The Distortions We Bring To The Study of Buddhism
The Distortions We Bring To The Study of Buddhism
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse calls on Westerners
to acknowledge the distortions we may bring to the study of Buddhismóthrough our
cultural arrogance, the deceit of ego, and simple ignorance. The successful
transplant of such a subtle and challenging practice as Buddhism, he says, depends on thorough study and clear recognition of our habitual
Transplanting anything from a foreign culture is a difficult process
which may corrupt what is being imported. Buddhism is certainly no exception; in
fact, among imported foreign goods, dharma is perhaps the most prone to
Initially, to understand dharma even on an
intellectual level is not at all simple. Then once we have some understanding,
to put dharma into practice is even more subtle, because it requires that we go
beyond our habitual patterns. Intellectually, we may recognize how our
narrow-minded habits have brought about our own cycle of suffering, but at the
same time we may also be afraid to engage wholeheartedly in the process of
liberating these habits of ours.
This is cherishing of ego.
For even if we think we want to practice the Buddhist path, to give up our
ego-clinging is not easy, and we could well end up with our own ego's version of
dharmaóa pseudo-dharma which will only bring more suffering instead of
For this reason, most Oriental teachers are very
skeptical about exporting dharma to the Western world, feeling that Westerners
lack the refinement and courage to understand and practice properly the
buddhadharma. On the other hand there are some who try their best to work on the
transmission of the dharma to the West.
It is important to
remember that a thorough transplantation of dharma cannot be accomplished within
a single generation. It is not an easy process, and as when Buddhism was brought
from India to Tibet, it will undoubtedly take time. There are enormous
differences between the attitudes of various cultures and different
interpretations of similar phenomena. It is easy to forget that such supposedly
universal notions as "ego," "freedom," "equality," "power," and the implications
of "gender" and "secrecy," are all constructions that are culture-specific and
differ radically when seen through different perspectives. The innuendoes
surrounding a certain issue in one culture might not even occur to those of
another culture, where the practice in question is taken for
In recent years there have been numerous critiques of
both the Buddhist teachings and certain Buddhist teachers. Unfortunately, these
often reveal a serious degree of ignorance about the subject-matter. Many
Tibetan lamas adopt the attitude that "it doesn't matter," because they
genuinely don't mind such attacks. I think the perspective of many lamas is
vaster than trying to keep track of the latest likes and dislikes of the fickle
modern mind. Other Tibetan lamas adopt the attitude that Westerners are merely
spiritual window-shopping, telling the younger lamas like myself, "See, we told
you! They are not here for the dharma. For them, we are a mere curiosity." In an
attempt to adopt a good motivation, I would like to propose some alternative
Certain critiques of Buddhism actually enhance
my devotion to the teachings and to my teachers, because I feel the dharma
defies any such criticisms. But I also feel that some of these writings can be
harmful in their effect. There may be many beings whose connection to the dharma
is just about to ripen, and these writings can jeopardize their opportunity. In
our life we encounter a multitude of obstacles and difficult circumstances. But
the worst possible obstacle is to be prevented from engaging in an authentic
path to enlightenment.
In this age, when people naively jump
to conclusions based on the writings of those who try to warn about the hazards
of guru-disciple relationships, such critiques may result in the tragic
destruction for many people of their only chance of liberation from the ocean of
suffering. In the sutras, it is stated that someone who rejoices even
momentarily over something that leads to such a lost opportunity will not
encounter the path of enlightenment for hundreds of
Generally, I think that when we want to expose a
fault or present an opinion, two attributes are necessary: one should know the
subject thoroughly, and one should not oneself have the faults that one is
criticizing. Otherwise, one will be, as the Tibetan proverb describes, "a monkey
who laughs at another monkey's tail." Let us not forget that as human beings we
are victims of our own narrow-minded interpretations. We should not give so much
authority to our limited points of view: our interpretations and subjective
perspectives are limitless and almost always stem from our own fears,
expectations and ignorance.
It would be of great amusement to
many learned Tibetan scholars if they could read some of the presentations
written by Westerners on such subjects as Buddhism or gurus. It is like
imagining an old Tibetan lama reading Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or
listening to a beautiful aria. He would most probably think the former
uninteresting and that the latter sounded like a cat being skinned alive!
It is better not to distort things with our limited
interpretations at all, but if we have to, then at least we should be more aware
of how powerful and one-sided our interpretations can be. For example, I could
claim all kinds of things about the way that Westerners approach the study of
Eastern cultures. I could easily put forward an interpretation, one that might
seem entirely valid, that claims Western conceptual frameworks stem from a basic
attitude of arrogance in the way that they construct themselves and
In almost all departments in Western universities that
allegedly teach Buddhism, the teachers usually have to hide the fact if they
happen to be Buddhists themselves. Do the mathematics teachers hide the fact
that they believe in the logic of mathematics? Western scholars need to be more
questioning about their own rigid biases that prevent them from being able to
appreciate other perspectives. I find heartbreaking the imperialist attitude
that arrogantly isolates one aspect of Eastern culture, analyzing it at a
careful distance, manipulating and sterilizing it to fit Western agendas, and
then perhaps concluding that it is now suitable for
Another example of the hypocrisy involved with
this kind of attitude is the Western "benevolent" wish to "liberate" Eastern
women from the clutches of what is imagined to be the oppressive tyranny of a
misogynist system, resembling the Western missionaries wanting natives to adopt
Christian morals and values. In the West, amongst other things, women are
photographed naked and the pictures are published in magazines. Many other
cultures would regard this as exceedingly embarrassing, as well as extremely
exploitative and oppressive of women. So from their point of view, Western
criticism of another culture for its subjugation of women is a highly
Surely no culture should claim to have the
deep appreciation and understanding necessary to produce a thorough and
justified critique of an important aspect of another's culture (especially when
the topic is as sophisticated and complex as Buddhism) without having the
humility to make the effort to accurately and deeply learn about that topic on
that culture's own terms.
Sometimes it might help Westerners
to develop more respect and appreciation for the East if they remember that 3,000
years ago, when the East was flourishing with philosophy, arts, languages and
medicine, the Western natives still didn't have the idea to brush their own
teeth! And in many cultures' perspectives, so-called Western science and
technology has not really done much besides destroying the world's resources.
Ideas such as democracy and capitalism, as well as equality and human rights,
can be seen to have failed miserably in the West, and to be nothing but new
I find it difficult to see the advantage of
incorporating these limited Western value systems into an approach to the
dharma. These certainly do not constitute the extraordinary realization Prince
Siddhartha attained under the Bodhi tree 2,500 years ago. The West can analyze
and criticize Tibetan culture, but I would be so thankful if they could have the
humility and respect to leave the teachings of Siddhartha alone, or at least to
study and practice them thoroughly before they set themselves up as
If people could put some effort into being
respectful and open-minded, there is so much knowledge available that could
liberate them from all kinds of suffering and confusion. It is only now that I
have come to realize the significance of the great respect that the Tibetan
translators and scholars of the past had toward India, their source of dharma
and wisdom. Instead of being critical or even resentful of their source, they
called it "The Sublime Land of India." This kind of attitude is very different
from the Western shopping mentality that regards the dharma as merchandise and
our own involvement as an investmentóonly wanting to accept what sits well with
our habitual expectations and rejecting what we don't find immediately
This is not to say that Westerners should not be
critical of the Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, as the Lord Buddha himself
said, "Without melting, beating, weighing and polishing a yellow substance, one
should not take it for gold. Likewise, without analysis one should not accept
the dharma as valid." Logical analysis has always been encouraged in the
Buddhist tradition, and Buddhism has always challenged the promotion of blind
The difference lies in the attitude you take towards
the criticism. In the process of analyzing that "yellow substance," the analyzer
must not only maintain an open mind, but also acknowledge that he/she may not
have an adequate knowledge of the subject matter. That is the whole point of
analysis. Otherwise we are just seeking confirmation of what we already believe.
Being skeptical and seeking faults are two completely different
Nowhere is the difference between these two attitudes
more obvious and more important than when it comes to criticisms of the guru in
vajrayana Buddhism. Unfortunately, the guru is a must for vajrayana practice.
However, all great masters and teachings repeatedly advise that one should
always be skillful in checking the lama before one takes him as one's master. We
have that option, and we should take advantage of it. It is vital to study the
teachings extensively in order to be prepared to take on a teacher. In fact,
some of the vajrayana scriptures mention that one should check a potential
teacher for twelve years before becoming his student.
I think it is also important to remember that Buddhism is not only vajrayana.
There are other paths such as Theravada, which is the foundation of all Buddhist
paths. This is a straightforward path, which does not spark off all kinds of
mystical expectations. What sometimes seems to happen is that people want to
practice vajrayana because they see it as something exotic, when in fact they
would be better off with the sanity and simplicity of the
In vajrayana, in order to enable the guru to help
us and work on our dualistic ego-centered preoccupations, we are supposed to
think that the guru is no different in wisdom than the Buddha. This is the
highest form of mind training. We are literally making a hero out of someone
who, because he sees our potential, has no qualms about challenging and even
abusing our narrow-minded and habitual patterns. This is a very radical,
difficult and revolutionary method. From a conventional point of view, or from
the point of view of ego-cherishing, the whole notion of the guru-disciple
relationship is something almost criminal. Yet the point to remember is that the
only purpose of the existence of the guru is to function as a skillful means to
combat habits of dualistic conceptualizations, and to combat the tricks and
tenacity of ego-clinging. In this way the guru is a living manifestation of the
It needs to be emphasized that it is our
perception of the guru which enables the guru to function as a manifestation of
the dharma. At first we see the guru as an ordinary person, and then as our
practice develops we start to see the guru as more of an enlightened being,
until finally we learn to recognize the guru as being nothing but an external
manifestation of our own awakeness or buddhamind. In a subtle way then, it is
almost irrelevant whether or not the teacher is enlightened. The guru-disciple
relationship is not about worshipping a guru, but providing the opportunity to
liberate our confused perceptions of reality.
Looking at it
from the teacher's point of view, if someone assumes the role of a teacher
without being qualified, the negativity of this deception obviously will remain
within their mindstream. It is important to understand that unless a lama is
completely enlightened, he or she must carry the burden of what they do.
Obviously, if he is an enlightened being, he has no karma, but if not, the
consequences of his actions will come to him; his actions are his
responsibility. From our point of view as students, if we have chosen him as our
teacher, we should just learn from him, according to whatever path we wish to
The principle of guru and devotion is much more
complicated than creating a role model and worshipping him or her. Devotion,
when you really analyze it, is nothing more than trusting the logic of cause and
effect. If you cook an egg, putting it in boiling water, you trust the egg will
be boiled. That trust is devotion. It is not blind faith or insistence on the
illogical. The Buddha said, "Do not rely on the individual, rely on the
teaching." Yet it seems that we nonetheless decide to continue judging
individual teachers without remembering the wider perspective and context of the
purpose of the teachings.
One issue that can be controversial,
and which has attracted a great deal of attention, is that in the vajrayana
pleasure such as sex is not rejected as a threat to spiritual practice, but
rather is used to enhance spiritual purification. While this may sound
fascinating, it is important to remember that such practice requires an immense
theoretical and practical grounding, without which, when viewed from the
outside, it is easily misinterpreted.
symbolism is not about sex. The practice can only exist in context of a correct
view of the unity of compassion and wisdom. Furthermore, as the tantric path
works on a personal and non-conceptual level, it is not possible to make
judgments about a practitioner. Tantra transcends completely the conventional
idea of a man and women having a sexual relationship. It is about working with
phenomena to bring about the extraordinary realization of emptiness and
bodhicitta in order to liberate all beings from samsara. To expect a yogin or
yogini, who is aspiring to go beyond the chauvinism of the confused mind, to
worry about sexual rights issues seems absurd in the context of such a vast
Yet for the neophyte Westerner, certain Tibetan
traditions must be very annoying, and seem sexist or male chauvinist. Western
perspectives on sexual relationships emphasize "equality," yet this is very
different from what is meant by equality in vajrayana Buddhism. Where equality
in the West stands for two aspects reaching equal footing, in vajrayana Buddhism
equality is going beyond "twoness" or duality all together.
If duality remains, then by definition there can be no
equality. I think social equality between men and women is less important than
realizing the equality between samsara and nirvana which, after all, is the only
true way to engender a genuine understanding of equality. Thus the understanding
of equality in vajrayana Buddhism is on a very profound level.
The notion of sexual equality is quite new in the West, and
because of this there is a certain rigid and fanatic adherence to the specific
way it should be practiced. In vajrayana Buddhism, on the other hand, there is a
tremendous appreciation of the female, as well as a strong emphasis on the
equality of all beings. This might not, however, be apparent to someone who
cannot see beyond a contemporary Western framework. As a result, when Western
women have sexual relationships with Tibetan lamas, some might be frustrated
when their culturally conditioned expectations are not met.
anyone thinks they could have a pleasing and equal lover in a Rinpoche, they
couldn't be more incorrect. Certain Rinpoches, those known as great teachers,
would by definition be the ultimate bad partner, from ego's point of view. If
one approaches such great masters with the intention of being gratified and
wishing for a relationship of sharing, mutual enjoyment etc., then not only from
ego's point of view, but even from a mundane point of view, such people would be
a bad choice. They probably will not bring you flowers or invite you out for
Anyway, if someone goes to study under a
master with the intention to achieve enlightenment, one must presume that such a
student is ready to give up his or her ego. You don't go to India and study with
a venerable Tibetan master expecting him to behave according to your own
standards. It is unfair to ask someone to free you from delusion, and then
criticize him or her for going against your ego. I am not writing this out of
fear that if one doesn't defend Tibetan lamas or Buddhist teachers, they will
lose popularity. Despite a lot of effort to convince the world about the
pitfalls of the dharma and the defects of the teachers, there will still be a
lot of masochists who have the misfortune to appreciate the dharma and a crazy
abusing teacher who will make sure to mistreat every inch of ego. These poor
souls will eventually end up bereft of both ego and
I know there are plenty of people who will disagree
with much of what I have said. For as much as I am set on my interpretations, so
are others set on theirs. I have met great teachers whom I admire enormously and
although I may be a doomed sycophant, I pray I will continue to enjoy the
company of these teachers. On the other hand, people may have other ideas and be
happy with them. My practice is devotion to the Buddhist path; others may chose
doubting the Buddhist path. But as Dharmakirti said, ultimately we must abandon
the path. So I hope in the end we will meet where we have nothing to fight
Mind's ultimate nature, emptiness endowed with
I was told is the real Buddha.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be
stuck with thoughts of hierarchy.
Mind's ultimate nature, its
I was told is the real
Recognizing this should help me
to be stuck with thoughts of political correctness.
ultimate nature, its vivid aspect,
I was told is the real
Recognizing this should help me
to be stuck with thoughts of equal rights.
disassociate emptiness from vividness.
This inseparability I
was told is the Guru.
Recognizing this should help me
Not to be stuck with depending on chauvinist
This nature of mind has never been stained by duality,
This stainlessness I was told is the
Recognizing this should help me
to be stuck with the categories of "gender" or "culture."
nature of mind is spontaneously present.
That spontaneity I
was told is the dakini aspect.
Recognizing this should help
Not to be stuck with fear of being sued.
óDzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is
a student of Khenpo Appey Rinpoche and is responsible for the education
of approximately 1,600 monks distributed between six monasteries and
institutes in Asia. He is the founder of several dharma centers in the
west and three nonprofit organizations: Siddhartha's Intent, Khyentse
Foundation and Lotus Outreach. He is the director of the films The Cup and Travellers & Magicians.
"To See the Contracted Soul Expand"
"To See the Contracted Soul Expand"
Becky Johnston is perhaps best known for her script of Pat Conroyís novel Prince Of Tides, which picked up an Oscar nomination in 1992, but that may soon change. She is the author of the screenplay of Seven Years in Tibet, the film by Jean-Jacques Annaud based on the legendary memoir by famed Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer.
The book, which was first published in 1953, has long caught the eye of Hollywood, but for more than a decade it defied the screen as numerous writers failed to find a narrative device that captured the drama of Harrerís story.
Johnston has. She has crafted a riveting screenplay that combines breath-taking imagery with dramatic action in a simple story that entertains, educates, and can also be read as a marvelous fable: a Western man sets out to achieve material success, discovers Tibetan Buddhism, and changes his life forever.
But Seven Years in Tibet has turned out to be more than just a movie for Johnston, who was born and raised in Michigan, educated as a fine arts painter at the Rhode Island School of Design, and now is an "A-List" screenwriter in Los Angeles.
Johnston spent nearly a year researching the script, studying Tibetan Buddhism under the guidance of a lama, and visiting Tibet and Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Adding to the value of Johnstonís experience was working with Annaud, the well-known French director whose movies include Quest For Fire, The Bear, and The Lover. Annaud, who holds a degree in medieval studies from the Sorbonne, is obsessed with exploring the clash of cultures in his films and is known for his attention to detail.
"Our efforts have two goals in mind," Annaud says. "One is to make a very good, entertaining movie; the other is to make a movie that is going to be one of the very few to witness the culture of Tibet as it was."
With that thought in mind, it was fitting that my interview with Becky Johnston took place near the enormous set of the Hall of Good Deeds. Down the road, construction crews hammered away, building the steps to the Potala, which rose four stories and towered over everything. Nearby, Buddhist monks, dressed in maroon and yellow robes, dozed in the shade, awaiting their casting call.
How did you become involved in this project?
Originally Michael Besman at Tri-Star came to me with another project and I didnít want to do it. So he said we also have this Seven Years In Tibet. Well, of course, I wanted to do that. Like a lot of people whoíd read the book and liked it, I thought this was a weirdly missed opportunity. Itís an incredible experience and Harrer recounts it like he walked out to the 7-Eleven store.
What did you know about Tibetan Buddhism?
I knew nothing about Tibetan Buddhism. Before I went off to Tibet or India, I spent four or five months in L.A., studying with a monk. I figured that if you are going to write the character of the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of this entire religion, you have to know the basic precepts of it. And I was lucky. I found a brilliant teacher in Los Angeles, Tendzin Dorje. He had lived in Dharamsala most of his life, and was one of the Dalai Lamaís translators. He was a brilliant scholar on all levels of Tibetan Buddhist dialectics.
Tendzin gave me lists of books to read. Iíd read them, come back, spend three hours in a session with him, and end up in tears. It was like therapy. He would very patiently go through each of the principal ideas that were essential to understanding this system of thought. He would find the personal example that brought the thing to life. It was such an education, I cannot tell you.
Unfortunately, Iíve never stopped clinging to my ego! [Laughs.] Every step of becoming a Buddhist is long and complicated. What Tendzin did was to guide me quickly through many of the steps. A crash course. Something got so stirred up in my mind; I had to wrestle with these ideas in a very, very deep way. But Iíve never had anything close to a true understanding of emptiness. I just did the meditation.
And how long did this go on?
I started studying with Tendzin in June, 1994 and went to Tibet in September. I did some research and found there was a tour put together through Wisdom Publications. The year I went the tour guide was Stephen Batchelor and I spent hours with Stephen going over the ideas in this story. He was kind of a teacher, too.
Then I went to Dharamsala and spent a month there. I originally went just to interview the Dalai Lama, and it took me four or five days to prepare. I had a notebook full of questions, and then His Holinessí personal secretary came to get me and said, you are going to have 45 minutes! Then I met all the members of his family who were there; people who had been in the Kashag, the Tibetan cabinet, including the former Lord Chamberlain; one of the Dalai Lamaís old monk attendants; his former tailor; his doctor; his bodyguard, right on down the line. I just sat and talked to people every day for hours.
What was the element that drew Harrer and His Holiness together in Tibet?
His Holiness told me the thing he loved about Harrer, why Harrer became his friend, was his informality. Up until that time the Dalai Lama had never met a man who did not treat him with all the elaborate rules of protocol. Harrer was the first person who was essentially casual with him. And he loved Harrer for that.
For treating him like a human being.
Yes, a human being. Also the Dalai Lama has a great respect for irony and humor and for putting people in their place. He knows who he is on the deepest level of "Iím the spiritual leader of Tibet." And at the same time, it seems to me, he knows heís just this kid from Amdo who got picked, you know, to be The Big Guy.
The Dalai Lama would probably acknowledge that Harrer was extremely instrumental in his broadening, so that when he encountered the outside world he wasnít shocked by it. He is the first Dalai Lama who has had to live outside Tibet, who is such a true citizen of the world, and so adept with people of all cultures. And he had to learn that somewhere, from somebody.
How did all this research affect your story?
One of the major revelations in going to Tibet was the thing that Harrer never seemed to write about in his book: his transformation by virtue of his contact with this incredible place. When you go there, you think, "My God, you would have to be in Night of The Living Dead to not have this place affect your soul and everything about you." So when I came back I said, this is what the story is: someone goes there, he has to be changed.
As such, Harrerís story becomes a great device for exploring the contrast between East and West.
Western culture is an egocentric culture. Itís all about the cult of the individual, and you wonít find any occupation that is going to heighten that sense more than to be a mountain climber. They are the most extreme examples of rugged individualists you can ever imagine. And if you take that and create an archetypeónot just an archetype but build some psychology around it, that mindsetóand put it into a culture that doesnít understand ego, whose understanding of culture is to break the ego down, thereís your story.
So it is the story of a man who finds himself by losing his ego, his Western sense of achievement.
Yes. The whole story is about a man who goes through a series of humiliations, really. What keeps happening is that Harrer keeps getting knocked down, and along the way he learns that the graceful way of accepting life is not to assert his ego. What you see is the progression of a soul: you can see the contracted soul expand. That was the movement to communicate in the story, and I think it does that.
Tell me a little about how Jean-Jacques Annaud went about translating your script into all these sets and costumes.
For Jean-Jacques, the first reading of the script leaves a permanent emotional imprint. Thatís when he sees the entire movie in his mind, and he makes the emotional connection to the story. At every point thereafterófrom scouting locations to finished filmóhe is trying to recapture the images and emotions of that first read.
His research is incredible. I went location scouting with him to Bhutan and Ladakh, and I saw what his eye moved toward, what moved him. They were all things that surprised me. There would be something gorgeousólike some beautiful mountain range, or a House and Garden kind of monasteryóand you would think, heís going to love that. But it wouldnít be that at all: it would always be something just around the corner. He picked out a funny little chorten on top of a gateway; he took that image from a street in Ladakh and put it atop the gateway to Harrerís house.
What was your reaction when you came down here and saw your words made flesh in all these sets and costumes?
On one hand, it just knocked my socks off that this was South America and they had re-created this Asian plateau so phenomenally here. I was screamingósurprise, delight and joy. And on the other hand, it was like stepping inside Jean-Jacquesí mind and living his 3-D visual translation of Tibet. Because it all comes through him, the director. These sets and the way theyíre designed is such a tribute to an eye that understands every single, little gritty detail. Jean-Jacques has multiplied a hundred times over what the story is, but again, itís like the Buddhist idea of interdependence. There are all these separate departments that have individually conspired to create this whole that is far more than the sum of the parts. Talk about losing some sense of self! I canít believe I had anything do with this. It seems so incredible to me.
What fascinates me is that Jean-Jacques seems to have captured the spirit and mystery of Tibet, but heís not a Buddhist.
Jean-Jacques is so full of contradictions. On the one hand, heís so much an agnostic; he refuses to embrace any religion. Yet he is drawn to all religions, to the mystery of it all, and to the idea in Buddhism of a certain kind of selflessness. I find Jean-Jacques arrestingly interesting because he is truly a happy man. I know very few happy people, and I think he has cultivated happiness in a way that is beautiful. I think that is why he is drawn to Tibet, to Tibetans, to this religion. It is a kind of valentine to happiness!
Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi
Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi
Over the course of nine monthsófrom October, 1995 to June, 1996óI had an exceptional series of conversations with a unique woman and, currently, the worldís most famous political dissident. Burmaís Aung San Suu Kyi is, in the words of Vaclav Havel, one of the outstanding examples of the power of the powerless.
Aung San Suu Kyi told me her own story in many conversations at her home in Rangoon. The full record of our dialogue is presented in The Voice of Hope, appearing in October from Seven Stories Press. It was a journey into the soul of the struggle for freedom in this southeast Asian nation of 45 million people, many of whom, at this very moment, may be risking their lives to win the right to choose their destiny.
After having spent some eight years as a monk in a Rangoon monastery, I returned to Burma in October 1995 never having met or spoken to Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet she was not unknown to me. I had written and spoken extensively on political developments in Burma, and from everything I had learned, I was fascinated by Aung San Suu Kyi, as were so many others. She offered me, as she does to all, a great vision that places self-respect, human dignity, compassion and love above material considerations. Placed under house arrest, separated from her family for years at a time, she kept silent, and so grew into a living legend. Finally, once again speaking defiantly and acting boldly to unlock the prison doors of the SLORC military dictatorship, she will not be stopped.
This is the Aung San Suu Kyi that I came to knowóa dynamic woman with an unshakable conviction, inseparable from her principles and sustained by a sense of justice and duty. She abhors hypocrisy, while admitting her own shortcomings. Her compassion is tangible. The one quality that I feel best defines her is sincerity, at the core of which is her conviction in self-improvement. Aung San Suu Kyi is a seeker, one who makes her life a vehicle for an awakening to deeper and deeper truths.
She wears her spirituality quietly, unpretentiously, and with subtlety. But this casualness makes it all the more delightful. She laughs freely and easily. Her voice is harmonious and sweet; her words are so simple at times as to take you by surprise, yet spoken without equivocation. She is straight and direct.
Does she have faults? She would be the first to admit having some. Was I satisfied with my conversations with her? Ultimately I wanted more than she was willing to give. Aung San Suu Kyi is a fiercely private woman, secret about her personal life and any aspect of her inner world that she deems private. I found her to be like a sealed vault in some areas and an open universe in others. Aung San Suu Kyi is her own person in every sense and it was this aspect of our time together that I most appreciated: a woman enjoying her sovereignty and happiness while fighting for the independence of others.
Alan Clements: Throughout my years of lecturing on both Buddhism and Burmaís struggle for democracy, Iíve encountered many people who wish to label you in heroic terms. Even the Vanity Fair interview with you was entitled on the cover as "Burmaís Saint Joan"...
Aung San Suu Kyi: Good heavens, I hope not.
Alan Clements: Which raises my question. In strictly Buddhist terms, I have heard you referred to as a female bodhisattva, a being striving for the attainment of Buddhahoodóthe perfection of wisdom, compassion and loveówith the intention of assisting others to attain freedom.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Oh, for goodnessí sake, Iím nowhere near such a state. And Iím amazed that people think I could be anything like that. I would love to become a bodhisattva one day, if I thought I was capable of such heights. I have to say that I am one of those people who strives for self-improvement, but Iím not one who has made, or thought of myself as fit to make a bodhisattva vow. I do try to be good (laughs). This is the way my mother brought me up. She emphasized the goodness of good, so to speak.
Iím not saying that I succeed all the time, but I do try. I have a terrible temper. I will say that I donít get as angry now as I used to. Meditation helped a lot. But when I think somebody has been hypocritical or unjust, I have to confess that I still get very angry. I donít mind ignorance; I donít mind sincere mistakes; but what makes me really angry is hypocrisy. So, I have to develop awareness. When I get really angry, I have to be aware that Iím angryóI watch myself being angry. And I say to myself, well, Iím angry, Iím angry, Iíve got to control this anger. And that brings it under control to a certain extent.
Alan Clements: Many years ago I interviewed Burmaís former Prime Minister U Nu, who stated as a matter of fact that he was a committed bodhisattva. I asked him what it was like being the Prime Minister with full control of the army and to have made the vow to become a Buddha. He said rather explicitly, if I remember correctly, that it was a major burden, a nearly constant moral dilemma. What he was saying was that being a devout Buddhist was incompatible with being a political leader who had a responsibility to use the armed forces. Donít you feel any such dilemma?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, I do not see a dilemma. I would not think that Iím in any position to even contemplate taking the bodhisattva vow. My first concern is to abide by Buddhist principles in my worldly dealings. Of course, I do meditate. Thatís because I believe that all of us, as human beings, have a spiritual dimension which cannot be neglected. Overall, I think of myself as a very ordinary Burmese Buddhist who will devote more time to religion in my older years.
Alan Clements: When you reflect back over the years of your life, what have been the most important experiences and personal lessons that have had a significant effect on your growth as an individual?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Itís very simple. What I have learned in life is that itís always your own wrongdoing that causes you the greatest suffering. It is never what other people do to you. Perhaps this is due to the way in which I was brought up. My mother instilled in me the principle that wrongdoing never pays, and my own experience has proved that to be true. Also, if you have positive feelings towards other people they canít do anything to youóthey canít frighten you. I think that if you stop loving other people then you really suffer.
Alan Clements: How would you characterize yourself as a person?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Well, I see myself sometimes quite differently from how other people see me. For example, all this business about my being so brave...I had never thought of myself as a particularly brave person at all. And when people say "How marvelous it is that you stuck out those six years of detention," my reaction is, "Well, whatís so difficult about it? Whatís all the fuss about?" Anybody can stick out six years of house arrest. Itís those people who have had to stick out years and years in prison, in terrible conditions, that make you wonder how they did it. So I donít see myself as all that extraordinary. I do see myself as a trier; I donít give up. When I say, "I donít give up," Iím not talking about not giving up working for democracy. That too, but basically I donít give up trying to be a better person.
Alan Clements: So itís this inner drive, this determination towards perfection or wholeness that most characterizes you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes. People talk quite a lot about my determination but I donít think of myself as a very determined person. I just think of myself as a trier.
Alan Clements: What does Buddhist meditation mean to you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Itís a form of spiritual cultivationóa spiritual education and a purifying process. Basically, itís learning awareness. By being aware of whatever youíre doing, you learn to avoid impurities.
Alan Clements: What motivates you to meditate as a daily practice?
Aung San Suu Kyi: The main reason why I meditate is the satisfaction that I derive from the knowledge that I am doing what I think I should do, that is, to try to develop awareness as a step towards understanding anicca (impermanence) as an experience. I have very ordinary attitudes towards life. If I think there is something I should do in the name of justice or in the name of love, then Iíll do it. The motivation is its own reward.
Alan Clements: How instrumental has meditation been in discovering new aspects of your interior life? Has it been a process of self-discovery?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I donít know if it has been a process of self-discovery as much as one of spiritual strengthening. I was always taught to be honest with myself. Since I was quite young I had been in the habit of analyzing my own actions and feelings. So I havenít really discovered anything new about myself. But meditation has helped to strengthen me spiritually in order to follow the right path. Also, for me, meditation is part of a way of life because what you do when you meditate is to learn to control your mind through developing awareness. This awareness carries on into everyday life. For me, thatís one of the most practical benefits of meditationómy sense of awareness has become heightened. Iím now much less inclined to do things carelessly and unconsciously.
Alan Clements: How did you learn meditation?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I did go to the Mahasi Thathana Yeiktha meditation center but that was long ago, when I was in Burma on one of my visits. I was in my twenties. But I never really meditated very much. My real meditation took off only during my years of house arrest. And for that I had to depend a lot on books. Sayadaw U Panditaís book, In This Very Life, was a great help.
Alan Clements: I know that you occasionally pay your respects to the Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita at his monastery here in Rangoon. May I ask you to share some aspect of his teachings that you have found helpful?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I remember everything he has taught me. The most important of which was that you can never be too mindful. He said you can have too much panna (wisdom) or too much viriya (effort); but you cannot overdo mindfulness. I have been very mindful of that (laughing) throughout these last seven years. Also, he advised me to concentrate on saying things that will bring about reconciliation. And that what I should say should be truthful, beneficial, and sweet to the ears of the listener. He said that according to the Buddhaís teachings, there were two kinds of speech: one which was truthful, beneficial and acceptable, and the other which was truthful, beneficial but unacceptable, that is to say that does not please the listener.
Alan Clements: As a Theravada Buddhist, are you still open in your spiritual attitudes to learn from other traditions, or are they fairly set?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I am a Theravada Buddhist but I respect Mahayana Buddhism as well as Vajrayana Buddhism. Also, I have a great respect for other religions. I do not think anyone has the right to look down on anybodyís religion. Iím very interested in hearing about other peopleís spiritual experiences and views. Iíve got a lot more to learn, from as many people as are prepared to teach me.
Alan Clements: What are the elements of mahayana Buddhism that you respect?
Aung San Suu Kyi: In Mahayana Buddhism thereís much more emphasis on compassion than in Theravada Buddhism. Iím very sensitive to this, because we need a lot of compassion in this world. Of course, compassion is also a part of Theravada Buddhism. But I would like to see more of our people putting compassion into action.
Alan Clements: Is it fair to say that the regimeóSLORCóare Buddhists?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I would not like to comment on other peopleís religious inclinations. Itís not for me to say who is Buddhist or who is not. But I must say that some of their actions are not consonant with Buddhist teachings.
Alan Clements: For example?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Thereís so little loving-kindness and compassion in what they say, in what they write and what they do. Thatís totally removed from the Buddhist way.
Alan Clements: Removed from people?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes. This is the problem with a lot of authoritarian regimes, they get further and further away from the people. They create their own isolation because they frighten everybody, including their own subordinates, who feel unable to say anything that would be unacceptable.
Alan Clements: Itís a matter of debate, but politics and religion are usually segregated issues. In Burma today, the large portion of monks and nuns see spiritual freedom and socio-political freedom as separate areas. But in truth, dharma and politics are rooted in the same issueófreedom.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Indeed, but this is not unique to Burma. Everywhere youíll find this drive to separate the secular from the spiritual. In other Buddhist countries youíll find the same thingóin Thailand, Sri Lanka, in Mahayana Buddhist countries, in Christian countries, almost everywhere in the world. I think some people find it embarrassing and impractical to think of the spiritual and political life as one. I do not see them as separate. In democracies there is always a drive to separate the spiritual from the secular, but it is not actually required to separate them. Whereas in many dictatorships, youíll find that there is an official policy to keep politics and religion apart, in case, I suppose, it is used to upset the status quo.
Alan Clements: The Burmese monk U Wisara, who died years ago while in prison after 143 days of a hunger strike, was an outstanding example of politically motivated non-violent protest. Indeed, Burma has a long history of monks and nuns being actively engaged in political areas when it concerns the welfare of the people. However, I wonder about today. With the crisis at such a critical moment, do you think that the sanghaóthe order of monks and nunsócan play a greater role in supporting the democracy movement? After all, itís their freedom too.
Aung San Suu Kyi: There are a lot of monks and nuns who have played a very courageous role in our movement for democracy. Of course, I would like to see everybody taking a much more significant role in the movement, not just monks and nuns. After all, there is nothing in democracy that any Buddhist could object to. I think that monks and nuns, like everybody else, have a duty to promote what is good and desirable. And I do think they could be more effective. In fact, they should help as far as they can. I do believe in engaged Buddhism, to use a modern term.
Alan Clements: How might they be more effective?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Simply by preaching democratic principles, by encouraging everybody to work for democracy and human rights, and by trying to persuade the authorities to begin dialogue. It would be a great help if every monk and nun in the country were to say, "What we want to see is dialogue." After all, that is the way of the Buddha. He encouraged the sangha to talk to each other. He said, "You canít live like dumb animals. And if you have offended each other, you expiate your sins and offenses by confessing them and apologizing."
Alan Clements: You often refer to your democracy movement here in Burma as a "revolution of the spirit" that is rooted in Buddhist principles. How much, if at all, do you draw upon the wisdom of other religions in your approach to politics
Aung San Suu Kyi: I have read books on other religions but I havenít gone into any of them particularly deeply. But I find that the idea of metta is in every religion. The Christians say God is love. And when they say, "Perfect love casts out fear," I think by perfect love they mean exactly what we mean by metta. I think at the core of all religions there is this idea of love for oneís fellow human beings.
Alan Clements: I would like to ask you more about engaged Buddhism. I spent a few months in Vietnam this year and outside the city of Hue I visited the monastery of the first Vietnamese Buddhist monk who immolated himself back in 1963. A young monk gave me a photograph of his burning and explained that the "immolation was not an act of destruction or suicide but an act of compassion; his way of drawing world attention to the staggering suffering the Vietnamese people were forced to bear during the war." There is no doubt that such an act of engaged Buddhism is extreme. But that image prompts me to ask you how engaged Buddhism, in whatever expression it may take, could be more activated today, especially among the 1,000,000 monks and 500,000 nuns in your own country?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Engaged Buddhism is active compassion or active metta. Itís not just sitting there passively saying, "I feel sorry for them." It means doing something about the situation by bringing whatever relief you can to those who need it the most, by caring for them, by doing what you can to help others.
Of course, the "sending of loving-kindness" is very much a part of our Burmese Buddhist training. But in addition to that we have got to do more to express our metta and to show our compassion. And there are so many ways of doing it. For example, when the Buddha tried to stop two sides from fighting each other, he went out and stood between them. They would have had to injure him first before they could hurt each other. So he was defending both sides. As well as protecting others at the sacrifice of his own safety.
In Burma today, many people are afraid to visit families of political prisoners in case they too are called in by the authorities and harassed. Now, you could show active compassion by coming to the families of political prisoners and offering them practical help and by surrounding them with love, compassion and moral support. This is what we are encouraging.
Alan Clements: But fear so often overwhelms the heart before compassion has a chance to become active. As you have said, "Fear is a habit." Just the other day I was at a shop in the city xeroxing a letter to a friend and accidentally dropped the paper on the floor. The shopkeeper picked it up and while he was handing it back to me he noticed in capitals the letters "NLD." He panicked and began ripping the paper into small pieces. I asked him, "Why?" and he replied with a rather frightened face, "NLD means prison."
Aung San Suu Kyi: You should have told him not to be ridiculous.
Alan Clements: I donít think heís the only one who is afraid. But how can this "active compassion" express itself out on the street, to the common folk, among those where "fear is a habit"?
Aung San Suu Kyi: These things are happening because there is not enough active compassion. There is a very direct link between love and fear. It reminds me of the biblical quotation, that "perfect love casts out fear." Iíve often thought that this is a very Buddhist attitude. "Perfect love" should be metta, which is not selfish or attached love. In the Metta Sutra we have the phrase "like a mother caring for her only child." Thatís true metta. A motherís courage to sacrifice herself comes out of her love for her child. And I think we need a lot more of this kind of love around the place.
Alan Clements: I donít mean to challenge you, but I was mugged earlier this year while waiting in a Paris subway station. And if my aggressor hadnít sprayed me in the eyes with mace I certainly would have put up a fight. Afterwards, it made me think of the magnitude of violence in the world. We do need a lot more love around the place, but love is often an ideal. You use the metaphor of a motherís courage to sacrifice for her child and a love that embraces even his faults, but this "child" is slitting the throats of his neighbors...
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think you have not quite understood what Iíve been saying. You see, weíve got to make metta grow. Weíve got to make people see that love is a strong, positive force for the happiness of oneself, not just for others. A journalist said to me, "When you speak to the people you talk a lot about religion, why is that?" I said, "Because politics is about people, and you canít separate people from their spiritual values." And he said that he had asked a young student who had come to the weekend talks about this "Why are they talking about religion?" The student replied, "Well, thatís politics."
Our people understand what we are talking about. Some people might think it is either idealistic or naive to talk about metta in terms of politics, but to me it makes a lot of practical good sense. Iíve always said to the NLD that weíve got to help each other. If people see how much we support each other and how much happiness we manage to generate among ourselves, in spite of being surrounded by weapons, threats and repression, they will want to be like us. They might say, well, thereís something in their attitudeówe want to be happy too.
Alan Clements: What is the core quality at the center of your movement?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Inner strength. Itís the spiritual steadiness that comes from the belief that what you are doing is right, even if it doesnít bring you immediate concrete benefits. Itís the fact that you are doing something that helps to shore up your spiritual powers. Itís very powerful.
Alan Clements: Martin Luther King used the phrase "divine dissatisfaction." He encouraged his people to grow weary and tired of injustice, to become "maladjusted," as he said it, to the racist system by which they were being oppressed. Now, on one level, you speak of genuine reconciliation, but at the same time, are you also speaking to the need of the population to grow uncomfortable and to steadily increase their dissatisfaction towards SLORC?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Itís not really the need to grow "uncomfortable." Nor are we trying to make the people become more dissatisfied. Our principal task is to encourage the need in people to question the situation and not just accept everything. Now, acceptance is not the same as serenity. Some people seem to think they go together. Not at all. Sometimes, the very fact that you accept what you do not want to accept and know that you should not accept, destroys the sense of serenity and inner peace, because youíre in conflict with yourself.
Alan Clements: So the overcoming of complacency is the principal focus?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes, complacency is very dangerous. What we want to do is to free people from feeling complacent. Actually, with a lot of people itís not a sense of complacency either. I think that many people just accept things out of either fear or inertia. This readiness to accept without question has to be removed. And itís very un-Buddhist. After all, the Buddha did not accept the status quo without questioning it.
Alan Clements: Yes, he radically questioned. Itís the basis of his teachings.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes, absolutely. In Buddhism, you know the four ingredients of success or victory: chandaódesire or will; cittaóthe right attitude; viriyaóperseverance, and pannaówisdom. We feel that you have got to cultivate these four qualities in order to succeed. And the step prior even to these four steps is questioning. From that you discover your real desires. Then you have got to develop chanda. Chanda is not really desire. How would you describe it ?
Alan Clements: Chanda is normally translated as the "wish to do" or intention. Every action begins with it. Where there is a will there is a way.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes. You must develop the intention to do something about the situation. From there youíve got to develop the right attitude and then persevere with wisdom. Only then will there be success in your endeavor. Of course, the five basic moral precepts are essential, to keep you from straying, as it were. With these we will get where we want to. We donít need anything else.
Alan Clements: So what youíre doing is fostering a sense of individual courage to question, to analyze...
Aung San Suu Kyi: And to act. I remind the people that karma is actually doing. Itís not just sitting back. Some people think of karma as destiny or fate and that thereís nothing they can do about it. Itís simply what is going to happen because of their past deeds. This is the way in which karma is often interpreted in Burma. But karma is not that at all. Itís doing, itís action. So you are creating your own karma all the time. Buddhism is a very dynamic philosophy and itís a great pity that some people forget that aspect of our religion.
Alan Clements: Iíve often noticed in Burmese Buddhist culture how people speak of the suffering they face in their present circumstances as simply the bitter fruit of past unwholesome karma or actions. Such people will say "I brought this suffering on myself through my own past ignorance and therefore I must bear it in the present."
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think itís an excuse for doing nothing and itís completely contrary to our Buddhist views. If what is happening now is a result of what happened before, all the more reason why you should work harder now to change the situation...
Alan Clements: Yesterday, before your public talk began, a Rangoon University student asked me bluntly, "Should Burmaís democracy movement engage in an armed struggle rather than continuing in a non-violent way?" I told him I would ask you the question.
Aung San Suu Kyi: I do not believe in an armed struggle because it will perpetrate the tradition that he who is best at wielding arms, wields power. Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might wins in the end. That will not help democracy.
Alan Clements: Daw Suu, how effective is non-violence in the modern world, and more specifically, with regimes that seem devoid of sensitivity or any sense of moral shame and conscience?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Non-violence means positive action. You have to work for whatever you want. You donít just sit there doing nothing and hope to get what you want. It just means that the methods you use are not violent ones. Some people think that non-violence is passiveness. Itís not so.
Alan Clements: In your country there were numerous brave young men and women who literally faced the bullets and bayonets, in their willingness to be non-violently active, yourself included. And the results left at least 3,000 dead. Do you ever have doubts about the effectiveness of non-violent political activism in the face of armed aggression?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No, I donít have any doubts about it. I know that it is often the slower way and I understand why our young people feel that non-violence will not work. Especially when the authorities in Burma are prepared to talk to insurgent groups, but not to an organization like the NLD which carries no arms. That makes a lot of people feel that the only way you can get anywhere is by bearing arms. But I cannot encourage that kind of attitude. Because if we do, we will be perpetuating a cycle of violence that will never come to an end.
Alan Clements: Then let me ask the question in another way. Daw Suu, I would like to understand you. Is non-violence an immutable ethical and spiritual principle that will never alter in your approach to the struggle?
Aung San Suu Kyi: We have always said that we will never disown those students and others who have taken up violence. We know that their aim is the same as ours. They want democracy and they think the best way to go about it is through armed struggle. And we do not say that we have the monopoly on the right methods of achieving what we want. Also, we cannot guarantee their security. We canít say, "Follow us in the way of non-violence and youíll be protected," or that weíll get there without any casualties. Thatís a promise we canít make.
We have chosen the way of non-violence simply because we think itís politically better for the country in the long run to establish that you can bring about change without the use of arms. This has been a clear NLD policy from the beginning. Here, weíre not thinking about spiritual matters at all. Perhaps in that sense, weíre not the same as Mahatma Gandhi, who would have probably condemned all movements that were not non-violent. Iím not sure. But he did say at one time that if he had to choose between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. So even Gandhi, who was supposed to be the great exponent of non-violence, was not somebody who did not make any exceptions...
Alan Clements: But what about choosing violence out of compassion, if itís the right word, rather than using it as an option instead of cowardice? Nelson Mandela writes "Leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons where they have become less effective." Isnít he saying that oneís attachment to non-violence becomes in fact an act of violence towards oneís own people, when the non-violent approach is no longer effective?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It depends on the situation and I think that in the context of Burma today, non-violent means are the best way to achieve our goal. But I certainly do not condemn those who fight the "just fight," as it were. My father did, and I admire him greatly for it.
Alan Clements: I know itís a nice belief to hold, that "in the end, right will prevail." What evidence do you have to say, "The light will have to come"? It seems like just the opposite is closer to reality, for so many millions of people around the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Whatever you may say, the world is better. Because in this day and age you canít just drag someone to a public place, chop off his head, and not have anyone say a word about it. Which government today would hang, draw and quarter somebody, in full view of the public, and think that heíd get away with it? We are less barbaric; people as a whole are more civilized. This is not to say that horrible tortures do not go on. They go on behind the scenes but at least people are beginning to learn that this is not acceptable.
Take a place like England, which is supposed to be the mother of democracy. Iím sure there are lots of criticisms that you can make about England but if they had caught the Soviet spy, Kim Philby, and they had hung, drawn and quartered him in public, do you think the English people would have stood for it? Even though he was a traitor, those days are long gone. So people have progressed and not just in democratic countries but even in the old Soviet Union. Of course, they executed traitors but they certainly would not have taken them out into Red Square and chopped their heads off in full view of the public. So thatís progress. It shows that people are beginning to understand that barbarism is not acceptable, that itís something to be ashamed of, something we must try to eliminate. You canít deny that there has been an increasing movement to control the savage instincts of man.
Alan Clements: I would like to immediately jump in there on the issue...
Aung San Suu Kyi: Oh, go on.
Alan Clements: There have been more wars and murders in the twentieth century than all previous centuries combined. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist, was hung in full public view of the entire world. Furthermore, CNN and the BBC covered the Bosnian nightmare, twenty-four hours a day, for forty-three months of "ethnic cleansing," in full view of the public. I need more evidence of how you determine your views.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Letís put it this way. The values of civilization have become more dominant.
Alan Clements: When European civilization spread, in most places it did so based on a policy of extermination of the indigenous populations. Perhaps from that perspective, there might be more dominant values of civilization today than before. But, Iím not sure at all that Iím convinced.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Take Burma under the Burmese kings: those who were out of favor with the king were executed in very cruel ways. Now, Burma has been accused of many, many human rights violations. But do the authorities ever admit them? They do not. They will say, "No, we have not perpetrated these deeds." Whereas in the days of the old Burmese kings, there was no question of denying it. They would just do it. It was their prerogative and nobody would dare to question them. And they would not think there was any need for them to even pretend that they had not done these things. So thatís progress.
Alan Clements: I think it was His Holiness the Dalai Lama who said that we should "foster an appreciation, a real love, for our shared human status." There is something beautiful and appealing about the notion. And yet it seems foreign... When I conjure up ghastly images of Auschwitz and death camps, the sea of cracked skulls from Pol Potís killing fields, hacked-up bodies of Rwandan Hutus, or women screaming in Serbian rape camps, my heart closes. I wonder if the perpetrators of such atrocities can even be considered as human beings. Quite frankly, they seem sub-human. And, Daw Suu, you seem to live and breathe your countryís suffering. How do you manage to keep your heart open to the pain?
Aung San Suu Kyi: It depends on the circles in which you move. I think Iím very fortunate that the people around me have such open hearts. Because we can afford to be loving with each other, the habit of opening our hearts is always there. Also, if you know that there are people in the world who are worthy of love, and whom you could open up to without danger, I think you are more ready to accept that there are others too who could be lovable.
Alan Clements: Iíll be specific. How do you look into the eyes of SLORC without feeling a sense of outrage, really?
Aung San Suu Kyi: People often come to me and ask the same question, "Why donít you feel any sense of vindictiveness?" I think some of the people who ask this question donít believe that we are actually free from such feelings. Itís very difficult to explain. The other day Uncle U Kyi Maung, Uncle U Tin U and I were talking with a group of our NLD delegates and we were laughing over this. Apparently, you had asked Uncle U Kyi Maung how he felt the day he heard I was going to be placed under arrest. And he replied that he didnít feel anything at all. And you were surprised by that...
Alan Clements: Not only surprised, but I was shocked. Because what he said was that despite the fact that armed soldiers had surrounded your house, and it was likely that you would be taken to Insein Prison, you all just laughed about the crisis and started cracking jokes.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Yes, and we didnít feel anything at all. So many journalists have asked me: "How did you feel when you were released?" I have said, "I felt nothing at all." (laughing) I had a vague idea that I should feel something, but my real concern was, what should I do now? Then a journalist asked if I were elated or felt happy. I said, "No...none of these things. I always knew that I was going to be free one day. The point was, well, what do I do now?" But a lot of people donít believe me.
Alan Clements: They assume that itís some form of denial or repression in you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Exactly. (laughing) Itís very strange.
Alan Clements: When you speak of "feeling nothing at all" after your release from detention, are you saying that the past is simply irrelevant?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I donít think you can just forget the past but one should use experiences of the past to build up a better present and future.
Alan Clements: What about the victims who donít have the resiliency or the depth of spirit that you and your colleagues have, and do feel violated and made resentful by the atrocities committed towards them?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Of course. Of course. This is why we are talking about the connection of truth and reconciliation. I think that first of all, their sufferings have to be acknowledged. You canít just wipe away the past. If you try, there will always be this ocean of festering resentment within those who have truly suffered. They will feel that their sufferings have been pushed aside, as though theyíve suffered for nothing; as though theyíve undergone torture for nothing; as though their sons and fathers had died for nothing.
Those people must have the satisfaction of knowing that their sufferings have not been in vain, and this very fact, that thereís an admission of the injustice done, will take away a lot of the resentment. Mind you, people are different. Some will always want vengeance and will keep on thirsting for it even if everyone says: "Yes, we know how youíve suffered, or your son or daughter." There will always be people who can never forgive. But we must always try to. In Chile they had a council for truth and reconciliation and thereís one now in South Africa, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I very much believe in it. The admission of injustice, to a certain extent, will prevent it from happening again. People will realize that if you do such things, they get known. You canít hide them.
Alan Clements: Do you think itís essentially a human right that some form of justice is still required, beyond just an acknowledgment of the anguish and suffering a family or an individual has been forced to bear?
Aung San Suu Kyi: Letís consider it as satisfaction rather than as a need for justice. If you talk about justice as a "human right" it could be misinterpreted as something done under the law. In many countries where dictatorships have fallen and democracies have arisen, you will find that itís not always possible to take full legal action against those who have perpetrated injustices. For various reasons there have had to be compromises. So if one talks about "justice," it might give the wrong impression that everything that has happened must be tried in a court, and that justice must be done in the legal sense. I would rather say that something must be done to satisfy the victims and the families of those victims.
Alan Clements: Are you disappointed by the international response to Burma?
Aung San Suu Kyi: No. Of course, we always hope that it will get better and there will be more sympathy and support for the principles and values that weíre struggling for. However, we should consider the fact that very few people in the world even knew where Burma was before 1988.
Alan Clements: Do you feel that it is ever appropriate or justified for one country to intervene in the internal affairs of another country whose powers are creating hell for the population? Is it the duty of a powerful country to help the weaker one in such instances?
Aung San Suu Kyi: I think it is better that the international community carries out this responsibility as a whole. There are far too many complications that arise when one country is given either the responsibility or the right to interfere in the affairs of another country. But I do think that the international community as a whole should recognize that it has got responsibilities. It canít ignore grave injustices that are going on within the borders of any particular country.
Alan Clements: On the issue of foreign investment in Burma, hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into your country, with more waiting in bank accounts. I assume that many of these business people want the truth. What would be the most appropriate way for these potential investors to cut through SLORC propaganda, and get to the facts about whatís really going on in your country?
Aung San Suu Kyi: They could always start by talking to us. We could give them a good idea of what is going on... if theyíre interested in finding out the truth. But I think a lot of people just donít want to know.
Alan Clements: What, in essence, does truth mean to you?
Aung San Suu Kyi: In the end, truth cannot really be separated from sincerity and goodwill. I cannot claim that in every situation I am able to see the truth. But one does oneís best to be sincere in evaluating a situation, making an honest distinction between what is right and what is not. If you do so you are on the side of truth. But truth is a large concept. Pure truth, absolute truth, is beyond ordinary beings like us because we cannot see things absolutely and as a whole. But we try our best. I think of all of us who are on the side of truth as struggling towards it, rather than in full possession of it. Truth is something towards which we struggle all the time.
Alan Clements: To what extent is truth subjective, vis-a-vis ultimate truth?
Aung San Suu Kyi: The search for truth is in a sense the struggle to overcome subjectivity. By that I mean that youíve got to remove as far as possible your own prejudices and distance yourself from them in assessing any given situation.
Alan Clements: Learning the art of objectively relating to our subjectivity?
Aung San Suu Kyi: The search for truth has to be accompanied by awareness. And awareness and objectivity are very closely linked. If you are aware of what youíre doing, you have an objective view of yourself. And if you are aware of what other people are doing you become more objective about them too. For example, awareness means that when you are aware of the fact that somebody is shouting, you donít think to yourself, "What a horrible man. " Thatís purely subjective. But if you are aware you know that heís shouting because heís angry or frightened, thatís objectivity. Otherwise, without awareness, all kinds of prejudices start multiplying.
Alan Clements is founder of the Burma Project USA and an expert on the democracy movement in Burma. He lived in Burma for eight years, for much of that time as a Buddhist monk. He is the author of Burma: The Next Killing Fields? (1991), and co-author of the photographic book Burmaís Revolution of the Spirit (1991). He was an advisor on the film Beyond Rangoon and speaks frequently on Burmaís struggle for democracy. The Voice of Hope was published by Seven Stories Press. ©1997 Alan Clements. Reprinted by arrangement.
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The Dance of Gender: A Woman's Guide to American Buddhism
http://www.shambhalasun.com/revolving_thThe Dance of Gender: A Woman's Guide to American Buddhism
Author Sandy Boucher introduces the American Buddhist sceneóits issues, weaknesses and strengthsóto women interested in taking up Buddhist practice.
Buddhism has traditionally been a male-dominated religion. That characteristic extends both to most temples or centers in Asia and to those founded by Asian immigrants, which tend to be headed by male teachers.
Buddhist centers that cater mostly to Westerners are more open to women's leadership. In Zen centers you will see women officiating as priests and giving dharma talks. In Vipashyana settings, many women have distinguished themselves as teachers. Tibetan Buddhism relies heavily upon the leadership of male lamas from Tibet. Now and then a female lama is recognized, but this is rare. Very often in Buddhist settings-as in other religious traditions and also secular institutions-women may be given responsibilities and earn leadership positions while the power to make decisions and guide the institution remains in the hands of men.
It may take you a while, in any particular Buddhist environment, to understand the dynamics of leadership. A seemingly egalitarian situation may turn out to be tightly controlled by men, with women participating only as underlings and enablers. On the other hand, an institution that may seem hierarchical and excluding of female input may in practice offer women greater opportunities.
I personally believe that an egalitarian Buddhist institution is possible only if the very top leader or teacher is a woman, and one with socially enlightened views. This is not to dismiss or diminish the status and contribution of women in centers headed by men. They have struggled diligently and valiantly to break down male hierarchies and open the way for women, often with considerable success. But the symbolic significance of looking up to see, at the front of the room, yet again, a man, simply reinforces ingrained social patterns. The assumptions that gather around a male leader like a gang of sprites, reach deep into the conditioning of his female followers and elicit a subservience that may be obvious or subtle but is extremely hard to shake.
Already in our young American Buddhism, we have seen a tradition of strong women teachers. There have been several "generations" of female teachers, and it is possible to find and study with most of these women now.
Teachers of the first generation, like Maurine Stuart Roshi of the Cambridge Buddhist Association, Roshi Jiyu Kennett of Shasta Abbey, Ruth Denison of Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, Ayya Khema of the Nuns' Island, Prabhasa Dharma Roshi of the International Zen Institute, and Charlotte Joko Beck of the San Diego Zen Center, have been part of the Buddhist scene in the United States for twenty years or more. They were part of the generation of teachers who studied with Asian masters and founded centers in which students could practice.
Some of this generation of women, now in their sixties or seventies (Stuart died some years ago), kept to traditional practices; some were quite innovative in their incorporation of Western elements into meditation practice. At least part of what they represent and were able to accomplish came from their experience as women, their flexibility, their nurturing and compassionate relationship with their students.
The women who came next, also seasoned with decades of practice and teaching, offer Buddhist practice in newly relaxed and adaptive forms. They include Toni Packer of the Springwater Center; Yvonne Rand of Goat-in-the-Road; Sylvia Boorstein of Spirit Rock; Barbara Rhodes of the Providence Zen Center; Pema Chodron of Gampo Abbey; Tsultrim Allione of Tara Mandala; Arinna Weisman, Julie Wester, Sarah Harding, and others. Many of these women are concerned with making the practice more accessible to ordinary Americans; some seek to combine spiritual practice with social service.
It was important to me when I first began practicing to have a woman teacher, for several reasons. First, as a feminist activist, I was used to working with women and trusting women. It felt natural to seek the guidance of a spiritually seasoned woman. Then also, having had experience with male authority figures all my life, I did not want to have to deal with yet another, no matter how wisely or gently he told me what to do.
Some women have been sexually molested as children or sexually abused as adult women by men, or have experienced battery at the hands of men. These women often do not feel safe in male-dominated environments. When they become interested in meditation practice, they look for a female teacher.
Another reason that many women seek out a woman teacher is the conviction that women are differently connected to life than are men. In this view, women have a heightened sensitivity to nature, to human beings and other beings, and a different way of experiencing truth or reality; thus they may offer the Buddhist teachings in ways more compatible with women students' needs.
Who Is Welcome?
One of the most beautiful aspects of my early encounters with Buddhism was that, whatever environment I entered, I was welcomed and given a place. It was clear that Buddhism is for everyone, for me as well as for the people there who knew more about it.
Perhaps I was particularly moved by this warmth of welcome because in my early life I had often felt like an outsider. To be received and given a place in a group came to me like a gift and a teaching in itself.
I felt this as I watched my first teacher, Ruth Denison, in her dealings with students. I have been a careful person where human relationships are concerned. I don't leap easily into intimacy, particularly with people in authority; so I stood back and watched Ruth Denison for a long time to see if she was a trustworthy teacher.
One of the first qualities I observed in her was that she treated everyone the same. Whether she was interacting with a movie producer from Los Angeles, a mentally disturbed man, an African-American Lesbian in boots and Levi's, or a young mother, she responded with steady warmth and attentiveness, and I could discern no difference in her attitude based on anyone's appearance, profession or income. She seemed to see past each person's physical characteristics and worldly baggage to the deeper, more authentic person inside.
But while I felt, and continue to feel, welcome in Buddhist settings, I saw that there were people who did not feel welcomed or comfortable in Buddhist environments. People of color sometimes encounter unacknowledged, unconscious and subtle racism. Some meditators of working class backgrounds like myself have encountered assumptions that alienated us, like the expectation that everyone has ample funds and leisure time to devote to practice.
As a lesbian, I have always been comfortable in Ruth Denison's sangha, but I have sometimes received the confidences of lesbian and gay meditators objecting to the subtle heterosexist assumptions of other Buddhist teachers or the homophobia expressed in some Buddhist settings.
In recent years Buddhist sanghas oriented to Westerners have been challenged to develop their consciousness of difference and to open themselves more to the input of people other than mainstream white middle-class Americans. (The immigrant sanghas are people of color, of course, and a white American might feel out of place among them. And Soka Gakkai, which has quite a diverse following, is unusual in its outreach to and appeal to the poor and people of color.)
An organization called the Interracial Buddhist Council was formed on the West Coast to address issues of inclusivity and to probe race differences in Buddhist contexts. Including both white people and people of color in its membership, it offers discussion meetings and retreats.
A few women teachers such as Arinna Weisman in Massachusetts offer retreats just for lesbians, and there are ongoing lesbian meditation groups in some communities, such as the one led by Carol Newhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area. Class differences have rarely been confronted by Buddhist groups and teachers, but a few voices now and then speak up on this issue.
In no way do the Buddhist teachings serve to exclude anyone from receiving the instruction. Like Jesus, the Buddha welcomed everyone, even those people considered unclean or beneath notice by the prevailing Hindu religion: women, prostitutes, sick people, criminals, beggars, and members of the untouchable caste. Some of his enlightened teachers came from these groups.
Most Buddhist teachers I have known have been extremely open to all people and accepting of all lifestyles. A few teachers and some of the people who sit in Buddhist centers may hold prejudiced views that, even if not openly expressed, may subtly invade and infect. As the Buddha taught us, all people are victims of greed, hatred and delusion and often act in wrong, uninformed, aggressive, and uncaring ways. On the other hand, because we are human beings, we also have the capacity for loving-kindness and compassion to other beings, the welling up of sympathetic joy for the good fortune of others, the quality of equanimity or peaceful evenhandedness in ourselves.
I find most Buddhists to be people who are sincerely trying to be good, who struggle to know the reality of any situation in which they find themselves, who go out of their way to be compassionate to other people. If you feel welcome and accepted among the members of a particular sangha, then perhaps these are the people who will be your companions on your spiritual path. If, for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable, you may wish to talk to the teacher or practice leader about your perceptions, or you may seek out another Buddhist group for meditation that will suit you better.
Do Women Do It Differently?
Do women take a distinctive approach to the elements of the Buddhist path? I believe they do, because our life experience differs in many respects from men's. Girls receive early social conditioning that is, in most cases, different from the training of little boys; women encounter particular expectations, dangers, and obstacles as well as encouragement to develop specific qualities in themselves, perform certain roles, follow particular paths.
Because of this conditioning, the inner life of women is bound to be different from the subjective universe of most men. Certainly women are capable of doing any work that men do, and we have the examples of female doctors, lawyers, electricians, athletes, carpenters, C.E.O.'s, spiritual teachers, ministers, scholars, and scientists to convince us that no intellectual, spiritual or physical achievement lies outside the realm of women's abilities. But we can surmise that women in these professions may approach their work in a distinctive manner or may view its practice and significance differently from their male colleagues.
In some cases women's participation may change the nature of the profession itself. Female spiritual teachers in the Buddhist tradition have and continue to offer the teachings in innovative and often recognizably female-oriented ways. Women may take a more psychological approach to teaching, adapting their message to the twentieth-century, psychologically-oriented consciousnesses of their students. Women teachers may be more accepting of the expression of emotion by their students. Some women practitioners tell of spending time in male-run environments where emotions were suppressed, and then going to a female teacher who encouraged them to acknowledge and fully experience whatever strong feelings might be coming up in them.
Often women teachers do not limit themselves to the traditional forms of practice but strike out to devise new methods or incorporate elements of other traditions. At a woman-led retreat you may find yourself dancing in a circle, reaching to the sky, touching the ground. You may be led on journeys of guided imagery. You may be invited to pay particular attention to the natural environment in which you practice, noting the life of trees, animals, rocks and streams and how this is interrelated with your own life.
How Have Feminists Affected American Buddhism?
Those of you who are interested in the issues raised by the most recent women's movement may wonder whether it has made a mark on the institutions and practices of American Buddhism.
The answer is a definite yes. Since the early 1980's, two groups of women have come together in Buddhist practice situations, though sometimes with difficulty: the women who had dedicated themselves early on to Buddhist practice and institutions, and the women new to Buddhism who had engaged in feminist political activism. Each group brought something crucial to the mix. Feminist women new to Buddhism insisted on equality, critique of hierarchy, identification of misogynist texts and practices, and altering of sexist language. Women with years of Buddhist practice brought patience, seasoned spiritual perspective, and a spacious view to the dialogue.
A series of conferences on women and Buddhism, held across the country, allowed women to break out of their isolation and talk with other women and a few supportive men about the issues that concerned them. They allowed us to experience the teachings of some female Buddhist "masters" who came to give talks, and we were able to discuss volatile subjects like sexual abuse by male teachers.
Women expressed their differences in perspective: creative, innovative practice versus more traditional forms; insistence on equality and non-hierarchical relationships in Buddhist centers versus a trust in the usefulness of traditional hierarchical structures; incorporation of goddess worship, shamanic and Native American elements into the practice versus a holding to the pure Buddhist forms.
The conferences built understanding and trust among women Buddhist practitioners of all persuasions and gave many women the sense that they were not alone but had become part of a collective questioning of the forms within American Buddhism. They drew strength to challenge oppressive or abusive situations when they identified them within their own Buddhist environments.
As a result of the persistent, courageous efforts of these women and others, many Buddhist institutions have become more sensitive to women's particular needs, more open to women's spiritual leadership, and less hierarchical in their structures.
One particularly dramatic contribution of feminism to Buddhism has been the shift in perspective on sexual power abuse by teachers. Through the efforts of determined women and a few men, the veil of secrecy previously obscuring the issue of sexual abuse has been drawn aside, and a lively public debate has ensued about how to approach such incidents. While abuses still occur, there is much more openness in confronting and dealing with them. Some Buddhist teachers are making efforts to establish a code of conduct to which all Buddhist centers would agree to subscribe.
Can Women Be Buddhist Leaders?
If you grew up in a Catholic household, you know well that women's participation in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is strictly circumscribed. Again and again I have heard the discouraging story of the little girl, fired by religious zeal, who asks to be the child who assists the priest at the altar. She is told that only boys can help to celebrate the mass. When those little girls grow up, they are acutely aware that only men can be priests who give the gift of God to the community.
Can Buddhist women wear the robes and carry out the duties of religious celebrants? The answer is as varied as Buddhism itself. In most Western Buddhist settings, women perform the same religious offices as men. At a Zen monastery you will see probably an equal number of women and men wearing black robes, ringing the bells, beating the drums, and giving the dharma talks. Women are very visible and influential in the Vipashyana establishment.
Tibetan Buddhism's attitude toward women leaders is more complex. The tradition was brought to this country by maroon-robed monks in exile from their native Tibet, and in their Western sanghas, these foreign monks remain at the top of the hierarchy. But these monks have ordained Westerners, including a very few female lamas. Each of the four separate traditions or "schools" within Tibetan Buddhism takes a somewhat different approach to hierarchy and practice. Notable Tibetan Buddhist women leaders include Pema Chodron, an American woman who heads a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, and Tsultrim Allione, who has broken away from male-led groups to establish her own center and teaching schedule. Many other Tibetan Buddhist women hold positions of authority in the male-run centers, but always subordinate to male leaders.
Soka Gakkai is as open to women's leadership as men's. They operate from a Japanese model, in which women's and men's activities are often pursued separately. The immigrant sanghas generally reflect the traditional gender hierarchy maintained in Asian cultures. Men are usually at the top, and women support their work. There are, of course, exceptions, as the sanghas become more Americanized. For example, a Japanese-American woman serves as a fully ordained priest in Shin Buddhism, a largely Japanese denomination.
Obstacles and Intimations
I have observed the dance of gender in American Buddhist institutions for more than fifteen years now, and have seen some of the choreography refined into a model of sensitivity and creative adaptation, while other dancers simply clump along. I remember a Buddhist teacher remarking to me how ironic it was that people involved in a spiritual path dedicated to clarity of mind and open awareness should lag behind the general secular public in our consciousness of gender justice. We still have much to learn and clarify in this area.
Recently I have come to know a brilliant woman who is a sincere, longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, a mother of grown children, a university professor of religion, and passionate feminist. Some years ago she chose to move into a Buddhist center organized around the presence and teachings of a charismatic lama from Tibet. It seemed the perfect living arrangement for this woman, for it offered a strong practice schedule and close ties with sangha members while allowing her to continue her academic career. It was a near-monastic lifestyle; she planned, after some years of living there, to take the robes of a Buddhist nun and dedicate herself fully to spiritual life.
This woman committed herself to the daily practice and regular empowerments the lama gave to her fellow and sister sangha members. But one day she began to be uneasy, for she realized that the head lama was treated by some students with an obeisance that bordered on fawning, and that he sometimes misused his considerable power. Another day she looked up from her practice to find herself in an atmosphere in which young women gazed starry-eyed at the handsome, charming lama in his maroon robes. And she saw that the lama, while giving the teachings in challenging and illuminating ways, also engaged in subtly seductive behavior with female students. Finally she realized that he was having sex with several of the women.
Disturbed by these revelations, my friend tried to talk with her sangha brothers and sisters. To her surprise, they were not particularly responsive. Some thought that sexual relations between teacher and student were perfectly normal and acceptable. A few wondered whether she was being prudish in not understanding that their Asian master transcended ordinary Western mores; the majority reminded her that he was a deeply accomplished teacher whom they felt lucky to be able to study with and so she was urged not to jeopardize this arrangement with complaints about his amorous encounters.
My friend's suffering has become intense. The sexualized atmosphere at the center distracts her from her practice. And the lama's behavior seems so blatantly wrong that she feels betrayed by her teacher and disillusioned about the practice and community life at the center.
My former radical-feminist-lesbian persona wants to advise, "Just leave! Get out, go somewhere else to practice and live."
And indeed that may ultimately be what she has to do, if the other sangha members do not become more receptive to her view of the situation. But I have been following such scenarios for long enough to know how complex the feelings are. And I know something of the experience of women who were sexually abused as children, who must struggle to establish appropriate boundaries; I know that women battered by husbands or lovers sometimes find it very hard to break away from their abusive partners. My friend committed herself to this Buddhist center and this teacher; the practice is her very life blood, this sangha her spiritual brothers and sisters on the path. She engages with them in myriad deep and subtle ways and to leave would be a loss like death.
So I can only offer my support in assuring this woman that, yes, she has the right to express her honest reaction. The process in which she is engaged is painful, to be sure, and at times to me seems wasteful of her precious energy, but it is her process and she must make her way through it in the manner that best serves her own urgencies.
Again I am reminded that the world of human beings who choose to follow the Buddhist path is immensely complex, with no easy answers to difficult problems. Some Buddhists argue that sexual flirtation, seduction and sexual relations within a practice setting can be wholesome and may even function as part of the transmission of teachings. A more widely held view, and one that I share, is that teacher-student sexual liaisons are inherently exploitive, ultimately causing pain to female students and jeopardizing the existence of Buddhist institutions.
To women who have suffered in these difficult situations, I like to suggest, "Start your own center." I don't say it lightly. After all, some of us must become the teachers we have always wanted to find.
We have around us many examples of women who have done so, and also women who choose to practice on their own or with the minimal involvement of a teacher, perhaps in circles of like-minded men and women and families. In our present appallingly profit-oriented, callously uncaring American society, many people are investigating the Buddhist path hoping for spiritual depth and guidance in their everyday lives. Women Buddhist leaders and teachers welcome these seekers and are often able to give the teachings in particularly powerful and relevant ways.
I think of Dr. Thynn Thynn, a Burmese-born physician-mother-Buddhist teacher in northern California who is currently establishing a foundation and residential community for low-income and aged people, to teach the Dharma, to offer comfort and training and support, to involve families and individuals in learning to live the Buddhist principles in daily life. All over the country highly trained, good-hearted Buddhist women are creating such gatherings and institutions.
Not many of them appear in what I call fast-lane Buddhism: the circle of eminent scholars and commentators who speak at conferences and publish interpretations of Buddhist texts and philosophy. The women's relative invisibility is what prompted me to create the Resources section with its "Directory of Women Teachers" at the end of my book, so that readers can find their way to women teachers and women-led centers.
As for myself, I am blessed to live in a part of the West Coast where Buddhist opportunities abound. It is Sunday morning, and I drive from my house in Oakland, north to Marin, to the green slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Halfway up the mountain, in a meadow that bows out like a ship's deck into the fresh morning air, I and others sit to chant and meditate with Lama Palden Drolma.
Palden, with twenty years of Buddhist spiritual training behind her, and drawing on her profession of psychotherapist, teaches traditional practices within a non-hierarchical feminine perspective that honors and facilitates the inner wisdom of each seeker. Periodically she meets a group of us on the mountain to lead a Green Tara meditation, invoking the power of this great female emanation to inform our practice. Seated in the meadow, I look far out to the green Pacific glistening in the sunlight. And it seems to me that while our participation as women in American Buddhism sometimes meets obstacles, still it opens in promise as vast as this huge expanse of sky and ocean before me.
Led by Palden Drolma's strong voice, we chant the sacred syllables to Tara, and when finished we sit in silent meditation. Boundaries fly away. All is possible.
Adapted from Opening the Lotus: A Women's Guide to Buddhism, published by Beacon Press. ©1997 by Sandy Boucher.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Millions think this singer of Sufi devotional music is the voice of the century.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a soft-spoken man. Despite his ability to sing, without a microphone, in a voice of such power and grace that he is now South Asia's most popular musician, in person his words tumble out in whispers, disappearing into his ample chest.
The Pakistani singer is perhaps the world's greatest living master of qawwali, a mystical Sufi music in which the voice coils upward like a snake being charmed out of a basket, raising listeners to a kind of spiritual ecstasy.
Qawwali is among those forms of music in which religion and sex seem most closely intertwined: for while Khan's lyrics are all based on Islamic law, his voice, accompanied by a party of tabla drummers and harmonium players, has a quavering orgasmic quality that drives listeners wild, causing them to shower the stage with money and dance in a manner that would be considered most unbecoming by the ayatollahs of this world.
Although Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has recorded more than a hundred albums and enjoyed widespread popularity in Pakistani communities around the world for many years, it is only recently that Western audiences have begun to discover his work. His profile in the United States began to soar after Peter Gabriel performed live with him and helped distribute Khan's albums in the West. More recently, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sought Khan out for a collaboration that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Dead Man Walking.
A few days after attending the MTV Video Music Awards with Peter Gabriel, Khan sat down with me in the dimly-lit lounge of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, attended by an interpreter and manager. Although he is not a particularly tall man, he weighs several hundred pounds, with a protuberant mid-section that's difficult not to notice. But his hands look like they belong on a little girl, ending in wispy fingertips, and one finger is adorned by a jade ring the size of a grape. His watch, a sleek black and gold number from Cartier, would be at home on the wrist of an oil sheik. His eyebrows are barely existent, and he has a giant, smooth forehead with fiery eyes weirdly planted a bit higher in the skull than normal.
As his vast corpulence settled into the couch, his beige gown draping the floor, he seemed kingly, unearthly, and decidedly out of place in the middle of New York. Sitting there in the shadows, occasionally rubbing his eyes with evident exhaustion, Khan spoke softly and without any hint of his awesome lung power. His presence went largely unnoticed by passersby, who were unaware of the musical legend in their midst.
Dimitri Ehrlich: I know that your music is based on the Sufi tradition, but what is your personal religious affiliation, if any? Do you meditate or pray?
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: I am not Sufi, but I spent a lot of time since my childhood with the Sufis, and I deeply studied them. Sufi music, especially, is a kind of prayer. If you sing in this manner, you will become closer to God, very close. That's basically what I do.
What is your inner, mental experience when you are singing? What do you think about, or don't you direct your mind in any specific way?
When I sing traditional spiritual songs, I always concentrate on who it is that I'm singing about. For instance, if I am inspired by the holy prophet, I concentrate on the prophet. In my mind, there are many things, but when I sing, I sing for God, and for holy prophets, for Sufi saints. When I sing, their personalities are in my mind. I feel like I am in front of them. I feel their personalities, and I pray. I feel like I am in another world when I sing. I am not in the material world while I am singing these traditional holy messages. I'm totally in another world. I am withdrawn from my materialistic senses; I am totally in my spiritual senses. And I am intoxicated by the holy prophet, God, and other Sufi saints.
Is there a different sort of prayer or meditative mode associated with songs concerned with Allah, Mohammed, and the Sufi saints, respectively?
When I sing for God, I feel myself in accord with God, and the house of God, Mecca, is right in front of me. And I worship. When I sing for Mohammed, peace be upon him, our prophet, I feel like I am sitting right next to his tomb, Medina, and paying him respect and admitting to myself that I accept his message. When I sing about the Sufi saints, I feel like the saints are in front of me, and as a student, I am accepting their teachings. And I repeat again and again that I accept it, that I am really their follower.
I know that Sufism is essentially a mystical sect of Islam, but are there also strains of other religious thought involved with the liturgy or philosophy of Sufism?
Every religion has its own way of describing God. For instance, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhs-they all have their own way of following God. Sufism basically describes God and teaches how to come closer to God. So basically, I follow the Islamic form of Sufism to find my way to God.
I know that when you were sixteen you had a visionary dream in which your father, a great qawwali singer who had recently died, came to you and told you that you had been given his musical gift and should devote your life to qawwali. Since that dream, how has your understanding of your music changed?
Since the age of sixteen, when I started singing, I have had the same message to deliver to people about Sufism. But some changes have come accordingly as I grew and my experiences grew. Of course you really go to greater depths as time passes, more and more and more, and you grow and grow with the songs.
So how would you define your message?
My message is the message of humanity, love and peace. The goal of this message that I bring to people is to bring them toward brotherhood, to bring them closer to each other, without hatred, without any concern for race, religion or color. I try to bring people, through spirituality, to a position in which they'll be more honest with each other, and live a truer life, less concerned with the materialistic world where they cannot find themselves. I try to bring them to a place where they can at least recognize themselves.
Other than your musical practice, which clearly has a very powerful spiritual dimension, do you have any formal religious practice?
I pray five times a day. And I pray before I eat, giving thanks to my God for the opportunity to eat this food. And after eating, I pray and give thanks again. And after all of my practices of my music, I always pray and give thanks to my God and say, God, I am your slave, and thanks to you I have this opportunity to give my message to the world.
For many performers, the gulf between the ecstatic experience of being in the spotlight and the "coming down" that inevitably accompanies going offstage draws them into drug addiction and other self-destructive behavior. Obviously you've avoided that pitfall, but do you ever feel any kind of emotional depression from coming down from the high of being on stage?
During the time I am singing traditional qawwali songs, I feel that I am in a prayer position in front of God. When I finish my prayers, whether is it my singing or the formal prayers I do, I feel deeply peaceful. I feel that I have had some success in accomplishing the mission that God has given to me. I have no difficulty making a transition from that frame of mind to my normal daily activities because prayer is a routine part of my life and I do it all the time.
In Buddhist psychology, there is a vast pharmacopia of different meditative antidotes that can be applied to various mental afflictions. So, for example, there are certain practices you can do if you are very angry, and different meditations if you are greedy, or jealous, or hateful or whatever. Do you have any kinds of specific prayers that are designed to deal with specific problems, such as anger, jealousy and greed?
Because of this music and because of this message which we have in our hearts and our minds all the time, it is extremely rare to feel anger toward anybody. This is the basic medication that controls us, preventing us from getting angry and keeps us happy.
What did you learn from your father, other than the specific musical training that you got as a singer of qawwali?
From my parents I learned my religion, how to live and follow Islamic rules. When I was young I went to the mosque and read the Koran and learned all the Islamic rules. From my teachers I got a basic education in science, mathematics, geography, English, Urdu, all the common subjects. And from Sufis I learned about Sufism. I try to learn and integrate the teachings from these three sources-from the saints, from school, and from my father. Of course when I was a child, before I turned sixteen, I was just a regular young person. I got angry, I argued, I lived like a boy. But since I saw the dream and became a follower of Sufism, and began singing the traditional qawwali, it really gave me peace in my heart. Since then my life has been totally changed. Since then I control everything that comes to my brain and to my heart.
Let's talk a little about motivation. For some pop musicians, there is a desire for success that is equal to or even greater than the desire for excellence. Your music is so transcendentally spiritual, I wonder whether you ever think about making money and being a star as a motive behind what you do.
When I started singing, of course, I had in my mind the desire for success. I was always thinking that the people should listen to me, that the crowd should pay me respect as the artist. Of course, I wanted applause and felt that the singer should get some reward in the shape of appreciation from the public. But as time went by, I found myself in a situation where all I wanted was to give a lesson, the purpose of which was to give more happiness to people. My sleeping, my waking, my talking, my eating, everything in my life, the music is always with me in my mind. I'm always thinking about new tunes, new discoveries, and new music.
Dimitri Ehrlich writes for Interview, The New York Times, and other publications. His band, Dimitri and the Supreme 5000, released its debut album last year. He is currently writing a book about music and spirituality.
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