Tell me how the opening of the center came about.
We had written to ask Geshe Kelsang Gyatso if he wanted us to come here and start talks to see if there was any interest. He kept saying, "No, not right now." Then one day, he called and said, "Go start some talks." So we set them up, and then he called and said, "I've changed my mind, because there is nobody there to be the resident teacher." So I wrote a letter and said ... I'd be willing to go if you need a teacher. He didn't answer for a long time, and then a letter came to my teacher saying Sue (my name at the time) should go to Tucson and be resident teacher. So we did.
And then what happened?
We came here and started classes. People started coming, and it started to grow. That was April 2002. And then last November, we rented a space, moved in, and right after we moved in, it turned out that zoning required some modifications that the landlord could not afford. So he asked if we wouldn't mind being released from the lease. We said OK. We got on the Internet and there was this building for sale. ... A bunch of people donated and loaned money, and here we are.
What are your duties here?
I teach most of the classes, conduct most of the services. We do funeral services, blessing services. I lead retreat sessions and generally counsel from a Buddhist perspective those people who have problems they want to talk about.
Tell me about the introductory classes you teach.
These are for anybody. They are drop-in. You don't have to come for a series. We always start with some breathing meditation to help people calm their mind and get rid of distractions. And then each week, we talk on a different subject. So one week, we might talk on compassion; one week, we might talk on anger; and then we have a question-and-answer period. And that is followed by a guided meditation on that week's topic. Afterward, people stay and visit if they want.
This is the only Western Buddhist temple in Tucson. Are there major differences in philosophy from the Eastern temples?
I wouldn't say that. All of the basic Buddhist tenets are the same in all the traditions. As you get to some of the second wave of Buddhist teachings, there are some differences. Different traditions have some differences in how they practice and what approach they use, but the basic concepts are all the same. We all basically believe that the mind plays a big role in our experience, and what we experience is a reflection of the state of our mind.
Can you elaborate on that?
If you work with your mind and try to gain control over your negative ways of thinking, you will immediately start getting benefit. If you can eliminate anger, jealousy and pride, then all those things that cause you suffering are reduced. The meditation techniques that we teach are to try to help people reduce those negative states of mind. Even ordinary people--it doesn't matter if you are Buddhist or not--benefit from learning techniques to gain control over their negative thinking.
Sounds very useful.
It's actually rather fun. The first thing I worked on was trying to get rid of stress on the road. I used to live in California, and the freeways were nuts. And so that was the first thing I picked to meditate on. And so you just meditate on all the disadvantages of being a stressed-out driver and all the advantages of being a calm, peaceful driver. It only took me a few weeks, and I completely changed. It was like, "Wow, this is great." And once you do it with one thing, you try it with something else, and gradually, you keep working at it, and one by one, your negative mind starts disappearing. It's quite nice.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I would say seeing new people get excited about the concept that they can start to get control over their ways of thinking. It's always fun when someone new comes along, and they felt like things were totally out of control, and then they start feeling that things are changing for them. It's always a pleasure to see.