Alan Clements was one of the first Westerners to become a Buddhist monk in Burma, where he lived for the good part of a decade, studying primarily under Sayadaw U Pandita. Since leaving the monastery, Clements has become a teacher of what he calls World Dharma, a spoken-word artist, and an activist working for global human rights. Clements has played a prominent role in bringing Burma’s “revolution of the spirit” to the forefront of international awareness through his books Burma: The Next Killing Fields?, Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit, and The Voice of Hope, a book of conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate. In addition, Clements was the script revisionist and advisor for Beyond Rangoon, a feature film depicting Burma’s struggle for democracy, directed by John Boorman. Clement’s current book, Instinct for Freedom: Finding Liberation through Living (New World Library, 2002), is his first to deal explicitly with the dharma.
Inquiring Mind: In your new book you describe a time after you had disrobed when you were in great despair, questioning the value of your monastic training.
Alan Clements: I went to Burma in 1977 as a rebellious 26-year-old artist who had done a lot of psychoactive substances and was existentially on fire. I desperately wanted to know why I felt so much pain and despair. And why there was so much hatred and war. At that time, my desire was to study with the elders in a meditative tradition that said, “Self-awareness is the key quality of consciousness necessary to discover yourself and the source of your pain.” Basic vipassana.
My early period of meditative training in Burma was profound. I felt that my teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, was brilliant at helping me understand the colors of my own mind. His metaphor of meditation as art worked well for me as an artist. What was the color of love? The color of fear? The color of freedom? I apprenticed with him. As such, I learned the artistry, so to speak, of manifesting a more liberated expression of being.
In that process, however, there was something else that came through that I would call ideology, dogma, religion. It was explained to me that existence was not confined to just this one lifetime alone, or to just this one plane of perception. Samsara was described as consisting of four hell realms, an animal realm, a human realm, six heaven worlds, and nineteen realms of pure consciousness, or brahma lokas, as they’re called. Thirty-one planes of existence in all. Suddenly, here was this whole Buddhist cosmology, resplendent with karma, rebirth, nirvana, psychic powers and Buddhahood, spiritual perfection itself. I had traveled to Burma to meditate—to explore the nature of consciousness—and here I was being taught this complete dogma, predicated on the belief that the Buddha was omniscient. It took seven years, but in good faith I downloaded an entire religion. I became indoctrinated.
IM: What made you question the beliefs you had accepted? When did your understanding begin to shift?
AC: It started shifting one day when, after teaching a retreat in Australia, I picked up a copy of Time magazine, and on the cover was a photograph of a group of Buddhist monks with a caption that read, “Bullets in Alms Bowls.” To my horror, it was a story about the democratic uprising in Burma and its violent suppression by the military dictatorship. According to the article, the generals, fearing the power of the monks and nuns, began attacking the monasteries in Rangoon and Mandalay. I thought that my teachers and friends might have been imprisoned or killed. Since Burma was my spiritual home, I responded, I think, as any loyal son or daughter would to their own family. I immediately went to Bangkok, hoping to get into Burma, but was told that the country had been sealed—no one was allowed in or out. I decided to go in underground. Once inside Burma, my heart cracked open. No amount of meditation or spiritual training could have prepared me for what I witnessed. I walked into a full-scale ethnic cleansing. As a result, my views about life and the dharma have never been the same. I wrote about my experiences in my first book, Burma: The Next Killing Fields?
IM: When did you meet Aung San Suu Kyi?
AC: I met Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time in 1995, four years after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and shortly after her release from six years of incarceration. During our first meeting, at her home in Rangoon, we realized that we shared a common dharma bond—we were both students of Sayadaw U Pandita. Over the course of the next five months, Aung San Suu Kyi and I met on a regular basis. Our conversations were taped, transcribed and smuggled out of the country. Soon after my return to Paris, where I was living at the time, the transcripts were published as a book called The Voice of Hope: Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi.
During our conversations, Aung San Suu Kyi would often emphasize how you cannot separate the political from the spiritual. At the root of both she would say is “human dignity and human freedom.” She helped me to understand humans in context: that we are in relationship all the time—to society, to culture, to politics, to everyday life. She revealed a revolutionary secular dharma that dealt with how to find liberation through living, outwardly and inwardly at the same time. “Love is an action,” she would say. “It is not a state of mind alone.” Just as generosity is an action, so too is lovingkindness.
Why do we imagine that generosity is successful to the extent that one merely thinks about being generous? You can sit there on your meditation cushion for eight hours a day during a ten-day retreat saying to yourself, “May I be generous,” and meanwhile, all around you, there are beggars living with their hands out for food. And you go on saying to yourself, “May I be generous.” Obviously, you become generous by getting up, going outside and giving something to a real beggar. Being generous in “real life” develops generosity, unlike simply fantasizing about being generous. In the same way, love is an action. You’ve got to get up off your seat to express it. Otherwise it’s fantasy metta.
IM: So you went from focusing on individual liberation through meditation to feeling that true liberation is generated in the marketplace or in the political field, by what you confront and how you confront it. Is that what you’re calling World Dharma?
AC: World Dharma is about making one’s life one’s art—finding liberation through living creatively, passionately, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves, without distinction. In other words, I am my relationships. It’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls ubuntu. He says, “A person becomes a person through other persons. What elevates you elevates me, and what denigrates you denigrates me.” It’s all about interrelatedness.
World Dharma is also about being an individual—embodying the beauty of our uniqueness as humans, our personal expression of self. I see meditation as a wonderful means to help establish an intimate relationship with one’s own states of mind. What I object to, however, is the idea often promoted by spiritual teachers that the dharma life is about trying to empty oneself of self-identity. I believe just the opposite. I see “self”—our individuality—as the greatest gift in life. Why all this preoccupation with disappearing? Overcoming self? Becoming empty? Who’s going to feed the children? Who’s going to steward the planet? Who’s going to become the next Galileo?
I don’t feel that the best life is no life. That’s what I feel is often taught and believed in many Buddhist circles. It’s as if one nirvana fits all, and the best life is when the last one is over. All for what? So you can finally die forever?
IM: In many Buddhist circles, the idea of escaping the self is often presented as simply not being so attached to your own set of desires and personal goals.
AC: My point is that we do exist and that we must do all we can to learn how to embody our humanness, and not homogenize it or try to transcend it. To me, that includes having desire. It’s taken me a long time to see desire as a beautiful thing. I love drinking coffee in the morning. I love sex. I love . . .
IM: Don’t you mean you love the satisfaction of your desires?
AC: I love both. I love desire—the heat of passion—as well as the satisfaction of desire when it’s met. But I can also live with restraint. I did it for years in a monastery, and I still do it every day of my life.
IM: Did you have experiences in your meditation practice in which you felt desires as painful? Or are you merely willing to accept the pain because you love life and don’t want to cut yourself off from any of its manifestations?
AC: Abstaining from desire in meditation was just a basic means to experience what it meant to have a mind temporarily free of desire. Okay, desirelessness was cool. I got a taste of it. Now I know that I can have desires and also know that I won’t be overwhelmed by them. And if I do, so what? I’m not afraid.
A problem I have with classical Buddhism and vipassana meditation in general is its drive towards achieving a state of equanimity, as if perpetual balance is the best way to be in life. A bit too Dr. Spock–like for my taste. Flat-lining the emotions isn’t part of my picture. Nor am I the least bit interested in the idea that dispassion and stillness are characteristics of the highest states of consciousness. I’ll be still enough when I die. For now, I like singing, I like music, I like hip-hop theater, I like good wine.
Embodying our humanness in all our dimensions, to me, is the ultimate understanding of life. What else is there? So a lot of the spiritual journey for me has been in overcoming the projection of perfection that has been cast upon the ordinariness of being human. I think we need to relax a bit, laugh more, and enjoy the ride.
IM: Many people would say that meditation is a method of getting in touch with all of those aspects of yourself, so that you can exist within your humanness with more ease and freedom.
AC: I agree. But the way I see it today, meditation is a means to usher one into life; it’s not about escaping or transcending it. Don’t get me wrong. I think that Buddhist meditation should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its power in introducing humans to themselves. I’m one of the greatest fans of meditation. But one must be careful. Meditation is not a substitute for living. I think meditation is like a simulator for an airplane. It helps you to understand yourself so that you can get out there and fly.
Do I still meditate? Generally speaking, it’s no longer that interesting to sit and watch my breath. It’s still cool to do every now and again, but I’m choosing to live more from the place of what a full breath affords me.
Frankly, I think there should be a moratorium on intensive meditation for most long-term meditators. It’s so easy for people to become robotic, institutionalized, predictable, cut off from themselves. I’ve seen it happen this way to many people. Such individuals should be encouraged to dive back into the world, into their flesh, and live outwardly through their understanding. Life is the best teacher, not sitting and silence only.
IM: So what exactly are you teaching now when you lead retreats?
AC: I’m not really teaching anything, as such. I do share my thoughts. I impart what I know. But I don’t teach, and I don’t believe in having students. I call my retreats Natural Freedom Meditation Retreats. We meditate four or five hours a day, have lively dialogues and monologues about issues that are important to us, eat good meals, have plenty of breaks and a lot of free time to read, walk and be in nature. And everything is optional.
Mostly what I talk about is the importance of being human. What I’m turned on to is the preciousness of being alive. Maybe I was a slow learner, but I myself have never felt this before. “Favor the question, always question,” Elie Wiesel said. “Do not accept answers as definitive.” Answers change. Questions don’t. Always question those who are certain of what they are saying. Always favor the person who is tolerant enough to understand that there are no absolute answers, but there are absolute questions. That’s my challenge, to keep the questions alive.
You can visit Alan Clements’s website at WorldDharma.com