Buddhist Teacher Training
Himalayan Scholars in the West
My vision is if we can produce the facilities and the teachers, in the next 100 years, we will have Buddhism intact.
In order to produce authentic Buddhist teachers for the 21st century and beyond, we need to train both western teachers and Himalayan scholars. In this issue, we report on four outstanding Himalayan scholars whom KF has been fully supporting, who are now studying in the West. They are Sonam Jamtsho and Sithar Samdup, studying at the University of Hamburg in Germany, and Jigme Lodoe and Phurbu Tsering, studying at Naropa University in the United States.
Photo above right: Tsering (left) and Jigme at Naropa’s main campus in Boulder.
From Bhutan to Germany
Shedra Graduates Studying at Hamburg University
Both Sonam and Sithar are from the kingdom of Bhutan. They studied for years at Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö Institute in Northern India before they joined the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asia-Africa Institute, at the University of Hamburg, to further their Buddhist studies in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Sonam finished his MA earlier this year and is now enrolled in the PhD program, studying and doing research on Buddhist epistemology from a philological and historical perspective. Well versed in Madhyamaka and many other classical Buddhist texts, Sonam is teaching classical Tibetan language at the request the department. He is also learning Sanskrit and German to better equip himself academically. Outside of campus, he gives regular Buddhist talks to the dharma centers in Hamburg, as well as teaching and translating for the Milinda Program, another KF initiative to train western Buddhist teachers.
Sonam told us, “Coming to study at a western academic institution, after more than a decade-long study in a traditional monastic setting, was a big change and sometimes challenging, both in terms of practical life and the intellectual milieu. It was not easy to navigate in a big city like Hamburg, coming from a small village.
“Through another KF initiative, the Milinda Program, I was able to teach some important subjects of the monastic curriculum to western dharma practitioners. I have also been teaching some classical Buddhist texts to the Rigpa sangha here in Hamburg. Thus, I was able to maintain the continuity of the study of Buddhist literature and philosophy, begun some 13 years ago in the Himalayan monasteries.”
Sithar arrived in Hamburg one year after Sonam. He is now working on his MA thesis, researching manuscripts and philologically translating the text and commentary of Parting from the Four Attachments by Jetsun Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147-1216).
Photo left: Sithar Samdup in Hamburg. The background is Hamburg Rathaus. March, 2019.
Right: Sonam Jamtsho in Taiwan.
Professor Dorji Wangchuk of the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asia-Africa Institute, University of Hamburg, is Sonam’s supervisor in his PhD studies and has been the mentor of both Sonam and Sithar since they joined the department. Professor Wangchuk shared with us, “First of all, I wish to thank KF in general for supporting students from different backgrounds in their pursuit of further studies at our department, and specially for enabling students from Buddhist monastic seminaries in South Asia such as Sonam and Sithar to come and study with me.
“Some of the challenges in general are that students such as these need more time, especially if they wish to become rigorous scholars in the field. Students and scholars of Tibetan Buddhist studies without at least a working knowledge of Sanskrit, for example, have a disadvantage over those who possess such knowledge. So I strongly advised them to take courses in Sanskrit language. They did, and are continuing to do so. Likewise, studying in Germany and not being able to use secondary sources crucial for their research is also a huge disadvantage for them. I thus also encourage them to learn German, which they are doing. But all of these require time. There is, unfortunately, no short-cut to good training and a strong foundation.
“Another challenge they face is getting used to the academic conventions and implementing the tools and techniques consistently and rigorously. However, I am very confident that they will easily meet these challenges.
“Once again, I am grateful to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Khyentse Foundation for helping us to ‘build scholars’.”
Khyentse Foundation has been working with the University of Hamburg for a decade. In January 2011, Professor Wangchuk established the Khyentse Center for Tibetan Buddhist Textual Scholarship in the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asia-Africa Institute, at the university. Supported by a grant from Khyentse Foundation, the center is devoted to scholarly investigation of Tibetan texts, primarily Buddhist.
From India to USA
Buddhist Scholars in Boulder, Naropa University
By Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown and Cassell Gross
In early January 2020, two instantly likeable young monks— Phurbu Tsering from Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö Institute in Chauntra, and Jigme Lodoe from Tashi Jong, which is not far from Chauntra— arrived in Boulder to attend classes at Naropa University. They came to Naropa as visiting scholars to experience how dharma is taught in English in the United States, and to interact directly with American college students. Their study and life are going very well here in the United States, despite the unexpected pandemic. Both of them are now preparing applications for the Robert Ho Foundation fellowship at Harvard Divinity School with the full support of the Naropa faculty. Here is their story.
Tsering and Jigme settled into Snow Lion, their Naropa dormitory, and began to explore which classes they would choose. After sampling three classes, they decided to take all three: a shedra-style class with an initial focus on abhidharma, a class on the second turning (bodhisattva path and Madhyamaka), and a class on Maitri space awareness.
The first class paralleled their studies in India, but was presented with greater emphasis on meditation practice and the relevance of the abhidharma for the practitioner. The second course, based on the Indian Mahayana tradition, focused on the sutras and shastras that were foundational in Tibet. While Tsering and Jigme were very much at home with the topics of these two courses, they found the emphasis on practice, personal experience, and historical context fascinating. They also became curious about how western students learn and what kinds of questions they ask.
The third course, Maitri, was based on the transmissions of Naropa’s founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, introducing Vajrayana to a western audience with little familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism. This training is foundational in Naropa’s curriculum, with versions developed for psychology, education, the arts, and Buddhist studies, each with a different emphasis on the mandala principle. In addition to readings, students engage in solitary posture practice in five different rooms with colors, shapes, and lighting appropriate to each of the five points of the mandala. Doing the postures in the rooms ensures that the material is taught in an experiential way, emphasizing the wisdom dimension of the kleshas (emotions) and the five buddhas. The monks found themselves engaged in discussions about emotions and daily life that exposed them to the psychology of American college students. As the semester progressed, they were able to engage and share more and more, to the delight of their fellow students.
Tsering and Jigme study weekly with their English tutor, Cassell Gross, who previously taught at Dzongsar Institute. Because she is also a longtime dharma practitioner, originally a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, at their request they began to read the first volume of Trungpa Rinpoche’s The Profound Treasury, the Hinayana teachings from his many seminaries for western students. Although their English is very good, there’s always more to learn, especially when it comes to writing. Cassell remarked, “Everything was going along fairly smoothly for these two bright young Tibetan men from India coming to Boulder to learn about the West. They got the drift fairly quickly. One day Tsering said, ‘You know, we don’t really know what people are talking about when they talk about their ‘issues.’ Now, only a few months later, they have far more understanding and sensitivity toward the personal and social ‘issues’ their colleagues grapple with.”
Right away they bought bus passes, opened checking accounts, and found a nearby grocery store that carried most of what they need for meals. Soon they discovered the Indian grocery for hard-to-find spices. Their first outing was with a Christian roommate of Jigme’s, who took them to a Denver Christian church service. Two visiting Bhutanese professors took them to Shambhala Mountain Center to see the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. Their roommate also took them to the Rockies for hiking and to Denver to survey the city, and they have been biking around Boulder. In the community of students, they joined study groups with their classmates, and delighted their roommates with curry meals.
Tsering and Jigme excited about bicycling in Boulder.
For practice, they joined the Boulder Shambhala Center on Losar, and participated in the Sadhana of Mahamudra Losar Feast at Naropa, chanting along as if they’d been doing it for years. Cassell said, “Jigme told me later that he was well-trained to chant wholeheartedly even when he didn’t know what he was reading.” They took a weekend compassion program exploring Tibetan Buddhist, Zen, and Pure Land compassion practices, and were intrigued with the structured dialogue sessions with their classmates as well as by the guided compassion practices they learned.
When the pandemic hit, Naropa University moved all courses online. Tsering and Jigme fell right into the new routines, with many hours per week of online classes. They sheltered in place with their Snow Lion roommates, and although they missed seeing their classmates in person, they quickly learned to “socially distance” and to wear masks while shopping. They are in contact with their families, assuring them that they are safe and well. They miss the library and the campus. However, they relish the opportunity to do full mornings of practice, saying that as monks it’s natural to do retreat during a pandemic. Their Naropa faculty host, Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown, meets with them several times a week to review their studies and their questions. She observed, “Tsering and Jigme are so fresh and bright, with new ideas about how the dharma could be taught in India, both within the shedra and to laypeople. They joined the Naropa community so quickly, and have managed the transition to the pandemic quite gracefully.”
Their plans for the summer were curtailed by the pandemic too. Instead of visiting various retreat places, they have been doing online retreats—Nitartha Institute programs with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and The Profound Treasury Retreat with Judy Lief. For the month of June, a former Gampo Abbey monk, Ven. Loden Nyima, came from Shambhala Mountain Center to Boulder and personally tutored them on Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training teachings and meditation practices, which they enjoyed immensely, finding them very powerful. They remarked that previously they could read the words of Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala book, but now they understand the meaning and understand how these teachings are relevant for monastics and lay people, both Asian and western.
Tsering and Jigme recognize that they would be locked down wherever they were in the world, and cheerfully feel Boulder and Colorado are beautiful sites to shelter in place. They especially enjoy walking and biking along Boulder Creek, through the neighborhoods, and in the Flatirons rock formations on the edge of the city. And they look forward to the fall when Naropa classes begin again.
Lopons Tsering and Jigme have continued their studies at Naropa University with two spring courses, conducted as hybrids combining in-person learning with COVID precautions and online learning. They are studying First Turning, a graduate seminar based on the foundational teachings from the Theravada canon, with an emphasis on the life of the Buddha, the four noble truths, karma cause and effect, and the poetry of the early monks and nuns.
Their second course is called Contemplative Communication, emphasizing pastoral counseling skills and spiritual caregiving. While both courses are intriguing to them, they are particularly struck by the second , which emphasizes the skills of Buddhist ministry. They are learning to listen to the challenges of their classmates and to share their own vulnerable hearts in dyads and small groups. It has been a revelation to them that deep listening and sharing from the heart have such capacities for healing. Through this they have become deeply interested in the ministerial arts, including pastoral counseling, mediating conflict, group facilitation, and western-style dharma teaching. Jigme has noticed how much easier it is to be with those who are suffering, and Tsering remarked, “I can now look back on my life’s journey as preparation to do this kind of work.”
As a direct result of their new interest in the Masters of Divinity course of study, Tsering and Jigme are now preparing applications for the Robert Ho Foundation fellowship at Harvard Divinity School, geared especially for Asian Buddhists to train to better serve their home communities. This competitive fellowship program supports one year of study at Harvard to “enhance their understanding of Buddhist ministry from an international perspective,” as the grant guidelines state. They are preparing to take the TOEFL reading, writing, and listening comprehension exam in mid-December, supported by deeper focus on the reading and writing skills with their ESL tutor, Cassell Gross. Naropa faculty members are supporting their work on their statements of purpose for the Harvard applications. Whatever the outcome, both Tsering and Jigme feel that this process is strengthening their English competency, deepening their understanding of western academic and Buddhist culture, and further refining their own vocational interests for the future.
In the meantime, they are also joining diverse online trainings, conferences, and meditation programs, including the Shambhala Training level weekends, designed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, to make meditation accessible to western audiences. In spite of the pandemic, they remain constantly busy and engaged. As the months pass, Tsering and Jigme are joining discussions of personal experience of meditation practice with friends and others in their programs with a greater sense of connection and understanding, demonstrating how much they are learning every day.
IN OTHER NEWS
Read about the Milinda Program, a 10-year contemporary shedra for westerners.
Learn more about Teacher Training with Mrs. Das at DKCLI.
Sit with Me, the first KF Children’s book prize winner book, by the late Carolyn Kanjuro, is available for purchase.
Watch Rinpoche’s teaching A contemporary Buddhist perspective on Myth, Language, Globalization and Society Values, November 25, Taipei.