12 min read

Anne C. Klein is a Professor in the Department of Religion at Rice University, co-founder of the Dawn Mountain Center for Tibetan Buddhism, and author of Being Human and a Buddha Too (2023).

Conducted by Adam Liddle, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Contemplative Sciences Center and the Associate Editor for the Journal of Contemplative Studies.

JCS: What is contemplation? What do you mean when you talk about contemplation or the contemplative? How do you understand it?

AK: Well, contemplation means a lot of things. It’s like the word “dance”—the twist, waltzing, ballet, moon walking, it’s all dance. For me, the centers of gravity are, first of all, that contemplation is a whole-being experience. It’s certainly not just the head. It’s certainly the body. It’s certainly the energies of the body, the feel of the body, the movement of the body, or the stillness of the body. All these are relevant to one’s experience in contemplative practice. At the same time, one does these things for a certain reason, and one has certain aspirations, such as seeking a certain level of ease. There are also qualities of the heart involved: love, compassion, kindness, and an openness of spirit. These are not unrelated to the openness and ease of the body. That’s intuitively understandable. Then there are aspects of contemplation that are exquisitely expressed in poetry. And then there are those aspects, the philosophical grounds of practice for example, that are elaborated in another way, sometimes clarifyingly in prose. So as a contemplative, one is open to and sees the possibility of engaging at the level of the senses, which includes the body, and equally with the mind and heart.

Contemplation is a whole-being experience

Despite the great value put on non-conceptual states of contemplation, ideas are not irrelevant. They are also not always central. And they may be put aside. If you look at the contemplative traditions in India and Tibet, they all have some grounding in well-established categories of mind such as are described in lo-rig. These are texts that classify and define a spectrum of mental states found in a range of widely taught contemplative practices. It doesn’t really cover things like esoteric states of tantra or Dzogchen. But if we talk about lo-rig, one clear division is between the conceptual and nonconceptual. This helps us understand that, as contemplatives, we will be moving across the spectrum of conceptual and nonconceptual states and something a little bit in between. That “in between” is the imagination. And the imagination is hugely important for any human being. We live in our imagination more often than not. We also have this extraordinary capacity for intentional imagination. This can mean recalling something that has happened. But it can also mean imagining something that has never happened but might—or might never. But nonetheless imagining it somehow enlivens and awakens something in one’s spirit. So, I would say that contemplation engages all these very fundamental human capacities. Everybody has a body. Everybody has consciousness. Everybody has a certain degree of creativity and imagination. Everybody has breath. One of the ways of getting in touch with a body, of course, is with the breath. And there’s a fifth thing…

JCS: I actually bookmarked this in your book. Is it consciousness?

AK: Yes. I learned of this five-fold rubric from a Dzogchen teacher in Denmark, Jes Bertelsen. He considers these five to be areas of natural human expertise. People often feel that they can’t meditate. Whatever they think meditation is, they’ve decided they can’t do it. This relates to a central theme in my recent book, Being Human and a Buddha too. You are not just what you seem, you’re not just the person who can’t meditate or can’t quite do anything right ever. There’s something else going on as well. There are five things in which you have a natural expertise. You are the expert on your own experience. And that’s not a lie. That is a very different place from thinking that somebody else’s experience is better or worse or more interesting than your own, which is something that contemplatives fall into not infrequently. Which is like saying “my meditation is no good.” So, the imagination is a free-flowing art form to which everybody has access. It’s also something that can be trained. And that is sometimes new information for people.

For example, in my classes at Rice University, the most surprising thing to people in the last few years is the idea that you can cultivate compassion. Students were uncovering an important yet unarticulated misconception: that either you have compassion, or you don’t. It seems like a lot of people take this perspective in modern culture. I’m not sure what the source of that is. But there is genuine surprise and delight in discovering that this wonderful quality is something you can intentionally cultivate. As the Tibetans say, contemplation is the art of cultivation. There are many capacities which may not be present at this moment in our lives. But you know what? They can be cultivated. You learned to read, didn’t you? You learned to walk. We’ve learned a lot since we emerged from the womb. We learn things. That’s the kind of creatures we are. So, I would like to emphasize that the contemplative arena encompasses all these things. And in some way, that’s the fullness of a human being.

JCS: Yeah, that’s beautifully put. Thanks, Anne.

You are not just what you seem…You are the expert on your own experience.

AK: Thank you for this dialogue. Your comments reminded me that in the Tibetan way of talking about it, there’s two ways to do traditional forms of recitation practice. You can practice and chant together or you can chant your text individually. I think that’s a liberating thing to recognize. You don’t always have to get together with people. But you can. And when you do, the presence of another person impacts you. In other words, the relationality of practice is important. Practice puts you in a different relationship with yourself. Tantric practices put you in relationship with an awakened being, a buddha, who is ultimately not different from yourself. And when you cultivate these two kinds of relationships in relation with others who are practicing with you, it’s a very rich, relational environment. Among many other things, it helps hold you in the space of your contemplation. Contemplative solitude can be profoundly dialogical. And in or out of contemplation, when two or more people are in meaningful dialogue that can be a very creative space. I think that’s also true in some contexts in meditation—that you’re just there and you’re practicing. You are in a conversation stimulated by your attention to the practice. There’s something different happening in the room than when it’s you alone and you are not practicing. And if others are present, there would be an opportunity to explore what you feel is going on in the field between you. That takes a little getting used to perhaps. But I think part of contemplative practice is to sensitize us, not overly, but that’s what being awake means—to be more aware of how one is being impacted by others in or out of practice, how one impacts others. And of course, we all are filled with blind spots. So, any little opening can be very useful.

JCS: How else does the contemplative show up in your work? Obviously, contemplation is the core of your new book. If you want to talk a little bit more about your other work or anything else about this book and how it’s intersecting with contemplation, I’d like to invite you to that.

AK: In retrospect, I see all my books as being animated by this kind of yearning to understand and to be able to experience something of the tension and collaboration between our conceptual and non-conceptual processes. Simply put. I was fascinated with the way in which Tsongkhapa and the Gelukpas describe this in precise detail: how you can think your way to a direct experience of emptiness. And that is basically my first two books and my dissertation. I still think it’s very important. “Thought” has a very broad semantic range, to use a phrase from David Germano. It’s not just the Rodin kind of thing, furrowed brow, body bent to the task—even a simple image is the work of subtle conceptuality. And because of how far the conceptual stretches toward the non-conceptual, it can here be understood as a prequel to it.

I summarize this perspective in my introduction to Knowledge and Liberation, and the introduction to Unbounded Wholeness looks in the other direction. And what are the limits of conceptual processes? When you get to Dzokchen or any of the higher, more esoteric teachings, there is always this invitation to leave thoughts behind, free of frills, free of elaborations. How are you going to do that, especially having learned for a long time the value of thought? Are you going to find that there is a kind of horizon where conceptual thought drops off, where the dimension of knowing shifts and one is in a state of direct experience? There is much theory and experiential evidence that this is the case. How does that happen? How are the two in tension, how are they complementary? This is a fundamental interest of mine. All my books are somehow about that. One way to put it, is that it’s the conversation between our head and our heart. And again, all human beings have these capacities; some people are more intellectual, some people are more artistic or musical, and so on. But everybody has these basic capacities.

With Great Bliss Queen, it was a little different. There, I was exploring two sides of sutra and tantra—really, these are the developmental and the discovery paths, the gradual and the sudden—to explore feminist positions on essentialism and cultural conditioning and the gendered dyads that feminists were talking about at that time: male, intellect, mind, active, female, emotions, body, passive. And especially I explored the contrast between ideas of an essential feminine versus understanding as multivalently conditioned. This parallels, I think, Buddhist thought. Then there is the matter of how the path of practice is characterized as gradual and effortful or sudden and effort free. I think this is another fundamental dyad we all live with. Do you do it fast or do you do it slowly? And of course, it’s not that simple. Both are involved—and what’s the “it” anyway? And who’s doing it? I took Yeshe Tsogyal in the form known in Heart Essence practices as the Great Bliss Queen (Dechen Gelmo) as the focus, but what I discuss is true of any kind of kyerim [creation phase] meditation, with some aspects special to those centered on a female figure. How would such a practice potentially allow you to escape these dyads into a more open space, which includes them all? That is really the theme of this new book, Being Human and a Buddha Too. It depicts wholeness—the dzogs of Dzogchen, often translated as completeness or perfection—that has a place for everything. And wholeness does not mean some shade of gray or things (or life) blurred together. It’s dynamic and with everything interacting—good, bad, everything. Contemplative Studies didn’t exist in those days. So, I wasn’t thinking of my earlier books in those terms. But I was always interested in the contemplative side of philosophizing and the philosophical richness of the contemplative traditions.

JCS: That’s wonderful. You’ve just taken us on a little bit of a retrospective of your work. Looking to the future, what are you excited about that’s emerging in the field of Contemplative Studies, both for yourself and what you’re seeing out there?

AK: I’m really excited about how much rigor is coming to the fore and, may I say regarding our common alma mater, I feel really proud of what’s happening at UVA. I feel that the frontiers are being pushed. In a talk that David Germano gave several years ago, he’s identified something like 50 categories of contemplative elements. It’s like saying to the world that this is a big topic and there’s a lot to understand. And it’s not just sitting down [types of meditation]. David is at the forefront of this and Michael Sheehy as well. There are a lot of people that I may not have on the tip of my tongue right now, but certainly this is now the work of many senior and rising scholars, who now can be showcased in the innovative and necessary Journal of Contemplative Studies. This work looks at aspects of contemplation that aren’t yet well known, and so it’s greatly expanding our appreciation of the breadth and depth of human experience. People, including my own students, are interested in, for example, a rarified understanding of elements. And Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche has been teaching about this for some time now; several Dzogchen scholars including some of you at UVA are furthering this kind of study exponentially. These studies are expanding our understanding of what a human being is, and I think understanding what a human being is truly is the understanding of being human and a buddha too. Or, as the Sufis would say, what it means to be a true human being. 

The most surprising thing to people in the last few years is the idea that you can cultivate compassion

The conference that UVA hosted in April, and in several universities, is another example of innovative work, investigating the scientific perspectives on contemplative practice. My understanding after attending these Mind and Life conferences is that the gulf between science and humanities is thinning a bit. This is extremely important for our cultural and cognitive cohesion going forward. In particular, I feel that the field of micro-phenomenology has an enormous amount to contribute to this. I agree with Claire Petitmengin, who’s a senior and pioneering figure in the field, that this is a conversation that can optimally connect neuroscientists and the contemplative. It can help reveal the importance of Contemplative Studies to conundrums of everyday life and society. I feel that micro-phenomenology is keeping it very human but with scientifically precise descriptions that enrich our understanding of our human processes—and not only in descriptive precision but also in the methodology for the human being. How we go about coagulating, coalescing the information that comes in often covers up actual lived experience in the process. Let’s say you do interviews with X number of people about how exhaling impacts them. Something simple but revealing are micro-gestures that in turn help us see and feel our experience more clearly. And what micro-phenomenology reveals is that if you start paying attention, you will be able easily to talk for 45 minutes or an hour about three or four seconds of experience. And for most people, that’s mind-boggling. I think that’s what stuns my students. 

Also at Wisconsin, what John Dunne is doing is exciting. I can’t leave any of my friends out of course. There is Harold Roth at Brown University. His work stimulated great growth in the field. I can tell it’s not been easy, but Contemplative Studies is part of the Brown experience for many people. Also, Emory has its own Tibetan monastery in the background. The work of Dzogchen scholars like Jake Dalton and Khenpo Yeshi at Berkeley, and James Gentry at Stanford, just for example, not to mention that yourself and others at UVA are exponentially expanding our vocabulary of the contemplative. For Tibetan Buddhist studies people, this deepens and expands our understanding of the textual tradition and of contemplative practices as well as their histories and the monastic institutions that supported them. As David, among others, has pointed out, this is all relevant. The kind of social community you have makes certain kinds of practices operate differently. So, I would say the whole frontier is exciting. And this is in the face of a very materialistic turn in contemporary culture, a very dangerous turn in my opinion, especially given the threat to normal freedoms we are facing. I hope that Contemplative Studies continues to find ways to contribute to this increasingly expansive and deep understanding of human beingness to the world. Contemplative Studies’ work is crucially relevant to speak to deep concerns of our time. And it needs lots of ambassadors of all kinds. I’m grateful for all the work at UVA and for all the work in places like Richard Davidson’s lab at Wisconsin. There’s a lot of interesting work going on.

JCS: What are some of your favorite books in Contemplative Studies that you might recommend for our readers, either current works or older ones, academic or otherwise? 

AK: Yeah, when I first saw that question, I thought, oh my god, I haven’t really been reading much lately. I’ve been trying to finish this book. But I came up with a couple. I do love to read Rumi. And he does bring together Buddhist, Sufi, as well as broadly Islam, and Christian sensibilities. I think all of these traditions were passing through where he lived. And I feel that he’s been very fortunate in his translator, Coleman Barks, who doesn’t even know Persian and so academically, he’s not ideal. But when I read it, and I read sometimes other translations too, he’s figured something out. I wish some of us could do that for Longchenpa, for Jigme Lingpa, but it just really communicates. Rumi crystallizes things for me. It’s also good to read Jigme Lingpa and Longchenpa whenever possible. There’s something about poetry, or at least awakened poetry, or terton (treasure revealer) poetry. These people, like Adzom Rinpoche, just sing forth. Where does it come from? One of our friends says, oh, he’s downloading the dharmakaya, but it’s coming from somewhere, maybe all intuition comes from that. 

Claire Petitmengin wrote a fantastic article reporting on micro-phenomenological analyses of meditation, her study of intuition has also influenced me greatly. She shows that whether it’s a scientist, a writer, or a visual artist who has an intuition, their responses are remarkably similar when asked what happened the moment before intuition dawned. They all say, “I was relaxed, my mind was open, the separation between outside and inside seemed to soften.” A sense of location shifts, a sense even that the world is inside oneself rather than one is an outsider walking through the world. This says a lot about our human condition in that everybody has access to this kind of space to some degree. Most people, you sit down to be quiet, and you get millions of brilliant ideas. Because, in that relaxed state, you’re open to them. Petitmengin’s most recent piece, “On the Veiling and Unveiling of Experience,” is based on interviews, not on doctrine, yet is remarkably similar to what Buddhist texts say, yet all derived from the actual experience of practice. I think it’s exciting. 

Also, I want to mention Lama Willa Blythe Baker. Her new book is The Wakeful Body: Somatic Mindfulness as a Path to Freedom. Embodied awareness is key to a wide range of contemplative practices in virtually all traditions. Other things that impact me as I read with my own contemplative lens are not necessarily Contemplative Studies works. For example, I learn a lot from Sarah Jacoby’s Love and Liberation. One of the things I’m thinking about a lot, and plan to write about as soon as I recover from my upcoming book [laughs], is going back to Yeshe Tsogyal and to the sadhana form and finding there an analogue to the kind of dialogue that Sera Khandro has with herself—Yeshe Tsogyal—which I think is a key to what actually goes on in kyerim practice. Sarah calls this a kind of ventriloquy, although it’s not the kind of ventriloquy where one being is controlling another. It’s like there’s two voices coming out of the same source, but they’re talking to each other, which is maybe what is happening all the time anyway. I appreciate that insight into what it was like for Sera Khandro to have these conversations with Yeshe Tsogyal of whom, of course, she’s considered an emanation.

I’m also interested in the literature around Francisco Varela, in particular his concept of enactivism. He has inspired a lot of people to think about things differently, to think about subjectivity and objectivity differently, to think about agency differently. I think that Varela found a way to crystallize principles that are very harmonious and very much similar in shape to what I find of interest in contesting separateness and finding wholeness. This seems to be a big theme, with much room for creative exploration. He’s clearly catalyzed a lot of folks to think about this in ways that works well in the scientific community. And this helps us all to recognize the deep and broad significance of contemplative categories that revise certain received truths which may not be so true. That is definitely a good thing.

JCS: Thank you—everything here has been just so incredible! It’s really wonderful to be able to connect with you. 

AK: Yes, likewise, absolutely ditto.

What is Contemplation? is an ongoing series that interviews leading scholars in Contemplative Studies to address this driving question.