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Ato Rinpoche

‘Greed stops human intelligence evolving into wisdom;
human intelligence without wisdom becomes destructive.
It can destroy every aspect of nature.’


AR: The great snow mountains maintain the health of the rivers of India. There is a Tibetan thangka painting that shows Mount Kailash and the four types of rivers it produces: elephant water, peacock water, horse water, lion’s water. All emerge from the snow mountain and flow down to India, benefiting everybody. In Tibetan tradition, the snow is the mountain’s clothes, and it provides great benefit. In my area in Kham there are snow-capped peaks above the meadows, even in summer, and three great rivers flow down into China. They all derive from glaciers that are now receding.

I think everybody including political and religious leaders should discuss Global Warming among themselves. Everybody has to take responsibility. Everybody needs to work together and then something positive can result. I deeply believe in blessing, prayer, sharing merit, loving kindness. In Lord Buddha’s teaching, three things are most important: we should develop devotion, meditation, and loving kindness towards all sentient beings and the whole world. Meditation alone is not enough - these three aspects should work together. This is an effective way to practice in the contemporary world. Human intelligence has developed all kinds of technologies as the basis of our modern way of life. We consider ‘development’ is the possession of all kinds of modern technologies. Yet we have also destroyed so much through our polluting industrial and transportation systems.

JS: Scientists believe we may provoke ‘runaway global warming’, if we remain so greedy and ignorant that we go through ‘tipping points’... we destroy the Amazon rainforest, like destroying one lung of our own body. Or we allow the North polar ice pack to melt, so that it cannot reflect sunlight. Were these to happen, we could destroy the basis of our climate, together with half the animal and plant species on the planet.

AR: I absolutely agree with you about greed. Buddha’s teaching speaks of non-attachment. A lot of Western people jump to the conclusion “Oh, I’ve got a big house, so much furniture, so many books, I must get rid of them.”  That is not the point. The teaching is pointing out we should not feel we never have enough. Modern technology exaggerates this tendency even more. There is intense competition—between countries and even religions. Nowadays, even religious teachers think “Why shouldn’t I have a Mercedes?”—or even a second one. Greed is a pervasive root cause of our many problems. Non-attachment means we try to accept whatever it is, negative or positive karma. It does not matter if we have quite a lot of money -we can appreciate and enjoy it. The point of non-attachment is we are content, rather than continuously being greedy for more. Human intelligence is corrupted by greed, and that makes human wisdom impossible. Greed stops human intelligence evolving into wisdom—human intelligence without wisdom becomes destructive. It can destroy every aspect of nature. It is a matter of great concern that we have already destroyed so much. How are we to handle this developing situation?

Panic is of no use. We might be a good-hearted person with a good mind who wants to join a demonstration. At the outset we are involved in a peace demonstration, but later we lose our temper and there is no more peace. Therefore, we need balance, the middle way. When we are trying, between us, to bring about positive change, our motivation is very important. When we make a prayer, motivation is essential. Some people say, ‘Why pray?  It’s so wishy-washy.’ Real prayer needs two qualities. It is like hanging a curtain. We need a ring and a hook for it to hang beautifully. We need something we deeply believe in, and the power of blessing. Then our prayer works.

Whatever we do, we need to keep a balance. That is the middle way. Even with simple things. For example I do not make so many bonfires in the garden now. The whole family tries to recycle whatever we can. This is all about motivation. We change that and there are benefits in unexpected ways.   It looks as if just one household does not amount to much change, but we all must try it…especially those who are leaders in society. I teach my pupils not to become guilty. Even if you have done negative or incorrect things, understand that in the future you are not going to repeat them, you are going to do something positive instead. Many people are consumed by guilt, but it just weakens our mind, intelligence and wisdom. So many people experience a nervous breakdown. We do not have enough patience with ourselves. That is very important.

JS: So many people are still in denial about global warming—because it is  threatening and difficult to comprehend. The media do not communicate that this is a great evolutionary crisis. Yet if we do not make fundamental behaviour changes, we will create conditions for our own extinction. I find the possible destruction of Nature deeply upsetting. If I think the great mountain peaks will have no snow, or the great forests will be destroyed… I feel the human spirit and cultural imagination will be impoverished by the diminishment of Nature. If we don’t rise to this challenge, it could become evident that the natural world is ‘ending’, as all these animal species become extinct. There would be a danger of collective mental breakdown.

AR: Absolutely true.

JS: So we have to change the cause, which is our fossil fuel-driven economy, ‘growth  at all cost’. I have to admit, one danger of studying this great  crisis is becoming reactive or angry—which destroys the quality of one’s communication and one’s peace of mind. So what practical advice would you give to meditators?

AR: As spiritual people, our responsibility is prayer. The Four Immeasurable Qualities are included in the prayer -

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

Our Buddhist duty is to all sentient beings, not just to our own species. Without the rest of nature, humans are like fish out of water. We need the water and we need all sentient beings. So how do we handle the situation?  How do we gradually get this message out?  It is a matter of good motivation. We try to avoid destructive force that harms nature and sentient beings. I try to point out to my students how beautiful nature is. Many pupils have told me they are lonely. In the 100,000 Songs Milarepa said, ‘I am never lonely. I have the deer, the monkeys, birds. I am so rich.’ He stayed without food in the mountains and never felt loneliness or nothingness. He said even ghosts were his neighbours.

The message to give people is that nature is the snow mountains and the water is our food and drinking water. So we must put a limit on human greed - we must use human intelligence and human wisdom. This is the function of spiritual teaching. When I was young, my teachers repeated the truths of impermanence, death, and karma daily. They talked about the future of Lord Buddha’s teaching, the changing of the kalpa when everything would disappear, and the time when the power of the sun would be seven times greater. We studied these things every day, and now I understand what is happening in those terms.

In Qinghai, Tibet, the beautiful blue lake is diminishing every year and the snow lines are receding. In my sister’s well, the level is lower every year.I have been aware of impermanence since my first studies. When Tibet as a country was completely lost, my family went through much suffering. My possessions, my monasteries, my family lands – that whole life is now like a dream. So I really appreciate what impermanence means. Everything is just like an illusion and like a dream. At first I did not truly appreciate this truth. I merely got irritated by my teacher repeating it everyday. Then when all these events really came about, I came to feel the truth of impermanence deeply. We humans never learn things the easy way. We always have to learn things the hard way. That is how it was with me too.

JS: Is there a difference between the classical teachings of impermanence and this present threat, where even the biosphere itself might become impermanent?  

AR: It is a different kind of impermanence in that we are the ones who are carrying it out. Human intelligence and human greed are destroying everything – deforestation, too many cars, too many airplanes, too many factories, too many different countries following an incorrect style of industrial development. Furthermore, we waste our resources on militarism.

JS: Is there not a strong element of tragedy in what is happening?

AR: The question is how do we handle it?  It is not helpful to get upset or feel guilty. We do whatever we can with a good heart, with a gentle approach, in a friendly way, with loving kindness. When it comes to ourselves or others we never forget good work and good motivation. It is not a matter of becoming perfect in one day. We can all make progressive changes, beginning on a small scale. Collectively this can amount to something that changes the world.

JS: I have the impression that some dharma practitioners, when they say “all sentient beings,” might think “all human sentient beings.” They don’t necessarily extend that aspiration to the whole of biological evolution. If we could extend our meditation to embrace the whole living world, wouldn’t that lift our hearts at this time?

AR: Yes. In fact in the special Vajrayana foundation practices, we visualize the natural environment, a beautiful lake – in the middle of which is the refuge tree. Nature should be an integral part of it. For me our response to the current situation comes down to the six paramitas – generosity, self-discipline, ethical conduct, meditation, concentration, wisdom. Whatever special prayer we do, it has to be based in the six paramitas. The positive quality that overcomes greed is generosity. The same applies with self-discipline and ethical conduct. In this way we can offer simplicity, and that leads to general understanding. Nowadays, I teach the simple way. After all that I have studied and experienced in my life, now I go back to first principles, universal principles. Whatever we do we must not forget all sentient beings. Whether we do one prostration, take Refuge once, light one stick of incense or a lamp, say one prayer, whatever practice we do, we need to think of all sentient beings—and not only human beings. You might be practicing for something or someone in particular, but in the end you have to have this universal dedication. Buddha gave up responsibility for kingdom, possessions, and family, and practiced until enlightenment. In the end he took on a far greater responsibility, responsibility for all sentient beings.

Excerpt from interview, Cambridge, 7.5.2007

Venerable Ato Rinpoche (b.1933), the nephew of Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, was recognised as the eighth Tenzin Tulku. After leaving Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama asked him to direct a monastery for all four Tibetan Buddhist lineages. In 1976 he married and moved to Cambridge, England where he now lives with his wife and daughter. He then worked as a nurse at Fulbourn Psychiatric Hospital until retirement in 1981. Rinpoche recently completed the restoration of his original monastery at Nezang in Kham, He is a master of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

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