Interview with Buddhist author and meditation teacher Kamalashila

Posted by on Oct 14, 2012 in Buddhism, Interviews | No Comments
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Kamalashila has been an ordained Buddhist since 1974. His new book Buddhist Meditation: Tranquility, Imagination, Insight was published earlier this year. You can read his life story on his website.

 

MBL: How long have you had a regular meditation practice? How has it changed over time?

Kamalashila: I started in 1967 with Transcendental Meditation.  You ask how it’s changed since but I hardly know how to begin!  I think I can say there have been improvements, clarifications and illuminations of various kinds.

MBL: You chose to be celebate for many years. What did you find beneficial about that, and what were the downsides? Why did you stop? Would you recommend it?

Kamalashila: I became an anagarika about 1985 at Vajraloka (then a semi-monastic community) after practising chastity from 1972.  I was living in ideal meditation conditions, and the precept expressed my desire to make a wholehearted, undistracted commitment to realising the dharma. It really helped me over my twenties, and most of my thirties.  People assume it’s harder if you are young, but I think attachment gets heavier later on.  In middle age I wanted to understand people better, and took three years out to explore relationships again.  That was very important.  Then I went back to being an anagarika for some years, until after my long retreat 2001-3.

MBL: Conversely, how have you found being in a committed relationship as a practice, or as a benefit or hindrance to your practice?

Kamalashila: By nature, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider.  Buddhism appeals to people like me because it fosters individuality.  I used to need space, clarity, undistracted environments. But now I’m older all that seems less important.  It feels spiritually nourishing to have a companion and I learn from the ups and downs.  They stretch my ability to connect.  So I’m learning to be a more social animal.  But I still enjoy time with men a lot, and I do retreats alone as well.

MBL: You once spent 18 months on solitary retreat. Would you recommend that? What was it like?

Kamalashila: It was the best thing I’d ever done, in all kinds of ways.  Overall it was the happiest time of my life, even though I experienced deep fear, cold, damp, loneliness, and panic sometimes.  I’d only recommend such a long period of solitude to well seasoned, sane people, if there are any!  In Tibetan tradition, long retreats are usually collective, for good reason, yet I think solitude has important benefits.  You can get a good, deep experience from just a month’s solitary – even from a single day.

MBL: Being a senior member of the Triratna Order gives you a public persona and I guess a responsibility to act in certain ways. Do you find there’s a tension between Kamalashila the public Buddhist, and you as a private one? If so, how do you deal with that?

Kamalashila: I’m not very good at being a public figure.  I have always been a misfit and think I am seen as something of an anti-establishment person.  Yet I recognise that if you’re in the business of making Dharma available to all beings, it’s important to conserve what’s good in the tradition – and really emphasise that, not criticise its weak points all the time.  Organisations are important and the mainstream is, in the end, where it’s at.  With my temperament, I find all that horribly uncomfortable.  That’s it.  I accept that it’s like that!

MBL: If you had your time again, is there anything you’d do differently? Are there any mistakes you could have avoided?

Kamalashila: This is a very theoretical question!  Given that if I had my time again I would also be young and deluded again, I don’t think I would want to have avoided the mistakes I have made. I think I learned a bit.  From a spiritual point of view it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes.  Dharma is about something much bigger than that.

MBL: What do you think are the key requirements for a successful and productive meditation practice?

Kamalashila: Your practice time needs to be, and to feel, genuinely unstructured.  You need to organise your life so you have as regular a routine as possible.  You need a personal connection with an authentic dharma tradition, and a growing familiarity with its teachings.

MBL: Tell me about your new book. Is it a significant update? What’s changed in your thinking or understanding since you wrote the first edition many years ago?

Kamalashila: It’s a total rewrite – I looked at every sentence and rewrote pretty much every one.  There is a fair amount of new material, and the book is now more clearly in line with the Triratna system of practice.  Overall I think my understanding is subtler and clearer these days, and it’s also informed by experience.  I wrote the original book, like many writers do, as a way to clarify my understanding of what I was teaching.  Since then I have developed a more rounded and deeper understanding.  Note I don’t say perfect.

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Thanks to Kamalashila for this fascinating peak inside the head of a seasoned meditator! I’ll be interviewing a number of experienced Buddhists on the blog over the coming months. The next one will be with Buddhist Studies scholar and author Professor Peter Harvey.

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Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!

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