Aim High But Don't Be So Hard on
an interview with Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche
for the Shambhala Sun: Rinpoche, what advice would you give a new student of Buddhism
who is seeking a center or a teacher? How would you counsel such a student to
find a genuine teacher?
The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: First, I would
say that critical attitude and devotion are not opposed. It's very important to
question a teacher; it's very important to question the teachings one is receiving
as well. The Buddha himself counseled his disciples to examine the teachings as
they would examine the authenticity of a gold nugget. We cannot simply follow
someone or follow certain teachings blindly. We need a balance between critical
thinking and faith: not being overly critical, so that we become nihilistic and
don't believe in anything, nor being completely naive and credulous, believing
in every doctrine or philosophy we have heard.
Devotion is not a state you're
in. It's a process you go through. Faith and devotion have to deepen through understanding.
If you do not understand, you cannot have really deep and profound faith. There
has to be a dialectical relationship between faith and questioning.
a paradox, then?
Not really. In ordinary life we follow the same pattern. If
you get romantically involved with someone, it would be stupid to take up with
them based solely on your initial impulse. Your feeling for the person has to
grow from knowing more about them, from understanding them. Our effort to deepen
our understanding of spirituality and our relationship to a teacher should not
be different. There has to be understanding, as well as trust, conviction, faith
Given how much commitment is involved, one wonders how many people
in the West are really going to be able to follow the full vajrayana path.
people are going to benefit from the teachings in different ways. Some will become
part of monastic institutions. Some will be more academically inclined. Others
will benefit from doing more meditation. Even in Tibet, there weren't that many
who tried to actualize fully what they learned and completely transform themselves.
the West, just as in Tibet and elsewhere, there may be very few individuals who
fully realize the spiritual truth. The world is not populated by realized beings.
Otherwise, we'd be living in a much better world. Arhats, siddhas, tathagatas,
bodhisattvas-those kind of realized beings are going to be very few and far between,
and that's just the way it is. To overcome deluded states of mind is not easy.
does not mean, though, that we cannot improve the world, as some people believe
Buddhists claim. We can do an enormous amount to improve the world. We can improve
the world not simply in terms of ecology, political conditions, social environment,
health care, education and so forth, but we can also raise the level of spiritual
If one's state of mind can be improved and clarified, how is
that related to taking better care of our planet?
From a Buddhist perspective,
you have to see everything in terms of relationships. Instead of thinking of sentient
beings as distinct entities existing independently from each other and from the
material world, we have to see everything as existing in terms of relationships.
is the true spiritual understanding we have to gain. If we have that, there's
going to be less conflict between races, religions and cultures. Also, our understanding
of the natural world will be improved. Our view will not be so exploitive and
greedy in exhausting the earth's natural resources, consuming everything now and
not leaving anything for future generations.
That is the Buddhist understanding
of interdependence, the key to transforming the world. But because we do not think
that way, because we think we're different and separate, we create many problems.
Buddhists do not talk about the oneness of everything. We appreciate diversity,
while maintaining the understanding that everything that exists is interdependent.
In that way we can assert the plurality of cultures, the diversity of human experiences.
At the same time, we do not allow ourselves to fixate on the diversity but rather
understand the interdependent nature of all phenomena.
What is your opinion
of how Buddhism is being introduced in the West? How well are the teachings being
presented and how well are Westerners handling those teachings?
it's going extremely well. But in any great transition, such as Buddhism being
transplanted in the West, there is a process of maturing. Naturally there are
going to be difficulties, and I do believe there are some problems associated
with how Buddhism is currently introduced, practiced, taught and assimilated.
main problem lies in being overzealous about wanting to Americanize Buddhism,
somehow thinking that the traditional forms of Buddhism as introduced to America
are not adequate. The transplantation taking place in America is the same as that
which has taken place naturally in many other places. I don't think we have to
go out of our way to achieve that end, since we can see that it already happened
in Tibet, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and other places. Modern people are
not as patient, but in rushing to Americanize something, things can and do go
Reading books by some American Buddhist teachers, I sense a lack of
appreciation for the heritage, the roots from which the teachings flow. Tibetan
Buddhism is very different from Buddhism as it existed in India. However, Tibetan
practitioners look to India as a source of inspiration for our practices, and
I think a similar attitude should be maintained by Western Buddhist practitioners.
It does not pay for them to dissociate themselves from their respective traditional
roots-Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada, Zen or whatever form they have incorporated
into their lives. One should not forget the roots.
Though one doesn't need
to be fundamentalist and take everything literally. In fact, Buddhism has a rich
tradition of interpretation. However, one should not take it too far and turn
Buddhism-or Christianity or any religion for that matter-into something totally
different from what was presented by the respective founders.
Could you say
more about what you see as some of the wayward directions that some American Buddhists
A sense of devotion seems to be lacking at times. People often
think devotion is some form of submitting oneself to authority, whereby one's
own freedom and independence is taken away. That is not devotion. True devotion
comes from a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and student, which is
beneficial for both. Whatever Western Buddhist teachers transmit should be a rich
offering for their own students, and those students should show gratitude to their
teachers, and the teachers themselves should show gratitude to their own teachers
It seems that people often just take whatever teachings they can get
from the teacher and then they become teachers themselves, while their own teacher
is ignored, discarded. It is like the traditional analogy of hunting deer simply
for their musk. Once you have extracted the musk, you discard the carcass. You've
got what you want, so you show no respect whatsoever to the animal that has provided
you with a precious gift with healing powers.
Many problems arise from not
showing enough gratitude to the teachers. In Buddhism, lineage is so important.
What one transmits is precious only because we have received it from legitimate
sources and predecessors. We cannot think about ourselves as special beings. Whatever
we are able to teach is only due to others who have preceded us.
to have been a very auspicious place for dharma to flourish, perhaps because of
the support provided by the culture, the economy and the geography. Are conditions
in the West conducive to the development of the buddhadharma?
Yes, very much
so. Material conditions work both ways. Tibet was a poor country. Many people
had to do backbreaking work every day simply to survive. They didn't have the
luxury to follow the spiritual path unless they became a monk or a nun. It was
very difficult for ordinary people to be able to practice the dharma. In that
respect, the better economic conditions and material prosperity people enjoy in
the West is an asset. The downside of course is that people might get too fixated
on material comfort and not take interest in the dharma.
Overall, though, if
the dharma could take root in Tibet, it could also take root here, where the material
conditions are better. Books, Buddhist education and training, and the opportunity
to do retreats are readily available for so many people in the West. In Tibet,
just to be able to procure a copy of a text was very difficult. There was no electricity,
so they had to study at night by oil lamp. People who live in the modern world
do not have to go through that kind of hardship, so it's easier to practice.
problem for Westerners seems to be carving the time out of our schedule to do
the practicing and studying required.
It's not necessarily how much time you
spend that determines one's spiritual progress; it's the intention and attitude
you have toward practice. Even if it's just for five minutes every day, it's so
much better than doing hours of practice with a distorted view, a wrong attitude
and unrealistic expectations.
Westerners are brought up to think critically.
People are prone to having a critical attitude towards institutions, systems,
and towards religious faith. People also apply that critical attitude to themselves.
As a dharma practitioner, you may have sound intentions, but constantly think
that you are not good enough, that you are not doing enough practice, that your
spiritual experiences are too limited. Instead, you could simply try to practice
with the available time you have and not keep going over this again and again
in your mind. That's why a lot of people lose interest in practice after a while
and develop resistance.
Tibetan Buddhism in particular presents itself as a
complete path. But sometimes we find that people will choose the parts that appeal
to them and leave other parts out.
Yes, that can be a problem. When we embark
on the spiritual path, often we have to hear what we don't want to hear. Otherwise
how are we going to be able to break down our entrenched habitual patterns? We
have to see things in new ways. We have to hear things in new ways. We have to
smell things in new ways. Buddhist practice is not just about transforming the
internal, conceptual activities of the mind, nor is it simply about transforming
the emotions. We also have to use our sensory apparatuses differently. We have
to conceptualize things differently, we have to experience our feelings differently,
and we have to use our senses differently. That's how we're going to transform
Resistance will come up, but if we only want to see what we want
to see, and hear what we want to hear, and think about things that we want to
think about, and feel things that we want to feel, then there will be no self-transformation.
We're just reinforcing the same old ways of thinking, the same old attitudes,
beliefs, emotions and so forth.
Can you say more about learning to use our
That can be done in many different ways. It depends on
the practices that you do. In terms of basic meditation practices, you try to
see things in terms of impermanence. You try to hear things in terms of impermanence.
In other words, everything you see is in movement. Nothing is static.
due to our delusions, we reify things. We materialize them. It's as if we were
taking a photo. We freeze the frame and we don't see the movement. Just as with
seeing, when we hear, we have to hear in terms of movement. The same applies to
all of the senses.
With tantric practice, you see everything in relation to
the manifestation of the deities. Therefore, everything that you see, hear, smell,
taste and touch is sacred, because the world is seen not just as an ordinary world
but as a wonderland. You seek the world as a display of the mind. The world is
not just out there; it's creative energy or soul.
and understanding our
We don't see the emotions as being good or bad. They're
creative energies of the mind. Their sources lie in the natural state of one's
being, in the nature of the mind itself.
What if someone is depressed? Is that
not an obstacle to meditation?
If one is depressed, one should just stay with
it, instead of thinking, "How can I become enlightened when I'm so depressed
and down, feeling alone and wretched? Enlightenment is not possible for me."
One should not think in that way. The key is awareness. If one is aware of depression,
one is in meditation. If one is not aware of one's depression, one is not in meditation.
if one becomes aware of one's own depression or any other kind of emotional state,
one should think, "I'm in meditation." They should not think, "Oh,
now I've become distracted again." That is the judgmental mind, the mind
that says, "This is a good meditative state; this is a bad meditative state.
I should have more of this type of experience and I should have less of that kind
of experience." That's constricting and constraining, and will drag you down.
That's the basic samsaric attitude and it's not beneficial in meditation. As is
said in mahamudra, everything you experience becomes self-liberating. You don't
have to try to jettison experiences. If you become aware of them, they'll dissipate
by themselves. Self-liberation is the key: not using any kind of effort to get
rid of them.
That sounds like magic.
It's not magic. You still have to do
the practice! You just don't have to be so hard on yourself. You'll profit more
from practice if you're less hard on yourself, if you don't get caught up in your
What advice you would give to practitioners in the West for
how to build a lasting foundation for the dharma?
Don't have great expectations
for one's practice. Then one will always be pleasantly surprised by the development
that takes place. But if one expects too much, wanting to become enlightened overnight,
then one will not notice the progress.
This refers not only to meditation practice
but to Buddhist practice of any kind, which includes practicing love, compassion,
and engaging the world with a positive outlook. In all of our practice, we should
aim high. We want to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened being, and that's no
easy task. Buddhism more than any other religion emphasizes the path, and once
we have embarked on the path, we're always progressing. While we aim high, we
should see that enlightenment is also a process. Enlightenment is not merely a
state that you arrive at. The journey and the destination are not separate.
in eastern Tibet in 1955, the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche was recognized
as an incarnate Buddhist teacher (tulku) by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa
and enthroned as the abbot of Thrangu Monastery. After escaping to India in 1959,
he continued a course of rigorous training, including five years at the Sanskrit
University in Varanasi and several years at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. He is
now president and director of Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute, Melbourne, Australia,
where he was sent in 1980 as the representative of the Kagyü lineage. He
is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and