“What about You/What about Me: A Conversation with Sakyong Mipham” from the Spring 2006 issueof elephant journal.
Sakyong Mipham is sometimes referred to as a Buddhist monarch. His family lineage is, indeed, royal—he’s the son of Chögyam Trungpa, a guru credited with pioneering the transmission of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the West—and he’s a distant descendant of Gesar of Ling, Tibet’s King Arthur. But sitting with him at 7:30 a.m. over breakfast, I had to keep pinching myself. For, despite being in the midst of promoting his second book, Ruling Your World—and despite having just fallen in love and wedded a lovely, Western-educated Tibetan princess fluent in six languages—and despite having a long day of meetings, audiences and travel ahead of him—Sakyong Mipham has a way of making you feel at home.
In Buddhism, the goal is enlightenment. But as the Zen saying goes, before enlightenment you “chop wood, carry water.” After enlightenment? More of the same. So enlightened mind is ultimately NBD; it’s ordinary mind. And, with the Sakyong, it is tantalizingly easy to get a glimpse of such a way of being.We only wish the interview could have gone on forever. But, thankfully for our transcriber’s sake, it didn’t. Enjoy..! —ed.
WAYLON H. LEWIS, for elephant: Well, thank you very much, Rinpoche. Your majesty. We’re joined by Emily Hilburn Sell, the editor of your new book, Ruling Your World. So…I forgot the date…late October 2005?
SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE: Halloween! [laughing]
ele: And it’s very early in the morning. Partially because of your having just been married, I wanted to ask about how Dharma [Buddhist teachings] relates to life—
right livelihood and relationships. And talking with Ted Rose at your [book release] party last night, he encouraged me to ask you why you named [your new book] Ruling Your World.
Rinpoche: The title came to me fairly quickly after I had written my previous book [Turning the Mind Into an Ally], which had been about meditation. It did pretty well. Still, it’s a meditation book—and ultimately, if you are not interested in meditation, you will not pick it up. So I wanted to write a book that encouraged people to proactively engage their life. The next book had to have a quality of “Where do you go from the meditation seat, and how do you engage in daily life?”
Ruling Your World conveys a sense that you have the power and potential to fully interact with your world. Ruling here is outside of the connotation of aggression. We are not talking about domination, we’re talking about engaging as opposed to receding. The key is that a lot of times people think spirituality is something sedentary, reclusive…that you have to draw back from the world. Ascetic. And then you basically become a spiritual meditator when, really, the fruition of the path is that you can completely interact with your world. You are able to have confidence in whatever you do. The notion of rulership here is having confidence in how you live your life.
The title is about life, as opposed to about meditation. Everybody lives their life—and do you want your world to rule you, or do you want to rule your world? We’re not talking about Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler—ruling the world. If you can’t have harmony with your own world then anything beyond that is a fantasy.
ele: The other night [at a lecture held at a church, and attended by 1,200 persons], you used the term ‘authentic presence’—that if you can have an authentic presence, you can do anything in a mindful, powerful way.
Rinpoche: The Tibetan word is called wong tong and wong is power, tong is field or domain. You exude a sense of confidence, compassion and genuineness. Within your own domain, sphere, field. Authentic presence means that an individual is so genuine that they actually have resilience and power. A lot of times we feel like if we are authentic then we can’t really get what we want—we have to manipulate the world. So the notion here is that being authentic is actually a genuine source of power. And if you have that, you’re able to accomplish what you want—benefiting, helping, uplifting others. So it’s not self-centered. And then when an individual has that, they radiate goodness. If you are talking about individuals that we might respect, they have that authenticity. In a conventional sense, you can call it charisma—but if they don’t have genuineness and authenticness, that charisma is short lived.
ele: Their mission, the whole point, needs to be helping others?
Rinpoche: Well, if they have a malevolent, aggressive energy it may be startling or strong. But because it’s rooted in some aggression, it’s a totally different thing. They still have not ruled their own mind, they have not ruled their own aggression, ambition…they have not ruled their own self centeredness. They have already lost the battle—and then figured out a way to manipulate or force the situation, temporarily. The notion of authentic presence is that it’s a stable and natural way of living your life—you are not looking behind your back all the time. Somebody in this situation is more relaxed. They don’t have to manipulate.
ele: There seems to be this sense, in a society that is based somewhat on capitalism, that that aggression or self-centered charisma or power is more successful. Do you think that’s true?
Rinpoche: It depends on how you define success. Certainly there are such individuals who are successful on some level. But how content is the individual? How happy are you? How sane? If they are domineering but their marriage is a mess and nobody really likes them, [laughing] they have no friends, everybody is scared of them…ultimately when you look at that from any distance, you think, “My god, who would want to be in that situation?” But if you look and say, “All I want is a lot of money and I’m going to do it even at the cost of my own happiness,” well then. They are successful.
But that’s not what we are talking about. We are redefining the terms of life. We are redefining success. We have been fooled. And that’s why [in Ruling Your World] I talk about the dark age—a theme that runs within Tibetan culture and Buddhism and Shambhala meditation. We live in an age where we’re fooled. We think that aggression is a way to solve problems. We feel like being a domineering individual is success. And when you really look at that, it’s just like any Hollywood tragedy where a business tycoon has the face of success. But authentic presence is when there is individual success inside and outside. Because they are genuine, they are synchronized inside, they are synchronized outside. Ultimately, a person who is living their life and ruling their world is not afraid of death, or of birth—there is a sense of understanding things, as opposed to getting as much as you can before you die and being terrified of the end. That is not the ruling your world approach.
ele: So, in terms of relationships, which is something I am particularly interested in in terms of you as it seems like your profession is teaching the Dharma. Most human beings waste a great deal of our emotional energy in relationships. Whether we are married or not, or happy or not, love and sex seem to be objects of a lot of desire and frustration. I know you just got married yourself, you’ve written some wonderful poems, you’ve been talking about love a lot and experiencing it…
ele: So what is love from a sane or enlightened point of view?
Rinpoche: [pause] I think it’s genuinely being able to see the other individual and genuinely taking delight in them. With the quality of genuineness, it doesn’t have to be completely self-fulfilling or self-satisfactory. A lot of times when we have love, it’s still what about me and you make me feel good and what’s the famous line? “You complete me.” It’s always about me, me, me. And if you have that relationship, [laughing] it’s doomed because the notion is actually that the individual should be whole. As opposed to you complete me or you complete the other person.
ele: They should be whole on their own.
Rinpoche: The union of the situation should be another whole unto itself. Or you can say, the relationship makes the individuals almost selfless, as opposed to a push and pull thing. Once you are in a relationship, you can do certain things to make it better. But really the whole point of relationship in terms of the way you approach it is who you are as an individual—that’s the beginning point. What their attitude is. And then also how you choose each other.
Sometimes people ask me for advice on a relationship. But they’ve already made a bunch of decisions that are going to send them in a certain direction. I can try to correct or help it, but just starting from the ground level the individual has to come in and say, “You know, this is an interdependency. We are working together.” And of course when you have two people together there’s going to be karma; there’s going to be different emotions coming up. So you try to find somebody who has a similar view and attitude so that you can have a basis of working with things. And like you are saying, if you are a master of emotion and completely selfless, yeah, you could probably work with anyone. But a lot of us [chuckling] are in a situation where we can’t—and so you have to find an individual who is actually going to support you as opposed to doing you in or you doing in. A lot of times people get upset at each other because they feel like the other person and the energy they are putting into the other person has drained them. They can’t put it into their career, or whatever. Whether it be Dharma or whether we are talking about the notion of being in love, it’s about having a completely fresh and clean and direct state of mind. This mind can come from taking delight in another individual. That’s what love is. You know, when you see somebody, there’s a sense of attraction—even if it’s just infatuation, you see another person and you take delight in them.
ele: From a naïve point of view, looking at spirituality, one might think that if you are enlightened and a great meditator, you wouldn’t experience great passion and great longing and loneliness. But it seems like in the poetry of your father [First Thought, Best Thought, by Chögyam Trungpa] as well as yourself, there is a lot of loneliness and delight and great emotions. How does that come out of the meditative state?
Rinpoche:Well, it’s not so bad to be alone. Even in a relationship. We’re afraid of being alone. So when we get together we feel like, “Oh, now I’m never going to be alone again!” But ultimately we’re still two individuals. There’s no sense of failure about being alone. It’s not that you don’t have any friends. It’s more of a romantic notion, in the sense that every individual is alone and that’s okay and we can actually be by ourselves.
That doesn’t mean we have to retreat from the world. It’s beautiful, really. It’s like seeing a single tree. There is a quality where it’s full, whole, simple. When we die we are alone. When we do many things we are alone. So the quality of being alone is important in a relationship or any other situation.So spiritual teachers are not meant to be distant from these emotions. Otherwise, if you are distant from affection and love, spiritually, you haven’t won—you’ve lost. Because those emotions—desire, delight, love—if you can’t experience them, it means that they are a threat to you. So the notion of a spiritual master is that they have actually, totally conquered. They call the Buddha the “All-Victorious One.” There is nothing he is afraid of—love, anger…In the beginning, we may not be able to completely conquer love. So we simplify our life. Maybe we don’t get involved in a relationship. But once we have developed a sense of stability, then we get involved.
The key here is you can have love, aggression, all these things—but experience them without believing them to be real and solid and being dominated by them. A lot of times, when people get angry we get completely consumed. It has total power and sucks us in. And then when we love, we have incredible attachment. And it’s usually the attachment that ruins our love, as opposed to love ruins our love.
ele: And the attachment is—
Rinpoche: —To the other person.
ele: It’s a sign of not being able to be alone, in a way?
Rinpoche: Not being able to be alone and ultimately not having any freedom of mind and body. You are not really able to remove yourself from the situation and have some freedom to do as you wish. Thespirituality versus love idea is the result of historical precedents. In the Catholic Church, people thought, “Oh, you are a priest, you can’t marry.” It was part of the political power structure—they didn’t want popes marrying and having strong families. They didn’t want it becoming a monarchy. Originally, some of the popes were married and had children.
In Tibet, this question just never comes up. Spiritual teachers married. And there’s ones who are monastics. And that’s the way it’s always been. A story you would like because it has to do with Sechen Kongtrül, my father’s teacher. He met my wife’s uncle, who was a representative in the central government. He was a monk. And their family is known as a very good family lineage—a lot of great saints and teachers, nobility and royalty, generations upon generations—like 19 generations long. And you don’t have the lineage of 19 generations if everybody is a monk, right?
So they were all married. So when her uncle actually took a vow to become a monk, Sechen Kongtrül came to the monastery and looked at him and goes, “Ah, it makes me so sad.” And Kongtrül was known for being a very pure monk! When somebody became a monk, he was usually very happy. But when he saw my wife’s uncle, he said, “Ah, you—you have the blood of the leopard,” from his father’s side and then from his mother’s side, “You have the blood of the tiger,” which is this other lineage. And he said, “Why are you giving it all up, just to become a monk? What a terrible waste. This is a sad day.”
And then if there was a tulku, whose incarnations had for many generations been monks, who then all of a sudden married, that would be a terrible thing: it breaks up the lineage. They don’t think it’s morallybad, as opposed to here. There’s this Western attitude overlaying a morality on a foreign culture that just doesn’t even think about that. I don’t know if people have theories…whether it’s the Protestant ethic and so forth.
ele: I think it’s very basic. It’s like what you talk about in your book, that if you are spiritual in some way, you must not be involved in the world. You are above the worldly pursuits. And if you get involved in love or politics or business…
Rinpoche: But if you look at Charlemagne, he was a religious king. At that point, I’ll bet they weren’t worrying about that.
ele: Switching gears to right livelihood. In Buddhism, there’s the bodhisattva vow where you dedicate your life to benefiting others. It would seem like since most of us spend most of our lives working, work is a powerful opportunity to benefit others. So, whatever job we are doing already…or whatever direction we are moving in, in terms of our career…how do we regard our day-to-day life as an opportunity to help others?
Rinpoche: [Long pause; eating breakfast]. Hmmm.
ele: I mean, with some jobs it’s easier, you know. You can say, “Well, if I have a magazine, my magazine should hopefully be about things that are going to help people—”
Rinpoche: That’s right.
ele: But say I’m a stock-broker—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that—but how can I actually benefit others in that job?
Rinpoche: There are certain livelihoods where it’s easy to benefit others. And there’s others that are more challenging. The more challenging your job is, the more you really have stability in your intention. But if you are working at the World Health Organization…giving out food to everybody…but you are yelling at them and kicking them? You may be in the right situation, doing what people think is right livelihood, but [laughing] your attitude is really not where it should be. Or you could be doing another job, and you think it’s not so good, but if you have the right attitude..? Attitude is very, very important in terms of right livelihood.
ele: Just treating everyone with respect, and kindness—
Rinpoche:Thinking beyond yourself. There’s a certain quality that an individual gets when it’s not justabout themselves, when their actions come out of another attitude or motivation. If pure intention is there, your body and your speech will exude authentic presence, genuine confidence—and you’ll naturally find further ways of expressing your inspiration.
But it’s hard to be that way 24 hours a day. There’s times when you’ll feel strong. And there’s times of the day where people are tired and need to rest, so they take care of themselves a little bit. Be practical about it. The other quality here is that kindness and confidence and these other virtues are a result of seeing what’s going on, of open their eyes. If they see people are in difficult situations, they will naturally act with some compassion. But if they are blocking people out and just seeing people as opposition, then they will always have a difficult time. Most times when we are not forthcoming it’s because we are not really looking at them as a human individual—we are just seeing them as an issue, a symbol, a thing that may be in our way. So, it’s challenging—but you can handle everything. And at the same time if you have right livelihood, there is hopefully a base of sanity and strength and meditation. You have a reservoir of energy.
ele: My meditation practice is pretty limited these days. But I make a point of practicing for even a minute when I first wake up and before I go to bed [the two times traditionally considered to be most beneficial]. And like you talk about in the book, and in a poem—“What About Me?”—I wake up, and instantly the gates open and my mind is flooded with what happened yesterday and what I need to do today. But even in two minutes of meditating, I can at least touch that anchor of sanity—some reference point that isn’t all about me. That then enables me to see people and situations more nakedly, and not from my point of view. It’s rather aggressive, if everything is about trying to protect my happiness!
Rinpoche: In a basic way, there is virtue and merit when you help other people. And when you do that you are gaining merit yourself. So from a Buddhist point of view it’s not in vain: it’s not like you are helping but because nobody is noticing, it didn’t happen. A lot of times we do good things as public display. But that doesn’t have to be the point.
ele: What exactly do you mean by the notion of “What about me?,” and how, very simply, do we relate to it and correct it?
Rinpoche: “What about me” is a bad habit. [Laughing] It reduces our strength, dignity, clarity. If you start off your day with “What about me,” you are already starting off on the wrong foot. Starting off with a mistake, a misunderstanding. We could talk about how there is no self, and get into all that—but it can get too technical and philosophical. Look at it just as a habitual pattern. If “What about me” worked, then it should have worked by now. Because it’s what most of us have been doing our whole life.
Because really what is it that we want to get out of the day? We want to be happy, we want things to go well—we want success, whether in love or business. We feel like the world owes us something. You get up in the morning, and automatically you are in a poverty mentality: “What about me? Hey, somebody left me out. I didn’t get what I want. I need more.”There’s a quality of, “I’m not good enough.”True selflessness is realizing that you already have everything. That’s a positive way of looking at it. There’s a negative way of looking at it, too.
ele: That I don’t exist, or something.
Rinpoche: Right. Which is not true. That’s only one part of it. The other part is that you are complete. If we wake up thinking we are not complete, we have to fill ourselves up. Everything has to be poured in. Then, when we start talking about selflessness, we think, “I already don’t have enough—now I’m going to really lose everything!” [laughing] But it’s not true. Because, with meditation, you see that you already have everything.
ele: There’s that famous quote you refer to: “If you want to be happy, think about others; if you want to be unhappy, think about yourself.” So how would practicing the opposite, “What about you?,” make mehappy?
Rinpoche: When you think about others, there’s an attitude of genuine compassion. Whereas, “What about me?” tightens the mind, constricts, makes it small and self-centered. When you think “What about you?,” it expands the mind. There’s room for compassion—and that is inherently how we are, anyway. When you make that attitude shift, you are actually being more genuine, more who you are supposed to be. If you asked the Buddha or any great meditator, “Ultimately, what do you find when you meditate for a long time,” they’d say, “You find wisdom and compassion—what’s innate in who you are.”When you are obsessed with yourself, you do not have compassion. You can’t think about others.
Whereas the result of “What about you?” has a sense of delight. When I think, “What about me,” I just follow my thought patterns. I stress out because I think something is not going to work out. But when I think about others, there’s a quality of possibility.
ele: There’s some joy and freedom and relaxation in your life, which is what you want in the first place.
Rinpoche: When you meditate, you begin to feel that way. It’s just a matter of people beginning to do the practice a little bit and then realizing that attitude shift. People get very technical, and start thinking “Well, how exactly am I going to do all this?” and things like that. It’s the same as with “What about me”—we don’t consciously think about it, exactly—we just wake up with that intention.
ele: I was reading The New York Times yesterday, after your [lecture; at a book signing]. Karl Rove was afraid of being indicted, but he wasn’t. So when he woke up that morning, he was quoted saying, “I feel great. Today is going to be a great day.” It reminded me of your talk: just because you wake up with a certain attitude, your mind can actually determine how your day will be. Just because he hadn’t been accused of any crimes, which was a relief, just because we was happy, he knew that his day would be great. Perhaps an interesting dark age example of what we are talking about.
Rinpoche: [Long pause] I don’t know if I’ll use that example in a talk!
For more: mipham.com