This is by no means the first meeting I’ve had with Serkong Rinpoche. In fact, my first encounter with him was back in 2008, when through my connection to Dr. Berzin, I got the chance to see him during my first visit to Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A relative newcomer to Buddhism at the time, it was rather nerve-wracking to meet someone who was recognized as the reincarnation of such a great teacher. I’d brought along a small Buddha statue for Rinpoche to bless, thinking he might unwrap it from its long silky kata to take a look and admire it, but disappointingly, he just said a few prayers and blew on it while it was still wrapped up, and that was that. But I soon came to realize that this was simply part of Rinpoche’s personality: exceptionally down-to-earth and very, very humorous. And with us being born just weeks apart, we also shared that generational connection: a love for technology and gadgets, as well as horror movies!
Born in 1984 to a large traditional family in the high-altitude region of Spiti, northern India, he was recognized at the age of three and a half as the reincarnation of Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, one of the 20th-century’s most highly-regarded Buddhist teachers and the debate partner of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In this interview, I talk with Serkong Rinpoche about the Tibetan tulku system, how we can maintain compassion in this day and age of extreme polarization and tackle the perennial question: what is the meaning of life?
Study Buddhism: I can imagine that there’s some kind of pressure that comes with being recognized as the reincarnation of such an eminent teacher. What kind of responsibilities does this give you, and do you feel like you’re the same person as the previous one?
Serkong Rinpoche: Oh, that’s very tricky to answer! Firstly, I never met the previous one. The form is different, and also the mind has some differences. Mostly, I can say I don’t feel like him. The way he practiced, the amount of guru devotion he had – I really admire him when I hear of his good qualities. However, I do feel very connected to the responsibilities of Serkong Tsenshap Rinpoche to benefit people. Sometimes I think, “Whether I’m the reincarnation or not, I have this great opportunity.” So I feel very lucky to have this opportunity.
One of the most amazing things the previous Serkong Rinpoche did was to serve His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Also, due to his compassion towards the people of Spiti, he made tremendous connections with them, as well as Tibetans and some Westerners in Europe and America. I have the same wish to serve His Holiness. The task is a little different of course, because my predecessor was a qualified teacher, and I’m nowhere near that. I still have studies and practices to do. But, with the guidance of His Holiness, I will try my best to do whatever he wishes for me to do. On top of this, to continue what my predecessor has done before me, there are so many people who wish for me to teach them and to make karmic connections with me. So I feel like I should do this for them.
You were recognized at the age of three and a half and had to leave your family, including all of your brothers and sisters, to go and live in a monastery. At that age you can’t really make any decisions by yourself, so you were basically put into that situation. The question here is then, with Tibet’s tulku system, how useful is it and is it sustainable into the future?
Well, in the past, it was very helpful and, in the current situation, I believe it's still helpful. The best example is His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself. He's the fourteenth in the line of reincarnations, so up to now we've had great masters like him. I think that's been very helpful.
But then now, you see, there should be some kind of limit, otherwise there will just be so many reincarnations. Because what we need are the best ones, and it's really hard to choose which ones will be best, and which will be very successful. The monasteries have even had big discussions about this. That's why sometimes His Holiness likes to make a distinction between lamas and tulkus. What's the difference? He says there are people who could be both, but there are also people who are reincarnations – tulkus – but not lamas at all. We could say something like a “naughty tulku!” There can be a tulku who isn't a lama, because a lama is someone who is qualified.
So while the tulku system is very important and has played a strong role in Tibetan Buddhism, it can also lead to some dangerous situations. A qualified lama would never ever even try a little bit to destroy people's faith, because faith is everything. Faith is the basis of people's connection to Buddhism, so there is a big danger here.
And as to whether the tulku system remains in the future, whether there should be the tulku system or not, I am nobody to decide yes or no!
Of course, one of the key benefits of being recognized at such a young age is that you have access to the best teachers in the Buddhist world and have the chance to absorb the teachings in a way most Westerners can only dream of. For those of us starting later in life, what can we gain from studying the Buddhist teachings?
Buddhism has so many methods and beautiful teachings that help to remove our suffering! This is something that material goods and money can't buy. Once you start to feel like you want to get out of what we call samsara – which refers to all of our suffering and problems – then the question can come as to whether one should study. But that’s very individual and it’s up to each person’s own interest. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that there is Buddhist religion, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist science. So there are many different things that can benefit different people.
For instance, compassion. Buddhists talk about it a lot, but just practicing compassion doesn’t make you a Buddhist. However, to generate compassion really well, we can all study Buddhist methods. You can improve your compassion like that. I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t want to improve their compassion, because it’s such a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
So in general, there are many great qualities that we can gain from studying Buddhism, without the need to become a Buddhist. And the practices help us to train our mind and to fight against the obstacles that we are facing.
You just mentioned that we face obstacles. What do you mean by that? And then once we’ve worked out what they are, how do we start to study and practice Buddhism to overcome them?
Obstacles can be very small things, like being too distracted by our cellphones. Sometimes we forget about the people around us. Like in my family, when we talk and then my brothers and sisters come with their cellphones, my parents always try and have a conversation with us but my brothers and sisters are always busy. I can see the sadness and the loneliness, that even though the physical body is here, mentally we are disconnected.
I think a good place to start is by studying the Nalanda masters and the logic they used. In the West, people are already well-educated and modern people are so bright, but there might be lots of ego maybe. For some people, not all! But it's very good to challenge yourself with this stuff.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition really pushes the lam-rim style, which talks about guru devotion and past and future lives, death, impermanence, all of these things. Atisha, the Nalanda master, checked how Tibetan people's minds worked, and therefore this lam-rim style is really made for Tibetans.
For Westerners, I think it should be based on how the Nalanda masters tried to carry out their dialogues – how they had their views and would pose questions and get and give answers. They debated. All of this is very interesting, and I think this Nalanda style is a much safer approach to Buddhism.
Debate does play a huge role, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, as a way to gain conviction in the teachings. And one of the key features of Buddhism is that we are expected to question things – even central tenets. We can take rebirth as an example of something that a lot of Westerners coming to Buddhism struggle with. What exactly is rebirth, and can we be Buddhists without believing in it?
It's really confusing sometimes for many people, and for me too! After we die, we will leave this body and our consciousness will continue. And then we will take another form, and we use this form, as we say in Buddhism, like a guesthouse. We come and go, we stay and go.
Buddhism isn't only about past and future lives... Compassion, love for others, patience. All these kinds of beautiful practices, this is what Buddhism is really about.
If you don't have so much knowledge about consciousness, about how consciousness works, then it's a really difficult subject. If you are really interested, and then you learn and know a little bit about consciousness, and about how it works, then what rebirth is and whether there is rebirth or not, the answers will be very clear.
But can you practice Buddhist practices without believing in past and future lives? Definitely, sure. Buddhism isn't only about past and future lives. Because when we look at the Four Noble Truths, it does not talk about past and future lives. This is the first teaching of Buddha, and his focus is on suffering. When you think about suffering, and you think about whether there's a way to get rid of suffering, there are so many things: compassion, love for others, patience. All these kinds of beautiful practices, this is what Buddhism is really about.
You can go through the lam-rim, and you can just put a question mark on the idea of rebirth, then you skip it and go ahead. Once you've finished everything, and if you're brave enough, then you can come back to your question mark about rebirth, and try to find the reasoning there. Don't just ignore it!
You’ve spent quite a few years living in Canada. You went there to improve your English so that you would be better able to bring the Dharma teachings to Western students. Having experienced life now in both the East and West, what do you see as the major differences?
I think there is a huge difference. Of course, in Asia we are brought up in the Buddhist tradition, so our parents will say, “Go and do some circumambulation and recite OM MANI PADME HUM,” and we do it automatically. At the same time, people have actually very little education about Buddhism. They feel, “This is just our tradition, nothing else.”
When I give teachings in Spiti, everyone will listen very attentively and, whatever I say, they’ll just nod their heads. Then I wait for some questions about what I’ve said, and normally there are none. I think this is a bit of a problem. If there’s no doubt, then it means there’s not really any interest. It’s not like this in the West! People will go to listen to talks on Buddhism and really listen to the main points. The teachings will really take their hearts away! Whatever I say in the West, people will analyse and question it, which makes the faith much stronger.
There was also a big difference in my life in Canada compared to India. In the monastery, we had to follow and respect all sorts of different rules. But if you ever felt like you didn’t want to, it could feel like you were in prison. I felt very close to the monastic lifestyle, but of course sometimes I didn’t want to follow it.
Of course, when I moved to Canada, I didn’t totally become Canadian! I went to study English, and all of my friends just called me Serkong, which was quite funny. But I made some good friends, and eventually felt I belonged with them. I would see so many differences between the way people back home thought and people in Canada. I felt, “Oh! This is how normal people think!”
When I was in the monastery, everyone would treat me in a very respectful way. But among my friends in Canada, it wasn’t like that at all. It really helped me to remember that I’m a very ordinary person! In the monastery, I’d always have my own cutlery and cup and plate, which no one else would eat from. In Canada, my friends would eat ice cream and just say, “Oh taste this, it’s so tasty!” This really made me feel connected with others.
The world right now feels a bit lost. People are becoming more extreme, populist leaders are being elected across the globe, and we still don’t seem to be taking climate change seriously. I often feel a little bit helpless and sad when I look at the state of the planet and the multitude of issues we face: it all seems insurmountable. What’s your advice?
Compassion is very important for our survival. But compassion is not only for others. Compassion includes for yourself, too. Compassion sometimes just sounds like, "Think about others," and that sounds like, "Don't think about yourself." I think that's a really wrong idea! If you say that compassion is important, then a person who has compassion is automatically also important. That's why you should feel, "Well, I have the ability to help others, so I should try to practice as much as I can in order to help others."
It's like when a child is very sad, then the mother won't be happy at all. If the child smiles or is very happy, then ultimately the mother will be so happy that she'll even forget her own small problems. So it's the same thing. Compassion is the key to help others, and from this you yourself will automatically smile.
If you feel like all other people are just your neighbors, then once you shut your door, and you're inside with your family, then everything becomes so narrow, so small-minded. But if you feel like the whole world is your house, then you feel like you should do something for humanity. If you accept this world as your home, this is the next level: how can I help? Otherwise you just stay in your room and don't care about other people. So you should look to see why, how, and what I can contribute to this world. Then ultimately, you will generate compassion very quickly I think.
So you’re saying that compassion is the key to dealing with our problems: it helps others and ourselves when we have compassion. Could we say then that we might have found the meaning of life?!
Well, the meaning of life could be one of two things! One is that you become happy yourself and that's all. The other is, you become happy and you also make others happy. These are the two things that I think can be the meaning of life.
Whenever you go out, you see so many people going here and there, leading such busy lives. If you were to put a camera behind them, you would see that they are all looking for something: for their own happiness. But there could be another person who is also going here and there, but looking for the happiness of others. Out of those two kinds of people, if you just go out and look for happiness for yourself, then, I think it'll be really difficult to find satisfaction. Like billionaires and millionaires, they might feel, "Oh, now I'm losing so much money, and now I won't be famous anymore and I will lose all of this." The whole of their life, they worry and worry and worry.
But let's say I'm a millionaire and I make this huge amount of money, but instead it's for charity, it's for making donations to others, and you end up making other people happy. Then you feel, "Well, the purpose of, the meaning of my life is to bring happiness to others." Once you see this kind of happiness in others, then you will also feel "Oh, I'm very happy today!" And just like that, you're happy. If not, and you just put the money in the bank and you lose some money in business, then you'll feel "Oh no, now that other guy is richer and more famous than me." This is a big challenge! So I think the second way of living – for others – gives you a much more meaningful life.
Rinpoche, thank you so much for your time and your insight. Do you have any final words to leave with our readers?
Yes: try to be happy! We should enjoy life, go to parties, spend quality time with friends, use Instagram and Facebook and all of these things. But remember that these are not the only things in life. We mustn’t forget about the people around us. Once we are with our family and friends, we should really be with our family and friends. Don't get too distracted by cellphones!
That’s all! Thank you very much!