Reconnecting with essence-love: A new interview with Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Interview by Danny Fisher

This Thursday, May 17, His Eminence the Third Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche will visit Los Angeles at the invitation of InsightLA, where he will participate in an evening of conversation with Sharon Salzberg. (Tickets for the event are available here.) The visit is part of a tour for his new book Open Mind, Open Heart: Awakening the Power of Essence Love. (You can read an excerpt in the May 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun and in abridged form online).

Rinpoche is guiding teacher of the Pundarika Foundation and the son of the late, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996), one of the most remarkable Kagyu/Nyingma masters of the last century. He is also the brother of renowned Buddhist masters Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche, and Mingyur Rinpoche.

This teaching coming up at InsightLA will be done with Sharon Salzberg. I’m seeing this phenomenon more and more: Buddhist teachers working with a partner, often across traditions. What does co-teaching in general and with Sharon offer you?

Sharon’s teachings are based in the Theravada teachings, and in the Theravada teachings there are many good mindfulness practices, and those are very helpful in the world now. I think advanced mindfulness practices are very close to Dzogchen: it goes beyond conceptual limitations. In the Theravada view, we try to train our conceptual mind, and then, at the end, we dissolve the conceptual mind and go into the infinite openness, or emptiness. So I think Theravada teachings and Dzogchen go together very well.

And, then, of course, Sharon as a person is a lovely teacher and we work together very happily and nicely. So I think working with her is very good. In terms of dharma and who she is as a person, she is amazing.

In your teaching with Sharon, and also in your latest book, you talk quite a bit about “essence-love.”  Would you say more about this?

In general, there are four kinds of love. The first is essence-love; the second is our normal, samsara love; third is wounded love; and fourth is Buddhist love, or boundless love. In samsara love, things are very conditioned, based on a subject-object kind of relationship, with fear and hope—we lose the basic wellbeing of unconditional essence-love in the high-speed, objectifying kind of society.

My basic point is that we have to reconnect with this essence-love, which is not necessarily giving-love or a love where you’re expressing something, but just the basic wellbeing. In the center of the feeling, there’s love—that love is part of buddhanature. Buddhanature is clear, empty love. This love is part of an emotion, which is a very healthy one. But this essence-love can become too conditioned, and we try to cut that off. So I try to reconnect that essence-love—not from outside, but within the mind and within feeling and the body. There are a lot of blockages, and we’re trying to open up the blockages and find space for the essence-love. Then we can experience essence-love in our feeling.

I put out calls on Twitter and Facebook, asking for questions others had for you. Overwhelmingly, people wanted to hear your thoughts about the growth and development of Buddhism in the America.

After about twenty years in the West, I can see that students see a difference between the dharma—the core dharma—and the method, which is connected with the culture presenting the dharma. I think we need to change the method. So what I’m doing in the West is not changing the core, real dharma, but I’m trying to make it more accessible, easy to understand; I’m trying to use current culture to understand real Dharma. I think I have an ability to see people’s background, baggage, and understanding in modern society, and also the older Asian culture. That helps me to see how to bring Dharma into their lives, and realize their innermost wisdom. If I don’t understand the culture—whether we’re talking about European culture, or Japanese culture, or Chinese culture, or modern culture broadly—it’s very hard to bring Dharma into people’s lives.

What has been helpful for you as a teacher in terms of understanding other cultures and contexts?

Traditionally, in the Buddha’s time, one of the qualifications of a teacher was to be clairvoyant—to know others’ mental dispositions. But I’m not clairvoyant, so I use my own method to talk to people, and make my own special effort to be aware of the country or culture or school system or family and how that shifts from person to person or place to place. If I have special students, the first thing I do is talk with them about their culture, their way of life, what blockages they feel they have, and what good things they feel they have. Through that, I understand the problem; then, according to that, I give a Dharma remedy for them. Otherwise, it’s kind of a Dharma bypass, you know? I would say something, but they would have some other problem. Or maybe my understanding would be different from theirs. So in the teaching I have a lot of discussion, and I watch their faces, movements, expressions, words; through that I understand where they are, and I know what to do with that more or less.

Rinpoche, you’ve been very involved in neuroscientific and mental health research. How has all that work, and what you’ve learned from it, affected you in the work you do as a Dharma teacher?

I went to a few of the Mind & Life Institute’s conferences, and met students from that part of the world, and realized that the influence from the mind is very strong on what we Buddhists would call the “subtle body.” Our “subtle body” too has an influence on our mind. So I think Buddhist practice needs cognitive stability—focused attention, awareness, and mindfulness. They’re also very healthy for our mind and brain. That goes to our emotional brain, and so when emotional hijacking happens, if our thinking brain is stable, they will not be so strong.

So I see these worlds helping each other. Compassion, loving-kindness… those are the emotional practices. Those are really helpful to open up the heart and finding the essence-love. They also change our emotional lives. Then, through the practices of cognitive awareness, attention, mindfulness, these things all come together. When you’re more emotionally healthy, your subtle body will radiate into the gross body, upwards. Everything will become stronger, you will become more resistant to disease, and so on. So I’m very interested in all the research and work in these areas.

People also asked me to ask you is about the Nangchen nuns of your lineage. The documentary Blessings tells their story, and people wanted updates in light of all the upheaval in Tibet in the last couple of years. Can you share anything with us about the Tsokyni lineage nuns of Nangchen?

Because of the location in Nangchen, high in the mountains, they are quite safe. They’re not involved in politics either. They’re practitioners high in the mountains. From a political point of view, they’re quite OK and safe. But more and more families there are moving to larger towns, so the nuns have less and less support. I’m trying to create an endowment for them, so that we can help with emergencies and relief and care for older nuns and do all we can to make their lives more secure financially.

In addition, Gebchak, the gompa that we call “the Mother of All the Nunneries,” is trying to build a main temple or shrine hall. Pundarika will try to help the nuns with resources in the best way it can over the next years with food, medicine and basic buildings.

From our side, we’re doing that; from their side, they’re doing practice very well. There are about 700 nuns in three-year retreat, 40-50 in lifelong retreat, and close 3,000 in residence.

Is there any practice or teaching you can leave our readers with?

Essence-love is very important. But in order to experience essence-love, I think we have to de-solidify ego fixation. We also have to find inner space. Inner space is like the mother, and essence-love is like the child. There are practices in my book.