Meeting with A Remarkable Man: Interview with Khen Rinpoche

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Born in India in 1936, the monastic life of Khen Rinpoche Geshe Kachen Lobzang Tsetan began at the tender age of 7. At age 16, accompanied by his father, he trekked some 800 miles on foot to the illustrious Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet. The monastery is renowned for being the seat of the Panchen (“Great Scholar”) Lama,1 for its esteemed scholarship, and integrity in Buddhist teachings.

The eager young monk was on his way to realizing a dream to earn his Geshe degree (the western equivalent of a Ph.D.)  This dream, however, was drastically interrupted by the 1959 Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet. The cultural genocide perpetrated against the Tibetans and the mass destruction of the Buddhist monasteries drove Khen Rinpoche Tsetan back to India in 1960.

And so it was that the path of his already extraordinary life took even more unexpected twists and turns. Despite all odds, he achieved his Geshe degree, in New Jersey of all places, at the first Tibetan learning center in the U.S. Originally invited as a teacher, Khen Rinpoche Tsetan taught there, earned his doctorate degree and learned English to boot! For 30+ years, he has been dividing his time between teaching in India and the U.S., and most recently, serving as H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama’s appointed Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Bylakuppe, India.
During Khen Rinpoche Tsetsan’s spring visit to Southern California, we had the rare opportunity to be in his personal company.

Awareness: Would you speak to the importance of the Panchen Lama’s role, and to the significance of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery?

Ken Rinpoche: The Panchen Lama-Dalai Lama relationship is like the sun and moon. Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama are both teacher and student to each other, depending on who is older. In general, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The Panchen Lama is singly a spiritual leader.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Dalai Lamas stayed in Tashi Lhunpo. The 4th Panchen Lama became the teacher to the 4th and 5th Dalai Lamas. The 5th Dalai Lama was a powerful leader and a very scholarly person who was deeply appreciative to his teacher, the 4th Panchen Lama, who had been teacher to two Dalai Lamas. Because of this, Tashi Lhunpo became the seat of the Panchen Lama.

The monastery was a thank you gift from the 5th Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama also designated some villages to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery so the Panchen Lama could receive funds in the form of taxes for support of the monks living there.

Awareness: What should westerners know about the tradition of the Panchen Lama and Tashi Lhunpo Monastery?

Ken Rinpoche: We have a distinct and special teaching lineage in Tashi Lhunpo. For example, we have the “Logics Texts,” which require six years of study. Tashi Lhunpo is known for its great scholastic teachings, especially of the Logics Texts. The degree is different because of the lineage, or order, established by the Panchen Lama.

The Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama have both called Tashi Lhunpo their home. The monks are not there wasting time. They are actually working everyday to bring peace to the world. The whole world can benefit from this monastery.

Awareness: Would you elaborate on the value of keeping this particular lineage and monastery alive?

Ken Rinpoche: It is important to keep it going for the student monks who are dependent upon the monastery as a place to learn and live. We need to preserve the culture and teachings. The financial support is for the monks’ quarters and the Discussion/Debate Courtyard, which is necessary for morning and evening discussions on philosophy.

For our prayer ceremonies on world peace, we also need a main Prayer Hall and a hospital. We are also in need of medical supplies. There is no other hospital around and the monastery is like a hospital. We need doctors and nurses, as well as scholars who can impart these teachings.

Ideally, we would like to have an Assembly Hall and a school. Other monasteries have more scholars and business people associated with them; therefore, more funding. Only 16 monks, who were neither scholars nor businessmen, started Tashi Lhunpo.

Two or three of them were politically-minded, but that did not work in India. There was another abbot who was more of a scholar, but not as versed in diplomacy. Because he was not open to others, the monastery was unable to grow. His wish for after his death was for me to become the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo. The Dalai Lama asked me to take this position. At that time I was running a school, which was just three years old at that time. I explained my dilemma, which the Dalai Lama understood and appointed another abbot. The monastery was still unable to improve.

So the Dalai Lama offered me the position again, and I took it. Our numbers have grown to 300 monks. Still, we have issues of funding. Our monastery is not like a church. It is more like a university. We have many departments and subjects to cover, so it is important to have larger numbers of student monks.

I have decided on several goals for Tashi Lhunpo. First, increase the number of monks to 1500. Second, have an Assembly Hall and Debate Courtyard built, which are very important for our practice of the Dharma. In both cases, I don’t have enough to start the building.

Awareness: How have the operations of your monastery been funded? How does Tashi Lhunpo survive?

Ken Rinpoche: Before the 1950s, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Tibet used to have over 5,000 monks. In 1959 the Chinese moved in to occupy Tibet and the Dalai Lama was exiled to India. At that time in Lhasa, there were three monasteries. Many senior teachers escaped with the Dalai Lama, and then over 5,000 monks were in exile in India. Tashi Lhunpo came under Chinese rule and deception.
Panchen Lama then offered the monks who were with him the opportunity to leave the monastery. Many of the monks were afraid, or even ashamed, because their leader (H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama) had escaped. Some of the monks were also ashamed to leave because the Panchen Lama was unable to escape. We were there until the early 1960s.

Once it was realized the situation with the Chinese would not be good, many left in 1962. After 1962 it was almost impossible to leave. Maybe 10 or 20 more monks have escaped.
Many of the exiled monks in India were not very scholarly. Some ended up joining the Indian army. Some of them simply scattered around India. For this reason, we were not able to establish the monastery in India in the same way as in Lhasa. Tashi Lhunpo’s monks were not readily joining other established monasteries in India because these other monasteries were not as well learned, as well defined, or as pure as the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery of Tibet.

In 1972 the Dalai Lama and a collective of 15 monks gathered to establish the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in South India. It was started without the Panchen Lama’s support. At that time, the Dalai Lama’s younger tutor from Lhasa helped to establish the new monastery. They also had a friend, a Mongolian businessman, who gave money for the building of a small temple. Later there were problems and we could not continue with this man. Mostly, the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery of India started it in near isolation.

Awareness: Were you able to bring anything from Tibet?

Ken Rinpoche: Nothing. At the time everyone was leaving, no one was fully aware of the extent of the situation. There wasn’t much thought given to what to take other than themselves. Much later we acquired a few small items from Tibetans who had gone to Nepal.

Awareness: What is your position on westerners who follow the path of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps performing chants and rituals they may not fully understand? Is there any ‘danger’ or conflict in mixing traditions and religions?

Ken Rinpoche: No danger at all. When used correctly these teachings are for higher good; compassion, love, having an altruistic mind, and respect — these principles can be practiced alongside any tradition without conflict. The Dalai Lama always says to respect others, which creates openness in the mind.

Awareness: It has been said that struggle can be a means to awakening, or enlightenment. Is it reasonable then to look at the Tibetan people as an example for all of us?

Ken Rinpoche: It is really an individual choice. Some people use the struggle for learning and a chance to practice the teachings. Generally speaking, if you want to achieve your main purpose, then you have to realize that you cannot do it by yourself. When things are not going your way, you may become angry with others. But if you keep true to your efforts, you will not lose your own inner peace regardless of the attainment of your main purpose or goal. You don’t lose your mental freedom. If you are not satisfied and only get angry, you lose both your mental freedom and inner peace.

We have something called the Switching and Equalizing practice. The idea is to change our position. Since childhood we have been very focused on the “me.” How important are others though? I cannot survive without others. Others are very important. We have an opportunity to help one another, to switch from the me-centeredness to the appreciation of how wonderful others are.

Equalizing is to imagine others as yourself. Every person wants happiness. No one wants to suffer. In Buddhism, we are taught that those we might think of as our enemies are not really our enemies. Our enemies are changeable. Friends are changeable. Neutral beings — strangers or people we do not know — are changeable. Friends may become enemies.

An enemy may become your best friend. An enemy in this lifetime may have been a friend or even a parent in a past lifetime. He or she may have shared the best with you in a former lifetime. I must keep this in mind.

If you think this way, then it’s equalizing. If someone hurts you, don’t lose your compassion. Love the person. This is an opportunity to gain a teaching from them. The teaching is that the world is not perfect. This is an opportunity to forgive, to give up all your previous non-virtuous deeds and now become virtuous, to learn patience, to learn love, to learn compassion.

You learn to see the falseness of anger. You feel compassion when you see that someone is suffering under the control of depression, anger or ignorance. As you see their suffering, you feel more compassion. You are getting an opportunity to escape from suffering. They are teaching you that if you don’t want suffering, you should learn the cause of suffering and remove it. If you really want happiness, then you should learn the cause of happiness.

 Awareness: Is it challenging to keep your commitment to non-violence when faced with violence?

Ken Rinpoche: The peaceful way of doing something is not simply sitting, being, not talking or doing anything. It is not passivity. Demonstrations, for instance, are important. If we show no action, the world cannot know or care about what is happening. The key is to protest without losing one’s temper, one’s love, peace or compassion. We all must first learn how to keep ourselves calm, peaceful.

Awareness: Is there such a thing as accountability? For example, is it necessary for Tibetans to hold the Chinese government responsible for its harmful actions?

Ken Rinpoche: We cannot expect the Chinese to admit to anything. You have to understand that the Chinese are powerful and proud. They have never said that they’ve made mistakes. It is up to us to learn how to negotiate with them without making things worse.

We have to talk with them in such a way that doesn’t cost us our freedom. The Chinese are showing themselves to be unchanging in their position. They are proud of themselves. They have a huge population, a growing economy, and power. The world cannot stop them. The whole world is somehow under Chinese control, mostly through business and economics.

The Dalai Lama never loses his temper (with China). He always offers them peace and love. He’s lost his country, his freedom, so many people, and so many loved ones. But he hasn’t lost his own inner happiness or mental peace. The Dalai Lama never loses his mental freedom. He is so full of compassion and love for the entire world.

This is why he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He walks the path of Buddha, of Gandhiji. He walks in love and brings peace to the world. When he tells the world of the plight of the Tibetan people, he simply tells the truth.

Buddhism teaches the altruistic mind. This means, “I aim to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.” If we truly are following this path, then this includes the Communist Chinese who are causing us problems. If we get angry with them, we would have to change the prayer. “I want to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings EXCEPT the Chinese Communists.” This is not possible.

If the entire world took this position of non-violence, all conflicts could feasibly be resolved. We can all be inspired by this!
Awareness: Since receiving your abbotship of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in 2005, how has your life changed?

Ken Rinpoche: My responsibility is to keep the lineage of Panchen Lama alive, to provide our monks with formal education, and also to improve the conditions at the monastery. It is very important to understand that we don’t know the whereabouts in China or condition of the present Panchen Lama, or if he is even able to get out.

Meanwhile we have to keep the functions of his monastery alive. This is my responsibility. I have to ensure that our student monks receive the same level of education as the other monasteries. I have to make sure we are preserving this very special lineage. There is no one else overseeing these things.

Awareness: What makes you happy?

Ken Rinpoche: To be satisfied. When someone is not satisfied with what they have, they will never be happy. It does not matter whether you live in a palace, ride in a limousine, eat the best food — these things do not determine happiness. That is in the mind. It is so important to be happy each day because we do not know how long we will be on this Earth.

Awareness: If I may paraphrase, I think you’re saying that your personal happiness is not contingent upon external conditions or particular outcomes.

Ken Rinpoche: Yes, that’s right. My happiness is from the inside.

Awareness: What is your ultimate vision for the monastery?

Ken Rinpoche: To have at least 1500 monks, and three or four colleges like we used to have in Tibet. I’d like to establish at least three Sutra colleges in exile. We have one small Tantra college in India. The monks will ideally be divided among the colleges. I would like for each college to have their own textbooks and their own unique teaching methods, formal ceremonies, chanting rhythms, and devout teachers.

We need money and our project goal is $3 million. The overall goal is to bring world peace and preserve the culture of the world. This is not just about Tibetan Buddhism. We have to do these studies, meditations, etc. for the enlightenment of all beings. It is possible for every person to become like Buddha. We want to become Buddhas for the benefit of others. Does this make sense?

To learn more about Khen Rinpoche Tsetsan’s work, visit “The Panchen Lama-Tashi Lhunpo Project” at
Mischa Geracoulis writes about health, spirituality, politics, society, and culture. A practitioner in the holistic healing arts, non-violent communication, and interfaith ministry, her work reflects the interconnectedness of body, mind, spirit, and the Universe at large.

1The Panchen Lama is partly responsible for finding the incarnation of the Dalai Lama, and the same is true the other way around. This has been the tradition since the 5th Dalai Lama identified his teacher to be the Panchen Lama of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Currently, the 14th Dalai Lama identified Gedhun Choekyi Nyima Panchen Lama in 1995, but the People’s Republic of China promptly chose another. Chinese authorities claim that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is in protective custody, although they’ve never clarified as to whom or from what he must be protected.
“Panchen Lama.”, 7 May, 2008.

This article first appeared in Awareness

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