Stripping Away a Lifetime of Disbelief

Sandy Clarke, who got in touch with His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche’s teachings when he was surfing around YouTube, expresses the changes in his life and his beliefs.

I sat with a few friends the other night and most of them seemed to be quite shocked that I’ve “taken to Buddhism”, as they’ve all known me to be a heavy critic of religion (not so much the teachings, but rather the institute of religion) in the past and I get the feeling they can’t believe that my interest in Buddhism has deepened as quickly as it has.

I owe a lot to H.E. Tsem Rinpoche after having come across his teachings by accident. I think I was watching a video about the life of the Buddha when I spotted a video with the very interesting title, “Are You Divine?” So I watched it and thought that the “student” giving the talk was extremely knowledgeable and made a lot of sense.

It seems laughable to me now, but because I didn’t know who or what Rinpoche was, and because he was dressed as a normal person sitting in what looked to me like a student’s bedsit, I presumed he was simply a wise young man giving a talk from his bedroom.

After I watched more of his teachings and realised that I was WAY off the mark, I was quickly drawn by his ability to really connect with his words and convey his inner passion and wisdom to his audience. To give a good talk isn’t difficult. I’ve watched and been in the presence of great talks, but to me, Rinpoche has that rare quality of someone who grabs all of your attention and holds it effortlessly until his teaching is finished. I had never been in awe of anyone simply through watching them on a screen; Rinpoche sure proved that there’s a first time for everything!

It is because of him that I have made a commitment to myself to continuously improve. It is because of him that I now try to be more aware of my actions and their effects. Sure, I don’t always get it right, and I’m a long way off getting it spot on all the time, but it’s impossible to overturn 20+ years (plus previous lifetimes) of habits around in a short space of time. The trick is to constantly chip away at the negative…eventually it falls away, but first I suppose you have to be aware of the need to chip away at the negative in order to first begin.

That’s what Rinpoche has done for me. Created awareness. A year ago if anyone asked, I’d have laughed at the suggestion that I was to become connected with any religion. I viewed most as exploiting people through their hopes and fears: if you don’t believe in this or do that, you spend eternity in hell, but if you lead a good life and follow these rules, everything will be fine.

However, I always had a soft spot for Buddhism, mainly because what I’d read or watched had all made sense – there was nothing I came across that I disagreed with.

Rinpoche opened my mind completely in regards to all religion. That in itself was a miracle, and if there was anyone capable of doing such a thing, it was him. Oh, no doubt there are still lots of questions in my mind regarding Christianity or Islam or Judaism, but I don’t criticise them now. In fact, where I used to be a vehement critic, I’ve found myself advising and encouraging Christian friends if they ever lose their faith a little; everyone has the right to believe in whatever they choose: as long as it hurts no-one and serves to develop a person’s spirituality, then I’m all for it, and not because Buddhism or Rinpoche has said this is a good thing to do, but because Buddhism and Rinpoche has made me realise that this is the best thing to do, to understand and respect a person’s beliefs, whatever they may be.

To Rinpoche, I am grateful for his patience and his infinite kindness, and I will be eternally thankful for his opening my mind to some things to which it was previously closed. I greatly admire his “unconventional” teaching methods, and it’s my opinion that if there were more teachers (in general – not just religion) with his drive, compassion, kindness, humour and ability to connect with people, there would be far fewer divisions between peoples. Why? Because through learning from someone like Rinpoche, you come to see clearly the uselessness of any sort of negativity, and instead you come to appreciate the absolute value of compassion. Sure, it might take us some time to get it right, and yes we might slip up from time to time, but it’s my strong belief that in such a teacher as Rinpoche, even students with the smallest of sincere commitment to learn from him and listen to what he has to say cannot fail (however long they take to get there) to achieve compassion, understanding and peace towards themselves and other beings.

Rinpoche also introduced me to Ajahn Brahm, another great teacher with so much wisdom and insight. If I achieve even a fraction of either men’s wisdom and kindness in this lifetime, I will count myself a very lucky fellow indeed.

So I thank you, Rinpoche, for providing me with a more open mind, the desire to be more patient with and helpful to those around me, for giving me an insight into the need for awareness and for generally making me see the importance of constant self-improvement. And although I may not be perfect, and although others may have their faults also, I thank you for having incredible patience and kindness as we try to chip away at our imperfections.

Lastly, I thank you for your occasionally entertaining antics. I think it was Ajahn Brahm who said that great spiritual leaders have a great sense of humour, which is something you clearly have in abundance.

For what you have given me, I can hardly put into words my appreciation (and I write a lot of words!), but I can sincerely wish you a long life, good fortune and blessed health. You are a remarkable teacher.

Thank you,