A Conversation with Alan Wallace
by Pavi Mehta, Richard Whittaker, Apr 15, 2019
The following conversation took place as an "Awakin Call." Every Saturday, Awakin.org hosts a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society.
Host: Pavi Mehta
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Pavi: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening! My name is Pavi Mehta and I’m excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call. Thank you for joining us! The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. Behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space. Today, our special guest speaker is Alan Wallace.
In a few minutes, our moderator Richard Whittaker, will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker and by the top of hour we'll invite all your reflections and questions. Richard is founding editor of works and conversations, a magazine that's been in publication for roughly three decades and that features original in-depth interviews with artists from all walks of life. Utterly distinctive in its approach and masterful in its quality, Richard's body of work is an unhurried labor of love that returns readers to the place of mystery and power that lies at the heart of all true craft. He is also the West Coast editor of Parabola magazine and a dear friend. It's a deep joy to have him here with us today.
Richard: Thank you so much, Pavi, and it's a real pleasure to have Alan Wallace with us today. Alan is a prominent and important voice in the emerging discussion between contemporary Buddhist thinkers and scientists who question the materialist axioms of their 20th century paradigms. He left his college studies in 1971 and moved to Dharamsala, India to study Tibetan Buddhism, medicine and language. He was ordained by his Holiness the Dalai Lama. And over 14 years as a monk, he studied with, and translated for, several of this generation’s greatest llamas. In 1984, he resumed his Western education at Amherst College where he studied physics and the philosophy of science. He then applied that background to his PhD research at Stanford on the interface between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy. Since 1987 he has been a frequent translator and contributor at the Mind and Life conferences in which the Dalai Lama and prominent scientists exchange views. He’s written and translated more than 40 books. Along with his scholarly work, Alan is regarded as one of the West's preeminent meditation teachers and retreat guides. He’s the founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness studies and is the motivating force behind the development of the Center for Contemplative Research in Tuscany, Italy. So welcome Alan. We're so glad you're joining us today.
Alan: Thank you, Richard. It's an honor and a pleasure to join you.
Richard: Now I’ve read that in 1970 you had quite an unusual experience. You were 20 years old and hitchhiking alone in Norway. And according to my notes, you said to the universe, “I need to meet a wise old man, and I need it quickly!” [laughs] Would you tell us that story? What happened?
Alan: That is true. This is towards the end of a two-month backpacking, hitchhiking trip all over Western Europe that I participated in mostly with my college roommate. But he’d just headed off to his third year of college in Scotland. It was a day of partying and I was heading back south from Bergen, Norway down to Göttingen, Germany where I was going to have my third year of University. But during this hitchhiking trip, I’d encountered a book on the nature of mind, the nature of awareness, and its role in the universe from Tibetan Buddhism, and it resonated with me at the deepest level.
I thought, “This is it! This is what I'm looking for.”
At that time I was intermittently reading The Krishnamurti Reader. Krishnamurti was a brilliant thinker and something of an iconoclast who encouraged people to question their assumptions, religious and otherwise. So I had the dynamic of these two influences and by the time I was heading back south to the university, I just felt this great yearning to find greater meaning, to find a path of awakening, of enlightenment, of clarity and liberation. The books had inspired me, but I really wanted to have some personal guidance, and for me, iconically, it was a wise old man. But I was out there in the middle of the wilderness between Bergen and Oslo. I’d waited five hours for somebody to pick me up, hitchhiking now for the first time solo, and no one picked me up.
So I gave up and I was walking back to the nearest train station with my right thumb out. Finally I’d pretty much given up, and then I looked over my shoulder and saw a little black VW bug pulled over to the side. There was a little old man, beckoning to me, as in would you like a ride?
From my hitchhiker's perspective, he took me for what was basically a useless ride. It was maybe 200 miles to Oslo, and he drove me for 10 minutes. But he was fluent in English and during that 10 minutes, I learned that he was a Buddhist monk who lived with Tibetans in Nepal. During the winters, he’d lecture on Indian civilization and Buddhism all over Europe. Then during the summer, he was an artist living in a little chalet, up high in the mountains in Norway, just off the road on which I was traveling.
So I learned that he was a Buddhist monk. He learned that I was interested in Buddhism. It was too remarkable to call it a coincidence. It was the first time I thought, “Aha! Maybe this universe is not simply indifferent to such calls: "I'm looking for greater meaning. I need guidance."
So we got immersed in our conversation and after 10 minutes, we clearly weren't finished. So then he said, "Would you like an ice cream?"
I said, "You betcha!"
So we continued the conversation. I was really looking for just some core guidance, and he gave me just what I needed. It was extremely simple. Then I headed off, got a ride down to Oslo and then down into Göttingen, where I began a year of studies. But we corresponded for years after that. He has passed away now, but about 20 years ago he visited my wife and me in Half Moon Bay, in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was a long-term friendship and a very seminal meeting.
Richard: That sounds really extraordinary. Thank you for sharing that. I wonder if you would share some things from your earlier life that might have helped lead you to the path you've been on now for so long?
Alan: I'm happy to do so. Well, I was raised—really I must say—in a truly wonderful family. My father, who is still alive at the age of 94, was a Baptist theologian. He taught in a seminary, and is a very good scholar. My mother was simply a loving mother. All my memories of her are literally quite golden. They were both very devout Christians, and my family tree is filled with missionaries and theologians and pastors and so forth. So I was raised in a very devout family and virtues and morality were central.
At the age of 13 I had an utterly marvelous science teacher who instilled in me, and in many of her students, a deep and lasting love of nature. And inspired by her more than anybody else, I decided—at the age of 13—I wanted to pursue a career in science—and specifically, in ecology and environmental activism. I wanted to be a wildlife biologist.
So that was my vision of what my life would be until I got into the University of California, San Diego at the age of 18. I was a good student. I was basically running on momentum, but I was looking for greater meaning. I just had a kind of passionate yearning.
In science, I found a lot of truth, but not the deep meaning that would lead to greater wisdom, compassion and inner transformation. And there were simply elements of Christian doctrine that I just couldn't make sense of. So there was this yearning to live a life that is true, in accordance with reality and opening onto a path of greater and greater meaning and fulfillment. Those are the deep roots of that seminal meeting with this old Buddhist monk in Norway.
Richard: Well, that's a very strong, wonderful background. I'm struck by the way you described your science teacher and the effect she had on you. It was a woman, right?
Alan: That's right. And by the way, we're still in contact! She's still very much the environmental activist and full of love for the natural world.
Richard: As I listened to you describe her, and how she inspired you, I couldn't help feeling, here is science being presented in a way that opens one to the wonders and mysteries of the world—and in her reverence for life, I wondered if there wasn’t something spiritual in that.
Alan: Yes. I couldn't agree more. I still embrace many, many of the aspirations of my Christian upbringing. And as it's often said in Christianity, “God is love.” And insofar as we embody and bring into the world our love for our fellow human beings, our love for our fellow creatures, for the environment as a whole, is that not following traditional Christianity? Is that not God's spirit working through us?
So the whole spirit of environmental activism and the scientific ecology, which is fundamentally a science of the interdependence of how we as human beings are in constant interaction, interdependence with the entire eco sphere. Other sentient beings are interrelated with us. We are inter-related with all others—and if that awareness of profound interdependence is suffused with a sense of caring, of love and compassion—I see no reason not to call that a spiritual way of looking at the earth. And this is clearly compatible with every religion on the planet, despite the great diversity of their worldviews and beliefs systems.
Richard: Yes. Yes. Yes! Now, I read that you encountered some really nasty diseases in your mid-20s hepatitis, typhoid and other ailments. At the same time, in the write-up, you said that, for you, it was rich experience. I wonder if you could talk about that and what you learned from these very difficult experiences?
Alan: This is referring to my four years of my first stay in India from 1971 to 75. This follows my year of studying at the University of Göttingen where I dropped all my other classes and focused on studying classical Tibetan, spoken Tibetan, learning about Buddhism and, more broadly, the mystical traditions of the world. And by the time I was finished there, I wanted to go off to India and become a monk, to spend 10 years there and become enlightened.
So I left Göttingen and spent a couple of months in a monastery in Switzerland. Then I went off directly to Dharamsala because that’s where the Dalai Lama was. He started some classes, and I attended them because he’d started them. I had almost no money and the refugees with whom I was living had almost no money. So things like diet and hygiene were, let us say, extremely poor.
During my four years there, I got hepatitis three times and there were indications I had typhoid. I had three different types of parasites.
I remember one time, a month or two went by without any serious disease, and I thought, “Wow! Wasn't that fantastic?” So the third time I got hepatitis—I'm six foot two—my weight dropped to 135, I think. I was really on death's door. Tthat was very helpful in that it brought very vividly to mind how extremely precious this life is, and what tremendous potential we have in this lifetime for purifying our hearts and our minds our souls—and for knowing reality. At the same time, human life is like a flickering candle flame in a wind. We can be snuffed out at any time.
It was the Dalai Lama's personal physician who saved my life from the third hepatitis. It was clearly his herbal Tibetan medication that did it. And I had a very visceral sense, a very deep sense, that he did not save my life; he postponed my death! And for that, I'm deeply grateful.
So those four years in Dharamsala, as Charles Dickens says in The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” The Dalai Lama, and so many other Lamas, just opened their hearts, offered me instruction and meditative guidance. And from the Dalai Lama's own physician, I learned about Tibetan medicine. It was a bounty. It was a feast. It was just utterly glorious!
So on the one hand -- psychologically, spiritually, existentially, it was just my heart's desire come true; and physically it was really, really awful. But I survived, I survived, and I'm still here to tell the story.
Richard: That is really something. Thank you for sharing that. Now in my notes, I see that after 14 years, you were ordained as a monk. Is that right?
Alan: Yes. I received my knowledge ordination from another outstanding Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1973. In 75, I received the full ordination from his Holiness and I remained a monk until 1987. So that was 14 years total.
Richard: Okay. So you're not a monk today?
Alan: No. But, frankly in terms of lifestyle, what I'm doing from day to day, there’s really not much difference. I'm happily married now for 30 years. My wife is my closest spiritual friend, and nowadays I’m meditating about 9 hours a day. I've spent a great deal of time translating, teaching and writing books and so forth. But I did give back the precepts because in 1987, having lived in my homeland America, I just felt like a fish out of water. There was no context for being a monk. I simply had my robes, but I was an isolated, and rather alienated monk. I thought it would be more meaningful to return to being a full-fledged layperson while devoting myself to my spiritual path as much as I had during the years that I was a monk.
Richard: Let me ask you briefly about Sanskrit. I know nothing about it, but I've heard there's a voice in Sanskrit that obliges the speaker to vocalize a word or sentence in a certain way. It's not just like the active or passive voice we have. The speaking is supposed to embody something of the meaning. Does this ring a bell with you, or am I just imagining something?
Alan: No, I think there's a deep truth here. I want to first of all to confess that I’m definitely not fluent in Sanskrit. I did study it for three years while I was at Amherst College, and before. I've had a good acquaintance with Sanskrit, but the Asian language I'm really fluent in is Tibetan, classical and spoken.
But there is something really utterly extraordinary and unique about Sanskrit. It's understood in the context of one of the five major fields of knowledge of classical Indian civilization, which is called “Shabda Vidya,” the science of sound. There's something in the very nature of the Sanskrit alphabet—its grammar, its articulation—that I think resonates deeply in the very nature of reality itself. Among the great pundits of Sanskrit, people who have mastered it, I think they would affirm that the resounding, very loud and clear voice, that this is a very deep language. It's kind of rooted in reality itself. It's quite extraordinary. That's about all I can say.
Richard: Just that phrase, “the science of sound.” I mean, I don't suppose other languages actually have a relationship with the meaning of sound per se, and that's intriguing. Probably not much more can be said, except that sound itself can have an influence on us. So the idea that there's a science of sound, to me, is very interesting. I can't help but think about music. Any further reflections along this line?
Alan: Absolutely. Yes, the art of music, the science of music, the technology of music—this also fits exactly within shabda vidya, the science of sound. They understand music within that context; they understand Sanskrit grammar within that context. And also, if I'm not mistaken, I think the classical Indian cultures were the first to formulate what we now know in English as mantras—he repetition of sacred phrases in the Sanskrit language. Sometimes these are just syllables; sometimes they are words that have meaning.
These are vibrations. I mean, it's a simple statement. It’s a factual statement. Whether it's music, whether it's the sound of the voice, whether it’s reciting mantras, reciting passages, the sacred scripture and so forth—these are vibrations originating from body sent out into the world, and these vibrations do have an impact on the nervous system, or in classical Indian thought, the prana system, which is the energetic flow of energies within the body. So mantras often, together with visualization, have a direct influence on the nervous system. And the nervous system, of course, is very closely related to the mind. So it is a very deep science. I think it’s largely unexplored in the modern world, but I think it has very, very deep roots.
Richard: Oh, yes, I agree. And that can take us very directly into this huge question of, let's just call it “first-person knowledge,” as you have. I was thinking about this and there’s a little background in Western philosophy. I mean, you can go to Bishop Berkeley and Subjective Idealism. Then there’s Kant and Transcendental Idealism, and even Schopenhauer. There's a quote from Schopenhauer, to the effect that: “The one thing that I know without doubt, is that there's no truth more certain than that the whole world is an object, in relation to a subject.”
So even in Western philosophy, there was this recognition that the subject, which I think you could call “first-person,” is a central reality. Then that got dropped somehow. I know this is something that's central to your vision and thinking, that is trying to bring back some honor—and I think of it as “honor,”—to the realm of direct experience.
Alan: Well, certainly, I couldn't agree more. And there's a continuation from Kant and from Schopenhauer into the 20th century through Husserl and Heidegger, and the whole movement of Phenomenology. It's once again coming back to the primacy of what the Germans call Lebenswelt. That is, what we actually know is the lived world.
Whereas from the time of the rise of modern science—especially from Galileo—it had very deep theological roots. Galileo himself was trained as a monk in his youth. Newton was a theologian. Many of the great founders of modern science, including Kepler, were theologians. Copernicus was a theologian. They were moved by a profound religious impulse to know the mind of the creator, by way of his creation. So they were looking outwards to know the mind of God, as you would look at a clock to try to understand the mind of the clockmaker.
So this then marginalizes first-person experience—trying to understand, to infer, via mathematics and technological research, experimentation, and observation what the universe looks like from God's perspective. That was a driving impetus for the rise of modern science from the early 17th century right through the middle of the 19th century. Then with the rise of scientific materialism—with Thomas Huxley, “Darwin's bulldog,” in the latter part of the 19th century—then materialism started becoming more and more dominant. And after a brief phase of emphasis on introspection during the first three decades or so of modern psychology, that was suppressed by behaviorism. And nowadays, it is marginalized by modern cognitive science altogether.
But first-person experience is coming back in not so much from neuroscience or cognitive psychology, where it continues to be marginalized, but interestingly enough, where the first-person—in the role of consciousness, the role of the measurer, the observer—is coming back in is by way of quantum mechanics, like the quantum cosmology of John Wheeler. And there’s a fascinating new development in quantum mechanics called QBism (quantum Bayesianism). Christopher Fuchs is doing brilliant work in this and suggesting that this first-person experience, the role of the observer, is utterly fundamental to the nature of Reality as a whole, that it’s not merely an accidental by-product of complex activities in the brain.
So I think we're right on the cusp here of a fundamental, really radical paradigm shift, where we need to question the materialistic beliefs that have been at the foundations of modern science for the last hundred and fifty years. I think we're on the cusp of something very exciting.
Richard: I'm really I'm glad to hear this from you. I feel something like that. I think you're in a better position than I am to get a feeling for this moment in terms of the scientific community and so forth, and that's definitely an area that I want to talk more about. Now you brought up Heidegger, and one has to be careful talking about Heidegger because, unfortunately, he sort of threw in with the Nazis. So a lot of people want to disregard his thought, because of that’s a very disturbing thing. But I find Heidegger the most amazing guy to read, not that I can always understand him. But no one I’ve ever run across has opened up this word “being” in such an amazing way. It is very difficult to think about being. Yet Heidegger opened that word up to bring us into this realm of dwelling, of existing. So I wonder if you have any thoughts about being itself—this realm of existing that is the human realm. It is the realm of our experience. Do you have any thoughts along these lines?
Alan: Too many! But I will go back to Schopenhauer's brilliant and rather insightful comment that you cited earlier, which is there would be no third-person perspective and therefore no Universe known by way of third-person perspective, if there were no first-person perspective. This is because the third-person perspective is simply a consensus of multiple first-person perspectives. So I would add this as a kind of addendum to Schopenhauer—and also as a step beyond Descartes, who very famously said, "I think, therefore I am." He was looking for indubitable knowledge and this was his statement of fact that could not possibly be doubted.
Well, I think there is something deeper than "I think," because thoughts often occur involuntarily with not anybody really “thinking” them. Stray thoughts just come up. My own very firm conclusion—which means that, if I'm wrong, I'm quite flamboyantly wrong—is that the most indubitable knowledge that I have is the knowledge of being aware, of being conscious. There is no evidence that could ever be presented to me that could persuade me that I'm not conscious, because I couldn't be aware of that evidence without being conscious. And there is no reasoning that could ever be presented to me to persuade me that I'm not conscious, because I would have to be aware of that reasoning to make any sense of it.
So the experience—the unelaborated, unadorned experience—of being aware, this is something that cannot be doubted. Robots don't have it; computer programs don't have it. But we, and our fellow sentient creatures do. And I believe all animals are conscious, so there is nothing unique about this.
But yet coming back to being is coming back to consciousness. This is where the great contemplative traditions of the world have the deepest insights of any field of inquiry that human beings have ever devised. And I'm not referring just to one. Buddhism is tremendously rich, but so is Hinduism and Taoism—the early Christian tradition—the Neo-Platonic tradition, and mysticism within Christianity, the Kabbalah within Judaism and the Sufi tradition within Islam. I am persuaded utterly that the deepest insights into being—and the very nature of consciousness and multiple dimensions of consciousness—are found not in modern science, which is so fixated, ever since the rise of materialism, on the outer objective quantifiable world, that we tend to overlook or even dismiss that dimension of reality that is not quantifiable and not physical. And that, quintessentially, is consciousness. And consciousness—and being conscious—is being, consciously.
Richard: Yes, yes. That is beautiful how you’ve laid that out. And you brought up Descartes. I wanted to ask you about his famous “Cogito, ergo sum”—“I think, therefore I am.” I wanted to look at this kind of "thinking." We’re constantly being conditioned by the language with “I this.” and “I that.” For instance, “I changed my mind.” But with a careful look at what takes place, one would have to admit that this “I” didn't actually change my mind. What happened is that something changed in me, and then it was reported as “I changed my mind.”
In regards to “I think, therefore I am,” this “I” that we unconsciously acquire, this identification, is not really the real thing. It could be called ego. This is not about being all puffed up. I’m talking about the identification with this “I.” I don’t know if I’m being clear, but if you’re following this, would you talk about that?
Alan: Happy to! I think of the phrase, "It's raining." Let's find the ‘it.’ Let's ask ‘it’ if it will rain a little bit more because we are going through a drought here. [laughter]
It's meaningful language: "It's raining," "It's snowing," and so forth. Yet, likewise, when you are looking for that “it,” you don't find it. You find a large concatenation of causes coming together to give rise to precipitation. And in a similar fashion, it’s not to say that “I” don't exist. And Buddha never said that the self doesn't exist at all. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding. He never even challenged whether we exist or not. If I don't exist, who just drew that conclusion?
But the notion of there being an autonomous, separate self calling the shots of my body and my mind—if we look for that controlling entity, I think you stand as much chance of finding an isolated, independent ego, as you have of finding the "it" in "It's raining."
I think is one of the great insights in the Buddhist tradition challenging our very notion of existing as a controlling self, an ego, in charge of the body and mind as an autonomous entity. It's to see how we do not exist as isolated, independent entities. Then we come back and ask, “How do we exist?” And we exist in inter-dependence. That realization is actually remarkably liberating, and it also opens the doors of empathy and compassion, because if my existence is not one of independence, it necessarily is one of interdependence. Therefore, as I care for myself, it’s only realistic to care for all of those around me, with whom I exist in inter-dependence.
Richard: Wonderful. I'm reminded of another line in the bio we read where it says, that in 1979, feeling saturated with unassimilated knowledge, you felt the need to meditate. Now, that's an interesting thing. With our materialist science, it’s all knowledge that has nothing to do with assimilation. But there's something we could call understanding that is like knowledge that has been assimilated. In a very human way, there’s a division between knowledge and understanding. And I wondered if you’d reflect on that?
Alan: I think we can draw on the great wisdom traditions of the world here—East and West, ancient and modern, going back to Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato. And then there are the great contemporary traditions of East and West. A notion we don't find in science—or really much in modern philosophy or psychology—is that there’s a type of knowing that fundamentally transforms the knower. This is the heart route of contemplative inquiry that one seeks deep inside, within the very nature of reality. For a theist, it’s coming to know God, not merely “believe” or “have faith” in God, but knowing, which profoundly purifies, and transforms the knower.
This notion that we can understand shifts our whole axis. Shifts are a fundamental perspective on reality. This has occurred in science, as when Galileo made it clear that the earth is not the center of the universe and with Darwin's insight that we’re not all by ourselves as a separate, independent species, but we're within the fabric of evolution.
This doesn't deny religion; it doesn't refute God, but it does place in the deeper context, that we are brothers and sisters with all of our fellow sentient creatures on the planet—rather than uniquely conscious, as Descartes believed, while catastrophically viewing all animals as unconscious, because they lack a mortal soul.
This, I think, is really what I was looking for when I was 20. And that is already I’d studied science quite a bit from junior high school, to high school to college, focusing on biology. I also studied physics, chemistry, mathematics, and so forth, and found it had no transformative effect on my mind at all. I was in a desert in terms of meaning, of finding fulfillment.
But now we jump forward to 1979. I’d just spent about the last ten years studying Buddhist philosophy and psychology and meditation and so forth. I’d been meditating probably three hours a day and I’d learned so much about the Buddhist worldview, about nature of mind and so forth, that I felt I was saturated. I wanted, not to learn any more, but to go into deep assimilation of all that. So, I wrote to the person who had been my primary spiritual guide and mentor for the last eight years. That was the Dalai Lama. I told him that I wanted to try to realize the truths I'd been persuaded of through study, through debates and analysis. I wanted to experience them for myself, by transforming and purifying, and refining my own mind. So I said: Where shall I go? Should I stay here in Switzerland where I've been in a monastery? Head back home? Or shall I come back to India?
He said, “Come back to India. I will guide you personally.”
This was towards the end of '79. I had translated for him on his first teaching trip to Europe in 1979. So I leapt at the opportunity and headed back to India—this time, just to meditate. So, I moved into a hermitage high in the mountains above Dharamsala, and he guided me in my first long meditation retreat.
Richard: That brings up for me, the whole issue of empiricism in the realm of experience. It sounds paradoxical, and I know this is something you've talked a lot about. It’s something that, as you said, William James did not think was possible—relating to the idea that our attention couldn't be trained to reach an "objective" level.
Alan: William James was pessimistic simply because he didn't have data to the contrary, with respect to the possibility of developing our attention skills—developing samadhi, as it’s called in Sanskrit, developing concentration. At the same time, he wrote with brilliance about the theme of radical empiricism, that is, retraining the experience, questioning even one's most cherished and fundamental assumptions and beliefs—not abandoning them, but letting everything be up for very close inspection of the actual nature of the immediate content of experience. So this is something rather modern, “radical empiricism.” I think he probably coined the term.
But if we go back to Buddhist roots, at the time of the Buddha himself, there was a common phrase called Ehipassiko. In the Pali language, it's “come and see.” Buddhism, from the very outset, was not about “come and believe” or “be obedient.” It is “come and see for yourself what is true.”
Indian civilization going back thousands of years has developed a type of technology of the soul, one could say. And this is the technology of developing one's introspective abilities, mindfulness, attention—concentration with the primary focus and aspiration to explore experientially from a first-person perspective, in a spirit of radical empiricism the questions: What is the nature of the mind? How can you observe it? Can you probe through the outer shell of the human psyche to a deeper dimension, and from a deeper dimension, really fathom the very nature of consciousness all the way down to the great ground?
This sounds very subjective, and it is, but my favorite parallel here is: pure mathematics. We have Andrew Wiles, who proved Fermat's Last Theorem—brilliant, pure mathematician. He did solve what was widely considered among mathematicians to be an insoluble problem. He proved it with something like a hundred page proof. Highly, highly trained mathematicians went through every line of his proof and, one by one, they acknowledged, “You did it!”
He received accolades and a knighthood. So, it’s 100% subjective; that is, there's no empirical evidence whether it's true or not. So this is an inter-subjective collaboration among highly trained mathematicians and they all agreed.
There are similarly inter-subjectively corroborated discoveries, truths, and knowledge that have been achieved by contemplatives in multiple traditions, East and West. These have been inter-subjectively validated, even though you don't see any outward, physical, objective corroboration. And when all is said and done, every corroboration of evidence, whether in physics, chemistry, biology or psychology, is all inter-subjective corroboration. There is no third person, who doesn't have a first-person perspective.
So I think, it's high time now, to bring the subject back. In fact, when I was at Stanford, I wrote two dissertations, one for my satisfaction and the other for my dissertation committee. The one that I wrote for my satisfaction, is called, “The Taboo of Subjectivity—Toward a New Science of Consciousness.” This was to fully embrace subjectivity rather than treating it as a contaminant that needs to be cleared off to the side, so the research can be pure. But it does require that we go beyond folk psychology, folk observation, untrained attention to the heights of samadhi, of deep concentration and introspective inquiry, that have been achieved by contemplatives the world around.
So again, I think we're on the cusp of what I like to call a “Contemplative Renaissance” with a true revolution in the Mind Sciences, where we do not limit our understanding of mind to studying brain and behavior, which has been largely the case.
Richard: For me, this brings up the struggle, the difficulty, of finding a quality of attention that isn't attached to my grasping ego. The habits of mind are very deep. And yet to have such a moment of impersonal awareness is an amazing moment. I mean this is no small thing. Would you agree with that?
Alan: I couldn't agree more. I’ve studied philosophy a lot, both at Amherst and at Stanford—and I studied the branches of science. You can be a scientist, a technologist, a mathematician or what have you, without really altering your way of life in any significant degree. You could be an accountant or a plumber. And nobody is calling for you to shift your whole orientation, your values, your way of life. And frankly, it’s troubling that scientific inquiry can be done, and philosophical inquiry can be done, unconnected to getting at any kind of ethics. So this is a concern, as you pointed out with Heidegger.
It is a concern when you come to physics and weapons of mass destruction, and so forth. Whereas when it comes to contemplative inquiry, and this is a broad universal statement here—Buddhists, Christian, you name it—if you're devoting your life to contemplative inquiry, to knowing the nature of the mind, of consciousness, the nature of reality, the role of mind and nature, and you’re seeking to do this from the inside-out, there must be a fundamental shift in one's way of life. It must be rooted in ethics, meaning non-violence and benevolence. It must entail a cultivation of the mind that's not just during office hours. It’s a full-time job.
Then finally, to become a professional contemplative—as in becoming a professional astronomer—you need an observatory. Contemplatives need a nurturing environment and these were called hermitages, monasteries, meditation cells and so forth—a place, optimally, in nature, quiet, serene, simple; often it's in the desert.
I spent years in solitary retreat in the desert. There are reasons why the desert comes up. In a place like Tibet, it’s high desert. As Henry David Thoreau said when he was writing about his experience on Walden Pond, you set aside all the peripheral concerns, you strip your existence to its raw naked core. And then you develop, as you were saying so clearly, an emotive awareness that's beyond the personal, tapping into a deeper dimension and learning how to sustain that, and explore consciousness as something deeper than that which is conditioned by brain, by ego, personal history and so forth. This opens up a vast panoramic vision of what consciousness is in the universe.
Richard: It occurred to me that some of the problems we have today, huge problems—and problems that the knowledge of science can lead us towards—have something to do with the assumption that the ordinary mind is equipped to really know the Real. If one were to be really connected with our deepest nature some of these things that the science comes up with, there would be less damage, fewer unintended consequences from assuming, “I figured it out, and it’s been proved. So let's do it.” But so much is missed using just this narrow lens of the ordinary thinking mind. I’d say Descartes comes in here—and empiricism, which leaves out great parts of ourselves as human beings, and the wisdom that's possible there. I haven’t framed it as a question, but I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.
Alan: I think you're very right. And this is—especially since the time of Darwin and Thomas Huxley, the great biologist who was also, what I call, the founder of the Church of Scientific Materialism—a way of viewing reality so that the only truths that really need to be taken into account are objective, physical, quantifiable truths. And if the only reality we’re attending to are objective ones, then the whole world of our subjective experience, our innermost experience, tends to be marginalized or simply discounted all together.
So we are in the throes here of the long-term repercussions of this worldwide embrace (not homogeneous, but very large-scale embrace) of a triad. I call it the “triadic juggernaut of materialism, hedonism and consumerism.” If your worldview is materialistic, then the only things that are real are physical. Then naturally, you're going to look outwards and not inwards. And if the only realities are objective, and they are physical, then when you want to be free of suffering you look to the drug companies; if you want to find happiness, you may also look to the drug companies or you'll look at entertainment or buying some item that promises satisfaction. You’ll look to the great triad of wealth, power and prestige.
But the vacuity of these, in terms of delivering any genuine sense of wellbeing, were known since Socrates. So I think this triad of materialism, hedonism and consumerism has alienated us from ourselves, from our fellow sentient beings and from the environment. And we're seeing now the long-term consequences when science is divorced from ethics, when technology is divorced from ethics, divorced from basic human or spiritual values.
Right now—driven by greed, and often obstructed by hatred and delusion—we’re seeing an unprecedented destruction of the natural environment, decimation of other species and the undermining of human civilization—and using the tools of science and technology to do it. So I'm absolutely convinced, that we need to come back to the roots of the environmental crisis, of the social crisis, the military crisis that we're facing. They're not out there in the objective world; they are in the human spirit.
Buddhism has identified three impulses. I think it's an insight, not simply Buddhist dogma. That’s one, fundamental ignorance and delusion—getting reality wrong. Thinking all of reality consists only of material is simply idiotic. Then there’s craving and greed—looking always outwards for our happiness. And then, retaliating with anger and violence, when our egocentric desires are obstructed.
These are the roots of human distress, human conflict, and our destructive impact in the environment. So we are at a point of tremendous urgency now, right now in this 21st century. Over the next 50 years, we will determine whether we are sowing the seeds for the preservation and the nurturing of human civilization in relationship to the rest of the ecosphere, or the destruction of the ecosphere and the fundamental undermining of human civilization. So we are living at a time of great crisis. And it’s also a time of great opportunity.
Richard: This is such a powerful conversation, Alan. I want to keep asking you more, but I know we've come to that point where we need to open it up to others. Right, Pavi?
Pavi: We do. And thank you both for this utterly fascinating dialogue. I'm going to transition to some of the questions that came in through the web. Here's one from Toria in the UK. She asks, “With regard to all the recent evidence of misconduct among certain Rinpoche's, what safeguards would you like to see written in stone in large Tibetan Buddhist organizations, to prevent abuse of students by Lamas who incorrectly believe they are practicing with crazy wisdom?”
Alan: This is a very serious problem and it needs to be dealt face on with total honesty and transparency. I wish these problems were confined only to Tibetan Buddhism, but you can find them elsewhere. Without needing to elaborate, it’s simply misconduct, and there's no way to justify it. To solve this I would, as a Buddhist, go right back the Buddha's own teachings where he said we are relying not on the individual, but relying on the teaching. That is, the lama, the guru, the priest, the rabbi—whoever that maybe, in the role of a teacher, in the role of a lama, a spiritual mentor (and I am one of these people)—our task is to convey the authentic teachings, to guide people on the spiritual path out of compassion, offering our best wisdom, and offering the most authentic teachings we can. We—as teachers, as lamas, as gurus, priests and so forth—we are servants to the teachings that we’re transmitting and, insofar as we fail to do so, we are betraying the very teachings we pretend to be conveying.
So it always comes back to the teaching. If the lama, the teacher, the priest, the rabbi, whoever it maybe, fails to live in accordance with the teachings, then that person has a responsibility to share, and that must be stopped. It must be made public and stopped. But we always come back to the teaching. We find all the great religious traditions in the world, have been, on occasion, perverted by people's own mental afflictions, their own sense of self-importance or the sense of being above the law. That notion has to be banished in the realm of politics as well. The Rinpoches, the Lamas who fail to do that sabotage and betray the teaching, the tradition, that they have the responsibility to preserve.
Pavi: Thank you for that critical insight, Alan. I'm going to transfer onto our next caller.
Caller 1: Hello. I was reading on your bio and you asked the Dalai Lama, “How can I cultivate all the virtues without feeling superior to others? And what was his response that made you feel like you found home?”
Alan: I think it was the most memorable conversation I've ever had in my life. I’d just moved Dharamsala. By the time I had my first audience with the Dalai Lama, I’d been living there for two or three months. So I was really a beginner. I was studying, receiving teachings six days a week and practicing.
On occasion, newcomers/visitors to Dharamsala would ask me a question and I saw a bit of pride coming up, I know something you don't know. And I thought, “Oh my goodness. If I'm already feeling superior and I've hardly begun my path, how is this going to turn out? If I do grow in understanding and wisdom and other virtues, how do I avoid feeling superior, when I'm cultivating qualities that are in fact superior qualities?” That really struck me as a dilemma. I’d had an opportunity to meet with the Dalai Lama earlier, but I’d wanted to wait until I had a really pressing question and now I had one. So this was the question I posed to him.
The Dalai Lama was only, around 36 at the time. I was 21. And he responded, "Okay Alan, imagine that you’re a homeless beggar. You come to a nice home and you smell the fragrance of tasty food being cooked indoors. You come and knock and ask, ‘Could you please give me some scraps of food? I'm hungry. I have no home. Anything you could spare?’ And instead of throwing you some scraps, they invite you in, treat you like a member of the family, sit you down at the dinner table and invite you to have seconds and thirds until you've eaten to your heart's desire.” He said, “When you finished your meal, would you feel proud?”
I said, “No.”
“What would you feel?”
He said, “You are the beggar.”
And it was true. I was really a beggar in search of spiritual guidance, spiritual wisdom and a path of Awakening. And the Dalai Lama and so many other lamas opened their hearts, opened their minds, and shared with me a banquet of spiritual guidance. And then I tried to practice as well as I could.
So he said, “You're the same. So to feel in any way superior makes no sense, because any qualities you develop are arising in inter-dependence upon the kindness of others.” And then he gave as an example a fly that had come to a drop of honey, “If there’s a fly that’s drinking honey, and then another fly comes over, the first fly might be very aggressive in trying to scare it away.” He said, “When it comes to the fly, we don't blame the fly, because what does it know? But then he said, “If I, Tenzin Gyatso, should behave with the same type of self-centered aggression and greed, that would be shameful.” Then he summed this up: “The more understanding, the more intelligence you have, the greater the responsibility you have.”
Those two points have stayed with me ever since. I can’t say I've never experienced any sense of pride or superiority, but the greater blessings I’ve received, the greater benefits I received, they bring me back again and again to my many teachers and guides and friends and supporters who have enabled me to follow the spiritual path.
I think my understanding has grown, and therefore the responsibility has grown. That was the quintessential advice he gave me, and having received that, I knew I’d found what we call in Tibetan Buddhism, my root lama.
Pavi: Beautiful. Here’s a question from Sandy in Colorado, “You said you meditate nine hours a day and also work on several translation and teaching projects. Could you give me an example of how you organize your schedule to fit all of this into your day? And can you suggest a way I can move gradually to a similar lifestyle?”
Alan: Well, right now, I’ve just taken out two months. I’m normally traveling 8 or 9 months a year. I have a very special relationship with my wife. She's very independent. I'm very independent. We're very committed to each other, but we also allow each other to do what we each find most meaningful.
So for right now, I’ve taken off two months and I'm staying home. I like to be in semi-retreat, having conversations like this, answering emails, and having very few obligations from the outside. So I meditate about nine hours a day. When I'm leading retreats I'm often meditating eight or nine hours a day, but if I'm lecturing at a university or participating in a conference then it needs to go down to probably three or four or five hours a day. This is not a boast. It's simply a statement of fact. I give so much emphasis to meditation for the very simple reason that the activity of immersing myself in my contemplative practice in devotions, in meditation, is of tremendous importance to me.
We all have 24 hours a day and we're all busy with something. Whether it's lounging around or going to parties, doing scientific research or creating art, we give time to that which we prioritize. And there are many, many people on the planet, and their priority is merely to survive. For them I have only compassion and caring. But I’m not one of those. Probably, like many of the listeners on this program, I have the great blessing of having leisure. And when I have leisure, then I want to devote that time to the most meaningful type of activity I can as in participating in this call.
Pavi: Wonderful. The next question is from Mindy: “I just learned about self-doubt as a hindrance. Can you speak a little more about this?”
Alan: Doubt can be wonderfully transformative, rejuvenating, because sometimes we don't doubt that which should be doubted. As Mark Twain said, “It ain't what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It's what you do know that isn’t quite so.”
We can hold assumptions and beliefs that we never question. It's very easy to do, especially when the people around us carry the same assumptions and beliefs. So healthy doubt, constructive doubt can be very, very useful. But in Buddhist psychology, we also speak of “afflicted uncertainty.” Afflicted doubt is where we keep on pulling the rug out from beneath our very feet and sabotaging ourselves, especially when we set out to do something really meaningful. This nagging doubt comes in. “Maybe I'm not up to it. Maybe I'm not worthy. Maybe I'll crash and burn.” So the first point here is when doubt comes up, face it squarely.
It's like calling up a person who’s right in front of you. “Ok, Doubt, what's on your mind?”
Then ask with your most discerning intelligence: “Is this a doubt that is useful? Can it lead to greater insight and be productive? Or is this just something that will sabotage my most meaningful efforts?
So see what type of doubt it is and, either way, address that doubt with intelligence. That's a Buddhist approach. I’ve found it very useful over the decades.
Pavi: Alan, here's a question I have for you. From your perspective what are, if any, some of the insidiously detrimental simplifications or misconceptions of the Buddha's teachings in the West?
Alan: Well, probably the easiest one that comes to mind is what I mentioned earlier with Richard, and that is that the Buddha taught that there is no self. Well, we can ask, “Who said that?” It's a gross oversimplification -- the notion that there is no thinker, no agent, no person, is simply silly. And so this is a fundamental misconstrual of Buddhism.
I do exist, but not as a separate, independent entity. I exist in interrelationship with the body and mind and, in a way, I'm reincarnating from moment to moment to moment—as right now I’m participating as an interviewee in this conversation. Then I'll go back my meditation and I’ll be a meditator. So that's the first one.
One that concerns me the most is I've heard it said on occasion that, after all, in Buddhism there's really no good or evil. This is really catastrophic. We get this in science—that good and evil, that morality, is just what we “make up.” It’s the view that morality and ethics is simply a subjective construct superimposed upon an objective, mindless amoral universe. That, catastrophically, is the vision of reality that’s widely promoted under the umbrella of Science. There is nothing scientific about it at all. And Buddhism is emphatically not this!
Simply stated, when we act in accordance with non-violence, with benevolence in the spirit of service, we are acting in accordance with reality. We exist in interdependence, and therefore attending to our fellow sentient beings in the spirit of caring, offering our wisdom, our service to the world, is acting in accordance with reality. And that is ethical.
Whereas, for example, if I should act out of ego—out of self-centered attachment and greed, out of resentment, anger and violence—then my behavior is rooted in ignorance and delusion. And that's unethical. So ethics in the Buddhist worldview is embedded in the very fabric of reality itself. So those are the two things that come to mind here.
Pavi: Hear, hear! Thank you so much for that. Going to the next caller in our queue….
Caller: Hello. You've been working for several years now on developing a Center for Contemplative Research, and I'm wondering what the status of that project is right now?
Alan: Oh, thank you for the question! This came up implicitly in the earlier conversation with Richard when I mentioned that neuroscientists need laboratories, artists need studios and astronomers need observatories. If one wants to really devote oneself full-time to the contemplative exploration of the mind from the first-person perspective—whether it's for months or years, or even days—then it's ever so helpful to have a conducive environment.
So after 12 or 13 years of searching on multiple continents for a suitable environment, close to five years ago I learned of this property in Tuscany. It’s on a hillside overlooking the ocean and it’s exquisitely beautiful. And nearby there's a Tibetan Buddhist center with which we have a close association, by which we can get long-term visas for years on end for people who come to this environment. We’re very close to purchasing the land and then raising funds to build 18 individual meditation cabins. I'll be there at least half the year. We'll have other teachers coming in from the East and West to create a community of contemplative inquiry working in close collaboration with psychologists, with neuroscientists, philosophers, even physicists, to integrate the third-person methods of modern science and the first-person methods of contemplative inquiry.
The practices we’re focusing on are first of all training the attention—it’s called Shamatha in Sanskrit— and then actively engaging in contemplative inquiry, probing into the very nature of mind and consciousness. These methods are drawn from Buddhism, but they can be practiced by anyone—religious or not religious. So this will be an environment created to sustain this, to provide financial support for those who need it, to provide spiritual guidance and really to try to bring together the scientific and the spiritual, the contemplative and the scientific to benefit from understanding the profound implications for mental health and well-being. This will have tremendous implications for education, for mental health, for psychology, and even physics.
We’ve raised enough money to purchase the land, and an adjacent building will be our headquarters for this year. We’re seeking to raise funds to build the cabins, invite the scientists and get the show on the road. So we're hoping to start, if funds do come in, in the year 2020. Hopefully, we'll have a very clear vision of how to integrate these worlds and offer our very best to the world that’s in desperate need of greater wisdom and compassion.
Pavi: Exciting developments. Our friend Liam in Spain asks: “What is one of the most inspiring stories of integration between spirituality and social change that you know of?”
Alan: That's a big one. There are so many! The one I know the best is the Dalai Lama. When I first met him in 1971 it was very easy to have access to him. His Nobel Peace Prize and all of that was in the future. But here's a man who gets up regularly at 2:30 am, devotes the first five hours or so of his daily life to meditating, devotional prayers and practices and so forth. In the morning, he's off meeting with people. Even at the age of now 84, he’s still traveling extensively, offering his very best and reaching out, not just the right hand, but with the left hand—reaching out to the secular world. He's written two books on Ethics in the secular world: Ethics for the New Millennium and Beyond Religion. It’s about understanding how to make sense of ethics without reliance on any particular religious creed, because we need to understand ethics in a way that transcends all ideologies.
He's a man of very profound spiritual experience. He embodies everything he says. He reaches out to people of other faiths. He has friends among religious leaders in all the world's religions. He reaches out to world-class scientists in all disciplines. Yet when you meet him one-on-one, you have this sense that he really means it when he says, "I am simple Buddhist monk." When you meet him one-on-one or you see him from afar, you have a sense of a person who is utterly, in a beautiful way, simple and humble and ever so human. This is why I so profoundly admire him for embodying the truths that I aspire to realize myself.
Pavi: Thank you for that answer. Natalia from Germany had a question about the renunciation of ignorant views on the path. “Would you say the inability to really renounce these habits is a karmic condition?”
Alan: I'll give a Buddhist answer. There are misconceptions, ways of misapprehending reality that we bring from the past. Fundamentally, it is clinging to Ego. The clinging to our sense of being an autonomous, independent "I am" is a delusion. And grasping at other things so they could be more stable and enduring than they actually are, where everything is in a state of flux—we're born with this. We're born with this tendency to misapprehend, misunderstand what are the true causes of suffering and the true causes of Happiness. But on top of it, we, especially living in the 20th and 21st century, we’ve compounded our innate ignorance and delusion and misunderstanding of reality with learned ignorance. The notion that the whole of reality consists only of the physical and emergent properties of the physical is fundamentally misguided. And it’s catastrophic when people equate mind with brain, human beings with brains. They are conflating, identifying our very existence, our "being" as Richard said, with a biological entity, a brain that operates under the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, where there's no morality.
So the reduction of human beings to matter, to brains, to organic robots is dehumanizing, disempowering and demoralizing. This is learned delusion with catastrophic consequences. We need to doubt. We need to question, investigate closely with the inner spirit of radical empiricism and the delusional status of these beliefs will become more and more apparent.
Pavi: Alan, our final question, which we ask all of our guests, is simply how can the Service Space community help further and serve your vision and work in the world?
Alan: There is so much division in the world. We Americans see such profound divisiveness within our own beloved homeland, and there's division elsewhere. But reality does not divide itself into competing factions; reality is one of profound interdependence.
So can we seek common ground, while embracing and even celebrating the differences between science and religion, from one religion to the next, one ethnic group to the next, celebrating the differences with a sense of inner security that the difference does not mean threat, because there’s an underlying a common ground of our existence on this beautiful planet?
Every one of us wants to find happiness. Everyone wants to be free of suffering, every sentient creature. Let's explore this together to shed a clear light on what are the true causes of suffering? What are the true causes of happiness? So I think focusing upon the underlying Common Ground, while feeling at ease and even celebrating the diversity, is a way to heal individually and on a planetary level.
Pavi: Thank you, Alan, for the tremendous generosity and compassion in that response. And in the many decades you've spent pursuing your truth and sharing that with the world—your rigor, discipline and commitment—is truly humbling and inspiring. We are so honored to have had you on this call today.
(Now the Awakin call is over, but Pavi, Alan and Richard continue on their own for a few minutes)
Richard: Alan, we didn’t have time, but I wanted to ask if you happen to know Lobsang Rapgay?
Alan: (laughs) He's one of my oldest and dearest friends! We were in the monastery founded by the Dalai Lama, back in 1973. His wife is the primary health provider for my wife and me. We go down and see her. We're in Santa Barbara. The two of them are in Los Angeles. Lobsang is a profoundly bicultural man with a PhD in Clinical Psychology. And yet, he, like myself, was a Buddhist monk. He also studied Tibetan medicine much more than I did. So yes, he's a very dear and old friend.
Richard: How wonderful. I had the great good fortune to interview him about a year ago and it was such a special experience.
Alan: Yes, he’s a remarkable human being—his wife, also. She’s like a seventh-generation traditional Tibetan doctor. They're quite a couple.
Pavi: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your relationship to Yoga. It goes back to what was it—1980?
Alan: You noted that? This is a weakness of the Buddhist tradition, generally—and including Tibetan Buddhism. There's so much emphasis on the mind, that the body can be a bit marginalized or overlooked. And sometimes, very unfortunately, many of the really, really outstanding lamas don't take care of their health. So overall it's not a strength of Tibetan Buddhism.
So when I was 30, in 1980, I'd gone back to Dharamsala to meditate. Then my visa ran out after six months. They said, "You have to apply for another one." I went down to Sri Lanka and was meditating in a hermitage in the midlands of Sri Lanka, when this big trauma explosion occurred in my body. It came out of nowhere, and I didn't know what it was. And it wasn't because I was doing something wrong, either. I was a monk living very simply in a little kuti in the hills outside of Kandy. But I thought, “I need to pay greater attention to my body.”
So I went directly from Sri Lanka to Pune. I spent two or three months there, training very intensively with Iyengar. Then I made my way back up to Dharamsala and managed to get a long-term visa. I was 23 and I spoke with one of my llamas, Geshe Rabten. I said, “This is my path. I'm a Buddhist 100%, but I find it very helpful to also practice yoga from the Hindu tradition. I asked him, “Do you see any incompatibility there ?”
He said, “Alan, if you're a Buddhist and you practice yoga, it's going to be Buddhist-yoga. Don't worry about it.”
So I've been practicing with various teachers. Most recently, I was learning some yoga from Mongolia. That's the one that I've already done today—my 15 minutes in the early morning—mostly yoga and stretching, and then prostrations—as in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which is a little bit like, one set of yoga asanas. I can't remember...
Pavi: The sun salutation?
Alan: A bit similar. But I'll be 69 in a couple of months and you know old age does not smile on the body. So I do watch my diet very carefully and practice about 15 minutes with my yoga and prostrations. Then also I like to go out for a good half-hour, rigorous walk every day.
But I think there’s a profound compatibility there. It's an area where Buddhism, I think, can learn a lot from the Hindu tradition. You know, there's been like a brother-sister relationship between the multiple strands of the Hindu tradition and the Buddhist tradition, going back to the time of the Buddha. Buddhism, from the time of the Buddha, was deeply indebted to the great samadhi tradition, which I think really was uniquely Indian. The Chinese, the Mayans, Europeans, the Jews, and the Greeks—none of them develop samadhi, like the Indians did. Buddhism is a great beneficiary of the Indians’ discovery of samadhi.
Then, of course, the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali starts—many people overlook the first two phases, Yama and Niyama. Ethics. Every authentic spiritual tradition in the world is rooted in ethics. And of course, Patanjali yoga sutras are profoundly spiritual. So it starts there—going from coarse to subtle, from the asanas to the pranayama. From pranayama, then on through ashtanga yoga, it's going subtle, subtle, subtle into, really, the very nature of Consciousness itself. So, very simply put, there's a profound compatibility.
Pavi: Thank you for that. I feel like the effortless and really beautiful way that your life and its work provides this bridge between so many different strands of spirituality, that it hasn't been precluded by your going so deep into one tradition.
Alan: This has been very important for me, because being raised in California and Switzerland and Israel and Scotland, I was exposed to a lot of diversity—from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greek-Roman tradition of Science and so on. And integrating has been very, very important for me all the way along.
Pavi: One question, on behalf of Richard as well. I feel like Tibetan Buddhism has a very special relationship to beauty and the arts, and I was wondering if you could speak to that?
Alan: I can certainly say, “Yes.” But right after saying that, I also want to consider the Renaissance, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Bach… Consider Gregorian chants, the cathedrals, and the statues and paintings of the Christian tradition. Then go to the Indian tradition; the music of classical India is profoundly interwoven with spirituality. And a great deal of the Gandhara art was influenced from Greece. Then you go to East Asia, and the sublimity of the Zen arts, the Chung paintings, the gardening, flowers and so forth. So it’s true.
I'm happy to come back to Tibetan Buddhism, but I want just to point out that while we’re in an era where so many people are just reveling in bashing religion, they’re just blithely overlooking its tremendous contributions to humanity—not only in the spiritual domain, but in terms of music, art, architecture, poetry and literature and so forth.
So yes, it's there in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the tradition with which I have the strongest connection and I must say I just love Tibetan art—the paintings, the thangkas and so forth; many of them bring in strong elements of natural beauty. Then if you look at virtually any hermitage or the smaller monasteries throughout the whole of Tibet, and there were 6,000 of them before the Chinese Communist Invasion— 6000 monasteries and hermitages for 6 million people. That’s one monastery for every thousand people, and they're almost invariably in places of tremendous natural beauty. And then the monasteries themselves are ornaments to the natural beauty that's already there.
Now we're seeking to create the Center for Contemplative Research in Tuscany. Look at the hermitages and the monasteries in Italy, Greece, Spain and so forth. They’re established where there's already tremendous natural beauty—exactly like the place where we're focusing on in Tuscany. And what they construct there is not something that mars the natural beauty of the landscape, the seascape, the mountain scape, but actually adorns it. This is our aspiration, my aspiration, that whatever we construct on the land there, outside of this little village Castellina Marittima in Tuscany, that it will adorn the landscape.
One of my teachers is a woman who has been my lama since I was 31. She is now well into her 80s, but when she was younger, she was ravishingly beautiful. So she knows about beauty from the inside and the outside, and years ago I asked her as my lama, “What do you see as the role of beauty in spiritual practice?"
Her face lit up with this beautiful smile. She said, "Oh, beauty is so important! It brings joy to the heart."