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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche > Part Six: Rinpoche's General Advice for Buddhist Practitioners

A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche

Alexander Berzin, 1998

Part Six: Rinpoche's General Advice for Buddhist Practitioners

Serkong Rinpoche always stressed being considerate of all lamas and not wasting their time. He suggested avoiding the example of the devout people of Spiti. When lining up to present him with ceremonial scarves (kata), his devotees in Spiti would wait until they were directly in front of him before offering prostration, each of them one at a time. Such a procedure can often take hours. Further, when asking questions to a lama, Rinpoche said never to tell a huge story or to put on a show. In fact, he instructed me never to translate such questions literally, but just to get to the point.

In addition, Rinpoche did not want visitors always to present him with katas and with what he referred to as "lousy" boxes of cookies. He said those wishing to make an offering to a lama should present something really nice that the person can use or likes. Moreover, if anyone saw him frequently, as I did him, he said to stop bringing things. He did not want or need anything.

Rinpoche always advised people to use common sense. Thus, he did not like people to ask him for divinations about mundane affairs. The only situation in which requesting a divination is appropriate is when ordinary means cannot settle an issue, particularly concerning spiritual matters. Once I had a problem concerning my rent and asked for a divination about what to do. Rinpoche chased me away, telling me to go see a lawyer.

Further, in planning any activity, Rinpoche recommended always preparing at least three possible courses of action. The flexibility gained from such strategy prevents helpless panic if one plan fails. Having several alternatives ready provides a sense of security through confidence that at least one of them will work.

Disciples, however, sometimes become dependent on divinations, thereby indulging their inability to think for themselves. Avoiding responsibility for their lives, such persons want someone to make decisions for them. Although consulting a spiritual teacher about major decisions is often helpful, the most stable way to do this is to internalize his or her values. Even if the lama is absent, these values are always at hand to help determine the wisest course of action.

Rinpoche especially advised against people requesting many lamas for divinations on the same question until they receive the answer they want. Requesting a divination implies confidence and trust in the lama. This means doing whatever the person advises. In addition, Rinpoche warned against coming to a lama and saying that another teacher said to do this or that, but what do you think? Should I do it? Putting a lama in the awkward position of having to say that another spiritual master is wrong demonstrates a lack of sensitivity.

Most Westerners, in fact, do not know how to ask questions properly to lamas. When they would come and ask him things foolishly, Rinpoche would commonly correct them. For instance, if someone does not know whether to attend an empowerment, it is ridiculous to ask, "Is it good to attend this initiation?" Of course it is good; one cannot say it is bad. And if someone asks, "Should I attend or not?" the implication is "Am I obliged to attend or not?" No one is obliged to attend. In seeking a spiritual teacher’s advice about such matters, best is to ask instead, "What do you recommend that I do?"

Further, when approaching a lama and asking permission to receive an empowerment he or she is conferring, it is foolish to ask, "Can I receive the initiation or not?" This implies, "Am I capable or not?" which is totally absurd. The correct manner to ask is "May I please receive the empowerment?" As when seeking an extension of a visa to stay in a foreign land, only an idiot would ask, "Can I stay longer or not?" The mature way to request is "With your kind permission, I would like to stay longer."

Once Turner bothered Rinpoche repeatedly for several months to confer on him the permission ceremony for invoking the spiritual guardian Six-armed Mahakala. Finally, when Rinpoche agreed, Turner asked him what the daily recitation commitment would be. Rinpoche practically beat him, scolding that he should be willing to do anything as the commitment.

Rinpoche was very displeased when Westerners would try to bargain about the recitation commitment from an initiation. He always emphasized taking an empowerment for a particular Buddha-figure only because of the sincere wish to engage in its practice to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. Attending just for the "good vibrations," or because everyone else is going, he felt was absurd. Also improper is going with the intention of just doing a short familiarizing retreat and then forgetting about the meditation practice. The commitment to a particular tantric practice is for an entire lifetime.

Rinpoche stressed scrutinizing spiritual practices and teachers thoroughly before becoming involved, and not waiting until afterwards. This was the main fault that Rinpoche saw in Westerners. We tend to rush into things prematurely. Rinpoche warned not to be like a crazy person running onto a frozen lake and then testing behind with a stick to see if the ice is strong enough to bear his or her weight.

Rinpoche said that people could attend anyone’s teachings and, out of politeness, even prostrate to the teacher’s monastic robes or to the Buddha-painting in the room. Becoming a disciple of that teacher, however, is another matter. He even told me that I could translate for any lama, but working for someone does not make that person my spiritual teacher. This is true, he explained, even if I were to translate a tantric empowerment. What counts is one’s attitude towards the teacher.

Rinpoche also felt that many Westerners become Buddhist monks and nuns too quickly, without checking if this is really what they want for the rest of their lives. Often, they fail to consider how their ordination will affect their parents or how they will support themselves in the future. Of course, if someone is like the great renounced practitioners of the past, he or she does not need to think of such factors as family or money. However, we know ourselves whether or not we are Milarepas.

In this context, Rinpoche frequently cited the example of Drubkang Geleg-gyatso. This great Tibetan master had wanted to become a monk in his youth, but his family disapproved and was very upset. He therefore served his parents well during their lifetime and, when they passed away, he donated his inheritance to worthy causes. Only then did he become a monk.

Rinpoche always stressed respecting and serving our parents. As Western Buddhists, we glibly talk of recognizing everyone as having been our mothers and fathers in previous lives and repaying their kindness. Yet, on a personal level, many of us cannot even get on well with our parents of this lifetime. To serve and be kind to our parents, Rinpoche taught, is indeed a great Buddhist practice.

If someone investigates thoroughly beforehand and then becomes a monk or a nun, or if someone has already received monastic ordination, Rinpoche explained not to be just halfway into it like a bat. When a bat is among birds and does not want to follow what they are doing, it says, "Oh, I can’t do that. I have teeth." When among mice, it says, "Oh, I can’t do that. I have wings." To act like this example is just using monastic robes for convenience. When such persons do not like certain lay activities, such as supporting themselves financially, they use the excuse of their robes. When they do not care for certain monastic functions or forms, such as attending long rituals or traveling in robes, they use the excuse of being a Westerner. As Rinpoche would say, "Who are you fooling?"

This does not mean, Rinpoche explained, that Buddhist practitioners should not work. Whether lay or ordained, everyone needs to be practical and down to earth. Rinpoche taught that how we occupy our mind and speech is more important than how we occupy our body. He therefore advised menial jobs for intensive practitioners who need to support themselves. While working, we can repeat mantras and extend warm feelings and kind thoughts. If thinking of the teachings during work is too difficult and we have received tantric empowerments, we can at least transform our self-images. Throughout the day, we can try to imagine ourselves as Buddha-figures and our environments as pure lands perfectly conducive for spiritual development. Then, in the early morning and at night, we can practice the elaborate visualizations of sadhanas. Rinpoche always stressed not making Buddhism something separate from life.

For many years, Turner lived in England unemployed, on social welfare, with his wife and two children. He spent almost all his time doing intensive retreat practices. He felt why waste time working when I can practice the teachings? Previously, he had received from Rinpoche the permission ceremony of White Mahakala, a guardian figure associated with wealth, and prayed daily that his financial problems be solved. Rinpoche was not at all pleased. He said it was like a sick person praying to the Medicine Buddha to get well, but never taking any medicine. He told Turner to get a job and to do his intensive practices only for a shorter time in the morning and at night. Then, invoking White Mahakala would help his work become a financial success.

Rinpoche liked people to be practical and efficient, and not spaced out. Thus, he always preferred practices and chanting to be done quickly. Once, the students at Ghepheling Center in Milan, Italy, asked Rinpoche to lead a meditation session to conclude his course there on the graded stages of the path (lam-rim) and on the practice of Avalokiteshvara. Rinpoche agreed and directed them to generate themselves as Avalokiteshvara through the six-fold process and then to meditate on the several dozen points of the lam-rim, and to do this all for two minutes. When the students expressed their disbelief and protested at how short a time he had given for all this, Rinpoche relented and said, "OK, do this for three minutes." He then explained that a good practitioner could cover the entire lam-rim in the time it takes to put his or her foot over the saddle when mounting a horse. When death comes, there is no time to sit nicely and set up a visualization through a slow, gradual process.

Rinpoche stressed the need to be realistic in all aspects of Buddhist practice. This is especially crucial if we are aspiring bodhisattvas trying to benefit others. Although from our sides we need always to be willing to help, we must remember that others’ openness to our assistance and, ultimately, the success of our efforts depend on their karma – the previous patterns that have conditioned their minds. Therefore, Rinpoche cautioned against offering to help in matters that do not concern us or when others are not interested in receiving our aid. Our interference will only cause resentment and, if our help fails, we will receive all the blame.

Best is always to keep a low profile. We can let others know that we are willing to help and, if they ask, we may certainly become involved with their affairs. However, we need to avoid advertising ourselves as "bodhisattva for hire." Best is simply to do our daily meditation practices and to live humbly. Rinpoche especially warned against promising to do more than we can accomplish or publicizing that we will undertake or complete something in the future. This just causes more obstacles and, in the end, if we do not actualize what we announced, we make fools of ourselves and lose all credibility.

This point of not promising to do more than we can accomplish is especially relevant to our relations with our spiritual teachers. Rinpoche said always to follow the guidelines from Ashvaghosha’s Fifty Stanzas on the Spiritual Master, which he recited daily as part of his meditation practice. If our teachers ask us to undertake something that, for some reason, we cannot do, we need to explain humbly and politely why we are unable to comply. Rinpoche stressed that the point of a whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual mentor is not to become a slave or a robot, but to learn to stand on our own feet, to think for ourselves, and to become enlightened. If we are unable to do what our teachers suggest, it is totally inappropriate to feel guilty that we are disappointing our mentors and so we are bad disciples. A proper spiritual teacher is not an unreasonable tyrant.

If we agree to do something for someone, whether for our teachers or for anyone else, Rinpoche advised making everything clear from the start. We court disaster if we agree like a naive do-gooder and then, while carrying out the task or after completing it, announce only then that we expect something in return. Rinpoche taught that if we are practical and realistic, and think things out beforehand, then both worldly and spiritual affairs would go well. If we are impractical and unrealistic, and mindlessly rush into things, neither would succeed.

Rinpoche advised the same approach towards Western Buddhist centers. He told them to avoid being so large that they burden themselves with debts and promises of projects they cannot possibly implement or complete. He said to start small and unpretentiously, and to resist the temptation to locate in remote country areas. Buddhist centers need to be convenient for city-dwellers to reach and for residents to find work nearby. The group can always sell the center and buy a bigger one if need be, but all in the proper time.

The purpose of Buddhist centers is not to attract large crowds with pretentious advertising like for a circus. Rinpoche always preferred small groups of sincere students. Moreover, in choosing a spiritual teacher, the main point is not how entertaining the person is or how funny the stories are that he or she tells. If we want to laugh or to see something exotic, we may go see the clowns in the circus or visit the sideshow.