Two Personal Accounts of Life at Deer Park

Andrew Schelling, a poet, author of 15 books, student of natural history, and amateur mountaineer and Kurt Schwalbe, a professor of Classical Tibetan, write about their experiences at Deer Park Institute.

Tibetan style buildings with mountains and grey sky in the background. In the centre there is a rainbow.

Andrew Schelling, a poet, author of 15 books, student of natural history, and amateur mountaineer and Kurt Schwalbe, a professor of Classical Tibetan, write about their experiences at Deer Park Institute.

Andrew Schelling

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche had invited my partner, Marlow Brooks, to Deer Park. In August 2006, when Marlow introduced me to Rinpoche at a retreat in Leggett, California, he turned to me and asked, “Are you coming to India too?” I hadn’t been to India in over 10 years, but with his quick warm invitation, and knowing Deer Park as a center for classical Indian studies (a subject close to my heart), I said yes. When we arrived the next January, the terrific, dedicated administrators, Prashant and Jennifer, with their Punjabi-rock ‘n’ roll-singing support crew, had arranged a week-long arts festival. (continued…) I hadn’t been prepared for the generosity, for the warm friendship, or for the kind of place where teaching and learning could happen in such utterly open, playful circumstances. Meditation in the early morning amid butter lamps. Spacious courtyards where we could sing out poetry and release wild animal cries, or walk at night with lit candles. An outdoor communal dining hall where students from across the planet came and went. The setting is gorgeous–and profoundly interesting if you value snow-peak mountains, soaring forests, cold streams, animated bird life, and the endless processionals and pujas you find around Indian temples. The Kangra Valley turns out to be a center for archaic goddess worship (there are nine famous temples) and a major fly-over path for migrating eagles. Also, it’s full of terraced tea fields and many ornate new Buddhist gompas.

Rinpoche has quite a few devoted Indian students, most of them artists or scholars. Enduring friendships with them are the most unexpected result of visiting Deer Park. It must be Rinpoche’s easy international ways, his commitment to returning Buddhism to India, as well as his own film making, that draw unconventional people–artists, travelers, bohemians–to Deer Park. I decided to run a day-long poetry course for the arts event, where the group would create a linked-verse poem (Japanese form: renga, collaborative poem). When 35 people showed up, I was stunned. Participants ranged from about 14 years old to their mid-70s, and included Indians, Chinese, Japanese, a Kashmiri, an Israeli, Belgian, Spanish, Australian, and a few Americans, and with Rinpoche joining in, Tibetan. Nobody got tired of poetry, and we worked (and played) hard and seriously all day. By the end the shy youngsters were bold makers of verse, and we ended up with a poem that miraculously held together, flavored with Chinese monosyllables, Spanish romanticism, Kashmiri sense of the ghazal poetic form, and bawdy Tibetan Dharma humor. Through it all–and through another arts festival held the following autumn–ran these questions: What is art? What is its connection to Buddhism? Why do we so strongly need to make things of beauty and insight? Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche threw himself right in with the questions–one of the things I admire most about him. He seems more interested in questions than answers, and he likes to stir up conversation between people from far-away cultures. He capped the first festival with several days of talks in the Manjushri Hall, in which he studied both Tibetan and Western notions of art, trying along with the rest of us to get a sense of why it’s so important.

Andrew Schelling is a poet, author of 15 books, student of natural history, and amateur mountaineer. His translations from classical India are celebrated and have received an award from the Academy of American Poets and two Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry grants. He is currently working on an anthology of Indian bhakti (devotional) poetry for Oxford University Press, India.

Kurt Schwalbe

Our group of Deer Park Institute students felt lost and alone. After a much delayed train ride, the chaos of the train station swirled around us. Suddenly, the Deer Park Institute drivers appeared, calm and confident. They immediately organized our group and had us rolling toward Bir. After a long ride in the dark through unfamiliar territory, we pulled up to the Institute gates. Smiling faces were everywhere. Prashant’s first words to us endeared him to me forever: “We have kept dinner hot for you.”

I went to my beautiful, clean room with its beautiful, clean toilet and slept very well. When I walked out on the veranda the next morning, I felt I had awakened into a dream. I looked out at the courtyard and up the steps to a beautiful shrine hall framed by snow mountains. Shangri-La images flooded my mind. At breakfast, I met the staff and more of our group. Deer Park Institute makes me very happy and comfortable when I consider the treatment of the staff. The staff eats the same food as the guests! There are enrichment programs for staff as well, enabling them to continue their education while working. Some of the staff members were away, participating in an international peace march.

I loved seeing the well-treated dogs on the grounds, who were fed and cared for regularly. And I especially welcomed the emphasis on waste reduction and recycling at DPI. This program is a beacon in the night in India. I am so happy to see the Institute take this leadership position.

I had planned some months before to come to India to teach a course in Classical Tibetan to some Dharma students. We had arranged another location but that was cancelled. One of the students knew of Deer Park and suggested to Prashant that the Institute host the course. The Institute kindly agreed, and we were back on the schedule.

We had a excellent group of ten students from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. We studied together for a month, meeting in the main shrine hall. By the end of the course, we read the Heart Sutra together. We also read a number of short devotional poems. Our exercise on the last day of the class was to read some of the inscriptions on the beams of the entrance to the shrine room.

DPI was a very powerful and peaceful place for us to study. I especially enjoyed that Tibetan and Himachali people included it on their pilgrimage walks. I was surprised at first when people came in during our class to make prostrations, circumambulations, and offerings at the main altar. I came to find it charming that we all were performing our practice together in our own manner.

I am very thankful to Deer Park Institute for giving us this place to study Classical Tibetan. And the food was fabulous.

Kurt Schwalbe earned his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California. He is currently a professor of Classical Tibetan and will teach at DPI again in February 2009.