Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

Poison is Medicine

Public teaching at Spatz Theatre, Halifax NS to an audience primarily comprising students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Shambhala.
August 3, 2021
100 minutes

Transcript / Video

Note 1: This is an edited transcript of a live teaching, and should not be taken as Rinpoche’s final word. Every effort has been made to ensure that this transcript is accurate both in terms of words and meaning, however all errors and misunderstandings are the responsibility of the editors of Please see note.

Note 2: This transcript includes footnotes with clarifications and more information about Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhist terms used in the teaching. Please click on the superscript number to read the footnote. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s name is abbreviated to “DJKR” throughout.

Poison is Medicine

Appreciating the Vajrayana

Devotion and deconstruction in Rinpoche’s childhood and adolescence

It’s really good to see many people here who are getting younger. I’m a little bit self-conscious because I think there are other people watching us on Zoom, right? So we better behave. I didn’t know that I’ve been here eight times.

Anyway, I consider myself [to be] a Vajrayana practitioner. And maybe a lot of that has to do with culture, because I was born and groomed by a culture or country or family that has Vajrayana phenomena1Ed.: i.e. the Vajrayana teachings, practices and worldview were part of DJKR’s childhood and upbringing.. That may be a good thing in one way. Some people will consider this as a fortunate thing. But it could also be a veil, some sort of obstruction [to] the real path. Sometimes I think of this.

I grew up looking at pictures and statues of all kinds. Very serene, saintly looking Shakyamuni Buddha. And wrathful, skull-garland, female and male deities in union. Images of figures that have buffalo heads, elephant heads, many times all together. Those devilish-looking and holy-looking figures. And no question was raised in my head.

And I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or not a good thing from the actual Vajrayana point of view. Sometimes I think it’s good. Other times I feel that maybe all this may have distanced myself from actually appreciating the tantric wisdom. That [maybe] the culture ended up hijacking me.

But I also grew up in a culture and a tradition that cherishes reasoning, and that actually quite vigorously. I would say that at least 10 to 15 years of my time was spent studying Buddhist logic, critical thinking, analytical thinking. Where you analyze so much that you deconstruct everything, including the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha — everything that we venerate. Just as how Buddha himself advised us to do. He encouraged us to analyze, to never to take things at face value. And I have to say, this I have done.

And also as I grew up, I discovered that this kind of appreciation of reasoning and logic and analytical thinking is not only [to be found] within the Indian or Tibetan tradition, but very much [also] in the West. So, I grew up really getting excited and really appreciating the Renaissance, the age of reasoning, the Romantics is it? The age of reasoning.

But I guess you can say from a Dharma point of view, from the Vajrayana point of view, during the summertime, I would go to a Buddhist college to deconstruct everything, basically. Analyze everything. And then during the winter break, when I was growing up, there were all my family people. And my family, from both sides, they are yogis from the Mahamudra and Mahasandhi lineages.

And [there was] a lot of insinuation from both sides [about] how much I’m wasting my time analyzing things, deconstructing things. How I’m wasting my life doubting everything. How I am so deprived of things like pure perception and devotion.

Looking back, I think it’s very fortunate that I had that. But growing up, it was so much confusion. Winter, there’s all that Calling the Guru, Tilopa, Naropa, Longchenpa, Guru Rinpoche, Yeshe Tsogyal, all this mind-boggling stuff. When Guru Rinpoche went to Tibet, the mountains even bowed down and things moved, and then there were all these miracles. And during the summertime, there would be all these khenpos, deconstructing everything.

Appreciating teachings like “poison is medicine”

But anyway, now after 50 years going this [way] and that, I think I can say I have an appreciation, a veneration [for the Vajrayana]. I think it is too arrogant for me to claim that I practice the Vajrayana. That is too arrogant. But I think I can sort of say that I aspire, I wish [to] practice Buddhadharma in general, and especially the Vajrayana. Not all the time, by the way. From time to time. When I’m sober, so to speak.

Because I really get very thrilled and very excited and convinced [by] ideas like “Poison is medicine”. I just like that. It excites me. I like when I hear things like, “Profane is sacred”. And I like when I hear things like this emotion that I have, this very emotion is wisdom. I like that. Of course, it’s just [on an] intellectual level.

But this is the year 2021. Having these kinds of statements [still] alive, that’s good. That’s amazing.

And these are not only just statements. “Poison is medicine”, “Emotion is wisdom”, “Profane is sacred” — these are not only just statements, that kind of philosophy or science if you like, but there’s actual technique. There’s an actual path that is there, [and] you can actually apply these techniques. What do you call it? Empiricism. We like to have that, don’t we? [Something] empirical. And that’s very much [the case] with this wisdom of “Profane is sacred” and “Poison is medicine” and so forth. This is something that is empirical. This is something that you can actually experience.

You can actually find out whether your emotion — it doesn’t matter what kind of emotion — [is wisdom]. It can be very melancholic and sentimental, or it can be very destructive even, or very dull and depressing. But it is possible — now — to experience that they are actually wisdom. This is not just a statement. I know it is difficult to accept it. But that is just because we are not giving this a chance. And if you really give [it a] chance, it is possible. It’s not a myth. It’s not a story.

The Vajrayana practice lineage

And this kind of practice, this kind of tradition and know-how, has been there for 2000 years. It’s not just like [something] recently discovered somewhere on South Beach when someone got excited looking at a sunset. This is very much tested, by many people. By a lot of people, in fact. A lot of amazing people — scholars, kings, queens — some of the greatest leaders in the world.

Genghis Khan. Actually, this should tell us something — Genghis Khan. You know, if I say this, people will think “He wasn’t really behaving like a Buddhist, was he?” This is a question that people will ask. This is an interesting question actually. Because somehow we have put Buddhism into the “well behaving” basket. So that is interesting. Maybe we can discuss this later.

There were a lot of interesting people. Genghis Khan, yes he was a Buddhist. But quite an interesting person. And there was King Trisong Deutsen of Tibet. Yes of course, if you ask Tibetans and especially Nyingmapas, they will revere him as this great [being], Mañjushri incarnate, the compassionate, the all-omnipotent, etc. But histories have also said that he was child-like at times. Like when he was upset with his ministers, he would eat his shoes and he would roll on the ground and he would beat himself up. But this is also a king who really ruled, big-time.

I think it’s important that we sometimes go beyond stereotyping. Alexander [The Great], Napoleon, we always have a stereotype [for our leaders], like human beings with a big, not-moving kind of quality. But anyway, there were many interesting practitioners in the Buddhadharma generally, and especially in the Vajrayana. It has been tested and practiced by a lot of people.

The challenges of the Vajrayana

Vajrayana has always been controversial

And I have to say there were a lot of charlatans too. There were a lot of phoneys, charlatans, people who took advantage of the Mahayana, Theravada, Shravakayana, Vajrayana, all of that. That’s what we human beings do. Charlatans make our life interesting. And there has been a lot of that. There have been a lot of opportunists.

And not just because of all these strange, controversial people, but Tantra itself is controversial. It has always been, by the way. Some may think that this Vajrayana Buddhism is becoming a controversial thing now. No, it has always been controversial. Right from the beginning. From the time it started, actually. Obviously, a system that says poison is medicine. What do you expect? That’s already asking for trouble, isn’t it? [If you say] profane is sacred, you’re already starting with controversy.

So, Tantra definitely cannot be appreciated by everyone. Understandably. Not only can it not be appreciated by everyone, in fact, there were a lot of people who really condemned Tantra. More so [from within] Buddhism [than outside]. And rightfully so many times. Tantra has been looked at with a lot of suspicion historically.

Keeping the Vajrayana secret

So, if you’re looking at tantric history, Tantra has always been kept — I don’t like the word “secret”, but it was definitely not exhibited. Definitely. It was kept [and] guarded, very zealously and carefully. And actually, the reason why Tantra was kept secretly, with a lot of determination, is really out of care and compassion from the people who were the stakeholders of Tantra in the past.

Because [it’s] not only that we need to save people from misusing Tantra, of course. But that is a smaller thing to worry [about] in a way. But more importantly [we should worry about] if people who are not mature, people who are not ready, have even a slight doubt towards this incredible, magical alchemy, if you like. Even if there’s a little bit of a doubt, this will distance the person from approaching Tantra for eons after eons, according to the Buddhist [texts]. And that is very unfortunate for them.

So, this is why we always hear this. Our masters, like my teacher Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one thing he kept on repeating to people like me is “No matter what you do, try your best so that [nobody] will have some sort of suspicion towards the Vajrayana”, which would really then keep them distant for many, many lifetimes.

Rationality and intellect are not the most important qualities for a practitioner on the nondual path

I will tell you something. It may be kind of heavy to hear this. There are people who — I don’t know whether I should say this, but I’ll say it mildly. I’ll water it down a little bit. There are people who are so afraid of believing in reasoning, [even more than they fear] falling into the hell realms. Some tantric practitioners are more worried about becoming sensible than going to hell. We can discuss this if you are confused about what I’m saying. But this is such an important statement. This is a really important statement.

But actually, this is not only in the Vajrayana. Even in Mahayana, when Chandrakirti was asked “To whom should we give the teachings on shunyata?” He never said “Oh, to those Harvard and Yale graduates”. I made this up, but what I’m saying is [he didn’t say we should give the teachings on shunyata] to those who are so smart and so well-read and so reasonable and so educated. He never chose them. Who did he choose? He said, ”One should teach shunyata to those people who just [upon hearing] mention of the name, the word “shunyata”, they have goosebumps. They have tears in their eyes. To these people, you should teach shunyata”2From Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara (Entering the Middle Way), VI:4-5:

Certain simple, ordinary people,
When they hear of emptiness, will feel
A joy that leaps and surges in their hearts.
Their eyes will fill with tears, the hairs upon their skin stand up.

Such people are the vessels for the teaching;
They have the seed of wisdom, perfect buddhahood.
The final truth should be revealed to them,
In whom ensuing qualities will come to birth.

Translation: Padmakara Translation Group. See Madhyamakavatara.

Coming from Chandrakirti, it’s quite amazing. Because if you read Chandrakirti, he was a really big time reasoning man. Prasangika Madhyamaka. Really big time. He was deconstructing everything. But at the end, when asked to whom [should one] teach shunyata, he said this. Shunyata is reserved for those [who upon] just hearing the name of shunyata you feel goosebumps. And if you think about it, these statements are actually quite understandable.

You need merit, a knack for the Vajrayana

To be a vessel for teachings like shunyata, [for] teachings such as zungjuk3zungjuk (Tibetan: ཟུང་འཇུག་) = union – see zungjuk. (union), like Mahamudra or Mahasandhi, just [having] intelligence, intellect, sort of being smart is not enough. In fact, it’s not that important.

What you need is, I think the English word is “knack”. You have to have the knack. I was looking at this word “knack” and the English dictionary says “Some just have a special knack for getting into trouble”. You know, some people just have that knack. Like a “bent” [for doing something] or the “hang” [of it]. If you ask me what is this knack, I think Buddhists would say it’s called merit. That’s the best word I can come up with in English for sönam4sönam (Tibetan: བསོད་ནམས་) = merit – see sönam. or punya5punya (Sanskrit: पुण्य) = merit, virtue, meritorious karma – see punya..

And I’m sure many of you know this. Many of you, for whatever reason, are inspired by a half-paralyzed, half-drunk, at times squeaking person [Ed.: DJKR is referring to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche]. And you’re very inspired. Other people [might] look at somebody like Lady Gaga, and when they look at her meat jacket6Ed.: At the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, American singer Lady Gaga wore a dress made of raw beef, which was commonly referred to by the media as the “meat dress” – see wikipedia. — she wears a meat outfit — they almost come too close to a sort of orgasmic situation. You know, you just have that knack. This happens.

I think you know what I’m talking about, a knack. You know, some people are really just so good at real estate. Housing. They are so good at this. They just know what to buy and when to buy. I know one person [like that].

And when you meet these kind of people [with a knack for Vajrayana], then of course [there’s] no need to keep it secret. [But] if not, then I think keeping it secret — maybe that’s not the right word, but treasuring [it], protecting it — it’s quite important. Secrecy. Treasuring it. Not to reveal it openly. It’s kind of important. But Tibetans have been so bad with this.

I guess the whole [of] Tibet somehow one way or another, has this Vajrayana culture. So I guess it was understandable in a place like Tibet or Bhutan. But Tibetans just can’t keep things secret. They are just itching to talk and exhibit [them]. And this has put Vajrayana into grave danger, especially now. In pre-1959 Tibet, there were no bookshops where you can also choose books like Kabbalah. There was not much choice. I don’t think there was a bookshop, maybe only Buddhist libraries.

Now, there’s so much of this. Sometimes, I really think this is the blessing of the buddhas. It’s really amazing that we have images such as Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini in Dharma centres in places like upstate New York, where other people also come. And wow, what do they think? There’s so much tolerance. Maybe the Tibetan paintings are so abstract that they don’t really know what’s going on. Maybe.

But Tibetans are not so good with keeping it secret. And even me, coming here today. You all know, most of you anyway, that I’m a Vajrayana student. You know that. That’s already not good, actually. Actually, that’s already a mistake. And I have myself told you just now that I aspire to practice the Vajrayana. I shouldn’t have said this. Especially if there are new people. That’s how it should be [i.e. one should keep one’s practice secret]. But this is how it is, I told you.

It is difficult to accept and appreciate the Vajrayana

As I said, I do have aspiration to practice Tantra. [But] I don’t want to claim that I’m a tantric practitioner. I’m not saying this out of humility. [It’s] more like a disclaimer. Yes, I have aspiration to practice the Vajrayana, [but] not always. [Although I do have that aspiration] quite a lot of the time. But not always. And not one hundred percent.

And the reason is that even after all these years, the tantric teachings still surprise me. Which means that there are still a lot of things that I have yet to discover. Even as recently as when I was in New York, somebody gave me a volume of tantric texts. And just that afternoon, since there was nothing much going on, I was reading a few pages. And I have this text so many times in the past. But it was just so surprising. There were sentences and phrases that I have read so much, but I’m finding some new information. So, yes, I do have aspiration, but I think it can really go much more.

This is because the tantric view is vast and deep. And not only that, sometimes the tantric view is too simple. It’s so simple that [we] just cannot accept [it]. [We] dare not accept it, because this habit of [believing in the logic of] “No pain, no gain” is so strong in my head. It’s just unbelievable when someone says, “No pain, all gain”. That’s just not possible.

And not only the view, [but also] the techniques and the skillful means are just infinite. [I] dare not accept [it]. It’s unfathomable. It cannot fit in my small mind.

There are many reasons why I dare not accept Tantra. Because no matter how I try, there is still a theistic residue7Ed.: DJKR said “residual” throughout this section of the teaching. It has been changed to “residue”. with me. This is actually quite shocking, you know, because I grew up studying Madhyamaka and Pramana [Buddhist logic] and so forth, but there must be some past life thing. The theistic [mindset of] relying on a saviour, somebody will fix me. That residue is so strong with me. So Tantra becomes unfathomable sometimes.

And not only that. Sometimes the atheist residue is also there. That atheist residue is also blocking me from understanding and appreciating Tantra. It’s very complicated.

And recently of course, the temptation to join the bandwagon — wow, that is strong. [That’s] not a tantric thing to do. You know the expression, “If you are not with us, you’re against us”? Wow. That is strong. It really shakes me. And when that shakes you, then it shakes your tantric capacity. And of course I’m also scared of the wrath of goody-goody liberals.

I have to say this. I try to upset the liberals who are reading my Facebook or whatever, but this is actually — what do you call it? Reverse psychology? — it just means that I’m so afraid of them. It is very scary. The liberal wrath is really scary.

I’m talking about how I find myself [to be] not a strong tantric vessel. And among other things, I love collecting pencils. I love collecting bags. But those don’t matter — pencils and bags don’t matter so much. Worse is that I love collecting antidotes. This is not good.

Tantric people don’t like this. My forefathers — Tilopa, Naropa — I don’t know what they are thinking [as they are] looking down at me. I love collecting antidotes, and I think antidotes are chok8chok (Tibetan: མཆོག་) = supreme, most excellent – see chok. [supreme]. I consider them to be good. And then also morality and ethics, considering them to be wholesome.

We risk losing the magic of the Vajrayana

But this is how the human mind works. The human mind is complicated. We say we like to think out of the box. [And] we don’t just say that we like to think out of the box, but we also like to do things [that are] out of the box. But to actually apply that is difficult, because we also want to fit with other people. As I told you, joining the bandwagon is so important.

Even if you are craving a cup of nice coffee, if there is some strange coffee shop, it’s difficult to choose that isn’t it? It’s much safer to choose Starbucks, because you already know what is there. Latte, grande, small – you basically know. So you feel safe. This adventure, [going on] the full adventure to choose this obscure coffee shop is difficult.

So, all this has basically destroyed — maybe that is not the right word, but all this is at least weakening the magic [of the Vajrayana]. In the Guhyagarbha Tantra, the word is gyuntrül drawa9gyuntrül drawa (Tibetan: སྒྱུ་འཕྲུལ་དརབ༹་བ་; Sanskrit: मायाजाल, IAST: māyājāla) = magical net, net of illusion – see gyuntrül drawa., sort of “magical net”. We [are losing] this. What to do?

Poison is medicine. That is magic. Medicine is also poison. That is also magic. And the fact that there is no such thing as ultimate poison and ultimate medicine, that is also magic. And I think [that not being able to accept] this then weakens this kind of net of Maya or illusion. Magic. Paradox. Which is something that is always here, always there.

But falling into the trap of [thinking that] poison is only poison, medicine is only medicine, then [this] deprives us from actually being able to enjoy the infinite, vast, deep wealth of this magic. Anyway, [the word] “magic” is probably already not an acceptable term in this world of empiricism, science, and technology.

The legacy of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The Vajrayana has come to the West

Anyway. Karmic connection. The power of cause and condition. The power of karmic link is so strong that even [though we are] miles and miles away from the Ganges in Varanasi, the teachings of Mahamudra and Mahasandhi [have] come to this land, brought here by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And a lot of you here are his children, his Vajra students. And yes, I have a very mixed feeling towards this place. I don’t know whether it’s improving, but there’s so much [appreciation]. [I’m] not even thinking about Buddhadharma in general. There’s just so much appreciation and awe for what Trungpa Rinpoche has brought here.

I was looking at some of the texts. Do you do this Dakpo Kagyu lineage chant10Dorje Chang Thungma (Tibetan: རྡོ་རྗེ་འཆང་ཐུང་མ་) = The Mahamudra Lineage Supplication (also “Invoking the Blessings of the Kagyü Lineage”) by the 15th century master Bengar Jampal Zangpo, often recited in Karma Kagyu centres at the start of a practice session – see Dorje Chang Thungma. sometimes? I don’t know what many of you think [about this]. But [it has] verses like:

Awareness is the body of meditation, as is taught.
Whatever arises is fresh — the essence of realization.
To this meditator who rests simply without altering.

Just this message, this verse, this stanza — [the fact that Trungpa Rinpoche] brought [this] here and built a systematic system, atmosphere, [and] culture to really bring this spirit — maybe that is not the right word — this wisdom [of the Mahamudra]. If one can think about these things, it’s mind-boggling that such a teaching [has been] brought here. And [it’s] not just [something that is being] read over a coffee or talked about. A lot of you [have] actually spent years cultivating [and] engaging with this kind of wisdom.

And concepts such as Vajrayogini and Chakrasamvara must be so alien [for you]. The symbols, the language, the whole method. But these [practices] are still being carried on. And as somebody who [has been] sort of observing [from] outside, for the past maybe 35 years now, [I have seen that] you have gone through a lot of challenges but [these practices] are still going on.

Things like tamel gyi shepa11tamel gyi shepa (Tibetan: ཐ་མལ་གྱི་ཤེས་པ་) = ordinary mind, a term from the Mahamudra teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage; synonym for nature of mind – see tamel gyi shepa.. The word “tamel gyi shepa” is still alive. And there are still people who think that pointing out tamel gyi shepa is important, something to be sought after, something [in which] to invest your time and energy. These are blessings from my point of view. I feel very encouraged.

You have to remember that it took more than 1000 years to really establish the Buddhadharma in Tibet. Here [in the West], how many years [has it been since the introduction of Buddhadharma]? 200 years maybe? And [there are] a lot of challenges, of course. Because this is precious.

The Letter of the Black Ashe

The other text I was reading, it’s just incredible, is [The Letter of the Black Ashe12The Letter of the Black Ashe is a Shambhala root text by Dorje Dradül of Mukpo, which is the name of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the Shambhala context.]. It has words like13Ed.: DJKR read the first verse of the text in Tibetan. The English translation below is by the Vajravairochana Translation Committee under the direction of Dorje Dradül of Mukpo, available from Kalapa Publications.:

To the Imperial Rigden, god of gods,
Leader of men, protector of beings,
Profound Brilliant Just Powerful All-Victorious,
I prostrate without doubt.

The concept of Rigden14Rigden (Tibetan: རིགས་ལྡན་, literally “Holder of the castes/family”) = (1) [O you of] high/noble family; (2) name for the kings of Shambhala – see Rigden. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche teaches on the Rigden kings of Shambhala in his book “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior”.. I don’t know what people who are new to this think about it. Rigden is just inexpressible. Profound. How do you translate sel15sel (Tibetan: གསལ་) = clear, brilliant – see sel.? Clear, brilliant. [The text continues by praising Rigden as] “Profound, brilliant, just, powerful. To this [I prostrate without doubt]”16Ed.: DJKR recited the fourth line in Tibetan only.. [We should] never have any doubt towards this.

I was talking to some young people today. I feel very encouraged, and I want to repeat this. I [have] heard that the world of artificial intelligence is coming more and more. People are going to have [an]identity crisis because of that, because a lot of jobs and professions are going to be taken over by artificial intelligence. Which means, who are we? What are we now? Because many times we identify ourselves with a job or some sort of profession. And then of course, in the modern day, we alienate ourselves. We have existential angst.

It is at that time [that these practices will help]. If you can just continue a little bit, for just a few more years, I would say another 100 years. If you can just continue to hold these values of Rigden, zap17zap (Tibetan: ཟབ་) = profound, deep – see zap., sel18sel (Tibetan: གསལ་) = clear, brilliant – see sel., song19song (Tibetan: སྲོང་) = just, straightforward, righteous – see song., tsen20tsen (Tibetan: བཙན་) = powerful, strong, mighty – see tsen..

And then there are subsequent stories [in The Letter of the Black Ashe] about how some people are scared of this Rigden. You feel scared or doubtful, and then all these cowardly people will arise. Something like that? I don’t know how you translate it. I’m just reading the Tibetan. And then all sorts of cowardly people will arise. And then what do they do? They go and hide in the caves and the forests. And in the water, I think. And then they kill their own kin and eat their flesh21The Vajravairochana Translation Committee under the direction of Dorje Dradül of Mukpo translates these lines as follows:

When fear and doubt occurred
Towards the confidence which is primordially free,
Countless multitudes of cowards arose.

[. . .]

Those countless multitudes of cowards
Hid themselves in caves and jungles.
They killed their brothers and sisters and ate their flesh.

This is The Letter of the Black Ashe. I’m reading it in Tibetan and I’m translating it really badly, so don’t laugh at me too much. But it’s just incredible. If you can just hold on to this for just another 100 years.

This is an iPhone 12 [DJKR looks at his phone]. So when this is in the Metropolitan Museum in about 20 years, and when people laugh at this and say “What a funky, clunky thing they used”. At that time, these words will be the answer to this [coming] identity crisis.

I needed to say this tonight. This is actually the only thing I wanted to say. All the other things that I’ve said earlier [were] just to sort of fill up the evening. This is what I wanted to say, for those who are here.

Of course, you will have challenges. Of course, but you have to deal with [them] and sometimes be strong, sometimes be very skillful, and glide through this. But this needs to be treasured. And I think a lot of people here are doing incredible work preserving this. I offer my rejoicing. I know some people don’t even have enough time to do some other things, right? Anyway, I won’t go through the details.

Q & A

Okay, so I was told that there are a lot of questions, I don’t know whether we have enough time to answer all of them, but maybe some questions.

[Q]: These questions have been submitted from people all over and we selected a few to start with. These are the difficult questions.

[DJKR]: Oh.

[Q]: How can you actually tell if a teacher is being abusive [and] acting out of confusion, or is acting with skillful means? How can you tell?

[DJKR]: I don’t know who is asking this question. Because these kinds of question should not even be there if you are not practicing Tantra or Vajrayana. Of course, even in the Vajrayana, the teacher is actually more responsible [than in other yanas] in taking care of the student as his or her only child. Abusing and harming the student in the Vajrayana is fundamentally wrong, because the Vajrayana is basically based on pratimoksha22pratimoksha (Sanskrit: प्रतिमोक्ष) = (individual) liberation, a list of rules (contained within the Vinaya) governing the behaviour of Buddhist monastics – see pratimoksha.. No matter what what kind of tantric practitioner you are, you have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And as someone who has taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the fundamental practice is not to harm others. So, even on that level, the teacher is not supposed to harm others.

But having said that, in the Tantra [there is more]. Now, if you are consciously — and this something I have been saying because of all the recent happenings within the Vajrayana world — if you have consciously decided to apply the Vajrayana, after lots of analysis, after a lot of thinking, after deciding — that this is the path that you are going to take, this is an adventure that you will join. Then you have to have the wits and guts and the courage to take a lot of things not just as skillful means, but as wisdom.

But as I said earlier, if this question is [about] Buddhism in general, [then] no. In the Shravakayana, in the Theravada, and in the Mahayana, no. This is much clearer, much more black and white in the causal path. Yes, in the Vajrayana path, it is much more difficult, because the Vajrayana is [a matter of] individual choice. You have to really choose this [path]. But, I’ve been realizing that this question is probably also based on [other background context]. I don’t know, where is this question coming from?

There’s a lot of background to this question. This may sound not so good for a lot of people, but I think we need to say this. The ultimate aim of Buddhism is never really to develop a social structure. It’s never really [about] that. And I’m saying this in reference to many other religions, [as] I think many other religions are connected to social structures, morality, ethics, etc. Buddhism is not really [about] that. And this always ends up conflicting people a little bit, emotionally or intellectually. So this is why I always encourage people [that they] should really go through some sort of an in-depth study.

One good example that I’m always [giving] is that there’s no such thing as a Buddhist wedding. It’s a social structure. Maybe many religions have this. Or many religions even have things like if you steal somebody’s wallet, what to do with their hand23Ed.: For example, punishments under Islamic law (Arabic: حدود Ḥudūd) include amputation of the hand as an obligatory punishment for theft when certain conditions are met – see wikipedia.. But Buddhists don’t really have that. Let’s say there was actually a Buddhist wedding, more likely Buddhists would also have a divorce ceremony. This is how Buddhists think.

So this question is very vast, really vast. And if this question is coming from some sort of structure, [some] kind of social structure, then it gets really complicated. But yes, fundamentally, this is what I need to tell you. If you are a Buddhist, you have taken refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, you cannot harm others. That is fundamental. But harming, not harming, helping, not helping – all this also gets so complicated because it’s very subjective. And also good and bad [are] so subjective.

I’m sorry, I’m not really answering this clearly, but I can’t really clearly explain this for a general [audience] more than what I just said. If you are a Vajrayana guru, then this must mean that you are practicing the Mahayana and the Shravakayana, therefore you cannot harm others. Definitely not. [You cannot harm others] with [your] intention or [your] action. You cannot.

[Q]: If the Vajrayana is so great, why are so many longtime Vajrayana practitioners still totally confused and disconnected from reality?

[DJKR]: I think that is easier [to answer]. Well, I don’t know. [First], just because you are a Vajrayana practitioner doesn’t mean that you are really practicing it properly. That’s one. [Second], maybe he or she is really trying to disconnect from society. And that could be a pain in the neck for a lot of people. It’s also very subjective. Maybe you see them as confused and disconnected from reality. I’m sure you may think like that. But that’s really difficult, isn’t it?

What did Jigme Lingpa say? If you look at the prayers written by the great masters of the past, there’s a lot of that, you know. Like the way they define a perfect human. According to Jigme Lingpa, if you are disconnected from human reality, you have achieved your goal. You have done a good job. He has these kinds of prayers. What did he say? “May one hundred things that I wish [for] never come true. May one thousand things that I dare not wish [for] come true”. Stuff like that. So, again, that’s a little difficult to answer.

I’m sure there must be a lot of Vajrayana practitioners that are disconnected from reality. I mean, I have to say, I volunteer myself as a good example of [this]. Very much. I’m not just saying this. As I told you already in the first part of what I said earlier, there’s a lot of [a] schizophrenia kind of element in me. It’s very difficult. But when I told my master what to do with it, he said it actually means that I’m struggling between the world of Dharma and the material world. And he said that’s probably at least the beginning stage of a good thing. He said [it’s good that] at least I’m schizophrenic. At least I’m not totally, completely, blindly happy with this illusory world. I think maybe it’s a good thing.

So it’s very, very difficult. If you want to talk at the “poison is medicine” level of conversation, you need to really think like that. I don’t want to tell you, “Okay, this is the right thing to do. This is the wrong thing to do”. Who am I to say this? I’m not an almighty person who can decide this.

[Q]: I have two questions. The first one is, I’m really wondering if you could say a little bit more about why it’s so bad in the Vajrayana to collect antidotes. And the second one is, if you have any advice for those of us that deeply in our bones want The Letter of the Black Ashe to still be available in 100 years. What can we do now, especially when we feel disheartened?

[DJKR]: The collecting antidote business. You need to hear this, [the warning] that it is bad. But you should still keep on collecting [antidotes]. But you need to hear it. This is the thing about the tantric path, I’m telling you. It tells you to do something, it says something, and it also makes you do something else. Like in sadhana practice. The whole morning, it makes you rise as a deity and suddenly within one second you have to dissolve everything. Stuff like that.

[Q]: We need to hear it’s bad. But why is it bad?

[DJKR]: Because if you have [an] antidote, then you will always have the opposite of antidote, which you don’t want, right? [Having the opposite of an antidote] means you have a problem. So [you need to] get rid of both.

As for the wealth of the Letter of the Black Ashe, the words, all of this. As I said, I think you guys are doing it right now. I think you just need to continue. Continue whatever you’re doing. Probably, sometimes we get disheartened because we tend to think that an organization or a board of people should do this and that. [And] when they don’t do it, then we get disheartened. But if you’re looking at the history of Buddhadharma, it’s always [that] out of nowhere, somebody will come and protect [the Dharma]. It’s always like that.

Look at the history of Buddhadharma. I mean, like, wow, the mother of Asanga and Vasubandhu. You know, India, male-dominated, male chauvinist society, men, men, men, all of that. And then this nun. We are talking about a fourth century Buddhist nun. You know, she was so disheartened and she really wanted to protect the Buddhadharma. So she really didn’t know what to do because she’s a woman, [in] India, [in a society dominated by] men, all that.

So she just had an affair with a prince. Just to make a baby. And then Asanga came out. Just imagine a nun in India, flirting with a prince. Wow, the scandal she had to go through. And then, as if this was not enough, she jilted the prince and then hung around with a Brahmin. That’s unacceptable in India. And then came Vasubandhu. And these two, Asanga and Vasubandhu, they are like the pioneers of the Mahayana. I would say Asanga is equal to Nagarjuna.

So, I think [help] can come from the most unexpected [places]. And I think this exists, because there are people who are motivated. I think this is so true, even in the world today, the Dharma [world] today. I have noticed this. Like in the West, many times Rinpoches like myself, the stakeholders, we don’t do as much as we should be doing. But then there’s always [someone] like a mother of three children [who has] no husband, and she has to work hard [to support her family]. [But] she’s the one who’s cleaning the centre, making the photocopies, cooking, making people come to listen to these teachings. She works so hard. I feel that these people will always hold the fort.

[Q]: How can you continue to defend the system and the people that have ruined many people’s lives and caused harm. The people that have ruined my friends’ and my lives.

[DJKR]: Again, I don’t know where this question is coming from. If the question is referring to things I have written or said, I have always really been talking about how the Vajrayana needs to be guarded and defended. Not really the person. If people sort of read it carefully. Because — what’s the English expression? — don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, I think that is quite important. So, even if you are looking at words like rigden, sel, song, tsen – wow, you cannot throw this out. Those are important. Those are going to be beneficial for a lot of people.

Just because certain people [about] whom you have very reasonable or unreasonable expectations and assumptions did not really perform their job. Or you see it that way. If you also discard this [i.e. the wisdom of the Vajrayana], I think it’s a loss for all of us. And this has always been what I have been trying to say, because the Vajrayana is really precious.

And yes, as I said, Vajrayana has suffered a lot with controversy, I think many times because of the tantric people. How they behave, how they are not skillful, how they exude themselves. But the wisdom of Tantra itself is so precious and so timely. And especially for modern people. I think it’s so good. If you want to be thinking out of the box, this is it. If you disregard this, no way [will you be] going out of the box. I don’t think so.

I have thought about this for months and months and months. Especially during these past two years. Because of the pandemic there was a lot of time to think. Yes. The Vajrayana is incredible, and that needs to be protected. Okay, maybe one more question.

[Q]: What would you say to the children of parents who were so focused on getting enlightened that their children experienced neglect or even abuse?

[DJKR]: These are such big questions. Parenting. I have never been a parent myself, so I’m not really in a position to make much comment. But what I have been telling my friends who have children is that I think it is a sensible, commonsensical thing to do [to] never really force and shove down the Buddhist values and ethics and teachings [onto your children]. Even practically speaking, children always seem to do the opposite of what you say. So maybe it is not a skillful thing to do.

Instead, if you want your children to also follow, let’s say, the Buddhadharma ideally. If you as a parent keep on doing your practice with humility, compassion, kindness, tolerance, big mind, big vision, big view, I think [your] children will always be very proud of you. Children will always look up to you.

[People] say that your parents are the real school. So I think if parents just keep on doing their Dharma practice — I’m assuming that this question is regarding Dharma practitioner parents. So if it is, if you keep on doing your Dharma practice, but not really imposing [it] on [your children]. [And] sometimes actually deliberately not imposing, almost like keeping them out a little bit, out of skillful means. They might want to actually come into you more. Then you pretend that you don’t want them [to engage in the Dharma] right away, then they will want more.

I think something like that, probably, is the way to go. But parenting is difficult. Especially in this modern age, where I feel that individualism and liberal values are so cherished and hyped. And now, there are all kinds of media that will help you alienate yourselves from each other. So I don’t know how parents are even going to have any kind of impact. I mean, parents in the future. It’s something to think about.

But I think there’s always going to be a conflict between [individualism and] wanting to fit in. I’m sure all the future generations will always want to fit in. I don’t know how they will want to fit in. Maybe through social media or Internet. Anyway, if the question is, “As Buddhist parents, how do we at least not neglect [our children]?” It’s by practicing the Dharma authentically, properly. And not imposing that on them. I think so.

Okay. Thank you24Ed.: at this point in the recording there is an extended soliloquy by a student, to which DJKR does not respond. It has not been included in the transcript..


Note: to read footnotes please click on superscript numbers

Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio