Tendzin Choegyal is the Dalai Lama’s youngest brother. Aside from being related to one of the holiest persons alive, TC is a rebellious soul who dropped out of college, spent a couple of years as a paratrooper in the Tibetan contingency of the Indian army, survived alcoholism,and found peace through a blend of Buddhism, lithium, and reading the news on the Internet. When I met him at his home in Dharamsala, India—the Himalayan town that houses the Tibetan government-in-exile—we talked about reincarnation, war movies, Steven Seagal’s crazy outfits, and the preservation of Tibetan culture.
The following is a reprint of my interview with Choegyal, published in Issue 52 of Giant Robot magazine. A feature-length profile will be in the Fall issue of Buddhadharma, which goes to press in July.
GR: At a young age, you, too, were recognized as a reincarnate of an important man, right?
TC: Oh, that’s bullshit. I don’t believe it. From a Buddhist
perspective, we are all reborn. But choosing a particular person as
someone special and saying he’s a reincarnation of so-and-so is
bullshit. I don’t consider myself special. I’m just like you. I want
happiness, and I don’t want suffering. I think it’s just a sheer
accident that I was chosen.
GR: What about your brother?
TC: Ah, that’s different. He is on a completely different level—a much
higher caliber, and a lot of tests were done. It may be true for
others, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest mistake of
GR: Are you and your brother similar?
TC: His Holiness’ voice and my voice are similar, and we also look
alike. I also share his philosophy of life. I share his views
wholeheartedly. I mean, the guy cares, you know?
GR: Are you a practicing Buddhist?
TC: How do you define “practicing Buddhist”? Going to the temple every
morning is nothing. We ourselves are temples. Even a dog can go to a
temple. And as long as you have a little bit of money, you can always
make an offering. I do subscribe to basic Buddhist beliefs, and the
tenets of the teachings. I believe in taking refuge in the Buddha, in
his teachings, and in his spiritual community. But I have to actualize
all three within myself and enjoy the fruit of that development.
GR: What are your hobbies?
TC: I used to take photographs, and I used to like editing movies. But
right now, my hobby is reading. I’m reading a book in English right now
on Buddhism and world history. I don’t read fiction—my time is mostly
spent reading about Buddhism and inner transformation. I also read The
New York Times, The Herald Tribune, and the BBC on the Internet. Oh,
and People’s Daily. I want to know what the Chinese are saying!
GR: Anything else you’re really into?
TC: I like useful tools. Until a few years ago, I used to fix my own
car—I was a good mechanic. I used to drive an old Land Rover; now I
drive a Suzuki station wagon. I used to wash my car every day, and my
friends used to say, “Don’t do that, the paint’s going to come off.”
When I’m doing something, I do it whole-heartedly. And then when I
leave it, I just leave it. Just this evening my son called me an
eccentric. I think he’s right. We all have our extreme sides. I used to
take an interest in anything that was mechanical, but now, I don’t
think these material things are all that important. I’m interested in
human beings now.
GR: Do you like movies?
TC: Yes. This is going to shock you, but I like war movies, like Saving Private Ryan. Like any kid or person who doesn’t really think, I used to like them just for the action. But
Saving Private Ryan shows how devastating and bad war is, and I think
there should be more movies like that. Entertainment plays a big role
in the world. Movies produced today with sex, violence, and drugs
practically teach youngsters how to do things the wrong way. I think
the entertainment industry holds a lot of responsibility.
GR: Have you met a lot of the celebrities who stop through Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama?
TC: Celebrities? They’re all human beings, what’s the big deal? You sit
down with them, you start talking, and it’s the same thing. Richard
Gere is a wonderful person—very simple, modest, and natural with
whomever he meets. He’s done a lot for the Tibetan community. And then,
on the other side of the scale, there’s Steven Seagal. Oh my god. I met
him when he came here. He was wearing a funny coat, a Chinese brocade,
funny trousers, and funny shoes with that ponytail. I asked him, “Why
do you dress in such a peculiar manner?” He didn’t say anything. He’s
arrogant, and pretends to be a Tibetan reincarnate. But why? He’s a
GR: What do you think about the preservation of Tibetan culture in Dharamsala?
TC: I think we’re losing it. Culture is not about dancing; it’s not
about the songs you sing. I think we are starting to go mainstream
here—people are wearing baseball caps and baggy pants. Human culture
keeps on changing—it’s constantly being modified. There’s no such thing
as the “original culture”—we are always in a state of flux. So it
depends on how you look at it. But no matter how you dress or what kind
of song you sing, as long as you can relate with other people, I think
it’s okay. Any trend that is based on the mistaken view that freedom
under democracy is a license to do anything is dangerous. You’ll destroy yourself, your family, and your community, because it’s based on
selfishness. Say somebody is very angry, and he just can’t listen to
reason. That person’s reason for not restraining himself is, I’m free.I
can to whatever I want. The restraining factor is becoming smaller and
smaller. We are becoming noble savages.
GR: Do you think a part of Tibetan culture is threatened by things moving forward?
TC: I really love Tibetans. I really wish success to our cause and our
people. But I’m very concerned with the direction in which we are
heading. Young people are not taking interest in Buddhism as an internal science. They see that Buddhism dispensed in the name of religion by
various institutions is not up to the mark. A good example is the
number of monks we have. Firstly, we have too many of them. And then
they’re in monks’ robes, but they behave in funny ways. Whatever you do
in life, you have to love it or leave it. If you don’t want to do it,
don’t do it. If you want to do it, do it because you love it. Find
meaning in it. Otherwise, you’re tricking yourself. You’re tricking
Art by John Pham