An Interview with Igor Berkhin
Maria Grazia Testa spoke to Santi Maha Sangha instructor and fellow practitioner, Igor, about his thoughts and reflections on recent Global Membership trends. The interview was published in the first issue of the newsletter, A Garland of News, of Rangdrolling, the Dzogchen Ling in the Netherlands.
Q. Welcome Igor, thank you for joining us in the informal setting of a newsletter. During your courses, you speak every day to many Community members and Dzogchen students from all over the world and from different generations. What is your view on the current tendency for existing members to discontinue their membership to the Community?
I: Hello everyone. This is not something unexpected. When we ask why people discontinue their membership, we should start by asking why people became members in the first place, and if that reason is still valid or not. In the Santi Maha Sangha Base, we have this explanation of the four types of faith. One of these is the figure of the Teacher, and a very strong human affection towards him/her. Many people became Community members, and attended all these practices and retreats, mainly because of the personality of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. He attracted thousands of people because he was an enormous, very special figure. With him not being here physically any longer, for many people there is no more reason to continue. Actually, the decrease rate is slower than I’d expected. It was very clear that without Rinpoche the community would shrink.
The second type of faith – this is actually the first, the admiration for the Teacher being the second – is based on fear. People feel in trouble, and they feel that the Teacher, the Teaching and the Community can give them a kind of refuge, protecting them from existential trouble, the essence of which is that we are all going to die. This is why people come to religions in the first place, and although we repeat that Dzogchen is not a religion, and in spite of what our statutes say, it may look like a de facto religious organization, or behave and speak like one, so many will still see it as such. Of course, the existential problem is merely psychological and when people feel comforted with other things this sense of urgency decreases; we have ups and downs in our lives and when life is good – because we find a great job, we have a solid relationship, and so on – we don’t have an existential problem.
Then there is a third type of faith which is based on logic; people think “this is an important teaching and, if we follow it, something good will happen to us”. But, as Rinpoche used to say, “When we have logic, know that the day after tomorrow we can find better logic”. Logic is based on mind, and mind changes. One day we may find a connection with something else, and therefore start believing in something else. For instance, we may tell ourselves that Buddhist Dzogchen is not the most ancient Dzogchen on earth. Bonpo is older, so we can follow that, and have better results. People change their minds and if faith is based on mind, when the mind changes, there is no more reason to continue something.
And then we come to the most essential point, the essence, faith based on knowledge. What is this knowledge? It is the knowledge of the state of liberation. Then we have no more questions, because we have experienced the state of liberation directly. We know that when we are in this knowledge we don’t have problems with samsara; we understand that we might have problems because we can be distracted, and also because we have physical limitations but, basically, we have no problems with samsara when we are familiar with the state of liberation. When faith is based on knowledge, there is no reason to discontinue, unless we break our Samaya, meaning that we can no longer have this experience. Damaging Samaya means exactly to no longer be able to be in the state of contemplation, in the state of liberation. And it can happen. Then of course we have no reason to continue.
But unless this happens, we just continue, there isn’t ever an issue, nor any question. We are not searching for anything else, and are totally satisfied with what we have. The problem is that it’s a very small percentage of people in the Dzogchen Community who have this reason to be members. It was Rinpoche who once mentioned that just about 10% of his students understood what he was teaching. It was a long time ago so maybe he said 15%, in any case a small minority.
Q. One of the common reported obstacles to continue paying regular membership is the lack of finances. Although it’s a modest fee, with many discounts, and services, we still hear this. What can be done in these cases? How do you see this issue addressed at the individual level?
I: Most people in Europe can easily spend 129€ (or 11€ a month) and most European countries have good welfare systems. This sort of justification is normally an excuse rather than the true cause. There are people who have real financial trouble, but they are a minority that can be helped.
When we talk about membership there are two distinct aspects to it: one is participation and the other is payment. One could participate and not pay, or viceversa. The two can then be in a sort of entanglement; people justify with lack of time, and then lack of money, alternating the two in a series of but/but (I don’t have time – now I do but have no money – now I do but have no time).
What needs to be addressed here is how we can help people to first of all realize that they don’t understand Dzogchen, and this could be a starting point for them to do something different and try to understand. In fact, the worst situation is when people are certain they understand the principle of Dzogchen and its essence, while they do not. They may think, “I understand everything, I know, I have nothing more to receive, now I need to practice!” but this practice never happens. The reality is that we don’t need to receive everything, we need to receive one thing only, one simple thing, but if this is lacking then everything is lacking. Conversely, if we have this one thing, then there is no problem with membership. At the very least, we feel gratitude for someone who helped us to get this knowledge, and this someone can be primarily the Teacher, but also the people in the Community who’ve helped us wake up.
Q. Thank you, Igor. That profound sense of gratitude is indeed impossible to eradicate or consume, which leads to the next question: if a person decides that they no longer have interest in being a member, or is doubtful about continuing, even after several years in the Community, how would you advise them to proceed?
I: Do they ask for advice? No, then don’t advise anything.
Q. Haha, yes. Ok, let me be the devil’s advocate. “Igor, after 25 years I would like to discontinue my membership, what do you think about it?”
I: I don’t think about it, if you discontinue, you discontinue. What can I do about it? The only thing I can do is to help people understand when they have not. They can have a direct experience, and they are grateful, not because of some titles of the teachings being given, but because when people understand (and I receive so much feedback from people about this very point), when they finally can understand something, even after 20 years, then they are happy and they are generous. People are generous because they understand something, they feel the value, and then they don’t need some external motivation to continue, nor are they limited about the possibilities.
Q: Indeed! With experience people overcome their doubts, they see the value the knowledge of Dzogchen has for their lives and they feel naturally happy, open, grateful and generous. Let’s observe separately for a moment the two components of the big entanglement, payment and participation. Take the first: payment. When we contribute financially, with a donation or with our membership, even if we cannot always participate, what is it we are contributing to?
I: What are people paying for? Well, some people have the idea of paying for something they receive, such as retreats, books, information, courses. This also means that when the transactional “supply” stops, these people also stop paying. Another idea that can be strong in Christian countries, and in the West in general, is that you have to pay, it’s your duty, or your tax. Nowadays you don’t donate to the Church so you pay to the Dzogchen Community, basically with the same pattern.
Other people pay something because they feel it’s good to offer, to make offerings. Offering is the reason they are sponsoring, they’re sharing, and applying generosity, and this is common for all countries. We have very generous people all around the world, regardless of their cultural background. Of course, even when people are so generous, some of them may still have some kind of transactional back thought, maybe not to receive a service, but salvation. This also means that when they feel that the chances for salvation are better in some other place, they invest their merits and offerings in another entity.
Finally for some people paying membership means supporting the cause. It means that we have a common cause, whether we get something from that or not. There is some cause and we need to support it because we feel it is important. What is this cause, basically? We say that maintaining the Dzogchen Teaching is the cause, but how do we maintain that and what are we maintaining? Is this cause serving some immaterial future generation, or is it serving very real people here and now? Is what we maintain a physical place where nothing or almost nothing is happening? Can we say that this place by itself preserves the transmission of the Teaching? Of course not. If this were the case, people would be coming to this place, stand there passively, and receive the transmission from the place itself, and it would be perfect. But it doesn’t work like that. Even if people go to Merigar, to the Stupa of Rinpoche, and touch it, and do something and even feel something, still it is not working like that. Then what? Particularly now when people cannot travel and there is less activity now that Rinpoche is not there. Why do we need all these structures when we’re becoming fewer and it takes even more effort to keep them?
Q: We need them because to maintain the teaching also means to have such places that offer the opportunity to as many people as possible, from different places, older members as well as newcomers, to come together, have the experience of this knowledge together, as practicing the teaching is really the only way to maintain and preserve it, to go back to the concept of “the cause”.
I: Yes, but this is not the case everywhere and also depends on the general culture of the country. I give you a simple example. We had two years of pandemic and for a long time people did not have the possibility of seeing each other, of seeing their Vajra brothers and sisters. Then we had a retreat in Amsterdam, where we have one of the first, oldest Dzogchen communities in Europe, and the retreat was free. Yet the participants were one Hungarian, one Italian, four Russians, and only one Dutch person. What does this mean? In Europe the culture is very individualistic, it’s not really communal, the communal feeling is lacking in people. Then we have physical places where very few Dzogchen retreats for the Community are being organized. So we have lack of participation and individualism on one hand, and sub-optimal use of resources on the other. The biggest problem that can arise for the Dzogchen Community, and for the cause of preserving the Teaching, is when the Dzogchen Community is not practicing Dzogchen.
Q: This takes us very neatly to the second element: participation. What is it we are trying to participate in? Why do we join others?
I: In the very basic sense a community is people working together towards something, knowing that individually we cannot make it. We need to unite because there are things we can do individually but also things we cannot. If we look at the Dzogchen Community, the biggest feeling of community can be found with the practitioners of the Dances of the Vajra. Why? Because it’s hardly possible to dance by yourself, or it would be possible but very difficult. You need twelve people, or at least a few, even to just roll out the Mandala carpet, or to make one, paint it, find a place for it, put it away, load it on a van and take it out of the van. These people have the strongest feeling of community and develop it even in individualistic cultures because it is really a collective practice that shows that you cannot do it alone.
An important function of the Community is related to our individual limitations and even though we may have knowledge, we can be distracted as well. When we meet with people who have this knowledge, and at this moment aren’t distracted, right then we regain our presence just through communication and being together with them. We regain our presence through their presence and we share this, so when they get distracted and we are present, they regain their presence through ours. It’s like an engine with two parts which goes both ways with feedback loops. We influence each other and when we realize that there is an environment which is conducive for us not to be distracted, we certainly value it!
If we don’t have this experience, then it becomes like a common religious activity, such as Mass, which makes some relative sense, as people may feel nice about it, but it has nothing to do with our practice. This is the benefit of the Community, and it doesn’t matter if we meet online or physically, we are meeting, mindful that this interaction is based on interdependence.
Q: It reminds me of how Rinpoche in general was making sure that there would be lots of social interactions, because even for the most doubtful, who would not walk into the Gönpa at 9am, something could still rub off. Maybe during a barbecue, they would have some sense of motivation, some sense of fundamental belonging to a root, somehow have thoughts about it, and maybe slowly after a week of barbecuing, that person would say, “Ok, tomorrow I’m coming to the teaching!”.
I: Yes, but here is another side to it, as Hamlet said to Ophelia, “There are more chances of beauty spoiling honesty and making it into a whore than honesty saving beauty”. So there is also a distracting motivation for us coming to the Community when the Community becomes only our chance for a barbecue!
Q: During your courses you meet a lot of newcomers who approach the Teaching through one of your courses, or through Yantra Yoga or the Dances. What do you see their interest being, do they come with the correct motivation?
I: Yes, they come for knowledge. They are interested in knowledge. What else can they expect from a person like me? Salvation? Enlightenment? I don’t look like a person who can give anyone enlightenment or salvation! There aren’t so many expectations from a person who has no title, nor a Tibetan name. Thus, the only reason is that they hear something, they have some kind of insight, and they feel the value of this insight. For this reason they come again, and eventually they join the events organized by the Community, participate and become involved themselves in the organization. In Israel, for example, we now have a person in the Gakyil who never met Yeshi Namkhai or Rinpoche. Of course the Dzogchen Community is the Community of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and everyone who comes to this Community comes for Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, not for this or that instructor.
Q: There is often a question surrounding newcomers. Last year many had the chance for direct introduction to Dzogchen with Yeshi Namkhai, but this is not possible always and everywhere.
I: Rinpoche always said that we don’t know if a person is a true beginner or not. If a person is coming to the teachings, for example, they might have had the transmission in a previous life. Are they more or less connected than someone who was dozing off during an introduction? More or less than a cat in the Gönpa? There is no way we can really judge this, so it’s important we do not hold back new people for this reason.
People are often afraid to break some mysterious Samaya, if they do this or that. But what is the direct introduction? What is transmission? It means that a person did not have this knowledge and now this person does. And not having this knowledge is something that can be true also for people who have followed Rinpoche for many years, as we have discussed today. But if it is true that at least a few people really get it, then members will die, members will leave, but in the end this solid nucleus will remain, be members, participate and be happy, and it does not matter if they are new or old, it will be people who have this knowledge, and the confidence that derives from it.