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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche > Part Three: Training with Rinpoche

A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche

Alexander Berzin, 1998

Part Three: Training with Rinpoche

I first met Serkong Rinpoche in Bodh Gaya in January 1970. Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, two young reincarnate lamas who had studied English in America under the guidance of Geshe Wangyal, had recommended him to me. Serkong Rinpoche would be able to direct me to the most appropriate teacher with whom to study guhyasamaja (the assembly of hidden factors). I had chosen this complex tantra system as the topic for my Ph.D. dissertation after having compared the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of a small portion of the cryptic main text in a graduate seminar.

Although my linguistic studies had left me totally unprepared for such advanced study, Serkong Rinpoche took me seriously. He suggested Kenzur Yeshey Dondrub, the retired abbot of Gyuto, the Upper Tantric College, who many years later became the head of the Gelug tradition. I felt honored that Rinpoche had chosen such a renowned master.

Several months afterwards, I met the abbot in his tiny mud and cow-dung hut high above Dalhousie, the mountain village near Dharamsala where Gyuto Monastery was located and I had settled. The unassuming old monk had just completed two consecutive three-year meditation retreats. When I asked him to teach me, the abbot readily agreed. He told me that I had come at just the right moment. He was beginning a three-year intensive retreat on the guhyasamaja system the next day. Would I care to join him? I, of course, had to decline, but learned the lesson Rinpoche had presented in the classic Buddhist way. Rinpoche had set up the circumstances for me to realize  the truth by myself. To study and practice this most advanced tantra, I would need to start from the beginning.

I soon changed my dissertation topic to a more modest subject – the oral tradition of lam-rim, the graded stages of the path – and arranged to study the basics with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches’ teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. Geshe  is the monastic degree roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. and Geshe Dhargyey’s skill as a learned teacher had earned him the position of tutor to five teenage reincarnate lamas. At the time, Geshe Dhargyey was living in a converted cowshed, swarming with flies. It was so tiny that only his bed could fit in, with enough space left over for three people to sit crowded on the floor. Although the conditions in which he lived revolted me, I settled down to my studies. I also needed to learn modern spoken Tibetan. At Harvard, I had studied only the classical written language.

The next time I met Serkong Rinpoche was in June of that year. A terrible cholera and typhoid epidemic had broken out in the area and His Holiness had requested Rinpoche to come to Dalhousie to confer the Hayagriva empowerment. Practice of this forceful Buddha-figure, together with sanitation, helps people avoid infection. Although I was among the handful of Westerners who received the initiation, there was no opportunity to meet Rinpoche privately. He had other places at which to confer this empowerment and left Dalhousie quickly.

By the time we next met, many changes had occurred. In the autumn of 1971, His Holiness asked Geshe Dhargyey to teach Buddhism to foreigners at the newly constructed Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala. Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches joined as his interpreters. I asked if I could also be of service at the library, translating texts, and His Holiness agreed. First, I should submit my dissertation, receive my doctorate, and then return. The recently erupted border war with Pakistan less than a hundred miles away convinced me to leave without delay. I returned to Harvard and followed His Holiness’s advice. Saying no thank you to a career of university teaching – much to the surprise of my professors – I moved to Dharamsala a few months later, in September 1972.

Serkong Rinpoche had just left for Nepal to spend two years conferring empowerments and oral transmissions to some of the newly built monasteries there. When he returned to Dharamsala in the autumn of 1974, I could finally speak Tibetan sufficiently well to communicate directly with him. Although I did not realize it at first, Rinpoche seemed to know that I had the karmic relationship to be his translator. He indicated this by encouraging me to visit often and to sit to the side while he met various people. Between appointments, Rinpoche would chat with me and explain different words in Tibetan to make sure that I had understood the conversation.

 After a short while, Rinpoche presented me with a set of three magnificent scroll-paintings of White Manjushri, White Sarasvati, and White Tara, which the people of Spiti had recently offered him. These Buddha-figures had been central to his personal development and meditation practice from early childhood. They embody, respectively, clarity of mind to help others, brilliant insight for lucid and creative literary expression, and vital energy for a long and productive life. This deep-reaching present confirmed our relationship. When I asked Rinpoche if I could be his disciple, he patiently smiled at my typically Western habit of needing to verbalize what is manifestly obvious.

Rinpoche then set about systematically training me to be a translator, without ever verbalizing that this was what he was doing. First, he worked on my memory. Whenever I would visit, Rinpoche at unexpected moments would ask me to repeat word for word what he had just said. Similarly, he would ask me to repeat what I myself had just said. Once I began interpreting for him in the autumn of 1975, Rinpoche would often ask me to translate his words back into Tibetan, to make sure there were no mistakes, additions, or omissions. In fact, during the eight years that I served as his interpreter, I felt that each time Rinpoche asked me to translate back like this, I had invariably misunderstood what he had said. Rinpoche seemed always to sense when I made a mistake.

Rinpoche then began to give five-minute summaries of his teachings at the end of the sessions, and then tell me that now it was my turn to summarize. In this way, he began to train me not only to translate very long speeches, but also to teach. Sometimes, he would even chat with his attendants while I was making my summaries, challenging my concentration abilities. A good teacher must not be distracted or unnerved by outside noise.

When Rinpoche taught me privately, he would never let me take any notes. I had to remember everything and write it down later. Soon, Rinpoche gave me innumerable tasks to do after my lessons, so that I could only write down my notes much later, at night. In the end, Rinpoche would sometimes pause during a teaching that I was translating and, as an aside, explain something to me privately concerning my lessons on a completely different topic. Then, without giving me even a moment to reflect on his words or to write anything down, he would resume his original teaching.

If I ever asked Rinpoche a question about something he had previously told me, he would scold me severely for my lack of memory. I remember once asking him the meaning of a term and Rinpoche sharply replying, "I explained that word to you seven years ago! I remember that clearly. Why don’t you?" In fact, he remarked to me once that the older he grew, the clearer his mind became.

Serkong Rinpoche was interested not only in my developing a good memory, but also in my translating accurately. From his experience in teaching Westerners, he realized that much of their misunderstanding comes from misleading translations of certain technical terms. Consequently, he worked with me to develop new terminology in English. He would patiently explain the connotation of each Tibetan term and then ask about the implications of possible English equivalents in order to try to match the meaning. He always encouraged me to experiment with new terms and not to be a slave to inadequate conventions. The standard Tibetan terminology used for translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit evolved gradually over the centuries. It is only natural that a similar process of revision will occur while translating into Western languages.

When I originally requested Rinpoche to accept me as a disciple, I asked him especially to teach me skillful means – how to help others compassionately and wisely. Having come from an elite academic background in which I had always excelled, my personal development had been one-sided. I needed to learn social skills and humility. Consequently, Rinpoche called me by only one name, "Dummy," and unfailingly pointed out everything stupid or wrong that I said or did. For example, when having me translate, Rinpoche would insist that I understand completely. Whenever I faltered, it did not matter how long it took or how embarrassed I became at his calling me an idiot. He would never let any word pass without my understanding and translating it correctly. Although such methods would be inappropriate for students plagued by low self-esteem, his uncompromising approach suited me perfectly.

Once, in Lavaur, France, Rinpoche gave a discourse on a commentary to a complicated text. When I sat down to translate, Rinpoche asked me also to compare several editions of the commentary and to edit the text as we went along. I did not have a pen, but directly in front of me sat a woman with brilliantly dyed red hair, lavishly applied red lipstick, and a red rose that she held in her teeth throughout the teaching. I asked if anyone had a spare pen I could borrow and she offered me hers. By the end of the session, I was completely exhausted. As I stood up, the woman held out her hand without saying a word. I was so preoccupied with myself I thought that she wanted to shake my hand to congratulate me on a job well done. As I extended my hand in return, Rinpoche roared, "Dummy, give her back her pen!"

To temper my self-centeredness, Rinpoche also taught me to do things only for others. He did this by never agreeing to give me any teaching or empowerment that I requested for myself. He would only consent if someone else requested and I were the translator. Rinpoche taught me individually merely those things he himself felt important for me to learn.

Further, Rinpoche never praised me to my face, but always would scold me. He did this especially in front of others, so that I would become unperturbed by criticism and pressure. In fact, I remember Rinpoche thanking me only once for my help, at the end of our first Western tour together. In this emotionally powerful way, Rinpoche trained me to be motivated simply by the wish to benefit others, and not by the wish for praise or to please my teacher. When I had seen that waiting for his thanks was similar to a dog waiting to be patted on the head, I soon stopped expecting any sign of approval. Even if he were to praise me, what could I do except wag my tail!

Rinpoche always encouraged people to learn to read the great scriptural texts themselves. Whenever anyone had doubts or questions, Rinpoche would have the person look up and check. He explained that he had not made up these teachings, but that they come from valid sources. Rinpoche also said that no one could expect a lama to teach him or her everything. Moreover, for Westerners, he repeated His Holiness’s statement that for the next two hundred years or more, the full breadth of Buddha’s teachings will be available only in Tibetan. Therefore, he strongly encouraged his Western disciples to learn Tibetan. He said that every syllable of the Tibetan language is full of meaning. Thus, when teaching, Rinpoche would often elaborate on the connotations of the Tibetan technical terms.

In line with this approach, Rinpoche had me continue my studies by reading texts and allowing me to ask any questions that I might have about them. He said that proceeding in this way, disciples could eventually study anywhere in the Buddhist literature, like swimming in the ocean or flying in the air. Explaining that lamas are to teach disciples to stand on their own two feet and then fly, he would give guidance on what to study and read. Then, he would push his disciples out of the nest and off on their own.

Rinpoche used many methods to teach me not to become dependent on him in any way. For example, although Rinpoche and I had an extremely close relation, he never pretended to be able to help me in all situations. Once I was quite ill and the medicine I was taking was of no help. When I asked Rinpoche for a divination about which medical system – Western, Tibetan, or Indian – and which doctor would be best to rely on, Rinpoche said that at the moment his divinations were unclear. He sent me instead to another great lama who helped me to find a more effective treatment. I soon recovered.

After several years, I realized that Rinpoche was training me to translate for His Holiness. In fact, I sometimes felt that I was like a gift that Rinpoche was preparing to present to him. To serve properly, however, I must never become attached or dependent on His Holiness. I would become merely like one of many golf clubs His Holiness could choose from to suit his translation needs. I would also need to face enormous pressure and overcome my ego.

Thus, Rinpoche taught me how to behave properly when serving a Dalai Lama. For instance, translators for His Holiness must never move their hands as if in a dance, nor stare at him like in a zoo. Instead, they must keep their heads down, remain fully concentrated, and never add anything of their own personalities. They must list people and points in the order in which His Holiness mentions them, never altering or considering anything His Holiness says as having no meaning or purpose.

Lamas’ titles must be translated correctly, just as His Holiness uses them, and not in the way in which foreigners call almost every lama "His Holiness." Instead of honoring these lamas, this uninformed Western custom degrades the Dalai Lama. In fact, it would horrify these lamas if they knew that foreigners were referring to them with the same honorifics as the Dalai Lama. As in the Catholic Church and in the diplomatic corps, Tibetan protocol and its hierarchical use of titles follow strict rules.

Often when I translated for His Holiness, Serkong Rinpoche would sit opposite me. Seeing him helped me to remain mindful of his training. For instance, once when translating in Dharamsala before an audience of a few hundred Westerners and several thousand Tibetans, His Holiness stopped me and roared with laughter, "He just made a mistake!" His Holiness understands English perfectly well. Although I wanted to crawl under the carpet like an ant, Rinpoche sitting in my field of vision helped Dummy to keep his composure.

Sometimes, however, I needed forceful reminders of my lessons. For example, one of the earliest times I translated for His Holiness was for a discourse he delivered to about ten thousand people under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. My microphone failed and so His Holiness had me climb practically into the lap of the chant master to share his sound equipment. This too stopped working. His Holiness then had me sit on the ground between his throne and Serkong Rinpoche in the front row and passed me his own microphone between sentences. I was so unnerved I could hardly control myself. I both received and returned the microphone to His Holiness using only one hand, rather than with both hands outstretched in the customary respectful manner. Afterwards, Rinpoche practically beat me for taking the microphone like a monkey grabbing a banana.

Rinpoche also took care that Westerners in general presented themselves in their best light to His Holiness. Their behavior at His Holiness’s public teachings often appalled him. He said it is important to realize who His Holiness is. He is no ordinary reincarnate lama. Being in his presence calls for special respect and humility. For example, during tea breaks at an initiation or a discourse, standing and chatting in His Holiness’s field of vision as if he were not there is extremely rude. The proper etiquette is to step outside for any conversation.

Once a Western Buddhist organization sponsored a discourse that I translated for His Holiness in Dharamsala. His Holiness had offered to answer written questions. After each session, Rinpoche asked me to read him the questions submitted for the next day and decisively rejected any stupid or trivial ones. Often, Rinpoche had me rephrase or reformulate the questions so that they would be more profound. They should not waste His Holiness’s time or the opportunity for many people to benefit from the answer. Several times, His Holiness remarked at how excellent and deep the questions were. I learned to follow this editing process myself whenever I traveled with His Holiness.