Buddhist Training for Modern Life

A discussion with Segyu Rinpoche and Lawrence Levy of the Juniper School

In "Buddhist Training for Modern Life" (Interview, Spring 2012), Segyu Rinpoche, the founder of the Juniper School, discusses how Juniper is extending the lineage of Buddhist transmission in a way that is suited to a Western understanding. In this community discussion we will be exploring culturally appropriate ways to transmit Buddhist teachings to Westerners. How do we avoid, on one side, the danger of mimicking cultural artifacts that have little meaning in a new place and, on the other side, losing the potency of the tradition? What is the benefit of holding a lineage for ourselves and others, and how do we meet the responsibility of doing so?

Please share your thoughts and questions on this topic or any other topic in the interview. The discussion leaders are Segyu Rinpoche and Lawrence Levy of the Juniper School.

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Lawrence Levy's picture

For modern culture to embrace the extraordinary Buddhist methods for enhancing the mind and human experience, we must overcome the feeling that they belong to someone else - that we are borrowing something that is not really ours. We have to generate a strong sense of ownership while honoring the rich heritage from which this tradition came. This is the spirit behind our work at Juniper - to embed this tradition in our culture without diminishing it. We would like to see many of us rally around the idea that the great Buddhist tradition of developing the mind belongs to us as much as it belongs to anyone else, and to collectively share the joys and challenges of making it ours, nurturing it, and passing it on. We can each feel, "I am relevant to this," "I am proud of this," "I am part of something." Please join us by learning more about Juniper at www.juniperpath.org, or sending an email with any questions or further thoughts to team@juniperpath.org. Thank you for participating, and thank you to Tricycle for conducting the interview and hosting the discussion.

cmpascale's picture

Dear Juniper, In this interview Segyu Rinpoche discusses the importance of lineage —in Juniper the relationship between student and teacher is clearly very important. Would you talk a little about how Juniper sees the relationship between student and teacher? For example, How does one becomes a student? Is taking refuge involved? What can students expect from their relationship with a teacher in the Juniper lineage? Does being a student in this lineage carry any obligations? Thank you!

Lawrence Levy's picture

Good question. There are no objective criteria - obligations, commitments and the like - for a relationship with a teacher any more than there are for a partner, friend, or any other special relationship in one's life. It is a relationship founded on mutual respect and trust, and the desire to enjoy and share a journey together. Therefore, perhaps I can best answer this by reporting on my relationship with Segyu Rinpoche.

After spending a few years exploring eastern ideas in general, and Buddhist ideas in particular, I met Rinpoche. Over time I came to see that I had found someone who knew me better than I knew myself, who seemed to know exactly when to push and when to hold back, who treated me with dignity and respect, and who listened patiently as I tried to work out the nuances of this path. I don't want to say the work has all been smooth sailing. Our defenses try to protect even those inner habits that are hurting us, and it can be challenging to penetrate them. But by committing myself to a path and slowly opening myself to a relationship with a teacher, I have grown in ways I could not have imagined. Looking back, I would say the only obligation is a sincere desire to learn and grow, coupled with the will to stick to it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Do you see yourself eventually inheriting the role of Rinpoche?

Lawrence Levy's picture

The role of a Rinpoche is to maintain, hold, and propagate the methods and energy of the lineage so it can be used to help others. What makes it a "lineage" is the ability to pass on this capacity. This is the biggest challenge in establishing the tradition in a new culture. We see many self-proclaimed teachers, but what validates the capacity to teach in an empowering manner? One function of lineage is to provide this authenticity.

In terms of how Juniper implements this, we will not have another title of "Rinpoche" because that title is part of Tibetan tradition, bestowed according to their process. Our goal is to train others to hold and propagate the methods of Buddhist training, with the same potency as before and in ways suited to our culture and future generations. In Juniper's case, designating who has this capacity is up to Segyu Rinpoche; I am a student.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Is the tulku system no longer necessary in propagating Buddhism today?

Lawrence Levy's picture

I don't think the tulku system has ever been necessary to propagate Buddhism. Buddhism was propagated for well over a thousand years before the tulku system, and Buddhism has been propagated in many schools without the tulku system ever being a part of it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What is your belief regarding the eternal cycle of life and death?

Lawrence Levy's picture

As Segyu Rinpoche points out in the interview, we do not follow classic theories, including the cycle of life and death, where they are contradicted by modern knowledge. He also describes how this willingness to question ancient theories is called for by Buddhist ideas (and is one of the reasons Buddhist ideas are so well suited to modern times).

Dominic Gomez's picture

Yet he was recognized as a reincarnate lama. Does he now disavow his identity?

Lawrence Levy's picture

I think we covered this one earlier in the discussion thread, under the topic "Reincarnation." Rather than repeat here, please take a look.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If "Rinpoche is a reincarnated lama" isn't this a "classic theory (the cycle of life and death) contradicted by modern knowledge"?

Lawrence Levy's picture

The full quote is "In the eyes of Segyu Rinpoche's Tibetan teachers, Rinpoche is a reincarnated lama." But as we go onto say "Rinpoche honors this recognition and relationship even though it is not part of how Juniper is bringing this tradition to modern culture."

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thus qualifying you as religious reformers a la Martin Luther vis a vis the Vatican hegemony?

Craig3's picture

My wife and I are lucky enough to be local to Juniper and recently joined. We can tell all Tricycle readers that Juniper is a great and welcoming program for those new to Buddhism and is a deep immersion both analytically and spiritually. Do not confuse "translation" to Western culture to a dumbing down or changing of philosophy. So far as we can tell based on the Buddha biographies and books we have read on Buddhism or the books by the Dalai Lama, the teachings of Juniper are very consistent with the historic teachings. Approachable, but not diluted. Translated but loyal to the lineage.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Much appreciated, Craig. You capture well what Juniper represents. We think of Juniper as having two defining aspects: lineage and aesthetic. For the lineage we have Segyu Rinpoche to thank. He brings the connection and deep roots in a longstanding and potent tradition for developing the mind. The aesthetic includes Juniper's look and feel, the language we use for delivering Buddhist ideas, and the way we structure the content. By bringing these together we believe Buddhist training will be, as Rinpoche describes in the interview, "a cutting-edge methodology for advancing human civilization."

We're delighted that you are part of what we're doing, and we welcome anyone to join our Tuesday and every-other-Saturday meditations in Redwood City, California.

iguignet's picture

i really like what Juniper are doing here. Hopefully the Sangha will spread to the UK :)

Lawrence Levy's picture

Thanks! If it helps any, I was born and raised in London. I left for the US many moons ago, when I was 16. So, yes, I'd love to see this spread to the UK too!

Bernay's picture

What about Ethics? The Eigth Fold Path has this very important component called Sila.

I experienced over the years that without Sila in my daily life my meditation (and my life in general) does not go very far in term of peace and equanimity.

With Metta

Lawrence Levy's picture

Thank you for raising this important topic. We do focus on ethics, but ethics is also the root of dogma, so we need to be careful. Rather than prescribe a set of rules, we favor the natural arising of positive conduct that happens as individuals engage a path of self-development.

It is a quick slide from ethics to dogma. For example, the ethical conventions of yesterday may fail us in a world grappling with stem cell research, morning after pills, safe sex, medical marijuana, same-sex marriage, and so on. One person's ethics may be another person's prison, and ethics that are too constrained put us at risk of religiosity, paranoia, and self-punishment.

Buddhist insight philosophy tells us not to get stuck—that ideas, including ethical standards, are conventions that are the product of time and circumstance. This is not an excuse to treat our conduct loosely. On the contrary, understanding our emotions, cultivating concern for others, and developing deeper levels of insight - all central to Buddhist training - put us in touch with the consequences of our actions, sensitizing us to consider and work on ethical challenges. If we apply these tools for training the mind, we believe ethics will follow. Thus, rather than advocate ethical precepts that apply to everyone, we feel these are choices to be made by each one of us.

This does not mean we avoid taking positions, however. We want to see human rights and decency everywhere, free from the burdens of political or religious dogma. Check out our article, A Buddhist Vote for Same Sex Marriage, for example (link below). In short, rather than the application of a black and white set of precepts, we see ethics as an ongoing exercise in discernment.


d2275766's picture

The line between good and evil runs through a persons heart. Which side we are on is up to us. Within each of us is Hitler and Ghandi. When we say us and them we are forgetting this basic truth. It's all about discissions and consequences. My most important lessons were from people who were mirrors reflecting back the parts of me I don't like. When I have a strong reaction towards a person I ask myself why. Usually it's because they are teaching me a lesson.Dave

Dominic Gomez's picture

It is the heart that is important. And our environment is the perfect reflection of it. To clearly see this is called enlightenment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Qualities that define humanity are not a given just because we are born humans. They are learned from those around us and need to be excercised to be retained.

binglebeads's picture

You mention building blocks of the path (Meditation, Balancing Emotions, Cultivating Compassion and Developing Wisdom). It seems like meditation is a technique that can be taught and then practiced (and the Juniper website has class "Meditation for Modern Life" and weekly meditations scheduled). The other blocks sound less simple to learn. How does Juniper "teach" Balancing Emotions, Cultivating Compassion and Developing Wisdom?

Lawrence Levy's picture

That's a good question. Thank you. We teach Balancing Emotions, Cultivating Compassion and Developing Wisdom with three methods: meditation, review & discussion, and guidance:

Meditation: We practice two types of meditation, concentration and analytical. Concentration meditation is focusing the mind on an object to build focus, stability and mental strength. Analytical meditation is applying the mind to a particular topic and contemplating that topic during meditation. These are guided meditation topics from the emotions, compassion and wisdom content. The idea is to familiarize ourselves with the ideas and slowly integrate them to enhance our lives.

Review & Discussion: We encourage review and discussion of these topics. We always have a discussion component in our Tuesday and Saturday group meditations, for example. The goal of the discussion is not to find the "right answer" but to work with the material, as it relates to each of us. Invariably we find everyone has something important to add, and the process deepens our understanding.

Guidance: We offer individual guidance that addresses how to integrate these ideas specifically into our lives.

We are now examining ways to do this at a distance. Using live streaming and online communication tools we would like to make the same methodology available anywhere.

jshanson's picture

Thank you.

jshanson's picture

I often recall what someone once said "around the simple act of meditation more horseshit and nonsense, natter and chatter has evolved than the Buddha could ever have imagined."

Lawrence Levy's picture

Good point, although I suspect the Buddha well understood our propensity to make "natter and chatter" out of great ideas.

There is also a danger, I think, of over-simplification. The Buddha did not just talk about meditation. As far as we know, he talked about the mind, emotions, how we perceive reality, and so on. The fact is, the human mind is complex. Much as we might like one, we have no simple formula to free the mind from hardship and allow our hearts and spirits to soar. We need a path that is simple enough to not overwhelm us, yet deep enough to address our inner needs. Our view is that we can accomplish this by, on the one side, cultivating a teaching lineage that serves as a catalyst for one's inner growth - a transformational energy or force if you will - and, on the other side, presenting the path in a manner and style that makes it accessible to us.

rmorley33's picture

I greatly appreciate the Juniper approach to Buddhism, recognizing some of the Tibetan traditions as being more historical/cultural than the religious essense of Buddhism. Raised a Presbyterian, my first contact with Buddism, unbeknownst to me at the time, was my reading as a teenager of the German psychologist Eric Fromm, who left me with the realization that to avoid a terror of being all alone, we establish identities for ourselves (male/female; young/old; American; Democrat etc) and magnify their significance to the point that there are we/them dualities in our lives where, generally "we" is more important, better and the "they" can be belittled or even killed in battle. The way out of this morass, I found was the "Universal We" where we are all connected, are all one. Buddha, then gives a wonderful perspective to this in his: "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." And back to the protection of the small "we", we create and agree to a group think and a group reality which is not "REAL" and is often quite destructive.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Universal We is buddha nature. You are a Buddha. So is everyone else in the world. Shouldn't it seem horrific for Buddhas to kill other Buddhas?

Lawrence Levy's picture

Well said. One can think of Buddhism as a path to slowly undo the inner stories that have us in their grip, so our potential is free to flourish. We can describe this as occurring in three phases, or moments, of one's inner development. The first is "dogma" where the inner stories are in full control (even inner stories about Buddhist ideas such as karma and the like). The second is critical analysis, where we examine the inner constructs on which our experience is based. And the third is "intuitive wisdom" where we are no longer trapped by self-limiting stories and understand that no idea or convention is the ultimate expression of the way things have to be. These ideas are captured in a short paper Juniper wrote called The Three Moments, available here: http://www.juniperpath.org/library/DDA991/The+Three+Moments

Lawrence Levy's picture

A healthy relationship with a teacher has tremendous potential to bring about inner growth and transformation. In some cultures, Buddhist teachers take on an almost omniscient status, heralded as enlightened beings whose words are beyond question. This ferments a top-down, submissive structure, one that is not always conducive to one’s growth. As we plant a lineage in modern soil, we must wrestle with whether to mimic these traditional structures, or whether to forge teacher relationships that match our norms and psychological profile. The qualities of such a relationship might include mutual respect - without reifying the teacher as godlike; the capacity for healthy questioning and debate; the openness to hear guidance with thought, discernment, and self-reliance; and the enhancement of one's dignity and self-respect.

We invite your thoughts on how we might best shape teacher relationships in our culture and time.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One Western tradition has been that of mentor and student/intern. Rather than Wizard-like keeper of secrets, a mentor is on equal footing with the student, encouraging him or her as an example of how to correctly practice Buddhism.

emmasroy's picture

What I personally feel hungry for in this area are teachers or communities who will actively engage with the social science research related to authority and group dynamics. I think looking to a teacher or master for spiritual guidance can be important--and healthy--if power dynamics are understood and openly discussed. It is not just a matter of teachers keeping the precepts, but whole communities committing to self-reflection and transparency at all levels.

Where are the groups who have read Cialdindi's "Influence" or Zimbaro's "The Lucifer Effect" and contemplated what that means for their sangha? I think this incorporation of western science into Buddhism communities could have a much more powerful, helpful impact that what were are learning through brain scans of practitioners.

sluggobeast's picture

I applaud what Juniper is doing to free Buddhism of cultural trappings that may impede the spread of Dharma in the West. There are other traditions, though, that have retained Tibetan cultural/ritualistic aspects, yet have made their overall approach and orientation very applicable and practical for us modern, Western folk who wish to incorporate Dharma into their lives 24/7 besides when we're sitting on our cushion. That's been my experience and ongoing spiritual evolution with the New Kadampa Tradition.

May holy Dharma flourish....

bob knab's picture

greetings ----------------------
Buddhism has to much baggage i think, much to be discarded -
the title of Buddha is in its self is misleading it almost implies some
kind of mystical knowledge , but Gautama him self claimed that he
taught only one thing the freedom from suffering - through the
process of meditation and the fact that we confuse that
which is impermanent as permanent - which arise
the four noble truths this and only this is Gautama realization -
a perfect remedy for the illusion existing in the mind -
Blessings ------------------

rhumphrey's picture

When I discovered the Juniper web site yesterday, it was like a breath of fresh air. I am a student of religions, actually a professor of religious studies, and so my task is to try to understand religions in all their cultural diversity and try to appreciate them from the point of view of an insider. This is a very difficult, but necessary, task when the religion is presented in the clothing of a culture which is foreign to us. I have always been attracted to Buddhism, but have been put off by having to assimilate Japanese culture and language as in Zen, or Cambodian Buddhism, or Tibetan practices, or whatever. A modern, scientific, global approach is just what I have personally been looking for and developed for myself. One that doesn't reject the various manifestations that Buddhism has taken over the ages and in different places, but attempts to adapt them to our modern, dare I say, "American" culture. Thank you Juniper.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Thank you for this feedback. It is also great to hear some perspective from the academic side. We believe that the "modern, scientific, global" approach you describe will include cross-pollination between academic research and Buddhist methodology. As examples, scientific research is now demonstrating that meditation brings about beneficial physiological changes in the brain; and modern knowledge about emotions can be used to enhance our meditation practices. Similarly, we believe that the meditation and healing practices of Buddhist tradition have much to offer the fields of medicine and psychiatry, and we look forward to forging collaborations based on our work at the recently opened Juniper Integrative Care Clinic (http://www.juniperpath.org/programs/clinic/).

Bernay's picture

When I mentioned Buddha being presented almost as a god: in the Mahayana Tibetan tradition the Buddha is presented as omniscient almost omnipotent and with special characteristics such as long ears, marks all around his body, etc. This is not a person I can relate to and take as model.

About lineages I do aggree they are important when they are transmitting the true message of the Buddha and help in progressing on the path to liberation from suffering.
I am very grateful to all the monastics who for centuries (until it was put on leaves then paper) memorised the Suttas giving us the opportunities to read them today.

Ultimately as the Buddha said before his death, we have to become our own teacher.
Also it is important to let go of rituals (one of the conditions to the 1st step to liberation from suffering).

You may note that I do not use the word enlightement as it has no clear agreed definition.
The Buddha was only interested in teaching liberation from suffering and famously never answered questions on reincarnation and what will happen to him after his death: it seems that some people since the Buddha passed away have attempted to answer these questions for him.

With Metta
Alain Bernay

Lawrence Levy's picture

Juniper wrote an article - "The Awakened State" - on the issue you raise about the meaning of enlightenment in which we describe it as a process rather than a state. Here's a quote, and a link to the full piece.

"Many describe the goal of Buddhist training as “awakening.” But does this refer to a state of being, or a process of inner development? The answer is important because it shapes how we relate to the idea of awakening. If awakening is a state, we speak of becoming awakened, enlightened, or liberated, and we define ourselves as occupying or not occupying this state. If it is a process, we speak of awakening as an active and ongoing undertaking. Juniper holds the latter view. Awakening is not a state we occupy or do not occupy but an active, continuous process of learning and inner growth."


d2275766's picture

I agree. It's like the old teaching story about the person going up a mountain path and meeting an old monk carrying a bundle of stick. The person asked the monk what is enlightenment. The monk put down the bundle. The person then asked "well what happens after enlightenment. The monk picked the bundle up and carried on down the path. It's all about the path

Segyu Rinpoche's picture

Yes, Tibetan Mahayana tradition presents the Buddha as having omniscient qualities. But the same tradition also presents the insight teachings that say conventions, including Buddhist ones about the nature of the Buddha, are not to be taken as reality itself. In other words, if one ignores the insight aspect of Mahayana teachings, one is left with omniscient beings that can be decidedly god-like.

Because we can more easily grasp onto appearance, imagery etc., there is a danger in paying too much attention to outer appearance at the expense of overlooking the insight teachings that are, by their nature, more subtle. When this occurs, instead of helping us, the imagery becomes a hindrance. It is the insight teachings that "de-deify" the Buddha and return the practices to what they are meant to be - a methodology to overcome suffering and enable our inner potential to flourish.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Human beings are sentient. We calls 'em like we sees 'em. Unless informed otherwise, the appearance of objects tells the whole story.

Segyu Rinpoche's picture

Responding to earlier comments about deities and the Buddha depicted as a god, the depiction of deities in Buddhist tradition is one of its most misunderstood aspects. These are not all powerful beings with special powers. Rather, they are meditational methods - generally known as "deity yoga" - that, when used correctly, are a great tool of transformation, with tremendous potency to enhance our lives inwardly.

The practices of Buddhist training can be categorized into ‘causal’ practices and ‘resultant’ practices. Each comprises methods to bring about inner growth and well-being. Causal practices create the causes for inner growth through examining our emotions, cultivating compassion and insight, and so on. They work from the ground up so to speak. Resultant practices, in contrast, are practices in which we envision how we might ideally live and be, as if we had already rid ourselves of harmful inner patterns of thought and behavior. They work from the top down. Deity yoga, and the rituals associated with it, is a resultant practice in which we use an idealized representation of wisdom, healing, and so forth in order to embody these qualities ourselves. It is important to understand that ritual in this context is a method of self-transformation, not the reification of a deity.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Unfortunate baggage from when students of Buddhism after Shakyamuni's death elevated the man and his realization about life to the status of a supreme being above and beyond the common man or woman.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Thanks, Dave and Bernay for your thoughts about returning to the simplicity of the original teachings. Your experiences are one of the driving forces behind our work at Juniper. The presentation of Buddhist methods in the West during the last thirty years or so produced a confusing array of ideas and rituals. It makes sense that Western practitioners would recoil from the confusion and find solace in the basics. But can we do more than this? If we look at history, we find Buddhist methods implemented in schools - lineages - that benefited entire cultures for generations upon generations. The importation of these lineages into a new culture creates confusion in part because initially so much effort goes into mimicking foreign forms to which we have a hard time relating. This does not mean we should abandon the possibility altogether, however. We see our task as extending a Buddhist teaching lineage into modern culture, one that offers the full scope of Buddhist teachings in an accessible, elegant form that is a reflection of who we are, and that we are proud to call our own.

d2275766's picture

I'm not suggesting abandoning lineages but rather saying that I choose to proceed cautiously. As I learn more about specific lineages I can make an informed discission. I've seen so many jump onto a passing band wagon only to jump off and get run over by said band wagon.


poet748's picture

I would be interested in knowing if the Rimpoche still considers himself to be a reincarnated lama, and if so, how he squares this with Gotama's core teachings of impermanance and conditioned arising.

I came to practice through a mindfulness-based class at a local clinic, and practice with a mindfulness community associated with the integrative medicine department at a hospital. There is no metaphysics, no lineage, no rituals, no magic spells, no foreign terms. Yet we are focused on what Gotama called "fully knowing dukkha" and learning how to free ourselves from the reactivity of craving. In my experience, Buddhist teachings are only useful as they support this process -- everything else is bathwater, and is positively dangerous if it provides us with more opportunities for grasping, aversion and denial of the nature of our phenomenal reality. I am afraid much of the "power" of the traditional forms for Westerners comes from our innate desire to believe that their spiritual magic is more effective than our own traditions -- which is why New Age beliefs tend to seep into so much of Western Buddhism.

Lawrence Levy's picture

Poet748 raises several great issues. Let me take them separately:

At Juniper we do not focus on reincarnation but on enhancing and transforming our minds now, and for the future. In the eyes of Segyu Rinpoche's Tibetan teachers, Rinpoche is a reincarnated lama. This is a recognition they bestowed on him long ago, and is one of the reason's Rinpoche has, such a closeness with his teachers. Rinpoche honors this recognition and relationship even though it is not part of how Juniper is bringing this tradition to modern culture. On a personal note, I would describe Rinpoche as a remarkably accomplished Buddhist master who is exceedingly warm, approachable and down to earth. He does not dwell on recognition or reincarnation at all.

We are delighted to see the growth of mindfulness practices in the West. The difference between mindfulness training and Buddhist methods, however, is not so much about metaphysics, rituals, foreign terms and the like. It is about transmission. Generally speaking, the focus of mindfulness methods is technique - learning a meditation methodology. While technique is also vital in Buddhist training, as important is the transmission of insight that comes from an authentic school/lineage/teacher. A great Buddhist teacher is like a transformational force that meets us where we are and shows us where we can go. We are accustomed to this in other fields - learning sports from a great player or coach, for example - but we tend to be shy about it when it comes to our spiritual life.

Couldn't agree more on the danger of spiritual magic. I'd only point out that Buddhist and other eastern ideas are the source of new age beliefs, so its come full circle to say new age beliefs are seeping into Buddhism! The main difference is that new age ideas tend to pick and choose individual elements of a path or teaching whereas Buddhist training presents a complete path for growing inwardly. In Juniper's case, for instance, the building blocks of this path are Meditation, Balancing Emotions, Cultivating Compassion and Developing Wisdom.

tnickel32's picture

Making the analogy of a school/lineage/teacher to learning sports from a great player or coach could be misleading in that I anyway tend to need sports coaches for precisely what you you somewhat discount with regard to Buddhism -- technique. You say the real reason for the teacher in Buddhism is not technique but the transmission of insight. But I find just about anybody to be a potential source of insight, sometimes quite unexpectedly. In fact, the more I meditate, the more I find this to be true. In a recent mindfulness course I took, the single striking insight that most propelled me came from another student. While lineages and teachers can certainly be sources of insight -- they can also be sources of conservatism and institutional self-perpetuation. I'm not sure there are any unmixed blessings out there. Ultimately the recognition of and ability to act on any insight, whatever the source, comes from ourselves.