Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Ngak’chang Rinpoche interviewed by Dr William Greenberg

February 1997 Ramsey, New Jersey

A school teacher would not suggest that pupils should disbelieve the ‘round earth theory’ until they had circumnavigated the globe. So the ‘round earth theory’ is actually accepted on faith in the West under the auspices of a scientific rationale. We have science but we allow ‘faith’ in science. Buddhism is an experiential science which also allows ‘faith’. I would say that the similarity between the two goes further – I would say that both use ‘faith’ in terms of ‘working hypothesis’. And that is how Khandro Déchen and I present rebirth: it’s a beneficial working hypothesis. One doesn’t have to believe it, but one should not disbelieve it either. To disbelieve without experiential evidence is the same as to believe without experiential evidence.

Dr Greenberg I wanted to thank you for granting me this opportunity. I’ve done a little bit of preparation besides two or three minutes of thinking. The thinking, of course, is: is this going to be of any use to anybody besides me? Anyway, I can’t pretend to ask you any technical or elaborate questions about Tibetan Buddhism, because I know nothing…

Ngak’chang Rinpoche It’s probably better that way… Many people who might claim to know something would actually be better served by forgetting it [laughs]. I feel it’s good that our conversation can evolve in its own particular way. In any case, I appreciate your perspective and value the opportunity to approach things in a different way.

DG I thought it might be useful to talk to you about particular things that are of concern to myself, sentiments that I had in thinking about Tibetan Buddhist practice. Specifically I should ask you about issues which grow from my own ‘critical thinking’ point of view – the scientific point of view. One area that I talked with you once about once very briefly, concerned the idea of surviving death in some fashion or other…

NR Yes…

DG Perhaps that of some ‘identity’ or ‘entity’ splitting occasionally, recombining… That came after we watched that movie, what American movie was it?

NR ‘The Little Booga’ [laughs]. Sorry, that’s just what I call it. As you can tell, it was not exactly a film I would care to see again.

DG [laughs] ‘The Little Buddha’ presented a Lama who divided into three incarnations, and I thought I might take this time just to ask you to elaborate a little on this… Maybe I could spend a little time expressing the difficulties I have. In the background it appears that mind and brain are two different manifestations of something alike, and that consciousness probably has something to do with the brain. There seems to be a very close connection between thinking and the brain – at least with regard to brains that are alive and functioning. Imaging and science allows us to see that certain types of pathologies are manifestations of perception that appear as spots on imaging of what’s happening in the brain’s metabolism or electrical activity while one is hearing a voice or thinking of something. So there seems to be some real correspondence between the functioning of brains and certain types of experiential events. And I don’t think there’s anything in Buddhism that particularly contradicts that.

NR Mmmm…

DG But it makes for a kind of neat story when one goes a little further and thinks of a brain no longer functioning metabolically in its usual fashion, perhaps disintegrating, and then something perhaps non-corporeal surviving that and moving on. That’s one area where, even though I can’t say I can’t believe that would never happen, it involves added assumptions …

NR Yes… there would naturally have to be assumptions beyond that point unless one had direct experience. I suppose Khandro Déchen and I don’t really like to talk about anything to which someone can’t relate directly in terms of their life experience. Buddhism, or more particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, is one subject we could discuss – but then there’s the subject of what we could discuss here. I would not like to proceed merely to give a presentation of dogma… and it would be dogma if it lay outside your direct experience, and I was merely telling you about it.

DG Well…

NR This has always been an issue for Khandro Déchen and myself in terms of how we teach. We don’t like to teach rebirth as ‘a given’. We don’t find that useful for people in terms of enabling them to approach Buddhism in a realistic manner. What seems to happen when rebirth is presented as undeniable fact, is that the audience has to make a of leap of faith immediately – then afterwards, once they’ve accepted something which is outside their experience, they have no real basis for questioning anything else.

DG So it is a kind of a tricky start that people have to make.

NR Yes…

DG How does that work in terms of the fact that you are a recognised incarnation?

NR Well… I am supposed to be the incarnation of somebody, but I never introduce that as a ‘fact’ which might somehow be relevant in terms of understanding Vajrayana Buddhism. It’s not important. What is important is the nature of the practice, and where people take that in their lives. Could we maybe forget about ‘me’ and whatever I might be and look at the other part of your question – in terms of ‘mind’, ‘brain’, and ‘consciousness’?

DG Sure.

NR I don’t think we have to take the issue as far as physical death in order to arrive at areas in which ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ are not exactly the same entity. One can be intoxicated, for example. Or one could be under the influence of a drug. One could be suffering from senile dementia. Let’s take senile dementia – there’s a Lama in India, Gégen Khyentsé Rinpoche, who probably has senile dementia. He cannot remember the name of any of the monks around him anymore. These monks have been with him for years, but he has forgotten who they are… Yet he can still teach brilliantly. When he is teaching – he is completely lucid, and his memory with regard to describing the nature of reality is faultless. But when it comes to remembering what a piece of bread might be called – he’s lost that. I’ve spent time with Gégen Khyentsé Rinpoche, and one can certainly observe this phenomenon. But even in a less esoteric sense, there is the way in which different people handle intoxication. There are those for whom intoxication makes a radical change. They may act in very different ways, and seem completely out of control. Then there are others who seem to be able to control their behaviour no matter how intoxicated they become. The Buddhist analysis would be that those who could handle the intoxication had experience which lay outside the functioning of the brain, whilst the others would be described as having little or no ability to move out of the environment of the brain.

DG That would certainly be one explanation for why ‘individual A’ intoxicated is pleasant, mellow and eventually falls asleep; and ‘B’ is completely uninhibited with aggressive and other impulses coming out. I don’t know that that in scientific terms contravenes a brain-mind duality though. If we get intoxicated with alcohol or LSD, it’s affecting certain groups of chemicals and pathways, and it may still be that a mental event corresponds to a certain type of physical event or pattern in the functioning of the cells, the neurons in the brain. Individual brains are different to begin with. That’s why there are people who have brains that suffer from schizophrenia: they process information differently. And even male and female brains differ in the processing of certain kinds of things. One problem that comes up, though, is that if there’s a neat fit between the brain and having neurons firing corresponding to other kinds of mental events, and what happens when the brain disappears?

NR Yes.

DG So the question would be: is consciousness really inherent in that kind of functioning or not?

NR Quite. I suppose there is a difference here between seeking proof of the separation between brain function and Mind in oneself, and seeking proofs in terms of the existing body of knowledge as it applies to the brain in Western science. Vajrayana Buddhism has never had to cope with the needs for proofs outside direct experience, and so it has never equipped itself with an approach to this kind of question.

DG Yes – I can see that. I can understand why pragmatically you don’t start teachings in this way. If you did many people would say: I’m not a Buddhist because I don’t take reincarnation literally as given, or at least I question it as not fitting with other assumptions I’m making about how reality works. It’s not that I’m a total non-believer in the possibility, but I come from a skeptical scientific background. One stumbling block that I have is that initially most people who consider themselves Buddhists believe that this is part of the understanding of the teaching …

NR Yes… that is true, but I wouldn’t say this was necessary to seeing oneself as a Buddhist. I don’t think Buddhism, according to Shakyamuni Buddha, ever required anyone to have to believe in anything. He explicitly stated that everything had to be tested. He gave the analogy of a goldsmith testing gold to see whether it was real or not.

DG Yes, of course, he did say that… so, why do you think there’s the emphasis on it now?

NR Well in Tibet, and the other Vajrayana Buddhist countries, rebirth is fundamentally accepted. It’s regarded as fact. There has been too much proof over the last thousand-odd years for any Asian Buddhist to have a problem about accepting rebirth as a fact – even if it lies outside their direct experience. Asian Buddhists would say that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, in the same way that school teachers in the West would not ask their pupils to question whether the world was flat or spherical. A school teacher would not suggest that pupils should disbelieve the ‘round earth theory’ until they had circumnavigated the globe. So the ‘round earth theory’ is actually accepted on faith in the West under the auspices of a scientific rationale. We have science but we allow ‘faith’ in science. Buddhism is an experiential science which also allows ‘faith’. I would say that the similarity between the two goes further – I would say that both use ‘faith’ in terms of ‘working hypothesis’. And that is how Khandro Déchen and I present rebirth: it’s a beneficial working hypothesis. One doesn’t have to believe it, but one should not disbelieve it either. To disbelieve without experiential evidence is the same as to believe without experiential evidence. However… we don’t actually base many forms of ‘logic’ upon rebirth with regard to what we teach – in terms of generating the motivation to practice. We never explain that ‘because of rebirth – therefore ‘a’ or ‘b’ we simply don’t have rebirth as part of the ‘conceptual technology’ which explains why a person should practise. The problem, as far as I am concerned, is that those who have rebirth as part of their ‘conceptual technology’ can sometimes allow people to paint it with so many fabulous colours and poetic descriptions that it may have become somewhat difficult for scientific people to understand its multifarious functions.

DG… yes.

NR Then… there’s another factor we need to consider. In the West we approach Buddhism as we would approach other ‘Western’ religions. Western religions contain ‘articles of faith,’ the acceptance of which determines whether one can call oneself Christian, Jewish, or possibly Islamic. So, people seem to need to experience themselves as having been converted to Buddhism, through accepting what they perceive to be the ‘articles of faith’. So if they cannot take the whole package on board – it equates to being unable to authentically call oneself a Buddhist. That can be a problem. But we have added other criteria as well. There are proponents of ‘Western Buddhism’ who now argue that you can’t call yourself a Buddhist if you’re not vegetarian – as if one had to adhere to one view of Buddhism as if it were ‘law’. To be vegetarian is a valid method within Buddhism, but it is not a law of some kind. This is very much a Judeo-Christian approach, and has nothing to do with Buddhism. Buddhism makes no demands about what one has to believe in order to be a Buddhist practitioner. Buddhism actually concerns itself with ‘attempting.’ I am a Buddhist, because I am trying to be a Buddhist – and to be a Buddhist means that one is exploring the Buddhist teachings with sincerity – and with kindness. I cannot see how it is kind to attempt to excommunicate non-vegetarians and those who enjoy a good single malt Scotch whiskey. That seems to be more in line with fascism.

DG So Buddhism, in terms of Buddhism’s own definition of itself, does not require complete acceptance of all its tenets.

NR I would say so. I would say that testing the tenets in the laboratory of one’s own experience is the real definition of accepting the Buddhist path. It is not a problem not to know something. If you don’t know, then either to agree or disagree is somewhat pointless. To say, I believe that, or, I disbelieve that, is irrelevant from the point of view of Buddhism. Either one knows or one doesn’t know – and not knowing is not a problem. I think people who introduce the idea that it is important to believe in rebirth are people who approach Buddhism as if it were a Western religion. Buddhism is a religion, but not in the same way in which other religions may be formulated with regard to belief in fundamental tenets.

DG I had the sense that there is some expectation that you would develop an interest in your own next rebirth, and you would prepare for that…

NR Yes… It can be presented in that way. But that is not our approach.

DG What would your response be to being asked how you could prepare for your next rebirth?

NR My response would be: Prepare for your next rebirth by letting go of the previous moment, and by understanding that your next rebirth is the next moment.

DG Am I taking this too literally?

NR Trungpa Rinpoche exemplified the approach to which Khandro Déchen and I aspire. He would ask: What are you going to do with this in this moment? Trungpa Rinpoche heroically cut through the spiritual materialism which blighted theistic approaches to Vajrayana Buddhism to which people can become addicted. Rebirth can be misunderstood in a way which encourages the idea of a ‘neat and tidy universe.’

DG Like saying: We were friends in a past life and will be again in future lives.

NR Yes. This approach is a little too horribly… insidiously… comfortable. Like a vast puffy bedroom slipper with a cuddly animal emerging from the end of it in case we get frightened of the dark. I don’t really believe that this approach is useful – unless one really knows rebirth directly… And then, the fact that you know it, might have no value at all to someone who doesn’t know rebirth. You see, if you don’t know, but decide to believe, merely in order to feel kosher as a Buddhist, then that belief may turn out to be problem at some later stage. It’s a problem because you’re having to build logical systems on an assumption. In terms of Buddhism, that is not exactly workable. It can store up difficulties with regard to having an unstable foundation. Anyone who believes anything, at some level, makes the choice to believe. If we make the choice to believe because there’s a spiritually materialistic payoff in believing, then as soon as the payoff ceases to function we lose our belief. With rebirth, I would say that there is a grave danger of the payoff being connected with emotional comfort of some kind… and that is deadly in terms of an authentic Buddhist practice. Buddhism is not actually emotionally comfortable in terms of the need to experience continuity. If we are to call ourselves Buddhists we have to accept the practice of discovering that we are discontinuous – that the ‘I’ is momentary. That is not comfortable. Now… if our ‘payoff’ is eroded in some way, through loss of confidence in the emotional security of the religion in which we have decided to have faith – then everything which was built on our belief collapses. Then our logical structure falls apart. It wasn’t a logical structure in the first place – because real experience of practice was missing. And then, even the many aspects of it which were logical, seem to make no sense because they were accepted emotionally rather than experientially. That’s really not useful. So Khandro Déchen and I don’t like to encourage the kind of faith which is based on emotionalism. Buddhism is a religion which encourages us to discover its specified realisations directly. This is ‘learning faith’ rather than ‘blind faith’.

DG So, a Buddhist should be free not to believe, and be accepted as a Buddhist.

NR Yes… free not to ‘have to believe’ – but one cannot actively disbelieve; that would not work either. But as to belief… unfortunately, people seem to want to fit in – seem to want to be accepted …

DG And want to be respected.

NR Yes – and consequentially to disrespect others who don’t fit in by virtue of the ‘inability’ to assume ‘blind faith’.

DG And in order to fulfil these criteria they feel that they have to believe certain things.

NR Yes. Khandro Déchen and I don’t encourage that in our students. Everyone accepts everyone because they are committed to following a path of discovery, and because they have enthusiasm for the lineage. But within that, we encourage respect on the basis that apprentices are simply ‘as they are’ – they are simply ‘following a practice and experimenting with their existence in the context of compassion and wisdom’. We like our apprentices to be able to be who they are, rather than having to blindly fit into an ethos of unquestionable dogmas. We like to undermine the need to inculcate an ‘artificial Buddhist personality.’ We encourage personal heterodoxy rather than political correctness – for example, we have both carnivores and vegivores as apprentices. There are no unspoken rules about: whether cosmetics are kosher or not; whether ‘whole-food’ is the thing; whether recycling your underwear is compulsory; whether you have to join the NRA; whether you have to whistle Dixie; whether ‘anything’ is ‘anything’ – apart from authentic refuge – kindness, awareness, and realistic commitment to the lineage.

DG You seem to not only have a lack of interest in the political aspects of religion, but also you’re very pragmatic. It seems, though, that in Tibetan Buddhism there’s a great deal of interest in who’s the next incarnation of whom… Some people seem to believe that they can attune themselves to some departed individual’s existence, and where he or she may next appear…

NR Well, yes. But that’s not a problem for someone who approaches Buddhism from a compassionate pragmatic experimental position. One doesn’t need to accept an entire package. One doesn’t have to reject it either. In the areas of one’s religion of which one has no direct experience, one can simply allow these areas to be – without having to accept or having to reject. One can be open-minded about the unknown – and bear in mind that it is not necessarily unknowable. One comes to know the unknown through practice. That is the main direction with Buddhism – to find out, to discover that Dharma is as it is. That is what Dharma means: ‘as it is’. However… there is something I would like to address here in terms of how a religion functions – in terms of feeding people across a wide spectrum. From this perspective, the existence of incarnations and their sequential lives is one of the aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism which gives life meaning with regard to those who follow that path. I am not saying that it is a merely a societally useful mythical structure, you understand. I am simply saying that it remains personally mythical unless one has direct experience. Rebirth, for you, is mythical in the same way that Virginia is mythical to me. Virginia is mythical to me because I have never been there. There are 1860s battle sites there. I have read various accounts of them, but I have never seen them. However, although I have not visited these sites in Virginia, other people have, and those people have written books which I have read. These places and the people who lived there are part of a somewhat romantic ethos which is quite real to me. And that ‘romantic ethos’ is mythical too, because those battles were hell. There was nothing romantic about dysentery and lice, or being wounded, or being blown apart by canister fire. I’ve read the biography of Robert E Lee. I’ve also read ‘Gone with the Wind’ [laughs] and seen the movie a few times – that’s somewhat mythical too. There are many things I appear to know about a time and place which is quite far removed from my upbringing in the South of England. This is just an example of how ‘pleasure’, ‘fulfilment’, or ‘sustenance of some kind’ can be derived from material which is both ‘mythical’ and ‘actual’ depending on the experience of the individual. With regard to people believing they can attune themselves to a departed Lama’s existence, and to where he or she may next appear, that is also both mythical and actual depending on the experience of the individual.

DG Yes – I see that. As long as I’m on somewhat of a scientific theme, there’s one related question I had. That’s the interest the Dala’i Lama particularly seems to have developed in Western science. He came over here and was very interested in learning new information, and I think many Western scientists were a little nonplussed at first. But the one thing I recall that seemed to stick in people’s minds was that when it came to identifying the seat of consciousness, he kept on insisting that this was someplace in the chest next to the heart, somewhat to the consternation of psychologists and anatomists who thought of course that the seat of consciousness was in the brain. If someone is given an artificial heart, most of us don’t think that he or she has lost the seat of his or her consciousness…

NR [laughs] Sure. It’s not in the actual physical organ.

DG But he was meaning something close to it, though, somewhere in the chest?

NR Yes… but… that’s not quite what is meant.

DG What is that?

NR The region of the heart is actually a symbol. Calling that region ‘Mind’ is a method of relating. One can place Mind anywhere in terms of how one relates to Mind through practice. For example [laughs] a feminist critique of chauvinist men is that they have their minds in their genitalia. So… so maybe the idea of Mind being in the heart is not so surprising in a religion which emphasises compassion? Why do we in the West associate love with the heart? It’s a matter of symbolism – of being able to relate physicality and conceptuality; and, of being able to link the two in an emotionally meaningful way. So, according to Buddhism, ‘Mind’ is pervasive throughout body, and, actually – beyond it.

DG If Mind is pervasive through body, suppose that somebody’s body falls apart; suppose somebody is left, through some tragic accident, with little other than their head in functioning order, and kept alive by some artificial mechanical means. What’s happened to that mind? Is that person feeling different, missing something in terms of consciousness?

NR Not necessarily.

DG Well, if mind is pervasive through body… I don’t know what you mean . …

NR Sorry, I should be a little more specific. I said that it pervades the body. This does not mean that it is dependent on the body. If you lose your left leg, you don’t lose some aspect of Mind which was somehow relying on your left leg. You just lose leg. [laughs] That’s all. Mind pervades. The symbol ‘heart’ is a way of relating to Mind. It doesn’t actually mean that it is there. It’s a symbol. A symbol is placed according to the function of the symbol in terms of method. The physical seat of consciousness is brain. But ‘Mind’ is spoken of as being near the heart. These are both symbols – ways of relating.

DG Mind is used as a word that’s a symbol? I don’t know necessarily how mind is being used there.

NR Mind is the empty basis of consciousness. When people discuss particle physics, I have heard it said that subatomic particles arise and dissolve within subatomic emptiness. Mind is like that subatomic emptiness. You could say there’s ‘existential emptiness’ and ‘experiential emptiness’. Mind is the experiential emptiness from which consciousness arises. Mind is the experiential emptiness into which consciousness dissolves.

DG Buddhism doesn’t seem to have a problem with science.

NR Indeed not. You see, there’s no such word as ‘Buddhism’. The Tibetan word is ‘chö’, which, as I explained before, means ‘as it is’, and if science discovers something, then that could well be ‘as it is’. His Holiness the Dala’i Lama has said he no longer believes in the physical location of the Six Realms, because science has shewn that there is no ‘under the earth’ – it’s not a flat earth, it’s a sphere. And there’s no Mount Méru out there anywhere. He now regards that as symbolic language. This does not mean that will now issue some sort of edict to change Buddhism. The structure of the six realms is also a profound perceptual psychology. Mount Méru also represents a cogent wealth of meaning which is powerfully functional at the level of visualisation.

DG So Buddhism is always happy to look at scientific discovery, but also not to think of it as ultimate, either?

NR Yes. As Western science itself knows: every once in a while, a certain ‘scientific fact’ is discovered no longer to be a ‘scientific fact’. Einstein turned Newtonian physics upside down – but the structure of Newtonian physics still has value. Buddhism accepts science as the very latest point of what illusion is – it’s as far as we can get at the moment in terms of how reality can be described. If a more accurate form of illusion undermines some previous form of illusion, then that’s fine; there really is no problem there. If Christianity had the same kind of perspective, there would be no problem between Darwin and Genesis – they would just be different versions of reality. One would be symbolic, and the other would be ‘the most up-to-date illusion’. They would not be in conflict.

DG You seem to have an interest in psychology. You seem to be very practical and pragmatic in the way you get your teachings across, very flexible.

NR Both Khandro Déchen and I have some knowledge and interest in Western psychology – but, and there’s a considerable ‘but’ here, we do not use the language and concepts of Buddhism and Western psychology interchangeably. We are Buddhists. We are Buddhists who are open to learning about what Western psychology has to offer to Buddhism. We see it as a perceptual language which functions as a tool – a method for working at the social level within the sangha. We feel that it is useful to us to understand the definitions of ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and ‘anti-social personality disorder’. We find that such insights are valuable to us as teachers. We have had people who have been quite interpersonally destructive and these perspectives have helped us a great deal in terms of how we have worked with people.

DG I’ve never met any other Lamas who are interested in the way sanghas work, and talk about issues of a sangha getting along, which I think is a courageous thing to do. Do you find your interest in psychology by having Western students – that they need to address psychological issues, or interpersonal issues, more than an Asian group would?

NR I cannot really comment on people outside our own context. All I would say is that whatever level of psychopathology existed in Tibet was well understood within that society by Lamas there. The situation with Tibetans cannot really be compared to our own, because they lived in a coherent society and we do not. Our society is extraordinarily heterodox, and we have a bewildering array of options. Although, having said that, I would say that it is not so much an issue of East and West – it’s more an issue of 19th century and before – as distinct from the later part of the 20th century and beyond.

DG Do you mean that the psychological situation was stable?

NR Yes, everybody would have fitted in according to accepted mores, in which psychological pathologies would have manifested in relation to stable social criteria. So, because we don’t come from a stable culture, we can be deceptive and get away with our deceptions simply through moving to other sanghas. That would not have been as easy in Tibet. In Tibet one would have got oneself a ‘bad name’ in the same way that one could have got a ‘bad name’ in Virginia in the 19th century. If one acted dishonourably in the previous century, it was not as easily possible to start fresh. At this point in history, however, and especially within the world of alternative religions, one can start fresh with frightening rapidity. It is this fact which allows people to endlessly avoid facing up to their personal pathologies. That is somewhat new. I don’t think they had that problem so much in Tibet.

DG You said that if one applies one’s understanding of emptiness and form to any subject, then the result is called Buddhism.

NR Yes. It’s an infinite wellspring of teachings, and every teaching has its principle and function according to each misunderstanding of the non-dual nature of emptiness and form.

DG This is why the teachings of Buddhism are regarded as method.

NR I think that’s something which is generally not well understood. People from other religious backgrounds tend to think in terms of religion being about truth. If one approaches Buddhism as ‘truth’ one will have a problem with Buddhism – because Buddhism isn’t ‘truth’ as truth is understood in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Buddhism is method – and methods differ within Buddhism – and across the spectrum of the nine yanas. The only ‘truth’ in Buddhism is tongpa nyid (sTong pa nyid), shunyata – emptiness. Truth cannot differ – and emptiness also cannot differ. If truth is plural, if there are different truths, then truth is ‘form’ – and if truth is ‘form’ then truth must change – because all ‘form’ changes and becomes emptiness. So ‘truths’ as compassionate method, arise and dissolve in emptiness. This is why Buddhism is method, and why I’m a Nyingma methodist [laughs]. If one is geared into looking at everything as ‘method’, then there is never any problem between different religious methods. But when one is approaching Buddhism from the point of view of ‘truth’, then there is always a problem with the fact that there are differences. Even an idea of what the universe is like – it’s irrelevant in terms of whether it is ‘truth’ or not. The views of the yanas are also methods. So, what is relevant in Buddhist terms – is what effect a teaching has. One applies a method and then experiences the result of the method. One enters the dimension of a view and then experiences the result of having immersed oneself within the dimension of the view. What is the effect of entering the dimension of the view of Mount Méru and the four continents? What effect does it have to believe in rebirth? What effect does it have to believe that Ngakpa Chögyam is the rebirth of Doc Holliday, or that one’s Lama is the incarnation of Stonewall Jackson? [laughs] Now… if entering the dimension of the view has a healthy effect, in terms of wisdom and compassion, then this can be said to be is a useful method. If it has an unhealthy effect, in terms of wisdom and compassion, then it’s not a useful method. So whether it’s ‘true’ or ‘untrue’, from one point of view, is completely irrelevant. So when Khandro Déchen and I teach, we want to see that the method is working in terms of how people are living their lives. If the method is merely allowing an individual to enhance their pathology, then that method is not useful for such a person. We had one person who seemed incapable to applying practices without using them to concretise his own narcissism.

DG You seem to be saying that, from your point of view, many people have taken too literally much in the way of teachings that you describe as methodology. That one focus is understanding of non-duality, of emptiness and form and how they manifest and interplay and how to experience that. And that much of the rest has to do with methodology that could very well change.

NR Buddhism looks at itself as method. One finds this in the Sutras: ‘The dharma is empty’. But somehow some people seem to see dharma as form, and that can be a real problem – especially when they want to change the form to suit the West. Khandro Déchen and I try to be Buddhists when teaching Buddhism [laughs] which means that we try to answer people’s questions within the context of the language they use to ask the questions. But that is not the same as ‘changing Buddhism’. We are simply concerned with the linguistics – with communicating.

DG Which is probably why you don’t object to people teaching in different ways.

NR Sure. Khandro Déchen and I see some people who, for example, like a pious approach. They like a quiet approach, they like people to be very gentle, they don’t like raucous laughter and humour and they might not enjoy [interrupted]

DG Cymbals?

NR [laughs] I wasn’t particularly thinking about that aspect of our practice – I was thinking of our informal manifestations. One could find pious people who love cymbals. What I was thinking of, was more the ribald raucousness of our coffee breaks. Some people prefer serenity and a sense of peace and quietness. [laughs] I mean, even in my use of language one can tell that this isn’t exactly natural to me. I’m afraid that I am not particularly demure.

DG You seem to have a natural bent towards using humour very effectively.

NR Well… I like people to laugh – because I feel that it helps them remember.

DG I can imagine that some people may even accuse you of being mischievous some times …

NR Oh, I can’t imagine that! Surely not? [laughs] I suppose I like things better if I’m enjoying myself… and I assume other people like that too. But, of course, some people don’t. Some people like to go off for a weekend where they can be serene. Some people like their involvement with Buddhism to be noticeably different from everyday life. Some people need an air of sanctity… and Khandro Déchen and I don’t really provide that. [laughs] Neither of us are keen on manufacturing atmospheres of undue holiness with regard to ourselves.

DG How do you manage to accommodate the amazing number of different inspirations you’re entertaining, about how to reach people? How do you deal with a group retreat? How do you deal with all these people with different expectations, wishes – what works for them, in the context of having a period of getting together?

NR Well, Khandro Déchen and I ask people to ask us questions. We try to make them responsible for what they get from the weekend. We attempt to apportion the responsibility between ourselves and the audience. There is actually no way we could accommodate a group of 30 different people. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and other great Lamas are capable of that, but not us. Fortunately for us most people who attend our Open Teaching Retreats seem to be there for what is on offer – they are kind enough to accept the experience for what it is. And for our part, we try to incite them into asking questions. If we succeed in inspiring them to ask questions then we’re happy. We try to help everyone get something from a retreat, and it’s been rare that someone leaves because they find it useless. It’s an impossible task, really. I can only present as I present – and remind people from time to time that it’s my presentation and that they should not judge the Nyingma tradition on Ngakpa Chögyam – the inconsequential eccentric yogi.

DG If they’re coming from some totally different direction and they’ve heard from some Lama something very different, then you seem to show them how these two views are not antithetical to each other.

NR I am happy that this comes across. That’s very important. In fact, I think that this is one of the most important things. For people to have the space to understand that people can be different… That is so valuable. That people can hold different views which are at one level completely antithetical, but at another level don’t have to fight with each other. For me, spirituality apart, that is what is meant by being adult. I feel that is really important. I’ve always felt that there were two kinds of tolerance: naïve or childish tolerance, and mature or adult tolerance. Naïve tolerance says: I accept everything as valid because everything is really the same – all religions are one. Mature tolerance says: I can allow conflicting notions to coexist. I don’t have to dismiss your idea simply because I disagree with them from a contrasting perspective. Mature tolerance say: Whoa, Dr Greenberg thinks that! I wonder why? I could be intrigued. I could try to find out more and say: Well, he’s an charming gentleman; but he has an idea which I find preposterous. Politically, I take exception to his idea, but I wonder why he holds it? Maybe the view I hold isn’t quite as watertight as I previously assumed it to be? Maybe there might be some other reality? Maybe we could talk about that? It’s easy from the intolerant point of view just to hate you and to get angry and to walk out and to say: I don’t like your politics, I don’t like the kind of person you are. To me this is low level psychological behaviour. It should be intriguing that someone could hold a very different view. So we like to encourage this kind of appreciation as much as we can, and implement that by talking about the radical differences between the nine yanas. It’s an important subject. It is crucial really. It’s vital for Buddhists to understand how every expression or practice has a different experiential base. If one understands the base, then one can understand the path and the fruit. One can understand how the paths can be in conflict, because their bases are different – yet recognise that their fruit or result is the same.

DG There were many questions around that at the retreat last week. There were several people there who study with other Lamas, and then you spent a lot of effort to put what you said into a context that wasn’t going to cause them a problem when they went back to their Lama.

NR I try my best along these lines because if there is misunderstanding then people will either have a problem with their Lama, or they’ll have a problem with Khandro Déchen and myself.

DG Sometimes people want a problem.

NR Yes. Sometimes people find multiplicity a bit too overwhelming, and they’d rather retreat and retrench into some kind of fundamentalism.

DG They refuse to hear an explanation which shows that a multiplicity of approaches is possible?

NR Yes. But that is rare these days. That happened more often in the 1980s. I would like to make an admission here [laughs]. I would hate to give you the impression that I knew something about psychology. My entire input comes from reading two books [laughs] and maybe from talking to some psychologists I’ve picked up some language here or there. The two books were written by John Cleese and Robin Skinner from their taped discussions. So my way of speaking about Buddhism in relation to psychology is based on that. Anyhow, to relate this to the idea of the peaceful and creative co-existence of a multiplicity of views, Cleese and Skinner were talking about how a group of ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ people were brought together for a conference. They described how these people strongly disliked each other until they were actually in a room together, and had to listen to each other. Obviously these people chose to go into the experiment, so they must have had some degree of openness. It was an interesting experiment in terms of looking at what happened with body language – and how people at first weren’t trying to listen. They said that in the end, it was not that they came to change their minds, but that they came to understand each other and to accept that there was an uncomfortable area of grey. They were psychologically healthy enough to be able to go away more confused than they were when they arrived. So… we somehow have to be adult enough to allow ourselves to be confused. I feel it’s important, that people open up a little, across a broad range of issues. It’s actually the only way we’ll ever have peace in the world.

DG This is off on one of a series of tangents [laughs]. But there are some people who have worked with a teacher, and been granted some imprimatur in some ceremony stating they’ve become enlightened and who then choose not to teach, or to teach very little. And others, like yourself, whose life seems to be that every moment has something to do with teaching – not necessarily self-consciously. Does that have something to do with the way people are before they’ve gone through a process of understanding more? Or does this indicate something complete in some individual’s understanding. I’m not sure I’m expressing this terribly well, but I’m not sure what to make of some people preferring to just be by themselves or have a life focused on other things, or make themselves known as a teacher…

NR What would be the problem with there being a difference?

DG I don’t know. I’m not even sure I know where this question comes from, it’s on such a ridiculous tangent [laughs]. I just wondered… Many Buddhist vows have to do with, for example, vowing to free all sentient beings. I just wondered how some people like yourself and Khandro Déchen manifest the rest of their lives as a Lama for people …

NR Well, one can accomplish that by many different means.

DG You consider yourself at one with the universe, I guess, but for yourself you free all sentient beings…

NR ‘Being at one with the universe’ is a concept I find a tad elusive in terms of how it might apply to me. I don’t feel estranged from my surroundings, if that will serve as an answer… the degree to which I may not be estranged is probably a matter for conjecture [laughs]. I mean, I could be counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike – they’ve all gone to look for America; haven’t they? [laughs]. But as to freeing all sentient beings – I think it’s a matter of the time scale; what a person is; what kind of influence they are allowed to be by those around them. Someone who might, for example, spend the rest of their lives in retreat, might be far more of an influence than I have been, am, or ever will be – simply by their presence on the earth. For example, Milarépa never met many people. He lived high in the mountains most of his life. He didn’t travel much. He only taught people who found him. But his biography still exists and offers great inspiration. His spiritual songs exist. The Dala’i Lama named Milarépa as the most widely known name of any Tibetan master. Who the hell will remember Ngakpa Chögyam in a hundred years? [laughs] And even if they do remember him, the memory might not serve any worthwhile purpose: Wasn’t he the Lama who wore a Stetson? [laughs] I don’t think that will evoke much inspiration somehow. Anyhow… I would say that ‘realisation’ doesn’t have to manifest in any particular way. Some people are more communicative than others. Some people don’t operate particularly verbally. People are inspired in many different ways. Also, in terms of teaching, there are always the five certainties: the right Lama, teaching, time, place, and retinue. Sometimes it’s not the right time or place; one realises that one’s particular manifestation has no particular use. I think this also a sociological issue at some level, and probably reflects the chaotic nature of human societies as they have evolved in the world. This may be a huge loop in another direction but I have a somewhat crude theory of the human species. It’s a theory which is based on the idea that the transition from ‘hunter-gatherer community’ to ‘farming community’ was too quick… and we’ve never properly caught up with ourselves. We’re continually lagging behind our own progress – both physically and emotionally. I would hazard the guess that the cities evolved far too quickly from those primitive beginnings, and that sociologically we’ve never adapted to large groupings of people. And it’s gotten worse – all the way down the line. I think physically we’re little different from hunter-gatherers. We may have less hair – maybe that’s changed… But … for example, I get overweight very easily – and there’s a cause for that. If I had to go hunt everything I ate I wouldn’t get overweight. But instead of hunting I teach, and then I go home and have to work out on the stair machine. Then there’s the emotional sphere. Emotionally we’re less evolved than we are intellectually. So we’re being dragged along by the intellect. Sometimes it’s rational and humanitarian, sometimes it’s neo-Nazi pathology. Some people really drive themselves crazy with their own intellects. Some people make good use of their intellects – they seem to have some kind of emotional balance. But in general I see the human species as being out of control. It is sad. I often feel that all I can do is try to introduce a little sanity.

DG I think we’ve wandered into areas that we weren’t designed for. I think we’re more highly evolved in some ways, though not necessarily more highly evolved than the cockroach, which is also considerably more successful. But as you say, we were evolving as a species that did well in hunter-gatherer societies. Now we’re evolving as ‘ants who live in nests of thousands’, and we’re not designed for that. The brain, I think, evolved not to think intelligently but to be more successful at reproduction and survival. But I agree with you that the pace of change seems to be speeding up as well as changes in technology; more dangerous, the crowding seems to be increasing, and it seems it hardly brings out the best in us.

NR It’s also moving into massive heterodoxy, which brings its own problems. When you’re looking for a partner, there are so many criteria with regard to choice! Does this man or woman eat the same food, like the same music, follow the same religion? Each individual is almost becoming an endangered species in his or her own right. Where does one find a mate out there? It used to be simple in the nineteenth century – or so I surmise.

DG I guess one needs the Internet these days [laughs]. A world-wide search.

NR Maybe it will balance itself out, maybe there are balancing mechanisms which I’m not seeing, but… I live a very odd life-style. I love coming to the States, but theoretically, philosophically, with regards to my rôle as a Lama I would rather live in Penarth. I would rather never leave Penarth to teach. I would rather have all the apprentices living in Penarth. But life doesn’t work like that – so Khandro Déchen and I have to globe-trot… which is delightful in many respects. It’s not problematic, but it’s not ideal either. [pause] Although, having said that… maybe it is ideal. Maybe it has valuable functions within it of which I am, as yet, unaware. Khandro Déchen and I are open to both sides of that question. Maybe it’s more creative to travel and to have apprentices in different parts of the world. Maybe it’s useful to have an international community in terms if the colourful and variegated interactions which are engendered. The Confederate Sanghas of Aro are certainly far more vivid than a community of people from South Wales may have been. The folk from South Wales and Manhattan certainly enjoy each other prolifically [laughs].

DG It certainly does put people in touch with each other from different parts of the world; and I think that is very healthy.

NR There are always pros and cons to every manifestation of form. I was aware when our son arrived that he had precious few relatives. It occurred to Khandro Déchen and myself that: Düd’dül Dorje – Robert – needs uncles and aunts; he needs an extended family. Robert doesn’t have one; he has very few relatives, and that’s not healthy for him. So we have instituted the rôle of ‘tsé-kyong’ which means ‘life-protector’ – it’s a Vajrayana version of ‘god-parent’. The tsé-kyongs are people who agree to take an interest in Robert as he grows up – not specifically in terms of Buddhism, because he may not want to practise Buddhism, but in terms of enriching his experience of the world. So one may take him bird watching in Maine, and one get him slapping oil paints around on a huge canvas. One may give him archery lessons and one might teach him to cook exotic meals. But apart from that we see it as valuable that Robert is moving into a world where people travel a lot more – where people are less insular. So travelling to America will be healthy for him. It will be good for him to see how different people walk differently and eat differently. How people live in different styles and speak in different accents and languages. Hopefully, that way, he won’t become too English [laughs]. Because, you know… it’s a tragedy being too English.

DG [laughs] Open-mindedness, I think, is probably helped by travel – being exposed to different things. Like growing up in New York City with so many different cultures, so many different ideas, helps one get away from the idea of the absoluteness of your own concepts being right, and other individuals being demonised and misled.

NR Yes, I feel it is crucial that people have opportunities to question their bigotry, racism, sexism, and spiritual sectarianism. Khandro Déchen and I try to foster openness whenever we can – and that seems especially important in terms of never expressing the way we manifest the teaching as being in some way superior to the way the teachings are manifested elsewhere. I tend to see human society as an almost undirected, on-going, accelerating experiment, which is abortively seeking to establish equilibrium. Each time human society alights on some way stabilise in whatever respect, everything’s changed yet again, and the change has come more quickly than the last. Maybe this pattern will settle down in some point in the future. Maybe not. It is hard to tell what will happen. I am hoping that this process of accelerating change will eventually bottom out, but that may not be within our lifetimes.

DG How do you see Buddhism within that process?

NR Well, I see Buddhism, particularly Vajrayana Buddhism, as being very much part of that process. The wonderful quality of Vajrayana is the way in which it approaches every aspect of human existence as being fundamentally workable. Whatever the situation happens to be, it can be transformed through the practice of Vajrayana. We do not have to be afraid of what is manifesting and neither do we have to confuse ourselves with the idea that Buddhism needs to be adapted for the West. Ideas of this nature do not relate with Vajrayana and the methodology of transformation. If one really understands Vajrayana – one understands that every culture is actually ideal for Vajrayana.

DG I would also say that there isn’t any threat to Buddhism from science. I think science at its best is just a constant process of exploration. It’s trying to understand what it’s all about. Science is about using critical thinking, which just means a sense of not being misled by what you want things to be like rather than the way that you actually find them. It’s about not interjecting your own wishes and fears into understanding what’s happening.

NR That sounds perilously like Buddhism [laughs]. Differences often seem to be a question of language and emphasis.

DG Yes. I think we often think our language is there to indicate and describe things to others, and to aid in thinking. But I think it’s actually often being used in the service of one prejudice or another.

NR [laughs] Quite so.

DG Words and ideas are things that carry meaning or value, but very often the purpose is not communication, it’s self-delusion or just rationalisation.

NR Right – we find that a great deal within the expositions of the Western Buddhist teachers at the moment – the ‘Conference Buddhism’ of the 80s and 90s – the Western Buddhist psycho-egalitarian sangha. Like the word ‘share’ for example. The word ‘share’ actually signifies that one has something of value, and that one wishes give part of that valuable thing to another. The result of sharing should therefore be that one has less of that valuable thing. ‘Share’ does not mean that I spend an hour and a half telling you about some ‘Western Buddhist’ theory of ‘relying on the collective wisdom of the sangha as a means of diminishing the rôle of tha Lama’ which: a) someone wants to tell me, b) I don’t want to hear, c) I don’t consider valuable, and d) I sincerely regret having heard. [laughs] That is not ‘sharing’ [laughs]. That according to my definition is called ‘taking’ – one person taking the time of another. So if this sort of person comes along and says: I want to share something with you. I feel inclined to reply: I think you’re too generous. You’d better keep this treasure to yourself! [laughs] Language can be sneaky or we can be sneaky with language. A word like ‘share’… oh how nice that sounds… ‘share’. [laughs] It sounds so worthy and gentle [laughs] but what often transpires when the word is used can be gruesomely different. From my point of view I would say that this kind of ‘sharing’ was a breakage of the second precept – which requires that we refraining from stealing.

DG What frightens me a little more is in this country there are some groups that have pulled themselves away in the mountains and have found others of like mind… And these people believe in some kind of paranoid ideas about the United Nations or something orchestrating a massive take-over of this country, and that they need to hold themselves up as paramilitary groups. I guess that people feeling more connected, not that separate from others, would work against some of those excesses.

NR Yes – that is worrying… and in some sense, I see the ‘Western Buddhists’ as being part of the continuum which includes such people. I feel that the network of Western Buddhist teachers could look at themselves in comparison with survivalist groups or paramilitary groups and ask themselves: What is the nature of my mind-set? What is the karmic vision? What is there within myself that is similar to these survivalist groups? What do I need to do to undermine that tendency in myself?

DG A lot of people I deal with seem to be stuck someplace, so taken with some particular fear, some particular idea, some particular prejudice, something they can’t let go of. On occasion I’ve tried to recommend meditation without much success. People are so stuck that they are afraid of change and don’t want to try something a little different.

NR I’m not sure that I would ever recommend meditation for anyone who wasn’t fairly psychologically healthy… We knew a man who meditated for several hours a day, and he ended up displaying characteristics which appeared to be symptomatic of anti-social personality disorder. We have known several people in fact who would have done better to have worked on a farm or garden. We would often recommend psychologically damaged individuals to find ‘space’ in a different way – engaged in practical work in the open air. Maybe the work should also be hard and tiring enough to promote sound sleep. If the work were not physically demanding enough, I would imagine that it would still allow room for a lot of thought, and that would be counterproductive. I think that if one can engage in exertion of a positive nature – such as weeding in a ‘positive’ environment where plants require care to grow – that would help much more than mediation for someone with psychological problems.

DG It used to be that even the state hospitals would be like little cities, and patients who were there would be growing their own food and gardening and tending to other things that would have to do with the upkeep of the facility. On a variety of bases, that doesn’t happen any more. Probably a lot was lost, even the sense of being useful.

NR Indeed. We can but try to leave the world a little happier than it is through our practice of Buddhism. I guess, at the moment, we’re just counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. Maybe we should go look for Buddhism in America – because it’s not in the ‘American Buddhist magazine’. Maybe Buddhism could be out there somewhere – somewhere where they’ve not heard about ‘Conference Dharma’ – maybe in Brooklyn.