Arts, On Campus

Klein Discusses Buddhism’s Role in Everyday Life at McMullen Lecture 

Self-reflection and mindfulness are an integral part of many religious teachings, according to Anne Klein. Most people, however, do not get the opportunity to learn these practices in the mountains of Tibet—as she did.

“The tradition known in Tibet as ‘the Great Completeness,’ or ‘Dzogchen,’ goes back to some of the earliest treatises in India,” Klein said. “[These are] words attributed to the Buddha himself, who told his students that our minds are luminous.”

To complement its current exhibit “Gateway to Himalayan Art,” the McMullen Museum hosted a virtual lecture on Oct. 23 featuring Klein, a theologist specializing in Tibetan Buddhism. She discussed her new book, The Art of Being Human and a Buddha Too, and how the Buddhist art of viewing can be applied in everyday life.

Currently a theology professor at Rice University, Klein is also a Lama, a spiritual leader, in the ancient Nyingma Buddhist tradition. She was inspired to write the book after spending time at a Tibetan monastery, where she said she learned the teachings of the 14th-century Buddhist scholar Longchenpa.

Klein explained that followers of ancient Buddhism strive for the kind of wisdom that comes from self-reflection on daily experiences. She said ordinary people can seek out wisdom if they know how to look for it—the average person does not have to study in a monastery or become a Lama.

“Longchenpa says that wisdom is everywhere in our experience,” Klein said. “Actually, if we look into our lived experience, not what we think is happening, not abstract conceptuality, but our lived experience carefully and with an open heart, we will find this wisdom.”

Klein elaborated on the process by describing a near universal experience: learning how to read. She described her earliest memory of learning how to read. The process was slow, but her knowledge and skill improved with time. This is what acquiring wisdom through lived experience is like, according to Klein.

“It just made me curious,” said Klein. “How come, without any intervention, I can read more the next day? But I can only ever do so much more each day. It’s not like the whole book is available to me.”

This concept, although simple, is one of the two central teachings of Klein’s book. It is a Buddhist path of learning called a wisdom narrative, which is how people can learn to find wisdom in everyday experiences by living in the present and then reflecting upon it later.

“There is something already there that can be discovered,” Klein said. “Longchenpa quotes something that says, ‘nothing hinders waking more than remaining unaware of what is already there.’”

The second central teaching of Klein’s book is called a karmic narrative, which is the counterpart to the wisdom narrative. If the wisdom narrative is the story of humanity’s wholeness, Klein said that the karmic narrative is the story of human suffering. 

This suffering, Klein explained, happens when people do not live in the present and focus too much on things outside of our control.

“The karmic narrative is the story of how we get in our own way,” Klein said. “We, strangely enough, are typically quite separate from our own actual lived experience.”

Klein explained that there are several trainings, or practices, in the Dzogchen tradition that people can implement to be more present and mindful. Among them are practices which focus on impermanence, compassion, and meditation. 

The trainings ultimately teach people to first awaken their minds and then use their knowledge to improve the lives of others.

“[For] Buddhas, or awakened beings, naturally there is called forth a walk into the world to help others,” Klein said.

November 8, 2023