Interview with Nina van Gorkom
by Robert Kirkpatrick
Nina van Gorkom was born in 1928 to a family of socialist intellectuals. Her father was a member of the Dutch parliament. She studied at Leyden University and during this time she became a catholic. In 1952, she married Lodewijk van Gorkom, a Dutch diplomat.
In 1965, Lodewijk was posted to Thailand and Nina started learning Thai language. She took a keen interest in Buddhism, attending classes for foreigners at Wat Mahathat. There she met, in the summer of 1966, Sujin Boriharnwanaket. Impressed by the profundity of the Buddhist teachings, she became convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s words and later assisted Khun Sujin in discussions about Buddhism for Thai radio stations. These talks were later published as Buddhism in Daily Life, her first book.
Nina and Lodewijk left Thailand in 1970 and lived in Japan, New York, Indonesia (where Lodewijk was the Dutch ambassador) and Austria. Lodewijk retired in 1990 and they now live in The Hague in Holland.
Nina’s writings are well-known amongst English speaking Buddhists, and she is highly respected in Thailand where several of her books have been translated into Thai language with (after many reprints) over one hundred thousand copies now. Her books have also been translated in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Nepal and Germany.
What started your interest in Buddhism?
When I came to Thailand, I was impressed with the kindness and graciousness of Thai people. I wanted to understand their culture. Once I began to study Buddhism, I wanted to apply it to my life rather than just learn it as a philosophy. After I met Sujin Boriharnwanaket I was able to ask any number of questions. I just kept coming and asking. Her answers always related to nama and rupa (mind and matter), to the realities that we experience every moment in daily life.
How did studying Buddhism affect your life as a catholic?
Khun Sujin told me to continue going to church. She said that by studying nama and rupa I would come to see what was most helpful in life. After a while I just stopped going to the church and spent all my time in Buddhist activities.
What attracted you about Khun Sujin?
She explained so clearly the realities that arise at the different doorways. She always reminds us “what about this moment now, what appears?” What is the aim of vipassana: to get something for ourselves? The aim is detachment from the self, from the beginning. Khun Sujin helps us to notice the subtle clinging to self. Even now, Lodewijk and I go regularly go to Thailand, to meet with Khun Sujin and other teachers, to discuss aspects of mind and matter. In October we are meeting Khun Sujin and other friends, in India, for Dhamma discussions.
When you write about the development of vipassana, you don’t speak about concentration methods or sitting practice.
Vipassana, insight, is actually panna (wisdom) which has been developed to clearly understand realities as they are, as non-self. It is not some special practice, it is not sitting or breathing. If one wishes to induce calm by sitting one still wants to get something. There is subtle clinging which can pass unnoticed. The aim of vipassana is to have less ignorance of realities, including our defilements, even subtle ones. Therefore it can and should be developed in daily life; any object can be an object for mindfulness and understanding.
But can’t sitting quietly be an assistance for mindfulness to arise?
Even mindfulness is anatta, non-self, it cannot be induced just by concentrating or trying to be calm or by sitting quietly. The conditions for mindfulness to arise are listening to the Buddha’s teaching, discussing, considering and pondering over realities. And it develops by studying realities as they appear in our daily lives. Some people find it difficult to accept that one cannot force sati to arise, and they wonder whether this means idleness. The Buddha taught us to develop all good qualities, such as generosity and metta, along with right understanding. It is understanding, actually, that should be emphasized.
Nevertheless, the Buddha taught concentration practices such as anapanasati- breathing mindfulness. Doesn’t that suggest that they are important?
We read about this in the scriptures because in the Buddha’s time there were people who were able to concentrate on the breath. This is a very subtle rupa, which is produced by citta. It is most difficult to be aware of breath, before one knows it one takes for breath what is something else, air produced by other factors, not breath. The commentary to the Kindred sayings V, The lamp, states that only Maha-Purisas, the great disciples can practice it in the right way. Thus, the Buddha did not teach that everyone should practice it. To those who were gifted, who had the accumulations to do so, he taught it. He explained that there is no self who is breathing, and that breath is only rupa.
How should we practice vipassana?
The situation is not: that a teacher tells you first what to do, that you “practise’ together, that you do this, then that, at a certain time, in a special place. There is no rule, there is no special technique. In fact, we don’t use the words practising vipassana, but rather: developing understanding of realities little by little, and that, quite naturally, in daily life. We should see the advantage of understanding different realities, different momentary conditions, to realize that there is no "me" who is developing but that wisdom gradually develops. That this development can only happen if the right conditions are present. It can’t occur because of wanting or forcing or pretending to ourselves that “we’ are making progress. However, understanding will, gradually, grow if there are the right conditions. It is anatta, not controllable by any self.
You write exclusively within the Theravada tradition. What is your feeling about other Buddhist traditions?
Khun Sujin explanations are based on the scriptures and commentaries of the Theravada teaching. But we do not have to name it Theravada, that is just a label .We should consider whether the teaching helps us to understand whatever reality is appearing at this moment. That is the test of truth – this very moment.
28 September 1999