Interview with Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II

Study Buddhism spoke with Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II in a countryside garden near Hamburg on his recent tour in Europe.
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Study Buddhism: Please introduce yourself.

Serkong Rinpoche: My name is Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, a title given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was recognized as the reincarnation when I was almost three and a half years old. I went to the monastery and studied the various texts.

I was born in Spiti into a big family – I have nine brothers and sisters. I’m the fourth child. But I didn’t get to spend much time with my family or brothers and sisters, because I was in the monastery. Spiti is quite a remote, dry and desert-like place. It’s quite high-altitude. The culture and local people are similar to Tibetans. And like Tibetans, we’re very respectful to each other, and the people have very kind hearts. Of course, many people also have a lot of blind faith!

Study Buddhism: You were recognized as the reincarnation of Serkong Rinpoche, a great teacher. Do you feel that 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 difference. So 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 Tsenzhab 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.

Study Buddhism: Could you talk a little more about your responsibilities?

Serkong Rinpoche: 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.

So, 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.

Study Buddhism: You grew up in a very traditional monastic upbringing, and now recently you’ve spent three years living in Canada. That’s quite a drastic change. How did your Buddhist training help you deal with this?

Serkong Rinpoche: There are a lot of differences between my monastic lifestyle, and the lifestyle in Canada. 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.

Study Buddhism: You’ve spent your life studying Buddhism. If you had to give a good reason for doing so, what would it be?

Serkong Rinpoche: Why should people study Buddhism? That’s very individual! It’s up to each person’s own interest. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always saying 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. But, to generate it 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?

Once you start to feel like you want to get out of what we call samsara – all of our suffering and problems – then the question can come as to whether one should really study more. But in general, there are many great qualities that we can gain from studying Buddhism, without the need to become a Buddhist.

Study Buddhism: Do you see any difference between practicing and actually applying Buddhist techniques in Asia and the West. Do Westerners have any particular problems?

Serkong Rinpoche: I think there is a huge difference. Of course, in Asia we are brought up in the 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.

Of course, Tibetan culture is totally changing due to His Holiness’ kindness and guidance. But these are still the main differences I see between the West and Himalayan societies.

Study Buddhism: Do you think it’s really possible to study and practice Buddhism really well entirely in the West, or do we need to go to Asia to study?

Serkong Rinpoche: Before, it was necessary to come to India to see the really great, qualified teachers. But nowadays, due to technology, it’s really convenient for people who wish to access Dharma materials to do so.

In many countries now there are also many Buddhist centres with very qualified geshes and teachers, so there’s no need to come to India anymore.

Study Buddhism: Young people lead very busy lives. They want to work and have fun, but many also want to study Buddhism. What’s the best advice you can give them?

Serkong Rinpoche: Well, they still need to study a little bit. I know Westerners have an amazing habit, that wherever they are – on a plane or train – they like to read books. So then read some books about Buddhism. When you have doubts about what you read, try and ask a teacher or check on the internet.

Then if you learn something, try and keep that with you in your daily life. Slowly, you’ll reach a bigger goal. Of course, the bigger goal you have, the bigger result you’ll have.

Study Buddhism: There are lots of vows. Some people view vows as being like a prison, stopping us from having fun. What’s your view on this?

Serkong Rinpoche: Of course, if you feel like a certain vow is stopping you from doing something you want to, then it feels like a prison. But with the vows, no one is pushing or forcing us to take them. We do it voluntarily, and they become a great opportunity for our Buddhist practice.

Study Buddhism: Any advice for short meditations for young people in the West?

Serkong Rinpoche: I’d say think more about compassion and awareness. Without compassion, we have nothing. We need compassion for ourselves and others, too.

Study Buddhism: What are blessings?

Serkong Rinpoche: This is a really good question! In Asia, many people think this or that substance is holy, so we should eat it for blessings. I don’t think blessing just works like that – it requires faith.

I had a friend whose father was in hospital for a long time. He couldn’t sleep and the doctor gave him some pills for several weeks. Then the doctor said he was fine and didn’t need them anymore, and could sleep normally. He tried and tried, but he couldn’t sleep without the drugs. He called the doctor and begged for the medicine, so the doctor agreed. The next day, the doctor asked him how he slept, and my friend’s father said he slept very well. The doctor then told him that he’d actually given him a placebo.

I think this just goes to show that when there’s an object with which we have some faith, then there is some power there. It becomes a blessing.

Dr. Alexander Berzin and Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II
Dr. Alexander Berzin and Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche II

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