Natural Freedom: An Interview with Alan Clements

During his formal training as a Buddhist monk in Burma, Alan Clements had the good fortune to study with two of the most respected meditation masters of our time, the late Mahasi Sayadaw and his successor Sayadaw U Pandita. Since then, Clements' experiences in the genocidal conflicts in both Burma and the former Yugoslavia have led him to expand his teaching outside the realm of classical Buddhism, into an area he calls “the dharma beyond Buddhism.” His tireless efforts on behalf of oppressed peoples worldwide have led Jack Healy, former Amnesty International director, to call Alan “one of the most important and compelling voices of our time.” He is the author of The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sounds True: What do you mean by “natural freedom?”

Alan Clements: As fragrance is innate to a flower, so too is freedom innate to the heart. Freedom is our essence. This is as obvious as standing out in nature and asking, “Where is nature found?” It's all around you, and in you. When you know “true nature” as such, you wake up, you begin living again, and in some way, you stop dying inside. The Buddha called this realization Nirvana, or the “deathless.” This is something you don't actually learn, so much as “feel into” as a progressive set of realizations. It comes from the inside out, and flows through the pores of your entire being. Herein lies natural freedom. Remembering we have nothing to fear when we are true to ourselves. The authentic spiritual life is not about fitting in, or transcending some imaginary self. It's about being a person, obliterating fear, and doing something remarkable with our lives.

Sounds True: How does this relate to classical Buddhism?

Alan Clements: To me the Buddha is a metaphor for radical courage and self-honesty. Blazing your own trail, following your most natural calling: the instinct for freedom. Furthermore, these teachings are rooted in a concept the Buddha explained as his basic attitude as he pursued liberation. He said that he made each and every person he met his ultimate object of reverence. In other words, we cannot become free in isolation. Thus we must become devoted to life and not to dogmatic theories or teachings.

We no longer need to be confined by the motifs of spiritual vs. nonspiritual, dharma vs. adharma, American vs. Tibetan. We are bigger than that. It's time we evolved a new language of world truths, world dharma, that transcends culture and nationalism, politics and religion, and all forms of tribalism. I believe we must open a door to a truly universal dharma—one that is transcultural, nonsectarian, and utterly human.

Sounds True:Given the world today, how can we start to realize such a vision?

Alan Clements: As Dostoevsky once said, “The battlefield is the heart of man.” The activist knows this and enters the battle where it really happens, inside the heart. Activism, like meditation, is an inner dance; the outside is merely a personification of one's ignorance or wisdom.

So firstly, you must celebrate your own dignity and innate beauty. If we cannot rejoice in our own freedom, we cannot understand and creatively support the hopes and aspirations of others, which is the basis of authentic activism.

Secondly, we must be present, right here and now, with whomever we are engaging. Activism means the ability to show up with your heart, purpose, and passion, ready to serve, to help, to touch and be touched.

Thirdly, you must try to communicate the preciousness of all life. Do not be fooled that enlightenment is a state beyond this world: it isn't. The dharma is seen in the eyes of the person right in front of you. That is where activism becomes enlightened: finding liberation through living, right now.

Alan Clements

Alan Clements Return to top of page

Alan Clements is an author, activist, performing artist, former Buddhist monk, and one of the West’s foremost nonsectarian dharma teachers. He is also a leading authority on Burma’s nonviolent str...

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