Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche in America
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Story By Lucy Armentrout
If I were asked to briefly characterize Khyentse Foundation’s work in support of Buddhism, I would describe it as “bridge building.” KF programs build bridges of both social and scholarly understanding, friendship, and financial support between Buddhism’s birthplace in India, lands in which it has been preserved and has flourished over centuries, and lands in which it is beginning to blossom in modern times. The Foundation’s sponsorship of visiting scholars, and their most recent sponsorship of visiting scholar Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche, wonderfully expresses this vision of bridge building between the old and new Buddhist worlds.
In 2013, KF sponsored Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche to take an intensive three-month English language program in India, and then sent him to the University of California Berkeley as a visiting scholar for the fall semester. In keeping with the concept of a bridge—a structure that allows the exchange of ideas between two lands—Rinpoche balanced his time in Berkeley between teaching and learning. He made the most of his time here and kept a full schedule.
Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche was recognized as a tulku at age 9. He entered Ngor Monastery, where was trained intensively in ritual practice. At age 15, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche personally accepted him into Dzongsar Institute, where he began his studies toward a khenpo degree, which he received in 2005. Again at Rinpoche’s urging, he accepted a position managing and caring for the monks at a Sakya monastery located just outside of Gangtok, Sikkim. He still holds that responsibility.
Rinpoche lodged at Berkeley’s International House (the I-House), a student housing complex designed around the needs of international students. He particularly appreciated the I-House’s open dining hall, which encourages the students to mingle, allowing him to meet and learn from people from dozens of countries. Rinpoche found people at I-House and at the university to be quite open and willing to talk but, as a monk, he felt that his fellow students treated him with an extra bit of respect and expected him to be “very peaceful, vegetarian, and a little bit enlightened” – something he hadn’t expected of Californians, with our emphasis on social equality. Despite this slight social barrier, he says that he was able to gain a lot of insight on the varying perspectives and diverse learning styles of many of his fellow students.
Rinpoche attended classes in English composition, and he studied physics and chemistry. He was most excited to take a course titled “Drugs and the Brain,” which he selected because of his interest in the Western conception of the brain and mind. These science courses required that Rinpoche approach his studies from a new perspective. They presented him with essentially alien fundamentals: complex mathematical calculations and theories, the Western scientific method, and basic assumptions about the nature of matter and the universe. Rinpoche was delighted and surprised that, after a challenging initial few weeks of studies, these scientific classes turned out not to be as impenetrable as he’d assumed they would be. As Rinpoche described it, the Western science courses made him exercise his mind in new ways. This experience was a profound and enjoyable experience for him.
Outside of his own classes, Rinpoche acted as a consultant to several graduate students who required assistance penetrating text translations and understanding aspects of practice they are covering in their PhD theses. He also lectured in Professor Jacob Dalton’s Buddhist Studies classes, where he discussed Buddhist monastic life. Professor Dalton described Rinpoche’s talk as a highlight of the course for many of his students.
Rinpoche frequently joined I-House student outings to see the San Francisco sights. These social occasions were important to Rinpoche, who used them to observe and develop his English and nonverbal communications skills. Surprisingly, of all the challenges he faced as a visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley, Rinpoche described his greatest challenge as mastering the art of handling conversation interruptions without appearing rude to Westerners.
Rinpoche observed that his experience as a visiting scholar made him acutely aware that different people need to learn in different ways. He notes that this is the way Buddhism has always been presented: Different methods are prescribed for teaching different students. However, his exposure to the many different people and different cultures and different learning styles (at I-House), his observation of Professor Dalton’s teaching methods, his perception of the intellectual approach taken by the graduate students he advised, and his personal experience in learning Western science gave him a deep appreciation for the variety of different teaching methods available, and the importance of applying each of them in the proper context. He believes that what he learned as a visiting scholar will enrich his teaching of his monks back in Sikkim, and will perhaps prepare him to teach students in other countries in the future.
Rinpoche expressed tremendous gratitude to KF for sponsoring him as a visiting scholar this year. He described the experience as being even better than he expected, and providing him three main benefits: He has new teaching methods to apply. He has new analytical skills to enhance his own understanding. And he has received an exposure to Western scientific knowledge that has inspired him with an even greater appreciation for the beauty and value of Buddhist teachings for the world today.
Dongsung Shabdrung Rinpoche crossed the KF “bridge” from India to the United States in order to acquire and develop skills and knowledge that he may someday use to carry Buddhist knowledge to Western students. It is quite inspiring to note that, on his return journey, he is also carrying Western scholarly tools and cultural insights back to India.