by Susan Munro
Peggy and Larry Ward, dhamma teachers in the Plum Village tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Thanh, visited New Life in December to co-facilitate our Winter Solstice Festival. During the retreat they led dhamma discussions and mindful walks, and held some amazingly joyful sitting and singing meditation sessions. In this interview, New Life volunteer Susan chats to Peggy and Larry about what brought them to Thailand, how they incorporate mindfulness practice into their daily lives, and how Buddhism transcends the boundaries of religious faith.
You have mentioned your move to Thailand recently. What spurred the move?
Peggy: We moved in October this year – a bunch of synchronicities, but they were connected to being asked to come and teach at a temple near Bangkok, there were a bunch of students who wanted to study with us – and being asked to teach at the university of Chiang Mai, to develop an English speaking master’s programme in psychology. Then, Larry was offered a job at an international school – so all the things kind of came together, connected to our vision to our life, and to live more simply and sanely.
Larry: A combination of things, one is we are adventurers by nature, both of us, individually and together. We were looking beyond the U.S., and we’ve been involved in many retreats in Asia and Europe, Canada, etc., we’ve both lived and worked indifferent parts of the world, so we both have a global sensibility of who we are – so we were both invited to Thailand by a group of people we met on a retreat on France, a year or so ago, and the venerable [Thich Nhat Thanh], who was on this retreat, ask us to his temple in Thailand. So in December we came to Thailand for the first time to lead a retreat. And everyone was like, you have to move here. And it was brilliant, we really enjoyed the people, and then one of the people at the retreat doing the video came up to me at the end and asked me to be a principal at his school.
I said I didn’t really want to be a principal at his school, I was finishing my dissertation, I live in the U.S., and I had to do one more degree, which I could do short-term to get the principal license thing, but [that] I’d consider consulting. And one thing led to another over the course of the year and then I had conversations with some professors and the deans at Chiang Mai University to develop a Mindfulness and Psychology International Programme. So I find Thailand a great place to be – the culture is adaptable. I also have an opportunity to be meaningfully involved.
Thailand’s a great place to do that. What’s the name of the temple in Bangkok?
Larry: There are two monasteries that we’re connected to – Plum Village Thailand, and Wat Khao Long.
Have you been to Thailand before?
Larry: The first time was January. Surprisingly, because we’ve travelled with Thich Nhat Thanh to Vietnam and Korea, and China, but not Thailand. So it was first time in January to teach at the university in January, then to teach at the temple in Bangkok – Wat Khao Long I think.
What would you like to achieve with your work here in Thailand?
Larry: I’m hoping to offer my best to the world and to myself, so to love as beautifully and shamelessly as possible.
I want to finish my dissertation – on the effect of meditation on the central nervous system. I want to write, to organise my previous talks, to put them online, to continue to lead retreats across the world, and eventually have some people from other parts of the world for a retreat.
At the centre?
Larry: At other centres also in Thailand. I really like it here. It’s so calm and peaceful. It’s really, really cool – a delightful surprise.
Peggy: Yes. I was telling Julian this morning, it reminds me of other places I’ve been that I have found very nourishing.
It’s part of a network. That’s nice to know.
Peggy: Yes, so I consider myself lucky.
Now just a bit about your own meditation practice you have brought to the centre. I notice you use song quite a bit in your meditations. How does this benefit our meditative practice? I know many people find it quite hard to sit and focus when meditating. I’m just curious, could dynamic meditation (singing, dancing) be used as a substitute for sitting?
Peggy: We had a 20 minute silent sit – and each day in our monasteries, part of our sit is silent. It’s usually 20 minutes to a half hour to 45 minutes, depending on how well people are doing, so I’m able to slide the time, so it’s different in our tradition. If one person’s suffering but 20 people are blissed-out that’s fine, but if it’s the other way, then the bell gets invited (laughs).
It’s more flexible?
Peggy: At least 20 minutes of silence, but one of the guided meditations are about focus, and it gives you different sensations to stabilise your practice. It’s really good for new people too – it gives them something to grab onto, so they don’t wonder what’s happened for 15 minutes. Our primary practice is kindness. When I’m the meditation leader I try to be kind – it’s hard when I know people are suffering. I know people who have been meditating 20 – 30 years and they are just having a miserable time.
Larry: The really difficult part is quieting the mind down, especially more in the West, it’s about getting things done as quickly as possible, knowing as much as possible, I mean I’ve worked in the media, so when you do sit down, when you try to sit down it all comes to the surface, because you’ve absorbed it.
It’s wonderful to come out on a retreat to a centre such as this, but the truth is, many of us struggle to maintain our meditation practices in the outside world. How does someone stay motivated to practice in a busy modern environment?
What Thich Nhat Thanh talks about is having bells of mindfulness, and one of the reasons we always include walking meditation is we always have an opportunity to walk – we can sneak it in at the airport, the hospital, at work, we can just get in practice so its about mindfulness in daily life…we have at least an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, we practice before dinner, but we also practice all three meals, all three meals are silent. We also practice with total relaxation, but there’s also these other ways and what happens eventually is the gatas – ‘I have arrived, I am whole, I am here now’, they start coming up automatically, we’re training, ‘cos within us is this wise, peaceful being, that’s the beauty of the Buddha’s insight, we just need to dust it off with our practice . It’s there, it will take over. And those little chants, and songs work, the wise voice, instead of the old voice, that, ‘Oh come on Peggy, grow up, ‘ or, ‘You did that again?’ You know, the critical voice disappears and the wise voice comes up.
Larry: One of the things I do is every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is begin practicing before I get out of bed. What I’ve found is if I begin practicing before I get out of bed, it is easier to integrate other practices throughout the day.
So it’s all about how you start the day, you set a pattern, right?
Larry: So when I was working in the hospital, for example, when it was break time I would do walking meditation in the parking lot. Or, I’d walk to lunch. So, all the practices, standing, walking, sitting. Lying down is a little harder.
I tend to fall asleep.
Larry: I used to close my office door and lay down under my desk and do deep relaxation for 10 minutes. So, I have managed to integrate all my practices into my work day without any difficulty. You just have to remember to do it. So that’s why when I start the day it is easier for me to remember – oh, okay, I can spend 5 minutes breathing before my next meeting.
Its a good use of the time.
Larry: Instead of being anxious. So practice in daily life or at work isn’t the same as practice in a retreat centre or a monastery, but the techniques are basically the same, our time-frame is less. The more skillful you get, the easier it is to get into that space.
Without a lot of simmering down your mind, in a way.
Larry: Right. That’s a major thing, getting the busy [mind], the monkey mind, to calm down. I mean, I come from a media background, so it’s constant information all the time, so you realise when you’re sitting how much has been absorbed…so start the day and bring in segments of practice throughout the day.
So what you’re recommending is a bit of structure, of practicing at the same times every day?
If you can, that’s nice – the soul parts of us like rhythm and routine, but it’s not always possible, some of our friends and students don’t have enough time to meditate in the morning and eat, so they do eating meditation.
Do integrate your practice into your day?
Peggy: As best you can. Now again, rhythm is nice, but some part of us has this turtle mind, but my life hasn’t given me that in a long time, but as much as I’d like to think I could have that, it’s been 20 years, so maybe I ought to figure out another way.
I also have a day of mindfulness a week, and I try to have a day where I’m not out there so much, or I don’t do phones. [That’s] harder. And I do retreats – and sometimes I get to a centre like this just in time, [when] I feel like I’ve lost my Buddha-mind.
It’s good to take some time occasionally to immerse the self in practice.
Peggy: Yes, and we’re so lucky because we get asked to teach, so we don’t have to pay!
I like how you speak about Buddhism in a very human way, and how you seek to break it down to a practical system. It seems less like a religion and more like a psychology when you do this. In this way, do you think it is possible for people of all faiths to learn something from Buddhism? The way you teach the underlying philosophy of Buddhism is very different to other, more dogmatic approaches.
Peggy: Oh yes, the dhamma teachers in our tradition are of all faiths, so in the Order of Inner Being the members are lay priests, monks, rabbis and nuns, but our teacher is real clear that our practice is to nourish our root tradition whatever that is – maybe we put down a Buddhist root, maybe not, that’s not what is important. He feels especially for Westerners, we need all the roots we can get, we’re not as connected as some cultures. So, for the first 10 years of my practice I strengthened my connection to Jesus and Mary, and then at the end of the ten years, I had this really funny moment, I was with Thich Nhat Thanh somewhere, I think in China, and we heard him talking about this American Buddhist couple, and I thought I’d like to meet them, and it was Larry and I – I’d never seen ourselves as a Buddhist couple – and that was just like this opening, I’d never even considered it, I consider myself a mystic, I’d been mystically connected to them all – the day I die there will be a brass band.
Multi-faith ceremony. I know what you mean. Do you consider yourself fundamentally Buddhist?
Larry: In this regard it is non-sectarian, it is really about accessing skillful tools and resources for our human potential. I did Vipassana in Australia, and it really did strike me as something anyone could use as a tool in their lives, you didn’t have to believe in reincarnation, or the backstory of Buddhism, to benefit from it. It also depends on which backstory of Buddhism, because there are lots of Buddhisms. [It depends] on which sect you follow, as with any spiritual path. And, it depends upon your intention. So, if you’re really seeking profound transformation, which in Buddhism means transformation, then it’s more than just a tool. But, a lot depends upon your intent. As with anything.
Peggy: I am a mystic, I love my teacher, I’m on path of practice, I’m not confused, I’m doing my calling, I love Jesus and Mary, etc… I do my Buddhist practice, [and] I anchor it to different faith traditions.
I want to say about Larry, he’s an ordained Christian minister from 35 years ago, but I don’t think he calls himself an anything…he loved Buddhism and the tradition, if you start to study it, it’s just brilliant. I’m a trained psychologist, it’s just brilliant, the understanding of the mind and suffering, and how we can undo suffering, so the more we go into it its like, ‘Jeez, where’s he been all my life?’.
It’s quite logical, I like that. I’d like to speak to you about something you were talking about in the workshop yesterday. In the West we seem to have a misconception of Buddhism as remote and ascetic, as a practice that seeks to remove the self from feelings. Why do you think we have developed this concept?
Peggy: It’s connected to the feminine, the body, and intuition, and the way that every tradition has tried to do away with all three. And Buddhism was not exempt from trying to do away with that, even though the Buddha was really clear that the foundation of mindfulness is the body, most religions have tried to get rid of the body, and to me that is connected to the feminine.
Larry: I think it’s every time something new comes into a culture, from another culture, the approach to it is necessarily from the paradigm that already exists. So from Western thought, spirituality, philosophy, everything gets a sort of intellectual overlay and a distrust of the subject.
Of your own experience?
Larry: Yes, and almost a disrespect of the subjective experience… which I think is really funny because thinking is also a really subjective process, but anyway…(laughs).
I mean, reasoning is flawed, isnt it?
Do you think this is because a lot of Western faiths are interpretive, through a middle-person, a middle-man, usually?
Larry: That could be part of it, but prior to that, the philosophical framwork behind this, is what’s setting it up.
And Buddhism’s more experiential?
Larry: It’s from a practice point of view, yes.
Not being told what to do or think, being asked to experience it with the body, eyes, etc.?
It’s quite different from a lot of spiritualities in that way, Buddhism.
Larry: It is.
I love that. I don’t know if Buddha ever said that he had all the answers.
Larry: No – it’s more like, I’ve practiced this, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what I’ve learned, try it yourself and see what you learn.
It’s almost experimental. Scientific in that way.
Will we see you here again?
Peggy: I believe so. Being asked is good, because we do get a full schedule. I’ve scheduled quarterly teaching without and with Larry, and I put together the whole of 2014, for my Mum’s peace of mind and my own. I’m going back January, March, July. She’s a cool lady, she lives in this off the grid in Florida, not even good coffee!
Larry: I’ll be back. I consider it my good fortune to be back.