A conversation with Philip Glass and Fredericka Foster
Philip Glass (PG): I was talking once to Gelek Rimpoche [1938–2017] about meditation, and I asked him, “Isn’t it just paying attention?” Yes, he said, “that’s absolutely what it is.” Meditation is a nice fuzzy word that we all like to talk about—but paying attention is placing your mind and functioning in a different way.
During the few years I have practiced meditation, I have worked with a number of texts. Say I am reading texts I have read many times—I’m thinking of the first Panchen Lama’s book on guru devotion [Lama Chöpa: The Guru Puja], which is not well understood. It is not about the guru; it is about the devotion. When I decide to really pay attention, I go back in my memory and look at some of the initiations I have taken. I watch the language change from awareness to remembering. It is possible to train the mind to increase memory.
I once asked the [scholar-teacher] Demo Rinpoche how many books he had memorized, and he replied that he wasn’t doing much memorizing at all—he thought only about 19! I’m sure it is many more now, and Gelek Rimpoche had memorized a library. The Tibetan culture cultivated the idea of memorizing. The passing on of wisdom could have been very accurate, since this was their main way of sharing information. The Tibetan lamas would memorize entire books and then, looking at a particular page, include the footnotes from other books they had read to verify a particular idea or lineage in the book they were writing themselves.
Fredericka Foster (FF): And here I am, still working to memorize all the texts that I work with daily! Memorization is also a part of a visual artist’s training. When we learn to draw, we work from reality—say, at its simplest, a still life. First we draw a series of lines to establish a compositional placement on the page. Then we memorize a line, draw it, and go back to the source to check it. We keep doing that until we have trained our hand to accurately follow our eye. Another memory exercise involved going through a pile of one thousand prints in a day and then discussing what we had seen. Or we would spend hours in front of a single painting and then sketch it out later.