Christopher Titmuss has been leading vipassana retreats (many under the auspices of IMS) in his home country, Britain, and in various parts of the world since 1977 when he returned from Asia. Christopher was a Buddhist monk in Thailand and in India from 1970-1976. He now lives with his family in Totnes, Devon.
After sitting his course in California last August, Joanna Macy interviewed Christopher for The Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Joanna is a meditation teacher, a writer and a political activist. She spent a year in Sri Lanka with the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, a grass-roots community development organization based on Buddhist teachings and Gandhian philosophy. She is a Board Member of The Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the author of Dharma and Development and Despair and Persona/Empowerment in the Nuclear Age.
Joanna: At the closing of one of our sittings you said, “May all beings abide in full awareness, may all beings abide in full attention, may all beings engage in direct action.” Would you speak about what you mean by direct action?
Christopher: Yes, right. These days I emphasize it more because I feel amongst meditators in all the Buddhist traditions there is too much of a passive element. And, therefore, it needs to be balanced with a greater outer awareness. The bridge between inner and outer awareness is direct action. Now that may take a whole variety of different expressions. Some take direct action in the immediacy of their living situations. For instance; in one’s home one is aware of seeing something clearly and makes a direct response to it, which expresses love and understanding. Then there are greater social and political issues which require direct action. I put them into various categories: people, creatures and environment. A person works, along with others, to make change effective. What I have seen among meditators has been a certain reluctance to be involved with groups who are active, who are involved in direct action, a reluctance to be involved at the organizational level, which is so important, and a hesitancy to take responsibility in this area.
In the last two or three years this is noticeably beginning to change. And, therefore, there’s a greater sense coming about that the inner and outer are not in any way separate. I feel this awareness is very, very important. More and more meditators are becoming involved in major issues affecting this planet. I hear of more and more friends who are going to prison, who are leafleting, who are involved with groups which are very socially, politically active. Equally important, people who are already involved in direct action are coming to retreats, and therefore are giving consideration to their inner selves as well as what’s happening out in the world. This combination of people from the outside coming to retreats and people from the inside going to the outside means that there is more and more bridging taking place. Both are giving more and more support to each other.
I feel that it’s this combination of the inner and the outer which gives the sustaining factor to social and political awareness. Some of the groups which have a long term commitment to social/political changes tend to have a strong spiritual background. The Quakers immediately come to mind. When political groups lack spiritual background one of two things seems to happen. One, there is burnout (as we saw with so many people from the ’60s and the anti-Vietnam era) and two, there is a gradual increase of anger in the mind. This brings about more division within groups who are basically in agreement, more sectarianism and more narrow-mindedness. So what results is either burnout or aggression. But when there is some kind of inner awareness or spiritual foundation for one’s action, there is less likelihood of these two occurring as a result of direct action.
Joanna: Yesterday I was struck as people spoke of their experience meditating by the number of people, indeed the high proportion, who acknowledged that they recognized the suffering that they opened themselves to as pain for the world. Do you find that this phenomenon is increasing?
Christopher: Yes. People are beginning to see that personal pain and global pain are not two separate factors, but very much interrelated. Some people experience inside of themselves what they conceive of as being the pain of the world, but in a way it’s the pain of themselves. There are others who experience inside of themselves what they conceive of as being purely personal pain. In a way, it’s the pain of the world.
I feel there is a change taking place, that the area of pain is beginning to have another kind of significance. People who have engaged in more meditative practice, more practice in self-awareness, begin to see pain as a motivating factor rather than an inhibiting factor, more as a reason to work on themselves and work on issues rather than as something which is life-denying.
Joanna: The likelihood is that the coming times are going to see an increase in the uses of organized terrorism, intimidation and manipulation. You speak of ways in which vipassana can help us deal with living in a world where direct action exposes us to intimidation and terror.
Christopher: Yes. These days I’m getting invitations to give workshops in which I relate the practice specifically to aggression in all the forms that it can take. In England at the present time, training workshops in nonviolent direct action are taking place all over the country. I was in one of them myself. Exercises are used. For example, a line of half the group will be the policemen. And the other half of the group will be the people engaged in a sitting protest. The police move in, arms locked, pushing the protestors against the wall. We reproduce the boot going into the shin, the treading on the toes, the dragging of people across the floor on their backs, which is very painful, and the policemen walking over women’s breasts. All this goes on, which the camera never sees in these kinds of protests. It touches off fear and anger in the protestors. Some workshop participants are afraid of losing these feelings. There’s a belief in nonviolence. Yet, in reality, under pressure violence comes up inside of oneself and one wants to react against those who inflict pain. For instance, during a march people are shouting out abuse, putting the protesters down, or in England, occasionally, there is stone throwing. In spite of nonviolence the anger comes up because it’s latent inside. With the recognition of latent anger more people want to work on the aggression and violence they experience. It seems to me that the vipassana practice has a real contribution to make to the peace movement in this area. Through exercises in self-awareness they can feel the pressure and aggression and learn to work with the pain, to observe it and go into it but to not feel threatened by it.
Moreover, many of the people in the peace movement who consider themselves to be without religion in any form, who see themselves as humanistic, secular, and who cherish those values, don’t feel that their personal values are threatened in any way by the vipassana practice. In addition, it is not a hierarchical model we are using. The first generation of vipassana teachers working in the West are pretty much Westerners. Instead of a hierarchical model we’re based much more in friendship. This also contributes to allowing new people to feel comfortable in coming to do meditative practice. So people in the peace movement can use vipassana practice to do exercises in which they experience pressure and aggression, to discuss aggression and to work on themselves.
In London we gave a workshop for about fifteen people. We basically got people to talk about their feelings—what actually comes up when they’re involved in threatening situations. This, I think, is a really major step, to say, “Yes, this is what’s going on in me.”
Joanna: Just to acknowledge the terror and the fury.
Christopher: And that itself, is half the process. I gave a talk about ways and means of working with those feelings. Then we just engaged in exercises representing peace activities. I put the emphasis on “sitting for peace,” “standing for peace,” “lying down for peace” and on the effort to keep still and keep relaxed, even in the face of aggression. Their own pain, which arises in their bodies, becomes a major reason for working.
Joanna: To use pain as a motivating force . . . .
Christopher: Yes, right. And we work with seeing how well the mind can relax and keep it together despite the fact that pain is occurring.
Joanna: This is very exciting to me, Christopher, because when I, myself, ran for the Board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship my platform was that I felt that Buddhists have a great resource to bring to nonviolence training.
Christopher: Right, right. Certainly, one of Buddhism’s tremendous transcendent virtues is the upholding of a nonviolent view towards life and maintaining that as clearly and as carefully as possible with regard to all forms of life. Certainly the Buddhist Peace Fellowship could do a tremendous job because the dharma really goes deep. I think that’s the potency of the dharma; it tries to work with the root of things, and sees that nonviolence is not just something that one applies in a peace march but it’s that sensitivity with regard to the way one treats creatures, the way one . . .
Joanna: The way one makes choices in a supermarket . . . .
Christopher: Exactly. Our Buddhist background and training and wisdom says that nonviolence is a day to day experience. Now that message hasn’t reached the peace movement.
Joanna: Have you heard of the order of Tiep Hien? This is an order created by Thich Nhat Hanh in Saigon, and it sprang up there before developments in Vietnam drove him into exile. It followed the School of Youth for Social Service that he created which was a radical blending of the inner and the outer. This order has fourteen vows.
Christopher: Ah, yes. Fantastic! Oh gosh, they’re a tremendous insight.
Joanna: The theme of it is interconnectedness. And, he’s proposed translating the Vietnamese words as interbeing. In belonging to this order we take on disciplines which help us to perceive as well as express our, as I’ve heard you refer to the term, interactivity. In vipassana practice when settling into deep clarity, progressively we see the interactivity of mind/body. Is it your experience that the interactivity which exists between us and the rest of the cosmos is also open to direct observation?
Christopher: Very much so. As the Buddha reiterated time and time again, for anything to arise, there must be conditions for its arising. That factor of conditions means that it’s dependently arising. Because of this everything is related to everything else. Nothing has its own unique self existence. The awareness of this interconnectedness, to use one of the more contemporary concepts, brings a holistic sense with regard to life. Through this awareness one wishes to contribute to life, to the way life really is—interconnected, interrelated, unity. One sees again and again and again, and that’s where the observation factor comes in, the way the mind influences the body, the body influences the mind, the way one influences the world and the world influences one. Everything keeps expressing its interrelationship, its interactivity, again and again.