Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is a preeminent teacher of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. His books include The Small Golden Key, Magic Dance, and White Sail, published by Shambhala in 1992. He presently spends part of each year in the United States and Nepal.

The term nihilism figures prominently in your book White Sail. What do you mean by it?

According to my understanding, nihilism means not believing in any spiritual point of view. Nihilists only believe in what they can see, what they can hear, and what they can think, or the substantial reality of whatever temporarily exists in front of them. For example, they believe only in this life and not in previous lives or future lives, because they don’t believe in continuous mind, although it is inevitable that mind is continuous. Nihilists don’t accept Buddhist beliefs such as the interdependence of reality, or that relative truth, whose essence is delusion, only exists according to beings’ reality habits. When something happens through previous karma, if nihilists cannot find any explanation to prove why it has happened, they think it is just coincidence.

From a Buddhist point of view, nihilism is just a habit of mind. Even though nihilists have the potential of Buddha-nature, from their lack of belief they have no capacity or method to change their fragmented phenomena toward the continuity of a sublime level. Even though they are born with a precious human body, they have the great self-deception of keeping a nihilist outlook. Therefore they don’t consider karmic consequences and rely instead on opportunistic habit, taking advantage of circumstances for momentary benefit instead of creating good karma that leads temporarily to long-term positive energy and ultimately to the attainment of fully enlightened Buddhahood.

Is this what you call materialist-mind? The mind that just trusts in one’s own limited senses?

Yes. But as long as beings have dualistic mind, it is necessary to believe in cause and effect in order to create positive causes and effects. So temporarily, as long as karma exist—whether it is bad karma or good karma—it exists within the material realm, and therefore beings must rely on the material. But this is different from the nihilist idea of materialism, which is to reject spiritual ideas such as Buddha­nature, the continuity of the mind beyond the life of the body, and karma, and just to believe in what can be known by one’s own limited senses. Nihilists only believe in material answers, and not in immaterial ideas from which positive material and immaterial spiritual qualities can be created.

We have to believe in the Buddha, and that each kind or sentient being, even an animal, has mind. Even though mind is not touchable, even though you cannot see mind, even though you cannot show what it is, it is obvious that if there were no mind, there could be no phenomena even in this life.

What is the role of the guru in the process of transformation from nihilism to the recognition of spiritual virtue?

The guru introduces us to our own Buddha-nature. Believing with faith and devotion in one’s own guru or sublime teacher can introduce our own mind to its own Buddha-nature. Then that seed can blossom through prayers and practice.

Prayer to what or to whom?

To the Triple Gems, or to one’s own guide to enlightenment who is the representative of the Triple Gems, in order for one’s own Buddha nature to open. You have to have objective faith in order for subjective Buddha-nature to be uncovered. Even though a root circumstance such as a seed exists, in order for its potential to become enlivened, it is necessary to depend on the contributing circumstances of fertilizer, warmth, water, and light. By depending on positive contributing circumstances such as listening to the Buddha’s teachings and praying to the Triple Gems, the root circumstance of Buddha-nature is revealed. Because mind is continuous, it is better to choose good habits that create positive contributing circumstances rather than to choose bad habits. That’s what practicing means.

Can you give up the belief in your own limited mind without the help of the guru?

If dualistic mind exists, how can it be given up? Unless one practices and meditates with a guide to enlightenment in a proper way, there is no method to give it up. How can one give up one’s limited mind by oneself? Giving up dualistic mind is not like throwing away garbage, or as easy as just saying it from your lips. Even if you say it from your lips, since it is there, your grasping mind is not going to give it up. Since dualistic mind has existed for countless lives, beings obviously have not had any power to give it up. That is why grasping mind exists, which continuously causes suffering. If the guru is given up as a positive object, one cannot be liberated because one creates countless negative phenomena, which one then has no way to change toward positive phenomena? Logically, without being introduced to one’s Buddha-nature by sublime teachers and depending on their guidance, Buddha­nature cannot blossom.

Almost all Western teachers of Buddhism are either nihilists or eternalists, and not actual Buddhist lineage holders…Sometimes American Buddhism looks like communism, sometimes like democracy, sometimes like socialism, and sometimes like nothing, only circling between worldly systems, never cutting from them but only circling between negative phenomena.

Many Westerners ask why it is necessary to depend on a guide to enlightenment and to accumulate merit, since one’s own mind already has Buddha-nature. They think that they can recognize their Buddha-nature themselves and do not need to depend on a guru or teacher, but this is a misinterpretation. They don’t recognize that they are continuously remaining in ignorance, and that this idea will keep them closed in the dullness of darkness rather than let them open to light.

Is this resistance to surrender particular to our modern and scientific times?

Some modern people have this reluctance and resistance. Even though they don’t surrender in a spiritual way, they continuously surrender to their own wrong point of view, which prevent their enlightenment and interferes with even this life’s positive energy. As everyone knows, science is not always positive. How many lives were lost from nuclear weapons, and how much energy was lost that could have gone toward the development of countries instead of their destruction? It is unnecessary to believe in developing only in a scientific way. It is also unnecessary to be against the idea of a spiritual path, because those who follow a spiritual path and develop spiritual qualities can help to create peace in the world.

Spiritual surrender is beneficial both materially and immaterially, at temporary and ultimate levels. There is a very big difference between the benefit of surrendering only to a reverse point of view and surrendering to sublime beings. It is a mistake to think, as some people do, that there is more freedom if they surrender only to a nonspiritual point of view for their entire lives. This only makes them more and more bound, because there is no method to reach actual freedom. If one surrenders at a spiritual level as in ancient times, it always releases one from being bound.

In the West these days, though they have good intentions, parents’ main advice to children is “You must be strong. You must have self-esteem. You must not lose your hold on yourself. You must stand on your own feet. Don’t depend on others.” Even at a worldly level, people naturally surrender to others, although they may think of themselves as self-sufficient. If someone thinks he doesn’t depend on others, he is like a sick person who thinks he doesn’t have to go to a doctor because he can cure himself with poison, or like a poor person who says he doesn’t have to depend on richer people even though he has an empty wallet. Schoolteachers teach that being strong means not relying on others and being made independent. These are nihilist teachings that create the habit of being afraid of spiritual surrender to the Buddha or to the teacher because of being afraid of losing one’s self to God, or the Buddha, or the teacher, or any sublime being—but what is self? Modern people are afraid of losing their own ordinary egos. What else do they have to lose but that?

When they refer to books and say, “See, we have our own Buddha-nature so we don’t have to spend on anyone else,” this is not proof of their realization. It is nihilist fear. Relying on someone else makes them think they are losing their identity, which is just their ordinary ego. But the problem with preserving ordinary ego is that it makes people feel more and more fear and frustration. Because they don’t believe in anything, they do not have any method to purify this fear and frustration. That’s why it is so dangerous to make the misinterpretation that nothing needs to be done to recognize Buddha-nature, since it keeps people in the position of not knowing how to release themselves from suffering through developing the skillful means of spiritual methods that encourage its recognition.

Many people in the West now advocate depending on the collective wisdom of the sangha more, and diminishing the role of the teacher.

Westerners always like to create something new, whether or not it is beneficial. Doubt and cynicism are deep nihilist habits. Some people are hastily attracted to this kind of idea from their habit to revolt. These people have a distorted idea of freedom, just as some people do who always think the government is suppressing them. They feel more comfortable being with normal, casual friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, instead of having to respect and worship a teacher. But this does not have anything to do with a pure spiritual level, including the intention to give up the ego in order to attain enlightenment. Actually, whoever has this resistance habit or power-struggle habit is forgetting that a girlfriend can revolt against her boyfriend or a boyfriend can revolt against his girlfriend. Even members of a sangha who try to depend on their collective non-wisdom can be uncomfortable with each other directly or indirectly because of their own habit of negative reactions to others and being against others. If they react negatively to teachers through reading and hearing that they should always respect them, it is sure that they will have collective negativity among themselves over the same issues of power, ego, and rebellion. Although they turn to a sangha, it does not mean their negative reactions to others are finished.

As everyone knows from the news, sometimes a girlfriend or wife has killed her boyfriend or husband, or a boyfriend or husband has killed his girlfriend or wife. Whoever has the habit of negative reaction, opposition, paranoia, and fear will not be able to release it by turning against teachers, even if they talk about the collective wisdom of the sangha. Because of their self-righteous egos, these people don’t want to respect teachers and gurus. This attitude is endorsed by a society that has taught them not to respect others above themselves, but they must know that this is a sign of their fear. Their fear of losing themselves through respecting and worshiping a teacher means they don’t have a strong spiritual level of awareness.

Is this an absence of faith?

Westerners prefer compassion to faith. Western compassion sounds very nice, but actually, it has a negative taste if you check carefully and deeply. For Westerners, compassion is not authentic because it is connected to pride. It is from up to down, because it comes from those who are in some way considered better or higher, and goes toward those who are in some way considered lower. That is why it is comfortable for them. It is also because of pride that faith is not possible for them, since faith is surrendering to what is higher. In actual Buddhist tradition, faith in Buddha is always connected with compassion for sentient beings and compassion is always connected to faith, because where there is actual faith, compassion comes automatically for all suffering sentient beings who do not have faith in Buddha and are therefore suffering. Many people want to know about Buddhism, but they are not interested in faith because they don’t want to surrender anything. Since they think the sangha is like a group of friends so it is not necessary to respect them, this makes them feel safe. This conception originally comes from some kind of modern superficial democratic idea of equal rights, based on a nihilist point of view and not on wisdom. Spiritual ideas are totally different from worldly political ideas, ideas, but they try to put these worldly political ideas into spiritual ideas without considering pure dharma. These democratic ideas are supposed to be kept as worldly political ideas, and not misused as if they were spiritual. It is fine to believe in democratic ideas, but why bother Buddhist ideas, including the right to be a teacher and the right to believe in teachers? Why are these people trying to prevent belief in teachers? Actually, democracy has the idea of individual rights, so what is wrong with Buddhists having rights? Religious belief is a choice made by the individual, and not a decision to be made by people who call themselves a sangha. These people have no right to diminish the role of the teacher, and they cannot diminish it, because the quality of spirituality the teacher embodies is inconceivable and not like the materializations thought up by those in a nihilist sangha. Their ideas are actually not democratic ideas, but could be just the tradition of some weird other realm. If the purpose of politics is to deal with the needs of people, why are they trying to exclude Buddhism from what people need?

A traditional Nyingma lineage chart; Guru Rinpoche (center) surrounded by the Great Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana, his consort Yeshe Tsogyal (to his right), and the historical lineage holders (below)

Actual Buddhist tradition is to benefit beings. These people can’t benefit others because they do not have a pure positive dharma lineage due to trying to adjust spiritual ideas to accommodate these ideas of worldly freedom with a nihilist point of view. Although they may try to make their ideas sound enticing to nonreligious people, to lure them for the promotion of their own group or to prevent respect for teachers, this kind of view will cause disgrace for Westerners. The traditions of Buddhism are based on having faith and reverence, but this new idea of depending on the collective wisdom of the sangha encourages the opposite. By lineage, I do not mean a skin lineage that belongs to a particular race, but a wisdom lineage that is transmitted from the teacher to the student and from students to their students over many generations, in order for them to become teachers and to teach beings. It is impossible for anyone to have a sublime wisdom lineage if they cut off their guides to enlightenment through diminishing the role of the teacher, because teachers are representatives of the Buddha, to teach. Whatever they seem to be according to the phenomena of the student, teachers are teaching the path of enlightenment, and whatever students learn must be learned from teachers. It is important that people not be confused by the misuse of Buddhist terms, which are always connected with wisdom. Wisdom is the opposite of ordinary conception. It is sublime mind. There are many meanings of sangha, but simply put, it is the mind’s intention that virtue prospers through the two accumulations of merit and wisdom. Merit is created by virtue, and wisdom flourishes from realization. These two accumulations come from dharma. Dharma comes from the speech of Buddha. The representative of the Buddha is the teacher. So to say that the role of the teacher should be diminished, lessening it and making it smaller, is appalling. All religions try to increase wisdom blessings, not diminish them. Without faith and belief in the Triple Gems, following Buddha’s speech, praying to the Buddhas, or listening to teachings from teachers who are representatives of the Buddha, how can one realize wisdom? As Buddha Shakyamuni said, “For men who have no faith, it is impossible to have pure dharma, like planting a burned seed in a field and expecting a green shoot to come.” With a nihilist mind and a sangha face, instead of benefiting all beings through following the teachings of Buddha, these people are harmfully blocking the path of enlightenment for new generations through their tricky words. Of course, according to American ideas of freedom, everything is allowed, including religious freedom, but they can invent something themselves not connected with Buddhist tradition. Why is it necessary to borrow the name of the sangha from Buddhism’s words?

There have been negative experiences with teachers of all the Buddhist traditions, which have created doubt and cynicism.

Doubt and cynicism are deep nihilist habits. They are not wonderful signs. Of course, I have heard stories many times about Westerners who have turned against and discarded their teachers, even though they have already taken refuge in them until they attain enlightenment, just as though they were squeezing out some toothpaste and then were throwing away the tube. They are foolish to think they have finished using the teacher and so can recant what they said they believed, because the spiritual qualities of a wisdom teacher are not like toothpaste and are not going to finish.

For Westerners, compassion is not authentic because it is connected to pride. It is from up to down, because it comes from those who are in some way considered better or higher, and goes towards those who are in some ways considered lower.

It is true that there is doubt and cynicism due to negative experiences, but that does not mean that these negative experiences come from a teacher or that a teacher is a false teacher. Whoever sees a wisdom teacher with doubt and cynicism through the distortion of his own personal negativity is a nihilist and does not have a spiritual view. According to Buddhist tradition, one must introspect about whatever one sees in order to purify negative conception and increase positive phenomena to attain enlightenment. Whatever arises within one’s own mind, one has to look at one’s own mind and practice to diminish one ‘s own negativity rather than trying to diminish the role of the teacher. That is spiritual. Whatever seems to be caused from out­ side of themselves is just a reflection of their own minds. These Westerners think that all that is negative or positive is only caused from outside of them. They materialize and externalize their experiences, never understanding the connection between outer and inner phenomena or interdependent phenomena, looking for explanations only from objects through extreme nihilist habit instead of from the subjective experience of their own minds.

That is why there is a problem for Westerners following actual Buddhist tradition. Because Westerners are of ten occupied with the habit of extroversion, they think spiritual qualities are sup­ posed to be shown obviously and can only appear in particular aspects that fit their preconceptions. Therefore everything is misjudged through lack of introspection and meditation, and they do not see the teacher as pure or dharma as pure due to projections of their own impure habit. This self-distorted perspective makes it difficult for them to increase spiritual qualities through the development of pure phenomena that can connect to actual wisdom.

Some people have suggested that the impulse to create a Western Buddhism is inspired by a sense that things in the world are falling apart so quickly that Buddhism in any form is better than none at all.

This is just an excuse. If there is no respect for Buddha or for teachers, even if people call them­ selves Buddhists, they are non-Buddhists. Instead of misusing Buddhism, it would be much simpler for them to just work on improving the world, the environment, or society if they want to do something about them. They don’t need to label their own ideas as Western Buddhism or to blame Buddhism. Again, there is racism.


Yes, because Westerners think Buddhism comes from the East, and they do not want to have to depend on the East for Buddhism. But the idea that we don’t need the East is racist and patronizing. Since these Westerners are eager to invent a special Western Buddhism, they must think it is particularly for the benefit of Western sentient beings, but Buddhism is for all sentient beings.

You’re using racism as a kind of cultural imperialism?

The West will not have a pure Buddhist lineage if Westerners do not respect sublime beings or believe in teachers. Some Westerners who have not under­ stood Buddhism deeply or have not made a connection with the profound spiritual energy of the blessings of lineage have rejected it out of frustration. Then they have said that Buddhism does not deliver, making this negative point of view sound complimentary to nihilist people so they can be influenced by it, which creates the problem of how pure Buddhist teachers can flourish in the West in future generations.

If the lineage is broken, it is a false sangha, and there is no lineage that can be transmitted. If Americans create something new called American Buddhism, without considering other sentient beings, then that means American Buddhism is not Mahayana Buddhism because it has not considered all other sentient beings. Also, it is not in the Hinayana tradition, which is to discipline one’s own ego, because it has the taste of building more self-righteous samsaric ego by emphasizing oneself and those who are similar to oneself, meaning that there is something wrong with others. That means there are no pure phenomena toward others, which means there is not even the whiff of Vajrayana.

How can they try to teach all beings impartially if they have already used this name? Actually, l can’t understand the idea of American Buddhism at all. Sometimes it looks like communism, sometimes like democracy, sometimes like socialism, and sometimes like nothing, only circling between worldly systems, never cutting from them but only circling between negative phenomena. If the beings of another country where there is no Buddhism need to find Buddhism’s ideas, and if those beings think in a naive way that Americans have American Buddhism and try to study with them, the worst thing will be that they will have no Buddhist lineage.

You speak of faith and devotion and the trust in the sublime teachers, but when we read the texts about the sublime teachers, very Jew of the teachers appear to match the description of sublime teachers.

I cannot say either they are not or they are sublime teachers, because I am not a sublime teacher. Another problem is that almost all Western teachers of Buddhism are either nihilists or eternalists, and not actual Buddhist lineage holders. Even if those previous sublime Buddhist teachers are not appearing in front of you now, because they appeared in the past, you can read and understand their speech, although you did not see them through the lack of your good karma. But if those previous sublime teachers appeared in front of you today, you would see them in the same way as you see the teachers of these days, which is negatively. Also, you can’t say previous sublime teachers are different from today’s teachers. When previous sublime teachers manifested in the past, are you sure that you were with them so that you can remember all of their qualities? You cannot judge a teacher’s spiritual intangible qualities by materializing them, including the qualities of sublime beings from the past.

If so many teachers in the West are teaching from a nihilist point of view, and if we are to evolve a pure dharma, as you describe it, should we continue to treat these nihilist teachers as if they were sublime beings so that the lineage of devotion and faith are maintained?

If you do this with the right point of view, then those nihilist teachers are transformed into sublime beings, so there will not be any nihilist teachers. Sometimes good students treat their own teachers as if they were sublime, even though their sublime qualities are not

Padmasambhava, fifteenth century, brass with copper and silver inlay

Obvious to ordinary objective judgment. This happens when the student has faith and belief. But the best thing is not to materialize about teachers and to use one’s own insight and introspection to create pure phenomena. I hope each teacher’s students, remembering what they learned from their own teachers, and keeping their kindness in mind, have unshakable faith and are not affected by the uncivilized malice of these people with a reverse point of view. Then when they become teachers one day, as a consequence of good karma and compassion, they can have loyalty, nobility, deep devotion and faith, and pure students, to attain fully enlightened Buddhahood.



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