Monday, May 3, 2010

Interview with Erik Pema Kunsang

At the end of the three year retreat Rigpa Youth had the fortune of interviewing -in Patrick Gaffney's words- the "translating phenomena" Erik Pema Kunsang. After a little bit of delay we are very happy that we finally have the interview in written form, and so we are able to share it with you!

Erik spoke about his own youth and what renunciation means. He gave a lot of advice for young people, how to handle parents and how to benefit others. He talked about translating and being a translator, and much more. Please take a comfortable seat before you start reading, because it's ten pages.

Much gratitude to Erik for his time and his help with editing!

For the complete interview click here

An extract:

[Student] How was it for you to come to the dharma so young and also in a time when not many other people where in the dharma?

The first thing that comes to mind is two things. This is not a formal lecture, just some brief ideas to introduce. As I understand, dharma is two different things that are connected: dharma as reality, and dharma as the Buddhist toolbox, which connects with the reality we’re supposed to realize.

The Buddhist teachings are a very pragmatic way of approaching reality but the most important thing is of course, what’s real. As a young person , one is very curious, not necessarily towards Buddhism, because it’s an area which often is weird, like Buddhists are often weird, right? They do strange things, sometimes they dress funny, and they get weirder than before as they become Buddhist, for a while. That was how it was before. Before you could hang out with your friends and enjoy, and go to a party, and then you became Buddhist…you don’t call your friends, they feel that you hate them, because they’re just normal people, and you have become holy, because you’re focusing too much on the dharma as a religion, as a system , rather than on the dharma as reality, which was supposed to be the main point, according to the Buddha.

The Buddha didn’t emphasize the teachings is the main point, but the realization of what is. But it’s very hard to start with reality, because there is no handle on it, so the dharma is designed so that it fits your concepts, so that you can catch hold of it, with something to read, something to see, something to talk about, something to actually do, whereas reality is very flimsy. It slips away.

But what you always were interested in, and all your friends were interested in, is the dharma as reality. So don’t lose that just because you become Buddhist. Keep as your basis, “I want to understand what it’s all about, not the Buddhist side, but all of that which we are, what my friends are, what my family is, what the world is. That’s what I want to figure out.” Then you always have a shared basis with everybody, family, friends, everybody, and you can always communicate. If they ask you, and they for sure do, if they haven’t gotten to it yet, is “what are you actually doing there? What is this Buddhism thing? ” And then you should be able to give a one sentence reply that doesn’t make them look the other way and not answer your phone call next time – a reply that makes real sense to them, not just to you. “Well I like Sogyal Rinpoche and the other lamas.” That’s not a reply they will necessarily relate to.

Perhaps one or two of them will like to come along, and when they come in to Harry Potter’s castle, they ask: “Is it real?” and you say “Yes it is.” Then they expect people to take out magic-wands. But what Buddhism is about is the opposite of that, being true and real, sane and natural. That’s what youthfulness is about: no expiry date. Manjushri is called the ever-youthful. In a large portion of the Buddhist canon that’s the first sentence at the beginning of a sutra' homage to the ever youthful Manjushri,. Youth means having a live, intelligent quality, alive, vibrant, an always up-to-date insight. And everybody can relate to that vibrant quality.

That was an introduction to the meeting point between your world and people and Dharma, and about staying young. Tsoknyi Rinpoche also talked about that today, about not losing the spark. I found that I became a little weird after becoming a Buddhist. It was so much easier for me to be in the natural state before becoming a Buddhist. Which is sad, in a way. It took me five or six years before I found out that what the lamas where talking about was what I used to be, before I began formal practices. Perhaps I had connected with some wrong, well not wrong but very gradual-approach type teachers, who said “you cannot realize it, not in this lifetime, it takes many lives.” Even the idea of the awakened state being accessible was completely out of their world, which is actually quite sad.

For young people I think it’s often somewhat easy to access the natural state, as they are spontaneous, natural, free in their attitude, because it’s something that is very close--it’s what we actually are. Isn’t it? A happy, free approach, which is very close to Dzogchen and Mahamudra.

Most of what we have learned, what we are supposed to when we walk into a situation, is to be unnatural, and contained. Even as a Buddhist practitioner we could be taught to become something like a fossil, fossilized human being--not in actual teachings but it’s kind of in the air in many groups--that “now you don’t party anymore, you don’t go out.” Stuff like that. Then one thinks that one has to keep to a very rigid range, not just on voice and body language, but on the mind as well. This is true to some extent, but not deeply within. An area of oneself has to remain free and young, while another area has to be rained in a bit. Not to bang into each other. But the youthfulness disappears when these two areas get confused, worried wrinkles begin to appear. I got wrinkles already when I was 20, trying to look devoted (Erik makes a face). I was in a group where people made such faces when they showed sincerity and I just imitate that way. I see you don’t have that problem, luckily.

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