Q: Since the death of Ayya Khema last fall, I understand you have been helping the staff of Buddhahaus by leading some of her previously scheduled retreats. Can you tell us a little about what it was like to lead a Buddhist retreat outside of the United States?
A: Since foreign travel is one of my major interests, it's great to be invited to come to a foreign country. My hosts have been wonderful everywhere I've gone; I've gotten to visit places, like Jerusalem, that I wanted to visit, but hadn't gotten to yet; and just being in another culture is always memorable and a valuable learning experience.
The actual leading of the retreats is much like in the U.S. In Israel, there was the fact that the vast majority of the students didn't speak English as their first language, so it made the interviews a bit more difficult as I had to figure out each students accent as well as their questions. But the basic framework for Vipassana retreats everywhere I've been is very similar, so the adaptations have all been quite minor.
Q: Ayya Khema used to speak of the similarities between the experiences of the Christian mystics and the Jhana states. Did you encounter any questions about how the Jhanas relate to the traditional teachings of the Kabbalah while you were on retreat in Israel?
A: Yes, I did get a question about the Kabbalah and Buddhism. But since I know so very little about the Kabbalah, I had to say so and that I didn't know the answer. And, of course, after that there were no more Kabbalah questions.
Q: You are currently working on a computerized Tibetan dictionary/text-preservation [not translation] program that has given you an opportunity to live and practice in the midst of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Nepal. Do you find many resonant qualities between the different traditions as they are now being taught?
A: Oh, yes! The differences are mostly of method and emphasis. The whole idea of studying ones mind and understanding that we are trapped by our grasping is the foundation everywhere in Buddhism. What varies are the methods for studying ones mind and what techniques are used to help one learn to quit grasping.
Now, this is not to say that living in a Tibetan quarter in Kathmandu is anything at all like living anywhere in the West. The spiritual dimension of life is so much more apparent in many places in the East, and particularly in Kathmandu. The material struggles, however, are so much greater. But living there, even temporarily, does give one a whole new perspective on life.
Q: Do you ever feel caught 'on the horns of a dilemma' by using or studying different meditation methods in your own practice?
A: No, but then I have been careful (and lucky) about what different meditation methods I mix together. I practiced several different flavors of Western Vipassana plus Buddhadhassa's mindfulness of breathing method for the first 5 five years after I began to meditate. While working with the latter, I stumbled into the 1st Jhana. I had a very strong feeling that what I was experiencing was quite important - after all my motivation for sitting went from sitting because I knew it was good for me to sitting because it was so interesting. But none of the teachers I encountered during the next two years could really help me with what I was experiencing - that is until I sat my second retreat with Ayya Khema. She not only understood what was going on, but explained to me what I should do next. At that point I began doing only the Jhana practices - concentrating on concentration for the following two years.
After those two years, I was reasonably good at accessing the Jhanic states - certainly I had not mastered them - I still haven't mastered them - but I felt it was time to work more with insight methods in my practice. For me, the way the Jhanas are best used is to do them as a warm exercise before doing an insight practice. At this time, Ven. Tsoknyi Rinpoche unexpectedly appeared in my life and taught me the Dzogchen practice - yet another case of "when the student is ready, the teacher appears." Dzogchen itself is very compatible with Vipassana plus I found that doing the Jhanas during the first part of a sitting and Dzogchen during the last part of that sitting was a very powerful combination. I have done several other Tibetan practices over the last six years, but none of them have felt that they integrated as easily into the Jhana/Dzogchen method I have been doing, so none have become practices that I continue to do regularly.
I never set out to combine methods from different traditions - it just happened. And I did spend a long time working with each method before moving on or adding something else. I would suggest that students stick with a method that seems to work for them and to definitely not go looking for additional methods from other traditions. If some new method appears in one's life, then maybe try it out and see if it fits. But I would suggest great caution in combining methods, and a strong grounding in a single tradition before adding anything new.
Q: You have led retreats now in Western Europe, in England and Germany. Do you see any particular differences developing in Buddhist practice there as compared to what you've seen here in the U.S.? Is there a distinctly European "flavor" to the Dharma?
A: The obvious differences are all cultural, but they don't seem to very deep. For example, the British prefer to ask their questions in writing; the Americans prefer to speak their questions. The people from Mediterrian areas are more passionate about the Dhamma than those from cooler climates. It's just the usual cultural differences - nothing really noteworthy other than that the American, and particularly Californian, emphasis on psychology is much less outside of America. We Americans do let our preoccupation with ourselves carry over into everything we do, unlike the rest of the world.
Q: I know already that I would be interested to have Leigh address the issue of seeming similarities between this practice and the concentration practices within other Buddhist traditions (Zen style
concentration practices or Tibetan Samata meditation). Are they different in essence and/or result? Is Jhana practice something that individuals doing those other practices would find helpful? Basically, I'd like to know how to present the Jhanas to people doing Zen and Tibetan practice, because my hit is that they would find them tremendously helpful.
A: I'm afraid I don't know enough about the Zen style concentration practices or Tibetan Shamatha practice to be able to say whether there are differences in essence and result. I do know that the Jhanas are mentioned in the Tibetan texts (outside of the Tibetan version of the Pali cannon) and I suspect they are mentioned in the Zen texts as well. So they are not unknown in these traditions. But I suspect that the Zen style concentration and Tibetan Shamatha practices are quite different as no one has mentioned any similarity.
I think Jhana practice would be very helpful for anyone who is seriously studying the mind. The Jhanas generate a level of concentration unlike anything I have ever experienced in any other endeavor. And that concentration has the effect of temporarily suppressing the ego and allowing one to see things much more as they are, rather than from our usual egocentric perspective.
As for presenting the Jhanas to people in other traditions, I think they will have to attend a retreat where the Jhanas are taught. One can read and study about the Jhanas, but there is no substitute for the actual experience. And since experiencing the Jhanas seems to require a lengthy meditation retreat - enough time to really get settled and quiet - it's probably necessary to attend a retreat. I have had several people with Zen or Tibetan backgrounds on retreats I've taught. They seem to have no more or less difficulties learning the Jhanas than someone with a Vipassana background. It all seems to be a matter of motivation, plus some previous meditation experience of any sort.
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