Episode 27: Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering on Karma, Analytical Meditation, and Mindfulness

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering, Tibetan Buddhist lama and teacher

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I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

A few weeks ago, I had an extraordinary conversation with Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering. He shared his profound insights on a secular understanding of karma. And he talked about the importance of analytical meditation, the type of meditation we focus on with A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Rinpoche also had a warning about how the popularity of meditation today just might kill it.

Khen Rinpoche Tashi Tsering’s name is a mouthful and so are his achievements. Rinpoche escaped Tibet as a child in the 1950s and was one of the first Tibetan monks to be wholly educated in India rather than his native Tibet. He achieved the highest level of Buddhist education, the Geshe Degree, which is the Buddhist equivalent of a “Ph.D.,” a twenty-year course of study that begins as a boy, requiring mastery of the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon.

Rinpoche is now the 91st abbot of Sera Mey Monastic University, where he continues a thousand-year-old unbroken lineage of masters originating in India’s first millennium Nalanda University.

For most of his adult life, Rinpoche has taught in the West as the resident teacher of the Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. Spending so much time in our culture has made Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering a unique teacher. He is fully qualified in the traditional Buddhist education. He has deep contemplative experience through his own meditation practice. And he understands the Western mind after spending so much of his life with us.

I think you’re going to enjoy this interview as much as Stephen and I enjoyed conducting it.

Scott Snibbe:

Khen Rinpoche Tashi Tsering, Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview today.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Thank you very much to create this opportunity.

Scott Snibbe:

The audience for our podcast is typically secular people; secular people who are interested in using Buddhist meditation to bring out their best human qualities, to create the causes for a happy, meaningful life.

And a number of these people have some difficulty with the elements of Buddhism that can’t be verified scientifically right now: like karma and rebirth and other realms, those topics in particular. And so I was wondering if you could share your advice for Westerners who want to benefit from the Buddhist mind training techniques, but have trouble with these elements that might appear even supernatural to a Western mind.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes. Usually I approach this kind of situation, people who are strongly interested in some of the Buddhist teachings and techniques such as meditation, explanation of mind training; but at the same time, as you said, have a difficulty to understand, or to accept some of the Buddhist theory, karma, future life, and so forth.

And my usual approach to that level of people is something that you are very skeptical, not very sure, these are not initially not that important. These are just really given to the people who are brought up in that kind of environment, in that kind of culture.

From the Buddhist point of view, these are the process. Not immediately need to understand everything. Having said that, I, myself, of course, culturally, socially, you know how I was brought up, I accept future lives. But do I have a total understanding of everything? I don’t.

But some of those helpful, useful Buddhist techniques—meditations, trainings, like mind trainings and so forth—you know, apply those things. Apply those things to receive the benefits in your daily lives to benefit to yourself.

Then that means that will automatically benefit to your family and that may gradually expand to the community.

And so initially the best way to approach these things is first use some of those things that you are quite happy with, that you are quite convinced with this, these are working, this will work, I can understand. Use those techniques and those teachings to receive the benefit to yourself.

Then over the years, over the decades, you may get some glimpse of understanding of possibility of future life, possibility of those karmic things. And that is my usual suggestion to the people who are in that level.

Scott Snibbe:

And what are some of the types of mind training techniques you’d recommend for this type of student?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

To understand to apply those techniques such as meditation, such as analysis, investigation; first, individuals have to have some form of understanding that our mind can change. Our way viewing internal world, outside world can change. They are not static. That is quite well accepted and from the Western scientists: like brain plasticity theories and so on, so forth.

I think that understanding is something I usually see as a base or the foundation. No matter how difficult mindsets or difficult emotional structure, or difficult viewpoint that we have, if we want to change, then to understand it is possible to change.

Then also to understand a little bit what His Holiness the Dalai Lama use the term saying, map of the mind or map of the consciousness. Sometimes the mind is a quite elusive term in the West. The map of the consciousness, map of the emotion—not just the surface, not just the very active thoughts and emotions and memories, but how they function. Try to understand little bit in a subconscious level, more in a subtle level, how they structure, how they function.

It is not just only destructive emotions and thoughts, but also constructive emotions and thoughts. So that is some understanding of a map of consciousness, emotions, and thought will be again be very useful as a foundation.

And, in that context, I think to understand the very forefront of our emotions, Western modern psychology’s neuroscience may help us. But not just Buddhism, but also ancient Indian spiritual traditions have a long history of trying to understand our inner world. Bringing these two together, and try to complement each other, that will be very useful.

Then, I think we may get the good base or that good foundation to apply some of those, like for example, mindfulness meditation, to bring a sense of relaxation, sense of calm. And then also vipassana meditation to make our mind capable, to really penetrate the depths of reality. And really penetrate our thoughts, emotions, and as well as when these thoughts, emotions, perceptions interact with the outside world.

Those two things—technically call shamatha—to bring the quality of focus, quality of clarity. And then on top of that, to bring the analytical qualities, these two are very useful to do, some of the mind trainings such as cultivation of deep sense of love. Because this calm focus and that joined or combined with the sharp and analytical will bring the deeper understanding of a sense of love, sense of need of love for the others. So those are some things which are useful.

Scott Snibbe:

Wonderful. That’s wonderful. So you mentioned vipassana. I wonder if you could explain to someone who wasn’t familiar with that word, what vipassana means and why we would undertake vipassana, what its benefits are?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

The term vipassana is sometimes in this 21st century overused. But, overall, comfortable I can say—although I’m not that expert in ancient Theravadin tradition—first, I will talk about briefly what is vipassana meditation.

To be a vipassana meditation, in that meditation there should be a good analytical element. Whether you do analysis during the meditation or at the beginning of the meditation. Or, prior to doing the vipassana meditation, you have done the actual analysis on what subject you are doing vipassana meditation.

Without that, it is quite a difficult to claim as a vipassana meditation. But it is up to the individual.

Now, coming to that which I am more familiar with, which is Tibetan Buddhism. So in Tibetan Buddhism, you know, the vipassana meditation in Tibet is called laktong.

It has a literal meaning: seeing more, or seeing further, which is special insight. There are several different terms are used in English. So that is the vipassana.

As we know, Tibetan Buddhism is very much based on Nalanda masters’—Indian Nalanda masters’—traditions. They clearly set a sequence. For example, Kamalashila, this great, great Indian master clearly structured as a sequence, first shamatha. That means, first you should cultivate that quality of stillness and the clarity.

When the individuals’ minds have that kind of quality, then that mind gradually turns into analytical mind. Without that kind of qualities—stillness, clarity, calmness—without that kind of mental quality, it will be quite hard to have a good analytical mind.

And that is first shamatha then the vipassana. Then Tibetan Buddhism, you know, in the Vajrayana teaching is slightly different, other ways, that is the fixed sequence.

And so, therefore, when it comes to that meditation, Vipassana, then quite often the Indian great masters are divided vipassana meditation into two stages: in Tibetan jigtenpe laktong. Jigtenpe laktong means vipassana meditation, the things that you are analyzing are more the mundane things.

And then jigten le depay laktong, the second one is saying supramundane vipassana meditation. That means the subject of your meditation is not the mundane phenomena or mundane things and events. The subject of your meditation, vipassana meditation, are things such as the nature of impermanence, the nature of selflessness, the nature of emptiness.

When your analytical meditation is on these topics, then the vipassana meditation is called supramundane vipassana meditation. So it is a really a vast meditation. Now for example, nowadays, people say body scanning meditation is a vipassana meditation.

I think maybe that can be fine. We can call it vipassana meditation, because your mind is totally focused, your mind is scanning or analyzing stage by stage. That is fine, call as a vipassana meditation.

So vipassana meditation is not just one meditation, it has vast topics. It depends on what topic that you are meditating on. And overall what you need in that meditation, you need a degree of analysis. When you have a degree of analysis, then you can call it a vipassana meditation. But, you know, it is a very loose term that I’m using vipassana.

Scott Snibbe:

So the body scan type of meditation would be the mundane topic of vipassana. Whereas, a selflessness meditation, would be the supramundane topic.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Even within the body scanning meditation, you can have a very vast range. Just simply for your mind to be with your body through the scanning meditation. That is simple. But if you scan your body stage by stage to search, to analyze, whether there is a body, some kind of intrinsic inherent, some kind of in and of itself as a body, then you are doing a deeper vipassana meditation.

Scott Snibbe:

That’s wonderful. You mentioned that some of these vipassana meditations have their roots in the Nalanda tradition. And His Holiness is very often citing those roots for Tibetan Buddhism. For people that aren’t familiar with the Nalanda tradition, could you briefly just say a little bit about that tradition and how it influenced Buddhism?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes. That Nalanda Buddhist tradition has had very strong element of cultivation of altruism. In Sanskrit it is called bodhicitta, which is a very, very profound meditation, extremely helpful and useful to ourselves and to the others.

Like for example, one of the great, great Nalanda masters, Nagarjuna, some of his texts have many amazing passages: how to expand our caring, loving altruism mind to vast numbers of living beings.

On top of that, the Nalanda masters have this emphasis that you must do your own work. As Buddha himself stated, don’t take my words out of reverence, but do the analysis.

And Nalanda masters really applied that very strongly, very skeptically approaching to the teachings through analysis, investigation, find out the facts, find out the meaning of the teachings, then apply that in your daily lives.

That is from the methodological side.

And another important topic is understanding of this Buddhist teaching of selflessness, anatma, emptiness. Although selflessness, as anatma, is common to the Theravadin and Mahayana, but in the Nalanda Buddhists masters, the explanation, interpretation on that subject of selflessness is very vast and has a very expanded explanation.

So those are the, some of the unique differences from Theravadin Buddhists. I’m not saying one is better than another, but you know that just to answer to your question.

Scott Snibbe:

You also talked about the other type of meditation, of developing concentration, and mentioned mindfulness, which we learn about in Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness as a specific tool to help develop concentration.

But the word mindfulness also is now the name of a very popular type of meditation that’s been popularized in the West. Could you talk a little bit about the difference between the two meanings of that word: mindfulness as the tool, as it’s understood in Tibetan Buddhism and mindfulness as a popular form of meditation today?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

I know a little bit about how the mindfulness, the term and the meditation is used these days and the wider community. My understanding, in that context, the meaning of mindfulness is simply to make our mind just to slow down just in a form of slow down fashion and to, say, stare at the present.

I’m not criticizing. I’m not. But overall that’s what I’ve got. Mindfulness in that popular sense, mindfulness meditation, is more like slowing down our thinking and just staying in the present, either focusing on the breath or something else.

But when we read some of those great Indian masters, then mindfulness is not just slowing down our thinking mind. It has some strong element of what we call in Tibetan, sherab. Sherab is a wisdom. It needs an element of sherab in the sense, thinking mind. If we very much slow down the thinking mind, it is difficult to the mindfulness.

When we say the thinking mind, it is not talking about jumping from one subject to another subject, or from one sort of event to another. Even like sometimes the term is used monkey mind; not in that kind of thinking mind, but a sharp mind, alert, fully aware of what’s here, what’s present. And that element is very, very important element.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to count as a Buddhist teaching called mindfulness, that mindful, drenpa don sheshin. Drenpa is translated as mindfulness, but also this other element, sheshin. Shesin, introspection, or alertness. When we do the mindfulness meditation, that other element, sheshin, the introspection must be there. Otherwise, mindfulness meditation won’t be that kind of fresh, fully alert and so on, so forth.

So, in other words, the difference nowadays that popular so-called mindfulness meditation, which commonly used is more slowing down the thinking mind and staying to the present. The Buddhist meaning of mindfulness meditation is very much fully alert, fully aware of things; not really slow down your thinking element of mind.

Scott Snibbe:

So the difference is the addition of that sharp alertness.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes. That’s right.

Scott Snibbe:

You’ve spent a long stretch of time in the West, primarily as the teacher at the Jamyang center in London. I’m wondering how your interaction with Westerners has changed how you teach the Dharma in any way?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

When I came to Jamyang in May, 1994, the people that came to the classes were lay people. Lay people have many other commitments. What they need is something that they can immediately apply when they go back to their family life.

So what I did is, instead of teaching one text from the beginning to the end, I selected a particular topic, like how to handle destructive emotions, and brought that as a topic. Instead of saying, “Oh, this is anger. Anger is defined as this, this, this, this…”; instead of that, just bring up that one of the destructive emotions is anger.

We all know that, hatred. How do you feel when you are angry? And to bring that more into the discussion, more in sharing the topic. Then, gradually to add to it what I’ve understood from those great Indian masters. So that is very different from the way we traditionally teach here [in India].

Scott Snibbe:

So you’d start more with the practical and mental challenges that people have and how to address them.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes, exactly. But then adding the Indian masters, Tibetan masters, how they explain how to interpret it. It’s really bringing two things together: their own experiences in being angry, how they feel it, what are the methods they’ve used?

I remember very clearly a lady who came to teachings and said, “Oh yeah, my therapist told me if I’m angry, I can bang my pillow.”

And I thought, wow, that is interesting. That was the first time I heard that! Of course, later I heard this many times. Banging a pillow, how does it work? What’s going to happen if the pillow burst? It’s full of feathers! So I teased the lady and there are these interesting things I’ve learned.

Scott Snibbe:

And then what is the Buddhist advice you give on how to deal with anger?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Buddhist teachers—and I think this is a very universal method—individuals need to understand the advantages and disadvantages. And that is very important, you know, what are the disadvantages of losing your temper or of being angry? And, on the other hand, what are the advantages of having a compassionate, loving, caring, and calm mind?

That needs to be understood, at least at certain state: the benefits, advantages, and disadvantages. Otherwise it is very, very difficult to deal with, for example, anger. A person who keeps losing his or her temper, he or she needs to be convinced that there’s no benefit to losing my temper.

Those big companies who want to sell their product. Why do they advertise saying it is very good, it is very nice, it is very cheap? Why do they do that? They want to convince their customers that it is good, it is cheap, it is useful. When the customers are convinced that is the case, then they will go there.

And, also, convincing is not just saying something once. You need to say it again and again and again and again. I usually say, you need to convince yourself that losing your temper, even though immediately you may get some sort of benefit, in the long term, there is no positive result. You need to convince yourself of this.

And to convince yourself, you need to think it again and again and again. When the conviction is there, then you will apply. Otherwise, for people who are losing their anger more habitually, then it’s very difficult to tackle.

Shantideva wrote this amazing text, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. In the first chapter, what he did, he explained the benefits of having altruistic mind; explaining how useful, how helpful having that mind is.

And that is the case in the many texts written by those great Indian masters, because they understand the psychology of the human mind. If we’re convinced, then we will do it.

Scott Snibbe:

So understand the drawbacks of disturbing states of mind, understand the benefits of beneficial states of mind, and then learn the techniques to cultivate the beneficial ones.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Exactly. Exactly.

Scott Snibbe:

I listened to a talk you gave at Jamyang recently. I believe you said that the popularity of meditation in the West might kill it. I hope I got my quote right. Could you explain what you meant by that, if you don’t mind?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Because mindfulness meditation, that term has become very, very popular, then the term is used in many different ways and for many different things.

Eventually, when people talk about meditation or mindfulness meditation, people are saying, “Oh yeah, it is just junk.” You know, right at the beginning, they may reject it. And that’s what worries me. Because they have seen or heard that it might be in relation to this.

Why I said that, I think it might be relation to this: When I was writing my dissertation on my Masters’ Degree. One day, I went for a walk in central London and on Regent Street, a very posh new shop was opening. On the pavement, they put a huge, very, very attractive banner, what they are selling. But under that banner they wrote MEDITATION.

When I saw that, I was shocked. So what are they selling as a meditation? I find out inside they are selling jewelry: very, very expensive jewelry. But what they put down there, they put “meditation.” So that sort of thing. Because I was shocked with that, I even took lots of photos and to keep as a record of what I’ve seen.

So that is the thing of course, knowing meditation, knowing mindfulness meditation is very useful. Whether you have any particular belief system or not, it doesn’t matter. If you do a mindfulness meditation in a secular way, or with a religious element, no doubt it will benefit. But, without knowing this, and constantly hearing and seeing these sort of things, then people may reject it right at the front— these are just junk—and that is my worry.

Scott Snibbe:

It seems your concern is that these words may just lose their meaning and not have the rich connotations that they traditionally have.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Scott Snibbe:

I had a few specific questions about Buddhist topics.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes, yes.

Scott Snibbe:

For somebody who doesn’t believe in rebirth, I’m wondering how someone like that could think about the concept of karma and still benefit from those teachings?

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

The teaching of karma, as you know, is not unique in Buddhism. Hinduism, Brahmanism, Jainism, they all have this concept of karma and karmic result. Karma is the action, karmic result is the result. So therefore, it is not unique to Buddhism.

Now, the teaching of karma is given even before the Buddha. And the Buddha embraced that concept and taught that, mainly to have an ethical way of living.

Whether we believe my present actions will catch up with me in my next life or not, we all have some experience. Like at my age, 60-something, I look back at my earlier days, what I have done, how I have engaged in my interaction with other beings have consequences to my present right here and now.

For example, my activities now of entering into this big monastery, of having this great opportunity to interact with these great teachers; the consequences, or the result of those actions, I’ve learned many valuable things from those actions, from those activities. I remember very clearly when I—and some of my friends in my generation—when we joined Sera Monastery. We young monks, our daily activity is just to memorize, memorize, memorize, memorize. And in the evening, go outside.

Then, you know what you have memorized, you say it again and again and again until sometimes 11:30, 12 at night. So those activities, those actions, those karmas, if we use the term, I feel I have benefited from greatly. Many of those memorizations that I put great effort into, still I can say without any difficulties.

So, you don’t need to think about what actions that I’ve done, that I’m going to do, the result maybe going to happen sometime, maybe next life. No, I think we need to think about right here now.

And also, it is human nature that we all think about tomorrow, although tomorrow is not here.

So, the teaching of karma is saying to pay attention to our present action. Because there will be consequences this afternoon or tomorrow, next week or next month. And that is really something which we need to understand.

Scott Snibbe:

That’s wonderful. I really liked the way you described that. It’s extremely practical. So you’re saying that we can think of karma (at least once you reach a certain age, it sounds like you need to have a little bit of time in your life). But once you reach a certain age, you can look back and look at your actions and your thoughts and just analyze the results they had, see whether they were harmful or beneficial, and then try to cultivate the beneficial ones.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Exactly, exactly.

Scott Snibbe:

Ah, that’s very nice. It’s so simple. But I haven’t heard it explained that way. It’s very practical.

Another difficult topic for people, you know, especially secular people is suffering. I’m wondering if you can talk about how secular people could think of suffering in a way that brings meaning and joy to their life rather than fear and sadness.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

When we talk about suffering, particularly death and so forth, in the West, it is a very sensitive topic or very scary topic or very unpleasant topic we want to avoid. And there is a sense of culture in that. But also, at the same time not to exaggerate.

You know, sometimes when we talk about suffering, particularly in a traditional way, to explain suffering is a little bit a manner of scaring people, that is also not very helpful.

I think too, when we talk about, when we share the nature of suffering, we should share it with the realistic view. When we talk about suffering, we’re not saying that gross suffering occurs all the time. You know, gross suffering comes and goes. Of course, from the Buddhist point of view, underlying suffering like aging, possibility of sickness, are always there, but gross suffering is not happening all the time. It comes and goes and this is the nature of gross suffering.

And also, at the same time we need to understand—whether it’s gross suffering or subtle suffering, or very underlying suffering—as human beings we have what His Holiness calls “this marvelous brain.” We have this amazing culture and history of how to solve difficulties individually and collectively.

Bring those things into background when we talk about suffering, when we are thinking about suffering. When we are contemplating about suffering we can think not just about suffering, but the possibility that it can be relieved. It can be cured. It can be overcome. Because I’m a human being. I have these amazing capabilities. There are many different means and methods.

You know, look at the current situation [with Covid-19]. It is very scary about this virus. But there are amazing scientists, doctors, nurses putting their efforts to overcome this current situation.

So when Buddha taught his first teaching—when he said there’s dukkha, there’s suffering—it is simply to tell the truth, not to try to avoid and not to try to put under the carpet, but to be aware of that.

And when we are aware of that, then that awareness will give us the step to seek the solutions, means and methods. And that is something useful.

You know, there is a nice small booklet on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teaching on Four Noble Truths. He said, if there’s no solution to overcome suffering, then there’s no point to think about suffering. And that is very important.

Scott Snibbe:

So the point of reflecting on suffering is to just come to terms with reality, you know, not exaggerated and also not sweeping it under the carpet to understand and cultivate the antidotes.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Yes.

Scott Snibbe:

Khen Rinpoche, thank you so much for this incredible interview. I learned a lot from talking to you and I think our listeners are going to get a lot out of your insights. We really appreciate you granting us some of your precious time in a busy day. Thank you very much.

Khen Rinpoche Geshe Tashi Tsering:

Thank you very much, Scott. It is really a pleasure. Thank you to you as well, Stephen, and all the people who are going to listen. Take care and be happy and engage with the outside world to make this world more a peaceful and more caring and a loving environment. Thank you.

Scott Snibbe:

Thanks for joining us in this special episode with Khen Rinpoche Tashi Tsering. This is our second episode in the interview format conceived and produced by my partner in A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment, Stephen Butler.

We’d love to hear what you think about the interview format, and this episode in particular. You can share your feedback on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram page.

If you have the time right now to write a review for our podcast on Apple Podcasts, it helps other people discover and enjoy our unique take on meditation. To write a review, click on the link to Apple Podcasts on our web page at skepticspath.org, and then provide a quick rating or review.

Thanks again for listening. And may your day be happy and meaningful.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

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