A Visit with Tendzin Choegyal
Video (transcript online below)

18 Minute VHS video, $15. Audiotape from video, $6.

Tendzin Choegyal was named a reincarnate lama at the age of three, and underwent intensive training as a child before fleeing Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion.

Later he left the monastic life, worked actively for the freedom of Tibet, and served as the secretary to his brother, the Dalai Lama.

Here, in a down to earth way, he talks about the spiritual riches he has discovered in Tibetan Buddhism, as well as some of its faults as an institution.


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Online Transcript:

My name is Tendzin Choegyal. I am one of the Tibetan refugees living in India, and presently I am based in Dharamsala. I was brought up a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Then I became a lay person at age 25. Now I’m 50 years old, and I am very interested in Buddhism. That might sound funny, since I was born and raised in that environment. I took everything for granted, but about 10 years ago I began to rediscover my tradition. I find it extremely interesting and also of great benefit to me as a person in my search for the truth, or in my effort to assure that I’ll have salvation.

I was brought up as a monk in the light of my being recognized as a rinpoche, a tulku, in other words, a reincarnate, so I was thrown in that situation since the age of 3, but I did not actually or formally enter a monastery until I was 7, but I was brought up in a different way than form boys my age. I was recognized as a tulku so I was taken to a small monastery at the age of 6.

In a monastic situation everything is highly regulated, and I remember as a youngster concentrating on memorizing texts so that we don’t have to carry books later on, and we really understand the subject matter. So my time was mostly spent in memorizing texts, then later on trying to learn the art of debating. I was able to enter the monastic university since 1956-59.

At the age of 13 in 1959 we had to escape Tibet because we didn’t want to live under the Chinese rule. I was able to escape, and shortly after that I went to a boarding school. It was run by Jesuits from Canada, and then after that I became a college drop-out. After that I started to work and got married, and did various things for the Tibetan government in exile in my capacity as clerk, teacher, soldier, personal secretary to the Dalai Lama, member of Parliament, and since May of this year (1996) I retired.

It wasn’t difficult, nor did I have a hard time making the transition. People did raise eyebrows, and I did rock the boat, but then no matter what people say if you do something in which you really believe – in my case I felt I didn’t have the vocation to be a monk – then I think it is very important to be sincere to yourself. Otherwise I’ll be deceiving the world, and in the process I’ll become unhappy. So I decided to become a lay person, and I wouldn’t say it was difficult.

In the Tibetan society there are a lot of Tibetan Buddhist monks who kick the habit, who leave the Order, who become lay, and there isn’t much of a stigma, and you are also not ostracized.

I use the word rediscover. Maybe it’s not the right word, but I rediscovered in the sense that it is just like somebody who has a big cut, and the person is ignorant of comfortable dressings for that cut. We live in a world in which we can easily get hurt – physically or mentally – and particularly so mentally, though it is very, very subtle. Now nobody wants to get hurt, so therefore to apply some of the things that I have learned, some of the things that were said in our tradition, I began to try them, and through experience I came to realize the value of these teachings, these advices, and later on they became self-evident. This is real. It is not just a tradition, not a folk tale. It is the medicine to cure the ills you have, so in my case, I have discovered Buddhism as a factor by which I could ease my mind, and the more I tried, the more benefit I derived, and I came to realize it is very beneficial to me – it is very selfish, nothing divine about it – and I am trying to engage in it more and more.

Having been born in a culture or a society where Buddhism was taken for granted, and as a child I saw the external manifestation of this philosophy or tradition but I didn’t actually try the way it sort of transforms your mind, but then I embraced it and derived benefit from it, and I am very interested, and I want to learn more about it, try to engage in it more. I was reluctant to taste it, but once I tasted it, the experience of actually tasting it, I like the taste.

For people who expect something out of Tibetan Buddhism I think the first thing is, what are you really expecting? Are you are expecting something instant, an instant transformation? During the public talk someone approached the Dalai Lama, asking him questions like which is the fastest way to enlightenment, and which is the most comfortable, and the cheapest. (laughs) I don’t think there is such a way in any religion or spiritual tradition, so therefore one should not expect too much, and one should be very patient. It takes time. Also I think it is very important to get in touch with different teachers, and then be very cautious not to develop a sense of cult towards your teacher. We worship nobody. Worship has no place in Buddhism. Take your time and don’t get captured by how smoothly a teacher talks, or a guru talks, but the degree of development of the guru should be clearly shown by the behavior of the teacher or the guru. If the behavior is no good, pack it up. Go to another teacher. Of course, you need these teachers, but the greatest teacher is yourself, and the greatest teacher who will really save you is the Dharma, itself, the knowledge. So ultimately you should not rely on any one person or any individual being. You should rely on yourself.

From my observation the word Dharma which is connected to Buddhism, but Buddhism is not the actual name for the belief – Buddhism came from Buddha – but the actual work in Tibetan we call it Dharma, or way of life. Way of life in what spirit? Way of life by which we will not generate affliction, minimizing them if possible, irradicate. So any act through speech, body, thought that minimizes, that which applies the antidote to affliction is dharmic. It is not going to the temple. It is not prostrating in front of Lamas. It is just trying to check your dangerous tendencies which are afflictive emotions, and to sum them up, it is attachment, hatred and anger. For any act by body, speech, thought that is mindful of checking them, those are dharmic acts. And the whole reason is self-interest. It is not devotion to savor, to honor Lord Buddha. One becomes happier. That’s it. It’s very simple.

Right now I think there are a lot of deficiencies, a lot of short-comings. We are not really up to it. I think they should stick to what the Vinaya says. The Vinaya is a text or volume which covers how monasteries should be run, and it is also very comprehensible regarding the precepts of nuns and monks.

I personally feel Tibetan monasteries and nunneries just have a vague resemblance of what it should be, and then I think we have too many monks and nuns. I personally feel that we should have quality rather than quantity, and I think there is a lot of weeding out to do. This is one area that bothers me personally. Tibetan people are very spiritual-minded and very devout, and they consider the monks and nuns as members of the sangha, and they are almost taken as a role model – tremendous respect is paid – but if they can’t be what they are supposed to be, I don’t think they deserve the respect. So therefore I think Tibetan people should really be alert and think about bringing a change, not change, but perhaps reform, going back to the root and do what the Vinaya says. That’s what I feel.

But then in a larger sense, you see, all spiritual friends are members of the sangha. It doesn’t have to be monks and nuns. I know people who are lay persons, but who kind of excel much better than the Tibetan monks. I am sorry to say this, but this is the truth as I perceive it. So there is a lot of degeneration, and then in Tibet a lot of monasteries and nunneries are coming up, and I think we have no control over the quality of the nuns and monks. The Chinese are allowing some of the monasteries to have a number of monks so that they could show the tourists and the world at large that there is religious freedom, so if this gathers momentum and becomes a trend, then again we are going back to the 1959 situation where there are a lot of useless monks who are in a monastery so they could have an easy life and who do not only not learn about Buddhism, not only not practice, but they don’t even learn about it, but just become unproductive elements. And this is one of my personal worries, too. But anyway, I have a lot of worries, but I can sleep very well, and I am accountable for my life. That’s it.


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