Reginald Ray combines committed practice with scholarship and teaching at the Buddhist Naropa University in Colorado. This gives him a distinctive perspective on the Buddhist tradition. His book, Buddhist Saints in India argues that the usual image of the Buddhist community leaves out the 'forest renunciates' who leave society to live in the wilderness and pursue meditation.
According to Ray, these forgotten renunciates constitute a third traditional approach to the Dharma, alongside 'settled monastics' (who concentrate on studying texts and following the monastic code) and lay practitioners (who observe the ethical precepts and support the monastics). He believes that, by following a radical spiritual path, these forest renunciates uphold Buddhism's integrity.
Ray lives in the Rocky Mountains at the largest Buddhist centre of the Shambhala movement. Before he disappeared for a six-week solitary retreat, Dharma Life spoke to him about his ideas and their implications for the modern world.
'My approach to studying Buddhism reflects the fact that as well as being a scholar I am also a practitioner. I met Chogyam Trungpa in 1970 when I was in graduate school. He told me that if I continued to study Buddhism only academically I would become knowledgeable and agile in the philosophy. 'But unless you are willing to render up your intellect on the meditation cushion you won't understand what the tradition is.' Intellectuals have to believe that concepts take precedence over direct perception. But in Buddhism there are several ways to know things - including both logic and direct perception. So Trungpa Rimpoche encouraged me to begin serious meditation practice in addition to my studies (which he also valued).
My view of the Buddhist community developed through my encounters with teachers of the Tibetan tradition, especially the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, which have been the primary advocates of meditation practice. For those teachers both meditation and scholarship were
considered legitimate approaches, but these were distinct and there was a tension between them. It became clear to me that, despite the character of much Theravadin Buddhism (with its scholar monks), there was another approach to living a Buddhist life - but that this had been left out of many accounts of Buddhism. I came to call this the path of the forest renunciate - the way of the yogis.
There are several reasons why we have developed a distorted view of the Buddhist community. Since the beginning of Buddhist studies in the West we have identified a two-tiered model of Buddhist practice. This view is supported by texts because the monastic community was the custodian of the literate Buddhist tradition, and the texts they passed down recorded their history and their own view of Buddhism. This assessment has also been attractive to academics, who have largely controlled the understanding of Buddhism in the West. Academics (myself included) make their living through the exchange of ideas and tend to give credence to those aspects of life that are accessible to conceptual thinking. We admire the dimensions of religious tradition that are conceptually and philosophically sophisticated, so for western scholars the viewpoint of the monastic tradition has been compelling.
But the Buddha was clearly a forest renunciate. He secluded himself in the forest, even separating himself from the communities of other forest renunciates, and engaged intensively in yogic practices. And most members of the community he founded followed a similar lifestyle. When I looked at the earliest Buddhist texts I realised that, despite usual interpretations, they did portray a strong 'forest' component. And it was plain that such ways of living had been present from the earliest times and had been marginalised. A forest tradition persisted throughout Buddhist history and for successive generations the Buddha's life provided later Buddhists with a model for the forest way of life.
To give a sense of the forest approach to Dharma practice, I would like to use an image. Imagine that wisdom is a fire. The forest renunciate wants to walk into the middle of the fire so that his ignorance is consumed and he attains Awakening. His practice is intense and radical and he wants to attain realisation in this lifetime. The monastic community sit around the fire, and a warmed by it. They maintain the tradition of texts, but they don't engage in intensive meditation.
Putting matters so starkly risks cariacaturing these approaches. In practice there are many ways to be a full-time Buddhist practitioner - from being the most conservative non-meditative monastic to forest renunciation. But forest life truly is something radical and distinctive. The forest renunciate's lifestyle is simple. In ancient India their clothes were made of rags and they begged their food or ate what could be gathered in the forest.
Forest life means separating oneself from communities, whether lay or monastic, and going into the wilds - which all the Buddhist traditions considered the most potent place for exploring the dimensions of one's awareness. They also lived in cremation grounds, which were believed to be haunted, surrounded by the remains of corpses. Such places were untamed, not under the control of conventional society.
In my view the true continuity of Buddhism is provided by the forest experience and teachers who passed on their wisdom there. Even in Tibet, which had a strong tradition of monasteries that supported meditative practice, when the time came to give the most profound teachings the teacher would often take his students into the mountains for months at a time, sometimes under harsh conditions. There they lived, studying their minds and developing their awareness. So even within a group of meditators, intensive practice often required you to separate yourself from the patterns and expectations of ordinary life. The forest experience has maintained the integrity of Buddhism, and without it Buddhism could lapse into a conventional religion, concerned with sustaining society rather than offering an alternative to it.
The move to the wilderness represents a psychological and spiritual shift, not just a physical one. Buddhism teaches that at death we experience the insubstantial nature of the world. But this can also happen through meditation practice, and in this sense forest practice can be seen as a process of death and rebirth. In our daily lives we are committed to other people and our activities, many things reinforce our identity, values and perceptions of the world. While living such a life it is hard for that radical death and rebirth to take place. But the forest is an unconditioned space where you can learn to see life at a deeper level.
Meditators will tell you that if you leave centres of human activity your mind settles, and you perceive things in a new way as you connect on a deeper level with your mind. You discover where you are stuck, and where you can let go. This process is often difficult and painful. You may go into a solitary retreat with expectations, but soon you realise you have to let go of them. You feel as if you are dying, and you have to offer up your way of looking at things. You cannot anticipate what you will experience through deep meditation but you will certainly discover that the world we maintain through our thinking is actually a mirage, an illusion we sustain through our investment in it.
There are still forest traditions throughout the Asian Buddhist world, probably more than we know. In north-east Thailand the forest tradition has been strong in the last century, and the great masters of forest meditation were respected throughout the country and mentors to those in power. In the Himalayan regions there continue to be yogis and yoginis who go into seclusion and meditate. The tradition of Milarepa - one of the archetypal forest hermits, in whose lineage I myself practise - is still alive. People sing his songs, follow the example of his mountain life and undertake the practices he did himself. Despite the Chinese occupation there are probably people living in caves in the outlying regions of Tibet that are far from Chinese control, quietly doing the ancient practices.
But in all these places this way of life is under tremendous pressure and it is hard to say if the traditions will survive. Modernity has affected Buddhist countries like an avalanche, and the forest life - which was possible in the pre-modern traditional societies where Buddhism has hitherto been practised - may not endure. But if Buddhism is to survive in any authentic sense there will have to be ways for forest practice to continue.
Buddhism is certainly growing in the West, but what are the prospects for the forest tradition enduring here? I don't see the traditional idea that you separate yourself from human communities and wander off on your own as a viable possibility. Even where I teach in the Rocky Mountains our retreats are different. We can find quiet and be in nature, but we have log cabins and propane fires. I don't think we have the temperament for the more radical approach, and perhaps we do not need to follow it in the old way.
We need to understand the values the forest embodies and ask how we can create an environment in which the radical dissolving of the self through meditation is possible. We need to be creative and imaginative in setting up such a situation for modern practitioners. In the West retreat centres sometimes offer seclusion, so that practitioners may not even see each other, while the community offers medical and other supports. About 15 years ago a friend of mine (a psychology professor at Naropa) did a three-year retreat with a group. Then he decided to go into retreat for life, and he now lives in a retreat centre in France, in a little house with a small yard; but he never sees anybody and no one sees him. He has created a forest situation in the middle of the French countryside.
It is unlikely that many people will do extended retreats, for reasons of personal inclination and also for financial considerations. Can the forest tradition survive without extended retreats? I think the answer is definitely, yes. Many Tibetan teachers advised their students to go back and forth between retreat and ordinary life. The process of going into retreat and coming out of it is powerful, and even retreat life can become a habitual pattern.
Often it is possible for people to spend a few weeks a year on retreat, every so often having a longer period of solitary practice. In our community I observe that sometimes less spiritual change happens when people go away for several years than when they keep having to engage with the world and then let go, to reconnect and let go again. We need to consider new developments like these, to observe ourselves and our students, and find the most potent mix for different personalities.
There are other ways in which the forest experience, understood more figuratively, is alive in our modern world. Sometimes people find themselves suddenly plunged unwillingly and unprepared into what I would describe as a 'forest experience'. If you go to a waiting room on the oncology ward of a hospital where people have been diagnosed with terminal cancer and ask what's on their mind or hear what they say to each other, you will see that you are in a forest environment. People who have suffered a mental breakdown are in the forest. We marginalise such people by considering them different, but they are just normal people who find themselves outside the usual range of experience. Then there are people who have suffered a tremendous trauma: losing a job, going through a painful divorce, or the death of a child. There is a period when your state of mind places you apart from society - you are in 'the forest'. Adolescents can also find themselves experiencing elements of the forest.
In a culture like Tibet's those experiences can be useful because there is an understanding of their power and value that makes it possible to incorporate them into one's life. In our culture people are much more on their own and most lack the tools to understand what is happening when things fall apart. So the people around those going through crises often just try to stabilise and normalise them. The loss of self they have experienced is seen as a problem rather than an opportunity to become fuller in their human existence.
Even though forest-type experiences are possible in the West, I am none the less concerned for the future of Buddhism in the West. The majority of western Buddhist communities don't have a division between monks and lay people, but there is a kind of twofold model, which in my view follows the same basic structure. We have institutionalised Buddhism, which I see as a continuation of the monastic tradition, even though it is usually run by lay people. Then we have people on the periphery of the institutions, who regard them as the holders of Buddhism. I am concerned that many of the institutionalised Buddhist traditions are adapting themselves to the surrounding culture. Institutions need to do that, but many of the beliefs and values that are growing up in institutionalised Buddhism are actually Protestant ones. The only real corrective is the forest experience, where people realise that social morality, intellectualising, heavy reliance on books, belief in institutions, and the creation of hierarchies are not answers in themselves. They may well be helpful but the danger is that they become ends in themselves.
I believe the future of Buddhism hinges upon our ability to maintain the forest tradition in some authentic way. I am 59, and between now and the time I die I want to encourage people to practise the Dharma and to realise that practice is not separate from life. Dharma practice is what opens up our experience and enables us to realise what human life is. My focus in recent years has been on leading retreats, teaching meditation, and encouraging people to commit themselves to practising. The Shambhala movement in which I am involved derives from the practice lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, but for many people - especially the young - meditation is not very important. There are many serious western practitioners in the Tibetan tradition, but the tendency of our culture is so much in the opposite direction from the values of the Dharma. It is easy to be influenced by our environment to the point where we forget what our Buddhism is all about. In another 50 years, unless there are people who are committed to intensive practice, Buddhism will be assimilated. It could become a respectable part of mainstream society, and have lost touch with its core values. By then we won't have great teachers from Asia trained in the traditional context of practice. We will have just ourselves and the danger is that we will water the tradition down to the point where it is no longer distinctive.
A frequent misunderstanding of my book Buddhist Saints in India is that I follow the line taken by the great sociologist Max Weber, who saw the institutional development of Buddhism as a betrayal of the Buddha's original teaching. In fact I see the monastic tradition as an integral part of the Buddha's legacy and vital for its well-being. I speak of an 'economy' in which monks, forest renunciates and lay people all play a role. I don't regard settled monasticism as a betrayal of the Buddha's teaching. In the time before the Buddha there was a variety of religious possibilities, and 'town and village renunciation' was among them. It would be surprising if the Buddha had not encouraged some of his followers to follow a collective way of life. Like other truly innovative religious teachers I think he took a broad view that could include a wide range of people with varying lifestyles.
But monasticism is very weak in the West. Often those westerners who have taken monastic vows in the Tibetan orders feel like the odd duck even in their own communities. They are certainly respected and people appreciate what they are doing, but it is unusual. The Shambhala movement includes maybe 5-7,000 people worldwide but it has just one small monastery in northern Nova Scotia and you can count on your fingers the people who live there at any one time. This is another expression of the Protestant culture that is dominant in the US. Monks and nuns are considered too much of an exception to mainstream society to be respected.
Trungpa Rimpoche used to say, 'Don't think that spirituality comes free'. There is a price, you can't have everything you want and also develop as much as you want. There will be things you have to give up. Sometimes they are costly or painful, and you have to make a choice. I have chosen to do a long retreat every year, and this has meant that I have not put in the committed effort of many academics. I have written the bulk of the sequel to Buddhist Saints in India, but I won't be able to finish it until I get a clear run of time. Every time my annual retreat comes round I resist going, and I think I could finish the book if I were to skip it. But when I arrive on retreat I am very glad indeed about the choice I made.
My wife and I recently discussed the fact that we also haven't taken vacations. We are in our 50s and we haven't seen the world. But we asked ourselves, would we have spent our time travelling or would we rather have done a month's retreat each year? And we both felt that, given that we are probably going to die soon, Dharma practice is the best option. Without those periods of intensity - without an element of the forest - our lives would have so much less meaning.