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Am I Reincarnated? Gesar Mukpo


Gesar Mukpo is the third son of Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, recognized as the 11th incarnation of the renowned Trungpa lineage of Buddhist teachers of the Surmang monasteries in Tibet. Raised and trained in the rigorous Tibetan monastic tradition, Trungpa Rinpoche went to the West in the 1960’s and shattered their preconceived notions about how “enlightened teachers” should behave. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche abandoned his robes and monastic vows, openly smoked, drank, and had intimate relations with students – yet had “crazy wisdom” and a vision of an “Enlightened Society”.

V: Gesar la, what was it like growing up with an unconventional dad in a house fashioned into a court or cultural center thronged by poets, artists, educators, businessmen, medical professionals and all sorts of characters from a diverse community?
G.M: It was very busy and very fascinating. There was always a sense of something important going on constantly and as a child I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on but I knew that my father was important to lot of people.gesar-mukpo1 It was fun to travel around with him and everywhere he went he was received with lot of fanfare and open hearts. He traveled a lot so I did not get to spend a lot of time with him, which was something I wish I had been able to [do]. More than few times there would be some kind of big formal house party or dinner party…I always wanted to get involved with what was going on to some degree and my father accommodated that a lot. It’s definitely an experience that has stayed with me and shaped who I am. On the downside, there was not much closeness between my father and me a lot of the time because he was busy with other stuff. We had our moments but it was interesting as my mother says… to share my father with a lot of other people. In retrospect, the impact he had and how many people who had a deep love for him was totally worth it and is an experience that I’m still learning from.

V: Would you like to share any childhood memories of your father and what you thought of him as a person, as a father, and as a teacher?
G.M: I had a few times to spend extended time with my father and I always remember my father treated me with a lot of respect and didn’t really push me too hard. He would constantly tell me stories or mention things about Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche. I remember that, just the happiness in his face. [His] eyes would light up. I always felt like he really valued my presence in some way, which as a child is something you really desire.

I only ever had an argument with my father twice. One of those times was in this restaurant when I was a young kid. He wanted me to use chopsticks and I couldn’t use them and didn’t want to use them. He was like, “You are from Tibet—you need to know [how to use] these chopsticks.” I refused and I kept using this fork. He took the fork away from me and bent the fork in half with one hand, then we left the restaurant and he said to me, “You are the most arrogant person I’ve ever met.” He kept that fork on his shrine for years and years and years.

gesar-mukpo2But in general my father was just always accepting. Even if I did anything bad, he dealt with things in a very calm way. That was a good lesson: you just make a mistake, which doesn’t make you a worse person, which was, I think the way he treated me constantly. He wanted me to learn and evolve which was something that he had done obviously throughout his life.

Another memory of my father was when I was a young boy. He was sitting in a room alone very quietly. I think he actually sent someone to send me there. Sometimes my father would sit around an empty room and you walk in and nothing was happening at all. So I walked in and he’s sitting in there. He looked at me and said, “Sweetie, I’m dying.” I said, “No you are not dying.” “Yes, I’m dying right now. You are dying, too. We are all dying. Everyday. And someday I’m going to die and will be gone and you won’t have me anymore.” I was a little kid and I was really upset because I felt like it was an immediate thing but it was an important lesson for me to realize that in some regards he came to this world to do something very specific and when he was done doing that he left and that I should not look at it from a sense of loss and [should] realize just the impermanence of life.

We realize impermanence more and more as it becomes more obvious and they say it’s one of the greatest reminders but I think my father really wanted to have a special relationship with me. The feeling I got as a child was that he wanted me to learn. He was constantly challenging me to want to learn. He never pushed me to meditate or practice. He asked people to help me to do that but he was never unsatisfied with me. He was constantly trying to open my eyes.

V: You directed the documentary film “ Glossary Link Tulku” (2009) about incarnate lamas / tulkus who were born in the West. You, yourself at the age of three were recognized by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and H.H. the 16th Karmapa as the rebirth of your father’s root guru, Jamgon Kongtrul of Shechen. Was there a message you were trying to convey to the audience through this documentary?
G.M: I think I was trying to convey a lot of different things with ‘Tulku’ but there are some basic concepts behind it. The central theme is that learning in life is our own responsibility and we all have our own path to travel on. Sort of from the scope of the tradition that we were chosen to preserve and just from the expectations our parents put on us. Everyone is dealing with that same thing, which is, everyone has a kind of expectation to live up to and it’s a source of guilt for lot of people or a source of a lot of difficulty…no matter what your background, no matter what your challenges, none of it is worthwhile unless it comes from your own heart.

You see lot of older Tibetan people running around prayer wheels but you don’t see any Tibetan teenagers running around the prayer wheels. There’s almost like there’s a cliff where we are just losing all these ancient cultures. Thousands of languages will be lost in the next twenty years of our lives. We have to pick and choose what makes sense to us and in reality there is no way you can preserve a tradition unless you choose to preserve certain elements of it and abandon other elements.

The most basic examples as far as Buddhism is that the students in the West aren’t all going to be monks and nuns so we are looking at a sort of different tradition. For me personally, I had all this responsibility put on me and felt all this loaded expectation and which made me feel sort of a sense of guilt or there is an expectation I could not live up to and the realization I have had in my own life in my own experience that nothing is worthwhile unless it comes from my self.

It’s this realization that our culture isn’t a burden but an opportunity to understand who we are more fully. The central theme of Tulku is that path of self-discovery. Now my situation was a little more unusual so there are some more unusual aspects to it but I think people sort of identified with that message because I didn’t make a film that was only made for people that were die-hard Buddhists. I did want to make a movie that didn’t push any spiritual agenda, that did not try to convince anyone of anything, that did not try to stand up for some belief that I had. Just that this is the situation— examine it. The film I think exists on a few different levels of what a general person can see.

Then for me the big thing was having grown up in my father’s community and all these people had all these expectations of me to the point where I got scolded constantly for not having done what they think I should’ve been doing. At first I sort of argued with people…now people do that and I just sit there and smile and let them say their thing. I think what happens is when you are outside of something and you look at what bothers you and you don’t take into account the actual journey that someone is going on. That’s a big mistake and really based on arrogance. I wanted to present to these people that were my father’s community the actual experience that I’m going through which has nothing to do with politics or power or lineage.

It’s much like the way people sort of deify my father. He was an ordinary person. He had ordinary struggles but he was just a brilliant human being who didn’t give up and so within my movie what I wanted to show people is that this is just my human experience. That challenge I’m living with and that any of these things you think I’m an idiot for doing is I have a really good reason that I’m living my life the way I do. I could say I am proud of the fact I’m not doing anything out of panic of what other people think I should be doing. You have to have a base and my base is understanding and my experience is my own and I want to present that to people.

We are all presented with tremendous challenges and if people just look at the challenges and how we handle them in a critical way without understanding, we’ll never be able to have a genuine understanding of who someone is. So I wanted to present who I am and have people know that. Just open up and say, look, this is not about any of these big ideas you had—this is about someone on a journey, just like you are on a journey.

gesar-mukpo3The other aspect that has been very other tulkus, other Western tulkus I should say. Although my film was about Western tulkus, it’s more sort of tulkus challenged by the modern world because nowadays things are so different. Monks are running around on motorcycles with cell phones and have bank accounts. It’s not like it used to be. A lot of these tulkus are growing up, have real desire to wear western clothes, hang out with Westerners, drive a car and they want to do those things and they don’t have to do it in shame and secret. A lot of young tulkus watched my movie and got in touch with me. I get emails from people who think they are tulkus. I’m more in touch with Western tulkus and Westernized tulkus than anyone out there. I’d like to call myself a tulku fairy.

I saw Kalu Rinpoche was on Facebook and so I sent him a friend request. It was a hilarious moment you know, because I knew the previous Kalu Rinpoche and my previous incarnation knew him and here we are: Kalu Rinpoche accepted your friend request. We meet once again but I talk with him a lot and my movie. He really took it to heart and was really thankful he got in touch with me. I think there’s been more than few tulkus that have seen this movie.

I also should say I had tremendous good fortune meeting amazing teachers, and spending a fair amount of time with H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It’s something that will always be a part of my life in a very strong way and I think if there’s any approach that speaks clearly, it’s because I was able to be around teachers like that.

My approach was threefold: tell my story from a personal point of view, approach the challenges that everyone who’s trying to preserve the culture is dealing with, and to make a movie that people who might be in a similar situation could take heart from. There’s Tibetan culture, there’s Buddhism and there’s the human condition and the most important thing is the human condition. So I want to preserve Tibetan culture someway. I want to preserve Buddhist wisdom but most of all I want to contribute towards the human condition and that was the lesson I learned from my teachers. Beneath the form is much more important. It’s about heart and who you are. Something I wanted to at least put out was what I’ve taken out of my experience. How can you fault someone for that?

V: How does it feel to be the chosen one for rebirth by a great Buddhist master? Do you feel trapped or caught in the middle…trying to fill someone’s shoes while trying to live your own, ordinary life?
G.M: Well the bad news is lot of people would like to try to control your situation. The good news is that you are in control of your situation… anything good or positive you can do comes from yourself so I don’t feel any pressure from anyone else because I realize if I have to do anything good with myself I have to get off my ass and actually do it. It’s not like I can ring a bell and wait for something to fall from the sky and I’ll be fulfilled completely. What is an ordinary life? There’s no such thing.

Do I regret not having an ordinary life? / only regret I have is / time I spend talking with people that want to tell me what I should be doing. That’s the one time maybe I get a little rude. My patience is pretty thin as far as that and my sort of reply to people who say you should be doing this, you should be doing that. If you want those things to happen, why are you not doing it? It’s your responsibility.

We look to the lamas and the teachers for guidance but in reality all they can do is give us the tools to work with ourselves. That doesn’t change. I wouldn’t feel good if I was doing things not because of my own motivation and I think my own motivations are very clear to me. I want to live my life in the unordinariness that it is. Challenge is just an opportunity to grow and I’ve had a lot of pain through my situation and lot of anger through my situation but in the end I always come back with this realization that I have to work with my mind. I have to work with my situation and it’s exactly the same as anyone else. No, I have an ordinary life presented with ridiculous challenges of living in the world today just like everybody else. I’m happy for that because it’s an experience we all have to go through.

My father would say that when your religion leads towards you building up your own ego, it’s pointless. I have complete confidence and complete faith that the path that I’m on is the path I should be on which is the path of self-discovery which is constant, undying, and I share with everybody. I’d rather be on the path that I share with everyone than on my own path, which is a path of privilege and isolation.

The Dharma is in fact truly just a human experience that has nothing to do with Tibet. It has nothing to do with religion. The Buddha shared wisdom that is universal and it’s completely arrogant to think that that experience belongs to anybody. You look at any of the great teachers like Matthieu Ricard making books with scientists. There are cross-faith conferences—this is the direction we should be moving in. You may think you are not putting up a wall but we are building walls that separate us and define us because we have no self-identity otherwise. It’s not that we can stop doing that completely but it’s time to recognize that and really take a look at the direction the world is headed in and really question ourselves of how can we be of benefit to that. I think we can be of benefit and make a difference only through being open and not through isolation and creating boundaries.

That’s a tremendous challenge and it’s ongoing and if you realize people sharing in that experience with you, that motivation, there’s no way you can fault anyone no matter what their tradition, no matter what their background. Everyone has his completely different path. I was reading your magazine and there’s this doctor who does the eye surgery on all these people. He’s helping so many people and he is not doing it out of a faith to anything in particular. He’s doing it because he wants to help people and he’s actually making a difference because he decided to do that. I have incredible admiration for people like that because they are not pushing their own agenda; they are using the abilities they have to make a difference.

V: As a born-again Bodhisattva, what is your take on the link between karma and rebirth? Would you share your views on the Buddha-nature?
G.M: In the process of making my film I had to constantly reeducate myself and reevaluate my point of view. It’s worth stating here…that the question of if reincarnation is real or tulkus are real sort of fades into irrelevance once you realize that the process of recognizing someone as a tulku creates a karmic bond between the person who has been recognized and the teacher they are recognized as. Whether or not you are truly a reincarnation, you are sharing in the stream of what they did. For me, being the reincarnation of Shechen Kongtul, I’ve been made aware of whom he is. I’ve been put into situations where people are treating me as him. I’ve gone to his house in Tibet and studied all the stories about him. There’s a karmic link being created so whether or not I’m the reincarnation of this person, I still am sharing in his activity so it’s an interesting thing.

gesar-mukpo4I think it’s actually an incredibly clever technique to preserve a tradition so that you create an emotional bond in someone that forces him to examine the work of certain person. It’s about preservation of lineage and for me I feel like I’ve come to understand the heart of Shechen Kongtrul a little bit and it compels me and motivates me so there’s a bond between us. There’s this karmic link. There’s continuity and there’s continuation of the action he created. So get rid of this notion whether it’s real or not. Every person recognized as a tulku is instantly connected with his tradition and then it comes down to what you make of it. Some teachers become great teachers, some become unknown and never do anything but there’s no need to try to prove anything. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and a very clever technique and…it sort of gets rid of the problem of whether it’s real or not and it takes you to realm of reality which is I’m connected by this recognition.

V: The world as it is, the world of superficiality, mass consumerism, in relating to the material culture of Buddhism, can we get Buddhism in a box, like an instant coffee? Are we merely window-shopping in the spiritual supermarket? Are we veering off-course here?
G.M: The spiritual supermarket has become an online shopping resource. It’s even easier now… you can click your way to enlightenment.

Can I backtrack to this idea of Buddha nature? I just wanted to say something about that which I’ve been thinking about a lot. Just briefly, my father talked about use of the word basic goodness, that we all have basic goodness, which is Buddha nature. There’re a lot of other words you can use for it but the idea of basic goodness is very simple and for me, what keeps me a Buddhist in any way at all is this idea of honoring the potential within everyone. I think that’s very important. That was one of my father’s messages which is very important to me and I think everyone in the world could benefit from it because there’s this concept you know (I hate to say, of original sin that’s gotten the Western mind in a rut, in a feeling of guilt and self-judgment) and this idea of basic goodness in my life—that’s the one thing I’d like to see put out there, this idea of honoring everyone realizing their potential… to make a fundamental switch from the idea that we are by nature bad to switch to we are by nature good.

And as far as a spiritual supermarket, it’s interesting because I think you can have really good intentions and be a genuine, heart-felt student and still be completely shopping and collecting. There’re a lot of people who say they love to see teachers and they think it’s great and what they do is they just fly around different places to see different teachers and smile and feel really good and tell people how happy they are and go and do it again and take photographs and put it on Facebook and that’s their life. It’s a nice thing but it’s also complete self-glorification in some way and it’s happening on every level, even those people who have good intentions. It becomes a question of “What are you doing?” Are you a student? Well then, “Are you practicing?”

The spiritual shopping is constantly going on in some way no matter how pure-minded you are. I think the lowest level of people will just look down at other people who can’t do the same thing as them but there are some people who don’t have the resources to be able to follow around the teacher all the time and do this. When I started seeing Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he had me going all over the place constantly. Let’s just say I don’t have the resources to do that constantly, following my teacher around so we need to present something that is more realistic than this idea of just Rinpoche-hopping. I’m not sure, but we need to present something that is worthwhile to everybody.

I think my advice to people…who are just being around teachers constantly is really take a look at how you are effecting the people that are entering into it for the first time and [if] what you are presenting is something that makes it more challenging for them, you should stop and take a look. Maybe your motivation is destructive in some way. I’m guilty of this too. It’s just not enough to be around the teacher. It’s really not enough. I’m guilty of thinking it’s enough, too. You need to take something with you. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche used to say after I studied and lived with him “Don’t lose it.” Don’t lose it too quickly. That is in truth the experience of Buddhism. You have hits of an understanding or realization and a moment of good meditation and then it fades and pulls back and you are back in the normal situation again.

So what happens after that pulls back? For some people it’s like a rechargeable battery and people are recharging themselves constantly. That works but you need a source to be recharging yourself from and what you are doing is you are draining these lamas’ energy. You are plugging into them and you are draining their energy out. You know from a Buddhist point of view [that they are] ever giving constantly but these are real people with real time schedules, you know. You need to really take a look at if you are using their time in the best way because actually if you are just kind of doing it for yourself and if you just want to see the teacher you can do that, but don’t confuse that with being your path completely.

You’ve got a lot more to offer to other people than just enriching your own experience. For me, it’s a big question. It’s a big battle because you need to work on yourself but you also need to offer something to other people. I’m caught up in between the two of those: I want to understand myself better but I also feel like it’s maybe not the best attitude to say I’m not going to do anything for anyone else until I completely realize things for myself so that’s the struggle that we are all in. Maybe I’m being critical of people here.

I tend to feel nowadays [that] the most important thing that you can do as a Dharma student is take a look at the people that are entering into it and really examine their experience and see how you can benefit those people. That’s probably more important than going to see your lama… we can constantly chase after these lamas, we can constantly go to programs and do those kinds of things that are good. But there’s something probably more important which is how we become the holders of the tradition and through the decisions we make we effect those who come to the tradition.

I think there’s lot of things been happening in this day and age where teachers are trying to provide scholarships from grounds like the KaNying Shedra. They’ve created a ground for people to learn. They’ve created a situation as the fundamental learning situation, right? It gives a chance for people entering in to have a place. I think the really important role for Buddhism right now is what it is presenting to the people that are interested and it starts out with having good attitude and not being condescending in any way.

I’ve tried to transition into that myself as well. It brings up lot of questions when you start to look at things that way. What is really worthwhile? I think in my experience the things you think are worthwhile are a lot of things we are just trying to repair, things [that] happened when we were young or made our lives difficult. I think as a Buddhist we need to lighten up on this idea of getting somewhere. I’m not completely skeptical about studying. It’s totally worth studying but it’s really important to constantly looking towards what’s coming next. Any great teacher—their approach is building something for the next generation, right?

I am just leading my human experience surrounded by this world and the thing that makes me the happiest, honestly is when I see someone has come and found meditation and have life problems and it made a difference for them and it’s not any high and lofty thing. It’s just the idea of acknowledging yourself, honoring yourself, respecting yourself as human being, seeing your dignity. Do you feel happier when you see your lama’s smiling face or when you see someone turning towards the Dharma in a way that is beneficial for him or her?

V: So the last question, Gesar la just to wrap it up: What is the essence of Buddhism?
G.M: Change. You can’t escape it. You can’t change change. It has no real self. Buddhism is constantly evolving and human beings constantly need something different. We know more about science than we have ever known. We are learning all these kinds of things the way we think is constantly changing. The Dharma slips in really nicely with that because it is by nature a lesson of change and the constant evolution…I guess it is not for me to say what the essence of Buddhism is but for me the essence of Buddhism is recognizing the constant change within the tradition of self: its adaptability, its changeability, its malleability to any situation like water fills through the cracks and changes. Water doesn’t have a shape except what it is contained by.

gesar-mukpo5I see the essence of Buddhism being change because I have a lot of hope in the young teachers in the world today. They are presented with the situation where they have to embrace the tradition and also move forward into the changing world with different needs and the tradition will become completely lost if we don’t adapt. I think the essence of Buddhism is a willingness to constantly change and I don’t mean just change teachers.

V: Gesar la, thuchhe Che la. I really felt Blessed and fortunate to have you for the upcoming 5th issue. Thank you.
G.M: Good luck with the magazine and I hope to read the thousandth issue.

V: Thank you so much for the Blessing.


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