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Interview with Dr. Simon Child

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So you studied meditation for a really long time, what is the benefit of the meditation for the people right now, especially in the Silicon Valley?
Well most people who donÔÇÖt meditate, their mind is often quite distracted, unfocused, tends to wander. They might not realize how much it does that until they begin to meditate. Sometimes people are surprised when they begin meditate when they realize just how bad the mind was, they havenÔÇÖt noticed. But through meditation, through regular meditation, through training the mind, the mind becomes: clearer, less distracted, more focused. And so these are the benefits people recognize but not necessarily straight away, it takes some persistence.

But in order to do the meditation, you have a lot of concepts you need to understand like first you concentrate your breathing, you stop your mind working, is there any effective ways to doing meditation?
I donÔÇÖt think you need a lot of concepts; some people like to have the concepts because it helps them understand why they are doing it, so it gives them some confidence. But you can explain the method without needing much concept. Just do it, and if someone says ÔÇ£why do it?ÔÇØ well then explain why do it, so thatÔÇÖs conceptual.

Well youÔÇÖve been teaching meditation for so long, whatÔÇÖs the biggest obstacle for the people to learn in meditation?
Well there are different obstacles, peopleÔÇÖs minds are different. Some peopleÔÇÖs minds are easier to train than others; some peopleÔÇÖs minds are very difficult to train. So thereÔÇÖs a difficulty in terms of the individual state of mind. ThereÔÇÖs also difficulty in terms of life circumstances, whether it be if people can find time to do the practice, to learn the practice, and to persistent it without getting distracted by concerns of everyday life. So thatÔÇÖs another type of difficulty.

So youÔÇÖve been teaching both Asian and Western, is there any big difference?
I think itÔÇÖs the same but the Westerners are looking for something for themselves, theyÔÇÖre looking for benefits for themselves, looking for an outcome. Whereas the Asians might be doing that, but mainly theyÔÇÖre just doing it to do it, itÔÇÖs something to do so they just do it.

So for all the years youÔÇÖve been teaching meditation, there are a lot of benefits from meditation, could you name a few?
I think if you could get your mind to be clearer and sharper, then youÔÇÖre more in contact with your life, you can feel more alive. Whereas a lot of the time people feel separate from their life, where their life is something which happens and they feel a bit lost, they feel a bit confused; they donÔÇÖt quite understand whatÔÇÖs happening. But if youÔÇÖre in direct contact with your life, direct is quite important; itÔÇÖs not something theoretical, itÔÇÖs not an impossible future, itÔÇÖs actually direct now, experience. Experiencing the moment, knowing the moment, and continuing the moment into the future.

How did you follow Master Sheng-Yen, I know before Sheng-Yen you were starting the British meditation, so then whatÔÇÖs the reason you started following Master Sheng-Yen?
Well John Crook I was training with in England, he was also training with Master Sheng-Yen and he brought Master Sheng-Yen over to do retreats in the UK. So thatÔÇÖs how I first met Master Sheng-Yen. So I met him, he came over about 4 retreats in the UK, so I came here and did retreats in New York with him. So I met him over several retreats.

Right now are you still staying in New York?
I went back in the 90s, I did retreats at the Chan Center and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center with Shifu. And then since 2000, I went again with Dharma Transmission; IÔÇÖve been teaching retreats there. I live in England but I travel back to New York about twice a year to lead retreats.

I check the website and it says youÔÇÖve been traveling a lot and teaching a lot all over the world right?
Well yes here, in New York, in the UK, also Poland, and a few years ago I went to Norway, so different places.

So what about the Europeans, how do they accept the meditation? Is it the same as here in the United States?
Similar, I think the people in England began training with John for 30 years, some have come more recently, and of course some come and carry on coming and some come and donÔÇÖt continue so itÔÇÖs different for different people. But I think there is quite a group of regular people who come regularly to our events and also have lead groups like this but a bit smaller in different parts of England. So we have different groups around the country.

So you said that all over the world people accept meditation as a way of life?
Well yes but not everybody, but there are people who do.

What kind of message would you like to bring  here at Stanford?
Well I think thereÔÇÖs a common misunderstanding to meditation that itÔÇÖs only about calming the mind and switching the mind off. Calming the mind is an important part, thatÔÇÖs a first stage, but itÔÇÖs important also to investigate the mind, to understand the mind, to know the mind, and to be aware. And sometimes people misunderstand calming the mind as meaning switch the mind off. It doesnÔÇÖt mean switch the mind off, it means have the mind very sharp and bright and attentive. So thatÔÇÖs why this weekend, IÔÇÖm going to talk one day about calming the mind and the second day about investigating the mind, to make sure people realize that these are both parts of the practice. Usually calming the mind is taught first and some people only hear that first instruction and think thatÔÇÖs all there is to it. But itÔÇÖs just a preparation for investigating the mind.

So how do you investigate, how are you sure that your mind is in the right direction and is not in the wrong direction?
Well if the mind is wandering away and itÔÇÖs lost in daydreams, itÔÇÖs lost in memories, lost in fantasies, then thatÔÇÖs a clue that itÔÇÖs not right. But if the mind is present, like here now talking to you, cup of tea on the table, sitting on a chair, then the mind knows where it is, thatÔÇÖs a good basis. But if the mind is sitting here worrying about what is going to happen next week and I wasnÔÇÖt paying any attention to you, the mind isnÔÇÖt present. But the difficulty is that if you tune up your awareness, then there are more things for the mind to start thinking about. So the mind becomes less calm, and thatÔÇÖs why you need to train it to be calmer so it can be aware of things but not starting lots of thoughts.

So sometimes I think the Chan and the meditation is really useful for the modern times, especially for the information age, with a lot of information coming like emails, text messages, Radio, TV, itÔÇÖs easy to be distracted. So itÔÇÖs very important for meditation, when you concentrate on just one thing and do not get distracted.
Well sometimes we have to do several things, but itÔÇÖs holding the context for all those things. Even the one thing that is happening is me sitting here right now, 20 thingsÔÇöitÔÇÖs still me sitting here now. If the mind wanders to the 20 things or to the wrong thing, still have to be grounded to the present.

So itÔÇÖs kind of a training of your own awareness.
Yes, you can be aware that youÔÇÖre doing an activity without being lost in the activity. Or you can be aware that youÔÇÖve become distracted and bring the attention back again, because you will get distracted.

How long do you need to practice, 20 minutes a day or 10 minutes a day or anytime you think of it?
Well there are two answers to that. One answer is that the length of time is whatever you can manage and if you can only manage five minutes once a day thatÔÇÖs better than doing nothing. And if you can manage 20 minutes or half an hour, then thatÔÇÖs good as well.  But the other answer is that itÔÇÖs not only about the five minutes or the 20 minutes or the 30 minutes that youÔÇÖre doing what we call ÔÇ£formal meditationÔÇØ, sitting on the cushion, but itÔÇÖs about the 23 ┬¢ hours in a day that you can just stop being aware then, so itÔÇÖs training yourself to be aware the whole day, not just five minutes or 20 minutes. Because people say that donÔÇÖt have time to practice, but youÔÇÖve got 24 hours in a day.

So the meditation is not really just sitting there, itÔÇÖs when youÔÇÖre sitting, moving, talking, you still have that meditation awareness.
Exactly, now you could say that sitting on a cushion or going on a retreat, thatÔÇÖs like a training session, thatÔÇÖs like learner plates on a car but you still have to use your driving skills when you take the learner plates off, you still have to pay attention to your driving, itÔÇÖs the same with your life. You use the opportunity of a quiet time on a cushion or a retreat to train the mind, but you make use of that training in the rest of your life.

I took the three day meditation retreat here, I think one of the techniques I learned is when you are aware that you are absent- minded and distracted, go back to your breathing and concentrate on your breathing, and I think thatÔÇÖs very useful.
ThatÔÇÖs a good starting point,  to focus on the breath and pay attention to the breath because youÔÇÖre in the present experience. But later on when you stabilize that, then you have to allow whatever elseÔÇöthe traffic noise, you sitting there, so you have to allow that to be in experience, you donÔÇÖt have to get locked on just the breathing thatÔÇÖs what I mean by shutting the mind down to begin with, you want to shut the mind down to some extent to get control of the wild mind. But then later you need to expand the awareness when the mind is more stable. You can hear the bell without having to stop thinking about whatÔÇÖs happening there. You can hear the traffic without complaining about traffic noise, you can notice that itÔÇÖs there.

So what happens if you are aware that all those things are around you, what happens then? You donÔÇÖt react or you simply just recognize?
Yes you react if itÔÇÖs appropriate, if itÔÇÖs a fire bell well pay more attention. But the reaction isnÔÇÖt coming from personal concern; anxious about that person disturbing me by making a noise with the bell, what IÔÇÖm doing here is more important than what theyÔÇÖre doing there. We sort of have that conversation with ourselves sometimes. And I wish that traffic wasnÔÇÖt so loud and itÔÇÖs disturbing me, well actually now youÔÇÖre disturbing yourself by paying attention to the traffic. ThereÔÇÖs always noise, everywhere you go thereÔÇÖs some noise.

So you simply recognize, you donÔÇÖt give the judgment, you donÔÇÖt give the comment, you just simply recognize that it happened and when itÔÇÖs gone then itÔÇÖs gone.
And when you notice that you are giving a judgment, and then you noticed youÔÇÖre giving a judgment but you donÔÇÖt pass the judgment on giving a judgment, you donÔÇÖt criticize yourself; you just notice that itÔÇÖs happened.

Right, because if you make a comment or judgment, then youÔÇÖre disturbing yourself, youÔÇÖre disturbing your mind. So I guess thatÔÇÖs a benefit of meditation.
If you can cultivate that then youÔÇÖll be more able to continue being stable and present even in a noisy situation, even in a distracting situation.

So thatÔÇÖs the reason why you say after meditation the benefit is more clear, more focused, because you donÔÇÖt get distracted by the noise.
YouÔÇÖve trained yourself not to create more noise. Most of the noise in your mind is you complaining about something. When youÔÇÖre noticing the activity in the mind, notice what percentage of the thoughts are to do with self concerns, that wanting something, that wanting to avoid something, that wanting to hold on to something. Probably about 98% of your thoughts are about yourself.

So what else are you going to teach during your stay here?
Well the talk at Stanford is about sort of Chan in the West. Presenting it a bit differently than how itÔÇÖs presented in China because the audience here thinks differently. The audience has different cultural background in the West so you need to explain things in a different way otherwise they donÔÇÖt understand. ItÔÇÖs not changing Chan, but itÔÇÖs maybe a difference of presentation, not just translating the language, and maybe not just translating the culture although thatÔÇÖs important, but also differences in the understanding of some of the methods.

So I think in the West, you just let them do it, let them feel it, let them experience it, and thatÔÇÖs the quickest way.
Also how you explain the methods, and how they understand the explanation.

So youÔÇÖre going to have a different talk here than in Stanford?
The one here on Friday evening, IÔÇÖm just going to give a general introduction to Buddhism and to meditation in terms of theory and practice, because there are some concepts and some theory we can talk about and some history, but there is also a basis for practice for doing the meditation, and all Saturday and Sunday, for these two days of meditation with some instruction and talk, emphasizing on Saturday of calming the mind and emphasizing on Sunday investigating the mind.

How long have you stayed with Master Sheng-Yen?
Well 1992 was the first time I met him and then I saw him probably most years up until about 2000. And then actually after 2000, I didnÔÇÖt attend anymore retreats with him because my time was taken up with teaching retreats myself. But I did meet him again in 2008 when I went to Taiwan and saw him there. Oh I also visited him in 2006, IÔÇÖve kept contact. But yeah, I saw him 2006 in New York and I saw him 2008 in Taiwan, but then of course he died in 2009.

All these years youÔÇÖve followed Sheng-Yen, did you learn something from him?
Yes of course, what I liked about his style of teaching compared to some other teachers was the amount of detail and explanation. Because some teachers will just take the approach of ÔÇ£this is what you do, go and do itÔÇØ and for a typical Westerner, thatÔÇÖs not good enough. TheyÔÇÖll say ÔÇ£why?ÔÇØ or ÔÇ£how quickly will it work?ÔÇØ or ÔÇ£how long should I do it for?ÔÇØ He gave explanation about what to expect, what experiences might arise, and what you needed to do to develop practice, so he gave quite useful and detailed instruction and thatÔÇÖs what I liked about his teaching.

Any other messages you want to give the students who are here learning meditation?
Well the general message is that people are often looking for quick results, but it varies a lot from person to person. Some people take to the practice very quickly, and very quickly they realize that thereÔÇÖs something happening for them in terms of understanding their mind and in terms of calming their mind. But for some people it takes quite a bit longer and they just have to persevere. You canÔÇÖt predict which person itÔÇÖs going to happen to. But people do need to be prepared to persevere because in the West thereÔÇÖs consumerism where you can choose a different shop or choose a different product or choose a different car, but actually you can go to one form of Buddhism to another form of Buddhism to another form of meditation and if you do each one for half an hour, you might not get very far. If you did one for three hours, maybe thatÔÇÖs better. So persevering with the matter because itÔÇÖs not just a quick fix, itÔÇÖs more like learning a skill, itÔÇÖs like learning a life skill so you need to cultivate it and develop it.

In Buddhism, they pretty much talk a lot about pre request, it means before you sit down and meditate you have to have some mental preparation. You have to leave your troubles, problems, and personal issues outside the door. Even during the daily life, if you really want to calm down, some things you need to put down. And like you said a few minutes ago, some people can do it quickly because they can put down their personal issues and they can concentrate during meditation and they get the benefits. And then some people just cannot.
ItÔÇÖs stuck to them in a way, we use the word attachment. ItÔÇÖs stuck to them and itÔÇÖs not so easy to let go. They can be emotionally involved, it can be financial problems, it can be relationships, all these things make it hard sometimes to just put it down, and itÔÇÖs not easy. So you intended to put it down, but you find it coming up in the mind and then you have to apply the methods of meditation to deal with it.

So in Buddhism we have the word ÔÇ£detachmentÔÇØ
Yes, which is a word that can be misunderstood. ItÔÇÖs not about ignoring it, itÔÇÖs not about being passive, itÔÇÖs more about not being too influenced and only having an appropriate amount of influence. Some family matter, some financial matter does need some attention, you canÔÇÖt just put it down at the door and ignore your finances for the rest of your life. So itÔÇÖs not about detaching in that sense, but itÔÇÖs about if what I want to do now is meditation, I can leave my finances alone for now and deal with them later. But if IÔÇÖm always all the time thinking about finances, then IÔÇÖm not thinking about family, IÔÇÖm not thinking about food, IÔÇÖm not thinking about things that need to be thought about, so balance your life. Things need to be balanced. Part of your life is about finances, part of your life is about family, but part of your life is about your own sense of well being and peace.