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Interview: Ole Nydahl - Rob Nanninga

Update reader Mr. Rob Nanninga started a dialog/research group in 1979 in Groningen, Holland to study the phenomenon of new religious movements, and he voluntarily teaches classes on that subject in secondary schools. In April Mr. Nanninga interviewed Mr. Ole Nydahl, the foremost devotee in the Danish branch of the Karmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism headquartered in Copenhagen. Mr. Nydahl and his wife were converted by a lama in Nepal some years ago and now publish Stupa magazine and direct the temple/center for the Karmapa Buddhists in Denmark.

Nanninga: What do you call someone who has a guru? Student, disciple, devotee?

Nydahl: We usually say student. The guru is like a teacher, and what he brings is actually teachings about the way the mind works. It is similar to an ordinary study only, in the case of the guru, he teaches on the mind itself, while other studies are about the things happening in the mind.

Nanninga: If you are a student of a guru, how should you regard such a person?

Nydahl: It is exactly the same to the guru what you think, because his mind is in a level where he does not care anymore. If he is a Buddhist teacher, he doesn’t care anymore about what you think of him for personal reasons. But the higher you see him, the more you will be open to his teaching, and the more you will be able to benefit. It is said in the different teachings that if you see your lama as a Buddha, then you will get the blessing of a Buddha. And if you can see your lama as a Bodhisattva,* you will get the blessing of a Bodhisattva. if you see your lama as an ordinary man, you will get the blessing of an ordinary man.

Nanninga: So it is wrong to view him as a person?

Nydahl: No, you can do that, but if you see him too personally, it is a bit difficult to be open. Then you will like and dislike and all your habit-feelings will come into the relationship. And the thing that the relationship is all about is really going beyond those habit-feelings, being really open to something which is more than personal. So the best thing to do is to see him as the one who holds the Buddha’s power.

Nanninga: I have some statements here by disciples of various gurus. Perhaps you can tell me what you think of them. One says: "My guru understands me completely. He looks right through me."

Nydahl: He does.

Nanninga: "He gives me reliable advice. He gives me just what I need."

Nydahl: If he is a good guru, he does.

Nanninga: "The guru can manipulate your daily experiences as to guide your spiritual growth."

Nydahl: Yes, he can bless you so that you enter a power field and so that protective energies take care of you. That’s true. He can do that.

Nanninga: And he is also the embodiment of the ideal, the Buddha-nature?

Nydahl: Yes, sure. The lama is a Buddha.

Nanninga: He can transmit spiritual experiences?

Nydahl: Yes, blessings.

Nanninga: It is also said that you shouldn’t judge him.

Nydahl: Well, it is said in different ways. You are advised to judge very strongly in the beginning, before you go into the relationship.

Nanninga: What criteria should you use?

Nydahl: You should try to see if he has compassion, if he is working for the good of all beings, and if he is doing and saying the same. And look to see if he knows the teaching, if he is recognized as a teacher. If he fulfills those things and you like him, then you can trust him and begin working with him. But it is a guru’s responsibility not to lead you into blind faith, but always to let you know what is going on, why he is working with you.

Nanninga: What other responsibilities does the guru have?

Nydahl: He has the responsibility above all things to know what he is teaching and to teach and practice the same thing. To do what he teaches. A guru doesn’t have to be very holy, but if he says "I am doing this" and he is doing something else, he can very easily mislead the disciples.

Nanninga: Do people often ask you for advice?

Nydahl: I am being asked for advice all the time. I am a psychologist and a priest and everything at the same time. Everything.

Nanninga: Isn’t that difficult? People are always expecting something from you, perhaps even a miracle.

Nydahl: In my case, they get what I have, and if I don’t know, I tell them "Go and ask someone who knows more, like one of our high lamas." But I have a wide range of experience. I do know quite a few things.

Nanninga: Do people become too dependent on you?

Nydahl: Not on me. I really watch out for that. That is my most serious concern, that people do not become my devotees. Everything I do is to set them free. My job is to help people find their own richness and power. To me, nobody becomes dependent. There are other lamas who make people dependent. But I never do that.

Nanninga: What shouldn’t you do as a guru?

Nydahl: If you bind people to you, if you make treaties with them, make them sign things, make them promise things that are against their interest, then you are making them dependent. But if you just try to be there when they need you and try to be kind to and help them...

Nanninga: But if they need you very much, they are in a way dependent on you.

Nydahl: Not more than to be dependent on a kind of food or a psychiatrist or whatever else they might go to. You don’t run after them and you don’t bind them. Your job is actually to help them stop needing you. To get them away from your chest. As a father, first you feed them and then you get them away from your chest. That is the meaning of it all. The product of Buddhism is independent grown-up people who can make their own decisions.

Nanninga: But if somebody constantly needs you for years, what can you do about it?

Nydahl: They don’t. They grow up. I give them methods. I give them meditations and practices to do that will increase their own inner power and feeling. Then, after a while, they don’t need me anymore. They become my friends. The guru just shows an example. He shows what you can reach. But the work of getting there is always something the students have to do on their own. You cannot transfer that. You can transfer inspiration and make people feel good, but you cannot transfer the lasting thing. I wish we could, but we cannot.

Nanninga: Do you consciously try to challenge the ego of your students?

Nydahl: No, I try to give the teaching they are open to. But I know the ego is, to a high degree, like a snake. It bites. You have to go with the ego. You can’t go against it. Then you have to let the ego more or less dissolve itself afterwards, as it discovers that it is a fallacy. But there is no way to go against it in the beginning. We have to go with the energy. We have to go through friendship, close connection and then, when there is a close connection, you can say to people: Listen, how about meditating on this form for compassion and this form for wisdom. And then, meditating on those forms, their egos will dissolve. The whole structure of the Tibetan Buddhist meditation is an ego-crusher.

Nanninga: Have you any idea why the Kargyudpa tradition is so successful at the moment in Germany?

Nydahl: People have a sense of quality. And they are very good at checking. They are ready to give something to get something. That’s a very good quality to have if one wants to practice with the mind, because working with the mind is a question of hard work.

Nanninga: You don’t think that the Germans have a bit too much devotion?

Nydahl: You can’t have too much devotion. If you really recognize what a gift enlightenment and dharma is, you can’t have too much devotion. You can have blind devotion, but that is not encouraged.

Nanninga: What’s the difference?

Nydahl: Devotion means devoted understanding, gratitude, thankfulness. That is the root of devotion. "Thank you, I realize that I have gotten something very precious from you. Thank you very much." That is devotion as I understand it. And if people get too much on the emotional side, which is probably what you are thinking of, then we just give them a dose of wisdom, correction, and they get into the center again. If they are too heavy on the head side and stop having any fun and happiness, intuition, and so on, because their head is like an iron box, then we give them some devotion and compassion things to work with. It’s always a question of balance.

Nanninga: If you have a lot of devotion, is it still possible to have some critical distance toward your guru?

Nydahl: You will have critical distance against all kinds of things, but it will not be "how" and "why". You may see him do something and you may think: How could I do that myself? But you will probably not doubt his basic good motivation because he is your teacher. You have checked him out, and you like him. Of course, if for a long time he keeps doing things that are opposite to what he says, you will decide that he is no longer useful to you.

Nanninga: What if what he does is too subtle for you to understand?

Nydahl: Okay, but that is also why you will not check your motivation. You will just try to see how it works. You will not doubt the motivation. You will just doubt the way it is carried out. There are lots of things in Buddhism people think they have to believe in. They come from a Christian place where you are saved if you believe something. But in Buddhism it is not like that. There are a lot of things that are taught which you cannot experience at once. So what you do is just get the information and put it into your subconscious as information. Then sometime later you may have experiences which make you say: Wow, of course, now I see. That’s why we don’t have the blind faith that Christians have. It is a question of natural growth of the mind, and it should be spontaneous and effortless. Not stiff, not tight, not forced. I don’t think you will find any lama who doesn’t spend most of his time laughing. Enlightenment is joyful, it is wonderful. I just want people to be happy.

Nanninga: How do you experience yourself?

Nydahl: I really don’t feel myself to be personal. I don’t experience myself as personal. I experience myself as an activator of some possibilities that are there, without likes and dislikes connected with it. I am just a source of energy. if people need me--like now, when you are asking these intelligent questions--then I wake up. Before I was very sleepy. For about three or four nights I’ve had only three hours of sleep on the average. You came in, you have a fresh head and some good questions, then everything is waking up, and I feel excellent.


* In Buddhism the word Bodhissatva denotes a person who has achieved great moral and spiritual wisdom and rejects nirvana in order to assist suffering humanity.