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Honoring a Love of the Dharma: A Conversation with Matthew Brensilver

Matthew Brensilver

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, began practice in the Tibetan tradition and since 2003 has studied with Shinzen Young. He served as a Buddhist chaplain at USC for four years and teaches about the intersection of mindfulness and psychotherapy at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center. Matthew was trained by Noah Levine, with whom he teaches at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. He has been involved with Spirit Rock Teen Retreats since 2008.

Spirit Rock - SR: What brought you to the Dharma?

Matthew Brensilver - MB: You know, it was only after some years into practice I actually realized that my first encounter with the Dharma was in the form of a high school student, long before I would know what that Dharma was. We were students in the same grade at a high school in New York. Her name was Jessica and she meditated and that was kind of curious to me. As it turns out, her mother is a senior teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but I didn’t know that.  What I remember about Jessica was a particular intuition I had: I felt almost haunted by this sense that she knew something that I didn’t know. And it really wasn’t till many years after that that I realized that that was the first example of me getting a scent of the Dharma. I would credit her in a way with the first exposure. It wasn’t for maybe another six or seven years after that when I actually was living in Santa Monica in a three bedroom place and two friends moved out and two new folks moved in, and they asked to have a kind of housewarming party. And that housewarming party was, you know, a sangha gathering at the home. I remember kind of barreling in after a long day at work and they had some candles set up and were finishing a meditation session. The group had formed out of a Thich Nhat Hanh young adult retreat in Deer Park just when Deer Park was getting off the ground. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual path. I didn’t have any major existential questions. I wasn’t wondering who I was, I wasn’t deeply unhappy – I was by normal standards happy enough, but when I sat down and just tried to pay attention to my breath for two minutes, I was staggered by what I encountered.  My mind was like a circus gone wrong. I just couldn’t believe it, it was just so startling. Have I been living with this all my life? Is this, you know, is this the human condition?  It wasn’t like I had some agenda for some kind of healing or awakening or becoming happier or knowing myself, it just seemed abundantly clear that I needed to understand what was happening. Whatever my response was going to be to that initial encounter with my mind, it wasn’t conceivable that I could look away. I needed to see where this went. And so it was a kind of slow, cautious way into the path.  But it was simple, in part because I wasn’t seeking anything from the practice.  It was quite helpful to pursue practice without a clear sense of what I was doing or why, or what it was going to mean for me. And looking back, I can see the kind of fear and cautious apprehension of sticking my toe in the water. But after that first encounter it was just like ‘okay’, I can’t look away. Whatever is happening here, it’s urgent.

SR: And then you stayed engaged in your own practice for a period of time?

MB: Yeah. I initially practiced casually with Shambhala in Los Angeles and through weekly conference calls for a year or two with Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche who was in Creststone, Colorado.  A small group of senior students, all of whom had done a lot of practice, were connected with him and they were very gracious to include me in their practice group. Kongtrul Rinpoche was a great inspiration for practice.  He was relentless in beating the drum of dharma and renunciation.  He would say, again and again: your current strategies and approaches to happiness can’t work out! Do you want to continue rearranging the furniture in your dream or do you want to wake up? There was something about his insistence and clarity. He had a very persuasive way of articulating the predicament of being human. And that launched me into more local practice in LA. Then a lot of time, many years sitting with Shinzen Young and then Noah Levine and Gil Fronsdal and Spirit Rock/ IMS teachers.  That’s where we are.

SR: That was going to be my next question, at what point did you bridge from Shambhala into the vipassana tradition.

MB: I think I was attracted to articulations of Buddhism that featured a minimal amount of metaphysical speculation and complication, so I wasn’t really looking for a kind of grand path. I was looking for a deep and rich path but one that was humble about what practice does and what practice means. A path that was humble about what we can and can’t leave behind of the human condition. A practice tradition dedicated to this life. And Shinzen was, a beautiful example of that for me, somebody who has very deep aspirations for what is actually possible, what’s possible in this very life, but whose articulation of the path is simple and unencumbered by elaborate beliefs.  I think we’re moving to more phenomenological clarity in our articulations of the dharma – more precision about the nature of experience, while being careful not to smuggle metaphysics through the back door.  Shinzen has been quite precious in this regard. 

And to be honest, I also think some of my move away from Shambhala was that I couldn’t make sense of the lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche.  He had such a beautiful mind and a phenomenal way of articulating different aspects of the Dharma.  I was, and am still, deeply grateful for his life and work.  But I just couldn’t really reconcile all that goodness with some of the harm he caused himself and others.  I’m still trying to understand what it means about the nature of wisdom that it can co-occur with harmfulness. And you know, there are different ways of understanding how those things coexist, but for me it actually called into question the very model, the nature of enlightenment, that it can coexist with destructive forms of behavior.  I’ve increasingly been drawn to models of awakening that are very closely tied to non-harming, to kindness and integration in all spheres of one’s life.  Our masters of wisdom sometimes harm others, but our masters of love don’t.  I’m coming to trust kindness more than anything we think we know about the world.  

SR: Thank you. I think you’re making such a significant point about trust in your teacher/tradition and the practice of non-harming. I appreciate you mentioning it. What inspired you then to pursue teaching?

MB: Well, teaching was much more like an accident than an intention. You know, I really have no idea how I’m here. (Laughter) And it’s not that I shouldn’t be here, but it feels simultaneously totally natural and kind of surreal.  Maybe that’s just the surreal nature of identity itself. As soon as I think I’m a teacher, as soon as I think I’m a Dharma teacher, I’m not, you know? When I read my bio and it says that I’m a teacher, it feels quite alien. Yet it seems natural to speak and share when I sit with people. I feel as much at home while teaching as I do anywhere in my life.

SR: Beautiful.

MB: If I unpack it chronologically, it was Noah Levine. I was really enjoying practicing with him and his sangha in LA for a couple of years, and Noah asked me to join a two year training program that he was doing in 2007. So I started teaching at Against the Stream in Hollywood in early 2008. And that was really the first teaching that wasn’t one on one. I had done some work supporting yogis on Shinzen Young’s retreats but I had not really done any significant teaching before that. So it was Noah. And teaching back then, just seven years ago or so, there was less energy around the whole teaching thing. More and more it seems like the dominant understanding is that the outcome of practice is teaching. I think teaching is a by-product or a side effect of practice, not a goal. If one were taking medicine in order to experience the side effects, you would wonder if they understood the disease.  I fell in love with the dharma, and teaching for me is simply one way of honoring that love.

SR: And what is the most alive in your practice?

MB: Most alive in practice. I’m starting to discern a kind of trajectory of growth or change. An evolution in my own practice that roughly adheres to a kind of developmental model of being a child and an adolescent and then a grownup. I think I may be in the adolescent rebellion phase of my Dharma practice.  I’m trying to ask - what do I really know? What is my experience, and in what ways have the instructions that I’ve received from teachers for whom I’m deeply grateful, in what ways is my experience like theirs or not like theirs, and in what ways am I living off of their insights and not my own? There’s been a kind of attempt to really look in a fresh and critical way at my experience and my conceptualization of the Dharma. It’s been a necessary process of trying to find my own voice within all of the instructions and care and compassion that I have received. I’ve been very fortunate with the teachers that I’ve had. A lot of beautiful influences, and now I’m asking ‘where am I in this?’ And there’s a process opening, because I have some background in research and behavioral science and I am trying to situate the dharma and the empirical tradition.  What’s the relationship between the Dharma and philosophy of the mind, or other areas like literature or... In the past I think I would have said the Dharma’s is all that matters with regard to questions of meaning and given that, it should be shielded from the influence of science and philosophy and art. Increasingly I feel like the evolution of Dharma in America, maybe in the West, is to begin to accept the influence of these different disciplines of science, philosophy, and art. And by ‘accept influence’, that means that the Dharma itself may change and grow through its collision with these other discourses. It seems to me like the Dharma makes clear claims that are empirically testable, at least in principle. Claims about the nature of well-being, about the nature of the mind, about the effects of certain trainings. Maybe some of those questions are quite difficult to assess but I’m actually optimistic that the Dharma can be enriched through deep dialogues with these other discourses. Sometimes there’s a fear that the Dharma needs to be protected, but I think whatever is of deepest value in the Dharma, we don’t need to be afraid of losing any of that in this cross fertilization. I’m very curious to see what a truly integrative view of well-being looks like. For the most part so far, it’s been a selective identification of particular aspects of science that support the Dharma. I’m curious about how the dialogue will unfold and how that will change science and how it’ll change Dharma. I’m in process with all of this. So far, the main effect of this exploration is that I have a slightly humbler way of articulating the teachings.  The dharma doesn’t seem any less beautiful or inspirational, but it’s a humbler version for me.  Like I said, this may be my adolescent rebellion.  I really hope that I don’t sound strident here, because I’m holding all of this lightly.  I’ll have to see where it goes and promise to keep a close eye on my mind and try to make sure I don’t get stuck in a thicket of views.

SR: I just appreciate your exploration of the personal aspects of practice. This adolescent aspect of really questioning what is yourself, what is it you’ve been fed, and then you’re also holding this larger question of the Dharma in relation to these other influences of science and culture. That there is this beautiful parallel of the micro and the macro. And sitting with the question, having the capacity to be with the question and the discomfort of that question—

MB: Yeah.

SR: While holding the role as a teacher…

MB: Right. Right. Yeah.

SR: I think it comes across in your teaching. I clearly believe that that quality of being humble and almost like a conduit for the Dharma as it’s evolving is something many people are interested in and trying to figure out. It’s a very complex world we live in.

MB: Yeah.

SR: Maybe it always has been but it feels particularly so…

MB: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, it’s true, it is micro and macro. My teachers have been quite gracious and patient with me as I sort of fumble my way through. This phase does really have echoes of my youth, which was just drenched in aversion and skepticism, and I’m mindful of that. I’m starting to come into more balance but that’s part of why I’m a little suspicious of my mind. So, I’m sort of agnostic about where some of it’s going.

SR: And keeping a careful watch…

MB: Yeah. Exactly.

SR: So then let me pose this final question to you.  What do you envision for Spirit Rock in the next ten, twenty years? Or what do you envision for Buddhism?

MB: Big questions.  Ok, well, of course I don’t know, and there are certainly people in a better position to make predictions than I am.  But you could say that we’re living in interesting times.  I suspect every generation feels like that – it always seems like we’re the ones approaching a fork in the road.  I’m not sure that we are, but it feels like that. As Buddhist practices are more widely disseminated through many secular institutions, I’d anticipate that the Dharma will encounter more and more discerning, skeptical attention. And I think that cuts both ways. On the one hand, open-mindedness, not-knowing, a willingness to suspend judgment and dive into practice – all of this is critical in the cultivation of Dharma practice.  It’s very difficult for people to practice if they can only function as philosophers or critics.  But, on the other hand, some discerning eyes encountering Buddhism will likely ask important questions about how we teach, what we offer, and what we know. There are ways in which the history of philosophy and empirical science may be relevant and shed light on some of the questions and pursuits of the Dharma. And my sense is that it will be a richer dialogue. There is likely to be a good deal of consilience and scientific findings that echo our ancient teachings. But science doesn’t just give, it also takes. I anticipate that at some point the Dharma will, to use that same phrase, accept the influence of the other discourses. Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not suggesting that the Dharma bow at the feet of science or anything like that. But insofar as the Dharma is universal, science and philosophy provide a codified way of unpacking the claims and a consistent evidentiary standard against which claims might be assessed and negotiated.

We’re always already making scientific claims about the practice. Whenever we teach Dharma, we are implicitly or explicitly talking about mechanisms of change, namely how the Dharma transforms us. And these are hypothesized mechanisms – sometimes we speak literally, sometimes we use metaphor to describe how the fruit of practice accrues.  We talk about things like insight or purification.  I’m not discounting that at all, but my sense is that we don’t really know how the Dharma transforms us. I think we can say with some confidence for those of us who sort of fell in love with the Dharma and practice over a long period of time, it does have major impacts on how we experience life. But that is a separate question from how that is accomplished, and in teaching we’re always espousing a particular mechanism of change. My sense is that we’re really just in the infancy of actually understanding how the Dharma gets under the skin and how it catalyzes change, and the metaphors that we use to explain the process may be just metaphors.  There may be other interesting biological, psychological, social processes that are unfolding in ways that we don’t yet really understand. And of course neuroscience is pointing to one level of explanation – the changes the structure and function of the brain – but there are lots of ways that we can understand the change that unfolds in the course of a Dharma life.  My sense is that there needs to be some more interdisciplinary conversations that happen. And these are started. I’m not saying anything new. But for the most part, the conversations that have happened so far have featured either science or the Dharma as the ultimate arbiter of truth and I think we’re gonna have to relinquish those positions in order for the dialogue to be truly generative. For me, that’s hopeful. I have a lot of hope that this can really benefit beings. And I think Spirit Rock is positioned to be at the forefront of the kind of evolving dialogue between the Dharma and the larger culture. But you know, the truth is, if Spirit Rock did nothing, if nothing changed – which doesn’t sound very Buddhist – but if nothing changed in the next ten or twenty years, that would be fine. There is so much beautiful stuff happening here at Spirit Rock already. Nurturing breadth and depth.  Supporting people in deep, long-term practice but also with the new community hall and the possibility of reaching many more people online and supporting the vision of breadth. There are lots of possibilities and I’m happy to be here.  It feels, like a very fortunate, rich time. There’s a lot of gratitude for all of the causes and conditions that have been set in place and the lineage of generosity that brings us to this moment.

SR: Yeah, I feel very fortunate to be involved with it and also that you’re going to be as well. To have this next wave of teachers who will be involved in Spirit Rock’s evolution is going to be quite significant in the long run.   

 
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