expected. The teacher was putting himself on the line to do his job. When you’re working with thatkind of pure motivation, it doesn’t matter if you have many students or if you’re working alone. Buteverybody in America seems to want to become a teacher in the shortest possible time. Then thecompetition begins for students and all the means to get students — centers, books, mediaengagements — and this takes away from the purity of the motivation. In ancient times, a personwould become a monk and stay a monk for fifty years and not bother about being a teacher. Out of ten thousand monks, one teacher might emerge. Here, out of ten students there will be one teacher.
The hard reality, though, is that the centers have to raise money to survive, and in the thick of whatever else may be arising, there is still a genuine motivation to spread the dharma.
This istrue. But some of them get caught up with getting media attention, and it’s very sad to see whathappens to them. They get caught up in a desire for fame and for the wealth and comfort that comeswith it.
Getting caught up, as you say, with establishing a bourgeois version of a Buddhist lifestyle is just another way of being manipulated by the system. It’s like an addiction, though, isn’t it?
Itis. American Buddhists have brought a very sophisticated understanding of psychology, cognitivescience, physics, to Buddhist practice. Yet we may not have paid sufficient attention to our personalgreed, hatred, and delusion.
What do you think in your own background has contributed to your view?
I grew up in Delhi,in India, in a middle-class, devout orthodox Hindu family. But at a very early age I had some insightinto the hypocrisy of the bourgeois society all around me, and that sense of disappointment hasnever left me. Indian people can be very materialistic. I was influenced by Marx and theexistentialist thinkers as a teenager, and these influences segued into my Buddhist practice. I amvery conscious of the way that bourgeois society co-opts everything it comes in contact with.
What brought you to the U.S.?
I came here in 1969 because a close friend was coming to NewYork. We had thought of getting a car and traveling all around, and then I was going to go to Europeand enroll in a university. Once I got here, I was completely fascinated by the counterculture, whichwas in full bloom at that time. I really believed that the counterculture was going to changeAmerica, that there was a new consciousness that was the cutting edge of some new evolutionaryleap. As it turned out, it was a very fringe movement and it never made any real impact on themainstream culture. I misread the movement.
Yet you stayed.
I stayed, but not with any intention of living the typical immigrant life. One of my personal benchmarks has always been the question, “Why did the Buddha choose to live the life of a homeless person after his awakening?” He did not return to his palace to live a life of luxury as a philosopher-guru. I’m not suggesting that Buddhists go around half naked today, but it is stillcrucial to look and investigate the levels of greed, hatred, or delusion in our psychological lives. Alot of what goes on in Buddhism in America is about creating a personal story and an identity.Dharma centers can become social clubs that allow people to process an identity, allowing them tofeel good about themselves for a short period of time. I meet people who tell me, “I am a Theravada person” or “I am a Zen person.” But this is just another process of commodification, of packagingoneself. It has nothing to do with Buddhist practice. It’s a group sharing, a group identity. Yes, thereis some connection to Buddhist practice, but underneath it all people don’t really want to displacetheir personal and social identities or their inherited Judeo-Christian worldview. When Buddhistteachings are practiced authentically, there’s no choice but to deconstruct the inherited psychicstructures.
This is not an Asian culture. The teachers and centers have to hustle to survive, and it isclearly good and valuable to have retreat centers where people can go practice. So what is thealternative? To just let these places go?
In some cases it may indeed be appropriate to let some of the places go. I think your question contains the hint at the problem. If a teacher or a center is3