• A Buddhist Approach to Politics: An Interview with Chogyam Trungpa

    This article on Buddhism and Politics originally appeared in the Shambhala Review of Books and Ideas, Vol 5, Winter 1976.  It in included in the Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Volume 8.

    Trungpa in Japanese RobeShambhala Review: To most people who are trying to follow some sort of spiritual path, politics poses a very difficult problem. Many just decide to give up, to bypass it. This doesn’t seem to be a very legitimate way of dealing with such an important part of our lives. Could you give some guidelines from a Buddhist point of view?

    Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:  In  this  country  we  have  the  particular problem that we have inherited a lot of things, and even though we want to understand them properly and do the proper thing, still, there are so many extraneous things we have to work through. This makes it somewhat difficult. Generally it is a question of having a sense of responsibility to society. This seems to be the important thing. People involved with a spiritual discipline have a tendency to want nothing to do with their ordinary life; they regard politics as something secular and undesirable, dirty or something. So, to begin with, if a person came with a sense of responsibility to society, that would be a Buddhist approach to politics and also to the social side of life, which is the same, in a sense. There should be a sense of one’s own responsibility, not relying on other people’s help. One’s own economic situation should be self-sufficient; a sense of responsibility begins there. I think one of the problems is that the abstract notion of democracy is misleading. In some sense, a lot of the problem comes from the aggression inherent in our concept of democracy; people begin to feel they have been cheated or have not been allowed enough freedom to do what they want, to say what they want.   It lacks a notion of discipline that should go along with it: just throw everything into the big garbage pail and, hopefully, somebody will do  the sorting out in our favor. This is a big problem. I think the Buddhist idea of a politician is not so much one of a con man or of a businessman who wins favor with everybody, but someone who simply does what is necessary. Sometimes the situation is such that you have to go through undesirable experiences, even give up your sense of freedom. Sometimes you may even have to allow yourself to step back. I think in this country, politics are based on a kind of bad-mouthing and trying to speak out, which is all right, but which usually amounts to not knowing what to  say; one is just copying someone else’s aggression. Then aggression starts to snowball. In some sense, the main point is responsibility, which is important in how the government is run, how the situation is organized (not just ignoring everything completely and regarding it as a bad job). I mean, from a Buddhist point of view, there is some sense of taking an interest, we could say, for the sake of all sentient beings. This means we should take part in it. This does not mean to say you have to take part in riots or blowing up banks or anything like that. But it means to undertake some kind of process whereby you try as much as possible to at least eliminate the byproducts that you inherit. When you begin to do this, then you begin to have a feeling that a fresh start is taking place.

    SR: The byproducts are . . . ?

    Rinpoche: Our long-term inheritance from problems that took place before and of which we are still victims. Trying to change this karmic chain reaction. Just start fresh.

    SR: You are talking about responsibility on a personal level, an individual level, not as a group.

    Rinpoche: Yes. I think the notion of a group is very misleading. There is no such thing as a group, actually, but putting individuals together is what makes a group. So it depends on whether the individuals are strong. That is precisely the Buddhist notion of sangha.

    Self Immolation

    SR: An incident took place during the Vietnam war that was very surprising to most Westerners and perhaps to Buddhists in particular. I don’t know if you remember it or not, but a young monk committed suicide by setting fire to himself; he poured gasoline over himself and then lit a match. He did this as a political protest. It was very surprising to most Westerners, and even to Western Buddhists. Do you remember that incident?

    Rinpoche: Yes, indeed I do. I read a book about it. I was in England at the time.

    SR: Can this be explained in a Buddhist context?

    Rinpoche: Well, I don’t think you could. I would not say it was a truly Buddhistic kind of approach but rather more of a Southeast Asian or Oriental mentality, like the hunger strikes in India, more of a national characteristic. For instance, there was a big protest of the Koreans who cut off their fingers in front of the Japanese embassy. This is traditional rather than Buddhist. And it really doesn’t help anything. You just become a headline in the newspaper for several days and then the whole thing is forgotten. So, I would not say that this is a particularly Buddhist approach. Obviously, those Buddhists had suffered a lot and felt tremendous pain and discomfort, but nevertheless, they could have done something different.

    SR: So we have these two extremes. On the one hand we have those who take a violent approach to politics and either blow up banks or commit acts of violence; and on the other hand, we have personal acts of violence to oneself, like this monk. If neither of these is the proper approach—and the proper approach, from what you have indicated, is not passive and is on the individual level—what sort of approach is it? Would you go into this some more?

    Rinpoche: Yes. We use the terms passive and active. We have to be very careful. Active does not mean aggressive, just active. In a sense, it  is a sort of passive activity, more of a reconstruction of new situations rather than riots or things of that nature. If each person, in his own capacity, contributes a little bit by having a very sane approach, first of all, to his own personal life, which should be straightened out, then his sense of sanity could be developed. It might be just a drop in the ocean, but it would be very valuable. Start in this way and at the same time pay attention to what is happening and see how you can contribute.

    SR: This is a bicentennial year as well as an election year. People will be going to the polls in November to elect a new president, new congressmen, and in a great many states governors as well. And since politics are never black or white, and you can never find just exactly what you would like to vote for, is there, from a Buddhist standpoint,    a way to prepare yourself when you go to the polls to make these difficult decisions?

    Rinpoche: Well, I think even if you had a most enlightened president, things still wouldn’t be different, because he too inherits the political setup and economic traditions of the country. So he also is trapped in a particular chain reaction. You can’t have an ideal situation. I suppose the best approach is a long-term approach; taking it in stages, like hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana: a slow approach. It is similar to trying to shift gears into some kind of element of sanity that exists in your particular realm, your particular congressman or president, and trying to follow it up. It is not so much what we should be doing this year alone but that we should follow it up all the time, trying to develop some trend of continuity in a different direction, rather than purely believing that there is going to be tremendous good news if the right president is elected. Somehow, that is not going to work. It takes the work of centuries. But  I think it is possible; it is up to people to change, to take part and pay attention, if they can do so.

    SR: Do you foresee Buddhism taking a more public role in politics? Do you see it influencing politics?

    Rinpoche: Well, I think we cannot say that we are planning on having an active role in politics. The decision is not up to us. However, this might happen as more and more people become involved in Buddhism, especially as intellectuals and influential people begin to be slowly attracted to the Buddhist approach. So it is a question of sheer numbers. Because of their own life situation, I think in quite a short time, perhaps, Buddhists will have a visible effect on politics. And the effect will be great, and they will find themselves playing a part in politics, rather than just jumping in. So it could happen.

    SR: Do you see anything in particular happening as a result of this?

    Rinpoche: Well, hopefully some kind of sanity would develop, obviously. We can’t expect a golden age. On the one hand, if we have a long period of time without a war, everyone will be affected by a depression; and on the other hand, if we have a long period of an economic high, everyone will just abuse himself completely. Some kind of turmoil is necessary, but we do not particularly have to develop it. It happens. At the same time I think the Buddhist contribution to these situations would be very different in that the Buddhist approach is nontheistic. It does not have a concept of uniformity, particularly—just basic unity. And because of this, there is no hierarchy, like a belief in God. Therefore, since everything is self-reliance, purely self-reliance, that does encourage people to think more for themselves. In time that would have a great  effect, I would say.

    SR: Christianity, more or less, has been a religion of a future life. In other words, life here is very ephemeral and we are here only in order   to prepare ourselves for another life, a greater life, which comes after death. This has influenced the social concepts of the West to a great extent. A great deal of social evolution didn’t take place because the attitude was to keep to the status quo since this life was not supposed to be improved; you are supposed to accept it as God’s will in order for you  to prepare yourself for the life to come. Am I correct in saying that Buddhism does not have this sort of attitude toward life? That this life is only preparatory for another?

    Rinpoche: Well, I suppose the Buddhist approach is, just do it, on the spot, rather than reliance on the great white hope that something just might happen, and therefore, we should push toward it. In that case you never see the end product; you just keep pushing all the time; this tends to make things very vague, in a sense, and, at the same time, very aggressive. You cannot experience what is going on. From that point of view, the Buddhist approach is not really based on hope. It’s based on just sit and do it on the spot. Perhaps this may be a very powerful improvement. I particularly think a person’s mind begins to take a turn more toward experience, rather than faith alone. I think this is the core of the matter in politics as well: you are supposed to just have hope, rather than living experience; then hope becomes just a nonexistent entity. But you are still supposed to push on aggressively, struggle toward it. The idea, I suppose, in the Western world or the world of democracy, is the notion of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, or trying to create the ideal Jewish level, or whatever, which is  really a  poverty-stricken way of viewing it. I am sure the traditional doctrines did not possess this kind of approach, but this is the way we see it and this is what we have: man is sort of wicked and fallen from God’s grace, and he should do penance and try to build things up. This is the sort of wretched attitude which is a problem. As long as we condemn ourselves, no confidence can take place. People are bewildered and only rely on technicians or technocrats or, for that matter, on theologians or politicians. One feels he is just a layperson and doesn’t possess a specialized knowledge or profession and hasn’t studied how to do things—therefore he feels completely outside of the situation. This is one of the greatest problems I see in the Occidental world.

    SR: How would Buddhism approach social reform, brotherhood of man?

    Busha and the Dalai LamaRinpoche: Well, I don’t think a Buddhist would look on it as social reform. Buddhists would look at the chaos and the problems that exist  in the present situation; it’s delightful and something to work on. Then you work with it, you have some feeling of being very relaxed in your own chaos and turmoil; thus, you have complete confidence. The end product has never been expected or tailored. Just what is happening on the spot; you just do your duty, you just do your thing, day by day, simply. Then whatever shape it might take because of that, you accept it, of course. There is no idea of pigeonholing anything or trying to reshape anything. The interesting point is there is no such thing as a greater plan for an ideal world, a utopian world.

    SR: Do Buddhists have a tendency to be isolationists?

    Rinpoche: I don’t think so. Particularly because the mahayana Buddhist’s concept is to relate to your surroundings and try to help each other. The Buddhist notion is to use everything available around you to further yourself and your fellow sentient beings. Buddhists may be less aggressive, and if somebody wants to come and fight, they may not fight. They might defeat their enemy, but the way of fighting is, not so much of a fistfight or street fight, but taking advantage of the whole situation.

    SR: From a mahayanist point of view, do you think we might have a closer relationship with all peoples?

    Rinpoche: I think so. Definitely. Not only people but animals included—all sentient beings. (Laughter)

    SR: So there might not be as much nationalism?

    Rinpoche: Well, there would be the same sense of dignity and celebration, obviously, but at the same time, it would not be nationalism. When we talk of nationalism, that is a sign of weakness. A person wants to fight just anyone who enters his territory, to defend himself. Therefore, you call yourself a so-and-so nationalist. Which as a sign, a symbol, becomes an expression of a sense of territory and patheticness.

    SR: Thank you.

  • Dudjom Rinpoche's Interview about Guru Padmasambhava

    The following article appeared in Volume 5 (Winter, 1976) of the Shambhala Review of Books and Ideas, a magazine that was part of Shambhala Publications (unaffiliated with Shambhala International or the Shambhala Sun), a magazine that ran a few issues in the mid 1970's.

    Tibetan Buddhism, Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje (1904–1987)

    This interview with Dudjom Rinpoche was conducted by Shambhala Publications' staff with the assistance of Tulku Sogyal who was present at the time.

    For more information, see our Dudjom Rinpoche's author page for articles, videos, books, and more.  Additionally, our Reader’s Guide: Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje is a wonderful support to guide you through his numerous works.

    Shambhala Review of Books and Ideas

    Magazine  Volume 5 (Winter, 1976)

    A Guru for Turbulent Times


    An Interview with His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche

    His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje, is one of the greatest living scholars and tantric masters of Tibetan Buddhism today. His Holiness was born in 1904 in the province of Pemakod in southeastern Tibet and was recognized as the reincarnation of the great Tibetan master and yogi Dudjom Lingpa, who was famous for his discovery of many secret texts which bad been hidden away many centuries before by Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century. He is also the reincarnation of Shariputra, the disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha and the reincarnation of Khyeuchung Lotsawa, one of the original twenty-five disciples of Guru Padmasambhava. His Holiness is recognized by the Tibetan community as the Guru Rinpoche of our time.

    Nyingmapa is the oldest and original school of Tibetan Buddhism. The name itself means "The Ancient Ones." This School has preserved through an unbroken lineage the highest tantric teachings of the Buddha. These teachings known as Dzogchen or Ati Yoga deal directly with the original nature of mind, and through their practice one can attain liberation in the course of a single lifetime. Dzogchen is transmitted through an oral tradition. His Holiness is the supreme holder of these teachings.

    Tulku Sogyal Rinpoche was trained in the Buddhist tradition of Tibet by some of Tibet's greatest lamas and was raised as a son by the great Jamyang Khyentse. Rinpoche was educated at Cambridge and founded a Dharma center in England. Recently he has been traveling with His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche as interpreter and aide.

    His Holiness is recognized by the Tibetan community as the Guru Rinpoche of our time.

    Related Books

    The Interview with Dudjom Rinpoche

    Shambhala Publications Staff: I would appreciate your talking about the Dzogchen (rDzog-cben) teachings, or what is known as Ati yoga. Could we begin with some historical background? Does any of the Dzogchen teachings predate Buddhism?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: The Buddhist teachings that we know in this age were given to us by Buddha Shakya­muni, the historical Buddha. This is the Buddha­dharma period of Buddha Shakyamuni. However, in actual fact, the Dzogchen teachings originate from Samantabhadra Dharmakaya. They have existed from time immemorial. According to the Dzogchen lineage, there are twelve teachers, or twelve Buddhas. Buddha Shakyamuni is one of these twelve; he was the last to appear.

    Sogyal Rinpoche: So in a sense, these teachings do predate the Buddhism that is known today.

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Dzogchen teachings have, from time immemorial, been in the Dharmakaya and have been directly transmitted to the Sambhogakaya Buddhas, who have been continuously teaching in the Sambhogakaya field of timeless time. So therefore Dzogchen goes beyond historical time.

    How are these teachings transmitted?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: In the Dharmakaya field, the teaching is given directly (dGong,rGyud); it is "mind-direct" transmission. Whereas in the Sambhogakaya field the trans­mission is through signs (brDa-rGyud).

    (Note: In the Nirmanakaya field the transmission is oral (sNyan rGyud).

    And in the Nirmanakaya state?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: The twelve Buddhas that we mentioned before and who belong to the Dzogchen lineage have appeared in the Nirmanakaya state, or field. It is the state of manifestation. From the very beginning of time till now, twelve Buddhas of the Dzogchen lineage have appeared in the different spheres according to the needs of beings. However, the one known to us is Buddha Shakyamuni who was the last in the line.

    The uniqueness of Dzogchen is that if one can take the teachings to heart, it guarantees complete liberation in this lifetime and in this body.


    Are these different states or "Kayas" accomplishable in this lifetime?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: The "mind-direct" transmission is in the Dharmakaya, the samadhi state, out of which all sphere and states evolve; there are twenty-five different levels. We are on the thirteenth level, or path of the Buddhadharma. These concepts are very difficult.

    And these different states can be attained during this lifetime?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Certainly. (Laughs) That is what Dzogchen is all about. Dzogchen has actualized this. In the present dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni there are two teachings: the Sutrayana, the causal vehicle, and the secret Mantrayana, called the resultant vehicle. Buddha Shakyamuni himself prophesied before his Parinirvana that one would come who was even greater than himself. This prophesy was fulfilled in the person of Guru Padmasambhava. He came to reveal the secret dharma teachings of Mantrayana that Buddha Shakyamuni had not fully made known. Therefore, the basis and the whole of secret Mantrayana really evolved specifically through Guru Padmasambhava.

    In what way do the teachings differ from one another?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: It takes many, many lifetimes of accumulating merit and removing defilements to attain enlightenment through the Hinayana. Even attaining bDag-med (the realization of egoless mind, liberation from samsara, or cessation of suffering), let alone enlightenment, takes many, many lives on the Hinayana path. According to the Mahayana path, one has to spend three kalpas accumulating merit and three more removing defilements. According to the secret Mantrayana path, one can reach enlightenment in seven to sixteen lifetimes. However, the uniqueness of Dzogchen is that if one can take the teachings to heart, it guarantees complete liberation in this lifetime and in this body. And if one misses the chance in this lifetime, then one can gain enlightenment in the bardo state and if not in the bardo state, then in the next lifetime. But enlightenment is completely and fully guaranteed in seven lifetimes.

    Seven lifetimes or seven thousand miles! (Laughter)

    Sogyal Rinpoche: Yes! The crucial point is that you must keep the samaya pledges of the Dzogchen teachings in this lifetime. This in itself will elevate you to a fuller spiritual development in the next life. Thus, in each successive lifetime, you will become more spiritually developed than in the previous one until ultimately you are fully enlightened: This depends on not breaking the samaya pledges.

    What are the samaya pledges?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Samaya, or Damt-shig, are, briefly, pledges that one must keep and abide by. They are a way of taking the teachings to heart. They are mainly the body, speech, and mind pledges. this turbulent period, whatever one does is speeded up. Karma keeps pace with the twentieth century and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) keeps pace with it also.


    Are the pledges hard to keep?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: There are so many Damt-shig, but if one were truly devoted, then keeping them is not difficult. On the other hand, if one is lazy and naive and does not have a strong mind, then keeping the pledges would be difficult. So it is very much up to oneself whether one makes it difficult or easy. Whether one keeps them or not depends on devotion (Dad pa), industry (brTson bGus), and wisdom (Shes rab).

    In Hinayana, are most of these pledges for monks?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Even in the Hinayana there are lay devotees who keep the basic precepts. They are known as dGe,sNyan, which means those who cultivate good and virtuous dharmas; they are those who are cultivat­ing the four various levels of dGe,Nyan. You must remember that in Hinayana the stress is on conduct and on the absolute renunciation of samsara. This includes the home and marriage. From Mahayana on­wards, there is more flexibility of conduct and a greater breadth of mind, a quality of openness. In Hinayana, the view is less encompassing and the actions are more restricted.

    How does one go about practicing the Dzogchen teachings?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Dzogchen teachings concerning the View, Meditation, and Action can only be granted and realized through the personal guidance of a qualified lama.

    Is this the reason these teachings are kept secret?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: These teachings will not be made public. The teachings can only take place if there are really serious devotees who take the teachings to heart and accept the personal guidance of a teacher. In these spiritually degenerate times, secret Mantrayana teachings are being publicly revealed; it is not realized that these teachings, especially the Ati yoga teachings, are under the protection of the Dharmapala like Ekajati. These teachings consist of rbyud (tantra), Lung (oral transmission), and Man-nGag (secret instruction and guidance). The untimely revelation of such powerful teachings would incur the wrath of these Dharmapala, which would have an adverse effect not only on the revelator but those who took part in receiving them. Misfortunes might befall them.


    Dudjom Rinpoche: Yes. Ekajati is the sole protector of the Dzogchen teachings.

    Sogyal Rinpoche: It is important that they are transmitted person­ally under favorable auspices. On the other hand, secret Mantrayana teachings are self-secret. Even if you try to learn them by yourself you won't understand them, and what is even worse, you will misunderstand them. If correctly carried out, first the teacher examines the disciple, then the disciple, after careful consideration, accepts the teacher. This way, both can cope with each other. In a situation where the teacher, with discretion and wisdom, finds the disciples ready, then fine. Otherwise we break or impair the lineage of the teachings. Once we are initiated into a particular mandala, the samaya pledges bind us together with the lineage, almost creating a common and linked karma.

    ...putting it into  practice; this is samaya. All this can be done through devotion, industry, and wisdom.

    If one of us breaks a pledge, the others in the mandala are affected. It affects the life of the lama, his works, and the spiritual development of his followers; it affects the teaching. This is very, very important, and therefore samaya pledges should not be treated too lightly. You must look before you leap. It is important to  keep harmony within the vajra family, with one's vajra brothers and sisters, all followers of the Vajra­yana path, but particularly those of one's lama: people who received the initiation or the teachings together in one circle. We must not forget the pledges to the teaching and lineage itself. It is not just a mat­ter of receiving something but of putting it into  practice; this is samaya. All this can be done through devotion, industry, and wisdom.

    Dudjom Rinpoche: There are higher Dzogchen teachings of which one cannot even receive the oral transmission without empowerment, let alone permission to read them. For instance, when the word of the Buddha was translated from the Pali and Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, the Dzogchen teachings were not included because they did not dare to make them available to the general public. Dzogchen teachings were kept separate and were called "rNying ma 'i rGyud 'bum."

    Who taught them? Who were the teachers?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: The teaching came down from the Dharmakaya Samantabhadra to the Sambhogakaya Vajrasattva, to Nirmanakaya in the form of Garab Dorje (the first human teacher of the Dzogchen lineage). From Garab Dorje it was passed to Shir'a,scng-wa (Shri Singha) and then to Padmasambhava (the second Buddha) and so forth.

    He [Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava)is the Buddha of our time and cuts through our neuroses and skillfully relates the dharma to the frustrations of our age.


    In your opinion, what are the chances of Dzogchen taking root here in the United States?

    Dudjom Rinpoche and Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

    Dudjom Rinpoche: From my travels, I think the United States has the best possibilities. Of course, it is very much up to the people themselves. There seems to be, at the present time, a tremendous interest in this line of teaching. There seems to be quite a lot of devotion to Guru Padmasambhava. It depends on the Americans themselves. Their collective karma will play an important part in how they work with the teachings. If the American people work and really want this, if they follow it properly, then of course, the compassion and blessings of the Buddhas and lamas of the lineage would take effect.

    Sogyal Rinpoche: This particular era is very turbulent and every­thing is kind of gross, but it is exactly in this kind of field that Guru Padmasambhava's compassion and power works best. And another point is that in this turbulent period, whatever one does is speeded up. Karma keeps pace with the twentieth century and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) keeps pace with it also. He is the Buddha of our time and cuts through our neuroses and skillfully relates the dharma to the frustrations of our age.

    Dudjom Rinpoche: Yes, this is so. He is the most direct of all the Buddhas in giving aid in this age.

    So, because of this speeding up, it is not only a very turbulent and degenerate time, but it is also an exceptional time for a great deal to be accomplished on the spiritual plane.

    Dudjom Rinpoche: That's up to the people. Guru Rinpoche said,

    "Time doesn't change, people change."

    If people really follow him and ask his help, he will respond, and under his compassion and grace, the secret Mantrayana teachings will continue, especially Ati yoga teachings and, for that matter, the entire Buddhadharma. There is hope.

    This is very interesting because America, or the United States, has been exposed to Buddhism under the form of Hinayana and Mahayana since the 1800's, but when we consider Tibetan Buddhism, it was-boom. You see, it came very quickly. Suddenly the Chinese took over Tibet, and many Tibetans fled and eventually come to the States to teach Buddhism. But all this happened in a relative­ly short period of time.

    Dudjom Rinpoche: It shows the karmic link that America has with the secret Mantrayana teachings of Guru Padmasambhava. (In other words, the Tibetan Buddhism, which is the secret Mantra-vajrayana, originates from the teachings of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche was the first and sole consolidator and propagator of the Vajrayana teachings and practice.)

    Working skillfully on ourselves and not totally giving up our worldly goods leads quickly to attainment.


    If one felt this devotion to Guru Rinpoche, how would one begin to practice?

    Dudjom Rinpoche: We must put ourselves completely in his hands: our body, our speech, our mind. Complete reliance on him, following his teachings in practice, and directing his mantra are necessary as the basis of con­fidence and strength in the Vajrayana practice. (Guru Rinpoche's mantra can be made available to all. It is one mantra that can openly be revealed.) All this is true. The uniqueness of Guru Rinpoche's line is that we do not totally have to change our life style or take on the stricter precepts as is found in Hinayana. Working skillfully on ourselves and not totally giving up our worldly goods leads quickly to attainment.

    On behalf of the Shambhala Review of Books and Ideas we would like to thank you for granting this interview.

    For more information:

    Dudjom RinpocheDudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje (1904–1987) was a highly revered Buddhist meditation master and the leader of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. 

  • The Bodhicitta Effect

    A Healing Power


    A Surprising Discovery

    Recently, during a one-year mindfulness facilitator training, our team of teachers made a surprising discovery. As part of an exercise, students were taught how to guide each other through mindfulness and compassion meditations. Afterwards, students shared their experiences of how this had been for them. One of those who shared was Anne. She told us that this exercise had helped her to understand the depth and subtlety of the mindfulness of breathing practice more deeply and enabled her to feel in a tender way her meditation partner Cloe’s sorrow. While we were pleased to hear this, we were not surprised. This is what we had been hoping for. However, what she shared next took us by surprise. She spoke of an “unexpected great joy” this process had given her, and, in her course evaluation shortly afterwards, described this as “the single best exercise in the training.” This was not only true for Anne; most everybody in our thirty-member strong group shared similar reactions to doing this exercise.

    The Bodhicitta Effect

    Bodhicitta is the wish for all beings to be well, to be happy, and to be free. Even our wish for own awakening is dedicated to the well-being of all. Bodhicitta is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Mahayana Buddhist practices. When we act on our wish to share our riches, such as knowledge, insight, happiness, or wealth with others who are less fortunate, we are acting with the motivation of Bodhicitta. As we act with the intention to help another to be more at ease, awake, and healthy, we notice that we ourselves become happier and increasingly content. At the same time, we notice a growing desire to continue working for the well-being of others. Our longing for connection, and to see another well and happy, becomes intertwined with our own happiness, meaning, and purpose. This is the “Bodhichitta effect.”

    Bodhicitta is the wish for all beings to be well, to be happy, and to be free. Even our wish for own awakening is dedicated to the well-being of all.

    Learning, Growing, and Receiving through Teaching

    Currently, mindfulness teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach are training about two thousand students to become facilitators. Their training is only one of many current mindfulness teacher trainings. What is it that draws so many to want to share their practice with others?

    When we learn to teach, we don’t just do this practice of meditation for our own benefit but also for the benefit of others. As we deepen our practice of meditation and experience it more fully, our hearts open to those we guide, and compassion develops naturally.

    Many years ago, when I began leading others in meditation, I realized that my understanding and experience of the practice was deepening, and that my heart was becoming naturally gentler and kinder. Talking with Jack Kornfield, my mentor of many years, about this, he smiled and said, “Yes, when you teach others, it works your own heart.”

    I remember a phrase from my medical training, “Learn one, do one, teach one.” If we “learn” and “do” the practices of mindfulness, loving-kindness and compassion, then “teaching” others helps to open our own heart even more.

    I remember a phrase from my medical training, “Learn one, do one, teach one.” If we “learn” and “do” the practices of mindfulness, loving-kindness and compassion, then “teaching” others helps to open our own heart even more.

    The Healing Power of Caring and Sharing

    What is happening here? Is this about the benefits of giving? Or is it about what happens when we go beyond just caring for our own well-being?

    There has been extensive research on how giving makes us happier than receiving. Social scientist Liz Dunn writes in the journal Science that people’s sense of happiness is greater when they spend relatively more on others than on themselves. The Huffington Post reported a study on charitable giving. They found that when people donated to a worthy cause, the midbrain, an area related to pleasure, lit up.

    Emphasizing the Buddhist principle of dependent co-arising, the Dalai Lama says that one’s own happiness is dependent on the happiness of others. In Ethics for the New Millennium he notes that happiness comes from a deep and genuine concern for others. The Dalai Lama calls giving to others, “wise-selfish,” because in the end, we gain as well. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others.” Will we have to transform the idea of “self-help” from “me-help” into “we-help?”

    If we understand that our giving, sharing, and passing on makes us happier and opens our hearts, then doing it begins to feel natural to us. So often we are taught that in order to be happy, we need to give priority to taking care of ourselves and, perhaps, also a very few near and dear ones. Even some Buddhist groups teach that we should contain ourselves to “sweeping our own door-steps.” But research tells us how important it is to share with others so that we feel happier, less afraid, less alone, and more empowered.

    Arthur Brooks from Syracuse University pointed out that “givers” are happier and healthier than those who don’t. Stephen Post and Jill Neimark claimed in their book, Why Good Things Happen to Good People, that giving to others benefits the community and is therefore associated with pleasure and happiness. They also noted that compassion and kindness leave less room for negative emotions.

    Giving to others releases “feel-good neurotransmitters,” and leads us to the self-reinforcing, yet virtuous cycle of a “helper’s high.” Sander van der Linden from the London School of Economics suggests that “giving” points to a solid internal code of conduct, which in turn is a strong psychosocial predictor of charitable intentions. This dynamic naturally leads to self-confidence, self-esteem, and resilience.

    Practicing Interdependence

    The Buddha’s central teaching is that the true nature of life is interdependence.  Could it be that when we choose an activity with the intention of helping another, when we deliberately “practice interdependence,” that this brings us into alignment with “the way things are,” and that this brings us joy?  Does happiness emerge spontaneously and organically when we practice interdependence?

    The Bodhicitta Effect implies that our happiness, confidence, and sense of meaning are interwoven with our willingness and ability to share our knowledge, wisdom, and kindness with others. This is not only true of teaching meditation to others but to the generous and compassionate quality of every act of kindness.

    The Bodhicitta Effect implies that our happiness, confidence, and sense of meaning are interwoven with our willingness and ability to share our knowledge, wisdom, and kindness with others.

    I remember Peter, another student in our training, who had complained many times of how “numb” he felt throughout the months of our time together.  In the closing circle, Peter spoke of how he had experienced empathy in a new and caring way for Stuart, whom he had been guiding.

    There are many ways to share and serve.  Teaching meditation is a way to practice compassionate action that allows us to grow and deepen in the process. And it does not matter whether we are guiding just one other person, or two neighbors, or a bigger group in meditation—the Bodhicitta Effect is activated.

    Related Books

    Radhule WeiningerRadhule Weininger, MD, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who first trained as a medical doctor in Germany before migrating to the US more than thirty years ago. See more about her here.

  • From Fire to Mud | A Journey Through the California Fires

    The Lotus of Mutual Belonging

    california fires
    “If the world is to be healed through human effort, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for life is even greater than their fear. People who can open to the web that called us into being.”—Joanna Macy

    The Flames of the California Fires

    From the top of our roofs we could see the fires crawling over the hills closer and closer towards us. In December 2017, Santa Barbara was stricken by the most significant fires on the West Coast of America. For about two weeks, our little town felt like a post-apocalyptic landscape, deserted, with shops closed and scattered people wearing facemasks and shawls, scurrying through the deserted streets. Thrown back and forth between terror of annihilation and detached numbness, many of us hunkered down at home glued to the TV screens or fled town.

    The Santa Barbara fire followed closely on the heels of catastrophic burns in California and hurricanes in other parts of the country as well as environmental distress spreading throughout the world, from Puerto Rico and Mexico to Bangladesh. Our fire flared against the backdrop of a harrowing year in the political and social arena. Environmental protections had been stripped away as well as healthcare, respectful treatment of immigrants, quality education, and human rights.

    In the midst of the desolation of the fire crisis, when many of us felt contracted, lonely, and shrunken, the yellow-clad bodhisattvas had rolled in on their red chariots. Youthful, strong firemen and women faced the inferno on all of our behalf. Their willingness to give, to risk it all for our townspeople, saved not only countless lives and houses but also momentarily restored trust in the goodness and generosity of life. One of the bodhisattvas, a 31-year-old man, father of a young girl, tragically lost his life in the fire. His willingness to give up everything to save others softened our hearts.

    Another Catastrophe

    Who would have dreamt that three weeks later, as we were beginning to heal from the fire, rains would come to devastate the fire zone with a mudslide? No one was prepared for this catastrophe. After the fire and before the flood there was a strangely surreal hiatus between tragedies. For a few days we were inspired by the compassion and courage of others, and we tried to believe that all was normal again. It was surprising how we seemed to rebound when the flames had receded just days before the holidays. We took on Christmas with gusto; we shopped away and cooked up a storm while trying to forget the recent calamity. Yet, a strange sense of hollowness and unreality remained. I found within myself a nagging sense of unease. Caring only for ourselves and our near and dear ones did not seem enough.

    Yet, a strange sense of hollowness and unreality remained. I found within myself a nagging sense of unease. Caring only for ourselves and our near and dear ones did not seem enough.

    Right after New Year’s, when the rains descended, the mountain moved, and immense masses of rocks and mud slid down to decimate our town. A gargantuan rain and mudslide left a significant area destroyed, hundreds of houses demolished or damaged, and over twenty people dead. Several victims have still not been found. Overwhelmed with emotions, many of us wondered if we were experiencing a preview of a nightmare future. We experienced ourselves as vulnerable, little creatures, easy to hurt, if not extinguish. We felt the vulnerability of our broader world. While the immense rocks tumbled down the mountains, our hearts cracked wide open. With so many human lives lost, our community was devastated, and because so many were displaced, those of us remaining were brought together by our tears.

    The Stories

    We were broken open to one another by amazing stories of human bravery and generosity. Curtis, a local man, stayed behind intentionally, so he and his neighbor could help all the other people on his street get out of their houses and into safety. Connor, a twenty-two-year-old friend of my kids from school, tried in vain to pull his dad out of the stream of mud. A young firefighter risked his own life to dislodge a family of five and their dog from their destroyed house: to lift them, one by one, into a helicopter. The family, who had lost their father, received generous donations from a GoFundMe collection; they gave the whole sum to an underprivileged immigrant family, a father and his two-year-old son, who had lost their mom and siblings in the stream of sludge and boulders. Hearing about these and many other examples of selfless and compassionate action freed us from isolation, and, for a brief time, allowed us to know the web that called us into being to remember that we “inter-are.”

    As much as I wished that this catastrophe had never happened, at the same time I appreciated what we were learning. I began to worry that our open hearts would close up again. I recognized that the events here were a microcosm of what is happening on a global level. We had been catapulted into what may well be our future, a future foreshadowed by what is already happening in many other parts of our world. As humans we are pulled between closing up and self-protection on the one hand and openness towards others and generosity on the other. This is a fundamental dynamic for all of us as we face difficult times.

    As much as I wished that this catastrophe had never happened, at the same time I appreciated what we were learning. I began to worry that our open hearts would close up again. I recognized that the events here were a microcosm of what is happening on a global level. We had been catapulted into what may well be our future, a future foreshadowed by what is already happening in many other parts of our world. As humans we are pulled between closing up and self-protection on the one hand and openness towards others and generosity on the other. This is a fundamental dynamic for all of us as we face difficult times.

    In his best seller, Why Buddhism is True, developmental biologist Robert Wright argues that over the millennia it may have been to our evolutionary advantage to be greedy, selfish, and “delusional” in our perception of ourselves and reality. Boosting up our egos and grasping whatever we could for ourselves may have advanced our family’s or tribe’s position. Now this kind of behavior is threatening the survival of our ecosystem, and it brings the gravest suffering to many parts of our world. Wright has a recommendation for us: as genetic evolution is too slow to save us now, we need to engage in cultural evolution; meaning, we need to cultivate attitudes that help our societies to transform and our planet to survive and heal.

    The Buddha’s Idea of Dependent Co-Arising

    As I contemplate that which might support us in holding our experience in a more caring and respectful way, I think of a phrase I heard recently from Joanna Macy: “mutual belonging.” She used this term in her explanation of the ancient Buddhist idea of dependent co-arising. The Buddha saw life as continuously emerging and then falling back into the stream of becoming. He showed us how everything co-arises in interaction. The reality we experience ascends from what we bring to it, our intention, effort, mood, and awareness. Life is changing as we participate in it. Training in understanding of dependent co-arising helps us to cultivate attitudes of caring towards a widening circle of others. As our caring widens, our perceptions and behaviors change, allowing us to develop more compassionate ways of being with each other and our world.

    The Buddha taught that we suffer deeply when we stay imprisoned in a “delusion of separateness.” As we remain stuck in fear and alienation and as we cling to what by nature is transient, we become more and more entrapped. I see this with some of my psychotherapy clients. Those who have been so frightened by life that they have retreated into a shell of self-protection find themselves cut off from the stream of life. They often suffer the secondary trauma of isolation, quiet and desolate anxiety, and loneliness. By contrast, I have seen that it is possible to free ourselves by living our true nature, that of inter-being, joining the dynamic of life itself. Awareness of our interconnectedness as well as the fact that we all affect each other in everything we do can then become the basis for a dynamic bridge-making between ethics and metaphysics. If we cultivate attitudes of being that help us abstain from violence, greed, and self-preoccupation and instead practice awareness, kindness, and caring for all life, then our own suffering and that of others will spontaneously decrease.

    Practically speaking, how can we engage in Wright’s cultural evolution? How can we here in Santa Barbara remember Joanna Macy’s call to practice our radical interconnectedness with all of life? How can we cultivate attitudes that help our societies transform and our planet to survive and heal?

    Practically speaking, how can we engage in Wright’s cultural evolution? How can we here in Santa Barbara remember Joanna Macy’s call to practice our radical interconnectedness with all of life? How can we cultivate attitudes that help our societies transform and our planet to survive and heal?

    The “Solidarity and Compassion Project”

    A little over a year ago, in response to feeling overwhelmed and despondent in the wake of the presidential election, my husband, physician and author Michael Kearney and I initiated monthly community meetings called the “Solidarity and Compassion Project.” In each meeting, we addressed a different theme and invited a panel of speakers, representing a range of spiritual, intellectual, scientific, and psychological perspectives to join us for practice and discussion. Poets and musicians also joined us as we learned that joy is the much-needed antidote to despair and grief. Each meeting combined meditation with an exploration of sustainable ways to bring compassion and engagement to the many social, political, and environmental challenges we are confronting.

    Serendipitously, in December, before the fire and mud, we had planned that the theme of our January gathering would be about grief. Meeting in the belly of an old church with richly colored windows allowed us to exhale after we had held our tension in so tightly during the weeks of fire, downpours, and rolling mountains of sludge. Guided meditations allowed us to be present with our inner feelings of rawness, dread, and alarm, as well as continuous feelings of uncertainty. Michael and I led participants in loving awareness and mindfulness practices with phrases, such as “Let yourself settle into the sensations in your body, and notice whether there is tightness, ache, or vibration. Feel breath arising with the inhale, letting go with the exhale, allowing the warm breath of life to breathe you.”

    We also led the group in compassion practice, inviting all to extend caring to themselves and others in a gentle and relevant way. I suggested that those gathered quietly repeat the phrases I offered. I said, “May I treat myself with gentleness and understanding in this time of loss. May I meet my grief with tenderness and care,” and, “May I be compassionate and patient with myself, especially when I feel afraid.” Widening the circle to include others in our care, I continued, “May those close to us be healthy and protected. May all those who were hurt in this crisis be safe well again,” and, “May those in this world who experienced similar traumas to ours find the support they need to heal.”

    Finally, we began to relax. Together we were able to feel the feelings of last week’s experiences. Images arose of burning mountains and memories of the alarming voices of TV announcers shouting their warnings. We remembered the dark grey air, the torn apart houses, the mud-covered areas that had once been streets; we remembered the faces of those dead or missing. Within the safety of community and practice, we were also able to feel the sensations of our stressed nerves, so raw and fried. Feelings, thoughts, and image debris were released within the safety created by this practice of mindfulness meditation—all passing down a river of loving awareness.

    When we feel afraid, lost, and trapped within ourselves, practicing self-compassion can reaffirm our willingness to extend a hand towards our own traumatized inner selves. As we gradually make friends with ourselves, compassion for others will follow more easily.

    When we feel afraid, lost, and trapped within ourselves, practicing self-compassion can reaffirm our willingness to extend a hand towards our own traumatized inner selves. As we gradually make friends with ourselves, compassion for others will follow more easily. We extended warmth and understanding towards that in ourselves which was afraid and lost; we thawed out the cold spaces within and around our hearts. It felt as if the cores of our beings had contracted in the midst of so much agitation and panic. Like shy birds with their heads pulled in, we needed breath to breathe us into calm, warmth, and tenderness. Then, we sat together for a long time, sharing what we’d been through, remembering Curtis, Conner, and the young fireman. Through love and developing equanimity, we began to learn to tolerate the rawness of our experiences. My husband Michael puts it like this: “The more connected we are, the more we care. The more we care, the more we long to do what we can to improve the well-being of others. And in that process, we heal.”

    In recent weeks, groups of volunteers of all ages and of all parts of the community, the “bucket brigades,” emerged. These groups of community volunteers have gathered every weekend and moved “bucket by bucket,” restoring damaged homes and landscapes. One young woman, Anahita, who lost a close friend in the mudslide, shared in one of our gatherings, “At first I felt more triggered than anticipated by seeing all the mud and debris. It reminded me of our friend who died, and I felt like I had more of a tangible visual and tactile feel for how she lost her life. But as I connected to the people and the mission of the bucket brigade, and as we picked up our shawls and started slowly chipping away, I felt a sense of healing in this. Tears welled up in my eyes—tears not only of grief but also of gratitude, for community healing in action.”

    Dealing with Catastrophe

    Catastrophic events challenge us to find new ways to reintegrate our psyches. I am grappling with unanswered questions: What do we learn from such events? Do we go back to “business as usual,” trying to forget as fast as we can? As research on groups of people threatened with annihilation suggests, will we close up, become more rigid, look for scapegoats, and turn our grief into blame? Or can our hearts stay open and soft with increased compassion for others who suffer through similar plights?

    A few weeks after our first gathering, I led a meditation in Montecito, in the area that had been most devastated by the mudslide. Huddled together in a yurt-like structure behind a store, in what is called the “Sacred Space,” fifty people came to meditate together, listen to stories of loss and trauma, of uncertainty, fear, and hope. A man told us about the anxiety that still wakes him up every morning at 3 a.m. A woman talked about how she found gratitude for what is truly essential in her life after her house had been completely flushed away. There was a raw and open feeling in the room.

    Recently, I heard that there are lawsuits looming in Santa Barbara, some devastated residents blaming others as culprits for nature’s disaster. What is happening in our little town is mirrored by the developments in our country where we face daily choices between angry blame and proactive compassion. Experiencing the mudslide brought out a whole spectrum of responses. Some have found themselves retreating into understandable behaviors of self-protection, while others have turned towards initiatives leading them to reach out in generosity. A grocery store and several restaurants at the edge of the disaster zone opened their doors to give free water and meals to survivors and first responders.

    How do we turn adversity into an opportunity to grow and love and heal? Holding this question, I was reminded of the well-known American Indian story “Which Wolf do we Feed?” This is the version told by Algonquin elder Wolf Wahpepah:

    You probably heard the story of the Indian boy who went to his grandfather for wisdom. His grandfather told him, “Inside of me there are two wolves, a selfish wolf and a compassionate wolf. And they fight all the time. The selfish wolf tells me to look out for myself, to feed my appetite. The compassionate wolf says I should be concerned about the welfare of all and be concerned about their needs.” The grandson asked his grandfather, “Well grandfather, which one of the wolves wins?” Grandfather replied, “Whichever one we feed.”

    This article is about practice, choice, and cultivating an attitude of compassion and caring. We need to develop structures that are based on an understanding of interdependence and inter-being, that recognize our mutual belonging and radical interconnectivity. Gradually, as we align ourselves one by one with these structures of mutual belonging, we create a culture of compassion and spontaneous caring.

    What has happened in this tiny microcosm of Santa Barbara might have significance in a much broader context. As we get thrown about by increasingly intense environmental events, as resources for many are getting slimmer, and as our weapons of mass destruction become increasingly ominous, we in our broader world need to cultivate what we are learning in Santa Barbara. We need to teach ourselves to be generous, open-hearted, and inclusive.

    Related Books

    Radhule WeiningerRadhule Weininger, MD, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who first trained as a medical doctor in Germany before migrating to the US more than thirty years ago. See more about her here.

  • Happy Birthday Pema Chödrön!

    Pema Chodron

    We are proud to be Pema Chödrön’s publisher, and we want to give you the chance to wish her a happy 82nd birthday this July 14th.

    Leave a comment below with your birthday wishes.

    If you’d like to make a donation to the Pema Chödrön Foundation, you can do so here.


  • Bonus Recipes from Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind

    Four Recipes for You to Enjoy

    We are excited to share with you four bonus recipes developed by the creators of Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind, Kate O'Donnell and Cara Brostrom.

    Carrot & Green Bean Palya

    Everyday Ayurveda Cooking

    This versatile recipe can be used to prepare all sorts of fresh vegetables. The combination of hing and cinnamon lends a south Indian flair that tastes amazing but is quite simple to prepare.

    Serves 2

    1 Tbsp coconut oil
    1 tsp mustard seed
    pinch hing (asafoetida) powder (optional)
    1 cup green beans, trimmed and cut into one-inch pieces
    1 cup diced carrots
    ¼ cup shredded coconut
    1 tsp cinnamon
    1 tsp salt
    ¼ cup water

    Warm the coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and hing powder, if using, and saute in the oil for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover the pan with a lid so the seeds don’t escape when they pop.

    Add the green beans, carrots, and shredded coconut and cook for a few seconds more, stirring to distribute the oil and the spices throughout. Add the cinnamon and salt, then the water. Stir, cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 10 minutes.

    Remove from heat and serve warm.

    Spiced Stovetop Chickpeas

    Everyday Ayurveda Cooking

    The drying quality of chickpeas are a great purifier for spring time. Go for this recipe when it gets damp and cool out to feel toasty and satisfied. Makes a great topper for a hot grain or vegetable bowl.


    Serves 4

    1 ½ cups chickpeas, cooked
    1 tsp coriander powder
    ½ tsp turmeric powder
    ½ tsp cumin seeds
    ½ tsp salt
    2 Tbsp ghee

    In a medium bowl, toss the chickpeas with the spices and salt until evenly coated. Warm the ghee in a large skillet over medium-high heat until melted.

    Add the spiced chickpeas to the skillet and use a spatula to spread the chickpeas out in a single layer. Allow the chickpeas to cook, undisturbed, for 4 minutes until they begin to crisp. Next stir the chickpeas, and let them settle again in a single layer to cook, undisturbed, for 4 additional minutes. Remove from heat and allow chickpeas to rest in a bowl.

    Serve atop your favorite rice or grain bowl, add kale and drizzle with Easy Tahini Dressing, or enjoy on their own as a tasty snack.

    Easy Tahini Dressing

    It’s hard to go wrong with the balanced taste of sesame, a famously nourishing food in Ayurveda. This dressing is my go-to vehicle for the sesame magic when I need grounding qualities and deep-tissue rejuvenation.


    ¼ cup tahini
    1 Tbsp maple syrup
    2 tsp tamari
    1 tsp ginger powder
    juice of 1 lemon
    1 to 4 Tbsp hot water, to thin

    In a small bowl, stir together the tahini, maple syrup, tamari, ginger powder, and lemon juice until well combined. Stir in the hot water 1 tablespoon at a time, until dressing easily drizzles from your spoon.

    Serve over steamed kale, rice and veggie bowls, or atop kichari.

    Grounding Golden Milk

    Everyday Ayurveda Cooking

    This spin on the traditional turmeric milk tonic includes more tasty and sweet spices. Build the immune system, the blood, and the bones while making your health tonic into a treat!

    Serves 2

    2 cups whole, organic milk
    1 tsp ghee
    1 tsp coconut sugar
    1 tsp ground turmeric powder
    1/2 tsp ginger powder
    1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
    1/2 tsp ashwagandha (optional)
    generous pinch of cardamom powder
    a few grinds of fresh black pepper

    In a small saucepan, warm the milk uncovered over medium-high heat for 2–4 minutes, or until you see steam rising out of the pan. Add all the other ingredients and whisk by hand, or with an immersion blender until combined.

    Related Books

    Kate O'DonnellKate O’Donnell is an Ashtanga yoga teacher, a nationally certified Ayurvedic practitioner, and an Ayurvedic yoga specialist. See more about her here.

    Cara BrostromCara Brostrom is a lifestyle, editorial, and fine art photographer. Cara specializes in photographing the subtle energy of yoga and the beauty of natural and wholesome foods.

  • Embodied Freedom

    The Traditions of Passover

    by David Jaffe, author of Changing the World from the Inside Out
    passover matzah

    The Passover prayer book, or Haggadah, that my family used when I was growing was in English, Hebrew, and transliteration of the Hebrew. The story told is that when I was nine years old, I cut out strips of white paper and taped them over the English and transliteration, wanting only to read the original Hebrew language. A sure sign of a budding zealot or rabbi. While I did become a rabbi, and not a zealot, what I didn’t appreciate then was that the stories in the Haggadah were only one half of the action on Passover. It would take me many more years to learn that eating the special foods of Passover can be an embodied spiritual practice in itself that helps us internalize the main point of the holiday.

    It would take me many more years to learn that eating the special foods of Passover can be an embodied spiritual practice in itself that helps us internalize the main point of the holiday.

    What is the main point?

    According to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, “The Jewish religion is founded on the divine assurance and human belief that the world will be perfected. Life will triumph over its enemies—war, oppression, hunger, poverty, sickness, even death.” (The Jewish Way, p. 18)

    Passover is the Jewish holiday that testifies to the ongoing belief in and determination to achieve this redemption. The central ritual of Passover, the festive meal called the Seder, serves as the main vehicle for reaffirming this belief.

    Passover is the Jewish holiday that testifies to the ongoing belief in and determination to achieve this redemption.

    The rabbis of old, who developed the annual Passover night rituals contained in the Haggadah, set for themselves a very high educational bar. The Haggadah itself throws down the gauntlet, saying, “In every generation, one is obliged to regard themselves as though they themselves had actually gone out from Egypt. . . .” The experience of oppression and freedom needs to be personal if Passover is going to serve its function of reminding us to stay at the work of liberation and redemption. At different times over 3,000 years of Jewish history—including the Crusades, immigration, the Holocaust, and return to the Land of Israel—not much creativity was needed to feel oppression and the yearning for freedom. But in times of relative tranquility we need the rituals of Passover to generate this first-hand experience to keep us from drifting into complacency in our comfort and forgetting our covenantal role in nudging the world toward universal redemption.

    How to get people to relate personally to the message? Tell stories and literally digest the message! The Haggadah is not an expository essay or history of the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, it is a series of stories about the experience of slavery and the miracle of freedom. We are all encouraged to be storytellers this night and share our own freedom experiences or those we’ve heard about. When I can locate myself and my aspirations in the real stories of others, I now have a place and know this whole freedom business is about me too. I’m invested in keeping the story going.

    The other way to personalize the message is to embody the experience of oppression and freedom through food. The ritual eating of Matzah (unleavened bread) and Maror (bitter herbs) communicate the holiday’s central message by literally putting it into our body. I want to share two ways of doing these rituals that have been meaningful to me over the years. If you follow these instructions, I guarantee you will experience these rituals differently.

    Meditative Matzah

    Matzah is any wheat (or barley, spelt, rye, and oat) flour that is mixed with water and cooked before 18 minutes pass, which is the time that the dough begins to rise. In some cultures the Matzah looks like a large cracker, and in others it is softer, like a tortilla. In my family we like using the hand-baked, large round Matzahs with ample burned parts to give us that old-time taste that is hard to get with the nice, square, uniform-shaped, machine baked versions.

    Eating matzah on the first night of Passover is actually the only form of eating instructed by the Torah that we still have today. All the other things our ancient scriptures tell us to eat are related to sacrifices that fell by the wayside of history.

    In an ironic way, Matzah, this poor person’s bread, represents freedom. It is the bread the Israelites ate as they left hundreds of years of slavery behind.

    In an ironic way, Matzah, this poor person’s bread, represents freedom. It is the bread the Israelites ate as they left hundreds of years of slavery behind.


    Each person at the table takes a piece of matzah. After the blessings are said, everyone remains silent for the next few minutes while the Matzah is consumed. Savor your Matzah. Look at its contours. Feel it with your fingers. Smell it. Slowly chew it and let yourself taste the flour. Eat it slowly and imagine the Israelites quickly leaving the only home they ever knew, refugees on the run from an oppressive master going into the unknown, but as free people. Chew some more matzah and hear the sound of others chewing. At an agreed upon time the leader calls everyone’s attention back for the next ritual.

    Tasting the Sting of Oppression

    The bitter herbs are the other major ritual food item for embodied practice. Many people use horseradish because of its sharp bite. In an instructive twist in Jewish law, the bitter herbs must be chewed before swallowed, whereas one technically fulfills the obligation of eating matzah even if swallowed whole without chewing. We need to taste the bitter herbs to embody how life is embittered by oppression.

    We need to taste the bitter herbs to embody how life is embittered by oppression.


    Each person takes a portion of bitter herb on their own plate. After the blessing, everyone remains silent again as the bitter herbs are consumed. Slowly chew the horseradish, or other bitter herbs, letting the burning juices sink into your tongue and open the sinuses. (Warning: Too much bitter herb can actually hurt so take only as much as you think you can handle. The point is to feel the burn, not to hurt yourself). As you are chewing and feeling the sting, consider the following.

    The Mussar teachers explain that the Yetzer Harah’s (the Inner Adversary) main strategy is to keep us busy, moving so fast that we don’t absorb our own reality or the reality of the world around us. There is so much suffering in the world. Our own suffering and the suffering of others—migrant workers who harvest our food being paid less than a living wage who expose themselves to dangerous pesticides and contract illnesses and do not have the health insurance needed to heal. Subsistence farmers in Central and South America forced by economic need to produce only one type of crop, no longer having the ability to feed their own families. Or closer to home, a relative may be silently suffering health problems, family strife, or economic vulnerability. The bitter herbs practice is teaching us that we can’t be numb to suffering if it is to have its cathartic and motivating impact. Our busyness urges us not to look, not to dwell, not to really feel—even our own suffering. However, it is the bitter taste that reminds us that this is not ultimately the way the world should be. It is possible to end suffering and we are key players in the process.

    May this Passover help us know, in a fully embodied way, that we can create change. The conditions of our lives are not permanent or inevitable. Our human inheritance is to be free and create relationships and communities that honor dignity of all creation.

    For the Torah says: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying: ‘For the sake of this, Hashem did for me when I went out from Egypt.’” Not only our father did the Holy One, redeem, but also redeemed us with them . . .

    Related Books

    David Jaffe is a rabbi, a social worker, and an educational consultant to many major Jewish institutions in North America. See more about him here.

  • An Everyday Approach to the Ayurvedic Diet

    Practical Aspects for Success


    Natural, Seasonal, and Dosha-Specific Diet

    Helping clients understand the medicinal aspects of food is one thing, while inspiring them to purchase, prepare, and enjoy beneficial foods can be another challenge altogether. Based on personal experience and observation of clients, I am a firm believer in the importance of a natural, seasonal, and dosha-specific diet. Twenty years ago, my first Ayurvedic doctor cautioned me against “outside food,” and it remains true for me that home-cooked food is balancing food.

    Becoming an Ayurvedic Cookbook Author

    Most often, I found convenience foods to be a contributing factor to imbalances, and in some cases, a causal factor. My emergence as an author of Ayurvedic cookbooks has been a direct result of my experience encouraging clients to eat homemade food and teaching them how to prepare recommended food items. Many already owned an Ayurvedic cookbook, but confusion about “my dosha” kept them from using these books as they felt unsure which recipes to prepare. Some even used dosha-specific food lists to restrict their diet without understanding the gunas of the foods and why one or another substance may be beneficial or non-beneficial. I found the linear nature of the Western mind, especially where diets are concerned, problematic in its readiness to create black-and-white scenarios about food, which in some cases caused more stress than benefit. The language and approach I used to share the Ayurvedic principles about food became the most important aspect of my teaching.

    I found the linear nature of the western mind, especially where diets are concerned, problematic in its readiness to create black-and-white scenarios about food, which in some cases caused more stress than benefit.

    Simple Ayurvedic Meals

    In writing The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Eating and Living Well I wanted to do two things: make it simple enough for the householder to prepare Ayurvedic meals and give equal importance to diet as well as lifestyle practices. I separated the recipes into 5 sections: Every Day, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. The everyday recipes provide a spectrum of vegetarian breakfast/lunch/dinner recipes with neutral qualities, using grains, mung beans, cooked vegetables, and cumin, coriander, and fennel. The seasonal sections begin by explaining the qualities of the season and the foods to favor and reduce to balance those qualities. I also include recipes that use those foods. I find that readers have been cooking the recipes season by season. When I recommend the book for dosha-specific purposes, I point to the season and its qualities that mirror that of the dosha. I find clients are less likely to identify themselves as a dosha and remain free to focus on enjoying beneficial foods, while noticing the effects of non-beneficial foods when they eat them. For the Ayurvedic lifestyle, I explain dinacharya practices in an appendix and point to certain practices for “every day” and others seasonally.

    The Mind at the Heart of Food Choices

    While I can definitely report results from the first book in terms of people actually cooking and feeling better, so often I continue to find the mind at the heart of food choices. I have noticed how mental turbulence and day-to-day stress are affecting digestion. For this reason, I created the second cookbook, Everyday Ayurvedic Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Simple Sattvic Recipes. My intention with this new book is to bring the attention to the mind and the role it is playing in our health. In this book I keep it deliberately simple, breaking out three recipe sections: recipes to cultivate sattva, to relax and calm rajas, and to motivate tamas. I recommend the reader eat from the sattvic section anytime, the rajas section when feeling stressed out, and the tamas section when feeling dull or slow. Experience and observation have proved that even the best foods cannot heal when taken in haste, when mentally disturbed, or when the client believes this food can harm them. Mealtimes are a ripe time to shift the attention internally, to slow down, to relax. I want the Ayurvedic diet to be not only seasonal and dosha specific, but also deeply nourishing and contemplative. It is through Ayurveda’s synergy of physical and spiritual means that practitioners, and our clients, can create a relationship with the self that brings about a sustained state of balance.

    Related Books

    Kate O'DonnellKate O'Donnell is a Kripalu-certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, Ashtanga yoga teacher, and author based in Boston, Massachusetts. She travels to India annually for study and teaches internationally. See more about her here.

  • Thomas Merton, “Honorary Beatnik”

    Thomas Merton's Influence on the Beats

    by Robert Inchausti, author of Hard to Be a Saint in the City

    Thomas Merton, “Honorary Beatnik”

    It’s hard to say exactly when Thomas Merton became an “Honorary Beatnik.” One could chase the association all the way back to the mid-thirties when, as an undergraduate at Columbia, he first became friends with the hipster Seymour Freedgood, the bohemian poet Robert Lax, and the painter Ad Reinhardt.

    But it wasn’t until much later that Beat “icons” Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder all admitted to being greatly influenced by Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948. Snyder even went so far as to say Merton’s autobiography convinced him to turn away from the study of anthropology for monasticism, Zen, and the contemplative life.

    But if there is any “official” date when Merton became an “Honorary Beatnik,” it would have to be in the summer of 1961 when he contributed the lead poem to the premier issue of the first radical ecology publication The Journal for the Protection of All Living Beings, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and David Meltzer.

    The poem Merton contributed, “Chant to be Used in a Procession around a Site with Furnaces” was later read by Lenny Bruce in his nightclub act. All the ensuing attention and notoriety earned Merton a rebuke from his abbot (James Fox) who told the monk he would not be allowed to publish in such journals again—primarily due to the “free” language of some of the other contributors (which included Norman Mailer, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, et al.)  Merton’s piece did not violate any Catholic teachings; the problem, Abbot Fox said, was that Merton’s association with the other writers threw an unsavory light upon the Order.

    Merton, of course, did not agree but remained true to his vow of obedience and never published in the journal again.

    Merton's Thoughts on the Beats

    Merton was, himself, ambivalent about the Beats as a literary movement, and although in 1963 he published a collection of poems, Emblems in a Season of Fury, clearly influenced by their work, he also wrote to a friend that year, “The protest of the Beatniks, while having a certain element of sincerity, is largely a delusion . . . . Yet this much can be said for them: their very formlessness may perhaps enable them to reject most of the false solutions and deride the ‘square’ propositions of the decadent liberalism around them. It may perhaps prepare them to go in the right direction.” (Courage for Truth, p. 170)

    Merton soon came around to a greater appreciation of the Beats, for not long after, Merton published his own literary journal in 1968 titled Monk’s Pond, which included contributions by Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Merton’s death that year ended the conversation.

    Even Mad Hepcats are Children of God

    The popular conception of the Beats in general—and Kerouac in particular—has always been skewed toward the licentious and the sensational. Even to this day, Kerouac’s reputation as a no-nothing Bohemian addicted to vice and immorality confounds any true appreciation of his work as an artist and has led to a series of specious movies and “appreciations” that do him no justice.

    Carolyn Cassady, wife of Neal Cassady and close friend of Kerouac, explained the problem rather succinctly when she wrote:

    Young people felt Kerouac had given them a passport to selfish self-indulgence; they could now do anything that took their fancy. They abandoned homes and schools and threw the baby out with the bath water. They didn’t stop to think that Kerouac had no responsibilities and had to be free to roam in order to pursue his one aim—writing. He never meant to promote drug abuse, free love, or irresponsibility. When he was cast as The King of the Beats and The Father of the Hippies, he was shattered. He thought he was promoting love and appreciation of life in all its forms, a joyous celebration and awe derived from that love, with its ups and downs. He was basically very conventional, a gentleman of the old order who didn’t swear in mixed company nor talk about sex except with male cronies. He told me he was going to drink himself to death. I thought he was joking, but that is exactly what he did. [i]

    Kerouac explained his aspirations as a writer this way:

    I want to work in revelations not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down. [ii]

    And so, the novels and poems poured out of him, one after the other in an uncensored rain of both sacred and profane narratives, written in the first-bloom of their immediate discovery. When asked what any of this “soul searching” had to do with Beatniks or “mad hepcats,” Kerouac replied:

    Even mad happy hepcats with all their kicks and chicks and hepcat talk are creatures of God laid out in this infinite universe without knowing what forAnd besides, I have never heard more talk about God, the Last Things, and the soul, than among the kids of my generation—and not just the religious or the intellectual kids, but all of them. “What are you searching for? they asked me. I answered that I was waiting for God to show his face. (Later I got a letter from a 16-year-old girl saying that was exactly what she’d been waiting for too.) [iii]

    Jack Kerouac

    In a State of Beatitude

    Kerouac was never the corny “King” of the Beatniks the media made him out to be. And it is a sorry shame this popular misconception poisoned his reputation and gave rise to the misunderstandings of Merton’s religious censors—keeping Merton from ever fully appreciating the spiritual vision of the Beats.

    But let’s give Kerouac the last word:

    As the man who suddenly thought of that word beat to describe our generation, I would like to have my little say about it before everyone else in the writing field begins to call it roughneck,violent,heedless,rootless. How can people be rootless? Heedless of what? Wants? Roughneck because you don’t come on elegant? Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart. How can this be done in our mad modern world of multiplicities and millions? By practicing a little solitude, going off by yourself once in a while to store up that most precious of golds: the vibrations of sincerity. [iv]

    Sounds pretty contemplative to me.

    [i] Beat p. xx
    [ii] Letter to Ed White (5 July 1950) published in The Missouri Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3, 1994, page 137, and also quoted in Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster (1996) by Steve Turner, p. 117
    [iii] Good Blond p. 51–53 “Lamb, No Lion”
    [iv] Good Blond p. 51–53 “Lamb, No Lion”

    Related Books

    Robert Inchausti is the author of four books including Subversive Orthodoxy and The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People and the editor of several Thomas Merton anthologies including, Seeds, The Pocket Thomas Merton, and Echoing Silence.

  • Sacred Are the Trees

    Sacred Are the Trees:

    A Retelling of Ancient Stories from Biographies of the Buddha

    by Wendy Garling, author of Stars at Dawn
    Sacred Trees

    Why Trees?

    Those familiar with the Buddha’s biography know that all major events in his life took place under trees. He was born under a shala tree (shorea robusta), for example, as his mother Maya stood upright and grasped a branch with her right hand. Young prince Siddhartha experienced his first deep meditation under a rose-apple tree. Years later, the Buddha’s enlightenment took place under a spreading fig tree (thereafter called the bodhi tree), while at the end of his life he attained parinirvana lying between two mighty trees, again shalas.

    So why trees? No particular significance is noted in the stories, yet looking deeply into original biographies as recorded in Sanskrit and Pali literature, the trees in these episodes (and others) play a critical role in the unfolding storyline. No ordinary trees as we might perceive them, they embody a fully aware feminine presence—one that is interconnected with the events at hand and deeply invested in Siddhartha’s destiny to become the Buddha. Prescient and nurturing, these trees-cum-goddesses are expressions of the sacred feminine in the natural world, asserting themselves at key moments over the course of the Buddha’s life as protectors, facilitators, witnesses, or celebrants. Looking back, these tree-goddesses provide windows into the cultural imagination of early Buddhism, where narratives esteemed the feminine principle and understood it as playing an essential role in bringing the Buddha, hence dharma, to the world.

    A More Complete Retelling

    Let’s look again at the above episodes in the Buddha’s life and retell them with a more complete look at early literary fragments. Of course, the retelling requires some reimagining . . .

    In the full bloom of pregnancy, the Buddha’s mother Maya travels with her assembly of women to Lumbini’s Grove (named for her grandmother), to give birth to her child, a son prophesied to become either a great king or a great saint. Within a vast and deep forest, Lumbini’s Grove is the chosen destination because it is a sacred birthing place protected by the compassionate and nurturing goddess, Abhayadevi. For generations the women of Maya’s clan have given birth there, where no men are permitted and where the women gather to assist and share in ancient birthing practices. Maya arrives at the grove’s sacred shala tree—the embodiment of Abhayadevi—as pangs of labor overcome her. Knowing that the time of birth has come, the goddess gently lowers her branches to offer Maya support. With her sister Mahaprajapati holding her around the waist, Maya grasps a branch with her raised right hand, and effortlessly gives birth to her son, Siddhartha, thirty-five years later to awaken as the Buddha.

    Siddhartha and the Sacred Tree

    In another episode involving a sacred tree, Siddhartha is a toddler in the Pali sources and young man in most Sanskrit sources. Here it is springtime, and the prince leaves the palace with his father and family to observe the ritual first plowing of the fields. The versions vary quite a bit, but the crux of all the stories is that Siddhartha is left alone under the shade of a rose-apple tree where he goes into deep meditation. Hours go by and when his family returns, they are all startled to see that the tree’s shade over him never shifted as the sun crossed the sky. This event, deemed a miracle by the witnesses, is one that is never explained well in conventional accounts. Early story fragments, however, tell us the rose-apple tree embodied a goddess who orchestrated the whole thing. Her impulse to protect the young prince from the hot sun, while a motherly gesture on the one hand, also facilitated his first meditation. With the wisdom of the sacred feminine, she had her eye on the bigger picture—his impending buddhahood. Providing shade was her simple act of supporting him along the way. In this story she speaks,

    As Siddhartha meditates under the rose-apple tree, the power of his fierce concentration is such that it generates an energetic field in the sky. This disrupts the flight of five rishis who are airborne making their way to the Himalayas [yes, flying is often the preferred method of travel in these stories]. The grumpy rishis complain and are overheard by the goddess of the rose-apple tree who, knowing Siddhartha’s destiny, explains to them what is going on, “It is the Sakya Prince descendant of the best of kings, who shines like the dawn . . . .His power, gained from merit in millions of lives, is thwarting your [flight].” Thus chided, the rishis together with the tree goddess bow down to the prince. [Lalitavistara, chap. 11].

    The Bodhi Tree

    Even the bodhi tree, site of the Buddha’s awakening, had a designated goddess according to some accounts. She is named in addition to the goddess Prithivi, who emerged as the Bodhisattva touched his right hand to the earth during the enlightenment sequence. The bodhi tree goddess tended the bodhi tree for countless eons, her job to keep it watered and nurtured while waiting for a new buddha to appear. With news of Gautama’s impending arrival she joyfully springs to action in woman goddess form, sweeping the bodhimanda (seat of awakening) with her broom and sprinkling it with fresh water and flower petals. In the following story, she appears to the evil demon Mara in a display of fierce compassion.

    Mara is exhausted from his efforts to subvert Gautama’s enlightenment and seize the bodhimanda for himself. Abandoned by his armies, disoriented with confusion, the demon collapses in a heap by the bodhi tree, terrified and alone. This spectacle prompts the tree’s goddess to appear. Reviving Mara by dousing him with water, she goads him to his feet with fierce, wise words, “Quick, get up! You must depart without delay! For this is what happens to those who pay no heed to the words of the Master. A fool who offends against those who are faultless shall himself meet with many troubles.” [Lalitavistara, chap. 21]

    The Sacredness of Trees

    The sacredness of trees is expressed again at the time of the Buddha’s death (or parinirvana). In his final hours, the Buddha lay reclining in a forest grove sheltered by two magnificent shala trees. Out of season, they spontaneously burst into fragrant blossoms, showering him softly with petals in a display of reverence (perhaps also tears). All surrounding trees—in fact, those throughout the universe—bowed toward him with similar expressions of fecund exuberance as Mother Nature’s beauty in all its forms exceeded anything that had ever been seen,

    Not only these two trees, but all those of that forest, and also those in ten thousand worlds, exhibited the same wonderful and graceful appearance. All the fruit trees yielded out of season the best fruits they had ever produced; their beauty and flavor exceeded all that had ever been seen. The five kinds of lilies shot forth from the bosom of the earth, and from every plant and tree; they displayed to the astonished eyes the most ravishing sight. The mighty [Himalaya mountains] shone with all the richness of the colors of the peacock’s tail. [Bigandet, 2:46]

    These and more stories of the sacred feminine flowed from oral traditions that emerged during the Buddha’s era in India but mostly vanished as written records took their place. We are fortunate to have a few remaining glimpses into an earlier Buddhist world where the feminine principle was not only revered but perceived as integral to the birth and unfolding of the new faith.


    Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Lalitavistara (“The Play in Full”). Translated from the Tibetan. New York: 84000, 2013.

    Bigandet, Paul, trans. The Life or Legend of Gaudama, the Buddha of the Burmese. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. 1911-12.

    Related Books

    Wendy Garling is a writer, mother, Buddhist practitioner, and independent scholar with a BA from Wellesley College and MA in Sanskrit language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley. An authorized dharma teacher, Garling has taught women’s spirituality with a focus on the sacred feminine and women’s stories for many years. See more about her here.

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