Interview with Richard Baksa
- I'm very much attracted to the Greek philosophers, and I can find certain similarities between the Greek philosophers and Buddhism. Inscribed over the temple at Delphi is "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess." That couldn't be more Buddhist if Buddha himself had written it, because Buddhism is a path of self-exploration, and it's also a path of "nothing in excess" — the middle path.
- What Buddhism teaches is that we're sort of covered with buttons-you've heard the expression, "They know how to push my buttons." The goal is to begin to deactivate the buttons bit by bit so we're not reactors.
- Buddhism doesn't really look for conversions, per se. It basically says, this is what we have to offer, take what's going to work for you. And I've had people tell me what they found in Buddhism helped make them a better Jew or a better Christian, because they went back to their own faith with a deeper understanding. And that's wonderful-that's what the spiritual path is about.
- ...from a Buddhist perspective, a man's mind is not better than a woman's, nor can a man achieve enlightenment more easily than a woman. It's a path that's open to everyone.
- The ultimate goal of Buddhism is enlightenment. And enlightenment means you are no longer constantly on the cycle of rebirth. But rebirth is looked at in Buddhism as a lifetime-to-lifetime event and also as a process you go through every single day of your life.
- If you take care of the moment, the future takes care of itself.
Ann: How many years have you been involved at this monastery?
Richard: Since about 1985.
Ann: And were you a Buddhist already, or did you become a Buddhist at that time?
Richard: I became Buddhist at that time. I had read a lot about Buddhism prior to that period of time, but quite frankly, I didn't understand a lot of what I read. In about 1985, I was fortunate to begin studying with a Chinese monk who came to the monastery. He had been a professor of English at a Texas university, so he had a command not only of Buddhism but of English, and I studied with him for several years. A lot of my misconceptions were cleared up, and I began testing Buddhism, and the more I tested it, the more I found it worked for me. And then a few years ago I took a two and a half year class at the Hai An Pagoda in New Britain, Connecticut, with Reverend Hoang, in order to be ordained as a Buddhist teacher, or Dharma teacher. I found it a wonderful experience.
Ann: This is a Chinese Buddhist monastery?
Richard: That's correct. It's a little unusual in the sense that it's not devoted to any particular school of Buddhism. It operates as an umbrella organization. We invite teachers in from all of the major schools of Buddhism. We've had Zen, Theravadan and Vajrayana teachers come and give retreats and lessons. It's a very open forum for Buddhism.
Ann: Would that be true if the monastery were in China, or is it just because it's in America?
Richard: It's because it's in America. Actually, the founders of the Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS) wanted to found it as an American organization since they work in America. Typically, in China or in Taiwan, a teacher arrives and attracts students, and eventually a monastery is built around him, and he is the monastery. This monastery operates more like an Episcopal vestry, so to speak. There's a lay organization that's in charge of the finances, and that organization will contact different abbots to see if they would like to come to the monastery. So the organization is more typically American than Chinese.
Ann: Who do you expect to teach? Is your mission to teach Americans, or is it to teach people of Chinese descent?
Richard: It's actually to teach Westerners as well as American-born Chinese. The community has come to realize that fewer and fewer Chinese Americans born today learn to speak Chinese, and fewer and fewer of them have a Taiwanese or Chinese mindset. Chinese Americans are becoming more Americanized, so they need a flexible approach to Buddhism as well.
We hope eventually to have a Buddhist college on the grounds as well. The Institute for the Advanced Study of World Religions is located here, and that's the largest collection of books on East Asian religions in the Western Hemisphere. That would be the resource for the college eventually. The books are in many different languages. Some are in Pali and Sanskrit; there are some very rare Tibetan works that no longer exist in Tibet due to the Chinese invasion-they're singular copies now; some of the books are in Malaysian. Just about any Southeast Asian language you can think of, we have represented here in various volumes, as well as English of course.
Ann: Are they all about Buddhism?
Richard: No, they deal with East Asian religions. They're primarily about Buddhism, but not exclusively so. There are volumes on Hinduism, for example, and some on the Bahá'í faith. The library is open to the public during the week, although it's not a lending library, it's a reference library.
Ann: Now in which spiritual tradition were you raised?
Richard: I was raised as a Catholic.
Ann: And were you devout?
Richard: I was pretty devout. I was an altar boy, and I studied apologetics in college, which is the defense of the faith. I went to a Catholic grammar school, high school and college in New York City. I was born in New York-in Williamsburg-and then my family moved to Queens when I was very, very young, and I went to college at St. John's University in Brooklyn.
Ann: How many years do you think you followed the Catholic tradition?
Richard: Twenty-four or twenty-five years I would say.
Ann: And did you lose faith with Catholicism?
Richard: Yes, I went through a period when I realized that it just wasn't working for me. It wasn't really a formal rejection of the faith, I just had the sense that it wasn't satisfying something that I really needed. I had problems, and somehow it just didn't seem to address them. So I went through a period of searching. I looked at some other religions. I went back and read a lot of Greek philosophy, I studied a little bit about Hinduism. I didn't really study Islam or Judaism, because I considered them to be linked to Christianity, coming from the same roots. And since I couldn't find an answer in Christianity, I didn't really expect to find it in Islam or Judaism.
Eventually I drifted into Buddhism. I couldn't understand some of what I read, but what I did understand made a lot of sense to me, and I found myself coming back to it over and over again, no matter how many different paths I explored. And then, fortunately, as I mentioned, in 1985 I was able to begin to study with a Buddhist teacher, and that clarified a lot of the issues for me.
Ann: How old were you when you first began searching?
Richard: About twenty-four or twenty-five.
Ann: And how old are you now?
Richard: I'm sixty-two.
Ann: So it's been a long time.
Richard: Yes, it's been a long time, and as I said, I explored a lot of different issues.
When I first came to the monastery it wasn't particularly to learn about Buddhism, I came because of a very troublesome time. I was on the controller staff of the battery products division of the Union Carbide Corporation. And after the Bhopal incident, which caused a tremendous number of deaths in India, there was a run on the company by another chemical company. In order to forestall that, Carbide sold off it's major money making divisions so that the company would be less attractive to a takeover. So the battery products division was sold to Ralston Purina. We had a very small staff, and we had to change the whole accounting system and the reporting system. We were working ten and twelve hour days, sometimes seven days a week. One of my co-workers had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized and put on medication. Another co-worker had a similar problem and was briefly hospitalized, and I thought I was getting very close to that point.
So I came to the monastery having heard that meditation would be a path to a certain amount of tranquility and centeredness, and I began to study meditation with a teacher here. After I had been practicing really hard for a period of about three or four months, something totally clicked. I can't exactly say what it was. When I went back to work, nothing had changed: The hours were still long, there was still a tremendous amount of pressure-more so since we'd lost two people to breakdowns-but it didn't affect me the same way anymore. It was as if I could see everything going on around me, but I wasn't fazed by it. And at that point I think I realized that if meditation could make such a big difference with such a short period of concentrated practice, I'd found the path that was going to work for me.
Ann: How much time did you spend meditating?
Richard: I spent about an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.
Ann: So that's pretty dramatic.
Richard: Yes, it was, it was like a revelation. At that point I knew, as I said, that this would be a path that would work for me.
Ann: In meditation, was there any sense of a special spirit moving you, or a special force, or was there just something that happened internally?
Richard: I would say it was an internal happening. There are exceptions, but in general Buddhism doesn't emphasize an outside force. It really emphasizes that the root of your problem is in you. It's really your decision to solve your problem that will make a difference; it can't really be given from the outside, it's got to be something that you work on yourself very, very hard. Now as I said, there are exceptions, because over its twenty-five hundred years of development, very spiritual elements have come into Buddhism as well, and those have been very beneficial to a number of practitioners.
It's sort of odd. One time during a class they had here, they asked the professions of people who were attending, and the overwhelming majority of people were either computer programmers or accountants. Buddhism can really be approached from a number of different levels. First, there is the practical level, the scientific level, which appeals to me. But there's also a very spiritual level that appeals to other practitioners. So there are a variety of approaches you can use.
Ann: You've studied other spiritual paths. Do you see them as being in
harmony with Buddhism in certain ways?
Richard: Yes, in general I do. Most of the paths I studied emphasized spiritual development, bettering yourself, becoming a more virtuous or spiritual person. That's certainly in accord with Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism-just about any of the major faiths. Because it's part of the human construction; it's something we innately strive to do.
Ann: Do you have any spiritual heroes?
Richard: Well, I guess I would have to say that my spiritual hero is the Buddha himself. He undertook the journey using his own resources, and he achieved enlightenment and then laid out a path for the relief of suffering for other people. He did not remain isolated, he spent a good part of his life teaching and sending his disciples out to teach, which reminds me of Christ, "Go forth and teach all nations."
Ann: And are there people in your life who have strongly influenced your beliefs?
Richard: Well, of course my parents initially. Later on it was a combination of things. I'm very much attracted to the Greek philosophers, and I can find certain similarities between the Greek philosophers and Buddhism. Inscribed over the temple at Delphi is "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess." That couldn't be more Buddhist if Buddha himself had written it, because Buddhism is a path of self-exploration, and it's also a path of "nothing in excess"-the middle path. Then there was my initial teacher, Reverend Cheng Kwan, and then Reverend Hoang, with whom I studied for two and a half years. They were very influential in my development.
Ann: I like the fact that you're mature, you've studied, and yet you still have questions.
Richard: Oh, there are always questions; I can't imagine there not being any.
Ann: Yes, and that's a wonderful thing.
So, can you cite any profound spiritual experiences associated with birth or sickness or death? Has Buddhism helped you through any of those profound changes?
Richard: Yes, it has. My wife died in July of this year, after a very, very long illness. She was sick with cancer for over two years, and towards the end she was totally bedridden and needed constant care. Buddhism helped me tremendously during that time.
There is a story about a woman who went to the Buddha with her dead child, her infant. She was grief stricken and believed that the Buddha could perform a miracle and bring the child to life. And the Buddha, recognizing that she was so distraught she wouldn't respond to reason, told her he could do so, but only under one condition. She had to get a mustard seed from a house in the village, and it had to come from a house where no one had ever known death.
So she took off for the village and went to the first house and asked for the seed. And the person said, "Certainly I can give it to you."
And the woman said, "Oh wait, I forgot. It has to come from a house where no one has died." And at that the householder was grief stricken and remembered her own husband who had died and said she could not.
To make a long story short, the woman went to every house in the village, and there wasn't one house that hadn't known death in some shape or form. And finally, she went back to the Buddha, and the story says she laid down her child and buried it-or, if you will, she laid down her grief and buried it, symbolically. There was a realization that death, sickness and old age are part of life. No one escapes them.
I had known this story before, but when my wife became ill, people would ask me about her. I would listen carefully to their stories, and they had stories that were just as grief stricken. One really touched me and made me realize that what I was going through, although difficult, was certainly not unusual: I correspond with a number of prisoners-we have a program to send books to prisoners, and I answer questions about Buddhism. I had absented myself from the program for several months when my wife was in the process of dying. I finally got back into the program, and I mentioned this to one of the prisoners, and he said that he was grief stricken himself because he had come home one day and found his wife had committed suicide, and he was out of his mind for a period of time. And that made me realize that at least I had two years to spend with my wife. It was not a very traumatic thing, it didn't happen suddenly. We made our peace together. The teachings of the Buddha helped me tremendously then, because it wasn't a time of wallowing in self-pity. I was able to realize that the time should be devoted to her, to making her passing as easy as possible. And her passing was not a judgment, it wasn't a punishment from God, it was just a normal part of life. I found that my faith in Buddhism was deepened tremendously by that experience.
Ann: Was you wife a Buddhist?
Richard: No, she was not, although she supported me very, very strongly in my own practice, and she would come to the monastery quite often. She was Episcopalian, and she was very active in a local church, which unfortunately was ripped apart by dissention. She stopped going at that point. And when people asked her why she came to the monastery, she said she found the people here to be more Christian than the Christians she was associated with before.
Ann: Can you discuss any experiences that have taken you to the edge of despair? You were talking about the chaos at work-it may not have been despair ...what word would you use?
Richard: It's kind of hard to describe. It was a very uncertain time, because from one day to the other we weren't quite sure what would happen. I realized I was beginning to lose it because we were working at about ten o'clock one night, and a fire alarm test went off, and we were supposed to evacuate the building. The guard came into the office where I was working with my boss and said we had to evacuate, and I told him no. I told him if he wanted to get the police, he should get the police. I had a report that was going out by helicopter at six o'clock the next morning, and I wasn't going to tell my boss's boss that I was standing in a garage someplace. I just refused to leave, and he became a little upset and took off. He came back later with
another guard, and I told him basically the same thing. So the pressure was quite great-I wouldn't call it despair, but it was a real boiler room type of operation at that point. As I mentioned, after the meditation experience, things totally changed. Nothing on the outside changed, but everything on the inside changed.
Ann: Now, what spiritual practices do you follow?
Richard: There are many different paths in Buddhism, the three major ones being Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. I tend more toward the Theravada, nuts and bolts approach-again, because that's more harmonious with my own makeup.
Ann: Tell me what makes Theravada more nuts and bolts.
Richard: It's intensely psychological. It's not a devotional path per se. It's about investigating yourself, getting to know not only yourself but also other people. How do you get to know other people this way? When I began to study meditation, my meditation teacher said if you study hard enough, and if you really practice meditation hard enough, at some point-and I've found this to be totally true-you come to the conclusion, "What a God-awful mess I am. There's so much boiling in my stewpot that has been here for a long period of time." But you also realize that everybody has their own stewpot. The contents might be a little different, and it might take something different to make that pot boil over, but when it boils over, it's no different than when you boil over. So you tend to become a lot less judgmental of people. You realize that we're all in the same mess, and we're all trying to clean it up as best we can. We're rather imperfect at doing it, and we're going to make mistakes from time to time. So I've found that approach works better for me.
Some of my friends are more into a very spiritual, outgoing approach-devotional I guess is the term to use. And that works for them, and that's great-from a Buddhist standpoint that's wonderful. Buddhism is a very pragmatic, experiential way of life. And that's why there are a number of different ways of practicing, there's a recognition that what works for me doesn't necessarily work for someone else and vice versa. So there's not really the judgmental idea that my path is the best, and yours is not correct, because that's not the case. If that were the case, there'd only be one type of automobile in the world because it would be the best. But there's a variety of cars, because there's a variety of needs, and it's the same in the Buddhist path as well.
Ann: But this center has a very large devotional part, right? The monks and the nuns are saying prayers almost around the clock.
Richard: Well, there are two sets of prayers-one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Some of the monks and nuns here are very devotional, and they go to the prayers. Others have told me that they wish they didn't have to pray so much because it takes time away from their meditation. And when I've asked others what tradition they're in, they've told me, "No tradition-I'm a Buddhist. I study all the different paths and I take from each of them what seems to work for me."
I would say that the Western community that comes here is predominantly in the Chan or Zen tradition-less devotion, less ritual, and perhaps more practice. From what I've seen, the Chinese community is more in the Pure Land tradition, which is very heavily devotional-although there's a large element of practice there. So it's really quite a mixture.
Ann: When you say practice, you mean the practice of meditation?
Richard: The practice of meditation and mindfulness. That's a key element in Buddhism, and without mindfulness you can't do anything. There are several sutras that revolve around that-the four foundations of mindfulness. The first is being mindful of your body-what it's doing, its positions. Buddhism recognizes that there's an intimate link between body and mind-tense body, tense mind; agitated body, agitated mind. Are you doing things frivolously, unmindfully? If so, you're not centered.
Then there's mindfulness of the sensations, and in Buddhism there are only three-pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. From pleasant we would get things like love-we could get things like greed. From unpleasant we could have fear, anger, hatred. From neutral there could be no reaction or boredom. But all of these are considered to be precursors of an emotion. If we can observe our sensations-if we catch unpleasantness, for example, before it becomes anger, before it becomes hatred, we begin to see how these things come up, how they influence how we're looking at things, and how they disappear. The goal is not to try to
become an automaton, but to stop being a reactor and to become more of an actor. What Buddhism teaches is that we're sort of covered with buttons-you've heard the expression, "They know how to press my buttons." The goal is to begin to deactivate the buttons bit by bit so we're not reactors.
The next foundation is mindfulness of the sensations-am I looking at the world with a mind of hatred, with a mind of love, with a mind of anger? How does that influence the way I see things? One of my teachers used to give me an exercise; he would say, "Richard, in the morning, look at everything around you as if you had just been notified that you had won the lottery, and you're a multimillionaire. In the afternoon look at the world as if you just received a phone call telling you it was a mistake, you didn't win the lottery. Look at how that influences the way you see things and react to things." It's a very enlightening experience, so mindfulness of our states of mind is important.
And the last foundation is mindfulness of what's called dharma. What do I believe? If I believe it, do I follow it? If not, why not? Have I tested it, do I know it works? If not, why haven't I tested it? It really encompasses mindfulness of the whole human being. It's a critical concept because Buddhism is a spiritual path of transformation, and you can't transform that which you're not aware of. Buddhism teaches, and I've found this to be true, that many of us go through life on autopilot, with just a series of reactions. And for me Buddhism is a way of deprogramming that autopilot so that you become more fully alive and less of a reactor to things that go on around you.
Ann: I wonder how different that might be from say, Christianity. Can you make any analogy?
Richard: I think ultimately they're talking about the same things, but the difficulty I have with Christianity is how I do these things. How do I go about accomplishing it? I'm a very literal person, so the devotional aspect didn't work for me, whereas it works for other people.
When I came to Buddhism, it was like opening a toolbox and seeing all the different tools that I could use to do these things. Do I want to become less full of anger and more full of love? Great, there's meditation-here's the way you go about it, this is the practice you follow. Do I wish to become more aware of myself? Great, here's another practice you can follow, here's what you do. And as I began to do these things and test them, I found they worked. Do you have to become a Buddhist to have them work? No, obviously not. Many people who are deeply attached to their own spiritual traditions find the tools useful.
One of the first all-day seshins, or meditation sessions I went to was taught by a Jesuit priest. When he was ordained in the order, he was sent to Japan and told to study Zen Buddhism for a period of five to seven years. He came back, and he was teaching meditation. People asked whether he had converted, and he said no. But what he found in Buddhism enriched and deepened his own spiritual tradition. Buddhism doesn't really look for conversions, per se. It basically says, this is what we have to offer, take what's going to work for you. And I've had people tell me that what they found in Buddhism helped make them a better Jew or a better Christian, because they went back to their own faith with a deeper understanding. And that's wonderful-that's what the spiritual path is about.
Ann: I think Buddhism has enriched many, many religions.
Richard: I think so. It's a psychological approach that's not clinical. It's very personal, very experiential, and it gives you the tools you need to really begin to explore.
Ann: Yes, it doesn't say that you're ill, it says you're human.
Richard: That's correct; it doesn't even put things in terms of good and evil. It talks of skillful and unskillful states of mind. It's very nonjudgmental. Buddhism cautions not to judge yourself when you see stuff coming up in meditation-for instance, "I'm a bad person, there's so much anger in me." You're just to observe the anger, to see what it does to you, when it leaves and what causes it. And bit by bit you begin to work on yourself-in a bit of an impersonal light, but not a cold or clinical one.
Ann: When you meditate, do you use a mantra, or are you just sitting?
Richard: Mantra is one form that can be used in Buddhism, but I find for my own practice it's useful just to follow the breath and sit, using the breath as an anchor. Some people find the mantra to be very, very beneficial; I prefer just sitting and watching the breath.
Ann: Chan is the word for watching the breath?
Richard: Actually, Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese character chan, which means meditation, or dhyana in Chinese.
Ann: Okay. So there are thoughts going through your mind, but you don't stay with them, you just watch them?
Richard: Meditation is a technique for learning how to let go. Your mind is like a ball of Velcro: A thought comes and catches the mind, another thought, another thought, another thought. Or an emotion comes, another emotion, another emotion. For example, when we become angry, it's not that we are angry, it's that anger fills our whole perspective, and we do foolish things at times. The Greeks had a saying, "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make angry." We lose all sense of judgment. Well, Buddhism is a way of seeing anger coming-you don't attach to it, you let it go. You see fear coming-you don't attach to it, you let it go. You see a thought coming up-you don't attach to it, you let it go.
You're learning to remove yourself a few steps from the thought or the
emotion, so you're not captivated by them; you can watch them. And bit by bit, when you begin to become irritated in a situation, you immediately sense that, and you back off a little bit and it doesn't quickly turn into anger, it doesn't turn into dissatisfaction as quickly. You begin to get more control over your emotions-but again, I stress, it's not that you become an automaton, it's just that you're not carried away with them. To use an analogy, you're like a ship with a very clear destination and rudder, when previously you didn't have a rudder, so any current that came along carried you whether you wanted to go that way or not. Meditation is a very powerful form, and that's why it's practiced as extensively as it is in Buddhism. It's a way of learning how to let go without being entrapped by thoughts or emotions.
Ann: And as you say, you don't become cold or detached-it enhances
Richard: Yes it does, and actually it enhances your enjoyment of life in a very real way, because the less judgmental you become about things around you, the more open you are to seeing what's really happening. They very often use the symbol-you'll see it in the monastery-of a mirror on the altar. And the symbolism is that a good mirror, a perfect mirror, reflects only what's out there. It doesn't add anything, it doesn't take anything away. And Buddhism says that we're not that mirror. We're funhouse mirrors. When we look out at the world we see a reflection of our likes, dislikes, hatreds, judgments. And what we're beginning to do is straighten the mirror out bit by bit so there's less distortion in what we see.
Ann: So in Buddhism you're not really listening to hear the divine, but to hear your sense of your own centeredness? Help me with that.
Richard: As I say, Buddhism is multifaceted. In one sense you're looking within yourself, but as you practice, you realize that you are intimately connected with everything else and everybody else in the world. So if you will, the divine in Buddhism is that whole interconnectedness. You can't be alienated from nature, you can't be alienated from God in Buddhism, because you're intricately, intimately associated with all of it. The divine, so to speak, is everything, and it's in everything, but you've got to learn to see it, you've got to learn to experience it. But it's not outside of you, it's within you.
There's an old saying, "I love humanity, but I just can't stand my neighbor." Buddhism is about learning to understand and love your neighbor, even if you can't stand him initially. So it starts at the very bottom and kind of works up.
Ann: And if you come from that position, there's a better chance you can talk to your neighbor.
Richard: Precisely. There's a very old story about practitioners in a Zen monastery in Japan. A monk will come to the master and say, "Master, I've achieved enlightenment. Now I understand everything, and I'm at peace with the world."
And the master will say, "Okay. Go live in the village for six months and come back."
And invariably the monk will come back, saying, "Oh it's so noisy, this person is." There's a realization that you didn't achieve what you thought you had achieved. It's a very practical approach. If you can stand your neighbor, no matter how badly they've behaved, then perhaps you've really progressed spiritually.
Ann: You have not become a monk, you've decided to live in the world
and practice a divine path.
Richard: Correct. Initially, I certainly couldn't become a monk because I was married and had children. Right now there's a debate going on in Western Buddhism. I have a very good friend who initially ordained as a monk, and decided to change the ordination to be a priest. He was ordained as a Buddhist teacher, as I was, and the feeling is that if you're in a monastic order, closed away from society, how can you teach effectively? But if you're in the world, and you're faced with the same problems that other people have, it's easier to relate to those problems-it's more of a rabbi approach, I guess. You're in the world, but your mission is not to be of the world. It's to teach in a particular format. I think we're a lot more effective that way.
When people come to me with problems I've found I can relate to them very, very well because I've been there, and I know what they're speaking of-not on an intellectual level, but on a gut level. And I think that would be difficult for me if I were a monastic. I think it would help my practice a lot more, but it would make it difficult for me to help others.
Ann: So you're not going to become a monk?
Richard: At the present time I have no plans to do so-that may change. There was a writer, I can't remember his name, but I like his approach very much. When asked about anything he would say, "At the present moment, this is what I am, and this is what I'm doing. I don't know what it will be a year from now." And I'm in the same position.
Ann: As am I. And I want to keep that openness; it's very exciting to keep that openness.
Richard: Yes it is; that's the way to grow too.
Ann: I think if you don't have that focus you miss things that may be right in front of your eyes. Now how about spiritual community? Is that important to you?
Richard: Yes it is. We are really in the process now of forming a sangha, a Buddhist community. It is important, because when you find yourself among likeminded people who have the same goals, it's a lot easier to begin to advance, because you receive a tremendous amount of support, and you can give a tremendous amount of support. So I think a spiritual community is vital to progress.
Ann: How about the community around you? You're in a little town
called Carmel, which is Christian and Jewish-primarily Christian, I would say, right? Is there any conflict with the Buddhist monastery?
Richard: No, actually the relationship between the community and the monastery is quite good. There was some fear, initially, back in 1983
or 1984, when the Buddhist Association of the United States was
looking to buy this land. This was an unknown element coming in, and
the fear was accentuated by the fact that the Moonies had once tried
to buy the property. And of course, at that time the Moonies were
going through some very bad publicity. And the monastery was looked
upon as if it were another cult.
But the monastery has worked very hard with the community to establish
a good relationship. They've invited in nuns, sisters, monks from other religious organizations so we can get to know each other. They've been active in making donations to the community-vans for the Office of the Handicapped or the Office of the Aging to transport supplemental nutrition. So any suspicion that might have been there has pretty much evaporated. And back in 1984, Putnam was more of an isolated community; now it's more of a bedroom community for New York City, and as a result it's much more cosmopolitan and more open to other influences, other traditions, other religions. So it's been a good relationship.
Ann: Well, and America as a culture is changing so much. There are probably Buddhist centers all across America now, right?
Richard: Yes, Buddhism has been called one of the fastest growing-if I can use the term-religions in the United States. It's difficult to judge how quickly it's growing, because unlike Catholicism, which has a Pope and a central organization, Buddhism is pretty diffuse, with a number of different organizations, a number of different sects. So there's no one central controlling authority to keep track of statistics and things.
Ann: When I was teaching here, the monks and the nuns said that if they decided to leave this monastery, they could go to any other Buddhist monastery in the world and they would be welcomed.
Richard: That's correct. Buddhism actually encourages monks and nuns to go to different monasteries in order to broaden their own experience, their own practice of Buddhism, so that they don't become convinced that the particular form that's practiced in their monastery is Buddhism. They can see the breadth of it. And also, hopefully they'll find a particular path in Buddhism that clicks, that works with them.
Ann: I was very surprised by that, because they seem to have a freedom that you might not if you were a Catholic priest or nun.
When I was teaching here I noticed that the women wanted to be called
brothers, not sisters. I asked how I should address them, and they said that they wanted to be called brothers because men had better minds. Have you ever heard that?
Richard: No I haven't. The technical term for a male monk would be
bhikkhu , which means "beggar," and a female would be bhikkhuni. That
goes back to the Sanskrit and Pali.
I'm both surprised and not surprised that they would say men had better minds. The Buddha was one of the first, if not the first, to open a religious organization to women. India was a very patriarchal society. If you were a woman, your place was in the home-to have children, to keep house and to take care of your husband and children. The idea that a woman would go into the religious life was practically unheard of. When the Buddha was asked whether a woman could achieve enlightenment the same as a man, his response was, "Probably more quickly." But Buddhism went from patriarchal country to patriarchal country, from India to Japan to China to Southeast Asia, and the influence of women in the order began to decline-not because of Buddhism, per se, but because of the cultures it was in. But from a Buddhist perspective, a man's mind is not better than a woman's, nor can a man achieve enlightenment more easily than a woman. It's a path that's open to everyone.
Ann: I love that! The divisions are hard for me.
Richard: It's a very artificial thing that's set up by the culture. When Buddhism got to Tibet, of all the countries, it found itself in a place where women were already recognized as spiritual leaders. So even today in Tibet, you will find female religious teachers with many, many male students who acknowledge the woman as their superior.
Ann: So is Buddhism still being taught in Tibet with the Chinese there?
Richard: It is to a certain extent, but it's not officially recognized; the communist government has done a lot to stamp it out. It's coming back now a bit in China. Unfortunately, many of the Buddhist monasteries that are being refurbished in China are being refurbished as tourist areas. When I was in China we went to one beautiful Buddhist monastery, and I remarked to the monk how beautiful the monastery was, and his response was, "What you see is the skin of the orange." Meaning that the fruit is gone, there's no inner life there. It was just being rebuilt as a tourist area. Some Buddhist colleges are beginning again in China, but it's going to be a long slow process.
Ann: Are there any Buddhist colleges in America?
Richard: If there are, I'm not aware of them.
Ann: So this might be the first one.
Richard: It may be the first one, it may not be-it's not here yet. But I honestly don't know whether there are others here.
Ann: Some people see religion as something that can somehow protect you from bad things. So one of the questions people ask is why bad things happen to good people. If they've dedicated themselves to Christ, or to Buddha, why aren't they protected, why do bad things happen?
Richard: Well, Buddhism talks in terms of karma. Karma is not like kismet, it's not blind fate. Basically the idea is that who or what we are right now is a result of what we have done in the past, in both this life and previous lives. If people eat healthy food and exercise-genetics apart, that leads them to be a certain type of person. If, on the other hand, they never exercise, and they drink a lot and eat the wrong kinds of food-that has an impact on their health. So to a certain extent, what takes place is a result of our past actions. But it is not immutable; it is not that things cannot change.
Buddhism emphasizes that bad things happen not so much because of what I've done in a previous life. It's more a matter of-okay, this is the situation that's here now. How do I relate to it, how do I handle it, how do I work with it? How do I do the best I can under whatever the conditions are? If I can go back to my experience when the company was sold and I was under a tremendous amount of pressure: There are two approaches you can take. One approach is, why did this have to happen to me? What did I do that would cause such a tremendous amount of pressure, such a degree of chaos? The other approach is, the chaos is here, the problem is here-what do I do to handle it? And I went to meditation. That didn't change anything outside, but it enabled me to handle it. Bad things are going to happen, if you can use the term "bad." What's important in Buddhism is how you relate to that, how you handle it, how you use the situation to grow as best you can.
When my wife passed away, it impressed on me to a deeper level-a personal level rather than an intellectual level-how much other people are also suffering. When people talked to me about things that had happened to them-the man whose wife committed suicide-I could relate to that in a different way than I had before, because I had gone through that type of pain. So to me at least, Buddhism is really not about trying to place blame for bad things happening to good people, but about giving me the framework, giving me the help to handle bad things when they happen to me or to someone else.
Ann: And then you have a spiritual community, you're not isolated. When bad things happen, if you're isolated, it makes it that much worse. It's easy just to go into the dark.
Richard: It is. And I think in a community you find out that bad things are happening to everybody all the time. You're not being singled out; this is just an aspect of life.
Ann: And that is important, because when it happens it feels like you're the only one who ever got hurt, you're the only one who ever had anybody die. There's something about the human mind, or the human condition-I guess we are self-centered, aren't we?
Richard: We tend to be, and it's a good practice not to be. I remember
when my father died very suddenly of a heart attack, my mother was
very grief stricken, but she was also angry. She thought God had
punished her somehow for something she had done. That's a trap we fall
into. We don't see that death is just a part of life, we feel it's unique to us: Why am I being punished? Why is this happening to me?
Ann: So there's no sense of punishment in Buddhism? In the form of
Christianity that I studied, there was a sense that if you did something wrong you were going to get punished. Is there any sense like that in Buddhism?
Richard: I think the sense in Buddhism is that you're responsible for what happens to you. They use the analogy that Buddhism is a medicine to help you heal suffering; if you don't take the medicine, you're going to continue to suffer. It's that sort of punishment-it's the law of cause and effect, it's not a divine punishment, per se. If you don't look both ways when you cross the street, eventually you're going to get hit, and if you get hit it's your own fault. It's on that order of things, rather than a lightening bolt striking you because of something you've done. Your life and your welfare is in your hands, and it's up to you to do the best you can with it.
Ann: And what is our place in the world as human beings? As we were saying, the whole universe is one living organism, and we are connected to it all. What are we here for? Is there a reason?
Richard: Well, from a Buddhist perspective we're here to improve ourselves spiritually as best we can, and to give as much help as we can to other people to do the same. The ultimate goal in Buddhism is enlightenment. And enlightenment means you are no longer constantly on the cycle of rebirth. But rebirth is looked at in Buddhism as a lifetime-to-lifetime event and also as a process you go through every single day of your life. Buddhism talks in terms of the realms of existence-the lowest realm being the hell realm, which is more like Purgatory-you're there for a period of time, you expatiate your sins, you're reborn.
Ann: That's when you're not here?
Richard: That's when you're not here; you're in a different realm. Another realm up is the hungry ghost realm, and they're usually creatures with huge bellies and tiny little mouths-they can never get enough food in. The next realm would be the animal realm.
Ann: So you move from the hungry ghost realm into this realm?
Richard: It's not a progression; you can go back and forth. This will become more clear as I explain it.
The next realm is sometimes above the human realm, and sometimes below
it. It's called the asura; it's like the demi-gods of ancient Greece-they would like to be in heaven, and they're jealous that they're not. They try to get there, but they're beaten back, and they stew in jealousy. The next realm is the human realm, which is considered to be the best because the luxury is not so great and the suffering is not so great that spiritual progress is impeded. And then the god realm, but it's not God the way we have in the West, it's like Norse mythology: The gods are going to die at some point. They don't know when, and they'll be reborn depending upon how they've lived their lives.
The goal is to get out of the cycle by achieving enlightenment. I mentioned that it's looked at two ways-lifetime to lifetime and in this very life. In this very life, you go to hell very quickly: Your boyfriend or girlfriend calls up, "Hey, I'm sorry, I found somebody else." Bam, you suffer. Or we're hungry ghosts: We can't get enough power, we can't get enough prestige, we can't get enough money, we're never satisfied with what we have, we want more. Or we're in the animal realm: the Super Bowl's on, I've got my remote, I've got my chips, who cares about spiritual progress? For some people, the Super Bowl is on all their lives. Then there's the asura: he's got a bigger house, he's got a prettier wife, he's got smarter kids, he's got a better job-why can't I have these things? I'm jealous of him. And there's the god realm: The boyfriend or girlfriend calls back, "I made a terrible mistake, you're the best thing on two feet, please take me back," and we're in heaven.
So we're always bouncing back and forth. The goal is to break the cycle in this life, to become fully human and stop bouncing from one realm to another without any control over it. So our place in this life, according to Buddhism, is to stop going through the realms, both now and in future lives. The goal is to achieve enlightenment and become a spiritually perfect person. And there's the concept of the Bodhisattva-that we should help as many other people along that path as we can. Whatever another's path might be, we should give them whatever assistance we can.
Ann: So if somebody came to you from a different religion, or they had no religion, as a Buddhist you would still do what you could for them at that particular moment?
Richard: Exactly. I think that the Dalai Lama summarized it very well when he said, "If you're going to become a Christian, be the best Christian you can." And he would help you however he could, because that's your path. Be the best Jew you can, be the best Muslim you can. Regardless of the religion, I think the goal is to become the most spiritual person you can be and to help as many people along their path as you can.
Ann: I noticed the paintings in the temple. Does your own practice involve your ancestors? In Asian philosophy, there seems to be the idea that we carry the truth of our ancestors, and also the idea that if we become enlightened we can help them.
Richard: That really is not a Buddhist concept. It's not like the Mormon concept of baptizing ancestors into the faith. People who have died are now in their own rebirth-depending upon what they've done in the past. Some schools of Buddhism believe that when people are dying, or after they have died, they can still hear. So chants are said, and sutras-writings of the Buddha-will be read, in order to help turn their minds towards spiritual things. But ultimately, the way they will go is dependent upon how they lived their lives.
There's a fascinating story about a young man who went to the Buddha and said that his father had died, and he had no money to pay the Brahmas, the priestly class, to perform the proper rituals so that his father would go to heaven. In the Buddha's time, Brahmanism had become ossified to the point where it was believed that if you did the proper ritual, the gods had no choice, they would have to grant whatever you wanted. And since the young man didn't have the money to get his father into heaven, he approached the Buddha.
The Buddha saw that the young man was very, very agitated and wouldn't respond to reason, so he said, "Fine. I will give you the ceremony. Go to the marketplace and get two jars." And the young man got two jars and brought them to the Buddha.
Buddha said, "Fill one jar with pebbles." So the young man did that, and Buddha said, "Fill the other jar with ghee," which is clarified butter. The young man did, and the Buddha said, "Now seal both jars." So he did. Then Buddha said, "Now put both jars into the lake." The young man did as he was told. He was very excited; he thought this was a wonderful ritual, and he was certain his father would go to heaven. The Buddha said, "Now, take a stick and break the first jar." And the young man was really happy, because the Brahmin custom was for the eldest son to crack open his father's skull with a stick after the funeral services, or after the cremation if there was one. That allowed the spirit to exit and go to heaven. So the young man broke the first jar, and it was full of pebbles, and all the pebbles came out and they sank into the mud. And the young man broke the next jar and it was ghee, and all the ghee came to the surface of the water.
Then the Buddha said, "Now go to the village, get the Brahmins, and have them gather around the lake and chant, 'Pebbles, rise to the surface, ghee sink into the mud."
And the young man said, "Well, Buddha, that's impossible. It's the nature of pebbles to sink into the mud and the nature of ghee to float on the water, and no chant can change that."
And the Buddha's response was, "So too with your father. If his nature was heavy with sin, he will sink into the hells. If his nature was light with virtue he will go to the heavens. No chant or prayer can possibly change that."
And that's a very Buddhist approach-your ticket to your destination depends upon what train you got on and how you led your life, and no ritual can really change that. As I say, there are rituals designed to help turn the mind at the end, but whether it turns or not depends upon the life of the individual.
Ann: I noticed that there's a burial ground here at the monastery, and there are chants being sung all the time.
Richard: Yes there are; that's the Namo Ami Tofu. It's basically a Pure Land for the Chinese practitioners. And again, depending on the school, the belief is that within anywhere from seven to forty-nine days the soul or spirit will have taken a new life. And they can hear within that period of time, wherever they are. So if the chanting continues, hopefully it will turn their minds to a spiritual path, and influence a rebirth.
Ann: Now, the next question is, what happens to us when we die? You've
explained that the way you've lived determines that. When you think about death, and after having just lost your wife, do you have any thoughts about what will happen to you when you die?
Richard: Actually, not too much. I guess right now my main focus is just on my practice in this life, and doing the best I can in this life. What comes next will come next.
The Buddha was very clear on that. He avoided metaphysical discussion and basically compared it to a thicket of thorns in which you can get lost and trapped. And then you begin to argue about the meaning of words. His emphasis was on practice in the here and now, and I really try to keep myself as closely attuned to that as I can. If you take care of the moment, the future will take care of itself.
Ann: Do you have any final thoughts that you might want to share with
someone who has not found a spiritual path or who has a spiritual path that they're questioning? Is there anything from your own life or from Buddhism that you might want to share to assist them in their journey?
Richard: Well, if someone doesn't have a path, based on my own experience I would certainly recommend studying Buddhism-with somebody who knows it very well and can teach it very well-and then applying it. If they find it works, good; maybe they've found a path. If they find it does not work, they should keep searching. Eventually, hopefully, they will find a path that does work.
Based on what other people have told me, those who have a path but are
beginning to question it may find that the tools in Buddhism can help stabilize them in their own path and enrich that path, without necessarily converting them to Buddhism.
Ann: I teach meditation-not Buddhist meditation, but people always say, "Well I just don't have time to meditate." You say you do an hour in the morning and an hour at night. I tell people to start with half an hour in the morning, and they say, "Well I can't do that." So I'll say start with five minutes.
And if they still protest, I'll say, "Well it's not time for you to do it. Never mind about this." But what would you tell people about making a commitment to meditating?
Richard: For me the commitment came out of necessity, because of the
situation I was in. And once I saw what it did for me, how much of a difference it made, other activities were of secondary importance. They didn't matter. If you really look at your life, how much of it is wasted on stuff that's really not important? The second cup of coffee or the second TV program or a novel that really isn't that great, but you have to read it? If you didn't read the novel, perhaps you would have time for meditation or for something else.
I tell people the same thing-take five minutes, take ten minutes. If you begin to do it, and you begin to see the difference it can make, all of a sudden it's not a matter of finding time, it's something that you'll do automatically. The time will come; you'll just drop things that aren't important.
Ann: Another question that people have about meditation is, how can I
get my mind to be still?
Richard: That is a very common problem, because our minds are all over the place. But there are many different techniques you can use in meditation: There's counting, there are mantras, there's visualization. You can find a technique that will begin to slow your mind down a bit. It's not easy at first, but the practice is what's important. You can't run a marathon the first day you start to jog; you've got to build up to it over a period of time, and stabilizing the mind comes over time. There's a meditation teacher who said that those who find it most difficult to tame their minds will get the best rewards when they do it, because they'll suddenly see what's there for them, how rich the rewards are. So the harder the struggle, the better the rewards. And if it's difficult to tame the mind, so be it. Just work on it-it's like going through physical therapy-it may be difficult, but the goal is well worth the effort.
Ann: When you're with people who meditate, they radiate peace. It's just so pleasing to even be near them. Have you noticed that?
Richard: Yes, there's a certain calmness that comes over one. And I know-I was the antithesis of those people before I came to meditation. I was the person who shaved and planned out my day at the same time. As I drove, I was thinking about five other things. I considered that efficient. The more I could do within the space of time I had, the more efficient I was. It was only after I began to meditate and slow down and work on one thing at a time that I realized I had just been dissipating a lot of energy uselessly. So there is a calming influence that takes place. But it doesn't mean that you become less efficient; actually you become more efficient.
Ann: Instead of just lightly touching a lot of things and thinking you did something, there's depth to the single thing you're doing, and it happens very quickly.
Richard: Yes it does. And also, instead of lightly touching a lot of things, I think you begin to realize that a number of those things don't even bear touching to begin with. You can just let them go.
Ann: I studied with the Dalai Lama, and I remember him saying that when he had a very, very important meeting, he would take that much longer to meditate, and then he would be in a much better place to be of value in the meeting. Part of him wanted to get up and start to work with papers and make things happen and know what he was going to say, but he said he found that was just not of value. If he went to the meeting clear, the answers were there, the good questions were there, the ability to be a support was there.
Richard: Yes, I've found that to be true. But it's very difficult to explain that to someone who has not meditated. But I've found that once you do meditate on a regular basis, you get what I would call the Aha! Syndrome. You're sitting in meditation, you're not thinking about anything in particular, you're watching your breath. And all of a sudden a realization, or the solution to a problem comes up. You suddenly realize why you do certain things, why certain activities are taking place in your life-without consciously thinking about them. Mathematicians have said that it's when you let go of a problem that the solution appears, and you discover that this is true in everyday life. Once you calm the mind with meditation, you're open to so many different things that solutions to problems come a lot more quickly.
Ann: So is there anything you'd like to say in closing?
Richard: Well, regardless of your religious tradition, it's worthwhile to take time to meditate, whatever the form of meditation might be-it might be the Jesus Prayer, it might be following the breath. But take some time to center yourself. If you do that on a regular basis, you'll begin to realize a lot about your path, and that will make spiritual progress a lot easier, regardless of what that path is.