Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche

Flaming Jewel Dharma Center
Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 30, 2001

Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche, 1         I entered the Flaming Jewel Dharma Center on Ann Street, in Ann Arbor, at 10:30 on a Sunday morning in late January.  The Center offers Tantric teachings of the Nyingma Lineage, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, and I had come to attend a public teaching with Lama Traktung Rinpoche and Lama A'dzom Rinpoche.  The lamas are Americans, husband and wife, formally recognized as tülkus, or incarnations, of great Tibetan yogins from the last century.  They belong to the Ngak'phang Lineage of White Skirt practitioners, a non-monastic and non-celibate tradition of the Tantric path.    
         I had little idea what to expect.  The entrance hall was already hung with dozens of coats as I came in, and the meeting hall, colorfully decorated with Tibetan wall coverings, was packed with over 60 people, mainly sitting cross-legged on the floor, some in chairs against the back wall.  The two lamas entered, their palms pressed together, fingertips pointed upward, in a traditional Eastern greeting.  They were dressed in broad, white skirts with maroon sashes slung over their shoulders.  Lama Traktung Rinpoche was a heavy-set man in his early forties, with fair skin, blonde hair, a moustache, short-cropped goatee, and wearing a pair of ivory earrings.  A'dzom Rinpoche, who preceded him to the dais, was also very fair-skinned, almost Nordic in appearance.  The assembly bowed and began a chant that lasted for five or ten minutes, some with liturgical books open before them, but most singing the Tibetan words by rote in remarkable unison.  
         Lama Traktung Rinpoche opened the meeting, and did most of the speaking, his manner relaxed and informal.  He began his discourse by quoting a well-known aphorism from the Sufi tradition.  "In one's spiritual work," he stated, "one should gauge the quality and level of one's activity the way a good camel driver gauges the weight of the halter.  If the halter is too heavy, the camel will lay down and not get up and walk at all.  If the halter is too light, the camel won't listen to any directions."  
         He illustrated this principle by recounting the history of the Tibetan saint Milarepa, who began his spiritual search by choosing the swift and seemingly facile Dzogchen path, but found that he could not even begin to master it.  Milarepa then took up the far more physically demanding Marpa path, in pursuit of which he was given tasks of mythic proportions.  Lama Traktung's point was that a so-called 'light halter' won't word for some people, and a 'heavy halter' won't work for others.  "Each person," he explained, "has a 'soft limit' and 'hard limit'.  If you don't go beyond your soft limit you will not progress, but if you go beyond your hard limit, you will be hurt, and feel crushed or ashamed about your constant failure.
         "Those who never go beyond their soft limit relax into their habits, and sink into their slovenly, animalistic nature," he added.  "Those who go to the opposite extreme tend to be people who want to be admired for their spirituality.  Given that we are all camels, we tend to limit ourselves both with our 'soft' and our 'hard' behavior.  Most of us do both.  In certain areas of our lives we won't go beyond our soft limit and in others we insist on punishing ourselves by going beyond our hard limit."
         A person in the group raised his hand and asked, "What can a person do to negotiate these limits?"  
         Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche, 2"All external events can be taken as the communication of teaching," Lama Traktung replied.  "Over and over again we have to assess what we're doing.  We should immediately be shocked by our ability to rationalize our own behavior.  All fingers should point to our self.  When people undermine their whole life by trying to do what they can't do, it's annoying to see.  Our whole culture is designed to make us forget what our potentialities are.  The constant stimulation that it creates never ends.  To disengage from that constant stimulation is the first step to putting you in greater touch with your self."
       Lama Traktung ended his discourse by talking about the role of faith in this process.  "To have faith," he said, "is to risk everything on the hunch that the Divine exists."  He used the Alcoholics Anonymous program as an analogy.  "In AA they tell you that if you work the program, you will not drink.  But part of the program is: 'Do not drink.'  It's a tautology.  Faith and perseverance are the keys to success.  A person may appear to be technically working the program, but you can tell that they will fail."        
         After the teaching was over, I went up to Lama Traktung, introduced myself, and asked for an interview.  He agreed to meet with me the following Tuesday.  He arrived right on time, dressed in regular street clothes, and was no longer wearing the earrings.  We sat cross-legged on meditation cushions in the middle of the meeting hall, a pleasant incense wafting above us.  I started by telling him of my interest in visiting with different spiritual groups, and looking for the common spiritual thread between them.  
         "I have a degree in comparative religion," he replied, "and I spent quite a number of years in my late teens traveling from center to center, community to community, group to group-a Sufi group, a Gurdjieff group, a Zen group, Dheravada groups, Mahayana groups.  So my own early background was very diverse.  I have a complete love for the beauty of realization, and also the particular paths displayed throughout history, and throughout time, and throughout cultures.  We, in our group, don't particularly manifest the tendency to think that other groups, other paths, and other cultures are not as good.  They're just different.  There are people with a high degree of realization, with a mediocre degree of realization, as well as downright mean and nasty people in almost every spiritual tradition, in almost every spiritual group throughout history and throughout cultures."
         "These groups are made up of human beings," he continued, "and a well-functioning group will almost necessarily include some people with fairly strong distortions, because spiritual life is meant to help those people.  Most groups are mirrors of society.  They are organisms.  The group doesn't control the psychodynamics of any individual, but each individual contributes to the dynamics of the group as a whole.  The group develops an ethos, an overall Gestalt.  Groups and their members are like a river and the banks of the river.  The banks shape the river and the river shapes the banks."
         Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche, 3 "So there's an individual consciousness, and there's a group consciousness," I suggested.
         "Right," he replied.  "I started out in university as a political science major.  Are you familiar with Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man?  His analysis of technological society is that society shapes the apparent needs of people, and then people are bound by what they feel to be their needs.  It's a very good description of our commercial society."
         We got onto the subject of the recent election and the television coverage of it.  "For some reason, I felt personally affected by it, which I shouldn't have, but I did," I admitted.  One good thing it did for me is that it has gotten me away from watching the TV news and reading the papers.  I just took a vow of celibacy from the papers and the news."
         "You don't watch TV for a while or read newspapers or listen to the news for a month or two months or three months, and then you turn it on again, there's nothing new.  It's the exact same thing with new names, maybe.  It's very funny.  I once went three years without watching TV, reading the newspaper, or listening to the news in any way, shape, or form, and then at the end of the three years, nothing was different.  It was the same hype, the same hoopla."
         "I'm a TV junkie," I confessed, "but I can get along fine without it.  The only reason I watch it is because it's there.  As soon I'm taken away from it, I don't miss it.  Sometimes I'll be watching some old rerun from years ago, and I think how I've spent a good portion of my life viewing this stuff, and it's sort of appalling.  I'm in a mode right now where I would really just like to get away from civilization."
         "If you could only have back all the time you spent watching TV."
         "My God, yes.  The only thing to do is to get busy now."
       I returned to the subject of the teaching from the previous Sunday-the Sufi aphorism about the camel.  
         "This is actually used in a series of instructions for teachers," Lama Traktung explained.  "The idea is that if you lay a halter upon your students that is too heavy for them, then they won't be able to function at all, and all they will become is despairing.  But if one has no discipline whatsoever in one's life, then the mind wanders about randomly without even any ability to tell that it is wandering.  In our particular tradition of sitting practice, it's a very delicate thing in the beginning to even recognize what distraction is.  If there is no discipline at all, we can spend our whole lives distracted without realizing that we are even distracted.  Once we try to rest our attention on one thing, let's say within concentrated sitting meditation, then suddenly the mind goes crazy because it's like a mad elephant that's never been staked to one spot before.  The mind doesn't actually go crazy.  It's always been that crazy.  It's just one never really knew it before."          
       "So it's just that you have to be careful not to burden people with too much, not to tell people that they have to take on all kinds of disciplines that they're not capable of taking on, which are beyond their ability at that phase of their practice.  Sadly, in some groups this happens on purpose.  You cause the person to feel broken and incapable, which is a very good thing if you want to exert control over other people.  First, you make them think there is something that their life depends upon achieving if they're going to be worthwhile human beings, and then you make sure they can't achieve it.  They depend, therefore, for the achievement of the thing on you, or on your system, your teaching.  No other teaching will do it.  If you make almost every natural impulse of humans being sinful, then you're sure to make all human beings feel sinful.  And then they will need to rely on whoever is the purveyor of that which relieves them of their sins."
       "That's pretty heavy if you actually get into a group in which that's occurring."
        Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche, 4"Oh, yeah.  You also get into groups where the function of the group is the fantasy that we're all very spiritually advanced and therefore we never apply any discipline to ourselves, so that we never discover that we're not."
       "So you could say that every spiritual group is actually attuned to a different length of halter," I suggested.  "For instance, I myself try to do only about twenty minutes of contemplation a day, and that's it.  But you're doing-I don't know what you're doing, but you're doing a lot!"
       "A lot," he agreed, and we both laughed.
       "My impression is that the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism employs a looser halter than the more widely recognized monastic and celibate Sutric tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, at least in terms of the outward observances that you are required to perform.  Am I right?"
       "This is an issue of great debate within Tantric Lineages.  In terms of the halter, it's said that Tantric practice has few fewer external regulations.  But it has internal vows that are extremely difficult to follow.  If your rules are don't have sex, don't touch money, never drink alcohol-those are monastic rules-they're very easy to follow.  There are 237 of these rules for average male monastic practice, a few more for females.  That's a lot of rules.  But they're all very clear-cut.  Do this.  Don't do that.  It's easy to tell.  Either you're having sex, or you're not having sex.  Either you're drinking alcohol, or not drinking alcohol.  The Tantric view is fundamentally different.  It has to do not with renunciation, but with transformation.  Certain activities, such as sex, are fine as long as they're done as transformative Tantric practice.  But that's an internal thing.  It's very easy to say that one is having sex as transformative Tantric practice while just indulging in grasping, clinging desire."
       "So it's very difficult to judge or evaluate any group.  To external appearance, a group may offer a very loose halter, but it may be very different internally.  There may be a lot more going on under the surface."
       "At least for some people."
       "Yes.  At least for some people.  For instance, a potential discipline might require the individual to be at all times an example of joy and happiness to other people.  Well, Jesus Christ!"
         "Exactly.  Jesus Christ!" Lama Traktung joined me in laughter.  "That could be a very big discipline."
       "It could be huge.  I can't do that for any extended period of time, much less on a daily basis."
       "Yes, it's very hard to judge others, let alone ourselves."
       "You said on Sunday that we usually give ourselves a short halter in some things and a long halter in others, that we have this 'soft' limit that we don't cross in certain areas of our life, and this 'hard' limit that we cross all the time.  Have you ever felt that you are only a mixture of extremes, that you're being completely lazy in certain areas and beating yourself up in others?"
       "Yes, sure."
       "But then when you come down to it, you're taking a look at one aspect of your life, and you have the idea that you're being too lazy, but then again, you start turning it around and it's hard to tell.  An analogy is when you touch a hot stove, for a moment it feels cold.  The hot feels like cold, and cold feels like hot.  Does that make any sense?"
       "Oh, yes.  It makes absolute sense.   In our particular lineage, we believe that this is greatly aided by having a teacher, usually by having more than one teacher.  We have a saying in our tradition that says 'You have one lama in your heart, many lamas in the world.'  This means that you have one teacher who you feel has gone significantly farther than you on the path and has great clarity, insight, and ability to understand you and your situation.  And then you also learn from many other teachers within the lineage and within the world, in general."
        Interview with Lama Traktung Rinpoche, 5 I asked him if he could elaborate on this.
       "When we get into the whole lama/guru thing, we hit our culture's main confusion with Eastern religion, in general.  Our culture tends to take the guru thing to every conceivable extreme, also."
       "Western culture?"
       "Yeah.  We have trouble with relationships.  People want to turn gurus into Elvis cult romantic sentimental fantasy icons.  People want to just rebel against gurus.  People want to turn guru into Pope, for instance-the all-knowing person-which is generally not how such relationships have ever functioned, at least within Vajrayana Buddhism.  If you don't know whether you're being lazy or pushing too hard in an area, you might go to your lama."
       "Generally," he continued, "what a good lama does is, he doesn't tell you 'You're being too lazy,' for instance.  If one is experiencing a lack of clarity on a particular issue, it is not that one needs an external answer.  If you're simply given an external answer, it becomes a crutch, and it takes away from you the very important process of learning how to have the clarity for yourself."
       "Exactly."  I found myself voicing my strong agreement with him on this point.
       "This brings up the whole issue: Does one need a guru, or doesn't one need a guru?  The only thing that ever happens in public forums now when we talk about gurus is that people fudge the question, because it's such a loaded issue.  Nobody will speak directly anymore.  We're in such an anti-guru phase of Western vision right now.  A lot of gurus acted in stupid ways in this country, and still do.  There are also a lot of very authentic gurus who have taught beautifully and have brought about a great deal of realization in their students."
       "But you agree that one does need a guru."
       "Well, Vajrayana Buddhist is based entirely on this.  Tantric Buddhism cannot be practiced except with a guru."
       "From what I understand, without the guru, what the individual cannot do himself is to separate the cold from the hot."
       "Right.  And also only the guru can give the initial transmissions, or empowerments.  Empowerment is like one candle that's lit being touched to a candle that's unlit.  Each of these empowerments is connected with a Tantric deity. The guru enters into the realized mindstream of the deity because he has discovered through practice over time how to do this.  He has become the deity, in this sense, and can transfer the seed of that realization to the person receiving empowerment.         Without having received that empowerment, one can practice creative visualization, but one will not enter into the mindstream of the particular Tantric deity being practiced."
       "So when you say that you are the incarnation of a Tibetan lama from the last century, are you talking about reincarnation the way it is commonly understood, or are you speaking of having inherited a particular state of consciousness?"    
       "Someone who is an incarnation of a great yogi from the past is called a tülku.  The Dalai Lama is the fourteenth tülku of the previous Dalai lamas.  I'm a tülku of Do Khyentsé Yeshé Dorjé.  Tülku means 'form as the state of consciousness of liberation', so it is a state of consciousness.  Someone who is a tülku ought to be a particular state of consciousness.  What incarnates is the wisdom consciousness of the lama, from lifetime to lifetime.  The lama that I'm the incarnation of died in 1860.  There are two other incarnations of that lama currently alive today, as well.  That lama's realization was so great that his mindstream now abides in the Sambogha Khaya, the pure visionary realm of awareness, and from that he can emanate as many incarnations as he wants.  So the realization of Do Khyentsé Yeshé Dorjé is incarnated, in theory, as me."
       "So can you take that state of consciousness a step farther?"
       "There is a state of Buddhahood which one cannot go beyond, which is total and complete, and which there is no state beyond.  That state of Buddhahood cannot be added to.  So if the person you were a tülku of had that state of realization, then there would be nothing more to add to it.  The question is whether the person would live up to what their last incarnation already had.  Do Khyentsé Yeshé Dorjé was considered a completely enlightened Buddha.  The question is, will I be.  By being an incarnation, it gives me a certain state of consciousness, and supposedly a vastly extra nudge along the way of realizing complete Buddhahood.  
       "So it's an opportunity."
         "Whether I will manifest the full realization of my previous incarnation or not depends on my work and my training.  But it means that a certain level of consciousness will be there by nature of birth, already.  Whether all that is even true or not," he concluded sardonically, "that's a different matter."
Date Submitted:
Copyright Information:
Copyright © The Spiritual Traveler, 2001