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A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche
In April 1998, I returned home to Dharamsala, India, after a long lecture tour and intensive period of writing in Mongolia and the West. I had been living in the foothills of the Himalayas since 1969, studying and working with the Tibetan refugee community clustered around His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Now I had come to move my things to Munich, Germany, where I could write my books more efficiently and teach Buddhism on a more regular basis. I wished to inform His Holiness of my decision and to seek his advice. As my spiritual teacher, His Holiness had previously instructed me to judge for myself how and where to spend my time most effectively for making a meaningful contribution to others. Experience would be my most reliable guide.
When I had first met His Holiness almost twenty-nine years earlier, I had come to India as a Fulbright scholar to write my Ph.D. dissertation for the Departments of Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University. In those days, Tibetan Buddhism was taught academically as a dead subject, somewhat akin to Egyptology. I could not accept this premise and had spent many years speculating what it would be like to live and think as a Buddhist. Upon meeting His Holiness, I was overwhelmed with the realization that this ancient tradition was still alive and that here was a master who understood and embodied it completely.
A few months later, I had offered myself to His Holiness with the request that he give me the opportunity to learn and to train in the authentic teachings. I wished to serve him and knew that only tremendous work on myself would enable me to do this. His Holiness kindly accepted. Eventually, I had the great privilege to serve as one of his occasional translators and to help establish relations for him with spiritual leaders and academic institutions throughout the world.
His Holiness was pleased with my decision to shift my base to Europe and asked about the next book I would write. I informed him of my wish to write on the relation with a spiritual teacher. Having attended the three meetings of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers with His Holiness in Dharamsala, I was well aware of His Holiness’s view on the problems that Westerners faced with the subject. The singular comment His Holiness now added was that the main source of difficulty is that so few teachers are actually qualified.
As I left the audience room, my first response was to question my own credentials for being a Buddhist teacher. Over the years, I had had the extraordinary opportunity to train with some of the most outstanding Tibetan masters in exile in India. These had including not only His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but also his three late tutors and the heads of several of the Tibetan traditions. Compared to them, I had hardly any qualifications. However, I recalled a piece of advice that my main teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, His Holiness’s Master Debate Partner, had given me back in 1983.
I had been traveling with Rinpoche as his interpreter and secretary on his second world tour and had just returned from a side trip to Caracas, Venezuela. Upon Rinpoche’s encouragement, I had accepted an invitation to teach to a newly formed Buddhist group there – my first such engagement. Rinpoche had stayed at Geshe Wangyel’s monastery in New Jersey to rest for a few days. Geshe Wangyel, a Kalmyk Mongol from Russia, was the first master of the Tibetan tradition whom I had met, back in 1967, although I never had the opportunity to study deeply with him.
Upon my return, Rinpoche asked no questions about how I had done. This was his usual style and it did not surprise me. A week later, however, in London, sitting around a kitchen table after dinner, Rinpoche said, "In the future, when you become a well-known teacher and your students see you as a Buddha and you know full well that you are not enlightened, do not let this shake your belief that your own teachers are Buddhas." This was all that he said and then we both remained silent. It would take many years to understand the profundity of his words.
Once Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a popular Tibetan Buddhist master in the West, remarked that if you wanted to meet an authentic lama, the best example would be Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche. Lama Zopa was not using the Tibetan word lama in one of its looser meanings as simply a monk or as merely a performer of rituals who has completed three years of intensive meditation practice. Nor was he using it just in the sense of a "reincarnate lama" – someone who is able to direct his or her rebirth and who bears the title Rinpoche, "Precious One." He meant a lama in the original sense of the word, as a fully qualified spiritual teacher. Therefore, perhaps a helpful way to begin explaining what it means to be such a teacher and how to relate to one as a student would be to paint a verbal portrait of Serkong Rinpoche and my relation with him. Let me do this through a collage of images and memories.
Rinpoche's Life and Personality
Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche was a massive man – a monk with shaved head, red robes, and a deeply lined face that made him look more ancient than his years. His humble, wise manner and gentle humor made him appear like the archetypal sage of fables. This quality did not escape the notice of Westerners who met him. Upon seeing him in Dharamsala, for instance, the makers of the popular film Star Wars decided to use him as the model for Yoda, the spiritual guide of the epic. Rinpoche never saw the movie, but would undoubtedly have been amused at the caricature. Rinpoche’s most outstanding feature, however, was his relationship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. His line of succession continues through reincarnation. Upon the death of a Dalai Lama, his closest associates follow a complex procedure to identify and locate his rebirth as a small child. Subsequently, each new Dalai Lama receives the best education available from the most qualified teachers. These mentors include a senior and a junior tutor, and seven tsenzhab, commonly translated as "assistant tutors."
Tibetan Buddhism has four major traditions, transmitted from India
through different lineages, but without major contradictions in their
fundamental teachings. The Dalai Lama’s nine core teachers come from the
Gelug tradition, the largest of the four. He studies with masters of the
other three lineages – Nyingma, Kagyü, and Sakya -- once his basic
education is complete. The seven tsenzhab come, one each, from the seven
major Gelug monasteries near Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. They are chosen
based on their learning, their meditation accomplishment, and, above all,
their character development. Serkong Rinpoche was the tsenzhab appointed
from Ganden Jangtsey, the monastery established by Tsongkapa himself, the
founder of the Gelug tradition. He was thirty-four when he assumed this
position in 1948; the Dalai Lama was thirteen. He was the only one of the
seven tsenzhab who was able to join His Holiness in exile in India in
Rinpoche was also well accomplished in the traditional Buddhist arts
and sciences. For example, he was expert in the measurements and
construction of the two and three-dimensional symbolic world-systems
(mandala) used in tantric ritual and of the various types of
monuments (stupa) used to house relics. Further, he was a master of
poetry, composition, and Tibetan grammar. His teaching style thus had an
elegance and sensitivity that balanced beautifully his concern for
Despite the importance of his official position and the breadth of his learning, Rinpoche always remained humble. Although he was in fact one of the major teachers of His Holiness -- particularly of kalachakra (cycles of time), the most complex of the tantra systems -- and although he conferred upon his star pupil many tantric empowerments, he never liked being called "Assistant Tutor" in English. He wished his title tsenzhab to be translated literally as "Debate Servant," but finally agreed on the translation "Master Debate Partner."
Serkong Rinpoche served His Holiness in both formal and informal ways.
For example, His Holiness frequently performs special meditation practices
and ritual ceremonies (puja) for the welfare of the world in
general and of his people in particular. Some of these he does in private,
some with a handful of select monks, and others before a large assembly.
His Holiness customarily requested Rinpoche to join him in these
procedures or to perform or preside over them on his behalf if he were too
busy with other matters. Moreover, when His Holiness would teach, Rinpoche
would sit at his right side, supplying any words if His Holiness needed,
or answering any questions or doubts if His Holiness asked. When others
were too shy to transmit teachings or lineages directly to His Holiness,
they would pass them to Rinpoche. Like a spiritual funnel, Rinpoche would
then offer them to His Holiness.
Rinpoche was instrumental in reestablishing in India many of the monasteries and nunneries that the Chinese invasion had destroyed in Tibet. He did this by giving empowerments and teachings so that they could resume their traditional rituals. This was particularly true with the monasteries of the two state oracles, Nechung and Gadong, with which he maintained a close relation throughout his life. Just as Rinpoche served as His Holiness’s principal human advisor, the state oracles are the Dalai Lama’s traditional supernatural consultants. They speak to him through a medium in trance. Rinpoche supervised the spiritual training of the mediums so that they could become pure channels for higher wisdom.
Rinpoche never shunned hardship for the sake of receiving or imparting
Buddha’s teachings. For example, one summer he endured the intense heat of
Bodh Gaya in order to receive instruction there from Kunu Lama Rinpoche on
kalachakra. This great teacher from Kinnaur, a Tibetan cultural area on
the Indian side of the Himalayas, was the only living master in modern
times whom all Tibetans recognized as a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva
is someone totally selfless and fully dedicated to achieving enlightenment
to benefit others. Bodh Gaya is the holy site where Buddha became
enlightened under the bodhi tree. It lies in the poorest and
hottest region of India. In summer, the temperature regularly soars to120
degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly 50 degrees Centigrade. With frequent
power cuts, water shortages, and no air conditioning, being there can be
quite a trial. Kunu Lama regularly lived there in a tiny windowless room
without even a fan.
From among these remote border regions, Rinpoche had an especially close connection with Spiti, the high Indian Himalayan valley next to Kinnaur, where he both passed away and was reborn. A thousand years ago, this barren, dust-covered district was included in Tibet and was the center of a renaissance of Buddhism. In recent times, however, the standards had fallen, as they had done a millennium earlier. The monks ignored their vows of celibacy and of abstinence from alcohol. They studied and practiced little of Buddha’s actual teachings.
Through his five visits to the valley, Rinpoche sought to create a second renaissance. He did this by rededicating the most ancient monastery in Spiti, Tabo Gonpa, and conferring on its monks the empowerments and oral transmissions for its traditional rituals. He imported learned spiritual teachers and founded a school for the local children. Finally, in July 1983, Rinpoche organized inviting His Holiness the Dalai Lama to confer the kalachakra initiation at Tabo. The introduction of the kalachakra teachings from India to Tibet in 1027 had become the landmark event confirming the reestablishment of Buddhism there after a long period of confusion. He hoped that the current empowerment would serve the same purpose.
Serkong Rinpoche was also a great patron of the teachings. Whatever
offerings he received in Spiti, for example, he donated back to the
monastery. With this generous endowment, Tabo Gonpa was able to start an
annual prayer festival during which the local people gather for three days
of chanting om mani padme hum. These sacred syllables
(mantra) are associated with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha-figure
(yidam) embodying compassion and especially close to all followers
of Tibetan Buddhism. Chanting this mantra helps to keep focused on love
for all beings.
Although Rinpoche was a master of ritual and protocol, he remained
unpretentious and disliked formalities. When he traveled to the West, for
example, he never brought with him ornate ritual implements or paintings.
Whenever he conferred an empowerment there, he personally drew any figures
he needed, substituted cookies or cake for the sculpted dough offerings
(torma), and used flower vases or even milk bottles for the ritual
vases. When no special preparations were made during his travels for the
bimonthly tsog ritual -- a ceremony during which consecrated
alcohol, meat, tormas, fruit, and candies are offered -- he would silently
offer whatever meal he was served.
His Holiness often described Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche as a real Kadampa Geshe. The Kadampa Geshes were Tibetan Buddhist masters of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries who were noted for their sincere, direct practice and humility. At one discourse, for instance, His Holiness, referring to Rinpoche, said that the only one sitting humbly here is someone who has no need to at all, while everyone else is sitting arrogantly. Once, when asked for his main advice, Rinpoche said to be always humble, unpretentious, have a warm heart, and take everyone seriously.
Rinpoche lived his life totally according to this advice. Once Rinpoche stayed in a large apartment of a good family in Milan, Italy. Most high lamas who came to this city had stayed in this home. The grandmother of the house said that of all these lamas, she liked Serkong Rinpoche the most. The others would sit in their rooms very formally and take their meals by themselves. By contrast, Serkong Rinpoche would come into the kitchen in his underskirt and undershirt early in the morning. He would drink his tea unpretentiously at the kitchen table, saying mantras with his prayer beads, totally relaxed and smiling, while she prepared breakfast.
Rinpoche also taught others to drop all pretenses. Once the Western monks of Nalanda Monastery in Lavaur, France, invited Rinpoche to teach for three days. They requested an explanation of the extremely difficult chapter on wisdom from Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhicharyavatara) by the eighth-century Indian master Shantideva. Rinpoche began the discourse by explaining voidness on such a sophisticated and complicated level, no one could keep up. Then Rinpoche stopped and scolded the monks for having been so pretentious. He told them that if Tsongkapa had such difficulty in gaining a correct comprehension of voidness and spent so much effort in preliminary practices, how could they possibly think it was easy and that they would understand the entire subject in three days. Rinpoche then continued teaching the text on a simpler level, which the monks could now follow.
Rinpoche once said that nothing impressed him about the West except the sincere interest that so many people have for Buddha’s teachings. Thus, no matter who requested instruction, he respected their interest. Although he taught them at the level they could understand, he always drew them slightly beyond what they imagined to be their capacity. Rinpoche, who loved circuses, used to say that if a bear can be taught to ride a bicycle, then with skillful means and patience, a human being can be taught anything.
Once a hippy-looking Westerner, new to Buddhism and dazed on drugs, asked Rinpoche to teach him the six practices of Naropa. Normally, one studies this extremely advanced topic only after many years of intensive meditation. Instead of dismissing the young man as preposterous and arrogant, Rinpoche agreed, telling him that his interest was excellent. First, however, he would need to prepare himself, and so Rinpoche taught him the preliminary practices. By taking seriously people’s interest in self-development, Rinpoche inspired many Westerners to take themselves seriously. This greatly helped them to proceed on the spiritual path.
No matter whom he met, whether His Holiness the Pope, a drunk in the street, or a group of children, Rinpoche treated them all with equanimity and equal respect. He never looked down on, sought the favor of, or tried to impress anyone. Once, the members of Wisdom’s Golden Rod Center in Ithaca, New York, requested Rinpoche to speak to their children. He told the youngsters how much he respected them because they were young and open-minded. They had the potential to surpass their parents. In this way, he inspired the children to respect themselves.
Although Serkong Rinpoche could frequently see the karmic relation he had with people he met, he never pretended to be able to help more than he could. Once a Swiss man approached him in Dharamsala and explained that he was plagued with trouble from ghosts. Rinpoche responded that he did not have the karmic relation to help him with this problem, and then directed the man to another lama who did. Others, however, Rinpoche seemed to recognize instantly and, upon first meeting, would ask his attendants to take down these persons’ addresses. Inevitably, deep relationships developed. I was among these fortunate people, although Rinpoche saw no need to take my address. I would return.
Training with Rinpoche
I first met Serkong Rinpoche in Bodh Gaya in January 1970. Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, two young reincarnate lamas who had studied English in America under the guidance of Geshe Wangyel, had recommended him to me. Serkong Rinpoche would be able to direct me to the most appropriate teacher with whom to study guhyasamaja (the assembly of hidden factors). I had chosen this complex tantra system as the topic for my Ph.D. dissertation after having compared the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of a small portion of the cryptic main text in a graduate seminar.
Although my linguistic studies had left me totally unprepared for such advanced study, Serkong Rinpoche took me seriously. He suggested Kenzur Yeshey Dondrub, the retired abbot of Gyuto, the Upper Tantric College, who many years later became the head of the Gelug tradition. I felt honored that Rinpoche had chosen such a renowned master.
Several months afterwards, I met the abbot in his tiny mud and cow-dung hut high above Dalhousie, the mountain village near Dharamsala where Gyuto Monastery was located and I had settled. The unassuming old monk had just completed two consecutive three-year meditation retreats. When I asked him to teach me, the abbot readily agreed. He told me that I had come at just the right moment. He was beginning a three-year intensive retreat on the guhyasamaja system the next day. Would I care to join him? I, of course, had to decline, but learned the lesson Rinpoche had presented in the classic Buddhist way. Rinpoche had set up the circumstances for me to realize the truth by myself. To study and practice this most advanced tantra, I would need to start from the beginning.
I soon changed my dissertation topic to a more modest subject – the oral tradition of lamrim, the graded stages of the path -- and arranged to study the basics with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches’ teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Geshe is the monastic degree roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. and Geshe Dhargyey’s skill as a learned teacher had earned him the position of tutor to five teenage reincarnate lamas. At the time, Geshe Dhargyey was living in a converted cowshed, swarming with flies. It was so tiny that only his bed could fit in, with enough space left over for three people to sit crowded on the floor. Although the conditions in which he lived revolted me, I settled down to my studies. I also needed to learn modern spoken Tibetan. At Harvard, I had studied only the classical written language.
The next time I met Serkong Rinpoche was in June of that year. A terrible cholera and typhoid epidemic had broken out in the area and His Holiness had requested Rinpoche to come to Dalhousie to confer the Hayagriva empowerment. Practice of this forceful Buddha-figure, together with sanitation, helps people avoid infection. Although I was among the handful of Westerners who received the initiation, there was no opportunity to meet Rinpoche privately. He had other places at which to confer this empowerment and left Dalhousie quickly.
By the time we next met, many changes had occurred. In the autumn of 1971, His Holiness asked Geshe Dhargyey to teach Buddhism to foreigners at the newly constructed Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala. Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches joined as his interpreters. I asked if I could also be of service at the library, translating texts, and His Holiness agreed. First, I should submit my dissertation, receive my doctorate, and then return. The recently erupted border war with Pakistan less than a hundred miles away convinced me to leave without delay. I returned to Harvard and followed His Holiness’s advice. Saying no thank you to a career of university teaching – much to the surprise of my professors – I moved to Dharamsala a few months later, in September 1972.
Serkong Rinpoche had just left for Nepal to spend two years conferring empowerments and oral transmissions to some of the newly built monasteries there. When he returned to Dharamsala in the autumn of 1974, I could finally speak Tibetan sufficiently well to communicate directly with him. Although I did not realize it at first, Rinpoche seemed to know that I had the karmic relationship to be his translator. He indicated this by encouraging me to visit often and to sit to the side while he met various people. Between appointments, Rinpoche would chat with me and explain different words in Tibetan to make sure that I had understood the conversation.
After a short while, Rinpoche presented me with a set of three
magnificent scroll-paintings of White Manjushri, White Sarasvati, and
White Tara, which the people of Spiti had recently offered him. These
Buddha-figures had been central to his personal development and meditation
practice from early childhood. They embody, respectively, clarity of mind
to help others, brilliant insight for lucid and creative literary
expression, and vital energy for a long and productive life. This
deep-reaching present confirmed our relationship. When I asked Rinpoche if
I could be his disciple, he patiently smiled at my typically Western habit
of needing to verbalize what is manifestly obvious.
Rinpoche then began to give five-minute summaries of his teachings at the end of the sessions, and then tell me that now it was my turn to summarize. In this way, he began to train me not only to translate very long speeches, but also to teach. Sometimes, he would even chat with his attendants while I was making my summaries, challenging my concentration abilities. A good teacher must not be distracted or unnerved by outside noise.
When Rinpoche taught me privately, he would never let me take any notes. I had to remember everything and write it down later. Soon, Rinpoche gave me innumerable tasks to do after my lessons, so that I could only write down my notes much later, at night. In the end, Rinpoche would sometimes pause during a teaching that I was translating and, as an aside, explain something to me privately concerning my lessons on a completely different topic. Then, without giving me even a moment to reflect on his words or to write anything down, he would resume his original teaching.
If I ever asked Rinpoche a question about something he had previously told me, he would scold me severely for my lack of memory. I remember once asking him the meaning of a term and Rinpoche sharply replying, "I explained that word to you seven years ago! I remember that clearly. Why don’t you?" In fact, he remarked to me once that the older he grew, the clearer his mind became.
Serkong Rinpoche was interested not only in my developing a good
memory, but also in my translating accurately. From his experience in
teaching Westerners, he realized that much of their misunderstanding comes
from misleading translations of certain technical terms. Consequently, he
worked with me to develop new terminology in English. He would patiently
explain the connotation of each Tibetan term and then ask about the
implications of possible English equivalents in order to try to match the
meaning. He always encouraged me to experiment with new terms and not to
be a slave to inadequate conventions. The standard Tibetan terminology
used for translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit evolved gradually over
the centuries. It is only natural that a similar process of revision will
occur while translating into Western languages.
Once, in Lavaur, France, Rinpoche gave a discourse on a commentary to a complicated text. When I sat down to translate, Rinpoche asked me also to compare several editions of the commentary and to edit the text as we went along. I did not have a pen, but directly in front of me sat a woman with brilliantly dyed red hair, lavishly applied red lipstick, and a red rose that she held in her teeth throughout the teaching. I asked if anyone had a spare pen I could borrow and she offered me hers. By the end of the session, I was completely exhausted. As I stood up, the woman held out her hand without saying a word. I was so preoccupied with myself I thought that she wanted to shake my hand to congratulate me on a job well done. As I extended my hand in return, Rinpoche roared, "Dummy, give her back her pen!"
To temper my self-centeredness, Rinpoche also taught me to do things only for others. He did this by never agreeing to give me any teaching or empowerment that I requested for myself. He would only consent if someone else requested and I were the translator. Rinpoche taught me individually merely those things he himself felt important for me to learn.
Further, Rinpoche never praised me to my face, but always would scold me. He did this especially in front of others, so that I would become unperturbed by criticism and pressure. In fact, I remember Rinpoche thanking me only once for my help, at the end of our first Western tour together. In this emotionally powerful way, Rinpoche trained me to be motivated simply by the wish to benefit others, and not by the wish for praise or to please my teacher. When I had seen that waiting for his thanks was similar to a dog waiting to be patted on the head, I soon stopped expecting any sign of approval. Even if he were to praise me, what could I do except wag my tail!
Rinpoche always encouraged people to learn to read the great scriptural texts themselves. Whenever anyone had doubts or questions, Rinpoche would have the person look up and check. He explained that he had not made up these teachings, but that they come from valid sources. Rinpoche also said that no one could expect a lama to teach him or her everything. Moreover, for Westerners, he repeated His Holiness’s statement that for the next two hundred years or more, the full breadth of Buddha’s teachings will be available only in Tibetan. Therefore, he strongly encouraged his Western disciples to learn Tibetan. He said that every syllable of the Tibetan language is full of meaning. Thus, when teaching, Rinpoche would often elaborate on the connotations of the Tibetan technical terms.
In line with this approach, Rinpoche had me continue my studies by reading texts and allowing me to ask any questions that I might have about them. He said that proceeding in this way, disciples could eventually study anywhere in the Buddhist literature, like swimming in the ocean or flying in the air. Explaining that lamas are to teach disciples to stand on their own two feet and then fly, he would give guidance on what to study and read. Then, he would push his disciples out of the nest and off on their own.
Rinpoche used many methods to teach me not to become dependent on him in any way. For example, although Rinpoche and I had an extremely close relation, he never pretended to be able to help me in all situations. Once I was quite ill and the medicine I was taking was of no help. When I asked Rinpoche for a divination about which medical system -- Western, Tibetan, or Indian -- and which doctor would be best to rely on, Rinpoche said that at the moment his divinations were unclear. He sent me instead to another great lama who helped me to find a more effective treatment. I soon recovered.
After several years, I realized that Rinpoche was training me to translate for His Holiness. In fact, I sometimes felt that I was like a gift that Rinpoche was preparing to present to him. To serve properly, however, I must never become attached or dependent on His Holiness. I would become merely like one of many golf clubs His Holiness could choose from to suit his translation needs. I would also need to face enormous pressure and overcome my ego.
Thus, Rinpoche taught me how to behave properly when serving a Dalai Lama. For instance, translators for His Holiness must never move their hands as if in a dance, nor stare at him like in a zoo. Instead, they must keep their heads down, remain fully concentrated, and never add anything of their own personalities. They must list people and points in the order in which His Holiness mentions them, never altering or considering anything His Holiness says as having no meaning or purpose.
Lamas’ titles must be translated correctly, just as His Holiness uses them, and not in the way in which foreigners call almost every lama "His Holiness." Instead of honoring these lamas, this uninformed Western custom degrades the Dalai Lama. In fact, it would horrify these lamas if they knew that foreigners were referring to them with the same honorifics as the Dalai Lama. As in the Catholic Church and in the diplomatic corps, Tibetan protocol and its hierarchical use of titles follow strict rules.
Often when I translated for His Holiness, Serkong Rinpoche would sit opposite me. Seeing him helped me to remain mindful of his training. For instance, once when translating in Dharamsala before an audience of a few hundred Westerners and several thousand Tibetans, His Holiness stopped me and roared with laughter, "He just made a mistake!" His Holiness understands English perfectly well. Although I wanted to crawl under the carpet like an ant, Rinpoche sitting in my field of vision helped Dummy to keep his composure.
Sometimes, however, I needed forceful reminders of my lessons. For example, one of the earliest times I translated for His Holiness was for a discourse he delivered to about ten thousand people under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. My microphone failed and so His Holiness had me climb practically into the lap of the chant master to share his sound equipment. This too stopped working. His Holiness then had me sit on the ground between his throne and Serkong Rinpoche in the front row and passed me his own microphone between sentences. I was so unnerved I could hardly control myself. I both received and returned the microphone to His Holiness using only one hand, rather than with both hands outstretched in the customary respectful manner. Afterwards, Rinpoche practically beat me for taking the microphone like a monkey grabbing a banana.
Rinpoche also took care that Westerners in general presented themselves in their best light to His Holiness. Their behavior at His Holiness’s public teachings often appalled him. He said it is important to realize who His Holiness is. He is no ordinary reincarnate lama. Being in his presence calls for special respect and humility. For example, during tea breaks at an initiation or a discourse, standing and chatting in His Holiness’s field of vision as if he were not there is extremely rude. The proper etiquette is to step outside for any conversation.
Once a Western Buddhist organization sponsored a discourse that I translated for His Holiness in Dharamsala. His Holiness had offered to answer written questions. After each session, Rinpoche asked me to read him the questions submitted for the next day and decisively rejected any stupid or trivial ones. Often, Rinpoche had me rephrase or reformulate the questions so that they would be more profound. They should not waste His Holiness’s time or the opportunity for many people to benefit from the answer. Several times, His Holiness remarked at how excellent and deep the questions were. I learned to follow this editing process myself whenever I traveled with His Holiness.
Rinpoche's Approach to Being a Great Teacher
A whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual teacher is one of the most difficult and delicate Buddhist practices. Great care is needed so that it is properly established and maintained. Once set on a sound basis, nothing can shatter it. Serkong Rinpoche took great pains to ensure that this would be the case between him and me. One evening, at the end of the great Monlam festival in Mundgod, Rinpoche told me the complicated story about the finances of his property there. Although his other attendants felt this unnecessary, Rinpoche said it was important for me to know. Even if later I heard false rumors about this issue from jealous quarters, he wanted to make sure that I would never have even a moment of doubt about his integrity or about my whole-hearted commitment.
A whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual teacher requires a thorough and lengthy mutual examination between prospective disciples and teachers. Although, after careful scrutiny, disciples need to see their lamas as a Buddha, this does not mean that spiritual masters are infallible. Disciples must always check what teachers say and, if necessary, make further suggestions, politely. Ever alert, they must respectfully correct anything strange their lamas say or do.
Once, Rinpoche sought to demonstrate this point to the Western monks at Nalanda Monastery in France. During a discourse, he purposely explained something totally incorrectly. Although what he said was outrageously absurd, the monks all respectfully copied his words in their notebooks. At the next session, Rinpoche scolded the monks, saying that last hour he had explained something in a totally ridiculous, wrong manner. Why had no one questioned him? He told them, as Buddha himself had advised, that they must never accept blindly and uncritically what a teacher says. Even great masters occasionally make a slip of the tongue; translators frequently make mistakes; and students invariably take imprecise and confused notes. If anything seems strange, they must always question and check every point against the great texts.
Personally, Rinpoche even questioned the standard Buddhist commentaries. In doing so, he followed the precedent of Tsongkapa. This fourteenth-century reformer noted that many respected texts by both Indian and Tibetan masters contradicted each other or contained illogical assertions. Tsongkapa uncovered and scrutinized these points, either rejecting positions that could not withstand reason or giving new, insightful interpretations of passages that had previously been misunderstood. Only those with vast scriptural knowledge and deep meditation experience are qualified to break such new ground. Serkong Rinpoche was one of them.
For example, shortly before his death, Rinpoche called me and pointed out a passage from one of Tsongkapa’s most difficult philosophical texts, The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po). Rinpoche recited this several-hundred-page treatise from memory each day as part of his daily practice. The passage concerned the stages for removing confusion from the mind and, specifically, the issue of "seeds" of confusion. The standard commentaries interpret these seeds as changing phenomena that are neither something physical nor a way of knowing something. To convey this point, I had been translating the term as "tendencies" rather than "seeds." Citing logic, experience, and other passages from the text, Rinpoche explained that a seed of rice is still rice. Therefore, a seed of confusion is a "trace" of confusion. This revolutionary interpretation has profound ramifications concerning how to understand and work with the unconscious.
Despite Serkong Rinpoche’s innovative brilliance, he at all times and in all ways emphasized humility and lack of pretense. Thus, although he was the highest lama at his monastery in Mundgod, Rinpoche did not build an ostentatious grand house, just a simple hut. His house in Dharamsala was also extremely modest, with only three rooms for four people, frequent guests, two dogs, and a cat.
Just as Rinpoche avoided any display of his greatness, he also sought to prevent his disciples from aggrandizing him. Several meditation practices, for example, center around the relation with one’s spiritual teacher, such as performing elaborate visualizations known as Guru-yoga and repeating a mantra containing the lama’s Sanskrit name. In Guru-yoga practices, Rinpoche always instructed his disciples to visualize His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When asked for his name mantra, Rinpoche always gave his father’s name to repeat. Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjey-chang, was one of the greatest practitioners and teachers of the beginning of the twentieth century. He was the kalachakra lineage holder of his day, which means that he was the acknowledged master responsible for transmitting the body of its knowledge and meditation experience to the next generation.
Rinpoche’s modest style manifested itself in many other ways. When
Rinpoche traveled, for instance, he followed the example of Mahatma
Gandhi. He insisted on riding in third-class three-tier coaches on Indian
trains, unless there was a specific necessity to do otherwise. This was
true even if it meant sleeping next to the foul-smelling toilet, which
happened when we left Dharamsala for Delhi on our first tour together to
the West. Rinpoche said it was excellent to travel in this common manner
since it helps to develop compassion. All three classes arrive at the
destination at the same time, so why waste money? Rinpoche really disliked
people wasting money on him, either by paying for first-class train
tickets or by taking him to fancy expensive restaurants.
When Rinpoche was returning to Dharamsala with his attendants and me from the great Monlam festival in Mundgod, we had to wait all day for the train in Poona. He happily stayed in an extremely noisy and hot third-class hotel room that a local Tibetan sweater-seller had offered us to use. In fact, Rinpoche would often suggest that we take overnight buses when traveling in India, since they were cheaper and easier. He never minded waiting in crowded bus stations. He told us he had plenty of meditation practices to keep himself occupied. Noise, chaos, and filth around him never bothered his concentration.
Rinpoche never stayed long in one place, but frequently moved around. He said it was good for overcoming attachment. Thus, when on tour, we never stayed more than a few days in one home, lest we overstay our welcome and become a burden on our hosts. Whenever we stayed at a Buddhist center with an older Tibetan monk as its teacher, Rinpoche would treat that monk like his best friend. He never restricted his heartfelt relationships to merely one special person.
No matter where Rinpoche went, he maintained a strong practice throughout the day and at night hardly slept. He would recite mantras and texts for tantric visualization (sadhanas) not only between appointments, but even during pauses while waiting for my translation when he had foreign visitors. He performed his sadhana meditations in cars, on trains, on airplanes -- the external circumstances never mattered. He emphasized that a strong daily practice provides a sense of continuity to our lives wherever we go and whatever we do. We gain great flexibility, self-confidence, and stability.
Rinpoche also never put on a show with his practice. He said to do things quietly and privately, such as blessing food before eating or saying prayers before teaching. To recite long solemn verses before eating with others may only cause them discomfort or make them feel that we are trying either to impress or to shame them. Further, he never imposed any practices or customs on others, but did whatever prayers or rituals before and after teachings that the center that invited him normally followed.
Although Rinpoche made extensive offerings to His Holiness and to both Tibetan and Western monasteries, he never boasted or said anything about them. He taught never to do so. Once, a humble middle-aged man in Villorba, Italy, came to see Rinpoche. As he was leaving the room, he quietly placed, not even in a prominent spot, but on a side table, an envelope containing a generous donation. Rinpoche afterwards said that this is the way to make offerings to a lama.
Rinpoche stressed, however, that our humility be sincere, not false. He did not like people pretending to be humble, but who were actually proud and arrogant or who thought that they were great yogis. He used to tell the story of a proud practitioner from a nomad background who went to a great lama. Acting as if he had never seen anything of civilization before, the man asked what were the ritual instruments on the lama’s table. When he pointed to the lama’s cat and asked what is this wondrous beast, the lama kicked him out.
Rinpoche especially disliked when people pretentiously bragged about their practices. He said if that we intend to undertake a meditation retreat, or even if we have finished doing one, we should not announce it to others. It is best to keep such things private and for no one to know what we are doing. Otherwise, people’s talking about us will cause many obstacles, such as pride or other’s jealousy and competition. No one knew which Buddha-figure was Tsongkapa’s main tantric practice. It was only when his disciple Kaydrubjey observed him, just before his death, making sixty-two offerings from his inner-offering cup that he inferred it was Chakrasamvara, the Buddha-figure embodying inner bliss. Similarly, no one knew Serkong Rinpoche’s main personal practice, despite his acclaim as a Kalachakra specialist and expert.
Rinpoche often told about the Kadampa Geshes who hid their tantric practice so thoroughly that only when people found a tiny vajra and bell sewn into the corner of their robes after they had died did anyone realize what they had been practicing. Rinpoche lived his life according to this model. Rinpoche would usually go to sleep half an hour before everyone else in his household and get up in the morning slightly after them. His attendants and I, however, often observed that the light went on in his room after everyone was supposedly asleep and went off only a short while before the household awoke.
Once, in Jägendorf, Germany, Rinpoche’s senior attendant, Chondzeyla, shared the sleeping quarters with Rinpoche. While pretending to be asleep, Chondzeyla watched Rinpoche get up in the middle of the night and assume the various strenuous postures associated with the six practices of Naropa. Although during the daytime Rinpoche usually required help in getting up and around, he in fact had the strength and flexibility to engage in these yoga exercises.
Rinpoche always tried to keep his good qualities hidden. In fact, he would not even like to disclose his identity to strangers. Once, an older Indonesian couple offered us a ride in their car from Paris to Amsterdam. After arriving in Amsterdam, the couple invited Rinpoche to their home for a meal. Only afterwards, when the people at the local Buddhist center telephoned the couple to invite them to Rinpoche’s teachings did they realize who their guest actually was. They thought he was just an ordinary old, friendly monk.
In this same spirit, Rinpoche would sometimes play chess with children when he traveled abroad, or he would have his younger attendant Ngawang play and he would help both sides. The children only thought he was a kindly old grandfather. Once, when Rinpoche walked down the streets of Munich, Germany, at Christmas time, the children followed him, thinking, in his red robes, that he was Santa Claus.
Rinpoche even hid the fact that he knew quite a bit of English. After the Kalachakra initiation in Spiti, a month before Rinpoche passed away, I took my leave of him at Tabo Monastery to return to Dharamsala. I had chartered a bus for a group of Westerners and it was time to go. One of the foreigners, however, at the last moment had gone to visit Kyi Monastery, twenty miles further up the valley, and did not return at the expected time. While I went to Kyi to find her, an Italian disciple went to see Rinpoche, but without a translator. Rinpoche, who had never spoken a word of English to any foreigner before, turned to the Italian and asked in perfect English, "Where is Alex?" When the man exclaimed, "But Rinpoche, you don’t speak English," Rinpoche only laughed.
Rinpoche's Further Qualities
Serkong Rinpoche never claimed himself to be a yogi or to have any
special powers. If we wanted an example of someone who did, he said we did
not need to look only to the remote past. His father, Serkong
Dorjey-chang, was a clear example. As a monk at Ganden Jangtsey Monastery,
his father had attained the stage of anuttarayoga tantra at which he could
practice special yoga techniques with a consort to reach the deepest level
of mind. This advanced point on the complete stage requires full mastery
of the subtle energy system, with total control over both internal and
external matter and energy. His vows of celibacy would normally prohibit
him from such practice. When His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama asked
for proof of his attainment, Serkong Dorjey-chang tied a yak horn into a
knot and presented it. Convinced, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama permitted
Serkong Dorjey-chang to keep his monastic holdings while practicing at
this level. Rinpoche matter-of-factly mentioned that they kept this horn
in his home as a child.
Rinpoche’s extrasensory abilities to know the future could be seen from several examples. Rinpoche was not only one of His Holiness’s teachers, but also occasionally instructed several members of His Holiness’s family, including his mother. Rinpoche would normally never visit the Venerable Mother unless he made a formal appointment, as protocol demanded. Yet just before the Venerable Mother passed away, Rinpoche, sensing her situation, broke protocol and unexpectedly paid his last visit to her.
Once Rinpoche was teaching at Vajrayogini Institute in Lavaur, France, and had a few days break before leaving for Paris. I wished to go on ahead to visit with friends and someone had offered me a ride. When I asked permission to go to Paris on Sunday, Rinpoche said, "Very good, you are going to Paris on Monday." When I replied, "No, no. I am going tomorrow, on Sunday," Rinpoche repeated, "Very good, you are going on Monday." I then asked, "Is there something wrong with going on Sunday? Should I postpone and go on Monday instead?" Rinpoche laughed and said, "No, no. It hardly matters."
I then left for Paris on Sunday. Halfway there, the car broke down. Since auto garages are closed in France on Sunday, we had to stay overnight in a small village. We had the car repaired Monday morning and, as Rinpoche had foreseen, I arrived in Paris later, on Monday.
Rinpoche sometimes demonstrated the ability to see things in the distance. One day in Dharamsala, the director of Tushita Retreat Center invited Rinpoche to lead a ritual. As the jeep approached the center, Rinpoche said, "Hurry! Go check in the shrine room! A candle has fallen!" When the director rushed inside, she found that a candle had indeed toppled over and a fire was about to begin.
Rinpoche not only sensed what type of karmic relation he had with
Although Rinpoche saw many detrimental habits and tendencies in others, he was always skillful in pointing out to people their mistakes and faults. Once, while Rinpoche was away in Nepal for a few months, I experienced personal difficulties with my work. We met again in Bodh Gaya where I was translating a discourse by His Holiness on Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Instead of bluntly saying to me that the way I was handling my affairs was completely stupid, Rinpoche turned to the text I was translating. Thumbing through the pages, he pointed out several words and asked if I knew what they meant. The words referred exactly to the problems I was having. Rinpoche explained their full connotations, thereby indicating the course of action to remedy the situation.
Once a wealthy, elderly Swiss woman took Rinpoche by taxi to the fanciest, most expensive department store in Zurich. When Rinpoche left the store, he remarked that it contained not one item that anyone actually needed. He then asked the woman if they could take the trolley back to her house. It would be fun to see how people commonly traveled. Embarrassed, the woman had to admit that she had never ridden the trolley in her entire life and did not know how to use it or where to get off. In this way, Rinpoche very gently showed her the distance she had from ordinary life.
Another time, Rinpoche was invited to stay at a huge ornate mansion near Zurich in which the woman of the house felt very uncomfortable in such stuffy luxury. She preferred to live simply and down to earth. She prepared the oak-paneled library room for Rinpoche to sleep in, since it was the stateliest chamber in the house. Rinpoche took one look at it and insisted that he sleep on the screened-in sunporch instead. He told the woman how much he loved living in tents. Her sunporch reminded him of staying in one because of the beautiful view of the garden and of the lake below. In this way, he helped her to appreciate and enjoy the more simple pleasures her mansion afforded.
Rinpoche helped others in whatever way was needed and possible. When giving in Pomaia, Italy, a permission ceremony for the practice of Yellow Tara, a Buddha-figure associated with gaining wealth, Rinpoche asked a poor Italian artist to paint the picture of this figure for the ritual. Doing so would establish a strong karmic link for this artist to receive the benefits of prosperity from this meditation practice. At another occasion at the same center, Rinpoche gave a small offering of money to a young man whose parents’ home had recently been robbed. The gift would serve as an auspicious beginning for his family to restore their wealth. To Alan Turner, a close British disciple who had no interest or confidence in his ability to learn Tibetan, Rinpoche gave the oral transmission of the Tibetan alphabet to plant an imprint for some future date. And, when I had reached a plateau in my study of Tibetan and was not progressing any further, Rinpoche began to go through the Tibetan dictionary with me and have me write sentences with each word.
Rinpoche was also a supreme diplomat. He said always to accept whatever someone sincerely offers, especially if our refusal would hurt the person’s feelings and our acceptance would cause no harm. Thus, although Rinpoche did not like anything sweet, he would enthusiastically eat a piece of cake if someone baked it especially for him. In fact, if it would benefit the person’s self-confidence, Rinpoche would ask Ngawang to write down the recipe.
Above all, Rinpoche was extremely open-minded and versatile. No matter what the denomination of the Buddhist center that invited him -- Kagyü, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, Zen, or Theravada -- he would teach in the style of that particular tradition. This flexibility extended also beyond the bounds of Buddhism. Once, in Milan, Italy, a woman with a Catholic background asked, "Now that I have taken refuge and both bodhichitta and tantric vows, is it wrong for me to go to church?" Rinpoche replied, "There is nothing wrong. If you are focused on the teachings of love and compassion from another religion, aren’t you going in the same direction as your refuge and vows?"
Rinpoche's General Advice for Buddhist Practitioners
Serkong Rinpoche always stressed being considerate of all lamas and not wasting their time. He suggested avoiding the example of the devout people of Spiti. When lining up to present him with ceremonial scarves (kata), his devotees in Spiti would wait until they were directly in front of him before offering prostration, each of them one at a time. Such a procedure can often take hours. Further, when asking questions to a lama, Rinpoche said never to tell a huge story or to put on a show. In fact, he instructed me never to translate such questions literally, but just to get to the point.
In addition, Rinpoche did not want visitors always to present him with
katas and with what he referred to as "lousy" boxes of cookies. He said
those wishing to make an offering to a lama should present something
really nice that the person can use or likes. Moreover, if anyone saw him
frequently, as I did him, he said to stop bringing things. He did not want
or need anything.
Further, in planning any activity, Rinpoche recommended always preparing at least three possible courses of action. The flexibility gained from such strategy prevents helpless panic if one plan fails. Having several alternatives ready provides a sense of security through confidence that at least one of them will work.
Disciples, however, sometimes become dependent on divinations, thereby indulging their inability to think for themselves. Avoiding responsibility for their lives, such persons want someone to make decisions for them. Although consulting a spiritual teacher about major decisions is often helpful, the most stable way to do this is to internalize his or her values. Even if the lama is absent, these values are always at hand to help determine the wisest course of action.
Rinpoche especially advised against people requesting many lamas for divinations on the same question until they receive the answer they want. Requesting a divination implies confidence and trust in the lama. This means doing whatever the person advises. In addition, Rinpoche warned against coming to a lama and saying that another teacher said to do this or that, but what do you think? Should I do it? Putting a lama in the awkward position of having to say that another spiritual master is wrong demonstrates a lack of sensitivity.
Most Westerners, in fact, do not know how to ask questions properly to lamas. When they would come and ask him things foolishly, Rinpoche would commonly correct them. For instance, if someone does not know whether to attend an empowerment, it is ridiculous to ask, "Is it good to attend this initiation?" Of course it is good; one cannot say it is bad. And if someone asks, "Should I attend or not?" the implication is "Am I obliged to attend or not?" No one is obliged to attend. In seeking a spiritual teacher’s advice about such matters, best is to ask instead, "What do you recommend that I do?"
Further, when approaching a lama and asking permission to receive an empowerment he or she is conferring, it is foolish to ask, "Can I receive the initiation or not?" This implies, "Am I capable or not?" which is totally absurd. The correct manner to ask is "May I please receive the empowerment?" As when seeking an extension of a visa to stay in a foreign land, only an idiot would ask, "Can I stay longer or not?" The mature way to request is "With your kind permission, I would like to stay longer."
Once Turner bothered Rinpoche repeatedly for several months to confer on him the permission ceremony for invoking the spiritual guardian Six-armed Mahakala. Finally, when Rinpoche agreed, Turner asked him what the daily recitation commitment would be. Rinpoche practically beat him, scolding that he should be willing to do anything as the commitment.
Rinpoche was very displeased when Westerners would try to bargain about the recitation commitment from an initiation. He always emphasized taking an empowerment for a particular Buddha-figure only because of the sincere wish to engage in its practice to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. Attending just for the "good vibrations," or because everyone else is going, he felt was absurd. Also improper is going with the intention of just doing a short familiarizing retreat and then forgetting about the meditation practice. The commitment to a particular tantric practice is for an entire lifetime.
Rinpoche stressed scrutinizing spiritual practices and teachers thoroughly before becoming involved, and not waiting until afterwards. This was the main fault that Rinpoche saw in Westerners. We tend to rush into things prematurely. Rinpoche warned not to be like a crazy person running onto a frozen lake and then testing behind with a stick to see if the ice is strong enough to bear his or her weight.
Rinpoche said that people could attend anyone’s teachings and, out of politeness, even prostrate to the teacher’s monastic robes or to the Buddha-painting in the room. Becoming a disciple of that teacher, however, is another matter. He even told me that I could translate for any lama, but working for someone does not make that person my spiritual teacher. This is true, he explained, even if I were to translate a tantric empowerment. What counts is one’s attitude towards the teacher.
Rinpoche also felt that many Westerners become Buddhist monks and nuns too quickly, without checking if this is really what they want for the rest of their lives. Often, they fail to consider how their ordination will affect their parents or how they will support themselves in the future. Of course, if someone is like the great renounced practitioners of the past, he or she does not need to think of such factors as family or money. However, we know ourselves whether or not we are Milarepas.
In this context, Rinpoche frequently cited the example of Drubkang Geleg-gyatso. This great Tibetan master had wanted to become a monk in his youth, but his family disapproved and was very upset. He therefore served his parents well during their lifetime and, when they passed away, he donated his inheritance to worthy causes. Only then did he become a monk.
Rinpoche always stressed respecting and serving our parents. As Western Buddhists, we glibly talk of recognizing everyone as having been our mothers and fathers in previous lives and repaying their kindness. Yet, on a personal level, many of us cannot even get on well with our parents of this lifetime. To serve and be kind to our parents, Rinpoche taught, is indeed a great Buddhist practice.
If someone investigates thoroughly beforehand and then becomes a monk or a nun, or if someone has already received monastic ordination, Rinpoche explained not to be just halfway into it like a bat. When a bat is among birds and does not want to follow what they are doing, it says, "Oh, I can’t do that. I have teeth." When among mice, it says, "Oh, I can’t do that. I have wings." To act like this example is just using monastic robes for convenience. When such persons do not like certain lay activities, such as supporting themselves financially, they use the excuse of their robes. When they do not care for certain monastic functions or forms, such as attending long rituals or traveling in robes, they use the excuse of being a Westerner. As Rinpoche would say, "Who are you fooling?"
This does not mean, Rinpoche explained, that Buddhist practitioners should not work. Whether lay or ordained, everyone needs to be practical and down to earth. Rinpoche taught that how we occupy our mind and speech is more important than how we occupy our body. He therefore advised menial jobs for intensive practitioners who need to support themselves. While working, we can repeat mantras and extend warm feelings and kind thoughts. If thinking of the teachings during work is too difficult and we have received tantric empowerments, we can at least transform our self-images. Throughout the day, we can try to imagine ourselves as Buddha-figures and our environments as pure lands perfectly conducive for spiritual development. Then, in the early morning and at night, we can practice the elaborate visualizations of sadhanas. Rinpoche always stressed not making Buddhism something separate from life.
For many years, Turner lived in England unemployed, on social welfare, with his wife and two children. He spent almost all his time doing intensive retreat practices. He felt why waste time working when I can practice the teachings? Previously, he had received from Rinpoche the permission ceremony of White Mahakala, a guardian figure associated with wealth, and prayed daily that his financial problems be solved. Rinpoche was not at all pleased. He said it was like a sick person praying to the Medicine Buddha to get well, but never taking any medicine. He told Turner to get a job and to do his intensive practices only for a shorter time in the morning and at night. Then, invoking White Mahakala would help his work become a financial success.
Rinpoche liked people to be practical and efficient, and not spaced out. Thus, he always preferred practices and chanting to be done quickly. Once, the students at Ghepheling Center in Milan, Italy, asked Rinpoche to lead a meditation session to conclude his course there on the graded stages of the path (lamrim) and on the practice of Avalokiteshvara. Rinpoche agreed and directed them to generate themselves as Avalokiteshvara through the six-fold process and then to meditate on the several dozen points of the lamrim, and to do this all for two minutes. When the students expressed their disbelief and protested at how short a time he had given for all this, Rinpoche relented and said, "OK, do this for three minutes." He then explained that a good practitioner could cover the entire lamrim in the time it takes to put his or her foot over the saddle when mounting a horse. When death comes, there is no time to sit nicely and set up a visualization through a slow, gradual process.
Rinpoche stressed the need to be realistic in all aspects of Buddhist practice. This is especially crucial if we are aspiring bodhisattvas trying to benefit others. Although from our sides we need always to be willing to help, we must remember that others’ openness to our assistance and, ultimately, the success of our efforts depend on their karma – the previous patterns that have conditioned their minds. Therefore, Rinpoche cautioned against offering to help in matters that do not concern us or when others are not interested in receiving our aid. Our interference will only cause resentment and, if our help fails, we will receive all the blame.
Best is always to keep a low profile. We can let others know that we are willing to help and, if they ask, we may certainly become involved with their affairs. However, we need to avoid advertising ourselves as "bodhisattva for hire." Best is simply to do our daily meditation practices and to live humbly. Rinpoche especially warned against promising to do more than we can accomplish or publicizing that we will undertake or complete something in the future. This just causes more obstacles and, in the end, if we do not actualize what we announced, we make fools of ourselves and lose all credibility.
This point of not promising to do more than we can accomplish is especially relevant to our relations with our spiritual teachers. Rinpoche said always to follow the guidelines from Ashvaghosha’s Fifty Stanzas on the Spiritual Master, which he recited daily as part of his meditation practice. If our teachers ask us to undertake something that, for some reason, we cannot do, we need to explain humbly and politely why we are unable to comply. Rinpoche stressed that the point of a whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual mentor is not to become a slave or a robot, but to learn to stand on our own feet, to think for ourselves, and to become enlightened. If we are unable to do what our teachers suggest, it is totally inappropriate to feel guilty that we are disappointing our mentors and so we are bad disciples. A proper spiritual teacher is not an unreasonable tyrant.
If we agree to do something for someone, whether for our teachers or for anyone else, Rinpoche advised making everything clear from the start. We court disaster if we agree like a naive do-gooder and then, while carrying out the task or after completing it, announce only then that we expect something in return. Rinpoche taught that if we are practical and realistic, and think things out beforehand, then both worldly and spiritual affairs would go well. If we are impractical and unrealistic, and mindlessly rush into things, neither would succeed.
Rinpoche advised the same approach towards Western Buddhist centers. He told them to avoid being so large that they burden themselves with debts and promises of projects they cannot possibly implement or complete. He said to start small and unpretentiously, and to resist the temptation to locate in remote country areas. Buddhist centers need to be convenient for city-dwellers to reach and for residents to find work nearby. The group can always sell the center and buy a bigger one if need be, but all in the proper time.
The purpose of Buddhist centers is not to attract large crowds with pretentious advertising like for a circus. Rinpoche always preferred small groups of sincere students. Moreover, in choosing a spiritual teacher, the main point is not how entertaining the person is or how funny the stories are that he or she tells. If we want to laugh or to see something exotic, we may go see the clowns in the circus or visit the sideshow.
Rinpoche's Specific Advice for Tantric Practitioners
Although full-time tantric meditation retreats continued over long periods are beneficial, most people do not have the luxury to undertake them. Therefore, Rinpoche felt it narrow-minded to think that we can only do this type of retreat if we have three months or more of free time. Retreat does not mean a period of cutting ourselves off from others, but a period of intensive practice to make our minds flexible with a practice. Doing one session each morning and night, while leading a normal life the rest of the day, is perfectly acceptable. Rinpoche himself did many of his retreats in this manner, without anyone ever knowing that he was doing one.
The only restrictions with this method of practice are to sleep in the same bed and to meditate on the same seat in the same place throughout the retreat. Otherwise, the momentum of building up spiritual energy is broken. In addition, each session must include at least a minimum number of mantras, prostrations, or some other repetitive practice, as set by the number repeated during the first session of the retreat. Therefore, Rinpoche advised making only three repetitions of the chosen practice during the initial session. In this way, a severe illness will not necessitate breaking the continuity of the retreat and having to start again from the beginning.
As with all forms of Buddhist discipline, however, "necessity sometimes overrules the prohibition," but only in very special cases. Once, in Dharamsala, in the middle of a meditation retreat, I received a request to translate an empowerment and teachings His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving in Manali, another Himalayan town in India. I consulted with Rinpoche who told me to go without any hesitation or doubts. Assisting His Holiness would be more beneficial than anything else I could possibly do. I would not break the momentum of my practice so long as I did one meditation session each day, repeating the minimum number of mantras I had set. I followed this procedure and, after ten days with His Holiness, returned to Dharamsala and completed my retreat.
Rinpoche always stressed that ritual procedures are purposeful and serious. They need to be followed correctly. For example, tantric retreats require repeating certain mantras a specific number of times and then performing a "fire puja" afterwards. A fire puja is a complex ritual for offering special substances into a fire. The purpose of the ritual is to make up for any deficiencies in the practice and to purify any mistakes that we made.
Certain retreats are particularly difficult. One that I did, for example, requires repeating a mantra one million times and, during an elaborate fire puja, offering ten thousand pairs of long grass reeds while reciting a mantra with each pair. All ten thousand must be tossed into the fire at one sitting, without a break. When I performed my fire puja at the end of this retreat, I ran out of grass reeds somewhat short of the required number. After finishing the rest of the ritual, I reported to Rinpoche. He had me repeat the entire fire puja a few days later. This time, I made sure to have ten thousand pairs of reeds ready!
Because ritual experts are not always available, Rinpoche emphasized the need to be self-reliant. Therefore, he taught his advanced Western disciples how to perform fire pujas themselves. This included how to prepare the firepit and how to draw the requisite mandala design on its floor with colored powders. Even if Westerners required someone else to recite the ritual if it were not yet available in their own languages, Rinpoche explained that they needed to offer the various substances into the fire themselves. This is true even when doing a group retreat.
Following procedures correctly, however, does not contradict having a practical approach. For example, tantric retreats begin with arranging special offerings on a home altar and then offering them each subsequent day to ward off obstacles. The obstacles are visualized in the form of interfering spirits and invited each day to partake of the offering. Rinpoche advised that boxes or jars of cookies are a perfectly acceptable substitute for the traditional ornate tormas used for this purpose.
Rinpoche was not happy about people trying to do advanced practices when they were unqualified. Some people, for instance, attempt complete stage practices when they are not willing or even interested in doing a long sadhana, let alone having mastered it. The highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, has first generation stage and then complete stage practices. The former stage trains the powers of imagination and concentration through sadhana practice. The latter stage uses the developed powers of mind to work with the subtle energy system of the body to bring about actual self-transformation. Without the skills gained through sadhana practice, work with the chakras, channels, and energy-winds of this subtle system is a farce.
Advanced tantra practices, Rinpoche warned, could be very harmful if done incorrectly by someone unqualified. For example, transference of consciousness (powa), which entails imagining shooting one’s consciousness out the top of one’s head in anticipation of death, can shorten one’s life. Taking the essence of pills (chulen), during which one fasts for weeks and lives on consecrated relic pills, especially if done in a group, can cause famine to the area. In addition, someone practicing like this may fall seriously ill from lack of food and water, and even die.
Tantric retreats are themselves an advanced practice and Rinpoche warned against entering them prematurely. Sometimes, for instance, people undertake a retreat to recite a hundred thousand mantras, but are unfamiliar beforehand with the practice. They imagine that in the course of the retreat, they will gain experience. Although spending an intensive period studying and becoming accustomed to a particular practice is beneficial, this is not the work to do during a formal tantric retreat. Someone who does not know how to swim does not begin training by practicing in the pool twelve hours a day. Such foolhardiness leads merely to cramps and exhaustion. Intensive training is restricted to experienced swimmers for becoming top athletes. The same is true for tantric meditation retreats.
Further, tantric practice needs to remain private. Otherwise, much interference may arise. Rinpoche saw that many Westerners not only did not keep their practices and accomplishments to themselves, they boasted about them. He said it was absurd to brag about being a great yogi practitioner of a certain Buddha-figure when all one is doing or has done is its short retreat by reciting the relevant mantras a couple hundred thousand times. And, to be so pretentious and arrogant when not even practicing daily the long sadhana of the figure is even more pathetic. Rinpoche always explained that the long sadhanas are for beginners. These sadhanas often contain over a hundred pages and are like the scripts of lengthy operas of visualizations. The short abbreviated sadhanas are for advanced practitioners who are so familiar with the entire practice that they can fill in all the visualizations and procedures while only reciting a few words.
Rinpoche taught that Westerners needed also to curb their tendencies to want all teachings and instructions neatly presented from the start, particularly concerning tantra. The great Indian and Tibetan masters were perfectly capable of writing clear texts. Nevertheless, they purposely wrote in a vague style. Making tantric material too clear and accessible may easily cause interference and degeneration of practice. For example, people may take the teachings for granted and not exert serious effort in them.
An important part of the Buddhist pedagogic technique is to make others
question the meaning. If students are truly interested, they will seek
further clarification. This automatically weeds out those who are
"spiritual tourists" and who are unwilling to put in the hard work
necessary for becoming enlightened. If, however, the purpose for
clarifying the tantras is to dispel people’s distorted, negative
impressions of them, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has endorsed publishing
explicit explanations. These are to concern only the theory, however, and
not specific practices of individual Buddha-figures. A clear
"how-to-do-it" manual may encourage people to attempt advanced practices
without the supervision of a teacher, which can be very dangerous.
Rinpoche often told the story of one protector given the vow to safeguard the practice of a monastery devoted to debate. He must bring interference, such as sickness and accidents, to anyone trying to practice tantra within its grounds when he should be debating. Only monks who had finished their dialectics training and who had then studied further at one of the two tantric colleges were allowed to practice tantra -- but even then, not within the monastery walls.
One Geshe, while still a student, used to make within the monastery grounds a burnt offering of juniper leaves associated with tantra. He was continually plagued with obstacles. He then entered one of the tantric colleges and, after graduation, resumed making this offering, but outside the monastery on a mountainside nearby. Some years later, after the Geshe had straightforward, nonconceptual perception of voidness, the protector appeared to him in a vision. The ferocious-looking spirit apologized, saying, "I am sorry that I had to harm you before, but that was part of my pledge to the founder of your monastery. Now that you have achieved bare perception of voidness, even if I wanted to, I could not cause you any harm."
Rinpoche stressed the importance of this example. Fooling with forces beyond our abilities to control can lead to disaster. He often quoted His Holiness who said always to remember that dharma-protectors are servants of the Buddha-figures. Only those with full competence on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra and with the power to command as a Buddha-figure should become involved. Otherwise, premature engagement will be like a small child calling a huge lion to protect it. The lion may simply devour the child. His Holiness advised that the karma created by our actions is our best protector. Moreover, what ever happened to taking refuge in the Triple Gem – the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the highly realized spiritual community?
Rinpoche's Death and Rebirth
Serkong Rinpoche’s death was even more remarkable than his life. In July 1983, Rinpoche organized His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s conferring of the Kalachakra empowerment at Tabo Monastery in Spiti. Afterwards, Rinpoche mentioned to a local old monk, Kachen Drubgyel, that according to Tibetan astrology this was His Holiness’s obstacle year. His Holiness’s life was in danger. It would be good to transfer these obstacles onto himself. He told the old monk not to mention this to anyone.
Rinpoche then entered a strict meditation retreat for three weeks. Afterwards, he went to a nearby Tibetan army camp to teach the soldiers Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Rinpoche was supposed to teach the entire text slowly over an extended period, but rushed through it quickly. Leaving the camp several days earlier than planned, he explained that he had somewhere special to go. This was the day, August 29, 1983, that His Holiness was flying to Geneva, Switzerland, at the same time as Yassar Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was also expected to arrive there. The police authorities were concerned about a possible act of terrorism directed against Arafat. They warned that they could not guarantee His Holiness’s security.
Rinpoche and Ngawang sped off from the army camp in a jeep, stopping briefly at Tabo Monastery. Rinpoche asked Kachen Drubgyel to join them, but the old monk explained that he had just washed his robes. Rinpoche said it did not matter, but to come in his underskirt. He could tie his robes to the top of the jeep to dry, which the old monk did.
As they drove deeper into Spiti Valley, Rinpoche told Ngawang that he had always told him to repeat continually the mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum, but that he never took him seriously. This was to be his parting advice.
They then stopped at Kyi Monastery. Rinpoche wanted to make offerings. Ngawang said it was late and that they could go in the morning, but Rinpoche insisted. Most of the time, Rinpoche walked slowly and with difficulty. On occasion, however, Rinpoche was quite able to run. For instance, once at an airport, when we were almost late for a flight, Rinpoche ran so quickly, none of us could keep up with him. Similarly, once in Bodh Gaya, when His Holiness was participating in a mass recitation of the hundred-volume Tibetan translation of Buddha’s words (the Kangyur), Rinpoche sat to the side of His Holiness, with me right behind. When the wind carried away a page from His Holiness’s loose-leaf text, Rinpoche practically flew from his seat to pick it up instantly from the floor. Normally, he required assistance to get up. On this occasion at Kyi Monastery, Rinpoche also ran quickly, unassisted, up the steep mountain trail.
After Rinpoche had made his offerings, the Kyi monks requested him to spend the night there. Rinpoche declined, saying he had to reach the village of Kyibar that night. If they wanted to see him again, they would have to go up there. He then left quickly, having given this indirect message of what was about to happen.
When Rinpoche and his party reached the high village of Kyibar, they went to the house of a farmer he knew. The man was still out in his fields and did not expect any guests. Rinpoche asked if he were busy for the next week or so. The farmer said no and invited Rinpoche to stay.
After washing himself and eating some yogurt, Rinpoche recited from
memory Tsongkapa’s The Essence of Excellent Explanation of
Interpretable and Definitive Meanings, which took him about two hours.
When he finished, he called Ngawang and said he was not feeling well. He
then put his head on Ngawang’s shoulder -- something that Rinpoche
normally never did. It seemed, in retrospect, that he was saying farewell.
He had sent Chondzeyla away to Simla before all this, since it would
undoubtedly be too difficult for Chondzeyla to witness what would happen.
He had been with Rinpoche since he was six years old and Rinpoche had
raised him like his son.
Rinpoche then requested Ngawang and Kachen Drubgyel to come to his bedroom, which they did. Rinpoche then laid down on his right side, in the Buddha’s sleeping posture. Instead of holding his arms in the standard position of left on his side and right under his face, as he normally did when going to sleep, he crossed them in the tantric embracing gesture. He then began to breathe deeply and simply passed away, apparently through the meditation process of "giving and taking" (tonglen). He was sixty-nine and in perfect health. I had taken him for a thorough medical examination in Delhi two months earlier.
At precisely that moment, while His Holiness was still in flight on route to Geneva, Chairman Arafat suddenly changed his mind and decided to postpone his visit to Switzerland. The danger of a terrorist incident at the airport was thus averted. Although the danger to His Holiness’s life was gone, still His Holiness’s motorcade became lost on the way from the airport to the hotel. However, His Holiness avoided any harm. Serkong Rinpoche had successfully taken on the obstacle to His Holiness’s life and given in turn his own life-energy.
Giving and taking is an advanced bodhisattva technique for taking on obstacles from others and giving them happiness. Whenever Rinpoche taught this practice, he said that we need to be willing to take on the suffering of others even if it meant to the point of sacrificing our lives. He always referred to the example Kunu Lama Rinpoche had given of a person in his home district who took on someone’s head injury and consequently passed away. When we asked Rinpoche if he were to do this, would it not be a waste, Rinpoche would reply, no. It would be like an astronaut, he explained, who sacrificed his life for the sake of world progress. Just as the example and fame of the heroic astronaut would assure a substantial government pension for his family, so too the heroic example of the lama’s sacrifice would provide for the spiritual nourishment of his disciples left behind.
Serkong Rinpoche remained in the death-juncture meditation on clear light for three days. Those with the ability to direct their rebirths normally enter this meditation as part of the process of either generating or continuing a line of reincarnate lamas. During the meditation, their hearts remain warm and their bodies do not start decomposing although they have stopped breathing. Normally, the great lamas remain in this state for several days, after which their heads slump and blood leaves the nostrils, indicating that their consciousness has left their bodies.
When these signs occurred with Serkong Rinpoche, rainbows glimmered in the sky and wondrous lights appeared on the barren hill chosen for his cremation. Although people sent word to His Holiness’s Namgyel Monastery in Dharamsala for monks to come for the cremation ceremony, the party could not arrive in time. The Spiti monks performed the rites, modestly, as Rinpoche would have wished. Shortly afterwards, a fresh water spring with healing powers spouted from the cremation site. Still flowing today, it has become a place of pilgrimage. Exactly nine months later, on May 29, 1984, Rinpoche took birth once more, again in Spiti, in a humble family.
Several years before, Rinpoche had met a husband and wife named Tsering Chodrag and Kunzang Chodron, both of whom had impressed him greatly. Very strong Dharma practitioners, they had told Rinpoche that their deepest wish had been to become a monk and a nun. The headman of the local villages had recommended against this, since joining the monastic life as adults with a young family would present many problems. They must look after their children first. Rinpoche seconded the headman's counsel. These were the parents Rinpoche took birth with, as their fourth child.
Disciples use various means to locate the reincarnation of a great lama who has mastered death-juncture meditation. These methods include consulting oracles and the dreams of the most highly realized masters. The final candidate then needs to identify correctly several possessions of the deceased lama from among many similar-looking items. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, however, warns not to rely solely on such means. The child needs to give clear signs of his or her identity before being considered a serious candidate.
The people of Spiti regard Serkong Rinpoche similar to a saint: almost every household contains his photograph. As soon as the little Serkong Rinpoche could talk, he pointed to Rinpoche's picture on the wall of his parents' home and said, "That's me!" When Ngawang later visited the house to check out the child, the boy immediately ran into his arms. He wanted to go with him back to his monastery.
No one had any doubts about who he was. After all, a few years earlier
a group of prominent Spiti women had requested Rinpoche to take rebirth in
their valley next time. Receiving permission from the Indian government to
visit their remote border district had always been a problem. Such a
rebirth would make everything easier. His parents, deeply honored, gave
their consent and, at the age of four, the little Rinpoche left for
Dharamsala. Although his parents visit him from time to time, the boy has
never asked for them, nor has he seemed even to miss them. From the start,
he felt perfectly at home with the members of his old household. They were
his heartfelt family.
Now, in 1998, the new Serkong Rinpoche is fourteen. He lives and
studies mostly at his monastery in Mundgod and comes to Dharamsala once or
twice a year, when His Holiness gives major teachings. Chondzeyla and
Rinpoche’s old cook have died and Ngawang has disrobed, married, and now
lives in Nepal. Rinpoche has a new household of monks to care for him, all
of whom he handpicked in his former life. For example, he personally chose
two ten-year-old boys from Spiti and Kinnaur to join his household and
attend him during the last few months of his life.
So far, I have taken a back-seat role in Serkong Rinpoche’s upbringing. I have felt that the old Rinpoche would have wished mainly to serve his own people. Too many great lamas have devoted themselves to teaching in the West or in areas of Asia outside their traditional cultural sphere, to the detriment of the Tibetans themselves. If the Tibetan form of Buddhism is to survive in its fullest form, training future generations of Tibetans is essential. This is because, at present, the complete Buddhist teachings are available only in the Tibetan language. Rinpoche provided me with the best circumstances imaginable for my training and self-development. To repay his kindness, I have sought to do the same for him.
To try to prevent cultural conflict, I have not participated in Rinpoche’s modern education. In fact, I have purposely avoided having too much contact with him, although the close bond between us is strikingly evident whenever we meet. Instead, I have helped to arrange local Tibetan instructors to teach him English, science, and social studies, following the same curriculum the Tibetan schools in India use. Consequently, Rinpoche can fully relate to his own people. I have also neither taken him to the West nor bought him a computer or a video player, and I have discouraged others from offering him these. Too many young reincarnate lamas find computer games and action videos more enticing than their traditional monastic studies.
I do not know how much my direction has contributed, but Rinpoche displays a deep sense of security and is fully comfortable in his own culture. This can only be of benefit to him and to everyone he will meet in the future. He can learn firsthand about the West when he reaches maturity. I pray that I can become his disciple once more in my next life.
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