From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 12
© 1990 Far West Editions
Jamgön Kongtrül, Rinpoche
A Conversation with
Jamgön Kongtrül, Rinpoche
October 21, 1988
Lodro Chokyi Senge, the third Jamgön Kongtrül, was born in. Lhasa, Tibet, in 1954, in accord with the predictions of the second Kongtrül Rinpoche. During his
childhood he was recognized and enthroned by the XVI Gyalwa
Karmapa and later taken to safety to be educated in his monastery in
In continuing the Buddhist tradition, Jamgön Kongtrül, Rinpoche, is currently building two major centers. Rigpe Dorje, a center for study and meditation, is being established at Sarnath, India, where Buddha first taught. Pullahari, located on the southern slopes of the Himalayas in Nepal, will serve as a three-year retreat facility.
Jamgön Kongtrül, Rinpoche, visited Par West Institute in October of 1988, at which time conversations ranged from the difficulties of bringing an ancient tradition to the Western world to the nature of mind and of meditation.
Several members of
Question: The question always seems to come back to the same thing, which is how an ancient tradition, which grew up in a certain cultural environment and conies from a background entirely different from our modern world can come into the modern world, with all the forces at work here that are so different from—and even against—the spiritual search. What adjustments need to be made and how do you see the particular problem of modern people? Modern civilization with its technology and economic situation has created an entirely different atmosphere than the tradition that you grew up in. What do you see as the specific first steps that need to be taken for us, for modem people?
Answer: It is very true that the whole of our world
is becoming modernized. However, we
have also to understand that Buddhism first developed in
So, therefore, Buddhism emphasizes two aspects of the teaching: the “view” aspect, and the “practice” or “meditational” aspect. The “view” aspect of Buddhism teaches the ultimate nature of outer phenomena and the ultimate nature of ourselves. That ultimate nature never changes, whether considering ancient times, a thousand years ago, or the modern era. So Buddhism speaks philosophically about the ultimate nature of external and internal being, and about that ultimate nature remaining unchanged.
Therefore, what is made available to the new generation of the Western world is that very essential, or ultimate, part of Buddhism, which is called the Dharma. Arid again, speaking from experience, if the Dharma were false or if the new practitioners in the West had to adopt a Buddhism which included the Tibetan culture, then it would become conflicting and could create considerable misunderstanding and confusion in the minds of the beginning practitioners. This has been the case since ancient tunes.
So what seems proper is for the Western mind to adopt the essential nature of Buddhism, the Dharma, and not necessarily the cultural aspects. And it seems important for all of us to maintain a responsibility not to mix the Dharma with a culture or tradition.
One must not look at the Dharma as belonging to somebody or some nation; if one does so, this can be the beginning of the greatest confusion. So Rinpoche believes that the Dharma can be adapted to any culture, but one cannot make the Dharma into a culture.
Q: But each culture and civilization has its own difficulties, so that a communication of the Dharma at least has to be adapted to correspond to the nature of the people to whom it is being given. When you speak to somebody from one culture or period, they can hear you in a certain way; but, if they are from another background or time, they don’t hear the same things. So what does Western man need; what has to be said to him? What is it about the West that particularly needs to be understood; what is our difficulty here in the West? How does the tradition that you come from adapt itself to the West, because just speaking of the Dharma in philosophical language may not penetrate?
A: The difference between the practice in
So it seems that the most important approach for the Western student is first to develop an understanding or view of the teaching. They need to develop an understanding of Buddhism before being given a meditation practice. And again, by virtue of this understanding—what is called the “view” aspect of Buddhism—one learns to approach the Dharma, not as a Tibetan culture, but rather as a practice which can be applied to one’s regular life. Then many other methods and approaches to meditation can be added.
Q: It seems to me that we don’t always know what the words that we use mean. For example, everybody uses the word “meditation.” What does it mean—not only its definition, but what is included in that word; to what does it correspond?
A: Rinpoche would like to make it clear that the term “meditation” is used in the English language—but, personally, he has no idea what it really means. He is just repeating the word he has been taught by some translators. In Tibetan, the word corresponding to meditation, “sgom,” actually means “becoming familiar” or “familiarizing.”
Q: It is a movement, is it not—a movement of several things together?
A: Once again, it is becoming familiar. If you have never meditated before, your mind has no independence. It is under the influence of all the thoughts and different sorts of conflicting emotions, and your mind gets totally distracted, without any choice, so to speak. So you draw your mind away from these distractions and become familiar with mindfulness. At the beginning, but only at the beginning, one needs to have an object to concentrate upon, in order not to get lost in the distractions. But, as explained earlier, the purpose of meditation is to develop this familiarization, and ultimately one sees there is no necessity to meditate on an object, but only to develop this mindfulness.
Q: Could you elaborate on what Buddhists mean by the ideas of mindfulness and concentration?
A: Our mind is constantly distracted and develops many faults in a matter of a second; the mind wanders everywhere and is unable to rest on anything. So at the beginning we have to train that mind to rest, or to have one-pointedness toward an object or goal. Such an approach is essentially a method: you concentrate on that object in order not to let the mind become distracted and wander everywhere. But as you train your mind it becomes familiar with resting one-pointedly. Ultimately, with the fully developed mind—as you progress in your meditation—you reach states where you, as we call it, “meditate endlessly,” with no object to concentrate on, freeing the mind in oneness.
The very quality of mindfulness is within every one of us, but is not developed. Not only is it there in everyone, but each of us, once in a while, experiences that very quiet, gentle awareness of mindfulness nature. But, because of our habitual patterns, we are unable to rest in that nature of one-pointedness; all distractions, the conflicting emotions and thoughts, totally paralyze our capacity to rest in that nature. So what we are really trying in the practice of meditation is to pacify any hindrance to our capacity to rest in that mindfulness nature. We need to recognize and totally eliminate the causes of those hindrances.
Q: Elimination of these hindrances takes place through awareness, doesn’t it? You don’t kill the obstacle, do you?
A: Again, the methods are different as you evolve. At the beginning you do not push down those hindrances, but rather try not to follow them or take them seriously. Then your mind tries to come back to the mindfulness. As you develop to higher states of realization, you learn to understand the positive side of these hindrances—in other words, transforming the negative into positive, the impure into pure.
Q: Concerning the relationship between Buddhism and the
Tibetan culture: I
have always been touched by the impression of a precise knowledge in your
tradition, a sense that there is an entirely different understanding of caring for
people, educating children, relating to each other—all sorts of aspects
of just how to live. And, at the same time, there seems to be a precise
knowledge supporting the spiritual search. And, although I understand
what you were saying about the danger of mixing up the spiritual and
cultural traditions, I feel touched by the sense of support your
knowledge seems to bring to the practical aspects of living. And when I look
around my country, I see this does not exist. In
A: The main reason our culture is so supportive is
because the Dharma has been in
Q: The complexity of today’s world constantly seems to draw one away from the spiritual search. Could you say something about this difficulty, about the relation between what we may call the temporal life and the spiritual life?
A: One has to understand that in the Buddhist philosophy there are two basic ideas of “truth”: there is a relative truth and an absolute truth. From the point of view of the relative truth, one tends to separate the spiritual side and the worldly aspect. And from such a viewpoint one regards spirituality as pure, and materialistic or worldly activities as impure. But the goal, or ultimate approach, and the goal of meditation practice, is to overcome that barrier between spirituality and materialism, the barrier between the pure and impure aspects. The goal becomes a union of samsara and nirvana, in the sense that you are able to integrate your practice into your life. Then you do not necessarily need to sit within a shrine room to experience that inseparability, the union of samsara and nirvana. That is the whole point, the goal, of meditation.
However, until one gets to the stage of experiencing the union of samsara and nirvana, one needs to exert oneself toward the practice of adopting good actions of body, speech, and mind, and must try to avoid all harmful actions of body, speech, and mind. Until then one has to carry on with the practices.
Q: Most of us are brought up in a culture where there is not a generally accepted morality. And the problem is that what we feel to be our morality is really the mind, or head, forcing something onto the body and, therefore, covering something over. The head is telling the rest of us what to do, covering over all the forces inside us. And this produces a fragmentation and a kind of suffering in us. So when you say we must practice good actions until we reach the point of union, I wonder whether there isn’t a danger that this would again result in the mind violently forcing something, or covering over what is in us?
A: Yes, that is the main reason Rinpoche has explained that in the West a very good understanding, or view, of Buddhism is necessary before undertaking the meditational aspect of the Dharma. If you have not understood the teaching when the subject of positive or negative actions comes up—if the emphasis is placed on morality, on what you can and cannot do—this can become very uncomfortable and confusing. Then it is as you say: one merely pushes down, suppresses or covers things over. But it does not become uncomfortable if you fully understand the logic behind the practice. Buddhism teaches the cause of our being in samsara and why we are suffering—the cause of suffering itself. And so, when you understand this, you learn to accept the practice, rather than feeling that what you can or cannot do is just being imposed upon you or that you are being suppressed. Then you will understand and accept.
For example, the Buddhist viewpoint does not say that you have to give up suffering. Rather, it explains that one should give up the cause of suffering, not the suffering itself. And what is the cause of suffering? The negative habits and patterns you create out of “bad,” or neurotic, thoughts. These are the very causes of suffering, and one, therefore, has to get rid of them; otherwise one is without choice in suffering and in samsara.
Q: What does that mean: to give up?
A: Again, we need to relate to the mind of the beginner, and speak in ordinary, or relative, terms, such as the giving up or abandoning of one’s views. But in the ultimate sense, there is nothing to be abandoned—you go beyond abandoning or riot abandoning.
Q: That’s the ultimate, but to get there you have to start by giving up something. If you give up false views with the mind alone, you are still trapped in samsara. The problem isn’t in the thought only, is it? It’s also in the emotions.
A: Exactly. That is why Buddhism combines the outer physical discipline and the inner, mental meditation. Then everything is complete.
Q: To change the subject somewhat, what happens to our body and mind, to our consciousness, at and after the time of death?
A: Our idea is that in the bardo, or intermediate, state the mind and body are separated. The body and mind are different. Body is firm, or substantive; it has form. The mind is the “wisdom” aspect, the awareness aspect. A synonym in Buddhism for the mind is “consciousness.” It is that which has no substance, no body, no form at all—but it has all the energy. The quality or nature of mind is clearness and emptiness. And being clear and empty, there is no substance or concrete thing you can point to. It has no beginning or end and no birth or death.
So when the mind is within the body, there is a relationship between the two. When the mind creates, develops, or talks, then the body follows with behavior or actions. So long as there is that relationship between mind and body, it is called living a life; we act physically according to what the mind does. But at death the mind doesn’t die; it separates from the body and enters a gap known as the bardo state, which is intermediate between death and rebirth. The mind goes through many up and down experiences during this bardo state. And at rebirth the same mind finds another body.
Q: Does rebirth necessarily mean being born into another body like this one?
A: If one is advanced in any sort of practice of meditation, then he can recognize the bardo state and can be liberated from experiencing another rebirth; this is not termed a reincarnation.
But again, if one is unable to recognize this state or to liberate oneself during it, then, Buddhists believe, the laws of karma apply, and whatever positive or negative habit patterns have been impressed on the mind will determine which of the six realms rebirth will take place in. As explained, the mind does not die, but is carried by the laws of karma to the next birth—or to one of the six realms—and the body is left behind.
Q: Each of us is often called upon to help others who are dying. We look upon Tibetan Buddhists as knowing a great deal about death. How do we help prepare people for death and care for them when they are dying, and after? Is there a different approach for people who have worked on themselves—for example those who may have practiced the Dharma in one or another tradition, not necessarily Buddhist—and for those who have had little in the way of a sustained, purposeful inner search?
A: The best course is the basic technique known as the mahamudra, a practice whereby one gains a realization of the nature of mind. The understanding gained from this practice eliminates the frightening sense of death. One sees it as just a separation of mind from body, and a higher quality of experience is reached.
And the second thing to see, whether one is Buddhist or non-Buddhist, is that the worst enemy during death is attachment, grasping, and clinging to everything, whatever it is—your friend, possessions, wealth, etc. Even when we are living, this attachment and clinging brings a lot of problems and difficulties. Similarly, during or after death, the problems become more difficult if there is clinging and attachment. So each one should seek a means, in conformity with one’s own tradition, which would be helpful in breaking through attachment. And this suggestion is also particularly useful during the bardo, or intermediate, state; this is when you experience your real nature of mind, without even trying to meditate. This essential nature was always there, what we call “potential,” and it manifests as such during the bardo. So if you have a good meditation practice during this lifetime you recognize this mind and can liberate yourself. But if you don’t have as high a quality of practice, then it is helpful if someone reads The Tibetan Book of the Dead to you. Remember, death is simply the separation of mind from the body, but consciousness, or mind, is still functioning. It has all the senses and can still hear, so in our tradition we read this book each day for at least one week, in order to give understanding about the different stages of the bardo.
Q: I was wondering if there is a point where one has to let go of the teaching and simply face one’s own question, one’s own search? As human beings we are so used to taking hold of one thing in life after another—career, family, even a teaching—and these are all forms. is there a point where a person has to let go of these forms?
A: There is an ultimate level where one is beyond trying to find or not to find, where there is no longer a search.