Lama Zopa: ‘People in the West think that Buddhism needs to change, not them’

In 2004, I had an interview with the Tibetan teacher Lama Thubten Zopa, the spiritual head of the Federation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) en the Dutch Maitreya Institute. I visited Lama Zopa in the guest room of Maitreya Institute’s centre in Amsterdam. The interview was held shortly after it had become known that Lama Ösel (b. 1985), the tulku of Lama Zopa’s guru Lama Thubten Yeshe (1935-1984), had decided to leave the Tibetan Sera monastery in the South of India, and pursue his education at a boarding school in Switzerland. Since then, Lama Ösel, presently known as Ösel Hita Torres, has given back his monk’s vows, and established himself as a filmmaker. The English transcript of this interview with Lama Zopa has not been published before.

LZ: Lama Zopa
RH: Rob Hogendoorn

RH: ‘When Lama Yeshe and you established the first dharma-centers in the 1970s, there was no overall plan. Since then, some 130 centers, study groups and projects in more than 30 countries worldwide have been established through the voluntary efforts of countless people you have met. What are the main reasons for the existence of the FPMT as an umbrella organization?’

LZ: ‘As you have just mentioned, the centers started naturally. Around the 1960s, due to their karma, it became time for the people in the West to wake up from the sleep of a closed mind. Somehow their karma got actualized in this way, and things happened. From those times onward it became almost a method for many young people to wake up, due to drugs and other things they had all kinds of experiences, like the mind traveling out of the body, that kind of things, astral experiences and visions. They directly experienced that the mind can exist without the body and so on, all sorts of experiences.

At that time there were very few Buddhist teachings translated and there were very few books. One was Milarepa’s life story. Again, completely due to their karma some people would see this book in a shop. There must have been many people like that, but I noticed one Italian student in particular, Pierro Cerri, one of the original Italian students that Lama Yeshe and I have met. He saw this book, and due to his karma got completely inspired by it. He then came to look for a guru in India and Nepal. So somehow he had the karma to meet us. So, what happened was that it was his first time and maybe he did not really hear the lam rim teachings, but anyway, he had left all his material possessions behind and came to Nepal. Later he realized that it was not quite like that, that it is much more difficult than that.

So anyway, due to karma he met Lama Govinda, a German professor who had gone to Tibet and met this great yogi, Domo Geshe Rinpoche. He had passed away and reincarnated in the monastery in Tibet where I come from.

Note: Lama Govinda had met the previous Domo Geshe Rinpoche in Tibet in the 1930s. As a young boy, Lama Zopa Rinpoche took his monastic ordination in Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Dungkar Monastery in South Tibet. Lama Zopa lived there for three years, until the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. After he had fled to India, Lama Zopa pursued his education in a refugee camp in Buxador, where he met his guru Lama Thubten Yeshe. Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche first came into contact with Westerners in 1965. During a visit to Darjeeling they met an American woman, Zina Rachevsky, who had actually come in search of Domo Geshe Rinpoche. Because Lama Zopa Rinpoche had been known as Domo Rinpoche ever since his stay at Dungkar Monastery, she mistakenly believed him to be the lama she had in mind. From this unusual first meeting a strong friendship grew, and the lamas spent nearly a year teaching at her home before visiting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala together. After Zina was ordained as a novice nun, the two lamas and their newly ordained disciple left for Nepal in 1967. They founded the Nepal Mahayana Gompa Center in 1969 in Kopan, near Kathmandu, soon starting the meditation courses that eventually led Lama Yeshe to found the FPMT in 1975.

Lama Govinda wrote a book, The Way of the White Clouds, through which many people came into contact with Buddhism. It talked a bit about tantra, about near death time signs and so on. I think they were able to relate to that. So many people met Buddhism in that way, through the Book of the Dead and so on. Then they came to look for a guru, for a spiritual, new life. In a similar way, my secretary Roger came to India. First he was interested in Hindu masters, he spent some time with sadhus somewhere in the mountains in India. He met one sadhu who advised him to go to Nepal, to Kopan. [laughing] That is how he met us. Like this, people gathered and came to the Kopan meditation course. They found it very beneficial, so when they went back to their own countries they started to establish meditation centers.

As to your question about the organization: Lama Yeshe, who is kinder than all the three time buddhas—the buddhas of the past, present and future—founded the organization in Dharamsala, I do not know in which year it was. [note: 1975] The reasons for having the organization was to be able to share the responsibilities, to guide the students and to make plans. The broader idea was to become more efficient in spreading the dharma in various ways. The main objective was the happiness of sentient beings: to cause sentient beings to be free from suffering and achieve not only temporary, but ultimate happiness, liberation and enlightenment.’

RH: ‘Is the importance of the FPMT today the same as when Lama Yeshe first started it? Since then, many new projects have been initiated.’

LZ: ‘I think it has become more elaborate: so many social services; the building of holy objects; [the development of] the sangha, building monasteries and nunneries in many parts of the world; many ways to benefit others have been elaborated.’

RH: ‘And these initiatives have also grown organically, step by step, with no overall plan?’

LZ: ‘That’s right, that’s how it happened.’

RH: ‘Is all well with Lama Ösel Rinpoche? I have understood that at present Lama Ösel lives in the West as a boarding school student. Was this his own decision? What reasons did he give for that?’

LZ: [laughing] ‘Yes, this was completely his own decision. Of course, our fixed idea, our wish for him is the normal idea, to stay in a monastery and continue to become a geshe. He, however, wanted to see, to understand the West more clearly, and see the Western way of life before completing his studies.’

RH: ‘For how many years does he plan to stay at the boarding school?’

LZ: ‘I think not so long, some years; he will be going to Switzerland, I think maybe he will try to go to university.’

RH: ‘This reminds me of Lama Yeshe, of course, who, in a similar way, wanted to find out what the West is like by himself.’

LZ: [laughing] ‘That is completely right.’

RH: ‘How did Lama Ösel explain this to you personally, and how did you react?’

LZ: ‘Well, he has his own wishes, and his own ways to benefit the people in the West. His style and approach follow from his past life, to make the dharma available in a common and extensive way, to reach many people. Thinking like this, this is what he wanted to do. [laughing]

RH: ‘Did you laugh when he told you?’

LZ: ‘Well, it is our fixed idea that you become a geshe and then later you can do other things. [laughing] So, I think, it has led us to follow his plans. It is possible that he will turn out to be a very dynamic teacher in the West.’

RH: ‘Of course! I suppose, though, that many of his Tibetan teachers in the monastery will worry about this.’

LZ: ‘Yes. They do worry, but not that much. As long as he remains a monk, they are happy, for then he will always come back to the monastery.’

RH: ‘Is he still dressed like a monk in the boarding school?’

LZ: ‘No, he has to wear a uniform.’

RH: ‘Really? Have you seen any pictures?’

LZ: I do not. [laughing] Perhaps the next time; I have never thought to ask for pictures!

RH: ‘His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said: “Only after thinking very deeply, examining very thoroughly, can one really determine that the Buddhist approach is, in one’s own case, more suitable and effective.” His Holiness often says something like this at the beginning of his teachings. What are the dangers if someone neglects His Holiness’ advice, and converts to Buddhism too quickly?’

LZ: ‘Of course, at the beginning of teachings or talks His Holiness advises that and it is very important advice, otherwise people will have misunderstandings. But I think a quick way of meeting Buddhism and learning and practicing is o.k. as well. But the most important thing here, what His Holiness is saying, is to analyze. Like the Buddha said: bhikkhus, the wise ones, examine my teachings like they would examine gold, by rubbing and cutting and burning; to examine well, and then to take it. What His Holiness says and what Buddha says is the same. That way is safer. Otherwise, it is just like tasting food in a restaurant: the person does not really get the opportunity to have a deep experience of the complete path; to fully develop one’s own potential, the human potential, to be able to have all the qualities, to be able to perfect the work of freeing all living beings from all suffering, and have them reach ultimate happiness and enlightenment.’

RH: ‘Do you mean to say that if there are misunderstandings in the beginning people will not be able to reach their potential?’

LZ: ‘Yes. Like the Buddha said, if you practice based on reasoning, by analyzing, then your understanding will be very deep. Nobody can stop your experience, your understanding of the teachings, of the path, of the practice. Nobody can stop, mislead or cheat you. That is the advantage.’

RH: ‘In Holland, there are several groups that claim to be followers of Je Tsong Khapa. This may confuse those who feel first drawn towards Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings through reading books such as the translation of his Lamrim Chenmo, for instance. How should they determine which group is most appropriate for them?’

LZ: ‘I should like to add a few words to the previous answer. Even if someone devotes himself to Buddhism immediately, without having taken much time for analysis, there is still an advantage. Even if one only practices for a short time and then leaves it for something else, one gets some experience, some taste of the Buddhist teachings; even if it is for a short time, but it leaves a positive imprint on the mental continuum. Even if the person does not continue, he or she may meet the dharma in the near future and see a much greater development from the positive seed that was planted. I think this is very worthwhile.

As to your question, which group is appropriate, that is difficult to say. It is basically up to one’s individual experience; it mainly depends on which teacher’s way of explaining is more effective to the mind; it is s a matter of one’s karmic connections from the past. Much depends on the translator; if the lama does not speak the language, it depends on whether the translator is passing the teachings correctly as the lama or geshe explains it. But the most important thing is whether the person hears the correct teaching as Lama Tsongkhapa has taught it…’

RH: ‘But for someone new it is hard to judge whether or not the translation is correct. They could tell him anything.’

LZ: [laughing] That is right! It is not easy; since you don’t speak the Tibetan language, there are great difficulties. I notice when I hear what the lama says and what the translator says—it is not easy! It depends on how qualified the translator is, and how much in-depth understanding the translator has. To translate every word exactly as it was said is very difficult. But, as long as one is able to pass on the essence, the main meaning, it is good. If you continue to learn, after some time—according to your karma and through hearing correct teachings that have been translated by others, by reading books—when you discover that what you heard before was mistaken, through karma you will come to right understanding. Here, it is most important to pray in everyday life to be able to hear unmistaken teachings, to have unmistaken understanding and unmistaken realization, to pray and dedicate one’s merits. Similarly, to pray every day that you may be able to find a perfectly qualified guru, not only in this life but in all future lives.

RH: ‘Over the years, the FPMT Basic Program taught at Maitreya Institute has attracted hundreds of students. Why was such a demanding, 5-year course of Buddhist studies implemented?’

LZ: ‘Lama Yeshe planned the 8-year Masters Program with Geshe Jampa Gyatso, who is a very powerful teacher; he actually took the responsibility for the program. One course has been completed, and another one started. It has been very successful: all students have studied very hard, and many of them have turned out to be brilliant students. Because eight years is quite long and many people can’t do that, after some time we started the 5-year course. The main reason is that every year the number of centers in different parts of the world has grown, and we have only a handful of teachers. Especially sangha members who have many years of experience in teaching and practicing got pulled in all directions, teaching here and there. To help the centers make the dharma flourish and help sentient beings, to benefit more sentient beings in this world, we need many more qualified teachers. You can’t invite Tibetan lamas all the time, for the monks in the monasteries need a lot of teachers too.

Also, when Western dharma students teach, the language is very clear, so that when Western people hear the dharma in their own language they hear it very clearly, and they can relate the presentation to their own lives. This helps students to understand the dharma clearly and have it touch their hearts and moving their minds. So that is the immediate thing: to illuminate this world; more teachers means you can spread the dharma, the teachings in the world. That’s the immediate thing. Of course, the ultimately thing is that by having different knowledge, knowledge other than lamrim, by studying philosophy, students will have a deeper understanding when they practice.

More correct understanding means less ignorance, which means more correct practice and correct realization. So, that is the ultimate reason. Lamrim is the very essence of the 84,000 teachings taught by the Buddha; of the mahayana sutra teachings and the mahayana tantra teachings it is the very essence. Its main goal is to tame the mind, that is the way it is presented. Without understanding philosophy you can’t go deep; with philosophy you will have deeper understanding and reasoning, which you need not only for your own realization of the path, but especially for teaching others. If you are teaching others, if possible, you definitely need to learn philosophy, because you need to be able to clarify the subject. In order to teach others at different levels, to be able to fulfill the students, the other sentient beings’ needs in accordance with their intellectual level, you need to be able to shorten the Buddhist path by clear, in-depth teaching. The more you are able to do that, the more faith they will have, which will inspire their practice.’

RH: ‘What is the significance of philosophical study for the practice of lay Buddhists who do not intend to become teachers?’

LZ: ‘Most of the Master Program students are laypeople, with some sangha students, and it is the same for the Basic Program. For them it is as I have explained before: to become a qualified teacher and have a clear, deeper understanding for their own practice.’

RH: ‘Lama Yeshe once said: “This does not mean that you should blindly accept something as true simply because you heard it from a lama. This is as serious a mistake as mere intellectualization. It is important to understand the teachings through self-awareness. You must investigate the truth of what you are told, not merely accept it because it is promoted by someone in exotic robes, or take hold of it because you are intellectually greedy.” Now, as a rule, Basic Program study advanced madhyamaka philosophy, without having been thoroughly grounded in Buddhist reasoning and logic, or lorig and tarig. How does the Basic Program prepare them to understand advanced Buddhist philosophy? Tibetan monks begin studying madhyamaka after years of preparation, whereas many Westerners study it from the very beginning.’

LZ: ‘Of course, if they have studied lorig and tarig, the preliminary scriptures, it helps them to understand the explanations in debating format – these will be much easier to understand. Within the Basic Program we do have lorig, while some may be teaching tarig as well. This depends on what the individual center’s geshe wishes. We also study a preliminary text like Seventy Topics before studying Abhisamayalankara.

In the monastery, you see, when they teach there’s a lot of debate. You read a few words, and then you debate; so many debates and analyses, whether this way of answering is correct or not, negations, and so on, and then finally coming to the actual point. These many questions in debate cause the students’ wisdom to function; they make the student analyze so that sometimes the correct answer may derive from this wisdom, what is also explained in the texts. It is very deep and thorough way of studying.

After you have studied the entire text by means of debate it is as if you are a person who knows every single part of an airplane. One person having this whole idea of every part – it is incredible, fantastic. But normally, when Buddhist philosophy is taught to Western students they do not know the Tibetan language, only very few know Tibetan. If you don’t speak the language, the technicalities of debate are not easy. So, at many centers, when a philosophical teaching is given it is more the meaning that is presented, not so much debate, and more like an introduction. This makes it much easier. It all depends very much on the teacher, on the skills of the teacher.’

RH: ‘So a geshe would teach philosophy to a Westerner differently from a Tibetan?’

LZ: ‘That’s right. Unlike the monks in a monastery, they have little time. They have jobs and so many other things in their lives that there’s not enough time to spend months learning the technical details of analysis and debate, the way it is done in the monastery. The monastic style simply doesn’t fit into their lives. If they do have time like in the monastery to study day and night, memorizing, especially if they learn the language, then of course they can learn it too. Otherwise, it might be boring to study like that for so many months, in so much detail. So therefore the teachers mostly present the meaning.’

RH: ‘But then there will be very few Western teachers who, as it were, know all the parts of the airplane. Only the Tibetans will know all these parts, and Westerners will just fly!’

LZ: [laughing] ‘Like passengers! [laughing] No, I think they’ll mostly study the essence, and may learn little of the technicalities. This means that they won’t be able to teach that way. But there are some Western monks in the monasteries studying extensively, and there may be some students in the West as well who learn the Tibetan language and study the texts. In Sera Je monastery, for instance, there are a number of Western sangha studying to become geshe.’

RH: ‘Is the traditional way of studying philosophy in the monasteries changing as well?’

LZ: ‘This form of debate is a continuation from Tibet, and I don’t think it has changed much. The only thing is that maybe the young monks who are interested in Western science and psychology and the Western way of explaining the mind, they may get other knowledge like that. The system of debate and explanation of the teachings is a continuation from Tibet. I don’t think it is changing. Hopefully, if it has not become more like what existed in Tibet, it hasn’t become less either. If the knowledge, the clarification of the teachings given through explanation and debate, is not more than how it was developed in Tibet, my hope is that it is not less, that it will not degenerate.’

RH: ‘Some time ago we had an extensive dialogue with Achok Rinpoche, who is the director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, who also heads the ‘Science for Monks’ program.’

LZ: ‘Many monks participate in such programs, as an offering to His Holiness who requested them to learn about this, so that they are more aware of how others think, of Western philosophies. This will make it much easier for them to teach in the West and benefit the people there.’

RH: ‘This seems important for modern Tibetans in India as well, who go to high school and university.’

LZ: ‘Yes. That’s right. I don’t think we will see the teachings change, but there is a lot of change in the lifestyle from how it was in old-time Tibet. As for old-time Tibet, our great master Geshe Rabten Rinpoche – who was a great scholar and a highly accomplished yogi, a hidden yogi – studied in Tibet. For many months he did not get food, living on just black tea and a little bit of tsampa. But he didn’t worry about whether he slept or not; his food; his clothing and such. His attendant said: your mind is always focused on the dharma, day and night thinking about the meaning, analyzing the details, taking teachings, memorizing, completely focused on that. So he didn’t bother about the rest. There are many stories like this about the extremely learned lharampa geshes. They definitely lived the ascetic life in Tibet, and the intensity with which they studied left no room for worries. Generally speaking, for there are some exceptions, this lifestyle has changed in India. But the teachings remain the same.’

RH: ‘Achok Rinpoche told us that only the best Tibetan scholars participate in the ‘Science for Monks’ program. He added that whereas before these monks would devote 75 percent of their attention to Buddhist studies, after they had participated in the Science for Monks program, which they find very stimulating, this would raise to 80 percent. So, they become more focused on their Buddhist studies through learning science, which is remarkable.’

LZ: [laughing] I think there are many similarities. When looking at the Western world and way of life, Tibetans tend to view it as a pure land, where there is no suffering. There seems to be no suffering in the West. They see incredible joy, and think that everything is o.k. and that people have no problems at all. It seems like the Amithaba pure land. Everything comes without effort. [laughing] But they don’t understand the West. Those who actually come here – by watching TV and reading books, hearing of all the mental and emotional problems, depressions, relationship problems – do not believe that everything just happens. They see that people have to work hard. Seeing this may be helpful to make their life in the monastery more pure! [laughing] This is the other way around, and it is very helpful.

RH: ‘We have touched on this before, but is there a point where the practice of memorization and debate becomes indispensable for advanced students?’

LZ: ‘Debate is a very technical way to stabilize one’s understanding. The understanding becomes clear and deep, so that nobody can cheat you, nobody can give you a misconception. Everything is clear. You preserve the teaching in a very deep and extensive manner, and you can teach it to others in a very clear way. It becomes very easy to negate [snaps his fingers] any wrong view with full confidence. That’s how you can stop others’ misconceptions and bring them in the right path, give them right understanding and bring them on the right path to enlightenment. Of course, you can also achieve this on the basis of one-pointed devotion to the virtuous friend – the root of the path to enlightenment – and then with continuous extensive purification and collection of merit, by learning the essence of the path to enlightenment, the lamrim, and meditating on that, of course you will have realizations. Among the kadampa geshes, for instance, there are three types of gurus. The first learns the path, the practice and the philosophy in a very extensive way, practicing and actualizing the path like this; they are the kadampa shung ba wa, the kadampas studying scripture. The kadampa lamrim pa are not like that, with extensive study etc. They learned the essence of the entire Buddhist teachings by studying lamrim and then practiced and actualized the path.

Kadampas hear the teachings from the guru’s holy mouth and in that way they learn and then practice and actualize the path to achieve enlightenment. Similarly, depending on one’s intelligence, one can do like that to achieve enlightenment; not everybody has to learn philosophy extensively.

With regard to memorization: without memorization you will always be looking at the texts, even while debating. [laughing] It will be very difficult to bring all the texts with you every time you debate! Without memorization you can’t give definitions and explain in debate; if you have memorized them, you can quote the root texts and commentaries, otherwise, you have to bring everything with you. This is similar to university examinations where you have to bring your own wisdom, based on what was taught in the past. Even though this doesn’t involve memorization like it does in the Tibetan monasteries, where entire root texts and commentaries are learned by heart, it does involve explanations from memory.’

RH: ‘How can a Tibetan geshe who does not speak foreign languages ascertain with confidence that his Western students have properly understood the verbal presentation of advanced topics? Isn’t it a problem that he cannot directly debate them in Tibetan, or hear them debate each other?’

LZ: ‘I think much depends on the understanding of the translator. The trust a teacher can have in his translator depends on that. If the translator understands well, and is skilled, he will be able to pass on the complete message, the explanation, to the students. Another way for the teacher to find out how much his students have understood is discussion, and question and answer sessions. This way a geshe can check whether his students have completely understood or not.’

RH: ‘But these discussions depend a lot on the translator as well, so this is a critical link.’

LZ: [laughing] ‘Yes. Translation is a very important passage. It is probably the most important role.’

RH: ‘In the Lankavatarasutra, quoted in Cutting Through Appearances, a much used translation on Buddhist philosophy, the Buddha says: “My doctrine has two modes, advice and tenets. To children I speak advice and to yogis, tenets.” What do these verses tell us?

LZ: ‘I am not sure about this quotation. I think that to “speak advice” to “children” sounds like simplifying the teaching. To those who are beginners or have a lesser level of intelligence you give teachings in a simple form. Those who have greater intelligence can be taught much higher, in-depth teachings. I think it might have that meaning, but I haven’t seen this quote myself, so this is just a guess.’

RH: ‘Alan Wallace said that when it comes to the purity of advanced stages of Buddhist theory and practice, such as those of Vajrayana Buddhism, there may be little need to adapt the teachings, rather it is we who should adapt to them! How should we adapt?’

LZ: ‘That’s correct. Basically, if you don’t change, if you are the same old I, the same old self, with a self-centered mind, practicing tantra with that attitude will not cause you to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings. If you don’t change your mind from attachment to samsaric pleasure, then you can’t even achieve liberation from samsara with the practice of tantra. It’s the same if you always follow ignorance—the conception that holds the ‘I’ and the aggregates, phenomena, to be truly existent—believing it, apprehending the view of ignorance which is a hallucination as true, without changing it into mindfulness that looks at everything as empty, existing in mere name, merely imputed by mind.

All things, ‘I’, action, object, all the phenomena that appear to oneself, to one’s hallucinating mind, even though they exist merely by name, merely imputed by mind, they appear to the hallucinating mind as not merely labeled by mind. Then practicing awareness that changes from what one has believed since beginningless rebirths: the object of ignorance, everything appearing not merely labeled by mind but truly existent, holding that this is true – changing that into the practice of looking at them as an hallucination, which is the total opposite. Before they were held as true, and now one views them as a hallucination. This is the conclusion that will bring the idea that everything is empty into your heart. Without this change into the right view, even if one practices highest tantra, dzogchen or dzogrim, one cannot cut even the root of samsaric ignorance.

Then also, when you practice tantra, you are supposed to practice pure view and pure divine pride, completely purifying the result. When you become enlightened the completely purified body is the deity’s holy body, then the completely purified place, the mandala, appears to you, then there is the perfect, most pure enjoyment, and completely purified action; these four are the completely purified results. When you practice tantra you bring these into the present life, you visualize everything as if it happened now, transcending everything by avoiding, by changing from impure appearances and impure thoughts.

The three principal paths are preliminary to the practice of tantra in particular; they are the foundation.

So, I think he is probably saying that many people in the West think that Buddhism needs to change; they do not think that they need to change (laughing), they think the teaching needs to change! There are some people who always talk like that: “This is too traditional. That must change.” I think Alan Wallace is right. This applies not only to vajrayana: His Holiness often says that the four noble truths as a path do not change; there may be some small changes, but the actual path doesn’t change.’

Thanks, blessings and dedication.