Editor's Note: On September 26, 1998, the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas held a panel discussion on “The Interior Life” for over ninety students from Humboldt State University and the University of San Francisco. This is Dr. Ron Epstein’s talk. Talks by other panel members will be printed in future issues. Dr. Epstein is currently Research Professor at the Institute for World Religions in Berkeley and Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University.
When Dharma Master Heng Shun called to invite me to speak, he didn’t tell me that I was supposed to speak on the interior life. If he had, I would have said no, because here we have so many experts on the interior life, who are real professionals. I think that's one of the great contributions of Buddhism to the world—a kind of professional curriculum on the interior life. Although we also have explorers of the interior life in the West, I don't think there's the same kind of systematic dedication to that exploration as is found in ancient India and in particular, in Buddhism.
I didn’t really approach Buddhism from an academic view, and sometimes I wonder how I got involved in academic Buddhist Studies altogether. I grew up in a fairly wealthy, upper middle-class community in the Middle West, where there were—just like nywhere else—good people and bad people. But, to be fair, I think the main value of the community was money. Your status in the community had to do with how much money and what kind of material goods you had, and I think because of the good ethical values that have been instilled in me by my family, I realized that there was something rather hollow and not very satisfying about this. Unfortunately, when I was growing up, I didn’t meet any truly spiritual people from any religious tradition, and so religion for me—from what I learned from the community—was not about the spiritual nature of human beings, but it was about religious institutions and social status. Usually the people who were most revered in the churches and temples were the people who had the most money. I hope that very few of you had this experience when you were growing up.
Then I went off to college at Harvard. It was very confusing for me, because the motto of Harvard is veritas, which means truth, and I naively assumed that people at Harvard would be concerned with he truth. Probably there were some there who were concerned with the truth, but most of them were concerned with fame, power, and, to a lesser extent, money. There were some very brilliant people there, and I felt awed by them. Interestingly enough, the first really spiritual person I came into contact with was a Christian. His name was Paul Tillich. He was a well-known Christian theologian in the fifties and sixties and had a tremendous amount of charisma. He would lecture every day to one or two hundred students, and I literally sat at his feet and drank in a kind of spiritual energy which I had not experienced before. I was also awed by his incredible intellect and education, which was of a scope I had never experienced before. He understood not only the whole Western tradition of philosophy and spirituality, but also something of Asian traditions. It was from him that I first learned of Buddhism. Because I had the tendency, I was interested in the interior life, although I didn't have much interior life.
I didn’t have much interior life because I grew up in a society and an educational system that doesn't teach us anything about the interior life. Unfortunately, most people, although they may be very good people and some of them may devote themselves to very good causes, have no interior awareness. Their attention is always focused out there in the world. To the extent that they are aware of what’s going on inside their minds, their awareness and interest lies in intellectual thoughts. It never occurs to most of them that those very thoughts are getting in the way of their own self-understanding.
When you go to college what is of value is thoughts and ideas. Your ability to remember and organize them is the basis on which you are evaluated during your university career. (I think you are lucky that at Humboldt State and at the University of San Francisco you have some professors who realize that there is something to learning beyond that.) This weekend you’re coming into coaontact with a tradition that says those thoughts and ideas can have some value—depending on what they are, they can guide us in our life— but if we really want to understand who we are, we have to look beyond them and realize that they cover over what is really valuable about us and about our understanding of the world.
I was in college in the early sixties, which must seem a very, very long time ago to most of you. I'm sure you’ve read in the history books that it was a rather turbulent time. Some of you may even have some rather bizarre parents from that era. My son is always telling me that all the sixties people are just weird, and he’s probably right. Anyway, when I was at college, I took a course in Asian art, and I began to realize that some of the art of Asia contains keys to an inner consciousness that is beyond ideas. By looking at the art, I could intuitively feel that there was something remarkable there.
One day during my senior year I was in my room looking at a medieval Japanese Buddha image on the wall, and I began to realize that the image was a guide to the inner consciousness. I began to realize that to the extent that I concentrated on the image, the distinction between what is inside the mind and what is outside began to break down. I saw that the distinction between what is me—subject—and what is object is phony, restricting and painful. And so I got a first taste of understanding that art could be a guide to a whole new world of inner consciousness. That's how I first got interested in Buddhism. It had nothing to do with studying Buddhism academically. When I learned that, naturally I wanted to seek out people who had wisdom—not knowledge, but wisdom—about this pathway to a whole new world of experience, which is beyond the pain of alienation that comes from cutting ourselves off from other people and from the natural world.
To make a long story short, I came to San Francisco to study Chinese and was very fortunate to meet the founder of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. He had not put up a sign saying that he was a famous Chinese Chan Buddhist Patriarch. He was living very quietly with almost nobody around. But gradually, being around him, I began to be aware that he was somebody who was very, very different from anybody else I knew. It was a very low-key kind of thing. I began to be aware that he never did anything selfish. I began to be aware that when I looked at him, I didn't have the same kind of, "Oh, there's another person there, with his own agenda for me to bounce off of," feeling that we always have when we meet another person. And I became aware that he was a very, very compassionate person. In very quiet, concrete, and unobtrusive ways, he was always trying to help—materially, emotionally, spiritually—everyone around him, without making any kind of claims for himself. As I began to sit and meditate with him, I became more and more aware of his special qualities.
The fact that he was a Buddhist was, in a sense, almost irrelevant to me. He himself always used to say that Buddhism is just a label, that Buddhism should not be called Buddhism, that Buddhism is the true heart, the true nature of the minds of all sentient beings. And so, when we study about comparative religion and make all of these categories: "I'm a Buddhist. You're a Christian. He's a Muslim. She's a Jew," there's something very artificial about it. Those categories sometimes may have some usefulness for sincere people on their own spiritual path, but they also become a hindrance and can be counterproductive. I often feel a great sense of kinship with people who come from other spiritual traditions; I feel that we are really on the same path insofar as we can understand it. Now, whether that same path is ultimately the same, who is to say? But to all of us who realize that what is truly important about human life lies beyond our own selfish egoistic considerations, then these distinctions about doctrines, about ideas, are not so important and don't tend to get in the way.