Questions & Answers

Q: What is the essential characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism?

Thrangu Rinpoche: One tends to associate Tibet with the quintessential path of the Vajrayana. Generally speaking, people tend to class the Buddhism that took root in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand as 'Theravada', that which took root in China and Japan as the 'Mahayana', and that which spread through Tibet and Mongolia as 'Vajrayana'. However, it seems to me that one finds the Vajrayana present in all of those lands and traditions.

In the meditation instructions of the Theravada and in the artwork of their temples there can be found traces of what is normally associated with Vajrayana. For instance, they have temple protectors, and in China and Japan there are Vajrayana sadhana practices to Amitabha, Vajrapani, and others. They also sometimes recite mantras. However, it was mainly in Tibet that Vajrayana spread. There were very many buddha-aspects venerated and meditated upon, all to suit individual choices and needs. People have very different aspirations and capacities, and if the teachings only offer one sort of practice (that they all would have to do), then they would feel very restricted, very uncomfortable.

Lord Buddha taught a very wide variety of techniques so that anyone would be able to have a practice that suited just their preferences and capacities. Some want to meditate on an aspect of Buddha that will help increase wisdom, some seek particularly the Buddha's protection, some have faith in his compassion, etc.

This is why there are so many forms upon which they can meditate--male forms, female forms, peaceful ones, wrathful ones, etc. By fulfilling their aspirations then Lord Buddha helps them all to develop in the quickest way.

Q: I'm sure His Holiness could answer this question for hours, but I felt the need to ask it anyway. Just, perhaps, a little insight into the birth and death cycle that might give us a better understanding.

H.H. 16th Karmapa: His Holiness says that there are many people in the world who believe in rebirth and many who do not. But believing in rebirth goes along well with believing in the law of Karma, or cause and effect. In Buddhism, the quality of one's birth is dependent on how sincerely one has respected the law of Karma. If within this particular lifetime you perform virtuous activities, beneficial activities in terms of helping other beings, and activities of kindness and compassion, then it is possible, even certain, that you will experience a fortunate rebirth in the next lifetime.

It is like sowing a good seed and then facilitating its growth by giving it the necessary water, fertilizer and so on. By putting forth this sort of effort it's quite certain you will have a beautiful flower.

It's the same in life. If you perform beneficial activities and respect the law of Karma, there is a possibility that you will be reborn as a human being, with the opportunities and the prerequisites necessary for you to understand the profundity of the spiritual path and the spiritual practices, thus enabling yourself to progress in a non-returning direction. Whereas, if you spend your life indulging in negative activities, activities that are destructive to yourself and others, then even if you are born as a human being in the next lifetime, you may be deprived of the possibilities of further progress. You could be born into a situation of complete destitution. This sort of rebirth, unfortunately, leads to further negative activities which means suffering the consequences and then again suffering the degradation in quality of your rebirth. Putting it simply, the quality of your rebirth depends on how honestly you live up to the universal law, the law of cause and effect and result.

Q: How can we, in our present life or each life, best fulfill our destiny and be of the most service not only to mankind but to the universe in general?

H.H. 16th Karmapa: His Holiness says that the best way to fulfill your destiny in life, as well as benefiting others, is to follow the Dharma by learning and putting into practice the Mahayana teachings. But for this practice to become the foundation of your life, you must first understand the process of rebirth and gain confidence in the truth of Karma--the truth of cause and effect.

If you apply the Mahayana teachings in your life, with understanding and confidence, you will fulfill your destiny by experiencing awakening or enlightenment. Having done this, there is no doubt that you will be in a position to benefit others. Not only could you benefit human beings, but also sentient beings in general. In this respect, the teachings are very fruitful. There are many different methods or skillful means which we can apply to our own lives. The teachings speak of the six perfections of the path: perfection of generosity, perfection of discipline, perfection of patience, perfection of meditation, perfection of effort, and the perfection of wisdom. We can work toward perfecting ourselves in such a way that through inherent potential we develop our destiny while spontaneously benefiting others. Willingness as well as capability to benefit other beings comes through the development of the remaining four perfections of fruition (another of Buddha's teachings) which concern the perfection of skillful means, perfection of strength, perfection of prayer, perfection of wisdom, and the perfection of fruition.

Q: You spoke this morning about the confusion, neurosis, and suffering that we all live with, and the fact that it is intensified because it has been going on for so many lifetimes and because we live in an environment where others are in the same situation. I was wondering if you could say more about the original cause: how it got started and why it caught on the way it seems to have.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Both samsara and confusion are known in Buddhism as beginningless, so there is no real how or why as to the beginning of samsara or how we became caught in confusion. That is a big part of confusion, because not being able to know that is itself confusion. The positive side of confusion is that there is an end to it. If you practice, and if you get some realization, and if you achieve enlightenment, that is the end of confusion. We cannot really talk about a beginning, though.

Many traditions, actually, teach that whatever we experience in this lifetime, whether good or bad, happiness or sadness, is the outcome of good or bad activity in past lives, and whatever good or bad you do in this life affects the next life, and so forth. It is possible we may have been great practitioners in the past and, therefore, our neurosis or confusion may not be so strong in this life, and our ability to understand and achieve enlightenment will be greater than it is for others. This is because of our previous connections.

Other than that, the nature of confusion is that it has no particular beginning. Various religions in the world, thinking that there is the need to talk about a beginning to confusion, tend to blame it on a superior being, saying that such a being has punished us, and therefore we are in this particular situation. But Buddhism does not teach that there is anybody punishing us except our own karma, which is confusion.

Q: Within the different lineages of the Tibetan tradition, is it just the fact that they have been handed down through different people that separates them, or are there fundamental differences in them and how they developed? What are the differences between them?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: In the various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, concerning the idea of the union of compassion and wisdom, there is no difference at all. Concerning the objects of refuge--the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha--there is no difference at all. The teaching, or the transmission, originated from the same source, and the goal is the same: enlightenment. What is different between the different traditions in some cases is the presentation of the order of the practice. It has been set up slightly differently, according to the insights of the various skilled teachers, so there are what are called different traditions. It is like a father having four sons. If you ask any of them who their father is, the answer will be the same, but they might live differently, and they might have different numbers of children. It is similar to that.

Q: Could you clarify for me what the differences in technique are between Buddhist meditation as practiced in Tibet versus, say, Zen Buddhism that we've heard about from Japan?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: From the point of view that the practices of different schools are all in accordance with the teachings and experiences of the Buddha, there is no difference between them--they are essentially, basically the same. Thus both Japanese Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists relate to the Buddha as the ultimate example and source of inspiration. Yet because of the way Buddhism spread in the world and the way it was preserved, there are differences of completeness, of being more complete and being less complete or incomplete.

For instance, in Tibet what are traditionally referred to as the three yanas or three vehicles of Buddhism--the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantrayana or Vajrayana--are equally practiced and preserved and emphasized, whereas in many other Buddhist countries they are only partially practiced. So from that point of view, yes, there could be some differences. Then from another point of view, there are various techniques on all levels--preliminary as well as advanced levels--and because of particular lines of practice and practitioners, and also because of particular needs, certain techniques are emphasized more by some lines or schools of practice than others. So here again, there may seem to be some differences, though essentially there is no difference.

Finally, there is also the cultural aspect: how a particular gesture is done, what particular attire is put on, how certain things are set up and so forth, you know, more the physical level. In these areas, there may be some differences but again, the essential point of view is that there is not so much of a difference.

Q: There are a lot of differences between Western culture and traditional Buddhist culture. Is it necessary to believe in or understand all of the beliefs that go along with Buddhism (for example, reincarnation) in order to be a good practitioner?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Culture is really not the key to enlightenment. There are many academic teachers who have mastered Eastern culture and have not even reached the beginning of enlightenment. Cultural beliefs do not bring people to the enlightened state. No matter what culture we belong to, everyone wants to enjoy happiness and get rid of the cause of suffering. It is not a matter of East or West. Knowing that, if you practice with the intention to provide well-being, goodness, enlightenment, and freedom from suffering and the cause of suffering impartially for every being, then you can be a good practitioner, even if you have no knowledge of Eastern culture at all.

Q: What is the viewpoint of soul in the Buddhist teaching, and what is the aim of the teaching?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: In terms of the view about soul--the Buddhist term used might be mind or consciousness. This could also be referred to by quite a number of different terms, depending on how you are relating to it. The thinking mind--this knowing ability that we have as we are living right now--is referred to as the mind or consciousness. And this mind, this consciousness, is not anything material.

Yes, we have this knowing ability, this experience of consciousness, but it is nothing material or substantial. It has no color or dimensions or form of any kind, yet it is happening all the time. And the aim of Buddhism--although it's not usually put in these terms--is to experience perfect joy and the total ability of the mind.

Q: What is faith? Is it only faith in buddha nature?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: I would use the word confidence rather than faith. In general, faith is not a proper term in Buddhism. The word faith can give the sense of blindness. When we say you have to have devotion to a teacher, we actually mean that you have confidence that the qualities of the teacher, of the Buddha, and of the Dharma have something that will benefit you. I think faith is different, but we might need faith in the Vajrayana.

Q: Aside from apparent doctrinal differences, is there a fundamental congruity between the quality of enlightenment the Buddha taught and the experience of universal love that Christ taught?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Not having had much personal experience in comparative religion, I cannot definitely say. Based on what you have said, however, there appear to be similarities as well as differences. I understand that both paths teach that you should gear your actions and thoughts towards the well-being of others, so there is a common goal in this sense. On the other hand, it would seem that if there are differences in the doctrinal view, then there is going to be a difference in the experience, because the purpose of the practice is to experience what is seen as the ultimate philosophical view. For example, if someone wants to get to the east and somebody else wants to get to the west, they both may decide to walk, but still, the destinations are going to be different. So there may be similarities, but there are also key differences.

Q: Are there women scholars and teachers in Buddhism?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Oh yes, definitely. The fact is, as I already mentioned, that differences between people are not made by things like the color of their skin or their sex or their age, but by who can generate a nobler state of mind.

Q: What makes a being sentient? Is a tree a sentient being?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Sentient beings are those with consciousness like ourselves, and other beings who experience happiness or unhappiness, pain or pleasure. Trees are not sentient, because they lack consciousness. However, a being in the form of a spirit or something like that could inhabit a tree; you could think of this as a sentient being, but not the tree itself. For example, you do not think of someone's clothes as a being; rather, it is the person within them.

Q: Some native peoples, such as Native Americans or other shamanic tribal people around the world, believe that sentient beings or spirits exist within trees and plants and herbs and things like this. I had asked a lama about this, and he said that according to the Buddhist point of view, it is not that those trees actually have a spirit, but that there are spirits from perhaps the hungry ghost realm who take something such as a tree as their home. If we need to cut a tree down or pick herbs or whatever, is there something we can do at our level, that is very simple, to try to ensure that we are not causing harm to beings?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Yes. According to the vinaya system, when you need to cut a tree down, you first obtain permission from the people to whom it belongs. After that, you try to get permission from the local deities through prayer or making offerings or doing a prayer of praise (TO PA). Then you cut the tree down. Until then, according to the vinaya system, you cannot just chop down trees without meeting all those conditions.

What the lama told you is very true. We should not believe that all plants or all trees have a spirit (in Tibetan we say consciousness) in them. It is not necessarily a hungry ghost. It is also possible that a being attaches to such a thing, that the being's consciousness attaches to the particular object, whether it is a tree or plant, with the belief that the plant is their own physical body. When you do not make such an offering or praise prayer as I described, these beings, or the consciousness that is being held there, will feel pain and suffering just as if someone were destroying or cutting your own body. In order to prevent such pain, these offerings and praise are necessary.

Q: ...I am asking this because we just discovered the other day that my two lamas with whom I spend most of my time are going to be leading a fire puja. They have asked us to get a lot of different types of wood, and if we cannot find it through other sources, it may be necessary for us to go and cut it ourselves. Are these prayers available so that we could use them for this?]

The prayer is not necessary. Take with you a variety of grains, all mixed together--all the sorts of grain that you have (medicinal grain)--and a little powder of precious stones. Whenever you need to cut a tree or its branches, before doing so, throw the grain and the powder of the precious stones, telling for what purpose you are going to cut it. Your cutting has a purpose. You are using it purposefully. You are not just cutting it without a goal. Make a request, just as though you were talking to a person, telling the spirit (if you want to call it that) or the consciousness not to be possessive of that tree or whatever you are going to cut; not to be attached to it. Having said that and having made those offerings, you can proceed.

Q: ...What do you mean by the powder of a precious stone?]

Translator: It can be any precious stone, such as turquoise or coral--not ordinary ones you would find on the ground. You make a powder of them and mix them together.]

Q: I have two questions. The first question concerns the different realms. I wonder if the six different realms are all on this earth or in the earth or around this planet? Are they around this planet, because you mentioned that the gods also take dwelling places on this planet? Or is there some other location? And the other question is: when you talk about "limitless," such as limitless kalpas, is that because it is really limitless or because it is limitless to our minds?

Translator: It is the name of a kalpa. "Limitless" constitutes sixty zeros. That is one limitless kalpa. Because there are sixty zeros, there is no word for that big a number, so we call it limitless.]

Q: Is it the same, concerning the hell realm, which eventually you will get out of, but it is so long that it is almost limitless?]

Translator: Sixty zeros, yes.]

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: The answer to your question about the location of the realms is that it varies. The Buddha gave teachings such as the vinaya and abhidharma which are concerned with the relative existence or appearance of phenomena. In accordance with that approach, the Buddha gave the locations of realms to help ordinary beings to relate to the idea.

In that explanation, the hell realm was in the depths of the earth. Higher up, encompassing places in the earth and water, is the animal realm. The hungry ghost realm is between the hell and animal realms. The human realm is on the surface of the earth. The jealous god realm is above that of the humans and below that of the gods. The god realms are up in the sky like the stars, and they could also be on the earth.

However, at a more advanced intellectual level, in the higher teachings, Buddha has explained that there is no definite location of the realms. It is all karmic perception. Wherever we are, based on our karma, we conceive that realm. For example, think of this room. For us, this room is a nice, comfortable room. That is a human karmic perception. If a hell being came here, for that being, this room turns into molten, boiling lava. It is no longer a room. Similarly, for a hungry ghost, this room would become a very hot and painful experience. If a god came here, this room would become a palace or a paradise. One place can be perceived differently by different beings, so there is no particular location in terms of the higher teachings.

Q: For practitioners, aside from individual practice, are there any particular pujas or practices that we could perform that would help beings who have descended to the lower realms?]

There is no particular sadhana, chant, or prayer. Every prayer of Mahayana Buddhism is based on beginning with developing what is called altruistic or enlightened mind (bodhicitta), wishing to benefit limitless sentient beings (limitless in the sense of the beings of the six realms). Beginning with that motivation, any practice of Mahayana is aimed in that direction. It further depends on how intensely we practice, how intensely we believe in benefiting others, or how sincerely we want to help limitless sentient beings. That is very much individual. With proper motivation, any practice of Mahayana would have that benefit.

Q: What are your views on abortion?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: In general, abortion is killing. It accumulates the negative karma involved with taking life. Abortion is definitely a matter of taking life, since the Buddha said that once a being is conceived it is complete life, even though the being has not completely developed physically. We discussed earlier that killing one's father and mother are immeasurable crimes. Therefore, from a spiritual point of view, it is not appropriate to destroy one's own child or any life, for that matter. The negative karma is very serious. Personally, I would not encourage anybody to do it.

Q: Today there is political controversy over this issue, concerning whether it should be legal. Would Buddhism stand behind making abortion illegal?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: The Buddhist teachings we have been studying here are about avoiding the ten unvirtuous actions, and taking life is one of those unvirtuous actions. Therefore abortion is certainly not regarded as positive, spiritually speaking. Making abortion against the law is a different matter, however. I think people need to understand why abortion is negative, rather than simply making a law against it. In the past in Tibet, the need for abortion and the problem of overpopulation did not really exist. The problem of abortion is a present problem, and we have to go along with what we can do best to solve the problem.

Q: What about birth control?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: In Tibet there was no birth control either. They just went along with fate. They believed in karma. If a child was to be conceived, they accepted that, and if there was not any conception, they thought there was no karma for them to have children. However, from my personal point of view again, preventing pregnancy beforehand (with whatever method you use) is much, much better than abortion, and I do not think it is negative. I am just giving you a suggestion or advice about what we could do at present, but in the past no such problem existed.

Q: If you have had an abortion, do you just sit and wait until your life is over to go to hell?

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: No, and that is the advantage of having knowledge of the Dharma. In the Dharma it is taught that although the negative karma is definitely negative, the positive aspect of the negative karma is that if we acknowledge it, there is always a method to purify it. If you are a practitioner (or a religious person) and have engaged in such a thing, you need to apply the practice of purification to purify it. That is the advantage of being a practitioner. A non-practitioner may not be able to acknowledge and apply such a technique, so we must make use of our religious knowledge in that way.