An Interview with DaeJa Napier

Reprinted with permission from the Northwest Dharma News, December/January 1999, Volume 11, Issue 6. Published by the Northwest Dharma Association.


Karin Miles and David Forsythe interview DaeJa Napier, founder and guiding teacher of the Brahma Vihara Foundation. DaeJa focuses on the awakening process of Insight Meditation enhanced by the cultivation of the brahma-viharas.

David: As time on the meditation cushion through daily practice and retreats accumulates and practice depends, I find that I am developing a sense of urgency about taking the mindfulness that develops on the cushion into everyday life. Does mindfulness develop in daily life spontaneously from meditation or is it possible to cultivate it through some practice off the mediation cushion?

DaeJa: Urgency, in a stable practice, may arise as the result of an increase in momentum of mindfulness. It is like any other relationship that requires attention to grow and develop. Then the momenturm of sati (mindfulness) is becoming a more dominant factor in the internal and external experience of life.

In reference to the question of cultivating mindfulness on or off the cushion: they are not exclusive of one another. One practices in order to awaken awareness in every aspect of one’s multidimensional being. With the continuity of a well-nurtured practice, mindfulness does arise spontaneously in everyday life. With the increasing momentum of mindfulness, it begins to have a life of its own. It can awaken at any time, illuminating the moment with greater clarity, offering protection from unwholesome conditions, redirecting ones attention and gently reconditioning unwholesome reactions to any suffering that may occur.

Although relatively speaking this seems to take a lot of time, in a practice oriented view there is only this moment of the body sitting, standing, walking or lying down. This simple perspective can cut through a lot of complicated thinking.

Also, understanding the parami of patience is helpful in maintaining a sense of simplicity of practice along the way. With patience, the choice to maintain presence of mind in each moment becomes a clearer option. Patience is also important in the cultivation of the stabilizing factor of equanimity. It is said that equanimity arises with mindfulness and then the most rarified mindfulness arises out of equanimity. Out of this, a tolerance for an internal sense of sameness becomes a unique challenge in the evolution of mindfulness. Learning to stay poised at the threshold of timelessness and time are essential in providing the intuitive skill and balance required in navigating “the way” across the great ocean of samsara.

Karin: Your teachings indicate that you have experienced cultivation of the Divine Abidings (brahma-viharas) as important adjuncts to mindfulness or insight practice (Vipassana). However, in the most common western retreat experience, Vipassana is taught as a standalone practice. Would you comment on the ways in which cultivation of the brahma-viharas enhance the potential of Vipassana?

DaeJa: First of all, it is important to understand that the entire body of the Buddha’s teaching and related practices are the prescription for the purification of the causes of suffering. The practice of mindfulness provides the conditions that are conducive to see the truth of suffering through to the end of suffering. One’s role is to engage the practice of mindfulness in order to provide the presence of mind while becoming familiar with the “skill in means” that allow for the slow, methodical efficient process of this purification. One might say that we are the Guardians of the Dharma, responsible to attend fully to the process of awakening until it is fulfilled.

Mindfulness is the active agent of awareness and the basis for cultivation of Vipassana — the clear seeing associated with sustained awareness. Abidings are concentration practices which rely upon mindfulness (present time awareness) to cultivate and enhance the process of purification. Metta (lovingkindness) is the medicine for anger, agitation, and hatred. Karuna (compassion) is the antidote to cruelty. Mudita (appreciative joy) is the counteracting force for envy and jealousy. Upekkha (equanimity) is spacious balance, which supports the release of clinging and attachment.

As an example, the Buddha taught that wisdom, alone, can’t bring the end to ill will. Only lovingkindness is capable of this task. With many other wholesome qualities, metta arises spontaneously as a condition of mindfulness. Only the sweet resilient strength of metta is capable of healing into the depths of agitation, anger, ill will, and fear that come with our human life.

The Divine Abidings also regenerate the beauty and mercy inherent in this existence. Metta is the capacity for love. Karuna is the capacity to remain present in the face of pain and suffering. Mudita is the capacity for boundless, appreciative joy and gratitude. Upekkha is the capacity to be with things as they are, in truth.

The Divine Abidings soften the grip of reactivity, inviting more wisdom to arise. Participatory awareness is one definition of mindfulness. With this in mind, one actually begins to witness delusion lifting, physical pain becoming differentiated from suffering, and the ebbing away of pernicious movements of the derisive mind or envy and jealousy.

Poetically speaking, to cultivate the Divine Abidings is to understand Christ’s words “thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. This is to open the sublime, heavenly states of mind that reawaken the capacity to hold and be held as sacred. Practically speaking, the wholesome aspect of efficacy is optimized in order to protect the mind/heart and its inherent suffering giving rise to more suffering.

Karin: We don’t have a Western monastic culture, and yet as practitioners, we are consistently exposed to Buddhist literature and teachings positing that the monastic lifestyle is considered a more perfect vehicle that that of the householder. It’s clear that our lives these days are quite busy and full of responsibilities, leaving many of us feeling that we aren’t quite hitting the mark. Is there a way to approach the challenge of achieving liberation as a householder?

DaeJa: Never hopeless, with mindful patience, always hopeful! We can thank the monastic order for the timeless preservation of the teachings. And we are wise to honor the existence of those of the past and present that choose to dedicate their lives in this way. Meanwhile, the comparing mind is a major factor in keeping the dualistic view of better and best alive. Putting this tendency aside, I have high regard for the monastic expression of practice and life style. It is a noble vehicle. There are times when a certain integrity and urgency will imply the need and desire to take robes. It is important that one sees all forms of life’s expression as sacred and focus on what is inherently wise in any given situation. Meanwhile the conditions that mark a well trained mind and heart are the same in all lifestyles.

An understanding of samadhi (concentration) that arises out of the continuity of mindfulness practice is the key to a life successfully organized around principles of Dharma. Maintaining samadhi allows both monastic and householder to actualize and embody the practice. Otherwise, one is likely to externalize the source of the power wisdom and compassion to others. Without this cohesive state of mind/heart, the comparing view of better and best will always keep someone (including oneself) a victim of negative assessment.

As a householder, one might form a strong intention to take a vow to practice in order to transform the karmic field of one’s lay existence from a place of endless, tedious tasks and responsibilities to one of mindful cultivation and transformation. The inherent stress and rigors of this devotional way of life are powerful incentives to strengthen the paramis (inherent agents of purification). As an example, upekkha (equanimity) practiced as a Divine Abiding is astoundingly effective in reducing the conditions in oneself that hold expectations of something or someone (perhaps oneself, a child or partner) being other than the way that it is. Upekkha bhavana (cultivation) dissolves the incessant preoccupation with the way things should, could be if, and but. So much distortion and interference in the life of practice arises out of the expectations associated with the dream rather than the reality of being a man or woman, husband or wife, father or mother. Viewing oneself first as a yogi supports the possibility of “all of this” to be calmed and sorted out in a way that is guided by the same influences of wisdom, compassion, and love.

The mind of metta holds all beings dear, allowing for everyone to live fully, free of skeptical doubt. The monastic life is sometimes viewed in a hierarchical sense. Again, putting aside higher and lower, it is wise to consider that which provides the greatest support, care, and protection for each being while still in gestation of the Buddha womb of this existence.

Karin Miles is leader of the Portland Sati Sangha, a spiritual mentor and former Executive Director of the Northwest Dharma Association. David Forsythe is the current Secretary of the Northwest Dharma Association.