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 life?

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 masters?

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 own students?

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 deeds.
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.
My 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, Lama Sakayapa.

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 teachings.

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.
Deshung 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 Avalokiteshvara.

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 progress.

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 meditation?

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 effective.

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 over time?

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 or accomplishment?

HHST: Again, it depends on the individual. Some people achieve realization by mantra or by meditation or by preliminary practices.

GR: Could you talk about the prerequisites for Vajrayana?

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?

HHST: Why?

GR: Karma? Are there instances where it might be better to avoid it rather than risk gathering karma of downfalls?

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 chance.

GR: Better to try and fail than not to try at all. Do you think the Vajrayana practice needs a monastic base for it to flourish?

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 population?

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 guru?

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 guru.
All these gurus are different aspects, but are all in one.

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 realms.

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 reincarnation?
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 deteriorates.
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 mind?

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 passing away?

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 give.

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 great progress.

GR: Do you see any difficulty in introducing guru yoga to Westerners?

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 patient himself.

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 exclusively.

GR: If one has received the Lam Dre transmission, is it acceptable if one practices a single practice to encompass the others?

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 deity.

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 this.
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 studies.

GR: Your Holiness, thank you very much.