JD: How, in this process, does one guard against the dangers of rigid funda-mentalism or spiritual indoctrination?
AC: By looking at self-deception. People can unwittingly weave themselves into a cocoon of false ideas, all the while assuming they’re free. It’s very Orwellian. Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading intellectuals, has written extensively on indoctrination and the role of propaganda. In Thought Control in Democratic Societies he explains how “the powers that be” use “misinformation and propaganda to manufacture consent,” whereby one is unknowingly manipulated into believing lies that function to support the needs of the elite.
He also outlines modes of “self-defense” —tools to safeguard one from becoming a political puppet or a spiritual sheep—namely, sharpening self-inquiry, critical analysis, and independent thinking, the basics of a smart spiritual life.
JD: The Dalai Lama’s new book, Ethics for a New Millennium, articulates a set of values that could be embraced by everyone, irrespective of their religion. Is your approach similar?
AC: The Dalai Lama’s book is brilliant. But imagine if he went so far as to transcend Tibetan Buddhism altogether, not just in an ethical sense, but in every sense, becoming a universal warrior who transcends the ‘ism’ that even formed him. After all, the historical Buddha who attained enlightenment 26 centuries ago wasn’t sitting under the tree after his attainment saying, “this part of me will teach an aspect of my enlightenment that only the Tibetan’s will follow, while this other, more rich and deep part of me I will name Dzogchen, the ‘secret teachings’ reserved only for the most advanced of my followers; and this part will be called Vipassana, and I’ll keep it for the most neurotic; and then I’ll piece up the rest of me in such a way that thousands of sects will develop, all in my name, who will disagree over the ‘real teachings’ for millennia to come.” This is not even taking into account the numerous other spiritual traditions and what they have to say, which is often quite contrary to classical Buddhism. When is someone going to pull the plug on this story? We need to see beyond our indoctrination.
JD: What is at the core of dharma, as you see it?
AC: Delving with awareness into the matrix of consciousness, understanding the dynamic interplay of being and doing at the confluence of the inner and outer, with eyes wide open, and a heart willing to feel into the truth, not just protecting one’s opinion of truth. This is the essence. It’s where freedom is gained or lost.
JD: Didn’t the Buddha say that mind is the forerunner of all thought, speech and action?
AC: Yes, in the first stanza of the Dhammapada. Consciousness is it. The world forms on the senses, through the six windows of perception—the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Here is where we form identities, create myths, and fabricate illusions. It is where separation occurs, values are forged, and principles shaped.
Dostoevsky said “Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible, God and the Devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” By realizing that consciousness, or the heart, is the source of our world, a radical self-responsibility arises and true empowerment begins. As my teachers in Burma would say, “to know the mind is the most important task of your life. And to know mind is to know the world.” Entering this great inner battle is both humbling and exhilarating. It leaves one both scared and in love, at the same time.
JD: Why is living at this edge a more truthful way of seeing the world?
AC: I’ll give you an example from my own experience. I lived in Bosnia for nearly a year during the war and I witnessed staggering levels of suffering. But one day I was jolted awake, shaken from my blind relationships to faith, dogma, doctrine, Buddhism, and other fears and fantasies that had no real basis in my direct personal experience.
I was driving back to Sarajevo one afternoon from Srebrenica, the town where 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. I was with my friend Marcia Jacobs from the International Rescue Committee. After hours of driving through bombed out villages, we stopped by the side of the road to take a break. In a nearby field some men were digging. We walked over and found a mass grave—a pit of putrefying human flesh. It was heart wrenching and frightening. We gasped from the stench.