Interview with Tulku Yeshi Rinpoche on his new book Handbook for Half Buddhas

By Peter Ober


Peter: What made you decide to write a Handbook for Half Buddhas?

Tulku Yeshi: There are lots of books on Tibetan Buddhism, but the authors are almost all Westerners. Although educated and qualified, they only know Tibetan culture from afar. I was born into a Tibetan Buddhist family and brought up in their faith and culture and then studied Buddhism for over 30 years in Tibet.

Peter: You are now a monk. Were all your studies within Tibetan monasteries?

Tulku Yeshi: No, it was about fifty-fifty, half my studies were by myself and half were in monasteries at the feet of Buddhist Masters.

Peter: I know you are also a poet; your love of nature is obvious from your autobiography and your talks at Sakya Monastery, but most Westerners imagine that the religious practices of a Buddhist monk must be “other-worldly” and unrelated to the everyday experience of people who have to work for a living and scarcely have enough time to relax over a cup of coffee. How will they find your Handbook relevant to their lives?

Tulku Yeshi: If they just start reading it, they will find that there isn’t such a sharp divide between Tibetan Buddhist practice and everyday life in the West. In fact, I hope they will discover that “the daily grind,” as you Americans call it, won’t be so grim and oppressive once they realize that it can also be a vehicle for their spiritual practice. Take that cup of coffee you mentioned. The Handbook will show them how to make it an offering to the Three Jewels as well as an opportunity for relaxation. That’s just one example. In addition to covering details of Deity Yoga and other more advanced practices, I devote plenty of space to the daily routines we all share. I give detailed instructions, including specific mantras, for all these mundane activities. My hope is that readers will realize that things as “worldly” as washing your face and brushing your teeth can be done from a spiritual perspective and can, in turn, enrich and deepen that spiritual perspective.

Peter: So how would you sum up your over-all goal in writing the Handbook?

Tulku Yeshi: I hope readers will become more mindful in everything they do and cherish others more than themselves.

Peter: From what you have just said it is clear how the book encourages and inspires us to be mindful about everything we do rather than going through life on automatic pilot; but would you say a little more about the second goal, cherishing others more than ourselves?

Tulku Yeshi: The Buddha emphasized the great importance of recognizing the interdependence of all things. That’s what Mother Nature teaches us, too! Look at that tree out there. (Rinpoche points out the window.) Although it may be on “our” property according to the laws people have made, it takes in carbon dioxide from the whole neighborhood and replaces it with oxygen, freshening the air for everyone who walks by. If we sealed it off from everything else as if it were self-existing, it would quickly die, and so would all the birds and other beings who depend on it.

If you extend this observation to yourself and the people in your life, you can’t deny that we are all tied together in a web of interdependence within which, no matter how hard you look, you‘ll never discover an unchanging “self” at the core of anybody or anything! The more deeply you feel the wonder and the beauty of the web of life as a whole, the more you realize how silly it is to project an imaginary duality of “self” and “other” into it— just as silly as it would be to insist that that tree out there is “ours!” The only sensible strategy is to be as mindful as possible when referring to our experience as some imaginary “me” within us and to cultivate love and compassion for all the “other” sentient beings who are woven into the same web of life that supports us.

Peter: Thank you, Rinpoche! It sounds like you have been speaking about emptiness without calling it that.

Tulku Yeshi: I don’t discuss emptiness as such—that comes with advanced meditation and the study of philosophy. The Handbook is a down-to-earth, practical book. I‘m more concerned with how people deal with karma in their everyday lives. Once they understand their interdependence with other sentient beings from this perspective— from the perspective of the laws of karmic cause and effect—then they will have a basis of experience in which an understanding of emptiness can take root.

Peter: We’re almost out of time, and I feel we’ve just scratched the surface of the Handbook for Half Buddhas. I know you include instructions for quite a few fairly advanced practices as well as detailed instructions for beginners. What kind of response have you received from your own students?

Tulku Yeshi: (Laughs) A lot of them were happy that I added so much detail about setting up shrines and taking care of their sacred implements. After reading the section on prayer wheels, for instance, one student became curious and looked inside her prayer wheel. She found that all the mantras were up-side down! It’s practical tips like that which more seasoned practitioners seem to appreciate.

Peter: If you had to sum up the book in a single sentence, how would you describe it?

Tulku Yeshi: That’s easy. The book is a teacher. If you’re a beginner, just turn to page one and start reading! If you’re an advanced practitioner with a specific question, you should be able to skim over the table of contents and then zero in on the answer you’re looking for.

Peter: Finally, Rinpoche, do you have any other books “in the oven?”

Tulku Yeshi: Yes, I do. I have just finished one for children entitled 108 Questions about the Life and Teachings of the Buddha. While there are already books about the Buddha for children, they consist almost entirely of storytelling, while my book interweaves basic Buddhist teachings with stories.

My next book will be Tibetan Zen. Along with other material, it will introduce a range of simple, deep meditations in relatively poetic language. I hope to show that profound meditative states need not involve complicated visualizations, but can also be evoked by peaceful settings in the natural world or by beautiful music and other experiences dear to all of us.

Peter: Thank you, Rinpoche, for your precious gifts to all of us!