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Examine your life: Taking a Leap with Stuart Horn

What does it mean to be on a spiritual path in general? To work on yourself? To live a meaningful life? Cliché as it might sound, according to Stuart Horn, examine your own life is at the very heart.

“It was a time of breaking out – things had changed.” In the 1960s people wanted to explore alternative views of culture and reality, and were open to new ideas and experimentation.   It was also the beginning of Stuart Horn’s own spiritual journey. The 60s and 70s introduced him to Asian thought and meditation. 

Along with the tens of thousands of students entering universities in the country at the time, Stuart entered College to study economics and accounting.  But as others often noticed, his real passion was conversation and study of philosophy, history, and  politics, which led him, in the early 70s,  to pursue studies and a Ph.D. in history with the focus on the history of ideas. Stuart became a faculty member and currently holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale (United States). 

His spiritual journey was broad in scope for quite some time, till he came across Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. They became his teachers in 2002. Their systematic approach made the most sense to him. As a member of the Nalandabodhi Sangha he began the study and practice path laid out by DPR, and began his studies of Buddhist Philosophical systems at Nitartha Institute that same year. Besides fulfilling several administrative roles within Nalandabodhi and Nitartha Institute, Stuart was authorized by DPR as a faculty member of Nitartha Institute in 2010.

Stuart recently passed away. The last years of his life he lived in Edmonds (Washington State) with his wife Sandra Roscoe and their Australian Shepherd, Tessa. “Life has been very good to me,” Stuart told me at the beginning of our conversation. A feeling that was implicit and very present throughout all the thoughts, ideas and feelings he kindly shared. Though he was already no longer young in body, at the time of our conversation his love for conversations about life was clearly still very present and strongly felt.

We imagined having many more conversations together. Things turned out differently. Yet I am very grateful that we were able to have this conversation. You will find the voice of Stuart is as if he is talking. And with this conversation, in a way, he still is. When I asked Sandra whether it was okay to still publish these words, she said: “The more Stuart in the world, the better.” I could not agree more.

Why (and when) did you take the leap into a buddhist path?
‘I have been really thinking about it. It is not an easy question. Entering into Buddhism came as a culmination of a long period of spiritual seeking and practices. That started in 1966/1967. In the sixties there were a lot of spiritual movements happening – from Sufis to transcendental meditation and psychedelics. And there was a lot of conversation going around the intellectual community. People were reading all kinds of interesting stuff. From Huxley to Alan Watts.

At first it led me to study the dominant view of the Hindu tradition, including the vedanta (a particular system of philosophy) and bhagavad gita (a part of a famous Sanskrit poem from Hindu scripture). After this I noticed how fascinated I was by what I learned from buddhist teachings. It was not so much a leap, but a slide. Something that meant letting go of significant parts of my life – things I considered important, how I structure my life. If I was going to do what Gary Snyder called ‘the real work’, namely working on yourself, I needed to find a teacher and a path that resonated for me. Buddhism was that for me, especially the encounter with Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.’

What was there to let go precisely?
‘The biggest one was to let go of the assumptions about what a meaningful life would look like. You go to graduate school, you look for positions at universities and you think that life will be shaped by the success you have within the framework of the academic world. Publishing, being recognized with titles, earning grants, rewards, et cetera. This did not feel meaningful enough that I would devote my life to. 

I recognized that my spiritual life had to be the framework within which all decisions I made about my life had to take place. I always had to ask the questions not how will this benefit my career, not how will I make more money and not how will I be successful in terms of relationships, but how will this benefit my spiritual practice and my sense of the work that I had to do on myself. 

This was the best that I could do for myself and others. Will this choice lead me to a framework where I can develop my understanding of who I am and what reality is all about. That was an important shift. It really changed the dynamic of how I made choices and what was the basis of these choices. Leaving the physical university and moving up to North Carolina for twelve years was for example based on that kind of choice.’ 

What does it mean to work on yourself?
‘You come to a point in your spiritual development when you realize that the essential problem that you and others face as sentient beings is the nature of your mind, including the habitual patterns and confusions that are projected into the world as a result of lack of training of your mind. The work is really mind-training. To carefully examine what is going on in your life, to reflect on your behaviour and to tame the unruly part of yourself and liberate yourself from mechanical responses we are usually operating from.’ 

Why did specifically the buddhist teachings make sense to you?
‘Perhaps it is Nalandabodhi and the structure of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche his sangha and the Nitartha Institute. Buddhism as a practice and as a teaching was presented in a very systematic and organized way. It provided both a study path and a practice path that seemed to me to be very progressive. You did not leap into things that were over your head. You did not not know where the whole thing was all about. You understood it in the context of a path and progressive stages. 

For me, the buddhist teachings on the mind and the nature of reality made the most sense. It was the view that I could relate to and it seemed the most profound in explaining the confusion that we see in ourselves and the world, and a path to free ourselves from that confusion.’ 

So, is Buddhism both philosophical and practical?
‘Yes. There is a practical path presented in the context of a philosophical view. Path & view are linked closely to each other. Then there is the conduct & fruition, the manifestation of one’s experience of both. I have been fortunate to come across great teachers like Khenpo Rinpoche and Ponlop Rinpoche that presented a coherent, thoughtful and authentic view, with a genuine language.’

You have mentioned the role of teachers several times. What is the value or importance of a teacher on a spiritual path?
‘No matter what your path is, spiritual or worldly, you discover if you are going to make progress on that path you need to find somebody who has been on that path for a while. And has demonstrated an understanding and a certain level of mastery of that path. If you are going to be a musician and you want to learn to play the guitar seriously – that is going to be your path – you really need a teacher. You need to either have a teacher by listening all the time to records and follow your sheet music, or you get the good fortune to study with this teacher. I had the good fortune to find an incredible woman teacher that helped me get through graduate school in a way that made sense to me. 

This is the same on the spiritual path. You need somebody whom you trust in what they present as the way to go on this path and that comes from an authentic lineage of practitioners. Where teachings are presented in a way that makes sense to you, within the culture in which you live.’ 

You put a spiritual and worldly path in contrast with each other. What does it mean to be on a spiritual path?
Up till now Stuart has been careful but relatively quick in his responses. Now he needs some extra time to think, noting that this is a good question. ‘I think a spiritual path recognizes that the reality we are familiar with is only a kind of shadow of what is ultimately real. It presents a much wider set of possibilities. In many cases beyond our imagination, as to what and who we are as beings. It sort of opens the door to possibilities that are hard to talk about. 

You know, for those of us who have begun the more intense in-depth study of Vajrayana (the tantric teachings of the Tibetan-buddhist or Mahayana tradition, also called Secret Mantra or the resultant vehicle) we understand that the reality that was presented to us as being the real reality is really, really, you know, an illusion or a shadow. There is something far greater than that available to us. But you need the tools, the methods, the processes, and philosophical context to gain access to that. That world is generally referred to as the spiritual world.’ 

Earlier you said that buddhism spoke to you personally, while many others were around. Can other traditions, whether we call them philosophical or religious, equally point to that reality?
‘It could point to that reality. I think there is a big divide between buddhism and other religious or philosophical ‘systems’. Other systems depend for the most part on an external being or force that shapes and interacts with their path. Buddhism does not necessarily do that. In that sense it is not a religion where one is seeking the support of something external. That being said, I do not know enough about Christian mysticism, Hasidism and Jewish mysticism, or the Sufis of Islam. It is possible they come to a realization to what is seen as realization in buddhism.’ 

Once I entered the world of academia, I was raised so to speak with the ‘western philosophical tradition’. With your experience of buddhism and what many people call ‘eastern philosophy’, how do you look at what is often referred to as ‘western’ philosophy?
‘To talk about ‘western philosophy’ as a monolithic institution is a mistake. Universities conduct themselves really differently. Some allow eastern philosophy to be taught, others do not. Some only consider the ‘western catalogue’ of philosophers to be real philosophers. There is a real sad bias that is detrimental to the development of philosophy. Even only for comparison it would be helpful.

Some people are either doing this comparison or study actual eastern philosophy. Wonderful books and views are brought into the mix. Whether it will enter the mainstream of western philosophy? I doubt it. But maybe at some point philosophy will encompass all philosophical systems, including native American. 

Moreover, many philosophers who are considered as part of western philosophical tradition have taught about the importance of praxis (embodying or living an idea in reality) as well. There is some work in philosophy right now happening that brings back this praxis-element. This was included in the discussions of the ancient philosophers. The relationship between one’s character and one’s understanding was very clearly articulated. We seem to have lost that right now. It is an interesting question, what is the relationship between knowledge and character? Knowledge and the quality of one’s mind-training?’

The question you formulated earlier, ‘what makes for a meaningful life’, was once at the heart of philosophy as well. What happened?
Laughing. ‘At one time too, philosophers spoke to the people. People read philosophy because it was very practical and could be understood. It is said today that philosophers write for philosophers. Not many people in the western world are interested in what philosophers have to say. It is hard to follow, to understand the issues of contemporary philosophy. In part it is the split between psychology, philosophy and religion that took place in the west. That did not happen in the east. Philosophy there is very well embedded in the religious path. Therefore it had a very soteriological element (the practical means to salvation or liberation) to it. It is very pragmatic.

There are philosophers now who are beginning to understand this and trying to make questions about ethics, behaviour, the nature of reality, language and so forth accessible to lay people.’ When mentioned that here seems to be a task for Stuart, he starts laughing again. 

So, let’s take the question itself. What makes for a meaningful life?
Well, I think everybody has to answer that question themselves. I don’t think there is any transcendental signifier that you have to live up to. I think a meaningful life, to coin a cliché, is an examined life. You are examining yourself. You are generally interested and curious about the nature of your mind. Trying to understand why you behave the way you behave. You are seeking to find ways to improve that behaviour to be of benefit to yourself and other people. The great teachings about bodhicitta (the intention to attain liberation of suffering in order to benefit all beings) are so beautifully profound and meaningful. If one came to understand oneself and be of benefit to others, right there is the answer to a meaningful life.

The benefit of others seems to play an important role in your understanding of a meaningful life. Why is that?
‘Intellectually you can give an answer to that. If you really study ethics, you discover the more you benefit others the more you benefit yourself. The more others are happy, the happier you will be. Just from a very pragmatic point of view. When you are living with somebody and you make that person miserable you are living a miserable situation. When you make someone you are living with happy, your life is happy too. It is very practical advice and guidance. 

On the other side of the coin, there comes a point in one’s evolution where one can not but help see how others are suffering and how needless that is. It is the resultant of their own confusion and misconception about who they are and what will bring them happiness. That suffering is painful to see. Just like you see it now. People’s behaviour sometimes is so cruel and hurtful and yet you feel they themselves are so unhappy, suffering and confused that you can’t but feel compassion for that type of individual. You naturally want to provide them with teachings or strategies that you know, because you applied them to yourself, will alleviate a good deal of their pain and unhappiness. If you can offer some guidance that can be of benefit, you do that. Like this moment here, our conversation. May it be of benefit to others.’ 

When we were conducting this interview, a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus (covid-19) was happening. Stuart pointed out that one could easily see how people naturally felt they wanted to reach out and help others. This is simply the expression of reality, of the spiritual world. To connect with this, however, we need to be mindful and have a well-trained mind. ‘You know, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (Tibetan-buddhist teacher, born in 1964) said a wonderful thing once when I asked him about his practice. He said I get up in the morning and I look out, and I say, whatever I am seeing is my mind and it is the first and only time I will ever see this. The practice then is, how do I respond to what appears to me with compassion. And I thought, yeah, man, that is the practice.’ 

REAL QUESTION
I wish there was just one. I think the one that intrigues me the most is not so much a question but an exploration and find very helpful is trying to understand what it means to experience ‘now’. What is that experience of the present moment like? What is that present moment, when and where – if there is neither past nor future nor place? 

IF YOU CONSIDER TO TAKE A LEAP…
‘Going into something that you are not sure about and moving into the unknown, whatever that is to you, that is scary. That is what dying is all about. So I would recommend taking your time. This is not a race to complete something at the end of some time that you are running out of. Listen, study and find friends on the same kind of path with you. If you become serious, then have the sincere aspiration to find an authentic teacher. With a sincere aspiration this teacher will appear. Think, question, be curious. You are beginning to examine life. This is a wonderful moment in your life. Relish that.’ 

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