A question-and-answer session with members of a graduate reading class on “Buddhism, Modernism and Mindfulness” at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus.
- How did you move from a career to Buddhist nun?
- Who was your teacher and preceptor?
- Could you discuss the role of women in shaping modern Buddhism?
- Is there a Western Buddhism?
- Do you see pilgrimage to sacred sites as an important part of Buddhist practice?
- Could you talk about secular mindfulness practice?
- What are the values and benefits of monasticism in the 21st Century?
- How has new technology affected the spread of the Dharma?
Buddhism, modernism and mindfulness (download)
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So where do we start?
Dr. David Geary (DG): Well, maybe, seeing as I’m the one who’s helped as the supervisor overseeing this directed readings course, I just want to first of all begin by just saying thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. It was great to learn about Manish’s connections with you going back many years ago.
VTC: Yeah. It was really amazing how we met.
DR: Maybe we can begin by just doing a short round of introductions, and I’ll start. I’m an associate professor here at University of British Columbia in the Okanagan. I grew up in the lower mainland of Vancouver, and over the years, kind of by chance, my work has focused on issues around Buddhist pilgrimage back in India, and then leaning more towards the politics of heritage, especially in Bodh Gaya. So, much of my work over the years has focused on both Bodh Gaya. In fact, that’s how I met Manish, in a roundabout way, and that’s how he came here to UBC. So, a lot of different connections coming together. So, that’s a little bit about me. Maybe I’ll pass you on to Leslie.
Leslie Shayer (LS): Hello, and, again, thank you very much for having us. My name is Leslie Shayer; I am a PhD student at UBC Okanagan. David is one of my committee members, and I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Manish, who has been very informative. I teach mathematics and statistics at Okanagan college, and I started to incorporate mindfulness and contemplative pedagogy into my classroom to try to decrease math anxiety. So, that’s part of how I got into this. I also do have a history of using meditation for well-being in my life. In part to deal with chronic pain, which dates back into the 1990s. So, I’ve been exposed to different forms of mindfulness, and this past semester with David has truly been enlightening and informative, and I know today will be even more so, so thank you.
Manish Kumar (MK): And, of course, you know me, partially. I’ll just give a short introduction anyway. So, of course, I’m from the place where you may have visited at some point and many points, Bodh Gaya. And it’s fortunate for me that being from that place, but then knowing some person who is shaping my life in general is equally important. And I have personally such a deep respect for people like you, especially, like teachers who help people like me sometimes on our journey. Which is not necessarily knowing us, in that certain way, which can help me to know who am I, basically, from the historically connected Buddha-place or physically connected to this part. So, for me, like knowing you, personally, back in 2015, and then knowing Sakyadhita in general, the community, the interesting or important community, which I was totally unaware of in the first place, it gave me such a new kind of inspiration and ideas that how things are changing in the West, especially among Buddhism and among the Buddhist nuns, especially like you or Tenzin Palmo or many others such senior Western nuns. So, I’m just so grateful to be here. And, as always, DR is my supervisor and very supportive, very kind. And Leslie, to be doctor, is also a very good friend of mine now. So, I’m so happy to be here, thank you.
VTC: I’m glad that you finally made it here when Harvard didn’t work out. But you know, something else often better turns out. Because we never really know what is a bad circumstance and what is a good one. Because what happens later, we don’t know what will come from it.
VTC: Good. I think you know a little bit about me. I grew up in Southern California, got out of there as soon as I could. I graduated from UCLA, did a little bit of graduate work at USC in education, and then I went to Nepal. I had heard a Buddhist course in the U.S., and it really struck me, so I went to Nepal, ordained in 1977, and then took the full ordination in 1986. Lived internationally for a number of years, and then wound up coming back to the U.S., which I never thought I would do. And now I live at Sravasti Abbey, which is not so far from here. You just go south, and you can come visit us after COVID.
DR: We would love to do that. We would love to make the trip. It would be great.
VTC: Please do.
DR: I know we sent some preliminary questions, but I feel like we needed to have a few more conversations around that. We’ve developed a few questions if you don’t mind us asking them, that I think relate, of course, to your experience, and some of the things about mindfulness we’ve been discussing and would love to hear your opinion. Maybe I’ll pass it onto Manish first and the first question.
VTC: OK, go ahead Manish.
MK: I’m personally very inspired by you and your work. Again, personally, I wanted to learn more about your early career and then how did you make this transition towards leaning towards Dharma. What really struck you? What really brought you to Dharma? That’s like one of the important questions for me, especially after giving more of your diverse background in history and education. Then you moved towards a totally different life actually. So…
VTC: My parents asked that same question. It’s like, “You just weren’t supposed to turn out this way. You were supposed to turn out a totally different way.” Basically, since I was young, I always wondered about the meaning of life. I grew up in the Vietnam era, and things did not make sense. They were telling us that we have to fight and kill people so that we can all live in peace. I didn’t buy that. There was renewed racial violence in the country. Some of it not that far from where we lived, and I wondered, “Why do people judge other people on the basis of the color of their body, and the basis of their religion, the basis of their sex?” And, so, I always had these questions, and I explored various religions when I was younger, but the idea of a God, a theistic God, although it makes sense to many people and it helps many people, it didn’t make any sense to me at all.
By the time I went to college, I had become agnostic. And, especially, because I studied history, and every generation in Europe, people are killing each other in the name of God. So, I said, “Who needs religion if all human beings do is kill each other for it?” So, I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. You can elaborate on what I did, what everybody else did. Then I worked in a special kind of classroom. One of those avant-garde schools who were trying open classrooms. Because I didn’t know what the meaning of life was. I knew it had something to do with helping people, but I didn’t know what, and education seemed like a good way to help. I started out in education, and then I worked for a year, and then sold whatever I could sell, and went traveling. Because I wanted to really experience life instead of read about it. I was quite tired of reading about life and writing about life but never meeting the people that I was studying.
So, I traveled for a year and a half in Eastern and Western Europe and North Africa. In those days, you could go overland from Europe to India, Nepal, so I did that. I was in Israel for a while. Came back and worked again. I got my own classroom, my teaching credential. I was working in my own classroom. And still those questions were in my mind. And that summer after my first year with my own classroom, there was a retreat outside of LA [Los Angeles], where I was living. It was led by two Tibetan monks. I went. I had signed up for two weeks but I wound up staying three weeks. I did a retreat after that, and the teachings really hit me very strongly.
What was it that hit me? When they explained that the cause of our happiness and our suffering lay in our own consciousness, in our own mind. I began to really look at my own mind and study my mind, and watch the kind of thoughts. I was always very in touch with my emotions, but watching the thoughts and assumptions that lay behind the emotions. And I had thought I was a pretty good person, but when I really looked and saw there were many, many disturbing emotions, and my ethical conduct really wasn’t that good. I was always very judgmental of all the corrupt politicians, but when I lied, it was actually for somebody’s benefit. There was a lot of hypocrisy in the way I was thinking.
So, instead of going back to my classroom, I quit my job, and I went to Nepal and then India. It was really the study of the mind and the application of that to my own experience and seeing how, yes, indeed, attachment, anger, ignorance cause suffering, and my selfishness, my self-concern. The kind of person I wanted to be wasn’t the kind of person I was. And I knew I had to get my values, my ethical conduct aligned, and I needed to work on my own mind and free it from these afflictions, the mental afflictions. But also, I think, because I was looking, I thought, “What’s the meaning of life?” and Buddhism really presented a meaning that went beyond this lifetime.
Because I always thought, “What’s the meaning of life? Is it just to basically duplicate my parents’ life? Grow up, get married, have kids, get a job, advance, get more money, do the same thing, and then die at the end? And what’s the purpose of all that in the long-term?” So, when Buddhism talked about rebirth, that really said, “Oh, now it makes sense.” And that we’re trapped in samsara due to our ignorance and that there is a way out by developing wisdom. And that you can use that wisdom to benefit sentient beings when you develop compassion and bodhicitta, the altruistic intention.
Then I said, “That is something worthwhile to do in my life.” There’s no reason for me to repeat my parents’ life, or any other kind of life, you always wind-up dead at the end. The Buddhist view of rebirth and of being able to really free sentient beings from samsara, it just made so much sense, and it gave meaning and purpose. And I also felt very strongly that if I disregarded this, I would regret it later on, and I don’t want to die with regret. So, I decided to ordain and kind of make the Dharma the center-piece of my life.
MK: Thank you. Just to add on quick, who ordained you, by the way? Who was your teacher, your preceptor?
VTC: My preceptor was Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Ling Rinpoche. He’s now in his mid-thirties, but in his previous life was my preceptor, and in his previous life he was also the senior tutor for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But he wasn’t my first teacher. My first teachers were Lama Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche. They were my very first teachers.
MK: Thank you. That’s important to know the lineage and the history, because that’s…
VTC: Yes. I think it is important to know who somebody’s teacher is. I always ask people that because it tells you something about the person.
LS: I agree, lineages are so important. That leads me to the next question on our list of questions. In fact, the concept of lineage has really been brought to the forefront for me over this past semester. It’s nice to start to really connect the pieces to see where everyone or everything comes from. But you’ve played an important role in reestablishing the bhikshuni lineage of Buddhist nuns. Could you discuss the role of women like yourself in shaping Western Buddhism? And perhaps in Asia, as well?
VTC: Well, first of all, I wonder if there is “Western Buddhism,” because there are many different lineages and teachings from many different Buddhist traditions that have come to the West, and I don’t think that they’re one Western Buddhism. I think there are many different lineages, and practices, and traditions here. Having said that – how has the role of women [changed], is that what you wanted? Well, it’s like in most religions, the men run the show and the women are the majority of the people. True or not true?
I lived in India for quite a while and I had never thought of Buddhism as being patriarchal, but I saw that when I came back to the West, I had lost a lot of my self-confidence. And it wasn’t because people told me so many things, but it was just living in that environment where, as a woman, you automatically went to the back to sit down. And the models that I had were the Tibetan nuns; they weren’t fully ordained bhikshunis because they don’t have the lineage, and they were so shy. Oh my goodness. This was back in the 1970s. They were so shy, they never asked questions during teachings. They were so sweet and humble. I’m an American woman, and I had a career, and that stereotype of a sweet Tibetan nun – I tried to be like that, and it didn’t work. It absolutely didn’t work.
I had to learn to be myself; I’m from a certain culture. But I’ve lived in Asia a long time now, so I don’t really feel so Western. When I’m in the West I feel like I’m part Asian; when I’m in Asia I feel I’m part Western. So it doesn’t really matter. I’m not really big on identity politics. Although the rest of the world – at least the rest of this country – is really into identity politics.
At the beginning, I just tried to fit in with what you were is supposed to do. And, it was quite evident, too, that as a Westerner, I was never going to really be part of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment.
That was kind of painful, to feel excluded from the establishment. They were Tibetan Buddhists, and they were monks. That was the basic establishment. But what I have subsequently discovered over the years is, because I’m a woman, because I’m a Westerner, I can do things that the Tibetan nuns can not do. I went to Taiwan and I took the full ordination. I became a bhikshuni. The Tibetan nuns cannot do that. I mean, they could go, but they need to really live within Tibetan society, and if they went to Taiwan to do that, it wouldn’t be accepted within Tibetan society. But, for me, I could go and do that, then come back to the US, establish a monastery here and, here in our monastery, we’re gender equal. We go in ordination order; doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. So, different things we’ve been able to change, like that, because we’re in the West.
Our Tibetan teachers come, and they see a group of people practicing well, and they’re happy. They look at that, they’re happy, they don’t say much. They know that we’re bhikshuni, but we don’t make a big deal about it. But, hopefully it makes some kind of impression on them. And, hopefully, after some years it will influence what they’re doing. But I really saw the Tibetan religious establishment – it’s theirs, you know, and it’s not for me to go in and tell them that they need to change. It would be like somebody coming into the U.S. and telling us that we’re doing everything all wrong and we have to change. And they [are coming from] some other country [and] we’d say, “You’re not part of us, what are you making this comment based on?”
So, in terms of the bhikshuni issue, it’s still a work in progress. The Tibetan nuns, there are few who have taken bhikshuni, but not very many. And the ones who have taken it aren’t really in a situation to do the monastic rites. Because they go back to their nunneries and none of the other nuns are bhikshunis, so they can’t really do the bhikshuni rites because they have to fit in with the people in their own nunneries. Many of the teachers are male, and the monks say, “You don’t need to take the higher ordination; you already have bodhisattva and tantric vows, and anyway it’s too hard for you to keep.” So then they don’t have that aspiration from their side, which is sad as far as I’m concerned. But you have to wait for things to evolve. So I think in the West, what we do is we just live our lives, show our example. If they ask us about it – the Tibetan nuns – we’ll certainly talk about it. But we’re not – at least I’m not – going to push anything. Some of my other fellow bhikshunis, Western bhikshunis, have pushed, and it doesn’t work out well.
DR: That’s really, really interesting. Thank you. I’m going to ask you a follow-up question that brings you back to India and Nepal again.
DR: One of the things I’ve been interested in for many years is learning more about Buddhist pilgrimage and the role of many of the Buddhist sacred sites in North India and Nepal, which have gone through considerable changes, as I’m sure you’ve seen over the years. So, I was wondering if maybe I could just ask you, from your experience, do you see pilgrimage as an important part of Buddhist practice? And what has been your experience with pilgrimage and the changes you’ve seen in places like Bodh Gaya, Lumbini, and so forth?
VTC: Well, I haven’t been on pilgrimage in a long time. The last time I went on pilgrimage was in the 1990s, so things have changed a lot since then. Although I was in Bodh Gaya sometime after that, and it was very, very different. That was some years ago. My personal experience with pilgrimage is I really liked it, in India — and I did some pilgrimage in Tibet in 1986 — and it’s inspiring. The pilgrimage isn’t just being at the holy sites; it’s what’s going on in your mind as you encounter all the travel difficulties, all the dust and the dirt, and you get sick, and your travel plans are delayed, and the whole kit and caboodle. That is part of the pilgrimage experience. It’s not just sitting under the Bodhi tree and feeling holy. It’s trying to work with your mind as you’re going through all these things. I think that’s quite valuable.
In terms of what’s happened to the places, obviously they’ve become more touristy and so on. So that brings more people there, and in a way that’s good; it plants good seeds in people’s minds. It could make them interested in the Dharma. In another way it’s not so nice for the people who are really earnest, who want to practice when they’re in those places.
A couple of years ago I was teaching in Indonesia, and we went to the – I’m not sure if you’re familiar with, well, we had been to Borobodur my second visit to Indonesia, and then a later one we were on Sumatra in the places where Atisha had lived, and where he had met Serlingpa, and because it’s a Muslim country they didn’t want to do a lot to make the Buddhist sites into tourist things. They didn’t want to emphasize them because they’re a Muslim country. So when we went to the places outside of Jambi, it wasn’t touristy at all, and half of the buildings were still under the ground. They hadn’t been excavated. And we could walk from one site to the other just as I’m sure Atisha did, in the middle of the jungle, on a hot day, sweating gallons. And you got a sense of how people lived in that time, and what it was like. You could really imagine it, even though the buildings were not reconstructed. I really enjoyed that because there was something very grounding about it. Nobody was selling us trinkets or things like that. We could have used a chai shop, but there wasn’t one. [laughter]
So, is it an important part of your practice? I think that really depends on the person. Somebody was talking to Milarepa, the 13th or 14th century Buddhist sage and asked him about going on going on pilgrimage, and he said, “You need to do pilgrimage through your body (he was a Tantric practitioner), and locate the different chakras and energies in your body. That’s the best kind of pilgrimage to do.” So, I think it really depends on the person.
DR: Thank you. Over to you Manish.
MK: Just this question of pilgrimage and this ordination, the previous question which Leslie has raised. I’m just curious to know that, were you there, in Bodh Gaya, when this bhikshuni ordination took place by Sakyadhita, because they did that thing in 1987, somewhere, 1988 probably.
VTC: Yeah, it was in – what year was it in? It was in … No, Sakyadhita never gave an ordination in Bodh Gaya.
MK: It was probably more like an independent ordination then. The bhikshuni ordination took place in Bodh Gaya probably.
VTC: No, there was a very big one in—what year was it? Because I was there—I’m trying to remember what year it was.
MK: In 1998 people got ordained.
VTC: Yes. Okay. There had been some in ’96, I think a couple of years before. There had been some Koreans who had done some kind of bhikshuni ordination – it wasn’t in Bodh Gaya. What happened there is a little bit fuzzy. Nobody seems to have clear details about that. The one in ’98 was organized by a Chinese master from Fo Guang Shan. They had the full complement of bhikshus, full complement of bhikshunis, and they asked people from other traditions, so Venerable Lekshe Tsomo and I were both invited to be part of the bhikshuni sangha that was giving the ordination. And then in the bhikshu sangha they had one, maybe two, Tibetan monks, they had several Theravadin monks, and it was very nice because they really wanted to jump-start everything. So, what do you want to know about that?
MK: I feel like that’s probably inception of Sakyadhita in general, because that’s when Sakyadhita, the unification of bhikshuni lineage and like, all of you, like three premiere Bhiksunis, like you, Venerable Karma Lekshe, and Venerable Tenzin Palmo, all these leading figures came together, including Venerable Dhammananda from Thailand. So you all got together and were like, “Okay, let’s do it.”
VTC: Okay, that was the founding of Sakyadhita; that was in ’87. That was a conference that was organized by Venerable Lekshe, and then this one Theravada nun, her name is slipping my mind right now.
MK: From Thailand?
VTC: No, because Venerable Dhammananda was not ordained at that time. Ayya Khema. Lekshe, Ayya Khema, and I think there was somebody else involved in organizing it. I attended it. That was the founding of Sakyadhita. That was in ’87 after one of His Holiness’ teachings.
MK: Wow. Okay. Great. Thank you for clarifying because now Sakydhita has a place in Bodh Gaya. Now they’ve got a center.
MK: They got a piece of land and they are looking at a women’s center over there. [inaudible] So next time you come to Bodh Gaya, I’ll make you visit there.
VTC: If I come to Bodh Gaya, you’re going to have to, yeah…
MK: I’ll be the one [inaudible]
MK: Thank you for clarifying that. So just moving forward on this. Pilgrimage does generate a certain amount of bodhicitta, as we say in Buddhist texts or Buddhist language, right? And bodhicitta actually brings us close to the deeper sense of practice, which means that we want to meditate more, we want to contemplate more, we want to go in search of a teacher, and this is where the mindfulness part becomes very dominant. So my question is more about how do you feel about the secular mindfulness movement in the West that is formulating these days now, and has it changed the way that you engage within the community—with the members within the community, or has it brought more members into a community, especially in your case, within the Sravasti Abbey?
VTC: So if I just talk about my particular case and maybe Tibetan Buddhism more broadly, and I think Chinese Buddhism, too, would fit into what I’m saying, and probably the monastic branch of Theravada. Secular mindfulness and Buddhist mindfulness are two different things. They are two different things. And they should not be confused.
Secular mindfulness started out, I think, more from the lay aspect of the Theravada. There were people–Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein–they had gone to, I think, Burma and Thailand very early on. They did vipassana meditation, and they learned the Dharma. But when they brought it back, they just taught the meditation technique of vipassana. They did not couch it in the eightfold noble path, the four noble truths, the three higher trainings, nothing. It was just that technique. And, as far as I understand, the secular mindfulness came out of that. And so, secular mindfulness had its roots long ago in Buddhism, but it is very, very different. The technique is different, the motivation is different, the context is different, the result is different. It is very different. If I start to go through what the differences are . . .
First of all, the motivation. In Buddhist practice your motivation is either to obtain liberation from samsara, to attain nirvana, or to attain full Buddhahood. Your motivation is to really to purify your mind completely, overcome all the mental afflictions and the ignorance, and become a liberated being who is no longer trapped in the cycle of existence; that’s for the ones who aim for arhatship. The ones who aim to become Buddhas, they want to develop the bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to become fully awakened in order to best benefit all living beings, and then to be able to manifest many bodies and be able to teach and guide others to liberation. That’s your motivation if you are a Buddhist practitioner. And for a secular practitioner, the motivation is basically to feel better. It is entirely about this life. To calm your stress in this life, to make you more peaceful and calm in this life. There is no talk of future lives, no talk of liberation, nothing like that.
This shows there is also a difference in the context, because in Buddhism the whole context is we are beings who have the dukkha, the unsatisfactory experiences that come from circling in samsara due to our anger, ignorance, and attachment. Secular mindfulness—what is the context in which you practice mindfulness? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to your job, maybe it’s living in your family, but there is no spiritual context at all. Okay? The context in Buddhism is, if you are going to practice mindfulness, among all the other practices you do, you have to do it in the context of ethical conduct. You have to do it in the context of compassion. In other words, it is a spiritual practice, and it has to be shown in your life through your ethical conduct.
In secular mindfulness, there is no talk of ethical conduct, there is no talk of compassion, you just sit down and watch your mind. That’s it. So you can be mindful of your anger, and how much you want to retaliate against somebody who harmed you. You can be mindful of everything you’re craving. A Buddhist practitioner would never do that. If those kinds of thoughts come up, you apply the antidote, and you don’t follow those thoughts.
Then the technique is also very different. In Buddhist mindfulness practice you have the four establishments of mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, the mind, and phenomena. And here your mindfulness isn’t just observing them. It is having a penetrative, probing mind that is trying to understand what exactly is this body, what are my feelings, and how does my body relate to the feelings? How do happy feelings produce attachment, unhappy feelings produce anger, neutral feelings produce ignorance, or confusion? How do these things relate? It’s a whole study of the body and mind.
And the purpose of doing those four establishments of mindfulness is to know the body and mind so well, and you see that there is no self within that body and mind. There is no concrete self, no inherently existent self, independent self. Because it’s the ignorance that grasps at that kind of self that is at the root of our whole problem in samsara, the root of all of our dukkha. That practice is really geared towards wisdom. So, mindfulness isn’t just watching your mind, it’s studying these things, seeing the relationship, it’s bringing in wisdom. It’s examining, “Do how these things appear to me, is that really the way things exist?”
In secular mindfulness there is none of that. None of that. In Buddhist practice, mindfulness is one part of your practice. There are so many other practices you do. Because our mind is something very complex, one practice alone is not going to bring you to liberation. There are many practices we do, many types of meditation that we do. We also have to study and reflect on the teachings before we meditate on them. So that’s in Buddhist practice. In secular mindfulness there is none of that. Also if you’re practicing Buddhism, you are doing it as a spiritual practice. Secular mindfulness is not a spiritual practice. The aim is to make you feel better, which is fine, but don’t confuse it with Buddhism and what the purpose of Buddhist practice is.
So they are quite different; like I said, in Buddhist practice you’re really trying to do so many other things because you’re really trying to completely transform your mind. Clean it up. In secular mindfulness, now it’s really gone towards entertainment [laughter]. Now you do mindfulness listening to music in the background, and you do mindfulness watching your screen, and pretty shapes and calming images on your screen. So, it’s not meditation at all. You’re using your senses, not your mental consciousness. It helps people. That’s fine. It helps people. But it is not Buddhist mindfulness, and it’s not a spiritual practice. And I think that gets very confused.
One of my friends in Singapore–she’s a Buddhist–and she also teaches secular mindfulness. We were discussing it one time and she agreed that it’s very important to separate the two. In Singapore you have Muslims, you have Buddhists, you have Taoists, you have Christians; if you say this is Buddhism then the other religions won’t come. So she actually says that secular mindfulness should be taught as a secular thing because it’s open to everybody, you don’t have to have certain religious beliefs. But Buddhism is something much more than that. [laughter]
Also, I don’t know if people know, but secular mindfulness, it just came about a few years ago. It’s like somehow the West discovered it, it’s the latest craze. A few decades ago yoga was the greatest craze. And that got changed from a spiritual practice. In India it’s a spiritual practice. Here it became exercise, a form of exercise. [laughter] Mindfulness, a part of Buddhism, came here and now it’s become the new relaxation.
I was looking at one of the questions you asked, I didn’t understand what the question was— neoliberalism and dada, dada, da, so I asked Venerable Damcho, who’s sitting beside me, and she told me what the question means in English [laughter]. I think it’s really an interesting issue, because, you know, when it’s taught in banks, it’s taught to sports teams, it’s taught all over, and the purpose is to make you better at what your job is. I was reading an article, and they were saying these people are actually turning inwards, and they don’t care about society. They are not talking about the structural issues in society that cause suffering. They’re just concerned with their own suffering and calming it. And there is truth to that. Yeah, there is definitely truth to that.
My idea is if you’re really doing a spiritual practice, part of your spiritual practice is going to be social engagement. And you are going to care about the society you live in. So if you can make structural changes, if you can contribute to the benefit of others, then, of course, motivated by compassion and motivated by bodhicitta, you definitely need to do that. That reaching out to others is part of your spiritual practice. It’s not just sitting on your meditation cushion. But it seems like the mindfulness has gotten a little bit in that direction of; it’s going to make you a better cog in the wheel of capitalism. [laughter] So what to do about that, I don’t know.
Mindfulness now is the latest, the biggest fad, like yoga was before. I think the next biggest fad is going to be compassion. And the West will take that and they will change it into feel good and they’ll change it into attachment. They’ll change the Buddhist ideal of love and compassion, which is nothing like what you hear about on the radio and see in the movies, and the West will make it like that.
Another big difference between the two is, in Buddhism, hopefully, you’re not paying for anything. Some centers charge, but mostly at Buddhist organizations everything is freely offered, and it creates an economy of generosity whereby people, because they’ve received something from the Dharma and from the organization, they want to give back, because they know the monastics need to eat, and the temple needs to pay for electricity. So everybody gives according to their ability, and there isn’t any charge. So nobody’s eliminated. Nobody’s prevented from getting the Dharma because they don’t have money.
Secular mindfulness, you can buy an app, you know, “$99.99 for three lessons, but if you get a month-long practice it’ll be $999.99, but a special discount for you, and if you get three months we’ll really give you a better discount.” That adds a whole other dimension to it. You become a customer paying for a service. When you’re a customer paying for a service, you can demand that that service does what you want or else you don’t buy their product. If people do that in Buddhism, then Buddhist teachers are going to start changing the Dharma to make it sound nicer to people’s minds. And that is going to corrupt the Dharma and degenerate the Dharma. And that is harmful. Harmful for the Dharma, harmful for all sentient beings. So, that has to be avoided.
When you make your living off of teaching mindfulness; I look at some of the mindfulness teachers and they have to decide where they are going to go, even if they do it for dana (on donation), where are they going to go so they get the most donations? Your whole life is like that. And then they have families, so you need a lot of donations because your kids want designer shoes, and they need to go to summer camp, and your spouse wants to go to Cancun to be near Ted Cruz, and it devolves into that kind of thing. [laughter]
Oh, and then the technique. We have the four establishments of mindfulness in Buddhism, but the technique in secular is you just sit there, maybe watch your breath, you watch your mind, you look at beautiful images, you hear the music, you relax. Then maybe you go on some kind of dating app and try to find somebody else who does mindfulness like you do. [laughter]
So, just a little story. This happened just a couple of months ago. I was asked to do an interview for some kind of wellness magazine, Well and Good. I’d never heard of it before. But anyway, they wanted to interview me on what I thought about mindfulness. So, I told them. [laughter] And then they sent me the article, because they had interviewed other people, some of the secular mindfulness teachers. And I had said in my interview, “Secular mindfulness is fine as long as it’s really clear to people what it is and what it can do, and that it’s different than Buddhism.” I said, “If it makes people relaxed and it makes them less stressed, that’s good, that’s fine.”
But what did they print in the magazine? They said that, but they didn’t give what I have just told you about the differences between Buddhism and secular mindfulness and that secular mindfulness is not a spiritual practice and that it’s relaxation. They didn’t print that. So I wrote to the person who interviewed me and she said, actually, she had put a whole paragraph in the article about that because she wanted to give the balanced view, but her editor took that paragraph out. So it seems like the editor’s idea was to give me, as a Buddhist nun, my stamp of approval on secular mindfulness. Which wasn’t at all how I was trying to do the interview. Wasn’t what I said at all.
MK: Thank you. That was wonderful, Venerable. That was so beautiful, and I feel like you covered part of the bigger picture that even as a student of Buddhist studies or Buddhism, I didn’t know much in depth, so thank you for enlightening us. That was so wonderful for me personally. I learned a lot.
VTC: Good. If you could really learn the four establishments of mindfulness, it’s a fantastic practice. It really gets you to think quite deeply about things. And all the other things the Buddha taught. He didn’t teach just mindfulness.
LS: Thank you, Venerable. As Manish said, I also learned a lot. And you answered my question, as well, and then some. I just have one quick follow-up. Do you feel that the secular mindfulness movement has brought Buddhism to light more? In your area, do you think you have more community members because people are . . . have you lost some in consequence?
VTC: No. We haven’t gained any; we haven’t lost any. Some people say secular mindfulness may be a lead-in to Buddhism, and that sounds good theoretically, [but] I haven’t experienced that with the people I work with. Nobody has said, “I started out doing that, and then I came to Buddhism.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction–I met him many, many years ago when he came to Dharmsala–and he explained to His Holiness what he was doing. And he’s really nice, and he’s very sincere. At that time when I met him, it was something new, and it was exciting for the results. And now, like all things, now there’s a program, and you can get certified, and have a certificate, and teach it and all. But for people who have chronic pain it was really working very, very well. But, again, that’s good for the people with chronic pain but that doesn’t mean they’re doing Buddhist mindfulness.
DR: Do you have a follow-up question, Leslie, or do we want to . . . ? I know I am also very conscious of time, Venerable Chodron. If you have time for a couple more questions we have some, but if not, we’re also happy . . .
VTC: Yeah, for a couple more questions, I have time.
LS: I was just going to pass it to you, David, because Venerable answered so much and with such depth and richness. So it’s all yours.
DR: Okay, well maybe, we have just a few; kind of because I think your response to that last question kind of answered several of them, so we just have a few things. Maybe I’ll ask the last question I had, which was, from your experience, can you tell us a bit more about the values and benefits of monasticism in the early 21st century, and maybe just tell us a bit more who’s drawn to the monastic life at Sravasti Abbey, and how do maybe the commitments and expectations of monastic life differs from lay Buddhist practitioners in the U.S?
VTC: Oh, boy. I could talk about that for a month. We have a program we have in the summer called Exploring Monastic Life for people who are interested in ordination. Yeah, we talk about that in that program.
The importance of monastic life, I think, for an individual it helps you really, kind of, you get your life in shape and you stop being a jerk, as I put it in colloquial language. You get your ethical conduct straight, you have a purpose, you know what your practice is, you know what you’re trying to do, you’re not confused about . . .well, at the beginning when you’re a baby monastic, you’re very confused. But after, when you’ve practiced more, then you get clearer, you become much more settled, and you know what your life is about. So on an individual level, it’s very good for if your aim in life is liberation or full awakening. Monasticism, I think, is the best way to go.
Not everybody is suitable, not everybody wants to become monastics, not everybody can. So, lay practice is fine. You can be an excellent lay practitioner, and there are many of those. But, I know for me personally, it was something that I think was the best decision I ever made in my life, to do this. I think it’s important in the West, and in all countries, because I think monastics – Buddhists, Catholic, it doesn’t matter – they act as a conscience of society.
Because our values and our way of life are different, so people kind of look at you and say, “Oh, there’s somebody who doesn’t have a family, they don’t have sex, but they’re happy! How is that possible?” Somebody else, “They don’t have a car, they don’t have a second home, they don’t even have any hair, they have one change of clothes, no make-up, no jewelry, they don’t go to the disco, they don’t go to the bar, they don’t drink, they’re vegetarian.” I mean, these people are like, “What an ascetic trip! These people must be suffering.”
But then they meet the people [monastics], and we’re happy. And then they start to think, “How can they be happy with those things? Maybe I don’t need all those things. Maybe consumerism isn’t the way to live my life.” That thought comes in. We recycle things, we don’t go driving just to go driving, we run a lot of errands at the same time. And people say, “Why do they do that? Oh, less carbon imprint on the planet. Maybe I don’t need to go to the grocery store every day to get exactly what I feel like eating. Maybe I could put all my errands together and make one trip.” People come here and think, “Oh, I can recycle, too? It’s not that hard.”
And our attitude for equality for all people. Nonviolence. It fits very much with the current social movements in the US and I think in Canada, too. So it [monastic life] acts like a conscience to society. It gets people to think, “How come these people are happy but they don’t have what I have?” In that way I think it benefits society. And we can also give very good reasons for equality, and good reasons for taking care of climate change, and so on. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a progressive to be a Buddhist, but it just happens that many Buddhists are progressive, but some are Republicans. We have one young man, oh, he’s a virulent Republican and his family is. But I think he’s beginning to question stuff. [laughter]
And I think, in the presence of a monastic community, you can do things as a community that you can’t do as one individual who’s ordained. When you have a community, then people know, “Oh, there’s a place where people are actively cultivating love and compassion and wisdom. Maybe I can’t do that, but there are people who are doing that, so it gives me hope for the planet.” And other people say, “I want to learn to do what those people are doing.” They know there is a place that they can come and do that. And we get incredible letters from people who have never even been here [Sravasti Abbey] who listened to some of our talks and things on ine and they just write, and they say, “Thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s just really helped me.” So I think it has a role and a benefit, and, like I said, we need lay practitioners and we need monastics. And people have to make a choice according to their own disposition, their own interests.
DR: Thank you. Manish or Leslie, do you have one final question?
LS: I was just going to reference–you were talking about offering some–how people were writing in because of some of your online presence, so I was just wondering how new technology, like these online platforms and Zoom and all these types of things, has that impacted the spread of the Dhamma and community engagement for you?
VTC: Yes. We did some online streaming before, but once the pandemic hit, then people couldn’t come here; we had to close the monastery. So we started doing more things online. And it’s just been amazing, the response–so many more people coming and listening to the teachings. And so we’ll do retreats online with sessions and guided meditation.
There is somebody who comes regularly to the Abbey who started a morning and evening meditation session online; she runs that. We have retreats, and in the retreats we have discussion groups where people really talk about how they engage with the Dharma, and people have really liked that. They say, “I’m stuck in my home and the pandemic and I can’t go out. I can’t talk to my family about spiritual matters, so when I come here, and I can have a retreat, and then have discussions with other people who are practicing—finally, I feel like there are people who understand me.”
The technology has really impacted . . . and I know from other Buddhist groups I think it’s quite similar. People are putting many more teachings, and activities, and so on online.
DR: That’s wonderful. Is that something you can see continuing on after the pandemic?
VTC: I think they’re going to demand that we continue that. It’s added to our stress [laughter] because nobody here knew how to do Zoom before. And we had to get all kinds of . . . we had to get new computers, we had to get new cameras, people had to learn how you do Zoom and how you prevent somebody from crashing Zoom, and putting pornography in the middle of your Zoom talk about the Buddha. [laughter] And then we have retreats so people have to sit and run the whole tech part while other people teach. We have guided meditations, and people have to run the tech. So that’s changed us a lot. But we’re so happy that people seem to be benefitting from what we’re doing that we’re happy to do this, and to provide this.
DR: That’s wonderful. Thank you. Manish?
MK: That was awesome. By the way, since we are talking about the retreat, I noticed on the Instagram page of Sravasti Abbey that there was a retreat just finishing.
VTC: A retreat, what?
MK: You just finished a retreat at Sravasti, yeah, and you’re doing the fire ceremony, or something?
VTC: The fire pujas. Every winter we close the monastery and we do three months of retreat.
VTC: It’s usually January, February, March, so we just finished that, just last week or earlier this week.
MK: It looks like a lot of young people turn out there.
VTC: Yeah. You know we’re getting more and more young people, and we do a course for young adults every summer, too. It’s really fun.
MK: Nice. Wow. Thank you. Thank you so much. I follow you on Instagram, and I follow all the venerables there. So, that’s why we are checking you out. I’m so happy just to see all the other activity, all the deer.
VTC: I’m so happy we reconnected. I often wondered what happened to you. It looks like things turned out very good for you.
MK: Yeah, and definitely here’s the thing: I’d really wish you could visit India and come to Bodh Gaya once again, on a pilgrimage if possible, if the time goes well in the next few years and travelling goes normal. I will be more than happy to kind of support you, or look after you there when you are there at some point of time.
VTC: Oh, thank you very much! I will accept that invitation at some point.
MK: This time we have better roads so the pilgrimage will go a little bit smoother.
VTC: Oh, okay. [laughter]
MK: This time everything will be organized well, and the comfort levels will be better so you don’t get too much of suffering.
VTC: Okay. [laughter]
DR: Well, maybe this is a good place to conclude then. I think we’ve taken enough of your time and . . .
VTC: Okay. Thank you.
DR: I really want to say thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, and hopefully we can have a chance to come meet you down there in the near future.
VTC: Yes, please do. And wishing you everything well that you’re doing with your studies, and your books, your degrees, and getting tenured, and everything like that. [laughter] Very good. Okay. Take care.
MK: Okay. Thank you so much.
VTC: Okay, Thank you. All the best.