INTERVIEW: Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D.

One of the things that I hope to do with this blog from time to time is offer interviews with different Buddhist scholars, teachers, psychologists, caregivers, chaplains, and others.

As a way of both inaugurating this feature and beginning the process of uploading some of the better posts from my old blog, I’d like to present a still-relevant interview I did with Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., in January of 2005.

The interview includes some wonderful black-and-white photographs by my very dear friend Derek Scefonas, who runs two terrific blogs: Fridgeir and Cook This Now.

Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D.
an interview by Danny Fisher with photographs by Derek Scefonas
(originally published in
Eastern Horizon, no. 18, January 2006)

Scholar, senior dharma teacher, interfaith dialogue pioneer, wife, mother of two, and some would say dakini, Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., is an important—indeed essential—figure in American Buddhism.

An acharya (senior teacher) in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage of her teacher, the Vidhyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Dr. Simmer-Brown is the author of Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism and co-author of Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect On the Rule of St. Benedict.

A twenty-seven-year faculty member in the Religious Studies Department at Naropa University, Dr. Simmer-Brown serves on the board of the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies and is a member of the Lilly Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter. She also directed the first Buddhist-Christian dialogues held on Naropa’s campus in the 1980s. The results of those dialogues have included a tremendous book (Vajradhatu Publications’ recently reprinted Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way, with a new preface by Dr. Simmer-Brown) and a second conference with many of the original participants.

The second Buddhist-Christian dialogues at Naropa ended only a day before Danny Fisher caught up with Dr. Simmer-Brown for Eastern Horizon to discuss the role of lay practitioners and survival of monasticism in modern American Buddhist culture.

Fisher has taken several classes with Dr. Simmer-Brown and has served as a teaching assistant for her three times.

    EASTERN HORIZON: What are your impressions of the state of Buddhist monasticism in America—both in your community and across the board?

    JUDITH SIMMER-BROWN: I should say that in our community monasticism has not had a very central role. [Trungpa] Rinpoche felt we needed a very strong lay community here first because you cannot have a good monastic community unless you have lay supporters. I also think he felt—accurately, I think—that North America has not shown a tremendous hospitality towards monasticism of any tradition. If there were to be a proper approach to monasticism, it would have to happen against a backdrop of understanding proper motivation and vocation in monasticism. So Rinpoche encouraged very few monastics he thought had genuine vocation and he encouraged them very strongly. But those who approached him with a vocation based on escaping problems in their lives were actively dissuaded against monasticism. So I think in our community those who have taken monastic vows seem to have a strong vocation.

    But it is an extremely difficult time for anyone to be a monastic, especially in the west. I think that in the U.S. people have very little genuine appreciation for monasticism. There’s a very intense work ethic that says people should pay their own way. There’s a sense that people in monasteries aren’t paying their own way. While there might be tremendous support for individual monastics, on the whole I don’t monasticism is doing well in the west. Monasticism is on the major decline right now. So I think we have to think very carefully about how to nurture and foster monastic support in North America.

    E.H.: You say “on the decline.” Have you noticed what is causing this?

    J.S.B.: I have a meditation student who is a Christian monk in a monastery with forty members. Thirty of them are over seventy. He is one of the only ones under the age of fifty. In another fifteen years, his monastery will not exist in its current form. This is common in the Benedictine and Trappist monasteries and nunneries in North America. In another fifteen years, there will only be a few members left in each one.

    I was in an interreligious dialogue this weekend and we had a panel on the future of monasticism. I asked [Father Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and founder of the Centering Prayer movement and Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.] directly about this concern. And he said, “Yes, that’s right. It’s probably just as well.” He feels that the monasteries have not been healthy for a while. There was a huge influx of membership after World War I and then again after World War II, but the membership of the monasteries has been steadily declining since the 1960s. Father Thomas feels that is partially because the monasteries have not been vibrant places of spirituality for the majority of its members.

    E.H.: At a 1998 conference held in San Diego, CA, you pointed out “where the monastery did not continue (in Asia), there was no place where dharma could remain powerful outside of the whims and intrigues of cultural and political life.” What Father Thomas is saying when he says “it’s just as well” seems to challenge this notion.

    J.S.B.: Father Thomas feels that the monastic is a kind of archetype in the spiritual world and I agree with him. But we think of monasteries as places where there is a lot of intensive practice happening and this is not necessarily the case. This is true of Asia, as well. For instance, there was a scholar who did a study of Thai monasteries in the sixties and seventies—he found that less than five percent of the monks actually practiced meditation. Monasteries have been important because of intensive practice but also because of study and being repositories of certain traditions. But if the practice stops, are the traditions healthy? Are they alive?

    I do feel monasteries are extremely important. But we must keep them vibrant as places of practice and study, where the vocation is based on something enduring and not on some romantic idea of spirituality or escape from the world. The forces of materialism in our world are very, very strong and monasticism flies right in the face of that. I think that it’s better to have fewer monasteries and have them strong, healthy, with a really good sense of motivation. The quality of the monastic candidate, the depth of the commitment and the vocation are more important than numbers. It’s much better to have monastics who become teachers, or who are yogins and yoginis very deep in their meditation practice. I personally hope that the monasteries find a way to survive. And if they do not survive in large numbers that there be some way to hold the tradition in lay life or hermit life or solitary practitioners.

    E.H.: Can you say more about lay practitioners holding the tradition?

    J.S.B.: One of the things upon which I very much agree with my teacher is that in Buddhism the monastic and laypeople have always played a reciprocal role. It is very important to have a strong lay community of practice. In Western Buddhism, lay practice is deemed extremely important and we need to provide support for laypeople to do retreat, to learn the profound practices that are core to the tradition. We may be moving into a model where the key elements of the tradition are practices that are carried on one way in the monastic context and another in the lay context.

    Wherever you go, you find people who thrive and blossom in their practice, and you find people who are stuck. That’s true in monasteries and that’s true in lay life. I think the key element for any practitioner, whether you are monastic or lay, is to find a place that nurtures your practice, where you can really go deep. If you’re a layperson, you need retreat centers—practice centers where you can go for more intensive practice. You also need support structures in your daily life. If you’re a monastic person, you also have to go on retreat. You have to get out of the daily rhythm of a community life, which can take a lot of energy and time. It feels to me that it’s less an issue of monastic versus lay, and more an issue of how people can find a place that is suited to their particular life stage and temperament, where they can grow and flourish as practitioners.

    I also think the phenomenon of temporary vows is an extremely important thing to resurrect in all of the Buddhist traditions. We need more traditions that allow people to take the vows temporarily and have an experience of monasticism even if they are not lifelong monastics. At Gampo Abbey [a Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, Canada], for instance, the abbot, Thrangu Rinpoche, gave permission for temporary vows to be given so that people could have a chance to really immerse themselves in the monastic vocation, without feeling that it was a problem to do it temporarily. I think this is a really healthy development in monasticism. Frankly, I think that if this were the case with Christianity in North America there would be more people living in the monasteries, practicing temporarily as monastics.

    E.H.: You mentioned the “forces of materialism” earlier. Your teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, outlined different kinds of materialism. Would you share with our readers how it is that the three kinds of materialism present a substantial threat to practitioners in America?

    J.S.B.: My teacher talked about three kinds of materialism. He talked about physical materialism, the materialism of speech, and what he called spiritual materialism. Physical material is accumulating stuff just because you can, and not for the purpose of giving it away. The materialism of speech, or “psychological materialism,” is when you are constantly trying to improve your credentials, your career, your livelihood for the purpose of ego-enhancement, which he could also see a lot here. But he thought the most serious thing was something that he saw in his own culture, as well, and that was what he called “spiritual materialism.” This is using spirituality to enhance personal ego, whether it’s in order to be a kind of prominent teacher with lots of students, building an incredible gompa [monastery], going away and performing ceremonies for money—personal aggrandizement through spirituality. He also saw that this was a big problem in the West. So for him, the core of his teaching from the very beginning was what he used to call “Buddha-dharma without credentials”—practicing the Dharma not as a self-improvement campaign, not in order to be a better person, but just to realize the truth.

    What he had to say was—and still is—so radical, because many of us, when we started practicing meditation, did so in order to become a better person. But having that kind of agenda has an ego quality, so we have to get over that and instead surrender to our yearning for genuineness and the truth of things. We have to acknowledge the choicelessness of giving up this constant acquisition approach, and instead be connected with the nakedness of authentic spirituality. So my teacher, even though he was a great Kagyu master, his teachings were essentially Dzogchen, beginning to end. For him, overcoming bias and getting down to the fundamental nakedness of our experience was the main motivation for practice. And he felt that for his students and for anyone practicing the spiritual path, that’s the most important thing.

    E.H.: Does anything stand out to you as important with regards to the role of the laity in modern American Buddhist culture that has not come up in our conversation so far?

    J.S.B.: I’ve written a little bit about this for Eastern Horizon, but I think that there are some unique challenges in being a layperson that are maybe different from the monastic vocation. How, as laypeople, can we lead a disciplined life with a focus on the Dharma? There are many, many distractions in lay life. Community is extremely important. Having a regular dharma practice is extremely important. Having a program of study is extremely important. And, as a layperson, you have to sustain that for yourself. In some ways, it’s much, much harder as a layperson.

    Also, how can we keep from being distracted by only the values and welfare of our own family? As a parent, how can my love for my children open my heart to more sentient beings rather than fewer of them? As a parent, one of the temptations is to think only of your own family. But as a bodhisattva, my responsibility is that my love for my family opens me to all beings as my family. All the ways the Dharma can be brought into family life is very important. One of the challenges of this, of course, is that our Asian Buddhists texts are written more for monastics and solitary hermit-practitioners. There is not a huge canon of guidance for family life. One of the contemporary needs is to develop a greater sense of dharma teaching that comes from family experience. How do you practice a dharmic life fully in a family? So the more we can develop that the better. Without it, there’s always some sense that laypeople in family life, in livelihoods with all of their demands, are left hanging. We need to really be working on actual support for relationship issues, child-raising issues, lay community issues and how to make these situations as dharmic as possible.

    Monasteries have a lot of historic support and a role that shows you how to live a dharmic life in community. We don’t have that so much in lay life, and we need it. How is it that, whatever we are doing in our life, we can actually develop some allegiance to the truth of the Dharma? Whether you are a lay or monastic, that’s the key issue on your plate.

You can find out more about Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., and her teaching schedule here.

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9 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D.

  1. Thanks for this; this is terrific.

    Are you familiar with the writing of Kathleen Norris? She’s a (non-Catholic) Christian who has spent significant time in a Benedictine monastic context, and has written gorgeously about the monastic life.

  2. Rachel: Thanks for reading! (Your blog is wonderful, by the way.)

    I’ve read Norris’ The Cloister Walk and thought it was quite eloquent indeed. I’ve not read Amazing Grace or any of her others, though I would hope to get around to them one of these days.

    Have you read Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. I haven’t yet, but I’m hoping to do so soon. It seems apropos to thinking about monastic (especially Benedictine) spirituality. I’m a huge fan of Chittister’s–what an amazing person she is!

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