Individuality is a core American value. One thing that distinguishes your new book (Infinite Life) from other popular books arising from Buddhism is the way it connects the Buddhist insight about selflessness to individuality, which will strike many Western readers as extremely counterintuitive. Can you talk more about what it really means to be an individual from a Buddhist point of view?

This involves understanding individuality in two different contexts. In the metaphysical context, there is no individuality in the sense that there is no indivisible personality particle; there is nothing that isn't related. But there is a social context to individuality—individualism versus collectivism or the group mind, and there Buddhism is stronger than anything. Once you've realized that you're totally interrelated with everything, then you realize that you don't have a fixed identity. You realize that your identity is something you create and that if you don't consciously create it, it is created for you by conditioning, by mythology, whatever. If you accept the mold that you're put in, then you can't express your social individuality. That is to say, you can't do just what you could do best. The Buddha's discovery was that what you can do best is become a free being, totally awakened to the nature of reality, totally happy, totally capable of helping others become happy, and that that's a revolutionary opportunity as a human being, to evolve beyond our unconscious conditioning.

Is there any relationship between this awakened individual and our cherished images of the self-made man, the rugged individualist, the hard-working, self-sufficient success story?

Awakening comes in because when a being tries to flower to their maximum, the only way to do that is to awaken to their own reality. If there was no such thing as awakening, you might just paint a painting or jump up and down or whatever you felt like doing. But it turns out that becoming enlightened is the best and most useful thing we can do. An individual can actually become more successful when they don't clutch, when they're not attached to the fruits of what they do. They become a source of benefit to everyone.

In this book, you speak of fundamentalists who drove the planes into the [World Trade Center and Pentagon] as rigid absolutists, acting as if they are agents of the One rather than participating in their own evolution as individuals.

Yes, that's right.

So this book picks up where Inner Revolution left off in the sense that you are now asking people to consider their individual evolution.

Yes, you are absolutely right. This is trying to create a path for the individual to work themselves in relation to a more hopeful picture of the global history.

It is clearly important to you that the individual be aware of the world.

It is important to break out of what one magazine writer referred to as "plateau spirituality." We have to push beyond the one-life belief that there is immunity the moment we die from whatever we did or whatever we allowed the world to do in our name because we will not be immune to those consequences. The fact is that extending our sense of connection to the world through space and time gives our here-and-now focus much more power.

Many popular books on Buddhism seem to avoid the issue of infinite life.

This kind of Buddhism can really have no power to really help you change your life. It will help a little, but you can't really go deep because why should you? It's all going to come to nothing, so why should you push on a painful door in your unconscious or have remorse about having behaved in a bad way. You're not really going to push into that door when it all comes to the same thing whether you do or you don't.

Real change comes hard.

But small change is also change. Intellectual understanding is a change. To go and have your instincts turned inside out is very difficult, but the little ones are not to be sneezed at.

So are you trying to give aspiring Buddhists an intellectual jolt?

People are smart. They don't really want pablum. The reason some books about Buddhism seem pablumish is that the concept is still alive that enlightenment is nonintellectual or even anti-intellectual, or it's about getting your intellect out of the way so that you can just kind of get everything in a nonintellectual manner. This is absolutely not correct. Enlightenment is way beyond mere intellectual comprehension, but intellectual comprehension is the first step. Then you have to deepen that comprehension.