Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, one of Tibet’s most respected incarnate lamas, talks about life as a spiritual teacher and his plans for a visit to the UK
Your father was also a Buddhist lama and your mother a nun. Was a spiritual life inevitable for you?
I remember as a small child that I always wanted to go the monastery and do meditation and mantras, so I had that inclination. There’s one story that my mother received some cloth and I immediately wanted to make monastic robes out of it. But not everyone born into a spiritual family has that proclivity. And of course it needs to be nurtured.
Tibetan Buddhists recognise you as a ‘tulku’. What does that mean?
A tulku, or rebirth, is the wisdom mind of a great practitioner or realised being, who consciously chooses to come back into the world to continue their journey and be of benefit to others. When I was very small I was recognised as different tulkus or incarnates. According to the Buddhist tradition everyone is reborn, so it’s not that unusual. It’s not like you remember everything or anything like that. You have these thoughts or patterns that draw you towards certain things, which you have created in previous lives.
You were born and brought up in India after your parents escaped Tibet, and then moved to the UK after your father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, started teaching here. What was that like for you?
I left India around the age of 8 or 9 and had already entered a path of training there, but my father really wanted to bring me to the West and I wanted to be with him. Initially I was excited but when I got to England it was very small and there weren’t any Tibetans around, so it was a big cultural shock. But then I engaged and started my education – my father felt it was essential for the future that I had a balance of Eastern and Western education – so it was helpful in the end.
I really feel that I am both a Westerner and a Tibetan. It’s one thing being Tibetan, observing Westerners, and another being able to understand the culture because you feel it. I always joke that when I hear Westerners criticizing Tibetans I get irritated, and when I hear Tibetans criticizing Westerners I get irritated – so I’m irritated most of the time!
You have thousands of students in the US and Europe and are adored by Tibetans. Has there ever been a point where you’ve thought: ‘No, this isn’t for me, I don’t want to do this’?
This morning, ha ha! I never thought about it a lot - it’s almost a choiceless situation. My father and I had a very strong personality bond and with him being a spiritual teacher as well as a father, I felt: ‘There has to be some karma here’. He would often say that we were from the same place and that we were partners and that this is why we are here. There are times when you have doubt about what is going on, but there was never any underlying frustration because of it. I also take the tendency not to worry too much – once you get into that state of mind it’s quite difficult.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a teacher?
The hardest part is giving everything up, because your life is not really yours. The tendency is for me to say: ‘I would like to study more’ or do certain things for myself, and earlier on it was tiring - but then my attitude changed and I realised it’s part of my path and not something separate. If you think of helping others as an irritation, then you get worn out by it, but if you can look at it as a path then there’s vitality in it. It’s a wonderful opportunity instead of an incredible burden.
You are renowned for running marathons and weight-training. Is taking care of the body an important part of your spirituality?
Again, I think it’s slightly karmic – I enjoy doing it. And on a practical level for myself, travelling and teaching, exercise is essential to well-being. People ask me if they should run, and I say: ‘Well, if you like running, do it. Because if you don’t like it, you won’t do it.’ You should try to find something that brings oxygen and moves the body because these days there’s a lot of stress and the body absorbs it – it tightens the muscles, which affects the nervous system and the brain, and our state of mind and happiness. I also look at it as a practice, and with any practice body and mind have to be balanced – you have to create some kind of harmony in your body in order for your mind to be able to unite with it. I really feel that if the mind learns and you make discoveries every day, you’re happy, and if your body moves, you’re in balance, you’re happy. If the mind stops learning, and the body stops moving, people get depressed.
What will you be teaching when you come to the UK in May?
I’ll be presenting teachings predominantly from my book Ruling Your World. There’s a lot of fear, hesitation, intensity and speed in the world, and I want to present the warriorship tradition on how we develop courage, how we train ourselves and how we manifest the wisdom that has always existed. The main thing is not to separate our personal or spiritual development from our worldly development – there’s often the schizophrenic situation where we practice but then our work is totally different and it drains our energy. You have to learn to deal with your mind, so naturally there’ll be meditation instruction and you have to deal with other individuals so naturally compassion is an element too.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche will be giving a public talk and workshop in London on 2-3 May 2008. For information and booking, please visit www.shambhala.org.uk. His book Ruling Your World: Ancient Strategies For Modern Life, is published in the US by Morgan Road books, and is available from amazon.co.uk.