Interview with Ringu Tulku

Study Buddhism sat down to talk with Ringu Tulku at Bodhicharya, one of his centres and an oasis of peace in the middle of Berlin.
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Study Buddhism: Please introduce yourself.

Ringu Tulku: My name is Ringu Tulku. Ringu is the name of my monastery, which is in Eastern Tibet. I myself was mainly educated in Sikkim, India. I studied under different khenpos and lamas, but I consider Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche and the 16th Karmapa as my main teachers. I received all my ordinations from them, but I’ve also had the opportunity to receive teachings from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Firstly, why study Buddhism? What can Buddhism provide people?

We were always taught to ask, “What is it that I really want?” If you look deeply into what you really wish, it is to be free from all kind of suffering and pain and problems. Not only do you want to be free of this yourself, but you also want your near and dear ones to be free of suffering, too. So actually, becoming free of suffering and finding lasting peace and happiness, and also bringing that to other people as well, is the most important thing for us. Studying Buddhism shows us the steps of how to do this and get there.

People nowadays, especially young people, feel a lot of pressure to be perfect and happy, even if they’re not. What do you see as the biggest obstacle that young people face today?

I think today, young people have very high expectations. That seems to be the main problem. They don’t seem to really understand what we call ‘samsara’ – that in the world there is lots of pain, suffering, negativity, shortcomings, ignorance, aggression, and the list goes on. This is very basic, but we can’t expect that everyone else will always be nice and generous and perfect.

It’s important to see that there are these external problems, but that we have these problems within us too. When we deeply understand this, it brings a certain acceptance and also compassion – we understand that nobody is perfect and so when we see something we don’t like, we feel compassion.

Would you say that you’re always happy? If not, why not? How do you deal with unhappiness?

I think I’m pretty happy! It’s because I don’t expect everything to be perfect. I don’t expect too much – I have almost no expectations. So I travel a lot, but wherever I go, I feel good everywhere.

I think happiness is basically peace of mind, which is an undisturbed mind. The way that the mind is left undisturbed is by learning to accept things and learning to be okay in whatever situation we find ourselves in. This is a great way to deal with the emotions, too.

Are there any concrete steps people can take to make them happier in this very hectic and busy world?

I think being busy doesn’t really have that much to do with happiness and unhappiness. How busy we are is totally up to us, in a way! The problem here is that people often think that the more they do and the more possessions they acquire, the happier they get. But in the process of doing that, they get stressed and it all becomes a source of unhappiness. First we should learn that getting lots of things or doing lots of things is not the answer. The main thing is to find contentment in your mind.

Even if you are busy, that’s no reason to be unhappy. It’s all about how you do approach it. Sometimes things will go well and sometimes not very well, but what we can do is our best. If I try my best and things work out, then great. If it doesn’t, then I’ve done my best at least, and there’s not much more I can do about it. If I do things like that, I think it makes me more relaxed.

Buddhism is widely perceived as being very tolerant and accepting, but along with this is the idea that it is passive: whatever happens, it doesn’t matter – just go off and meditate. Is this justified?

I think this is a very wrong idea! The Buddhist way is definitely not to say that whatever happens is okay. Of course, we need to be realistic and accept what we have and where we are. But if we just stop there and give up, that’s passive. But this way isn’t necessary!

You don’t need to give up. Whatever happened, whatever we’ve done, whether good or bad or whatever, from now on we don’t give up. We can work out the way to do better next time and keep on working, but not in a stressed or angry way. It’s important not to harbor negative feelings toward ourselves or others. If we do that, we’ll just burn ourselves up, and that doesn’t help.

People nowadays seem quite angry. It’s now easy to see about environmental destruction, various injustices across the world, corruption, scandals and so on. Can we empower ourselves and change the world?

I think we can change the world! But it’s not easy. It’s not easy, not because it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we don’t do it! We all want others to be kind, generous and helpful. We want others to behave well, and be patient and tolerant. We want others to work hard and be wise. But just wanting that doesn’t make everybody like that. So we need to start with ourselves.

We’ve got what we call the six paramitas – generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom – and if people tried to develop these a little bit, then they’d be great human beings. If the world had more of them, the world really would be a great world. But we can’t expect others to do it or force them to. We have to start cultivating these qualities in ourselves.

This is the practice of Buddhism – working on ourselves. By doing that, others will slowly see how beneficial these qualities are for everyone. Even if we just conceptually accept and value the idea, it can make a great difference.

Of course, there’s lot of negative stuff out there, but being angry doesn’t change that. If I’m too angry and aggressive about it, I actually become part of the problem. Being relaxed and working patiently, coolly and in a more long-term way is the best method for solving problems.

There are times when people have real difficulties in life. People lose their jobs, people die, people have strong anxiety. What can we do?

I was once in Belgium or somewhere like that, and one lady came and said, “Oh I cannot take it anymore, I’m at the end of it, I’m going to kill myself.” She said that she’d lost her boyfriend and job, that she had no money, and so she wanted to die. I told her that if she wanted to die, then nobody could stop her, but before, why not take a trip to India. “Please don’t tell me you have no money, because you don’t need any money after you die,” I said!

Sometimes people do go to India or somewhere and then they come back smiling from ear to ear, because they get a more realistic view on life. This lady, she went to Japan, but she also came back happy. She said she’d nearly died after falling down a mountain, and she couldn’t get out, and she thought, “This is the end of my life.”

At that time, she forgot about the no-boyfriend, no-job, no-money situation – all of those seemed insignificant. Her only thought was, “If only I could get out of here alive, I’d be so happy!” Finally she was rescued, and then came back totally happy.

So it’s all very comparative. We often think we’re in a bad shape, but actually, things could be even worse. There’ll always be better and worse situations, and if we see this clearly, then it does help.

A journalist once questioned His Holiness the Dalai Lama, saying, “You always say people have to be optimistic, but what about Tibet? It hasn’t worked – the situation is worse than ever, and there’s nothing to be optimistic about!” His Holiness giggled as he usually does, and he said, “You’re right. The situation in Tibet is probably the worst it’s ever been. That is why there is nothing that cannot be improved. It is so bad, that it can only improve!”

In the same way, we need to focus on what we can improve, and that already makes us optimistic. His Holiness’s answer was excellent, because if we’re in a very bad situation and just say, “Oh, it’s so bad, I give up,” then we’re lost. But if we think, “What can I do to make this situation even slightly better?” then we are already optimistic, and that outlook changes our perspective.

You’ve written books on Tibetan folk tales, could you share what is your favorite?

I do like folk stories. But I also like Tolstoy’s stories. There’s one of his about an angel whose wings are taken off and he’s sent to earth to find out the three most important things about human beings. First, he saw that there’s love in the hearts of humans. Second, they don’t know when they are going to die. Third, humans live by the love of others. After this, he got his wings back and could fly off.

For you, does this story correspond with the Buddhist teachings?

Yes, but not only the Buddhist teachings. It corresponds to the universal teachings given by holy beings. A holy being is someone who is completely selfless, and so their teaching has to be love – equal love for all sentient beings. That’s the core of Buddhism, and of course the core of all great religious teachings.

There’s a movie about you called “Lazy Lama,” where did this name come from?

That comes from a small booklet created by my students with my teaching materials, called “Lazy Lama Looks at Meditation.” I am lazy, not because I don’t do things. I do a lot of things and travel lot. But I’m not good at meditation for many hours. I think it’s because of laziness!

For those of us who might be both lazy and busy, could you recommend a short, five-minute meditation that would help us in our daily lives?

I think a great way to start with anything is to look at our motivation – what is it I’m doing and why? What is my final and ultimate goal? Then we can be very clear about where we’re going and what we need to train in.

Buddhism isn’t only about meditation. It is all-round training. People often think they can’t meditate or don’t have time to, and so they can’t practice Buddhism. But we can practice Buddhism even without meditation. There’s also the eightfold path and the six paramitas to study! You can also just practice kindness – that is a great practice, and it doesn’t need a special time or place.

This is the main point. Tolerance, patience, behaving well, we need to make these things a part of our life. It shouldn’t become just something extra, where we spend a few minutes a day on it. How we see things, how we react to things, how we live our life – this is the true practice of Dharma.

Watch more videos with Ringu Tulku