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.
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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