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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
This is incredibly high
teaching. Are there any enlightened beings in the world now, and how can they
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
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
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.