Spirit Rock Press Interview with Tempel Smith, February, 2011
Tempel Smith has been practicing Insight and Metta meditation since 1989, including a year as a fully ordained monk in Burma. He is the founder of BASE House, a collective of socially engaged Dharma practitioners. He is also the founder of the West Coast Teen Retreats formerly sponsored by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and has recently graduated from the SRMC teacher training program with Jack Kornfield. Tempel has been leading retreats for adults and youth for over ten years.
Spirit Rock: What first drew you to practicing the dharma? I have a feeling you started at a young age, how old were you and what were the circumstances?
Tempel Smith: During high school I spent many summers canoeing in the wilderness of northern Canada. While often being exposed to harsh conditions of rain, mosquitoes, sleeping on the ground and hard physical work, I consistently felt a deep and pervasive contentment and appreciation for life that would disappear when I returned home. I became devoted to this yearly transformation brought by living in the wilderness for weeks on end and tried my best to understand it. Even as a teenager I was obsessed with the source of this deep contentment and very frustrated that it would wear off during the school year.
When I was 21 I grew disillusioned with college and took nine months off to work and travel. I had a dear friend who experimented with a five day Zen sesshin, and he returned raving about the difficulty and the honesty he experienced. Buddhism and Taoism already felt familiar due to the imagery of hermits living simply in nature, so with my friend’s insistence I sought out a long silent retreat. Within a few days on that first retreat I realized that millions of people had already discovered what I had found in the woods, and they had made a reliable science of this transformation.
SR: What benefits did you recognize from meditation and other dharma practices right away, if any?
TS: The most immediate revelation was that my thoughts were not realities. I spent the first four days of the retreat in silence endlessly arguing with my parents in my head. When the retreat teacher said that the thoughts of our fathers are not really our fathers, I was completely stunned. It just had never occurred to me that the endless cloud of thoughts in my mind was not actually reality. I was utterly shocked, and then completely fascinated by the fabricated “reality” of my thinking mind.
SR: Who or what has been your most important teacher over the years as you’ve practiced the dharma?
TS: By far my most important teacher was Michele McDonald. She had the uncanny ability to know all the places I was completely lost and point the way towards freedom. Countless times when I was baffled, defeated and feeling a thousand miles from freedom she would offer an important shift in my understanding. Often I would find myself collapsed against some impossible barrier to liberation and she would show me how to surrender my way though it. She is as fierce and tender a teacher as I have ever met.
SR: What made you decide to ordain as a monk in Burma, and can you please tell us about that experience? Was it a turning point for your practice in a significant way?
TS: My decision to ordain came from a mixture of idealism and realism. While I was completely enchanted by notions of enlightenment and the nobility of the holy life, I also knew from many years of practice that I wasn’t strong enough be become free from my suffering without the firm dedication of monastic life. For nearly twenty years I saw how my mind would cave in and return to suffering patterns when given the chance to become distracted by mundane concerns. I was tired of being so easily lost and confused, and I hoped a fully embraced Dharma path would free me.
One day, after a few months in Sayadaw U Pandita’s monastery, I went into to ask him his advice about ordination. He insisted I ordain immediately after getting my parents’ permission which took a week of tension and anxiety to arrange one five minute phone call to my mother. I had three minutes to catch up with her out of the blue, one minute to explain ordination, and one minute to ask her permission before the phone went dead. I was so angry I had to ask permission and so anxious she would say no, yet luckily the thoughts of our mothers are not our mothers. The next day I was bald and dressed in robes.
The lifestyle of a monk is truly the most beautiful, challenging, and rewarding I know of. I woke up each morning at 2:30am to practice in the dark before going on alms walk at sunrise. I loved leaving the monastery every day and walking in slow silence through the nearby villages. I savored the endless hours of solitude and meditation broken up by occasional heartfelt conversations over tea with dear friends. Even the amazing difficulties seemed important as fuel for awakening.
The most important impact of ordaining came as I deepened my vow to find complete liberation, no matter the length of time or challenges I would have to face. I loved being held to my highest values and demanded that I not shrink under any circumstances. In fact, every incredible challenge was another opportunity to strengthen my resolve for complete freedom.
SR: You’ve gone back to Burma/Myanmar a number of times in recent years. What’s been drawing you back there, and how has it changed since the monks’ uprising in September of 2007?
TS: I have such gratitude for the people I met in Burma. While I received love and support from them, I was even more deeply moved by the incredible beauty I saw in so many ordinary Burmese people. So many of them are humble, joyful, honest, generous and undefended. The most compelling reason I return to Burma is to share in the simple, quiet, sincere, joyful love many freely hand out.
I also want to foster an authentic Dharma friendship between compassionate foreigners and the progressive people in Burma. Many practitioners in the West gain faith and understanding in seeing the Dharma lived in a traditional Buddhist country, and the Burmese get to understand the westerners as good, ordinary people without the filter of their government’s propaganda or the Hollywood grandeur. It’s also important that the Burmese not be abandoned or isolated from the rest of the world. Burma needs compassionate witnessing.
Maybe the most disturbing aspect of the brutal ruling junta is that as a visitor it is nearly impossible to directly see the oppression. Where we are allowed to go there are no tanks on the street corners or soldiers patrolling the populated areas. You only come to know of the brutality by the overwhelming fear everybody lives with in regards to the government, and the neglectful disrepair of the sidewalks, roads, buildings and infrastructure.
Except for two important factors, the monk’s uprising in Burma seemed to cause no actual change to rule of the junta. The first is that once again the corruption and heartlessness of the generals was egregiously displayed, further exposing them as a group of completely immoral thugs. In killing and harming so many monks, the Burmese people have more open disregard and condemnation of those in power. The second impact to the people of Burma was seeing the depths of their suffering met courageously as the monks peacefully stood up and at times gave their lives in protest of the government’s abuse.
SR: You’ve worked with a lot of teens and young adults in the past ten years or so, and you founded of the West Coast Teen Retreats. How did you first realize that teens needed a retreat of their own, and how does working with younger students differ from working with adults, in your experience?
TS: As a young person I knew the adults around me always underestimated what was truly great within me and my fellow teenagers. Having lead many wilderness trips for children as young as ten years old, I had repeatedly seen tremendous courage, loyalty, brilliance, humor, compassion, and wisdom pouring out of younger people when given the appropriate challenges
The hardest part of working with teenagers is defending them from the limited views of the adults holding power over them. For the passage to adulthood, teenage girls and boys need a wisdom space protected from their parents and authorities, so they can bring their authentic emerging adult self up and out into the world. Our teen and young adult retreats create that space for them.
In many ways teenagers are easier to awaken than adults. Teenagers are much more open to mysticism, idealism and communal thinking. The habits, addictions and ruts of identity are not as entrenched, and their egoic defenses are not as deeply rooted. For this teenagers don’t need such intensive practice to open to a lot of transformation. The challenge for them is in sustaining their awakening since their sense of true self is not as developed either.
SR: How has your own personal understanding and/or practice changed since you first began teaching?
TS: When I was only a student I only had access to my own mind, and therefore I only truly understood the Dharma from my own experience. By teaching I have been able to see what was more universal about suffering and freedom, and what is unique to each person. For example, I have a skeptical mind and I have had to work very hard to develop faith in the path. When I began teaching I saw that others could have a tremendous amount of faith and that offered them a different path to freedom.
SR: Do you have a favorite sutta from the Pali Canon? Could you tell us about it and explain why it resonates with you?
TS: More than any one sutta what I enjoy about the Pali Canon is the ability to imagine the actual humans having those experiences and dialogues with enlightened teachers. These were actual people with lives as rich, passionate and complicated as our own. I love reading the suttas slowly and taking the time to imagine the real events unfolding with all the textures, smells, tastes, sounds and colors.
SR: You will be co-leading the Living Dharma Retreat at Spirit Rock in May. How will this retreat differ from other retreats? What is the main benefit of interactive practices and engaging in community while on retreat?
TS: We need time to reflect, practice and discuss the teachings to help them open up. Silent practice is very important, yet so is community and dialog. Along these lines the second benefit of a non-silent study and practice retreat is a chance to bring the classical teaching to life. On a silent retreat there is never any time to ask about, discuss and explore the theory within the Dharma, and for that many people practice for years with confusion that could be easily corrected. With more clarity you can practice vipassana with a greater understanding. With the right understanding meditation can turn from a passive activity of patient endurance to a much more active investigation.
SR: What’s the best way to approach studying the main teachings of the Buddha more in depth (or how have you approached it yourself?), such as in the Dedicated Practitioners’ Program or on the Living Dharma Retreats? At what point in one’s practice should one pursue these deeper offerings?
TS: We want people to have some time doing the practices before we take them into a study retreat. This keeps it from being only an intellectual endeavor. The vast and incredible power of Buddhist theory and practice takes a quantum leap forward once you have had a direct encounter with your own mind. Once you see how confusing, terrifying, and unruly an untrained mind can be, you’ll want to get as much help as possible to end your patterns of suffering.
SR: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
TS: We live in a time of ever increasing stimulation, addiction, and fragmentation. I would like to offer faith in the Dharma as teachings and practices beyond these forces that cause our suffering. To develop true contentment we all need full dedication to cultivating love, compassion and wisdom. Without a great and steady effort most of us will only experience drowning in overwhelm or being swept away by the floods of reactivity. Now is the time to clarify and set our priorities, and find the strength to end the confusion underneath our suffering.