Interview with Ven. Lama ZopaRinpoche of the Foundation of the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition(FPMT)


The following interview with Lama Zopa Rinpoche was conducted by Benny Liow of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM) on March 7, 1996 at the Petaling Jaya Hilton, Malaysia.

Benny: Rinpoche, I'm from the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM). I am indeed very happy to be given this opportunity to interview rinpoche for our quarterly called "Eastern Horizon". Perhaps I can begin by inviting rinpoche to explain the purpose of this visit to Malaysia?

Rinpoche: I have been to Malaysia few times already. This must be my fourth or fifth visit. This time my visit is at the invitation of Losang Dragpa Centre, a new Buddhist centre in Kuala Lumpur. I will be conducting a retreat and also give teachings on the essence of the path to enlightenment called "The 3 Principal Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment". The teachings at the retreat will be based on the Guru Yoga practice as taught by Lama Tsongkapa. So that's the reason I am here.

Q: Rinpoche, the YBAM is very involved in Dharma education and missionary work. We have heart about the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FTMT) stared by rinpoche and the late Lama Yeshe. Would rinpoche be kind enough to share with us how FPMT was able to be so effective in its missionary activities?

A: My spiritual master, Lama Yeshe, with whom I spent more than 30 years, is instrumental in the formation and success of the FPMT. Not only was his wisdom incomparable, his skills in imparting Buddhism according to Western culture was incredibly effective. The other important spiritual quality he had was compassion. It was his compassion for others that he succeeded in guiding thousands of students, including myself, like a father. He not only teach Dharma but also looks into the problems faced by the students, and try to solve them. When he cannot meet his students in person, he gives advice through writing letters. So I think the success of FPMT was largely due to the spiritual qualities of Lama Yeshe himself.

Secondly, FPTM has many dedicated and devoted Dharma students who studied Dharma seriously for years. They truly understand the Dharma.

Thirdly, the organization is blessed with good karma for it had many qualified teachers from the major monasteries in Tibet, such as Sera, Ganden and Drepung. The students go through intensive study like in a university but we emphasized very much on the daily practice.

Q: Rinpoche, we have many temples in Malaysia but very few Dharma teachers, especially monks. Without monks, many temples also have no Dharma teachings. In such a case what should be the role of lay Dharma workers?

A: Yes, I think it is inspiring to have sangha teachers but it is not always possible. In our centres, lay Dharma practitioners also teach meditation, conduct Dharma courses and hold retreats. I would say it doesn?FONT FACE="Times New Roman">t really matter whether the teachers are from the sangha or laity, but they must be educated and Dharma inspired.

Q: Rinpoche, in Malaysia we have Buddhists from various traditions. Historically, the English-educated follow the Theravada tradition while the Chinese-educated are Mahayana followers. This, however, has changed over the past decade as Buddhists now have more opportunities to learn about each other's traditions. Can one learn and practice different traditions?

A: Yes, definitely so. We can learn from both Theravada and Mahayana. It is really a question of our mental capacity and intelligence to absorb Dharma. We need to know our motivations-are we seeking enlightenment for ourselves or for the sake of other sentient beings? Having a tradition to follow is important but more important is to learn from qualified teachers-and it doesn't matter whether they are Theravada or Mahayana.

Q: However, in the practice of meditation, shouldn't we follow a particular method instead of trying out different methods and styles? Wouldn't this lead to confusion?

A: It depends on the motivations of the individual. If the practitioner is merely seeking liberation from samsara for himself, then he needs to learn and practice the meditation which will lead him onto the full path to liberation. But if his aim is to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, then he needs to learn the full path to enlightenment. In this case there are additional meditation practices taught in the Mahayana teachings.

To practise and have realisations on the Path to enlightenment involves several levels. Firstly, there is the graduated path of middle capable beings, secondly, the graduated path of higher capable beings and finally, the four levels of Mahayana Tantra. Very basic to the Mahayana practice is to develop Bodhicitta, which is the door to the enlightenment. However you can't realize bodhicitta without first realising the renunciation of samsara.

We need of course to realize the graduated path of middle capable beings, i. E. to be free from samsara. The realization is that the nature of samsara is suffering where there is not one second of pure happiness. In order to have this realization, one needs to practise renunciation. This is also found in the Theravada teachings, In order to achieve this realisation to be free from samsara, there are again various stages. This comes firstly from realizing the Four Noble Truths. When one practises renunciation, one develops a detached mind to the present life and also to future lives in samsara. With this realisation that the nature of samsara is suffering, it also becomes the basis to develop compassion.

Q: Rinpoche, in your book "The Door to Satisfaction", you mentioned about the three levels of happiness-happiness in future lives, liberation from samsara (released from karma and bondage) and enlightenment. Why is liberation from samsara different from enlightenment?

A: To achieve liberation from samsara there are 5 paths-the path of accumulating merits, the preparatory path, the right-seeing path, the path of meditation and the path of no-more learning. To be liberated from samsara is to achieve arahatship. By achieving the right seeing path we remove 112 delusions to do with desire realm, from realm and formless realm. Them through the path of meditation, one remove 16 obscurations and delusions. With this one attains arahatship. That's nirvana in the sense of having ceased completely all the causes of suffering-karma and delusions.

However, there are still obscuration but they are very subtle. They obstruct the arahat's mind even though he has tremendous psychic power. Unlike the Buddha, the arahat is not able to see directly everything at the same time. An arahat does not have an omniscient mind-that's the quality of a Buddha who has the enlightened mind and has completely destroyed all subtle obscurations. In Mahayana teachings, wisdom arise when all obscurations are removed-not only gross obscuration but even the subtle ones.

The wisdom to remove the subtle obscuration is though the development of Bodhicitta. With this the wisdom-realizing emptiness is able to destroy the subtle obscurations. It's like washing cloth. First you wash the black, dirty. Then there is still some smell and stain left. Even that is washed. Eventually the cloth becomes completely cleaned. It becomes as clear as a mirror. We all have the Buddha nature in our mind when the subtle obscuration are removed.

Q: Rinpoche, you mentioned that no matter what action we do, it is extremely important to have the right motivation. Can we interpret this to mean having the right intention

A: Yes, yes.

Q: Rinpoche mentions the examples of gambling as an action, that if gambling is done with pure motivation, it will become pure Dharma. How could an action like gambling which is rooted in delusion and greed be action?

A: If you gamble with the intention that with the money you want to help some refugees, build hospitals or help poor and starving people, the motivation is compassion to benefit other. In this case if one truly has a pure attitude, then the action becomes Dharma.

Q: But wouldn't gambling be an unskillful action, even if one gambles to help others?

A: The natural action of gambling itself is clean. If it is done with compassion, and the intention is to use the money to benefit others, then it is wisdom. Knowing that it is done with compassion for others it becomes Dharma. There is both compassion and wisdom.

Q: Rinpoche, you mentioned that to practise Dharma, we have to constantly think of impermanence and death. Wouldn't this lead one to develop a morbid attitude to life? Isn't this negative?

A: Actually, Buddhism is very positive. With bodhicitta, it makes life unbelievably beneficial. Not only can one achieve any happiness one wish, one can also cause many others to be happy and help create the cause for enlightenment. That is the beauty of Dharma. With bodhicitta, one gets great fulfillment and satisfaction in whatever we do-be it our career, doing a retreat and practising Dharma or spending leisure time with the family. So there's beauty and joy in life.

The Buddha's teaching is always positive. For instance, in the Lam Rim teachings, there is mention of the preciousness of human life. It explains how we can achieve happiness in future lives, liberation from samsara and the achievement of ultimate enlightenment. Each of this happiness is more precious than the mountain of diamonds or a whole sky filled with millions of dollars. So we look at life as precious and wonderful. We then being to ask how this human birth can give such unbelievable opportunity for us to realise the Buddha nature. All these opportunities create the cause for our happiness and that of numberless other sentient beings. Well, that's the beauty of life.

But we also need to face reality. For instance, if we want to buy gold we need to differentiate the real from the false. If we don't we may end up cheated and regret our actions. Similarly, we need to understand the reality of existence and recognize that impermanence, disease old age are part of life. The nature of samsara is the reality of life. Rather than ignoring it , it is better to learn about its true nature and be aware of it. This will make us develop the strong inspiration to be free from samsara.

Q: What is the final spiritual goal for Buddhists?

A: The final spiritual goal for Buddhists is enlightenment. But firstly, we must learn to see attachment and clinging as the main cause of suffering, like a chain which continuously ties us to samsara. Then there will arise a strong renunciation of the suffering realms of samsara. The Dharma practitioner will want to seek lasting happiness and not temporary happiness. This is seeking final liberation from the suffering of samsara. With this realisation of samsara, we will enter the path to liberation or enlightenment.

It is also important for Buddhists to note that the very purpose of our life is to benefit other sentient beings. That is our ultimate spiritual goal in life. We practice meditation so that we can develop ourselves spiritually in order that we can make ourselves useful for other sentient beings. When we develop bodhicitta, we cherish this life, take care of it and keep it busy for the benefit of others.

Realizing that the nature of life is impermanence and suffering will have incredible benefits. Thinking of death is not interesting and even though we don't like it, it is the basic meditation we can use to immediately cut the emotional problems of the mind. When the mind is completely overwhelmed by desires and we don't get what we want, anger will arise to harm oneself and others, including family, friends and other sentient, But by realizing that the reality of life is suffering. We begin to see that there is no point to follow our emotional mind. This is understanding that the reality of life is suffering as explained in the Four Noble Truths.

Benny: Rinpoche, on behalf of the YBAM I would like to thank you very much for your kindness in sharing the profound Dharma with readers of our magazine, Eastern Horizon. I hope you have had a pleasant stay in Malaysia and look forward to your next visit to our country.