Forum: Is Your Practice Working?

A roundtable discussion with Edward Brown, Josh Baran and Tsultrim Allione on the outcomes of Buddhist practice, moderated by Melvin McLeod.

By Melvin McLeod

Photo by Olivier Riché.

A roundtable discussion with Edward Brown, Josh Baran and Tsultrim Allione on the outcomes of Buddhist practice, moderated by Melvin McLeod.

I was twenty-two when I decided I was a Buddhist. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of that moment of epiphany. What have I got to show for it?

By some standard I’ve worked hard at being a Buddhist, as have so many of you who are reading this now. I’ve overturned my life several times because of Buddhism, at some pain to myself and others. I went to India and I have done a long solitary retreat. I’ve known a number of great teachers and I’ve had the good fortune for the last ten years to read dharma for a living. So after all this, why am I not discernibly different from people who aren’t Buddhists? Why am I so little changed from when I started thirty years ago?

I’m not putting on a hair shirt here. I think that I and the many practitioners I know are decent people, and maybe we have a different and deeper view of life. But do I find my Buddhist friends noticeably more decent, patient, kind and wise than my non-Buddhist friends? I don’t see a lot of difference. I like them all. Which is good. But what does that say about Buddhist practice?

I’m not alone in asking these questions. I’ve had conversations with well-known people in the Buddhist world, teachers and authors, who wonder why after decades of practice they are still ridden with the same kleshas they started with. Many practitioners turn to psychotherapy or non-Buddhist teachers to do for them what Buddhism can’t seem to. Why is the best that so many Buddhists can say about their practice, “Well, think how much worse I’d be”? That’s setting the bar pretty low.

Similar questions can be asked about Buddhist communities. What does it mean when a Buddhist community falls prey to in-fighting and factionalism, just like other groups? Are Buddhist communities noticeably gentler, more open, more—dare we say it—enlightened?

Maybe your answer to these questions is yes. Yes, I am better off for Buddhism. Yes, Buddhist communities are special. But if there is doubt about how well our Buddhist practice is working, then there are several possible reasons for it.

First, what does “working” mean? This is a surprisingly subtle question, and one about which people may disagree. When I told Mel Weitsman of the Berkeley Zen Center that people I knew wondered whether their practice was working, he said, “How would they know?” Indeed. Maybe it’s working but we can’t see it. Or maybe our conventional definitions are themselves ego’s trap—after all, what would we like better than to be considered a kind, wise and “spiritual” person? Is apparent perfection or real imperfection a better working basis for the path to non-ego? Is Buddhism working better when there is pain or pleasure, chaos or comfort?

Maybe the problem is our time frame. If, as Eido Roshi says in this issue, it’s going to take two hundred years to build a genuine Buddhist tradition here, maybe it’s just too early. Maybe it will be two hundred years more before our communities are transformed and there are Westerners whom we all agree are enlightened.

Maybe the problem is really with Buddhism itself. Maybe there are things it doesn’t address—or even represses—such as psychological or family problems. Maybe the Buddhist path just isn’t complete, and we must add to it from outside to really progress.

Maybe the problem is the disconnect between our aspirations and our lifestyle. After all, the people we emulate in Asian Buddhism devoted themselves to full-time practice for decades. We lead lay lives and aspire to be realized yogis. Maybe we just can’t make the effort necessary to get the results we expect.

And maybe the problem is having such expectations at all, making this entire discussion moot.

—Melvin McLeod

Buddhadharma: Perhaps we could begin by asking each of you to tell us how you got started in Buddhism, what path you followed and where you have ended up.

Edward Brown: I started Zen practice in 1965. It was a time when you were supposed to tune in, turn on and drop out, so I went to the mountains to attain true realization, which is exactly the reason I gave on my exit form when I dropped out of college. My brother had been going to the Zen Center in San Francisco when Suzuki Roshi was there, so I started practicing there myself. My relationship with Suzuki Roshi was very profound and pivotal for me. He used to say, “I’ll always be with you.” In some ways, that’s not much of a help. On the other hand, it’s a great reassurance that there is a kind of presence there with me—whether you call it Suzuki Roshi, Buddha, dharma, sangha or what have you.

For twenty years, I lived and practiced intensively at the Zen Center. Within a few years of my arrival there, I was head resident teacher for San Francisco and president and chairman of the board for this four-million-dollar corporation called Zen Center. I also cooked at the Zen Center, so I started writing cookbooks, and I ended up being fairly successful with those and acquired a reputation. I had dropped out of school thinking that I was going to be doing spiritual practice and became an administrator and a business executive.

I had been trying to do Zen practice, or my idea of Zen practice. No matter what teachers tell you, it’s very hard not to make up your own ideas of what you’re aiming for. One day I thought, “Why don’t I just deal with what’s here inside me with some warmth and tenderness and kindness and love.” And the tears just started pouring down my face and a voice inside said, “It’s about time.” I asked Katagiri Roshi, who was abbot of Zen Center at the time, if this was OK. He said, “Ed, for twenty years I tried to do the zazen of Dogen Zenji before I realized there was no such thing.” I figured I was right on schedule.

I left the residential practice environment of Zen Center, which was difficult and painful to do. I had spent twenty years living in places where I knew everybody. Out here in the world, it’s quite anonymous and it’s very challenging for me to be outgoing and friendly. I’m working on that these days. I have continued to do meditation and I am also involved in a variety of other practices and disciplines. About twenty years ago I started doing yoga. Then, I also took up “integrated awareness,” a kind of hands-on healing. I have been studying, receiving and giving cranial-sacral treatment. In addition, I also have been learning to use handwriting as a daily practice. My forties and fifties have been extremely challenging and emotionally very painful. I’m almost sixty now and, you know, I’m still here. As much as anything my practice is just to go on.

Tsultrim Allione: I met Buddhism in 1967, when I was nineteen. I dropped out of college and went to India. When I saw my first Tibetan there, it was as though I was remembered something I had been trying to remember all my life. I hitchhiked to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama and ended up having an important encounter with a high lama during a nyoungne, or fasting ceremony. Since I was a painter, I asked the teacher about my doing mandala painting. He told me, “You know, learning to even draw a mandala will take a year. The only time that is really worth spending is the time you spend on spiritual practice. Everything else will become irrelevant at the time of your death.”

That struck me very deeply. At my tender age, I had barely heard about death, so I picked up my first book on Buddhism. On a trip to Europe, I heard about a Tibetan monastery in Scotland being run by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I left for Samye Ling that very day and ended up staying for five months. I arrived just when Trungpa Rinpoche came back from the hospital after the car accident that left him partially paralyzed. I made an amazing connection with him during one interview, but during another one he came on to me. I didn’t know that he did this and I was confused by it. I left the next day and returned to India.

I had been reading the Sadhana of Mahamudra, which Trungpa had composed. It addresses the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyü lineage, and at one point it says, “The only offering I can make is to follow your example.” Inspired by this, I went to see the Karmapa in Kathmandu and asked if I should become a nun. Looking at me, he took in everything—the past, the present and the future—and he agreed to ordain me. I hadn’t even taken refuge. I didn’t know anything, really.

When I returned to the United States, I was inspired by Trungpa Rinpoche’s attempts to integrate Tibetan teachings and Western culture, so I moved to Boulder, Colorado, and was on the faculty of the Naropa Institute. Eventually I disrobed and married and began to have children. By this time, in Trungpa Rinpoche’s organization there was a lot more emphasis on the Shambhala teachings and a kind of military culture. I didn’t really connect to it, so I left the community.

A little later, I lost one of my children, which was quite traumatic. Life became very difficult. As I emerged from that descent, I began to study with Namkhai Norbu. I also began to realize I needed stories of other women who were serious about the path, which led to writing Women of Wisdom. I began to feel that for many practitioners the practice was not penetrating the emotional body. It was like an ornament that was not really changing my emotional state, so I began to work more directly with the emotions using some Western modalities: Gestalt therapy, Jungian analysis, co-counseling, as well as art and movement. It seemed possible to wed practice with Western methods that could help to heal and liberate the emotions. More recently, though, I have been going deeply into Dzogchen practice and I’m not really using those Western modalities anymore.

Josh Baran: I’m fifty-three now. I started meditating when I was sixteen. At nineteen, I became a monk at Shasta Abbey in Northern California, where I stayed for about seven years. I appreciated the discipline and there were many great aspects to the training and the practice. Yet I felt the atmosphere at my particular center was quite toxic emotionally. There were a lot of unresolved personal issues, lots of confusion and a variety of agendas.

I gradually began to perceive these problems as the community began to de-evolve in a certain way. In many aspects of my life, I felt quite enlightened. In other respects, I felt quite endarkened. At some point it was clear to me that for my own well being it was not a place to stay. Leaving was one of the most important things I ever did in terms of paying attention and waking up.

One the key facets of Zen I learned the first time I encountered it was that Zen is daily life. Zen is lived in daily life. It is not something exotic or far away from this moment. That heart realization was there from early on, so the marrow of the practice stayed with me. It took me years, though, to sort through my community experience. I stayed away from Buddhist practice and communities for many years.

I continued to practice meditation, although less than when I was in the community. I wasn’t on the cushion as much, but that attitude of awareness in the moment was there with me fairly strongly in an ongoing way. I went away from the practice for awhile and as I did so I became more aware of the group dynamics and abuse of power that we find a lot in communities. So I started talking about that with many people.

I came back to Buddhism many years later through Dzogchen. In Nepal, many of my friends urged me to see the late Tulku Ugyen, and I gradually made a connection to Dzogchen’s core teachings, which are very similar to Zen. Although I wasn’t interested in being involved formally in an organization, Tulku Ugyen’s pointing-out instructions were pivotal for me in remembering key aspects of the dharma. I have been very connected to some aspects of Buddhism, including working with the Dalai Lama professionally, but I am not a member anywhere. I’m very independent, and I hold the organizational side, the “-ism” of Buddhism, very lightly. Dharma is paying attention in the moment and inquiring closely about what arises in our life. I have found and used other very helpful modalities. It’s all the same Dharma. It may not be officially Buddhist, but it gets at the same issue: what’s true now.

Buddhadharma: What are some of the techniques you use now?

Josh Baran: One is “The Work of Byron Katie.” Byron Katie is a woman who teaches a kind of inquiry where you question the thoughts that bring you stress in the moment. You might almost call it a modern koan system. You deal with whatever the immediate thought is—the dog shouldn’t bark, my mother shouldn’t smoke, I should be more compassionate—that can get you excited, depressed, anxious or whatever. It’s a very useful system and very accessible to a lot of people. There’s also a method developed by Marshall Rosenberg called “nonviolent communication,” which is a wonderful means of learning to talk to each other in a positive and less judgmental way. There are methods that can be be very useful and that enhance awakeness. I think inquiry is a very important part of undermining the confusion we have in our minds. Meditation could use help from an active method of cutting through some of the thoughts and feelings that arise.

Edward Brown: I should say that I have also worked a lot with both Byron Katie’s work and nonviolent communication and found them very helpful. As my friend and teacher Mel Weitsman says, “You do formal practice to get a feeling for practice and then you spend the rest of your life encountering the circumstances of your life and turning them into practice.” That’s what I’ve been doing. On one hand, for many years Buddhism helped me to avoid knowing what was inside, and on the other hand Buddhism prepared me to finally meet what was really inside.

Buddhism is often thought of as a way to put an end to suffering, but you can live your life of meditation and peace and in the meantime have a lot going on that you’re not relating to. In the end, Buddhism can take you beyond that, to where you can be with the profound pain of your own life and of the world and see what you’re going to do with all of that. But it’s also possible to avoid doing that for a very long time.

Tsultrim Allione: Even though I am not using them right now, the various techniques I used to work with emotions were very helpful. My emotional life needed to be attended to. I had been a nun at twenty-two and celibate for three or four years and then suddenly I married and was a mother, lost a child, and divorced. I really hadn’t grown up emotionally.

Buddhadharma: All of you have mentioned other practices that you use or have used. Does this indicate that Buddhism is insufficient to work with the whole person?

Edward Brown: I don’t know whether Buddhism is insufficient. Part of the issue here is that we are not in a Buddhist culture. I’m sure there is more to Buddhism than any of us have had an opportunity to study and practice. Yet, we are immersed in our culture and one of its virtues is that we are interested in a lot of different things. Suzuki Roshi said, “I’ll teach you what I know and how to practice the way I practice, but you’re going to have to figure out for yourself what you want to do here in America so that you can plant Buddhism and make it grow. You’ll have to try various things and see what you want to do finally. I can just show you what was traditional.”

It’s also hard to talk about whether Buddhism is sufficient because Buddhism is not a distinct entity separate from your own life. Buddhism has inspired us to use various modalities because Buddhism empowered us to study our own life. It’s hard to say that Buddhism is lacking, when in some ways it’s what inspired us to pursue all of these things.

Josh Baran: There’s really no one thing called Buddhism. Certainly, there’s the need to wake up that the dharma addresses and whatever can help us in that regard is of great value. In the West, we have a very different culture than Tibet or Japan. In America, all the streams come and mingle and mix. If you go to a standard retreat with a Tibetan teacher and ask the people in the room if they do other things besides Buddhism, you will probably find that most of them do. Many people go to therapy, or do yoga or T’ai Chi. They are involved in other meditation traditions, because these respond to certain needs. There’s no problem there.

Sticking with one particular tradition may not be terribly useful ultimately. The emotional side of things that Tsultrim spoke of is enormously important. A meditation retreat is a wonderful thing, but a situation where there is much more dialogue about one’s inner feelings and issues is also a wonderful thing. There are times when you need either or both and that’s not a conflict.

Tsultrim Allione: We’re still coming to understand the Buddhism that we have inherited. Consider, for example, the transformation of emotions into wisdom in the sacred mandala, as taught in Vajrayana. You can look at a Tibetan mandala and learn the qualities of the five families and so on, but the process of truly identifying with a deity and the deep meaning of those teachings takes much longer. We are very young. Even if we think we have been practicing thirty or forty years, our understanding is still growing. Perhaps these other modalities we explore are ways to help us to understand Buddhism. Perhaps it will be several generations before we can determine whether Buddhism is sufficient for us. Its teachers need to have penetrated the depths of its true potential and then they can attempt to communicate that to their students as fellow Westerners.

We are bridge people—on the bridge between East and West. We have not had the advantage of a Western teacher who has completely taken the journey and then is teaching us. I find I am always interpreting. I’m always trying to see if any given teaching is true for me. How is it true for me as a Western woman?

Buddhadharma: Are there any Westerners who have achieved realization and could serve in the way you have just described?

Josh Baran: How would anybody know that? How many Tibetans have achieved that? You can only know about your own experience, so that kind of question can’t really be answered.

Edward Brown: I like what Tsultrim said about the difficulty of judging Buddhism when we don’t know to what extent we’ve penetrated the depths of its true potential. I wouldn’t discount Buddhism, because that’s also discounting ourselves and our own possibilities. I don’t see any reason to say that we’re limited or that Buddhism is limited. We’re all partway on our journey and we’re still practicing and continuing. To ask if somebody is realized is to ask who has completed the journey. There is still practice after realization. We have a tendency in the West to measure everything and assess everything against a presumed standard. We ask, “Am I getting sufficient return on the investment of my time and effort in this practice called Buddhism?”

How would I know? It’s bad Buddhism to apply materialized standards like this. At one point Suzuki Roshi said, “You Americans have dropped out, you’re not participating in the materialistic society, but you still want improvement. Isn’t that materialistic?”

Josh Baran: This is not merely a Western tendency. If you go to Mumbai, they are just as interested in progress and achievement. When you obsess about practice and the path, you’re always looking for progress, measuring and judging where you are, where you think you need to be, where you think you are going, what realization is. That whole mindset of future attainment is not helpful.

Tsultrim Allione: The Dalai Lama once said that one of our main problems is not recognizing small changes—for example, an occasion where you would have got angry and you didn’t or an instance when you have generated compassion where you might not have before. We have this pie-in-the-sky image of enlightenment that we’re hell-bent to reach and we don’t even know what it is. His Holiness also said that change is very slow. In fact, it’s not as if you start in one place and then you end up in another place. There is a core of buddhanature within us and the process is like a lotus opening. The question is “How open is my heart?” It is not “Have I achieved something?”

Buddhadharma: The historian of Christianity Elaine Pagels has said that Christianity grew in the early years because people were attracted to the generosity and nonjudgmental spirit they found in those who were involved in the movement. It has been said of Buddhists in the West that they seem self-absorbed. Are Buddhists exhibiting qualities that others find attractive and would therefore like to become involved?

Josh Baran: It’s too abstract to talk about “Buddhists.” As Tsultrim was saying, in considering how you’re doing as a Buddhist you have to take a nonlinear point of view. You need to welcome whatever arises without necessarily labeling it as positive or negative but simply seeing it as something that is happening right now, how nirvana is showing up right now. And of course, I find people who have never practiced meditation but are living awakened lives, kind lives.

Edward Brown: I am disappointed from time to time that Buddhists aren’t generally more friendly. Cultures do develop around centers and sometimes centers become very serious, or driven and righteous. I decided I wanted to stay at Zen Center and study and have a sense of humor at the same time. To do that I had to go against the culture of my own Buddhist community.

I think we’ve allowed ourselves to be sidetracked from time to time by thinking we need to attain some special kind of experience rather than just being kind and nurturing and taking care of things day to day and moment after moment. I am impressed by lots of people who are not Buddhists who seem able to do that.

Tsultrim Allione: Someone once said, if you want to know how you’re doing as a Buddhist, ask your neighbor. And I would add your children or your partner. I think it’s also important to examine yourself as a practitioner and ask whether you have made mistakes or hurt someone. It’s not so much asking whether you’re enlightened but rather how you are actually treating people. Perhaps you need to look at some emotional issue you’ve been suppressing that has been popping out all over the place. Without that kind of inquiry, we could think we’re doing really well just because of our status as a Buddhist.

Josh Baran: You can also ask everybody you know to judge you as harshly as they want and then just listen.

Edward Brown: …to see if they say anything good about me, because I seem to do enough harsh judging for myself.

Josh Baran: Of course, they may say good things as well, but the point is just to listen and see if you find any of what they are saying in yourself. Just listening to others is an important source of information. If you don’t have the right atmosphere, then it could turn into simply judging and attacking one another, but it’s very important for people to be able to speak what they are feeling and talk to one another, rather than to remain in silence.

Buddhadharma: Do Buddhist communities need some methodologies other than meditation to work with what arises in people’s lives both within and outside the community?

Josh Baran: When human beings get together, such as in a spiritual community, they develop various forms of culture and cults. You have to pay close attention to people’s issues in a conscious and mature way, otherwise they can take over and run rampant. In a community where there’s not much personal talk and very little sharing, where you’re not supposed to have feelings, where a strong sense of obedience is one of the main goals, a lot of feelings can get repressed. That must be dealt with.

I have heard that there are already a number of Buddhist communities using nonviolent communication, and there are many Western Buddhist teachers who are therapists. Some groups use a more open group process than I experienced in the community I started in. There is more discussion of issues that may come up in the community. As I understand it, this kind of group work isn’t really new to Buddhism. During the Buddha’s time, the monks would regularly recite their vows, and at that time anybody in the community could stand up and talk about a problem they had with another monk. They would have a discussion there on the spot. They had created their own process for dealing with interpersonal issues.

Tsultrim Allione: They also had confession twice a month, where the monastics talked about what vows they had broken or what they regretted and so on. We have not made a relationship with confession, probably because of how it became the basis for guilt in Catholicism, but there is something very healthy about confession. It has to do with some kind of self-assessment, and then admitting to being wrong and making an apology. If one doesn’t actually admit to what one has done, it is very hard to move on.

At Tara Mandala, we’ve done a couple of things that help us to communicate better as a community. People assent to a communication agreement when they come. We agree to make statements about how I feel rather than accusations of what you are doing, and to speak to rather than about people. This dispels gossip. If you have a conflict that you don’t feel you can speak to that person about, you ask for a person that both parties can agree upon to facilitate the conflict. We also use the council circle and talking stick from the Native American tradition. While these practices are not derived from a Buddhist text, I feel they are based on the Buddhist principle of working with our own projections rather than finding blame outside of ourselves.

Edward Brown: Buddhism does have the principle of right speech but it has been interesting for students in the West to try and sort out what that means for us. Though it’s obviously very important in Buddhist communities, we haven’t necessarily always paid enough attention to that. We need good guidelines and agreements to make right speech real.

Josh Baran: In Japan or Tibet, as far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of interpersonal sharing or open dialogue. In those cultures, you just don’t do that. In the West we have a culture where people talk a lot. We’re a culture where people share their emotions more freely. However, I attended a Dzogchen retreat once where there were plenty of questions, but during the entire week nobody asked one personal question. Then I went to a Byron Katie event and we were told to write down our issues. The first person stood up and said something like, “I’m angry at my mother for beating me.” All of a sudden everyone in the room was talking about the issues in their life that caused them pain. There was such a striking contrast between the two events. The Dzogchen retreat was wonderful but personal matters were not brought up.

I am reminded of a friend of mine who was a student of Tibetan Buddhism for many years in India. He had been sexually abused by an American priest when he was young and had become an alcoholic and suicidal. He turned to Buddhism as a way to deal with his severe inner pain. I asked him whether the Tibetan lamas had helped him with his situation, and he said he was too ashamed to ask about it; people did not bring up personal issues.

In the West, dharma practice is going to need to be about more than just meditating through our issues. We are going to need to actually talk about them, address them and find ways to be engaged with them.

Buddhadharma: How then has Buddhism been able to succeed in other countries without that kind of communication about personal problems and emotions?

Josh Baran: Every culture is different. Buddhism evolved in those cultures and so did those people. I’m sure they had their own ways of dealing with their personal concerns. In Japan, for example, it wouldn’t be appropriate to speak about these things openly. It’s done very quietly and in a different way.

Edward Brown: There are these strong cultural differences, but I’m also not sure how well Buddhism has always dealt with personal matters. Suzuki Roshi’s first wife was murdered by a mad monk wielding a hatchet. At the time, his son Hoitsu was twelve years old. A few years ago we had a conference on Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco and Hoitsu came and talked about the experience of coming home and finding his mother’s mutilated body. It was fifty years later and he said that it was the first time he had talked about it in public. He spoke because it was America and he felt that it would be safe to talk about his experience here. It was very moving. He was here again recently and talked about how difficult Suzuki Roshi was as a father. I don’t think he could have done that in Japan. That’s something very powerful that we can do.

Tsultrim Allione: I also wonder about how successful Buddhism has been in traditional countries and whether there aren’t certain aspects of life that have been overlooked. All these cultures have been completely male-dominated, so there hasn’t been a feminine voice in Buddhism. That’s one of the open questions for me: why is the female voice so lacking?

There has been more introduction of the feminine as Buddhism has come into the West. It will be interesting to see how Buddhism evolves as it begins to actually have a feminine voice, as women are included in decision-making and forming communities. Will it be the same or will there be differences?

Buddhadharma: If it is so malleable, is there something unique about Buddhism? Is it an important emerging force in the West or is it just one of many equally valuable therapies or practices available for people today?

Edward Brown: There is a wide range of Buddhists and many different approaches to practice. It will be interesting to see what happens, how Buddhism develops here as compared to how it developed in other places. It’s good that we’re talking about inquiry and confession. It’s very practical, finally. We’re talking about the actual spirit of the practice. It’s like cooking: finding what works and what doesn’t work.

Buddhism has given us confidence in our spirit of inquiry and the ability to trust in our heart. So I think Buddhism is very powerful and will have an impact. Whether we call it Buddhism remains to be seen. I hope that Buddhism continues as Buddhism, but I also see, for example, John Kabat-Zinn teaching people mindfulness-based stress reduction, which seems to be Buddhism without calling it Buddhism. Buddhism is getting into the culture in ways that I don’t know if we’re even aware of.

Tsultrim Allione: I recently traveled to some very remote Sicilian islands and even in those remote islands where electricity hasn’t arrived, people knew about the Dalai Lama and they have a feeling of what the Dalai Lama represents. In that sense, the spirit of Buddhism has entered into people’s hearts and minds, and if we can keep that focus as Buddhism spreads and not worry about being Buddhist, Buddhism will be working. Atisha would ask when he met his students not “How are you?” but rather “Is your heart kind?”

Perhaps also one of the greatest things Buddhism has to offer is a spirit of inquiry, such as we discussed before. What the Buddha did was ask questions. We need to provide an example of doing that.

Josh Baran: In that regard, I would love to see more dialogue with Buddhist teachers in the West, not just lectures. When th

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.