A. Klein, Sources of Enlightenment: Faculty and Administrators Who Challenge and Inspire Their Student
Anne Carolyn Klein/ Rigzin Drolma
Professor, Department of Religious Studies, Rice University
Founding Director & Resident Lama, Dawn Mountain
B.A. cum laude, Harpur College (Now Binghamton University) with highest honors in English
M.A., Buddhist Studies, University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. University of Virginia.
“Letting go of ideals is both a cause and an effect of mindfulness,” writes Anne Carolyn Klein (1995, p. 78), professor of religion at Rice University and resident lama at Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple in Houston, Texas. Furthermore, “Self-knowledge, like driving, can be much hampered by the over-whelming presence of a goal to be reached” (p. 79). Yet Klein also acknowledges that, as a young adult, her path to Buddhist studies began with a strong yearning to go to India. Did she not pursue—with much tenacity—a goal of her own that has influenced her in many positive and transforming ways? Can one be devoted to a goal and still be present to what is? As a professor and religious leader, how does she encourage her students to be devoted to an aim for which they are particularly passionate (as was the case for her as a young student hoping to visit India), while cautioning them not to be too attached to a goal or an ideal? Below, Klein helps Character Clearinghouse readers to resolve what may seem to be conflicting ideas—as well as share with them her many insights—about contemplative studies and mindfulness.
Interviewed by Pamela Crosby, Character Clearinghouse Editor
You studied English as an undergraduate, and later in graduate school you focused on Buddhist Studies. What led you to the Buddhist path?
It started with a major, if inexplicable, determination to go to India. To prepare for this, I attended the University of Wisconsin as a student in Buddhist Studies, and there met one of the most highly accomplished scholar/meditation masters of his generation (he was 71 in 1970),and I started to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. I was impressed with its sophistication, and with the kindness of its teachers, starting with him, Kensur Ngawang Legden. I also met Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey, since one of his students, Jeffrey Hopkins, was a senior grad student at Wisconsin when I arrived there. It was he, Jeffrey, who invited and translated for Kensur, who had initially come to this country under the auspices of Geshe Wangyal.
You sound as if you were very committed to the goal of traveling to India, yet in your writing, you caution individuals not to be too attached to goals or ideals. How do we teach students to be mindful, have initiative, pursue a direction and achievement, and yet not be too committed to the goals they set for themselves (as you argue in your book Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, & the Art of the Self )?
Ahh . . . it’s a slow cook, an art form. Yet, just knowing that ideals can be binding, as well as inspiring, gives one a leg up. And you can start to notice how your idea of what should be is interfering with your being alive to what is. This noticing is also very educational. And having an ideal—a sense that “I should be like this and not like I am” is very different from having a goal. Goals are important. But we should not race after them blindly. A goal helps you know where you are headed. Idealism is when you think you should already be there.
You are founding director and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple in Houston.
What led to the founding of your organization?
Gratitude to our own Buddhist teachers, who taught us so generously, and a wish to share life skills/ meditation practices, information/wisdom/tradition/ that could enrich others.
What has been your greatest challenge as founding director?
Connecting with the different wishes and needs of people who attend, and the very different interests and levels of people who may gather together for any particular sequence of teachings or retreats.
How do you see your feminist and Buddhist philosophy informing your teaching? What are specific needs that young female students have that can be addressed by contemplative studies and practices?
Both feminists and Buddhists are interested in exploring the limits of ordinary styles of self-conception, in questioning the answers our cultures give us about who and what we are, long before we even know enough to question these. There’s also a shared valuing of the kind of power that is not over-and-against, divide and conquer, but comes from simply being present, seeing, knowing, and being deeply grounded in what one knows. Young women –and young men, too—definitely benefit from a chance to own who they are, and that ownership comes when one is able to sense fairly deeply within, to see what is there, what is more and less authentic. This is where the life-skill of attention, or what Buddhists call mindfulness, becomes very central.
How can recognizing that human beings are dynamic and impermanent selves—no self (according to Buddhist teachings)—help us to be more compassionate toward others? How is it possible to be “focused on an object replete with meaning and empty of content” (1995, p. 143 )? Both ideas seem counterintuitive!
They may be conceptually at odds, but experientially they are not. When it comes to lived experience, they are in fact very compatible. Think of the comfort of just looking out into space, or at the ocean, or gardening, knitting, simple sitting in the sun. These things feel enriching. But it’s not because there is cognitive content there. Also. No–self simply means “no self as we ordinarily understand it.” It no way means that we don’t exist. We do, and that existence is dynamic.
Tell us about your Contemplative Practicum that you teach at Rice.
I teach it as a life-skill, focusing on the cultivation of attention. Attention is really a way of caring, and so provides a natural bridge to the cultivation of kindness. We also take some time to contemplate the existential realities of life—like impermanence/death, and the need for skillful use of one’s time.
Class sizes are becoming larger, and many more courses are offered online. Can teaching students to spend more time alone and to be contemplative and reflective increase their sense of isolation?
It can. Even more important is when people see the benefit of meditating in a group, sitting silently with others, supporting contemplation by one’s sheer presence. At the same time, learning to explore within helps connect one with oneself, and this is the real key to connecting with others.
You write that a classroom can be “transformed” by the type of activities that can be done (Coburn, Klein, Komjathy, Roth, & Simmer-Brown, 2011, p. 174). How do you integrate contemplative activities in your own classroom?
We do a sitting in the practicum, and sometimes, by request, in other classes, at the beginning of a class or before a question and answer period. People settle down. They are more focused. Their questions come from a deeper place. Sometimes we consider the values implicit in such sittings, and those conversations also are more meaningful once we have settled down together.
Why is it important to integrate contemplative practices into a course rather than simply relying on and encouraging students to pursue these practices exclusively outside of academic study?
Having it as part of a curriculum gives it value in the life of a student. And makes an important statement about education addressing the whole person, and about the profound and promising capacity for integrating intellectual and contemplative orientations.
You led a seminar in the Department of Religious Studies at Rice on Tibetan visionary poet, philosopher, and meditation master Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798). Why did you choose this topic for a seminar? What relevance does this meditation master have for students today?
A main tradition in which I have studied and practiced has been the “Heart Essence. Great Expanse” tradition in the most ancient order of Tibetan Buddhism. It has a very rich iconographic, poetic, and contemplative palette, and Jigme Lingpa is the master meditator for whom the originary texts of the tradition dawned, while he was in a spacious visionary experience during one of his three year retreats. He became a master scholar, also great poet and what westerners might call a great mystic—Tibetans consider him a great yogi. So he exemplifies a kind of wholeness that I think is a great beacon for our culture, someone who is intellectually brilliant, but is not trapped by ideas of any kind, who is equally at home in the depths of spacious non-conceptual experience. In this way he exemplifies the spectrum of what all human beings can encompass. So those are some of the reasons. Also, one of my very close teachers in this tradition is considered a reincarnation of Jigme Lingpa.
You write that one must engage in “responsible contemplative education” (Klein & Gleig, 2011, p. 190). What advice to you have for university faculty members who want to integrate mediation practices in their courses or student affairs professionals who want to offer programs in meditation?
More and more faculty, at places like The Five Colleges near Amherst, Drucker School of Business, etc., are taking an interest in contemplative education. Courses in basic mindfulness are widely available, and these are an excellent place to start in terms of gaining a foothold on practice oneself. The Mind and Life conversation, some of it available on the web, including the recent First International Symposium on Contemplative Studies has some great talks by Diane Chapman Walsh, John Cabot-Zinn, Congressman Tim Ryan, and others.
Coburn, T. Grace, F. Klein, A.C., Komjathy, Roth, H. & Simmer-Brown, J. (2011, April). Contemplative pedagogy: Frequently asked questions. Teaching Theology & Religion, 14(2), 167-174.
Klein, A. C. (1996). Meeting the great bliss queen: Buddhists, feminists, & the art of the self.Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion.
Klein, A. C., & Gleig, A. (2011). Contemplative inquiry: Beyond the disembodied subject. In J. Summer-Brown & F. Grace (Eds.), Mediation and the classroom; Contemplative pedagogy for religious studies, pp. 189-193. Albany: State University of New York.
Klein, A. C. (2009). Heart essence, the vast expanse: A story of transmission. Ithaca: Snow Lion.
Klein, A. C. (2001, November). The mantra and the typist. Tricycle, the Buddhist Review
(Listed by Harpur Collins as among the most significant spiritual writings of 2001).
Also published (2003) In K. Wheeler (Ed.), Nixon under the bodhi tree: and other works of Buddhist fiction ( pp. 141- 148). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Klein, A. C. (1994). Presence with a difference, Hypatia,139-147.