In this episode we meet Steve Armstrong, a teacher in the vipassana tradition who has studied the dhamma and practiced insight meditation since 1975. Steve is a co-founding teacher of the Vipassana Metta Foundation’s dharma sanctuary on Maui, and guided the creation of the new book Manual of Insight, the classic collection of teachings by the renowned Mahasi Sayadaw.
Steve Armstrong begins with the story of how his spiritual practice started in a commune in Maine for followers of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. He then shares his first meditation retreat experience and how he began seeing the impact of meditation in his everyday life. We hear how he first encountered the experience of faith in Buddhist practice. Steve tells us how he was there for the very beginning of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in 1977 and shares the powerful experiences of the early years of IMS, including meeting many great teachers like Dipa Ma, Mahasi Sayadaw, and Ajahn Chah.
Steve tells us about the first time at U Pandita came to the United States and what a large impact his teaching had on the IMS community. He tells us about the experiences of meditation that he has found the most challenging. We then hear how he became inspired to go to Burma for the first time, where for years he practiced from 3AM to 11PM every day. He tells us the phenomenal effects this had on his practice, almost immediately. Among these effects was the experience of what Steve calls “spiritual goodies” such as bliss, serenity, and so on. He discusses these experiences in relation to recreational-drug-induced states and reflects on some of the most noticeable differences between intoxicated states and meditative states. He also tells us about the role of the teacher in the Burmese Theravada tradition.
We also hear from Steve how the new book Manual of Insight, edited by the Vipassana Metta Foundation, came into being. Steve also reflects on what the truly transformative potential of insight meditation practice is–how it takes the practitioner beyond a basic practice of mindfulness.
This week on the Wisdom Podcast we meet Gerry Stribling, the author of Buddhism for Dudes. Gerry shares how he got into Buddhism when he was volunteering Sri Lanka. He first worked at a nonprofit that protected elephants and soon came across insight meditation. He reflects on how Buddhism helps people become tough and shares what about Buddhism appealed to him, a “tough-guy” ex-military man. He talks about his work with veterans and addicts. He talks about the theme of sacrifice in Buddhism and the military. We also hear Gerry’s thoughts on what a Buddhist’s response to violence might look like. Gerry shares his personal experiences of sitting with dying World War II veterans, and how he sees them relating to death. Gerry and host Daniel Aitken also discuss different ways to respond to ideological violence such as ISIS and the November 2015 attack in Paris. Finally, Gerry shares the incredible international response he’s received to his book Buddhism for Dudes, and what his writing schedule looks like.
In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we meet Pascal Auclair, a teacher in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Pascal starts by telling us how he came to Buddhism when he was traveling in Asia with his partner and ended up at Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s monastery in Thailand. He was touched by this experience of intimacy with reality. He was struck by the realization that reality is not completely easy and satisfying. He was also deeply affected by the simplicity of the practice of following the breath.
We then hear about another deep inspiration for Pascal’s practice. When he was twenty-five, before he went to Asia, Pascal learned that he was HIV-positive. At that time, there was no medication for HIV. He says that this experience made him more open to the teachings of Buddhism. In good health today, he recalls how this diagnosis was his encounter with the “Heavenly Messengers” of old age, illness, and death. He reflects on what his refuge was then, and how he faced his diagnosis. At that point he felt certain he would not live to the age of forty, and with this sense of time as precious, he set out to go to Asia.
Pascal tells us about the specific practices he learned on that first retreat in Asia. In these early days of practice, he was touched by the light, almost playful way that one can engage with awareness. He then shares the story of an early retreat he did at the Insight Meditation Society with famed Theravadin teacher Ruth Denison, and another retreat with S.N. Goenka. We hear about Pascal’s experience of being mentored by Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. He also shares his own feelings and thoughts about being a dharma teacher, and his memories of how his grandmother was a profound teacher for him.
He shares his personal daily practice, from morning productivity to afternoon contemplation. Finally, Pascal reflects powerfully on the meeting of dharma practice and social justice. Just like the individual human system, the communities and societies are alive systems that can produce hardship and suffering or well-being and freedom. Pascal speaks of how he feels that he has a personal responsibility to increase his awareness and compassionate action in relation to social strife.
This episode of the Wisdom Podcast features Buddhist thinkers C.W. “Sandy” Huntington and Francisca Cho. Sandy is the author of Maya, a recent novel published by Wisdom. Francisca is an associate professor of Buddhist Studies at Georgetown University and the author/translator of the Wisdom book Everything Yearned For: Manhae’s Poems of Love and Longing.
Sandy begins by reflecting on how the conflation of reality and illusion is a central theme in his novel, and what draws him to this theme. Francisca responds by bringing in the theme of “real life” versus art, and questions the way these two are set in opposition. We then hear Sandy’s thoughts on how what we call reality resembles a story, and Francisca’s thoughts on how even science tells us stories and what this means for the dialog and conflicts between science and religion.
Sandy shares how his journey into Buddhism started with a curiosity about suffering, and Francisca tells us how she became interested in philosophy and fiction. She introduces the idea of how the experience of art is no different than a religious practice. She brings in daoism and how it emphasizes the importance of our everyday, “nothing special” actions as a lived philosophy.
Sandy then discusses his understanding of the Buddhist debate about whether things ultimately exist or not. He shares his thoughts on how philosophical arguments have an ultimately groundless or dreamlike quality, and the importance of keeping a sense of humor in academic discourse. Sandy also reflects on how people get attached to their own practice of Buddhism, and how fiction and dreaming can help us see the fictitious, dreamlike nature of everyday life.