Buddhism - A Yogini for All Seasons
by Swati Chopra
Khandro Rinpoche is a lioness of a woman—strong, fearless, and very wise. With her sharp, incisive wit and contemporary outlook, in many ways she is the dynamic face of Tibetan Buddhism. At 35, Khandro is a world-renowned teacher today, known as much for her dharma knowledge and practice as for being able to effortlessly translate it into a language that is accessible, and available, to modern minds.
Daughter of the head of the Nyingma sect, His Holiness Mindrolling Trichen, Khandro was recognized by the late 16th Karmapa, head of the Karma-Kagyu sect, as the reincarnation of the ‘Great Dakini of Tsurphu’, a powerful yogini-consort of the 15th Karmapa. Thus she received teachings of both lineages and has managed to strike an equitable balance between her responsibilities to both.
The few times I have been in Rinpoche’s presence, I have felt profoundly moved by the deep, centred place this woman seems to reside in. The clarity of the still mind is reflected in every word she speaks, as well as in the ease with which she tackles controversial issues. Excerpts from an interview:
School and monastic training were simultaneous aspects of your early life. What was it like?
Until high school, it was easy. Then there was a point when my mother was keen I study medicine. But by then, I had become active in my father’s work at the monastery, and had begun relating to nuns and their issues. Meditation and Buddhist philosophy seemed natural to me. While biology was interesting, it didn’t go well with Buddhist teachings, especially experimenting on animals. By the time I was 18-19, it became clear what I connected with.
I always joke that if I were a surgeon, I would be responsible for lives, and if somebody died, it would be terrible. Meditation seemed easier! (laughs) Today, I say it’s much more difficult being a teacher, because if you go wrong, you can kill a person many times over.
There are only a few women masters in Tibetan Buddhism. In that context, how do you see yourself?
Buddhism does not discriminate between genders. In early Buddhist history of Tibet, though there were many women practitioners, patriarchy ensured that only some became prominent. Now, as refugees, it’s much harder for women. But change is happening gradually. What’s more important than counting women teachers is to see how many women are independent and equal in their own choices. Work started on educating Tibetan women 15-20 years ago. In most Tibetan communities, facilities for nuns are also coming up.
You mentioned at a recent lecture that you struggled with gender biases in Buddhist texts.
Patriarchal interpolations in texts might just be problems of language. In English too, ‘he’ includes both sexes. Personally, I don’t find it problematic. If it’s written, ‘he should be kind’, it would take a very foolish person to assume that only men are to be kind!
Possibly because of being my father’s daughter, I didn’t face as many problems as other women. When I began teaching in the West in 1987, I was questioned about the gender bias in Buddhism. In 1992 in Sweden, a woman pointed out biases in a prayer I read almost every day. These never struck me until someone said, you teach non-duality, yet here is a text where an enlightened teacher says: “May I never be born as a woman, for as a woman I will never be enlightened.”
One thing is clear, and I asked my teachers, that it may be grammatical. The second thing is the author’s mindset, and the third is the level at which that text is written. The prayer could come from the heart of a person who knows how difficult it is to be a woman in patriarchy! Things must be understood in their context. Yeshe Tsogyal (eighth century yogini, consort of Padmasambhava) said: “The best life to attain enlightenment is that of a woman.” So, such remarks can be looked at as opinions of masters, and the individual can decide which way to go. Are you going to be stuck in the pessimistic attitude of someone who lived in the 16th century, or are you going to take the essence of the teachings?
Buddhism is now being called an ancient method of psychotherapy.
I don’t feel it right to connect psychotherapy with Buddhism, simply because it opens Buddhist teachings to misuse, knowingly or unknowingly. If we take Buddhism as a way to understand better, there is no harm, but its true essence should always be kept in mind.
Today, there are lots of self-help books on how to lead a tension-free life. They are good, because they guide people to understand things they wouldn’t otherwise. Even when we give teachings, we speak in the common language so that more people can understand. That’s the need of the times. The problem comes when you do it because it makes you feel good, when you haven’t been able to let go sufficiently of some kind of meditation, or when we aren’t given careful guidance to transform initial enthusiasm into genuine understanding. If this doesn’t happen today, we’ll have a whole group of what we call ‘dharma yuppies’.
You have several disciples in the West. What attracts them to Buddhism?
I think they find Buddhism to be a thinking philosophy. It doesn’t give you a theory; rather it gives pointers to the first step and a suggestion for the second. We offer what we know, and you investigate it carefully. Then, many might also be drawn because of His Holiness the Dalai Lama! (laughs) Really, some do come with devotion to His Holiness, or because they are supportive of the Tibetan cause. For most, it is the wisdom quality that attracts them and sustains their practice.
The Dalai Lama stresses that you can practice Buddhism without converting to it. Buddhism is about certain qualities you develop and an ability to investigate your mind. If we say, ‘I’m a Buddhist’, what we are really saying is: “I’m willing to learn about compassion, loving-kindness,” and so on.
So Buddhism is not really a religion?
It’s a philosophy of life.
What do you think of spirituality in the world today?
The biggest problem spirituality faces today is of commercialization, of spiritual materialism. Those who teach need to be free from hypocrisy, and those who listen mustn’t drop their intelligence. I always tell monks and nuns not to shave off their intelligence with their hair! You listen, examine, and if you find something, meditate on it. Otherwise you become a sheep in a flock being herded by a shepherd.
What is ‘spiritual materialism’?
When teachers don’t practice their teachings, or when they try to take advantage of what they are teaching. It is dealing with spirituality as if it were a material thing. From the student’s perspective, spiritual materialism comes when you listen to the teachings, but pick only those you like; when you don’t use your intelligence; or when you do it because it is fashionable.
Buddhism might also be suffering from this.
I agree. I’m optimistic about Buddhism because it is an issue that is open to discussion. I’m hopeful about the younger generation of teachers.
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