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Ideas on Self-Acceptance and Bringing Dharma to the Community: An Interview with Alan Carter
In the print edition of Mandala October-December 2013, we spoke with Alan Carter, who served as resident teacher at Chandrakirti Centre in New Zealand and now works as a life coach, about how self-acceptance is key to a successful Dharma practice. We continue our interview with Alan here, talking about his background, a few more thoughts on self-acceptance, and how to bring Dharma into the community.
Mandala: How did you find Buddhism?
Alan: From the age of four or five, I’ve been quite spiritually inclined. I wasn’t brought up in any religion growing up in England. My mother was Jewish. My father was Church of England, which probably didn’t mean much at all. From a very young age, I used to read the Bible. I particularly liked the New Testament. I suppose I’ve been exploring from then onward. I started reading about Islam and all that sort of stuff when I was in my 20s. When I came to Australia, I got involved in Edgar Cayce groups. One day, my partner and I went to an open day for all things spiritual and Chenrezig Institute had a stall there. I went up to Chenrezig Institute; I bought a couple of books and didn’t read them. I went to some classes in Brisbane for a few weeks. The Dalai Lama even came to Brisbane, but I found what I thought, at the time, was something more important to do that weekend. Then it probably took about two years, and suddenly there was a big shift and I started attending Buddhist events.
In 1994, Lama Zopa Rinpoche did a retreat at Chenrezig Institute. I remember a lot of the students said, “Oh, you really should see this lama.” But I was very skeptical, to be honest. Then I met Lama Zopa, and upon meeting him, that was it – without even teaching. He blew my mind, like he does with many people. We were all lined up and he was blessing everyone, and as soon as he blessed me I just felt, “At last, I’m going home.” It was overwhelming thought of going home. That was it.
Mandala: After meeting Rinpoche, what did you do?
Alan: I’d taken the whole month off work for the course at Chenrezig; I was an engineer. Then I tried to integrate my experience after I went back to work. Lama Zopa Rinpoche had said things during teachings like, “It is beneficial to do this so many times … beneficial to do that.” So I tried to do all these beneficial things, and I think within two months I got lung. During the weekends I would be studying. I used to come home from work to study Pabongka Rinpoche. I felt like going to movies was a waste of time and all that sort of stuff.
I think the course was in September, and by Christmas I was feeling burned out, so I just stopped everything. I started reading fiction books. I thought, “Well, if it is meant to be, it will just bubble back up again,” and it did.
Mandala: Yes, you did the Basic Program at Chenrezig Institute and have taught and led retreats. What are you working on these days in terms of Dharma and how is your life organized now?
Alan: It is probably a lot more balanced now. Although, last year I was in a retreat doing calm abiding, and I had to dip out after three months because of lung again.
At the moment, I do a Lamrim Chenmo study group that my teacher Khen Rinpoche (formerly, Geshe Tashi Tsering at Chenrezig Institute) told me to do. I found a group of people – I think we started up with five, and now we are down to two with a couple of other people who come in and out every so often. We have been doing that for about three years. Now that I’m in New Zealand, we meet on Skype about once a week. I put some questions together and email them out to people. They answer the questions at home and then take turns answering on Skype and then we use that as a basis for discussion.
We are going through the Lamrim Chenmo very slowly. We are in the middle scope now after three years, which is lovely. It is such a great opportunity to spend a long time and really delve into it, because a lot of the time you go into teachings and it is skimmed over very quickly and rushed. Also we get a chance to talk about our practice and how the Dharma relates to our practice and the troubles we have, which I feel from my own limited experience sometimes is missing around centers.
Mandala: You talked about how self-acceptance is the foundation of Dharma practice. And how accepting one’s self and accepting others are related. How can we work with this in our Dharma centers?
Alan: I think within centers it is important to have open discussions. I think it is important to get together and take the risk of people scrambling for words and saying, “Oh, I’m not quite sure, but this is how I feel,” and having that sense of acceptance by others as to where we are at. And that acceptance of others helps with accepting ourselves.
This is very much Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy with the client: you accept that person. You don’t dislike or like any aspect of them, you just accept that individual, and through accepting that person for exactly where they are at, then that person learns to accept himself or herself. Within Dharma centers, this is an ideal opportunity for us to get together and talk about these issues in a very open way in an accepting environment. I think that process for acceptance would help within Buddhist centers.
Mandala: What kind of experience or training did you have to get into life coaching?
Alan: I did counseling for a couple of years. This was at a volunteer counselor’s lifeline. I did the Basic Program, which went for eight years at Chenrezig Institute, and then also personnel management as an engineer. I had NVC [nonviolent communication] training, and have done quite a bit of practice on that, and generally, a lot of the workshops I’ve been running are trying to find ways to access and bring Dharma into the community. All that sort of stuff has helped. Also, you try to look at ways of applying meditation that everyone can accept, which is beneficial.
Mandala: Talk a bit more about your work bringing Dharma into the community. I know we all think about doing that. What does it look like for you in your work?
Alan: Since my retreat last year, I actually do more volunteer work within the community. At centers sometimes it seems that volunteer work is very much focused on doing work at the center. It is like, “OK, if you do things at the center, there is an enormous amount of merit because you are working for the guru and supporting part of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s mandala,” which is very wonderful. But sometimes that feels like it creates distance from actually being out in the community and just being a nobody helping out, whereas at a center, we are more of a somebody than a nobody. As an example, I work in a hospice on a fortnightly basis for a couple of hours. I find the greatest experience is going in there and just doing whatever people need, which could be just talking to the patients. I switch off who I am in a way, and I find that really quite special.
Mandala: I understand that experience. I did hospice volunteer work for a while. I worked with a woman with dementia, and she really had no idea who I was. I found it a profound experience to realize that my mere open presence could be helpful to someone.
Alan: And that to me is the Dharma, isn’t it? You don’t have to convert anyone to Buddhism or even talk to them about Buddhism. You know I don’t mention anything about Dharma at the hospice. It’s an amazing, warm place and quite uplifting. In fact, I know someone from another Buddhist center who goes there, and he says, “I finish work and I am really tired, but I go work in the hospice for a couple of hours and I’m energized.” I see that as an aspect of bringing Dharma into the community, just being an example out in the community and volunteering. That is one aspect.
Another is sharing the Dharma in a more generalized way, which can help people in day-to-day life. This is what I did with the radio program I put together [for Nelson’s community radio station]. It was just talking about mind, attachment, anger, ignorance and looking at how we deal with anger, discussing the different options we can use to deal with anger in our day-to-day life. I covered how attachment works and how that impacts us, and talked about love versus compassion – those sorts of things. I tried to bring to the community things that they can apply in day-to-day life. I got feedback from a couple of people that actually had heard it, and they seemed to find it useful, and these were non-Buddhists. But as for the overall effect of the radio program, I’m not sure.
Running classes is another way to bring Dharma to the community. I’ve run classes on basic meditation, talking very little about Dharma at first, and then just talking about the basic things about compassion, for example, and looking at obstacles for compassion and the friend-enemy-stranger dynamic, which people are pretty well receptive to.
Another way, for me, is with my non-Buddhist life coach clients. I sent out a feedback form to one client, and I said, “What was the thing that most surprised you in the session?” and he said what most surprised him was seeing that relationships between people can be very dependent on what they think they’re getting from one another. He was quite, “Whoa!” He hadn’t thought of that before. So I think people are receptive to these things.
Alan Carter has studied Tibetan Buddhism since 1993, attending many retreats and teachings with masters in the tradition. He completed the Basic Program at Chenrezig Institute in Queensland, Australia, and has taught and led retreats since 2000 in Australia and New Zealand. Alan currently volunteers at a hospice and aged-care home and works as a life coach.
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