*** 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this, the anniversary of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche’s mahaparinirvana, I offer you a photo of the Guhyagarbha Mandala temple built by Khen Rinpoche Namdrol as a basis for the perfection of His Holiness’ enlightened activity.
photo by Gero Garske
I don’t think the world will end on December 21st, 2012. That being said, I haven’t posted on this blog of mine for… oh dear, eight months! So, taking the possible end of the world as a lame excuse, here we are:
This has been a weird year. I found out early on that I would have be having’ visa issues’, and so a great deal of my energy was directed towards working through them.
I attended class and struggled to memorize fifteen pages of Lonchenpa’s amazing text, “Resting in the Nature of the Mind” also known as “Kindly Bent to Ease Us” (sems nyid ngal gso).
All too soon, it was time for the ever challenging debating exams during the annual rainy season retreat. I took part in both of my classes’ debates. I thought we did really well, but our standings told a different story (average on one, second to worst on the other). This reminded me that sometimes my view of the world is wildly out of sync with the actually nature of things. An important lesson.
Not long after the end of the rainy season, it was time for me to take a little ‘visa holiday’. I spent two months in Canada, mostly at my mom’s house. Keeping in mind that I would be returning to India just five days before the first exam, I studied as much as I could. It wasn’t too hard to focus in our quiet house, and my wonderful family was very supportive. I particularly enjoyed studying with my favourite cousin, D. Our study method was:
- Go to a coffee shop (usually Starbucks).
- Set a timer for twenty minutes – study.
- Set a timer for ten minutes – chat.
- Repeat four times.
I had a good time. Unlike all previous years of preparing for exams in India, this time I was not at all tempted to ‘quit and go home’ because, well, I was home.
Ironically, the visa restriction which prevented me from returning to India for two months seems to have been lifted on my sixtieth day out of the country.
I made it back to India, even studying in the airports, planes and taxis. So far, I have already written three of my five final exams and am preparing for the fourth one. It will be on December 22nd, but I figure I had better be prepared just in case the world doesn’t end.
But if it does, let me say this: I am deeply grateful to everyone who has made it possible for me to come to Namdroling and receive this education.
Someday soon, a friend of mine will become a nun. Meanwhile, in the last year, one monk friend disrobed, another nun friend also disrobed, and a certain nun who I never met not only disrobed but composed and publicized a scathing letter about what she thinks is wrong with the whole system of monasticism and Tibetan Buddhism. (sigh, no I am not going to post a link)
In the last ten years, I’ve known dozens of Westerners who’ve gotten ordained and several of them have given back their vows. Everyone has their own reasons, their own story. I’m not here to condemn anybody.
The Buddha himself acknowledged that there would be individuals who, after taking ordination, would later decide to return to lay life. Thus it is possible to formally give back one’s vows unbroken. There is some negativity involved in this, after all the individual made a lifelong promise. Nonetheless, it is significantly less negative than overtly breaking the vows.
So, why do people quit? Here are the top ten reasons why Western monastics disrobe, or, at least, ten reasons I’ve heard:
10. Wants to practice as a lay person or yogi
9. Can’t fit in to Western society as a monk
8. Can’t fit in to Tibetan (or other Asian) society as a Westerner
7. Feels unsupported by their community and/or family
6. Has a difficult time supporting themselves financially
5. Realizes that their mind isn’t ‘how a monk’s mind should be’
4. Realizes they ‘still have desire’
3. Is pregnant or has gotten someone else pregnant
2. Is in love
1. Just doesn’t want to be a monk/nun, goshdarnit
It isn’t my place to judge whose reason is valid or invalid. There is, however, a few things I would like to say to prospective quitters: OUR AFFLICTIVE EMOTIONS LIE TO US. Love feels great, but it doesn’t last forever. It whispers: ‘If you could just be together with this person, everything will magically work out’. IT IS LYING. Relationships are hard work, just ask anyone who has ever been in a relationship. Likewise, if everything seems difficult, please don’t make the decision overnight. Give it a month, or three, or a year. Never make a decision in the heat of the moment, unless you want to make the wrong decision.
I will admit that, like life in general, monasticism is really, really difficult. The reason is because we are still in samsara. Our afflictive emotions and self-grasping are like an illness. One of the treatments prescribed by the Buddha was monastic ordination. It isn’t the only treatment, and it certainly isn’t right for everyone. Consult a qualified teacher for more information.
Then again, these days many qualified teachers seem to be saying ‘It isn’t necessary to get ordained.’ In fact, just last month a young woman proudly told me: “My teacher says I don’t need to get ordained.” Um, that’s great. But, as I told her, that isn’t because ordination isn’t beneficial. Rather, her teacher has probably seen scores of Western students get ordained and then give up their vows. Advising a prospective monk or nun that monasticism is not the only path has two benefits: 1. To protect that individual from the negativity of eventually giving back the vows 2. To protect the sangha from further degeneration. You see, from the point of view of someone who believes in karma and dependant origination, each time someone gives up their vows, it makes that precedent stronger.
In case you are wondering, ‘Is Damchoe trying to tell us something?’. No, I am not planning to quit. I am still happily ordained and intend to remain so.