The Tower of Song

Ngak’chang Rinpoche question & answer sessions

‘Lam Rim Chö Ling’ Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Raglan, Wales, 1982

Question Could I perhaps ask you about the way you have been using language? It sounds very different from the Dharma teachers I’m used to, and I was wondering why that was – do you have a purpose in speaking so differently?

Rinpoche I would presume so [laughs]. I like to try to establish some degree of sensitivity to the connotations of language – to keep the whole ethos of the communication poised in space. I like there to be a certain play involved. I think if you listen to any Lama, each will have his or her own flavour– even in terms of the regular vocabulary. So my particular flavour, is I suppose, a trifle non-religious … perhaps you could say ‘secular’. Yes. I prefer to use more secular language – language to which some people could relate in a more immediate manner. I try to use language which explains itself to some degree. For instance, I talk about taking refuge as establishing confidence in actuality. This phrase may need some explanation in itself, but the word ‘refuge’ actually needs a great deal of explanation. The phrase establishing confidence in actuality uses less familiar words, but if you think about them, the meaning can start to suggest itself … well [laughs] that’s what I had in mind when I coined these terms.

Q They’re expressions that the western world is more used to, aren’t they.

R That’s what I hope.

Q Talking about taking refuge and being ‘in the dharma’ – it’s a little alien immediately.

R Yes… but probably the words I use will also alienate people.

Q Whatever you do, you’re going to alienate somebody [laughs].

R Yes – you’re nobody till somebody loathes you.

Q And some people even make a hobby out of feeling alienated…

R Quite…. Anyhow… there are different styles and methods of teaching. There are different teachers, because there are all sorts of different people. Some… who are alienated by these words, some… who are alienated by those words….

Q But isn’t there some point in establishing a common vocabulary? I mean, isn’t that part of the process of cultural transplanting?

R Well… it would seem that there are those who feel that way, and for them… that is the way to go. I would not argue that this is one approach.

Q It seems that you’re denying quite a number of things simultaneously. One, that the west is at some level a single culture. Two, that the time is ripe for sharing a vocabulary. Three, that the language of orthodoxy is adequate as a language of experience. Four, that the vehicle is adequate as a vehicle for the essence. It’s curious that, as a teacher who is bound to be conspicuous at this historical crossroads, you seem to want flatly to take the whole issue out of time altogether.

R It would seem so, yes. I would deny that the West is a single culture. It’s a surprisingly heterodox culture. Maybe you could say that it’s characterised by heterodoxy, but that would be somewhat obscure…. Then… number two… the time is ripe for sharing a vocabulary? No… I don’t feel it is. I feel that we have to experiment a great deal with the interface between the Buddhist teachings and the social patterns of the West. I feel that the time is ripe for open ended discussions between different groups with widely diverging approaches. I feel that we need to allow everything to remain in flux as long as possible. We really don’t want to settle into a fixed form too quickly. The longer we remain open, the more chance we have of establishing traditions which really address the assortment of societal climates which exist. Number three… the language of orthodoxy being an adequate language for discussing experience…. No… I don’t feel that it can be… but I presume that what you mean by ‘the language of orthodoxy’ is the way that the teachings are commonly translated?

Q Yes.

R But there is no completely common language there… [interrupted]

Q Really?

R Really. No. There might be a vague commonality – but it’s highly inconsistent. And once there’s inconsistency the concept of ‘orthodoxy’ becomes a trifle dubious. Once any degree of divergence exists, the whole arena becomes open to anyone with understanding to be creative with language. I hope that this arena remains open, and that people have to question language continually, rather than rely on fixed terminology. Once fixed terminology is established – it may be very useful in terms of ease of communication, but it also makes it possible for people to assume they understand areas of experience that they don’t understand at all.

Q I see… yes… but it still seems that you’re advocating a Buddhist ‘Tower of Babel’ in some sense….

R Or the tower of song [laughs]. I’m not advocating it – I am merely suggesting that this is where we are already, and it’s not such a terrible place… unless we decide to be in denial about it.

Q2 So it’s more creative to accept the chaos, and to work with that rather than to get stuck in trying to create order?

R Welcome to the tower.