Interview about Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche – Dr. Berzin

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Interviewer: Perhaps if we start by you just telling us what your role was with Serkong Tsenzhab Rinpoche in that period of his life.

Dr. Berzin: Well, basically, I was his translator and disciple. He trained me from the beginning to be his translator, so that was a long, long process. In the course of that, he also taught me. For the most part, he never would teach me anything unless I was translating it for somebody else. If I ever asked for teachings, he would say no, but if I was translating it for somebody, then it was okay, which was very, very good, very helpful for me, actually, because it taught me to do things for others and not just for myself. Later on, when he felt that there were some special things that he thought were good to teach me, even without my requesting it, he taught me by myself.

In addition to being his interpreter for teachings and for interviews with various people, and so on, I also wrote letters for him in English to various people when it was needed and organized his tours. We did two tours together in the West, so I organized all of that, got all the tickets, all the visas, and went back and forth to all the embassies and made all the arrangements, and accompanied him and helped him on the journeys. Those were my main functions.

How long was this period?

This was for about nine years.

How did you first meet Rinpoche?

I first went to India in 1969 as a Fulbright scholar from Harvard University to do the research for my doctorate dissertation. When I went to India, very quickly I met, within about a week, Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who were two young tulkus that had been with Geshe Wangyal, the Kalmyk Mongol Geshe, in America – in New Jersey – who was the first one that I met in the Tibetan tradition, so we had a connection through Geshe Wangyal.

I had come to do research and write a dissertation about the Guhyasamaja Tantra. We had read a little bit of it at Harvard in Sanskrit,Tibetan and Chinese and were comparing the versions of it – the type of thing you do in graduate school at Harvard. I didn’t know who to study it with specifically, and so when I went on the beginning of a pilgrimage with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, which started in Bodhgaya that winter, they took me to see Serkong Rinpoche to ask his advice about whom I should study with. This must have been in December of 1969, and that was the first time that I met him.

He gave me the advice to study with one retired abbot from Gyuto monastery who was in Dalhousie, but he was doing a retreat at that time. He was finishing a three-year retreat on Yamantaka. He wasn’t going to be finished with his retreat until May of the next year, of 1970. So, I went on this pilgrimage, and it gave me an opportunity to start to learn spoken Tibetan, because, at Harvard, all we had was written Tibetan. In the next months in Dalhousie, I improved my spoken Tibetan and, then, I went to see this retired abbot when he got out of his retreat. I said to him, “Serkong Rinpoche had said that it would be very good to study with you and to learn Guhyasamaja,” and he said, “Oh, very good. Next week I’m going to start a three-year retreat on Guhyasamaja. Would you like to join me?” at which point I realized that I was getting into something that was way, way over my head – this was absolutely absurd – and so I dropped those plans.

Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches’ teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, was there in Dalhousie, teaching many young tulkus, including Jhado Rinpoche, the now-retired abbot of Namgyal monastery. They said that he would be willing to teach me, because meanwhile I had seen Trijang Rinpoche, and he had suggested, “Well, why not do lam-rim?” So, I was accepted by Geshe Dhargyey – actually this was all arranged by  Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches – to study lam-rim with him, and so I did that. It was a wonderful opportunity.

The next time I met Serkong Rinpoche was that summer. I think it was that summer. Maybe it was the following summer; I don’t remember exactly, 1970 or 1971. There was a cholera epidemic in India, and Serkong Rinpoche was sent by His Holiness to the various areas where the Tibetans lived to give a Hayagriva initiation in order to help the people have some sort of protection against this contagious disease. I went to that initiation, so that was the next time that I saw him and had contact with him.

Then it was a couple of years after that, because Serkong Rinpoche was away in Nepal. Meanwhile, we moved to Dharamsala when His Holiness built the library [the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives], and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey became the teacher for the Westerners, and Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches the translators. I asked if I could be of help as well. His Holiness had said, “Yes, but go back and hand in the dissertation, get the degree, and come back,” which I did. So, I was involved with starting the Translation Bureau there. In the meanwhile, Serkong Rinpoche was in Nepal for, I think, two years. He came back, and then I met him in Dharamsala. Then the nine years started in terms of his beginning to train me as a translator and so on.

When you first met him in Bodhgaya, what type of impression did you get there of Rinpoche? Did you get a strong impression? 

I don’t remember exactly what my impression was. I certainly thought he was a kindly person, but it was only a very short interview with him. I’ve always been very hesitant to commit myself to any teacher or anyone, except, I think, His Holiness. His Holiness, when I first met him – it was in November 1969 – immediately I felt that everything I had been studying at Harvard was for real, and that here was a living tradition, and here was someone who actually knew what everything meant, not guessing, like figuring out a crossword puzzle, which was the way that Tibetan Studies were approached in those days at Harvard. In fact, everywhere in the West, I think, it was sort of regarded like Ancient Egyptian Studies. But with the others whom I met, like Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche and Serkong Rinpoche, the tutors, I was a little bit more hesitant. With the new Serkong Rinpoche as well, I didn’t want to have projections or anything like that, and so I really examined and let time pass before I really figured out what was going on.

I started to visit Serkong Rinpoche quite frequently and, without my realizing it, he started to train me to become his translator. Whenever I went to see him, he would always tell me to just stay. He would explain words to me, and I would sit in the back of his room while people came to have an audience with him. In a way, I became his apprentice. It was really like an apprenticeship that I had with him, to see how he handled all sorts of different situations. 

One day, I was speaking with Sharpa Rinpoche and said, “I can’t really decide who’s my root guru?” He immediately said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course, it’s Serkong Rinpoche. Can’t you see?” That was actually the way that I figured that out.

With the young Serkong Rinpoche as well, I didn’t want to project onto him that he was the old Rinpoche, the reincarnation. Basically, it came from his side. He was the one that showed such familiarity with me at four years old. When I went in to see him the first time, the attendant asked, “Do you know who this is?” and he said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course, I know who this is,” and was immediately affectionate and comfortable with me.

The first time I saw the old Rinpoche in Bodh Gaya, it wasn’t really an overwhelming experience. But the second time, at the Hayagriva initiation in Dalhousie, Chondzela stood out very much to me. Chondzela was the older attendant, and he’d been with Rinpoche since he was six years old. He really caught my eye. I couldn’t get my eyes away from him. He was very funny looking; I mean very unusual looking. I didn’t have the feeling that he was someone highly realized or anything like that, but I couldn’t get my eyes off of him – they kept going back, and back, and back.

Rinpoche’s training of you as a translator was quite interesting, but were you actually a fluent interpreter? Were you able to do interpretation?

The first interpreting work that I did was for him. I went to India in 1969. I had studied Tibetan in the USA from a Japanese professor who had no idea even how to pronounce the language, and when I went to India, I basically had to act like an anthropologist going to Borneo and figure out the sound structure of the language and so on. There were no textbooks to learn from, and the only grammar book of Tibetan was Jäschke, which explained it in terms of Latin grammar, which had nothing to do with Tibetan grammar. In fact, when we had studied it at Harvard, the Japanese professor taught Tibetan in terms of Japanese grammar, which is much closer to Tibetan grammar, and everybody knew some Japanese who was in the class, so it wasn’t a problem. But I had to figure out the language and the sound structure, which, of course, has tones and so on, so the Chinese that I had studied helped me in figuring out the tone system as well. 

Then I worked with Ngawang Dhondup, who was the language teacher at the library. He had written a draft of a textbook of spoken Tibetan, which I helped him finalize. It was working with him on writing and presenting this textbook that I learned to speak the language properly, the way that people actually do speak.

When I started working with Rinpoche, when he started to train me, my Tibetan certainly wasn’t fluent, but by listening to him and how he explained, I would learn. He would explain words; he was always asking me to ask him when I didn’t understand something. Then, at any time during that training – he was also training my memory and mindfulness, my ability to pay attention – so, at any time, he would turn to me and say, “What did I just say?” and I’d have to repeat back, word for word, what he had just said. Or he’d say, “What did you just say?” I’d have to repeat it back, and then he would give me longer things to repeat.

Eventually, when I started to interpret for him (or interpret his spoken Tibetan for other people), I couldn’t take any notes – he wouldn’t let me do that – I had to remember and take notes afterward. Then sometimes, eventually, when I would be translating and doing various things for him all day long, he wouldn’t let me take notes until the night, so I had to remember the whole day. When he would teach, sometimes he would give a long summary for about ten or fifteen minutes, and then he’d turn to me and say, “Now it’s your turn,” so this trained me to do that as well.

Or when he was teaching, let’s say he was teaching Yamantaka or something like that to a group of people, but he was also teaching me, privately, Kalachakra, he would come to a point in the Yamantaka teachings, and he would explain it for the group, and then before he would give me a chance to translate, he would start to explain to me an interesting point in Kalachakra that was slightly different about that, and then he’d say, when he was finished, “Now translate what I said before.”

So, this is the way that he trained me. It was excellent, absolutely excellent. It prepared me very much to be able to translate for His Holiness, which was always what I thought Rinpoche had in mind, that he was preparing me as a gift for His Holiness, to be able to do the little bit of translation that I did for Hia Holiness.

But even once the training’s done with the memory, though, is it something where it is a weakness to take notes when you’re translating? 

Is it a weakness to take notes? I don’t know. It depends on how long the teacher speaks for. When His Holiness teaches nowadays, he speaks for maybe ten minutes at a time, sometimes even longer, and the translator has to take notes in order to be able to remember the whole sequence of what was said. I must say I didn’t need to do that. Even when His Holiness would speak for a very long time, because of my training, I was able to remember most of what he said. But I didn’t do that much translating for His Holiness, only a little bit, and only sometimes. What I did have to write down, because I was quite hopeless with remembering, were numbers and names of people, especially names that I didn’t know, those I had to write down. Aside from that, I didn’t really write down things. Maybe a word here and there that I was unfamiliar with. But it’s not a weakness. It was just the way I was trained, and Rinpoche didn’t say that much at a time.

Just going back to the times of Tibetan language and your understanding the language, did Rinpoche have a particular accent?

Rinpoche spoke very pure Lhasa dialect. He was very easy to understand.

Like His Holiness is?

Like His Holiness, but not as quickly as His Holiness. His Holiness speaks extremely quickly, with a tremendous number of abbreviations, and with the largest vocabulary of any Tibetan. His Holiness is really quite difficult to understand.

Could you tell us what Rinpoche’s role was in relation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama?

Rinpoche was a tsenzhab (mtshan-zhabs), which was the Tibetan title. It means literally debate servant, tsennyigi shabchi (mtshan-nyid-kyi zhabs phyi) in Tibetan. It’s translated by many people as assistant tutor, but he really disliked it being translated that way. He was always very humble, so he didn’t like to be called a tutor. His role was to go to all the teachings that His Holiness received so that there was somebody that had the full breadth of training of His Holiness, and then to be his debate partner. I used to translate it as a master debate partner of His Holiness. He was also one of the teachers, of course, because he did give initiations and oral transmissions to His Holiness.

He was, as His Holiness called him after he passed away, his lieutenant. He was the one that was the intermediary between His Holiness and the monasteries. If there was business to take care of, in terms of certain procedures that the monasteries weren’t following – because Rinpoche was very forceful as a person – he would go and was very good at scolding or giving the messages of His Holiness.

Also, as His Holiness said, he was a very good friend. His Holiness’ relationship with the senior and junior tutors was very formal, whereas with Rinpoche, His Holiness could relax and joke because they debated together, so this was a very special role that he had.

He was also the only tsenzhab that was able to come out of Tibet. In Tibet, there would be seven; there was one from each of the major divisions of Sera, Ganden and Drepung monasteries. Rinpoche was the only one that came out of Tibet.

Did Rinpoche ever talk about his life in Tibet?

Actually, Rinpoche never spoke about his life. Well, I wouldn’t say never, but he hardly ever spoke about his life in Tibet. That was a very interesting facet of our relationship. He never once asked me a question about my life – my personal life, or my history, or background, or family. Never once. And I didn’t ask him. We lived in the present, dealing with what we were dealing with, whatever that might be – our studies, or translating, or trips that we were making together, and so on. This is really quite un-Western in the relationship.

I know that he spent a lot of time in Lhasa. This, I learned primarily from the monk that lived with me. I lived with a monk from Rinpoche’s monastery, and he told me that Rinpoche, in fact, spent a tremendous amount of time in Lhasa. He had a house in Lhasa because he went to the Potala all the time to be with His Holiness. I don’t know if he actually slept in the Potala; he probably had a room there, I’m sure, but he had a house in Lhasa.

Rinpoche sometimes would explain, as he explained to me once, the type of training at Gyume Lower Tantric College, where he went. So, he spoke a little bit about just the training. The main thing that I remember was how strict it was. He would deascribe how strict it was. Like, for instance, the monks had to sleep in the general hall where they did all their puja practices. They would sleep there sitting cross-legged next to each other, like sardines, with their heads in each other’s laps, like that, in a row – so that when the bell went off early in the morning for them to wake up, they just would sit up and immediately start to chant. He explained this type of discipline that they had; unbelievably strict.

Occasionally, he would tell a few stories about when he was a little boy. This was primarily to demonstrate that you didn’t have to look back in history, to people like Milarepa, to find examples of people who had actual extraphysical and extrasensory powers. He used the example of his father, the first Serkong Dorjechang, who was acknowledged as the greatest yogi of his time at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Mind you, Rinpoche was a little boy at that time; Serkong Dorjechang died when Rinpoche was about four. Obviously, he went to all the teachings the old Serkong Dorjechang gave, because he said he received many of his lineages and initiations from his father. Sometimes he was very restless, and, being a little child, he would play. To keep him quiet and sitting properly, the old Serkong Dorjechang was able to make his little toys, which were made out of barley dough, somewhat like clay, move around in order to amuse him like that. He mentioned once, for instance, that the old Dorjechang had the extraphysical ability of speed walking – to be able to go at an unbelievable, extraordinary speed from one place to another.

It wasn’t a matter of, let’s say, friends getting together and telling stories about their lives because they wanted to share their lives. He was teaching a lesson. The lesson was that these extraphysical powers are for real, that there are people that actually did have them. Or he would just mention, as an aside, things like that Shambhala actually was a place, which we could only go to through meditation, and he said, “Oh, yeah. Well, my father went there and brought back a fruit from Shambhala and we had it in our house.” This type of thing. Or that – again to illustrate that his father had these powers – when he reached the point in his tantra practice where he could practice with a partner, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama wanted proof of this, and so he tied a yak horn into a knot to demonstrate that he had control over the elements, which obviously meant he also had control over all his inner winds, and so on, and energies, so that he could practice in this way without violating any of his vows. Like this, Rinpoche would explain that these things were actually for real.

That is something that some people seem to get confused about, because there are pictures of the old Serkong Rinpoche with Serkong Dorjechang. Is this Serkong Dorjechang’s incarnation?

That was the second Serkong Dorjechang who lived in Nepal after Tibet, and now the present one is the third Dorjechang.

While we’re on history, can you tell us who Rinpoche is considered to be, historically? 

This is an unusual type of situation. Very difficult to really understand, I must say. As I mentioned, the original Serkong Dorjechang reached the point where he could practice with a partner, and then he saw that it would be beneficial to have a son who would carry on his lineages. This is called a tugsey (thugs-sras), a heart son, literally (or mind son, I think, is more literal), and this person carries on the special lineages, I think, in a much more special way than just receiving initiation from him. So, Serkong Rinpoche was born in that manner.

Now what people consider is that Serkong Dorjechang was the incarnation of Marpa, and Serkong Rinpoche – Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche – was the incarnation of Dharma Dode, the son of Marpa, the one that was given a lineage of what’s called entering the citadel (grong-’jug), which is basically to be able to transfer consciousness from somebody into a dead body to revive them, something like that; I think that’s what it is. In any case, he had this lineage, but then Ra Lotsawa – and it’s interesting that Ling Rinpoche is considered the incarnation of Ra Lotsawa – saw that this would not be beneficial for Tibet and for the future to continue that lineage. So, in some way, he caused an accident to happen, in which Dharma Dode fell from his horse, but because one foot was stuck in the stirrup of the saddle, he was dragged, and died in that way. Serkong Rinpoche always had some problem with his foot, and so people would say this was a sign of that.

But, you know, wasn’t it Kalu Rinpoche who’s also considered to be Milarepa or Marpa? The point is that there are so many people – not so many, but several different lamas are often considered the incarnation of the same historical figure. It is very difficult to understand what that actually means. I don’t think that it means literally that they are the continuity of the mental continuum of that person. Often His Holiness has explained that, for instance, when he’s called Chenrezig, a tulku of Chenrezig, he says, well, this refers to someone having the qualities of Chenrezig. Let’s say if somebody is called the reincarnation of Milarepa, or Marpa, or Shantideva, or something like that, you can say that their qualities were the qualities of that figure, without them necessarily being the continuity of their mental continuum. It could be the continuity, but it’s very strange when you have several who are considered to be a reincarnation of the same historical person. There’s a difference also when you have someone like Khyentse Rinpoche who produced five tulkus of body, speech, mind, good qualities and activity; that’s a different case.

If Rinpoche was considered to be Dharma Dode, then is it not that he would also be considered to be Drilbupa? 

Would he also be considered to be Drilbupa, Ghantapada, in Sanskrit? I have no idea. Rinpoche certainly didn’t speak about these things in any way. He was very humble. He would never speak about himself.

It sounds like you had a very formal relationship with Rinpoche.

Did I have a formal relationship with Rinpoche? I don’t know that you would call it “formal.” Traditional, perhaps, is a better word. Maybe it wasn’t formal, but it was informal in the sense that he would walk around in his undershirt and his undergown, and stuff like that. It wasn’t formal, where I only saw him on a throne. It was traditional in the sense that, for instance, he didn’t go easy on me. I always tell people, because it was so unusual, in the nine years that I served him, basically, he only thanked me twice − normally, he never thanked me for what I did for him, which was an excellent training for me, because why was I helping him? The purpose of helping him was to make available this quality of teacher to other people, to benefit others. It wasn’t for me to be praised and thanked and be – as Rinpoche would use the example – patted on the head, and then I would wag my tail like a dog; that wasn’t the purpose. And he scolded me constantly.

I had told him originally, when I wanted him to teach me, I said, using the words from the texts, “Teach a donkey like me how to be a human being. I don’t really have social graces or the ability to deal with people. Teach me skillful means.” This was what I asked him, so Rinpoche mercilessly called me idiot. That was his main name for me, gugpa. No matter what type of situation I was in, if I did something stupid, he would point it out; he would point it out to everybody. This was very, very helpful. In that sense, it was very traditional, because most people, Western people, can’t take that kind of treatment, in terms of low self-esteem and things like that. But if you read the texts, the teachers are usually very, very forceful and wrathful with the disciples, and Rinpoche was certainly like that with me. It was fantastic; it was the best training imaginable, and that suited me.

There’s something that came to mind there. When you were with Rinpoche and interpreting, obviously you were interpreting to English, so Rinpoche was teaching to Westerners. I know the situation is that often Tibetan laypeople wouldn’t be receiving teachings from lamas so much. Is that the case, and Rinpoche was mainly teaching to Westerners?

Well, no. When I interpreted for him, he was teaching Westerners, but he also taught Tibetans. When we traveled around, he was teaching Tibetans in Canada and Tibetans in Switzerland.

What was particularly touching was that there was this program early on, when the Tibetans came out of Tibet, to send Tibetan children, orphans, to be raised by Swiss families. Some of them came to see Rinpoche when he went to Switzerland. They were in tears and very, very sad because they’d been raised Swiss; they didn’t even know Tibetan language. That program was subsequently dropped because it was so disastrous from that point of view. Rinpoche was very, very kind to them and dealt with them in a very compassionate way, and some of them were interested in teachings.

Canada, Montreal and Lindsay were the main places where Tibetans were settled at that time. This was 1980 and 1982 when we made those trips. Then Rinpoche taught them and the Westerners, who were there, together. I translated for the Westerners, but the Tibetans came as well. The Tibetans were particularly interested to have their children taught, and Rinpoche did a little bit of that. After Rinpoche passed away, I was invited there myself because they thought that their children could accept the teachings a little bit better from a Westerner than from a Tibetan.

How would you describe Rinpoche’s teaching to Westerners?

How would I describe it?

Was it traditional? Was it a traditional style?

That’s hard to say. It was traditional in the sense that he told a lot of stories. He liked to tell stories. He – like the young one – had a great sense of humor. In fact, he was noted for the way that he laughed; he shook his whole body when he laughed. Often, when any Tibetan would hear a new joke, they would always go and visit him and tell him the joke because he appreciated it so much. So, he told many stories, which is quite traditional. He also taught without giving so many quotations. His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses a lot of quotations, but Rinpoche knew that I couldn’t understand the quotations, and if he ever was going to use them – like when he was teaching about Madhyamaka and voidness – then he would tell me the quotations beforehand so that I wouldn’t fumble too much with them.

He was always training me. For instance, if I didn’t understand something, he would make the whole group of people wait ten, fifteen minutes while he explained it to me – to the point where I understood – and I’d have to explain it back to him; he made sure that I understood correctly. This wasn’t traditional, but he followed texts, and when he taught texts, he taught in a very traditional way. He didn’t use debating terminology or method, which would be the traditional way of teaching, but I think hardly any Westerners are really familiar with the real traditional way of teaching. His Holiness the Dalai Lama – when he teaches difficult texts – he teaches in a traditional way, but it doesn’t always come across in the books that are made afterward. If the translator is good, it will come across.

How would you describe the traditional way then?

The traditional way is with a lot of quotations and a lot of debate type of presentation of things.

So, a lot of questions?

Well, yes. You raise a question, and then raise objections to it, and then a logical proof to refute the objection, the way that it would be in any of Tsongkhapa’s texts. That’s the traditional way of teaching. Also, depending on the text, there will be a lot of stories or not so many stories to illustrate things. Different styles.

Was Rinpoche always on time? I mean, in the sense that he would only have an hour and a half of teachings.

Oh, Rinpoche was very much concerned with being on time, not making people stay too long, being very sensitive to when people were tired. Also, when doing various rituals, Rinpoche personally didn’t like to do things slowly, so he did them quickly. There are some lamas and some people that do their chants very, very slowly. There are, of course, rituals that they do in the monastery in which they do this type of singing where it goes “aaah-AAAAH-aah-AAH-aah-AAH…” They chant the first chapter of Guhyasamaja Tantra here in Ganden Jangtse, which takes the whole day, so that they do incredibly slowly. For instance, when we were traveling and did Lama Chopa Tsog, with the Lama Chopa and texts like that, Rinpoche would go through it in ten minutes. What shall we say; is it traditional? It depends on which monastery you’re part of.

Would Rinpoche only sometimes do the Lama Chopa fast? Would he do it differently every time? Or are you saying that generally he would do it fast because he didn’t really want to do it?

Well, he did it quickly. I don’t recall him actually doing it with a group of Westerners. That I don’t recall. Usually, when you do it with a group of Westerners, there’s somebody who is the chant leader, the Lama Umdze (bla-ma dbu-mdzad), and they set the speed. Rinpoche being Rinpoche, would then follow whatever they were doing, but as we were traveling around, and it was done in the house – just the attendants and myself and Rinpoche – then he always did it very quickly.

You said before how Rinpoche wouldn’t worry if the perfectly correct ritual objects weren’t available.

Oh, yes. In that sense, he wasn’t traditional. He didn’t carry around elaborate ritual implements. If he was giving an initiation – and it required a vase, very often – he would just use a milk bottle or anything that they had in the house. And for the various tsakali (tsa-ka-li), the little drawings of things that are sometimes used in different parts of the ritual, various initiations, Rinpoche would just draw them himself. He didn’t carry around so many of these little pictures. However, they did make the tormas properly when they were doing this.

Rinpoche was very incredibly flexible, so he didn’t stand on ritual. He gave a Manjushri jenang (rjes-snang), a subsequent permission, at a Zen monastery in Upstate New York, in Woodstock, once. Rinpoche just sat on the floor with everybody else and did almost no ritual, and it was suited very, very much to the Zen mentality. Like I say, he was very, very flexible. So, that wasn’t traditional.

Then again, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is like that as well. In Hamburg recently, just a few weeks ago, His Holiness gave the Manjushri jenang, the subsequent commitment or permission. For that, the whole thing took about three hours, I would say. The actual ritual part of it took no more than seven to ten minutes. His Holiness didn’t even chant it in Tibetan. He just explained it; he didn’t translate it. He just explained, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” like that. The whole time was spent speaking about bodhichitta.

Like that, I think that one of the main characteristics of Rinpoche was that he was the closest to His Holiness in style, in breadth of teachings. Rinpoche was a master of all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, all four classes of tantra. Mind you, he went to all the teachings that His Holiness received, so he had that same breadth and that same flexibility. This was wonderful about him, very wonderful.

Would Rinpoche teach about the different traditions? Would Rinpoche present the views?

Well, Rinpoche taught dzogchen, and he taught Hayagriva, for instance, a practice from the Nyingma visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was very much into the Nyingma texts, the traditional texts that come from the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was very involved with training the mediums of the Gadong and Nechung oracles. Those are both Nyingma monasteries; he did a lot of things with them.

We were talking about Rinpoche teaching Westerners, and it’s not exactly traditional.

You know, he did teach it traditionally in terms of he didn’t shy away from teaching about the god realms and the hell realms and these sorts of things.

But there were Tibetans and Westerners there.

Sometimes. That was only in a few places.

Was Rinpoche quite direct about dealing with Westerners’ minds and Westerners’ problems? Would he give direct examples?

Yes. He was very sensitive to that.

You said Rinpoche didn’t travel with so many ritual objects. Would Rinpoche travel with texts?

Yes, some texts.

His luggage must have been heavy in terms of having those.

I guess so. I never had to carry his bags; we always traveled with two attendants. It wasn’t an excessive number of texts. Basically, he wanted to know what he was being asked to teach, and then he brought the appropriate texts. He didn’t bring anything extra.

So, there were only two tours that you arranged?

There were two tours to the West. Yes.

But they were quite extensive tours? How long did they last?

I would have to look that up in my diaries, but they were maybe six, seven months, something like that.

Then, you would be interpreting. Would Rinpoche give a lot of interviews with Westerners? Did that happen?

Not that many. 

But some students would ask to see him?

Some students would come to see him, but not very many, not really. He encouraged questions during the teachings.

What did Rinpoche think of Westerners and the Western mind?

Well, what he always used to say was that nothing in the West impressed him. “Nothing special.” As the young Serkong Rinpoche says as well, “Nothing special.” The only thing that impressed him was that there were people who were actually interested in the Dharma.

Like the Eiffel Tower, his famous statement about that is: “What’s the big deal? You get to the top, then all you have to do is come back down.” He didn’t see any reason why people wanted to go up.

What about Western people’s minds and their neuroses and the conditions that affect them? Was Rinpoche very patient?

Well, often people asked very crazy questions. He always told me not to translate what they said in terms of literally what they said, but just what actually was their meaning – what did they really want to know, so there was that. But, he took everybody seriously. This, I think, was a very important characteristic of his.

I remember once a very stoned hippie guy came to see him wanting to study the six yogas of Naropa – he had absolutely no background – and Rinpoche took him very seriously. Rather than chasing him out, he said, “This is very, very good. If you want to study this, this is what you have to do first, and second…” like that.

Tibetan lamas are not pastors, and they’re not psychiatrists; they’re not people that you go to if you have personal problems. They’re not there for that. The whole point in the Buddhist teachings is that they give you teachings, and then you apply them to yourself. In our analytical meditation, we figure it out ourselves. He certainly didn’t encourage people coming to him and speaking to him about their personal problems. Not that many people did, actually.

If he were in a family – because we mostly stayed with families – there was often the son of the family or the daughter, usually it was a son, actually, who would be interested in the Dharma, and he would give advice in terms of filial duty and filial piety, as it were, and that it’s more important to take care of the family and take care of the old parents and grandparents and things like that.

You hear stories of Westerners that have gone to lamas and asked them quite stupid questions.

Well, there are many Westerners who do that, but they didn’t do that with him. I think he was too senior, yes, just too senior for that. He was very, very down to earth, so it wasn’t as though he was senior and kept a distance from people. I think it was out of respect that people didn’t bother him with things like that.

For instance, there was one family that we stayed with in Italy that had a very big house, and all the lamas used to stay there when they visited. The old grandmother was a great cook, and she said of all the lamas who visited there, she liked Rinpoche the best. That’s because Rinpoche would come in his undershirt and his under-robe and sit in the kitchen while she was making breakfast and do his mantras at the table, and he ate with everybody. Almost all the other lamas kept a very formal distance and sat in their room, and they had to have a tray of food in their room, and never interacted with the family.

As I said, Westerners didn’t go to him with that kind of personal problem.

Was it easy to know Rinpoche’s point of view? Do you hear Rinpoche’s views in your mind now?

Oh, sure.

Can you say something about that?

His views? They were very, very practical, and completely down to earth, and to keep your priorities straight, this type of thing.

With your translation work for Rinpoche, did you use to discuss definitions and how to represent certain terms?

Oh, all the time. Rinpoche was very concerned about terminology, and he encouraged me very, very much to come up with better terminology, more precise terminology. He would explain to me the connotations of Tibetan words, and then he wanted to know the connotations of the English words that were being used. If they weren’t correct, then we would work together to try to find a better term, this type of thing.

He also encouraged me in an experiment – which, I must say, after a while, I abandoned after he passed away – which was to try to translate absolutely every word into English and every syllable of every word. Because he said that the Tibetan words are like… we can milk the meanings out of each syllable. When we read commentaries, they do explain each syllable of a multi-syllable word. Although I tried that and I used that, I had to modify that later on; I think I went to too much of an extreme.

So, you say Rinpoche was encouraging you to…

To be inventive and to be more precise, and to watch out for incorrect connotations, because this was what we observed together from questions that people asked, in terms of what were the areas that they had misunderstanding about, and why did that misunderstanding come about?

You asked about foolish questions. I remember once I was interpreting for His Holiness, a discourse in Dharamsala, and Rinpoche was there. As His Holiness likes to do, he invited written questions, so I’d get these written questions to go through at night, to choose the ones that would be asked the next day. Rinpoche wanted me to read him these questions, and the ones that were nonsense questions or foolish questions he threw out immediately. In fact, sometimes he added questions that would be an interesting question to hear how His Holiness would explain, that would be beneficial for the students. So, he did deal with some of the stranger types of things that Westerners would ask.

You said that Rinpoche was suggesting for you to translate every syllable…

Every syllable, including people’s names, like the Tibetans do, from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

From Sanskrit?

Yes.

Have you completed all the work that Rinpoche requested you to do?

Have I completed all the work that Rinpoche suggested for me to do? He didn’t suggest anything for me to do. It was up to me what I did. It was completely up to me.

There’s no text that you were translating with his guidance?

Well, what he did was he encouraged me very, very much to learn how to read on my own, as he said that there’s nobody who’d be able to explain every text that I want to learn, and so I should learn to read it by myself. Then if I had questions, I could ask. And so, like this, I read through quite a number of commentaries while he was alive, and he would answer my questions. While I read them, I would do a running, rough translation of them, so I tried to prepare them for my website; a lot of them still aren’t in a polished form. Because a lot of them are dealing with tantra, I’m really quite hesitant to put them up publicly on the website. 

In any case, what was very nice was that for a few years after that, His Holiness consented to play that role with me – to take that role, I should say – and continue to answer questions for me from my reading. This was very, very helpful. I guess he suggested various texts for me to read, but it wasn’t as though he gave me a list. When I finished one text, then he would tell me the next text; it wasn’t that he gave a list of ten and said, “Do these.”

That would be amazing, all these texts, then, even though you can’t put them on the website.

I have tons of material, thousands of pages. Well, some of it’s on the Kalachakra website; this they have. It’s just that I don’t have time to do this. The Kalachakra texts, they put up on the Kalachakra website. My friend Wolf Saumweber does a Yamantaka, a Guhyasamaja, a Chakrasamvara and a Vajrayogini website, so he’s put most of the stuff up there, but the thing is that they’re not edited.

He does the Guhyasamaja one, the one that…

I’m not quite sure. Jamyang Center in London does the Guhyasamaja. Anyway, they have my texts, and they’re there. They control the access – you know, using secret access codes, and all this sort of stuff, and interviewing people for them to be able to get access to things. I certainly don’t want to have to deal with that. What I eventually want to do – I have so much to do; I’ll never be able to finish it all – is to at least read through this stuff and just link it for my website. Then, anybody who wants access can go through their mechanism to get permission to read it. Eventually, I’ll do that, but I really feel a bit uncomfortable that they’re not well edited. Even though it’s indicated that they’re not edited, that they’re not in proper English, that they’re my rough notes, but certainly a lot of people have been benefiting from them, so they’re there.

I have tons of that stuff. I calculated once for a fundraising that I have the equivalent of about 40,000 pages of manuscripts. Well, I never did anything else in my life. I never worked. I only did this.

Also, what I wanted to add was that Rinpoche was a very traditional teacher in this sense as well, which was that he really made sure that I wasn’t dependent on him. Then I would become independent and know how to do my own study, know how to do my own research, know what to ask lamas and what not to ask, to look up for myself. He trained me to be a teacher, as well.

What was he teaching you in terms of what not to ask lamas?

Stupid questions that you can find the answer to in a book.

And these personal type of questions?

And personal type questions. Well, he never asked me, and I never asked him personal questions. Those are things you’re supposed to work out yourself from the teachings, and then you grow. It’s the same method a therapist uses. A therapist doesn’t give you all the answers. A therapist makes you think and figure it out and get the insight yourself. That’s how you grow. Now that’s very difficult as a Western teacher, and very difficult as a teacher in general, because you like to give clear answers, but that wasn’t what Buddha did. Buddha made people think for themselves.

Would Rinpoche be different to different people? Like would he scold some people, but be very gentle with others?

Yes. Rinpoche was different with different people, but he didn’t hesitate to scold people.

So, some people would consider him quite wrathful?

Yes. He could be a jolly old man, and he certainly liked to joke, but when he saw that it was helpful to scold, he scolded. I don’t think he scolded anyone at the same level that he scolded me; or maybe Alan, he scolded that much.

Because you could handle it.

Well, we could handle it, and it was incredibly kind, and certainly not abusive. Also, this is what’s involved with what I call the healthy relation with the spiritual teacher, entrusting yourself to the teacher. You basically have a contract, and the contract is that: “Everything that you do, I’m going to see as a teaching for me and beneficial for me, and therefore I will never get angry.” It doesn’t mean that you drop all judgment, in terms of what is appropriate and inappropriate with the Dharma. It’s like, as I mentioned, Rinpoche would stop me at any point and any situation and say, “What did I just say? Repeat it.” You couldn’t say back to him, “Well, not now,” and give an excuse.

His calling me an idiot, and all of that − I never got angry. Actually, I used to have a nervous laugh. It used to make me laugh in a nervous way when he called me that, and everybody – all the Tibetans – thought that was very, very good.

You mentioned His Holiness, that Rinpoche was like a friend to His Holiness. Who were the lamas who were Rinpoche’s closest friends?

Who were the lamas who were Rinpoche’s closest friends? Well, when I traveled around with him, what I noticed was that whoever he was with, he treated like his closest friend. I know he was a very close friend with Ratra Rinpoche (the one that is in Geneva now), and I know that he was very close to Chogye Trichen Rinpoche (he’s the late head of one of the Sakya traditions), because they worked together in the religious department when it was first set up. He was certainly very close to the old Nechung medium. He used to come to visit Rinpoche all the time, but I don’t know whether that was because Rinpoche trained him; I don’t know that they were friends on an equal status. Everybody looked at Rinpoche as a teacher, of course.

You mentioned that he trained the mediums, but in what way?

The mediums have to do quite a number of retreats of various deities, and purification things, a special diet, and stuff like that. He was very close to the old Nechung one, and very close to the young one, even before he was recognized as the medium. He used to come all the time to Rinpoche’s house. Also, he was very close to Gadong, the Gadong medium; he trained him.

What about the tutors of His Holiness? Was Rinpoche quite close to them?

Was Rinpoche close to the tutors? He regarded them as his teachers, and so he was very formal with them, the way that he is with Ling Rinpoche in this lifetime. They’re very formal with each other. Rinpoche, when he was a little boy, I mean, I can remember both of them being formal, Ling Rinpoche being about three years old and Serkong Rinpoche being four − there’s two years difference or one year difference, I think; something like that − and Rinpoche refused to sit on the same seat with him or on the same level as him; he had to sit lower. That’s a strong instinct from a previous life. He’s very, very respectful.

Despite what you would call a friendship with His Holiness, I don’t know; I never saw the two of them totally alone. But in teachings, my goodness, Rinpoche would sit right next to His Holiness and never look up at him; he would always look down, in the way that you’re supposed to be. He also used to scold me very, very strongly – if I were translating for His Holiness – if I moved an inch, or moved my hands, or anything like that. “You’re supposed to look down. Don’t look up at His Holiness like you’re looking at an animal in the zoo. Look down, and don’t move your hands. Just be the conduit for his teachings to come through.” Then, I’d be on one side of His Holiness, and Rinpoche would be on the other side, so he would look through the corner of his eye to watch how I was behaving. He was very good. He was excellent.

Did His Holiness make comments about how humble Rinpoche was?

Yes. His Holiness always mentioned how humble he was and down to earth. Rinpoche didn’t like to travel in any fancy way. He really disliked if people took him out to expensive restaurants; he said, “We can eat at home.” If we traveled, he always preferred the third-class train, like Gandhi. “First class and third class get there at the same time,” he said. “Why waste the money on that?”

You were telling a story about how, when Rinpoche was at someone’s house, he wanted to sleep outside.

Yes. We were staying at the house of a very, very wealthy family in Switzerland, It was right at the side of the lake by Zurich. The woman of the house, who was the Dharma student, always felt very uncomfortable in this huge, huge mansion. When we went to stay there, the room that she prepared for Rinpoche was the library with oak paneling and leather everything – absolutely the most elegant room you could imagine. There was also a screened-in veranda, which actually had a very lovely view of the garden and the lake. Rinpoche saw this, and he said, “I want to sleep on the veranda,” and so he slept on the veranda for the whole time. We had to move in some cot or something like that for him to sleep there. Basically, he was teaching the woman that she didn’t have to feel uncomfortable in a house like this; just find the part that you like and stay there.

He always taught in very indirect manners like that. Like teaching me about how Guhyasamaja was way over my head when I first came to India, by setting up that situation. Because for sure, he knew that the retired abbot was in a three-year retreat and doing another three-year retreat after that and that there would be no opportunity for me to really study it. He also knew that it would make a tremendous impression on me, which it did.

What was Rinpoche’s connection with Spiti? How did that come about?

Rinpoche’s connection with Spiti? I don’t know how it initially started; that, I have no idea. You know, there’s this verse: “May Dharma spread and grow wherever it has not grown. May those who have not developed bodhichitta develop it, and those who have developed it, may it be further developed,” and so on. Rinpoche liked very, very much to go to really remote areas where people didn’t have access to the Dharma but wanted access to the Dharma, and Spiti was one of these regions. The situation of Dharma was very much degenerated there. People didn’t have very much; it was very difficult to get to, incredibly poor, very dirty, no facilities, no paved roads, etc. That’s where he went. There was also a lot of the Tibetan army on the border of Tibet there. He would go up, even riding on yaks – there’s a picture of him on a yak – up to the very, very high border places, where the Tibetan division of the Indian army was, in order to teach them. This is very, very inspiring. Then, because he reformed Buddhism there, he became like the saint of the valley.

This is a very good example. I’ve tried to follow that in my life, my teaching, of always trying to go to the more remote areas where people don’t really want to go and teach. This, I think, is a very important tradition that I learned from him.

Did you travel to Spiti with Rinpoche?

Once, when His Holiness gave the Kalachakra initiation. That was just before Rinpoche passed away, so yes, I did.

Did Rinpoche do retreat there, or was Rinpoche on retreat very much?

Yes. Well, he did a retreat there just before he passed away. After the Kalachakra initiation, he did a retreat. Then, after that, he went to teach Bodhicharyavatara at an army camp, but he cut it off in the middle and then went to this other place, where he passed away.

I remember hearing or maybe reading when you said something about Rinpoche’s comments about how people shouldn’t discuss that they were going on a retreat.

Right.

So, you would never know what Rinpoche was doing in terms of retreat?

No, I didn’t know that he was. Well, let me think. Did I know that he was going to do a retreat? I might have known. I don’t really know. I don’t really recall. 

Rinpoche used to say that there are many different ways of doing retreat, so one way – which is the way that he always encouraged me to do my retreats, and I did all my retreats this way – was to just do one session in the morning, one session at night, and go about my regular daily business and don’t tell anybody what I am doing, as it’s none of anybody’s business. So, I did like that, and I imagine that Rinpoche did like that a lot as well.

He wasn’t saying you had to do four sessions?

No. You don’t have to do four sessions; that’s not required. And you don’t have to set up a retreat boundary, and put the stones at a certain distance, and make a list of who’s allowed inside the boundary, that’s not necessary. He was very, very practical, and very down to earth. This is wonderful.

He sounds like such an exceptional lama.

He was, he was. The only one that I know with that amount of flexibility and practicality is His Holiness. As I said, the two of them are very, very similar.

Often you hear, “Well, this lama, he’s like an emanation of such-and-such deity.” Because Rinpoche’s very private – and traditionally you don’t discuss what your private practice is – do you know if there are certain sorts of practices that Rinpoche was aligned with?

I don’t know. That’s hard to say. He certainly was very much into Kalachakra; he was one of the Kalachakra teachers of His Holiness, and he certainly was into these Nyingma practices from the Fifth Dalai Lama, especially Hayagriva, that he taught – he gave the initiation to His Holiness. That, I know. He comes from Ganden Jangtse monastery, so Guhyasamaja is their main practice. He was at Gyume, the Lower Tantric College, so they do the combination of Guhyasamaja and Yamantaka and Chakrasamvara. He was certainly into many of these practices. The Vajrapani Mahachakra form – the anuttarayoga form of Vajrapani – I know he also had given that initiation to His Holiness. He was certainly into that.

Secret Vajrapani. Is that the one?

Yes. Also, don’t forget Serkong Rinpoche was the debate master of His Holiness. Although people might know him in the West for giving a lot of initiations and teachings about the various tantras, or Lama Chopa, or six yogas of Naropa, or these sorts of things that he taught, or the fire puja manuals, and self-initiation things, and stuff like that, his main thing was logic and debate. He was an absolute master of that, but this he didn’t teach to Westerners. Westerners weren’t able to follow that. He was the master of debate – that was his job – he was the debate master.

In the late part of Rinpoche’s life, was he still doing this debate with His Holiness?

Was he still doing this debate? I have no idea.

He didn’t teach you debate?

No. I never wanted to learn debate. I learned to be able to read debate texts, but it wouldn’t be good for my personality. This, I decided when I first came to India.

In what way?

In what way? I was a super-intelligent, intellectual Harvard graduate student with a lot of pride and no social graces, and if I were to get into debate, I would become what I would call a “debate monster.” I wouldn’t know how to turn it off, and I would just become more intellectually aggressive than I already was. It would not be good for my personality in the slightest. To develop the skills of disciplined analytical thinking, I had that already. I can read the debate texts and follow the format, but no thank you, debating itself would not be helpful for me.

So, you had to take more of the…

More of the bodhichitta side, more developing the imagination with visualization practices, and these sorts of things.

And the guru-devotion?

And the relation to the teacher. I wouldn’t call it “devotion”; I find that term very, very misleading.

Why?

Because it implies being a mindless servant or slave: “Lama, Lama, tell me what to do.” That’s not at all the proper…

The English word.

The English word devotion, this is a good example. People get misled by the connotation of the English word. The Tibetan word means to entrust yourself, and it implies trust and a healthy relationship. It’s the same word used to describe your relationship with your doctor. You wouldn’t say that you have doctor-devotion.

But you have to open your heart, don’t you?

Well, you open your heart in the sense of trusting the person.

Completely.

Right, based on a tremendous amount of examination, but trust doesn’t mean blind faith. Because it says very clearly in the texts that if the teacher tells you to do something that’s against the Dharma, you excuse yourself politely, or you ask, “Could you explain your thinking behind this?” The same thing in terms of if they ask you to do something that’s beyond your capability or you’re not able to do. Then you excuse yourself; you explain politely.

But there’s still the fact of the superior…

Well, it is a hierarchical situation. The guru is not our buddy.

No. I meant more like for those with superior capabilities that have reason, but still have faith and…

Well, the point is you have to be qualified as a student, as the disciple. This is why in the book that I wrote, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher, I outline the different levels of a spiritual seeker, and the different levels of a teacher, and different levels of the relationship with the teacher. What’s described in the texts is a very advanced level of relationship for a very advanced student and a very advanced teacher, both of whom have to be extremely well-qualified, and there are lists of the qualifications, so most people aren’t quite ready or prepared to enter into that type of relationship. You have to be emotionally stable and mature.

You had quite an amazing opportunity to develop a relationship.

I had a very amazing opportunity. Very, very amazing.

With the teacher, you don’t ask the teacher what to do. That’s what a child does. What you do is say, “I think to do this. Do you have any objections?” Then, if there’s some objection to it, the teacher will tell you that. The whole point is to train the student to become a Buddha, to stand on their own two feet.

But they have been doing things wrong for a long time, obviously.

The students? Well, sure. If they’re doing something wrong, the teacher will point that out.

You weren’t with Rinpoche when Rinpoche passed?

When Rinpoche passed away? No. I had seen him a few weeks earlier. That was in Spiti after the Kalachakra initiation, so he said, “Goodbye. Go back home,” and he was going into this retreat, and then he was going to teach, and then presumably, he was coming back.

He didn’t give any… You don’t recall any indication?

Any indication? I mean, he gave indications to others. The only indication that I was aware of was very funny because I had organized a bus of Western students from the library. About 30 of us chartered a bus and went through all the red tape to get the inner line permits − because nobody was allowed to Spiti at that time; foreigners weren’t allowed. I mean, it was really an incredible adventure with this bus, and the permits, and everything that happened. Anyway, I was sort of like the organizer for this, and it came time to go back to Dharamsala, and one person on the bus had gone off to Kyi monastery, which is further up the valley. They shouldn’t have gone, so I had to go fetch this person – which was actually a very good opportunity to visit Kyi monastery – to get her back to go on the bus to go back down. 

Another Western student of Rinpoche, Gianni, this Italian – Gian-Luigi Borasi – came to see Rinpoche to say goodbye, and Rinpoche asked something in English. Now, Rinpoche never, ever spoke English. He never gave the appearance that he knew any English. Although one could surmise that he could follow a little bit, because when I was translating, if I ever made a mistake, almost always Rinpoche would know that and he would stop me and ask what did I just say, and I’d have to translate it back to him in Tibetan, and he’d correct me. However, when Gianni came in to see him, Rinpoche asked in English – because there was no translator – “Where’s Alex?” This was something very, very unusual. Gianni said, “You’re speaking English!” Rinpoche just laughed.

But no indication to you that Rinpoche was planning to…

No, he didn’t give any indication to me. He gave it to other people, but not to me. And that was later, after the retreat. The retreat was only a couple of weeks. Tibetans do retreats very quickly; Western people tend to take long. It’s like the young Serkong Rinpoche; I think he did the Vajrapani Hayagriva Garuda retreat in what, two days or three days? With a hundred thousand mantras. They do it quickly and all day long.

Look at His Holiness, how many initiations His Holiness is able to give, more than almost anybody I could imagine, which means he’s done a retreat for all of them. You’d better believe he does them very quickly.

Perhaps you could tell the story about what happened during Rinpoche’s passing, if it’s okay to, just briefly. I mean, people say that he had taken on obstacles for His Holiness’s life.

Right. That’s my understanding. 

So, why did Rinpoche pass away?

Well, as far as I know, Rinpoche foresaw that there were some obstacles to His Holiness’s life. It was the so-called “bad luck year – inauspicious year, I should say – for His Holiness. Rinpoche had always taught that with tonglen, with the giving and taking practice, you should be prepared to take on a serious obstacle of someone to the point that you would die. You have to be willing to die. He always, always said that every time that he taught tonglen. He taught tonglen quite frequently.

His Holiness was going to Switzerland – to Geneva, actually – and Arafat was supposed to be going to Geneva at the same time. The local authorities in Switzerland said they wouldn’t be able to provide His Holiness with the normal security that they would have because of Arafat, so this was the obstacle. How did Rinpoche know this? There were many indications that Rinpoche had extrasensory perception. I saw quite a number of examples of that personally.

Rinpoche was giving this teaching on Bodhicharyavatara at this Tibetan military division in Spiti, and he cut it off in the middle, and said, “I have to go now.” He stopped at I think it was Tabo monastery and picked up this old monk who was there, and basically told him, as far as I know, what he was about to do, which was to take on the obstacle with tonglen, and the monk said, “Well, I just washed my robe,” and stuff like that; “I can’t go.” Rinpoche said, “No, no. You have to come with me. Tie the robe to the top of the jeep, and it will dry as we go along.”

Then they stopped at Kyi monastery, and at Kyi monastery, Rinpoche, who was quite overweight, and often needed help in walking − but I know from personal experience that when he wanted to go, he could go very, very quickly. He could jump up and run more quickly than any of us − at this point, he went very quickly up to the monastery, despite the people with him saying, “Don’t go now. You can stop there on your way back down” – because he wanted to go to one specific person’s house further up in the valley, which was where he was going to die, at the house of someone that he knew. When the monks with him said, “You can come stop at the monastery on your way back; no need to go now,” he said, “No, no. I have to go up there now and make offerings.” Kyi monastery is on a very high pinnacle, so you have to go up to reach it, and it’s at a very, very high elevation. So, Rinpoche ran up to the monastery and made offerings. Then the monks there said, “Oh, please stay,” and these sorts of things. He said, “No, no. If you want to see me again, you’re going to have to come up to this village,” a very, very high village where he was headed.

Then he went to this village and went to this person’s house. The person was still in the field. Rinpoche called to him and said, “Are you busy for the next few days? Can I stay here?” He said, “Oh, yes. Please stay here.” That night, Rinpoche did his daily recitations. He always recited “Drangnge Legshe Nyingpo” (“Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po”) by heart. This is Tsongkhapa’s most difficult text, “The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings,” on the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools. It was about 250 pages long. Rinpoche recited it from memory every day, so Rinpoche recited this, and whatever other practices he did in the evening.

He had told Chondzela to go away – Chondzela didn’t come up there – because Chondzela, who had been with Rinpoche since he was six years old, was really like Rinpoche’s son, and he would be much too emotionally upset, so Rinpoche had sent him down to someplace else. I think back to Dharamsala. But Ngawang, the other attendant, was there.

Rinpoche always slept on a yellow sheet, he had a lovely soft yellow sheet, and he said, “No, no. Lay out a special white sheet.” Ngawang laid out a white sheet. Rinpoche then asked Ngawang to take him to the toilet, to help him go to walk there because it was dark. Ngawang helped him, and Rinpoche put his arm around him. Now Rinpoche never showed affection, physical affection to others, that I was aware of; he certainly never showed it to me or to any of the attendants, that I saw. But he did that and said to Ngawang, “I always tell you to say OM MANI PEME HUMs, but you never take that seriously.” It was some sort of parting advice.

Then, he went back, and he asked the old monk to come to the room with him, and the old monk that he had brought from Tabo stayed there. Rinpoche laid down on his right side in the way the Buddha went to sleep and also passed away. Usually, in this posture, your right hand would be under your head and your left hand would rest on your left side. But instead of doing like that, Rinpoche laid down with his arms crossed. Like that, he apparently did tonglen and just passed away. He took on the obstacle from His Holiness. 

His Holiness, just at that time, was flying to Geneva. Arafat for some incredible reason – maybe associated with Rinpoche, but certainly with other circumstances as well – changed his mind, and in midair decided that he wasn’t going to Geneva and turned around and flew somewhere else. His Holiness landed, and the police and security weren’t really ready – because they had all these preparations for Arafat – and the motorcade got lost going through the city, and so on, but, nevertheless, there was no serious obstacle to His Holiness.

Rinpoche just passed away like that. Now, Rinpoche was in good health. I had taken him to a doctor just before he went up to Spiti – it was at the end of some of our journeys – and he was in perfect health. I mean, mind you, he was not a young man, and he was overweight, but there was no problem.

Where were you? How did you hear about it?

How did I hear about it? I got a message. Actually, I was in the middle of doing a retreat, but one of these in-the-morning-and-evening ones. I forget who it was, but somebody came to my house and told me, and I couldn’t believe it, so I went up to the labrang, Rinpoche’s house in McLeod Ganj – I lived down in the Indian village – and asked, and they told me yes, Rinpoche had passed away. News had come from Spiti.

How did you feel?

Horrible. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. Really, really horrible, obviously.

What did you do?

What did I do? I went back and continued my retreat and did a lot of Lama Chopas (The Guru Puja). What can you do?

What was interesting was that on my way home from Rinpoche’s house, I stopped at Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s house. He was my other major teacher; he lived at the Library. I think it was on my way down, or maybe it was the next day, I don’t quite recall – but Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey was having lunch with some Tibetan friend. He told me to just sit in the other part of the room and wait until they finish. Geshe Dhargyey was always very much joking, and they were having a good time, telling stories to each other, and so on. Then afterward, when they finished, and Geshe Dhargyey called me over and asked what did I want, I told him that Serkong Rinpoche had passed away, and I was very, very upset about the whole thing. Then Geshe Dhargyey started to enumerate every one of his teachers who had died and said that everybody’s teacher dies. I mean, mind you, Serkong Rinpoche was one of his teachers as well. But he said, “Everybody’s teachers die and pass away. You just continue.” This was very helpful to me. Very, very helpful.

He already knew the news?

I don’t know if he knew or not. That, I don’t know.

And Rinpoche was still in clear light?

Yes.

Then, was there talk about Rinpoche taking a new body?

Well, sure. Well, everybody expected that one would find his tulku.

What happened with that? 

What happened with that? I wasn’t involved with that. That was purely done by His Holiness.

Then, you heard at some stage that they had found…

I heard that they had found the young tulku. He was four years old. I was away at the time on one of my lecture tours, because after that, I started getting invited to all the various places where I had translated for Rinpoche. Then, through various connections, and so on, I got invited to more places, primarily in Eastern Europe, and – this was still in the Communist period – I started traveling there.

I heard that they had found Rinpoche, so I wasn’t in Dharamsala when he came down from Spiti, but I went to see him shortly after he arrived. As I mentioned, Rinpoche seemed – from his side – that he knew who I was. He said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course, I know who this is.” He was instantly completely at ease, affectionate, and so on. You can’t fake that when you’re four years old.

Just on that point, what happened when you saw Rinpoche?

When I saw Rinpoche? As I said, I always didn’t want to project. I was very neutral, tried not to have hopes or disappointments, the standard Dharma thing. Rinpoche, from his side, was extremely, extremely friendly, affectionate. As I said, the attendant asked, “Do you know who this is?” when I walked into the room, and Rinpoche said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course, I know who this is.” Now, I don’t know if that was totally based on his previous life, because there were many, many pictures in the labrang and my picture was there as well. I have no idea whether or not they had pointed out various people to him; that, I have no idea. In any case, he was much, much more friendly and at ease and affectionate with me than he was with others, that’s for sure, and that continued all the time, throughout his childhood and up to now as well.

Did you spend much time with Rinpoche at that time?

No, I didn’t spend much time with him. I purposely kept a distance because I didn’t want him to be infected by Western ways and my Western sense of humor, and things like that. I mean, I saw him, but I didn’t hang out with him; not at all. I didn’t become his English teacher, for example. I was very insistent, with as much influence as I could have on his upbringing, that he be educated in modern subjects by Tibetan teachers, Tibetans, learning from the same textbooks that the Tibetans learn from in their schools, so that he would feel at ease and be able to relate to his society, to his people. This, I think, was very beneficial to him. He didn’t need to know Sesame Street English and American slang; this is totally useless.

Is that what you mean by infected by your humor?

Right. Well, also I have a rather zany sense of humor, and Rinpoche has his own zany sense of humor that I didn’t want to infect. That is, I think, the word that I would use.

So, you kept away from him in his childhood?

Not that I kept away, but I didn’t hang out with him. Mind you, I was traveling a lot. I went on these huge lecture tours.

Would you be in some contact with Rinpoche?

When he was a small child, not so much. Whenever I came back and I saw him, he was completely the same, completely affectionate and close. Based on that, I became quite convinced of the actual truth of rebirth. You know, on a gut level. You get an intellectual understanding, and you understand logically why there has to be a continuity of a mental continuum, that it can’t have a start from no cause and end without producing some effect. To really be convinced of it on an emotional gut level, that came through my experience with the young Rinpoche.

And so you really don’t compare, or you can’t compare them, but how would you describe Rinpoche in this life?

In this life, he’s his own person, but still a continuity of the previous one. You see, to understand the Tibetan concept of reincarnation or rebirth, it has to be within the context of understanding the Buddhist view on the self and how the self exists. So, if you put that together, he’s not the same person, he’s not a totally different person, and he’s not identical; there’s continuity, but I don’t make him truly-existently identical with the old one – he’s not – but he’s not totally different either. I don’t have any problem with that.

How do you feel Rinpoche’s study is going?

How are his studies going? I think quite well. I think he could probably do more if he wanted to, but I think most of us can do more if we wanted to. I’m quite happy with that. The main thing is he loves his studies, and this, I think, is very, very important. You have to love what you do. His Holiness has often said that to understand voidness, you have to love all these logic texts and all the various intricacies of the debates and the logical reasons. If you don’t love that, then you’re never going to really take it seriously and delve deeply enough into it to finally understand voidness. A lot of people don’t like to hear that. My students sometimes don’t like to hear that; they want it easy. People want a bargain; they want it cheap. They don’t have very much patience for these things that they consider too intellectual.

We’ve just been hearing about Rinpoche’s past, like his character and the practical point of view. What more can you tell us of Rinpoche’s present situation?

Well, I think he has a marvelous teacher; really the best, and this is good.

His teacher being Tenzin Zangpo?

Geshe Tenzin Zangpo. Yes. He’s incredible.

What is it about Rinpoche’s teacher? 

Geshe Tenzin Zangpo is considered the best debater of all three monasteries – Ganden, Sera and Drepung. He is familiar with the various other textbooks, not just Ganden Jangtse’s textbook, and is able to answer questions and put things together in an incredible way. I know this from my own personal experience with him. While here, I have been having sessions with him asking various questions that I’ve had no clarity on, or have misunderstandings, or things I want to clear up, and he’s fantastic. Mind you, he’s very, very advanced – super advanced – way above my head. He speaks so, so quickly in super debate style. When he has been teaching me, I would record it. Then afterward, I’d play the tape again, and Rinpoche would listen, and he would repeat what his teacher had said more slowly so that I could actually understand it, because I couldn’t comprehend that complicated an answer at that speed. Actually, I would write it down in Tibetan and then try to untangle the incredibly complex way in which he answered the questions.

Rinpoche’s fine with it?

Yes. Rinpoche’s fine with it.

Is this guy a young Geshe?

Oh, yes, he is. I would say he’s in his early forties. Geshes this age are the best because everything they’ve studied is still really fresh in their minds. If you ask a Geshe who is 70 years old to try to remember something that he studied when he was 18, that’s not so easy; there are very few people who can remember that far back. Now, the old Serkong Rinpoche said to me that he remembered every teaching that he ever received. He wasn’t boasting. I think he was doing that to sort of tell me that I should improve my memory and try to remember everything.

So, you’ve heard Rinpoche debate; how is Rinpoche at debating?

I don’t know. I can’t follow the debates; they’re much too fast, and they’re much too noisy. The debates are with 100 or more other people debating at the top of their voice at the same time. I can’t distinguish one from another.

But Rinpoche has a really sharp mind?

Rinpoche has a sharp mind. Yes, but he needs more training, and he’s the first to admit that. A lot more training.

How much more training will Rinpoche do?

I think he said there’s another ten years.

So, he will do a Geshe degree?

He’ll do a Geshe Lharampa degree, yes, and then go to Gyume. But Rinpoche needs a lot more training. He’s only gone partway in his education. I think this is a very good sign that he says that he will not teach until he has done his training, so when people ask him to teach – because there are a lot of lamas who will teach before they’ve completed their training – he says he’s not ready. I think this is excellent. Excellent.

Sometimes I ask him questions. When I’m here, I’m always working on writing something or trying to figure something out. I particularly choose things that are difficult to do here so that I have an opportunity to ask questions. Sometimes I’ve asked him questions, and he’s given the wrong answer, and we get that clarified. That’s an indication – he’s the first to admit – that, well, he hasn’t studied this material, so he tries to figure it out and guesses, and I try to figure it out and I guess, and then we ask the teacher. Often, we’re both wrong.

Is there anything else about Rinpoche’s present situation?

I don’t know. Rinpoche has wonderful people that are part of his household; this, I think, is great. He lives fairly humbly; not as humble as the old one, but humble by the standards of the other great lamas who are now the young ones.

He’s a modern lama.

Well, he’s a modern lama. He loves technology. He’s very, very good with computers and cameras and things like that. That’s not so surprising.

Who are the people of his household? Do you know them from before?

Well, the only ones that I know that are around from the previous Serkong Rinpoche’s times are the two main attendants Gendun Samdup and Thubten Sherab, because they were young teenagers or middle teenagers when Rinpoche passed away.

Gen Lhagpa, the cook, wasn’t around?

Gen Lhagpa wasn’t here. When did he say he joined? It was in the 1990s, I think, somewhere in the 1990s. He comes from Hamdong Khamtsen, this other division, down the street from here.

Are there any other things about Rinpoche’s present life?

Well, I was very encouraged by the trip that I went on with Rinpoche. Rinpoche’s been to the West twice, so I was with him both times. The first one was to Graz, Austria, for the Kalachakra initiation in 2002. Rinpoche basically did all the Kalachakra rituals with the Namgyal monastery. I was greatly pleased that he was doing that and was into that, since he was into that so strongly in his previous lifetime. We had only one day off, and I took him to Vienna, just sightseeing. It was raining, rather a dreary day, and we went on a tour bus just to get a little taste of the city. Actually, Rinpoche wasn’t feeling that well. When I asked him after the tour, “Would you like to go back and go inside and see anything that we’ve seen from the bus?” he said, “No.” He wasn’t very interested.

I went on a one-month tour with Rinpoche – this was in January of 2005 – around the United States, which was a very intensive sightseeing trip, basically. It was Rinpoche’s holiday. We were doing the whole thing of Disneyland, Sea World, the Statue of Liberty, and various museums, etc. At the end of it, I asked Rinpoche what he thought of America and the whole thing, and Rinpoche’s remark was, “nothing special.” I always called him the Nothing Special Rinpoche because that was his remark about almost everything, ever since he was a little boy. We’d ask him, “Well, what do you think of that?” “Nothing special.” So, he thought America was “nothing special,” which I thought was a wonderful response to all the stuff we had seen.

I asked, “What was your favorite thing on the trip?” He said the favorite thing was the Holocaust Museum in Washington, about the Jewish Holocaust and the Nazi period, where they have very graphic descriptions – much better, much more graphic than you see in Jerusalem or Auschwitz or any of these other places – of all the medical experiments that they did on the people, and the cattle cars that they transported them in, and so on. He said this was the best of the whole thing because it gave him an opportunity to develop compassion. 

At the end of our tour of that museum, he asked me to write something for him in the guest book. What he asked me to write for him was that he was a visiting Buddhist monk, and he felt it was really a very good opportunity to see all these tragic things which had happened and to develop compassion for the victims of this. He also said we must develop compassion for the perpetrators of all these atrocities because these too are human beings – they’re human beings – and they too have a tremendous amount of suffering from all the suffering that they inflicted, and so we must remember them with our thoughts of compassion as well. This, I thought was wonderful, absolutely marvelous. He was 20 years old.

Cool.

This gives me great hope that Rinpoche will not succumb to the various treats of Mara that one finds in the West.

Because he’s got a big job to do?

Well, I think that this is one of the most important things, that he takes his position very seriously and has a great sense of responsibility, without seeing it as a burden. This, I think, is partially due to growing up in a Tibetan society, in a monastic society, and being integrated in that and not being exposed to the West and Western things when he was a child.

Because there’s enough pressure in the position?

Well… I mean, within Tibetan society, he’s in his normal situation. He’s in his normal situation.

There is a lot of pressure on top of that?

There is a lot of pressure, but it is within a cultural envelope that they’re familiar with. It’s quite different from pressure coming from an outside influence.

Thanks so much.

You’re welcome.

Original Audio from the Seminar

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