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Real Gurus “Couldn't care less”

The dilemma of an Eastern master in a postmodern world

An interview with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
by Andrew Cohen

The enlightened mentor—the guru—has throughout the ages been that great being who willingly does battle with the powerful forces of ignorance that reside in the depths of the human soul. Through his or her living presence, the guru catalyzes extraordinary transformation, guiding human beings from darkness to light, from the limitations of a small and petty existence to the free and infinite expanses of illuminated awareness. Few modern teachers are as qualified to claim the title of guru as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, heir to a long and illustrious lineage of enlightened Buddhist masters. In this recent interview with spiritual teacher and WIE editor in chief Andrew Cohen, Dzongsar Rinpoche candidly discusses what it takes to fulfill his role as guru and explains why the greatest challenge, East or West, is to have the courage to completely disengage from public opinion and attain “a genuine indifference.”

ANDREW COHEN: You are uniquely straddling two worlds: you were born a tulku and had traditional Buddhist education and training in your own culture, but you have spent a lot of time in the West and have also become a well-known filmmaker. So you seem to have one foot in the premodern world and one foot in the postmodern world. You are quite an independent thinker, forging your own path as one of the pioneers in this very interesting time of transition in the evolution and development of the dharma, of East-meets-West spirituality. So I would like to talk with you about what it means to be a guru at this point in history.

When someone takes on a guru, as is clearly illustrated in Words of My Perfect Teacher, it's a deep and serious engagement. And in the film, you speak very directly about the challenge that relationship poses to the ego, to the separate sense of self. The guru represents the dissolution of the ego, and yet Westerners of our generation, more often than not, don't seem to be prepared for this. And while you have said that there are many different methods for finding enlightenment, for discovering “the guru within,” one of the quickest and easiest is to receive the blessings of the teacher. Why is this? What actually is the role of the guru, and why is it so vital?

DZONGSAR Rinpoche: The reason why the guru is the most effective is because the guru is someone you are supposed to look at as being superior to a human being. But he is also someone you can relate to. A guru is someone who eats pizza, who likes the same pizza that you like. And that's quite important because at the same time that he is someone you can relate to, he is the one you have consciously or unconsciously hired to destroy yourself!

COHEN: Could you say what you mean by that?

DZONGSAR: You give up everything and then hire him to destroy your ego. And you pay him body, speech, and mind to do that.

COHEN: When you say “destroy the ego,” that's not a small thing.

DZONGSAR: Yes. That's true.

COHEN: And as we were saying earlier, it seems that the destruction of the ego is an alien concept in postmodern Western culture, which is a nonreligious secular society. In fact, it seems that in postmodern culture, the ego, or the separate self-sense, has become even more powerful as a result of the cultural revolution that began in the sixties. At that time, the emphasis became freedom of the individual and freedom for the individual. And the result is that, unlike in previous times, there was no God above that one had to fear, which in the past had perhaps engendered humility, a bit of healthy fear of something higher than oneself.

So when we in the West discovered enlightenment and then found that in order to attain it, the ego, or the separate self, had to die, this was a very big shock because culturally we had no training or preparation for this whatsoever. Now in the film, Words of My Perfect Teacher, you speak about how you hire the guru to be the assassin, the man or woman you hire to “completely dismantle you.” But how does a teacher succeed in “dismantling” their students' egos in this kind of cultural milieu?

DZONGSAR: It's difficult. This is why defining ego is very important, especially within a culture that doesn't have this kind of background. And I think the classic way of defining the ego is, at the end of the day, the only solution: Ignorance—which is the same as ego—is when you're looking at two, or more than two, ever-changing transitory things, and yet you think that they're one; you think they're independent and permanent. That is ignorance and that is ego.

For instance, if I look at my hand, I make three mistakes. One, I think it's the same hand I had this morning. But that's not true; it has changed. And two, I think there's something called “hand” when there actually isn't because it's a part of a lot of things—my veins, my skin, my blood, all kinds of things.

COHEN: So the point is that there's no such thing as independent existence.

DZONGSAR: Right. And then another mistake I make is not realizing that the existence of my hand actually depends on many things. For instance, the fact that the ceiling hasn't fallen on my hand is the reason why it's moving, why it's there. But I don't think in that way. I think my hand is there because my hand is there.

COHEN: You're talking about what is called “dependent origination,” the understanding that everything that exists depends upon everything else that exists, which depends upon everything else that exists. In this, one sees that one's own self exists as part of this infinitely dependent process in which there is no one who is isolated or separate from the whole.

DZONGSAR: Yes, and all this information needs to be transmitted to one who wants to be the victim of the guru.

COHEN: In the movie, you also spoke about how the guru crushes people's pride, as the means to purify them of ego motivations and attachment.

DZONGSAR: Yes, because pride is thinking something that is not necessarily you. For instance, if I asked you, “Are you a man?” you would say, “Yes.” That is confidence, not pride. Now, if I ask, “Are you a superman?” and you say, “Yes,” that may be pride because “super” is only an adjective, and is not imputed. Pride, ego, and ignorance are all synonymous.

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This article is from...


December 2005–February 2006