An Interview with Lama Palden, by Jane Brunette

Editor’s Note: Tai Situ Rinpoche recently visited the Bay Area for a series of events, including a teaching at Sukhasiddhi. Lama Palden has known Rinpoche for almost 40 years, and I spoke with her about the significance of the events surrounding his visit and his connection to Sukhasiddhi Foundation.

– Jane Brunette

dondrup kata tai situQ: Tell me a little about your connection to Tai Situ Rinpoche and his connection to Sukhasiddhi.

Lama Palden: I first met Tai Situ Rinpoche in Calcutta in 1980, so our connection goes back almost 40 years. I spent a lot of time with him in the Bay Area in the late 80s and 90s — his main North American centers are here and in Vancouver, and he was here a lot then. Sukhasiddhi partly came out of that time with him. He has been wanting to come back for a long time, but was unable to for 18 years, so we’re very fortunate he was able to be back in the States again.

Rinpoche is the 12th in his lineage. He has incarnated with the Karmapas, and they have gone back and forth in being each other’s student and the heart center of the Kagyu lineage. In this incarnation, he is the root lama of the 17th Karmapa and also of the young Kalu Rinpoche and is a lineage holder of both the Marpa Kagyu and the Shangpa lineages. Although Karmapa is head of the Marpa Kagyu and Kalu Rinpoche the head of the Shangpa lineage, Tai Situ is our most senior person in both lineages, so for myself and our center, we both have a powerful heart connection with him.

palden intro tai situQ: Along with his visit to Sukhasiddhi, what other events did you attend?

Tai Situ was really happy to be back in the Bay Area and there were a lot of events. I went to quite a few of them.

When I met him at the airport, there were 100 or 150 people there. The Tibetans did a whole welcoming ceremony. On the upper floor of the airport where passengers come out, there’s a big room with chairs, and Rinpoche sat there so everyone could give a kata. He had 10 people traveling with him. His tutor, Gegan-la, who is 95, was with him the whole time and attended all the events. I have a special connection to his tutor, because he did his three-year retreat under Kalu Rinpoche and it was a Shangpa retreat at Kunzang Dechen Osel Ling at Palpung in Tibet. He served the previous Tai Situ, and this one he’s been serving his whole life. At 95, he is still sharp and very loving.

There was a welcome dinner in Palo Alto that was open to the public, and the Tibetan community hosted a big event at the Gelugpa center in Richmond, where Rinpoche gave a Maitreya wong. There were hundreds of Tibetans with families, and they looked healthy and happy. He spoke to them in Tibetan for 45 minutes, and then summarized for us what he had said. He is considered by the Tibetans to be an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha and Marpa, who was considered an emanation of Hevajra.

sukha tai situ visitFor the event at Sukhasiddhi, I had asked him to speak on the Five Texts of Maitreya. He gave a talk and then spent a long time saying how comfortable he felt at Sukhasiddhi and how happy he was to be there. It was such a heartfelt talk that Rinpoche gave—really warm and funny and loving. Many people were amazed by his presence. Whether seeing him again or meeting him for the first time, they found it really powerful. I also held a private luncheon for him and those traveling with him.

Rinpoche gave Sukhasiddhi a thangkha that is a copy of one that the Dalai Lama gave him last year when he visited Tai Situ’s monastery, Palpung Sherab Ling, for the consecration of the new shedra [monastic college, a 12-year program] and the celebration of the completion of the many facets of the monastery. The Dalai Lama said that Sherab Ling is the first monastery outside of Tibet that has all five aspects of what a gompa [monastery] is supposed to have: Three-year retreat, shedra, pujas every day and sometimes 24 hours a day, linguistics and grammar, astrology and medicine.

palpung-monastery-indergeQ: What is Tai Situ’s relationship to the Rimé movement?

Rinpoche’s home monastery is Palpung in Kham, Eastern Tibet [mentioned above] which a previous incarnation of the Tai Situs built. It has always been nonsectarian and this is where the Rimé movement — or as Tai Situ put it, the Rimé evolution — began. Jamgon Kongtrul was at Palpung back in the 1800s, along with the two others who would visit often, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa. The three of them started the Rimé evolution. The first two were primary Shangpa lineage holders. When the new Kalu Rinpoche came out of three-year retreat, he asked the current Situ Rinpoche to give him the Shangpa wangs [empowerments] even though he had already received them from Bokar Rinpoche, and a number of us from Sukhasiddhi were there.

The name Palpung, means “mound of excellence,” or “mound of everything excellent.” So through the centuries, the Tai Situs have been involved in this blending of lineages and activities. Rinpoche is a prolific painter and calligrapher, and he has been known through the centuries in China and Tibet as an expert fung shui master. He’s also a designer, an architect and a linguist, so he has many activities.

 

Emptiness Isn’t Empty: An excerpt from Tai Situ Rinpoche’s talk on the Five Texts of Maitreya

These remarks are excerpted from a talk given by Tai Situ Rinpoche at Sukhasiddhi Foundation on May 11, 2016

tai situ sukhaAll things are relative. That is the relative truth. It is all interconnected. Nothing exists without everything else. If there is no ear—no sound. No sound—no ear. Like that. What kind of sound? Also interconnected. Right now, because I have this cough, I can’t taste very well. I can taste—I can make the difference between chili and sugar—but not very much. So you can feed me pretty much anything. Everything tastes pretty much the same because of this problem or blessing or whatever.

Everything is interrelated. That’s why some of us like some things, and others don’t like them. Some of us like a certain kind of look, so we make ourselves look like that, and some of us don’t like that look, so we make ourselves look like something else. That’s why everybody doesn’t look the same. It is an individual thinking. So everything is like that. There is no such thing as “this is nice; this is not nice.” It depends on how you think. In these kind of details, it is like that.

Many people in middle age like a red Ferrari. But I would be embarrassed if I drove a red Ferarri, because I went beyond that age. I crossed the middle-age crisis a long time back. So red Ferrari time is over. Now I like something like a mobile home. Something like a bus. You park and the cheeks come out and then go back. That’s the living room.

What you used to like when you were a kid, when a teenager, when you were young, when you were middle-aged—what you really like when you are old—all of these things change. But ultimate remains. The ultimate on the relative level is that nobody likes to suffer; everybody likes to be happy. It doesn’t matter your race, doesn’t matter your education, doesn’t matter your religion, doesn’t matter your ideology — nobody likes to suffer, everybody likes to be happy.

So that’s the relative ultimate.

The true ultimate is the vastness, the as-it-is-ness, the emptiness. When we say emptiness, it doesn’t mean empty; it means nothing is more than an interdependent manifestation of everything else. That’s it. Nothing is more than that. Everything is there. Emptiness doesn’t mean you are not here. You’re here. Everything is here. But everything is not more than an interdependent manifestation of everything else.

That is the ultimate. So that way you become sort of a sky gazer. That is my cynical mind talking. I’m not pessimistic or anything, but I’m a little cynical when someone comes to me and says, “I think I am enlightened. What do you think?” I try to be very polite. If you are enlightened, why are you asking me? Why do you have a question? I can’t help but say that. The person gets it or not — I don’t know. Maybe the person says, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m enlightened.” [laughter]

The perfect knowing is ultimate.

 

“You are part of my family”: Tai Situ speaks about Sukhasiddhi Foundation and the Shangpa Lineage

These remarks are excerpted from a talk given by Tai Situ Rinpoche at Sukhasiddhi Foundation on May 11, 2016

palden tai situAlthough my institution involves Marpa Kagyu, Shangpa Kagyu, and all the other lineages, Shangpa Kagyu has been very special, because for many, many years – quite a few centuries – Shangpa Kagyu was just surviving. As a result of that, it did not have so many branches and sub-branches like Marpa Kagyu. Marpa Kagyu has twelve—four greater Kagyu and eight grandchildren. Gampopa’s four main disciples formed the four greater Kagyu. And then one of the four main disciples, Phakmo Trupa, his disciples formed eight of them, like grandchildren. Then each one of the lineages developed further. Karma Kagyu, for example, has three sub-lineages that came out of it: Surmang Kagyu, Nédo Kagyu, Gyaltön Kagyu. There are so many like that.

The downside of all of that is it becomes so much like walking in the Amazon forest. It is humid, it is crowded, it has piranhas down there, anaconda everywhere, mosquitoes everywhere – so much, so much! It’s a swamp. So much! There is flora and fauna – you can’t even comprehend how much is there. It’s so much, so rich. 

But the Shangpa Kagyu lineage did not spread like that — it just barely maintained. And during the time of the ninth Tai Situ, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa — during that time the lineage was revived and it is preserved in its purist form in Palpung Thubten Choekhor Ling, and Tsadra Rinchen Drak is the original residence of the eighth Tai Situ. Before he built the Palpung, he stayed there and oversaw the construction. It was within walking distance. Even for me, today’s me, I can walk there… And then later, when the first Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé came to Palpung, that is where he stayed. So the Shangpa lineage three-year retreat is established there, Tsadra Rinchen Drak. 

Now I also have finished building a Shangpa retreat [facility] in Palpung Sherabling Monastery… The first Shangpa retreat is going to start sometime next year.

tai situ at sukhasiddh Anyway, the Shangpa lineage continues, and I think the seed was sown in Lama Palden by Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, Rangjung Kunchab. He established many Naro and Nigu, Marpa and Shangpa retreats throughout the world. And you [Lama Palden] have done retreat in that. So that way the dharma center here is also Sukhasiddhi Foundation. And I saw the logo – very nice!

So anyway this lineage, because it remained that way, does not have the anacondas around, it does not have the piranhas around, it doesn’t have all these mosquitoes around, so it is quite straightforward. It doesn’t mean other lineages are bad – it doesn’t mean that. But a little bit complicated. And Shangpa lineage is not complicated because it is simple and straight. And when Lama [Palden] said — what did you say, “humble”? A humble Center, right? I think humble — I will take it literally — means this definition of humble: No anacondas, no piranhas, and no mosquitoes. Everything is quite simple and clear. But sometimes we need all of them too, otherwise the Amazon will not be complete. It will not be the Amazon forest. You will not have an adventure! So you have to have all of that, yes. 

But here it is very good that you all have such a pure connection to the lineage with gurus like Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, Rangjung Kunchab. I received the Shangpa lineage from His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa but of course at that time I was very, very young – seven or eight years old. Then later, at the request of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, Kalu Rinpoche was invited to Rumtek from Darjeeling, and I was 17, 18, 19 somewhere in there, then I received all of the empowerments, everything from Kalu Rinpoche, as instructed by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa. And then all the six yogas of Niguma including the preliminary practices. All of these. Of course you know about Kalu Rinpoche’s connection to me because Kalu Rinpoche is the retreat master of both Naro and Nigu or Marpa and Shangpa of the Palpung Thubten Choekhor Ling monastic seat in Tibet for all of his teaching life. All of you know that. So that is our connection.

The present Kalu Rinpoche, Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche, he had this inspiration to do everything to preserve and propagate that Shangpa lineage, and I am very happy. He wanted me to give him all of the initiations, everything. I did my best. And now as far as the dharma activity is concerned, he is really doing very, very well. I am very happy with his dharma activity… So anyway, you are very closely associated with Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche. He came here and taught and gave initiations. I’m very happy for that. You should continue the connection — the dharma connection, pure connection.

And also I sincerely pray for all of the dharma activities of all of you, under the guidance of Lama Palden Drolma. I’ve known her for so many years. And I sincerely pray for all of you.

Of course you all know you are part of my family. Because you are part and parcel of the Palpung institution, in the greater historical, spiritual manner, but just a different administration. So you do your things in your way, but the dharma has to be precise. And of that I am sure, because I know Lama Palden — her dharma teaching and dharma way. She has been around a long time. 

So very good. All the best. OK? And let us make a dedication of our merit. 

So now we dedicate the merit of the teaching, the transmission, everything, including all of you coming here from far and near and receiving this teaching. And my dear Masters who gave me these teachings. And I am sharing these teachings with you here — so that merit. And that Lama requested me to teach this — that merit.

And then, of course, Lama [Palden] worked very hard for… not hard, diligently. Hard is not the right word — that is negative. Diligently, for many, many years to establish the Center. And all of you assisted and worked together to make this Center possible. So everyone’s dedication made the Sukhasiddhi Foundation what it is today, so I dedicate that.

And also I dedicate the merit of all of you having great aspiration for the future of this particular dharma foundation and dharma Center and its activities. I am sure it will flourish. There is no question about it. I don’t have clairvoyance. I don’t know the future, but I’m an old man with my two cents worth of experience and common sense, and also a little bit of knowledge. No wisdom, but knowledge. Some wisdom, some wisdom – I can’t lie about that either. So some wisdom. So that way I can tell, it will flourish. It will. And of course you are not doing dharma activities for the sake of glorification. Of course not. But it will be glorious. It will flourish. Yes.