Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
Buddhism + ModernityPublic teaching “A Contemporary Buddhist Perspective on Myth, Language, Globalization and Societal Values” at Jisi National Taiwan University Convention Center – International Conference Hall, Taipei, Taiwan on November 25, 2020
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Note 1: This transcript is not an official publication of Siddhartha’s Intent. 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 madhyamaka.com. 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.
Modernization and globalization
I’m really happy. It’s an honor to be here in this Learning Center. Taiwan has been making itself very significant in general. And especially during this time, Taiwan has really made itself very significant. And I believe that a Learning Center like this, a university like this, [with its] years of training, education and grooming has a lot to do with that.
Now, I guess you all know that I’m a Buddhist. And that’s the only thing I know how to talk [about]. Even that is already a bit of an exaggeration. I was asking the two professors here just before I came in, into what category does the study of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy fall?
Buddhism’s birthplace, India, also has many incredible universities. And even there, the study of Buddhism is always found in some sort of peculiar department, like the [department] of anthropology, history, or culture. It’s never found in the science department. I guess there are several reasons why it’s like this. Not that I would like the study of Buddhism to be found in the science department. I’m not advocating that.
Anyway, I think Buddhism is about 2600 years old now. So yes, it’s kind of old, isn’t it? And then Buddhism traveled to different places like Indonesia, Tibet, China, and Thailand. And these host countries were very sophisticated countries themselves. They weren’t just some cannibals walking around naked. They had incredible culture, incredible language, incredible thinking systems. So when Buddhism traveled to these places, no doubt there was [an] influence from those host countries. So yes, of course, [this question may come to] mind: how much of what we today call Buddhism is not really something to do with some Indonesians or Thais or Sri Lankans and so forth?
It is said that Mao Zedong told the Dalai Lama that religion is a poison. This idea that religion is a poison actually originated from the West. It’s not really Mao Zedong’s original idea. He [does] not deserve that credit. Many of the modern Western ideologies such as communism were really cherishing progressive thinking.
So progressivism, modernity, current affairs – these are important. So much so that there’s even an attitude of looking down on anything that is archaic, ancient, past, expired, irrelevant. I guess it was around the late 1700s and early 1800s – a lot of you know this, I don’t need to explain this – there was a movement or a new era in the West called rationalism. The Age of Reason. And they even called themselves “The Enlightenment”. It must have been so exciting for these thinkers.
These opinions are all [from] my very limited Tibetan lamas, who basically only studied Buddhism, so don’t take what I say too seriously. What I want to say is that the age of rationalism, the age of reasoning, the enlightened age – for some reason, they were revolting against religion. And with a lot of good reasons. Because the church was very, very powerful. They were making fire pujas with the people who actually went against them. They were crucifying people. So during the Age of Reason, they were against these religions. And of course, that thought, that rationalism and reasoning, has continued until today.
Now what I’m thinking is like this. As they were revolting towards religion, somehow these people included systems like Nyaya from India, Buddhism from India, Jainism from India, Taoism from China also. They got included in that target department. If only these so-called rational people or these progressive thinking people had read a little bit of Buddhism, Nyaya, or Jain, I think they would have had a different attitude. Because actually, how many people know that probably Buddhism may be the earliest system that introduced democracy? In Buddhism, there are three very, very important [things]: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Sangha is the epitome of democracy.
Okay, going forward, [we] not only [have] rationalism or the age of reasoning. We then have empiricism. Experience. And then came science and technology. And of course, they’re very impressive. I mean the airplane flies, you can see it. The Buddhists can talk about the Buddha’s halo for ages, but we can’t see it. [Whereas] the airplane flies. Man went to the moon. People invented matches and antibiotics. Anyway, I somehow feel [that] after the age of reasoning, the emphasis went more towards this life.
Actually, in Tibetan there’s a such a good word, tsurtong1tsurtong (Tibetan: ཚུར་མཐོང་, Wylie: tshur mthong) = seeing this side; one who sees nearby, i.e. ordinary person, common being, man in the street; samsaric outlook or view – see tsurtong., which means “observer”, “the one who observes what is observable”. Basically, you don’t think beyond face value or whatever you see. You know, technology or whatever. What you see is believable. Beyond that, it’s not an issue. It’s not a concern.
And of course, there’s also this [attitude that] “You only live once”. And probably this is also where [the] much [greater] emphasis on material things began. So in other words, [our view] has also become shortsighted. As I said, [you only focus on] what you see, what you hear, and what you can do. Beyond that, [the rest is] irrelevant. Stuff like heaven, hell, next life. Those are like a world of imagination. It’s like fantasy. It’s like superstition.
I’m sorry, I’m getting really carried away here and there. But what I’m trying to talk about is how Buddhism is approached today. If you are lucky, even in a place like India, the birthplace of Buddhism, you will only find it in a place like the anthropology department or history department.
Okay, moving on. Then came the colonial situation, colonialism. I don’t know who was actually the first one. Probably it was the Portuguese. I’m sorry, all my Portugal friends. Of course, this is all generalization by the way. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is known for making sweeping statements. My defense to this is: How else can we talk? Even a question like “How are you?” That’s a generalization. Which part? My finger? My hair? Which part? That’s the only way people like you and me can talk.
Anyway, the colonial situation arose. And from my point of view, colonialism has never really ended, even today. And especially after the Second World War, the professor was earlier mentioning globalization. Definitely, it has its benefit. But we need to be really careful how much of this globalization is not a westernization. Actually the same thing [is true] even [for] the idea of modernization. How much of what we call “modernization” is actually not [just] a westernization? If I take out all the Chinese characters in Taipei City, Taipei City is just like San Diego Chinatown. Yes, of course some Sichuan restaurants have these red lamps and some guqin2The guqin (Chinese: 古琴) is a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument. It has been played since ancient times, and has traditionally been favored by scholars and literati as an instrument of great subtlety and refinement. playing, but that doesn’t mean much. Of course, you know, Taipei City is one of my favorite cities. I don’t want to criticize.
Actually just yesterday I was in a taxi. This is little bit negative, so I’m sorry. I love these Taipei taxis. They’re just so good. Anyway, there was this music, Taiwanese music with a Japanese tune. I can’t help thinking that the Stockholm Syndrome3Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response that occurs when hostages or abuse victims develop emotional bonds with their captors or abusers. Japan’s victory over Qing dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War resulted in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Taiwan was then ruled by the Empire of Japan until 1945. goes everywhere. I’m sorry. One of the very good examples of [how] modernization and westernization [get] mixed up is modern music. All the Chinese language pop music, I don’t see anything Chinese in it, except the language.
Buddhism and the West
Now, I need to tell you this. I’m not saying the West is bad. I’m not saying the West is good. It’s nothing to do with whether it’s bad or good. I’m just saying they are different. And the East, as I said earlier, has for centuries [had] great thinkers [such as] Laozi and Zhuangzi in China, and Buddha in India. Many of the [Eastern cultures] are actually much older than the West. Many of them are very well established. They’re not like some primitive jungle shaman culture [or] some aboriginal tribe hanging around here and there. I mean, if you think about the language. Just in India [you have] Sanskrit, Tamil, and Karnataka. Each of them is amazing. And of course in China, the Chinese language is just infinite I think. That’s all I can say.
And the thinkers. Some thinkers of the past were so progressive, such as the [ancient Indian] thinking system called Charvaka. Of course, as I said earlier, they have all been lumped into “religion” now. But until recently, thinking systems like Jain or Nyaya or Buddhism were never in the category of religion. And actually they were not even [considered] spiritual systems. I don’t think so. I’m quite sure of this. “Spiritual”. I find the Chinese translation of “Tao” as “way” quite good. It’s a such a good translation. The way of Zhuangzi or something like that. It’s not a religion. It’s not spiritual. It’s a way. I like this.
To call Buddhism a religion is almost equal to calling the science of physics a cult. To categorize Buddha as a god is almost like categorizing Galileo or Darwin as a god. Now, there are a lot of different factors I think that are influencing all these. One of the most powerful is language. And then I think convention. Conventional. What does that mean “convention”? [DJKR looks at dictionary definition on iPhone]. It’s something regarded as a normative example.
Now, these [conventions] have changed a lot. As I was saying, after the colonial situation, after the Second World War, the way we think has changed a lot. The way we portray [things] has changed a lot. The way we tell stories. The way we make movies. The way we write novels. The modern Indian writers, [in] the way they think, write, present, and tell their stories, they try their best to tell [them] as [if they were] English. I’m sorry, all my Indian friends. Because there are things like Booker Prize to be won. The Booker Prize, it’s a prize that you can win for the best English novel. Like the Nobel literature prize. I’m just giving you [this as an example] of the way things are valued and how things are interpreted.
Because, actually, if you really go deeper into philosophies such as Buddhism and I believe Taoism, language is different. What is meant by good? What is meant by bad? [This] changed after the colonial invasion. And after the Second World War, I think it has changed a lot. This morning, I was in an Eslite bookshop4Eslite Bookstore (Chinese: 誠品書店; pinyin: Chéngpǐn Shūdiàn) is one of the largest retail bookstore chains in Taiwan – see wikipedia. and I had to go to the toilet. And it’s the big toilet. And there’s a sign that says “Don’t put your feet on the seat”. I think in fifteen years, you won’t need that sign. In fact, people will have forgotten. People will forget the actual sit and do the toilet thing. That won’t exist anymore. It’s won’t be a phenomenon anymore.
Anyway, words like “sacred” and “profane” have a different meaning. And yardsticks are different. The [ways that] we measure. Okay, how do you measure happiness? Today, if you ask young people they will say “Oh, the way to measure happiness is if you have freedom of speech. If you have individual rights”. I’m not saying [this yardstick is] wrong. If you ask somebody like Shantideva, a 8th century Indian philosopher, the way he would define the yardstick, how do you measure [happiness], is how much self-cherishing is there or not. If you have a lot of self-cherishing, you will not be happy. Less self-cherishing, you are very happy. So can you see? It’s almost the opposite. The tools and the yardsticks that they use are different.
And also, what we aim [for is different]. The aim of religious societies in the West is something like a heavenly experience. I don’t know, but for modern society maybe the aim is to be free and independent etc. If you ask somebody like Nagarjuna he will say the aim of us Buddhists is to really awaken ourselves from misconception or misinformation.
And similarly, what is ethics? [Our approach to] ethics and morality are also different. What is ethical? What is moral? Before the Second World War and after the Second World War, it has changed, I feel. And sometimes in the West morality is really important. If you read The New York Times or The Guardian, the way they attack somebody like President Trump, the biggest argument will be something to do with morality and ethics. If you ask somebody like Maitreya, he will say yes, [morality is] important but it’s not the most important. Because he will say that without wisdom, morality is just a pain in the neck. Without wisdom, morality just makes you proud and self-righteous. But anyway, all this really doesn’t matter actually.
But there is something more serious. How we define truth. East and West are different. But more correctly, things now in the modern time, even in the East, and the ancient time in the East [are] different. Before you even find the truth, where you go and look for the truth is different. In the West. They tend to look at the moon, the stars, the atoms, the external world. In the East, especially in [traditions] like Buddhism, [there’s] very little concern on external things. Reality or truth is the search inwards. And the little bit that I’ve read about Taoism, like Zhuangzi, feels the same. Where you look is different, but how you look is also different. The way you search [for truth] is also a little different. For instance, in Buddhism, they like to categorize the search for the truth [in terms of] things like ground, path and fruition. Thus they talk about things like view, meditation and action.
And [something] that is quite unique in Buddhism is how they talk about ethics as [part of how] they talk about path. Okay, so, path is a discipline, isn’t it? It’s a discipline. So when [Buddhists] talk about discipline, they talk about three kinds of discipline. The first one, the lowest ranking so to speak, is just morality. You should not drink, you should kill, stuff like this. But then more importantly, the discipline of mind. There is a whole [wealth of] information on that. And the most important discipline is the discipline of wisdom.
I’m talking here about how the truth is being searched [for]. This is something that people who want to study Buddhism in depth should really pay some attention to, because this is really interesting. When I read Western philosophy or anything, there’s always a tendency of preferring the ultimate truth. Not in Buddhism. [In Buddhism], relative truth and ultimate truth are both important.
Now there’s something really exceptional in Buddhism, and I don’t think I have read anything like that in the West. [Namely], the union of relative truth and ultimate truth. Now that is so special. Basically the non-differentiation of truth and non-truth. I’m just giving you a list of how Buddhism approaches things. We don’t have the time to go in depth, of course.
You know, human culture has changed a lot. Many of them are extinct. It doesn’t matter really, human culture. One should not brood about it too much. Probably in about thirty years, you guys will never use chopsticks. So be it. It doesn’t matter. But having said that, there are few [elements of] ancient wisdom and culture that are worth preserving, such as Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine. Those could save people’s lives.
Now as I said earlier, I’m a Buddhist. I cannot hide that fact. As a Buddhist, I am concerned about Buddhism, within this context. When we talk about the glory days of Buddhism and the degeneration of Buddhism, we need to really define what do we mean by “glory”, “increasing” and “decreasing”. Even recently, the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. Yes, it’s very sad as a Buddhist, but it’s bearable.
What I would worry [about] more is when the view of Buddhism gets degenerated and contaminated. If this view is defined, confirmed, and measured by [the yardsticks of] modernization, globalization, and the postcolonial situation, we will have to watch out very carefully. Going back to the question, Buddhism is 2500 years old. It’s really old. Probably the “real” Buddhism or whatever is already gone. [Although] it is not that simple, because there has been a very strong system of hearing, contemplation and practice throughout the centuries.
The past masters and the patrons have really put so much thought into this. You know, stories like Xuanzang who actually walked to India, because he really wanted to preserve things properly and as close to the original language [as possible]. And also in Tibet, for instance, the Tibetan kings, many of them put so much attention to the propagation, preservation, and translation of Buddhadharma.
And as I said earlier, [when it comes to] Buddhist study, it’s really not like some sort of an ancient Aboriginal tribal sort of belief. There were great universities such as Vikramashila, Odantapuri, and Nalanda. And the tradition of these universities is still very much alive today. And [in particular], not only [was Buddhism] studied academically and intellectually, but there are quite a number of people who are actually putting this [knowledge] to the test, so to speak, by practicing it.
Now, we come to the last and most important question, I think. How relevant is Buddhism anymore? It’s very relevant. Even more relevant than just about twenty years ago. There will be more people like Elon Musk [in the future]. And this is good news for Buddhism. I’ve actually driven this time, in Kaohsiung of all places, I’ve been driven in a car they said that it’s actually self-driving. You know, I don’t know how to drive. I’m really waiting for this. The gateway to freedom, you know.
Anyway, when there are more people like Elon Musk, it will mean that jobs like nurse and doctor will all be done by machine. Lawyers, teachers, even parents, can you believe this? Already I have blessed several kids that are practically assembled. Have you seen Blade Runner, the second part? If you haven’t, it’s so good. Please watch, it is really good.
As a man, I’ll be talking like a man now. There is a dream girlfriend there. What do you like? A 1960s haircut for this afternoon? [Would] you like to have your girlfriend with a 1960s haircut style? You just touch somewhere and then 1960s haircut. You want Shanghainese qipao, just press. Or do you feel like an ancient Indian sort of Kama Sutra voluptuous? You just press another button. The same thing also for the ladies. You can have a burly man if you want for one evening.
Basically what I’m saying is your career will mean nothing after a while. Which basically means the education system also won’t mean much. I’m sorry to say this. It also means politics will mean nothing. So then what is our relevance?
So the identity crisis is going to be the biggest crisis. Identity crisis is the modern dukkha. Do you even exist? If you exist, how? Okay, maybe I don’t exist. If I don’t exist, how to deal with this apparent and seeming existence of me? And this is where Buddhism will come in. Not just with one answer, but eight-four thousand different answers. Do you have questions?
Q & A
[Q]: Rinpoche, thank you very much for your wonderful talk and I do learn a lot. I am a PhD student majoring in Buddhist philosophy here. Basically I have a question about translation in Buddhism. Because you talk about how Buddhism traveled around the world, and Buddhist texts have already been translated into different languages, but actually we know that during the process of translation some meaning may be changed or disappear. For example, the English term “suffering” is not enough to describe the Sanskrit term “dukkha” and maybe you already know that Xuanzang5Xuanzang (Chinese: 玄奘, pinyin: Xuánzàng) (602-664) = a Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and translator who traveled to India in the 7th century – see Xuanzang. did not translate [the term] “Prajñaparamita” but instead he used transliteration. He changed the term Prajñaparamita into Chinese characters. So Buddhism traveled around the world and has already been translated into different languages, but something has already disappeared or changed. So how could Buddhism preserve the ultimate truth? How can Buddhism preserve the Buddha’s teaching? Basically this is my question. [DJKR]: It’s an important question. Now there are several checks and balances, if you like, that are prescribed by the Buddha himself. But of course, it’s not so easy. And there are several reasons. One of the major reasons why it’s not so easy is that there’s something called expedient teachings and direct teachings. Of course, if people have enough time to study all the texts and logic and epistemology and all of that, then I think people will get the all the proper information.
I will just give you some common ideas. Actually it doesn’t really matter. I mean, it’s expected that the language is going to change. The way it is being translated, and therefore the way it is being conceived. That’s expected isn’t it? But I’m sure you know that there are things like the three characters that are taught in general Buddhism, anicca, dukkha and anatta. As long as the teaching does not contradict these three characters, you should be safe so to speak. I’ll come back to this later. Let me finish this. And then in Mahayana Buddhism, there is what we call the four hallmarks or the four seals. All compounded things are impermanent etc.
Now let us explore this a little bit more. So, Buddhism is sort of partially being taught and practiced here and there. For instance, one of the big problems in the modern time is stress and therefore loneliness and depression etc. So the techniques of shamatha and vipassana are now being taught, so to speak. And this is when people like me have to be a little bit alert. How much of this vipassana that is being taught here and there – like mindfulness this, mindfulness that – how much of that is being taught within the context of anicca, dukkha and anatta?
There are even mindfulness apps. They are supposedly Buddhist-inspired and advertised as Buddhist techniques and so forth. And actually they give really good guided instructions. And I guess they are also helping a lot of people, because there are many five star reviews. I think actually several of them are multimillion dollar companies. So if you’re listening to these apps, they are like, “Okay, watch your breath in … out … If your mind is going out, come back”.
Now all of this, if the creator comes to me and says, “Isn’t this Buddhism? Isn’t this taught by the Buddha?” I have to say “Yes, it is”. But where I am suspicious is this. The very fact [and they way] that these people are selling the app. I’m sure you can find it. You know, it’s [sold with messaging] like “Oh, do you want to have a good sleep? Less depression? Less stress?” Now each one of these marketing [messages] goes against anatta, dukkha and anicca. So this is where I think we will have to be really [careful]. I’m not saying that they can’t. And I think we should also rejoice for the people who are making the apps, because if somebody has a good sleep, why not? That’s really something to rejoice. I hope everybody has a good sleep.
So now coming back to your [question about] translation. Now, in the translation I also think your local language [is important]. For instance, I admire Xuanzang [and the way] he left paramita just as transliteration. I really admire that, in a way. Because he must have thought it is too scary to leave it as “gone”, you know “paramita” [as in] gone6 paramita (Pāli & Sanskrit: पारमिता) = transcendental perfection; literally means “reaching the other shore” or “gone to the other shore” – see paramita.. So I think there is a big challenge. But [for] things like this, I think you need to ask questions like what you just asked. And then people need to really bring that issue.
Because if Buddhism boils down to “Don’t eat meat, smile, be gentle, be kind, be helpful, behave well”, then Buddhism is dead. I’m sure there [will be] a lot of good people walking around, but there will be no Buddhists.
[Q, in Chinese]: I want to ask Rinpoche what is the essence of time. Since we know that the past, the present and the future are all dependent on each other, how come we are still bound by time? [DJKR]: Okay, I don’t know where the question is coming from. If you want a more academic or philosophical answer to this question, if you’re asking this question to a Buddhist, [then the answer is that] like everything, time is an illusion. It is like direction for instance. There are a lot of things like this. Words like “infinite”, “greatest”, “smallest”. All these things. [Time is] like those. They are so illusory. Just like many Indian philosophers don’t really believe in time, I mean a truly existing entity called time.
If you’re asking this more on a practical level. Why are we bound by time? [It’s because of] our habit of thinking that there is time. And this applies to everything. It’s like [how] you have been referred to as somebody, and then you grow up like that, and you always think that’s you. [It’s] just conditioning.
Just to expand this a little bit, so that it’s related to the Buddhist sutras, for instance. You read one sutra, and there Buddha made it sound like enlightenment takes ages. Three countless kalpas or aeons. Just as you begin to feel like “Oh, no, so long”, Buddha would say “You know, [from] the time that you took the bodhichitta vow until the last moment of the tenth bhumi, which is like three countless aeons, [that] is probably even shorter than a spark flying from a fire and then dying”.
Do you know where the kind of confidence [underlying] these kinds of statements comes from? Because of the union of relative truth and ultimate truth. It’s a bit like slicing sky. There’s nothing to slice. But if you must, why not? Slice some small, some big. So [you] see, these are the nuances that need to be preserved and that cannot be influenced by so-called modernization.
And by the way, this is not just some philosophy that you read with a big thick coffee, and then talk with some nerdy friends. It’s not unpractical. This is very relevant and rewarding for your present situation. Remember I was talking about how after maybe twenty years maybe we [will] feel irrelevant? When we feel this existentialist angst, this information [about] relativity can really help.
[Q]: Thank you Rinpoche. I had the honor of being at Deer Park Institute last fall for the International Network of Engaged Buddhists conference. My question for you is, in both Buddhism past and present, we’ve seen instances where Buddhism seems to reinforce or replicate even more dukkha in the world, for example, gender inequality or violence and even genocide in the name of Buddhism. And my question is, in your perspective, how did this come to be? And [for] those of us who identify as Buddhists, is there a role that we can play in addressing this? [DJKR]: Well, the simple one first. I think it’s always really important to differentiate between the person and the system. This is what Buddha said “Never rely on a being, a human. Rely on the teaching or the truth.” So in other words, what I’m saying is that Buddhists and Buddhism should be separated. Yes, Buddhists, human beings, can do all kinds of strange things.
This is why the teachings need to be heard and contemplated and actually practiced, but at least hearing and contemplation. If the teachings are not heard and contemplated, probably you may have a lot of Buddhists, but [they will be] more like a political and sort of identity-clinging Buddhists. Buddhists are human beings, a lot of Buddhists.
And if you are looking at the history of Buddhism, Buddhists may argue that they have been on the receiving end of genocide, forced conversion and all that, much more than any other religion. And that kind of historical memory doesn’t go away. Try to talk about this with somebody who has lost a plot of land somewhere in Burma, Sri Lanka, whatever. Messages such as compassion and shunyata are not going to do much.
But here is one thing that I want to tell you. This is quite important, I think. You will not find a single shloka or stanza (verse) in the whole entire Buddhist system, that [says] “May all [beings] become Buddhist”. In fact, if given the choice, I would not even want to have that.
Now the gender situation, this is a very important one. Generally, in human history, the equality between genders has never been fair. Never. Everywhere. And in fact I would say this is where the East may be suffering more than the West. At least in the West, it is an issue. They talk about it. They write about it. I mean, there’s always this thing about you know, it is also Sri Lanka that was the first country that produced a woman president. So there’s that also.[But] I think the gender inequality thing is such an ingrained human weakness. Especially for Buddhism. I sometimes feel it’s very frustrating, because Buddhism’s most important icons or ideas are actually feminine. For instance, the prajñaparamita that the gentleman was talking about earlier? The short name of prajñaparamita in Tibetan is “yum”, which means mother7yum (Tibetan: ཡུམ་, Wylie: yum) = mother; female consort; female principle – see yum.. And there are so many more [like this]. For instance, if you go deeper into how the female is considered in more esoteric Buddhism, maybe “higher” is not the right word, but the female is “more sacred” so to speak.
But I don’t know how this gender thing is going to go away. Maybe the Elon Musk kind of people will even take care of that in the future. [In a world of] artificial intelligence, all real men will really appreciate real women. All real woman will really appreciate real men. For those who have time, really you should watch Blade Runner. The first one is really good. The English writer, I think he wrote a novel. It’s so good also. A bit difficult to read, but it’s good. I think the name “android” came from that. It’s a story about how in the future only the very rich people can afford real pets. That’s part of the story, not all. All the other people, like middle class people, we will just have to be happy with artificial intelligence sheep, dogs, cats.
Yes, it will be a status [symbol] to have a real dog. It’s like how right now people walk around with Prada and Louis Vuitton to say you are somebody. In the in the future, supposedly if you have a real dog, “Wow. He has a real dog”.
[Q, in Chinese]: If you say that Buddhism is actually not a religion, but a path, then how do you see the following two things: One is about all these rules and protocols we have within Buddhism, that you have to keep things clean, that sort of thing. The other thing is devotion to guru. [DJKR]: They are a bit like a stuffed teddy bear. Let’s say you are a professor, a scientist in MIT. And you teach the very essential science about the law of gravity, let’s say. And recently you had a baby that you love so much. A very adorable baby. Suppose the baby is about to crawl very near to a cliff. You are not going to explain to a baby “Hey, law of gravity, if you fall your brain will be smashed.” The best is to shake a teddy bear. The law of gravity professor is making a noise like a bear. Because the point at that moment is to save the life of the baby.
You can say that so many of the Buddha’s teachings are [like] this. Actually I forgot to explain this, when the guy was talking about prajñaparamita, and I was talking about expedient teachings. This is what we call expedient teaching. Yes, so [rules and teachings such as] no meat, shave hair, all the way to the guru [are all] teddy bear.
And they are very important. Why? You’re a scientist, right? Why is a teddy bear important? Not because you are a scientist or anything, but because you have a baby. So this is why the Buddhists always say that “Buddha never taught based on his knowledge (i.e. because he knew what to be taught). Buddha taught out of compassion”
I want to relate all your questions to what I’ve been talking about this afternoon. This is where colonialism, modernity, westernization, globalization or whatever you want to call it influences us. This is what happens with the modern Buddhists, let’s say from the West, let’s say from New York. Incense, candles – superstition. Guru – cultish. Get rid of it. These are to be thrown [away]. Mantras, dharanis, shrines – it’s culture, Asian culture. So they get rid of these things. Ah, sitting. That’s much more scientific. Sitting, it’s not so religious. That’s not Asian. It’s not really superstitious. It’s experimental. It’s empirical. So they cherry pick this. And they write books condemning incense, candles, gurus, rituals, and dharanis. And then modern people get [sucked] into that. This is why I say that colonialism is still going on.
Because from the Buddhist point of view, sitting on a cushion is just a story. Just as we tell a story “Oh, offer a candle or incense”. They’re equally a story. Why should we tell a story? It has to work, there and then. Remember the baby about to fall? When the MIT professor’s baby becomes 17 years old, teddy bear is gone. Finished. No use.
Thank you for asking this because I actually forgot one part of what I wanted to say. Myth. Colonial modern people, westernization, globalization, you know all these people have a definition of “myth”. Myth is almost always looked down on as [something] not true. “It’s just a story”. [Whereas] Buddhists think that everything is a myth. Democracy is a myth. Democracy is a religion. It has been a sort of trendy religion until recently. It’s sort of falling apart a little bit. They have their monasteries, they have their temples, they have their Rinpoches, they have their initiations, everything. And then they have their sectarianism, “My democracy, yellow hat democracy, red hat democracy, blue hat democracy”, they have many. This is a myth also.
Myth is so important for Buddhism. Because many times only the myth can really tell you the truth. The truth is too blatant. Too up close. Myth helps you to distance yourself and have some sort of reference. All these things that you just asked about, they are myth. They are teddy bear. They are necessary. But as I said, even the teddy bear needs to be improved and upgraded. I don’t think it will work for a one day old baby if you show them a teddy bear, right? So not all the toys and tools work for everyone. What works for one doesn’t work for others of course.
Connected to that is the issue of belief. I’m always targeted with questions and curiosity, “Oh, so you are a believer in Buddha?” I don’t know whether it’s [also] in the [meaning of the] Chinese word “believer”, but “believe” seems to have some sort of a little bit of a negative connotation.
I was talking recently about how one Buddhist master was addressing people, and I think that master said that he thought scientists were one of the blindest devotees. He must have said this a few years ago. I think he was recently asked in Europe in [front of] quite a large audience whether he will still stand with his statement or has he changed? Because I think in between he went to many Science and Mind and Science and Buddhism conferences. He goes to these a lot. He said that he hasn’t changed. Not only that, he’s even more convinced that scientists are blind devotees. Because scientists believe in an observed world [that is] independent from the observer. What’s the difference between that and believing in God?
[Q, in Chinese]: Since we are already under the influence of globalization and westernization, so in this context, how do we propagate the true meaning of Buddhism? [DJKR]: As I said, I think the best is as prescribed by the classic Buddhist teachings: hearing and contemplation. I foresee challenges. As I was telling you, in the beginning of the modernization of the world, somehow Buddhism got categorized by all the age of reason people, by all those enlightenment people, into this religious category like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Now almost 200 years have gone by, and Buddhism belongs to that sort of category. It’s going to be really difficult to fish Buddhism out of that. It’s going to be difficult.
There’s another challenge. Modern people will look at Buddhism and they will be kind of attracted by a lot of the Buddhist tenets, so to speak. They’ll be impressed with things like shunyata. The relative truth of everything. They will be also impressed with cause and effect logic to a certain extent. And they will be very impressed with lots of the statements that Buddha made.
But there is always one thing that will stop them. And that is this religious-like image and activities that Buddhists [engage in]. It’s changing a little bit, even in the West, but still, it’s very strong, especially in the academic world. The professors are so afraid to be seen as religious. I hope my professor friends are listening to this. It is understandable. I respect that sentiment. They want to really be as objective as possible. They don’t want to be missionaries so to speak. But we have already dealt with the issue of objectivity earlier.
But I think what is so sad [is] not being able to understand the religious aspect of the Buddhist skillful means, as explained with the teddy bear issue. It’s a bit like this. Throughout history, I think there have been a lot of people, a lot of thinkers who have actually come very bravely [and] negated lots of things. They have negated [things] like superstitious beliefs etc. They negate this, they negate that, and then they have nothing to give, so to speak. And this is a stark difference between [that tradition and] Buddhism. Okay “negate” is maybe not the right word, but [Buddhists also] negate everything. Read the Vajracchedika sutra or the Heart Sutra. “No nose, no ears, no enlightenment”. They negate everything.
But at the same time, [Buddhists] use everything. This is what I was saying earlier. [They have] this incredible ability to enjoy the unity of relative truth and ultimate truth. I know a lot of you are familiar with sutras like the Avatamsaka Sutra8Avatamsaka Sutra (Sanskrit: आवतंसक सूत्र, IAST: Avataṃsaka Sūtra; Chinese: 華嚴經, Pinyin: Huáyán jīng) = The Flower Garland Sutra, Flower Adornment Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, one of the most important and largest of all Mahayana sutras, which has been especially influential in East Asian Buddhism – see Avatamsaka Sutra.. It is probably one of the most beautiful narrations of this union of relative truth and ultimate truth. Because how do you talk about the truth, when the truth is a paradox?
See. This is black [DJKR points to the coffee cup on the table in front of him]. Easy to say. This is white [DJKR points to a different cup on the table in front of him]. Easy to say. But let’s say this is both black and white [DJKR points to a water bottle on the table in front of him]. But the observer keeps seeing only partially, sometimes black, sometimes white. Now, how do you explain to people this union of black and white? And this is where sutras like the Avatamsaka Sutra are incredible. Verses like “Within just one atom there is an infinite number of Buddhas sitting there”. And they said this atom has not become bigger, and the Buddhas have not shrunk. It’s pure quantum physics. I mean, it’s actually beyond quantum physics.
But those [things] are very philosophical. Forget them. Let’s talk about something that’s happening right now. Isolate one feeling that you have. Isolate. Just pick a feeling. Are you sad? Is it really sad? It’s like a phantasmagoria. It’s like a matrix. I think this is something you will understand, this language. The matrix. I think the best [language] is that this is the magic that’s happening all the time.
Like your feelings. Whatever. Choose just one feeling. Choose one and and watch that. And don’t get entangled with one [feeling] color such as sadness or excitement. The matrix of the love, the compassion, the anger, the jealousy – everything [is] mixed. You understand? But again, you see, I’m not explaining this well. When I say “everything mixed”, it’s not like Din Tai Fung’s fried rice9Din Tai Fung is a Taiwanese restaurant franchise specializing in Huaiyang cuisine – see wikipedia.. Because in Din Tai Fung’s fried rice you can differentiate “Oh, that’s a pea”. “That’s rice”. “That’s fried egg”. But put it together, you call it “mixed fried rice “. [The matrix of feelings is] not like that. The egg is rice. Rice is tomato. Tomato is bean. It’s everything. It’s difficult to explain.
You are not giving time to your feelings and emotions. If you just choose and isolate one feeling, one thought, and just watch that then you will experience this matrix. And then what will happen? You will experience the biggest humor. That is liberation, by the way. And then you [will] look at somebody who is still looking at Din Tai Fung fried rice, but they are only looking at mixed ingredients. They’re not looking at a matrix. And they are suffering with “Oh, it’s oily, it’s fried too much. It’s too salty. It’s not salty enough”, and then you feel so compassionate. What do we do? How do you explain? This is the part I wanted to explain about myth.
[Q]: Thank you. We all know that building faith in the lama or our teacher is very important to learn Buddhism. Would you mind sharing your most unforgettable or deepest experience? Maybe it could be exclusive ones about your interaction or interconnection with your lama if it’s appropriate for us to know. And also could you please give some advice for practitioners who are learning how to see the lama as a Buddha. [DJKR]: Okay, first, I need to tell you this. This is very important. This guru business is an exclusive tantric phenomenon. Yes, in the Shravakayana they have a preceptor. They have the abbot, the preceptor I think. And in the Mahayana, [you have] the master who teaches you the Mahayana path. Now the guru in the Vajrayana is a really different phenomenon completely. I mean, it’s similar but there’s a really big [difference] also.
I just want to make the point that this Vajrayana guru business really is a particular practice basically. They are a lot of these kinds of practices. You can choose. Tantra has so many of these. And some of them are mind-boggling. For instance, in the Tantra there is Vajrayogini practice, and there are concepts like after one hundred days of pure devotion, you just have to go out of your [retreat] place and then bow down and prostrate to the first female you meet.[I’m] just giving you an example. [The guru in the Vajrayana is] kind of a different thing. Unfortunately, the whole Vajrayana guru gets too mixed up with human [ideas and projections such as] father figure, leader, coach, mentor, all that. I have many tantric masters, but I cannot say that I have that kind of pure tantric approach to them all the time. I hope and I pray that I can. It’s very individual. It’s really individual. And it is a choice. You have to choose.
And it could be as seemingly ridiculous as going to a tantric master and saying “From now on, I’m never going to reveal that I’m a man”. It’s got nothing to do with whether or not other people know you as a man. That’s beside the point. You just practice that. In fact, just recently, one of the yogis – now this was a Hindu tantric practitioner, not a Buddhist – died at the age of something like a hundred years old. I don’t know. I’m not so clear. But I read somewhere that he took a vow never to wear men’s clothes. So he was always [wearing] an Indian sari10Ed.: Prahlad Jani, an Indian breatharian monk who claimed to have lived without food and water since 1940, died on 26 May 2020 aged 90. At the age of 12, Jani underwent a spiritual experience and became a follower of the Hindu goddess Amba. From that time, he chose to dress as a female devotee of Amba, wearing a red sari-like garment, jewellery and crimson flowers in his shoulder-length hair – see wikipedia..
See, this is something that the modern people will laugh at. But if you think about it, this is what makes life so beautiful. I mean, in the world of pragmatism and profit, this is just incredible. When I heard this during lockdown in India, I was so moved and I thought “Of course, only in India do such things exist”. I’m sure there are a lot of people who will just laugh at this. [They will think it’s] some Asian, some lunatic cultish whatever going on. Sure [you can think that way]. Why not? [But] to me, this is much more impressive than what’s going on in the United Nations conferences.
What was the most memorable thing that happened? A lot of things, but I suddenly remembered something which I will tell you. I have several teachers by the way. One of my teachers was a Sakyapa master. And by the way, his own life is kind of interesting. He said that he clearly remembers being a mother of a sparrow. He remembered just a very sharp glimpse of memory or remembrance. He was protecting his baby, her babies. And he got eaten by a cat, I think. That’s it. The next incarnation was called Ponlop Khen Rinpoche11Ed.: this may refer to Jamphel Ponlop Kunga Gyaltsen, the first tutor of H.H. The 41st Sakya Trizin.. And he said that he now thinks that the reason why he was the sparrow mother was to pay the karmic debt to the animal that ate him.
And he died. I mean, now we are talking about the real Ponlop Khen Rinpoche. I think I was ten. And my other teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, took me to Ponlop Khen Rinpoche who had died. His dead body was on the bed. And Ponlop Khen Rinpoche stayed in a very remote place, a retreat hut. And night came, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said “Oh, I have to go. You stay here. You can sleep, and if you can’t sleep, read these texts”. So he gave me all these texts to read.
And just as he was leaving, he said “Are you afraid?” Of course, I pretended “No, I’m not afraid”. And Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche replied, “Yes, why should you be? Because you should be more afraid of the living ones”. So that was one of the most impressive moments of my life, I guess.
Oh, I suddenly remembered another one. And this is a really dramatic one. In those days, we were very poor. So we were waiting in what we called Siliguri train station in India. It’s a terrible train station. And, because we were quite poor, we could only afford some sort of a ticket [that did not come with a] guaranteed seat. So at night, we all slept on the actual pavement where people were walking around. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche too. Our train was at two in the morning or something like this, so we had to just wait there.
The night came and then there were not many people. And there was also a family of villagers also waiting for the same train. And there was no light or anything like that in Indian train stations in those days. And most of us also didn’t have torches. Somebody brought two boxes of matches. So when absolutely necessary we lit one and it functioned so to speak.
But the most dramatic thing was around midnight, the family next to us – who were very close, much closer than [the distance] here between us [in this auditorium]. The woman in the family was giving birth. And there was screaming and the father was going here and there. And Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was doing some prayers. Many years later I just thought, “Such a lucky child”.
Actually at that time I was afraid. What to do? And this screaming [went on] for so long. Two hours of screaming. Anyway, around one thirty all this business was finished. The train was delayed until eleven in the morning. And then next morning when the sunlight hit, you could see blood and stuff like this. But both mother and baby were okay. The mother was very exhausted and we were trying to give them milk powder etc.
Okay, since we just talked about birth, I would consider this as an auspicious note [upon which to end]. And even though I can talk about nonduality, and I can talk about the union of relative truth and ultimate truth, my habit of duality is still strong. Therefore I still have my physical gross body, which means I’m bound by causes and conditions. And since I drank a lot of water just before walking in, my bladder is full. And I think probably it’s a good time to stop. Thank you so much for inviting me.[END]
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Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio