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
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
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