This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2011

This45: Gordon Laird on Buddhist teacher Doug Duncan

Gordon LairdWebsite

It’s easy to despair of politics in the 21st century. We seem cursed with high recurrence: on issues like climate change, poverty, and democracy, we experience the same problems, the same arguments, and the same incomplete fixes. Why is it so hard to make change stick?

“You cannot have outer revolution without inner revolution,” explains Kyoto-based Buddhist teacher Doug Duncan. As someone who has taught internationally for the last 30 years, he finds that this dynamic between inner and outer transformation is something people often fail to examine closely.

“We are skilled at manipulating our material world, devising technologies and policies,” he says while conducting a month-long meditation retreat at Clear Sky Meditation & Study Center in the mountains near Cranbrook, B.C. “All good things. But look at the government systems we collectively choose for ourselves: they reflect the mind state.

“And so we have capitalism as the preferred formation as it reflects our inner state: greed, hatred, delusion. We can’t handle enlightened theocracies like old Tibet, nor can we manage anarchy, arguably the highest form [of government] because everyone has to be utterly and totally responsible. We need the average person to realize awareness.”

A Canadian born in Regina, Duncan began his journey to acariya (Pali for “accomplished teacher”) at the age of 24 as a student of Namgyal Rinpoche, Canada’s first incarnate lama as recognized by the 16th Karmapa of Tibet’s Kagyu lineage. Duncan’s teaching bridges worlds, integrating the three major branches of Buddhism— Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajryana—as well as the teachings of western contemplative traditions, psychology, art, and modern science.

Known to many of his students simply as “Sensei Doug,” he describes his approach to teaching as asking questions, not prescribing outcomes. While his ethic is transformation, not politics or public relations, he observes a major imbalance between our inner and outer worlds. “The biggest problem with us these days is that we are materialists; our science is concerned largely with objects, not consciousness,” he says. “Yet objects exist only in relationship, subject to change.

“Ultimately, the rebellion is not against external authority, which may need to happen occasionally. It is rebellion against being subject to our inner states.” In other words, if you want to change things, look closer. Cultivate awareness and interest, observe new patterns, practice generosity. Look closer again. “The spiritual path is in essence not an escape from life but an immersion into life,” Duncan explains. “The fruition of life is to explore, discover, and share. The spiritual search, built on a foundation of bliss, is to investigate.”

Gordon Laird Then: This Magazine Business Manager 1993–1994, contributing editor, 1994–97. Now: Freelance writer, author of The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization.
Show Comments