Joseph, after practicing in India for ten years and teaching in this country for more than twenty, you have recently returned from a well-earned teaching sabbatical, in which I understand you did quite a bit of personal meditation practice. Has anything emerged from this experience, in terms of greater clarity?
I think one of the pieces that has emerged from the time off is a greater clarity about where I’d like to put my energy in the following years. With so many newer teachers coming along who are well qualified to teach the shorter (nine- and ten-day) retreats, I’m feeling that I would like to devote more of my time to teaching yogis [meditators] who are more committed to longer term situations.
I feel that there is a need, given the development of the dharma in the West in the last quarter century or so, for some group of people to immerse themselves in long-term practice. There are some who have the time, the commitment, and the experience to do this, and I would like to help support this deepening of practice.
And why is that? What happens on a long retreat that doesn’t happen on a shorter retreat?
Well, lots of things. It works on so many levels, and there are many models for talking about it. In an obvious way, it’s more of a chance for the mind to quiet down, and to actually develop a deepening power of concentration and attentiveness—and that really makes possible the opening to different levels of insight and understanding.
The deepening of concentration and the quieting down of the mind provides the stability of attention, of attentiveness, which is necessary for deeper seeing of the nature of the mind and the body. When the mind is quite scattered or distracted, and we’re struggling to keep bringing it back, it’s very difficult to develop penetrating insight.
For most of us, the development of concentration, of an undistracted quality of mind, takes time. There are some few people who seem to have a natural ability, and can settle right into it; but from my own experience in practice, and working with so many others, I know it doesn’t often come naturally. So a longer retreat provides the space for people to cultivate this important skill. A focused mind then allows us to see more clearly, both the more obvious and the very many subtle places of attachment.
The Buddha was very straightforward in his teaching: liberation happens through not clinging to anything. That’s a very radical and uncompromising statement. But to me it’s also very inspiring. OK, this is the work to do, and the first step is using the power of increased concentration to actually begin seeing all the places of attachment, identification and fixation of mind that are there.
So much of what we hear from dharma teachers these days has to do with the integration of mindfulness with the details of a layperson’s complex daily life. This interest of yours for longer term semi-renunciate practice seems to go somewhat against that grain.
Clearly, it’s really important for people to bring what they’ve learned in practice to their lives in the world; otherwise, both their spiritual lives and their worldly lives are very fragmented. On one level, the point of practice is to be able to live with greater freedom, greater integrity, and greater compassion in the world. And I think that the deeper people go in their practice and understanding, the more complete that integration becomes.
It is easy to say that daily life is our practice, and as an ideal, it’s admirable. But whether in fact we’re actually doing it in a way that’s meaningful, in terms of deepening spiritual understanding—I think that’s something we all have to look at for ourselves. It’s perhaps the most difficult of the paths to follow with real integrity.
One of my teachers was once asked, is it really necessary to renounce the world in order to get liberated? He said, “Well, even the Buddha had to renounce the world!” And he had a few paramis [previously developed spiritual qualities]! So to minimize the difficulty of it, I think, is to miss the level of commitment it actually takes. When there is an opportunity for long-term practice, it allows our practice to go deeper—so that there is actually something to integrate.
It sounds paradoxical: We need to retreat from worldly lifestyles to see more deeply into our experience, and the more we are able to do that, the more depth we can then bring back into our worldly lives.
That’s right. And the cycle of retreat and going back in the world, of going inside and then bringing it out—we all have different rhythms for that at different times in our lives. So much depends upon our interest, our motivation, our circumstances, lots of factors. But I think there will always be some people for whom the conditions would be right for long, uninterrupted practice. And right now, that opportunity is not easily available in the West.
In the traditional models of the Asian monastic tradition, people would leave the world, devote themselves to practice, and lead the holy life. Here in this country, at this point anyway, it’s not necessarily going to take the outward form of monasticism, with many people ordaining as monks or nuns. But still I think there is a great interest in having the chance for long-term practice.
I know for myself, whenever I’ve done what in this country would be considered a long retreat (two or three months), it always feels like I’m just getting started—and then it’s over. I’ve always felt sorry that the retreat was coming to an end. So both for myself and others, it would be a great opportunity for yogis to have a place that supports longer practice. That’s really my vision for what could happen at the Forest Refuge.
The Forest Refuge, your new project for creating a long-term practice center in the forest between IMS and BCBS, sounds like an exciting development for the dharma in the West.
It’s tremendously exciting to me. It’s something I have a great love for, both as something I would like to do myself, and imagining the possibility of other western yogis in that setting. Somehow, it resonates in me: The vision of people in all the Buddhist cultures over the last twenty-five hundred years, just doing this—going off, for longer periods of time, and devoting themselves to the practice of awakening.
Do you think there are enough people in America today who are willing and able to do that?
Yes, I do. I don’t have any doubt about it at all. In fact, although we are beginning with the idea of perhaps twenty-five or thirty people in long-term practice of varying lengths, I don’t have any problem imagining a hundred people—even hundreds of people! I think the dharma is well-enough established in the West now. As I go around teaching in so many places, I continually hear from people that this is just the sort of thing they are looking for: a quiet, supportive environment for settling into their practice. There are enough people who have undergone significant basic training in practice, and who are really inspired by the possibility of genuine awakening.
So much of what we’ve learned about awakening or liberation has been represented in traditional terms. Now that you have spent so much of your life practicing the dharma in English, so to speak, and in American culture, I wonder do you have a sense yourself, in contemporary terms, of what that awakening means? How might it manifest in a contemporary western personality?
That’s a complex question which can be approached on a couple of different levels. Whether or not we can tell whether somebody’s enlightened or awakened is always problematic, for a variety of reasons.
One is that we often confuse expressions of personality with an assessment of spiritual realization. I don’t think that all personality quirks are somehow leveled out in the process of awakening. But we’re so used to reacting and responding to the more superficial levels of personality that we can miss the deeper understandings that might be there. So that’s on one side.
On the other side, when someone is in a certain role, it’s very easy to project onto them some great awakened experience which may or may not be true. We may miss it when it’s there, and we may attribute it when it’s not.
And the middle way?
Well, the middle way, I think, is one of the key reference points for me—both in my own practice, just watching my own mind, and then being with others: It is just to see the degree of self-reference that is present. To see if the self is really at the center of our life and our actions and our motivations, or to see that there is less of that. My understanding is that the deep realization of emptiness, in the Buddhist sense, really means emptiness of self. So one becomes less and less self-referential.
This is a long process, and I think we are all somewhere along a continuum, from totally self-absorbed to completely selfless. My hope is that as we all continue in our practice, whether in daily life or on long retreats, we are moving in the direction of becoming more selfless, and express that understanding by greater compassionate responsiveness.
It is not that we eliminate the personality; rather it is being not so attached or identified with it. And in that non-identification is the space to be responsive, and to help lighten the suffering that’s in the world. I don’t see that there’s any one way to be responsive. We each will have our own expression of that.
As one reaches a certain understanding, is it natural that a person will, as they become less self-referential, be more inclined to public service?
I question whether there is any one model or any one way to manifest (though I hesitate to use this phrase) enlightened behavior. I can imagine someone staying as a recluse their whole life, yet managing from that place of great compassion and openness to influence things on other levels. I don’t think we should become too dogmatic in our views of how wisdom expresses itself. For one thing, if the core piece is there—real wisdom—and if we view things from the perspective of rebirth and many lives, then there is lots of time to manifest wisdom in a wide variety of ways. The Jataka tales [stories of the Buddha’s many previous births] provide good examples of this.
Another model for thinking about what happens in practice has to do with weakening, and hopefully finally eradicating greed, hatred, and ignorance as motive forces in the mind. Still another image that comes to mind to express the deepening of practice is the ripening or the balancing of the five spiritual faculties: faith, wisdom, concentration, energy and mindfulness.
What models of awakening do you find most compelling?
Something that has been of increasing interest to me lately is the relationship of compassion and emptiness—or perhaps you could say wisdom and compassion—as the two core principles of the awakened mind. What I have been inspired by, and what has transformed my own practice, is a growing understanding that compassion and emptiness are not two different things. Compassion is not a stance, but is the simple responsiveness to circumstances from a place of selflessness. So it is not that someone becomes more compassionate. Rather, the emptier we are of self, the more responsive we are.
So it is a matter of getting out of the way so compassion can manifest itself?
Yes, exactly. Compassion is the manifestation of emptiness. And that feels very liberating and inspiring to me, because when I think of a self responding to all the suffering in the world, it feels too overwhelming. There’s too much suffering—how could a self hold it? It feels like the burden is just too immense.
But when I think of compassionate action being the expression of emptiness, then it’s not resting on the shoulders of any one. It feels big enough to hold it all. And that’s how I now understand the whole bodhisattva notion, the bodhisattva vow, in a way that makes sense to me. It’s not a self, it’s not someone doing it. It’s just a natural manifestation …
Students new to the Buddhist tradition always seem to eventually ask the question, if all is emptiness, why is there compassion? How is it that this ethical quality is somehow built into the fabric of the universe?
For a few reasons, I think; and maybe this also can he seen on a couple of different levels.
One might come out of an investigation of what the root of greed or fear or hatred in the mind really is. Even looking at the matter conceptually, but then more experientially from a meditative awareness, these afflicted states seem to me very clearly rooted in a sense of self. Someone is greedy for something or someone is angry, or fearful, or whatever—in each case it is the notion of the self that actually feeds those unwholesome states. And so, in the absence of that sense of self, in emptiness, from where would greed arise? From where would hatred or anger arise?
This perspective is expressed in the traditional teachings when they speak of the effects of seeing through the illusion of self. Even though the other defilements, out of habit, may still arise, the root has been cut. And from that point forward those defilements will wither away, because they are no longer nourished by the sense of self. This is one way of looking at it.
From another perspective, we can see compassion arising out of an experience of non-separation. As long as there remains a sense of self, the very notion of self predicates other. With the self, there’s other than self. And other than self is everyone else and everything else! And so the very notion of self carries within it, implicitly, the notion of separation. From the perspective of absence of self, there’s no one there to be separate. So then it’s just the interplay, the dance of elements, experience, phenomena; there’s just the dance of all this—interconnected, interrelated—with a real sense of non-separation. And non-separation, I think, is another word for love. Again, it is not a matter of someone loving someone else, but goes beyond this to a simple manifestation of love.
And have you felt this yourself?
Oh yes, at times. At times. I am definitely a long way from the continuous experience of this simple clarity, but I have tasted it enough to know it’s a possibility.
I think we want to be careful about not romanticizing or—I don’t quite know what the right word is—perhaps glorifying this stage, because in a way I see one aspect of it as being quite commonplace. I think we all experience it a lot more than we actually acknowledge. Going though our lives, we are very often quite naturally responsive to situations of suffering. In simple ways, with no great dramatic statement, we may just feel a natural, caring connection—without a sense of acting from self, or ego, but just as a natural response to the situation. So that’s one piece. I don’t want to see it only in terms of some extraordinary state that we may have glimpses of, because I think that puts it in the wrong frame.
On the other side, even though we may be in that place of natural responsiveness more and more often, we don’t want to become complacent and miss the very many moments when the mind does get fixated in a sense of self. It can be very subtle—even when our basic response is wholesome, there can often be all sorts of unskillful motives mixed in.
So while I don’t want to make it something extraordinary, I also think it takes an incredible quality of attentiveness not to delude ourselves, and to really be watching, in the course of the day, when we are acting from that place of ego. It happens a lot more than we think it does.
During long-term practice, we do develop a very refined sensibility of what’s happening in our own lives. We can more easily catch those moments when the mind is self-referential, when it gets caught, fixated or attached. There is definitely the possibility of long retreats preparing the ground for genuine and deep transformative experiences, what I call moments of enlightenment or moments of awakening.
It’s also important to recognize that these experiences are themselves something to which the self can attach, and we must take care that the self doesn’t co-opt them—as I’ve seen happen. All of a sudden, our life can start revolving around an experience of selflessness [laughter]. So I become the person who’s had this experience of selflessness! It can be very subtle. And, it happens. Hopefully, if the experience is genuine, that eventually will be seen through and we let go of that as well.
Can you say more about your vision of this new center for long-term practice — the Forest Refuge?
With pleasure! On a physical plane, I’m excited by the possibility of designing this center, from the ground up, specifically for the purpose of long-term practice. We want to create something that is very simple, and yet—beautiful, harmonious, tranquil and inspiring. Something that reflects that line of T.S. Eliot: “A condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything. And all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.”
It will be in the middle of a New England forest, through which I’ve walked many times. It has always been both incredibly beautiful and very opening—just walking through the woods in the space of intensive practice is wonderfully meditative. So the whole environment, both the physical structure and the natural environment, will be designed to support the practice in beautiful ways.
And we are also hoping to create a style of practice that supports people finding their own individual rhythm. Not everyone will follow a particular pre-set schedule, but each will sit and walk throughout the day as suits them best. But with the timely use of the meditation hall and the dining room, practitioners will also find the support of other people doing the same thing. I see the possibility of a wonderful combination of solitude and support of sangha at the same time. It is the way I would love to practice. It is the way I do love to practice!
So we will see you out there! And what about the teaching component? How will the Dharma be brought to this environment and to this community?
Well, I certainly am planning to devote a fair amount of my time to it. I see it as a place for experienced practitioners who are quite independent in their practice and don’t need the level of support usually provided for shorter retreats. But, I can imagine perhaps weekly check-ins, occasional talks, and also a small dharma library. With the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies just next door, some people might do some simple reading or study of the classical tradition to help support and direct their practice.
Do you see the Forest Refuge as continuing IMS’s tendency to be thoroughly grounded in the Theravada tradition, or would this be an opportunity to bring in a more diverse Buddhist presence?
I think all the traditions of Buddhism are rooted in the basic teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—these are the core teachings of Buddhism, and I see these basic principles being the foundation of the center. The principle of liberation—the cultivation of a mind of no clinging—is also universal to Buddhism, and will be a primary focus.
But these principles have been elaborated in many different ways over the centuries in different traditions, and some of these other modes of expression can be very helpful. The particular ways that we might work with these are not immediately clear to me. I think we’re going to draw primarily on the IMS teachers and the cadre of senior vipassanā teachers to be guiding people. But I could also imagine having some guest teachers from other traditions for periods of time if it felt appropriate. All such details are still very much in the visioning stage. But the basic foundation of where it’s rooted seems quite clear to me.
I am very inspired by the whole project. And I’m hopeful that many of my colleagues will also join in.
So this new practice center is an important part of your legacy, is it not? You will have a leading role in setting it up, and you will have a continuing role—for some decades we hope—in guiding it along. But then you’re also presumably looking towards passing it all on…
And coming back to sit in it. I’m really just preparing for my next life here. If I help to get things in place now, I’ll have a place to sit when I come back next time…