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Posts Tagged "interview"
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Although students of Lama Zopa Rinpoche have successfully completed three-year deity retreats, having a student finish a three-year lam-rim retreat is extremely rare. As Rinpoche emphasizes the lam-rim as the foundation for achieving enlightenment, Mandala rejoices in the accomplishment of long-time student Mayra Rocha Sandoval, who carried out a three-year lam-rim retreat on the advice of Rinpoche in her home in bustling Mexico City. Mayra wrapped up the retreat in March 2013.
Mandala: How did you come to decide to do a three-year lam-rim retreat? And how did your family and friends react?
Mayra: The decision to do the lam-rim retreat arose in April 2008 during our dear teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s visit to Mexico. In an interview, I asked Rinpoche to please help me make this life really meaningful. Rinpoche checked [by divination] and told me that it would be very good to do a three-year lam-rim retreat. When I asked him where to do it, he responded, “In Mexico, in your house.”My house is right in the center of Mexico City, a rather noisy place and with many challenges. My family and friends were very surprised upon hearing the news.
Mandala: What preparations did you have to make before you began?
Mayra: In May 2009 during the 100 Million Mani Retreat at Institut Vajra Yogini in France, I received Rinpoche’s instructions for the retreat. The main preparations indicated were some preliminary practices: 100,000 tsa-tsas and 30,000 Dorje Khadro fire pujas, which I completed at Nalanda Monastery that same year.
I returned to Mexico to set up my small gompa and prepare the apartment for the retreat. A month before I planned to begin the retreat, however, I had a car accident on the road in Aguascalientes when I was going to some teachings. Fortunately, I had only minor injuries and a nervous breakdown that only delayed the beginning of the retreat a little.
Finally on April 14, 2010, I was able to being the retreat, thanks to the extremely valuable support I received from Vens. Champa Shenpen, Paloma Alba, Nerea Basurto and Begoña Mendizabal. That support was incredibly useful for me before and during the retreat. I thank them with all my heart. …
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
What do we think of when we hear the word mindfulness? Does it change depending on the context? How has the term been understood in the past? Is its popularity significant to Buddhism’s future? John Dunne, associate professor of religion at Emory University and a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, has both the technical Buddhist philosophical background and connection to contemporary scientific research exploring mindfulness necessary to address these questions. During a visit in October 2013 to Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon, US, John spent a half-hour summing up for Mandala readers the many centuries of meaning that have collected around the word “mindfulness.”
Mandala: I wanted to talk to you about the concept of mindfulness and how it has been articulated and used both historically and in contemporary settings. Within the FPMT, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has encouraged FPMT students to understand mindfulness within the Mahayana tradition. Could you talk about how mindfulness has been used in classical Indian Buddhist philosophy and then whether subsequently that evolved and changed within Tibetan Buddhism?
John Dunne: If we just think about the contemporary use of mindfulness, there is a lot of interest in mindfulness on many levels. You could say it has even become a kind of cultural trope in the United States. I heard it on the radio sometime when I was listening to NPR during a pledge drive. Someone was talking about “mindful pledging” – and this is in Atlanta! I was surprised to find that; you see that everywhere, in Europe and among the educated elites of the big cities worldwide as well. There is a lot of interest in mindfulness. It is a cultural meme that has taken off to an unbelievable degree. And maybe that’s part of the reason why it is also very hard to say what it is. It is in some way whatever you make of it, and there really are many different varieties of mindfulness.
One of the ways in which my scientific colleagues and I have been trying to understand it is therefore not in terms of finding a single version of what is the one true mindfulness, but rather to think of it as a family or range of practices and a range of practice styles that come out of different kinds of Buddhist contexts. That is actually a very useful way to think about it in Buddhist terms as well, because it is really not the case that there is just one version of mindfulness even within Buddhism, possibly ever. Certainly by the time Buddhism reaches Tibet, there is already some significant differentiation in how it would be proper to use that term.
You probably know that the term tracks back tracks back to the Pali word sati which is the Sanskrit word smṛti which is the Tibetan word dränpa. That word itself is used in many different ways. If we just think of the term sati, there is actually quite a lot of variety. My colleague Rupert Gethin has written a number of really great pieces in which he talks about that term and also Bhikkhu Bodhi has done some great work on this. Ven. Analayo is another one who has done some great work on this on the use of the term in the context of the Pali cannon and in Theravada practice. In a famous text called the Questions of the King Milinda, the terms is used very much just in the sense of memory – how do you recall what is beneficial, recalling what one has done in the past and what one intends to do in the future. Those three words – sati, smṛti, and dränpa – all actually literally mean memory, often memory connected to the sense of who you are as a practitioner, what your larger goals are, and that meaning of mindfulness is something that has become a little bit lost in the contemporary context.
However, when we talk about it as mindfulness practice, actually that sense of mindfulness is not the main meaning probably. The main meaning is cultivating a particular kind of mental facet of any mental moment, or according to some Buddhist Abhidharma theorists, it is always a facet of every mental moment (it depends on who you talk to). The Theravada Abhidharma says it is only in virtuous mind states. The Abhidharma that the Tibetans follow says it can be both in virtuous and nonvirtuous mind states, and this is what they call a semjung in Tibetan or caitasika in Sanskrit, basically, a “mental function” or a “mental facet.”
This particular mental facet is what is being especially trained in formal mindfulness practice. What is that particular mental facet? It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering. It is actually what keeps the mind not in a positive sense on the object, but in a negative sense off of other objects. There are other mental facets that keep the mind focused that account for how acute the mind is and how sharp the focus is, but this particular facet is really just about a kind of stability.
I haven’t seen any account of why this becomes the main facet that is trained in this form of practice. But it may be that the human mind has this tendency to fly all over the place, and that the best way to guarantee that the mind is stable is to focus the training on that particular kind of facet. You could say that later as this develops in the Tibetan tradition, this thing connects to a general feature that we can call “stability in meditation.” Nächa is a term that you will find in some traditional Tibetan meditation manuals. The nächa is stability of a meditative state on the one hand – and that is provided by mindfulness – but mindfulness is not the end of the story by any means. There are two other important features of this factor that are really critically important and that develop later, that really are more about the Mahayana version of mindfulness. They are there in the earlier materials, but they are much more emphasized in the Mahayana, and they change their meanings a little bit. One of them, in Sanskrit, is called samprajanya. In Tibetan, it is called shezhin, and this is a kind of capacity to keep track of the state of mind and body. Depending on the theorist you talk to, that either is something that occurs simultaneously while you are on the object, or it requires you to drop the object momentarily and sort of introspect on the mind (and that will be important for another reason in a second). Basically, if you are trying to maintain awareness on the breath, mindfulness is what keeps the mind from wavering off of that object, but you also need to assess the quality of your awareness as you are watching your breath, because as you get more and more advanced, of course, you are not just dropping the object entirely, you are actually able to stay on the object and notice before you lose the object when the mind is becoming unstable in some fashion. The faculty that is doing that – that is sort of monitoring the quality of the mind – is called samprajanya or shezhin. That is actually so integral to mindfulness practice that the Tibetans usually compound dränpa and shezhin to make dränshe, which means mindfulness, and some people translate that as “discriminating alertness.”
What is interesting about shezhin is it then has a little bit of a life of its own. It is something Shantideva talks about a great deal. He has an entire chapter devoted to it – the fifth chapter of The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. It becomes, in some ways, almost more of what we think of as mindfulness practice, which is a kind of moment-by-moment awareness of what you are doing. Where is your mind? Where is your body? What are your intentions? Are you in a virtuous mindstate or in a negative mindstate? That is really all the work that is done by shezhin or samprajanya, this sort of monitoring capacity or discriminating alertness.
Along with that then, a third quality is usually mentioned in the Tibetan texts, which is called bagyö or apramāda that basically means “heedfulness.” Those three together – dränpa, shezhin and bagyö – really give you the package of mindfulness in the Tibetan Mahayana context. The kind of practice we are talking about is stability, but also this kind of stability with awareness, not a just dumb focus on an object, but a rich awareness of what is happening to you on the subject side. What emotional states are you in? What is the quality of your awareness? Are you holding too tightly onto the object? Are you so loose that you are about to lose it? Are negative emotions beginning to arise? Are you in a positive emotional state? This capacity to sort of monitor that even while remaining on the object is really the main thing that is cultivated in mindfulness practice. Then the larger context of it is your spiritual goals, and that is where heedfulness comes in – to be heedful of what your vows are, what your goals are, what your motivations are, all of that together.
The other thing though that really becomes important in Tibetan mindfulness is the development of mindfulness in the Mahamudra context. What is different and what really is significantly different from non-Mahayana versions of mindfulness is that now there is a notion of being mindful without being focused on an object. You’ll see this is in the Gelugpa version of Mahamudra, but it is perhaps more strongly stressed by the Kagyü style of Mahamudra, and then you see similar aspects to Dzogchen. This is the notion that one can retain that kind of awareness – an awareness of what is the state of mind, what is the quality of the awareness, what types of mental states are occurring, what is the quality of consciousness itself – by taking that monitoring faculty and in a sense, ramping it up, and no longer focusing on an object, dropping the object entirely so that now what you have left is that monitoring awareness itself. You are still going to latch onto objects now and then, so it is not truly a nondual awareness, but it is moving toward a nondual awareness because it is no longer sort of thematizing focus on the object such as the breath. Alan Wallace has a nice way of describing this where it is as if the breath becomes kind of like a buoy out in the water that you keep your hand on, and then you sort of let go and slowly learn how to not need to hold on to that anymore, and are simply aware of the mind itself without focusing on any particular object.
That capacity is the way, theoretically, where shezhin or samprajanya, this sort of discriminating alertness, is now what is mostly thematized. Stability is still important, and they still talk about smṛti, or dränpa, but now it is dränpa without an object. Instead what they speak about is what is called in Tibetan – and you will see this in the famous Mahamudra text that His Holiness the Dalai Lama just taught at Emory by Losang Choekyi Gyaltsen, and also in the earlier Kagyü Mahamudra materials – ma-yeng tsam-gyi dränpa which means “mindfulness of mere not distraction.” That mindfulness of mere nondistraction is now not about focusing on any particular object, but simply being aware moment-by-moment of all that is occurring in mind. That type of awareness, of course, is part of the goal. Part of the reason you cultivate that type of awareness is so that you really understand what is the nature of your mind, what is the nature of your negative mental states. It is a tool for that purpose.
Mandala: Why has mindfulness become such a popular theme in our modern culture?
John: Modern mindfulness is very heavily influenced by its psychological use. My good friend and colleague Jon Kabat-Zinn has not been single-handedly responsible for that, but almost. One of the things is that Jon comes out of a primarily nondual, Zen background (with Korean Zen, or Seon Buddhism, as one of his main sources for this style). The style of mindfulness that he develops is a style of mindfulness that is very much more of the nondual direction. One of the features of the nondual traditions in general is that they claim that somehow the qualities of enlightenment are fully innate to the mind itself, so that, in a way, practice is just about getting out of the way. It is not about doing something; it is really mostly about not doing something, and the natural qualities of enlightenment will emerge when you do that. Hence on that model of practice, there is not a lot of emphasis on ethics or compassion, because it is thought that those will emerge naturally if you simply become aware of the nature of mind itself and allow that nature of mind to become fully evident to you, to, in a sense, blossom or “buddha,” literally (which is what “buddha” means whenever its meaning is to blossom), then the ethical activity and compassionate activity and so on will just spontaneously manifest. Now, that is a totally legitimate Buddhist position. There is nothing at all problematic about that, but it also happens to align very well with certain features of our modern lives and what you might call the style of modernity. There is great work on this. There is a book by David McMahan called the Making of Buddhist Modernism in which he discusses some of this. David also has recently received a Mind and Life Contemplative Studies fellowship to take some of that work to the next step. You could say that, as David points out and some other people as well, there are some basic features of liberal religiosity or spirituality in modernity that that style of mindfulness very easily adapts to. They go hand-in-hand to a certain degree.
There is a whole story about the turn away from rationality and toward affect or emotion in the 19th century. Some people say that the paragon of this is Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the 19th-century German theologian who basically says that true religiosity is about feeling. It is not about what you believe. Of course, with scientific rationality critiquing so much of what religions believe and with his audience being largely artists and so on who already are alienated from the church that was telling them, “Oh, this is the creed you need to accept.” So this is a way to kind of insulate religiosity from scientific rationality. Science can have all of the natural world; religion is just about feeling. It is just about some inexpressible feeling even.
Another feature is the tendency toward Western individualism that emerges in modernity that is [characterized by] a sense of the individual being one’s own authority, and that then one is standing in opposition to traditional religious institutions acting as authorities. Not only is their authority declining – people call it the “secularization thesis,” meaning religious tradition or religious authority declines as modernity grows (there is some question about whether that is true, but in any case, certainly [its applicable] for people who are liberal in their religiosity) — but the reaction to the critique of traditional religious authority is not to fight back.
There was a great article in the New York Times about two rafting trips down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. One is a group of Darwinists who go down and look at all the fossils and say, “See, so evolution works.” The other is creationists who go down and look at all the same fossils and say, “Yeah, so the world was created by God.” The creationists are not being irrational. They are being rational. They are fighting against science using what they think counts as good evidence, which includes scripture. A person liberal in their religiosity says, “We’re not going to fight against science.” So what’s left? Just a sense of spirit, just affect, just feeling. That is what left. Since the institutions are based upon that type of authority and since there is also the sense of individual authority growing in modernity, then the move away from institutional religion to a kind of personal religion – no need to hold a creed, an ability to sort of have your own practice, so to speak – is a big appeal of modern mindfulness.
Another feature that is very important in modernity is that life is about now, especially the new now, the fresh now. Those are very traditional metaphors. For example, in Dzogchen and Mahamudra too, the idea of freshness – the freshness of the present moment – exists. Those kinds of metaphors in the nondual traditions align very well with this spirit of modernity which is all about the now, not about the next life, not about the transcendent, but the here and now. Those various aspects of modernity just align with these traditions such that they are in many ways challenging mainstream traditions and that deliberately exist in opposition or on the margins. They were always in the minority; in some ways now they’ve become the majority. It is interesting.
Each issue, Mandala features interviews online with leading Buddhist academic scholars, long-time teachers and practitioners, and dedicated students. If you enjoy reading interviews like this, consider becoming a Friend of FPMT, which supports our Mandala as well as the development of FPMT education and practice materials. Learn more and offer your support by visit the Friends of FPMT website.
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.
By ILTK Masters Program staff and students
Lama Yeshe’s aim, his wish in setting up this program, was to enable people to study and come to a deeper understanding of the Buddhist teachings, both the vast and profound, as well as sutra and tantra, so that they could then teach other people. His purpose was also to enable each person to develop his or her inner qualities, such as perfect love and compassion, to complete the six perfections, and to achieve final enlightenment. In this way they would be able to help other sentient beings by leading them from cyclic existence to the great city of enlightenment. It was for this purpose that Lama Yeshe asked me to teach this program.” – Geshe Jampa Gyatso, “The Birth of the Masters Program,” Mandala, 1999
The second cycle of the FPMT Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa (ILTK), Pomaia, Italy, is coming to a close. Based on Lama Yeshe’s unique vision for comprehensive education and inspired by the traditional geshe studies at the Tibetan Gelug monastic universities, the Masters Program is the FPMT’s most advanced study program. Consisting of six years of intensive study followed by a one-year retreat, it provides serious students with the opportunity to explore deeply the major treatises of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and to gain a strong grasp of the profound tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa. From among those individuals who successfully complete this program of study, it is hoped that some will show suitable interest and abilities and become qualified teachers of Buddhist theory and practice in FPMT centers. Integrating components of behavior, study, meditation and service, the program provides students with the conditions necessary to engage in in-depth study of three major Buddhist Mahayana treatises (Abhisamayalamkara, Madhyamakavatara and Abhidharmakosha) as well as tantric grounds and paths and the tantra of Guhyasamaja, providing students with a thorough grounding in both sutra and tantra.
The Masters Program was principally developed in the1980s and 1990s at ILTK by the late Geshe Jampa Gyatso, who had been requested to do so by his close friend Lama Yeshe. The program has been shaped further in close cooperation with FPMT Education Services under the guidance of and with detailed input from Lama Zopa Rinpoche. The students of the first complete Masters Program cycle successfully concluded their studies in 2004 at ILTK; several of those students went on to do the advised (at that time) one-year retreat during 2005. In addition to ILTK’s residential Masters Program, Nalanda Monastery began offering a residential Masters Program in September 2013.
Students of the Masters Program class of 2008-2013 at ILTK are currently preparing for their final exams. Marina Brucet (Spain), Yumi Terada (Japan), Ven. Tiziana Losa (Italy), Hans Burghardt (Spain) and Jacob Fisher (England) have all participated in this Masters Program from the very beginning. They were interviewed in July 2013 about their backgrounds, their studies up to now and their upcoming retreats.
What you were doing before you came to study the Masters Program?
Marina: I studied biochemistry at the University of Barcelona and later on completed a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Just before starting the Masters Program, I was working on post-doctoral research on malaria, with a research group whose task it was to fight malaria in Africa. I decided to change careers and to dedicate my whole life to the Dharma, and that’s why I left research and enrolled in the Masters Program.
Yumi: I was working as an administrative assistant and secretary while studying the Basic Program at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore.
Ven. Tiziana: I was working for Liberation Prison Project in San Francisco. I was fortunate enough to offer my service to Lama Zopa Rinpoche when I became ordained and he suggested that I enroll in the Masters Program. I have to say the truth: I was not into studying, but more into service. Now I am so grateful for this advice because I feel that my faith is now based on knowledge. It is much deeper, and my motivation for engaging in the practice of the Dharma has grown immensely. So I feel so fortunate to have completed these studies.
Jacob: I was involved in the street art scene in London.
Hans: I was working in a laboratory as a post-doctoral fellow at a research center in Barcelona, investigating the role of a particular protein in cancer. Four years before starting the Masters Program, I started to realize that my interest in that kind of research was becoming eclipsed by my interest in the “contemplative” sciences.
If you were to sum up your experience of the Masters Program in one sentence, what would it be?
Marina: I’ve learned an incredible amount during the Masters Program, not only about Buddhist philosophy, but I also had the opportunity and good circumstances to learn about myself and to improve from that.
Yumi: The benefit I have gained from the Masters Program study was more than what I had to give up in order to come here.
Ven. Tiziana: As I said before, faith based on knowledge and understanding is the greatest gift I received from this course.
Jacob: This is the kind of thing you wait lifetimes to be able to do.
Hans: A transforming experience in a completely unexpected way.
What was the best part of the Masters Program for you?
Marina: [The best has been] all I’ve learned about Buddhist philosophy, especially on emptiness and on the view of the Buddhist path. Parallel to that, the program gives you the conditions to practice Dharma and to work a lot on transforming your mind as you face all the different phases you go through when engaging in such deep studies. It also gave me the opportunity to start teaching introduction to meditation, which I appreciate very, very much.
Yumi: For me, it was Guhyasamaja Tantra because it was the culmination of all the presentations that we had studied before this text.
Ven. Tiziana: It is difficult to say, because all the texts have their own particular purpose, and they are all necessary to give an overview on the entire path.
Jacob: For me, it was studying the tantra modules with Geshe Gelek, as I found this part of the studies much easier to relate to. The transmission of the knowledge from the various realized lineage masters seemed so much closer and more direct. It also showed me in a much more precise way how an unenlightened mind can become free and transformed into that of a buddha. Geshe-la has a very profound knowledge of this area. I found his teachings very lucid and they helped me understand the great depth and intensiveness of the various teachings of tantra in this lineage.
Hans: Aside from the amazing teachings from Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok on the Madhyamakavatara and many other things, the best was the possibility to start teaching introductory courses. I’ve learned a lot from those whom we usually label as “beginners.” They’ve also given me a boost of motivation to further deepen my practical knowledge and to develop and strengthen the wish to go on one retreat after another for as long as possible, before I start teaching, to be able to give them as much as possible.
How would you describe the benefits of such long-term study to your practice, faith and devotion for the Buddhadharma?
Marina: This long-term study gives the opportunity to get fully involved in the Dharma; it gives the space to deepen knowledge of ourselves and to work on transforming our own mind, sometimes in unexpected ways, as we face the different phases (both positive and negative) of experience that we go through. These studies are really challenging, in both an intellectual and an experiential way. In parallel, my practice and understanding of the Buddhadharma have really been enriched by my studies, which have given me a much deeper knowledge of the path.
Yumi: My understanding of the methods that lead to buddhahood and the state of buddhahood itself has become more clear over the six years of the philosophical study. This understanding of the exact causes that lead to buddhahood has been helping me to develop faith of conviction in actions and their results as well as faith in the inconceivable qualities of buddhas.
Ven. Tiziana: Unbelievable!
Jacob: Many strange ideas that one may hold about the Dharma and practice are removed, and I have seen how much of my practice was based on inspired faith alone. Seeing precisely how a being progresses through the various levels to enlightenment as well as the mechanics of that process brings faith and an immense appreciation that we have such teachings here, still existing with unbroken lineages and living masters capable of transmitting this knowledge. You see how enlightenment is not some vague concept in the oh-so-distant future, but a reality that is possible for all sentient beings.
Hans: The studies give you a broad panorama, making you able to place in it many different practices and methods that otherwise may look unrelated. Thanks to this, one’s own faith gets stronger and deeper.
How has your study of the great treatises complemented your understanding and application of the lam-rim?
Ven. Tiziana: The great treatises are the sources where the stages of the path are delineated. Abhisamayalamkara gives the details of the vast, Madhyamakavatara of the profound, the Abhidharmakosha of the four noble truths; then tantra gives us tools to completely and quickly achieve the goal of all these, i.e., the state of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Studying these great treatises gives a much deeper understanding of all the topics of the lam-rim.
Marina: Mainly, the studies helped me to give a broader context to the lam-rim, to better understand the whole path of the three scopes and the two types of result, nirvana and enlightenment. Also, Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok helped us to understand emptiness in a much better way, which is priceless.
Jacob: I would say that all the topics of the lam-rim have been enriched by these studies. I feel I understand them better now, what is the lam (path) and what is the rim (stages). But essentially, the significance of bodhichitta at the beginning, the middle and the end, and how the root of it all is really one’s teachers – everything is possible because of their kindness, grace, and one’s openness and pure view of them.
How does studying the Masters Program integrate the development of the wisdoms arising from listening, contemplating and meditating?
Marina: In the Masters Program, there is the chance to gain a lot of wisdom from listening, and we are also encouraged to practice the wisdom of contemplating, of analyzing. The wisdom of meditating is not so much emphasized; it’s mainly left to oneself. It’s a challenge, one from which it’s possible to gain a lot of strength, if I apply it.
Yumi: By listening to Geshe-la’s teaching, the wisdom arising from listening can be generated if one is paying full attention to it. It is also possible to even generate the wisdom arising from thinking when listening to the teachings again, but this time from our teaching assistant and engaging in discussion with fellow students during review class. However, to generate the wisdom arising from meditation one has to develop the mind of the form or formless realm, as explained in the Abhidharmakosha!
Ven. Tiziana: When I started the Masters Program I was quite new to Buddhism, so I feel that in these years I mainly listened to the teachings and tried to do as much study as I could to get a clear picture of the path. With the one-year retreat, I will have more time to reflect and meditate.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your years of study, how did you get over them?
Marina: The main challenge for me has been the traditional way of presenting the texts. I overcame it by focusing on the fact that we were learning many things that hopefully would help myself and others in the future, by realizing the amazing work and practice we were doing despite the difficulties, by cultivating acceptance and thus transforming my mind, and also, by understanding that the opportunity was unique, and that it is one of the challenges of our generation to learn Buddhism and to transmit it to the West in the best possible way.
Ven. Tiziana: The treatises can be quite complicated and difficult to understand. I had to accept that there are things that I could not understand right away and that things get clearer slowly, slowly while engaging in further study and reflection.
Jacob: Not always having sufficient resources to remain and continue studying. This was overcome by the incredible kindness and generosity of many people.
Hans: The system of teaching of the program, which consisted mainly in the reading and commenting on every single line of a commentary on the root text, which is very different from the system I was used to. I overcame it with patience and not placing much energy on details but focusing on those points that I found significant.
What do you hope to gain from the culminating one-year retreat?
Marina: I really hope to be able to integrate some of the things we’ve learned during the Masters Program into myself, to gain deeper understanding of the Dharma and of myself, and to set the basis to stabilize and start transforming my mind at a deeper level, a task that I hope will not only be done during the retreat but will continue for the rest of my life. As I see it, it’s the only way to effectively be of benefit to others.
Yumi: I hope to be able to develop some inner qualities that can be really used to help others.
Ven. Tiziana: I feel the need now to have more time to reflect on what I have been studying. Reflection and meditation are essential to gain experience of what we have learned. I am feeling very fortunate to have this rare opportunity.
Jacob: The opportunity to really be in a perfect environment for meditation, and the chance to try and really become this Dharma that we’ve been studying.
Hans: The integration at a deeper level of some of the subjects we’ve studied, and an increased wish to do long retreats.
We really need to train and familiarize with the essence, to put the essential drop of the teachings into practice. We listen to the explanation and we study, but what is the actual practice? Just reading the text, listening to the explanation, and so forth is not the actual practice; it is not the essence. Practice is when you probe the meaning and develop your experience.” – Khensur Rinpoche Jampa Tegchok, during his commentary on Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way (Madhyamakavatara)
To be able to teach from experience, students of the Masters Program are well aware that studying alone is not enough. With the required year-long retreat still to do, these students are looking for places to do retreat and for funds to cover the costs of food and accommodation throughout the entire year. Seven students are currently planning to start retreat in January 2014 and are looking for support, including financial support.
To read more about the Masters Program, visit FPMT Education Services page on the program.
The next cycle of the Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa is scheduled to begin in 2015. For more information please go to www.iltk.org.
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
José Cabezón is a respected professor of religious studies and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Endowed Chair in Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studied at Sera Monastic University in South India and completed his Ph.D., studying with Geshe Lhundub Sopa, at the University of Wisconsin. Mandala spoke with José during a visit to Portland, Oregon, in May 2013.
Mandala: While researching Pabongka Hermitage near Lhasa, Tibet, for a recent issue, I came across the Sera Monastery Project, which you direct and work on and which had detailed information about the holy site. Will you describe this project for our readers?
José: The project basically is to document Sera Monastery. Mostly it’s focused on Sera in Tibet, but eventually I want to do something on Sera in India as well. Using a digital map, based on a satellite image of the monastery, the project identifies each of the different buildings within the monastery and each of the different regional houses. There is a database of several thousand images associated with the monastery that can be accessed from the digital map. It also has essays on what Tibetan monasticism is, what the structure of the monastery is, what the different colleges of Sera were, and how they arose. It’s an ongoing project.
Sera was founded in 1419, so 2019 is its 600th anniversary. One of my projects is, hopefully, to do a book on Sera to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the monastery. Ganden was founded in 1409 as I recall; but it goes Ganden [the original monastery of the Gelug order, founded by Je Tsongkhapa himself in 1409], Drepung [founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449), one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples] and Sera [founded in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang (1355–1435), a disciple of Tsongkhapa]. Sera was the last of the three. I figure if I start now, maybe I’ll be able to get a book out between now and 2019.
Mandala: Let’s talk a little bit about Maitripa College since you are here for Maitripa’s symposium “Life After Life” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and you sit on Maitripa’s board of directors. How did you get involved with Maitripa College?
José: My connection to Maitripa is through Yangsi Rinpoche. I was a monk studying in Sera [Monastic University in South India] at the same time that Rinpoche was there. We belonged to the same khangtsen [regional house]. Not only that, but we belonged to the same household, so his teacher is also my teacher, who is now known as Jangtse Chöje Rinpoche. My room was across the courtyard from Rinpoche’s.
In the early days, when I first got there, I gave Rinpoche a few English lessons, but he was so busy with his studies that it didn’t last very long. He still managed to learn English without me. [Laughs.] I lived there for six years while Rinpoche was studying.
Once Rinpoche got Maitripa off the ground, it really seemed to me a very worthwhile, needed thing in our culture to have institutes that were training people at different levels, giving people a doorway into the academic study of Buddhism for those who wanted to take that path, but then for many others giving them a solid background in Buddhist studies and Buddhist practice that would allow them to make a contribution to society in the form of chaplaincy or counseling or various types of non-profit work. Whatever direction that people go, they still to come out with a really strong Buddhist background. It seemed to be a really worthwhile thing to do. As soon as Rinpoche told me, I was very supportive and have been ever since.
Mandala: Since you talked about Sera, when did you first go to Sera? How old were you and how did you make that decision?
José: I went to the University of Wisconsin. I think it was 1977 when I entered the graduate program. At that point I was already ordained. Thubten Chodron and I were ordained as novices at the same time by Ling Rinpoche – the past incarnation of Ling Rinpoche – and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. We are kind of Dharma brother and sister. Then I was a novice monk for several years, and eventually I received full ordination. As a monk I did three years of graduate study under Geshe Sopa at the University of Wisconsin, and then Geshe Sopa sent me to Sera to study under his students there – his students being Jangtse Chöje Rinpoche and the other elder monks of Tsangpa khangtsen, including Geshe Dönyö, who was abbot of Sera later on and Geshe Lobsang, who is now one of the elder monks in that house.
I was there for six years from 1980 until 1985. I was doing a little bit of the traditional studies, but also writing my dissertation at the same time. Then I returned, and not too long after I returned, I finished my dissertation. I then gave back my vows and started teaching. I taught for a year at Carlton College in Minnesota, and a year at Trinity College in Hartford, a year at Ohio State, and then I was 12 years at a place called the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, the theology school associated with the University of Denver. Then 11 years ago, I was offered this position, this chair that is named in honor of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and have been at University of California, Santa Barbara ever since.
Mandala: Having experienced both monastery life in India and also non-monastic life in the United States, where do you see the intersection of Western culture and Buddhist culture going?
José: That is a very big question, and I think there is no single answer. It is more where our different traditions – or even within traditions – where our different organizations are heading. I think there are many different answers to that. Some traditions still emphasize relying on teachers that come from an Asian background. Other traditions are training their own Western teachers and are trying to make the move to create a Western Sangha that can kind of take over from the Asian teachers. I think it is too early to generalize from one tradition to another.
I’ll tell you a story. It is one of my favorites. When Lama Yeshe invited His Holiness to Spain for the first time [in 1982], I was translator for His Holiness. I never knew Lama Yeshe very well; but one day during this trip, Lama Yeshe invited me to have a meal with him. He asked me, “What do you think about the future of Buddhism in the West?” And I said, “I don’t know. My nature is somewhat pessimistic, so I don’t know. The West is so materialistic, and I don’t know whether authentic Buddhism will really be able to take a foothold.” Lama Yeshe said, “No, I think it will. Maybe not just in any place, but Spain is the place of the future.” So it struck me that then Tenzin Ösel Hita was recognized in Spain. I always took that as a kind of sign that Lama Yeshe saw something as being special about Spain. When I heard that his reincarnation had been recognized in a Spanish boy, I didn’t find it strange.
In the print edition of Mandala October-December 2013, José Cabezón discusses his nearly completed book on Buddhism and sexuality. To learn more online about José’s work on this topic, read “Rethinking Buddhism and Sex” published in Buddhadharma Summer 2009.
- Tagged: interview, jose cabezon, maitripa college, mandala, sera je monastic university, yangsi rinpoche
Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald), a senior American nun, is currently in the process of completing the seven-year Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa (ILTK) in Italy. Before entering the program, Ven. Khadro already had extensive teaching experience and had authored the book How to Meditate and appeared in the Discovering Buddhism DVD series. Mandala interviewed her over email in April 2013 about the Masters Program and the benefit of in-depth study.
Mandala: For our readers who are not familiar with your background, can you share a little about when you became Buddhist and your involvement with FPMT?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: I started studying Buddhism in 1973 at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, India. In early 1974, I went to Kopan Monastery in Nepal and continued to study there, and was ordained as a nun in May 1974. I stayed in Kopan for three years – living in the community of Western nuns and monks under the guidance of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche – then returned to the West. Since then I have lived, studied, taught and done retreat in various FPMT centers around the world.
Mandala: You had already established yourself as a teacher when you began the Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa (ILTK.) What influenced your decision to enter the program?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: I had the chance to study Buddhist philosophy for about four to five years while living in England and France in the early 1980s, and I really loved it, but then I became busy teaching in centers and did not have much time to continue my studies. Several years ago – I think it was 2005 – I was doing a longish retreat at O.Sel.Ling Centro de Retiros in Spain, and some of the students of the first Masters Program who had recently completed the program were doing retreat there at the same time. I felt so happy thinking about how they had spent the last six years of their lives doing intensive study of the great Buddhist classics, and now they were doing retreat to integrate what they had learned. I found it easy to rejoice!
I knew there would be another Masters Program starting a few years later, and I had the idea to do it. I have often heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama say how important it is to study the classic texts by the great Indian masters such as Asanga, Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, Vasubhandu, etc. The Tibetan monks and nuns study these texts in their monasteries, and some Westerners are studying alongside them. But for those of us who do not know Tibetan, it’s not easy to find opportunities to do such studies. I wrote to Lama Zopa Rinpoche and asked his advice, and received a reply quite quickly: He said that it came out excellent to do the Masters Program. He also said that those who teach should do extensive study. So I signed up!
Mandala: Seven years seems like a significant amount of time to commit to doing a program, especially if one has strong ties to a community and/or family that one would have to leave in order to do it. In other words, deciding to do intensive Buddhist study in Italy or France (Nalanda Monastery’s program starts in September 2013) is a significant life choice. What’s your perspective on making this kind of commitment? And what factors should a person consider when making this kind of decision?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: Yes, some people might experience challenges – financial, living far from their homes and families, etc. But I think that if someone sincerely wants to do the program, they will overcome these challenges and find ways to complete it. There are various ways of doing the program – partial or complete, residential or online – depending on the different situations, needs, etc. of individual people. The program consists of five modules that are studied over a period of six or seven years – and students are free to do all of them, or whatever number they can. To complete the program, one must do a one-year retreat, but that can be done wherever and whenever one can.
The best is to do the entire program residentially, but yes, it is a big commitment, and it’s not easy – e.g., the material is sometimes very difficult to understand. But I think it is worth whatever hardships one might go through, because you end up with a much better understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Also, our teachers tell us that by doing such studies, you accumulate a vast amount of merit and purify a vast amount of negative energy. Some of my classmates met with Lama Zopa Rinpoche in France a few years ago, and he told them that out of the three types of preliminary practices – 1) doing 100,000 repetitions of the usual nine preliminaries such as prostrations, etc., 2) reciting the 8,000-verse Perfection of Wisdom Sutra 100 times, and 3) studying the great classic texts – the third is the best, or highest, way of doing preliminary practices.
Mandala: What benefits have you experienced from doing the Masters Program?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: The basis of our study and practice in the FPMT is the lam-rim – the stages of the path to enlightenment – and I feel that now I have a much better understanding of the lam-rim. The foundation, or source, of the lam-rim is actually Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara (Ornament for Clear Realization); this is the first text we study in the Masters Program. It’s very complex and vast, but very beautiful and inspiring, and explains the actual path one must follow to become a buddha in much greater detail than what is found in the lam-rim texts.
The second text we study is Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara (Supplement to the ‘Middle Way’), which is mainly about emptiness according to the Madhyamaka Prasangika school, but also contains beautiful teachings on all six perfections. One of our teachers, Geshe Tenphel, told us that in order to really understand the special insight section of the lam-rim texts (e.g., Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo) one should first study Chandrakirti’s text, and I find this to be true. Previously I had a hard time understanding the special insight section of the Lamrim Chenmo but now when I pick it up and read it, it seems clear and easy to understand!
The third text we study is Vasubhandu’s Abhidharmakosha (Treasury of Manifest Knowledge), which contains a lot of very useful material. For example, the fourth chapter is all about karma; you see many quotations from the Treasury in the sections on karma in most lam-rim texts, indicating that this text is the source of those explanations. It also contains extensive explanations of the aggregates, sources and constituents – which comprise the basis of designation of our “I” – and learning more about these is helpful in one’s meditations on the emptiness of the “I” as well as on the emptiness of phenomena.
In the final two modules, we study tantric grounds and paths and Guhyasamaja, subjects that are essential for one’s understanding and practice of tantra. So all in all, I think that doing the Masters Program is unbelievably beneficial for those who want to really understand, practice and teach the lam-rim path to enlightenment. Also, our teachers have told us that by doing these studies, we will understand more of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings. I have found this to be true as well, because when His Holiness teaches, he often brings in material from the great Indian classics of Asanga, Nagarjuna and so forth. So now, I do not feel so lost when that happens!
Mandala: What do you see yourself doing next?
Ven. Sangye Khadro: Retreat! As I said, we must do a one-year retreat to complete the program, so I plan to do that next year, and I am really looking forward to it.
You can find out more about the Masters Program in the Education Services area of fpmt.org. The FPMT Foundation Store offers for purchase Ven. Khadro’s book How to Meditate and you can watch the video of module 2 “How to Meditate” from the Discovering Buddhism series online for free.
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
In May 2013, Maitripa College hosted the Dalai Lama Environmental Summit in Portland, Oregon, U.S. During the summit, Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist Dr. David Suzuki took part in a panel discussion “Universal Responsibility and the Global Environment” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Oregon environmental leader Andrea Durbin.
A few weeks before the summit in April 2013, Mandala interviewed David over the phone from his office in Vancouver, Canada. We started the conversation by talking about David’s first encounter with His Holiness.
David Suzuki: A few years ago, I was asked by His Holiness if I would be one of the scientists teaching his chosen monks. He really believes that his monks have to know about modern, Western science. Apparently, he periodically invites scientists to come and teach in Dharamsala. I was asked and I first turned it down. I said, “Gee, I really have got too much going on.” And my family, when they found out that I had turned it down, got so mad that they made me call them back and say, “OK, I’ll do it,” because they wanted to go with me.
We went and stayed in Dharamsala for two weeks and I taught a group of monks. It was an amazing thing to teach in a room where I was dressed up with down jackets like a Michelin man and these guys were sitting in their robes with bare shoulders. They were long sessions: two-hour sessions with me twice a day. They sat there just completely locked into what I was saying; it was really remarkable. And they got it. They got what I was saying immediately, and they could see it through the perspective of their own world view, the spiritual aspects of what I was saying. It was a very, very exciting exchange. I got to meet the Dalai Lama before I started to teach a class for half-an-hour in Delhi. That was a wonderful experience for the family.
Mandala: What kinds of things did you talk to the monks about? What were your topics?
David: Our fundamental needs are defined by our biological nature, by our social nature, and by our spiritual nature. Now, I don’t have any expertise in terms of the spiritual aspects, except for my long experience with First Nations in Canada. But when I begin to talk about our fundamental biological needs beginning with a breath of air, the monks got it right away.
We’ve got such a screwed up system; we put the economy above everything. It just boggles my mind that we can put the economy above the very air that we need from the moment of our birth to the last breath we take before we die. That necessary exchange of air connects us with each other and every other terrestrial animal and plant on the planet. And it is a very, very profound connection. My whole point is: there is no environment “out there” that we have to regulate our interaction with. We literally are embedded in the air through the hydrologic cycle with water, with the earth through the food we eat, and through the energy in our bodies that comes from the Sun. We are literally made up of what aboriginal people call Mother Earth.
Mandala: I was looking at the David Suzuki Foundation website today and I saw a post titled “Strong Environmental Policy is the Best Economic Policy for British Columbia” And since you brought up the economy right away, I was wondering if you would talk about the benefits and draw backs of looking at the environment through economic measures and policy.
David: My position is that we live in a world that is shaped by laws of nature. In physics we understand that we can’t exceed the speed of light. Nobody sets out to build a rocket that can travel faster than the speed of light. We know the laws of gravity say there’s no anti-gravity possibility here on Earth. And the first and second laws of thermodynamics say you can’t build a perpetual motion machine. These are limits that shape the kind of world that we live in. And nobody objects to them. That’s reality. It’s the same in chemistry. There are laws that regulate diffusion, constants, reaction rates, the kinds of molecules you can synthesize. Those are all dictated by chemical principles. In biology we know that we have absolute need for air, water, soil and sunlight. These are dictated by biology. We have to live within that world.
But other things like the borders we draw around our property, our cities, our states, our countries; concepts of economics, corporations, and markets – these are human-created things, they are not principles that emerge from nature. Yet we elevate corporations and economies and boundaries above the very natural world that we depend on for our survival. This is, as far as I’m concerned, suicidal.
At our foundation, we’ve heard many times, “You always criticize, but you don’t offer solutions.” But we’ve actually spent a lot of time offering all kinds of ways that corporations and our governments can save money by becoming more efficient and reducing throughput of raw materials and all this stuff, but it still buys into the economic system that itself is destroying the biosphere.
You see, the economic system that we bought into acts as if unlimited growth forever is the goal. No one ever says, “Wait a minute now! We live in a finite world, the biosphere. Nothing can grow within that world indefinitely.” Growth becomes cancerous. Instead, we’ve got to have steady-state economics [a system that does not exceed ecological limits]. So that’s the number one problem: the insane notion that we have a system — that everyone bows down before — that we believe can grow forever. It’s just not possible.
Another aspect is that this economic system is based on the incredible productivity and creativity of human beings yet doesn’t acknowledge that everything we do exists within the biosphere and that it is nature itself that provides the raw materials and absorbs the waste from our industrial activity. None of that is really factored into the economic equation that we live with. They are considered externalities.
When I fight for a forest, and try to prevent clear-cut logging, I have to try to argue that there are economics benefits of maintaining that forest: maybe there are few nuts or berries that we can pick, maybe we’re going to find a cure for cancer. Meanwhile, the forest companies argue there are jobs to be created, pulp we can make for paper, lumber. It’s a totally unequal argument. Yet the real reason we want to protect that forest is because it’s exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen – not a bad service for an animal like us. That forest is holding the soil so it doesn’t run into the spawning grounds of the salmon; it’s pumping water out of the soil and transpiring it into the air and modulating weather and climate; it’s providing habitat for countless other organisms. None of that can be argued in an economic way because they are considered externalities.
We are, I believe, buying into a system that is inevitably destructive because it doesn’t account for the services nature performs for us. It’s built on an absolutely unsustainable concept of steady growth forever.
Mandala: How do we shift these priorities? And how do we not make our decisions based on this economic model but instead value our biological needs and the way nature works?
David: There is a line of ecology today called “ecological economics” and people like Robert Costanza have tried to put a price on nature’s services. For example, Vancouver, Canada, gets all of its water from three watersheds surrounded by old-growth forests. There is this constant pressure to cut down the trees and build a filtration plant, but we can show the value of just leaving the trees and allowing nature to filter that water. So we can try to put a dollar value on the cost of replacing nature by our own creations.
Most things nature does, we can’t possibly duplicate, like, for example, the pollination of flowering plants. Without pollination, we’re screwed. We couldn’t exist as a species because terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. There’s no technology we have to do what insects, bats, mice and wind do in pollinating things. I worry about ecological economics in that a lot of stuff nature does we will never be able to replace. And I believe that much of nature is sacred. How do you put a price on things that are sacred? They are priceless.
We’re running right now, especially in North America – Canada and the United States – on an agenda that is being set by corporations. Corporations are not people! Yet the American courts have decided that corporations are people and therefore have all the rights of people. Well, corporations can put massive amounts of money into supporting political candidates for office, and so when they are elected, who gets first in line to see those politicians? Those corporations. But the corporate agenda is not a human agenda because corporate agenda is based solely on the drive to maximize profit – that is the only reason they exist. They may produce things that we need or want, but the only reason they exist is to make money. I just think that as long as corporations continue to set the agenda, then you’re going to see the kind of dysfunction that we have in the U.S. government. … We have to find ways of getting corporations back out into their place.
Mandala: Getting back to the Environmental Summit and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was wondering if you have thoughts about where you might see interest in maintaining a healthy environment overlapping with Buddhist practice.
David: I’ve just come back from 10 days in Bhutan and I’ve never been in such a strongly Buddhist country. They’ve really electrified the world by offering a different paradigm for development. I was just astounded when I first heard about their presentation at the United Nations last year. And there’s a huge amount of interest and support for this. I think the reality is that we know the current economic paradigm is broken and it’s fundamentally destructive. Short of total economic meltdown (which I’d hoped 2008 would be), people are saying, “What’s the alternative? We’re stuck with this system, can’t we just improve it?” But I think it’s got to be completely thrown out. What Bhutan is offering is a radically different perspective on the meaning of our existence and the purpose of governments and economies.
Here’s a country that was basically isolated from the rest of the world for 300 years. The third king [Jigme Dorji Wangchuck] in the mid-1900s decided that Bhutan couldn’t remain isolated any longer and he had to find out what was going on in the world outside. In 1961 they began to send a hundred students out to schools in India to be educated. From there, many of them went on to Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge. As these students began to come back to Bhutan, they said, “You’re not going to believe what the West thinks development is. They think development is about money and material goods.”
In 1972, the fourth king [Jigma Singye Wangchuck] was asked by a reporter about Bhutan’s GNP and he said, “In Bhutan we’re not interested in the GNP, we’re interested in GNH – Gross National Happiness.” The Bhutanese have really embraced that notion of happiness and well-being of the rest of life as the goal of governments. The economy should be there to serve the people and that goal will be happiness and well-being. A very, very different message from what we say in the United States or Canada. We say, “Well, the key to our well-being in Canada is economic growth.” Economy and money are seen as the very measure of the success of our government; and it’s fundamentally wrong.
I’ve been involved in the environmental movement ever since I read Rachel Carson [who wrote Silent Spring] in 1962. I’ve been telling people now for years that the environmental movement has fundamentally failed. In Canada we saw that the Americans were proposing to bring supertankers with oil from the North Slope down along our coast down into Seattle. We fought that and we stopped it. We stopped dams that the World Bank was funding in the Amazon. We stopped a dam on the Peace River in Northern British Columbia. We’re realizing now – despite these successes – we’re fighting the same bloody battles over and over again.
I did three programs on the Porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. These are the calving grounds of the herd. I’ve done three shows on that herd trying to show the incredible abundance and importance of this great wildlife phenomenon. But the pressure to drill ANWR is every bit as great today as it was 40 years ago. So what does that mean? In focusing on these battles to stop clear-cut logging, or drilling for oil, or supertankers, or big dams, we kind of acted as if winning – stopping the dams or the supertankers – somehow represented a victory, an environmental victory. But these are just symptoms of our underlying value system that shapes the way that we react and treat the environment. They were really just Pyrrhic victories. We didn’t win anything because we didn’t change the perspective through which we see ourselves in this world. What Bhutan does is offer us a very different perspective. It’s very exciting.
Mandala: What do you think can be gained by having His Holiness the Dalai Lama involved in this conversation on the environment? What does he bring to an environmental summit?
David: Of course he brings an incredible credibility when you talk about issues of spirit. There ain’t none better than him. He has an enormous following and wide admiration. So if there is a coming together of values that can be shaped within his community, I think that’s a huge opportunity.
Mandala: I’ve always seen environmental issues relating to spirituality. I feel like my experiences in wilderness as a child and teenager in the North American West gave me my first spiritual experiences, if you will. And it’s been 25 years since I’ve been concerned with environmental issues. But I feel like I’ve seen so many losses and not that many gains. I honestly have come to feel quite discouraged and cynical at times. How do you keep on working to protect the environment given our grim state of affairs?
David: Because what’s the alternative?
The alternative is simply despair. There are many of my colleagues, people I have enormous respect for, who are saying it is too late. James Lovelock, who coined this idea of “Gaia” to explain the web of life on Earth, says in his latest book that 90 percent of humanity will be gone by the end of the century. I’ve interviewed him a number of times. When I say, “Well, what do we do?” He’s basically saying, “Head north and head for the hills.” He favors nuclear energy as one of the options. Basically he’s saying it’s too late; it’s survival of our skins. That’s it.
Martin Rees, a very distinguished astronomer, the Astronomer Royal in the United Kingdom, was asked recently on BBC what are the chance our species will survive by the end of this century? His answer was 50/50. That was a real shock to me. Clive Hamilton, a very respected eco-philosopher in Australia, his second to last book was called Requiem for a Species, and guess what species it’s a requiem for? It’s us. Now, I’ve read Clive’s book from cover to cover, I don’t disagree with anything he says. When you look at the history of our inability to really act in a serious way over the last 40 years about major issues, we’ve passed a lot of points of no return.
We’ve already set in motion the experiment with the planet’s climate. There’s nothing we can do about the fact that we’re well over a level of atmospheric carbon content that will zip us way past an average global increase of 2° C [3.6° F] in this century, and that’s catastrophic as far as I’m concerned. But what’s the alternative then? Do we say, “Well, it’s too late” so we give up and just party until we all go down?
That’s not acceptable as far as I’m concerned, not when you have grandchildren as I do. That’s what pushes us on. I’m in the last part of my life. What happens or doesn’t happen is going to have very little real impact on my life, but it will reverberate through the lives of my grandchildren. I have no choice but to say my generation and the Boomers that followed, have done a very, very irresponsible job. I believe that these generations have committed crimes, inter-generational crimes; it’s been criminal what we’ve done. The only way I can try to make up for it is do the best I can to at least minimize whatever is lying ahead in the future. The answer to the enormous carbon output is not to just carry on and try to geo-engineer the planet, which a lot of scientists are now saying we’ve got to do. We’ve got to stop producing so much carbon.
Mandala: It seems to me that we can anticipate there will be increased suffering because this, extreme weather, sea levels rising, warming and so on. So there is this spiritual component: how do we as a people handle suffering? How do we respond to each other? Are we going to help each other? From a Buddhist point of view, you are also concerned about all the other living beings on the planet as well. I was wondering if you had more thoughts this.
David: I think that as a species we haven’t demonstrated much concern about our fellow human beings. Look at the level of poverty in the richest nation on the planet. I don’t know what the statistics are in the U.S., but in Canada, it’s one out of five children goes hungry. We vowed as a species at the United Nations to eradicate poverty long ago. We haven’t even done that in the richest countries in the world. We don’t care about the inequities and the lack of social justice in many parts of our country, and we certainly couldn’t care less about the Inuit in the Arctic whose ice is melting; or people in Vanuatu or the South Pacific islands whose homes are going to be sunk by sea-level rise; or the people in the Horn of Africa who are going to suffer tremendous consequences. We don’t give a shit. Let’s face it. We’re going to look out for our own skins and we only look out for the skins of a certain sector of our own population. We certainly could use some good Christianity. I’m not a Christian, but I know the story of the Good Samaritan, and we could certainly use the Buddhist perspective that respects all life on Earth, but we’re a far cry from that, even in our own country.
Mandala: What do you suggest to people that say, “What do I do now?”
David: In the 1960s and ’70s we used to run around saying “think globally, act locally” and in many ways that was completely wrong because when people began to think globally, in terms of issues like species extinction or climate change or ocean acidification, it was so immense that people said, “Well, what the hell? There’s over 7 billion people. What difference does it make what I do?” It imposed a sense of helplessness.
I think we have to think locally and act locally in order to have a hope of being effective globally. I find that where you get that real sense that we can do something is when you get involved at the local level. Of course, one’s eye is always on the collective impact of communities around the world. But at the community level, we can really see the consequences of what we do. It’s very uplifting.
If you go the David Suzuki Foundation website there all kinds of thing one can do, like the “10 Most Effective Things that Reduce Your Carbon Footprint” and all that kind of stuff. The most important thing right now is to become very, very involved in our political process. If we believe in democracy, and if we realize we have to make some big changes that can only be made at a level of governments, then we have no choice but to engage ourselves in the political process.
Mandala: Did you have anything you’d like to add?
David: May I just say that I agree with you that nature is a profound spiritual connector. We’ve now got a huge outreach program trying to reach ordinary Canadians, but especially kids, who aren’t spending any time outside. When you ask their parents or grandparents, “Did you have a special place when you were young?” Almost always it’s something out in nature. “Well I had a ditch I used to play in” or “I had this little group of trees where I had a branch I could hang out on.” We have these magic places and they’re really spiritual touchstones of nature. Our kids are losing that because they’re spending more and more time in front of computer screens and inside houses. I think the message the Dalai Lama is spreading, hooked together with the environmentalists, is a very, very powerful one.
David Suzuki is a Canadian geneticist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He hosted the long-running CBC TV series “The Nature of Things” as well as taught at the University of British Columbia, where he is a professor emeritus. He has published over 40 books and is widely recognized as a world leader in sustainable ecology. For more, visit the website of the David Suzuki Foundation.
TEACHINGS AND ADVICE
During an August 2012 visit to Leh, Ladakh, in northern India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to FPMT student and radio producer Anthony Denselow about his ideas on the mind and why we should spend more time thinking about the mind and its functions. A part of these interviews was used in the recent BBC Radio 4 program “Something Understood.”
1. Why study the mind?: Most people don’t stop to think about the mind – why should they? Why is an understanding of the nature of the mind so central to leading a contented and happy life? (Audio interview available for download as MP3.)
2. The nature of mind: What is the mind? What does it mean when Buddhists say that it is “clear and knowing”? (Audio interview available for download as MP3.)
3. The effects of mind: What is karma? And what is its relationship to mind? (Audio interview available for download as MP3.)
4. The mind and its potential: If most people don’t stop to consider the importance of mind then they probably won’t think about the possibility of transforming the mind – but this idea of transformation lies at the heart of Buddhism. (Audio interview available for download as MP3.)
5. How to change your mind: Is it really possible to get rid of destructive emotions? His Holiness talks about his own experience of transforming the mind and his most important practices. (Audio interview available for download as MP3.)
Anthony Denselow is “a class of ’73 Kopan survivor who has followed Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s work around the world with deep admiration.” He is also hugely grateful to Jamyang Buddhist Centre’s Geshe Tashi for his inspired Foundation of Buddhist Thought course. Anthony worked for BBC radio for over 30 years and is now freelance.
The sessions were organized thanks to Jeremy Russell, a member of the team that frequently travels with His Holiness and lives and works in Dharamsala, India.
FPMT News Around the World
In early December 2012, Ven. Freeman Trebilcock, a 25-year-old Australian FPMT monk and director of Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth, was interviewed on “Harmony in Diversity,” a community television program focused on the issues and activities of Melbourne’s faith communities.
In this two-part interview, Ven. Freeman speaks candidly on being young and Buddhist in Australia:
It can be quite challenging in our society to be someone from a faith such as Buddhism. I think Buddhism has a pretty good brand, generally speaking. I didn’t cop a lot of flak directly for being a Buddhist. I think for most people my age, faith doesn’t really play a big part of their life. To have someone who’s really trying to embody their spirituality as the central focus of their life is quite strange for a lot of people of my generation. For a lot of my friends, I guess I was a bit different than others.
For me, my Buddhist practice and understanding was kind of like a grounding; it really kept me on track. I think, more than anything else, I leaned on my Buddhist-ness in times of crisis, when I was struggling. All teenagers go through a lot of difficulties; it’s just a part of growing up. At those times, I was really, really glad to have this frame of reference, this amazing storehouse of Buddhist wisdom to go to, to find some useful tools to deal with things.
Ven. Freeman also spoke about Buddhist ideas on vegetarianism; the practices and texts with which he engages; Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth, the FPMT international peace organization for young people; Buddhism’s compatibility with secular society; and monasticism, among other topics.
As part of his interfaith work, Ven. Freeman participated in ABC1’s Holy Switch, a three-part television series in which six young people take up the challenge to swap religions and “live a totally different life for two weeks and in the process discover who [they] are.” The series premiers May 12.
If you like what you read on Mandala, consider becoming a Friend of FPMT, which supports our work. Friends of FPMT at the Basic level and higher receive the print magazine Mandala, delivered quarterly to their homes.
THE PATH OF PILGRIMAGE
Effie Fletcher coordinates Dharma Journeys Pilgrimages (formerly known as Chasing Buddha Pilgrimages), which provides guided pilgrimages to many Buddhist sites in Asia. Effie has organized more than two dozen of these trips, which are led by FPMT teachers. She also is the director of Himalayan High Treks, a small San Francisco-based business that organizes environmentally and socially conscious Himalayan treks as well as trips to Southeast Asia. Mandala spoke with Effie in January 2013.
Part 1 of this interview appears in the print edition of Mandala April-June 2013. Click here to read Part 2, an online exclusive of fpmt.org/mandala/.
Part 1: A ‘Pukka’ Tour, the Meaning of Pilgrimage, Nuts and Bolts
Mandala: How did you get into organizing pilgrimages?
Effie Fletcher: I started Himalayan High Treks in 1988. Then in 2001, Ven. Robina Courtin asked me if I would organize pilgrimages for her. She said to me, “I don’t want one of these hippie treks. I want a real pukka…” – pukka is a word they use in India for “nice” or “first class” – “…I want a good quality tour with good hotels and everything just so.” Unfortunately, I can’t remember her exact words, but I thought, “Well, that is going to be easy because if I can organize treks, I can organize pilgrimages.” I had been to some of the pilgrimage places myself already. I also had been a student of Ven. Robina’s and had been on retreat with her. Organizing a pilgrimage seemed like organizing a moving retreat – that is how I visualized it – a retreat that was on the road.
We used to call them Chasing Buddha Pilgrimages and would raise money for the Liberation Prison Project. [See "Pilgrims' Progress: 'Chasing Buddha' in Nepal and India" from Mandala October-November 2004.] Then a few years ago we changed to Dharma Journeys because Chasing Buddha was very specific to Ven. Robina. We have been doing pilgrimages with other leaders for some time now and are starting to raise money for other organizations like Dharamsala Animal Rescue and more recently for Milarepa Center in Vermont, United States.
Mandala: What are the sites that a pilgrim might visit on a Dharma Journeys Pilgrimage?
Effie Fletcher: The most standard pilgrimage that we do, the one that the most people have been on with us, is going to visit the traditional pilgrimage sites of Lord Buddha’s life in Nepal and India. The wonderful thing about the pilgrimage places in general is that they have been pretty well preserved. After seeing these parks and areas, it’s easy to imagine, even 2,000 years later, that Lord Buddha actually lived and was in these places. It hasn’t changed all that much, so that is pretty exciting.
We also do pilgrimages to other places. We have done pilgrimages to Tibet, for example. And we are planning pilgrimages to Sri Lanka and to Myanmar (known more commonly as Burma).
Mandala: From your point of view, what are the differences between tourism and pilgrimage?
Effie Fletcher: There is a wonderful, wonderful quote that I love from Lama Zopa Rinpoche: “Normally, when people go on pilgrimage, they are just like tourists. Maybe they take some pictures and that is it. They don’t use the places to collect merit or to meditate or to get some benefit for their minds. If it is just like sightseeing, then it won’t be that much benefit.”
That is the big thing about these pilgrimages: for people who are Buddhist, they are going home to Buddhism. They are not tourists in a traditional sense because they are going and practicing.
Some of the people that do the pilgrimages are not Buddhist when they go or they may just be interested in Buddhism. They may belong to another faith or they may not be Tibetan Buddhist. They may have other practices that they are used to doing, but they still come on the pilgrimages. So we don’t have a requirement that somebody has to be an experienced traveler or a certain level of practitioner or anything like that.
Mandala: As an organizer, how do you support people on pilgrimage? And how are the trips structured?
Effie Fletcher: We try to take people from wherever they are to a point where they feel competent for travel and ready to participate in the trip. We do that by helping them with the nuts and bolts of the travel: figuring out how to get visas if they are needed; helping with immunizations and understanding what the choices are in terms of taking certain medicines with them on the trip; explaining what they need to pack and carry – all of those simple things that add up to being a competent traveler.
The next step is to help everyone be on the same page in terms of doing practice and the purpose of pilgrimage. We provide them with a prayer book, which is basically a collection of FPMT prayers and practices that were recommended to Ven. Robina by Lama Zopa Rinpoche when she did the very first Chasing Buddha Pilgrimage. Rinpoche did many of these prayers and practices when he went on pilgrimage in Tibet in 2002. We distribute the prayer book to people at a group meeting at the start of their pilgrimage.
If they start in Nepal, they go immediately to Kopan Monastery [on the outskirts of Kathmandu] and have a three- or four-day retreat there. If they start in India, they may go immediately to Root Institute in Bodhgaya or may take a couple days elsewhere and then do the retreat, depending on the itinerary. But usually they get together and have a short retreat close to the beginning of the trip. Then, that way, everybody pretty quickly gets to be on the same page about the prayers, practices and what makes for a meaningful trip.
Mandala: Tell me more about the nuts and bolts of this kind of travel. Where do inexperienced travelers encounter problems as they prepare for a trip like this?
Effie Fletcher: I think that one thing people do is they wait until it is almost too late to go on a trip. They see the dates and think that they can just call you a few weeks before and manage to get ready. But it is a big, big trip; it takes a lot of planning. We really like people to come on board about six months in advance. We give a small discount to people who do that just to encourage people to sign up early. It is for our benefit and their benefit, because if they come in at the last minute, they are going to be really hectic. It is going to be hard to do any of the pre-trip reading, so they are not going to have as nice of an experience. Chances are if they come in less than six weeks to two months before the trip, we are not even going to be able to accommodate them because of all the bookings that need to be made. So that is number one – sign up early!
Then the second thing is that I think people sometimes have a fear that holds them back from doing things that are new. If they haven’t done this type of travel before, the first trip is always the hardest. It seems that once people have gone on the pilgrimage, they will do trip after trip, often on their own. For example, they will go to a Kalachakra initiation with His Holiness and so on. I’ve seen that many times. The pilgrimage is their first trip, and people are nervous about it, but then once they get started, they get more into it.
The third thing is that a pilgrimage is a big investment. It is something that not everybody can afford to do, but again, if you break it down, if you plan early, there are ways to save money. You can spread out payments over time. You can sign up for your trip and pay your deposit, and then you buy your airfare, then you pay your balance. You can break it up over a number of months so that the whole expense of the trip isn’t hitting you all at the same time. There are strategies for making it more affordable. It is not an inexpensive thing to do, but it is possible.
Mandala: Money and budgeting seem really important to planning a pilgrimage as well as how one thinks about the trip. Because it really isn’t tourism that we are talking about, it’s a spiritual practice, right?
Effie Fletcher: Pilgrimage is a huge benefit in many ways. For the individual, he or she learns and does the practices and creates merit. Then on Dharma Journeys Pilgrimages, there is also the organization or project that we are raising money for. It is also a way for people to connect with the project or nonprofit organization and then they might go on and volunteer with them. For example, a lot of people became involved in the Liberation Prison Project after going on a Chasing Buddha Pilgrimage.
People tell me that it is life-changing to spend time with a pilgrimage leader who is a dedicated practitioner, people like Ven. Robina and Jon Landaw. People really enjoy the chance to have a good amount of quality time with a teacher in a place that is so special.
People also tell me that going on pilgrimage really helps them to get used to or get very serious and committed to a daily practice. A lot of people say they have had trouble with that before going on pilgrimage, and then during the pilgrimage it just became part of their routine, and when they came home, they were able to keep that up.
Mandala: What kind of physical abilities are needed to make these kinds of trips?
Effie Fletcher: We had somebody who was legally blind do a trip with us in 2011. These are pilgrimages, they are not treks. You need to be able to walk around the pilgrimage sites, but it is not hard hiking. Somebody needs to be ambulatory and be able to lift their luggage if need be. The pace is demanding, and some days you are in a vehicle for a long time. It isn’t particularly hard; but, it is demanding because it requires your attention and your time, and you are often sleeping somewhere different. You stay in one place probably two or three nights at the most, most of the time. You are moving and you are in the vehicles for periods of time. It is actually pretty enjoyable. I wouldn’t say relaxing, but I would say fun and not super strenuous.
Mandala: Looking at your website, it seems like you really do a lot to help people prepare both in terms of what they need to pack, what they need to do and also in terms of their expectations. Is this something that you focus on as part of the package?
Effie Fletcher: Yes, we provide pilgrims with a lot of pre-trip support. People call me or email me with questions; we are available for that. We also do give them a packing list and a reading list. We have trip notes that detail exactly how to go about getting the visa or whatever else is needed for the particular trip. We try to educate people about why it is important to have travel insurance, to get at least evacuation insurance in case there is an emergency. The last pilgrimage we did, someone had a calf sprain. The insurance upgraded the woman and her partner to business class for the trip home so she could be comfortable with her injury. She didn’t have to be evacuated – it wasn’t that serious – but at least the insurance was able to ensure her a comfortable trip home.
We also try to work with people to get reasonable air fares from wherever they are traveling from. We have people coming from all over the world going on the pilgrimages, not just here in the U.S. They may be, for example, flying out of Canada, the U.K., or Australia. Wherever they are, we are going to hook them up with either online or retail travel agent resources to help them get a good airfare. If you just search online and you are not sure, it looks incredibly expensive to fly to these places. If you fly round-trip to Delhi, for example, and then you add on one-way tickets to Varanasi, and then on the return, Kathmandu back to Delhi, it is going to come out tons cheaper than if you just did a search flying directly into Varanasi and flying home from Kathmandu. If you’ve traveled, you may know that, but if you haven’t, we are here to walk you through it.
Mandala: One thing that has come up on my radar is that there can be a lot of litter at pilgrimage sites. I was just wondering if you had a perspective on that or if that actually is an issue.
Effie Fletcher: In India, traditionally, everything was recyclable broadly speaking. They ate on a thali, which was a leaf, for example. Until recently you could still get tea in little chai cups that were made out of clay, and then when you were done drinking your chai, you would just toss them, and they would basically turn to dirt. They were completely disposable and recyclable, and litter was not a problem. Then all the Western products started being sold, and then of course, India makes products that are similar to the Western products: potato chips in their bags, little juice boxes, and so forth and so on, and basically people just throw them away wherever they are.
A lot of Indians are what we could call “litterbugs” in the U.S., but in the U.S. what we do is we take our garbage and we hide it away in landfills. They are starting to do that in India. That is starting to happen, but it isn’t as organized as it is here yet. You may have seen in places like Mumbai where there are huge landfill dumps where people go and pick through garbage, that sort of thing. Very poor people go there and recycle, looking for things they can resell because they are poor. If you are in a rural area, however, that is not happening.
It behooves us to be really careful with our trash and make sure that we are not leaving behind things like batteries or pesticide bottles. One of my pet peeves is that people carry pesticide with them because they don’t want to be bitten by mosquitoes, but then they just throw the bottle in the trash not realizing what really happens to it. You have to think about where you are and whether or not that trash is going to be disposed of properly. If you are not sure, it is best to not throw something away until you are sure you are in a good place, because they may be just taking that basket and throwing it outside the hotel fence or something like that.
Mandala: How do you feel about bottled water, which can create a litter?
Effie Fletcher: It is so funny because I have fought against bottled water! For 25 years I have been in this battle of trying to get people to carry methods for treating their water and not buy bottled water. To be honest, I am kind of giving up. [Laughter.] I know that is just so terrible, but it is really hard because that is just how it is done in Asia right now. We encourage people to bring a way to treat water, and there are so many now. But bottled water is just becoming the way of Asia. They distribute it in large containers by the truckload to restaurants and other places, so it is almost unavoidable. If you travel in Asia now, you are probably going to be drinking bottled water to a certain extent. I am very sad about it. The only good thing that I can say is that I have been told in some places they are starting to recycle the plastic bottles. If you bring your own water bottle to a hotel or restaurant, you can sometimes just refill that bottle from a larger container of either treated water or bottled water, and then you are at least not creating as many plastic bottles to be just thrown everywhere.
Mandala: How long in advance should someone start planning for pilgrimages in your opinion? Months? Years?
Effie Fletcher: I think you can start planning as early as you want. You have an aspiration to go to Mt. Kailash, right? Maybe you have a small savings account where you are putting money aside, even just 10 dollars a month. Some people tell me that they want to go to Kailash so they are starting to exercise more. That is something that I hear frequently. I’ll sometimes think to myself, “But, Tibet is closed right now, but what does it matter because they are just starting to exercise more which is a great thing?”
Actually, Tibet isn’t closed right now, but it was closed last fall and on and off last year at different times. Who knows what it will be like by the time they are actually ready to go, so the fact that someone might be putting a little money aside or exercising more, making an aspiration, that is a great thing.
Mandala: What about Tibet? Have you gone on pilgrimages in Tibet or organized trips for Tibet, and what is that like?
Effie Fletcher: I have been to Tibet; I have been to Mount Kailash in Tibet, and I love Tibet, but it is a love-hate experience because it is very hard to visit in many ways. You need to have a really open mind and be very flexible if you are going to attempt to travel to Tibet. Some of the sites that you think are going to be just the most amazing sites because they are the most famous sites in and around Lhasa may not be the most interesting places. It might be somewhere a little more out of the way, which you have never heard of before, which isn’t as locked down as some of the older, bigger monasteries around Lhasa are now.
Also, I think if we do go there, even there as pilgrims, as meaningful as that is, it behooves us to really try and understand the political and social situation before we get there. People really owe it to themselves to get educated before they travel, because there is not going to be information readily available once you’re there. This all could be changing; I hope it changes.
I feel a responsibility for our hosts in Tibet when we go, so I encourage people to follow the rules even though they may not agree with them. It is a difficult decision that each person has to make for themselves about whether they will go to Tibet and how they will go to Tibet. I think that it is a place that really deserves some serious thought before you go.
Mandala: Tell me about your recent travels to Burma or Myanmar. That is another country that has had a repressive political climate. What is it like to travel there now?
Effie Fletcher: Ven. Robina is leading a pilgrimage there in September 2013. My visit in in December 2012 was my second trip. It was with a group. It wasn’t a pilgrimage, but most of the people in my group were Buddhist, and we went to mostly Buddhist sites because that is what you do there. I was just checking out some of the places and logistics for the upcoming pilgrimage while I was there.
If you go on my Himalayan High Treks Facebook page, I have a picture posted of Aung San Suu Kyi. We were really fortunate to be able to go to a rally of hers. It is like Tibet in the opposite direction. They are opening up politically, so sanctions have been eased against them. For example, when I was there two years ago, no one would say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name out loud. They would refer to her as “the lady.” Also, there were no public rallies when I was there two years ago. Rallies were illegal.
So, I go back two years later, and not only do people say her name, but I brought home a calendar with a picture of her. One of the pictures includes her and President Barack Obama on it. We went to a rally with just wonderful, wonderful friendly people. We were the only foreigners there. There was no sign of military or police or anything, just a couple of ambulances in case somebody got hurt. It was a very light security situation with just thousands of really friendly people who would say things like, “Thank you for President Barack Obama!” The first time I didn’t know what to say, and then the second time I said, “Thank you for Aung San Suu Kyi!” It was just absolutely the opposite for me of going to Tibet right now.
This is not to say that they are not without problems, but they have amazing pilgrimage sites. One of the places that will be on Ven. Robina’s itinerary is Golden Rock, a rock that is supposedly balanced on one of Buddha’s actual hairs. It is a golden rock as big as a house with a little stupa on top. You can walk all around it, and it is up on top of a mountain that you can either hike or be carried to get to the top of. There is just a wonderful, wonderful atmosphere. It is very family friendly with lots of children and happy people excited to be there, mostly local and some foreigners.
Another place that we go to is Bagan where they have hundreds of Buddhist stupas. There used to be thousands of them at one time and now there are still hundreds left—many, many stupas all over the plains. It is along the Irrawaddy River in Bagan. That is a fabulous pilgrimage place.
It is just wonderful! You can go inside the monasteries and the nunneries. Some of them are huge. I feel like I’m on the campus at Stanford Univeristy or something; they are so big. They have so much going on, but they are also really strict and tough in their monastic life. They live a very hard life full of prayer and practice and very little food. It is just an amazing place to go.
Read Gwen McEwen’s reflections on the recent Dharma Journeys Pilgrimage with Jon Landaw.
Watch a video from Milarepa Center promoting their recent pilgrimage trip.
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