His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa is the head of the Drukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, one of Tibet’s great practice lineages, and is a renowned master of the Mahamudra and Dzogchen lineages. He has monasteries and nunneries in India and Nepal, as well as centers in Europe and Mexico. This is his first interview in ten years. Lama Surya Das, a Western Dzogchen teacher, taught English to the Gyalwang Drukpa at His Holiness’s monastery in Darjeeling, India, in the early seventies. Lama Surya Das is the founder of the Dzogchen Center and author of numerous books, most recently Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be: Lessons on Change, Loss and Spiritual Transformation. This conversation took place at Lama Surya’s hermitage and sanctuary, Dzogchen Osel Ling, outside Austin, Texas, last November.
Your Holiness, what do you think is critical for dharma students today, in terms of understanding and practice? Meditation. But one must learn how to do it properly. It’s not just about trying to find a comfortable quiet corner to hide in. There is more to it than that. It is about wisdom awareness, knowing, seeing clearly. Meditative awareness in daily activity is important, not just in the practice of silent sitting.
There are many kinds of meditation, not to mention other contemplative practices. What do you teach? I instruct my students that the natural state of mind is the main thing: awareness itself. We should not limit that to any particular object of meditation or goal or physical posture, and it has to be brought into everyday life. Of course we try to meditate daily and so forth—sitting, chanting, praying. But I would say that not doing too much is the important thing. We tend to try to overdo everything. Such conceptual actions just create more karma. Consider nondoing, nonaction, for a while, and leaving things as they are. This can provide balance.
And your own meditation practice? When I go on retreat, I may have a particular practice that my guru gave me, but mostly I have a mission of not doing anything. My goal is not doing anything, ultimately. Just being. That’s it.
That’s a little hard for an ordinary person to understand. How can you accomplish not doing anything? Traditionally, one only tells one’s guru about inner experiences, Dzogchen practice, or even one’s dreams—so as not to give rise to pride and egotism. Humility and compassion is the main thing, isn’t it? Genuine lovingkindness. And nonharming. That is the essence of dharma. But we are usually harming, killing living beings, eating them, and destroying the environment also.
In retreat and in meditation I think the main thing is to rest in naturalness and pure awareness, the clear light of reality. The Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and the whole of universal truth are all within your own mind. Nothing more is needed.
I really love to be in retreat. I have never done more than six months at once, because unfortunately I don’t have time. Once I was doing retreat up in a cave, and when I noticed that the time was up and I had to go down, I really felt like crying. It was really terrible. I just sat there day and night; I didn’t even sleep. I postponed leaving for three days. And then after that I postponed leaving for another two days. And then I postponed for another day. Even then I didn’t want to come down, but I had to. Maybe it’s an attachment, which is no good, but I felt that way.
What is the essence of retreat? What do you recommend? To me the essence of practice, wherever you do it, is developing yourself and your way of life—to really develop your happiness, your inner understanding, to deepen your wisdom and selflessness. You may have a grumpy face when you start, but when you come out of retreat, you’re very happy. And that happiness can be shared with everyone—maybe not all sentient beings, but a good number. Unfortunately, these days, people like us, who should really be practicing for the benefit of all, do not have time for solitude. This is a busy age, you know? The age of hurrying. Little time for anything, it seems. I try to use nighttime to meditate.
I think the essence of retreat is to make yourself more pure and content, self-realized, content just by being yourself, being alone, and thinking about the true nature of things.
So a better way of life through understanding reality? If you don’t understand life, then you become disappointed, depressed. You feel useless.
What is the essence of Buddha-dharma? What is most important to do? There are usually too many things to do, so many practices and much work also. Why should I give you more to do?
I don’t think you need to go around so much to so many different teachers and try to compare all the different teachers and teachings. People today seem to do that a lot, and it often gives rise to doubt and confusion. The teachings are simple; it is important to learn a little and to put them into practice.
What I would say is the essence of dharma is not to harm anybody. That’s it! Not to harm anybody actually includes everything. Of course I also want students to be happy. Genuinely happy, unconditionally happy. That’s inner happiness, regardless of material gain or achievement or outer conditions.
What do you mean by “happy”? There are so many levels to that. Realization is unconditional happiness, an indescribable inner joy. We are always seeking something, trying to see, to know, just like we try to get ordinary things and accumulate ideas, and that desire is endless. But not seeing is true seeing, not knowing is true knowing. Not finding can be finding the true essence also. It sounds like nonsense, but it is recommendable. It goes deep. Not just superficial smiling, or momentary sense pleasure. It is beyond the mind as we think of it usually. Words don’t reach that.
Happiness means including everything. Why not? There is a blissful experience in the empty true nature of everything, when seen through to the essence. That is radiant Mahamudra, the ultimate reality. That is Dzogchen, the natural Great Perfection.
I have a wonderful feeling of pure perception while talking to you about these things. You appreciate and enjoy everything, just as it is—without judgment, without shying away. Could you talk a little bit more about that? How can you like and enjoy everything, and not try to narrow it down to find the right place and then just go into that corner, that particular state of mind, and hold onto it? It’s not about trying to get into just the right way or corner. It’s the other way around. It’s embracing the bigger picture or totality of whatever you have in your life. Fresh and open. No problem. No attachment. Everything easy, equal. Big mind. Fearless.
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