Dharma in Flux

In exile, Tibetan Buddhism adapts to new conditions and to new followers.

Karma Pemba is a 13-year-old Tibetan monk at the Thrangu Tashi Sholing monastery in Baudha. His parents fled Tibet to settle in Gorkha in central Nepal, where he was born. He was ordained as a monk last year, but so far religion has only meant studying, eating and playing together with other monks like him in his gomba.

It is likely that Karma will know only a monk's life. But this is okay, says he, tittering and hiding his face in the sleeves of his red robe, "I like my guru and I like my gomba. I am glad my father sent me here."


Until early this century Westerners looked upon Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, the indestructible path, as a corrupt version of Buddhism. That many Tibetan masters ate meat and visualised gods and goddesses garlanded with skeletons convinced British observers that this form of Buddism was inferior to the Theravada tradition, prevalent in South and South-East Asia.

More recently, however, scholars have realised that this view is unfounded and, what it more, that Tibetan Buddhism has preserved the unbroken lineage of and developed on the whole breadth of Buddhism as it existed in India seven centuries ago.

Today, the world over, there is growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism, and this can be attributed chiefly to the increased access to Tibetan dharma teachers since their exile from their homeland. Dharma centres have sprung up in more than 50 countries — there are an estimated 200 in North America alone.

But even as these centres attract more new members, monasteries may be seeing a decline in the number of Tibetan monks like Karma Pemba. Before 1959, the Sera, Drepung and Ganden monasteries in Tibet altogether housed more than 20,000 inmates. In exile, Tibetans have recreated these "big three" in Mysore, South India, with a population of roughly 8,000 monks.


Today's non-Tibetan followers arc seeking  ways to make Vajrayana more relevant to their daily lives. While some practitioners still enter three-year or even twelve-year retreats, most live at home, meshing religion with daily-life. They learn the practice of Tibetan Buddhism through short seminars and retreats.

Frederique Lawn, 26, of Switzerland is an exception. He has already spent three years studying the Tibetan tantric way at Baudha, which over the past decade has become the hub of Tibetan learning for Westerners.

Lawn quit college and came to South Asia in search of "the truth," which he found in Tibetan Buddhism. He has lived in Kathmandu, mostly without a visa, and spends his meagre saving following rinpoches (Tibetan masters) to India and back.

For Lawn and others like him in Baudha, Tibetan Buddhism fulfills a need not addressed in their own cultures. "It teaches emptiness, a philosophy which enriches rather than takes away from your life," explains Lawn. Understanding "emptiness", in fact, is what brings thousands of seekers every year from all over to Baudha.

"Emptiness is like a snake. If you catch it at the wrong end, you are bound to get bitten." Thus spoke the sage-scholar Nagarjuna, who expounded the first treatise on Madhyamika philosophy, the essence of Vajrayana. Says Sridhar Rana, a long-time practitioner, "Emptiness ultimately means pratitya-samudpada, or interdependent existence. Nothing has inherent existence and the recognition of this fact, is itself, emptiness."


But for many Tibetans, like 25-year-old Paljor, who is studying commerce in a Kathmandu college, religion remains a matter of traditional faith. He visits monasteries on special occasions, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Paljor sports a zi around his neck and wears blue jeans. He says, "Gompas are nice." But he criticises the well-heeled Tibetans of Thamel who go around in cars. "They don't know anything, and they don't have faith," he says.

Most Tibetans, however, do have faith and are content to circumambulate stupas spinning prayer wheels and reciting om mane padme hum as they tum beads; but the finer points of "emptiness" would elude them as well. Nonetheless, these lay Tibetans turn to rinpoches for blessings and in times of strife. Says 32-year-old Tempa Sherpa, a well-to-do shopkeeper in Baudha, "I go to the rinpoches whenever I have family problems, social problems, even financial problems. They can help."

Some of the younger Kathmandu-raised, English-educated refugees question whether all rinpoches are truly detached from material things. A young Tibetan, who asked not to be identified, spoke critically of one tulku (reincarnate lama) who is said to have NRs4 million to build himself a mansion.

"I think most rinpoches are genuine," says Tashi, 23, of Thamel, who was educated in a private school in Darjeeling. "But I do not know what they teach. So, I pray in the English way. My mom goes to Swayambhu to see a rinpoche, but I don't."

Although many seminars and teachings provide non-traditional opportunities to study the religion in Kathmandu Valley, few younger Tibetans attend. Of the 60 participants who attended a seminar conducted by Thrangu Rinpoche at his monastery in Baudha in January, fewer titan five were urbanite Nepalis. There were no Tibetans.

There could be several reasons why younger Tibetans do not show up at such teachings. Seminars are advertised in foreign publications and tend to be too expensive for lay Tibetans. Further, the teachings arc conducted in highly Sanskritised Tibetan and translated into English — both being of little use to most Tibetans.


The seminars, however, are important to rinpoches because they help defray the high costs of their gompas. Aside from Tibetan exiles and Westerners, the Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan have also recently started to provide funds for building and maintaining the monasteries. Today, there are 12 monasteries in Baudha, and altogether about 150 in India and Nepal.

Some rinpoches stress the importance of monasteries. "Once you have gompas you have other things like hospitals and schools," says Choklin Rinpoche of the Sher Dup Ling Monastery in Baudha.

Others, however, believe that such institutionalisation is not necessary. Namkhai Norbu, a rinpoche with centres all over the world and his base in Italy, believes that big monasteries are not important and that you can teach the essence of Tibetan Buddhism anywhere by adapting to specific societies. As he wrote in a recent book, one does not need intellectual, cultural or historical knowledge for the study of Zogchen (a form of Tibetan Buddhism), which "cannot be said to belong to the culture of any country."

Making Buddhism adaptable to a new environment might have explained Chogyam Trungpa's success in the west. Trungpa, who founded the Naropa Instinute in Boulder, Colorado (the only accredited Buddhist university in the United States) took a British wife, drank and smoked, but he understood the Western mind better than most.

Michael Girodo, a former student of Trungpa who coordinates the Nepal program at the Naropa Institute, says that Naropa continues to change with the times, as Trunga had envisaged: "Many foreigners are not sure of what they are looking for. Trungpa wanted to provide them with opportunities to explore eastern and western philosophies and world-views. This is why in Naropa we have psychology classes and meditation classes, Tai Chi and theatre."


Tibetan Buddhism is in transition. As it gains new ground around the world, it faces historically unique challenges. More and more, it is addressing the needs not just of Tibetans, but of diverse groups of people, from Japan to Mexico, who seek in Vajrayana a spiritual anchoring to their fast-paced, modern lives. While Tibetan Buddhism is already adapt-big itself to the demands of others, is it responding to the changing Tibetan culture in exile? Among younger Tibetans, as the Dalai Lama himself recognises, there may be less faith but more reasoning. This, he said, was good, for what the Tibetans have inherited they must now re-inheret and make their own. Here lies the challenge of the Tibetan monasteries and rinpoches in exile.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian