54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Bhikshu Ngawang Samten

Sakya Monastery
near Dehra Dun

3rd March 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I have spent my first night ever in a tent; there’s something rather cosy about tent-living — I have yet a new experience to add to the growing list, having slept in many strange places on this tour. But I slept well and, in spite of the rain, was dry. There is a Tibetan canteen where Raymond has ordered Tibetan banana pancakes for breakfast, and here we sit watching Tibetan life go by.

All Tibetans living in India are exiles, yet they are always smiling. They have a strong understanding about dharma — to them it’s a living thing; why shouldn’t they smile? We are all here in the world because of what we have done in past lives; Tibetans live to gain merit so that in future lives they will be raised along the long road towards enlightenment. They are conscious; that’s why they can smile so much.

Raymond is now taking me to see an American monk. He is close to the Sakya Lama and has served him many years. He wears Tibetan monks’ robes. His arms are bare, his head shaved, and although he was born in the West, he too has that smile of knowing — the Tibetan smile!



Interview 52

I am not so keen to talk about myself, but as you have come all this way to see us I can tell you a little about myself and then more about what we are doing. I was born in Delaware in a Jewish family — this is on the East coast of America. I was an ordinary American kid doing what everyone else was doing. When I joined college I had many ideas but no real direction. But I went into a philosophy course and with that started studying religion. I had always been religious in the American sense — going through all the rituals which were required of me, but along with other friends, rejecting certain things. But then I saw there were other ways available, other view-points — and they opened a lot of doors. The Eastern religions made me realize there were other things going on in the world that I didn’t know about.

When I started reading about Buddhism I was happy, and when it progressed onto Mahayana Buddhism I became happier — I felt I had a connection there. From that point I gave less time to the philosophy and did more reading of Buddhist texts. I met two Ceylonese monks — the only Buddhists in the area — and I brought one of them to give a talk at the college. This went on for three years, and finally I asked my teacher if it would help to go to India. He came up with the idea that students could go there on a six-month program, and I was accepted. At that time I thought Buddhism was dead in India — I didn’t know anything about Tibetan Buddhists being here.

How long ago was all this?
In the fall of 1970 — I was 21 then. My plan was to do the course and then go to Ceylon to stay in a Buddhist monastery before going back. I was actually given a grant for this. So here I was in the East, a place totally different from whatever I had previously known, and yet I never felt as if it was an abrupt change — although perhaps I should tell you that I was rather surprised by some of the things I found in India, such as electricity. Now when the first six months were finished I had to go to the Ceylonese Embassy to get a visa, but at that point they were having civil disturbances, and so I couldn’t go to Ceylon.

You had already received the grant?
Yes, it was $600 and as I didn’t want to send it back, a blind friend who was into Buddhism said: If the money is for studying Buddhism, why don’t you come with me to get teachings from my lama in Mussoorie? I just said: That’s a good idea, lets go! This lama turned out to be His Holiness Sakya Trizin who has been my teacher for the last ten years — I was led to him by a blind man!

Can you describe your first meeting with His Holiness?
Well, you have seen how he follows the old tradition of wearing his hair long in plaits and how he wears large turquoise ear-rings. He was only 24 or 25 then, and I didn’t know at that time anything about his position in the Tibetan tradition — all I knew was that he was Mahayana which would prove a greater connection for myself. Then without knowing anything about making offerings to lamas, I bought some apples for him, which was a good omen. When we met I had never seen anyone like him, and I couldn’t place whether he was young or old: he was just there, full of power yet open and warm. I explained about my situation, but although he said he was too busy to teach at that stage and even suggested other lamas who would be able to accept me, for some reason finally he agreed that we could stay with him and get teachings once a week from him. That was in April 1971 — and I have never left.

You never finished your university course?
They were extremely kind to me because eventually I was able to publish the translation of the book His Holiness had been teaching from, and on that basis I was given my B.A.

As an American, how were you allowed to stay on?
When I first came I was on a student visa, but for the second year I went to Banaras and joined a Hindi course. Then through the blessings of the gurus I was able to enrole as a philosophy student at Banaras Hindu University. I was able to take classes for one month then go off to my guru for three months, and this went on for a few years. After that, to get a Ph.D., I joined Delhi University. Enrolment in all of these courses, however, was just a means enabling me to stay in India so as to be close to my guru.

Now could you tell us more about your relationship with the Sakya Lama?
At the beginning, my studies with him went very slow — we went through the basics of Buddhism for seven months. When I look back I am very thankful he gave me a proper foundation. Very carefully he watched me. Now I should explain that although His Holiness is head of the Sakyas, he is not a monk — he is a married layman. When I wanted to become a monk I had to approach His Holiness’ venerable guru, Chogay Trichen Rinpoche, so he ordained me, because in the Buddhist tradition one cannot be ordained except by a monk. I had taken refuge and the bodhisattva vows from His Holiness, but he could not ordain me. By the fall of 1972 I was not only receiving teachings from His Holiness but I started helping as his English secretary, and in this way our relationship became stronger and I was able to spend more time with him.

Can you say what made you decide to take such a big step and become ordained as a monk?
As I was spending more time with His Holiness I began to understand what the real Buddhist tradition was all about. Then being with monks who have some inner realization, although one can be a Buddhist layman, I knew that if I wanted to really enter Buddhism and practice it properly, the path of the monk would suit me the best. One day His Holiness actually said to me: Why don’t you become a monk? This was done light-heartedly, but it is also typical of his style, and you have to pick out what is going on with him. I thought about it and after some months I said to him: I am going to become a monk. But then he said: You should think about it carefully. We talked about it and I felt he gave me his blessing due to my firm commitment.

What are the rules you have to observe?
In Buddhism, even a lay-person has certain disciplines to follow — five basic rules. With a fully ordained monk there are 253 he has to follow, although most of them are about how to eat, where to obtain food, what type, how to live and dress — many are minor rules, but the major ones are not to kill, or steal, or lie — and this includes not talking about certain attainments you don’t have. Then there is the rule of celibacy. These are called the root vows, and if a novice or monk breaks any, he can lose his ordination — the chance is lost completely.

Has a monk to be a non-meat eater?
In the book of discipline there aren’t such rules, though among Buddhists there’s a lot of debate about it. I am a vegetarian.

As a young man, is it not difficult to accept the rule of celibacy?
Celibacy depends on your attitude towards it. For some it would be torture, for others if the intentions are proper, it is just another discipline. It is very necessary. If you have the right intentions it will help on the path. For a Westerner it is perhaps difficult in the beginning because from the 1960s we have been brought up with a different outlook on life. Sexual freedom has been thrown at us until our senses have become over-saturated by it. But once anyone understands the purpose behind celibacy and then has the right intention and view, he can follow it without any feeling of repression.

You have had no problems?
Well, there have been periods… but the whole idea of sex, and if we look at why it is there — the gratification of the senses — then if I ever have a problem, a sobering thought is that sex is going to involve me with more problems: it involves another person and that sets off a whole new chain of situations. You can’t isolate a sexual act and leave it; you have to get a house, this and that… I feel free the way I live, but if I were tied down — and sex is a method to tie you down — how can you really take the practices seriously? When I say I am free, I am not implying that I am a liberated person, but within the worldly existence, a celibate life gives you a degree of freedom and certainly is a help on the spiritual path.

Can you speak about the spiritual practices?
Buddhism is a very complicated system, as I’m sure you know. I am following the Vajrayana tradition which includes both the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions. Vajrayana means to cut through, so in a way it is the path of cutting through ignorance, ego, so in this way it is a means, a method. It is like a diamond which cuts through other objects but is not shattered itself. We can cut through the ignorance which binds us to the world and by following this method gain realization. In our practices we try to integrate all the systems. From the moral discipline point of view we follow the Hinayana tradition; from the philosophical point of view we study the Mahayana tradition, especially on emptiness, that the true nature of all things is emptiness.

Would you explain a bit more about this emptiness?
All things, whether a person, a table, a tape-recorder, are empty by nature if we examine them through real widom. It doesn’t mean emptiness is a thing, it means that when we try to search for the truth of something we can’t find anything there to be truly existent: that’s why we can call it emptiness. I have studied a little about this in the past in different texts. Now from the meditation point of view, what we practice is the Vajrayana method — that is a Buddhist tantric method, which has some similarities to some parts of Hindu tantra. It involves recitations of mantra, it involves visualization of oneself in the form of certain deities, because in essence we have the same nature as the Buddha or the deities who are the emanations of the Buddha or manifestations of different aspects of the Buddha. Through meditation we see that our true nature is the same as the Buddha’s, and we develop the various qualities of the Buddha such as compassion.

Do you have fixed times for your practices? And how long do they take?
No fixed times, but I usually give two hours in the morning and the same at night. But then sometimes they are together: there’s no set schedule.

I presume you must spend much time with His Holiness. Can you speak about that now?

Sometimes I help with the correspondence and also help out with the Sakya college. Actually His Holiness has a great responsibility overlooking many monasteries, a refugee resettlement community, and of course individual people coming every day with various problems. So wherever I can be of help, I offer my services to His Holiness. I have spent rather a lot of time with His Holiness at his Rajpur residence, and that is how I picked up my Tibetan — I never really studied it. But now through my studies some translations have been made of the texts in English. All this went on until 1977 when His Holiness went on a world tour. I was requested to go with him, and from Malaysia I had intended to come back here. But although we stayed there three months, the people asked me to stay on and back up the teachings His Holiness had given there. There are many Buddhists in Malaysia and Singapore, so I did stay, and I have been giving the teachings and meditation techniques into which they had already been initiated by His Holiness.

All this was done with the approval of His Holiness?
Oh, yes. Even though I still go over there, I still don’t think I am qualified to teach anything, even basic Buddhism, but they said it was helping them. There I can also do my own retreats so I am able to go off and stay in quiet temples. And I am able to come here often and be with His Holiness and get further teachings from Him. It requires a lot of travel as there are several centres over there.

May I ask you now how you support yourself?
I follow the Buddhist tradition — I rely on offerings. People have been very kind to me. When I go from one centre to another my expenses are met by those who invite me. I am given my food, and when it is time for me to go, I go. After all, that’s all I need.

Organizing this tremendous gathering here in Puruwala for the Lam Dre must have taken much of your time?
You probably have been told that because the inner teaching had never been given before so openly it became a catalyst: every Sakya monastery that exists has sent monks, so we have about one thousand monks and lay-people from all over India, Nepal and abroad. My role has been a dual one. I serve His Holiness as personal attendant and the many foreigners who have also come here. Then as I know so many of the Tibetan community as I have been here so many years, my work has been with them also. Then there was the feeding and accommodation arrangements to make. And practically every evening when the lamas are giving the translations of the teachings to the foreigners, I have to be there to help as not all the lamas speak English. So with co-ordinating the program it has been a busy but exciting time.

Are the Lam Dre teachings involved in developing supernormal powers?
The results of following many of the Lam Dre teachings are the acquisition of certain powers like flying in the sky and walking through walls, etc., but it is only a sign that you have got to this stage — it doesn’t mean that’s the end of the game. These things are not important and they’re not what you are striving to do; rather it is to gain realization by transforming the mind from one stage to the next stage, in order to gain the final stage of Buddha-hood for the sake of oneself and others.

One reads about the great tests lamas in the past have imposed on prospective disciples. Does that still go on?
Testing is still going on, but as His Holiness says: people these days can’t take severe tests. Personally, I found His Holiness has tested me in many ways through many different situations. Anybody on a spiritual path knows it’s not easy; times change so the methods change. His Holiness has told me many times that people would turn around and leave these days if they were really put to the test. Actually, I have seen many people leave after being put to even a very easy test.

What sort of tests has His Holiness given you? Can you say?
In the Vajrayana tradition you shouldn’t say anything, but maybe to give an external example I can tell you when I first met His Holiness he said: Now I need a letter typed, can you write a letter for me? I started thinking…is this a spiritual path?...what nonsense…he expects me to waste my time writing letters? But later I found out it was a test. At first I said I couldn’t type, but then I said to myself…no, this is wrong…I’ve failed a simple test. The path is many things. Milarepa had to build a house for his guru. What has that got to do with Buddhism? But at the same time that is the path, the way to Buddhahood. Who knows, maybe writing a letter these days is the way to Buddhahood…(much laughter).

Could you say something about the bardo state?
According to the Tibetan tradition, each person goes through different rebirths depending on the karmic virtuous or non-virtuous deeds accumulated. In between each death and rebirth we go into a period, an intermediate stage, which is called bardo. Depending on what sort of rebirth we are to take, the length of our stay in this state depends. It can be up to forty-nine days. Some people pass through it quickly, either going to spiritual realms where they will go on with their spiritual practice, or if they are to go to one of the hells, it can take one breath — it doesn’t take forty-nine days. In Buddhism everything is your own mind, a reflection of your own mind: so the bardo also is that. What is interesting about the bardo state is that you are free from the physical body but you still have the mind: so whatever you experience in the bardo is a reflection of that mind — good or bad.

If everything is a reflection of the mind, what is it that comes back into a new body? Buddhists don’t believe in the soul?
There is some debate on this. Generally we say there’s an all-base or storehouse consciousness, maybe like Carl Jung’s universal consciousness, on which impressions are imprinted. These implantations are the cause for one’s future existence with all its pleasant or fearful manifestations. It’s a sort of mind-continuum which is reborn. But this only relatively exists; ultimately it also is empty of truth.

Is that why tulkus have the facility to recognize objects and people they knew in previous lives?
A tulku means an incarnate lama; he has achieved the power to choose to come back into the world to help people… he’s not forced back through karma. Unlike ourselves he’s in a free state.

But what comes back?
It’s an illusory body. It’s called illusory because from the ultimate point of view it’s not real, but because of different vows a person on the bodhisattva path makes, he comes back. This means he has vowed to come back again and again until all sentient beings gain liberation. Due to this vow, the force of compassion and his realization of the relative and ultimate truths, he comes back. It’s a sort of energy, and it can take any form. A tulku, according to the scriptures, can be a house, a person, a dog, a bridge. It is said that some of the earlier saints promised to help sentient beings, so if it’s necessary for someone to cross a river, they take form as a bridge. The illusory body in a sense is a force of energy taking a form which is needed by others — not by the one who has taken that form. For him it’s a spontaneous arising, it’s no effort.

This is incredibly high teaching. Are there any enlightened beings in the world now, and how can they be known?
There are many, but it’s due to our mental development whether we recognize them or reject them. It’s just like the rain — each plant or tree absorbs as much as it needs according to its own capacity. After all, even in the past the enlightened ones were only recognized by a few, and sometimes they were misunderstood or abused. To those with pure minds and some development, the true nature of that person can be perceived. But of course, it’s no easy matter.

I can tell you about an Indian saint called Asanga who lived about 400 C.E. He meditated in a cave for twelve years on the coming Buddha, Lord Maitreya. But he had no results, so he gave up and wandered to the next town, where he saw a dog in great suffering — worms were crawling out of many wounds. When Asanga saw this he had such compassion that he wanted to take the worms away to relieve the suffering. As he bent down, he thought: If I pull them out they will die, and this will be wrong. He decided to stretch out his tongue towards the wounds so that the worms would crawl onto it and in that way they wouldn’t die.

But as he was about to do this, the stench was so terrible he closed his eyes and then stuck out his tongue. At that moment he felt something strange which made him open his eyes; there standing before him was Lord Maitreya instead of the dog. Asanga prostrated and asked: I meditated on you for so many years but you never appeared to me, what had I done wrong? The Lord replied: What was needed was a spontaneous act of compassion — that is why I took the form of this dog; through this act of yours it has brought you to realization… if you don’t believe me carry me on your shoulders and see if anyone can see me. Asanga lifted him up and walked through the town, calling: Look, do you see who is on my shoulders? Everyone laughed, they thought him mad: nothing could be seen. He passed one old woman, who asked: Why are you carrying a mangy dog on your shoulders? — which meant she had some development.

The story illustrated that it’s because of one’s development that one sees a Buddha or bodhisattva.

Bhikshu Ngawang Samten continued his dedicated monastic life as a teacher and also as a translator for lamas in India, Nepal and South-East Asia. This included several lengthy meditation retreats. Until 1987 he was absorbed exclusively in these Dharma activities. But one year later, in 1988, he offered his monk’s vows back, disrobed after 14 years as a monk, and as Jay Goldberg, returned to live in America. He settled in Northern California, married, and has a son who was born in 1991.

He now teaches Eastern religions, and still translates for Lamas coming to America. This is a fine example of spiritual wealth gained in the East being distributed to enrich the West. One remembers the very young Dalai Lama with his entourage being forced to flee from the invading Chinese in 1959. During this long dangerous journey over precipitous mountain passes into Northern India he was still receiving spiritual instruction from one of his tutors who told him: We must be grateful as this gives us the opportunity to carry with us the Dharma teachings to the West.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006