Many Dharma Friendship Foundation members were delighted to listen to Rinchen Khandro Chogyel’s talk at the Center on January 5, 1999. I thought you might like to know more about this remarkable person and so want to share an interview I did with her in October 1992.
A Kalon (minister) in the Tibetan government-in-exile, former president of the Tibetan Women’s Association, and sister-in-law of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Rinchen has been the inspiration and energy behind so many of the social welfare projects the TWA has undertaken to help the Tibetan refugee community in India. Among other projects, the Tibetan Women’s Association is setting up day care centers, printing storybooks for children in Tibetan, promoting sanitation and environmental clean-up, caring for the elderly and the sick, and setting up a new school and monastery for recent refugee nuns. Rinchen-la served as Minister of Health and Home and for the last seven years has been Minister of Education. In spite of her accomplishments, her modesty, humility and gratitude to others shine through—a good example of practice integrated with one’s life. Rinchen and I have known each other for several years, and it was a pleasure to discuss with her more deeply her philosophy for socially engaged Buddhism. The title, My True Religion Is Kindness, is a quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and expresses well Rinchen’s attitude…
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): What is the Buddhist attitude towards social service?
Rinchen Khandro Chogyel (RKC): Buddhism gives it an important place. In Dharma practice, we train ourselves to forget our own needs and pay attention to others’ needs. So when we engage in social service, we are treading the path the Buddha showed. Although I am a lay Buddhist, I believe that the best thing in life is to be ordained. When we analyze why, we can see that being a monastic enables one to be more available for human service: one gives up simply serving one’s own family to serve the human family. Most lay people are wrapped up in the needs of their own family. Nevertheless, we can recognize that our own needs and others’ needs are the same and thus want to work for others’ welfare. Because they have professional skills, lay people often have more knowledge of how to help. The problem is that not many people choose to do that.
VTC: But we don’t see many monastics in the Tibetan community engaged in social service work.
RKC: That’s true. When we lived in Tibet, before becoming refugees in 1959, we didn’t have social service organizations or institutions. We had the concept of working for others’ welfare, and that can be acted upon in a variety of ways. For example, in Tibet, if a beggar came to the village, almost everyone gave something. It was similar if someone was sick: all the neighbors helped. This is because we are Buddhists. In those days, people didn’t think to organize a social welfare project for a group of strangers outside their village. The concept of giving has always been there however. That is what is needed first. Then, if one acts according to it, others will follow.
For a Tibetan in pre-1959 Tibet, the first good work was to look after the sangha, to offer to the monasteries. I see a change now that Tibetans are in India and in the West. People are beginning to think about donating money to educate poor children and to build hospitals. The concept of giving was already there in our culture, and now people are seeing more and more new directions to give, due to the example of Western people. Although Tibet was materially backward, it was self-sufficient in its own way. The family unit was strong; people in the same family or village helped one another. People were basically happy and self-sufficient. One would rarely see someone who was homeless or someone who was sick and not cared for. Families and villages managed to help their own people, so the thought to have social welfare projects on a large scale didn’t arise.
After 1959, when we went into exile, there was a drastic change. People had nothing, everyone was in need, so people were involved in getting what they needed for their own family unit and couldn’t help others as much. Now, where Tibetans are doing well, they’re again making offerings to monasteries and to schools. Tibetans have the habit of helping those from their own family or village first. But looking at it another way, that’s good. One begins with what’s near to you and then enlarges it. If we don’t help those near to us, it’s difficult to spread our generosity to a larger group later. But we Tibetans do need to expand and think more universally. There is fertile ground for this to happen: His Holiness the Dalai Lama guides us in this way and if we discuss it more, then our social service will expand. But if no one acts now, then nothing will grow in the future.
VTC: Do you see yourself as one of those who are acting now, as a leader in this direction?
RKC: Not really. I think there are many people who think like this and who help in their own ways . We need to get together, to put our energy together. I could count myself among those who are tying to start something now.
VTC: What has given you the impetus to become engaged in social service?
RKC: It’s not something I thought of myself. His Holiness teaches this. Sometimes we’re like babies and he spoon feeds us. His teachings and the example of how he lives made me think I have to do something for others. My husband, Nyari Rinpoche, is very practical and from him I’ve learned the importance of acting instead of talking too much. The inspiration from His Holiness grew over time, there was no particular incident that occurred. Actually, the seed was sown in me when I was small. It grew and I began to see things in a different light. My very up-bringing in a Tibetan family sowed the seeds to be kind to others. In addition, His Holiness is a living example of one who is kind. I’m not doing anything great, but both of these factors—my family upbringing and His Holiness’ example—have made it possible for me to do what I’m doing now.
VTC: Please share more about how your upbringing influenced you.
RKC: My mother played a great role. She wasn’t well-educated or sophisticated. She was practical and down-to-earth, with a kind heart. Sometimes she had a sharp tongue, but no one minded that much because we knew that underneath, she had a kind heart. In the storeroom of our home in Kham, eastern Tibet, my mother kept a portion of tsampa (ground barley flour, the staple food of Tibet) aside for the beggars. If for some reason, there was no more tsampa for the beggars, she was upset. She made sure there was always some there to give. Each beggar who came, no matter who it was, got some. If someone covered with sores came to our home, she would leave her work aside, clean the person’s wounds and apply Tibetan medicine. If travelers came to our village and were too sick to travel further, she would let them stay in our home until they were well enough to go. Once an elderly lady and her daughter stayed over a month. If a neighbor’s child was ill, she would go to help, no matter what time of day or night. My mother was very generous, giving food and clothes to those in need. If I’m doing anything worthwhile today, it’s due to my mother’s example. One of my aunts was a nun and she came from the monastery to stay in our house part of each year. She was kind and very religious. I think my current dedication to the nuns’ project originated with her. Her monastery was so beautiful and quiet. It was the place I liked best to run to as a child. I’d spend days in her room. She made lovely toffee and curd—nothing tasted the same. Perhaps this is why I love nuns so much! Although I never thought of becoming a nun myself, I have always respected and liked the nuns.
VTC: What has His Holiness said that has particularly inspired you?
RKC: He continuously reminds us that all beings are the same. Just as we like to be treated kindly, so do others. Stop for a moment and imagine someone being kind to you. Feel that. If you could give that happiness to others, wouldn’t it be wonderful? So I’m trying hard. First we have to get in touch with our own wish to be happy, and then recognize that others are the same. In this way, we’ll want to give and to help others. We must first be convinced of something before we can act sincerely. When we experience happiness ourselves and then see that others are the same, it inspires us to give.
VTC: How can we let ourselves feel the happiness that’s due to others’ kindness without either blocking it out or becoming attached to it?
RKC: It’s very sad: sometimes people feel happy and want to preserve it for themselves. They don’t want to share it with others or give it up. But happiness is happiness, no matter whose it is. If we want our happiness to last long, we have to share it with others. Trying to preserve our own happiness in a self-centered way actually makes us more fearful and unhappy. If you cover a light bulb with a shade, only that small area is lit, but if you take the shade off, the whole area is bright. The more we try to preserve good things for ourselves alone, the more our happiness diminishes.
VTC: Some people are afraid to share. They feel that if they give, they won’t be secure, they won’t be happy.
RKC: Unless one has courage, it’s easy to feel that way. It comes from our ignorance. However, when we try, our experience will convince us and then our willingness to share and to give will grow.
VTC: To help others, we must be able first to assess and then prioritize their needs accurately. How do we do this?
RKC: All of us would like to be able to solve everyone’s problems in one day. But that’s not possible. It’s not practical. We don’t have the time, money or circumstances to do that. It’s important to be realistic. For example, if someone has almost nothing in their house and we don’t have the ability to buy all they need, then we must think, “What is most essential to get them going?” and try to arrange that. We don’t need to get them the best quality, most expensive thing. The person needs something that is durable and healthy. It’s not wise to give them something very expensive that will spoil them, because when that thing breaks, they won’t be able to get something of such an excellent quality again and they’ll be unhappy. As much as we would like to give the best, we must first determine if that’s practical. If someone gets the taste of something nice and later can’t afford to get it again, it’s more difficult for them.
To be able to help others, we first must try to understand their situation and if possible, to experience it ourselves. For example, the person who always stays in a five-star hotel and takes taxis around town will never know how it feels to sit on a hot road in Delhi. The best way to understand others is to be one with them from time to time, to talk with them as equals. First we need to develop a pure motivation to help, to try to generate feelings of kindness toward them. Then we need to be one with them, that is, to go to their level. Most helpers regard themselves as higher than those they help. Then the people who look to them for help want to please them and aren’t always frank about their situation. Being one with them means being with them: “Tell me your problem so we can solve it together. I don’t have any special power or ability to change your situation, but we can do it together.” We shouldn’t approach people with the attitude, “I’m the helper and you’re the receiver.” Although it’s difficult and some times impossible to regard ourselves as equal to those we help, it’s important to gradually train ourselves in this way. Once we can do this, others will take us as one of them and will talk to us as a friend. Then we can understand and prioritize their needs.
VTC: We need to get ourselves out of the way in order to benefit others. We need to free ourselves from seeing ourselves as a helper. What are some ways to do this?
RKC: When others don’t recognize us as someone who has come to help them, that’s best. So in our own minds, we must first recognize that we and others are equal in our wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. Pain is pain, it doesn’t matter whose it is, we must try to eliminate it. If we think like this, we won’t see ourselves as special because we’re helping. Instead, we’ll try to help others as naturally as we would help ourselves. When we’re with others, we may some times have to disguise ourselves so that we don’t appear as a “great savior.”
VTC: How can we counteract any pride that may arise because we help others?
RKC: We have to keep pulling ourselves back because there’s danger that we fall into thinking, as well as bragging to others, that we’ve done this or that. When I was thirteen, my teacher in school taught us “Pride comes before the fall.” I imagine myself at the edge of a precipice, falling over and never being able to get up again. This helps me to remember how self-destructive pride is.
VTC: Another ingredient in helping others is being able to assess our own talents and capabilities accurately. How can we do this?
RKC: This can be difficult: sometimes we overestimate ourselves, sometimes we underestimate ourselves. So for me, the best is not to think too much about my ability. I just look at my motivation and go ahead. If we keep assessing ourselves and our own ability so that it becomes a form of self-preoccupation. It becomes a hindrance. Sometimes a problem seems enormous. If I look at the entire situation, it may seem overwhelming, and I may feel I can’t do anything. But if I think, “I’ll do what I can,” and start to act, then gradually things seem to fall in place. I begin without a lot of expectations and hope for the best. The problem may be great and I may want to solve the entire thing, but I don’t promise to others to do that. I start small with no promises, and then go slowly and allow space for bigger things to happen. In that way, there’s no danger of committing myself to things I can’t do and later having to back out, leaving myself and others disappointed. From young, I’ve been conservative in this way. I tend to be on the careful side, to start small and give room for growth. I don’t know what it feels like to want to jump in and start big. Even when I was in school, my friends said I was too cautious. When we’re involved in a project, we get an idea of how feasible it is unless we’re careless in how we look at it. It’s important to think carefully before promising and before acting. We have to think carefully, but if we think too much, it becomes a problem. We must evaluate our abilities before committing ourselves, but if we evaluate too much, we’ll never act because the situation may seem too much to handle.
VTC: But if we don’t think at all, the situation may also initially seem too much to handle. If we think a little, we may see that we can do something.
RKC: That’s true. If we always think we can take on anything, there’s danger that we aren’t evaluating things clearly. On the other hand, if we always say no to things because we’re afraid of not being able to complete them, there’s danger that we’ll immobilize ourselves. We need to think reasonably and then act. As we go on, we’ll come to learn more about our abilities. We need to evaluate our abilities before committing and at the conclusion of a project, but we should avoid the kind of constant self-evaluation that leaves us paralyzed.
VTC: What difficulties have arisen when you have been involved in social service and how have you worked with them?
RKC: It’s happened that people have asked for help, I’ve wished to help and have decided to do so, and then later learned that I helped people who didn’t really need it. So one difficulty I’ve encountered is giving help to one person that could have been directed to someone else who was in greater need. Sometimes I tried my best to determine how to help someone and did what I thought best. Then later I came to know that the help was not appreciated. At that time, I must ask myself, “Was I helping the other person or helping myself?” I have to check my original motivation to see if it was pure or not. If it was, then I say to myself, “I did my best. It doesn’t matter whether that person was grateful or not.” It’s difficult to hear someone I’ve tried to help say, “I wanted this and you gave me that instead.” There’s danger of regretting that part of our effort that was positive and thus throwing our virtue away. In many cases it’s difficult to know what the right thing to do is because we don’t have clairvoyance. So we just have to have a good heart and act according to our understanding. Another difficulty that has sometimes arose in helping others is this: once I’ve decided what is the best way to help someone, how can I make that person agree to let me help?
VTC: Couldn’t that be pushing help on someone?
RKC: When we know for certain that something is beneficial, then even if that person objects, we needn’t be deterred. For example, some new arrivals from Tibet aren’t used to bathing often and are resistant to doing that. In Tibet it wasn’t necessary to bathe often, but the climate in India is different. If we make them bathe, then they’ll come to see through their own experience that what we advise is beneficial. One nun who just arrived from Tibet had TB. For a long time it wasn’t diagnosed properly and she became extremely thin. Finally we learned she had TB and gave her medicine. By then, eating was so painful. But despite her groaning, we had to force her to eat. At first she cursed us, but as the doctor predicted, the more she ate, the less painful it was. His Holiness was giving the Kalachakra initiation in another part of India at that time, and she desperately wanted to attend. I had to say no because she was still too weak. She was so upset. I explained to her, “If you live long enough, you’ll understand why I say this.” So when we’re sure that our advice is correct, then even if the person involved doesn’t initially agree, we have to go ahead and do it.
VTC: What if we ignorantly make a mistake in our assessment of a situation and find out later that our advice was wrong?
RKC: Then we learn from our experience and try not to do it again. We remember to talk with people beforehand to see what they need and to check up before beginning, but there’s no need to feel guilty about making a mistake. Harshly judging ourselves is counter-productive. We learn by experience. There’s no other way. We need to have some patience with ourselves.
VTC: How do you balance social service with Dharma practice?
RKC: I don’t really do any formal Dharma practice. My intellectual understanding of Dharma is limited. I admit that. But I have strong conviction in Buddhism. I have simplified the Dharma to suit my own ignorance in the following way: I have great faith in the protecting power of the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), but unless I’m worthy of protection, they can’t help me. So I must try my best to deserve a little of their help and then request it. My husband and I discuss this. He says that there’s no protection out there, that we must protect ourselves through observing cause and effect, the law of karma. I agree with that in the sense that strong faith in the Buddha isn’t enough. We have to make ourselves deserving of help by abandoning destructive actions and doing constructive ones. Also, our prayers must be sincere and selfless. His Holiness and the Buddha understand everyone, but unless we pray for a good cause, I feel we have no right to bother them. That’s my religious practice: observing cause and effect and praying to His Holiness and to Tara. How do you really differentiate social service from Dharma practice in general? I find there’s no difference between Dharma practice and social service. If we help others with a good motivation, then they’re the same. And that way I don’t need to memorize a lot of prayers and scriptures!
VTC: What qualities is it necessary to cultivate to be able to help others in a sustained way? How can we become courageous and strong?
RKC: We have to reduce ego involvement, but that’s a bit tricky. At our level, ego is like a truck: without it, how will you carry things? We aren’t yet able to separate our ego. Thinking about the harmful aspects of self-centeredness helps reduce it, but we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect. Unless we accept that we have ego—that we have ignorance, attachment and anger—then we’ll be in continuous conflict with ourselves. If we say, “Ego is totally undesirable. I shouldn’t act if any little bit of ego is involved,” then we can’t act at all and nothing happens. So we have to accept our imperfections and act nonetheless. Of course, when ego takes us on a trip, deep in our hearts we know it and we have to let go of our self-centered concerns. The less ego is involved, the better we feel. Ego can creep into our motivation; they can be difficult to separate. So on one hand we have to believe our motivation is as pure as it can be and act, and on the other, simultaneously check to see if ego is involved and then reduce or eliminate that. We shouldn’t go to the extremes of thinking that our motivation is completely pure and acting like a bulldozer, or thinking that our motivation is totally ego and not acting at all. We can often tell how pure our motivation was from the results of our actions. When we do something half-heartedly, the outcome is the same. The purer our motivation, the better the outcome of our work.
To continue to help others we have to avoid discouragement. Sometimes we get discouraged because our expectations are too big. We get too excited when something goes well and too disappointed when they don’t. We have to remember that we are in cyclic existence and that problems are to be expected. In that way, we can remain more balanced no matter what is happening in our lives. Also, it’s important not to be overly ambitious, thinking that we should be the best and do the most. If we do what we are able to and accept our limitations, we will be more satisfied and will avoid falling into self-deprecation, which is both unrealistic and an obstacle to developing our potential. So as much as possible, we should try to have a good motivation and focus on what is good.