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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
The Collapse of Certainty
Tami Simon speaks with Alan Clements, a human activist, artist and former Buddhist monk, extensively trained in Buddhist psychology and insight meditation. He is the author of The Voice of Hope, Burma, and a new book, A Future to Believe In. With Sounds True he’s published the audio learning program Natural Freedom. Alan discusses the archetype of feminine power found in the life actions of Burmese Nobel Laureate and activist Aung San Suu Kyi. We also spoke about the collapse of certainty in the face of war and genocide, and the idea of the inter-dependence of our freedom, as well as asking ourselves the question, “What is freedom?” (58 minutes)
Alan Clements podcast
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TAMI SIMON: Today my guest is Alan Clements. Alan is a human activist, artist and former Buddhist monk, extensively trained in Buddhist psychology and insight meditation. He is the author of The Voice of Hope, Burma: The Next Killing Fields, and a new book, A Future to Believe In. With Sounds True he’s published the audio learning program Natural Freedom: The Dharma Beyond Buddhism. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Alan and I spoke about the archetype of feminine power found in the life actions of Burmese Nobel Laureate and activist Aung San Suu Kyi. We also spoke about the collapse of certainty in the face of war and genocide, and the idea of the inter-dependence of our freedom, as well as asking ourselves the question, “What is freedom?” Here’s my conversation with Alan Clements.
We are having this conversation only days after the recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest on again and off again for nearly two decades. And Alan, I’m hoping that you can help us understand what this release means on the world stage, at least to you. Why is this so important to you?
ALAN CLEMENTS: Tami, Aung San Suu Kyi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has come to symbolize the feminine power of caring for things larger than one’s own self, on one hand. On the other hand she’s come to symbolize the power of freedom as a global experience. And the importance to me of her release… (And I draw a distinction, Tami, between being released and being freed. I mean, the bolt of her door was unlocked, she has been allowed to travel to city center and leave with a few journalists, a few interviews have been granted, but knowing her for those six months I spent with her doing the voice of hope, the book that we coauthored, she does not consider herself free when her people are not free—certainly the 2100 political prisoners that are still detained at this very moment, including the 242 nuns and monks that were the leaders of the saffron revolution that many of us witnessed on television that were brutally massacred, many of them beaten or tortured, imprisoned, remain behind bars.)
Aung San Suu Kyi was released, but certainly, in her heart she does not consider herself freed—and I think that’s a very important distinction. For me, ultimately, freedom for her would mean on the one hand that the prisoners are released, her fellow prisoners of conscience, that she’s free to travel without fear of harm, that people are able to gather with her freely and openly with freedom of speech. More to the point, I’ve been advocating in the press and international news over the course of the last few weeks since she’s been released, that she be allowed—granted—the use of a satellite video phone, in the safety of her home, where she’s able to address the united nations general assembly, and let us hear from the lady herself, from Aung San Suu Kyi.
What does she want us to know about how she holds the vision of her country and democracy, the elections that just took place? How does she want us to understand how she refers to a peaceful, nonviolent revolution? How can we participate in that revolution? And she’s calling for dialogue with the regime that imprisoned her—what does she want us to do and know to support that dialogue of reconciliation with whom many in the world consider to be an epic, paternal predator dictatorship?
So in a way she’s representing the archetype of feminine power vs. hyper-aggressive misogyny. Her symbolism and her humanism to me is really about a beautiful new edge of the dharma that on the one hand is decidedly unafraid of merging timeless spiritual truth with radical, nonviolent political leadership. She certainly is a woman whom I really feel will bring something to the world if allowed to speak to the honorable members of the United Nations--and there, let the dialogue begin and show the world the possibility hopefully that the only way that we can solve our differences in the world ultimately is going to be through learning how to talk to one another rather than through cruelty, destruction, and war.
TS: Alan, it might be helpful if you can fill in for our listeners a little bit of the story of how you came to spend time interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi for the book The Voice of Hope and how your relationship with her has progressed over the years.
AC: Well Tami, my first introduction to Burma was back in ’76, when I entered the country as a young kind of American seeker artist desiring to study the ancient teachings of Buddhism, specifically the subject of Vedanta Vipassana meditation, which is most contemporarily known as mindfulness or Vipassana insight meditation. And I had sought to study with Mahasi Sero, who is often referred to as the Dalai Lama of Burma and certainly one of the main monks in the world who brought these ancient teachings of mindful presence to ones life—to Thailand, to Laos, Cambodia, certainly to Europe and of course to America.
At that time, I did not know, Tami, that Burma was a dictatorship, and so I asked to ordain, but I couldn’t because it was one of the most restricted countries on Earth based on this very maniacal totalitarian regime. And for the next year I really kind of pined a kind of unrequited dharma love—I pursued my art in Los Angeles, and eventually, through a serendipity of odd events, we invited a group of these same monks to America, and at the end of that trip I just felt compelled, I guess, like a caterpillar to climb the tree and get into some kind of cocoon--to further this unexplainable metamorphosis of awakening, at least that’s how it felt.
I flew off with Mahasi Sero and these monks back to Rangoon, where, with his support, we petitioned the dictator for me to stay as a monk, and on the seventh day of my visa, about to expire, they granted me this extension, which eventually allowed me to stay in the country for the better part of the next decade. And I guess it was my spiritual Mecca. I felt like I’d come home to something I’d never known before—my heart and my life and my mind. The nuns, the monks, they became my brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, it was a family that was just so profoundly intimate that I would often cry with joy, which was not something that was known to me prior to that.
And then, coming to the end of this story, in 1988, people remember, well, I should say in 1989, when the infamous crackdown on the peaceful protesters in China, in Tiananmen Square, those massacres that took place, well, the year before that, a million people in Burma peacefully took to the streets in what became known as the Massacres of August 8, 1988. And at that time I’d been thrown out of the country and I’d disrobed and friends had been calling me where I lived in California and I could hear gunshots--and frankly my whole world just turned inside out. I was not familiar with the world of violence that I was hearing and seeing from that particular seven days of tragedy in which diplomats said up to ten thousand people were killed--many of them as young as ten, eleven, twelve years--at close range, all of them unarmed. And, uh, so from that I went into the country thinking that I needed to be near my spiritual family and that eventually, from that encounter, with the personal experiences of seeing just gross human rights atrocities. I had never witnessed such things. This all led to the writing of my first book, Burma: The Next Killing Fields. Blessed with a foreword by the Dalai Lama, literally, the title speaks for itself, Tami. I’d spent two months in the jungle, witnessing firsthand not just the persecution, but ethnic cleansin—which was not something I’d seen or known or even conceived of. It still makes me tremble when I think of those unforgettable months witnessing such atrocities, and so…
TS: Can you tell us what you saw, just to give us a sense of why you say that?
AC: I can, I can, you know, I’ve written about it. When you see entire villages that are burned, where even the animals are charcoaled, like a luau, I would often see groups of women fleeing screaming and crying, fleeing from these villages, many of them who would later on tragically talk about forced gang rape. You would often find in these triple canopy jungles where I would spend the time with many of the young students who had fled the cities, who were the protesters during this ’88 uprising, you would find firefights and rocket attacks and even jet attacks, bombings, and so there was a lot of death both that you visually would see, and, I have to say, the smell of death is something that just became too overwhelming for me to understand or to integrate into my so-called Buddhist insight. An understanding of, even its most compelling core quality, of suffering or dukha, well, I just always thought of suffering as some unmet desire, or rejection in a relationship, or not having your needs met. But to see life and death and trauma up so close, set aside mass persecution and genocide, and screaming refugees that were as terrified as anything I’d ever known, it was…
And of course later on I spent nearly a year in the final year of the war in Yugoslavia, so it became something that wasn’t just specific to Burma. It became a desire of mine to understand what is this thing called man’s inhumanity to man, you know. Why are we aggressing upon each another? I mean, it’s one thing to identify greed, anger, and delusion, but I myself felt that these feelings were something I can see in them, and surely they’re in me, and if the conditions were to arise, it may very well be that I’m the one who is the enemy who oppresses another, so it was quite an experience to see that.
And it stayed with me; it really shook me at my bones; it really questioned the very core understanding of my so-called understanding for meditation. And as a result of that, I eventually did several books, and eventually was invited to meet Aung San Suu Kyi by a very dear friend of mine in 1995. Soon after her release from her first six years of detention, my heart was empowered by one question, you know. She called her country’s uprising a revolution of the spirit. And it was that phrase, Tami, that I wanted to know “What do you mean by that?” I invited her to do a book of conversations that I and you have both referred to as The Voice of Hope. And after six months of conversations with her and her principal colleagues, those tapes were transcribed and they eventually became the book, and now here it is, jump time fifteen years later, she’s been under house arrest for the past seven and a half years. Prior to that, a one-and-a-half-year time in her house, a year in prison, and yet, many people refer to Burma as “prisons within a prison.” Yet we have this woman who represents a constellation of other men and women, and together they’re a luminous light of the power of nonviolence and the power of active love and active compassion to confront the tragically outdated, overly outdated, long overdue, outdated patriarchical model of predator, capitalistic-oriented might-is-right. And so, Aung San Suu Kyi isn’t just a woman leader in Burma who’s been released; to me she represents not just the only woman or man in the world, but she represents a very necessary new paradigm of seeing that politics and essence, or spiritual truth, cannot be separated.
TS: Now, you mentioned that being a first-hand witness to genocide, both in Bosnia and in Burma shook you, shook your dharma bones. Shook you in terms of the meditation training that you received? Can you tell me more about that? How did it affect your outlook and your way of being?
AC: Well, it involved deep and irrevocable challenges that were mostly pretty subliminal, in a way. You walk around in a kind of wisdom hallucination, at a certain stage of insight development and then even the whole concept of enlightenment can be seen as a self-generated hallucination. When you really look at it, its function is an absolute experience, and there is no absolute certainty in a universe of infinite mystery. I mean, totalitarianism, the study of it, the psychological study of totalitarianism, is really the study of absolutism, and certainty, and its anathema to intimacy. Its anathema to freedom. Freedom being ultimate diversity.
And so, many aspects of religion, or the orthodoxy of spiritually correct mindfulness, or spiritually correct insight—I mean, what is the progress of insight, what is enlightenment? And how can you articulate stages of enlightenment? Is there an absolute truth in this universe, where there is no up and down, where it’s ultimately non-local, and so what happened for me was that I had unknowingly become fixated, if you will, in my own understanding which I don’t criticize, but I didn’t quite have the confidence in those insights that could stand up in the face of human suffering, as you mentioned, which was torture, murder, rape, and genocide?
I remember one day, Tami, in, outside of Sarajevo--I was with a friend of mine--which was the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I think most listeners will understand or remember that in the town of Srebrenitsa, which was perhaps the largest massacre of human life post holocaust, where nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in a matter of a couple of days by Bosnian Serbs. Well, I had travelled out there with my friend who worked for the United Nations just days after that, and it was really a tunnel into hell, truly on Earth, to see the cyclical and physical carnage of something so horrific. And I remember stopping on the way back after being out there at the scene of the massacres, and we were driving back in silence, and I know it’s a bit of a heavy story, but it’s a heavy time. There’s hope to be found, I think, in the darkest of moments, I pray. And we stopped the car and we looked on the side of the road.
There was a group of people in a field digging, and they were UN workers, and they looked to be excavating what looked to be a mass grave of some of the Bosnians that had been executed. And of course we instantly were just sort of gripped, as anyone would be by the stench of decaying human flesh, and I looked more closely into this ground, this Earth that we’re on right now, spinning through eternity, and there was a hand, Tami, sticking up through the decaying flesh and soil. I could see it; I thought I could see it; I felt I could see it. It was there, and it was golden. I could see a ring, a wedding band on what looked to be this persons hand, man or woman, I don’t know. It was at that moment there was something that just transcended for me—on one hand, you know, I wasn’t married, I’m not married, and marriage to me is the ultimate commitment or bond of healing the great divide in the human heart as well as listening to one another, listening to one another, listening. Do we really listen to one another? And here is this experience of absolutely killing another person because of their ethnicity. Killing a person because of their color. How we persecute people because of their beliefs? It just brought up everything in the sun of the whole notion of non-duality. Is it really possible, ultimately possible, to heal the great divide that Dostoevsky called in his famous quote “Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the Devil are fighting there – and the battlefield is the heart of man.” There’s a lot of talk in the world today about right and wrong, good and bad, the wholeism of being and the power of a unified consciousness. The beauty of non-duality of a seamless presence. The holy undivided, as a friend of mine has coined that term. And I had a breakdown; I went to my knees. And in some way I realized that my heart was equally divided as—probably, I guess—I don’t know about anyone, but it was deeply divided—I had not reconciled the inherent tensions of greed and anger and delusion. I had no safe ground inside that I could call, or that I could stand on, called lovingkindness at all costs. I could not do what Aung San Suu Kyi just did, when she was released and when she talked about what she felt about her oppressors, for the last seven and a half years. She said, “I hold no grudge.”
I don’t know that I could do that, I don’t think that I could do that, I don’t feel that in me, and I didn’t feel that at that time. And so my breakdown was the collapse of certainty. My insights just seemed to dissolve in thin air, and I felt vulnerable again for the first time, and I cried both with torment and joy, the tragedy of seeing this hand sticking out reminded me that there’s a lot left in this world to explore. And I guess I would call it the great second coming of my dharma life, Tami, I felt reborn into…okay, you’ve been a monk, you’ve had insights, you thought you were enlightened, you’ve taught many dozens--perhaps even hundreds--of retreats, you’ve written books, you’ve met a world famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a devotee and apostle of nonviolence. And you’re face to face with ethnic carnage, ethnic genocide, and you’ve had a breakdown of confidence. And there I wept, and something came out of that. And the essence of it was the beauty of freedom. The freedom was larger and more indivisible than freedom born from mindfulness, freedom born from any particular tradition. And I’ll end with this to end this particular moment of this conversation—but, you know, everyone today pretty much understands the impact of climate change. I mean, Al Gore’s movie Inconvenient Truth brought that front and center as one major expression of information about, well, how should I say, the pollution in Beijing today, which everyone knows affects the quality of air in, say, Boulder. But very few people in my circles, or where I look and feel, understand that the woman raped is Lassa today by a Chinese soldier, or that the homeless on the streets of Vancouver who’s starving and hitting up with a dirty needle with heroin that’s coming from both Afghanistan and also Burma, care of the generals in the Taliban, know that that rape and that person with the needle in her or his arm affects the quality of our own freedom. It’s very hard to feel the cyclical, emotional circuitry of that infinite interconnectedness. Whereas at a biological level, we know that second hand smoke affects the person who’s in the room. But do we feel that the pollution of someone’s freedom, the compromise of someone’s human rights in another country--we’re really, really, on a visceral level, an emotional level, well, it is the same compromise/ impact in our heart here and now, and I think that’s the evolutional edge that I’m trying to feel that happened in Srebrenitsa. And certainly what I feel Aung San Suu Kyi represents today. There’s this universality that on an emotional level, a deeply inter-related level, of freedom, not just global human rights. What is freedom? That’s the question of the era, and how can we sanctify it, elevate it, and expand it?
TS: Well, and then cycling back to your first comment, about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, that she may be released, but she is not free, because her fellow prisoners of conscience aren’t free, well then, she won’t be free, we won’t be free, until everyone is free? I mean, this sounds like a Bodhisattva freedom pledge or something.
AC: Well, Tami, I would say that you’ve said it extremely well, in fact she’s saying the very same thing that you’re saying. She’s saying we are not free. “Either we are all free together, or we are all not free together.” Aung San Suu Kyi last week said, “If my people are not free, how can you say I’m free?” An identical Bodhisattvic comment. It’s the same comment that Desmond Tutu the Nobel Laureate from South Africa, who’s a remarkable supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi: He used to concept of Ubuntu --which perhaps you and many listeners are familiar with—a South African word that he defines as that which when you feel the emotion of Ubuntu in your own spirit, heart, and mind, when that’s present, you’ll feel that what someone else is feeling compromised> You’ll feel that compromise as if it’s your own. When someone else is feeling elevated, with the emotion of Ubuntu present, which is really the emotion of inter-relatedness, it’s intersubjectivity as experience. Ubuntu. Bodhisattvic energy. Intersubjective experience. Felt realities, not cognitive or conceptual. And I think Aung San Suu Kyi, a Buddhist, of course, and South Africa with the concept of Ubuntu, and a lot of the evolutional sciences, physics in the broad spectrum, from theoretical to quantum—well, I think we’re all feeling the impulse today that there’s one lung, and lots of variations on the inhalation of that one atmosphere.
Taking that atmosphere of freedom from a biological level to a spiritual level to an emotional level to a consciousness level, it’s not just as easy as going from individuality to oneness, to transcend not separateness, but to go from the one to the two to the three to the four, to start caring for one another, as we would a friend, a lover, a mother, or a daughter. I think that’s what Aung San Suu Kyi is posing as --although I am released, I am not free because of my people are not being freed. I think that today is for me a very important message not just for contemporary seekers and dharma students and teachers, but perhaps for the survival of the species, the biosphere, and perhaps even the evolution of the cosmos itself. It is how we expand the direct experience of shared experience rather than individual freedom.
TS: And, in this moment, what I’m curious about, we talked about the freedom that Aung San Suu Kyi is looking for in terms of her people being freed as well as her release, but for you, Alan, what does freedom mean in terms of a world that’s in the condition that it’s in now, with people who are suffering in the way that they’re suffering? What does it mean for you, Alan Clements, to be or not be free?
AC: Essentially it’s the recognition, Tami, that I’m free to talk with you at this very moment, I have my six physical senses that are present. For example, if all of a sudden the telecommunications that we’re now operating through went silent, we immediately stop talking, there’s no freedom of interconnectedness through silicon technology and the various resources required to keep that technology alive and interconnected. If I lost my vocal cords, the loss of voice—imagine losing free speech—imagine losing the ability of the function of your ears—so it’s the direct, personal experience of some kind of reverence, a deep reverence if you will, a sacredness, an experience of the sacred as connected to the sensory apparatus itself. That I’m alive, I’m human, I have a young daughter, my hands, I can touch her, we can dance—so it’s the most physical honor of body, and of course, mind.
I have a very dear friend who was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s really quite mind-blowing to see, how memory impacts experience and perception. How easy it is to assume certainty based upon concepts and knowledge. All of a sudden you are taken for granted. The proximity to another who knows you and knows your history, well, all of a sudden you begin to fade and that person no longer recognizes key moments of their life, or friends, their daughter, even their wife, and you hardly ever go through a day where you can really remember and kind of feel the sacredness, just a moment of perception, much less the loss of memory. So these basic, biological aspects of being are remarkably important for me to understand. Essential freedoms, and of course being in countries, Tami, where’s there’s been the absolute disregard for human rights--freedom of speech, freedom of congregation.
When I met Aung San Suu Kyi in ’95, for example, she walked to her front gate like she did just ten days ago; she stood over the fence and people gathered. But in a totalitarian regime where gatherings of five or more are a crime against the state where you could either be imprisoned or lose your home, or both, people started to gather there at the gate. And they did so defiantly, knowingly, that by sitting there listening to their beloved leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the cost to that would be the very strong likelihood of incarceration—minimal losing your house and job. To see, feel that truth. And there I was, I always had an American passport, I could leave or be deported, but the crowds went from 5 to 10 to 100 to 10,000—and some were kids, as young as six, eight, nine. Everyone there getting filmed and photographed. Many of them ending up in prison, or losing their jobs and homes.And, very much like today, for example, just two days ago Aung San Suu Kyi visited a township on the outside of Rangoon, which the BBC reported the other day as their top story. There were eighty patients with AIDS, HIV. Imagine. And Aung San Suu Kyi went simply to tend to them in presence. And five-hundred people gathered, and she gave an impromptu talk on the importance of their dharma to put love and compassion into action. And to help and serve the underprivileged, the needy. As a result of that, Tami, the very next day the regime closed that government-sponsored clinic and literally evicted all eighty patients. As a result of punishing Aung San Suu Kyi for having visited them. That’s Burma’s government. And, it’s an unthinkable loss of freedom, an incredible expression of compassion. And the weight of that responsibility of that upon her shoulders and upon her co-activists—to be so hemmed in, to do something so remarkable and generous.
And so I sit at my home here in Vancouver and I think about freedom; I think about the importance not so much of the freedom that I have but of the importance of knowing how I can support the freedom of other people and to feel more intimately that my freedom is deeply interconnected with theirs. For me, freedom is about freedom in action, what am I doing today to utilize the gift of my body, my hands, my voice, my creative mind, my thoughts, and to express it, to elevate it, and to do what I can to safeguard freedom perhaps as the oxygen of civilized existence, and of course on a more deeply existential level or deeply spiritual dharmic level you could go into more intimate or nuanced levels of freedom. How able am I to overcome the centrifugal force of my own self-centeredness? You know, it’s one thing to love those who love you, as Jesus said, but even the tax collectors can do as such. So, expand beyond my gravitational pull of Alan-ness to give more, to listen more intimately. To question more carefully, to look more carefully, and to try to decode my own self-deception. My own denial, my own repression into, or as Aung San Suu Kyi would say, to keep on seeking to be a better person. The freedom to be a better person. It means a lot to me.
TS: The question I’m asking, as I’m thinking of different Sounds True teachers, is who will talk about being free in this moment, and that this freedom is available? And of course, when they’re saying that I think that they’re not necessarily tuning into what you’re describing, which is if there is anyone who’s not free somewhere in the world, that it has a ripple effect and is impacting that supposedly free person in the present moment. And I’m curious, it’s almost like we may be talking at different levels here, but I’m curious what you think about that, do you think that’s a type of hallucinatory freedom? I’m free in this present moment?
AC: Well, it really depends on how an individual defines his or her freedom. I mean obviously under the Bush era, it was one of the most tortured, abused words ever used. Let’s kill them to liberate them from—to free them. From their circumstance. So it became somewhat of a tortured concept. I would only have to ask anyone who considered themselves free what they mean by that. You know, I can talk about a basic hundred questions on my own, but I can’t generalize, and you know, the Buddha put forth if we can look at those texts not so much as a historical record of an individual, but just a body of knowledge that’s been collected from 2600 years. I mean, there’s an ontological reference point in those teachings that defines freedom as the absolute absence of fear, anger, and delusion. That type of freedom, personally, I don’t know it, but you can’t even say you’ve tasted glimpses of it, because I’ve seen from my own experience. You might have long periods of time where you feel relatively calm, silent, or however you want to define your interior characteristics that illuminate the idea of freedom. But as I was mentioning during my time in areas of extreme conflict, the refugee areas or war zones, that freedom is relative indeed, it’s very easy for me on one level to be free and calm in the company of a hundred silent meditators. Very complex in the day-to-day life of the intimate relationship or as a parent. And unthinkably complex in refugee camps, and certainly, beyond anything I could comprehend in war zones, for those brief moments, to juxtapose any sense of absolute freedom in the face of that level of complexity. So I think it’ very contextual, that we must see the freedom in a contextual experience. And I think that the evolutional edge for me. I can’t say it should be for anyone else. I’m participating in the future of Earth by trying to understand how I spend my money, how I live my life, how I use things and how it affects my neighbor, other countries, and the future of life environmentally. And I think the same thing is being looked at today on a deeper and more discerning level of consciousness. So I see freedom as more of an evolutional process than an absolute state of mind.
TS: I didn’t follow that last thing you said—that this is similarly, you were talking about your ecological concerns being looked at, at the level of consciousness—can you explain that?
AC: The same thing for me today is being said for me at the level of freedom, because I feel that oxygen, that the purity of atmosphere, is very deeply concerning to me. The purity of the oceans, the purity of the water. The purity of the food, the non-contamination of the air. And I think the same thing is being done on the level of freedom, and the purity of that freedom, and the sanctity of global human rights. And I do want to know how to feel more intimately that we’re in not just a biosphere but a cyclical sphere of consciousness, again, to use the example that the political prisoner in Burma—their incarceration—I’m not free until they’re free. And that’s the thing that I want to understand, and to live my life more compassionately, to support that process.
TS: Now, tracking back a little bit, you said something very interesting that when you were trained as a monk that something came from that training that was a type of certainty--that you felt you had a kind of knowing and that then experiencing the atrocities that you saw first hand sort of woke you up to living without that certainty. And I’m curious, what happened in your monastic experience that led to certainty?
AC: I would, in a nutshell, I think it’s self-deception. I think in hierarchical systems, and trainings, where there’s governing boards of the authenticity of your insight--the religion of vipassana, the religion of dosha, the religion of Buddhism, the religion of Sufiism, the religion of non-duality--those kind of concepts, the orthodoxy of non-duality, the orthodoxy of a vipassana training, you know, those are provocative concepts, and it’s very easy to assume certainty about a state of mind based upon the validation of teachers in a lineage. And it’s also having seen many hundreds of meditators in my own training in Burma and other places in the world—how easy it is to assume a certainty about something that really didn’t happen, quite frankly. And so, it becomes sort of a kind of strange form of cultism in which there is this assumption that you make about yourself that it’s been validated by the hierarchy in the system that you both now have agreed--unknowingly agreed, often—that you both know. And then, when people come to you, they don’t know. And you’re very kind about that not knowing, but now I’ll teach you a path in training on how you can know what I know that you don’t know. And that issue of knowing and not knowing is very rarely, I find, in my thirty-odd years of searching, deeply questioned by the hierarchy itself.
And so, are there systems. And are there ways of checks and balances within the so-called hierarchy that question one’s own certainty? And for me, personally, I put under the looking glass the entire concept of insight and even enlightenment. You know, those concepts themselves, to me, need deep, deep decoding, because they often point to the cult of certainty, that certainty often goes into absolutism, and from absolutism it’s not hard, as I saw in Bosnia, Burma—and lots of other places—where there’s certainty, you all of a sudden have a religion, and a religion becomes an orthodoxy, and from an orthodoxy you start to kill in the name of truth, freedom. And so, radical vulnerability may be a characteristic of insight. In my insight it wasn’t. My enlightenment didn’t have the characteristic of radical uncertainty or radical vulnerability. Or not-knowingness. It had just the opposite. And so, my breakdown was born from denial, self-deception, and the religiousity that was inherent in my mind that was needed in a way to carry my insecurity out into the world. And I think the hardest thing that I’ve been able to handle out here is just—listen—there are no safeguards, no security, there is no refuge. Ultimately, other than your own integrity and your dignity, and you have to define that. I have not yet found an insight that riddles across or resonates across a spectrum of interbeingness that renders the demonstrative forces of—to put it in a simple way—good and bad—genocide and ecstasy. Neutral. I have not seen it. Nor have I seen it in anyone. But that’s just one person’s opinion, of course.
TS: Now, I think I’ve put enlightenment under a magnifying glass and torn it apart, but this idea of putting insight under such a looking glass—tell me what insight looks to you when it starts getting pulled apart.
AC: Well, now one could say about Buddhism, classic Theraveda Buddhism, that in the anicha classa dukha classical change means that things are always in this evanescent state of infinite flux. I mean, on one level it makes sense to use those words. But all of a sudden, you know, someone comes to my door, knocks on it, says, “Listen, you’re Arab-American and you’re no longer allowed to live in this home. And this deed is no longer in your name, and this house is no longer yours.” In nature to an extent, all of a sudden someone pulls a gun out and says, “Listen, I really mean business.” Then shoots your daughter. Then you’re out. That was Bosnia. That level of anicha is radical.
TS: Anicha meaning impermanence, yeah.
AC: Impermanence, yes. That nothing that you stand on could be considered secure. Or stable.Suffering, for example, dukha, the classical essence of the Buddhist teaching, in a way. You know, it’s one thing to understand suffering on a gross level, of course; there’s disease and old age, losing loved ones and limbs and arms and headaches and toothaches and all the various things that happen. But to lose an internet. I mean really, and to feel that—the boy and girl in Palestine, the nuns and monks in Tibetan Burma, the homeless on the streets of New York and Paris and London, all the various ways at this very moment—a billion of us, and all the other countless forms of life. And the environment itself in this radical state of flux with the characteristic of at times torment, anguish—and how many political prisoners have been tortured. It’s just unthinkable that the universe throws up in our face potentials that just stagger my heart. And again, going back to some of these experiences…I mean I have relatively experienced dukha as knee pain and back pain and rejection and loss and this and that—but I have never been with seven women who are paralyzed in their trauma and can’t even cry because of the loss of their children being executed and raped in front of their eyes. Though these insights may be true in your experience.
But again, weighing them across the spectrum of more and more epic potentials, that level of kind of inferential possibility, I think it’s important for us to have –I guess that’s what modesty and humility means. So, to banter around the concept of enlightenment the way I hold it is, and maybe people hold it differently, but it seems to have the ring of certainty, and that to me is anathema to one of the core qualities that I find beautiful today, which is just the innocence of not knowing and the purity of a vulnerable heart that recognizes that anything you see happening in the world could happen to you right now. And likely will.
TS: Now, you said you spent six months interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi. And in that time, I’m curious what some of the most important things were that she said that changed you.
AC: I have to say, pretty much, Tami, you know, being with that lady was both a privilege and an honor, but at the same time, it’s whom she introduced me to as well. I used the word earlier on in our conversation, or I think I did, that Aung San Suu Kyi is of course a woman, a remarkable lady. A remarkable person. Attributes are tremendous compassion, she has what she calls menta, a deep interest in otherness. She holds the nation as family; she’s a mother of freedom and in some ways cares for your freedom almost more than you care for it. But it’s the people that she introduced me to—and she’s the first to say, “Although I suffered, it’s the people in my country who suffer far more than I do.” And she’s a constellation of about seven or eight or nine women whom are her mentors and colleagues, Tami, that I had the privilege to co-associate with those months. That together formed and reformed and illuminated parts of my heart and psyche that I had not felt or nurtured, and one of the qualities I came away with was that they’re really funny. They’re funny people. They’re defiant; they use satire and comedy as a weapon, and not often do people see that about the Burmese or the Burmese Buddhists or Aung San Suu Kyi. She’s remarkably witty, defiantly satirical, super smart, and in a way, she’s not untouchable or impervious to any pain. She on the one side can laugh and celebrate in her autonomous joy, and another time she’ll meet a political prisoner or a family of those who are imprisoned and you can see her crying with them. So she has a great feeling capacity.
I think to answer your question is that is it essence. I was curious about the way in which she used the phrase “Our non-violent revolution is called a revolution of the spirit.” Very much today she’s using our revolution as a peaceful nonviolent revolution. I asked her, Aung San Suu Kyi, what is the meaning of that to you? She said, Alan, you were in front of the gate recently, and you heard me speak. Everyone there risked incarceration. It’s the courage to stand up for what you know to be true. It’s the courage to care for things larger than your own self-interest. In short, the essence of revolution, radical change, peaceful nonviolent revolution, is the courage to see, the courage to feel, and the courage to act upon what you see and what you feel in support of another person’s freedom as your own. And those were the three most salient words and I guess expressions of Aung San Suu Kyi’s essence that stayed with me. The courage to feel another person as self, and the courage to act upon that feeling as if that person were self, for the purpose of elevating their freedom as your own freedom. And I think that’s really what Aung San Suu Kyi ultimately is about. A deep love for interrelatedness and the experience of freedom that’s co-associated with that. That deep, visceral connectivity.
TS: Beautiful, thank you. Finally, just one last question, Alan. One of the themes running through our conversation that has been very meaningful to me is the idea that we can fall into these times, these places of self-deception where we think we know what’s going on, we’ve had some taste of something big and vast and we think we have some kind of knowing, then it becomes calcified in some way. My question to you is, How did you stay true to that radical vulnerability which you mentioned, that embrace of uncertainty, how do you stay close to that, you personally—how do you do that?
AC: Well, Tami, it’s a very personal affair for me; it’s not necessarily that spiritual. In Burma, with my--the birth of my dharma as a monk, and later as a layperson—eventually, it wasn’t so much as an activist but as a response to a family—who were being persecuted by a regime. So, my family has grown, from my daughter to my friends and partners, to embrace this country, this quest, this nonviolent quest for liberation from their own internal processes of fear and anger, the liberation from dictatorship. And Aung San Suu Kyi, as a friend and a mentor, and the men and women near her are friends and mentors. And having been in a twenty-five-year relationship with them, it’s just a daily reminder that my freedom is deeply interrelated to those people, and I feel honored to have them in my life on a daily level. To be able to speak about them.
And also, having a daughter in my life, I mentioned earlier, perhaps, before the recording started, that I was an accidental monk. I went to Burma to meditate, I ordained to be able to stay. I was an accidental writer. I was asked to do all of my books; I never really chose to do them. Except, actually, for the most recent book, A Future to Believe In, that I wrote for my daughter. I’m an accidental activist, but equally an accidental dad, and my daughter, a four-year-old girl, Sarabella, she reminds me on an everyday level of the beauty of innocence, of how she can’t care for herself, and of the importance of really learning the language of not teaching, but listening. Seeing her as teaching, without me as guide. And to allow myself to be nurtured by that humility from someone so young and open and innocent. And to feel the feelings I feel for her as my daughter, and to not be so negligent or naive or narrow or arrogant as to assume that my daughter stops when I see a child other than her, or an adult, or even someone who may be considered to be an enemy. So she becomes a living example of the power of love to that extent and beyond her. To the people, both whom I meet every day, as best as I can, and of course, the human village and life as we know it on this planet, and expand outward from there in the peaceful exploration of this infinite cosmos, and you know, life, the universe of life. How do we keep evolving the miracle of life and the miracle of love? Feeling. Feeling, feeling the beauty of life is, I think, the best teaching to keep me radically alive to the best of me and to keep hearing and seeing the best in others. Feeling. It hurts to feel.
I’ve been speaking with Alan Clements, just a little while after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma. Alan is someone who has worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi and has also recorded with Sounds True an audio recording called Natural Freedom: The Dharma Beyond Buddhism. SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey.