Interview with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Kuensel Online, August 16, 2005

Timphu, Bhutan -- Shambala International, started by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is a Buddhist community based in Nova Scotia, Canada. The head of the Shambala Buddhist community is Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a 19th century Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and scholar Mipham Jamyang Gyatso. Sakyong Rinpoche received a western education alongside Buddhist teachings from his father, Trungpa Rinpoche. His first book, Turning the mind into an ally, is a national best seller in Canada.

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As the second international GNH conference was held in Canada in June, the Canada-based Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche shared his views with Siok Sian Pek-Dorji on the role of Buddhism in today?s societies, on Buddhism in the west, on responsibilities of trulkus, and his perception on Bhutan?s role in today?s world in preserving and promoting this profound tradition.

Q: Shambala International is one of the supporters of this international conference on Gross National Happiness, what are Rinpoche?s views on GNH and a conference like this?
A: I think it?s timely and needed. I am able to travel a lot in the world and see people?s discontentment? I feel that the notion is that everybody needs a good physical environment to be able to have good health and be healthy but if you don?t have a spiritual or mental pursuit, ultimately, you?re never very happy.

These days what?s happened is that we have tended to, for governmental reasons and political reasons, split spirituality and the worldly, but the worldly and the spiritual have to come together. A lot of people who begin to separate their lives begin to separate their physical world and, in a way, they realize they are unhappy. In the same way spiritual people need to have the support of worldly things as well. I think this is a subject that we?ll be forced to reconcile or reconciliate with.

Q: Bhutan being a spiritual kingdom, what can it do for the world of Buddhism?
A: I think right now its very important that Buddhism is becoming more well known, for example, Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. But Buddhism always has to have a container. It has to be protected in a certain way. It has to be respected. I think right now there is a dissemination process of it being westernised? and people are still figuring how to adapt to Buddhism, to the culture. And sometimes for them the culture seems more important than Buddhism.

Bhutan, I think, plays a critical role in that it is a kingdom , it is a country which is respected and it is protecting the genuine wisdom. I think a lot of times Buddhism gets spread and is used in a very superficial way. Bhutan plays a very important role in terms of adapting and preserving it. I think in terms of Buddhism and the future Bhutan plays a critical role for inspiration and people can actually see it. I know that when I have friends who have gone to Bhutan, they instantaneously become inspired by the Buddhism. It is also connecting the past with the future.

Q: It?s inspiring for us to see how Buddhism is flourishing in the west. Is there an inherent difference between the practice of Buddhism in the West and in Asia?
A: I think Buddhism has always been adaptable. It is dealing with the mind, primordial nature. That will never change. The cultures are used and adapted in a different way. What?s funny now is that, for me, going between two cultures, in the west there?s actually more faith developing in Buddhism. Sometimes in Asia there?s less faith because there?s more materialism coming in. I feel that, in a country like Bhutan, there?s inherent faith and when I go to Tibet there?s inherent faith. But people now, more than before, need to understand what Buddhism is. They need to understand what the principles are and then, the more they do that, the more faith they will have.

Before, everybody just supported the faith and there was no questioning it. Now they have all kinds of ideas, the challenge to ideas of Buddhism, that people have to think about. So I know for myself that the View, tawa, is very important. I think for the young Bhutanese it is very important for them to understand how rich their culture is.

Here you are in America and Canada, these very rich and powerful countries, where they are at the height of materialism. And what are they pursuing? They are pursuing Buddhism. So I feel us, as Asians, we can learn something from that. It?s just materialism. And, at the end of the day, they do recognise the inherent strength and wealth of Buddhism.

Q: The National Assembly in Bhutan recently discussed the question of trulkus? How do we recognize them? What sort of education should they have? From your point of view what is the role of trulkus in today?s society?
A: That?s a very good question because I think, in ancient culture, they played a specific role in carrying on the spiritual tradition of a monastery, a region. They also provided a sort of temporal and political stability. Inherently, they are trulkus. People say, ?Oh are they really trulkus?? And they question that. Of course, all beings are reborn. Some beings go on the basis of accumulated merit for their next life? and its an on-going process.

I think nowadays sometimes the question of trulkus comes up because, in certain countries, there was a system of an authorised master being able to genuinely recognise a trulku and that was always much cleaner and simple. Nowadays there are questions, even politics, involved which is unfortunate because when a trulku is recognised some people have faith and some people don?t. But I feel like there does need to be a process so that when a trulku is finally recognized, everybody can say that this is a trulku.

Q: Can trulkus fulfill their responsibilities today?
A: Yes, I think they can. I think each trulku, even if you look at famous lines of incarnation, some of them were able to do a lot and some didn?t do very much. But they were still able to continue, and be a source of inspiration for those individuals, continuing that tradition.

But really the question today is that trulkus today need to be? they need to realize? its an honour. And then they need to work very hard to bring that out. So I think the training is essential. And community support. Their responsibility to communities is very important. I feel like a lot of trulkus, if they leave that area where they are actually from, then what is the basis of their responsibility?

You have a certain body of students and so forth and you have a certain responsibility for that community. And then from that, sure, you can travel around. These days there are so much more distractions, you know, so the training becomes that much more important.

I think in Bhutan a trulku could be trained very well. Nowadays, if its not done properly, there can be a lot of distraction and their own responsibility is going to be very challenging for them.

And I think the role of a trulku traditionally and how it is now, that has to be looked at. What is the purpose? What is the role? I think that?s what?s been changing. I see so many trulkus. Sometimes we don?t know exactly what our role is.

Q: What is the role of a trulku today?
A: I think that in the heart of it, it?s to be a good role model. Obviously trulkus may be emanations of great beings but, in a very basic way, they need to be the embodiments of the human characteristics of what Buddhism can bring. So that they are beings of inspiration, and as the world becomes more aggressive, the trulku should teach compassion? be that source of inspiration, to be that person. And they don?t necessarily need to be an individual who has to know everything. They have to be the example that says, ?I am on the path too, I am working, and I have blessings but I still have to do this. And they have to have that attitude of being willing to help beings endlessly. In a simple way that?s the vow of a bodhisattva, that?s the vow of a trulku. I think these days the world needs more of that kind of inspiration.

Q: Bhutan is grappling with this issue now, not just the recognition of trulkus but the training of trulkus. How can we entrench this system as society changes?
A: The trulku (system) evolved when it was necessary for them to have a trulku system, like a certain area needed a great teacher who had realisation and he passed away. They needed inspiration, so the trulku came back.

So I think it has to be, in a sense, driven by the needs of the people. You can?t say we have an ?x? number of trulkus where there?s this many people. It is based on need. And then what?s their purpose? You wouldn?t want them to be idle. You want them doing things. What are they going to do? So these days it?s the same thing with the sheydras and the khenpos. A lot of sheydras keep turning out khenpos, what are they going to do? What kind of roles are they going to have? It?s different from when it was before.

In Bhutan the trulkus could be very important in terms of disseminating the teachings of Buddhism from a very strong cultural and spiritual basis and help the world. But it has to be systematically thought out and not done randomly.

Q: Is there anything else Rinpoche would like to add?
A: I think that this particular visit (GNH) is very important. Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom, and there?s Shambala and other groups, and I feel like there?s a really good opportunity for us to spread a similar message and I feel like there are a lot of people willing to listen to us.

We?re small but at the same time I think we can have a lot of influence. And I feel like the kind of work we?re doing here, I really feel like it has the possibility of actually influencing the world.