Adele Tomlin is an independent writer, scholar, translator, practitioner and student of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. 

Some of what Adele shares includes: 

00:00 Introduction
00:57 Realizations through relationship and everyday living
04:26 Challenges of relationships and the path to liberation
06:30 The importance of the ‘mother’ example on the path to liberation
07:31 Ordinary love and ‘Buddhist’ love
17:51 The difference between bliss and love
21:06 Dangers of tantric methods and female objectification and abuse
25:17 Sera Khandro and other women’s voices and experiences
26:40 Misunderstanding of non-attachment and bypassing love
29:45  Monastic discipline/rules and using women’s bodies
31:28  The purpose of celibacy, sexual bliss and union practice
36: 19 Cleaning out the inner channels
39:34 Misunderstanding of ‘youth’ and ‘ripeness’ in teachings
44:48 The meaning of ‘renunciation’ and its importance on the path
52:39  Tibetan word for Buddhist and the Inner level as antidote to spiritual materialism
55:00  Understanding Karma and Merit ”Why bad things happen to good people?
1:02:31 Maturity and accountability for suffering and our situation
1:07:35  Female practitioners, translators and lineage holders
1:15:28  The ‘unseen’ blessing of being unknown versus the need for female role models






Article in Tricycle Magazine connected with this episode



Enjoy these episodes? Please leave a review here. Scroll down to Review & Ratings.


RAW TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW compiled by Adele Tomlin.


I am Olivia Clementine, and this is Love and Liberation today our guest is Adele Tomlin. Adele is a British writer, scholar, translator and practitioner of Tibetan and Vajrayana Buddhism. She has degrees in Tibetan Buddhism and Western philosophy and since 2006 has been studying Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy in India and Nepal. She is also the founder-director of the first female-founded research and translations website on Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana called Dakini Translations.

Realizations through relationship and everyday living

Q: We could begin on the Earthly realm, have you come across specific teachings or yogic relationships, where relationship is a means for liberation, but really more in the everyday living?

A: OK sure, well this is a really interesting question because a lot of what I write about is relationship in the tantric context, as you know. To look at how that, and if that does transplant into ordinary relationship, is a very good question. A lot of people like myself are lay people, they are not monastics, they’re in relationships, or they want to be in relationships, and the tantric union or the celibacy, which maybe we’ll talk about as well is just not so relevant to them right? So, this question about “can relationships lead one into liberation?” is a very interesting one. I think the thing is if we’re talking about it as a sort of romantic, or let’s say a sexual relationship, it is problematic to say that kind of relationship in itself can lead one to liberation, within the Buddhist context.

Of course, as you know, there are the six paramitas of patience, compassion and  diligence and so on, all these kinds of mental states we can develop within relationships. Not just in our romantic relationships, but in relationships with our children as a mother, as a lover, but even as a friend.  So, I think, in that respect, relationships have always been the most fertile ground in a way for developing the required mental states, the paramitas to attain liberation,  because without those mental states we cannot actually attain liberation.

Of course, the most important paramita, if you like, is the view of emptiness. All the great Masters and all the texts have said, that if you have not realized emptiness, you are not able yourself to become liberated but you cannot even lead other people to liberation, right?  In that respect,  I guess the good news is yes, relationships are extremely useful to bring one to liberation, and not just romantic relationships. On the other hand, for example, if we haven’t realized the view of emptiness, then we cannot be liberated. In fact, if we have a teacher who has not realized emptiness and some level of what they call the path of seeing level, which is the Arya-the first bhūmi level, that person cannot lead us to liberation either.

The thing is with the idea of liberation is that sex is in a way, or sexual union or romantic relationships are very important to us. But the problem is that they can also be great sources of suffering, as I’m sure you know.

Challenges of relationships as part of the path to liberation

Q: Very true and I’m thinking of the Listener that’s like, “well I have not realized emptiness, how can I use my relationships as a means?” Am curious as to your thoughts on that?

A: Well yes, I mean this is the difficulty with the path. So, the path to liberation isn’t an easy one. That is the thing. I think that for people, it’s sometimes very difficult to accept that in the culture we all live in, we like getting things here and now.  It’s like with anything in life, you really do unfortunately, especially to realize emptiness, you really have to put in that work, that effort to meditate on it, to do these kinds of meditations.

Now, I guess in one way a relationship could help with that.  For example, when we are experiencing difficulties, one of the foundational meditations is to meditate on impermanence, which in itself is connected into emptiness. So, through that we can then bring that, they call it bringing suffering onto the path. We can bring all those sorts of difficulties we have in relationships, romantic ones, work relationships, colleagues all of those things, as much as we can, we can try and bring that into our practice of again, I’ll go back to the six paramitas here, which is where we’re trying to develop the mind states of patience or compassion. So, to realize emptiness, of course one has to also realize and have a foundation, a good foundation of bodhicitta. Bodhicitta, for those who are maybe listening who aren’t so familiar with that, what does that mean? Well, it actually means really developing genuine love and compassion for all beings regardless of how they act towards us. So, relationships are very useful there is no denying it.

The importance of the ‘mother’ example on the path to liberation

I would say my biggest kind of if you like ‘realizations’, or sort of connection to emptiness, or what bodhicitta might be like, is through my relationships. The example of the mother is always used in Buddhism, and that’s not an accidental thing.  I am sure there are many mothers out there who went through the COVID lockdown recently. With two years here in India, there were no schools it was all shut and in other countries as well. I think for many mothers, for example, that was one of the most challenging times of their entire life because they had to basically be in these very closed environments with children who had no school, who were very bored, who couldn’t interact. So, in a way those sorts of relationships, even though it can be extremely difficult and very painful. in a way, they can be the most fertile ground actually to bring one onto the path of liberation. I really believe that yeah.

Ordinary love and love from a Buddhist perspective

Q: I’d actually love to get into the topic of love, and what is love and the Buddhist perspective, maybe Buddhist Tantra perspective, and if there’s a difference between the two. Maybe start there?

A: Yes, of course everyone wants love and to be loved right? That’s the thing and from the Buddhist perspective especially, there’s not one sentient being really that does not want to feel loved in some way, I guess  this is where the word bliss might be more suitable, but some kind of satisfaction. A lot of that satisfaction, particularly in human relationships, but also with animals, obviously it comes from feeling loved, or from loving as well.

Now what is the difference then between ordinary love and let’s say Buddhist, or tantric love?  What is love then? Well,  this is a question that many musicians and artists have really tried to also grapple with, right?  Now in the Buddhist view, it’s very simple actually it’s really wanting other people to be genuinely happy. So, when we say happy, often that word in English, it has a very kind of connotation of “what is happy?”  We feel like it is kind of doing nice things and feeling good, and it is connected to that, but obviously happiness in the Buddhist context is not actually just some sort of worldly kind of pleasures, or feeling good.  Having a massage is good, but it’s not really what is going to make us happy, in the long-term way as we all know.   We have a massage and we feel good about it, but it wears off, right?  It’s the same with our relationships and everything that we do for those sorts of happy sorts of feelings, we all know they don’t last.

So, what is love in the Buddhist context? It’s really saying, it’s really wanting other people to be happy, really wishing them that kind of love.  But understanding that what we normally maybe think of as happiness is not what maybe most people are associating with happiness, right?  So, if I’m trying to be  a Buddhist practitioner and develop love, what I’m trying to do is think: “I really wish that person, or those people, or those beings will attain real long-lasting happiness” , which  from the Buddhist context is liberation from samsara,  liberation from suffering.

So, this is where love from a Buddhist perspective, or from a practitioner even, might seem like it’s not even love sometimes. From a worldly perspective, people might see someone doing or saying things which to them look like it’s a kind of almost, let’s say aversion, or even anger, but it can be actually love if it’s undertaken because, for example, going back to the mother example again, sometimes immature beings, or children just don’t listen, right?  They are putting themselves in all sorts of very dangerous and risky situations. So, at that time, there comes a point where, out of love  the method has to be a bit rougher, or a bit harsher, let’s say.    To external eyes, they might look at that and think “well that doesn’t look very loving”.

This is where I think it gets interesting because our worldly notion of love is sometimes a very sort of self-centred one.  We look at love as “what I can get from a person?  How do they make me feel?  Do they make me feel happy or not?” We all have this;  I mean I’m not saying I don’t. This is why we suffer in relationships because when, all of a sudden, that person that we thought we loved, but actually, what we wanted was them making us continue to feel good from their side, when that changes all of a sudden, we don’t feel like we love them anymore, right?  So, that is the difficulty, from the Buddhist view that is why relationships, our romantic relationships don’t really last.

But even our relationships with our family, or with children, or whatever, also face a lot of difficulties is because fundamentally, and again maybe people don’t really want to hear this, is we don’t actually love, we don’t actually love people as much as we think we do.  That can be painful to acknowledge in some ways because we often think,  especially with our family or our friends  that we really do love those people. In some ways we do, we do want them to be happy, and we do rejoice when  good things happen to them.  Yet, those things can be very fragile, right?

I mean we’ve all had experiences of people we thought we had this love for, romantic relationships being the prime example. Then, all of a sudden something happened, or a friend said something, or did something, which we just felt so offended by, and all of a sudden, our love for them has completely gone. Actually, what that situation showed us was that we didn’t actually really love them.

Is there a difference between love now and in the past?

Q:  I really appreciate that, I think it’s also just very complex what you’re sharing, the process it goes back to the journey of emptiness, actually I think sometimes just from hearing what you’re sharing, sometimes we underestimate what it takes to love, to be someone that genuinely loves. We think it’s such a light word, right?  Thrown around for everything, and yet it’s such a journey to learn how to be really here for the benefit of somebody else.  Were things ever different? Do you think people understood love in a different way at other times?

Q:  Well, that’s a good question and I think there is a kind of nostalgia maybe for romantic love and that things were better in the past. So, looking at the Buddha’s life looking at why he left his family, and why he left his wife, and all that wealth and all that sort of luxury, that was what 2500 so years ago right?  So, what we learned from the stories of the Buddha at that time in India, is that actually no, things were not necessarily better and the issues regarding attachment and suffering and not real love connected to relationships, I think are very much present in the past as well. So, they’re kind of fundamental.

What Buddha I think showed us is that unfortunately, generally speaking not just humans but I think generally all beings we don’t really have a genuine understanding or application of love.  But then he did see the example, obviously of the mother. Of course, this is an archetype not everyone has a great loving mother, but the archetype is this loving mother. Why?  Because she does represent in a way as close as possible in the human realm I think to this unconditional love. Really someone who really wants the best for that being,  whether it’s humans or whoever they are, they just really do not want them to suffer. So, in answer to your question, I don’t think it necessarily was better in the past.  Even though maybe a lot of people maybe think it is or was I don’t know.

The difference between bliss and love

Q: Bringing it back to the topic of bliss and love, will you differentiate, how are bliss and love different?

A; I think in a way they are very closely connected. When we are really in a place of love, and we are really rejoicing. So, love and rejoicing are also very closely connected. When you love beings, you rejoice when they are happy, or they have good things happening to them, and they are moving closer to liberation or so on.

So that kind of rejoicing that kind of joy, that kind of loving state, is in itself, in a way you’re really connecting them into the  ultimate nature, which as  you know is referred to as bliss,  in union with emptiness. Bliss contains those sorts of qualities of love, of joy, of compassion, but that  in itself without that dualism.

Well, bliss in a way is kind of that energy of love and joy and compassion and all of those beautiful mental states of the Buddha nature. But obviously there isn’t that ego, or  dualistic side to it. In a way, maybe that’s how it’s different from love, because it’s more just being love, rather than I guess the more sort of dualistic notion of love.

Bliss-emptiness union vs ordinary union – orgasmic bliss as the essence

Q: I’m really appreciating that we get a space today to clarify misunderstandings and offer some clarifications in the Buddhist context. In terms of bliss-emptiness union versus ordinary union can you also elaborate a little bit on that?

A: Yes, well this is actually one of my favourite topics, and I think many people are very attracted to and interested in this topic, right? Because  what are we talking about when we talk about  union, when we talk about tantric union? For example, the deities pictured in these kind of unions, are actually sexual unions. So, how does that interconnect with this  more profound idea of this emptiness? This is where I think going back to your initial question, where you’re talking about romantic relationships, how can they help us on the path to liberation?

Well of course, the tantric union, which is attempting to bring about within a union this  bliss-emptiness, is one of the most profound methods of love and liberation in a way that is available to us human beings on this planet. In that respect, it’s a very precious thing. But sadly,  because it’s so prevalent I guess these days,  there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it and what it actually involves, and who can do it.

So, for someone to engage in a tantric union there has to be first of all, there has to be that sense of a lack of attachment and a genuine love. If you’re going to do it with a with a partner, let’s say, if you’re going to attempt this, then that would be a basic minimum. I mean this is where  the idea of karmamudra, or tantric union, can get misused in a way. Although, of course, it can bring you into much higher states of bliss and orgasm. On the other hand, if there is attachment there, and if it’s being done predominantly for those reasons, again the bad news is that although it can improve your relationship, and, in that way, sexually it would be good for the relationship, let’s say, yet on the other hand, it’s a technique which is really supposed to be used in the context of liberation.

So, if you’re doing it really more to get a great orgasm [laughs], which  I’m not knocking, I mean of course, that is something that so many people would like. So many people’s sexual lives are not necessarily that satisfactory either, right ? And they cannot necessarily even reach an orgasm in a relationship, or a union with their partner. They don’t feel able to talk about that  and they’re not even in a culture where one would talk about that.

Dangers of tantric methods and women feeling objectified

So, tantric methods are very useful for that but on the other hand they are not primarily supposed to be used for that. Now, this is where there’s some  debate about  is it okay to  share these methods so publicly with people who may be just really interested in them for a more worldly reason?  Now, this is an interesting debate and I’m not completely decided on it. Since, on the one hand, like yoga, I’m in India and of course India is the land of yoga. When I first came to India it was to study yoga actually, on my first trip here.  Yoga of course is a lifestyle, it’s a path of  physical exercise, but it’s about diet, it’s about pranayama,  it’s got all of that associated with it. Yet, as we all know  the way that has been transplanted into particularly, maybe Western cultures, but not just Western cultures, I think everywhere, is quite removed from that nowadays. So, some people will say “well that’s not really yoga, is it?” They would have a point maybe.

On the other hand, if  those techniques are helping people in some way be healthier, feel more peaceful and better people, well  that that has to be a good thing, right?  I mean we already have so much suffering in the world, why would we not  use methods which are actually increasing people’s sense of well-being and happiness?

I would say the same is true with the tantric union methods. If people really feel that improves their relationships and their sexual lives, then, on one hand why not? Whatever makes them feel healthier.  On the other hand,  the big caveat is let’s not kid ourselves here that what you’re doing is really Tantra or  yoga actually. I think there needs to be some understanding that there is a limit to this. Unfortunately, if you’re not doing it for a liberation purposes, or you’re not doing it with bodhicitta for the benefit of others as the foundation,  then those methods are not going to ultimately give you that sense of real happiness and satisfaction.

23:25 I think that’s the whole thing with Tantra and tantric practice. I think also the danger is people who engage in tantric practice, if they are very addicted to sex, or have a lot of sexual desire, the biggest danger is that it increases that right? So, this is what we’re kind of seeing in the world today. There are these kinds of scandals more and more. Scandals coming out of women who feel used, who feel they’ve engaged in these relationships with someone they thought was using it on a spiritual path, myself included in that, and yet  afterwards they  found that actually the person who they thought was doing it for those reasons, who they thought loved them and had compassion for them and had these realizations were actually it was a kind of a sexual thing.  It was actually not really [love] so, they didn’t feel  better after it, they felt confused and used, and they felt their bodies were just used as an object.  I think that is why  we’re starting to see a lot, more and more, as women in the 20th century, and particularly in this century, finding their voices more and more, and becoming more visible online, or becoming more visible as teachers, translators and practitioners. We are starting to be able to voice this.  Before, I think in the past, in Tibet or in India or in Nepal for example, and even now, I think it’s very difficult for women to  really speak about this.

Sera Khandro and women’s voices and experiences

I mean the most famous example is Sera Khandro, right? Who in her autobiography did mention some of these things. Then of course we have the work of scholars like  Sarah Jacoby, who have managed to put these in book form and really talk about some of the really big difficulties she [Sera Khandro] went through, quite recently not that long ago.

So, I think those sorts of books, or those sorts of lives about women, and even  the reason I set up this website, as I mentioned in the video introduction to it, is because I also felt there was this major lack [of women], there’s so many kinds of male gatekeepers in the academic and the translation world,  that I really felt that there was a space for this and there was a need for it as well. It’s not that there aren’t female academics or scholars or translators of course, there are, and there are more and more coming through, which is great.  I just wanted it to be a sort of an example if you like almost, just to show other women that look do not allow the sort of male gatekeepers to prevent you from following your dreams, or what you want to do in the Dharma.


Non-detachment and bypassing love 

Q:  I’m following you; I’m liking all the places you’re bringing us to, and there’s so much in there.  I’m also wondering about the connection between what you’re sharing right now in terms of how love is misused in many ways.  Like is there something that’s get getting bypassed?  That’s a preamble question. Then also talking about celibacy and how does that fit into the tantric path?

A: Well yes, I mean the question about love is, it being bypassed,  or  being misinterpreted? I don’t like to  stereotype between men and women. I actually  think that gender stereotypes are not very useful. However, I think there is a sense where women in particular have felt, particularly because of course most of the teachers in Tibetan Buddhism are male still it is a very male dominated tradition, there is no doubt because of the tulku system in predominantly. So, women have felt that the male teachers if you like, have a sort of understanding of love that seems to be at odds with what they feel that love is about in the Buddhist tradition.

So, this idea of lack of attachment, for example, which is often cited as though lack of attachment is detachment and this is something that I always try to  clarify in a way as well, through my own writing, that lack of attachment is not the same as detachment. Because detachment is actually a very cold, almost kind of an aversion and almost kind of a sort of sociopathic/psychopathic type state to be in, right?  Because if you’re detached, that means you  have no sort of emotion really for the person. Particularly with unions, well actually, you’re actually kind of closer to someone who’s  acting in a very   almost sociopathic way.  That’s how they feel.  When you look at the texts, or you look at what the great Masters have said,  they all  really emphasize that when you when you have a lack of attachment, a lack of ego, a lack of duality, let’s say, then your feelings of love and compassion should increase more, because your ego isn’t involved. So, in some ways this is where I think maybe again, with men in particular, with teachers in particular,  they’ve somehow, or for some reason they have misinterpreted a lack of attachment to mean detachment.

Monasticism, tantra, celibacy and contemporary scandals of abuse

I think this leads into this other question or issue, which is about monasticism and how monastics for example, male monastics, monks are taught from a very early age to regard women, to regard the female body as something which is dirty and filthy. To be regarded as a source of disgust, right?  Then, at the same time  they want to still do these sorts of tantric unions. How are they mentally doing that? It seems to me anyway that they are trying to use this kind of disgust, or what they see as a lack of attachment, to sort of approach women but still do the unions with them.

I think what happens is because of this detachment aspect that they see as sort of re-emphasizing the fact they’re monastics, and they have no attachment or desire for women, it actually just leads to a disaster for women and the monks. Because women, especially if they’re not monastics, which most of them actually it seems like are not, obviously nuns are used as consorts as well, is that they feel “hang on a second, you might want to  preserve your monasticism and all of that, but I’m feeling like you don’t have any love and compassion for me at all.”

I think this goes into the next question which is celibacy. So, I mean one of the subjects I’m looking at the moment and doing some research on is how compatible are the Vinaya, the monastic rules with Vajrayana Tantra?  Because from what I can see, and a lot of other people can see, is that a lot of these kind of scandals, or sort of experiences, for example like I’ve had, but other women have had, are connected to monks trying to still do Vajrayana in a consort practice.

32:07 So we can get on to that. However, with the celibacy I mean shall I talk a little bit about it? Please. Just tell me to stop [Laughter].

With the celibacy issue of course, one of the things that you said to me that you’re quite interested in as well, was this idea that I’ve written about where some of the best tantric practitioners are celibate and celibate monks even.  Of course, this is a provocative thing to say but on the other hand, it’s also true in a way.  Now, why did I write that?  so, I wanted to provoke in in some ways some debate about this.  Because of course most people would be like “how can celibate practitioners be some of the best tantric practitioners in the world?”  For example, the 14th Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa but they’re both monks, right? So how is it possible that a celibate monk would be able to be an extremely advanced tantric practitioner? This I think where the misunderstanding of sex and tantric unions starts to appear. Because what people’s reactions are to that is “no that’s not possible, how can someone be celibate and do tantric practice as a union?”

The texts are very clear on this though.   If you look in the tantric texts like the Kalacakra Tantra, for example, it’s really clear that you can be a celibate monastic and engage in consort practice and maintain your celibacy.  So how is that possible? Because the whole idea of a union is not for sex, right? It’s not out of desire it’s being done for liberation.  The practitioner should be able to retain the bodhicitta as they call it in the Vajra languages, but what they’re talking about, they should be able to stop ejaculation, and bring it right up the central channel and do that for the partner as well.  Now a great advanced practitioner can do that, they absolutely can do that.  I know this from my own experience.  And that’s brilliant, and that’s great, and it can be extremely blissful for both people concerned. I would say and I have said, certainly the tantric union is without a doubt, a million times better than any ordinary sexual relationship I’ve ever had.  So why would you go back to that when you’ve experienced the  bliss of that?  So, there is that element to it which is just  unbelievably amazing and if you can bring that into your practice, then it’s fantastic.

Yet, as I was saying before, the thing with the celibacy is that it’s possible to be celibate and do that because it’s not seen as a sexual act. But the problem is, the question is again,  is there love and compassion behind it? If it’s a monastic in particular, what are their views of women? Have they been so kind of institutionalized in this view of women that there is this kind of underlying misogyny and sexism in it?  So, that’s a Vajrayana root downfall as you probably know.  I mean if a monastic engages in a union with a woman and he might be able to do all of that, he might have the siddhis, the tsa-lung, who might be able to do all of that. However, at the end of the day,  if the foundation of the love and compassion, and the foundation of emptiness, but particularly the respect for women which is the 14th root downfall of the Vajrayana, if that is lacking, well the whole thing will actually end up being a disaster for both people.

Cleaning Out the Inner Channels


I believe this is kind of what we’re seeing. But then someone might say, “well why is it good to be a celibate?  Why would celibacy be necessary to engage in in tantric union?” Because there’s a reason for celibacy,  it is not just a kind of a Vinaya vow, or a vow that should have just been imposed from above. This again is the  question, probably most monastics within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition were put in monasteries as children, and it wasn’t really a freely available choice to be celibate. But the celibacy vow should also be a source of joy.  It should be it should be something that really energizes oneself, and really one undertakes with the understanding of “what is its purpose here?” The celibacy vow is to reduce sexual desire and attachment, and to really clean out your channels.

The closest I can come to it, because  I’ve been celibate now for, I would say,  I’ve had celibacy vows now for several years. I initially took them because I experienced a breakup of a relationship and I saw the suffering in romantic relationships and I wanted to do something very practical. So, I decided to take the vow myself. Then, because I was engaged in doing these tantric unions and so on, it became very easy to keep it. So, that myself then made me reflect on, what is the celibacy vow for? I actually think a lot of it’s about cleaning out your inner channels.

When we have a lot of relationships, especially like sexual relationships, but even if we are monogamous, we are carrying the energy of that person, but also the other people we’ve had previous relationships with right?  We’re carrying that with us all the time. So, when you go celibate, it’s kind of almost like you’re doing a fast, like a sexual fast. But you’re actually, I mean, the great thing about it is that, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but they say, for example, someone who smoked for years, if they stop smoking it takes them a certain amount of time before their lungs completely clear out right?   I’m not saying that our relationships are like smoking. Although they can be depending on who it is with [laughs].  So, the celibacy not only is to try and mentally reduce your sexual desire and attachment, but also to really give your inner vajra body a clean out.  Really clean out those channels. This is why actually tantric practitioners will often do consort practice with a nun, or with a young woman.

Misunderstanding of youth and ripeness in teachings

Q: You often hear in texts and teachers talk about the ripe 16 year-old girl, and I would love to hear the true meaning of that.

A:  Yeah, right exactly.  Because  for women like ourselves,  who are not 16 and who are not virgins,  yeah that can seem kind of off-putting. It sounds a bit kind of sexist patriarchal,  like  older women are just [useless]. On the other hand,  there are so many examples of women, who were not young when they attained liberation, when they became consorts.

Again, this kind of goes back to my other point about celibacy and clean channels.  Why is the young woman mentioned, or even the Virgin mentioned? Because actually, perhaps at that time, particularly in India or Nepal, most women  were married and were not celibate. So were not virgins, and so in a way the channels again were not so clean.  Now, it is important to have quite clean channels, to do it properly and I think that is one of the reasons why the young woman or the virgin was emphasized. Yet, in this day and age, women, or even prostitutes I mean, as you have the other example,  you have people like Tilopa who was told to be the servant of a low-caste prostitute, a poor prostitute in India, and be a servant to her, which he did for 12 years, by his female teacher, he was told to do that. In that context, she thought that he had too much pride, and so she wanted to reduce that.

So again,  this is the thing about Vajrayana there are all these sorts of contradictory examples, where  you have a Mahasiddha like Tilopa whose consort, and whom he also brought to liberation, was a very poor, lower caste Indian prostitute. Obviously, that would not be a glamorous thing at all, that would be at that time,  that would be considered to be an extremely disgusting thing to be doing and being involved with.   It is not like  nowadays; we refer to women who do this as sex workers, right? I don’t think it was like that at all and I certainly don’t think that Tilopa was treated very well.

But going back to the celibacy and the young woman,  I think that it is also symbolic, I think people also forget this.  So, for example energetic unions,  why can you be celibate and do tantric unions?  Well, if you have sufficient tsa-lung practice and you’re very good, and you can basically use your subtle body and emanate yourself a body out, then of course [you can]. And this is written about in books, I mean it’s not that secret. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, he’s kind of referred to in some of his books,  which is called the invisible union, and he talks about this as being the purest one, because of course then there’s no  sense that you’re using your physical body, right? So then, of course physical age is irrelevant, right? Because if you’re engaging with someone in an energetic body level,  what’s important there is your mind, your channels.

So, in some of the texts, they say the 16 year old actually refers to the 16 joys.  It’s a symbolic thing. I heard the 17th Karmapa teach recently that it refers to the freshness of a person’s mind.   So, a 16 year old, why are we  envisaging ourselves as Tara or Vajrayogini as a sort of 16 year old,  this beautiful 16 year old? It is because what it’s trying to get us into is this kind of state, of a  real kind of almost innocence but also playfulness of that beautiful sort of mind, of that kind of freshness.  This is what he said and I found that very interesting that he said this recently. This is what we’re trying to get into here, when are we talking about a 16 year old, not in this physical way but actually in the sort of energetic way. Tantra is all about energy, right? So, we’re talking about getting into that state of a 16 year old innocent, playful, fresh kind of mind.  It has kind of got that purity to it right? So, in that respect, I can totally get it.

I think it helps us because as adults we can become so jaded. We can become so, what’s  the word, like cynical or something.   If we try and visualize ourselves as a 16 year old, and we try to get back into that mindset,  it can be very helpful I think to  really bring out that   joyfulness of that age as well.  You’re very open, very fresh right?

The meaning of renunciation and its importance on the path


Q:  Yeah. Talking about celibacy, will you also discuss the meaning of renunciation?

A: [Laughs] Yes, oh wow, this is also I think a very interesting topic for people who are lay practitioners in particular.  So, I’ve had conversations with practitioners that I know who really think that this whole idea of renunciation is just not relevant for a lay person in the 21st century. On the one hand, I sort of agree with them.  The monastic lifestyle,  I’m writing up some teachings at the moment that the 17th Karmapa was giving, which is on the monasticism on the Vinaya, it’s very interesting. But there’s a point I think where a lot of people will read it and just thinking “gosh that really isn’t for me!”  and with good reason.

Lay practitioners and householders were included as the four-fold sangha by the Buddha, he absolutely included them, and they are a valid part of the Buddhist Sangha. Again, it just seems that well, maybe the whole monasticism, and this is something that I’m going to be writing about and talking about also in the near future, is this whole issue of how monasticism has kind of hijacked in a way, or maybe monasticism the wrong word, but a certain kind of monasticism, it’s a certain kind of monasticism, particularly in Tibet that kind of became very predominant in Tibet from the time of Tsongkhapa, let’s say from the Gelug  time, when the Vinaya and the rules became very rigid and important.

That kind of a narcissism in a way, has kind of hijacked the  idea that lay practitioners are very much half of the Sangha, of the Buddhist Sangha as set up by the Buddha but also that in the Vajrayana, for example, most of these great Vajrayana practitioners and Masters had to leave the monasteries.  They could not have this kind of monastic lifestyle of renunciation,  let’s say, and practice Vajrayana. So, I think that the monasticism ,or the monastic idea of renunciation, is actually maybe misleading sometimes.

So what does renunciation mean?  In my opinion in terms of the  terminology or how the word was used originally, as a translator  it’s nge-jung in Tibetan, nge-jung. Translators have generally translated this as renunciation. Yet,  actually in Tibetan that’s actually not what it means. Now, actually in a way, and this is something that again that the Karmapa  taught about a few times, is this word nge-jung and the renunciation in English not being good way to translate it. So, what nge-jung means is nge  – is definite or certain, and jung is wanting to emerge. So, it’s like definitively, or certainly wanting to emerge. So,  what are we talking about we want to emerge from?  We’re talking about samsara. So, it’s very different kind of feel to it right than renunciation?  It’s almost a very positive thing. If translated actually as close as possible to the Tibetan, it is actually a positive state of wanting to emerge from samsara.

Now, renunciation in English, as you know, is a very loaded word, and most people think “oh I have to abandon everything, I have to become a very simple monastic, no possessions, don’t enjoy anything.” That is a path, there is no denying that is a path.  That is a way to attain liberation through that kind of very strict discipline, and that kind of path. On the other hand, you can be a renunciate, you can have nge-jung and still very much enjoy things. You can be a lay person, you can enjoy things, it’s not like you have to abandon everything, but the key point is that if you really have this kind of nge-jung, wishing to emerge, you no longer place so much emphasis on those things.

For example,  clothes, shoes or food or whatever it is, because it’s much easier to not become so attached to those things if you’re a monastic, right?  It’s much easier to have sort of renunciation if you like, if you don’t have those things. Yet, the point is that you can as a layperson want to emerge from samsara, without having to be in this very monastic lifestyle, of a very simple monastic. That’s something that I also want to write more about, I want to address more, is looking at that. To kind of encourage people as a Buddhist practitioner to see renunciation as a fundamental part of the path, there is no denying it is the basis of the path actually.  What does that mean? Does that mean we all have to go and be monastics in monasteries? Actually, no it doesn’t.  I mean it [monasticism] a path, it’s a very good one. On the other hand, we can stay householders, we can stay as lay people but still have a very strong wish to emerge from samsara, and see that all these things that maybe we spend lots of money on, and lots of time on are actually sources of suffering.  I think that is the starting point of renunciation. it really is as simple as that.

So, there will be monastics who do not have renunciation. This is the other side of it right? Just because you might have a beautiful house, or car or clothes, it doesn’t mean you’re not a renunciate, you might internally have a very strong sense of renunciation for samsara. On the other hand, you might be a monastic who has robes and lives in a monastery, who does all the external rituals, but inside is [lot of desire].

In fact, the Karmapa mentioned this recently in an interview, he gave him a  a speech he gave in 2019, that he never felt he got the monastic vows. He gave this story about Dromtonpa,  but he was saying that you can watch his 2019 Kagyu Monlam video, but  he’s talking about why did he never feel he got the monastic vows?  Because when they were given to him, he didn’t have this inner renunciation. He mentioned this story of a famous master who only felt that he became a monastic and got monastic vows when he’d really developed inner renunciation but he’d been wearing the robes and living in a monastery for a long time before that.  I think that’s a really good example. That being a monastic does not necessarily mean you have renunciation, right?  You might actually have a lot of desire and attachment to all sorts of worldly things,  physical objects, wealth and in some ways to be worse than a lay person or a householder in that respect. Who might actually have an inner sense that this isn’t actually that important anymore,  and they’re not craving those things anymore.

Tibetan word for Buddhist means ‘inner’

Q: Yeah, I feel like what you’re sharing again points to the journey that even if one takes a vow, it’s understanding over time that vow. Even if one wants to renounce and emerge from samsara, for most of us it takes all kinds of experiences to have true motivation and to really at that place where it’s lived.  I think sometimes we discount the process of becoming.

A: Exactly yeah, I mean it’s all that sort of contrast between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside. In Tibetan, the word for Buddhist. I don’t know maybe you already know this, the word for Buddhist in Tibetan?  [Nangpa] Yeah, it’s Nangpa exactly. So  that in itself is actually very interesting right?  Is the Tibetan word. I mean of course you can say Sangyepa, which means following Buddha, but  actually Nangpa is how most Tibetans refer to Buddhists.  “Are you a Nangpa?” Are you a Buddhist?  It means someone who   is the inner, it’s saying the inner literally, and it’s all about the inner. I think this is where we have to really,   again with the celibacy with the tantric union with the vows, all of that, it all really comes back down to look what is happening on the inner level right? Because you can wear the robes you can have Ngagpa robes, you can have all of this, but if that is not being matched internally, well it’s just a form of spiritual materialism. Therefore, it’s just another source of suffering. That’s the tragedy of it.  It is not sitting in judgment on people, we all have some kind of form of spiritual materialism because we all have some form of duality or ego until we’re enlightened. However, at the end of the day, if we really  think okay “I put this robe on now I’m living in a monastery , I’ve really got the renunciation” you might, it’s possible you might [have that], if you’re doing it for the right reason but you might not. You might be doing it for show, you might be doing it as an escape or something. So, time and again, we always have to look within ourselves and say “okay why am I really doing this? what is happening here right?”

The meaning of karma and why bad things happen to good people

Q: Yeah. and then that’s a safer bet that someone’s going to live their life in Integrity and use these practices in a conscious way. I want to actually continue on the theme of the 17th Karmapa. You’ve translated many of his talks that you’ve been to and this year, you translated one that I really was drawn to on Merit and Karma and specifically he talked about how like why is it that bad things happen to good people? It’s a really big misunderstanding and a question many of us have right, all the time like why is it happening to that really good person?  Or why are good things happening to  so-called bad people?  Will you share as well about karma and merit,  cause and effect and merit from the Buddhist perspective?

A: Yeah, I mean actually I should just say of course, I’m not the Karmapa’s translator, it is something I do as a sort of love, as a passion.  I’m not asked to do these things but the reason I do it, is I transcribe them and  go back into the original Tibetan, is sometimes  when I read the summaries and things that are published, they miss out lots of things and so I do it out of a  wanting to do it ,almost kind of for myself but also for others you really want to hear exactly what he said. So, I just wanted to  say that. [Thank you].

56:36 Yeah, this idea of karma of course, karma, cause and effect is a fundamental cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy, right? Of the path.

And time and again, the teachings I go to, or the books I’ve read, time and again, it always emphasizes that one really has to get a really good solid understanding of what this actually means.  Yes, there is this sort of misinterpretation of it, understandably so because people say “well look that happened to that really nice person yeah why are things happening, and other people they’re doing all these really awful things and yet they’re having these great lives and nothing seems to be happening to them?” So that’s the appearance level of it right?  That’s what makes life seem so unfair. So why do some people also die very young?  Someone’s been so healthy all their life, they’ve had a great diet and they just drop dead from a heart attack. And people are like “but I don’t understand!”. Then someone who’s smoking 40 cigarettes a day, they live until they’re 90 years old or something.  Of course, that doesn’t always happen as we know, but  that’s the point.

So of course, the way it can be represented karma is “oh well that’s their karma, isn’t it?”  That sounds really sort of, to a non-Buddhist as well, I’m sure that sounds really like awful. Like “how could you just say that?” In a way it kind of misrepresents it. Again, this is why it’s a kind of a tough truth, it’s like the not really loving people much.   Thinking that you love people when actually you don’t.

I would say that karma, cause and effect is a little bit like that.  It’s something that is actually difficult to accept at a certain level because no one wants to say in some way “I caused this to happen to me”. It is about you. I mean when we talk about karma, cause and effect, we should be really looking at our own situations here.  So, when we point the finger outwards and say “oh well  that’s their karma”.  Well yes on a sort of philosophical let’s say, or a sort of reality level, they are experiencing karma.  Everyone’s experiencing karma all the time, but we cannot fundamentally say how that person’s dealing with that karma right?  So, we might see this poor person and think “Oh they have the karma to be materially very poor in this life right”. As a Buddhist you might think that, but for all we know that person might be extremely happy and much happier than someone who seems like they’ve got the karma of the wealth and the rich life right?  So, this is the difficulty with looking at karma just from the external. So, for example, even if they weren’t that [happy] that doesn’t mean that we should just say” oh that’s the karma you can forget about it”.  No because we are supposed to be developing compassion and love.  So karmically, we also kind of have an interconnection and a responsibility when people are in difficult situations, to at the very least develop some real compassion for them, and actually maybe help them if we can.  Especially for ourselves, this is a thing Buddhism is about: Nangpa,  is the inner world.

So, what we should really be looking at is particularly for ourselves.  it is not kind of saying “Oh those people never mind” we feel this pity for them.  Pity and compassion are quite different things, I think. It is like she’s saying “look when things happen to me when things are happening to me that I don’t like, or I feel like this suffering, and I just am questioning why is this happening to me?  I think that’s when you should really try and apply this karma, cause and effect because so often we always point outside right?  “This person did this to me, that’s why I’m suffering.”  We don’t maybe consider the fact that maybe the reason why I can’t get these things in my life, or I don’t feel any love in my life, well it could be because I haven’t really given those sorts of things before previously. Maybe I’m not even giving those things now, but that kind of reflection requires a lot of almost maturity, right? I mean it’s like putting a mirror up. I mean the mirror is often used as the example, the “mirror of your mind”.  It’s like you have to put a mirror up and be really honest about what you’re seeing in that mirror. If you don’t like what you see, you have to change how you’re looking at the mirror right?

So, there’s that great image, I don’t know maybe you’ve seen it but there’s two people in a prison and they have the bars on the window, and the two prisoners are painting something. Anyway, so one prisoner is painting the trees and the environment outside the window, and the other prisoner is painting the bars on the prison window.  So, they’re both focusing on very different things. I think this is how in a way the karma, the idea of karma, how can we look at Karma and how can we  in a way purify karma when it’s happening to us, when we’re  getting these karmic results that we don’t really like very much?  The only way it seems to effectively do that is really to change our perception of it.

Maturity and accountability for what happens to us



Maya Angelou, writer, poet and activist.

So, we have to change our perception of why things are happening to us and why things are happening to other people.  So, understanding that will allow us to, and  the word here is maturity,  they talk about becoming a mature person- ripening-  the word is maturing, or ripening on the path.  What does it mean to be a mature person?  It actually means you’re kind of having to take accountability, complete accountability for what is happening to you in your life right now?

There’s none of this kind of very sort of trendy, or fashionable sort of [therapy] well “this person did this to me in my past, this person has this to me in my past”  It really is just you. “How can I take full accountability for what’s happening to me in my life?” That’s the thing, immature people actually, generally don’t want to take accountability for anything, right?  I mean I’m not saying I’m super mature or anything, but  I’m just saying that that is the sign of a mature person, and an immature person.  An immature person is like the child,  or the spoiled child should I say.  They’re kind of always “well this person… or  my parents were bad to me”. Well yes, and maybe they were and that’s not to diminish that but how are you going to deal with that?

Some of the women, I find some of the most inspiring examples of women, as I’m sure many other women do, are people like for example, Maya Angelou, women who really have had the most sometimes really awful childhoods and backgrounds.  I was watching Maya Angelou speak on a video, I was watching recently about her childhood and I love her poems, and I just thought this is a woman who’s really mature.   She’s really taken full accountability for her life. I didn’t get [from her] any sort of anger, or hostility or aggression towards those people who actually had done really horrible things to her as a child.  This is really amazing.

I look at the Dalai Lama as well.  When you think about it, obviously China invaded and are occupying Tibet, I don’t know if I could say that on here, maybe that’s politically sensitive but nonetheless, he always very rarely I’ve ever heard him say very bad things in an angry way about the Chinese government. He’s always maintained this sense of, in fact I think he was even asked who are the sort of people you admire the most, and he mentioned I think it was  the leader of the Chinese government when they invaded [Tibet].He mentioned this person and it was just like “how can you say this is a person whom you admire?” I’m sure a lot of Tibetans would also think “What?  But that is the ultimate maturity, right? You are just literally saying we cannot we cannot point the finger out there, we have to at some point acknowledge that whatever these people are doing, whether they are motivated in horrible ways, or good ways, we have to deal with that. What is the best way to deal with that?  Is to see these people as our teachers, as people who can provoke love and compassion in our minds.  In that respect, they are very valuable.

1:06:13 Again, this is not something in a worldly perspective, like karma, cause and effect.  This is not something most people really would ever want to accept, Yet, nonetheless, I think that is kind of in a way the only way you can really deal with suffering.

There’s a famous book for example, from a survivor of Auschwitz and “Man’s Search for Meaning” {Viktor Frankl}. When he looked in the camp, and how people were being treated and the people who were the most resilient and were able to not commit suicide and really come through it, were the people who were able to apply some sort of personal meaning to this kind of suffering. So, even though that’s not a Buddhist context, it has that  I think this is the message here, which is in a way that’s what karma is in a way. That’s what karma, cause and effect is. If you are saying “I am in this situation and something somehow got me here, but I am the one who has to deal with it”.  So, what is the healthiest and most mature way to deal with it?  Is it by getting angry, fighting, aggressive? Sometimes maybe yes, if it’s done with sort of some love and compassion in it. But most of the time no, because it just creates more suffering, right?

Female lineages and practitioners: past and present