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.