Kris Yao is a renowned architect who also supports building people and the Dharma through his tireless work on behalf of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and Khyentse Foundation. We interviewed him about his life and his involvement with the foundation.
KF: What is your take on the vision of Khyentse Foundation?
KY: I think that the objective of Khyentse Foundation is to make Buddha’s wisdom more accessible to everyone in the world. It’s a grand and selfless mission. Today, when intellectual property is paramount, this effort might seem peculiar. However, the wisdom of Buddha represents a significant contribution to human intellect, and history has proven Buddhism’s huge impact on different cultures. So I personally admire and hope that people support the foundation’s vision and endeavors, because Buddhism is an invaluable asset to humanity. What we should be doing is to provide resources to everyone in the world who may be interested in studying and practicing Buddha’s wisdom. This alone would be a great accomplishment, because Buddha’s wisdom does not need alterations. All we need to do is spread it.
KF: Tell us a bit about the work you’ve done for Khyentse Foundation.
KY: I haven’t really done anything for Khyentse Foundation; in fact, Khyentse Foundation has helped me a lot. I greatly appreciate Rinpoche’s teachings for us all, and his care, guidance, and advice for me personally. Ever since I first met Rinpoche in 1984, he has given me so much guidance of wisdom. I often feel as if I am a ship drifting in dark, tumultuous waters that suddenly catches a glimpse of a beacon. In the midst of many chaotic and confusing moments in my life, I feel truly fortunate to encounter such guidance.
In the past few years, I have had the honor of translating some of Rinpoche’s books and his live teachings. Even though many people have thanked me for this work, I feel that I am actually the one who has benefited the most. As a professionally trained architect, I never thought that I would one day become a translator. Though I have since become very interested in translation, I was never professionally trained, so my translations are a bit amateur.
KF: How did you get involved in your translation work?
KY: It all started in 2000 during a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai when I asked Rinpoche to give a teaching on Words of My Perfect Teacher in Taiwan. Rinpoche replied, “Okay. You translate the book, then I will teach.” I was shocked. I said, “It’s impossible! How can I translate the book?” At that moment, Rinpoche looked straight into my eyes for a long time, and finally said, “Yes, you can.” Over the next 10 years, with the help of many people – definitely not just my own effort – the translation was finally completed. Rinpoche then came to Taiwan to give a teaching on Words of My Perfect Teacher.
Over the course of this effort, I gradually developed an interest in translation, and have since had the opportunity to translate more of Rinpoche’s books. As a beginner, this experience helped me build my elementary understanding of the Dharma. If along the way my work also happened to benefit Chinese readers, it was purely an accidental bonus. I’ve never had the selfless motivation to connect Chinese readers with Rinpoche’s books; even today, I’m doing this merely for selfish purposes.
KF: How do you incorporate all of your work into your daily routine?
KY: Several people have asked how I manage two offices, take care of family, travel around the world to translate for Rinpoche, and translate books, all while eating, drinking, and playing simultaneously. After a few of these inquiries, I’ve begun to wonder whether or not I’ve in fact managed to do all this. I must have done a shoddy job in order to squeeze everything into my schedule!
KF: How has your practice influenced you?
KY: Rumors say that I spend 1 to 2 hours every day in practice, but I’ll let you in on a secret: whatever time I do find for my practice, much of the time my mind just wanders, or I simply doze off. I also have some sort of compulsive disorder, in which I’m compelled to finish things quickly. This habit manifests itself at work and also while translating. If there is anything that needs to be translated, I feel a helpless, almost psychotic, desire to finish it as soon as possible. As a result, it may seem like I’ve accomplished a lot in a short time. However, if experts were to scrutinize my work, they would quickly see that I’ve done nothing spectacular – neither in architecture nor in translation. It’s much like a cook at a fast-food restaurant scrambling to produce seemingly edible food, but a Michelin-star chef would likely vomit upon the first bite.
Despite being an impostor, I feel that practicing has benefited my work over time. Looking back on when I was young, I yearned to be different. I wanted to create something that had never been conceived before. I wanted to amaze the world. I wanted to create architecture that could move the masses to tears! Through this make-believe practice, I’ve gradually become more relaxed at work and have been able to appreciate the joy of working. I’m less focused on delivering a glorious result, and instead am more content with the journey of work. Sometimes I fancy the idea of practicing more diligently, and perhaps it would make me more content. However, since I half-ass most things, I feel like I’ve received a decent return on my investment. Additionally, forcing myself to spend part of the day by myself prevents me from spending that time spewing nonsense on social media – that in itself is a social good! Before my kids left for university, my gift to them was to teach them how to meditate, so that they can learn to be alone yet not be lonely.
KF: What do you think is the most inspiring element of Khyentse Foundation’s work?
KY: I think the vision Rinpoche has for Khyentse Foundation is to preserve Buddha’s wisdom and make it accessible for more people. He places greater emphasis on “building people” than on “building buildings.” Rinpoche often reminds us that there are already many people building temples. However, we need to devote more energy to cultivating people in Buddhadharma. Even though I build buildings, I find this perspective to be full of wisdom. If a religious building lacks essence, no matter how extravagant it may appear, it is only cosmetic and superficial.
In addition to spreading the wisdom of the Buddha, the foundation also offers many ways for people to contribute to this endeavor. These contributions don’t need to be huge projects, such as establishing a Buddhist lectureship in a university — a sizeable amount of work that requires a lot of human and financial investment. However, we can also contribute on a smaller scale. For example, by making a small weekly or monthly donation, one can help a monk or a nun in Myanmar or Sri Lanka to study and practice the dharma. This is a group effort. No matter how small the contributions, they can accumulate and become unimaginably fruitful.
Just as written in the sutra, there once was a poor woman who begged for a living. With the little money she collected for her subsistence, she dedicated a lamp to Buddha. The small flame burned continuously through the night. At dawn, Sariputra saw that the lamp was still burning and tried repeatedly to extinguish it. When Buddha saw his futile attempts, he told him that the lamp was impossible to extinguish, because it was fueled with so much aspiration. I think that all of us can use our individual small efforts, accompanied by big aspirations, to provide a beacon to more people in the world. May our collective efforts allow this flame to remain forever alight and forever inextinguishable.