The daughter of H.E. Mindrolling Rinpoche, a high lama in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, she was identified at an early age as an incarnation of several renowned woman teachers from Tibetan history, including Yeshe Tsogyal, the consort of Padmasambhava, the saint credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet, Machig Labdron, the female founder of the Chod (or ego-cutting) lineage, and the Great Khandro of Tsurphu, the consort of the 15th karmapa, who was a predecessor of the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, the young lama who recently escaped Tibet.
As a girl, Khandro Rinpoche attended Christian convent schools in India, and her precise, British-accented English and ability to simplify complex Eastern concepts have won her a growing following in the West. She is currently on a six-city tour of the United States. Rinpoche (an honorific meaning "precious one" given to incarnate teachers) spoke with Indira and Lawrence Pintak during a stop in Boston.
One of the great debates in American Buddhism is over how the dharma will change as it comes to this country. Are you concerned?
If it is a Westernization of Buddhism as it was when Buddhism traveled from India into Tibet and then Tibetan Buddhism evolved, that's how it should be. It's good as long as one doesn't separate it from the core instructions of the Buddha and add new interpretations. But wherever there are people who try to change the original teachings to suit personal likes and dislikes, or when personal interpretations come in, then I don't agree with that. And a lot of times it does happen.
Are American Buddhists moving in the right direction?
People need to realize that we are at the very kindergarten level. The difference is going to come when people understand [they cannot] take dharma as just a change of clothes that you wear. People get a vague idea of what Buddhism is, read a few books, do a little meditation, and then run around wanting to establish dharma. And that's not how it's going to be. Dharma is going to be established when there are living people who embody it completely.
The guru is central to Tibetan Buddhism. Is the concept misunderstood here?
In the Western way of looking at it, a student is a student and the teacher is a teacher. Whereas the Buddhist way of looking at it is that the teacher is never the teacher alone, and the student is never the student alone. These two positions are not solid. You are a teacher when you need to be a teacher, you are a student when you need to be a student. It has to be that flexible. Our roles never should stagnate. Now if any tulku [incarnate lama] were to get stuck to the idea that "I am a tulku," that's the biggest egoistic display there is. You should never assume that because some title has been bestowed to you that you are so and so. It's beside the point.
How do you feel about the rise of American teachers of Buddhism?
When you take up the position of teacher, you don't have a life. From my point of view, it's impossible to have a life and do what you want to do and still be able to teach. As a teacher, you have to be the embodiment of that teaching, and if there's a reluctance, and you say "my life's my life," then you've immediately made it into two different identities. When that is understood, we can say it's now a place where there is living Buddhism, rather than talked Buddhism.
Yes, the expression is you rip out your heart, warm with blood dripping, and then give it to [the student], and this person sometimes takes it and really preserves it and feels the warmth of it. That's where the practice is being done.
You have frequently said that American practitioners are too often afraid; that we lack the confidence to let go of ego or to say, "I am ready for enlightenment." Is there something in our culture that makes us lack the confidence you speak of?
I think fear is ultimately the biggest obstacle that we all face. [In places] where Buddhism is more firmly planted, fear is easier to overcome. It is felt, but one is never too far from seeing it as part of one's illusion. Strength and devotion are both related to fearlessness. Being able to go beyond one's hesitation, to develop the courage to face the unknown, the unseen [is crucial to the practice]. People [here] think it's good to be confused, it's good to be afraid, it's good to be neurotic. Sometimes it's OK, but all the time? It's such a waste of time.
There seems to be an inherent conundrum in American Buddhism. My Tibetan friends tell me we are blessed with far greater access to senior teachers than ordinary Tibetans ever were, yet we have so many distractions here.
The minds of students in the West need more fearlessness, more relaxation. Not so worried, not so necessary to rush into things. Whereas in the East, we find that there's a certain easiness in the mind, a certain openness and relaxation, more settledness. But on the other hand, the East could use a little more hurrying, not so much relaxation. In that way, the East and the West could learn a little bit from one another.