Michael Imperioli, "The Sopranos" Actor Seeks Enlightenment Through Buddhism

By Douglas Harrington, Hamptons.com, December 29, 2009

Actor Michael Imperioli, on a journey of enlightenment after his successful role on "The Sopranos," found Tibetan Buddhism and built a haven for learning in Tribeca.

New York, USA -- Michael Imperioli, like all the cast members of HBO"s wildly popular "The Sopranos," has, for the last decade, been a darling of the entertainment media.

<< Tibetan Lama Konchok Tenzin, Michael Imperioli, Victoria Imperioli, Tibetan Master Namkha Rinpoche, and Patrick Gaffney (Assistant to Sogyal Rinpoche) at the opening of the Dharma Center in Tribeca. Photo courtesy of Norena Barbella

From electronic to gloss to newsprint, he and his fellow cast members have been the stuff that sells the stuff that tells all of that celebrity dish. Amid all that stuff, Imperioli has actually been on a serious journey of self-evaluation, a journey of self-realization, a journey that led him to Tibetan Buddhism.

It might be enough to say that I sat down with Imperioli in Tribeca for an interview, but, in truth, that would not say anything at all about that afternoon. I as the interviewer, and as it should be, is the least important person in the room during the interview. The interviewee is, as it should be, the focal point of attention. This particular afternoon both Imperioli and I respectfully deferred our empirical moment to the divine presence of the 18th generation reincarnated Ngagkpa Lama, Namkha Rinpoche, at the Dharma Center in NYC.

The Ngagkpa is essentially a master teacher whose purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and themselves. Rinpoche's life since childhood has been devoted to the study and practice of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, including solitary monastic study and mentoring by other Ngagkpa masters and Lamas, including Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Rinpoche was forced to flee Tibet because of his traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings and public support of the Dalai Lama in 1998.

The 46 year-old Imperioli's interest in Buddhist study began long before meeting Rinpoche, "I really started to get interested in Buddhism when I was around 19 or 20 years old, an interest basically from reading Kerouac and Ginsberg. They piqued my curiosity and I started reading a little bit [about Buddhism]. I liked what I felt about it, but I wasn't ready to study it. I was too young and had so many other things, but it was something that always had a pull on me."

Elaborating that he had always seen himself as "kind of a seeker," as he got older Imperioli, a native of Mt. Vernon, NY, found himself, through his readings, "drawn to Eastern philosophy." Pinpointing his serious commitment to Buddhism he explained, "About three years ago I started going to teachings, including seeing the Dalai Lama himself teach [at the Beacon Theatre in NYC]. I wasn't practicing, just trying to absorb more and more."

His first encounter with Rinpoche came out of an advertisement he saw for a teaching the master was giving at East/West Books in Greenwich Village. "I didn't know him, but what little I had read about him interested my wife and I, so we went to the teaching. I made a very strong connection with him [at the teaching]. Something happened, I just felt very strongly about him. We made contact and signed up on his list. We met a few times during his trip [to the U.S.] last October. Then he came back in December and we officially became students of his. We have seen him a couple of times during the year and we went to Switzerland in August to his center when he hosted the Dalai Lama for two days of teachings."

Rinpoche has several other Dharma centers throughout Europe including, among others, Lithuania and Spain. The Imperiolis created the Dharma center in Tribeca as a way to facilitate more frequent visits by their teacher to the U.S. "We wanted to find a way to make New York one of his regular stops." The center was designed and built by Victoria Imperioli and is located at 499 Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. The center is nothing short of stunning and I was immediately transported into an atmosphere of spiritual tranquility that I imagine must permeate the historic temples of Tibet.

Due to several reschedules of the interview because of the East Coast blizzard, we were without Rinpoche's translator at our meeting and after apologizing for his limited English the master explained his own feeling at his first encounter with Imperioli, "He came to the bookshop for one of my teachings. I don't know who he is, there are many people. After I finish my teach[ing], I touch everybody and I have very special energy that he gives me. I say to him, 'You have special energy.' It was [a] very special feeling that he gave to me. I think that this person is not really normal, he is a special person." Two days later Rinpoche was brought to a luncheon by his secretary. Unaware of the destination at the time, he arrived at the home of Michael and Victoria Imperioli.

I asked Imperioli if there was something unique about the teaching of Rinpoche that drew him to the master, "There is both something unique about his teaching and something unique about him. There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism; his tradition is the Nyingma tradition, which is the oldest tradition. It is very rare to get those teachings in the west." Regarding the man himself, Imperioli said, "It is his energy. He is very passionate and knows that we do not have a lot of time and we have to make the most of our time. His attitude is 'If you want get busy, let's get busy.' If you want to get on the path, there is a path and he can show it."

I asked the master if the path was actually a journey or if it indeed had an end to which he replied, "I don't think so. It is about the journey. In Tibetan Buddhism there is no beginning, there is no end. If all the living beings finished [the journey] that would be the end of our world."

I asked if the journey to personal enlightenment and harmony carried with it the responsibility of actively changing the world at large, a world I referred to as chaotic, Imperioli answered, "Yes, by fixing ourselves we are fixing the world around us. We are far more connected to each other than we realize. The chaos is spoken about in the way the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Pacific will cause a snowstorm in Canada. It is all connected. By working on yourself, you are going to affect what is around you; you are going to bring that energy into the world."

In 1950, the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet, essentially holding the Tibetan people in general, and the Dalai Lama in particular, hostage within their own country. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet to India in 1959, where he has lived in exile ever since. I asked both gentlemen how they thought the situation in Tibet might be mitigated to return the country to independence and religious freedom. Admitting that he is not particularly versed in the politics, Imperioli noted, "With the Dalai Lama's exile, and that of so many teachers, Tibetan Buddhism has spread to the west. So what has been such a difficult time has had a positive effect. The teachings have become much more accessible. Hopefully things will change, things always change. Hopefully a change in China's leadership will bring a positive change for Tibet. I am glad that President Obama, in his meetings with the Chinese, brought up the need for the Chinese government to have a dialog with the Dalai Lama."

Due to the amount of American debt owned by the Chinese, President Barack Obama has had to walk a fine line regarding Tibet and has been criticized by some for not being strong enough in his condemnation of the Chinese occupation. I asked Rinpoche what he thought of our president, "I love him. I believe he is a very good person, he has very good motivation. His motivation is for the whole world, he wants human rights for the whole world. We will see, it is his dreams, I respect and love him." Regarding his opinion on the political situation in Tibet, Rinpoche said, "For myself, Buddhism is religion, not politics. In Buddhism, religion is religion, politics is politics and I am a religious person. In the West, religion and politics is mixed, this is very bad. The Dalai Lama is both political and religious because he is a Tibetan king. He has no choice, but he made it very clear 'this is religious people and this is political people.' I am [a] religious person, I am a teacher."

Referencing western religion I asked Imperioli how he reconciled his Roman Catholic upbringing with his Buddhism, "I always felt a connection to Christ and what he represented, I still do. I didn't really feel a connection to the practice of the [Christian] religion. By the time I was a teenager I was into other things, but I did feel a connection to Christ, what he taught. It is one of the noble things in life, to model your behavior in life on someone like him, which is really the best way to live. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"

Imperioli elaborated upon his attraction to the Buddhist religion as opposed to Roman Catholicism, "It is not about what you can and cannot do, it is really about examining yourself and seeing how you operate in the world, seeing what pushes your buttons, seeing your negative qualities and negative emotions. Becoming aware, hopefully on a daily, minute-to-minute basis, how to not just be swept up by negative habits and negative emotions, rather become aware of what is really happening and having a daily practice [to deal with those negative emotions]."

I asked Imperioli if the process of his craft as an actor and director had been affected by his study of Tibetan Buddhism, "I do think meditation does promote concentration, I think that it helps a lot. I feel a lot less neurotic about my work. For a long time all I cared about was being an actor, now it is more about the art of being an actor. Those things that I stressed about and worried about, now I can take more in stride. Hopefully anything that enriches you as a person, if you consider yourself an artist, will enrich your art."

I followed by asking him if his choices of subject matter or parts might now be affected by his Buddhist journey. For example, would he reconsider a part that 10 years ago he would have taken without a thought? A part like mobster Christopher Moltisanti in "The Sopranos," for which he was nominated for five Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, "That is an interesting question, I don't really know. It really depends on the motivation behind the person who is spearheading the project. Something like 'The Sopranos,' I don't really like violence, but I think for certain stories you have to have it. Otherwise, you are not portraying it honestly. You have to show the horror of that, it becomes tricky. Hopefully when people see that they will see that it is horrible and see that is not anything worth emulating by any stretch of the imagination. What your response to it should be is repulsion. When it is tricky is when someone walks away and thinks it is something they should do, or thinks it is cool or to be admired." He concluded by saying again, "It is a tricky thing, but we live within this world. Yes, there are probably things I wouldn't do because they are exploitive."

Imperioli recently made his directorial debut with "Hungry Ghosts," a film based on his own screenplay and starring fellow "Sopranos" actor Steven Schirripa, not an unfamiliar role for Imperioli who wrote five episodes of "The Sopranos" during his tenure as an actor in the series. "Hungry Ghosts" was produced by Diane Crespo, Stefan Schaefer, and his wife, Victoria, who also served as Production Designer. The film incorporates aspects of his Buddhist journey but he noted, "It was written before I met Master Rinpoche." The film is best described by the synopsis on its website, www.thehungryghostsmovie.com, "Five New Yorkers - of different ages, races, backgrounds - hunger for sensual, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Their intersecting and colliding paths reflect the zeitgeist of our times, in which the desperation of the West smacks up against the religious teachings of the East." Imperioli described the film's references to Eastern thoughts and practices as representing "a lot of confusion," which prior to his connection with Rinpoche was the point where the director was in his journey.

The "Hungry Ghosts" premiere in September was screened as a fundraiser for Rinpoche's "Golden Bridge" charitable organization whose main goal is "...to help preserve Tibetan culture and religion, mainly in Tibet but as well in places where Tibetans live in exile." Among many projects supported are seniors' homes in Tibet and for exiled senior Tibetans, monasteries in Tibet and around the world and Rinpoche's international Buddhist study centers.

Due to previous editorial obligations I was unable to attend the original New York premiere, but I was invited by Imperioli to a private screening on December 1. I thought the film was nothing short of brilliant - the acting superb, the dialog real and the story pertinent and timely. I asked why I had not seen the film at the Hamptons International Film Festival and to my surprise I was told it was turned down by HIFF and by 10 other festivals. I found that disappointing as did Imperioli, on both a personal and professional level, "It is not an easy movie. It is not a 'feel good' movie, it is dark. I was a little disappointed by the response on the part of the festivals. I am part of this [artistic] community, I have raised money for these festivals, and I have sat on the juries for these festivals. I am not asking for a favor - but I have to wonder where is that support? That was disappointing, but it is very competitive and there are a lot of films out there."

Imperioli was kind; other independent filmmakers might be less kind. Many think it is time, particularly in this difficult international economy, that film festivals worldwide return to their commitment to independent filmmakers. Major studio films produced by international corporations do not need the festivals' help, independent filmmakers like Imperioli do. A film festival can be a financial vocation or an artistic avocation, perhaps they need to pick a true mission. Due to the lack of non-profit arts funding, Imperioli and his wife had to close their not-for-profit Dante Theatre project last year. They, however, took the opportunity to intentionally cast many of their theater-less stage actors in "Hungry Ghosts," for many it was their first resume film credit. Thankfully, "Hungry Ghosts" will be screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February and was the opening night film of the 2009 Rotterdam International Film Festival. When I asked the master if he had seen the movie, Rinpoche said, "I loved the movie."

As we concluded our conversation I asked Imperioli to elaborate on the mission of the Dharma Center he and his wife founded in Lower Manhattan, "The purpose is primarily to have a New York home for Namkha Rinpoche, to have him come as much as he can and make this a regular stop [for his teachings]. We hope to have him at least 10 or 12 times a year. He will also send other Rinpoches to teach, along with some of his most qualified students."

It should be noted that the word Rinpoche is an honorific that means "Precious One" in the Tibetan language and dates back to the second Dalai Lama. Rigezin Namkha Gyatso Rinpoche, named at birth by his mother as Drupa Tharchin, is one of many recognized master teachers of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world and is so honored with the designation of Rinpoche. A Rinpoche now additionally honored by the Imperioli's personal devotion and their creation of the "Awareness Holders Sanctuary" in Manhattan to foster his teachings of compassion and self-realization.

On Sunday, December 20 the "Awareness Holders Sanctuary" held its grand opening reception which included a teaching by Rinpoche and some friendly socializing. In spite of the blizzard that hit NYC the day before, the turnout was stellar. Imperioli is cautious regarding the expectations of the center beyond the presence of Rinpoche, but would like to see it become a major American center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. Imperioli hopes it becomes a place for daily meditation, study and illumination, "It is a small space, but I hope it becomes too small too soon."

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