By Ajay Ahuja
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
The auditorium at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Delhi, India, is packed to capacity by a select audience—comprising mostly seekers from the Western hemisphere, with a fair sprinkling of Indians—assembled on an evening to receive what is described on the invitation as a ‘teaching’ from the renownedTibetan Buddhist master, Sogyal Rinpoche.
On the facing wall, behind the podium from which the master is to speak, is a set of five paintings depicting the Buddha in meditation: imparting an ambience of serenity, solemnity and tranquillity to the occasion. These paintings are by Elizabeth Brunner, Hungary-born artist who adopted this country as her home during World War II. Now ninety, she is also present to receive the wisdom.
As the expectant crowd waits, suddenly, Rinpoche, dressed in a traditional beige gown, enters and hurriedly takes his place on the podium. Sogyal Rinpoche is the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, an extraordinary work of spiritual significance, and chief of the Rigpa, an international organisation devoted to imparting Buddhist teachings. He travels extensively across the world, having begun teaching in the West in 1974, addressing audiences and holding spiritual retreats.
He begins by inviting questions from members of the audience. Someone asks: ‘Can the mind be controlled at all?’ ‘We will see,’ says Rinpoche. After a pause, he adds: ‘That is kind of an Indian answer. (Laughter) But actually we will see. We’ll try to see the question and how you develop yourself. But the answer is possible.’ Another asks: ‘What is the mind?’ ‘Something that knows,’ replies Rinpoche. ‘But unfortunately we misuse it for grasping. Its goal is to let go of grasping, and realise its pure nature.’
The Buddha’s teaching, he says, is both vast—comprising 108 Tibetan volumes—and of the essence. It is described as zav gyacheva—vast and profound. ‘Vast is the approach of the pundit and the learned.’ The lamas and monks sometimes devote 13 years to studying it. ‘Profound is the path of the yogi.’ Yet the teaching can be summed up in three lines: Commit not a single unwholesome action. Cultivate a wealth of virtue. And tame this mind of ours.
He lists the Ten Unwholesome Actions. They are of body (stealing, killing and sexual misbehaviour), speech (lying, harsh words, slander and gossip) and mind (malice, avarice and wrong view). ‘Who decides what is unwholesome?’ someone wants to know. ‘Your mind,’ he responds, amidst laughter, adding: ‘They are considered unwholesome because they are the cause of suffering, dukka, of oneself and others.’ To abandon the unwholesome acts, and adopt the wholesome ones is, then, dhamma.
It is motivation that provides the key. ‘In a sense, it doesn’t really matter what you do, if your motivation is correct,’ he says, with perspicacity. At the root of all human phenomena is the mind. ‘Seek not to cut the root of phenomena, but to cut the root of the mind.’ He explains: ‘If you have to cross a field covered with thorns, and you try to cover the field with leather, you won’t succeed. It is far simpler to cover your feet with leather.’
Rinpoche, born and brought up in Tibet, was taught by some of the great masters and lamas of the Buddhist tradition, in particular, the late Jamyang Khyentse. With the Chinese occupation, he took exile. In 1971, he went to Cambridge University to study comparative religion. Since he began teaching, he has become increasingly popular among seekers in Europe, the USA, Australia and Asia.
His work, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is a modern spiritual classic, focusing on the reality of death which becomes a celebration and search for the very ground of life. With simplicity and insight, it blends personal experience, ancient wisdom and recent findings on death and dying, to inspire a ‘quiet revolution in the whole way we look at life and the whole way we look at death.’
An excerpt: ‘Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity; but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?
‘Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person who we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?’
‘Samsara is the mind projected outwardly, lost in its projection. Nirvana is the mind turned inwardly, recognising its true nature.’
Water, if you don’t stir it, becomes clear, says a Tibetanproverb. Similarly, the mind, if you don’t stir it, finds peace. ‘The trouble is, we stir it,’ Rinpoche says, amidst a ripple of laughter. If you leave the mind in its true, natural state, it’ll find peace or bliss. Settling the mind is called kshamta; removing the dirt is called vipassana, or meditation. Allow the mind to settle, then in that quiet you can experience goodness, which is our true nature.
Adding a footnote, he says, ‘In the West, people are over-educated, they know too much. I would call it ‘being too clever for one’s own good’.’ The audience is obviously amused.’I think that’s where ignorance would be bliss.’
Many psychologists admit that the gist of psychology is this: the basic cause of all mental troubles is too much thinking. Only thinking creates hope, fear, anxiety and suffering. ‘A little thought becomes a worry, you build up all kinds of imaginary scenarios, are unable to get to sleep until 2 a.m.—and accomplish nothing!’ he says.
It’s best to begin simply. ‘Be spacious,’ they say in Tibet. The Indian way, he adds by way of an aside, is ‘be happy-go-lucky’. We’re so used to thinking, sometimes if people don’t think for a minute, they worry there’s something wrong with them! A French philosopher said that the root cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot sit quietly in a room by himself.
So at first, just let your mind quietly, spaciously be. ‘Sometimes, instructions are given just to make you think less and in the end, there’s nothing left to say,’ he says, with irony. ‘Sometimes, the instruction given has to be emotionally satisfying, and, removing the clutter, you begin to see the wisdom of that. Sometimes, you have to go to monasteries to quieten the mind and its grasping nature.’
When in the presence of the masters and the teaching, the mind is quiet, but when one is alone, the mind is back to its clamorous and neurotic activity. So we need practices, like watching the breath. In meditation, 25 per cent attention is on the breath, 25 per cent on staying alert and wakeful, and 50 per cent on spaciousness. Sometimes, one becomes fixated, which defeats the purpose.
As the mind settles, gradually all fragmented aspects of the mind become whole, all inner conflict ceases, the ego and grasping dissolve, hope and fear dissolve, and the mind settles in mind. In that space, you discover your true nature and peace. Sometimes, the problem is not with other people, but with ourselves. So be in touch with yourself, find yourself, it’s very nourishing.
If you practise, it brings a healthy self-esteem. And not only the barriers within, barriers from outside also fall away. The sense of separateness falls away.
One listener asks: ‘I’ve also at times had glimpses of a spiritual nature, and then I’m comfortable with myself. But soon my everyday self comes back, and again I’m uncomfortable with myself. Why?’
The reply: ‘Because the battery has worn out, and it has to be recharged—preferably before it wears out. (Laughter) The glimpses are too weak or too small, and the pressure of everyday reality is too strong. It’s like an elastic—you stretch it, it goes back. But if you persist, someday it will pop.’
Sometimes (he says) we have to go through suffering, attachment, to realize that it’s all completely worthless. Suppose you are bewitched, fall in love with somebody, lose your dignity and go through all that. Then one day you meet the same person and say to yourself: ‘Why did I fall in love with this person?’
With a ready smile, which lights up his face, and a puckish sense of humour, Rinpoche says: ‘I’m really impressed by you all—especially by those of you who did not speak.’ There is laughter, and he adds: ‘I’m just teasing, sometimes we have to tease each other.’
Let me spell it out (he continues). First, just be spacious. (Teaching is important, it eliminates ignorance). Then create the environment of the mind—incense, music, lighting, if possible, proximity to nature. Then you practise, it’s not really meditation, but creating the right environment for it. Preferably, keep a book of wisdom with you.
Sometimes, dying is difficult if you’re attached to life. Often, we associate dying with losing, which can create pain. But the truth of life is that we cannot hold on to anything. Not what is held, and even the holder is changing all the time. ‘You cannot wash your hands in the same river twice,’ goes a Tibetan saying. Sometimes letting go is kind, enjoyable; it brings a different kind of appreciation, not of attachment but of letting go.
Sometimes, in the presence of your masters or during practice, you become aware of the mind beyond your mind, and in that moment you feel, ‘even if I die now in this state, I’ll be happy’. And in that state there is a letting go. But the problem is, it doesn’t last. So keep having these little glimpses. And in that practice there is a letting go, like losing the cloud but gaining the sky.
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“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 mori—remember 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 judgement—a 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 exist—the 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 circles—and 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 cycle—we’ve lost our true nature.
The field of consciousness, or samsara, also includes things outside—people, relationships, the realm of matter and technology—which 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 nuns—the 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 much—but 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 on—realizing 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 yoga—like in Hinduism, one with God. Put simply, when you really practise meditation, suddenly the ego, the grasping is dissolved—the 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 dissolves—temporarily!
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 everything—there 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 Buddha—open, 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.