INTERVIEW WITH HIS HOLINESS THE SAKYA TRIZIN
During his last teaching visit to New York City, His
Holiness the Sakya Trizin agreed to be interviewed by Gerry
Reilly, a member of the Palden Sakya Center for Tibetan
Buddhist Studies and Meditation. His Holiness is the
forty-first in the line of throne holders of the Seat of Sakya
and heads the worldwide Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism. In
1952, at the age of six, he was enthroned as the Sakya Trizin
in a simple ceremony. Then, in 1959, his full enthronement
took place in Sakya. Almost immediately afterwards, he fled to
India and into exile. Since then, His Holiness has established
Sakya colleges in India and Nepal, has re-established Sakya
monasteries, and has traveled the world giving teachings.
Gerry Reilly: Your Holiness, I would like to begin by
saying what a pleasure it is to have this chance to talk with
you. Would you please give a general account of your
His Holiness the Sakya Trizin: I was born into the Khön
lineage, which is a hereditary lineage from more than a
thousand years ago. Members of this lineage are believed to be
the direct descendants of celestial beings that were settled
in Tibet then. After many generations, they started the Sakya
monasteries. The family has a long history. I was born in the
Sakya Dolma Phodrang in 1945.
When I was very young, I
received teachings from my father, and then I received other
teachings from many of my own gurus. In 1959 when I was still
quite young, I went to India, and ever since then, I have been
studying and giving teachings.
GR: Aren't hereditary lineages rare? Westerners are
used to the notion of tulkus, individuals declared to be
reincarnations. Are there other examples of families that have
continued to have such famous teachers and accomplished
HHST: Although the Khön lineage is hereditary, many of
the famous teachers are emanations of Manjushri,
Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani, and some later ones were
reincarnations of their forefathers, and so forth. Apart from
the Khön lineage, we also have many great masters who are
reincarnated lamas in the Sakya tradition.
GR: Would you talk about your own gurus—in particular,
about their accomplishments or stories that might inspire your
HHST: My first guru, of course, was my father, who gave
me the Vajrakilaya empowerment. He was very great. One of the
incidents from his secret life accounts, which I heard much
later from Deshung Rinpoche, is that when he was meditating,
there was a Manjushri image in his shrine room. This Manjushri
image had belonged to Sakya Pandita. When Sakya Pandita
debated Hari, the Hindu scholar, the image was with him. The
name of this image was the victorious-debater Manjushri image
because Sakya Pandita won that famous debate. So when my
father was meditating, this Manjushri image came to life,
stood up, and talked to him. My father rose up and did
prostrations and offered confession prayers. Manjushri said to
him that instead of reciting confession prayers, if one
performs guru practice and then meditates on the ultimate
reality, this is more effective in purifying negative
After my father, my most important guru, from whom I
received the Lam Dre and all the other important teachings,
was Ngawang Lodrö Shenpen Nyingpo, the abbot of the Ngor
Monastery. He was a very great master and holder of all the
teachings, and he performed many great miracles. One of the
very important incidents in his life occurred when he was
traveling in Eastern Tibet. At a place there, many people saw
evil spirits in the form of a large camp with tents. Many
people were captured by these evil spirits and died because of
them. My guru performed a special Mahakala puja nearby and
destroyed all of the evil spirits. Ever since then, the evil
spirits have disappeared and people can travel safely.
third teacher was another abbot in the Sakya monastery from
whom I received Lam Dre teachings. This teacher was very
humble and would never reveal any of his accomplishments.
People believe that he must have had great experiences in
meditation, because sometimes when he meditated, he used to
wear his robe over his head and he used to cry a lot. That was
believed to be the evidence that he experienced actual visions
of hell. It is believed that when one meditates, one's air and
elements go through the veins, and when they go through the
hell-realm veins, then one experiences actual visions of hell,
which means that such a person will never go through that
experience again because the hell-realm veins inside the body
are destroyed. So at that time, one feels as though one is in
hell and sees the hell-realm beings, but it also means the
destruction of the hell-realm syllables. This has happened to
many other great yogis, such as the disciple of Lama Kunga,
GR: What was this teacher's name?
HHST: Abbot Jampal Sangpo. I had another abbot from
Nalendra named Ngawang Lodrö Rinchen as a teacher. He was also
a very great master in the sense that he could perform
miracles. For example, he possessed the power of inner heat.
Tibet is a very cold place, and during the winter, the water
in all our rooms would be frozen, but in his room it was never
frozen. Everything remained warm. He had inner heat.
Altogether I had nine great masters from whom I received
GR: Could you talk a little bit about one of the first
Sakya teachers to spread the dharma in the West, Deshung
Rinpoche, who established many centers in the West and with
whom many of your American students studied? Could you talk a
little about your experiences with him and tell any stories
about his accomplishments?
HHST: Deshung Rinpoche came to Sakya when I was very
young. At that time, my father went to India on pilgrimage,
and during that time, my father asked Deshung Rinpoche to take
care of me—not physically but spiritually—to give the
blessings every week and long-life initiations and bathing
rituals. Deshung Rinpoche was very kind. The funny thing was
that at the time his attendant was a Tibetan monk who was very
tall and had a big nose, so his nickname was "the American."
Deshung Rinpoche told me that he must have had some kind of
karmic connection to America because his personal attendant
was called "the American." Although that monk died and never
left Tibet, Deshung Rinpoche managed to come here. He was one
of the earliest Tibetan lamas to come to the U.S. When he was
in Sakya, he never dreamed of coming to America.
Rinpoche's main deity was Avalokiteshvara. He was also very
humble and never said that he was accomplished, but when I
asked him to give the Avalokiteshvara initiation, he gave me a
hint. He said that although he didn't think he had the ability
to give major initiations, as far as Avalokiteshvara was
concerned, since he had been practicing Avalokiteshvara all
his life and had recited 100 million mantras while in the
United States and since he had practiced Avalokiteshvara so
much, he had the confidence to give the initiation. In other
words, I'm sure he had a great realization through
GR: You mentioned that your father was one of your
initial gurus, and you have two sons who also have studied
with you. Could you talk a little bit about what it's like to
have a father-son relationship as well as a guru-disciple
relationship since you've been involved in both?
HHST: I have two sons. My elder son is Ratna Vajra.
He's a very good student. Of course, in the beginning, he was
a child just like any other child. As he grew older, he
completed all his studies and training in all the rituals, and
in 1990 he enrolled in Sakya College for advanced studies in
philosophy. He's a very serious student. In fact, in his first
year, he was the top student in his class. He never thought of
me as his father; he always thinks of me as his real guru. My
younger one is Gyana Vajra.
GR: In one of your earlier interviews, you mentioned
that in order to achieve spiritual accomplishments, it is
necessary to go on spiritual retreats. Earlier in your
teaching, you told the story of Birwapa, who was teaching full
time, but secretly he was practicing. I was inspired by that
because I have to work.
HHST: Actually, Birwapa is rather special. As I've said
many times, you can practice dharma in a busy, modern city
like New York City. Dharma practice is not just sitting in a
room and reciting mantras. Dharma practice can take place
everywhere: while you're traveling, while you're in the
subway, while you're in a car, while you're in the middle of
the town. You can practice. You can practice your love and
kindness. This is all dharma practice.
But as far as
accomplishing specific deities is concerned, I think an
intensive retreat at some point, not the whole time maybe, but
at some point in a lifetime, is necessary.
GR: So even if one can't go into retreat for years, if
one practices dharma diligently, one can make
HHST: There are different retreats—a basic retreat, a
major retreat. Even if one can make only basic retreats, this
is necessary for everyone to do. On the basis of this, I think
one can practice and gain accomplishments.
GR: Can you talk a little about your
HHST: The Sakyapas have a practice called the four
special practices, which everyone who has received Lam Dre
must do every day. Guru yoga, Birwapa, Hevajra, and
Vajrayogini—these four are my main practice.
GR:Yesterday, you talked about suffering. In your life,
you have endured much suffering. Your parents passed away when
you were young, and you were forced to flee from Tibet. Could
you share with us how you have used such events in your
practice and what you've learned?
HHST: To experience suffering is a great lesson. The
teaching tells you about impermanence and suffering, but
knowing it intellectually and experiencing it in real life are
different. Books can tell you many things, but experiencing
what it is in real life helps you realize the practice. It
makes the practice more meaningful, more profound, and more
GR: How much intellectual comprehension is necessary
for tantric practice, since the nature of the mind is not
within the area of intellectual comprehension? Could you talk
a little about this? The Sakyapas have a tradition of practice
and scholarship. Could you talk about this, too?
HHST: I feel that those who are teachers should have a
full understanding of tantric practice. However, the
practitioner doesn't need to know all these detailed
instructions, only the essence of the practice, which one has
to study thoroughly.
GR: When a beginner starts to practice, he is taught
the preliminary practices as well as a sadhana. How much time
should one spend on preliminaries and how does this change
HHST: This again depends on the individual. It is
customary to do preliminary meditations with specific numbers,
etc. But personally, I feel the number is not what's
important. What's important is how one feels about one's
practices. Some people could spend their whole life just doing
preliminaries, and from this they could achieve realizations.
Some people do the preliminaries and then devote most of their
time to the main practice. Some people may not do many
preliminaries and devote most of their time to main practices.
It all depends on the individual's understanding and how he
practices. For example, Ngwang Legpa, the guru of Deshung
Rinpoche, according to his biography, spent most of his life
doing preliminaries. He did millions of mandala offerings,
prostrations, and recitations of prayers. It seemed that he
achieved realization by doing preliminary practices. I think
he was unique in doing so much preliminary practice. Most
people do one hundred thousand and he did millions.
GR: The recitation of a mantra is only part of sadhana
practice, but of itself, can it bring aspects of realization
HHST: Again, it depends on the individual. Some people
achieve realization by mantra or by meditation or by
GR: Could you talk about the prerequisites for
HHST: The very first thing is that someone needs a very
sincere wish to obtain enlightenment for all other beings. The
bodhisattva vow is absolutely essential because Vajrayana
practices are the highest form of Buddha's teaching. One
cannot practice it with impure motivation. One also needs
unshakable faith in gurus and the teaching, and one needs to
keep the samayas as well.
GR: Are there some individuals who should not take the
bodhisattva vow even though they wish to?
GR: Karma? Are there instances where it might be better
to avoid it rather than risk gathering karma of
HHST: The Vajrayana is such a profound teaching that
even a glimpse of it will be a great benefit. Therefore, even
if one can't be a perfect practitioner, one reads the texts.
It is better to enroll in it than to miss this kind of
GR: Better to try and fail than not to try at all. Do
you think the Vajrayana practice needs a monastic base for it
HHST: Not necessarily.
GR: Could it occur in a context where monasticism is
not as strong as in Tibet?
HHST: To bring the full Buddhist teaching to a country,
to a new place, the monastic tradition is very important. In
fact, it is essential. As for individual practitioners, I
don't think the monastery system is absolutely essential. I
mean, there were great yogis, such as Milarepa, who didn't
have a monastery. He replied to the question of where his seat
would be when he passed away by saying his seat would be in
the snow mountains, in the forests, in the plains, and in
other enormous places.
GR: One aspect of monasticism requires great
centralization and one of the terrible historical occurrences
was the end of Vajrayana Buddhism in India. Do you think
there's a problem with such centralization? Is there a danger
that it might not reach out to the general
HHST: The general public and the monastery have kept
such close contact that it would reach the public rather than
the other way around.
GR: What is the best way to serve one's
HHST: It is said that there are three kinds of
offerings, and the best offering is the offering of practice.
So you must practice the teaching the guru gives, and that is
the best offering you can make. I guess that must be the best
way of serving, too.
GR: Could you talk about different ways of looking at
the guru, for example, outer guru, inner guru?
HHST: In the tantra teachings, it says that one should
look at the guru as one's father and mother, as one's teacher,
and as the most precious thing in one's life. The outer guru
is the combination of all the Buddhas. The inner guru is one's
own mind, the basic clear light, Buddha's nature that all
possess. And the guru of ultimate reality is devoid of
self-nature and all phenomena and all descriptions. It's the
ultimate primordial wisdom. The ultimate or secret
All these gurus are different aspects, but are all in
GR: Does a Buddha see suffering?
HHST: A Buddha never sees impure visions—just as a man
who is awakened from sleep can never see a dream.
GR: Does a Buddha's consciousness ever vary? For
example, when he's meditating?
HHST: No, a Buddha's consciousness never varies. One
unique thing that differentiates a Buddha from a bodhisattva
is that a bodhisattva's consciousness does vary, but for a
Buddha, there's no variation. He always remains in
dharmadhatu, or ultimate reality. And without intention,
without thought, a Buddha spontaneously turns the great wheel
of activities constantly.
GR: So the Buddha wouldn't make a distinction between
himself and his perceptions?
HHST: No, it's all pure matter and pure
GR: Are there moments when an individual can recognize
enlightenment for a few seconds at a time?
HHST: Not full enlightenment. To achieve full
enlightenment, you have to go through the whole process. But a
glimpse of clear light could arise, not accidentally, but at
special times, such as when receiving an empowerment or when
one is in the presence of gurus or great images.
GR: Could you talk a little about the distinction
between dreamless sleep and an enlightened sleep? Not that
they are alike, but in our experience, deep sleep might be the
closest we come to the dharmakaya experience.
HHST: It is said in certain texts that the best
opportunities to experience clear light are during dreams or
at the time of death. At those times, one is in a state in
which one can witness one's thoughts.
GR: What is it that remains the same in sentient beings
at the time of death, and between the time of death and
HHST: Ordinary sentient beings go through
the bardo state. Very good practitioners don't go to bardo,
but go directly from this life to the pure realms or wherever
they wish to go. Those who have a very heavy karma also don't
go to bardo, but go directly to lower realms. Average people,
the people in the middle, don't necessarily go straightaway
after death, sometimes a few days later. It is said that there
will be a sign that consciousness has left the body. As long
as consciousness remains inside the body, even though one is
dead and one is not conscious, one's body remains like a
living person. As soon as it leaves, the body changes and
After that one goes into the bardo realms,
where one forms a mental body, not a physical body but a
mental body, that has five sense organs. Once one is there,
one goes through great anxiety, great suffering. One
experiences every week a death and new rebirth. Average people
remain there for 49 days, seven weeks. After that, they will
be born wherever their karma forces them to go, from heavenly
realms to lower realms. There are exceptions. Some do remain
for a very long period of time in the bardo state.
GR: What is it that reincarnates?
HHST: Consciousness. The stream of mind.
GR: Could you describe the nature of the stream of
HHST: It's clear, void, and the combination. When we
say mind, we can mean gross mind. The most important thing in
this life is the mind. Without mind, we would not be working,
would not be moving, would not be talking. But if we ask where
the mind is, we cannot find it. Is it inside the body, outside
the body, or in between? If there is a mind, where is it and
what does it look like? Does it have color or shape? You can't
find mind. It is devoid of self-nature. Therefore, it is void
and empty. Yet there is continuity. Like the one who is
searching, the one who is trying to find the mind, that is the
mind, that is the clarity. So emptiness is one aspect and
clarity is the other aspect, and the two are inseparable. Just
like fire and the heat of the fire, you cannot separate the
two. So the special characteristic of mind is clarity, the
nature of mind is emptiness, and the essence of mind is the
two combined. That is what continues. It continues right up to
now. We grow bigger, we age, and the mind continues. From the
time we are born, our bodies change—we grow and age, but the
mind continues. It does not cease, but continues. And when we
leave this body, this mind continues. The body will be
cremated, but the mind must go on. One cannot burn the mind;
one cannot bury the mind. The mind has to remain; therefore,
the mind has to take another form.
GR: Were you in the company of any of your teachers or
gurus when they died? Have you had the experience of
witnessing that process?
HHST: Yes. Actually not right at the time of passing
away, but close to it. I was with my main guru, Ngawang Lodrö
Shenpen Nyingpo. And I was also present when my guru Jamyang
Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö passed away.
GR: Could you give us some advice that we as Buddhists
might be able to offer non-Buddhists at the moment of their
HHST: At the time of death, your mental state is a very
important factor. It will have significant effect. If at the
time of death, you are angry or you have a strong attachment,
then it causes you to be born in the lower realms. Therefore,
at the time of death, it is important to be very calm. Any
anxiety or fear will not help. There is no way to escape. All
you have to do is to face death with a relaxed attitude and
with love and kindness, compassion, a good heart benefiting
other beings. This is the most helpful advice that one can
GR: How should we practice compassion?
HHST: Compassion is the cognizance that we wish those
sentient beings who are suffering be free of suffering. First,
we practice compassion with family members and intimates, for
whom it is easy to arouse such thoughts. Then we gradually
build up compassion for all sentient beings.
GR: You've been to the United States five times now. Do
you have any impressions on this trip?
HHST: I think that dharma is not only growing but also
the quality of the dharma is improving. The quality of
questions that I have been asked shows that they're making
GR: Do you see any difficulty in introducing guru yoga
HHST: Teach that it is important. So far, nobody has
questioned it or complained about it, yet.
GR: The reason I bring it up is because in the U.S.,
terms like self-reliance, independence, and self-initiative
put enormous focus on the individual.
HHST: Well, the Buddha also says you are the savior of
yourself. Only you can save yourself. In order to save
yourself, you have to enter the path and have to learn the
teachings. However, the actual help has to come from yourself.
In order to cure yourself of a disease, you have to consult a
doctor. But the patient has to take the medicine, to do the
right things, avoid the wrong things. If you don't do this,
even if you have the best doctor, you will not be cured. The
main practice of the treatment has to be followed by the
GR: Your Holiness, I would like to ask you about ways
to practice. If you've received empowerment, there are many
sadhanas to perform, many vows to keep. Is it advisable to
concentrate on one-deity practice?
HHST: It is better, in fact. There is a saying: Indians
practice one deity and accomplish a hundred deities. Tibetans
practice many deities and accomplish none. One of the great
Tibetan mahasiddhas mentioned that in order to gain
enlightenment, it is very important to put all the deities
into one, your karmic-link deity, and then practice that one
GR: If one has received the Lam Dre transmission, is it
acceptable if one practices a single practice to encompass the
HHST: The four unbreakable practices is kind of a
special thing. Once you have taken Lam Dre, you have to
maintain them. But you can do that as a side practice, and in
the main practice, you can concentrate
on the main
GR: Is there anything you'd like to say about your
vision of the future of the Sakya order?
HHST: We have many scholars in India. What we are now
emphasizing more is practice and meditation. Chogye Trichen
Rinpoche has a meditation center in his monastery, and there
is a three-year retreat program. The monks are doing
individual retreats. The next step is that we should emphasize
Also at the moment, there is no organized nunnery. So
these are the two areas we have to organize.
GR: What about the United States?
HHST: At the moment, we need to emphasize the
GR: Your Holiness, thank you very much.