An Instructor's Questions

17 September 2022

“Everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask”

What follows is a conversation between Rinpoche and Sara Rojo, one of our instructors. After giving extensive answers to Sara’s questions, Rinpoche thought this would also serve as a clarification for the general audience and especially for other instructors, and asked us to publish it. We will publish a different topic every week.

Part 1: Social Activism
Part 2: Online Empowerments
Part 3: Criticism Towards the Guru
Part 4: Fights in the Sangha
Part 5: Mental Health
Part 6: Brief Advice on Relationships


Part 1: Social Activism

These questions have been raised by many friends and students of Rinpoche’s during the last two years. I (Sara Rojo) was just lucky to ask them at the right time. These are the transcripts of Rinpoche’s responses. Rinpoche decided that this would be helpful for instructors and students and that’s why we are posting them on the Siddhartha’s Intent website. Hopefully these answers will bring some clarification to us all.

Q. How can we help this new generation of people that has been brought up with strong ideas of social injustice and who feel that just sitting on a cushion won’t help? It’s not enough just to tell them that everyone has their own karma or that without realizing their own buddhanature they can’t really help. I don’t want to turn them off Dharma practice.

Fundamentally, we sentient beings believe in some sort of ideal situation, like a better world, a just world, a fair world. This is understandable. But if we look at our lives from a bird’s-eye view, such an ideal is never a reality. This is why Buddhists think that no matter what, this so-called life will never be perfect as long as it is produced by dualistic thinking – by things like good and bad, right and wrong.

Many people are stuck in their idealism. There is this idea that you can achieve an ideal human world, like in heaven, as in the idea “On Earth as in Heaven”. I might be wrong but I think generally people believe that there will be a time when everything becomes perfect, everybody will enjoy democracy, equal rights and so on. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t aspire for this. By all means we should. Even if we can’t achieve it for everyone, we can at least achieve some small pockets of justice and democracy.

If we look at our situation, it often feels like when we imagine better times, we are talking about the past, and what we have now is worse. I remember, during the times of George Bush, teasing my friends that in the future we will be missing him. Something similar happened in the Trump era, people felt like it couldn’t get worse. Of course, a lot of people will not like me saying this and will put me in some sort of box if I do, but if you look objectively, during Trump’s time there were no wars, no large-scale wars.

Perhaps what we have right now, this year, this month, is the best we can have and we should just make the most of it. And making the most of the present is what we do when we sit on a cushion. Some people will say that there are better things to do than just sitting on a cushion and meditating, that you are wasting a precious five minutes you could use to save the world, or a part of the world. Yes, it’s possible that they are right, and by all means they should do everything to save oneself and the world.

I don’t want to say that everyone must sit and meditate to make the world better. It could be effective, with the right mindset, to become an activist and go out in the streets carrying a sign, riling up people, and demonstrating. That can also help make the world better, or at least part of it – even if not for long, maybe at least for a few decades. That’s already a good achievement. No one can say that is a waste of time.

But sitting for five minutes can also help. It gives you the space and opportunity to see your life from a bird’s-eye view, if you’ve done it properly. At the very least, for those five minutes you are not harming anyone verbally or physically. That is already so much. Just imagine how it could be if ten percent of the world did this every day at the exact same time for five minutes. It would help the environment just to have people shopping less during that time.

We all know concepts such as justice and freedom are very subjective. Therefore, many times in pursuit of justice and freedom in one aspect of our life, we can neglect and even damage other parts of our life. Of course, I’m not saying that anarchy is the answer – I would rather have a traffic light functioning in order to drive somewhere. But what happens when we are talking about something much bigger than the traffic light, such as political views or international trade? Who gets to decide on that?

The second part of the question, regarding karma, is really important, because I realize more and more that karma is one of the most misunderstood ideas. Many people have asked me, for example, what kind of a good karma or luck Trump has that, no matter how many lies he tells or stupid things he does, he never seems to suffer like many other presidents did, like Clinton for example. But this shows me that people don’t have a solid understanding of karma: What do we mean by “good” in this case?

One could easily ask what kind of bad karma Trump has that he lies so much and creates so many deceptions and divisions. What kind of bad karma gives him the chance to create more bad karma? Or what kind of bad karma do Americans have (and more importantly, the rest of the world) to have such a person as a president who never has his actions challenged?

For example, sometimes it can be good karma to have a short life, since you have less chance to harm others. So, we should really think about what we mean by good and bad karma. In fact, good and bad are very subjective and relative. I suppose people think that to live long, to be healthy, and to be rich is something good. But if you do many bad things and yet live long and are healthy and rich, your longevity, prosperity and wellness might be bad karma for yourself and other people.

A lot of what we value in the mundane world, such as prosperity and health, are not necessarily a good thing. For example, fame is something that we human beings think is good. But fame can be a prison. It could be that you are famous because of your bad karma. And because of that, you can’t do whatever you want, you can’t even say what you want, and you become more and more a prisoner of political correctness until you become a perfect hypocrite.

As an instructor, as a kalyanamitra, as a spiritual friend, as a spiritual influencer, as someone with a good heart and a good intention to share your opinion, wisdom, and knowledge for others’ benefit, we need to do two things right:

1. We need to lead people toward the recognition of the Buddha within, the reality of all phenomena. In other words, shunyata. If a teacher leads people to this understanding, no matter how directly or indirectly, this person should be considered a good teacher, a good kalyanamitra.

2. That said, it’s important not always to speak about buddhanature or shunyata directly or from the beginning. It depends. Even the Buddha applied different skilful means for different people. So, for example, if there is someone who doesn’t want to sit and says, “What’s the point of just sitting there for five minutes?” by all means, don’t contradict them. The main thing is to insert buddhanature or shunyata eventually, however you can. If someone wants to go out in the streets carrying a placard, or become a volunteer, or join Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, or even become a businessperson, give them your 100% support, but keep in mind the wish to lead them to shunyata or tathagatagarbha, or at least have the aspiration that you can lead them.

Q. Does the Buddhist idea of karma mean then that there is no point in engaging in social activism? Because it seems like you can’t really change people’s karma. Even Buddha couldn’t take away people’s karma or give them his realization. So how can we explain karma in terms of how to help others in the world?

No, karma is neither predestined nor the concept of free will. Karma is in one’s own hands. We need to remember that the quintessential teaching of karma is actually the teaching of shunyata. With the right motivation, the right skilful means, and most importantly, wisdom, one can try to manipulate karma, and in the end go beyond the karma. That is the core, the purpose of Buddhadharma.

It is wrong to think that the ultimate goal of practising Buddhadharma is to collect a lot of good karma. That is like trying to liberate ourselves from an iron chain but ending up bound up with a golden chain.

Imagine you have wind, a metal tube, a string, another part for a striker, and also a human nearby who has ear consciousness. When you have all these conditions happening together, there will be the experience of a wind chime, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. At that point, even the Buddha can’t do anything about it. What you can do, however, is to manipulate those conditions, for example by cutting the striker. Then there will either be no sound at all or at least no complete sound.

What we need to know is that the genesis of the sound is not in the ears, not in those tubes, not in the wind, nor in the striker. But when they are all together, the sound can occur. Even if one thing is missing – such as the most important one, the ear consciousness – this wind chime can be struck all day, but there is no sound. You can change karma, and therefore, just like there is benefit from sitting meditation, there is also benefit from engaging in social activity. But ideally one should try to become liberated from all karmic bondage, be it negative bondage such as harming others or positive karmic bondage such as helping others.


Part 2: Online Empowerments

Q. I attended the online Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik initiation by Kyabje Sakya Trichen on June 24. Are we getting the empowerment if we are not receiving the substances? Or just a blessing?

Kyabje Sakya Trichen Rinpoche is one of my Vajrayana masters, or what is popularly known as “root guru”. I have been so fortunate to have received so many teachings and abhishekas from, perhaps, one of the last few remaining tantric masters that are still walking on this earth today.

I don’t consider myself a good tantric practitioner. At best I consider myself an aspirant. As his Vajrayana student, I try to see him as Hevajra or Arya Tara, who appeared as a human being in order to communicate with us deluded beings, with someone like myself who is conditioned as a human. Even if my master says “the world is flat”, I will try to hear it with the motivation that it must be some sort of skilful means that I cannot fathom. For me as an aspirant, whether Kyabje Sakya Trichen Rinpoche appears in person or through cyberspace, I believe it is a complete abhisheka. Whatever he does or doesn’t do has infinite reasons and purposes.

I’m not claiming that I have perfected the practice of pure perception. I still see Kyabje Sakya Trichen Rinpoche as a human being due to my own ignorance and duality. I’ve known Kyabje Sakya Trichen Rinpoche ever since I was a young teenager, and as I see him ageing, I tell myself, “This also is just my delusion”. That’s because I’m just so bound by certain conditions such as ageing – by human conditions.

Sara, you are my student because you have received so many abhishekas from me. Perhaps like me you are also an aspirant. As my Vajrayana student, I can confidently tell you that you are so fortunate that you have received abhisheka from my Vajrayana master, in whatever shape or form, substance or no substance.

But that is a matter of personal practice between a Vajrayana guru and Vajrayana student. So, for your personal practice as a tantrika, having pure perception towards whatever the tantric master does and practising whatever he or she tells you to do is paramount and surpasses all theory and textual reference.

That said, from the perspective of tantric theory, whether or not one can receive abhishekas, transmissions, and teachings from the internet – what we call wang, lung and tri – that is an ongoing discussion. You need to understand that the whole science of the internet is recent. It never existed before. It’s understandable that this issue is contentious.

There has been a lot of argument from two camps, one pro and the other against. I’m not really convinced 100% by either side. I have my own analysis, and I’m hoping that the tantric scholars, lamas, rinpoches, and khenpos can really put some thought into this.

Out of wang, lung and tri, I feel that probably it is possible to give the tri – the teaching – through Zoom. The word tri means to lead or to guide. Of course, we are not talking about guiding physically here. We are talking about guiding through communication. In other words, if the teacher teaches and the student hears and listens and understands to a certain extent, then there is some sort of communication. Then the purpose of the tri, the teaching, is completed.

That is what is happening now after the pandemic: A lot of international conferences and university courses have been held like this. And that seems to be working, so I think tri is possible.

Now, what we really need to pay attention to is abhisheka. In abhisheka, especially in the highest yoga tantra, there is something called the four abhishekas, with the fourth being the most important. It is sometimes called word initiation, tsig wang.

Now ironically, I feel that it is possible to give the fourth abhisheka through Zoom or the phone. Here my logic is similar to the earlier argument: As long as there is communication broadly speaking, as long as the purpose of the word abhisheka is served, then I feel that one could say they have received the fourth abhisheka. Now, I stress the word “broadly”, because in some Nyingma and perhaps also Kagyu lineages, the word abhisheka also comes with specific substances. In that case we really need to think and discuss further.

The problem is that to receive the fourth abhisheka, it needs to be preceded by the other three abhishekas, and I actually don’t know if one could give or receive the other three abhishekas through Zoom.

Tantra is so vast and infinite, it has so much paradox. But what we really need to know is what makes Tantra so special. It’s that Tantra does not differentiate and favour mind over body and speech like many other non-tantric paths do.

In the non-tantric paths, it’s your mind that needs to be tamed and mind is the most important. But in Vajrayana, in the Tantrayana, body and speech are equally important. Therefore, there are concepts such as prana, bindu and nadi. And it’s because of that, that Tantra is the only path that can actualize the Vajradhara state within this very life and using this very body. So, because of that, unlike in the Mahayana and Shravakayana, Tantra uses very specific substances such as water, a crown, a garland, flowers, a vajra and bell, the sound of a bell, and smells. This is why I feel that contact between the abhisheka receiver’s body and the substance is important.

One could, of course, argue that one can always visualize, since the technique of visualization is very much encouraged in Tantra. Of course, if the lama, the initiation bestower, is accomplished, and the recipient, the student, is experienced and has pure perception and all the proper arrangements, one could say that one can just visualize. But then we are assuming that the giver of the initiation and all the recipients are quite advanced.

For example, in the later history of tantric Buddhism in Tibet, the lamas began to use painted pictures as a substance, such as a painting of a crown or a vajra and bell. There has always been the sense that they were doing it imperfectly – like they were watering it down or being lazy. Of course, there are some substances that are just literally impossible to use, like for example an elephant.

Also, it is a little bit ironic that the intention of giving initiations through the internet is to make them easily accessible, while one of the most important disciplines of the Tantra is to make it more difficult to access. And besides that, we already have so much symbolism, so my argument is: should we really now willingly make it even more symbolic? We can end up symbolizing symbolism. Don’t we as practitioners and aspirants of the Vajrayana have the responsibility to keep it as authentic as possible and let students have the real experience? You can show a picture of a hamburger to someone that is really hungry but whenever possible we should try to give the real hamburger.

As sentient beings of the kamadhatu, the desire realm, we are so influenced by atmosphere and by situations. The physical setting of an abhisheka is supposed to have a certain atmosphere, whether it’s the music that is played, the incense that is burned, the hats worn by the lamas, the throne, and the whole paraphernalia.

Of course, now we live almost in the 22nd century. Perhaps now it’s possible that an abhisheka over a TV or a laptop, whether in a crowded place or in a secluded place, can deliver some or all of this atmosphere. This is what we really need to contemplate.

But it’s important to know that the Vajrayana master is not there to entertain the wants of the students, and Vajrayana students are not there just to be entertained. Modernity doesn’t mean forsaking all the values that are found in the path.

But like I said, this all depends on different people. For someone like myself, I long to receive an abhisheka in a charnel ground in Nepal, or by the Ganges in Varanasi. That is what I would aspire for as an ideal.

I grew up receiving blessings, teachings, and abhishekas in a very Tibetan atmosphere and with Tibetan arrangements. It would not be right for me to say that everyone has to do the same. Ironically, when you look at the setup of all the Zoom abhishekas that are happening right now, it is all very Tibetan, with brocade and everything.

I would be ready to accept it, if in the future a really qualified tantric master gives an initiation using the internet or some other technology; if they create a virtual abhisheka experience that penetrates the body, speech, and mind mandala of the student and by which it actually transforms the student’s body, speech and mind, I’ll be the first one to endorse it and even receive it.

For Vajrayana, the body is very important. This is one of the things that makes Vajrayana so special. Even though it’s crude, I’d like to give an example, which I feel is important. Today, many people have virtual sex. I suppose many people feel satisfied with it and it may be better than nothing for a lot of people. But perhaps there are people who feel that they want to have actual sex, not just virtual sex. They would consider that to be the authentic sex. So, in other words, how much authenticity are you looking for?

In the ritual of abhisheka, the vajra student’s physical body is supposed to be sealed, recognized, or at least visualized as Akshobhya Buddha. The substance water is also sealed, recognized, or at least visualized as Akshobhya. The guru, the bestower of the abhisheka, is also sealed and visualized as Akshobhya. These upaya, or methods, all need to be combined together.

This is called abhisheka because it basically purifies the disciples’ self-abuse of their bodies as something human, dirty, and limited, something that they look down on. Of course, even in the real physical setting, this level of giving and receiving might not happen, I’m just arguing that by doing it virtually, probably the chance of it happening becomes even less.

Now lung, the last one, is also contentious. Because with the transmission, one’s aim is not really to make the student understand the meaning of what you are reading or transmitting. It is just the sound that the student needs to hear.

Sometimes I think giving a lung through Zoom is okay but other times I do have doubts, because I was told that there are often delays over the internet. In that case, we need to think about it. Probably there is no such thing as a literal, instantaneous act of listening to the sound from the transmission giver’s mouth. During a transmission received through the internet, is it possible to have a minute or two delay? And if it is, by that logic is it the same as listening to a recorded version? In that case, is it possible to receive a lung from a recording of a lama from a few decades ago?

These are the things that we really need to think about. Because it also is connected to lineage and the purpose of lineage. Basically, it is really important to settle this whole Zoom abhisheka business because it is crucial for one of the most precious elements of Tantra, which is lineage.

Q. In what way is this important for the lineage?

I have heard that recently there was a case where people received abhisheka or teachings that were recorded decades ago, and the lama who bestowed the initiations had already passed. Here, we need to think about the lineage.

If, down the line, people receive abhisheka from a recording, could they then bypass all the flesh-and-blood human lineage masters? After all, practically speaking, it would be much easier to keep samaya with a deceased lama from whom you just received initiation over a recording. This lama is not going to be really dictating, interpreting, correcting, or coaching you. There is very little chance that this lama will annoy you, upset you, or pull the rug out from under your feet. So similarly, we might not also get all the necessary blessings and proper procedures to crack the shells of our body, speech and mind.

And this argument doesn’t stop there. Down the line, could we even do rituals and pujas such as fire offerings over the internet? This is really opening Pandora’s box. I think the lamas really need to understand the workings of the internet.

Again, to repeat, if it is a Shravakayana or Mahayana teaching, I believe all of these can be given through Zoom, because in these yanas the main thing that you need to do is to train and tame your mind and that can be done through all these means of communication.

Another thing that we need to consider: let’s say we are receiving a Vajrayana initiation through Zoom that is popularly advertised. Who is receiving it? We suddenly have so many vajra brothers and sisters that we are not even aware of. We are supposed to keep samaya with these vajra brothers and sisters who are also receiving the initiation with us – how are we supposed to do that? And how do we know whether many of these are not really there to receive the abhisheka? Maybe they are there to find fault, or just to just observe.

But there will always be lamas who’d say that as long as you have bodhicitta, then it is okay to receive virtual abhishekas during these degenerate times. I’ve also heard some lamas say that the real abhisheka giver is the dharmakaya guru, so therefore the physical guru is not the most important.

Yes, on one level this is true, but we have to be very careful in making this kind of comment, because one could then easily argue that you can receive abhisheka from the 7-Eleven salesman next door when he tells you the price of the item that you are buying. After all, his essence is dharmakaya and one can say that just the sound of the words of the bill is the essence of mantra.


Part 3: Criticism Towards the Guru

Q. How should I, as an instructor and your student, behave in front of someone who is upset about some of your comments on social media? Should I try to explain even if I don’t feel able? Or should I just stay quiet when I don’t find myself comfortable in front of people who have the wrong view of my guru? Should I just listen, or defend you, or ignore them?

It really depends on who you are talking about. If you are talking about those who have no Vajrayana relationship with me, then I would by all means urge, advise, and encourage you not to defend me. Not only that. If necessary, you should even take their side. Helping them not to lose their connection to the Dharma and the Buddha is much more important than defending me and my view. In fact, I have told many people the same thing. Sometimes simply ignoring or not paying attention to others’ comments might also be a skilful means.

Now, it is different if someone has taken a tantric initiation from me and has a deep issue regarding my views. You, as a Vajrayana student connected to me, especially if you are someone who is facilitating, assisting and helping the person’s Vajrayana practice, perhaps you can try to explain. But if the explanation doesn’t really work, then I would encourage you not to be too defensive of me, and you don’t need to be critical towards me either.

Q. How do I know who has a Vajrayana relationship with you? Should I openly ask?

Yes, I think it would be good if you ask.

From the Vajrayana point of view, worldly values such as what is just, correct, or true, fundamentally all of that is equally false. But for your sake and perhaps for other instructors and those who are supposedly my students or friends, let me explain something. The negative comments you mention by people who are upset about my opinions might be regarding my insistence on defending Vajrayana and its view, its method and its discipline.

Many people have come to the conclusion that I was defending a person, especially Sogyal Rinpoche and his misbehaviour. If people have read or listened to my teachings, they should know that I’ve never done that. But bear in mind that people don’t read anything completely. This is fine. It is the world we have to live with.

I totally admit that many times, out of lack of experience with the modern world, I have done unskilful things. Once I wrote a critical post on Facebook that was actually aimed at lamas, rinpoches and male chauvinists. But many people read it as if I was demeaning females, which I never expected. We all have our individual sense of irony, and today more than ever, there is not much room for a sense of irony. I realized later that my post was very unskilful.

The other issue that I imagine some people are upset about is my views about the West and its values. Again, somehow people categorize me as anti-West, though if people make the effort to look at my actions, my work and my teachings, they’ll see I’m not anti-West at all. If they make the effort, they’ll realize that actually on the contrary, I’m one of those few people that has given a lot of attention to the Western world, so much so that in my own society I’m labelled as a westernized lama.

I admit that I used to be a big worshipper of the West and its values, but after visiting a few countries – especially Iran, Cuba and China – a big chunk of my blind trust in the West crumbled. I realized I had been so brainwashed by the West. Of course, that’s my own fault for being gullible, because I grew up thinking that the East is hypocritical with its love of peace, harmony and religion, and that the West is so open and analytical, critical and objective. I don’t know how I developed these notions. But I began to realize more and more then, that the West is equally if not more hypocritical regarding every aspect of the values of justice, freedom and equality.

What I really don’t like is how the West imposes its values – touted as universal values – on everyone in the East, South and North. The West is so quick to correct and criticize others through journalism and other media, under the pretext of free speech.

Yet when a few of us dare to question the West and its governments and actions, there are those within our own Buddhist community who get hurt, just as many Tibetans can’t accept and get so defensive when the legitimacy, authenticity, behaviour, knowledge and existence of a lama is questioned. Just like that, I find many Westerners get so defensive and have a similar blind devotion to their system, as if their Western values are sacred. That puzzles me.

The West promotes pluralism, democracy, and various other values and opinions with a missionary spirit around the world, forcing others to accept that this is what they need. But when they themselves face different opinions and beliefs on issues like gun control, abortion and communism, they use words like polarization as if such differences are negative.

Westerners scold others for genocide, cultural genocide and so on. Yet when I go to Mexico, I don’t see native Mexicans, I only see people of Spanish origin. When I go to Brazil, I don’t see native Brazilians, I only see Portuguese. For that matter, when I go to the United States of America, I don’t see the real Americans. They are somewhere on a reservation. Coca-Cola and Levi Jeans alone have massacred more cultures than everyone else put together.

I have come to realize that brainwashing exists not only in totalitarian societies. In fact, it exists even more viciously and with much greater sophistication in so-called free societies. I have also realized that, just because many of us live in so-called free societies, that doesn’t mean we are not naïve. I have also come to realize that when I question anything about so-called free societies, I quickly get categorized as either pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, or even pro-Kim Jong-un.

What has been quite amazing to me during this learning period is that I keep meeting many lamas who not only think and feel very similarly to what I am expressing here, but sometimes even more strongly than I do. They have confessed to me, however, that they aren’t able to speak out on these issues for fear of backlash.

I think it is important for me to point out that when I say Westerners, I’m not necessarily talking about Caucasians with blond hair and blue eyes, or brunettes. I’m also talking here about a lot of Indians and Chinese, who for two or three generations have been educated in Western values. Often, they are more fanatical in defending Western values than the so-called Westerners. They are loyal to their former colonial masters and to Western culture, and might even look down on their own culture and tradition, let alone try to restore and preserve it. You would be surprised to find there are many Chinese, Tibetans and Bhutanese who actually have fear of a “Yellow Peril”.

These are my views based on what I see. Perhaps in about ten years I might change them. Such is the nature of compounded phenomena: our ideas, our ways of looking at things change. I just want my own circle, my own friends and people who work for me to know this.

I should mention in passing that some people have said that many of these Facebook postings are not mine, and that my account must have been hacked. So, I want to clear this up by saying that, while some accounts pretend to be mine but are not, my Facebook comments on this account are entirely mine []. In fact, whenever I have time, I like to read people’s replies and comments. In that regard, I want you to know that I have no ill-feeling at all towards those who contradict or challenge me, or who even say very negative things about me.

One criticism we lamas get – especially those who are popularly respected – is that we live in a vacuum and that people always tell us what we want to hear. I try not to fall into that trap and, in fact, enjoy hearing and reading criticisms. For me, Facebook is not just a platform for me to say what I want, but it also really gives me an opportunity to see how people’s minds work.

For instance, I have seen on Facebook that, when push comes to shove, people who don’t normally appear naïve and who consider themselves objective intellectuals are actually not so at all, especially when the case turns against their own deeply held values. Then they seem to lose any sense of objectivity or impartiality. That is always interesting to discover.

We should really contemplate this carefully, because we may not consider ourselves sexist or racist when perhaps we really are. That’s because our so-called sexism, racism and their reverse are so readily manipulated by conditions of all kinds.

For example, a white Englishman may not feel racist towards a Jamaican or Kenyan, and may even feel guilty for having wronged those societies. But he may subconsciously resent and feel antagonism towards a slant-eyed Chinese because his British ancestors didn’t quite manage to colonize Chinese hearts and minds, or because China is fast catching up to his own prized status.

Someone might respond to all this by arguing that it’s unfair to pin all this blame on the West. After all, hypocrisy, imposing values on others and so on are actually human traits that have nothing to do with East or West. Of course, that’s true. These are human characteristics.

But for now, the West has positioned itself as the universal guardian of holy and sacred values such as freedom, democracy and so on, and it has done so quite successfully through literature, movies, the media, music and much more. Whether it’s Spider-Man or Superman carrying the American flag, school children singing Rule Britannia, or the Proms orchestra playing Land of Hope and Glory, the message is that the West will save the world. Based on its own judgment, the West then rewards and sanctions other nations.

Beyond these specific issues, some also question what the point is in talking about all this political stuff. Actually, I am not interested in geopolitics. What really concerns me is one culture imposing itself, its language, morality, values and styles on others, in both obvious and subtle ways. That is completely uprooting a whole generation of people.

For instance, the Western culture of cherishing individualism has many great benefits, but Asian culture that values collective responsibility also has its own magic that really should not just be side-lined. Thus, a Westerner might really emphasize honesty while an Asian might put more emphasis on harmony.

Fundamentally, all this really boils down to my worry that these deeply-held but largely unexamined cultural assumptions can actually dilute and distort so-called American or Western Buddhism. Given Western global dominance, that will not only ruin the Buddhadharma as a whole but won’t even benefit Westerners who genuinely want to practise it.

It is also possible that some people might even be disgusted by some of the things I say or how I appear: not serene, saintly, or politically and religiously correct. It goes without saying that I’m not a saint, I’m not pure, and I’m not a model of an ethical or moral person. I could always opt to appear moralistic, saintly and so on. But I know I’m not disciplined. I cannot hold onto that act for too long. My true colours would always emerge sooner or later. So, I might as well, at least partially, reveal my true self.

Also, I don’t want to get an award for being the most saintly, pure and perfect being. Because once you win that award, you then have to hook yourself to the bandwagon of political correctness and more. I have come to realize that a holy image and good reputation can really neuter you as much as it can be beneficial. I still want to be able to say what I think needs to be said.

Q. How can we Westerners help this situation, those of us already born in those cultures? Is there something we could or should do?

I think the West really needs to realize that, culturally and morally, it is not superior at all. And the West should never impose its values on the rest of the world as if they are universal values. Actually, there is no such thing as a universal value. Even between two people, we have two different projections and perceptions, and therefore two different kinds of values.

Imposing your own value, labelling it as a universal value and imposing it on others, is a very, very colonial and missionary mindset, and unfortunately that hasn’t gone away. It even exists in our own Buddhist circle, and usually it hides very well inside the cloak of democracy, freedom and so on.

If you look at world history, it is so evident that many people have suffered because of different religions, different political systems and so-called values. Even the most cherished, sanctified and holiest of Western values – democracy – how many people have died for democracy or in the name of democracy?

Q. Isn’t it the same the other way around? We Western Buddhists have taken Eastern symbols and values such as the seven offering bowls, thangkas, etc. as our own when they don’t have much to do with our own traditional symbols and values.

Here again, for years I’ve been talking about how the West really needs Dharma but not necessarily Tibetan culture. I have even noticed in some Dharma centres that the Tibetan lamas, their close disciples and organizers impose Tibetan values that actually have nothing to do with the Dharma on the new Western students.

Maybe some students get a sense of feeling high, or they feel good wearing Tibetan chubas, and take all the other Tibetan paraphernalia as a Dharma practice. But if they are real Dharma practitioners, most probably those things are actually hijacking their actual Dharma practice.


Part 4: Fights in the Sangha

Q. What’s the best way of dealing with sangha members’ disagreements and fights?

I can only speak about sangha members that are connected to me, especially those people who are involved with my organizations and activities, such as Siddhartha’s Intent, Dharma Gar, or Ngöndro Gar, those who organize teachings and manage activities and such.

I am totally aware that the disagreements and fights are my own fault. I’m not saying this as an expression of humility, or in an attempt to be a good leader who takes the blame on oneself. I know for a fact that these disagreements are my fault and I have known this for quite some time.

Some people might have noticed that I have always put more focus on activities such as facilitating Buddhist study and practice in a broad way, supporting academic endowments, helping special projects from different lineages and in different Buddhist societies, and translating the words of the Buddha.

I’ve never really been interested in archiving, organizing, and promoting my own teachings. The thought of doing so makes me so self-conscious. As long as my so-called students and followers are practising, how they practise, where they practise, and when they practise have never been a big concern for me. Even though there have been numerous times and opportunities to acquire physical Dharma centres in different parts of the world, I have consciously avoided it.

The world is so strange. As much as we love to be independent and free from the wrath of organization, hierarchy, etc., no matter what we do, even to have a simple picnic, someone needs to organize and make decisions. Because I teach, over the years I have collected many so-called students. In reality they are maybe people to whom I have a karmic debt or who have a karmic debt to me.

Even a simple teaching organization like ours requires organization to arrange and distribute practices, materials, teaching notes and transcriptions. I never put much heart into these things, I have almost felt embarrassed about letting people spend their time and energy on organizing my teachings. But the fact of the matter is, we still need this organization, people need to organize it. And because there are no proper job descriptions, no clear direction or organization, I do realize misunderstandings and conflicts have brewed over the years.

All Dharma organizations have a special challenge. But here I have to point out that throughout all the bickering, disagreements about font size, web design and so on, a Dharma organization is not a corporation like a bank. All participants and volunteers come with the greatest of intentions, with sincere motivation to help in their own way. Many times, with good motivation, intention, effort and the spirit of offering come certain expectations, assumptions and pride. It’s another thing if the other volunteers don’t have the same motivation, zest and enthusiasm, but most of them do.

Also, because it’s a Dharma organization and especially because it is a Vajrayana sangha, in most cases you can’t just fire someone. All of this makes it difficult from an organizational point of view.

Generally, as we all know, one of the hardest things for people, one of our weaknesses, is management. This is especially true for modern people, no wonder there are so many books written about leadership.

Many volunteers might be very good at what they are doing but their efforts get ruined because of a lack of good management. I would say that as long as a leader or manager has a little bit of skill in management, then the rest doesn’t really matter. I suppose you can read books about management and get some training, but I think this is something that you just have to have that karma for.

One also needs to remember to have a bond with one’s fellow sangha members, and a sense of care and respect for them, especially one’s vajra brothers and sisters. So much time is spent emphasizing how to respect one’s guru but in the Vajrayana teachings, there is an equal amount of time spent discussing how we need to respect, love, care for and understand our vajra brothers and sisters.

Coming back to your question, I suppose that all of us really need to listen, which is a difficult thing to do. In fact, this is probably important not only for organizers, managers, leaders and instructors: even lamas, rinpoches and the highest lamas need to have this quality of listening. I think one of the ways to really perfect this art of listening is to always tell yourself that you probably haven’t heard someone or listened enough. Probably you have listened to someone and heard them as you wanted to listen and hear.

Part 5: Mental Health

Q. Could I, as an instructor, recommend a student to seek psychological therapy for some issues? Or is it better to only advise inside the Dharma context?

It is absolutely fine to go to therapy. Dharma is, strictly speaking, not really a therapy. It should not be really aimed at healing. The ultimate purpose of Dharma practice should be discovering the truth, actualizing the truth, to be awakened to the truth – however one wants to put it. I suppose you can say that it is the ultimate healing.

But in order for us to be strong and healthy in our pursuit of the truth we should be as healthy as possible. For that, eating well, living well, caring for our body, emotions and mind: all of these are a must. So just as a Dharma practitioner can receive a massage or acupuncture to make oneself strong and healthy, you should recommend these kinds of methods to whoever needs it.

I was told that some therapies involve believing in a soul or a higher external being or Almighty. If the person who wants to receive therapy is a follower of the Buddha, we would need to customize or adjust that.

Q. I encounter some Dharma practitioners who struggle with depression and take medication. I don’t fully understand depression but it seems like some of these people can’t really function. Is there a danger of using medication to avoid the pain? Or is it better to support them doing what they do to feel better?

I looked up the definition of the word depression: the dictionary defines it as “a mental state characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity”. In fact, I think the notion of depression is much larger than that and even infinite in scope, and that it can actually mean many different things. But for now, I can only answer as a Buddhist, based on the very vague definition of depression found in the English dictionary and in relation to how I assume the English-speaking world defines and understands the word.

I guess depression mostly carries a sense of expecting the worst outcome in our life in general or in a particular aspect of life such as relationship, health or job. But from a Buddhist point of view, every aspect of life, as long as it is conditioned and a by-product of defilement, in other words of duality, is duḥkha.

But that statement should not create more pessimism. Duḥkha is simply a truth – exactly like saying that water is H2O. However, people need one more piece of information in order to grasp that truth, which is that the essence of duḥkha is shunyata.

We have depression because we have so many references, ideals and values. That reference or value can be as mundane as an image of an ideal shampoo. There is a whole range of such utopian and dystopian references and ideals, ninety-nine percent of which can never be achieved. Even if you achieve some, they will either leave you soon or you’ll no longer be interested because another reference is waiting for you.

Our consumer society makes no effort to reduce such references and actually does the opposite. So, we 21st century people are going to get more and more depressed.

I think when modern people look into the root of mental illnesses such as depression, they can only go back as far as perhaps childhood trauma or at least a trauma or shock that someone experienced in this life. But in Buddhism, we see defiled beings as having the illusion of time, but this time did not just begin the moment they were conceived in their mother’s womb. The continuity of who you are actually goes back much further than your first consciousness on this earth.

In other words, we Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Although I hate the English word “reincarnation”, I am using it here for the sake of making this all easier to understand. This understanding helps explain why we may feel depressed, sentimental, or melancholic in our present life for no obvious reason. We might yearn for a political ideal, or long for the bliss of sipping a coffee on a Saigon balcony to the sound of torrential rain.

From that perspective, much of the current depression or mental illness in the world could definitely be caused by or be the residue of past life events – past lives that could even go back thousands of lifetimes. For this reason, I think we actually have an infinite amount of mental illness in the world.

Depression or mental illness caused by childhood trauma might be more gross or tangible. But many people suffer simply by not knowing why we even feel, know, are conscious or even exist. Why, we may think, can’t we just be a pebble or a piece of wood? That would at least be free from all the kinds of values that taunt us.

So, to come back to your original question: As a Buddhist, I would encourage you to use any kind of methods – be it a weekend vipassana meditation retreat or popping some pills or micro-dosing with mushrooms – so long as they help us reach a level of sanity where we can decipher, appreciate and have some ability to understand basic truths – all the way from realizing that all compounded things are impermanent to recognizing that our true nature is dharmakaya.

You also asked whether there is a danger of using medication to avoid pain? With all solutions there are always dangers – in solutions like medication, of course, but even on the spiritual path. That’s why the masters of the past have likened the spiritual path to terrain in which we have to go one step at a time. Even if they take only a few steps, it would be good for people to have a certain amount of sanity.


Part 6: Brief Advice on Relationships

Q. I wonder if you could talk a bit about relationships. I’ve heard people in the Buddhist scene advocating for the avoidance of commitment in relationships because everything is impermanent. Is that true, or is it an excuse to avoid commitment? Others seem to be committed to a relationship even when it doesn’t work anymore, almost like a bodhisattva activity. Some people also have the idea that it is better not to have kids because Buddhism doesn’t encourage that. What is the right approach to relationships and creating a family as a Vajrayana student?

Welcome to modernity. There is apparently something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I wish there were another one called the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility. But such is the nature of the human mind regarding commitment and responsibilities: we human beings don’t seem to want these things, at least not for ourselves. Even though we of course want others to be committed and take responsibility.

One could easily say the opposite: that because everything is impermanent one should commit to a relationship. Saying you shouldn’t commit to a relationship because everything is impermanent sounds very nihilist, like one is not really understanding the Buddhist concept of anicca or impermanence.

On the other hand, as your question indicates though, we also need to understand anicca or impermanence, when the relationship doesn’t work anymore. There is no point in hanging on to an illusory thought that the relationship has to work.

One can argue as a Buddhist that often there are even more reasons to have kids than not to, like in the example of Asanga’s mother, who sacrificed her bhikshuni vows to bear a child who contributed so much to the Dharma. Using the idea of impermanence or shunyata as a reason not to have relationships, kids, or responsibilities might be just a very sophisticated type of laziness. Would the same people sacrifice their favourite food or drink or holidays citing the reason as anicca?

Relationships are one of the most challenging things in the modern world, because many of the modern world’s values, especially the individualism that the West has relentlessly promoted, are in stark contrast to the value of relationships. I probably know many more people in arranged marriages that have worked out for a long time than I do people who have married out of love. But please do not immediately jump to the conclusion that I’m promoting arranged marriage!

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