Interview with Alex Berzin about Serkong Rinpoche
Interviewer: So perhaps if we start by you just telling us what your role was with the Serkong Tsenzhab Rinpoche in that period of his life.
Alex: Well, basically I was his translator and disciple. He trained me from the beginning to be his translator, so that went through a long, long process. In the course of that, then, also he taught me. For the most part, he never would teach me anything unless I was translating it for somebody else. So if I ever asked for teachings, he would say no, not this or that, but if I was translating it for somebody then it was okay. Which was very, very good, very helpful for me, actually, because it taught me to do things for others and not just for myself. But later on, when he felt that there were some special things that he thought was good to teach me then, even without my requesting it, he taught me and he taught me by myself.
But in addition to being his interpreter for teachings and for interviews with various people, and so on, then I also wrote letters for him in English to various people when it was needed, organized his tours… We did two tours together in the West, so organized all of that, and got all the tickets, and got all the visas, and went back and forth to all the embassies and made all the arrangements, and accompanied him and helped him on the journeys. So those were my main functions.
Interviewer: And how long was this period?
Alex: This was for about nine years.
Interviewer: So how did you first meet Rinpoche?
Alex: Well, I first went to India in 1969 as a Fulbright scholar from Harvard University to do the research for my doctorate dissertation. When I went to India, very quickly I met, within about a week, Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who were two young tulkus that had been with Geshe Wangyal, the Kalmyk Mongol Geshe, in America—in New Jersey—who was the first one that I met in the Tibetan tradition. And so we had a connection through Geshe Wangyal.
I had come to do research and write a dissertation about the Guhyasamaja Tantra. We had read a little bit of it at Harvard in Sanskrit and Tibetan and Chinese, and comparing it—the type of thing you do in graduate school at Harvard. I didn’t know who to study it with specifically, and so when I went on the beginning of a pilgrimage with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches (it started in Bodhgaya) that winter, they took me to see Serkong Rinpoche to ask his advice of who—with whom I should study. This must have been in December of ’69, and that was the first time that I met him.
He gave me the advice to study with one retired abbot from Gyuto monastery who was in Dalhousie, but he was doing a retreat at that time. He was finishing a three-year retreat on Yamantaka. He wasn’t going to be finished with his retreat until May of the next year, of 1970. So I went on this pilgrimage and it gave me an opportunity to start to learn spoken Tibetan (because at Harvard all we had was written Tibetan). And so I improved my spoken Tibetan, and so on. Then I went to see this retired abbot when he got out of his retreat. And I said, “Serkong Rinpoche had said that it would be very good to study with you and to learn Guhyasamaja.” And he said, “Oh, very good. Next week I’m going to start a three-year retreat on Guhyasamaja. Would you like to join me?” At which point I realized that I was getting into something that was way, way over my head—this was absolutely absurd—and so I dropped those plans.
Then Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches’ teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey was there in Dalhousie; he was teaching many young tulkus: also Jhado Rinpoche, the retired abbot (now) of Namgyal monastery. And they said that he would be willing to teach me—because meanwhile I had seen Trijang Rinpoche and he suggested, “Well, why not do lam-rim?” And so I was accepted by Geshe Dhargyey to—actually this was all arranged with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches—to study lam-rim with him. And so I did that. The next time I met… Well, it was a very nice study.
Then the next time I met Serkong Rinpoche was that summer. I think it was that summer. Maybe it was the following summer; I don’t remember exactly. ’70 or ’71. There was a cholera epidemic in India, and Serkong Rinpoche was sent by His Holiness to the various areas where the Tibetans lived to give a Hayagriva initiation in order to help the people have some sort of protection against this contagious disease. And then I went to that initiation, so that was the next time that I saw him and had contact with him.
And then it was a couple of years after that, because Rinpoche was away. And meanwhile we moved to Dharamsala when His Holiness built the library [the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives], and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey became the teacher for the Westerners, and Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches the translators. And I asked if I could be of help as well. His Holiness had said, “Yes. But go back and hand in the dissertation, get the degree, and come back,” which I did. And so I was involved with starting the Translation Bureau there. But, in the meanwhile, Serkong Rinpoche was in Nepal for, I think, two years. And he came back, and then I met him in Dharamsala. And then the nine years started, in terms of his beginning to train me as a translator and so on.
Interviewer: And when you first met him in Bodhgaya, what type of impression did you get there? Did you get a strong impression? Did you feel some… Well, what type of impression did Rinpoche give you?
Alex: Well, I don’t remember exactly what my impression was. I certainly thought he was a kindly person, but it was only a very short interview with him. I’ve always been very hesitant to commit myself to any teacher or anyone, except, I think, His Holiness. His Holiness, when I first met him—it was in November 1969—then immediately I felt that everything I had been studying at Harvard was for real, and that here was a living tradition, and here was someone who actually knew what everything meant—not guessing, like figuring out a crossword puzzle, which was the way that Tibetan Studies was approached in those days at Harvard (in fact, everywhere in the West, I think; it was sort of regarded like Ancient Egyptian Studies). But with the others whom I met—I met, of course, Ling Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche and Serkong Rinpoche, the tutors—I was a little bit more hesitant. With the new Serkong Rinpoche as well: I didn’t want to have projections or anything like that, and so really examined and let time pass before I really figured out what was going on.
In fact, it was interesting with Sharpa Rinpoche… That after spending time with Serkong Rinpoche and being trained by him for becoming a translator, and so on, and going there, and him always telling me to just stay, and he would explain words to me, and stay while he was interviewing other people, and just sort of—I became his apprentice. It was really like an apprenticeship that I had with him, to see how he handled all sorts of different situations. And I was asking—I was speaking with Sharpa Rinpoche and saying, “Well, I can’t really decide. Who’s my root guru?” and so on. And he said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s Serkong Rinpoche. Can’t you see?” That was actually the way that I figured that out.
But with the young Serkong Rinpoche as well: I didn’t want to project onto him that he was the old Rinpoche—the reincarnation—and so on. But basically it came from his side. He was the one that showed such familiarity with me at four years old. When I went in to see him the first time then the attendant asked, “Do you know who this is?” and he said, “Oh, don’t be stupid. Of course I know who this is,” and was immediately affectionate and comfortable with me.
So the first time I saw him, it wasn’t really an overwhelming experience. But I do remember though—it was at the [Hayagriva] initiation [in Dalhousie]—Chondzeyla struck my eye very much. Chondzeyla was the older attendant and he’d been with Rinpoche since he was six years old. And he really caught my eye. I couldn’t get my eyes away from him. He was very funny looking; I mean very unusual looking. I didn’t have the feeling that it was something highly realized or anything like that. But I couldn’t get my eyes off of him—they kept going back, and back, and back.
Interviewer: So Rinpoche’s training of you as a translator was quite interesting. But were you actually a fluent translator, or… Were you able to translate? When you first met Rinpoche you could obviously… You were saying today that you’d done written, but this is the first oral translation work that you did?
Alex: That was the first oral translation work that I did. Basically he, just by speaking with me… I mean, mind you, I was continuing my study of the spoken language. I really learned the spoken language and the grammar of the spoken…You see, when I was studying this… I went in 1969. I had studied Tibetan from a Japanese professor who’d had no idea even how to pronounce the language. And when I went, I basically had to act like an anthropologist going to Borneo and figuring out the sound structure of the language and so on. There were no textbooks to learn from, and the only grammar book of Tibetan was Jäschke, which explained it in terms of Latin grammar—which had nothing to do with Tibetan grammar. In fact, when we had studied it at Harvard, the Japanese professor taught Tibetan in terms of Japanese grammar, which is much closer to Tibetan grammar; and everybody knew some Japanese who was in the class, so it wasn’t a problem. But I had to figure out the language and the sound structure, which of course has tones and so on, so the Chinese that I had studied helped me in figuring out the tone system as well.
But then I worked with Ngawang Dhondup, who was the language teacher at the library, and he wrote a textbook of spoken Tibetan. And it was working with him on writing and presenting this textbook that I learned to speak the language properly, the way that people actually do speak.
But when I started working with Rinpoche, when he started to train me, it was basically… I mean, my Tibetan certainly wasn’t fluent, but by listening to him and how he explained… And he would explain words; he was always asked me to ask him when I didn’t understand something. And then, at any time during that training—he was also training my memory and mindfulness (paying attention)—so, at any time, he would turn to me and say, “What did I just say?” And I’d have to repeat back, word for word, what he had just said. Or he’d say, “What did you just say?” And I’d have to repeat it back. And then he would give me longer things.
And then eventually when I started to translate for him (or translate, well, for other people for him) then I couldn’t take any notes—he wouldn’t let me do that—I had to remember, and take notes afterwards. And then sometimes, eventually, when I would be translating and doing various things for him all day long, he wouldn’t let me take notes until the night, so I had to remember the whole day. And when he would teach, sometimes he would give a long summary for about ten or fifteen minutes, and then he’d turn to me and say, “Now it’s your turn.” And so it trained me to do that as well.
Or when he was translating—not translating, when he was teaching… Let’s say he was teaching Yamantaka or something like that to a group of people, but he’s teaching me, privately, Kalachakra. And so he would come to a point in the Yamantaka teachings and he would explain it, and then, before he would give me a chance to translate, he would start to explain to me an interesting point in Kalachakra that was slightly different about that, and then he’d say—when he was finished—and then he’d say, “Now translate what I said before.”
And so this is the way that he trained me. It was excellent, absolutely excellent. And it prepared me very much to be able to translate for His Holiness, which was always what I thought Rinpoche had in mind—that he was preparing me as a gift for His Holiness, to be able to do a little bit of translation that I did for him.
Interviewer: But even once the training’s done with the memory, though, is it something which is a weakness—to take notes when you’re translating? I mean, some translators…
Alex: Is it a weakness to take notes? I don’t know. When I would translate… It’s not a weakness. It depends on how long they speak, the teacher speaks for. When His Holiness teaches nowadays, he speaks for maybe ten minutes at a time, sometimes even longer. And the translator has to take notes in order to be able to remember the whole sequence of what they said. But I must say I didn’t do that. And even when His Holiness would speak for a very long time, because of my training I was able to remember most of what he said. But I didn’t do that much translating for His Holiness, only a little bit, and only sometimes. But what I did have to write down because I was quite hopeless with remembering were numbers and names of people, especially names that I didn’t know; those I had to write down. But aside from that I didn’t. I didn’t really write down things. Maybe a word here and there that I was unfamiliar with.
But it’s not a weakness. But it was just the way I was trained, and Rinpoche didn’t say that much at a time.
Interviewer: Just going back to the times…
Alex: Going back to what?
Interviewer: To the times of Tibetan language—your understanding the language. Did Rinpoche have a particular accent?
Alex: Rinpoche spoke very pure Lhasa dialect. He was very easy to understand.
Interviewer: Like his Holiness is.
Alex: Like His Holiness, but not as quickly as His Holiness. His Holiness speaks extremely quickly and with a tremendous amount of abbreviations, and with the largest vocabulary of any Tibetan. So His Holiness is really quite difficult to understand.
Interviewer: Could you tell us what Rinpoche’s role was in relation to His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
Alex: Rinpoche was a tsenzhab (mtshan-zhabs), was the Tibetan title. It means literally debate servant. Tsennyigi shabchi (mtshan-nyid-kyi zhabs phyi) in Tibetan. It’s translated by many people as assistant tutor, but he really disliked it being translated that way. He was always very humble, so he didn’t like to be called that. His role was to go to all the teachings that His Holiness received so that there was somebody that had the breadth of training of His Holiness, and then to be his debate partner. So I used to translate it as a master debate partner of His Holiness. He was also one of the teachers, of course, because he did give initiations and he did give oral transmissions to His Holiness.
And he was, as His Holiness called him after he passed away, his lieutenant. He was the one that was the intermediary between His Holiness and the monasteries. And so if there was business to take care of, in terms of certain procedures that the monasteries weren’t following… Because Rinpoche was very forceful as a person. He would go and he was very good at scolding or giving the messages of His Holiness.
And also, as His Holiness said, he was a very good friend. Because His Holiness’s relationship with the senior and junior tutors was very formal; whereas with Rinpoche His Holiness could relax and joke, because they debated together. And so this was a very special role that he had.
He was also the only tsenzhab that was able to come out of Tibet. In Tibet there would be seven; there was one from each of the major divisions of Sera, Ganden, and Drepung monasteries. Rinpoche was the only one that came out of Tibet.
Interviewer: And did Rinpoche ever talk about his life in Tibet?
Alex: Actually, Rinpoche never spoke about his life in—well, I wouldn’t say never, but hardly ever spoke about his life in Tibet. That was a very interesting facet of our relationship. He never once asked me a question about my life—my personal life, or my history, or background, or family. Never once. And I didn’t ask him. We lived in the present, dealing with what we were dealing with, whatever that might be—our studies, or translating, or trips that we were making together, and so on. So this is really quite unwestern in the relationship.
Occasionally I would hear… I know that he spent a lot of time in Lhasa. This I learned primarily from the monk that lived with me. I lived with a monk from Rinpoche’s monastery, and he told me that Rinpoche in fact spent a tremendous amount of time in Lhasa. And he had a house in Lhasa, because he went to the Potala all the time to be with His Holiness. So I don’t know if he actually slept in the Potala; he probably had a room there, I’m sure. But he had a house in Lhasa.
And Rinpoche sometimes would explain, as he explained to me once, the type of training at Gyumay Lower Tantric College, where he went. So he spoke a little bit about just the training. The main thing that I remember was how strict it was. He said how strict it was. Like, for instance, the monks in the hall (the general hall where they did all their puja practices) had to sleep there, sleep sitting cross-legged next to each other, like sardines, with their heads in each other’s laps, like that, in a row—so that when the bell went off early in the morning for them to wake up, they just would sit up and immediately start to chant. So he explained this type of discipline that they had. Unbelievably strict.
And occasionally he would tell a few stories about when he was a little boy. This was primarily to demonstrate that you didn’t have to look back in history, to people like Milarepa, to find examples of people who had actual extraphysical and extrasensory powers. So he used the example of his father, the first Serkong Dorjey-chang, who was acknowledged as the greatest yogi of his time (the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries). But, mind you, Rinpoche was a little boy at that time; Serkong Dorjey-chang died when Rinpoche was about four. But he remembered that… For instance, there was one time when he was… Obviously he went to all the teachings, because he received his lineages and initiations all from the old (not all, but many of them) from the old Serkong Dorjey-chang. Sometimes he was very restless and, being a little child, he would play. And so, in order to keep him quiet and to sit properly and so on, the old Serkong Dorjey-chang was able to make his little toys—I think they were made out of “ba,” out of this barley grain and water, like a clay thing—but make them move around, and amused him like that. He also mentioned once that the old Dorjey-chang had the ability for this fast walking—to be able to go in unbelievable, extraordinary speed from one place to another.
And that was all basically to… It wasn’t a matter of, let’s say, friends getting together and telling stories about their lives because they wanted to share their lives. He was teaching a lesson. The lesson was that these extraphysical powers are for real—there are people that actually did have them.
Or he would just mention aside type of things like Shambhala actually was a place (that you could only go to through meditation), and he said, “Oh, yeah. Well, my father went there and brought back a fruit from Shambhala and we had it in our house.” This type of thing. Or that—again to illustrate that his father had these powers—that when he reached the point in his tantra practice where he could practice with a partner, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama wanted proof for this, and so he tied a yak horn into a knot to demonstrate that he had control over the elements, which obviously meant he also had control over all his inner winds, and so on, and energies, so that he could practice in this way without violating any of his vows. And, like this, Rinpoche would explain that these things were actually for real.
Interviewer: Something that some people seem to get confused about—because there’s pictures of Rinpoche with Serkong Dorjey-chang where Rinpoche’s older. This is Serkong Dorjey-chang’s incarnation.
Alex: That was the second Serkong Dorjey-chang, who lived in Nepal after Tibet. And now the present one is the third Dorjey-chang.
Interviewer: So, while we’re on history, can you tell us who Rinpoche is considered… Who’s Rinpoche considered…
Alex: Well, this is an unusual type of situation. Very difficult to really understand, I must say. As I mentioned, the original Serkong Dorjey-chang reached the point where he could practice with a partner, and then he saw that it would be beneficial to have a son who would carry on his lineages. And this is called a tugsey (thugs-sras), a heart son, literally (or mind son, I think, is more literal). And this person carries on the special lineages, I think, in a much more special way than just receiving initiation from him. And so Serkong Rinpoche was born in that manner.
Now what people consider is that Serkong Dorjey-chang was the incarnation of Marpa, and Serkong Rinpoche—Tsenzhab Rinpoche—was the incarnation of Darma-dodey, the son of Marpa, the one that was given a lineage of—it’s called entering the citadel (grong-’jug), which is basically to be able to transfer consciousness from somebody into a dead body to revive them, something like that; I think that’s what it is. But, in any case, he had this lineage. But then Ra Lotsawa—and it’s interesting that Ling Rinpoche is considered the incarnation of Ra Lotsawa—saw that this would not be beneficial for Tibet and for the future, to have that, and in some way he caused an accident to happen, and Dharma-dodey fell from his horse. He had his foot in the saddle and was dragged, and died in that way. And so people would indicate that—Serkong Rinpoche always had some problem with his foot, and so they would say this was a sign of that.
But, you know, Kalu Rinpoche is also considered—wasn’t it Kalu Rinpoche who’s considered Milarepa or Marpa? The point is that there are so many people—not so many, but several different lamas are often considered the incarnation of the same historical figure. That is very difficult to understand, what that actually means. I don’t think that it means literally that they are the continuity of the mental continuum of that person. Often His Holiness has explained that there—like, for instance, when he’s called Chenrezig, a tulku of Chenrezig—he says, well, this means that one’s qualities are that… I mean, usually he wouldn’t explain it in terms of himself, but let’s say if somebody is called the reincarnation of Milarepa, or Marpa, or Shantideva, or something like that. You can say that their qualities were the qualities of that figure, without them necessarily being the continuity of their mental continuum. Could be the continuity, but it’s very strange when you have several who are considered a reincarnation of the same person—historical person, that is. There’s a difference also when you have—like Khyentse Rinpoche is producing five tulkus of body, speech, mind, good qualities, and activity; that’s a different case.
Interviewer: If Rinpoche was considered to be Darma-dodey then is it not that he would also be considered to be Drilbupa? Drilbupa—is that how you pronounce it?
Alex: Would he also be considered to be Drilbupa (Ghantapada in Sanskrit)? I have no idea. Rinpoche certainly didn’t speak about these things. In no way. He was very humble. He would never speak about himself.
Interviewer: And so it sounds like you had a very formal relationship with Rinpoche.
Alex: Did I have a formal relationship with Rinpoche? I don’t know that you would call it formal. Traditional, perhaps, is a better word. Maybe it wasn’t formal, but it was informal in the sense that he would walk around in his undershirt and his undergown, and stuff like that. It wasn’t formal—that I only saw him on a throne. And it was traditional in the sense that, for instance, he didn’t go easy on me. I always tell people, because it was so unusual: in the nine years that I served him, basically, he only thanked me twice. Never thanked me for what I did, which was an excellent training for me. Because why was I helping him? The purpose of helping him was to make available this quality of teacher to other people, to benefit others. It wasn’t for me to be praised and thanked, and be—as Rinpoche would use the example—patted on the head and then I would wag my tail like a dog; that wasn’t the purpose. And he scolded me constantly.
So I had told him originally, when I wanted him to teach me, I said (I used the words from the texts), “Teach a donkey like me how to be a human being. I don’t really have social graces or the ability to deal with people. Teach me skillful means.” This was what I asked him. And so Rinpoche mercilessly called me idiot. That was his main name for me—gugpa. And no matter what type of situation I was in, if I did something stupid he would point it out—he would point it out to everybody. This was very, very helpful. So in that sense it was very traditional, because most people, Western people, can’t take that kind of treatment—in terms of low self-esteem and things like that. But if you read the texts, the teachers are usually very, very forceful and wrathful with the disciples, and Rinpoche was certainly like that with me. It was fantastic; it was the best training imaginable—that suited me.
Interviewer: There’s something that came to mind there. So when you were with Rinpoche and translating, obviously you were translating to English. So Rinpoche was teaching to Westerners. But would Rinpoche… I know the situation is that often Tibetan lay people wouldn’t be receiving teachings from lamas so much. Is that the case and Rinpoche was mainly teaching to Westerners?
Alex: Well, no. When I translated for him, he was teaching Westerners, but also he taught Tibetans in—when we traveled around, he was teaching Tibetans in Canada and Tibetans in Switzerland.
What was particularly touching was that there was this program early on, when the Tibetans came out of Tibet, to send Tibetan children—orphans—to be raised by Swiss families. And so some of them came to see Rinpoche when he went to Switzerland. And they were in tears and very, very sad, because they’d been raised Swiss; they didn’t even know Tibetan language. (This program was subsequently dropped because it was so disastrous from that point of view.) And Rinpoche was very, very kind with them, and dealt with them in a very compassionate way. And some of them were interested in teachings.
And in Canada, Montreal and Lindsay were the main places where Tibetans were settled at that time. This was 1980 and ’82, we made these trips. Then Rinpoche taught them and Westerners together, who were there. So I translated for the Westerners, but the Tibetans came as well. And the Tibetans were particularly interested to have their children taught, and Rinpoche did a little bit of that. And after Rinpoche passed away, I was invited there myself because they thought that their children could accept the teachings a little bit better from a Westerner than from a Tibetan.
Interviewer: And so how would you describe Rinpoche’s teaching to Westerners?
Alex: How would I describe it?
Interviewer: Was it traditional? Was it a traditional style, or…
Alex: That’s hard to say. It was traditional in the sense that he told a lot of stories. He liked to tell stories. He was—like the young one—had a great sense of humor, and in fact he was noted for the way that he laughed; he shook his whole body when he laughed. And so, often, when any Tibetan would hear a new joke, they would always go and visit him and tell him the joke, because he appreciated it so much. So he told many stories, which is quite traditional. He also taught in—well, not so many quotations. His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses a lot of quotations. But Rinpoche knew that I couldn’t understand the quotations, and if he ever was going to use them—like when he was teaching Madhyamaka to me, on voidness—then he would tell me the quotations beforehand, so that I wouldn’t fumble too much with them.
He was always training me. So, for instance, if I didn’t understand something, he would make the whole group of people wait ten, fifteen minutes while he explained it to me—to the point where I understood—and I’d have to explain it back to him; so he made sure that I understood correctly. This wasn’t traditional. But he followed texts, and when he taught texts he taught in a very traditional way. He didn’t use debating terminology or method, which would be the traditional way of teaching, but I think hardly any Westerners really are familiar with the real traditional way of teaching. His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches—when he teaches difficult texts—he teaches in a traditional way, but it doesn’t always come across in the books that are made afterwards. If the translator is good, it will come across.
Interviewer: How would you describe the traditional way then?
Alex: The traditional way is with a lot of quotations and a lot of debate type of presentation of things.
Interviewer: So a lot of questions?
Alex: Well, yes. You raise a question, and then raise objections to it, and then a logical proof to refute the objection, the way that it would be in any of the—like in Tsongkhapa’s texts. That’s the traditional way of teaching. And also, depending on the text, there will be a lot of stories or not so many stories to illustrate things. Different styles.
Interviewer: Was Rinpoche always on time? I mean, in the sense that he would only have an hour and a half teachings, or…
Alex: Oh, Rinpoche was very much concerned with being on time, not making people stay too long, being very sensitive to when people were tired. And also when doing various rituals, Rinpoche personally didn’t like to do things slowly and so he did it quickly. There are some lamas and some people that do their chants very, very slowly. And there are, of course, rituals that they do in the monastery which they do this type of singing where it goes “aaaah-AAAAH-aah-AAH-aah-AAH…” They chant the first chapter of Guhyasamaja Tantra here in Ganden Jangtsey; that takes the whole day, so that they do incredibly slowly. But, for instance, when we were traveling and we did Lama Chopa Tsog, with the Lama Chopa and stuff like that, Rinpoche would go through it in ten minutes; ten, fifteen minutes, it would be finished. And this is more—what shall we say? Is it traditional? Depends which monastery you’re part of.
Interviewer: Would Rinpoche only sometimes do the Lama Chopa fast? Would he do it differently every time? Or are you saying that generally he would do it fast because he didn’t really want to [do it]?
Alex: Well, he did it quickly. I don’t recall him actually doing it with a group of Westerners. That I don’t recall. And usually when you do it with a group of Westerners, there’s somebody who is the chant leader, the Lama Umdzay (bla-ma dbu-mdzad), and they set the speed. And Rinpoche being Rinpoche would then follow whatever they were doing. But as we were traveling around and it was done in the house—just the attendants and myself and Rinpoche—then he always did it very quickly.
Interviewer: And you said before how Rinpoche wouldn’t worry if the perfectly correct ritual objects weren’t…
Alex: Oh, yes. In that sense he wasn’t traditional. He didn’t carry around elaborate ritual implements. If he was giving an initiation—and it requires a vase, very often—he would just use a milk bottle or anything that they had in the house. And for the various tsakali (tsa-ka-li) it’s called, the little drawings of things that are sometimes used in different parts of the ritual, various initiations—Rinpoche would just draw it himself. He didn’t carry around so many of these little pictures. But they did make the tormas properly when they were doing this.
But Rinpoche was very—he was incredibly flexible, incredibly flexible, so he didn’t stand on a ritual. He gave a Manjushri jenang (rjes-snang, a subsequent permission) at a Zen monastery in Upstate New York, in Woodstock, once. And Rinpoche just sat on the floor with everybody else and did almost no ritual, and it was suited very, very much to the Zen mentality. So, like I say, he was very, very flexible. So that wasn’t traditional.
But then again, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is like that as well. In Hamburg recently, just a few weeks ago, His Holiness gave the Manjushri jenang (the subsequent commitment or permission). And for that, the whole thing took about three hours, I would say. The actual ritual part of it took no more than seven to ten minutes. And His Holiness didn’t even chant it in Tibetan. He just explained it; he didn’t translate it. He just explained, “Blah blah blah blah blah,” like that. The whole time was spent speaking about bodhichitta.
So, like that, I think that one of the main characteristics of Rinpoche was that he was the closest to His Holiness—in style, in breadth of teachings. Rinpoche was a master from all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, all four classes of tantra. Mind you, he went to all the teachings that His Holiness received. So he had that same breadth and that same flexibility. This was wonderful about him. Very wonderful.
Interviewer: Would Rinpoche teach about the different traditions. Like would Rinpoche present the views?
Alex: Well, Rinpoche taught dzogchen, and he taught the Hayagriva, for instance, a practice from the Nyingma visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was very much into the Nyingma texts, the traditional texts that come from the Fifth Dalai Lama. He was very involved with training the oracles—not the oracles, but the medium—the mediums of the Gadong and Nechung oracles. So he was involved with that. Those are both Nyingma monasteries. So he did a lot of things with that.
Interviewer: So we were talking about Rinpoche teaching Westerners, and it’s not exactly…
Alex: And, you know, he did teach it traditionally in terms of—he didn’t shy away from teaching about the god realms and the hell realms and these sort of things.
Interviewer: But there were Tibetans and Westerners there, but would…
Alex: Sometimes. That was only in a few places.
Interviewer: So was Rinpoche quite direct about dealing with Westerners’ minds and Westerners’ problems? Like would he give direct examples and…
Alex: Yes. Yes. He was very sensitive to that.
Interviewer: When Rinpoche was traveling, did Rinpoche… You said Rinpoche didn’t travel with so many ritual objects—would Rinpoche travel with texts?
Alex: Yes, some texts.
Interviewer: So must his luggage have been heavy in terms of having that type of…
Alex: I guess so. I never had to carry his bags; we always traveled with two attendants. But it wasn’t an excessive amount of texts. Basically he wanted to know what he was being asked to teach and then he brought the appropriate texts. He didn’t bring anything extra.
Interviewer: So there were only two tours that you…
Alex: There were two tours to the West. Yes.
Interviewer: But they were quite extensive tours? How did they go?
Alex: I would have to look up in my diaries, but they were about maybe six, seven months, something like that.
Interviewer: And so, then, you would be translating. Rinpoche would give a lot of interviews with Westerners? Did that happen?
Alex: Not that many. Not that many.
Interviewer: But some students would…
Alex: Some students would come to see him, but not very many, not really. He encouraged questions during the teachings.
Interviewer: I guess what I was going to ask you was what Rinpoche thought of Westerners and the Western mind.
Alex: Well, what he always used to say was that nothing in the West impressed him—“Nothing special.” As the young Serkong Rinpoche says as well, “Nothing special.” The only thing that impressed him was that there were people who were actually interested in the Dharma.
Like the Eiffel Tower. His famous statement with that is: “What’s the big deal? You get to the top, then all you have to do is come back down.” So he didn’t see any reason why people wanted to go up.
Interviewer: What about Western people’s minds and their neuroses and the conditions that affect them. Was Rinpoche very patient?
Alex: Well, often people asked very crazy questions. But he always told me not to translate what they said in terms of literally what they said, but just what actually was their meaning—what did they really want to know. So there was that. And then—well, he took everybody seriously. This, I think, was a very important characteristic of him.
I remember once a very stoned hippie guy came to see him wanting to study the six yogas of Naropa—he had absolutely no background—and Rinpoche took him very seriously. Rather than chasing him out, he said that: “This is very, very good. And if you want to study this, this is what you have to do first, and second…” like that.
But it’s completely—Tibetan lamas are not pastors, they’re not psychiatrists, they’re not people that you go to if you have personal problems. They’re not there for that. The whole point in the Buddhist teachings is that they give you teachings and then you apply it to yourself. In your meditation, you figure it out yourself. And so he certainly didn’t encourage people coming to him and speaking to him about their personal problems. And not that many people did, actually.
If he were in a family… Because we mostly stayed with families, and there was often the son of the family or the daughter (and usually it was a son, actually) would be interested in the Dharma, and he would give advice in terms of filial duty and filial piety, as it were: and it’s more important to take care of the family and take care of the old parents and grandparents and things like that.
Interviewer: You hear stories of Westerners that have gone to lamas and asked them quite stupid questions.
Alex: Well, there are many Westerners who do that, but they didn’t do that with him. I think he was too senior and too—yes, just too senior for that. He was very, very down to earth. So it wasn’t as though he was senior and kept a distance from people. I think it was out of respect that people didn’t bother him with things like that.
Because, for instance, he would… There was one family that we stayed with in Italy that had a very big house and all the lamas used to stay there when they visited. And the old grandmother was a great cook. And she said of all the lamas who visited there, she liked Rinpoche the best. Because Rinpoche would come in his undershirt and his under-robe and sit in the kitchen while she was making breakfast and do his mantras at the table. And he ate with everybody. Almost all the other lamas kept a very formal distance and sat in their room, and they had to have a tray of food in their room, and never interacted with the family.
But, as I said, people didn’t go to him with that kind of personal problem. Westerners.
Interviewer: Was it easy to know Rinpoche’s point of view? Like do you hear Rinpoche’s views in your mind now?
Alex: Oh, sure.
Interviewer: So can you say something about that?
Alex: His views? Very, very practical. Completely down to earth. And keep your priorities straight. This type of thing.
Interviewer: And then with your translation work for Rinpoche, did you use to discuss definitions and how to represent…
Alex: Oh, all the time. Rinpoche was very concerned about terminology, and he encouraged me very, very much to come up with better terminology, more precise terminology. And he would explain to me the connotations of Tibetan words, and I would ask him. And then he wanted to know the connotations of the English words that were being used, and if they weren’t correct then we would work together to try to find a better term. This type of thing.
He also encouraged me in an experiment—which, I must say, after a while I abandoned after he passed away—which was to try to translate absolutely every word into English and every syllable of every word. Because he said that the Tibetan words are like—you can milk the meanings out of each syllable. And when you read commentaries, they do explain each syllable of a multi-syllable word. And although I tried that and I used that, I had to modify that later on; I think I went to too much of an extreme.
Interviewer: So you say Rinpoche was encouraging you to…
Alex: To be inventive and to be more precise. And to watch out for incorrect connotations, because this was what we observed together from questions that people asked—in terms of what were the areas that they had misunderstanding about, and why did that misunderstanding come about.
You asked about foolish questions. I remember once I was translating for His Holiness (a discourse in Dharamsala) and Rinpoche was there. And, as His Holiness likes to do, he invited written questions. And so I’d get these written questions to go through at night, to choose the ones that would be asked the next day. Rinpoche wanted me to read him these questions, and the ones that were nonsense questions or foolish questions he threw out immediately. In fact, sometimes he added questions that would be an interesting question to hear how His Holiness would explain, that would be beneficial for the students. So he did deal with some of the more strange types of things that Westerners would ask.
Interviewer: So you said that Rinpoche was suggesting for you to translate every syllable…
Alex: Every syllable, including people’s names. Like the Tibetans do from Sanskrit into Tibetan.
Interviewer: From Sanskrit?
Interviewer: Have you completed all the work that Rinpoche requested you to do?
Alex: Have I completed all the work that Rinpoche suggested for me to do? He didn’t suggest anything for me to do. It was up to me what I do. It was completely up to me.
Interviewer: There’s no text that you were translating with his guidance?
Alex: Well, what he did—he encouraged me very, very much to learn how to read on my own, as he said that there’s nobody who’d be able to explain every text that I want to learn, and so I should learn to read it by myself. And then if I had questions, then I could ask. And so, like this, I read through quite a number of commentaries while he was alive, and he would answer my questions. And while I read them I would do a running rough translation of them, so I tried to prepare it for my website and a lot of it still isn’t in a polished form. Because a lot of it is dealing with tantra and I’m really quite hesitant to put that up publicly on the website. But, in any case, what was very nice was that for a few years after that, His Holiness consented to play that role with me—to take that role, I should say—and continue to answer questions for me from my reading.
So this was very, very helpful. And I guess he suggested various texts for me to read, but it wasn’t as though he gave me a list. When I finished one text, then he would tell me the next text; it wasn’t that he gave a list of ten and said, “Do these.”
Interviewer: That would be amazing, all these texts, then, even though you can’t put them on the website.
Alex: I have tons of material, thousands of pages. Well, some of it’s on the Kalachakra website; this they have. I mean, eventually—it’s just that I don’t have time to do this. What I want to do is… The Kalachakra texts, they put up on the Kalachakra website. My friend Wolf [Saumweber] does a Yamantaka, and a Guhyasamaja, and a Chakrasamvara, and a Vajrayogini website, so he’s put most of the stuff up there. But the thing is that it’s not edited.
Interviewer: He does the Guhyasamaja one does he, as well?
Interviewer: He does the Guhyasamaja one, the one that…
Alex: I’m not quite sure. Jamyang [Center in London] does the Guhyasamaja. But, anyway, they have my texts and they’re there. But they do the access—you know, secret access codes, and all this sort of stuff, and interviewing people for them to be able to get access to things. And I certainly don’t want to have to deal with that. So what eventually I want to do, if I—I have so much to do, I’ll never be able to finish it—is to at least read through this stuff and just link it for my website. And anybody who wants access can go through their mechanism to get permission to read it. Eventually, I’ll do that. But I really feel a bit uncomfortable that they’re not well edited. And even though it’s indicated that they’re not edited, that they’re not in proper English, that they’re my rough notes—but certainly a lot of people have been benefiting from them. So it’s there.
But I have tons of that stuff. I calculated once for a fundraising, I have the equivalent of about 40,000 pages of manuscripts. Well, I never did anything else in my life. I never worked. I only did this.
Alex to Alan: Oh, come on, Rinpoche taught you tons of stuff. You dealt with Rinpoche. Rinpoche used to scold you. These sort of things.
Alan: You can tell her that.
Alex: No. You tell her. But I think that’s very important. Because you know how people have these lovey-dovey lamas that treat them so nicely? That’s not always the most beneficial thing.
Well, what I wanted to add was that Rinpoche was a very traditional teacher in this sense as well, which was that he really made sure that I wasn’t dependent on him. And then I would become independent and know how to do my own study, know how to do my own research, know what to ask lamas and what not to ask—to look up for myself. And he trained me to be a teacher as well.
Interviewer: So what was he teaching you in terms of what not to ask lamas?
Alex: Stupid questions that you can find in a book—the answer in a book.
Interviewer: And these personal type of questions?
Alex: And personal type questions. Well, he never asked me and I never asked him personal questions. Those are things you’re supposed to work out yourself from the teachings, and then you grow. It’s the same method as a therapist uses. A therapist doesn’t give you all the answers. A therapist makes you think and figure it out and get the insight yourself. That’s how you grow. Now that’s very difficult as a Western teacher, and very difficult as a teacher in general, because you like to give clear answers, but that wasn’t what Buddha did. Buddha made people think for themselves.
Interviewer: And would Rinpoche be different to different people? Like would he scold some people, but be very…
Alex: Yes. Rinpoche was different with different people. But he didn’t hesitate to scold people.
Interviewer: So some people would consider him quite wrathful?
Alex: Yes. He could be a jolly old man, and he certainly liked to joke; but when he saw that it was helpful to scold, he scolded. But I don’t think he scolded anyone at the same level that he scolded me. Maybe Alan he scolded that much.
Interviewer: Because you could handle it.
Alex: Well, we could handle it. And also it was incredibly kind. Also, this is what’s involved with what I call the healthy relation with the spiritual teacher. Entrusting yourself to the teacher. You basically have a contract, and the contract is that: “everything that you do, I’m going to see as a teaching for me and beneficial for me, and therefore I will never get angry.” It doesn’t mean that you drop all judgment, in terms of what is appropriate and inappropriate with the Dharma. But it’s like, as I mentioned, Rinpoche would stop me at any point and any situation and say, “What did I just say? Repeat it.” And you couldn’t say back to him, “Well, not now,” and give no—you couldn’t give an excuse.
But his calling me an idiot, and all of that—I never got angry. Actually, I used to have a nervous laugh. It used to make me laugh in a nervous way when he called me that. And everybody—all the Tibetans—thought that was very, very good.
Interviewer: You mentioned His Holiness, that Rinpoche was like a friend to His Holiness. Who were the lamas who were Rinpoche’s closest friends?
Alex: Who were the lamas who were Rinpoche’s closest friends? Well, when I traveled around with him, what I noticed was that whoever he was with he treated like his closest friend. But he was—I know he was a very close friend with Ratra Rinpoche (the one that is in Geneva now), and I know that he was very close with Chogye Trichen Rinpoche (he’s the late head of one of the Sakya traditions), because they worked together in the religious department when it was first set up. And he was certainly very close with the old Nechung medium. He used to come all the time, but I don’t know whether that was because Rinpoche trained him; I don’t know that they were friends on an equal status. Everybody looked at Rinpoche as a teacher of course.
Interviewer: You mentioned that he trained the mediums, but in what way?
Alex: Well, the mediums have to do quite a number of retreats of various deities, and purification things, a special diet, and stuff like that. So he was very close to the old Nechung one. And very close to the young one, even before he was recognized as the medium. He used to come all the time to Rinpoche’s house. And very close with Gadong, the Gadong medium; he trained him.
Interviewer: And what about the tutors of His Holiness? Was Rinpoche quite close with them?
Alex: Was Rinpoche close to the tutors? He regarded them as his teachers and so he was very formal with them, the way that he is with Ling Rinpoche in this lifetime. They’re very formal with each other. Rinpoche, when he was a little boy—I mean, I can remember both of them… Ling Rinpoche being about three years old and Serkong Rinpoche being (there’s two years difference or one year difference, I think) four, something like that. And Rinpoche refused to sit on the same seat with him or on the same level with him; he had to sit lower. And that’s a strong instinct from a previous life. He’s very, very respectful.
And despite the what you would call friendship with His Holiness… I don’t know; I never saw the two of them totally alone. But in teachings—my goodness, Rinpoche would sit right next to His Holiness and never look up at him; he would always look down, in the way that you’re supposed to be. He also used to scold me very, very strongly—if I were translating for His Holiness—if I moved an inch, or moved my hands, or anything like that. You’re supposed to look down. Don’t look up at His Holiness like you’re looking at an animal in the zoo. Down. Don’t move your hands. And just be the conduit for his teachings to come through. And then he would be—I’d be on one side of His Holiness and Rinpoche would be on the other side, so he would look through the corner of his eye to watch how I was behaving. He was very good. He was excellent.
Interviewer: And did His Holiness make comments about how humble Rinpoche was?
Alex: Yes. His Holiness always mentioned how humble he was and down to earth. Rinpoche didn’t like to travel in any fancy way. He really disliked if people took him out to expensive restaurants; he said, “We can eat at home.” And if we traveled, he always preferred the third class train, like Gandhi. “First class and third class gets there the same time,” he said. “Why waste the money on that?”
Interviewer: And you were telling a story about how when Rinpoche was at someone’s house, he wanted to sleep outside.
Alex: Yes. We were staying at the house of a very, very wealthy family in Switzerland, and we were staying at this very wealthy house, and it was right on one of the lakes, I think, in Zurich. And the woman of the house, who was the Dharma student, always felt very uncomfortable in this huge, huge mansion. And when we went to stay there, the room that she prepared for Rinpoche was the library with the oak paneling and the leather everything, and absolutely the most elegant room you could imagine. But there was also a veranda, a screened-in veranda, which actually had a very lovely view of the garden and the lake. And Rinpoche saw this and he said, “I want to sleep on the veranda,” and so he slept on the veranda for the whole time. And we had to move in some cot or something like that for him to sleep there. And basically he was teaching the woman that she didn’t have to feel uncomfortable in a house like this: just find the part that you like and stay there.
So he always taught in very indirect manners like that. Like teaching me about how Guhyasamaja was way over my head when I first came to India, by setting up that situation. Because for sure he knew that the retired abbot was in a three-year retreat and doing another three-year retreat, and that there would be no opportunity for me to really study it. But he also knew that it would make a tremendous impression on me, which it did.
Interviewer: What was Rinpoche’s connection with Spiti? How did that come about?
Alex: Rinpoche’s connection with Spiti? I don’t know how it initially started; that, I have no idea. But Rinpoche was always… You know, there’s this verse: “May Dharma spread and grow wherever it has not grown. May those who have not developed bodhichitta develop it; and those who have developed it, may it be further…” and so on. And so Rinpoche liked very, very much to go to really remote areas where people didn’t have access to the Dharma but wanted access to the Dharma. And Spiti was one of these regions. The situation of Dharma was very much degenerated there. And people didn’t have very, very much; it was very difficult to get to; incredibly poor; very dirty; no facilities—no paved roads, etc. And that’s where he went. And there was also a lot of Tibetan army that was on the border of Tibet there. And he would go up, even riding on yaks—there’s a picture of him on a yak—up to the very, very high border places where the Tibetan army (the Tibetan division of the Indian army) was, in order to teach them. This is very, very inspiring. And then, because he reformed Buddhism there, he became like the saint of the valley.
This is a very good example. I’ve tried to follow that in my life, my teaching—of always trying to go to the more remote areas where people don’t really want to go and teach. This, I think, is a very important tradition that I learned from him.
Interviewer: Did you travel to Spiti with Rinpoche?
Alex: Once, when His Holiness gave the Kalachakra initiation. That was just before Rinpoche passed away. So yes, I did.
Interviewer: Did Rinpoche do retreat there, or… Was Rinpoche on retreat very much?
Alex: Yes. Well, he did a retreat there just before he passed away. After the Kalachakra initiation, he did a retreat. Then, after that, he went to teach Bodhicharyavatara at an army camp. And he cut it off in the middle and then went to this other place, where he passed away.
Interviewer: I remember hearing or maybe reading you said something about Rinpoche’s comments about how people shouldn’t discuss that they were going on a retreat.
Interviewer: So you would never know what Rinpoche was doing in terms of retreat?
Alex: No, I didn’t know that he was… Well, let me think. Did I know that he was going to do a retreat? I might have known. I don’t really know. I don’t really recall. I don’t really recall.
But Rinpoche used to say there are many different ways of doing retreat. And so one way—which is the way that he always encouraged me to do my retreats, and I did all my retreats this way—was to just do one session in the morning, one session at night, and go about my regular daily business and don’t tell anybody what I am doing (it’s none of anybody’s business). So I did like that, and I imagine that Rinpoche did like that a lot as well.
Interviewer: So he wasn’t saying you had to do four sessions?
Alex: No. You don’t have to do four sessions; that’s not required. And you don’t have to set up a retreat boundary, and put the stones at a certain distance, and make a list of who’s allowed inside the boundary; that’s not necessary. He’s very, very practical. Very down to earth. This is wonderful.
Interviewer: He sounds such an exceptional lama.
Alex: He was, he was. The only one that I know with that amount of flexibility and practicality is His Holiness. As I said, the two of them are very, very similar.
Interviewer: Often you hear, “Well, this lama, he’s like an emanation of such-and-such deity.” Because Rinpoche’s very private—and traditionally you don’t discuss what your private practice is—but are there certain sorts of practices that Rinpoche was aligned with?
Alex: I don’t know. That’s hard to say. He certainly was very much into Kalachakra; he was the Kalachakra teacher of His Holiness. And certainly into these Nyingma practices from the Fifth Dalai Lama, especially Hayagriva, that he taught—he gave the initiation to His Holiness. That, I know. He comes from Ganden Jangtsey monastery, so Guhyasamaja is their main practice. He was at Gyumay, the Lower Tantric College, so they do the combination of Guhyasamaja and Yamantaka and Chakrasamvara. He was certainly into—I mean, many of these practices. The Vajrapani Mahachakra form—the anuttarayoga form of Vajrapani—that I know he also had given the initiation to His Holiness. He was certainly into that.
Interviewer: Secret Vajrapani. Is that the one?
Interviewer: I can’t phrase this question very well, so I won’t try too hard. But…
Alex: He was—I mean, don’t forget Serkong Rinpoche was the debate master of His Holiness. And although people might know him in the West for giving a lot of initiations and teachings about discourses on the various tantras, or Lama Chopa, or six yogas of Naropa, or these sort of things which he taught, or the fire puja manuals, and self-initiation things, and stuff like that—his main thing was logic and debate. He was an absolute master of that. But this he didn’t teach to Westerners. Westerners weren’t able to follow that. He was the master of debate—that was his job—he was the debate master.
Interviewer: In the late part of Rinpoche’s life was he still doing this debate with [His Holiness]?
Alex: Was he still doing this debate? I have no idea.
Interviewer: He didn’t teach you debate?
Alex: No. I never wanted to learn debate. I learned to be able to read debate things, but it wouldn’t be good for my personality. This I decided when I first came to India.
Interviewer: In what way?
Alex: In what way? I was super, super intelligent, intellectual Harvard graduate student with a lot of pride and no social graces, and if I were to go into debate I would become what I would call a “debate monster.” I wouldn’t know how to turn it off. And I would just become more intellectually aggressive than I already was. So it would not be good for my personality in the slightest. And to develop the skills of disciplined analytical thinking—I had that already. So I can read the debate texts and follow the format, but no thank you, that would not be helpful for me.
Interviewer: So you had to take more of the…
Alex: More of the bodhichitta side, more develop the imagination with visualization practices, and these sort of things.
Interviewer: And the guru-devotion.
Alex: And the relation to the teacher. The relation to the teacher. I wouldn’t call it devotion; I find that term very, very misleading.
Alex: Because it implies being a mindless servant or slave: “Lama, Lama, tell me what to do.” That’s not at all the proper…
Interviewer: The English word.
Alex: The English word devotion. But this is a good example. People get misled by the connotation of the English word. The word means to entrust yourself, and it implies trust and a healthy relationship. It’s the same word used to describe your relationship with your doctor. You wouldn’t say that you have doctor-devotion.
Interviewer: But you have to open your heart, don’t you?
Alex: Well, you open your heart in the sense of trusting the person.
Alex: Right, based on a tremendous amount of examination. But trust doesn’t mean blind faith. Because it says very clearly in the texts that if the teacher tells you to do something that’s against the Dharma, you excuse yourself politely or you ask, “Could you explain your thinking behind this?” The same thing in terms of if they ask you to do something that’s beyond your capability or you’re not able to do. Then you excuse yourself; you explain politely.
Interviewer: But there’s still the fact of the superior…
Alex: Well, it is a hierarchical situation. The guru is not your buddy.
Interviewer: No. I meant more like for those with superior capabilities that have the reason, but still have the faith and…
Alex: Well, the point is you have to be qualified as a student, as the disciple. This is why in the book that I wrote, Relating to a Spiritual Teacher, that I outline the different levels of spiritual seeker, and the different levels of teacher, and different levels of relationship with the teacher. What’s described in the texts is a very advanced level of relationship for a very advanced student and a very advanced teacher, both of whom have to be extremely well-qualified (and there are lists of the qualifications). So most people aren’t quite either ready or prepared to enter into that type of relationship. You have to be emotionally stable and mature.
Interviewer: You had quite an amazing opportunity to develop a relationship.
Alex: I had a very amazing opportunity. Very, very amazing.
With the teacher, you don’t ask the teacher what to do. That’s what a child does. What you do is you say, “I think to do this. Do you have any objections?” And then if there’s some objection to it, the teacher will tell you that. The whole point is to train the student to become a Buddha. Stand on their own two feet.
Interviewer: But they have been doing things wrong for a long time, obviously.
Alex: The students? Well, sure. If they’re doing something wrong, the teacher will point that out.
Interviewer: You weren’t with Rinpoche when Rinpoche passed?
Alex: When Rinpoche passed away? No. I had seen him a few weeks earlier. That was in Spiti after the Kalachakra initiation, so he said, “Goodbye. Go back home,” and he was going into this retreat, and then he was going to teach, and then presumably he was coming back.
Interviewer: He didn’t give any… You don’t recall any indication?
Alex: Any indication? I mean, he gave indications to others. The only indication that I was aware of was… It was very funny, because I had organized a bus of Western students from the library, about thirty of us, and chartered a bus, and went through all the red tape to get the inner line permits (because nobody was allowed to Spiti at that time; foreigners weren’t allowed). And we had—I mean, it was really an incredible adventure with this bus, and the permits, and everything that happened. So, anyway, I was sort of like the organizer for this. And it came time to go back to Dharamsala, and one person on the bus had gone off to Kyi monastery, which is further up the valley, and they shouldn’t have gone. And so I had to go fetch this person—which was actually a very good opportunity to visit Kyi monastery—to get her back to go on the bus to go back down. And another Western student of Rinpoche, Gianni, this Italian—Gian-Luigi [Borasi]—came to see Rinpoche to say goodbye. And Rinpoche asked in English… Now Rinpoche never, ever spoke English. He never gave the appearance that he knew any English. Although one could surmise that he could follow a little bit, because when I was translating, then, if I ever made a mistake, almost always Rinpoche would know that and he would stop me and ask what did I just say, and I’d have to translate it back to him in Tibetan, and he’d correct me. But when Gianni came in to see him, Rinpoche asked in English—because there was no translator—“Where’s Alex?” So this is something very, very unusual. And Gianni said, “You’re speaking English!” And Rinpoche just laughed.
Interviewer: But no indication to you that Rinpoche was planning to…
Alex: No, he didn’t give any indication to me. He gave it to other people, but not to me. And that was later, after the retreat. The retreat is only a couple of weeks. People do retreats very quickly; Western people tend to take long. It’s like this young Serkong Rinpoche; I think he did the Vajrapani Hayagriva Garuda retreat in what, two days or three days? With a hundred thousand mantras. They do it quickly and all day long.
Look at His Holiness, how many initiations His Holiness is able to give. More than almost anybody I could imagine, which means he’s done a retreat for all of them. You’d better believe he does them very quickly.
Interviewer: Perhaps you could tell the story about what happened during Rinpoche’s passing, if it’s okay to, just briefly. I mean, people say that he had taken on obstacles for His Holiness’s life.
Alex: Right. That’s my understanding. That’s my understanding.
Interviewer: Well, can you say it (because I’ve sort of said it, rather than you)? So why did Rinpoche pass away?
Alex: Well, as far as I know, Rinpoche foresaw that there were some obstacles to His Holiness’s life. It was the so-called bad luck year—inauspicious year, I should say—for His Holiness. And Rinpoche had always taught with tonglen, with giving and taking practice, that you should be prepared to take on a serious obstacle to someone to the point that you would die. You have to be willing to die. And he always, always said that, every time that he taught tonglen. He taught tonglen quite frequently.
His Holiness was going to Switzerland—to Geneva, actually—and Arafat was supposed to be going to Geneva at the same time. And the local authorities in Switzerland said they wouldn’t be able to provide the normal security that they would have because of Arafat. So this was the obstacle. How Rinpoche knew this? There were many indications that Rinpoche had extrasensory perception. I saw many examples—not many, but quite a number of examples of that personally.
So Rinpoche was giving this teaching on Bodhicharyavatara at this Tibetan military division in Spiti, and he cut it off in the middle, and said, “I have to go now.” And he stopped at—I think it was at Tabo monastery, and picked up this old monk who was there, and basically told him, as far as I know, what he was about to do, which was to take on the obstacle with tonglen. And the monk said, “Well, I just washed my robe,” and stuff like that, “I can’t go.” And he said, “No, no. You have to come with [me]. Tie the robe to the top of the jeep and it will dry as we go along.”
And then he stopped at—they stopped at Kyi monastery. And at Kyi monastery, Rinpoche… Rinpoche was quite overweight and often he needed help in walking, but I know from personal experience that when he wanted to go, he could go very, very quickly. He could jump up and run more quickly than any of us. But at this point he went, then, very quickly up to the monastery and everybody was saying, “No, no. You can go on your way back down”—because he wanted to go to one specific person’s house, which was where he was going to die, someone that he knew—and they said, “Oh, you can go here on your way down.” He said, “No, no. I have to go up there and make offerings,” so he ran up—and Kyi monastery is on a very high pinnacle, so you have to go up, and it’s a very, very high elevation—so he ran up to the thing and made offerings. And then the monks said, “Oh, please stay,” and these sort of things. But he said, “No, no. If you want to see me again, you’re going to have to come up to this village,” a very, very high village.
And then he went to this village and went to this person’s house. The person was still in the field. He called him and said, “Are you busy for the next few days? Can I stay here?” And he said, “Oh, yes. Please stay here.” And then Rinpoche at night, he did his recitations. He always recited “Drangngey legshey nyingpo” (“Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po”) by heart. This is Tsongkhapa’s most difficult text, on—“The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings”—on the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka schools. And so it was about 250 pages long. Rinpoche recited it from memory every day. And so Rinpoche recited this, and whatever other practices he did in the evening, and then he asked Ngawang, the attendant, to…
And he had told Chondzeyla to go away—Chondzeyla didn’t come up there—because Chondzeyla, the other attendant, had been with Rinpoche since he was six years old. He was really like Rinpoche’s son, and he would be much too emotionally upset. So he’d sent him down to someplace else. I think back to Dharamsala.
So Ngawang was there. And he said—and Rinpoche always slept on a yellow sheet, he had a lovely soft yellow sheet—and he said, “No, no. Lay out a special white sheet.” He laid out a white sheet. And Rinpoche then asked Ngawang to take him to the toilet, to help him go to walk there, because it was dark. And Ngawang helped him. And Rinpoche put his arm around him. Now Rinpoche never showed affection, physical affection to others, that I was aware of; he certainly never showed it to me or to any of the attendants, that I saw. But he did that and said to Ngawang, “I always tell you to say OM MANI PEME HUMs, but you never take that seriously.” Some sort of parting advice.
And then he went back and he asked the old monk to come to the room with him. And the old monk that he had brought from Tabo stayed there. And Rinpoche lay down, and he lay down in a special position. Usually they slept the way the Buddha went to sleep, with their hands like this, but instead he lay down with his arms crossed. And apparently did tonglen and just passed away like that. Took on the obstacle from His Holiness. And his Holiness just at that time was flying to Geneva. And Arafat for some incredible reason—maybe associated with Rinpoche, but certainly with other circumstances as well—changed his mind and in midair decided that he wasn’t going to Geneva, and turned around and flew somewhere else. His Holiness landed and the police and security wasn’t really ready—because they had all these preparations for Arafat—and the motorcade got lost going through the city, and so on, but, nevertheless, there was no serious obstacle to His Holiness.
And Rinpoche just passed away like that. Now Rinpoche was in good health. I had taken him to a doctor just before he went up to Spiti—it was at the end of some of our journeys—and he was in perfect health. I mean, mind you, he was not a young man and he was overweight, but there was no problem.
Interviewer: And so where were you? How did you hear about it?
Alex: How did I hear about it? I got a message. Actually, I was in the middle of… I was also doing a retreat, but one of these in the morning and evening ones. And—I forget who it was—somebody came to my house and told me, and I couldn’t believe it. And so I went up to the labrang, Rinpoche’s house in McLeod Ganj—I lived down in the Indian village—and asked, and they told me yes, Rinpoche had passed away. News had come from Spiti.
Interviewer: How did you feel?
Alex: Horrible. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. Really, really horrible, obviously.
Interviewer: So what did you do?
Alex: What did I do? I went back and continued my retreat, and did a lot of Lama Chopas (The Guru Puja). What can you do?
What was interesting was that I went down to—I walked back down from there and I stopped at Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s house. He was my other major teacher; he was at the Library. And Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey was—I think it was on my way down, maybe it was the next day, I don’t quite recall—but Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey was having lunch with some Tibetan friend, and he told me to just sit in the other part of the room and wait until they finish. And Geshe Dhargyey was always very much joking, and they were having a good time and telling stories to each other, and so on. And then afterwards, when they finished, and Geshe Dhargyey called me over and asked what did I want, I told him that Serkong Rinpoche had passed away and I was very, very upset about the whole thing. And then Geshe Dhargyey started to enumerate every one of his teachers who had died and said that everybody’s teacher dies. I mean, mind you, Serkong Rinpoche was one of his teachers as well. But he said, “Everybody’s teachers die and pass away. You just continue.” This was very helpful to me. Very, very helpful.
Interviewer: He already knew the news?
Alex: I don’t know if he knew or not. That, I don’t know.
Interviewer: And Rinpoche was still in clear light?
Interviewer: And so then was there talk about Rinpoche taking a new body?
Alex: Well, sure. Well, everybody expected that Rinpoche would—that one would find his tulku.
Interviewer: So what happened with that? Did you… Were you…
Alex: What happened with that? I wasn’t involved with that. That was purely done by His Holiness.
Interviewer: And then you heard at some stage that they had found…
Alex: I heard that they had found the young tulku. He was four years old. I was away at the time on one of my lecture tours. Because after that I started getting invited to all the various places where I had translated for Rinpoche. And then through various connections, and so on, I got invited to more places, primarily in Eastern Europe, and—this was still in the Communist period—I started traveling there.
I heard that they had found Rinpoche. So I wasn’t in Dharamsala when he came down from Spiti. But I went to see him; it was shortly after he arrived. And, as I mentioned, Rinpoche seemed—from his side—that he knew who I was. He said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course I know who this is.” And he was instantly completely at ease, affectionate, and so on. And you can’t fake that when you’re four years old.
Interviewer: So just on that point, then, what happened when you saw Rinpoche?
Alex: When I saw Rinpoche? As I said, I always—I didn’t want to project. And so I was very neutral, tried not to have hopes or disappointments. The standard Dharma thing. But Rinpoche, from his side, was extremely, extremely friendly, affectionate. As I said, the attendant asked, “Do you know who this is?” when I walked into the room and Rinpoche said, “Don’t be stupid. Of course I know who this is.” Now, I don’t know if that was totally based on previous lives, because there were many, many pictures in the labrang and my picture was there as well. So I have no idea whether or not they had pointed out various people to him; that, I have no idea. But, in any case, he was much, much more friendly and at ease and affectionate to me than he was with others, that’s for sure. And that continued all the time, throughout his childhood and up to now as well.
Interviewer: Did you spend much time with Rinpoche at that time?
Alex: No, I didn’t spend much time with him. I purposely kept a distance, because I didn’t want him to be infected by Western ways and my Western sense of humor, and things like that. I mean, I saw him but I didn’t hang out with him, not at all. And I didn’t become his teacher; his English teacher, for example. I was very insistent, with as much influence as I could have on his upbringing, that he be educated in modern subjects by Tibetan teachers—Tibetans—learning from the same textbooks that the Tibetans learn from in their schools, so that he would feel at ease and be able to relate to his society—to his people. This, I think, was very beneficial to him. He didn’t need to know Sesame Street English and American slang; this is totally useless.
Interviewer: That’s what you mean by infected by your humor.
Alex: Right. Well, also I have a rather zany sense of humor, and Rinpoche has his own zany sense of humor that I didn’t want to infect (is, I think, the word that I would use).
Interviewer: So you kept away from him in his childhood?
Alex: Not that I kept away, but I didn’t hang out with him. And, mind you, I was traveling a lot. I went on these huge lecture tours.
Interviewer: Would you be in some contact with Rinpoche?
Alex: When he was a small child, not so much. But whenever I came back and I saw him, he was completely the same—completely affectionate and close. And based on that, I became quite convinced of the actual truth of rebirth. You know, on a gut level. It’s very easy to—not very easy, but you get an intellectual understanding and you understand logically why there has to be a continuity of a mental continuum: it can’t have a start from no cause, and end without producing some effect. So, okay, you can understand that. But to really be convinced of it on an emotional gut level, that came through my experience with the young Rinpoche.
Interviewer: And so you really don’t compare or you can’t compare, but how do you find… How would you describe Rinpoche in this life?
Alex: In this life, he’s his own person. He’s his own person. It’s a continuity of the previous one, but I don’t… You see, in order to understand the Tibetan concept of reincarnation or rebirth, it has to be within a context of understanding the Buddhist view on the self and how the self exists. And so if you put that together, he’s not the same person, he’s not a totally different person, and he’s not identical—there’s continuity, there’s continuity. But I don’t make him truly existently identical with the old one—he’s not—but he’s not totally, totally different either. So I don’t have any problem with that.
Interviewer: And how do you feel Rinpoche’s study is going?
Alex: How are his studies going? I think quite well. I think he could probably do more if he wanted to, but I think most of us can do more if we wanted to. I’m quite happy with that. The main thing is he loves his studies. And this, I think, is very, very important. You have to love what you do. His Holiness has often said that—that in order to understand voidness, you have to love all these logic texts and all various intricacies of the debates and the logical reasons. If you don’t love that, then you’re never going to really take it seriously and delve deeply enough into it to finally understand voidness. A lot of people don’t like to hear that.
Alex: My students sometimes don’t like to hear that. But they want it easy. They want to… People want a bargain; they want it cheap.
Interviewer: And now.
Interviewer: And now.
Alex: And now. Sure. And they don’t have very much patience for these things which they consider too intellectual.
Interviewer: So we’ve just been hearing about Rinpoche’s past, like the character and everything, like the practical points of view. But what more [can you tell us of] Rinpoche’s present situation?
Alex: Well, I think he has a marvelous teacher. Really the best. And this is good.
Interviewer: His teacher being Tenzin Zangpo.
Alex: Geshe Tenzin Zangpo. Yes. He’s incredible.
Interviewer: So what is it about Rinpoche’s teacher? Can you just…
Alex: Geshe Tenzin Zangpo is considered the best debater of all three monasteries—Ganden, Sera, and Drepung. And he is familiar with the various other textbooks, not just Ganden Jangtsey’s textbook. And just is able to answer questions and put things together in an incredible way. Because I know: When I come here, I have sessions with him asking various questions that I’ve had no clarity on, or have misunderstandings, or things I want to clear up, and he’s fantastic. Mind you, he’s very, very advanced—super advanced—way above my head. And he speaks so, so quickly in super debate style. So it’s very nice: He’d teach me and I would record it. And then afterwards I’d play the tape again and Rinpoche would listen, and he would repeat what his teacher said more slowly so that I could actually understand it, because I couldn’t comprehend that complicated an answer at that speed. And actually I would write it down in Tibetan and then try to untangle the incredibly complex way in which he answered the questions.
Interviewer: But Rinpoche’s fine with it?
Alex: Yes. Rinpoche’s fine with it.
Interviewer: Is this guy a young Geshe?
Alex: Oh, yes he is. I would say he’s in his early forties. But these are the best, because it’s really fresh in their minds still. If you ask a Geshe who is seventy years old to try to remember something that he studied when he was eighteen, that’s not so easy; there are very few people who can remember that that far back. Now the old Serkong Rinpoche has said to me that he remembered every teaching that he ever received. He wasn’t boasting. I think he was doing that to sort of tell me that I should improve my memory and try to remember everything.
Interviewer: And so you’ve heard Rinpoche debate. How is Rinpoche at debating?
Alex: I don’t know. I can’t follow the debates; they’re much too fast and they’re much too noisy. The debates are with a hundred or more other people debating at the top of their voice at the same time. I can’t hear that.
Interviewer: But Rinpoche has a really sharp mind.
Alex: Rinpoche has a sharp mind. Yes. But he needs more training, and he’s the first to admit that. A lot more training.
Interviewer: How much more training will Rinpoche do?
Alex: I think he said there’s another ten years.
Interviewer: So he will do a Geshe degree?
Alex: He’ll do a Geshe Lharampa degree, yes, and then go to Gyumay. But Rinpoche needs a lot more training. A lot more training. He’s only gone partway in his education. And I think this is a very good sign, that he says that he will not teach until he has done his training. And so when people ask him to teach—because there are a lot of lamas who will teach before they’ve completed their training—and he says he’s not ready. And I think this is excellent. Excellent.
Because sometimes I ask him questions. (When I’m here I’m always working on writing something or trying to figure something out. And I particularly choose things that are difficult, to do here, so that I have an opportunity to ask questions.) But sometimes I’ve asked him questions and he’s given the wrong answer, and we get that clarified. So that’s an indication—he’s the first to admit—that, well, he hasn’t studied this material. So he tries to figure it out and guesses, I try to figure it out and I guess, and then we ask the teacher. And often we’re both wrong.
Interviewer: Is there anything else about Rinpoche’s present situation?
Alex: I don’t know. Rinpoche has wonderful people that are part of his household; this, I think, is great. And he lives fairly humbly, not as humble as the old one, but humble by the standards of the other great lamas who are now the young ones.
Interviewer: He’s a modern lama.
Alex: Well, he’s a modern lama. He loves technology. He’s very, very good with computers and cameras and things like that. That’s not so surprising.
Interviewer: So who are the people of his household? Do you know them from…
Alex: Well, the only ones that I know from—that are around from the previous Serkong Rinpoche’s times are the two main attendants Gendun Samdup and Thubten Sherab, because they were young teenagers or middle teenagers when Rinpoche passed away.
Interviewer: Gen Lhagpa [the cook] wasn’t around?
Alex: Genla wasn’t—Gen Lhagpa wasn’t here. He joined… When did he say he joined? It was in the nineties, I think. Somewhere in the nineties. He comes from Hamdong Khamtsen, this other division, down the street from here.
Interviewer: Are there any other things about Rinpoche’s present life?
Alex: Well, I was very encouraged with the trip that I went on with Rinpoche. Rinpoche’s been to the West twice, so I was with him both times. And the first one was to Graz [Austria] for the Kalachakra initiation in—whatever year that was—I think two thousand and… I don’t really remember if it was three or four . And Rinpoche basically did all the Kalachakra rituals with the Namgyal monastery, which I was greatly pleased that he was doing that and was into that, since he was into that so strongly in his previous lifetime. We had only one day off, and I took him to Vienna, just sightseeing. It was raining, rather a dreary day, and we went on a tour bus just to get a little taste of the city. And actually Rinpoche wasn’t feeling that well. And when I asked him, “Would you like to go back and go inside and see anything that we’ve seen?” he said “No.” So he wasn’t very interested.
And I went on a one-month tour—this was in January of 2005—around the United States, which was a very intensive sightseeing trip, basically. It was Rinpoche’s holiday. And we were doing the whole thing of Disneyland, and Sea World, and the Statue of Liberty, and various museums, etc. And at the end of it, I asked Rinpoche what he thought of America and the whole thing, and Rinpoche’s remark was: “Nothing special.” I always called him the Nothing Special Rinpoche because that was his remark about almost everything, ever since he was a little boy. We’d ask him, “Well, what do you think of that?”—“Nothing special.” Nothing special. So he thought America “nothing special,” which I thought was a wonderful response to all the stuff we had seen.
And I asked, “What was your favorite thing on the trip?” And he said the favorite thing was the Holocaust Museum in Washington, about the Jewish Holocaust and the Nazi period, where they have very graphic descriptions—much better, much more graphic than you see in Jerusalem or Auschwitz or any of these other places—of all the medical experiments that they did on the people, and the cattle cars that they transported them in, and so on. And he said this was the best of the whole thing because it gave him an opportunity to develop compassion. And at the end of our tour of that museum, he asked me to write something for him in the guest book. And what he asked me to write for him was that he was a visiting Buddhist monk and he felt it was really a very good opportunity to see all these tragic things which had happened and to develop compassion for the victims of this. But he said also we must develop compassion for the perpetrators of all these atrocities, because these too are human beings—they’re human beings—and they too have a tremendous amount of suffering from all the suffering that they inflicted, and so we must remember them with our thoughts of compassion as well. This I thought was wonderful, absolutely marvelous. He was twenty years old.
Alex: So this gives me great hope that Rinpoche will not succumb to the various treats of Mara that one finds in the West.
Interviewer: Because he’s got a big job to do.
Alex: Well, I think that this is one of the most important things—that he takes his position very seriously and has a great sense of responsibility, without seeing it as a burden. And this, I think, is partially due to growing up in a Tibetan society, in a monastic society, and being integrated in that and not being exposed to the West and Western things when he was a child.
Interviewer: Because there’s enough pressure in the position.
Alex: Well… I mean, within the Tibetan society he’s in his normal situation. He’s in his normal situation.
Interviewer: There is a lot of pressure on top of that.
Alex: There is a lot of pressure, but it is within a cultural envelope that they’re familiar with. So it’s quite different from pressure coming from an outside influence.
Interviewer: Thanks so much.
Alex: You’re welcome.
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