Erik Pema Kunsang, co-author of Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, talks with Daniel Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman.
How would you describe Tulku Urgyen to the world at large?
Erik Pema Kunsang: Tulku Urgyen, you could say, was a profound mystic and a unique kind of philosopher, one who could guide people toward a type of insight that goes beyond theory and concepts. Observing how easily and naturally he worked with others, you could deduce what Tulku Urgyen himself experienced on a daily basis. Most of us would view his area of expertise—pointing out what things look like from the awakened point of view—as being very heavy and difficult. Yet, he made it extremely accessible. You practically weren’t allowed to leave the room until you agreed just how easy it was to see things from the awakened point of view. You couldn’t just nod your head in agreement, either. You actually had to experience that ease for yourself.
From the fourteen years you spent living with him as a translator, what can you say about him as a person?
Tulku Urgyen is more like something I have under my skin than an external person. Although he really did get under my skin, he was incredibly mild and gentle.
Did Tulku Urgyen know you were going to make this book into something like a biography?
There are many styles of biographies of teachers. At one end of the spectrum is a story written in the very lofty language of Tibetan philosophy and poetics. It is composed in a highly respectful, politically correct way that introduces the teacher as completely otherworldly: His feet never touched the ground. He was not of this world. He was basically a buddha who never left his buddhafield, but could still be seen in this world. This style is filled with quotations from scriptures and poetic phrases.
That’s a very dignified way of writing, but it wasn’t Tulku Urgyen’s style, and I don’t have that ability either. I have been asking other masters to write another book, a more traditional account, of Tulku Urgyen’s life. That’s why we call this book his “memoirs,” because in it he recollects the people and events he witnessed without himself being the central figure. He witnessed the events himself or heard of them directly from someone who did. So these are essentially eyewitness accounts of important people who lived in recent times and who had tremendous impact on Buddhism as it is practiced in the Tibetan tradition.
We do know that some of the accounts in Blazing Splendor were things that Tulku Urgyen was told by his teachers. I find that fascinating, because you see people who lived recently who had reached what is very close to the final level of enlightenment—real enlightenment, not just the “enlightenment experience,” or the altered state that one labels “enlightenment.” This enlightenment corresponds to the words of the Buddha, as described in the tantras, especially the Dzogchen tantras. This realization has been confirmed and verified in every link in the chain, from the time the tantras were set down until now, and the masters we’re getting the inside scoop on in Blazing Splendor are some of the last links in that long chain.
Why did you not simply tell the life story of Tulku Urgyen?
Tulku Urgyen made it clear long ago, when I first brought up the idea of collecting his memoirs, that he did not want the story to be about him. Speaking of personal greatness detracts from what one has done, he would say. Tooting one’s own horn is distracting. Dilgo Khyentse once used the example of someone who has gold in his pocket and doesn’t speak about it, because he might get robbed.
In fact, Tulku Urgyen even thought making a book of these stories was pretty pointless. I think I tricked him into it, though, in the sense that I would just ask to hear about a teacher he knew personally. Then I would ask about another and then another. But when I started asking about what he felt or knew or thought about, he wasn’t interested in that. So I asked him if it wouldn’t be worthwhile for other people to hear about these teachers, to which he responded, “Of course.” Finally, as a way to string the stories together into some kind of structure, we tried to correlate the times and events of his life with the various stories.
Tulku Urgyen’s life, then, became simply the device that held the stories together?
Yes. The material in the book comes from more than seventy-five hours of taped conversation recorded over a sixteen-year period. He did not sit down with me and start saying, “I was born, and then… ” It wasn’t like that at all. For about half of the stories, I had prepared specific questions about people whom Tulku Urgyen had met. There were certain events he had referred to at times when I didn’t have a tape recorder, so I asked him to recount them again.
He was such a great—and faithful—storyteller. He could tell the same story twice in ten years with almost no variation. In his homeland in Nangchen, Tibet, it’s considered bad form to interpolate. When you quote somebody, you don’t add any words or interpret. You say it exactly as you heard it. When someone repeats what they have heard much later on, it’s the same as when it was originally said. I’ve met very few Westerners who can do that. We always twist things slightly and add a spin. We’re not saying it as it was; we’re saying it differently and presenting it as what the other person said. This is what Tulku Urgyen’s son Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche calls a “lie.”
When people listen to dharma talks these days, they often use that same lack of honesty to twist what has been said by mixing in their own interpretation. They later feel that this is what the teacher said. “The teachings” then become a mishmash of one’s own ideas and judgments and what one felt at the moment. By contrast, Tulku Urgyen’s way of storytelling is very clean.
What was it like for you last year when you and your wife, Marcia, traveled to the very places in Tibet that Tulku Urgyen mentions in the book?
Visiting places that we’d always heard about—where important events unfolded, where Padmasambhava had been, where the great treasury revealer Chokgyur Lingpa had been, where other great masters, like Jamyang Khyentse and Jamgön Kongtrül, had been and taught—was quite moving. Standing in the places where they had been, seeing the caves where they sat, the thrones from which they taught, speaking to the people who knew Tulku Urgyen and his uncles, made it all more real to me.
At the same time, I don’t regard these beings simply as historical figures who moved around and did things, but rather as bridges between the awakened state of all buddhas and our human realm. These human bridges—awakened masters living at different times and in different places—make it possible for profound knowledge to come into our world in a way that is accessible and applicable to everyone. That’s a great miracle. In fact, there is no greater miracle than an enlightened master bringing knowledge into the world that can help people transform themselves.
Did many people still remember Tulku Urgyen?
A lot of people remembered him, even though most hadn’t seen him since the mid-1950’s. Since the 1980’s, a few had been able to travel to Nepal and return to Tibet. I met some of his relatives who were still there, and some lamas who had received teachings from him.
Lineage is one of the main themes in Blazing Splendor. Why is lineage so significant? What does it really mean?
The reality of lineage is not Asian or Tibetan or Buddhist at all. All peoples and cultures have lineages. The core sense of lineage refers to dependent origination: because of a cause, something else can arise. Because you heard about bread and watched bread being mixed, kneaded, and baked, you are able to try it out yourself to confirm whether it works or not. Having done so, you can feel confident that you can bake bread yourself and eat it. Every slice you eat comes about because there is a lineage for baking bread.
In the same way, to be certain that insight into the awakened state is for real, it has to be confirmed by someone who came before you and understands what is true. That person acts as your teacher: he explains it to you, shows you how to realize it, and then, when you get it, says, “That’s right—you got it.”
That is the essence of lineage. Beyond that, there are also many supporting methods, such as meditational liturgies, or sadhanas. To use such methods, one needs to be empowered by a lineage holder who gives you transmission to practice in a certain way. These methods are all part of the lineage, but the core of the lineage is the transmission of the awakened state. So, whether it’s baking bread or realizing the nature of all buddhas, lineage is what makes it possible.
Even though the book tells the story of Tulku Urgyen’s travels through Tibet and his meetings with masters, wouldn’t you say that these stories become teachings in themselves, because of how he recounts them?
How much teaching comes out of a story depends on where the listener is at in their life and development. In many cases, what we consider a dharma lesson is simply a presentation of a more worthy role model than we have found in our own culture and background. That in itself is a teaching. Often in Buddhist teachings, the life stories and examples of past masters, especially Buddha Shakyamuni, are the main teaching for people to relate to. Somebody was there at a particular time and place, and something actually happened. That lets you compare yourself with a certain standard and ask, “What am I really doing in my life? What kind of virtues have I cultivated?” Reflecting on where you are and what you could be is a very important teaching in and of itself.
Hearing about masters who, in their virtues and what they accomplished, had “the real goods” that they could pass on to others, and indeed did pass on to others, who exist to this very day, lets us know that the dharma is not just myth and hype. It’s something you can rely on as valid and that you could try to measure up to in your own life.
Tulku Urgyen and the other masters in the book seem to handle catastrophe—the devastation that came with the invasion of Tibet and tragic losses of teachers and family members—differently than most people, with openness and an unwavering equanimity. What does this say about who they really are?
The story presented in Blazing Splendor is seen through the eyes of someone totally committed to a very different frame of reference than the ordinary person. It is not anchored in house and home and belongings, or nationality and all the stuff that goes along with the normal sense of identity. That in itself brings a contrast between what is normally thought of as being “me” and what Tulku Urgyen brings forth as an awakened example of what a human being can be.
Sensing that contrast is profoundly helpful for overcoming many of life’s problems. Otherwise, what is one faced with? The human condition is fraught with problems, anguish, and worries. Every person can readily know the uneasiness of existing. What they don’t necessarily know are the solutions, how to step out of it. There needs to be a contrast, so that one can see a difference and make steps in that direction. The story told in Blazing Splendor helps to provide a role model for anyone, from someone who wants to be a renunciant living and meditating in the mountains to someone who simply loves Dzogchen.
There are very important examples in the book of “ordinary” people who are also practitioners, like Tulku Urgyen’s aunt, who was a very busy woman managing household tasks. Even though she spent her time ordering the grain, or telling someone to fetch water, she practiced. The teachings can be applied to people on every level, from master to servant. It’s up to the individual leader to determine how these teachings can be used to inspire the different kinds of people he leads.
What happens, though, if one has no role model, inspiration, or leader? The intelligent person who sees the futility in normal endeavors becomes depressed at a certain point in life. There can be something very positive and life-confirming about being depressed, because the pointlessness of normal life pursuits is bloody depressing. The prospect of continuing endlessly in that same groove is depressing. So any intelligent person can be depressed when wondering, where is this leading? It’s not leading anywhere. It’s awful. And the next step isn’t necessarily to find meaning—to chase rainbows where there aren’t any—but rather to infuse one’s life with meaning.
A book like Blazing Splendor can provide very important meaning that can inspire one’s life. That’s what I find to be the greatest benefit of a book like this. It’s not just giving historical facts about who gave what to whom; it gives real hope—not just a pie in the sky or the next gadget or the latest movie, but something that someone can take in their hands, that they can make use of, and that they can connect with. Blazing Splendor allows one to meet so many masters. Not only people who live in our own time, like Tulku Urgyen’s sons, but many other figures long passed away who carried on the lineages that he was connected to.
Many things happen in the narrative of Blazing Splendor that are simply unheard of in modern life, like people being clairvoyant or producing texts that had been hidden a thousand years before. What is the modern reader to make of this?
Human beings are willing to believe all kinds of stuff. We see that every single day. Unfounded information parading as fact abounds. So being able to believe what could be far-fetched is not something new in the West. People believe all kinds of nonsense—read any newspaper, look at the polls. The ability to believe is not confined to Tibet. But the magic that is found in Blazing Splendor may have greater benefit than the normal junk people usually believe in. If one judges that such seemingly extraordinary tales may have some benefit, then one may be willing to go along as one becomes more familiar with a world of unfamiliar magic. A book like Blazing Splendor, which recounts such stories in a straightforward way, can create a certain familiarity.
If one becomes familiar enough to pay attention to and take in the story being told, then one can judge for oneself whether to take it as true or totally unfounded. We are, of course, taught to be skeptical and use our own intelligence to figure out what is true, but we shouldn’t necessarily decide before we know for sure. That’s not skepticism; that’s stupidity.
Keeping an open mind is the true scientific attitude: to be able to genuinely discover, you have to be open to possibilities that lie beyond what you already know. Being skeptical to the point of being close-minded is actually unscientific and hampers any kind of real progress. Just like a newborn infant, we always have to be able to broaden our horizon as we grow up.
The magical world presented, or at least hinted at, in Blazing Splendor is part of our rich human heritage. So I’d like to extend a welcome to readers to enjoy the scenery, and to read the accounts with an open mind—and an open heart. There’s a lot we know and a lot we think we know, yet there is infinitely more that we don’t know. The biggest benefit comes from just staying very open.