Integrating Compassion & Emptiness
by Venerable Barry Kerzin
Venerable Barry Kerzin received his BA in philosophy at University of California Berkeley and a medical degree from the University of Southern California. He also completed a residency in Family Medicine at the Ventura County Medical Center in California. Seven years of private medical practice in Ojai, California, deepened his experience of human suffering. He then pursued academic medicine as an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. After nineteen years of study and meditation, Barry was ordained as a Buddhist monk by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya in 2003 and given the Buddhist monastic name of Tenzin Choerab. He is today one of the personal physicians of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Ven Barry Kerzin is also Chairman of the Human Values Institute (http://humanvaluesinstitute.org) of Japan.
Ven Barry Kerzin was in Malaysia to conduct a retreat and workshop on “Meaningful Living and Dying” at the Bodhi Utama Vihara in Petaling Jaya on August 16-17, 2012. He was subsequently interviewed by Benny Liow of Eastern Horizon on August 17 afternoon at Wat Chetawan Buddhist Temple, Petaling Jaya.
Benny Liow: Could you tell us how you became interested in Buddhism?
Ven Barry Kerzin receiving well-wishes from HH The Dalai Lama Barry Kerzin: I was raised in an open-minded American Jewish family in California. My family was not particularly interested in religion though they were very much involved in humanitarian and social welfare work. When I was 14 I was mysteriously introduced to two Buddhist books written by Dr D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. Though I did not understand Buddhism then, nevertheless I was deeply moved by these two books that I had read.
Then when I was 17 and studying philosophy at UC Berkeley, I found a poster of a Ladakhi Buddhist lama sitting in a cross-legged position and the word “meditation” written at the bottom of it. I was immediately
attracted to the image though I had no clue what meditation was. But I felt extremely happy when I saw the poster and I kept it with me for many years. I may still have it packed up somewhere.
Were you also exposed to other Eastern religions besides Buddhism as this was a time when Eastern mysticism was very popular on US College campuses?
Yes, many religious teachers from the East, especially India, were then very popular among college students. I remember a talk by a Hindu swami called Satchi-Dananda when I was at the UCLA. During this talk I had a rather strange experience that someone had taken a dimmer and slowly dimmed the lights in the auditorium until it became almost pitch dark. At the same time it felt like someone increased the dimmer so that the light on Swamiji was glowing like a thousand suns. It was as if he was self-illuminated! While experiencing this strange phenomena, I felt incredible bliss throughout my body and mind, although I had no idea what was happening.
Shortly after that I was introduced by my Indian neighbor at UC BERKELEY, an electrical engineer
graduate student, to a Hindu guru from Gujerat, known as Gurudev. His full name was Somvar Girigi.
He was an illiterate farmer, barefoot, with a pot belly and a shaved head. He was always wearing a white
loin-cloth, and smoking beadies! Yet he had a group of highly educated Indian disciples, most of whom were physicists, engineers and mathematics professors. I went on a pilgrimage to Amarnath in Kashmir near Ladakh with Gurudev and his disciples. Our group consisted of about 30 to 40 disciples. When we reached the cave at the top over 13,000 feet above sea level, after trekking several days and carrying Gurudev on a platform supported by four posts, some of the disciples were passing out and falling to the ground. I had to catch them before they fell and hit their heads on the rocks. Later I realized that they were falling unconscious due to the intense bliss. They called it Nirvlcal Samadhi, a deep type of Shamatha or Samadhi meditation filled with intense bliss.
So where did you receive your first teachings on Buddhism? Was it a great experience?
It was in 1984 when I visited Kopan Monastery in Nepal to attend a teaching on emptiness by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. After the talk, we broke for lunch and I climbed a tree-like ancient carved out ladder to sit on the roof to have my meal. Soon after, I had a rather strange experience. In my mind I saw a big black water buffalo standing in front of me and then suddenly a huge sword appeared from nowhere and fell on the buffalo, slashing it diagonally causing its blood to spurt all over. After this rather frightening experience, another vision appeared. A large Native American teepee appeared in my mind.
Normally I am not prone to hallucinations. In fact, I have never had these before. Yet, I saw myself crawling up the side of the teepee, trying to get to the top. I knew the reason I was trying to climb to the top of the teepee was to see what’s inside. I was trying to see what is inside Barry! What is Barry made of? It was so real. I looked into the teepee and saw there was nothing in there. Immediately without thinking I experienced that there was no Barry!
I was deeply frightened by these two experiences and started shaking all over uncontrollably. People around me noticed I was in trouble. My heart was racing. I was sweating profusely. The people nearby tried to help me by guiding me down the tree-ladder and laying me down on the grass. These experiences continued occasionally for about a year.
Did you ask your teachers what all these experiences mean?
Yes, indeed I had an opportunity to ask my teachers about my strange encounters, which were deeply moving experiences for me. His Holiness the Dalai Lamas told me that I was too ambitious in my practice
of emptiness. Subconsciously, I was trying to negate my “self” completely, and therefore when trying to find “Barry” inside the teepee, I found nothing. His Holiness advised me to be more balanced in my practice and not forget that there is someone there who is meditating.
HE advised me to remember that reality is not nihilistic. Furthermore adding the practice of Bodhicitta as a motivation flavoring my meditation on emptiness would also be of immense benefit.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama again reiterated the importance of integrating bodhicitta, the universal compassion, or altruism into my sunyata (emptiness) practice when I met him during a break in the small
gathering of about 20 to 25 people for the Mind Life Institute in the summer of 1989 in Newport Beach,
near Los Angeles. When I told His Holiness the Dalai Lama that I wanted to do a retreat on emptiness, he
looked at me straight in the eyes, and said, “sunyata and bodhicitta, 50/50”. It felt like a thunderbolt of
lightning struck my heart. It was confirmation that bodhicitta was my path. This advice from His Holiness
stayed with me ever since. Nearly 25 years later I can remember the advice and the feeling like it was
yesterday. In fact, His Holiness has been incredibly kind to me, and has been my personal teacher for
more than 20 years now. I am glad that I am now able to repay his kindness by being one of his personal
So how do we practice Bodhicitta and Sunyata equally on a 50/50 basis?
We should alternate. At some point in our life, we may emphasize one more than the other. At some point
as we go deeper into the practice, we will realize that they are not separate. Bodhicitta includes sunyata,
and sunyata includes bodhicitta. They are mutually supportive and at some point are like the two sides of
the same coin. For instance, we develop compassion to overcome the three levels of suffering that are taught by the Buddha. The deepest level of suffering is the all pervasive suffering. This deepest level of suffering has its source in ignorance. In order to overcome this deepest level of suffering, a proper understanding and experience of sunyata is needed. At that level of practice compassion and emptiness become part of the same practice. They become fully integrated.
Bodhicitta can be practiced both as a form of meditation training of the mind, and also as socially engaged action to alleviate the suffering of other sentient beings. Though these two mental and physical actions seem different, they are actually complementary and designed to enhance each other.
One is the motivation and the other is carryig out that motivation through action. When we practice
bodhicitta, we engage in the Six Perfections. This means we practice generosity, morality, patience,
effort, concentration, and wisdom. Practicing the first five perfections is the practice of compassion.
Combining these five perfections with wisdom makes these practices actual perfections. At that point we are perfectly integrating bodhicitta and sunyata.
For example, say you give RM 1 to a beggar outside the temple. When we consider the person giving or making the offering, which is our self or the “I”, and the object of the giving or the beggar, and the action of giving in their ultimate sense, all these three don’t have even an iota of objective existence. In reality ALL three are by their nature empty. None of them exist from their own side. This is true of all things. This is the ultimate nature of everything.
Besides His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I understand you also studied under Gen Lamrimpa who was one of your early teachers.
Yes, Gem Lamrimpa was one of my teachers during the 1986-1988 period when he was in America. At that time I was then teaching at the University of Washington. Gen Lamrimpa was a well-known Tibetan yogi who was born in Tibet in 1936. He became a refugee in India after the 1959 uprising against Communist Chinese rule and subsequent Chinese military occupation. In 1985, he was invited by Dr Alan Wallace to lead a calm abiding meditation retreat near Seattle and teach there for two years. An accomplished
meditator and a true yogi, he was always humble, living very simply. For most of his life, he was meditating in a single room stone and mud hut in the mountains above Dharamsala, India, and later above Gangtok, Sikkim.
I attended several retreats led by him on emptiness and Kalachakra Tantra. I became quite close to him, and accompanied him back to Dharamsala in 1989. Dharamsala then became my home also, remaining
there for now nearly 24 years. Gen Lamrimpa fully embodied the true meaning of lam rim. He was lam
rim! Genla also wrote numerous books including Calming the Mind (Snow Lion, Ithaca New York), and
Realizing Emptiness (Snow Lion), and Transcending Time, The Kalacakra Six-Session Guru Yoga (Wisdom Publications, Boston, MA). These are all in English.
After teaching in the USA for two years, Gen Lamrimpa returned to India to continue his practice in solitary meditation. I accompanied him back to Dharamsala. My teacher passed away in meditation in 2004. He remained fresh in tukdam for five days after his heart stopped beating and his breathing stopped. I was with him for five months while he received treatment for a chronic illness, and was with him when he stayed in tukdam prior to dying. Tukdam literally means “Sacred Mind.” It is the subtlest mind that manifests at the time of death. An accomplished yogi or yogini can meditate on this subtlest mind and remain without dying for weeks or longer.
When were you ordained and who was your preceptor?
I was ordained in February 2003 in Bodhgaya, during the Kalachakra Empowerment by His Holiness the
14th Dalai Lama. My ordination came after 19 years of long and short meditation retreats. In fact, during my 3-year retreat, I was living like a monk, keeping many vows, but not yet officially ordained. Every time I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama for ordination, he would laugh and give me instructions. Finally His Holiness laughed three times and agreed to ordain me. One cold morning in February in Bodh Gaya at 5.00 am, a group of Tibetan Lamas, Geshes, and monks came to fetch me to bring me to my novice novice (Getsel) ordination with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
He was ordaining me alone without others. I was deeply moved and happy that I finally I could become a monk. Thinking that the novice ordination was complete, I was offered breakfast and was about to leave, thinking that perhaps after 1 or 2 years I would take the higher ordination as a Bhikshu. Soon after breakfast, His Holiness’s ritual master called me back to see His Holiness. Surprised, I went back in to see His Holiness again. He decided to give me the second, Bhikshu, full ordination vows right there on the spot. Thus without expecting it, I was ordained twice in the same day. I was the only person ordained that morning by His Holiness.
It was truly auspicious. The smell of tsampa (roasted barley) on His Holiness’s breath I can still remember vividly. When he ordained me I was standing very close to him! Part of the ritual involved bringing our hands together. I understand you are also one of personal physicians of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Do you also provide medical support to other lamas in Dharamsala?
Over the last nine years I have been privileged to provide medical care to three great meditation masters
during their dying days. All three stayed in meditation called tuk.dam, or clear light, for days to weeks
following clinical death. Their bodies remained fresh, supple, and warm. An atmosphere of serenity and
meditation surrounded them. When their meditations were completed and their consciousnesses departed, the bodies rapidly decayed.
Warmth, freshness, and flexibility quickly disappeared. Copious amounts of watery and blood-like fluids poured from the nostrils. Two of the yogis had their bodies dried and preserved in salt as holy sacred objects of worship.
Yes, I will continue to provide medical support to the many lamas including His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Thank you very much for a wonderful interview. EH