“The Buddha said don’t run away from suffering. But face it, look at it, deal with it. And understand that it is a reality, but it’s not something permanent. It’s not something that’s going to be there forever. There is a way to be free of suffering.”—Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen McDonald)
This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. I’m honored to share an interview this week with one of my heroes and teachers, Ven. Sangye Khadro.
Ven. Sangye Khadro, who also continues to be known by her given name, Kathleen McDonald, was born in California, and began studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, India in 1973. The following year she was ordained as a Buddhist nun at Kopan Monastery, Nepal.
Ven. Sangye Khadro has studied with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Yeshe, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Geshe Jampa Tegchog. At the request of her teachers, Ven Sangye Khadro began teaching in 1979. She has taught in various countries around the world, including serving as the resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Singapore, and the Center for Wisdom and Compassion in Copenhagen, Denmark.
In 1988, Ven. Sangye Khadro took the full ordination of bhikshuni vows, the highest level of ordination for a Buddhist nun.
Ven. Sangye Khadro is the author of two marvelous books published by Wisdom Publications: the bestselling How to Meditate detailing numerous forms of Tibetan Buddhist analytical and stabilizing meditation in a practical, accessible form; and Awakening the Kind Heart on compassion meditation.
Despite her long experience with Tibetan Buddhism, Ven. Sangye Khadro returned to study in 2007, to graduate from the 6-year FPMT Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Italy, in 2013.
Ven. Sangye Khadro has completed two one-year personal meditation retreats and is currently a faculty member of the Human Spirit Psychoanalytic-Buddhist Training Program in Israel. I spoke with Ven. Sangye Khadro last month by video conference from Sravasti Abbey in Washington State.
Welcome Venerable Sangye Khadro to A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment podcast. Thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to join us. Your writings and your teachings have had such a positive impact on me and many people I know. So it’s really a privilege to have you here today.
We’re also excited that you’ve agreed to lead a short meditation for us at the end. And we’ll be sharing that with listeners too. So, thank you and welcome.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m very happy to be part of this program, this project that you’re working on. It’s really wonderful.
Thank you so much. I wanted to start out just asking you a little bit about your life as a Buddhist nun. You’ve spent most of your life as a Buddhist nun. I’d love it if you could share a little bit about your journey to understanding and embracing the Buddhist worldview as you encountered it. You sometimes say you were a California girl in the seventies. So I’m curious if you could share that journey from girl to senior nun.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
Well, I’ll keep it short. I could tell lots of stories. So I grew up in Sacramento, pretty typical middle class family upbringing. We were Catholic. My parents were quite religious. When I was very young, I remember being quite attracted by religion and I aeven had thoughts of becoming a nun. I thought that would be a really wonderful life.
As I got older, what I remember is having a lot of questions, a lot of doubts. And it finally came to a head when I was about 13 or 14. And I just got to the point where I feel I can’t do this. I don’t want to go to church anymore. But I still had this strong interest in spiritual things. I still believed in God, but I started reading books from other traditions and finding out more about other kinds of spirituality. And I guess that’s how I came to know about Buddhism.
Finally, I guess when I was in my late teens, early twenties, I just felt the strong pull to go East, to go to India. One of the books that was really powerful for me was Autobiography of a Yogi, which talked about real people—yogis and yoginis—people living a contemplative life in India. And I just had this strong feeling that that’s what I was supposed to do with my life.
And then another book that was very influential was Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And again, I had this strong feeling like that’s my path. That’s where I need to go. Actually, I wasn’t really interested in the American Dream. I was definitely not interested in that. And my interest in spirituality had just grown more and more. So I left university and then I started traveling, finally got to India. And the first place I went was Dharamsala.
I started going to classes and I just felt very drawn to the Buddhist teachings. One of the things that really attracted me to the Buddhist teachings was the emphasis on compassion, non-harmfulness towards all living beings—not just human beings—but all living beings. I found out that Buddhism says we shouldn’t harm any living being, we shouldn’t kill any living being. I thought, Yeah, that’s right, that’s right!
I was also really attracted by the idea of Buddha nature, that we all have the ability, the potential to become enlightened, just like the Buddha. Because that was something I’d already sort of thought about. My ideas about God sort of changed over the years. And I thought of God as just a state of mind, a very perfect, pure wise state of mind and something that we could attain.
And then when I started learning Buddhism and they talked about Buddha nature, the possibility of attending enlightenment, I thought, that’s it! That’s what I’m looking for. And here’s the way to do it. And I pretty much jumped right in. I took refuge within nine months, actually less than a year, I was already ordained. I wouldn’t recommend that. I think that’s too fast.
It seems to have worked out.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
I’m still with it!
You mentioned the term Buddha nature. Could you explain a little bit more what you mean by that?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
This is actually a somewhat complex topic. Because there are different schools within Buddhism and they explain it differently. There are actually books, many books about Buddha nature and what it is and all the different—
Well, let me say one thing. It doesn’t mean that we are already Buddha and we just don’t know it. There is that kind of idea some people may have come across and may even believe in. But that’s not the case/ because that’s actually—that would be really weird. Because it means then that it’s possible to be a Buddha and at the same time, be ignorant, be unaware. And that’s not possible. That’s contradictory.
Buddha is a being whose mind is free of all faults, all mistaken ideas and attitudes and conceptions. So all the mistaken and negative states of mind: things like anger, hatred, greed, and so on. All of those things are totally gone, totally cleared away. And will never come, never rise again.
And then Buddha’s perfect enlightened mind is perfect in all good qualities: compassion, kindness, wisdom, generosity, patience, and so on. All these positive qualities, beneficial qualities are fully developed so that they’re there all the time in the most perfect way. So it’s like the most perfect state of mind that can exist. We have the potential. We have the possibility to become a Buddha. Because our mind, the mind is something that is non-physical, non-material, and it’s changing all the time.
And our mind itself has the potential to transform into an enlightened mind. But at the moment, it’s obscured with these incorrect states of mind like ignorance and confusion and disturbing emotions like anger and greed and so forth. So those are present in our mind. But they’re not permanent parts of our mind. They can be cleared away.
A nice analogy might be water. You know, the nature of water, especially if you have water that’s coming from a spring deep in the ground. And it’s totally pure and no dirt, very, very pure, very healthy. So that’s like the natural quality of water.
But sometimes water can be mixed in with impurities, chemicals. But those things are not the natural quality of water. They’re not natural parts of the water. And they can be removed. If you have a really good system to purify water, you can clear out all of the impure parts in the water and restore it to pure water.
That’s a nice analogy: that our mind is like the pure water. It’s naturally pure, but temporarily it’s polluted, contaminated. But the contamination isn’t a permanent, inherent part of our mind. And it’s possible to clear it away, to purify it.
When you were first getting into Buddhism, were there any aspects that were harder to absorb at first or required more analysis?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
One thing that really was hard for me was hell. Now that they talked about hell. Coming from a Catholic background I though, Oh, no. Buddhism has hell too! So I really struggle with that.
What helped me was to just think about how, just in this world, there are hell-like experiences. You know, you hear stories of people being tortured, being locked up in a prison and going through incredible torture, incredible pain and suffering. And when somebody is in a fire and their whole body is covered with burns. You know, just a tiny part of our skin being burned is incredibly painful. So to have your whole body covered with burns would be just incredibly painful.
And some diseases that people have also involve just intense pain that sometimes even isn’t relieved by pain medication. So right here in this world, there are cases of experiences that human beings have that are like hell. Also psychologically, certain mental illnesses like paranoia or PTSD. When I hear about those experiences, they’re also like a sort of mental health, psychological hell.
Thinking about those experiences, we can’t deny them. We can’t say, Oh, that’s not true. That doesn’t exist. Then why do these things happen? Where do they come from? So that’s the question.
Of course you can say, Well, the person was just caught in a fire; it was an accident. But with other things like illness or psychological illness, it’s not always easy to say why that’s happening to that person.
The Buddhist explanation is that these terrible experiences that can happen to people are the result of our mind getting caught up in very negative mental states, such as hatred and aggression and cruelty towards others; having these thoughts in their mind and then acting them out. Buddhism says it’s this type of mind—this hateful, cruel, aggressive mind—that leads to harm for others that is the cause of later on in the future, experiencing such terrible hell-like experiences.
And that just makes sense to me. Looking at my own mind, looking at my own experience, I really feel sure that when we harm others, when we cause suffering to others, we’re creating the cause to experience suffering ourselves.
Thinking in those ways helped me be more open to the idea of hell-like experiences and how they are the result of very severe negative states of mind and also actions that are harmful that cause suffering to others.
So the effect that’s had on me is I’ve just become 100% convinced that the way I want to live my life is non-harmful. And I just want to do as much as I can to be helpful and beneficial to others. And that’s really the basis of Buddhist ethics.
You started out talking about grappling with the idea of other realms. And that led you to seeing those realms as having a basis in the mind: manifesting in physical reality, but then having a basis in your mind and your earlier actions and thoughts; these kind of three topics all interconnected very deeply for you.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
There’s a line in Shantideva’s text, The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, about that, where he says the horrible experiences in hell they’re created by our own mind. So that’s very much a Buddhist idea, that it is our mind that creates our experiences.
That might be a nice opportunity to ask you about mind training. Because these are a particular class of meditations in Tibetan Buddhism that transform what we normally consider problems and annoyances into aspects of mental growth. Could you talk a little bit about mind training techniques, ones that could be useful to people listening to a podcast like this?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
Yeah. I love those teachings. And they’re so practical. You don’t even have to be a Buddhist, you know. A lot of the Buddhist methods and Buddhists tools, you don’t have to believe in Buddha and rebirth and the whole Buddhist story to use these techniques. A lot of them are just common sense.
One of the things I find really helpful is, when there’s a problem, whether it’s physical or mental or something to do with a relationship, any kind of problem, there is; probably most people—I know this is what happens to me—my mind just gets really upset and unhappy and crabby and irritable and also kind of obsessed: Oh, this is terrible. Oh, how long is it going to last? Oh, I can’t stand it. And worried.
I’m very familiar with that way of thinking. Yes.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
One thing that’s really helpful is just to recognize that that way of thinking, that kind of mental activity, just makes it worse. And in fact, there’s a sutra it’s in the Pali tradition, the Theravada tradition called the Sallatha Sutra. And in that the Buddha compares suffering problems to being shot with an arrow. He says, you know, if you get shot with an arrow, that’s already bad enough. That’s painful enough.
But then the way we respond to that can sometimes be inadvertently shooting ourselves with another arrow. So then we’ve got two arrows stuck in us rather than one. And the second arrow is our mental attitudes, our way of thinking and feeling, and now the mental response to the first problem.
And it’s just so true. I mean, we don’t do it deliberately. We don’t decide to think that way. It’s just an automatic thing; probably habit or familiarity. But just take a step back from that and look at that way of thinking. Does this help? Does this make things better? And to me, it’s just completely clear that it doesn’t, it doesn’t help at all. It’s just making more suffering—mental suffering—on top of the first problem, whatever it may be. So that’s really helpful to recognize that it doesn’t help.
And also to recognize that we have a choice. We don’t have to think that way. There are other ways of thinking. And that’s really what thought transformation is all about. It’s changing our thoughts, changing our way of thinking to a more positive and constructive one. Instead of making more suffering for ourselves, making less suffering for ourselves.
So there’s a number of ways we can do that. One of my favorite is to just use this kind of situation as an opportunity to increase our compassion. Because compassion is understanding that others suffer and they don’t want to suffer; feeling moved by their suffering; and wanting to help them in whatever way we can.
So this is one method. Just thinking that I’m not the only person in the world who has a problem. Lots of other people have problems too. And then just spend some time thinking about other people who have problems similar to yours and maybe worse than yours. That way your own problem can seem smaller instead of huge and enormous and unbearable.
Was that experience something that you were doing on the cushion formally, or just in the course of your daily life, as frustration arose? Or both ways?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
You can do it anytime. Sometimes sitting on your meditation cushion. But anytime; you can use any time, any situation to contemplate these thoughts. But of course, it’s probably more powerful if you do it on the cushion. Because then your mind is much more focused and able to go more deeply.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
In my education, and in Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, they say that there are these two main forms of meditation and they are for different purposes. One is sometimes called stabilizing meditation or placement meditation. And it’s basically to develop concentration, training the mind to stay on one object for longer and longer periods of time. This concentration is a very important ability or quality to develop.
Basically, what we’re trying to do in Buddhism is transform our mind. Our mind is the source of all suffering. But it’s also the source of all happiness and higher states of mind like enlightenment. So to be able to do that kind of transformation of our mind, we need the stable mind. We need a mind that’s able to stay focused on one thing rather than just being scattered all over the place and out of control.
So one kind of meditation is to train the mind to stay focused. And you use an object. The Buddha himself recommended a number of different objects. One of the objects—my favorite object, actually—is the breath. It’s relatively easy to use because it’s already there. We’re already breathing all the time. And we don’t have to construct anything or bring anything to mind. We just have to focus our mind on our breathing.
Also, I find that focusing on the breath, paying attention to the breath, has a natural calming effect on the mind. So I think physiologically it does help to calm both our mind and our body.
They say it’s good to start with really short sessions, even five minutes. Although even in five minutes, you know, the mind can be jumping away from the object again and again. But gradually with time, with practice, your ability to stay focused increases.
So that’s one type of meditation. And the other one is called analytical meditation. And that involves thinking, using thought. But not just any kind of thought that pops up in your mind, but rather focused thought. You usually have a topic that you meditate on.
And the purpose of doing that kind of meditation is to deepen our understanding and cultivate wisdom. Wisdom is another very, very important quality—an essential quality—to be able to transform the mind. Because the basic problem we have, the cause of all our suffering and all our problems, is that we don’t see things correctly. We have misconceptions, misperceptions and ignorance: ignorance and confusion.
So wisdom is the antidote to that. Wisdom is understanding things correctly, having correct ways of thinking and seeing and understanding. Analytical meditation is for that purpose: to gain wisdom.
So you have a topic that you meditate on. for example, the First Noble Truth, the Truth of Suffering.
Sometimes it’s called suffering, but the word suffering isn’t very good, unsatisfactoriness covers more things. So it’s any kind of unpleasant experience that we have. Buddha himself pointed out examples of suffering or unsatisfactory experiences.
So we can just take the Buddha’s words and then think about it and ask ourselves, So Buddha said this. Is it true? Can I find examples of that in my own experience? Can I find examples of that in the experience of others? Is this something that exists? Is this something that is true?
Lama Yeshe used to call this kind of meditation checking meditation. We’re checking to see if what the Buddha’s teaching say are true or not; checking it out for ourselves. So this is where we use skepticism; investigating, checking is it true or not?
Could you go into that just a tiny bit more why we should think about suffering? What’s the point of meditating on suffering?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
It is a reality. It is something that exists. And to know it’s something that people generally want to avoid: get away! You know, go away from me or I will go away from it, get away from it. We don’t want suffering, which is completely understandable. Of course we don’t want suffering.
The Buddha said, don’t run away from suffering, but face it, look at it, deal with it. And understand that it is a reality. But it’s not something permanent. It’s not something that’s going to be there forever. There is a way to be free of suffering. And the here is the way.
I mean, he explained in the remaining three Truths, he explained what is the cause of suffering, suffering has causes. And if we can know what the causes are, we can stop it. So, to be able to do that, to have that energy to look for the causes and look for the solution, you have to acknowledge the existence of the suffering. If you say, no, there’s no such thing as suffering, it doesn’t exist. Let’s just ignore it. Let’s just pretend it’s not there. That’s not a solution.
We have to face it. We have to be realistic about it. Look for its cause and look for the solution. And then we can find the way out.
Lately, meditation is getting more and more popular with apps like Calm and Headspace and Ten Percent Happier. I wonder if you could comment a little bit on this trend and how you see the benefits of mindfulness and other secular approaches to meditation?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
My approach, like when I first started teaching and also writing the book How to Meditate, I just felt there’s so much in Buddhism that’s very, very helpful and very valuable. And I really would like to share this with people so that they can learn these methods, especially ways of dealing with disturbing emotions: anger, depression, and so on.
And so my approach has always been trying to make it accessible. Even if people have trouble with some of the other aspects of Buddhism, like karma and past lives and so on and so forth, they could still use these methods.
So, you know, when I heard that mindfulness meditation, for example, is becoming very, very popular. I thought, Oh, that’s wonderful. People are meditating! More people are meditating; not necessarily because they want to become enlightened, just to be happier, be healthier, have better relationships and so on.
So in that sense, I do feel happy that more people are meditating. But I do worry that people’s idea about Buddhism, the sort of popular idea that people have about Buddhism might become sort of watered down, diluted, and maybe even distorted.
And that people won’t understand the richness, the depth of the whole of Buddhism. You know, like the real, the real thing, the genuine teachings of Buddha might become kind of pushed aside. And then the popular idea that it’s just about feeling good, feeling happy in this lifetime might become more prevalent. So that’s one concern I have.
And then also there’s the possibility that people might even misuse Buddhist ideas and Buddhist meditations. I mean the whole idea of meditation in Buddhism is to decrease delusions, disturbing emotions, afflictions in our mind. But it’s possible they could be misused and increased delusions increase people’s misbehavior.
The motivation is very important from the Buddhist perspective, right? Whether it’s to just merely relax or to improve your mind and your ethics.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
Having the motivation to be more relaxed, more peaceful, healthier, take care of health problems. I mean, that’s not a bad motivation. But ideally the motivation for meditation and Buddhism is wanting to change our mind, improve our mind and be helpful to others; benefit others, benefit the world as much as we can.
You mentioned earlier about some of the challenging topics like past and future lives. Could you talk a little bit about how a secular ordinary Western person coming to this tradition could understand that? Is there some logical argument that works to explain the concept of past and future lives? Or does it require an element of faith or trust in more realized teachers who’ve seen this directly somehow?
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
There is actually a logical way of proving rebirth or reincarnation. It’s in the text call the Pramanavarttika by Dharmakirti. He was a great Indian master. He’s talking about this in the context of trying to prove that the Buddha is a reliable teacher, is somebody that we can rely upon.
One of the reasons for Buddha being a reliable teacher is because he cultivated compassion. He cultivated great compassion for all living beings. And he did this for a long time—lifetimes, many, many, many lifetimes. So he spent many, many lifetimes cultivating this great compassion. And that was his motivation for achieving enlightenment. So to be able to accept that, that Buddha cultivated compassion for many lifetimes, you have to accept, there are such a thing as many lifetimes.
And there was a school in India that they’re known as the Charvakas. Their belief is only things that can be seen directly with our perceptions, those are the only things that exist. If something cannot be seen with our direct perceptions and it doesn’t exist. So they denied past lives and future lives because we don’t see them.
So it’s quite similar to scientific materialists nowadays. And their view also was that mind or consciousness is simply produced by the body, produced by the elements of the body. I don’t know if they talked about the brain. Scientists now say that the mind is produced by the brain or it’s an emergent property of the brain or depends on the brain. And then once the brain is not functioning anymore, then there’s no more mind, no more consciousness. So this is a very prevalent view nowadays in the world.
So the whole principle of causality, this is a very important aspect of Buddhism: that things arise from causes. And there has to be concordance between a cause and an effect; between an effect and a cause.
So this is scientific. And it’s also just practical knowledge. If you have a garden and you want to grow tomatoes in your garden, you have to plant tomato seeds. And give them the right conditions: water, and fertilizer, and light and so on. So it has to be concordant.
You can’t put daisy seeds in your garden and expect to have tomatoes. So that principle—that things have causes and the causes have to be the right causes for something to arise—Dharmakirti uses that. He says our body is physical, it’s physical matter. And physical things are the cause of other physical things. But mind or consciousness is not a physical thing. It’s not matter.
In Buddhism it’s just a given that mind or consciousness, which is what makes up our thoughts, our emotions, our dreams, and so forth, this is not a physical thing. It’s not matter. It’s not made of molecules and atoms. So if you can accept that, then how is it possible for a physical phenomenon like the body, the brain, to produce something that is nonphysical?
So that’s Dharmakirti’s argument. He said if it was possible, then wherever you have that physical matter, that physical material, it should produce mind. So that means we could produce mind in laboratory. If you took a brain, it should be able to produce mind.
The point is that mind is this non-physical thing, not produced by the body, not produced by the brain. So therefore just because the body dies—the brain stops working, stops functioning—doesn’t mean the mind, the consciousness stops functioning.
Those who are skeptical, you can ask yourself, it’s hard to prove the existence of a mind that exists after the body dies, but on the other hand, can it be disproved? Can you disprove that? And for me personally, I didn’t have too much trouble with the idea of rebirth. It wasn’t a big hang-up for me. But I did have doubt. I was skeptical about it.
Even before I became a Buddhist, I was really concerned about what happens after death. That was an important question. What happens after we die? So I really wanted to know. And it does affect our life, how we live our life.
If you don’t mind, I’ll tell one story. Apparently at the time of the Buddha, one man came to the Buddha and he was very agitated and he asked the question, Tell me, is there life after death? Is there something after death? And the Buddha said, Well, if there is, how would you live your life?
And the man said, You know, I’d be really careful about what I did. I would not do harmful things, dishonest things, and do good and be generous and kind and so on and so forth.
And then the Buddha said, And if there was no life after death, how would you live your life? The man said, Well, I would be a good person and not harm people and try to help people as much as I can.
So I really like that story. Because it shows that the important thing is what we do in this life; that we try to live a good life: be kind generous, helpful, not harm, not do wrong things. That’s the most important thing.
And if we live our life that way, then if there’s another life after this, well, things will go well for us. And if there is no life after this, everything ends at death, Well, at least we’ll die feeling okay, feeling happy and not feeling worried and regretful about the way we lived our life.
That’s the most important thing: not worrying so much about what happens afterwards, but living in a good way as much as we can.
Well, that definitely seems like a good place to end with The Most Important Thing. I really appreciate you talking with us. I want to thank you so much. It was really lovely getting a chance to talk to you and hear your insights and your experience. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Ven. Sangye Khadro:
Well, thank you for conducting the interview and I hope it has been beneficial.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Venerable Sangye Khadro. Next week’s episode will feature a guided meditation by Ven. Sangye Khadro on Buddha nature, our innate capacity for goodness and positive change.
This episode was produced by my partner in Skeptic’s Path, Stephen Butler, who conceived, created and produces our entire interview series.
Links to Ven. Sangye Khadro’s books can be found on our website at skepticspath.org, as well as a transcript of this episode and links to subscribe to our newsletter and join our private meditation discussion group.
If you have any questions or comments on this episode, please share them on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIN, where we can be found as “skepticspath.” And if you enjoyed the episode, leaving a review for us on Apple Podcasts helps others discover our show. Until next week…
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio