The Wise Words of our Kind Teachers
An Interview with Traleg Rinpoche Part II
By Sue Stovall
Traleg Rinpoche. Photograph courtesy of E-Vam Buddhist Institute, New York
It was my great privilege last month to interview Traleg Rinpoche. Rinpoche (which is a Tibetan word that means ‘precious one’) kindly answered questions for a couple of hours. He radiated serenity and kindness. His command of the English language was impeccable. He captured my attention and my heart immediately. During our conversation, Rinpoche said he had to flee his native country at age four when the Chinese Communists overran Tibet. His party escaped to Bhutan and from there to the headquarters of His Holiness the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa in Sikkim. He was educated by His Holiness with the other young tulkus in exile. He continued the rigorous training prescribed for tulkus born with the responsibilities as major lineage holders. In 1980, he went to Australia as the official representative for the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and established Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne. Now, he has come to Chatham, NY to establish E-Vam Buddhist Institute of New York.
Sue Stovall: Rinpoche, for those readers who didn’t see the interview in last month’s Guide magazine, I’d like to ask you a few questions that will inform them on who you are and why you came to the region. Would you begin by explaining what a “tulku” is?
Traleg Rinpoche: In Tibet, a “tulku” is a lama. Tulkus are recognized usually when young as the reincarnation of realized teachers. They run the Buddhist monasteries. When I was two, I was taken to the Thrangu Manastery in Eastern Tibet for training and enthroned as the Abbot of the Monastery.
S.S.: What did this training consist of and who were your teachers?
T.R.: I had a very traditional training when I was younger which basically means studying the text and memorizing the text and going through commentary. To answer your question about who my teachers were, I had several, but I had two main ones were His Holiness the Karmapa and Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche.
SS: What is the purpose of E-Vam? And what does E-Vam mean?
T.R.: The word ‘E-Vam’ is a Sanskrit word meaning Compassion and Wisdom.
The institute’s purpose is to preserve the Buddha’s original teachings while at the same time addressing the pressing issues of the contemporary Western world. We are approaching this effort in a three-tier system: Interfaith/interdisciplinary dialogue that promotes greater understanding among the world’s great religions; Interfaith dialogue that promotes better relationships among the various schools of Buddhism, and Traditional dialogue that promotes and preserves the philosophy and practice of two of the oldest lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, namely Kagyu and Nyingma.
S.S.: In the previous interview you spoke of the three basic trainings involved in Tibetan Buddhism or the path of enlightenment as being ethics, meditation and the cultivation of wisdom. Would you speak about the importance of the practice of ethics in Buddhism?
T.R.: Buddhism emphasizes practice and not just the meditation practice but also the practice of ethics or the virtues. The virtues that are spoken about are patience, generosity, renunciation, discernment, truthfulness, vigor, good will, determination and equanimity. These ten qualities are known as the paramitas.
In Buddhism we are taught how to be generous or patient. Practice does not simply mean to try to “be generous,” but to learn to practice generosity in such a way that you become better at it and the practice then has some sort of transformative effect on you as a person, so that your actions don’t only impact others, but changes you. With practice you are transformed.
S.S.: Would you speak on the cultivation of wisdom?
T.R.: One cultivates wisdom using two forms of mediation. Meditation of tranquility is reflective meditation, which is used to calm the mind. The other is analytical meditation, which gives rise to insight and then wisdom. In analytical meditation one asks oneself big questions such as ‘what is the nature of self?’ and ‘what is the nature of mind?’
S.S.: Does Tibetan Buddhism have a creation Myth?
T.R.: We do have a Tibetan creation myth but that is not the creation myth of the Buddhist. Tibetan Buddhism does not have a creation myth in that we believe in beginningless and endless Universe. The planetary systems have a certain life span but the Universe as a whole is ongoing.
S.S.: What do you recommend for beginning a study of Buddhism? Is there a book or a practice that is helpful to beginners, especially for those of us in the West who are interested in learning more?
T.R.: The Seven Points of Mind Training appeals to all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism and in the West this has appealed to people who are not even studying Buddhism. The popularity of Pema Chodron’s books says it all.
S.S.: Rinpoche, that answer makes me think of another question. It seems to me that the Buddha, or The Great God Bud as Kipling referred to him, numbered everything—the four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path. Why did he use this numbering device?
T.R.: In Buddhism, we use that as a mnemonic device to aid in memorizing the parts that we are trying to learn.
S.S.: Do you get to go back to Tibet and if so, in Tibet is the Chinese government now allowing the people to keep the monasteries and the culture or is it being watered down?
T.R.: Yes it is, but there has been some kind of turn around. Now the government is paying some attention to the preservation of Monasteries and the Tibetan culture but there is definitely a sanitization of the culture. One can see that in the performances and even in the way the people do the dances and sing the songs. But these are also religious aspects of our culture. Nevertheless, unlike before, the Chinese government is talking about preserving the cultures of the minority.
S.S.: I have heard this expression, but am not sure I really understand its meaning. What is meant by the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma?
T.R.: Among other definitions, Dharma means a teaching. Basically, the term means that the Buddha gave three different cycles of teachings. So each cycle is called a ‘wheel.’ Dharma Wheel means ‘wheel of teachings.’ He didn’t teach everything at once, he taught different things at different times keeping in mind the different capabilities and capacities of the audience. So therefore each turning of the wheel was different. He taught in correspondence to his audience. The first time he emphasized ‘Selflessness.’ The second “turning of the wheel” he emphasized ‘Emptiness’ and with the third turning of the wheel he emphasized ‘Buddha Nature.’
S.S.: Thank you for the teaching, Rinpoche.
Probably because of his inherent modesty or selflessness, Rinpoche did not mention he has written two books, The Essence of Buddhism and Mind at Ease. For anyone interested in learning more about Buddhism, these are two highly accessible books. They are published by Shambhala Publications under Rinpoche’s full name, Traleg Kyabgon.
E-Vam Buddhist Institute is open to visitors who are welcome between the Institute’s office hours of ten and five, but it would be good to call first. On Saturday and Sunday mornings at 10:30, there is basic meditation practice open to the public free of charge. Saturday morning also includes a Buddhist Study group and audio lecture. All are welcome—Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. E-Vam is also open to individuals for private short retreats of one day to a week long.
Please see the Web site (www.evam.org) for the winter programs. There is a full program planned for next summer that includes a 5-day Buddhist Summer School that will host prominent teachers from the various traditions including Theravada, Zen and the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Traleg Rinpoche will be in residence at E-Vam Institute for much of the spring and summer, 2006. E-Vam Buddhist Institute is located at 171 Water Street in Chatham, NY. For more information, please call 518 392 6900 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org