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Tenzin Chogkyi & Scott Snibbe San Francisco Book Launch for How to Train a Happy Mind

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A big crowd showed up for the San Francisco book launch of How to Train a Happy Mind a couple of months ago to listen to me in conversation with my dear friend and fellow Buddhist teacher Tenzin Chogkyi. You may remember her from a podcast episode last year, where we talked about Patriarchy, Gender, and Sexism in Buddhism. Listen now to our lively conversation about the book, how Buddhism is adapting to our culture, and whether or not we can still call it Buddhism.

[00:01:15] Tenzin Chogkyi: Welcome everybody, thank you for coming out to this event. I have been enthusiastically gobbling up the book, and writing down lots of cool questions for Scott, so that’s how we’re going to start, with an interview, then we’ll open it up, in case you have questions.

We’ll start with our conversation; you quote from His Holiness in his book, Beyond Religion, where he says, “The time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.” Then you also quote Lama Yeshe, who’s the founder of our tradition of Buddhism, who says, “Give up religion. Give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism, put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language,” which is what I think is your marching orders.

“Give up religion. Give up Buddhism. Go beyond Buddhism, put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”

Reading the book, that feels like you’ve taken inspiration, so I’d love to hear more about these ideas and how they’ve inspired you.

Going beyond Buddhism

buddha statue buddhism

[00:02:24] Scott Snibbe: A teacher I met recently, Geshe Tenzin Namdok, a Western Geshe, said, “The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, it’s to generate happy minds.” That’s what His Holiness said in his book. As you can tell by reading the news, the world has some ethical problems that we’re dealing with. It’s very unclear what the solutions are. There’s a lack of clear, ethical, and compassionate thinking.

There’s a lack of clear, ethical, and compassionate thinking.

You have this ancient system that’s extraordinarily well-developed. Then the question is, what aspects are cultural? What aspects of Tibetan Buddhism or Indian Buddhism are cultural? What aspects are essential to what the Buddha taught? Some people like Stephen Batchelor or Robert Wright take a more aggressive approach to this idea of secularizing Buddhism. I just interviewed Stephen Batchelor a couple days ago, and he takes a pretty aggressive stance and says the Buddha didn’t believe in reincarnation. I’m not so sure.

Then Robert Wright says, It’s all evolutionary psychology, like you can explain this through science, and some of that is true. My perspective is more like, it’s just an invitation, it’s quite clear that most people in our culture don’t believe in reincarnation, past and future lives, and karma. What is a way to practice this path as authentically as possible within the worldview that we were raised? Let’s just set aside whether those things are true or not. We can’t prove them through science. It’s completely reasonable not to accept those beliefs that people weren’t raised within our culture.

Then it was a little bit of a creative struggle trying to figure it out. I was invited to start teaching meditation 18 years ago by our friend, Venerable Chokyi to teach this sequence that’s called the lamrim. It’s a distillation of the Buddha’s teaching into an order that they say is particularly effective for reaching enlightenment, if you believe that’s possible. But certainly for diminishing your disturbing states of mind and increasing the ones that are satisfying, fulfilling, and happy—for lack of a better word.

That process was one of talking to my teachers, reading His Holiness, which was probably the most encouragement I felt for taking on this project, and getting a lot of feedback. But a lot of why I did this was because of negative feedback, because when I started teaching these meditations the authentic way in a class where we said it’s open to everybody—you don’t have to be a Buddhist—then in the first line of the first topic of The Precious Life, it says, Hey listen, you’ve been a ghost, a turtle, a god, for infinite past lives. Now you’re a human, which is the best state, but watch out, because you’re burning up your karma, and you might be reborn in a hell realm, so you better take this life to generate positive karma.

It mentions all those three things that people would consider supernatural in our culture right in the first topic. I felt a real sense of pain when I would see people come into the meditation class and then maybe leave forever. Maybe it was the first and last time they stepped into our center and meditated. I just felt like it should meet people where they’re at.

[00:05:43] Tenzin Chogkyi: I’ve noticed in my own sort of evolution as a teacher, feeling like I’ve too become kind of more and more of a disciple of His Holiness with this view of there’s so much that’s precious in Buddhism. What a shame if it were just restricted to people who are interested in the religious aspects, which seems to be very few.

After teaching very traditionally for many years, I took the Cultivating Emotional Balance Teacher Training, and then the Compassion Cultivation Training, and seeing the value, like you say, of making things accessible to people in a way that just makes sense for modern people in their modern mind. I love that you’ve been doing this.

It’s a work of translation, translating these concepts and even the way you’re sort of translating the explanations to scientific language. I’m a former scientist too, so like subatomic particles, like let’s look at things that way or even the way that you explain the precious life, in terms of evolution. I love the way that you’ve done that. I’m wondering what led to that?

A precious life

purple stars mountains galaxy cosmos

[00:07:06] Scott Snibbe: For a Buddhist, the sense of urgency comes from that feeling of I’ve had infinite past lives and this is a really good one and I better make the most of it. It’s a sense of awe. I almost skipped that topic actually, the precious life, because it seemed like the most difficult one to adapt. But then I started thinking, How can an ordinary person have a sense of awe? I just thought of how I did when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I watched the show Cosmos, the first one with Carl Sagan, the second one’s really good too.

When I was a kid that was an extraordinary sense of awe. The idea that humanity is 200,000 years at the tip of 14 billion years, and a hundred billion galaxies, and a hundred billion stars. Now we know there are a hundred billion planets that could support life in our galaxy. Then evolution took four billion years, right?

Then right at the tip of that, are us beings that are self-aware. Carl Sagan said we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. Humanity might be the consciousness of the universe itself. For all we know, we are. How are we doing on that? How do each of us feel about that when we wake up in the morning? Do we have that feeling like, Oh my goodness, I’m the only self-aware life in the universe? What should I do with this day? Turn on Netflix, go to Instagram—I’m not so sure.

Humanity might be the consciousness of the universe itself.

When you think about those things, that’s the meditation. Every single path is like a map. When you look at a map of San Francisco, no one would mistake that for San Francisco, but it helps you get to this bookstore. That’s the idea, you just need a different map, depending on your culture, to get to the same feeling.

In Tibetan Buddhism, they say there’s a feeling of a kind of dharmakaya, a sense of your consciousness expanding as big as the universe. He said that’s the same feeling as feeling God’s love, for a Christian who feels that. They’re paths to the same experience, and the metaphysics is different. In this case, it’s not metaphysics, it’s physics.

[00:09:09] Tenzin Chogkyi: That’s always been a gateway for me too. As you’re talking I’m thinking of a very traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice where you imagine offering the entire universe to your teachers. It’s described in this way according to ancient Indian culture of Mount Meru, these iron mountains, oceans, and a couple of other things. I would always imagine those early Hubble telescope pictures of so many galaxies in one tiny little square inch. I was like, Well, that’s how the universe exists for me, that’s how it works for my mind. Not feeling that we need to be so wedded to ancient Indian ideas of the nature of reality.

[00:09:54] Scott Snibbe: No, and I find it more inspiring. The Dalai Lama, those particular ideas, a lot of them come from what’s called the Abhidharma, which was kind of a compendium of different ideas about the universe from the time that it was written. Even His Holiness says some of that needs to be revised.

I heard something amazing recently, which is that all the fruits and vegetables that we eat took four to five thousand years for human beings to cultivate, like they were all just little almost inedible seeds and nubbins, things you would barely recognize as food, but they were edible.

Over time human beings tasted one that was slightly better than the other and they planted those. But it took 4,000 years. For any individual human they probably didn’t even perceive the difference in their lifetime. I think about that now when I think of a precious life. That’s one of the things I think about in the morning, Thank you 5,000 years of human beings just for making the apples, peaches, and onions.

You can go on and on like with this meditation I find it much more inspiring than the ones from the culture of Tibetan India, which were very inspiring for the people at that time but we need logic that works for our minds today.

How was the writing process of How to Train a Happy Mind?

[00:11:11] Tenzin Chogkyi: When you were going through this process, did you ever have moments where you were not sure that you were going in the right direction?

[00:11:23] Scott Snibbe: People have been asking me for 20 years, what book should I start with, I’m not Buddhist. I don’t want to be Buddhist, but I’m curious about this type of meditation. That was the reason I started. But what I did was I would check with the audience as to whether it was generating the feeling in them. I’d check with myself to see, does this work? Then also my teachers, I kind of kept notes and took walks with Venerable Renee. I talked to you and other teachers, and also reading more of His Holiness’s books.

At first, I was a little bit nervous about it. But after a while, I felt like it was legitimate. The book has been looked over and corrected by 25-30 people who helped weed out some of those mistakes too.

[00:12:07] Tenzin Chogkyi: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I remember when I first started doing the compassion training and one mutual friend of ours, who’s a Buddhist teacher said, Oh, aren’t you watering down Buddhism, and I had to explain that I was very clear in that training, what was Buddhism and what wasn’t. There are ultimate transcendent goals that we don’t talk about in that training, we’re just using the contemplative techniques to help people be more compassionate, which is a different endgame.

Being very clear about what the endgame because I think sometimes Buddhist teachers can water things down and take out the hard bits that are hard for people to grapple with. One question I have for you, because this is something I think about a lot myself is, how much of these things that were taught very literally in our tradition are actually pointing to something more figurative? I remember the Tibetan nun, Venerable Tsenla, once saying to me, You Westerners are so literal-minded, you take everything so literally. I’m like, Wait, are you telling me all these things that you’ve been teaching are not meant to be taken literally? She was like, Oh my God.

I kind of mull over that, like What is pointing to something? Is enlightenment really this state where you have countless emanation bodies and all of these transcendent states of mind, or is it pointing to something more figurative?

Is enlightenment really this state where you have countless emanation bodies and all of these transcendent states of mind, or is it pointing to something more figurative?

Enlightenment and the nature of reality

rainbow art nature enlightenment

[00:13:38] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the literal slant in our culture is kind of ridiculous now. In the Sistine Chapel you have this picture of God, a muscly white guy. I guarantee you nobody of that time thought God was a muscly white guy. Every single person looking at that painting understood that it was a metaphor, because we have bodies, we relate to bodies, and the white people looking up at that ceiling at the time related to that as a symbol of God.

Nobody thought God really looked like that. Today, for some reason, even though people don’t believe in God, they think that God looked like a muscly white guy, but it’s just a metaphor for the time. There’s another quote, I think Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he said, “As long as you call yourself a Buddhist, you are not yet a Buddha.” This is one of my favorite quotes, there’s a lot of people in this audience who call ourselves Buddhists.

Today, for some reason, even though people don’t believe in God, they think that God looked like a muscly white guy, but it’s just a metaphor for the time.

If we ever really want to attain enlightenment, we’ll have to let go of the idea that we’re Buddhists, too. I find that very encouraging, too, like the word Buddhism is a duality because it then differentiates between a non-Buddhist. But the Buddha didn’t call his teachings Buddhism. That would have been pretty egotistic. He just called it the Dharma, the truth, and test it for yourself. It is a bit of a shame it’s called Buddhism, despite how much I admire the Buddha. It really should be called something like Reality.

It is a bit of a shame it’s called Buddhism, despite how much I admire the Buddha. It really should be called something like Reality.

[00:15:09] Tenzin Chogkyi: Right, that metaphor that’s often given is like, you use the boat to cross the river, but once you’re on the other shore, you don’t pick up the boat and keep carrying it along. You just let it go. Some of these ideas are hard for people to accept, like rebirth in different realms of existence. Some teachers teach them as sort of metaphors for states of mind in the human existence. Even enlightenment is taught in some traditions quite differently.

[00:15:44] Scott Snibbe: There’s a quote I put in the book, which I heard when I was in college and I love it, it was Voltaire. He said, It’s no more surprising to be born twice than born once. That’s the thing we’re all totally clueless about. It’s so much more amazing that we exist at all this one time than more than once. In many ways, living as beings that don’t believe in past and future lives, our life is way more precious and urgent than for a Buddhist who could think, Okay, maybe next time.

I know Buddhists like that, who are like, Okay, next life. They’re like, I’ll do my prayers and then next life I’ll be a monk or nun or something like that. Most people who aren’t Buddhists don’t have that option, so you’ve got to do something. There’s another great quote that I put in the book, Gottfried Leibniz, said, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is analytical meditation, there’s questions like this every single day when you wake up. When I was a kid, I used to wake up with that kind of feeling, like, Whoa, why is there something here at all? That’s the bigger question. Everyone gets into little mincing, mincing this and that, are there other planets with life and so on? Why is there anything at all? Why is there this planet with us?

Because we have this idea of nothing. It’s why people get so depressed a lot because they have nihilistic thoughts. That you can become nothing. But Robert Thurman is very clear on this point. Where he says, The definition of nothing is that it doesn’t exist. If you think you become nothing when you die, what does that mean? It’s a self-negating term. It just means something that doesn’t exist. Something can’t become nothing. It doesn’t mean that your consciousness will evolve necessarily if you don’t believe that, but you certainly don’t become nothing because nothing doesn’t exist. All we have is something.

The power of analytical meditation

[00:17:40] Tenzin Chogkyi: Exactly, you’ve mentioned a couple of times analytical meditation, which is something very much practiced in the Tibetan tradition. Like you, when I discovered kind of the concept of neuroplasticity, I just loved it because it explained how analytical meditation works. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that style of meditation because it’s quite different. So many people are used to mindfulness meditation, but I find analytical meditation is a little more of a rare style.

[00:18:21] Scott Snibbe: This is another place where we’ve had this tradition for at least 1,500 years, analytical meditation. Most people only know of one type of meditation, which we call stabilizing meditation. You might call mindfulness meditation, where you just focus your mind on one thing, usually your breath. The purpose of that is to build concentration and to become less reactive, to let things pass through your mind.

Analytical meditation is something most people haven’t heard of and it’s like a podcast you make for yourself in your head. It’s a series of thoughts, feelings, and emotions; it’s a story you tell yourself to bring about your best qualities. That’s the purpose of meditation. It’s quite active and much easier for people to focus on.

I like to say that no one ever walked out of my one-hour meditation classes, which is kind of amazing. People can sit there and listen to a story or tell themselves a story, it’s much easier than trying to focus on their breath. It’s very creative, also. It’s kind of like how jazz musicians have a kind of template, and then they riff on that. It’s the same thing. That’s part of why I was encouraged to do this, because my teachers and the tradition say, learn the outlines, which are quite sparse, and then fill in the details, from your own life, your own experience, and so on.

That’s analytical meditation, it uses thoughts, feelings, emotions, and critical thinking also being very critical with thoughts. Does this thought lead to better states of mind? Does this thought lead to more disturbing states of mind?

The beauty of it is that this system that was validated subjectively over a couple thousand years also has now a scientific validation from the principle of neuroplasticity. We used to think that only kids had brains that changed, and then it got fixed at a certain age, like when you’re 25, and you can start renting a car.

Now they found out that we’re neuroplastic until the last day of our death, and that every single time you have a thought, it strengthens those neural connections. It’ll make you pause because the more you have a disturbing, craving, aggressive, or depressing thought, those do become habits and patterns in your mind.

I’m not saying it’s not okay to have those thoughts, it’s fine. But each of the thoughts we have reinforces it. Cultivating ones that steer our mind toward what we call “virtue” in Buddhism, but you could say happiness, satisfaction, that’s analytical meditation and it’s been validated through neuroscience, positive psychology. Psychology, until 20 years ago, only focused on problems, which was interesting. It only focused on negative states of mind. Now there’s a positive psychology.

There’s also something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which I bet some people here have practiced, which is exactly the same thing. They teach you to look objectively at your thoughts, try to see how some of them might be exaggerated, and then deliberately cultivate a thought that counteracts that feeling to bring you back to some state of balance, a healthy state of mind, and even a very positive state of happiness, joy.

[00:21:40] Tenzin Chogkyi: One of my teachers would laugh and say, We’re doing analytical meditation all the time to increase qualities like our anger. Somebody does something that harms you and what do you do? You think about it and mull over it and replay it in your head and think of all of these reasons why you’re right and they’re wrong and you’re such a victim. We’re doing that all the time. Just do it with the right kind of meditation instead of increasing the qualities like anger, ruminate on compassion, kindness, and other positive qualities.

We’re doing analytical meditation all the time to increase qualities like our anger.

[00:22:20] Scott Snibbe: It proves that you’re able to concentrate. Because when you really want something, if you really want a partner, or if you really want a job, or you really want peace in the Middle East, you can think about that for hours. Without thinking about anything else, it’s quite encouraging. You can see you have the power to concentrate.

Then it’s a matter of learning what are the thoughts that actually make your life happier, make you more an effective advocate or activist. I’m not trying to say this is like a Pollyanna path, where you’re just la la skipping and happy while bombs are falling halfway across the world.

It actually makes you more effective at fighting problems in the world because you’re not overwhelmed by negative emotions like anger, depression, despair. Analytical meditation, the whole purpose of the Buddhist path is just to align your mind with reality. These things are happening. All of these things are happening in the world right now. We cannot deny that. But how can I be some small cause for a positive change?

All of these things are happening in the world right now. We cannot deny that. But how can I be some small cause for a positive change?

Meditating for the wrong reasons and spiritual bypass

spiritual bypass man in business suit meditating

[00:23:22] Tenzin Chogkyi: That brings me to another thing you talk about in the book. You have a whole section called Meditating for the Wrong Reasons. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that attitude and what we sometimes call like a spiritual bypass and how we can use meditation as a sort of escapism.

[00:23:39] Scott Snibbe: Every time I teach meditation at Gyuto, someone’s there who hasn’t taken meditation. One of the very first thing I say is, Meditation isn’t relaxing. I’m so sorry. If you come to meditation for relaxation, then you start to compare it with all the other ways you could relax, like going for a nice walk, having a drink, smoking a joint, or watching Netflix. It doesn’t compare well to those things in terms of relaxing. Those other things are more relaxing than meditation for many people, let’s be honest.

If you come to meditation for relaxation, then you start to compare it with all the other ways you could relax, like going for a nice walk, having a drink, smoking a joint, or watching Netflix. It doesn’t compare well to those things in terms of relaxing.

That’s not the purpose, but all those five things I listed after meditation, they don’t bring out your best qualities. They don’t make you your best self. That’s the purpose of meditation, and it’s just like exercise. Most people don’t go to exercise because they just love it. It’s because it makes them healthy and it makes their mind feel better for the rest of the day and it’s going to make them live another 25 years. That’s part one, meditation isn’t relaxing.

Then, once you do meditate, there is a thing that I experienced myself, it’s a great new term that I think never existed in Tibetan or Indian culture, “spiritual bypass,” which is using meditation almost like a drug. It’s a way of allowing your life to continue in a harmful way, but having a meditation practice that just balances it out.

The way I think you can tell whether your meditation is a bypass is that you have a meditation session, you think it’s so great, I had an amazing vision and I’m so relaxed and calm. Then I come down, you have a fight with your partner, and I’m speaking from personal experience. I once asked Venerable Sangye Khadro, “How do you measure the success of your meditation?” She didn’t say, Oh, it’s how long you can concentrate or how you have certain lights or visions. She said, It’s if your relationships get better.

That’s really critical. I think that’s the honest measure of meditation. It’s kind of shocking for a lot of people when they hear it, it certainly was for me.

[00:25:53] Tenzin Chogkyi: One of the founding faculty of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training, Leah Weiss, works as a consultant and a meditation teacher for companies. But she won’t take a contract if she feels like the company wants her to teach the employees meditation so they can maintain completely unsustainable lifestyles and just work 80 hours a week because they’re having three 15 minute breaks a day to meditate so that they can stay productive. She’s like, No, that’s not the reason for it.

You need to give people a reasonable life and hours and not expect them to work crazy days. I think there’s an ethical piece that often, some of the critiques of the mindfulness movement is they don’t explicitly name that ethical piece, and a lot of teachers are talking about that now too, that it needs to be brought more explicitly into the conversation.

[00:26:55] Scott Snibbe: There’s a path that’s recommended for people who aren’t monastics. There’s all these numbered lists in Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, but there’s ethics, concentration, and wisdom is this path that’s recommended for lay people. But those come in order. It says you cannot concentrate if you live an unethical life, even in small ways. I say from my own experience. If you go around saying harmful, rude, passive aggressive things, it’s like your mind’s agitated. You can’t sleep, your relationships aren’t good. You certainly can’t meditate. Those things come back.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama even said he doesn’t have it yet, which kind of blew my mind. I don’t know if he was saying that just to make us feel better, but that was surprising.

Guilt and self-forgiveness

[00:27:40] Tenzin Chogkyi: What you just said about ethics reminds me of a Theravadan monk I heard once use a phrase, “the bliss of blamelessness” and trust me, I am a veteran of sitting down to meditate and having a mind filled with regret that I’ve treated people badly or done some actions of harm. Then that becomes the meditation, the regret and not having this peaceful mind. I’ve really seen it from my own standpoint, kind of the mental cause and effect, I’d love for you to talk more about that.

[00:28:12] Scott Snibbe: Well, the Buddhist view is more like karmic seeds. In the mental cause and effect, it’s more just this acknowledgment that we have now from neuroscience and psychology that positive ways of thinking lead to more positive states of mind, and negative leads to more negative states of mind.

The bigger thing that I do in that chapter is more how to deal with when we do negative things, because I still regret the things I’ve done to hurt people. I remember something I said to a kid in sixth grade by accident, that I still really regret. In that chapter, one of the biggest things I focus on is more like how to forgive yourself. Because if you don’t forgive yourself, then you actually keep being mean to other people around you too. It’s a real nightmare, so you really do need to do that.

Because if you don’t forgive yourself, then you actually keep being mean to other people around you too.

I bring in a practice from Tibetan Buddhism with visualization, but without a kind of deity, where the first part is thinking about all the good things you did today. Because everybody does more good things than, well, just about everybody—everybody in this room for sure—does more good things than bad every single day. So that rejoicing, they say this is like the laziest meditation you can possibly do and has so much benefit.

You don’t even have to sit cross-legged, just kick back on a couch. When you come home, you’re tired, think, what are the good things? I made breakfast for my daughter, we told a joke, we gave a nice talk at a bookstore. Just think through there’s so many basic good things that we all do every day. Build that up huge in your mind and then go through a couple of negative ones and forgive yourself.

It’s much more practical, because you can’t do anything about the past, obviously. This is not like the most esoteric Buddhist teaching. We can’t do anything up to right now. The beauty of the Buddhist path is that it says people are fundamentally good, and we can debate this if anyone has that in question, but it says people are fundamentally good.

[00:30:20] Tenzin Chogkyi: I always make a joke that you think you’re a really nice person until you go into solitary confinement with your mind for years. About six months into this long retreat, I was just completely overwhelmed with remorse. This was like three days of every regret, including second grade and everything. I was just like, I am just the most horrible, terrible person.

Then I almost heard this voice in my head going, You just need to forgive yourself and just accept that you weren’t perfect. Big surprise. The Buddha said, No, we’re a work in progress. The self-forgiveness and just kind of allowing myself to rejoicing over the good deeds because it was so hard to do that too.

We have this negativity bias. We’re always focusing on the negative, including ourselves, and there’s a student from Tse Chen Ling, Leopoldo, he grew up in Mexico and said when he was a kid he’d go into the confessional with the priest and would rack his brains thinking of things to confess and it’s like I pulled my little sister’s pigtails, is that bad enough? He was just a kid.

Then he said, How wonderful would it have been to have a rejoicinal right next to the confessional? I could have told the priest all the great things that I did. He was like, that would have created such a different mind when I was a little kid. If I was all excited to tell the priest all the really awesome things that I did, too. I helped my little sister with her homework more times than I pulled her pigtails. It’s that bias we have on the negative and it’s really hard to shift that for us sometimes.

How wonderful would it have been to have a rejoicinal right next to the confessional?

[00:32:10] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and it’s really unclear. We know so much more about trauma now, and asking people to talk through a traumatic experience they had is, in general, the worst thing you can do for some, you don’t want them to relive that trauma. You need ways to process it, and I don’t talk about that much in the book. But you do need to somehow build a more constructive mind and start with the self-forgiveness, just accepting.

The future of Buddhism as a religion

buddhist art

[00:32:40] Tenzin Chogkyi: Your task in this book, and in your life, of kind of reframing some of the most traditional Buddhist teachings through this sort of psychological and scientific lens reminds me of an essay that I read long ago that was talking about the spread of Buddhism from the Ganges Valley in northern India through the various Asian countries where it spread. This person was saying every time it kind of spread to a new country, it took on a different flavor.

When I read that essay, I was thinking about Buddhism being transmitted to the so-called West. I don’t really like that term, but kind of Europe and non-Asian countries. I thought, our worldview isn’t even Christianity or Judaism, it’s really psychology and science. But it made me think, what do you think as the future of Buddhism as a religious tradition?

Our worldview isn’t even Christianity or Judaism, it’s really psychology and science.

[00:33:39] Scott Snibbe: I don’t even know what to say about the word religion. It’s just about living a meaningful, purposeful, good life. Until very recently, about whatever, 200-300 years ago, there were only religions and you had to choose one and you were born into one.

Now most people aren’t religious in the United States. I don’t know what I would even say about that word. I really like this idea, as long as you call yourself a Buddhist, you’re not yet a Buddha. Get practical about what we can do in our lives. I heard someone ask the Dalai Lama once, How can you say that your goal is peace on earth, that’s ridiculous. I’ve heard him asked this many times actually.

I really like this idea, as long as you call yourself a Buddhist, you’re not yet a Buddha. Get practical about what we can do in our lives.

He always says the same thing. He says, You know what? You’re right. He said, We’re not going to end wars, it’s not realistic. But if you have the ideal of peace on earth, then you’re going to get as far toward that ideal in your life as possible, much further than someone who has a weaker goal, like peace in San Francisco or none at all. Which sadly most of us have no goal at all. We just give up and say it’s impossible.

[00:34:53] Tenzin Chogkyi: Especially this year, with all the things that are going on, the conflicts, the presidential race that are between two people it’s hard for us to get excited about either one just to be honest what keeps you kind of getting out of bed in the morning and doing the work you do.

[00:35:16] Scott Snibbe: I did a long retreat at home in January and I had this feeling at a certain point during the retreat where—it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to feel it, and I really felt it that everything up to this moment right now had to be this way. It’s tautological, right? Of course it did. Everything from the Middle East, Ukraine, conflicts in our own life, divorces, etc.

There’s no way things could have been any other than the way they led up to this very moment. So much of our pain comes from actually reeling against that. And just wishing, If I’d only done that or why did that happen? Why me? Why this? How could they be doing that? How could they be dropping their bombs?

They did it. It happened. We cannot change everything up to this moment. But then the hopeful part, everyone around me has an infinite capacity to change the world for the better and ourselves for the better. The demonstrated ability of individuals to have such enormous impact in the world, like look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, it’s not to say you have to do something huge.

Navalny said, “There’s no fault in doing little, only in doing none.” Doing nothing, right? I love that. That’s another new mantra for me.

[00:36:42] Tenzin Chogkyi: Absolutely, I notice sometimes working with students, they almost get overwhelmed before they take the first step, because they think they need to start a new 501c3 nonprofit to solve some huge problem. I had a friend who was a Zen monk in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, and he would go from bedside to bedside helping people who were dying of AIDS, who didn’t have caregivers. I remember once he said to me, It’s so easy, somebody just trips and falls in front of you, you just stop and pick them up. That’s all. We think it needs to be so big that we don’t do the little actions that collectively will lead to massive change.

I have a memory of hiding under the desks as a school child in the midst of the Cold War. Then, the Soviet Union, which seemed monolithic and permanent, just sort of dissolved from within. It couldn’t sustain itself. Spending the 80s protesting against apartheid in South Africa, and then going to the Oakland Coliseum to see Nelson Mandela when he was released. Just seeing that change, and it happens through so many people doing the small thing, and not the nothing, and having faith in it.

[00:38:03] Scott Snibbe: That is one of the things that gives me hope, many of us here in 1989, we just woke up and boom, the Berlin Wall fell. But also looking back in history, most of my ancestors are Jewish. We had the Holocaust. We were fighting the Germans. Now the Germans are our closest ally, so it is possible. There is hope, change is possible.

Audience questions

medicine for nightmares bookstore san francisco

[00:38:23] Tenzin Chogkyi: Well, lets open it up for questions, but I just want to really thank you for the work that you’re doing. I’m going to buy a case of your books and give it to everybody that I know. I think it’s just wonderful, super accessible, and there hasn’t been one like that that’s come out in a long time that just explains the path in such a clear way. Thank you for all the effort you put into it.

[00:38:50] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, you’re one of my favorite people to talk to, so this was really fun.

[00:39:00] Audience: I had a question about gratitude, I noticed in my experience that a lot of people have a hard time reflecting on the good that they’ve done, but seeing the good that’s been done for them, they seem to have an easier time with. What are your thoughts on gratitude as a reflection?

[00:39:26] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, where does gratitude fit into the path? Where I put it in this particular reframing of the lamrim, it was mostly in that cause and effect. You start just with yourself in the cause and effect, and rejoice in everything good that you did, and everything good that happened to you. Then later, when you get to the compassion topics, rejoicing in all the good of everything that happened to you.

When you do this rejoicing meditation, you do it for everybody. It’s funny in Tibetan Buddhism because they have this kind of spiritual math where they say if you rejoice in something of a person who is of inferior ability to you, like Vladimir Putin, then you get twice their merit than if you rejoice in someone of equal value to you. If you rejoice in the good of somebody superior to you, like the Dalai Lama, you get half the merit. And I do that, I’ll sit at home and think, Wow, what did the Dalai Lama do today? Good for him.

In Tibetan Buddhism, they say there’s this kind of accounting, like a big balance sheet of accounting. But it works through neuroplasticity, you don’t have to believe in the giant Excel sheet in the sky. It does just work through habituation, and the more you think about the good things the Dalai Lama did, eventually you start to do similar ones. Gratitude, is one of the scientifically validated practices, but I think it comes in cause and effect, love, and compassion.

Audience member: What do you have to say about practices like purification?

[00:41:15] Scott Snibbe: I talk about this in the book because I do go through the meditation in a secular version that still use some visualization. You use a bright white light and you imagine this light filling your body and getting rid of the negativities, regrets, illness, and things like that.

What I say about this is that it may seem kind of new age, airy fairy, to think of light purifying you. But when you actually think about it, everything we experience is electromagnetic radiation. It’s not like some weird living light like you see in a Marvel movie or something like that. Everything actually is light, when you look at quantum physics. I interviewed Carlo Rovelli, an amazing physicist, and he said, when you look at the math of quantum mechanics, there’s a message, but there’s no sender and no receiver. That’s really what life is, what we are experiencing now is only light.

That’s really what life is, what we are experiencing now is only light.

The main thing about the natural world is that we are part of it. We talk about reconnecting with nature or going to nature. But I think the biggest problem is that people think that we’re not part of nature, but we are. We are absolutely part of nature. That’s why the only way we can harm our environment so much is by thinking it’s separate from us. That idea of interdependence is the universal antidote.

That’s why the only way we can harm our environment so much is by thinking it’s separate from us.

In Buddhism, it comes late on the path. Nothing else they say actually really works except that antidote of eliminating dualistic thinking. Moving towards an utter sense of absolute interconnectedness that is not at all supernatural.

I find the scientific validation way more powerful than the logical or philosophical, because we know so much about science, our bodies, the natural world, cosmic evolution, that all the heavy elements in us came from exploding stars—we’re all made of supernovas that happened more than 4 billion years ago. If you actually felt that all the time, there’s no way you could, but all kinds of things just wouldn’t make sense anymore.

[00:44:05] Tenzin Chogkyi: There’s an interfaith climate justice group that I’ve become involved in Santa Cruz. It was started in Jewish communities, and we made it interfaith in Santa Cruz. It’s called Dayenu, and we’re having an interfaith service during Earth Week, and I was sharing with the other faith leaders all the significant events in the Buddha’s life happened under a tree.

That’s not an accident. That points to that same kind of connection. It’s not just, There were trees all over the place. It’s a specific tree that was involved in every single major event in the Buddha’s life. I find that interesting to contemplate.

[00:44:48] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, if you ever read the Overstory, it’s a beautiful novel about that and he talks about all the science behind why we like being in nature. Because why do you feel good in nature? It’s actually not just what you see and hear, the trees actually have chemicals that they out gas that make you feel good. They’re drugs because the trees are communicating with us. Again, not in an airy fairy way, but just through chemicals that make you feel good.

[00:45:18] Tenzin Chogkyi: My friend, Eve Eckman, who teaches right across the street at the Dharma Collective, and she shared research with me recently that there’s been research done that different things happen to us physiologically, especially when we’re in biodiverse wild nature versus even walking in a park or a botanical garden. We get soothed in all of this, things happen physiologically just being in any kind of nature, but especially biodiverse nature. There’s a huge difference because that’s how we evolved. I find that compelling.

[00:45:54] Scott Snibbe: My friend Renée says the reason we like nature is because there’s no objects of attachment. There’s not a pair of jeans you want to buy or something hanging on a branch. You just feel at ease and you don’t want to take any of it away. Although I have a garden, sometimes I feel like I wish I could pull up that plant, but in general you’re just happy.

Audience member: What does art have to do with all this?

[00:46:35] Scott Snibbe: There’s a lot of different takes in art from the Buddhist path. I’ll just answer it more personally, which is, I really like the idea that art is a way for society to reflect itself to itself. It’s amazing when you go to a museum, like I was at the British Museum recently in London. It’s amazing that that’s all that really survives, that we value from an entire civilization. Few leaders are even remembered, but the art, this jug that somebody made, or painting, and that it preserves the beauty and richness of the cultures.

I really like the idea that art is a way for society to reflect itself to itself.

That’s what I think about art, whether it’s a song, dance performance, or book. At first when I wrote this book, I thought it was more service oriented, because I was trying to write a novel and I thought that was really the art. But as this finally got to its later stages, I really did become proud of the craft of the sentences and the artistry. I felt like it was possible to infuse a nonfiction, self-help book with a level of artistry and entertainment. I like the word entertainment too, which is sort of valuing people’s time. If you’re entertaining them about something useful, making it worthwhile, making it fun to read.

We can talk about art for a long time, but that’s all I have to say.

[00:48:02] Tenzin Chogkyi: Thank you all so much for coming today, it’s great to be here with you.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe

Produced by Annie Ngyen

Marketing by Isabela Acebal


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