Questions to Tenzin Shenyen; a monk called ‘friend.’

In ten days time, our friend Tenzin Shenyen will embark on a 3-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Germany that “begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices that… include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.”

Q: It’s been 3 years since you gave a talk at Service Design Conference in Stockholm. It was wonderful to see the whole conference meditating with you. It palpably changed the energy in the room. I especially appreciated your advice for design professionals to ‘Just Say No!’ more often. I think that advice is more important than ever. Can you expand on that a bit?

A: As I said in one of my posts about the approaching retreat, I think human beings are machines for producing works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. Saying “no” to what is visible and which already has a name is one way into that space. I also re-read Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan recently and was touched by how deeply I still resonated with it. There’s a lot of ‘no’ saying in it, from ‘erasing personal history’ to ‘losing self-importance’, to ‘becoming inaccessible’ and ‘disrupting the routines of life’. The genuinely ‘new’ comes out of nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere, a brutally total nowhere- but we are too eager to be ‘somewhere’, no matter how shabby and derivative that ‘somewhere’ might be.

I hope at least one designer out there reads this and decides to say ‘no’ to the whole works — until reappearing twelve years later with something with no name and no identity that the whole world needs.

"Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I'll meet you there, I'm sure."

“Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one-litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I’ll meet you there, I’m sure.”

Q: What impact does your Buddhist practice have on your daily life today? How does Buddhism work as a practical guideline for daily decision making? How can this shape a layman’s decision-making to live an ethical life as an ‘ordinary’ person?

A: My daily life is perfumed by Buddhism. It allows me to see everything I do as a kind of prayer. For example, right now I’m watching the world cup. It’s football and I love it, it needs no justification. My unconscious is working tremendously hard preparing for the retreat, so Shenyen is balancing that by just relaxing. I don’t need to justify it. Justifications are for people who are organising pogroms, or asset-stripping entire national infrastructures, etc. not for people who are … content just being nobody, nowhere, just talking with The Invisibles, just owning one pair of shoes … or just watching Argentina’s slalom into the knockout stage while reading Jorge Valdano reflecting on the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, along with his plea to stop treating football as a science; it all turns it all into a kind of dream yoga. And dream yoga is part of the path to Buddhahood. You cannot live an ethical life without nurturing your imagination.

Elaine Scarry’s talk, Beauty as a call to justice, will explain that in detail. I re-posted it on my youtube channel. Ultimately no-one can tell you how to live, they can only seduce you into living in a specific way. Ethics thus emerges from Eros, from loving relationships — with yourself, people around you, your own karmic history, and the culture around you and the times you have been born into.

Q: You spoke once about the importance of combining Buddhist practice with your own ‘culture’ or your natural place in contemporary society as a western monk. Will you still have space for that kind of ‘personal cultural research/ observation’ on your 3-year retreat? Can you watch football when you are there?! Can you read Artforum? Can you write your blog, radioshenyen?

A: Football? Probably not! But in between the meditation blocks, that will usually last about 6-8 weeks per topic, we are encouraged to relax, maybe even listen to a little music. And I will have my Artforum scrapbooks with me. Enough for one exhibition a week I think! But I don’t see too much separation between the centuries-old tantric stuff and my personal interests. Doing the retreat in all its traditional structure is also a part of my ‘personal cultural research’.

"Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment."

“Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment.”

Q: How much meditation do you recommend to a layperson or beginner? Is frequency important for practice? Are there other types of activities such as physical work (making things, cleaning, gardening, etc.) that are also seen as part of Buddhist practice? In Asia, meditation isn’t seen as something that ‘ordinary people’ do. Lay people often ask the monks to meditate and pray on their behalf.

A: Meditation is extremely over-emphasised in contemporary Western presentations of Buddhism. Ethics, study, art, service, offering, confession, purification, prayer, chanting, and vows, among other things, are all sidelined, or dismissed as ‘obvious’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘peripheral’. But Buddhism only really comes alive when you take on board it’s entire culture, it’s ‘world’ while being willing to do the work of engaging that world with your own. Thus, my love of contemporary art is inseparable from my study of Madhyamaka and tantric meditations. My best moments of mindfulness occur when on alms round. You can’t just meditate in a vacuum, in a fog of mundane activity and thinking.

But nevertheless, it is part of the path.

I would recommend a very short commitment — 10 minutes a day is fine — to being quiet, still, disciplined and visionary on one’s cushion. But instead of wanting to meditate I would suggest that people simply pray to be able to meditate, and then relax. Thinking about what other people need — the immediate needs of the people around you right now, at home or on the train platform — is so much more powerful than some half-hearted meditation practice.

Genuine meditation comes out of uncontrived faith. Faith arises out of joy and ethics. Ethics from art and empathetic disciplined imagination.

Q: We need to manage negative attachments to the idea of future, such as fear or sadness or anxiety, as these feelings arise, to avoid shutting down altogether. Is hope also an attachment?

A: Attachment is one of those words that are easy to misconstrue. In Buddhism, liking something isn’t an expression of attachment; wanting something good to continue, or to happen if it hasn’t yet happened, isn’t attachment. Attachment is defined as a state where ‘you are willing to do something bad in order for something to continue (or begin)’. So ‘hope’ in itself isn’t attachment. Love isn’t attachment, not even fierce love. Whereas cowardice would be.

Q: What is your favourite festival or holiday? What practices in your life have changed significantly since becoming ordained?

A: I like New Year’s celebrations. Awareness of time cycles is a lovely thing and transcends specific religions and worldviews. And the atom bomb memorial day in Hiroshima is also high on my list of ‘things which make the heart beat faster’ – if that’s what you mean by ‘festival’.
Ordination, by providing an absolutely fundamental challenge to my sense of identity, in both challenging (demanding, humbling) and transformative (blessed) ways, has helped me to explore more deeply the teachings on non-self as a meditative state.

Q: How important is it to be altruistic?

A: It is impossible to become a Buddha without practising altruism. And never mind Buddhahood, it is impossible to keep enjoying positive samsaric rebirths without practising altruism. All art comes from altruism.

Links:
– For those interested in reading more about the 3-year retreat there are 5 posts on Shenyen’s blog, radioshenyen that talk about it in more detail. https://radioshenyen.blogspot.com/
– Shenyen on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKf_RRjzHsJ5a_LtWltGubA
 Images from Shenyen’s Instagram: @radioshenyen 

There are some things in life you cannot design

In 2014, the wandering artist-monk Tenzin Shenyen spoke at a Service Design Network conference in Stockholm. Shenyen is the Tibetan word for friend. And Tenzin Shenyen is a British-born Tibetan Buddhist monk who received his monk’s vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in July 2004.

Shenyen has spent the decade or so wandering around the world, and as he describes it, “Allowing the blessing of the tradition to mingle with the secular beauties of my own culture.” His office consists of a rolled-up copy of Artforum and an old Nokia 100. He thinks he can be contacted via his blog radioshenyen, but he’s not always sure.

A while back, I managed to reach him just before he left a monastery and Buddhist university in Thailand, where he had been teaching for a year. I asked if he would answer a few questions for the online magazine The Forumist.

“Send me a few questions,” he said. “But be warned – I only answer questions that are both logical and beautiful.”

A conversation with Shenyen always helps to refresh your outlook on life and introduce a new perspective to your own worn-out conclusions. His writings and talks often remind us about the continuously changing nature of life – that karma and experience cannot be correlated for predictable effect, much less be designed.

Here is the interview that was published by The Forumist:

What is spirituality?
“Answer #1
A teacher once asked, ‘How do you know what a candle is when you haven’t seen all the candles in the world?’ If he had said ‘electronic devices’, the question would be easier to imagine, to relate to, but… candles? Can’t I at least be sure about what a candle is?

“Buddhist philosophy operates in that space – the space of not-knowing. And this not-knowing is the basis – the grammar – of spirituality in Buddhism. So, likewise, I want to say ‘I don’t know’ to your question, not as an answer but as one of many possible responses. How can I possibly say what spirituality is when I haven’t ‘seen’ all the spiritualties in the world?

“Answer #2
Spirituality is communion with The Invisibles. It is a relationship with that which closes your physical eyes. These closed eyes can be faked, or ritualistically assumed, or genuine. Only the latter is true spirituality. It is being open to the idea that existence is not just ‘us and the animals’ within a cold dark universe. This openness begins in discipline, then acquires dignity and presence, then dissolves into grace and abandon. By discipline I mean sustained acts of faith and imagination.

“Answer #3
‘A love? I love your father, certain black Madonnas from Africa, the flowers which grow by the Atlantic, difficult texts… and you.’ From The Samurai by Julia Kristeva.”

What is the hardest part of your practice for you personally?
“The hardest part of my practice is remaining homeless and jobless while back in the West. I yearn for something bigger – and gentler(!) – than a tent to live in. Living as a homeless monk back in the West is a really powerful experience psychologically. It is an exercise in trust and in realising the nothingness[ITALS] of my life, but it is physically demanding and unfeasible beyond the summer months. So I’m beginning to think in terms of it as finding a part-time job or room somewhere. I’ve lived in western monasteries but they often feel kind of jaded or false. I’ve seen westerners become monks and then forget that they are the products of the most individualistic, high-speed societies that ever existed on the planet. They then try to squeeze themselves into an ancient Asian monastic model and it hardly ever works. It is easy to become listless and dull, emotionally starved and alienated from your own cultural roots and personal histories. This is not renunciation – it is a loss of nerve and a form of living in denial.”

You made a conscious decision to not be attached to one home for quite a few years. What was that experience like?
“It wasn’t a ‘conscious decision’ so much as a pragmatic one. I was heading back to England after 11 years in Asia, I was a monk and wasn’t supposed to be looking for work or have a home. So I… just knew I was going to be homeless. And I just went with that reality. I accepted it – quite naively, actually, I would say. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I bought a tent in London and then decided to wander in England. I thought, ‘Where’s the safest place to go?’ And I headed towards Cornwall. I’d never put a tent up before in my life and suddenly I was in this farmer’s field outside Plymouth, without permission, in the dark.

“That year I slept in 93 different places – I wandered through Cornwall for a few months and then catapulted to Japan to do a 1,100km pilgrimage. I learnt so much about just trusting in situations. And also about how decisions often cannot be made until one is in the midst of the ‘landscape of answer’. The places I slept in, I simply couldn’t have planned it all out in advance. I had to be walking in the dark and tired and looking around me – in the landscape of answer. Being homeless in the UK as a monk is a ‘dual nationality’ kind of thing – you’re semi criminal, as wild camping is illegal, and at the same time you’re the epitome of trustworthiness – I wear my robes. I guess it helps being a monk from Liverpool in this respect!”

What kind of practices or concrete behaviours would you recommend to any lay person – ‘non-medical antidepressants’?

“Concrete behaviour – and concrete evidence – is only one dimension to Buddhist practice. There is also ‘water’ behaviour, ‘air’ behaviour, ‘time-lapse’ behaviour, etc. For example, mindfulness practice has now entered the mainstream as a secular practice devoid of any religious dimension. And this is fine. Buddhism doesn’t own the copyright on mindfulness. But these ‘new’ approaches, such as MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) or MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) lack the existential vastness of Buddhist philosophy and cosmography.

The modern secular forms really just deal with a kind of ‘local’ problem and ignore the vaster existential problem – you reduce stress created by your workplace in order to… return to work and more stress. It is essentially nihilistic. Whereas, in Buddhism, you are practising in order to end all forms of suffering forever, to transcend having to have this kind of suffering body, even. Buddhism combines precise technique with existential vastness, and this dual flavour is where its power lies. Buddhism isn’t interested in changing the molecular structure of the brain – a bullet or cocaine can do that. It is interested in changing karma – the moment-by-moment presencing of reality – this is something that science can’t get a handle on.

“But bearing in mind what I said in my previous answer – about the dangers of just superstitiously adopting wholesale an alien culture – I would like to see people explore the existential practices of Buddhism and take them into contemporary settings.

“My personal ‘Buddhist universe’ is a scattergun intermingling of Madhyamaka, cinema, ritual practice, communion with The Invisibles, ethics, architecture, Instagram, purification practices, #verysimpledecisionmaking, #onehomeayear, silence, high-speed-super-slow, contemporary art, study as one of the healing arts – the list is potentially endless.