My afternoon with a Tibetan Buddhist scholar

This is going to be one of my longer articles, so feel free to go make a nice cup of tea and get in a zen position. In addition, if you are hoping to read that at the end of my afternoon with a Tibetan Buddhist scholar I rushed home and put my Ferrari up for sale, you will be sorely disappointed. I don’t own a Ferrari or any car, not through lack of wanting.

Without going into my own life story too much, as this is an afternoon with a Tibetan Buddhists and not an afternoon with my marvellous self. I have been living in Asia, as an expat, for over seven years now and whilst living and travelling around Asia you eventually become more aware of the many religious and philosophical practices that can take multiple forms.

If you weren’t aware, Asia is the largest continent in the world and the birthplace of numerous religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism among others. All these religions are practised in Asia with multiple forms continually emerging.

As a person who likes the mental masturbation of debating with wiser people than myself. I often see, what I believe was, Buddhist monks wandering around Singapore and start to reel off in my mind certain questions that I would like to ask them over a cup of coffee. Usually, one of the questions revolves around cosmology or their beliefs in evolution. However, sometimes one of the more moronic questions that I would like to ask is, do they care as much as myself as to when the new iPhone is coming out.

For many of us, 2020 has been a write-off. And we had to endure quarantines, social distancing and the realisation of pandemic fear. During my own quarantine time, I went from being albeit semi-sane to going a little crazy and talking to myself (a bit more) and then hopefully back to full or semi-sane again. I was aware that I needed to occupy myself and try to keep to some sort of routine. Therefore, I started to learn the piano, read more and try my hand at meditation. Rummaging through my amazingly vast book collection (of about 20 books) I came across a book a friend gave me called What Makes You Not a Buddhist by the Tibetan Buddhist master Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. I’d been meaning to read it for many months but I always seemed to be awfully busy with catching up on Dynasty or some Kdrama on Netflix.

After reading a few pages of the book I started to have this urge to visit Tibet or Nepal with the intention of not only exploring these beautiful countries but also with the aspiration of being able to stay at a monastery. Who knows what I may find, maybe some sort of spiritual awakening or at the very least something I felt was missing from my life.

I decided to reach out to my friend who gave me the book to explore the possibilities of staying at a monastery in Tibet. At first, he asked me why I had suddenly had this urge to visit a monastery (I will keep that to myself). Once he heard my answer he explained that Nepal, from his point of view, would be an easier place to start my journey. As luck would also have it my friend knows both master Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse and his prodigy Khenpo Choying Dorjee who is Head Principal and Abbot of Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute.

Fortunately, for me maybe not master Khenpo, he was stuck in Singapore due to the lockdown and was unable to return to India. Knowing that I had an interest in finding out more about Buddhism my friend organised a lunch date (during phase 2 of the circuit breaker) for us all to meet. I decided to formulate some questions to ask master Khenpo, on areas that I wanted to explore more deeply. And so begins my afternoon with a Tibetan Buddhist.

Lunch with Master Khenpo

As I am waiting for master Khenpo I am joined by my friend who organised the meeting and one of my oldest friends in Singapore, who regularly does yoga and goes on meditation courses. I thought it would be nice for her to also meet master Khenpo, as she has similar beliefs to myself. Thinking back on my emotions now, it sort of reminded me of how I would look forward to opening my presents on Christmas day. However, this time my presents would be in the form of the knowledge that master Khenpo would provide.

My friend looks up and says, “here is master Khenpo”, and as one might expect from seeing a Buddhist scholar he was wearing the traditional robe (Kāṣāya), a shaved head and prayer beads on his left wrist. I wondered if there was any significance to wearing the beads of his left wrist but decided it wasn’t a good time to ask. Being a polite westerner I immediately stood up and reach out my hand (the traditional customary greeting) but master Khenpo being a Buddhist scholar, of course, brings his hands together whilst bowing his head and says namaste. In the meantime, I somewhat embarrassingly but swiftly turn my handshake into the same hand position, bow and reciprocate with namaste.

I believe now will be a good time to apologise to my readers. The questions that I put together were in hindsight possibly not the best but I only had a morning to come up with them. Well, that’s the excuse that I will give.

After around 20 minutes of general chit chat and ordering some food I open my laptop to find the questions that I had compiled and pressed record on my dictaphone.

Question List

1. At what age did you start practising Buddhism?

Master Khenpo: I was born into a Buddhist family. My father is a monk and a Buddhist practitioner. Even before learning the Tibetan words, I learnt how to chant and recite the seven-limb prayer.

2. Can you be part of a religious group and practice Buddhism?

Master Khenpo: Fundamentally, it depends on the individual and what it means to be a Buddhist. Of course, you can say that you are this and that but if you believe in a true God then that in itself makes you not a Buddhist. The objective of the person might be the same but the content is different. For instance, Buddhism uses many similar words to other religions, such as compassion but the definition will be different if you look deeper. You can be a good friend to them but to be a true practitioner it can not be.

3. How do you as a Buddhist explain Karma?

Master Khenpo: Karma is action. If there is no action there is no result. If you are good to others you will be rewarded with good results. In Buddhism, karma has a different meaning from other religions. From a Buddhist’s point of view, it is not God who decides on the action or law of karma. Furthermore, karma may or may not affect you in your current life. If it is a significant action it is more likely to reverberate in your next life.

4. Sometimes I see life as a test. Life seems to throw desirable temptations at me to see how I will deal with them. Could it be said that the path to enlightenment is to not be swayed by desires, such as greed and temptation?

Master Khenpo: That is one of the biggest obstacles in life. Greed and temptation, amongst other acts and desires, are ultimately delusions. Many people are drawn by such things but it’s just illusionary.

5. If the ultimate goal is enlightenment, would this mean that you wouldn’t be reincarnated again?

Master Khenpo: Once you are awake you will no longer experience a nightmare. When you reach enlightenment and are in nirvana you are awake. Fundamentally, you will be in control and thus be able to decide if you want to be reincarnated again or not. However, once someone is awake and liberated they generally do not wish to be born again. If you were in nirvana would you want to leave?

6. Do you use digital accessories and do you think that being in the digital era is making us less connected to ourselves and others?

Master Khenpo: Haha, I am completely dominated by the iPhone, Zoom and Facebook but it really depends on how we use these resources. For instance, it is easy to connect to new people, especially at times like this during a pandemic lockdown. From a distraction point of view, yes this can be a distraction from things like meditation and grounding but as it is becoming the “norm” I think only time will tell. As long as our mind and body stay focused and doesn’t change then we can spiritually evolve.

7. What would you suggest would be a good place to start for someone wanting to explore Buddhism?

Master Khenpo: I would suggest reading The Way Of The Bodhisattva and Madhymaka Alangkara. If you are a logical and rational thinker then it will be good to read Buddhism philosophy books. Essentially, I recommend people to read books that will not only train and expand your mind but cultivate you too. When we have a bigger mind, then negative emotion will spontaneously reduce. You need to find a stable foundation to build upon.

So folks, there you have it. Hopefully, you enjoyed reading this article and we intend to have future discussions, such as this one with master Khenpo. Of note, the conversation did go on after the seven questions were asked and we delved into things like The Big Bang Theory and the evolutionary chain. However, I decided not to include that conversation in this article with the intention of exploring these questions at a later stage, possibly in a podcast.

On a final note. Both the books that master Khenpo mentioned are available on Amazon (surprise surprise). Please bear in mind, that English is not master Khenpo’s first language and although he commands a great understanding of the English language it is not his native tongue.

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