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August 26, 2015 / damchoe

Looking West

It’s back to school time for my friends in college in Western countries. I hope, by this time next year, to be one of them. It is a big step for me to mention this online. I have felt longings to further my studies in the West many times during my shedra career. When I started shedra in 2003, many of my high-school gang had finished their bachelor’s degrees and several were already in grad school. Even though I have no regrets about choosing to study in the monastery, I did feel, in some ways, as though I was lagging behind. I didn’t mind so much that they were getting married and having babies, after all I already ordained – which is like being married to the spiritual path. My babies would be the skills I would learn and the insights I would gain.

Nonetheless, every few years I wondered where I would be, had I chosen to go to university first. I would look at college websites and cruise around the interwebs, and imagine being at a university… Which is weird, right? I was in a college program, attending multiple classes every day, using every ounce of my energy to learn the Dharma and its history. I guess we all wonder about the road less traveled.

After I made it to seventh year (and already had two monastery granted degrees), it was easy to hang in for the last three years. They were the best years, I think, not just because of the amazing topics we got to study, but because I believed I would actually finish. It was the home stretch.

Then I graduated. To be honest, if, at that point I could have signed up for nine more years, I’d have done it. I didn’t feel as knowledgable as I had hoped, nor as mature as I thought should be, to be a lopon. Nonetheless, I was pleased and surprised to have finished the program. It was good to achieve such a long term goal.

I’m glad that I got snapped up by Rigpa Shedra East in January of 2013, it was a huge and unexpected blessing. Suddenly I was translating for a group of Western students in Nepal and it was the perfect place for me at that time. I found myself at a unique half-way point between monastery life and Western secularism. We were in Pharping, at the Palyul Retreat Centre, with one of the greatest luminaries of the Palyul Lineage, Khen Rinpoche Namdrol. At the same time, it was all in English, with Westerners.

It was perfect. Perfect, but not easy. I had a lot to learn, not just about translation, but also about functioning in a coed environment, with laypeople and monastics working together. I’m grateful for the role Rigpa has played in my life these last three years, helping me discover the meeting place between where I come from, the secular West, and where I have spent my entire adulthood, Tibetan Buddhist monastic culture.

So, for the last three years I’ve been teaching and translating for Rigpa in the winters. Last summer, I taught here at the nuns’ shedra, and this fall I will be doing the same. Can I imagine staying here forever, teaching shedra classes in Tibetan, and living with nuns? Yes. It is endlessly fulfilling to learn and teach and watch my students grow while still receiving the milk of spiritual blessings from my own teachers. And yet… I look to the West.

There is so much more to learn, insights to be gained that, as a native English speaker, I can access more easily than my shedra classmates. It is also in the West that I believe I can do the most good. After all, every year we have plenty of new nun lopons graduating, and I am pretty sure 99% of them speak Tibetan better than I do! In the West, I can participate in the development of Western Buddhism. There is so much to translate and write about, and so much to do in terms of our Dharma community and culture.

So, looking West, I am in the process of applying to universities. I hope, based on my Masters degree from the shedra here, to get into a Masters program abroad. It is early yet, to send in the applications, but there is so much to do in preparation. I have to write the GRE, which means I need to relearn mathematics after a seventeen year departure. Its’ a fun challenge. One thing shedra has taught me is how to buckle down and study hard.

That’s it for now. I just wanted to put it out there, that I am applying to grad school in 2016. All prayers are gratefully welcome. Is there a mantra for algebra?

August 11, 2015 / damchoe

A restless ramble about writing


After we graduate from shedra we serve the lineage for three years.  This is my third year.  I haven’t started teaching the texts I’ve been assigned, so I have some time to get ready (thank Buddha!).  Last year I was asked to teach Uttaratantra.  Something I found phenomenally useful  was listening to and transcribing Khen Rinpoche Namdrol’s recorded teachings on stong thun seng ge nga ro.  He gave these teachings to a group including many three year retreat graduates, and so, again and again, he drew together the crucial points of how the Great Perfection teachings and Buddhanature intersect.  It helped me so much!  It also got me ready to talk in Tibetan about Buddhanature.

I haven’t started warming up my Tibetan speaking skills yet this year.  I have a few translation projects, which are fascinating and challenging, and can be utterly absorbing, if I am in the right brain space to really engage.  Yesterday I spent seven hours on a few lines of text, and at the end I felt exhausted, but also restless because the job wasn’t done.  I didn’t sleep so well.  Today I felt like I couldn’t work on the text at all, so I ran errands instead.  I love and dread this kind of busyness; this involvement in a task that is urgent but can’t be rushed, that requires me to focus all my brain power on making linguistic connections and cracking the code of a text.

I see that this blog post is something of an inelegant ramble.  Please forgive that.  I felt inspired to write, so I wrote.

July 24, 2015 / damchoe


Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 10.28.58 AM

Have my last few posts each been a promise to get back to this blog?   I think they have been, I dare not go back and read them.  It has that same feeling of listening to a recording of my own voice, not quite real, vaguely uncomfortable, and happy to avoid.

I’m at the monastery in India.  It feels different now that I am not a shedra student.  I taught here last summer and I will teach again this September.  I feel bad for my students.  I imagine I am quite difficult for them to understand the way I speak.  They deny this, which is polite of them, if not quite believable to me.

It has been almost three years since I graduated and I am still trying to digest it all.  I felt so lost that first year (2013),  I was confused and uncomfortable.  It was strange to ‘be a Lopon’.  Though I do not, in fact, believe that it is my identity, it none the less changed things.  I’m getting used to it now.  In particular visiting some of our Palyul centres as a teacher was interesting for me.  I am glad to be able to transmit some part of my education, even if I am just a tadpole in my own personal evolution.

If I am a tadpole, what legs do I hope to grow?  Expressing my own thoughts and opinions on and off this blog, that’s one.  Should I write that I aim to ‘develop in my practice’?  It’s true enough. I would clarify that for these last 3 years my main practice which I am really trying to nurture is how I care for others.  I’m happy with the traditional stuff,  I love meditating on guru yoga, but at some point I realized I needed to connect better with the people around me, to love them and be present for them.  That is the practice I am focusing on now.

February 9, 2015 / damchoe

I’m back, again!

*** Warning – the following post contains repetition of my last few posts because, indeed, it has been that long since I’ve worked on this blog. ***

I’m back in Pharping, Nepal, for the third year in a row! This year is a bit different because I’m not translating, I am teaching. Some of my friends have treated it as a forgone conclusion that I should be teaching shedra texts in English, to a class primarily composed of Westerners. I’ve never felt that way. The opportunity to work with Rigpa Shedra East (now Rigpa Shedra College for Buddhist Studies), happened, when suddenly they needed a substitute translator in 2013. I would say it was a happy surprise, but in fact the position only needed filling because someone who has now become my dear friend was unwell. So I was called upon, quite unexpectedly, to come to Nepal immediately after writing my last set of final exams. The Buddhist College is hosted by one of my own teachers, Khen Rinpoche Namdrol. It didn’t take me long to realize this is a very nice group of dharma students and an amazing opportunity to repay the kindness of my teachers.

I’m glad I had something to look towards while I was in Canada later in 2013. Canada, and a few weeks in the U.S. was just so hard, mostly due to my own projections. I had been operating for about a decade under the assumption that I should return to the West to teach after graduating from shedra. It turned out that the retreat centre in Canada wasn’t a good fit for me. It has always mattered a great deal to me to be able to come and go as I pleased. The sense of claustrophobia I felt, being stranded in rural Ontario, was intensely uncomfortable. Unlike India, where rickshaws are never far away and eager to take us into town, in Ontario I was dependant on people who just didn’t seem all that interested in helping me acquire groceries, or just get out and breath some city air.

It was a revelation, to me, to think the thought that my post-shedra life didn’t have to be led entirely in the West. It was a little change in outlook, but it lightened things up considerably. I’d never abandon my homeland completely. I love my family, and my friends, but just to think the thought that ‘I don’t have to be based in the West’ really altered my perspective.

Last year, I translated at Rigpa Shedra and then headed to Namdroling in April. New lopons spend their first three years after graduation serving the lineage, either as teachers or in other positions, all determined by the monastery administration. It was the easiest thing to return back to the mother monastery after having been sent abroad for a year. Many of my classmates were likewise returning from postings in Nepal, Bhutan, and other parts of India.

Back at the nunnery I was asked to tutor a very nice lady from Bhutan. We studied Aryadeva’s 400 Verses on the Middle Way for a few months. In the summer I was assigned to teach Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary to the Uttaratantra to the nuns in the fifth year of shedra. That meant I had to teach entirely in Tibetan!  I’d done that once before, when I was a Review Teacher in eighth year — but I’ve never considered myself completely fluent… Which I expressed to one of my fellow Loponmas, who said, irritatedly, “Oh please, you speak Tibetan, okay? Enough already!” So I taught the course, over twenty-four days, and it went well enough.

Fifth year shedra students debating

Now I’m back in Pharping, teaching Uttaratrantra again, in English. Was it a coincidence that I got to teach the same amazing text twice in a row? No, someone knew and arranged it that way, for which I am deeply grateful. Its interesting to teach in English, and the students are so different, and the text is still unutterably profound and inspiring.

There are other things I want to write about, my visit to two Dharma centres in Ohio, Songsten Gampo and Palyul Ohio, as well as K.P.C. in Maryland, and an exciting bit of tourism in Washington, D.C. An account of 2014 also would be incomplete if I didn’t mention my friendship with some amazing LDS Sister Missionaries. This is enough for now, though. I just want to get this posted, and thus initiate, I hope, a great deal more writing in 2015.

April 28, 2014 / damchoe

Back at the Mother Monastery!

Looks like coming back to Namdroling after a 10 month absence is what it takes to get me writing again!  Being here, now, feels very special.  It is clear to me that this is a blessed place, where practice and Dharma life arise naturally. I feel lucky to be here, and determined to spend my time well.

In January of this year, I returned to Rigpa Shedra East to translate for the tantra class.  Our text was Resting in the Nature of Mind (sems nyid ngal gso) by the Omniscient Lonchenpa.  I had planned to use a rough translation which is available on the web, but I quickly discovered that it wasn’t useable for my purposes.  This meant a tremendous amount of preparation for each class.  Furthermore, since it is quite a long text, our classes lasted three hours per day!  So, although I enjoyed the text, and the illuminating explanations provided by our teacher, Khenpo Gyatso, the whole three month experience left me pretty exhausted.

I stayed on in Pharping for two more weeks, teaching an overview of Ascertaining the Three Vows by Ngari Panchen.  I used Sangye Khandro’s English translation as a basis, but brought in further explanation from the commentaries of Khenpo Yonga and Lochen Dharma Sri.   I really enjoyed researching and teaching about the three types of vows – Individual Liberation, Bodhisattva, and Tantric Samaya.  I hope the teachings will inspire people to take a deeper look at conduct as a form of Dharma practice.  After all, most of us spend more time off the cushion than we do actually meditating and there are many ways we can benefit others by crafting out physical, verbal, and mental activities.

I’ve been back at Namdroling for not quite two weeks, and while I did have some time to recover from the exhaustion of the work in Pharping, I am already busy with new activities.  I haven’t found out what I’ll be teaching at the nunnery, but in the meantime I am tutoring a couple people.  One of my responsibilities is to teach Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses to someone who doesn’t know very much Tibetan, but, thankfully, knows English.  We started today and I feel really happy about it.  It’s nice to revisit the text which I taught as a Kyorpon while in my eighth year of shedra.  

November 2, 2013 / damchoe

Still here

Hi there.  This is just a little note to say, “Yes, I am still here.”  I thought that once I’d graduated I’d have a lot more to write on this blog, but it seems to be the reverse.  Life after graduation is so… different… it takes some time to get used to.  I will write, someday, when whatever it is I want to say has fully percolated.

This year I was at Palyul Ling for a month and have spent the rest of my time at Orgyan Osal Cho Dzong, trying to serve the lineage through translation, teaching, and other forms of helping. Both of these retreat centres have a lot to offer, so please take a look at their websites and programs.


April 6, 2013 / damchoe

Life after graduation

Palyul Retreat Center

I wrote my last shedra exam on December 26th.

My original plan was to travel to Bodhgaya with my classmates, celebrate our graduation and make prayers for world peace at the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo.

That’s the thing about plans, I guess, sometimes karma takes us in another direction.  On December 28th, I was asked to translate for Rigpa Shedra East, which is hosted by Khenchen Namdrol Rinpoche in Pharping, Nepal.

So here I am.  For the first three months of this year I translated Khen Rinpoche’s oral teachings on Guhyagarbha once a week, and Khenpo Tashi Tseden’s teachings on Key to the Precious Treasury six times a week.  It sounds like a lot, but the written translations of both the root text and the commentary, done by Sangye Khandro and Lama Chonam, were an inestimable help.

What can I say about Rigpa Shedra East?  I think it is an excellent program.  It gives students from around the world an opportunity to study the dharma for 3 or 4 months a year in a traditional shedra environment.  The teachings are translated into English, and there are classes on debate and Tibetan language.  There were over forty students participating this year and they impressed me again and again with their respect, diligence, and genuineness.

It has been the third quality which has moved me the most, because, frankly, there are quite a few Dharma students out there who think they need to put on a bit of an act – to speak loudly of the many teachings they have received and act in a way that suggests that they are ‘serious practitioners’.  So, to be among so many Western dharma students without a single HUGE DHARMA EGO among them was nothing less than a huge relief.  It reminded, actually, of living at the monastery.  There is a sense of spaciousness when we support and encourage each other while allowing for the fact that we are still just beginners on the path.

Curently I am teaching a short class on certain topics from Gateway to Knowledge.  It is very different to be the teacher after three months as a translator, and nine years as the student.  I can tell you honestly that I prepare far more to teach then I ever did in the other two roles.  The hours of preparation are very satisfying.  It reminds me of studying for exams.   I really enjoy researching topics, consulting multiple texts, drawing charts, taking notes and thinking about how it all fits together on the path.

A few people have been asking me “What’s next?”  The answer is:  More translating and teaching. First,  I’m heading to Namdroling in May for the cremation of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche’s remains.  In June, I will be off to my ‘overseas assignment’ where I will be serving at Orgyan Osal Cho Dzong in Ontario, Canada.  July should find me at Palyul Ling in upstate New York.  At least those are the plans…

The other question I’ve been hearing is “How does it feel to be done shedra?”  I am glad.  Over the past year I have had mixed feeling about finishing my studies.  If there had been the option to sign up for a few more years I probably would have taken it.  Still, I am happy that an international student has finished shedra at Namdroling.  I hope it opens the door for many more international students to do the same.

I also feel grateful.  I couldn’t have done this without the vast compassion and blessings of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche.  Likewise, the support of my family and my sponsors (all two of you!) has always been the primary factor in being able to study in India for so many years.

I hope that anyone who is happy to know I have graduated will do what they can to support the next generation of international students who which to join shedra programs in the East and West.


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