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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Tornadoes, and Being Present in the Moment

by Joe DePlasco, guest contributor

Oklahoma from the RoadThis past Sunday, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to Mary Emeny at a dinner in Amarillo, Texas where we were showing highlights of Ken Burns’ upcoming film, The Dust Bowl. Mary, I later learned, is prominent in the arts and environmental communities in Amarillo. When I asked someone else at the table what Mary did, she responded, “She makes Amarillo worth living in for the rest of us.”

During our chat, Mary spoke about her trips to Vietnam as a young woman and, specifically, her work with Buddhist monks there on behalf of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. (Vietnam came up because Ken Burns is working on a film about the war in Vietnam.)

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Suzuki Roshi used to say that what was needed most in the monastery were people who were good at cleaning out the corners. The most perverting ideas are the ones that lie for years and years in the dark corners of our mind. Like spiders, they creep out while we are sleeping and spin their webs of illusion. Only when the mind is clean, in order, and uncluttered can the present moment be fully realized. If we hang onto past memories, trophies of our good-old-days, in time our mind and our home will be a museum instead of a place to encounter the present reality. The relationship between house cleaning, garden cleaning, and mental caretaking is not just symbolic. It is very direct.
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Marian Mountain, The Zen Environment

(h/t Joan Halifax)

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sharanam:

Amida Buddha is the heart of Shin Buddhist faith and practice. First revealed by the historical Buddha over 2,600 years ago, the name Amida is Japanese which is derived from Amitabha or Amitayus of the ancient Sanskrit language, which means ‘Immeasurable Life and Light’ or Oneness. The word Amida is a personification or symbol for the transcendent reality and mystery, which is “unborn, uncreated and formless” which is also known as dharmakaya, nirvana, shunyata (emptiness).
Amida Buddha is a personification expressing that which is incomprehensible. This inconceivable transcendent realm is called Dharmakaya, which is Sanskrit meaning ‘the body of truth.’ This word points to the non-conceptual ultimate dimension and the true nature of things including ourselves. Amida Buddha in turned is the sambhogakaya or the compassionate expression of this formless transcendent realm. She gives us a concrete image that helps us to understand that which is beyond understanding. Amida is also synonymous with the terms One Life, the Great Compassion and Buddha Nature.
Buddha is a term meaning a few things: firstly, it is any life form that has awakened to boundlessness; secondly, it is the deepest nature of all things, which is undifferentiated and selfless; and thirdly, it is our inner potential, reality and destiny to live a life of pure compassion and wisdom.
Read more about Amida Buddha

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

sharanam:

Amida Buddha is the heart of Shin Buddhist faith and practice. First revealed by the historical Buddha over 2,600 years ago, the name Amida is Japanese which is derived from Amitabha or Amitayus of the ancient Sanskrit language, which means ‘Immeasurable Life and Light’ or Oneness. The word Amida is a personification or symbol for the transcendent reality and mystery, which is “unborn, uncreated and formless” which is also known as dharmakaya, nirvana, shunyata (emptiness).

Amida Buddha is a personification expressing that which is incomprehensible. This inconceivable transcendent realm is called Dharmakaya, which is Sanskrit meaning ‘the body of truth.’ This word points to the non-conceptual ultimate dimension and the true nature of things including ourselves. Amida Buddha in turned is the sambhogakaya or the compassionate expression of this formless transcendent realm. She gives us a concrete image that helps us to understand that which is beyond understanding. Amida is also synonymous with the terms One Life, the Great Compassion and Buddha Nature.

Buddha is a term meaning a few things: firstly, it is any life form that has awakened to boundlessness; secondly, it is the deepest nature of all things, which is undifferentiated and selfless; and thirdly, it is our inner potential, reality and destiny to live a life of pure compassion and wisdom.

Read more about Amida Buddha

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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"Entering the forest without moving the grass; Entering the water without raising a ripple.” —Alan Watts, from Tao: The Watercourse Way
Photo by Frank Wuestefeld
(h/t to Elsan Zimmerly)

"Entering the forest without moving the grass;
Entering the water without raising a ripple.”
Alan Watts, from Tao: The Watercourse Way

Photo by Frank Wuestefeld

(h/t to Elsan Zimmerly)

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The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way

by Krista Tippett, host

I picked up Sylvia Boorstein’s lovely book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, years ago and loved it. Then, several years later, I found myself on a panel discussion with her and loved her in person.

I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.

This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:

"(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart."

So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.

I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of people with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sakes.

I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.

So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that, as she puts it, she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.

Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”

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Meredith Monk’s Voice: A Sensory Experience That Reaches Beyond Anything in Print

by Krista Tippett, host

The singer and composer Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice. She’s also an archeologist of the human soul, with a long-time Buddhist practice. Meredith Monk in Songs of AscensionThrough music and meditation, she reaches to places in human experience where words get in the way — and she shared with me what she has learned about mercy and meaning, about spirit and play.

For years we here at On Being have meant to, planned to, interview more musicians. Then in the last months, for varying reasons, conversations with Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, and now Meredith Monk fell into place. What joy.

After this experience with Meredith Monk, I’m shying away from describing her with the label “performance artist.” Her music is avant-garde, but it also feels primal, ancient. She’s called herself an archeologist of the human voice. The woman we meet in this conversation is also an archeologist of the human spirit. She has a long-time Buddhist practice. Playfully, and reflectively, she mines life and art for meaning.

As listeners to On Being know, I begin every conversation, however accomplished or erudite my guest, by learning something about his or her childhood. We can all trace interesting and substantive lines between our origins and our essence, wherever we are in life. These can be joyful. They can painful. But they are raw materials that have formed us. In Meredith Monk’s case, a life in music was almost inevitable; three generations of musicians preceded her. She struggled with eyesight problems and issues with bodily coordination. Her mother — a singer in the golden age of radio — found a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which uses music to create physical alignment. Later on, as a young artist, Meredith Monk describes a moment of “revelation” that the voice could be flexible like the body — fluid like the spine — something that could dance and not merely sing.

She sang before she could speak in any case, as she tells it, and after experimenting with classical musical education in college, she gave herself over to her own distinctive voice, her own art, which is rich with songs that use words sparingly or not at all. As our show with her opens, you hear her singing a hauntingly beautiful piece, “Gotham Lullaby.” It is a demonstration of one of the things she talks about, eloquently, in this conversation — the power of music to reach where words can get in the way. This can be unfamiliar, even uncomfortable for the listener, as for the performer. But it is a deeply human experience, essentially contemplative and yet infused with the emotion that music can convey like no other form of human expression.

There is so much I carry with me out of this interview. It simply enlivens the world, and deepens its hues a bit. “The human voice is the original instrument,” she says, “so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.”My teenagers stretch me to appreciate that this is the redemptive effect even of music that is strange and unfamiliar to my ears and my body. Meredith Monk brings this home to me as well, but differently.

I’m also challenged by her insistence that in our media-saturated world, we must, for the sake of our souls, continue to seek out direct experiences like live artistic performance. Meredith Monk's Most Meaningful SongsThe very point of art, she says, like the very goal of spiritual life as the Buddha saw it, is to wake us up. The sense of transcendence we sometimes feel in these settings is not a separate experience but an effect of being awake, of being fully alive.

But this is too many words. Meredith Monk’s voice, and the radio we’ve crafted from it, is a sensory experience that reaches beyond anything I could print on this page. Listen. And enjoy.

And, if you have some time, I highly recommend listening to our playlist of Meredith Monk’s most meaningful songs from across the years, which she personally selected for us while doing research for my interview. Stream all eleven tracks and listen at your leisure.

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Meredith Monk: A Twitterscript

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Meredith MonkLast Wednesday, the artist Meredith Monk joined our host Krista Tippett for a 90-minute conversation via ISDN. We live-tweeted highlights of this interview and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with her in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.

For those not familiar with Ms. Monk, she is an American composer, performer, director, vocalist, filmmaker, and choreographer who has been creating multi-disciplinary works since the 1960s. She is best known for her vocal innovations, including a wide range of extended techniques.

Also a practicing Buddhist, she is a member of the Shambala sangha. Her most recent album, Songs of Ascension, is inspired by a Zen abbot who described Songs of Ascents — songs which Jews were believed to have sung in biblical times on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and to the top of Mount Zion.

  1. For the next 90 minutes we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s interview with composer/vocalist/performer/ Meredith Monk —@meredith_monk 1:02 PM 11 Jan
  2. "Singing was a natural kind of language for me. I read music before I read words." —@meredith_monk 1:10 PM 11 Jan
  3. "I think of the voice as a very kinetic instrument. I think of the body and the voice as one." —@meredith_monk 1:12 PM 11 Jan
  4. "Auditions are hard on the human level…I was looking for people who could sing well, and had a radiant generosity to them." —@meredith_monk 1:14 PM 11 Jan
  5. "Auditions are hard at the human level. I like to give back to people." —@meredith_monk 1:15 PM 11 Jan
  6. "I’m really trying to do something that makes the voice universal and transcendent." —@meredith_monk 1:16 PM 11 Jan
  7. "I had the revelation that the voice could be like the body. Like the spine, it could turn, it could fall…" —@meredith_monk 1:20 PM 11 Jan
  8. "I had the sensation of something ancient, primal, visceral, preverbal expression." —@meredith_monk 1:21 PM 11 Jan
  9. "As an artist so interested in uncovering the invisible, mysterious, inexplicable, things we can’t label." —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
  10. "I was thinking of the voice as the messenger of my soul." —@meredith_monk 1:24 PM 11 Jan
  11. "Performing is such an amazing template of human behavior: of generosity, sensitive to the environment and to other people." —@meredith_monk 1:28 PM 11 Jan
  12. "We’re taught to be distracted and diverted from feeling the good pain as in open-heartedness of the moment." —@meredith_monk 1:30 PM 11 Jan
  13. "I wanted to spend the rest of my life making pieces about things you can’t make pieces about." —@meredith_monk 1:34 PM 11 Jan
  14. "The act of making artwork was the act of contemplating something." —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
  15. "How do we spend time on this planet? How do you do work that’s of benefit?" —@meredith_monk 1:35 PM 11 Jan
  16. "Why does worship always go up? There’s this idea of heaven going up." —@meredith_monk 1:38 PM 11 Jan
  17. "In the Buddhist tradition there’s circumambulation, that’s a different form, going around." —@meredith_monk 1:39 PM 11 Jan
  18. "I love the idea of working with strings, the bowing arm is so much like the breath." —@meredith_monk 1:40 PM 11 Jan
  19. "Maybe I should’ve called it ‘Songs of Going Up and Down’" —@meredith_monk on her new work “Songs of Ascension” 1:43 PM 11 Jan
  20. "Play is something to really think about. That sense of playfulness is another aspect of being alive, awake." —@meredith_monk 1:45 PM 11 Jan
  21. "When it comes down to it, you leave love behind…the Beatles had it right." —@meredith_monk 1: 48 PM 11 Jan
  22. "If I do use words, they’re used more abstractly…The word dissolves into pure sound." —@meredith_monk on song writing 1:55 PM 11 Jan
  23. "The older I get, the simpler the work gets…the most essential is what reaches people the most." —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
  24. "Curiosity is a great antidote to fear." —@meredith_monk 2:00 PM 11 Jan
  25. "All of us as human beings are part of the world vocal family." —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
  26. "The human voice is the original instrument. You’re going back to the beginnings of utterance…The memory of being a human being." —@meredith_monk 2:04 PM 11 Jan
  27. "Most of my songs deal with emotion…between the cracks of emotion." —@meredith_monk 2:10 PM 11 Jan
  28. "It was like two young children just loving each other so much" —@meredith_monk on singing for the Dalai Lama 2:16 PM 11 Jan
  29. @rosannecash - Meredith Monk (@meredith_monk) loved your interview with Krista and would love to meet you! 2:19 PM 11 Jan

Photo of Meredith Monk by Jesse Frohman.

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The Echoing Silence of Your Mind

by Hudson Gardner, guest contributor

Separating oneself from the natural, real world is like uprooting a plant,
putting it in sandy soil,
watering it only to keep it alive:

you may find yourself growing,

and living,

and acting,

but there will always be something beyond,
another sort of subtleness,

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The Pursuit and Practice of Happiness Is an Awareness of the Suffering and Pleasure of Others

by Krista Tippett, host

A basketball court transformed by flowers and incandescent light. Four thousand people in attendance. Four global religious leaders. I have never concentrated as hard as I did in the two hours I spent on that stage. But it was, in the end, a delight. And it was fascinating as an encounter as much as a conversation. The Dalai Lama embodied joy, his radiant and playful presence, was as defining as the words he spoke.

The biggest challenge with discussing “happiness” in this culture might be finding our way back to the substance of the word itself — a substance that has been hollowed out by its uses in culture. I found myself planted in the definition of happiness that the French-born, Tibetan Buddhist scientist and monk Matthieu Ricard offered on this program. He defines happiness as “genuine flourishing” — not a pleasurable sensation or mood but a way of being in the world that can encompass the fullness of human experience, joy and pleasure as well as suffering and loss.

Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom all added to that definition as they laid out the virtues and habits, the spiritual technologies, that their traditions have carried forward in time. They all described corollaries, in a sense, to the Dalai Lama’s joyful yet disciplined teachings on cultivating compassion and calmness in the mind as way of flourishing in and amidst all of life’s experiences. But the most exciting part of interreligious encounter, for me, is not rushing to hear similarities but savoring particularities — the distinctive vocabularies of thought and practice, the beautiful and intriguing differences that come to light even as we may seem to be circling towards the same goal.

And so among my favorite moments are Professor Nasr’s explication of beauty as inextricably linked to virtue and happiness in Muslim tradition. Beauty, he says, makes the soul happy. Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about the long tradition in Christianity of practicing gratitude and “the presence of God” in the midst of ordinary activities of life. Rabbi Sacks evoked sabbath as a space to focus on the things in life that are “important but not urgent.” He described the extraordinary power of pausing to let life’s “blessings” — an awareness of the deepest sources of our happiness — “catch up with us.” Such reflections unsettle notions of happiness as a “right” and as something to be “pursued.”

A discussion of happiness is intrinsically serious, too. As we were also reminded in the course of this discussion, spiritual happiness is never merely personal in nature. It is linked to an awareness of the suffering and pleasure of others. And at the same time, it is something we cultivate in our bodies as well as our minds. It communicates itself in our very presence.

There was, fittingly, a great deal of laughter on this stage of religious dignitaries seated center court at Emory. There was a festive atmosphere in the room altogether. Listen, and watch, for yourself. Ponder, and enjoy.

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Buddhism for me is like food I ate for ten years, for a long time as a monk, and the food you eat goes to your bones and stays there, so in that sense it’s inside me, it’s not that I wouldn’t be identified by Buddhism but it’s there, a part of me … Buddhism has this emptiness and in opposition to it the ‘is-ness’, but the zero concept – there’s nature, there’s the whole existence of the universe but that itself for me is a part of the zero.
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Hkg69164Ko Un, from his interview in the Cordite Poetry Review

The South Korean poet, who studied as a Buddhist monk for a decade before rejoining secular life, is considered a favorite for the Nobel Prize — with authors like beat icon Allen Ginsberg and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh having written forewords to his books of poetry.

Photo of Ko Un by AFP/Getty Images

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Holding Life Consciously: The Artistry of Bridging the Sciences and Humanities Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness

by Krista Tippett, host

Dual nature of light as particle and waveConsidering light as both particle and wave. (photo Wylie Conlon/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

I’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I spoke with Arthur Zajonc on "Holding Life Consciously." (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.

Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.

Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times here at On Being, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.

But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.

Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.

Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:

"There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.

In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.

You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…

I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”
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Who Was the Buddha? The Story of a Human Being Like You and Me

by Toni Bernhard, guest contributor

Thailand - Ayuthaya 5 - Buddha headAn image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.

The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.

When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.

One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.

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Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice

by Krista Tippett, host

Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point, Childrens and Young People's Audience and Blessing, Matthieu Ricard, students, Longhouse, Vancouver BC, Lotus Speech CanadaMatthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.

I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.

But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman SoundSeen: Unedited Interview with Ricardswathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.

I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators" — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.

Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.

The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist SilenceHe had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.

Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.

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Sari Nusseibeh Discovers God in Cambodia

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

巴戎寺 / Bayon TempleBayon Temple in Angkor Thom, Cambodia (photo: Ran Phang/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh comes from one of the oldest families on record in Jerusalem. His Muslim ancestors have been in the Holy Land since at least the seventh century. Earlier this year, Nusseibeh traveled to Cambodia where he glimpsed inside another ancient civilization. And it was there, as he tells it in the audio link above, that he had an epiphany about God:

"One thing that struck me was the four faces in many of the gates that were on those temples of Buddha. I was asking the guide what they stood for. He said, "Care, compassion, charity, and equality are the four faces of Buddha in those temples. And as he said them I just felt, to me, this is God. And I’m not a Buddhist."

Listen to more of our interview with Sari Nusseibeh in this week’s show, "The Evolution of Change."

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Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Phie Ambo

For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.

He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.

In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.

Richard DavidsonYou live in Denmark. Richard Davidson is based in Wisconsin. How did you first learn about him and his research? How did you connect?

I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.

What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?

The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.

Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.

Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?

Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?

About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.

By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.

I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.

You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?

In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.

RichThis was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.

Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
       
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.

I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.

WillTwo of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.

What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?

I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!

Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.

The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.

Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.

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