A Q&A WITH ORGYEN TOBGYAL RINPOCHE
THE SUBJECT: DZONGSAR KHYENTSE RINPOCHE
Paris, 5 July 2015
Would you tell us a bit about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse?
‘Dzongsar’ is the name of a Sakyapa monastery in Kham, and ‘Khyentse’ was a monk at this monastery who became a lama. For generations, members of his family had been monks and they all lived in the monks’ quarters at Dzongsar Monastery.
Dzongsar belongs to the Ngorpa branch of the Sakyapa school, but as far as Sakyapa hierarchy was concerned, it wasn’t an important monastery. Yet the qualities of this Khyentse lama were so remarkable that never before had Tibet seen such a great lama.
The name ‘Chime Drupe Gatsel’ was given to the house at Dzongsar where this monk lived. Later it became known as ‘Khyentse Labrang’. Throughout his lifetime, the respect and reverence people felt for this monk grew and grew, yet in spite of his increasing fame, in the latter part of his life he didn’t moved one inch from Chime Drupe Gatsel. He remained there like a mountain, unmoveable, and always very humble and completely free of worldly activities. The history of this monk and his Dharma teachings are now known and practised the world over. His name was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.
His aunt—his father’s sister—also lived at Dzongsar. She was a nun, and people used to say that her realization was even higher than that of Khyentse Wangpo.
Khyentse Wangpo passed away at the age of 73. His incarnation was Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, whose story is very similar to that of his predecessor, except that towards the end of his life Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö became a ngakpa. His incarnation, Yangsi Rinpoche, is the Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche we all know today.
What connection do you have with Yangsi Rinpoche, the present Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche?
The qualities of the two previous Khyentse Rinpoches, the first and second emanations, are probably the same as those of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. But for me, they are both even greater and more important than either the Buddha or Guru Rinpoche, because… I was going to say because their kindness is much greater, but actually maybe it’s just that I like them more. This is why I know their Yangsi Rinpoche so well. I first met him when he was seven years old, so I’ve know him for forty-eight years and have spent a lot of time with him. We have a very strong connection.
Who is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s true root teacher?
He has had many different teachers, so I can’t be sure. It’s not really for me to say, but I think that probably for him, the most important of all his lamas, his root teacher, is His Holiness Sakya Trizin. Then Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, his paternal grandfather. The master he spent the most time with and received the most transmissions from was Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, with whom he had an incredible connection. And the master he has the greatest devotion for is Karmapa Rigpe Dorje—the 16th Karmapa. He has also had many other teachers from the Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools, and has received Gelugpa teachings. In fact, he made a big effort to track down a root teacher from the Gelugpa school, but couldn’t find anyone without a connection to Phabongka Dechen Nyingpo. Actually he’s never stopped searching, but still can’t find one. It’s one of his greatest difficulties and regrets.
My point is, he has received many empowerments, reading transmissions and practice instructions from the various Tibetan traditions. Who knows whether or not he’s received more than his previous incarnations, but after Khyentse Wangpo and Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, he’s probably the lama who, in the true Rimé spirit of his predecessors, has received the most teachings and transmissions from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
From Dezhung Rinpoche he received many teachings, empowerments and reading transmissions from the Sakya tradition, and at that time he really thought of himself as a Sakyapa. I met up with him then, and saw for myself that the way he spoke was entirely Sakyapa. So I was very happy.
From his maternal grandfather, Lama Sonam Zangpo, he received a great many teachings and transmissions from the Kagyupa tradition, for example the Six Yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra. He also thoroughly applied himself to the tsa-lung yogic practices. Again, I met up with him as he was receiving these transmissions and saw for myself that at that time he genuinely thought of himself a Kagyupa. He used to say that the protector Düsol Lhamo was a very important protector, which I thought was very good.
Then from Nyoshul Khenpo he received Dzogpachenpo teachings, such as Yeshe Lama and the Nyengyü teachings. I met him afterwards and he told me how incredible the Dzogchen teachings are—which didn’t surprise me. I never doubted that he would eventually become a Nyingmapa. However he only started teaching Dzogchen later in life because Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had said he wasn’t allowed to teach it before the age of 50.
If he could only find a teacher from the Gelugpa tradition with no link to Phabongka Dechen Nyingpo, there are many teachings and transmissions he’d like to receive, for example the Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. But so far he hasn’t found anyone.
He’d also like to receive, the ‘Three Tantric Teachings for Inner Investigation’ from the Kagyupa tradition, ‘Profound Inner Meaning’, (Wyl. zab mo nang don,); the Two Sections of the Hevajra Root Tantra (Wyl. rtsa rgyud brtags gnyis); and Sublime Continuum (Wyl. rgyud bla ma), but so far hasn’t had the opportunity. So in all these ways, he is very like the other Khyentse incarnations.
His previous incarnation had an important relationship with some Bönpo teachers. But for Yangsi Rinpoche, there’s been no mention of the Bönpos until now; nothing’s happened there. And Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo used to be one of the main holders of the Jonangpa tradition.
Therefore, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is clearly an upholder of the Rimé tradition and as such looks just like a Khyentse incarnation. Yet the Nyingmapas say he looks like a Sakyapa and didn’t want him to take part in the big meeting of Nyingmapas we had in Bodhgaya. It had been suggested that we put Dzongsar Khyentse on the board of the Nyingma group, but there were some objections. The problem with Dzongsar Khyentse, they said, is that he is like the god Brahma who has four heads, and therefore he won’t represent the Nyingmapas at all well.
Amongst the Sakyapas, although everyone has the greatest respect for His Holiness Sakya Trizin, none of the other Sakya lamas are really valued. The Kagyupas used to recognize Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo as one of the ‘Golden Rosary of Lives’ lineage masters—he was one of the greatest masters of the Kagyu tradition—but now they’ve taken him out. By and large the Gelugpas no longer afford any respect for the Jamyang Khyentses.
Dzongsar Khyentse is the incarnation of many important lamas, but his behaviour and, for example, the way he dresses, is often strange. He’s also been known to do all sorts of odd things. Why is that?
In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there are three approaches: the teachings of the Shravakas, the teachings of the Bodhisattvas and the teachings of the Secret Mantra. In India these three approaches were most probably practised separately, but the Tibetan tradition has made it possible for an individual to practise all three together. We must, therefore, keep the Shravaka precepts as a matter of course. And so, as many of Yangsi Rinpoche’s teachers instructed him to take ordination, and his close attendants and friends also requested that he do so, at the age of twenty, he went to receive ordination from Kyabjé Trulshik Rinpoche. I was also there at that time. But as things turned out, he didn’t really ‘receive’ the ordination vows.
The ceremony was performed very elaborately and although the Vinaya only requires five ordained monks to be present, Trulshik Rinpoche invited ten. But two of them had already broken their vows. We knew they had, but I don’t think Trulshik Rinpoche did—about a year later they disrobed and went abroad. Which means that at that time, all the requirements for full ordination according to the Vinaya tradition were not fulfilled, and therefore Yangsi Rinpoche didn’t ‘receive’ the Vinaya vows. And as he wasn’t ever bound by the Vinaya vows, he has nothing to keep! He may feel as though he’s maintaining the vows on an aspirational level, who knows? But from the Vinaya point of view, such an approach does not exist. As he’s not bound by these vows, why should he behave as though he is? Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche would never pretend he had ‘received’ the Vinaya vows when he hasn’t—it’s not something he would ever do.
It’s not true to say that Dzongsar Khyentse does many strange things. On the odd occasion he might wear unusual clothes or a funny hat or wig in public, in plain sight of everyone. And he might, of course, hug and kiss girls. But this kind of behaviour is commonplace in the western world—it’s part of western tradition, right? On television you even see people kissing His Holiness the Dalai Lama!
Dzongsar Khyentse doesn’t wear a Heruka’s ornaments and clothing or walk around like a yogi. And he certainly never pretends to have a level of realization that he’s never achieved. If you are not a Mahasiddha, to wear such things publicly is considered very bad because you are breaking samaya. Yet, there are some who complain because he doesn’t do that! Personally, I think it’s probably better that he doesn’t. You must have attained a very high level of realization and great powers before you can wear ngakpa ornaments. And even Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, for example, didn’t ever wear the robes of a ngakpa; he always dressed as a householder.
I’ve rarely seen Khyentse Rinpoche walk around in strange outfits. But once you’ve landed in this world and have to interact with other people, you have no choice but to wear some kind of clothing, don’t you? These days lamas seem to wear all manner of regalia and ornaments—they look like the Emperor of China, even though they’re neither kings nor emperors!
One of the weirdest things Khyentse Rinpoche does is walk around in his underwear. For someone like me, to see him in just his underpants is uncomfortable, to say the least! If you walk into his presence and find him half-naked, even though you know you’re supposed to prostrate, you’re usually so shocked you just don’t know what to do! For someone who prays to him every day in Guru Yoga, to then see him in his underwear is a bit disturbing. But it’s just mind that creates these thoughts, these ‘risings’. When we practise and pray to the lama, isn’t he almost always half-naked in our visualization? And isn’t he wearing bone ornaments and in union with a consort? This is how we visualize him when we invoke him! So it’s just our own thoughts that confuse us.
Everyone knows that Dzongsar Khyentse is famous for occasionally walking around half-naked in his swimming trunks, or wearing trousers. There’s really nothing extraordinary about it. If, though, you were to tell me that he is selling Buddha statues, I would find that very odd indeed. Or that he was now the owner or manager of a big restaurant, and therefore responsible for the deaths of thousands of animals, in order to put meat on the menu. Or that he had stolen something, or became a member of the mafia, or smuggled contraband. But we don’t hear anything like that, do we?
No one in this world is able to act 100% in accordance with the Dharma. It’s just not possible. But if Dzongsar Khyentse was ‘giving’ monks Vinaya vows having not kept them himself, that would be bad. Or if he lied, or was said to be fooling people, or did things that have nothing to do with the Dharma. But the main criticism against Dzongsar Khyentse seems to be that he has girlfriends. What’s so very surprising or unique or special about that? Why is it so extraordinary for Dzongsar Khyentse to have a girlfriend? How many billions of men are there in the world, and how many of them have a girlfriend or a wife—or several of each! In our Nyingma lineage alone, thousands of masters had far more girlfriends and partners than Dzongsar Khyentse.
What do you think of Dzongsar Khyentse as a lama? Is he a good lama? A bad lama? Or just an ordinary lama? What do you think?
The first quality we look for in a lama is that he is a good Dharma practitioner, someone who really applies the Dharma. To be a good Dharma practitioner you must necessarily be knowledgeable about the Dharma, right? And as the Dharma is quite vast, you need to know all the different teachings and be able to apply each approach, without mixing them up. That’s what we call being ‘learnèd’.
But being learnèd doesn’t bring you anything at all if you don’t practise what you’ve learnt. So whatever you are knowledgeable about, you must first apply to yourself through practice. If you do, there’s absolutely no doubt that you will achieve a result. But not the kind of result that can be seen with your eyes. What practice does is change your mind. And when that happens, we say you are ‘kind-hearted’. The benefit of achieving kindheartedness is that you then have a positive impact on sentient beings. And as being kind-hearted brings benefit to sentient beings, kindheartedness is the second quality a lama must have.
To benefit sentient beings you need to hold, preserve and expand the teachings, and I think Dzongsar Khyentse has all these qualities. First of all, he has followed 55 different teachers and studied the teachings. Whether or not his attendants requested that he study and then made it possible, or he organized it all himself, the fact is that he has studied for many years. Khyentse Labrang biggest expenditures were always made in support of his studies. In fact, most of Khyentse Labrang’s money was spent on his education—which was necessarily Rimé in spirit—because it was always considered more important than anything else. Therefore he is learnèd. He is also quite intelligent, although he doesn’t have the same kind of intelligence as that of his two previous incarnations, because he had to develop his intelligence himself through hard work and study. And he has spent many, many years studying and receiving teachings.
He has also done a great deal of practice. Year after year he has been practising continuously, and every day he still spends a great deal of time on his practice.
Others labrangs—a lama’s home in a monastery and his household—put their effort and money into constructing large buildings and labrang compounds, or enlarging monasteries, or establishing investment funds to make more money. But at Khyentse Labrang, not one of the students of the previous incarnation even thought about that kind of thing. Most of the Labrang’s money and time and effort and planning were all directed towards Yangsi Rinpoche’s education—which sometimes made things difficult financially. The Labrang even borrowed to make sure his education was complete. In the end, though, none of the students of the previous incarnation, Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, felt they’d made a mistake by focusing so keenly on his education. They all felt they’d done the right thing and are satisfied with how he’s turned out. Even someone like me—prone as I am to wrong views and thinking too much, and who has great difficulty with faith—I don’t think we could have made a better job of it.
And there’s still more to come in terms of enlightened activity. Right now his activity shines as brightly as the sun at noon, and he’ll do a lot more over the next twenty or thirty years, you’ll see!
Why does Dzongsar Khyentse do so many things that other lamas never do? For example, he makes movies.
The activities of the Buddha can’t be measured, they are limitless. It’s said that sentient beings pervade the whole of space and that for all these beings, it’s the activities of the Buddha that truly benefit. Dzongsar Khyentse is now able to do things that no Tibetan lama has even thought of doing before, including unusual things like making movies. What he has in mind is that eventually, through a movie, the whole world will be able to see exactly what the Buddha did and how he was. The Dzogchen approach to guiding a student towards seeing the Dharmakaya Buddha is to introduce the student to the nature of mind, which then leads them to enlightenment. But if the student doesn’t achieve that recognition, the benefit they gain from at least being able to relate to a Nirmanakaya form of the Buddha is so immense, it’s beyond expression. So Dzongsar Khyentse’s reason for making movies is probably to do with wanting the whole world to see the Buddha.
Study is said to be very important throughout the Mahayana, including the Tantras. Which is why a Tibetan lama, a refugee, has been giving so much money to create Chairs of Buddhism at various Western universities. When I heard just how much Dzongsar Khyentse was giving, even I felt a bit stingy—why should a poor refugee give vast sums to rich western institutions! But when I thought about it more carefully I realized how incredibly far-reaching his vision is. Noone else would have thought of it. He also gives money to support many people in poorer countries. And although he never tells me any of this, I always hear about it, though, one way or another.
Basically he’s doing everything a lama should do.
The previous incarnation, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, followed the Ngorpa rule of not giving anyone ordination, whereas his next incarnation, Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö ordained many thousands of monks in the early part of his life. Although the present incarnation, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, doesn’t engage in any of the Vinaya activities, he still has a great deal of respect for those teachings—when he sees Thai monks he immediately folds his hands and prostrates. But he does all the other activities of lama, like giving empowerments, reading transmissions, explanations of the practices, etc. And everything he has received, he transmits.
In particular, his kindness to golden-haired westerners is quite incredible! To tell you the truth, I often wonder why he’s so generous to them. I think it must have something to do with the kind of compassion that doesn’t distinguish between those who are close to you and those who are not so close—we call it ‘equanimity’. If you divide people up based on their racial origins and then allow yourself to be bound by that kind of limitation, how can you work to help and enlighten all sentient beings, as numerous as space is vast? This expression of equanimity is a truly extraordinary quality of his.
Some people can see Yangsi Rinpoche’s special qualities, others can not. If you think about it, you will see his qualities; if you don’t think about it, you won’t. For those who have the kind of mind that wants to hold on to the old, traditional way of doing things, it’s especially difficult to see his unique qualities. That’s my biggest problem. If you think that tradition is very important, you will become like me…
Who are the teachers of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche? I’d like to know more about them.
The ‘lamas’ of Dzongsar Khyentse are different from his ‘teachers’. Lama Chöden was from Nangchen in Kham and a follower of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition who had been a monk at Tsechu Monastery, which is one of the major monasteries in Nangchen. He was one of the best monks in Dzongsar for a number of years, and while he was there he became Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s chöpen. Once he had become a close attendant of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, he received many empowerments, reading transmissions, and so on. If you look into the life story of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, you will see that when Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö gave the Vima Nyingtik to a few of his close students, like Lama Chöden, they all saw Vimalamitra himself in the middle of the mandala.
Anyway, Lama Chöden became Yangsi Rinpoche’s tutor. He was very knowledgeable about the different sciences and also very good at all the rituals. The basis for his dharma practice was the vow of a fully ordained monk. What he accomplished in terms of retreat—the approach and accomplishment practices—was really incredible. He was learnèd as well as accomplished, and extremely diligent and disciplined; he achieved a very high level of practice. And while he was still tutor to Rinpoche, he went to sleep one night, but never woke up again. That’s how he passed away. He didn’t have any sickness, or anything.
After him, the second tutor was Lama Orgyen. He was also from Nangchen and also an expert at the ritual practices, as well as in writing—poetry and composition, etc. I don’t know how good his practice was, but as he passed away from cancer at Surmang Trungpa’s place in Boulder, he displayed signs of realization.
The third tutor was Lama Putse. He was the chant master in our monastery, very well-read, and a highly-skilled writer. He was learnèd in the scriptures, and extremely learnèd in terms of ritual practice. He was Yangsi Rinpoche’s tutor for three years. I don’t know how his practice was, but when he passed away in Nepal it is said he stayed sitting in meditation (tukdam) for 16 days and that thousands of people went to meet his remains (kudung). Tulku Chökyi Nyima showed him to the doctors and asked “Is he dead or not”. The doctors examined him but concluded that they couldn’t answer the question because although he looked pretty much dead, in other ways he didn’t appear to be dead at all. He was from Riwoche and followed the Nyingma tradition.
The fourth was Rakong Sotra who was from Derge. At first he served the King of Derge and became an important member of his court, then later he became a monk. He had been a student of the previous incarnation, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö and was very proficient in the sciences. The tradition he came from was Sakya, but he wasn’t at all biased. He remained with Yangsi Rinpoche a little longer than the others, as one of his attendants.
After him the fifth tutor was called Shangtok Kunga. After Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö passed away, Shangtok Kunga remained in Sikkim and I’ve heard that Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö appeared to him in visions more than once. He was very learnèd and also an incredible ‘chöpa’—someone who really takes the teachings to heart and applies them to himself. Amongst the ordinary monks who were students of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, he was held in the highest regard. When he passed away he displayed really great signs of realization. He was Yangsi Rinpoche’s tutor for just a short time and chiefly taught him the sacred texts.
And sometimes Khandro Tsering Chödrön helped Yangsi Rinpoche with his reading and showed him how to recite some of the prayers.
This is what I know about Yangsi Rinpoche’s teachers. They were all very learnèd and extraordinarily accomplished, which is why I think they had such an incredibly positive impact on Rinpoche’s practice, and why he became so learnèd himself, and so realized.
A tutor stays with his charge and trains him 24 hours a day. So for the few years Yangsi Rinpoche’s tutors were responsible for him, they were with him for 24 hours a day. Tutors teach all the dharma subjects, but also about worldly things. Tutor and student eat together and go about together, and in this way the tutor teaches the student how to eat, how to talk and how to relate to others, as well as how to practise the Dharma. Everything!
That Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche was given the opportunity to study with such great tutors is an expression of his great merit. And all his tutors were students of his previous incarnation, which is why they also had the greatest respect, devotion and pure perception of him. They were all people who wanted Yangsi Rinpoche to be well educated in worldly matters, as well as a good dharma practitioner—they all had the noblest of intentions.
At Sakya College, he studied most of the great sacred texts—pechas—with Khenpo Apé and Khenpo Rinchen. He received many teachings from them.
When Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche gave the Rinchen Terdzö in Sikkim, his mind was directed solely towards Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He said several times that he was focusing exclusively on transmitting everything to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
And so everyone came together and put such an enormous effort into Rinpoche’s training—including Rinpoche himself—that the result could never have been anything other than very, very good indeed.
 The Life of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, translated in English by Matthew Akester, Shechen Publications, 2012. Shambhala Publications will be offering an English translation of Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s biography by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche soon.