–Editor’s note: Gaby Dunn first wrote an original piece for Classy Hands well over a year ago and since then, we’ve found ourselves reposting her material almost weekly. Gaby has become somewhat of an internet celebrity in the interim. Her growth in popularity has little to do with us. Instead her blog, 100interviews, has taken off.
Recently Gaby finished her 100th interview for the project and will be publishing the final pieces over the next few weeks, in time for the deadline she set for the project. Everyone here at Classy Hands wishes a hearty congratulations and wishes her all the best. This is her most recent 100interivews article.–
Image courtesy of Kadampa.org
Buddhism, I learn, is a science of the mind.
In fact, in the free e-book ‘Modern Buddhism’ by Geshe Kelsang, it’s defined as “scientific methods for improving our human nature and qualities through developing the capacity of our mind.” This is not the scientific method I remember from grade school.
After work a couple Fridays ago, I head to an office buidling in Chelsea and take the elevator to the fifth floor. There I find Geshe Kelsang’s Chakrasambara Kadampa Meditiation Center and its resident teacher, Kadam (or “Teacher”) Morten.
The center is a few rooms used as a kitchen, an office, a bookstore and a big carpeted meditation and prayer “temple.” Golden statues of the Buddha line the walls, above them are paintings of the different Buddhas, representing different aspects of the enlightened mind. There’s also a platform with a pillow, from which Kadam Morten leads meditations and classes like “The Key to Happiness” and “Understanding the Mind’s Potential” while students sit on the carpet or in folding chairs. It’s a simple, beautiful set-up.
Morten, a welcoming guy who looks way younger than his actual age, is originally from the primarily non-spiritual country of Denmark. His father was a diplomat so the family split time between home, New York and Switzerland. When Morten was 10, his parents became interested in transcendental meditation, then a popular 1970s fad. That was when Morten learned to meditate.
In Switzerland, Morten’s father became sick with cancer. Morten remembers practicing meditation as a way to relieve his own stress. Back then, Eastern medicine was not mainstream; it would have been seen as absurd to teach meditation to sick people. There was less of an accepted medical connection between the mind and the body.
When Morten was sixteen, his father passed away.
“I felt no peace,” he says. “At that point, that was obviously a huge event within our family, traumatic, tragic. It was definitely, for me, really for my whole family, a bit of a spiritual wake‑up. I was basically interested in, for lack of a better way of saying it, exploring the meaning of life…That’s what I was trying to work out: Why are we alive? Why do we have to die? What the heck is going on?”
His fascination with meditation and Buddhism continued when he went to college in York, England to study English literature. There, he found a Buddhist center and kept gravitating towards what he calls “a meditative way of thinking.”
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing traditions, beliefs and practices based on the teachings of a 4th through 6th century man named Siddharta Guatama. He is commonly known as “The Buddha” and in short, believed in enlightenment as an end to the cycle of suffering and rebirth.
Morten says the main commitment is not to harm others and the main practice is to give love and to understand the potential for compassion, the mind and love. He does also wish to achieve enlightenment himself.
The Buddhist center is where Morten met his teacher: the aforementioned Geshe Kelsang, an 86-year-old Tibetan man. “Geshe” is a title meaning “spiritual friend.” Geshe Kelsang had been raised a monk in a Tibetan monastery, and fled to India when the Chinese took over the country. There, he went into a retreat for 20 years. When Morten met him in 1981, Kelsang had been sent over to the West to set up Buddhist Centers in Europe.
Morten gestures behind me to a series of three photos of Geshe Kelsang outside wearing a winter hat. They’re hanging on Morten’s office wall. He’s the cutest, thinnest old man I’ve ever seen. His smile practically blooms on his face. I tell Morten I think Kelsang is adorable.
“He is an authentically happy fellow, which is quite rare,” he says, admiration evident.
I ask if Kelsang is considered “enlightened” or if enlightenment is seen as possible for the modern human being.
Morten says enlightened people will never announced their own enlightenment. To Morten, Kelsang is enlightened and one of his teacher’s main goals is to help now modern people have access to a mind of enlightenment.
His followers would regard Kelsang as enlightened, as “a source of inspiration in our own lives,” Morten says.
While Morten liked Kelsang, he fell in love with his teacher’s focus on Buddhism’s practicality.
“What I liked is that it explained our experience in terms of the mind, as opposed to in terms of some old story. It was just explaining it all in terms of the mind. The reason we’re unhappy is because we have unhappy minds,” he says. “We have agitated minds, like anger, or attachment, or jealousy, insecurity, these types of minds. Then you can learn to identify those in meditation, and you can learn to let go of those. That just felt very practical to me.”
The Chakrasambara Center has a couple days a week where the general public is welcome to sit in on a class. Morten says his classes usually focus on meditation and then one specific practical tidbit for students to apply to their everyday lives: dealing with stress or channeling rejection, etc. Someone need not be a Buddhist to be studying Buddhism: It’s not uncommon to identify as, let’s say, a “Jewish Buddhist” or the cutesy “JewBu.” Morten says people from other religions sometimes use Buddhism to deepen their appreciation of their own faith.
“The lovely thing about Buddhism is that it’s very practical, and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to make use of that practice, so people can introduce meditation or integrate meditation into their lives with any spiritual background or no spiritual background,” Morten says.
Buddhism, he says, is a method. It’s training yourself to learn about your own mind, and subsequently, on a basic level, it’s how to let go of unhappy states of mind and cultivate positive states of mind.
As Morten finished school, he split his time between classes and Kelsang’s Buddhist Center. He describes it as an internal “discussion between the Western perspective and the Buddhist perspective.” He was caught up in his secular studies, but remained drawn to Buddhist teachings.
Morten was among Geshe Kelsang’s first students. He was around before there were any teachers, or a set protocol for becoming a teacher. The first time they met, Geshe Kelsang told Morten to study and train to become a teacher.
“That was like the first thing he said to me, was that I should do that,” Morten says. “I thought he was joking, actually. I thought I was already taking enough exams at the university,” he laughs. “He wasn’t joking.”
Westerners were gaining interest in Buddhism and Kelsang wanted Morten’s help. I joke that the Beatles’ time in India really did a number on the popular hippie culture. Morten laughs, “Blame it on the Beatles,” he says. Whatever the reason, the interest was there. Tibetan teachers were being invited out to the West more and more frequently.
Kelsang’s teachings, Morten says, focus on the practical. Westerners, more so, wanted to understand how to use Buddhism in their everyday lives. In Tibet, there was a moreacademic approach to Buddhism.
Kelsang’s teacher gave him permission to re‑present the Buddhist teachings, or the Dharma, according to the needs of modern Western people. Morten says it’s something Kelsang has done with great creativity and energy: Kelsang has written 25 books on how to begin and progress on the Buddhist path.
Gradually, he began to set up centers and to train Western teachers. “He saw that if it was to flourish in the West, it needed to come through Western teachers,” Morten says. “Otherwise the danger is that it remains a bit of a trip. It remains exotic.”
In that way, Kelsang was radical and ahead of his time. He began his own Buddhist tradition, which he called the New Kadampa Tradition. Morten’s been there from the beginning.
After graduation, Morten and a few other young enthusiastic types moved into the Buddhist Center in York and started training to become teachers. For a decade, starting in 1984, Morten taught full-time all around England. In 1994, he came to New York and Washington DC to start spreading the New Kadampa tradition in the States.
“It didn’t exist here. Basically, when I arrived, there was nothing,” Morten says. It was also pre-Internet and so advertising was truly grassroots. “It was just me and some posters that I would walk around town and put up and say, ‘Hey, come and listen to me if you’re interested,’” he says. He sometimes placed ads in the Village Voice. “It was like starting up a band or something.”
Gradually, people started coming to hear him lead meditation and to speak on topics like learning to deal with anger, improving relationships or increasing self‑confidence. Sometimes Morten spoke on more profound topics like the ultimate nature of reality or the nature of consciousness. “Buddhism is very, very rich because it’s basically an exploration of consciousness, so it’s very interactive, and it’s very dynamic,” he says.
“That’s the cool thing that [Buddhism is] a science and it’s a religion although the thing about religion, especially these days, is it’s a dangerous word because I think immediately people associate it with a dogma,” he says.
Buddhists, for example, do not mix church and state, so to speak. There are no restrictions on the LGBTQ community (there are gay Buddhist teachers) or stresses to vote one way or another, which Morten calls “dangerous, dangerous stuff.” Kelsang does not want the centers to get involved in politics, however Morten says he is a “radical” person: two of the main teachers at the top of the tradition are Buddhist nuns, a position women don’t usually hold.
“Forget the patriarchy,” Morten says. “It was just very modern even though he is an 83 year old Tibetan. He just wants to bring benefit to all living being. Of course, everyone equally has Buddha nature.”
Buddhists tend to verify their religion through experiences: If you meditate this way, you will have this verifiable experience.
““People associate faith with believing in something unbelievable. In other words, faith involves believing in something that is irrational,” he says. “…Everything can be tested and verified in your own experience.”
But, I counter, Buddhism has fantastical stories about the Buddha, just as Judeo-Christian religions have in the Bible. Morten says whether or not those stories are true is unimportant to Buddhism.
“What’s important is are you becoming more peaceful, more loving, more compassionate? Is your own anger reducing? Geshe Kelsang says the real source of happiness is inner peace. Whatever’s on your mind is peaceful, you’re happy and you can experience that directly,” he says.
“We tend to think that there are stressful situations. We will say, ‘My job is stressful,’ or, ‘My kids are stressful.’ But they are only stressful if your mind is relating to them in such a way as to produce stress. Basically, if you investigate your mind, which is what we do in Buddhist practice, you will discover that there is some rejection taking place in your mind. So, the example that I often use is, if you are running to catch the subway train and the doors close in your face, then almost everybody’s response, it’s like a universal response, is, ‘No.’But if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense, because actually the doors have closed. So we are resisting or actually rejecting what has taken place,” Morten says.
He compares it to driving the handbrake on.
“We are taxing our system. So, if we are constantly resisting our life and the circumstances in our life, guess what? You get exhausted and you become unhappy. You get angry. You get bitter,” he says. “So what we learn to do in meditation is first of all, to develop a peaceful mind.”
Meditation, Morten says, is a science. Paying attention to your breathing gives you momentary peace, through which you learn peace is possible. From there, potential is limitless.
“It’s basically telling you that your happiness is in your own control. It’s your responsibility. Rather than go around blaming all these people for making you unhappy or making you angry or whatever, no, it’s my mind. I need to start training my mind,” Morten says. “We learn to recognize those in our own experience and let them go. It’s like, ‘Oh, look. Anger. No big deal. Just let it go.’ Then, instead learn to respond with a creative mind, with a positive mind, a flexible mind and finally, a happy mind. So, in Buddhism, we can verify. Happiness comes through peace.”
In terms of the mind as a science, Morten says humans have unlimited potential for love, and for the use of their minds. They just have to believe in their own potential.
“The mind is this incredible thing. Sadly, most of us in our life, we don’t identify with our potential. We walk around identifying with all our limitations. We think I’m a loser or nobody loves me and all I need to do is find one person who will love me and then I’ll be happy,” Morten says. “We go about life in a very passive way, grasping on to ourselves as being stuck and then just trying to see if we can find some kind of situation that will make us comfortable. But the real problem is you have an uncomfortable mind, doesn’t matter how comfortable the situation is.”
Morten says by learning to identify the person who angers you regularly, you can instead begin to see them as a sparring partner, someone created to test your peaceful mind.
“Instead of being an object of anger, they become your object of patience,” Morten laughs. “You’re growing as a person through your relationships, through your difficulties. I think one of the misconceptions about Buddhism is that it’s also about running away, heading for the hills or becoming an aesthetic or walking around very slowly and drinking tea very slowly.Actually, it’s about developing a quick mind. It’s really a very creative practice that enables you to make use of anything that’s going on in your life as part of your training, as part of becoming a better person.”
I tell him I find all this really great in theory, but I’m skeptical about the ability to implement it in real life. I’m a very stressed out person, and it’s hard for me to imagine breathing my way through problems.
“That’s why people come here regularly,” Morten says, gesturing to the center.
“They get a dose of inspiration, not just from the teachings but from hanging out with other people and meditating together so that you feel that it’s not just you,” he says. “That this is something that’s really possible in our society.”