April 07, 2014

Bridging the Gap

Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal updates the age-old tradition of the scholar-practitionerNoa Jones

There is a 6th-century ruin in the Bihar state of India where visitors can walk amid knee-high remnants of once stately walls, kicking up dust and reading plaques before heading out for a fresh lime soda and respite from the sun. The site of Vikramasila University is probably not in your Lonely Planet. Its disappearance from history is staggering. Imagine visiting the grounds of Oxford or MIT and finding only foundations. Not a single book, no record of the vital discourse that took place, no sign of the rigorous training of future holders of the wisdom traditions. With Buddhism already in sharp decline, the army of general Muhammad Khilji made easy work of destroying the place during the 12th-century Muslim conquests, after which, for centuries, Indian Buddhist education retreated into the natural enclaves of the Himalayas.

Tibetan Buddhist philosophy slowly reemerged in Western universities as a subject of cerebral academic study where it was, and still often is, considered unprofessional for an instructor to actually proclaim faith in the teachings of the Buddha, let alone follow a guru. Today, unlike at the time of Vikramasila, when the great tantric practitioner and yogi Atisha was head abbot, analysis in Western academic institutions is the rule and devotion is profane.

"I know a few top professors who wish to receive teachings, specifically on nature of mind, but they cannot because they think if they see a master and get teachings they will lose their prestige," says Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal. "Even if you don't study much, you can be a good practitioner. But if you are a scholar and you don't practice…very big waste. There's no greater waste than that."

Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche set about to change the landscape of Tibetan Buddhist education for Westerners in 1979, and was quickly joined by a number of principal scholars, practitioners, and, importantly, translators from Western academia and traditional centers of learning. Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI) began to take shape in Boudhanath, Nepal, in the model of the monastic college system of Vikramasila and Nalanda that has been responsible for training many of the great teachers of dharma throughout history. The idea was to break down the divide between academia and practice by developing programs to cultivate what Rinpoche calls "scholar-practitioners."

"The argument could be made that there are elements of Buddhist philosophy that are very hard to understand if there isn't also some kind of supporting spiritual discipline," says John Makransky, a professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston College and a senior academic advisor at RYI. But in this age of separation of church and state, there is a fear of crossing the line.

Translation was a key to establishing the link between learned masters from the East and scholars from the West. Without expert Tibetan-English translators, it was impossible to give nuanced explanations of texts and students were not able to clarify questions that arose.

"Over 100 people would come every year for Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche's seminars on subjects like Mahamudra, Dzogchen, the mirror of mindfulness, lamp of mahamudra," says author and translator Marcia Dechen Wangmo. “By 1997, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche realized the need was greater than just seminars and he wanted to find a way to bring students into the environment of study and practice." Eric Pema Kunzang started training a small group of translators, and together with Marcia Dechen Wangmo, Andreas and Thomas Doctor, Heidi Koppel, and a handful of others, developed an infrastructure to help Rinpoche bridge the gap.

The RYI seminars have now fully blossomed into an internationally recognized accredited institution, The Center for Buddhist Studies (CBS) in Boudhanath, Nepal. Western scholars such as John Dunne, Tom Tillemans, Georges Dreyfus, Jonardon Ganeri, Jay Garfield, and many others from top universities come to RYI as guest lecturers. These Western academics are joined by classically trained Tibetan Buddhist scholars who teach year round at the institute.

The current incarnation of The Center for Buddhist Studies dates back to 2001 when an agreement was signed with Kathmandu University allowing the Institute to grant bachelor's degrees to students after completion of their studies. The institute now offers a bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Studies with Himalayan Languages, master’s programs in translation and Buddhist Studies, and a PhD program. Many still come for the non-degree programs such as the summer intensives and online courses. In 2013 there were about 106 students on campus, 140 online, and about 80 students attended the intensive summer programs. With expanding campus facilities, the institute will soon be able to accommodate 200. About 95 percent of students are international and 5 percent local Nepalis and second-generation Tibetans.

Rinpoche was very clear from the beginning that the institute needed to operate with the highest of standards. The result is an intensive and rigorous curriculum. "Anyone who comes here and thinks, 'Oh I'm just going to eat pray love and meditate in class,' think again," says Marvin Cotton, a first year student from the US.

Cotton had only recently been exposed to Buddhist philosophy during a vacation to Thailand. "I came home to Fort Lauderdale and I said, this isn't my life any more. I had a very good job, good career, beautiful apartment, fabulous car and as I was putting my key inside the lock, I said, I don't want any of this. And two months later I was here," he says. "Here" in this case is a shaded courtyard where students are taking a break a few steps away from the Boudhanath Stupa, close enough to hear the chanting of monks from Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. Students from all over the world are clustered in groups over tea, many in deep discussion. "I was a beginner. I didn't know who Manjushri was, I didn't know Nagarjurna, Bodhicharyavatara, nothing. Hinayana, Mahayana, all these phrases were foreign to me."

Now he is studying Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara and adapting to the environment. At the beginning of each class students prostrate to the lopon, or lama, giving the teaching. It's not mandatory. "For me the prostrations were a challenge. If you grow up in a Christian background, and quite honestly as a black man, you are told, you don't bow down to other people. I still had that brother mentality when I came. But then as time went by I started reading more and hearing more, and then I started prostrating after I took refuge with Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche at the fall seminar in November. I prostrate because the dharma is going to be taught."

This bridging of study and practice helps students connect on a heart level to the philosophical teachings, something that often is missing from academia. The main focus of the school is centered around the vitally important work of training translators as language continues to be the key to the East-West exchange. "From the very beginning there was an emphasis on training more translators," says Wangmo. "Paloma Lopez, Adam Pearcy, Catherine Dalton…a long list of people who have gone out and have been able to translate at centers in the West started here." 

"This is my sense of what the shedra represents for the current world, this emphasis on the close connection between study and practice,” says Makransky. “Deepening study can inform and empower practice and deepening practice can bring meaning to what you are studying. That unity of practice and learning can be informed by understandings of our contemporary world. The problems of the world can be newly addressed by this synergy of social and psychological analysis."

Makransky says that his fellow professors of Buddhism in academic institutions around the world are noting a tremendous increase in the number of undergraduates pursuing courses in Buddhism. "There is a tsunami of interest," he says, "not only in the academic study of Buddhism but in taking it into their work as students become trained as psychologists, translators, counselors, therapists, social workers, healthcare workers. Even people who are training in ministry in other religious traditions feel an urge to learn from Buddhism."

This folding of buddhadharma into the cultural fabric could be a sign of positive change, says Makransky. "It may be too early to say but it certainly looks to me, as a historian, that this is analogous to what happened in Asia when Buddhism spread into disparate cultures. It was invited into so many domains and classes of the culture in order to explore how it might benefit. That's what we see rising up now."

Noa Jones writes fiction and creative nonfiction. She also writes Tricycle's Food column. Read her latest here.

Image: Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche at the White Gompa © Risto Kuulasmaa

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