Interview With Lama Phurbu Tashi RinpocheThe Yachats Gazette was invited to interview the Lama Phurbu Tashi at the beginning of July; he was a speaker at the Little Log Church in Yachats.
TYG: Can we get your full name for the record?
LPTR: Oh yes, my personal name is Phurbu Tashi. Some people call me Lama, and Rinpoche is kind of a title, so Lama Phurbu Tashi Rinpoche becomes kind of long. Sometimes people call me Lama Phurbu. Sometimes I make it easier for people: LPTR. [laughter]
TYG-Graphic Design: What part is your family name—is it Phurbu?
LPTR: No, there is no family name.
TYG-GD: Did you change names when you were growing up?
LPTR: No, I did not. Phurbu Tashi was given by my mother. I was born on Thursday—Phurbu is Thursday. Tashi is "auspicious." So "Auspicious Thursday."
TYG: So, to begin with... how did you feel when you discovered you were the reincarnation [of Tsatsa Khenpo Thubten]?
LPTR: Oh! At that time, I was very young, compared to now! [laughs] At age 12 or 13 I went to a monastery. Some senior monks came to my home, and they were talking to my parents. I had some strange and curious thoughts in my head, before they recognized me as a reincarnation. I was wondering about questions like, "How am I here?" and "Who am I?"—those thoughts were in my head. And then they told my parents that I was a reincarnation of someone. So I became really interested to find out, and so I got interested to study Buddhist philosophy. I'm not a reincarnation of a very important or high-[ranking], highly respected sort of person. I myself have had no remembering of previous lives or anything like that. But when I was little, one thing that makes a little bit of sense to me is that when I went to regular school, I had quite a lot of difficulties with the studies. But when I was switched to the monastery, I almost felt like I was familiar with these studies. And I always got first prize.
TYG-GD: What kind of things did you study in regular school? Did you grow up in Tibet?
LPTR: Yes. In regular school, we learned Chinese language, mathematics, history, and things like that. And in the monastery, they teach Buddhist philosophy and the Tibetan language. We also memorized a lot of the philosophical texts—and it was easy for me.
TYG-GD: Allen, have you done much memorizing in school?
TYG: Not as much as I really should!
LPTR: Yes, study is endless, it's never enough... [laughter]
TYG: Fortunately we now have calculators to circumvent a lot of it!
LPTR: Right—and we don't have to practice hand-writing, right? Using computers, perhaps many people don't know how to write! [laughs]
TYG: I think people still know how to write, here. I'm not sure if I have kids, though, what it will be like then. Because it is changing. I sincerely hope so! I've done a little calligraphy, and I love it.
LPTR: When we were children, we had to practice how to write.
TYG-GD: With a paintbrush, or a pen?
LPTR: A different kind of pen, yes. Bamboo, and then you cut it this way and this way, and then ink.
TYG: So how did you end up in Annapolis?
LPTR: I was in India for a long time, and from India I got invited to visit some US people in New York. Then I decided to go visit some other places, and I went to Maryland. I didn't know anything about any parts of the US, but I thought I would choose some names of places in the States, and "Maryland" sound[ed] like a really nice place. [laughter] And also it was not too far, it was close to New York. So I went to Maryland, and then I met some people—the same like here, it's my first day in Yachats, the first time I'm visiting here, and already I've met many nice people! [laughs] So the same thing happened in Annapolis; people asked me to teach meditation. I went back to New York, but they asked me to come back, so I went back. I did some regular teaching to a group of psychologists and counselors, and [I still do]. I realized it had been 11 years! I didn't really plan it that way! [laughs]
TYG-GD: So, can you tell us more about how you moved from Tibet to India?
LPTR: Oh! About 50, 60 years ago, there was a Chinese communist revolution, and many of the graduate teachers escaped and ran away from that crisis, and went to India. So they stayed in India, and when I was a child, I heard that in India was a great place to study the teachings of the Buddha, and lots of great teachers had stayed there. So, for that reason, when I was a child, it was very difficult to travel from China to any other country, and especially if you were Tibetan, it was more difficult—there are more restrictions on monks, for political reasons. So I had to escape through the Himalayan mountains; I walked to Nepal. It took 15 days.
TYG-GD: Wow! By yourself?
LPTR: With a group of people.
TYG-GD: Wow. And how old were you when you did that?
LPTR: 18. I went to India to study, for personal reasons—I didn't have any problem with the government. I just went there for studies, and I did not have to ask for permission from my parents or the monastery—I just went. Took off by myself. [laughs] I didn't even tell them—I thought they would worry about me. I only told them when I was already in India.
TYG-GD: So how long did you stay in India?
LPTR: I think about 17 or 18 years.
TYG-GD: Wow... So how many more languages did you speak after India?
LPTR: I speak mainly my first language, which is Tibetan, and then I studied English in India. And then I speak a little bit of Hindi, Nepali, and a little bit of Mandarin Chinese. But those languages are not because I'm smart, but because they were necessary. People don't understand my language, so I have to speak theirs.
TYG-GD: I'm from Switzerland, and I grew up in the French-speaking part, but Switzerland has four national languages.
LPTR: Yes, I know very well over there! Actually, the first Western country I visited was Switzerland! Around 1996 or so—a long time ago.
TYG-GD: Wow, where did you go?
TYG-GD: I'm from Nyon, which is between Genève and Lausanne...
LPTR: Oh, this is such a nice place, wow! A few years ago I went there, and we took a boat to the other side... Evian.
TYG-GD: Evian! Was it a paddle-wheel boat?
LPTR: Yes! And the famous water comes from there. Oh, Lausanne... I went to visit at least five times, the Geneva-Lausanne area. This is a very nice place, beautiful.
TYG-GD: I agree.
TYG: So, how come Switzerland first?
LPTR: Well, when I was in the monastery—the monastery usually provides education, and food, but there is also some money from supporters, or sponsors. When I was in the monastery, I got a sponsor from Switzerland—somebody found a sponsor for me to continue my monastery studies, and a little bit of money that I could use for buying soap, a toothbrush, things like that, necessary things. So this Swiss couple, Jean and Céline, they sponsored me for several years in the monastery college. And then one time they invited me to visit them. That's why I went to Switzerland. Until now they were very close, and I went to visit them quite often.
TYG-GD: Do you speak French with them?
LPTR: [laughs] No, we speak in English! I went to France a couple of times for teaching. The French people, sometimes they say that the Swiss people speak slowly, and drive slowly...
TYG-GD: Switzerland is "the South." If you put it in terms of the United States, Switzerland is like the South of the United States: it's where the farmers are, and they're all less educated—which is not true! But that's what they say. [laughs]
TYG: That's the thing about stereotypes!
LPTR: [laughs] I noticed something about French people, the way they speak, the way they drive: fast! They drive fast, they speak fast... the Swiss are a little more slow! [...]
TYG-GD: So, you went to India... was it from your monastery in India that you came to the United States, or did you go through some more steps?
LPTR: I came here by myself, not through the monastery. I came for a visit, then I stayed here—longer than a visit. [laughter]
TYG-GD: Did you have to get a visa for it?
LPTR: Yes, yes! There was quite a lot of paperwork.
TYG-GD: Are you glad you stayed?
LPTR: Yes, I think so. [laughs] You know, in life we always have choices. We choose one, and then we should be glad, happy about what we choose, right? But if we didn't choose this one, what would have happened?
TYG-GD: It's cost-benefit analysis.
LPTR: If I hadn't stayed, I don't know what would have happened. I would be somewhere else, maybe doing something else... [laughs] Could be better, or worse. After I finished my studies and my training in India, I traveled—I went to Switzerland, France, for teaching. I tried to help people by sharing my studies and practices. And then in Indonesia, I had some followers there. I quite often went to visit there, for teaching. So half of the year I'm in Annapolis, and every six months I'm in Indonesia (Jakarta).
TYG: So what's Indonesia like?
LPTR: Indonesia is a tropical country, it's very hot. It's beautiful there, with lots of islands, and clean, like Bali. A wonderful beach with big waves and a clean ocean. Lots of tourists. And a majority of people there practice Islam. But they also have Christians, Hinduism, Buddhists, and Confuscianism.
TYG-GD: So, you teach meditation?
LPTR: Yes, I teach Buddhist philosophy and meditation.
TYG-GD: How does that work?
LPTR: So, in order to practice meditation, they have to have some kind of a goal to achieve, and some kind of method, or technique how to practice, or how to meditate. All that comes from the teachings of Buddha, that's why I call it Buddhist philosophy. So they're taught methods, and the way to practice meditation, and why you practice meditation, and how to practice meditation, and how it works. And all this is based on the teachings of Buddha.
TYG-GD: So why did Buddha meditate?
LPTR: So, uhm... [laughs]
TYG-GD: I'm sorry, was that too big a question? [laughs]
TYG: Talk about the edges of philosophy, and all of a sudden cannon ball right into the middle... [laughter]
LPTR: They made a good movie in India about Buddha's life; it's called "Buddha: Rajaon ka Raja," and it's on Netflix. It explains the basics, but it's really long, like 50 episodes. It's quite interesting, but anyway, in the show the answer for your question is, according to Buddha, this life is not our only lifetime. We have a physical aspect, but also a mental aspect. So the physical aspect, when we die, goes back to the "mother" element. It doesn't become nothing. So the physical elements dissolve. But the mind is also there, and it cannot become nothing, but it cannot [either] become a permanent [object]. So its existence as a "mind stream" continues, and it's then another life. It gets reborn as another life. And it came from previous lifetimes. But your own mind, everybody's mind, has an ultimate, true nature; it's not that it was created, but it is primordially pure. It has enlightenment nature, it has lasting happiness and peace, and great qualities; it doesn't have to be suffering and confused and things like that. Its nature is enlightenment. But we fail to recognize our own, true, ultimate nature, and then we fall into duality, into illusion. Then we experience getting born, getting old, and dying, and then reborn again, and going through lots of suffering. So in order to be free from that kind of suffering, then you not only meditate, but do good things: be virtuous, doing kindness, being loving, compassionate, being pure morally, being generous, and so on, doing good things. And meditate. Through meditation you recognize your immanent true nature. Only then can you become an enlightened one, or become a Buddha. You've reached lasting happiness and you never go through the suffering of being born and getting old again. Never again. That's why you meditate.
TYG-GD: But why is the mind attracted to being born again? I would think the mind would just be pure by itself. Why does it bother coming back?
LPTR: Oh, that's an interesting, good question. Oh, okay, how to make it easier? So the mind that is ignorant, or deluded, doesn't purify by itself. It goes on and on. A previous lifetime is just like yesterday. This lifetime is like today. What we are tomorrow is kind of similar to what we are today. Tonight, there's no big change. It's kind of continuous.
TYG-GD: Okay, I see. It's a gradual refinement.
LPTR: It's kind of like a river. That's why they call the mind a "stream." Usually we think that the mind is one, substantial, thing. But it's not one thing—it's a continuation. So it's called a mind stream, and it's like a river. So that "right now" is deluded, and when we die, it's impossible to just suddenly be pure and free. So that's why we continue and have to gradually purify. But if we don't do anything, it's still continuous. Anybody has the possibility to get enlightened, anybody, including all sentient beings. But that doesn't mean that they will become enlightened spontaneously. There has to be an effort to make it happen.
TYG-GD: [...] How does Buddhism incorporate modern scientific discoveries?
LPTR: I think that modern scientific discoveries make Buddhist teachings easier to understand. Without modern science, it's very difficult to describe Buddhist concepts. Psychologists and quantum physics are theories that make it much easier to understand Buddhist teachings. My understanding is that Buddhist teachings go way beyond where science still is. Science is physics, and physics is still understanding based on measurements at the physical level. But Buddhist teachings go beyond the physical level. And the mind [perception] is also based on the physical level. The brain creates the mind, right? In Buddhism, the essence of the physical is the mind. Like a dream. You fall asleep and you dream, and then everything you observe and you see: your friends, your neighbors, your house, your planet Earth—all that is just in your dream, and that dream is created by your mind. There are some differences, but in short, I think modern science makes Buddhist teachings a lot easier to study. Like when Buddha explains the sky, and space, which is infinite; and there are infinite beings, and infinite realms—I think a thousand years ago, people were confused about what we were talking about. [laughter] And also when Buddha explains about the mind, and how there are many levels, and how to cultivate or train your mind; it's easier now when there is a culture of psychology. I don't think it's the same, but it makes it easier to understand Buddhist teachings.
TYG: I wonder what aspect of it causes things like autism? I'm mildly autistic, and I wonder how these things get added to the mix of the souls—I don't know whether that's the correct term.
LPTR: Buddhism also talks about the law of causes and conditions, how in life there are actions that cause conditions. But that doesn't mean something that cannot change. The causes that karma brought can be improved and changed. In Buddha's teaching, for any kind of life-form there's no perfect or really satisfied life. The life-forms are brought by karma, which means cause and effect.
TYG-GD: So what you did in your last life, you pay for in this life?
LPTR: I don't think it's "pay," or not some kind of punishment. If I touch my finger to the fire, it will burn. It's not that I'm paying, or being punished; it's cause and what happens, fire and burn. So karma is the law of cause and effect, similar to gravity; it's not that people can believe or not believe—it's just a strong law that naturally applies. If people don't believe gravity, I don't think gravity cares! [laughter] So in Tibetan tradition, if we have good things, then we appreciate good karma, and are also encouraged to do more good karma. And if we have difficulties, then we are not discouraged, but we also recognize it. So we have probably done bad karma, so then we do good things to try and purify, to get better and improve. That is a tradition.
TYG-GD: That sounds like a tradition that a lot of people try for. I think most people try to do better in their life...
LPTR: But according to Buddhist teachings, if we want to have a meaningful or lasting happiness, a satisfying happiness, we have to achieve enlightenment. There is no other way; there is no perfect life-form. There are always problems: poor people have problems, rich people have problems, old people have problems, young people have problems, men have problems, women have problems. [laughter]
TYG-GD: But if you're perfect, then you are no longer attached to the flesh?
LPTR: No, even perfect people have problems! [laughter]
TYG: Yes, that's what I was going to say! Perfect people have loads of problems—there's nothing left to strive for, for one thing! "Perfect" is the classic thing that you reach for, and you think "Oh, it's going to be so amazing!" and then once you're perfect, you think, "Wait a minute! There's nothing left for me to do!" Should I then make myself not perfect to be able to go back to perfect, or what? [laughter]
LPTR: Okay, thank you for your interview!
TYG: Thank you very much Sir, it was very interesting!