A letter from Lama Tharchin Rinpoche to the Vajrayana Foundation Sangha
In general, I try never to interfere in other people’s business – it’s not my nature. However, at this time I feel a responsibility to reply to several letters-to-the-editor printed in the Winter 1998 issue of Tricycle Magazine. My motivation in writing this letter is to dispel serious misunderstanding of Dungsé Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s interview featured in the Fall 1998 Tricycle. Without clarification, this kind of negativity causes divisiveness among different spiritual and Buddhist paths, particularly in this country, and creates an obstacle for transmission of pure Dharma.
Having agreed to an interview, Rinpoche very generously and clearly answered Ms. Tworkov’s questions regarding a current movement among many Buddhist groups in America aimed at ‘diminishing the role of the teacher’ and reliance on the ‘collective wisdom of the sangha’. The interview was only partially published and heavily edited, demonstrating the weakness of our collective karma. I believe this caused confusion for many people. Through only having selected passages presented, many readers wrongly interpreted Rinpoche’s words and motivation, stirring strong reactions of judgment, confusion, and doubt. Rinpoche’s words of clarification were for the benefit of all beings and particularly for Western Buddhists and new practitioners unfamiliar with the deeper meanings of Buddhist tradition. While several of the letters imply that Rinpoche is merely insulting Americans, it is the duty of a teacher to point out our ignorance in order for us to recognize it and develop wisdom. The complete interview clearly displays Rinpoche’s love for Westerners and his wish that they develop their wisdom qualities. Without wisdom, compassion can be very stupid, not beneficial to anyone. Rinpoche clearly sees our particular propensity for confusion in the West, especially our strong, sometimes almost imperceptible nihilistic habits and aversion to guru yoga which are often difficult for us to recognize. He can show us what is actually Dharma and what is just worldly culture.
There are also many comments defending the philosophical and political legacies of Western culture, and suggestions that Rinpoche is opposed to these. Clearly Rinpoche states that he is not opposed to these aspects, but rather that they should not be confused with the essence of Dharma. For instance, the idea of relying on the ‘collective wisdom of the sangha’ is dangerous because while sangha members are on the path, purifying their own minds, they are still rooted in dualistic thinking and confusion. So this Western idea of democracy – which relies on collective consensus from partial, worldly knowledge and opinion – is not the same as the wisdom mind of a teacher holding lineage and realization. We can see that this worldly approach never leads to unchanging consensus and happiness. Collecting the opinions of confused beings only leads to a larger pile of confusion. For example, Buddhas manifest throughout the six realms according to the needs of beings. We cannot vote for the Buddha who will follow our agenda. On election day in the hell realms, the winner of the popular vote could only be a supreme hell being, not a sublime Buddha.
While it is true that the appearance of Buddhism naturally changes from country to country, its essence should not change. It is this essence which is so important to transmit by wisdom teachers who are not acting from confusion mind. It seems that people in this country are so eager to dispense with what they view as Asian culture and develop their own form of Buddhism that they do not recognize that they are holding strongly to their own culture. Reliance on a spiritual teacher is not cultural. It is essential.
Rinpoche’s essential nectar or advice comes from his inexhaustible wisdom and compassion for everyone. Reading these negative letters about Rinpoche, I am reminded of someone trying to shoot an arrow at a target in a starless night. There is no aim, only confusion.
I would like to take this opportunity to share my limited Dharma view and experience. In general, sentient beings’ afflictive emotions and karma are inconceivable. In the same way, Buddha’s wisdom and compassion are inconceivable. Due to the connection between these two, Buddhas and bodhisattvas emanate unobstructedly, impartially, and unceasingly for beings’ benefit. Buddhas appear in inconceivable forms according to sentient beings’ varying energies and mental proclivities. It is beyond the capacity of our limited minds to grasp the entire picture. In a famous Buddhist teaching, Buddhas were shown to appear as mountains, trees, water, a bridge, a boat, as the most revered sublime teachers, and as the most disdained butchers or prostitutes, emanating in whatever form is beneficial for beings in order to lead them to liberation. When I was a child studying Buddhism in Tibet, I could understand that many things could be an emanation of Buddha, but I could not imagine that this could be true of a butcher. My father, however, showed me that while for those with faith, teachers appear, for those who have no faith in Buddha, other emanations appear. He told me a story about one of his teachers, a Lama who emanated two tulkus, one a Lama and one a butcher. When it was time for the Lama to die, he asked his attendant to send a message to the town butcher to hurry up, that the Lama was waiting for him. The butcher replied, ‘Tell the Lama to wait a little. I’m expecting a special guest. As soon as I meet her, I will come immediately.’ As the messenger was leaving, a man brought a female yak to be killed. As soon as he killed her, the butcher himself died. When the messenger returned, the Lama had also died. Their life forces were connected in this way. This butcher was the emanation of an enlightened being with the power to liberate each being as it was killed. While the Lama and the butcher’s activity appeared to be opposite, actually it was the same – to liberate beings from samsara. I understood then that it is impossible from a limited point of view to determine what is enlightened Buddha activity. Our own confusion mind never ends, so we must rely on a teacher, someone who has himself gone beyond limited dualistic mind and can show us the path.
Ordinary sentient beings do not have the innate capacity to choose enlightened teachers, like those uneducated in jewels don’t have the ability to distinguish between diamond and glass. However smart we are, it is impossible to use intellectual dualistic mind to realize non-dual wisdom mind. We must rely on a wisdom teacher because, although we have Buddha nature, ultimate wisdom does not exist in our dualistic minds. Samsaric ego always tries to protect itself, and will trick us into thinking that we have gone beyond dualistic mind when we have not. Although we intrinsically have Buddha nature, without a teacher, it is like churning water to get butter – it won’t happen. Of course, this teacher can be male or female, Asian or Western or from any country because realization is not related to culture.
Before judging, we must know the appropriate qualities of a teacher and examine our own motivation as students. It is critical that the teacher holds pure, unbroken lineage, and has realization of wisdom and compassion for all beings impartially. These types of wisdom teachers often do not fit in our confused culture, so we criticize them. For example, although now we all claim to appreciate a teacher such as Milarépa, if he actually came to the West, we would quickly have him admitted to a mental institution! Even in Tibet, many people did not recognize Milarépa’s qualities and wanted to control him. This is still the case with many wisdom teachers when people with worldly habit view them. We often say that from samsara’s point of view, Milarépa is crazy, and from Milarépa’s point of view, samsara is crazy. If people had been allowed to vote on whether or not Milarépa should be allowed to teach, the answer would probably have been no. It was through karmic connection and developing their own spiritual view that practitioners could recognize the qualities of a teacher such as Milarépa, not through ordinary consensus.
We should appreciate and respect that this kind of rare teacher, such as Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, exists for those who can make a connection, even if we ourselves cannot. Please keep this kind of wise view without partiality toward accepted custom and culture. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche always says we should have positive view, not criticize others on their spiritual path and particularly other Buddhists, since our own practice belongs to our own karma and our own capacity. Holding this view will remove a lot of confusion and disturbance in our own practice.
Since I’ve spent my entire life practicing Dharma and surrounded by sublime teachers, I do have the capacity to recognize and choose a sublime teacher. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is certainly a fully realized wisdom teacher. Whatever techniques he uses to awaken us, they are only beneficial and never harmful. It is like when a small child is about to fall from a cliff and one parent says gently, ‘Sweetie, don’t go,’ while the other yells sharply, ‘Stop! Don’t go!’; the point is the same.
Likewise, whatever words Rinpoche uses and in whatever style he expresses them, they are only for our benefit, never for his own. Of course, most people do not like to hear the truth about their ignorance and egos as it can feel painful. There is a Tibetan story about a pack of self-centered, confused foxes full of afflictive emotions, entranced by their own culture. When they suddenly hear the wisdom liberation sound of a lion’s roar, they quake in fear unable to cope. At this point, however, they could remain in their paranoia and defensiveness, or they could follow their curiosity and decide to develop their own courageous sound of wisdom. Likewise, while we do have the same Buddha nature, we must make a firm decision to develop it, following a wisdom teacher, and one day become Buddha ourselves.
One who is ‘fully realized’ is not like someone who merely has good intention. It means that they do not only teach us about the mind, which can be good, bad, or neutral; they teach beyond mind, to non-dualistic wisdom mind. This is possible because they hold wisdom lineage, which is alive and unbroken. Wherever Buddhism has spread, in Asia or elsewhere, whether Hinayana, Mahayana, or Vajrayana, it was transmitted through unbroken oral and written lineage from teacher to student.
Vajrayana Buddhism originated from dharmakaya Kuntuzangpo; to sambhogakaya Dorje Sempa; to nirmanakaya Garab Dorje, Manjushrimitra, Padmasambhava who established Buddhism in Tibet, Sri Singha, and Vimalamitra, all of whom were from India; to the Dharma king Trisong Détsen, the great scholar Shantarakshita, the twenty-five main disciples of Padmasambhava, and on in an unbroken line of wisdom beings down to our own root lama. Dharma originated historically in India and appeared in countless other realms, and the lineage was passed through the Six Ornaments of the Universe, the Two Supreme Ones, the Five Hundred Panditas and Mahasiddhas, and so on. Tibetans had to respect and rely upon Indian lineage holders in order for Dharma to take root with Tibetan lineage holders. Still today we think with appreciation of this lineage, praying and receiving blessings.
Our respect for this lineage is not partial to any country or worldly tradition, and it does not arise from stupid faith. Its value is demonstrated again and again by those who hold pure lineage and do pure practice. Their dualistic, afflictive emotional minds are exhausted into non-dualistic inexhaustible wisdom. This can be shown by how the gross elemental body is exhausted into the rainbow body. Countless practitioners in India and Tibet have achieved rainbow body. For example, at Kathog Monastery in Tibet, over 100,000 people have attained rainbow body up until now. In this century too, Dud’jom Lingpa had thirteen students who attained rainbow body by following his lineage. This is not only myth or ancient history, but is carried on through lineages that are vital today. This proves that lineage has great import and meaning. Without this, however smart we are, however culturally developed we are, we cannot achieve this state, instead staying always embroiled in the confusion of our limited dualistic minds. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is one who holds this pure lineage and can lead us from our confused dualistic minds to wisdom mind. Of course, there are teachers of varying qualities and many different types of teachers, from sublime wisdom teachers to spiritual friends. Since Dharma is relatively new to the West, it is more difficult for Westerners to distinguish between these. There are many guides in Tibetan literature, which teach us how to examine teachers before making a commitment to them, and how to examine ourselves as students. The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Paltrül Rinpoche, for example, includes such a teaching and is excellently translated into English. You can find false teachers everywhere, not only in America. On a relative level, it is important to rely on a good teacher who has the ability to open our own wisdom and compassion. They will lead us on the path beyond dualistic mind, even beyond samsara and nirvana, to full liberation. Although Buddha nature is inherent in all of us, it has not blossomed due to always relying on our own dualistic mind. So we must develop the ability to choose teachers with wisdom and compassion, who are not teaching out of confusion or for their own fame or gain.
However, our phenomena belong only to us, and whatever appears is only a gauge of our own mind. As Rinpoche points out in the interview, the absolutely crucial point is to examine our own minds. Although good or bad teachers may appear to you, you can only perceive them at the level of your own mind. If our minds are negative, then it is like someone with jaundice who will perceive a pure white snow mountain as yellow. The qualities and faults that we see in another person fully depend upon our own mental capacity. It is never necessary to reject or condemn others since we may later appreciate them with a different view. Practice actually means to purify one’s own mind until all phenomena are perceived as pure. Practice turns our usual focus on others around to focus on ourselves. Usually we take our own faults, which are like the size of a mountain, and try to hide them. Then we find others’ faults, which are like the size of a sesame seed, and display them for everyone to see and talk about. Instead, we should try to practice from a Buddhist point of view. Even though one person may have a hundred different faults, still they have at least one quality. Instead of judging the hundred faults, we should find that one quality and emulate it. Then we will be connected only with positive phenomena, not negative, which will lead us to greater purity. This is the Buddhist way. If we practice pure Dharma to purify our own minds, then we will recognize the qualities of pure teachers and not need to reject impure ones. This wisdom was given to me from my root lama Dungsé Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. Please take this heart advice and put it into sincere practice without thought of worldly gain or politics. I am old now, and neither Rinpoche nor I have any need to collect more students or fame. We only wish to give advice which will actually benefit beings and release them from their suffering and confusion.
Lama Tharchin Rinpoche