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Esoteric and Everyday Buddhism with Ben Connelly

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Soto Zen Teacher Ben Connelly joins us to explore the relationship between science and reality, whether karma really exists, and how to be a Buddhist activist while remaining unattached to “winning.” In the process, Ben teaches us about the ancient Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu and what the Yogacara school of Buddhism teaches us about taming our minds.

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[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: I had a wonderful conversation recently with author and Zen teacher Ben Connelly whose books have had a powerful influence in my life. It’s rare that a Buddhist teacher is able to affect us at a practical level, like how to deal with your anger in the heat of a fight with your partner, and how to understand the subtlest levels of reality and the nature of our consciousness. Ben manages to do both in his teaching and in his writing.

Ben Connelly Bio

Ben Connelly is a Soto Zen teacher and Dharma heir in the Katagiri lineage. He also provides secular mindfulness training in a wide variety of contexts including police training, correctional facilities, and addiction recovery. Ben’s books include Mindfulness & Intimacy, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara, and Inside the Grass Hut. Ben is based at Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, where I spoke with him over a video call.

Ben Connelly on the Esoteric and the Everyday in Buddhism

Scott Snibbe: Ben, thank you so much for joining me on A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment today. Your book, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara, has a title that might sound a little esoteric to people but it had a profound impact on how I live my everyday life, believe it or not. So I’m excited to speak to you today about some of the practical ideas that you shared in the book about the nature of mind and how to steer our minds in the most beneficial direction we can. 

[00:02:00] Ben Connelly: I love talking about this. I’m interested in it because it’s been transformative for me and people that I know. So yeah, thank you for having me.

[00:02:09] Scott Snibbe: I think we’ll start with the obvious question. Who was Vasubandhu and what is Yogacara? And why did you want to write about it? 

Who was Vasubandhu?

[00:02:17] Ben Connelly: Yeah. I’ll start with Vasubandhu. So Vasubandhu was a fifth century, approximately, Indian Buddhist monk. And he started off his life in what would now be considered the early Buddhist tradition. So more closely associated with contemporary Theravada Buddhism. And he became one of the most renowned masters in the world of that tradition.

He wrote something called the Abhidharmakosha, which is still the standard study text for Buddhist psychology in Tibetan and many other east Asian monastic traditions, 1500 years later. 

And at the time people were all already like, Oh my goodness, you have created the most comprehensive summation. This is amazing!

So he did that. And then he kept practicing and, basically, his views changed. He  subsequently wrote a commentary on his own book, the Abhidharmakosha. That commentary was a critique of his own work that was, like, Wait a minute, that doesn’t really make sense.

I love this about Vasubandhu. This wasn’t a person who thought, Oh, I’ve got it figured out. Can you imagine? Everyone thinks you’re totally the greatest in your discipline. And then you say, But I think I got it wrong. That’s how I want to live. That’s really inspiring to me. 

But he went on to—the language we use now is that he converted to Mahayana Buddhism—I don’t know exactly what that means. But his teachings became associated with the vision of universal liberation and in particular with the Yogacara movement within Mahayana. 

What is Yogacara?

So Yogacara just means yoga practice, where “yoga” means to join or unite, bringing things together. It was a movement within the Mahayana to try and integrate early Buddhist psychology with what you might say are the more mystical, or you could say the nondual teachings of Mahayana. 

Yogacara is about uniting or bringing those together so that they can work together because there was actually a lot of—there still are—all kinds of arguments about who’s right or wrong and which one’s better.

Vasubandhu is willing to make arguments, but generally speaking, his vision is bringing these together so they can work together more effectively. 

Yogacara was really influential during its time. It was a huge prominent school of Buddhism. Today, there’s almost no one who would say they are an adherent of the Yogacara school, except for the Hossō school in Japan, which is pretty small. But if you read any kind of East Asian or Tibetan Buddhism, you will be taking in countless Yogacara ideas and teachings because they just embedded themselves in the tradition.

Karma, Science and Reality

[00:04:55] Scott Snibbe: One of the things that struck me about the book is the way you talk about karma, because you say something quite profound about this text, you say except in one small place, the entire text never resorts to supernatural explanations of reality.

And when you talk about karma, you have this great quote. You say, “Karma doesn’t make rain. It makes smiles and frowns. It makes hugs and fists.” So can you explain what karma means in this text? How we practically use this idea of karma in everyday life? Because I think a lot of us do think that karma means more like we got the parking spot because of karma or we got cancer because of karma. 

[00:05:36] Ben Connelly: Yeah, I don’t know what exactly I was thinking when I wrote that. I might argue now that karma makes rain. You know, karma in Buddhism, one of the revolutionary turns in the early Buddhist, in all Buddhist traditions, was to shift from an idea of karma that says, Because you have this karma, you need to do this. It radically shifts it. And it says, Because you have karma, you’re experiencing this now and you have choice that will create karma. 

That is the big fundamental twist within Buddhism. Yogacara wants to really affirm that, because it affirms karma is about empowerment, about recognizing that what we do always matters.

We’re constantly doing things that affect how the world will be experienced. And if you look at some Mahayana teachings, sometimes it gets a little confusing how karma could work, because they’re talking about emptiness so much. Not to say that emptiness teachings aren’t really helpful, but Yogacara really wants to emphasize that all of our emotional, physical, perceptual, or cognitive acts—which are happening at a rate of like millions per second—they are planting seeds or creating the conditions for which we will perceive, feel, think and act in the future. Which is why I wanted to emphasize “like fists and smiles.”

But since rain is a perceptual phenomenon, I might argue that rain, you know, does a raindrop know it’s rain? Human beings think it’s rain. But I don’t know what it is, outside of our ideas about it.

[00:07:16] Scott Snibbe: This question has fascinated me over the years, because there are differences of point of view in different Buddhist schools. In one of the Dalai Lama’s recent books, he said a similar thing. He said that all of physical reality unfolds through physics, but that our psychological reality is controlled by karma: like the urges that we have, and then it’s our choice on how to act on them and maybe how to steer them. 

[00:07:41] Ben Connelly: I would take a more radically Yogacara position from my own personal view, which is basically that physics and all science occurs only as experienced by human beings. So there is no such thing as a physics outside of the experience of physics. Schrodinger put this well, the great Nobel-winning physicist, when he said, “The reason man’s—”; sorry to be gender specific, that’s the quote. “The reason man’s sentient, percipient thinking ego is met nowhere within the world picture of science is that it is the whole of that world picture.”

So you can’t have science outside of the frame of the mind. Yogacara’s just talking about how we only experience things the way we do. 

And so the thing is people will say that sounds like it’s denying the importance of science. No, it says science is really important because we’re doing it. It’s something we do as actional, as emotional, as cognitive, and as perceptual. 

And so the question becomes, Are we doing science because we’re motivated by, we want to help everyone be free, and we want to do science in a way that is conducive to the liberation of all beings? We’re not. Because making nuclear weapons and a lot of the stuff that we make using science doesn’t seem all that helpful to me.

[00:09:01] Scott Snibbe: There are a few great thinkers—David Deutsch comes to mind—who emphasized that science is part of reality, science is made of the same things as the rest of reality. Science isn’t something that’s separate from what it’s observing, which I think resonates with what you’re saying. 

[00:09:17] Ben Connelly: Yes. By the way, I think the Dalai Lama is smart, so you can listen to what I’m saying and think, Sure, that’s what that guy’s saying, but maybe I should listen to the Dalai Lama

[00:09:27] Scott Snibbe: Something else I was really struck by in the Vasubandhu text, and also your commentary, is the humility of saying, basically we don’t know what karma is or where it’s stored. And that again is also very different from the Tibetan school that I learned, which maybe is still a little bit mysterious, but also more certain on some points. Can you talk about this humility and uncertainty approach to thinking about karma?

[00:09:54] Ben Connelly: Aren’t humility and uncertainty valuable? We look at the amount of human suffering that is created by certainties and by the arrogance that arises from them, so it’s a really important thing. 

If I just refer to Vasubandhu’s teachings on Yogacara, which evolved quite a bit, he gives a model of consciousness where he says there’s an aspect of consciousness, the alaya where, which is kind of a process or the locus of the processing of conditioning. 

Vasubandhu. Source Unknown. Credit: Lion’s Roar

And you can’t actually see that place. It’s not like you lift up the hood and you’re like, Oh, I’ll just take out this part and put in that part. There’s something happening, but we don’t really know. So one, that opens us up to some humility because it’s like I’m arriving in this moment. If I’m being really grumpy or really calm, the amount of conditioning that’s produced it is unimaginable, or as the Buddha often says, without discoverable beginning. That helps me to be like I don’t really know.

Even when we’re given the map of how karma works within Yogacara, it’s framed in a way that its intention is to help us be humble about how we’re arriving and perceiving things. But it’s also true that it takes a little digging to realize that the idea that karma even actually exists is provisional. It’s just a way of talking about things. In late Yogacara, in the Lankavatara Sutra, we have the amazing line, they line up the whole model of consciousness of Yogacara with eight types of consciousness. Which is really an explanation for how karma creates our experience. And then it says, “But karma isn’t real.” That’s the Buddha speaking in the text, although it’s just a story.

The Lankavatara Sutra says, “But karma isn’t real. We just teach it because people are confused.”

I was just teaching a class on this and someone was really annoyed. But the point is, a map isn’t the real thing. But it’s helpful to have a map. So we hold both those views.

Yogacara presents a way of understanding the world that we hope can be conducive to people being more free from suffering and from healing patterns of harm. But I don’t want to get into a position where anyone thinks I know the answer. Because a lot of people have different answers and I don’t want to sit around and try and dominate them. I don’t think that’s conducive to healing and liberation.

[00:12:14] Scott Snibbe: In the nightly purification practice we do in our tradition, at the very end of it, they say, you know, in emptiness, there is no karma created, no action, no objects of karma.

[00:12:25] Ben Connelly: Yes. 

[00:12:26] Scott Snibbe: But it’s hard to understand what that means, exactly.

[00:12:31] Ben Connelly: If there aren’t actual things, because things only appear to be things, distinct objects, because of the way we think about them. So there’s some kind of flux happening and because of the tendencies of our minds, we pick them out and say, Oh, this is a moment which is separate from other moments. That’s arbitrary, just because of the way our consciousness seems to experience in moments, then we think, Oh, there must be moments!

That’s like if you’re a human being and you don’t believe that dogs can hear things that you can’t hear. In the same way, we perceive, Oh, there are moments and there’s space, aligned in these ways with up and down and forward and back. And there are distances within it. And me sitting in the middle of all of it. Wow. I must be important or necessary to defend. 

I don’t know how it would somehow transcendently go beyond that thing. The problem is, when I say that, it’s very hard to hold a non-dual position. So you go, Oh shoot! Everything’s empty. It doesn’t matter, blah, blah, blah. No. The only reason that all those things can appear to be the way they are and all my suffering can occur as a result of them, is because they’re empty. So there’s a place for me to impute all this stuff. There has to be emptiness for there to be anything to happen. The only way anything can occur is because it’s empty. That’s the basic teaching of the doctrine. 

[00:14:12] Scott Snibbe: I really like the way you put that, because you say karma doesn’t exist in the same way that a meter or a second doesn’t exist. It’s not that they aren’t useful and practical. It’s not as if you stop believing in a second and suddenly you have all the time in the world. That’s a really helpful the way you put it, actually that in the world of concepts, it’s not that the concept doesn’t exist. It’s just the way that it exists is provisional, labeled, dependent. 

Why don’t we go a little more into emptiness, because you talk about how our division of things into self and other, this process of self-centering, is a big source of our mental troubles; you know, where suffering comes from in Buddhism. 

Emptiness and Consciousness

In Vasubandhu’s very first verse it talks about how neither the self nor the other is consciousness, just like we were talking about, like karma and other concepts, that they’re merely conceptions occurring within the process of consciousness. Can you unpack that a little bit? What does it mean that self and other are both processes of consciousness? 

[00:15:10] Ben Connelly: Yeah. In the 30 verses it begins, “Everything conceived as self or other occurs in the process of consciousness or the transformation of consciousness.” In Sanskrit, the first two words are “atma dharma.” So that which appears to be some kind of self, and that which appears to be phenomenon, all that is just part of the process of consciousness. Of course, all these words are tricky and they’re not used consistently, even within the tradition.

So the word “vijnana,” which we translate as consciousness, is sometimes translated or used in different ways. For people who find this confusing, welcome to the club. It just is, it’s a confusing situation. Plus we’re trying to describe aspects of what it is to be alive that are really, when you look under the hood, it’s very weird.

It’s like when we teach people to walk really slowly in Zen, to do a really slow walking meditation. And you’re taking like five seconds to take one step. People will fall over, because once you look at something closely, it’s hard to do it, even though it’s automatic when you don’t think about it. 

And that’s why we’re doing this. Because being automatic is not working out for our planet. We have huge amounts of environmental destruction and oppressive systems that we need to pause and look at. The process is going to be painful and uncomfortable. So here Vasubandhu wants to look at, What are these things?

For example, right now it seems like I’m here experiencing something that’s a self. And then there’s a bunch of other stuff. There’s faces on the screen. There’s trees outside. And so by saying “transformation of consciousness,” probably the easiest way to think about this is as the totality of experience.

So consciousness sounds like one thing, but if we think of it as just experience there seems to be the experience of a self right now. And there seems to be the experience of some books on a shelf. And so, we’re calling all of that consciousness. So I don’t know if that gets us any closer to understanding, but I’m trying. 

[00:17:13] Scott Snibbe: There are a couple of metaphors that come up in the book. You talk about the metaphor of the water and the waves and the movie and the screen as ways of understanding the relationship of our mind to reality. The first time I heard these from was Robert Thurman. He said that whenever you’re watching a movie in a movie theater, you’re actually looking at a white screen; the whole time you’re looking at a white screen. But you forget, and you get caught up in that dream. Can you talk about that metaphor a little bit?

[00:17:40] Ben Connelly: I think I heard it from Shunryu Suzuki, who was my teacher’s teacher, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. I love movies. They’re awesome. It’s amazing that people can create them. Wow. The imagination and the collaboration. It’s incredible. And so you can go and it can be good.

Shunryu Suzuki
Shunryu Suzuki

I go to a movie and I can give myself to it and really feel and really connect with people because I’m feeling, Oh, that’s what this person’s suffering and joy looks like. That helps me to understand and connect with people, it’s necessary. But it is useful to also remember, Oh yeah, it’s just a screen. So that I don’t go to a movie that scares me and not sleep for three months.

The thing is, where do we want to be not caught by our belief in the story that’s constructed by our patterning, so that we can be a little more free? Because optimally, what I want to be able to do, from a Yogacara perspective, what liberation really looks like, it’s defined by Vasubandhu in the Mahayanasamgraha. He says, “This is abandoning affliction while not abandoning samsara.”

So the point is, we want to stay and watch the movie. We want to be there in this world where we’re sharing perceptions and emotions. And by now, the movie is like our life. It’s the whole thing, the whole shebang, billions of people’s experience of what’s projected on the screen of consciousness. It’s a big deal. 

This tradition says, Do not leave! We are choosing to stay here with everyone. But because we can learn that it’s on a white screen, we can be nonreactive within it. So it’s possible for me to show up fully, even when there’s a lot of intensity and difficult emotions for people and be like, I’m really here, I’m following the story. I care. I’m engaged. But I also know that this is all just based on how I’m perceiving it and you’re perceiving it. And so I don’t have to become so invested in my own emotional drives and need to protect myself.

[00:19:54] Scott Snibbe: And this isn’t detachment or not caring. It’s actually a way to be more engaged. Because you don’t get caught up with all the delusions of thinking things are quite as real as they seem. 

[00:20:04] Ben Connelly: Yeah. I would say my sense of this at this time is very much, definitely not like detachment or not caring. It’s the ability, really, and now we’re really focusing on this kind of emptiness side. So the part of Yogacara that talks about emotional intelligence might be where this is leading us. But the idea is, we want to be able to totally be there, where, when we’re presented with the phenomenon of human and animal suffering is, like, I’m not running away. I’m reading about this horrible environmental impact of this pipeline in my state and I’m not putting it down because I can’t deal. I’m able to totally read it. See, I care about these people. I care about these plants. I care about these animals. I care about the people who think we shouldn’t care about it. I care about all of them. And I’m not overwhelmed by my own reactivities. 

So the thing is, our emotional reactivities—this is going back to the karma side—if we do the emotional healing that Yogacara invites us into, that helps us slow down enough and see that screen. But when we’re overwhelmed by emotions, we usually can’t get to it.

The Power of Five Mental Aggregates in Cultivating Non-Reactivity

[00:21:15] Scott Snibbe: This actually gets to the part of the book that I think has impacted me most, which is you talk about a way — and it gets a little technical, and yet it’s so practical — because you talk about a way of slowing down your mind and observing these five processes of how things come into your mind. And then eventually you want to react to them as your life unfolds, you talk about a way to slow that down and pay attention. 

And it’s a little different than the one I learned. In our school of Buddhism, we more look at the five aggregates, which is a way of looking at both your body and your mind and discovering, Oh, I can’t find myself in any of them. 

But I liked the way that you presented and that Vasubandhu presents it here, that’s purely mental. And I found it much more powerful and practical because it’s really focusing on the psychological. Would you mind talking about that technique a little bit? 

[00:22:09] Ben Connelly: Yeah. Now, first I want to say there’s a very confusing thing about the use of the term “mind and consciousness” in Yogacara. Because since we’re trained in a mind-body split culture, it’s very hard to understand how, when I say “mind,” I don’t mean something other than your body. And so I want to stay with this for a minute because it’s actually the basis of the whole other five. It’s the first one. 

So, when we say things are mind-only or consciousness-only in this tradition, we say we don’t know anything outside of our knowing of it. So that is to say, like my body, I only know my body as my body, the sensations in it. If I’m touching my body right now with my hands, I think, Oh, I can feel this body.

The thing is, this tradition is trying to get us closer to the body, not farther away, because if you believe in a mind-body split, you think, I’m going to look at my body. You objectify the body. So the body is an absolute physical object, separate from your experience of it.

But this tradition is saying, What about just experiencing body and fully acknowledging its wholeness and completeness, moment to moment. And they call that “sense contact.” Some of this gets super technical. I probably don’t even understand half of it.

But anyway, we call it “sense contact,” which is just that moment where you’re breathing and you feel the skin of your belly. There’s a sensation there which, if we think about it would be like, Oh, that’s my belly pressing against my shirt. Those are a bunch of ideas. They’re just a vivid sensation there. Sense contact is just to feel that, and possibly see it, without the overlay of “That’s a shirt” and “That’s a body.” Sense contact is just that raw vivid moment of experience. And we call this “form.”

So these are all new, slightly different names for things that some of you might understand as the five aggregates. And there’s complex reasons for why they want to use these terms that I don’t want to get into. 

Anyway, slow down. You know, in Zen, like how much time am I going to listen to Zen people talk about hearing birds? Well, the reason is that we sit in the zendo and not much is happening. So we notice birds. It’s cool. We’re saying, Oh, I heard a bird, because we want to talk to each other. But there can be that moment where we realize, I’m not hearing a bird, there’s just a sense experience.

To slow down and do that requires—usually in my experience—talking to other people, actively bringing our attention into the senses, grounding awareness in the senses, and that what happens is that the sensations are there. And because we’re doing that, there’s an amazing moment where our mind isn’t dominating everything. And we start to get closer and more intimately near to our own embodied experience which we call “mind only,” not because it’s separate from mind but because it’s inseparable from everything. 

In any moment you can notice your attention is doing stuff. When I’m teaching meditation, people always say—because I teach it in a lot of halfway houses and places where people are really tough and they’ll say, “I just can’t concentrate. I can’t pay attention.”

Everyone is always paying attention to something. You can just notice like, Oh, my attention is moving around. That’s where it is. It’s listening to that bird, it heard the bird. And then it was like, Oh, my back hurts. And then it became completely absorbed in some thinking. 

So “thinking,” in this rubric, just refers to the fact that your mind is constantly labeling everything. Pause for a second and ask, What are all the things that my mind has labeled in this moment? Any color: that was labeled, probably. Your mind has differentiated up and down. It’s differentiated your position in the room. It’s differentiated the different sensations in your body. Like, you know your butt isn’t your head, hopefully. 

So millions of perceptual dharmas are occurring in every second. I’m not even going to claim you can see that. Maybe someone can, but at least you can have a little sense of it. Where you’ll sense it most is in the moment of its absence. So in that moment, where, for example, in Zen practice we face the wall for meditation and people have experiences where they don’t know it’s a wall. You’re just looking at a wall and then they forget that it’s a wall. When that happens, there’s been a brief cessation in the relentlessness of your perceptual imputations, and there’s just sense contact. And that changes how you experience the world.

What do you experience? Do you experience the sensation of seeing or is your mind perceiving and labeling?

I forgot sensation. So, sense contact, attention, sensation, perception. This one also, sensation, I usually don’t teach, it’s very hard to detect. This is the famous subtle sense that is occurring usually thousands of times per second: that things are positive, negative, or neutral. So you’re either, Oh, I like that, I don’t like that, or I don’t care about it. 

Volition, this is a really good one. Just noticing the impulse to act. This is a really great meditation practice. You gotta slow down a little bit because there’s a lot of them. It’s an action to be like, no, I’m going to notice my breath. I’m going to notice my breath with some intensity. In order to start a thought, there has to be a little volition in there. So it’s pretty subtle.

But we can slow down and start to just have a sense of all these processes occurring. And it just breaks up what seems like such a fixed, “I have to do this. I’m a dumb person. I’m smarter than everybody,” whatever your deal is. And it makes a little room for air to come in. 

[00:28:24] Scott Snibbe: I’ve tried to practice in the way you describe it. And I found it so useful. Almost like, if you fish, but you don’t want to kill the fish, you have this “catch and release” where you let the fish back. And I almost think of that—it’s that last part, I think that was so powerful, of trapping volition and stopping there, acknowledging that it’s there, your wish to act or say something or get angry or whatever, and then just letting it go, right. That’s what’s been really, really useful from your book for me.

[00:28:54] Ben Connelly: Nice. I love that. Thank you. 

Vasubandhu’s Five Mental Aggregates (Five Universal Factors)

  1. Sense contact
  2. Attention
  3. Sensation
  4. Perception
  5. Volition

The Problem with “Acceptance”

[00:28:58] Scott Snibbe: Something else you talk about is radical acceptance. I first heard this term from Tara Brach and really benefited from her presentation of this idea of just accepting everything about what you are, everything that comes into your mind and how important that is to inner development. 

I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, and me and my Zen friends, we sometimes tease each other. Because my Zen friends would say, Oh, I have no goal. And I’d say, Well, I want to attain enlightenment. And so I want to ask you how you balance this acceptance of who we are with wanting to improve ourselves and wanting to become more present and compassionate and kind? I think it’s a very tricky edge that I certainly don’t understand how to tread. 

[00:29:43] Ben Connelly: Yeah. Interesting. I do love Tara Brach. I have great admiration for her. And actually, I don’t really remember any details of her teaching on this. So what I don’t want to do is have anything I say to seem like a critique of Tara Brach’s take on this. You know, I came to spiritual practice through a spiritual community of recovery from addiction where there’s a huge emphasis on acceptance. Where people will often say that acceptance is the solution to all my problems today. So, that’s really powerful for me and many people. 

However, I have no recollection of writing about this in the book, and I tend to teach in a totally different way, so, Sorry. Totally not into teaching acceptance at all anymore [Laughs].

And this is why. Here’s what I want to teach: nonreactivity. What I want to help people with is to have the ability to not feel anguish and despair and other painful emotions that are unpleasant to experience, and that sometimes cause us to do things that are harmful; and also just create the conditions for us to experience similar emotions in the future. 

The reason I don’t want to use the language of acceptance is that it sounds too cognitive. That is to say, I do not accept the conditions of policing in the city, Minneapolis, where I live. And I don’t want anyone to do it. They are really harmful. People have been murdered by the police in my neighborhood and it is awful. And other people have been brutalized by them. 

I don’t dislike police. I also work with them and do trainings with police. I have many police officers I know and love. But the situation is bad and I don’t want people to accept it. I don’t want people to accept climate change. I don’t want people to accept patriarchy. I don’t want people to accept the terrible dynamics in their families that are harming everyone. I want them to be able to meet them wholly as they are with compassion and non-reactivity. 

And I’m well aware that we will all fail. Because it’s hard. Samsara is big. So what I want people to do is wake up to the fact that every moment, no matter what, I am participating in the conditions that create suffering or well-being. 

And realize that, if I know that, one of the most powerful things I can do is to pause and know the body, really turn my attention to my body as it is, know my emotional state and care about it. And then from that grounding, really turn and listen to how other people and other beings are doing, so that my action can be informed from this position of radical compassion.

The reason I don’t want to use the language of acceptance is that it sounds too cognitive. That is to say, I do not accept the conditions of policing in the city, Minneapolis, where I live. And I don’t want anyone to do it. They are really harmful. People have been murdered by the police in my neighborhood and it is awful. And other people have been brutalized by them. 

I don’t dislike police. I also work with them and do trainings with police. I have many police officers I know and love. But the situation is bad and I don’t want people to accept it. I don’t want people to accept climate change. I don’t want people to accept patriarchy. I don’t want people to accept the terrible dynamics in their families that are harming everyone. I want them to be able to meet them wholly as they are with compassion and non-reactivity. “

—Ben Connelly

Role of Anger in Motivation

[00:32:32] Scott Snibbe: I appreciate that you’re willing to bring up these really difficult topics. I think something you often hear from activists is that the some of these negative emotions are really important: anger, that anger is motivating. But you’re right at the center of it there, in Minneapolis. Can you talk about that? Is anger motivating? Do we need some of these disturbing emotions? Can we have the force of being an activist for change with a more peaceful mental base? 

[00:32:58] Ben Connelly: I’m just me and I’m talking to people who are interested in my view about what can be helpful. I am well aware that there are a lot of people with differing views and I respect and bow to them. And, in particular being white and male, the conditions of a lot of oppressive systems that impact people do not impact me in anywhere nearly extreme a manner.

With all humility and like, I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t be angry, that if you just get rid of your anger, you’ll be great. I’m not there at all. And I am an activist and I hang out with a lot of people who are really pissed. And I get why. I hang out with them and I care about them and I try and be attentive to both what they’re saying, what they’re encouraging me to do and their emotional states.

And ultimately, I will say it is my belief that the vast majority of Buddhist teachings—and I’m functioning as a Buddhist teacher here—tell us that emotions like anger and rage are painful. And my experience with them, and I’ve experienced a lot of them in my life, really extreme rage and many other emotional states. They’re painful.

And what I have seen is that people who don’t experience them can’t be deeply engaged in liberative work and really doing stuff in a direct and forceful way to promote liberation. 

I don’t use nonviolence as a tactic and some people do, and I respect that. They say that non-violence is just an effective methodology. Nonviolence is at the core of my worldview. I’m trying to embody that as best I can and trust us all somehow to move in the right direction.

The Benefit of Practice

[00:34:55] Scott Snibbe: At the end of your book, you share this story of being in an argument with your partner. And then all of a sudden having the practice work, you know, feeling everything falling away, your sense of the person being attacked and so on. And you describe it in this really humble way that I love. And I’ll read it, actually.

You said, “This isn’t enlightenment. It’s just a simple moment in the life of somebody dedicated to Buddhist practice.”

I really liked that. Because every once in a while I’ve felt the same thing too. Even in the same context, in an argument, in a relationship—these moments are rare, they’re very rare. but I recognized that when I read your book, I had the same feeling once when I was in an argument. And all of a sudden, I was almost laughing. There’s nobody, there’s no me to be angry at. And there’s no me to be angry. Would you mind sharing that moment if you’re willing to? Because I think it’s a really encouraging message of how practice bears fruit in ordinary life; how you don’t need to be some nth stage bodhisattva or Buddha for practice to bear fruit.

[00:35:53] Ben Connelly: Yeah. I think I remember. I wrote this a long time ago. I think I even remember the incident. I was really not good at intimate relationships, particularly ones that were romantic or sexual. And I hope I’m doing better now.

So I was in this phase where my partner and I just had these horrible fights. I mean, I would be obsessing and just pacing around and rageful for days at a time. It was just terrible. And the other person was not having a great time either.

It was one of those things where things have been okay. And then you say a couple of words and suddenly you’ve turned on the jets of all this conditioned conflict. I just looked at my partner and I just realized, You’re obviously in a lot of pain right, you’re so angry. I know what anger feels like, it’s really unpleasant to experience. 

And me too, I was like, my body is [arrrgh] just cranking and then in the emotional aspect of my experience was, why don’t you blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. My mind is going so— I was able, because of my practice to see those constituent elements that we had talked about earlier, just a little bit. And because there was that space, then I was also able to realize, Oh, and we’re in this room, there’s trees outside, there’s light. There’s probably like 5 billion other people.

And people have been doing this for thousands of years. I even watch animals. They fight all the time. Seriously. I just sit in parks and watch animals. What are you guys doing? Yeah. I just felt it, that it wasn’t mine. Not that what I was doing wasn’t important, that I wasn’t responsible for my actions, but just that the whole of what was happening was in such a vast field.

That’s what samsara means, and that moment of seeing all that connection. You know, it wasn’t like we’re not suffering or people aren’t suffering. It was actually just, Yeah, this sucks, but I’m here! So there’s like a little moment of seeing the screen. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but it definitely lightened up the intensity of it.

It wasn’t like my partner suddenly said, “You’re great. I love you so much. You’ve got it all figured out.” Liberation, it’s a process. It’s a mutual relational process. That’s the heart of Mahayana Buddhist thought. 

[00:38:20] Scott Snibbe: That’s very beautiful. 

What is the Point of Reciting Prayers?

I really appreciate how we’ve been talking about this fairly technical and, for most people, obscure text, but the conversation is so practical and up-to-date and current. One thing you said about this text is that Thich Nhat Hanh and his students used to recite these verses every day. 

What do you get out of reciting a text like this? For people who don’t do any kind of prayer; for people that don’t realize it, prayers are a big part of some Buddhist traditions, just like they are in Christianity. Can you talk about the value of a text like this as a prayer and how it somehow bore fruit in this practical advice on how to deal with racism and anger and addiction and so on.

[00:39:03] Ben Connelly: Yeah. This is a topic I just love. So one, you know, this text is a summation of huge amounts of Buddhist thought. So you can think, Oh, what should I do? And you remember, Oh, that’s right. I’m just conditioned. Or you can be like, what should I do? Oh, that’s right. I should notice how I feel! That’s in verse 16. You know, so that sort of thing. 

Prayer is a nice word for it. The use of texts as a way of connecting to culture, to connecting to a sense that you’re not just doing it all on your own, it’s really big. You know, I used to pray every day to God, because people told me that’s how I could get over addiction. I never believed in God. I just did it every day. My life improved. And I think C.S. Lewis once wrote, Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes me. Since I don’t really think about God, I just say prayer changes me. 

At some Buddhist centers all over the world, not just in the United States or the West, people chant texts that they don’t understand at all. They’re in languages they don’t know. And it’s like they’re incantations to say, I’m connected to this tradition where I have some trust. And we need to feel trust and support as human beings. But you can’t start to see that screen when we’re so self protected. So feeling trust and care, it’s just fundamental.

For some people, these chants can really open up a door to sensing that. And, you know, in terms of how they really can open us up, I would say Mahayana Buddhism is fundamentally about—part of it, the faith of the tradition—is a trust in reality. So I’d say it’s a non-cognitive faith. 

So ultimately what we want to be able to do is be like, reality is like this, and I don’t have to have all this reactivity to defend myself against it or manipulate it or dominate it or control it. And the tradition promises that’s possible. And I see people growing into that. 

As we begin to trust reality and don’t feel like we have to dominate it, control it, that we become liberated into our most powerful agency for transforming things. I believe, though I could be wrong, that I’m much more effective as an activist and as a family member, because what I’m doing is less motivated by needing to protect myself, and to dominate and control things. 

I’ve been following indigenous women leading a protest movement for a pipeline up here in Minnesota. I’ve been up at their camps many times, prayer vigils, protests, people are being arrested and all that stuff. And I don’t have any illusion that I’m going to stop climate change. I actually—I’m going to get in trouble if any of them will listen to this—I never believed we’d stop the pipeline, but I believed it was important to make a choice about where to invest my energy. And supporting indigenous women who wanted to lead a movement of this kind that would elevate this concern seemed like a great way to use my energy.

The fact that I haven’t had to be like, Ah, crap, they built the pipeline, it helps me. Because then I’m just like, what’s next? I’m going to another meeting with the same group in three hours. And hopefully I can show up with some good heart. 

Now, having said that, yeah, I get disappointed when we have failures and I don’t want to suggest that people should feel bad if they’re upset about things. Of course. But it is possible to come to activism more from this position of trusting reality and recognizing whatever arises, we always have an opportunity to make an offering that can be liberative.

[00:42:53] Scott Snibbe: So powerful and so subtle, because I think what you’re saying is that by accepting that you may not be successful or that you weren’t successful, that complete acceptance actually gives you more energy for the next cause that you’re going on to. 

[00:43:09] Ben Connelly: Correct. And that’s my experience. Might not be true for other people, but it is my experience.

[00:43:16] Scott Snibbe: That’s very nice because you see a lot of people, including, I think myself, get frustrated when we don’t win, when our side doesn’t win, when our cause doesn’t win.

[00:43:24] Ben Connelly: Well, I do too. Just, I don’t want to sound too lofty over here. 

[00:43:29] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. But you don’t give up, that’s the thing: you can be frustrated, but don’t give up. 

[00:43:34] Ben Connelly: I hope we don’t, and I hope these movements can not be about dominating or winning. Cesar Chavez said there’s no such thing as defeat in nonviolence. Dr. King said the unusual thing about non-violence is that nobody is defeated. Bell Hooks is constantly talking about non-domination.

What is real liberation? Giving our energy to the possibility of more freedom and more wellness.

[00:44:02] Scott Snibbe: Very nice. In the next episode, we’re going to have a meditation that you lead. I don’t know if you want to talk at all about what that meditation is for people as a preview, or it can just be a surprise as they listen in to the next episode.

A Preview of Ben’s Meditation in the Next Episode 

[00:44:16] Ben Connelly: Well, I’ll give a preview and hope you can still be surprised. I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to do a meditation that’s basically integrating the two basic sides of Yogacara meditation methodology. 

Vipassana, in this body of teachings, is looking at specific aspects of experience in specific ways. So you might call this mindfulness. And then shamatha which means here, objectless meditation. 

So we’ll start by settling into some particular phenomenon and then try to open up into the fact that everything already is objectless. Because the thing is, you don’t have to wait to be inseparable from the rest of the universe because you already are.

[00:45:04] Scott Snibbe: Beautiful. Thank you so much for this conversation. It is really lovely to get a chance to talk to you. And I’m looking forward to the meditation. 

[00:45:11] Ben Connelly: Thank you. Thank you all for listening and thank you for hosting.

[00:45:16] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with author Ben Connelly. Our next episode features a guided meditation by Ben. Ben’s new book Mindfulness & Intimacy is available online and in bookstores, as is the book we talked about on this episode, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Digital Production by Jason Waterman


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