Inside a non-descript commercial duplex in Freeport is a brilliantly colored Tibetan Buddhist temple called Tashi Gatsel Ling. It’s where I meet Khen Rinpoche. We greet one another by pressing our foreheads together. I tell him that he is the first Buddhist monk I’ve ever interviewed and Karen, who runs the center, says I’m starting at the top. Khen Rinpoche is one of the most important and prestigious Buddhist monks: the founder of the Siddhartha School (a school for children of all income levels in his homeland of Ladakh), a revered teacher to many Americans, and the Dalai Lama’s appointed head of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Southern India.
Most importantly, he is a buddha. He has reached enlightenment. We sit across from one another, he on a small raised stage and I on a pillow on the floor. Between us, we both set our iPhones, “I am a 21st century monk,” he says. As we speak, he never stops smiling. This is what enlightenment looks like, I think, and it looks wonderful. We take a series of silly selfies (his idea) and we go our separate ways. As I drive home, I think of how natural his happiness seemed in the calm of the temple. The following day, he was scheduled to leave Maine for Colorado Springs, then Malibu, then New York City. I imagined him on the airplane, his legs cramped in stale air. No one seems happy on a cross-country flight. Except, I am certain, Khen Rinpoche.
YOU LEAD A VERY DIFFERENT LIFE THAN MOST PEOPLE. WHAT IS AN AVERAGE DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
Most days, in the mornings I do my prayer and meditation. And after that, I do whatever is important. Reading or writing or meeting people. Or doing some special prayers or thinking of the meanings of certain philosophies. I try to check in, look in at my own motivation: What I am thinking or speaking or physically what I am doing. Right? Wrong? Am I speaking right or wrong? Am I thinking good or bad? Then, I try to think of the kindness of others every day. I think of the kindness of others and give them opportunities.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A MONK?
I was born in Ladakh, a very rural part of Northern India. It is a remote place. Then, I was wondering what would happen in my life, so at age 16 I was traveling outside of Ladakh to Tibet for further studies. Then, I met the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama (note: the Panchen Lama is a religious and political figure whose duties include finding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama). Then, somehow in 1959, the Chinese occupied Tibet and the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were under their control. I tried to stay there to continue my studies but the situation was getting worse. I left in the 1960s. I went to back to Ladakh and spent three years in the monastery there. I was wandering, begging, doing philosophy, meditating. Then I joined a school called the School of Buddhist Philosophy. It was a ten-year course. I finished and I wasn’t satisfied and so I went to Varanasi, India where the Buddha did the first teaching and studied there for four years. Somehow, I’m not ever satisfied enough to stop studying. I didn’t have any money, financially, so I got a loan from some other monks to get back to Ladakh to pay for transportation. My mother died, my brother died, and I would move back to Ladakh. I became a high school teacher. That’s the thing I’m thinking every time – how I have that karma, what I have done where and when. Then somehow I stayed calm and really interested to try to help the children. Some karmic things happened, like I received a letter from a Washington, New Jersey Buddhist center. They needed a monk teacher, and they invited me to their monastery. The monastery I had in my mind in Tibet and Ladakh was very different than the one in New Jersey. The responsibility in India is doing prayer, meditation, teaching. When I got to New Jersey, I didn’t speak the language, and I was mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow, cooking food for everyone, cleaning. Even when they were building a new building, I would hammer the nails! I left from there in 2000, and I became the founder of a school and an abbot of a monastery in South India. In one way, my life is very short. In another way, it is very long.
DO YOU APPROACH YOUR TEACHINGS DIFFERENTLY IN AN AMERICAN SETTING?
American people talk about love, compassion, peace, joy, pleasure, happiness, liberation, freedom. We have techniques to understand: “What does real love mean?” “What does real compassion mean?” “How can we be compassionate in a way that is meaningful for our self and others?” I am not meaning to convert them to Buddhism. I just give the message and leave it up to the listener.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SAY TO AN AVERAGE PERSON ABOUT MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is just thinking. Physically, what are you doing? Let’s say you get desire to eat meat. Then, you think, shall I order meat from the butcher? Then you are ordering the butcher and the butcher is killing an animal. Physically, are you killing, stealing, or taking part in sexual misconduct? Or are you helping, saving a life or helping others? Before you do an interaction, you have to think carefully. Is it helpful for myself or not? Is it helpful for my friends or not? Is it helpful or harmful for my society, community, world? If it is harmful for others, then don’t do it. Also, watch your speech. You have to learn how to be diplomatic.
If you do nice speech, there is no problem. Think about what you are thinking? Is it good for yourself and for the universe, or mentally am I thinking negatively upon another person or the country or the world. If you get angry, you are not mindful and can cause problems with another person. You must think, “Is my anger helpful for myself or is it hurtful?” If you are mindful of where your anger is coming from, then you are able to deal with it. If you go to the store, you pick up a strawberry. You are looking at the berry for a fresh berry. You don’t want to get the old strawberry. Similarly, every action we are doing, we must think physically, mentally, spiritually – does it look nice, is it delicious? We make that same choice all the time with speaking, eating, sleeping, working. If you are always mindful, you will not make a mistake. You have to be in the center of yourself.
IN YOUR PEACEFUL LIFE, WHAT WAYS DO YOU HAVE FUN?
I think. I just think, “You love others.” Your mind is really peaceful. You love your friends, you love strangers, you love your enemy. You love everyone. There is a lot of fun there. That’s fun! You don’t have to be dancing, jumping in the air. When you eat food, you love yourself, and the food is tasty. You want to rest, you get tired, and you lie in bed. When you love yourself and others, the bed feels soft, very comfortable. That’s fun. When you think of the good qualities of love, compassion, bodhicitta, the altruistic mind that is where infinite, shall we say tremendous, joy comes from. Altruistic mind means you think of all beings, some people suffer under the control of anger, depression, pain, desire. Everyone is suffering from something. Rich, poor, it doesn’t matter. You think of why they are suffering. The fault is not them; it is the emotions they do not notice. The bad karma is something you have to carry yourself, you can not share it with others. Some people, you may call them your enemy. But those people are really there to call out your problems. They are helping you to find your compassion. I say, “I want to help. How can I help?” And you can build compassion. You have love and joy. You don’t have to go to India. You don’t have to find a teacher. You don’t have to walk on the beach. You don’t have to go to the concert hall. When you experience pleasure, we call it the suffering of changing. For example, when you go to a movie and you are interested to see the movie and think it will bring you happiness. But when you get there, somehow you change. You didn’t like the movie. You think you wasted your money or your time. Everything is temporary. The happiness of love, compassion, helping others always gives you good things. Celebrating, dancing… the things on the outside, they are always changing.
MOST PEOPLE HAVE THEIR OWN STRUGGLE: JEALOUSY, PRIDE, CHRONIC PAIN, SADNESS. MY STRUGGLE IS MIGRAINE HEADACHES. I THINK OF MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS AND I CAN SEE AND UNDERSTAND THEIR PAIN. IT’S HARD TO BE OUR BEST WHEN WE ARE IN PAIN. HOW CAN WE COPE? HOW CAN WE BETTER APPROACH OUR PAIN?
You can think, “Wonderful! This thing is wonderful! It gives me more opportunity to observe a problem. Where is the pain? Can you find it?” Where is your pain? On your head? You don’t have the real pain on your head. You have projected the concept there. It is depending on your head, your body. You have physical pain, yeah. You can say, “Yes this pain is good.” In Buddhism, we have Tong-len practice. It means to take losses and defeats of others on yourself and giving your victories and good fortune to others. You take problems into yourself and give joy to others. This pain is changeable. It doesn’t last forever. I have pain but mentally I am stable. I have friends to help and there is medicine and nurses. Why worry? You can learn to be suffering physically, but not mentally. Go see the doctor, take the medicine. And think, “How lucky am I? I have the money to buy medicine.” You have the pain to show you the problems. You change your mind to be grateful. Everything is here, why worry? It’s not going to last forever, it is changeable. Even you are impermanent. Even you will not last forever. You are receiving messages from your life. So, what can you take with you when you die? I cannot take my family, I can not take my resources, I can not even bring my body. So what can I bring with me? I can take my good karma. Illness is giving you a message. If you really want freedom, love yourself and do good karmic acts and accept the illness. That way you are only suffering physically, but not suffering mentally. When you die your body doesn’t go with you. It is just like a rented car. When you leave what goes with you? Your practice like loving kindness, compassion, altruism, that supports really you in the present life and when you die your mind remembers the good things and you are dying with goodness and don’t have any regret. That way when the rental car is no longer working, you get a new car, a better rebirth. At that moment, don’t have attachment. Don’t think, “I don’t want to die.” When you’ve been a good human being, you can be happy to die because you will have a better rebirth.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Most important is to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. If you reach enlightenment, you know, but there are steps to get there. You know afflictive emotions (anger, jealousy, pride, etc.) are changeable and the mind has qualities and, if I make an effort, I have chances to improve my life. Especially to try to help others physically, verbally, mentally. This is my main goal.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE OR YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE LEARNING RIGHT NOW.
Until you reach enlightenment, you are always learning something new. Now I am learning the difference between the Eastern World and the Western World. Their traditions, their beliefs, their customs, there are many differences. I’m learning how to speak more English and how to make my message clearer. Until you become buddha, your objective is to learn. Learning every day. We always make an effort. There are limitless buddhas. There are numberless amounts of people who have reached enlightenment. According to the Buddhist way, there is one way to become a buddha. You must have four qualities: One is to abandon all the bad qualities and achieve all good qualities. It doesn’t matter if you are human or animal or Buddhist or not. Then, the second quality is to have skillful means and to understand what others need so you can know how to help them in the best way for them. Compassion is the third quality! You must have compassion for humans, for a mosquito, a snake. But that is not enough to be buddha. The fourth quality is equanimity, to see all beings without discrimination, to see all beings like your best friend or your only child. With those four qualities, anyone can become buddha!
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
The best moment of an average day is thinking about bodhicitta, altruistic mind. That always gives pleasure. Just like sometimes seeing others suffering gives you compassion.