An interview with the founder of the Juniper School, Segyu Rinpoche
How did you answer those questions? We dropped the prostrations but not the idea of respect. Respect is a powerful tool. The problem is when we confuse respect for the teacher with the notion that this teacher is a supreme and infallible being. Simply adopting a ritual can conceal the teachings and present forms that fail to serve us as they should. At Juniper we call this the problem of “reification.” It means the process of suspending critical thinking and holding up something as more than it actually is, like seeing a teacher as a king or a god.
How do you handle this? The trick is to remove the inessential aspects—the negative cultural artifacts—yet maintain the potency of the method. If you just follow someone blindly, like you sometimes see in the teacher/student relationship, it is limiting. So how does the teacher gain enough respect so that when he or she says something that triggers you emotionally and holds out the possibility of transformation, you do not simply turn away or blame the teacher?
So the cultural forms themselves can become a distraction? Absolutely. In both ways, the old culture and the new. Both have to be understood.
How would a student express the respect you refer to, then? If you really understand the path you’re walking, your commitment to walking it will naturally engender respect. Like an athlete respects the coach in order to bring about his or her potential.
When you mention energy and power, how do you understand it? If it is embodied by the teacher, doesn’t that create the sort of relationship that is one not of respect but of great inequality? Those words—energy and power—worry me. I don’t think they translate well. Let’s take the classical understanding. In the classical tradition, they refer to a “potent” master. What they refer to in this sense is a “very well realized” teacher who, by their realization, can help you to achieve that same realization.
You use “energy” and “power” and “realization” in close context. Can you speak to that? I try to avoid the word “realized” because it could take us into the realm we want to avoid—sanctification, reification, putting a person up on a pedestal. I translate it as energy, which is really what is being transmitted. That energy is used to bring about transformation, and that’s what I talk about when I say energy.
In fact, each one of us has levels of the energy I’m talking about. Some have high energy but little control over it. Others have high energy that is blocked. And some have weaker energy that needs to be developed. Power is the capacity to enhance that energy, to apply that energy properly. I was empowered because my teacher himself was realized and passed that energy on to me. Now I hold that seed and can pass it to others, and so on. “Energy” is the best word I can come up with, but it’s not perfect. I also try to avoid getting trapped in the new age groove.
You discuss lineage often. What do you mean by it, especially since some may see you as having broken your lineage? Up until he died two years ago, I had an unbelievably close relationship with my teacher—for over 25 years. He supported everything I am doing. Our relationship was based on mutual devotion, love, and understanding. Lineage is a particular tradition that is passed along from teacher to student. We receive transmissions— seeds—and put them into practice, and that will produce fruits and new seeds. Those new seeds will be able to propagate to new students, and so on. This process isn’t particular to a culture. What we have done is extend this lineage in a way that is suited to a Western understanding of this tradition and an ability to use it. So it is not at all broken. Enjoying this accessibility in our culture also comes with a responsibility, however. If we want this tradition to be ours, and to pass it on to future generations, we have to have the will to maintain it. This is Juniper’s most important task, finding and encouraging individuals in our culture who will take pride and joy in this effort.
We rely heavily on the bedrock Buddhist principle of critical thinking—testing the teachings as you would gold. What we found was that little of that is happening at many dharma centers. We’ve taken contemporary knowledge, physics, neuroscience, and so forth, and applied them to karma, reincarnation, and so forth. We ask, where does this new knowledge require that we look anew at old knowledge? What survives critical analysis? This has been exactly the crux of the discussions we’ve had and continue to have. It is a process of deconstruction. What could be more consistent with Buddhist teachings?
Where do you come down on reincarnation, then? Next question, please! [Laughs.] We don’t follow the classic presentation of reincarnation. In the classical model, the mind is defined as “luminous” and “knowing” and “immaterial.” We know that the immaterial cannot affect the material; that cannot not be the case. Many Tibetans still believe in the immaterial, but we must avoid making statements for which we have no evidence.
There are younger tulkus and scholars who have a different, more modern view. Juniper has a modern view. We say that you are the cumulative result of all that has come before. Everything is a continuation of what came before. So why worry about the rest? Pay attention to now. We have a great capacity for growth, and we must put our attention on it now, at this moment! This way, we do not have to make reincarnation the focus.
As for what happens when we die, we cannot say for sure. My belief is that something happens, but I don’t follow the classic interpretations for what that is. We do a lot of work with the dying, and in that work we apply the transition of the mind practices of our lineage. We have developed a beautiful, accessible version of it. All I can say from my experience is that it helps. It helps calm people as they prepare to pass, and it helps the transition that occurs at death, however one may choose to describe it.
The Dalai Lama once said to us at a conference at Stanford University that whenever science undermines a traditionally held belief, we must let that belief go. Take traditional Tibetan cosmology—it’s clearly outdated. Yet two days after I sat on the stage with the other monks and heard His Holiness say that, I went to visit a venerated master to present our work at Juniper. We mentioned what the Dalai Lama had said. The master responded, “He’s saying that for Westerners. That knowledge of our world is hidden. When you really become a buddha, you will be able to see Mount Meru at the center of a flat earth.”