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 conversations will be held, 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.
• • •
What I do know is we’ve got this life
a conversation between Bernat Font and Karma Yeshe Rabgye
It’s hard to find a quiet cafe in McLeod Ganj, but we did. Likewise, it is difficult to find someone like Karma Yeshe Rabgye. It might not seem strange nowadays to hear a Western Buddhist say you don’t need to believe in rebirth to practice the dharma, that nirvana or enlightenment is not his goal, and that he practices for this life. These views are in fact characteristic of those who identify themselves as a secular Buddhist. It is, however, uncommon to hear such words from someone in the red robes of a Kagyu Tibetan monk.
Having these ideas, why does he live and teach in India? How does he deal with the orthodox views of those who taught him and those who are around him? What are the virtues and the dangers he sees in the secularisation of the dharma? What is his approach to teaching?
Bernat Font: Let’s start with your journey. How did you get to be here, talking to me now in those robes?
Karma Yeshe Rabgye: I was born in England. I used to go to Sunday school, but they asked my parents to not send me because I asked so many questions – they said it was disrupting others who didn’t (laughs). Later on, I studied different world religions, and everywhere I looked – Hinduism, Islam, etc. – I kept coming up with the same thing: it all came back to God. Then I found Buddhism, and there appeared to be no god. I know that in the East they treat Buddha as a god, but actually he isn’t a god. The more I read about Buddhism, the more that I liked it.
I thought that this was how I wanted to try to live my life. I went to the Western Buddhist Order in London and studied meditation, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the twelve interdependent links… At one point, it seemed to stop for me, and so I went on to Tibetan Buddhism and quite liked it. Some parts of it were a little bit off the wall for me, but generally I liked it.
BF: What parts were “a little bit off the wall” for you?
KYR: All the imagery – the wrathful deities and things like that. It never resonated with me. I looked and thought “Oh, what is that? It’s colourful, it’s a good painting, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Besides atheism, I liked the thought of taking responsibility myself instead of blaming somebody else for all my problems, or just saying that God moves in mysterious ways. I learnt cause and effect and thought this makes sense. Even at the level of your mind, you can see that if you do good things your mind is calm, there’s no tension, and then obviously you’ll have a good life. But if you do bad things, your mind’s gonna be all tense, and then you may have a bad time.
BF: How did your views evolve over time?
KYR: When I became a monk I just studied in the monastery for four or five years, and took it all in. But once I finished my studies I went on retreats and then I started to sort out what was Buddhism, what was culture, what was superstition. I spent a lot of time trying to break it down to the basics.
BF: And why did you decide to ordain as a monk?
KYR: I wanted to give my time over to my practice and found an urge to teach. I thought that if I went into a monastery and did my full studies, passed tests and did long retreats, then I’d have more of a chance understanding Buddhism. I’m not saying that people should – or need to – become a monk. It isn’t necessary for Westerners to become monks, but it was a need for me. My decision was 50% practical and 50% from the heart.
Still, I usually advise Western people who want to ordain to think very carefully – it doesn’t give you more power. The vows are a big part of becoming a monk and it’s really hard to live your life like that.
BF: One of the things that largely defines Western Buddhism is the change in roles of the laity and monastics. I am of the opinion that one could discard rebirth and still find a value in the monastic lifestyle, I don’t see these two things as incompatible. Yet, a lot of Westerners who ordain as monks and nuns disrobe because of discrepancies with the general opinions of the institution.
KYR: Yes, I agree with that. Well, it is an institution, that’s the word. Many of the primary writers in the West have been monks, have reached a certain level and have realised that, yes, you can debate it, think about it and discuss it, but in the end you have to come to this or that conclusion. And that’s not good to say to a Western person.
BF: I have sometimes found that the emphasis on analysis and enquiry, the “test it for yourself” attitude can be superficial. In the end you are expected to arrive at a certain conclusion.
KYR: They’re not expecting you, they tell you that you must, and if you don’t you’ve thought about it wrong, and you must go back and keep thinking until you get the same answer as them, and then you’re correct. That’s terrible. It’s a contradiction that we’re told to enquire and then when we enquire we have to come to their conclusion.
BF: How do you deal with this?
KYR: When I’ve had differences of opinion I’ve argued my side, and they’ve argued their side, and in the end we both keep our opinion. I’ve never lost a teacher or been told to leave because of it. Sometimes I’ll just listen to what they say, take it on board and give some thought to it later, but won’t actually debate it with them. I know the outcome will be a heated debate and they’ll just think, “Oh, you are a Westerner, you don’t understand Buddhism.”
BF: You have chosen to live, work and teach in India. Couldn’t you do this in the West?
KYR: It’s very expensive to live in the West, even if you stay in a monastery, when you are not working and have no income. In India, I can live in a monastery, my food is there, my room is there. Also, I wanted to teach the monks, although now I’ve branched out and teach lay people as well.
BF: What is your approach when teaching?
KYR: I don’t dictate, I don’t say to them “this is it”. Both for the monks and lay people, I try to give the traditional side as well as a more secular side, for them to look at it themselves and decide which they prefer, or agree with more.
I usually say to people that what I’m talking about is this life. Now I don’t know if we’ve had another life or will get a next life, but what I do know is we’ve got this life. So let’s look at it and try to follow the eightfold path and the four noble truths in this life. Then if it works and you get yourself good merit and there is a next life, you’re granted a good rebirth. If there isn’t, it doesn’t matter – you’ve had a good life. So it’s a win win.
BF: The Buddha says something similar in the Kalama Sutta.
BF: Is it different teaching Westerners and Asians?
KYR: There’s a big difference. I was teaching a hundred people here in the university. I said, “Any questions?” Just one question. When I was teaching in England and I said “Any questions?”, of course everybody’s hands went up.
In a way it’s easier to teach over here because people just take in what you say. But in the West you have to be a little bit more careful. It keeps you on your toes actually, and I can learn from people. It makes you more of a mentor than a teacher. At the same time, I can be more secular in my approach, I don’t have to talk about rebirth and karma.
BF: When and how did you come into contact with secular Buddhism? Why did you find it interesting?
KYR: I find it of great interest. I’m interested in the way different people think – traditional people, people with no religion. I came across the Secular Buddhist Association in America and I started reading their blog and listening to their podcasts.
When my book came out, I sent it to Ted Meissner and we became good friends. Since then, I’ve tried to look around the web and read different blogs on secular Buddhism and post-traditional Buddhism. It’s good to see how they take the traditional teachings and strip out all the ritual practice, etc. Then you’re just left with a practice that can help you now in this life. I like that.
BF: Is there anything you don’t like about it?
KYR: Because they’re secular, they don’t like to be a movement. Sometimes they spend a lot of time saying they’re not a movement, not a group, not a church, not a society, not this, not that… They go into long arguments. That part amuses me. But secular Buddhism is something and it does bind people together, so in a way it is a group, a community. They are. And it doesn’t matter.
BF: I personally see it more as an approach, rather than a set of new doctrines.
KYR: Yes. I don’t think it has all the dogma, which is the good part of it, and it mainly looks at the Pali canon, trying to make sense of the Buddha’s teachings in today’s world. That is excellent. So they don’t have to worry about whether they are a group, or whatever.
Another thing that makes me smile a little is when some can’t say the word Buddha. They’ll call him Gotama, or Siddhartha, or Sid, anything but that B word. Again, that’s unnecessary. These teachings are supposed to come from him. As a secular person, you don’t have to be afraid to say Buddha, it won’t hurt you.
BF: You’ve mentioned the Pali canon and you cite it in your book. Why did you go to it, what attracted you to it?
KYR: When I finished my formal studies I spent time, as I said, looking back at points that resonated with me and points that didn’t. I kept coming up with discrepancies in the commentaries, and I saw that most of what I learnt was not actually from the Buddha himself. So I started reading through the Pali canon, which is the nearest we’re ever gonna get to the Buddha’s words. Some parts didn’t make a lot of sense but others were excellent. Things started dropping into place for me. I’d suggest to everybody that they spend some time reading the Pali canon.
The Mahayana sutras are a little bit flowery – there’s a hundred thousand bodhisattvas to the left, and a million trillion dakinis to the right, and petals falling from the sky… For me, it’s a little bit over the top. So I tend to quote from the Pali canon. A lot of the quotes from my first book and all of the quotes of the second are from the Pali canon.
BF: Some secular Buddhists reject anything that comes from later Buddhism too quickly, or even from Asian Buddhism in general. Is there any piece of work of Tibetan Buddhism that you would encourage any Western student and practitioner of the dharma to read?
KYR: Yes, lots of them: the Lam rim, the Jewel Ornament by Gampopa, and especially Words of my Perfect Teacher. Many things in there, like the different levels of hell and the six realms, are not our understanding now. But there’s lots of good in-between. Just to dismiss something without reading it first is ridiculous. “Oh, that’s Tibetan Buddhism, I don’t follow that, I don’t believe that.” Well, how do you know? Give that a read. If in the end you think you don’t believe any of it, at least you tried.
Of course, you know, if you’re married and if you have a family and work, then you probably don’t have the chance to read all this, or all the Pali canon, so if somebody has done a fair bit of work and good research, then you can also read and practice from that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, if they just want to go straight to the secular and they find a practice that’s good for them, fine. But they shouldn’t dismiss other traditions without first reading it.
Another thing one has to be careful about is to stick to one practice alone, like mindfulness, which is a huge thing now. They’ve taken mindfulness out as a standalone practice, and I think it shouldn’t be a standalone practice.
Ethics and morals are at the core of Buddhism, so if you take mindfulness and concentrate on that without the ethics you may get a calm mind, it may help in traumas you may have had, but in the long run it’s not gonna get you closer to reducing that much of your suffering.
We need a calm mind, and meditation can do that in a certain way, but the way you live your life also calms your mind.
If you do mindfulness one or two hours a day, that still leaves twenty two hours. So what are you doing? We need a framework like the eightfold path that teaches us we have to be conscious and aware of thoughts, actions of our body, our speech.
To just take only one part of Buddhism and put all the rest to one side can be quite dangerous and lead to a misunderstanding of what Buddhism is.
BF: A lot of Western teachers are now quite concerned about that too. In an article, Marc Weber pointed at what he called the well-ness school, something like not demanding great efforts or thinking, “just don’t worry, don’t make a problem out of things…” Mindfulness can become – or has become – a product of capitalist consumerism. No need to change anything beside being mindful in your job, your shopping, etc.
KYR: Well, that’s typical of us Westerners (laughs). You can have these things, but you need to have the ethics to back it up. If you do mindfulness for two hours a day and then go out and steal, and kill, and lie, etc., where’s the benefit?
When a burglar breaks into somebody’s house, he’s very aware, very mindful that he has to be careful, quiet, and so on. It’s not that type of mindfulness we’re looking at!
BF: Have you faced any difficulties for being “secular Buddhism friendly”?
KYR: On the American secular Buddhism website and Facebook I’ve had many people say “How can you give these viewpoints when you wear these robes and call yourself by a Tibetan name?” The point is that I took the robes to take the vows, and I keep them. We have to change the way we dress and our name, but it’s just a name.
I’ve faced some criticism from followers of secular Buddhism. They don’t understand why should I have an opinion on secular Buddhism when I wear robes and I’m called Yeshe.
BF: So they are actually excluding you.
KYR: If they had asked why I use a Tibetan name or wear robes I would have explained. But some just see the robes and mark me down as “this person who believes in rebirth and all of that”, even if I’m not. Actually, even when I was reading my first book on Buddhism, Teach Yourself Buddhism, when it came to rebirth and karma for future lives… I’ve always struggled with that.
One of my teachers told me to put it to one side and not to let it be the stopping point, because there’s so much more to Buddhism than that. Others will tell you that you can’t call yourself a Buddhist unless you believe it. But I don’t think you need to fully believe in rebirth and karma to be a good person in this life or call yourself a Buddhist.
BF: Let me turn to a couple of general questions now. Is Asian Buddhism adopting anything from Western thinking?
KYR: No, and I don’t think it will, or needs to. The reason Buddhism is changing in the West is because people think differently. In the West, we are brought up to think as individuals and we need this individual approach, but in Asia you’re not and you don’t need this approach.
BF: But don’t you think that in a sense the West has already shaped certain recent changes in Asian Buddhism? For example, you now have geshe titles for women which might have been influenced by ideas of equality coming from the West.
KYR: Yeah, maybe that has helped change or maybe it was going to change anyway, it’s difficult to say. This has been driven by the Karmapa, who is young and forward thinking and, in a way, the future of Tibetan Buddhism.
A teacher I had in the monastery college, who did several three-year retreats and who didn’t teach from a book but from his own understanding and experience, just said that women cannot become Buddhas, that they first have to die and be born as men. Oh dear… This is what we’re up against.
So you said that attitude is changing because women are becoming Geshes. Okay, that is happening. But I was speaking to some male Geshes and all of them said they would never, ever get a teaching from a woman because she will never understand Buddhism like a man can.
It could take a long, long time for that mentality to change. It’s about power, control and money. Buddhism is no different from any other religion: it’s a boy’s club.
BF: The West was the same and has gone through that.
KYR: Well, look at the Catholic church; has that changed? Now the Dalai Lama says he may come back as a woman, but that is just trying to appease the Western audience. Tibetans would never have a female Dalai Lama, they would never recognise her.
BF: Why do we still need the dharma in the 21st century?
KYR: We need it more than ever. We have more distractions and things to get attached to, and there’s more people in the world, so more than ever we need to respect people, have morals and ethics, and take responsibility for our actions. If we did, then the world would be a better place.
Whatever practice we follow, if we’re ever gonna get to enlightenment… who knows. I don’t see it, and I’ve never come across anybody who has become enlightened. But it doesn’t really matter because the point is to make yourself a responsible person, which will reduce the suffering in your life and in everybody’s life that you come in contact with.
I don’t think we need to worry too much about enlightenment and nirvana. The Pali canon says it is the stopping of birth, ageing, sickness and death. If you get too hung up on that you’re missing the “now” part of Buddhism. Likewise, I’m not sure whether you could ever blow out the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, completely stop our attachment, anger, aversion.
But what we can do is see when they arise and deal with them better. When they come up, we can feel them coming up and then let them go, channel them in a different, more helpful, direction. That’ll give you a different, more peaceful frame of mind.
Some people think instead that we should stop or suppress our emotions, but then we’d be a cabbage, we’d have no feelings, no thoughts… This is not what Buddhism is about.
BF: In the Pali canon, Mara – the devil – keeps appearing to the Buddha even after his enlightenment.
KYR: And the way I see it, it will always be there, we have to just learn how to deal with it better. To never come back again or never have the three poisons is such a far of thing that it’s so difficult to even focus on. But if somebody says to you, “if you follow this teaching it will make you less stressful, more responsible, more kind and compassionate, you’ll have less suffering,” then that’s something tangible, something you can see in a short time, easier to aim for.
My goal is to teach this way and follow it myself, to deal with my emotions in a more constructive and helpful way. Enlightenment, liberation, nirvana, heaven – these are not my goal. It’s too far off. I want to have a good life, help and teach as many people as I can in this life, reduce their stress and suffering.
Last week a girl asked me, “Why should I want to become Buddha?” That doesn’t have to be your goal, you don’t have to do Buddhism to become a Buddha, you can do it to have a better life.
BF: Any future plans?
KYR: I’ve just finished my second book and next month I’m gonna go on retreat for a month, up in the hills in the Himalayas. There I will go through the book again and meditate on every point of it, as well as doing my practice.
Next year, the book will be out and then many things will come up. But big plans… not really. Who knows if I’ll be here tomorrow, so no, I don’t have any big plans.
BF: To finish with, can you tell a little bit about this forthcoming book?
KYR: My first book was more traditional, although not completely, but my second book is entirely secular. I have based it on the Mangala Sutra, where the Buddha explains what real blessings are, and I have turned the thirty-eight principles into a secular practice.
The Mangala Sutra is an excellent sutra and I expect some people will criticise me for twisting it a little bit. I have not changed the words of the Buddha, but interpreted them through my experience. I’ve not put anything in the book I have never actually experienced myself. So there is no rebirth, no enlightenment. However, if you believe in such things you can still read the book and put in the traditional side of things.
But it’s completely secular. Some people will like it and I know some will not, but I hope people will read it and get something out of it. I may be criticised by both traditional and secular Buddhists, but I’m strong enough to take that (laughs).
• • •
• Find out more about Karma Yeshe Rabgye and his book, The Best Way To Catch A Snake, at www.buddhismguide.org.
• 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.