I would like to say that I am currently writing this blog while on retreat at my Dharma Centre in Pacific Grove, California. As you know, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many countries into lockdown, including the United States, and I have chosen to take advantage of this very good opportunity to go on a silent retreat. For me, meditation is more important than anything. As some of you also know, last year I did not have time to go on my annual retreat as I have done in previous years because I was very busy at the centre.
In this blog, I would like to tell a story which is a bit humorous, and also very true. It really happened! About one week ago, while I was taking breakfast in my kitchen, I received a telephone call. Normally, when people call my telephone, I am not always able to respond immediately because I am often occupied with Dharma activities at the centre and my own meditation practice. This is especially true during this time when I am on silent retreat. I only use my phone when necessary, such as contacting my Sangha for urgent needs or sending emails. When I receive phone calls, I am able to see who is calling from the number that shows up on the screen; usually, I already have the contact information of the caller and am able to see their name right away.
During the retreat, though, I do accept phone calls from 8 elderly gentlemen who have become my friends. Their ages range from 72 to 93 years old and they live in different places such as Monterey, Santa Cruz, Carmel, and the Big Sur. Because they are unable to visit me at the Dharma Centre, some of them have asked me, "Khenpo, could you please call me once per week?" so I call them regularly and make sure that they're OK. I greet them with “Tashi Delek” and sometimes I teach them mantras. Some even want to learn how to meditate, so I teach them how to meditate over the phone. I also joke with them and make them laugh. One of the old men has a soft, raspy voice like my father; I really loved my father, and sometimes when I speak with these old men, I am reminded of my father and am brought to tears.
Some students and friends think that being a Dharma practitioner means wearing monks' robes, sitting on a special seat, having many attendants, or conducting rituals, initiations, and oral transmissions. While this is also Dharma, Dharma is not just these things. Some students who are well-intentioned tell me, "Rinpoche, some of the activities that you do are not your duty or responsibility; this is not the job of a Khenpo." As Geshe Langri Tangpa said in the second verse of Eight Verses of Training the Mind:
Whenever I am in the company of others,
I will regard myself as the lowest among all,
And from the depths of my heart
Cherish others as supreme.
Actually, Mahayana Buddhism, above all, is about love and compassion for all sentient beings. This does not only entail meditation or sitting in isolation; it also involves action with one’s own hands and one’s own words, that is your body and speech. Many people suffer from countless ailments physically, mentally, and materially. Mahayana Dharma practice puts the condition of others first and seeks to alleviate their suffering.
When I received a phone call this particular morning, I saw the name of a man who happens to be a student of mine. He is an older gentleman who lives in Seattle. He is a charming person, and is very funny and very endearing. He took refuge in me around 7 years ago, but hadn't called for almost one year. He doesn’t know much about Buddhism and has not been practicing for some time. When I saw his name, I answered, "Hello, my friend! Tashi Delek!"
He responded, "Tashi Delek, good morning Khenpo..."
He speaks slowly and sometimes stammers because of his age, but from the tone of his voice I could tell th-at he sounded a bit sad, so I asked him, “How are you? Are you OK my friend?"
He then told me, “Khenpo, I’ve lost my business. I am so worried about my job. Please Khenpo, pray for me, please."
As I have said, now that this frightening pandemic is before us, everyone must definitely be very careful. But we don’t want to become worried, frightened and traumatized. Fear and worry doesn’t help; it disturbs our mind and can even cause physical sickness. Doctors today are even saying that negative mental states can weaken our ability to combat the virus! As Shantideva said:
If there is a solution
Why not be happy?
If there is no solution
How does being unhappy help?
I then said to him, “Oh, my friend, I am so sorry that you’ve lost your job. Actually, have you heard what is happening in the world right now? So many people have lost their jobs, not only you."
He said," Yes, the coronavirus is so terrible, Khenpo. I can’t believe that I lost my job. I still wanted to continue working and to make more money. I don't know what is happening."
I told him, "My friend, do you know how many people in the world died this week from the coronavirus? Also, do you know how many people are currently sick in the hospital because of this disease? Have you heard of these things?”
He replied, “Yes, I know, I have heard about what is happening. It is awful; what are we to do?”
I then asked him, “My friend, how old are you?”
He said, “Khenpo, I am 79 years old now.”
I told him, “OK, my friend, then consider, do you have a home? Do you have a car? Do you have enough to eat? For today? Tomorrow? Do you have some money in the bank?”
He said, “Well, yes, I have a house, I have a car, and I have some money saved, but I would also like to make more money.”
I asked him, “Do you have children? How many members are in your family?”
He replied, “No, Khenpo, I don't have any children; I have only one brother, but he lives very far away.”
I told him, “Forget about money for now my friend because, at the moment, you have to stay home. Moreover, you have a house, you have a car, and you have food. Reflect on this and be happy that you have these comforts. Don’t think about tomorrow; see what happens today. You must think this way. In any case, ultimately, we are all destined to die. You are 79 years old, why are you worried about the future and your wealth? Right now you are OK. You have a place to stay. Think, there are countless homeless people in the world today. Actually, you don't even have to imagine. In our country, the United States, you can look outside and see how many people are living without food and shelter and must face the possibility of death daily.”
He then said, “Yes, Khenpo, you are right. But what should I do? Tell me.”
I said, “Go meditate on impermanence, my friend. We never know what the future will bring. There is no guarantee that tomorrow you will be here. Furthermore, at your age, you are not so young. I am also 55 years old and am also not so young. We are in the latter part of our lives. At this point, you should think of facing death. Go meditate on impermanence.”
There are many benefits of meditation on impermanence, though I will not go into the same detail as I did in my blog titled Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation. These benefits can be included in three points:
1 If we meditate on impermanence, during our life it reverses our clinging to permanence, and it weakens the delusions of attachment and aversion in our mind.
2 If we meditate on impermanence, at the time of death we can die peacefully without fear and suffering.
3 If we meditate on impermanence it is the best spur to practice the Buddha’s teachings.
When I told my friend to meditate on impermanence, he asked me, “Khenpo, do you think that I am going to die?”
I told him, “Sure! You are going to die. Everyone is going to die. We never know the time of death, nor who will die first. You must contemplate and reflect on this.”
He then said, “OK Khenpo, thank you so much. Can I call you again tomorrow morning?”
I said, “Yes, you can call me tomorrow morning. Today, do not think about your business. If you have any Dharma-related books or teachings, such as those written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or any other Buddhist texts, you should read them today, particularly keeping in mind impermanence.”
He then said, "Yes, I will do this and will call you back tomorrow. Thank you Khenpo, goodbye," and he hung up the phone.
The next day, around the same time when I was having my breakfast, he called me again. I answered, “Good morning, Tashi Delek my friend, how are you?”
He said, “I am OK, Khenpo. Yesterday I read some of the Buddhist teachings that you recommended. I don't really know much about Buddhism but I liked it. Thank you, Khenpo.” From the sound of his voice, he sounded much better than the previous day.
I told him, “Oh, good my Friend, I am so happy that you read the teachings yesterday. I think that it is really important to begin slowly facing death. Read, meditate, and calm down; it's very important for you to do this everyday.”
He then said, “Khenpo, I am going to make coffee now. I'll call you back in one minute.” I think that he drinks a lot of coffee.
He hung up the phone and after some time he called back saying, “Now I have my coffee. I’ll drink coffee while we talk. Khenpo, have you written any Dharma teachings? You spoke yesterday about impermanence; this made me scared and a little worried. I don't want to die Khenpo.”
In the West, some might say that fear is negative. In Buddhist thought, fear of death is actually a positive sign and a good quality of a practitioner. The Buddha once asked three men the same question, "Are you fearful of death?" The first man responded, "I have no fear of death." The Buddha questioned him as to why he did not fear death; the man said, "I am a Buddhist; I take refuge in the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — I do not fear death because I have a protector and know that I will be taken care of." The second man said, "Yes, I am afraid of death. I committed so many sinful actions and have accumulated much bad karma. I might suffer in this life and the next; moreover I don't know what will happen to me or where I will go, and I do not have any protector. Please help me!" The third man responded, "No, I am not afraid to die. I know only this life; I will enjoy this life as I don't know what will happen after death." The Buddha said that fear of death is a potent seed needed to turn towards Dharma and to follow the path, and that a man who is unafraid of death cannot be taught; indeed, the Buddha accepted the second man as his student. Therefore, it makes me a bit happy to see this fear awaken in my students and I take it as a positive sign.
He then asked, “Have you written any teachings on impermanence that you can send me?”
I responded, “Yes! I have composed many teachings that I will send to you along with a book by HH the Dalai Lama.” He thanked me and gave me his email address.
I sent him my teaching on impermanence titled Impermanence, the Essence of Meditation and The Essence of Buddhism as Related to the Four Noble Truths, which were translated by David Molk. Both of these can be found on my blog and represent the very essence of Buddhism.
I then told him, “I just sent you an email; read today, drink your coffee, and don't worry about money. I will pray for you and keep you in my thoughts, but please go meditate. I am staying in my centre right now, and every day I meditate 5 to 6 hours, and most of my meditation is on impermanence. Think about that.” In truth, many people often ask me about meditation on emptiness, but few inquire about impermanence.
He then said, “Oh Khenpo, five to six hours of meditation every day… wow, you are so amazing! Thank you, Khenpo, bye-bye.”
The following day, I received another call from him after my morning meditation. I said, “Good morning, my friend, Tashi Delek! How are you today?”
He said, “Oh Khenpo, good morning, Tashi Delek! How are you? Are you having breakfast?” He sounded much happier.
I said, “Yes, I finished breakfast and my morning meditation. You called me at a good time, I can talk. How are you doing?”
He said, “I am good Khenpo. Yesterday you sent me the teaching on impermanence, which I read twice, because you told me to read each two or three times. I liked it, although it made me a bit scared and a little bit worried. Previously, I never thought about death and the fact that I am going to die, but I think that it is very good for me. The way you explained it is so clear, thank you so much.”
Then I asked him, “Did you read The Four Noble Truths?”
He responded, “No, not yet, should I read it too?”
I said, “Yes, you must read The Four Noble Truths because this, along with impermanence, are the first teachings given by the Buddha which discuss concepts such as karma, dependent origination, samsara, and liberation. Read these teachings together; one day read about impermanence, and next day about The Four Noble Truths.”
He then said, “Yes, I will read about The Four Noble Truths tomorrow. Khenpo, I feel happier today. I am not so worried about money. You know, this morning my brother called and told me about how many people have died and how many people have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus. You are right Khenpo, I am very lucky. I understand that now, thank you.”
I told him, “That’s very good, I am also very happy. At first, you told me that you were worried about your business and that you wanted to make more money. Actually, you must think, money for what? Money for this life. Money for food, clothing, shelter, and transportation; basic necessities. But you already have all these things: you told me that you have a house, you have a car, you have food, you have everything. Then what do we need so much money for? When you die, you cannot take anything with you. If you have billions upon billions of dollars in your bank account, you will not be able to bring even one cent with you after you die. Even though this is self-evident, it is not always clear to people. Not just you, but everybody! The purpose of life is happiness, right? The aim of life is not to accumulate wealth or to be a slave to money. I think that this human birth is so difficult to find, which comes only once; we must use this rare opportunity — our body, speech, and mind — as a vehicle for Dharma, to find a positive meaning in life, one that is altruistic in which we seek to make other people happy. This is what we need.”
I then said, “I am so happy that your mind is now turning towards Dharma and that you have begun to accept the impermanence of life. Impermanence helps to prepare for a peaceful death. Actually, I am currently on retreat and generally do not answer my phone. Even so, I am happy that you were able to learn something. Now please, go practice!”
Sometimes the instructions of Tibetan Teachers can seem forceful, saying, "Go practice! Meditate! Do this! Don't do this, etc.;" some may think that the Teacher should always be gentle with students. Sometimes forcefulness is needed to direct a student's mind towards Dharma. At the Dharma Centre, at the end of practice we say, “May all beings’ minds turn towards Dharma, may the Dharma become the path, may the path be clear of deception, and may deception arise as innate wisdom.” The responsibility of the teacher is to teach students, to teach their minds, a little bit of Dharma; the student's duty is to follow the teacher’s directions. Whether students’ minds turn towards Dharma is actually the first step; the latter three steps are in the students' hands.
He said, “Oh Khenpo, thank you very much. I remember when we first met, I think around 7 years ago. I must say that your English is much much better. The first time I met you, you just stood by smiling, and I thought to myself, he is a very nice man, although I didn’t understand much of what you said. Now I am able to understand you more clearly. Your teachings are very useful and helpful. Now I am a bit tired, Khenpo, and need some rest. I think that I am going to lie down. Later, I will read the texts that you suggested and will call again some other day. Thank you Khenpo.”
He called me back on Friday, 4/10. His phone connection was not very good; he called me two or three times until I was able to get a good signal.
He told me, “I really like the teachings on impermanence and The Four Noble Truths. I have one book written by Thich Nhat Hanh that I read too. It is a really good book. You should read it.”
I said, “Thank you, I have so many books and I would also love to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, but my English is not very good. I hope one day his writing is translated into Tibetan so I can read his teachings.”
He then said, “I think that’s a good idea.”
We then spoke a bit about how he was feeling. He seemed very happy during our conversation and to have forgotten about his money and business.
During the week, I sent him many of my teachings, such as those that I mentioned earlier in addition to the blog written about my father, Happy Mother’s Day to my Father, and stories of dreams that I have had about my Root Guru, Sangye Tenzin Rinpoche. He called back on 4/13 and said that he had been reading what I sent for the past 2 or 3 days.
He then asked me, “Khenpo, are these teachings absolutely from you? You really wrote them?”
I told him, “Yes, these teachings are from me.” I don’t think that he believes me sometimes.
He said, “They are so good and make a lot of sense. I completely understand what you mean. After reading your teachings and talking with you, I can definitely say you are a good teacher and you are a good man!”
I responded, “You are so nice my friend, you make me very happy when we talk.” I think that he might not have been feeling well this day; he was coughing a little bit but he sounded in good spirits.
He then said, “When you greet me you say, “Tashi Delek;” I don’t know what “Tashi Delek” means but it makes me very happy. You are a very happy man; I can hear it from your voice which also brings me happiness.”
He then told me, “If I were younger, I would really like to practice Buddhism, but now it is too late. I am too old.”
I told him, “It is never too late for Dharma; you can still study, you can practice, and you can meditate any time, any day, no problem. Do not despair. You’re doing very well; you have been reading Dharma teachings, my blog, and you have been listening to me. Also, you told me that you are feeling much better than before. You make me very happy my friend. Now, I think that you and I have become very very good friends.”
After I said this, he started laughing, and then began to cry. He said, “Oh Khenpo, you are so sweet to me.”
Then he asked me a bit about HH the Dalai Lama. He was curious to know how old he is, what he has been doing, etc. He has some knowledge of the history of Tibet and of Tibetan refugees. I sent him a photograph of myself with HH the Dalai Lama because he had asked me for a picture.
Then he asked me to tell him my story about how I became a monk and came to the United States. I sent him my website and other information, and told him to have a look as everything is there. We continued talking for some time; I cannot detail everything otherwise this blog will become too lengthy.
I wanted to share this intimate story in order to demonstrate that when happiness is dependent upon external objects and circumstances, we are subject to suffering; true happiness must come from within. Moreover, even when the impermanence of life is so clearly shown to us all around, such as the case with this disease or old age, our thoughts are still drawn to temporary attachments. Please, use this opportunity to renew your practice! Ultimately, happiness comes from the mind, for which Dharma is nectar-like medicine.
I, Khenpo Karten Rinpoche, dictated this blog in English, my second language, which was subsequently transcribed by my student, Karma Choeying, over the span of a few days in April for the benefit of my students across the globe during this difficult time amidst the coronavirus pandemic.