Interview with Lindsay Crouse
By Jason Rosenfield
Jason Rosenfield: So, tell me, how did Buddhism become a part of your life? How did you get started in this?
Lindsay Crouse: How did I get started in this? Just briefly, the seeds for this were planted a long time ago when I was a teenager. I wanted to be a minister. The colleges I applied to all had divinity schools. And I was very impacted by Reverend Sloan Coffin, who I was sent to for a couple of summers for a religious conference at the Mount Herman School, and it took place, and it was for teenagers in the summer. It wasn’t endlessly long but it was enough for all of us to get the idea of what a spiritual life really looked like. And Reverend Coffin, Bill Coffin, would have us give sermons, would have us really debate issues of spirituality with each other and at the time, I mean, being in that part of my life, it was fantastic for me to wrestle with issues of, you know, social awareness, issues of how to deal with friends, how to deal with enemies, who I really wanted to be, what I wanted the quality of my life to be. And when I went into college it was 1966 so this was like 1964, 1965, 1963 so the 60’s was coming…the 60’s was coming. And the kinds of questions that were posed in the 60’s were being posed then, were developing then. And they were developing inside me too. So I got some very superb guidance from Bill Coffin and when I went to Harvard, and I was thinking about going to Harvard Divinity School after my undergraduate years, the 60’s, really, was in full swing at that point.
JR: Just a clarification, Reverend Coffin, was that Riverside Church [in New York City]?
LC: Not until afterwards. He was the chaplain at Yale at that time and then he was at Riverside Church in New York. But at that time he was chaplain at Yale. And, so, he was in contact with Yale people, so he was particularly attuned, you know, to that age group. So when everything came down, while I was in college, during the 60’s, I was observing what was going on at the divinity schools, you know, who was doing what. And it was Coffin who was making a sanctuary out of the chapel at Yale and helped and encouraged kids burn their draft cards. He was saying, you know, “War does not beget peace”, you know, “Let’s put our money where our mouth is”. And I didn’t see that happening at Harvard. I didn’t…I didn’t see, and it wasn’t just Harvard, I didn’t see it many places. I thought, “Wow”, you know, “Real spiritual leaders are few and far between here.” At the same time I was becoming a dancer and thinking, perhaps, of taking acting as a career. And I saw that by being in the theater, by being in films, etcetera, I might have a more invisible pulpit, I might therefore have a more skillful pulpit. Because I thought, instinctively, that the paradigm of going to church on Sundays wasn’t really going to cut it for our generation. Our generation wasn’t looking to leaders, to the authorities; we were really in there scrapping, trying to find answers for ourselves. So I made my decision at that point not to go to divinity school, not to become a woman of the cloth, but to set out into theater as my ministry, which I did. And, you know, you marry and have children, and I divorced fairly early on in my marriage and I was a single mother. And as many single mothers find out it’s difficult to keep certain parts of your life going because you’re just keeping the children’s lives going. So, in terms of church going, or finding a minister, or whatever, a lot of it went by the wayside for my children simply because I was helping them get to school, and get home from school, and putting meals on the table, etcetera. And while I was hoping that I was imbuing them with certain values that I had, I look back on it and I think, “I wish I had been able to ground them in a particular spiritual practice while I was raising them.” And years went by, they grew up, and I entered into a new marriage, and I was in my mid-forties. And at that time you’re in the middle of your life, and a marriage in the middle of your life is very different. You’re not about to build empires together, create careers, and buy land, and, you know, proliferate the race, propagate the race I think is a better word for it. You’re going to be involved in renunciation with each other, you’re going to be giving up the big house, and you’re going to be letting the children go, and you’re going to be moving towards your death together. And my husband, Rick Blue, and I were very aware of that as we were getting married and we kept looking for someone to marry us with whom we had a deep spiritual relationship. And we realized that, in fact, we didn’t have that deep of a relationship with anyone spiritually and the fact that that was a big missing in our lives. And as we got a little further in our marriage there were some things that happened that were very, very difficult for us, one of which was a legal situation that we were in. And we realized, as we were going through it, that we didn’t need legal answers to this problem; we needed spiritual answers; we needed ethical answers to this problem. And one night we were at a meeting for Tibet and there were lamas there, and I looked around the room and I thought, you know, “There are people in this room far more enlightened than I am. I’m going to ask one of them if they know anyone who could help us.” And I did. And I went up to, I believe it’s Howard Cutler who wrote The Art of Happiness with the Dalai Lama, and he said, “There’s someone at the table, actually, who might be able to help you.” And this was a man named Lapsong Rapke, who had been a monk and had been an assistant to the Dalai Lama and now works running the neuro-psych department at UCLA. And I went to see Lapsong Rapke and so did Rick and over the next few months we began to talk to him about what we felt our spiritual needs were. And he suggested, at a certain point, that we go see, the man who was then referred to as Professor Brian Smith, who now is Lama Marut, and we started to study Diamond Cutter Sutra with him. We took one of our first ACI courses from him. And the minute that I sat in a class of his I knew there was something very special about Tibetan Buddhism and about that teaching. I felt it was sophisticated, it was challenging, it was full of heart.
JR: Could you explain briefly the Diamond Cutter Sutra?
LC: Well, I think, for me, at that time, the biggest idea that I was learning about was this idea called emptiness in Tibetan Buddhism. That things don’t exist the way we think they do, they don’t exist in a fixed way, and the way you need to be operating in the world is not trying to shove things around, but to change your mind…to change your mind. And one of the things that had driven me into pursuing the study of spirituality was the fact that I felt I couldn’t forgive. I’ve had enough suffering in my life, but I felt that I couldn’t forgive. And I was trying to forgive. But I thought that to forgive meant either I was going to condone behavior in someone else that I wouldn’t condone in myself or I was going to have to extract a pound of flesh, I was going to have to become someone entirely different magically in order to accomplish this. And the more I attempted to forgive the more it backfired because I was basically just suppressing the fact that I couldn’t forgive. And when I heard this idea of emptiness, that things don’t exist in a fixed way, and that we can take responsibility for the world that we see, that we create what they call karma through our actions, that our actions have consequences and therefore our actions force us to perceive the world in the way we do. For me, that was a liberating idea, tough as it is sometimes to accept. We’d rather live in a system of blame; it’s easier. It offered me movement, it offered me a way out, a place to go, and I was ready for it.
JR: Question for you. You speak of having had an ambition to go to divinity school, of the theater being your…what was the phrase you used?
LS: Pulpit. Ministry.
JR: Ministry. Were you steeped in Christian dogma? I don’t mean that word in a pejorative way, but just…
LC: No, no, well I was a Christian definitely. My father had been a very devout Christian, but it was very interesting, his practice. He was on his knees every morning with the door shut reading the bible and praying. By the time he died in his 70’s, he had read the bible three, four and a-half-times. He discovered the bible in the middle of his life in a drawer in a hotel when he was very depressed, a Gideon bible, but he never proselytized about Christianity; he walked his talk. He died when I was sixteen and I really got to know my father through other people coming up to me saying, “ I want to tell you a story about your father. Do you know what he did?” And I began to realize that he had been a transparent Christian, that he had really walked his talk in his life. And that lesson stayed with me very deeply. My mother, also, was a Christian and was a churchgoer and had a firm moral fiber, is the only way I know how to put it. My mother would be the person, if I would want to waffle about something and say, “Oh, you know, I know I accepted this invitation but I don’t really want to go” she’d be the one to say, “No. You accepted the invitation, and you’re going because it’s the right thing to do.” So my mother, after my father was gone, held the line for me that way, in terms of morality; principles of living. And I felt I was well grounded in that sense. But I had a lot of problems with the way that…with the dogmatic aspects of the church. I felt…I felt that I wanted more actual teaching and less preaching. I wanted to understand things deeply, I wanted, what I eventually got in Tibetan Buddhism, a lama; I wanted a shepherd. I wanted someone who would stick it through with me, but whom I could ask questions, who would be a constant presence in my life, and who would help me to become all I could be on that score. So when I entered into a relationship with Lama Marut, continuing to study and eventually taking vows from him and then initiations into higher teachings, I found that there was someone there. He said to me when I was taking my vows, he said, “I’m going to tell you something. These are more important than your wedding vows. These are more important because this is an agreement between you and God,” not meaning that he was God, but meaning that these vows…I was in peril of my soul breaking them. Right? If I broke my wedding vows I’d get divorced, if I broke these I was in peril of my soul. And I took it to heart what he said…I took it to heart. It’s interesting because you were asking me earlier, you know, was there a moment when I realized, you know, this is working…this is working? And I’m hard pressed to think of a moment when I thought, “This is working.” What I did feel though, continuing to study and asking questions in study, was that there were answers to my questions. I was given answers to my questions, answers that made sense. And that as I was continuing to study and practice, I was becoming happier and that I was gaining a kind of quiet confidence, is the only way I know how to put it, and I’ve often taught this, that I think that the stories that we hear of the Road to Damascus and Saul on the Road to Damascus and light coming down from the heavens and this huge conversion, of course conversions like this can happen, but I think the bed is laid for them with this kind of quiet confidence that makes you then available to that happening. And that’s what I felt was building, a kind of confidence, so that when there came to be a moment, I felt, a real tragic event in my life and I had to make a decision, I happened to be with my lama, he was staying at our house, and there was an evening and we were eating together and he and I were just by ourselves in the dining room and he said to me, “You know, there is a Buddhist principle that would govern this situation…would be appropriate in this situation.” And he named it to me and I turned to him and I said, “These are the biggest stakes that I would ever play for” and he said, “Yes. The biggest.” And I played the hand that way and I have never, ever regretted it and I felt that I had the courage to do so, to really step forward based on great trust that what he was telling me was true, that I could just, literally, go into freefall and trust. And I felt that at that moment I was really on a spiritual path come hell or high water. You know, they say often when you take vows that you take them… you know, some of the vows say, you know, “May I keep this at the risk of my life”? And when you take a vow you kind of tremble and think, “My God I hope I’ll never be in that situation”. But that’s really the essence of a vow…that’s the essence of a vow, is that it’s bigger than your life; the spiritual practice is bigger than your life.
JR: One of the things that Buddhism talks about - it’s almost a contradiction to ask the question this way - is experience. That this is an experiential path. No one’s being asked to take something on faith because it’s in a book or…I mean yes, there are certain things we learn, for instance Buddhist logic says that at a certain point your valid perception are based on an authority that you trust saying, “this is”, such as the direct perception of emptiness, and all you can have is a conceptual idea, until you have the experience yourself. But what you just described, whatever that principle was that Lama Marut gave you at that time, which meant you jumping off a cliff with something that was obviously very critical to you, it would seem that at that moment you had [already]had your own experience that told you that this was correct; that this was something you could trust. Is that true?
LC: Yes, that’s absolutely true. But I think that those experiences came incrementally. When we were studying with Lama Marut, you know, he was Professor Brian Smith because he wasn’t in robes, you know, we weren’t bowing before him, et cetera. You know, he was just Professor Brian Smith and we gave him a run for his money, we sure did. And it was a bright group of people and we’d go, “Wait a minute Brian, what are you…what?!… that’s not true!” you know just like that. (Laughs) I think of it now, I think, “I hope my students never treat me that way. I’d be terrified”. But we did, we challenged him, we wrestled with him, we wrestled with the ideas he was teaching us. And it was very useful, we were very fortunate to go through that with him because we were never required to take something on faith. It wasn’t dogma…it wasn’t dogma. Shakyamuni Buddha said, you know, don’t come around like that. I don’t want groupies. Think, you know, try this out. See if it works. Think. Think for yourselves. Don’t repress, you know, don’t suppress. That was my problem with forgiveness. I needed to say to somebody, “What are you talking about, forgive? What is that? Tell me, okay. Well I tried this, it didn’t work. Why didn’t that work?” You know, I needed to just grapple with somebody who was going to take it seriously. And I think that all those little moments added up all those small experiences of what was probably the truth…and then as I did try it out, it’s not so much that life began to just suddenly unfold as this wonderful place, there were plenty of challenges and some of them were bigger and bigger, but I felt confident that I had a way to go; I had something to hold onto. You know, they say that the, you know, that when you take refuge in the dharma, the dharma is, you know, is something that holds. It’s something that you can stand up on, that’s firm under your feet. And that, I think that’s what I’m describing as that kind of confidence. I felt there was something firm. There was a lot in common with Christianity…a lot in common. So a lot of the ideas were things that I had certainly heard of before. But Tibetan Buddhism allowed me to know how to put it into play, how to get it out of the bible and into my life as a workable thing …as a workable thing.
JR: You’ve used the phrase Tibetan Buddhism a few times, as opposed to Buddhism. How would you differentiate? I mean is there a way that you could in a nutshell say, “this is what’s different”?
LC: Right. Well, for instance, my study has been Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelupka lineage, the Madhyamaka Prasangika School, okay? So that embodies certain ideas. There are other schools of Buddhism that have other ideas. They don’t disagree in the central ideas, but there are different levels of Buddhist study. I don’t know Chinese Buddhism, I don’t know Zen Buddhism, so this is what I know and I don’t know what the differences really are in terms of those other forms of Buddhism.
JR: Do you think the Bodhisattva Path that Je Tsongkapa put so much emphasis on, The Step On The Path to Buddhahood. is unique to Tibetan Buddhism? The idea that you can’t really become fully enlightened unless you are doing it for the sake of others?
LC: No. I mean, this is what Christ said…this is what Christ said. And I don’t know enough about Islam and I don’t know enough about Hinduism, et cetera, to be able to speak for them…
JR: Or Judaism.
LC: Or Judaism. But, I mean, I sure know there’s plenty of talk about mitzvas in Buddhism. I mean, I think in every major religion there are certain common threads and one is certainly that you think of another before yourself: “Do unto others as…” sometimes it’s referred to on its flip side in Judaism, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you”. Same thing…same thing. You know, the top ten, you know, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit sexual misconduct, et cetera, et cetera, don’t kill, are very similar. Buddhism doesn’t posit, it’s not a theistic religion, it doesn’t posit a God in the way that Christianity and Judaism do, but it posits mind as God…mind as God. So you could debate someone as to whether it is a philosophy or a religion.
Wouldn’t any religion be a philosophy? Yeah, sure, but not every philosophy is a religion I think you could say. I have never …I’ve never felt, in taking Buddhist vows, that I had reneged on being a Christian. I never had any problem with that. I felt, you know, when Buddhism says: look, if there is an enlightened being, why wouldn’t the enlightened being be intelligent enough to show up as many things, you know? To serve all people’s needs? Then Christ becomes a great Bodhisattva, you know? And I find that sophisticated in itself. I think a religion ought to be ecumenical. I can’t understand why, worshipping an enlightened being, you would be prejudiced against other people’s beliefs, I don’t understand how you would come to that, you know.
JR: Okay, let’s just go back to this idea of the theater as a ministry. Because that was another question I was interested in. I’ve heard you teach both dharma as drama and drama as dharma. I suppose that’s one way to put it…one set of teachings to dharma students and one set of teachings to your drama students. Clearly one has informed the other for a long time. Can you elaborate on that?
LC: Yeah. In my own experience in teaching, what I began to see more and more is that acting is a giving profession. I mean I witnessed in my own life and in many actors lives, I don’t think there are many professions where people work for nothing happily, gladly, again and again throughout their lives, no matter what kind of stature they gain; they’re again and again working for nothing. They’re showing up in little hole-in-the-wall theaters and giving performances and working with small groups and et cetera…I began to realize there was a kind of communion that an actor gets paid in. And that really what an actor is doing, an actor is not just a storyteller, an actor is creating an event in the heart of another person; they’re raising someone’s consciousness. They’re literally kind of operating, razor-like, on an audience; delivering certain ideas in the form of a myth. And a myth strikes at the heart, it’s not an intellectual affair. Something where you stand up and you go, “Never again am I…” or, “Right now, from this moment on, I am going to be…” or, “I am going to do…” Anyone who has been in the presence of a great actor or seen great theater or has been part of making great theater knows that when people walk out the door they are not the same. They are not the same. And everyone, when it happens, knows it. People will often speak of a performance in very sacred terms, and it’s always been my understanding if I ask someone about a performance and they can describe the actor and all his skills, it’s not a great performance, and if they don’t know what to say, it is. You know, this is…this is a similar idea that in certain religions you cannot pronounce the name of God, that there are no words for it. It’s that kind of experience that happens in the theater. And I’ve felt that in our generation, you know, it’s a workaholic world, people may not be able to get to church on Sunday, but they’re going to the movies and they’re turning on the TV and they’re going to the theater, and that there would be a better chance to communicate to more people in more forms with more sacred messages by working in the theater.
JR: Is there anything else that you, personally, would like to say that, perhaps, you think we should include?
LC: Well, I guess the more that I am involved in a spiritual path, the more I would say to anyone that it’s a good idea…that it’s a really good idea. The world is a very, very complicated place now. It’s not that it hasn’t been complicated before, but a lot more of it is coming at us at a much faster and harder rate…that it’s hard for us to get out from under things that the world teaches you, which is, like, to look out for number one. It’s harder for us to get out from under that. We don’t have reflective time. We don’t. We’re not allowed it. So to find a teacher and to be able to get some help so that you can get a hold of your life, so that at the end of your life, God willing, if your conscious, you can die happy…you can die happy saying, “ I did my best. I did the important things. I made other people happy. I’m glad I lived. This was worth it…this was worthwhile.” Yeah, that’s what I would recommend.