Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear, says a Tibetan proverb. Similarly, the mind, if you don't stir it, finds peace, says Sogyal Rinpoche, the renowned Buddhist teacher
Death, My TeacherRigpa house is a large, two-storied building in the west Delhi colony of Inderpuri. The sitting room on the first floor, opening onto a spacious veranda, is tastefully, though somewhat conservatively, furnished, with a row of thankastraditional Buddhist paintingsadorning the walls. Sogyal Rinpoche, 54, arrives with a beaming smile, an arm outstretched in greeting and amidst profuse apologies for keeping us waiting. He's accompanied by Mauro De March, the youthful-looking Italian director of Rigpa in New Delhi. Excerpts from an interview:
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying talks about the importance of learning about death while still alive. Can we go into this?
"Learn to die and thou shall learn how to live. There shall none learn how to live that has not learnt to die." These words from The Tibetan Book of the Dead often come to mind when one seeks to understand death and its relationship to life. Among the Christian monks, there is a saying, memento moriremember dying. Then you might apprehend life. So the extraordinary thing is that death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected. Sometimes I tell people, "If you're worried about dying, don't worry, we'll all die successfully! (Laughs) Then what are you afraid of?" We are afraid to face ourselves. Coming to terms with death is coming to face the truth of ourselves. So death really is a moment of truth. The moment of death is, as many religions describe it, the moment of judgementa time of reckoning. Death that way is the summation, totality of life.
What comes to your mind when you die are two things: how you've lived, and the state of your mind. One reason why people are afraid of death is because they're afraid of how they've lived. It's connected with karma. When you start remembering death, you know, it inspires people to live a good life. Research has shown that people also die as they have lived. The Dalai Lama says if you want to die a peaceful death, you have to live a peaceful life. So death really brings life into focus. Death, now, is no longer seen in a morbid sense, but is the greatest teacher. We're sure we're all going to die one day, but we're not sure how or when. So we think it's not going to happen to us. I always say: "If you breathe out, and you can't breathe in, that's death"death could happen any moment. That's how fragile, how precious this life is. Realizing this, I must sort out my priorities. Death reminds us that everything is impermanent, transitory, it makes us realise that it is futile to grasp. And in the letting go there is compassion. Sometimes, we think letting go is losing; it's not so. Letting go is actually having, in life itself. For example, relationships, especially today, where the more you grasp, the more you don't have. It's when you are open, respectful to the other person, that your relationship also grows. The whole idea is that you begin to appreciate the transitory, the impermanent, and then actually appreciate life better. It's the grasping that blocks all possibilities. So death teaches us to sort out our priorities, and its lesson of impermanence teaches us the futility of grasping.
Today, there is a tendency to consider everything, including values, as relative. Can there be anything absolute, sacred in such a world?
There is this sacredness, but we fail to recognise or see it. We have lost the sacred outlook, and tend to reduce everything to a relative state. Actually, the relative and absolute are always together. It's a bit like the two wings of a bird. Because there is no absolute without the relative. What is the absolute? The ultimate truth, which pervades everything. That may be spoken of in different ways. For example, in Hinduism and other religions, the divine presence or divine intervention, in Buddhism, interdependence and so on, or the ultimate truth of the shunyata. Yet it actually manifests in the world of form, and the relative appearance. And sometimes when you really see the sacred, then you can actually appreciate the relative in a very profound, much more intense way. When you simply see the relative on its own, even that's relative. (Laughs).
You said that "a thing (in the realm of phenomena) exists and does not exist at the same time." So, can we speak of the nature of illusion?
Look at this cup, it's quite solid. You drop it, break it into tiny particles, even that you break down, where is the cup? It's non-existent. As modern physics has shown, there's no such thing as even atoms. So, in a sense, of course it does appear, does exist, it really seems real for us, but its ultimate nature is non-existence. Yet, we cannot say it doesn't exist. But then you might say, how can something exist and not exist at the same time? Actually, the beauty is that it's true, that's non-dual. Like it exists, but its nature is empty. Form is empty, but the emptiness is form. It's like a movie, when you're watching it, you can be completely entrapped in it and it's kind of real. But when it's over, it's just an illusion! So it doesn't mean that it doesn't really existthe moments seem to manifest, but when you look at it ultimately, it's non-existent or isn't real.
You said: "The mind is the cause of samsara, of happiness and suffering." Can you explain the concept of samsara?
Basically, it means the cyclical nature (of birth and death, illusion)you go round in circlesand it's because of ignorance, because we do not recognize our true nature. Our fundamental nature is buddha (awakened) but that's been obscured. Ignorance brings negative emotions, instigated by them we act negatively, creating suffering. We want happiness but we do everything that brings suffering. We don't want suffering but we do not avoid the unwholesome actions that are the cause of suffering. We want happiness but we do not do what causes happiness, which are the wholesome actions. So, the aim and actions are not together. And because of delusion we are in this kind of a repetitive cyclewe've lost our true nature.
The field of consciousness, or samsara, also includes things outsidepeople, relationships, the realm of matter and technologywhich actually makes samsara seem quite complex. Can an individual still be free of samsara?
It is complex. One of the qualities of samsara is its complexity and complicated nature. But it's possible for an individual to be free. That's why some people become monks and nunsthe word is lotang, which means, to cut; detachment. They enter into a different environment, they live by the spiritual principles and not the world or its intricacy. That doesn't mean they are out of this world or not in touch; they are not fools. But they are free. They choose to live like that. For example, myself, I have lived life very muchbut then as I become older, I find that it releases me in some way. See the pointlessness of it, realize that the world is only form, and what you really seek is some peace, some happiness. But we make this world so intricate, so complex. That's why so many people in the West become attracted to our teaching. They're looking for simplicity, the natural, wholesome and holistic. As in healing and so onrealizing the downswing of modern civilization. The East, you know, is going in for development; the West having experienced it, realizes that it does not bring happiness, after all.
Living in this world without renouncing it, is it possible to be free?
It is possible, but difficult.
You said that meditation can take place at two levels: conceptual and non-conceptual. Of these, the latter is true meditation, vipassana or mahavipassana. Can you explain?
When you say conceptual, it involves mental processes, for example, focusing on an object, or watching the breath, and allowing your mind to just settle. Once you've been able to establish that one-pointedness, then you're entering into the dimension of the openness, where it goes... beyond the mind, beyond comprehension.
So the conceptual clears the way for the non-conceptual?
Sometimes concepts are used skilfully in order to go beyond concept. Mind is used as a vehicle to go beyond the mind. You know, the great masters because they've experienced the direct, the experiential, they've seen the secret know-how, through their upadesha, they give you a certain way to cut through the context. And in Zen, they have certain rather astounding statements (koans), like "Let's hear the sound of one hand clap."
You said that in an advanced state of meditation, the sense of separateness falls away. How?
I think that happens even at the initial stages, but in moments. Actually when you reach a higher level then you become in union, in yogalike in Hinduism, one with God. Put simply, when you really practise meditation, suddenly the ego, the grasping is dissolvedthe sense of holding onto yourself merges with the greater universe, you also feel one with others, and feel open. Sometimes, when you're selfish, you think of yourself only, just locked up in yourself, and when you're open you suddenly begin to realize others and their point of view, that they want happiness just as you do. It is appreciation and cherishing of the other, replacing the self-cherishing, and the holding onto the self dissolvestemporarily!
What is the concept of shunyata?
I don't think we can even call it a concept. It's not a concept; we can call it a Buddhist view. I think shunyata is when you really break down everythingthere is nothing that exists independently. Impermanence shows how everything is interdependent. And that shows you the nature of emptiness. But the emptiness does not mean that it's nothing! (Laughs) In fact, because of emptiness, everything can exist. I mean, without the space, nothing could exist. So emptiness is the great openness within which everything is made manifest. It's difficult to understand emptiness conceptually, it needs to be experienced and then realised. When you really realise, there's a sense of dissolution of self and a merging with and an understanding of the great openness, and compassion.
So shunyata may also be called "fullness" or "openness".
We can call it openness, definitely.
Because emptiness implies that something is taken away.
That's right. Emptiness is a more nihilistic concept! That's why I don't like it. It's as much fullness as it is emptiness. (Laughs) It's not empty in the sense of nothing is existing, rather that it's free.
According to Buddhist philosophy, what is the final goal of life?
Enlightenment or the eradication of ignorance, which is not knowing or recognizing one's true nature. You eliminate that, which is also the removal of negative emotions, which result in all one's negative karma. You therefore uproot the cause of suffering, thereby attaining sangye, the Tibetan word for awakened, the Buddhaopen, awakened from ignorance and free from negative emotions, purified. You're open to all knowledge, knowledge of self. Basically it means that you're free of suffering, and the cause of suffering, and you have the ultimate happiness, which is enlightenment. That's what the goal is. All of us actually want to become enlightened, even if we don't know that, because we think that enlightenment is only for holy men and women. But actually, deep down, we all want to be happy; and no happiness that we have in this world is lasting, it's only temporary. The only way to bring about ultimate happiness is the eradication of ignorance, negative emotions and negative karma. Once you remove the cause of suffering, you're awakened; once you remove the clouds, the sky is clear and the sun shines. Because the sky, the sun is always there, like our Buddha nature, and that nature, our wisdom nature and compassionate nature can shine forth.
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