An interview with the founder of the Juniper School, Segyu Rinpoche
How did you answer? I said, “Thank you,” but my thought was that this master is strongly conditioned in one belief, one that is obsolete. It’s dogma, nothing else.
Many people believe all sorts of things. Some dismiss evolution, for instance, or the notion that human activity affects the climate. People who have such convictions—fundamentalists, say—tend to exert great influence, often to our detriment. Why is the counternarrative so weak? Because we permit too much blind action based on fear, without proper rationale. The dogma and fundamentalist views in our culture are still very strong and deep. We have to push back harder.
Can’t it also be that we’re living in question? Is that mistaken for a lack of conviction? To question is unbelievably powerful. But if you question all the time and you remain in doubt, going first this way and then that, conviction is absent. If you develop a line of inquiry and learn from your experience, conviction grows. Then you put that conviction into practice but remain open to new information and experience. You set a steady course and remain willing to grow and learn. That is powerful.
So you advocate engagement and taking a stand? Yes. We try to follow the thoughts of the Buddha: if we want to change the quality of our experience, we need to go inside and develop our minds and apply what we’ve learned. Think of how creative we are. It’s wonderful. With deepening conviction we can change for the better. I think Buddhism is a cutting-edge methodology for advancing human civilization. It’s not based on old, inaccessible scriptures. It depends on the methodology of inquiry. That brings about real conviction. Drop dogma so you can see to your own growth.
Have your own convictions about the classical teachings triggered a negative response? They haven’t. We are not at war with classical tradition. We should be careful not to demean it. We should honor it without backing out of the more modern view. We can do that without attacking anyone. In time, I believe, we’ll gain a strong voice.
We are not interested in dogma, which is the trap so many fall into when they adhere to long-held beliefs. To be dogmatic is to hold to a view no matter what, no matter how things change. That’s not the sort of stand we take.
At Juniper we definitely take positions, political and otherwise. For instance, on our website we take a position in favor of same-sex marriage and know that we are arguing in a way that is entirely consistent with Buddhist teachings.
The Dalai Lama has said that Buddhists should not be involved in same-sex relationships, and yet you’ve argued otherwise. Is this a case of not following blindly? I think definitely that’s the point. I think the Dalai Lama might say that to protect Tibetan monastic culture, but I cannot make a judgment about his position.
Let’s look at it differently. In our quest for freedom, enlightenment, or whatever we want to call it, we have to let go of our conventions. Favoring a particular gender, sexual preference, or way of life cannot be the definitive way to freedom. These are merely aspects of how we appear in the world right now. They are no more limiting than having blue eyes or small hands. I think the Dalai Lama understands this but cannot be so open as we’d like sometimes, as he must adhere to a traditional Tibetan view of things.
This is why I wear brown robes and not red. I could not take part in an interview like this if I were wearing the other robes. A different voice—that’s what wearing brown means for the Juniper school.
Have you received criticism from traditional teachers in the Gelug school? No. As I said before, I don’t attack them or offend them. I praise them as holders of a great tradition. I went through the tradition, and I know how to behave within it. I have a strong relationship with my fellow Gelugs.
You seem easygoing about this. So many people have had such nasty breaks with the tradition. Put it this way: I had no crisis. It doesn’t change my capacity to be a monk because I believe differently. A lot of people reacted strongly to the cultural pressures of the tradition, but my status as a rinpoche, I suppose, made it easier for me. I believe in the work of Juniper, and I’m very comfortable and confident in my brown robes.
Do you ever wear red robes any more? It’s been a gradual transition. In 2010, when I went to India to pay respects to my teacher, I wore red robes. And when I go to special initiations, and so on, I’ve worn red. In the near future red will fade into brown. This way, I am a bridge between the old and the new.
How would you describe your teaching style? Most of the time I like to lead from behind the scenes. We can pay a price for the traditional guru model. In that model, one does nothing without consulting the teacher. Some become so narrow in their view and so dependent that they become dysfunctional. There’s no critical thinking. This is not healthy. I don’t like it because it blocks their creativity, independence, and growth, and so on.
When people ask me what to do and then resist, I ask, “What do you want?” If you don’t have the capacity to modify your way of being right now, there’s no point to doing anything else. You continue being the way you are. I am patient, though. Maybe the opportunity will arise at a later time. That’s okay. I have been successful with that model, and without demanding or expecting that anyone do what I say.
Curiosity, engagement, and awareness bring growth. On the other hand, resistance, or thinking you know, only perpetuates your way of being, your patterns. It’s up to you.
I think we are very fortunate we can do what we are doing at Juniper, and now our goal is to open to more people to engage in this process.
And ritual? Pujas? Initiations? You dismissed them once, but now you’ve reintroduced them to some extent, although much modified. People can get lost in life, and ritual can provide them with a framework. What do I do? I think ritual is an important methodology. Ritual loses power when it becomes a method of reification, pure devotion without knowing what you’re doing, with blind belief and fear. Then you lose capacity for transformation. We are doing with ritual what we are doing with the expression of the teachings: making it more accessible and understandable.
Do you consider Juniper an experiment? Absolutely not. Juniper is not an experiment. It’s real. It’s a spiritual lineage. It is Buddhist training for modern life.
Photographs by Mirissa Jeff
Image 1: Juniper School founders Hillary Brook Levy, Segyu Rinpoche, Pam Moriarty, Lawrence Levy, and Christina Juskiewicz