There is this Tibetan monastery a couple of hours drive from where we live. A few times a year, I take the children along to reconnect with our cultural roots.
Especially in times like these, when we all feel the economic downturn and the pressure at work, the monastery is a real sanctuary to get away from it all and refocus.
While the children laugh and play on the monastery compound, I try to listen to a Buddhist teaching in the temple. But somehow I’m never able to relate to the topics. Or if I could make sense of something, I would find myself unable to recall anything useful a little while later.
I can’t remember a single one of “The Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva”, nor am I in a position to summarise - even in the most basic terms - what the “Tara Initiation” is about, although I sat through half of the three-day programme. Not to mention the Kalachakra teaching: I went all the way to India for it and what have I retained? You’re right, nothing !
I also have a problem with the whole convention, that merely sitting there and hearing what Lamas say - without necessarily understanding anything - has any merit at all. C’mon, that’s a trick some Lama invented to prevent people from walking out on him!
And as if all this weren’t bad enough, I'm constantly looking for ways to invalidate the little I believe I did understand. No wonder I mostly end up in the monastery kitchen and not the temple.
One day, an elderly Geshe (professor) appeared in the kitchen, and someone introduced me as being “of the same fatherland” (phayul jigpa). Even though the “fatherland” they meant was a place in Tibet where my paternal great-grandparents had lived five generations ago – and which I barely knew - it was still such a matter of fact for everyone in that kitchen that we were “of the same fatherland”.
Surprisingly enough, I immediately bonded.
Some look down on regional affiliation as a petty sentiment eroding Tibetan national identity. But in that kitchen, regional affiliation expressed itself more like extended family; there was something warm and familiar about it.
Geshe Thupten’s features also reminded me of my late Pola, a great-granduncle, who happened to be a Buddhist monk just like him. He also spoke high Tibetan with that same peculiar accent.
He said his role in the West was to promote Buddhism, to make people aware of its value and remind them how it can help them in their daily lives. I said: “Why do you have to promote it? If people don’t come by themselves, why take the trouble and go after them? Wouldn’t it be better just to let them be?”
“Well, then there is the danger that the Buddha’s teaching would gradually be forgotten”, Geshe-la explained. I couldn’t resist: “That wouldn’t be the end of the world”, I said, “If everything is impermanent, so must be the Buddha’s teaching, why try to convince people of something if they are happy without it?”
“Now you are someone who throws gold in the dustbin!” Geshe Thupten exclaimed in shock.
For a moment, I was afraid I had gone too far, but luckily, Geshe-la wasn’t mad. And after a while, it felt like we just spoke our minds. He was cool. Yo, we’re phayul jigpa after all, I almost forgot!
Geshe-la spoke about the broad appeal of Buddhism to foreigners, and therefore, I too, as a Tibetan, should care. I joked again: “Right, how can people not be attracted? After all, we do have something for everybody: Nyingma for creative souls looking for instant enlightenment; Gelug for tech-savvy nerds who follow a step-by-step approach; and Kagyud for the illiterates who rely on oral transmission.”
I would have continued in this way, had I not come across a book called “What makes you not a Buddhist”. Many will remember the author, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, as the director of “The Cup", a film about some soccer-crazy monks in a Tibetan monastery in India.
This book contains lot of clear thinking and straight forward answers to skeptical remarks. It completely deconstructed my fuzzy ideas of Buddhism. In essence, a Buddhist was defined simply as someone with a deep insight of impermanence, and an awareness and control of his or her own emotions. Khyentse says if that’s the mindset you strive for, the you are a Buddhist, whether you label yourself as such or not.
Wow, it was Buddhism naked, it was beautiful and it was making sense.
Normally there is so much fuss about bodhicitta (“strive for enlightenment for the sake of others”) that I would get scared away right then and there. To me, someone with bodhicitta always sounded like the opposite extreme of an egocentric jerk.
By contrast, the Khyentse book established a clear structure between Buddhist essentials and add-ons. It helped me see that I had got all worked up about something which I’ve never truly understood as an idea.
So for now, let’s forget about bodhisattva vows, initiations and tantric stuff and focus on the basics.
By the way, my children have no idea about their mother’s spiritual struggles. They think the monastery is all about a good time in good company, a bit of sitting still and learning prayers, while wearing a Tibetan outfit.
Soon they will reach an age when they’ll start questioning. When that happens, we will see whether l will have been able to retain anything useful this time.
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