Larry, you have been involved with the dharma for some time now, and you have studied, practiced, and taught in a number of different ways. How would you describe your current interest in dharma practice? Where is your greatest passion these days?
In recent years I have mostly been working with people who practice dharma in the context of householder life. This has required a great deal of flexibility and creativity, insofar as every practitioner finds himself or herself in unique circumstances and requires very specific guidance for dharma instructions to be beneficial.
For me it is extremely important that such instruction remain open and flexible, in part because of the painful experience I’ve had with Judaism growing up: you were given the ten commandments and commanded to follow them. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but I didn’t see it work out so well, and it didn’t inspire me much.
The last thing we need is another puritanical approach, grinding out rigid and repressed people who define religiosity in narrowly pious ways. In helping people learn how to live ordinary lives with more authenticity and meaning, I don’t want to just apply some universal principles and then have people struggle to live up to who they think I am or who they think the Buddha was.
We give the refuges and precepts here [at CIMC] three or four times a year, and I think some people are helped by this formal commitment to conscious and ethical living. But I don’t really have much confidence in such formalities unless they are backed up by practice. But what I find very challenging and interesting and bring into my teaching is encouraging people to find out for themselves what is wrong in their life. It’s a matter of using mindfulness, using insight, to understand the law of cause and effect in practical terms. This is wisdom in action.
One of the greatest challenges for a householder is getting their house in order. When people ask me how to do this, I feel more comfortable not giving them assurances—”This is what you should do”—but rather suggesting they start noticing disorder in their lives. When people come to order out of their own understanding of disorder, it has a more meaningful effect on their lives. It brings the wisdom in, and it always makes it more interesting.
I think the Buddha’s approach lends itself to integration with all aspects of life. Mindful living is the bare minimum of civilized living. What I emphasize to my students is that life teaches me. Simply bring the spirit of inquiry to each moment. We have to come to it through understanding, to use mindfulness and insight for understanding life at every moment. It is not that virtue or morality comes first, then comes concentration, and only afterwards can understanding grow. To me they are all working together. Only in books that you read can you separate the three aspects so neatly.
So are you suggesting that we might reverse the traditional order of sīla [virtue], samādhi [concentration] and pañña [wisdom], recognizing that wisdom can help bring about concentration and help guide one into an ethical life?
Absolutely. Many people feel that to get wisdom requires a red hot, fiercely concentrated mind, that only if you have extraordinary samādhi can you can get any wisdom. And of course there are certain levels of depth to that sort of focused mind which are essential for a deep and thorough liberation from suffering. But there is also a lot of wisdom that is possible with just the ordinary mind if it is trained and the person is motivated enough.
You just start noticing how you live, and how in some ways it doesn’t work: it brings you suffering and it brings suffering to others. This insight is available from day one. Of course, some people either don’t want or are unable to use their wisdom to keep them out of trouble, and that is where some other aspects of the path may be very helpful. I know it’s hard work, but a lot of the people who turn up here and at IMS and BCBS are up to it. They’re intelligent, they’re motivated and I like to introduce wisdom from day one. Wisdom is what excites me the most about the whole journey.
And yet you also seem most interested in how this wisdom is expressed in the daily details of ordinary life.
In the early days of our contact with the dharma, all of us [in the “first generation” of Western dharma teachers] were in love with meditation. Speaking for myself, I think I neglected the devotional and ethical dimensions of the practice. It is not that I was so corrupt (I think we’ve all done pretty well on that front), but I wasn’t explicit about the place of morality in the practice. Yes, we would take the refuges and precepts during a retreat and then remind the yogis [meditators] at the end, but meditation was where all the action was.
Teaching at a center like CIMC, which is urban and non-residential, is a very different experience than teaching in an intensive residential retreat center like IMS. There is a whole community of practitioners here that is sustained over years—people come together, develop friendships, get married, have families and usually cope with very challenging jobs and careers. People come to CIMC to learn how to sit, how to walk mindfully, and how to do retreats; but the message is very, very clear that we throw them out, back into their lives, marriages, relationships, school, work—whatever their life is, it doesn’t really matter. We say, “Learn dharma principles and how to meditate here at CIMC, and deepen that understanding in retreat at IMS, but now start doing it everyday and bring it into the whole of your life.”
We have developed a special interview form to help support this. During a one-day or a weekend (non-residential) retreat that we regularly offer at CIMC, we will provide a brief personal interview like at any other retreat. But we also offer interviews of a half hour each—it has to be longer—where people come and can talk about anything they want to. Much of the time it’s still about sitting and walking, but here we also probe into every other aspect of their lives. We are not trying to relate to them as therapists or marriage counselors, but trying to help bring their own dharma insights more authentically into their lives, habits and relationships. And people are doing it.
This level of practical ongoing support sounds like a distinctive feature of CIMC as an urban center. It seems to balance and complete the more intensive vipassanā retreat experience.
I would not have started the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center had there not already been IMS. It wasn’t that I wanted to create an alternative practice to IMS so much as a complementary one. I saw that certain very profound and wonderful things went on at IMS. But inevitably, because we are lay people, we return to the world with little or no support, and it can be very challenging.
A kind of fragmented, divided lifestyle can develop from this pattern, where people live to raise money and earn time off for the next long retreat, and meantime months can go by. The view may develop that working life isn’t really as important as going to the next retreat. Not only does this neglect the bulk of one’s ordinary life, but it can also set up unhelpful expectations and projections upon the retreat experience itself.
My idea for CIMC was for an urban center which strongly endorsed a contemplative way of life without undermining the immense benefits of attending longer retreats whenever possible. As you know, my colleagues [Narayan and Michael Liebenson Grady] and I continue to lead longer retreats at IMS, and many of our Cambridge students regularly attend these. I see CIMC, IMS and BCBS as three legs of a tripod; our missions all mutually support one another.
How would you characterize your own approach to dharma teaching in this larger context?
The message of my own teaching involves a certain boldness or directness. My feeling is that a number of people who are strongly committed to meditation are afraid of life, or afraid of relationship, or afraid of work on some level. But in my view, dharma practice is not to hide. It is not to become a hothouse plant—thriving only in a protected environment—it is to jump into life.
My role is to not allow people to use the dharma to create escapes for themselves. But it’s not to rub their face in it either—they’re already in it, the challenges are there. I try to offer an invitation to use the dharma to inquire into daily life, but not to the extent that formal meditation is undermined. We don’t want the pendulum to swing to the other extreme where people might say, “Daily life is my practice. Now I don’t have to do much sitting meditation.” That’s not the message. It is all about keeping an authentic balance.
I discovered a few years ago that the daily life piece is not easy to teach. There is an intrinsic difficulty that comes from the fact that all these people are running around in a notoriously intellectual environment like Cambridge and are not meditating much. My job is to constantly remind them about dharma… dharma… dharma. But also many people basically lack conviction that daily life really and truly is as valuable as, say, the walking or sitting practice. And it is; it really is. It’s not better than. It is not worse than. It is just as much of a problem to set the spiritual life above daily life as it is to consider daily life the acid test for your spiritual practice. There’s just your life, period.
So when you’re at IMS doing your sitting, or when you’re at BCBS doing your study, then do that. And then when you’re with your child or your school, in your office, then do that. Try not to make anything stand for the whole thing. I love to just sit, and I’ve seen enough of that to know that just sitting doesn’t do it. Maybe there are a few geniuses who break through at a deep level, and for whom daily life is no problem, but most of these people have also been monks. Children don’t go away. A job is not optional—you need to pay your bills. It doesn’t go away.
The people I work with are often fully embedded in life—married, with children, working difficult jobs. They are also intelligent, good-hearted people with a sincere aspiration for deeper inner development and understanding. Sometimes people lack conviction because they have been wounded in their lives. Sometimes there is a fair amount of fear—of growing up, of taking responsibility, of commitment to partners or family. You are not exempt from all the things that every human being faces just because you are a yogi.
As teachers we show them the tremendous love we have for the contemplative aspect of the Buddha’s teachings, and we help them taste it for themselves—but it does not end there. The yogi and the mother are not two separate beings; the sacred and the secular are not adversaries. It is all seamlessly unfolding moment to moment, and Buddhist practice is a matter of facing it moment to moment, just as it is. And that’s the message. It’s a simple message.
Is there an ideal model of contemporary lay practice—living the life of the family and career and community, but going on retreat once or twice a year?
To tell you the truth, I threw that one out quite a while back. Every time I set up a paradigm, I would find that I imposed a pattern on someone. And it was as if I was deforming them by trying to squeeze them into that role. I think an appropriate model emerges from each person, and sometimes it takes awhile to get to know what that is.
Some people at a certain point in their life, maybe forever, might assume that they’re not going to become monks or nuns—and that’s fine. I am not going to urge them to a nunnery. Others may want to live pretty much like a monk or a nun would, but without formally ordaining. I don’t see any reason here to say, “You’d better get back into society and test your equanimity in the fire.” Other people may not want to sit much at all. Sometimes they interpret that to mean that they’re not good practitioners like they should be. I don’t harangue them about this, but I also say “That doesn’t mean you have to give up the practice.” There are many ways to study, many ways to apply what you learn in daily life, and there is no shortage of challenges in any life.
You must have learned a lot over the years about applying this principle.
I have certainly learned some things along the way. For example, in the early days I would give standard instructions like, “Throughout the day, give 100 percent undivided attention to whatever you are doing.” You know, the typical “When you’re doing the dishes, only do the dishes.” But I think what I conveyed was some kind of fixed gaze that people would take on as they stood at the sink in their own little bubble of samādhi.
Later on, I would say something more like, “Start noticing the consequences of your actions.” Doing the dishes is relatively easy—it’s just you and the dishes. But when you start to be sensitive to the motives of why you’re doing what you’re doing in your life, and when you begin to be sensitive to the impact your actions and attitudes are having on other people, it’s a little bit different. But looking at these things is the practice. And for goodness sakes, learn from it.
And yet you continue to stress the value of silent meditation retreats. Might we say that mindfulness is a tool for full and meaningful living, a tool which can be sharpened and honed on silent retreat?
Well, it’s helpful in some ways, but the limitation is that it makes it seem like the retreat is a means to live. I don’t live in order to sit; nor do I sit in order to live. Sitting is a form of living.
When I’m on retreat I’m really very happy. I don’t miss the movies, which I love. I don’t miss anything. (Well, I do think of my wife.) For me, life on retreat is an expression of life, where silence and stillness are given much more respect and appreciation. In our culture, to be alive means to think, to do, to get, to raise, to accumulate; but to me silence is not a luxury. To enter into deep, inner silence is a normal, healthy and extraordinarily important part of the wholeness of life.
So being on retreat itself is life; it is something that can be lived, and it just has this form. And then, being with my family has another form. I don’t even use the term integration anymore. There’s nothing to integrate. There’s no stitching to do. Granted, if you’ve been quiet for two weeks or longer there is a change when you return to the city and see cars and people and all that. But okay, that’s a part of your practice too—no big deal. It’s just that how you’re taking in the present situation is influenced by the fact that you were quiet for those two weeks; you watch your hard-earned samādhi start to disintegrate (with equanimity, of course!)
There need not be any echo from where you have been to where you are now. Simply bring that spirit of inquiry to the present moment, whether in the silence or in the cacophony. It is the very same attitude, wherever you are. I like this. It’s really simple. When I can get it, I learn. Life teaches me.
Why do you think the dharma is of increasing interest to people these days? Is there something being said that our society needs to hear?
I continue to be impressed by the incredible capabilities of the human brain. The human race has an absolutely immense potential (though we are challenged in terms of what we elect to use this capability for). We are brilliant about so many things, but we haven’t really learned how to live together. We don’t know what to do with this planet, and it seems to me we have never given much priority to the quality of life. There are a lot of confused individuals around who are handling toys that are extraordinarily powerful, and some of these are weapons. Clearly something is way out of balance, and people are suffering.
We need to attend more to the science of understanding ourselves, and I think this is what the Buddha’s teaching addresses. For me self understanding is not for some aristocratic intellectuals or bohemians or monks or nuns. It is a matter of survival—I do see it in such a dire way. Awareness practice should be part of the general education of a civilized, educated human being. It is nothing special, you know. You don’t have to be a misfit or a weird person who just wants to be in a cave, although there will always be some who go to the full depth of what is possible. But I don’t see why self-understanding can’t become a cultural value.
You have often said the biggest challenge Buddhism will face in America is success; that mainstream American culture has a way of absorbing, commodifying and ultimately trivializing almost everything of value it encounters. Now that we are beginning to see more outward signs of the dharma’s success in our culture, do you have any new thoughts on the matter?
When the first generation of teachers went to Asia to learn this tradition, and I would count myself among that generation, it felt like a kind of heroic journey. We went through hell, in some respects—giving up secure jobs, traveling from place to place without a real home, not knowing the language, living frugally and getting sick in various parts of Asia. And when we came back we were often considered fools for the strange sorts of things we were teaching and doing. But speaking for myself, I was riding high about the heroic, wonderful thing we had discovered and were now bringing back to share with others. So some of the obstacles we have faced were simply part of that heroic journey.
Some of the current obstacles, however, are more subtle and hidden. There are so many camouflaged and tempting forces at work that it is far more than I can keep track of. There is much more money, fame and power available. Will we get lost in it? Will the rush to create more teachers to meet the growing interest undermine the quality of the Dharma being taught? I feel I just have this tiny little piece of the universe to care for—I have some influence with CIMC, IMS and BCBS, and this is more than enough for me. My main guide is what the Buddha said, which I re-read regularly. I want the dharma to survive, and I think in order for it to do so it’s got to be very conservative. We need to conserve the essence, which is timeless. But at the same time it has to be radical, which means we have got to be willing to throw some things away—and to take on some new things. These ideas are not in opposition.
Can you think of some example of this?
One example of a challenge calling for new ideas is the whole issue of lay/monastic relationship. I have gone through a lot of swings on this. I have lived in monastic settings before, and I am able to live that way. I can live on one meal, go on alms rounds, and all the rest. But I have no interest in being a monk; I am happy being a layperson. Those of us who are living and practicing as lay people have to be practical. If we’re going to live as laypeople, then let’s use the whole of our life as it is in the best way we can, including marriage, children, relationship, money, and so forth.
The monastic commitment is a strategy, it’s not absolute truth. It is a convention—a beautiful one—that has worked wonders for many people, and the Buddha devised it for good reason. However, nobody should be told “If you are really serious about this, you have got to become a monk or nun.” For laypeople to constantly see themselves through monastic eyes is disabling. If we judge ourselves from a monastic perspective, we are handicapping ourselves. There was a time in my life when I was quite angry about this, and I worked up a certain political energy—but I have long since let go of it.
The way I see it now, the monastic piece and the lay piece have to learn how to work together. I don’t even know if this lay movement will last. It may evolve and eventually become, again, mainly monastic. That’s fine with me. My role now is to try to teach this stuff so that I help laypeople understand that their practice has dignity and value; they should do it wholeheartedly, but without undervaluing the monastic piece.
But the monks have to do their share too, and I talk to every one of them who comes through town. I say, “Look, you guys have got to start looking at your frame of reference, because you’re not living in Thailand. You’re in America, and if you don’t start recognizing that something has changed over here the laypeople are going to float out to sea and we’re going to have nothing left. We are going to be two universes not connected at all, and I think that’s too bad. Respect should go both ways. If someone wants to become a monk, I’m wholeheartedly for them. And if someone has several children and a meaningful job where people depend upon them, let’s not treat that situation as if it is second-rate. Such a person needs lots of support to help them use the actual forms making up their life in a dharmic way.
In the process of this give-and-take, are we formulating a new kind of Buddhism?
America is a land of immigrants—it’s always been that way. All that is happening now is that the next batch of immigrants is getting assimilated. It’s as if the Buddha’s children have all been scattered—they have fled to Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, the various countries of Southeast Asia. Now we are in the midst of a family reunion. The geographical and historical distinctions that existed between the different branches of the family have dissipated, and we are all starting to talk to each other, really for the first time. Of course there are some people who are hanging on to their school ties for dear life, but by and large there is a lot of communication taking place. Something is going to happen as part of the assimilation, but I don’t think we can predict what it is. Whatever it is, I trust it will emerge naturally.