What originally attracted you to Sukhasiddhi that led you to serving on the board?
My own Buddhist practice began in the Theravaden tradition, then a stretch in Zen, and when I found my way to the Vajrayana it became my home in practice. I was involved with Lama Palden for a number of years in her Diamond Logos class, and have done a few retreats with her. I’ve felt really good about how she’s been presenting Dharma in the west.
I have a lot of experience with spiritual nonprofits. I worked for Spirit Rock and for Insight Meditation Society. I’ve known Lama Döndrup for some time as she also worked for Spirit Rock, and I have a number of friends who are a part of the Sukhasiddhi sangha. I am attracted to Sukhasiddhi because I can be part of an organization that is working to make the Vajrayana tradition relevant here in the west.
As a board member, what are you most interested in focusing on in terms of Sukhasiddhi’s evolution?
The coronavirus has forced Sukhasiddhi into developing online offerings, and this will be a very interesting part of the organization’s evolution going forward. In addition to a strong local sangha, there’s a developing worldwide sangha, which is an exciting development. It’s not yet clear how the two will interface with each other. Will there be a way for them to join into a larger felt sense of a sangha? In the last several programs offered online, a significant number of people were logging on from overseas or other states, so this is an area that is important.
Another area that at least for me personally feels important has to do with establishing Dharma in the west. When I first started practicing in my 20s, I’d go to a meditation retreat and everyone was in their 20s. After spending time in Thailand as a monk, when I came back to the States I was more in my 40s, and when I looked around, others in the Dharma were also in their 40s and 50s. As a westerner practicing the Dharma, this is a concern of mine.
It seems to me that we need to bring in the next generation. The Dharma can’t fully establish itself until many are coming to the Dharma because it’s what they grew up with and they learned their connection to Dharma from a young age. So how can we nourish that? I’ve had conversations with others in the Sukhasiddhi community who are also interested in this topic.
Part of my job at Spirit Rock was to oversee the family Dharma program there, and currently as a psychotherapist, I work a lot with kids. I teach them mindfulness as part of their therapy and interest in it varies from child to child. Sometimes I’ll start teaching mindfulness to a child and they’ll let me know it is not going to be part of their therapy, thank you. Others are intrigued by it. I’ve taught mindfulness in schools as well.
What interests me in a broader way is how throughout its history when the Dharma moves into a new cultural context it both shapes the culture and is shaped by the culture. I wonder, in what ways will the Dharma shape American culture, and in what ways will it adapt itself in order to be meaningful for those with a western mindset? How do you maintain the purity of the teachings and at the same time adapt them to a new cultural context? Sukhasiddhi is a place that’s holding this question.
What about your personal practice? Are there particular areas of the Dharma that interest you in terms of the evolution of the Dharma in the west?
At this time, my own practice is in the area of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. Early in my practice, I became interested in the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Origination. I had experiences of the sense of self disappearing and it always came back. I wondered why and asked my teachers about it. Christopher Titmus suggested that Dependent Origination was the best place to explore that.
It is interesting to see how Dependent Origination is expressed on the level of the subtle body. I haven’t been able to find many Buddhist teachings that describe Dependent Origination on the subtle body level, but I have my own experience of it and have taught at Spirit Rock about it. Vajrayana has the strongest connection with the subtle body dimension of our experience in terms of how the Dharma is taught and practiced, but it’s perplexing that even in the Vajrayana tradition I don’t find much teaching about subtle energy in relation to Dependent Origination, when for me Dependent Origination is the most central teaching of the Buddha.
My training as a psychotherapist is Jungian. One of Jung’s perspectives is that the unconscious has two languages. The first is imagery, like dreams and myths, and the second is energy. Archetypes are patterned energy activity, images fashioned from subtle energy. In my experience of Dependent Origination, each of the 12 links is a patterned activity of subtle energy. The patterned activity signature of each link structures our experience, thereby shaping our understanding of life and ourselves in ways characteristic of that link.
In the constructive direction of Dependent Origination, as the links are built one on top of the other our experience changes with each added link until at the eleventh link our full ordinary sense of self is complete. As such, we could think of the subtle energy expression of Dependent Origination as an archetypal system that is central to the human sense of self. In our usual experience it functions in the unconscious background beneath our ordinary level of conscious awareness.
In practice, as our samadhi and insight deepen, we deconstruct the sense of self, discovering versions of ourself when some of the links are no longer active, eventually opening to the selfless basic ground when the last link of ignorance falls away. I find various layers of this process expressed visually in the iconography of the Tibetan tradition.
This is a way of looking at the teaching that’s not traditional and I’m a pretty traditional Buddhist, so it’s an edge for me to find in my own practice something a little different than what the traditional teachings emphasize.
Anything else you’d like to add?
At Sukhasiddhi, I’m still getting to know what the issues are and what my input will be in the process. I’m looking forward to learning more from the Sukhasiddhi sangha and want to encourage anyone who would like to talk to me to get in touch and give me ideas that they’d like the board to look at.