An interview session with Ms. Susanne Fairclough

An interview session with Susanne Fairclough was conducted by Martin, our BA3 student on 6/10/15 (Tuesday). Susanne Fairclough is an American Buddhist educator and practitioner of long-standing. After working as an editor and a writer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Magazine, she studied Tibetan Buddhism for over 30 years.

Below are the answers shared by Ms. Susanne for the interviewed questions.

1) Can you please tell us something about yourself. What made you become interested in Buddhism?

Since I was young I have been interested in understanding what is true about life and how to change the world for the better. Originally this led me to social activism, but eventually I saw that it was crucial to tame my own mind, and then I started to focus on inner transformation as the most important basis for benefiting others.

Also, when I was eight years old the question arose in my mind, What if my life is just a dream that I will wake up from? Understanding the answer to this became clear later as I studied Buddhism, but the question gave me the sense that things weren’t what they seemed to be.

I worked at Technology Review magazine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after college and in 1977 one of my fellow editors went on a trek in Nepal, and visited Darjeeling and India. When I saw a photo he had taken in Darjeeling of Mt Kachenjunga and tea plantations, I had a sense that I was remembering a dream I had forgotten. It was incredibly familiar. From that time on, it seemed karmic seeds planted in my previous life started to ripen. I wanted to learn to meditate and within several months I traveled to Nepal myself.

In 1980, I met Dezhung Rinpoche, a Sakya master who embodied great compassion. He was also a renowned scholar. His explanation of relative and absolute truth impressed me as the clearest explanation of how to understand my experience of the world. I was inspired to practice the path to freedom gained by the development of compassion and wisdom. I took refuge with him and began to practice Tibetan Buddhism.

2) Can you please tell something about your life in the temple?

In 1995, I went to live at the Nyingma master Chagdud Rinpoche’s center in northern California to work on the committee translating Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries. It was a great privilege to work on these texts with the translator Richard Barron.

Living at a Buddhist center with other practitioners who all had the same dedication and commitment was very supportive. About 40 people lived at the center serving as cooks, providing center maintenance, staffing the office, an online store Tibetan Treasures, Padma Publishing, and there were a few yogis in long-term retreat. We had a group practice together in the morning and evening.

Some of the projects that Chagdud Rinpoche initiated and we engaged in were making eight stupas representing great events in Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, a large Guru Rinpoche statue, and enormous prayer wheels containing billions of mantras spinning their energies of awakening. He also taught us the ritual arts of lama dancing, musical instruments of drums, and horns, and cymbals, as well as all the necessary ritual accompaniments to enact three Drupchens [Great Accomplishments] a year. A Drupchen is a ten-day intensive group practice that is said to be equivalent to a three-year retreat. Many guests would come to participate in these events. I learned several of the lama dances and some of the instruments.

The nearly 12 years I lived there was an intense and very rewarding experience. One of Chagdud Rinpoche’s prerequisites for living at his center was to live harmoniously with one another. His advice to see one’s experience as though looking at the mirror of one’s own mind, rather than as though looking through a window, was a great method for taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and training in refining one’s perception.

3) You practice Tibetan Buddhism, what made you interested in precisely this type if Buddhism?

I practiced the Japanese martial art Aikido for many years before encountering Tibetan Buddhism. Its philosophy was that of protecting oneself without harming others. It was a kind of moving meditation that was very helpful for me because initially I was not drawn to sitting meditation.

I read some books on Zen Buddhism—in particular Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi— that stressed the importance of keeping the mind fresh and open. And I read an excellent book, Living Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield, on a variety of teachers in Burma and Thailand that was important for me early on.

But it was Tibetan teachers whom I seemed to meet. Their clear explanation of the path with its emphasis on cultivating compassion in addition to wisdom drew me in that direction.

4) Do you have any advice on how to keep ourselves open-minded in the midst of different traditions and cultures?

The Buddha taught for the specific needs of each individual, and so there are many ways to approach Buddhist practice. Each of us receives what we need for the stage we are at in our development. Knowing this is helpful for me in appreciating all the many paths by which we are led to awakening.

Also, remembering that all beings are equal to oneself in wishing for happiness and to be free of suffering can help me to open my heart to others and see beyond the appearance of difference.

5) Do you think that academic study of a religion is beneficial for its practice or the two should be separate?

It depends on an individual’s inclination and needs. For me study has been invaluable to deepening my practice [though I haven’t had an inclination to study in a western academic environment.]

My teacher Dezhung Rinpoche spoke of intellectual understanding as giving more stability rather than relying on faith alone. Particularly in the West where it seems people are afflicted by doubt, having a firm support in knowledge can help bring clarity and confidence. Yet for some people, intellectual investigations can be an endless quest that gets in the way of actually taking up the practice.

The threefold process of study, contemplation, and meditation seems a good way to gain a balance. Without knowing clearly how to practice or meditate, one will not gain the accomplishment one wishes.

6) You are a translator from Tibetan to English. Do you find an ability to read original texts helpful and important for the practice of Buddhism?

Knowing the terminology has been very helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of the teachings. The English language was not designed to convey the very specific ideas of Buddhist thought. Tibetan on the other hand was developed as a written language by teams of scholars and practitioners to reveal this. For instance, the way the Tibetans translated Buddha is Sang gyey, conveying the process of purifying or clearing away obscurations [sang] and unfolding [gyey] enlightened qualities.

Also, the same word in Tibetan can have different meanings in different contexts. It is difficult to convey these shifts in meanings in translation. For instance, the word med pa in Tibetan has the meaning of non-existence, but in certain contexts it goes beyond meaning non-existence and indicates a presence that has an inexpressible nature.

These are just a few examples.

7) What do you suggest for us students here to remain mindful and overcome our obstacles in our Buddhist path when we are overwhelmed with study pressure and living away from home?

Remember the impermanence of difficulty and of this opportunity.

In the Sakya tradition there is a level of instruction where one “takes obstacles as the path.” This means that whatever difficulties arise, they are the support for development of positive qualities, so it is actually an opportunity to rejoice that you gain skills that will lead to greater happiness and benefit.

Geshe Jamspal mentioned at our gathering that he was inspired to leave Ladakh and travel to Tibet to study with his teacher by first verses in the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, where it says:
Attachment toward friends rises up like a wave,
Anger toward enemies blazes like a fire.
Enshrouded by the darkness of ignorance, you forget what to adopt and discard.
To leave your homeland is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Leaving home is to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, so you can encourage yourself by reflecting on the important mission you have undertaken, where the difficulties you encounter are promised to have great rewards.

8) Do you think that meditation, bowing or chanting can be helpful for studying?

That’s a very good idea. When I first began to meditate, I noticed that it was very helpful for increasing alertness and memory. Bowing and chanting are ways of integrating mindfulness into one’s body and speech. So employing all three avenues of one’s being—body, speech, and mind—will give more power, clarity, inspiration, and focus on whatever is undertaken.

9) Could you please share with us how Buddhism has impacted your life?

I have been able to study with sublime teachers who demonstrated with their good heart and actions how to live in a way that benefits others and oneself. From taking what they taught to heart, and trying to put it into practice, I am a happier person in this life. I have a strong aspiration to continue the momentum of awakening in this and future lives. I feel joyful to be a small drop in the ocean of vast intention of all the Buddhas and their heirs, and part of the fabric of the efforts of all who seek and embody the truth of our being. It’s a meaningful life.

10) What advice would you like to give to us young students here?

Cultivate a sense of investigation and trust in your own discernment so that all that you experience serves as your teacher. Relax in your essential being and enjoy yourself. You have a gift unlike anyone else’s, and your life is to reveal it.

Lastly, there are three noble principles that can make anything you do become the cause for enlightenment: at the outset, set your motivation for the benefit of all beings; secondly, hold to the view of the illusory nature of experience while engaging in any activity of study, meditation, or daily life; and lastly dedicate the merit of your actions to all beings that they may be free of suffering and awaken to their true nature.

May all beings be happy and be free of suffering.