Cultivation is about Changing Bad Situations into Better Ones

An Interview with Norbel Casas (BA’22)
May 13, 2022

Could you recall what it was like when you first arrived at DRBU?
It was definitely orientation week. There was a kind of excitement, the novelty of it. I looked forward to a new beginning. I clearly remember the sharing circle.

What do you remember about the sharing circle?
Before the sharing circle, everyone was still kind of like strangers to me. The sharing circle allowed me to see other people's worlds, and I could relate to them. Even a simple check-in is actually crucial, especially when you go into a shared inquiry class.

Did you have any experience with this kind of check-in before coming to DRBU? Why is it so important to you?
That’s a very good question. Before DRBU, I got into like three college/university settings, and there was never a human element of connection. Especially like the college or university that’s bigger. It's almost like commercialism or capitalism. I kind of always felt like I was a number in the system that people didn't really care about. I was very fortunate to find DRBU. That’s why I found the sharing circle memorable because never in my education people asked me how I was. I mean never in an academic setting.

So you think DRBU has this human element integrated into its education.

How do you feel now as a person compared to who you were almost four years ago?
People kind of asked me similar questions, especially last year, so I think this is what I would say: I feel like I've matured more. I feel the roots of goodness and virtue, as the years passed, have been even further [growing in me]. But if I were anywhere else, I don't think that would have ever been possible.

I feel like I’m a different person, open-minded. In the beginning, there was a tint of optimism and excitement about a new beginning. Where I am now... Now, everything feels like, you know, like you're in your home. For some people, usually when they are home, they are very complacent. But being at DRBU, it's kind of like being in a cooker, with some pressure, like allowing a cookie to mature until ready. Or like a metalsmith who dips an extremely heated metal material into cooling water. There is a transformation process constantly occurring.

What's your definition of maturity of a person?
At the very least, I can use two markers. One is being able to think independently and construct your own ideas and then share them with others. Being mature in terms of being in the modern society where there are all these philosophies like, postmodern thought and... I've never even heard about Nietzsche or Heidegger before DRBU. I'm not that much of a philosopher. (laugh)

So that's one marker: [You learn to] competently express your ideas to a group of people. Very coherently. It's a thought process that's grounded in a text. It's like you know what you are saying, basically, like a good train of thought.

[The other marker is] knowing not only theoretically, but also intuitively, what is the right thing to do. It might vary in different cultures, but there's always some shared thought between cultures. You kind of develop that... I think another way of saying it is like [having] an intelligent, good-knowing adviser, being able to differentiate and to determine. He knows what's right and what he needs to do. Like being ethically healthy.

In DRBU, do you have a class that you especially resonate with?
For my first three years, I kind of enjoyed all my classes, equally. But then I feel… maybe a couple of classes, not just one. When I asked several different BA students, usually, it's... Especially in my cohort, we really liked Western Classics III. Because it really connects us to the foundational ideas of Western thoughts. Probably our main motive in thinking is set in English. We have deep roots in English. That's the way we think. For instance, I wrote my strand paper on Don Quixote. And then I ended up writing my senior paper on Don Quixote. I even talked to my parents who read it when they were in high school, because they were from Mexico. It was very part of their culture.

The other class is, I'd probably say, music. I've never in my life ever had the opportunity to engage in music. It just felt very... like there was a side of the human experience I did not know, and it was interesting to be introduced to it through shared inquiry.

What have you discovered through music?
Well. I always enjoy music. One could do a close reading while listening to music. That’s something I didn't even know you could do before. It’s similar to how you do a close reading with a text. That's just like a whole new level toward music, to have a deeper appreciation. Right now, I'm taking Music II, and we're learning a couple of theories of music. One of our final projects is learning to compose music. You can use some ideas from the theories. I find it very joyful. It isn't forced. You choose your own instrument, and you can get feedback when you feel stuck.

What has this way of learning music opened up in you?
Especially composing, there's a creativity element. It's interesting because I find some similarities to writing. We got to compose a song. Usually, there is a beginning, a middle, and the end. It's kind of similar to how you write a paper. But it’s a different medium, a different kind of narrative meaning for us to express. That's something I'm still working on, but usually, like a traditional paper, you have a thesis in the beginning, for instance, and then at the end you restate your thesis. I just realized that I like the power of repetition. It speaks more when it’s repeated. Music speaks. It speaks differently to different people.

Do you find "the power of repetition" important in other areas?
I think of public speaking or our shared inquiry class. For public speaking, repetition is actually very important because when you speak, usually people forget most of what you’ve said. So you repeat some important points. It helps make the main idea sink in deeper. And for shared inquiry, I wouldn't say repeat what the person said, but restate your understanding. It also shows not only that you've listened, but you're trying to make sure you are on the same page. That helps, especially if it's a very dense text.

Could you tell us the role your daily practice plays on your path?
Yeah, it's interesting because I feel like my practice at DRBU has gradually evolved. When it comes to practice, it's very individualized. What works for one person may not work for another. For me, I have a lot of experience with Anapana, which is mindfulness of the breath, and the other is called white skeleton visualization. Anyways, I like both. I like to pair them in the same family because Shakyamuni Buddha practices deal with the body. Those have helped me develop a solid foundation.

But right now, I'm working on other practices. In my heart, I feel these are like the right practices for me at this time. Right now what I'm working on is something [that] is called "immeasurable meditation." An example of that would be like loving-kindness, for instance, or any of the four brahmavihārās. Usually, you feel mettā for yourself, for people close to you, then gradually it's everyone. The reason I really want to focus some time on that before I return... Because I usually do two practices. So right now I'm doing "mettā [practice]," and another one I'm working on is optimism / sunny disposition, you know, just being happy. It's like an inner happiness kind of thing. Because I feel that's a very precious gift. Usually like capitalism, you just have to buy happiness. You are going to suffer a lot to buy happiness. (laugh) The reason I want to focus on it is because the more you fully develop them, gradually, sooner or later, they eventually become like a personality trait of yours. That's what I'm trying to go toward.

With “immeasurable meditation,” you have to not only feel it in your body; you have to feel it in your mind, your emotional body. You feel it spiritually. It's almost like a different body, but then to actually apply it into an action. This is something I'm still working on a lot. I haven't mastered this. It's like watching your mind, your thoughts. Just kind of like policing your mind, which thoughts are wisdom and which thoughts are without wisdom. Watch them and identify them. In that space then you can decide... At the beginning, you have to exert your effort to apply some wisdom like mettā or optimism, for instance. I'm doing this because I find it very valuable. It's something that I'd long to bring, especially like in shared inquiry, but also just in my life in general.

I call it “immeasurable meditation” because the four possible ones are like brahmavihārās: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. And one for optimism. Basically, any character you want to develop, that can be a focus. It can be confidence, courage... anything that would affect your destinies.

You said you found the practice valuable. Could you say more about that?
[pause] I think the essence of cultivation is usually... I think Master Hua said what it is in one word, which is "change." If you let me say it in one sentence, it will be about being able to change bad situations into better situations. That's why I see the value in it.

When I encounter people [who] feel very tired or overwhelmed, sometimes you just lose your mindfulness. I never feel that I just cultivate for myself, but somewhat for others' wellbeing as well, even though, ultimately, we're responsible for our own wellbeing. It's more like through creating a conducive environment for people. It doesn't happen while I’m sitting. It happens in real life when I'm interacting with others, not when I'm sitting down practicing it.

So you practice not only when sitting down, but also when interacting with others.
There are two ways to get the greatest use out of the technique. One is using that as sitting meditation. But eventually, you try to assess when is the right time to practice it in interaction with others. Another time would be when you're waiting in line. It's the same principle you do in your mind, your body, emotionally and spiritually. Not only that, you also do it for your environment as well.

Could you please say more about that?
Probably the easy part is like intentionally practicing it and creating yourself, it's kind of like soaking yourself in some kind of sauce. But energetically you're doing that. I think of it this way, you know, when someone receives an organ from an organ donor, sometimes they pick up the energy of the person presenting the organ. So similarly, when you use your body with that energy, it's almost like that energy; your characters are being... even in your organs, literally your whole body. You can even say to an extent that you actually made a big change in yourself, not just in this life. Maybe you can picture future incarnations. The easy part of that is actually feeling it...the real value of it comes when you are interacting with others. You can only do that if you can access mindfulness, watching your thoughts, policing your thoughts. That comes with experience.

You practiced martial arts before coming to DRBU. Do you still do that practice?
Yeah, martial arts is a big part of my life. I mean, ideally, for myself, I like to practice at least an hour a day. And I found out that Master Hua also encouraged people, especially cultivators, to practice martial arts to stay strong and healthy.

How do you feel about the cohort system at DRBU and your current cohort?
Now that you mentioned it, I totally forgot about the traditional way that every class has a bunch of new students. I feel lucky to still have the same people in my classes. In the sense that... Especially once you get to know someone more, each person offers something to the table. I think you could call it a sense of trust that was formed. Somehow, the conversations or discussions can go deeper and maybe even more personal. I feel that wouldn't be possible if every class had a bunch of new students who didn't even know you.

Can I say you have a lot of appreciation for your cohort?
Yeah! I think...what's the word. It's nice to say that to people every now and then because sometimes you forget. (laugh)

Could you share with us a bit about your life before DRBU?
I think before DRBU, I feel like I took life too seriously. I don't think about it too often about what my life was like before. Life just felt difficult, and the opportunities in life just felt very limited. I think what I was kind of looking for was to be treated with a sense of equality. In a sense, I think education [was what I needed] to realize that [equality]. Because I worked before coming to DRBU. For some reason, I just felt like a number in the system. There were no check-ins. (laugh) That encouraged me to find something else. I guess I was looking for something meaningful. At that time, I don't think I found it exactly. I didn't know what it was.

So what brought you to DRBU? What happened?
The story I'm going to tell you is the connecting-the-dots story. So once I decided to continue with my education, I was looking at two schools in California. And then I was having interviews with one university, then another one. But during that time period, I was reading the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. (big smile)

Most people, when I tell them the story, ask me how I found out about the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. Maybe like a year or two before DRBU, I was very interested in meditation, primarily because I was also very interested in martial arts, and I just found out there was a synergy with them that I didn't know was there before. I had been meditating on my own for a bit. However, my qigong teacher said you need to find someone to teach you because you might hurt yourself. I said okay. And I found one in the mountains.

I made sure I learned from him. After learning from him, I felt like I was still missing something. And then I found this book. It's called Spiritual Paths and Their Meditation Techniques. And the book basically explains all the world’s spiritual traditions, the legends, all the meditation techniques, and it's kind of like... I don't have the word that's universalized, but just like that each culture has a different language but somehow actually pointing to the same thing. And I just found that very... The approach I was thinking of was very non-dogmatic. And usually I'm used to dogmatism [given] where I am from. So it was very interesting. The author said, if you walk on the spiritual path, no matter which way, which religion, or which path you take, he recommended the Śūraṅgama Sūtra and the Perfect Enlightenment Sutra. I started with the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, and I did not know what I had got myself into. It took me a lot to get started, but once I started reading it, my whole world just turned upside down. Especially when I got to [the part] Ananda talking to the Buddha. [The Buddha said], “Your thinking consciousness is not your mind.” Since I closely identified with my thinking mind at that time, after reading that, everything was kind of spinning. (laugh) Then I read Master Hua. He explains what they're saying. [I thought,] why didn't they just say that? Why did they have to speak so eloquently that I could not understand what they really meant? Then I thought, “Wait a second, who is this Master Hua? He sounds like he knows what he was talking about.” The Śūraṅgama Sūtra had his biography at the end of the book. Who is this person? Then I started reading about him. I was very surprised by the kind of person he was, how much he had accomplished, how much resolve he had, and then when I was reading it, I was like, “Wait, he is [related to] DRBA, that's in San Francisco. That's in California! I'm in California!” Then I started from there. What is this DRBA about? Oh, it is an association. Okay. Oh wait, then I found out about DRBU through DRBA. And I was already looking for a school at the time, and then here I am! (smile)

Wow, amazing story! That's affinity. It is magical.

In DRBU, you also studied the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. How did you feel about it?
Our cohort may be the first BA cohort that read the entire sutra in class! I just felt that it was a great opportunity. I know, by myself, I would not be able to penetrate it. The way I would describe it...It's like you're going on an expedition. A group of people go together. People are able to find more treasures, explore more, and go deeper into the jungle. You could run into trouble with wildlife if you were by yourself or misinterpret what a text actually means.

I happened to know that you've memorized the whole Śūraṅgama Mantra. Could you share with us a bit more on that?
I was here because of the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. In my first year, I was like, that's it. I just thought that was the right thing to do—memorizing the whole Śūraṅgama Mantra. I think I need to be very humble and explain what it actually helped.

During the summer after my first year, I memorized like 400 lines. And then the school started, and I just kept learning a little bit more until I memorized the entire mantra. But then for one class, I kind of burned out. But still, with the help from Tomas, [who is in my cohort,] I learned how to recite it by listening. So it's like a typical memorization. This winter break I went to a three-week hybrid chan retreat in Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. I talked to Jin Chuan Shi about my experience. He said it's great that I can recite it by listening, but he still encourages me to memorize it by heart. So it feels like I re-started again even though... Basically, I'm relearning it from the heart this semester. So no matter where I am in the world, or no matter what crisis is occurring, I can always call out to and tap into this mantra.

How do you use the Mantra in your daily practice?
In the mornings, I usually do my own morning ceremony [which includes the Śūraṅgama Mantra]. Usually, I follow along with a recording. It just feels very natural like falling water, just by listening. Then in the evenings, I try to just recite from the heart. For some people it may feel like a practice, but for me, it just feels ordinary every day.

Usually, what is your schedule like in the morning?
Usually, I wake up before seven, at five or six. After getting ready, I do my own morning ceremony. Then after that, either I would do martial arts, or I would do some yoga, or meditation, and then some qigong. Whenever I do all those things, that always makes my day. It sets the tone of the day very well.

What's your ethnic heritage? Could you share anything about your family?
On the surveys, I usually put Hispanic/Latino. Sometimes it might ask for something even more specific, I usually put Mexican American because it has that category. That's what I am. Both my parents were born and raised in Mexico, but I was born in America.

Do you have any siblings?
I have two younger siblings. One is my brother who is a sophomore in high school. And my sister. She's about four years younger than me. She's already graduated from UC Berkeley. She is working in education right now. I believe she graduated in ethnic studies. She was very interested in our family's cultural heritage, the history, what happened to our people because of their ethnicity, and seeing some injustices. It seems like a whole different topic or worldview. It's like anthropology that understands people's cultural heritage, but also their culture, their genetic disposition, their class, and all that. There are so many layers.

Do you exchange ideas with your sister often?
I try to talk to her at least once a week. I feel like I have this strong bond with my sister and also my brother. To them, I'm their bigger brother who is supposed to be the most mature. (laugh) Because I'm their older brother and then came to DRBU, I feel that's also part of the reason why I kind of like... I almost want to call it the motivation to mature, but at the same time, like in a family, usually the oldest sibling has that kind of maturity.

I'm gonna make a quick comment. So like my sister, sometimes I share with her my papers from DRBU, so she understands. Because it feels like we're worlds apart. She has studied at UC Berkeley, and I came to DRBU. Whenever I talk to her about what I learned at DRBU, she's like, fascinated, especially when I talk about virtue, which is not taught or discussed very regularly at UC Berkeley.

What do you intend to do after graduating from DRBU?
After DRBU, I'm planning to teach in Lake County, so that's pretty close by. DRBU is in Mendocino County, Lake County is like the next door neighbor. All I know is that they're in need of teachers, and I am interested in teaching. For some reason, I'm interested in helping someone, in this case, students. Not only to educate them, but to help them draw closer to their potential. In this case, setting some kind of means for them in life for them to draw out their potential.

Last question: what are you grateful for in life?
Interesting that you asked that question. That's usually something I reflect on almost daily, especially in my qigong practice. Working with gratitude has a purifying effect, not only on your qi, but on your body and mind. So what am I grateful for? Usually, I start with something small. Maybe like "Oh, I'm grateful for black tea!" After that, usually... If you tell me to write it down, usually it's a long list of things I am grateful for.

I can just tell you about the list. For me, it's very individualized. Usually when I do it, I place a prayer palm position with my palms facing each other placed in front of my heart, or whatever it is comfortable. I usually do it through qigong. During that time, usually my mind is more relaxed, and somehow the gratitude seeps in deeper and is more effective. Maybe something like, I'm grateful for tea, grateful for having shared dinner with people in the past, for dinners I will have in the future with people, Sifu Anthony (Qigong teacher), qigong, yoga, meditation, martial arts, ceremonies, triple jewel, the Holy Trinity... DRBU, Sudhana Center, DRBU students, faculty and staff, writing tutors, Candie, Donna, Joan, Master Hua, The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, teachers who have helped me before to where I've arrived today, I'm grateful for all my books and resources. And I'm grateful for my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my pets, my grandparents, my relatives, my ancestry, my friends and... I'm grateful for this air, shelter, and food on the table. Usually when I do that, (pause) when I think of that, for some reason, I just feel happier, a kind of contentment. I don't know if you have some kind of situation on your day when you... my qigong teacher says the practice of gratitude, at least through the way I do it, it also strengthens your immune system a bit.

Thank you. That's wonderful. I feel grateful to hear your long list of what you are grateful for.