Is the next Buddha the Community? Interview with Maurizio and Zaya Benazzo
According to the founders, “the Science and Nonduality Conference was created to provide an arena where various aspects of nonduality can be explored, discussed, and experienced. Part seminar, part festival, part conference, this event also explores science and combines meditation, philosophy, art, music, dance, and entheogens to point the way to nondual experience, to aid in integrating nonduality into daily life, and to deepen the understanding of a fundamental nondual reality.
The conference opens up these experiences for further exploration. It places each attendee face-to-face with each other and with individuals living from the life-spanning varieties of non-dual expression.
This gathering is also a celebration of the bottom-line truth of our existence: that in our distinct and individualistic arisings and turnings, we are truly not limited, bound, or separate.”
Who are the conference founders?
When Zaya and Maurizio met in 2008, it immediately became clear that they could make a lot of noise together in this illusory world! They discovered that the only book they had both been reading for the past several years was “I Am That” by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Almost immediately, they went to India together to shoot The Legacy of Nisargadatta Maharaj. The rest, as they say, is history…
Maurizio was brought up in Italy and went through many incarnations, always looking for answers under every stone. In 1986, he came to the USA on a 98 year-old sailing boat. He started working as an actor, model, and then filmmaker, but his thirst for knowledge was never satisfied, until he encountered I Am That in 2001 while shooting the documentary “Short Cut to Nirvana” in India.
Zaya hails from Bulgaria and has degrees in Engineering, Environmental Science, and also Film. For many years, she worked as an environmental activist in Holland and Bulgaria. She later produced and directed several award-winning documentaries in Europe and the United States. Her life long passion for science and mysticism finally came together with the emergence of the conference.
The team known as Maurizio and Zaya Benazzo are truly inseparable!
I sent over some interview questions and they proceeded to knock them out “tag-team” style. Let me explain: First Zaya answered [while M was driving!] and then they switched and Maurizio answered [while Z was behind the wheel]. They were read aloud once more and the finishing touches were added and sent. I thought that was adorable! Enjoy the interview.
Matthew: Congratulations on starting one of the most interesting conferences of the last decade! SAND is one of the few public events that make it possible for non-dual thought to emerge. It’s a great coming together of teachers, scientists, authors, musicians etc. I think such a “meeting of the minds” helps to facilitate in-depth discussion, fresh material and a genuine [in-person] way for folks to network in the community.
What’s your take please?
Yes, this year the feeling of community was palpable. Walking in the hallways you could feel the invigorating energy that only a like-minded, creative, mature community can spark. The combination of scientists, teachers from all traditions, philosophers and artists created an explosive mix that is still reflected in the feedback we are still receiving. “The next Buddha is the community” became the mantra of the gathering this year.
What would you say sparked your first interest in the connection between Science and Nonduality?
Both of us have always been interested in science and mysticism and for us somehow they were never separate. When we first met we went to India to film a movie about Nisargadatta Maharaj and one of the translators told us that Nisargadatta used to say: “…this is a scientific knowledge. One day scientists will come to understand all this very easily. It is scientific…” A few months after we found ourselves organizing this event. But, this is just another story! We do what we do and that is what it is.
Do you believe it is necessary to convince scientists of the non-dual nature of reality and vice versa?
We don’t believe that it is necessary to convince anybody about anything. We see our work more as a reflection of what “is” rather then having a mission or a goal to meet. The beauty is that many scientists do know and touch through their work the essential nondual nature of reality but most likely will not use the language the nondual teachers will use to describe it.
Do you believe it is important to help “nondualists” pay more attention to scientific theory?
Science today can tell us quite accurately about the body mechanisms from which the mind and the ego emerge, so, in a way, it becomes easier to understand things mystics have said for centuries like: “the ego is an illusion”.
Today you no longer have to believe the mystics blindly as you can also study the mechanisms through which this illusion manifests.
For example, teachers from all traditions have said: “you are not the doer.” Now mainstream neuroscience proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the sense of “I” comes later, after our actions have been performed. And up to six seconds later!
It would be interesting to know, which events were typically drawing greater numbers of participants – sessions with the prominent scientists and or spiritual leaders?
We asked that question in the evaluation form this year and to our surprise we discovered that the community has an interest in both aspects of the conference and they enjoy the balance.
What might a match between nonduality and science look like or does there need to be a match?
There is no need for a match.
We simply offer different fingers pointing to the same moon. Science can help us understand [more deeply] the wisdom teachings and vice versa. There is no “absolute” truth out there. Neither science nor spirituality can give us “final, absolute” answers.
At SAND, we simply invite our audience to experience thing by themselves and take nothing for granted. There is no absolute truth out there… There is only what is and how you perceive it is your point of view of it, your personal truth.
I applaud you guys for inviting more exploration of entheogenic studies as there are a lot of misconceptions about their usage. They can be a portal or “opening” in Consciousness [albeit temporary] and or successfully used to treat some patients with responsible administering etc. What’s your view on this?
Entheogens are another portal, a large [for some] finger-pointing to the moon, it’s very potent and direct portal that many have had the opportunity to explore at some point in their path of discovery of what is. These “substances” allow us to perceive our reality in a slightly different way opening the space for questions and deep insights.
That is why we have created a partnership with MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). MAPS organize a session every year on entheogens as portals to non-dual awareness. Next year we will have even more sessions designed to inform and discuss this topic along with more dialogues about social justice and ecology.
It appears you are growing rapidly. Did you expect such a great turnout—so fast? Now in its third year, what are your future goals for the conference?
We didn’t expect such a fast growth. We thought this was a very niche, extravagant, subject in which not many will be interested—but clearly there is a deep longing and need for this conversation. Again, we don’t have “goals.” We believe the moment we create goals it is easy to get disconnected from what is in front of us needing to be expressed. What we do is listen to our community, encourage feedback and suggestions while, we share what touches and inspires us personally.
And more and more communities around the world are requesting to bring the conference on the road.
The event is also attracting folks from all over the world, what do you attribute that too? Flying halfway around the world for a single conference is an amazing testament!
Yes the audience is not local as we expected it to be at the beginning. This year we had people from twenty-one different countries and thirty-five states in the US. Evidentially “this understanding” spreads all over the globe regardless of boundaries and socioeconomics. It’s a movement trickling from every corner of the globe. The next Buddha is the community!
I’ve heard you might be taking the conference to Europe next year, is that true and what are your expectations for that locale. How do you think the European mindset differs on such material and speakers vs. the U.S.?
Yes, we will have the first SAND European conference in Holland May 31st-June 2nd, 2012. Since both Zaya and I were born in Europe and choose to move to the USA to work it is quite tingling to get back in there with a project.
We have a local organization helping us with the logistics and they are giving us a lot of advice and our European SAND community is already quite large (due to social media channels and the many Europeans that came to SAND already). It’s going to be a lot of fun! We are exploring a new format and most likely we’ll have less speakers and longer sessions. The goal, as in California, will be to involve the audience and reduce the separation between speakers and audience. Again: “The next Buddha is the community”.
You’ve always put out a very attractive 3-DVD set for purchase. I’ve enjoyed the mini interviews and questions you ask some of the key speakers at each event. This is a great way to experience the depth of the speaker(s). Kudos on that! How did that come about?
We are both filmmakers and before we started the conference we were already creating media, film, DVD’s, etc. on topics related to the conference, so creating a DVD series was a natural evolution of what we do. But this project is also pointing at the evolution of the event; the interviews become a way to document the evolution of the conference.
The interviews are made primarily by Zaya together with our good friend Nick Day and the two of them are an awesome production team.
I noticed for this year’s event, you added a streaming video option for folks who could not attend and or perhaps in another country. Tell us about the ForaTV service.
All the sessions from the conference are available now on ForaTV. We were looking for a way to make the conference available to everyone who couldn’t afford to travel. They’re a great channel and allow many people to be with us without traveling half way across the globe.
But, [if we wish to be picky], the issue with ForaTV is that it is not free and it is becoming clear to us that this material, this knowledge, belong to the community and it should be available for free. Next year we will have a different arrangement and we have some great ideas about our internet presence that will be unveiled very soon!
I have to ask, it seems folks are buzzing about the commercialization of nonduality and or the “spiritual marketplace” as some call it. What are your thoughts on this subject?
Does anyone complain about people charging money to design, promote or sell solar panels or items that will reduce our carbon footprint? I don’t think so.
It is great to see professional people devoting their time and energy in creating “dreams” designed to make the world a better place instead of thinking about money as a motivator.
To us the only factor is where your motivations are. We don’t see what we do as a commercial product. It is a sincere labor of love which financially doesn’t make sense at all. We have no financial partners, foundations or universities behind us. As long as there is an inspiration and energy we probably will keep doing it.
Is there a way to promote responsibly?
Surely there is a way to promote responsibly and the line is drawn by your motivation! We do very little promotion because we don’t have the resources to do more and in any case we see our community growing more from word-of-mouth which is way better than advertising.
We can only do what we can and look at what happens next.
I read some of the feedback on your blog from the first event (that took place back in 2009). This a summary of what the participants requested:
- less speakers
- longer talks
- more integration between talks and experiential
- a science closer to our day-to-day experience
- and better coffee…
Were you able to meet the challenge and offer that in 2010 and how about 2011? At least for better coffee? Haha!
Since the first year we have 30% less speakers, “only” one hundred and twenty or so.
We shortened the talks and the integration is slowly happening but it is not as complete as we would want it to be. We definitely got better coffee…we seem to have solved that issue at least!
There are so many little issues that are solved every year.
Don’t forget we are not conference organizers and volunteers mostly run the event. By-the-way, our volunteers need a huge thank you for their hard work and commitment! They are an amazing group of committed people.
I really appreciate being asked to moderate a panel this year on behalf of Non-Duality America. Although I could not attend, I am honored to be asked. The fact that gatherings like this exists is such a blessing for all.
Thanks again for hosting such a fun + creative experience and for your service and dedication…very inspirational!
Is there anything you would like to add?
Matt, really, without you there will be no conference. It is people like you devoting their time to “this” that are creating the foundation for such an event to materialize. And it is people like your readers [yes, I am talking about you], that are making all this happen.
Thank you both for being who you are and for doing what you do.
“THE NEXT BUDDHA IS A COMMUNITY!”
Love, Maurizio & Zaya