delight, and we can delight in our senses in ways that are deeply revealing of things as they actually are, including the beauty and harmony in the world and in ourselves, in the face of all the discord and its causes. This understanding is a deep part of both the Zen and Tibetan traditions, and it can be held very lightly and with delight. Just think of all the haiku of Issa and Basho, for instance. But if we reify appearances into thinking that what we are seeing has an independent self-existence, and then we cling to them because we want them to stay the same or we think that something is better than something else, in such moments we have fallen into attachment and are no longer simply seeing.
IM: So how can we train ourselves to use our senses wisely?
JKZ: The first thing is to realize how little we actually see, hear, smell, taste or feel. For years we can walk down the same street or through the same field and never quite see it, although our eyeballs are taking it in, so to speak. In The Zen of Seeing, Frederick Franck writes:
We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes. . . . Our looking is perfected every day-but we see less and less. Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing. . . . [W]e are onlookers, spectators . . . "subjects" we are that look at "objects." Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once-and for all. By these labels we recognize everything, but no longer see anything.
For example, you walk into a room and see people in conversation. For some reason or other, the scene may trigger an emotional feeling within you, say a wish to be included in the energy, to participate, to be seen. That feeling can easily lock into an emotionally needy state and in that very moment blind you. We say you "lose sight" of what is actually going on. In the next moment you may act like an idiot because you're not being true to what's actually in front of you. I've experienced that scenario more often than I'd like to admit, and it is quite humbling. When you witness someone else doing that, it is also quite uncomfortable for all concerned. You want to cry out: "Can't you see what is happening?" Of course, the person can't, because they are caught by some momentary mind-state that prevents them from seeing, and thus from being sensate, sensitive to the situation, and even sensible in the most basic of ways. This can happen with any of the senses, but seeing is the most dominant of the senses, and so our metaphors for the senses usually cluster around seeing.
IM: So when we really do open our eyes and see, that brings us into a kind of presence that changes the nature of our reality and our behavior.
JKZ: It actually does change the nature of our reality, and thus of how we hold the moment and respond to it appropriately, how we will act or, if you like, behave. Presence of mind through holding the senses in awareness changes our relationship to the world "out there" and to our interior world as well, not that they are fundamentally two. I find myself more and more using a particular vocabulary to describe the domains of the senses. We commonly talk about the landscape, but as a rule, we don't speak or even think about or perceive the soundscape, the airscape, the tastescape, the smellscape, the mindscape, or the nowscape that we are embedded in. Yet these are all domains we can experience only through our senses. When we are paying attention, we come to know each particular "scape" or textured world in a completely different way than when we aren't paying attention.
Another scape worth mentioning and attending to, ironically, is what I sometimes call "the great escape," which we are always at risk of falling into. We can use even meditation practice as a way to engage in that great escape, at least when we don't pay attention to what's actually presenting itself to our senses. It is so easy to be "out of touch," which really means we are out of touch with any or all of the senses, and not just the sense of touch. "Touch" is the word with the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, far longer than even "love," because touch is so basic to life. The only way we know anything is through touching it through the senses. All scientific apparati, like telescopes or electron microscopes or spectrophotometers or fMRI machines, are extensions of our senses-designed to amplify signals of one kind or another and bring them in touch with our senses.
What is more, all touching is reciprocal. You cannot touch without being touched. So when we touch the world in any way, and allow ourselves to register that we are simultaneously being touched by it, a knowing that is both direct and impersonal arises. Subject and object merge into the part of speech we so wonderfully refer to as the present participle, so we have "just seeing" or "just feeling" or "just knowing." We don't have to make it into "I'm seeing," and when we don't fabricate this "I" who is seeing, the seeing is very different. Sensing itself is the nature of being alive, of being human.
IM: Are you saying that when you examine the senses, you also call into question "the sensor"? Who is it that is seeing, hearing, touching?
JKZ: We human beings have multiple ways of knowing the world, inwardly and outwardly, presumably more than, say, an earthworm. We have more dimensions to our interior landscape. In fact, even calling it an interior landscape is not really appropriate because it implies an artificial distinction between inner and outer. Actually, we are continually co-creating what we call the external world through our senses, and it is not quite accurate to personalize the whole thing, when the process is really quite impersonal. So in regard to who is seeing or feeling or hearing, I encourage people to look deeply into it for themselves in meditation practice, by questioning, "Who is hearing, who is feeling, who is thinking?" This is a strong practice in the Zen tradition. You inquire into the sensory phenomena themselves in the moment of their unfolding. What usually comes up is a personal pronoun, as in "I am seeing." But if you ask, "Who is that?" you come to realize that the pronoun itself is just a thought-a very, very old habit of mind which is itself a construct, a fabrication, rather than an enduring, substantial and independent entity-the way we usually think of "who I am" when we pop out with our name or some information about ourselves.
IM: It's so habitual that we normally don't see it clearly.
JKZ: Actually, people see it quite a lot, in my experience. For instance, someone might talk about "my cancer," and then, when she starts meditating come to realize, "I'm not my cancer. It's not me." Doing a body scan, this recognition happens very frequently. People realize that saying "my leg," "my elbow," "my body," or even "I'm meditating" is not really accurate. As a consequence of practice and the intimacy with the currents of the mind stream that emerge from it, our relationship with the personal pronouns gets a little looser, less habitual, less rigid.
Such realizations coming out of inquiry can happen in a lot of different ways-through sitting meditation, standing meditation, walking mediation, lying down meditation. I'm a big advocate of lying down meditation because we're lying down so much of the time. Before you go to sleep and before you wake up in the morning are fabulous times to tune in to the senses. A good place to start is with sound because you don't have to do anything. One minute you're not hearing and the next minute you are hearing. You realize that it's simply a shift in awareness. It's hard to say, "It's me hearing.'' There is just attending, just hearing.
IM: Science is revealing more and more about how the brain works and how meditation might influence various sensory and emotional processes. Could you give us an example?
JKZ: Well, we recently published a paper in collaboration with Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin showing that people who go through MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] training in a work setting showed changes in the brain that suggest more effective processing of negative emotion under stress as well as an improvement in immune function when compared to a control group that didn't receive the meditation training. Richie Davidson is currently studying meditation adepts in his lab who have been practicing intensively for many years, and finding major brain changes that suggest that their years of practice have rearranged the physical circuitry in their brains. They show patterns of brain activity during various kinds of meditation practices that have never been recorded before and are off the scale from what is already known. Such studies are showing that people who have intensively trained the mind are capable of doing things that we would ordinarily consider impossible, such as reproducibly generating stable patterns of brain activity on demand in very short periods of time that differ depending on which meditation is being practiced, and, in another study, of not showing a startle reaction in response to a pistol shot. You can learn more about these studies from Daniel Goleman's book Destructive Emotions. Of course, all this is to say nothing of responding with compassion when one's own well-being is threatened. So, in all likelihood, when you're practicing lovingkindness or shamatha or vipassana with great perseverance and open-heartedness, over extended periods of time, in all likelihood you're actually rearranging your neurons. No joke!
IM: Maybe that's why Robert Thurman calls meditation an evolutionary sport.
JKZ: That's very apt. It certainly develops the evolutionary potential of human beings, and we could argue that the fate of the species may hang in the balance.
Coming back to the nervous system and the brain, it used to be dogma in neuroscience that after the age of two you lost neurons in the central nervous system as you aged, but that you didn't replace them; it was all down hill from there. Now, after fifty years of holding to the old understanding, scientists are finding that it's just not true. Until the day you die, you're forming new neurons on the basis of your experience. So what Buddhists are contributing to our understanding is that you can actually profoundly shape your relationship to experience by paying attention to it. The more you train in paying attention, the more you're actually refining the entire organism even at the cellular and tissue levels. Any or all of the senses can be used as part of that kind of training, including the mind itself, which, as we said earlier, is thought of as a sixth sense in Buddhism.
IM: How do you suggest that we might become more "tuned in," or "in touch," or "in focus"?
JKZ: I think it boils down to developing appreciation for our amazing sensing abilities. When we stop taking things for granted, then the world lights up and we know things more deeply than when we're just running through life in a robotic way. Thich Nhat Hahn frequently says things like, "Have you expressed appreciation for your non-headache?" Well, what about just thanking your eyes, your ears, your nose? What about gratitude for your tongue and all that it does, and thanking your feet for walking you along today, instead of waiting until the whole system breaks down and then bemoaning the loss? We are embodied creatures, but so often we are hardly at home, inhabiting neither the present moment nor the body. We could be more "in touch" with what actually is. That is the gateway into choiceless awareness, into a knowing that goes beyond subject and object.
IM: If we find delight in the fact of sentience and what exists in the present moment, then we won't need to consume so much and we won't be so driven.
Exactly, because we will recognize and inhabit our intrinsic completeness. When
we live in an open, spacious awareness-it could be focused on one sensorium or
it could be inclusive of all-basically we do come in touch with a deeper dimensionality
of being, our basic Buddha nature. That's what the practice actually is. Practice
requires, of course, recognizing this over and over and over again. It is becoming
apparent that as we do that, we are transformed throughout our nervous system
and right down to our atoms and molecules.
But that's not why we're doing it. We're doing it to live life as if it really matters-not merely for the individual body but for what I call the body politic. The entire species needs to come to its senses. The well-being not only of our species but of all species really hangs in the balance. If not our calling, at least this is our opportunity. And it's to be squandered at our peril.
© 2004 Inquiring Mind
Benefits of Being Monks and Nuns
by Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Some people ask why it is necessary in the modern world to live an ordained life. Is it necessary when as a lay person one can practice Dharma and achieve enlightenment?
If you tell some Western people about Buddha displaying the twelve deeds first being a child, then living a householder's life, married life, then renouncing that and becoming a monk-they might think ordination is only for Eastern people, for Eastern culture. Because Buddha's life happened in India, they will think it doesn't relate to the West and, especially, they will think it relates just to ancient times. People think like this, it's normal.
Likewise, Western people don't know about the mind, nor do they know much about karma, or, for example, about the existence of the hell realms. Because these were taught by the Buddha in ancient times, people feel that hell doesn't exist now. If hell doesn't exist now then that would mean that nobody creates the negative karma to get reborn in hell. If no one could possibly get reborn in hell then everyone would have to have stabilized realizations.
Usually, in order to not be reborn in the lower realms, one would have to have attained the patience level, the third of the four levels of the path of preparation. Of the five paths to liberation, this is the second.
Jesus Christ also revealed the method of living in ordination. From that, so many monasteries and nunneries were established, which have produced so many saints and monks and nuns in Christianity.
It's mainly because of delusion that people say ordination is not relevant to the twentieth century. You should protect your mind from delusions so that you don't harm other sentient beings or yourself. In this way you won't receive harm from others, and you will receive much peace and happiness. That is the nature of karma. This is the immediate goal; the longer-term goal is good rebirth, and then by far the longest are liberation and enlightenment.
Even though Buddha and Jesus revealed the method of ordination, however, it doesn't mean that all lay people can be monks or nuns-just like some lay people can practice well, but that doesn't mean that all lay people can practice well; it doesn't mean that. It's difficult for most lay people. Not everybody has karma to become sangha. Not everyone can become sangha. Only some people can become sangha, because you need a lot of merit and no obstacles to be sangha. If there is no obstacle coming from your mind, manifesting out, then also there is no obstacle from outside.
The main point is that you need much time to practice Dharma, by keeping distant from the object of delusions. This is especially true for a beginner. You need to practice until your mind is stabilized in the realization of the three principal paths (renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness)-if possible, even up till one is an aryan being (liberated). This is why monasteries, nunneries, caves, hermitages-ascetic places-are needed. This is why monasteries have discipline-discipline in the mind and externally. There you see the importance of morality.
In order to actualize the fundamental path, you need the conditions for that practice: you need a lot of meditation; a lot of time to study and to meditate. The most important thing is to not distract the mind. The more negative karma you create, the more obstacles to realizations you make. And that means it takes longer and is more difficult to become free from samsara, even just for your own happiness.
Therefore, as much as you live in pure ordination, that much less you engage in negative karma. Renouncing the householder's life and living as sangha cuts down so much negative karma. The idea is to have fewer external activities, work, fewer distractions, and therefore much more time for meditation, study. There are a lot of advantages to living the ordained life; a lot of time to meditate, to study, to develop one's mind.
One of the most important things for really developing the path to enlightenment is the realization of samatha-single pointed concentration. And for that, you need a lot of discipline, a lot of protection, a lot of morality; you have to cut a lot of distractions. Even to meditate well for one hour, you need to cut distractions and apply discipline; you need to renounce attachment even for that.
If you follow attachment, you cannot meditate even for one minute; you cannot find the time. For example if you sit down and your mind follows attachment towards your boyfriend or girlfriend, the desire object, then you won't be able to meditate for even one second. Even from this simple example one can understand that living as an ordained person makes life so much easier.
The environment is very important in order for sangha to continue to be inspired to remain monks and nuns and to continue-month after month, year after year-to practice and develop the mind in the path to liberation and enlightenment. Especially for a beginner, whose mind is not stabilized with the three principal paths, calm abiding and so forth, the environment has a strong effect on the mind. It controls the mind of the person who doesn't practice lam-rim, someone who, besides having no realizations, doesn't even practice. If you know the teachings but don't practice, whether you are lay or sangha, then external objects will control your mind, overwhelm your mind, and that makes you seek and run after objects.
when you start to meditate on, to practice, lam-rim, the three principal paths,
the mind is able to overcome the outside objects. The mind is more powerful than
the outside objects when you meditate effectively, when you apply the teachings
of the Buddha, especially the lam-rim, in daily life.
During the time that you apply the meditation, the mind is able to control the outside object, whether it is a living being or a non-living thing, whatever. Whether the object is a handsome, beautiful person or a beautiful flower, when you apply the lam-rim, the mind is more powerful, and the objects are under its control. Why? Because the delusion is under the control of lam-rim practice, the practice of the teaching of the Buddha.
As a beginner you need to have strong lam-rim meditation and at the same time to be away from the disturbing objects. The mind is very weak because it has been habituated since beginningless time with attachment, and has not been habituated with the three principles of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, the delusions are so strong, especially when disturbing objects are around you, and your intention or desire to seek liberation is very weak. The delusions are so strong in seeking samsara, seeking the object of delusion, of pleasure or desire.
Therefore you need strong lam-rim meditation to subdue the mind, to control the mind, and at the same time you need to retreat from, keep distant from, the object of delusion; you need to retreat from attachment and to retreat from the object of attachment. If you don't retreat from the internal suffering of attachment and desire, then being ordained with the desire objects around you will be a bit like sitting next to a fire and at the same time wishing to be cool.
Of course, one thing is to set up a good external environment for Western sangha, but from the individual sangha's side, they need to stay in the right environment. Even if someone sets up a good environment but the individual sangha doesn't stay in the right environment, then, as I mentioned before, because the mind is very weak and there is no realization, no stabilization, the external object will take over the mind. Which means you will follow the delusions; the delusions will take over the mind, and you will be unable to practice Dharma, unable to live in the vows. That makes life so hard, so difficult, and that's why living in ordination feels like living in a prison. This is a mistaken view.
By thinking of the results of living in ordination-liberation and enlightenment-you should feel so fortunate, and you should enjoy all the advantages you can get: morality is like a degree that gets you respect from others, a job to earn a living, and a one hundred-percent good rebirth, whenever you die. Morality is a passport to a good rebirth. Most urgent is to stop rebirth in the lower realms; and then, on top of that, morality is the basis, the foundation for liberation and enlightenment. Therefore there is a need to set up a good environment.
There are so many benefits of living in ordination, as explained by Buddha in sutra and lam-rim teachings. In the monks' confession that is done twice a month, some of these benefits of keeping vows are recited for inspiration, as are some of the shortcomings of breaking vows. Bikkshus who have morality have "shining body glorification." They naturally become known to people, (famous). People praise those qualities. They will achieve happiness.
There is no way for one who has morality to receive harm from others. This point is very important. To receive harm from others you have to create the cause, that is, causing harm to others. So you should concentrate on the importance of this very logical point. A person who doesn't have eyes cannot see form. Likewise a person who doesn't have morality cannot be liberated. A person who doesn't live in morality is like someone without limbs and so cannot walk on the road to go where they wish (this is not talking about using modern techniques like artificial legs).
As a vase is a basis for jewels, so morality is a basis for all the realizations. If the vase is broken then it cannot act as a container for precious jewels. Similarly if someone breaks vows, then it's difficult to achieve realizations. So without the very foundation of morality, can one achieve sorrowless state in the future? No.
These are just a few of the benefits from the sutra spoken by the Buddha that are normally recited in the bi-monthly confession for both bikkshus and novices.
Each sangha has to have a plan to protect themselves by living in the right environment. That is why monasteries are set up, that is the purpose of the vinaya rules. They help to protect the mind. By protecting the mind, guarding the mind, you become free from an the problems and obstacles, all the sufferings. You get liberated ultimately from all the sufferings, from samsara, the oceans of sufferings. All your wishes for happiness, up to highest enlightenment, get fulfilled, and also cause happiness to all sentient beings.
Many of the vinaya precepts describing what to do and what not to do were advised by Buddha to protect other people's minds, to prevent them from criticizing the sangha, which is a very heavy object. That happens if you are careless of the sentient beings' minds, their feelings, their happiness, their suffering. So one does have the responsibility to guide other people's minds. If one is able to follow the vinaya correctly, it generates a lot of faith in other people's minds and plants the seed of liberation and enlightenment. It inspires them to follow the path by taking ordination.
Normally, sentient beings follow the Buddha's example of how to practice Dharma. Being sangha causes others to respect you and causes them to create much good. Even when they respect you, they create much merit. Also, living in pure ordination causes your prayers to have so much power for success when you pray for other people. Your prayers and pujas have much power for success for other people. If you are living a pure life, that means you can achieve the result much more easily; your reciting mantras has much more power, effect. The deities, Buddhas, Dharma protectors have to listen to your requests, they have to help you.
They have no choice because of your purity; and even without your requests they naturally have to serve you, have to help you. When other sentient beings make offerings to you, they create much merit. Since you are living purely there is also no danger to yourself by accepting offerings. Otherwise, it is said in the teachings, eating offerings is like drinking lava or eating iron when it is afire with flames. It is said that to eat these is much easier than to live on the offerings made by people with devotion.
There is a big difference between lay and ordained people giving teachings. If you are ordained, there is great effect, because what someone sees is a person living in renunciation. Lay people will respect what you are doing, living a life that the lay person cannot do; that quality that is difficult to achieve. Respect comes from the side of the lay people.
Lay people should think in this way, they should look at sangha in this way, and let it cause devotion. If lay people don't think that sangha have any qualities, and they don't make offerings, don't support sangha, they don't create their own good karma.
Without protecting the mind, without morality, you cannot do perfect service for other sentient beings, even if you are a lay person. When you try to help others, problems and difficulties always arise because you have ego, because of the three poisonous minds. So without Dharma practice you can't really do perfect service for others. Sooner or later a problem arises in your work, whether you are running a country or doing public service. Even in normal daily life it's like that. Without morality, without protection of the mind, without some discipline, you can't really have satisfaction, peace and happiness in the heart, you can't have fulfillment in the heart.
Even Hindus achieve the nine levels of samatha, which is one of the common meditations that can be achieved even without refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Even they are able to achieve detached mind, renunciation of the desire realm; their pleasure. That means even they follow morality and discipline along with this renunciation. Then they become detached by thinking of the shortcomings of being in the form realm. Even after that they achieve the tip of samsara within the formless realms, which have the four mental states; they get detached from the three earlier realms by thinking of their shortcomings.
So even the Hindus practice renunciation, they are able to achieve renunciation. Not the renunciation of the whole entire samsara; that is not mentioned in Hinduism. To achieve ultimate liberation is not mentioned, neither is a description of the five paths or even emptiness. There is no way to achieve liberation without emptiness, without knowing the Prasangika view of emptiness, from the four schools of Buddhist philosophy.
If ordination does not have a big advantage, if it is not extremely important, then for what reason did Buddha himself show a monk's life, shaving his head himself at the River Niranjana? (According to Mahayana, Buddha's becoming enlightened in Bodhgaya was not the first time; in reality, he became enlightened an inconceivable time ago.)
All the twelve deeds that Buddha showed, and the Four Noble Truths, teach us sentient beings how to practice Dharma. There are all these sufferings and problems, and the one way you can get out of this forever and never experience it at all is by overcoming the cause: by liberating the mind from the delusions and karma. Only then will you achieve ultimate liberation and never have to experience suffering at all. That can be achieved because there is a true path that one can practice, the method. So basically the Four Noble Truths and the twelve deeds show how to practice Dharma.
Generalizing that it is the best thing for everyone to leave ordained life and take up lay practice is a wrong concept. The problem is, one: a lack of real understanding of Dharma, especially karma; and two: the extremely important thing missing is missing from the meditation experience, renunciation by realizing the sufferings of samsara and the lower realms, realizing impermanence and death; no strong experience is there, the realization is not there.
Even when there is some understanding of Dharma, it all remains intellectual, so the mind stays the same or becomes worse: even there are stronger delusions than before, depending on the person. Then of course, the way one lives the life is with delusion: the one from whom one has taken refuge is delusion, the friend is delusion, Guru and Triple Gems are delusion. Then one follows someone else, and they too are delusion.
Life like this can be very difficult. Life can be extremely difficult, very confused; or sangha in robes, with shaved head, but inwardly the opposite. Of course, nobody is making one's life difficult; one's self is making one's own life difficult, because one is in a prison of samsara by following the delusions. So then, because of your own experience, you, the one person's experience, from not having practiced Dharma continuously, you tell everybody that it is not a good idea to be a monk but better to be lay and practice Dharma.
In Tibet we have a practice called tsa-tsa: from a block of Buddha's image we make many hundreds and thousands of tsa-tsas. It's like you become the block and make everybody become the same as you. I think that this might be a way of making bad tsa-tsas.
What makes the nun's or monk's life difficult living in ordination is like this. If, in your heart the goal is nirvana, then it becomes extremely easy, no problem, even if you face some hardships, it is a pleasure; they are not important to your mind. But if, in your heart, the goal you want to achieve is samsara, the delight of samsaric pleasures, then even if other people don't make life difficult, you yourself make it difficult. Even if other people think it's okay, in your mind it is difficult. So, living in ordination depends on what is in your heart as the goal. If you change it from samsara into liberation and enlightenment, and keep that twenty-four hours, all the time, then there is no problem. This way your life is not torn out, and it's very clear in your heart.
Of course you can't have both samsara and liberation. As was mentioned by the Kadampa geshes, you cannot sew with a two-pointed needle. This way you lose Dharma liberation. As the Kadampa geshes mentioned, seeking the happiness of this life and seeking Dharma don't happen together. If you seek the happiness of life then you lose Dharma, like the example of the two-pointed needle which cannot sew. Dharma and liberation are lost when you seek both nirvana and samsara.
One can understand from these examples, even without relating them to Buddhism, the importance, the need, for ordained life. So generalizing in the West that it is not a good idea to be ordained, taking lay practice as the best thing for everyone, that is a wrong concept.
Benefits of Meditation and Sacrifice
Aung San Suu Kyi
The rainy season retreat has begun. It is a time for offering robes to monks and for making special efforts toward gaining a better understanding of Buddhist values. In Burma, we look upon members of the sangha (the Buddhist religious order) as teachers who will lead us along the noble eightfold path. Good teachers not merely give scholarly sermons, they show us how we should conduct our daily lives in accordance with right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Not long ago before my house arrest in 1989, I was granted an audience with the venerable U Pandita, an exceptional teacher in the best tradition of great spiritual mentors whose words act constantly as an aid to a better existence. U Pandita, the hole teacher, spoke of the importance of right speech. Not only should one speak only the truth, one's speech should lead to harmony among beings, it should be kind and pleasant and it should be beneficial. One should follow the example of the Lord Buddha who only spoke words that were trustful and beneficial, even if at times such speech was not always pleasing to the listener.
The holy teacher also urged me to cultivate mindfulness. Of the five spiritual faculties (ie, faith, energy, concentration, wisdom, and mindfulness), it is only mindfulness that can never be in excess. Excessive faith without sufficient wisdom leads to blind faith, while excessive wisdom without sufficient energy leads to undesirable cunning. Too much energy combined with weak concentration leads to indolence. But as for mindfulness, it is in excess, but always in deficiency. The truth and value of this Buddhist concept that holy teacher U Pandita took such pains to impress on me became evident during my years of house arrest. Like many of my Buddhist colleagues, I decided to put my time under detention to good use by practicing meditation. It was not an easy process. I did not have a teacher and my early attempts were more than a little frustrating. There were days when I found my failure to discipline my mind in accordance with prescribed meditation practices so infuriating I felt I was doing myself more harm than good. I think I would have given up but for the advice of a famous Buddhist teacher, that whether or not one wanted to practice meditation, one should do so for one's own good.
So, I gritted my teeth and kept at it, often rather glumly. Then my husband gave me a copy of Sayadaw U Pandita's book, "In this Very Life, the Liberation Teachings of the Buddha."
By studying this book carefully, I learned how to overcome difficulties of meditation and to realize its benefits. I learned how practicing meditation led to increased mindfulness in every day life and again and again. I recalled the holy teacher's words on the importance of mindfulness with appreciation and gratitude.
In my political work, I have been helped and strengthened by the teachings of members of the sangha. During my very first campaign trip across Burma, I received invaluable advice from monks in different parts of the country. I Prome, a holy teacher told me to keep in mind the hermit Sumedha, who sacrificed the possibility of early liberation for himself alone and underwent many lives of striving that he might save others from suffering. So must you be prepared to strive for as long as might be necessary to achieve good and justice, exhorted the holy teacher.
In a monastery at Pakokku, the advice that an abbot gave to my father when he went to that town more than 40 years ago was repeated to me: "Do not be frightened every time there is an attempt to frighten you, but do not be entirely without fear. Do not become elated every time you are praised, but do not be entirely lacking in elation."
In other words, while maintaining courage and humility, one should not abandon caution and healthy self-respect.
When I visited Natmauk, my father's home town, I went to the monastery where he studied as a boy.
There the abbot gave a sermon on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost; omission to repair that which had been damaged; disregard of the need for reasonable economy; and the elevation to leadership of those without morality and learning. The abbot went on to explain how these traditional Buddhist views should be interpreted to help us build a just and prosperous society in the modern age.
Of the words of wisdom I gathered during that journey across central Burma, those of a 91-year-old holy teacher of Sagaing are particularly memorable. He sketched out for me how it would be to work for democracy in Burma.
"You will be attacked and reviled for engaging in honest politics," pronounced the teacher, "But you must persevere. Lay down an investment in suffering and you will gain bliss."
Aung San Suu Kyi, Bangkok Post, September 1996.
The benefits of meditation
- found solutions to problems
Robert - asking the questions
Mark Pay is one of the weekly mediation class teachers at Dorjechang Buddhist Centre in Wimbledon.
Here he is interviewed here by fellow teacher Robert Talbot.
I understand that you developed an interest in Buddhism through an interest in
psychology. Could you tell me more?
Mark: I started to become interested in psychology in my mid 20's and it really opened my eyes to how our minds, or thought processes, affect the way we experience the world. This led to an interest in how this could be used to improve my experience of every day life and, as I read more in this field, I found increasing references to Buddhism. The first Buddhist books I read really caught my imagination and seemed to provide a much more complete picture than I had been able to find elsewhere.
They also explained how beneficial meditation could be, so I sought out some local classes. Discovering just how wild my mind was, and how much better I could feel by starting to gain some control, and calm it down got me hooked ... and I haven't stopped since.
Robert: As you point out, Buddhism provides a more complete picture than that of western psychology. To what extent did this picture change your view of the world?
Mark: I guess I initially thought that if I could arrange the world in just the right way, have the right relationship, job, house, holidays, etc. then I would be happy. I got interested in psychology because I'd basically achieved all of these things, but was still dissatisfied and kept feeling the need to change just a bit more. Psychology helped explain some aspects of this, but Buddhism showed the basic flaw in expectations.
I learned that whether I was happy or not depended on my mind, not on the external world. For example, I could think my relationship was perfect one day, and want to change it the next. My circumstances hadn't changed, but my mind had. Similarly I could experience the same situation, say an idyllic country walk, as pleasant or unpleasant, depending on whether my mind was calm or agitated.
So the world seems less threatening now, as it has less power to determine whether I'm happy or not than I previously thought. It's also less stressful, as I can put less effort into the impossible task of changing the world to always get what I want, and concentrate on being able to keep a calm happy mind.
Robert: What benefits have you received form meditation?
Mark: To start with it just helped me relax. Then it helped me to internalise the change of perspective I've just described - so that my behavior changed, to become less defensive and calmer, for example. I've also begun to feel much more connected with other people, through meditations on the kindness of others, and the benefits of cherishing others, instead of focusing on myself as the centre of he universe.
In more practical terms, for the first time I've stayed contented in a relationship, ... to the extent that we are now engaged! I also suspect that I'm easier to be around at work than I was a few years ago.
Robert: Just how wild your mind!?
Mark: I think I'll keep that to myself, thanks.
Robert: Fair enough! But on a general point, I think it's true to say that many people have the same experience when they start to meditate. What advice would you give to someone who has just started to meditate?
Mark: First of all, don't be put off of you find that your mind is easily distracted at first. This is a common experience as we notice, perhaps for the first time, just how busy and uncontrolled our mind is.
Secondly, just enjoy it. Don't worry or try too hard, but try to practice for a few minutes each day.
Robert: I understand that you lead some of the meditation classes at the Dorjechang Buddhist Centre. What can people expect who come these classes?
Mark: Each class starts with a guided meditation, where we explain the right posture, breathing, and so forth, and help to create some calm space in our minds. This can be a very pleasant experience, particularly at the end of a busy day. We will then give some explanation of how the mind can be trained, with the emphasis on providing practical methods that can help us to be happier in everyday life. We end with a second guided meditation where we can think about the explanation, and check it against our own personal experience.
Robert: Lets say I turn up to the Dorjechang Centre for the first time, I'm standing on the front step, I've rung the bell - what can I expect?
Mark: You should definitely expect a very friendly welcome. You'll be invited in, and will usually find people standing chatting in the kitchen and meditation room. Tea and biscuits are generally in large supply, both before and after the class. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal, and each class tends to attract a mix of new and regular attendees, with a wide range of ages backgrounds.
Robert: So if I'm a complete beginner, that's OK?
Mark: Complete beginners are very welcome. The main purpose of the classes is to provide practical meditation methods and new perspectives that can be taken away and used to help us be happier.I think this is something that we all aspire to.
Robert: What lies ahead in the future for the Dorjechang Centre?
Mark: Over the past year we've seen the centre flourish with many new faces and new branch classes. I hope it will continue to grow and be a starting point for increased happiness for many more people.
Buddhist View of Death -
An Interview with Bhante Gunaratana
by Samaneri Sudhamma and Margot Born
M.B. What is the general Buddhist view of death?
Bhante Gunaratana: First, the definition. When the life force -- heat and consciousness -- ceases to exist, then that is called death. Death can occur: 1) when one's own kamma is exhausted, 2) when one's own life span is exhausted, that is, the span allotted for that particular life (one can only live so long and after that one has to die). 3) when both kamma and life span are exhausted together, or 4) when life ends due to accidental, unnatural causes. These are the ways that death can come.
So death in Buddhism is not the end of total existence. Death is just closing one chapter and the next chapter is opened immediately after that. These two always go immediately together-death and rebirth.
Sudhamma: People are always worried about how to prepare for death. Perhaps there are two levels to be addressed. One being how to prepare the ordinary mind for this, or what to do properly at the time of death.
The other, how to go beyond the whole cycle of birth and death. In other words, how to prepare for death by no longer being subject to death.
Bhante Gunaratana: I see. We want to talk about two types of death. One is conventional death and the other is final death. Conventional death also has two sides, one is moment-to-moment death, the other is the "actual" death that cannot be revived.
In moment-to-moment death, you seem to have survived. You still exist. But in fact everything in the body and mind is dying every given moment. And it is renewing -- being reborn. Repetitive death and renewal doesn't appear to be occurring. We seem to be alive. But you have to understand that death happens every moment. Understanding this truth is the most important step in preparing for death. That is understanding the meaning of death. If we understand this, we understand that "actual" death is just another moment. Up to that moment, I've died trillions of times. Each of those times was a momentary death.
M.B. And that, I think, is what we realize in mediation?
Bhante G. Yes, that's what we realize in meditation. Actually, if you practice insight meditation and concentration meditation, one helps to understand the other. So if you gain insight, you understand what concentration is. If you gain concentration, you understand what insight is. In a concentrated, mindful state, you really feel, experience, and know this momentary death. You feel your palpitations, your heartbeat, your nervous vibrations, your sensations changing, your perception changing, and every thought changing.
Change, simply, means momentary death. When things change, they never can be revived. When a thought-moment is dead, that thought-moment will never, ever, appear again. The death of a cell means that when it dies, it's finished. That cell can never be revived. It should not remain in the body. It should be discarded, expelled from the body, in order for other cells to grow and develop. If they aren't discarded from the body, they can grow in the body, and we can develop cancer.
Once the cell is dead, it must be discarded, just as when the human body dies, it must be discarded. It has to be gotten out of the house. It has to go somewhere to be buried or burned so that others can live a healthy, hygienic life.
This kind of thing is happening all the time. Through vipassana meditation we see moment-to-moment death, we experience it, we know it, we become fully aware, and that is the way to prepare for death. So we prepare for "actual" death on the experiential level.
We further prepare for "actual" death by looking at it logically. You just open your eyes and look around. Everything is dying all the time. You can see that trees, plants and insects die all the time. When you have lived forty years, for example, and count the number of friends, relatives, and so forth who have died, you have to one day sit down and think, "In this way I must know that with the number of my friends, my relatives, my acquaintances -- with all these people dying, now it is my turn. So in this way I know that I must die. My friends, my classmates, one by one, one by one, one by one have died. Next is my turn." So that's another way to look at death.
Another logical way to think of death is to think that all of us are made up of impermanent objects. For instance, we are made up of earth, water, fire, air. Yet tomorrow, they're not there. Therefore the elements can never remain permanent. The elements of which the body is made are subject to death, impermanence. Therefore the product is going to be impermanent, too. There's no way to stop it. Thus examining the elements of the body is another logical way of looking at death.
Once we understand the truth of death, we should think, "Now that I'm going to die, why should I be so proud of something? I'm intimidated by the thought of death; I don't have any reason to be proud of anything. I don't have any reason to hold a grudge against anybody. Sooner or later I will die, and I don't have any reason to try to hold on to anything. No matter how hard I try to hold on, it will slip away from my hand at the time of separation. So I don't need greed either. I think, that if I don't hold onto my greed, my death will be very peaceful."
The next thing to think is, "I know that I will die, I think it is good for me to die peacefully, so let me prepare for that. Let me have peace all the time." That doesn't mean that you lie on the road waiting for a truck to run over you, or that you take poison, or commit suicide. That is not the way to obtain peace. We have to live this life as long as it lasts. We have to do as we are doing. We must therefore think, "Since I'm going to die anyway, I must die peacefully."
To die peacefully, we must prepare our minds to remain peaceful. A peaceful death is a painless death.
M.B. Can you talk a little about physical pain due to illness?
Bhante G. Yes, when we meditate, we have physical pain, for example, pain in the knee. We can use this pain to prepare for the pain of a final illness. The knee pain is like cancer pain. I think that if the cancer affects our nervous system, then we're always in pain. No matter what we do, the nerves are exposed and we have pain.
Therefore, we must prepare our minds by learning to practice meditation on feelings. We determine to always look at our feelings, no matter what the feeling is, even a tiny little toothache, neck ache, any little, little ache. If we are experiencing pain, we meditate on that. When pain arises, we focus on it. We watch it as it arises, how long it remains, and then we watch it fall. Every time, a little pain has these three stages, its rising moment, its peak moment, and its passing away moment.
If we condition our mind to be with that pain, or with that feeling, then our mind can get absorbed into the feeling and become one with the feeling. If we turn against the pain, then we try to dichotomize ourselves. But if we try to accept whatever comes, we absorb into it. Even when we have intense pain, we will come to a point where the mind cannot tolerate it any further and then the mind merges with the pain. After that it doesn't matter what happens.
So before death happens, we learn to willingly accept and stay with pain, watch the pain, and not get upset with the pain. The more upset we are with the pain, the more painful it is. The more we relax with the sensation, the less painful it will be. I know some friends who have died a physically very agonizing and painful death. They refused to take medication. Yet they even explained to visitors where the cancer was, how it developed, and what stage it was in now. Instead of the visitors trying to console the patient, it was rather the patient consoling the visitors.
The patient thinks the visitors come out of sympathy, out of compassion, to give him some encouragement, but when he can relax with the pain, it is he who gives sympathy, compassion and encouragement to the visitors. So physical pain in a last illness doesn't necessarily need to prevent a peaceful death.
M.B. What about when someone has gone over the pain threshold where it's impossible to relax and soften into the pain?
Bhante G. You know, there is some pain that a person cannot handle, and then medication is necessary. But we can first try to increase the tolerance of pain by conditioning the mind and preparing it to accept the physical pain. We can condition the mind by very kindly and gently trying to advise the person to meditate. We can chant some soothing, comforting chants, play some soothing, comforting music to prepare the mind, to try to help the mind remain peaceful. Give them instructions in meditation.
You remember that women who are having labor pains are taught these days to concentrate on their breath. They keep the rhythm of breathing. When they push the baby out, they're focusing on their breath and on their body and on the pushing.
That's a very beautiful thing for us to remember. We can use this information to teach people. And these mothers have babies with less pain because they are trained to do that. So we train the mind to accept the pain. We can use the information from mothers in labor to teach dying people how to manage pain.
So therefore we have to train the mind. Instead of dealing with the physical pain first, we learn how to treat the mind first. Because these two are always cooperating. When the body becomes calm, the mind becomes calm. They're always complementary to each other.
M.B. How do you feel about painkillers?
Bhante G. I think that they have side effects. They can drop your blood pressure. Some people can't take them and they can be very dangerous. A person has to keep only a certain amount of them in his blood stream.
But meditation was invented long before medication was discovered. Now people don't pay attention to that spiritual training and they go straight away to narcotics or painkillers. Now we want to reverse the order again because the spiritual treatment is more healthy than chemical treatment.
People take all kinds of pills, you know, and they all have side effects, especially after long usage. But spiritual training will never have side effects. It always builds up. It always prolongs your life. And any side effects it may have improve your life, give a better taste to life. When you come out of a painful state, when you do these things when you're sick, they have a peaceful effect that last long after you have recovered from the painful state.
Now, to get back to death. Actually, we haven't digressed, because illness is the cause of death and illness has pain. To die very quickly without any pain is no problem. So I think talking about pain is quite fundamental for any discussion of death.
Sudhamma: We've talked about two kinds of death -- moment-to-moment and "actual." At one point you were talking about letting go of grudges and greed and having a peaceful mind. Where were you headed with that?
Bhante G: I'd like to talk about permanent death, that is, dying never to be reborn again. You are tired of this birth and death, moment by moment and life by life. So one moment begins and ends and another begins and ends. One life begins and ends and another begins and ends. We get tired of all that. Then we want death, never to be born again.
Death causes birth because there's a desire to be reborn. As long as you have that desire, you will be reborn. When the desire to be reborn is exhausted, then you won't be reborn.
And that leads us to the last stage of Enlightenment.
Sudhamma: When you were talking about death, you were talking about making the mind peaceful and you said something about "Let me have a peaceful mind. Let me have a peaceful death." Were you done with that?
Bhante G: Yes, but I do want to mention something else. When death is approaching, a person often has remorse, regret and guilt. That is another reason for fear. Since he knows that he's going to be reborn, since he's done a lot of wrong things, at the time of death, he remembers them. This is called "death-proximate thought." In death-proximate thought, in that split-second time of death, he remembers very vividly, like a flashing light, certain things that have happened. Death is still painful psychologically.
Therefore, very compassionate people, when a person is going to die, help him to have a peaceful death by first telling him the good things he's done. For instance, if he's brought up children, the compassionate person can tell the dying person how much he's done for the children and about all the other good things he's done for others. They need to remind him of the good things he's done. If he has brothers and sisters, they also can say the good things he's done. Anything he's done, planting trees, cleaning the road, they can remind him of, with conviction.
Secondly, they can ask him to think of a peaceful object, like the Buddha, a heavenly light, tranquillity and peace, the joy he's had in his life, to try to block off all the negative thoughts. Thirdly, if you have access to a religious person, a monk or a priest or someone like that, call him immediately to come and ask him to give a sermon. Although the dying person before that may have hated sermons, now he will listen to sermons, even willingly, because there's nothing else to do.
So These are things for the dying person to do and for other people to do to help him die peacefully.
M.B.: I've been reading Philip Kapleau . He talks in a way that made me wonder about the self and the "no-self" and death. After reading him I thought, "How can death exist, if there's nothing to die?"
Bhante G: That sounds very abstract -- to say that there's nothing to die. That is the philosophical basis of what we're doing. In the final analysis, nothing exists. And when nothing exists, there's nothing to die.
But you have to have a very powerful state of mind to have that thought at the moment of death. Long before death, when you're healthy, you can have these sorts of thoughts, but at the moment of death, all your senses are weak. Your thinking capacity is weak. When you're on the verge of death, everything is weak.
According to the Abhidhamma [classical compilation of Buddhist psychology], there's a weak stream of thought. The conscious stream of thought is the shortest stream of thought. At other times, the stream of thought has seventeen moments. When death comes, the stream of thought has fifteen or twelve or thirteen moments. Because everything is weak, when you're almost dead, what is left is only a very little bit of your consciousness. You have no interest in anything at that stage. I don't think philosophy would work.
M.B.: I've also been reading Stephen Levine , and he says that if you can realize that there's nothing to hold onto anyway, you won't have such trouble letting go at the end. In his book he has many meditations about letting go.
Bhante G.: That is a good idea. The person must be reminded of the fact that he has eaten so many times in his life and all those meals are gone. What of them is left now? All his activities, all of his thoughts, all of his material possessions are gone.
So no matter how hard we try to hold onto something, it slips away from our grip. And it is a very good idea to make a person aware of this. The longer you mentally cling, the more painful it will be. It is just like tightening a fist. The harder you tighten your fist, the more painful it is. When you open your fist and loosen it you feel comfort and relief.
Similarly, at this moment, if you released your anxiety, your tension, your tightening, you would feel the relief of pain, an easing. That's a good thought -- to let go of things. And that's another thing we do in Vipassana meditation. We let go. We enjoy when we enjoy, but we don't hang on. Eat, if it's tasty and enjoy the taste! But if it's not tasty, it's distasteful, don't hold onto that!
Sudhamma: When you first talked about death, you said that there was conventional death and final death. Tell me about the final death!
Bhante G: The final death is the death of the enlightened person. An enlightened person has these thoughts. First, he thinks, "Well, I have done what was to be done. There's nothing more to do." This is the most exquisite, wonderful thought to have in mind. We can die at any moment. We don't have to wait to have this thought. Any moment we can think, "I have done so many things in my life. Those are the things I was supposed to do, and I have done them. What I'm doing now may be extra, extra duties in addition to my original duties. I can go very easily without these extra duties."
Extra duties are an enlightened person's service to the world. They are not necessary for him, but the body and mind are there, and there are beings who support the body and mind, so why not live usefully and mindfully for their benefit, to support them. So he says, " For me there is nothing more to do. I have done everything."
Secondly, and this is the enlightened person's rational thinking. It is based on the enlightened person's release of mind. He thinks, "I am liberated." This kind of thought appears in his mind without any effort, naturally.
On the other hand, whenever he thinks of his body, he knows the nature of it and has no clinging. He's in a state of letting go of all things. Therefore he has nothing personal to hold onto -- no beings or thoughts or things like that. That also comes to him very naturally.
But in some cases, in spite of all that letting go, a person still has the desire to be reborn. Perhaps he wants to be reborn in a better place or, if he's lived this life serenely, had an ideal life with an ideal wife, he might say, "I'd like to have this wife even in my next life. I want to be reborn to have the same kind of life I've had, to have the same comfort, the same emotional, spiritual satisfaction that made this life very peaceful. Therefore let me have this life again." Then no matter how noble the person is, the person will have the same life again. He will be reborn because, no matter how noble he is, he still has the desire.
But an enlightened person is nobler than that. One who is liberated doesn't even have that desire. He knows that even that is mentally created. That is sankara [a mental formation, conditioned and impermanent].
Any sankara, no matter how wholesome it appears, is impermanent. Moreover, an enlightened person knows that his death is exhausted, that is, he will never die again. To die again, you have to be born again. "So this is my final death. This is my final birth. There is no more birth, no more death for me. There is nothing beyond this." He comes to this realization. So that is what is called the final death.
When the enlightened person approaches his final death, he doesn't need any of those other consoling agents around him to help him, teachers and so forth to console his body and to console his mind.
That person also doesn't have any of the memories of those death-proximate thoughts. An ordinary person remembers the things he's done, his kamma, and he has fears about where he'll be reborn. This is called a "sign." He will have a sign of the place where he is going to be born. This means that if at the moment of death, you're going to be reborn, you may see the human mother. If you're going to be reborn as an animal, you'll see the animal.
Sudhamma: Like a face?
Bhante G.: Like a vision.
Sudhamma: A person? A womb?
Bhante G: If it's a human rebirth, maybe moisture, as in a womb. You might see a uterus and feel what it's like inside a uterus. If you're going to be reborn as a human you'll see that. If you're going to be reborn as a divine being, you'll see a peaceful place.
But when final death is approaching, you don't see any of those signs. That's why it is called "Signless." There's no sign at that moment. And that is the Buddhist view of birth, death, and liberation.
Consolation of Karma
Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman talks about how suffering, even through the tsunami disaster, can offer a karmic advantage.
Interview by Lisa Schneider
Robert Thurman holds the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the United States, at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of the international best-seller "Inner Revolution," and the co-founder and president of Tibet House U.S., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Does karma play a role?
Abstractly speaking, karma is not really a theory of fate; it's a causal theory. And it says that anything bad that happens to you is a resonance of something bad that you perpetrated in a previous life.
main thing about karma, what we might want to call collective karma, when there's
a disaster where people haven't done anything and a terrible thing happens from
nature, is that the bodhisattva, or the outside person looking at the situation,
never invokes the karma theory and says, "Well, I don't have to worry about
them because that was their bad karma and they got wasted and too bad--as if it
were some sort of fate or a way of writing off the disaster. It should never be
used that way.
The bodhisattva never accepts the absoluteness of that explanation, although she would be aware of it. She would think of it as a terrible tragedy, unprovoked and unmerited, and would try to do everything possible to save the people from the disaster and help the survivors.
On the other hand, the karma theory that everything bad that happens to me is from my own negative action in the past is always useful for the person who suffers. In other words, using the karma theory to blame the victim is good for the victim to do about themselves. This is a very surprising idea. If the victims just sit and shake their fist at the universe, shout at God (if they are theists) or shout at karma, then they weaken themselves in the sense that they have just emphasized their helplessness.
Whereas if they say, I'm going to use this disaster that happened to me as if it were expiating previous things that I did to the world that were negative, and I'm going to grow stronger from it....In other words, I can't do anything about the disaster but I can do something about my reaction to it. I'm not going to add to the suffering it has caused with a new suffering of agonizing about myself and feeling helpless and feeling angry at the external world. I'm going to take responsibility for being in the way of the disaster as part of my own karma and therefore I'm going to use this tragedy as an advantage toward freedom, towards Buddhahood.
Is that a way they can find meaning in their suffering?
find meaning and they find advantage is the main point. They can say, this is
going to be a conscious effort I'm going to do.
Now if they got killed, of course they're not going to do anything in that life. But from the Buddhist point of view, if they have a lingering memory of a catastrophe because they died in a moment of panic and fear and worry for their loved ones and so on, if they retain some memory of this death-which often the just-dead do, in the Buddhist view in the bardo, the between state-and they're saying, well, this is a terrible karma thing that happened to me and others. I will try to make my suffering a sacrifice, an expiation of previous things that I caused, and I'm going to have a better life in the future. And I'm going to try to help the beings who died, my loved ones and others, and be of more help to them in my next life.
So that they would try to take advantage in the between-state in the after-death state in order to improve their rebirth, rather than just freak out.
What solace can Buddhism offer to survivors who have lost loved ones?
solace to survivors who have lost someone is: Well, they lost this life, I lost
my contact with them, but moaning and groaning and freaking out about it and being
angry about it isn't going to help. I should send them good prayers and good vibrations
about their rebirth. If I dearly love them, I will pray to meet them again in
the coming life, in wherever they are reborn, to make the world in general a better
place for them, and vow to rejoin them (if it's a soulmate sort of thing) in another
life. So the consolation of karma is not just identifying the lost beings with
the embodiment of a particular life, but feeling a sense of spiritual connection
to their larger continuity of life and sending good vibes toward that.
The theist says it's God's will and God took care of them and hopes to join them in heaven, which is also good consolation and sort of leaves it up to God. But the karma is seeing it as a process in which you are also a responsible actor. Otherwise the vastness of the causal mixes is so huge it's pretty incomprehensible, and no wonder some people call it God, or God's will, or providence.
But the key thing is that karma is not the exercise of a particular agency or divinity; it is an impersonal process of causality. I call it evolutionary causality.
What do you mean by that?
It's a causality
by which beings evolve. Like if they do an action of a certain type, they get
an effect from that action because it changes their being and their being evolves.
It can evolve in a negative or a positive direction depending on whether the actions
are negative or positive. In a way, karma is a biological theory just like a Western
genetic biological theory. And it is very like a genetic biological theory in
that it has humans being reborn as animals, animals as humans. And it adds to
that also the idea of the spiritual gene or the soul gene being interwoven within
that genetic rebirth process. So that your own individual consciousness can become
the animal or become the god or become the human or whatever it becomes.
It's hard to generalize across cultures, but is there a traditional mourning period for Buddhists?
In the Buddhist context,
they consider that the weeping and wailing and shrieking and tearing hair and
clothes, that kind of thing, is not actually a good idea. It doesn't really relieve
the bereaved; in fact it even pumps up their emotion. But the main point from
the Buddhist point of view is that the one who just died, being still aware of
what those left behind, the survivors are doing for a while--the departed one
gets very anxious and upset and preserves that raw emotion as very disturbing.
So whenever someone is overcome by grief, the tendency, especially in Tibetan
Buddhist culture, is to try to calm that survivor down and have them think of
good and positive thoughts and send good vibes.
So the nature of their grief should take the form of looking forward and being compassionate with others?
Yes, that's considered better--sincerely sending really strong caring and loving vibes toward the one who passed away. Because the main person in transition at that time, the most difficult transition, is the death-rebirth transition in the Buddhist view. The one left behind is not that drastic in the sense that they're still in their familiar embodiment, even though it may be a big disruption for them. So the priority is to send the good vibes to the departed, in the Buddhist world view.
Is What War Looks Like
The abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is what happens when we abandon compassion and allow our animal nature to take over.
with Thich Nhat Hanh
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Han) has been a spokesperson for peace and human rights since the 1960s, when his activism to end the Vietnam War inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been living in exile from his native Vietnam since 1966, and calls Plum Village, a meditation retreat center he founded in the south of France, his home. He conducts retreats throughout the world on "engaged Buddhism," nonviolence, and mindfulness, and has written more than 100 books. In an email interview with Beliefnet, he offered his thoughts on the prison abuse scandal.
Q. What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?
Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity
to look deeply into the nature of war. This is an opportunity for us to be more
aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kinds of things happen.
Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don't kill, they will be killed by the so-called "enemy." They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society.
Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their "enemies" as fellow human beings just like them, they would have no courage to kill them.
It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities were committed by both sides.
The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me. Because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, being ready to kill at any moment.
In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.
Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.
Q. There have been examples of individuals who were kind to prisoners. Assuming they have the same training and are operating in the same difficult conditions, what makes some people compassionate and others abusive?
TNH. Some people are able to remain compassionate because they are lucky to have received a spiritual heritage, kindness and goodness, that stayed at least partially intact despite their training. This heritage is transmitted by parents, teachers, and community. Their humanity is preserved to some extent even if they have been damaged during their training. So they are still able to be shocked by their fellow soldiers' acts of torture. But those with a poorer spiritual heritage, who come from a family or community without much understanding and compassion, lose all their humanity in the process of military training.
Q. Is it ever possible to torture someone for a good cause? If a prisoner in custody did have information that could potentially prevent a terrorist attack, would coercion be appropriate? If no, what interrogation tactics would be appropriate and effective?
TNH. There is no 'good cause' for torture. As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose all your humanity. You do harm to yourself in the act of harming another. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when you torture another human being. When we imagine situations when torture could be justified, we jump to conclusions too quickly and too easily. Torturing someone will not always give us the result we wish for. If the prisoner in custody does not tell us the information we want it is because they don't want their people, their fellow soldiers to be killed. They withhold information out of compassion, out of faithfulness to their cause. Sometimes they give out wrong information. And there are those who prefer to die rather than give in to the torture.
I am absolutely against torture. It is very easy to create a pretext for why it is necessary to torture a prisoner when we have fear and anger in us. When we have compassion, we can always find another way. When you torture a living being, you die as a human being because the other person's suffering is your own suffering. When you perform surgery on someone, you know the surgery will help him and that is why you can cut into his body. But when you cut into someone's body and mind to get information from them, you cut into your own life, you kill yourself as a person.
Q. If military action is incompatible with mindfulness and compassion, how should people/nations defend themselves? (You have said that when we are mindful, "compassion becomes possible." Is a lack of mindfulness what our moral failings boil down to?)
TNH. There are many ways to defend ourselves: through diplomatic foreign policy, forming alliances with other countries, humanitarian assistance. These are all approaches motivated by the wisdom of inter-being, not just by political gain. In these kinds of approaches to resolving conflict, the army doesn't have to do much. They can serve the people, build bridges, roads, etc. This is not idealistic thinking, armies have worked this way in the past. With good foreign policy, the army will not have to fight.
The only really necessary and appropriate circumstance under which an army should resort to violence is to defend itself or an ally from invasion. And even in this case, much suffering will result.
What is upsetting to me is that former generations have committed the same mistakes and we don't learn from them. We haven't learned enough from the war in Vietnam. There were so many atrocities committed there. So many innocent people were tortured and killed by both sides because they were perceived to be 'communist', or 'anti-communist.'
Mindfulness has so many layers. When we kill because we think that the other person is evil, that we are killing for the sake of peace, that we are doing a good thing, this is not right mindfulness. If we are mindful, we will see not only the present situation, but also the root and the consequence of our act in that moment. Other insights should arise if we are truly mindful: "This person I want to kill is a living being. Is there any chance for him to behave better and change his present, harmful state of mind? Maybe I have a wrong perception and one day I will see that he is just a victim of misunderstanding, and not really the evil person I think he is." Mindfulness also helps a soldier to see that he or she may just be an instrument for killing used by his or her government.
A general who is mindful of his actions is capable of looking deeply. He may not need to use weapons. He will see that there are many ways to deter the opposite side and he will exhaust all other means before resorting to violence. And when nothing else works, he may use violence, but out of compassion, not out of anger.
Q. There is a collective sense of shame among many Americans about the activities depicted in these photos. Buddhists believe individuals are responsible for their actions through karma, but is there any such thing as collective karma? At a national level?
TNH. An act of cruelty is born of many conditions coming together, without any separate, individual actor. When we hold retreats for war veterans I tell them they are the flame at the tip of the candle, they are the ones who feel the heat, but the whole candle is burning, not only the flame. All of us are responsible.
The very ideas of terrorism and imagined weapons of mass destruction are already collective karma in terms of thinking and speaking. The media helped the war happen by supporting these ideas through speech and writing. Thought, speech and action are all collective karma.
No one can say they are not responsible for this current situation even if we oppose our country's actions. We are still a member of our community, a citizen of our country. Maybe we have not done enough. We must ally ourselves with bodhisattvas, great, awakened beings, around us to transform our way of thinking and that of our society. Because wrong thinking is at the base of our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion. And we can do things every day, in every moment of our daily life to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion and understanding in us and in those around us. We can live in such a way that can heal our collective karma and ensure that these atrocities will not happen again in the future.
Q. What is the chief lesson for us to learn from these terrible events?
Don't be tempted to use the army to solve conflicts. The only situation in which we use the army is to defend our country during an invasion. In the past, the U.S. was loved by many of us in the world because the U.S. represented freedom, democracy, peace, and care for other countries. The U.S. has lost this image and must rebuild it.
In the past, when I would go to the U.S. embassy for a visa, it was not heavily guarded. But now, all over the world, U.S. embassies are surrounded by heavily armed guards. Fear has overtaken the U.S. It is the primary motivation for many of the U.S. government's actions because we do not know how to protect ourselves with compassion. Students of political science must learn this in university so that they can bring real wisdom into politics. Compassion can go together with intelligence. Compassion is not stupid. Love is the same, real love is born from understanding.
the forest for refuge
An interview with Joseph Goldstein
September 1, 1998.
- Joseph, after practicing in India for ten years and teaching in this country for more than twenty, you have recently returned from a well-earned teaching sabbatical, in which I understand you did quite a bit of personal meditation practice. Has anything emerged from this experience, in terms of greater clarity?
- I think one of the pieces that has emerged from the time off is a greater clarity about where I'd like to put my energy in the following years. With so many newer teachers coming along who are well qualified to teach the shorter (nine- and ten-day) retreats, I'm feeling that I would like to devote more of my time to teaching yogis [meditators] who are more committed to longer term situations.
I feel that there is a need, given the development of the dharma in the West in the last quarter century or so, for some group of people to immerse themselves in long-term practice. There are some who have the time, the commitment, and the experience to do this, and I would like to help support this deepening of practice.
And why is that? What happens on a long retreat that doesn't happen on a shorter retreat?
Well, lots of things. It works on so many levels, and there are many models for talking about it. In an obvious way, it's more of a chance for the mind to quiet down, and to actually develop a deepening power of concentration and attentiveness-and that really makes possible the opening to different levels of insight and understanding.
The deepening of concentration and the quieting down of the mind provides the stability of attention, of attentiveness, which is necessary for deeper seeing of the nature of the mind and the body. When the mind is quite scattered or distracted, and we're struggling to keep bringing it back, it's very difficult to develop penetrating insight.
For most of us, the development of concentration, of an undistracted quality of mind, takes time. There are some few people who seem to have a natural ability, and can settle right into it; but from my own experience in practice, and working with so many others, I know it doesn't often come naturally. So a longer retreat provides the space for people to cultivate this important skill. A focused mind then allows us to see more clearly, both the more obvious and the very many subtle places of attachment.
The Buddha was very straightforward in his teaching: liberation happens through not clinging to anything. That's a very radical and uncompromising statement. But to me it's also very inspiring. OK, this is the work to do, and the first step is using the power of increased concentration to actually begin seeing all the places of attachment, identification and fixation of mind that are there.
So much of what we hear from dharma teachers these days has to do with the integration of mindfulness with the details of a layperson's complex daily life. This interest of yours for longer term semi-renunciate practice seems to go somewhat against that grain.
Clearly, it's really important for people to bring what they've learned in practice to their lives in the world; otherwise, both their spiritual lives and their worldly lives are very fragmented. On one level, the point of practice is to be able to live with greater freedom, greater integrity, and greater compassion in the world. And I think that the deeper people go in their practice and understanding, the more complete that integration becomes.
It is easy to say that daily life is our practice, and as an ideal, it's admirable. But whether in fact we're actually doing it in a way that's meaningful, in terms of deepening spiritual understanding -- I think that's something we all have to look at for ourselves. It's perhaps the most difficult of the paths to follow with real integrity.
One of my teachers was once asked, Is it really necessary to renounce the world in order to get liberated? He said, "Well, even the Buddha had to renounce the world!" And he had a few paramis [previously developed spiritual qualities]! So to minimize the difficulty of it, I think, is to miss the level of commitment it actually takes. When there is an opportunity for long-term practice, it allows our practice to go deeper-so that there is actually something to integrate.
It sounds paradoxical: We need to retreat from worldly lifestyles to see more deeply into our experience, and the more we are able to do that, the more depth we can then bring back into our worldly lives.
That's right. And the cycle of retreat and going back in the world, of going inside and then bringing it out-we all have different rhythms for that at different times in our lives. So much depends upon our interest, our motivation, our circumstances, lots of factors. But I think there will always be some people for whom the conditions would be right for long, uninterrupted practice. And right now, that opportunity is not easily available in the West.
In the traditional models of the Asian monastic tradition, people would leave the world, devote themselves to practice, and lead the holy life. Here in this country, at this point anyway, it's not necessarily going to take the outward form of monasticism, with many people ordaining as monks or nuns. But still I think there is a great interest in having the chance for long term practice.
I know for myself, whenever I've done what in this country would be considered a long retreat (two or three months), it always feels like I'm just getting started -- and then it's over. I've always felt sorry that the retreat was coming to an end. So both for myself and others, it would be a great opportunity for yogis to have a place that supports longer practice. That's really my vision for what could happen at the Forest Refuge.
The Forest Refuge, your new project for creating a long-term practice center in the forest between IMS and BCBS, sounds like an exciting development for the dharma in the West. [IMS: Insight Meditation Society; BCBS: Barre Center for Buddhist Studies]
It's tremendously exciting to me. It's something I have a great love for, both as something I would like to do myself, and imagining the possibility of other western yogis in that setting. Somehow, it resonates in me: The vision of people in all the Buddhist cultures over the last twenty-five hundred years, just doing this -- going off, for longer periods of time, and devoting themselves to the practice of awakening.
Do you think there are enough people in America today who are willing and able to do that?
Yes, I do. I don't have any doubt about it at all. In fact, although we are beginning with the idea of perhaps twenty-five or thirty people in long-term practice of varying lengths, I don't have any problem imagining a hundred people -- even hundreds of people! I think the dharma is well-enough established in the West now. As I go around teaching in so many places, I continually hear from people that this is just the sort of thing they are looking for: a quiet, supportive environment for settling into their practice. There are enough people who have undergone significant basic training in practice, and who are really inspired by the possibility of genuine awakening.
So much of what we've learned about awakening or liberation has been represented in traditional terms. Now that you have spent so much of your life practicing the dharma in English, so to speak, and in American culture, I wonder: Do you have a sense yourself, in contemporary terms, of what that awakening means? How might it manifest in a contemporary western personality?
That's a complex question which can be approached on a couple of different levels. Whether or not we can tell whether somebody's enlightened or awakened is always problematic, for a variety of reasons.
One is that we often confuse expressions of personality with an assessment of spiritual realization. I don't think that all personality quirks are somehow leveled out in the process of awakening. But we're so used to reacting and responding to the more superficial levels of personality that we can miss the deeper understandings that might be there. So that's on one side.
On the other side, when someone is in a certain role, it's very easy to project onto them some great awakened experience which may or may not be true. We may miss it when it's there, and we may attribute it when it's not.
And the middle way?
Well, the middle way, I think, is one of the key reference points for me -- both in my own practice, just watching my own mind, and then being with others: It is just to see the degree of self-reference that is present. To see if the self is really at the center of our life and our actions and our motivations, or to see that there is less of that. My understanding is that the deep realization of emptiness, in the Buddhist sense, really means emptiness of self. So one becomes less and less self-referential.
This is a long process, and I think we are all somewhere along a continuum, from totally self-absorbed to completely selfless. My hope is that as we all continue in our practice, whether in daily life or on long retreats, we are moving in the direction of becoming more selfless, and express that understanding by greater compassionate responsiveness.
It is not that we eliminate the personality; rather it is being not so attached or identified with it. And in that non-identification is the space to be responsive, and to help lighten the suffering that's in the world. I don't see that there's any one way to be responsive. We each will have our own expression of that.
As one reaches a certain understanding, is it natural that a person will, as they become less self-referential, be more inclined to public service?
I question whether there is any one model or any one way to manifest (though I hesitate to use this phrase) enlightened behavior. I can imagine someone staying as a recluse their whole life, yet managing from that place of great compassion and openness to influence things on other levels. I don't think we should become too dogmatic in our views of how wisdom expresses itself. For one thing, if the core piece is there -- real wisdom -- and if we view things from the perspective of rebirth and many lives, then there is lots of time to manifest wisdom in a wide variety of ways. The Jataka tales [stories of the Buddha's many previous births] provide good examples of this.
Another model for thinking about what happens in practice has to do with weakening, and hopefully finally eradicating greed, hatred, and ignorance as motive forces in the mind. Still another image that comes to mind to express the deepening of practice is the ripening or the balancing of the five spiritual faculties: faith, wisdom, concentration, energy and mindfulness.
What models of awakening do you find most compelling?
Something that has been of increasing interest to me lately is the relationship of compassion and emptiness -- or perhaps you could say wisdom and compassion -- as the two core principles of the awakened mind. What I have been inspired by, and what has transformed my own practice, is a growing understanding that compassion and emptiness are not two different things. Compassion is not a stance, but is the simple responsiveness to circumstances from a place of selflessness. So it is not that someone becomes more compassionate. Rather, the emptier we are of self, the more responsive we are.
So it is a matter of getting out of the way so compassion can manifest itself?
Yes, exactly. Compassion is the manifestation of emptiness. And that feels very liberating and inspiring to me, because when I think of a self responding to all the suffering in the world, it feels too overwhelming. There's too much suffering -- how could a self hold it? It feels like the burden is just too immense.
But when I think of compassionate action being the expression of emptiness, then it's not resting on the shoulders of anyone. It feels big enough to hold it all. And that's how I now understand the whole bodhisattva notion, the bodhisattva vow, in a way that makes sense to me. It's not a self, it's not someone doing it. It's just a natural manifestation
Students new to the Buddhist tradition always seem to eventually ask the question, If all is emptiness, why is there compassion? How is it that this ethical quality is somehow built into the fabric of the universe?
For a few reasons, I think; and maybe this also can be seen on a couple of different levels.
One might come out of an investigation of what the root of greed or fear or hatred in the mind really is. Even looking at the matter conceptually, but then more experientially from a meditative awareness, these afflicted states seem to me very clearly rooted in a sense of self. Someone is greedy for something, or someone is angry, or fearful, or whatever -- in each case it is the notion of the self that actually feeds those unwholesome states. And so, in the absence of that sense of self, in emptiness, from where would greed arise? From where would hatred or anger arise?
This perspective is expressed in the traditional teachings when they speak of the effects of seeing through the illusion of self. Even though the other defilements, out of habit, may still arise, the root has been cut. And from that point forward those defilements will wither away, because they are no longer nourished by the sense of self. This is one way of looking at it.
From another perspective, we can see compassion arising out of an experience of non-separation. As long as there remains a sense of self, the very notion of self predicates other. With the self, there's other than self. And other than self is everyone else and everything else! And so the very notion of self carries within it, implicitly, the notion of separation. From the perspective of absence of self, there's no one there to be separate. So then it's just the interplay, the dance of elements, experience, phenomena; there's just the dance of all this -- interconnected, interrelated -- with a real sense of non-separation. And non-separation, I think, is another word for love. Again, it is not a matter of someone loving someone else, but goes beyond this to a simple manifestation of love.
And have you felt this yourself?
Oh yes, at times. At times. I am definitely a long way from the continuous experience of this simple clarity, but I have tasted it enough to know it's a possibility.
I think we want to be careful about not romanticizing or -- I don't quite know what the right word is -- perhaps glorifying this stage, because in a way I see one aspect of it as being quite commonplace. I think we all experience it a lot more than we actually acknowledge. Going though our lives, we are very often quite naturally responsive to situations of suffering. In simple ways, with no great dramatic statement, we may just feel a natural, caring connection-without a sense of acting from self, or ego, but just as a natural response to the situation. So that's one piece. I don't want to see it only in terms of some extraordinary state that we may have glimpses of, because I think that puts it in the wrong frame.
On the other side, even though we may be in that place of natural responsiveness more and more often, we don't want to become complacent and miss the very many moments when the mind does get fixated in a sense of self. It can be very subtle -- even when our basic response is wholesome, there can often be all sorts of unskillful motives mixed in.
So while I don't want to make it something extraordinary, I also think it takes an incredible quality of attentiveness not to delude ourselves, and to really be watching, in the course of the day, when we are acting from that place of ego. It happens a lot more than we think it does.
During long-term practice, we do develop a very refined sensibility of what's happening in our own lives. We can more easily catch those moments when the mind is self-referential, when it gets caught, fixated or attached. There is definitely the possibility of long retreats preparing the ground for genuine and deep transformative experiences, what I call moments of enlightenment or moments of awakening.
It's also important to recognize that these experiences are themselves something to which the self can attach, and we must take care that the self doesn't co-opt them -- as I've seen happen. All of a sudden, our life can start revolving around an experience of selflessness [laughter]. So I become the person who's had this experience of selflessness! It can be very subtle. And, it happens. Hopefully, if the experience is genuine, that eventually will be seen through and we let go of that as well.
Can you say more about your vision of this new center for long-term practice -- the Forest Refuge?
With pleasure! On a physical plane, I'm excited by the possibility of designing this center, from the ground up, specifically for the purpose of long-term practice. We want to create something that is very simple, and yet -- beautiful, harmonious, tranquil and inspiring. Something that reflects that line of T.S. Eliot: "A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything. And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well."
It will be in the middle of a New England forest, through which I've walked many times. It has always been both incredibly beautiful and very opening -- just walking through the woods in the space of intensive practice is wonderfully meditative. So the whole environment, both the physical structure and the natural environment, will be designed to support the practice in beautiful ways.
And we are also hoping to create a style of practice that supports people finding their own individual rhythm. Not everyone will follow a particular pre-set schedule, but each will sit and walk throughout the day as suits them best. But with the timely use of the meditation hall and the dining room, practitioners will also find the support of other people doing the same thing. I see the possibility of a wonderful combination of solitude and support of sangha at the same time. It is the way I would love to practice. It is the way I do love to practice!
So we will see you out there! And what about the teaching component? How will the Dharma be brought to this environment and to this community?
Well, I certainly am planning to devote a fair amount of my time to it. I see it as a place for experienced practitioners who are quite independent in their practice and don't need the level of support usually provided for shorter retreats. But, I can imagine perhaps weekly check-ins, occasional talks, and also a small dharma library. With the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies just next door, some people might do some simple reading or study of the classical tradition to help support and direct their practice.
Do you see the Forest Refuge as continuing IMS's tendency to be thoroughly grounded in the Theravada tradition, or would this be an opportunity to bring in a more diverse Buddhist presence? [IMS: Insight Meditation Society]
I think all the traditions of Buddhism are rooted in the basic teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness -- these are the core teachings of Buddhism, and I see these basic principles being the foundation of the center. The principle of liberation-the cultivation of a mind of no clinging -- is also universal to Buddhism, and will be a primary focus.
But these principles have been elaborated in many different ways over the centuries in different traditions, and some of these other modes of expression can be very helpful. The particular ways that we might work with these are not immediately clear to me. I think we're going to draw primarily on the IMS teachers and the cadre of senior vipassana teachers to be guiding people. But I could also imagine having some guest teachers from other traditions for periods of time if it felt appropriate. All such details are still very much in the visioning stage. But the basic foundation of where it's rooted seems quite clear to me.
I am very inspired by the whole project. And I'm hopeful that many of my colleagues will also join in.
So this new practice center is an important part of your legacy, is it not? You will have a leading role in setting it up, and you will have a continuing role -- for some decades we hope -- in guiding it along. But then you're also presumably looking towards passing it all on
And coming back to sit in it. I'm really just preparing for my next life here. If I help to get things in place now, I'll have a place to sit when I come back next time
Source: Insight Magazine Online, http://www.dharma.org/insight.htm
Close with Professor A. K. Warder
Ref: "Interview with Professor A.K.Warder", Wisdom, Vol.1, Special Issue Spring/Summer 1995.
Visit Wisdom: http://www.ilap.com/wisdom
A.K.Warder is the author of "Indian Buddhism" and "An Introduction to Pali". This interview was conducted at his home in Canada by Chris Ng and Trudinna Ly for "Wisdom", Spring/Summer 1995, published by the Chinese Buddhist Student Association, University of Toronto.
Wisdom: How did you become interested in Indian Buddhism?
Prof. Warder: This will keep us here for weeks if I give a full answer! To put it simply, I got interested in Buddhism because I was dissatisfied with Christianity. I was brought up strictly as a Christian. By the time I was fifteen years old, I found it impossible to go on believing in Christianity. It did not seem to relate in anyway to your life. Then at school, I went to an Anglican school where the headmaster was an Anglican priest and of course we had compulsory religious instruction two hours a week. It was called Scripture and in the 6th Form the headmaster himself taught us religion. It so happened that before was in the 6th Form, he always called his course simply Christianity. I do not know what inspired him to change that, but the year I was in the class, he called it Comparative Religion. Actually, it was still the same thing but the way he did was to set up arm sallies of all the other religions, then knocked them down showing the superiority of Christianity. And we had a text book which did the same thing which is really Christian apologetics giving a very garbled version of all the other religions and then showing the superiority of Christianity. Since I'd already lost my faith in Christianity, I was not prepared to swallow any of this. I became interested in the other religions. The headmaster wanted us to compare all of them with Christianity and with each other and rank them. My ranking put Buddhism at the top, probably because that was the least like Christianity. Also, part of the background is that I specialised in science. Science was the thing I was really interested in and was good at. It gave a rational explanation of everything and also how we learn things. Science is all about gradually enlarging the knowledge of the world. Religion mostly was just the opposite of that. It was just dogmas and revelations and things which could not be experienced. But Buddhism alone was similar to science. At least Buddhism presented in that book was really original Buddhism or Theravada which was described as pure Buddhism. Mahayana was described as degenerate. But pure Buddhism seemed to be very scientific. Actually, consisting of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In fact, this seemed to me something comprehensible and scientific in its approach. So that was how I originally got interested and the background to all this is of course when I was growing up in the 1930's in Europe where everybody seemed to be mad.We just had the First World War and everything that had happened seemed to be designed to bring about another World War. We had the rise of Hitler. Itwas obvious the Germans wanted their revenge on us because we won the First War. So this seemed to me madness. I heard all about the WW l from people who fought in it. And millions didn't survive. The idea of a WW2 seemed to be monstrous insanity. But this was a supposedly Christian society. This is the result of 2000 years of Christianity which is supposed to make people civilised. So at that time I was looking outside Europe for an alternative, for something more rational. I hadn't ruled out Confucianism. I found that attractive because although Confucius thinks about the will of heaven and that kind of thing, he admitted not knowing anything about heaven, although we should respect it in case it's there. When I studied Buddhism it seemed to go one better than that. I found it to be completely atheistic. So that was how I got interested and I went on studying what I could about Buddhism after that, which was not very much. I joined the navy and fought in the Second World War for four years, studying whenever I was free. One thing that led to a connection to Buddhism was a visit to Ceylon, as it was then called. It enabled me to visit a Buddhist temple and a Buddhist library and the priest showed me all the Tripitaka in the English translation of it which was translated by the Pali Text Society. This was my first taste of Buddhist literature and it was this real Buddhist literature whichincreased my interest.
Wisdom: What was it about Christianity that you were dissatisfied with?
Prof. Warder: We were told we should live like Christians or live like Christ. I found this counter- productive. Also, we were taught to pray. I found that prayers never had any effect at all so it was completely unrealistic. Christianity was supposed to be the guiding ideology in Europe and especially in England, where I lived. If this is a result of a fine Christian civilisation of 2000 years then it is absolutely useless and we need something better. Of course, there are different political alternatives one might look at and think of the solution. I had an inkling there was something more rational so I was looking for something more rational, not necessarily a religion but just a set of beliefs or guiding principles of philosophy. And I found that in Buddhism.
Wisdom: What is Buddhism to you?
Prof. Warder: It's an intellectually fascinating enterprise to study. Buddhism never really comes to an end. When I was demobilised from the navy as a veteran, I got a veteran's grant from the government which enable me to go to university which I otherwise couldn't have done. And because of my interest in Buddhism, when I discovered that I could study Sanskrit and Pali, I decided to spend my years of freedom at university studying Sanskrit and Pali so that I could read the Buddhist texts inthe original form.
Wisdom: What is the relevance Buddhism in Western society today?
Prof. Warder: It is very relevant. I think we need some sensible ideas about living together. Ideas like non-violence and freedom that Buddhism teaches and then freedom. That is free thinking; which is always emphasised in Buddhism - moksa - which is release/liberation. It means to undo a knot in Sanskrit. I suppose it is untying the knot of life or transmigration, in the same way as you undo a belt or untie a knot. It is said in the Tripitaka that all the discourses by the Buddha have a single taste. Just as the ocean has one taste which is salty, so the Buddhist texts or the Tripitaka texts have one taste which is freedom. I think this is very true. They are completely different from texts of other religions. The Buddhist textsencourage people to think for themselves, and not to accept things because somebody else said that it is true. So the essence of it is free thinking and (the west) needs more of that. We also need compassion and the various ideas taught by Buddhism. I find Buddhist texts also offer serenity when you read them. I remember the first Buddhist text I ever read which was in a library in Sri Lanka. I just opened a page of the translation at random and read it. And I got the taste of serenity and freedom. It is so different from the Christian Bible which is full of threats and divine punishment. Wisdom: What are some of the difficulties which you faced in studying Buddhism in two languages?
Prof. Warder:Translation is a major difficulty. Philosophical words such as "consciousness" are very vague. We still don't know what consciousness is in English. But when you are reading about 'vijnana' in Sanskrit or 'vinnana' in Pali, I think I have correctly translated it to be 'consciousness', you want to know whether the Indian idea of 'vijnana' is precisely the same as what we call 'consciousness' in English. And that applies to almost every Buddhist term. You've got the five skandhas: rupa, vedana, samjna, samskara, and vijnana. They get translated in all kinds of ways. You can have 56 different kinds of Buddhism by the way you translate these five words. It is almost arbitrary. How do you clarify this problem? How do you get to the exact meaning of thewords? In English you have the word for "rice". There is no doubt about whether I mean the same thing by rice as you mean by the Chinese equivalent. So anything that you can see or sense in other ways, like smell, can be easily translated to other languages. But when you are talking about Buddhism, it's very difficult. First of all, the word "wisdom". What does that mean? Some may say "prajna". Now I translate "prajna" not as "wisdom" but "understanding". Because from studying the Buddhist texts of Sanskrit and Pali, I find "understanding" closer than "wisdom". "Wisdom" sounds more like "prudence". But translating "prajna" as "wisdom" is misleading because "prajna" is analytical understanding of things. For example, someone can make a wise choice as to which restaurant to go to. Such wisdom was based on experience. But that's not what I understand by "prajna". Someone told me there's no Chinese word for nirvana. It is a transliteration. So they borrowed the Indian word and left it at that. Or one may try to define it. This underlines the difficulties for people who translate texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. They just gave up, because they felt there is no exact equivalent in Chinese. So this is a problem which I have been studying all my working life. I started off with very inaccurate translations and secondary sources. I gradually tried to find more precise equivalents. So this journey to find more precise equivalents is obviously not completed yet in China! This is why I want to study the Chinese translation of my book.
Wisdom: Has your book "Indian Buddhism" been out in Chinese already?
Prof. Warder: The Chinese copy was first published in mainland China in 1984, which is a great honour, and someone in Taiwan reprinted it in 1988. At present, I am working on a third edition in English.
Interview: Agehananda Bharati
Update: In your book The Tantric Tradition, you have said that there are two elements that are common or indigenous to all Indian religion; one is the concept of transmigration (or reincarnation or metempsychosis,) and the other is the idea of some Absolute which undergirds or underlies creation. I'd like to talk about these two things in order. First of all, reincarnation:
How old is this idea and where does it come from?
Bharati: In its present form, the way people talk about it today, it is of course quite old, but it's not as old as people hope it would be. You have only a vestigal or marginal mention of something like transmigration in the older sections of the Veda. There is the first complete mention, although very brief, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is quite old, but the real assumptions having to do with transmigration comes in the Puranic age, at the time the Puranas were composed, and then of course through Buddhism. So you might say that it reached a state of common acceptance, I would think, around 300 BC, but not earlier. Karma was never stressed as a unique, unicausal explanation for human events. There was always an intense competition between this view and others like curses and luck, and when Islam came, this became reinforced by the notion of kismet (fate.) But in pre-Islamic texts you find the word bhagya, which means something like fate - it means good or bad luck. And that of course is pre-Islamic. On the grass-roots level, on the folk level, the notions of karma are rather weak. They are systematized in some texts; of course, they are much stronger in Buddhism and Jainism. So it is old, but in its highly articulated form it is not so old. The way that it's talked about now, that's recent, that's the Theosophical Society.
U: What about early Greek thought and Plato - do you find it there?
B: Earlier than that. Pythagoras - but again, it's not elaborated. You find traces of a metempsychotic statement in Pythagoras, which is older than Socrates. But it was never taken too seriously, and also it was not commonly accepted and did not become part and parcel of the Greek religious system at any time.
U: I have seen a real discrepancy between the Hindu and Buddhist views of reincarnation. Would you agree?
B: Of course. The Buddhist doctrine is based far more on this assumption. It figures more importantly in the sermons of the Buddha; since Buddhism is atheistic, it has very few competitors. You explain human suffering on the basis of desire and the chain of dependent origination, the twelve-fold chain, which extends over many lives. In other words, the basic statement of Buddhism is in the pratitya-samutpada, the statement of dependent origination, the chain of twelve links, which starts with desire and goes over various life forms, back to desire again in a reel. So that of course does not extend over one lifetime, but goes over many lifetimes - in other words, the Buddha took transmigration for granted, and it was well established at that time in Indian thought. That was one thing which no indigenous Indian religion ever disputed. The question is one of stress. It is more highly emphasized in Buddhism and less emphasized in classical Hinduism, although it is more emphasized in later Hinduism, especially the Bhakti cult starting in the 14th century.
U: My understanding, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that the Buddhist conception of reincarnation is more like one candle flame lighting another, whereas the Hindu theory is the idea of the transfer of skandhas or personal identity traits.
B: No, there are no skandhas in Hinduism; skandhas are Buddhist, but the similes which are used are unimportant. In fact, I think that if you took a contemporary Buddhist or a contemporary of the Buddhist teachers in the subsequent centuries they would have agreed that this is a very different way of talking about it, but it is essentially the same thing. But it is not the same thing metaphysically, because what transmigrates for the Hindu is the jiva, which is an actual ontological existence, whereas for the Buddhist it's just a wave that takes a different shape, and there is no existence behind it. So there's a very basic metaphysical difference, but in the mind or the perception of the people, I don't think there is a difference. For the Buddhist followers there is a radical difference, but I don't think it is important; it's not important to the ordinary people.
U: But it certainly is not the personality of Albrecht, Aagaard, or Bharati which is transferred?
B: Well, how could it? There is no personality in Buddhism. In other words, it's like a billow in the ocean which just sort of moves on. It's not really a different thing, it's just a different name. The Buddha says "nama-rupa," what changes is the name and the form, there's no essence, it's without any essence. But people confuse nama-rupa with essence as though it existed. And wisdom originates once you get rid of the notion that nama-rupa has any essence to it. It is asara, it has no essence. It is very much opposed to the Hindu idea that it (the soul) exists or is permanent. It might migrate, of course, when you get closer to salvation; then it is realized as being something rather different. It exists; it has existential status, whereas in Buddhism there is no ontology.
U: For the record, would you define ontology?
B: Ontology is a philosophy which asserts the actual objective existence of the objects it talks about.
U: The proponents of reincarnation often say that it is the only real system of justice in the universe. Do you agree?
B: Well, I would put it this way: That's an ad hominem argument, but I would think that if you compare it with the Judaeo-Christian or Islamic or Mediterranean stuff, it seems to me ethically less implausible, In other words, if you have to postulate an outside agent, then it seems to me that it sort of removes the responsibility from the individual. Not only that, but unless you decide on an act of faith, it's a highly harassing notion that I shouldn't be in control, that I shouldn't be responsible for the things that happen to me. So in that sense, in my reading and in the reading of many of my monastic colleagues, the real value of the transmigration system is an ethical explanation. In other words, it's a sort of an ethical theodicy. Also, the other points made by opponents to Christianity, starting with Vivedananda, is the question: "How can you be held responsible for finite acts in an infinite sense?" To which of course, the missionaries of that time would say, "Well, you know, since God is infinite, therefore the result is infinite." That doesn't make sense to the Hindu, it's a logical soap.
U: It seems to me that the problems with reincarnation are that since the personalities are extinguished in Buddhism and to a pretty large extent in Hinduism also,(B: But not until they reach moksha) they can't remember their former lives. Let me give you an example, OK? Let's use that perennial example of evil, Adolf Hitler. The classical explanation in terms of reincarnation is that Hitler will have to be reincarnated six million times as a person or a demon or whatever. The problem with this is that let's say Hitler comes back and is re-born in 1947, and he's born as a deformed baby. So the mother and the father suffer from this and the child of course suffers, so the waves of Karma that spread out from this reincarnation of Adolf Hitler are exponential - they continue to increase. Not only that, but Adolf Hitler doesn't really pay for his own sins, because he as a personality is extinct. So fundamentally, in reincarnationist philosophy, he gets away with everything he did.
B: No, no. He's not extinct at all, he just doesn't remember, that doesn't mean that he's extinct. After all, nobody denies that he was in the womb of his mother and yet he doesn't remember it. That doesn't mean that he's extinct. If everything is extinct which you don't remember, then we never exist. You don't remember what you did at the age of one. That is just not an argument.
U: You don't think so?
B: I know it.
U: You think it isn't.
B: You don't know what you did in your mother's womb, but obviously you were there. If memory is the criterion for previous existence, then there's no criterion at all. Memories are short - they usually go back to the age of 4 or 5 or so. The point is that in most legal systems, you are accountable for things that you didn't know were wrong. But you are also accountable if you don't remember, except for that kind of phoney idea of calling in the psychiatrist to state that the man is incapable of telling right from wrong. There's no such thing, everybody is accountable.
U: Well, let's use another example. Suppose you punish children for something that is wrong, and then they understand, they get whacked on the bottom because they've done something wrong. They associate the punishment with the previous act, whatever it was. In reincarnation, we don't remember our previous lives. Almost all reincarnationists will acknowledge that you don't remember your previous lives, at least in any kind of detail, so you don't know what you're being punished for.
B: Yea, but you know, it's supposed to be prophylactic. If something bad happened to you, you know something went wrong in your last life. So in the future you'll avoid any such possibilities by improving your lifestyle.
U: You think so?
B: Well, if you believe in reincarnation, then you think, well, I've got cancer, so there must have been something very wrong with me, so I'll have to be more careful in the future.
U: Well, OK, but let's take it a step further. What about the moral outworkings of this? India, I think we'd all agree, is a prime example of this. The idea that the beggar or the leper is working out his or her karma, so let them lay. Is this right? Does this help the world?
B: Well, it doesn't help the world, but if you are charitably disposed, then it is your karma to be charitable, and the leper's karma to be helped out by a charitable person. So it works every way, it's so wide and open that everything fits in. Suppose there is a leper colony and there are no nice people around. The lepers work it out, it's their karma. Now, there's a leper colony that's surrounded by the disciples of Mother Theresa, and they're all helped, so everybody works out his karma. Some lepers have a better karma because Mother Theresa is around, others have a worse karma because she's not around.
U: But it seems that everybody's concerned with working off bad karma. Does anybody generate good karma? And why then does not bad karma engulf the world?
B: Because it's balanced by good karma.
U: But there's so little good karma
B: Oh, there's lots of good karma.
U: Then how would you define good karma?
B: Any action that is proper within the context of the definition of what's good in every different society. In Hindu society there are laws formulated by Manu, what proper action is for the proper social situation. People usually conform and conformity is morality, that's what morality means, some kind of conformity. So therefore, what we see of things - there are maybe 500 murders a day in New York City, but there are 11 million non-murders. So obviously the good karma people don't talk about, because it's not so interesting.
U: Just because you don't kill someone - that's good karma?
B: Relative to killing it's better karma. The abstention from violence is better than violence by any count.
U: That's a new concept to me, because in the reading I've done on this, good karma is only that which is a purely and truly selfless act.
B: No, no, not at all. That's a wrong reading. I don't think you find it in any of the traditional texts of Hinduism. That's all Chinmayananda wisdom, etc.
U: No, I get it from the Hitopadesa.
B: Well, the Hitopadesa is OK if it's a good translation. It's a late text, it's tales of people, which is a highly ornate kind of literature.
U: Are you familiar with Ian Stevenson and the other research that has to do with past-life recall?
B: No, not with Stevenson. These things may be historically verified, but it's all accident; the fact that a person remembers something doesn't mean that it really exists. That's quite basic.
U: A final thing on reincarnation. My understanding of it is that it is totally deterministic and free will doesn't enter in.
B: Yes, I think that's right. Free will is a Christian invention. So therefore it doesn't exist (in Hinduism and Buddhism.) It's not even Greek. It's a totally foreign idea packet. And examined linguistically, it would be very difficult to a Sanskrit pundit who does not know English or other European languages.
U: You have said before that you lean toward reincarnation.
B: As an ethical explanation, a kind of theodicy, sure.
U: Do you expect to be reincarnated?
B: Of course not! Sannyasins are not reincarnated. It's our last life. Once you're a monk, it's all gone, but I don't think it's all very important, you know?
U: I know.
B: But I think that for me it's an ethical postulate - I don't think it's really true. I don't think there is any such thing, I think it's all nonsense.
U: So you don't think you have lived before in a previous incarnation?
B: Of course not. Ridiculous! But it's a very good idea. If I ask myself how come I'm luckier than other people in many ways and that I'm rather near-sighted - my locomotion is rather clumsy, and in that way I'm worse off than you - then of course I say well, maybe in my last life I chased a girl too fast or something like this, that's OK, it's a good ethical explanation, but that doesn't mean that I think it's true.
U: I'd like to go on to the second point that you mention in The Tantric Tradition, the idea of the Absolute that undergirds all creation, a sort of metaphysical foundation. Obviously we can't call it God...
B: That's right, you can't because it's not a Creator.
U: What term would you prefer for this Absolute - Godhead?
B: Don't use an English word, use the Sanskrit, say "brahman," it's as easy as that. Or atman-brahman or whatever you call it. There are many other words, but they are all synonyms of brahman.
U: What does it mean?
B: Probably from the word brhat which means "big, expanded, or large," or maybe from bru, which means "to speak."
U: Now, this Absolute, this brahman, is totally impersonal.
B: Yes, that is correct. It's impersonal; it's defined in later days as satyam-sivam-sundaram, that which is true, existent - sivam, which is benevolent, and sundaram, which is "beautiful - that's adjectival. The nominal classification is called sat chit ananda. It exists ontologically, it's "chit," it exists mainly as consciousness, and it's "ananda," it's bliss. i.e., "being-awareness-bliss." But these are late, they're post-upanishadic, the first mention of sat chit ananda you find is lit a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita in the 13th century, so it's pretty late.
U: If the Absolute is totally impersonal, then how does personality or personalities arise from it?
B: That Absolute manifests itself to itself in a playful act. It says in the Veda, "This Absolute was alone." Then it says, "May I be many, may I come forth." Once this decision has been made, in a playful act, like with a magician, things are let go and then they're on their own.
U: Just like the (Hellenistic) Gnostic cosmogonies.
B: Of course, very similar. There may even have been some connection. but I wouldn't say for sure, we really don't know. Also there's another possibility, that the human mind automatically works in that way, conceptually. So it's possible that is indeed a replication of something abstract becoming concrete, and therefore you see the similar modes and ideas in various parts of the world, totally unconnected. People get similar ideas if they sit down and have enough food to digest and think, which they do; that's what specialists do.
U: Another area I would like to zero in on is the problem of evil and suffering, and would like to trace it back to cosmogony. Where did the first wave of karma come from?
B: There is no first wave. It's a repetition of the four yugas, the four world ages. It's a cyclic development in various stages. There's a predominance of the positive forces in the Sattva yuga, and then these decline and the negative forces take over. In the end of the Kali yuga, there are only negative forces; toward the end of the Kali yuga, in which we are now, there is a total abundance of bad karma, that's why it collapses. Then, of course, the whole thing rushes up and starts afresh. This is what is called the "days and nights of brahman."
U: So, in the beginning, there was just a sucking void, the universe without anything, and then creation gushed forth.
B: You can actually read the texts like this. The initial purusha has no form, but once it decides it wants to become many, then it takes the form, approximately, of a human being.
U: What makes it decide?
B: Lila. It's own playfulness. It's bored - well, that's my reading. It's part of the presentation that it manifests at all times, but it also becomes manifest at certain times, cyclically.
U: So it takes a few billion years?
B: Yes, in fact, they give you a number, enormous, with many, many zeroes.
U: So then everything will get re-absorbed back into the original state and eventually manifest itself again?
B: That's right.
U: And this isn't different from the light and dark ages of the four yugas?
B: No, these are parallel statements; the one is mythological, the other cosmological. But they can basically be reinterpreted, like writing variations of the same theme.
U: There wasn't a time before, when everything was in a premordial state of equilibrium?
B: Yes, which was the end result of all these things that happened before. It's eternal.
U: Is brahman synonymous with creation?
B: There's no creation. There's no word for that at all. The word "creation" means that you have to have a personal agent. At the basis of it you must have a Creator in order to have a creation.
U: These questions have all been for the purpose of laying a foundation for discussing the questions of evil and suffering. As I understand it, evil and suffering as we perceive it here are just a "parentheses" around the phenomenal universe, or an integral part of this universe.
B: You have to be very careful. In Buddhism, evil and suffering is the only existence.
U: The only existence?
B: It's the base - sabbam dukkham - everything that exists is suffering. And that's the big difference. Among the four sublime truths of the Buddha, two are that everything is suffering and everything is impermanent. There is a possibility to get out of it and there's a way to learn it, by meditation. If there's any ontological hint at all in Buddhism, the only ontology is dukkham, which is "suffering." It's far more radical than Hinduism.
U: Since this cycle goes on and on, over and over again, and everybody despises suffering and can't tolerate it -
B: So everybody has to become a Buddha, and the Buddhas are as numerable as the grains of sand along the ocean, as the later texts say.
U: But, seeing as this whole thing gets laundered over and over again, isn't this eternal despair?
B: No, because the individual can pull out.
U: Can he, though?
B: Only through meditation.
U: Who says? The problem is that the foundation of the universe
B: No, no, there's no foundation. You realize that this thing doesn't really exist. So long as you think it exists, you suffer; so long as you attach yourself to these elements, which might even look pleasant at times, that is dukkham, that is suffering. Now, the Buddha was far more radical, he took it to its last possible conclusion; but the Hindus, they didn't think it was so bad after all - there's an underlying principle (in Hinduism) with which you can variously identify. You can step out from suffering by dis-identifying yourself with the agents that give suffering, namely the mind, the body, the senses, etc., by withdrawing it to the big universal being, which has no suffering, because it has no thought. Where there is form and name, there is suffering.
U: Well, it seems to me - this is my western approach to the whole problem - I'm a Christian, so I tend to think in theological terms, but it seems that this whole idea of a brahman, Absolute, or undergirding structure, if it can't ever control itself, it's just an eternal problem of unbelievable dimensions.
B: Look, since it is the agent, and the, only agent, there's no question of control.
U: So everything is out of control!
B: It's not out of control! It is control itself, but what is there to control? Nothing else exists.
U: Well, there are alternatives.
B: But not if you talk within that system.
U: Right. So then let's talk within that system. Don't you think that such an idea of ultimate reality 1) Can't "control" itself, and 2) Is whimsical and capricious?
B: No, it is neither. No adjective applies, because it has no qualities. Since it is nirguna, that means it has no qualities; you cannot ascribe qualities. What you use is "quality" language, when you talk about control and whimsical, that applies only to a modified or qualified existence.
U: The whole problem is - well, the Apostle Paul put it thus in the book of Romans: "The whole creation groans in travail." To him it was a temporary condition, but here I see it as a permanent condition.
B: Permanent, in a cosmic sense. Once you see that the lila of Absolute defines itself as various or millions of beings. it had the possibility of reverting to itself at any time. You just have to snap out.
U: But then it can't "control" itself, so it will burst out again.
B: That is just its own play. It is not subject to any outside lawgiver, it is the law and it is the lawgiver. It spews out - the very clever example which the Upanishads give is that the relationship of the brahman to the universe is that of a spider to its web, its own substance. It is something else, but it's of its own matter.
U: To get back to a subject that you brought up before - the only way to get out of this system is through reversal - get a guru and meditate.
B: Yes, nivritti. Pravritti is spreading out and nivritti is going back to the first cause.
U: But, since it's all lila, a big cosmic game, how do you know you're not being tricked? How do you know you're not going to be reincarnated as a slug?
B: You may well be. But the answer is to sit down and meditate, then you break through the slugness, and the humanness and the divineness until you go back to your own real essence, which has no such problems.
U: OK, that's what the texts say, that's what the tradition says. Suppose you spend 60 years in Rishikesh, sitting among the boulders of the Ganges meditating, and you think for sure that you're going to make it this time, then you finally die and you get "up there" and there's some big guy looking at you with a bad expression on his face...
B: There's no such thing! You die and you start again next time and you start exactly where you left off; you'll be re-born again in Rishikesh and you'll do better.
U: My point is that even a guru who presumes that he's achieved moksha, maybe has had a big trick played on him, because brahman is a trickster - he's full of lila.
B: That's all right. But then the guru himself, since the guru is God, he is on the way to realizing that he himself is that lila-player, the problem doesn't arise to the extent that he identifies himself with the string-holder of the puppets, that he is that himself. That doesn't rile him at all, and he may even enjoy it.
U: But there's no real guarantee, then, that any yogi is going to achieve liberation.
B: Of course there's no objective guarantee. Of course not. How could it be? Because the people who achieve liberation, samadhi, tell us they are there? How do we know?
U: So it's really spiritual calisthenics.
B: Well, whatever it is. But I've known some people who I suppose might have reached whatever there was to be reached. I myself have had some glimpses of it, although it didn't last very long. But I suppose what I experienced and what many other people have experienced that lasted for about two or three minutes might also last for a very long time, or maybe forever - who knows?
U: And it might not.
B: So what? That's the risk you have to take. That's the risk you have to take with any religion.
U: OK...and a final point along this line. It seems to me that the Hindu and more particularly the Buddhist concept of liberation is somehow synonymous with the western atheist's concept of death.
B: No, certainly not. Because in the western atheistic concept you have the idea of total extinction. Because the western situation does not postulate a situation in which there is eternal consciousness. Whereas the idea in Buddhism, especially, is that total cessation of desire, total cessation of any attachment means non-existence. But death in the West is not non-existence, death comes after existence. All the ideas of existence and nonexistence lapse in the person who has achieved nirvana; nirvana means fading away, quite literally, or being blown out, like a candle.
U: Is that any real answer to the questions of life and death, just to say that your personality is blown out?
B: Life and death are not important to the practicing Buddhist
U: It must be important or they wouldn't perform all these austerities and practices...
B: They don't want to be born, they don't want to die, they don't want to get sick in between, so they step out of it and say "We think we are sick because we think there's 'we.' We think there's an ego; what you have to destroy is the ego." That you can't do by good deeds, because then you'll get a better and bigger ego...a funeral director's ego, or a Maharaja's ego, or whatever. So the trick is to destroy the ego notion, the ahamkãra the ego-maker.
U: But the personality does totally cease to exist?
B: The personality destroys itself only through the proper ways of meditating on the knowledge that everything is momentary, that nothing lasts. Once you postulate anything that lasts, like a soul or a dot, or a brahman, you're in trouble. That's the Buddhist answer - that's why they skate away.
U: In your mind, is that soteriological end a fulfillment of life?
B: It's a matter of taste. At one time, everybody became a Buddhist in India, including kings and princes. It's lasted outside India, very strongly so, so it has seemed attractive to many, many people. Certainly to more people than in Europe.
U: Since we're Christians, I'd like to present a counterpoint to this and get your thoughts on it. Do you find the idea of a personal God and forgiveness of sins offensive?
B: I wouldn't say offensive; I'd say that I don't find it relevant to my own way of handling my own situation, and I would think that people who think and act similarly to me would feel the same way. But don't forget that in the Bhakti cults in India, you have all that, it's all there. Samarpana, dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva, says, "forgive us our trespasses" - quite literally, it's all there. That's why we've got so many possibilities in India. These teachings are there, but they're not very highly respected, they don't have much prestige. But they've been there for a very long time.
U: For how long?
B: Well, I'll tell you, there are certainly roots of Bhakti in the Bhagavad Gita that are pretty old, about 4-500 BC. That's very old indeed.
U: Is it possible that it would have been influenced by Jewish thought?
B: No. What Jewish thought? Where do the Jews talk about forgiveness?
U: All through the Old Testament - for example, the Psalms of David, ca. 1,000 BC.
B: All right, but no - these people didn't travel. The Jews and the Indians were the only people who didn't travel. Everybody else traveled, but they didn't. No way. Look - independent origination - people get similar ideas. Nothing could be more different than the ancient Judaic mentality and the ancient Indian mentality.
U: Then the idea of a personal God and forgiveness is generally pretty alien to Indian religion?
B: No, not at all. Not to the south Indian Bhakti cults, the Vaishnavas. But it is to the elitist undercurrent of Indian thinking, which I would identify with, but there are any number of people who are very powerful, like Prabhupada, who believe in a personal attachment to a personally conceived God who actually can cancel your karma. It's all there, we have it in the Tamil scriptures, not in Sanskrit, but in Tamil.
U: How far back does that go?
B: That's not really old, about 14th century AD.
U: Could that possibly have been influenced by Christianity?
B: Not necessarily, because it traces right back to its own scriptures. All these people are very careful to trace everything back to the Indian scriptures.
U: Let me put forth my personal understanding of God and evil and the whole problem, in a Christian counterpoint to what we were discussing before. God has allowed evil to exist because of some sort of free will; this is how I approach the problem. God created people to live in a love relationship with him, and love is not really possible without free will, which carries with it the possible abuse of free will...
B: Have you heard the saying, "Don't multiply entities beyond logical necessity?" That was William of Ockham, who was a Catholic saint and a great scholar. I think that applies to Christianity itself, because why do you have to postulate all these things in order to mace things applicable to your own personal life? It means you have to postulate a God, you have to postulate free will, and forgiveness. All this you can undercut completely if it's simply an Absolute where you can manipulate yourself in and out of it. It makes matters much easier. Of course, if you feel ethically inclined, you have all these ethical things, like the legal texts and the moral texts in India.
U: Well, as a postulate, I suppose you can postulate it, or you can assume that it is based on reality and revelation.
B: All right, but then that takes me back to my ontological fallacy. Reality in revelation is reality in relation to those who confuse the strength of their experience with ontological reality, and there's no bridge to that at all. The fact that Moses saw God in the burning bush doesn't mean that God exists, it means that Moses had a very strong, powerful imagination. And a great following - he was a charismatic, so people followed him. You listen to what a great man says, that's universal.
U: So obviously, no one can prove or disprove that their religion is right and someone else's is wrong.
B: Yes, it's not scientific, because it can't be verified.
U: Do you think Hindu or Buddhist philosophy can in any way be syncretized with Judaeo-Christian thought?
B: No. Well, it can, but at great compromise to any of the four, by selectively ignoring basic teachings. The swamis do it all the time; it's very profitable.
U: About Jesus and his "lost years," between the ages of 12 and 30 - do you know of any evidence that Jesus did travel in the East, as proponents of various mystery schools contend?
B: No, certainly not, because there's absolutely nothing in Jesus' teachings - and that has been studied by people who know that stuff better than I - which does not follow entirely from the Judaeo-Hellenic tradition, available within 400 miles.
U: What about this idea that reincarnation was formally taught, or at least accepted in the early church, and then was thrown out at the Council of Nicea or Constantinople? From my study of church history I find nothing like this.
B: Nothing. You know what Swami Vivekananda says? "Jesus was an advaita because he said 'I and the Father are one.'" It's very nice, but it's ridiculous. It's a totally different input. As for the notion that reincarnation was thrown out of the early church, I've never heard of it.
U: Do you have a good word or phrase that would sum up Hindu and Buddhist philosophy? A variety of labels have been used, such as occultism, pantheism, monism, dualism, neo-gnosticism, eastern mysticism, etc.
B: My own term is the best one. I think Hindu and Buddhist philosophy have a stratified reality. There are different levels of reality, which is unthinkable in Greek or any other western tradition. In other words, there's a total truth and there's a sort of ephemeral truth. And the two don't even have to interact, they sort of stand side by side and you can cut them one way or the other. There's the unimpeachable total truth and there's also the relative truth, in which everything else happens. You have the first expression of this in the Samkhya system. The purusha and the prakriti: the purusha is a total witness, that's the only way it works. He witnesses everything that happens in prakriti, which is nature. The relation is catalytic; the purusha is a catalyst, but he doesn't do anything. It's a dualistic system, but it was reinterpreted very early in a monistic sense, in the sense that you divide reality into secondary truth.
U: Do you see a real difference between dualism and monism?
B: It's not unbridgeable, as we've seen in the history of Indian thought. And the tendency has always been to do away with dualism and move into monism, with the permissibility of developing monotheistic or polytheistic systems, which was done. All the Bhakti cults are monotheistic, and highly so.
U: In describing Indian religiosity, we're looking for a term which somehow should communicate what is the general trend in Indian thinking, and you responded positively to the parallels with the gnostic understanding of life.
B: That's right, but the gnostic form as I know it is not really an active force in the West now, except for the specialists.
U: Well, that's the point. I think that we are coming into a situation now after the Constantinian era, where the old gnostic doctrines are coming back. The same things the church fathers were struggling with.
B: You mean the old fathers like Basilides, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus?
U: Yes. They were tackling problems that forced them to some formulations that you may debate, but the questions they dealt with are coming back. First of all this double reality, split level religion, you may call it. Would you call this reality gnosticism?
B: Why not? I know very little about it, but there's a colleague of mine at Columbia, Elaine Pagels, who wrote a book about it. (The Gnostic Gospels) So that's possible, but I don't quite see how you want to make this operational. Would you see it as a kind of addendum to the Judaeo-Christian world view, or an alternative?
U: Reading the old fathers always presupposes that you somehow have the same questions, to which they wrote the answers. Therefore, I think that a reading of the fathers on these points up till now has not really been relevant. I think we can read the fathers in a much more relevant way if we read them in this present context.
B: Possible, but much wider - it would then straddle the East and the West.
U: Yes, it would really be a dialogue that was cut off when the state church came in.
B: Well, it was cut off by the concept of anathema, which doesn't exist in Indian religion.
U: What about "eastern mysticism" - do you find that offensive?
B: Quite offensive. I call that "drifting into eastern wisdom chatter." When people stop thinking in grammatical terms, you get into this eastern mysticism drivel. I find that very difficult to stomach. I don't think eastern mysticism is very attractive. But I think it's of psycho-experimental importance, it's one of those things that you can do to skim confidently over your problems, which I find very helpful.
U: Your term "psycho-experimental" that's also a very western term.
B: Yes, it's an etic (scholar's) term. It's a difference between the statement of the texts and my critique of them.
U: You are an initiate of an advaitic school, but you don't really care for advaitic philosophy, as you have said. Why?
B: I think, first of all, it doesn't really generate a sense of humor. It's also very dry, and the trouble is, the great pieces of Indian art and music were composed in spite of monism, not because of it. But monism is a good, solid guideline for the kind of meditation I enjoy. But I think it's drudgery, I think it's very bad philosophy.
U: In what way?
B: For me, philosophy is to solve problems. In monism, there are no problems. The problems are of a linguistic sort.
U: Could you give us a one-sentence or one paragraph summary of your own summum bonum?
B: My own personal philosophy? I think that the modern mind has to work on several levels. At one time I called it syncretistic parallelism. By that I mean that you live the religious life by whatever form of meditation, which is purely private and not communicable, and you lead whatever social and active life you choose. The two don't meet, even schedule-wise, because you do them at different times of the day. I enjoy the meditation, but I think if you try to make a bridge between the meditation and the philosophy, you're in great trouble, because it bars you from doing good philosophy. I follow Nagarjuna, the Brahmin who converted to Buddhism in the 2nd century, who said, "I do my meditation, which is Buddhist, but for the rest of it, I enjoy dismantling people's arguments." This is what I call "parson skinning." Part if his philosophy was that he hated the ministers, therefore he developed a very strong dialectical way of doing away with these arguments. I find this enjoyable too. This means also Hindu and Buddhist parsons, incidentally. But it's easier to do away with Christian and Muslim parsons, because there are so many postulates there; the Hindus and Buddhists don't make so many ontological claims - How can you fight something which you don't even claim is there?
U: If you would have found some form of Christian meditation, i.e. the medieval system of Bernard of Clairveaux, etc., that might have met your needs at an earlier time, might you have embraced that?
B: I may have, but it's not very likely because of my feelings about fatherhood, which is very essential in Christianity. If you could cut that out, perhaps.
U: Why do you have such an aversion to fatherhood?
B: I don't know. The point is that the Jews got terribly nervous and excited over the fact that sexual intercourse creates all these responsibilities. I don't find that very important. I don't think fatherhood is very important at all. I think woman is far more important, the mother is sore important. Men are a dime a dozen; one shot of sperm has millions of spermatozoa in it. Yet to this, a historical and social accident, you attach an immense weight of responsibility and sternness. I find that very unattractive and it also leads to machoism, which is very strong in all these religions.
U: I can understand that a lot of people have a problem with their fathers, or their mothers for that matter. Many people just plain hate their parents.
B: There's lots of people that hate everybody!
U: As I see it, Christianity is the redemption of this whole syndrome, of fallen humanity and fallen fatherhood. Here we have God as Father in a sense that is totally at odds with all the things that are wrong with human fatherhood. We have a God who loves us unconditionally - the Greek agape concept - and he's gone to the extreme of giving himself totally for us.
B: But then why preserve the word - why insist on the word fatherhood?
U: I really don't know, but that's the word that Jesus used. Because God is personal, I suppose.
B: Well, that's bothersome. If a meaning becomes obsolete, you can change it. That's what has happened in the history of human languages thousands of times. If it becomes redundant, why use it?
U: In the eastern tradition, you have this idea of "guru as God." Do you find that this is equally offensive?
B: Of course. To me it is offensive, but the point is that you don't have to have a guru, except that most people need one. I don't regard myself as most people. Ramana Maharishi, who most people regard as the quintessence of advaitic philosophy, never had a guru.
U: Do you regard your guru as a father?
B: No, we're buddies. I see the guru as a transmitter. He transmits the mantra, because there has to be some link to the tradition. Of course, you can sort of superimpose father or anything else you want on it.
U: When I was in India, it dawned on me that this idea of "guru as God" is a bit of dissembling in itself. What is really meant is "guru is greater than God." God is the trickster, God is the trap, lila. Guru saves you from God.
B: That's a western way of putting it. You can try to say it in Hindi, but you can't, it doesn't make any sense.
U: The Radha Soamis said it.
B: That's the pizza effect.
U: You said that you saw tantra as having "ecumenical" possibilities for the future of the human race. Could you elaborate on that?
B: Yes. Because it's the one form that quite cogently and articulately says that ethics are not its concern. Whereas in all the other exotic forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, ethics and religion are completely mixed. So the tantric says that you do your thing, you achieve moksha (liberation) but as far as your social or ethical life goes, there are other rules that you conform to or follow. But they are not part of the religious packet. Therefore, such yoga is closest to my conception of religion.
U: So you think it embodies some hope of ecumenical acceptance?
B: Ecumenical hope of the acceptance of intellectual and moral choice, going parallel with a very, intensive, high-risk kind of meditation, which is interesting, as people are becoming more and more high-risk oriented.
U: What about moral choice? Do you believe in moral choice?
B: Well sure, but moral choice is based on some moral system. In my estimation, you have to make your own decision - that's what I mean by moral choice.
U: You said before that we are heading toward the end of the Kali yuga.
B: No, no, there's about 75 million years yet!
U: But we're on the downhill slide?
B: Kali yuga means downhill slide. The Kali yuga is far more interesting. When I was a boy, they told me that you go to heaven, play a harp and eat honey. Good lord, I'd at least like to eat a salami.
U: Do you think the world is getting any better?
B: Sure it is. But it takes a while. It goes in spurts.
U: Do you have any sympathy with the "new age" consensus that we're about to enter the Age of Aquarius, etc.?
B: It's very attractive, it's OK; I don't think we're entering anything, but people have to make their decisions.
U: Are you optimistic about the world?
B: I'm optimistic about the possibility of individuals being able to - as the British said - muddle through.
U: Well, more than to muddle through...what about attaining moksha?
B: That's a private affair. I'm talking about socially muddling through and sort of making the best of it without stepping on too many people's toes.
U: It seems that most people don't muddle through very well.
B: That's possible.
U: In India they don't always muddle through too well.
B: Only two nations have survived, the Indians and the Chinese. They're the only nations that have muddled well. They have survived after a very, long time. Where are the Romans, the Gauls, the Teutons? The Chinese and the Indians are still there, uninterrupted, muddling.
good Dharma friends
An Interview with Stephen and Martine Batchelor
Stephen Batchelor and Martine Batchelor, both with extensive backgrounds in monastic Buddhism, are currently lay dharma teachers, practitioners and authors of a number of important books. Naming only a few, Martine has written Walking on Lotus Flowers: Buddhist Women Living, Loving and Meditating; and has co-edited Buddhism and Ecology. Stephen has written Alone with Others, Faith to Doubt, and The Awakening of the West; and they have cooperated on The Way of Korean Zen. They live in South Devon, England, and teach at Gaia House and the Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemplative Enquiry.
How did you become interested in Buddhist practice?
Stephen: It is very difficult to reconstruct one's initial development of interest in anything as significant as Buddhist practice. I suppose to some degree it simply was something I picked up on in the counter culture of the 1960's that resonated. Having read a few books when I was a teenager in England (I can't even remember which ones), I was sufficiently inspired to trail off to India at age 18. I ended up at Dharamsala, and made contact with Tibetan Lamas, and there was a course at the library in Dharamsala starting just then. It was a two-month series of lectures on basic Tibetan Buddhism with lots of reading, meditation, a puja. It wasn't academic, but nor was it a meditation retreat. I enrolled in that, and I have been doing that sort of thing ever since.
Martine: I came from a Socialist background growing up in France, and I had no interest whatsoever in any religious form, but I was interested in traveling from a very young age. When I was about 18 I came across the Dhammapada and that actually changed my life. I was very active politically at that point, and in the Dhammapada there was a sentence which I understood as saying something like "Before you change all the people, you might want to change yourself." Suddenly I got the understanding: I can't even change my anger, the way I feel about the political causes-How can I change the world? I still wanted to be a journalist but I decided I would try to find some form of meditation, and that helped me to live a more relaxed life for a few years. When I was about 21 I traveled East, and for various reasons ended up in Thailand. Here I met some scholar monks from Korea, who told me that I could study Zen meditation there. So I went to Korea with the idea of staying a month or so, before going on to Japan. I immediately went to Songgwang Sa monastery and shortly after I arrived a laywoman asked me, "Why don't you become a nun?" I said, "No, no way!" Then she said: "Aren't you lucky. I am a mother and have all these children, but I would love to become a nun. But you, you could do it!" And so I thought, "Yeah. I have no relationship, no job or anything, so why not?" So that is how I started.
That is quite a transition-from activist to nun. And in your case, Stephen? Did you ordain fairly soon after this first experience in Dharamsala?
Stephen: No, it was about a year and a half after I started my studies and practice that I finally became a monk, and I did so for the fairly traditional reasons. I am very reluctant to make clear cut statements about my motives-I think one edits them considerably as one makes sense of one's life in retrospect. But no doubt there was a certain amount of romantic idealism; thinking of enlightenment, and recognizing a degree of suffering. What did become quite clear was that if I wished to really go into this complete commitment to practice, the optimal lifestyle would be that of a monk. It would enable me to take certain vows that would maximize my ability to study and practice.
And what sort of training did you receive as a Tibetan monk?
Stephen: My primary training was with Geshe Rabten in Switzerland, along with a small group of fellow Western monks and lay people. The initial aim in the Gelugpa tradition was to undergo the basic training of the monastic university, which entailed the study of logic, epistemology, philosophy, psychology. Following traditional texts, memorizing those texts, debating in Tibetan-doing the whole thing in Tibetan. It was intellectually very demanding, because we were doing a course of study at which time there were no, or very few, English translations of this material, so we had to learn it all in Tibetan. In retrospect, I think that was an extremely positive intellectual discipline and training that I feel has probably served me well just in terms of being able to use my mind. And this intellectual training was not in isolation-throughout this period we were doing a lot of other basic practices. So it was a very complete, very complex practice, under the guidance of a very highly qualified and highly regarded teacher.
And yet you wound up joining a Zen monastery in Korea, where you met Martine?
Stephen: Yes, that's true. After about 6 years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition I felt increasingly frustrated with the kind of studies we were doing. A lot of the study seemed to be less and less actually relevant to my own practice. I felt all this emphasis on debate and study and memorization was becoming a bit top-heavy. I looked at that time for a more contemplative training-initially within the Tibetan schools, but I didn't find that. So I was moved to follow that impulse I had had for many years to practice Zen. I had actually, throughout this period as a monk in the Tibetan tradition, been practicing vipassana [insight meditation] in the Goenka style.
As a Tibetan monk, you were practicing Goenka-style vipassana?
Stephen: Yes. Goenka came to Dharamsala in 1974 or 1975, shortly after I was ordained, and I did a 10-day vipassana retreat with him. It completely turned my whole view of Buddhism around, because it then became clear that one could actually, in a relatively short period of time, enter into a meditative state that really altered one's quality of experience. The mind slowed down and became still, and one saw things in another way. This was quite different from what the geshes would say, and certainly it was more immediately effective than any of the meditations I was doing with the Tibetans.
Was there any conflict or difficulty around mixing the practices?
Stephen: Yes and no. There was a conflict in the sense that this practice was not really understood by the Tibetans, and also not regarded as being of any great significance. Yet, it was tolerated. The Tibetan Lamas realized it was not incompatible with what they were doing, but it certainly didn't fit into their scheme of things. But I had run into a certain conflict with Goenka, so I chose to stay in my Tibetan training but to continue the vipassana practice. But that quality of satipatthana [mindfulness] never left me, and that is really what I wanted to develop. But I did find an element in the vipassana practice that was a somewhat passive observation, whereas I found the Zen approach-particularly as I found it taught in Korea-to be a more dynamic inquiry. That appealed to me because it valued a deep kind of existential question which I didn't find in Tibetan Buddhism or (at that time at least) in the Theravada approach either. Therefore I chose to go to Korea, and found it exactly what I wanted. I was very, very happy there; I stayed for the last three years of Master Kusan's life, and then for another year to try and help keep the International Meditation Center going. It was at that point that Martine and I decided that we wanted to return to the West.
Martine, what was it like being a Korean nun?
Martine: I took to it quite warmly and enthusiastically once I understood what was going on, and it was a fantastic training. We did a lot of meditation because that is why we were there-we were in a meditation school and in a meditation monastery. They would tell us to meditate six months of the year, 10 hours a day at least, if not more. In between retreats, you would sit maybe 2-4 hours a day. So I took my meditation as my task because that was what I was there for, and it was a perfect place to do it with Master Kusan, a great master. After the first five years I began to read more, and learned the language to understand what was going on. After a while I became a translator for Master Kusan, and translated some of his talks and teachings. It was really quite a rich environment among the Westerners and also our connection with Master Kusan. Then Stephen came, and with his scholarly background, we were able to work together translating and editing more teachings and texts.
Can either of you say anything about your decisions to disrobe, marry and return to the West?
Stephen: In my case, and this may be true for both of us, I saw less and less reason to remain as a monk by the end of my Zen training. It had, in a sense, served it's purpose. Also we discovered that we were very close to each other and, quite naturally after about a four year friendship, realized that we would very much like to live together and live the lay life with another kind of commitment. I saw it always as moving from one kind of commitment. I saw it always as moving from one kind of commitment (in the monk's case, celibacy) into a commitment to a married relationship with one person, and always within the context of dharma practice. So in that sense I didn't personally find it at all disorienting to disrobe.
Martine: In Korea we had to spend some time together and got to know each other as good friends. We had strong discussions about the dharma and the precepts and this and that, so we were already very good dharma friend-which I think is very important.
When Master Kusan died, it was a shock for both of us, and things at the monastery really changed. Stephen had already decided to go back to Europe. It worked that we continue our commitment to ourselves and to the dharma in that way.
Compared to a lot of people's experience in disrobing, I think it was very smooth. Thanks to Christopher [Titmuss], who Stephen knew from before, we were invited to visit and then join the Buddhist lay community of Sharpham, in Devon. This was very lucky-it was like moving from one dharma community to another. For us who had been ten years living in monasteries, it was fine to be in a community.
I am very intrigued in what you both think or feel about this whole phenomenon of Buddhism coming to the West. You have written a whole book on it, Stephen. From your fairly unique perspective of being Westerners who have really quite fully immersed yourselves in various Asian Buddhist cultures and in the Buddhist tradition, what do you make of all this? What do you think that the prospects are? Are we getting the real stuff these days in the West? Art we diluting things to follow our hopes and wishes?
Stephen: I don't think it is anything different from what has occurred historically many times before, particularly when you think of Buddhism going outside of its original cultural environment to China, Korea and Japan. It is not an unprecedented thing, and I don't think one should make too big a deal out of it as though coming to the West were something special. It is not that different from what has already occurred.
What is happening really, in crudest terms, is that there is in our Western culture a need, both a personal and a social need, for another way of looking at the world that is perhaps more complete, more satisfying, that addresses certain questions in our lives that we don't find answers for in our own traditions. Buddhism seems to offer some response to those needs. If it didn't, I don't think there would be any interest in it.
Martine: I think one has to be careful of this big subject: Buddhism in the West. For me the primary thing is the method of the teaching about suffering. You might be teaching something very deep, but you might not be able to help the person you are addressing; so you might be slightly lighter, and that is maybe what they are needing in that moment-then maybe when they are ready they can go deeper.
There are many Western teachers who are very practiced and are very, very good teachers-and they continue to practice, which is very important. With good teachers the teaching can become both deeper and wider. For me, the two are important. Depth is important of course; but breadth, too, is important. In the West we can't afford to neglect the breadth because this is a pluralistic society and we see all these Buddhisms at once.
If you are a dedicated practitioner, I don't see why your practice won't be as deep as somebody who is practicing in Korea. I think it is intention that is important-the sincerity and the dedication.
Can you say more about the importance of addressing people's suffering?
Martine: This has to do with the basic Buddhist doctrine of the three trainings. Master Kusan always emphasized the importance of training equally in ethics, concentration, and wisdom. To me what the problems seem to be in the West (and it could have been the same in the East, I don't know) is that somebody might choose only ethics or only concentration or only wisdom; but the teaching has been that you must practice the three together.
I think this is what we are called to do: practice the three together in our lives-not just as an intellectual understanding. I think you have to practice the precepts, you have to cultivate meditation, you have to study, you have to develop wisdom and understanding at various levels. We must never lose sight that these three trainings must go together.
We are not psychologists or doctors. We come from the Buddhist tradition; we come with a certain base from which we then try to alleviate the suffering. I cannot work on alleviating the suffering without also cultivating the Buddhist practice. To me that is very important.
Some dharma teachers are psychologists, and at least some parts of the American medical profession are looking to Buddhism for inspiration in their treatment of pain; also it seems many students use both traditional Buddhist and modern psychological techniques of self-understanding in parallel. Any thoughts on this?
Stephen: Well, again, I don't think it is anything surprising. In order for Buddhism to communicate its message within a given culture it has to learn to speak the language of that culture. (I don't mean French and English, but the dominant cultural modes of expression.)
Buddhism has always tended to enter into a particular foreign culture at a fairly specialist level, and it seems that in our culture one of the areas in which Buddhism has connected to the West is through psychology and psychotherapy. These disciplines have numerous resonances with Buddhist understanding. I think it is quite natural that Buddhism would adopt a psychological manner, because it is particularly apt.
At the same time, Buddhism is not a fixed body of dogma (like perhaps some other religions). It has always been transformed by its interactions with those cultures into which it has moved; at the same time, those cultures have been transformed by their interaction with Buddhism. So the style of the teaching reflects Buddhism's creative capacity to interact with a culture in a way that makes it available to that culture, but at the same time it remains true to its own principles and its own pattern. With psychology, I think that is precisely what is going on. The problem is that people may think that this is a corruption or a dilution of Buddhism when it begins to take on another linguistic form. I know that many of my Tibetan teachers are highly suspicious of any adaptation of the traditional forms of expression, because they see it as a process of corruption. I think one needs to respect that warning. One certainly does not want to reduce Buddhism to, say, psychotherapy because then it could easily just get absorbed into Western culture, lose its own identity. I respect that warning, but on the other hand, if Buddhism doesn't engage creatively in other forms of expression, it is quite likely to remain marginalized, to remain a specialist interest amongst a few groups of people. But then I think Buddhism would not in the long run have much significant impact on the West.
Martine: Buddhist meditation is a healing power, but I think one has to be very careful to note it is not therapy. They can meet, but they are not the same thing. Meditation teachers can be psychotherapists as their profession, but need to be clear that there are real differences between therapy and meditation and the Buddhist path. I have done some counseling training, because I saw that would be very useful for working with people in meditation interviews. But I can't look back at people's past or anything like this-what I want them to look at is the present and their future and how meditation could help them in their lives. When we talk about concentration, we are talking about training the mind in a certain way. When we talk of inquiry, then I think it becomes a little bit more psychological. When we look into greed, hatred or anger, then we are beginning to look in a slightly different way. I think the problem with putting too much psychology in meditation is that it might become too personal, too individual. People may become self-absorbed, which is the opposite of what meditation wants to do-the inner stopping in order to be more responsive to the world. Meditation and psychotherapy may complement one another in helpful ways, but they may also become obstructive to one another. Meditation can become an anesthetic to one's problems, and psychology can lead one to be too self-centered. The two need to be used together very carefully and very wisely.
Can you talk a bit about your current projects in England, especially the newly-started college of Buddhist Studies?
Stephen: We have been living in South Devon now for more than ten years, and throughout that time we have been involved with both Christopher Titmuss and Christina Feldman in the running of Gaia House Retreat Center as well as our projects at Sharpham House. This year has been a year of considerable change on both these fronts. Gaia House has recently purchased a large old convent very close by, and we are now able to take many more people on retreat. We have a very large meditation room that can take up to about 100 people. It's a wonderfully quiet and contemplative place, largely due perhaps to the fact that it has been a home for nuns for so long.
One of the wings we have turned into the hermitage wing, which is a place where people can stay for any length of time to do solitary retreats with the support of the teachers at Gaia House. That I think is an amazing thing we can offer, a place for people to have their own room and to sit according to their own schedule and to do their practice by themselves. At the same time that this is happening, we are also creating in Sharpham House a college for Buddhist studies and contemporary inquiry which will start September, 1996, offering year-long residential and non-residential courses on mainly Buddhist themes, but always seeking to apply those Buddhist themes to the contemporary world. So in addition to studying, say, abhidhamma or Tibetan Vajrayana or whatever, we would also be offering courses in psychotherapy, for example, Western religions, Western philosophy, elements of science that are of interest to Buddhists like consciousness studies and so on, and providing that education within the context of an integrated way of life somewhat similar to that of a Buddhist monastery. The students will live as a community, they will have regular periods of meditation together, they will work together on the land taking care of the garden, they will have classes in yoga and various kinds of body work, there will be opportunity for creative expression as well as some work in the community offering services to the elderly and so on. So we hope-and this is a completely experimental venture-that we will be able to create an educational environment in which people can deepen their understanding of the diversity of Buddhist traditions at the same time getting at least a feel for different forms of Buddhist practice and particularly applying that theory of practice in actual concrete situations in compatible fields within Western culture.
Martine: And everything-even the Western study-is taught by Buddhists. So when they look at something like the relationship of consciousness studies with Buddhism it is not just a kind of dry academic study, but there will always be the experience of looking at the problems within a Buddhist and contemplative perspective. Stephen: We are limiting the program to twelve participants, and choosing them as carefully as we can. We have had a lot of experience running a community for the last ten years, so the lifestyle has been worked out and the students will live just as the community lived. We have experience at Gaia House with teaching and so on, and we also have a tremendous resource of people in the locality who can offer courses. I think we are very fortunate in terms of what is available to us and what our background is, so I am confident it will work well. There is a lot of good will.
Mindful Medicine: An interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, as well as Associate Professor of Medicine in the University's medical school. The Stress Reduction Clinic is a unique and revolutionary approach to healing in the American medical establishment. Olympic athletes, corporate executives, judges, physicians, medical students, hospital employees, and Catholic priests have all benefitted from mindfulness training at the Stress Reduction Clinic.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the earliest students of Zen Master Seung Sahn and was a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center. Over the years he has studied with a number of Buddhist teachers and incorporated their teachings, especially the practice of mindfulness, into his practice of medicine. His book Full Catastrophe Living (New York: Delacorte Press, 1990) was on the New York Times bestseller list.
The interview was conducted by Richard Streitfeld of the PRIMARY POINT staff.
Primary Point: What inspired you to start the Stress Reduction Clinic?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Ever since I began practicing meditation, I have felt an enormous need to bring meditation into the mainstream, particularly in environments like hospitals. They function in our society as "dukkha" (suffering) magnets: they draw in people whose lives are out of control with pain and suffering. And it's not like everyone is satisfied and cured when they go home. Since the mind plays such an important part in people's experience of their bodies and what's possible in their lives, it seemed that a hospital would be a perfect place to train people in meditative awareness. They could optimize their inner resources for healing and take responsibility for their health.
PP: Do you think people are more likely to accept these techniques because they are presented in an official, "established" setting?
JK: Yes. If you want to bring the essence of meditative practice into a mainstream medical institution, there are ways that will slant your trajectory toward success just as there are other ways to do it that will slant it toward immediate rejection. If you go in talking about the Buddha and inviting masters with shaved heads for lectures, it's going to be perceived right away as some foreign cultural ideology - a belief system. Understandably so, it would likely be rejected.
PP: Most of the patients who go through the clinics report positive reactions. Is there anyone who can't seem to deal with it?
JK: Very few, actually. To enter the program, you must be referred by your doctor, so right away the legitimacy of this approach has been established. The clients are not being sent to learn to heal; they're not being sent to have their symptoms go away or to master them. They're being sent as a palliative, to help them become more calm.
And, we're very up front. We tell people what we do, and that it's going to be an immediate lifestyle change: you have to carve out forty-five minutes a day six days a week for formal meditation practice. We explain that in order to get the benefits of the stress reduction program you've got to make one hell of a commitment to yourself. If they're willing to make that commitment, they're already primed to go. Ninety percent of the people we see are willing to make that commitment.
PP: Then one reason your success rate is so high is that people know what to expect.
JK: Yes. We tell them right away that it's stressful to take the stress reduction program! If you want to accomplish something, a certain amount of energy and work is required. Many people have had their medical complaint for seven years or longer. If there's any hope to use their own inner resources of mind and body to mitigate the physical and emotional pain, it doesn't come from wishful thinking. There has to be a certain grounding of intense work. That's the price of admission. And people love it, because they've never been talked to that way!
PP: They appreciate the honesty.
JK: Absolutely. We're saying, look, we don't know you, but life's trajectory has dropped you into this office at this point. 'Me doctor says you're here for this and this, but you're more complicated than your symptoms. We don't know what will come out of going through this program for eight weeks, but the chances are that if you start paying attention to your life and begin to look at it without the tinted glasses you've been wearing, look more directly, there will be an opening.
PP: What are the general results?
JK: Some people make more "progress" than others. But we really try to adhere to a framework of "non-doing." We're not that interested in progress. We're not even sure that we know how to recognize it. Many people experience symptom reduction while others have certain insights. They may be subtle and don't go off with neon lights, but they change one's relationship with, say, one's body or spouse. Even in some of the cases that we might scientifically label "failures," because they don't change in the ways that the majority do, people continue to practice. People whose pain hasn't gotten any better are practicing with the original guided meditation tape five, ten years later. When I ask them, "Why? This isn't helping your pain at all," they respond 'That's alright. It's still better when I do it than when I don't."
PP: Besides the techniques, what else do people come away with?
JK: A lot of people drop the formal practice but maintain the mindfulness in daily living. They've developed it as a life skill. In times of great stress or pain, they know how to go to their breathing, to use it to calm down and broaden the field of perception, so that they can see with a larger perspective.
PP: People somehow internalize, not simply the technique, but where it's coming from.
JK: Exactly. And that's our emphasis. We don't want a group of imitators when we get through with them, nor a group of super-meditators who are all tripped out about meditation. What we want are people who are basically strong, flexible, and balanced, and have a perspective on their own inner being that is accepting and generous.
PP: Do you feel that the foundations of the program are Buddhist principles?
JK: Without question. Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. It was one of the major teachings of the Buddha, ramified through all of the different traditions of Asia. We try to teach in a way that combines intuitively the best of the Vipassana orientation with the most accessible and least cryptic of the Zen energy. The combination is quite wonderful.
We use the breath as a major focus of awareness, and then we integrate it with a range of different experiences. Then we get mindfulness of breathing with emotional waves as they rise up in the mind and the body, mindfulness of sounds and thoughts and feelings and external situations that may be threatening or joyous or whatever.
The techniques are secondary to the cultivation of what in Zen would be called "clear mind." In order to have a certain clarity of mind, you have to develop a certain amount of calmness. We're trying to cultivate calmness and concentration in a context of clarity, perception, and mindfulness.
PP: Do people become dependent on you?
JK: Most of the people we see don't trust themselves at all when they first come in. They don't trust their own bodies, they don't trust their own experience. Usually they want someone else, like the doctor, to be the authority. We work very hard not to fall into that. The temptation is very great to be the guru, the great expert in meditation. In fact, we are constantly working to mirror back to them not to make us into somebody special. If anybody's special, we're all special.
We teach the need to trust your body, even if you feel that it has betrayed you with cancer. We teach the need to know those parts of yourself that are more right with you than wrong with you. You begin to discover that there's an awful lot right with you, just by virtue of having a body and having the breath go in and out.
People do start to experience a greater sense of caring for others, grounded in a revolutionary newfound caring for themselves.
PP: It sounds like there is a transformation.
JK: Yes. I don't want to overstate the case. The two fundamental things that most people get out of the program, independent of symptom reduction, are these. First, the breath is an ally and can be used to calm down and see more clearly. The other, related discovery, is that you are not the content of your thoughts. You don't have to believe them or react to them. That's incredibly liberating.
PP: Are any of these experiences comparable to what we call awakening or enlightenment in Buddhist practice?
JK: A lot of people come to the meditation centers with a lot of baggage, a lot of expectations. They already "know" about enlightenment, and they want it. That's a big impediment. The people we see, they don't know about enlightenment, they don't WANT it! They're coming because of their suffering; it's a situation made to order for Buddhist work.
Comparing it with various levels of enlightenment experiences is difficult: we don't work with people for very long eight weeks, and then they can come back and recharge their batteries. People do have small experiences of going beyond themselves, of transcendence. We've had several people who have had knock-your-socks-off enlightenment experiences, of the self falling away and so forth. You know it immediately, because the vocabulary that they use is so unusual in describing it. But we don't set this as a goal in people's minds. It's more a question of developing one's own inner wisdom for right living and right awareness.
PP: I've heard some stories about just how strongly people are affected.
JK: There was a famous trial in Massachusetts a few years ago. The defense lawyer was a long-term Vipassana student. After the jury had been selected, the judge delivered instructions on how to listen to evidence. It was pure mindfulness teaching: moment-to-moment, dispassionate, non-judgmental awareness - listening mind. The lawyer approached the judge later and asked, "Where the hell did you get that?" The judge replied "Oh, I'm taking the stress reduction class at the U. Mass, Medical Center, and it seemed we could use a little more mindfulness in our judicial proceedings."
PP: And what about the medical students themselves? As more and more of them take this course, how do you see them taking it into their work?
JK: One of our ulterior motives is to transform the way medicine is practiced. We don't have a health care system; we have a disease care system. We are trying to influence doctors and medical students in the direction of mindfulness: mindful practice of medicine, mindful communication with people who are hurting, mindful encounter with the patient as a whole person. It's almost axiomatic that people have to cultivate awareness in their own lives, in their own bodies, if they are going to be able to develop empathy and compassion for the people they see.
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Walking in the Direction of Beauty--An Interview with Sister Chan Khong
by Alan Senauke and Susan Moon
Sister Chan Khong ["True Emptiness"] is a Vietnamese nun who works closely with Thich Nhat Hanh, and lives in the community of Plum Village in Southern France. In the fall of 1993 she was on a teaching tour in the U.S. with Thich Nhat Hanh, and Alan Senauke and Susan Moon talked with her at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. We sat together in a grove of cypress trees overlooking the ocean, while gray-robed monks and nuns passed quietly back and forth around us, making preparations for a retreat. (To learn more about Sister Chan Khong's work, read her new book, Learning True Love, reviewed on page 43.)
Susan Moon: The amount of suffering that you've seen and worked with is great. One can never do enough, there is always more work to do. And sometimes you even fail at a task: for example, some boat people you are trying to help end up getting tragically drowned. How do you deal with despair in your work?
Sister Chan Khong: It is a matter of survival. Everyone is capable of serenity when nothing difficult is before them. But when there are bombs dropping, you can be overcome by fear and hatred. When our friends were murdered doing social service in Vietnam, we did our best to calm ourselves. We saw that in order to survive we had to walk in the direction of beauty. We were not yet able to love those who murdered our friends, but should we take guns? If we kill the murderer, how about his wife; his wife will be angry at us. And then his son will be angry at us.
When our friends were killed, the last thing their murderers said to them was, "I'm sorry but I have to kill you." We cannot thank those who killed our friends, but we can try to find some good small seed in them.
In the eulogy read at our friends' funeral, we spoke to the murderers: "Thank you for saying 'I am sorry.' We understand that there were pressures and threats on you and if you disobeyed the order to kill our friends, you could have been killed yourselves." After that eulogy, none of our social workers were attacked. When thousands of boat people were adrift on the high seas, I was filled with despair. I completely identified myself with their suffering, and after many months of meditation, I initiated a rescue project. I rented a fishing boat in Thailand, dressed up like a fisherman, and went out to sea to "fish" out the boat people. Meditation allowed me to transform the garbage, the suffering, in me into a mercy fishing boat. On the seas, I was fearless, even when faced by pirates, and I was even joyful because I knew I was going in the direction of
SM: What about when it's not a crisis situation? Do you ever feel that you just don't have enough strength or patience to keep going on?
CK: When my close friends died, I suffered a lot. But I kept on reciting The Heart Sutra: "No birth, no death, no increasing, no decreasing. . ." all day long. When I'm discouraged, it helps me a lot.
SM: How has being a woman affected your work and your practice?
CK: In Vietnam, my elder sister experienced discrimination in education. But when I grew up there was much less discrimination. So I feel fortunate. In South Vietnam we are influenced by the French, and there may be more equality for women than in Central or North Vietnam. In Saigon where I attended the French High School, girls were considered equal to boys. But in Buddhist temples we were told that we needed to be reborn several times to become a man. I always said, "Oh, I don't care to be a man. I would not feel superior if I were a man, and I do not feel inferior as a woman."
SM: Even without overt oppression, I think it's still helpful to women to see you as an example of a woman who is acting out of a lot of strength.
CK: Here in the West in the monastery or nunnery I know that they do not have discrimination against women. And so I behave equally. But when I go to Vietnamese Temples where there are male monks, I try to behave according to the tradition. Not because I'm a hypocrite, but I want to give joy to them.
Alan Senauke: Do nuns take the same precepts as monks?
CK: I'll tell you. I asked Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh] why women have to take 348 precepts instead of 248 precepts like men. Is there discrimination in Buddhism? In Old Path White Cloud, Thay explains. A woman went home alone through the forest and was almost raped by a man. So from that day on, the nuns kept one more precept than the monks: You're not allowed to go out alone.
The additional precepts are for protecting women, not because women are inferior. The second thing Thay said was that at the time of the Buddha, women were oppressed by the society. When Buddha accepted women in the order, that was a big revolution. But even so, for two thousand years people have continued to believe that woman is inferior to man. And so they think that more precepts for women means that women are inferior. But we have to see that the extra precepts are for protecting women first.
There is a another point that no other teacher has explained but Thay. When the stepmother of the Buddha asked to be ordained as a nun, Buddha at first refused her. She was a queen, and she had even more power over the country than the king. Buddha knew that she was strong and skillful. He said, "I'm worried that if my mother joins the community, she may rule everything."
Then Ananda begged him to ordain her, and the whole community begged him, and Buddha ordained her with the condition that she agree to practice the Eight Observations of Respect that nuns have to observe towards Buddhist monks. That was for controlling her, not because she was inferior, but because she was so strong.
AS: So then these rules became institutionalized.
CK: Yes, but in Plum Village, we do not observe them because Thay says that these Eight Observations were invented to help the stepmother of the Buddha only. He says you need to keep the 14 precepts properly. That's all. But of course he doesn't despise the traditional precepts. And I can accept them just to give joy to the monks who practice in the traditional way. If I can give them joy, I will have a chance to share my insights about women with them, and then they will be unblocked in their understanding.
AS: It's very delicate.
SM: It makes me think of a story you tell in your book about when you first met Thay. You were working in the slums of Saigon at the time, and you were wearing an old dress that didn't fit you very well. Thay said that you should wear a dress that was simple but lovely. You were surprised because you were trying to dress in a way that would make the people in the slums feel comfortable with you. Could you say any more about that?
CK: Thay was not against me going to the slums with a poor dress on. But I wore the same dress everywhere, and I was very proud of working with poor people. Every Sunday I went to hear Thay dharma talk in a huge temple. About 500 students came, and all of them were dressed beautifully. It was not a slum. But I dressed in my old gray, baggy dress. When Thay called me in, I cried, because I was so proud that I worked with the poor.
AS: So wearing poor clothes was a mark of arrogance?
CK: Yes, it was like saying, "I'm not like other people. I work with the poor." But Thay, "You should behave in a normal way." You don't have to wear a fancy dress, but when you are among students you, too, should look decent and simple." But in the slum I could wear the dress of the slum people.
SM: And now you wear your nun's robe and shave your head, and it's appropriate for whatever situation you're in, isn't it?
CK: Yes. Unconsciously, I missed Vietnam and the image of a poor nun in a brown dress walking in remote areas to help children. So, I shaved my head and put on my nun's robe as a kind of going home. Some of my friends in the West say, "I miss your hair." When some Vietnamese monks came to the United States they decided to have long hair and wear American clothes, so as not to shock the eyes of people. At first I did that too, but slowly I changed my mind, because when a monk wears non-monk clothing, it's fake. And when it's fake, it will not inspire confidence. At first our shaved heads may shock people, but if we walk mindfully, beautifully, what is inside will radiate and people will stop and ask, "Who are you?" And humbly we can explain.
SM: You move with a lot of dignity and grace.
CK: We have to, because when you wear the monk's robe you have to behave in the best way you can. If you move in an agitated way, you do more harm than help.
AS: I find that dressing as a priest, shaving my head, raises a very good question. Who is that person? And when you ask, "Who is that person?" you also ask, "Who am I?" So the monk becomes a mirror.
CK: Buddhism teaches that most of our perceptions are erroneous. We may think we understand something thoroughly, but we have to look more deeply. For example, you see a snake and you run away, filled with fear. But when you are angry at your partner, don't think that he is a snake. Look more deeply. Maybe he is only a rope. Too often, with our beloved ones, our son or husband, our daughter or wife, we only see the snake, not the rope.
In meditation we look deeply alone. But sometimes we cannot look deeply enough by ourselves and we have to ask the other person, "If I have hurt you, please try to breathe deeply and calm yourself, first, and then come and tell me, and I will try my best to understand and correct my behavior, so that I will not take you for a snake, but a real rope."
AS: Keeping in mind the snake which is actually a rope, I'd like to ask you a question about the present human rights situation in Vietnam. Because it seems so confrontational. In terms of the communist government there, is there a part of it that's just a rope, not a snake?
CK: Our friends are in jail in Vietnam. And we try to understand that it is because the government takes us for a snake instead of a rope. Our friends in Vietnam have not been able to make it clear enough to the officials that they are not working for political power but for human rights.
AS: They didn't declare it in a skillful enough way?
CK: Maybe. However, if one side, especially the powerful side, is too sure of their wrong perception, it is difficult for the rope to reveal itself!
AS: Do you worry about what Western development will do to Vietnam when the embargo is lifted, which will probably be soon?
CK: The developers are already there.
AS: The country is wide open.
CK: There are many problems. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That's enough. When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.
SM: I have one more question. What is it that gives you the most satisfaction in the work that you do?
CK: Twelve years ago, Thay asked me that same question, and I told him, "I enjoy communicating with the children in Vietnam. I enjoy wrapping the parcels of food and feeling close to them." And Thay said, "You cannot cling to this. You have to be prepared to die tomorrow without regret." And I said, "I am the only one who knows all these addresses, and if I die, who will take care of them?" He said, "Life is prepared the way for others to replace you." And I decided to write the book [Learning True Love] for that reason, so I can share what I have learned. Now I can have joy.
But I don't always feel happy. Even in our sangha in Plum Village we are not always at peace. When one sister or brother is unstable, the whole community is affected. So we try to be always fresh and happy and when somebody is sad, you have the serenity to overcome the difficulty. When the fire inspectors came to Plum Village last February and wanted to close it, I tried to be calm and go slowly. They said we needed to spend about two million dollars to bring Plum Village up to code, or we would have to close. Thay reminded us, If we have to close, we can close. We don't need to run after two million dollars. And now it turns out that we don't have to raise that much money after all. About $500,000 is still needed. And we are just doing what we have to, slowly. I can enjoy everything now. For me, walking is a joy, sitting is a joy. Having something to eat at mealtime is a joy. Touching the light switch and seeing the dark room bright with light is a joy. And I remember that we have a good sangha and a good teacher. My health is also good. There is so much joy for me.