In an interview with screenwriter Stanley Weiser, the martial arts expert and action film star
Steven Seagal breaks his silence on his many years of Buddhist practice and addresses criticism
of his recent recognition as an incarnate Tibetan lama.
Stanley Weiser: First off, can you tell our readers a little bit about your background in the art of aikidohow long you trained, who your teachers were, when you
attained the status of a master?
Steven Seagal: Well, the title of masteron paperis something that I probably received in the early eighties. I still dont believe that I have attained the level of being a master. Maybe some other people think I am a master, but in my mind I am certainly not.
When did you start aikido training?
In the mid-sixties I started training with Ishisaka Kiyoshi.
Were you introduced to Buddhism as an off-shoot of your martial arts discipline?
Well, to be honest with you I am not sure. I was born with a serious spiritual consciousness and for many years studied different paths. I went to Japan in the late sixties and began Zen sitting. I visited monasteries, studying Buddhism and receiving spiritual instruction. This was the beginning for me, the way I believed it should bethe development of a physical man through martial arts and polishing the spiritual side simultaneously.
You also studied acupuncture?
Right. That was the way I was originally introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. There was a handful of lamas who had come over from Tibet. They were sick and had been tortured. Because I was studying acupuncture, I was asked to try to look after a couple of them, even though I didnt speak Tibetan. We were able to eventually communicate. I learned a little Tibetan and I became very close with them. Later on, I became involved in certain things that are not really the kind of things that I look back on with fondness.This was at a time when the Khampas were still fighting the Chinese and the CIA was helping them, and because of the severe repression of the Tibetan people, I wanted to get involved.
My involvement, though, was minimal. These were the years when my interest in Tibetan Buddhism
flourished, but my involvement in any of the spiritual endeavors and training remained my personal
businessnot secret as some of the other things were, but just private. This was at a time when I very
much wanted to be invisible in the dharma community, for a lot of reasons. Only in the last few months have I come out of the closet.
Can you say anything about your involvement with the Tibetan freedom fighters?
I think it is probably best if we dont get into that. We are trying to live in a world where we can choose the middle path and seek harmony, and I dont want to appear to be a dangerous revolutionary person, because I am really not. I am here on this Earth for one thing and that is to see if I can somehow serve humankind and ease the suffering of others.
Who was your root guru?
Basically, for me His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was the greatest, and now I have a very strong devotion to Minling Trichen and His Holiness Penor Rinpoche.
There are the recent reports that Penor Rinpoche has recognized you as a tulku. Is that correct?
Gosh, I dont think that is the way that I would put it. Theres a very despicable magazine that made accusations that I had bribed Penor Rinpoche and all the other higher lamas into giving me recognition. Well, first of all, this a recognition that people have been telling me about for more than
twenty years, people who have known me in the dharma for a long time, long, long before Penor Rinpoche ever formalized this. It was something that I had always kept secret, and in fact denied. So if I denied it then, why would I bribe people for it now? You see why it is so pitiful. I dont mind them insulting me but it is a shame that people are scandalizing the dharma and saying bad things about Penor Rinpoche and other high Nyingma lamas.
You are saying that for more than twenty years people have talked to you about possibly being a tulku?
There are people who had said to me that I am an incarnate lama, or tulku. Penor Rinpoche basically recognized me as Kyung-drak Dorje, who was the reincarnation of the translator Yudra Nyingpo. According to Jamgon Kongtruls Lives of the Tertons, Yudra Nyingpo was a disciple of the great translator Berotsana and became both an outstanding scholar and an accomplished meditation master. Many of his reincarnations, such as the Minling translator Lochen Dharma-shri, were able to contribute to Buddhism and it seems that he has taken rebirth as a number of tertons (treasure-revealers).
Do you have memories of past lifetimes?
From the time that I started going to India and meditating I did start getting memories that were fairly unclear. Just a few days ago, I was sitting with a lama and one of the things he said to me was that you have a very good imprint of many strong past lives, and therefore your realization will come more swiftly than some peoples.
What did he mean by that?
I cant really explain it. But with something like ngondro, if you practice and practice and dissolve into the emptiness with the practice and you are concentrating on bodhicitta more than anything else, you will probably start to slowly dissolve the veil of who you think you are into your true nature, which is a combination of all your lives. We just have to remember them. This is where retreat is beneficial. Of course, as you practice longer, you will develop some different siddhis. But none of them really matters. What matters is what you do with your life.
In contrast to what that magazine had to say, whenever someone has asked me, are you a tulku, what I
have consistently said is that I dont believe it is very important who I was in my last lives, I think it is important who I am in this life. And what I do in this life is only important if I can ease the suffering of others, if I can somehow make the world a better place, if I somehow serve Buddha and mankind, if I can somehow plant the seed of bodhicitta in peoples hearts.
So contrary to the fact a lot of people think this recognition was some kind of sudden discovery, it has been developing over a long period of time.
Oh, I have been doing serious meditation in my own pitiful way for probably twenty-seven years.
Thats a long time. Are students supposed to call you any special title.
People call me all kinds of things, including four letter words. I respond to all of them. When I walk into a room some people see a dog, some people see a cow; I am all of what they see, it is their perception. But I do believe that buddhanature is in all of us, even in a mangy dog lying in the gutter with fleas. That dog is Buddha to me. People can call me anything they want, I respond to anything.
You gave a public talk in Santa Barbara recently.
I have given teachings recently. Always on Buddhas teachings. The Dalai Lama has said to me to concentrate on bodhicitta. This is what I feel that I would like to do.
The Dalai Lama gave you personal instructions about teaching?
I wouldnt say he has given me personal instructions about teaching. But he has given me personal instruction and has invited me to come to other teachings of his. I would also hopefully study with Trichen Rinpoche and Penor Rinpochethese are a few of the lamas that I think are quite sublime teachers and great masters, and I am lucky enough to receive some time with them. Hopefully by sitting with them I will absorb some knowledge or wisdom on how to transfer the little bit I have.
When you became a movie star, how did that affect your ego? Did it go out of control? The teachings must have been hard to come by, considering that you were being fawned over and/or reviled?
Even when I was in Japan, people tried to deify me, and the reason I left there was that deification is truly a death trap. That is a reason why I kept my spiritual practice to myself in America. I dont think deification has been one of my biggest problems in life because I am lucky enough to have understood a long time ago what adoration and power really are about. I think the great obstacle was just a lack of understanding of the way.
There is a Buddhist slogan which says, "Work with the greatest defilements first." What would you say is the greatest defilement you have had to face in this life?
Not really understanding the difference between desire for spiritual perfection for the benefit of all sentient beings, and feeding myself. This is where I was confused in my youth: I thought that if I could spiritually feed myself to levels of great spiritual attainment then I could do greater things in the world and it would be good for me and therefore good for everyone else. I was just too ignorant and foolish to realize that the basis we have to come from is first and foremost the benefit of all sentient
beings. This was a great obstacle for me and it caused me great suffering.
Do you think this recognition is a means to accelerating that process?
I hope so.
What meditation practices do you do?
I do ngondro, I do guru yoga, this is a great form of meditation for me. I do secret practices that I am empowered to do.
Do you do prostrations?
Prostrations are my favorite thing in the universe. Right now I am just trying to simplify all of the exalted practices that are probably over my head, all of the tantras I have tried to learn, and I am just trying to concentrate on bodhicitta. Whenever I get too esoteric into the realms of tantric stuff, I get a little bit lost. Then I find the wisdom of my teachers when they say go back to the beginning and concentrate on bodhicitta. I am not a highly realized being, I am not a great lama, I dont have any great practice. I am a very low person just trying to get to first base and the most basic practice of a
bodhisattva. I am starting humble memorizations, meditations, and prayers.
How long do you practice for?
I dont have a particular clock. I dont keep track of exactly how long Ive practiced, but Id say its usually two hours in the morning and two hours at night. In the busy movie life of chaos and uncertain ego, where is your sense of equilibrium?
How are you able to hold your seat in that world?
I dont really care what other people think of me or say about me. When you ask what gives me solace and eases samsara, it is Guru Rinpoche, the Lord Buddha and all the protectors, dakas and dakinis. I walk forward into this town and give the little bit that I am able to.
What other projects are you spending time on?
I want to be able to feed the children who are starving and sick in Tibet. I want to work on projects primarily for children who are hungry and sick. We are also
trying recently to do something for people with eye problems in Tibet. Many of the monasteries are in need of help. When that magazine said these inaccurate things
about my teachers, what they did not want to say is that I have traditionally donated large sums of money to many different religious organizations. I have done it in
secret but it seems that what we call the press believes there is no profit in reporting good deeds. They prefer bad news even if they have to manufacture it.
Part of this, I think, is their inability to reconcile the image of you on screen with that of you as a spiritual man.
Acting is an art. It is supposed to be an art. One of my teachers said that art is the mother of religion; by becoming one with ourselves and nature, one becomes one with god. I am not saying that I am a great artist; I am probably a poor artist. But the point is I was able through this vehicle to spread the dharma and help other religious institutions around the world, from Jewish to Catholic to Hindu.
What do you do with all the unchecked anger that comes with working in this back-stabbing business. As a Buddhist, how do you deal with it?
Im human: when cut I bleed like everybody else. When this happens it is best to bring your problems into your practice. By overcoming anger, hurt and attachment
we become stronger; you bring these before the Buddhas, before the protectors, and purify yourself.
Your screen persona is that of the noble tough guy protecting the innocent and downtrodden from gangsters, drug dealers and terrorists. In the characters you are playing, you are forced to meet violence with violence. When you watch yourself on screen, how do you reconcile the carnage
with the lifestyle of a man practicing the teachings of compassion and non-violence?
Well, I dont think one has anything to do with the other. I think that art imitates life and its function should be a perfect and accurate interpretation
of the way life really is, in all of its emanations. I am an artist trying to perfect his craft, but at the same time I do have feelings about violence. I was
under a contract with Warner Brothers I could not get out of, and what they wanted me for was the male action films. I was offered extraordinary
sums of money by other studios to do different types of movies and Warner Brothers would not let me. Now that Im out of that situation, this will
enable me to do the kinds of films I would really like to do, which certainly are spiritual in nature and which will lead people into contemplation and
offer them joy.
Okay, last question. Acknowledging the inseparability of samsara and nirvana, what would you say the best thing about being Steven Seagal is and what is the worst
thing about being Steven Seagal?
You know, I was sort of raised in Zen and I dont really look at my life in terms of best or worst.
I was asking from a relative point of view.
The thing I am most grateful for is teachers who have allowed me to have the little bit of knowledge and wisdom that is now keeping me breathing.
I am grateful for the ability that I have on the screen to bring people happiness and joy and the ability that I
will have in the future to hopefully bring people into the path of contemplation. In terms of worst things, I
consider my worst enemies and my worst sufferings to be my greatest teachers, so there is always another
side to these negative forces.
Thank you very much.