San Rafael, California 10/27/2016
I agreed to be his driver while he visited San Francisco, and knowing he had retired from teaching at his Temple in New Zealand, I asked him if he might teach while he was visiting. His response was, “Maybe meet with people, have tea and exchange. That would be good.”
Some, like Lama Samten, had been practicing for 40 years and, although there are differences in practice, Mr. Gurdjieff wrote of his Tibetan friends. So, given Lama’s response, Colleen kindly offered her home for tea and conversation.
Five years ago I was sitting in a Tibetan Temple in Himachal Pradesh, India when Lama came in with a couple of western students. What was unusual was that I soon picked up my cushion and sat closer so I could hear what he was saying, something I had never done. A few minutes later I realized he was giving Refuge, the opening step in Buddhist practice— acknowledging the nature of our mind, the need for a transmission of practice, the help of community.
Although I had taken Refuge in 1977 after my brief time in the Gurdjieff Work, I picked up my cushion and moved closer. He spoke for a few minutes. His introduction was so simple and clear. Twice more in the following years our paths crossed in India and gradually I learned from others a little of his history.
Under the guidance of my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, Lama Samten completed more than 9 years in retreat and was then sent by the head of our lineage to New Zealand. So now, he can speak to us in English with a Kiwi accent. I learned elsewhere he has built eight stupas in New Zealand, eight in Australia and is now building a mandala out of concrete… quite active for retirement. I would like to welcome him and your questions. —Alan Freebury
Question: Thank you for visiting with us. When you went to New Zealand, that must have been a new world for you.
Lama Samten: Absolutely
Question: And you’ve been there for many years. Could you say a little about that?
Lama Samten: I was born in west Tibet in 1953. When I was 5 years old I went to the monastery with my uncle. My uncle was an abbot. At the monastery I joined with him meditating in a cave. My parents let me go with him, so I stayed with him for several years. Summers I had a holiday, but the rest of the time was in the cave. When I was 10 years old the Communist Chinese took over Tibet, and we ran to India. The journey took 6 months to get to Nepal and India by foot. I met the Chinese army 3 times with the loss of life. I lost my family—5 sisters, one of my two fathers and my mother. Only my father and I made it to India. All the rest were gone. In India, I stayed with the Tibetan refuges to work on the road for 3 years. After 3 months my father died also. I was in an orphanage, and a Tibetan king adopted me. Then because I meditated at home, he noticed and asked if I wanted to join a monastery that was just getting started. Later teachings came, and I joined the monastery and studied philosophy—all that. Through that, I was educated, and after that I did a three-year retreat, three times.
Then I was told to go to New Zealand. I tried to refuse three times, but I did not succeed. I went in 1981. In those days Buddhism was very new in western countries, especially New Zealand. I just stayed with a bunch of hippies. I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” I didn’t know English.
They told me, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t know English, just smile.” I have been there 25 years now. So now I have diabetes. My health is not so good. We have a big center and I want to step down. Maybe some new, young Lamas will take over. So I resigned and he kindly accepted.
I wanted to do something fitting, mostly in Australia—something more. Because I was brought up in a monastic order since I was 20 years old, I had no experience of family, no experience of anything except the monastery. I realized I wanted to do something as a teacher. In a monastery I could do something with monks who are scared and shy so I decided to retire and go to a different country.
I stayed with my students, then strangers, then came here.
I am here. I want to connect one to one—communication in that way is very simple. Otherwise I am teaching people, but no connection. I recommend that for Western people. You don’t need to learn anything more. You need something to practice—not too much learning in the head. Because your head is full of too many things, there’s no need for an extra one. How to use this to practice—as we call it?
Also, in my own experience, Western people are putting themselves down. Something is inside—in the bottom of your heart—and you say, “I am not good enough.” We all—50% is perfect, 50% is not perfect. So that is why I am called “The 50-50 Lama.” Between you and me, we have 50% my side, 50% your side, and between us we are 100% perfect.
But you also have 50% not perfect, as do I, so between us 100% not perfect. You see? If you see me 25% good, and I see you 25% good, that’s good enough, isn’t it? Even if there is 10%, then between us is 20%. That’s good. So you cannot expect everything perfect here. You cannot.
Question: Are you at all hopeful about us in the West who are living mostly in the noise in our heads?
Lama: Your head, you bring it into your heart, it is perfect. You are not knowledge, not anything. You just realize yourself. You are precious. You are capable of everything. And that is what is important. Because here, there is too much looking out there, and you lose yourself. And this is not good. Too much wanting, too much in the future. Actually you are just spoiled, so this way there is no wisdom. You can’t see the future. You can’t see the in the past. Everything is completely cloudy. No one knows what they are doing. This is no good.
Future nobody knows. Just leave it there. Past is gone. You cannot bring it back. You cannot get the moment. And this is your life. You must enjoy what you see. Okay?
Question: Lama, in my sitting practice, when I’m in a state where I believe the truth of that perfection, that truth of being, that’s one part of my life. What is the bridge between that experience and the times when my not-perfect parts react and take over? What bridges those two states of being?
Lama: Two things. One: not expecting too much. We all are not perfect, and expecting perfection. Everything is ok. Fine. Two, because we are 50% perfect, don’t give up. Because you have the resources, potential, respect yourself. Today is today. Tomorrow, who knows? Just quiet the moment—and this is a little bit of heaven. You are not in heaven or hell. It is a state of mind. If you are quiet, and your mind is in a state of contentment, this is a piece of heaven. If you are miserable, hungry, cloudy—this is a piece of hell. Hell is a state of mind, no place. You wake up, you say, “I am breathing.” Wonderful, and then you begin with heaven already.
Question: Can you say something about your meditation, your sitting practice? How do you go about it, and what is the essential value of sitting. Everybody here sits in the morning.
Lama: Meditation means putting yourself together—physically, mentally, emotionally. Do not expect anything—just your body put together, your thinking put together, your emotions put together. Not too much anxiety, or saying “I want a good meditation,” or a bad meditation, whatever. Just be.
I recommend if you say, “I want to meditate” it becomes worse. You become tense. Don’t say that. Relax yourself—whatever position you hold, you are content—not expecting anything, being content.
Sometimes I recommend—because in the west you are doing, doing too much—so sitting calm, not possible. Do simple things: painting, gardening or art. Cooking delicious food all you want—simple things that you can do. Your mind will be very calm.
These things are very important.
In New Zealand we were building a Buddha statue, the biggest in the Western Hemisphere, concrete. Someone asked me, “Can you teach me meditation”? I told him all right, but can you help me mix concrete? He helped me mix concrete and the next morning he rang up and asked if he could come again. Okay, we can have some tea and talk. He said yesterday he had a very good time and last night he had a good sit, “Could I come tomorrow”?
Beginning that way, the only way, you can see yourself. That is the beginning of meditation. Traditional ways of meditation, no good. It makes you more tense.
Question: But in a sense we’re sitting now; we’re conversing; we’re laughing. But it’s a little bit like Ronnie asked, as you go out into life, what is your effort, or non-effort, as you go out?
Lama: Now you are quiet, nice. Don’t leave it on the cushion. When you come around other people, you just don’t buy it. Anything is possible, but you don’t buy it. You are not involved too much. Don’t exaggerate.
In India, England and America, I can see the difference. In America, they exaggerate. Your buses maybe a few seconds late—everybody exaggerates. British people just hold on there—maybe 5 minutes late. But in India, 4 hours late—nobody complains.
If you ask the bus station when is the bus coming, they say, “Maybe coming today, maybe not.” Does it matter? Have a cup of tea. Do not exaggerate. Everything is ok, fine.
Question: For me this raises this question of how to experience timelessness. I agree that everyone says life has sped up with electronics and everything. This problem of time, and feeling oppressed by time, has become worse. This is the opposite of meditation or religious practice, which is to turn towards something that’s eternal, that doesn’t die. So these two seem in stark contrast to each other. I’m interested in what allows something to relax inside so that there’s a different perception of time.
Lama: Now in the 21st Century we have no patience. Why do we have no patience? This is due to technology. Everything is “now.” Everything is “now.” So it gets worse with time. Not enough time. Why? We are making ourselves “not enough time.” Why are we doing this?
Nobody knows. It is contagious. In my birthplace, if you want to make a cup of tea, it takes two hours. Nobody complains. Why? Because you have to collect wood first. It needs to be dry. Summertime it’s hard to find snow. You have to have snow for water. You have to find flint and sage, dry sage, with the gunpowder together, many, many times for a spark. It takes a long time. Then water—ice or snow—is collected. When the water is hot, you make the bowl of tea. It will be delicious. The tea is delicious.
But now, here’s a cup of tea. No time, just like this. The problem is these days we depend on power (electricity) too much. Without power, you can’t have a cup of tea. So this is where time is changed by technology. We are always rushing, rushing, rushing. It makes stress, our mind, because of the expectations. So this thing is getting worse, yes?
Technology is getting faster, faster. Everyday I have 70 emails. Maybe one is urgent. I respond. The rest, I don’t respond. And someone says, “Lama, will you respond?” I say, wait a week; this is not urgent. Then people complain. Now I want to teach you patience. What are you expecting now? You need to be patient. It is very important. Sometimes you just need to be yourself; just take it easy. Everything is OK, fine. Our lives are like art. In the beginning you have a sketch, but you find it is no good. You throw it out, do something else. You can do anything you want. It is not fixed.
If your mind fixes it, you don’t want to change, you got problems. The world is changing. You are not fixed. You are prepared already.
Question: So you need to fix? I don’t understand.
Lama: You don’t fix. No commitment.
Question: So the way to live in this pressure, this anxiety of time—faster and faster—would be to move to western Tibet, or…
Lama: Western Tibet, the world—it is all the same. No longer Tibet. All Chinese. It is worse, really. The world is moving around faster and faster. You suffer. But don’t be involved that way. More easy. Today, tomorrow, not hoping too much. Then, something happens joyful; you receive 50%. You must enjoy the moment.
Question: We have times in our group when we work together. I think we try to cultivate being more with ourselves and being more with each other, away from the technology—doing crafts, different things, cooking together. And I also relate to what you say about doing simple things in my life, times when I can be more myself, like in gardening or art. But I also have a question about what you said how we Westerners don’t feel good enough about ourselves. Because there are those states, when you’re facing pressures and getting a little into this bad place. But this actually has life in it. It helps me to come back to myself. There is something very special about that kind of state where it’s a little bit negative, but I’m up against something, and I’m trying to come back. So can you say anything about that?
Lama: I think that sounds like you are OK. You already say it. You are on the right track. Doing things good for you—cooking, coming together—is very joyful. Modern society is missing that and we are broken. Families are broken. Cooking, being together—now these things are all gone. Saturday, Sunday used to be a holiday.
I realized what “holiday” means. In the Christian tradition, it is the time to pray spiritually, and time to be together, talk together, cook together, eat together. This is the part of the holy that makes it special. This is a good tradition. Holy means the family getting together. It’s part of the spiritual, part of the enjoying each other. This is what holy means.
This tradition now is broken; now holiday means lie on the beach, become tanned. Not much meaningful. Originally, in the Christian tradition, holiday means special day for the family.
This, I think makes sense. You say that the community cooks together, eats together. It is very good.
Question: When I go out and meet my day with a little preparation and am more calm, then there are all the different things in the day… How do you orient all the things in your mind towards coming to meet with yourself? I think something is needed, because if I’m just waiting to feel something, the whole day can go by and nothing. In Tibet, they have so many pictures of thankas and ritual objects, and I see that you do your beads. For a westerner, how do you have something like that in front of you?
Lama: I think maybe whether you are home or work—or whatever, you need to accept—be accepting. Be yourself. Sometimes I tell people to visualize yourself as the mountain—the huge mountain. On the mountain they have lots of trees, big trees, small trees. A monkey is in it, snakes are in it, or tigers. But the mountain is not complaining. Let it be.
So similarly, in your daily situation—everything that is in front of you—let it be. Don’t complain. You can’t say, “The monkey has good behavior.” No. Just leave them. Trees are too tall. This one is too small. They just grow.
You are a mountain. Therefore you serve the purpose of all beings. So be a mountain. OK?
Question: Life as it presents itself to me is my teacher, and my life has changed radically. Recently I have been able to retire. The way I look at time is different. I take my grandchildren to school and everyone is in a hurry. So I am facing a life that is very different. You and I are about the same age. Some of the things that I am facing today are health issues. I have worked on my sciatica, which changes what I can do. I have been a craftsman and I felt fortunate to be able to mix concrete perfectly. That’s been a reminder to me, to work with a craft. So life has presented this feeling of time, but also not being able to do what I used to be able to do. So it is hard to accept, and to use as an opportunity to wake up. It’s a challenge. I am so habituated to work in a certain way, and I need to be very conscious, awake, or I will hurt myself. I have a different work now.
Lama: Everybody has to go through that way. This is how life is. When you are young you listen to your head. After forty you listen to your body because when you are young what your head wants to do your body can do for you. After 40 you must listen to your body, not your head, or you will be injured. Your body is not the same. Your mind says “You can do it” and your body cannot.
Your mind says stupid things; your body crashes. Then you are in the hospital. All human beings, including myself, must be careful because after 40 if you try to do some things, you can break and never recover. So you must be careful after 40. When you have youth, you can do anything your mind can think of. After 40 you must say, “been there, done that.” Your job is already done. Now it is better to be a more wise person. If your body can’t do it, be wise.
Question: There are quite a few similarities in what you’ve said today with the tradition that we’re in. When Gurdjieff came to the West, he said, “You don’t need any more learning, you Western people. What you need is connection with your other parts.” He described a system where each person is comprised of the mental, the body, the feeling, the sex, the instinctive, the higher feeling and higher thinking centers. The basis of the practice is to connect our mind with these other parts, beginning with the body. As I’m speaking to you, I can be aware of my body and its posture.
Lama: Your mind, number 1, is connected to your body. And the body is connected to the world. The body is made of five elements; the five elements come from the world. It is not run by gas or electricity. It is run by elements: earth, food, water, air, space, fire.
Your body is a connection. Your mind is a connection. They are all interrelated. When you know that, you appreciate yourself, the world— everything. Without others, we cannot survive. When you see this, you are grateful to all. That is called connection. Modern society has lost this.
If you have a problem with the physical, or the mind, they think that you have a problem. Connections are important—appreciating and gratitude.
Question: So when people would ask Gurdjieff, as we are inclined to ask you, well what do we do? This is the situation. So what do we do? He would reply that, “As you are, you can’t do anything. It’s more important to see, to have impressions.”
Lama: Some things you can do. Some things you cannot do. We can say cause depends on conditions. So that is what we are trying to do. You can do something with the condition that makes the results different. So, the cause is created, and it cannot be changed, but the conditions make the change.
Question: What are the conditions?
Lama: You somehow climb up the 100-story building to the top. All of your stairs have collapsed, but you are up there. You have to do something about it. Jump. You look around. Depending on the conditions. One tree rocky, one tree has more grass, one tree water - you have to choose.
Sometimes I want to jump in the water, or sometimes they are all rocky… no choice. You have to jump. So you look around. There are some possibilities. Some not-possibilities. But you have to jump. Choice, slim choice. This is cause. “Conditions.”
“Results” means, if you jump in the water results come, and you might survive. If you jump in the rocky, you will not survive. If you jump in the tree—maybe, maybe not. If you jump on the flat grass, it is beautiful, but no.
Results come just like that. Sometimes we have choice, sometimes no choice. In our life, around you, you might have some choice, you can see yourself. That is how I call it. Conditions make a difference.
Four things you definitely have no choice. I call it the 4 major problems: old age, sickness, death and birth. We have no choice. We all have to go through.
Old age means how much you try, nothing will stop it. It gets worse and worse. Aging doesn’t mean you are old; it means you are physically old; your digestion is old; your movement is old. Then you fall sick. Sickness, disease—because you are not balanced; you are diseased. Nobody escapes this one. How many times I have tried tai chi, yoga exercise… nobody will save you.
One day, in the hospital the doctor will say, “Mr. Jones, I cannot do more for you.” It is the end of the road. It is called death.
You say, “I don’t want to do these things again. I don’t want to be born. Too much pain.”
You have no choice. You will be born again. Because death means—it is just physical. Your mind never dies. So therefore you will be born again. Whether you are lucky or not, you have to go back. No choice. So these four are no choice.
Accepting it is much better than fighting with it. Some people will say, I am fighting with cancer, or I am fighting with this. You can’t fight with these. You will lose. Better to say, it is part of nature’s processes, and you are not exempted. Much better. Much better. Also, people ask for money for cancer research. But maybe it is better to find out how cancer comes in the first place. Before ancient time, no cancer. Now common - how come? Why?
The Tibetan doctors recommend two ends: one, does cancer come from electricity, chemicals—too much in the body, and this makes you have cancer? Another thing is peoples’ mind—too much anger; express themselves with too much anger, and hold on to it. Then cancer.
These are the two ends that are recommended. Plus there are circumstances. There is fear. Fear about disease, fear about dying—especially in America - too much fear.
Really I am not sick. Sometimes I have lots of coughing. I go to the supermarket, look around, and go to the counter and cough. There is fear because of the flu. Everybody is running. They all have their headphones on. Rushing, rushing.
Question: May I ask a question about anger and fear? The meditation that I use, not what I have been taught, is to not know that I am angry. Not know that I am afraid. I like to feel calm, not angry, and I like to feel that I go out into the world calmly, because I have put my anger and fear somewhere where I don’t see it. Everybody else sees it, but I don’t see it. This is well known, it is not meditation, but it goes on.
Lama: It sounds to me like you are doing an analytical meditation. It is a good one, because our image is too strong, and we sit down and it gets worse. We need to be analytical in our thinking and more examining through the way. Someday you will lose your anger. Nobody has anger all the time. It rises and disappears. So you just put it in its place, just observing this. Another one that is important is, why am I fussing about this? Why? Just thinking about this that way.
I was in Australia, one day a man took me on a cable car for 3 hours. The longest in the world. And he gave me a really good time. Then we stop for a nice cup of tea at a tea place. I was outside. Then he said, “I buy you the tea.” Then in a little time he brings tea and he was very angry. Very angry. He wanted to go back. He said somebody was very rude to him. Very rude. I said “What did he say”?
He said, “He called me a bastard.” I asked, “What does it mean?”—I know what it meant, but I wanted to calm down his anger. He explained it.
What stupidity. He laughed, laughed. His anger calmed down, and we had a cup of tea. In your meditation, your analysing, it fades, for the time being. It is good.
Question: Is analysing seeing?
Lama: Yes, yes. It is. If you are angry, get a piece of rope. Every time you are angry, make a knot. Then after the anger is finished, you take out the knot.
Question: I was reading a little bit online, you were ordained by the 16th Karmapa?
Lama: No, I was ordained by Kalu Rinpoche.
Question: I had heard that the 16th Karma had a special relationship with birds. We have a dog who just died a few days ago, and there was a very strong feeling for the animal. Our whole relationship with everything—with animals, in particular. There are stories with the Karmapa about birds, that he could understand them—that they had this special relationship. It’s a mystery to me, the whole relationship with animals. But if you feel a little more sensitive, what is the deep relationship with animals?
Lama: Animals are more clear than us. They cannot communicate through language, but through their feelings. Their feelings are more clear than ours, especially dogs and horses. Animals grow up and they are part of the being, just like us. Sometimes I think animals are better than human beings, these days.
One of my masters said, “These days, if somebody calls me a dog, it is a compliment.” Dogs are much better than human beings. Agree? I grew up with animals. We were nomads. We had dogs, wonderful dogs. In India we could not take dogs because the Chinese Army was behind us. Some dogs we left behind. It was so painful.
Question: I think this relates to what was asked earlier, about how our practice could help us connect to this faculty in us, to be connected. What we are all searching for is a quality of living, perhaps more like a dog. Or a horse or something.
Lama: Absolutely—liking human beings, liking animals. The main thing is appreciation and gratitude for something. All are conditions for our survival, and we depend on each other. It is like heaven. It is made by our own and hell is made by our own.
Now that there is not much wisdom. People are making hell in the world. Killing each other, shooting each other, all controlling each other. This is the hell way. Instead of that, if you appreciate each other—no weapons—be there for each other, it is heaven. So with modern technology, not much understanding of each other. Economically, with weapons, we don’t appreciate each other. And also, in the world—in the environment, situations—many things are given: food, water, air. But no one appreciates. Instead, cutting the trees through ignorance. We need a way more with these things. Talking to people, same way. Talking together, like this.
Question: Are the different Tibetan lineages in good relationship, or do the all stay in…
Lama: They all come from Buddha’s Three Teachings: Foundation Discipline is Hinayana (more in Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos), Mahayana is compassion for all (Korea, China) and Vajrayana includes the first two but takes the Result as the Path (Himalaya). When you are a small baby the best food, nutrition, is mother’s milk. Why? Your capacity is suitable for mother’s milk. This is the core. For the beginner, this is the best food. When you become 20, say 30, then your mother’s milk is not good enough. Then you need a big stick. You need something strong, otherwise not enough. When you get old, 60’s 70’s, 80’s- your appetite left is very small, your diet is so small but your time is very big. You need small, concentrated food. This whole teaching is content related to your capacity. When Buddhist ideas came to Tibet, Tibet was shamanist, so it didn’t really succeed. Then the next Buddhist teacher came, challenged all the ‘deities’ and with those teachings the Vajra or “Diamond Way” began.
Then after that Tibetan translators went to India and brought more Indian lineage teachings. All three teachings were included, but the emphasis is different; some emphasize love; some emphasize view, some practice.
Question: Everybody here is 60 years old or more, so at this stage of life, what type of practice should change? Or what would be most beneficial?
Lama: After 60, your practice will not be putting yourself in discipline too much. Because your body can’t do it. You try to push yourself too much and you spoil the whole thing.
So now is relaxation time. Now you are educated, life goes on, you have experience. Good experience, bad experience, whatever, they are all knowledge. Sometimes mistakes, and you learn from mistakes. Sometimes success, and you learn from them. It’s all the same.
Through experience you learn lots of things and you become more wise. So therefore you have more confidence. You are more wise than when you were younger. You see things more than others. Appreciate yourself, you are still breathing. You made it to 60, wonderful. Isn’t it?
In modern times, it is hard to make it. They are playing with “toys”- cars crash, planes crash, all sorts of things. Somebody shoots you, somebody bombs you. So you made it to 60. Wonderful, isn’t it? Appreciate that way. So this is your practice.
Question: How I live my life these days is to stay out of trouble. The path is towards comfort. But I have been listening to Pema Chodron, and she says things that are really helpful in regards to experiencing my life more. She suggests turning towards fear when it comes up. And I feel like at my age I need to prepare myself for dying. And this practice of turning towards fear and getting more adapted to groundlessness is helpful. That has been my practice lately.
Lama: Sounds very good. We are all groundless. We are hanging around, not touching ground. This is not what they call “impermanent.” In the future we don’t know how long we’re going to stay. We don’t know. You are doing lots of preparation for the future. Somebody buys 100 pairs of shoes. You are not staying 100 years, but you are buying 100 pairs of shoes. They are not thinking of dying. They are making preparation to stay forever. Too much. But you don’t know. But you do know you can die. 100% you can know this. You are going to be dead, and you will not be prepared.
It’s funny, isn’t it? 100% you know that you’re going to die, and nobody is prepared. We don’t know tomorrow and the next day. We prepare to stay forever. This is a big mistake. Because we are born we are going to die. So preparation for death is essential. Never too early. So that is why you way sounds very good. You don’t know when you die, so you appreciate today. Otherwise you are thinking too much.
Question: Are you are saying that our preparation for our death is our living now?
Lama: Now. Yes, absolutely. Preparation for death means you try to be physically, mentally, emotionally helpful to yourself and others. Useful to yourself. A meaningful life. When the time comes, you have no regret. You say, “I did my best.” I accept my consequences. You have no regret. If you are not prepared for death, you become harmful for yourself and others at the end of life. You say, “I am stupid.” You are a regret to yourself, and then death is a freak out. No joy. And then 25% of people will say, “I am glad he died.” That means you have not had a meaningful life.
Venerable Lama Karma Samten is the author of Living with Death and Dying - Teachings on the Six Bardos published by Marpa Activities of the New Zealand Karma Kagyu Trust
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