dinsdag 22 november 2016

A new khenpo

The Karmapa and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
awarding Tsewang Rigdzin the degree of Khenpo


Recently my teacher and friend Tsewang Rigdzin from Dzongsar Shedra in India has been awarded the title of 'khenpo', which one could compare to receiving a PhD in Buddhist studies. Besides congratulating him with his achievement, a few words of praise of these incredible scholars seems appropriate.

Looking at the situation in Tibet, one might get discouraged and think that the heydays of Buddhism are over and done with. But young Tibetan scholars like Tsewang show that all is not over yet, and there is hope for the future.


Tsewang Rigdzin teaching Dharmakirti's Pramanavartika in 2015

So why is it so important to have scholars like this in the Buddhist tradition? To answer that, we might want to ask ourselves what the Dharma actually is. One answer, as there are a lot of different responses, is that the Dharma consists of the Dharma of transmission and the Dharma of realization.
A story from Patrul Rinpoche illustrates what these two mean. Once, Patrul Rinpoche said that he still had some hope for the Dharma to remain, since there was one practitioner who had attained full enlightenment, or in Dzogchen terminology, had attained the rainbow body, and so he concluded that the Dharma of realization was still present in the world. Also, he heard that there was one tulku or reincarnation of a highly realized being, who was able to teach the Bodhicharyavatara at the age of seven, and so he concluded that the Dharma of transmission was still present in the world.

But there is only one individual who can truly understand and teach the Dharma, and that is a fully enlightened Buddha. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha has passed away 2500 years ago, and so how are we to understand the Dharma, the only way of gaining release from this endless ocean of suffering? Just reading the Buddha's words written down in the scriptures by oneself will not suffice, since Chandrakirti in his Introduction to the Middle Way reminds us that only a highly realized being, who has seen the nature of reality on the grounds or bumis of realization, is able to comprehend the scriptures by him or her self. But, there is a unbroken lineage of explanation of the Buddha's scriptures going back all the way to the Buddha himself. And so based on the explanations of those teachers we can understand the Dharma. And if we can manage to practice well, we can attain full realization and freedom from suffering. Those teachers who are qualified to explain the Buddha's words have different names in the different Buddhist countries in the world, but in the Tibetan tradition, they are called Khenpo. 

The words of the Buddha are very vast, and in the Tibetan canon comprise about 100 volumes. And that is leaving aside all the commentaries upon them by the great Indian scholars, like the seventeen Nalanda masters, and the vast array of commentaries by Tibetan scholars from all the different traditions of Tibet. So even though it would be very difficult to study or even just read all the words of the Buddha (if one reads day and night, it will take at least three months), the shedras present a solution to that. Their curricula are designed so that one understands the essence of each field of knowledge, which in the common Mahayana tradition are often cited to be the great subjects of madyamakapramanaabhidharmaprajnaparamita and vinaya. By studying all those topics in detail, one will have a general understanding of all the Buddha's teachings. One can then explain the Buddha's teachings to others, and so by upholding the Dharma of transmission, the Buddha's teachings remain in the world.


Dzongsar Shedra in Chauntra, Himachal Pradesh, India

Nevertheless, the road to become a Khenpo at Dzongsar Shedra is long. First one studies the above mentioned subjects for about ten years (for a detailed overview of the texts studied at a shedra, see for example the Namdroling curriculum or my previous blog about the academic curricula of different shedras). The academic year runs for about eight months each year, there is only one day holiday in the week, and the day starts at about 5:30 in the morning(compulsory!) and ends around 9, or even later, in the evening. Once one has finished, or perhaps one could say survived (not all monks survive) the whole curriculum and passed all the exams, one is awarded the title of acharya or, in Tibetan, lobpön. Not everyone who has managed to finish the whole training is qualified or even wants to teach, since it is not an easy task. But if one has the qualifications and propensities, one would teach for at least a few years. Then, as it is written in the curriculum of Namdroling Shedra "Whether an acharya will be enthroned as a khenpo then depends upon "personal virtue and [other] qualifications".

Having followed some of Tsewang Rigdzin's classes and also knowing him personally, I am sure that he embodies all the qualities of a Khenpo and he is more then deserving of this prestigious title.
May he and all the other learned scholars continue to unerringly teach and uphold the Buddha's teachings, to dispel the ignorance and misery of the world!

zondag 13 november 2016

From the archives: an interview with Erik Pema Kunsang

It feels like a lifetime ago, when a bunch of young dharma enthusiasts had the opportunity to interview the 'translating phenomena' Erik Pema Kunsang. Erik was very kind to give us plenty of time and loads of advice and stories from his own experience. He spoke about his own youth and what renunciation means, gave lots of advice for young people, how to handle parents and how to benefit others, talked about translation and being a translator, and much more.

This interview took place in November 2009, at the end of the three year retreat in Lerab Ling         while Erik Pema Kunsang was translating for Tsoknyi Rinpoche. We thank Erik for the time he           spend with us and also for helping us edit the interview.



[Student] How was it for you to come to the dharma so young and also in a time when not many other people where in the dharma?
The first thing that comes to mind is two things. This is not a formal lecture, just some brief ideas to introduce. As I understand, dharma is two different things that are connected: dharma as reality, and dharma as the Buddhist toolbox, which connects with the reality we’re supposed to realize.
The Buddhist teachings are a very pragmatic way of approaching reality but the most important thing is of course, what’s real. As a young person , one is very curious, not necessarily towards Buddhism, because it’s an area which often is weird, like Buddhists are often weird, right? They do strange things, sometimes they dress funny, and they get weirder than before as they become Buddhist, for a while. That was how it was before. Before you could hang out with your friends and enjoy, and go to a party, and then you became Buddhist…you don’t call your friends, they feel that you hate them, because they’re just normal people, and you have become holy, because you’re focusing too much on the dharma as a religion, as a system , rather than on the dharma as reality, which was supposed to be the main point, according to the Buddha.
The Buddha didn’t emphasize the teachings is the main point, but the realization of what is. But it’s very hard to start with reality, because there is no handle on it, so the dharma is designed so that it fits your concepts, so that you can catch hold of it, with something to read, something to see, something to talk about, something to actually do, whereas reality is very flimsy. It slips away.
But what you always were interested in, and all your friends were interested in, is the dharma as reality. So don’t lose that just because you become Buddhist. Keep as your basis, “I want to understand what it’s all about, not the Buddhist side, but all of that which we are, what my friends are, what my family is, what the world is. That’s what I want to figure out.” Then you always have a shared basis with everybody, family, friends, everybody, and you can always communicate. If they ask you, and they for sure do, if they haven’t gotten to it yet, is “what are you actually doing there? What is this Buddhism thing? ” And then you should be able to give a one sentence reply that doesn’t make them look the other way and not answer your phone call next time – a reply that makes real sense to them, not just to you. “Well I like Sogyal Rinpoche and the other lamas.” That’s not a reply they will necessarily relate to.
Perhaps one or two of them will like to come along, and when they come in to Harry Potter’s castle, they ask: “Is it real?” and you say “Yes it is.” Then they expect people to take out magic-wands. But what Buddhism is about is the opposite of that, being true and real, sane and natural. That’s what youthfulness is about: no expiry date. Manjushri is called the ever-youthful. In a large portion of the Buddhist canon that’s the first sentence at the beginning of a sutra' homage to the ever youthful Manjushri,. Youth means having a live, intelligent quality, alive, vibrant, an always up-to-date insight. And everybody can relate to that vibrant quality.
That was an introduction to the meeting point between your world and people and Dharma, and about staying young. Tsoknyi Rinpoche also talked about that today, about not losing the spark. I found that I became a little weird after becoming a Buddhist. It was so much easier for me to be in the natural state before becoming a Buddhist. Which is sad, in a way. It took me five or six years before I found out that what the lamas where talking about was what I used to be, before I began formal practices. Perhaps I had connected with some wrong, well not wrong but very gradual-approach type teachers, who said “you cannot realize it, not in this lifetime, it takes many lives.” Even the idea of the awakened state being accessible was completely out of their world, which is actually quite sad.
For young people I think it’s often somewhat easy to access the natural state, as they are spontaneous, natural, free in their attitude, because  it’s something that is very close--it’s what we actually are. Isn’t it? A happy, free approach, which is very close to Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
Most of what we have learned, what we are supposed to when we walk into a situation, is to be unnatural, and contained. Even as a Buddhist practitioner we could be taught to become something like a fossil, fossilized human being--not in actual teachings but it’s kind of in the air in many groups--that “now you don’t party anymore, you don’t go out.” Stuff like that. Then one thinks that one has to keep to a very rigid range, not just on voice and body language, but on the mind as well. This is true to some extent, but not deeply within. An area of oneself has to remain free and young, while another area has to be rained in a bit. Not to bang into each other. But the youthfulness disappears when these two areas get confused, worried wrinkles begin to appear. I got wrinkles already when I was 20, trying to look devoted (Erik makes a face). I was in a group where people made such faces when they showed sincerity and I just imitate that way. I see you don’t have that problem, luckily.
[Student] Often we hear of becoming a “tsa tsa” of the master, a strong concept of being stamped from a mold, in a particular way. Can you talk about how to become a good tsa tsa of the master and also maintain your own identity?
It is not necessarily to walk in the same way. Some Tibetan masters, like Mingyur Rinpoche who sat a lot as a teenager and got stiff hips, often walk like a duck, but we don’t have to imitate that. And you don’t have to try to imitate Tibetan-English accent. The likeness has to do with the realization of your basic nature, which is accessible to you at any given time, A master to be a master has realized that nature. Not just having understood it but, like Rinpoche said, it has to become for real. To be like a tsa tsa means we have to be that way as well. The guru, your guru, is exactly what that is meant for. You don’t sit and pray for getting a Cadillac, but you pray to be able to recognize the natural state, and that’s very practical, because it’s right there, very direct, very close. And the moment you have the same realization as your guru then you are a true tsa tsa. You don’t have to have the same slanted eyes. Right?
[Robert] When you first start on the path, many of these teachings have this monastic flavor, and you become very strict. When I was reading Patrul Rinpoche, I was 22 and I thought I have to go to a cave, and not go out for 10 years.
[Erik] That’s not exactly monastic.
[Robert] No but ascetic and very strict, and also suppressing all kinds of stuff in myself, because of putting this pressure on myself of being in a certain way...
[Erik] Well, it seems that you have followed Patrul Rinpoche’s advice: ran away to France, not only to a monastery, but also in a very remote place. Must have been something about what he said. Except the haircut. (smiles)
As long as one is dependent upon the supportive environment there is a need to shift to a more helpful environment. That’s why people take holidays, go somewhere nice, cause they need to relax, hang out in the sun, hike in the mountains, to an environment which gives the support to feel free, so the heart chakra can expand a little bit after having been stressed out from the job. So going to a cave is actually to unstress, big time. To really unwind. But it often it happens that people make themselves really busy in the cave.
[Student] I found that I was getting more stressed then ever in my life when I came here.
[Erik] I think Sogyal Rinpoche creates that. He doesn’t let you just kick back and relax.
[Han] You started in Denmark translating some sutra's, and then at some points you went to the east and you stayed there for many years in a monastic environment. Can you tell a little bit about that?
[Erik] Yes, when I look back, I actually didn’t stay in a monastery or in a retreat hut, or in a cave.  I was pushed around by the wind of karma you can say, or by desperation. I was desperate as a teenager, claustrophobic. I needed to get out of there. Like being stuck in an elevator. My whole town was like a coffin, like many coffins. Everybody lived in one, small windows in it. Just undead, waiting to die, in the coffins. That was the feeling. I really felt that way. Should I move into a coffin myself after getting out of school? No! I had to get out of there! If I had had the feeling it was a palace in a guru mandala, maybe I’d been happy living in a coffin, but that wasn’t the available perspective at the time, there was nobody teaching that way. You have to go somewhere else. All of you left your home area, so you can relate to it.
Trungpa Rinpoche introduced a different perspective, the home being the mandala, so that people would keep jobs and combine that with practice.  Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche did not try to make people integrate the Dharma into their lives; please go back home, be a happy citizen and practice. He said leave home, leave everything and, as soon as you can, retire. He said that to everybody over 40 or 50, you’ve worked now twenty years, enough is enough, now practice. That was his approach, not exactly a cave but at least find a simple life, simplify your life.
Different teachers each have their own styles. If you look back into the Kagyu lineage, Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa had three totally different lifestyles. Marpa was a householder, having a farm, and also trading in the earlier part. Milarepa never lived in a monastery or in a normal house, only in the mountains. And Gampopa had a monastery and thousands of monks and followers. Completely different styles and still part of the same lineage. Kagyu Masters chant each right after the other, and with equal devotion. So it’s not really the lifestyle, but what’s inside of that person. That is what is called upon, as inspiration. If you call upon Marpa or King Trisong Deutsen, it is to inspire you in your practice. It's not wanting to be a king or a householders necessarily. So go for Dharma as reality. Then use Dharma as teachings towards that. Be happy, right?
[Student] Can you speak about the dharma of reality, is it that in every situation and circumstance you can rest in the nature of mind or....?
Not only “resting in the nature mind,” which can become to inert. Very easily that gets misunderstood, a lot. As if you have to disconnect with everything. Can I use Rinpoche’s teachings as a reference? What Rinpoche speaks of in recognizing the nature in every given moment, there’s also a certain kindness that is automatically available there, that is your reality at any moment. This compassionate emptiness, that’s for real, that doesn’t change, whenever you give yourself time to notice, that is your basic frame of reference. Kindness, or an availability, that your being is available, and not hung up on something for yourself. That is what’s real, and with any person that you meet in your life, when you just allow that, then everybody can relate to you in a very basic simple way. That’s dharma as a reality.
For your friends or family Buddhist “things” may be good, they might need them, maybe not, they may hate it, so you do not have to immediately force it down other’s throats. But you still have it available, if they want, if they ask for it. You can then say yes, there are some methods and they can say “well, I would like to know,” then you can share.
But just being with them, as a real person, is actually a way of teaching the dharma. Does that make sense? You could say that it is through your subtle body, but actually even more subtle than that. It’s interesting that children, small children and animals, feel it immediately when you’re just being real and relate to them. I just got a cat, and a dog, it’s so easy to just being relaxed and free together with an animal or a small child. Then they’re also relaxed and free. That’s what I’m talking about, dharma as a reality, at this level. Buddha is probably much more then that. I would hope.
Jurek] You are a vegan…?
[Erik] I saw a movie, about the industrialized way of producing meat. It is deeply traumatizing for the animals involved. I couldn’t stand watching it. When you see a fried egg you don’t connect it with where it comes from, or don’t want to think about it even if you’re reminded. Something as simple as an egg. An enormous amount of pain and helplessness and fear is part of what we buy into, by buying it and accepting it. Or by demanding it. It’s very hard to not be part of that chain. I think it’s not as bad if you are a Buddhist who doesn’t ask for it, just given it, it’s there, and you take it. But the Buddha never said that you’re innocent, you can’t take a step in this world without stepping on somebody.
[Jurek] And with regard to Buddhist teachers
[Erik] I hate them [laughter]. It’s a tricky point. We recently changed our Dharma center, not to vegan but to vegetarian, and ecological, but it’s not part of Tibetan culture. Here is a story: when Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche visited Germany in 1981, there was one monk who came along. We drove along the Reine to Cologne. Tulku Urgyen was vast asleep. It was a spectacularly picturesque drive, and we’ve been taken there so that we could enjoy the scenery, just like a movie. The monk didn’t sleep, he drank coca-cola, and then opened the window and was just about to throw it out and I told him “stop, don’t do that” and he said “why not? there’s plenty of room”. The cultural concepts are different, also with the meat eating which is not connected to the industrialized meat production in the West. How many lamas have been taken on a pilgrimage tour to a Western style organized slaughterhouse? Or meat producing factory. Nobody right? Lamas are usually taken to important monuments or department stores, entertainment centers. I haven’t heard about anyone yet taken a visit to an industrial farm or slaughter house assembly line, or disassembly line. It would be interesting to see their reaction.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche told that once in Bodhgaya when he was younger, he was eating a nice chunk of meat in a restaurant when he heard screams, sounding like a human, or a young child. Very serious, not like play, like a desperate cry for help, like out of sheer terror and agony. He went out thinking that he perhaps I can do something, and saw it was a pig being beaten with a big thick staff. “Stop stop,” he yelled, “why are you torturing the pig?” They replied, “it’s to make sure the pig’s blood vessels break so that the blood seeps into the flesh” and he said “why are you doing that”. “It will weigh more when it’s cut up because all the blood doesn’t run out”. That made him into a vegetarian for six or eight years. It was because of noticing, but mostly we don’t notice. It’s very hard to connect a chunk of food to an animal if you just see it in the supermarket.
[Student] On one side you said you went straight to the east, and dedicated your life there fully to the dharma and on the other side you emphasize Dharma as reality. How did you manage to find your balance?
[Erik] It took a long time. The period between getting the idea and the experience took many years. Here (at Lerab Ling) it’s so easy. First Tsoknyi Rinpoche tells the idea, 30 seconds later he introduces you. Right? If you’re ready you can just get it, immediately. When I turned up in Asia, I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, so just to get the idea was hard enough. I had read and heard some teachings, but they always seemed to talk about first you have to do ngöndro, rather then experiencing the nature of mind. Because everybody else would do it a ngondro, I also did it. But I never connected ngondro with realization. It was more like slave labor without pay. Something you had to do in order to get somewhere.
And it took a very long time to get all the way around back to finding out what was right behind me, kind of here all the time. You have to take a long journey and go through a lot of practices. It took quite a long time. It was when I started to understand the Tibetan language, which in those days you had to. And due to the kindness of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who basically forced me, using physical force, to recognize the nature of mind. He jumped out of his meditation box and held me. I tried to get out of there but I couldn’t because he was holding me, and all of a sudden it became incredibly uncomfortable to let go of everything. Like panic. Maybe I was a very strange case, a hard shell to crack. But these days you’re very lucky it’s very easy to get teachings. So easy. Look at Lerab Ling the last few years, the amount of great masters, and you have Sogyal Rinpoche here almost all the time. So you have nothing to travel around for, except to see Bodhgaya once. At some point you find out actually what the teachings have been talking about all the time, not necessarily about being a Buddhist but how to be a Buddha.
[Han] You said that we have all the teachings here so we don’t need to go anywhere?
[Erik] Except once to Bodhgaya.
[Han] But if I look around the majority of us is actually going somewhere else. We’re going to the east, and to the shedra, and study  the Tibetan language. Maybe you want to share some of your experience?
[Erik] Yes. While learning, don’t hang out too much together, because that is not a way to learn Tibetan. Obviously. It just reinforces your own speaking habit. But meet once a day; not all the time. If you want to learn Tibetan then chat with Tibetans when you need socializing. Discuss tea, whether you like white bread. Stuff like that. Once in a while get together with your European friends. That’s an important point. Because kitchen-Tibetan is very good to know, to ask questions later and to chat with others. You need to have some saturation. You have to get soaked. So if you are a gang of friends going there you may be preventing each other from learning Tibetan.
You want to hear some tips about how to learn Tibetan very fast? Don’t use a dictionary. I told you [Erik talks to Jurek] last time, you didn’t believe me. You probably already have a dictionary idea in your blood stream, right?
[Jurek] I thought about it a lot and it really got stuck in my mind, and I am getting a little bit of an understanding of what you meant.
[Erik] Use a dictionary once you start translating, to expand your choices of vocabulary. Use a thesaurus, different dictionaries in other languages, etymological dictionaries and get really down to the root of words, what they really mean. Take for instance the word “realized”, which came up the other day, and investigate what it actually means, and what it has become, how people understand or misunderstand it. Being a Dane I obviously wasn’t English speaking, so I had to learn English first and then Tibetan. And I wasted so many hours looking Tibetan words up in Chandra Das, the only meaningful Tibetan dictionary then. It was very thick; in those days you couldn’t get the compact version, and weighed two and a half kilo.
[Jurek] Jaschke was there...
[Erik] Not available. I think I had it in Denmark. I timed how long it took to look up a word and read the whole entry about it--three minutes--and so only ten words in half an hour. And if you’re trying to cover a lot of ground...
I didn’t have a school to go to, no Shedra, I tried to at some point but they were all Tibetans. I couldn’t ask anybody “What does this mean here?” You have really fortunate circumstances so what took me five years you can probably learn in six months, or maybe eighteen months; a minimum of two years in the Shedra.
Another thing that I told Jurek was to repeat what the teacher says, in your mind. Our memory is usually made out of things we have remembered already before, like childhood memories: I only remember them because I have remembered them earlier. So repeating something mentally makes it stick. When you hear a sentence by the Khenpo try to repeat it in your mind, like an echo. In other words you are encoding yourself. And when you read the text in Tibetan, always read it loud because then you hear it, you say it, you see it. Try to get triple value… instead of just looking.
Thirty years ago in university we would go through half a page in a two hour period, discussing every single word, the teacher would say, now you look it up in the dictionary and he would go look out the window and after three or four minutes one of them would say “I found it”. It was frustrating; we never get anywhere. Nobody could ever speak Tibetan, nobody could ever make a proper translation after two or three years--a complete waste of time. I spent a couple of months there, before I was twenty, going to two hour sessions once a week.
In the Shedra you probably study up to eight, ten hours a day, and understand all of it, and interesting stuff. It was not available when I was your age. So in a couple of years those of you who go and study in the Shedra will be way ahead of Erik when he was your age.
The only reason why I have become a known translator was because there was often nobody else around at the time, and so, I’m the translator. My first attempt to be the translator in front of others was horrific. I did such a bad job. I'm so happy nobody had tape recorders. The teaching was called the 37 practices of the bodhisattvas and I did a horrible job. But the lama was kind and patient, so it worked out. I thought I did a great job, but when later I thought about it, I had asked questions about the most simple sentences. Also I didn’t understand his accent, he probably didn’t have all his teeth, but he was great. And the person who received the teaching was very happy because she got to spend time with him. 
[Student] One other thing I wanted to ask, because of the way you described it, you know, I face similar problems. Straight after school I went  into the three year retreat and also kind of shut myself out, now I’m  in the last year, and I kind of crashed, all sorts of panic attacks, and I’m just waiting it out. Although I got a lot of wonderful teachings, one part of them I actually used to suppress myself. And now I’m trying to figure my way out again. It was a point of collapsing, it was quite difficult, I was just wondering because you spoke about Rinpoche shaking you, I'm just wondering how do you find a way out?
[Erik] My problem was different from yours. I was incredibly proud, conceited, still am, but there I had nothing really to back it up. Now after I’ve had thousands of hours of teaching I can say anything like you just saw during these days, so it’s very easy for me to be proud and get away with it now. But in those days I was proud but had basically nothing; a very painful situation. I think what you’re talking about is similar but not the same. Like a feeling of being inadequate and kind of a loser but at the same time having invested a lot in Dharma and you have nowhere to go, nothing to do. That kind of panic can come, but at the same time, what could you possibly want… what could you possibly want. The most precious in this world is something that you have been given right in your hand. And without having to travel that far. Great masters, they live here, they come here, and basically pour it out over your head, not just a little bit, but like a shower in a big hotel coming out a large faucet. 
No matter where you go today, if somebody gives you ten million dollars, you will find that it doesn’t shine as brightly as before. Like right now we sit here and there’s a whole world out there and lot of thoughts of what you’re missing out on. But once you pursue that, there isn’t much in that pretty show. Maybe you have to find out. Maybe you have to bang your head against things a little bit, to find out how wonderful it was here. Possibly. But it’s not the gigantic problem, this one. Lacking teachings, that’s not the problem. I think you’re very lucky.
[Student] I have been in this three year retreat, and I think I arrived at that point where you find the essence of the mind, and then suddenly another form of happiness comes up. Then the question comes up, why would i go back to the Shedra?
[Erik] You really don’t need to go to the shedra for yourself, it’s for others. You’re doing it so you can be the older brother for other practitioners later on.
[Student] If you’re very conceptual then it’s good to study isn't it?
[Erik] That’s seen from a selfish orientation. Let’s say that studies are just for yourself, then at first you want to be shallow-happy then you get teachings for that. If you want to be deeply happy then you get some short teachings for that. But do you go to shedra to be happy? Probably not—ha ha! It’s a lot of work and sustained work, years upon end.
[Verena] I Imagine you’re quite busy translating and all that?
[Erik] No
[Verena] Do you spend time in solitary retreat …?
[Erik] No, I pick up turds after an old dog and our cat. And from people.  I know that there is so much to translate, but I’ve been ill a lot, and getting senile, so it’s not easy for me to use the computer with a dictionary, several Tibetan texts, and keep it all in my mind while writing; I get ill from it. You’re still young, you can do these things.
First learn Tibetan thoroughly, also the Dharma, and later express it for others. That’s what the shedra is about. But even if you don’t have Bodhichitta, it will benefit you whether you want it or not. Remember one thing about shedra: the texts are talking about your mind. It sounds like they’re talking about other things, other places. But they are all your mind, from beginning to end. Or anybody’s mind, for that matter. The specific approach of Mipham Rinpoche is that all teachings are about how to unravel personal experience, rather than just about ‘the Buddhist view’. You can hear from a teacher’s way of explaining whether it’s personal advice, or whether about something that happened a couple of thousand years ago. Do you remember in school how history lessons and anthropology always was about some other place, some other time. Some khenpos explain a text as if it is somebody else’s point of view. But you cannot get around the fact that you are there, and you’re looking at it and it has to do with how you understand, so it’s all about your mind anyway. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche says that it’s very important to have the attitude that all the topics in the shedra are personal advice, not just for you but for others as well, and about how to unravel the knots that we tie all the time.
[Han] You gave some advice on how to learn the language, but it seems there is more that you need as a translator in order to become a translator, or even make it as a translator. A lot of people start learning Tibetan but not many of them end up being a fully trained translator.
[Erik] Bodhichitta is the most important. Get more into that. Whether you translate or not has to do with being willing to put out effort for others, for others’ benefit. Even in a small way, like reading though somebody else’s translation or finding a comma’s missing. Working for other translators is very important, I did that a lot, I learned from what others have done. And the dictionary I began compiling is basically others people’s terminology; it contains very little of my own. By compiling it I could develop a more richer vocabulary. You don’t have to be a fully trained translator to actually do something helpful to others, you can still help in so many ways, like you’re already doing. Whenever you’re making use of what you know you are already part of the process of facilitating understanding in other people’s mind. And that doesn’t have to wait until ten years, fifteen years, right?
[Student] How do you think we can most serve the Dharma as it unfolds in the Western Hemisphere?
[Erik] Don’t turn into a fossil. Allow people to be fresh, and to include new ideas, and play, play without being frivolous. We named our youth group Kumari Darma and Arts, with arts meaning creativity, which includes language, music, artwork--all different kind of skills in which you see people’s intelligence and creativity. This is what youth is really about, not just learning and absorbing but also expressing. And if you tag that name onto it then you can be part of the group longer. You don’t get kicked out by the new ones as you reach thirty.
[Robert] Can you tell a little bit more about Kumari.
[Erik] Yes there are five people. They are very nice, and some of them are continuing, they’re doing ngöndro. They’re all connected, they all felt they had a great time, they helped just like you, they studied, they practiced.  And in the end they did a three day hike, around the peninsula where our retreat center is in Danmark.
My wife makes melodies to some of the translations I’ve done, and we have a lot of fun singing them, it’s Dharmic but it’s also play. Sogyal Rinpoche is not against that. So play with it. There is a whole new area of integration where you can bring Dharma into human culture, in a fun and fulfilling way. So if you have musical talents start with your own culture, using your voice and your ears. People have a lot of opportunity to paint, but not necessarily the frivolous kind, splashing, which was a phase in the West right? Which I think has something to do with impatience, with getting done. And having some fun.
Mingyur Rinpoche was in retreat many years at Sherab Ling in Bir. I heard that the main monastery there was originally funded by Situ Rinpoche’s watercolor paintings. Some of his students in Taiwan arranged an exhibition, and they hyped it up, they dressed up, and had special cakes and cards, inviting only important people, and those with money, and then putting the prices way up. His water colors brought in about a million Euro's, which was enough for building the main frame of the big monastery. Don’t frown upon art, it can be useful enough. In addition, Situ Rinpoche’s paintings were good. Of course dharma is the most important, but as a young person one is willing to try all different things, and a lot of crazy stuff too, but you have to let it all evolve within Sogyal Rinpoche’s supervision, and I think he’s into allowing a lot of different venues.
[Svea] Do you have some advice on how to explain things to your family, like why is it beneficial to go to the shedra. Sometimes families do not understand what you do on a three year retreat.
[Robert] If they’re not even willing to understand...
[Erik] Then don’t explain. Just say “daddy, this really means a lot to me,” and when you are sincere, they feel it. “It means a lot to me, it deepens my understanding of life, of the human condition,” use words like that, don’t use the word from Dharma necessarily. Say “I would like to understand what it means to be human, and what human beings have been able to find out, some of the best people, just like the seven wonders of the world, and I feel this is one of them, a precious part of human heritage, and now I have the opportunity, I don’t have a husband and kids yet. you know what that means right?” They know. “I’m not really tied down and I think I have the chance here to spend, if not a year then at least six months,” and if you stay longer then you don’t have to say that in the beginning. Then say “okay, if it makes me happy? Dad, this would really make me happy. And, can you pay for it?” [laughter]
[Erik] What do you do about money for the shedra? I didn't have sponsors. I was very happy, but also very naive. So many times I'd spend my last 100 rupees. Happily. I was relaxed about having no money. Being young and naive sometimes has it's advantages. Not thinking about the rest of one’s life. Thinking that one has plenty of time.
Later came time where I thought “oh my, I'm old and over the hill.” I still felt like a young person, but when I looked in the mirror I didn't look young anymore. I couldn't any longer convince myself that I have plenty of time ahead of me. But you don't have that obscuration.
I don't think that’s good to join the shedra with the feeling that you can die any moment. You should have the feeling that there's at least time enough to make some use out of it. Otherwise maybe time is better spent, if you only have two years left, do retreat, focus on trekchö. I'm also not sure that you get enlightened by going to a shedra. But you will get enlightened by spending two years in a one stretch with a meditation cord, the whole time focusing on trekchö.
[Student] And then you might be able to benefit people more
[Erik] You might. If you go to the shedra do it for other people, so that you can really help others. There are so many who need that, not just to understand the traditional dharma but those who need to understand Dharma as a reality. You can learn the traditional Dharma to be able to express Dharma as a reality in a way where you do not lead others astray--like inventing some New Age philosophy, just because your heart chakra opened, feeling right about everything and then start a new school of something. When you join the Shedra you have the safeguard that can really help prevent that, like an anchor, so you don't just fly off in some direction. Shedra is very useful for others, not always for yourself. But starting at your age, I think this is very good for you. The genuine benefit of all this comes from the Dharma. There is benefit all the way. From seeing, hearing--I see these bus loads of people coming on Sundays in Lerab Ling, they all get benefit. 
Sogyal Rinpoche didn't build Lerab Ling by himself. It was built with his disciples, his restless disciples. He had to let them do something, which is wonderful. Lerab Ling is visibly manifest, something which people can see and talk about and point to, buy postcards of and send to their friends. Not only is it a big lump of cement, but something is happening inside, a beating heart, which can bring realization in this lifetime. Just seeing this place as a tourist doesn't necessarily bring enlightenment now, but later. Whoever participates here doesn't have to be realized. Whether through helping the physical structure, or by voicing the verses that get proliferated here, being part of that voice, you are an extension of Rinpoche's voice, joining one's energy with his to make it reach out to others. And joining a shedra is an even further extension of that, so going to the shedra belongs to guru yoga. Not what's in it for me, but how can it be useful for others. With that attitude you're practicing Guru yoga, you can practice trekchö, you can express bodhisattva activity. In that way you don't have to think about practicing some other time in the future, while you go off to the shedra. Like “first I go to the shedra and then I'll practice.” Don't think of it that way.
[Svea] Do you think nowadays it is still necessary to study Tibetan , or do you think it would be good as well to go to the shedra and just study?
[Erik] Both. You can easily learn the Dharma without studying Tibetan, but as you noticed in the talks, we use , or I was made to use, Tibetan words, because you are all familiar with them so why not.
[Student] I find such a resistance to learning Tibetan, I think it will be such a distraction.

[Erik] Then don't. Is Dharma as reality Tibetan or not? It isn't. The Dharma as words, is surely found in Tibetan. There is now more Dharma in English than 50 years ago, there is enough to read in a lifetime. But if you want to help others, one way is to learn Tibetan.  You don't have to, you can help others without learning Tibetan. Have you noticed this big project of translating all the words of the Buddha? [Erik is referring to http://www.buddhistliteraryheritage.org/ ]

zondag 2 oktober 2016

Buddhist Film Festival: Hema Hema, The Great Transmission and more

Thanks to Babeth van Loo and many others, Amsterdam was once again blessed with a whole range of movies and documentaries about Buddhism, Tibet, art and many more topics, on the Buddhist Film Festival Europe.  Entertainment for Buddhists, and anyone with an interest. Probably mostly anyone else with an interest.


The festival opened with Khyentse Norbu's new film, Hema Hema: sing me a song while I wait. It was sold out long before and the theatre was pretty much packed. I don't want to say much about the movie; like other movies from Khyentse Rinpoche, its quite beyond concepts and you'll just have to go and watch it yourself.


The whole weekend was packed with interesting things. We might think in this digital age we do not need to bother going to a film festival. But a lot of the movies are quite rare, and you won't easily find them elsewhere. And as Babeth mentioned herself, the hallmark of a film-festival is that for at least some of the films the producers are there themselves to talk about their film and answer questions.

On Saturday,  after a long Zen movie (A Touch of Zen), first there was a short film about Dzigar Kongtrul's expressive art. Then there was a film called 'Sculpting the Guru'. Some students of Tarthang Tulku filmed the process of making a large statue of Padmasambhava. Despite the fact that the filming was quite amateurish, and also the soundtrack could have been better (most people would probably not have noticed, but as someone who speaks Tibetan, Western people chanting Tibetan can be quite appalling), still it was quite endearing to see how just a handful of people managed to create such a work of art. Having been involved in some temple building myself, I think the most amazing feat is that they actually pulled it of and did everything themselves, even the whole gilding of the bronze.


But here I want to bring one film under your attention which left many people pleasantly surprised: The Great Transmission. This film was made by one of Tarthang Tulku's daughters.  It explores the remarkable journeys Buddhist knowledge has made in the course of its 2,500-year lifespan, starting in India, and then travelling as far east as Afghanistan, as far west as Indonesia, and as far north as China.


And that is, the great transmission. We witness the hardship the Tibetan people, and in particular the translators, have gone through in their quest to acquire and translate the great Indian treatises.


But while Buddhism came to Tibet, it was destroyed in India. Here we see Nalanda being burned to the ground. In the 20th century, history repeats itself, when the Chinese invade Tibet. We then shift to another major part of the film, the unrelenting efforts of Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche to publish these precious books and make them available to the scholars and practitioners who are in dire need of them in exile.



This was not an amateur film, on the contrary, it was very well directed and even the special effects and computer-made scenes were quite impressive.  Many prominent speakers pass the review, like Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Peter Skilling and many others. Orgyan Tobgyal spoke poetically, as always, praising Tarthang Tulku's activities: "In Bodhgaya, at some point, it just rained down Tibetan books (distributed by Tarthang Tulku).

This is definitively a film Dharma centres in the West should consider screening.


Some old friends of us also passed the review: 



donderdag 17 december 2015

Sri Lanka Pilgrimage - Dambulla caves, Anuradhapura and Kelaniya Temple

Our journey went further North, leaving the tea fields and the Kandy plateau behind us. We arrived at the hot planes of Anuradhapura. On the way, we stopped at the Dambulla cave temple complex. There are five caves with statues, stupas and wall paintings.
Dambulla caves from the outside
Buddha statue at Dambulla caves
Stupa in Dambulla caves
Moving on, we arrived in Anuradhapura, welcomed by a torrential downpour, the likes of which I have not seen very often (although I'm used to Indian monsoons!). Anuradhapura has been Sri Lanka's capital for many centuries, and successive kingdoms have left behind many impressive sites. But perhaps the foremost place to visit, is the Bodhi tree, the Jaya Shri Maha Bodhi. The Buddha had foreseen that Sri Lanka would be a place were his teachings would be upheld for a long time, and blessed the country with three visits. He came, as it is recorded in the sutra's, neither through land nor through water. But at the time of his visit the teachings did not yet spread. That was to happen during the reign of the great king Ashoka, whose very own son Mahendra and daughter Sangamitta came to Sri Lanka to establish the Sangha. It was Sangamitta who brought a sapling of the original Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya to Sri Lanka and planted it here. Now, it is reputedly the oldest known plant planted by humans in the world.

Reciting Miphams practice of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Aspiration to Good Actions
The actual tree is quite small, since it was planted in a golden pot and thus never became very large. It is supported by several beams. Surrounding it are larger specimen of the fig tree.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi
The ancient city is huge, and we continued our journey to the Thuparamaya stupa. It is considered the first stupa or Pagoda in Sri Lanka, and was build by King Devanampiyatissa at the request of Ashoka's son himself, Mahendra, to house the right collar bone of the Buddha.

Thuparamaya
Probably the Mirisawetiya Stupa
Ruins in the ancient capital
Our final visit for the day was the Jetavanaramaya stupa. It is a very important stupa, since it represents the tension between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is also the largest structure of the ancient world, and one of the tallest.

Jetavanaramaya stupa

Sculpture of a Mahayana Bodhisattva
Paintings in the small temple tell us the history of the stupa
A lot of planning preceded our arrival, and we were greeted with traditional dances.

Dance performance in front of Jetavanaramaya stupa
Around hundred monks had been requested to bless us with the recitation of a few sutras. They recited the Ratana sutta, the Mangala sutta, the Metta sutta and also the first ever giving discourse by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment, the Dhammachakkappwattana sutta. A recording of the melodious chants can be listened to here. We offered the monks new robes, and in turn the main abbots offered Buddha statues to the three main monks in our delegation.

Distribution of monk robes, headed by Philip and Tashi-laa

Offering of a Buddha statue by the abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist university

The venerable monks
Sutra in Pali script
Wild elephant on the way to Colombo
Kelaniya Temple

Finally, we left for Colombo, where we visited the Kelaniya Temple. Buddhists believe the temple to have been hallowed during a visit of the Buddha to Sri Lanka, eight years after gaining enlightenment. The temple contains some of the most beautiful paintings in the Buddhist world, made by local artist Solias Mendis. He visited the Ajanta and Elora caves, and mixed Indian with Sri Lankan art. The paintings depict the life story of the Buddha, his visit's to Sri Lanka and also the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

One of the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka
One of the paintings depicts Buddhagosa, Sri Lanka's most renowned scholar. The interpretations provided by Buddhaghosa have generally constituted the orthodox understanding of Theravada scriptures since at least the 12th century CE. Buddhagosa came from India, and visited Sri Lanka in order to find a commentary which has been lost in India. In Anuradhapura Buddhagosa requested to study all the texts in the Pali canon. In order to test him, the monks asked him to write a treatise summarizing the meaning of the scriptures. He wrote it, but at night it disappeared. Again he wrote it, and again it disappeared. Then finally, the third time it did not disappear. When he went to present his composition to the monks, suddenly all three texts appeared. The texts were identical and thus he passed his trials. This text is the Visuddhimagga, the Path of Purification, which is a comprehensive summary and analysis of the Theravada understanding of the Buddha's path to liberation.

Buddhagosa presenting his composition

Also the ceilings are filled with exquisite paintings 
The statues doing their daily job of upholding the temple
The story goes that one of the times the Buddha visited Sri Lanka (you can read more about the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka here), he came in order to pacify a conflict two kings where about to engage in, because of a huge jewel. They offered the Jewel to the Buddha, who then sat on it. He said 'now it is mine', but then he gave it back, after which a stupa was build to enshrine it.

The stupa build at the spot the Buddha visited Sri Lanka
That concluded the pilgrimage. Needles to say we need to thank Orgyan Tobgyal Rinpoche, all the other lamas and monks, and everybody else who volunteered to make this pilgrimage possible. Special mention should be made however to venerable Manjushri, who relentlessly helped organize everything, and was an unfathomable source of information.

Bhikkhu Manjushri 

Buddham saranam gacchami
I go to the Buddha for refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to the Sangha for refuge.






Sri Lanka pilgrimage - Kandy and the Sacred Tooth Temple

With three buses almost a hundred people we continued the journey to other sacred places of Sri Lanka, first in the direction of Kandy. Thanks to Orgyan Tobgyal Rinpoche and other courageous volunteers, we travelled in style and firstly enjoyed a grand buffet at the outskirts of Kandy. 

Buffet near Kandy
The first thing scheduled was a dance performance of the famed Kandyan dance style. The dance, just as any practice done at most Tibetan monasteries, started with a blowing of the conch. After that, when the drums started, the whole audience was mesmerized. I'm not someone who visits theatres a lot, but this was certainly thrilling. Dance acts followed up in rapid succession, never becoming boring. 

Kandyan Dance

video
Most of the dance is performed as an offering to the Buddha. At the end the dancers showed their courage by walking on burning coals, and rolling flames alongside their body and on their tongue. The fire dance goes back to the myth of Seetha, Ram, and the demon Ravana.

Playing with fire

Description of the dances part 1
Description of the dances part 2

The next day the main attraction was planned, the Sacred Tooth temple, or Sri Dalada Maligawa. 

Temple of the Sacred Tooth from across the lake
When the Buddha passed away, he was cremated in a sandalwood pyre. Then, the Arhat Kema
obtained the sacred tooth of the Buddha. It was kept in India, in Kalinga, until it was brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century. In the main hall, beautiful paintings portray an elaborate history of the tooth relic. The tooth has a special shrine room dedicated to it, and musical offerings are made a few times a day. It is only displayed to the public once every few years. Since we travelled in a large group we were fortunate and were allowed to -quickly- visit the inner shrine room.

Main shrine hall (thanks to Boon for the photo)
Painting portraying the Arhat Kema obtaining the tooth relic
Bodhi trees abound in Sri Lanka. This is the one at the sacred tooth temple
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Lighting candles
For budget travellers, Kandy certainly has some cheaper places to stay and dine. We stayed in a double room for 2000 rupees and had an elaborate breakfast for 4 persons at a large middle class restaurant for only 800 rupees