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Real Gurus “Couldn't care less”

The dilemma of an Eastern master in a postmodern world

An interview with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche


by Andrew Cohen

COHEN: And you said that the teacher who “crushes your pride and makes this worldly life
completely miserable is something that you ask for. He is the assassin, he is the man or
woman whom you have hired to completely dismantle you.”

DZONGSAR: You may not realize that's what you're doing, but that's the idea—to
dismantle everything: your identity, everything. And it's not like dismantling one big
habit. It changes. Let's say today I would like to be stroked. Then a teacher should not
stroke me. Or maybe today I would like to be beaten. Then maybe I should be stroked. So
that's why this is actually beyond abuse and not abuse. If somebody bites you or beats
you and handcuffs you, that's a kind of abuse, isn't it? But what I'm talking about is
ultimate abuse. At the same time, abuse phenomena only exist if you are still clinging to
transitory phenomena as permanent and real. If you don't, there is nothing to be abused.
But that's difficult, really difficult.

COHEN: In that case, the teacher's work would be done.

DZONGSAR: Yes, of course. But the kind of student we're talking about doesn't exist.
And that kind of teacher doesn't exist, either. Teachers don't have that kind of courage. I
don't have it. I may be a teacher, but I don't have that kind of courage because I love my
reputation. Who wants to be referred to as an abuser? I don't. I am a sycophant. I try to
go along with what people think. If people think a teacher should shave his head, wear
something maroon, walk gently, eat only vegetarian food, be so-called serene, then I'm
very tempted to do that. Rajneesh had the guts to have ninety-three Rolls Royces. I call it
guts. One Rolls Royce is one thing. Even two or three—but ninety-three is guts! And I
don't have the guts, the confidence. I like Rajneesh very much. I like him much better
than Krishnamurti. Many of his words are quite good, and I can see why the Westerners
would like him.

COHEN: Perhaps the problem with Krishnamurti was that he pretended that he wasn't a
guru or a master, although he obviously was. I think this made it very difficult for people.

DZONGSAR: Yes; it was a contradiction.

COHEN: Are you saying, then, that you hold back with your students?

DZONGSAR: I do, always.

COHEN: At the same time, you said in the film that you're an assassin—that that's your
job.
DZONGSAR: Yes, in the context that if I am a student's teacher, then that is my job. But
I'm not promising I can do it. You know, but I love very much the eight worldly dharmas.
I'm like these police undercover cops who are sent into a Mafia family. What I'm
supposed to do is really check out these people, but I fall in love with what they do, so I
follow what they want. It's difficult. And that comes from attachment to the eight
worldly dharmas—attachment to the praise and fear of the criticism.

COHEN: But some of the greatest Tibetan gurus have the reputation for being the most
fierce, like Marpa, for example. He was the fiercest.

DZONGSAR: Oh, yes, of course. They could do it because they have no agenda. Their only
agenda was to enlighten. They didn't care what people said, what other people
thought—I call it CCL: couldn't-care-less-ness. That holds the biggest power. But who has
it today? No one.

COHEN: One of the most interesting things that was revealed about you in the film was the
juxtaposition of the roles you're playing. As a guru in the West, you are working with
Western students who, at least in theory, are coming to you for enlightenment, and yet who
come from this postmodern context where there's an inherent mistrust of authority.
Whereas in Bhutan, thousands and thousands of Bhutanese people have no doubt that you
are a living god.

DZONGSAR: I think on both continents I have mastered the art of pretense. I go to


Bhutan and I know what to do for them, to do what is most harmonious. Because if I act
or say things in Bhutan or in Tibet that I say in the West, I'll be in trouble. Now that is
what I was referring to before. I do this because I don't want to lose disciples; I don't
want to be criticized. Of course, I can justify those actions by saying, “Oh, it's coming
from a good motivation, because I don't want to jeopardize the spiritual path of
hundreds of people.”

COHEN: You described in the film how it's very difficult for you to have an authentic
relationship with many of your Bhutanese devotees because of the kind of admiration they
have for you. But with your Western students, there is the fundamental ego position that
feels that “no one is higher than me.” And this also presents difficulty, because for any
authentic guru to be able to help a student achieve enlightenment, there has to be the
acceptance from the outset that the guru has realized something that the student has not
yet realized. Then, of course, there's the tremendous pressure the teacher places on the ego
and the student's identification with it. And in Words of My Perfect Teacher, Lesley Ann
Patten showed very well how many of your Western students were struggling with these
very issues—with the notions of hierarchy and authority, and even with their lack of faith
in the possibility of enlightenment itself.

DZONGSAR: Yes, exactly. But in both cultures there is one thing that is similar—it's this
culprit: expectation. In Eastern cultures, like in Bhutan, there may be blind devotion, but
they all have an expectation. In the Western culture, they may be skeptical and secular,
but there's also expectation. And that expectation, while it may manifest differently,
fundamentally has only one nature and that is that everybody wants to be happy. And
that is where things go wrong.
To be a Buddhist and to be practicing dharma have nothing to do with being happy. If
you're practicing the dharma to be happy, then it's like you're doing the opposite, just
the opposite. Enlightenment has nothing to do with happiness or unhappiness. And both
cultures come to me to be happy. That really is the source of all the misunderstanding.

COHEN: Yes. The goal is to be free from both happiness and unhappiness.

DZONGSAR: Yes, and I have to teach them what to expect. But it's really difficult.

COHEN: The fact that you are in these two different cultures seems to make it challenging
for you to be simply and authentically yourself. Because on the one hand, in Bhutan, there
is a certain role you need to assume, which you've accepted—that's your dharma, your
destiny. But there are restrictions associated with that premodern context. And in the West,
because of the postmodern secular context, there are also restrictions. So your own
capacity to just be fully and spontaneously yourself, even as a teacher or as a guru, must be
inhibited in both cases. Could you speak a little bit about this?

DZONGSAR: This is a very good question. It all goes to tell me that the bottom line is that
I need to develop my courage, the courage to learn CCL—“couldn't-care-less-ness.” In
the morning, with a little bit of good motivation, I can start teaching. That will
accumulate some merit, I'm sure. At least I'm not going around teaching people to blow
themselves up or kill infidels. And even teaching I only do when I'm in a spiritual mood.
But my job now, my duty is to first develop my “couldn't-care-less-ness.” The bottom
line is that I need to learn that; I need to achieve that. Then, even if I receive bad
publicity in the West, I couldn't care less. Once I achieve that, then I'll reach a certain
level where real genuine compassion is. Until then, everything is a bit deceptive.