Serkong Rinpoche: A Real Thing Lama

Audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama before Moving to Germany

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 29 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.

Reflections on Serkong Rinpoche’s Advice on Becoming a Buddhist Teacher

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 included 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, Tsenshap 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 Wangyal’s monastery in New Jersey to rest for a few days. Geshe Wangyal, 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.

Lama Zopa’s Testimony on Rinpoche Being “The Real Thing”

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 Tsenshap 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.