With Swami Virato
The following is an exclusive interview from NEW FRONTIER Magazine,
November 1993 edition. For subscription or other information,
contact NEW FRONTIER Magazine, 101 Cuthbert St., Phila.,PA 19106.
NEW FRONTIER MAGAZINE is published monthly by NEW FRONTIER EDUCATION
If there were ever a stereotype of the "laughing saint," Sogyal
Rinpoche would fit it perfectly. It's not that he's a comic, it's
just that he makes you want to smile, maybe even laugh. While
living at the Rajneesh ashram in India, I remember hearing Rajneesh
telling the story of the laughing saints, and Sogyal brought back
A handsome, jolly man, Sogyal Rinpoche does not seem
saddened in any way with the topic he has chosen as his life's
work--death and dying. Perhaps it's because he sees death in a
different light. In fact, he sees death as a part of life.
[Rinpoche, pronounced rin4-po-shay, is a Tibetan word meaning
"precious teacher," and is a title/function bestowed upon a high
teacher of the Buddhist tradition. The first rinpoche, Padma
Sanbhava, introduced Buddhism to Tibet in 747 A.D.]
Sogyal Rinpoche's most recent book, The Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying (HarperSanFranciso) published this past year, has
become one of Harper's best-sellers, so when we heard he was going
on a press tour, we were delighted to learn that he would be coming
Unfortunately, the television stations and the city's major
newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, which had agreed to interview
him, canceled at the last minute. There was no reason for him to
make a 200 mile round-trip journey from New York City to
Philadelphia for New Frontier Magazine. I was amazed when we were
notified by his staff, that Sogyal Rinpoche would make the trip just
for us. He had agreed, and he would come.
Special thanks to my friend Ruth Green for the use of her
beautiful apartment high in the sky overlooking Philadelphia, where
I invited a small group of New Frontier Magazine friends to meet the
Rinpoche, as I conducted the interview.
When I arrived at Ruth Green's apartment, the rinpoche was
sitting in a lotus position on Ruth's overstuffed couch, draped in a
beautiful yellow-green silk robe. He was as down-to-earth as anyone
you'd meet at a new age party, or for that matter, any party.
Fluent in English (he studied at England's Trinity College,
in Cambridge), Sogyal Rinpoche was raised to become a lama (Buddhist
priest) from the age of six, when he was brought to live at a
monastery run by one of the most revered spiritual masters, Janyang
Khyentse Chvkyi Lodrv. With his knowledge of English, Sogyal was
called upon to be a translator for several Tibetan masters.
He began teaching in America in 1974, and returns to India
and other Himalayan countries every year, to study with spiritual
Sogyal Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of
Rigpa, which has established Buddhist meditation centers in England,
France, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Australia, as
well as many in America. Over the past decade he has shared ideas
and insights with notable leaders in the field of death and dying
including Elizabeth K|bler Ross, Raymond Moody, Stanislav Grof,
Kenneth Ring, Margot Grey and Charles Garfield.
He is sought around the world to speak on various topics
including psychology, the environment, art and the sciences. We
have included an excerpt of his book in this issue of New Frontier,
which we trust you will enjoy.
* * *
NEW FRONTIER: Now, more than in many years, there is a
preoccupation with death. Death seems to predominate most of
society's television viewing, reaching people's mass consciousness,
there's the AIDS plague and more people dying of catastrophic
diseases. You've written a book dealing with death and dying. Much
of Buddhism is concerned with death and dying, as is much of
Christianity. Isn't it time we stopped talking about dying, and
learned how to live more?
SOGYAL RINPOCHE: You will notice from the title of my book, it's
not just about dying, it's about living. The problem in Western
society is that you don't look at life and death as a whole. You
isolate death. That's why there's so much fear. You become
attached to life and deny and reject death.
It is important to realize that death is not something to be
feared as a tragedy, but rather an opportunity for transformation.
Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is
reflected. Spiritual traditions, such as the Trappist order in
Christianity, often maintain a vow of silence while constantly
saying, "Remember dying." If you remember dying, you might
understand what life is about.
When we do not understand death, we do not understand life.
Even though we know that we will die one day, we think we have an
unlimited lease on life. We become trivial and lose perspective.
By reflecting on death, realizing you could die at any moment, life
becomes very precious. As Buddha said, "Of all mindfulness, and of
all awareness, mindfulness of death and impermanence is the most
important." Reflecting on death enriches. Death is in many ways
our greatest teacher. It enlivens and shows us what life is all
NF: When you speak of death, you mean death of the body, of this
flesh, but couldn't it be said that there is no such thing as death
SR: On the one level, that is true, there is no death.
NF: But people concern themselves with it.
SR: Exactly, because they don't understand it.
NF: So, what to do?
SR: In all Eastern traditions, it is said that body, soul and mind
are the three doors. It is through these doors that we commit
negative karma as well as all our positive actions. Mind is the
creator of both happiness and suffering. What death is really
showing is that we only understand the very superficial aspect of
our mind. Dying is the peripheral. The inner essence is the real
nature of mind. As a great Tibetan saint and yogi said, "In horror
of death, I took to the mountains, and again and again I meditated
on the uncertainty in the hour of death. Then capturing the focus
of the deathless unending nature of mind, now all fear of death is
done and over with." By discovering the deathless unending nature
of mind, we come to realize something that is beyond change.
NF: Is that called "no mind?"
SR: You can say "no mind" also, yes.
NF: So why all the sadness and tears?
SR: In this life, we do many things. We drink tea, we do
interviews, we talk about death [laughter]. These are just some of
the things we go through, kind of a ritual. A funeral is another
NF: One of the main traditions of Buddhism, and you've mentioned it
several times in your book, is the "point of preparation." Not only
the point of preparation before death, you also suggest there are
ways that friends and relatives can help the dearly departed even
before they die. What do you do? Say you have a friend who has
AIDS and you know science and medicine say he's going to die.
Should you be morose in terms of concentrating on this person's
death, or should you be like the ostrich, and put your head in the
sand and simply have a good time?
SR: Both are slightly extreme. You need balance, the middle way,
which would be that death is neither extraordinarily depressing nor
something we can avoid. Death is merely a fact of life. When you
begin to understand that death is a fact of life, you begin to
accept that someone with AIDS and ourselves are in the same
predicament. The person with AIDS may die a little sooner, but we
all die, sooner or later.
It is not the quantity of life but the quality. When you
begin to realize you don't have too much time to live, you focus on
what is most important.
The person facing transition, who is a spiritual
practitioner, stable in that practice, will find that the practice
itself will aid him or her. When someone does not have the
spiritual training, the loving and compassionate support of friends
and relatives helps the person go through this transition.
When you help somebody, it helps you also. It's a giving
and receiving. Thousands of people who have read my book and who
have had near ones dying--even when they got the book as late as one
month before their transition--transformed the death experience. It
becomes a celebration.
NF: Do you consider yourself a spiritual man or a religious man?
SR: A bit of both, I think.
NF: What is your definition of enlightenment?
SR: Slo-o-o-wly wakening [laughter]. In the West there is a
dramatic idea of enlightenment. The very word enlightenment
suggests wakening. Because of ignorance, we are imprisoned in
ourselves, even though we have the potential. Each of us,
regardless of who we are, has as our innermost essence The Buddha.
While it can be instantaneous and dramatic, generally,
particularly in my case [laughter], it is very gradual.
As one master said, the ultimate point of
enlightenment--having purified the great delusion, the heart's
darkness--the raging light of the unobscure self continues to rise.
That's what enlightenment is.
NF: If we don't achieve that state upon exiting, can we still
SR: Yes. Sometimes one life is not sufficient. If you look into
our minds, there is such a mess, that it will take many lifetimes to
purify. Or you can say it took many lifetimes to get into the mess
that we are in. There is a natural justice which is karma. If you
live a good life, that will in itself lead you to a better next
life. But practitioners often pray that when they die they will
meet with the spiritual teachings again to continue on their journey
to enlightenment. Even in the case of The Buddha, he had one
thousand lifetimes before he became enlightened.
NF: Tell us about crossing over. Do you have recollections of past
SR: One has more recollections of this when one is younger. To be
frank, I do not remember events or circumstances of my past lives.
I am supposed to be the reincarnation of a great master. His name
is also Sogyal. He was the teacher of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and
one of the great masters of the 19th Century. But if you would ask
what evidence there is that I might be an incarnation, what is
interesting is that the wisdom continues. From a very young age, I
had a natural grasp of the teachings. Intuitively I began to
understand things without learning the deeper philosophies. I had a
natural grasp of them. It was later, when I came to study them,
that I realized, "Oh yes, that's all it is, I already knew that."
NF: Buddhism is considered a "religion" in Western society, yet
your work seems to be embraced by the New Age community. SR:
Interestingly, Buddhism is both a religion and a way of life. For
those that believe in religion, Buddhism is very much a religion;
but for those who do not believe in religion, Buddhism is a science
of mind, a way of life. There are many who reject institutionalized
religions, but accept Buddhist spiritual teachings.
It's a vehicle for realizing the truth of ourselves. When
you talk about the Buddhist teachings, ultimately there is the state
of non-meditation. In a sense, it transcends all paths.
If you need ritual, ritual is a part of our life; if you
seek ceremony, the Tibetan tradition is extraordinarily rich; if you
want symbolism, we have it; if you prefer chanting, there is
chanting; if you don't want that, we have simple sitting; if you
want philosophy, we have philosophy; if you require psychology, we
have psychology; if you want non-meditation, we have
Buddha wanted to reveal to everyone his enlightenment, which
he saw as the nature of everyone. Unfortunately, he realized with
sadness that, even though we have the Buddha nature, it's been
somewhat limited by our ordinary mind. To use an example, take an
empty vase. The space inside the vase is the same as the space
outside it, but the walls of the vase limit it. The space inside
the vase is like our nature, limited by ordinary mind. When you
become enlightened, it's as if you break the walls of the vase. The
space inside becomes one with the space outside. In fact, they were
never separated. Buddha wanted to show this, but realized that to
convey the profound peace he had realized, he needed different
vehicles to suit different needs. That's why in Buddhism there are
many vehicles, because ultimately Buddha did not have a teaching.
He did not come to teach a particular dogma.
NF: Where did some of these things come from? I'm curious about
the word "bardo."
SR: Bardo is a Tibetan word. After you die, and before you take on
a new birth, there is an intermediate state called the bardo. There
are other meanings also, because the word "bar" means in between,
and the word "do" means suspended. Whenever you are in between two
circumstances or situations, you are in the bardo. We are born, we
live a little bit, and we die. The time/experience between birth
and death is a bardo. In fact, all life is a bardo--every moment,
every thought. It is constantly occurring, and what the bardo
teaching is showing is that in the transition_SYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"_
even though we are confused_SYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"_there is always
the gap and in the gap there is the possibility of enlightenment.
It shows the different methods we can use to recognize our internal
NF: Did you have a specific purpose in writing The Tibetan Book of
Living and Dying?
SR: When I came to the West, I realized there was much hunger for
spiritual teachings, but no environment for spirituality. There is
religion, but no spirituality, so I felt a need to write one book
explaining everything from A to Z, to give a complete picture.
Initially, I wanted to write a small book, a kind of a pocket guide
for helping the dying. But when you start talking about death, you
cannot help talking about life. And when you talk about life, you
talk about karma, the nature of mind, and so forth. It is not in
the form of the written tradition, but of the oral tradition as my
masters have transmitted it to me. People in the West are not able
to follow the spiritual teachings, go to the Himalayas, or follow
the masters. Therefore, we must give them something authentic and
accessible, which can perhaps transform their lives and help them
connect with the spiritual dimension to find meaning and happiness
So, if you read the book over and over, your understanding
becomes deeper and begins to flower. And like a flower blossoming,
the layers drop off and you slowly awaken to understanding the true
meaning--the meaning behind the meaning.
This book has come as a result of ten years of reflection,
and three and a half years of writing. Much suffering could be
removed if people have the knowledge, so I've written this book with
that aim in mind. This is for the larger public, a larger audience.
As my master used to say, the more you listen (or the more
you read), the more you hear, and the deeper your understanding
NF: Do you have a favorite meditation?
SR: I have many favorite meditations.
NF: If you were to pick one for us, what would it be?
SR: Be spacious.
NF: Do you think it possible that the people who are "exiting"
because of all the lessons being offered, have a better chance of
getting off the wheel of samsara?
SR: It is up to them. As Buddha said, "What we are is what we have
been, what we will be is what we do now." The master who
established Buddhism in Tibet further clarified this by saying, "If
you want to know your past, look into your present condition. If
you want to know your future, look into your present actions."
Just because we go through a difficult situation, it doesn't
mean that the future is predetermined. The future is very much in
our hands, in our actions.
NF: Some Western religions contend Buddhists are atheists. How
would you reply to this?
SR: Buddhism does not deny the nature of God, but rather the
concept of God. As one great Buddhist master said, "Absolute is
beyond mind." That which is within the realm of mind is called
relative. Since God is absolute, how can mind understand? We have
to transcend mind to realize its true nature. The problem is that
we conceptualize, and so we worship a kind of clichi, a concept. A
concept, however good is, as the saying goes, like a patch--one day
it will come off. That's one of the reasons Buddhism is really
personally realized. We can even find the "Buddha Nature" in
Christianity. In his moment of enlightenment, St. Thomas Aquinas
threw most of the Catholic teachings into the fire saying, "This is
all rubbish, because this is all concept." Buddhism does not
deny the nature of God, or what God represents, which is goodness,
the heart of spirituality. That it does not deny.
NF: We always seem to want to personalize God. Even the Buddhists
say "Do not make an image," yet have statues of Buddha.
SR: What is interesting about Buddhism, is that it always works with
two truths: an absolute and a relative. They are like the two
wings of a bird. On the absolute level, there is no God as "other.
" God is not outside, but within the nature of our mind. On the
relative level, just as there are beings like us, there are also
Buddhists who come in human form to help the beings on that level.
If you understand the union and indivisibility of absolute
and relative, you can understand and appreciate the absolute and the
relative. There is a famous Buddhist saying, "Form is emptiness,
emptiness is form." That is to say, when you examine things, break
them down, you find they are insubstantial, empty, inherently
non-existent. Yet, the appearance of things is in no way a
contradiction, because the truth of the absolute appears in the form
of form. In Christianity, if you look at the trinity, the absolute_
SYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"_God the Father_SYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"_is,
through the medium of the Holy Ghost, manifest as the incarnate, as
the Son. The Son is the appearance. God is no-form, the absolute.
The medium is the Holy Ghost, the energy. This is the trinity, or
the three kayas I mention in the Chapter called "The Universal
Process," in which I attempt to connect Christianity, Buddhism, and
NF: Some say we can achieve instant enlightenment. The Buddha also
said that enlightenment doesn't have to take many lifetimes, and can
happen in a flash. At the same time, others say there has to be
deep study. How can there be both the need for deep study , and
SR: It depends on the person. If you have already been purified of
your past karma, then it is possible. There have been few
individuals in history who have gained enlightenment
instantaneously. There are cases, but that is because in the past
they've done the work, so to speak. Enlightenment is not
difficult. It's removing the obstacles that is difficult.
NF: So enlightenment is always there, but we just can't see it?
SR: Yes. For example, when you meditate you can get certain
glimpses of it, but then your old habits come back to obscure it.
After awhile we've almost no memory of it. The main thing is to
stabilize our nature. One glimpse is not enough.
In Buddhism, we talk about three things--the wisdom of
listening and hearing, the wisdom of contemplation and reflection,
and the wisdom of meditation and application. Through these three
wisdom tools we awaken our real nature.
Sometimes I compare samsara to an accident in which we lost
our mind with amnesia. Through this teaching, and the wisdom of
listening and hearing, the wisdom of contemplation and reflection,
and the wisdom of meditation and application, we gradually come to
realize our real nature. Then, through practice, we stabilize it.
That's what takes so long, to purify and stabilize. Then
enlightenment is possible.
Sometimes it is said that very high teachings are able to
bring realization very directly, but that is of course from the
ground of the teaching. When you actually apply it to individuals it
is a different story.
NF: Can one ever know for sure if someone else is enlightened?
SR: We can never judge.
NF: Can we tell if we're enlightened?
SR: For that we need to have the knowledge in order to know. The
thing is, it can be a deception.
NF: How so?
SR: That's one of the reasons I've written this book. Even though
this book is accessible, I've just shown you that there's no quick
fix. Enlightenment requires discipline and effort. Sometimes
people mistake little glimpses for enlightenment. There is a
saying, "Understanding should not be mistaken for realization, and
realization should not be mistaken for liberation." Ordinary people
cannot act like yogis, yogis cannot act like siddhas, and siddhas
cannot act like Buddha. For example, if you have an experience and
you feel you really can fly, and you jump out the window, you get a
strong message that you can't. You have an experience, and get
wrapped up in it, and the ego gets involved.
NF: Some, such as psychologists and people who work with the mind,
do not believe in this process, might say that this is a bunch of
rubbish. Earlier you said we have to work with the mind. Isn't
this really a paradox?
SR: No. We can work with mind to transcend mind. Use mind as a
vehicle to transcend mind.
NF: I also know many people who use mantras to transcend mind, but
it seems like another co-dependency, another drug.
SR: It depends on how you do it. The mantra itself is not a
co-dependency. It's a method, a way of freeing. The practice may
not be co-dependent, but if you have a co-dependent attitude, then
it could be.
You see, as long as we are in samsara, we grasp at
everything, including spiritual things. That's why teaching is
important in order to decipher what is, or to bring about the wisdom
of discernment. We really need the wisdom of discernment.
NF: Do you see the world becoming more spiritual or less spiritual
as we enter the21st century?
SR: I don't have the vision to answer that, but the Dalai Lama
feels that the 1990's are more spiritual, because people have
learned a little lesson from the confusion they've met.
NF: What do you see as the one biggest obstacle facing humanity?
SR: The biggest problem for humanity, not only on a global level,
but even for individuals, is misunderstanding. We misunderstand.
Two people are saying the same thing, but they don't think they are
saying the same thing, and they begin to argue even though they are
saying the same thing! I remember two students of mine, both
wonderful people, who were in conflict with each other because they
were both holding a particular work or something and each was always
thinking the other was against him. I tried many methods, which
didn't work, and finally I took them and banged their head
together. And it worked, because they both saw how they are each
wonderful, that they were not against each other, and they became
very good friends. My frustration, like in Bosnia, and with other
peoples, is that they don't see that, and they just go on so
NF: Do you have a Zen stick?
SR: [Laughter] That works only in certain situations! What we need
to do is create understanding and communication. Communication is
very important. Communicate. If you know how to communicate and
listen, you'll begin to understand. Compassion is listening.
Compassion is communicating.
NF: Thank you so very much for driving all this way, and sharing
your knowledge with us.
SR: I enjoyed it very much.
Swami Virato is the Founder & Executive Editor of NEW FRONTIER