An interview with Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche
Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche is only half-jokingly referred to as dharma royalty. The grandson of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, the son of Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche, the nephew of Chökyi Nyima, Tsoknyi, and Mingyur rinpoches, and the eldest brother of Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi, he grew up in Nepal steeped in the living heritage of Tibetan dharma. He is one of the throne holders of the Riwoche Taklung Kagyu Lineage and a lineage holder of the Profound Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa from the Nyingma School. He also received a rigorous traditional training. Yet all this occurred at a time when the Kathmandu Valley was undergoing its rapid transformation from a medieval outpost to a bustling metropolis, bringing with it all the trappings, glitter, and ruptures of modernity. Phakchok Rinpoche’s comfort and familiarity with both worlds has provided him with an exceptional capacity to address a whole new generation of dharma students. In January 2013, he took a few minutes from an extraordinarily busy schedule to talk with Tricycle’s founder, Helen Tworkov, in Kathmandu, Nepal.
In your booklet “Keys to Happiness & a Meaningful Life,” you speak of the importance of knowing one’s own faults, reducing judgments, and practicing lovingkindness and compassion. And you speak of the eight keys to a meaningful life: generosity, patience, discipline, and the other virtues traditionally called the paramitas [perfections]. You emphasize the importance of these qualities for everyone, whether they are Buddhist or not. This suggests that you can develop these aspects independently of a religious context, which is appealing to those who want some kind of “Buddhist” practice without religion. Buddhism introduces wisdom. That’s the difference. For example, compassion with wisdom doesn’t exactly look the same as compassion without wisdom. Wisdom means to be free from complicated mind. Dignity without wisdom can be easily corrupted by pride. Generosity without wisdom can be corrupted by self-flattery. Without wisdom, you cannot be a perfect person—meaning that you cannot be free from complicated mind. Without this freedom, your good qualities always risk being corrupted.
And dharma has the capacity to free us from complicated mind? Yes, but we need to practice. Dharma offers all the wonderful qualities: happiness, joy, lovingkindness, and so forth. But we are so vulnerable to being corrupted. For example, take love. How many people create problems for themselves and others because of what we call love? How often do we really put ourselves ahead of the other in the name of love? How often does joy become a selfish pleasure? Compassion can be a way of serving yourself. How many people make puja [ritual offerings] to please the gods for their own benefit? How many people do their Buddhist practice thinking only of themselves and not of others?
That is why practice is so important. Daily practice. The routine of practice with formal practice sessions.
If Buddhism is necessary for freeing the mind, then why talk about these virtues in a non-Buddhist way? Sometimes when I meet with Westerners, they want to hear about Buddhism. But If I speak about impermanence, karma, and death, they become terrified. They do not want to hear about these things. They do not have a dharma context. So I had to learn what was suitable. Also, if you know dharma but do not apply it, then you have more regret than if you had never learned any dharma in the first place. If you are not going to apply dharma knowledge to your life—better not to know it at all.
Sounds like we can’t get far without the teachings. Buddhist teachings are not just about perfecting good human qualities, but freeing our minds from that which corrupts. Ego is the problem. But what rolls the ball of ego? Complicated mind. What I hear in the West is “I like Buddhism, I don’t like ritual.” This is complicated mind. “I like meditation, I don’t like emptiness. I do not like the idea of egolessness. I like to go to retreat, but I do not understand enlightenment. I like samsara.”
What does emptiness mean? What does wisdom mean? To be free from complicated mind. What is ritual? Behavior and activity that helps free the complicated mind.
Does ego drive the complicated mind? The ball needs to roll. The ball is ego. A big ball needs more energy to roll.
Does this differ between East and West? I don’t think so, though in the West, devotional practices often create a lot of discomfort.
How do you respond to that? Well, it helps to offer people some explanation about devotional practices and try to dispel some of the misconceptions around them. For example, a lot of people speak of devotion as a “feeling,” a sense of something vague and kind of cloudy. But real devotion only arises when you have a glimpse of emptiness, some glimpse of the nature of mind. Once you have some very precise insight as to how emptiness helps to alleviate suffering, then devotion is based on a real, embodied experience.
Let’s say that you are interested in dharma, and you go to some teachings and learn about meditation and begin to recognize your own complicated mind. And you do not have much devotion, but you go along with things, you bow and chant and so forth. But then you get a little glimpse of the possibilities of freedom. Real freedom. Freedom from complicated mind. When you really get this, your ego should become a little diminished. Sometimes not. But generally yes. Then your appreciation of the dharma and the teachings of the Buddha become immense. Devotion comes through experience. Then the rituals become an expression of this genuine appreciation.
One American said to me, “I do not like prostrations and rituals. Can you teach me dharma without rituals?” I told him, go out on a date with no ritual behavior. You just sit there, you don’t talk, you don’t make eye contact, you don’t giggle, you don’t touch. Nothing. Do you think this will be a successful date? No. I went out on my first date with my wife in New York City. You dress nicely, you smile, you talk, you gaze, you touch. This is the ritual of dating. And at the end of the night you get a kiss.
I met a Zen monk once. He explained to me that unlike Tibetan Buddhists, Zen didn’t use all that ritual. They went straight to emptiness. Then I had a meal at a Zen temple. Every single movement was a ritual. How you sat down, how you unfold your napkin, how you hold your bowls, how you put them down, where you place your chopsticks. Every single gesture. There was no room for choice. This was a ritual for gathering the mind. But the rituals and methods of devotion need to be explained; otherwise they seem to come from Mars.
And should dharma students be encouraged to question? Yes. Definitely. Western education is very good in this way. Children are taught to question and challenge in ways that are good for dharma. Buddhadharma goes deeper when you question. Value comes from challenging and investigating.
Helen Tworkov is the founder of Tricycle.
Photograph by Chris Zvitkovits © Terton Sogyal Trust.