Let’s talk a little about the vision for Wisdom River. There are two tracks —Palden likes to call them two streams. The first is the existing stream, which she’s been cultivating with the sangha over the last 20 years: deep contemplative practice and development of a small group of dedicated people. We need to make sure that continues and develops. When she started, she was the only lama. Now she is the senior lama and there are lamas and teachers with her and under her. That’s one stream—to make sure this continues—and Palden will continue teaching in that venue.
The second is the Wisdom River Institute, which will be an online Dharma program. This is not an new idea. There’s lots of online Dharma. We will add to that mix of cyber-dharma, looking for ways to differentiate ourselves and add our particular qualities. We’re fortunate that Stacy Marvel, my predecessor as board president, does this professionally: She already runs a spiritual school online. So she knows how to do it and she’s going to help us find a way to do it. What the content is going to be is very important: How much will it be Vajrayana, how much basic foundations and Mahayana, who is going to teach it. There’s also the roll out of a website that can hold it. So there’s a technical aspect and a content aspect, and we’re in the beginning stages of conceptualizing both of those.
We want to be creative about these offerings — think outside the box. Wisdom River is an adventure and experiment which will be exciting for the whole sangha. It gives them something to use for meeting the world where it is. The coming times are going to be tough and suffering acute. We’ve seen climate change destruction in Houston and Puerto Rico, and in the coming years, there will likely be more horrible disasters in the third world as the glaciers continue to shrink and eventually stop sending water. Things are going to get harsh. Denial is a wonderful way to avoid thinking about this, but reality breaks in.
The deepest motivation for Wisdom River is to have some kind of response to this, however small. Many of the Buddhist sites aren’t thinking this way. They’re promulgating mainstream Dharma according to their lineage—very traditional and straight ahead. They haven’t been innovative in helping people meet the challenges of these times, and our intention is to innovate so we can help a broad spectrum of people in a practical way.
To what extent will Lama Palden be teaching in Wisdom River?
Lama Palden is writing a book for which she already has a publisher. The title is Love on Every Breath and is about her way of teaching tonglen — sending and receiving. I think the Wisdom River stream is going to have that teaching element in it. She will be offering it even as she’s writing the book, and not only as a theme. She has an interesting way of doing Shangpa lineage tonglen such that it can be used on the spot in the midst of activity. So that will be an important teaching coming directly from her and a distinctive element in that stream.
Beyond that, it’s not yet clear how much she will be involved. A lot of online Dharma features headliners — people who are well known. Her vision is to have more people teaching than just her, but she will have an important presence.
What made you decide to take on the role of board president at this time?
I’ve been involved with Sukhasiddhi for over 20 years. I was part of the board when it was just forming, and helped Lama Palden teach the four-year teacher training. There are a couple reasons I chose to take on the role of board president. First, I’ve retired from active teaching as a Buddhist teacher and wanted a venue to continue my involvement in Dharma. Sukhasiddhi was a natural place for that to happen. Second, as Lama Palden prepared to come back into active teaching after her sabbatical, I watched and listened to her developing vision in response to current world conditions. She wanted to activate a bodhisattva vow for herself and for the sangha in an outward-facing way.
I’m a big believer in that. Even though a lot of us came to Dharma from meditation and contemplative practices, the real foundation is the bodhisattva vow. Meditation is just one of the perfections of the bodhissatva life. The bodhisattva vow is to liberate all beings from suffering and ignorance. The Buddha’s motivation was not just for himself but to help beings and this is foundational. It goes back to the eight-fold path: the first is right intention and that is the bodhisattva vow.
I’ve been on many boards and have been involved in many dharma groups— big and small— so I offered to do this, particularly in response to Palden’s vision of expanding into the Wisdom River Insititute. I saw that I could help make that happen.
Will you be teaching at all in Wisdom River?
I feel like now my role as board president is a way to support others to teach rather than my doing it. I’ve been teaching for 40 years. I looked at that and asked, is there any rule that Buddhist teachers can’t retire? In many traditions, there’s a custom that once teachers have empowered their disciples, they fade out from teaching and write poetry. In my case, I’m a musician and I’m also doing a documentary film. So I’m busy with other things but want to stay involved with supporting the Dharma, and this is my way to do it.
While my tradition is Zen, I feel comfortable in a Mahamudra environment because it feels familiar to me on a root level. Zen and Mahamudra are a lot closer than most people realize. There is a lot of overlap. Lama Palden and I know it because we’ve spent a lot of time together and we’ve ascertained that my style of Zen and her’s of Mahamdura are very close in terms of practice and teaching — so much that I think there is a common root in India.
Lew Richmond, a Zen teacher and long-time supporter of Sukhasiddhi, recently took on the role of Board President with the intention of supporting an expanded role for Sukhasiddhi in the wider community. We spoke with him about his new role and the vision for implementing the Wisdom River Institute, a new stream of teaching that Lama Palden envisioned in response to current world conditions that will focus on making Dharma accessible and relevant to a wide range of people.