A Conversation with Arnaud Maitland: An Intrinsic Capacity for Knowingness
by Pavithra Mehta, Aug 28, 2019
"In fundamental openness, the seed of life with its hidden potential is inclined to reach for the light. It is programmed to do so; there is an intrinsic capacity of knowingness." – Tarthang Tulku
Arnaud Maitland is a senior student of Tarthang Tulku, a spiritual teacher from Tibet whose constellation of organizations across the world is dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, culture and consciousness. Over the decades Arnaud, whose career began in the Dutch shipping industry, has served his teacher’s vision in widely varying capacities. The recently published memoir, Reflections of Faith: Fulfilling the Heart’s Desires is a retrospective look at Arnaud’s journey and a glimpse into the timeless teachings that have illuminated his path. In May of 2019 I interviewed Arnaud on the themes of his book at a small gathering at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, where in 1977 he first met Tarthang Tulku (known to his students simply as, Rinpoche,) and lived for many years, eventually serving as Dean of the Institute between 1984 and 1987. What follows is an edited transcript of this interview, interspersed with quotes excerpted from the book.
Pavi Mehta: My first question relates to the subtitle of the book: Fulfilling the heart's desires. A theme that recurs in your book is this idea of moving beyond the familiar into the unknown territory of the heart's deepest calling. How do you discern between the true signal of your heart calling and the noise of past patterns and conditioning?
Arnaud Maitland: A genuine wish is one that is there all the time. Not necessarily every day but it has been there for years. I venture to say that a genuine wish is one we’ve had ever since we were very young. Like the other day, somebody who is eighteen told me that when she was eight or nine, she really wanted to help other people. But that was kind of pooh-poohed by the older generation, “What does an 8-year-old know about helping others?” So she started to suppress that. Now that she is older she has begun to recognize that this aspiration was something--and this is language from the teachings and from the book-- something that belongs to her.
A genuine wish comes from a much deeper place, even though I may only recognize it later. It finds its way forward. A genuine wish in my case was to go abroad after graduation. Once the wish was articulated I found myself in New York City six months later. There had been no research, planning, simply the expression of a heart’s desire.
Pavi: I was touched by Rinpoche’s advice to look at your journey through the eyes of your master. What did the process of examining your life in this way while writing the book reveal to you about yourself?
Arnaud: At the heart of the book are a couple of topics, and one of them is Tathagata-gharba, the Buddha-Nature. This is such a big concept, so I need to be careful with attempting to explain it. But the whole idea of Tathagata-gharba or Buddha-Nature is that from the point of view of Rinpoche, we are all equal. And we don't experience that because we are in what we call the conditioned realm.
When I am talking to somebody, my practice is to look through what the person says and to look through what the person thinks. There is a whole world behind your thoughts. And behind your thoughts there is openness. What you can do with your openness is different from what somebody else can do. So you are unique.
When you look through all these layers, sometimes they are very thick and heavy, but if you can look through them, you see openness, you see color, and you see life. And then you see that the person basically is not lacking anything. The idea is that everybody can do this, whatever your tradition is. Say you are Catholic and Maria speaks to you. Can you look through the eyes of Maria at yourself? Then you see the real you-- which in our teachings is goodness and creativity and love. So to look in that way was really an inspiration.
“Tathagatha-garba is not a potential waiting to be developed, for it already suffuses our being as oil suffuses the sesame seed. It is not an actual entity or form. It is not something that must be discovered, nor does it depend on inviting it into our lives.” – Tarthang Tulku
I want to be very clear, I write about me in the book, but my hope is that everybody who reads it starts to reflect on his or her own life. Looking through Rinpoche's eyes at myself was very revealing to me. It was like the ultimate relief, like [sighs deeply], you know? Like, first of all that he can see that and second of all that that is who I am.
If I think, “Yes, that is me!” That experience is only genuine if I can also see you in that same way. So if I look at you and see goodness and love and creativity, then that means it has really hit me. Otherwise it's some kind of-- I won't say personal trip-- but it's only the beginning.
Pavi: I love that idea of learning to look through the eyes of a master, not just at oneself but also at everything else. Your gaze becomes trained in a certain way. It takes courage to do this.
Arnaud: For me this really started when I started to look at the obstacles, the difficult moments in my life. I started to look at my part in them without judging. It's so easy to say, “Well my life today is difficult because of you, or the organization, or there is not enough money.” But [the truth is] I cannot be myself because of my own [conditioned] layers that are in the way. So if I look at myself, I see those layers and I see what's behind them.
This only happens when you stay with it. Not when you jump from image to image. I need to stay with one image. When I do that I see how contracted--that's a Kum Nye term-- how frozen it is. If I stay with it, then that image whatever it is, begins to loosen up, and begins to flow again.
And of course, I am ashamed-- I am becoming very much familiar with that word-- I feel a little bit of shame at how I am sometimes. I don't feel guilty or regret, it is more like, “Ah! That's not me.” It's a kind of shame (deep exhale) and then it rests. I don't stay with the shame.
“Kum Nye facilitates discovery of what we really are-- openness, flowing-ness and ongoing embodiment of knowledge.”
Pavi: I'm remembering a time when you were on the brink of a super promotion and you decided to spend three weeks in Bali, staying with the deeper questions in your heart. And a clarity that surfaced for you was that you wanted to have the same mind seven days a week. You wanted to carry the same mind into all moments. In the modern world we design for compartmentalizing. What tuned you into the fact that there is something problematic about that kind of division?
Arnaud: At the time I was living in Hong Kong, and I noticed that I and my friends and colleagues were different during the week and on the weekends. It is easy to say, “Well, that's because on the weekends you have free time.” But I was noticing that my seeing was different, my feeling was different. [In Bali] I experienced a very big openness. I could imagine where the rest of my life would go.
Now I had to be brave. If I can see in my imagination where the rest of my life will go, then I don't need to live it anymore. Why would I start living that and repeating what I already know? So then there was a big openness and in that openness I said, "What will guide me?"
“Questions that are deeply meaningful strike an inner chord that attunes mind and senses to a wider scope of possibility.” – Tarthang Tulku
And one intuition that came was, “If I enjoy what I am doing I will always make enough money.” And the second clarity was, “I want my mind to be the same during the week and the weekend.”
In the United States you have a restaurant that's called "Thank God It's Friday." Can you imagine? "Thank God It's Friday!" I don't want to live towards Friday. I didn't want to lose five days. I wanted to be the same Arnaud. That's really what it boils down to. I wanted to be Arnaud.
Pavi: That’s kind of the crux of the book-- “How do you be who you are?” Now I want to talk about our relationship to time. We literally use language like, "I am working against time. I am running out of time. Time is money.” We have these images of scarcity and adversarial relationship. You describe a very different possibility. You speak of time as a creative ally. I wonder if you could speak to that a little bit.
Arnaud: Rinpoche's teaching is different for different people. There are a variety of teachings. But the one that I heard and hear the most is, "What are you doing with your time?"
Time is your life. And there is this beautiful teaching on how to contact time. You have to go through Four Gates. You have to forget the past. You have to be totally involved. You have to drop a sense of I, and not think of the future. Quickly, those are the four gates. But the idea of Rinpoche giving a deadline – in March 1980 Rinpoche started to build a stupa and he wanted it to be finished in August. Well…[Pavi laughs] I asked the foreman we were working with, "Do you think we will make it?" And he said, “That question doesn't help." In other words, you need only to engage mentally and energetically with what helps to make that deadline. But that was just the beginning. Now I have a great affinity for time. I would go as far as to say time is like God. Having time on your side is like having God on your side.
So Rinpoche started to give deadlines. Then when I worked at Dharma Enterprises, we had serious deadlines, because we had to pay the bills. Maybe this is radical for other people--but this is my experience, if I have a meaningful deadline, then the time between now and the deadline (indicates a point in the distance with his hands) comes here (indicates his heart).
"If you say yes to a deadline, a communication is being born between your project and the power of time."
So if I bring the result and the learning from the process here (indicates heart again), now it's just a question of manifesting. So I only have the deadline in mind, nothing else. You need to go through certain steps yes, but the deadline is here (indicating heart), so now I am manifesting what is already here. That's energetically speaking.
But the information-- whatever I have learned by the time the result is manifested-- if I bring that information to me now, then I already can have access to that too. So time is enormously dynamic.
Maybe you watch sports? There is always a clock involved, except in baseball. And that's why many of us fall asleep watching baseball. But all other games, you know, they have deadlines, they have so many minutes-- and then at some point they have just three more seconds, two more seconds-- see what a great basketball player can do in 0.7 seconds? It's because he is in time. He knows where the opposition comes, and he knows where the opening is for the ball. All of that is because the deadline is already here. It is very, very fascinating ...
Now that's just the beginning. Because if the deadline is here, I can take one step further-- I will die one day. Can I bring that here too? So now suddenly I start operating as if I am already dead, knowing everything that I know by then, I begin to apply now. That's a bigger step. And it keeps going because once your time is so embodied, time opens up. So now the past and the future are also accessible. And of course especially the past is very interesting. So, yeah, I love deadlines. The power of time is really one of my favorite topics.
“The key to transforming tension is to be in time.”
Pavi: It's like a special kind of alchemy where you can take something that feels like a threat or feels like a burden and—I mean, even the way you talk about deadlines—‘deadlines’ feels like the wrong word for it, you know. It should be called an alive-line or a lifeline.
You write about what it means to be in time. I found that really intriguing as well. Maybe you should talk about it a little bit because you link it to body awareness, which I think is important. It’s not a mental concept.
Arnaud: Well, the body is very much in time--the heart, the digestive system, the breath. Everything is already in time. The whole body is timing. And there are different frequencies. So if my attention is in the body, there are two things that happen. First of all I become aware of what's happening inside the body, and there is a pulse.
When you go deeper and deeper in meditation there is something pulsating. I don't know how else to say it. It could be the real pulse of time. But it is in any case the real pulse of time in you. So, when you bring your attention into it, then the mind comes in the wake of the attention. When I bring my attention into my body, everything else that belongs to mind comes too.
If my mind is not in the body, my mind goes here and goes there, because it doesn't know what to do, so it goes according to a default system. It goes where it is accustomed to going. But when bringing the attention to the body, something different opens up-- even if you just feel your hands. So if, while I am talking to you, I feel my hands, something magical happens. I am not in a judgmental world anymore. My attention [in the body] brings in the wholeness of mind. It's interesting that in Tibetan, if my understanding is correct, the word for thinking translates to mind-in-pieces.
Arnaud: So if I bring my attention into my body, it's not that I stop thinking but I am not being fragmented by it. So what is happening? Well, there's feeling, there is being, and there is presence. So now I begin to see you—and the people in this group, without like or dislike, or attachment or aversion. If I go into my thoughts, then I am in my world of aversion, and so on. If I bring my attention in the body, then everything that belongs to mind will follow it. So now my mind is in the body, now something magical happens.
And the second part is, I am breathing, and the breath comes from outside, and according to our teachings, the breath is a representative—not a symbol—a representative, of the cosmic vitality. So if that is true, then I breathe in cosmic vitality. And it's not just energy, but it is also intelligence or information. So everything in the cosmos, the knowing quality that is out there, comes in. So now I am beginning to invite a whole world that I've never seen before, never been aware of before.
So, now just by bringing attention…paying attention to my hands [for instance], the breath will slow down, and the breath will disappear almost. So at that level it's like the skin is breathing. I am still very quiet, and now the inner and outer are the same. Now I am embodying what is. So body awareness really is, for me, the gem of Rinpoche's teachings.
“If the mind is in the body, time will be on our side. With body awareness our rhythms and frequencies are linked to those we invite into our awareness.”
Pavi: Many different directions we could go in from here, but I am going to pick one. In modern times we struggle with staying connected to a sense of the sacred and also with staying connected to our hands. So much of our work has become more abstract. Can you speak to what you’ve learned from working on sacred tasks with your hands?
Arnaud: Well, I should first tell you that where I come from in the Netherlands, we, much to my embarrassment, we look down on people who do manual labor. Maybe if you are a very special artist and you work with your hands maybe that's okay. But in general you need to work with this [indicates the head].
The first time that I realized this is when I was at the Institute. In those days we did mass mailings. We were six or eight people. We were preparing all these envelopes. While we were working, I wasn't judging: "Hey, why don't you work as fast or..." No, no. We were all important. All these wonderful qualities came together that I would describe now as feeling experience. You know we have a very nice saying in Dutch, and in English: The future is in your hands. We need to do something with our hands to make a change. So if you only work up here [indicates brain], I am inclined to believe that you kind of stay stationary. You may expand, you may be creative, but it doesn't affect the body necessarily. And you get more excited and then you have to be creative again, so it puts more and more pressure on you.
If I am in the body, I don't feel that pressure to be creative. I am creative. I don't need to worry about my next act of creativity.
Now the connection with the sacred is interesting. It's a little beyond me to say anything useful about that. But Rinpoche writes that there are three levels: There is the outer level, what we see. And then there is the inner level, my thoughts and my images. And then there is a third level and he calls that 'the sacred energy called myself'. I am interested in that self. How can one get in contact with it? I don't know a quicker way than through your hands. The embodiment has to go through the body. If I don't feel it in the body or I don't use my body, I cannot sustain that relationship. Can I go a little bit side stream?
Pavi: Yes, absolutely, it's your interview
Arnaud: We had a six-month program at the Institute that became an eight-month program. We wanted to say thank you to Rinpoche. Three adults took three weeks to make a little gypsum stupa. I brought it to Rinpoche. I was incredibly naïve-- or innocent-- innocent is the word. I said, “Thank you very much,” and showed him the little thing we had made. The only thing he said was, "Come back tomorrow.” So the next day I came back. He had one tsa tsa [a form of Buddhist art,] and he had a little stupa, and he had a statue of Padmasambhava. And with one breath he said, "Can you make 108,000 tsa tsas and 108,000 Padmasambhavas, and 1080 stupas? That meeting was two minutes long. [laughter]
And I can talk about a tsa tsa for five minutes but that's not why I made them. And I can talk about a stupa a little bit, but I don't know much. And Padmasambhava is certainly a big mystery. Why do we make Padmasambhava? We are going to make now a 26 feet tall Padmasambhava, --it's 8 meters. I am just happy that we do it. Do I know what it means for the world? No I don't. But the master, Rinpoche, we don't call him master but for people to understand it, the master says: "This is a very important contribution to the energetic forces that are prevailing in the universe. Instead of them being chaotic, that they become more harmonious.” That's fine with me. I don't know if I can do it any other way than through my hands.
“When the energy of human embodiment is fully expressed, it becomes art. It reveals our inner qualities, our distinct flavors, our souls. We become one with joy.” – Tarthang Tulku
Pavi: That brings me very naturally to my next question. Repeatedly in the course of your life, you have been invited into huge projects in fields that you sometimes have zero prior experience in. Right?
Arnaud: Yes. Every time.
Pavi: And what struck me was how your response is always, 'Yes.' I am wondering where does that 'yes' come from?
Arnaud: First of all I should say that what I am describing happens in our organization left, right and center. So this is just one of Rinpoche's senior students who is telling his story. While you and I are sitting here, there is a very, very large project at Odiyan. And then in India, and in Tibet there are many projects going on. I would love to be able to articulate what happens. I can only tell you that when Rinpoche asks, there is nothing in between. I don't go through pros and cons, I don't say: "Yes, but."
Rinpoche asked me to come to a meeting. There was all this paperwork going on and without any introduction, without a business plan, without anything, he suddenly says, “I would like you to become director of Dharma Enterprises.” We had never talked about it before. And the papers were there. And the idea was that I would sign them. One person said to me, "Don't you need to read what you are signing?" And this is the most genuine thing I can say-- when Rinpoche asked me if I would like to do it, he means, I can do it. Which means it's already done in his mind. And my job is to make it come to life with a group of people.
Pavi: With Dharma Enterprises you asked Rinpoche for guidelines and he gave you three. The third one was “Bring Dharma into the business.” What is the difference between operating in a traditional paradigm versus the paradigm you were operating within?
Arnaud: We could not fail. An ordinary business can fail. We could not. There was no doubt.
Pavi: And you couldn't fail because?
Arnaud: The Buddhist answer for that is that most businesses are ego-oriented, and that has a timeline, that has an expiration date. This vision had no expiration date. It was not an ego-deadline. Ego was not involved. I am not saying that my ego was not involved. But in the vision there was no ego. It was to benefit others. And the more people benefit, the longer in time they benefit, then that benefit starts echoing back.
In a normal business there is nothing echoing back. It's all about the stock, the investors. Of course people have a job, that's wonderful and they sustain families, but it's not necessarily anything to do with the soul of humanity. So, if you can give your work a touch, a taste of the soul of humanity, you can go for a very, very long time. So we grew. But it was always for the benefit of more than a few investors. I am not against investors, not at all. But the more people benefit, the easier the job will be.
“By carefully devoting ourselves to the task at hand, we work without internal obstructions. We transform the situation, entering a different dimension, another realm of possibility.” – Tarthang Tulku
Pavi: What, in your view are the elements of Rinpoche's teachings that most directly serve the needs of our times?
Arnaud: Rinpoche's original vision, supposedly, was, to contribute to Western understanding of mind. But when he started to teach, he focused on the body. And he presented that by Kum Nye. And Kum Nye, even in our own organization, is often pushed aside as simply working with the physical body. It's not. Working with Kum Nye you use the physical body to awaken awareness of space. And that means awakening the body of knowledge. I don't know a more beautiful thing.
For a person who is in his twenties, or thirties, or forties, what is the most important thing to find out? It’s--what is your mission? What is calling you? And Rinpoche said that to me, to many others probably, too. That speaks to me. And I don't know what my mission is but I can ride the wave of being on a mission. I think it's the best thing that you can say to your children: “You are on a mission. The world is waiting for you. There is something that you can contribute to this world.” In that process, I think, it's very important to do Kum Nye, because it works with the body. It opens up the chakras, and everything else. So, Kum Nye is essential. Working with time is essential. And then finally, working with the mind, but the mind is not the thinking mind. Mind is the sensing mind. And that includes seeing, and knowing, and feeling and smelling, and tasting. So you come back to awareness.
“Kum Nye redesigns the inner architecture of the energy body. We begin to feel safer in our own skin.”
Pavi: You wrote in the remaining years that you have, you want to practice the highest aspiration of “experiencing the self as mandala” I'd love you to speak to that piece as well.
Arnaud: To now experience myself as a Mandala, means every part of me is working and there are no shadows. So that's what I am focusing on now.
I am already pretty old. It's a little late. I am focusing, not only on the shadow side, but what is stirring in my unconscious that is in the way. So, once that comes more and more to the surface, nothing will lie in between the nature of my being and the world. Then it’s radiating, that's the characteristic--radiation. And what is being radiated is light and love. That's what I want.