Q: If there is no soul or ego or whatever you want to call it how can we understand the continuity of reincarnation?

H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche: There is no soul because there is no fixed concrete entity, but there is a consciousness that creates the cycle of birth and rebirth. After all, we cannot establish the self as having any basis in reality--it cannot be proven to exist. How can some thing that does not live in the world take on different lives? Therefore the only basis for this whole cycle, whatever basis there is for it, has to be discovered in consciousness. We should remember that whatever it is that says "I" is using a word for some thing that doesn't really exist. What does occur is that consciousness creates different situations and then "I" steps in and associates itself with the situations. The process of "I am reborn" or "I am a soul" gets started with the process of grasping onto or stepping into the cycle of consciousness. The teaching of Phowa gives a technique for the intentional removal of consciousness from the body at the point of death so it does not seek a negative rebirth. It is said that one should allow consciousness to transmigrate, but not the "I".

Q: Rinpoche, if ego clinging, grasping onto samsara, and desire are what cause us suffering, then what of our desire for a spiritual awakening? What part of us is desiring to go towards that? And you were talking about being in a human incarnation, that we have an ego, we all have egos and we'll always have an ego. It was a little disappointing to hear that. [laughter] On the path to awakening, what can one expect?

H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche: You have brought up two things that are always a little painful. [laughter] I don't mean to be pessimistic or negative or anything, that is the last thing I would like to be. I didn't say human, but sentient beings, all sentient beings. The ego does not mean the ego pride only. Ego means "I." So long as we are in samsara we have the ego. That is the definition of samsara. It doesn't mean we have to have an ego, but we do have an ego; though ultimately we don't have an ego, relatively we have one. So maybe that will make you happy. Ultimately, you have never had an ego up to now. And you will never have one; even if you work very hard to get one, you will not manage to have an ego ultimately. So it is just relative.

Now, your first question, if I understood it correctly, is how we have the desire to be enlightened despite our ego-clinging. Okay, I think that is a paradox. Why we wish to be enlightened is because, on a relative level, we are not enlightened. Relatively we are not limitless, we have all kinds of limitations. Relatively we are in samsara, we have all kinds of sufferings. Therefore, we wish to be free from suffering, we wish to overcome all the limitations, and we wish to be unburdened from our bondage to samsara. So that is our aspiration and our inspiration, to be enlightened. It is a form of attachment. It is a desire, but a holy and sacred one. So that is how we begin.

But, of course, as long as we have the desire to be enlightened, we will not be enlightened. Therefore, you see, the definition of final realization is overcoming the desire for enlightenment. So until you are enlightened, you will have some desire for enlightenment, even if it is very slight, and you will have some ego, even if it is the most microscopic. You will have the last drop of it right up to the moment of enlightenment, so that your ego becomes thinner and thinner and is eventually transformed so that the last trace of it will vanish during the final realization. So it depends on the individual.

Q: Could you address the experiences Milarepa had of encountering demons when he came to a new cave? His songs make reference many times to this experience and to the pacification of the demons. In a literary work there are several levels of meaning, and perhaps you could explain how meditators should interpret stories of these experiences.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Sometimes a person may experience some obstacles in meditation. Actually, they cannot strictly be called obstacles. Whether what happens is an obstacle or a steppingstone for further realization depends on the meditator. There is not any event that under all circumstances is an obstacle. During your life, sometimes a test situation may arise because of your meditation. If you lack understanding and meditative insight, this test could become an obstacle. However if you have enough insight and understanding, the test could heighten your realization to a great extent. As an outcome of meditative experience, whatever appearances may arise can be transformed through meditative insight into a realization of the nature of all things as insubstantial, uncompounded, and only existing interdependently. Then we do not reject the appearances of existing things, but nevertheless none of these things hold the truth of independence or the truth of substantiality. They are just another play of illusion. If a person understands and relates in this way, whatever drama appears in meditation could be tremendously uplifting. On the other hand, when you are meditating you may get drawn into whatever arises out of your habitual and emotional conditioning. The appearance may just be your psychological patterns, but for you it is a spirit, it is demonic, and it is real. You will probably be afraid and try to defend yourself. That is not the strategy we adopt in the path of meditation, though. For instance, when Milarepa was in a particular cave and the so called demons appeared, roaring and thundering toward him, Milarepa said, "Your appearance is most wondrous, and your message is the message of my teacher." He worked with it in that way. The demon of your confusion does not cling to you; you cling to it. From that point of view, such an event becomes a kind of special treat and a technique that brings more enrichment than the ordinary process. What is really important is how a person is able to work with what happens, so strictly speaking, these neither are obstacles or are not obstacles.

Q: In the cycle of birth and rebirth, how do you explain karma following the consciousness?

H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche: The continuity of consciousness and the continuity of karma are identical. In the case of a tulku, for example, the force of positive karma accumulated in previous lifetimes causes a positive result in the present. If consciousness and karma were different things, then karma could go one place and the consciousness elsewhere, and the consciousness that created the karma would not be associated with its result. But because of their essential identity and mutual continuity, the consciousness that creates actions that have causal effects is the same consciousness that experiences the result of those actions.