His Eminence Ngawang Sherdrup Chokyi Nyima is popularly known as Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche (NTR) among his students in Bhutan and abroad. A few years back Neyphug Trulku suffered a kidney failure, underwent a kidney transplant surgery and survived miraculously after a near-death experience. Our contributing writer Sönam Dema interviewed NTR on understanding life, disease and death in a deeper sense as per dharma.  

Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche

His Eminence Ngawang Sherdrup Chokyi Nyima is the 9th reincarnation of the first Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche, Tertön Ngawang Dragpa. The principle seat of the first Neyphug Trulku is Neyphug Thegchen Tsemo Monastery in Paro, which was first built in 1550. Neyphug (Heyphu) monastery belongs to the Neyphug lineage, one of the indigenous monasteries of Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan.

Our general perception of a successful life is a great career, big car and a big house. What is a perfect life, as per Dharma?

If you want an answer as per the Dharma, a perfect life is, not owning anything. As one of the greatest Buddhist master once mentioned: 

When people don’t respect you anymore,

When you become equivalent to a stray dog,

That is the time you are counted as a god.

In simple words, a perfect life is when people don’t recognize or regard you as important; when you become so ordinary that you are treated impassively just like a homeless dog— when your status is no better than a stray dog, that is the perfect time you will understand the true meaning of life, and so, you will be counted as a god or divine. 

I don’t know about big cars or big houses, these ideas of success or perfect life is shaped by the society— I call it the colorful mind, where we have too many views or information, none of which is correct. People cling to the idea that driving a big car or owning a big house is successful or rich. These are wrong information. It is not necessary that people are happy owning such belongings. 

At the same time, we cannot deny this generation where we grew up with the concept of having a career, owning a car or a house. I think it is, therefore, important for us to find a balance, you know. 

Gautama Buddha’s livelihood advice in the Eightfold Path emphasizes “ethically sourced and meaningfully living”. So maybe, it is good to own a simple car, humble house, and to pursue a career that is beneficial to the society and environment. 

The more you have, the more stressful you get. As mentioned by 

Master Vasubandhu in Abhidharma teaching, the wealth is the source of all our fears: first the fear of not gaining or gathering; then, the fear of not accumulating; and finally, the fear of perishing or spending. So, you see, it only causes more fear and stress, anything far from happiness or a perfect life. 

In Buddhism, everything in life is said to be temporary. Does it mean our lives are filled with delusions?

In dharma, we don’t say temporary— we say, it is constantly changing. If it is temporary, it will last certain period. But in dharma, it doesn’t even last a split of a second. Change is the only constant thing. 

For example, when we look at the river, say Paro Chhu— by the time we realize it is Paa Chhu, in that slight second, it is not the same river as the water you have witnessed has changed. It has travelled by few feet down in that split of a second. By the time you go and touch the river with your hands, the water has travelled already. So, it is constantly changing. With our delusive mind, we don’t see that. For us, the river is always there but the reality is, it is constantly changing. 

So, when we don’t know the reality, we get confused and suffer. This is the unenlightened mind, a mind filled with delusions. 

Why do we suffer or get ill as per Dharma?

We suffer when we have perception, which happens when we have this full human entity as the body, or the five senses like the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Once we have these physical perceptions or entity, we always have preferences or likings, you know. And with this, comes desiring, gaining or avoiding and more. So, it becomes quite impossible for us not to suffer.  

It is mentioned in the Madhyamaka teachings (founded by Buddha and taught by philosopher Nāgārjuna), as long as we have this physical existence, there is always this concept of self, ego, or “I”. As long as there is this “I” existing, there is fear and concern for the wellbeing of the self. And as long as this concern is prevailing, there will always be fear and sufferings. 

The cause of sickness has various reasons. As per Dharma, it is mainly our actions and karma that, somehow, manifests into sickness or diseases. However, we generally say, we get sick because of the imbalance in the elements in our body. Our body has four elements; we have fire, water, earth and air. When these elements get mixed up, like fire and water, there is imbalance and this manifests in the form of sickness, spirit or negative energy in our body. That is why we call it, “Nye dang, Dhuen dang, Lhay dang.”

Nye is disease due to imbalance of these four elements. Dhuen meaning spirit harm, and Lhay is your past bad karma that causes illness. 

So, most of the time when we fall sick the best thing to do is say your prayers and also consult a doctor to balance your elements. You can also try spiritual healing. If nothing works, even if doctor can’t help, then, the ultimate option is to strive to accumulate good karma, being positive and doing a lot of virtuous deeds to pay back your debt, we call it ‘exhausting karma’. This is an excellent way of looking after yourself. Again, negative karma is caused by our un-awakened mind, namely, ignorance, desire, anger, jealousy and ego. Well, it is ourselves who, somehow, generate the causes of these sickness or sufferings.

Few years back you have survived a kidney transplant surgery and recovered miraculously. Tell us what helped you with the recovery?

I think I have become a better person because of my kidney failure. Before that, although I am nobody, yet people had so much respect for me. When you are showered with so much respect, you get carried away and forget to be humble. So, when you are actually put on a hospital bed, you realize you are nobody— you are just another ordinary human being fighting between life and death. So, I promised myself if I recover, I want to live differently. 

After kidney transplant, we are prescribed medicines, and we are advised to refrain from any public gatherings, as our body is really weak.

Being a spiritual healer, we have to be next to sick and dead— we have to visit sick people and attend funerals and bless the dead ones. For first couple of months, I restricted myself, but then, I felt I have no purpose of my life in doing so. As a spiritual individual, I recovered. I felt the true purpose of my life is to help others, and here I was, fearing that I might get infected. I told myself, I would rather die if I am not going to serve my purpose in life. 

So, I took a drastic decision. I thought it doesn’t matter even if I live for a few months, weeks or even a day as long as I can bring smile on other people’s lives. This is exactly what I wanted to do. Of course, my mother hated me for that and my friends thought I was insane. 

After the surgery, I had 12 inches stitches left on my body and I was high on medication. The doctors had warned me constantly to be very careful, saying my new kidney might reject me as I have now a foreign organ in my body. Of course, I was scared. But I recovered swiftly. The miracle behind this was I started my devotion to Medicine Buddha. Of course, I was doing my daily meditations and offerings but nothing really helped my recovery. 

Then, somehow, when you are helpless and dying, I realized there is this Buddha called Medicine Buddha. So, I called a senior colleague of mine from India, and requested for the text. Then, I went for a strict 21 days of medicine Buddha retreat. I was very sincere, devoted and confident, putting all my trust in Medicine Buddha. In 21 days the result was remarkable, my doctors were surprised as my medication reduced and my wounds healed faster. One of my doctors asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was doing a healing meditation. Then, I introduced my non-Buddhist doctor to Medicine Buddha. Jokingly, he said, I thought your Buddha was yellow, but your Buddha is quite dark and blue. Well, I said this is another Buddha. You are a Buddha and I am a Buddha too. Then, we had a great laughter. 

And now, I have few doctor friends who give an image of medicine Buddha to their patients, asking them to try medication and meditation as well. 

As I was saying, the purpose of my life as spiritual healer is to help people, now I have projects coming up and I am doing whatever I can, within my own limits, you know— and I feel it will be ok even if I die tomorrow, we can always come back. I don’t know if I can come back as who I am, you know, but it doesn’t matter even if I come back as a dog. 

Our body is like a cup. When you pour hot water, it becomes hot. When you pour iced water, it becomes chilled. But it is not the cup that is hot or cold. Likewise, our mind and body are two different entities. If we don’t differentiate and analyze them, it becomes one. Body becomes the slave to our mind. Our mind will still exist even when our body is gone. 

So, here I separate my body and mind. I tell myself, my mind never had kidney failure, my mind is untouchable, my mind is perfect and my mind has no problems. So, when we are able to separate our mind and body, we feel good, alive and optimistic. 

Talking about death, why do we have to ultimately die one day?

Many great masters have mentioned that the purpose of birth is to die, and the beauty of death is to be reborn again. It is just a physical exchange. For example, many great masters advise us to treat our body as a guest house and our soul or mind as a guest. 

This, whatever life we are born in to, is a guest house— we check in for a certain period of time, like a lifespan. And eventually, one day we need to check out. 

As I have mentioned, the beauty is if there is no death, there is no birth. Every death is a new beginning.  If you are talking about physical death, we are constantly dying every second. It is nothing ultimate, it is happening all the time. However, the consciousness of our mind actually never dies— it continues to exist from beginning-less to the endlessness. 

For example, when great masters are very old or sick and about to die, they say, they need to change their physical existence as their body cannot sustain their soul anymore. In simple words, they say, they need to look for a new body to sustain their mind. This is called Juu-Kay or spontaneous birth. So, great masters, when they age, they can actually just transfer their consciousness into a young body— thus, reviving their youth as a continuity of their life. This is how death is defined spiritually. 

As death is inevitable, how do we prepare ourselves to pass away peacefully?

As ordinary individuals it is very difficult for us to prepare to die in peace as we have this colorful mind again; and the current affairs will cling to our minds, hold us back to our current lives. So, the best way to prepare is by spiritual means by really practicing, meditating and having a great teacher. 

Many great masters have proven and passed away peacefully.

 So, I always joke that the purpose of dharma is to live happily and die peacefully. If you are able to do this, then you are a good dharma-practitioner. So I advise you to look for spiritual path, spiritual support, and to be fearless and prepare for your peaceful departure. 

What is bardo in simple words?

Bardo in simple words is a state of transit where the soul is wandering without any particular form or being, or reincarnation. In Dharma, we are supposed to experience rebirth in six different realms. Not just as humans, but in any forms, whenever the soul or the mind transits or departs from the body, we always have to experience this bardo. In this transit, it takes up to 49 days from the day we die to decide the next rebirth. So, that particular period is called bardo. 

What is a Trulku? Are all trulkus same? 

Trulku means manifestation. When you say manifest, you mean someone who has the control or the power to manifest in the form of whatever they wish to. So, all the authentic trulkus are deliberately or intentionally returned to the world, to serve and to help sentient beings.

That is what we call, Sam-Zhing Seepar-Zhung wa, meaning intentionally reborn in Samsara to be very ordinary or to be with the ordinary beings. 

However, in today’s world anyone of pure rebirths of, for example, Lama Tony or John Rinpoche, has been also called as trulkus. These are good rebirth or good reincarnations but they cannot be categorized as trulkus in a pure sense, as per the Text. 

If it is a trulku, firstly, the rebirth has to be prophesized or predicted by Guru Rinpoche or by the successive masters, that there would be a manifestation of so and so. For example, the highest Trulku in the country is, of Tertön Pema Lingpa, the current Sungtrul Rinpoche. Pema Lingpa was with Guru Rinpoche as Lhacham (Princess) Pemasal. Guru Rinpoche assigned him to be reborn or manifest as Pema Lingpa in 15th century to carry on the works of Guru Rinpoche. Similarly, all the Trulkus like, Pema Lingpa (Sungtrul), late HH Nyizer Trulku, Gangtey Trulku, Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye, Khyentse Rinpoche, Namkhai Nyingpo, all the masters with proper address and lineage, tradition and history—  we call them the true trulku or manifestation. Otherwise, any great lama who meditated in caves, their reincarnate, we call them Yangsi or good rebirth. Those authentic trulkus we never call them reincarnation, you know, we call them manifestations. Yangsi means reincarnation and Trulku means manifestation. There is a huge difference between the two. 

This is just for information. Of course, the most important aspect is whoever is selfless and benefits the sentient beings the most in their lifetime. 

If you do research of our history, the term Rinpoche never originated from Bhutan, it was actually borrowed from Tibet. Traditionally or culturally, in Bhutan we call Je (meaning refuge). For example, we only have limited indigenous Trulkus in Bhutan; they were called either Je or other individual titles like, Gangtey Chapgon, Siwula Jamgon, Tsamdra Je, Heyphug Je. Later, we borrowed the term Rinpoche from Tibetan culture. Rinpoche means the precious one and we can call anyone who is precious to you. For example, you can call your sweetheart Rinpoche, you know, someone who is very precious to you. If you find that individual very important, makes sense to you— then, you can call them Rinpoche. In spiritual world today, Rinpoche doesn’t really mean anything. Sometimes we call each other Rinpoche to feel good or make the other individual feel good or respected. 

You are the 9th reincarnation of the first Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche, Tertön Ngawang Dragpa. As a Trulku, do you describe yourself as an enlightened being? 

Absolutely not. I always have trouble accepting the duty of Trulku. When you say Trulku, it means manifestation, so all the authentic trulkus actually represent enlightened beings. They manifest as ordinary beings to really compliment the sentient beings who are wandering in the darkness, to lead them to the light. Personally, I find this responsibility very stressful. Generally, I don’t think there are many individuals who are fit to be trulku, including myself for being very ordinary. A trulku’s job is a huge responsibility. I always joke saying, it is like a dog in a lion’s skin, or like a wolf in a sheep’s skin. It is very difficult because a trulku should be unconditional, really compassionate, and living selflessly. It is very complex, you know, for one individual to take up the job of manifesting, serving every sentient beings’ needs, desires and expectations. It is absolutely not an easy job. 

Well, in simple words, Tertön Ngawang Dragpa is a remarkable master, Guru Rinpoche’s immediate disciple, and has done a wonderful selfless dedication towards Buddha Dharma. Not only Tertön Ngawang Dragpa, but all the successive trulkus have been great, and I think I am the one, who is really living in the shadows of their names, just trying to live my life, imitating to be in their shoes. There are also times when I feel I am fake, a hypocrite and using dharma for livelihood. I tell my friends jokingly, I am a total loser and destroyer of the Dharma, mad and not yet divine. 

So, I wish and hope one day I would be enlightened, and be able to make more progressive impact, and live meaningfully. This is my only aspiration whenever I visit any holy places of great masters. And I always seek blessings from older people, wishing to live up to the names of all the great and successful trulkus and benefit all the sentient beings. So, I hope all the readers would also wish me the same. 

Well, to conclude this topic on life, disease and death, I would like to emphasize that there are many aspirations and practices in Dharma, even as a Lama, we say, when I die, when I finally leave this body, I will just run to the freedom, to Nirvana, to the pure land, like how an animal would run wild from the trap. 

When an eagle, for example, is released from a cage to freedom, it will fly swiftly miles and miles away, never to look back or return. Similarly, many great masters await to die or depart, because being in Samsara is like being trapped. So, for the spiritual practitioners, death is never a concern. 

While, for the ordinary individuals, since we are confused and too attached to our physical surroundings and current affairs, we have lots of attachments, so it is very important to prepare and search for a spiritual path to depart, peacefully. 

Sönam Dema is a part-time travel writer and blogger. She is currently working as TV Producer with Bhutan Broadcasting Service in Thimphu. She can be reached at sonamdema123@gmail.com