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