Corrado Pensa is the guiding teacher of the Association for Mindfulness Meditation in Rome and a professor of Eastern Philosophy at the University of Rome. He is a former psychotherapist, and each summer for many years, Corrado has joined Larry Rosenberg in leading the “old yogi” retreat for experienced meditators at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre. He shares some of his thoughts with Insight’s editors.
How did you develop an interest in eastern philosophy, and in the inner life?
A most important seed for my future spiritual search was I think planted by two loving parents, who gave me a solid Christian upbringing. I still remember how much I was struck when I heard the famous words of St. Augustine: “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” (Confessions 1.1)
As to Eastern wisdom, I first got intellectually interested in it right at the beginning of my university years. At that time the great scholar and explorer Giuseppe Tucci was teaching at the University of Rome. I was fascinated by his personality. He had an incredible amount of knowledge about Asian religious cultures, but he was not in the least an aloof type of erudite. In fact he had a passionate—and highly contagious—love for Buddhist culture, and he would also take good care of his students. I have some extraordinary memories of our hikes together in the mountains of central Italy.
At one point I also began to feel drawn to the work of C.G. Jung. As a result of this new interest, I ended up feeling some dissatisfaction with mere intellectual understanding. I felt an urge, on the other hand, for some inner work of transformation. This meant, within a short time, finding myself undergoing therapy and practicing meditation as well.
My initiation into authentic dharma practice was an unforgettable sesshin with Suzuki roshi in San Francisco, followed by some further practice at Tassajara. I had already done some meditation in India, but now the presence and the teaching of Suzuki Roshi were infusing my practice with a special power.
After a few years, which included a fruitful Tibetan Buddhist interlude with Tarthang Tulku in Berkeley, I sat my first vipassana retreat with Jack Komfield. I felt completely at home with this style of meditation, which I found to be surprisingly convincing. It was demanding, yet gentle at the same time. The following year (1976) I landed at IMS in Barre—in its infancy at the time—and started a long-term relationship with the Insight Meditation Society.
Can you tell us something more about your meditation training?
I spent some time in Thailand at Wat Pa Baan Taad, the monastery of Ajahn Maha Boowa, where I was taught mostly
by Ajahn Pannavaddho. Undoubtedly, this time was precious to me. It also came at just the right moment, since I had been studying with great interest the work of Ajahn Maha Boowa.
I feel an even stronger affinity, however, with the lineage of Ajahn Chah. Personally, I enjoy sitting with Ajahn Sumedho, and I have benefited very much from his teaching—so simple, deep and humorous. I also find that Ajahn Sumedho has a special skill in offering a teaching which is traditional and contemporary at the same time. This is a combination I have been pursuing—both personally, within the framework of lay life, and in association with other lay practitioners and students.
I was sitting for some time with Mahasi Sayadaw; and two long courses with U Pandita Sayadaw were certainly helpful for me, despite some lack of affinity for his style of teaching. More recently I’ve been working with some good Dzog Chen teachers. And I must mention with tremendous gratitude those several Catholic monasteries where I’ve been doing self retreats over the last twenty years.
But what I consider most significant in terms of my training is easily said: I am basically still an IMS student. Last fall, once more, I sat six weeks at IMS—nineteen years after my first fall retreat there in 1976. The fact is, IMS is the place where I learn more and where my practice seems to be especially nourished. While in Barre I am a student of three-month course teachers, beginning with Joseph Goldstein and I have the deepest gratitude for him and for all of them.
Without the teachers at IMS, without my wife Neva (who is also a practitioner), without a couple of very good friends in Italy, without my dharma friend and brother, Larry Rosenberg, and last but not the least, without the enlightened guidance and spiritual support of a contemplative Christian nun, I could not conceive of my spiritual training.
So your wife has been a kaliydna-mitta, a spiritual friend, as well?
Yes. It has been so important to me, being married to a dharma practitioner. A good marriage in which both partners have a heart commitment to the dharma is an invaluable help for spiritual life.
All the time you have spent on retreat must have taken some toll on your secular life.
A certain amount of letting go has taken place over the years. Because of my involvement with the dharma and the frequent traveling which this entailed, I had to give up something I deeply enjoyed and valued, i.e. being a psychotherapist.
I ended up feeling some dissatisfaction with intellectual understanding. I felt an urge for some inner work of transformation.
In addition to this, a number of intellectual pursuits had to come to an end. Upholding the status of a well-known scholar in my field became increasingly difficult. A large part of my vacations, to say the least, disappeared in favor of my intensive practice and dharma teaching.
However, I do not regret in the least having done all this—my life became much simpler, and now every part of it is pointing to the dharma. Although in the past I sometimes fantasized about becoming a monk, I now feel perfectly at ease as a layperson. Lay life can be made really simple, even in a big city.
What is it like to be a practitioner, a meditation teacher and a scholar—all at the same time?
On the one hand this situation leaves me with less time to do scholarly research. On the other hand I can teach at the University and write about Buddhism while drawing upon my meditative experience, in addition to using what I have learned in my academic training.
As a meditation teacher, preparing dharma talks can benefit from my having access to a number of texts, and also from a somewhat systematic way of dealing with spiritual themes. However, this is an art to be learned and I do not necessarily find it easy. Knowledge, and a systematic attitude, can turn into a hindrance when trying to offer meditators some inspiration.
Does your having been a psychotherapist for a number of years help you at all in your teaching dharma and in interviewing meditators?
When I first started teaching dharma and seeing yogis I am not sure it was helping me. I would inadvertently slide into doing therapy, which had been my usual frame of reference so far with regard to inner growth. After some time, however, I was able to drop this misplaced use of therapy. I would keep it in the background, and would have recourse to it when appropriate.
Also, my past experience as a therapist helps me to neither overvalue nor undervalue therapy. When I suggest that a meditator see a therapist, which on occasion is a fitting thing to do, I strongly recommend that the yogi makes sure to get a really competent and qualified professional. It is obvious by now that superficial therapy is like superficial meditation: both are painfully ineffective. There is one other point I would like to emphasize: having done therapy myself is an excellent support for my own practice. It helps me discern what is just a psychological dynamic from its dharma potential: a sustained and benevolent mindfulness of this same dynamic.
Can you tell us a bit more about the sort of teaching you do in Italy?
In 1987, along with a group of dear friends, I started the Association for Mindfulness Meditation (A.ME.CO.) in Rome. We regularly invite lay vipassana teachers from other countries and monk teachers from the Forest Sangha. Periodically I co-teach with Ajahn TTianavaro, the abbot of the Italian Forest Sangha monastery, in addition to a number of other residential retreats which I lead throughout the year.
We need more urban centers where “long-term daily practice” is supported. I also learned the immense value of assigning homework.
Homework in a meditation class?
Absolutely. The instructions should not be too standardized or repetitive, but neither should they be too creative or elaborate. In my experience it is best to explore a number of variations around a few fundamental dharma themes.
For example, I am currently working with a group of experienced students around the combination of metta [loving kindness] and right speech. Every week new sides of this wonderful combination can be highlighted: from developing metta toward our judging of ourselves for saying unkind words, to fostering metta along with truthful communication with someone who habitually uses divisive speech.
While it is true that the number of dharma centers in the West is growing, many of them are either retreat centers or centers where one can hear dharma talks and perhaps get some individual guidance. All this is very good. However, I feel we need more urban centers where something we might call “long-term daily practice” is relentlessly encouraged and supported. Homework is a crucial part of this—not something to be experimented with and then dropped after a while.
The important thing in this area to me seems to be: first, that the teacher himself or herself does the homework, so they can use fresh examples for the teaching in addition to cultivating their own practice; and second, that the teacher emphasize homework through detailed instructions.
It sounds like these weekly classes offer a good alternative for people who cannot manage to take time off for long retreats.
If one can afford to do both everyday practice and long retreats, this is obviously a very good situation. However, a number of people cannot afford retreats longer than a weekend, except for the summertime when they can perhaps devote up to three weeks to intensive practice. If a yogi has developed a strong practice background through daily sitting, the sort of homework just described and weekend retreats, then when finally the possibility of some intensive meditation comes…it can be extremely rewarding and powerful.
So you would not suggest that this form of practice replace the sitting of retreats.
Oh no, far from that. I value retreats so much that every time I can sit a retreat myself, and whenever I start teaching one, I feel extremely privileged. Of course I do not rule out the possibility that some people can fruitfully walk a spiritual path without sitting retreats, but I think a teacher should base his or her teaching upon their own experience, and in my experience retreats have been and are an essential part. So I do encourage meditators to go into retreats. But I also try to point out that if there is not much practice in between retreats, this is something to be investigated: What is it that is still stopping the dharma from being the first, joyous priority in our lives?
In this context I’d like to express my disagreement from Ajahn Amaro who recently said, “Many of the people I meet in America have been doing retreats for 15-20 years and they are really quite accomplished concentrators. But I am afraid they have not found much freedom” (InquiringMind, Vol.12.1, Fall 1995, p.4). Now, this is definitely not my experience. I’ve known many meditators in the West over many years and I have found that quite a few of them, after years of doing retreats, seem to be much freer than they used to be, although sometimes their concentration is still quite undeveloped!
Teaching in both the US and in Europe, do you find any substantial differences between these two groups of practitioners?
Not much, really. There is an interesting observation a number of people have made with regard to this question. Often someone who meditates regularly does find some difference between themselves and compatriots who are not walking on a spiritual path. But they often find little or no difference with regard to fellow dharma farers belonging to countries or even cultures which are quite different.
I think this is a crucial theme to reflect on: the unifying quality of dharma. It is an inspiring and promising quality in a world which seems so feverishly bent on painful fragmentation.