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Westerners in shedra – where are you guys?

Here is something that I’ve been thinking about lately:  There are no other international students studying in our shedra program.  (shedra, for those of you just tuning in, is what we call our college of Buddhist philosophy)  Usually, every year or so, I get a query about studying here at Namdroling.  Not this year.  Nonetheless, my blog stats tell me that one person found my blog by searching, “Can I get a student visa to study at Namdroling?”  Or something like that.  The answer is: Probably not.  I guess shouldn’t be surprised there aren’t any international students here if they can’t get visas.

Looking at the bigger picture: There are more and more programs opening up expressly for Western students.  I’ve audited a few classes at Rangjung Yeshe, in Nepal, and it is always the program I recommend the most.  IBD, in Dharamsala,  apparently has classes in English, as well as the option to join their regular program taught in Tibetan.  Also noteworthy are Rigpa Shedra and IBA, both located in Nepal.  So if you want to come to India or Nepal to study the Dharma in depth, and in English, there are options.  Usually it is possible to learn Tibetan while in these programs.

What I want to do in this post, though, is think about what skills an international student might need to join a program which is taught entirely in Tibetan.

  • Spoken language skills:  The better you know colloquial Tibetan, the easier things will go.  I myself hardly understood anything the teachers said when I was in my first year of shedra.
  • Classical language skills: More important than being able to speak Tibetan, you need to be able to parse the texts, use a dictionary, and be able to ‘get the jist’ of a text, at the very least.  Luckily a lot of our curriculum is available in English, so get ready to buy lots of books on Amazon.
  • Human skills:  Flexibility is crucial.  Although Tibetan Dharma centers in the West may feel very welcoming and accessible, monasteries in India and Nepal are quite different.  We actually share very little history with the Tibetans, and when we are on their turf, we need to play according to their rules.  Some people come to the monastery and try to change how it works, but they never last long.  We have to change ourselves and try to accommodate whatever circumstances arise.
  • Stick-to-it-ive-ness:  Most regular shedra programs are quite long.  Our nine year program is short compared to 18 or more years at the Gelukpa monasteries.  So you need to at least be open to the idea of staying for the long term.  Personally, I didn’t come to Namdroling with the thought of joining shedra, but got sort of ‘advised’ in to it by my teachers once I started getting the hang of Tibetan.  Now that I am nearing the end, people have a lot of nice things to say about my stick-to-it-ive-ness.  I tell them that I am sort of slow-minded, and it never occurred to me to leave.
  • Respect for the ordained:  Occasionally lay people are admitted to Tibetan shedras,  but most monastery programs only admit monks and nuns.  In either case, respect for the rules of the vinaya is crucial.
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4 thoughts on “Westerners in shedra – where are you guys?

  1. Hum, you may know what I think of all this from a very personal view point and experience:

    There is undeniably the fact that Western Students are NOT welcome in native shedra. So until that changes from teh ground upwards, nothing will work which is not set up PURELY for Engees. May I remind you of another one of HH’s wishes which were never headed as unfortunately so many of them – and this was to have a separate facility for foreigners just OUTSIDE the Shedra. May be good to keep this in mind.
    It takes more the above mentioned to even think about it – I am surprised you have not mentioned it but here we go :
    it requires the unreserved support from your Root Teacher, assuming you have already their permission without which it is a waste of time
    Lastly if this karma is not wrtitten across your forehead to crudely translate a Tibetan popular saying, it is equally a waste of time
    However , thank you for bringing the debate to the fore front. It needs to be made clear that learning the way the tibetans do is not an open door- neither is it a good solution for everyone. As you said more and more facilities are open to the non Tibetans, To me, there is a sad reconnaissance that In this respect, at least, we move of Buddhism out of Tibet is still frought with a lot of stony paths.
    All the better, when we have you nearing the end ! Congrats !

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