Nikki Mirghafori, PhD, has practiced in the Theravāda tradition since 2003, with a persistent interest in intensive retreat practice. She received authorization from her teacher, the renowned Burmese meditation master Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw, to teach jhānas and a detailed analytical method of vipassanā in 2008. She is both a Stanford-trained compassion cultivation instructor, and a UCLA-trained mindfulness facilitator. Invited by Jack Kornfield and mentored by Gil Fronsdal and Guy Armstrong, she is in the 2013-16 Spirit Rock/IMS/IMC Teacher Training. Nikki teaches and serves on the Boards of Spirit Rock and the Insight Meditation Center (IMC) in Redwood City, CA. She has straddled the worlds of Dharma and technology as an Artificial Intelligence scientist for decades.
Spirit Rock: How were you introduced to Theravāda Buddhism?
Nikki Mirghafori: About 14 years ago I was introduced to Theravāda Buddhism. I had an illness that was not properly diagnosed. So for about a year I was very ill and the doctors thought it was mono, and then when the symptoms kept going on and on, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, for which treatment options are usually limited and ineffective. I felt exhausted for a long time and towards the end of that year, I was desperate to try anything. A friend of mine who had done a couple of silent retreats told me that they were amazing, rejuvenating, and out-of-this-world experiences. I was willing to even sit in silence for a week if it helped my body recover! So my friend took me to Insight Meditation Center (IMC) [Redwood City, CA] for a couple of evenings when Gil Fronsdal was teaching. I sat with Gil at IMC and then this kind friend, to whom I have a great debt of gratitude for introducing me to the path, took me for a daylong at Spirit Rock that was basically Vipassanā 101. By the end of that day, my mind was quieter than it had ever been in my entire life. It’s as if a door, a window, had opened into a world I didn’t know existed. Soon after that I did my first ten-day retreat at Yucca Valley in 2003, with Jack [Kornfield] and company, and I was really lucky to have my first retreat be in the desert, and to have Jack as one of my interview teachers. So I was, as a complete newbie, very lucky. Very lucky. And the retreat was just amazing and again it really opened my eyes to a whole new world. So that’s how it started.
SR: Can you speak a little about your study with Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw?
NM: I studied with him at the Forest Refuge [Barre, MA] the two times that he came there. For a total of six months, I sat with him. And he is a most amazing human being and teacher, and I hold him in highest regard. I have a lot of affection for him as a teacher and a lot of mettā and devotion, even though as a scientist, I’m not a devotion-driven person. He’s an amazing human being and brilliant—very thorough in his teaching. He demands a lot from his students, and yet he is filled with so much metta that is completely palpable. He’s very inspiring and I feel so lucky for my good fortune to have been able to study with him.
He really wanted me to ordain and become a nun. Pretty much every day I would go for an interview and he would make a cutting gesture on his head and say, “You must shave; you must shave,” he would say. And then one day he didn’t do it. So before I got up, I said “Sayadaw! Sayadaw! You forgot something today! You forgot to tell me to shave my hair and become a nun.” And he burst out laughing.
SR: That’s sweet.
NM: Yes, and another story just came to mind from when I studied with him for the first time in 2008. So again, multiple times I would go to sit with him, and during the interview he would say, “You must teach Dhamma. You must teach Dhamma at the university.” At that point, I had no intention of ever teaching. Since it wasn't appropriate to say “no,” I would say, “Thank you, Sayadaw, but you know I’m a computer scientist. I’ve been trained as a computer scientist and I teach computer science at the university.” And so again, a few interviews later he would say, “You must teach.” So he’s the one who planted the seed for me to become a teacher. He really changed the direction of my life, both personally in how he taught me, and in helping insights arise that may not have arisen otherwise. This was done through his teaching, through his real caring, and mentoring. He mentored me as if his life depended upon my liberation—that’s the level of commitment he had. He had complete commitment and trust in my ability and was committed to my awakening and liberation.
He changed my life in both my personal practice and also by planting the seed of sharing the Dharma, which I never thought I would. So it’s really because of him that the wheels slowly started to churn and turn in that direction. Again, I still had no intention of ever teaching, but what happened was that a few years later, I wanted more community. I wanted to practice within community, and considered the DPP (Dedicated Practitioners Program). A friend of mine, who was very familiar with my practice at that time, said, "In terms of community, DPP will be good for you, but in terms of content, your practice is past that point. Something that might be interesting to you, especially since you’re an academic, is a new program at UCLA, the MARC [Mindful Awareness Research Center] program." And as it turned out, the UCLA program was a teacher training program with a significant teaching requirement. And hence, my teaching career in the Dharma began.
The UCLA program was great for community and provided wonderful training in sharing the Dharma in a secular context. As part of this program, I began to teach six-week mindfulness courses, and learned that I really enjoyed sharing the Dharma through teaching. And then about a year after that I went through the Stanford-CCARE [Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education] teacher training program. CCARE investigates methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society, and has developed a wonderful eight-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course.
This course draws both from Buddhist practices in Theravāda in terms of mettā and compassion cultivation practice, as well as tonglen from the Tibetan tradition. The class has a cognitive aspect of helping the students reframe and see common life situations from a compassionate perspective of common humanity, both for themselves, in order to increase and help promote self-compassion, as well as compassion for others. The circle of compassion extends from people who are dear to us, to neutral people, and finally, to difficult people—people with whom we have some strife in our lives—to also include them in our circle of compassion and care. Research has shown that compassion, both self-compassion and other-compassion, is really a great resource for resilience and dealing with stressful situations in life. It’s also important to note that we’re not trying to cultivate this high and mighty compassionate image figure that’s just out of our reach, but it's about being with real situations in our lives, and starting where we are. Just where we are.