“Our Own Lovely Mind”
Barry Briggs, JDPSN began training in the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1990 and took Bodhisattva Teacher precepts in 2001. In 2005, he retired from a career as a senior manager in the software and internet industries. He received inka in 2013. He travels widely to lead retreats around the world. In the fall of 2015, he moved from Seattle to live and teach in Cambridge. He currently serves as Co-Guiding Teacher of Cambridge Zen Center, and Guiding Teacher for the Cape Cod Zen Center and Plymouth Zen Group.
You’ve been leading retreats all over the globe this year. Any observations?
Everywhere I go, there is a genuine feeling that people want to know what it means to be a human. Everybody's got that question. Whether they live in Singapore, or Hong Kong, or South Africa, or St. Petersburg or Prague, wherever people live, they have this question. Who am I? It is such an honor to sit down with people and investigate that question together. This question is not unique to Buddhism. It’s just part of being a human being. Teenagers especially get that question. Most cultures do their best to kill that question. But for some people it never goes away. For those people, there's practice. There's a way to look into it.
What's your favorite thing about living at CZC?
I love practicing every day. Twice a day. It's just fabulous. I love being in a room full of people who are also practicing. Yesterday morning, there were probably 25-30 people in the dharma hall. To be able to sit down with people—some I know, some I don't know—is just great. I love it. I feel the energy and it is nourishing to me.
How do you find the community and residents in Cambridge?
The people I meet at CZC, almost all of them, are really ordinary people. They have their share of troubles, like you and I do. They have their share of joy. They try to get on with their lives. They all share something, which is some interest in practice, and discovering what it really means to be a human being. That's important. That's what holds the community together.
How do you deal with distressing, ominous news coverage?
I always try to find what my job is ... what can I do?... in any situation. Some people found our recent election quite distressing. But no matter your response, there are some things to learn from the election. It’s always important to see what is true. It's clearly true that a large percentage of people who live in America don't share the values of another large percentage of people who live in America. The country is quite polarized. That's really good to know. Better to know that than to be in some kind of bubble or a delusion. To have a clear view of what other people think is very helpful.
The second thing that that was clear to me after the election is that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are right that there is tremendous economic inequality in our country. It may be worse than it ever has been and it comes at an enormous cost. As a people we need to address that. If you know the truth, then you can take some meaningful action.
As a Zen teacher, my job—regardless what somebody's political stance is—is to help people understand that their life matters and they can make a difference. For some people, that may mean doing additional meditation practice every day. Maybe another 5 minutes. For some people, that may mean donating to nonprofits that reflect their values. For some people it may mean protesting in the streets. There are many different ways that people can use this precious human life to make a difference.
I grew up during the Vietnam War period. One of the lessons of that period to me was that deeply engaged people can make a difference. When I was in college, I started protesting and working against the war. It took seven years but, collectively, the American people brought an end to that war. Over those years, people came to understand that it was an unjust war.
If I don't want to practice tomorrow, if I'm not in the mood, if I have a headache when I wake up, if it seems smart to stay in bed…. what would your response to that be?
The work of Buddhist practice, of Zen practice, is not directed toward feeling good. The work of Zen practice is to be clear about what's true, and to use that to help this world. You can help the world regardless of how you feel. You can be in a terribly bad mood and still be of benefit to this world. Zen practice goes in a different direction from following our predispositions. Most people want to feel good. You might feel good doing Zen practice but the point is to ease the suffering in this world.
Is Buddhism severe and dark?
It's interesting. The Buddha taught the four noble truths: 'There is suffering.' I used to wonder, why did he feel the need to say that? Isn't it obvious? Actually, I don't think it is obvious. You need to hear that. Each one of us has [suffering], each one of us makes it, not only for ourselves but for other people. If I we really attain that, if we attain that truth in a deep way, then getting up and practicing won't be so hard. If I want to end suffering, I'll do something. If I don't care about my suffering, or I don't believe that all beings suffer, maybe I'll stay in bed.
What if a family group or an office situation adds to your suffering? And you just don't feel you can help in that group? How many groups should you run through?
The short, easy answer is: stay a lot longer than you want to. The impulse to leave a bad situation is very seductive. We follow impulses like this all day long. But these impulses are just like the passing weather. They come and go non-stop. We don't have to act on them.
People do find themselves in abusive marriages, with abusive employers, or in families or organizations that are destructive. I don't mean to minimize the urgency of getting out of those situations. But often I have seen people leave a situation because it is uncomfortable—not because it is abusive. If we practice, we can learn how to stay present to our discomfort without turning away.
You're about to go away to do a solo retreat. You have done other long solo retreats. What can you say about your motivation?
I've been teaching for a few years now. One of the things that happens when you're a teacher is that you don't get to much extended practice yourself. It feels like it is time now to do more extended practice.
Sometimes people who are new to retreat practice have doubts. Whether they will enjoy it. Whether they can handle it. What would you say to someone who is new to retreat practice?
I would say start with a one-day retreat. Start with something that is challenging but not overwhelming for most people.
Nearly everybody who begins retreat practice in the first few retreats, at some point, they will want to run out of the room. 'I've got email to check.' 'I need to see my daughter.' 'I must finish this project.' Everybody has those kinds of thoughts. What happens when we don't act on those thoughts, when we stay in retreat, even if it is only for a day, is that our center gets stronger. We become more stable as human beings. Less reactive. We learn something about our own lovely mind, about how creative it is at manipulating us. Retreats give us an opportunity to see ourselves really clearly. And that's a great gift.