(1) Don’t rely on the person, rely on the teaching.
(2) Don’t rely on the words, rely on the meaning.
(3) Don’t rely on the interpretable meaning, rely on the definitive, ultimate meaning.
(4) Don’t rely on conceptual mind, but rely on wisdom
Question: Khenchen Rinpoche, would you tell us about your training?
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche: I was born in eastern Tibet. When I was four years old I began to learn how to read. In Tibet it was not like here — there were no kindergartens or preschools. Instead, we would go to a master who had only a few students. I had a master and other teachers as well, and sometimes my parents would teach me. As children we did not have the number of toys that you have here. We had a few toys, but we really did not have time to play with them. My time was spent studying. In Tibet your thoughts were your toys.
Learning to read Tibetan was considered very important, so we learned to read very quickly. We learned reading in three stages: alphabet, pronunciation, and spelling. After that came formal reading and the study of grammar. I also had to write in Sanskrit, using the ancient Sanskrit letters, which are different from those used now. When I was about seven years old I started to learn and memorize certain rituals. In Tibet we memorized the words and the meaning of many texts, which we had to repeat to the master. We also studied history and the biographies of Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Padmasambhava.
I did that until age twelve, when I went to a large monastic university, where we learned the five major sciences and the five minor sciences. First, we studied the early Theravadin teachings, which were brought to Tibet in about the eighth century, and then the Mahayana teachings, and later, the Vajrayana and Dzogchen. I also learned astrology, medicine, art, and geometry. I studied there for about ten years, until I was twenty-one.
When I got to India I stayed in a refugee camp where I taught the children. In 1965 His Holiness the Dalai Lama called together the refugee Tibetan scholars and masters to ask us to keep alive the lineages and culture of Tibet. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche asked me to attend, so I went. The conference lasted for about a year, with seventy-five great masters and scholars in attendance. That was in 1965 and 1966.
In 1967 the Indian government helped to open the Institute of Tibetan Studies, which is dedicated to saving the culture and knowledge of the Tibetan people. The Indian government helped His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche to start the Nyingmapa Studies Department at the Institute, and His Holiness asked me to teach there. From 1967 to 1983 I taught and helped organize that department at the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies. When we started, I was head of the department and the only person teaching Nyingma Studies. I had many responsibilities, including teaching about twelve classes every day.
I first came to the United States in 1980, and came back again in 1983. Since then, I have been teaching in North America as well as in Europe and Australia. This is a brief account of my training.
Question: At what age do people begin meditating in Tibet?
Answer: In the Nyingma lineage in Tibet, the students started meditating at about age twelve, at the same time they began to learn the major sciences. It was only after I arrived in India in 1961 that my personal meditation practice developed. Sometimes in India I practiced for periods of two or three months. In 1966 or 1967 I had the opportunity to go to the mountains for my longest retreat of five months.
When I began studying with my master at the age of five, I saw him practicing in his meditation box. I was very small and did not know exactly what he was doing, but I was very interested. In the Tibetan tradition people often practice in wooden meditation boxes, which have backrests so that the practitioners can lean their heads back. I would stand on the porch and watch my teacher through the window. Since I did not have a beautiful box, I gathered some stones and tree limbs and made a crude box to sit in. I really did not know about meditation; I wanted to imitate my master.
Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
The Buddhist Path
In Sanskrit, the word for “relative truth” is samvrti-satya. Samvrti means “blockage,” “veil,” or “curtain,” but it can also mean “artificial.” This word signifies a layer or cover that prevents one from seeing what is really present. And what is being obscured? Samvrti-satya is actually absolute truth covered up by delusion. But if relative perception is based in delusion, why do we describe it with the term satya, or truth? The veil of conventional reality is referred to as “true” because not only do I perceive this covering, but you perceive it as well. In fact, everybody sees the same relative cover; we all see the same things, which appear to be very real and true even though they are actually delusion. Thus, relative truth is named samvrti-satya despite the fact it is not actually true.
The great early translators of Tibet rendered this Sanskrit term— samvrti-satya—as kun dzob denpa [kun rdzob bden pa] in Tibetan. Kun means “all” and is the equivalent of the Sanskrit prefix sam, while dzob refers to the Sanskrit word vrti, signifying something that is artificial, like a scarecrow or mask. Vrti can also refer to an illusion. So, dzob is like a mask or delusion, something artificial. There are many Tibetan synonyms for the word dzob, including nyingpo medpa [snying po med pa] and yamala [ya ma brla]. All these terms indicate that relative truth is not absolute—it is not the real truth. Therefore, the great Longchenpa said, “Everything we perceive is like a dream image—illusory, despite appearing to be real.”
Let us now investigate the term “absolute truth.” Absolute truth is called paramartha-satya in Sanskrit. The word parama means “supreme,” but can also be translated as “unsurpassable” or “ultimate.” Artha means “meaning,” “purpose,” or “goal.” So, paramartha denotes “supreme meaning” or “absolute meaning.” It can also mean “supreme goal,” “unsurpassable goal,” “unsurpassable meaning,” or even “absolute goal.” As we have already seen, absolute truth is the undeluded realization of valid cognition; it is valid cognition of the true nature as it is. Hence, the term paramartha-satya signifies undeluded realization of the absolute nature of reality. In Tibetan, the word for absolute truth is don dam denpa [don dam bden pa]. Again, the component parts of this word are not arbitrary, but have been used intentionally to convey and establish a certain meaning.”
Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches
Opening the Wisdom Door of the Madhyamaka School (pgs 62-63)
“Meritorious activities like the six paramitas and the four boundless aspirations are very important to realizing rigpa. This support is needed, and we should not disregard them as being unnecessary. Every good deed that we do to benefit ourselves and others without any grasping, without expectation, and without any hesitation will help actualize this realization. At the same time, we should feel great joy and appreciation for who we are, what we have, and for our surroundings, our family and friends, our neighbors and relatives. They are only here with us for a short time, and are not going to stay forever. So while they are here, we should enjoy, appreciate, and respect them. The same is true for ourselves. We should have joy in meeting the Dharma, practicing Dharma, thinking of rigpa, and all these wonderful things. These are not just casual, simple things.
We should also have great devotion and confidence in the teachings and the lineage. The teachings of the Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava say that we should feel such strong devotion, joy, and appreciation that it brings tears to our eyes. Intense devotion is like the spring season—it brings growth in our beautiful garden. It also pacifies obstacles. So we should bring devotion and bodhichitta to the magical display for the purpose of our growth.
Our accumulation of merit and devotion to the teachings and lineage is very important. Otherwise our practice becomes merely intellectual. It becomes filled with hesitation and doubt, and can even become like a competition or challenge if we approach these authentic practices the same way we approach many other things in our duality world. This is not going to serve the purpose of the teachings. We should bring joy, appreciation, and gratitude to ourpractice. For that very reason, the famous Peak of the Vajra Tantra says that in order to realize the self-born true nature, there are two methods: (1) one is accumulating the two merits, and (2) the other is devotion to the teacher and the lineage. If we do anything other than that, it is ignorant activity, like wanting to do something, but actually doing the complete opposite. We will never get the result we are looking for.”
Photo of the shrine room in the new Yeshe Tsogyal Temple in Nashville on the Anniversary of Ven. Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche’s Mahaparinirvana on June 19, 2018.
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Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches
Supreme Wisdom: Commentary on Yeshe Lama (pgs 221-222)