Thinley Norbu Rinpoche in Nova Scotia, 1992 Photo by Liza Matthews
Thinley Norbu Rinpoche in Nova Scotia, 1992; Photo by Liza Matthews

The son of Dudjom Rinpoche and the father of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche was a prominent Nyingma Lineage master who has many devoted students in the West as well as in Asia. He was considered to be an emanation of the fourteenth-century Nyingma master, Longchenpa. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche died December 27, 2011.

This interview originally appeared in the Vajradhatu Sun, February/March 1992. Reposted on the Chronicles by permission of Shambhala Sun Magazine in May 2013.

Laughter rolls out from the dining room at the home of Michael and Marlow Root on the Nova Scotia seaside. The Venerable Thinley Norbu Rinpoche is enjoying a lively dinner with friends, and the conversation ranges widely. But no matter what the topic — from television to child-rearing to rap music — for Thinley Norbu, the dharma is always the point.

The printed word cannot do justice to a conversation with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche — his passion, intensity, and commitment to Buddhism. Son of Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Thinley Norbu seems the embodiment of the Vajrayana ideal, every thought, every cell, every hair pore soaked with the dharma.

Thinley Norbu is the author of Magic Dance, A Small Golden Key and other books. He now lives in New York City, and granted The Sun a rare interview while on a private visit in Nova Scotia.

I understand you are writing a new book on bringing up children. Would you tell us about it?

I thought Westerners might be interested in how to give their children good habits, especially to connect with Buddhism. The book is for children, but parents should give up parent’s ego and study it in order to teach children.

The title is Fresh Rain. It is about how to create good habits in children, to raise the crops of spiritual knowledge. When children start to see objects and start to talk, you can put the seeds of good habits in their minds gradually, with skilful means and patience, for the long term, showing them how to practise for enlightenment and also for this life. It is important to put the seeds of how to settle their minds from the beginning.

Ordinary people cannot be forced to think or act beyond their capacity, because it can cause craziness. Unless they have especially gifted minds or are a sublime being’s incarnation, very young children cannot understand subtle, immaterial spiritual ideas. So therefore, they have to be taught gradually about spirituality at the right time, with skilful means, through the objects of the five senses in the material world, even though the source of material energy is immaterial and the basis of spiritual phenomena is insubstantial.

Children must be taught initially through material examples which they can touch, which they can see, and which they can hear, in order to connect them to immaterial spirituality. At least they will not have an unstable mind or mental disorder. Ultimately, this can be beneficial to attain enlightenment if they practise continuously. If they have faith, it can benefit them even momentarily in this life. Then, as they grow up, they have to change again, because they develop their minds. Their minds become more refined, and they become ready to learn more refined ideas. As they grow up further, a more expansive point of view has to be gradually taught.

The main key is to make children’s minds very balanced, very stable, and not speedy. Nowadays, many people are very speedy from the habit of competition, but this always causes mistakes. It is not right to think about the past or future just to be expedient for one’s own instant gratification which leads to many disastrous consequences. The problem is that they have to continuously repair their mistakes.

Of course, samsara is like this world; it is not a buddhafield. There are always mistakes, but Americans make many more mistakes than anyone, I think. I say this with good intention, not to be negative, hoping they will decrease and cure their mental halitosis. There is so much technology and material wealth; people don’t believe in the spiritual idea. People don’t believe in rest. They are so afraid of delaying anything, and they always have to rush.

This automatically seeds extreme nervousness, frustration and fear, so when they age, they are more unhappy and depressed. They can no longer deal with the material world in the same way because their physical energy is decaying, yet reminiscence of their youth continues in their minds. It is very difficult to help them through substance, and their misery cannot be cured easily because of their lack of spiritual development. So, spiritual development cannot be ignored, in order to always have a positive life until attaining enlightenment.

There is such a great cultural distance between Tibet and the West, how easy is it to communicate the dharma to Westerners?

If Westerners think and say that dharma is difficult to communicate to Westerners because it is foreign to them, it will discourage them from believing in their buddhanature, rather than inspiring them to let their buddhanature blossom.

Whoever follows the Mahayana teachings believes, as Buddha Shakyamuni said, that all sentient beings have buddhanature. Buddhanature does not mean animal nature. Buddhanature means the awakened nature which is the source of immeasurable, awakened knowledge. Therefore, that is the root circumstance seed. Through that seed of buddhanature and the good opportunity of contributing circumstances arising, such as wisdom lineage teachers, buddhanature can blossom.

Buddhanature is not foreign. Buddhanature itself has no division. Division only comes from the lack of acknowledgement of buddhanature. So, it is not only Westerners who can connect with dharma some day, but other beings also. Instead of thinking dharma is foreign and discouraging Westerners from opening their buddhanature, we should have the inspiration of believing in buddhanature and try to let it blossom as shown by the Uttaratantra’s three reasons.

Actually, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, Buddha Shakyamuni never made divisions between those with different skins and cultures. If people do not think dharma is foreign, and they believe in buddhanature, then buddhanature is not foreign and they can cause enlightenment the same as other supposedly foreign Buddhas, and join with other foreign Buddhas. But this depends on the individual’s decision. For example, Devadatta was not physically foreign to the Buddha. He was Buddha’s cousin, from the same race and family and locale as Buddha, but through his jealousy, Buddha’s activity became foreign to him. It cannot be said who is foreign and who is not. It is the individual’s karma.

But even though it is generally acknowledged in history that Devadatta is evil, I cannot decide myself. I cannot say that Devadatta is certainly evil, because as I heard and read in the many vast Mahayana teachings from my great teachers, for the benefit of sentient beings, it is taught and written that Buddha’s activity can be anything, and Buddha can emanate anything, sometimes with what seems to be negative appearance and sometimes with positive appearance, in the form of demons or in the form of deities, as a demonstration for the benefit of sentient beings who have dualistic habit in order to guide them so that they can recognise the difference between what is negative and positive, and so that they can analyse what is bad and what is good.

A master magician can create many different spectacles on a stage, but he himself does not believe that they are true. The audience believes in their reality because they are attached to reality habit. Even though they know it is just the performance of a magician, if the magic is frightening, the audience has fear, and if the magic is beautiful, the audience has desire.

Because bodhisattva’s prayers are so vast, and Buddha’s miracles are so awesome, it can never be said by someone such as me what the ultimate nature of appearance is, since any appearance can be a Buddha’s emanation. Many people of inferior faculties misunderstand the miraculous histories of many sublime beings, including misinterpreting Padmasambhava’s history, because of their seriously mistaken habit from many lives. Even the one angle that they see is only seen through their critical, negative habit.

Was your father, Dudjom Rinpoche, your teacher?

All inner Vajrayana practitioners say “Pa chhog Dorje Chang” — supreme father Vajradhara — as Tilopa said. So, I suppose I can call my father my supreme vajra master father. Father and vajra master are indivisible for me.

Your books have been popular and much sought-after by Western students of Buddhism. Yet you do not seem to seek publicity or large numbers of students. Why do you not seek a more prominent public role?

In general, if I’m in good health, I like to present the teachings in public, but for many years I have had health problems that have reduced my energy very much. I do not want to only blame the operations I have had; I am supposed to believe it is my karmic result, according to the causal yana. However, it is difficult to judge which way of serving the Buddha’s teachings is truly beneficial, whether it is done publicly or privately. It depends on the intentions of the teachers and the listeners, and can only be known from sublime beings. The main teaching is to try to help others in an immaterial, spiritual way, to guide them to enlightenment through blossoming wisdom, spirituality, and not only through materialising and conceptualising.

I do not want to say either that many people know me or that no one knows me because I do not want to prove anything. In general, few, many and much always go within different times, different places, and different directions. Time, place and direction are always changing. So, the best way is not to answer anything in a particular way.

You came to the West first in 1976 because of your health problems. Why did you choose to stay?

I didn’t choose; I think my karma chose, the same as for other sentient beings. Also, I often stay in the West and in other places. I can’t say I will stay continuously in the West, because first, I cannot say what my karma is, and second, I still have breath, so I can move.

Was it good or bad karma to stay in the West?

If someone likes to think it’s bad karma, I like to say it is bad, in order to satisfy them. If someone likes to say it is good karma, I like to say it is good, in order to satisfy them. What other people like to perceive, I have to answer. What I believe from my heart, people may not believe because of different points of view. I cannot know if it is good or bad karma or what is the result and what is the cause. Maybe from the Buddha’s teaching I can know what is good karma and what is bad karma, but I don’t know myself because I have no wisdom eyes, my mind is obscured, and I cannot penetrate any past lives or future lives. So maybe it is bad karma or maybe good karma.


Thank you to John Castlebury for finding and retyping this interview.


Tribute to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on the passing of his father