Sitting down to talk to Buddhist teachers David Nichtern and Ethan Nichtern, one would think that the two were comrades, intellectual confidants. “I thought you were going to ask how we knew each other,” David joked, as he and his son made time to chat before heading to the Interdependence Project (IDP) to lead their current course, The Six Realms, which is about creating a template for understanding our mental and emotional experience.
Had I not known the father-son relationship, it would be easy to mistake the pair as simply good friends. Aside from the age difference, a hierarchical distinction between the Nichterns is absent. At first glance, you’d never guess the two were leading figures in the Buddhist community. Both are students of the Shambhala tradition, a tradition conceived by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that illustrates humans as fundamentally good beings who should live their spirituality 24/7. “If you make a division between your life and the world, and then your spirit, you’re going to get confused,” Ethan sums up.
Using these core tenets as the basis of their teachings, the two apply them very differently. Having studied closely with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche when he first came to the States in 1970, David is a renowned teacher, taking a more conventional approach to share the message of his mentor.
Ethan, on the other hand, is a bit more experimental. Founding the IDP in 2005, he’s spreading the same beliefs, but has updated them, using everything from podcasts and Twitter feeds to instant meet-ups to get people involved in sharing this tradition in a more modern way.
His creative thinking no doubt played a major role in Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Ethan’s teacher, and Trungpa’s son and the current leader of the Shambhala lineage) hand-picking by him to become the Shambhala shastri for New York, serving as the senior teacher of the region–one of the youngest ever to receive such a senior level title.
One would think that for a father and son to play such prominent roles in a community that dad might have had an influence in steering Ethan toward the Buddhist philosophy, but, you’d be wrong. “There were two things that I never wanted to push on him,” he says. “To go to college and to become Buddhist.”
Buddhism had always been around Ethan; he spent his early years at Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Karme Choling, the oldest Shambhala Buddist retreat center in North America, but the philosophy was never thrust upon him like so many children experience growing up in theistic homes. It wasn’t until he was in high school that Ethan made the decision to become Buddhist himself, and not so much because his parents’ identified with it. “I read a lot of books by Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, debating what was being said and I thought the philosophy was really smart,” recalls Ethan. “They were making very strong statements about the world without being dogmatic, with room to argue–not just accepting what the tradition was. I had a lot of respect for the philosophical aspect of it all.”
Argument plays a large role in the philosophy; “question everything” a powerful mantra, the philosophy encourages followers to think for themselves, not to follow or believe anything or anyone blindly. Both admit that they can get into a good dispute, but they do so to distinguish a truth. Their rapport is exemplary: They give each other the opportunity to speak and really listen to each other while debating a thought or issue, sometimes playing devil’s advocate to get the other to explain their ideas more thoroughly.
So do they ever defer to the other? “I always defer,” jokes Ethan. “I think it’s mutual,” says David. And getting to witness the two teaching The Six Realms together, the karmic-based classification of existence in Buddhist tradition, the respect they have for each other’s ideas and opinions was apparent as they deferred to one another on the characteristics of the state of mind one possesses in each realm during class.
“Ethan is one of my favorite three or four people to talk about the dharma with,” says David. “We have interesting, different approaches,” adds Ethan. “He has a really good way of teaching and thinking about the nonconceptual, that basic playful space,” the part you can’t put into words that our thoughts and story lines don’t elaborate on. “You can actually be there and take a group of people there and laugh about it.”
Ethan still looks to David for advice. “He’s really excellent at listening and intuiting situations and having insight into what’s going on, whether the situation be personal or organizational.”
Sometimes Ethan doesn’t take dad’s advice, though; “The ID Project reminds me a lot about an early Sangha that [my generation] had,” David adds. “It’s closer to that than Shambhala is because it’s more rebellious. I think the ID Project is a very interesting experiment in keeping our tradition a little closer to the street level.”
At street level after the interview, Ethan asked David: “Do you want to head the opening meditation?” “No, you can,” said David, “but maybe some contemplative meditation would be nice. On pleasure and pain?” “Sure,” Ethan responded.
Their six-week course The Six Realms meets on Mondays at 7pm at the Interdependence Project through April 4, so be sure to sign up to witness their interdependence.
– Jessica Mahler