Interview with Leigh Brasington
from May 2004
for the Bodhi Garden Newsletter

What have you been up to recently?

I've recently returned from teaching a retreat in the Sierra foothills near the town of Nevada City, California. I also attended four days of meetings with Jack Kornfield - I'm in his current teacher training class. I've just added the ability for my free Tibetan Word Processor and Database program to support Tibetan Braille. And I'm well into adding another new feature to the program I support at my "day job" as a software engineer.

You seem to ‘get around’!

I seem to. And I really treasure my time at home when I get it.

Do you have a regular international route?

Sort of. I seem to be coming to Europe in the fall of the even numbered years.

Do you stay in one place for long?

I have a home in Alameda, California, which is in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since I don't teach in the winter, I get to spend 3 months in a row there at that time. But from March to October, I'm usually gone more than I'm home.

What are your favorite places to visit?

I'm particular fond of visiting Asia; especially Southeast Asia. I also like Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.

What do you ‘do’ when you travel?

Lately, most of my travels have been in connection with teaching meditation retreats, so that's mostly what I do. I very much enjoy visiting with friends and often make trips back to the "South" (the southern United States) to visit college friends and family. I have friends in Scandinavia and Germany that I have known since the late 70's and especially like visiting with them. I also like architecture and art, so I often visit architecturally interesting buildings (temples, churches, etc) and museums.

Are meditation students much different between countries?

A bit. In the USA, students tend to ask more questions, especially verbal questions. In the UK, I get more written questions. People from Mediterranean countries are more passionate about their practice and often find it easier to enter the jhanas - not surprising since the jhanas are emotional states of mind. Basically, the stereotype character traits you think of for each country apply to meditation practitioners from that country and hence influence their practice in the obvious ways. Of course, this is a very broad generalization and there is a huge amount of variation within any population.

Can you tell us a little about Ayya Khema and how you came to meet her?

There is a short biography of Ayya Khema on my web site. Ayya was a German Jewish Theravadan nun. She had a German no-nonsense approach to doing things plus a wonderful sense of humor to provide balance. If you are familiar with her guided Metta meditations [examples can be found at here], you get a good sense of her deep ability to love. She had a brilliant mind and a very deep understanding of the Dhamma. And she was a very good teacher - the thing that all of her students comment on was how clear she was. This clarity comes across in her many books.

In 1985, I had injured my knee and my massage therapist suggested that meditation might be good for me. I said, "Yes, sure" which is what I said to everyone who made such suggestions. But she later told me that a Buddhist nun was going to be teaching a 10 day meditation retreat and that I should go hear her give a talk at the San Francisco Zen Center and decide if I wanted to attend the retreat. I went to the talk and, although I don't remember what the talk was about, I was very impressed with the clarity of Ayya's presentation. So I signed up for the retreat and headed off to the desert for 10 days - never having actually meditated before in my life.

Why did she pick you as her senior American student?! What and how did she encourage you to teach?

She didn't really pick me to be her senior American student; it just turned out that way. She liked what she saw in my practice, both in terms of my skill with the jhanas and my understanding of the Dhamma. So she authorized me to start teaching in 1991. I thought that was very premature - I could see how much I didn't know and how caught I was (still am) in greed, aversion and delusion. But she kept suggesting that I do small things to start with and I soon found myself the senior student in a weekly small sitting & discussion group. So I took a leading role and eventually began leading other small groups for beginning students. In 1994 she put me to work helping with doing interviews - and that 24 day retreat was really when she taught me to be a teacher. I would do interviews in the afternoon and we would meet in the evenings and discuss each student and what the student had said and how I had responded. We repeated that same setup in 1996 for a 7 day retreat. And at that retreat, I said "If someone will organize a retreat, I'll teach it." And one of Ayya's students did just that.

So I taught my first retreat in February of 1997. And as it turned out, I'm the only one of her American students who was crazy enough to actually try to teach.

What is your connection with Tsoknyi Rinpoche?

I met Tsoknyi Rinpoche in the summer of 1992 at James Baraz's weekly vipassana sitting group. I was very impressed with him and the Dzogchen practice he taught. He began coming to the USA regularly the next year to teach retreats and I have been sitting with him ever since.

In 1995 Rinpoche's translator asked me if I could help out with some computer work for the Tibetan Text Preservation project that Rinpoche was sponsoring. I wound up writing a Tibetan Database and Word Processing program that was used as an electronic dictionary by the people doing the editing for the text preservation project. I made a couple of trips to Kathmandu to work on the program with the people doing the preservation work and that had the happy side effect of getting to know Rinpoche even better. The program is now in its 3rd incarnation and is freely available for downloading.

Do you easily integrate the Theravada and Mahayana into your personal practice, and your teachings?

The Dzogchen practice fits very well with Theravada practice (it must - many of the American Theravada teachers are students of Tsoknyi Rinpoche). It is an especially good practice to do after being in the jhanas and generating a very concentrated mind. However, I don't attempt to teach Dzogchen or any Mahayana practices. I'm really a beginner at those practices and certainly am not qualified to teach them!

Have you ever thought about ‘taking robes’?

I've thought about it a bit - but I'm definitely not ready to do that just now. I like the lay life I lead and I especially enjoy the company of women in general and my sweetheart in particular. So, monastic life is not for me at this time. However, I deeply admire people who can make that commitment. When I look at the teachers I have learned the most from, they all are/were monastics or live a lay life 100% devoted to the Dhamma.

You were a software engineer for years. What changed? Why did you take such a ‘radical’ change in direction?

I'm still a software engineer - I have a part time job and show up there whenever I'm back home in Alameda. It's just that I have added an additional career - which seems to be taking a larger and larger percentage of my time as I go along. The change doesn't feel radical to me. Before I started teaching, for many years I often spent a good bit of time away from my programming job sitting retreats. So now I'm just doing that more and more and I sometimes I have to sit in the front instead of the back and don't get to keep silence.

Is there a relationship between computer programming and meditation?!

Computer programming is certainly enhanced if you can concentrate; meditation is certainly enhanced if you can concentrate. I do feel that all those years of practicing concentration while programming have helped me to be able to concentrate well while meditating.

You are interested in Asian religions and Asian art. What first drew you to these?

In 1979, '80 & '81 I took a three year trip around the world. The nine months I spent in Asia were certainly the most interesting (and most fun) part of the whole trip. That's where the interest in Asian art and architecture began. What do you do in Bali? Go look at art, go look at temples. What do you do in Java? Same thing. I found it interesting; I continued to do that all through Asia. I lived for several years within walking distance of the Asian Art Museum in Golden Gate Park after I returned to San Francisco. I became a member and would often just wander in when enjoying the park.

Why choose the study and practice of Buddhism, and not the traditions of the West?

I grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister in Mississippi. The summer I finished high school I stopped believing the literal Biblical teachings I'd heard all my life. In my first year at university, Huston Smith did a series of guest lectures and that was my first exposure to Buddhism. But basically I was a confirmed agnostic until my travels in Asia in the early 80's. There it was impossible to not notice that there really was a spiritual dimension to life. I remember writing down the Eight-Fold Path in my journal and vowing to practice it - not having a clue what that meant. But I didn't really begin to get seriously interested in Asian religions until my knee injury in 1985. (Ayya Khema would say "Dukkha is our best teacher.") Some of my university buddies in Arkansas were students of Chögyam Trungpa and it was through their influence that I began to get serious about a spiritual path. I bought a used copy of Huston Smith's "The Religions of Man" and read it looking for something that made sense. Buddhism was definitely the teaching in there that I felt most drawn to. Then the opportunity to sit the retreat with Ayya fell into my lap and the rest is, as they say, history.

What other teachers or traditions inform your teaching?

The other religion I found appealing in Huston Smith's book was Taoism and I studied it a good bit back in the mid and late 80's. But there is no support for practicing Taoism in the West (and very little left in the East). So although I greatly admire and have learned much form the Taoist writings, I have been much more informed by Buddhism because I could practice it.

Like most American students of meditation I greatly admire Rumi and the other Sufi poets. However, I don't tend to populate my Dhamma talks with Rumi poems; I figure the Buddha has plenty to say on most subjects and since I'm trying to teach what he taught, I don't often go directly to other sources, even if they do influence me indirectly.

My Christian background certainly has an influence, more so since I read Stephen Mitchell's "The Gospel According to Jesus". And occasionally, people refer to me as a "sutta thumping preacher" - that fits; I come from a very long line of ministers, getting up in front of people and talking about spiritual matters comes very easily.

I have also been influenced by the writings of various Advaita Vedanta teachers such as Ramana Maharshi, Ramesh Balsekar and Sri Nisargadatta. Additionally, many of my friends are Jewish and Judaism is the foundation for Christianity, I'm probably more influenced by Judaism than I'm aware of.

I'm also quite influenced by Western Science. While it's not a formal spiritual tradition, it certainly seems to have taken on such a role for many people. Examples and metaphors from physics to neuroscience do sometimes show up in my Dhamma talks.

Basically, I'm a seeker of the Truth and I'm happy to use whatever methods help me understand the Truth. But undoubtedly the tradition that has helped the most has been Buddhism.

You teach the jhanas and satipatthana - I take it this means: just samatha and just vipassana as well as the two yoked?

That's correct.

How do you see these two practices as related?

The essence of the Buddha's path is Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom. To put it in plain English, "Clean up your act, learn to concentrate, use your concentrated mind to gain wisdom." The role of the jhanas is to generate a mind that is "concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability" which you "incline and direct to knowledge and vision" of things as they are. Morality is the foundation of all practice. With a mind that is free from disturbances (because you have been leading an ethical life), you can generate deep states of concentration. With a deeply concentrated mind, you are much more likely to see things as they really are rather than from your normal egocentric perspective.

Can you have one without the other?

Yes, but that is not what the Buddha primarily taught.

Do you think samatha practice is ‘overlooked’ in some way?

Since it is seldom taught in the West and yet it is a very central aspect of the Buddha's teachings, it does indeed appear that it is overlooked. And that's a real shame. Even if someone cannot get jhanically concentrated for a given period of meditation, nonetheless their insights will be enhanced if they can get as concentrated as circumstances allow.

What do think is best suited for the needs of busy, stressed westerners trapped within secular, materialist culture?!

Take time away from the busy, stressed, secular, materialist culture! Go on retreat, long retreats, as long as you can "afford" to be away. Then when you return, although you won't be able to keep the same depth, you will have a deeper understanding of what is important in life and you will have some enhanced ability to concentrate your mind. Use that ability in conjunction with vipassana practice and learn whatever you can until you can again take time away from the busy, stressed, secular, materialist culture.

Samatha and vipassana is not an either/or situation; it's a both/and situation. It is extremely beneficial to concentrate as best we can before we launch into our vipassana practice.

Can you explain the jhanas – a little bit?!

The jhanas are eight altered states of consciousness brought on by concentration and yielding progressively more concentration. The first four are emotional states focusing on rapture, joy, contentment and equanimity. The primary object grows more and more subtle as the number of the jhana increases [i.e., first jhana to second, second to third, etc.], hence requiring more and more concentration to stay with the increasingly subtle objects and yielding more and more concentration when you manage to stay with these subtle objects. But they are not a big deal; they are simply a warm up exercise for insight practice; a tool; a way to sharpen the mind for the deeper work of vipassana.

What are the most important qualities to cultivate, develop and employ in one’s meditation practice?

Patience. Kindness. Curiosity. Not Holding to Fixed Views. Consistency.

What have you been learning yourself recently?

I'm in a study group that is looking at Peter Harvey's book The Selfless Mind. It has some very thought provoking passages on viññana, which usually is translated as "consciousness", but Harvey translates it as "discernment." I've been particularly interested in looking at the link between sankhara and viññana. I prefer Santikaro's translation of sankhara as "concoctions" so it means I've been exploring the relationship between "concoctions" and "consciousness", this of course being one of the initial links in the teaching of Dependent Origination.

One of your favorite quotes is: ‘Don't take yourself so seriously – you'll never get out of this alive’. What’s the secret of not taking things too seriously, but also not being too flippant either? (Does death put our life in context?!)

Death definitely puts our life in context! That's what the quote is saying for sure. One of the most valuable things to have in this human incarnation is a good sense of humor. Without one, life is way too tragic - the best outcome you can hope for is to die of old age?! Humor is a very good way of breaking out of any narrow view. But Dukkha is real (1st Noble Truth), and keeping that in mind will generate compassion. A balance between humor and compassion will help with not taking things too seriously yet not being too flippant.

Humor has to be used skillfully, just like anything else. It can be used as an escape to avoid dealing with Dukkha. It can be used as a weapon if you laugh at someone, although it can be very skillful to laugh at yourself! When used wisely, it has the power to break the grip of seriousness that we all too often fall into.

How do you see the evolution of Buddhism in the West, particularly in your country and in the UK? What forms is it taking?

The major "form" shift is from a primarily monastic focus to a lay focus. This is both wonderful and has pitfalls. The major advantage is that more people can "get serious" about practicing and do things that will help them to wake up in this life. The major disadvantage is that the Dhamma is being preserved by a bunch of part-timers (myself included).

How will it change from the countries of origin?

The people who started IMS intentionally brought along as little of the so called "cultural baggage" as possible. That has meant that Theravada Buddhism in the West has had the opportunity to incorporate new cultural baggage! The major shift is away from rites and rituals toward more of a psychological approach. This has advantages and disadvantages, of course.

Mahayana Buddhism in the West seems to have changed less that Theravadan, but as time passes, it too will drop some of the cultural aspects of the countries of origin and will pick up more of the Western orientation - which right now seem to be primarily psychological.

The real question is whether or not the heart of the Dhamma will still be easily accessible or will it get lost among the new accreditations. Only time will tell; but, those of us practicing at this time do have a responsibility to ensure that the heart of the Dhamma continues to shine brightly.

How has it changed already?

As I mentioned above, the lay focus, less emphasis on rite & rituals and the addition of psychological elements seem to be the big changes so far.

What do you make of it at the moment?

Definitely a work in progress!

What will you be teaching at the Bodhi Garden in October?

We will take a detailed look at the 8 Jhanas. Exactly what are they? What are the instructions for entering them? How are they used in spiritual practice? This will be mostly an information session because anything less than a 10 day retreat is just not enough time for one to get concentrated sufficiently to actually experience them. But I think people will find the de-mystification of the jhanas helpful and will learn whether or not this is something they are interested in pursuing in depth at a later time. And we will have some time to meditate and try out the instructions for the first jhana and see what is involved.

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