Interview with Lama Zopa of the Albany KTC Meditation Center

Recently, I had the good fortune to interview Lama Zopa of the Albany KTC Meditation Center. Zopa began studing Buddhist Philosophy and Tibetan Language in Nepal in 1997 and was appointed the Resident Lama in the Meditation Center in 2008.

Towne: I will ask basic questions because I am ignorant of a lot of other religions, and I’m curious and I think that other readers of these articles are curious as well.

Zopa: That’s fine. Those are often the best.

Towne: Who founded Buddhism originally?

Zopa: Well, the Buddha. He has different names. Actually, Buddha means “enlightened one.” He was also called Gautama Buddha, and he was also known as Siddhartha. We just say the Buddha for short.

Towne: How old is your religion?

Zopa: That’s a good question. Most scholars say Buddha Shakyamuni, was the founder of what we call Buddhism. There are different dates for the Buddha and different scholars had different insertions, but it is roughly in the 5th or 6th centuries BC, which is probably about 2600 years ago. I can’t give you exact dates because they are still disputed by scholars.

Towne: Perhaps you can give us some idea of the struggles the Buddha went through before he became enlightened.

Zopa: When we say the Buddha, that name means “the awakened” or “the enlightened one.” According to the view of most Buddhist schools he became enlightened and then only after he became enlightened did he become known as the Buddha. So he went to this process of awakening, which is likened to awakening out of sleep, and this occurred under the bhodi tree in what we now call Bodhtya, India. Before that, we know that he was a prince and he was groomed by his father to take over the kingdom, but, it’s said he saw the poor… And it caused him to renounce all worldly life and so he left the palace, at some point. He wandered, he gave up his princely robes and he became like a mendicant, a wanderer. He practiced all the prevalent meditations of the day and mastered them, but still did not find what he was looking for. He practiced the aesthetic disciplines as well, for six years. At some point he felt his body became very weak and skeletal. He gave that up and started to take nourishment again, and as the story goes, he went to what we now call Bodhtya, which is in the modern state of Behar in India, he sat under a tree and resolved that until he woke in enlightenment he would not arise. So, he sat down under this tree and through the night, and as he went through a process of meditation where the mara began to attack- maras are like demons, and they tried to distract him from his meditation in the maras would stir up fear and desire. The first strategy was to distract him with goddesses, so he had these visions of these beautiful goddesses, in the hopes that they would distract him from his quest.

But the Buddha was unswayed in meditation, he could not be swayed. Then Mara grew impatient and angry and unleashed his armies. The Buddha had these visions of Mara attacking him, and it is said that the Buddha, meditated on great love and compassion so all the weapons and the arrows that Mara unleashed on the Buddha became a rain of flowers. So through meditating on love and compassion he overcame all the obstacles, all the hindrances that Mara had created for. So, in the last hours of the night he awoke to enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and it is said that awakening to enlightenment is like awakening from a dream. Enlightenment means you see the way things actually are. And after that time the Buddha began to teach and to show others the way; to teach what we need to do to bring about that same result for ourselves

Towne: Is the ultimate goal, following the teachings of your religion, to bring people to enlightenment?

Zopa: Yes. Enlightenment is a state of liberation or freedom from all the sufferings we undergo.

Towne: Give me an example of some teachings that are crucial to bringing people to enlightenment.

Zopa: Well, there are three basic principles that cover the entire path. We call these the three trainings or the three precepts. They are: moral discipline as the foundation or the basis, meditation or meditative concentration, and then through that, developing insight into the nature of reality, which we call wisdom or knowledge. So those three principles, which we called three trainings or the three basic precepts, really cover the entire path. There is a lot to say about each one but everything is included in the three.

Towne: So, explain the significance or the role of Lamas within your structure.

Zopa: The role of a Lama is similar in function as a Sanga, which is one of the three jewels or precious refuges in Buddhism that we take refuge in. So, the three refuges for three jewels are the Buddha Sanga. The role of the Sanga is to provide guidance. Of course the first teacher was the Buddha, and he taught the original disciples the Dharma and the original disciples practiced the Dharma and they are the Sanga. So the disciples mastered the teachings and then passed them on to their own disciples and this process goes on, this transmission of the teachings from generation to generation, down to the present day. So, a Lama’s role is to guide disciples on the path: how we practice meditation, what we need to adopt to our behavior and what we need to avoid.

Towne: This next question is a little peculiar in that, I deal with a few Christian sects that claim that their way is the only way to salvation. Obviously there is not an equivalent in Buddhism, but, does Buddhism state anywhere in the teachings that their way is the only way to enlightenment or salvation?

Zopa: Not really. In fact, proselytizing is discouraged in Buddhism. In fact, it’s not allowed. The Buddha said all the other religions have their own place, and essentially, what we are taught is respect for all religions. All religions are the same, although we have different philosophies, they are all valid in the sense that their goals are the alleviating of the sufferings of the world. So, from that point of view they are all valid. You can’t have one size fits all religion, that’s why even in Buddhism we have many different philosophical schools, many different meditative practices, many different traditions. The Buddha said that every individual is different and will require different types of training. So, all the religions has something different to offer in this way. So I don’t think I can say that our way is the only way. I think that would be unfair to the other religions.

Towne: What school do you represent?

Zopa: Generally, it would be Tibetan Buddhism, and within Tibetan Buddhism… The Tibetan Buddhism as a whole is the Vajrayana. There are four major Vajrayana schools and I represent the Kagyu lineage.

Towne: How does Buddhism contribute to the solution for our world’s bills?

Zopa: Principally, one of our teachings is moral discipline, and with moral discipline we aim to do good, as much good as we can for all living beings. The goal in moral discipline is to also not bring any harm or any violence to any such being, even insects. On top of that, in the Mahayana tradition, we talk about bringing goodness to as many as we can, in whatever way we can. To contribute to the happiness of others and to dispel and alleviate the suffering of others in whatever way we can.

Towne: Your teachings are called your Dharma, is that right?

Zopa: Dharma can actually have different meanings. In general it’s referred to as the teachings of the Buddha.

Towne: Aside from offering your teachings to the world, do you have any community participation or outreach?

Zopa: That’s why we have a meditation center. Our Albany KTC Center is a place where people can come and learn meditation and learn basic teachings of Dharma, and so forth.

Towne: Thank you for taking the time. I do have one more question. I ask this of every religious leader or teacher that I talked to. I ask them to point to a text or a quote that gives them hope or inspires them in some way. Can you do the same for with a Buddhist teaching?

Zopa: Yes, I can do that. This one is used a lot in the Dalai Lama’s teachings. It’s by a great Indian master, Shanti Deva, who said “as long as space endures, as long as there are beings to be found, may I continue likewise to remain, to drive away the sorrows of the world.” This verse is memorized by monks and nuns worldwide. If you go to the Dalai Lama’s website you’ll see it quoted. It’s not some esoteric instruction. Some people will read it, if they are familiar with Buddhism. Many people will recognize it.

Jay Towne

Jay Towne is a resident of Amsterdam, has published six books and is the writer and director of a radio drama, Any Good Thing, that currently airs on WOPG.