Pema Norbu Rinpoche claims he's just an ordinary monk, but dharma insiders know better. "I don't claim to have any high stature, omniscience or special power," he says. "I want to explain how students should rely on their teacher."
This lama in saffron robes is the supreme head of Tibet's oldest Buddhist sect. To those who know him, he is a living Buddha -- and one of the most advanced dharma practitioners alive today. We're sitting in a modest downtown Toronto hotel room with Sangye Khandro, his translator, a western lama and formidable teacher in her own right.
Auspicious omen I've been granted a rare audience with His Holiness Pema Norbu Rinpoche ("precious one") and find myself at a bit of a loss for words. In the four months I spent travelling Tibet, Mongolia and China while researching a book last summer, it was rare to find a Rinpoche, let alone talk with one. In many monasteries, the "precious one," the reincarnation of a bohdisattva or great teacher, was dead, in exile or holed up in a cave meditating.
Really, what do you say to a fully realized being? Norbu Rinpoche has a resume that stretches over several lifetimes. The young Penor, as followers know him, was born in 1679, following prophesies and auspicious omens, in Palyul, a village in eastern Tibet. Penor's first incarnation was, for lack of a better term, a dharma machine, a student who perfectly received the teachings of the Nyingma tradition from its greatest masters. For this, he was called Drubwang, Powerful Master of Accomplishment.
During an upswing in Tibet's theocracy -- when monasteries were brought into the unified lamist state that lasted until 1959 -- all around him Penor's disciples bloomed like flowers. Many attained self-realization within a single lifetime.
Penor's second incarnation, born in 1887, was an even more adept student and received a vast number of transmissions from Dzogchen ("the Natural Great Perfection") masters.
In Tibet and abroad, a lama like Penor Rinpoche is the stuff of legend within a tradition that embodies, to western eyes, impossible acts of mental control and mysticism. As Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman -- father of Uma -- once noted, the Tibetan yogi is to the human mind what the western astronaut is to space travel.
Now in his third incarnation, Pema Norbu has an earthy, direct way of talking that belies his stature. "There is such a hunger in the West," says the Rinpoche, "But the way to receive is to find the teachings, absorb the teachings and the advice that they are given."
Message lost "And not just to be thinking of this world," he says. "They have to be thinking of transcendence -- something other than just material life."
It's a message about Tibetan Buddhism that's often lost in its western translation: its essential core is birth, death, rebirth and karma. The toughest thing about teaching in North America, he says, is the West's obsessive fixation on all things material, whereas the immaterial -- energy, vibrations, spirits, reincarnation -- are rudimentary truth within the Tibetan tradition.
Moreover, the self-help thrust of western teaching has sometimes neglected the essential (and hard-to-digest) Buddhist cosmology that underpins all the teachings. The dissemination of Buddhism in the West has been selective, emphasizing short-term features that are most agreeable and attractive to people born outside the Buddhist world.
The Rinpoche often finds himself in the middle of a major culture clash. "They don't really believe in the continuum of the mindstream, of past and future lifetimes," he says. "This doesn't mean they can't or don't believe once it's explained to them, but if you don't know or believe about past or future lifetimes, you don't understand the fundamental nature of reality -- of what is causing human suffering."
Despite Hollywood's recent enthusiasm for all things Tibetan, there's no getting around the fact that reincarnation and karmic fate are things many westerners just can't yet grasp.
Even for serious dharma students, Buddhist cosmology can be a tough slog. Despite its obvious charms, it's not about self-improvement or even about anything that will happen within the next hundred years. According to estimates, we've only seen three realized Buddhas in the current eon -- and there are about 9,997 more to come.
In Tibet, the ebb and flow of successive lifetimes is an essential truth of daily life: all devotions, pilgrimages, mantras and offerings are the building blocks of an auspicious rebirth. Do you want to come back as a hamster, a hungry ghost or, luckiest of all, a human? (Humans are preferred, according to doctrine, because they're the only being that can self-actualize and transcend karmic cycles of suffering.)
Years trekking Like the Dalai Lama, Penor Rinpoche escaped Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese took power in a military coup. He spent three years trekking from his village in Kham, eastern Tibet, making a pilgrimage to Lhasa before his final flight to the Tibetan border. It was a time of bloodshed and darkness. At the height of the trouble, his party was attacked 15 times -- and of the 300 people who set out from Lhasa with Penor, only about 20 of them were able to make it to the Indian border alive.
But he doesn't want a movie made about it. "It was a hard time in Tibet. But it was like that for everyone, without exception," he says. "Some died by soldiers' bullets, others died of famine -- just dying on the road, trying to escape."
Penor rails against marketing and self-promotion. He's an old-time lama in a world of quick spiritual fixes. Personal, oral transmission to a student by a teacher who's part of a lineage "will immediately benefit the mindstream -- and by relying on a pure lama, a link in a true tradition, you can achieve the same level of realization.
"It's important to check your teacher," says the Rinpoche. "Broken saymaya (commitment), damaged transmission -- if the seed is rotten, you're not going to get a flower."