East Meets Western Canada

Gerry Kopelow
(This interview appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 27,2002)

“My mother has no idea what I do for a living”, says Achariya (Meditation Master) Doug Duncan, “I try to explain, and she says `They pay you to do this?” Swathed in the maroon robes of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Duncan is one of a veryfew Westerners engaged full-time in bringing a 2500 year old wisdom tradition to North Americans. Having spent thirty years in intensive study and contemplative practice he now travels the world – Japan, Egypt, and Equador, of late – as an itinerant teacher/monk. To his students in Japan he is known as Sensei (Teacher) Doug. He does not charge for instruction, but relies entirely on unsolicited donations to cover expenses. If no one feeds him, he does not eat.

“To most people Buddhism and meditation is a complete waste of time,” declares Duncan. This is news to the group of fourteen serious-looking people who have gathered together for a five day intensive meditation retreat at St.Benedict’s Monastery, justnorth of Winnipeg. “Then why are we here?”, one of the participants asks. “Well, it’s a lot more fun than going off to work today, isn’t it?”, he replies.

Sensei Doug’s wry, ironic humour is a purposeful foil to his clear and intense instructional talks, just what you might expect from a Regina native who has seen the world. “When I was six years old I was picked up on the highway outside of Reginaby the RCMP,” Duncan recalls. “Even at that age I was determined to get a wider view.” He has studied with famous spiritual teachers in Burma, Thailand, and Nepal, though his root (primary) teacher is the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche, one of the very first Westerners recognized as a master by the Dalai Lama.

The Rinpoche (Tibetan for `Precious One’) is a Toronto native who travelled to Burma in 1949 to learn from a Burmese master, Sayadaw U Thile Wunta. (The Sayadaw, now 94, was in Winnipeg 18 months ago to oversee the construction of the traditional Stupaat the St.Norbert Arts and Cultural Centre. Namgyal Rinpoche is expected to visit Winnipeg during the first week of October.)

Duncan says he first encountered Rinpoche in dreams and during meditation, months before they met in person in 1974. “I knew immediately this was for real. I studied with him for almost twenty years, until I was more or less fully cooked….with my own students, and my own responsibilities”. Asked what the students he meets are seeking, Duncan declares simply, “Relief”. And what does he offer them? “Method.”

Although he is fully conversant with Sufism, Kabbalah, and the Western Mysteries, he relies heavily on Buddhist philosophy and practices when working with his many North American students.

“Unlike most religions, which are fundamentally goal oriented, Buddhism is process-based,” Duncan says. “Buddhist practices, being technical in nature, are compatible with all faith-based spiritual systems.”

To some observers, contemplative undertakings such as meditation seem self involved and remote. Not so, says Sensei Doug, “The meditator is in school, and the ultimate lesson is compassion. Just as you would not pluck a ten-year-old out of the classroomand force him into a factory, we need to nurture those who study how to live and how to love.” Asked if recent horrible events in New York and the Middle East signal an escalating battle between the forces of light and dark, Duncan quickly says no:“If there is such a war, it is completely one-sided. The Universe, at its core, is absolute love, absolute compassion.”