A BUDDHIST ESSENCE TEACHING (INTERVIEW WITH HIS HOLINESS THE SAKYA TRIZIN)
Part One: “We made many predictions and they all said the same thing.”
Q. Your Holiness, would you give us an account of your life?
A. Perhaps I should begin by telling you what happened before my birth. The title ‘Sakya Trizin’ means ‘Holder of the Throne of Sakya’ and my grandfather had been the last Trizin in our family. For the sake of having a son, my parents went on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash , Nepal , to Lhasa , and to South Tibet , but there was never any sign that a son might be born.
They had given up all hope when they reached Nalanda Monastery, an important Sakya Monastery north of Lhasa and told the monasteries’ abbots of this. The leaders were shocked and very worried, as our family lineage, the Dolma Palace line, held the tradition of the most esoteric Sakya teachings and moreover, most of the heads of the monastery had received these teachings from my grandfather, so to them, the continuation of our family was most important. They urged my parents not to give up hope, and moreover they gave up one of their best teachers, Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen, so that he could travel with my parents. This was something of a loss to the monastery, but he was a powerful Lama who could perform all the different rituals, and in particular, his prayers had caused children to be born to women who had been unable to have children before. After this he always traveled with my father, and together they performed many rituals and prayed for a son to be born. At last it became clear that the prayers had been answered and my parents halted at Tsedong, a small, pleasant town near Shigatse. It had been decided that it was a good place for a child to be born, partly perhaps for its reputation as the birthplace of many great Sakya teachers such as Ngachang Chenpo and Ngawang Kunga Rinchen. In fact, I was born in the same room as Ngachang Chenpo.
Q. When did you first go to Sakya?
A. That was later. I am told that my first birthday was celebrated in Tsedong, and that after this, our family went on a short pilgrimage to the famous shrine of Guru Rinpoche in the south of Tibet . After that we returned to Sakya, where my second birthday was celebrated rather elaborately.
Q. Your parents died when you were quite young, I think?
A. Yes. I cannot remember my mother at all. She died when I was two or three but I remember her sister, my aunt. She was like a mother to me. My father died in 1950 when I was five. That I remember very well.
Q. How old were you when your studies started?
A. This was when I was five. In that same year, Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen gave me my first lesson in the alphabet. We went to the special Manjusri shrine in Sakya, where he gave me the consecrations of Manjusri and Achala, and then a very ancient copy of the Tibetan alphabet written in gold was produced. This was especially for the use of the sons of our family. Then Lama Ngawang read the letters in front of the Manjusri image and I repeated them after him. This, of course, was a ceremony. After that I had another teacher for reading.
Q. Did your spiritual studies begin then too?
A. Yes. I had to memorize and recite prayers to Manjusri. I remember all this very clearly. After the ceremony, I was taught spelling seven hours a day, six days a week for nearly two years. We Tibetans say that the more you practice spelling, the faster you will be able to read.
Q. Were you receiving religious teaching at this time too?
A. I had received consecrations frequently. In fact, I was told that I received the blessings of Amitayus for long life from my father almost as soon as I was born. When I was four, I received the Consecration of Vajrakilaya (Dorje Phurba) from my father. I remember that also very clearly. I was sitting in the lap of a dear personal attendant, and I remember, too, when my father gave me the wrathful part of the Consecration, he was wearing the hat and costume of a black hat dancer, and performed the ritual dances. I even remembered who played the musical instruments then!
Q. Where did all this take place?
A. In the Dolma Palace . The Dolma Palace is a big palace with three main shrine rooms and many other rooms. Altogether it has about eighty rooms, and all the teachings were given in one of these shrine rooms.
Q. Did you ever go out of the palace?
A. Oh yes, but not often into town. There was a very extensive open area of fields around the palace, and the river ran quite near. I used to go out there with an attendant to play with other children when I was not studying.
Q. When did your religious studies begin in earnest?
A. I began to study reading in the summer of 1950, and in the autumn, I went to Ngor Monastery where I received the Esoteric Path-Result (Lamdre) teaching. My Guru for this was Lama Ngawang Lodro Shenphen Nyingpo, Abbot of the Khangsar Abbacy of Ngor.
Q. How do you remember him?
A. He was a very holy, very spiritually advanced Lama, always very calm, very slow in movement, and he did everything very perfectly. He was then very old. He gave the teaching in his own room to a very few people, maybe thirty in all. At that time, I was very small and could barely read. I remember I sat in the lap of Khangsar Shabdrung, the successor to the Abbot, who held out the pages in front of me so I could read the introductory prayers each day. While the Abbot was teaching the Mahayana part, I could understand it quite well, but I could not understand the Tantric section very well. I spent much time with the Abbot, and in the meantime, I continued to practice spelling and reading by going through some biographies. I stayed about four months in Ngor for teaching, and then returned to Sakya.
The following year, I visited Lhasa for the first time and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama who confirmed me as ‘Sakya Trizin designate’. I spent four months in Lhasa visiting many of the monasteries there and in central Tibet . We visited Nalanda and Samye also, and then returned through south Tibet where I visited many holy places and monasteries on pilgrimage.
During these visits, I was hard at work memorizing the Hevajra Tantra which is the basic text for Sakya religious practice. Then, early in 1952, I was enthroned at a simple ceremony, as I was then too young for the full enthronement which came later. I had to recite the full Hevajra Tantra in front of the monastic officials and teachers of the tantric monastery in Sakya: this is considered a test of ability which all monks had to take. I was then only six, but I am glad to say that I passed by reciting it correctly. After that, I attended the monthly recitation of that tantra by all the monks of the tantric monastery: it was the first ceremony I attended there. Later I left Sakya to attend the enthronement of the Panchen Lama in Shigatse, which lasted for several weeks. This time I traveled with the full dignity and entourage of a Sakya Trizin.
I returned to that summer to receive the Esoteric Path-Result teachings from Khangsar Khenpo, during which he stopped frequently to give other teachings, such as the instructions on Vajrayogini, the Zenpa Zidel (Parting from the Four Attachments) and many other important instructions. In all, the teaching lasted for a year, until I had to return to Sakya, at the request of the Chinese, for some talks. Early in 1953, I again returned to Ngor Monastery to resume studies there, but unfortunately, Khangsar Khenpo passed away just before he had finished the whole teaching and the teaching was concluded by his successor. I returned to Sakya before September, as that year, I witnessed the yearly ceremony and ritual dance of Vajrakilaya. It is always held in the seventh Tibetan month. Then I began the meditative retreat of Hevajra at the Dolma Palace .
Q. Was this your first retreat?
A. Not quite. During the time I received the first Lamdre teaching, I had performed the retreat of Amitayus and then I gave the consecration to my Guru, Khangsar Khenpo. Also, in the intervals between the two Lamdre teachings, I performed the retreat of Bhutadramara, a special form of Vajrapani, for one month. But this was the first major retreat I performed. During the retreat, we had many difficulties. I had a very strict teacher and I was allowed to see only my aunt, my two servants and my teacher. Though I myself remained quite well throughout, my teacher got very ill following the first half of the retreat-very, very ill and we had a difficult time because of his sickness. Nevertheless, the retreat ended successfully. I say ‘we’ because my sister was performing the same retreat at the same time, but in a different room, some distance away. Of course, we were not allowed to meet, but we communicated by writing notes.
After the retreat, my teacher remained ill for some months and during this period I had a long holiday! I became rather wild and took to wandering off and doing as I pleased. My aunt was a little worried and appointed a temporary teacher under whom I had to memorize the texts of the Vajrakilaya, both for daily practice and for the long ritual.
Then the summer of 1954, Khangsar Khenpo’s successor was invited to Sakya to give the Druthab Kundu, a collection of tantric meditations and teachings collected and edited by the first Khyentse Rinpoche. This lasted for three or four months and was a very pleasant occasion. The entire teaching was held in the summer house in our park at Dolma Palace , and Khangsar Shgabdrung taught in a very leisurely fashion. By this time, my teacher had recovered from his illness and taught me the ritual dances that go with the Kila practices. In September, I attended the month-long Kila ceremonies. I was not the Master of Ceremonies that year, but I took part in the dances and attended nearly every day of the ceremonies. Next I received the Mahakala teachings from Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen, and went straight into retreat to meditate on that protector for one month. I received more Mahakala teachings from Lama Ngawang, and the Thangtong Nying-Gyud from Drupchen Rinpoche, a very great Nyingma yogi and an incarnation of the Tibetan saint, Thangtong Gyalpo. I then entered the retreat of Vajra-Kila for three months. During this time, my sister, who was then sixteen, was giving the three month teaching of Lamdre. She had never done the Kila retreat, so I was asked to give her the consecration when I finished my retreat. This was the first major consecration I gave. About sixty monks were to receive the Lamdre, but many more people arrived for the Kila Consecration: about one thousand, I think. That was all in my ninth year.
Q. How do you remember Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen?
A. He was the Lama who caused me to have human birth. He was a very wonderful Lama, very strict in his observance of Vinaya rules of discipline. He would never would eat after lunch, nor wear skins, nor shirts with sleeves. His arms were always bare, no matter how cold it was and no matter how cold it was in Sakya – and Sakya is a really cold place – his room was always as warm as if centrally heated. In his house, we could keep flowers, we could keep water. Elsewhere, we could never keep water during the winter: if we put water in a bottle, it would freeze within minutes and crack the bottle!
Q. Your Holiness had a strenuous childhood. What relaxations did you enjoy?
A. I used to enjoy going out into the fields around the Palace. The river ran quite near the Palace and I used to love going there. I remember when I attended the Kila ceremony, I would be escorted home by attendants from the town of Sakya itself. Then, as soon as they were out of sight, I would take off all my ceremonial clothes and go down to the river in the simplest attire. I used to like to bathe, but even in September, the water was very, very cold; dreadfully cold. Then sometimes I would like to go out to the summer house in the park. We had an old gramophone, the kind that you wind up, and a pile of old records (mostly British military marches, but also some Tibetan folk songs) which we enjoyed listening to.
Q. Did your Holiness visit Lhasa again?
A. Yes, in the summer of 1955, I received many esoteric teachings from Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen, and that autumn I went again to Lhasa . That winter I received some short teachings from His Holiness Dalai Lama. But Lhasa had changed. When I first visited it in 1951, I saw a beautiful early, traditional Tibetan capital. Even then the Chinese were arriving; a few Chinese were to be seen in the streets. But on my second visit in 1955, I rode into Lhasa from Shigatse by jeep – by Chinese jeep! And Lhasa itself was full of jeeps and lorries; there were Chinese people and goods everywhere.
I stayed about six months in Lhasa , giving some small teachings and performing a sacred dance as a prayer there. At this time, I first met Venerable Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and stayed quite near him, visiting him frequently. I received many Sakya teachings from him, but most of the teachings I received from him were actually Nyingmapa. Early in the following year, I made another visit to south Tibet and then returned to Lhasa where I had to sit on the Chinese Preparatory Committee, along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa and other prominent Tibetans. By then the Chinese intentions were becoming quite clear, but we felt that it was best to try to control the situation as best we could, without violence. In any case, our country was not a powerful one in any military sense.
I returned to Sakya in the summer and later in the year, Khyentse Rinpoche came to Sakya. That winter, His Holiness the Dalai Lama went to India on a pilgrimage for the Buddha Jayanti celebrations and I met him in Shigatse, on his way to India . A little later, I also went to India on a pilgrimage, visiting the four most holy shrines of Buddhist pilgrimage in India : Bodh Gaya, Lumbini, Sarnath, and Kushinagar. I stayed in India about two months and then returned to Sakya. In the following year, 1957, I again performed the meditative retreat of Vajrakilaya, and again received the Lamdre teaching, this time from the Abbot of the Tantric Monastery in Sakya, the Venerable Jampal Sangpo.
Q. When did your Holiness’ full enthronement occur?
A. That was early in 1959, after the New Year. It was an event requiring much preparation. At the end of 1958, the great sacred dance of the protectors of religion was held, at which I presided. Then, at the New Year, the enthronement was held.
Q. How was this performed?
A. In the Tantric Monastery, there is a big courtyard in front of a temple with golden roofs. In this temple, the spiritual throne of Sakya Pandita is kept, on which is placed the temporal throne of Chogyal Phagpa. I had to sit on top of these and teach a text written by Sakya Pandita, called Sage’s Intent. The teaching, which included a little explanation, lasted for three days. After this, offerings were made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s representatives, by representatives of Panchen Lama, of Sakya, of many other Tibetans and also of the Chinese, on this occasion. After this a great procession was held.
Q. This must have been shortly before Your Holiness came to India ?
A. Yes, we left for India almost immediately afterwards.
Q. How did you get out of Tibet ?
A. It was very complicated. At that time, the tension in Tibet was very high and people talked of nothing but the Khampas and the Chinese, the Chinese and the Khampas. We made many predictions and they all said the same thing: that Tibet would be lost and many very dreadful things would happen. But we still waited, until one day, news came from an Indian broadcast that there had been a battle in Lhasa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama had escaped to the southeast of Lhasa . Then we hurried. I was unable to leave directly from Sakya because there were many Chinese spies. So I let be known that I was going into retreat at the hermitage not far from Sakya. I arrived there safely and sent word to my aunt and sister to join me. From there we left by night.
Q. How long did it take?
A. It is not far from Sakya to the Sikkimese border. We got there safely in five days. Our party consisted of only eight or nine people and, because of the circumstances, I was unable to bring any of the very many precious and holy things we had in Sakya.
In Sikkim , I spent a month in Lachen where, I remember, I began to learn English, and soon after that I could pick out simple words. Then a message came from Khyentse Rinpoche, saying that he was very ill in Gangtok, so I went there. The message, in fact, was brought by a Tibetan doctor who is now my father-in-law, although then I didn’t know him! Khyentse Rinpoche was very unwell and I said many prayers for him, but he became weaker and passed away in July 1959.
After this, I went down to Darjeeling and then, in winter I made a pilgrimage through India and Nepal , returning to Kalimpong and Darjeeling in early 1960. I spent that year and the next two years studying philosophy under a very learned Sakya abbot called Khenpo Rinchen. You see, although I have received many teachings and performed many retreats in Tibet , I never had time to study Mahayana philosophy very much, so during these three years, I learned Madhyamika philosophy, logic, prajnaparamita, abhidharma, and other studies. Then at the end of 1962, there was a border war between India and China so we left Darjeeling and came to Mussoorie.
The following year I spent recovering from tuberculosis, but at the end of 1963, I was able to attend the Religious Conference in Dharmasala and in March 1964, we founded the Sakya Centre to function as our main monastery for the time being, located down at the foot of Mussoorie. I went back to Mussoorie to take up studies with the Venerable Khenpo Abbey, a very great Sakya teacher. Primarily, I studied the tantras under him and received many profound explanations that he had received from his own teacher, the first Deshung Rinpoche, the great Tibetan mystic. Later I studied some Madhyamika philosophy under him too, and in addition, poetry, grammar and arithmetic. In 1965, I attended the Second Religious conference in Bodh Gaya. In 1966, I went on a pilgrimage to Sanchi, the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, but otherwise, my studies continued uninterrupted until 1967 when Khenpo Abbey went to Sikkim . In the winter of 1967, I gave the Lamdre for the first time in Sarnath, when I was 22. About four hundred monks and perhaps one hundred lay Buddhists attended. Early in the following year, we started our Sakya Rehabilitation Settlement at Puruwala for nine hundred refugees from Sakya. The place was chosen for a physical similarity to Sakya, although of course, it was much hotter.
Perhaps I should mention a succession of Western friends who had stayed with me during these years, helping with our rehabilitation work, and from whom I learned to speak English.
In 1970, a tragic motor accident deprived us of the Venerable Thutop Tulku, a young and very capable monk who had organized the Centre and the Settlement, practically single-handedly. Since I now knew English fairly well, I took over the work of administration. That autumn, I moved to the Sakya Centre and since then I have lived in Rajpur. 1971 and 1972 were good years, as the Venerable Chogye Tri Rinpoche stayed with us in Rajpur, giving a major consecration, the Gyude Kundu of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. In the spring of 1974, I married and soon after left on my first visit to the west. For four months, I visited Switzerland , England , Canada , the United States and Japan , giving religious teachings and meeting Tibetan immigrants and Western Buddhists. On November 19th, 1974, my son, Dungsei Rinpoche, was born. The following spring, we went on a pilgrimage to Chogye Rinpoche’s newly completed monastery in Lumbini , Nepal , after which I spent a month teaching at our Sakya monastery in Bodhnath, Kathmandu . That summer my aunt, who had brought me up and upon whom all the decisions and work had rested during my childhood, passed away, to our great sorrow. In 1976, I taught in Darjeeling . I taught the Druthab Kundu in Ladakh, Kashmir, and undertook a teaching tour of the settlements in south India .
Q. And next?
A. I very much look forward to teaching in the West again.
Q. Your Holiness, whom do you regard as your main Gurus?
A. My main Guru was Khangsar Khenpo, from whom I received the Lamdre. Then my father; Khyentse Rinpoche; Khangsar Shabdrung Rinpoche; Lama Ngawang Lodro Rinchen; and Sakya Khenpo Jampal Zangpo. Then to a lesser degree, Phende Khenpo, Drupchen Rinpoche and many others.