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Interview with Rob Nairn - leading Buddhist teacher

By Rob Nairn

Rob Nairn is an international author and presenter of Buddhism and meditation. He is head representative of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Southern Africa. Since 1964 he has trained with many of the great teachers, and in 1989 he entered a four-year retreat in isolation from the world where he studied and practised ancient methods within the Mahamudra tradition of the Karma Kagyu Lineage. What follows is the transcript of an interview with Brett Almond at the Samye Dzong centre in London. The text is unaltered to maintain much of the realism of the interview.

Do you see enlightenment as an instantaneous thing where one day you are a normal human being and the next you become enlightened or do you see it more as a gradual process of realisation?

Enlightenment is a term we hear quite a lot, and obviously can't understand because it is an experience that arises beyond the conceptual mind. So maybe the difficulty we have is in understanding that the mind that thinks about enlightenment is not the mind that becomes enlightened- it actually stands in the way of enlightenment. The mind has to get itself out of the way, and that getting itself out of the way is a gradual process - it's not quick. Which is disappointing news for a lot of people who think they can get instantaneous enlightenment. So what I have seen, although I cannot make a final statement on this because I am not enlightened, people go progressively through stages which start in the area that most of us call psychology and morality, because before we can become enlightened we need to deal with the existing condition of our personality.

The problems or the mind-states that prevent enlightenment manifest as psychological problems - neuroses and that sort of thing. So a lot of people find they have to deal with those first, and this again is perhaps surprising. A lot of people go to something like meditation hoping by means of that to escape their problems - maybe to try and transcend them. But that does not happen because you have to deal with your psychology. Then the mind begins to settle down and mature. From there it is possible to enter into the deeper meditations which gradually progress towards enlightenment and what happens then is that the mind we know slowly becomes less and less important and we begin to find other factors predominating in our lives such as intuition and what we call spiritual qualities. Then from there, people seem to move towards enlightenment.

When someone becomes enlightened like the masters and the Buddha is that final or can that person then become unenlightened and go back?

Once a chicken has hatched it cannot become an egg again. Once enlightened that's it. The Buddhist teaching in this area isn't easy to understand because what the Buddha said is that we are all enlightened already - that is our inherent condition. But we have fallen into a state of ignorance and confusion where we think we are not enlightened and we have identified with the state of ignorance and we have come to believe that this is our reality. So the path to enlightenment is simply the path of freeing ourselves of the ignorance and confusion which caused us to think that this lesser experience is reality. And when we do that we eventually wake up to what is reality which is that we are enlightened. When we wake up to that we realise, ah, that wasn't real. It was just a shadow. And once we've realised that, it seems you can't lose that realisation, because you've now understood you are something different.

In the Buddhist teachings then, is there a lot of psychology to get rid of these shadows and psychological parts of us that get in the way?

Buddhism traditionally is split into three parts, and one of those three parts is called abhidharma, which is psychology. But it is not quite like the psychology that has developed in the West, so a lot of work I am doing is to try to meet people who want to pursue a spiritual path but don't realise they are coming up against psychological issues. So I am trying to help them recognise what they are experiencing then help them deal with those issues in terms of Western psychology, which is I think very relevant because we are Westerners and our psychological systems have been developed to help us deal with where we are. Once they have dealt with those issues people usually find they can gain access to the profounder teachings, not just in Buddhism but in the other great systems, more readily.

So it is as though I am trying to perform a bridging function of helping Westerners see where they are in the psycho-spiritual sense and then move from there into the deeper meditations and profounder philosophies which they couldn't do if they didn't deal with their psychology. There is a lot of misunderstanding in the West about spirituality. People seem to think that it is some form of elevated escapism. If they pursue it in that way they are doomed to disappointment. Or they view it as some form of spiritual drug, where if they do a meditation or something they think they are going to 'get high' and stay 'high', and that is another mistake. Because those are both avoidance techniques of trying to avoid facing our own inner reality, which is often not very comfortable, so we want to get away from it. We have to make friends with that reality and then we are able to move through to something greater.

Does meditation help you see these shadows and parts of yourself that need facing?

The Buddhism meditation which is training in mindfulness will automatically create the conditions for the mind to start exposing and integrating these underlying shadows as you call them, but the meditation in itself may not be adequate if the person has for example a powerful neurosis. If that is the case they would need some psychological guidance as well because the meditations are very powerful in that they open up the depths of the mind. They remove a lot of our smoke screens and self-deceptions that we create. And when that happens, if a person isn't able to accept what they have revealed then they can go into a kind of reactive shock psychologically. So this is why I would advise those people to go for psychological help and not regard themselves as being inferior because I think most Westerners need psychological help. I also wouldn't advise people to go in for prolonged periods of meditation without guidance and supervision from a very experienced meditation guide.

Buddhism has originated in the East. Is it making that jump from East to West easily?

It is not making it easily, because although the human mind is the same whether it is in the East or the West, we are all - as I am sure most people now realise - deeply conditioned within a cultural context, and we as Westerners have a very specific form of conditioning which has produced very specific neuroses within our minds. Easterners do not have that conditioning, so they don't have those neuroses, they have others. A lot of the Eastern teachers coming to the West over the past one hundred years have not realised that, and a lot of them are completely incapable of understanding Western neuroses - for one thing they don't understand guilt, for another thing they have trouble understanding our forms of stress and anxiety. Therefore they don't realise that the mentality that goes into meditation for a Westerner is not the same as the mentality that comes in from an Easterner therefore what a Westerner does with the meditation method will be totally different to what an Easterner did. It is almost as if they are 180 degrees apart. This has caused enormous difficulties.

A lot of people I have met have suffered enormously through trying to meditate under Eastern teachers who haven't understood them, and this has simply intensified their psychological problems, because some of the Eastern methods that have worked very well for Easterners cause Westerns to intensify denial and repression. And therefore what they do is they take what might be a mildly neurotic mind and make it intensely neurotic, and they might even go psychotic. Some people who have had bad guidance actually have gone psychotic, and this is something Carl Jung warned against. If we approach these teachings in the wrong way we can send ourselves psychotic. Now I very seldom say this to people because it can be very scary. But it is not easy to send yourself psychotic. You would have to apply an enormous amount of effort, which happily most neurotic people won't do if they are not getting the reward they want, but it is possible, and this is the big problem of East meeting West.

Are the teaching methods and teachers in the West meeting these needs?

Those teachers I believe who are teaching from a good standpoint are using Western psychology. A lot of the meditation teachers I know are themselves in analysis. They may spend five or ten years in psychoanalysis because they have realised they have to deal with these issues in order to help their meditation students deal with them. So this is what is happening. A lot of the Lamas are actually now devising therapy methods for Westerners. I've seen it more in the Tibetan tradition than the others where the Lamas are realising what Westerners need is what we call therapy, and what I am beginning to discover is that in the Tibetan system therapy was well recognised. The Tibetans always used therapy, but they haven't used it in quite the way we have, so they are beginning to adapt it to Western needs.

On the local level most major cities have a Buddhist centre now and many of the people in charge are Westerners

Yes, but the fact they are Westerners doesn't mean they necessarily know what they are up to. You know, a lot of people have let themselves loose on the world as meditation teachers who aren't properly trained or qualified. I am not saying this to pretend that I am better and they are worse, because I am not actually a meditation teacher. I am what they call a spiritual friend. I am trying to meet people where they are at. But it is a very very onerous business taking on the responsibility of instructing somebody in meditation because you are dealing with such profound and powerful forces and I have met quite a lot of Westerners who call themselves meditation teachers who shouldn't really be teaching. They might be able to help people at very simple levels but they're not qualified to take people into the real meditations because they themselves, I can see, haven't yet dealt with the issues that are going to arise in their students.

If someone is interested in Buddhism or would like to start meditation or some way to connect with the Buddhist tradition what advice can you give to them?

The advice I can give is to look very carefully at the teacher if you are going to start training in meditation and find a teacher who has been properly trained - that means over many years by a recognised Lama or equivalent. In terms of how they do this, what I would suggest is they look at the lineage of the person who is putting himself or herself up as a teacher. If the person is not part of a lineage then they should be extremely careful because that usually means they are self-appointed teachers. In Tibetan Buddhism for example there are four great lineages and the purposes of lineage is to act like a university where students are trained, and they are not accredited until the authorities within the lineage are satisfied that they are safe to let loose on the public. So it's like you go to a well-recognised university and you get a degree. So if you want to go to a doctor you would say well where did you qualify and you make sure the person is properly qualified. So we are very familiar in our culture with this principal. You look for qualified people, you don't go to a 'quack'. Now unfortunately in the world of meditation the broader principals have not yet established themselves, so a lot of people do not yet realise that exactly the same principals apply. But within most of the Buddhist traditions there are lineages and people should make sure that anyone they go to has been properly trained and authorised within a lineage.

How did you first become involved with Buddhism?

My first connection with Buddhism was through a Theravadin teacher who was a monk sent to this country from Thailand to teach Buddhism in the sixties. So I trained under him and other Theravadin teachers for ten years. Then I connected with the Dalai Lama in India which was in 1964. I was living in Zimbabwe, what was called Southern Rhodesia then. He sent me back. He said, "Go back to Africa and teach Buddhism." So that was my first connection with Tibetan Buddhism. Then I went to the Samye Ling centre in Scotland and met Akong Rinpoche - that was in the late sixties. And after that I began training under Tibetan Buddhists and I became part of the Kagyu lineage which is headed not by the Dalai Lama but the seventeenth Karmapa.

I don't know if you remember the big publicity when he escaped from Tibet at the millennium new year. He was in virtual captivity in Tibet till the end of last year (1999) and then he escaped and is now living in North India. He is now 15 years old. He's the head of our lineage at the moment. I've met him four times. So I am part of that lineage and I have completed a twelve-year training period which consisted of four years of quite intensive study under Lamas which included a range of philosophy and then training and meditation. Then I did the four-year retreat, which is a cloistered retreat where we were cut off from the world for those four years. We did all the traditional meditations during that time. Then for the four years after that I've been doing follow-up studies. I was sent back to Africa to be in charge of the Akong Rinpoche centres in Africa. I travel round Africa a lot but I also come every year to Europe and go to the United States where I do an annual circuit.

The four year retreat - what was it like for you as a journey?

It's been unbelievably difficult. It's indescribably difficult to do a four-year retreat because you are face to face with your mind with no distraction or escape for four years. We would do about seventeen hours of meditation and would then sleep for four or five hours.

Every day?

Yes. Yes that was it.

For four years?

Yes.

Did you speak much? Was it a silent retreat?

For nine months it was silent but for the rest of it we could speak to one another. But we didn't have television or anything like that, so we were just working with our minds all the time. So it was really very very difficult.

Did it get easier at all? Did it get more pleasurable towards the end? Or was the whole thing?

It was awful all the time. (Much laughter from both parties)

So how different were you at the other end of it?

It's difficult to assess as you can imagine. But I think perhaps the biggest change is that I notice I'm more honest to myself about myself. I learnt more about my neuroses and I am more comfortable about having neuroses. I'm less perfectionistic. I realise I'm not going to get perfect in this life. So I have come to terms with the fact that I am an imperfect human being but I can work creatively within that. (Pause) I didn't get anywhere near enlightened.

Did you have any amazing experiences within that period?

Amazingly awful yes. (laughter again) You know the human mind often has a lot of hidden horror. Jung called it the shadow. We all have a shadow, and we have to face and come to terms with our shadow and integrate it. And for most people that's not easy. For some it's more difficult than others. I think in my case it's proving quite difficult and I can see it's ongoing as part of life's work

I want to ask about the Buddhist connection with the supernatural, as people might term it in the West. Are things like spirits and energies, and the more mystical side of life, of concern to Buddhists?

It's very much a side issue? And the Lamas will almost never talk about it. You know they say the important thing is to learn to deal effectively with the state of your own mind and if you do that everything changes and falls into place. There is no point in getting fascinated by spirits and playing with those energies because unless you know what you are doing you could harm yourself. It's not really going to help you get enlightened

In the West there is very much a trend of people fascinated with spirituality. They want to see an angel or want a certain experience. Are the Buddhists saying forget about it - if it happens it happens?

Exactly. And do meditation practices and purification. And if it is going to help you to see an angel, an angel will appear. But to go chasing after them certainly won't help and I have found that those people who do make that their priority don't see those things and usually in fact end up deceiving themselves.

So is meditation essential to Buddhism?

It's central in most of the schools although it is not the only way because the Buddha also emphasises it is very important how we live our lives. The essence of Buddhism is compassion. And one way of training in compassion is through meditation and another is through the way we live our lives. So it might be more correct to say that compassion is central to Buddhism. And then any form that works for an individual to develop compassion would be encouraged. You see some people may not be psychologically predisposed to meditation. They might be more predisposed to skilful activity in which case that might be the best course for them to follow.

Can people gain enlightenment without meditation?

It wouldn't be ruled out because if you establish mindfulness which is that ability to be present all the time then you can be enlightened through activity through service to others.

On a more personal level, based on your life so far, if you were lying on your deathbed what advice would you leave to the world?

The most important thing for anybody is to develop kindness and motivation to do everything possible to help themselves and others become enlightened. Very simple I'm afraid

I think it has to be. Why did you start writing your books? Was it a way to make money or was it more because you felt drawn to it?

It is interesting that I never actually set out to write books. The first one I wrote 'Tranquil Mind' was just writing what I understood about meditation in response to a lot of questions I had from people. I wanted to help them find some way of working with their own psychological state. So I don't really think of myself as an author in the sense of someone who sits down and says I'm going to write books. The books are an effort to form a bridge for Westerners to gain access to spiritual practices coming from the East. They are written clearly and simply. I'm not attempting in the books to expunge profound philosophical issues, there are hundreds of other books doing that. I'm really trying to offer simple practical guidelines for people who want to transform their own lives through meditation or spiritual practice because what I've found is that in the West there is very little practical guidance.

Can anyone buy them?

My books are not aimed only at Buddhists. They are aimed at everybody and in fact when I go to America I go as a guest of the Christian church so my whole time there is spent among Christians. So I am trying to help them with the same principles I am helping others with.

In Britain there are a lot of traditions about and it is probably because we have no real strong tradition of our own, it's been eradicated somewhere in the past there. So there can be a tendency for people to mix different things. So somebody might learn how to use the Tarot cards and become interested in Shamanism, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you see that?

As to the eclectic thing that is happening here in the West I have doubt about its value because you can't really get far with eclecticism. Each great tradition has become a tradition for a very specific reason. It's designed to take you from beginning through to end. And if you start into a whole lot of different ones you're starting a whole lot of beginnings. You may think it is beneficial to try and extract the essence of each one but unless you are an accomplished master you won't be able to do that. So what I have noticed is that most people end up confusing themselves and not getting anywhere. They don't get beyond the beginning of any of them.

So your advice would be shop around to start with and see what appeals and works for you and follow it through?

Absolutely. In the beginning shop around but don't do it in terms of what appeals to you emotionally but rather in terms of what works for you. And it may be a discipline that you don't particularly like but if it works for you that is what you need. By working for you I mean it helps you integrate your psychological energies and start becoming a kinder person. A lot of the teachings around are being used by people to inflate their egos and that from my point of view is not working. That's doing the opposite of what people want.

The Buddhist teachings seem to be accepting and validating of people. They don't dismiss anyone or any other tradition. Is the Buddhist view that everyone is travelling to the same place and they may get there by different means?

What the Buddha said is that there are very many different personality types and the great traditions have grown up to meet the needs of the different types. So they will obviously, as you quite rightly said, take different paths. What the Buddha also said is that we are all buddhas. We are all in the ultimate sense enlightened and we will all eventually realise that, but it doesn't matter which route we take. And in fact one of the very strict teachings of the Buddha was to respect the religions of others - not to attack them. And the great Buddhist king Asoka actually carved this in stone and said if we respect one another's religions all religions will grow stronger. If we attack them, all religions will grow weaker. So it is a very important point in Buddhism. But it's not eclectic. A lot of people confuse open acceptance with eclecticism. Buddhism says all these paths can be valid but don't try and mix them up. I think a lot of people think that sticking with one thing implies a rejection of the others and that is not so. It means you have found a road that works for you and you can learn from others but you don't have to shift over and go onto their road.

I've enjoyed talking to you. And I think people will find what you have said very interesting.

Great. Thank you. I have enjoyed talking to you too.

About the author / more information

Rob Nairn is an internationally known and respected author and teacher of Buddhism who is based in South Africa. He has responsibility for eleven Buddhist Centres in Africa. His books include "Diamond Mind", "Living, Dreaming, Dying", "Tranquil Mind" and "What is Meditation".

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