Ten Questions about a Thai Practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism
In 2006 I was interviewed by Dr. Benny Low, editor of Eastern Horizon, a Dharma magazine published by the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia. Here are the questions and answers. Below is the interview with some updated answers.
1. It is quite unusual for a Thai Buddhist to be a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism? What started you on this path?
It had never occurred to me that I would become a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. The idea didn’t happen even when I was exposed to Tibetan Buddhist concepts while I was studying Tibetan studies at Indiana University in 1988-1993. I think what started me on the path is a combination of many factors, such as the meeting in 1983 with John Blofeld, the first person who introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism; my several sojourns in Nepal, India and Tibet, which made me acquainted with Tibetan cultural and religious practices, and my research in Kham in eastern Tibet since 1995. The time I spent in the field was not only beneficial for my data gathering but it also gave me excellent opportunities to meet with many inspirational lamas through whom I learned the most basic and profound lesson of being a human being, that is, to be compassionate to all sentient beings.
2. As someone who grew up in a Theravada environment, do you think it is possible to adopt an ecclectic approach in our practice, by combining the best of Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism?
Definitely. But first of all, we must understand that Theravada Buddhism is part of Tibetan Buddhism. You can’t be a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and at the same time refuse basic tenets emphasized in Theravada Buddhism. In “The Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism,” Kalu Rinpoche started from the most basic teaching of Buddhism, such as the law of karma and its fruits and the impermanence of life. All of these are highlighted in Tibetan Buddhism.
I love to use an analogy of a pyramid when I describe the relationship between Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. The former is the basis for the latter in a similar manner as the floor is the foundation for the house or the house is the basis of the roof. You can’t have the roof without first building the house.
You might have heard that the preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism require you to prostrate at least 100,000 times, to recite certain mantras for the same number and so on. But the most preliminary practices always start with the contemplation on these basic teachings, which form the core of Theravada Buddhism.
Recently, I was asked by a friend whether I consider myself a Thai Buddhist or a Tibetan Buddhist. I gave the exact answer as above and added that one thing I did which might characterized me more on the Tibetan path was that I prayed in Tibetan, not in Pali. But like other Thais, I made my aspirations in my native tongue.
3. Is this why you started The Thousand Stars Foundation to bridge the gap between Theravada Buddhists in Thailand and Tibetan Buddhism?
Actually, the idea of establishing the foundation came from the fact that I traveled to many parts of Kham and saw a lot of good work that local people have been doing. I knew I could help them if I set up a non-governmental organization through which I could apply for funding and ask for donations. These local people I have met are remarkable. They are great practitioners of Buddhism.
The idea of having the foundation as a bridge between Theravada Buddhists in Thailand and Tibetan Buddhists came much later. That is, in the beginning I concentrated more on how to help develop Tibetan communities, how to help practitioners in Tibet realize their goals, no matter whether the goals are renovating assembly halls, building nun residences, supporting the education of children, or publishing dharma books.
I later thought that the foundation could do more than just being an ordinary NGO and I should take advantage of being an academic to engage in academic activities for the purpose of spreading the dharma. This is why another half of our work is geared towards creating dialogues among the various denominations of Buddhism and by doing that we step beyond the territories of Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.
4. What are some of the projects of this Foundation, and how are they funded?
As mentioned earlier, our projects are two-fold: developmental projects in Tibetan communities and academic activities in Thailand. As we are a new and small organization, we are not yet successful in getting substantial funding. The developmental work in Tibet has been possible through the kind-heartedness of Thai people who have donated to the foundation so that we could provide scholarships to nomad children in Jyekundo (Yushu county) and support a nunnery in a nomad area in Dzachukha (Shiqu county).
The names of the school and the nunnery we are supporting are Upper Pathang Primary School and Dakini Hermitage. Both places are in the northern part of Kham, which are now under the administration of Qinghai and Sichuan provinces. More detail on these can be obtained from the foundation’s website (www.thousand-stars.org).
As for the academic work in Thailand, which is aimed at promoting knowledge on Tibet and Buddhism, we received a grant from the Metanexus Institue in the U.S.A made through the Thousand Stars Buddhism and Science Group.
With this grant, we could conduct several conferences and seminars which touch upon such topics as death and dying, dream and spirituality from both religious and scientific perspectives. More activities will be held later of this year.
In June 2006 we will organize a workshop on mind training and in December we will hold a conference on body and mind. So you can see that our conferences are generally built around the theme of mind and reach out to various groups of people. Our policy is quite flexible. Although the main emphasis is on Tibetans in Tibet, we also want to help Tibetan lamas who live outside Tibet. We want to support practitioners so that they will have more time for dharma practice. And we want to invite them to come to teach in Thailand.
As dharma should be accessible to everyone who wants to hear it, we want to do it free of charge in many cases or, if necessary, charge small fees.
5. Your teacher is a Tibetan nun from Sichuan, China, whom you called Khandroma. What does it mean, and when did you realize you had affinity with her as your teacher?
I have many teachers. They all have been wonderful to me and played an important role in my spiritual development.
Kandroma is one of them. The facdt that she is a woman makes it easier for me to relate to. I felt there was a special affinity between us, the kind of karmic connection formed by our prayers and wishes in many previous lives to do the dharma work together.
The word “kandroma” refers to an enlightened female being who symbolizes our potentiality (both in male and female) to understand the nature of all things, which is emptiness. The exact translation of this Tibetan word is “sky goer” corresponding to the Sanskrit word “dakini”.
When the word is used to a human being, as in Tibetan Buddhist practice, it refers to a special woman practitioner who may be an emanation of the enlightened being.
All kandromas need not be ordained. They may be lay yoginis as well as consorts and close relatives of lamas. My teacher is a daughter of the late Lama Longtok Rinpoche, one of Tibet’s great tertons and dzogchen masters. I met her in April 2004, a day after I returned from my pilgrimage to the famous Tara temple in Denkhok, presently part of Dzachukha territory. The meeting wasn’t planned but after being at her place for about an hour both of us knew that we were spiritually connected. Before leaving her hermitage, I prayed that I would be back there again and again in this life to help her and practice with her and other nuns.
6. You plan to build a Tibetan temple in Bangkok. Could you tell us more about this ambitious project?
I plan to build a lhakhang, not exactly a temple. The word lhakhang means “building or place of deities”. I want to do it a Tibetan style to help preserve Tibetan Buddhist architecture.
The idea of lhakhang got materialized when I visited Tara temples in Tibet. These temples are called “Drolmai lhakhang” in Tibetan. Drolma is the Tibetan name for Tara, female Buddha. The lhakhang to be built which is three stories high will be a place to worship her and other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as to serve as a symbol of the three kayas of the buddha.
The first story will symbolize nirmanakaya, emanation of the buddha on earth. The second story will be a place of sambhogakaya, joyful body of the buddha symbolized by Tara and other deities. And the third story will symbolize dharmakaya, the ultimate nature of the enlightened one.
The idea of the temple is also inspired by the building of Zangdok Pali Lhakhang at Dakini Hermitage. I must add that the building is not just to add one more building on earth. But it will be part of the Tibetan center in Thailand which we hope to become a retreat center for serious practitioners eventually.
7. You mentioned that to practice Tibetan Buddhism you have to love the Tibetan language, culture, and customs. Isn’t it possible to practice Tibetan Buddhism purely as a psychology or philosophy, or as a spiritual path that helps us transform our minds without becoming too Tibetan in our external forms?
Philosophically speaking, it is possible to do so. But what I meant when I said you had to love the Tibetan language and culture is that you couldn’t adopt only the philosophy in an abstract level without paying attention to the lineage, the language and culture of your teachers. What I wanted to say is a simple thing: if we want the dharma from our teacher, it is not appropriate for us simply to take from him or her without appreciating the Tibetan culture in which the teacher is brought up.
8. As a result of your practice of Tibetan Buddhism, you said you now have a more meaningful life. Could you share with us which aspects of the teaching that has transformed you as a person?
There are many aspects in Tibetan Buddhism which have transformed me. The emphasis on compassion for the beings of the six realms, not only on our loved ones and human beings, touches my heart deeply. This is clearly seen in the practice on burnt offerings for beings in the bardo. If you can give your love to the beings whom you cannot perceive, you can give your love to anyone, let alone talking about your human enemies.
The focus on genuine faith in the Triple Gems, not merely lips service, the practice on meditational deities and the emphasis on devotion to your teacher are among the few aspects that I found instrumental in my life. I truly believe that these practices will make me a better person and enable me to help sentient beings.
9. You prefer to consider yourself a Dharma practitioner rather than a Buddhist scholar, though you are a well-known expert in the field of Tibetan language and culture. How do you bridge the gap between scholarship and practice?
I came to Buddhism through practice, not through academic study. When I give a talk on Tibetan Buddhism, I always emphasize that I talk from a practitioner’s perspective. I don’t have an objective view towards Buddhism. I have too much passion for the object of my talk, which is not always appreciated from an academic viewpoint. What I speak or write is mainly for lay Buddhists who want to understand Tibetan Buddhism, not for Buddhist scholars or students of Buddhism in the academic sense. That has a little benefit, in my point of view because the purpose is for academic pursuit, not for liberation. In this way, I have no problem bridging the gap between scholarship and practice.
10. If our readers are keen to support your wonderful work in Thailand and China, how could they contact you?
More detail about the Thousand Stars can be obtained from http://www.thousand-stars.org. I encourage your readers to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org”. Support, suggestions and comments would help us grow. Thank you.