by Gavin Heaney
With his shaved head and traditional gold and red robes, Gen Rigpa stands out in the South Bay like a lightning bolt.
At first sight, one might expect him to speak in haiku or impart cryptical zen koans like Yoda, but you’d be surprised to find how relatable he is. He’s a modern monk living in a modern world with the rest of us. He has an iPhone to keep track of his meetings and appearances and he travels the world teaching meditation to people who are seeking solutions to their modern-day dilemmas.
“Meditation is perfect for modern people, because modern people face a lot of problems,” Rigpa said in an interview. “It teaches you how to deal with them, but also how to use them to become a better human being. Whatever the things are in your life that upset you, meditation can teach you how to look at them in a different way. Then the very things that used to upset you, gradually don’t upset you anymore, and in time, are the causes of you developing really beautiful qualities like patient acceptance, or compassion, love, or a wish to help others.”
Gen Rigpa is the resident teacher at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles, and the Western U.S. National Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition. He is also the current teacher in residence at The Hermosa Beach Mahamudra Kadampa Meditation Center on Cypress Avenue. The Hermosa center was established in 2011 by local fixture Gen Tangpa, who taught meditation in the South Bay for 20 years before relocating. Both are close disciples of 91-year-old Tibetan Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the founder of the tradition and contemporary of the Dalai Lama.
Gen Rigpa grew up in Long Island, New York and was raised Catholic. He was always fascinated by the human mind and completed grad school for psychology, but soon felt dissatisfied.
“When I came out of grad school, I realized I was filled with information, but I wasn’t much happier, and that was really depressing.” He said. “I just started reading everything I could get my hands on from self-help to Eastern philosophy.”
It was then that he discovered Kadampa Buddhist meditation, a method that he found practical for establishing a peaceful mind and finding the contentment he lacked.
Buddhism is one of the world’s major religions, but its use of meditation as a philosophical and psychological method has become widely adopted by modern westerners. The old cliche that you need to abandon all worldly possessions and wander the Earth in order to practice Buddhist meditation is long outdated.
“You definitely don’t have to become a monk or a nun. That’s not at all a prerequisite,” Rigpa said. “Only a small percentage of people decide to adopt certain vows to guide the rest of their life spiritually. For most people it’s philosophy — it just has some nice ideas that they’d like to adopt in their life. Buddhist psychology can help you solve your mental problems, and for a lot of people, that’s the level at which they access it. People are welcome to connect to the teachings at whatever level works for them, it’s utilitarian and flexible in that way.”
Through his meditation practice, Gen Rigpa learned that if his mind was in a mess, such as in a state of anger or longing, that happiness and contentment couldn’t gain a foothold. No matter how perfect his outer world was going, if his inner world was in crisis, he couldn’t enjoy it.
“Many people have very good conditions in their life, but they’re very anxious, They’re depressed, bored, lonely. They’re addicted. Even if they have more than most people in the world, like here in The South Bay, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re happy.” He said. “Your mind determines your world. If you change your mind, you change your experience of everyone, and everything in your life. Your mind is the single most important factor in determining whether or not you’re a happy person or a sad person, a person with fulfillment and meaning in their life, or someone who is bored or depressed.”
In order to enjoy our world, Rigpa suggests that we first need peace of mind. This can be achieved through meditation.
“The technical definition of meditation in our tradition is that meditation is a mind that concentrates on something virtuous, and that is the main cause of inner peace,” Rigpa said. “There are primary or main causes of inner peace, and happiness, and there are other things that are more like secondary causes, like chocolate, movies and cool cars. They can help you be happy, but they’re only a secondary cause. If the main cause of happiness in your mind isn’t there, you won’t be happy, even if you have these amazing external conditions. Meditation teaches people how to be happy from the inside out. But it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy our outer conditions; it means we enjoy them completely by developing a good state of mind first.”
The idea that each of us can develop a happy state of mind, regardless of ever-changing outer conditions, is appealing to Americans navigating the complications of modern living. The future is unpredictable and there is no certainty. Pandemics, inflation, global warming, social unrest and war in the daily headlines all contribute to our worries. Rigpa wants to examine how we can use our mind to control itself, instead of it constantly interfering with our happiness.
“Meditation is designed to practically solve the problems we experience in our everyday life, like relationship problems, money problems, politics and social issues,” he explained. “It is a method for controlling the mind and mixing it with virtue or positivity. The more our mind is mixed with virtue or goodness, the calmer and more peaceful and happier we become, and everybody wants to be happy.”
Gen Rigpa will be giving a public talk in Hermosa Beach in September to give an introduction to meditation and practical advice for transforming our modern world problems into the path to our happiness.
“In this talk, we’ll look at simple and practical methods that we can use to begin to change our mind and move it in the direction of experiencing things in a more positive, harmonious, balanced, peaceful way,” he said. “Which is something I think this world really needs.”
Buddhist Monk Gen Rigpa will give a public talk on September 17, 5 to 7 p.m. at The Hermosa Beach Community Center. More info at meditateinthesouthbay.org. ER
Gen Tsoglam out front of the Mahamudra kadampa Meditation Center, where she is the newly appointed resident teacher. Photo by Kevin Cody
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