Buddhist tradition, there is a bodhisattva vow, a vow to dedicate your life to
others. I think that¹s an ideal. Then there¹s what we¹re really
able to dowe make a commitment to be able to help others, to move forward
or live together in an enlightened spirit or enlightened way, to be more compassionate
with each other. If everybody is working together to benefit others, then society
is more livable. So, rather than a fictional Utopian place, an enlightened society
is more of a path-oriented practice.
I think everybody has some kind of fundamental, basic goodness, and I think there¹s a meeting place where we all can move toward creating an enlightened society. Everybody has their own journey. In the Shambhala tradition, we have particular meditations and practices which we do so we can contribute to the world at large. That is very broad, but you can have an enlightened society within your own family, within your own community, within your own meditation center.
One of the practices that is central to creating an enlightened society is meditation. But when people go to a meditation center, they often become very focused on themselves. In the beginning, getting healthy and knowing yourself is really important. But at a certain point, thinking about myself ceases to be fulfilling. Thinking about others and having the genuine motivation of what we call aspirational compassion or aspirational love becomes more inspiring.
One misconception is that people think meditation is about being a recluse. But in meditation, ideally, you¹re training your mind and getting to know yourself. That gives you the strength and potency to actually see the suffering of others and then benefit them. That can be done in a small way, whether it¹s just letting somebody go in front of you in line or saying a kind word. If you make enough of these small gestures, it begins to build up. A monumental action isn¹t necessary.
RD: Tell us about your past. You spent a significant part of your childhood in Boulder, didn¹t you?
SMR: Yes, but I also traveled a lot to India. I went to one year of high school at Fairview, then I was pulled out to do a retreat and spend time with my father. When I was in school, I would always have to go to programs and seminars and things like that. It was difficult keeping any kind of continuity. I never graduated from high schoolmy father got very sick, and then he died, and I just never went back. Then the Tibetan lamas wanted me to go to India and study, so I did that. I was always trying to balance this life of being American and being Tibetan.
RD: And you speak English with virtually no accent.
SMR: When I came to the United States, I actually had a heavy Scottish accent, because I learned English in Scotland. Then I moved to Sussex, which is in the south of England, so I talked like this [he changes his accent] when I came over here.
RD: You were born in Bodhagaya, India, while your mother was on a pilgrimageso she was on a pilgrimage when she was very pregnant, which strikes me as an odd time to travel if she didn¹t have to.
SMR: Well, it was an odd situation. My parents escaped from Tibet in 1959. They had met in Tibetshe was a nun, and she had just come out of retreat, where she¹d been for 13 or 14 years. My father was a High Lama visiting the area to do annual teaching. He had a vision that he would meet her, but he was a monk and she was a nun.
RD: Their union went against their celibacy vows, I assume.
Oh, sure. But my father felt that it was important for him to get married and
have children. Obviously, some of the people in the monastery weren¹t very
happy about that. But one day, together they escaped the Chinese who had invaded
Tibet and then went to India. My father told my mother, ³You¹re going
to have a child, and this child¹s going to be good for the Buddha dharma²
(dharma is the teaching) and so forth. He wrote what we call a lungdtenit¹s
like a prophetic letter. One of the things he told her was that she should try
to go on a pilgrimage, especially to Bodhagaya and Varanasi.
So she went, and when she was in Bodhagaya, she gave birth to me in a cave. We went from there, maybe a week later, to Varanasi, which is about six hours away. My father was waiting there. He said I should stay in India for a certain number of years, and then he wanted me to come to the West. When I was a couple of years old, I was recognized as a tulku, an incarnate lama. But my father didn¹t want me to go to the monastery, as would have been customaryhe wanted me to come with him to the West. Until I was eight, I lived in refugee camps in northwest India with my mother.
RD: Those years in the refugee village must have been very significant for you. I assume you have many memories from that time.
When I think back, I remember that it was tough in terms of physical surroundings.
But I didn¹t know any different. That was just the way it was. I think Tibetans
tend to have a resilient nature and to be generally cheerful and optimistic. People
were together, and there was plenty of food provided by the Indian government.
And at one of the main camps, there was a monastery being built, so we were associated
with this monastery. The other thing is that in Tibet, tent life is very common.
We understood what it was like to live in a tent.
RD: Was there any kind of status difference among the people in the camp?
Sure. Everybody knew where people came from and who was who. My family backgroundespecially
my father¹s side, being connected with King Gesar and that whole Shambhala
lineage, and also his being a very high abbotthad relevance. I was being
trained to be a lama. If you were just an ordinary person, a nomadic child, people
didn¹t expect you to do that.
When I was seven, I went to live with my father at Samye Ling Meditation Center in Scotland for a couple of years. I moved to England after that, and I was educated in English schools, before moving to Boulder to join my father in 1971. In Boulder, I continued my Buddhist studies along with receiving a Western education. I also received training in contemplative arts like kyudo (Japanese archery), calligraphy and horsemanship.
RD: During this time, I assume you were being prepared for a role of leadership in Tibetan Buddhism. At what point did you decide you were going to go along with that?
SMR: I think I¹d always
known. Even when I was in India, when I was a boy, my mother says I would always
get up in the middle of the night or early in the morning and pack my bag and
say, ³I¹m going to Dishumluungba.² She said, ³I don¹t
know where you got that idea from, but you were possessed by it.² It wasn¹t
a real placeI made it up. And also very early, I would say, ³Take me
to the monastery. I want to do the puja.² I always wanted to do the puja
(a religious ceremony) and to be in the monastery, so I had some kind of connection
to the dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) very early on. It was certainly not
forced upon me.
Some of the other young lamas were told what to do and where to go: ³You have to go to the puja, you have to do this and that.² I always had a certain intention of wanting to be involved in the dharma and Buddhism. My father was very supportive, but he never pushed it. I never felt like I had to follow this path. At the same time, when I was in school, I realized that was the only kind of normal freedom I would get, because I knew as I got older, I was going to have to do more and more.
RD: Did you, at some point, rebel?
SMR: I went through a period where I wanted to make my own decisions and do things my way. And there were times when other people would say, ³You should do this and this² and I¹d say, ³Well, I don¹t want to. I¹ll do what I want.² That¹s still happening. People expect me to follow in my father¹s footsteps and do things the way he would have done them. Even as it applies to my daily schedule, or doing retreats or teaching. I think in a role like mine, you get a lot of projections. Everybody wants you to be a certain way.
RD: Let¹s go back to our discussion about enlightenment. What is the state you would call enlightenment?
What you call enlightenment, we call chang chup or chang chup sem, which means
purified and generated or developed. What¹s generated or developed is wisdomnon-dual,
non-conceptual wisdom that¹s beyond perceiver, subject and object. That¹s
what we can define as awakening. I think we can define what enlightenment or awakening
is, and what the qualities are, describe it. But ultimately, it¹s a first-hand
That point at which one is experiencing emptiness and luminosity is what we call sem le dapa or ³beyond the mind²we take our conventional mind as far as we can take it, learning as much as we can about what we think reality is and going beyond a self-centered approach. Then, at a certain point, conventional wisdom leads to that ultimate insight or ultimate reality. That experience is beyond existence.
When we talk about emptiness, people think, ³Oh, that means there¹s no self.² But that would be nihilism. In conventional reality, things either exist or don¹t exist. But the notion of enlightenment is it happens when we understand things to be neither existing nor not existing, both and neither. It¹s beyond our level of comprehensionour minds can¹t understand beyond that point. That, from a Buddhist point of view, is the notion of enlightenment. It resides in our mind stream, and in the process of life. It¹s not like one day I¹m going to wake up and the situation is going to be different.
RD: Are you enlightened?
SMR: Well, I hope not.
RD: What do you mean by that?
SMR: Well, because if this
is it, then I¹m in trouble, and so are you! No, I don¹t think I¹m
enlightened. I see myself as a practitioner. I feel myself learning more and more
every year. Enlightenment is a long journey. From a Buddhist point of view, you
can achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. But even if it were to take a million,
billion lifetimes, you¹d be happy to do that. It¹s funny, because sometimes
someone will say, ³You¹re telling me that my enlightenment is going
to take more than one lifetime? I can¹t handle that.² But if you can¹t
handle just a few lifetimes, how are you going to handle the enormity of all reality?
A lot of people like Buddhism, but they can¹t do the many-lifetimes thing. For most Tibetans, the whole point is it¹s a many-lifetime dealit¹s a constant unfolding. I think many people want immediate gratification. They want to be enlightened right now, so they can enjoy it. Of these people, I would ask, ³Well, who are you and what¹s the enjoyment?² And, ³Are you willing to give this enjoyment up? In the level of reality we¹re talking about, you would see beyond the physical body. It is said that discovering selflessness is an experience of a small amount of emptiness, because we really think we are something.
It¹s said there is a little insect that eats the inside of a sesame seed, then it looks around. It¹s like a frog in a little pond, thinking that the pond is the universe. The ultimate enlightenment is going beyond that little space, discovering the ocean. It¹s a journey. If we ask, ³Well, how can I get there?² the answer is, ³One step at a time.² And that one step may be this entire lifetime.
RD: The writer and Boulder resident Ken Wilbur talks about ³radical transformation² that utterly shatters our ordinary idea of who we are. This is in contrast to much spiritual work that seeks to improve or heal our separate self. Does Buddhist philosophy subscribe to this kind of transformation as well?
I think the idea of transformation is critical, and it¹s a concept I try
to emphasize. A lot of people come to the spiritual path being inspired, but at
the same time being very stubborn. They don¹t really want to change. And
change is criticalnot in the sense of, ³I¹m not okay, I need to
change,² but fundamental change in terms of our outlook and how we perceive
There is a conventional reality or perception of how things are, and then there¹s a deeper level of understanding. That takes contemplation and meditation and really looking at ourselves and others. That¹s the kind of change we¹re talking about in Buddhism. A lot of people who have been Buddhists for 30 years are saying, ³I realize I¹m coming to the point where I now am willing to change.² It¹s a process of becoming ready and willing to wholly enter the path.
The spiritual path is not an easy path. A lot of people think the conventional world is no good, and they need to go to the spiritual world. The spiritual world those people might be seeking is one that makes them feel betterby eating right, by getting the right kind of friends or therapy or whatever it may be to balance themselves. But if we¹re going to define spirituality as that transformation towards enlightenment, it takes a tremendous amount of potency of mind. It requires looking at other¹s suffering. If we can¹t even handle our own suffering, that can really shake us.
For many people, spirituality is simple, and involves trying to do the right thing in terms of being kind to others and taking care of themselves. For people who are willing, who want to move beyond those basic principles and go on to transformation, this is a good time to do that.
RD: After 9/11, after terrorist actions and war, I¹m curious how you can see goodness in everyone.
SMR: I was in New York
right after September 11, and I saw the outpouring of people from across the country
who wanted to help, and the cooperation of those who were in New York. It seemed
the first instinct everyone had was to reach out and help each other. I was surprised,
because you hear about New Yorkers being aggressive and not very nice, but I felt
like I was in a small village. It was amazing. Even in a situation like that,
there is some kind of automatic response of compassion and understanding.
Having said that, I think the conditions in the world are not going to get any easier. People are so into consumingin Buddhism, we call this the realm of desire. It¹s continuously wanting for something, whether it¹s material desire, meditative desire, wanting to feel better, whatever it is. That rampant desire consumes natural resources; at the same time, we¹re all trying to get our personal space. As I travel around the world, it¹s shocking how much the world has shrunkeven within the last 10 years. People have less physical space and less mental space.
As for terrorism, as long as there are human beings, there¹s going to be terrorism, because we have aggression. Does that mean you just give up and say, ³Okay, it¹s over, you¹ve won?² Of course not. In Buddhist teachings, we say all sentient beings have that Buddha nature, that enlightened nature. It¹s a matter of asking, ³Can we bring it out? And can we inspire others to bring it out?² That is the journey to an enlightened society.
Many people are already working toward that idealyou¹re publishing this magazine, I¹m doing what I can. We all have to do what we can. Great things come from a series of small things, rather than one or two monumental actions.
That¹s especially important when it comes to leaders and top decision makers. I¹ve had the opportunity to meet various leaders. As you get closer and closer to the top, one small decision affects a lot of people. If we could influence or change how leaders make decisions, we could possibly turn things around.
RD: By ³turn things around,² what do you mean?
SMR: Right now, it seems like we¹re in a situation where we¹re all trying to figure out what quality of life means. What does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to live together in society? At the moment, it would appear the meaning of life has to do with the material. That is really the first stage of needsto satisfy physical comforts, to avoid being cold or hungry. Once you¹ve taken care of basic physical requirements, you can begin to recognize and satisfy other, perhaps more spiritual needs. But now, we don¹t have the luxury of doing one thing at a time. We have to address the material things and the psychological and spiritual things at the same time. When people reach a certain level of contentment, hopefully they¹ll consume less and give more.
RD: So it seems an effective meditation practice would lead to altruism and charity. Do you see evidence of that? Do communities of meditators have a higher rate of charity or giving?
SMR: Yes, I think so. For example, when you go to Buddhist countries, people are very generous. There¹s a sense of giving and offering. I think that quality of generosity doesn¹t always transfer or translate to the Buddhist groups in other countries. Within our own organization and in other Buddhist groups, we talk a lot about compassion and giving. But there aren¹t many programs for charitable contributions.
RD: I bring this up because meditators are sometimes criticized for being self-occupied.
That¹s true, but it depends on what we mean when we talk about meditation.
What some people call meditation, I wouldn¹t really define as meditation.
They¹re not really contemplating and generating compassion. I¹ve talked
to people who have said, ³I guess I haven¹t been meditatingI¹ve
just been sitting there thinking about what I want.² From that point of view,
their practice may be working out pretty wellthey¹ve been thinking
about what they want, and they go do it.
But if you¹re really meditating, you¹re developing that mind of altruism, so when you get up you feel much more inclined toward compassion and generosity. If you sit there during meditation focusing on yourself and where your problems are, you¹ll have very different results. Not that that method of meditation is necessarily bad. It depends on how you look at it. If you tell somebody to go sit in a room and meditate for a while, it can be helpful. It cools a person off, and they may be much more helpful to society that way. If nothing else, you got them out of their ordinary situation.
On the other hand, if people are able to meditate and generate a sense of compassion or altruism, then they are able to help. The way I look at meditation is that the act of meditating or sitting on a cushion is just a microcosm of what else you do in your life. All you¹re doing physically is slowing down. Yet mentally, you¹re always meditating. You always have an object of meditation, whatever it may be. When you¹re meditating formally, using breathing techniques and settling the mind, then you¹re focusing on that particular situation. But when you finish sitting, and you get up and go out into the world, you¹re also meditating in a particular way.
Suppose you wake up with fear that something is going to go wrong. That is your meditation. Or you may wake up with pride, or jealousy. That is your meditation. Meditation just means becoming familiar with. So now you¹re getting familiar with the jealousy or fear or pride, or whatever it is. We¹re always meditating. When we sit down on a cushion, we¹re just changing the channel.
RD: What kinds of meditation are most beneficial?
SMR: It depends on what tradition you¹re coming from. If your mind is very scattered, if you¹re all over the place and have a lot of emotions, just follow your breath and relax. That makes you more stable. Suppose you¹ve done that, and you¹re more centered and at ease. You¹re on your next meditation, which may be compassion or selflessness, or contemplating your impermanence. Then you may have some insight; you may say, ³Okay, I don¹t need to chase my tail thinking everything is permanent, or that I¹m the only one in pain.² Then you¹re able to get up from your cushion and actually change how you approach life. I think that¹s the progression that needs to take place. If during meditation, you¹re totally self-absorbed in your pains and problems, you will have a different experience. This word, meditation, is sort of generic. When we begin to look closely at it, we find there¹s a lot more going on than just sitting on a cushion and being still.
RD: And what you mean by the word ³meditation² is a group of practices and states of consciousness?
SMR: I think so. You basically have two kinds of meditation. You have what we call ³shamatha,² which is stabilizing and building strength of the mind, and you have meditation based on wisdom. You need the first in order to have the second. Wisdom would mean realizing anger is empty, or recognizing selflessness, for example. But if you don¹t have a strong mind, you can¹t achieve that wisdom. You get up and you forget about itit¹s just a thought.
RD: Tell us a little about your book, Turning the Mind into an Ally.
It¹s basically an introduction to the practice of meditation, and it is written
for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. It¹s about training the mind through
meditation and peaceful living so that we can use it, rather than be used by it.
The book gives some suggestions about ways to meditate, and ways to overcome obstacles
to meditation. It talks about how to calm the mind to make it more stable, strong
and clear. From that point, we can begin to cultivate compassion.
The more I was teaching, the more people were saying, ³Where¹s your book?² because everybody in the East is peddling something. Until recently, I had to tell people I didn¹t have a book, and they would get very suspicious [laughter].
RD: So what¹s your second book going to be on?
SMR: It¹s going to be a yoga manualit will be very short! No, I¹m teasing. I actually have a couple of choices. I¹d like to do something a little more in-depth on Buddhismwe¹ll see how this one goes. But I would also like to write another general book for the public. I think that¹s where it¹s really needed.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
The following interview with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was recorded on the 16th day of December, 1985, at Nagi Gompa, outside of Kathmandu.
When Rinpoche was asked if he would grant an interview for the Vajradhatu Sun, his reply was, "What is the use of the tiny light of a firefly when the sun has already risen in the sky?" referring to Trungpa Rinpoche's presence in the West.
Q: Can Rinpoche please tell us about his life, his teachers, and the retreats he has done?
R: I was born in Eastern Tibet, in Kham, in the area called Nangchen. The Dharma teaching of my family line is called Barom Kagyü. My grandmother was the daughter of Chokgyur Lingpa, the great tertön, so my family line also practices the Nyingma teachings. Since I hold the lineages of both Kagyü and Nyingma, my monastery in Boudhanath is therefore called Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, The Kagyü and Nyingma Place for Teaching and Practice.
From the time I was quite small until the age of twenty-one, I stayed with my father who was a Vajrayana teacher and tantric layman. His name was Tsangsar Chimey Dorje. My father was my first teacher and from him I received the transmission for the Kangyur, the entire teachings of the Buddha, and also for the Chokling Tersar, "The New Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa." Later, I studied with my father's older brother, Tulku Samten Gyatso from whom I received also, among other things, the entire transmission of the Chokling Tersar.
Later on I studied with an incredible great master named Kyungtrül Karjam and from him I received the entire Dam-ngak Dzö as well as Chöwang Gyatsa, the Hundred Empowerments of Cutting Practice. He also passed on to me the reading transmission for the Hundred Thousand Nyingma Tantras and the Jangter Gongpa Sangtal, the Northern Treasure of Unimpeded Wisdom Mind. In particular, I received from him a detailed commentary and clarification of the important treasure of Chokgyur Lingpa renowned as Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, the Gradual Path of The Wisdom Essence.
From the time I was eight years old, I received teachings on the nature of mind from my own father, and I was lucky later on, to receive detailed instructions in the form of "guidance through personal experience" from Samten Gyatso on the teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. From my other uncle, Tersey Rinpoche, who was a close disciple of the great siddha Shakya Shri, I was also lucky to receive teachings on Dzogchen.
Moreover, I again received detailed teachings on Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo from Jokyab Rinpoche, a disciple of Dru Jamyang Drakpa. The body of teachings known as Rinchen Terdzö, the Precious Treasury, I received from Jamgön Kongtrül, the son of the 15th Karmapa. As for the other of the Five Treasuries, I received the Gyachen Kadzö from my third uncle, Sang-ngak Rinpoche, the Kagyü Ngakdzö from H.H. the 16th Karmapa himself, and the Sheja Künkyab Treasury from Tana Pemba Rinpoche. I addition, I have received the root empowerments of Jigmey Lingpa from H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche several times.
In Eastern Tibet I spent three years in retreat just reciting the Mani. [Laughs]. Later on at Tsurphu, the seat of the Karmapas, I also spent three years in retreat and then again in Sikkim I was able to spend almost three years in intensive practice. Lately, I have been here at Nagi Gompa for a few years. That's my life story.
Q: What lineages does Rinpoche hold?
R: My family line is the holder of the Barom Kagyü teachings which originate from Gampopa's disciple Barom Dharma Wangchuk. His disciple was Tishi Repa whose disciple was called Repa Karpo. His disciple again was Tsangsar Lümey Dorje. His disciple, Jangchub Shönnu of Tsangsar, is in my paternal ancestral lineage. The line of his son and his son again, all the way down to my father, is called Tsangsar Lhai Dung-gyü, the Divine Bloodline of Tsangsar.
My incarnation line is called Chöwang Tulku. With that same name I am just the second. My past life was said to be an incarnation of Guru Chöwang. He was also said to be an emanation of one of the 25 disciples of Padmasambhava called Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, but who knows that for sure. [Laughs]. My former life, Chöwang Tulku, was a "secret yogi." No one knew how his practice was, but when he passed away his body shrunk down to the size of one cubit without decomposing.
Q: What does Dzogchen mean?
R: Dzog, "perfection" or "completion," means as in this quote from a tantra, "Complete in one - everything is complete within mind. Complete in two - everything of samsara and nirvana is complete within this."
"Dzog" means that all the teachings, all phenomena, is completely contained in the vehicle of Dzogchen; all the lower vehicles are included within Dzogchen. "Chen," "great," means that there is no method or means higher than this vehicle.
Q: What is the basic outline of practice according to the Dzogchen path?
R: All the Buddha's teachings are contained within nine gradual vehicle of which Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, is like the highest golden ornament on a rooftop spire, or the victory banner on the summit of a great building. All the eight lower vehicles are contained within the ninth which is called Dzogchen in Tibetan, Mahasandhi in Sanskrit [and the Great Perfection in English]. But Dzogchen is not contained in the lowest one, the shravaka vehicle. So when we say "perfect" or "complete" it means that all the lower yanas are perfected or completely contained within the Great Perfection, within Dzogchen.
Usually we say that Dzogchen, sometimes called Ati Yoga, is a Dharma tradition but actually it is just the state of one's mind, basically.
When it comes to combining these following two points into actual experience, we can use the statement of the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, "It is not existent as even the buddhas have not seen it." This means that the basic state of mind is not something that exists in a concrete way; even the buddhas of the three times have never perceived it. "It is not non-existent as it is the basis for both samsara and nirvana. This is not a contradiction, it is the middle path of unity." Contradiction is like having fire and water on the same plate. Its impossible. But that is not the case here. The basic nature is neither existent nor non-existent - these two are an indivisible unity. "May I perceive the mind nature free from extremes." Usually when we say "is" it contradicts "is not." And when we say "non-existent" it contradicts "existent." But this middle path of unity is devoid of such contradiction. When it is said "to attain the unified state of Vajradhara," that actually refers to what I discussed here.
This unity of being empty and cognizant is the state of mind of all sentient beings. There is nothing special about that. A practitioner should encompass that with "a core of awareness." That is the path of practice. Again, "the unity of being empty and cognizant with a core of awareness."
The special feature of Dzogchen is as follows: "Primordial pure essence is Trekchö, Cutting Through." This view is actually present in all the nine vehicles, but the special quality of Dzogchen is what is called "The spontaneously present nature is Tögal, Direct Crossing." The unity of these two, Cutting Through and Direct Crossing, Trekchö and Tögal, is the special or unique teaching of Dzogchen. That is how Dzogchen basically is. That's it.
Q: That is a very wonderful teaching. It seems like Dzogchen is very direct and doesn't seem to have a linear quality in terms of the way one would approach it. In the other yanas sometimes one would first do the set of preliminaries, then a yidam practice. tsa-lung practice etc., this and that. It seems like Dzogchen is very immediate, like the essence is already present, available. Is there any kind of linear path in the way one would approach these teachings or is it always direct, like this?
R: We do in the Dzogchen tradition have the gradual system of preliminaries, main part and so forth. But the special characteristic of Dzogchen is to introduce or point out directly the naked awareness, the self-existing wakefulness. This is for student who are suitable, meaning those who have sharp mental faculties. In stead of going through a lot of beating around the bush, one would introduce them directly to their mind essence, to their self-existing awareness.
Dzogchen is said to have great advantage but also great danger. Why is this? Because all the teachings are ultimately and finally resolved within the system of Dzogchen. This can be divided into two parts, resolving all the teaching through intellectual understanding and through experience.
To resolve through experience is what is the great advantage or benefit in the sense that having pointed out and recognizing directly naked awareness and simply makes that the main part of practice. That is the point when there is an incredible great benefit because that itself is the very direct and swift path to enlightenment.
On the other hand, the great danger is when one just leaves it as intellectual understanding, that "In Dzogchen there is nothing to meditate upon. There is nothing to view. There is nothing to carry out as an action." That becomes just a concept of nihilism and is completely detrimental to progress. This is because the final point of the teaching is conceptlessness, being beyond intellectual thinking. Yet, what has happened is that one has created an intellectual idea of what Dzogchen is and holds on to that idea very tightly. This is a major mistake that can happen. So, it is very important to take the teachings into one's personal experience through the oral instructions of one's teacher. Otherwise, simply to have the idea "I am meditating on Dzogchen" is to completely miss the point.
Self-existing wakefulness is present within the mind-stream of all sentient beings since primordial time. This presence is something which should not be left as theory, but should be acknowledged though one's experience. One first recognizes it, then trains and attain stability in it. That is when it is said that Dzogchen has great benefit. There is actually no greater benefit than this.
Great danger means that when this is left as words of mere intellectual understanding then one doesn't gain any experience but merely holds some concept about it and lack the nonconceptual quality. Conceptual mind is merely intellect whereas experience to remain in the continuity of naked awareness; growing used to it what is called "experiencing."
It is the same principle whether one talks of Madhyamika, Mahamudra or Dzogchen. As is said in the Bodhicharya Avatara, "When one's intellect holds neither the concept of concreteness nor of inconcreteness, that is the state of not conceptualizing." As long as one is not free from concepts, one's view remains as mere intellectual understanding and the Dzogchen view is then left as mere theory. One might then think "Dzogchen is primordially empty, it is free from a basis. There is nothing to meditate upon, no need to do anything If I meditate in the morning, I am a buddha in the morning. When I recognize at night, I am a buddha at night. The destined one does not even have to meditate."
Actually, Dzogchen is the way to purify the most subtle obscuration of dualistic knowledge - it is something quite in credible. But if one only imagines it, if it is a mere theory, thinking "I don't need to do anything, neither meditate nor practice," [one's has completely missed the point]. There has been many people thinking like this in the past.
Compared to straying into an intellectualized version of Dzogchen, it is much more beneficial to practice according to Madhyamika or Mahamudra where one goes along step by step, alternating theory and experience within the structure of theory, experience and realization. Proceeding gradually in this way one becomes more and more clear about what is to be resolved and then finally captures the "dharmakaya throne of nonmeditation." In this graduated system there are some reference points along the various paths and levels. But in Dzogchen the master will from the very beginning point out the nonconceptual state, instructing the student to remain free from concepts. It then happens that some student will think, "I am free from concepts, I am never distracted!" while walking around with vacantly gazing eyes. That is called straying into intellectual understanding.
Later on, when we have to die, mere theory will not help us whatsoever. Tilopa told Naropa, "Theory is like a patch. It will wear and fall off." After dying, we will undergo various pleasant and unpleasant experiences, intense panic, fear and terror. Intellectual understanding will not be able to destroy those fears; it cannot make confusion subside. So, merely to generalize that one's essence is devoid of confusion is useless. It's only a thought, another concept, which is ineffective at the moment of death when it comes to deal with one's confusion.
Q: What will help then?
R: One needs to recognize the view of one's essence. If one hasn't thoroughly acknowledged the correct view but only constructed it from concepts, this intellectual understanding will be useless. Its like knowing that there is a delicious meal to be eaten. Without putting it into one's mouth one will never know what is tastes like. Likewise, one needs to be totally free from the merest flicker of doubt concerning the state of naked aware ness. Jigmey Lingpa said about having stability in awareness, "At this point there is no need for 100 panditas and their thousands of explanations. One will know what is sufficient. Even when questioned by these scholars, one will not give rise to doubt. So the main point is to be stable in awareness through experience.
This awareness is not introduced through an intellectual understanding where one only has the idea of it. When a qualified master encounters a worthy student it is like iron striking flint creating fire immediately. When such two persons meet together it's possible to be free from doubt.
When one doesn't feel any doubt, no matter how much one may try, that is the proof of having recognized the mind essence. But if it's possible to start doubting, thinking "I wonder how it is, what shall I do?" that is the proof of having mere intellectual understanding.
This difference between theory and experience is what I basically meant by saying that Dzogchen has both great benefit and great danger.
When a practitioner is introduced to naked awareness he will be able to attain enlightenment in that very body and lifetime because in the moment of recognizing the essence of awareness, the obscuration of dualistic knowledge is absent. This is called "touching the fruition." In this respect there are three ways: taking ground as path, taking path as path, and taking fruition as path. Receiving the pointing-out instruction means that one takes fruition as path. That is why it is so precious. So don't let it stray into mere theory.
Experience is said to be the "adornment of awareness." Awareness is present within all beings; whoever has mind has awareness since it is the mind's essence. The relationship between mind and awareness is mind being like the shadow of one's hand and awareness being the hand itself. In this way, there is not one single sentient being who does not have awareness. We might hear about awareness and then think "I understand, awareness is just such and such." This mental construct is totally useless - from the very first the absence of mental fabrication is crucial. As is said, "Within the naked dharmadhatu of non- fabrication."
Introducing awareness means to point out the absence of mental fabrication. Otherwise it becomes an introduction to mere discursive thought. [Laughs]
Q: What is the difference between the practice of Dzogchen and that of the Anuttara Yoga Tantra in the system of the New Schools, (gsar ma)? It was taught that all the eight lower vehicles are contained within Dzogchen, so how does the difference come about?
R: In the system of the New Schools, there are first of all the four tantras of Kriya Tantra, Charya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Anuttara Yoga Tantra. The fourth is divided into Father Anuttara Tantra, Mother Anuttara Tantra and Nondual Anuttara Tantra. This correspond exactly to the structure of the Old School, Nyingma, in that father tantra of Anuttara is Mahayoga, mother tantra is Anu yoga and the nondual tantra is Ati Yoga, [Dzogchen]. However, there are no explicit teachings on Tögal in Anuttara. That is the main difference, whereas it is taught that there is no difference whatsoever between "essence Mahamudra" and Dzogchen in meaning - only in terminology.
Concerning the inclusion of the lower vehicles in the highest is "All phenomena of samsara and nirvana are included with the expanse of awareness." That is the meaning of "inclusion."
Q: There are many kinds of conceptual practices in Anuttara Yoga such as visualization and manipulations of the nadis and pranas. How do the fit into the Dzogchen system?
R: These practices actually belong to the systems of Mahayoga and Anu yoga. However, in Ati Yoga which should be effortless, free from fixation, these practices are applied as "means for enhancement." Q: From where does the tradition of giving the transmission of the pointing-out instruction originate?
R: The first origin is what we call the "mind transmission of the victorious ones." After that there was the "sign transmission of vidyadharas" and today we have the "oral transmission of great masters." First, the mind transmission of the victorious ones, was when the manifestation aspect of Samantabhadra appeared in a bodily form and the five families of victorious ones recognized dharmata by merely seeing this bodily form. This was mind transmission through simply manifesting as a deity without the need for any conversation. This mind transmission seems to have gradually degenerated. Following that, by means of the sign transmission of vidyadharas such masters as Garab Dorje, Shri Singha and Guru Rinpoche recognized the self-existing wakefulness of dharmata through a simply gesture such as a finger pointing at the sky. Finally, Guru Rinpoche, The Eight Indian Vidyadharas as well as the Tibetan King, Subject and Companion [Trisong Deutsen, Vairochana and Yeshe Tsogyal] and so forth gave teachings through oral transmission. This oral transmission which comes from India and is not a Tibetan invention, was originally imparted by whispering through a copper tube such as in the case of Vairochana into whose ear was whispered the sentence, "The single sphere of dharmakaya, self-existing wakefulness, inconceivable reality, is present within the mind of sentient beings. Oral transmission literally means "transmitted into the ear."
In the case of the Kagyü lineage, Tilopa stated, "I have no human masters. My master is Vajradhara himself." So, figuratively speaking, Vajradhara gave the teachings to Tilopa and Tilopa transmitted them orally to Naropa who then passed then on to Marpa. He gave them to Milarepa and he again to Gampopa from whom they were orally transmitted to the "four great and eight lesser lineages.
In the case of the Nyingma lineage, Guru Rinpoche, Vimalamitra and Vairochana passed the teachings on chiefly as an oral transmission to the Twenty-five Disciples headed by the King, Subject and Companion. Here Dzogchen was transmitted as the pointing-out of the expression of awareness; not to awareness itself but to its expression which is dharmata. From this point, the Twenty-five Disciples passed the teaching on to the Eighty Tibetan Siddhas and others such as the various oral lineages as well as the treasure lineages, so that this transmission has been uninterrupted down until our own root guru. If the lineage had been broken there would be no pointing-out and recognition
Q: Why is this pointing-out instruction considered so important?
R: That is self-evident. Isn't awareness the actual path for attaining enlightenment? There is nothing more important than recognizing it and become a buddha [laughs]. If you put all the riches in the world on one side and the pointing out of awareness on the other, awareness will be more valuable for enlightenment.
Q: Having received the pointing-out instruction and recognized, will that itself be sufficient or how should one train?
R: Once one has received the pointing-out instruction there is the chance of either recognizing it or not. But a student who has actually recognized will have enough for this entire lifetime in the "single sufficient instruction." The same goes for the bardo state. Yet, one can still apply the paths of Mahayoga and Anu yoga for enhancement and for clearing away hindrances. Once one has recognized one's essence, it is like a fire that only will blaze up more intensely the more firewood is added; the fire will never diminish with the adding of wood. Similarly, there will be benefit from applying the paths of Mahayoga and Anu yoga; even Hinayana practice will be beneficial.
According to one's ability one can apply what one feels inclined towards - like gathering honey from many different flowers. Or, simply to cultivate and practice the recognition of awareness alone will be sufficient for attaining enlightenment within this body and lifetime. All the different practices of Mahayoga and Anu yoga, as in the system of Jamgön Kongtrül the First, are for the purpose of attaining stability in awareness. While benefiting beings one can become more stable in awareness. As I already mentioned, fire blazes up and increases the more wood is added; it is not the opposite way.
Having recognized one's essence, one should sustain its continuity. There will be no benefit from simply leaving it with "I have recognized!" It is necessary to maintain the continuity of awareness until all confusion and conceptual thinking has been exhausted. That itself is the measure; when thoughts are exhausted then it is enough. There is no more need for meditation or for "sustaining the continuity."
Q: Although Rinpoche has a large monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, I notice that he spends most of his time up at Nagi Gompa Retreat Center. Why is that?
R: As a matter of fact, it is said, "In this age of degeneration, carry the burden of the Doctrine. If you are not able to do so, simply the fear that the teachings will die out occurring in your mind for but instant will have tremendous merit." For this reason, the purpose of building a monastery with a gathering of the sangha of monks - as just an image of the doctrine in this dark age - is that we have the great hope that they will practice the tradition of the Dharma. Whether or not the monks individually do any practice is their own business. But if they just wear the robes on their bodies, cut the hairs on their heads and gather together in a group of merely four monks, the benefit of accumulating merit and purifying one's obscurations will result from the respect, faith and donations one can make as a benefactor, no matter how insignificant one's contribution or faith may be. This is independent of whether or not the monks misbehave or misappropriate their donations; that is totally up to themselves. For the benefactors, their will be the blessings of the Buddha when they make a donation to a gathering of just four monks. Their will be no failure in that for the patrons themselves. It is for this reason that I took the effort to build a monastery. Moreover, this age is the time when Buddhism is slowly dying out, like the sun about to depart while setting over the mountains in the west. Considering this combined with having received the command of His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, we have constructed this insignificant monastery.
The place up a Nagi Gompa was initially build by the meditator and hermit Kharsha Rinpoche as a hermitage for his following of monks and nuns. After he passed away, the place was offered to Karmapa who then placed me as a caretaker. So I, this old man here, is just a caretaker [laughs]. That is the only reason why I live up here; I am not at all like Milarepa, living in mountain retreats and caves after renouncing samsara. But I have a nice spot to sleep on and a warm place in the sun [laughs]. That is how I live.
Q: What is the benefit and purpose of doing retreat practice?
R: With many distractions one is not able to practice the Dharma properly. Distraction means a lot of business, noise and things to do. When going up in the mountains there will be less distraction. That is the reason for mountain retreat. In addition to that, if one is able to keep some discipline, remaining in solitude without allowing outsiders to visit and not going out oneself, there will be no other distraction than that made by one's own mind. External distractions have been eliminated. That is the purpose of seclusion.
When distractions have been abandoned one can exert oneself in the practice. Through exertion it is possible to destroy confusion. When confusion falls away, enlightenment is attained. That is the whole reason [laughs].
Q: Finally but not least, does Rinpoche have any special advice for the readers of Vajradhatu Sun who are primarily householders?
R: They should first of all receive the pointing-out instruction and recognize their essence. Having recognized, they should refrain from losing its continuity and then mingle that with their daily activities. There are basically four kinds of daily actions traditionally called moving, sitting, eating and lying down. We don't always only sit or only move about; we alternate between the two. In addition we eat, shit and sleep. So there actually seem to be five kinds [laughs]. But at all times, in all situations, one should try not to lose the continuity of the practice. One should try to be able to mingle the practice with daily life. As one gets more accustomed, any amount of daily life activities will only cause nondualistic awareness to develop and become the adornment of this undistracted awareness, free from being obscured or cleared.
When one is able to mingle practice with the activities of daily life, these activities will then be beneficial and devoid of any harm whatsoever. That is if one has already recognized one's essence correctly. Without the correct recognition one will get carried away by the daily activities - one will have no stability. Lacking stability is like a strand of hair in the wind bending according to how the wind blows whereas a needle will be stable no matter how small it is. Even a very thin needle cannot be bent by the wind. Once one has truly recognized one's essence one cannot be carried away by the activities of daily life, just as a needle that is stable. Dualistic mind is completely unstable, like a hair that is just ready to move by the tiniest breeze; it falls prey to the five external sense objects. Awareness, on the other hand, when properly recognized, does never fall subject to sense objects. It is like a needle that is unmoved by the wind.
Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. © Rangjung Yeshe Translations & Publications, 1985.
This interview appeared in the Vajradhatu Sun, in an abbrieviated form. Some of the questions were asked by Dana Chubb.
Lineages, One Source
an interview with Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche, October 1999.
Pema Ösel Ling
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Thank you, Khenpo Sonam Rinpoche, for allowing us to interview you. And we appreciate your presence at this retreat, and your help and kindness to all of us. We have, under Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen's inspiration, a website that has many photographs and stories, especially as you can imagine in our lineage, of ngakpas and ngakmas; but also other teachers and friends of Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen's. We would very much like to put your picture and perhaps your life story, or any teaching or comments you would like offer, we would be happy to put there as well. Also, we publish a web magazine which contains both teachings and interviews. If you are interested, perhaps this interview could turn into an article in `vision'.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes - good, but I cannot say anything much - but I we are all practising Tantra. To tell my background - I come from a ngak'phang family lineage - like the Aro gTér. My uncle was a very close student of Düd'jom Rinpoche back in Tibet. At the time there were two great teachers who were the closest students of Düd'jom Rinpoche; one was called Lama Karpo Rinpoche, and one was called Lama Nakpo Rinpoche. Lama Nakpo Rinpoche was my uncle. He had lots of students under him; but he died three or four years ago. He was the one who spread the Düd'jom gTérsar in Bhutan.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Both Lama Karpo Rinpoche and Lama Nakpo Rinpoche were ngakpas?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, both of them were ngak'phang Lamas.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Were you born in Bhutan?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, I was born in Bhutan.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: And how did you come to travel to this country?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I was thinking of travelling to the United States - I had this in my mind. So this year I got the opportunity to come here. So I think I can travel slowly, slowly; and then I can teach to people. I am very happy that you have very good Lama like Ngak'chang Rinpoche. He has very good students - like you yourself.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: We are very happy that he is in the world.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes. I really liked Ngak'chang Rinpoche's teaching - and he emphasises lineage and the guru-student tradition so much.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Yes, especially important to him is the Vajra Master - making sure that this role is preserved in the West. Also that as Western people become Buddhists, there is no attempt to change that and to eliminate the role of the Vajra Master to some other relationship, perhaps based on Western political or social ideas. That the role of the Vajra Master is maintained as an essential part of Tantra - that is an important issue for Ngak'chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, and they spend a lot of time talking about this.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, I very much liked what Ngak'chang Rinpoche was saying: You cannot just take any one thing from Buddhism into your life; you have to take the whole thing and make that a part of your life. You can be Buddhist - your life can be a Buddhist practice - but you cannot take some thing from Buddhists and then say, "I am a practitioner." Especially Tantric practice depends so much on guru and student relationship. I think it is the faith and devotion to the guru - that is what ultimately transforms us. That faith and devotion turns into wisdom, which is an unbroken realisation of the wisdom of awareness, or recognition, which is rigpa - which is the inseparable quality of Samantabhadra to your teacher. So you have to have that faith and devotion to your teacher.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Ngak'chang Rinpoche points out that there are certainly cultural forms of Buddhist practice - cultural differences - but that the principle and function of Buddhism must be clearly understood. The Vajra Master is part of the principle and function of Vajrayana; they don't exist separately.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes. When you are practising, there is vajra pride in your practice - a pride in your practice which you do not understand. This pride itself, if you interpret it, is some kind of discriminating wisdom. Then you understand; and with it you know how to analyse, how to investigate your teacher. Then that pride itself becomes a wisdom - this faith and the devotion itself becomes the wisdom. Some people believe that it is some kind of blind faith - I know that some people have this blind faith, but it is not that. I really feel that faith and devotion is the main practice of the Tantric practitioner's practice. If you lack that, then there is no fruit in your practice.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: So this underlies any other form of practice?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, especially in Tantra and Dzogchen. Without a teacher, you cannot attain enlightenment. You have to depend on a teacher. Depending on a teacher means that you have to have this faith - and that this faith itself is the wisdom.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: I have heard some Western people say that they don't need the Vajra Master. That they can rely, for example, on the `collective wisdom of the sangha' instead of the Vajra Master.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: It is said in the Sutras: `Do not rely on the teacher; but on the words of the teacher.' - but you have to rely on the teacher when you are in Tantric practice. Then it is said that it is not only on the projected meaning of the word, but on the hidden meaning of the word - and also not on the conceptual consciousness; but on the wisdom reflection of your mind - you should rely on that. That itself means `guru'; that itself is the guru.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: And that is linked, or brought forth, by the faith and devotion itself?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, because this faith and devotion is one kind of antidote which purifies or eradicates all of the emotions. If you do not have a teacher, you can become very prideful and arrogant.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: It sounds then like the faith and devotion is being transformed into yeshé?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: When you have pure faith and devotion, it means that you have pure awareness - or pure recognition. It is called pure perception.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Is this the same as dharmakaya?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: To a certain length, yes. If you have pure perception, you could express it as dharmakaya. You could also express it as Sambhogakaya or Nirmanakaya. We are talking about guru - you have a guru who is a nirmanakaya of the Buddha. Talking on the nirmanakaya level - that is the practice of Tantra. Whatever is in the beginning, is in the end - the unchanging is the Buddha nature. Whatever we are realising now, is in the end. It is here itself - that which cannot be changed. `Mind and mind-emotion - all thought - is the luminous wisdom.' So to experience that which you experience through pure perception is enlightenment. The pure perception practice is gained through faith and devotion. You could try other methods, too; meditation is also very good. If you do not have meditation it is difficult. But, of course, you cannot just say that you are sitting and meditating, if you do not have pure vision and pure perception. It is depending upon your faith and your devotion that your wisdom opens. I think Tantra is a very direct way of teaching us all of this - recognising our emotion and every thought/concept of our mind as wisdom.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Would you care to talk anything about the differences or the similarities between the red sangha and the white sangha?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: There is no difference in practising between the white sangha and the red sangha. The white sangha's practice is not less than practising red sangha. But in the Tantric practice, the precepts are more than that. In Tantra we have to abandon all negative actions of Body and Speech - and even Mind. This is found in the Fourteen Root Vows. The Tantric teachings say that it is the undistracted method of attaining enlightenment - a swift way - swift and with lots of methods, with skilful means.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: We hear sometimes in the West that because it is swift and direct, that this is why we need to rely on the Lama - to keep us out of the danger; because it is easy to get confused with the freedom and the many, many methods of Tantra.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Starting from the Sutra level to Tantra level, you have to depend on the teacher. There is no Buddha who has never depended on a teacher; this teacher itself is the wisdom. If you just explain it in a physical projection, it is your teacher; but intellectually, or if you are talking on an inside level, it is the wisdom - that whatever is projecting outside is your wisdom. So it is very important to rely on a teacher - starting from the Sutra through the Tantra level - it is said that without relying on a teacher, you can never attain enlightenment.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Would you care to talk at all about some of your teachers?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: My teachers are Kyabje Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, Kyabjé Chatral Seng-gé Dorje Rinpoche, Kyabjé DoDrüpchen - they are all Dzogchen masters. I unfortunately did not receive any teachings from Kyabjé Düd'jom Rinpoche, because I was in an English school when I was very young; but I received some empowerments. But since my uncle is a very close student of Düd'jom Rinpoche, in our family lineage we practise Düd'jom gTérsar. Because most of my teachers were Dzogchen practitioners, so I am more on the Dzogchen side, like Longchen Nying-thig. From them I have received most secret teachings, like Yeshé Lama, and other different empowerments. Ngak'chang Rinpoche shares some of the same teachers that I with - Dud'jom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, and especially Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche. This time, at Pema 'ö-Sel Ling I received the Tröma Nakmo and Machig Labdrön empowerments from Ngak'chang Rinpoche - because there are different lineages which come from different directions. Like the Dzogchen lineage of Khyungchen Aro Lingma, and the different Tantric lineages of Tröma Nakmo and Machig Labdrön's gCod. There are some Tibetan lineages which come directly and some that are diverted through different incarnations - and through that diversion, you get another lineage. That is why I wanted to receive the empowerment of Tröma Nakmo from Ngak'chang Rinpoche. But actually - all our lineages come from the one source.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Rinpoche commented to me that you are very young to be a Khenpo ; and that perhaps you had been recognised as a rebirth of another Lama? Would you care to talk about this?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I was recognised as a tülku at some time; but I was sent to an ordinary school first, so that I would learn English. After some time, my mother emphasised that I should go and study Dharma as I should as a tulku. Then I took up this life style. I went to a Nyingma shédra (monastic school) and completed my studies. It is like a degree award - I have that Khenpo degree
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Did you complete your studies in Bhutan, or did you also study in India and Nepal?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I studied in Nepal and then in India; because Nyingmapas did not have those kind of monastic schools in Bhutan at that time - but lately they have established some schools. When I went, we were more dependent on Tibetan teachers, where we got more Dzogchen lineage. So I went to Nepal and then studied.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: I would like to thank you for your ability to teach in English; it is very fortunate for us in America and the West that you take the effort and time to learn our language to be able to teach us in our own language. I feel very grateful for your efforts in this direction. It is something that would otherwise be very difficult for us.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I hope I can be of help. I have motivation to teach and then to benefit people. And I hope that I can do it in some time.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Are you going to be teaching here at the present Shédra at Pema 'ö-Sel Ling? Or have you been teaching at the Shédra?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Not at the Shédra; because the Shédra is not yet started. But they have this provision for having a Shédra; so I hope, if I can be of some benefit to them, that I will teach - yes.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Do you have any area within dharma studies or practice that you specialise in? You mentioned Dzogchen and the Düd'jom gTérsar?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I don't discriminate so much from Dzogchen and Düd'jom gTérsar ; I am very flexible - I like both. Because I went to a Dzogchen monastery and a Dzogchen lineage, so I feel Dzogchen is what I learned. But I feel because of my family background, we have been practising Düd'jom gTérsar, I feel I am more inclined to Düd'jom gTérsar; even if I went to a Dzogchen school. I can teach from basic Sutra to Tantra, depending upon the students I will be teaching. It happens like this: When you start a monastic school or Shédra, the first year you don't teach Tantra; you start from Sutra. The first year you have few students, and then the next year you have more students. The more senior students get deeper or more profound teachings; and it goes high, high, and then at one level you teach the Tantra.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: From what you have seen of people in America and the West, what is your feeling . . . Which teachings do you think we can most benefit from?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: I think Dzogchen teachings are very important for Americans, very crucial; and then very effective for them, because they don't have so much time - they are more distracted. If you really take the essence of Dzogchen practice, like practising Guru Yoga - and, if you can get it right. It means visualising your Guru as the primordial Buddha, or Padmasambhava - so if you don't have faith and devotion, you cannot get that right. I think you come back again to faith and devotion. Sometimes when you say faith and devotion it means just stupid emotion, or stupid faith - uninvestigated faith. It should be free; that faith should be free from uninvestigated stupidity.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: That is very interesting. So how would you describe intelligent faith?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: This faith means that every moment of your awareness, every moment of your consciousness, you should recognise as Guru activity. Whatever you see is the form of Buddha, the form of Guru. Whatever you hear is the speech of the Buddha or the Guru. And whatever you think is just the mind of the Buddha.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Is this the same as `Taking the Three Kayas of the Lama as the Path', which Ngak'chang Rinpoche described to us today in his teachings today?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: Yes, it is just that. Because Tantric practice is the heart of all this practice. What he described is condensed or refined and made so short, that somebody can practise it to attain enlightenment swiftly. So if you do it correctly, you can attain enlightenment in this very lifetime. That is why we call Vajrayana the Diamond Path: If you do it correctly, you will attain the state of the Dorje Chang, the vajra-holder in this lifetime. But if someone get it wrong, or if they break their `vows of the vajra', they will fall into the Vajra Hells.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Could you describe a little bit about Vajra Hell?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: In Vajrayana we have empowerments. With empowerments we are connected with a lot of people; we become a very big community. In fact, Vajrayana is a very secret teaching, as you know. When an empowerment is given, you are connected with all the people who are there in that environment - what some teachers may call `brotherhood'. So every person who is there in the teaching becomes your vajra brothers and sisters; and there are your vows - your vows and precepts. That practice is very hard; if you practise that one, you can attain enlightenment. But if you think, `Oh, this is nothing'; if you consider that even your vajra brothers are nothing, you break your vajra samayas, the vajra precepts. Ultimately, when you die, you fall into the Vajra Hell; there is no other place. So it is necessary and very important for somebody, even for teachers, to be selective of a student; and even students to be selective of his teachers, so as not to break samaya. Once you have received these vajra vows, you should really be able to put it into practice.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: So what would you advise for people who are interested in being serious practitioners, and when they are at the phase of considering whether they should enter into vajra samaya with a Lama - what should people look for, and question in themselves?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: As soon as you get a vajra empowerment, you become vajra brothers and sisters and you are connected in this time and family - even if you know or do not know the vajra vows. To go into this practice is to study. Back in Tibet, you are not given Tantric teachings unless you have taken the Tantric vows; so it is not that you have to know the Tantric teachings before you take your vows. You can take Tantric teachings first; but then you can take Tantric vows first, and learn the Tantric teachings next.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: In this country we often see that Lamas will come, as Ngak'chang Rinpoche did this weekend, and offer empowerments to people without knowing whether they have studied the Tantric vows. Can you talk about how hat situation that seems to have developed?
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: The teacher comes, so he thinks that he can benefit people. It depends upon the students whether they practise the samaya or not. It is said that the teacher should have the capacity, whether the student is the right vessel or the right student who can really receive the Tantric teachings. The teacher has no bad perception; because in his perception everybody has this sense of enlightenment. That is why Ngak'chang Rinpoche and other Lamas give teachings to everybody, regardless whether he knows or not whether the student can really practise or not. It depends upon us, every individual, to practise these Tantric teachings and to keep the vajra samaya, not to break it. I feel that here, with the kind of teaching Ngak'chang Rinpoche gave, it is a very good opportunity; because Tantra is also a teaching that is given to people of higher understanding. I feel that Westerners are highly intellectual. So if the Tantric teachings are conveyed in the right way to the student, the student can really get it and then put it into practice. It is the way you convey it. I would say, since we are all practitioners of secret Tantra, the most important thing is just devotion - faith and devotion. As you realise endless wisdom - there are stages of realising the wisdom, different levels of realising the wisdom. So as you go on, you will understand; maybe what I am saying - and it will make sense. What Ngak'chang Rinpoche taught is a practice which shows you the nature of the Mind. By meditating as Ngak'chang Rinpoche instructed you can do it; by following these precepts you can discover the nature of Mind. There are different interpretations of these teachings according to different traditions, but the all mean the same thing.
Naljorpa Ögyen Drak-tsal Rigpa'i Dorje: Thank you so much, Rinpoche. I very much appreciate your time.
Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal Rinpoche: You are welcome. We surely hope we will see you again, when Ngak'chang Rinpoche visits Pema 'ö-Sel Ling again to teach.
True Religion is Kindness
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
were delighted to listen to Rinchen Khandro Chogyel's talk at the center on January
5, 1999. I thought you might like to know more about this remarkable person and
so want to share an interview I did with her in October, 1992.
A Kalon (minister) in the Tibetan government-in-exile, former president of the Tibetan Women's Association, and sister-in-law of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Rinchen has been the inspiration and energy behind so many of the social welfare projects the TWA has undertaken to help the Tibetan refugee community in India. Among other projects, the Tibetan Women's Association is setting up day care centers, printing storybooks for children in Tibetan, promoting sanitation and environmental clean-up, caring for the elderly and the sick, and setting up a new school and monastery for recent refugee nuns. Rinchen-la served as Minister of Health and Home and for the last seven years has been Minister of Education. In spite of her accomplishments, her modesty, humility and gratitude to others shine through -- a good example of practice integrated with one's life. Rinchen and I have known each other for several years, and it was a pleasure to discuss with her more deeply her philosophy for socially engaged Buddhism. The title, "My True Religion Is Kindness," is a quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and expresses well Rinchen's attitude... Ven Chodron
TC: What is the Buddhist attitude towards social service?
Rinchen: Buddhism gives it an important place. In Dharma practice, we train ourselves to forget our own needs and pay attention to others' needs. So when we engage in social service, we are treading the path the Buddha showed. Although I am a lay Buddhist, I believe that the best thing in life is to be ordained. When we analyze why, we can see that being a monastic enables one to be more available for human service: one gives up simply serving one's own family to serve the human family. Most lay people are wrapped up in the needs of their own family. Nevertheless, we can recognize that our own needs and others' needs are the same and thus want to work for others' welfare. Because they have professional skills, lay people often have more knowledge of how to help. The problem is that not many people choose to do that.
TC: But we don't see many monastics in the Tibetan community engaged in social service work.
RK: That's true. When we lived in Tibet, before becoming refugees in 1959, we didn't have social service organizations or institutions. We had the concept of working for others' welfare, and that can be acted upon in a variety of ways. For example, in Tibet, if a beggar came to the village, almost everyone gave something. It was similar if someone was sick: all the neighbors helped. This is because we are Buddhists. In those days, people didn't think to organize a social welfare project for a group of strangers outside their village. The concept of giving has always been there however. That is what is needed first. Then, if one acts according to it, others will follow.
For a Tibetan in pre-1959 Tibet, the first good work was to look after the sangha, to offer to the monasteries. I see a change now that Tibetans are in India and in the West. People are beginning to think about donating money to educate poor children and to build hospitals. The concept of giving was already there in our culture, and now people are seeing more and more new directions to give, due to the example of Western people. Although Tibet was materially backward, it was self-sufficient in its own way. The family unit was strong; people in the same family or village helped one another. People were basically happy and self-sufficient. One would rarely see someone who was homeless or someone who was sick and not cared for. Families and villages managed to help their own people, so the thought to have social welfare projects on a large scale didn't arise.
After 1959, when we went into exile, there was a drastic change. People had nothing, everyone was in need, so people were involved in getting what they needed for their own family unit and couldn't help others as much. Now, where Tibetans are doing well, they're again making offerings to monasteries and to schools. Tibetans have the habit of helping those from their own family or village first. But looking at it another way, that's good. One begins with what's near to you and then enlarges it. If we don't help those near to us, it's difficult to spread our generosity to a larger group later. But we Tibetans do need to expand and think more universally. There is fertile ground for this to happen: His Holiness the Dalai Lama guides us in this way and if we discuss it more, then our social service will expand. But if no one acts now, then nothing will grow in the future.
TC: Do you see yourself as one of those who are acting now, as a leader in this direction?
RK: Not really. I think there are many people who think like this and who help in their own ways . We need to get together, to put our energy together. I could count myself among those who are tying to start something now.
TC: What has given you the impetus to become engaged in social service?
RK: It's not something I thought of myself. His Holiness teach es this. Sometimes we're like babies and he spoon feeds us. His teachings and the example of how he lives made me think I have to do something for others. My husband, Nyari Rinpoche, is very practical and from him I've learned the importance of acting instead of talking too much. The inspiration from His Holiness grew over time, there was no particular incident that occurred. Actually, the seed was sown in me when I was small. It grew and I began to see things in a different light. My very up-bringing in a Tibetan family sowed the seeds to be kind to others. In addition, His Holiness is a living example of one who is kind. I'm not doing anything great, but both of these factors -- my family upbringing and His Holiness' example -- have made it possible for me to do what I'm doing now.
TC: Please share more about how your upbringing influenced you.
RK: My mother played a great role. She wasn't well-educated or sophisticated. She was practical and down-to-earth, with a kind heart. Sometimes she had a sharp tongue, but no one minded that much because we knew that underneath, she had a kind heart. In the storeroom of our home in Kham, eastern Tibet, my mother kept a portion of tsampa (ground barley flour, the staple food of Tibet) aside for the beggars. If for some reason, there was no more tsampa for the beggars, she was upset. She made sure there was always some there to give. Each beggar who came, no matter who it was, got some. If someone covered with sores came to our home, she would leave her work aside, clean the person's wounds and apply Tibetan medicine. If travelers came to our village and were too sick to travel further, she would let them stay in our home until they were well enough to go. Once an elderly lady and her daughter stayed over a month. If a neighbor's child was ill, she would go to help, no matter what time of day or night. My mother was very generous, giving food and clothes to those in need. If I'm doing anything worthwhile today, it's due to my mother's example. One of my aunts was a nun and she came from the monastery to stay in our house part of each year. She was kind and very religious. I think my current dedication to the nuns' project originated with her. Her monastery was so beautiful and quiet. It was the place I liked best to run to as a child. I'd spend days in her room. She made lovely toffee and curd -- nothing tasted the same. Perhaps this is why I love nuns so much! Although I never thought of becoming a nun myself, I have always respected and liked the nuns.
TC: What has His Holiness said that has particularly inspired you?
RK: He continuously reminds us that all beings are the same. Just as we like to be treated kindly, so do others. Stop for a moment and imagine someone being kind to you. Feel that. If you could give that happiness to others, wouldn't it be wonderful? So I'm trying hard. First we have to get in touch with our own wish to be happy, and then recognize that others are the same. In this way, we'll want to give and to help others. We must first be convinced of something before we can act sincerely. When we experience happiness ourselves and then see that others are the same, it inspires us to give.
TC: How can we let ourselves feel the happiness that's due to others' kindness without either blocking it out or becoming attached to it?
RK: It's very sad: sometimes people feel happy and want to preserve it for themselves. They don't want to share it with others or give it up. But happiness is happiness, no matter whose it is. If we want our happiness to last long, we have to share it with others. Trying to preserve our own happiness in a self-centered way actually makes us more fearful and unhappy. If you cover a light bulb with a shade, only that small area is lit, but if you take the shade off, the whole area is bright. The more we try to preserve good things for ourselves alone, the more our happiness diminishes.
TC: Some people are afraid to share. They feel that if they give, they won't be secure, they won't be happy.
RK: Unless one has courage, it's easy to feel that way. It comes from our ignorance. However, when we try, our experience will convince us and then our willingness to share and to give will grow.
TC: To help others, we must be able first to assess and then prioritize their needs accurately. How do we do this?
RK: All of us would like to be able to solve everyone's problems in one day. But that's not possible. It's not practical. We don't have the time, money or circumstances to do that. It's important to be realistic. For example, if someone has almost nothing in their house and we don't have the ability to buy all they need, then we must think, "What is most essential to get them going?" and try to arrange that. We don't need to get them the best quality, most expensive thing. The person needs something that is durable and healthy. It's not wise to give them something very expensive that will spoil them, because when that thing breaks, they won't be able to get something of such an excellent quality again and they'll be unhappy. As much as we would like to give the best, we must first determine if that's practical. If someone gets the taste of something nice and later can't afford to get it again, it's more difficult for them.
To be able to help others, we first must try to understand their situation and if possible, to experience it ourselves. For example, the person who always stays in a five-star hotel and takes taxis around town will never know how it feels to sit on a hot road in Delhi. The best way to understand others is to be one with them from time to time, to talk with them as equals. First we need to develop a pure motivation to help, to try to generate feelings of kindness toward them. Then we need to be one with them, that is, to go to their level. Most helpers regard themselves as higher than those they help. Then the people who look to them for help want to please them and aren't always frank about their situation. Being one with them means being with them: "Tell me your problem so we can solve it together. I don't have any special power or ability to change your situation, but we can do it together." We shouldn't approach people with the attitude, "I'm the helper and you're the receiver." Although it's difficult and some times impossible to regard ourselves as equal to those we help, it's important to gradually train ourselves in this way. Once we can do this, others will take us as one of them and will talk to us as a friend. Then we can understand and prioritize their needs.
TC: We need to get ourselves out of the way in order to benefit others. We need to free ourselves from seeing ourselves as a helper. What are some ways to do this?
RK: When others don't recognize us as someone who has come to help them, that's best. So in our own minds, we must first recognize that we and others are equal in our wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. Pain is pain, it doesn't matter whose it is, we must try to eliminate it. If we think like this, we won't see ourselves as special because we're help ing. Instead, we'll try to help others as naturally as we would help ourselves. When we're with others, we may some times have to disguise ourselves so that we don't appear as a "great savior."
TC: How can we counteract any pride that may arise because we help others?
RK: We have to keep pulling ourselves back because there's danger that we fall into thinking, as well as bragging to others, that we've done this or that. When I was thirteen, my teacher in school taught us "Pride comes before the fall." I imagine myself at the edge of a precipice, falling over and never being able to get up again. This helps me to remember how self-destructive pride is.
TC: Another ingredient in helping others is being able to assess our own talents and capabilities accurately. How can we do this?
RK: This can be difficult: sometimes we overestimate ourselves, sometimes we underestimate ourselves. So for me, the best is not to think too much about my ability. I just look at my motivation and go ahead. If we keep assessing ourselves and our own ability so that it becomes a form of self-preoccupation. It becomes a hindrance. Sometimes a problem seems enormous. If I look at the entire situation, it may seem overwhelming, and I may feel I can't do anything. But if I think, "I'll do what I can," and start to act, then gradually things seem to fall in place. I begin without a lot of expectations and hope for the best. The problem may be great and I may want to solve the entire thing, but I don't promise to others to do that. I start small with no promises, and then go slowly and allow space for bigger things to happen. In that way, there's no danger of committing myself to things I can't do and later having to back out, leaving myself and others disappointed. From young, I've been conservative in this way. I tend to be on the careful side, to start small and give room for growth. I don't know what it feels like to want to jump in and start big. Even when I was in school, my friends said I was too cautious. When we're involved in a project, we get an idea of how feasible it is unless we're careless in how we look at it. It's important to think carefully before promising and before acting. We have to think carefully, but if we think too much, it becomes a problem. We must evaluate our abilities before committing ourselves, but if we evaluate too much, we'll never act because the situation may seem too much to handle.
TC: But if we don't think at all, the situation may also initially seem too much to handle. If we think a little, we may see that we can do something.
RK: That's true. If we always think we can take on anything, there's danger that we aren't evaluating things clearly. On the other hand, if we always say no to things because we're afraid of not being able to complete them, there's danger that we'll immobilize ourselves. We need to think reasonably and then act. As we go on, we'll come to learn more about our abilities. We need to evaluate our abilities before committing and at the conclusion of a project, but we should avoid the kind of constant self-evaluation that leaves us paralyzed.
TC: What difficulties have arisen when you have been involved in social service and how have you worked with them?
RK: It's happened that people have asked for help, I've wished to help and have decided to do so, and then later learned that I helped people who didn't really need it. So one difficulty I've encountered is giving help to one person that could have been directed to someone else who was in greater need. Sometimes I tried my best to determine how to help someone and did what I thought best. Then later I came to know that the help was not appreciated. At that time, I must ask myself, "Was I helping the other person or helping myself?" I have to check my original motivation to see if it was pure or not. If it was, then I say to myself, "I did my best. It doesn't matter whether that person was grateful or not." It's difficult to hear someone I've tried to help say, "I wanted this and you gave me that instead." There's danger of regretting that part of our effort that was positive and thus throwing our virtue away. In many cases it's difficult to know what the right thing to do is because we don't have clairvoyance. So we just have to have a good heart and act according to our understanding. Another difficulty that has sometimes arose in helping others is this: once I've decided what is the best way to help someone, how can I make that person agree to let me help?
TC: Couldn't that be pushing help on someone?
RK: When we know for certain that something is beneficial, then even if that person objects, we needn't be deterred. For example, some new arrivals from Tibet aren't used to bathing often and are resistant to doing that. In Tibet it wasn't necessary to bathe often, but the climate in India is different. If we make them bathe, then they'll come to see through their own experience that what we advise is beneficial. One nun who just arrived from Tibet had t.b. For a long time it wasn't diagnosed properly and she became extremely thin. Finally we learned she had t.b. and gave her medicine. By then, eating was so painful. But despite her groaning, we had to force her to eat. At first she cursed us, but as the doctor predicted, the more she ate, the less painful it was. His Holiness was giving the Kalachakra initiation in another part of India at that time, and she desperately wanted to attend. I had to say no because she was still too weak. She was so upset. I explained to her, "If you live long enough, you'll understand why I say this." So when we're sure that our advice is correct, then even if the person involved doesn't initially agree, we have to go ahead and do it.
TC: What if we ignorantly make a mistake in our assessment of a situation and find out later that our advice was wrong?
RK: Then we learn from our experience and try not to do it again. We remember to talk with people beforehand to see what they need and to check up before beginning, but there's no need to feel guilty about making a mistake. Harshly judging ourselves is counter-productive. We learn by experience. There's no other way. We need to have some patience with ourselves.
TC: How do you balance social service with Dharma practice?
RK: I don't really do any formal Dharma practice. My intellectual understanding of Dharma is limited. I admit that. But I have strong conviction in Buddhism. I have simplified the Dharma to suit my own ignorance in the following way: I have great faith in the protecting power of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), but unless I'm worthy of protection, they can't help me. So I must try my best to deserve a little of their help and then request it. My husband and I discuss this. He says that there's no protection out there, that we must protect ourselves through observing cause and effect, the law of karma. I agree with that in the sense that strong faith in the Buddha isn't enough. We have to make ourselves deserving of help by abandoning destructive actions and doing constructive ones. Also, our prayers must be sincere and selfless. His Holiness and the Buddha understand everyone, but unless we pray for a good cause, I feel we have no right to bother them. That's my religious practice: observing cause and effect and praying to His Holiness and to Tara. How do you really differentiate social service from Dharma practice in general? I find there's no difference between Dharma practice and social service. If we help others with a good motivation, then they're the same. And that way I don't need to memorize a lot of prayers and scriptures!
TC: What qualities is it necessary to cultivate to be able to help others in a sustained way? How can we become courageous and strong?
RK: We have to reduce ego involvement, but that's a bit tricky. At our level, ego is like a truck: without it, how will you carry things? We aren't yet able to separate our ego. Thinking about the harmful aspects of self-centeredness helps reduce it, but we shouldn't expect ourselves to be perfect. Unless we accept that we have ego -- that we have ignorance, attachment and anger -- then we'll be in continuous conflict with ourselves. If we say, "Ego is totally undesirable. I shouldn't act if any little bit of ego is involved," then we can't act at all and nothing happens. So we have to accept our imperfections and act nonetheless. Of course, when ego takes us on a trip, deep in our hearts we know it and we have to let go of our self-centered concerns. The less ego is involved, the better we feel. Ego can creep into our motivation; they can be difficult to separate. So on one hand we have to believe our motivation is as pure as it can be and act, and on the other, simultaneously check to see if ego is involved and then reduce or eliminate that. We shouldn't go to the extremes of thinking that our motivation is completely pure and acting like a bulldozer, or thinking that our motivation is totally ego and not acting at all. We can often tell how pure our motivation was from the results of our actions. When we do something half-heartedly, the outcome is the same. The purer our motivation, the better the outcome of our work.
To continue to help others we have to avoid discouragement. Sometimes we get discouraged because our expectations are too big. We get too excited when something goes well and too disappointed when they don't. We have to remember that we are in cyclic existence and that problems are to be expected. In that way, we can remain more balanced no matter what is happening in our lives. Also, it's important not to be overly ambitious, thinking that we should be the best and do the most. If we do what we are able to and accept our limitations, we will be more satisfied and will avoid falling into self-deprecation, which is both unrealistic and an obstacle to developing our potential. So as much as possible, we should try to have a good motivation and focus on what is good.
For more information on the Tibetan Nuns' Project, contact:
San Geronimo CA 94963
Kathy Blanchfield 206 523-9362
interviewed by Ngakpa Rig'dzin Dorje
and Ngakma Shardröl Wangmo
on the subject of Dzogchen
6th of June 1994 in Llanilltud Fawr.
Q Rinpoche, the first thing I want to ask about is terminology. People seem to use the terms 'Dzogchen' and 'Ati Yoga' interchangeably. Does using one term or the other term imply that someone is coming from a different angle to discuss the subject?
No, not particularly. 'Dzogchen' is a bit of a buzz word at the moment - everybody
seems to want Dzogchen, and to be unprepared to do any kind of preparation for
it. This is a variation on the statement: 'I know what I want and I know how to
get it'. That's to say: "I don't know what I want, but I want it now."
Also, people have started using the term 'Dzogchen' as if it implied a stream
of teaching separate from the Nyingma or Bön systems of Tibet. There are
those who think that Dzogchen is something which is above and beyond Buddhism
and Bönpo; but historically, this is complete nonsense. It is nonsense to
talk about Dzogchen as separate from Buddhism or Bönpo, in the same way that
it is nonsense to talk about Zen as if it is different from Buddhism. Zen is Buddhism.
Zen is not separate from Buddhism.
Within Buddhism, Dzogchen is a vehicle of the Nyingma School. It's the ninth vehicle, and it cannot be separated from the Nyingma School or the Lineage that goes back to Garab Dorje. I should hasten to say that this does not mean that the Nyingmapas own Dzogchen. Nor does it mean that the Bönpos own it. Anyone from any school can practise Dzogchen. There have been many Lamas from all the schools who have practised Dzogchen; in fact several Dalai Lamas have been Dzogchen masters, such as the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. But if you are going to discuss the origin of Dzogchen - it comes from the Nyingma Lineages. It also comes from the Bönpos.
So a characteristic of Dzogchen is that it's the ninth vehicle of the Nyingma
system. Is Dzogchen a vehicle in relation to Bön, or how is it classified
R It's the ninth vehicle of Bön. The nine vehicles of the Bön system are similar in some ways to the nine vehicles of the Nyingma system, but only in terms of the inner Tantras; their other vehicles are different. The formative vehicles of the Bön system are shamanic vehicles, but I'm not qualified to talk about that in too much detail - I'm not a Bönpo.
Q What is your view of Bön?
R I have the greatest respect for the Bön teachings, it's just that I am ignorant of its structure in terms the vehicles that would equate to Sutra and outer Tantra. I have received Bön teachings at the level of Dzogchen Trek-chod and Dzogchen Togal, and find them to be in completely accord with the teachings of Buddhism.
Q Where does this idea come from that Dzogchen can be talked about on its own?
R The idea comes from the Dzogchen view of the Buddhist teachings. From the Dzogchen View we wouldn't speak of the nine vehicles, but of the three vehicles. That is not to say Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana; but Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. This is because Dzogchen sees the vehicles in terms of how they relate to the three spheres of being. There is a lot of confusion around the different views of how the vehicles are categorised. The vehicles are divided in different ways according to which school of Tibetan Buddhism is describing them. The prevalent way of dividing the vehicles, uses the categories of: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. This is particular to the Tibetan schools of Buddhism. Hinayana is actually not a stream of Buddhism that is practised by anyone as such; it's merely a philosophical construct. Hinayana simply exists according to the Tibetan analysis of the range of Buddhist teaching. This Hinayana construct relates to the capacity of individuals, rather than referring to a Hinayana school.
Q What does it mean that Hinayana is not a stream of Buddhist practice?
R Well, no one practises Hinayana.
Q I thought that is what was practised in Thailand and South East Asia?
R No, not at all. Hinayana means 'lesser vehicle' and concerns the initial drives and perceptions that lead a person toward the position in which loving kindness becomes the major motivational force. What is practised in those countries is called Theravada. One should never confuse Theravada with Hinayana. No one practises Hinayana, but it's there. It's identified as a form of Buddhism, as an initial stage of the path in terms of what leads a person to question their situation. But no one practises it as a spiritual practitioner.
Q How does the Nyingma School see Hinayana?
R In the Nyingma school Hinayana is spoken of as being twofold, that is to say: the Shravakabuddhayana and the Pratyekabuddhayana. The Shravakabuddhayana is 'the vehicle of hearers'. It's a useful concept because a hearer is somebody who hears something and passes it on. They have not realised it, but they're impressed by it - they see it as a philosophy. Interestingly enough, this applies to many people in the West today. People hear teachings; then, when they've heard enough, they give workshops about it [laughs]. Maybe in some very, very primitive sense this could be something like the Shravakabuddhayana.
Then there's Pratyekabuddhayana. The Pratyekabuddhayana means the vehicle of the 'solitary realiser'. That is someone who says: "I'm going for my own enlightenment". This is in distinction to Bodhisattvabuddhayana or Mahayana practitioner who considers the enlightenment of all beings to be the fundamental motivation for practice. The Mahayana practitioner strives to generate boddhicitta; the dynamic of active-compassion. Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana are Hinayana vehicles, and Bodhisattvabuddhayana is the Mahayana vehicle.
Q Are there practitioners of Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana?
R [laughs] Not officially. No one practises Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana these days in Tibet, or elsewhere for that matter, because all Buddhists regard the development of loving kindness toward other beings as paramount, whether they consider themselves as Mahayana or Theravada practitioners. Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana exist merely as constructs which describe certain 'takes' on the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.
Q So what would you say the purpose is in knowing about Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana?
R Well, it's important to have some sense in which the other vehicles could be approached in these styles. For example, I have noticed, that many people seem to approach Dzogchen in the Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana styles - and of course, when they do this, they are not actually practising Dzogchen. If you practise Dzogchen merely for your own realisation then what you are practising is not Dzogchen at all - it's called Pratyekabuddhayana with 'Dzogchen' pretensions or Pratyekabuddhayana with the outer form of Dzogchen. Likewise, if a person simply studies Dzogchen without practice, and then passes on these teachings to others - that is Shravakabuddhayana with an illusory coating of Dzogchen theory. What is important here, is that it is not the form of the practice that defines the practitioner - it's the motivation.
Q Is it possible then, merely to 'go through the motions' of practice and be untouched by what you're doing?
R Certainly. That is a very, very significant problem for anyone who follows any religion. A person can seem to be doing everything 'by the book' and yet get nowhere at all. Some people can become very knowledgeable about the teachings, and engage in a lot of practice, but it doesn't necessarily mean anything.
Q Could such a person actually go backwards or become more deluded than they would have been otherwise?
R Yes. That is a very real danger. That is a danger especially within the context of Tantra and Dzogchen. There are numerous stories in the Tibetan tradition of yogis - funny how it's always men isn't it - who 'attain' black-freedom, or rudra; a state of intense almost one-pointed egomania. But you don't just find these examples in stories or in the ancient history of Tibet and India; you can find examples of black-freedom 'adepts' today. You can find them in the West too.
Q In the Tibetan tradition?
R Sadly yes.
Q Amongst Western people?
R Yes. Amongst Western people, and amongst Tibetans. It really is very sad, but then that happens in every religious system. It happens wherever people are involved. I feel it is very important to emphasise kindness, especially to people interested in Tantra or the teachings of Dzogchen. If a person cannot really connect to a sense of kindness toward others, then the teachings that stress the non-dual approach can simply be distorted into a method of cultivating some form of sanctified misanthropy.
Q Is the idea that boddhicitta is organically connected with enlightenment, so that you couldn't attain enlightenment as a solitary separate person who wasn't connected to all the other beings?
R Yes, especially from the perspective of Dzogchen in which bodhicitta or chang-chub-sem is the energy of the enlightened state. But it's not actually possible to be disconnected from other beings. If you practise, then chang-chub-sem naturally manifests; it is inherent in every being.
Q I've heard that there are differences between schools as to how the vehicles are organised.
R Yes that's true. Generally, in the West, you'll hear people talking about Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We've discussed Hinayana and Mahayana, and all schools of Tibetan Buddhism agree that these are distinct vehicles, but when it comes to Vajrayana it's not as clear cut. In the Gelug school, for example, they speak of Tantra or Vajrayana as part of the Mahayana vehicle. They speak of Mahayana in terms of exoteric and esoteric Mahayana. So from that point of view there are only two vehicles: Hinayana and Mahayana - with Mahayana divided into exoteric and esoteric sections. The esoteric Mahayana is Tantra.
Q Could you give a definition of what a vehicle is?
R A vehicle, thegpa or yana, has to have three aspects. It has to have a base, path, and fruit. There's sometimes lively discussion amongst the different Tibetan Buddhist schools concerning which bodies of teaching can legitimately be said to constitute vehicles. Those who say there are two vehicles, Hinayana and Mahayana (with Mahayana divided into exoteric and esoteric phases), are making the statement that Tantra is not a separate vehicle with its own base, path, and fruit. Implicit in this statement, is the injunction that you cannot practise Tantra without first practising Sutra. That would be the case, from this point of view, because Tantra is being denied the status of having a distinct, separate, or unique base from which a path could evolve. From this view, a level of experience would have to reached before people could practise Tantra; but, it would be stated that people could not reach such a level without having practised Sutra. According to this view, Sutra is the base of Mahayana practices that include the esoteric Mahayana practices called Tantra. These esoteric Mahayana practices are arrived at after substantial practice of the exoteric Mahayana practices. Another aspect of this point of view would be that Sutra and Tantra practices could not be contradictory, especially at the external level.
if you divide Buddhism into the three yanas of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana,
you implicitly make the statement that you can begin with Vajrayana. Once a body
of teaching and practice is described as being a vehicle, it must be recognised
as having its own unique base and path. And if it has a base, you can begin with
it. You have to be able to begin with anything that's described as a vehicle.
Once you say Tantra is a vehicle, you must be able to begin with it, or it makes
nonsense of the idea of vehicles. It is impossible to say: "Tantra is a vehicle
but you cannot begin with it". So either it is a vehicle, and you can begin
with it, or it's not a vehicle and therefore you can't begin with it.
Q So this is the resolution to the controversy that appears in the textbooks; that there are Lamas who will say that Dzogchen is for everyone who wants to practise it, and yet there are Lamas who will say that Dzogchen is a practice for very advanced practitioners. That is a problem for a lot of people, as it seems to be a complete contradiction, but you're saying that there's a clear resolution to that?
R Yes. Exactly. Exactly the same applies to Tantra and Dzogchen. Dzogchen can either be viewed as a vehicle in itself, or as the innermost practice of Tantra. There are always contradictions when you compare the views of the different vehicles, but each view is entirely coherent within its own mode of functioning. Each view is very useful for those for whom each view is useful. There's no right or wrong in terms of the different views of the different vehicles - there are just different views. There are different views that are useful for different people with different levels of experience and karmic connection.
For some people it might be quite harmful to practise Tantra, and for such people it's important to practise Sutra. For other people it's useful that they practise Tantra or Dzogchen. But for anyone practising Tantra or Dzogchen, it's important that they are open to the practise of all the Buddhist vehicles according to the instruction of their root teacher.
Q If a vehicle can be defined as having its own base, path and fruit, and if the fruits are all the same - why would anyone practise Sutra first and then practise Tantra? Why wouldn't they just go through the whole thing and get enlightened in the Sutric context? Why would they go on to a different vehicle? Why wouldn't they think they'd finished when they got to the fruit of Sutra?
R Vehicles aren't necessarily practised until the fruit is realised. In terms of going through each vehicle, one actually needs to practise a vehicle until one reaches a pragmatic point at which one can approach the next vehicle. Naturally if one followed it to realisation there'd be no point in looking at any other vehicle. But there comes a time when you can roller-skate well enough to get on a bicycle. You don't have to be the world champion roller-skater before you look at a bicycle. You can be a proficient roller-skater and then try out a bicycle. You can learn to ride a bicycle, but you don't have to win the Tour de France before you get a motorbike. The theoretical construct in which you need to accomplish each vehicle before going on to the next is a little too linear... it's a little too stratified to relate to actual life experience.
Buddhism is actually very pragmatic. Buddhism is not an imposition on reality. It's not a constructed philosophy that forces human beings to proceed according to rigid directives that take no account of the diversity of experience. To proceed through the yanas you simply have to get 'some' taste of the goal - you have to reach a pragmatic point for take-off into the paradigm of the subsequent vehicle. You have to pass the cycling proficiency test of Sutra, as it were; before climbing astride the Harley Davidson of Tantra [laughs] or the Vincent Black Lightning of Ati-yoga. You simply have to be able to experientially comprehend another vehicle.
There are two ways of looking at this. There's the 'structural theoretical point of view', and there's the 'pragmatic experiential point of view'. Pragmatically, you can start practising within a vehicle once you begin to have experiences of its base. To arrive at the base for Tantra you have to have experience of Emptiness. Having experience of Emptiness doesn't necessarily mean that you have a complete experience of Emptiness - you just need sufficient experiences to have undergone a shift in your view of reality. That doesn't mean that every time you sit you go into the Empty state...
Q How would the different schools look at moving between the different vehicles?
R The different schools have different ways of looking at which aspects of Buddhism can be considered to be vehicles. The argument that exists within certain factions of the Nyingma School, for example, is whether Dzogchen is a Tantric vehicle or whether it exists within its own category.
Q So when someone uses the term 'Ati Yoga', are they using that term in order to imply that Dzogchen is the highest vehicle of Inner Tantra?
R It's possible to infer that... but actually the terms Ati Yoga and Dzogchen are synonymous.
Q Then there's Rig'dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's term Maha Ati which one doesn't see elsewhere... What did he mean by that?
R Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term 'maha ati' in order to speak of Mahamudra and Maha Ati within a comparative context. However, I don't think that anyone else uses that term. That doesn't make it wrong or right; it's just a different way of using language. One has to be flexible you know [laughs]. Anyhow... if you regard Ati Yoga as the peak of Tantra, then of course you have to practise the other stages of Tantra first. But if Dzogchen is a vehicle then you can begin with Dzogchen - if your teacher proceeds from this basis. There's no right or wrong in this, it's simply a question of whether you regard Dzogchen as a vehicle or not. If you regard it as a vehicle then you can begin there. If you don't regard it as a vehicle, then of course you have to work gradually through Tantra until you come to Dzogchen.
I think it's very important to remember that each vehicle will contain within it a ngöndro which is the method by which the base of the vehicle can be reached. So the Tantric ngöndro (the prostrations with refuge and chan-chub-sem; the khyil-khor offering; the Dorsem recitation; and, the lama'i naljor) is the method of reaching the base of Tantra. Instead of moving through Sutra in order to arrive at the base of Tantra; you can begin with Tantra. In order to practise Tantra you have to be at the base of Tantra, so if you're not at the base of Tantra, you practise Tantric ngöndro in order to arrive at the base of Tantra. In terms of Dzogchen you would practise the four naljors in order to arrive at the base of Dzogchen. And this is why I stress the four naljors as much as I do. The main perspective from which I teach stems from Dzogchen. Dzogchen is the perspective of the Aro gTér, which is why the four naljors are so important.
Q It's interesting that the ngöndro of Tantra, which takes you to the base of Tantra, consists of Tantric style practices. And the ngöndro of Dzogchen, which takes you to the base of Dzogchen, consists of Dzogchen style practices. How is it technically possible to do these practices - that take you to the stage where you can do these practices - when they so resemble the practices of which they are the ngöndro?
R Well, take shi-né for example. Although it is practised in a non-dual manner within the four naljors, shi-né, is also a Sutric practice. According to the Aro gTér, which stresses Dzogchen Sem-dé very much, shi-né with form occurs in dual and non-dual aspects as the first of the four naljors. This makes it quite possible for anyone to begin with shi-né. The difference is that one is expected to progress quite quickly through the stages of shi-né. When I say 'expected', I mean to say that it is an expectation within the four naljors that such a thing is possible. It is taken for granted that one has the karmic connection to have met with these teachings and to have the interest to practise them. These teachings are also given with the transmission of Dzogchen Sem-dé, which provide tremendous inspiration for the accomplishement of the practice. This inspirational quality also exists within the Tantric ngöndro, in terms of enabling the practitioner to proceed swiftly through the stages of experience that prepare him or her for the practice of Tantra.
Lha-tong is also found in Sutra; and as for nyi-méd, that is found in Tantra. Lhun-drup is entirely a Dzogchen practice, but by the time you have proceeded through the practices of shi-né, lha-tong, and nyi-méd there is a distinct possibility of being able to experience lhundrup. There are other cross-over points throughout these practices as well; shi-né for example. The reason shi-né is used in Tantra is because you have to have the capacity for shi-né in order to enter into Tantra. You find that the four naljors span the previous vehicles in very succinct form.
Q You've described Dzogchen very beautifully as a complete path, but if you look around the world at the different kinds of Lamas who are teaching Dzogchen and the different bodies of students who are practising it, hardly anybody seems to be practising Dzogchen and nothing but Dzogchen. It always seems to be taught alongside Tantric practices. Now what's the background of that?
R It's taught alongside Sutric practice too. From the perspective of Dzogchen, there's no concept in which one doesn't practise all the yanas. It's very important that one is open to practising all the yanas because one finds oneself in different conditions. In a sense there's no such thing as a Dzogchen practitioner - no such thing as someone who only practises Dzogchen. This is a modern misunderstanding. One may practise with a teacher whose main teaching perspective is Dzogchen, but one would never describe oneself as a Dzogchen practitioner; one would describe oneself as a Nyingmapa. What's important about the idea of being a Nyingmapa, is that you're open to the whole stream of practice. You're open to all the yanas, and you practise that under a teacher. So you wouldn't say: "I'm a practitioner of Dzogchen", you'd say: "I'm a Nyingmapa; I'm a student of Dudjom Rinpoche, and I practise what he advised me to practise". You wouldn't say: "I'm a practitioner of Mahayoga" or "I'm an Anu Yogi" or something of that sort - that would be a trifle ludicrous.
Q Why wouldn't you do that?
R You wouldn't do that, because, to say: "I'm a Dzogchen practitioner" means that you live at the experiential base of the Dzogchen teaching. Actually you simply practise what's appropriate to practise under the guidance of your teacher. Your teacher might be coming from the stand-point of Dzogchen in his or her teachings; but even so, he or she will give teachings from all the vehicles. He or she will give guidance according to the particular practitioner in terms of what is required in the moment.
Q Someone asked me
recently: "Why isn't Dzogchen taught openly?" She didn't mean 'openly'
in the sense of 'not secretly', but in the sense of: free from some structure
that involved lineage, lineage buddhas, devotion say to Padmasambhava and Yeshé
Tsogyel. She was asking why she was being encouraged to take those kinds of things
very seriously. She found that for her it was a burden. What would you say to
R I'd say that she sounded like a child asking her parents why she couldn't have as much ice-cream as she wanted to eat - all the time... I think there are many different issues here. One issue is: why is she attempting to compartmentalise Dzogchen as if it were a thing on its own? Why is she imagining that she's being encouraged to do anything anyway? She's simply saying I want the dog's blood, but I don't want the dog - yet I still want it to be alive and to run around like a dog. She would see it like that of course, which makes her frame of mind rather tragic. It's a greedy and grasping state of mind. I remember a man who once lived in Cardiff. He talked to me about his experience of Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche. This man was involved in the practice of ngöndro and he was doing his 100,000 prostrations - which he had to do three times - and at one stage he said to Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche: "This is really difficult for me". All Gegen Khyentsé had to say was: "I never asked you to do it". The young man had expressed his desire to practise, and so Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche had given him a practice. Receiving this complete stone wall was very helpful to him.
You see, traditions exist, and if people want to participate in them... then they participate in them. If people don't want to participate in them... then they don't participate in them. If you say: "What really appeals to me is brain surgery" but refuse to learn anything about human anatomy - if you dismiss the need to study to be a doctor and a surgeon... but merely bluster about not wanting to do 'all that stuff': "I just wanna cut some guy's head open, y'know - I mean, I wanna get into all that wormy stuff in there, that's the stuff that appeals to me, it looks so much like a walnut doesn't it..." What does all that nonsense mean? It means nothing. You may as well ask: "Why can't I learn it in the scout hut?", "Why can't you get a scout badge for brain surgery?"
Q So you need really to look for a teacher and then follow the teaching as prescribed by that teacher?
R Yes. You look for a teacher. The teacher comes first, because you have to find somebody who for you exemplifies the state to which you aspire. Then you follow that teacher's methods. Now if you get some concept in your mind, through reading books on Dzogchen or Mahamudra, and you get the idea that you want 'this bit' exclusively, then that becomes quite problematic. It's impossible to find a teacher who teaches in this compartmentalised way - unless you go for some New Age breed of Dzogchenpa or Dzogchenma who cooks up their own rigpa risotto. Otherwise you go to authentic teachers and waste their time kvetching about why they don't just teach Dzogchen on its own because: "That's what I want..."
That is a completely distorted way to approach Buddhism, because you're working in terms of your own subjectivity. You're only working according to what you want. I suppose everyone feels that they would like to be practising the highest practice. In a sense there's nothing wrong with that - why shouldn't people want the best? But to become petulantly obsessed with that is to fail to grasp the point that what you actually need is something that's going to help you evolve. If all you imagine you can use is the highest possible technique - especially when it doesn't apply to your own level of practice - that's utterly crazy.
Q But you do teach Dzogchen method, don't you Rinpoche?
R Yes. I teach Dzogchen method. And I teach people who can't possibly apply it, at the level of Dzogchen. They'll just be practising the appearance of Dzogchen. But, I always point out to people that when they're 'doing this thing that's called Dzogchen'; that it's not Dzogchen they're doing unless they're actually at the base of Dzogchen. To be at the base of Dzogchen, you have to have had experience of rigpa. If someone has no experience of rigpa, then it is impossible to practise Dzogchen. I would say that in a certain sense, perhaps I shouldn't teach Dzogchen. But at another level it's really valuable to teach it because people are very inspired to hear such teachings and such methods. Often after hearing about Dzogchen people are much happier to struggle on with their shi-né. The methods of Dzogchen have a function whatever stage of practice you've reached. So my stance tends to be, that I will teach Dzogchen methods and people can use them; but, they have to understand that they're not practising Dzogchen unless they have arrived at the base for practising Dzogchen. They're using a Dzogchen formula as an ancillary method to help them with their shi-né. That doesn't mean they're practising Dzogchen.
Now in terms of invocations of lineage Lamas and all other aspects that go along with practice within a tradition, it's important to understand that such things are designed to inculcate a sense of belonging to the lineage. That is very supportive to a practitioner, and has the function of providing inspiration to practise. In the West in particular we're a little bit addicted to isolating the active ingredient. We do this with medicine, where it can have its own problems, but with spiritual practice it can render the isolated 'active ingredient' completely useless. You can't isolate the active ingredient in terms of spiritual practice.
The older I get, and the more I deal with people who attend open retreats, the more I understand about the sociology of religion. I think, in a certain sense, the aspect of all this to which some people object is religion. They object to religion without realising the valuable function it performs. Religion has an array of functions that are useful for people. People who don't live in a coherent culture with a religion tend to be prone to nihilism and depression. And if within that context, you want to practise in isolation, and for your own advancement, then what you're practising is a version of Pratyekabuddhayana - that is to say, it's Hinayana path, but one that is probably non-functional because it is without discipline. If you have this kind of 'Hinayana' view... then how can you practise Dzogchen? It's purposeless.
What's fundamental here is to be aware of one's actual motivation and orientation. With any religion, the orientation involves the practitioner with belonging to something greater than oneself. In the Mahayana, this involvement reaches a fantastic peak in terms of dedicating one's practice to the benefit of all sentient beings. In Tantra, you turn that motivation inside out, and it is galvanised through devotion to the teacher and the lineage. Those are the aspects of the path that keep you practising when you become frustrated.
Practice is a pain in the arse - literally. Practice is a pain in the anatomy of your body, speech and mind, and you have to have something greater than yourself to keep you going through that frustration. There has to be some kind of energy there that is not primarily self-orientated, self-valdating, or self-referencing. This is why I tell couples who are having problems that they can work on it as long as they have the energy to work on it. If they don't have the energy to work on it any more, if they don't actually love each other any more, how can they work on their problems? How can you let the other person have their way, and be generous to them when there's no selflessness that you're feeling energy toward them? The same applies to practice; you have to have energy towards something apart from your own inner processes. If people merely deify their own inner processes, they're not even 'Hinayana' practitioners - they're merely ineffectual egomaniacs. That is a real problem... I would say [laughs]. So this is a very long-winded answer to your question - I'm sorry.
Q It's really important, it opens up a very important area... Just to get back to an expression that you used about the development of the practitioner, the development of the individual, you're opening up this whole area of existing as someone who practises and someone who has a life and part of that life is spent doing practice and part of that life is spent living. Maybe you could say something about how you or other Lamas that you know of teach people to practise and teach people to live in terms of the different vehicles. Because it sometimes seems that people are practising in terms of one vehicle and then living their lives in terms of another vehicle, and there are some interesting combinations that go on around that...
R It's often expressed, in terms of the vehicles, that outwardly you practice Hinayana, inwardly Mahayana, secretly Vajrayana.
Q What's the distinction between inwardly and secretly?
R Inwardly means your motivation - it should be compassionate. Secretly applies to kyé-rim and dzog-rim practices - the practices of visualisation and mantra, and the practices of the Spatial-nerves and Spatial-winds. Outer actions accord to Hinayana, which means the vinaya, ethics and discipline. Inwardly, in terms of motivation, you act according to compassion. Secretly, you live within the mandala of the Lama.
Q Doesn't that exclude Dzogchen from the series... unless you can count Dzogchen as being part of Vajrayana?
Q So what of Ati Yoga?
R You could say that was the ultimate, 'yang-sang', or 'most secret' level - but this is not really mentioned within the context of that way of expressing the nature of the individual with regard to the vehicles. Outer, inner, secret and ultimate are a four-fold way of discussing practice but the 'ultimate' category is not commonly part of this definition. This definition is simply one way of expressing the yanas according to the 'Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana' classifications. There are many definitions. This particular definition is geared to monastic practice.
In the Aro gTér, we approach practice from the perspective of Dzogchen - and we approach everyday life from the perspective of Tantra. This means that practice is approached according to awareness of one's condition. What governs the style of practice in which a person engages, is what that person needs at any particular point. This is why we emphasise teaching in terms of the function of practises - how they operate at the level of the individual. People have to have a good understanding of how practices work, so then they will be able to go away and practise whatever they need to practise according to their own perception of their situation. Then, when they run into problems, they discuss it with the Lama - there's an interaction...
The Tantric view of how one practises, is that one does a practice every day, and continues until one's Lama advises moving on to another practice. The style we use is that one's practices are like a toolkit rather than a set of obligations which have to be performed. The practitioner employs practices with awareness, according to the time, place, and the functioning of one's energy. We approach leading life according to View of Tantra. We talk about emotions, and of embracing emotions as the path. We talk about experiencing everyday life as practice; and, in this context the language of the teachings becomes pyrotechnic. When we discuss practice, the style of our language is usually fairly mild. It's fairly even and spacious, because it comes from a Dzogchen perspective. Dzogchen doesn't really have pyrotechnic language, because it deals with the clear blue sky, rather than the billowing cumulonimbus and the forked lightening that can ornament the sky. But when it comes to everyday life, and riding the energy of duality... the whole atmosphere becomes charged - the language becomes slightly more fierce and colourful, in terms of experiencing the texture of everyday life.
Q Do other teachers have different takes on that?
R Sometimes, yes. Maybe often - it depends on the vehicle which the Lama is using as the base in terms of his or her teachings.
Q What other combinations might you come across? I asked you about Dzogchen and Tantra before and you mentioned also Dzogchen and Sutra having similarities in terms of language.
R Yes. Dzogchen and Sutra have a similar tonal quality. But Sutra is not so much a 'relaxed' expression, as an expression that has equanimity of language. The language of Tantra is naturally spiky because it deals with the ambivalence of Emptiness and Form and that electricity. That is why the symbolism can often be exciting, to say the least...
Q What was the combination that was used in the Aro Gar? What was the balance or predilection that people there had in their practice life?
R The Dzogchen perspective.
Q So what of the sadhanas?
R There are no sadhanas in the Aro gTér - simply visualisation and mantra. There was no mandala aspect, in terms of every awareness-being having a retinue - simply the meditational deity. There was the awareness-being and the mantra; and the practice was self-arising.
Q In thinking of the Aro Gar and in thinking of your apprentices today, you seem to like people to get a lot of experience in practices without form. But then you also stress the idea that everyone has a lifetime Tantric practice - you also like us to get a lot of experience of particular yidams starting with Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel. What's the particular benefit of having both, of actually working hard to get experience in both of those?
R These are the two prongs of practice, in terms of wisdom and compassion. The practice of awareness-being, of awareness-spell, of visualisation and mantra equates to the practice of compassion, or the energy of communication. The formless practices like the Four Naljors, the Four Da, the Four Chog-zhag from the three series of Dzogchen - these are the wisdom practices. So we always practise both. It's very important. The characteristic style amongst the yogic community was to combine the practice of Dzogchen with wrathful awareness-being practice.
Q Why specially wrathful practice?
R Because in order to practise Dzogchen, it's considered important that one is able to work with energy in a very direct way. The wrathful practices are a method of turning up the volume on everything so that one is confronted with one's own patterns. One is confronted with patterns in terms of motor vehicles that you want to destroy. The easiest way to destroy every duality-driven mechanism within yourself is to stamp on their accelerator peddles. The wrathful practices stamp on the accelerator peddle.
Q What happens to the neuroses then?
R They crash into the first brick wall; that's the idea [laughs]. Karma simply collides with itself and explodes.
Q You mentioned that this is a way of working with energies very directly... Why is that a more useful method than working with liberating the energies through formless practice?
R Because when one is engaged in formless practice, everything is coming purely from within yourself. Whereas if you're working with symbol, you have assistance.
Q From where?
R From the symbol.
Q That's something outside yourself?
R Well it's something that you haven't previously found within yourself. It's outside yourself because even though you're engaged in self-arising you've had transmission of symbol. Maybe it's the symbol known as Dorje Tröllö. The Lama describes Dorje Tröllö and gives instruction as to how you arise in this form and sing the mantra that is the vajra essence of his speech. In a sense this is outside yourself. Unlike formless practice, you're not simply allowing anything to arise. With the practice of lha-tong you find presence of awareness in whatever arises, so there's no imposition of anything external to you. Obviously in self-arising the symbol of 'you' becomes 'you', and is no longer external. But it still has an external origin and as such is helpful because the awareness-beings are inspirational.
We all require inspirational practice as long as we exist at the level of being symbols of our enlightened state. As long as you're a symbol of your own enlightenment, you can make use of symbol - so it's important to use symbol, and not to use symbol. What is important, is to recognise that one is a symbol of one's own enlightened state. For a being who exists in that symbolic form, the practice of symbol is always valuable. You always practise Tantra along with Dzogchen. You also practise Sutra. You practise all the yanas according to the advice received from the Lama.
Q Maybe it's time to ask you to say something about Dzogchen practices... I was going to ask you to start by saying what's the meaning of this division of Dzogchen into the three series?
R The three series of Dzogchen equate with the three statements of Garab Dorje, the Tsig Sum Né-dek - 'hitting the essence in three points'. These three points are: direct introduction, remaining without doubt, and continuing in the state. Sem-dé is related to direct introduction. Long-dé is related to remaining without doubt. Men-ngak-dé is related to continuing in the state.
Sem-dé means the series of the nature of Mind - Mind with a capital 'M'. This has been wrongly translated by certain scholars as 'Mental Series'. This is maybe not so surprising, because scholars are very literal. If you translate Sem-dé it literally does mean mental series. 'Sem' means small-'m' mind. But 'sem', when the word is used in Dzogchen terminology, is simply a contraction for 'sem-nyid', which is the nature of Mind - capital-'M' Mind. When we discuss Sem-dé we're not talking about anything to do with conceptual mind. We're not talking about conceptual mind because that's not an issue at the level of Dzogchen. So... Sem-dé means 'the series of the nature of Mind'. Sem-dé is the series of Dzogchen with the most explanation within it. So it's the most detailed aspect of Dzogchen in terms of transmission through explanation. Sem-dé equates to direct introduction. It offers explanations as direct introduction and offers methods in terms of direct introduction.
Long-dé relates to remaining without doubt, and has much less explanation within it than Sem-dé. It bases itself on the fact that one has already had direct introduction and concerns itself with remaining without doubt. It concerns methods of returning to the state of rigpa through the felt texture of subtle sensation, in which one remains without doubt. Doubt is an experience. Being free of doubt is also an experience; it's a state in itself. So Long-dé is concerned with sensation, experiential sensation. We find presence of awareness in the dimension of sensation a great deal in Long-dé. The Long-dé practices of the Aro gTér contain the practice of sKu-mNyé because it works with the zap-nyams - with profoundly subtle experience. In many different teachings of the Long-dé there are particular postures using belts and sticks (gom-tag and gom-shing or gom-ten) and supports of various kinds that have the function of pressing on certain points. These pressure points are used to cultivate sensation, in which one finds the presence of awareness. sKu-mNyé is very much like this. It utilises sensation through methods of stimulating the tsa-lung system.
Men-ngak-dé relates to continuing in the state. It contains very little explanation indeed. There are simply directions for how to continue in the state. There are many, many methods that are spoken of within the Men-ngak-dé, but their character is very difficult to discuss outside the level of experience required to understand their significance.
Q There seem to be two aspects of Sem-dé according to the Aro gTér, in terms of the four Naljors and the four Ting-ngé-dzin?
R Yes. The four Naljors are the ngöndro of Sem-dé. The four Ting-ngé-dzin are the actual practice of Sem-dé. This is a teaching that is specific to the Aro gTér, because it stresses the importance of the Sem-dé. The Sem-dé does not play a large part in the other lineages of Dzogchen - neither does the Long-dé - but in the Aro gTér the Sem-dé and Long-dé are very important as the ground of being able to relate to the Men-ngak-dé. It is specially emphasised within the Aro gTér that a great deal of time needs to be spent developing the experience of each of the Dzogchen series.
Q I thought that the three series were non-gradual?
R Yes. They are non-gradual, but they are increasing inaccessible and increasingly direct. As long as practitioners are practitioners and not Buddhas - there will always be methods of approach.
Q What are the divisions of practice within the Long-dé and Men-ngak-dé?
R With Long-dé there are the four Da, or the four symbols. These four are introduced in detail in terms of the eyes being open, the focus of the eyes, the fixation of the eyes, and the tongue (and the other physical aspects). With Men-ngak-dé there are the four Chog-zhag, or the four methods of leaving it as it is. With the four Chog-zhag the position of the body is whatever posture the body adopts in the moment of the chog-zhag. The position of the eyes is wherever they're looking in the moment of the chog-zhag. The condition of mind is as it is, with whatever is there in the moment of the chog-zhag. With the four chog-zhag you cannot say that that's not how I am at the moment: my body's in the perfect position; my eyes are in the perfect position; and, my mind contains what it contains. That's all correct according to the four Chog-zhag; we all find ourselves like that, but for some reason we're not realised. So that's Men-ngak-dé. You can either practise it... or you can't.
Q I don't know
what you mean by that?
R I can imagine. That is the essence of Men-ngak-dé. Aside from that, there are particular methods of Men-ngak-dé, but that's the most essential aspect of the four Chog-zhag.
Q To what extent is Men-ngak-dé secret?
R Men-ngak-dé is secret inasmuch as you can only practise it if you can practise it. So I talk about it quite rarely. Some Lamas, of course, would not speak of it at all - because Men-ngak-dé is not understood by people who have not experienced rigpa. I think in the West there are various takes on that. In terms of responses, people could either hear about the four Chog-zhag and be: irritated because they didn't understand; confused because they didn't understand; or, there's the personality type that simply delights in incomprehension, who might say: "Wonderful, I've never heard of such a far-out thing, that's just so great!'
Q You seem to be describing attraction, aversion and indifference, or rather: aversion, indifference, and attraction, as a response to the teachings...
R Naturally - those are the ways in which we respond on the basis of dualism. But there are also other possibilities. One could be inspired because one was touched by something, something really powerful, and maybe transmission is possible... Which is often why these things are actually taught. They're taught as inspirational devices, so whether one can practise Men-ngak-dé or not; hearing about it can be a great inspiration.
Q Can I return to the idea that there is some progression within the categories of Dzogchen - the way these three series seem to be connected in a somewhat sequential or hierarchic arrangement... Could you say more about that?
R Sem-dé, Long-dé, and Men-ngak-dé all have the same base, path and fruit, so in that way they cannot be hierarchic. But they appear to be hierarchic because they are increasingly non-explanatory in the way in which they are communicated. But they are simply different aspects of the same thing. They're only sequential in the sense that they require stronger bases in terms of rigpa. Sem-dé requires flashes of rigpa. Long-dé requires moments of rigpa. Men-ngak-dé requires sustained moments of rigpa. However, they all require rigpa. They all require rigpa as the base experience for practice. The only thing that is sequential within Dzogchen is trek-chod and togal. They are sequential. There is no purpose in trying to practise togal before one has achieved some level of stability in trek-chod.
But for introducing practitioners to Dzogchen by having them do a ngöndro
practice in Dzogchen style, would they always be introduced to the ngöndro
of Dzogchen Sem-dé?
R From the perspective of the Aro gTér, yes.
Q So with the other series there is no way of practising them at the level of ngöndro?
R Yes, there's always a ngöndro. There is also a ngöndro for togal.
Q Is that the forced shi-né using the letter 'A' within circles of the five colours?
R Yes, combined with exercises that resemble Tsa-rLung.
What then is the main reason why you're so keen to see the sKu-mNyé taught?
These are Long-dé practices, aren't they?
R Yes, they're Long-dé practices; and the main reason I teach them alongside Sem-dé is that the trül-khor exercises that are associated with the Sem-dé are too strenuous for most people. They also require a great deal of flexibility. Only people who are proficient at hatha yoga stand a chance of being able to practise trülkhor, so I teach sKu-mNyé because I feel that it is very important for practitioners to be doing some kind of physical exercises.
Q What is the most you could hope for those new to practice on Open Teaching Retreats, for example, who may be not even be regular meditators? What do they get out of it?
R Keeping fit.
Q So in other words, it's because people need it as an adjunct to any level of practice.
R Yes. What
I feel is important is that people need to be able to practise. If one says that
it's required that one is able to do lotus posture in order to practise shi-né
then there'll be many people who will never practise shi-né. That seems
a pity. There's a small cycle of trül-khor associated with the Dzogchen Sem-dé
in the Aro gTér, but these practices all require a level of stamina and
flexibility and suppleness of the body that many people do not have. I teach sKu-mNyé
because there are many practices within that system that anyone can do. The significant
point for me is that people are actually able to practise. I start from there.
sKu-mNyé is valuable because anyone can practise it.
When one enters into retreat there's a limited amount of time that each individual is able to sit. So if you're going to do a week's retreat or three week's retreat, it's not possible simply to sit all day, day-in day-out. It's not possible to do that unless you've built yourself up to sitting for four or five hours a day anyway as part of your everyday life. But if you're only used to practising for an hour a day, there's no way you can suddenly go into retreat and be sitting for eight or nine hours a day. You'd be in very great pain and there's no purpose in that. What's important therefore is for someone to be able to enter into a short retreat in which they alternate between sitting practice and some form of physical exercise. Now sure... you could just get out the Canadian Air Force book and do those exercises. That would function. But it would seem a pity to do that when you could have some form of exercise that was linked to practice.
So these sKu-mNyé are very useful. They stimulate the tsa-lung system so they give rise to both nyams and zap-nyams. One can practise sKu-mNyé and then enter into the meditational posture that follows. The sKu-mNyé exercises are followed by meditation in the lying down position, and this doesn't put the same strain on the body as when one is sitting. That's another reason I consider it useful. Also if one has problems of either being sleepy or scattered, sKu-mNyé is very useful just for having a breath of fresh air. If you get stuck in your meditation, you can practise sKu-mNyé, and that will create some freshness in which you can resume your sitting. It's valuable for people to integrate sKu-mNyé into their everyday lives, because it's useful to be fit. It's useful to be supple.
sKu-mNyé also functions in terms of promoting health, because it has the subsidiary function of allowing a freer movement of the rLung. Freer movement of rLung contributes to a greater degree of physical health. sKu-mNyé also relaxes some of the physical problems that arise with meditation. The sitting posture is not really a very natural stance for the body over long periods of time. The body, as a biological organism, is not really geared to remaining motionless for long periods of time. It's not natural and because it's not natural, the body is not always going to relate to it too well. You can find many old Lamas who are crippled from years of sitting. Now in one sense that could be a little bit of a shame, to let go of your body to that degree. Obviously if you gain realisation it doesn't matter if you're crippled or not, so it depends which way you look at it. But in the yogic tradition it's seen as being important that one respects the physical form. In fact in Tantra that is quite an important statement. It's one of the root downfalls to deprecate the physical form, because the physical form is the basis of realisation. So from that perspective you wouldn't want to punish your body to that degree.
Q We practise the ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé in connection with sKu-mNyé from the Long-dé. I just wanted to ask you how the trül-khor functions as a Sem-dé practice in connection with the sitting practices from the Sem-dé. What's it intended to do?
R Trül-khor is another system of working with the tsa-lung. Trül-khor is like a variety of hatha yoga and pranayama combined with movement. You move from one posture to another, linking the movement with breathing. This is a practice which cultivates natural breathing. The quality or condition of the sem depends on the quality or condition of the rLung. When the rLung is disturbed, then the sem will be disturbed and sem-nyid will not be apparent - the practitioner will be caught up in the experience of sem as totality. Experiencing sem as totality is reflected in unnatural breathing. To practice Sem-dé you need to be able to breathe naturally - that is really quite important.
'Khor' means cycle or circle, and 'trül' means apparitional manifestation. It's an imposition on the breathing. Trül-khor in its etymology has some connection with 'mechanism'. You're using your body as a mechanism that harmonises energy. The practice of trül-khor facilitates the harmony of energy at the level of rLung, with regard to the achievement or realisation of natural breathing. Working with the tsa-lung system at the level of Long-dé is different - there you're encouraging various subtle phenomena. Whereas the practice of trül-khor is allowing the rLung to enter into its natural condition in order to become more relaxed - more naturally peaceful. However sKu-mNyé will also have the effect as a secondary function. sKu-mNyé really is such a valuable practice - I cannot emphasise it enough.
Q I think Lama Namkha'i Norbu Rinpoche translates the term trek-chod as 'cutting' in the sense of cutting apart a bundle, something that's been a bundle of things that's been tightly constricted together and then cutting it apart so that the elements in the bundle simply drop down, relax, where they happen to be, into their natural condition. So when you're practising the trül-khor, is it a similar process of encouraging or allowing the elements to relax into their natural condition along the same lines?
R Yes. The practices are very similar. In fact if you look at the practices throughout the Buddhist vehicles you can see how each level of practice is a subtler version of the one before.
Q Could you explain what trek-chod is?
R I translate trek-chod as 'exploding the parameters of conventional reality', or you could translate it more simply as 'blasting through' or 'cutting through' or 'exploding the state'.
Q I've always been aware of the way that you've very deliberately chosen a more dynamic translation of that than the one that's traditional and literal. So it's not just a question of cutting something apart, cutting a tape and then something falls down - not just cutting it but actually blowing it away. Can you explain how that works in terms of things relaxing into their natural condition? Where does the explosion come from in trek-chod practice?
R From the use of syllables such as 'Phat' or 'Ha' - they explode the state. The symbol of cutting the cord that holds together a bundle of sticks, which then just fall wherever they fall... there's more dynamism in that explanation than you imagine. If the bundle is very tightly bound and it's cut... the sticks could fly! They might collide with each other and spin in the air before they land on the ground. When they land on the ground, fwap, then they're simply where they are... but they might do a few somersaults on the way. It's a bundle of sticks that's spoken of, not a little package of feathers. We're not discussing a handful of tampons that bounce gently on a shag pile carpet...
Q So it's quite important when we're sitting, that wherever we find ourselves, that we're aware of your explanation of it in terms of exploding. What we're really trying to do is to generate a state that can be exploded.
Q So, that is really what trek-chod is all about, getting into a state where explosion can be effective.
R Imagine what it's like receiving a shock... For example; maybe someone sneaks up behind you and shouts. At first you're shocked, but then there's a feeling of relaxation when you know it's just a friend who was out to play a trick on you. If you can feel the relaxation that comes from suddenly tensing up, but realising that there's nothing to be tense about... there's a moment of space there. There's a space in which conceptuality is not particularly active. You can let go of everything. You can just relax into the sensation of whatever is there.
Q So the game is partly tricking ourselves out of the illusion of unenlightenment? How is this the ngöndro of togal?
It's not. The ngöndro of togal, is something different again. You have to
stabilise trek-chod, or achieve some stability in trek-chod before contemplating
Q What would stability in trek-chod be?
R Stability in trek-chod means that you can enter into the state of rigpa. And that it's not merely a flash in the pan every other year. Basically, you have to know rigpa. You don't have to be in the state of rigpa continually, but rigpa has to be a facet of your practice. If you don't know rigpa, you can't think of practising togal or togal ngöndro.
Q What about all the Western people who go into dark retreat?
R Who can say... maybe they've all established the knowledge of rigpa... I would guess that it might actually be a meaningless experience for most people. When I observe the outer actions of some of those who've gone into dark retreat... I met one woman in New York who attended a teaching that I gave. She told me she'd just had a week in dark retreat and she said: "Boy a lot of stuff came up for me."
Q What did you reply to her?
R I said: "I bet it did, that must have been quite an experience for you" [laughs]. And she said: "Yeah, yeah it really was". And I said: "Well thank you for telling me". It seemed rather sad really. If you're at the level where a lot of 'stuff' is coming up you should be with a therapist, rather than attempting dark retreat. You may as well say: "I had sex last night, and it was really painful, I sat there beating my genitals with a steak tenderizer..." What would you say to a person who said that? I guess you could say: "Yes, that must have been quite an experience!" I don't want to appear negative with regard to Western people engaging in advanced practices, because I believe that we are actually capable of such things with sufficient practice. But why waste time sitting in the dark unless you are really prepared for it?
In a way it's a shame even to know about these practices. It's far more inspiring when you hear about a practice for the first time, and you're actually capable to entering into it. Then it's very fresh! Then there's some authentic excitement about hearing the teaching and instruction for the first time. Then actually going into dark retreat might mean something. But if all you do is go into this black place and come out at the other end as screwed up as when you went in. If you're getting divorced and you're full of acrimony about your partner, or you've got this problem with this person and you burst into tears about that person... what has this got to do with stability in trek-chod? If you have knowledge of rigpa then you're not likely to be emotionally incontinent. That doesn't make any sense at all.
Q My experience is that Tibetan Lamas are highly delighted to meet Western people who are humble and don't pretend to be doing the highest practices.
R Yes... But on the other hand I don't really like to encourage people to be too humble either. To be too humble or to be arrogant are both problematic. Maybe it's just fine to say: "I'm a Nyingmapa". I was asked once, if there were students with whom I couldn't work. I answered: "People who want to be enlightened. And the more intensely they want to be enlightened, the less I can work with them. People with whom I can work are people who want to be Nyingmapas - people who obviously want to cultivate their experience but who are not hung up about some sort of rapid advancement". I feel that's really very important at the level of how these teachings can actually be integrated into Western society. If we become a group of people who are obsessed with achieving exalted states, then Tibetan Buddhism will always be a cult. That's actually one of the hallmarks of a cult: that one group of people have special experience that other people don't have.
Q You mentioned the value of being a member of a religion earlier; could you say a little more about that?
R Being a member of a religion has aspects that are very healthy. It can also have aspects that could be very unhealthy, but I don't think I need to say much about that, do I?
Q No, Rinpoche, I think most people reading this interview would have a clear idea about that.
R Good... well... maybe good, who knows. Anyhow, being within a religious framework gives you purpose in your existence. It demarcates times of day, times of the week, times of the month, and times of the year. It gives you a name which has meaning. It gives you a history to which you can relate, and which gives you perspective in terms of where you are and how you fit into the picture. It provides you with meaningful and fulfilling activities with which to engage yourself according to your interests, skills, and abilities. These are all aspects of spiritual culture that promote emotional well-being in people. These are all aspects of spiritual culture that promote a sense of belonging. Now obviously [laughs] these things are not ultimate - not Dzogchen [Rinpoche accentuates the word in a peculiar way].
Obviously these things may be derided by some people. But they do have a function - and what's important is that one is able to take advantage such functions in terms of one's own existence. I've found that people who insist on attempting to adhere to some ultimate view tend to get depressed. You could say: "Everything's the same, there's no need for symbol, there's no need for outer form". Of course that's true: there is no need for symbol - unless, of course, there is a need for symbol. Ultimately there's no need for symbolic practice. But if you're not actually experiencing in terms of the ultimate state then you must be experiencing at the level of symbol; in terms of being a symbol of yourself. If you are unenlightened, if you are living at the level of dualism, then you're a symbol of yourself... in which case... there is a need for symbolic practice.
Q That's the perennial Western argument: 'Why do we have to do all this stuff?' I've heard that very often.
R Yes... And the answer is: "Ultimately you don't... but relatively... you do". It's simply whether or not you are actually in the ultimate position. If you're not, then you need the relative practices that correspond to your relative condition. The proof of this can be found just by looking at people who tell you that they only practise Dzogchen... I mean how are such people with each other? How are such people in their lives? Are they cheerful, easy-going, happy, interpersonally functional, well-adjusted people? Or... are they people who may be in need of therapy? If someone says, "I'm a Dzogchenpa" and you see a person who's in need of therapy; what sense does that make? It doesn't make any sense at all to me.
Q The lady who I referred to earlier, who asked me why can't Dzogchen be taught openly and all this stuff, she's actually someone who used to suffer from severe depressions. She even attempted suicide not so long ago.
R I'm sorry. Depression, of course, is buddha family neurosis. Buddha family neurosis or Space element neurosis is very intelligent. It's very open to the ultimatist view... so that's quite understandable. Unless ultimate view accords to your real experience, it's merely an 'ultimatist point of view' - and that is in itself depressing. It's depressing, because you're abandoning things that might, on a relative level, be very helpful.
Q I've asked about your own methods of teaching; and I've asked about what went on in the Aro Gar - but I also wanted to ask you about how Dzogchen is transmitted. What are the different methods by which these teachings get passed on?
R With Dzogchen the methods of transmission are either oral, symbolic or direct. Direct means Mind to Mind.
Q Could you explain exactly what 'Mind to Mind' means?
R Mind to Mind transmission means that nothing has to happen at any observable level, in terms of any of the sense fields.
Q Including thought?
R Including thought.
Q So you don't necessarily know it happened until afterwards?
R Mmmm... say more.
Q Well... you might say: "What was that?" or: "What just happened?"
R Yes... that's possible. Anything else?
Q So it's a completely undescribable experience.
R Yes... What else could it be?
Q It's an experience without content... it's something which is not conceptualised, occurring at any moment... Is it happening now?
R It's what it is. It's how it describes itself: Mind to Mind - sem-nyid to sem-nyid - nature of Mind to nature of Mind. [pause] Nature of Mind to nature of Mind... There is reflection. Reflection means instantaneous sparks of awareness. It might last. It might not last. Mind to Mind transmission means that the nature of the teacher's mind and the nature of the student's mind are identical in that moment.
Q And any moment of Mind to Mind transmission would be identical to any other moment of it? It's the same experience every time it happens?
R Yes. It's the same experience whenever it happens - to whomever it happens. People may well express this in different ways, but in the style of their expression there will always be something that communicates itself to anyone else who has experienced transmission.
Q Could you say something about what happens with symbolic transmission?
R Symbolic transmission, in terms of Dzogchen, can exist in two forms. There is the formal symbolic transmission, and the informal symbolic transmission. The formal symbolic transmission has more association with oral transmission, and the informal symbolic transmission has more association with Mind to Mind transmission. So theses two types of symbolic transmission create a bridge between oral transmission and Mind-to-Mind transmission. In the formal style the teacher might hold up a symbolic object, such as a crystal or a mé-long. Say it was a mélong. The teacher would hold up the mélong and say: "Mind is like the mirror; its natural capacity is to reflect. Whatever appears in the mirror simply appears - it cannot condition the reflective quality of the mirror. But how do you see the mirror? You see it by virtue of its reflections. The reflections are not the mirror but you can't take them away from the mirror. The reflections are not separable from the mirror". The teacher speaks in such a cryptic way about the mirror. If the teacher spoke at too great a length about the mirror, the transmission would cease to be symbolic transmission, and become oral transmission. If the teacher answered a question about the mirror, the transmission would cease to be symbolic transmission, and become oral transmission. Just to say something very brief and poetic about the mirror is called formal symbolic transmission. Then there's informal symbolic transmission; which is illustrated in a story I tell a lot of times about Dza Paltrül Rinpoche and his teacher Do Khyentsé Yeshé Dorje and the way he throws Dza Paltrül Rinpoche on the ground and pulls him around by his hair. That is 'informal symbolic transmission'... That can exist in anything the teacher does or says.
Q So is it that the actual transmission experience is the same as the Mind to Mind experience but it just happens through something rather than nothing?
R Yes. You could say that.
Q In formal symbolic transmission, there are three symbols: there's the mirror, there's the faceted crystal, and there's the crystal sphere. I get the impression that all these sets of three tend to overlap. Are these also connected the way the Dzogchen series are connected, the way the Tsig Sum Né-dek are connected?
R Yes. You could say that as well.
Q So they're not hierarchical either...
R No. That's right, they're not hierarchical either.
Q And in oral transmission, it's in the process of hearing the explanation that the student experiences the state that's being explained?
R Yes. And in these three methods you just get a larger window or longer opening in which transmission can occur.
Q So oral transmission is the largest window?
R Yes... or the longest in duration.
Q I get the feeling that it's not the case that large windows are better, but it would seem preferable to have more oportunity for transmission... There seems to be some kind of contradiction in how I am understnding this.
R Yes [laughs]. There's a space in which you can receive transmission, and that space is created by the Lama. The Dzogchen master provides the possibility for a tear to occur in the fabric of dualistic perception. He or she provides that simply through being there. Although longer opportunities, or larger windows, provide greater openings for transmission to be recognised; they somehow contain the transmission. With direct transmission the opening for transmission to be recognised does not contain the transmission - the transmission is uncontained, and vastly more powerful.
Let's look at each of the forms of transmission and elaborate on them a little. In the case of oral transmission, the space in which transmission might occur could last for the length of an explanation - like the gradual appearance of a window. If it's formal symbolic transmission, the space in which transmission might occur could last for less than a minute - like a momentary window that lasts until the moment in which you observe it. If it's symbolic informal transmission, the space in which transmission might occur is just a flash that happens in relation to a specific event - like some kind of flickering window that appears and disappears unpredictably. If it's direct transmission... then it's a windowless window. Or, you could say, the concept of 'window' simply ceases to apply. It becomes a question of 'window' being vast expanse, or limitless window. When everything is window there is no need of windows. When you realise that everything is window then there is no more need for transmission - the vast expanse of everything as window becomes continuous transmission of itself.
Interviewed on September 30, 1992
JS: Rinpoche, can you say a little bit about your background?
PR: Actually, the historical background of the Dzokchen Ponlop lineage goes back to the eighteenth century. That's when the first Dzochen Ponlop appeared. And he went to Eastern Tibet with another teacher and established their seat in the Derge region of Eastern Tibet. And so most of the incarnations of the first Ponlop, including himself, have been in the yogic line, which is basically a kind of lineage putting strong emphasis on meditation practice and realization. And so, actually, it is a very strict Nyingmapa monastery, and the previous Ponlop, who was the sixth incarnation in line, was born in the same family as His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. And so, he was the youngest brother of His Holiness, and so they spent a lot of time together in childhood at Tsurphu, the Karmapas' seat in Central Tibet, and then they escaped together in 1959 to Sikkim via Bhutan. And so, the previous Ponlop actually had a very strong connection with His Holiness, not only because of the family relationship, but he also had a strong spiritual connection. He received the major Kagyu empowerments and teachings from His Holiness, and he also had visions of different -- well, he had one vision of Mahakala, the two-armed Mahakala, a Karma Kagyu protector. And he painted, he painted this vision. He was a natural and gifted artist. He never learned painting, but all his paintings are very precise and very kind of professional, very beautiful paintings. We still have some of them in Rumtek. So this Mahakala tangka is in possession of His Holiness in Rumtek, and I have one of his paintings too. He died in Rumtek, and then I was born there. I was born in Rumtek in 1965 and recognized by His Holiness. And as far as I heard from my parents, His Holiness told my father before I was conceived. So he recognized me basically before I was conceived. And His Holiness even gave the details of my birth date and so forth, it was very kind of interesting thing to learn from my parents.
JS: Everyone is always curious to know, or maybe its just me (laughter), what does that mean to you, do you have a memory of that, the past?
PR: No, no nothing! I need some memory chips (laughter)! No, but I don't have any lucid memories of the past incarnations of what I was recognized, but because of my strong devotion and confidence in His Holiness, I think it must be something (laughter).
JS: What is your overall sense of Buddhism in the West?
PR: In the West? Well, I think its very interesting that actually I've been to many western countries many times and observed Tibetan Buddhism growing in every country. And I feel, generally, that it is a very fortunate time, you know, that Dharma is really growing in some aspects. And at the same time, I feel in all these past decades of Buddhism in the West, not only Tibetan Buddhism, but, in general, all the Buddhist schools, it seems it has not really taken root in western culture. And I feel it is really kind of time at this point to work on a deeper level of transplanting Dharma in western culture. It is time to take the root. And so in order to take Dharma complete root in western culture, it needs a lot of effort, a lot of work, you know, it is a mutual effort and a mutual work of spiritual friends and Dharma students.
JS: Your answer kind of hints a bit about the future, maybe if you could elaborate about it, what is your sense of what the future holds, will it take root in this way?
PR: I think it could. It could take root, since Buddhism does not have any strong form, any concrete form. I make an analogy of Buddhism: it is like pure water, and so it is very transparent, it is a pure essence. And so, depending on the container you pour this water in, it will adopt that shape and reflection to that color. It doesn't have any restrictions to shapes and color. It's water but not ice. And we're trying to kind of concretize this water, in many ways, you know, and that's the point where we have problems, that we try to concretize, solidify this water, try to turn this water into ice. Make a concrete shape and form, and there's a problem.
JS: When you speak of root, do numbers of people have meaning, like as rooted as Christianity?
PR: No, not in that sense, in the sense of quality of practice and knowledge. Buddhism is basically a self-knowledge, you know, so that's a very important element. And also one of the most important elements is to manifest this pure, genuineness out of spirituality into every aspect of our life, different aspects of our life must have this reflection of this self-knowledge, reflection of this genuine knowledge, transcendental knowledge. And so yes, so it is very much connected to our self-knowledge and how it manifests in our life. So it has to manifest in everyday life, not only the life of adults but also the life of our children. So if you don't work on this level of rooting Buddhism or transplanting Dharma in this generation, you could try to deny it, postpone it for tomorrow and tomorrow, and it will be difficult, much more difficult. And so considering not only our generation and our life but also hopefully benefitting future generations, it is very important.
JS: Could you talk about the term no-self, selfless? It seems to be a tricky one for us.
PR: Actually, it's a very long explanation, but to make it short, generally speaking, in Buddhism, all of the teachings are categorized into two realities or two truths, where you have the conventional truth and then the ultimate truth. So on the level of conventional truth there are no assertions, such as no-self. There's no strong teachings or practices talking about emptiness, selfless nature, and stuff like that, you know, but conventional is the conventional. So it works on an everyday life kind of aspect, an everyday life kind of thought pattern.
But when we come to the ultimate level, the second reality, which is the fundamental essence of our self, then that needs a lot more examination then this level, a lot more analysis within our mind. We have to know our existence clearly, much clearly. And so, therefore, when we do the analysis, when we do the examination to see what is self, what do we mean by "self," "existence of self," then it is basically very hard to pinpoint, pinpoint any solid existence. And so it's basically talking about being free from conceptual clinging, grasping to the self, being free from these kind of three-dimensional glasses that we are wearing, like a window of duality, being free from this window of duality of conceptual world or labelling and seeing the true nature of self, experiencing the genuine nature of self, nakedly, or more thoroughly. So, our relative or conventional communications and experiences are basically very similar to an experience of wearing these glasses of virtual reality [the third real-time animation computer program] seeing everything kind of truth distant and there, but actually it's all illusion.
JS: What is meant by the term "the three realms"?
PR: Well, three realms, we talk about, in general Buddhist Abhidharma literature we talk about three realms, that is, the realm of desire, the realm of form, and the realm of formless existence. And so that is a three. That is sometimes known as the ultra three existences, you know. And so realm of desire is referring to our human realm, and many other beings at a similar level with similar experiences. And we have the form realm and formless realm. These two are the realms of, these two are heavenly realms actually. And the realm of desire also includes a certain level of heaven realm, a certain level of gods' realm.
JS: When we recited the supplication for the rebirth of His Holiness Karmapa, it described Karmapa as having the three unsurpassable qualities of compassion, wisdom, and power. Can you say something about that aspect of power?
PR: Actually this power seems to be the manifestation of wisdom and compassion, the preceding two qualities. And so you know, yes, power is basically the energy, the wisdom, the transcendental energy of overcoming all the negative force of sentient beings, or for the overcoming obstacles, and that nature is basically the power. But when we expand this topic of power, then it also calls to, like, the vajrayana aspect of karma or activity. Vajrayana activity also includes this power, which in that sense is more. It has this power, this sense of conquering. At the same time, it has the quality of, like, magnetizing. So it is actually doing the two functions: first it overcomes, it conquers; and once it has overcome, then it has the quality of magnetizing.
JS: How does that work on a person to person level? I remember when I met the Karmapa I was quite overwhelmed and touched by somebody I had never met before, but just very changed. Is that related? Conquering and magnetizing?
PR: Yes, definitely! It's basically, as I said, the quality. It's basically the shining out of the quality of compassion and wisdom, manifesting out in many different aspects. So one aspect is actually conquering our ego at that level, you know, overcoming our ego of superiority, always thinking "I'm superior to anyone" and always having this basic kind of self-importance, self-clinging. And at that very level of meeting His Holiness, at that special event, then you kind of forget the ego, you kind of, as you described, are overwhelmed, and so you are totally enveloped in this light of compassion, this light of wisdom. So it's kind of actually giving you sense of gap experience, gap experience of, yes, fragment experience of His activity. It's a fragment in connection with our thought pattern, but it's a full experience in its own nature, in the nature of true experience of our mind, and in every aspect, it's a full experience. Even just a simplistic, very momentary flash or gap experience, that's also full experience in its true nature. But if you look at this gap experience from the view point of our conceptual reality, then it's a fragment experience.
JS: What do you dream about when you sleep or when you're awake? (laughter)
PR: Basically, I have very little dream, dream in the context of our usual reference. But, all life experience is a dream, a lucid dream. And actually, what I dream about in my life is, basically, I guess as we all are, dreaming about overcoming our tendencies, our basic tendencies, basic fear that we all go through, are going through. Yeah, I look at that as being simple, as there's nothing much to dream about. (laughter)
JS: In your sleeping, are you maintaining mindfulness and awareness?
PR: Trying to!(laughter) Its not easy!
JS: What are your fears?
PR: I guess as a samsaric being we have a certain common fear, our basic fundamental fear, is our, is death. And so that's the same with me, that fundamental fear of death with which we have to work and transcend.
JS: The actual physical dying or the moment to moment dying?
PR: Both, yes. In Buddhism, death means birth. Death is another expression of birth, and birth is another expression of death. And so it has many different levels.
JS: It's a rule that the best way to work with fear is to go right through it. What do you think of that idea?
PR: Penetrate our fear. That's the basic Buddhist method. That's the basic Buddhist teaching you know. So Buddhism is very rich in this context of working with our fear, the fear of death, for example, or any kind of fear. And so most of the methods are basically penetrating our fear, directly looking at fear and transcending that fear. And so one reaches the state of fearlessness. Or one goes beyond fear.
JS: You need preparation?
PR: We have to habituate. We have to habituate; we have to get used to this transcendental meditation or practice of transforming our fear in our meditation states first and then taking that into everyday life, and everyday experience of fear.
JS: What would it mean to be enlightened and live in an enlightened society?
PR: Well, enlightenment is awakening oneself completely, being in the state of awakened. And so that basically means completely being aware of our ego, completely having control over our ego, overcoming our ego, and breaking through this territory of egocentricity. And so living in an enlightened society or enlightened community would mean living in a world of ego-free zone! (laughter).
JS: Have we ever had ego-free zones?
PR: Well, We get a glimpse of it. A glimpse is a glimpse, as soon as you get it, it's gone; it's miles away.
JS: Where have you had glimpses of that?
PR: Well, basic Buddhist, especially Tibetan Buddhist meditation of vipasyanna is actually working on that level of developing this basic experience. So egolessness, basic experience of fundamental space. So being in an enlightened society has a lot of space. Going back to our fundamental space, experiencing that fundamental space and living in it. And so, just ego-free zone has a tremendous sense of space.
JS: I recently learned that if you were to enlarge the proton of an atom to the size of a dime and enlarge its orbiting electron to the size of a dime, that, in that proportion, the electron would be orbiting the proton at a distance of one quarter of a mile, a dime circling a dime one quarter of a mile away. That's how much space is right in the atom just on a mundane physical level of space, I suppose. It makes you think -- do you think there's any relationship?
PR: Yeah, I think so. I think, generally speaking, I feel there's a great relationship between modern physics and Buddhism. It would be very beneficial to combine in many aspects, yes.
JS: Have you done that?
PR: Unfortunately, my knowledge in modern physics is very little -- almost none, zero. But I would like to learn more. Yeah, I like to learn everything! (laughter)
JS: That's a problem, when you want to learn everything!
PR: It's a problem, but at the same time, it's a very good basic Buddhist heart, that is, to want to learn, being skeptical and, yes, in some sense its a craving for knowledge. I think that its a good quality.
JS: Well thank you very much, I appreciate it.
PR: No problemmo (laughter)
the Buddha Dharma in the West
(An Interview with His Eminence Garchen Truptrül Rinpoche)
by Georg Feuerstein
following interview was conducted by Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., founder-president
of Yoga Research and Education Center (Santa Rosa, California) at the Garchen
Buddhist Institute, Chino Valley, Arizona on December 10, 2001. Garchen Rinpoche
is a Drikung Kagyu lama who was known in the thirteenth century as the Siddha
Gar Chodingpa, a heart disciple of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon, founder of the Drikung
Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In ancient India, he had incarnated as Mahasiddha
Aryadeva, the lotus-born disciple of the great Nagarjuna. In the seventh century,
he was known as Lonpo Gar, the minister of the Tibetan Dharma King Songsten Gampo.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: First of all, I want to thank you very much for these two incredible retreat days. I feel I came empty-handed as a beggar and was given so much. When waking up this morning, I felt that I should not even bother you with an interview, but then I thought that other people will no doubt benefit from it.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: It's no trouble at all, because as long as whatever we do benefits others, I am very happy to do anything, anytime.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Thank you. When the Buddha Dharma migrated from India to China, to Tibet, to Burma, and so on, it was each time adapted to the local culture. So, I believe, Buddhism has two dimensions to it: the Dharma teachings themselves and the cultural aspects. Buddhism has arrived in the Western world as well, which in many ways is very different from the East, and I would like to ask you, Rinpoche, what this means for us.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: It's true that when Buddhism was adapted in different Eastern countries, such as China and Tibet, there were certain cultural influences. But that doesn't contradict the Buddha Dharma, which has never been diluted. Also, keeping our own culture intact and then adopting Buddhism will prove much more useful. Dharma can be practiced in many different ways, depending on a culture's style and also the level of understanding of individuals. But the essence of the whole teaching is loving-kindness and compassion. So long as we have that, culture, race, or gender do not matter. Then we are on the right path.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Eastern cultures have many things in common, including a tremendous respect for tradition, while Western culture, as you know, is almost the opposite. There is so little regard for tradition that I perceive this to be a genuine difficulty in the transmission of Buddhism to the West.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: The basic distinction between Western people and Eastern people is that in the West people are taught to have high self-esteem, which is really a feature of the ego allowing you to stand on your own two feet.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Individualism.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: Individualism, a desire for individual freedom, and pride are taught as an antidote to failure: If I'm proud of myself and my achievements and have self-esteem, then I will be successful. But success in the West is rather temporary, because people aim at fulfilling their desires, which relate only to this life. This orientation is therefore limited. But again there is no intrinsic contradiction in the West's orientation, so long as everything is done with loving-kindness and compassion. With that in mind, we change the whole mood of our being. If we have high self-esteem, maybe we can later on transform that into an appreciation that human life is very precious, that we have a life that is fully equipped with the eighteen qualities, and that we are "proud" of having a Buddha Nature and are potential Buddhas. This is not self-cherishing, or the ego, but an attitude rooted in real understanding.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: The two major traditions in the West are Judaism and Christianity, and often when people come to Buddhism, they come because they feel frustrated with their own traditions. But then often they become frustrated with Buddhism as well. What is being done wrong here?
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: What is important is not our comprehension of Buddhist philosophy but our understanding of how to practice the Dharma. We need to understand the essence of the teachings. If we understand the essence of all the teachings, then we find that there is no difference between Christianity and Buddhism. As Buddhists we highly value compassion and loving-kindness toward all sentient beings. Especially in the Drikung lineage, we have the aspiration prayer in which we put our enemy first and then our parents. In the same way, Christians admonish, "Love thy neighbor," or "Love they enemy." We must practice compassion, generosity, patience, and so on. In the same way, Westerners say that charity begins at home. There are so many things that are the same. For instance, the seven branches of practice have a lot of similarity to the seven deadly sins. What really matters is that we understand the deeper meaning, the essence of the teaching, and then put it into practice. Just having an intellectual grasp of the Dharma isn't enough. We must have experiential knowledge, and that can come only by meditating on the deeper meaning and applying it.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: One of the difficulties is that when Westerners approach the Buddha Dharma, they are imprinted with our Western education, which encourages intellectual rather than experiential learning. It seems built into our system for people not to have the right approach. I know many people who after many years give up because they have a certain handicap. Then the question is: What can we do in order to convey to people early on that what matters is something else. After all, there are not even very many teachers who have the right approach. Many Westerners end up spending a lot of time studying the Dharma teachings, which I think tends to play into our whole Western tendency of intellectualizing everything. Then years later they ask themselves, "What am I doing?"
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: The most important thing is learning to learn. There are so many books, so many original Buddhist teachings, so many commentaries on them, and so many arguments. In the past, doctrinal conflict was settled by argument and debate. At the end, there was always a winner and a loser. All that is unnecessary practice, because anything we define as the truth is simply intellectual fabrication. We are just putting on more labels, more words. The most important thing is really to study the law of karma. With that, if we have a very good understanding of the complexities of the law of karma, Buddhism becomes very easy. Buddhism has very elaborate empowerments, rituals, prayers-none of them is needed. If you want to understand karma, then become like a lawyer who is well trained and knows the consequence of breaking the law. Keeping the law of karma in mind, we should cultivate loving-kindness and compassion in order to develop relative and ultimate bodhicitta. That's all that is needed.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Karma and rebirth are an integral part of Eastern belief systems. Nobody questions these two teachings. In the West, they are relatively new ideas, because Christianity, which used to incorporate them, no longer does so. Judaism apparently knows of karma and rebirth, but who really believes in these teachings today? The difficulty now is that Westerners always want proof before they accept something. They might argue that the Buddha himself instructed his disciples not just to believe in something but to find proof. How can we convey to Westerners that karma and rebirth are in fact a central part of Dharma practice, without asking them to merely believe?
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: You can remind people that sometimes they experience suffering that comes as a total surprise and for which there is no logical explanation. Sometimes we have some understanding of why we are suffering; at other times we simply presume that there is a reason for it. Sometimes we can take a direct approach based on an analysis of the situation: If we are compassionate and have a good heart, we can expect our friendships, associations, relationships to be positive. If we have a bad heart and are egotistic, then people want to stay away from us. If we have a really sharp temper, we are bound to also have a lot of problems-nobody likes to mingle with an angry person for long. Or, for example, there may be two brothers who are equally well educated, but their success in life is totally different because of their different attitudes. Also, people-and not only Buddhists-remember their past lives, which has been studied scientifically. In Buddhism, the belief in karma and rebirth is very strong. If these ideas are not presently found in Christianity and Judaism, that doesn't mean they have vanished from the original teachings but rather that people have not properly understood them.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Perhaps these teachings were just inconvenient, and so people chose to ignore and forget them.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: People don't want to look at the bad side of life. But karma is working even when we ignore it. Everything that we do has some consequence, and that is the law of karma.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: The challenge is to convey to people that karma applies not just in one lifetime, but life after life after life. This notion is not generally accepted. One of the problems I see is that there are not many teachers who are willing or able to give this kind of step-by-step introductory education for Westerners. Often we go to, say, lam rim teachings and get lost in all the doctrinal minutiae. These details were developed by and for monastics, and they make very little sense for Westerners.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: We don't need all this philosophical studying unless we are preparing for a big debate or seeking to convert others. There are basically three stages of learning. First, we either read a book or listen to a teacher, so that we have a general grasp of the teachings. Second, we acquire personal experience, where the puzzle is coming together and everything begins to make sense. Third, we attain realization, and then everything really falls into place. Then we go beyond doubt.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Still, Westerners tend to approach Buddhism with all sorts of preconceptions. They may even think that they are practicing, and then ten years later come to the realization that they did not gain very much from all their study and practice.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: The most important thing is to have a really good understanding of karma. Once we have understood the law of karma, half of our misconceptions about suffering are gone. Then we need to understand the cause of suffering. We need to know that suffering is nothing more than our own creation. No one is inflicting suffering on us. We need to look at ourselves rather than point a finger at others. Don't expect to be able to transform the whole Western society. Western civilization is based on a lot of karmic propensities, a lot of ego.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: For me, one of the saddest aspects of Buddhism in the West is the failing of so many teachers. His Holiness the Dalai Lama advised that we should check our teachers carefully. The difficulty is that most teachers don't give students the kind of access that would allow them to do that. Do you, Rinpoche, view this as a difficulty, and if so what can we do about it?
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: I acknowledge this problem. In the West there is no continuity of instruction, which makes it difficult to establish a spiritual bond between the student and the lama. The lama comes from somewhere out of the blue, maybe gives one public talk or initiation or a weekend seminar, and then he's gone again. Too many people are getting too many bits and pieces of the teachings. That is one problem. The other problem is that there is a certain lack of highly qualified teachers-the senior teachers have already passed away. The younger teachers are now in big demand, often before they themselves have gone through all the training. They may have studied the scriptures . . .
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: . . . but do not yet have the realization.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: There are many aspects to this problem. When studying under a lama, we should not be concerned with the quality of the lama. The quality of our understanding after all derives from our understanding of the teaching, not of the person. The most important thing is that we understand karma and do not accumulate further karmic propensities. The moment we judge someone, we stain the mirror of our own mind. We actually gain nothing from this exercise. On the contrary, we lose out.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: Yesterday, Rinpoche, you said that some teachers may look very nice but have no spiritual substance. And then some may have a not-so-nice personality but are endowed with spiritual substance. What about the teachers who have a bad personality and also no substance? [Laughter.]
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: With the right view, we can always transform; we can always accumulate merit and purify our karmic propensities. Even someone like that, we can remind ourselves, must have a Buddha nature. Even a dog has a Buddha nature. We don't necessarily have to become involved with such a person. It may be enough to remember his Buddha nature. The simplest teaching that Marpa taught his disciple Milarepa is to develop neither attachment nor aversion. Don't eulogize people and also don't look down on them. Keep polishing the mirror.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: An excellent teaching.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: The whole point of keeping the mirror clean and free from incidental stain is that we can develop wisdom. The nature of wisdom has the Buddha quality of knowingness. And with that knowingness, we overcome all the ignorance that is responsible for all our afflictive emotions.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: And we will also be able to transform our circumstance.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: There is an old Buddhist saying that there is nothing in the samsaric world that does not have both faults and good qualities. That means everything has a good side and a bad side. If we have wisdom, we have the ability to discern between them and the desire to simply help people. Ordinarily, we are blind to the bad sides in our friends, while our enemies have no good qualities whatsoever. We must develop the ability to discern and judge impartially and maintain equanimity.
GEORG FEUERSTEIN: That is the challenge. I want to thank you, Rinpoche. If there is anything that you would like to say in addition, I would be grateful to record it.
GARCHEN RINPOCHE: The most important thing is to explain to people not to be too concerned about the amount of suffering that's already in effect but to focus on finding the root cause of suffering as well as the cause for happiness. The cause for happiness is the mirror without stains, which is wisdom. A stained mirror doesn't bring about wisdom, and in that case everything is influenced by ignorance. From ignorance stem all these karmic propensities and afflictive emotions. We also need to know that every sentient being wants to achieve happiness, but what kind of happiness? Temporary happiness? A lot of the time, temporary relief or pleasure is confused with ultimate happiness. Therefore we need to understand the cause for ultimate happiness. These are the things that should be emphasized more. When we truly understand the Dharma, there is confidence and rejoicing.
© 2002 Garchen Rinpoche and Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
For permission to republish this interview free of charge (providing its use is noncommercial and has our copyright notice affixed to it), contact Yoga Research and Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Interview with Tenzin Wangyal
Rinpoche by Helen Gatling-Austin
QUESTION: Sound is important in the world's spiritual traditions and is central to many Tibetan healing and spiritual practices. It seems that sound affects us on all levels-physical, mental, and spiritual.
TENZIN WANGYAL RINPOCHE: Yes, there are different levels of sound practice. Ancient Tibetan yogis who lived in the wilderness far from medical care used sound and other yogic techniques to maintain their health, for example.
We know that in acupuncture, when a needle is placed in a part of the body, it sends a vibration or message to another part, bringing balance and healing. In a similar way, the vibration of sound as it reverberates on the lips, in the head, and in the chest can affect the body and organs in a very healing way. As the health is affected, so are the mind and emotions. If you chant the syllable RAM for the fire element, for example, that vibration opens certain channels and chakras, affecting in turn certain organs, and brings a particular experience of higher consciousness.
Q: How does one
know what sounds to use?
TWR: This is a very ancient system and is described in a number of Tibetan texts. I'm teaching primarily from the Bon Mother Tantra (Ma Gyud). The Mother Tantra describes specific sound practices to treat physical ailments such as headaches, chest pain, and other problems.
The right sounds create balance between the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements, present in nature, are also present in each one of us. Our own particular balance of the elements strongly affects our mental and physical states - so maintaining this balance is essential to good health. There are practices of chanting certain sounds, certain syllables, which activate or pacify each of the elements. These have a subtle but potent effect on our organs, and on our mental and spiritual states.
Q: Please say more about how we should view sound from the point of view of spiritual practice.TWR: As a practitioner, you can look at sound in three different ways. First, on the ordinary level, one should become aware of one's use of words and how these choices affect oneself and others. Secondly, on an energetic level, one may connect with the sounds themselves. These seed sounds contain elemental qualities that vibrate different parts of the body and different chakras, as I mentioned before. As our chakras are affected in this way, a higher vibration may be activated. Thirdly, and ultimately, the role of sound for the practitioner must be for self-realization.
With the first of these, are you talking about "virtuous speech"?
TWR: Yes, partly. In the traditional teachings, four of the ten "non-virtuous actions" are connected with speech: lying, slander, harsh words, and meaningless chatter. But where do these arise? It says in the Dzogchen teachings that when the sound and innate awareness merge, it produces speech - enlightened speech and samsaric speech. If the realization of that union of sound and innate awareness (rigpa) is present, then speech is naturally very pure.
Most of us are not at that level of awareness.
TWR: When someone is completely awakened, speech comes out spontaneously in response to circumstances, without a plan and without concept. For someone who is very mindful, having conscious awareness but without this complete awakening, speech is still very pure. Every word has meaning and purpose. It is not idle and certainly not hurtful. Then, if we are not able to achieve this level of mindfulness, discipline alone is a help, with rules guiding how we use our speech.
The main thing is that when there is a lack of awareness, when our inner space is not clear, wrong speech arises. If we observe ourselves, we see this clearly. When I am upset, it is easy for harsh or foolish words to come out if, at that moment, I also lack awareness. I cannot always change the outer circumstances that are upsetting me. But when I have awareness, I can change my inner space.
Q: Mantras, strings of sacred syllables,
are very important in the spiritual practices of Tibet, India, and other parts
of Asia. Can you say anything about the origins of mantras?
TWR: Historically, there were enlightened individuals who themselves awakened in those sounds, who realized the power of those mantras, and saw how they could benefit sentient beings. They then developed whole cycles of teachings and practices related to those mantras. In essence, though, it is much deeper. Energetically, each individual sound is produced by its own root, which is beyond time and space.
Rinpoche, in the generation stage of classic tantric sadhanas, sounds, in this
case seed syllables, are used in a very specific way. There is space. Then the
seed syllable arises, and from that the deity. Can you say more about this very
special use of sacred sound?
TWR: One way of looking at it is like this. Radios and televisions work by picking up a certain frequency, right? There is space and in that space there is a frequency. In order to perceive that frequency you need a good receiver and a good color screen. In terms of the classic tantric sadhanas, it is not as if one letter just pops up in space. It is not like that. Sound and space are infinite. This subtle vibration that we humans, accustomed to sounds and images, perceive as the sacred seed syllable or as the deity exists in that space and appears in compassionate response to a need.
My own experience with these practices is that, at first, I work hard to visualize
something, to create a picture in my mind. But as my practice develops over time,
I have a sense of connecting with something much greater than my mind could create.
Is this what you are saying?
TWR: Yes. Basically one is tuning into something that already exists rather than making something up. We are trying to be in the right frequency ourselves so we can connect with what's there. Sometimes we are able to connect; sometimes we are not able to connect. Through practice, through cultivating certain qualities, certain kinds of stability, the ability to connect increases. It depends on the level of the practitioner. The beginner may be more like an old, blurry black and white TV while the advanced yogi perceives the high quality digital image. The frequency they perceive is the same -spontaneously existing in space and arising with wisdom and compassion.
It is not necessary to see this only in esoteric terms. We use this same process in generating any quality. For example, a person is sad and needs to develop joy. Joy may be present and perfect in its essence but is hidden in experience. How do we bring it into expression? First we try to connect with the seed of joy, like a small flame inside. Once that seed is discovered, we cultivate and develop it. Gradually, then, we act it out. Then it becomes complete, at least for human beings like us who have body, speech and mind. The "Practice of the Five Warrior Syllables" is helpful for developing such positive qualities. In this modern time, with the many stresses we face, we need to develop ways to balance and harmonize our energy. This is important of course for health. But, most important, it can support our spiritual growth.
Wangyal Rinpoche is the author of Wonders of the Natural Mind; The Tibetan Yogas
of Dream and Sleep; Healing with Form, Energy and Light; and a forthcoming book
on practices of body, speech, and mind, all from Snow Lion Publications. He resides
in Charlottesville, Virginia, and teaches worldwide.
Garuda Asociación Cultural Tibetana AC are offering a retreat with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche April 9th-10th in Oaxaca. For info call (0155)52869913
the Truth of Freedom
An interview with Sharda Rogell
Sharda Rogell has been teaching retreats at IMS for more than ten years. After living in England for the last three years, she will soon be moving back to the US.
People have come to the practice by many different paths. What brought you to meditation, Sharda?
When I was about 27 I was going through a very difficult time in my life and was experiencing an extreme amount of dukkha [suffering]. I was living in North Carolina at the time and was at a point where I really didn't have any resources. I had not adopted the religion of my upbringing (which was Judaism) and felt I had nowhere to turn. Like so many people who get to that point of feeling extreme helplessness in their lives, I had to go for some kind of refuge.
All that seemed available at the time, at least in my part of the world, was Transcendental Meditation. So I started practicing TM very intently and found that very quickly-within the first two or three weeks of practicing twice a day for twenty minutes-there was a great change in myself. It was quite sudden. As soon as I began practicing meditation I felt more at ease; I felt happier; I felt some relief from the pain that I was in.
From the very beginning I was a diligent practitioner. But after about two and a half years it just started to fade. The feeling of relief didn't fade, but I felt there was not much movement, not much happening in my meditation. I felt a certain amount of relaxation, but not much insight or understanding. So I stopped doing TM and just let it go.
A few months after that I met James Baraz in San Francisco, where I had moved, and he was offering a class in vipassana [insight] meditation. So I joined his class and from then on (that was 1979) I was hooked. Because I had the foundation of discipline and some stability in doing the concentration practice of mantra, once I started doing the vipassana there was a certain clarity of mind and the ability to see aspects of myself that I had never seen before and that was very powerful.
Have you spent any time in Asia for your meditation training?
I am one of the newer generation of teachers who have not practiced in Asia. I went to India for the first time in 1987, but I went to teach a vipassana retreat in Bodh Gaya.
In 1990, while I was in India, I met Poonja-ji, an Advaita Vedanta teacher, and that had a huge impact on me. Poonja-ji pointed us directly to the freedom that already is here and now, and this pointing came at a time when I was really prepared to hear it and take it in. It also created a problem for me for about three years in my relationship to vipassana practice, because in the place of freedom that Poonja-ji was pointing to I couldn't find a role for method and technique. If one could just meet a guru and have a profound realization, what else was needed? It became an important question for me to sort out.
It took me a number of years to integrate an understanding around that issue, and during the years I was struggling with my question I did some Dzogchen practice. I went to meet Tulku Urgyen in Nepal before he died and had instructions from him, and did Dzogchen practice in California with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It was through Dzogchen practice that I was able to understand and to hold my experience with Poonja-ji within the context of vipassana practice. I discovered that although the Dzogchen tradition had the Buddhist forms and the Buddhist lineage, it was pointing to the nature of mind hat I had experienced with Poonja-ji; it has the language to explain and articulate the nature of mind.
The Theravada language is really more about a progress of insight towards a goal, at least in the way I was taught in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. The language of Dzogchen points towards immediate freedom. The Dzogchen experiences were-and do continue to be-a very important resource for me.
When did you start teaching?
In the early 80's, when I was practicing quite intently, there were really only five main teachers: Christopher, Christina, Joseph, Sharon and Jack. There were lots of people getting involved in vipassana meditation, but there were not that many teachers. So the main teachers started to ask some of the senior students, the students showing the most commitment to practice, to help out.
It was also around this time that Jack Kornfield was starting his first teacher training program. Because I had been around and was, I suppose, showing some potential, I was chosen to participate in the first teacher training program with Jack. That was really the springboard. The first time I actually functioned as an assistant teacher at a retreat was in 1987 when Christopher invited me to join him in India to teach the winter retreat in Bodh Gaya. Soon after that I moved to England and joined Christopher as a co-teacher at Gaia House.
I started to teach fairly early in my practice years--I had been practicing vipassana for about five years before I started the teacher training. Now that I have been involved for about 20 years, I see that this was a little early. I wouldn't advise somebody to start that quickly, but rather to mature in their own meditation practice first.
Do you still go to India every year to teach?
Yes, I have gone to India for twelve winters, and have stayed for nearly two or three months each time. It has been a tremendous influence in my life. Few experiences have had such a major impact, but going to India the first time completely transformed my life. (That's when I decided to leave San Francisco.) In India nothing is hidden; everything is out in the open-very raw. It forces the psyche to be exposed to everything that it doesn't want to be exposed to. Life, birth, aging, sickness and death are all there, and there is no real protection. (In our culture we are so protected from these experiences.) It was a real blast to my psyche.
What aspects of the practice or the tradition do you most emphasize when you teach?
Because I was teaching primarily with Christopher, whose style is so unique and particularly emphasizes inquiry, I found myself following his example; but I wasn't sure what my own particular approach would be. Eventually I realized that my strong point remains investigation and inquiry through vipassana; but at the same time I have a strong interest in incorporating the beneficial influences of metta [loving kindness] as well.
Christopher is not quite as interested in metta practice, but I like the heart-based approach-though perhaps not so much in the form as it is taught classically. For me, metta is an attitude of mind which brings a compassionate quality to investigation.
I talk a lot about the qualities of heart: gentleness, patience, tolerance, kindness and compassion. I usually take a period of time each day or every other day to bring in the more formal practice of metta, because I find that it is very effective.
And where is your particular passion these days? What is it that you really want to communicate to people?
My own journey began with such a deep place of suffering, and I have come out of that suffering through the practice. Consequently I have so much faith-really boundless faith-in the methodology, in the teachings, in the power of the dharma, that it empowers all of my teaching. I have so much confidence in the dharma that I want to share that with others.
So my passion comes from the fact that I know the practice works, and I know the mechanics of it. Having suffered very intensely, and no longer feeling that suffering, I know the difference. I believe I bring to my students a sense of urgency, a sense of confidence, and an understanding of how the practice works. And I think I have some ability to articulate that as well. I try to speak simply, so they can understand. I just keep pointing towards the investigative quality: investigate, investigate.
I would even go so far as to say that I try to communicate a faith in the truth of happiness; the truth of freedom; the third noble truth of the Buddha. This faith empowers me and provides the energy for me to teach.
And how do you understand the third noble truth [the cessation of suffering?
I have come to understand the third noble truth as the truth of freedom, through seeing into the nature of my own mind. It is the freedom that comes from seeing that the phenomena of this mind and body are essentially empty; empty of a "me," of a self-being. So there is no longer any belief in this arising condition as anything that is going to bring me to some fulfillment. It is this understanding of the essential emptiness of things that has brought me to some level of fulfillment.
What I have come to see is that I am not moving towards some goal or some end result, but in a moment of clarity, wisdom itself sees the empty nature of retreat and not being on retreat. The body doesn't have to be in any particular posture; the mind doesn't have to be in any particular condition in order to do the practice; the practice is in every moment. So I usually give people a break by saying that if you can't find time for formal practice every day, it's okay; because people are generally under a lot of pressure in their daily lives.
I encourage people just to remember that no matter where you are, whether standing in the shopping line, driving your car, having a conversation with somebody-pay attention! Keep your mind awake. Stay awake. That's where the learning and the inquiry will happen. If you can find time to sit on the pillow, fantastic. It will be incredibly enriching. But let's not set it up that if you don't you have lost the practice. We have many moments to practice staying awake.
I understand you have recently undertaken a thorough study of the Middle Length Sayings of the Buddha? What prompted this interest in the classical Buddhist tradition?
About fifteen years ago Christopher gave me a copy of the Middle Length Sayings as a gift-it was in three volumes then [as published by PTS]. But I found it dry and difficult to read, so I just put it on the shelf and forgot about it. When Bhikkhu Bodhi came out with his new translation about three years ago, published by Wisdom and BCBS, everything changed for me.
Bhikkhu Bodhi has made these discourses so accessible in the way he edited them, along with the explanatory notes, that I found reading them fascinating and refreshing. I took a six week self retreat and just studied it, read it thoroughly, and took notes. It opened up for me so much the understanding of what the Buddha taught. In fact, I will be publishing my notes soon to make them available to others.
Did anything you read in the ancient texts surprise you, in light of your modern education as a student and teacher of dharma?
What stood out for me were the themes and patterns by which the Buddha taught. Before this period of self-study, most of the teachings that I had heard were by western teachers. One of the things I had been taught when I first started practicing and working with my own experience was a particular emphasis on paying very close attention to whether my mind was moving towards fear or whether my mind was moving towards love and harmony. Watch the motivation behind the thought and the way the mind is moving, toward wholesome or the unwholesome. I always liked that and always watched it within myself.
When I read the Majjhima I was really amazed to see how strongly this theme was emphasized throughout all the discourses-the importance of wise discrimination between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. On and on, in discourse after discourse and method after method, the Buddha elaborated how to do that. He continually draws attention to the dangers of the uncultivated mind, to the advantages of mental development, to working with the mind, and to how it can so easily move towards the unwholesome action, the unwholesome thoughts, the unwholesome physical movements. He shows how to actually turn that around, to transform the energy of mind and body towards the wholesome and happy mind states.
This is somewhat different from the way I was originally taught about the practice. I was encouraged primarily to practice letting go-just let go, be with what is, notice what is happening and don't get caught in it. But the Buddha, at least in my reading of Majjhima texts, seems to place more emphasis not only on seeing what is happening but also on taking appropriate steps to actually change it. He offers a lot of methodology for how to do that.
What these texts seem to be saying is that in each moment there is the fact or choice-between moving toward what is wholesome or unwholesome-and this choice becomes available only through awareness, only when we are mindful and awake. With mindfulness arises discrimination, and a choice becomes apparent. Inherent in awareness is discrimination, and then we can see: Do I want to follow that aversion, that hatred, that ill will, that anger? Or do I want to bring about some condition of mind and heart that will transform that movement of mind towards something that is more wholesome?
And when the mind becomes more refined we can see the consequences that will follow from either choice; we can know that the choice of each moment will lead to these particular consequences. That's the whole sequence: the intention, the action and the result. It's the intention of where the mind is moving, the action that starts to form from that intention, whether it's a thought or the physical body, and then the result, the consequence of that intention.
With mindfulness and wisdom we are able first of all to just notice, and then to have the strength and vitality of mind to choose wisely. We can say: "No, I'm not going to go in that direction; I'm not going to follow that movement of mind. I'm not following the old habitual tendency." We can then apply mindfulness to change that habitual tendency. This entire dynamic, which is so clear in the texts, has really become a foundation for my teaching and my own practice.
Where do you go from here?
The most important thing for me right now is to continue to work on becoming even more clear-discerning the places where I am still holding or clinging-so the dharma can flow more freely. The urgency for me to work on myself goes two ways; so that I can experience more and more levels of liberation and with that clarity, allow others to hear and experience the teachings of liberation.
An Interview with Mingyur Rinpoche
---Part of a new generation of teachers who grew up outsideof Tibet, Mingyur Rinpoche represents an era of transition in the Tibetan community. Trained by some of the great Tibetan masters of twentieth century, he serves as a link between his father's generation, who studied in the traditional monastic environment of pre-Communist Tibet, and teachers who were trained in exile.
Born in Nubri, Nepal, in 1976 to a family of renowned masters in the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, he began an education in the dharma at the age of nine, studying with his father, the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, at the hermitage of Nagi Gompa in the foothills of the Kathmandu valley. At thirteen, under the guidance of his teacher, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche entered a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat; for three years and three fortnights he lived and studied, almost entirely in silence, in a small meditation room at Sherab Ling monastery near Dharamsala, India. He later attended the Dzongsar and Sherab Ling monastic colleges in northern India, where he officially completed his dharma education. Now twenty-seven, he is the retreat master at Sherab Ling and gives teachings in India, Nepal, and North America. Tricycle spoke with Mingyur Rinpoche last fall at Rangjung Yeshe Gomde in Leggett, California, the North American seat of his older brother, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche. Erik Pema Kunsang translated.
You began to practice very seriously at an early age. Can you say something about that? I entered a three-year retreat at the age of thirteen. It was something I felt strongly about. I wanted to study with Tulku Saljey Rinpoche [1910-1991, an important Kagyu master], who was quite old at the time, at the Sherab Ling monastery, a couple of hours from Dharamsala.
Isn't it unusual for a thirteen-year-old to begin such intensive practice? In India, yes, but it wasn't so in Tibet. The major deciding factor in these cases is not age, but resolve, and after that, knowledge of the key points of practice. I had not completed my philosophical education, of course, but I had learned the general rituals, the chants.
As someone who was educated outside of Tibet, how different was your education from that of your teachers? I have tried my best to receive a traditional Tibetan education. In terms of studies and reflections, which form a major part of my theoretical education, I don't feel there's any real difference between what is currently taught and what was taught in Tibet. But if you compare me with the past generation, you'll discover that people often spent more than twenty years in retreat, as did my father and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [a great Dzogchen master of the last century whose visits to the United States in the 1970s helped to spread Tibetan dharma]. I haven't done that. Also, the style of retreat has differed. For example, my father spent at least three years in one place with his door sealed off; nobody came or went. There was an opening to pass food through, but that was it. That's what you call a retreat in the real sense of the word. I haven't practiced like that. So I'd say that between the present day and the past, there's no difference in the theoretical studies, but with regard to the degree of perseverance in practice, there's a big difference.
As part of a new generation of teachers that grew up outside of Tibet, how else did your experience differ from that of your father's generation? The older generation grew up in an environment where there had been countless practitioners approaching realization. The atmosphere was different; it was easier for students to embrace the Buddha's teachings and to persevere in practice than it is for those who come to Buddhism outside of Tibetan culture. For example, there's the question of former lives, and the consequences of karmic actions. When you are in an environment where there have been so many masters who could see where somebody took rebirth, who could point it out and could prove it-identify the reincarnations and so forth-it makes it much easier to trust the teachings on karmic consequences.
But that doesn't mean that we're not allowed to investigate. You can examine the teachings for yourself. The Buddha himself said so. When you hear my teachings, you should do as you do when you buy gold: You test it first; you don't accept what I say at face value. You don't have to trust blindly. We can derive great benefit from using science as the example. We can use scientific understanding, for instance, to explore the benefits of calm abiding, shamatha; of compassion; of identifying negative emotions and noticing how they can be changed and transformed with Buddhist practice [see "Science and Buddhism," Tricycle, Spring 2003]. You can, of course, combine these two approaches-simple trust and the scientific method. There's no problem there, and for Westerners it's probably best to hear an explanation first, and then to test it out. Once you get a taste of it for yourself, you begin to gain trust, and you can proceed to deepen your practice.
Still, it is perfectly okay to follow the Buddhist teachings through faith. Simply being willing to trust that what the Buddha taught is true is allowed. There is an approach with the Buddha's teachings that is called the tradition of pith instructions. In this case, it is not required to conduct elaborate investigations. You trust the teachings and you apply them. Not blindly, of course, but without elaborate investigation. It's different from studying Buddhist philosophy. There you need to investigate intelligently. Otherwise, you won't really understand the philosophical position, which requires a lot of time and energy. But in the tradition of pith instructions, the Buddha condensed the most vital teachings of what one is to know and apply into just a few key points. Applying these, one can progress very quickly and effectively. It's like this: Say you're sick and you need to take a dose of medicine. You can investigate the medicine and find out what it's made of, who concocted it, how much it cost, how it's made and so forth, and then take it. That's perfectly fine. It just takes longer. Or, if you trust the doctor and you feel it's the right medicine, you take it, and then also it's fine, and even faster. In both cases you get cured.
To read the rest of this interview, please see the Summer 2003 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
THE SPIRIT OF THINGS
ABC Radio National
with Rachael Kohn
The New Believers #4
- the Dalai Lama Summary:
He's second to the Pope as the world's most popular religious leader yet the Dalai Lama says he's not interested in converting the West to Buddhism just teaching it how to be happy in a material world. But is Buddhism itself getting too materialistic? The Dalai Lama speaks with Rachael Kohn.
We also hear from the first Westerner to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Professor Robert Thurman, director of Tibet House in New York City (and father of the actress Uma Thurman).
Details or Transcript:
Rachael Kohn: The Dalai Lama is a key figure in the Spiritual Revolution that is changing the way we think and believe in the West. He's my guest on The New Believers, the monthly series on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National. I'm Rachael Kohn.
His title means 'Ocean of Wisdom', which he dispenses with ease and much humour to his audiences around the world. But the Dalai Lama, who is the recognised leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is careful not to drown his audiences in too many technical Buddhist concepts.
He was chosen at the age of two, in 1937, to be the 13th Dalai Lama and he embarked on a long period of monastic education, which culminated in his final examination before 20,000, qualifying him as a Geshe, or Doctor of Buddhist Philosophy.
The Tibetan scholastic tradition emphasises philosophical debate, in the monastery. But outside the monastery other aspects of the tradition are important, such as the possibility that the Buddha can be manifested in people, right here on earth. Through its practices inherited from Indian Tantric traditions, Tibetan Buddhism teaches methods for the attainment of Buddahood in this life (or in a future life). The Dalai Lama may be the Buddha himself, but he likes to emphasise that he's just an ordinary person, as you'll hear.
Also on today's program is the first Westerner ordained a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, Robert Thurman. A delightful man who is sure he was a koala in a past life. Well I don't know about that, but I do know that he is the father of the actress, Uma Thurman. He didn't remain a monk, but he did become an important Buddhist scholar at Columbia University, and is now Director of Tibet House, a cultural institution of the Dalai Lama in New York City.
Before we hear my interview with the Dalai Lama, recorded during his trip to Australia, just a reminder that this program is heard on Sunday, and again on Thursday at 7.10pm.
Your Holiness thank you so much for receiving me today. When I last interviewed you here in Sydney in 1996, your general outlook was optimistic.
Do you have as much optimism about the spiritual well being of the world today?
Dalai Lama: Yes, basically the same. I feel that because of very painful experiences which we have learnt in the twentieth century, human beings I think have become more mature. I think, also through our own experiences now people begin to realise the importance of spirituality.
Rachael Kohn: The Buddha taught people how to avoid suffering in a material world, and you teach people how to be happy in a material world. Is this a more optimistic way, a more western way, of putting the Buddha's teaching?
Dalai Lama: No, actually I always try to promote secular ethics or human values not as a religion, not as Buddhism. Of course to Buddhists, certainly.
You see, I explain the importance of the suffering nature, then the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, then the ways and paths to overcome the suffering. So I always, you see, emphasise the importance of the realisation of the suffering nature.
But my partisan approach that is simply the promotion of human values, not religion, it's not a religious thing. In fact I make this always clear, in order to be good person, a warm hearted person, it is not necessarily to have religious faith. Without religious faith, there can be a nice person, a warm hearted person, and happy person.
I think that among the 6 billion, more than 6 billion human beings on this planet, strictly speaking I think the majority are non-believers. Of course officially, "I belong Christian...Judaism..." like that. But strictly speaking, in daily life, I think majority are non-believers.
Rachael Kohn: Well, non-practicing anyway. One of the ways which you promote generally, that people can achieve this happiness and avoid suffering is through meditation, which you have outlined as a nine step process and in the final step the ninth step, there is a 'perfect abiding calm'. Is that more of an ideal or a reality?
Dalai Lama: No, this one is special training for single pointed mind. So this is not for everybody practice, including myself. I'm very, very, poor in the practice of single pointed meditation, my mind is always attracted to different directions, but amongst practitioners at least whom I know, some practise this practice and again some experience this. Of course, it's certainly not easy and you need a lot of effort.
Rachael Kohn: It takes an enormous amount of inner control, you talk about especially the idea of the enemy of peace is not outside but inside one's self. What is your advice then when the enemy is clearly outside, such as today in the post-September 11th world, when we have examples of external threats. What do you advise?
Dalai Lama: Well these very unfortunate, unthinkable destructive actions, essentially come out of certain motivations, certain emotions. So these actions also actually are brought about by the inner enemy, that is negative emotion. Basically everybody, every human being wants a happy life, peaceful life. But because of our inner enemy, which for no sort of reason, simply strong emotion. So that emotion, is blind and mad. So therefore, I describe the real enemy is within ourselves. So called external enemies, also these people, once their negative emotion reduce and positive emotion increases, then these people, the same people with the same name, same face become our best friends. So the real enemy is the emotional level.
Rachael Kohn: Your Holiness, in Tibet there is one kind of Buddhism I believe and that's probably true of Dharamsala, where you have your headquarters. But in the West we see many kinds of Buddhism. People speak of Western Buddhism. What do you understand by this concept?
Dalai Lama: Buddhism, certainly is just one tradition that's come from Buddha. Whether the Therevada system, or the Vajrayana system, originally come from Buddha, within this tradition some little differences and different emphasis are there and different concepts, but basically all come from Buddha.
Now the cultural aspects is different. Therefore we call it the original Indian Buddhism, and then later Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and so on, Thai Buddhism, Sri Lanka Buddhism. Now eventually some people in the West now are showing interest about Buddhism, so eventually Buddhism that [originally] comes from India, from Asia, at the same time [gets] a cultural aspect, a more western cultural aspect, then through that way, then certainly, Western Buddhism.
Rachael Kohn: Is that a good thing?
Dalai Lama: That's good, certainly, through evolution that will come. But as far as teachings are concerned, they should be very authentic. There are some cases, what are they called New Age or something, that I think we must be very, very careful. If you call something a new religion, then of course, that's alright, but if you call something Buddhism, it must be very authentic.
Rachael Kohn: In the West there are not many monasteries, Buddhist monasteries. In fact in Christianity, monasteries were dismantled and monks and nuns went into the world, not very much away from the world. Do you see any signs of this occurring in the Sangha (community of monks and nuns), a dismantling of monastic life?
Dalai Lama: Of course in the West there are very few Buddhist monastery and nunnery, and in a few cases very few monks and nuns. Whereas in Thailand, and Sri Lanka and Burma, still I think very strong traditions remain there.
So too the Tibetan community, also generally speaking I think, still quite strong traditions remain there.
I think one factor in India now, in our bigger monastery, monastic institution, the new students who enter the monastic institution, now recently the larger numbers come from Tibet, not from our own refugee community children. So now, that's an obvious development. So children in India, Tibetan young children who got an education in our school prefer some other work.
Rachael Kohn: Many years ago you dispensed with some of the traditional ceremonies associated with your role as the Dalai Lama. Why did you do that?
Dalai Lama: Actually there are some ceremony, form of ceremony, that I don't like, and don't have much meaning. After all we are refugees. Of course the way of giving teaching to the public, I always carry it in a complete informal way. I believe the formal way is sometimes an additional obstacle or barrier to communicate with another, one another. And I don't think when Buddha himself sat there, I don't think there was any formality. I don't think any elaborate ritual things. Buddha himself always went as "just a simple monk" and he'd give teachings according to circumstances and that we should follow.
Rachael Kohn: What do you think the Buddha would say to the Maitreya Project, the building of the world's biggest Buddha at the cost of $US 200 million in Bodhgaya. A place that doesn't even have sanitation, Do you think that's consistent with the Buddha's way?
Dalai Lama: I can't say on behalf of Buddha. if he was alive today. I don't know.
Of course on the human level, there are two opinions. One opinion, of course now is the construction of the Maitreya Buddha. So inevitably, this is, I think one important way to accumulate virtues. The other view is rather critical. As you mention while millions of poor people, especially young children without any education or any proper school and health-care why is it the spending a lot of money on the construction of the statue, better to spend it on health and education. That I think is quite well thinking.
So my own view, since this project is already initiated by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, as a buddhist monk, any work of construction of a buddhist statue, is of course positive. So therefore I support it. And meantime I made very clear to the concerned people, now with that project the local people should get some benefit, so they've planned accordingly some education facilities and also some other sorts of project that will be of benefit to the local people.
Rachael Kohn: Your Holiness, people looking at the Buddhist web sites see that there are many things to buy, many ways to give money. Some people think Buddhism itself is becoming too much a part of the material world, maybe that's because some Hollywood stars are becoming involved in it as well. Is Buddhism becoming too materialistic?
Dalai Lama: That depends on the individual. Buddhism itself, of course as a man of Buddhism, is a way of thinking, a way of life, a way of guide, and especially I think a proper way to confront our negative emotion. That will remain, that is Buddhism.
But the construction of temples or construction of monasteries these are of course a part of the activities of the Buddha Dharma but not Buddha Dharma itself. Buddha Dharma means 'mental quality', so it's not a money matter. We can't buy with money, mental quality. So mental quality must develop through training your mind. Not by injection or straining your mind. Those people who have great merit, they may find it more easier and less obstacles, otherwise only through training your mind.
The Spirit of Things - Part 2
Rachael Kohn: Robert Thurman is the ebullient man who heads up Tibet House, the cultural institution of the Dalai Lama in America. Located in New York City, it's a drawcard for the rich and famous as well as ordinary folk who want to use its library or look at the excellent collection of Tibetan art in its gallery.
Thurman was a very popular professor at Columbia University, but now he spends most of his time at Tibet House, receiving guests, giving lectures and raising money for Tibetan refugees. I caught up with him last year, just before the attack on the World Trade Center, a few blocks away from Tibet House.
Here Bob Thurman explains why the Dalai Lama takes his message around the world.
Robert Thurman: The irony is that although he goes at the invitation of Buddhist groups, he very adamantly is against proselytising Buddhism and changing Christians or Jews, or even secular humanists into Buddhists.
He appeals to other world religious leaders, 'Please, please, let's not have new religious competition', which they don't heed too much in fact nowadays.
But he continuously makes that plea and he'll give a Buddhist talk to lots and lots of people and he'll spend the first ten minutes of an hour about how he's not giving them this talk because he wants them to be Buddhist, he wants them to use anything that they find that's useful for their lives, he wants them to enjoy their lives more, he wants them to control their mind to find peace.
He talks about the common human religion of kindness, this type of thing, and he says, 'Don't become Buddhist', actually. Everyone gets so puzzled but I think it's good for them, he stimulates a little bit of cognitive dissonance.
Rachael Kohn: Nonetheless, wouldn't it be fair to say that he's stimulated their interest? Is the star of Tibetan Buddhism on the rise?
Robert Thurman: Well I think yes. But you have to realise that when you say that, that the star of Tibetan Buddhism has risen, you're talking about zero to 50, because it was zero 20 years ago, or 25 years ago, there was no knowledge of Tibetan even 40 years ago, except as some sort of faraway thing with a Yeti, you know, the Abominable Snowman, or something like that. And so the fact that Tibet has become known more widely by the presence of Tibetan refugees everywhere, it's something about Tibet giving a new boost to the Buddhist interest that was already there, stimulated by Zen, by Therevada Buddhism, by Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, and Tibet then sort of built on that.
And what Tibet really has brought is the kind of original Buddhist matrix that existed in India. Because Tibet was the country where Indian Buddhism went lock, stock and barrel, a thousand years ago when it was wiped out by various invasions in its homeland, which was India. But not that many have really said 'Oh, now I'm going to leave my other kind of Buddhism and become a Tibetan Buddhist', very few. And the Tibetan Buddhists don't actually encourage it.
Rachael Kohn: Tibet House has attracted the attention of a lot of celebrities. Have you consciously gone out to seek their support?
Robert Thurman: No. We haven't gone, in Tibet House, particularly to seek celebrity support.
Of course in any non-profit, when you do get celebrity support, that's when you can begin to become viable as a non-profit, because the way America works, the way our democracy works, we don't have any Princess Di, you know, we don't have a Royal Family, so charisma is focused on theatre and film celebrities, and therefore when you can attract one, when they do become interested in Tibet, then Tibet House, and they will come to Tibet House functions, then more people will come to our function, and we will be able to develop a sort of fiscal viability.
But the person who attracts them though rather is His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Tibet House is his cultural centre, so that it natural some will help us on the cultural level. Mostly they have worked on the political level, you know, testifying in Congress and helping the refugee situation, and we're sort of third in line, you could say, amongst the Dalai Lama's institutions in America.
Rachael Kohn: Western spiritual thinking is often associated with a certain degree of self-centredness; to what extent do you think Buddhism is an antidote to that? Or in fact, does it promote it?
Robert Thurman: Buddhism can be exploited for self-centred reasons, it's just like any other thing can be exploited. There is no thing made by human ingenuity, and human ingenuity cannot subvert and exploit as well.
However Buddhism may be almost the hardest thing for self-centredness to exploit because the foundational philosophy of Buddhism is expressed as selflessness. In other words, that's a philosophical and also an ethical term in Buddhism that is absolutely central and they constantly harp on it.
They sometimes talk about emptiness, selflessness, you know, egolessness, they have all these terms.
So although the self-centred people still manage to use Buddhism in a narcissistic way, it's hard for them, because they're constantly harping on that you have no self, that your self-obsession, or self-occupation is your worst enemy and so forth, it's constantly reinforced in Buddhist teaching.
So although it makers it very difficult, it's still not foolproof.
Rachael Kohn: How well do you think Westerners understand that concept of no self?
Robert Thurman: Well I think not only Westerners, I don't think Easterners understand it very well. I think it is something which is actually rather hard to understand viscerally. It is actually easy to understand intellectually, and in a way modern materialistic culture and science agrees with it.
For example, most modern people who are materialistic, I don't mean they're greedy, I mean that philosophically, they believe that when they die they will cease to exist. Like if you want to find your social security number engraved somewhere in your heart valve, so you won't find it, you won't find a barcode on any particular joint of the spine, you know what I mean? You won't find a neurone that says 'Rachael', or that says 'Bob', it won't be a Bob neurone. And that's easy to understand intellectually. But then again, we appropriate our experience from the point of view of a functional self centre, and therefore we sort of then have a hard time connecting that intellectual understanding that there's nothing we can find easily that really is this durable self to the feeling of being a durable self.
And that's where Buddhist meditation and Buddhist critical thought and Buddhist ethics even, becomes a long, gradual, slow process of making visceral that intellectual understanding, and I might add, avoiding the mistaken idea of nihilism which modern materialism falls into. They think, well I don't really exist, so therefore nothing matters, so it doesn't matter what I do' type of thing, which is eat, drink and be merry, tomorrow we may die, and after we die we're not going to be anything, so there's no consequence. They usually don't have to finish the sentence. And so that aspect is not easily understood, and that's where all of the Buddhist methods, and all the Buddhist education focuses on that element.
Rachael Kohn: Almost going to the other side of the spectrum, Tibetan Buddhism is quite fantastical, it's filled with incredible magical scenarios, reborn Lamas and deities; how easily can Westerners believe that stuff?
Robert Thurman: It's hard for Westerners to overcome the disbelief in future life and former life which they inherit from their scientific upbringing.
Buddhism presents the existence of an individual life as part of a continuity of lives, many past lives, like you and I have been all different kinds of animals, dinosaurs, I'm an American but I've even been a koala bear, you know, speaking of Australia, in a former life, I've definitely been a koala bar, and so on. And that's very hard for Americans, because we' re taught that there is no irreducible spirit and therefore when we die, the body dies and the brain ceases, that's the end of you.
But, and therefore I often say when people ask 'How come Buddhism is sweeping America?' or something. I say, 'Buddhism is not yet at all sweeping America', because Buddhism is not just a few religious practices, it's not just a few abstruse magical tricks or beliefs, Buddhism is a different vision of life, including a different scientific vision of life, and it sees life as an evolutionary continuum where individuals are born and reborn infinitely actually. We'll have infinite future life, we had infinite past lives. And until that belief from the Buddhist point of view, until a person feels comfortable, feels almost at its commonsensical, that belief, that person cannot be a Buddhist actually.
Rachael Kohn: Bob Thurman, how did you come to believe that it was a commonsensical view?
Robert Thurman: Well it took time, actually.
At first I intellectually thought it was quite acceptable, because after all, no-one has ever proved that anything becomes nothing, or anybody becomes nothing, no- one has ever heard about it. Carl Sagan is not around to verify that he became nothing.
So I was open to it intellectually for that reason, but after almost a year or two of practising Buddhism and intellectually trying to hold that view, it was pointed out to me by one of my teachers that viscerally I did not hold that view, and I really only lived for what I would get out of, and I did things for what I would get out of them just in this life, and I basically considered my worry and my responsibility and my positive option even, positive horizon, was only whatever I could do or become or achieve in this life, because I really didn't viscerally think I would be facing situations after leaving this body.
But after a few years, I had a funny experience as I was walking along, buying some milk at the store for tea, for the monastery where I lived, and as I was walking along, I suddenly felt as if a pressure pushing me was had been taken away from me. In other words I suddenly realised that I had been living as if there was a beginning to my living, and I was being pushed by that beginning in a sort of a rush to get somewhere. And suddenly I realised there was nothing behind me pushing me, and there was endless space behind me. I came from an endless past, and I suddenly realised that I wasn't really rushing, there was no point in rushing to get somewhere, I would get there and I would get that milk, and there would be many more expeditions for milk for many more cups of tea.
And it just changed the way I lived, the pressure of the way I had felt, the driven- ness of the way I was living, basically. And that was kind of revelatory for me, and ever since then, the idea that there would be future experiences and future problems and future considerations, became commonsense to me.
Just like for example right here in Tibet House, I feel it's commonsense that 15th Street is still out there. I can't prove it's still out there, somebody might have blown it up in a bomb, you know, or the world might have dissolved, but I think it's there, sort of, without having to invest any energy in that, it's part of my world picture. Similarly future existence is like that to me nowadays, and to me, a person who would think that there's a yawning nothingness waiting out there for them. The burden of proof is on them because that's a very abstruse thing to think.
Rachael Kohn: Can't you also feel driven to do things for its consequences in a future life?
Robert Thurman: You can, but you have a little more time. The driving-ness is a little slower, let's say, but on the other hand, of course yes, this is a very important point. I used to debate with Carl Sagan a little bit, I had a little debate with him because he was very bent that there was no future life, and that was very crucial to the scientific world, he felt.
And in that little bit of a debate, I noticed that he was assuming that people who believed in a future life were taking it easy, therefore, he thought things would be taking care of them, like it was a naïve childish notion of immortality, so they didn't really strive in this life. Whereas I pointed out to him that people who have a notion of future life are worried about coming into a negative circumstance or having an unhappy future life.
That increases the possibility of negative possibilities by a huge factor, and therefore by having future existence, did not relieve you of the burden of concern for how, what would the quality of that future be.
And in fact what the Buddhists have discovered is that can drive you to be more virtuous, to be more kind, would not be hostile to people because they might get you later, you know, even if you escaped them in this life etc. It in fact encourages people to behave a little bit better, a lot better, because they can't come with that idea of there'll be no consequence of what I do, therefore what I do ultimately won't matter. Everything matters if you have an endless consequence.
CHANTING Rachael Kohn: That's Robert Thurman, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, and Director of Tibet House, the cultural institution of the Dalai Lama in New York City. You're listening to The New Believers, Leading the Spiritual Revolution, the monthly series on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National.
Bob Thurman, you were the first Westerner to be ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition, and you were educated under the watchful eye of the Dalai Lama; has that made you something of a celebrity?
Robert Thurman: I don't think so, because I'm also the first person to resign from having been a monk.
You know, it's embarrassing to me, I don't like to promote the idea that I was the first person ordained as a monk, because I then did resign after a few years, which did upset His Holiness, and more than him, the older teachers who had also ordained me. But eventually they accepted that decision, they realised that the type of life that I faced here in America at that time, in the '60s, wasn't really ready for a sort of pale white monk with an extra large head, you know, shaved like Kojac or something, they weren't really ready for it, and so they accepted that decision of mine, although I regret that I wasn't able to maintain.
You do take the monks' vow in the Tibetan order for life, and it is considered a little bit shameful to renounce it if you have once taken it.
So therefore I don't consider myself a celebrity, I consider myself a slight bit of a disgrace, to be honest.
Rachael Kohn: Well then, tell us why did you resign as a monk?
Robert Thurman: Because it seemed well, I fell in love with a beautiful woman, that's my human weakness. On the other hand she won't accept blame or responsibility because I had decided anyway, that being a monk without a monastery, and there is no monastery really in America for Euro-American Buddhist monks. Some Tibetan refugees come and they make sort of an ethnic monastery for their people, but there's really no social set-up for Buddhist monasticism for Euro-Americans in America yet. That's another reason why I don't consider Buddhism really sweeping America in any such way, I think that's media hype.
Rachael Kohn: Do you have any reservations about the monastic system? I mean what if we all became monastics?
Robert Thurman: If we all became monastics I would have no reservations about that, it would be excellent if we all became monastics. If we all became monastics, then we would level off the population problem, it would be definitely levelled off. We would be all living at a higher level of ethical kindness and gentleness, and pretty soon a few of us would resign and then there'd be a little bit more appropriation probably after that.
And ex-monks and nuns make good parents actually, they're more kind usually to their children, because by having been a monk or a nun for a while, they get rid of some inherited family authoritarian behaviours that often descend in secular families. I'm sure you're familiar with what I'm talking about.
And so I think it would be just fine if everybody became a monk or nun, it certainly would give the planet a break. Imagine the human population curve decreasing, getting back to one or two billion, just by people voluntarily renouncing procreation for a couple of decades, but within a few years, many would resign and you would still have a little bit of procreation, so not to worry too much.
Rachael Kohn: Well isn't there a bit of a contradiction in that? Because monastic life relies on the generous contributions of people who work hard and make money.
Robert Thurman: Well that's because not everybody is a monk you know, so many people do work and make money, and then some people who make money realise that the purpose of life is not money, and rather the purpose of money is to have a handsome life and part of a handsome life is to be generous and to give and to support non-profits, especially those that seek to preserve a culture, to preserve the environment, to preserve the world to diminish domestic violence, to reduce the population growth that is so destructive to the planet etc. and so the point is, there's really no danger of everybody becoming monastic to start with, and second, furthermore you know, if everybody were monastic, that doesn't mean that everybody would do nothing.
In fact monastics produce tremendous amount of value in history, voluntarily. They've created an enormous amount of art, they've created a tremendous amount, the medical systems of most of the countries were developed by monastics; in the West too, until the Protestants destroyed monasticism in Europe. In Asia monastics were great healers, and incredible people.
So before we dismiss monasticism out of hand based on the Protestant ethic which we have inherited, in our over-industrialised societies, we should think more carefully about what it means as an institution. That's one of my main academic points that I have written books about.
Rachael Kohn: May I ask you then, do you have any reservations about a kind of Westernisation of Buddhism?
Robert Thurman: I don't have reservations about the Westernisation of Buddhism because I think that Buddhism is more than a religion. I do think that in the current era I follow His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in thinking that it is not correct or necessary, or even beneficial, to proselytise Buddhism and like convert America to Buddhism or something, as a religion.
I completely agree that people should use Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethical ideas, even social advances that the Buddhist societies advance, particularly the non-violence social advance that Buddhism developed so well in so many countries, I think these should be used, but they can be used perfectly well within a Jewish or Christian or secular humanist matrix.
If you add Buddhism as a religious institution and try to sort of go in and start competing with the Baptists and the Methodists and the Orthodox and the Reformed etc and the Muslims, then we're talking new religions wars, new religious competiton for market share. I think that's very, very negative and unfortunate. Buddhism actually is not just religion, it is not just a religion.
Buddhism is defined as composed of a special kind of ethics, a special kind of meditation, and a special kind of science and wisdom. And the ethics of the science are not religious, and they should interact with our educational institutions and with our legal institutions, and promoting the idea respectively of non-violence and the idea of individual insight into the nature of reality which is very, very crucial, I think for us all to gain.
And those aspects can be widely used and Westernised would mean that Western people would develop their wisdom and would develop their ethics, and that to me is very, very crucial. And so I have no reservation about that at all.
But I have many reservations about the attempt to appropriate Buddhism as a new cult, as a new sort of membership group, as a new sort of 'in' group, you know, we versus them type of thing, and sort of what one Buddhist teacher calls spiritual materialism, you know having malasand wearing red costumes and doing this sort of thing. I have lots of reservations about that, certainly.
And I also have reservations about some ideas within some Buddhist writers who like modern times, you know, Westerns would say 'Oh we can be Buddhists, but we don't have to worry about forming a future life, we can be Buddhists and yet materialists.' Or they say, 'Oh we can be Buddhists, but we don't need monasteries any more, that's old-fashioned, we want everybody to work'.
And so that's the modern ethics, that 'We'll be Buddhists and yet we'll be secular Buddhists'. I have much reservation about that.
Rachael Kohn: But isn't that inevitable that when Buddhism comes to the West, it will change, just as it did when it went to China and Korea?
Robert Thurman: No. When it came to China Buddhism, the Confucianism and Taoism that existed before Buddhism came there had no such concept as monasticism for example. It was considered disrespectful to your parents to shave your head, because the hair was inherited from the parents, and everyone had to work in the Confucianism thing, and had to do what, worshipped ancestors, this sort of thing. There was no such tradition in China like there was in India.
And Buddhism brought that tradition to China, and actually that tradition created a social escape valve for many women who didn't have a role except in a village working more or less like slaves, for many men who didn't want to fight in armies or who had some higher aspiration than just planting seeds, and it created a kind of matrix for what we would today call kind of liberal education where you would go and open your heart as your own purpose in life.
But Buddhism institutionally did create that over several centuries in China and Chinese Buddhism then flourished for thousands of years, and so Buddhism did create that change there.
Now in the West we have a special unique thing where we do have Catholicism, which does accept monasticism and many monks and nuns do a great deal of useful things besides spiritually purify themselves in the world. But the problem is that industrial culture has gotten all on its high horse with its technical mastery of things, and destroyed monasticism in Northern Europe, it became extremely militaristic, it has a bit triumphal attitude that we should all be secular.
Meanwhile it's facing a population explosion that is planet-destroying, a consumer pollution level that is planet destroying, and we all know about the nuclear and the high tech military weapons that loom over everybody's head, so we still are very much endangered actually by not allowing people not to produce, not allowing people to be free to pursue their spiritual development, and therefore Buddhist monasticism in industrial Protestant countries, and other countries that have adopted that ethic, would be able to reinforce say Catholic monasticism and the general idea that some people should be free and peaceful in life and should pursue their spiritual fulfilment, and that that's a worthy thing for them to do, which is something that the Catholics have maintained, but is very weakened in our country.
You know you have Thomas Merton's monastery has 25 monks on 2,000 acres.
They could have 500 monks, easily. In Tibet they would have 5,000 monks actually. And that country flourished and never had famine and never had extreme poverty until invaded 50 years ago, with a high degree of monastic population, very balanced population curve, minimal destruction of their environment, and a very peaceful life, even if a little unwashed, as the Dalai Lama likes to say.
Rachael Kohn: Bob Thurman, the building of the Maitreya Project and other huge Buddhist temples are meant to draw pilgrims and tourists. Is there any worry that this is becoming a hugely competitive, even materialistic expression of Buddhism?
Robert Thurman: Well, religion is ludicrous, all religions are ludicrous from a certain point of view, from a materialistic point of view, right? I mean go to any - the Communists for example destroyed 6,250 monasteries in Tibet by saying that 'Putting all this gold in these statues of these Buddhas and things, this is ludicrous, you need the gold, you need the money, you can invest it in a sock factory or something you know.' And in 1980 when the late Chinese leader went to Tibet and saw what a disaster the Chinese colonisation and invasion had wrought there, he gave the Tibetans total tax exemption and totally let them do what they want, and to his amazement instead of starting laundries, they rebuilt some of those monasteries that he had destroyed, that Mao had destroyed.
So people can say Yes, it's ludicrous, you should only do utilitarian things. I mean the way Protestantism has been doing utilitarian things for
350, 400 years, right? But what has it gotten us, these utilitarian things?
A couple of flush toilets, yes, but it genocided the native Americans, enslaved the African American, it is threatening our environment with pollution, it is threatening our whole civilisation with militarism and with high tech weapons, and heaven knows, genetically altered food. Heaven knows what even is in our own intestine at this moment. And so too much utilitarianism seems to also put things out of balance, you see.
So the idea that somehow the spiritual destiny of the human being, and the condition, internal condition of the being of hope in the future, and a feeling of viability of life, that is just as crucial, the feeling of viability of life, that is just as crucial as some toilets and some other things. So there should be a balance, shouldn't there, between some sort of spiritual investment let's say, and actually a spiritual investment really finally should take priority because this is the great Buddhist insight, you know.
If you have a bad mind, it's just filled with surging impulses that you have no control over. You can be in the most beautiful mansion, with the most beautiful automobile, with a beautiful, well you won't have beautiful relationships because you'll be such a pain you'll drive them all away, but maybe temporarily you'll have some relationships, and you will still be miserable yourself. You will have to be on Prozac, you'll be on something because your mind will be discontented with whatever it is.
But if your mind is controlled, you live in a modest place, now you don't have to be in a sewer, you can be in a modest place, you can be peaceful, you can be contented, you can find something beautiful in a little pot of flowers outside your window, like a little old lady in Kyoto or something like that. Fine. Because the mind is balanced, the spirit is satisfied, do you see?
There's a famous writing from a thousand years ago, it says, 'If you don't like stepping on sharp things when you walk around town, you have two choices: cover the whole surface of the town with leather. That's one choice. Or make yourself a pair of shoes, that's the other choice. Which is more practical?
Rachael Kohn: Two different points of view; which would you choose? That was Robert Thurman, Buddhist scholar and Director of Tibet House, speaking to me in New York City.
The Dalai Lama's message to the West is how to find happiness in a material world. No-one would doubt that the West has been the most successful in making material wealth available to more people than anywhere else. But the East is no stranger to material extravagance. So when Lama Zopa Rimpoche announced that he was going to build the world's biggest Buddha at the pilgrimage site of Bodhgaya in the Indian State of Bihar, at a cost of $US200-million, it caused a heated debate.
Rachael Kohn: Before Bob Thurman we heard from the one and only 'laughing Buddha', the Dalai Lama. He's been our special guest for this edition of The New Believers, Leading the Spiritual Revolution, a monthly series on The Spirit of Things, here on ABC Radio National.
Now you'd expect his mental training to give him a pretty good memory, but I didn't expect the Dalai Lama to remember my hairstyle from six years ago.
Dalai Lama: Same style, your hair, or different?
Rachael Kohn: A man who I think proves that holiness and humour can go together.
The Spirit of Things is produced by me and Geoff Wood with technical production by Anne Marie De Betencourt.
Tamang Healer at Mongpoo
Interview with Dinchen Rinpoche
by Eric Jacobson, USA, Alex Gabbay, UK, Barbara Gerke, India
translated from Nepali by Niraj Lama
The journey begins. We wind along the tea plantations towards Mongpoo (4000 ft alt.). Our team covers four countries: Alex Gabbay, researcher (UK), Eric Jacobson, medical anthropologist (USA), Amode Yonzone, (Kalimpong Park Hotel), and me, a German, living in Kalimpong.
Travelling a little further along the steep road we get our first glimpse of Mongpoo. The small hill settlement was already known to the British who in 1862, started a Cinchona plantation here for the extraction of Quinine. During the 1930s Rabindranath Tagore spent some time here and started a school where a small museum and a social centre remain today.
Mongpoo was also chosen for the founding of a Gompa cum hospital by the Tamang Lama, Dinchen Rinpoche, commonly referred to as "Mongpoo Lama," in the early 1980s. The Gompa, which is still under construction, lies on a steep slope just below an old graveyard upon the former site of a slaughter house.
In the week we spent with Mongpoo Lama observing his daily life we collected a lot of valuable material. Some extracts from the extensive interviews with Dinchen Rinpoche are presented here.
These include an extraordinary combination of diagnosis & therapies which are still widely used in the north-eastern Himalayan region. Although the ways of treatment might seem strange and unscientific to us, they have been of benefit to many of the local people who suffer from psychiatric and psychosomatic diseases.
We do not want to go into evaluation of the so called "spirit diseases" but rather simply expose you to an indigenous practitioner who combines traditional healing arts with modern medicine.
Dinchen Rinpoche (36), a trained nurse and registered rural health practitioner, uses healing methods from the Tibetan & Tamang Buddhist tradition as well as local Ayurvedic medicines, and - where necessary - also employs allopathic remedies.
Rinpoche, please tell us about your background.
I was born in Kalimpong, in 1960. One morning, when I was about four, I told my mother to make a lot of tea as many lamas would come to visit us. After a while I ran out of the house to receive the monks. I recognised them by their names and held their hands. They were on the look-out for an incarnate Rinpoche... They then took me to my guru and I was declared a tulku (a reincarnation) by the age of seven.
My special abilities were first noticed among my family members when I was very young. One day when visiting a sick relative it was discovered that my touch brought about a speedy recovery. I performed many miracles, but gave these up later. ...Now I mostly use prayers to heal.
I have come to realise that the family in which a reincarnation takes place goes through a stormy time. Until the reincarnate is handed over to the right persons the storm will continue.
Although we follow Tibetan Buddhism, we are culturally Nepali-Tamang. My father wanted me to study at a Nepasli school. While at school I performed miracles, every now and then. After Class V my monastic education began at Durpin Gompa in Kalimpong under Rinchen Phuntsog Rinpoche. From there I was taken to Boudhanath, Kathmandu, where I became familiar with meditation practices and the rules of a monastery, etc. I undertook a Western medical training, and also did my tsam retreat.
As a trainee nurse I learnt many things, including minor suturing and midwifery. I had a feeling that in future I would stay in a remote place where this particular knowledge would be of benefit.
After receiving the blessing of Kalu Rinpoche at Sonada, in 1983, I completed a six-month retreat. Searching for a place where I could go into deep seclusion and meditation I came to Mongpoo where I found the big cave at the Gumbha Dara (hill top monastery). The entire place is a graveyard where people burn and bury their dead.
Later people persuaded me to stay and build a monastery. For 3 to 4 years I stayed in a sort of a shack and treated sick people with both, tantric and Western medicine. After a while we started to collect donations to build the monastery.
Now its ground floor serves as a hospital for the sick and poor who cannot afford to go to Darjeeling, Kalimpong or Kurseong. We have facilities to provide medicines, minor sutures, drips, injections, etc. All the nurses have been trained by me.
Today I have to take care of five monasteries, in Rangoo, Tangta, Kathmandu and Mongpoo, and 85 disciples, in all. My father was a monk in one of the monasteries and my mother now lives there as a nun.
My father was a village mandal (head of a village) and a very holy person. His family comes from a lineage of lamas that I had visited in my previous life. Before leaving for Tibet, I gave them precious belongings sealed in a leather bag. I told them that I would come back for it one day. When I took rebirth into his family he became all the more religious. My mother handed over the responsibilities of the house to my elder brothers and became a nun.
Why did you build the hospital together with the monastery?
The monastery in any case would have been constructed for the education of the monks and nuns. There is a small clinic here at the Cinchona plantation which is only meant for their workers. Conditions are harsh for the local people, they cannot afford to go to the bigger hospitals. The members of the monastery themselves were also in need of a hospital, so for all these reasons, especially the relief of the poor, we built this hospital together with the monastery.
This monastery was constructed over a slaughter house to encourage people to understand that killing is cruel and that all living beings have the right to live.
Did you face any problems practising here?
I had my nurse's training in Nepal but the certificates were not valid in India. After undergoing a one-year training at an Indian academy I passed the main examination for Rural Medical Practitioners and was given a registration number and allowed to use the initial 'Dr.'. Since then I have been practising freely.
What kind of diseases do you treat?
Mostly, mental diseases; moreover, cases of epilepsy, dehydration and complicated pregnancies. We try to keep our equipment always ready because you never know what case might come in.
Personally I feel Eastern medical systems are the best. But if someone comes in with a severed hand, then I'll suture it. If a person comes with severe dehydration, vomiting and diarrhoea, he will get saline. Serious cases are referred to a bigger hospital. If a patient can pay we charge him, otherwise the medicine is free. Many medicines are donated, others we have to buy.
What are your future plans?
Firstly I want the monastery to be completed. I also want to have a school for religious and secular studies. It is not enough for the monks to wander about in their robes. I would like them to become proficient and knowledgeable.
Apart from a good hospital I would also like to have a home for the aged. Already orphans and handicapped are living with me. But since we all live together, the monks & nuns get distracted in their studies which is quite disruptive.
Where does your compassion come from?
Every human being has and must have compassion. But the way to express it differs. Some, as I have seen, express their love by scolding and even beating, some by advising, some by embracing. There are different ways of loving. But the inner love which is deeper is different, meaning that this deeper love must not have borders. We have numerous kinds of love, but real love loves all. If there is a dog with a worm infested wound, you have to take care not to hurt the worms when you treat the dog! Since childhood I had this love in me. I don't know where it comes from I am simply following the teachings of the Buddha.
Do you think your combination of Western & Tantric medicine would be of relevance in the West?
It will not simply be curing the sick but also furthering the cause of Dharma. To practise both in the West will definitely benefit more people I am willing to teach anybody my art who desires to learn it.
What are good and bad spirits, ghosts, gods, etc., and how do they affect people?
Spirit in itself, despite varying manifestations, is one. Godly spirit is purer than that of a human which is polluted to a certain extent. The spirits of the ghosts are the most tainted.
If a person's faith is strong and his past life has provided him with a strong planetary disposition, he cannot be troubled by dark spirits. But those who have no faith and are filled with fear possess a weak planetary support. Such persons can easily become a victim of these spirits.
The spirits are always filled with longing: they want to talk but no one can hear them, they want to eat but cannot. Spirits attain a certain power in their ethereal state. Some can enter a person and cause them to have fits, or render them unconscious or even insane. Sometimes a paralysis is cured the moment the spirit leaves the person.
How do you diagnose and exorcise the spirits from an unbalanced mind?
How can I tell you of something which I am unable to show you? I first check the patient's planetary configuration and in meditation do the calculation. When I am convinced that the shadow of a bad spirit has descended, I treat him accordingly. It is the shadow of the spirit which I am able to perceive within the person. Sometimes I throw fire into the person's body. You cannot see the fire but it enters the body and destroys all negativity. Sometimes I have to use wind or even water. There are many ways. ... How can I reveal to you everything? You will not understand. Diagnosis is a very variable, personal matter.
How do you heal with mantras?
Mantras are indispensable, but a thoughtless chanting of them is useless. One has to concentrate deeply. Each of the five fingers attracts a different ray and transmits it to the disease while simultaneously drawing the sickness out. That is one way of healing. We can chant mantras with our breath moving up and down. After a while the breath itself becomes medicinally potent. The power of the breath depends upon the number of times you have chanted the mantra with concentration. When we blow onto a disease we cannot release it into the air. It may enter someone else. Therefore we inhale the disease, and destroy it within ourselves. But if you are not strong enough it can harm you!
Anyone who wishes to know more about Dinchen Rinpoche and his work may contact him through ITTM.
Tibetan Book of Living & Dying
A Dialogue With Sogyal Rinpoche
with Swami Virato
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.
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.
* * *
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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
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.
Where did some of these things come from? I'm curious about
the word "bardo."
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
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.
Do you think it possible that the people who are "exiting" now,
because of all the lessons being offered, have a better chance of
getting off the wheel of samsara?
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?
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.
We always seem to want to personalize God. Even the Buddhists
say "Do not make an image," yet have statues of Buddha.
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
For that we need to have the knowledge in order to know. The
thing is, it can be a deception.
NF: How so?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
[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.
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
Excerpts from an Interview
Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Ira Rechtschaffer
Alameda, California - March 1997
Q Here in the West Rinpoche, there are a number of questions that have come up through the years, in fact through the decades, about the difference between obedience and surrender. We talk about the power of the Vajra Master, or the intimacy of the relationship; and then here in the West it causes some concern about whether a student is going to be subjected to obedience as opposed to surrender. I wondered if you could clarify those two? Is there a difference?
R There is a theoretical structure . . . Whenever one speaks about the Vajra Master, people begin to speak in terms of 'jumping off a cliff' - 'being prepared to jump off a cliff'. I am not sure if this is an Eastern analogy or not; but for a lot of Western people the image of a cliff comes to mind. I don't know why this is - it is not 'jumping into a chasm', it's 'off of a cliff'. Theoretically, that is the case - one has to move into space in one way or another. If one looks at histories of Milarépa and Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa - one can see this kind of relationship in which the disciple is invited to the brink. However . . . I think it needs to be remembered that Naropa and Milarépa were always free to leave.
Q But wouldn't that contradict the notion of the samaya vow - which, at the level of the Vajrayana practitioner, seems to be a commitment that glues one to the Vajra Master forever?
R Yes, but one 'glues oneself' as it were - the Vajra Master is not a cult leader who will have you forcibly brought back if you run away. Milarépa did leave on several occasions, in order to attempt to obtain teaching elsewhere. But let us look at the two aspects of this: there is the theoretical or internal application, and there is the practical or pragmatic application. We have to look at both. We have to look at the fact that Vajrayana does look like cult activity from certain points of view. Vajrayana is not cultic in the modern sense of the word, but some of its parameters could be misinterpreted or misapplied. So, for Vajrayana practitioners it is crucial to distinguish the two. One problems at this point in history is that anything that looks like cult activity is labelled as such whether it is or not. Now, to 'obedience and surrender'. . . As far as I am aware, the most important point is being open - 'open to-'. The only problem I have ever found, in the seventeen years I have been teaching, has been with people who have taken vows and then become rebellious about them. These have never been instances in which Khandro Déchen or I have asked someone to do something bizarre, immoral, unethical, personally harmful, or personally degrading. They have all been issues of personal responsibility or of interpersonal behaviour. There have each been instances in which individuals have been called to task for some aspect of themselves which was anti-social. We have found that the 'cliffs' for these individuals have been issues such as requesting an individual to make suitable recompense and believable sincere apologies for their crass and insulting behaviour to others - or to refrain from sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation. This is just one example. We have never asked anyone to dance naked on the table in front of the assembled sangha. The cliffs over which we have requested vow-holders to leap have always been 'self-created cliffs' - fortunately, so far, only a few people have refused to address their anti-social behaviour, preferring to retain a self-justifying rationale.
Q How would that directive be different in tone and texture at the level of the Vajrayana relationship as opposed to the relationship in the lower yanas between a teacher and a student?
R Well, in the Sutric model, the student responds to his her teacher's criticism by saying: "Maybe I'm wrong - can we investigate this further?" In the Vajrayana model, the disciple responds: "I am wrong. Now I must gain further teachings so that I can understand the nature of my mistaken view."
Q So the Vajrayana is not a democratic model, as we understand it?
R No - it is not. But the point is that the people to whom I have referred were not even responding within the Sutric model. There was no sense of: "Maybe I'm wrong." It was: "I'm right and you are trying to destroy me by overturning my self-justifying anti-social view." These have been examples of instances where we could not get any further. These people assumed that Vajrayana interested them, but when it actually came to the point of having to live Vajrayana, this proved impossible - their desire to be in some way, or to think in some way was too powerful to allow their vows to function.
(Ngak'chang Rinpoche had previously referred to a 'romantic view of the military life'.) I think . . . equally with spiritual endeavours, there is romantic delusion - 'romance' in the neurotic sense of the word rather than the vajra-romance we mentioned previously. People seem think of Milarépa as a 'romantic figure' - I do not know why. We have a history in which we find 'the romance of war'. There can be a great deal of 'romance' before a war, when people sign up: "I wanna wear a uniform. I want the girls to look at me and sigh. Yeah, here I am, wearing the uniform and I'm so proud of myself. I am going off to war prepared to die for my country! How glorious! I'll come back again as a hero! I'll be in the big parade of all those who whupped the enemy and saved their Ma and Pa and sweetheart."
Or, in terms of Vajrayana, the jingoistic banter might be slightly different: 'I am going to take vajra commitment, and storm the barrier of duality! I'm going to let the Vajra Master destroy my relative rational! And - I'll come back again, with my ego intact!'
I do not think so . . . The more we look at that, the more gross it becomes. First there is the romance, and then I am out on the battlefield, and I think: 'This is hell!' The first battle is over - soldiers are screaming as their legs are being amputated, and the stench of infected wounds is making me vomit. Not that spiritual practice has to be like a battlefield, in particular. But I think that everyone's battlefield, in spiritual terms, is precisely what it is. For example, one discovers one has some major refuge which outweighs Buddhism per se - let alone Vajrayana. If one hits against the refuge of a major neurotic reference point - then Vajrayana is going to feel like a battlefield, and the Vajra master is going to be the 'enemy'. It is going to feel like leg amputation . . . at whatever level that occurs.
Q I like the metaphor of the battlefield if we look at the missing limbs as the limbs of ego. As we evolve in a spiritual path, perhaps there is a greater challenge and a greater assault on the narcissistic ego as we understand it in the West. But to put the question of obedience and surrender back into focus: Could you relate the metaphor, if possible, to the difference between obedience and surrender?
R Yes - there is a difference between doing as you are told because you have bought into some kind of a structure for self-advancement; and surrender to the view of the teacher, because you have a real understanding that that view is liberating. I think there is a difference there. If you look at a cult, people who buy into a cult and commit terrible atrocities within a cult at the behest of the cult leader - these are people who want some form of personal advancement. I think that needs to be carefully examined. The 'evil cult leader' may well take advantage of people; but why do they want to be exploited in this way? What is in it for them? What is within that paradigm that looks like an advantage for them? I think that is important. Some of these people may be insecure, frightened, and lonely - that is one 'pull'. But I do not think these people are the major operatives within the cult. These are not the people who 'do the terrible things' - these are merely the people who go along with it or acquiesce to it. I think that the whole idea of surrender here, rather than obedience, is that it is a deeply informed position. It is a position at which one has arrived through critical experiential research. One understands extremely clearly: "I am allowing myself to be challenged here, because I have hit up against the barriers of my own rationale time and time again. I know that my rationale is a closed loop and that the only way out is through surrender to the Vajra Master."
So, that is the beginning. Now, in terms of taking risks . . . in terms of trust, one gradually establishes a ground of trust. But this is a contradiction in terms. It is a contradiction in terms because trust is vulnerability. And if we call vulnerability 'ground' . . . then . . . This is interesting, in Buddhist terms. We are making emptiness the ground, and that is crucial when one is approaching Vajrayana - because emptiness is the basis of Vajrayana. So one's trust expands in terms of knowing that: whatever I hang onto is going to be an obstacle. So - surrender has to be the evolved knowledge that emptiness is the ground. If one has that evolved knowledge, then one can enter into relationship with the Vajra Master. So it is not definitely not obedience in terms of obeying commands - in terms of an infantile 'doing as you are told'. It is 'an openness to -´ which based on previous experience of growing openness.
Obviously at West Point, or whatever place - I use this one particular place because I have read about it - there it is 'obedience'. It is obedience because: "I want to get into this place; I want to get higher rank; I want to be an officer and a gentleman - I want to be thought well of. I want to be respected."
Now . . . if one approaches the Vajra Master as one would approach the commanding officer at West Point - this could be a big mistake. One cannot approach the Vajra Master in order to gain 'higher rank' - but people do act in this way. They actually approach the Vajra Master from the position of obedience, rather than surrender, because they are actually seeking higher status - or some sort of 'special closeness' to the Lama. But then . . . they become enormously disappointed when the only status they are offered is the 'status' of their own liberated state.
Q In which case, do those students that approach the Vajra Master more from a need-fulfilling desire - do they run the risk of tremendous dissatisfaction and disappointment and ultimate criticism of the Vajra Master?
R Sure. Because what they want is not actually there to be had. It is not even being offered. They just perceive it as being possible - to be the Vajra Master's right-hand man or right-hand woman. If one wants that position, then one is doomed to disappointment. If there is spiritual ambition there - or rather 'non-spiritual ambition', then this spells disaster. To want status or recognition of any kind is a doomed position. Obviously some kind of recognition from the teacher is important, but that 'recognition' has to be a greater level of intimacy, in terms of being understood. But for that to occur, one has to authentically enter into the nature of practice. Intimacy with the Lama is not expressed by being offered a merit badge; or being told: "You can lead the practice every morning - you can have your very own little special seat there."
Q Could we look at loyalty?
R Yes - it is quite central to what we have been discussing. One's loyalty to the Vajra Master, the lineage, and to Vajrayana in general cannot be based on a deal. Loyalty is not negotiable. That kind of loyalty is for mercenaries - soldiers of fortune. I think that loyalty tends to be based on having lived in a coherent society and we no longer have coherent societies. A coherent society is one in which the honourable code is universally understood. If one is brought up in a society and engages in the life-pursuits which are time-honoured - then one has a better ground for honour. Here, and in this time, I could say: "Whoa! I've had it with Vajrayana Buddhism - I think this new American Buddhism is really a better way to go." If I say that, then I can leave everything behind without any obvious loss of face. I just leave all my friends and move to another part of the country. I act as if Vajrayana Buddhism never existed. All the people I knew as Vajrayana Buddhists are history. Gone. I could start apparently fresh, in new situation where I could be seen a 'a man of honour' again. Now . . . that would not exist in Tibetan society - or at least it would be rather difficult. The problem is individualism without honour: "What I want for me is more important than any duty into which I may have entered. What I want for me is more important than any promise I may have made - because I have to be true to what I feel in this present moment."
I have nothing against individualism - heaven forbid! Khandro Déchen and I encourage individuality - but individuality or individualism needs to dance with ideas of the community and the greater good. What we find repugnant in our culture is the idea that: "Whatever I feel must predominate. I must honour my feelings and follow their dictates. Wha ever I said before with so much conviction now has to be cast aside for the next strong conviction which dominates my mind. Situations are there for me to shape in relation to my present desire - rather than my being shaped by the confluence of my desires and my commitments." ' . . . and Marie's the name-of his latest flame.'
Q Rinpoche, I wonder if you could speak to the inherent dangers and opportunities in the Vajrayana level of the Buddhist path?
R I think the dangers are those of vow-breakage. If one deliberately breaks one's vows, it is difficult ever to hold vows again. If one breaks vows, and does nothing to restore them, then one is stuck in the position of never being able to make vows again. One cannot rely on oneself. We have the memory of what it was like holding vows; and we know where we are now - and that is a kind of hell. This 'hell' is the hell of not being able to hold vows - of our lives being out of control. We cannot simply take the vows with other Lamas - because we have the visceral memory of vow-breakage. "Maybe with this teacher it'll go the same way. I have no knowledge that it can be any different - if I've done it once, I can do it again. How can I hold myself with vows, or be held by them when I know that they have not held me in the past?"
So if vows are not repaired, there is nowhere we can go from there. That is the hell of vow-breakage. That is one aspect of the danger. Another aspect is tied up with psychology. I describe psychotherapy as 'long-process', Tantra as 'short-process', and Dzogchen as 'instantaneous process'. With short-process, whatever my neuroses are, in terms of Tantra, if I have the relationship with the Vajra Master, I do not have to deal with my neuroses in terms of gradually uncovering them - slowly working through them. "I can blast through my neuroses! They're not there! I can override them! I don't have to look into them, muck-around with them; I do not have to do anything. What sustains me here is my devotion to the Lama. With devotion to my Lama, I do not have to go into therapy and deal with it all; I can deal with it in a totally different way - through dancing in the mandala of my Lama's presence display, personality display, and circumstances display!"
But . . . of course, if one loses that devotion . . . then everything comes back at ten times the volume. One gets all one's neuroses in one's face at once. There is the analogy of riding the tiger. You can ride; but once you are riding, you cannot get off. If you get off, you get eaten. One is not eaten by the Lama - the tiger is not the Lama, but the situation. One is eaten by the situation, and the situation is one's one neurotic state. One claws oneself in a desperate bid to avoid pain, but the more one claws oneself - the greater the pain. I remember the student of another Lama breaking vows and creating all kinds of neurotic mess around himself. It was the usual story of a person leaving and trying to take as many others with him as he could. He was in a paranoid state to the degree that he failed to see the irony of telling a former fellow sangha member: "I bet they're all saying I'm paranoid." And all the while . . . people were actually trying to care for him and tell him that he could still be friends with everyone. It was horrible to witness even at a distance.
Q So that might be analogous to the calamity that could be brought about by the Vajrayana in its aspect of jet-propulsion?
R Yes - the elemental neuroses can be transformed into the five Buddha Families, but only in relationship with the Vajra Master and through one's devotion. One really has to have complete trust. Because in all one's potential paranoia, one has to be able to say: "This fear is not real. I am not going to take my delusions seriously. Everything is as it was before I set myself spinning to avoid my own pain. I am not going to blame my Lama for my pain, because I know that this response is a fabrication of my dualistic clinging. This is actually a pure mandala in which I have been nurtured. I am the creator of my own nightmare, and if I start to attack the mandala of my Lama like a rabid mongrel I will destroy myself."
Q Rinpoche-in Western psychology-this state would be interpreted as 'personal ego inflation'. It would be a sense of inflating oneself above and beyond the demand of dealing with one's neuroses. Could you help clarify the difference between that idea of personal intoxication and inflation, and what you are describing as a pure perception?
R Yes. Pure vision is not personally easy; because one may have a very strong need to have it out with another person, and say: "You bastard! You did this to me." It is not easy; it is not comfortable. One has to say: "Right. I really want to say these things; but I am going to let that go. That is not important. It seems important . . . but what am I going to do with that? My Lama said that I don't have a problem with this person. We don't have a problem. That is very uncomfortable, but I will take that on board as reality. I will let go of the need to 'process' what happened. We will simply be friends again."
I think ego-aggrandisement, in that sense, would be more like saying: "No, it's the other's problem; he is a bastard - but I'll forget about the problem, because he is so inferior to me that he's not worth it. So, okay, I'll feel okay about it then."
But that does not work in Vajrayana. According to Vajrayana you are both intrinsically enlightened beings. You have to emphasize the non-dual quality. Whatever our individual neuroses are, it depends where we put the emphasis. . .
R The position that Khandro Déchen and I take is that we are practising the role of Vajra Master in the same way that our disciples who are in vajra relationship are practising vajra relationship. Now for those in vajra relationship with us, this is a double-bind. Because for them to be in vajra relationship, they cannot really perceive us as practising being Vajra Masters, although we say that is what we are doing. And we mean that that is what we are doing. So they are very much in a double-bind situation; because they very much want to view us as being the real thing. And we are saying, 'We are not the real thing'. But we can understand that you are practising in that way. This is like a clash of information.
Now we say that we are practising the role of Vajra Master for various reasons - one of them being that that is what we are doing. The other reason is that there is some level of accountability there. We like things to be very clear at that level. This is an enterprise in which we are all involved - it is very new in the West.
Q Here you are as the Vajra Master, and it seems that the students have to live the contradiction or the paradox that you are a practising human being; and at the same time in their practice they have to envision you as a fruitional manifestation of the path. That seems to imply that there is an infallibility to who you are as a human being; and yet you are a human being. So that seems to be a sharper bind.
R Yes, absolutely.
Q Does that imply that samaya would work for you also? That there is a mutual samaya?
R Yes, absolutely yes.
Q Could you speak about that more? In the West, we hear about samaya or think about it as it applies to the student, not to the teacher.
R Now here we are going more into something that is personal to Khandro Déchen and myself. This is not traditional. But we would regard our commitment to those in vajra commitment as being the same commitment to those people. We have to be prepared to die for those people. That is not a traditional expression. It is usually one way - toward the Lama. I think each Lama has his or her own view of what their relationship is. But for me and Khandro Déchen it is very much like that - that we respect the commitment of those who give it; and whatever their commitment is has to be our commitment too. It has to be absolutely reciprocal - because this is a massive thing. This is not something that is handled lightly as a feudal lord or some kind of thing. So whatever our manifestations are at the level of personality or personal eccentricity - we have to be careful of those things in terms of how it is for the student . . .
If one understands the nature of power, than one actually has power whether one wants it or not. And one is careful, then, about how one uses it. So that one makes a suggestion, and someone looks like they are carrying it out, then one has to say, "Be careful with that suggestion". Take responsibility for it yourself. This is a free suggestion. Rather than saying, "Ha, ha! He or she is taking my suggestion. Maybe I can 'up' it a bit, and that will make me feel even better." I think Trungpa Rinpoche said something once about a real Tantrika panicking every second. The onus is really on the teacher to be incredibly cautious and careful about everything - that you have to be prepared to die for every word. One has to have a massive tentative quality about whatever power one has; or whatever power is allowed by one's students.
Q What about the more poignant sense of the Lama offering a directive to a student - seeing the student making a certain mistake. And the student coming back and saying, 'No, that perception is off - it is not true'. And yet the student offers a samaya bond with the teacher? That often becomes a big picture in Vajrayana communities here in the West.
R That is very difficult, really. I do not know quite what to say about that without thinking of a particular instance. I know what you are saying. But advice given by a teacher is not usually that directive in terms of one's personal circumstances, so being 'off' or whatever would be a perception of the student. I have never really given advice that pertained to somebody's life or employment or relationship that was not based on the teaching. Now it being often a result occurring that was not wanted would not be particularly connected with that. Advice given at the level of teaching has to be understood at the level of experience, rather than through the outcome of the event. It is not as if the teacher says, 'You do this', and then everything is nice and fine and you enjoy it. It is more about relationship and the understanding of one's own samsaric pattern.
The rôle of the Lama is really to manifest the goal. And one has to look at that and say, 'Would I like to be like this person?' So one really has to come to an understanding of the qualities of this person; and one can only do that through practice. I really have to explore the situation. I have to discover what the quality of the teacher is. Now I think one of the problems in the West is that we hit on it like romance. This person is a great object for projection. And so we fall in love with the teacher. But this is not what is meant by devotion. I think a lot of people mistake that for devotion; because 'my mommy didn't love me enough, my daddy didn't love me enough, but here is this nice, smiling old man - oh! He loves me, he's nice to me, he will be a good mommy or daddy to me.' This is a big mistake.
Q Does that mean that as we go from outer to inner to secret, within the Vajrayana path, that the ante - so to speak - is raised? I wonder if you could speak a little bit about the inherent dangers as we evolve further within the Tantras.
R I think one becomes increasingly more adult - or one is forced to become increasingly more adult - less dependent upon the teacher as protector. One, in fact, becomes more equal with the teacher as an inherently enlightened being. Because you cannot move up these yanas with this emphasis on beginningless enlightenment without some kind of a quality manifesting. . . I often compare this with the developmental psychology of children as they grow up. At first mom and dad are very god-like; they know everything. And that is how it should be, because that means the children feel safe - when I have a tummy-ache, and mom gives me a pill, then that is what I need - I do not need to be frightened of my tummy-ache. Then later the whole idea that the tummy-ache could be cancer comes up; then there might not be an answer to it, and one has to cope with that. If mom and dad are not sure of my tummy-ache, then they will have to take me to the doctor; oh, so the doctor knows everything - the doctor will put my tummy right.
Q Using that metaphor then, would the inherent dangers or risks in the Vajrayana mean that one's radius of exposure would increase? That one would be introduced into a deeper, more intimate connection with reality proper according to the phenomenal world?
Q . . . then a more enclosed situation? We go into a more open, open, open. . .?
R And one becomes increasingly alone, and self-reliant. The props get taken away. The danger of that is that one is just stripped out there and naked in the universe, in terms of one's experience. And one might really not be up for that; and one might lose the teacher in all that.
Q Lose it in terms of not having recourse to the teacher in that state?
R Yes, because one's teacher is. . . One is milking the dri or herding the yak with the teacher. The teacher is wearing the same clothes and just chatting, whatever. So, the more equality there is in terms of outer circumstances, the less signs there are of the teacher being the teacher - the easier it is to lose the teacher. If the teacher is always in brocade, always nine foot in the air on a throne, then you cannot lose the teacher. There is a big neon sign that says 'Teacher' and one that says 'student'; you are not confused about that.
Q So here you are talking about the transition from the human person of the guru to the guru-principle in action; the principle of the teacher radiating through one's experience. So there is less sense of territoriality - I am here, the teacher is there? Aha.
R And the whole thing becomes a lot more subtle at that level. Because one's own relationship with one's own enlightened state becomes more subtle - the difference between what I am and what my enlightened state might be. . . And it gets closer and closer. That becomes very subtle and very dangerous. Because I could be the enlightened being. And then I am called 'Rudra' (Matamrudra) an utterly negatively inverted freedom; complete ego. And then I become like this drunken elephant. . .
Q Yes, yes. This is quite interesting. I think in many ways what you have just said is very clarifying and also very threatening. It seems that in the initial stages of the path there is a need for more contrast between the samsaric and the nirvanic aspects. . .
Q . . . whereas as one gets closer to the true self-actualisation of one's Buddha nature, one's personality becomes the vehicle through which that enlightened nature shines through. . .
Q Therefore there is more of an ordinariness than an extraordinariness.
World is Unreliable
An interview with His Holiness Penor Rinpoche
by Andrew Cohen
Andrew Cohen: Rinpoche, many people in the West are becoming interested in the Buddha-dharma. You're a monk. And the Buddha himself was a monk. What are the virtues of monkhood for the spiritual aspirant?
PENOR RINPOCHE: In sutra, the Buddha taught that being a renunciate and becoming a monk will help one follow the spiritual path in a better way. First, one receives ordination and vows, and then one renounces the world and becomes a monk. With that as the basis for one's moral conduct, one will have a deeper and more firm understanding. One will have more power in the practice of the spiritual path. Being a renunciate monk is more powerful than just being a lay practitioner.
The great nineteenth-century Tibetan Nyingma yogi Shabkar said, when speaking
about the worldly life,
Meat, liquor, sense pleasures, worldly enjoyments-the best things of samsara are temporarily beguiling. Young brides in the full bloom of youth and beauty are expert at leading one astray. Therefore, even if you have as your companion a young daughter of the gods, have no attachment, have no desire. Why? Speaking generally, because all things of this world are without essence, impermanent, unreliable, and by their very nature lead to suffering. In particular, because domestic life is like a pit of fire, a cannibal island, a nest of poisonous snakes. Enjoying the entire array of samsaric perfections, wealth, and pleasures is like eating food mixed with poison, like licking honey on a razor blade, like the jewel on a snake's head: a single touch destroys.
Rinpoche, could you speak a little bit about the dangers of the worldly life and its pitfalls for the spiritual aspirant?
PR: It is said that if someone is attached to a minor pleasure or happiness, there is no way that person can attain a greater spiritual happiness or pleasure. In samsaric life, one is mainly influenced by the five afflicted minds of desire, hatred, anger, jealousy, and pride. And wherever there is affliction, whoever is influenced by those afflictions will naturally take rebirth in samsara endlessly. You see, there is no limit to samsara, even though there is also no essence to it.
AC: You said in an interview you recently gave in Toronto, "There is such a hunger [for the dharma] in the West. The way to receive the dharma is to find the teachings and absorb them. . . . You shouldn't just be thinking of this world. You have to think about transcendence-something other than just material life." Could you please explain what you mean by that? What is it that needs to be renounced in order to transcend the world?
PR: Many Westerners are interested in studying Buddhism and also want to follow a spiritual practice. However, we like samsara, we like this world, and we work for it and try to accomplish something within it. But there is no limit and no end to what we could try to achieve. Whatever we may achieve in this world, whether we acquire all kinds of material objects or rank, still there is nothing we can really rely upon. Everything is impermanent; it only lasts for a few moments. Things like rank or material objects do not really benefit or help anybody because when death comes, we cannot carry anything with us.
But there is a way that we can become liberated from the suffering of samsara. If we follow the Buddha's teaching as a spiritual path, then we can transcend this world from a place of real depth. We can achieve ultimate peace and happiness, enlightenment, only through the spiritual path. And that depends upon receiving teachings from a lama. It also depends upon ourselves, how much we really understand through the practice and mainly, how much we do the practice. Depending upon these things, we could experience fruition.
The vows, which are for moral conduct, are the basic ground for the spiritual path. They are like the foundation of a house. Without that basic ground, we cannot build a house. So one has to give up all the afflicted minds-desire, hatred, anger, jealousy, and pride-that which manifests from your mind and afflicts your mind and distracts you in the world. But even though we have to give up the afflicted minds, it is not very easy to abandon them immediately. That is why we have to study and then apply what we have studied to our practice. Then eventually we can completely abandon all these afflictions. So if one uses one's highest faculty or intellectual mind with much diligence, one can carry through the practice. You see, it is possible within one lifetime to get liberated, but it might take many lifetimes.
AC: The great Chatrul
Rinpoche and I became friends in the early 1990s. In one of our meetings he said
The most important thing is to have renunciation. If you have renunciation, it means you realize that there's actually no essence to the world. I mean, there's nothing of it. The world has no real essence; it's meaningless, the whole of samsara is just meaningless. In fact, if you have complete realization of the faults of samsara, that is realization. That means you have gone beyond samsara to understanding that this world has no ultimate meaning.
He went on to say, "Renunciation is the whole basis of the spiritual path. If you don't have renunciation, you don't have realization. . . . In the end, if you want to be free, you have to cultivate a disgust for samsara."
So I wanted to ask you Rinpoche, do you agree? What does it mean to cultivate a disgust for samsara? Why is renunciation said to be the whole basis of the spiritual path?
PR: Chatrul Rinpoche is a very great realized lama. And what he said is true. We have to see the suffering of samsara, that which makes you feel disgusted. However much effort we may put into samsaric activity, eventually we will have to see that we cannot achieve ultimate happiness that way. We have to see that samsara is impermanent and actually taste that there is no essence to it and feel that disgust. But not only that, on the other side, we have to intend to attain enlightenment, which is the opposite of samsara.
In reality, there is no real essence to samsara because everything is so temporary. It is not reliable, even for one moment. If we want to achieve enlightenment or ultimate happiness, then we have to see it in that way until we are liberated.
It is said that there is no essence in samsara. But in fact, one could also say there is an essence because all of us are bound in samsara for millions and billions of lifetimes! And even if we think that we want to do some dharma practice, we don't do it-because we are completely bound up in samsara. Just getting through spiritual practice-even one or two hours-is so difficult and we so easily get bored. But we spend our whole lifetime working in samsara, and still we do not get bored with it. That itself is the essence of samsara and the power of samsara.
Renunciation means to renounce all worldly things. If one wants to be liberated, one needs to have one's mind turned away from worldly things. Until and unless we have the intention to do that, we will not be able to apply ourselves to the practice for enlightenment.
AC: The Buddha said, "The blue-necked peacock which flies through the air never approaches the speed of the swan. Similarly, the householder can never resemble the monk who is endowed with the qualities of the sage, who meditates aloof in the jungle." Yet, an influential American Buddhist meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, says in his new bestselling book, "The sacrifices of family are like those of any demanding monastery, offering exactly the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and generosity." Could that really be true?
PR: It is not true. When you are in a household, in the worldly life, even if you have spiritual training, there is always more attachment. Being a householder and wanting to have liberation from the afflictions of mind is good. But that is very difficult within those kinds of conditions. Yet even if you are in a monastery, you still need all the training so that you can get rid of those defilements. But of course it still does not mean that only by entering a monastery you can be liberated.
AC: There is a new spiritual movement being born in America at this time. It's called the "new American spirituality." One of its leading proponents, Elizabeth Lesser, says, "The unique and most positive aspect of the new American spirituality is its emphasis on self-authority." Indeed, she says, "With democratic spirituality it no longer makes sense for an [external] authority to describe to you the sacred truth and the path to discover it. In [new American spirituality], you map the journey."
you come from a great tradition where success on the spiritual journey is entirely
dependent upon the seeker taking refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma
and the Sangha. The great Nyingma Master Patrul Rinpoche said,
"No sutra, tantra, or shastra speaks of any being attaining perfect Buddhahood without having followed a spiritual teacher. We can see for ourselves that nobody has ever developed the accomplishments belonging to the stages and paths by means of their own ingenuity and prowess. Indeed, all beings, ourselves included, show particular talent in discovering the wrong paths to take-while when it comes to following the path leading to liberation and omniscience we are as confused as a blind person wandering alone in the middle of a desert plain. No one can bring back jewels from a treasure island without relying on an experienced navigator. Likewise, a spiritual teacher or companion is our true guide to liberation and omniscience, and we must follow him with respect. This is accomplished in three phases: firstly, by examining the teacher, then by following him, and finally by emulating his realization and his actions."
So how do you, Rinpoche, as head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, feel about the dharma of the new American spirituality? What is your response to the notion of self-authority on the spiritual path?
PR: What Patrul Rinpoche said is true. Even the Buddha taught in that way. All the past, present and future Buddhas had to depend upon a master who could guide them to the spiritual path that they could follow in a proper way-where there is the method to liberate. Without a master, there is no way anyone can attain enlightenment.
AC: How do you feel about the notion of democracy, which is an American ideal, being applied to the path to enlightenment?
PR: There is no benefit to following the democratic spiritual path. And there is no power that can be established through it. That is the problem. And why? It is not because they have more afflictions like hatred or anger or anything like that-they do have some compassion. But this kind of practice will not bring any result; they are just wasting time.
The main reason is this: one has to receive transmissions and blessings from the lama, the master, from someone who has the experience of what is called enlightenment, otherwise there is no real path. Having a qualified master who really knows how to guide one on the spiritual path becomes a real antidote that liberates one from the suffering of samsara. From the enlightened Buddha until the present masters, the enlightened mind has been transmitted from master to disciple. Whenever that transmission takes place, it has to be kept very pure, without breaking any precepts, samayas, or words of honor. There has to be a very pure lineage, otherwise there will be obstacles on the path and one will not achieve ultimate realization. If a seed is a little bit rotten, it will not grow.
If someone does not have that clear understanding, that clear experience, that clear realization to guide another, then others cannot really benefit. That is why we have to rely upon someone who has this kind of realization and get guidance through them. Everything depends upon having a qualified master to guide one on the path.
The path that the Buddha attained complete enlightenment by is what he has been giving in all these teachings. This is how he guided the rest of his followers: "If you do this kind of practice, then you can have this kind of liberation." In India and Tibet, there are thousands of practitioners following Buddha's teaching and instruction, and they have gotten all kinds of realization and benefit. As we carry through with our spiritual practice, one needs to have some kind of result or benefit or power. Not just a small result or benefit. We need to have the immeasurable benefit of having the ultimate realization of attaining complete enlightenment.
AC: Would you say that the notion of democratic spirituality is comfortable for the ego?
PR: Yes, it is comfortable for the ego. They think, "Oh, I have my rights." They think, "I'll just feel comfortable." This is not beneficial. If you have a seed and the seed does not have a very energetic core, even if we plant it, it will not grow to fruition.
AC: Rinpoche, these days more and more people are practicing Buddhist methods of meditation. Some practice with some understanding of the Buddha's teaching of emptiness-the teaching that all phenomena and experience is ultimately empty and without substance. Other people practice meditation without any understanding of emptiness or appreciation of its fundamental role in the Buddha's teaching. Can dharma practice lead to liberation without the practice being grounded in an understanding that emptiness is the basis of everything?
PR: In general, emptiness has many levels. Only thinking or feeling that one is experiencing emptiness doesn't necessarily lead to enlightenment. It is very difficult for someone who does not have any understanding of emptiness, or who is just doing simple meditation, to attain realization. To have realization, one has to have a path that liberates. And liberation means to be liberated from this afflicted mind. So to be liberated from this afflicted mind, one needs to have the antidote. And the antidote is the realization of selflessness, or emptiness of the self and all phenomena. But if one just carries through the practice, then slowly one reaches higher levels of the path, and in that way, slowly, one can have liberation.
AC: Can spiritual practice lead to enlightenment or liberation from the world without the practitioner inwardly renouncing his or her attachment to the world?
PR: The problem is that one will not release that attachment and will not realize emptiness.
AC: Because one is still attached to the world?
Your Mind Into an Ally
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche Visits Chicago
By Sharon Steffensen
Tibetan lama Sakyong Mipham Rimpoche visited Chicago in late March to promote his first book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally, in which he demystifies the art and practice of meditation. On Saturday, March 29, at Lake Street Church in Evanston, he spoke to a packed sanctuary that spilled into an overflow room. A book signing followed. Having been released only in January 2003, the book was already in its fifth printing and appearing on best-seller lists. YOGAChicago magazine was honored to be granted an interview with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
"The Sakyong," a term which means "earth-protector," is the oldest son of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was instrumental in bringing Shambhala Buddhism to the West. Chogyam Trungpa founded 165 Shambhala meditation and retreat centers worldwide as well as other Buddhist institutions, including Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and authored Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Meditation in Action and other books that enjoyed considerable popularity in the '70s.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche began the interview saying, "I do yoga." He explained that he met K. Pattabhi Jois in Colorado through the senior ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman and has since visited Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India, where he has had private ashtanga yoga sessions with him and his grandson Sharath. Sakyong Mipham enjoys ashtanga yoga but also practices Tibetan yoga, which involves movements similar to those of traditional Tibetan dance.
Sakyong Mipham was born in Bodhagaya, India, where he spent his first seven years with his mother. In 1971, he joined his father in Boulder, where he continued his Buddhist studies while receiving a Western education. Now, at age 40, he is the leader of the spiritual and secular arms of the Shambhala organization. Based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he travels often to teach meditation and Buddhist philosophy and returns to India for several months every year to see his mother and for personal retreats.
Even though he wears the traditional maroon and gold garb of Tibetan monks, Sakyong Mipham is thoroughly Westernized. He rides horses, runs, lifts weights, plays golf and goes to movies. His life's purpose, however, is to study and teach Buddhism and meditation. After all, the Sakyong is recognized as the incarnation of a venerated meditation master and scholar of Tibet, Mipham Jamyang Namgyal, who died in 1912.
Sakyong Mipham explained that in asana practice we attain suppleness of the body, while in meditation we attain suppleness of the mind. "A mind that is pliable, flexible and trained," said Sakyong Mipham, allows one to sit in meditation without thinking about the past or the future but solely of the present moment. A mind that is flexible and adaptable sees that there are options for responding to life situations. For example, a person with a stiff mind meets an angry insult with a knee-jerk reaction. He/she yells back. Another, with a flexible mind, may see that the angry person is having a difficult time and may choose to respond in another way, with compassion.
In the Tibetan language, the word for meditation is gom, which means "familiarity." Sakyong Mipham said that because the mind is constantly at work, we are meditating all the time, getting familiar with something. "Is that thing you are meditating on helpful?" he asked. "The notion of meditation is to meditate on something beneficial. Let's do something that leads to somewhere," he said. A centered, strong, clear mind can be applied to whatever we choose. We don't have to be a Buddhist or even a spiritual seeker to get involved in meditation, he added.
Most of the time, said the Sakyong, we are self-centered. "We are getting familiar with 'what about me?' It's all about me. [When everything is going the way you want it to go], you say at the end of the day that it was a good day. Everything worked out for me."
With meditation, we learn to generate compassion and wisdom, which constitute the highest teaching, according to the Sakyong. We develop "a sense of looking out instead of always looking in." Our world enlarges as we send an intention for others not to suffer and to be happy. We ask ourselves, "Am I going to spend my whole life thinking, 'What about me? Do I have to have the last donut? Is that who I am?' We say, 'No, I can be bigger. I am not that hungry.' We can say, 'No, you go ahead. Please.'"
To meditate successfully, the mind must be strengthened and grounded so that it can be a powerful ally rather than a hindrance. He acknowledged that the mind is wonderful for thinking, but cautioned not to do it during your meditation practice. "You have to train your mind to behave the way you want it to behave .If we don't train the mind, we are at the mercy of the moods of the mind .We may be physically very flexible, but if our mind is filled with animosity, we poison our bodies." When we gain control over our mind, we gain control over our life, said the Sakyong.
Sakyong Mipham advises beginners to start with ten minutes of meditation a day. The simplest way to begin is to watch the breath. What's important is that one is comfortable and that the mind is focused. It's like coming home, he said. "If you enjoy your home, you find a reason to come home. Similarly in meditation, if you are not comfortable and you don't find any reason to be here, then there are reasons to go off onto other thoughts. But if you create a nice place for yourself, you find those thoughts are distracting and you are wasting your time. .You have to be engaged. Sitting in the posture alone isn't going to do it." For an especially agitated person, he advised walking (or standing) meditation.
Shambhala means "peaceful abiding," which Sakyong Mipham said is the natural state of the mind. As the mind goes deeper, it becomes clearer, stronger and more joyous, with a sense of buoyancy. "The journey of every day is to develop and strengthen the mind," he said.
The Sakyong led the 600+ group at Lake Street Church in a short meditation. After we straightened our spines and brought our attention to our breath, he instructed us to replace the external consciousness of our senses with an internal feeling state of awareness.
As practitioners of meditation, we first gain a level of compassion for ourselves, said Sakyong Mipham. When bringing the meditation out to include others, he advised to think of a family member or friend, someone for whom we have an emotional attachment. "It becomes too cerebral if you start thinking about all beings," he said.
Speaking about the state of the world, Sakyong Mipham said that as he travels, he sees the continuing effects of human consumption everywhere. "The world is becoming too small, and we want more territorial space." Acknowledging that the world is in a tremendous amount of pain, he advised us not to expect others to change, we must change. "We have to go on the notion of peace," he said. "Be open-minded and inspired. [Tell yourself,] 'Today I am going to act in a peaceful way.' Fundamentally there is a sense of goodness in people. Don't let the negativity of the world poison your own heart. Have faith in your own goodness. We can make meditation very powerful."
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche Offers Practices for Times of War
The Sakyong has suggested The Four Immeasurables for those wishing to devote aspects of their meditation and contemplation specifically towards the present situation in the world. These, and other forms of practice that may be beneficial to all, may be found at www.shambhala.org and www.mipham.com.
The Four Immeasurables
The Four Immeasurables is a heart practice that helps to develop the qualities of equanimity, love, compassion, and joy. We contemplate them in turn, allowing a period of silent reflection for each one. The aim is to generate a sincere feeling of these qualities in our hearts and to allow that to extend outwards:
Equanimity is the even-minded attitude towards all beings and events. It is an attitude of complete openness. It is unconditional, free from any distinction whatsoever. We are living through times of great turbulence and suffering. We open our hearts fully to the world, and to whatever thoughts and emotions arise within us as we do so.
With the profound attitude of equanimity, we extend love to all beings. We open ourselves to all those who are caught in the cycle of violence and horror, to those who have inflicted violence, and to those who are the victims.
We meditate on compassion with great energy, filled by our love for all who are swept away on the ocean of samsara. We open our hearts to all beings, nearby or far away, who are living in fear, who are undergoing unthinkable hardship, who are wracked with pain, who are consumed by hatred. May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
No matter how inconceivable the suffering, whatever arises is cradled in the space of compassion and wisdom. For the benefit of all beings-as limitless in number as space is vast-we arouse the wish that everyone may attain true, complete enlightenment.
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness, devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.
by Ngakma Nor'dzin Rang-jung Pamo
In the first century BC a text called Gurupancasika (La-ma nga-chu-pa), based on a variety of Tantric texts, was written by an Indian poet Asvoghosa. It is a guide to correct view with regard to the Lama (Guru), and is available as 'The Fifty Verses of Guru-Devotion', translated by the Translation Bureau of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. This text emphasises that the Buddhist path cannot function without the Guru (Lama).
On the basis of this, it seems extraordinarily arrogant that, in a part of the world where Buddhism has thrived for less than a century, a group of Western Buddhists regard themselves as qualified to redefine a view that has been held for over 2000 years. The translation and commentary on the text of the Fifty Verses, is from an oral teaching given by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey based on the commentaries by Je Tsong-k'a-pa and the First P'a-b'ong-k'a Rinpoche. It is interesting to note that among those named as part of the translation team is Alexander Berzin, one of those connected with Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, et al in promoting the establishment of 'Western Buddhism'.
The introduction to the Fifty Verses states that this text is taught to practitioners before they receive tantric initiation, so that the student would know how to approach and regard vajra commitment. The text is widely known and highly regarded in the Gelug tradition.
The introduction states:
The most important thing is to develop the total conviction that your Guru is a Buddha. Such a conviction is a prerequisite for receiving any insight ... If you doubt your Guru's competence and ability to guide you, your practices will be extremely unstable and you will be unable to make any concrete progress ... Seeing only good qualities in your Guru (therefore) is the way to develop these qualities in yourself ... this positive outlook will come to pervade, amplify and reflect your own state of mind. As everyone has the Buddha-nature within them - the clear, uncontaminated state of pure mind established without any true independent existence - then if you can see your Guru in terms of a Buddha, you have the possibility of activating and realising your own Buddha-nature. If you see faults, you merely reinforce your own shortcomings and negative attitude, whereas if you see only perfection, you will be able to attain the perfection of Buddhahood itself.
If your Guru acts in a seemingly unenlightened manner and you feel it would be hypocritical to think of them as a Buddha, you should remember that your own opinions are unreliable and the apparent faults you see may only be a reflection of your own deluded state of mind.
Anyone who could judge the teacher, must be enlightened. We cannot judge whether someone is or is not enlightened, because we are not enlightened. To view one's teacher as a Buddha is a practice that is beneficial to us. We can only judge whether we find a teacher inspiring. We are highly unlikely to even consider taking someone as our teacher if we are unable to find them inspiring.
It is interesting to note that the text of Fifty Verses encompasses the notion of the Lama being any type of person. Verses 4 and 5 mention the possibility of one's guru being 'a layman or your junior' and of the disciple receiving 'worldly scorn' from publicly prostrating to them or showing them respect. Asvoghosa suggests that even if you hold ordination vows you should show respect to your guru by standing when they enter a room, obeying what they say, or showing them to their seat, whilst avoiding unorthodox actions in public such as prostrating or washing their feet.
The Fifty Verses help the student to understand the nature of the relationship they are about to embark upon and the attitude that is necessary to approach this relationship. It is also explained as the correct attitude of anyone who receives any type of teaching. Vajra relationship is entered into voluntarily and willingly, and only once total confidence in the Lama and a profound lack of confidence in one's own rationale, has already been established.
The text (verse 6) stresses,
In order for the words of honour of neither the Guru nor the disciple to degenerate, there must be a mutual examination beforehand to determine if each can brave a Guru-disciple relationship.
This clearly indicates that there is honourable commitment from the Lama's side, as well as from the disciple's, and also acknowledges that this is an unusual and courageous commitment. Mutual respect between Lama and disciple is the basis of the sacred bond of vajra commitment. Verse seven of the Fifty Verses warns that
a disciple with sense should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion or who is angersome, vicious or arrogant, possessive, undisciplined or boasts of his knowledge.
The disciple makes the decision to enter vajra relationship based on their knowledge of the Lama. It is not entered into lightly or unwittingly.
The interview with Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche conducted by Helen Tworkov in 1999 - an edited version of which appeared in Tricycle magazine - could be seen as a prime example of the type of attitude that may well prevail if reverence for the Lama is discarded. Helen Tworkov displays arrogance and lack of respect for Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche throughout this interview. The interview has a tone more appropriate to a tough journalist interviewing a tricky politician. A degree of confrontation in a political interview may be expected and even acceptable, but an interview with a Buddhist teacher should be a gentle and open-hearted affair. A Lama who has devoted their life to practice and teaching should be approached in a dignified and courteous manner and not treated as though they have a hidden agenda, and one might expect the interviewer to demonstrate that they are actually interested in the answers they receive.
Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche gives clear answers to Helen Tworkov's questions regarding nihilistic view and the nature of mind, yet she continues to badger him with repeated questions, as if trying to catch him out. Helen Tworkov appears (unsuccessfully) to attempt to discredit Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche in this interview. In response to the suggestion that Westerners need to avoid blind faith, Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche explains that at first we must have blind faith, but then this becomes actual faith. This refers to blind faith in the sense that we have faith that the road will be still be there when we cross the brow of a hill in a car, or that the meal our friend places in front of us is not poisoned.
Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche says that,
Without imitating, sometimes one cannot connect with the truth. But there is negative imitation like yours, which is an imitation of television network journalists with aggressive mind who ask ridiculous questions with loud voices ... imitation is not actual, but a copy, yet this imitation can create what is actual. It can be very hard to recognise this with a non-discerning mind
He brings Tworkov to task:
You used to imitate being Buddhist, but through your previous habit, you fell back into being attracted to a nihilist position, so now you are just feigning Buddhism in order to justify making up faults about Buddhism, inventing issues in order to say something negative.
It is clear from this statement that Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche regards Helen Tworkov as someone who has rejected her Lama(s) and now seeks to criticise them.
The dangers of coming to despise the Guru after entering into a relationship as a student, are discussed in verses 10 to 15 of the Fifty Verses. These dangers include disease, demons, plagues, poison and the horrors of Avici hell. The commentary states,
As your Guru is a Buddha, despising him is the same as hating all who are Enlightened ... Despising or belittling such a state (of viewing your Lama as a Buddha) by disparaging your Guru, you cast yourself in the opposite direction from happiness and freedom. Having contempt for wisdom and Liberation, you gain instead bondage and pain ... Having established a formal bond with this Guru and through him entered a pathway to Buddhahood, you have cast yourself into terrible suffering if from the depth of your heart you break this link.
Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche says,
If the guru is given up as a positive object, one cannot be liberated because one creates countless negative phenomena which one then has no way to change towards positive phenomena ... People who try to diminish the role of the teacher with doubt and cynicism can cause their own diminishment through their habit of diminishing.
It has been suggested that a new Western Buddhism should be established in the West. Rather than reliance on the teacher for inspiration and guidance, students would look to the 'collective wisdom of the sangha'. By definition in Vajrayana 'sangha' is a community of practitioners who orientate around a Lama. As His Holiness Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche says, 'If there is no guru, it is impossible to have a sangha.' It is felt that the role of vajra master is part of the cultural aspect of the importation of Buddhist Vajrayana and that such a role lays Westerners open to abuse and deception. It is felt that in this new form of Buddhism, reliance on the 'collective wisdom of the sangha' would be safer. Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche asks why this group name themselves a sangha, and suggests that,
The main significance of keeping this term must be to keep the respect that goes with it in order to be respected themselves ... If they react negatively to teachers through reading and hearing that they should always respect them, it is sure that they will have collective negativity among themselves over the same issues of power, ego, and rebellion.
It is inappropriate to believe that we no longer need our teachers once we gain some experience or begin to be regarded as teachers ourselves. The commentary to verse 3 states:
(Thus) learning from a Guru should not be like killing a deer to extract musk and then discarding its corpse. Even after attaining Enlightenment you must still continue to honour your Guru who made all your achievements possible.
The Fifty Verses offers advice to disciples who have become established as teachers in their own right. In verses 40 - 42 we are instructed to ask permission of our Lama before performing rites or giving teachings when they are nearby, to present donations we have received to them first, and to act humbly in their presence, instructing our disciples to defer to our Lama and offer them their respects.
When we look at the prime movers in the move to abolish the Lama in favour of the 'collective wisdom of the sangha', we discover that these people have had the good fortune to learn from Buddhist teachers. These people at worst have broken their own sacred bond of commitment to a Lama, or at least seek to disparage the nature of such a relationship. Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche says that
This attitude is endorsed by a society that has taught them not to respect others above themselves ... Since they think the sangha is like a group of friends so it is not necessary to respect them, this makes them feel safe.
Yet Vajra relationship is not regarded as 'safe' in conventional terms, even by those who decide to enter into it - remember Asvoghosa's words: 'mutual examination to determine if each can brave a Guru-disciple relationship'. This is why the dangers of a wrong attitude and approach to the Lama, and the need for 'mutual examination' are stressed so clearly in a text intended to be studied before commitment is undertaken.
Vajra relationship could be regarded as a power trip for the Guru and a danger to the independence of the disciple. It is the safety of students that is given as the most important motivation behind diminishing the role of the Lama. Yet in the Fifty Verses, the limitations of the disciple's capacity are seen to be understood and anticipated. Verse 24 states:
If you lack the knowledge or ability to obey the Guru, explain in polite words why you cannot comply.
The commentary states that obeying the Guru
does not mean that you should become a mindless slave or that your Guru can take undue advantage of you. As you are aiming for the complete freedom of Enlightenment, there must also be freedom in the means of attaining it ... If there is no way in which you can comply (with the Guru's advice), do not be rude or arrogant...
Clearly the nature of the vajra relationship has been understood from both sides for 2000 years, with only the most rare and unusual disciples and Lamas having the capacity to engage in extraordinary activity. The commentary to verses 24 and 25 states with regard to the Lama, that, 'What he asks may be difficult and its immediate purpose may not be obvious...' The object of vajra relationship is to allow the Lama to undermine one's rationale, to enable the Lama to trick us into seeing through our dualistic perspective. We have to expect and indeed invite the Lama's advice and direction to challenge our preconceptions. The Fifty Verses encourage us to 'make a whole-hearted effort to never transgress your Guru's advice' (Verse 25) as it is this advice that leads us to enlightenment. The real agenda of the Western Buddhist movement is transparent to Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche: 'Nihilist view teaches that one must try to be more powerful than anyone else, so one must not surrender to, bow to, or believe in a teacher.'
Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche comments that books say 'we have our own Buddha nature and so we don't have to rely on anyone else', but he continues, 'This is not proof of their realisation. It is nihilist fear. Relying on someone else makes them think they are losing their identity, which is just ordinary ego'
Asvoghosa's text tells us that we should always use honorifics when addressing our Lama. In the commentary to verse 34, it says,
It is extremely crude, arrogant and grating to address, refer to or write about your Guru merely using his personal name. Your Guru is not your childhood playmate, but a Buddha leading you to enlightenment.
In her interview with Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche, Helen Tworkov succeeds in avoiding addressing His Holiness in any way. At no time does she refer to him as 'Rinpoche' or 'Your Holiness'. Her questions are blunt and her attitude disrespectful.
At the end of the Fifty Verses, the penultimate verse assures us that:
By studying the prerequisite trainings of Guru-devotion and the Graded Path, common to both the sutra and tantra, you will become a suitable vessel to hold the pure Dharma. You may then be given such teachings as tantra.
Asvoghosa would not have approved re-interpretation of the teachings and the refutation of the Tantric Lama. In his final verse he states
As I have not made the mistake when writing this work of adding my personal interpretation, may this be of infinite benefit to all disciples who would follow their Guru.
He would have certainly supported Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche's view that,
With a nihilist mind and a sangha face, instead of benefiting all beings through following the teachings of Buddha, these people are harmfully blocking the path of enlightenment for new generations through their tricky words.
Ngakma Nor'dzin Rang-jung Pamo
Cardiff, UK, December 2000
Interview with Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche after the passing of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
What does it mean when some lamas remain in tukdam?
R: Generally speaking, tukdam comes about when someone has rested evenly in luminous wakefulness during his life, usually called samadhi, and occurs to the same degree as his experience. When he then passes away, there is what we call 'the mingling of the mother and child luminosities,' which means that the ground luminosity and the luminosity of that person's practice mingle indivisibly.
At that moment, the experience of luminous wakefulness is very strong and one simply remains in its composure naturally, meaning that high lamas or someone with deep experience and realization will naturally dissolve into or expand into this state of samadhi. When the ground luminosity dawns by itself, they recognize it, and then remain in equanimity - that is what is called 'remaining in tukdam.'
No doubt an ordinary person also experiences the ground luminosity, but because of not having trained in it during their life, they don't recognize this ground luminosity, and failing to recognize, they are therefore unable to remain in tukdam. On the other hand, great masters naturally mingle the mother and child luminosities, - in the very moment the ground luminosity unfolds within their direct experience, they acknowledge this basic state and remain in samadhi this is called 'remaining in tukdam.'
It is due to the strength of the samadhi that the body heat doesn't disappear completely, that the skin color doesn't fade, and that the body is able to remain in an upright sitting posture. Due to such visible signs, we are able to conclude that the person is in tukdam.
Q: What do such signs as a 'clear sky and dust-free earth,' represent?
R: Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was someone who kept a concealed profile, meaning that he didn't make a great display of himself. He concealed his qualities and hid what he was, often saying, "I'm nothing special, I'm not learned." Since he kept such a low profile, it could mean that, when he passed away, then naturally, due to the power and strength of his extraordinary samadhi, the sign of a clear sky and dust-free earth manifested. He probably concealed any other sign such as rainbows, rays of light, and so forth.
Q: What are the reasons for making prayers and ceremonies during the first 49 days?
R: The duration of 49 days is the average length of time an ordinary person spends in the bardo, the intermediate state between dying and taking rebirth. It is taught that for some people it lasts longer, for some less, but for the most part it takes 49 days before the next rebirth. When speaking of a sublime being, we reckon approximately the same number of days.
When a master's body has died, we consider that his mind is still present, and so when we disciples make offerings, create merit in various ways, and try to train in samadhi, then since his compassionate wisdom mind is seeing us, we receive blessings. By receiving blessings, we generate a tremendous accumulation of merit during these 49 days.
If it happens that after the 49 days he again accepts to reincarnate, then our object of supplication becomes somewhat removed. On the other hand, right now, while in an intermediate state, he sees us directly, and does so with immense compassion and kindness. This is the reason why any sadhana, meditation practice, or any other spiritual actions to create merit, bring tremendous blessings.
Q: What is the purpose of having five groups of lamas unfolding five simultaneous mandalas during the cremation ceremony?
R: The five mandalas symbolize the five buddha-families. These five families are in fact the forms of the five wisdoms. In the context of 'kayas and wisdoms,' until the cremation the wisdoms are present together with body, the kaya. During the cremation ceremony, a separation takes place after which the wisdom quality is all by itself.
Since wisdom, the quality of original wakefulness, is by itself, while with its five aspects it is the identity of the five male buddhas, therefore mandalas are unfolded for each of these five buddha families, and offerings are made by means of fire-puja, the 'giving-and-burning' ritual. This is a way to generate enormous merit. These five wisdoms - dharmadhatu wisdom, mirror-like wisdom, wisdom of equality, discriminating wisdom, and all-accomplishing wisdom - which are the very identities of the five buddha families, are being emphasized by making five separate fire-pujas.
Q: What is the purpose of the cremation ceremony as a fire-puja?
R: Rather than simply cremating someone's body, to perform the cremation as a fire-puja is an act of offering as well. While making offerings we don't regard the body as an ordinary corpse, but instead it is visualized in the form of a wisdom deity which is invited to dissolve into the body. When offerings are made, the creation of merit is much greater and more far-reaching.
Generally speaking, when placing food, drink, and so forth in front of a statue or a tanka we don't have the feeling that the buddhas actually accept the offerings. But by placing the various offerings into the fire, we have the impression that not only have we offered something, but also that the offering is received by the buddhas. For instance, unlike when we make a feast offering, where we first offer the articles and then we later eat them ourselves, in the case of a fire-puja, we offer the things in actuality, having given up attachment to them. That is why it is taught that fire-puja offerings are unlike other ways of making offering and bring greater benefit.
Considering the cremation ceremony as a fire-puja is even more extraordinary since we imagine that the fire's identity is flames of original wakefulness that represent the Body, Speech and Mind of the glorious root guru. Keeping this attitude ensures a vast accumulation of merit.
Q: Would you please say something about Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche?
R: Generally speaking, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was someone with extraordinary experience and realization, a fact known throughout the world. This is not something I need to say. It is evident to everyone that he was unlike anyone else when it came to pointing out the nature of mind, and making sure that people both recognized it and had some actual experience. In this way he was extraordinary, and I feel it is all right if I don't talk too much about it. In a more general way, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was born into the family of Chokgyur Lingpa, a unique family line. In addition, he is the father of the present tulku of Chokgyur Lingpa which is also something quite extraordinary.
I would also like to add that a lot of people believe that if someone is a terton then he must belong to the Nyingma school. It doesn't necessarily follow that every terton has to be a Nyingmapa. There are tertons among the Gelukpas, and Kagyus, as well as Sakya and Nyingma tertons. As for Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, he is extremely influential within the Kagyu school.
Among his root gurus he followed Khyentse Rinpoche and Kongtrul Rinpoche, and together - now famous as Khyen, Kong and Chok - they revealed the termas. One of the principal termas they brought forth was revealed at Tsandra Rinchen Drak. Among the termas revealed by Chokgyur Lingpa are the Sabdun Phurba, and the two main Tukdrub styles of guru sadhana. If the question is raised about who is primarily doing these practices, then the drubchen of Sabdun Phurba and the others are not being performed in the main seats of the Nyingma school - Mindrol Ling or Dorje Drak. These monasteries have their own set of practices and do not use the termas of Chokgyur Lingpa for their drubchen ceremonies. In Eastern Tibet are two other chief Nyingma monasteries, Shechen and Dzogchen, and there they also utilize specific individual traditions of practices, and so they, too, do not use the termas of Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, such as the Sabdun Phurba, for their ceremonies.
So, exactly who is performing the drubchens of Sabdun Phurba and the two types of guru sadhana of Tukdrub? They were mainly done at Chokgyur Lingpa's own seats, and, since one of his chief disciples was Karmey Khenpo Rinchen Dargye, it was he who began and maintained the tradition of holding the Sabdun Phurba at the monasteries Karmey Gon and Tsurphu Gon. Later, as we all know, the 16th incarnation in the line of the Gyalwang Karmapa also had this grand ceremony performed at his seat in Rumtek. Therefore, since the two Tukdrub ceremonies are also mainly held at Kagyu monasteries, not at the Nyingma ones, we Kagyus also consider Chokgyur Lingpa to be a terton for the Kagyu school.
All four schools of Tibetan Buddhism regard Guru Rinpoche as the second Buddha, and all four schools practice his concealed terma treasures. But, it is mainly the Kagyu followers who practice the profound teachings of Chokgyur Lingpa. I therefore feel that he chiefly belongs to us Kagyus. [Rinpoche chuckles.]
Q: What was the relationship between the 16th Karmapa and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche?
R: The 16th incarnation in the line of the Gyalwang Karmapa regarded Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche's family line as very special and therefore received many of the empowerments for Chokgyur Lingpa's termas from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Moreover, they were very close since His Holiness trusted Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche as his personal advisor in both spiritual and secular affairs. As we know, many times the Karmapa showed how he held Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in extremely high esteem.
Q: What is the purpose of erecting a stupa at the same site as that of the cremation?
R: The place where the kudung is cremated in the 'burning-and-purification' ceremony is often the same place where the stupa is built. The reason for this is that for some lamas, through the power of their blessings, we can see that many ringsel-relics appear at the cremation site. The appearance of these ringsel is not confined to the body of the lama, but also from the smoke, the ashes, and even any place around or near the funeral pyre; sometimes ringsel appear naturally. But whether there are visible ringsel or not, the ashes and the smoke pervade the environment. Therefore the site becomes the support for extraordinary blessings and is kept so that it can be regarded as such by people in future generations.
If the cremation site is simply abandoned, people will walk carelessly over it, since there is nothing to remind them. In the spiritual sense, there would be no lasting receptacle for the extraordinary blessings, no continued support for people's veneration and for receiving these blessings. Isn't this the reason for building a stupa? Another reason why a stupa is regarded as special and full of blessings is that it is said to be the primary 'activity of the awakened mind' of all buddhas. I therefore feel that in such a stupa, the blessings of the guru's mind will naturally enter and be present.
As the numerous stupas throughout the country of Nepal attest, in the past many great masters have come here over the millennia. Although in the last couple of centuries not very many masters have lived here, and so, the 'string of the Dharma' has become very thin, still, Buddhism in Nepal has remained without vanishing. I feel one of the reasons for the unbroken continuity of Buddhism is that, thanks to the three main stupas - those in Boudhanath, Swayambhu and Namo Buddha, people regard the teachings of the Buddha as something special: they have continued to circumambulate these stupas respectfully, and maintain the notion that the Three Jewels are special objects of veneration which you can supplicate.
Even though no living master may be present to teach the Dharma in actuality, generation after generation, people continue to see the stupa with their eyes, receive blessings, understand that there are the Three Jewels in which you can place your trust, and in this way, naturally, the Dharma continues. In the same way, when building a stupa for the remains of a great master, his power and blessings will remain. That is the reason to build a stupa.
the Ironbird Flies
An Interview with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Interview by Mike Hellbach. Translated by Sherpa Tulku. Prepared by Glenn H. Mullin. From Second Dharma Celebration, November 5th-8th 1982, New Delhi, India. First published by Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, New Delhi, 1982
Question: Your Holiness, here in Dharamsala and also on your visits to the West you have had considerable contact with western people, who at present are showing a deep interest in the Tibetan spiritual traditions. Whenever the Buddhadharma has been absorbed into a new society, it has always been modified so as to have the greatest impact on the minds or the people. What can and what cannot be modified, particularly in context to Dharma in the West?
Answer: The fundamentals of the principal practices of Dharma ought not to be changed. For example, the bases of Bodhicitta (the altruistic attitude of` striving for Buddhahood as a means of benefiting all beings) and Sunyata (Emptiness, the ultimate nature of mind and of all things) will always be required by practitioners. However, in order to get at the essence of these practices, their secondary details-such as the sequential order of the ways in which they are approached, the specifics of the visualizations involved in them and so forth-might well be modified to accord with the differing mentalities of given people.
There were certain differences in the practices of ancient India and Tibet, yet the essential factors of Bodhicitta, the core of the Mahayana, were identical. The differences were only in how Bodhicitta was actualized. Even in India there were a number of approaches to it, such as The Exchange of Self- cherishing for the Cherishing of Others, taught in Santideva's Venturing into the Deeds of a Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvacaryavatara) and The Method of Six Causes to One Effect, taught in Atisha's Light on the Path (Bodhipathapradipa). These different techniques were meant to suit different circumstances; both aimed at developing the same Bodhicitta and at outlining the practices of the Six Perfections.
Therefore, the details of various practices can differ to suit the western mentality; and not only to suit the western mentality in general but also to suit the individual practitioner's disposition.
Question: All the great masters have stressed the importance of having a spiritual teacher in order to avoid misunderstanding either the teachings or one's meditational experiences. Unfortunately, at present there are few teachers and many who wish to learn. It is advisable for such a person to just read a meditation manual then practise from it?
Answer: This is possible. Certain advanced meditations are dangerous if practised without the guidance of an experienced teacher but simple meditations, such as those on impermanence, love, compassion or the development of samadhi are good.
Without a teacher, it is best to limit oneself to small and simple meditations.
Question: Many people wish to take up a spiritual practice but feel committed to devoting most of their time to job, family, etc. Is it possible to transform these concerns into sources of spirituality?
Answer: The major attitudes one needs to do this are kindness and Bodhicitta.
It is difficult to explain Bodhicitta in brief and still be correct. Perhaps we can say that it is the motivation to help oneself so as to be able to help others. This profoundly kind attitude. Bodhicitta, is the basis of all Mahayana teachings.
To make ordinary activities spiritual, this attitude of kindness must be incorporated within every action of daily life. Certain meditations cannot be practised while you are working, for example in a factory, but meditation upon kindness and compassion can. If you sincerely try. Dharma can always be practised.
Question: The Buddhadharma as practised by Tibetans involves meditation upon a vast array of symbols and deities. Does Your Holiness see this as presenting any problems to the western mind with its monotheistic background?
Answer: This depends on the individual's character. Some people like these deities very much ... (laughter).
Each person must think about what suits him best.
Question: Some say that these symbols and deities should he altered so as to correspond with those of our own culture.
Answer: This cannot be. If you follow Buddhadharma, the deities meditated upon should have a sound reference to the teachings of Buddha Vajradhara. They cannot be arbitrarily created nor can they be blended with those of other methods. It is best to follow with diligence the path most suited to you. If you choose Buddhadharma, practise it purely. Then, if you achieve its results, fine: if you mix practices and achieve nothing, you shouldn't blame Dharma.
Of the various Buddhist meditational deities, the best is Buddha. If you like others, practice them: if you don't, simply take Buddha.
Question: Is this 'liking' due to one's karmic dispositions?
Answer: It has to do with karmic dispositions. Buddhism speaks of idiosyncrasies, latent admirations and underlying tendencies, which together with one's intellect, circumstances and so forth constitute one's karmic dispositions. These are major factors determining which path one should follow.
Question: Many occidental translators of Tibetan texts lay great emphasis upon the external rather than the inner aspects of spiritual magic. How was this problem avoided in Tibet when the tantric texts were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan?
Answer: This does not seem to have been an excessively great problem in Tibet. However, there undoubtedly have been certain people who did not incorporate Dharma into their mental attitudes. In actuality, anyone who practices tantric methods for such purposes as to destroy an enemy is not really a spiritual person. Whether or not a person is actually a spiritual practitioner is determined by the long-term benefits that his practice brings, not by the methods he uses.
Buddha Vajradhara taught Tantra to help beings attain Enlightenment, not to give them an instrument for harming others. He always emphasized that Tantra is a secret doctrine, for in the hands of someone without the background of Bodhicitta and other qualifications it can be dangerous and not at all beneficial.
In a commentary to the Root Text of Manjushri (Manjushri Mula Tantra) is a story of a Brahmin by the name of Kanaka, who was a practitioner of the Yamantaka Tantra. Although he was an extremely strong meditator with tremendous concentration and power, he fell into hell. His practice, meant to bring him Enlightenment, only harmed him. In a commentary to the Root Text of Guhyasamaja (Guhyasamaja Mula Tantra) the same point is stressed.
Anything that has happened in Tibet along these lines is not good and any such interest elsewhere is the same.
The true tantric practitioner has taken a commitment to not show whatever magical powers he may possess. According to the Vinaya rules, even if you are an Arhant you should not openly reveal your attainments to others. It is the same in Tantra: if you with little reason expose your powers, even though you have certain qualifications, the basis of your practice will degenerate.
Question: Of all Buddhist practices those of the Tantrayana have attracted the most attention among Westerners and not the preliminary tantric practices, but the very advanced, 'Completion Stage' practices involving meditation on cakras, nadis, consorts and so forth. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this interest and what are the preliminaries of tantric practice?
Answer: It is very good that Westerners have this interest in the Completion Stage. However, to perform these is only of little value without first becoming proficient in the practices of the Development Stage (where samadhi is developed and one's attitude towards Tantra matured by means of meditation upon the mystic mandala). Furthermore, this interest should be based on the motivation to benefit all beings: a difficult prerequisite. Interest motivated by mere idle curiosity lacks the proper foundation.
Meditation upon the Completion Stage of Tantra can be extremely dangerous, perhaps bringing many types of sickness and even death to the unqualified practitioner. Medicines cannot cure a sickness arising from performing these practices incorrectly; the only antidote is the proper application of a specific meditation.
Question: In brief, what is the difference between Hindu and Buddhist Tantra?
Answer: To fully understand their differences is extremely difficult. However, in brief, there are differences in both action and philosophy. In terms of action, the Buddhist Tantra is based on the Bodhicitta motivation which the Hindu Tantra lacks. In terms of philosophy, Buddhist Tantra is based on the theory of anatma, or selflessness, whereas the Hindu is based on the theory of a truly-existent self. Other yogas, such as breathing exercises, cakra and nadi practices, have many similarities but subtle differences.
Question: As self-cherishing and ego-holding are forces which have been active since beginingless time, is it possible to set out upon a spiritual path without developing a negative egoism toward it, leading to sectarianism?
To avoid that it is necessary to take care that your Dharma practice is really a Dharma practice. This way, although the power of familiarity with ego is great, its effects are not overwhelming. If you study Dharma but do not actually apply it, your so-called spiritual activities can easily become directed at material gain, fame and so forth. In which case only egoism and such negativities as anger, attachment, sectarianism, etc. are developed. However, if each word of Dharma that you hear is used to cultivate your mind then every single word brings only benefit, and no matter how much Dharma learning you amass your learning will never go to the development of egoism.
The most important point is to be very careful in the beginning with your motivation in receiving a teaching or doing a practice. If this is done well, there is little danger.
Question: Buddha Shakyamuni once said in a Sutra that sectarianism has a karmic consequence more severe than killing a thousand Buddhas. Why is this so?
Answer: The essential purpose of the Buddhas giving teachings is to eliminate both mistaken states of mind and the experience of suffering. This is also the reason that they have worked to achieve enlightenment. The Buddhas' only motivation is to benefit others, which they fulfill by teaching; so despising any of their teachings is worse than despising them. This is the implication of following one Dharma Tradition while disparaging other Traditions.
Furthermore, the Buddhas themselves respect all the Traditions of the Teachings, so for us not to do so is to despise all the Buddhas.
There are many ways to look at this Sutra quotation. What is the duty, so to speak, of a Buddha? Only to teach Dharma. And it is Dharma which has brought that Buddha to his state of attainment. Now, in Buddhadharma we do not accept the theory of a Creator; everything depends on oneself. The Buddhas cannot directly fulfill their wish to help beings, they can only do so through the media of their teachings. We might say that they are handicapped. Therefore, the teachings that they give are more precious and important than they themselves are. Because of the varying capacities and inclinations of beings the Buddhas have taught various methods of practice and philosophy. If we follow one of these and yet belittle others, we abandon the Dharma and consequently the Buddhas as well.
Question: Does Your Holiness think that the various world religions were founded by emanations of the Buddhas manifesting in accordance with the mentalities of the specific societies?
Answer: This is highly possible. The founder of any religion could be an emanation of a particular Buddha. It is for this very reason that we should treat all religions with deep respect.
Question: Then why do these different religions so often fight with one another?
Answer: This is a different matter. For a truly religious person there is never any basis for quarrel or dispute. Yet it is a fact that there have been so-called religious wars. However, the people involved in these were not practising religion but were merely using religion as an instrument of power. The actual motivation was selfish, not spiritual. Religious wars are not a question of contradictions between religions at all.
Leaving aside the disparities between the doctrines of different religions, there are many ostensible contradictions within the teachings of Buddha. For example, for certain reasons some people he taught that there is no truly-existent self, whereas others he taught that there is. So what is a Buddha's purpose in teaching? It is neither to boast nor to demonstrate how much he knows, but to benefit others. Also, he is not concerned with those of his generation alone but with many generations and different kinds of people. Therefore, his teachings must have many different levels of meaning, some often seemingly contradictory. Knowing this, there is never a valid reason for religious quarrels and disputes.
Question: Lama Je Tzong Kha Pa, founder of the Ge-lug Tradition, studied under forty-five gurus representing all the Buddhist lineages of Tibet. Does this mean that within the Ge-lug Tradition we can find all the practices of all the Schools of Tibetan Buddhism and, if not, what was his criterion in selecting lineages?
Answer: Basically, what he did was select the dearest lineage from amongst those available. For example, from the Kagyü he took Guhyasamaja and The Six Doctrines of Naropa, from the Nying-ma he took the lineages held by Lama Lho-dak Nam-kha Gyal-tzen and from the Sa-kya he took the lineages of Vajrayogini, Hevajra, etc.
An extraordinary characteristic of Je Rinpoche's (Je Tzong Kha Pa) teachings is that he relates the explanation that he is giving, such as in his Commentary to Guhyasamaja, to many different traditions, such as the texts on Elucidation of Valid Perception (Pramanavartika), Discipline (Vinaya), The Middle View (Madhyamaka) and so forth. Also, he gives brief explanations of simple points and elaborates on those that are more difficult.
Question: Is this a general characteristic of the Ge-lug Tradition?
Answer: No, I am speaking only of Je Rinpoche. In a way, he is the Ge-lug Tradition, for the Eighteen Volumes of his written works constitute their foundation. Many teachings given by his followers we do not accept.
The same situation exists between the founders and followers in all the Four Tibetan Traditions. There is no difference in the profundity of the teachings of any of the Four Founders, yet within the teachings of the groups of their followers there are endless conflicts.
The First Panchen Lama once wrote, 'Although individual oral traditions have different names, such as The Great Completion, The Great Seal, The Middle Way and so forth, when an experienced yogi with deep understanding of scriptural knowledge and logic examines them he sees them as non- contradictory.'
Question: The traditional scriptures speak of the Three Vehicles. Why did the Buddha teach these three?
Answer: Although the scriptures do speak of Three Vehicles-the Hearer's Vehicle, the Solitary Realizer's Vehicle and the Bodhisattva Vehicle-the first two of these are counted as one, the Hinayana. The Bodhisattva Vehicle, or Mahayana, is subdivided into the Causal Vehicle of the Practice of the Perfections and the Resultant Vehicle of the Practice of Tantra. Thus in Tibet we usually speak of the two vehicles, the Hinayana and the Mahayana.
There are many different ways to look at these two. First we'll consider them from the point of view of practice.
It is very important to have as an external basis the observance of the Vinaya, i.e. maintaining one of the four ordinations of a monk or nun, or either of the two ordinations of a lay person.
For a monk, the three foundations of practice should be followed: Rainy Season Retreat, Monthly Declarations and The Ceremony ending Rainy Season Retreat. These are all Hinayana practices.
In addition to the above, one should take up the practices of compassion, Bodhicitta and the conducts of the Six Perfections, which are Causal Mahayana.
One person can perform all these practices for the attainment of Enlightenment; they do not obstruct one another nor cause any constrictions within the practitioner. Therefore, one person can practice all of them without contradiction. With this approach there can be no basis for Hinayana disparaging Mahayana, Mahayana disparaging Hinayana, Sutrayana disparaging Tantra and so forth. Such is the relationship of the vehicles from the point of view of action.
From the point of view of philosophy, Buddhadharma can be divided into the Four Schools (Vaibasika, Sautrantrika, Yogacara and Madhyamaka) which all come from India. In one way these seem to be mutually exclusive. However, the purpose of seemingly conflicting teachings within the framework of Buddhist Philosophy is to provide a graduated approach to the higher philosophies, leading to an ever greater, and eventually ultimate, understanding. Therefore, none of the four schools of philosophy is to be abandoned.
In Tibet there are four major Traditions: Nying-ma, Sa-kya, Ka-gyü and Ge-lug. From the point of view of practice, they are all Mahayanists following the unity of Sutrayana and Tantrayana, as described above, on the basis of Hinayana. From the point of view of philosophy, they are all Madhyamikas (who train in accordance with the graduated philosophical stages explained above). They do not differ from the points of view of action or philosophy. Their differences are due to the time of their coming to Tibet, the different lineages of Lamas who have introduced them, the different emphasis on the various aspects of practice and the terminologies by which their teachings are transmitted. All four lead to Buddhahood. Therefore, it is absolutely wrong to say one is better than another, or to disparage any of them.
Question: Would you please Elucidate the difference between Buddhist chanting and, for example, Christian prayer? Also, what is the difference between worshipping Gods and worshipping Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?
Answer: Most of the prayers that we recite contain meanings to be reflected upon. This type of chanting is not done to request or invoke the compassion of the Buddhas but is a method of meditation, the content of the chant being the object of meditation.
However, there is a type of chant which is done to invoke the compassionate attention of the Buddhas. The difference between this and worshipping a god is determined by the motivation and the recognition of what one is doing. Whenever a Mahayana Buddhist makes an offering or a prayer to the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, he is asking guidance and aid to attain Enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Question: In conclusion, does Your Holiness have any general advice for practitioners in the West?
Answer: It is important to think very well before entering a particular spiritual tradition. Once you have entered one you should stick to it. Do not be like the man who tastes food in all the different restaurants but never actually gets down to eating a meal. Think carefully before adopting a practice; then follow it through. This way you will get some results from even dedicating a little time each day. Alternatively, if you try to follow all the various paths you will not get anywhere.
Also, patience in practice is required. In this age of machines everything seems to be automatic. You may think that it is the same with Dharma-that by merely turning on a switch you will gain realization. Be patient. The development of mind takes time!
You should try to maintain a steady effort in practice. It is useless to try very hard for a few months, then give up this kind of application and then try very hard again. It is best to exert yourself in a constant and steady way. This is extremely important.
If you have adopted Buddhism you should not consider yourself a 'great Buddhist' and immediately start to do everything differently. A Tibetan proverb states, 'Change your mind but leave your appearance as usual.'
In all of Buddhism and especially in the Mahayana, the benefiting of others is heavily stressed. In this context Shantideva says in Venturing into the Deeds of a Bodhisattva, 'First investigate what is acceptable and what is unacceptable to the people (of the society in which you live); then avoid that which is unacceptable.' Of course, you must consider whether or not what is acceptable and unacceptable is in contradiction with the Dharma. If the social norm does not contradict Dharma you should try to live in accordance with it. In this way people will respect you. This is not done out of vanity but in order to bring the maximum benefit to all.
In Dharma practice it is necessary to always keep an attitude of love toward others, for this is the basis of Bodhicitta. Love is a simple practice, yet it is very beneficial for the individual who practices it as well as for the community in which he lives, for the nation and for the whole world. Love and kindness are always appropriate. Whether or not you believe in rebirth, you will need love in this life. If we have love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the mind of love is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue. Beings will continue to deceive and overpower one another. Basically, everyone exists in the very nature of suffering, so to abuse or mistreat each other is futile. The foundation of all spiritual practice is love. That you practice, this well is my only request. Of course, to be able to do so in all situations will take time, but you should not lose courage. If we wish happiness for mankind, it is the only way.
Transcript of an Interview with Mishlen Linden
by Denny Sergent, 1999
The questions posed by Denny Sergent are specifically constructed to be relevant to the modern Pagan audience.
Denny's writings include
RITUALISM: Myth and Magic Around the World (Llewellyn's World Religion and Magic
THE TAO OF BIRTH DAYS: Using the I Ching to Become Who You Were Born to Be due to be published in 2000.
Mishlen Linden gives workshops on Tibetan Buddhist topics at festivals and other events. She is the author of TYPHONIAN TERATOMAS and is presently organizing a book on Banishing. She is an artist and studies and practices Tibetan Buddhism at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, IN.
What is the evolving relationship between the indigenous polytheistic religion Bon Po and that of later Buddhism? Could you give a 'brief' history?
The religion Bon (pronounced Burn, with a soft b), was originally based on animist shamanic tradition. I had the good fortune to attend a small lecture by one of the major Bon-Po lineage holders. He told us that the tradition was some 8,000 years old (Buddhism entered the country about 2,500 years ago). In a land of mountains, its not surprising to experience these great beings as individual entities, or else ruled by individual entities, which can be angered, placated, and honored, like the rains and the winds. But there was more to the tradition which flourished as well, for upon that base, and enlightened being, Tonpa Shenrab, built foundations of a system of enlightenment.
When Padmasambhava entered Tibet in order to teach, it is said that the mighty spirits of the land stood against him. Therefore, he went into battle with them, and won. Subjugated, they were sworn to protect the spread of Dharma in the land, giving them the name Dharmpalas (trans: Truth Protectors). Many of the wrathful and semi-wrathful deities are former Bon deities.
Time has passed, and the two systems have grown into a closely knit fusion. Different names, same gods. Different tools, the same purpose. One geshe (a Tibetan lama who has reached a high degree of learning) told me that it was no longer possible to separate the two. Nevertheless, there ARE Bon monasteries, just as there are Nyingpo, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelukpa orders. Bon is now considered the fifth Tibetan Buddhist order.
Tibetan Buddhism is more 'magickal' than other forces of Buddhism can you give me a description of the 'Tibetan world view' concerning the mundane and spiritual worlds? How do members of the faith see reality?
Oh, that is a BIG question! As my friend here says, 'give the workshop version'. The most often misunderstood phrase that all of the material realm is illusion' gave rise to misperceptions more than 30 years ago. 'Illusion' is not an accurate word. What is meant is that all things which we see, which we believe we are, consensus reality if you will, are in a constant state of change. All Buddhists fix their sights on that which is eternal and unchanging, the essence of spirit. Life takes a variety of forms, and these, as in the magickal paradigm, live on different planes of existence. Here is a short 'hierarchy' of beings:
The most unfortunate entities are the demons or hell-beings. There are 2 Tibetan hells, the hot hell and the cold hell. Depending on where you live, you are probably familiar with one of these!
The Hungry Ghosts: These spirits are trapped in the desire realm hence the world 'hungry'. Unexpected death results in the saddest beings of this realm. During the Kosovo war, a number of children were ruthlessly slaughtered. Told to hide, terrified, their spirits remained in the rubble of their homes. Intervention was necessary to free them. There are Tibetan lamas who spend their lives going from place to place doing this very thing. Quietly.
Less pure, but no less needy, are the fallen soldiers, people who cling to their possessions or loved ones, and those who cannot or will not let go, because of work left unfinished.
A step further on this spiritual evolutionary scale is ourselves. Human existence is considered precious because it is here that we are given knowledge and the choice of whether or not to act upon it. We develop merit by good action, which increases our wisdom, or we can choose the earthly pleasures over the spiritual ones. How long we stay on this plane is dependant upon factors such as our ability to focus on the eternal, dis-identifying ourselves with our daily changing egos. Also, many choose the path of the Bodhisattva, with the attendant vow to continue returning to the human realm in order to liberate the endless masses of beings.
The Short-lived Gods and the Long-lived Gods: When one has built up a tremendous amount of merit, one may take existence, if one chooses, as a short or long-lived god. This means dwelling in a Pure Land, such as Shambhala, while continuing to have an enjoyment body. Eventually, however, this merit is used up and one falls back to one of the lower realms.
Buddhas: This of course, is the final goal for all of us. Our final escape from the suffering of Samsara. However, because the omniscience of such a state, those Buddhas already in existence hear and feel our pain. Alleviating ours alleviates their own. This inter-connectedness is called dependent-arising. Their help is not given from selfish reasons though, they are far beyond that but, like the bodhisattvas, out of compassion for us.
There are numerous ways of building merit. Many of these ways take the forms o magick. A spiritual Tibetan will carry his mala (prayer) beads everywhere with him, and spend every free moment unobtrusively chanting with them. Imagine the awesome power that these beads accumulate over a lifetime! For peaceful deities, wood or crystal malas are used. For wrathful ones, crystal or bone. The prayer wheel is a swift way to pray. These are wheels on a stick, inscribed with a mantra, and with mantra rolls inside, which is spun round and round. You will see laymen as well as young monks.
My personal favorite technique is that of circumambulating the stupa. A stupa (or Chorton) is in actuality, an astral machine. They can be very small or very, very large, large enough in fact, to have floors upon floors of meditation rooms inside. Built on specially consecrated ground, with a specific directionality, they spend their days emanating waves of peace and clarity, and their nights absorbing stellar force which they then draw down through their center pole, a single wooden tree trunk covered by copper. The energies pass deep into the earth, to help in Her healing. These incredible 'vehicles' have a sentient presence, and if one sits quietly and opens ones mind, you may hear its voice. People circumambulate stupas clockwise while chanting. In its presence, merit is vastly increased.
You are a westerner and yet have chosen the difficult path of becoming an initiate. What do you see are the responsibilities of a priest, Rimpoche or Lama in your faith? How does one become such a spiritual leader? How did you come to choose to tred this path?
Yes, I agree, the path is difficult. When I first began practicing, and this after 18 years of doing magick, my teacher asked me how I was doing. I answered, just fine, except that I'm lazy, stupid, insensitive and blind. He laughed. Evidently it was the right answer.
A teacher's first responsibility is to his student. He will create whatever environment is necessary for that student's growth. This often includes acts which appear cruel or nonsensical to those who are standing outside of that intimate circle. The first act is to make ready, to purify, the student's karmic obstacles to enlightenment. To do so includes anything from physical hardship to absolute fits of rage for no apparent reason. Sometimes the teacher may actually take the students karma upon himself. This is quite dangerous, for if the student falls away from practice, the teachers burden can become so heavy that it can destroy the body. With the proliferation of initiations going on today, spurred by the aspiration to keep Tibetan Buddhism alive, this is what you could call 'the leading cause of death' in teachers today.
So the responsibility of the teacher is much greater than that of the student, whose main goal is to put himself into the 'state of grace' necessary to receive that which the teacher has the power to transmit. A teacher must be able to directly transmit his heart wisdom into that of the student. Otherwise, he is not a teacher.
I chose to study Tibetan Buddhism because, like many good paths of knowledge, I had come to the end of my magickal studies. I was looking for a system which took one farther. Kabbalistically, I was looking for a path into the realms above Kether and into the Ains, and beyond.
As such, it has served me well. I now have lifetimes of exploration before me.
Aside from Buddha, what are the main aspects, Boddhisattvas and/or Gods, Goddesses and spirits of Tibetan Buddhism? Could you sketch out a brief rap for the most important ones?
Various godforms manifest various attributes. Therefore, it is natural that one may need or prefer one specific deity over another. There are certain forms we are particularly drawn to. And as the West is fascinated by 'new' ideas, such as the newest upgrade, or changing styles, we also tend to move from deity to deity in continual curiosity. This can be a good thing or a bad one, depending upon the depth of discovery.
Currently, popular Tibetan godforms in our country are these: Avalokiteshvara: Well-known for his mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum (pro: hung)', he is arguably one of the most well known deities. Portrayed with a white body, two of his hands are held to his heart in the common mudra (hand position) of prayer. This represents the spirit of compassion. He is portrayed in various ways, with four arms or a thousand, with one head or many, facing all directions. Each arm holds items which represent his various powers of transformation. Each syllable of his mantra corresponds to the various realms of existence and calls forth a plea of release, that all may become buddhas.
Tara: There are twenty-one forms of this Goddess, in the five colors of green, white, red, black and blue. She is the principal manifestation of enlightenment and known as 'she who releases from all fears'. She is gentle or fierce by turns, having the power to stamp down any demons or obstacles in her path. At this time, there is a monastery in which the Tara mantra, 'Om Tara, Tutara, Ture So-ha' is chanted 24 hours a day, in shifts. Both living and dead monks participate in this, and many come astrally from around the world. The purpose is healing, healing the heart of man, animal and our sentient Earth.
Amitabha: His popularity is such that an entire system, called 'pure land Buddhism'. His name means 'Infinite Light'. Within this context it is believed that worship of Amitabha will bring about rebirth in his pure land, and in his company. In this simple way, it bears quite a resemblance to Christianity.
Another widely venerated deity is Amitayus, who prevents untimely death. It was shortly after an initiation by him that I had the chance to experience him even more directly.
I had been enjoying my favorite lunch of mochi when it accidentally became caught in my throat. Alone and unable to breathe, I wanted to laugh, that I had gone through so many things and now a piece of rice gluten was going to kill me. Behind me, I felt a great presence enter the room. Of its own accord, my hand reached into and down my throat and pulled the offending article out. The presence withdrew. Astonished, I tried putting my hand back down my throat. Of course, it did not fit.
These are examples of the peaceful deities. The other two categories are the semi- wrathful and the wrathful. Although some came from India, at Buddhisms inception, many were created from the indigenous Bon tradition. Mahakala is the most well-known wrathful deity. Black or dark-blue of skin, wild his eyes and hair, his mouth opened wide, teeth sharp and bathed in flame, he is fearsome indeed. At first glance, one might easily confuse him with a demon. But such is not the case.
His name means 'Great Black One'. His ferocious appearance is that of the Dharma Protector. Like a good guard dog, he cuts through ego, eats obstacles and clears paths. He is also one of the Yiddam (pro: I-dam), teachers of the Dharma who, like a shamanic animal protector, a totem, a guardian angel, helps and guides one along the path of enlightenment. One does not choose a Yiddam. The Yiddam chooses you.
There are numerous deity forms in Tibetan Buddhism; each provides a different approach, and all lead to the same goal.
The term Tantric Buddhism is often used in Tibetan Buddhism-what does this mean? How is it practiced?
Tibetan Buddhism can be loosely separated into two parts: The Sutras and the Tantras. The sutras are records of the Buddha's words. These are studied and debated by monks (who often join a monastery as early as their 8-9th years) and laymen. It is said that enlightenment can be attained by the study of the sutras alone, though slowly. Usually, when a firm grounding in the teachings are established, the study of tantra begins. Tantra is the art of ritual most are familiar with the image of the meditating monk. He appears at rest, but he is far more active than the people you see jogging down the road each morning. Meditation, though it appears passive and still on the outside, contains a countless number of techniques. The very word 'mantra' literally means 'mind protection', in the sense that tantric practice 'protects' the mind from ordinary appearances. Numerous mantras produce numerous results. That quiet body you see may be communing with a deity, contemplating its own emptiness, contacting our sentient Earth or its spirits, or simply taking refuge from our world.
'Taking refuge' is, in fact, the first vow one makes upon entering the Buddhist path: I take refuge in the Lama.
take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Spiritual Community.
This summer, along with 4,700 others, I received the Kalachakra initiation. Along with its preliminary teachings, it lasted 11 days, and although I appeared, like the others, to be only physically sitting, the end of each day found me too exhausted to do more than heat a meal, record my findings and fall into deep sleep. It reminded me of the fatigue experienced when climbing a mountain, and in a very real way (just as real as this page you are reading), I WAS climbing that mountain.
Another branch of Tantra is that of deity invocation. This, like all Tibetan ritual, is carried with specific detailed methods. There has been 2000 years to perfect this process. It is beyond the scope of this interview to go into these details-see recommended reading at the end of the article-but simply, it comes in 2 stages, that of the generation stage and the completion stage.
In the generation stage, one positions oneself properly and carefully builds up a very exact image of the deity an extremely complex process in the case of a deity who has, say, 6 differently colored heads and 1,000 arms in glowing luminous light. The seed-syllable, which could be considered comparable to a personal sigil, radiates from its heart. This draws the deity into the form that has been built up. The completion stage then arises. With the image thus empowered, the light from his/her heart shines into your own, whereupon you BECOME that deity. One may dissolve into its form and remain in the state called 'divine pride'. This is, of course, not pride in its ordinary sense, but rather, a certain state of exaltation.
To successfully invoke a deity, one must be fully familiar with the bodies subtle energies. This is the self-knowledge of Tantra we most commonly hear about. The exploration of the chakras, nadis, subtle drops, the winds and their channels, are vital.. Although sexual Tantra has the medias closest attentions, it may be used successfully ONLY by those who no longer desire it. It is NOT a vehicle to improve one's sex life.
The chakras (trans: wheel, or machine), are seven: at the base of the spine is the Muladhara; at the sexual organs, the Svadhisthana; at the navel, the Manipura; at the heart, the Anahata; the throat, the Vishuddha; the third eye, the Ajna; and at the crown of the head, the Sahasrara. Each has its own color, syllable, image; each must be in balance for the health of the body, and for the flow of prana, or life force, to create the clarity necessary for such meditations as those above. This system originated in India as well, and is an integral part of Hindu practice.
The 'nadi' are psychic nerve channels which permeate our body. The energies which course through the channels are the 'winds'. Within these winds are carried the 'precious drops' the essence of consciousness. "Know Thyself" could be considered the axiom of Tantra.
Tibetans have a very explicit and unique view of death and rebirth that is often misunderstood. Could you explain this in simple terms? What of an afterlife?
The bardos are realms of consciousness. Life is a phase in the bardo. Death takes one into others.
The position recommended for dieing is laying down upon the right side of your body with the left hand resting on the left thigh. This is the position in which Buddha died.
During the process, the channels and their winds, which are on the right and left side of the body, enter the central channel. As this happens, direct realization of luminosity or clear light mind is experienced.
One by one the senses shut down. Earth is first: our body loses its strength. Then water we lose control of our bodily fluids. Next, fire leaves as our moth dries up and we are unable to take in sustenance. Finally, air leaves, and we cease to breathe. The winds all enter the 'life supporting wind' in the heart. We would now be considered clinically dead.
Gross and subtle thoughts dissolve next. More and more subtle thoughts and emotions fade until luminosity remains. The next bardo has begun. We begin seeing beautiful visions, peaceful deities, but these must be recognized as having no separate distinction from the nature of the mind. If we are able to do this, we are freed. If not, the wrathful deities begin to appear. These too must be recognized as part of yourself. If one does this, one is freed. Finally, all are gathered up and dissolved into oneself.
If one cannot do this, next is seen a beautiful light. One is drawn to it, and it leads us into the next incarnation.
Tibetan Buddhism is rapidly spreading in the West, much to the amazement of just about everyone. Why do you think this is? Why is it more popular than other more austere forms of Buddhism? Why do you think so many Pagans and Magickans are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism?
Our Western culture is used to the externalization of the Sacred. We are comfortable with our sacred statues, our altars and our gods. Tibetan Buddhism carries such a diversity of forms that one can always find a path or deity appropriate to temperament and inclination.
And we are also most comfortable within detailed, structured programs. These give us something for our intellects to do while our spirits are doing the real work. Finally, the path that looks outward becomes the path which looks inward. One begins to realize that what is seen outside is actually also within. When such realization is reached, one is living in Wisdom.
What message do you or does your faith have for the readers of Pangaia?
Be sure to take the time to fully enjoy your path as you travel it, for all our paths are long ones-even the 'short path'!
What are the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism? Could you describe some of the main ones?
To understand the rituals, one must first be familiar with the tools. The Vajra (or Dorje), is a double ended, five pronged instrument which bears a similarity to the magical wand. It is considered 'male', and held in the right hand. The left hand holds a bell, considered 'female', or sometimes a drum. These drums are double -headed with wooden balls on the end of strings, and twirled back and forth to sustain their rhythm. Both bell and drum are voices which call forth the dakinis, messengers of knowledge in the spirit realms.
The phurba is another often used tool. It is a three-sided knife, with either one or three wrathful deity heads on the hilt. It is most often used in pinning down spirits which may obstruct an upcoming ritual, such as interfering elementals or hungry ghosts, before a ritual begins.
Tibetan ritual takes many diverse forms according to need, such as destroying obstacles (internal or external), fire purification, or increasing bodichitta, the inner wisdom, an altruistic aspiration to free all beings from pain which is essential to free OURSELVES from pain!
A deity initiation is a deity Introduction. What you do after it is up to you. Daily prayer or chants keeps one in contact, and strengthens the connection. If the initiation is taken simply as a 'blessing', then there is no follow up, and slowly the connection fades away.
Tibetan initiations are bestowed by lamas only, but any Buddhist may take an initiation, such as the White Tara.
Initiations in general begin with the practice of 'taking refuge', spoken in unison in either English, Tibetan or Sanskrit. This basically confirms you as a Buddhist. The second preparation is to take the vow of the Bodhisattva, the promise to help all to achieve enlightenment. This is not to be taken lightly. You will be held to your promise for lifetimes to come.
The altar contains offerings of many sorts, the tantric tools include saffron water bowls, and the Tormas. A Torma is a ritual cake representing the deity, in this case, White Tara. It is made of barley flour and ghee or yak butter. It is shaped like a tapering cone. Standing about 6-8 inches high, the barley flour is moistened and rolled into its form, and the butter is immersed in cold water to stiffen it, then formed into petals which decorate it. Surrounding her Torma are several slightly less ornate others, which represent part of her retinue of surrounding spirits. For the duration of the ritual, the Torma is considered to actually be the goddess, incarnate. They are often also colored.
Tara is evoked by the head lama present in a long sonorous Tibetan chant, accompanied by his monks. He sits upon a four step high platform covered by embroidered silks known as the Lion's throne. The monks by his side, like the other participants, sit on meditation pillows on the floor. Although the well-known 'lotus posture' is favored, it is not necessary.
The Head Lama takes the Torma from the altar, and one by one, each approach, bow and the Torma is placed on the top of the head, as he chants her mantra "OM TARE TUTARE TURE AH HUM, or a variation thereof.
The syllables om, ah and hum are to be noted here. These syllables refer to the third eye, the throat and the heart, respectively. Their colors are white, red and blue. Most importantly, they are the keys to the ritual: om represents the secret practice, ah represents the inner and hum, the outer practice.
The power of Tara, through the Torma, enters the body from the crown chakra, and comes to rest in one's heart, where she will remain. This of course, is the physical locus of our communion with the deities. This can be considered the Outer practice. The Inner practice consists of drinking Amrita, the nectar of life. It tastes rather like cream and honey, with something indefinable. In addition to tasting it only with the tongue, its essence permeates the upper palate as well. This drink has been prepared in such a way as to strengthen the 'Vajra body', which we know as our astral body. It is said that severe physical or emotional trauma can damage ones aura. Amrita makes it whole again.
In the Secret practice, one is given a ritual 'pill'. Tibetan medicine is nothing like our own, as it focuses on adjusting: balancing the inner problems that are the innate roots of illnesses, be they physical or spiritual. It speaks to the Source.
These pills are large, maybe an inch in diameter, soft, doughy with many strange tastes within. They are prepared in order to heal the nervous system, (or winds and channels). There are said to be 64,000 of these.
With the conclusion of the Secret practice, the ritual is over. I recount my own experience here to the best of my ability and apologize for any inadvertent memory lapses.
There is one final thing I must add to this short example, and that is concerning the chants. Although many people have now heard multiphonic tonal singing, due to the interest of popular musicians such as Phillip Glass, the chants used in ritual not only contain many simultaneous overtones, but are also polyrythmic. The combination produces a psychic state of mind which enables one to actually hear the voices of the chanting dakinis who attend the rituals.
During one of my first experiences, I found myself extremely bothered by a woman behind me who just wouldn't quiet down. She chanted louder and louder, disturbing what I thought was my concentration on the rite. Finally I turned around to "ssh" her. There was no woman there, but there WAS a previously unnoticed altar in here place.
Since then, I've observed this phenomenon often.
Karma and Compassion
When we begin to have a vast view and see the possibility of countless lives,
countless realms, countless connections, we can then understand more clearly that
every world is the product of karma. This in no way predetermines anything. When
we see how all pervasive suffering is, our compassion cannot help but deepen.
A student writes:
"I recently read an interview where Lati Rinpoche said that the people who suffered at the hands of the Nazi atrocities were experiencing negative karma from previous lives. This strikes me as leading to a position whereby you develop a moral indifference to any horror It is certainly difficult to reconcile with having a compassion for suffering."
Lati Rinpoche was certainly not lacking in compassion when he said that. The problem from the Western point of view is that our view of samsara is much too limited. We do not have a vast view of countless lives and countless realms of being into which we might be born. The Buddhist cosmology is vast and diverse. Every point in space could be home to countless worlds and beings of all shapes and forms. It's all karma going round and round, mandalas within mandalas within mandalas, worlds within worlds within worlds, infinities in every direction and of every kind. Within this context where every world is the product of karma, it is simply self evident that what is happening is caused by karma in some way or other.
This is not to say that everything is predetermined and that there is no way out of this karmic maze. It is not to say that when we are in a good karmic situation we are more advanced and safer than someone in a bad karmic situation. Karmic situations are unstable and we all have endless karmic connections and no idea which will ripen next. It all depends on circumstances, and they can change at any moment. None of us is safe. It is like dreams that can suddenly change from happiness to terror in a matter of moments. It is not evolution, it is chaotic. Nevertheless, once we are on the path to Awakening, we can make sure that we keep to it, through whatever karmic situation ripens for us. We have that choice and our power of choice increases as we practice. So there is hope.
When Lati Rinpoche said that about the victims of the holocaust, he was not singling them out as bad people any more than the Tibetans were singled out as bad by all their country suffered. It was just the time of karmic ripening and so in a way a kind of purification. For those who chose the path of good it was a karmic purification, old debts paid off, the road to happiness opening up ahead. For those who chose the path of evil it was the beginning of yet an ever tightening cycle of pain and suffering, a downward spiral plummeting into hell after hell.
Lati Rinpoche was in no way dismissing the sufferings of those victims and the perpetrators of those atrocities. He was just commenting on the nature of samsara and I am sure his compassion for both was deep and all consuming. It is because the Buddhist view of suffering and samsara is so deep and vast that they seek to generate love and compassion that is great enough to encompass it all.
If we don't realise how great the suffering really is, we might become disheartened and give up half way as it dawns on us just what is involved. So there is a purpose to having a vast view of the sufferings of samsara. It inspires and encourages, if not obliges us, to open our heart more and more. We have to have big compassion, great compassion, fearless compassion, that is what Lati Rinpoche was talking about.
The teachings on Buddhism Connect are selected from advice that Shenpen gives in response to questions asked by people studying with her in the Awakened Heart Sangha, a spiritual community formed by her students. Unfortunately, because of the demmands on her time Shenpen is not able to answer questions from members of the public.
If you are interested in working more closely with Shenpen - including asking her questions like this and getting personal advice - then we suggest you enrol on Discovering the Heart of Buddhism, a comprehensive training in Buddhist study, contemplation and meditation taught by Shenpen.
Interview with Ajahn Sundara
Mountain Record: How did
you come to find yourself a Theravada nun?
Ajahn Sundara: I grew up in France and come from a family of seekers. They were looking for ways of leading a life that was much more meaningful for them. So I was brought up in that kind of environment - with people very concerned about society and the world, trying to make it a better place and trying to bring up their children in such a way that would make us more conscious of what it was to be a good human being, to live a life that is not just founded in materialistic greed, in money, or even in success. I eventually took the profession of a dancer. When I discovered dance, it became quite a passion and it was a means for me to continue my search. Why are we here? What is the reason we live this way? I hadn't discovered my mind yet but I knew that there was something missing. I had a very good marriage with a very kind, good person but that wasn't giving me the answer to my questions.
I started doing retreats, some at Christian monasteries. My ex-husband was teaching comparative religion and philosophy at the university. I was surrounded by lots of books on philosophy and religion. But I was really looking for something more tangible, more realistic. I wanted to help myself, to find a way of living more skillfully.
Eventually that led me to meet Ajahn Sumedho, who had been a monk in Thailand for eleven years and was a student of a well know meditation master, Ajahn Chah. I did a retreat with Ajahn Sumedho and studied meditation and this led from one thing to another and over a couple of years it became my life. I just decided to train under him. That was 24 years ago. And this was the beginning of my monk's life.
MR: Could you talk a little bit about what it means to practice in your tradition? For instance, for us who practice Zen, the bodhisattva vow - to liberate others before ourselves - is at the heart of our practice, and our monastics take vow to live a life of service. How does the Theravada tradition understand these vows?
Ajahn Sundara: There is a constant encouragement in our particular community to find a balance between serving the heart and serving outwardly, serving the larger community. In our monasteries we are very busy taking care of our community and training the monks and nuns and so on but it is also open to guests. We teach retreat all year around - ten days, two weeks, months, a weekend. We've hosted interfaith conferences and interfaith retreats, which has been quite wonderful. We do a lot of teaching outside of the monastery, visiting different Buddhist groups - University Buddhist groups, College Buddhist groups, and people scattered around the country. We teach in Europe and in America. We go out so much, in fact, that we have had to cut it down because it takes us out of the community for too long and the community feels neglected.
We see service as being committed to your life and living it the best way you can in your own community. You can say that even though we don't have such an emphasis as you would have on the Bodhisattva vows - it's not spelled out in the same way - still as my teacher says, "When you let go of self, what else is there to do but to help others?"
MR: Why do you think there is such a division between the Theravada and the Mahayana schools?
Ajahn Sundara: I think the divide came up very early after the death of the Buddha. Some scholars have explained that there was a school that was very strongly attached to the idea of the arahat model. Maybe the Mahayana, bodhisattva school, came in reaction to those earlier positions that were taken after the Buddha's passing away. Maybe it was not such a big divide; maybe it was just a reaction to monks who studied a lot and just didn't care about the world and didn't have anything to offer the rest of their society.
MR: What about now? Do you think that there is a big divide now?
Ajahn Sundara: I think the divide between the two schools is more in the text than in reality. I know people have made a big thing about it but it's a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of bad feelings about the Theravada, "Hinayana" schools. As if the Mahayana bodhisattva is out there busy and not really getting enlightened and the arahat doesn't care about the world . Maybe I'm kind of cynical about it. The thing is, if you practice you don't dwell on such differences at the conceptual level.
MR: Do you think there are any differences in the two schools?
Ajahn Sundara: Each school brings different skillful means to deal with the mind and body. The Buddha's teaching is basically a long series of skillful means to liberate the heart from suffering. I see the bodhisattva vow as another means, another way to explain how to liberate the mind from suffering. When I hear you chanting that you are dedicating your life to the benefit of all sentient beings, it's like a means of training the mind to move away from that self-centered tendency which happens very dramatically. We do this in our meditation. In America this is called Insight Practice. We are learning about the mind and its very selfish patterns and self-centered activity, and just listening to the mind as it is. Then we discover we can let it go, let go of that "non-bodhisattva mind," let it go and so the divide becomes smaller and smaller.
When I was listening to the teaching of the Dalai Lama several years ago, myself and another nun who took the Bodhisattva vows checked all my vows. I checked the bodhisattva vows in great detail and there was nothing that would make me transgress, anything that would keep me from following those vows properly. I see them as training; the Bodhisattva Vow is training the mind just like the precepts are training the mind.
MR: An old Zen master said, "the reality of ignorance is at once Buddha nature." I have read that in the Theravada school, mindfulness is practiced to protect the self from the three poisons - greed, anger and ignorance. Is this a difference in the two schools' understanding?
Ajahn Sundara: It's a good question. It's good to clarify that because when the person says "mindfulness protects me," that person, if they are practicing correctly, means it protects him or her from acting, thinking and doing things unskillfully, from harming other people. This is a way of speaking about mindfulness as presence of mind. When you're present, here and now, you are less likely to act unskillfully and to say something harmful to other people or to think harmfully. It has nothing to do with protecting the ego. In fact what happens - I'm sure in your practice too - is that the more you practice, the more you open to other people, the less control you have in your life, the more you are responding to life without thinking about yourself.
MR: In your tradition, you maintain a very strict adherence to the Vinaya. This means, among other things, you do not handle money, or eat unless offered food. In other words, you are completely dependent upon others. Can you talk about how moving through Western society with these special concerns nourishes the heart and not the ego? How do you work with all the attention you might receive, and not feel separate or special?
Ajahn Sundara: It's not even a question that arises at some level. Once you've committed yourself to this particular path - "this is my commitment" - that's it. I see the beauty. I see the joy. I also see the result my commitment has on other people. I notice people are very happy to support a monk or nun who has made this commitment. And I didn't write this commitment! I just took the vow that was in the Vinaya that was established by the Buddha himself. But yes, when I take this commitment,or anybody takes this commitment, it can push a lot of buttons for a Westerner, for an independent woman, for someone who doesn't want to depend on other people and so a lot of our training is focused on moving gracefully into that new way of living. We learn how to not be demanding, or create problems for others. I do not see myself as special. I just see myself as an ordinary Theravada nun who is walking the world, and sometimes feeling like, God, if I was more independent wouldn't it be easier?
This has been a question in our community, an on-going dialogue. Most of the monks and nuns I know only go around on invitation and then people are happy to help. If you go somewhere and say "But I don't have any money. I'm sorry. I need one meal a day which I can't fix for myself," you will just be a pain in the neck for people. You won't be an inspiring person to have around. But I know what you mean. From the outside it can seem awfully special, you have to fetch her from the airport, we have to bring her back, she doesn't have any money . well, it's a deal if you want a Theravada monk or nun to come to visit. If you don't want us we can stay at our Monastery. That's OK.
It is very healthy to dispel the mystery and prejudices.
MR: Is there anything in the Vinaya that has had to be altered in the West?
Ajahn Sundara: Simple things. I wear hat and shoes. Also, we have come a long way in bringing the monks and nuns on the same level in terms of recognition and respect, in terms of the way we interact in everyday life, even in ceremonies. The monks and the nuns can teach, listen to the Dharma. We both run our communities. The senior monks and nuns run the Monastery as a whole. When I arrived in the beginning, monks had to be physically higher than the nuns; we've dropped all that, and we're on the same floor together. The Abbot is in the middle, the monks are on one side, and the nuns are on the other. We've gone a long way from the traditional model.
MR: How do you decide to change one thing - hats and shoes, everyone on the floor - and keep another?
Ajahn Sundara: In the time of the Buddha, the protocol you had within the community of monks and nuns was just a model that was taken out of their own society. For example, in Sri Lanka the children used to bow morning and evening to their parents and recite a little gatha of gratitude. It's not just in the monastic tradition that you had this kind of deference model. It's identical to the model that was active in the society itself. Today in western culture we've been breaking down the barriers of the hierarchical system and so all these changes came about not so much through an idea that somebody had - when you've got fifty people together, you've got lots of ideas flying around! The changes came about through experience, through finding out by just seeing what is valued and how things feel. How do we experience a particular aspect of the Vinaya? Does it feel comfortable - not on a Dharma level, but just on the sort of day-to-day conventional level - what feels appropriate? Since women have such a strong voice, that's been very much the guiding light through our changes. Also, western men don't like seeing women in the lower position, or at least not visually. So this is where we are working together to see really what is most comfortable in terms of mutual respect.
MR: It sounds like a process that could get very complicated.
Ajahn Sundara: I often say that if things get complicated it's not the work of dharma, it's the work of Mara. Mara will complicate everything.
MR: Can you describe Mara?
Ajahn Sundara: Mara is the personification of evil in Buddhism. She is always depicted in discourses of the Buddha as this very funny little character. Mara often went to the early enlightened nuns to challenge them. For example, she would say to one nun (I'm paraphrasing) "Oh, you're so beautiful. Look at that - alone in the forest, in the shade, wasting your time. You could be doing so much more merry out in the world." And the nuns would come to her and say, "I know you, Mara." Mara pursued the Buddha for 45 years trying to tempt him with all sorts of things, even though he was enlightened. But Mara, with those enlightened monks and nuns, is always seen as a stupid character that just comes along trying to fool these nuns who say, "I know you Mara. I've seen the limitation of sense pleasure. I've seen death and decay and I don't belong to this world anymore." In the texts and discourses she's depicted as somebody going away with drooping shoulders, mightily miffed. As a well known Sufi teacher said, "You don't need to go far away to see the devil. Just look at yourself." I often say, Mara is not that bad, the devil is not that bad, when we look at ourselves it's not that bad. We're actually quite sweet. Lots of parts of ourselves are quite nice. So it's difficult to see Mara because she is often couched into very nice sweet characters.
MR: How did those nuns know the voices of distraction were Mara and not a true call to move on and into the world? How does anyone recognize their real voice?
Ajahn Sundara: If it happens that you become a nun, then that is your calling.
MR: Aren't mistakes ever made?
Ajahn Sundara: It's not always that clear. But you can always put your heart in the right place. In your heart you can plant the seed of intention. Your wish, your vow - all of this is planting intention in your heart. When you recite the chants, morning and evening, you are planting, you are letting these intentions grow by reminding your heart again and again and again, and you are chanting very loud so the mind is going to hear it! You are definitely shouting at Mara, "We're going to vow all sentient beings!" Mara comes up: "Oh, why do you have to vow all sentient beings, why not a piece of chocolate. I haven't eaten since lunchtime, what about me?"
You don't know. Much of our life is to be in a place of not knowing and allow thoughts to come up, come up, come and go, and come and go, and then at some point you keep putting your heart in the position of skillfulness and then something happens. Most people who have ordained say, "I don't know how it happened. That was it. I knew." It's like your heart let go of all sorts of worry and anxiety and fear and so on and then you come to a place of clarity, maybe of peace. Then you find yourself in the situation and you say, "gosh, if I thought about it I would have never done it." I'm sure you know that place. Because at some point you let go of thinking and you let your heart move you rather than your intellect, your worry, or your fears. As you practice you're more aware that Mara is there.
I never decided to become a nun. It just happened. I was interested in the teaching and meditation and basically I was going to learn while I was with my teacher and if it took a nun ordination, then fine, I'll just ordain so I can be there and continue to study. That was it - it was not like, "I'm going to be a nun," and then set myself to this task and project. It was only about three years later that I turned back in retrospect and said, "Yes, I think I'm a Buddhist nun now. I can really say I'm a Buddhist nun. I accept that I'm a Buddhist nun." So, you can't tell. After awhile you get to know the voices of greed, the voice of hatred, the voices of delusion. And you get to know what those fires are; you get to know them very well, so when they move you, you're careful. You don't repress them but you are just watchful and alert to the potential for transformation and the potential for them destroying you, burning you down to the ground. But you know from a practice point of view there's not a difference between Mara and nirvana. Mara is what you need to turn in order liberate yourself. Often the Theravada tradition is seen as very dualistic: you have to be good, and you have be very disciplined and repress all your forces and so on, all your energies, so you can continue to be a good monk and a good nun. What's this rubbish, you know? This is not true. In my tradition, my teacher often said jump into the fire. He'd say, jump into the furnace!
MR: That sounds very Mahayana!
Ajahn Sundara: There you go, see?
MR: Thank you.
Ajahn Sundara: My pleasure.
Ajahn Sundara is a teacher in the Forest Sangha. She visited Zen Mountain Monastery to lead a retreat on Women and Monasticism in 2003.
WBAI Radio Interview between Lex Hixon and Shih-fu: June 11, 1983
Lex: Shih-fu, you say that "no thoughts" means no characteristics," but how can the mind perceive the details of the world yet not know the characteristics of these details?
Shih-fu: The idea of "no characteristics," or marklessness, doesn't mean that there are no attributes to things or that nothing is there; it means that the mind doesn't stop on anything or hold on to any particular characteristic of what it perceives. We say that there is no particular mark, but really all marks are there. The mind does not seize on any one thing, it is aware of all things. Therefore the mind is always free and self-sovereign. The comparison between the eyes and a camera is a good example of this. When we perceive something, we use our eyes to look at a particular area or in a particular direction. But when we use our eyes we have a preconceived idea of what we are looking at, what we are looking for. We pick out a limited sphere, and this is what we see. This is called "yu shiang," which means that characteristics or marks do exist. However, when a camera is aimed in a particular direction, it takes in the whole scene, because there is no preconceived idea of what to look for. Therefore when the mind perceives "no characteristics," "wu shiang," it works in much the same way as a camera. But a pereon is not really a camera. We have many, many thoughts that continuously invade our minds. We cannot interrupt these thoughts at will, so we must practice. We must practice meditation to stop our thoughts.
Lex: What does Shih-fu mean by thoughts: he obviously saw that I needed a pen a few minutes ago, because he took one out of his pocket and gave it to me. That involved a thought process of some kind, but obviously not the kind that Shih-fu means. So what does he mean when he says that a perfectly clear mind has no thoughts?
Shih-fu: We must look at the way a thought works. A thought has a specific object, a goal to be accomplished, which is set in the mind to the exclusion of all other things. With "no characteristics" one still has thoughts, but when these thoughts arise, all other things still remain clear.
Lex: So what is important is not separating reality into separate, fixed portions. Is that right?
Shih-fu: Yes, that's right.
Lex: So the problem is freezing, separating, or fixing on to things?
Shih-fu: When the mind stops things or holds on to things, that is "having a mind"; that is being sentient. But a mind that responds to things freely illustrates the idea of "no characteristics." Such a mind perceives a thing without desiring it, feeling attraction for it, or rejecting it. When ordinary people come into contact with an object -- they see or hear something -- this contact will give rise to feelings of liking or disliking, attraction or rejection. If an ordinary person does not have such feelings of like or dislike when he perceives something, it just may be that he is thinking about something else; that is mind is off somewhere far from the present moment.
Lex: If one had a like or a dislike, the mind could reflect on that just as clearly as any other object in the world? Is this the point?
Shih-fu: No, this is still a case where the mind seizes on characteristics; this is still not the idea of "no characteristics."
Lex: Then let me ask a different question. In Getting the Buddha Mind, Shih-fu says that this pure mind which gives rise to neither feelings of moving or not moving is the mind which can best help sentient beings. But how, in this peaceful state, can you get involved in helping other people?
Shih-fu: The distinction must be made between what is external and what is internal. Outside there is movement; one can help other people. But inside there is no movement, the emotions are at rest. I look for what is most appropriate for a particular situation, and I talk about that. With wisdom one responds to each person differently, according to what that particular person needs. To really help a person is to give him just what is needed. In some cases "doing something to help people" might really be "not doing anything to help people."
Lex: Then without this inner stillness, it's really very difficult to give the appropriate help to someone?
Shih-fu: You don't have to be absolutely unmoving in order to help people. We can use the analogy of waves moving over the water's surface. When the waves are very rough, the surface will be too disturbed to reflect anything. The calmer the water, the more it will be able to reflect. Even if there is a little motion, you can reflect; you can still help people.
Lex: In Buddha Mind, Shih-fu spoke about the moon "It doesn't say 'I shine,' it just shines." It seems that what the Master is suggesting is that the mind can't have the impression it is still; if the mind is saying "I am still and clear and I am seeing things as they are," then there is a problem.
Shih-fu: Yes, that's right.
Lex: But what do you do when you practice meditation and first begin to experience inner stillness? How do you get rid of the special feelings of being a meditator?
Shih-fu: It's not necessary to do anything. If you exert yourself to get rid of something, to make some purposeful change, you will only make things worse. The best thing to do is to return to your method and keep to it.
Lex: Shih-fu has also said in his book that, "If you suddenly feel, 'Ah, I've discovered limitless expanse, I'm liberated,' in reality you are still in the realm of the limited. Further self- criticism will only keep you in this limited sphere. This is a subtle point. This would seem to be an essential point in Taoist teaching: that any effort or push in any direction is counterproductive. Would Shih-fu say that this is the main point of Taoism.
Shih-fu: I don't know much about Taoism. What I really know is Ch'an Buddhism. But there do seem to be similarities between Taoism and Ch'an, the Taoist idea of "wu wei," for example. "Wu wei" means to be inactive yet accomplish something, it is non-action in activity. In Buddhism, when you begin to practice, you obviously have a goal to attain, but you keep to your method to the exclusion of all other things. Your mind is only on your method. When you reach the next level of practice, or attain a particular result, then there is only that stage, or state, and nothing else. There is no desire to go higher; no desire to go lower. This is similar to "wu wei."
Lex: To move from "I shine" to "just shining" you can't do anything to make that move.
Shih-fu: You would just use your method. Or in Ch'an you might use a "hua-t'ou" or a "kung-an" (koan). These techniques might help you move to a different stage. But what you need is a master who can judge your progress. A person practicing on his own may think that he has had a wonderful experience, but he can not really judge. He needs the objectivity of a teacher, who can tell him where he is and give him a method so that he can move on.
Lex: Shih-fu writes of this pure mind as, "being boundless, it has no circumference, so there's no way to find an entrance." The phrase, "there's no way to find an entrance," indicates that there is no method.
Shih-fu: Entering is just a goal. It is a door you have to go through. The method is the key, so I say "go and find the door." That's up to you. I can't find the door for you.
Lex: But you write that there's no way to find an entrance.
Shih-fu: As far as I am concerned there's no door and no entering. Door and keys are your ideas, your problems.
Lex: So eventually one has to put down the key.
Shih-fu: As long as you have a building, a door, and a key -- you still have limitations. These are just used for illustration. Eventually you find that they do not exist.
Lex: In the poem quoted by Master Sheng-yen in his book, the poet tries to express this sudden turning around -- finding that there is no building: "In a complete turn about, I grasp the great emptiness, the 10,000 manifestations arise and disappear without any reason." What does that mean: "without any reason?"
Shih-fu: A person who has this kind of attainment has no past or future. The very ideas of space and time are broken. There are no longer reasons or causes behind these things.
Lex: The 10,000 manifestations are still appearing for him?
Shih-fu: Yes, they are, but he doesn't have any reason to have them present or to not have them present. He doesn't need a big bomb to blow emptiness apart.
Questions from listeners:
Question: I've meditated for one year, but now I've noticed a lapse into the ways of the past. What's the significance of this?
Shih-fu: This is a problem with our bodies and our lives. We can't be good all of the time. When things are harmonious, you do well in your practice. After a good experience, your body may feel exhausted and you may experience a lapse. You may not ordinarily know whether you are good or bad, but practice may help you know.
Question: I've been unemployed and I've had more time to meditate. Does Shih-fu think that the 9-5 rat race is incompatible with practice?
Shih-fu: You can keep up progress in daily sitting, but you really need an intensive retreat at least once a year. If you make progress during this time, you can maintain it in daily sitting.
Question: Would Shih-fu comment on the effectiveness of kendo and kick boxing to increase concentration and well-being?
Shih-fu: These practices do have benefits, but they are limited. They will bring a simple mind. They can't bring you to no-mind. Only Ch'an practice can bring you to that.
Question: Two years ago I lived with a guru for four months. I felt that I transcended the earth. I had to come back to New York, and I almost feel that I have the feeling again, but not quite. Do I need a teacher all of the time?
Shih-fu: That depends on your tradition. If it's a tradition that emphasizes a transference of power, then you continue to need a teacher. If it's a dhyana tradition, then you rely on your own power. Then you continue on your own.
Question: What about the difference between heavenly blissful experience and earthly experience?
Shih-fu: From my point of view, blissful feelings are illusions.
Question: Then being on the earth must be an illusion, too?
Shih-fu: Yes, but when you're meditating it is different. Even though we say that it's an illusion, we don't say that it is a bad thing: it shows that you've made progress. But you shouldn't get attached to it.
Else Is True?
An Interview with Piet Hut
While pioneering computational astrophysics and also probing ways of knowing, our featured scientist sees signs that science and mystical religion may be meeting in the corner into which objective science has painted itself.
Piet Hut, professor of astrophysics in the school of natural sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was born in Utrecht, Holland, in 1952. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam in 1978 based on a variety of research directions, ranging from classical mechanics (tidal interactions between stars in double star systems) to elementary particles physics (the behavior of neutrinos in the first second after the big bang) and other topics (such as the thermodynamics of black holes). Hut was appointed to his present position in 1985.
While his main research area is theoretical astrophysics, he frequently collaborates with colleagues in other areas, from geology, paleontology and cognitive science to particle physics and computer science. He is involved in the project of building GRAPEs, the world's fastest special-purpose computers, specialized for stellar dynamics, at Tokyo University. As a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, he is using the newly renovated Hayden Planetarium for interactive simulations of star cluster evolution. His graduate text book "The Gravitational Million Body Problem," co-authored with Douglas Heggie, will soon be published by Cambridge University Press.
Hut is a founding member of the Kira Institute, which in 2000 held its third summer school, on "Ways of Knowing," . His interdisciplinary activities have included the following: co-organizing a conference on "Fundamental Sources of Unpredictability" at the Santa Fe Institute; organizing a session at the State of the World Forum on "The Role of the Subject in Science"; co-organizing a conference on "Ambiguity Brought into Focus" at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto; participating in the Sixth Mind and Life Conference, a five-day dialogue between five physicists and the Dalai Lama; and participating as a fellow at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The World & I: In broad terms, what is the religious (or philosophical) tradition with which you are most closely associated?
Piet Hut: A difficult question in a global age! I have learned most from Taoism and Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, but I also have a deep respect for other contemplative traditions, such as Sufi and Christian mysticism. Among philosophers, Spinoza and Husserl are two of my heros.
The World & I: What are your views on the origins of the universe, life, and human beings?
Piet Hut: I can give several answers, depending on the context of the question. Within our scientific world view, I think there is hardly any doubt left that the Universe started with the Big Bang. Also, I think it is quite likely that life evolved from non-living matter through the increasing complexity of organic molecules formed and kept together under the right conditions.
The question of the origin human beings (and mammals, squid and octopi, and other intelligent animals) begs the question of the origin of consciousness. This is a more tricky question, since it involves the connection between the objective presence of electrochemical reactions in a brain and the subjective awareness of the individual, whose brain is described by neuroscience. This connection will be studied intensely over the next few decades.
At the moment I know of no solution, or even the beginning of a solution to the question of how to connect subject and object here; we're not talking about apples and oranges here, but about two aspects of reality that seem to be far, far more different than anything else we have encountered in science. I'm very excited about the prospect of new experimental investigations and new theoretical discussions in this area. Who knows from which unexpected corner the first glimpse of a solution will present itself?
So far, though, I have answered your question from within a scientific world view. However, there are other answers possible, equally valid I think. From a more esoteric way of looking at this reality we find ourselves in, we can also say that every moment everything arises in a new and full and uncontrived freshness. The whole notion of history and explanation and origins is then something that is contained within the stories that are part of what arises right "here and now" where the notion of "here and now" is wider than the "here" and the "now" that are of course part of our conventional story of reality.
The World & I: What is your concept of God? How did you come to hold this view? How do you define yourself in relation to this God concept? How does the existence of pervasive and enduring human suffering interact with your view of God?
Piet Hut: My concept of God? This is the type of question which is almost impossible to answer briefly! If I give a one-liner response, it would almost certainly offend at least some of my friends. The shortest answer is: I do not have any specific concept of God. However, I may use the notion of God to express my sense of respect and my intentions in life, in circumstances where that is the appropriate language to use. In other circumstances, I may use terms like Tao or Openness or Being.
My views evolved from a Dutch Protestant Christian upbringing, through a discovery of Hinduism and Buddhism while I was in high school, followed quickly by an appreciation of Medieval Christian mysticism. While Protestantism seemed far too dry and theoretical, the other approaches I discovered showed a far more scientific attitude of probing reality through an interplay of experiment and theory.
How I define myself? This is a central question. My life-long attempt has been, and still is, not to define myself. The central message of many esoteric forms of spiritual practice is to find a way to drop the self image you are carrying around. This picture of yourselves includes all that you have, but it mistakenly tells you that you are what you have. While we have a job and we have money, we normally say that we are a scientist or farmer or whatever, and that we are rich or poor. What we really are is vastly more than what we can possibly deduce from any conventional picture. If I were to summarize in three words what I am trying to strive for, I would say: freedom from identification. The rest follows.
The question of suffering is one of those profound challenges that we find ourselves facing in this life; we are born without any manual and the user instructions we are fed through our environment while we grow up are often not that helpful (children can be extremely cruel). One of the worst attitudes to suffering is to link it with supernatural forms of Good and Bad, as an easy way out. If suffering is seen as coming from a God punishing us for our Sins, it can easily lead to forms of hypocrisy, fatalism, and a pious attitude of irresponsibility (though I haste to say that here, too, many individuals have found ways to lead authentic and responsible lives, notwithstanding these dangers). The Buddhist attitude to suffering, as inherent to the human condition, can also be misused of course. However, at least it has not led to the forms of crusades and holy wars that the monotheistic religions have brought to the world.
The World & I: What, in your view, is the purpose, if any, behind the development of the universe, life, and human beings? If you believe there is an underlying purpose, how is it relevant to scientific investigation and scientific models of the world?
Piet Hut: Science asks for the "how", not the "why" of material reality. We just try to describe Nature in as compact and elegant a way as we can find. In relative terms we can then answer specific "why" questions. For example, we can say that water has certain properties "because" of the specifics of the interactions between the molecules that constitute water. However, we do not pretend to even look at any ultimate "why" question.
It is interesting that Gautama Buddha, a couple millennia before the start of modern science, had a similar attitude. He simply refused to even address any metaphysical "why" questions. His attitude was more practical, making suggestions as to the "how" of leading a good life, and the "how" of engaging in spiritual forms of practice.
Any talk of underlying purpose quickly acts as a mirror to reflect one's own psychological make-up. It is a much better tool for a therapist than for a philosopher. In fact, in the more mystical forms of monotheistic religions, we also find a turn away from the whole question of purpose. The Sufis have the most beautiful poetry, inviting us to let go of all our little agendas and attempts of probing cosmic purposes, and to become more like butterflies; or like clouds, in Taoist poetry. We in Europe have the wonderful little book `The Cloud of Unknowing' written by an anonymous English Medieval writer.
So, in short, I'm happy to stick with the "how" and to drop the "why" questions.
The World & I: How do your religious or philosophical world view and values affect, if at all, your practice of science (theoretical, analytical, and experimental) and/or your daily life routines?
Piet Hut: In so far as my work in science is part of my daily life, everything is drenched in world views. Any moment in our lives, any way in which we react to anything, is colored if not structured by how we view the world, and how we view ourselves and others. Those who deny this, or who maintain that they do not have a world view, are not aware of the tacit assumptions on which their lives are built. This makes your question a bit difficult to answer -- as if you were asking how a fish is affected by water.
Very briefly, my favorite notion of `freedom from identification' plays a double role in my life. First, it acts as a description of reality. I really think we are free to drop any type of identification at any time, and whatever prevents us only has power in so far as we give it power. Secondly, it acts as a goal. I cannot think of anything more effective to strive for -- but the funny thing is that it is self-undermining. If I view myself as a searcher, a striver for a goal, I have already taken on a new identification, perhaps one of the most pernicious types of identifications! So what to do? Perhaps there is really nothing to be done. The challenge may be "how to be". This tension, between being and doing, and trying to not-try in moving from doing to being, pervades my whole life, whether I am at work in science or anything else.
But perhaps your question is addressed at the concrete effects of my world views, in influencing the results of my scientific research. That would be much more difficult to answer. During the quarter century that I have worked in science, I have also been interested in contemplating reality from a philosophical and spiritual angle. I see no way to disentangle that part of my life, to find out how I would have lived and worked otherwise, with what results. Perhaps it is more the style of my work that is influenced by my vision. Trying to remain free from identification may have made it possible for me to collaborate with many colleagues in many different disciplines. Building bridges between disciplines has certainly been characteristic of my whole career.
The World & I: How would you characterize the relationships between your scientific and religious (or philosophical) world views? Are they complementary, separate, partially overlapping, or other?
Piet Hut: For me, they are more than complementary. Rather, I see them as part of the same world view. Both are based on a respect for critical thinking, informed by critical experimentation.
The World & I: What future developments do you foresee in the relationships between science and religion (or philosophy)?
Piet Hut: Under normal circumstances, every experience comes as a set or package deal, including an experiencer and something that is experienced. The experience is then seen as an experience by an experiencer of an object that is experienced. In other words, just as a stick has two ends each experience has a subject pole and an object pole. In the experience of dancing, there is a dancer dancing a dance; when dreaming, a dreamer dreams a dream; when drinking water a drinker drinks the water. Following the metaphor of the conscious experience as a stick, we always find ourselves at one end of the stick, as the subject pole, while we use the stick to learn about the object pole, just like a blind person finds his or her way in the world by using a stick. It is easy to forget the stick, and forget that you hold a stick, and to focus only on what is touched by the stick and thereby makes itself felt. However, by doing so we overlook much of what is involved in the most basic experience of ourselves and of the world.
From the days of Galileo, science has focused almost exclusively on studying the object pole of experience. While this has been a sensible approach, so far, we are now reaching the limits of an approach that tries to cut off the object end of experience as if somehow it could exist by itself. In various areas of science, from quantum mechanics to neuroscience and robotics, the subject pole of experience can no longer be neglected. Most likely, science will change qualitatively, with this required extension of its methodology.
In other words, we have painted ourselves into a corner, scientifically, by describing the whole world in objective terms. The price of success is that we are finding less and less room for ourselves to stand in! The challenge we now face is not to reduce ourselves to objects, but to explore ways to let science naturally widen its area of investigation. This can be done while staying true to its methodology of peer review, based on an interplay between theory and experiment, with experiment having the last word.
Many of my colleagues may be surprised by this outlook. For them, "widening the area of investigation" will mean pulling the subject into the world of objects, thereby reducing ourselves to objects. Their goal may be to describe the subject as accurately as possible, for example by charting in detail how the brain functions on all spatial and temporal scales, and on different levels of complexity of description. While I share that goal as perhaps the most exciting human intellectual accomplishment, namely for a brain to map itself, I don't see that as an end station. Something is still left out. No matter how accurately you can describe the electrical and chemical processes in my brain, you may not know what it feels like for me to have a subjective experience that is correlated with the objective phenomena that you can measure.
I don't mean to imply that subject and object are islands that cannot be bridged. On the contrary, as in the example of the stick above, I think they are intimately connected. It is only through our emphasis on the object side of experience, to the neglect of the subject side of experience, that we have come to see the object side as existing in isolation. Once we wake up from that myopic view, we can recognize how one-sided all of natural science has been, so far. We can then extend our field of inquiry from the object to a wider view that encompasses both subject and object. This does not mean that we have to give up our objective scientific method, in exchange for some vague form of subjective, uncontrollable and arbitrary approach. Far from that.
First of all, our so-called objective methods are objective only when seen from an idealized vantage point. In practice, these methods are not truly objective, but rather intersubjective, not more and not less. What is considered objectively true is what passes through the intersubjective peer review of a respected body of scientists. As a group, they are less likely to be stuck to one particular form of prejudice, but there have been plenty of historical occasions where scientists collectively came to the wrong conclusion. The beauty of science is that it seems to be robust enough to recover from these mistakes, sooner or later. When science will grow into a study of subject and object in a more evenhanded way, scientists will still use intersubjective methods, in the form of peer review, just as they did while focusing solely on objects.
Secondly, the commonly held notion that contemplative investigations are arbitrary and in principle outside the domain of a scientific approach just reflects a basic ignorance of such methods, whether they are labeled spiritual, meditative, or mystic. There is a vast body of literature describing how various meditators compared notes with each other. In Buddhism alone, for several centuries there were universities in India and Tibet with many thousands of students, all of whom were trained in these techniques in very systematic ways. Many of them engaged in collaborative forms of practice that I don't think are very different in spirit to the collaborative laboratory experiments in physics. The difference is mainly that their laboratories did not exclude the subject pole of experience, and hence that they were less purely focused on the object pole.
So I expect science to move into a detailed investigation of the subject pole of experience, in addition to the traditional object pole. To what extent philosophy and contemplative traditions can help here remains to be seen. Already in computer science a lot of wheels have been reinvented, by figuring out how to teach robots to recognize objects for example -- reinventing notions that had been suggested long before by psychologists and philosophers. At first, there was little awareness among computer scientists about the existence of these earlier `wheels', but recently the work of a perceptual psychologist like Gibson, and of phenomenologist philosophers like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, is beginning to attract some attention. One may argue that reinventing wheels has been a waste of time and energy, but perhaps reinventing a notion from scratch may not be such a bad idea, if it leads to a fresher and more original view of things. But at the end of the day, it would be good to compare notes with other traditions, if nothing else to make sure that neither side has overlooked important aspects of reality.
So my guess would be that the next few centuries of scientific research will focus on the interplay between subject and object. In these investigations, intersubjective methods will be used to describe the dynamics of both subject and object, each according to whatever will turn out to be the most appropriate and effective way. Building concepts and theories for subject-object interactions will be challenging and so fascinating as to make any of the recent talk about `the end of science' laughable. However, a restriction to descriptive theories will still not succeed to catch all of reality, even with the subject pole of experience being included.
The World & I: We seem to be experiencing as a culture a resurgence of interest in such matters as near-death experiences, life after death, and angels. How do such matters as these relate to your religious (or philosophical) and scientific views?
Piet Hut: Near-life experiences are rare enough. Most of the time, we are barely alive, while we go through our daily routines. To come close to really being alive is what interests me far more than speculations about what happens after death.
The World & I: Quantum theory has been appropriated by many Westerners with an interest in Eastern religions, as evidenced by such terms as "quantum mind," "quantum self," "quantum society, and "quantum healing." What associations are you able to make between quantum theory and your philosophical views?
Piet Hut: And of course, most uses of the word quantum have little to do with what physics deals with; they are more a sign of the times, in which scientific slogans have reasonable cash value. As for the real quantum physics, it tells us that nature is nothing like the clock-work mechanism that we physicists thought it was, during the seventieth through the nineteenth centuries. Spontaneity seems to be part of reality itself, and not some all-to-human approximation to a rigorously deterministic world. Particles have no objective state that can be measured in the same way by different observers; rather, the way nature answers is very much influenced by the questions you ask. All this points toward a convergence of scientific and contemplative views -- or at the very least, many of the barriers which there seemed to be between the two are now dropping away.
The World & I: What have been some historical interactions between your religious or philosophical tradition and science?
Piet Hut: In many way, the richness of quantum mechanics comes closer to the views one finds in many Hindu and Buddhist traditions, compared to those in Greek and Judaic mythologies. It may well be that the more limited and rigid views in the latter helped science get started, by encouraging an approach to natural philosophy that was sufficiently limited to get a chance at answering questions one by one. But now that science has grown so far beyond its original framework, it is not surprising that it has left behind most of the original assumptions, such as the determinism and objectivity that were part of a classical mechanistic view. Perhaps Europe was the right cultural place for science to be born and raised to make its first steps. But now it is high time to invoke non-European world views to provide a richer palette from which to draw in interpreting what it is that science has found.
Interview : In conversation, with Pema Chodron & Alice Walker
What happens when a beloved spiritual teacher and a brilliant author come together to talk about the most tender, compelling aspects of our human experience? The following exchange, excerpted from Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker in Conversation, offers some unexpected answers and an introduction to the healing practice that has transformed both women's hearts and lives.
Alice Walker: About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called "Awakening Compassion." I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training, and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in people's pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.
Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine. It's as if there's a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we don't want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people. That takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are willing to cultivate their courage. What's wonderful about it is that you have plenty of material to work with. If you're waiting for only the high points to work with, you might give up, but there's an endless succession of suffering.
AW: I was surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can feel it responding physically. As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. That's the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.
PC: When we start out on a spiritual path, we often have ideals we think we're supposed to live up to. We feel we're supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in pain breathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you are heightens your awareness of exactly where you're stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you can suddenly become some great person, there's much more emotional honesty about where you're stuck.
AW: I remember the day I really got it that we're not connected as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws. That was such a relief.
PC: Rumi wrote a poem called "Night Travelers." It's about how all the darkness of human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel part of the whole.
AW: ... everybody is in that boat sooner or later, in one form or other. It's good to feel that you're not alone.
PC: I want to ask you about joy. It's all very well to talk about breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this practice?
AW: Oh, yes! Even just not being so miserable. Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time; they've been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. I'm always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whomever they've been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching.
PC: I think the times are ripe for this kind of teaching.
AW: Oh, I think it's just the right medicine for today. You know, the other really joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward people in my world. It's what you have said about feeling more at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the distance in your own heart really being disciplined about opening your heart as much as you can.
By Ajahn Pasanno
If we are lacking the richness of truth in our hearts, then when we die and they cremate us, our lives will be worth no more than the handful of ashes we produce.
The Buddha offered his Teaching to the world with the intention of showing a way to know Truth - Dhamma. His lifelong gesture of renunciation was made so we could personally know this Truth. The fact that these Teachings are still with us shows that they have been put to good use by both lay and ordained people alike. It is important, however, that we understand the need for personal contemplation of these Teachings for their true value to arise. With such personal contemplation, if it is right, we can come to sense the completeness, coolness and calm that they offer.
As a foreigner living here in Thailand, I find life as a Buddhist monk extremely beneficial. Sometimes people visiting our monastery, Wat Nanachat, ask me how long I've been a monk. 'Over ten years,' I tell them. 'Is it good?' they like to ask. 'If it wasn't any good,' I reply, 'why would I have spent over ten years living this way? I could be doing all sorts of other things.' It is because I personally see the value of this Way that I live it.
Without clear understanding of the processes of our hearts, we create all kinds of problems. We become hot and bothered and are dragged about by emotional states. For there to be personal and global peace, these states need to be understood: the ways of the heart need to be seen clearly. This is the function and value of Dhamma.
In contemplating the Buddhist Way, it is important to see that there is absolutely no obligation or intimidation involved. Whether we take it up or not is our choice, we have complete freedom in this regard - the Buddha only offered us an introduction to the Path. There is no external judge checking up on us. He pointed out that which leads to true success, to liberation, peace and wisdom; and also that which leads to failure and confusion. No external authority is making absolute statements about what is good and bad, right and wrong, and nobody is going to punish us if our preference is not to follow. However, observe that there is always that within our own hearts that knows what we are doing.
So it is important that we consider together how to actually use the Buddha's Teachings and realize for ourselves their true value. We have all heard many times about the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. Maybe we have heard about them to the point where we take them for granted; we don't think they are so important any more. But these Teachings are actually referred to as 'The Heart of the Buddha's Way'. Throughout the forty-five years of his teaching the Buddha never changed or abandoned them.
Last week in our monastery I was unable to do walking meditation because I had sprained my ankle. I would join the community for the sitting period and then when it came time for walking I would go back to my hut. I made use of the time to go over some of the chanting that we do. Many times I went over the Buddha's first Discourse -- the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta -- which contains The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. As a result I discovered many valuable points.
Let us first consider the context in which these Teachings were offered. The Buddha had spent six long years striving to see for himself the Truth. He had undergone an incredible amount of hardship -- not like meditators these days, who make a lot of fuss if conditions are not exactly how they want them. When the Perfect Enlightenment eventually took place he carefully considered exactly how to go about sharing his realization. He was thirty-five years of age at the time, not old and senile -- and, as he had been brought up a prince he had had the best education available. He was in the prime of his life and fully capable of articulating his understanding. So he wasn't going to hand out the Teachings to just anybody.
He decided that his five companions during the time of his asceticism were most suited. They were totally sincere in their efforts, well experienced and intelligent. He then spent several weeks walking to where they were staying. When eventually he reached the, he gave the Teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. So these Teachings are not common and insignificant.
The fact that we have heard and talked about them many times means we run the risk of their becoming mere theory for us. However, if we were to talk in a worldly sense about achieving something, we would understand that it would of course require effort; likewise in the case of the Eightfold Path. If we make the right effort then realization can take place.
Now let us consider what we mean be 'right effort.' The Buddha gave an example of throwing a stick into a river. If that stick didn't run aground on either the right bank or the left, and if it didn't sink, then it would definitely reach the sea. In terms of our practice, the left and the right banks are the extremes of clinging to pleasure -- kamasukhallikanuyogo -- and clinging to pain -- attakilamathanuyogo. Not sinking means not relinquishing effort. If it wasn't for becoming caught in sensuality, indulging in negativity and giving up making effort, we would reach Nibbana - Peace. This is one of the laws of nature. A true appreciation and honest accordance with the Way shows us that it must be like that.
The Eightfold Path is called the Middle Way, which means our effort must be the right amount. If our actions of body and speech are not in harmony with this Way; if we are getting caught up in seeking sense pleasure and indulging in states of anger and irritability, then definitely it is impossible to see things as they actually are.
We must constantly endeavor to make the right kind of effort or we will end up like the stick, and sink. When we are feeling enthusiastic we can easily give ourselves to the practice. But it can also happen that at times we are totally disillusioned, even to the extent that we forget completely the original confidence and faith we had. But that is natural. It is like swimming a long way; we become tired. We don't need to panic; simply be still for a while. Then when we have regained strength, continue.
Understand that much: in accordance with nature, that state will change. Despair, if that is what has arisen, will pass. Just keep practicing. Observing our minds and seeing how our attitudes are continually changing shows us that impermanence is natural.
Understand how necessary this kind of contemplation of Dhamma is in our lives. It is like nourishment to the heart. If we don't have clear understanding, then it is as if something is missing. Often people who visited Ajahn Chah would say they didn't have time to practice. They'd say had too many commitments. He would ask them: 'Do you have enough time to breathe?' They always replied, 'Oh yes! It's natural to breathe.'
Isn't cultivating Dhamma as important as breathing? If we stop breathing then we die. If we are not established in a right understanding of the Truth of the Way Things Are, then also we die; we die from that which is truly good, from true ease and true meaning. If we are lacking the richness of truth in our hearts, then when we die and they cremate us, our lives will be worth no more than the handful of ashes we produce - and that's not much! We must investigate how to live in a way that truly accords with what the Buddha taught. Surely then we could live in harmony without conflicts, difficulties and problems to resolve.
Sila (morality) is that which shows us this Middle Way. It points to the avoidance of the extremes of pleasure and pain - it means knowing the right amount. When we live in the Middle Way regarding actions of body and speech then we don't cause offense to others; we do what is appropriate for human beings. The practice of formal meditation is to train our minds and hearts to stay in the Middle Way.
These days, many people who meditate try to force their minds to be as they want them to be. They sit there arguing with their thoughts; if their attention wanders they forcibly bring it back to the breath. Too much forcing is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is the ease that arises naturally in the mind when there is the right effort, right intention and right awareness. When practice is 'right' and there is ease of mind, we can simply watch the different states that arise and consider their nature. We don't need to argue with anything. Arguing only causes restlessness. Whatever emotion arises is within the domain of our awareness, and we simply watch. Whether it's joyful or the absolute opposite, all experiences are within the boundaries of our awareness. We just sit, watch, contemplate and recognize them; they will naturally cease. Why do they cease? Because that is their nature. It is this realization of the true nature of change that strengthens and stills the mind. With such insight (pañña) there is tranquillity (samadhi) and peace.
The Buddha's wisdom is knowing the right amount. It doesn't mean knowing everything about everything, but knowing impermanence, knowing suffering, knowing selflessness. The reason we get caught in seeing things as other than the way they really are is our lack of wisdom. With wisdom we know how to let go; to let go of craving, let go of clinging, let go of beliefs. We let go of the tendency to always see things in relation to a self.
What we call 'Me' is merely a convention; we were born without names. Then somebody gave us a name and after being called it for a while, we start to think that a thing called 'me and mine' actually exists. Then we feel we have to spend our lives looking after it. The wisdom of the Buddha knows how to let go of this 'self' and all that pertains to it: possessions, attitudes, views and opinions. It means letting go of the opportunity for suffering (dukkha) to arise. It means giving occasion for seeing the true nature of things.
So cultivating the Eightfold Path develops what is 'right' for human beings. Through the practice of discipline, tranquillity and wisdom (sila, samadhi, pañña) we can live in harmony. Continually being caught up in extreme states is the result of selfishness; of not knowing the right amount; of not knowing the Middle Way. This Eightfold Path is a job that we need to do. If done carefully and correctly the right result will appear.
On reciting the Buddha's First Discourse last week I was reminded of how the Eightfold Path actually takes effect. It says in the sutta: Cakkhukarani, ñanakarani, upasamaya, abhiññaya, sambodhaya, nibbanaya samvattati. Which means that this Path functions by opening the 'Eye of Dhamma' -- cakkhukarani; 'giving rise to insight' -- ñanakarani; 'giving rise to peace' -- upasamaya; 'giving rise to knowing accurately' -- abhiññaya; 'to knowing fully' -- sambodhaya; and to 'realizing perfect freedom' -- nibbanaya samvattati. This is the complete Path that the Buddha teaches. It is a Path that, when cultivated, opens the eye that sees the Dhamma, knows the Dhamma, and becomes the Dhamma. This is the eye that sees that any condition that arises also ceases.
In the scriptures we read, that when the 'Eye of Dhamma' is opened, when we see clearly the way things are, then we 'Enter the Stream of Dhamma'. It is only this knowledge that arises from the practice of the Eightfold Path which causes defilements to diminish, brings peace to the heart, and eventually frees us from all suffering. Therefore it is of supreme importance to all of us. The Eightfold Path has this function - it is something that really works.
we practice the Buddha's Teachings depends on how we view them. It depends on
what we consider as having value. Please do try to investigate and see that your
lives accord with the Buddha Way.