Interview with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
By Bob Mackin
With all the activity now in Whistler, it's only fitting that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche chose the area as the North American retreat centre for Siddhartha's Intent. The world-wide Tibetan Buddhist sect is headquartered in Vancouver and operated by the followers or students of the Rinpoche, or "precious one."
Dzongsar Khyentse, 35, is believed by them to be the "activity" incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo the Great, an 18th century unifier of Tibetan Buddhists and one of three founders of the Rime, or non-sectarian, tradition. When Khyentse Wangpo died, Buddhists believe his spirit was incarnated in five forms: mind, body, speech, quality and activity. The activity emanation was claimed to be first present in Dzongsar Khyentse's previous incarnation, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö.
Dzongsar Khyentse was born Dharma Sagara ("Ocean of Dharma" in English) and recognized at the age of 7 as the next Rinpoche in the Khyentse ("wise and compassionate") spiritual lineage.
Indeed, according to his followers, he is using his spiritual inheritance to the fullest.
"He hardly sleeps," said Ron Stewart, a director with Siddhartha's Intent. "He'll go to bed at three or four in the morning and get up at seven for teachings. People are constantly, as you can imagine, treating him as their psychiatrist, as their lawyer, as their confidante. How he can maintain the pace...
"I think it would be daunting, but I have never heard him complain about it."
Dzongsar Khyentse is among a new wave of young lamas who have travelled and studied extensively in the West and become intrigued by the culture. He's a soccer fan and an observer of world politics. He's also a cinephile.
Not only did he work with director Bernardo Bertolucci as a cultural consultant on the 1993 epic Little Buddha, but he's made two short films based on Buddhist parables. He also frequently trades in his burgundy and orange robes for a pair of blue jeans and goes to the movies.
"He'll just see whatever comes out at the box office," said Michiko Filipak, Siddhartha's Intent's secretary. "It can be trashy or violent, like Lethal Weapon. He doesn't care. He wants to see what the western mind regards as entertainment. He learns a lot about us as a culture by seeing movies."
"He might be called a renaissance man," added Stewart, who is married to Filipak. "He's conversant with so many cultures. He can speak of the history, the politics, and habits of people in every corner of the world."
Dzongsar Khyentse spent six months at the Sea-to-Sky Retreat Centre last year with a small group of students shortly after the facility on the east side of Daisy Lake opened. This weekend's public teaching is part of a rare North American tour that brought him to Barnet, Vt., and Boulder, Colo. in September. The tour continues next week in Seattle and concludes in two weeks in Santa Cruz, Calif.
He responded to questions e-mailed to him at the Karme Choling meditation centre in Vermont.
PIQUE: I understand you have a keen interest in world politics. Do you follow news about Canada, especially the possible future separation of the province of Quebec?
DZONGSAR JAMYANG KHYENTSE RINPOCHE: I have always believed that dharma (Buddhist teaching) can actually contribute a lot to world politics. In one way, I think it's such a shame that Quebec wants separation from the rest of Canada because it's such a beautiful country.
Any kind of emotional unrest makes one sad. As a Tibetan, I can also understand why Quebec wants to be different. When it really comes down to earth, identity is always the most important to human beings. To be is more important than to have. This is evident from all the problems in the world — Palestinians, Jews, and Tibetans.
One might think it would save a lot of problems for Tibetans if Tibet was part of China and remained that way. All we would need to think about is establishing our economy and let the rest be decided by the Chinese. But that's not the case. There's a culture, there's a tradition. As human beings we always value our culture. Tibet has a long history and is a very old culture. In this way I can understand why the French-speaking or French-oriented part of Canada wishes to be different.
PIQUE: Do you foresee freedom for Tibet in your lifetime?
DJKR: Freedom for Tibet is a very complex issue. To be honest, neither Chinese nor Tibetans seem to have a rational, logical argument why Tibet is or is not part of China. But I think it is wrong to seek for logic or reasons to prove that a nation is independent.
If you trace back in history, many of the identities such as so-called China, so-called America, so-called Russia didn't exist. For instance, the U.S. was once a no man's land and then it became part of England. So, if you refer to the past in order to prove the freedom and independence of the present day, it's a bit hopeless.
The very idea of a "great China" is a very new one. For example, the Mongol dynasty once invaded China but is currently under the occupation of China. Chinese history very well accepts the Mongol dynasty. And a look at ancient Chinese history suggests that Mongols are separate from the Hun Chinese. Likewise, Tibetan history claims that many parts of China were once invaded by Tibetans and, thus, belong to Tibet.
So, I think the question of Tibetan freedom depends on the wish of each and every individual Tibetan. If a majority of Tibetans do not wish to be part of China, then no matter how much China claims or suppresses them, Tibet will always be a separate entity. But if the majority of the Tibetans wish to be part of China then it's not really a problem. Then the struggle, the dilemma, of Tibetan independence is completely in vain. At this point I do not see much hope for the freedom of Tibet for several very strange reasons.
For one, Chinese are a very shame-oriented society. Sometimes I feel the Chinese are still holding on to Tibet simply out of shame. They do not want to give Tibet away...
When one visits Tibet — I myself have been to Tibet seven times — one thinks, "Why are the Chinese so keen on Tibet?" I would have given it up a long time ago. It's such a harsh country. Culture is different. Habits are different. Chinese have to pour more money into developing Tibet than Tibet can benefit China. But, of course, there are different ways of looking at it. For example, there's a lot of deforestation in Tibet and it is claimed that Tibet has a lot of minerals. Maybe there's a long term gain for the Chinese. But as things are right now I would have given up a long time ago. Plus all the noise that exiled Tibetans are making outside of Tibet and all these human rights issues. It must be very irritating. But then as I was saying, the Chinese are a very shame oriented society. Even if a Chinese leader might think, "Well, let's just give away Tibet, it's more hassle than benefit." I think, when it comes to practice he will still not do it because he has to face the rest of China.
On the other hand, I think the recognition of Tibet and its culture in the larger world is still not well established. I would blame this on past Tibetan leaders. They remained very isolated from the rest of the world. Therefore, the rest of the world doesn't know Tibet or Tibetan culture. Also, today Tibet is not really a big attraction, like a massive oil producer or something like that. So the situation is likely to come up only occasionally and only as a political issue between big nations. Otherwise, there's no big interest in Tibet by the international community. A very simple example is Kuwait. Western governments tried to rescue Kuwait. We can clearly see that this is because of oil resources and all that. I don't think Tibet has that kind of attraction economically.
Then, also, many young Tibetans are beginning to question the non-violent strategy headed by His Holiness Dalai Lama — how long is this going to work, how effective is it? The world is in a very strange situation. Things like non-violence, peace marches, Gandhi's style does seem to work if you are facing a more sophisticated culture. India was occupied by Britain. There's a lot of difference between the Chinese and the British. I don't see much result if a few Tibetans go in front of the Chinese and try to die with a hunger strike. I think the Chinese attitude is "go ahead," so to speak. But it was not like that during the British occupation of India. Also, there were great freedom fighters among the Indian people. Among Tibetans, except for the Dalai Lama, there aren't. There are not many people as strong as him.
As I was saying, now the situation in the world is different. Everyone is occupied with thoughts of making money. That's the most important. The economy is the most important to people. This does not mean that in the long run what many great nations are doing now is going to be beneficial for the economy of the future. All it means is that right now everybody is desperate and everybody wants to make quick money. In this situation I think the Tibetan struggle for independence through peaceful and non-violent methods is kind of worthless, hopeless. I think many young Tibetans feel that pinching some of these great nations is probably of more benefit than talking peacefully. For all these reasons I don't foresee a quick result, a quick freedom of Tibet.
PIQUE: I know you are a cinephile, but do you watch TV as well with the same critical eye?
DJKR: I believe that media has a lot of influence in this world. If anything can change this world it will be media. This is why I have some interest in films and television.
If you watch a TV program you see all these ads, commercials. Somehow, even though you may oppose them, even if on the spot you may condemn them, still they seem to click into you and whoops, they make you buy things. They make you act according to what they want. I don't know much about business but from my simple guessing I think everything is like a business.
First you have to search for what the other person does not have. And even if you find out the other person has what you thought he didn't have, then you have to actually teach them, manipulate them, and make them think that they don't have because probably they don't realize what they have. Then the next step would be the other person asks, "Where can I get what I don't have?" That is the time you say, "Okay, I have this, or somebody has this" and then you sell it. This is how things work. I think as a Buddhist it is not wrong to use this same method. I believe as a Buddhist and as a Buddhist teacher if I tell you, "Hey, look, don't watch TV. It's bad for you," I don't think many people are going to listen to me. I don't blame them. So, instead of wishing to stop all sorts of influence, I think it's good to be influenced oneself. I think, with the right motivation, we can contribute, we can help the world a little bit.
Of course, there's always a danger, even with so-called dharma activities, so-called religious activities, whatever. They can easily be a tool for our own ego, our selfishness. In this world we have seen this example a lot — Christianity, Judaism, Islam. Many religions have been used by politicians. Many politicians know that everybody is insecure, everybody listens to God, and that people use God as the main container. You see this everywhere.
There are lots of good films. I do not actually even have to exaggerate and tell the world, give a message of dharma, in the film or in the media. All we need to do is tell the truth, just the raw truth. There are films like that. There are many great films. Those that narrate a simple life, for instance. When we watch a film we identify ourselves with the film we are watching. I think the problem with us is we over exaggerate. Sometimes you see a film that tells the truth, that just tells the raw truth. It could be as simple as a human being's dilemma of making breakfast. And we do have that. We do not have to have a hero. We do not have to have a villain. We don't have to have exaggerated dramas. We have a drama, the drama of making breakfast in the morning. If we manage to show that to the world, I think it can really contribute a lot.
PIQUE: In an interview prior to its release, you said the film Little Buddha was more important than 100 temples. Are you satisfied with the outcome of the movie? Has it had a lasting effect in educating westerners about Buddhism? Are you working on any film projects?
DJKR: Yes, I remember saying that Little Buddha was more important than building 100 temples. Well, after seeing the film, I feel that I have to rephrase that. I must say it was a great attempt. It was a big project. I think only that group could have managed to do such big work. I'm sure many Buddhists expected a film about Buddha's life to be based on the true story as written in the sutras. I wonder how many in the audience felt we were doing that? A few Buddhists, a few devotional Buddhists. But it had to reach out. This was more important. So it was a great attempt and took great courage.
(Thanks to Sue Gilman at Karme Choling for assisting with the e-mail interview.)