Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche: A life dedicated to teaching Buddhism

- through Francois Leclercq

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From the principles of Lamrim, this condensed presentation of the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni that includes all the paths of this tradition, to current challenges, Venerable Dagpo Rinpoche shares his wise and benevolent word with his disciples and the general public who attend his lectures. To face the challenges of the time, at 86 years old, this tulku, Geshe – doctor of philosophy – who was the first Tibetan to have set foot on French soil, in 1960, advocates more than ever, without proselytism, the importance of the practice and study of the Buddha's teachings. And, in particular, recommends reflection, dialogue and “calm of mind”. Appointment at the Ganden Ling Institute in Veneux-les-Sablons (Seine-et-Marne) for an interview with a great man who takes great care of his interlocutors, as for all his contemporaries... from life to life.

Rinpoche, you studied under the direction of eminent masters in several monasteries, one of which, Dagpo Shedrup Ling, was renowned in Tibet for its severity. Known as Lamrim Datsang (Lamrim Monastery), it was founded by a disciple of Je Tsongkhapa following the latter's instructions, to maintain and spread the teaching of Lamrim. You who are a great master of Lamrim, what are the main lines of this teaching?

The lamrim, or "the stages of the path", is a summary of all the teachings of Buddha - who, I remind you, taught for forty-five years -, always adapting to his audience, novices and more advanced people on the path. The lamrim indicates many means, accessible to each according to his abilities, to face and transform the difficulties inherent in samsara, the cycle of existences, whether in the immediate future, in this life, or in the longer term, in those coming.
I often expose the lamrim, it's true, but from there to consider myself as a great master of the lamrim, no! It was my predecessor (Dagpo Lama Rinpoche, from his name Djampèl Lhundroup, editor's note) who was. Also, when I was recognized as the reincarnation of this master, people naturally gave me this title, that's all.

Rinpoche, you only agreed to teach Buddhism in 1978, at the request of your students and the advice of your masters, that is to say eighteen years after your arrival in France. Why did you wait so long?

At the time, Tibetan masters invited to France and Europe, such as Kalou Rinpoche or Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, taught Buddhism. As they did, there was no reason for me to interfere. Moreover, on a personal level, I wanted to remain in the background to devote myself, in calm and serenity, to the practice of meditation and the study of texts. But, for my Masters – in particular Holiness the Dalai Lama and his two Tutors: Kyabjé Ling Rinpoche and Kyabjé Trijang Rinpoche -, it was important that I, in turn, teach.

“Buddhism must be adapted to the cultures of each people, otherwise its message loses its usefulness. This is the very function of the teacher! »

When His Holiness addressed this issue in a private audience in Dharamsala, I explained my position to him by quoting this saying from the Kadampa tradition (1): "Nothing can be poured from an empty vessel into another vessel empty", while specifying that "I had indeed studied, but not enough for my taste to bring something to others". To which His Holiness replied that “having studied, I now had to pass on to others what I had learned from my masters”. I had to accede to the repeated requests of my masters. So I agreed to do a test for a year… Everything went well. People who followed my teachings claimed to feel better, calmer, relaxed… So I continued.

Has your way of teaching evolved since your first lessons just forty years ago?

In general, people who are used to studying, which is the case for many Westerners, easily understand a whole part of the teachings of Buddhism. I took this into account and from the beginning, I adapted the teachings to the context. We cannot present things for example to the French in the same way as to the Tibetans, because the cultural backgrounds are not the same. From there, I went into more detail on certain notions that were new to the minds of Westerners, and summarized those that were more natural to them. An example: I have developed explanations relating to the nature and functioning of the mind, made up of a main part and its various factors, positive, negative or neutral, which may or may not accompany it over the course of perceptions. This analysis was then unfamiliar to Westerners. If we allow mostly negative factors to operate, which is regularly the case, we suffer. It is therefore essential to know what are the components of our mind that we use most often, in our daily life, to work to free ourselves from the causes and conditionings that create suffering. It is also important to study principles such as the impermanence of phenomena and the law of causality, to understand the vision of reality proposed by Buddhism. The study, the analysis, the understanding of these mechanisms help practitioners to live the teaching. This is why it is fundamental to adapt Buddhism to the cultures of each people, otherwise the Buddhist message loses its usefulness; and some people risk taking intellectual shortcuts in spite of themselves. Understanding the challenges of each era, each country, each person – in the West as in Asia – allows us to provide relevant and fair answers. This is the very function of the teacher!

In your view, what role should media like ours play?

A very important role, because you have a lot of responsibilities: transmitting and informing the public by being as fair as possible. Your task is not easy. With this in mind, you yourself must fully grasp the teachings of Buddhism, not just through words or readings, but also through practice.
Allow me this observation: often, the French understand a problem, but do not think enough about the consequences of their actions. We see it through the example of the thugs who accompany the demonstrations of the Yellow Vests. Some are persuaded to act in their own interest, even the good of all, but by using violence, they get carried away by emotion, anger, and even defeat their purpose, destroying their own goods! Hence the importance of your media to recall the principles of Buddhism, such as the sense of responsibility, the law of cause and effect and the interdependence of phenomena.
Buddhism advocates non-violence, and for me, the solution can only come from dialogue, to avoid any emotional overflow. Admittedly, dialogue is not always easy when people are confronted with great suffering in their daily lives, but in order to manage to exchange in a serene way and avoid any extreme confrontation, you have to know how to get out of your emotional bubble and, thus, try to find a solution.

In a documentary film released this winter (2), the young Kalou Rinpoche says he regrets having been deprived of his family and not having been able to choose his life. With hindsight, what is your position on the training of young children recognized tulkus (3)?

I am very grateful to those who recognized me as the reincarnation of Dagpo Lama Rinpoche, by his name Djampèl Lhundrup, whose great-nephew I was, and for having lived this very special life. Personally, I believe that I am not the reincarnation of this lama, but regardless, I was very lucky to receive, thanks to this status, such an education, and to have access to this quality of teaching. of the Buddha and all these intellectual riches. I never regretted being recognized tulku, nor felt any pressure during those formative years. On the contrary, it was a great joy for me to study.

According to your biography, Keuntchok Djigmé Wangpo's book, The Precious Garland of Philosophical Views, was decisive in your intellectual journey by making you want to deepen your knowledge. What touched you so much in this work?

At the age of about fifteen, I was studying philosophy, but I thought that this subject was not essential to the practice of Buddhism. Also, I was sometimes a bit reluctant to read these texts, but according to our tradition, I had nevertheless learned many texts by heart, including the one you quote. One day, during a debate with the class above ours, I was able to quote a passage to refute my opponent's position and win the debate. And the same the next day. Something clicked inside me. This is how I began to take a liking to debates and philosophical studies in general.

You are the first Tibetan to have set foot in our country in 1960. In the space of barely a year, you fled Tibet to take refuge in India and then in France. Do you remember any particular moments when you arrived in France or later?

I was immediately very interested in this country where there were so many facilities, at all levels. Life was very nice! Moving from Tibet to India and Europe was no shock to me. There was just a delicate moment for me, when in May 68, while I was giving Tibetan lessons at Inalco (National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations), demonstrators entered my classroom and politely asked to stop working. The school closed for almost a year. It was a rather troubled and sometimes complicated period for me, because I had fled Tibet and the repression of the Chinese Communists. However, during the events of May 68, I came across students who displayed themselves with photos of Mao Zedong… I was sometimes scared. But it did not last. When I started teaching Buddhism ten years after May 68, the economic context and the way of thinking were favourable, there was great open-mindedness, an attraction for other cultures and ways of thinking, less of materialism… The French were very receptive to the Buddhist message.

Some argue that Buddhism has gone out of fashion in the West, because it has been replaced in particular by Mindfulness methods in personal development. How do you answer them?

I do not think so: those who evoke this phenomenon have not grasped what Buddhism really is. Once one encounters and practices authentic Buddhism, it can never go out of fashion. Understanding what Buddhism really is does not depend on fashions, on external forms, this is why it is important to understand the teaching of the Buddha well, to reflect on it, not to study it superficially, by drawing here and there in the texts or practices… This implies making efforts, following an inner discipline, the recommendations of the master who knows us.
It is true that Buddhism experienced a wave of enthusiasm when His Holiness the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and during the visits of Karmapa and Kalu Rinpoche in the 70s, some people seemed fascinated by what they taught or sometimes by their personality, but since then all that has evolved. Now, many Buddhist practitioners have solid knowledge and practices, and for them there can be no question of fashion.
If there is still some confusion, it is because the notion of happiness in the West differs from that of Buddhism, for which the search for "happiness", to put an end to the causes of suffering, involves studying the functioning of the spirit, to be peaceful and positive, to work for others and to study the essential principles of this path. It takes time, a lot of time. This is not a search for immediate gain, but is anticipated over many existences.

Thanks to Marie-Stella Boussemart for her help and translation

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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