CT: God knows! When I was a little boy I knew I was going to be a journalist. I understood then that a journalist was somebody who made journeys. So in April 1967 I left London with about $100 and a thumb and headed East. I kept going Eastwards and arrived back in London in May 1977. I think it was a case of never look back. But, of course, the truth of the matter is that there is no going back, no going forwards nor standing still. Our liberation shows there is no direction to life. Awakening is beyond any belief or idea.
Insight: What led you to ordain as a monk in Thailand?
CT: It was a minor transition. I simply swapped my wandering lifestyle with a backpack for a begging bowl and shaved head. I spent six years as a Theravada Buddhist monk, four of them in Thailand and two in India. A wonderful, wonderful experience. As a monk, whether I stayed in the vipassana monastery, in the forest or in the cell in a cave in solitude, it gave the opportunity to face not only one’s existence but the truth of life itself. Ultimately, this facing shows there is nothing substantial to face. In reality, there is no problem in life. Problems belong to the tangled web of human beings, but not in the nature of things.
Insight: Can you say anything about your experience in the traditional sangha?
CT: In this world of relativity, it is invaluable to feel a deep connection with the Dharma that goes back generations. The Buddha himself acknowledged (and named) his link with previous Buddhas. The tradition is the expression of Dharma through the lives of generations of people of spiritual practice. As teachers in the West we have a particular responsibility since we brought the three jewels to the West. But I believe the sangha expands further than that to include all sentient life forms. Silence, solitude and meditation draw the passion out of the depths of one’s being for the indefinable miracle of life. There is no greater blessing in life than to be stripped away of everything, to have no future and have no merit to one’s existence.
Insight: Why did you disrobe?
CT: When the fruit is ripe it has to leave the tree.
Insight: What about teaching the Dharma as a layperson?
CT: When I ordained I wore plain robes and when I disrobed I continued to wear plain robes. I still prefer plain color clothes. I feel my life is a fusion of home and homelessness, man and monk, contemplative and active.
I live in an instantly forgettable suburban street in Totnes, England and travel from Bodh Gaya, India to Marin County (are these extremes?) and continental Europe every year. I am a small servant of the Dharma through retreats, community life and global issues. I hope that new teachers will feel a deep connection with spirituality that generates into the depths of the past as well as the present.
Insight: Each of the Western lay Dharma teachers seem to have their own particular style or perspective on teaching the Dharma. What do you think most characterizes your own unique approach?
CT: Thank you but I don’t have a unique approach. Nobody does. Nobody is special. Nobody is the same and nobody is different. We are all living out our lives. I have an unabashed enthusiasm for the Here and Now. It is the immediate key to liberation and an enlightened life. I ask people to make the teachings, practices, sangha, meditation, service and the focus on a free and wise life as their only duty in life Nirvana is accessible Here and Now. Place all the emphasis on the third Noble Truth [the cessation of suffering] and the fourth Noble Truth (the path of practice and spiritual discipline) will naturally fall into place.
Insight: Do you believe in a householder’s Dharma?
CT: No. I regard monastic life and householder’s life as a dualistic irrelevance. Our society has worked hard for its relative freedoms. For example, 125 people sat our last retreat in Bodh Gaya, and 80 of them were women. Dharma teachings call upon us to give up home and homelessness. The purpose of the teachings refutes the pursuit of a comfortable existence as our raison d’etre. The purpose of life is not to enter the spiritual path but to realize the end of it. If that is kept as the focus morning, noon and night, amidst the range of human and environmental interaction, then there is not time wasted in building pictures of being a householder or monastic. A friend in Australia said to me in the forest: “Our life is as long as a flash of lightning.” I said “It’s not that long.” Life is a momentary adventure, not a long explanation or lifestyle.
Awareness of the meeting of the inner with the outer and vice-versa is vipassana. There is a tendency in Buddhism to look within instead of realizing dependent arising of experiences and circumstances.
Insight: Is there any activity that you recommend outside of retreats?
CT: Yes. Stay awake, approach every activity spiritually and stay outdoors as much as humanly possible. Our worldwide sangha is taking greater interest in walking, pilgrimages and spiritual journeys. I have been speaking a lot about this. In the olden days this is why people travelled. Commerical forces exploited people’s love of travel and created tourist ghettoes world wide. We must recover the early motives for travel. I am a member of the international board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Three of my fellow members have been nominated for the Nobel Prize. One of them Ven. Maha Ghosananda (a good friend of IMS) leads a dangerous Dharma Yatra (Dharma walk) across Kampuchea. The spiritual life stands between the sky and the earth.
Insight: How important is the study of traditional Buddhist texts, commentaries and languages?
CT: I love the Buddhist texts and the tradition of Dharma teachings and practices. I read and re-read passages of what the Buddha said month in and month out. But I would never describe myself as a Buddhist. I have no interest at all in labels. My all-time favorite texts are Sutta Nipata, the Middle Length Sayings and the Mahayana texts of the Perfect Wisdom (the Prajnaparamita texts), with Nagarjuna as the Buddha’s foremost commentator. The books of Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993) express the teachings, relative and ultimate, in contemporary language. Senior students need practice-scholars to explain the depths of these texts.
Insight: It seems from your writings you have a special interest in ecological and environmental issues. What perspective does vipassana offer on such issues?
CT: Trees cannot be separated from wood. It is environ-mental wisdom. Awareness of the meeting of the inner with the outer and vice-versa is vipassana. There is a tendency in Buddhism to look within instead of realizing dependent arising of experiences and circumstances. Concentrating within or without easily becomes an extreme position and incommensurate with the teachings of the middle way. Areas for reflection and action or inner-outer relationship include the ethics of eating animals, birds and fish, smoking, alcohol and drugs, money, obsession with the novel, use of resources and general lifestyle.
We are here not to just be mindful of this world but to see the truth of it and change its appearance.
Vipassana is the great vehicle (Mahayana) for action. The feel-good factor hampers too many Buddhists. We have to be bold, take risks for insights, live modestly, generously and adventurously and challenge the Establishment.
I have many friends who lead a homeless life; they are modem pilgrims while others are dynamic in their local community. The Here and Now with wisdom keeps us grounded. The primary danger for vipassana is that it becomes a spiritual therapy. The bottom rung is to reduce spiritual life to guru worship.
I feel my life is a fusion of home and homelessness, man and monk, contemplative and active.
The Dharma teachings express the most profound teachings available to humanity. We must feel the authority of the Dharma when facing issues about the fate of the earth and the nature of dependent arising. Remember the teachings are incomparable, appealing to the deepest expressions of global existence.
Insight: You are known to speak out on many issues, both religious and secular…
CT: That’s true. In The Green Buddha, I have proposed adding 10 new rules to the bhikkhu sangha so they are increased to 237 rules. I have also detailed strict guidelines for the corporate world. The profit-obsessed corporate world needs a Vinaya. It behaves worse than spoiled children.
Insight: Some people say you have a reputation as a gadfly, a provocateur, as Socrates characterized himself.
CT: Gadfly, maverick, iconoclast. Two students asked me seriously recently if I was an alien since I used the words human beings rather than people. I don’t think I could admit to such a role.
I am a teacher of the Middle Way, of interdependent arising of phenomena and self, the emptiness of inherent existence and the implausibility of all extremes.
Insight: Have you used psychotherapy? Some teachers in the USA feel it is valuable.
CT: I have relied upon the sangha, East and West. I cannot recall ever having communicated with another on my past for therapeutic purposes. Some people might say, “And, it shows, Christopher.”
I have recommended many people to enter psychotherapy. I believe it primarily focuses on the relationship to oneself, or others, past or present. Attention must also be directed to a comprehensive spiritual life, including the force and influence of desire in the Here and Now, the impact of one’s desires upon the social and natural environment and vice- versa.
Insight: In what ways does psychotherapy need to expand?
CT: Clients need a sangha. Spiritual experiences, renunciation, depths of meditation, environmental awareness, compassion, seeing the Sacred, and realization of Emptiness of consumerism are indispensable to a healthy psyche. Put those commitments to work and nothing can stop realization of Ultimate Truth.
To be fair, we must remember that Western psychotherpay is only 100 years old. Spirituality is realizing emptiness. It is the expansive miracle of life that’s awakening, not my personal storyline. Emptiness makes everything possible.
Insight: You are involved in a number of philanthropic pursuits. Can you describe some?
CT: I looked up the meaning of the word “philanthropic.” The Webster Dictionary says, “love of mankind expressed as acts of charity.” I prefer, “love of sentient kind.”
I am a jack of all trades. I am a member of 16 campaigning organizations and am on several committees. I give support in whatever ways I can to the voice of protest, including to my teenage daughter! We are here not to just be mindful of this world but to see the Truth of it and change its appearance. The Buddha said we are to think of ourselves as warriors—to make war on greed, hate and confusion. I am a Dharma teacher employing insight meditation as one resource to invite people to cut through any superficial response to existence. Can you work out the two word anagram of my surname? MUST SIT! It shows my enthusiasm for meditation. Vipassana states the necessity to witness the essential truths of life moment to moment when sitting, walking, standing and reclining. It’s not navel-gazing.
Insight: You have been leading retreats at IMS for about 20 years. What changes have you noticed in your students?
CT: Firstly, I have much love for IMS. IMS Board, staff and guiding teachers have never once interfered with my right to say whatever I wish to say in the Dharma hall. I am grateful for that. What changes have I noticed about those who regularly sit retreats with me? You must ask them. All in all, I am delighted with the way the work is going, and the way that insights and realizations manifest in their lives. I am sure Sharda and Jose who coteach with me would agree.
Insight: Do you have any thoughts about the future of the Dharma?
CT: The future never materializes. In a world of impermanence, obsessing over continuity is a form of human madness. I am a Here and Now teacher. Future plans and concerns are a social arrangement.
Insight: Anything else you would like to communicate to our readers?
CT: Awakening means dying to the socially constructed self! Thank you. And may all beings be happy, loving, unattached and free.