Dharma in the West: Questions and Answers
This section consists of questions and answers taken from public teachings and a private interview, which focus on the topic of dharma practice in the west.
Q.: In one of your earlier interviews, you mentioned that in order to achieve spiritual accomplishments, it is necessary to take spiritual retreats. Earlier in your teaching, you told the story of Birwapa who was teaching full time but secretly he was practicing. I was inspired by that because I have to work.
Sakya Trizin: Actually Birwapa is kind of special. As I've said many times, you can practice dharma in a busy, modern city like New York City. Dharma practice is not just sitting in a room and saying mantras. Dharma practice is everywhere: while you're traveling, while you're in subway, while you're in the car, while you're in the middle of the town. You can practice. You can practice your love and kindness. This is all dharma practice. But as far as accomplishing specific deities is concerned, I think the intensive retreat at some point, not the whole time maybe, but at some point in the lifetime, is necessary.
Q.: I know debating is a part of the Tibetan tradition? Are there new positions that are argued in these debates and argued successfully so that doctrine changes, or is the process of debate a reaffirmation of existing dharma?
Sakya Trizin: I think it is the reaffirmation of existing dharma at the moment. Tibetans like the traditions very much. They don't like to do something different; they like to stick to the teachings as they have been presented traditionally.
Q.: Do you see the way that the dharma is taught will change?
Sakya Trizin: It has to change because the situation is different now. When I talk with my young Tibetan students when they go to the teaching courses, it is too difficult to understand; but when I give teachings to Westerners they say they can understand it much better than the Tibetans. So somehow I think there must be changes. Of course the doctrines can't be changed, but the presentations have to be changed.
Q.: Are there differences between how you teach in the West and in India?
Sakya Trizin: Yes, I think that the ways people see things are somewhat different. Here, I think you need more explanations; it is more logic oriented. There, it is somehow obvious. The ordinary people don't actually know the meanings--however in their day-to-day life, there is so much dharma, they are used to many dharma terms.
Q.: In the personal histories of the great yogis and masters, there are often many details which are supernatural, beyond the ken of modern science. Is it essential for western practitioners to believe such details which seem to contradict everything we've been educated about?
Sakya Trizin: Such as?
Q.: Say a yogi that flies in the air?
Sakya Trizin: You don't believe?
Q.: Not without equipment. (Laughter.) It contradicts Western science. That people can fly without material causes.
Sakya Trizin: If one person actually flies in the sky, would Westerners not believe it?
Q.: (A pause) I think many Westerners. (More laughter). I'm asking in a general sense. I think many Westerners find such miraculous stories hard to believe even in Western religions. People have doubts, for example in the Bible someone was raised from the dead and brought back to life. A lot of Westerners might explain it as a symbolic story, because a Westerner has never seen such things.
Sakya Trizin: Actually you don't have to believe, you don't have to believe when you go into the practice, however as your knowledge of dharma increases, I think then you will believe it.
Q.: How would you explain the miraculous events? What have caused them?
Sakya Trizin: When you have a great inner realization, you can control the outer phenomena. You no longer depend upon the outer phenomena. Instead of them controlling you, you can control them. You can make cold weather into hot weather, and hot weather into cold weather, and so forth. It is all through the power of meditation.
Q.: You've been to the United States five times now. Do you have any impressions on this trip?
Sakya Trizin: I think that dharma is not only growing but also the quality of the dharma is improving. From the questions that I received, the quality of the questions shows that they're making great progress.
Q.: Do you see any difficulty in introducing guru yoga to Westerners?
Sakya Trizin: I don't know. We just tell them that it is important. So far nobody has questioned it, or complains about it, yet.
Q.: Do you have any advice to Westerner about helping the people of Tibet?
Sakya Trizin: The Western public is already doing a great deal. There are local Tibetan organizations that are initiating assistance, who are doing things like writing letters to the local politicians and through this you can keep the pressure on the government and that will be very helpful.
Q.: Could you give us some advice for what we as Buddhists might be able to offer non-Buddhists at the moments of their passing away?
Sakya Trizin: At the time of death, your mental state is a very important factor. It will have significant effect. If at the time of death you are angry or you have a strong attachment, then it causes you to be born in the lower realms. Therefore, at the time of death it is important to be very calm. Any anxiety or fear will not help. There is no way to escape. All you have to do is to face death with a relaxed attitude and with love and kindness, compassion, good-hearted benefiting other beings. That is very helpful advice that one can give.
Q.: If a student or a practitioner comes to you and tells you that he had only a few years to live, and he could spend those years in solitary retreat or he could spend those years giving refuge and instruction to many beings, what would you advise him to do?
Sakya Trizin: It depends. If the student has not had the realization and has not taken a concrete step on the path, I would certainly advise him to take the retreat, because the ordinary person who does not have the great qualities needs to have some qualities. But if he has reached a certain level, has some qualities, then I would advise him to give teachings.
Q.: Could you talk a little bit about one of the first Sakya teachers to spread the Dharma in the West, Deshung Rinpoche who had established many centers in the West and with whom many of your American students studied. Could you talk a little about your experiences with him and any similar stories about his accomplishments?
Sakya Trizin: Deshung Rinpoche came to Sakya when I was very young. At that time my father went to India on pilgrimage and during that time my father asked Deshung Rinpoche to take care of me. Not physically but spiritually. To give the blessings every week and long life initiations and bathing rituals. He was very kind. The funny thing was that at the time his attendant was a Tibetan monk who was very tall and had a big nose, so his nickname was "American". Deshung Rinpoche told me that he must have some kind of karmic connection because his personal attendant was called American. Although that monk died and never left Tibet, Deshung Rinpoche managed to come. He was one of the earliest Tibetan lamas to come to the US. When he was in Sakya, he'd never dreamed of coming to America. Deshung Rinpoche's main deity was Avalokitesvara. He was also very humble and never said what he had accomplished. At the time when I asked him to give Avalokitesvara initiations, he gave me a hint. He said althou gh he didn't have the quality to give major initiations--however, as far as Avalokitesvara is concerned, as he was practicing Avalokitesvara all his life and had recited 100 million mantras while he was in the United States, and since he had practiced Avalokitesvara so much--he had the confidence to give the initiation. In other words, I'm sure, he had a great realization through Avalokitesvara.
Q.: So even if one can't do retreats for years, if one practices dharma diligently, one can make progress.
Sakya Trizin: There are also different retreats: basic retreat, major retreat. Even if one can only do basic retreats, depending on the length of mantra, it is necessary for everyone. But on the basis of this, I think one can practice and gain accomplishments.
Q: How can you most effectively eliminate fear in daily life or in dealing with daily life situations?
Sakya Trizin: The great Indian master Shantideva said: "If there is something that we can change, or that we can accomplish, then there is no need to worry or fear. If there is something beyond our control, something that we cannot change, then there is no point in worrying or fear."
Q: How can one counteract pride from arising in a situation when one knows that one is doing a good job or is good in a particular area?
Sakya Trizin: Actually we have a saying: on the basis of pride, no qualities remain. If one wishes to have the qualities, one must eliminate pride by seeing examples of the great beings who humbly served and effectively helped all sentient beings.
Q: Your Holiness, how does one know who one's guru is and how does one go about finding a teacher to guide one through these methods you talked about today?
Sakya Trizin: We talked about the self, and as I said, there is no self. Finding a spiritual master is very important since the source of all the qualities lies in the spiritual master. The spiritual master must have many different levels of qualification. The minimum level should be someone who has compassion for the disciples, has knowledge to teach, and the wisdom to discern.
Q: How do you reconcile Buddhist teaching that everyone should question what they hear and validate each point themselves before believing it, with the importance of faith?
Sakya Trizin: The Buddha himself said about the teaching that he gave, that one must examine it for oneself. Just as when you buy gold, you have to make sure that it is genuine gold. Only after you are convinced that it is genuine gold, you buy it. Similarly the teachings of the Buddha should not be accepted just by faith but by reason. The faith that is created through reason is much more authentic and powerful. So you examine what Buddha said, Buddha's teaching, and use your own life to find out.
Q: Next question is: can an individual bring together the right condition for a specific reality to come about? For example, can a person born without the conditions for spiritual development, decide to seek the path that can create the conditions for their spiritual development?
Sakya Trizin: In the general Mahayana there are more requirements. In the higher Vajrayana, since every sentient being possesses the Buddha nature, even those who lack the general conditions, have the potential to develop full enlightenment. With the help of spiritual masters, even those who lack the right conditions, can at least enroll into the path.
Q: What is your view of freedom and spiritual practice for women? What is your view of abortion?
Sakya Trizin: Actually in Buddhism there is no difference between men and women. In the vinayas as well as for the bodhisattva or in tantra, women can receive the highest ordination and give the highest teachings and initiation. It is just that due to certain social conditions, there were few woman teachers. In Tibetan history there were many great ladies who became very great, very famous teachers. We also believe this, of course. There is no difference. For an example, my sister and I received the same training, the same teaching, and did the same retreats. Today she is also giving teachings. I told her that she should give more since many people are interested in seeing lady teachers.
Q: Can you please tell us how we can best support the Tibetan people?
Sakya Trizin: I think the best way is to bring the Tibet cause before the public. At this juncture, it is important. We need strong support from the public. It is helpful to bring it before the general public.
Q: How does one practice compassion in everyday urban life? What does one do for the homeless masses and beggars on the train? Does one just walk by them? If so, why? If not, why?
Sakya Trizin: One must have compassion within your limits. We can't do everything, we can't do everything, we can't help everybody. It is not within our power. As much as the individual has the power and as much as one can do, one should try to help.
Q: A person who lives in an area where there is a war and who consequently suffers from a war, is it due to their karma that they are born in an area where there is a war? For example, how to explain those who suffered in the World War II?
Sakya Trizin: Actually, yes. The Buddha mentions that all lives we go through, everything is karma. There is individual karma and collective karma. There are four types of result. For example, if one commits negative deeds, the actual ripening result is to fall down into the lower realms where one experiences great suffering. The second result is that even when one is free from the lower realms, one will suffer the result that is similar to the cause. For example, by killing animals to shortening any animal's life, one will experience short life and much sickness. The third type of result is out of habitual deeds. In the past one committed negative deeds and formed the habit of doing it, for example in this life, some people enjoy doing negative deeds as hunting, etc. That is habitual, that also is a negative karma.
Q: When you spoke on the bodhisattva vows, you mentioned that the Sangha is divided into two: those who study and those who meditate. I think you said that if someone were to take an offering meant for the meditators and give it to those who are studying it wouldn't be very good.
Sakya Trizin: When you enter the path, the first thing is moral conduct, (the) life of a monk is based on moral conduct. Among the monks you have a meditation group and a study group. Meditation is higher because meditation is what really purifies the mind. Study, of course, gives much wisdom but it does not really purify one's own mind unless one puts meditation into action. Therefore meditation is a higher path than study.
Q: Is there a fixed number of sentient beings?
Sakya Trizin: No, sentient beings are limitless. Every sentient being has the possibility of getting enlightenment, but there will never be a time when every sentient being will get enlightenment.
Q: Do you consider plants and trees also sentient beings?
Sakya Trizin: No.
Q: Are microbes and germs considered sentient beings? Does it break our vows to kill them with medicine?
Sakya Trizin: Yes, of course, they're also sentient beings. As far as your actions towards them is concerned there is a middle way. Things that are too small to be seen with your ordinary eyes are not affected by your rules.
Q: When I'm doing a visualization I find it very hard to pick out all the details that should be visualized. It seems to get lost in the thoughts about the actual visualization. Even if I get all the details together for a second it is so hard to hold on to them. Is there a simple method for visualizing?
Sakya Trizin: I think in the beginning one should not visualize in so much detail. One should visualize very briefly, but clearly; but very briefly without going through too much detail. Whatever you are visualizing, if you visualize yourself or one's guru or whatever, you should just do it very briefly, in a short period of time. As you do this many times, it will gradually improve, and you will be able to do it for a longer period of time, and also with detail.
Q: I have a question along the same lines. In a visualization, do the deities ever move? Is it fixed, like in a thangka? In the west, the movies move, we move.
Sakya Trizin: There are specific meditations where there are movements. Unless it is mentioned in the sadhana that the deity moves and does certain things, otherwise in normal meditations the deity doesn't move.
Q: A dancing deity would actually move?
Sakya Trizin: Yes, at that time it moves.
Q: When we are receiving a teaching or an initiation and envisioning our guru as the Buddha or bodhisattva or whatever, and we have a purified view of our surroundings, how does this differ from a Buddhafield? Are they related?
Sakya Trizin: There's a big difference. Here we are only visualizing. Our true nature is buddhahood but we didn't realize it and we are still bound with our karma and defilements, but through the teachings we just imagine us as a bodhisattva or Buddha. The real buddharealm is not the imagination. It is the real Buddha and bodhisattvas free from all the illusion and defilements.