How to be Good?

A Chat with a Buddhist Abbot

December 28, 2020 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 2
A Chat with a Buddhist Abbot
How to be Good?
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How to be Good?
A Chat with a Buddhist Abbot
Dec 28, 2020 Season 1 Episode 2
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person according to a Buddhist Abbot?

We ask Geshe Tashi, Abbot of Sera Mey Monastery in India, to share his opinions on being good according to Buddhist teachings. Geshe Tashi is known for his ability to present the most complex Buddhist teachings with clarity and honesty, and has a gift of combining deep wisdom and beautiful lightness. In this conversation about what it means to be "good" according to Buddhist teachings, he shows a real sense of playfulness and shares personal stories alongside Buddhist philosophy.

If after listening to that you’d like to learn more about Geshe Tashi, you can visit Geshetashi.org and Foundations of Buddhist Thought.

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person according to a Buddhist Abbot?

We ask Geshe Tashi, Abbot of Sera Mey Monastery in India, to share his opinions on being good according to Buddhist teachings. Geshe Tashi is known for his ability to present the most complex Buddhist teachings with clarity and honesty, and has a gift of combining deep wisdom and beautiful lightness. In this conversation about what it means to be "good" according to Buddhist teachings, he shows a real sense of playfulness and shares personal stories alongside Buddhist philosophy.

If after listening to that you’d like to learn more about Geshe Tashi, you can visit Geshetashi.org and Foundations of Buddhist Thought.

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone, I'm Sarah and this is "How to be Good?" - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today, I'm talking with Buddhist Abbot, Khen Rinpoche, Geshe Tashi Tsering.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  0:22 
[..] as a human nature, we are social beings. So therefore, you know, try to support whatever you can. Try to support others. That "others" doesn't need to be huge number - it can be just one person.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:38 
Geshe Tashi is Abbot of Sera Mey Monastery in India, and was previously based in the UK for over 20 years as the resident Tibetan Buddhist teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London. He is known for his ability to present the most complex Buddhist teachings with clarity and honesty, which is why I really wanted to interview him for this podcast.

He was born in 1958 in Purang, Tibet, and fled with his parents and his Brother - when he was still young - to India, and it was there that he received his early education.

What’s really beautiful is that Geshe Tashi first started as a Monk when he was 13 years old at the Sera Mey Monastary – and so he is now Abbot of the very monastery where his journey began.

One thing that really struck me in this conversation was how Geshe Tashi combines such deep wisdom or with this beautiful sense of lightness and a playfulness that is infectious. His laugh is contagious, and I'm excited to share this conversation with you all. So without any more description from me, I'm honoured to introduce you to Geshe Tashi.

[Podcast Theme Music - comes in briefly, and fades out]

Sarah Buckmaster  1:39 
So, Geshe Tashi, how are you?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  1:41 
[soft, joyful laughing]
I'm, well, I'm well, I'm well, because you know, as the head of the Monastery, not having lots of experience to run a big organisation, and particularly during this COVID-19 period, is very, everything is in the air. I don't know what to hold. Otherwise, you know, it's fine. It's fine. And the weather today? Yes, it started yesterday. It's quite stormy. And quite dark, not very sunny.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:17 
Well, it's 2pm for you, and 9.30am here in the UK, and we actually have some nice sun. So I'll send some across to you, as we start to talk about being good within Buddhism.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:27 
From the Buddhist point of view, what does it mean to be a good person and to live a life of goodness within Buddhist teachings?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  2:39 
Buddha, the historical Buddha and the subsequent great Buddhist teachers, have said it is it is helpful and useful to oneself and others, in minimum, intentionally and deliberately not to cause harm to others. That includes oneself too. And if there's any possibility, no matter how small in terms of the number - in terms of the quantity, to really try to support others mentally, physically and environmentally. And that is really more or less the essence of the teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  3:43 
Of course, the historical Buddha taught almost 40 something years ago in many different places in India. And, the historical Buddha came to India after being born in Nepal more than 2500 years ago. So, since then, many followers have interpreted written commentaries. That means more than 2500 years of development up to the 21st century.

That message, I think, is still essential and also extremely relevant to oneself - both individually and collectively; to be a sort of happy person and to be a person at least that is not being destructive in the society, in the community, or within himself or herself. Living in that kind of principle, at a minimum - deliberately not causing harm. And, if there's any possibility of physically, mentally, verbally, financially, or whatever it is, to very intentionally try to give support to others. If somebody lives in that principle, then from the Buddhist point of view, his or her life is a happy life, or meaningful life, whether he or she has lots of money, or lots of followers, or a high status or not.

And I really strongly believe that if we live in that kind of principle, in our day-to-day life, our everyday life, then there will be a sense of joy, a sense of inner contentment. And also, when the last day comes, when we don't know, and when we're thinking back... in English, quite often they talk about "bucket of list" or something like that?

Sarah Buckmaster  3:55 
Yes - a Bucket List

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  6:03 
Yes, Bucket List - [joyful laughing]
-
you know, when that last day comes, whether we have that kind of long list or not, when we look back - if we've lived life in that principle, there wouldn't be any sense of regret.

And, this isn't necessarily some kind of unique Buddhist teaching or principle. I think it is some kind of human value, as a human being, to live in that kind of principle, then the people who are your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues will feel very comfortable, and will feel very joyful to spend time with you, to talk to you, to be around you. And I think that is really the meaning of living a happy life.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  8:05 
Because, you know, I lived in London nearly 25 years and I was listening to the radio, BBC Radio, and reading some newspapers, and one of the frequently raised points or issue is loneliness. And when I first heard that - a "feeling of loneliness in the big city" -  it was a little bit shocking. On the one hand, talking about streets that are congested by the car traffic, and saying that there are long queues here and there, and at the same time, there is a big issue of loneliness. And these are, I think, the mental sort of difficulties that we collectively haven't really talked about or haven't worked that hard to solve these kind of difficulties.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  9:22 
And so if somebody lives in that kind of principle that I've described, I don't think he or she will experience loneliness, although I'm not sure.

It is my life - until I come here - my life in London was very strange. On the one hand, I was living alone in my flat, and on the other hand, because of my job, I meet lots of people. So I didn't feel a sense of loneliness.

Sarah Buckmaster  10:03 
It's true, so many people feel it. And I think especially in cities, because you're surrounded by people that then if you feel lonely, there's a guilt or shame attached to it. So, it's that second emotion that then pulls so many people.

Sarah Buckmaster  10:17 
So, I think I've got the ages right - correct me if not - but I think you started your study in Tibetan Buddhism at the age of 13 at the very monastery that you're now appointed Abbot of, and I'd love to hear more about how that young 13 year old would have thought about being good and how with age that's changed for you.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi 10:41 
Yes, yes, it is true. [joyful laughing]
Because, you know, feeling good, or being good - it really is sometimes very much defined by the culture, and how society is structured. And I remember very, very clearly when I was here, as a young boy, very young, and relatively young and very naughty. But at the same time, very energetic to study. And, you know, at that time in the monastery, in those days, and things are now changing because of the technology. But in those days, we love going to Indian movie, but the only way we can watch is going to the nearest town which is about five kilometres from the monastery. And those days, the only means that we had to get there is a very heavy bicycle - a very mechanically-made, heavy, not easy, black bicycle. And the roads - you know - when I was in London, people were complaining about - you know, what do you call it? Pot Hole? [joyful laughing]

Sarah Buckmaster  12:12 
Yes, pot holes - lots of pot holes in our roads [laughing]

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  12:07 
Yeah, but one time, I remember watching the BBC News at people complaining potholes were not filled and blah blah, blah and I thought, wow! - in India when I was there, the entire road is filled with potholes and there's no street streetlights or anything. [joyful laughing]
So, what I'm going to say is a feeling of not good or feeling bad, is coming back from sneaking to watch movie, and coming back and feeling guilt. You know, thinking I'm not a good Monk, I went to watch this Hindi movie, which is not really good for the monks and blah, blah, blah. So that kind of thing - and then of course, in those days feeling good is when I get good marks in the debating, in the exam. And then comes the years, around 20-30, you're in sense of competition and so forth within your classroom and in your Monastery. And I was quite good at debating, in the debating courtyard. And when  in public with 1000s of Monks and I'm able to debate very well, I may feel very good for next few days, or if I fail to defend my thesis very strongly, I feel very bad. So, the good and bad, the feeling of good and bad, this surface level really changes and also it depends on the culture. As I pointed to you, in the monastic community and in the Tibetan, very conservative, community, Monks going to watch Hindi movie is really bad. And that really causes you to feel bad even though you want to go to watch but you feel very bad after watching three hours movie in a very rundown cinema theatre. [joyful laughing]

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  14:38 
So, after I finished my study here in 1989, and early 90s, and I came to the west in 1991. I then started take a different role, really to, I won't say to teach, but to lead classes, the Buddhist classes and more really looking inward; what these teachings of the Buddha and subsequent Buddhist teachers, my own those great teachers, what they have taught and then trying to express that to others, trying to share to others. Then comes the sense of joy or sense of feeling that life is not bad, it has a meaning, it has a purpose. And then, at my young age, feeling of good is completely different. Now, these days, feeling of good or feeling of meaning in life, of joy, deep down joy, a sense of joy, is very much, if I'm able to give a few words to share sincerely, from my heart, to the others. And to serve, whatever I can to serve others. And those activities give me a sense of joy, and feeling of good and a feeling that there is a meaningful life [joyful laughing]

Sarah Buckmaster  16:28 
[laughing]
I love that because you mentioned this rebellious streak and that naughty sense of humour, and I read your biography where it is also mentioned. And I'm really interested because it seems you've carried that through, that you have that still now. How does that fit with your idea of being good? Do you ever sometimes doubt when you've done something whether you're good, even as an adult now? I'm really curious about this rebellious streak.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  16:56 
[heavy laughing]
Yeah, you know, there is still - for example, while I was in London - for practical reason - I'll put plain clothes trousers on. When I go to the Buddhist centre, when I lead classes, then I'll put this Monk's robe on. Otherwise, for my own practical reasons, for safety reasons, for many reasons, I feel more comfortable wearing the trousers, and shorts and hats and so forth. So then, when I talk about these things to my colleagues, Abbots, and some of my classmates, they react very differently from what I feel. Now I feel it's really good. Why not? I'm not living in a Monastery. And, you know, I'm not with a monastic community, I'm just a single man, a single monk in the centre [London city]. And for many practical reasons, that is much better because I need to do my weekly shoppings and so forth. I can't go with the robes to Sainsbury or Tesco to pick up my shoppings - that's very impractical.

So, you know, some of those rebelling decisions that I made, I made them for the practical reason, for myself to feel comfortable with what I'm doing and to feel comfortable with my life. To keep the basic Buddhist principle in general, and also as a Monk, to keep that - and I don't feel any sense sense of guilt, when I'm putting on trousers when I was in London to go shopping. Or, you know, I used to go on holiday in those early 2000s. When they have this you know, what they call it? last minute, lastminute.com - and because I lived in South London, which is not very far from Gatwick Airport, so I'd just go with a small bag and some money. I'd go to Gatwick and ask the company if you have any package, a holiday for 10 days, and if they say yes then I'd just go and if they say no, then I'd just come back. That kind of, I don't know if it's rebelling, but to have the key principal but be free what you want to do.

Sarah Buckmaster  20:13 
How important is that intention versus the action? Because as you've described, your intention isn't to do anyone harm - it's for comfort and also to adapt to your surroundings. So, from a Buddhist perspective, is it important to have the right intention?

Sarah Buckmaster  20:29 
I think that's a very, very good question. I mean, it is important, particularly when you set a positive intention, what you want to do and so forth, then your action should match your intention as much as you can. But in real world, with some kind of very positive intention, it's not that easy to match with your action. The actions are the real -you have to interact with a society, with the community, with a real world. And intention is just in your head, not outside there. So, you know, you can set a very, very positive intebtion,and then during the day, try to match with that intention as much as you can.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  21:28 
And that is what, in the Buddhist teaching, we call training. You train yourself. If you have a very novel, a very positive intention, but action-wise, you can't match with that intention - now you have to train physically, verbally, mentally. Train to live or work or act, according to your intention. And that may take time to, to match your intention. But yes, you're right, the Buddha and also subsequently Buddhist teachers, talk a lot about our intentions, our thoughts, our yearning, our longing - will all have impact to our action. But initial impact might be quite small, but if we follow those positive intentions, positive yearnings, longings, with action again and again, eventually you're able to act according to your intention. But very often, you will fail [bursting into laughter]

Sarah Buckmaster  23:10 
Are there any specific kind of actions or thoughts or behaviours that Buddhism would really see that would describe a bad person? What's the concept of being bad within Buddhist Philosophy?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi 23:23 
Yes, so the first question that you asked and I gave my answer - it's the opposite to that. In other words, very intentionally, very deliberately, under your capacity, to intentionally deliberately cause harm to others. That others can be human or others can be any living beings or the environment where they live. Those harmful actions may not be harmful immediately causing pain and difficulties, but in the long term, over the years, over the decades, those actions may have caused difficulty to living beings. And that is when we say the person is living in a wrong livelihood.

Sarah Buckmaster  23:31 
Okay, and if that person then recognised that and became aware and started to shift things, is there a forgiveness? Do they have the chance to then move into the right way or the good or better action?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  24:59 
Yeah. Buddhist teachings talk a lot about the nature of impermanence, the nature of impermanence. That means, subject to change. Subject to change. So, some of those people who have difficult behaviour or a destructive attitude or behaviour, these people can change. If they get the right sort of information or if they meet the people who give them the right sort of support and so on and so forth, these people can change that. And that is quite often some of the advice that we give to the young boys here in the monastery who are not interested at this stage - not interested in study - but we really hope that when they make a little bit of progress and we talk a lot to them... saying "look, you know, at this stage, you may find difficult, you may find hard to study, still you have lots of chance, lots of opportunity to learn more, learn quickly". Yes, I think that is one of our important beliefs in Buddhism - to really try to see that all living beings, and particularly all human beings, deep down have the great potential to do good and to be a good human being, no matter how badly he or she is currently behaving or acting.

Sarah Buckmaster  27:11 
And so if you could give the listeners one piece of advice, how they could go out today and do something good and be a good person, what would be an action or a behaviour that you would recommend for them?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi 27:23 
[lots of laughing]
I usually say to my friends, particularly my westerner friends, when they ask for my advice, they say "what is your advice, I'm doing this and that, I'm going to this and this place"... my usual suggestion is to "Just Enjoy". Just Enjoy! If you're on a holiday, just enjoy your holiday or if you're going downtown or to the city, just enjoy the environment, just enjoy the people who are travelling with you. Quite often, we either live mentally with our past memories or we you know, sort of live our lives looking to future hopes or the fears or worries. Very, very, very seldom do we live with the present, right here and now.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  28:29 
And this is what I usually suggest - just enjoy. Even if the situation is tough and difficult, there are still some enjoyments. For example, currently - a few days ago, there were three or four Monks got positive COVID-19 tests. Now the entire entire monastery is completely shut down. So the street that I can see from here - this one street here is completely empty. So, on the one hand it is sad. On the other hand, it's very peaceful. So I can enjoy the peaceful aspect of that.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  29:17 
So when we talk about unfortunate, negative difficult years, these are also part of our life. And I usually say to my friends, live comes with the package. Not that you can select few things here and there - it comes with a package and we must be aware of that. And in that package, there are many many many happy things. Also there are difficult things: sadness, unfortunate. And that is really something, all the time to be aware of that and when the good things come - enjoy. And when a bad thing comes, of course, deal with that. But at the same time, don't don't think "my life is going to be like this all the time". No, it's not going to be like that all the time. So my answer to your question is, enjoy the moment.

Sarah Buckmaster  30:26 
And it's almost like a weight lifts. When you hear that type of advice, it's like a weight lifts. Because I think you're right, a lot of people, and especially during the pandemic, I think we've maybe felt guilty if we find a bit of pleasure. A lot of people are talking that you can hear the birds more and, I've noticed now in the UK, the traffic is back again. And it is busier on the roads, and suddenly you did appreciate that stillness and the quiet that was there.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  30:51 
Yeah, yeah

Sarah Buckmaster  30:52 
I think being able to find that joy in the present moment is a kind of relief almost - especially when you hear someone say that.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi 31:00 
[laughing] Yes, within that particular negative or positive situation there are also many other things in there, it is never completely black and white. But we tend to interpret to ourselves, or to the others, good and bad, right and wrong. We don't see, we don't think that between those two, there's huge grey space, and that in that grey space, we have lots of things to learn.

Sarah Buckmaster  31:38 
And I think that's wonderful, because this is the thing with this podcast actually. I feel a lot of people see faith and belief systems as having that very rigid structure of good and bad and what's right or wrong. And I think that can, without asking the questions and actually being curious and digging in, that can be very off-putting, because it can be like, "Oh, no, you know, there'll be 12 things that I have to do, or 12 things I shouldn't do" So, thank you so much.

Sarah Buckmaster  32:04 
We're coming to the end of our time, and I'd really like to ask if there's anything you'd like to share that we haven't covered - to do about being good, or just anything that's on your mind, any reflections that you'd like to share as part of the conversation?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  32:18 
Yes, I'd like to say this... as a human nature, we are social beings. And so therefore, try to support whatever you can. Try to support others. That 'others' doesn't need to be huge number, it can be just one person. Whatever you can, it doesn't need to be huge, big support, it can be just showing the person who is lost in the street or whatever. Really trying to, with the joy and with this sort of sense of full awareness, try to support others. And that will be very, very helpful. But,, if you can't then also don't feel sort of guilt. Because in the West, there's a culture of feeling guilt, and I feel that isn't really good. [laughter]

Sarah Buckmaster  33:22 
And, I have one last question that's come up - a bit of a personal question, actually. We touched on it a bit, that the good or the right thing is often very local and cultural based. So doing something in London may be really different than doing something in a in a town or a city in India. I'm curious as to how you balance that - being able to hold that whole big picture globally and even bigger, of what we're doing to the planet, and then locally, if an action is good in the community but then maybe affects that bigger picture in a negative way. How do you balance that?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  34:05 
Yes, I think that it is not easy, it is not easy. It is not easy at all. For example, when I first came here as the Abbot, there's a huge problem of where to put the garbage. And so they bought things to burn. And I thought, that's not good - burning plastics and so forth is not good.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  34:38 
So, many years ago, I'd watched one documentary; somewhere in the Manhattan or New York, maybe in early 20th century, they built this huge hole to bury garbage and now it is a quite big park - it turned into a big park. So I saw that documentary and I went to Google to look at what is the local solution. And so then, we dig a hole to put garbage, but the the diggers don't have that much experience of how to build that kind of hole. I said, don't dig very straight or too deep at the edge, but have this kind of wide open space but in the middle, quite deep. But they didn't follow that. And so, maybe 10 or 15 days later, there was a big problem. Because local Indian family, they have cows and one of the cows fell into that hole [bursting into laughter], and that was big problem. So my idea was not to burn, just to bury the garnage with some soil and maybe the long term it'd work. But then, thinking about helping the environment, but then there's a local big problem. Because you know, here, cows and dogs are roaming everywhere. There's no rules. So there are these things - you're right - globally, something might be good but locally difficult .

Sarah Buckmaster  36:41 
And did the cow survive -was the cow okay?

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  36:43 
[laughing] Oh, yes, it's all right, eventually. We got a GBC and all these ropes and eventually we managed to bring the cow up.

Sarah Buckmaster  37:02  
[laughing]
Thank you so much for your time. I feel that's such a wonderful story to end on as well.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  37:09 
Okay

Sarah Buckmaster  37:10 
Geshe la. Thank you so much. This was a complete pleasure.

Buddhist Abbot, Geshe Tashi  37:13 
Thank you very much. Really, thank you.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  37:23 
My hugest thanks go to Geshe Tashi for his warmth and openness during that interview – and also huge thanks to Peter and Tri who are part of Geshe la’s team and helped in setting up this conversation. 

Sarah Buckmaster  37:35 
If after listening to that you’d like to learn more about Geshe Tashi, you can visit Geshetashi.org – I’ll put a link in the show notes - and if you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, Geshe la has developed an online course –the Foundation of Buddhist Thought course - designed to give someone new, or with some of experience of Buddhism, a comprehensive overview of Buddhist thought and practice. It can be confusing when you are introduced to such a vast body of information, and this online course puts the teachings of the Buddha in context, and it’s a fantastic way for just about anyone who wants to explore Buddhism seriously to do so, regardless of whether you may be interested in ‘being Buddhist’ or not. You can find out more at foundationsofbuddhistthought.org 

Sarah Buckmaster  38:16 
And, if you enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today’s world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button – and if you have time and liked what you heard then I’d love you to leave a review and share with your friends – I’m in the early stages of this podcast , very much learning as I go and so any help and support is appreciated more than you can imagine! 

Sarah Buckmaster  38:39 
Thank you for listening - and if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me anytime at sarah@howtobegood.co.uk. I’d love to hear from you! 

[Podcast Theme Music, fades out]

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster