The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying
A Dialogue With Sogyal Rinpoche

With Swami Virato

The following is an exclusive interview from NEW FRONTIER Magazine, 
November 1993 edition.  For subscription or other information, 
contact NEW FRONTIER Magazine, 101 Cuthbert St., Phila.,PA 19106.  

If there were ever a stereotype of the "laughing saint," Sogyal 
Rinpoche would fit it perfectly. It's not that he's a comic, it's 
just that he makes you want to smile, maybe even laugh.  While 
living at the Rajneesh ashram in India, I remember hearing Rajneesh 
telling the story of the laughing saints, and Sogyal brought back 
those memories.

	A handsome, jolly man, Sogyal Rinpoche  does not seem 
saddened in any way with the topic he has chosen as his life's 
work--death and dying.  Perhaps it's because he sees death in a 
different light.  In fact, he sees death as a part of life. 
[Rinpoche, pronounced rin4-po-shay, is a Tibetan word meaning 
"precious teacher," and is a title/function bestowed upon a high 
teacher of the Buddhist tradition.  The first rinpoche, Padma 
Sanbhava, introduced Buddhism to Tibet in 747 A.D.]

	Sogyal Rinpoche's most recent book, The Tibetan Book of 
Living and Dying (HarperSanFranciso) published this past year, has 
become one of Harper's best-sellers, so when we heard he was going 
on a press tour, we were delighted to learn that he would be coming 
to Philadelphia.

	Unfortunately, the television stations and the city's major 
newspaper,  The Philadelphia Inquirer, which had agreed to interview 
him, canceled at the last minute.  There was no reason for him to 
make a 200 mile round-trip journey from New York City to 
Philadelphia for New Frontier Magazine.  I was amazed when we were 
notified by his staff, that Sogyal Rinpoche would make the trip just 
for us.  He had agreed, and he would come.

	Special thanks to my friend Ruth Green for the use of her 
beautiful apartment high in the sky overlooking Philadelphia, where 
I invited a small group of New Frontier Magazine friends to meet the 
Rinpoche, as I conducted the interview.

	When I arrived at Ruth Green's apartment, the rinpoche was 
sitting in a lotus position on Ruth's overstuffed couch, draped in a 
beautiful yellow-green silk robe.  He was as down-to-earth as anyone 
you'd meet at a new age party, or for that matter, any party.  

	Fluent in English (he studied at England's Trinity College, 
in Cambridge), Sogyal Rinpoche was raised to become a lama (Buddhist 
priest) from the age of six, when he was brought to live at a 
monastery run by one of the most revered spiritual masters, Janyang 
Khyentse Chvkyi Lodrv.  With his knowledge of English, Sogyal was 
called upon to be a translator for several Tibetan masters.

	He began teaching in America in 1974, and returns to India 
and other Himalayan countries every year, to study with spiritual 

	Sogyal Rinpoche is the founder and spiritual director of 
Rigpa, which has established Buddhist meditation centers in England, 
France, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Australia, as 
well as many in America.  Over the past decade he has shared ideas 
and insights with notable leaders in the field of death and dying 
including Elizabeth K|bler Ross, Raymond Moody, Stanislav Grof, 
Kenneth Ring, Margot Grey and Charles Garfield.

	He is sought around the world to speak on various topics 
including psychology, the environment, art and the sciences.  We 
have included an excerpt of his book in this issue of New Frontier, 
which we trust you will enjoy.

*   *   *

NEW FRONTIER:  Now, more than in many years, there is a 
preoccupation with death.  Death seems to predominate most of 
society's television viewing, reaching people's mass consciousness, 
there's the AIDS plague and more people dying of catastrophic 
diseases.  You've written a book dealing with death and dying.  Much 
of Buddhism is concerned with death and dying, as is much of 
Christianity.  Isn't it time we stopped talking about dying, and 
learned how to live more?

SOGYAL RINPOCHE:  You will notice from the title of my book, it's 
not just about dying, it's about living.  The problem in Western 
society is that you don't look at life and death as a whole.  You 
isolate death.  That's why there's so much fear.  You become 
attached to life and deny and reject death.

	It is important to realize that death is not something to be 
feared as a tragedy, but rather an opportunity for transformation.  
Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is 
reflected.  Spiritual traditions, such as the Trappist order in 
Christianity, often maintain a vow of silence while constantly 
saying, "Remember dying."  If you remember dying, you might 
understand what life is about.  

	When we do not understand death, we do not understand life.  
Even though we know that we will die one day, we think we have an 
unlimited lease on life.  We become trivial and lose perspective.  
By reflecting on death, realizing you could die at any moment, life 
becomes very precious.  As Buddha said, "Of all mindfulness, and of 
all awareness, mindfulness of death and impermanence is the most 
important."  Reflecting on death enriches.  Death is in many ways 
our greatest teacher.  It enlivens and shows us what life is all 

NF:  When you speak of death, you mean death of the body, of this 
flesh, but couldn't it be said that there is no such thing as death 
at all?

SR:  On the one level, that is true, there is no death.

NF:  But people concern themselves with it.

SR:  Exactly, because they don't understand it.

NF:  So, what to do?

SR:  In all Eastern traditions, it is said that body, soul and mind 
are the three doors.  It is through these doors that we commit 
negative karma as well as all our positive actions.  Mind is the 
creator of both happiness and suffering.  What death is really 
showing is that we only understand the very superficial aspect of 
our mind.  Dying is the peripheral.  The inner essence is the real 
nature of mind.  As a great Tibetan saint and yogi said, "In horror 
of death, I took to the mountains, and again and again I meditated 
on the uncertainty in the hour of death.  Then capturing the focus 
of the deathless unending nature of mind, now all fear of death is 
done and over with."  By discovering the deathless unending nature 
of mind, we come to realize something that is beyond change.

NF:  Is that called "no mind?"

SR:  You can say "no mind" also, yes.

NF:  So why all the sadness and tears?

SR:  In this life, we do many things.  We drink tea, we do 
interviews, we talk about death [laughter].  These are just some of 
the things we go through, kind of a ritual.  A funeral is another 

NF:  One of the main traditions of Buddhism, and you've mentioned it 
several times in your book, is the "point of preparation."  Not only 
the point of preparation before death, you also suggest there are 
ways that friends and relatives can help the dearly departed even 
before they die.  What do you do?  Say you have a friend who has 
AIDS and you know science and medicine say he's going to die.  
Should you be morose in terms of concentrating on this person's 
death, or should you be like the ostrich, and put your head in the 
sand and simply have a good time?

SR:  Both are slightly extreme.  You need balance, the middle way, 
which would be that death is neither extraordinarily depressing nor 
something we can avoid.  Death is merely a fact of life.  When you 
begin to understand that death is a fact of life, you begin to 
accept that someone with AIDS and ourselves are in the same 
predicament.  The person with AIDS may die a little sooner, but we 
all die, sooner or later.

	It is not the quantity of life but the quality.  When you 
begin to realize you don't have too much time to live, you focus on 
what is most important.

	The person facing transition, who is a spiritual 
practitioner, stable in that practice, will find that the practice 
itself will aid him or her.  When someone does not have the 
spiritual training, the loving and compassionate support of friends 
and relatives helps the person go through this transition.

	When you help somebody, it helps you also.  It's a giving 
and receiving.  Thousands of people who have read my book and who 
have had near ones dying--even when they got the book as late as one 
month before their transition--transformed the death experience.  It 
becomes a celebration.

NF:  Do you consider yourself a spiritual man or a religious man?

SR:  A bit of both, I think.

NF:  What is your definition of enlightenment?

SR:  Slo-o-o-wly wakening [laughter].  In the West there is a 
dramatic idea of enlightenment.  The very word enlightenment 
suggests wakening.  Because of ignorance, we are imprisoned in 
ourselves, even though we have the potential.  Each of us, 
regardless of who we are, has as our innermost essence The Buddha.

	While it can be instantaneous and dramatic, generally, 
particularly in my case [laughter], it is very gradual.

	As one master said, the ultimate point of 
enlightenment--having purified the great delusion, the heart's 
darkness--the raging light of the unobscure self continues to rise.  
That's what enlightenment is.

NF:  If we don't achieve that state upon exiting, can we still 
achieve it?

SR:  Yes.  Sometimes one life is not sufficient.  If you look into 
our minds, there is such a mess, that it will take many lifetimes to 
purify.  Or you can say it took many lifetimes to get into the mess 
that we are in.  There is a natural justice which is karma.  If you 
live a good life, that will in itself lead you to a better next 
life.  But practitioners often pray that when they die they will 
meet with the spiritual teachings again to continue on their journey 
to enlightenment.  Even in the case of The Buddha, he had one 
thousand lifetimes before he became enlightened.

NF:  Tell us about crossing over.  Do you have recollections of past 

SR:  One has more recollections of this when one is younger.  To be 
frank, I do not remember events or circumstances of my past lives.  
I am supposed to be the reincarnation of a great master.  His name 
is also Sogyal.  He was the teacher of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and 
one of the great masters of the 19th Century.  But if you would ask 
what evidence there is that I might be an incarnation, what is 
interesting is that the wisdom continues.  From a very young age, I 
had a natural grasp of the teachings.  Intuitively I began to 
understand things without learning the deeper philosophies.  I had a 
natural grasp of them.  It was later, when I came to study them, 
that I realized, "Oh yes, that's all it is, I already knew that."

NF:  Buddhism is considered a "religion" in Western society, yet 
your work seems to be embraced by the New Age community.  SR:  
Interestingly, Buddhism is both a religion and a way of life.  For 
those that believe in religion, Buddhism is very much a religion; 
but for those who do not believe in religion, Buddhism is a science 
of mind, a way of life.  There are many who reject institutionalized 
religions, but accept Buddhist spiritual teachings.

	It's a vehicle for realizing the truth of ourselves.  When 
you talk about the Buddhist teachings, ultimately there is the state 
of non-meditation. In a sense, it transcends all paths.

	If you need ritual, ritual is a part of our life; if you 
seek ceremony, the Tibetan tradition is extraordinarily rich; if you 
want symbolism, we have it; if you prefer chanting, there is 
chanting; if you don't want that, we have simple sitting; if you 
want philosophy, we have philosophy; if you require psychology, we 
have psychology; if you want non-meditation, we have 

	Buddha wanted to reveal to everyone his enlightenment, which 
he saw as the nature of everyone.  Unfortunately, he realized with 
sadness that, even though we have the Buddha nature, it's been 
somewhat limited by our ordinary mind. To use an example, take an 
empty vase.  The space inside the vase is the same as the space 
outside it, but the walls of the vase limit it.  The space inside 
the vase is like our nature, limited by ordinary mind.  When you 
become enlightened, it's as if you break the walls of the vase.  The 
space inside becomes one with the space outside.  In fact, they were 
never separated.  Buddha wanted to show this, but realized that to 
convey the profound peace he had realized, he needed different 
vehicles to suit different needs.  That's why in Buddhism there are 
many vehicles, because ultimately Buddha did not have a teaching.  
He did not come to teach a particular dogma.

NF:  Where did some of these things come from?  I'm curious about 
the word "bardo."

SR:  Bardo is a Tibetan word.  After you die, and before you take on 
a new birth, there is an intermediate state called the bardo.  There 
are other meanings also, because the word "bar" means in between, 
and the word "do" means suspended.  Whenever you are in between two 
circumstances or situations, you are in the bardo.  We are born, we 
live a little bit, and we die.  The time/experience between birth 
and death is a bardo.  In fact, all life is a bardo--every moment, 
every thought.  It is constantly occurring, and what the bardo 
teaching is showing is that in the transitionSYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"
even though we are confusedSYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"there is always 
the gap and in the gap there is the possibility of enlightenment.  
It shows the different methods we can use to recognize our internal 

NF:  Did you have a specific purpose in writing The Tibetan Book of 
Living and Dying?

SR:  When I came to the West, I realized there was much hunger for 
spiritual teachings, but no environment for spirituality.  There is 
religion, but no spirituality, so I felt a need to write one book 
explaining everything from A to Z, to give a complete picture.  
Initially, I wanted to write a small book, a kind of a pocket guide 
for helping the dying.  But when you start talking about death, you 
cannot help talking about life.  And when you talk about life, you 
talk about karma, the nature of mind, and so forth.  It is not in 
the form of the written tradition, but of the oral tradition as my 
masters have transmitted it to me.  People in the West are not able 
to follow the spiritual teachings, go to the Himalayas, or follow 
the masters.  Therefore, we must give them something authentic and 
accessible, which can perhaps transform their lives and help them 
connect with the spiritual dimension to find meaning and happiness 
in life.

	So, if you read the book over and over, your understanding 
becomes deeper and begins to flower.  And like a flower blossoming, 
the layers drop off and you slowly awaken to understanding the true 
meaning--the meaning behind the meaning.

	This book has come as a result of ten years of reflection, 
and three and a half years of writing.  Much suffering could be 
removed if people have the knowledge, so I've written this book with 
that aim in mind.  This is for the larger public, a larger audience. 

	As my master used to say, the more you listen (or the more 
you read), the more you hear, and the deeper your understanding 

NF:  Do you have a favorite meditation?  

SR:  I have many favorite meditations.

NF:  If you were to pick one for us, what would it be?

SR:  Be spacious.

NF:  Do you think it possible that the people who are "exiting" now, 
because of all the lessons being offered, have a better chance of 
getting off the wheel of samsara?

SR:  It is up to them.  As Buddha said, "What we are is what we have 
been, what we will be is what we do now."  The master who 
established Buddhism in Tibet further clarified this by saying, "If 
you want to know your past, look into your present condition.  If 
you want to know your future, look into your present actions."

	Just because we go through a difficult situation, it doesn't 
mean that the future is predetermined.  The future is very much in 
our hands, in our actions.

NF:  Some Western religions contend Buddhists are atheists.  How 
would you reply to this?

SR:  Buddhism does not deny the nature of God, but rather the 
concept of God.  As one great Buddhist master said, "Absolute is 
beyond mind."  That which is within the realm of mind is called 
relative.  Since God is absolute, how can mind understand?  We have 
to transcend mind to realize its true nature.  The problem is that 
we conceptualize, and so we worship a kind of clichi, a concept.  A 
concept, however good is, as the saying goes, like a patch--one day 
it will come off.  That's one of the reasons Buddhism is really 
personally realized.  We can even find the "Buddha Nature" in 
Christianity.  In his moment of enlightenment, St. Thomas Aquinas 
threw most of the Catholic teachings into the fire saying, "This is 
all rubbish, because this is all concept."	Buddhism does not 
deny the nature of God, or what God represents, which is goodness, 
the heart of spirituality.  That it does not deny.

NF:  We always seem to want to personalize God.  Even the Buddhists 
say "Do not make an image,"  yet have statues of Buddha.

SR: What is interesting about Buddhism, is that it always works with 
two truths:  an absolute and a relative.  They are like the two 
wings of a bird.  On the absolute level, there is no God as "other.
"  God is not outside, but within the nature of our mind.  On the 
relative level, just as there are beings like us, there are also 
Buddhists who come in human form to help the beings on that level.  

	If you understand the union and indivisibility of absolute 
and relative, you can understand and appreciate the absolute and the 
relative.  There is a famous Buddhist saying, "Form is emptiness, 
emptiness is form."  That is to say, when you examine things, break 
them down, you find they are insubstantial, empty, inherently 
non-existent.  Yet, the appearance of things is in no way a 
contradiction, because the truth of the absolute appears in the form 
of form.  In Christianity, if you look at the trinity, the absolute
SYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"God the FatherSYMBOL 190 \f "Symbol"is, 
through the medium of the Holy Ghost, manifest as the incarnate, as 
the Son.  The Son is the appearance.  God is no-form, the absolute.  
The medium is the Holy Ghost, the energy.  This is the trinity, or 
the three kayas I mention in the Chapter called "The Universal 
Process," in which I attempt to connect Christianity, Buddhism, and 

NF:  Some say we can achieve instant enlightenment.  The Buddha also 
said that enlightenment doesn't have to take many lifetimes, and can 
happen in a flash.  At the same time, others say there has to be 
deep study.  How can there be both the need for deep study , and 
instant enlightenment?

SR:  It depends on the person.  If you have already been purified of 
your past karma, then it is possible.  There have been few 
individuals in history who have gained enlightenment 
instantaneously.  There are cases, but that is because in the past 
they've done the work, so to speak.  Enlightenment is not 
difficult.  It's removing the obstacles that is difficult.

NF:  So enlightenment is always there, but we just can't see it?

SR:  Yes.  For example, when you meditate you can get certain 
glimpses of it, but then your old habits come back to obscure it.  
After awhile we've almost no memory of it.  The main thing is to 
stabilize our nature.  One glimpse is not enough.

	In Buddhism, we talk about three things--the wisdom of 
listening and hearing, the wisdom of contemplation and reflection, 
and the wisdom of meditation and application.  Through these three 
wisdom tools we awaken our real nature.

	Sometimes I compare samsara to an accident in which we lost 
our mind with amnesia.  Through this teaching, and the wisdom of 
listening and hearing, the wisdom of contemplation and reflection, 
and the wisdom of meditation and application, we gradually come to 
realize our real nature.  Then, through practice, we stabilize it.  
That's what takes so long, to purify and stabilize.  Then 
enlightenment is possible.

	Sometimes it is said that very high teachings are able to 
bring realization very directly, but that is of course from the 
ground of the teaching. When you actually apply it to individuals it 
is a different story.

NF:  Can one ever know for sure if someone else is enlightened?

SR:  We can never judge.

NF:  Can we tell if we're enlightened?

SR:  For that we need to have the knowledge in order to know.  The 
thing is, it can be a deception.

NF:  How so?

SR:  That's one of the reasons I've written this book.  Even though 
this book is accessible, I've just shown you that there's no quick 
fix.  Enlightenment requires discipline and effort.  Sometimes 
people mistake little glimpses for enlightenment.  There is a 
saying, "Understanding should not be mistaken for realization, and 
realization should not be mistaken for liberation."  Ordinary people 
cannot act like yogis, yogis cannot act like siddhas, and siddhas 
cannot act like Buddha.  For example, if you have an experience and 
you feel you really can fly, and you jump out the window, you get a 
strong message that you can't.  You have an experience, and get 
wrapped up in it, and the ego gets involved.  

NF:  Some, such as psychologists and people who work with the mind, 
do not believe in this process, might say that this is a bunch of 
rubbish.  Earlier you said we have to work with the mind.  Isn't 
this really a paradox?

SR:  No.  We can work with mind to transcend mind.  Use mind as a 
vehicle to transcend mind.

NF:  I also know many people who use mantras to transcend mind, but 
it seems like another co-dependency, another drug.

SR:  It depends on how you do it.  The mantra itself is not a 
co-dependency.  It's a method, a way of freeing.  The practice may 
not be co-dependent, but if you have a co-dependent attitude, then 
it could be.

	You see, as long as we are in samsara, we grasp at 
everything, including spiritual things.  That's why teaching is 
important in order to decipher what is, or to bring about the wisdom 
of discernment.  We really need the wisdom of discernment.

NF:  Do you see the world becoming more spiritual or less spiritual 
as we enter the21st century?

SR:  I don't have the vision to answer that, but the Dalai Lama 
feels that the 1990's are more spiritual, because people have 
learned a little lesson from the confusion they've met.

NF:  What do you see as the one biggest obstacle facing humanity?

SR:  The biggest problem for humanity, not only on a global level, 
but even for individuals, is misunderstanding.  We misunderstand.  
Two people are saying the same thing, but they don't think they are 
saying the same thing, and they begin to argue even though they are 
saying the same thing!  I remember two students of mine, both 
wonderful people, who were in conflict with each other because they 
were both holding a particular work or something and each was always 
thinking the other was against him.  I tried many methods, which 
didn't work, and finally I took them and banged their head 
together.  And it worked, because they both saw how they are each 
wonderful, that they were not against each other, and they became 
very good friends.  My frustration, like in Bosnia, and with other 
peoples, is that they don't see that, and they just go on so 

NF:  Do you have a Zen stick?

SR:  [Laughter] That works only in certain situations!  What we need 
to do is create understanding and communication.  Communication is 
very important.  Communicate.  If you know how to communicate and 
listen, you'll begin to understand.  Compassion is listening.  
Compassion is communicating.

NF:  Thank you so very much for driving all this way, and sharing 
your knowledge with us.

SR:  I enjoyed it very much. 

Swami Virato is the Founder & Executive Editor of NEW FRONTIER