The Spanish language and the Aotearoa New Zealand secular Buddhist websites have come together to carry out and offer a series of interviews with well known – and not so well known – Buddhist figures from around the world.
Having developed the core topics and questions around which the interviews will be conducted, we want to present the stories and views of teachers, scholars, thinkers, translators, long-time practitioners … all sorts of people related to the dharma, and especially those involved in the journey of the Buddha’s teachings into the modern world.
Thanks to this collaboration, interviews are published in English here and in Spanish at budismosecular.org.
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Freedom for every single soul
a conversation between Bernat Font and Sonam Tsering
I met Sonam Tsering at a performance of traditional Tibetan music and dance in Dharamsala. With tan skin and hair tied up in a knot at the top of his head, his samurai looks don’t give any clue to his story. He jokes constantly, exuding ease and directness while showing off a broad and shiny smile; but when a friend of his makes a reference to Buddhist philosophy, he startled me with a confident discourse that is not easy to find in the average Tibetan.
At the age of 5, Sonam Tsering was recognised as the reincarnation of the head of the Ngor-pas, one of the main lineages of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. He then underwent monastic training in Spiti Valley and other places in North India. Disrobing in his late teens, he now lives in Prague, where he works as a waiter in a restaurant.
Bernat Font: Can you tell a little bit about your life and your journey?
Sonam Tsering: I was born in Tibet in 1980. At the age of 2, I moved with my mother to Nepal and later attended kindergarden in India. In 1985, they recognised me as Ngor Khangsar Shabdrung Yangsi (young reincarnation).
When I was 17 years old, I left the monastery and escaped to Dharamsala. There I had all kinds of different jobs: in restaurants, trekking, helping and teaching foreigners who were interested in Buddhism and the Tibetan language.
I made some very good connections with European people. I met a Czech girl with whom I had a child, and right now I’m living and working in the Czech Republic.
BF: What were your main reasons for leaving the monastery, and monastic life?
ST: This is a long story of course, but it was mainly because of my supervisor. He and I didn’t have a good connection. I felt that he didn’t like me. We had a strange relationship, he was misusing my name trying to take advantage of me.
On one occasion, in Spiti Valley, he asked people for wood on my behalf, saying that I would be staying there on retreat that winter, but that wasn’t true. He then gave all the wood that people offered me to his brother, who was building himself a house.
This is just one example, but there were other things like the beatings. I don’t mind that as a child he beat me if I made a mistake. But a lot of the time if he was not satisfied for some reason, he didn’t know where to throw his anger and he used it on me. I felt really sad from that.
BF: Is your case unique, or do you think that these kind of practices are common in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries?
ST: My own story is unique in its detail. Still, similar things are happening elsewhere, and there are problems with supervisors or managers misusing the lama’s name. This is not right.
BF: Do you think that this situation is improving now?
BF: If your son was now recognised as a tulku [reincarnated lama], what would you do? What kind of upbringing, of education, would you wish for him?
ST: I definitely know what I would do: he would not go to the monastery until he is 18 years old, and only if he wants to go there.
BF: Buddhist monk and filmmaker Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said in a documentary (Tulku, 2009) that “if the Tibetans are not careful, this tulku system is going to ruin Buddhism, and at the end of the day Buddhism is more important than the tulku system”. What’s your opinion about this?
ST: I think it is of course good, because of the connection from soul to soul. A tulku is a reincarnation of a previous body, and he is supposed to become a great master or yogi, so he should be a useful person. Otherwise, it’s pointless putting somebody in a monastery from a young age and treating him like a king – you don’t know what the result is going to be.
In my opinion, every tulku should be on the same level as a normal monk: first learn the knowledge, go through the difficulties, and then if he is special he will show it. This is how it should be, I think, it’s more realistic and not based just upon belief, etc.
Of course, students of his previous life will respect him, but you have to think logically: people who believe in previous lives should think carefully that he has to become useful, and to make this person useful you have to let him go through reality and not just put him in some special place, because he might be spoiled with too much comfort.
BF: But you are a tulku, although you are living as a lay person in the Czech Republic, and according to traditional Buddhist belief, you will be reborn again and perhaps looked for.
ST: My wish is that in the future tulkus or rinpoches are not so important, because according to Buddhism it is those who help others who are important. As the Buddha said, every single being has the possibility to become enlightened, everyone has the chance to become a great master and teach.
My next life depends on this life, and this one hasn’t finished yet; maybe at the end of my life I will be teaching again, like in my previous life. So I may be reborn as a good person, perhaps a teacher.
But if I’m doing bad things, my future life may be worse than what I have now. If I’m born as a dog, they cannot put the dog in the monastery, right?
BF: Do you continue practicing, reading or studying Buddhist philosophy?
ST: I am not doing this now. In Buddhism, you can go very far and deep into the meaning of teachings, and the practices, and of course my level is nothing compared to this. But I studied for many years. I think what is important is first to practice it, see what works and, then to study more, and always try to be practical.
BF: Do you find what you learnt as a tulku useful now in your life as a lay person?
ST: Very usefull! They were good, the things that I learnt about Buddhism in the monastery. But, actually, life in a monastery is a really peaceful one, there are no worries, no complications. So when you leave the monastery, you have to do everything yourself. You have to fight for your food, to get a job.
If you have a family you have to give them attention, if you have a partner you may feel jealousy, anger, there may be disagreements, arguments. And in Europe you also face racism because of having an Asian face.
So you have to control all these things, all your emotions, and in this sense what I studied was very good. It was useful for me, because now I can put it into practice in everyday life. This is meditation for me. When I say meditation, I talk about my anger, my jealousy, and all these things.
BF: In the 21st century, why do people need the dharma? Why do you think that more and more Westerners are being drawn to Buddhism?
ST: I think it’s very simple. Because a certain type of person is too materialist, there is war, and there’s no peace because the whole world is about money. Because of that, fighting comes.
However there is a growing number of people who want peace, a more peaceful life. Buddhism offers very practical ways that enable us to find out how to live peacefully. I think that’s what people find in it, and why they feel it’s useful to practice.
BF: In what way can the Buddha’s teachings best contribute to today’s world?
ST: From my point of view, peace is the main thing. Of course, people don’t want to be unhappy, people do need happiness. And when there’s happiness, there’s peace.
If you search, you can find the real happiness for your soul. Peace is, I think, what Buddhism can offer to the modern world, in which there is so much confusion.
BF: Are there any traditional Buddhist practices and beliefs that, in your opinion, are not essential and could be let go of?
ST: This is hard to answer, because Buddhism is not against anything. In Buddhism, we never say that you are not allowed to do something, it’s always up to you. This is very important for people to know: Buddhism does not set rules, it’s a philosophy from which you can pick the best knowledge, and use it. You’ll get lots of advice, but you have the right to choose what is useful or good for you.
BF: What do you think Buddhism could learn from modern culture?
ST: In my opinion nothing needs changing. Buddhism already makes it clear what this modern life is about. Buddhism talks about a reality which doesn’t change, whether it’s this century or another century or a past time. It connects with the reality of people’s lives, it always goes with the present time, it’s practical for all times. It’s up to people if they realise this or not.
BF: And what aspects of the whole of Buddhism could be reformed or improved?
ST: There are a lot of Buddhist cultures. Now, when you talk specifically about Tibetan Buddhist culture, you are talking about a Tibetan culture in which some things have no connection with what the Buddha taught. This is how it is, and was, in Tibetan society.
Of course, I don’t think that everything in the Tibetan tradition is 100% perfect: maybe something was right at the time, many years ago. But you have to live according to the times in which you live, so I think it’s really good to use your mind and try to live.
BF: Do you have any plans for the future?
ST: I grew up in Spiti, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, and I know people there have big problems. They are losing their language and culture very quickly. I want to help them rebuild it for the next generation.
We have a non-profit organisation in Czech Republic, where I live, and we are doing some actions to collect money. We are still very new, we are only starting, and we want to do this.
My plan is to use what I’ve studied in my life, but I couldn’t experience and of course I want to end my life practicing.
BF: What is your dream for the Buddha’s way?
ST: I wish that Buddhism persists as long as possible and spreads as much as possible because it is one of the most beautiful gifts we can get, and this is true for all sentient beings.
Nothing is forced, people can always pick what they want. There is no rule like, “if you are a Buddhist you must do this.” You reflect on the Buddha’s teachings but you don’t have to follow what he said, you always make your own choices.
This is the freedom for every single soul. I wish that this doesn’t disappear from the world.
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• Bernat Font, the energy behind budismosecular.org, lives in Barcelona where a secular Buddhist group is about to start meeting and is currently studying for an MA in Buddhist Studies at the University of South Wales. He has published a number of CDs as a jazz pianist, available through SWIT Records.