By Suma Varughese
Suma Varughese interviews the 12th Chodo Kenting Tai Situpa at the Palpung Sherabling monastery in the Kangra valley, and is moved by his authenticity and modesty
I met Rinpoche, the 12th Chodron Kenting Tai Situpa at his monastery, Palpung Sherabling, in the beautiful Kangra Valley when I was invited in November as speaker for the Silver Jubilee of the Active Peace initiative floated by him 25 years ago. It was a marvellous experience, and my lasting memory of Rinpoche and his monks was of their genuine and moving humility and hospitality. Rinpoche, particularly, touched me with his disarming modesty and authenticity. He is a small built man with a luminous face and a joyous smile, who is easily able to make much of others – a sure sign of a diminutive ego. He claims to have reached nowhere in his search for Buddhahood, but the air of manifest goodness on his visage says something else. A remarkably gifted individual, Rinpoche is a wonderful painter (see the website www.palpung.org for some of his exquisite work), and a brilliant architect – all the buildings in the Palpung complex were designed by him in traditional Tibetan architecture, glowing with gold, maroon and yellow colours.
He is also a song writer (the theme song for the conference was written by him) and a wonderful singer, I am told. Truly a renaissance man.
Excerpts from the interview:
What did it feel like to be separated from your family as a young child after being identified as a reincarnation of the Tai Situpa at the age of 18 months?
My family was with me. But we were separated when I escaped Tibet, at the age of five. My lamas had to bring me here. My family could not come because there was so much trouble. I remember my first arrival in Bhutan, in India. I saw the train for the first time. It was very impressive. And the first thing I ate was a samosa and a garam chai in a clay pot. I could only finish half the samosa (laughs).
What do you feel about India?
I know India better than any other place. India is my second home. I grew up here. I think India is very special. It has many things which stand out. I travel around the world, teaching dharma. India is a democracy. People are very free. At the same time, very populous. And very, very religious. Of course being such a big country, you cannot expect it to not have problems. But the problems in India are just like throwing rocks in the ocean. They make a splash and disappear. I personally think it is because of the culture and religion. If other places had 10 per cent of India’s problems, it would become a very big thing. India is very durable.
What is your viewpoint about the various religions? Would you feel that only one path is the right path?
No, no. How can that be? That would be like saying only my father is the best person on earth. For me, I grew up in Buddhism. I know Buddhism better than anything else. I am not going to be anything other than Buddhist for the rest of my life. I wanted to reach Buddhahood, but I don’t think it is possible in this life. But I believe all religions are of the humanity, by the humanity and for the humanity. But living lineage is very important. If that is lost, altered or diluted, then it can become something else.
So would you say that the Tibetan Buddhist approach towards finding reincarnated lamas has protected the lineage?
I am not sure about that. But reincarnated masters are always there, whether in Buddhism or elsewhere. All of these great masters, like the founders of the many religions, they are something special. From Tibetan Buddhist point of view we can call them reincarnate masters. The concept of reincarnate lamas was introduced by the first Karmappa 900 years ago. Before dying he left instructions on how to find him. And these incarnations are traced back to India and Avalokiteshwara.
It seems to work pretty well.
I should say so, I should say so. But I am a pragmatic person. It all depends. Like your pen – working very well, but does not mean that all pens are the same. Some work well, some do not (laughs).
Going back to what you said about not attaining Buddhahood, do you really mean it?
Of course. How can I attain Buddhahood without doing even one per cent of what Prince Siddharth has done? If I could do even one per cent, I would be super duper happy, because then in one hundred lives, I would become Buddha. Can you believe that?
But what is your definition of Buddhahood?
Absolute liberation from all limitations ever. Fully maturing and manifesting of the primordial wisdom which is the essence of everything and everyone, which is in each of us, beyond time and limitation.
So where have you reached so far?
I have reached where I have reached (laughs).
But all this beautiful work you are doing, all this focus on upliftment, it could not have happened unless you had evolved to a very high level. And there is a lot of peace on your face…
You mean the pilgrimage for Active Peace? This is something I felt in my 20s, that as a human being, I have to do something for humanity. As a Tai Situ, I have to uphold the institution and continue the lineage and uphold the heritage which goes back to Lord Maitreya. It is a tremendous responsibility. But interfaith, environment, active peace and the concept of one world, one humanity – these are things that I personally felt every human being should do something about. And I am sure millions are doing it, in their own way. I just have to do my part. I am sure you are doing your part too, since you are editing Life Positive. What a fantastic title. Just the words light up certain cells in people’s minds.
There is tremendous resurgence of Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, across the world. What do you think about that?
As a Buddhist, I have to say, fantastic. But it has to be long lasting. I am not so much for propagation. I am for preservation. Because the genuine teaching of the Buddha has to be maintained and spread; not as a missionary. But if people come, we should not fail to provide for them. Otherwise, we take a bit from here and there, add something there, and no genuineness is left – like fake butter. No butter left there. Similarly, no dharma left here! (laughs).
But in today’s times, very often it happens that one is exposed to various different paths and schools of thought. And there are many who are drawing a little from here and there. Well, I can’t comment on their motivation. Motivation is very powerful. But I would not do that. If I teach Buddhism, which I do, I teach it as it is. But certain persons are not ready for certain aspects of teaching. I will not create a new kind of teaching to suit the person because I am not Buddha. But Vajrayana Buddhism has so many methods – thousands of meditation methods, so genuinely you can find something suitable for everyone without having to make it up, if you have the lineage.
What would you say you have achieved with your efforts for Active Peace?
I can’t say very much. But it is the Silver Jubilee (laughs). All of the great masters, like the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul, the Shankaracharya, and many other luminaries of different fields had come for it then. And this time also, many great swamis and masters have come here. So I am very happy about it.
What is your definition of Active Peace?
Passive peace is individual peace and absence of negativity in one’s own mind. Active peace is a little bit more superficial. The world is so big. The kind of problems that humanity faces are so much that unless you do something, they won’t go away. As a person – powerful, ordinary, religious or not – if one sees something, why not contribute to resolve it, not aggravate it?
So it is taking passive peace one step further?
Yes, environment and education are very important. But our attitude is very backward. There are three concepts. Active peace, one world, one humanity. One world is about the environment. Our world is so small that whatever happens in one part of the world, affects the other. So we should be aware of it. And one humanity, because of modern development, we can be here and there at the same time, hence demarcation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ does not make much relevance. Education must emphasise this.
Are you yourself doing something in the area of education?
I have built a monk’s college and a nun’s college in Kulu. But all of that is part of my duty as Tai Situ. What I have achieved is not even one per cent of what I should have achieved as Tai Situ.
But active peace, etc, are something more personal, not historical responsibility. Palpung is my historical responsibility.
Would you feel that being a Tai Situ has come in the way of being a Buddha?
Other way round. I consider myself the servant of all the Tai Situs and their origin. I do not consider myself as a Tai Situ. It is my duty and honour. I have learnt what they have done for thousands of years. I learn and try to serve their activity. It is quite stress free, because I do not have to wonder what do I want to do. It is all there (laughs). People come to me and ask, what practice should I do? What is the purpose of my life? I don’t have to think about any of this. If I achieve something it does not make me proud because what I am supposed to achieve is like a mountain, and what I have achieved is like a grain of sand.
What role has spirituality paid in helping you build so many aspects of yourself? Your paintings are beautiful. You are also a poet, an architect…
It just happened. I really don’t know. Even as a child, my nanny used to tell me that one of his major problems was to get enough clothes stitched for me. I am supposed to always wear lemon yellow brocade. I used charcoal and drew on the floor, so I used to mess up my clothes. There is no dry cleaning in Tibet, so we had to keep making new clothes!
They say that a lot of your architecture came from geomancy. What is that?
Geomancy is my hobby. It is the science of seeing how the stars, mountains, rivers, and space flow. And how that affects human activity. I mean sentient activity. But we are very selfish and think only of humans. It is like Vaastu Shastra. Geomancy is English and free masons practice it. Cities like Paris, London, Washington DC have perfect geomancy. (The sounds of someone practising a song wafts up) That is my song.
Oh really? You wrote it?
(a devotee interjects to say that Rinpoche also has a beautiful singing voice).
You sing also?
Not allowed to sing in public. Only in the shower.
Who lays down these rules?
The Buddha. He says that singing in public boosts your ego. People say you have a good voice, and your ego becomes big (chuckles).
But I heard that our monks here have won a Grammy?
That is for chanting. Chanting is permitted. All kinds of chanting. Some more beautiful than singing. But that you do with devotion. Not with ego.
What is the legacy that you would be most happy to leave behind?
To serve the Tai Situ lineage and not let it down.