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An interview with the founder of the Juniper School, Segyu Rinpoche
Join a discussion with Segyu Rinpoche and Lawrence Levy of the Juniper School here.
Segyu Rinpoche is not your typical Tibetan monk. Born to Brazilian parents in Rio de Janeiro, he trained as an electrical engineer before becoming a master healer in Brazil’s rich healing tradition. Later drawn to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he studied for 25 years under the guidance of Gelug master Kyabje Lati Rinpoche (1922–2010), former abbot of Tibet’s Gaden Shartse Monastery. In 1983, shortly after arriving in the United States, he was recognized by the head of the Gelug school as holder of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage known as the Segyu.
As a Westerner, Segyu Rinpoche is unequivocal and outspoken when it comes to issues often sidestepped by the Gelug hierarchy. Women, he insists, qualify for full ordination. Same-sex relationships? They in no way contradict the Buddha’s teachings; in fact, they are consistent with them.
As a teacher, Segyu Rinpoche is highly innovative, modifying or dismissing those rituals, practices, and beliefs he considers irrelevant, and indeed obstructive, when it comes to transmitting the teachings to Westerners. Following the advice of the Dalai Lama, he has concluded that many of the traditional Tibetan practices and ways of teaching must be adapted to the cultural sensibilities of Westerners if Westerners themselves will one day successfully serve as lineage holders. At the same time, he remains rooted in his tradition.
Segyu Rinpoche has a relaxed relationship with his students—one that is more easily defined by respect than by rigid hierarchy. Together with his students he founded the Juniper school, whose apt motto is “Buddhist training for modern life.”
Tricycle caught up with Segyu Rinpoche at his home in Redwood City, California.
You received Buddhist teachings from traditional Tibetan monks, who recognized you as a tulku, a reincarnate lama. How did you come to this tradition? Ever since I was a child in Brazil, I had been interested in the meaning of spiritual life, and I was often told I had a special gift in this area. Although I trained in the tradition of Brazilian healing, at first I didn’t pay full attention to my inner life. I graduated from college as an engineer, married and had a daughter, and worked in the computer industry for a while. But eventually it became clear that ignoring my spiritual life was a mistake.
One day a friend showed me a statue of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and told me that I had a very strong connection with him. I recognized the statue from visions I’d had as a young boy. That was the beginning of my interest in the Buddhist path. The more I entered into the Buddhist tradition, the easier it was for me. It made intuitive sense. Eventually I was recognized as a reincarnate master and my teacher, Kyabje Lati Rinpoche—one of the great contemporary Tibetan Buddhist masters—pushed me to become a teacher myself.
What led you to set off in your own direction? I felt the teachings were not being fully transmitted to Westerners. There were many barriers. I saw that the lamas had a difficult time understanding the psychological profile of Westerners. It was difficult for Westerners to absorb the teachings as they were transmitted and to maintain them. For example, Westerners like to question and explore, and we adapt to new information quickly. Tibetan monastic education, in contrast, perpetuates a tradition without questioning it. It rarely changes. Also, while Westerners respect monastic life, it is not significant in our culture the way it has been in others. So to transmit these teachings in the West, we have to overcome these and other barriers.
It sounds like you realized this early on, but it was a while before you acted on these insights. I was continuing to shape my skills, particularly in healing, which is really about cultivating and applying energy for the benefit of others. And it took time to understand how to bridge the gap. I was lucky to have an unbelievable master, Kyabje Lati Rinpoche, the former abbot of Gaden Shartse monastery, under whom I studied from 1984 until his passing in 2010. But the challenge was a big one—-building a bridge between a thousand-year-old Tibetan monastic tradition and a modern world that is so different. How could Westerners become fully capable of holding that lineage and the energy associated with it? How could Westerners themselves learn to transmit the teachings?
What answers did you arrive at? I felt that Tibetans, after a half century outside Tibet, were teaching the tantras to Westerners in an overly intellectual way. They were not transmitting the energy itself, as they did in the monasteries. Every day you can see new gurus and tantric masters showing up, giving empowerments, and moving on. Yet where are the Westerners holding this lineage energy? Why can’t a Westerner give an initiation?
Where did these questions put you in relation to the tradition? I am within the tradition. I respect and honor it, and the work I’d done earlier in Brazil was parallel to it. But I did not blindly follow it. I was able to distinguish between the Tibetan culture and the essence of the teachings. I continued doing my healing work while teaching the classical Tibetan tradition. Eventually I had a fair number of exceptional students, but many felt there were barriers to comprehending the Tibetan tradition.
About ten years ago, some of these students came to me with questions like, “Why do we have to follow forms that are foreign to us? Is this a condition for inner growth, or would it be better to find ways more culturally appropriate?” What could I say to this? I agreed with the problem. So we began a process of challenging assumptions, discussing the teachings, their relevance to Westerners, and the cultural barriers. One thing we all agreed on was that accessibility was an issue.
Later on we saw that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had written in his book The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective, “It is important to adopt the essence of Buddha’s teaching, recognizing that Buddhism as it is practiced by Tibetans is influenced by Tibetan culture and thus it would be a mistake to try to practice a Tibetanized form of Buddhism.” And that’s exactly it. Solving that challenge is what we were doing.
How did you work together with your students when you took on the task to render the traditional teachings in contemporary idiom? Here’s an analogy for how we worked together: Imagine a star far away. In order to focus on it, I cannot look at you and you cannot look at me. We both need to look at the star. That is how we worked. We envisioned that we were on a journey to a distant place, and we all had to focus on it and do our part. Through eight years of study, debate, and practice, we were able to do that—eight years, full-time, Hillary Brook Levy, Lawrence Levy, Pam Moriarty, Christina Juskiewicz, and me. We started in 2003, and the website juniperpath.org went up in 2009. That was full time—Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., meetings, doing retreats together, and the headaches of 24/7 thinking and talking, weekends, and all that. From that emerged Juniper, which is a school that provides, as we say, “Buddhist training for modern life.” Our main task was to make sure we did not throw out the baby with the bathwater—to keep the essence and potency intact.
How did the group decide what was baby and what was bathwater? Great question. The short answer is: insight and experience. This is something we discussed and debated intensely, and we continue to do so even today. From my side, I relied on the insight and experience I’d had of the teachings, because I have to honor those experiences. Ideas I thought were essential were sometimes not, and sometimes the team discovered that ideas it wanted to throw out were essential. Little by little we polished our model and kept going. The more we debated and practiced, the more clarity we developed.
Can you give me an example of something you felt was or was not essential? Take the Tibetan practice of prostration. It’s a way to show respect for the teacher and the tradition, and it is a practice said to purify the mind. But although that may be true for a culture accustomed to prostration, it may not be true for a culture where that custom does not exist. In such a culture it could even be off-putting to one’s mind. Just the same, you do need a way of displaying respect, because if you’re too casual you might lose the possibility of transformation. We can apply a modern methodology to gain the same result. The question is, how do we find a balance? How do we modify that method in culturally appropriate ways and still skillfully enhance the mind?