Buddhism in the West: Interview with an American Meditation Master.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Jul 27, 2011
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The Evolution of Western Buddhism.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Reginald A. Ray of the Dharma Ocean Foundation. Reggie Ray brings to the table “four decades of study and intensive meditation practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as well as a special gift for applying it to the unique problems, inspirations, and spiritual imperatives of modern people. He currently resides in Crestone, Colorado, where he is Spiritual Director of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the practice, study and preservation of the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the practice lineage he embodied.”

~ introduction via Benjamin Riggs

How is Buddhism in the West different from Buddhism in Asia?

Reggie Ray: I recently went to a conference in Garrison, NY at the Garrison Institute. The people at this conference are people of my generation who are regarded as pioneers of Buddhism in the West. There were 20 of us there, the usual suspects: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Surya Das, and myself.

What was interesting was that we had more in common with each other—we had the same questions, many of the same approaches, and insights. Across huge boundaries—Theravadin, Pure Land, Zen, and the Tibetan lineages—we had more in common with each other than we had with our Tibetan, Theravadin, or Japanese teachers. It is as if Buddhism in the West is evolving in a way that is not sectarian; not only because sectarianism is seen as so negative, but because we need each other. We are actually starting to work together as a sangha, this group of twenty.

The first thing that attracted me to your teachings was your name. I know that at some point in your training you received a Dharma name, but you don’t use it. I like that! Why do you go by the name Reggie Ray, rather than some fancy Tibetan name?

Reggie Ray: Well, it is the same reason I went to the conference in jeans and a t-shirt, and a lot of others were there running around in robes.

Yeah, I appreciate that.

I remember speaking at a Buddhist symposium at a college one time. I looked at the event flier and saw that a monk named “Yeshe” was scheduled to talk. I expected to meet a Tibetan monk, but instead met a skinny white kid in robes. In my opinion, this sort of thing is profoundly misplaced.

Reggie Ray: If you want to discover who you really are, you have to be who you are on the relative level. That becomes the gateway to who you really are, and who you truly are includes the relative truth of your own life, but seen from the point of view of the unborn mind.

This sort of thing seems to be substituting your relative truth with somebody else’s relative truth, in this case a Tibetan’s relative truth. It is so disrespectful of this life we have been given.

Yes. It seems to be, in a subtle way, violent.

Do we need more Western teachers and a Western tradition that is autonomous from the Asian Buddhism?

Reggie Ray: There are two things that I would say to that.

First, the Dalai Lama himself said, many years ago, that until the full range of the Buddhist traditions are developed by western teachers who have studied, practiced, and gained some understanding we will not be able to say that Buddhism has arrived in the west.

Second, Chogyam Trungpa transmitted his Dharma lineage to a westerner, but that westerner died of AIDS. So the transmission didn’t happen. He tried not to put it back in the hands of a Tibetan, and he really tried not to, but it didn’t happen.

You’re talking about the Vajra Regent?

Reggie Ray: Yes, the Vajra Regent was supposed to be the first of all the rest of us. We were all going to be vajrayana teachers—we were going to have our own students, get pointing out, and Abhisheka, but the Vajra Regent died before any of it could happen.

Chogyam Trungpa immersed himself in Western culture, and then communicated the relative nature of the first two noble truths within the relative context of his audience. Most eastern teachers seem to fall far short of Trunpga Rinpoche’s capacity to relate directly with their Western students. So, do you think there is a great need for teachers who are capable of communicating the relative truths in such a way that westerners are capable of relating? And if so, at what point is it necessary that Buddhism in the west cease to be baby sat by teachers in India and Tibet?

Reggie Ray: Whether we are looking at the life of the Buddha or Chogyam Trungpa, we can see that the dharma is simply the deeper truth about our lives. The purpose of meditation is to allow the life that we are already living to show us this stuff. The first noble truth says that our life in the western world—wherever we live, whatever is offered to us—has this underlying dissatisfaction, and sometimes extreme suffering. The second noble truth is that as modern western people it is very important to see the exact causes and conditions that create this situation for ourselves. And to realize that within the framework of this culture, or any culture for that matter, there isn’t any way out; as long as you are trying to use the values and promises of the culture, you can’t get out.

Because the culture created it? Are you saying that the reason we can’t “get out” using the values of the culture is because the relative experience of our dissatisfaction is defined by the culture?

Reggie Ray: Yeah, you are trying to use the very idea that created the suffering to get out of the suffering, and you can’t do it…

As far as Asian Buddhism goes, we could talk about Chogyam Trungpa, but he is an anomaly.

Generally speaking, even with the very best Asian teachers, their relative truth and their experience of being human is fundamentally different from ours. They are simply unable to understand the nature of what it is like to grow up in the Western world. They don’t share our experiences, so they can’t really name it. So many teachers—whether we are talking about innovative ones or very traditional ones—when speaking about the first two noble truths, are really speaking about their experience as Asians, although it is translated into our culture…

Dharma is about this life—it is about working with our given names and our given identities, and the institutions that we have in this culture. The minute we have to adopt any thing in our relative state of being that identifies us and takes us away from this reality, in my opinion, it is not dharma any more. I don’t know what it is.

This is part three of my interview with Reggie Ray. Click here to read part one or here to read part two.

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


6 Responses to “Buddhism in the West: Interview with an American Meditation Master.”

  1. […] a discussion of a well-written and insightful article in Elephant Journal, entitled “Buddhism in the West: Interview with an American Meditation Master, the opinions have run the gamut. And as someone who holds Professor Reginald A. Ray in the highest […]

  2. yogiclarebear says:

    I'm kindof confused about his words on culture. Is he saying that the point isn't to "get out" of culture? Or is it but we have to be fully "in it" or embrace it first?

  3. BenRiggs says:

    Hello Clare,
    He seems to be saying that we currently identify with our personal narrative, which is a limited view of ourselves. This narrative is defined by the culture that produced it. So, you cannot use the values of the culture that created the narrative to move beyond the narrative.

    However, you also have to start where you are, and upon entering the spiritual path we are over identifying with our personal narrative. So, this is what we have to work with. Furthermore, it does us no good to adopt another narrative defined by another culture, because we are still experiencing ourselves from a limited point of view.

    So, we must be willing to question our relative sense of self by testing against the grain of eternal truth. This enables us to discover an ever expanding sense of being, our true self.

    Does this make sense? (these are my words and not his, of course.)

  4. yogiclarebear says:

    Yes I think so. It is almost like a "double edged sword." We can't get out of it using it…but we can't force ourselves out of it without working with it or at least seeing its limits and having that awareness first…?

    I love that you asked about his name. I always thought, "Reggie Ray, sounds like something on the sports page…"

    Thanks for responding! 🙂

  5. BabyDrala says:

    To reduce a monk to a "skinny white guy in robes" seems really judgmental to me. This I think reveals more about your own expectations and prejudices regarding an intersection of imported / transplanted spiritual traditions and race. I don't believe you can sum up a person's spiritual path and development by approving or disapproving of the clothes they wear. Of the 84,000 sections of Dharma and all the myriad ways that somebody could enter the Dharma, surely there is room for a white monk or nun, or for a Tibetan Rinpoche who wears a shirt and tie, or golf pants and suspenders for that matter. This diversity of flavors, traditions, styles etc. is something to be celebrated, not disparaged or indicted. We are all trying to overcome self-grasping and develop loving-kindness. Some of us can do that while we shop at whole foods and check our Iphones, but others join a monastic tradition for the opportunity to strip down and practice in relative seclusion. Both are fine from my point of view.

  6. […] and #2 probably have more in common with each other, in both style and content. So do #3 and #4. In a recent interview, Reggie Ray says: I recently went to the Garrison Institute [Maha Teachers Conference]. The […]