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Engaged Buddhism with Ven. Gyalten Lekden

Ven. Gyalten Lekden, Buddhist monk, social activist

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Venerable Gyalten Lekden talks about engaged Buddhism that goes beyond the cushion to actively grapple with social injustice, gender inequality, climate change, and racism.

Scott Snibbe: For this week’s episode, Stephen Butler and I had a chance to talk with Venerable Gyalten Lekden about engaged Buddhism that goes beyond the cushion to actively grapple with the world’s challenges in social injustice, gender inequality, climate change, and racism. Venerable Lekden also touches on Buddhism in popular culture, including some of the profound questions of consciousness explored in HBO’s Westworld.

Venerable Lekden is currently a monk in his sixth year of study at Sera Jey Monastery’s Geshe program. Before receiving his full ordination vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he earned a Masters of Divinity in Buddhist Ministry from Harvard Divinity School, and was a student of religious studies and theatre at Wesleyan University, where he studied with Dr. Jan Willis, who we interviewed last year. 

If you ever thought a Buddhist monastery was a quiet place, you’ll be corrected by all the noises behind Lekden from our video chat to India that include cats, dogs, and Tibetan chants.

Scott Snibbe: Venerable Gyalten Lekden, it’s really a pleasure to have you as a guest on the show today, I’ve really enjoyed the couple of talks I’ve had a chance to watch and very, very interested in your active, engaged approach to Buddhism. So I’m looking forward to this conversation. Thanks for joining us.

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Thank you for inviting me. I’m excited to be here as well. I’m really enamored with the podcast you’re doing, I think it’s really important. And so I’m happy to be part of it.

Scott Snibbe: Oh, thanks so much. That means a lot coming from you. So I’d like to start with that, actually, our podcast is called A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, so clearly a lot of our audience believes that skepticism is part of a spiritual path. And this is kind of this question they used to ask the communists: are you, or have you ever been a skeptic and how is that part of your spiritual path?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Yes, I’ve been a skeptic and I think it’s crucial to be a skeptic. It’s really important, you know, for any kind of personal growth of any sort, whether it be spiritual or otherwise. I think what’s important is not to be a cynic, but to be a skeptic.

And I know for a lot of my young life, I was a cynic. For me, the difference is cynicism is kind of laden with some sort of mal-intent or judgment, and skepticism isn’t. Skepticism is an open inquiry to look for truth and to understand reality and to not take things at face value. But cynicism is judging those things instead of simply looking for the truth or answers for what is.

So I think skepticism is important. I’ve always been a skeptic. I used to be a cynic and now I’m doing my best not to be anymore.

Scott Snibbe: Very nice. And you’re an ordained monk. You live in India, you’re now devoting your life to the study of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Sera Jey Monastery. Can you tell us how you got to this place in your life?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Well, it’s a journey, that’s for sure. I guess it starts with how I found Buddhism. I grew up in New England. We were an Episcopalian family and we went to church quite a lot. I was very active in my church. I sang in the choir from age nine, I was the head acolyte. I was in charge of the youth group. I was a lay reader. I was at my church three or four times a week. And I never believed any of it. I didn’t think anyone believed it.

I thought it was all just a social club. And I’m sure that was me projecting onto a lot of the congregants there. I’m sure a lot of them had devout faith. But from my experience, it was all a game, you know, none of it had any meaning. And so I grew very cynical, at that point, of religion. Especially because I saw the people working behind the religion, moving other people into different places to accumulate power on their own, or to influence events in ways that I thought were manipulative.

So I, as a headstrong 17 year old, was pretty sure that religion had no use and it was nothing but an opiate of the masses as they like to say. So when I started college, I was convinced I was going to study religion to prove how wrong it was. That’s how like of an awful motivation I had when I first started and when I entered college. But that was simultaneous with, right around the same time, my previous choir master died.

And he’d been really important in my life growing up. He was no longer our active choir master, he’d retired — and when we found out he had cancer, I wrote him a letter saying, you know, just telling him how meaningful he’d been to me in my life growing up. And when he died, there was a huge memorial service for him which about 500 people attended, there were 150 singers and I was stage managing the whole thing. And at one point his husband asked me to read a section of my letter as part of the memorial service.

So I said, sure, no problem. I just added it to my list of things to do. And then it got to that point in the ceremony. I got up to read just this one paragraph from a letter. And I realized I couldn’t open my mouth because I knew if I did, I would start bawling. And at that moment I realized I didn’t have any language to understand my experience of grief. I didn’t have any kind of tools at all to mediate the emotions that I had.

So when I started college, all at the same time, I was very cynical of religion as an organization. I didn’t trust it, I wanted to prove how it was wrong, but I simultaneously recognized that I was missing something in my life, that I needed some sort of spiritual language to help me understand the world.

So I had these two opposing motivations simultaneously. And then at university, I was studying religion and I had a chance to take a introduction to Buddhism class my first year. And the only way I can explain it is it felt like I was coming home to somewhere that I never knew that I had left. Everything kind of started clicking and making sense in ways that it never had before.

Something clicked for me. And so then I started pursuing that. I had the chance to live at my university at a themed housing for people that are interested in studying Buddhism and Buddhist meditation, called the Buddhist House. So I lived there my second year. And then the third year I was in charge of that house. So while I was in charge of that house, I was able to invite over 25 different teachers to come and give talks at the campus from all different lineages of contemporary Buddhism, and also heritage Buddhism.

And I was able to lead meditation twice a week and do all these kinds of things. So I became very deep into leading Buddhist ministry right away from my third year in college. So within two years of finding Buddhism, it felt incredibly comfortable. I knew that it was all I wanted to continue doing. I ended up doing graduate work in Buddhist ministry, and that was its own story, how I ended up there.

And then when that finished, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was partially interested in pursuing a PhD, I wasn’t sure what my options were. And I spoke to Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who is my primary teacher. And he advised me to become a monk and to study at Sera Jey.

At that time I’d been in a relationship for over 10 years. I had a long-term partner. And as soon as Rinpoche gave me that advice, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. And so I spoke to my partner, my family, and I told them, Hey, I’m thinking I need to move to India and become a monk. And they all agreed and they all said, Yeah, that makes sense. And so I had full support of my family and my lay partner, and that brought me here 10 years ago.

Scott Snibbe: That’s an incredible story. I also heard that you studied theater for awhile. Is that the case?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Yeah, my undergraduate degrees are in theater and religious studies.

Scott Snibbe: And does your theatrical background play at all into your spiritual path or is that a tangent?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Oh, definitely. you know, it’s funny, when I was at a divinity school, I had an interview to serve as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and they were asking me about my qualifications, why I would be a good chaplain. And all of my reasoning had to do with my theater background. And at one point, he said, how about your religion degree? Doesn’t that help at all? And I was like, Hmm, not really. The theater one’s more helpful.

I did some performance, but most of my theater was technical theater. I did lighting design, sound design and technical theater, stage managing. I worked as a theater technician for five years. And on one hand, what that’s really, really useful for is organization, being able to understand how a lot of parts move together and being able to recognize that those have to move together in the background, that no one will ever see them, in order for something else to happen in the foreground.

And that itself is kind of an important recognition, that there’s so much happening behind the scenes for everything that you don’t realize. So that was useful for me. Also, for me, I found that, and this kind of went hand in hand with my degree in religion, is that there’s something really powerful about performance. Performing allows a type of understanding that you don’t get otherwise. And I think a lot of our religious practice is our performance of a religious practice. Whether it be ritual, whether it be chanting, whether it be the practice of study, we’re performing our religion in some ways. And by performing, we are creating something new and creating levels of understanding that we may not have otherwise.

And I could see that in theater, I could see that in productions we did, you know, I worked on dozens and dozens of productions from dance and theater, and you can see this act of creation in entertainment and in performance that was creating something new and creating new levels of understanding that I find really meaningful.

The degree itself is meaningless, but my experiences studying for the degree, I find very useful.

Scott Snibbe: Hmm. As a performer. Yeah. A number of our teachers, I’ve heard them say, yeah, you know, fake it till you make, it is a big part of Buddhism, that you act kind, you try to pretend you’re altruistic until it starts to sink in. Is that what you’re talking about?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Part of it. I mean, that’s definitely a part of it. I think that’s an important part of Buddhism too, is recognizing that for all of our flaws, we can still aim to be better than we are. Right. That’s our main goal, every day to be a little bit better than we were the day before, recognizing that we aren’t going to be perfected beings anytime soon. And so yeah, faking it until you make it, I think is an important part of Buddhist practice, but more so I just mean through the act of performance, you have an opportunity to experience something in a more intimate way than you do just reading it.

And so in religion, you look at, there are lots of religions were full of ritual, right? And you can look at scholars like J.Z. Smith, and he talks about How does ritual come into being, How does a mundane activity become sacred? How does the profane become sacred through ritualized activity? And what power does that have?

And that ritual is creating a space where we create our own meaning. We take our mundane lives or our profane lives, and through repeated action, we create a sacrality, right? We create meaning out of them. And if you look at a lot of Tibetan Buddhist pujas or practices, you’re ringing bells and you’re throwing rice in the air and you’re holding a dorje in your hand, and you’re doing all these mudras with your hands.

And it seems like a repeat of the Catholic church, right? Standing up, sitting down, kneeling, genuflecting, standing up, sitting down, you’re repeating these motions. So the question is, well, what is that for? And there’s something that is embodying the spiritual relationship literally into your body, through repeating those practices and you create new meaning out of it, or at least you have the potential to. You also have the potential to become disaffected and to not care. Right? So it’s a double-edged sword. But I think there’s something in the act of production and performance that creates new meaning within you.

Scott Snibbe: I wanted to ask you about another form of ritual in the monastery that a lot of our listeners, I bet aren’t familiar with, which is debate and which I understand is a very big part of the curriculum in the monastery. It’s such a mature curriculum, you know, over a thousand years old. Can you explain how debate fits into that? Is there really room to still argue points? Like why are you debating?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Yeah. Debate is the main pedagogical tool at our monastery and it’s incredibly important and it’s been so beneficial that His Holiness Dalai Lama has even recommended it to other lineages of Buddhism and even lay people to use as a pedagogical tool to study. So what debate forces you to do is it forces you to make a truth statement.

In reality, we make truth statements all the time. We say the sky is blue. We just make statements about reality that we deem them to be unequivocally true. So debate forces you to make a true statement and then defend it while someone else tries to attack it using logic, using quotations, using any kind of sneaky means they can. You have usually two people in a debate: the person defending a position and the debater who is arguing against that position.

And the debater will ask the person defending the position to make some sort of truth statement, whatever it may be. And once they make it, the job of the person debating is to get them to waver on their position or to contradict themselves.

And the great thing about debate is it teaches you that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You know, you make truth statements about things and don’t realize the consequences of what you’re saying. And so this is forcing you to be able to recognize the consequences of everything you say and how to support it.

And so a very easy, easy example, one of the first debates we run in the first year, you begin by studying colors and shapes and you study these as a way to help you learn how to debate. And so one of the questions is, I would ask the person who is defending, I would say, “Is a white horse white?”

And most people would say, “Yes, a white horse is white.” Right? And so then as the person debating, I would say, “Well then it follows that a white horse isn’t a horse.” So they’d say, “why?” And I say, ” A white horse isn’t a horse because it’s color, because it’s white. And so it follows that a white horse is not a living thing, it is a color.” And they say, “no, a white horse is a horse.” And you’d say “Well, you said a white horse is white. You know, not the color of a white horse is white.” But rather that a white horse is white, which seems like a small distinction, but it’s important when you’re talking about the nature of reality. Maybe not so important when you’re talking about the color of horses.

And so that’s the aim of debate, is to make sure you can understand the deeper topics that are being taught at every level. And you can understand their weak points and their strong points. You can take that meaning and internalize it.

And again, through performance, if you ever watch a debate, it’s very much a performance. It’s a physical act. The person answering is sitting on the ground, but the person debating is standing over them, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, making a show of it. You’re supposed to be arrogant. You’re supposed to be convinced that you’re right, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to win a debate.

And you’re only doing that to benefit your other classmates. You’re not doing it for your own ego, but it’s part of the game of debate. So it’s a performance, as I was saying, you’re performing what you study. And through that debate performance, you get a deeper understanding of it.

Scott Snibbe: I heard in the old days that if you lost a debate, you had to take on the other person’s view. Do they still do that?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: That was, you know, back in ancient India, when you had a number of different sects following different leaders, the idea was, if you lost the debate you’d have to take on their point of view. But the reason was because at that point, if you’d lost the debate it meant that your view couldn’t hold up to their view, that the view of your opponent was so powerful that of course you would adopt it because they had just disproven your view using their own.

But these days we all have hypothetically similar views, though some debates, they end in a stalemate. I’ve had opponents take up wrong positions, sometimes on purpose or sometimes they just make a mistake in their first answer. And once they realize that they’ve taken a wrong position, it’s my job to show them that they’re wrong and to get them to contradict themselves. And if I can’t do that, they can still win the debate, even if their position is incorrect. Both sides of the coin, you are learning something new: how to defend something, even if you don’t agree with it. But we don’t have to accept that position. I’m allowed to accept that a white horse isn’t white.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah. We’ve seen that in elections too. You can have a wrong view and still win. Um, Stephen has a bunch of questions for you.

Stephen Butler: Thank you. And following up on that, you know, there’s one interesting thing, Venerable Lekden, if you wouldn’t mind talking about this, my understanding is that in recent years, through the Dalai Lama’s very publicly expressed interest in science and mind science, he has brought some of that curriculum into the monasteries to be taught and shared alongside these millennia-old traditions that you’re talking about in terms of debate. Since you’ve been at the monastery and have observed that, what are your reflections on that? And could you share some of those observations of seeing this kind of curriculum coming into the monastery right alongside a rather ancient curriculum.

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Yeah. It’s been an interesting thing to see. I personally haven’t been part of it, at least at Sera Jey. You don’t start taking science classes until you reach, I think, your 13th year or something like that.

So I personally haven’t taken any of those classes yet, but it is part of the Gelek Gyuto. So the final exams you have to take to become a Lharampa Geshe these days include a science section. So you have the science classes that teach contemporary science and they teach it in a straightforward kind of way. But then you also have to learn how to debate it and to debate different points of it.

Conceptually, I think it’s incredibly important. His Holiness has often again and again said the importance of understanding life sciences and the empirical world around us and how that can only benefit our practice. From an experiential point of view, there are some monks that get very enamored with this chance to study Western subjects, and that distracts them from their philosophy studies.

And I’ve heard some of the older teachers express that as a concern, that they become more interested in these worldly studies than their monastic studies. But personally, I haven’t seen that. I think there’s a mix of both. I think monks are excited to be learning something new. I think overall it is beneficial to the monks, and to the whole system. To have more well-informed monks can only help everyone.

Stephen Butler: Shifting gears a little bit, there’s one topic that we’re really excited to talk to you about, because it’s something you’ve spoken about before. You know, the so-called phrase that, that many of you may have heard, of engaged Buddhism. You know, it was a word that was coined by the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh. And it started when he and people in his community were protesting and providing service to the people in their communities during the Vietnam War. We’re at a cultural moment now, where actively engaging with social issues seems as important as it was in the sixties, with social justice, gender inequality, climate change, systemic racism.

As I mentioned, you’ve often shared your views on this, which are not typically topics that Buddhism explicitly comes out to engage with. We really would love to know, since you’ve shared your views on this, how can Buddhism be brought to bear on such charged issues like these? Can you talk about how Buddhism is compatible with activism?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Yeah, certainly. I think I’d push back a little bit on what you said that these aren’t topics that Buddhism deals with. I think Buddhism does deal with them quite directly in many ways. I think Buddhists don’t necessarily deal with them. But Buddhism does, and it gives us all the tools we need to.

You know, Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term socially engaged Buddhism in the 1960s. He himself was basing his movement and his practice on reformed humanist Buddhism in China that was in the early 20th century. And then he also cites, I think a 16th century Vietnamese King as one of his inspirations. There was a Vietnamese King who gave up his royal station to become a monk.

So he cites his influences going back centuries. But the kind of first social activist was the Buddha. His whole goal was to disrupt the status quo. The reason we need activism is because what’s accepted as the status quo is not working.

And so disrupting the status quo is an inherent part of engaging in social activism. And I think the Buddha is one of the best models for that, both by giving up his royal station and becoming an ascetic, and then by teaching what he learned to others, were incredibly disruptive to the society at the time.

And he recognized that and he said, This teaching is more profound than the suffering that you’re experiencing. So I think Buddhism itself has the tools. And for me, it’s necessary for us to engage in activism. Between the idea of socially engaged Buddhism and activism that is motivated by Buddhism or informed by Buddhist practice and theory.

Socially engaged Buddhism most often is how we can create organizations that uphold Buddhist ideals through their activity in the world. Whereas, I think activism motivated by Buddhism isn’t me trying to find a group of like-minded Buddhists to do something, but it’s me as an individual recognizing that through my practice and study of Buddhism, I’m called to engage in activism to fight discrimination, to fight injustice, to alleviate suffering.

So attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the same time I was learning about Buddhism and finding Buddhism, I was also finding radical queer activism and gender equality and feminist activism, anti-racism activism, climate activism, anti-war and anti-colonial theory activism.

So all of these ideas were kind of swirling the same time for me, and there was never any dissonance. And I think for me, what it comes down to, is that a Buddhist, especially as Buddhist practice in the Mahayana path, we are asked to view everything through the lens of compassion, right? Compassion is one of our guiding principles.

To become a Buddha, we have to complete the two collections of wisdom and merit. And merit is accumulated through the practice of skillful means, which is bodhicitta and compassion. So what is compassion? Compassion is the wish for others not to suffer and to have no causes of suffering. And the flip side of compassion is love, which is the wish for others to have happiness and all the causes of happiness.

And so everything we do is motivated by compassion. And if we let that be our guiding principle, then how can we not engage in activism? How can we not stand up to support others who are suffering? And so for me, the two are always going to be interlinked.

And I think that a lot of Buddhists or a lot of people engaged in activism, in part, because most of us, especially in the West that are practicing Buddhism, come from different levels of privilege, right? And this privilege allows us to become blinded to the suffering of others around us. And it allows us not to recognize our own complicit nature in the suffering of others. And when you don’t recognize that, then you don’t feel the impetus to relieve them of that suffering. But if everything is grounded in compassion, then that impetus is what should be driving everything you do.

We’re so caught up in our own suffering, even though we give lip service to the idea of compassion, we aren’t able to really recognize how others are suffering and this idea of putting other’s happiness above our own, which is this heart of bodhichitta, right? It’s not intentional, but we are just blinded by our own suffering and by the nature of reality.

I think another aspect of it is that in Tibetan Buddhism, we say that everything we do is for the benefit of others. So my study, my practice is for the benefit of others, I eventually will become a Buddha so I can benefit others. That’s the goal. And so we try to think in not worldly terms. We try to think in terms that aren’t grounded in the happiness of this life.

You can use this argument that, you know, worldly happiness isn’t real happiness. So it’s more important for me to work for the otherworldly happiness of sentient beings, and the best way to do that is becoming a Buddha, than it is for me to give food to the hungry, or it is for me to engage in social activism.

You can use that as an excuse really easily. And the Dalai Lama has said that’s shameful, that we can see our Christian brothers and sisters opening soup kitchens and doing work to help end poverty and to help alleviate the suffering of the poor, especially. And that you don’t see the same number of Buddhists, especially Tibetan Buddhists, doing the same thing. Because it’s easy to get lost, you know, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. And that all has to do with selfishness.

And not intentional selfishness, right? Not this kind of intent to harm others, but we’ve lived our whole lives being selfish beings. And we don’t realize that only through working to eliminate the suffering of others do we really eliminate our own suffering.

I read a great quote, actually, just this morning, that deals with this kind of idea. And it was from a book called, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGee. It was just published this year, in 2021. And she’s the chairman of Color of Change, which is the country’s largest racial justice online organization.

And this is from the introduction to her book. She says, “I didn’t set out to write about the moral costs of racism, but they kept showing themselves. There is a psychic and emotional cost to the tight rope that white people walk, clutching their identity as good people, when all around them is suffering that they don’t know how to stop, but that is done, it seems, in their name and for their benefit. The forces of division seek to harden this guilt into racial resentment. But I met people who’d been liberated by facing the truth and working toward racial healing in their communities.”

I think this is the same thing we’re being called to do in Buddhism, is face the truth, which is that the suffering of others and our own suffering is intricately linked. And that it is through alleviating the suffering of others that we can eventually alleviate our own suffering. That the only way to get rid of our own ignorance and that our own hangups, our own afflicted minds is by working to alleviate the suffering of others.

It’s necessary to have that compassion. As the two wings of enlightenment, you have compassion and wisdom. You definitely need wisdom. You can’t just throw money out your window and think you’re benefiting others. You need the wisdom to temper your compassion, but you need that compassion. And even if it’s only bringing about worldly benefit, you still need it. I think that is easy to lose sight of when you’re so focused on your own suffering. And so I can’t see any distinction between Buddhist practice and activism.

Stephen Butler: What would your advice be, then, if we’re to be on a spiritual path, in being of the world and in the world, as you said, is not mutually exclusive or contradictory, what is your advice to Buddhists at this point of time in history with all of those issues? For Buddhist centers for Buddhist individuals, what’s your advice based on your experience?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: I think it’s critical that we not shy away from looking at the suffering of others and at the roles we may play in that at a systemic level or at a complicit level. And only through directly looking at that, and then through the introspection of looking at how our own minds relate to that suffering, can we be inspired to act on it. As a Buddhist, compassion needs to be what focuses all of my actions in the world. And if you see suffering in the world and your first thought is, I want to eliminate that suffering, then you have to engage in social action. You need to understand what you can reasonably do. Because you do live in the world. We can’t all be martyrs. We can’t all live our lives full-time on the front lines of social justice advocacy.

Some of us have families. We have jobs. We have other things that we do need to do to survive. So you need to say, What can I reasonably do to push myself out of my comfort zone and to always be living a life of compassion, especially when that makes me uncomfortable? And that’ll be different for different people.

For those of us that live in America, we live in a capitalist country. Capitalism itself is founded on the idea that you have the people that own the means of production and the laborers and then the consumers, right? The only way capitalism works is through the exploitation of the labor of the working class. Without the exploitation of labor, capitalism doesn’t exist.

And without this consumerism that centers the life of the consumer, there is no need for the exploitation of labor. So as we live in this country that is founded on these ideas of capitalism and consumerism, we have to recognize that our mere participation in the system is participating in the exploitation of labor and in the suffering of others.

Those of us that live in America, we can’t just stop being part of the system. But we can do our best when we have the means and resources to help mitigate our participation in systems of oppression and suffering.

Stephen Butler: That’s beautifully stated and thank you so much for just laying out those encouraging words for all of us who are trying to implement these components.

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: One quick thing to add is that as with all Buddhist practice, it’s step-by-step as well. You first generate the wish to benefit others. And then slowly you take actions. We’re not expected to do everything by tomorrow. In the same way, we’re not going to become perfected Buddhas by tomorrow.

Buddhism is saying, look, every day you can do a little bit better than you did the day before, in our spiritual growth, that is. And it’s the same with work and activism and with helping end inequality and injustice in the world. You don’t have to jump in to the deep end tomorrow. You have to take baby steps and every day try to do a little bit more than the day before.

And rejoice in those small steps and realize that every step in the right direction is benefiting. And then every step in the right direction means you can go one little step further the next day. And so don’t expect too much of yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Always push yourself forward and recognize that it’s an incremental growth. Every step in the right direction is something to rejoice in. And that’s what we should be trying for, is this incremental growth.

Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s a great advice. Thanks. I had a couple of questions for you on a slightly lighter note after that extremely good critique of Western capitalism. The older generation of certainly Western monks and nuns, I think in the traditional system, you never go to a movie. You don’t listen to music anymore. I’ve definitely heard you talking about popular culture and some of my other friends who are younger monks. Can you talk to us about how you bring Netflix and Spotify into the spiritual path?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Well, the danger of entertainment is that it can very easily lead to kind of mindlessness and to wasting time. That’s very easy to see. And also it can encourage desire. It can encourage even anger. It can encourage all these negative emotions that we’re trying to get rid of. So it’s understandable why we’re advised to cut it out of our lives. And as a monastic, I think it’s important to have a healthy relationship with kind of pop culture, but recognize that it’s very easy for it to become unhealthy, for it to become a distraction.

So it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword. If I was just living in the monastery, if I was living in retreat, I don’t think it’s necessary to engage in pop culture. But if I want it to go into the world, if I want to teach and help others and they are not monastics and they are living regular lives, whether it be with family, with jobs, with whatever, then I think it’s important to recognize that something that’s integral to their lives is something that I can use as a tool to develop my own spiritual growth and to help them develop their spiritual growth. So that’s where I think it’s useful.

If I can’t cut the world out of my life, which most of us can’t do, then I should have Buddhist techniques and ideas to mediate my relationship with the world. And that includes pop culture ephemera. And so the ways to do that is to fall back on what you study, to look at what is motivating in any bit of entertainment that you are engaging with and see how it is exploring an issue that maybe you hadn’t thought of, or maybe you had, and how can it bring new ideas to it?

Part of the process of monastic study here, and debate, is always challenging your views; again, being a skeptic. You need to make sure your views hold up to scrutiny. To your own scrutiny, to the scrutiny of others; challenging your views about what it means to be compassionate, challenging your views about what it means to exist in a body even.

You know, I remember when the first season of Westworld of the new adaptation of it, one of my friends from the dharma center I was a member of in Boston, he emailed me and he said, are you watching Westworld? This is the most Buddhist show on TV. And you can argue, I mean, that show is full of sex and violence, which can be a huge distraction, for monks and for regular people. So if you’re going to be distracted by the sex and violence, then you shouldn’t engage it. But it also brings up a lot of interesting ideas about consciousness and about compassion. In the show, there are robots, some of them become sentient. Some of them don’t, but they all live with this artificial intelligence.

And so what level of compassion do you show to this approximation of a sentient being? It brings up all these questions. And if you hadn’t watched a show like that, you may not have had the opportunity to think about them, to debate them, to just, you know, have your own ideas challenged. So in that way, be useful, as long as you don’t let it distract you. And as long as you don’t let it fuel your own afflictive minds.

(Spoiler Alert) What is real? What is the self? What makes you alive?

Scott Snibbe: Well, thanks for sharing that. It’s really interesting to hear how monastics keep their finger on the pulse of popular culture. I’m impressed you watch Westworld. It is the most violent sexual show I’ve ever seen. But I agree it’s also one of the most profound. A lot of shows these days pointing out where human’s compassion could use some improvement and that’s among them.

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Engaging with pop culture, again with my idea of performance being important, right? And the consumption of performance is also important. So when you see people creating something, they give you new language to study it or to think about it, especially when you have people specifically engaging in ideas that you wouldn’t have thought to be entertainment.

A great example is an album released last year by a politically active hip hop duo, Run the Jewels, who every lyric of their songs have to do with social activism. But you don’t usually hear that in a hip hop song that you’re shaking your head too, you know? There’s one lyric that goes, the funny thing about a cage is that it’s never built for just one group and when the cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it comes for you. You don’t hear that in the context of hip hop, right? You don’t hear that in the context of popular culture usually.

So when you hear something like that, out of the normal context you’re used to hearing it in, it disrupts you, it disrupts the status quo. And that’s what Buddhism is trying to do. Buddhism is trying to disrupt our status quo. Because for too long, our status quo has been complacency and acceptance of our own ignorance, of our own desire, of our own anger; accepting those as normal and as acceptable ways of being in the world.

That’s been our status quo for countless lifetimes. The whole point of Buddhist practice is to disrupt that, to turn that on its head and say that status quo is not acceptable. It doesn’t lead to liberation, it leads to suffering. And so any tool you can find that gives you new language to disrupt your own internal status quo, I think is hugely beneficial.

Scott Snibbe: You’ve kindly agreed to lead a meditation for our next episode. Our listeners are going to be hearing this next week, but could you talk a little bit about what the meditation is? What you’re going to share with us and also why it’s relevant for audience?

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Certainly. So the meditation I’m going to share is very common in our tradition. It’s a meditation to help generate bodhichitta, the altruistic wish for others to be free of suffering. And it’s the wish to achieve perfect, complete enlightenment for the benefit of others. As someone practicing the bodhisattva path, it is infused in every moment of our mind. Ideally, this what our goal is.

And so this practice is called the Seven Point Cause and Effect Meditation on Generating Bodhicitta. The reason I think it’s important is, as I mentioned, I think everything we need to do, especially our social activism work, especially when we’re engaging in work that is ruffling feathers and disrupting status quo, needs to be grounded in compassion and needs to be grounded in the wish for others to be free of suffering and to be free from the causes of suffering.

And compassion itself is one of the primary causes of bodhichitta. They’re very interconnected in that way. And so the meditation is a way to recognize all sentient beings as having the same wants and desires as ourselves, which is to be free of suffering and to have happiness, and is an attempt to create a closer connection with other sentient beings who are suffering to recognize their suffering and realize that our own relationship with them is one in which we should feel compelled to help alleviate their suffering. And through that we develop compassion and Bodhicitta.

It’s very, very common meditation practice, but for me, it really links into this idea that in order to be a benefit in our activist work and our social engagement, it has to come from compassion, which has to come from recognizing that the suffering of others and our own suffering is intrinsically linked together. And it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering of others.

Scott Snibbe: Well, thanks a lot. I’m excited to hear how you adapt this practice for a secular audience. And I think our audience is going to enjoy it next week. So thank you so much for joining us for this interview, joining us from India and taking time out of your busy schedule learning how to be a geshe.

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: No problem. I’m very, very happy as I said to be invited. Thank you so much. It’s been a joy talking to both of you. And I really enjoy your podcast so keep doing the good work.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Audio mastering by Russell Marsden
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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