In the early 1970s, Lama Surya Das tutored a 10-year-old boy, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, in English at a monastery in Darjeeling, India. The boy was known to be the reincarnation of the 11th Gyalwang Drukpa, part of a lineage that goes back to the early 1000s C.E. His Holiness the 12th now heads India's Drukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. He also has monasteries and nunneries in Darjeeling, Nepal, and Ladakh, as well as centers in Europe and Mexico.

Reprinted with permission from Snow Lion Publications.

What is the essence of Buddha dharma (the core Buddhist teachings)?

If you ask what I expect for my students, the simple answer is that I want them to be happy. Genuinely, unconditionally happy. That means, of course, spiritually they have to experience inner happiness, regardless of material gains, achievement or personal circumstances and situation. Inner realization is unconditional happiness. We are always seeking something, trying to see, to know, just like we try to get ordinary things and accumulate ideas, looking outwardly for what is not really to be found there. But not seeing is true seeing; not knowing is true knowing. It goes deep. It is beyond concepts and mere intellectual understanding.

There are many kinds of meditation, obviously, not to mention other contemplative practices. What do you think is most critical to teach?

Please don't be a dumb meditator, a thought-wiper trying not to think, falling into the extreme of trying not to do anything in life. This is quietism, not the wisdom of the Middle Way. This is much too simple minded. It is important to learn how to meditate, not to just do it without guidance or direction. That would be like throwing stones in the dark and hoping to hit a target. Learning and practice have to go hand in hand, or you'll find it as difficult as trying to climb a mountain either without legs and hands (practice) or without head and eyes (learning, guidance); we actually need both on the spiritual journey.

Can you speak to us about guru yoga and the importance of finding a teacher?

It is not just how a teacher talks and what he or she says. The most important qualities are the understanding of perfect, selfless wisdom and unconditional, impartial compassion. These two are very much dependent on each other. I don't think we need to be in a hurry to decide who is our root guru and who is not, who is qualified and authentic or not. Just check and see if the teacher before you is wise, kind, unselfish, generous, and helpful, and then follow the instructions as given. You'll get the blessings and the benefits eventually.

Your Holiness, I've come to think of teaching and transmission as related but not the same. The lineage transmits the blessing, something invisible and the teaching is more like the visible. So how important is it for everyone to have a personal teacher?

Many years ago in India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Thailand many people got enlightened, with the support and encouragement of wise and experienced teachers. Not many people are experiencing this kind of spiritual enlightenment in the West, in modern life and times. Why not? Because they are depending too much on the intellect; they're not depending on the lineage blessings and experience. You can learn, you can know, but not necessarily be accomplished. You can be very big in your head, but that doesn't mean anything, except your head will be very heavy. And the teachings won't go to the heart because there's no lineage, no transmission of the authentic mind-to-mind non-conceptual blessings, from wisdom heart to your heart.

Many lamas have talked about lineage, and Westerners have a hard time understanding this. We think we have our own "lineages." For example we don't just read a book, we look to see who wrote the book, and if the author holds a Ph.D., has worked with a well-regarded scholar or has specific qualifications. This is the Western way of thinking of lineage for passing down information. What is it about authentic lineage that is passed on or transmitted?

A blessing. The blessing is something very mysterious, actually. It is not only mysterious, it has a lot of substance. There are also years and decades, centuries of experience here, amidst the blessings and teaching. There's an unbelievable sense of transformation of your mental state, liberating your mind and opening your heart.
How can I express it, because it's like tasting honey? It's sweet. But sweet means what? It's inexpressible. I feel very happy, delighted, delicious, but I can't express it—until you taste it, and then we can share something of the experience together. This is one aspect of the blessing, of course, which a book cannot give you.