“When one emotion gets stronger, the other emotion that is opposite to that becomes weakened. So the root of the positive emotions all will come down to a universal love for others. So try to have that in one’s heart.”—Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Scott Snibbe: I’m Scott Snibbe and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. This week’s episode is an interview with Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan lama who weaves his ancient spiritual heritage with the many threads of modern Western culture. Rinpoche is known for his uncompromising integrity, his deep commitment to altruism, and his insistence that all beings can awaken to their own enlightened nature.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s life defines what it means to be a spiritual person in modern times. Whether through his teaching, his passion as an abstract painter, his steadfast dedication to his lineage and students, or through his joy in solitude and his unshakable determination to engage his own path, throughout it all, Rinpoche integrates his practice and his life.
Our producer Stephen Butler had a chance to speak with Rinpoche a few weeks ago, and I think you’ll appreciate the warm-hearted conversation they had together on patience, altruism, and how to bring together our heart and mind.
Stephen Butler: We are so fortunate to have Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche taking time to be a guest today, an astounding master who’s been teaching in the West for many years and comes from a very long lineage of meditation practitioners. So thank you so much, Rinpoche, for being here.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: It’s my great pleasure and honor to be here on your show and I really appreciate so much for this outreach.
Stephen Butler: You were born into a really remarkable family lineage of meditation masters and spiritual seekers. Your father of course, was a highly respected teacher and accomplished master in a very long lineage of practitioners. Your mother also completed 13 years of retreat and then later integrated that practice into raising a family. What was it like to grow up in an environment that supported and encouraged meditative practice from such an early age?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: It was wonderful. I really feel very fortunate to be born in such a family. My father, he was much more a community leader and he did some big pujas with the monks in the monastery, but mostly he established the Bir Tibetan refugee camp. So he was quite busy in that kind of work.
But my mother, on the other hand, she did thirteen years of retreat in the back of her family’s home when she was younger. She was so determined to do a retreat and become a practitioner. And she was not gonna have it any other way. So she was really, very, very determined. And I think my family, my grandmother, and my grandfather saw that.
And she was then allowed to stay in a retreat for 13 years. After that, she got married with my father. Actually all her life, even with the five of us being raised, she did four sessions every day. So she was a reference of being a real great practitioner and inspiration. And because I was very close with her, from a very young age I had this kind of a feeling I want to become a monk. I want to live in a monastery. I want to practice. So I really insisted to my mother that she should teach me how to do meditation.
I guess I had a very strong affinity with the Dharma and the monastic life. When I was around nine, Khensur Rinpoche came, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. So then I was so-called recognized. And then, I got my training in the monastery. I really feel that was my great fortune to be born in the Dharma family.
Stephen Butler: That’s amazing, to be exposed to such a supportive and encouraging and inspiring environment that supports self-reflection. And that’s something that you talk about a lot in your work.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Well, self-reflection is somewhat of a tool. And it helps us to use the ability of our own mind, which has the capacity to know others as well as know itself.
Stephen Butler: You talked about mind. In Buddhism, there’s this primacy of the mind. We often hear this phrase “the nature of mind.” I think even sometimes just hearing that phrase can be a spark for us. There’s maybe something that we’re missing or misunderstanding about the mind. Could you talk to us about that nature of mind from a Buddhist perspective, as you see it?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Well, I think the relative nature of mind, as one of the great teachers from the Nyingma tradition, Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, has stated that it is awareness. And this awareness, has the ability, which, from its own kind of natural disposition, has the ability to know, to know things. But to know things, objects, also has to be based on some kind of self-awareness. Otherwise, how would you know that you know those things?
So all of the experiences of mind that are actually apart from the matter has to be somewhat in the relative, has to be based on self-awareness. And that self-awareness is the relative of the nature of a mind and all of our consciousness. It all has that, self-awareness built into it, right?
Now, when we talk about the nature of mind in the case of meditation, then it is through the analysis when we analyze through reasoning. For example, when you try to pinpoint an atom and you cannot find an atom to be pinpointed. And so then the question is, is it a void?
Scott Snibbe: This is Scott here, just to clarify that the word Rinpoche is using here is “void,” and refers to a complete absence.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: So then the question is, is it a void? To conclude that it’s a void is that maybe perhaps helpful. But in the ultimate, Buddha himself has said that the existent and the non-existent both are relative.
So ultimately it has to go beyond existing and non-existent and both and neither. So when you work through those tendencies, then you get to a place where actually you have no object to grasp.
And then with some kind of a resting point there, if you rest there is a sense of self-awakening that comes from it in which there is no object. But there is a sense of all-pervasive awareness, which is free of all elaborations. So that would be more the absolute kind of the nature, something that, in the meditative state, one experiences. We call it yogic direct perception.
So when you are able to rest there, then I think there is a sense of a greater advantage for one to be able to see one’s thoughts and emotions and all of the flows in the mind, not being as if you are in it. Usually we are in the chain of thoughts, in the chain of emotions, one after another. So you’re kind of closed in there. But when you are able to rest in the nature, you could actually see how they are transitory and how they are elusive and how they just rise and cease at the same time.
So there is more freedom to not be too bound to them and react from them. So that I think allows a lot of sense of a basis of other progresses that one has to be made in the path.
Stephen Butler: Fascinating. That we’re so caught in this chain of thoughts. I think that’s something. people can relate to that, that sweeping force of being caught in that. And that what we want to look to is being beyond that state. Is that correct?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: I think there’s two levels. One, if you could just have some self-awareness in the first place of what’s happening in one’s mind, in the chain of thoughts or in the chain of emotions, that is occurring in reaction, in response to what’s happening in one’s life; just to have some awareness. And then maybe just to practice through the mind training practice, try to have some sense of a direction and ability or means to transform them. That’s, I think, great.
Then if you could go beyond that to connect with the nature of emptiness and being able to rest in emptiness, and then to be able to see that all is somewhat of an illusory nature and therefore there’s nothing to respond in the first place. And then have some kind of like a total freedom. That’s, I think, a second step.
Stephen Butler: Wonderful, Rinpoche. Thank you. I find it interesting, and I think a lot of people who maybe have connected with your words and your wisdom through either your books, your podcast, your recorded teachings, I think many people appreciate how you help us to navigate matters of the heart, matters of the emotions, because we get stuck there quite often.
Students who come to you to begin teaching, you often encourage them to get in touch with these qualities, the four immeasurables, and you encouraged them to begin there: equanimity, love, compassion, sympathetic joy. Could you speak to us as to why that is such an important starting point as we begin this practice of self-reflection?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: In the beginning, as I was entrusted with this responsibility to teach, I was trying to help the students with just following the breath and then just developing some kind of calm abiding state through the concentration on the breath. That worked very well.
But at the same time, even though you could have a calm abiding state for the time you are on the cushion; when you’re not on the cushion, then, to have that effect last in your daily life, is very challenging. And then also in the Mahayana teachings, most importantly, we need to develop our heart to be much more or softer and more inclined to be steeped in the Bodhicitta practice.
So, as a medium, using the breath as a focal point was great. I thought, why not use the four immeasurables to be the focal point as well, and try to double concentration and try to have some calm abiding state as well, some connection with one’s own heart to be more in equilibrium or to have more, kindness, thoughts or kind of emotions and compassionate thoughts and compassionate feelings.
And that as feedback, people had really had a lot of, good things to say about that. Because I think it was not just only calming their mind, but at the same time, opening their heart, finding how their heart is troubling them in many ways; not being in the state of, compassion. And there’s a lot of resistance. To some it’s easy, but to others it’s not easy to open up.
So, the reasons to have the equilibrium, it takes a while to really buy into those reasons. And when you do buy into it, in meditation you could open up to have some warmth towards people who you.
Stephen Butler: So developing those emotions and opening the heart becomes a support for establishing the calm that people initially are seeking as the basis of their meditation practice. Is that correct?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Yes. There was a kind of a plus, the plus was not only just establishing some calm state of mind, but then also to be able to open up their heart and also be in touch with some of those positive feelings in their heart and then express that. And the also, there’s a certain amount of deep bliss that comes from it too.
So that all encourages one to get more into the practice of the meditation. And personally be more involve in wanting to do meditation practice a little bit more than just doing it as a show.
Stephen Butler: It’s such a common sense thing that if it feels good, people are more inclined to open up to it and continue with it. So it’s absolutely wonderful.
You’ve been teaching and living in the West for so long. And as we talk about heart and we spoke about mind earlier, What was it like to find out that in the West, we see those things as completely separate, and we’re almost encouraged that those are separate processes to deal with?
Matters of the heart matters of the mind—at work you’re encouraged not to bring your emotions into it. And at school learning is one thing, but it doesn’t involve matters of the heart.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: I think in all the cultures outside of the Dharma, there’s a lot of dichotomies, you know, and there’s a lot of inconsistencies. There’s a lot of unfounded expectations for you to know, but not really giving a lot of guidance. For example, everyone expects from all cultures, for you to be a good person, for you to have a good heart. And for you to be a good kind person and compassionate, but there’s not so much teachings! Maybe perhaps with some example externally. But in terms of inner workings, there’s really not much.
And then also there’s a lot of a bias to your own loved ones, very defensive to anything that might bring threat and harm to them. And also use your force of anger as a means of defense. And in that way, in the conventional mindset, in the conventional education, inconsistency and dichotomies and a lot of holes that I don’t think adds up.
Anyway, this is not just in the West. And then particularly in the West, I think there’s a sense that there’s this belief that a mind is a function of the brain. Of course, the mind and the brain are in quite a close relation.
There’s a sense that the brain is everything. So with that kind of very materialistic view, there was a really very little room to engage in a practice of self-awareness or self-awareness to be solicited through self-reflection and through the calm abiding state.
But now, due to, I think, psychology and the dialogue that His Holiness has recently in the last 30 years, has as engaged with scientists, there’s more openness for the mind to be somewhat closely connected, but as a separate strain of a continuum that exists and that could be also trained. And by training that it could also not only, physically have an effect on the mind, but the mind can have physically positive effects, like on the immune system and so on and so forth. So there’s a whole new field that I think is very exciting.
Stephen Butler: Well, and we’re so fortunate for you being, a part of that ongoing dialogue where Western science and psychology can benefit from a wisdom tradition that didn’t separate those, that there was much more of an integrative look at it. As you mentioned, there wasn’t the dichotomy. So we’re really thankful for that.
As you mentioned, this pressure, for people, they may be analyzing themselves. They may be looking at themselves and judging themselves as good or bad. Not good enough, almost there, I’m good one day I’m bad another day. As we move through that evolution of bringing heart and mind together, how do we do that in a way that really gets us to that holistic, healthy mindset, that maybe poises us for development or for just making ourselves a happier person? How do we begin to work with those when we can feel so entangled in them?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Well, I think, as every human being who is educated and who has a bit of inclination to work with one’s own mind being more in supportive of one’s own welfare as well as also the welfare of others, there has to be some recognition that self-attachment has to be monitored. Because self-attachment without being monitored, just expecting it to be always monitored by itself is never going to be possible and the sustainable, even if it is for short period of time.
So there has to be some keeping one’s own self-attachment in check. Is it actually beyond the rightful, positions that it should be to become a little bit too much, like a spoiled child that is about to cause oneself harm. And then more importantly, others. And I think people do, any kind of an educated person with any kind of inclinations to have a mind of decency, to help one’s own life, to navigate in the midst of all of the chaos that life sometimes presents. And then also to be able to help others as well.
So basically, that’s the foundation of the mind training, this kind of keeping self-check; the way one’s self-attachment is. For example, you could lose a game or you could lose something that is a precious to you. And, in those times, if you don’t keep some kind of a check on your own self-attachment, self-attachment at that moment, at that time, could be very much feeling hurt. And there could be a lot of confusions. And out of the confusions there could be a lot of aggressions, or there could be a lot of tendency to do something destructive.
But being a good sport to not go in that way; to accept loss with a grace, that’s what people try to learn in life from a very young age. So the fundamental, I think, cause of happiness for us is going to be, first, how we can actually reduce the destructive emotions inside of us. Then, in its place, how we could have more positive emotions.
Now, the root of the destructive emotions is the self-attachment. Keeping some check on that and always knowing that is a really only something you could personally do. No one else from outside can do that for you. You can do that for the benefit of yourself and for the benefit of others, even if you cannot eliminate, but to have some eye on that and keep that in check.
And then, altruism. When one emotion gets stronger, the other emotion that is opposite to that becomes weakened.
And then on top of it, any kind of training in society, like a sense of decency that you have already learned to add to it. I think these are the real fundamental causes of happiness. And then you have a greater sense of meaning in that way. A meaning may not come immediately as happiness, but in the end that’s going to be the most happiness.
Stephen Butler: So we develop those, even utilizing a dichotomy provisionally, as we train ourselves, we rely on that so that we make those destructive emotions diminish and those positive emotions blossom?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Yes. Positive emotions to blossom. And then the root of that is the value system. You want to reduce yourself as a good thing. And you want to promote altruism as a good thing to have and rely upon that. And also always having some sense of humility and not being too caught up in what one might gain, being engaged in that.
Stephen Butler: That’s wonderful. Switching topics here, a lot of people might not know that you’re an accomplished artist. You’re an abstract expressionists. You also do street photography. Yet you’re also very clear in saying that you bring your spiritual practice and the developmental practices for happiness as an undercurrent into your work. I’m curious to see if the tools of creativity are tools that can be applied in the spiritual life and how do we do that?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: I think in two ways it has been helpful for me, the kind of work that I do, the abstract artwork, I learned it from Matthieu Ricard’s mother, a great artist. Her name is Yahne Le Toumelin.
When I was watching her do the painting, there was a sense of really not being attached, and then just moving through different phases of the painting. So that was very inspiring for me. Because I think I’m not going to be so good or would have the time to learn the precise painting, and the drawing and all of that.
So when I saw her doing what she was doing, it really when deep into my heart. I thought, Okay, this could be a sort of experiment for myself to be able to not be attached in my creation and just move through freely without being judgmental or attached to or one particular thing.
And so it has been that way, a good kind of post-meditation practice for me. And then another thing is, we all have ego. We all have this sense of self. And it’s always crying out for confirmation. It’s always crying out for some kind of acknowledgement. It’s always crying out for some kind of ways to gratify itself. So discipline to be aware. But yet at the same time, not to take it too seriously and have humor and let it go. That’s where I feel a lot of artists suffer, not being able to know how to move through those emotions.
And, if you could remove yourself then the creativity and the art would unfolded itself in the creative writing or in the painting. But those are difficult. I think, quite a number of my friends, they are quite critical of their own work and they get very anxious how it’s going to be received. Not that I don’t have those thoughts or emotions, but I don’t take it that seriously. I try to move through them with a sense of humor looking how this is important, but it’s more important to be able to enjoy your work and be connected with the creativity than just being how it’s received.
So in those two ways, I think it has been very helpful to have another medium, another discipline in my life to be able to engage and enjoy and connect with others.
Stephen Butler: You mentioned a sense of humor. Is that also a tool that we can use as we go through critical inquiry and a practice of meditation or seeking?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: I think the sense of humor, as you most probably know, since you have spent some time with profound teachers of the Tibetan Buddhist lineage. One, common trait that you could find in all of them is that they are very lighthearted.
You know? That they are all very humorous, they are easy to laugh at themselves, laugh at anything that is happening around them, and always in a good humor, having a really great laugh. I think, as a part of the Tibetan culture, as well as also being in the Dharma and meditation, you cannot take anything so seriously.
Because it’s all relative. There is no any inherent existence. Everything is changing, everything is transitory. Everything is in some ways, if you really think about it, a facade. How could you take it so seriously, including your own mind and states and thoughts and yourself?
Stephen Butler: Wonderful. That’s very comforting. It’s also a challenge for a lot of us who take ourselves way too seriously. But it’s a challenge that, that we must accept. Right?
Your most recent book, it talks about a topic that’s very timely. The name of the book is Peaceful Heart, the Buddhist Practice of Patience. And Rinpoche, lastly, some words of advice for people who may be bristling with impatience and feeling discouraged on an emotional level. What would you say to them?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: I think one of the teachers has said impermanence can be two things: one it could actually be devastating when you have conditions and when you have attachments to those conditions, and then they change. And also impermanence can be good when you have conditions and you have a strong distaste or aversions to the conditions. It could also change too!
So in that way it could be a new beginning. I think, in order to be patient, in order to really practice altruism, you have to have in the core, a positive outlook of the world and a positive thinking for the future. Otherwise it would be pointless, hopeless. So to practice any kind of altruism or patience practice as a result of that, to preserve your love for humanity, you have to have some positive outlook on the world and a positive hope for the world.
And His Holiness always quotes this, when we are looking from centuries before this. on one hand, there’s always the struggles and the suffering as we all are aware of. But generally speaking, we are all in much better conditions now, living much more with a greater sense of advantage and freedom.
Stephen Butler: A wonderful place to end the interview, Rinpoche. We’re so grateful for this interview and you’ve agreed to lead us in a guided meditation next week. We feel great assurance that these are going to be very beneficial and helpful to our listeners. So thank you so much for being here.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche: Thank you both very much. It’s a real pleasure to work with you. And I hope that this brings in some, small ways, change in people’s mind stream; at least interest being increased in the practice of meditation and the practice of loving-kindness and compassion and practice of patience.
Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us in this heart-opening conversation with Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Next week we’ll share a short but powerful guided meditation by Rinpoche that combines loving-kindness with compassion and patience, three topics that we’ve gone into in-depth in previous episodes, all wrapped up into one meditation.
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Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio