The two things all Buddhists need to know
There was Tara, the "mother of liberation" and Nagarjuna the founder of the Madhyamika (“Middle Way”) school from which Je Tsongkhapa would use as platform to propel the Gelug school as one of the four major traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Between these powerful protectors laid the stairways leading to the room where HH Ganden Tripa Rinpoche was waiting. The staging room was regal. A small throne was enshrined specially for Rinpoche. As I walked into the room, he was the first person that caught my eye.
The traditional ceremonial scarf khata was handed to me as I kneeled on my knees making the obligatory prostration to a Buddhist teacher. As I moved towards Rinpoche, he put the khata around my neck. What he did next caught me by surprised - he placed his palms on my cheeks as a loving grandfather would to his grandson. He looked me into the eyes and let off a smile with love and kindness written all over it.
There and then, a compassionate awakening beckoned. So this is how it felt to be embraced by the loving kindness of a guru from the Himalayas.
Rinpoche's simple act rendered any preconceived ideas that I had of Tibetan Buddhism moot. Coming from a Thai Theravada tradition, could Vajrayana Buddhism be a little too exotic and esoteric for a typical Malaysian?
Losang Dragba Centre, where the interview was taking place, was an epitome of the rich and complex derivation of Tibetan Buddhism. The prayer wheels at the porch, the sand mandala at the door step, various deities and protector Bodhisattvas inside the main hall, the lotus flowers, conch shells, golden fish, victory banners, endless knots etc outlined the gamut of colours and symbolism which could easily overwhelm the senses of a neophyte.
There seems to be so much to know and to learn. Where to start? Why Vajrayana Buddhism need to be this complicated?
And therein lies my dichotomy: Amidst all these chaos of symbolism, could there be some simple sound bytes which define what it means to be a Buddhist? I asked Rinpoche if he could give me just two things that would encapsulate the essence of Buddhism.
With that soft smile of his, he turned and said, "Non-violent conduct and a correct view of dependent origination."
"These are excellent things to remember all the time. Dependent origination should not be viewed from the aspect of abstract philosophy but in the understanding that everything is dependent on each other, for the sake of harmonious existence. All things are dependent. Ever more so in a multiracial and multi religious society like Malaysia. These teachings are not just for Buddhists. They benefit everyone", Rinpoche further elaborated,
As for non-violent conduct, which was pretty self explanatory, Rinpoche linked it to the spirit of Bodhicitta. He says:
"We start by understanding that all beings - not just humans - want the same thing. We all want happiness and not suffering. We need to equalize ourselves with others, seeing that we ourselves are the same with all sentient beings in wanting these very same things.
"When you view yourself as one person and others are countless, you can easily see that the benefits of helping others are more worthwhile rather than just thinking about yourself. If you seek the mind of enlightenment, you are actually trying to achieve Enlightenment which is basically a state of mind that is free from all falsehoods.The mind that leads you there is naturally an altruistic one. It accomplishes this state not just for the sake of oneself but for all other sentient beings as well. Apply this in daily life and you will reduce egocentric behavior, reduce one's own self importance and become a more altruistic being.
"Going further, you realize that your whole livelihood depends on other beings' existence. It is through their contributions that you get to enjoy life. Start by thinking that all your good qualities arise from cherishing others. It is easier to accomplish your own goals by putting others first. This principle applies not just only to humans but to all sentient beings as well."
And so there you are, two basic essence of Buddhism encapsulated by the clarity of a learned guru. The sound bytes can be further summarised into just two words: Compassion and Wisdom - different sides of the same coin which essentially makes the whole of a complete being.
There are so many takeaways from this encounter.
From the two basic essence we are implored to explore the gamut of qualities that will help us to attain enlightenment: selflessness, egolessness, altruism, reaching out, gratitude, empathy, interdependence.
Taking these teachings into the context of our contemporary situation, can we learn to see how our thoughts and actions impact our well being and the well being of bigger things, such as matters on climate change, social inequalities and unsustainable growth?
Just as rich, colourful and elaborate symbolism define Tibetan Buddhism, the multitude array of our interconnected senses and consciousness define our relations with others, humans or otherwise. Practicing for oneself is important but more importantly, our practice needs to directly benefit other beings, not just in thought but also in action.
At the end of the interview, the katha remain wrapped around my neck. I could still feel the warmth of Rinpoche's palms on my cheeks long after they had left them.
I backed away from this wise teacher knowing that I am leaving with not just his warm compassion, but also the glowing wisdom that has been passed on to me, just as what has been passed on to Rinpoche in the long line of a great lineage stretching back to Je Tsongkhapa.
The Gelug tradition is in good hands.
May all beings benefit from the wisdom of His Holiness the 104th Ganden Tripa Rinpoche.
Interview was conducted by the Buddhist Channel in conjunction with the 600 years celebration of Lama Tsongkhapa which was presided by His Holiness the 104th Ganden Tripa Lobsang Tenzin Rinpoch, held at the Chempaka Buddhist Lodge, Petaling Jaya from 23rd and 24th November 2019. The Buddhist Channel would like to record its appreciation with Shartse Khensur Jangchup Choeden and Ven Lobsang Tsundue, who helped translated Rinpoche's answers into English.
by Lim K. Fong