A reincarnated Buddhist master on ‘thought-wiping’ meditators, choosing a guru, and unconditional happiness.
In the early 1970s, Lama Surya Das tutored a 10-year-old boy, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, in English at a monastery in Darjeeling, India. The boy was known to be the reincarnation of the 11th Gyalwang Drukpa, part of a lineage that goes back to the early 1000s C.E. His Holiness the 12th now heads India’s Drukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. He also has monasteries and nunneries in Darjeeling, Nepal, and Ladakh, as well as centers in Europe and Mexico.
What is the essence of Buddha dharma (the core Buddhist teachings)?
If you ask what I expect for my students, the simple answer is that I want them to be happy. Genuinely, unconditionally happy. That means, of course, spiritually they have to experience inner happiness, regardless of material gains, achievement or personal circumstances and situation. Inner realization is unconditional happiness. We are always seeking something, trying to see, to know, just like we try to get ordinary things and accumulate ideas, looking outwardly for what is not really to be found there. But not seeing is true seeing; not knowing is true knowing. It goes deep. It is beyond concepts and mere intellectual understanding.
There are many kinds of meditation, obviously, not to mention other contemplative practices. What do you think is most critical to teach?
Please don’t be a dumb meditator, a thought-wiper trying not to think, falling into the extreme of trying not to do anything in life. This is quietism, not the wisdom of the Middle Way. This is much too simple minded. It is important to learn how to meditate, not to just do it without guidance or direction. That would be like throwing stones in the dark and hoping to hit a target. Learning and practice have to go hand in hand, or you’ll find it as difficult as trying to climb a mountain either without legs and hands (practice) or without head and eyes (learning, guidance); we actually need both on the spiritual journey.
Can you speak to us about guru yoga and the importance of finding a teacher?
It is not just how a teacher talks and what he or she says. The most important qualities are the understanding of perfect, selfless wisdom and unconditional, impartial compassion. These two are very much dependent on each other. I don’t think we need to be in a hurry to decide who is our root guru and who is not, who is qualified and authentic or not. Just check and see if the teacher before you is wise, kind, unselfish, generous, and helpful, and then follow the instructions as given. You’ll get the blessings and the benefits eventually.
Your Holiness, I’ve come to think of teaching and transmission as related but not the same. The lineage transmits the blessing, something invisible and the teaching is more like the visible. So how important is it for everyone to have a personal teacher?
Many years ago in India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Thailand many people got enlightened, with the support and encouragement of wise and experienced teachers. Not many people are experiencing this kind of spiritual enlightenment in the West, in modern life and times. Why not? Because they are depending too much on the intellect; they’re not depending on the lineage blessings and experience. You can learn, you can know, but not necessarily be accomplished. You can be very big in your head, but that doesn’t mean anything, except your head will be very heavy. And the teachings won’t go to the heart because there’s no lineage, no transmission of the authentic mind-to-mind non-conceptual blessings, from wisdom heart to your heart.
Many lamas have talked about lineage, and Westerners have a hard time understanding this. We think we have our own “lineages.” For example we don’t just read a book, we look to see who wrote the book, and if the author holds a Ph.D., has worked with a well-regarded scholar or has specific qualifications. This is the Western way of thinking of lineage for passing down information. What is it about authentic lineage that is passed on or transmitted?
A blessing. The blessing is something very mysterious, actually. It is not only mysterious, it has a lot of substance. There are also years and decades, centuries of experience here, amidst the blessings and teaching. There’s an unbelievable sense of transformation of your mental state, liberating your mind and opening your heart. How can I express it, because it’s like tasting honey? It’s sweet. But sweet means what? It’s inexpressible. I feel very happy, delighted, delicious, but I can’t express it—until you taste it, and then we can share something of the experience together. This is one aspect of the blessing, of course, which a book cannot give you.
But this is not the only important aspect. What I care about is that the blessing is truly transforming. Your life transforms into the divine state of mind. Even though you live the same way, everything is different—concepts, precepts, everything is different. Yesterday maybe you were unhappy; perhaps you were stealing, cheating, drinking, or simply dissatisfied or depressed. But last night perhaps by good karma you have seen the appropriate guru and have been inspired to change and today you have changed.
This is not necessarily overnight, it may take years or decades but time doesn’t matter. It changes everything, the whole world, your whole attitude. Your whole life can be transformed. From my point of view, if there is no guru, there is no way to get enlightenment. I’m one hundred percent sure. You have to have a personal transmission from a qualified genuine guru, one who has the lineage and is qualified to give this. If you don’t have the lineage, your practice and path is uncooked, unfinished. If you don’t have a human master who gave you the lineage, it cannot be received from a book.
Often you talk about appreciation: What does it really mean to appreciate everything?
No matter whether you are Buddhist or not, a spiritual practitioner or not, appreciation is very important. Appreciation is a great thing; you really need to have it. This is what I think from the heart. Appreciate, appreciate, appreciate. There is no real reason why you should not be happy, unless maybe there’s too much complaining and not enough appreciation. I don’t use the word gratitude here, because for gratitude it seems most often we think we need somebody else there. In our Buddhist attitude, we don’t have anybody there to thank as if above us or responsible. Whatever I have achieved, or good things I have received, I offer to my guru. This is my routine anyway, my ritual. I give it to my guru, from my depth of heart. And this is not only giving, this is really giving with appreciation for what he has been giving me.
What can you say to us about attachment?
I do have a strong attachment, I do—such as to my beloved parents, who still care very much for me and help me too—but it is empty bliss attachment, not burdensome heavy stuckness. Everything is blissfully empty, just in arising at all. That’s how I see it. That’s how it is taught.
Your Holiness, please speak about the essence of retreat and any closing thoughts.
The essence of retreat is to develop yourself and your way of life, really develop your happiness. Develop and improve your understanding so that when you come out, you’re very happy. That happiness can be shared with, maybe not all sentient beings, but a good number. Many people you’ve met and who you will meet will be delighted to see you and will be benefited and even blessed by your happiness.
You are not gaining anything externally; you are losing something. We have too much already, too much ego, too many concepts and material things, so maybe you lose something. That could be of benefit—that kind of benefit is more than enough. The essence of retreat is that you can be satisfied and fulfilled just by being yourself, alone, thinking about the true nature of things, universal reality, gaining wisdom through insight into that.
We don’t need to overcomplicate things with all sorts of wandering discursive thoughts, superstitions, doubts and over-thinking everything. Be strong and straightforward within, have strong intention, and develop firm faith, devotion and inner conviction. What you decide to do, you can do; just keep practicing and learning. The most important thing in life is to be happy and not to harm others, and moreover if you can genuinely help others that is excellent.