Interview of Drubwang Penor Rinpoche by Andrew Cohen

There are recurring thoughts about the benefits and difficulties associated with serious modern practitioners entering monastic life or seeking ordination.

Whereas the benfits of real, genuine, ordination are beyond description in terms of benefit to the individual concerned and par extension all sentient beings, the aspirations of many are shrouded in layers of misconceptions, historical misunderstanding and a thick web of material spiritualism. When this fundamental lack of comprehension of the meaning, purpose and layers of ordination are so manifestly latent in the aspirant pool, how can obstacle free paths emerge from there?

Here are a series of short articles which may help to anchor certain key points for personal reflection, bearing in mind, that whatever the tradition one follows — AND ONE HAS TO BE ATTACHED TO A SPECIFIC TRADITION IN ORDER TO ORDAIN MEANINGFULLY AND GENUINELY UNDER A SPIRITUAL RECOGNISED MASTER-   then only the realised Master from which we take precepts can truly apprehend our actual ability to engage, maintain and benefit for oneself and thus others from this ordination.

To start with here is the reproduction of an interview several years old of my late Master Drubwang Penor Rinpoche in a very informative session led by Andrew Cohen.

Andrew Cohen: Rinpoche, many people in the West are becoming interested in
the Buddha-dharma. You’re a monk. And the Buddha himself was a monk. What are
the virtues of monkhood for the spiritual aspirant?

PENOR RINPOCHE: In sutra, the Buddha taught that being a
renunciate and becoming a monk will help one follow the spiritual path in a
better way. First, one receives ordination and vows, and then one renounces the
world and becomes a monk. With that as the basis for one’s moral conduct, one
will have a deeper and more firm understanding. One will have more power in the
practice of the spiritual path. Being a renunciate monk is more powerful than
just being a lay practitioner.

AC: The great nineteenth-century Tibetan Nyingma yogi Shabkar said,
when speaking about the worldly life,

Meat, liquor, sense pleasures,
worldly enjoyments—the best things of samsara are temporarily beguiling.
Young brides in the full bloom of youth and beauty are expert at leading one
astray. Therefore, even if you have as your companion a young daughter of the
gods, have no attachment, have no desire. Why? Speaking generally, because all
things of this world are without essence, impermanent, unreliable, and by their
very nature lead to suffering. In particular, because domestic life is like a
pit of fire, a cannibal island, a nest of poisonous snakes. Enjoying the entire
array of samsaric perfections, wealth, and pleasures is like eating food
mixed with poison, like licking honey on a razor blade, like the jewel on a
snake’s head: a single touch destroys.

Rinpoche, could you speak a little bit about the dangers of the worldly life
and its pitfalls for the spiritual aspirant?

PR: It is said that if someone is attached to a minor pleasure or
happiness, there is no way that person can attain a greater spiritual happiness
or pleasure. In samsaric life, one is mainly influenced by the five
afflicted minds of desire, hatred, anger, jealousy, and pride. And wherever
there is affliction, whoever is influenced by those afflictions will naturally
take rebirth in samsara endlessly. You see, there is no limit to samsara,
even though there is also no essence to it.

AC: You said in an interview you recently gave in Toronto,
"There is such a hunger [for the dharma] in the West. The way to receive
the dharma is to find the teachings and absorb them. . . . You shouldn’t just
be thinking of this world. You have to think about transcendence—something
other than just material life." Could you please explain what you mean by
that? What is it that needs to be renounced in order to transcend the world?

PR: Many Westerners are interested in studying Buddhism and also want to
follow a spiritual practice. However, we like samsara, we like this
world, and we work for it and try to accomplish something within it. But there
is no limit and no end to what we could try to achieve. Whatever we may achieve
in this world, whether we acquire all kinds of material objects or rank, still
there is nothing we can really rely upon. Everything is impermanent; it only
lasts for a few moments. Things like rank or material objects do not really
benefit or help anybody because when death comes, we cannot carry anything with

But there is a way that we can become liberated from the suffering of samsara.
If we follow the Buddha’s teaching as a spiritual path, then we can
transcend this world from a place of real depth. We can achieve ultimate peace
and happiness, enlightenment, only through the spiritual path. And that depends
upon receiving teachings from a lama. It also depends upon ourselves, how much
we really understand through the practice and mainly, how much we do the
practice. Depending upon these things, we could experience fruition.

The vows, which are for moral conduct, are the basic ground for the spiritual
path. They are like the foundation of a house. Without that basic ground, we
cannot build a house. So one has to give up all the afflicted minds—desire,
hatred, anger, jealousy, and pride—that which manifests from your mind and
afflicts your mind and distracts you in the world. But even though we have to
give up the afflicted minds, it is not very easy to abandon them immediately.
That is why we have to study and then apply what we have studied to our
practice. Then eventually we can completely abandon all these afflictions. So
if one uses one’s highest faculty or intellectual mind with much diligence, one
can carry through the practice. You see, it is possible within one
lifetime to get liberated, but it might take many lifetimes.

AC: The great Chatrul Rinpoche and I became friends in the early
1990s. In one of our meetings he said to me,

The most important thing is to have
renunciation. If you have renunciation, it means you realize that there’s
actually no essence to the world. I mean, there’s nothing of it. The world has
no real essence; it’s meaningless, the whole of samsara is just
meaningless. In fact, if you have complete realization of the faults of samsara,
that is realization. That means you have gone beyond samsara to
understanding that this world has no ultimate meaning.

He went on to say, "Renunciation is the whole basis of the spiritual path.
If you don’t have renunciation, you don’t have
realization. . . . In the end, if you want to be free, you have
to cultivate a disgust for

So I wanted to ask you Rinpoche, do you agree? What does it mean to
cultivate a disgust for
samsara? Why is renunciation said to be the
whole basis of the spiritual path?

PR: Chatrul Rinpoche is a very great realized lama. And what he said is
true. We have to see the suffering of samsara, that which makes
you feel disgusted. However much effort we may put into samsaric
activity, eventually we will have to see that we cannot achieve ultimate
happiness that way. We have to see that samsara is impermanent and
actually taste that there is no essence to it and feel that disgust. But
not only that, on the other side, we have to intend to attain enlightenment,
which is the opposite of samsara.

In reality, there is no real essence to samsara because everything is so
temporary. It is not reliable, even for one moment. If we want to achieve
enlightenment or ultimate happiness, then we have to see it in that way until
we are liberated.

It is said that there is no essence in samsara. But in fact, one could
also say there is an essence because all of us are bound in samsara
for millions and billions of lifetimes! And even if we think that we want to do
some dharma practice, we don’t do it—because we are completely bound
up in samsara.
Just getting through spiritual practice—even one or two
hours—is so difficult and we so easily get bored. But we spend our whole
lifetime working in samsara, and still we do not get bored with it. That
itself is the essence of samsara and the power of samsara.

means to renounce all worldly things. If one wants to be liberated, one needs
to have one’s mind turned away from worldly things. Until and unless we have
the intention to do that, we will not be able to apply ourselves to the
practice for enlightenment.

AC: The Buddha said, "The blue-necked peacock which flies
through the air never approaches the speed of the swan. Similarly, the
householder can never resemble the monk who is endowed with the qualities of
the sage, who meditates aloof in the jungle." Yet, an influential American
Buddhist meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, says in his new bestselling book,
"The sacrifices of family are like those of any demanding monastery,
offering exactly the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and
generosity." Could that really be true?

PR: It is not true. When you are in a household, in the worldly life,
even if you have spiritual training, there is always more attachment. Being a
householder and wanting to have liberation from the afflictions of mind is
good. But that is very difficult within those kinds of conditions. Yet even if
you are in a monastery, you still need all the training so that you can get rid
of those defilements. But of course it still does not mean that only by entering
a monastery you can be liberated.

AC: There is a new spiritual movement being born in America at this
time. It’s called the "new American spirituality." One of its leading
proponents, Elizabeth Lesser, says, "The unique and most positive aspect
of the new American spirituality is its emphasis on self-authority."
Indeed, she says, "With democratic spirituality it no longer makes sense
for an [external] authority to describe to you the sacred truth and the path to
discover it. In [new American spirituality],
you map the journey."

Rinpoche, you come from a great tradition where success on the spiritual
journey is entirely dependent upon the seeker taking refuge in the Triple Gem
of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The great Nyingma Master Patrul
Rinpoche said,

"No sutra, tantra, or
speaks of any being attaining perfect Buddhahood without having
followed a spiritual teacher. We can see for ourselves that nobody has ever
developed the accomplishments belonging to the stages and paths by means of
their own ingenuity and prowess. Indeed, all beings, ourselves included, show
particular talent in discovering the wrong paths to take—while when it comes to
following the path leading to liberation and omniscience we are as confused as
a blind person wandering alone in the middle of a desert plain. No one can
bring back jewels from a treasure island without relying on an experienced
navigator. Likewise, a spiritual teacher or companion is our true guide to
liberation and omniscience, and we must follow him with respect. This is
accomplished in three phases: firstly, by examining the teacher, then by
following him, and finally by emulating his realization and his actions."

So how do you, Rinpoche, as head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism,
feel about the dharma of the new American spirituality? What is your response
to the notion of self-authority on the spiritual path?

PR: What Patrul Rinpoche said is true. Even the Buddha taught in that
way. All the past, present and future Buddhas had to depend upon a master who
could guide them to the spiritual path that they could follow in a proper
way—where there is the method to liberate. Without a master, there is no way
anyone can attain enlightenment.

AC: How do you feel about the notion of democracy, which is an
American ideal, being applied to the path to enlightenment?

PR: There is no benefit to following the democratic spiritual path. And
there is no power that can be established through it. That is the problem. And
why? It is not because they have more afflictions like hatred or anger or
anything like that—they do have some compassion. But this kind of practice will
not bring any result; they are just wasting time.

The main reason is this: one has to receive transmissions and blessings from
the lama, the master, from someone who has the experience of what is called
enlightenment, otherwise there is no real path. Having a qualified master who
really knows how to guide one on the spiritual path becomes a real antidote
that liberates one from the suffering of samsara. From the enlightened
Buddha until the present masters, the enlightened mind has been transmitted
from master to disciple. Whenever that transmission takes place, it has to be
kept very pure, without breaking any precepts, samayas, or words of
honor. There has to be a very pure lineage, otherwise there will be obstacles
on the path and one will not achieve ultimate realization. If a seed is a
little bit rotten, it will not grow.

If someone does not have that clear understanding, that clear experience, that
clear realization to guide another, then others cannot really benefit. That is
why we have to rely upon someone who has this kind of realization and get
guidance through them. Everything depends upon having a qualified master to guide
one on the path.

The path that the Buddha attained complete enlightenment by is what he has been
giving in all these teachings. This is how he guided the rest of his followers:
"If you do this kind of practice, then you can have this kind of
liberation." In India and Tibet, there are thousands of practitioners
following Buddha’s teaching and instruction, and they have gotten all kinds of
realization and benefit. As we carry through with our spiritual practice, one
needs to have some kind of result or benefit or power. Not just a small result
or benefit. We need to have the immeasurable benefit of having the ultimate
realization of attaining complete enlightenment.

AC: Would you say that the notion of democratic spirituality is
comfortable for the ego?

PR: Yes, it is comfortable for the ego. They think, "Oh, I have my
rights." They think, "I’ll just feel comfortable." This is not
beneficial. If you have a seed and the seed does not have a very energetic
core, even if we plant it, it will not grow to fruition.

AC: Rinpoche, these days more and more people are practicing Buddhist
methods of meditation. Some practice
with some understanding of the
Buddha’s teaching of emptiness—the teaching that all phenomena and experience
is ultimately empty and without substance. Other people practice meditation
any understanding of emptiness or appreciation of its fundamental role in the
Buddha’s teaching. Can dharma practice lead to liberation without the practice
being grounded in an understanding that emptiness is the basis of everything?

PR: In general, emptiness has many levels. Only thinking or feeling that
one is experiencing emptiness doesn’t necessarily lead to enlightenment. It is
very difficult for someone who does not have any understanding of emptiness, or
who is just doing simple meditation, to attain realization. To have
realization, one has to have a path that liberates. And liberation means to be
liberated from this afflicted mind. So to be liberated from this afflicted
mind, one needs to have the antidote. And the antidote is the realization of
selflessness, or emptiness of the self and all phenomena. But if one just
carries through the practice, then slowly one reaches higher levels of the
path, and in that way, slowly, one can have liberation.

AC: Can spiritual practice lead to enlightenment or liberation from
the world without the practitioner
inwardly renouncing his or her
attachment to the world?

PR: The problem is that one will not release that attachment and will
not realize emptiness.

AC: Because one is still attached to the world?

PR: Yes

May ignorance be swept by the genuine teachings of authentic Masters pouring like inexhaustible nectar on the parched deserts of the five emotions to free all beings to their own innate state of realisation!
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