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Glimpse of a Deeper Order Print

Glimpse of a Deeper Order

Synchronicity, says RACHEL NAOMI REMEN, can startle us awake and restore us to ourselves. 

According to the Buddhist understanding of auspicious coincidence, all circumstances can be brought to the spiritual path. Everything that happens in our lives, whether positive or negative, can serve to awaken us to the nature of the world. But occasionally, events cluster in particular ways that give us a glimpse of the deeper structures of reality, and suggest that time and linear causality may not be the ultimate way in which the world is ordered.
There are many possible responses to such happenings, which Jung called synchronicity. Some people give them a highly individualized meaning, finding guidance in a personal decision they are facing or confirmation of a direction they have already chosen. But perhaps the real meaning of synchronicity is more universal than personal, with every instance simply pointing to the possibility of a hidden pattern underlying the events of this world.
Either way, these events offer us a certain reassurance, and they also have the power to awaken us. A common response to such an acausal happening is a sharpening of attention, a sense of the closeness of something unseen. Startled awake, we may listen for the direction in which the universe is moving, and discover a wish to participate in it.
Synchronicity often takes us unaware and may restore us to ourselves.
Many years ago, when one of my first patients, a child, died just before Christmas, I bought an angel Christmas tree ornament in his memory. Since then, this has become a sort of yearly ritual, a way to remember those who have shared a very significant time in their lives with me. I now have a collection of angel Christmas tree ornaments, and each year I add one more. As of last year, there were thirty-seven of them: Angels made of china, of straw, of tin. Angels of wood and glass. Hand painted angels and hand sewn angels. Angels from all over the world. A month before Christmas I take them out of their boxes, hang them throughout my home, and live among them until the new year.
Just after Thanksgiving every year, I begin to look for a new ornament, leafing through catalogues, going from store to store, seeing dozens of angels until I find the right one. It is a labor of love and of remembering. Small as this ritual seems, over the years it has become important to me.
Christmas 1993 was the exception. The field of death and dying had suddenly become mainstream and the years of experience we had quietly accumulated at Commonweal was of interest to many others. Caught up in an intense round of lectures and workshops for professionals who wished to serve people at the end of life, I had not bought a single Christmas present or even a single card. As others became involved in the spirit of the season, I became more and more isolated from it, and more and more resentful. Somehow these painful feelings focused upon the angels, still packed away in their boxes. For the first time in thirty-seven years, I had not put them out or found the time to look for a new one.
About a week before Christmas, I was seated in an airplane preparing to fly across the country yet again. I was to give a talk on serving those at the end of life to a thousand health professionals on the east coast. I had planned to write the talk on the flight, not having had the time to do this earlier. Drowned in self pity and resentment, I thought of my unsent cards, my unbought presents, and my missing angel ornament. I remember thinking, “Why am I doing this?”
I was in an aisle seat, the two seats next to me empty. Shortly before takeoff, a very young blonde woman started down the aisle in the full dress uniform of a naval officer: cap, blue trench coat, attache case and all. When she reached me she smiled radiantly and indicated the window seat. Silently, I stood to allow her to pass. Shortly afterwards the plane took off.
Reaching into my case, I pulled out the materials for my talk, placed them on the empty seat between us and began to write. For the next five hours I wrote nonstop about death and mystery and their power to transform our lives and our work. My seatmate, to whom I had said not a word, seemed equally intent on her own reading.
At last the captain informed us that we would be landing in twenty minutes and advised us to raise our tray tables and seat backs. With a sigh I put everything away in my case. The talk was almost finished.
Turning toward me, my seatmate spoke for the first time. “Excuse me Ma’am,” she began hesitantly, “but I feel called to speak to you.” Seeing the look on my face she apologized quickly but pressed on. She told me about her own recent difficulties and loss of direction and that she had been in San Francisco seeking wisdom and support from her grandmother. It had been very helpful. She smiled at me warmly. “I feel that things are hard for you too,” she told me. “My grandmother gave me something to help me. I would like you to have it.” And reaching into her navy blue attache case, she pulled out one of the most beautiful angel Christmas tree ornaments I have ever seen and held it out to me.
I suppose one might call this coincidence and perhaps it is. But it felt as if whatever it is that we really serve when we serve others had reached out and shaken me awake, saying “You get on with the work … I’ll take care of the small stuff.”
This is the sort of event which Jung meant by synchronicity, a meaningful coincidence which thumbs its nose at linear causality. At a certain level, synchronicity suggests that there is more to life than we realize, and that we and all others may not be alone. I regard such a happening as a blessing. Such things may happen at any time, but in the years I have worked with people facing death and those who survive them, I have heard many such stories. Perhaps such things are either more frequent at these times, or perhaps in some way every death is a bridge between worlds, and allows us to see things differently for a little while.
Synchronicity is always an experience of the unknown. Events such as these do not really prove anything. They are simply a reminder to wake up and pay attention, because the mystery at the heart of life can speak to you at any time.

Rachel Naomi Remen is one of the earliest pioneers in the mind/body holistic health movement and the first to recognize the role of the spirit in health and the recovery from illness. She is Co-Founder and Medical Director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program featured in the Bill Moyers PBS series, Healing and the Mind, and has cared for people with cancer and their families for almost 30 years.

Originally published in the November 2000 issue of the Shambhala Sun.

Chase and Collect Print
Shambhala Sun | November 2000

Chase and Collect


 “The very worst was ‘meat paper,’ loans made to dupes for purchasing a freezerful of meat.  Collecting on meat paper left a dismal taste.”

The letter that would decide my fate finally arrived at my parents’ house, where I had been staying immediately after I graduated from college. The job that I coveted, teaching English to seventh graders at the elite St. Bernard’s off Central Park in Manhattan, awaited me. I took the letter to the backyard, sat down, looked out at the late August cornfield and opened the letter. Rejection. My shoulders slumped, my head slumped, I slumped. My mother could see it from the window and came to console me. Thus would begin a strange adventure in human nature, as I now needed to enter the workplace of big men through whatever door I could find.
            “Boop boop, you’re good for more. At Beneficial, you’re good for more.” I’d heard this ditty countless times growing up, never imagining that some day I would go forth as a fearless representative of this consumer finance giant. I answered the ad and interviewed, putting forward my best college-man self. Before long, I was being inducted into the world of low finance. Reading the corporate creed in preparation for my entrance examination, I became familiar with the benign logic of why finance companies existed: these brave institutions were willing to take on a higher level of risk and provide loans to the sort of person who was only sneered at by the banks. I mean, who can love a bank? But a finance company will lend to everyman. Of course, they must be compensated for their risk, with rates posted at the highest level allowable under the usury laws, the high twenties and low thirties.
            In my written test, I waxed eloquent as I justified Beneficial’s business purposes with rhetoric even loftier than they had conjured up. It even garnered some notice from the big wigs, but that would be the last time my writing skills would come into play, because my job was to lessen the impact of their aggressive lending practices. I was a loan collector, the man whose job it was to keep the local office’s delinquency rate below the magic number each month.
            Our office was located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, the central town in the Cumberland Valley, which is the continuation of the Shenandoah Valley. In 1863, Robert E. Lee marched some 70,000 Confederate soldiers up the Shenandoah into Maryland and Pennsylvania and camped out on the outskirts of Chambersburg, before deciding to turn southward, cross the South Mountain and meet the Union at the decisive battle of Gettysburg.
            When the last few days of each month arrived, I would retrace Lee’s steps and head for the communities in the South Mountain, the northern reaches of Appalachia, because that’s where the hardest delinquency lay, where Beneficial’s reach extended beyond its grasp. As Lee had said to Longstreet, “The enemy is there and there we shall meet him.”
            For each account, I had a card which told the story of the loan—often only a few thousand dollars in total, a few timely payments at the outset, straying into the erratic, dwindling into nothingness, accompanied with a long list of unanswered phone calls and broken promises, culminating in my arrival at the doorstep. Often as not, I pulled up an obscure route or dirt lane to a trailer. A truck, a dog, a big gun rack were common features.
            In the beginning, I was so scared. I recalled my brother’s first foray into representing corporate America at everyman’s doorstep, selling encyclopedias. He went to his first customer, started into his prepared spiel, abruptly stopped, declaring “You don’t want these fucking things,” and quit right then and there. Would I be made of stronger stuff?
            The scare I had as I waited at the threshold was nothing compared to the scare I would receive when I found out how good a loan collector I was. I became a master of C&C, chase and collect. I learned to love the chase: finding someone’s new address, arriving at their home when they did not expect it, beguiling them with a palaver of palsiness and reasonability, and coaxing a payment out of them by appealing to their sense of responsibility, which few could resist. Only the most hardened would be boldly irresponsible to the collector’s face. It was not willful irresponsibility that made the loan go bad, but rather poverty, laziness and fear. By standing tough on the moral high ground, I racked up a damn fine record. I was Beneficial’s Marshall Dillon.
            The people I collected from had often fallen into ruts as deep as those cut into the back roads they lived on. In the winter, I came upon a frozen cat lying just feet from the doorway of a trailer, whose occupant refused to answer the door. I was severely bitten by the dog of a man whose wife had left him. He felt very sorry and showed me to the bathroom where I could dress my wound. I was overcome by the stench of a good month’s worth of dirty clothes filling the entire bathroom. I left the wound untended. He offered me frozen venison in lieu of payment, and I went soft and took it, even though I’d just been bitten by his dog and it could not go on Beneficial’s books.
            Sometimes, I was collecting debts that Beneficial had bought from others at a steep discount, low grade paper, as we called it, from a jewelry or small appliance store that had gone out of business, or the very worst, “meat paper,” loans made to dupes for purchasing a freezerful of meat. Collecting on meat paper left a dismal taste.
            I held my pride for about six months, hoping perhaps that my good record would get me a big job at the head office, but no such luck. They wanted me to rise through the ranks. Cracks began to open up in my fortress of respectability. My boss discovered the new workplace of a guy who had evaded us for months, letting his house go to hell after his wife left him and never appearing at home. I raced to the job site, only to find he had left. Dejected, I headed for the local convenience store for a coffee. On the way in, my quarry walked right by me. I had never actually seen him before, but I just sensed it. I called his name and he ran for the car and sped off. I jumped in my car and began a high-speed chase. As he disappeared in the distance, a little thought arose, “What am I doing?”
            Soon after, I headed all the way down to Hagerstown, Maryland, where Lee’s long train of wounded passed through after being so badly slaughtered. It was near here that he narrowly avoided having his entire army obliterated. I came to collect on some measly meat paper or the like, only to find that my account had taken her life.
            But finally, it was not despondency but rather absurdity that would deal the death blow to my collection career. This time I was at the northernmost extension of my territory, venturing onto a tributary leading off of a tertiary road, beyond where even my manager thought it prudent to go. I sat in my car, proud that I had found the obscure address, but still needing to screw up my courage because this guy had made very few payments, to anyone I would guess. His trailer lay at the bottom of a hill, which extended for about twenty-five yards and was sheathed in thick ice. I stepped onto his property and promptly began to slide, picking up tremendous momentum. Finally I slammed hard into the side of his trailer and bounced off right into the path of his door as he opened it. Without missing a beat, I said, “John, we just have to get a payment on this loan. Even five dollars would make a difference.”
            Before too long I started work as an editor at a machine design magazine in Boston. St. Bernard’s invited me to take a look again the next year. The elite students were climbing the draperies, oblivious to their privilege. They offered me what I had so coveted and I turned it down. I’ve rarely looked back.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

    Chase and Collect, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

Hip, Hip, Hooray! Print
Shambhala Sun | November 2000

Hip, Hip, Hooray!

“These postures to open the hips will bring heat, breath and increased awareness to the pelvic area.  With hips swinging, you’ll blossom, cheer up, and do the dance of you!”

The year that I worked in a physical therapist’s office I was surprised to learn that the number one problem bringing people through the door had nothing to do with accidents involving speed, twisting, jumping or even crashing. The main complaint came from the opposite situation—lack of movement, causing lower back pain.
            Day in and day out, the therapists gave back rubs and applied hot packs to people who were perfectly healthy, except that their backs were killing them. They all had jobs that required them to work for hours in office furniture that created tension in their hips. The therapists would prescribe simple exercises to benefit the body parts related to sitting—lower back, pelvis, hips and thighs—but most people weren’t disciplined enough to do them regularly after the six-week sessions ended.
            We saw return customers over and over. Sure, they liked getting away from their desks twice a week to come to therapy, but it wasn’t enough to give lasting relief. What these patients really needed to do was balance their sedentary hours with equal time moving their lower body.
            The whole hip department of our body is about functional movement—walking, running and climbing stairs. Even the words for what happens inside the pelvis are active verbs: digest, reproduce. Without the heat and spaciousness created by regular exercise, the range of motion in these ordinary activities diminishes, and so does our range of motion in the world.
            There are lots of reasons—societal and personal—that each of us has for minimizing our hip movement. Although the first dictionary definition of “hip” is the projecting part of each side of the body formed by the pelvis and the upper femur and the flesh covering them, for our purposes we will include genitals, abdomen, lower back and thighs. Who doesn’t have some issue with at least one of those places?
            Pema Chödrön says, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.” The ground of practice is knowing who we are right now, just as we are. So in this case, we can begin by increasing our awareness of the current range of motion in our hips, pelvis, lower back and belly. Start to notice your walking patterns: do you take long steps, or small steps? Do your legs swing freely or does it feel more like your hips are fused to your pelvis as you move? Do you wear tight pants or loose pants? What kind of shoes do you wear? When was the last time you sat on the floor?
            Here is a short yoga program  designed to open your hips, gently strengthen the abdominals, massage and stretch your lower back, and lengthen your hamstrings. This routine has a lot of movement in it, so remember that just as you don’t like to be pushed or pulled before you are ready, neither do your hips. Your hips respond the same way you do when someone is aggressive or pushy: they either shut down, tighten up, or get hurt. So let your breath be the boss every step of the way. Watch how each exhalation creates a tiny opening and let your mind fall into that opening, too. Stay in each pose for three to five breaths.

1. Lunge. Reach back through your right heel and forward through your left shin. Feel a strong connection to the earth through the balls of your feet and your finger tips. Try to lengthen your spine so your belly can be soft and fluid as you breathe fully.

2. Straddle. Walk your hands around in a half circle to this position. If you can’t reach the floor easily, you can bend your knees or place your hands on yoga blocks or a big book like a dictionary. Keep your feet equally balanced on the floor and reach your tailbone and the crown of your head away from each other.

3. Lunge. Walk another half-circle around to the right again and bend your right leg coming into a lunge on the other side. You can use your blocks here too, to keep your back leg straight and give you space to breathe.

4. Cobbler’s Pose. Step your back leg up to your front leg and sit down on the floor. Bring the soles of your feet together and hold onto your ankles. Press your feet together and reach out, not down, with your knees. Never push down on your knees. If your pelvis is tucked under in this position, put a cushion or two under your sitting bones, which will create balance in your pelvis and allow breath to move into the area. Inhale a deep breath and as you exhale, slowly begin to fold forward with a long spine. Only go as far as you can, maintaining length in your torso. After three to five breaths, inhale to sit up.

5. Hamstring stretch. Bring your knees together. Place your feet flat on the floor and roll down through your spine. Try to feel every single vertebrae along the way, getting familiar with your own back. Draw your right knee into your chest and hold onto your leg behind the thigh. Let your torso fall into the floor. It feels good to circle your ankle here.

6. Bigger hamstring stretch. Unless you are super-flexible, use a belt or towel to loop around your foot. On an exhale, reach your right foot up to the ceiling. Keep broad across your chest and long with your neck.

7. Hip opener. Turn your right leg out like it was in cobbler’s pose and place your right foot on your left knee. Then draw the left knee toward your chest. Your right arm can thread between your legs, left arm on the outside and clasp your hands together behind your left thigh. Take this slow and easy—focus on your breath and try to be gentle and patient with yourself.
8. Rock and roll. Bring both knees into your chest and rock back and forth on your spine. Let your breath move you like wind blowing you up and down. Inhale to rock forward and exhale to roll back. You can do this with a blanket under you.

9. Repeat the sequence (1-7), starting with the left leg back in the lunge.

10. Goddess Pose. After the hip opener, replace your feet to the floor, legs bent. Gently let your knees fall open and rest in this position for as long as you feel comfortable, up to 20 minutes. If it is a strain on your inner thighs or groin, put a pillow under your thighs to support the weight so you can completely relax here.

            This flowing series will bring heat, breath and increased awareness to the pelvic area, where it is particularly common for us to hold tension. When we can balance the chakras of our heart (expression) and our heat (motion) we experience the dance of our own unique life’s activity. If you are too busy to do this yoga program, another way to get movement and connection and breath is this. Stand in the center of your living room and raise your arms over your head. Bend your knees and slowly begin to make swinging motions with your hips. Add some music and begin to blossom, cheer, and do the dance of you!

Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and co-creator of Yoga in a Box, available at

    Hip, Hip, Hooray!, Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.

What Changes and What Doesn't: An interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche Print
Shambhala Sun | November  2000


What Changes and What Doesn't: An interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is an outstanding Buddhist teacher and director of The Cup, arguably the first great Tibetan feature film. He’s young, thoroughly modern, and deeply concerned about corruption of the dharma. He challenges Western Buddhists to uphold the unchangable truths of Buddhism while letting go of its cultural trappings. Too often, he says, we do the reverse. Dzongsar Khyentse is interviewed for the Shambhala Sun by his student, Kelly Roberts.

Kelly Roberts: I just wanted to say that your film, The Cup, reminded me so much of you, particularly when the Coca Cola can dissolved into Manjushri.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Really.
Kelly Roberts: In many places in your film, you replace traditional items with modern ones. For instance, the offering bowls on the shrine are replaced by the Coke can and the prayer flags on the roof of the monastery are replaced by a satellite dish. I’m wondering why you did this, because usually you are so worried about Buddhist tradition being corrupted.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: This is something that I want to tell my fellow Tibetans and Bhutanese—that modern technology is not a threat to so-called traditional Buddhism. Their society is just beginning to be exposed to the world of the fax, the telephone and the internet. They may feel uncomfortable with change, but the fact is we can no longer go to any place where there is no modern technology.
            We cannot avoid technology—it’s already at the doorstep, if not already inside our house. So instead of allowing these things to influence us, the wise thing to do is make use of their power and speed—to be the influence rather than the influenced. We can use the telephone, the web and television to teach, instead of them teaching us. We can use their power and the speed.
Kelly Roberts: You have compared your film to a modern version of a traditional thangka painting or a Buddhist statue.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Every culture has a different way of telling a story, and I felt that maybe I should just tell a story in a Tibetan way.
Kelly Roberts: Would that be your way of teaching?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: No, not at all. Buddhism has a long tradition of using images to represent wisdom and compassion. In its 2,500-year history, we can see that Buddhism has adopted many methods of expressing the dharma—through painting, sculpture, architecture, performing arts. These existed even during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha himself in the Vinaya Sutra discusses how to paint the five realms and the twelve interdependent links as we see in the wheel of life. So there is an old tradition in Buddhism of using images, and film can do that, too. Why not? For me, film can be modern day thangka.
Kelly Roberts: How?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Well, what is a thangka painting? It is an aid for your visualization. In the same way, film can help with visualization, perhaps even more effectively. For example, if you want to show what the hell realms are like, film could do that much better than a single painting.
Kelly Roberts: Don’t you ever worry, though, that with modernization certain aspects of the old tradition will be lost?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: As long as the fundamental view of Buddhism is not lost, there is no problem. We may try for sentimental reasons to preserve the traditional aspects as much as possible, but they will eventually change. Don’t forget that the customs and traditions that we are trying to preserve today were once modern and progressive.
Kelly Roberts: In the film, the Abbot writes about his wish that, “Nyima and Palden would continue to uphold the Buddha’s teachings according to these modern times.” What is it you’re trying to say with that?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: It doesn’t mean they will change the Buddha’s fundamental view. That should never be changed. I have met people in the West who are excessively attached to the external trappings of Buddhism. There is all this sentimental attachment to Tibetan customs and culture, and the actual Buddhist view is overlooked. In fact, I have heard that in creating a so-called “American Buddhism,” some people are saying, “Okay, maybe the Buddha’s view should be changed, now that Buddhism is in America.” And that’s not good.
            I would prefer that Americans really stick with the Buddha’s view: the emptiness of inherent existence, that everything composite is impermanent, and so on. It doesn’t matter if they leave out Tibetan culture. The really important thing is that they should accept the dharma. They should not worry about trying to design something better suited to Americans. The Buddha was an omniscient being. What he said was good for all sentient beings, and that includes us 2,500 years later. Nothing additional is necessary now.
            I see Westerners wearing chubas and showing off their malas. But I think the more people do that, the more they forget the essence, the actual point of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s amazing to see how eager some people are to adopt what is not essential, and throw out what is essential!
Kelly Roberts: I was a bit surprised that the Abbot would say something like this, since he is so attached to his homeland and its traditions, and doesn’t understand much about the modern ways.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Although many of these older, experienced Tibetan teachers are attached to their homeland and might seem rigid, beneath this rigidity there is an openness. Sometimes it’s quite surprising to see certain lamas incorporating modern ways of life into the ancient Buddhist thinking, especially when you know Tibetans. Tibetans can be so narrow-minded, so racist. They have such a superiority complex. Some of them are like missionaries who go to other countries and demand that the native people learn their culture. But at the same time, teachers like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche created within the Tibetan wisdom lineage a space to accommodate Japanese, French, British, American ways of teaching.
Kelly Roberts: You say about the monks in the movie that Buddhism is their philosophy and soccer is their religion. Do you think someone could become enlightened by playing soccer?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: You never know. Maybe. Some of the saints of the past, the mahasiddhas, achieved enlightenment by telling lies or playing flutes. So if you meet the right master, and if you have the merit, why not?
Kelly Roberts: Because you’re now in the film world, you seem to have become quite famous and are living a bit in the lap of luxury. Are you getting attached to it?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: So much. I’m really going downhill! I’m getting more and more attached to this comfortable life. Even a small sesame seed in my bed bothers me. I used to travel in Indian buses, bumping along the whole night with Hindi film music blaring away, and still manage to do a lot of things the next morning. Nowadays, I might be driving in a limousine, but when things go wrong, I get very irritated. That is why I really think I need to shut myself in retreat far away in India.
            Mind you, many other Rinpoches, from my impure perception, seem to be getting that way, too. They are far too attached to the comfortable life. The life of simplicity seems to be less and less important and a life of distraction seems to be getting more and more popular.
Kelly Roberts: Do you tire of samsara?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: No, no, I am very much in love with samsara, not tired at all. Well, perhaps a little, thanks to years and years of being brainwashed when I was younger. The impermanence and futility of samsara does come to mind from time to time. But it only comes for nine seconds, and then it disappears for another nine months.
Kelly Roberts: You have always said that of the eight worldly dharmas, you have the greatest weakness for praise. How have you worked with all the praise you have received since your film came out?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: The Buddha said that if you know a trap is a trap, you will not be caught. The Buddha is talking about mindfulness. But mindfulness is something that is foreign to me, so of course I get very much trapped by all the praise and criticism. Having said that, my gurus are very special, and I always say that if I do have a little bit of a spiritual quality, it’s because of my teachers.
            I remember something His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse once told me. I used to be very wild, and sometimes people would report my actions to him in hope that he would scold me and discipline me. But instead, he would tell me who it was who told on me and would make a game of it. He used to say, “Don’t worry. You must remember that whenever there is one person out there who doesn’t like you or who thinks you are crazy, there will be a hundred people who are going to like you. And similarly, whenever there is one person who likes you, you shouldn’t get too excited about it, because there will be a hundred people who can’t stand you.” So liking and disliking are completely irrelevant.
Kelly Roberts: Speaking of being wild, you talked on The Roseanne Show, as well as on NPR, about visiting strip clubs. I don’t know how many people would view that favorably. Why did you go?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I didn’t have any profound reason. But it does show that you shouldn’t come to me if you are looking for inspiration.
Kelly Roberts: Why do you sometimes wear monk’s robes?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: In Buddhism, we talk about several different stages of degeneration. There’s one degenerated time that Buddha called tagtsam zinpey du, the time when monastic robes are maintained just as a mark or symbol. That’s where we are now. At least I’m trying to hold on to that symbol.
Kelly Roberts: Do you have any regrets regarding your film?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: A lot of regrets, but I think I will take the regrets as stepping stones for my further learning.
Kelly Roberts: It seems that one of your aims in the film was to demystify the Western idea of Tibet and its culture. Why is this so important?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Preconceptions are not so good because they always mislead you.
Kelly Roberts: So you tried to show the ordinary side of monastic life and how that was profound.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Whatever I do, I have no profound motivation. I just wanted to make a film.
Kelly Roberts: But your film contained quite profound teaching.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: That depends on the person watching. Not everybody sees it that way. Maybe the success was just an accident.
Kelly Roberts: You talk about your next film being the life of the Buddha.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Only if I get enough money.
Kelly Roberts: Isn’t The Cup making enough money to finance another film?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: No, not nearly enough. Not even 10% of what I need to make my next film.
Kelly Roberts: So the life of the Buddha that you want to make is on an epic scale.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Yes.
Kelly Roberts: You must have done at least a hundred interviews by now. Are there any questions which you are surprised were never asked?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I am surprised that no one has ever asked if I’m gay or not.
Kelly Roberts: Are you gay, Rinpoche?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I have a tendency.
Kelly Roberts: If you were going to ask yourself a question, what would it be?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I only have one big fear, that’s all. Not a question.
Kelly Roberts: What is your fear?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: As much as I want to be successful, I also have this growing fear that I will become a prisoner of fame.
Kelly Roberts: If you could have anything in the world, Rinpoche, what would make you happiest?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Spiritually, I would be so happy if I could see my twenty past lives and twenty future lives. That would probably give me some renunciation mind. On an ordinary level, I would be very happy if I could get my act together and finish the novels that I am writing.
Kelly Roberts: I hear that you just offered 100,000 butter lamps at the Boudhnath Stupa in Nepal. What makes you happier, doing that or making films?
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I can definitely say that I am happier offering the butter lamps.
Kelly Roberts: Thank you, Rinpoche.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: You’re welcome.

What Changes and What Doesn't: An interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 2000.


Becoming a Buddhist Print

Becoming a Buddhist


“When we take refuge in the Buddha, we mean the qualities of the Buddha that are inherent within us. We are taking refuge in our own intrinsic enlightenment.”

Many people these days are reading books about Buddhism, practicing Buddhist meditation, and applying Buddhist principles in their work and personal lives. If you are one of those who is interested in the dharma, you may come to a point where you want to decide whether you really are a Buddhist or whether you are not.

The formal decision to become a Buddhist is marked by the refuge ceremony, in which you take refuge in what are known as the three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (the community of Buddhist practitioners). Some people who take the refuge vow wonder afterwards if they made the right choice, so it’s important to consider seriously whether becoming a Buddhist is what you want to do with your life. Taking refuge is not a temporary situation. Once you take the refuge vow, it’s supposed to last forever.

Taking refuge is about how we are going to lead our lives. We take refuge because we have looked everywhere for a place we could be content, where we could reduce our anxiety. But when we looked at our world, we realized that there is no place for us to find harmony, or to understand the nature of things.

We take refuge in the Buddha because we are taking the same journey as he did. The Buddha lived in a palace and had good food and drink. If there had been movies then, he would have watched them all. He did everything there was to do, yet he realized that something was still not quite right. So like the Buddha, we ask, “Where is our life taking us?” and, like the Buddha, we look inside to understand the mind.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take the Buddha as an example. The Buddha is not a god—this is not a theistic situation where Buddha is better and we are worse, or he is the boss and we are the servants. In fact, Buddha is us. We are Buddha, but we have not yet realized our full buddhahood.

The Buddha realized that there is really no self. When he looked at the self, that self we hang on to so tightly, he realized that it does not really exist. From a greater point of view, he not only saw beyond personal ego, he also overcame the notion of external phenomena altogether. The Buddha realized the egolessness of both self and other. He actually overcame the whole world of duality—samsara and nirvana, existence and non-existence, eternalism and nihilism.

So we look at the Buddha with respect and appreciation for showing us how to live our life. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we take shelter from confusion, chaos and suffering. We are overcoming our discursiveness and our conflicting emotions. It is very personal. Nobody else can identify that thought for you; nobody else can deal with that emotion for you. You have to work it out for yourself.

When we talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, we mean the qualities of the Buddha that are inherent within us. The Buddha possesses wisdom, compassion and power: wisdom so we know what we are doing, compassion so we have a soft heart and care about others, and power so we can continue the journey. We call that buddhanature. We are taking refuge in our intrinsic enlightenment.

This leads us to the dharma, which is the second aspect of taking refuge. What’s important is not so much who the Buddha was but what he expressed—the truth, the dharma. The Buddha’s message that there is no self was “a fearless proclamation of the truth.”

When we begin to meditate, we discover that we’re always thinking about things such as who we know, where we’ve come from, what we’re going to do. We realize that our idea of who we are is all in relationship to other. We have created this individual identity in relationship to other.

So at a certain point, when our mind begins to relax and our thoughts begin to disappear, we may become a bit frightened. Our sense of boundary begins to dissolve. There is no one to talk to. There is no one there. We realize we’re just holding on to an idea of who we are; we are holding on to a conceptualization. In fact, everything we engage in is conceptualization. The process of meditation helps us realize the truth of the dharma. So can we be that fearless? Can we look at what is there—or what is not there?

When we take refuge in the dharma, we are not following some prescribed path. We really have to look inside our own mind, and the dharma helps us to do that. Truth is constant, so the dharma provides some stability in our life. The dharma acts as our protection; it protects our mind and it protects our heart.

Finally, we take refuge in the sangha, the people who are on the path with us. Those who are in the sangha are warriors, because they are trying to overcome samsara. Members of the sangha support one another and care for one another. They are not perfect, but they inspire us because they are people who want to deepen their practice of mindfulness, awareness and compassion. The sangha is also a container. When we practice together, the sangha helps our discipline. We realize that there are other people around who are going through the same thing. That gives us a feeling of encouragement.

We are talking about taking a special path. But this path has been traveled by great practitioners before us, and it is now up to us to travel it. We must understand this is completely possible; there is no reason at all that we cannot travel this path. Yes, we all have our own individual situations or karma—some of us tend to be a little bit more lazy, some of us tend to be more uptight. We all have various tendencies. But the truth remains the same. It is unchanging within us.

That is the beauty of the dharma: it is completely available. We don’t need any particular credentials in order to understand it. On the other hand, we do need to hear, meditate and contemplate. We do need to understand what we are doing. We do need to correct our misunderstandings.

Taking refuge does not mean that we take Buddha’s words as the unquestioned truth. We must question the words of the Buddha. We need to ask, “Is this real? Does this actually work? Does it make sense?” The Buddha didn’t say, “I am going to save you.” He said, “You have the ability to make your situation better. You have all the capabilities. It is up to you.” Ultimately, that is the truth in which we are taking refuge.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche.

Becoming a Buddhist, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, September 2000.

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