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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche > Part Four: Rinpoche's Approach to Being a Great Teacher

A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche

Alexander Berzin, 1998

Part Four: Rinpoche's Approach to Being a Great Teacher

A whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual teacher is one of the most difficult and delicate Buddhist practices. Great care is needed so that it is properly established and maintained. Once set on a sound basis, nothing can shatter it. Serkong Rinpoche took great pains to ensure that this would be the case between him and me. One evening, at the end of the great Monlam festival in Mundgod, Rinpoche told me the complicated story about the finances of his property there. Although his other attendants felt this unnecessary, Rinpoche said it was important for me to know. Even if later I heard false rumors about this issue from jealous quarters, he wanted to make sure that I would never have even a moment of doubt about his integrity or about my whole-hearted commitment.

A whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual teacher requires a thorough and lengthy mutual examination between prospective disciples and teachers. Although, after careful scrutiny, disciples need to see their lamas as a Buddha, this does not mean that spiritual masters are infallible. Disciples must always check what teachers say and, if necessary, make further suggestions, politely. Ever alert, they must respectfully correct anything strange their lamas say or do.

Once, Rinpoche sought to demonstrate this point to the Western monks at Nalanda Monastery in France. During a discourse, he purposely explained something totally incorrectly. Although what he said was outrageously absurd, the monks all respectfully copied his words in their notebooks. At the next session, Rinpoche scolded the monks, saying that last hour he had explained something in a totally ridiculous, wrong manner. Why had no one questioned him? He told them, as Buddha himself had advised, that they must never accept blindly and uncritically what a teacher says. Even great masters occasionally make a slip of the tongue; translators frequently make mistakes; and students invariably take imprecise and confused notes. If anything seems strange, they must always question and check every point against the great texts.

Personally, Rinpoche even questioned the standard Buddhist commentaries. In doing so, he followed the precedent of Tsongkhapa. This fourteenth-century reformer noted that many respected texts by both Indian and Tibetan masters contradicted each other or contained illogical assertions. Tsongkhapa uncovered and scrutinized these points, either rejecting positions that could not withstand reason or giving new, insightful interpretations of passages that had previously been misunderstood. Only those with vast scriptural knowledge and deep meditation experience are qualified to break such new ground. Serkong Rinpoche was one of them.

For example, shortly before his death, Rinpoche called me and pointed out a passage from one of Tsongkhapa’s most difficult philosophical texts, The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po). Rinpoche recited this several-hundred-page treatise from memory each day as part of his daily practice. The passage concerned the stages for removing confusion from the mind and, specifically, the issue of "seeds" of confusion. The standard commentaries interpret these seeds as changing phenomena that are neither something physical nor a way of knowing something. To convey this point, I had been translating the term as "tendencies" rather than "seeds." Citing logic, experience, and other passages from the text, Rinpoche explained that a seed of rice is still rice. Therefore, a seed of confusion is a "trace" of confusion. This revolutionary interpretation has profound ramifications concerning how to understand and work with the unconscious.

Despite Serkong Rinpoche’s innovative brilliance, he at all times and in all ways emphasized humility and lack of pretense. Thus, although he was the highest lama at his monastery in Mundgod, Rinpoche did not build an ostentatious grand house, just a simple hut. His house in Dharamsala was also extremely modest, with only three rooms for four people, frequent guests, two dogs, and a cat.

Just as Rinpoche avoided any display of his greatness, he also sought to prevent his disciples from aggrandizing him. Several meditation practices, for example, center around the relation with one’s spiritual teacher, such as performing elaborate visualizations known as Guru-yoga and repeating a mantra containing the lama’s Sanskrit name. In Guru-yoga practices, Rinpoche always instructed his disciples to visualize His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When asked for his name mantra, Rinpoche always gave his father’s name to repeat. Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjey-chang, was one of the greatest practitioners and teachers of the beginning of the twentieth century. He was the Kalachakra lineage holder of his day, which means that he was the acknowledged master responsible for transmitting the body of its knowledge and meditation experience to the next generation.

Rinpoche’s modest style manifested itself in many other ways. When Rinpoche traveled, for instance, he followed the example of Mahatma Gandhi. He insisted on riding in third-class three-tier coaches on Indian trains, unless there was a specific necessity to do otherwise. This was true even if it meant sleeping next to the foul-smelling toilet, which happened when we left Dharamsala for Delhi on our first tour together to the West. Rinpoche said it was excellent to travel in this common manner since it helps to develop compassion. All three classes arrive at the destination at the same time, so why waste money? Rinpoche really disliked people wasting money on him, either by paying for first-class train tickets or by taking him to fancy expensive restaurants.

Once, when Rinpoche was returning to Dharamsala from Spiti, several other disciples and I waited to greet him at the Indian bazaar on his arrival. After watching many cars and buses go by without Rinpoche in them, a dirty old truck pulled in to the market place. There was Serkong Rinpoche sitting in the crowded cab of the truck, with his prayer beads in hand. He and his attendants had ridden for three days all the way from Spiti in this mode of transport, totally unconcerned about comfort or appearance.

When Rinpoche was returning to Dharamsala with his attendants and me from the great Monlam festival in Mundgod, we had to wait all day for the train in Poona. He happily stayed in an extremely noisy and hot third-class hotel room that a local Tibetan sweater-seller had offered us to use. In fact, Rinpoche would often suggest that we take overnight buses when traveling in India, since they were cheaper and easier. He never minded waiting in crowded bus stations. He told us he had plenty of meditation practices to keep himself occupied. Noise, chaos, and filth around him never bothered his concentration.

Rinpoche never stayed long in one place, but frequently moved around. He said it was good for overcoming attachment. Thus, when on tour, we never stayed more than a few days in one home, lest we overstay our welcome and become a burden on our hosts. Whenever we stayed at a Buddhist center with an older Tibetan monk as its teacher, Rinpoche would treat that monk like his best friend. He never restricted his heartfelt relationships to merely one special person.

No matter where Rinpoche went, he maintained a strong practice throughout the day and at night hardly slept. He would recite mantras and texts for tantric visualization (sadhanas) not only between appointments, but even during pauses while waiting for my translation when he had foreign visitors. He performed his sadhana meditations in cars, on trains, on airplanes – the external circumstances never mattered. He emphasized that a strong daily practice provides a sense of continuity to our lives wherever we go and whatever we do. We gain great flexibility, self-confidence, and stability.

Rinpoche also never put on a show with his practice. He said to do things quietly and privately, such as blessing food before eating or saying prayers before teaching. To recite long solemn verses before eating with others may only cause them discomfort or make them feel that we are trying either to impress or to shame them. Further, he never imposed any practices or customs on others, but did whatever prayers or rituals before and after teachings that the center that invited him normally followed.

Although Rinpoche made extensive offerings to His Holiness and to both Tibetan and Western monasteries, he never boasted or said anything about them. He taught never to do so. Once, a humble middle-aged man in Villorba, Italy, came to see Rinpoche. As he was leaving the room, he quietly placed, not even in a prominent spot, but on a side table, an envelope containing a generous donation. Rinpoche afterwards said that this is the way to make offerings to a lama.

Rinpoche stressed, however, that our humility be sincere, not false. He did not like people pretending to be humble, but who were actually proud and arrogant or who thought that they were great yogis. He used to tell the story of a proud practitioner from a nomad background who went to a great lama. Acting as if he had never seen anything of civilization before, the man asked what were the ritual instruments on the lama’s table. When he pointed to the lama’s cat and asked what is this wondrous beast, the lama kicked him out.

Rinpoche especially disliked when people pretentiously bragged about their practices. He said if that we intend to undertake a meditation retreat, or even if we have finished doing one, we should not announce it to others. It is best to keep such things private and for no one to know what we are doing. Otherwise, people’s talking about us will cause many obstacles, such as pride or other’s jealousy and competition. No one knew which Buddha-figure was Tsongkhapa’s main tantric practice. It was only when his disciple Kaydrubjey observed him, just before his death, making sixty-two offerings from his inner-offering cup that he inferred it was Chakrasamvara, the Buddha-figure embodying inner bliss. Similarly, no one knew Serkong Rinpoche’s main personal practice, despite his acclaim as a Kalachakra specialist and expert.

Rinpoche often told about the Kadampa Geshes who hid their tantric practice so thoroughly that only when people found a tiny vajra and bell sewn into the corner of their robes after they had died did anyone realize what they had been practicing. Rinpoche lived his life according to this model. Rinpoche would usually go to sleep half an hour before everyone else in his household and get up in the morning slightly after them. His attendants and I, however, often observed that the light went on in his room after everyone was supposedly asleep and went off only a short while before the household awoke.

Once, in Jägendorf, Germany, Rinpoche’s senior attendant, Chondzeyla, shared the sleeping quarters with Rinpoche. While pretending to be asleep, Chondzeyla watched Rinpoche get up in the middle of the night and assume the various strenuous postures associated with the six practices of Naropa. Although during the daytime Rinpoche usually required help in getting up and around, he in fact had the strength and flexibility to engage in these yoga exercises.

Rinpoche always tried to keep his good qualities hidden. In fact, he would not even like to disclose his identity to strangers. Once, an older Indonesian couple offered us a ride in their car from Paris to Amsterdam. After arriving in Amsterdam, the couple invited Rinpoche to their home for a meal. Only afterwards, when the people at the local Buddhist center telephoned the couple to invite them to Rinpoche’s teachings did they realize who their guest actually was. They thought he was just an ordinary old, friendly monk.

In this same spirit, Rinpoche would sometimes play chess with children when he traveled abroad, or he would have his younger attendant Ngawang play and he would help both sides. The children only thought he was a kindly old grandfather. Once, when Rinpoche walked down the streets of Munich, Germany, at Christmas time, the children followed him, thinking, in his red robes, that he was Santa Claus.

Rinpoche even hid the fact that he knew quite a bit of English. After the Kalachakra initiation in Spiti, a month before Rinpoche passed away, I took my leave of him at Tabo Monastery to return to Dharamsala. I had chartered a bus for a group of Westerners and it was time to go. One of the foreigners, however, at the last moment had gone to visit Kyi Monastery, twenty miles further up the valley, and did not return at the expected time. While I went to Kyi to find her, an Italian disciple went to see Rinpoche, but without a translator. Rinpoche, who had never spoken a word of English to any foreigner before, turned to the Italian and asked in perfect English, "Where is Alex?" When the man exclaimed, "But Rinpoche, you don’t speak English," Rinpoche only laughed.