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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
55 SPRING 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly What do you do when you are trying to medi- tate and the neighbors upstairs are having a dance party? Or the Grateful Dead is play- ing a concert a stone’s throw from your cushion? “You get strategic and flexible,” says Ani Christine Skarda, who com- pleted her first retreat in a shared house in California’s Berke- ley Hills in 1995. When Skarda first met her teacher, the Dalai Lama, in India in 1992, he instructed her to undertake a long retreat, but he didn’t say where. Instead of looking around for the perfect retreat setup, Skarda went back to her own house. She quit her job, put a Do Not Disturb sign on her front door and a message about her extended absence on her answering machine, then arranged for a friend to deliver groceries, and closed herself in. That lasted three years. Skarda’s Berkeley retreat laid the foundation for a medita- tion career that is now entering its seventeenth year. When she shut the door of her Berkeley apartment, she left behind a career as a philosopher of mind and prestigious interna- tional positions at the Husserl Archive in Belgium and France’s École Polytechnique. Her colleagues must have thought she was dropping out. But that’s not how she saw it. Skarda had always been an intellectual boundary crosser; when the limitations of a field or a methodology came between her and truth, she leapt. In the early 1980s, Skarda was recruited for a landmark proj- ect with MIT and the University of California Berkeley that brought together experts from previously isolated fields to study intelligence. The Sloan project initiated collaboration between philosophers, linguists, computer scientists, psychol- ogists, engineers, physicists, and anthropologists and was an important milestone in the birth of what is now known as the cognitive science movement. A self-termed “bio-philosopher,” Skarda pioneered the then-unpopular position that to under- stand minds, philosophers needed to consider bodies—in par- ticular, brains. Eventually her quest to understand the nature of mind propelled her into the neuroscience lab, where she spent five years studying olfactory perception in rabbits. By the time she hung the Do Not Disturb sign on her apartment door and went into retreat, Skarda had published over a half-dozen controversial papers, together with a University of California Berkeley neurophysiologist, that challenged key philosophical assumptions underlying modern brain research. I MET SkArDA, who eventually became my teacher, in 1995 in Bodhgaya, India, a mile from the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. We were both attending a dharma teaching by an Indian disciple of the Dalai Lama, Shri Dharmakirti, a tantric meditator renowned not only for his analytic mind and elucidation of emptiness, but also for his fearsome persona. On the first day of the teaching, I was cowering in the second row when he interrupted his discourse to defer to a tall Ameri- can nun sitting in the front about a matter of philosophical terminology. Dharmakirti is thoroughly Indian; he has the blood of Sikh warriors in his veins. I had never seen him defer to anyone, especially not to a Westerner and certainly not to a woman. Who was this woman who answered him without blinking? I cornered her that evening at dinner. Skarda told me that, like Dharmakirti, she was a full-time meditator. She was introduced to Dharmakirti in India, prior to beginning her Berkeley retreat. He gave her advice on how to study and practice emptiness and how to conduct her retreat. Now two and a half years later, her Berkeley retreat nearly finished, she had returned to Dharmakirti to verify her understanding. Skarda likely imagined that Dharmakirti would quiz her in debate, but instead he drove her around in a jeep. She clung to the back seat while they hurtled through the streets of Gaya—mangy dogs flying out on their path, beggars closing in whenever they slowed, trash and dead animals lining the roadside. “THIS IS ALL PErFECT!” he yelled at her over the Linda Heuman is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Providence, Rhode island. She has been a student of Christine Skarda’s since 1995 and is the webmaster for Skarda’s online seminar. Christine Skarda at her home in Berkeley before she was ordained.