Through a Prism, Possibility: an Interview with Ashe Acharya John Rockwell

Ashe Acharya John Rockwell is one of our most experienced and realized teachers. He’s also an extremely generous and engaging gentleman. He graciously sat down with us recently on a sunny afternoon in Hollywood to talk about Los Angeles, plants, food, ecology, and what role Los Angeles might play in the larger Shambhala mandala and social transformation in general. Interview by Mat Keel

Acharya Rockwell will be teaching a class called Karma, Interdependence and Magic at SMCLA on Sunday March 31st. This event will include a catered vegan lunch provided by Dreux Ellis, friend of SMCLA and executive chef for Cafe Gratitude, as well as making aspirations and planting seeds for gardens.

What are your impressions of Los Angeles ?

Ashe Acharya John Rockwell

Ashe Acharya John Rockwell

I’ve been coming to LA for a number of years now. I think when I first came, I expected not to like it. I’m not a fan of big cities, sprawl, or spending a lot of time in cars. But right from the beginning I found the people very warm, friendly, and intelligent — artistic and creative. I also found that the land here is extremely interesting. There are a lot of places within the city that are quite beautiful. There are power spots and little nature preserves with lots of wildlife and trails.

Each time I come back, I ask people to take me some place new that I haven’t been. I like to explore the ecosystem here. It’s very powerful to have the ocean, valleys with very fertile farms, and an urban city mixed in with all these little hills and canyons that snake around and through the city with the mountains all around.

One thing I do still feel strange about with regards to LA is how it relates to its water and the way it has treated its rivers. Water’s a precious element here and deserves more respect. I’m happy that Tree People has jumped in and moved beyond trees and are now looking at the watershed too. I’m sure more and more energy will be put to restoring the wetlands and the natural river ecosystem.

LA often seems unable to be represented in the same way as other cities. It’s very decentralized and it sometimes feels more like a succession of states of consciousness than a city. We don’t really have the same kind of iconic landmarks as say Chicago or New York, at least not ones that adequately symbolize the whole city. LA seems to elude fixed concept. There’s a kind of tenuousness to the whole circumstance due to its natural disasters and being built on such dry, arid land. Sometimes I feel like there is a quality of LA that almost mimics the experience of meditation practice.

It definitely has a very open feeling here which I would say is meditative. There’s not such a fixed concept here because there are a lot of different areas. It’s much more decentralized. I feel that’s a problem too. It seems like the downtown is a bit dead. I don’t get an alive feeling of its relationship to the rest of city. It seems to be more of a business and events center than somewhere that people live.

Can you share any of Trungpa Rinpoche’s impressions of Los Angeles?

Not really. I never talked to him about it. But LA was a place he came and presented powerful teachings on dharma art and did a dharma art installation. That’s my main sense of what he did in LA which was very appropriate for the environment here. It was artistic and working with space, and domestic in a larger sense. This is one of the places where I think he did his most powerful presentations on that. In fact, the installation he did here was filmed and later presented in the film Discovering Elegance.

LA has a long history of alternative spiritual, political and communal living movements. Many of these only exist as ruins or fragments but they continue to shape our landscape. There’s still something of a dominant new-age sensibility. Do you have any thoughts on how that shapes what it means to be a Shambhala practitioner here? Or how it might influence the way these teachings are propagated in LA?

I think a lot of people here are more tuned in to what we do; my sense is that a lot of people come to our centers already experienced in some form of meditation. The positive thing is people are already in the flow and on a path. The negative thing is people can already have strong preconceptions about what meditation is. Yet oftentimes our approach is quite different from others.

My experience of audiences here in LA is a lot of intelligence and extremely good questions and heart — and sometimes a bit scattered. It’s a big city and cities can be scattered, particularly in place like LA where it is all over the place. Maybe continuity or an ability to follow through and stay with something is a challenge here. That’s true everywhere too. It’s not just LA.

It’s interesting that certain popular alternative belief systems have become so mainstream in LA. Books like The Secret are very much a part of our culture here. While there’s some crossover with Shambhala and Buddhism in general, it’s almost as though those ideas have also become quite fixed here and need to be suspended in order to enter this path.

I think Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is still the ground for what we do. That’s still a shock for a lot of people who come here. I know it was for me. I was definitely feasting on a lot of hope and trying to manipulate my mind to have some kind of result rather than just surrendering to who I was and what was happening. I don’t know LA that well that I can generalize whether this is a place more of hope than depression. Sometimes the East Coast seems to be more small-minded and heavy. Here there’s a lot more possibility which could lead to a trap of hope. 

Lately there has been a strong resurgence of interest in shamanism and esoteric traditions, some of which are derived in part from Tantric teachings. It feels like these traditions are popular, especially with younger people and especially in LA, because of their immediacy and because there’s such a sense of urgency about leaping into the macrocosm and the microcosm both in order to heal our social and environmental crises. This same quality seems very much a part of the Sakyong’s recent writing. So, I was really intrigued to hear you were doing a workshop involving plants and was immediately curious if it would incorporate a shamanic element.

I wouldn’t say that what I am doing is shamanic although it does have a strong connection to the earth. Everywhere I go I feel like there’s really a lack of connection to the earth—in the literal sense of people not going outside, into the woods, the garden or the park. We’re a very indoor culture now, connected with computers and screens and communication. Even when people are outside, I see more people walking looking at their iPhone, texting, and so forth. I don’t have a problem with computers, but the obsession about them and the shrinking of awareness is what concerns me. I struggle with that too. It’s really an addiction to constantly being in touch with other humans, rather than exploring this world which is mostly non-human.

We live in a world that’s vast and elemental and has all kinds of energies—plants, animals and insects. People are losing their appreciation that all these different beings are what keeps us alive and that we’re part of the same family.

In what I do, there are shamanic qualities of being willing to identify and connect with those energies, to appreciate animals and realize the animal-like qualities that are in us. We can appreciate that it wasn’t more than 100 years ago that most people were farmers or grew their own food or were connected to people who grew their own food and were much closer to the land. It’s only very recent that we’ve lived this very abstract lifestyle of having everything imported for us and arranged in nice, neat lines on shelves and not being aware of where things come from. I’m interested in promoting food and gardening as social transformation, and the metaphor of a seed works really well for me. Some thing or action very tiny could have great results. Moreover, planting the seed of a plant and tending that plant would bring people outside and connect people to the earth. It can tune them into the plant world and the animal world, this whole world.

For me it’s all about having a practice. When I wanted to connect with my mind, meditation became my practice. I wasn’t in touch with my mind and I was going nuts. There was also a point in my life where I realized that even though I walked in the woods, I didn’t really know it. That made me realize I needed a way to be outdoors and go deeper.

There’s a big difference when you have to get your living from the woods. You’re a hunter or a gatherer and you know where the animals are, where the food is. You’re in tune with the seasons and what’s happening rather than you just like to be outside and it’s enjoyable. I realized I was more of a visitor or a guest of the outdoors, rather than really living there.

That outdoor transmission and lineage didn’t come to me through my family or my culture. I had to seek it out. I’m interested in re-establishing that for myself and for others so that we really live on this earth rather than being aliens visiting.

I attended the Enlightened Society Assembly you taught last year at Karmê Chöling and I remember, at one point, we were doing a Drala walk, and I intuitively found myself doing Tonglen for a tree and had the recognition that trees are doing Tonglen for us all the time.

Totally. Literally.

With plants and the natural world, there seem to be all these other possible models for relationships between humans too.

You can learn a lot from watching how ecosystems work and what gifts each plant and animal offers to each other and to others, what the cycle of life and death is, and who’s food for whom. Its quite amazing, this world we’re in. We’ve lost touch with the natural cycles by creating a very artificial way our food system works. Permaculture interests me a lot because they grow food mimicking or imitating the bio-system of a forest — learning from nature rather than constantly battling it.

Do you foresee this ecological aspect being increasingly important in the larger mandala?

I hope so. That’s my intention. A number of people I’m talking with feel the same way. I’m really experimenting. It’s not like I’ve found the approach. I’m just trying things out. I don’t’ really know a lot about ecology which is great because I get to ally with people who do know a lot and I get to learn from them. In Los Angeles, I’m working with Renee Klang. She knows quite a lot as she’s an avid gardener. She is my ally here to make our planting of seeds day happen in a good way. We also have someone in our community who works at the vegan restaurant, Cafe Gratitude. They’ll be serving us a catered vegan lunch before our seed planting.

The other day, I went with a friend over to Tree People to talk to them about getting fruit trees. They didn’t have enough to give one for everyone, but they did give us a tree to plant for the Shambhala Center. Another day we went to the Theodore Payne native plant nursery to check out what they have. There’s a lot of resources here. There are many people in LA who are really into the plant world. I think it’s mainly just a matter of connecting the dots.

Do you think there’s a need to let go of the oftentimes charged discourse of environmentalism in order to go forward? 

I think environmentalism can become dogma just like anything can. Anytime you’re on a crusade there can be a lot of hope and therefore burnout if it doesn’t come through. Certainly I have wondered what I can do. One of the more interesting social transformation movements is Transition Town. I like them a lot. They frame their path in the context of climate change and peak oil, but they’re very clear that even if climate change and peak oil weren’t true, we would still need to figure out a sane way to live within the limits of our ecosystem. One of the key things they’ve found that joins people to their work is food. That’s what started me thinking not just about wilderness but also about gardens and food.

Food cuts through all boundaries. If you share food with people, it’s a very bonding thing. If you grow food and offer food to neighbors, it’s a way of creating relationships and friendships that are not based on any ideology.

Food motivates everybody. At Karmê Chöling Meditation Center, I noticed that the only events that people were on time, even early for, were meals. It was the only time I saw people lined up — before breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s the power of food. Many cultures are centered around a strong relationship to food. I would love to see Shambhala develop such a strong relationship. I think we are already connected in many ways. We could go much further with a strong expression of food and how to share it as a binding and welcoming principle.

Film Noir with its emphasis on light, dark and shadow is an important influence on Los Angeles’ meaning. A writer once described the work of Film Noir cinematographer John Alton as creating “hypnotic moments of light-in-darkness.” I thought of this when I heard you were offering a teaching on light and darkness that involves prisms and projection here in LA.

I’m not so familiar with Film Noir. I am very interested in light and darkness and color and culture. It seems like Western culture gravitates towards light and is afraid of the dark. Light represents good and darkness represents death or evil or temptation or depression or just the unknown. Some people are attracted to the unknown, but a lot of times people project their fears onto darkness. That’s where the bogeyman is, where the wild animals are, where somebody’s going to kill you or rob you. In the light of the day, people feel safe, though daytime can have a very harsh quality too. Shade and coolness are very valued in LA.

I’m interested in exploring experientially what it is to see. Often people don’t appreciate the magic of seeing, the magic of eyes, and the magic of having a mind. And we don’t appreciate how caught we get in appearances.

I think vision is the most powerful sense for human beings. It’s our greatest wisdom and also our greatest obstacle. It makes things look so real and split off or separate from us.

Most people don’t pay attention to the movie projector when they’re watching a film and the film seems real. But if you turn around, you see this light pulsating. In a very dramatic moment in an Ingmar Bergman movie, the physical film catches in the projector and burns, which stops the film and the screen goes bright white with the light in the projector— this sudden break jerks you out of the very intense reality of the movie drama. Yet it turns out that the break is just part of the movie. They thread the film back and the movie goes on. Of course our belief in the reality of the movie never recovers. Our total identification with the movie is shattered.

That’s related to this common experience that happens periodically when you live in this city. You’ll be walking down a street and think “I’ve been here before.” Then realize its just that you’ve seen a film that was shot in that location.

I get the mirage aspect of LA.

That’s what we’ll be doing in this evening presentation on light and darkness. We’ll start by sitting in darkness. Then we’ll look at some very simple patterns with the prism as a way to understand light, darkness, and color. A prism is like half of the lens in our eye. It helps us tune into how our eye works. Fundamentally we will work back to understanding how vision is really about mind.

The urban geographer Mike Davis wrote a book about LA called the Ecology of Fear in which he looked at all these representations of LA in film, literature and the popular imagination in which this city often seems to be starring in the end of the world. There’s just so much apocalyptic and dystopian vision of LA which makes me think about tantra and what it could mean to experience Shambhala vision here. Can we take that quality of powerful destructive energy and transform it into something regenerative? Is LA uniquely situated to become a vanguard of Enlightened Society?

Obviously LA does have a lot of potential. The dharma is doing very strongly here in our communities. There is a lot of awareness of being on the cutting edge, an apocalyptic edge — it’s true. LA does live on an edge like much of the West in terms of water and fire. We’re very vulnerable to that based on the kind of lifestyle we have adopted here. That could be turned around if people put their minds to it. It’s not too late, in my mind. I’ll be curious where that leadership comes from. I’m trying to tune into who seems to be leading that change. Most of the time it seems to be on the fringe.

Often the creativity comes from the fringe, it doesn’t come from the center.

Except for people like Tree People who have become an icon in LA, I hear mostly about people who make small gestures but that’s what I’m looking for — the seed level, who’s sowing some interesting seeds but I’ve only scratched the surface here so I can’t really say too much about it. Maybe you can teach me a bit about it?

Well, LA really does have a thriving underground, both artistically and socio-politically. During the Occupy movement, in particular, it just became painfully clear to me personally how many good things are happening here. Just a few – the bee-keeping movement is taking off, people trying to save the bees from colony collapse, veganism and organic food is increasingly mainstream. There are all sorts of cooperative endeavors that are experimenting with radical ecology, alternative economies, communal living, that sort of thing.

We are moving into a time when people are more established in what they are doing and now need make alliances. This could definitely be an LA quality. It seems like people are very open here to collaboration. But are they talking to each other?

Before I came here, someone sent me a link to a gentleman named Ron Finley who has a TED talk he did in Vancouver. He’s from South Central LA and he talks about how he became very disheartened with what was happening there. For one thing, he couldn’t find healthy organic food there and neither could other people.

Now there are problems of obesity and diabetes and other curable diseases. So he created a food forest, a permaculture garden with fruit trees and edible plants on the strip of grass between his sidewalk and the street. This strip is owned by the city, but he has to maintain it. He thought “Great!” and planted a food forest with the idea that anybody who needs food can take can take it. 

There is an art collective called Fallen Fruit who did a great project about ten years ago where they mapped out all the fruit trees in Silverlake and then Echo Park because if trees overhang the sidewalk, that fruit is legally public.

Right. So Ron Finley started an organization called LA Green Grounds. It’s for people in South Central. If people would like a food forest or garden in their front yard, he will bring his team to plant it as long as the people also bring their friends and family to help. They will dig up the turf and plant the garden in one day for free with the understanding that this is a pay-forward commitment. This means that those people will help with the next people that they plant a garden for.

That’s beautiful.

Yeah, isn’t’ that a great model? To me, that’s very creative thinking, artistic thinking. I wanted to go help with one of his plantings, but unfortunately it was on the weekend when I was teaching. I would love to see more of that kind of approach. It’s out there; it just needs to be incorporated into our communities.  

It seems like we almost need to abandon the category of politics when we talk about ecology.

It does work best on a neighborhood level and making relationships face to face. Growing and sharing food is one way to do this. It’s like the Tom Sawyer approach. If you start doing something that looks like fun and people see the benefits you’re reaping, they will want to get into it too. It’s just a matter of how skillful we are and, as you said, non-political. If we use food in a divisive way — like we’ve got the secret and we’re waiting for other people to catch on—that obviously puts other people off. Whereas if there’s a real meeting people where they are and learning what they’re passionate about, it’s very heartening what happens.

I get the sense that you really are strongly encouraging these sorts of collaboration here in LA.

Yes. I think that the Sakyong and our Shambhala community are now moving in that direction. The Sakyong is doing a program in Chicago focusing on youth violence and collaborating with many organizations working in that area. In San Francisco, the theme of the Sakyong’s program will be on creating enlightened society and he will be giving talks along with Episcopal Archbishop of California Marc Andrus, Google’s meditation teacher Chade-Meng Tan, and Zen teacher and social activist angel Kyodo Williams. These programs are a sign that it’s time for us to start meeting more people and seeing what kind of relationships and collaborations that we can develop.

That’s great.

Yes, it is great.  


Ashe Acharya John Rockwell has been a student of Buddhism and the Shambhala teachings since 1975. Former professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University, co-director of Karmê Chöling and director of Shambhala International, he was named Ashe Acharya by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in 1996. He headed the Shambhala Office of Practice and Education in 2001, and teaches worldwide.

One thought on “Through a Prism, Possibility: an Interview with Ashe Acharya John Rockwell

  1. Thank you! Yes! Bravo! It’s good to hear positive, thoughtful ideas about L.A. culture and community.