Interview about Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche – Alan Turner

Other languages
Interviewer: What’s your full name? 

Turner: Alan Turner.

Alan, when and how did you first meet Rinpoche?

About 1975, we requested some teachings from him.

Who’s we?

Who’s we? A group of people that were interested in teachings in Dharamsala, various teachings, and we always had Alex go along and translate. Basically, everything I’ve been to with Serkong Rinpoche has been with Alex.

Can you remember actually the first time you met him?

Maybe. The first or second, I think.

It was going along to a teaching in Dharamsala, was it?

Yes. We requested a teaching. There was a group of people, a group of Westerners – maybe six, seven, eight people, and there was something we were interested in, and we just asked him to show us how to do it.

So, you went to his house in Dharamsala?

Yes, his house.

How would you describe Rinpoche? How would you describe him in your own words?

Well, I asked who he was before I went there, so I knew what he was before I went there. Because when I was in Dharamsala, we were basically told, “If you want to take any teachings, you go to His Holiness or his tutors.” Serkong Rinpoche was considered one sort of tutor. He was a tsenshap, so that’s a sort of a tutor of the Dalai Lama. Rather than me checking him out, which I can’t do, then His Holiness checked him out; then, from my side, I knew there would be no problems.

What was your impression when you first met him, when first getting to know him?

He was an old, wrinkled man that seemed to know what he was doing. He was very kind. He took us seriously. I mean, we were just a group of Westerners. We basically didn’t really know what we were doing, and we asked him to clarify a lot of things, and he took the trouble to do it. He took us seriously. He said, “Okay. If you want to do something, it’s possible to do something. What do you want to do?”

So, he was very patient. You’d ask all sorts of questions?

Yes. He would just make things clear. He would say, “If you want to do this, you have to do that, that, that and that.”

Were all of these tantric teachings? Was he happy for you to be receiving these teachings and trying to practice tantra in the early stages? Or was it more sutra teachings?

It was mostly teachings on tantra. It wasn’t a question of trying to do them; it was just, “Do it.” Anybody can do it if they want to. It’s not a big deal.

What were some of the teachings that you requested?

Just some teachings on deities. I suppose the easiest thing for me is that I find it very easy to see my teachers as deities. I didn’t have any problem with that. I find that very easy; I didn’t have to think about it. For me, most things seem sort of natural. It just seemed common sense and natural.

You just answered one of my questions. All the teachings that you received from Rinpoche, were they mainly from what you requested?

Yes, mostly, what I requested. I think Alex and I were interested in the same things at the same time, so it was very good for both of us. I had him to translate for me; otherwise, I would have stood no chance whatsoever of getting any teaching from anybody. He was also interested in the same subjects, so it was good for both of us. I mean, like now, the commitments that I do, probably everything that I do, is translated by Alex. So without him, I’d be in a mess.

Did you know Alex before you met Rinpoche? Or how did your friendship with Alex evolve?

He was at the library [the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives], and everybody knew everybody at the library. We had teachings from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Basically, it was just a group of Westerners, and everybody got to know everybody else.

How long did you spend in India, and when you left, where did you go?

I went in about 1974 to India, and I stayed there for about three years.

And then went…?

Went back to England.

Did you request Rinpoche to come and teach there? Or how did you receive teachings there?

When I was back in England, I had a house there, so I requested him twice to come. Because he was doing tours with Alex translating, I could write to Alex and request that when he comes round, please come and see me – and request further teachings, and sort of clarify things, and just progress in the way I was progressing.

What happened with that? When did Rinpoche go to England?

It was 1980 and 1982.

Basically, you requested Rinpoche to come visit, and then when Rinpoche had his world tour, he came to England. Did he stay with you?

Yes. He stayed with me twice.

Can you tell us a bit about that? Can you tell us any stories about Rinpoche coming to visit your place?

I knew who he was, so there was nothing to expect. I was interested in some more teachings, and he agreed to give me those teachings.

Were you a bit nervous? How did he interact with the children?

Oh, the children? I mean, he got on with them great. He gets on with everybody great. There’s no problem from his side.

How old were your children?

I think Sarah and Tom were something like five and three the first time, something like that. He was very pleased to see them. He was always pleased to see everybody, and it was just easy.

Did he interact with them? Did he play with them?

Yes. A little bit.

What sort of playing did Rinpoche do?

Just like a grandpa, just like an old grandpa. You know: “Hello, and how are you?” Of course, they were very shy because they didn’t know him. But it was very easy.

Was he formal? Did he stay in his room? Or was he informal?

No. He wasn’t formal at all. He was just totally like a grandfather would be. Just exactly the same as any old, nice, kindhearted grandfather.

How about your wife? How did she interact with him?

She knew Serkong Rinpoche from before, as well. For her, it was nothing new. It was carrying on.

You must have been very excited to have your guru come to stay with you, though. Did you do any preparation beforehand? Did Rinpoche make any changes? Did Rinpoche feel completely comfortable with you? When you were cooking for Rinpoche… What was all that like?

I didn’t cook for Rinpoche. Ngawang and Chondzey were there, so they did everything. I would take them to the supermarket and they would just get whatever they wanted, and come back and cook whatever they wanted. They would generally just do what they wanted to.

As for moving things around in the bedroom, I put things how I thought they would be nice for him, and he just moved everything around in the way he wanted it. I think he felt he could do that. He felt at home there, so I didn’t object.

Didn’t Alex say that he doesn’t normally move things around?

Well, if it’s some very dignified person in Switzerland, it wouldn’t be very good if you started moving their furniture around. They’d probably feel a little bit insulted, wouldn’t they? But if he wants to move my furniture around, I don’t mind.

So, you had a very comfortable relationship with Rinpoche? Did you feel completely relaxed with Rinpoche? What was the relationship between you? How did you interact?

Well, my whole point was that I wanted to change. So, if he wanted to move things around – including me and my mind – then fine.

Did he ever scold you?

Yeah. [laughing]

How did Rinpoche treat you? How did he talk with you?

Like scolding me? You want that one?


Basically, there was a time when he asked me who are my main teachers, and I said I like him very much, and I like Yongdzin Ling Dorjechang very much. He basically scolded me rather severely – to put it mildly – and said, “Who do you think His Holiness the Dalai Lama is? His Holiness the Dalai Lama is always first. Only His Holiness can hold all the Tibetans together, nobody else can. Without His Holiness, they would have all split up and been all over the place, and there would be no Tibetan Buddhism; it would just be totally fragmented.” He just pointed out that His Holiness the Dalai Lama should always be number one, and you are incredibly stupid if you don’t understand that.

Tell the story about when you asked about the commitment.

That was a time in Dharamsala. In the 1970s, things were a little difficult because when we asked for a teaching, if there was a commitment, we had to know what the commitment was because there were no translations in those days. So, I asked for one teaching, and basically, I wanted to know what the teaching was so that I could ask Alex to translate the commitment before receiving the teaching, because then I could do the commitment every day. I got scolded severely, with Rinpoche saying, “You should be ready to do any commitment I give you, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter what it is. If you’re not ready to take any commitment I give you, at any time, you shouldn’t even come and ask me for the teaching.” That was fair enough. Since then, I took the long commitment without him giving me any commitment, and I’ve done it every day for the last 30 years because Alex translated it. He didn’t give me any commitment, but I did it anyway.

And you’re still comfortable with that?

Sure. I’m very comfortable with all my teachings I had. I enjoy them.

When Rinpoche used to scold you at different times, how did you feel? With your personality, did you take it on board well? 

You just have to think about what he said because obviously he was doing it for a reason. Like everything a teacher tells you, I think you have to think about what he said and why he has said it, and for what reason. I mean, I’m pretty thick, so it took me a while to work it out, but today, I can see that His Holiness is the most important person by miles in the whole of Tibetan Buddhism. Everybody knows that, and everybody can see that. At that time, His Holiness was younger, and his teachers had quite a lot of charisma, and we didn’t see His Holiness that often; it was probably easier to see the tutors of His Holiness.

But some people would find it difficult to have the teacher being very stern with them; they like to be nurtured. So, you were able to handle it? Was Rinpoche often stern with you like that?

Not often, no. Basically, if I wanted to do something, he said, “Well, if you want to do that, you’ve got to do that, that, that and that first.”

There was a nice time when I was doing prostrations, and I’d almost done 100,000. Basically, I asked him very clearly, “Okay, how shall I do prostrations?” and he told me exactly how to do them, and I had it translated by Alex, again. This was probably in 1980. Then, in 1982 or something – maybe it was a bit before that, I don’t know – but anyway, when I next saw him, he said, “How are your prostrations going?” I said, “Oh, very well.” He said, “And how are you doing them?” I said, “How I’m always doing them, exactly as you’ve told me to do them.” He said, “Oh no, no. That’s completely wrong. Start again!” I’d got up to 84,000 then; I was looking forward to finishing them. “Oh no. That’s completely wrong. Start again!”

What were you doing wrong?

He told me to do one visualization. I was doing that, and then he changed his mind about the visualization. Basically, the second time was to do the 35 Confession Buddhas. The first time was just something else.

Did Rinpoche mean for you to do the ngondro?

No, I wanted to do it from my side. He’s never recommended me to do anything except have His Holiness as number one. Whatever I do, the interest has come from my side. He’s never given me any advice. He usually said, “Make up your own mind about things.”

But did he think it was very, very good that you were doing that? He wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s very good, but you should do this as well?”

Well, it’s not “very good”; it’s just common sense. I mean, if anybody does prostrations, it doesn’t matter who you are; it’s not bad, is it? It’s not bad. We all need to do prostrations. We all need to do Vajrasattva mantras. I don’t think there’s anybody alive today who doesn’t need to do that sort of thing.

Did he ever praise you or say, “Well done?”

No. He never praised me for anything. He just expected me to do it. Because I’d been to him and asked him for some teachings on how you do something, he expected me to do it. That’s why you go to a teacher – you request him, “I would like to do this” – then I think the teacher expects you to do it; otherwise, why are you going to him and asking for something?

When you requested Rinpoche, was there a formal process for how you would do that?

He was extremely informal. A typical time when he came to my house in the 1980s, and I was sitting down with Alex for a teaching, and we sort of sat down on a cushion and started to go, “Sang gye cho...” [Sang-gye cho-dang tsog-kyi cho-nam-la (I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.)] “Oh, shut up,” he said. “Sit down. If you haven’t got bodhichitta, forget it!” He said, basically, “In the time it takes to swing your foot from one stirrup to the other, you should have gone from one end of the lam-rim to the other and back again, so just remind yourself of bodhichitta and finished!” Then he said, “All you Westerners, you say, ‘Hang on a minute. The Lord of Death’s coming. Wait a minute, Lord of Death, I want to get my seat nicely. Hang on a minute, Lord of Death, I’ll just sweep the room. Hang on, I’ll put my water bowls out.’” He said, “It doesn’t happen like that.” He snapped his fingers and said, “Finished, like that. You’ve got to be ready that quick.”

So, don’t waste time.

Just do it. He said, “You should have thought about your bodhichitta motivation before you’ve even come in the room.” I mean, nowadays, he’d say, you should have that all day long, every day, anyway.

Was Rinpoche your root guru?

No. His Holiness is my root guru; otherwise, I would be severely scolded.

How did you hear about Rinpoche passing? What happened?

I think Alex called me up.

What was that like?

Well, it’s just something you have to accept. I think now, actually, to be absolutely honest, if a teacher passes away today, we can actually be happy. Because if they’re in the clear light – well, they’re blissing out, aren’t they? So, why should we cry? If we cry, it’s just self-cherishing. It’s not something to be worried about. If you have a lot of faith in your teacher, it’s nothing to worry about. They’ve died many times before, not a big deal.

Rinpoche in his present life, how did you meet?

The first time I saw him was on the road between the temple in Dharamsala and his labrang. I was going there because His Holiness was giving his teachings that he gives at Losar (lo-gsar, new year). They were due to start on, say, Wednesday, so I arrived on the Tuesday with a few other people. I went up with Geshe Wangchen and a few other people, and we got there on the Tuesday. As soon as we got there, we heard, “Oh, His Holiness is just starting his teachings now.” So, of course, everybody dropped their bags and headed straight for His Holiness’s teachings, and we got there at the start of His Holiness’s teachings. 

I hadn’t seen the little Serkong Rinpoche, so after his Holiness’s teachings the first day… There were about five or six thousand people going down the road, and you know what sort of chaos that is – and generally, you try not to bump into people. When I was about halfway along, I saw this little guy right next to me, staring at me. He was carried on the back of somebody, Buchung, who I’d never seen before in my life. I didn’t know Buchung, and I didn’t know this little guy, but he was just staring at me, and I felt like an electric shock sort of thing. Then, he just went off and disappeared into the crowd because Buchung tended to go quite quickly, and when I went to his house, that was the little guy who was staring at me.

What did he say?

Nothing. He just sort of looked at me – he was only a little guy on somebody’s shoulders – because he was going right through the crowd. He was four years old. He didn’t say anything.

How did that go?

Oh, he was just a little child. He was very much like my children when they were young. You just play with him, and he was very nice. I was very happy to see him.

How much have you been able to see Rinpoche?

Generally, about every four years. Sometimes a little bit shorter, but generally about every four years. The second time I met him, he’d gone from being four to eight. As you know, when children grow, they’re sort of like twice as big, so he looked completely different. The second time, I went down to his house in McLeod Ganj, and there was this little boy standing outside the door, just standing around and doing nothing. I went up to him and said, “Excuse me. Could you tell me where Gendun Samdup is?” He said, “What’s the matter, Alan? Don’t you recognize your teacher?” I was there for a couple of weeks, and the only time he went outside the door was to go to the toilet (and then come straight back in again). He was just standing there, waiting. That’s not from my side; that’s from his side.

Are there any other stories like that?

I don’t think so.

The telephone.

Oh, the telephone. When Sarah was sick… My daughter went to India with my wife [Irene] and she got a bit sick, so I got phoned up to come over and collect her. My wife considered she was quite seriously sick. So, of course, the first thing I did was phone up Serkong Rinpoche in the south of India and say, “My wife says Sarah’s sick.” He said, “Okay. I’ll find out,” and he went to some old geshe and had some mos (mo, dice divination) thrown, or something. When I phoned him up the next day, he said, “Oh, it’s okay. There’s no problem. She’s just emotionally out of it, so there’s no real problem.” 

Irene still considered she was very sick, so I went to Dharamsala to see her, and that was okay. But every time I got anywhere, I phoned up Serkong Rinpoche to tell him what I was doing. On the way back, I thought, “Well, we’re at the Pathankot railway station. When we come to Delhi, I’ll phone him up and tell him that we’re okay and we’re going back to England.” So I phoned up South India, and somebody answered the phone, and I said, “Hello. It’s Alan. Could I speak to Serkong Rinpoche?” He said, “Who do you think this is? I’ve been sitting by the phone, waiting for you.” He doesn’t normally sit by the phone, so of course it’s Serkong Rinpoche. “Thank you very much. We’re all right. We’re going home.”

By pure coincidence, we got bumped up to first-class on the way home. It was in a jumbo jet with about 350 people, and we were upstairs in a little room with 12 people – six on one side, six on the other. I mean, so many things at that time were pure coincidence. He was a long way away, but he seemed to know what was going on more than I did because I asked him for help.

Is it very special to be able to continue the relationship with him?

It was pure coincidence.

This whole thing of continuing that relationship with your guru over two lives...

I would find it extremely stupid not to, wouldn’t you?

But not everybody has the opportunity and is in that situation.

Why not?

Well, because they might be living in the same lifetime as their teacher.

That’s OK. Then keep it going. There will be a next life. Simple, isn’t it?

I’m no different from anybody. Nobody’s different. We’re all the same. Everybody starts somewhere – just keep going.

Have you requested Rinpoche for teachings yet?

I’ve requested some. Yes.

Have you got a list? Are you waiting for…

No, not so many. No. It’ll take him time. He has to do his training. He basically has to do his training. New gross mind, new subtle mind, so he has to do his training. That’s the most important thing at the moment.

Rinpoche teaches you in many ways, then?

I suppose all Dharma teachers teach you. I don’t know if it’s like him standing over me with a magic wand. I’ve always found most things have to come from my side, like common sense. I don’t think there’s anything magic in any relationship. I think you’ve got to want to do something and use our own common sense.

But when you interact with Rinpoche, do you sense and pick up Rinpoche’s advice just in the way you interact? Do you feel Rinpoche’s actually giving you advice in a very subtle way? Or do you take what he says to you – in how he interacts with you – do you take that as the advice of your teacher?

Whatever anybody says, I’ll think about. I won’t take anything straight away. You think about it. Is it common sense? Is it logical? I mean, if he told me to go out and do anything stupid, I wouldn’t do it. If he told me to do something I didn’t want to do, I’d ask, “Why? Why are you telling me that?” I don’t know if he would.

I don’t think there’s anything magical in a relationship with a teacher. I think it’s basically common sense, very much. Personally, I think that what Buddha said was like the laws of nature. He said what’s here. He didn’t make up anything. Buddha basically told us what’s here, whether you like it or not. Karma, everything like that, rebirth. It’s here, whether you like it or not. It’s nothing magical, is it? Suffering’s not magical.

So in this situation of being – compared to many people – very close to Rinpoche…

If I’m close to Rinpoche, the only reason is because I’ve asked him for teachings, and then I’ve done what he’s told me to do. Anyone can do that. That’s nothing special. There’s nothing special in that at all. Anybody can do that. If you want to do something, just go to a teacher and ask them what you want to do. If you follow their advice – which is usually common sense – then you form a relationship with the teacher. If you go to His Holiness’s teachings, you can’t go wrong. His Holiness teaches in the West so much. I mean, anybody can form a relationship with His Holiness. Well, you can’t go wrong there, can you?

No, you can’t.

You can’t go wrong.

Did seeing Rinpoche in two lifetimes help to convince you of rebirth? Or were you already convinced?

Personally, I find every teaching in tantra is to do with death. It’s the death process. I mean, if we don’t believe in rebirth, what are we doing it for? If we don’t believe in rebirth, well, what’s karma? What are we interested in Buddhism for? That is a very, very important part of Buddhism. If there wasn’t death, there wouldn’t be karma, logically, would there? Then, if there wasn’t karma, we might as well go out with a credit card, get it up to the maximum, and then blow our brains out to relieve suffering.

But did it convince you more, these stories of Serkong Rinpoche recognizing you?

He didn’t recognize me; I recognized him. He didn’t have anything for me. I’m just a normal person. I’m no big deal.

What hopes do you have for Rinpoche in the future?

What hopes do I have for Rinpoche for the future? I think he’s doing a pretty good job. I don’t think I have to hope anything. I’m sure he’ll be a very good teacher. That’s his whole reason for living; that’s the whole reason I personally think he’s been reborn. Otherwise, if you don’t want to help people, you just zoom off to some Buddha-field… I don’t think he’s like that, though. I think his whole life is to serve His Holiness, so it just seems pretty natural to me that he’ll serve His Holiness again, in whatever way he can.

Are you looking forward to having teachings from him?

Yes. How can anybody not look forward to that? That’s common sense, isn’t it? Are you looking forward to having teachings from your teacher? Any teacher? Of course, you are.

Will you invite Rinpoche to England?

If he wants to come; if not, I’ll come here. I don’t think it matters. I can easily get on a plane; it’s no problem. I don’t care where I go. Anywhere.

Have you ever been to Spiti?

No, I’ve never been to Spiti.

Well, this is the end of the story, so that’s really good. Thank you so much.

You asked the questions. I didn’t do anything.

Original Audio from the Seminar