When it comes to religion, I have been called a libertine, a blasphemer, a dilettante and a skeptic. But even for someone as irreverent as myself, there’s something intimidating about the prospect of interviewing a Himalayan Buddhist Tulku.
In Himalayan Buddhism, a Tulku is a spiritual teacher, a religious custodian who reincarnates through the ages, and who remembers the accumulated wisdom and experience of each life, which he imparts to others. In Chinese, Tulku translates into 活佛, which means ‘living buddha’.
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the most globally famous example of a Tulku. But contrary to popular misconception, Himalayan Buddhism is not a monolithic belief system. It is a labyrinthine, organic composite of a myriad different schools – Drukpa and Gelug and Nyingma – each lineage a single branch in a vast tree of belief.
On the morning of 23 November, I found myself in a suite on the 11th floor of the Regent Hotel, deep in conversation with His Eminence the Gyalwa Dokhampa. His Eminence was in Singapore as part of Live To Love, a global non-profit organisation that has just launched its Singapore arm.
It can be strange how the events of our lives form patterns. If I were religious, I would perhaps use the word ‘fate’. In 2015, I had the privilege of interviewing His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, the Gyalwa Dokhampa’s spiritual mentor.
That interview had taken place in a beautiful hotel, a stark environmental contrast between the profundity of Buddhist teaching and the trappings of modern day luxury.
I had never thought I would interview a Himalayan Buddhist master again. And yet by sheer serendipity, I found myself sitting in another luxurious hotel, across from not just any Himalayan Buddhist Tulku, but one who shared deep, personal relations with the previous master I had spoken to.
One would expect a religious teacher to be solemn, possibly even humourless. But like his guru, the Gyalwa Dohkampa spoke in jokes, parables and the language of the everyday. “You cannot download happiness into somebody else,” he tells me, as we discuss the concept of happiness. “When you’re happy with something or someone, it’s because he, she or it matches your idea of happiness.”
His Eminence seems to believe that the lessons of Buddhism are deeply practical, less of a religion than a mindset that one can bring to everyday life. For the layman at least, meditation can be a practice that is less about spirituality than it is about taming a restless mind, as everyday a habit as brushing one’s teeth, or going to the gym.
The current Gyalwa Dokhampa was born in 1981. He studied first in Darjeeling, and then for nine years in Bhutan, at the Tango Monastic University, where he received a Masters Degree in Buddhism. He is believed to be the ninth reincarnation of Khamtrul Rinpoche, a Tulku of the Khamtrul Lineage, a line of lives that stretches back to the 16th century.
More important than biographical facts, however, are the Buddhist teachings that the Gyalwa Dokhampa would like to impart: On mindfulness, empathy and the interdependence of our lives.
His Eminence tells stories to make sense of Buddhist philosophy. As such, I would like to attempt my own humble retelling of an old story, to better understand at least one aspect of our conversation:
There once was a philosopher by the name of Diogenes, a man who was said to shun material comfort so profoundly that he made his home in a barrel. One day, the conqueror-king, Alexander The Great paid a visit to the city where Diogenes lived, and found the philosopher sunning himself by the public fountain. The king strode up to Diogenes, and offered to grant the philosopher anything he wished.
Diogenes merely gestured with his hands, requesting that Alexander move to one side. For the great king’s shadow was blocking the warmth of the sunlight. And that was all that Diogenes desired.
If you’re open to share, I’d like to ask you about your biography.
Yes, of course.
I understand that in Himalayan Buddhism, there is the concept of Tulku. Can you remember your past lives?
Actually, in Buddhist teaching, we believe that everybody reincarnates.
The only difference is that sometimes we reincarnate from human to animal, and when we reincarnate from animal to human we’re a little bit ‘dumb’. But in the human realm, if you lead a good life, with a clear mind and meditation, in your next life you can continue that intelligence, that wisdom. It is progressive… a progression.
But for yourself, personally?
I was told that when I was in my mother’s womb, His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa had a vision, a dream that I would be born. His Holiness’s mother told him, “Don’t say that. Most Tulkus are born as a male. If you say that and the baby comes out as a female, they will say that you are lying.”
But His Holiness said “No, no, no , I can prove it to you.” And His Holiness guaranteed that the child would be a son, and the date on which I would be born.
When I was young, there used to be some flashes, memories of temples that I had never seen before. But as I get older the memories… I can still remember, but they fade.
I was recognised officially around age 3. My mother was ok about it, but my father was very unhappy. He did not want me to lead a monastic life.
Because he’s a very educated person, very successful, a principal of a school. He wanted me to be educated, live a normal life. And I was his only son. As a Tulku you have to stay away from your family, and he didn’t want that.
It took a lot of convincing for him to accept it. I think he was only happy about 7-8 years ago. Only then did he accept it, because he understood that we all have our careers. But if you have a spiritual career, it’s not only about yourself, but making a difference in the lives of others.
In Bhutan, I work with young children in schools, and I always ask them, “Would you like to be a Buddhist teacher like myself?” And they tell me no, they want to be lawyers, doctors, they want to pursue careers with good intention, to help other people.
And I always say, “That is a good answer.” If everyone were a monk, society wouldn’t function. There is no bad career. Everyone has their purpose; it is the intention that is important.
What was it like growing up?
It was tough. Monastery life is quite simple: The food is very simple, we don’t have that much sports or entertainment. But I think in one way it makes you more… the harder the life, the more you appreciate it.
I lost my mother when I was 11 years old. And in a way I was very sad, but Buddhist teaching talks about impermanence: Everyone who’s born must die, nobody lives forever . So I was sad, but I was not shocked.
You cannot define one way of life by another. So we should not compare lives. Every life has its own beauty, its own happiness and challenges. That is similar in every life, in every country.
And similarly, now I look back [at my monastic life]. When people ask me, ‘Was your monastery life very hard?’ I always say ‘What do you mean by hard?’ In one way I was separated from my family. But my teachers, my fellow students, they were my family. How can I say I was lonely?
And I always tell my friends: Yes it’s true that I didn’t go to nightclubs. I do not know how to dance the disco dance. But I know how to dance the lama dance. Who is to say you are a better dancer than me?
What do you think is the most important teaching Buddhism can impart to the modern world?
Central to Buddhist teaching is one word: ‘Interdependent’. In some ways this contradicts the modern view [on life]. The modern mindset focuses on independence as a good thing.
We carry our desire to be independent into many lives: In school, you try to top your class; in the West – after 18 – you want to live away from your parents; when we go to work we become very cutthroat.We think about ways to cut over, get to the top, maybe take our colleagues’ jobs.
From the Buddhist point of view, it is impossible to be independent. To believe that one can be independent is a misunderstanding. It is impossible to be independent from your parents, for example, because then you would not be born.
And that’s just individual relationships. Why are we facing environmental problems when you look at the larger world? Because we forget that we are interdependent: on the river, the air, the natural world.
So that is the big illusion of the modern world: The illusion that we can be independent. Buddhism says that you cannot be independent. What matters is how we relate to others.
But at the same time, with globalisation one could argue that our lives have become more interdependent than before.
Yes, but even though we are interdependent in that sense, we are still talking in terms of economics, the market. In terms of the environment, human relationships? I think we still have illusions of independence.
In the modern world, we have people who are very lonely, who feel like they have no purpose in their lives. Because if you’re only thinking about yourself, your life doesn’t matter to anybody else. You, yourself will not know what purpose there is in your life. And perhaps that’s why in the modern world you have a lot of depression, conditions…
Do you think modern technologies could be useful in creating human connection?
I think that any policy, any technology, is in itself neutral. It is our intention that defines it. For most of us, I think we are not skilful enough to use material things to be connected in a good way.
For example, in the case of somebody who is rich or powerful: It is very hard for them to use their wealth to give happiness to others. Many times they’ll use it for the wrong reasons. But fundamentally, I think anything can be positive or negative.
You’ve travelled extensively and seen many cultures. What are the common misconceptions you’ve encountered about Buddhism?
I think in terms of outsiders, there are not too many misconceptions. The misconceptions I see are within the Buddhist community. Many of our own Buddhists seem to focus on the ritualistic aspects of Buddhism. Buddhism [to them] means going to the temple, offering joss sticks, asking for luck, giving some money to Buddha for blessings.
It’s almost like you can bribe Buddha, you know? But the reason why we offer to Buddha, or give to poor people, is not to make Buddha happy, but to develop the sense of generosity within ourselves.
People see the ritual, but not the underlying meaning.
Yes, yes. Buddha doesn’t need money. Many people are good to Buddha, but not good to each other, not good to people who are suffering. If you help people, that is the biggest offering to Buddha.
We tend to get caught up in the rituals, so when young people look at Buddhism they think that Buddhism is a superstition. They don’t think of it as a way of life, a way of developing your mind.
Could you give me an everyday scenario to illustrate that? Buddhism as a way of life.
Even the way a husband and wife talks to each other, there is Buddhism in that. I always joke that if, in the morning the husband has an argument with the wife, in the evening he will not get dinner. That is karma. Why make karma so mysterious? It’s just the idea that every action has a result.
So worry about your actions, don’t worry about Buddha. Buddha will never get angry with you, but your own actions will.
I hope you don’t find this question disrespectful. The layman may think: A Buddhist master lives such a different life from myself, how can he teach me when he doesn’t understand my life?
I think that whatever life you lead, the fundamental problem is not found in material differences: House, family, money. All these are superficial differences. What really bothers us is our emotions.
If you stay in a mountain, you will worry about your cave; instead of your investments, you will worry about your farm. Whether you’re attached to your monastery or to your apartment, attachment is attachment.
In terms of worry, greed, attachment, desire, it’s the same. I think in terms of emotion there is no difference. Maybe it’s more magnified, but the emotion is the same.
I know Buddhism believes that no emotions are inherently negative, but have there been any specific emotions that you personally struggle with?
One of the biggest emotions that Gyalwang Drukpa also talked about is disappointment. That he feels disappointment with his students, because he expects his people to do well, be a good human being, and sometimes he feels a little bit disappointed.
But at the same time he gave a good answer. After thinking about it, he realised that it was not their fault but his fault, because he has too many high expectations. I think that’s the same for me. When we work with different people, different organisations, we may expect too much from people in our life. And then you feel disappointment.
But the problem is not with them, but with ourselves. How can we control the life of others? Everybody chooses their own lives. We can only provide the condition. Parents, for example, cannot control the lives of children. You can only give them the condition to make them happy, successful. But everybody has to walk their own path, their own karma.
Buddhism believes that everybody is responsible for their own happiness, wellbeing and success. That nobody can really make you happy. Only you can make yourself happy or unhappy. Other people only provide the conditions.
It is true that as a Buddhist master you can give people some wisdom, some help. But whether they feel happy with that is really up to them.
Do you think that there’s an unhappiness unique to large cities?
I think in many large cities, there is a deep sense of loneliness. Especially in the older generation. I feel that sense of human beings not interacting in a caring way: Suspicion, fear of another human being. It’s a bit like everybody is bad, and you have to prove yourself to be good. Rather than the belief that everybody is good, but some may do bad things.
And how does that contrast with countries that are more rural?
I live in Bhutan, and I think that in Bhutan you can go out of your home, talk to anybody in the street and when they look at you they have no suspicion of you. They have full trust that you’re another human being, talking to them, saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ The family integration is much better. There’s a lot of understanding.
In many developed countries, we talk about efficiency in the workforce. Efficiency, productivity. In some ways you’re a machine. You have to output a lot.
In Bhutan, even though you work in… a bank, for example. Sometimes you may have a family religious ceremony, a few times a year. If you ask for leave and say ‘I have a family prayer at home,’ the bank manager will give you leave. That kind of understanding is there.
How do you say? The value of humanity over productivity. That has an impact. That gives you time to be with your family. You and your family have good bonding, and you’re happy. And when you come to work, you come with a happy state of mind.
I understand that you enjoy Henry David Thoreau. He’s not Buddhist but there seem to be parallels with Buddhist teaching. Are there any books that teach similar lessons?
The title’s not that good, but I like Chicken Soup for The Soul-
I’m sorry, why’s the title no good?
Because chicken soup… you have to take the life of another being.
(Laughter around the room) Well, I certainly didn’t think of it that way.
Other than the title, I really like one particular story.
A mother asked her son to do some work in the house. After he did the housework he gave her a bill: For mowing the lawn; for cutting the grass; for cleaning the room.
The next day, his mother gave him a bill: For keeping you in my womb for nine months; for feeding you; teaching you how to walk and talk.
Many people in the modern world say they don’t feel loved. And they expect somebody to do something to make them feel loved. But I think in order to feel love, you first have to appreciate.
When you appreciate, you will feel loved. When you don’t appreciate, it doesn’t matter how much people do for you. Appreciation and gratitude are the secrets to feeling loved.
In your book The Restful Mind, you describe a mind at peace as being a mind that has achieved balance between gratitude on one hand, and an understanding that everything is transient on the other. Are those traits imbalanced in modern life, and in which direction?
I think that we have neither trait, actually. Firstly, we have no appreciation. When we are healthy – we can walk, have eyes to see – we focus instead on what we don’t have. People are funny because in order to appreciate, we first need to suffer.
For example, you need to have an appendix problem, go to the doctor, get surgery, pay $1000… and then you feel so happy! But day to day, when we don’t have appendix problems, we don’t find joy in that.
People say they want to enjoy life, but in order to enjoy life they want to have a nice car. When you’re in the car, do you say ‘I’m so lucky to have such a nice car?’ No. When you’ve driven the car for a few months, you start thinking of something else.
Or you’re thinking of how nice another person’s car is compared to ours.
Yes, we don’t appreciate. And on the other hand, we don’t understand that everything is changing, nothing lasts forever.
So when we lose the car we didn’t enjoy so much to begin with? We suffer. The relationship we didn’t value so much? When we lose it, we suffer. The health and wellbeing we have right now, when we don’t have it? We suffer.
So we don’t appreciate what we have, and we are not prepared for change.
The theme of travel is a big part of our publication. Do you have a travel story to share, in the vein of mindfulness in everyday life?
I was in a taxi in Los Angeles, and the cab driver was a man from India who had emigrated. In my opinion, whether you’re a taxi driver or a CEO, there is no difference: You’re working to fill your own stomach, take care of your family. You are neither great nor small. You’re the same.
So I was talking to him about his life. And he is my elder, so I called him ‘sir’, as we do with elders in Asian culture. I guess in America they don’t call people much by that [honorific], they use their first name. At the end of the ride, I asked him how much it cost, and was happy to pay the full amount, but he gave me a discount.
When I told that to my father he was so surprised. He said, usually in America, not only do you have to pay the cab fare, you have to pay tips. (Laughs) He told me, you are the only person who gets a discount from an American taxi driver.
I knew for the taxi driver, what was more important than the tip was to be treated as a human being, with respect. And why shouldn’t he be respected? He’s seen so much of life; he knows so much more than me.
You’ve worked with younger people in Bhutan. Do you think young people tend to have different difficulties in terms of mindset as compared to the older generation?
The younger generation dreams of doing the things that the older people are doing: Getting a job, getting relationships etc. And older people are thinking “Oh my God… the job is so stressful, the relationship is so stressful, the house is so stressful… I was so happy when I was young”. We get caught up in a paradox.
One more thing I want to add about the younger generation, is that they get much carried away by material… by luxury fashion. I’ve seen in many schools a feeling of inadequacy, that you are not good enough because somebody else is better dressed than you, or has more luxury items.
So that’s something I try to emphasise: The value of luxury is a concept that’s sold to you. Goods don’t have value. People put value on them.
I understand it’s not the same denomination of Buddhism, but there are atrocities carried out in Myanmar by Buddhist extremists, against the Rohingya people. How does one make sense of that, in relation to Buddhist teaching?
All religion has two aspects. One is the religious part: The temple, the ceremonial dress, the statue. That is the physical form of religion. And that is what people can take away or destroy.
The real Buddhism, the real religion, is the spirit of it: The kindness, the compassion, the wisdom, the empathy towards others. That is the real Buddhism, and it cannot be destroyed by anybody. It can only be destroyed by yourself.
But many focus on the physical part of Buddhism: The temples; the statues; the number of followers. When that is being affected, whether real or imaginary, they get passionate about it. They think Buddhism needs to be protected. Maybe that’s why they are doing this. I cannot condone it.
But I always say that Buddha’s message and the people who practice Buddha’s message have to be separated. Teachings are good, but the people who follow them are imperfect.
We can only hope, and understand, and be as compassionate as we can be to both sides.
Live to Love is a secular non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing love and compassion in society. For more information, visit their Facebook page.