Pilgrimage and Travels | Thubten Chodron http://thubtenchodron.org The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Mon, 23 Oct 2017 02:16:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A life dedicated to the Dharma http://thubtenchodron.org/2017/05/compassionate-existence/ Fri, 12 May 2017 17:23:02 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=79580

  • Rejoicing in meeting old Dharma friends in Europe
  • About a visit to the Jewish Museum in Moscow, Russia

YouTube Video

The power of letting go http://thubtenchodron.org/2017/05/renouncing-suffering/ Wed, 10 May 2017 17:23:18 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=79581

  • Sharing on time spent at Lama Tsongkhapa Institute
  • Saving oneself from 37 years of pain

YouTube Video

Retreat in Mexico http://thubtenchodron.org/2001/06/confidence-in-the-practice/ Mon, 18 Jun 2001 06:27:05 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10806

I recently returned from a winter sojourn in Mexico, the first week spent leading a week-long Lamrim course/ retreat with 120 people, organized by Casa Tibet. This was followed by a month-long meditation retreat attended by 30 people, held at Tonalli, a beautiful retreat center in the countryside a few hours outside Mexico City. This was co-organized by DFF and Casa Tibet, and the blend of Mexicans and Americans meditating together was wonderful. The Americans were touched by the warmth of the Mexicans, their community spirit, and the instinctive feeling they had for the Dharma. The Mexicans benefited from strength and focus the Americans gave to the retreat due to their their serious attitude towards practice and their familiarity with the Manjushri sadhana.

Colorful mural on Vajrasattva on a building in Mexico.

It’s wonderful what people can do and how they can change when they’re able to concentrate on the Dharma with a supportive community in a good environment. (Photo by Wonderlane)

The retreat was held in silence, with six meditation sessions a day. No one missed a session the entire retreat, despite the difficulties of dealing with aches and pains of a body unused to sitting for so many hours a day. Almost everyone attended the optional seventh session of prostrations and The King of Prayers at the conclusion of the day. I would be inspired to see everyone meditating so diligently. It’s wonderful to see what people can do and how they can change when they’re able to concentrate on the Dharma with a supportive community in a good environment.

I’d given a series of talks on the Manjushri practice in Seattle in the autumn, and these were taped and sent to Mexico, so that people could prepare for the retreat beforehand. In the months preceding the retreat, in both Mexico and Seattle, the participants met together weekly to do the Manjushri practice so that they would be familiar with it before beginning the retreat. Still, during the first part of the retreat, participants listened to the tapes again, which they found beneficial.

While the group did Manjushri retreat in a larger room, I did solitary retreat in my room. I followed a slightly different schedule than the group, although we saw each other during meals and walking meditation. Once a week I met with the group for an informal question and answer and check-in session, during which people asked remaining questions about the meditation and about working with their mind and emotions.

The weather was generally warm and wonderful during the retreat, though it rained before New Year’s Eve. At that time, after the students left the meditation hall one afternoon, they saw a huge, perfect rainbow. After meditating so much on emptiness in conjunction with Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, they reflected that the rainbow exemplified what they were aiming to understand. It looked real but was intangible and unfindable. Nevertheless, produced by causes and conditions, it appeared and functioned to delight their minds.

At the end of the retreat, to enable people to summarize the highlights of the retreat, I asked them to write about what they had learned. The last day, we did a go-around, during which people shared their reflections. I was very impressed with their thoughtful comments. It was clear that they had done serious practice and really benefited from it. They saw their ego’s machinations and worked on them and also recognized their good qualities, giving them a new sense of self-confidence. Their refuge in the Three Jewels deepened, their bodhicitta expanded, and their understanding of emptiness deepened.

As the “leader” of the retreat, I learned that one of the best ways to lead is to set up a conducive structure in a good environment, give the teachings necessary to do the practice, and then get out of the way and let the students take the ball and run. In that way, people develop confidence in their own ability to work with their minds and to practice, and the retreatants bond together and support each other well.

Both the course and the retreat went extremely well. People were “blissed out” at the end of the retreat, and the feeling was contagious. Their family and friends who met them in Mexico City could see the difference. The retreatants immediately requested another month-long retreat again next year. We set the dates, so people can begin preparing now. The month-long Chenresig retreat will be December 15, 2001, to January 13, 2002, and the Lamrim course/retreat will be January 15-20, 2002.

Reconnecting with Buddhism in Asia http://thubtenchodron.org/2000/09/teaching-singapore-india/ Mon, 18 Sep 2000 20:17:11 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10713

Many of you have been asking about my recent trip to Singapore and India, so here goes.

I was in Singapore two weeks, ten days before going to India, and five on the way back. The visit was organized by Phor Kark See, the large Chinese temple there, and by Buddhist Fellowship. They put together a jam-packed schedule of teaching in various places around the city: a bookstore, the university, Amitabha Buddhist Center (where I was resident teacher in ’87-’88), a three-day retreat, Buddhist Library, a two-day forum with other speakers (among whom was Ajahn Brahmavamso, a British Theravada monk who is abbot of a monastery in Australia), and two public talks with over 1300 in attendance each evening.

Students seated, listening to Venerable give a Dharma talk.

Amitabha Buddhist Centre in Singapore.

The situation of Buddhism in Singapore has improved in the years since I’ve been there, due to the interest and energy of many modern-minded monastics who have differentiated Buddhism from ancestor worship and many young people who are working to propagate the Dharma. Buddhist social engagement has increased too, with the opening of Buddhist-sponsored clinics, nursing facilities, day care centers, schools, etc. Best yet, more people are practicing and transforming their minds.

As always, I was happy to be back in India, this time visiting South India, particularly Ganden Monastery near Mundgod and Sera Monastery near Bylakuppe. The 16-year-old incarnation of my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, lives at Ganden, and I stayed at his house for over two weeks. It was a nice, relaxed atmosphere, where I had time to work (brought the computer with!) and yet spent lots of time with Rinpoche. Rinpoche is quite mature and we would have serious discussions. Then, moments later we would play and joke like kids.

My friends from Singapore, Hwee Leng and Soon Ann, were there for part of the time and kindly offered Rinpoche a PC on which they put Encarta Encyclopedia, World Book, History of Life, Learning English, and various other interesting things (no computer games!). This opened a new door to the world for him, for access to general info in a monastery in rural India is limited. He looked up Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, sharks, whales, volcanoes, El Salvador, Singapore, sleeping, diabetes, Pearl Harbor, cats, Jerusalem, and you name it. We talked about HH the Dalai Lama‘s admiration for Gandhi and ML King. Rinpoche copied out part of the I Have a Dream speech which he heard on a video clip in Encarta and began reciting it around the house.

It’s remarkable meeting the teenage incarnations of one’s elderly teachers and having discussions with them in English, instead of through a translator in Tibetan. I explained to Zong Rinpoche the Christian idea of God and the soul, which led him to contrast it with the Buddhist view. We then got into a discussion about Buddha and God and what happens if people make offerings to the Buddha, but their idea of the enlightened one is that of an external deity, like God. Ling Rinpoche, on the other hand, asked me to explain quantum theory!

The most surprising thing was that I was asked to give some talks to Tibetans. I’ve been around the Tibetan community for 25 years now, and only in the past year has this happened. The predominant Tibetan view has been that neither nuns nor Westerners are well educated in the Dharma and qualified to teach. So, last year, when Venerable Tenzin Wangchuk, a monk at Ganden, asked me to speak at the Central School for Tibetans in Mondgod, it was a first. The talk to an assembly of students went well, so this year he arranged for me to go again, to speak to over 200 students. In addition, in Bangalore, I spoke to about 50 Tibetans who were university students. I was overjoyed to do this, for it is one way for me to repay HHDL’s kindness and the kindness of the Tibetan community.

But even more surprising was when I was asked to speak at the monastic schools at Ganden Shartse and Drepung Loseling. Venerable Tenzin Wangchuk arranged the former and Geshe Damdul the latter. A nun giving a talk to monks! Unheard of! What’s happening? Over 220 monks at Shartse listened to the one-hour talk and about 75 monks at Loseling heard a three-hour talk. The talks were translated into Tibetan. In both talks I emphasized the motivation for becoming a monastic and the importance of keeping the precepts well and of behaving properly. I told them that although there may be less physical suffering in the West, there was greater mental suffering, and that rather than seek the “beautiful life” in America, they should treasure their opportunity to be monks in India. Then I talked about HHDL’s conferences with scientists (many of which I’ve been fortunate to attend) and his enthusiasm for monastics learning science so they can integrate that perspective into their debates. I discussed points of similarity and difference between the two disciplines, and told them that scientists, in general, had a differing notion of mind than we Buddhists did and that they did not know about karma.

At all places, I left time for Q&A. The questions asked by the students and those asked by the monks differed. The English-speaking modern-educated Tibetan students asked questions that resembled those asked by Westerners: How can we prove rebirth? What does practicing the Dharma really mean? How do we manage our anger? and so forth. One student said, “What is the purpose of prostrations? My biology teacher told me they were just for exercise.” These young Tibetans also asked me a poignant question: How can we keep Tibetan religion and culture alive until we regain our country’s freedom?

The monks were initially more reticent when asking questions, but they soon got going. They asked a lot about science: How does science account for this and that? How does the brain work? How do diseases occur? If scientists don’t believe in karma, how do they account for what happens in our lives? The monks also asked about my experience, why I became a Buddhist, and so forth.

The list of questions piled up, with not enough time to respond to all of them. Venerable Tenzin Wangchuk, who had a video camera, then suggested that we make a Q&A video that could be shown later. We did, with an English-speaking Tibetan monk reading the questions. Interestingly, as we progressed, the monk began asking his own questions, in addition to the ones of the students, so we had a lively discussion!

I also visited Jangchub Choling Nunnery in Mundgod and was pleased to see the progress the nuns were making in their studies. They just completed a new building, giving them more living quarters, although the nunnery is still short of space. They are learning the philosophical studies, debating, English, and Tibetan, and a few nuns attend the Central School to learn practical subjects such as office management, shorthand, and computers.

From Mundgod, I went to visit my teacher, Geshe Jampa Tegchok, at Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe. I studied with Geshela several years in the early 80s when I lived in France, and am very indebted to him for his kindness in teaching us so many Dharma subjects day after day for years. Venerable Steve, one of Geshela’s Western students studying there and an old Dharma friend, kindly met me in Bangalore and we traveled back to Sera together. The author of Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage, Geshela just completed his term as abbot of Seraje. Yet, for the three days of my visit, he cooked for Steve and myself. I kept saying that we should prepare his meals, but whether it was because he knew I was a horrible cook, he insisted on cooking. His humility was a great teaching for me, and over the meals we had many interesting Dharma discussions. Thankfully a young monk cleaned up. I couldn’t have tolerated Geshela doing that!

I returned to Seattle safely and with much gratitude for the kindness of others. Now it is my turn to try to repay that.

Glimpse of the Gaza Strip http://thubtenchodron.org/1999/10/middle-east-hope-for-peace/ Mon, 18 Oct 1999 19:29:07 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10580

Map image of the Gaza Strip.

Wikimedia image by Lencer.

When my Israeli friend Boaz said that he wanted to visit the Gaza Strip, I gulped while images of violence and pain flashed through my mind. A Buddhist nun, I am supposedly fearless in promoting compassion and peace; yet my first reaction is self-protection. I wrote back, “Yes,” and decided not to tell my parents about the visit until it was over.

At breakfast that morning, we discussed Israeli men being macho. Ity, a 30-year-old man explained: “At eighteen, we begin three years of compulsory army service. We see violence; we know people get killed during military service, and we don’t know how to handle the emotions that come up about this. In addition, peer pressure dictates that we look fearless, so we stuff our emotions deep inside and put on a mask. Some people get so used to the mask that they forget to take it off later. We get numb emotionally.”

Getting permission to go to Gaza required months of phone calls to the Palestine Authority and Israel Security, but final permission did not come until we arrived at the Erez border. The border crossing was at least a quarter of a mile long, a dusty, bland, walled gateway. In recent years, factories and warehouses had been built at the border for businesses that the Palestinians and Israelis could both profit from, but these were not in full operation at the moment due to the stalled implementation of the peace accords. We passed through the Israeli checkpoint where armed, young soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests worked at computers. Half a kilometer beyond that was the Palestinian checkpoint with its young, armed soldiers and the photo of a smiling Arafat.

It took us about an hour to cross the border. I thought of the 40,000 Palestinians who crossed the border each day to work in Israel. They have to leave home at 4:00 a.m. to be at work by 7:00. Every evening they return home, again crossing the border: due to Israel’s fear of terrorists, they were prohibited from staying overnight in Israel.

The bus appeared and we met our Palestinian hosts from The Palestinian Abraham Center for Languages. Special security forces the school invited to protect us boarded the bus, and we were off. We drove through the Jabaliya refuge camp, where the Intifadeh had begun. Gaada, a young Palestinian woman with Western slacks and an Arabic scarf encircling her head, pointed out the new traffic lights on the way to Gaza City. Cars, trucks, and donkey carts flowed along the dusty road together.

Gaada and I talked on the way. Initially I didn’t know what to expect in discussions with her and our other Palestinian hosts. Since each of them had probably faced personal difficulties and tragedy, would I hear nonstop angry tirades, tales of persecution, and accusations against Israel and the USA? Would they hold me personally accountable for the actions of my country? This type of language appears in reports and interviews in the Western press, so I assumed we would hear more of it in person.

Fortunately, my preconceptions were wrong. Born in one of the eight refuge camps in the Strip, she moved to Gaza City after she married, has a child, and teaches at the school. Bubbly, cheerful, and ready to joke, she pointed out various landmarks. She asked personal questions and responded to them as well. By the end of the bus ride, we were holding hands as Mediterranean women often do. Similarly, Samira, the director of the school, and I related to each other as individuals. While she was frank about her experiences and views, hatred and blame were absent. It was a day of honest, personal conversations.

Entering Gaza City, we drove by the Palestinian Parliament building, a large flower-filled park, shops, and people going about their daily lives. Since the signing of the peace accords, many new buildings had sprung up. Several others were half built, their completion pending progress in the peace accords. Ity turned to me, and his eyes were happy. “It’s wonderful to see people relaxed and smiling in the streets now. When I was here during the Intifadeh, a 24-hour curfew reigned over this city. No one could leave their homes, and we had to patrol the streets for curfew violators. People threw stones at us, and we had to hit them with clubs, push them away, or worse. The villages and cities were drab, impoverished, depressed. But now there is life and certainly more optimism here. It’s amazing,” he said, deep in thought. I could almost see the flashback scenes that were appearing to him. As a woman, I had been spared such experiences as a young person, although many of my teenage friends, who had been soldiers in Vietnam, had not.

Our bus stopped across the street from the Palestinian Abraham Center for Languages, the security guard descended, and we followed them. All that day, we were outdoors only long enough to cross a street. The staff and friends of the school warmly welcomed us with cold drinks and snacks. They showed us the classrooms and slides of the schools activities, and described future plans for a Palestinian Folk High School, based on the Scandinavian model. At present they teach Arabic, Hebrew, and English, principally to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. However, they held a week-long course for Israelis in prior years and encouraged people from different cultures to get to know each other on a personal level by studying and living together. On a previous trip to Israel, I had visited Ulpan Akiva, a school with a similar philosophy in Netanya, Israel.

Back on the bus, our group – twelve Israelis, twenty Palestinians, and me, an American Buddhist nun – drove through the Gaza Strip. We passed the university where groups of female students, most in traditional dress, a few in Western dress, almost all with their hair shielded by a scarf, stood in groups talking. We saw the refuge camps, with their streets, no more than a meter or two wide, the most densely populated places on the planet. We passed mile after mile of drab brown buildings, some old and some new, with very few trees in the city streets, until suddenly, a small oasis appeared—greenery and some nice houses. What was this? One of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

I had heard about these. Of the 1.1 million people in the Gaza Strip, only 3,000 or 4,000 were Israeli, many Jewish immigrants from New York. In recent years, they had set up communities in the Gaza to “reclaim Jewish land.” Their settlements were small, but each required a protective buffer area and the stationing of Israeli troops to protect them. Because of these few settlers, 33% of the land in the Gaza Strip was still under Israeli control. Armed convoys were required to shuttle a bus with Jewish settlers in and out of the Gaza, with Palestinian and Israeli soldiers jointly patrolling the roads on which they traveled. The Palestinians could not go to most of the beautiful beaches in their land, but had to travel around these Israeli occupied places. I tried to understand the mentality of these settlers who, motivated by what they considered devotion to God, created situations that were like time bombs. Gilgi told me of her friend’s son who was stationed there to protect the settlers. A secular Jew, he told his mother, “I hate the Ultra-orthodox Jews (all of whom are exempt from military service). I hate the Palestinians. Why must I risk my life to keep the peace between them, in a situation that is bound to explode?” Although my first reaction was one of sympathy for him, I was also taken aback by the vehemence of his hatred. How did he learn to hate at such a young age? To me, teaching young people to hate did them a drastic injustice, tainting their lives for years to come.

The bus drove on. Shabn, a tall young Palestinian man sitting next to me on the bus, told me that they would like me to give a talk after lunch and that he would translate it into Arabic. His English was impeccable, and no wonder—he was born and raised in Canada. His aunt, Samira, had asked him to come and help with the school, and now all the weekend afternoons of his childhood spent studying Arabic were paying off. There was a quick affinity between us, as I could understand what a culture shock it was for him to live in Palestine. “The people are very conservative,” he explained. “Activities that are normal for people my age in Canada are prohibited here.” Gaada also commented on the conservative nature of Palestinian society after I noted with delight the number of educated, articulate, Palestinian women that were in prominent positions in the Abraham School. “Muslim women in North African societies have more opportunities and fewer restrictions than we do.”

We arrived at Hope City, a large building constructed by Yasar Arafat’s brother. It housed a clinic, a center for the handicap, and a large plush auditiorium, among other things. Our hosts were clearly proud of it. After a delicious lunch—they were curious why so many of us Buddhists were vegetarians—we went to the top floor to look out on the Gaza. The Mediterranean Sea shone in the distance, behind the sand dunes with an Israeli military station protecting the Jewish settlement. The bustling streets of the cities, villages, and refugee camps spread around us. Palestinians who had lived in the Gaza for generations inhabited the fours cities and eight villages in the Strip, while refugees who arrived in 1948 after the Israeli Independence War or 1967 after the Six-day War lived in the refugee camps.

We chatted in small groups for a while, topics varying from the personal to the political. A Palestinian man explained that Muslim leaders in the Gaza drew out different points to emphasize and a wide variety of religious and political views grew from that. Some are moderate; others, like the Hamas, engage in benevolent social welfare projects for the Palestinians and at the same time promote terrorism against the Israelis. He wanted there to be more cross-cultural contact with Israelis, less rhetoric, and more person-to-person “diplomacy.” Ity asked him if he thought of teaching in the Palestinian schools to encourage children to have such open views. “No,” he responded sadly, “I don’t think some people would be open to that.” “But I haven’t lost hope,” he added quickly.

Gathering us together, our hosts asked Boaz to speak first and to explain what kind of group we were and why we came to the Gaza. This was not a commonplace answer. A group of Israeli Buddhists had invited me to teach in Israel, and as the main organizer, Boaz thought it would be good for me, and all of us, to visit the Gaza. Although he did not say this, I suspect it was a way for him to bring together diverse parts of his still-young life: his six years in the Israeli army, his subsequent trip to India where he attended a Tibetan Buddhist meditation course I taught, and his return to Israel where he endeavored to make Buddhist teachings and meditation available to his compatriots. “Many people today have asked me if this is my first trip to Gaza. Unfortunately, it is not, but it is the first one in which I am a welcomed guest in your land. I hope to visit an independent Palestine in the future and also hope that the peoples in the Middle East can live together in mutual respect and peace.”

Later, I asked him how he felt being in Gaza that day, for he had been a captain in the Israeli army and had been stationed there during the Intifadeh. He shook his head, “When I was here before, I thought that someone had to do the horrible job of going into Palestinian homes to search for weapons and explosives and to arrest potential or actual assailants. And I thought that I could do it with less violence and more tolerance than others. But now it’s hard to understand. I can’t believe that I did that, that I didn’t resist.” Now, on pacifist grounds, he has refused to do the reserve duty required of all Israeli men each year. Facing the military board that threatened to send him to prison last year, he calmly told them, “I’m doing what I have to do. You do what you have to do.” They gave him what is comparable to our conscientious objector status.

It was my turn to speak, and I wondered how to put Buddhist thought into this Jewish-Muslim mix. “The Buddha said that hatred is not conquered by hatred, but by tolerance and compassion,” I began. “The cause of suffering lies with the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions in our hearts and minds. We each have our individual responsibility to look in our own hearts and root out the anger, bitterness, and revenge there and to cultivate kindness and compassion. Peace cannot be legislated by politicians; it comes through personal transformation on an individual level. We are each responsible for that and for teaching that to our children.” I then went on to describe the Four Noble Truths and to answer the many questions they had about Buddhist belief in rebirth and about the Dalai Lama and Tibet.

Mr. Mahmoud Khalefa, the Director of the Gaza Office of the Palestinian National Authority’s Ministry of Information, spoke next. He sat looking sternly with his arms folded on his chest in front of him, and my preconception machine went to work, hauling up old images of Yasar Arafat attending peace talks with a gun on his belt. Meanwhile, Mr. Khalefa spoke: “Trying to figure out who started which incident is senseless. Blaming each other is useless, for both parties have erred and at fault. We need to come together and talk. It took you a long time to cross the border this morning. I want you to be able to come to Palestine and walk in our streets freely, and we want to be able to go to your country and do the same. We need more cultural exchange between our peoples, so that we can learn about each other’s culture and religion and develop tolerance and acceptance.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It certainly wasn’t what the Western press had conditioned me to expect from a representative of the Palestinian Authority.

We boarded the bus again and drove through beautiful orchards and fields to the Egyptian border. One man explained that some houses were half in Egypt and half in Gaza, the border running through the middle of the house. Why? After the Israelis occupied the Sinai, initially there was no thought of returning the land, so buildings were constructed anywhere. However, when they later signed a peace treaty with Egypt, the latter want to return to the exact borders before the war, thus some houses were half in one country and half in another.

On the bus went to the Gaza Airport. Our hosts beamed with pride as we approached this symbol of their independence. Indeed, the new airport was beautiful, with Arabic mosiacs bordering graceful arches. The Palestinian Airlines flies to four places: Cairo, Jordan, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia, and hopes to expand in the future. Meanwhile, Samira and I continued our conversation on the bus. For years, she has worked to promote understanding among Palestinians and Israelis. Before the Intifadeh, she worked at Ulpan Akiva school, a language school in Israel designed to promote tolerance and cultural understanding. One of her young Israeli students at the school told her he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. “I will protect our country and bomb those who try to harm my people, but I love my Samira very much and I will not bomb your house in the Gaza,” he told her. She responded, “But there are many Samiras in the Gaza, many people who are kind and wish to live peacefully. Please don’t bomb their homes either.”

I wondered if the little boy understood what Samira said and how long it would take him to become aware of his conditioning. The horror of the Holocaust still reverberates through the generations of Jews born after it occurred, and the “never again” attitude deeply influences Israeli policy. When one feels powerless, one may get a sense of power by lording over others. This holds true for the kindergarten bully, the adult perpetrator of abuse, and persecuted ethnic and religious groups. But this is a false sense of power, one that ultimately destroys oneself and others as well as contaminates the minds of future generations. Persecution and oppression abound, but the only way to heal the pain in our hearts is through developing tolerance and compassion. No other choice exists but for each of us to make an effort to do this.

A turnaround in Mundgod http://thubtenchodron.org/1999/10/teaching-to-tibetans/ Mon, 18 Oct 1999 15:11:02 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10664

We are used to Tibetan monks teaching the Dharma to Westerners in the USA, Europe, and Australia. But imagine a Western nun teaching the Dharma in English to Tibetans in India! I was, by chance (by karma?), involved in just such an experience when I visited Mundgod last October. In South India, Mundgod is home to Gaden and Drepung Monastic Universities, both of which are filled with highly accomplished and realized teachers. How then did I find myself giving a Dharma talk to 130-150 Tibetans?

Many monks in a large hall at Drepung Monastery.

Drepung Monastery (Photo by avalonmediaworks)

Contrary to many Westerners’ (and Hollywood’s) idealistic visions of Tibetan society, the average Tibetan knows little about the Dharma, aside from rituals such as setting up an altar and reciting a few prayers daily. Tibetans learn some basic Buddhist ideas and values from their parents, but most do not study the Dharma in earnest. First, like the average person in the West, their lives are focused on making a living. Second, most Dharma texts are in literary Tibetan, replete with technical vocabulary that is foreign to the colloquial language spoken daily. Lay Tibetans may attend initiations offered by a high lama in order to receive a blessing, but attendance is much lower when that same lama gives public teachings on lamrim or thought transformation. Until now, the monks in the monasteries in India have not taught classes for the lay Tibetans in the area, nor have the latter asked them to. In addition, although monks lead prayers for a few minutes every day at the Tibetan schools in India, the children do not have classes in which they systematically learn the Dharma and its practical applications in daily life.

Venerable Tenzin Wangchuk, Venerable Zong Rinpoche’s attendant, is an old friend of mine. Progressive and broad-minded, he is concerned about this state of affairs, and tries to encourage young Tibetans in India to learn the Dharma. To this end, he spoke with the principal and director of the Central School for Tibetans, an Indian-run school in Mundgod in which the children study many subjects in English, to see if they were receptive to the idea of an American nun giving a talk to the students. They were and thus he asked me if I would do it. At first I hesitated, for it seemed preposterous that I give a talk when Mundgod is filled with much more qualified teachers than I. But Tenzin persuaded me that the children would be receptive to hearing the Dharma from a “modern American” who spoke in simple language and gave daily life examples.

The teenagers from classes 10 to 12 were seated on the concrete open-air meeting area while I sat on a chair in front. For about 45 minutes I spoke about the applicability of the Buddha’s teachings in our lives: methods to work with anger, to overcome shyness, to develop self-confidence, and to get along better with parents and friends. They listened attentively, and after they realized that it was okay, they loosened up and laughed at my jokes. The session was then opened for questions, which they wrote down. Slips of paper flooded forward from the usually shy youngsters, filled with thoughtful questions that demonstrated their sincere interest. How did I go from a religion that believed in God to one that didn’t? What did my parents say when I did not think as they did? Where are the hell realms—from a scientific viewpoint, isn’t it hard to accept their existence? How did the universe begin? Is Buddhism compatible with science? What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be a Buddhist—if we recite Om Mane Padme Hum but don’t understand its meaning, what use is it? How do we deal with inner turmoil, depression, and confusion? What is a Buddha?

When time came to close, all of us were happy. Even the school’s director, who had been serious before, was smiling. But for days afterwards, I shook my head in amazement: how did this unique situation come about? I was extremely grateful, for this was my offering to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After all the teachings he has compassionately given me and other Westerners, if I could repay that kindness in just a small way by teaching his people, I was delighted.

In the Holy Land, Israel and Palestine http://thubtenchodron.org/1999/08/conflict-and-its-effects/ Wed, 18 Aug 1999 14:58:14 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10637

The recent trip to Israel was remarkable, with interactions and connections to people that I never anticipated. Young Israelis who had visited India and met the Dharma there invited me to their country to teach the Dharma and meditation. This was my third visit since December, 1997. Although I was there primarily to teach, I loved the program the organizers had set up, for I had the opportunity to meet many different people from different walks of life. The contact with people who ordinarily wouldn’t have met a Buddhist was rich, and I especially appreciated the opportunity to visit Palestine. Rather than relate the trip chronologically, I’ll speak according to themes that emerged, focusing on the Israeli part of the trip.

Love and connection with people

Much to my surprise, I found strong connections with people appearing when I least expected them. Here are some examples.

The visit to Yemin Ode, a youth village for refugee, displaced, impoverished, or homeless teenagers was built in the 1950s and is located on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It has been home to thousands of immigrant and displaced Jewish youth coming in waves of refugees over the years from Iran, Yemen, Russia the former Soviet countries, and most recently Ethiopia. Chaim Peri, the director, took us around the village and the adjacent high school. As he stopped and introduced us to students, it was clear he knew the names and stories of most of the 500 teenagers there. He spoke to and of them with respect and love, explaining that once a child comes to Yemin Orde, that is his or her home forever. They will never be asked to leave, no matter how they act or what happens. Imagine the secure and stable feeling that gives these kids! As Chaim showed us around, whenever he saw litter on the ground, he bent over and picked it up. What an example to the kids! (and to me!)

On the lawn, an international group of kids gathered around me to ask questions and before I knew it, I was talking about the disadvantages of anger, how to cultivate patience, and the need for compassion in conflict situations. They listened eagerly. At lunch Chaim called an Ethiopian girl to eat with us, explaining that she had faced much trauma in her life and just that day a severe difficulty had landed on her. She told us that she wanted to have children so someone would love her, and two mothers in our group told her that although they felt that way initially too, they discovered that wasn’t sufficient or even practical once they had children. One said, “Something was still missing in my life. When I met the Dharma, I knew what it was.” When we got up, I went over to hug her and she held me, sobbing. Tears filled my eyes too, and others, seeing what was happening, moved on to continue the tour. We stood there hugging each other for quite a while, while I thought of Tara and silently recited her mantra. Afterwards, hand in hand, we joined the others, and the girl was now smiling.

Another event with kids was just as intense, but in a different way. I spoke to about 70 or 80 teenagers at a Rudolph Steiner school at Kibbutz Hardut. They asked questions about the meaning of life, about anger and so forth, one after the other. A group of boys, who I later found out were from a class of kids with problems, were especially involved. After an hour, there was a break when they could go back to their regular classes or stay and ask questions in a small group. One of the “problem” boys was overheard saying (excuse the language), “Hell, I don’t want to go back to class. This is f___ interesting!” This was one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received!

The seminar at Kibbutz Gilikson, in which we explored the four immeasurables—equanimity, love, compassion, and joy—was also heart opening. At the conclusion, one man commented to me, “You are planting incredible seeds here. It’s going to move boulders.” And several of the people who attended various events told me that afterwards they had wonderful discussions with their parents and old tensions in their families melted. In one family with previous inter-generational strife, the father said to me, “Chodron, what happened to my son? He’s so different now!”

Our weeklong retreat at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev Desert was a treat not only for us, but also for our hosts on the kibbutz. The kibbutz was begun by Reform Jews, who strive to integrate their spiritual practice into the daily life of rearing children, working in the date palm orchards, and otherwise surviving in the intense heat of the desert. They said that having us there made them pause and reflect. There we were, eating in silence, walking slowly in our periods of walking meditation, spending time checking our motivations and looking into our own hearts. This inspired them and set them to thinking about their own practice. They asked me to give a talk to the kibbutzniks.

Venerable Chodron with two others at the Gaza Strip.

At the Gaza Strip.

At the Gaza border I was able to visit the Gaza Strip again (more about this later in the letter). The border crossing into Palestine is a pretty drab, not to say potentially dangerous, place as the young soldiers who check our passports wear bulletproof vests and guns slung over their shoulders. They don’t seem too happy to be there, and I don’t blame them. It took the three of us a while to cross the border because one of our group was both an Israeli and a British citizen, so we started talking to the soldiers. One was Druse, an Arabic people with their own religion and culture. He relaxed and started smiling and we ended up taking photos together. Another young soldier sauntered in with a disaffected expression. He took one look at me and said, “What are you?” I explained I was a Buddhist nun and taught meditation. To make a long story short, he got excited because wanted to learn meditation, and since he had the next day off, he came to the workshop I was leading in Tel Aviv!

After teaching for almost three weeks, I did private retreat in Amirim, a community in the hills in the Galilee. A friend of a friend kindly offered the hut he lived in for my retreat, while he and my friend, who cooked for me, slept outdoors. I did Chenresig retreat—that seemed most appropriate for that part of the world—and with the view from the hill, which included Israel, Jordan, Syria, and a fraction of Lebanon, sending Chenresig’s compassion to heal the people in that area was easy. One of my friend’s friend in the village had just had a horrible car accident and was in a semi-coma. The woman’s boyfriend asked me to come to the hospital, which I did at the conclusion of the retreat, on the day I was flying off to India. She was in and out of consciousness, was not very mobile, and had not spoken for the two weeks since the accident. We visited the hospital and I spoke to her—I believe that people in comas have some awareness of what is going on around them—recited some mantras, and did the taking and giving meditation. A few days after I returned to Seattle, I called her mother in Sacramento, who told me that just hours after we had visited the hospital, she had begun to speak! It was especially nice to talk to her on the phone that day and to hear how well she was doing.


Judaism strictly prohibits idol worship and for people new to the Dharma, the sight of older students and myself bowing in front of the altar with its Buddha images pushed buttons. I explained that we were not idol worshippers, that the statues and pictures were there to remind us of enlightened qualities and it was to those qualities that we paid respect, not to the material of the statue. It is like carrying a photo of our family when we travel. When we take it out and feelings of affection arise, those feelings aren’t directed at the photo, but at the people they represent.

It is easy to misunderstand others’ customs if we just look superficially and project our own meanings onto them. For example, during the Jewish delegation’s visit to Dharamsala in 1990, the rabbis invited some older Tibetan monks who did not speak English to come. The event began with prayers ushering in the Sabbath. Since Jerusalem is west of Dharamsala, the rabbis faced the setting sun as they welcomed the Sabbath through prayers and dancing. Later, some of us Ju-Bu’s asked the Tibetans how they liked the event. “Why do they worship the sun?” they queried.

I also said that if Tibetans visited the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, they could easily think that the Jews were worshipping a wall. The Tibetans would ask, “Why do people from all over the world fax prayers to be put in niches in a wall? How can a wall protect them from suffering?”

But changing symbols can be difficult for people, especially when that people has been persecuted in many times and many places for its symbols. As one man said, “At least the Wailing Wall is our idol worship, not someone else’s.”

Each group that comes to retreat has its own personality, and for whatever reason, the particular group at the weeklong retreat did not easily become a community. A number of new people were skeptical, not just as in curious, but actively hostile. On the third day of the retreat I had to think about whether or not to give the eight Mahayana precepts for one day. Part of my mind said, no, that I just didn’t want to hassle with explaining and trying to convince this group of the benefits of the practice. But then I thought, “That’s not fair to the majority of the people who are sincere and do want to practice the Dharma.” So I decided to stop teaching primarily to the skeptics, who were relatively small in number, but to teach to the people who were earnest and interested instead. I did that, and the energy of the group changed. They became a community, and although a few left early, by the end of the retreat people were very happy, smiling from ear to ear and saying how beneficial the week had been.

A center for the physically challenged in Jerusalem asked me to speak to its members. A TV crew was supposed to arrive early to the talk to interview me, but they arrived late and there was not a private space available for the interview. We were faced with going to someone’s home nearby and beginning the talk late. I hesitated because so often the physically challenged get the raw end of the deal and I didn’t want this to happen here. The TV people, however, didn’t understand my insistence that we do the interview quickly because speaking to the group of physically challenged was my priority. From their viewpoint, anyone in their right mind would stop everything in order to be on TV. Fortunately, a friend volunteered to tell the group stories from the Buddha’s life until I arrived. During the talk, they listened intently and got very involved, asking one question after the other. My friend, who was translating (this was one of the few times there was a Hebrew translation), tried to calm them down, but to no avail. I couldn’t finish answering one question before another one was asked. Pretty soon the whole room was talking excitedly, and even after the meeting ended, our heads were whirling!

Another challenge of “crowd control” was at a talk I gave at a drug rehab center. It was a comparatively small group of perhaps 15 or 20 counselors, many of whom had previously been addicts. The director warned me that some of them might be cynical (I think he may have been as well) because they knew nothing about Buddhism. That was true for two or three, but they were enough to interrupt my responses to others’ questions and to initiate cross talk in the circle. In addition to their talk, the friend who had set up the meeting was giving me her ideas of what I should say. So I found myself being a traffic director, holding out one hand to tell some people to stop speaking and using the other to encourage others. At the end, I led them in some meditation, and that changed the energy in the room. They mellowed, and even the obstreperous ones thanked me for coming. The director said that he was sorry that he hadn’t asked the inmates to attend as well and asked me to come back and talk to them again.

Interreligious contacts

Seven of us visited the Muslim Sufi Sheik in Nazareth that we had met last spring. Dressed in traditional garb, he received us warmly. We met his four-year-old grandson, wearing a Nike T-shirt, who will be trained to be the next sheik. Some family friends came over—a young Palestinian woman wearing tight jeans and jewelry, with her Ukrainian husband that she met when they were both attending the conservatory in Moscow—and we could see how the traditional Muslim society, like so many others in the world, is encountering modernity.

The meeting with the American Orthodox rabbi, David Zeller, and later that afternoon with some Orthodox Jewish women, was a treasure, with real listening and give and take. This was definitely different from my meeting with the Reform rabbi who is the director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. I was very excited about meeting the latter as I’d read about his excellent work arranging meetings between Israeli and Palestinian high school girls. However, at our lunch appointment, he talked continuously of his own work in interreligious dialogue, made very little eye contact, and only at the end of our meeting asked me a question, “How long will you be in Israel?”

And then there was the uncle of the young woman who was in semi-coma after a car accident. She was half American-Jewish and half Latino, but her uncle was an American Jew who became Orthodox ten years ago. When greeting the four of us who arrived to visit his niece, the uncle said hello to the other three and quite pointedly did not greet me. Later, he tried to convert the Buddhist man who had accompanied me, and finally, when he decided to speak to me, he tried to do the same. I politely answered his questions, knowing his intent, and only later did I realize that I should have been honest with him and said compassionately, “Your comments are making me uncomfortable. I feel they are not sincere and rather than respecting my religious choice, are directed at trying to convert me.” That may have helped him recognize the effect he was having on others.

One time, while visiting the Orthodox uncle and aunt of a Buddhist friend, I was similarly ignored when the uncle greeted everyone. I wonder why these people are so afraid of me? I’m just a simple nun who means no harm. But obviously something is triggered inside them. One friend hypothesized that it was because I am/was Jewish but have chosen another path and am evidently happy as a Buddhist. Who knows? But I hope for their own well-being that their fear may go away.

The uncle later warmed up and told us some of his philosophy, which I found fascinating. He thought that Israel would be destroyed in his lifetime because the Jews were not living according to Torah law. This would be another incident in God’s continual effort to bring his Chosen People to goodness, with similar ones had occurred in the past: just as God has punished the Jews by sending them into exile because they did not follow his law at the time of the first and second temples, he inflicted the Holocaust because the Jews did not return to Palestine during the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (That was a heavy one. I had to catch my breath after he said that.) This family has lived in the occupied territories in West Bank since 1975, and raised their four children there. Theirs was a small family, they explained; most of the other families in the settlement had ten or so children. When I asked about over-population in the world, the aunt responded that the Jews had been killed repeatedly in history and over-population did not pertain to them. In fact, they needed to re-populate the land. In the middle of our Succoth meal, the uncle, who was in charge of the settlement’s security, was called away to investigate a report of an unknown person in the area. He returned to the dinner table after this false alarm, with his gun in his belt. I was impressed, however, that the settlement had no fences (they undoubtedly had elaborate radar, etc.) and that he did not speak ill of his Arab neighbors. He said he instructed his men, as they did their security rounds on horseback each morning, to greet the shepherds and talk with them.

My continuing contact with Kabala scholar (maybe he’s a rabbi, too, I’m not sure) David Friedman and his wife, Miriam, is enriching. David and Miri used to be rigidly Orthodox, but have been broadening their horizons in recent years (Miri loves the meditation tapes I sent her). They walk a tight line. On one hand they live in Safat, a religious town, populated by “blacks,” as the ultra-religious who dress in the black suits of 18th century Eastern Europe are called. David is a respected Jewish scholar on one hand, on the other he isn’t satisfied spiritually by the standard rituals. On Yom Kippur, they had gone to synagogue, but found the worship dry and came home to do healing and meditation with their friends. David finds the “culpa mea” breast beating of the Orthodox on Yom Kippur off-putting. By holding onto one’s sins in that way, one doesn’t really believe God is forgiving, and that in fact, contradicts one’s own beliefs in a merciful God. It also, curiously, gives rise to judging others, i.e., “I am such a sinner, but at least I am religious and follow the commandments. Look at all the Jews who don’t even do that!”

But the nicest interreligious event by far was our Chenresig retreat on Yom Kippur. People who had been on past retreats with me in Israel gathered at Kibbutz Inbar in the Galilee. We fasted from one evening to the next, Jewish style, and spent the day in silence, reviewing our actions and purifying what needed to be purified by doing the Chenresig practice with the four opponent powers. At the conclusion, we had a big meal, Jewish style, complete with some Jewish songs.

Working for peace

There is a new spirit of peace in the Middle East and I met some exceptional people contributing to it (in addition to the rabbi mentioned above). Several of them are at the Ibrahimi Center in Gaza City. I visited there last spring, so since we already knew each other, our discussions deepened. Samira, the woman who is the director is very grounded and clear, and she has gone through many personal difficulties and dangers in order to keep the language school open and to continue cross-cultural exchange between Palestinians, Israelis, and others. For example, her husband is from Liberia; I believe they met in Israel prior to the Oslo agreements when she was working in an Arabic-Hebrew language school in Netanya. After the agreements, she returned to Gaza. Her husband was in Liberia until the political upheaval there turned him into a refugee. He went to Israel as he had friends there. But due to tight security, it is difficult for her to stay in Israel or for him to stay in Gaza, so they get to meet one or two days a week on either side of the border! Adele, a Christian Palestinian who was a teacher and school administrator, lived in the USA for several years. After her husband died, she left the comfort here to return to Gaza to help the language school. Another young woman was from an Indian Muslim family in South Africa. Her English was perfect and she was clearly educated and intelligent. Yet, since in her culture, parents arrange the marriages, she married a Palestinian man she did not know and moved to Gaza. She came to the Ibrahimi Center to use her skills to benefit others and to help her deal with the lonely situation in which she lived.

Also in Gaza we visited Peter and Zeljka, from Denmark and Croatia respectively, who work for the UNRWA (This is the UN organization that aids refugees, in this case Palestinian refugees in Gaza from 1948 and 1967). We had met them during the Yom Kippur retreat as they were guests at the same kibbutz and asked to attend some of our meditation sessions even though they were new to Buddhism. They are dedicated people who work in a humanitarian, non-political way to aid the refugees. They have a good understanding of the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and are as impartial as possible. They work to educate others (me included) as well as to keep the hospitals, schools, and other service facilities for the refugees running.

Ferial, a 25-year-old Bedouin woman, insisted on going to school when she was a child, even though girls did not traditionally go to school. When her father did not want her to continue to high school, she refused to eat and said, “Either I go to school or I die.” Now she is a nurse who teaches groups of Bedouin women health care so that they, in turn, can go to the remote areas and educate others. She just went to Malta for a youth conference as a representative of Israel. The situation of the Bedouins resembles that of Native Americans in some ways: they are a nomadic, tribal people being pushed off their land by the government who wishes to develop it. They are relocated in villages, a life style counter to their traditional one. Because village life has split up families and tribes, the Bedouin society is in crisis with high alcoholism, insufficient modern education, and high unemployment. Ferial walks a fine line: she is loyal to her people, adheres to traditional Bedouin culture and customs, and wants to use her talents to benefit her people. On the other hand, she must ask permission from her father or elder brother for everything she does, and obey them, however conservative or restrictive they may be. For example, her brother recently ordered her three younger sisters to stop going to school. Ferial is searching for a way to change his mind. Despite difficulties, her spirit is strong, and she is determined to go ahead.

In Jerusalem, I met Falestin, a woman in her mid-twenties who grew up in Germany as one parent is Palestinian and the other German. She initially contacted me because she had been studying Buddhism in the USA before going to Israel and wanted to know of Dharma groups there. She works with a group called Seeds of Peace which holds a summer camp each year in Maine for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. There they work together on projects, learn about each other’s culture, and train in conflict resolution. Deep personal friendships are also formed. The kids have made a video together, publish their own newsletter, and keep contact with each other via email which transcends all border hassles and parental fears. Now Falestin and others are opening a Jerusalem Seeds of Peace center so that the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers can continue to meet after they return to the Middle East, for there, it is not so easy for them to visit each other’s families or to gather together.

This was my third visit to Israel in less than two years, and Dharma energy there is growing. There are several other Buddhist groups—followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, Goenka, and so forth—also in the formative stages. Let’s pray that the love and compassion that the Buddha taught us how to develop will pervade this war-torn part of the planet and bring peace.

How to benefit from Dharma talks http://thubtenchodron.org/1996/06/daily-life-teachings/ Tue, 18 Jun 1996 18:48:56 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10574

In 1995, I visited Singapore, where I gave Dharma talks at various temples, and Dharamsala, India, where I attended teachings as well as a conference. While traveling, I recalled some short phrases of advice in Dharma texts, and found myself writing others based on my experiences. Each reflection below has a story that prompted it, but each one applies equally to all of us.

Venerable Chodron at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya.

Let the Dharma touch and transform your heart.

  • Practice the Dharma with love for your teacher, love of the Dharma, love for yourself, love for sentient beings, and the deep wish to make your life meaningful.

  • Let the Dharma touch and transform your heart. This is not the time for intellectual machinations.

  • Integrate your life on and off the meditation cushions. See the truth of the Buddha’s teachings in the events in your daily life. Practice the Dharma in all of these circumstances.

  • Be aware of the results of living your life carelessly. Such an awareness makes you alert; it does not paralyze you with fear.

  • Good relationships with your teachers are important. Cultivate them. Remember the help you have received from your teachers. Let your heart feel grateful, and thereby connected to and supported by your teachers’ care.

  • Be courageous in admitting your mistakes. That is the key to purification and growth.

  • Before you get annoyed, don’t assume you know all the conditions that make up a situation.

  • Whether a teaching is profound or not depends on your mind.

  • Seek help when you run into difficulties. Even if you haven’t sought it, be open when it comes.

  • Listen well to what others have learned in life.

  • Be aware of the kindness of others, especially the small things people do. Treat the people who help you kindly. Avoid becoming arrogant toward them.

  • Take care of the people around you. Remember that your small kindness to them doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of their kindness toward you.

  • Think deeply about the first two noble truths. Recognize clearly the effects of attachment not only in this life but also in keeping you bound in cyclic existence again and again. Don’t avoid or gloss over this, for it’s only when we recognize how we are trapped that we can generate a pure and deep determination to be free.

  • Always be humble. Remember you are the servant of others. Don’t think that because you are intelligent or know a little Dharma that others should respect and wait upon you. If this point is neglected, all your knowledge will become poison for yourself and others.

  • Be equanimous to how others treat you, to whether they appreciate you, know who you are, and so forth.

  • If a friend says something that disturbs you, don’t remain silent and close off to them. You may be imputing something they did not mean to their words. With humility, not anger, tell them what you thought and felt, and listen to what they say to clarify.

  • Be clear on your ethical values and resolute in living according to the precepts. Don’t let the opinions of those who don’t understand the Dharma deeply sway you.

  • Karma is powerful. Don’t diminish its importance.

  • Don’t discard a practice because it is too difficult for you to do now. Practice at the level you’re at and aspire to do the more advanced practices in the future when you’re ready.

  • With a kind heart, help your good friends by pointing out when they are stuck. And when a trusted friend points out your mistakes, listen with an open mind and honesty with yourself.

  • When you’re angry, bitter or cynical, don’t look so much at the object of your attitude as at your own mind and ask yourself, “How do I feel? Where is this disturbing attitude coming from?” By understanding yourself, you will be able to release it.

  • Be willing to question and doubt your own opinions. They are not you.

  • Recognize that things assume great importance simply because they are related to the self. They are not inherently this way. Reflect on impermanence to help put your priorities in order and to know clearly what is important.

  • You never know who will help and who will harm, so abandon attachment and aversion and respect all beings.

  • Recognize your repeated patterns of unproductive emotions. Feel them without getting distracted by the conceptualization and stories that attend them. Know them, but don’t take them too seriously in the sense of thinking their way of viewing the self and the world is correct.

  • What may initially appear to be an obstacle may be for the better in the long run, so don’t get stuck in your current assessment of a situation.

  • Don’t manifest hierarchy where there isn’t any.

  • Don’t assume you’re the only one with problems. Be able to laugh at yourself and your difficulties.

  • Accept the responsibility for how your actions influence others and be willing to listen to others’ feelings.

  • When you have lived through certain difficulties, don’t abandon the people who still have them. Compassion, not arrogance, is called for.

  • Watch the object to be negated.

  • Rejoice and join into others’ happiness.

A second pilgrimage in China http://thubtenchodron.org/1994/12/travel-and-teaching-in-china/ Sun, 18 Dec 1994 09:37:08 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10528

Fortuitous circumstances plus a free frequent flyer ticket enabled me to visit China again in the autumn of 1994. Last autumn I went there on pilgrimage with a group of Singaporeans, and we traveled with a tour guide. During that time, I met three young Chinese men with whom I’d been corresponding for several months (the older Singaporeans nicknamed them “the boys”). They studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism, and since finding teachers was so difficult for them, they flooded me with intelligent and thoughtful questions, and we had many interesting discussions. So this year the four of us, plus a young Chinese woman who is interested in Tibetan Buddhism, did a two-week pilgrimage and two-week retreat (no tour guide or tour bus!). It was a truly remarkable experience in so many ways that it’s hard to describe.

The front of the main hall of Jinshan Temple.

Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang. (Photo by Yuxuan Wang)

I stayed with the family of one of the boys while we visited Shanghai’s temples for a couple of days. And then our pilgrimage began—first to Jinshan, a large Ch’an (Zen) temple in Zhenjiang, which was swamped by tourists, a circumstance we encountered often in city temples. There were many young monks, but the noisy environment with tourists isn’t conducive to practice. Most temples have a meditation hall, used only for meditation; a Buddha Hall where prayers are recited, and sometimes another hall for the recitation of the Buddha’s name, a practice which resembles mantra recitation. When visiting the meditation hall, we spoke with an 80-year-old monk with bright eyes and a rousing voice who encouraged us, “Chinese have Buddha nature. Westerners do too. Practice to become a Buddha. When distractions arise, try to find the thoughts. Where do they come from? Where do they go? Then return to the hua to.” Hua to are short phrases intended for meditation. Since the intermingling of Ch’an, which emphasizes meditating on emptiness, and Pure Land, which emphasizes reciting the Buddha’s name, began many centuries ago, the hua to “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?” has become popular.

This was the practice done at Kao Ming Temple, near Yangzhou, our next stop. Before 1949, this was the most famous and strict Ch’an Monastery in the country, where hundreds of people did retreat all year round. It had been totally demolished during the Cultural Revolution. With the support of foreign benefactors and the Chinese government, it was now being rebuilt and was noisy with construction equipment. From the scorched earth of the Cultural Revolution, green sprouts of Buddhism are growing again, as if by miracle. Even more astounding is the number of young people who are ordaining. Where does their faith come from? What draws them to enter the monastery? However, as time went on and we visited more temples, I began to see behind the superficial appearance of renaissance to some severe problems, all of which are interrelated.

  • First, the quality of the monastics is low. That is, most college-educated youth prefer to work at joint-venture companies where they can make a lot of money. Many of the youth joining the temples are from the countryside, from poor and/or uneducated families.

  • Second, although some of the educated youth, my friends for example, are interested in Buddhism, it’s hard for them to find teachers. A few elderly monks and nuns heroically survived the years of persecution under the Communists. They teach as long as their health and age permit, but ordained people of my age, who should be the new generation of teachers, are virtually non-existent.

  • Third, people focus primarily on the physical reconstruction of Buddhism at the moment—temples, pagodas, statues—and this requires putting time and effort into raising money and building. There is little emphasis on education and practice, except in a few places which I’ll speak of later. There are Buddhist colleges with two, three, or four-year programs in many major cities and pilgrimage sites—their curriculum includes political education—but relatively few of the newly-ordained attend these.

  • Fourth, because the older monastics are concerned with administration and most of the younger ones do not know Buddhist doctrine well, some traditional ancestor-worship practices done in temples before the persecution are now being re-instituted. For example, people burn paper money, paper bars of gold, paper houses, and so forth to send to their deceased relatives. This is not a Buddhist practice, but it is tolerated and even encouraged at most of the temples. People offer lots of incense and candles, but most don’t know exactly who they’re offering them to or why. They need to be taught how to make offerings, but there are few Dharma talks for the lay people in most of the temples. I did visit some laymen’s associations and some temples, however, where lay people study and practice, and this was very encouraging.

  • Fifth, due to both financial concerns and requests from the public, many temples engage in reciting prayers for the dead. While this is a Buddhist practice, there are some doubts regarding both the motivation of those who request the prayers and those who perform them. Again, the problem is lack of education, as well as the view that big, beautiful temples indicate that Buddhism is successful.

  • Sixth, many Buddhist temples are now museums or tourist attractions, with the monastics being the ticket-collectors. This allows for the veneer of “religious freedom,” an image sought by the government.

Temples and travels

Let me return to the pilgrimage. The monk who took us around Kao Ming Temple showed us the huge guest house which is not yet finished. I estimate it has about seventy rooms, all with private bath and polished wooden furniture. He proudly told us they were going to build a nine-story pagoda with four jade Buddhas on each floor. While everyone else gasped with delight, I thought, “Why don’t they use the money to open a school and teach children the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, to be kind to people? How do we measure the benefit of Buddhism: through buildings or through people’s hearts and behavior?” Kao Ming has a lovely octagonal meditation hall with polished wood floors, where meditation sessions occur all day long. Of the one hundred monks, about ten attended each session. The others were working. We sat two sessions with them, a nice relief after hours of traveling.

Across the river was a nunnery, which was also being rebuilt. The nuns did not want many visitors to disturb them, but allowed us to enter. They were reciting the sutras, and I sat with them for a long while, meditating. Being with nuns such as this is a source of inspiration for me.

Then we went to Nanjing and visited another nunnery. Here the nuns were leading the lay people in a week-long retreat of chanting the Buddha’s name. A young man who was getting his Ph.D. in math and who knew English approached me to discuss the value of Buddhism. As I was to find during the entire pilgrimage, people were very curious about this nun with strange eyes and hair. They were curious and friendly, and with the kindness of Roy (I’ll use the boys’ English names for convenience), who translated indefatigably, I met many people. When we tried to leave the building, the over 100 retreatants were serpentining in the courtyard while chanting—a Buddhist traffic jam! Loving Chinese chanting, we happily joined in.

When we went to find a hotel for the evening, we discovered that due to governmental regulations, foreigners were not allowed to stay at the reasonably priced ones, only at the expensive ones. Nevertheless, instead of getting depressed about the cost, whenever we encountered this unfortunate circumstance we transformed it into the path and rejoiced at the opportunity to take hot showers!

The next day we visited the pagoda with the skull of Venerable Xuan Zhuang, the great monk, who, in the seventh century, made the arduous journey to India to learn Buddhism and to bring back many sutras which he then translated into Chinese. Contemplating his life story, we understood better the actions, the courage, and the dedication of a bodhisattva. Also in the outskirts of Nanjing is Chi Sha Temple, which once followed the Three Treatises (Madhyamika) tradition. In the hills around the mountain, hundreds of Buddha figures were carved in the rock in the fifth century. But today, most of them lack heads or arms—the handiwork of the Cultural Revolution. One time I turned around and saw one of the boys dusting off one of the Buddha images and began to cry, with gratitude for the devotion of the artists, with sadness for the ignorance of the mutilators, with awe for the hope of the young Buddhists.

Jiu Hua Shan, Kshitigarbha’s Holy Mountain

The bus ride to Jiu Hua Shan, the mountains which form the holy place of Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, was long and tiring. The traffic in the cities and even between towns is backed up, due to the poor quality of China’s infrastructure and the number of trucks carrying supplies for the construction of buildings, which is going on all around. But as soon as we passed through the Jiu Hua Shan gate, my head cleared. An old monk led us to the nunnery, where the abbess graciously shared her simple room with me and asked me to teach the sixty pilgrims residing at the temple that evening. Foreigners are not allowed to teach Buddhism in China, but the abbess assured us that the police were her friends and there would be no trouble. So that evening I gave my first “public talk” (I had been teaching the boys privately since my first visit), on bodhicitta of course!

In the eighth century, a Korean monk came to Jiu Hua Shan to practice. Having high realizations, he was seen as the incarnation of Kshitigarbha, the bodhisattva who vowed to go to the hell realms to help the sentient beings there. On the way from visiting the pagoda with his remains, we met three old nuns. I asked them about their lives: during the Cultural Revolution, they were forced to wear insulting placards around their necks and large dunce caps on their heads while they carried Buddha statues on their backs as people in the streets jeered and threw things at them. Their temple was now a factory; they had a little room in it where they lived, and they had come here to look for a temple to move to. In recounting their story, the nun was not in the least bit bitter, although tears were in her eyes as she spoke. Without trying to be, she was an example of the effects of Dharma practice.

During those days at Jiu Hua Shan, we walked in the mountains and visited many isolated temples dotting the mountainside. Most were built in the last ten years, often by the personal funds of the monastics who lived there. At one, the nuns invited us to lunch. These four nuns lived in the meager temple with no electricity or plumbing, let alone heating during the winters, but they were content. At another, a nun of over 80 (she was ordained at 22) and her son who was now over 60 and also ordained, built a small temple around a cave. This nun was so serene that the boys remarked that she was surely going to be reborn in the pure land! I asked her about her life (this is one of my favorite questions because I believe we can learn a lot of Dharma from people’s life stories and how they handled the situations they encountered), and she responded, “Ordained life is very precious. It can’t be bought with money. If you have the roots of virtue, you can ordain. But if you don’t, even if someone tells you to and you can, you don’t want to.” Each of the boys has the wish to ordain, so her comments were timely for them as well as for me.

The five nuns residing at another isolated nunnery practice Ch’an meditation. We had an interesting discussion about the path, and a young nun sought advice on handling distractions during meditation. To help her, I repeated the words of instructions which I heard from my teachers but, being lazy, don’t practice myself. It’s sad—they have such fervor and a dearth of teachings, while I have had the fortune to hear many teachings from the best teachers, and yet have little fervor. (This is not modesty, it’s truth. Such things struck me during the pilgrimage.)

While viewing the figure of Kshitigarbha at the cave temple of some other nuns, the enormity of his vow suddenly hit home. He wants to go to the hell realms to help the beings there! What a far cry from my mind, which seeks only the happiness of this life! It’s at times like these that I understand the value of prayer: the transformation seems so radical, and we seem so entrenched in wrong conceptions, that the only thing left to do is to drop all facades, purify our minds, and request inspiration from our teachers and the Three Jewels.

In one temple lay the mummified body of Venerable Wu Sha from the Ming Dynasty. By pricking his tongue, he wrote a sutra with his own blood. When he died, his body did not decay, and devotees put it in the temple. About fifty years ago, there was a fire in the temple and when the monks tried to move his body, they couldn’t budge it. So they cried out, “If you don’t leave, then we won’t either!” The arms of the mummy shifted position to cross his chest, and the fire died out.

We took the cable car to the top of one mountain and walked in the forest. It took a while to get away from the litter. There is no conception of trash cans, even at holy sites, so people throw their rubbish everywhere. The first day of the pilgrimage, when one of the boys threw a can out the window of the train, I was aghast. My look startled them, and from then on I continually brought up during teachings the relevance of Buddhism to environmental issues. This was something new to them, but from that day on, none of them littered.

There is virtually no environmental awareness in China, let alone any thought of nuclear disaster. During one teaching on the five degenerations, I mentioned the nuclear threat and unwise disposal of nuclear waste. My friends looked puzzled, so at lunchtime I asked them if people in China thought about the spread of nuclear weapons or the possibility of nuclear war. They shook their heads and said, “No. The media doesn’t discuss this, and anyway, there’s nothing we common people can do about it.” At that moment, it struck me how much the existence of nuclear weapons has affected the lives of people in the West in so many ways, psychologically, socially, etc., and I tried to imagine what it would be like not to have that influence in my life.

Tendai and Samon

After visiting a large temple from the Yuan Dynasty in Hanzhou, which was protected by order from Chou En-lai during the Cultural Revolution and thus was undamaged, we went on to Tendai and Samon. Mt. Tendai is the home of the Tendai tradition, popular in both China and Japan. Both Tendai and Jiu Hua Shan looked just like Chinese paintings—Jiu Hua Shan with steep cliffs, autumn-colored forests, broad views; Tendai with waterfalls, bamboo forests, and terraced mountains.

We arrived at Samon after nine in the evening and, walking through the fields by moonlight, we arrived at the gates of a monastery where one of the boys’ teachers, a monk now in his 70s, was the abbot. They weren’t expecting us, and because women weren’t allowed in the monastery after dark, they escorted me to a flat in the town where some women affiliated with the temple lived. The women, a grandmother, mother and young daughter, warmly took me in, much to my embarrassed surprise (I imagined dropping in unexpectedly late at night at the home of a friend of a friend in the USA!). The next evening I had the opportunity to repay their kindness when they asked me to give a short talk. Instantaneously some neighbors appeared and the small, happy group, plus the boys, gathered around their altar while I discussed the mind being the cause of happiness and suffering and some ways to work with anger. Because people in Asia so often associate Buddhism with rituals in temples, it’s important to show them how Dharma is relevant to their daily lives, and they appreciated this.

The monks at the monastery here were all Chinese and basically followed the Tibetan Gelu tradition, but with a Chinese flavor. Earlier this century, several Chinese monks went to Tibet to study and brought the Tibetan teachings back to China. Many translated texts, so that good translations exist in Chinese for many of Lama Tsongkhapa’s works, for example. However, in passing down the practices, some masters changed several points and neglected important elements. Even when people go to the Tibetan lamas who visit Beijing, there are often difficulties. The lamas give high initiations, but they are not translated into Chinese, so the participants don’t know what’s going on. Usually, they don’t give the commentary on how to do the practice. How fortunate we are in the West where initiations are translated into our languages, commentaries given, and pure lineages kept intact and passed on! And how often we take this for granted, not appreciating our fortune!

Puto Shan, Chenrezig (Kuan Yin’s) holy place

We then went on to Puto Shan, which was to be our R&R—Rest and Retreat—after two weeks of tiring travel. I’d made many prayers to Kuan Yin (Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion), whose holy island this was, to be able to find a quiet retreat place to practice and continue teaching the boys and a young woman, a friend of theirs who joined us. We arrived after dark, and walking through the village, I saw basins of live seafood ready to be dropped into boiling water and eaten, and made-up girls outside what appeared to be beauty parlors. It seems some tourists mix pilgrimage with other pleasures.

One of the boys’ friends worked at the Chinese Buddhist Association, so we went to visit him and see if he could help us find accommodation that evening as well as a retreat place. He told us that foreigners are only allowed to stay at certain hotels on the island, the expensive ones of course, but his friend was the manager of one of them. His friend gave me the last bed in the place, in a room with three other women, all strangers. The next morning, when I got up early to do my meditation and prayers, there was no electricity, so I used my flashlight. When the electricity finally arrived, my roommates woke up and began talking. Then their husbands and boyfriends from the next room came over, and they were all having a great time, while this strange foreign nun meditated on one of the beds. But when I finished my practices, they expressed their delight at me meditating and wanted to have their picture taken with me!

By good fortune, we were able to meet the abbot of the largest temple, who was also head of all the Buddhists on the island, and appealed to him to talk with the police so that I could stay at a temple (not a hotel) and do retreat. He was sympathetic and tried his best, but the police refused and even came looking for me! Fortunately I wasn’t there at the time and we left the next day.


Since there were only two weeks left and we didn’t want to spend a lot of time traveling to another place and looking for a retreat house, Marty suggested that we return to Shanghai and do retreat at his family’s flat. Having made many prayers both before and during the trip to Kuan Yin to help us find a place and have a worthwhile retreat, I gave up my preconceptions and returned to Shanghai, and the retreat went wonderfully! We arrived unexpectedly, two weeks early, at Marty’s flat at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, and his parents welcomed us in without a trace of annoyance, not minding at all that their son and four of his friends were going to do retreat there for two weeks! We did six sessions a day, and during two of them I taught lamrim and the Chenresig practice. The boys had never done retreat before. In fact, they had never had ongoing oral lamrim teachings before, although they had studied so much and had taken several initiations.

Our retreat was both serious and punctuated with laughter. The first few days, my friends were very tired by the time teachings began after supper. So I taught them the profound practice of the Perfection of Sleeping during teachings, one that I have trained well in. First, as the root of the path, you must find a guru who will definitely put you to sleep. Then prepare the cushion and sit down. You must practice the Perfection of Sleeping during teachings together with the other six perfections: With generosity, give your fellow Dharma students adequate space to fall asleep. Do not take the best place for yourself, but sacrifice your happiness, and sit in the front row where everyone can see you while you sleep. With ethics, do not hurt anyone if you fall over while sleeping during teachings. With patience, do not become angry if you can’t fall asleep immediately. With effort, do not be lazy. Fall asleep quickly and efficiently. With concentration, fall asleep single-pointedly. Do not let your mind be distracted by listening to teachings. With wisdom, know that you as the sleeper, the sleep, and the act of sleeping all lack inherent existence. They are just like a dream. The ultimate guru yoga occurs when guru and disciples’ minds merge, so that at the end of teachings all that is heard is snoring.

However, once we changed the schedule so that the second teaching period was in the afternoon and we did the Chenresig practice and chanted the mantra out loud at length after supper, we encountered some obstacles to this profound practice of sleeping during teachings.

Our retreat went well and all of us were happy. When it was over, with feelings of rejoicing, gratitude, and fulfillment, as well as with sadness, I boarded the plane to return to the States.

Teaching in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union http://thubtenchodron.org/1994/05/travel-and-teaching-in-eastern-europe/ Wed, 04 May 1994 17:52:24 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10567

Part 1

  • Vividness of war in the Eastern Europe
  • Economic difficulties following the fall of communism
  • Psychological loss in former Soviet Union countries
  • Problems in adapting Buddhism philosophy
  • Looking into the negative effect of the fall of communism
  • Poverty in Romania
  • Ethnic hatred in Transylvania

Travels in Eastern Europe 01 (download)

Part 2

  • A sectarian approach to Buddhism
  • Underground spiritual practice
  • Meeting Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in Krakow
  • The need to adjust monastic vows to modern times and circumstances

Travels in Eastern Europe 02 (download)

Part 3

  • Remnants of infrastructure of the holocaust
  • The disintegration of the Jewish section of Auschwitz
  • Hardships endured by the occupied countries during the war
  • Different versions of history
  • Visiting monument of the Warsaw uprising
  • Disorganization of the former Soviet Union
  • A controversial lama
  • Comparing Chinese Communism in Tibet with the situation in Russia and Lithuania
  • How Tibetan Buddhism is viewed in former Soviet Union

Travels in Eastern Europe 03 (download)

Note: The text below is a separate write-up about the same trip. It is not a transcript of the above audio talks.

Planning for the trip to Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union (FSU) was an adventure in itself, with my passport getting lost twice in the U.S. mail, the Ukrainian embassy refusing my visa, and the travel agent keeping my urgent itinerary at the bottom of the stack of papers. I called the places in Eastern Europe to let them know the dates of my visit, and a man in St. Petersburg was supposed to organize the part of the tour in FSU. But I soon learned that organizing a 16-city teaching tour in former communist countries made travel in India look like a piece of cake.

My first stop in Eastern Europe was Prague, a beautiful capital whose buildings were comparatively unscathed during World War II. I stayed with Marushka, a delightful woman with whom I’d been corresponding for a number of years, although we had never met. She had been hospitalized twice for emotional difficulties and told me hair-raising tales of being in a communist mental institution. Juri, my other host, showed me around the city, one memorial site being the exhibit of children’s art in the Jewish museum. These children, confined in a ghetto in Czechoslovakia during the war, drew pictures of the barbed wire compounds in which they lived and the cheerful houses surrounded by flowers in which they formerly lived. Below each drawing were the child’s birth and death dates. Many of these little ones were taken to Auschwitz to be exterminated in 1944. All over Eastern Europe and the FSU, the ghost of the war reigns. I was constantly reminded that the demographics of the area changed radically in a few years and that people of all ethnic groups suffered.

My talks in the Prague were held downtown. They were attended by about 25 people, who listened attentively and asked good questions. Jiri was an able translator.

The next stop was Budapest, where spring was just beginning. Most of the city had been destroyed by door-to-door fighting at the end of the war. I stayed with a lovely extended family, two members of whom had escaped during the communist regime and gone to Sweden to live. The talks were at the recently-established Buddhist College, a first in that part of the world. But I was surprised when entering the principal’s office, to see on the wall behind his desk not a picture of the Buddha, but a painting of a nude woman!

I also visited a Buddhist retreat center in the countryside where ten people had just begun a three-year retreat. Over lunch, the Hungarian monk explained the difficulties that people raised under communism have when becoming Buddhists. “You don’t know what it’s like to learn Marxist-Leninist scientific materialism since you’re a child. This does something to your way of thinking, making it a challenge to expand your mind to include Buddhist ideas,” he said. True, I thought, and on the other hand, people in Western Europe and North America have to undo years of indoctrination of consumerism and if-it-feels-good-do-it philosophy when they encounter Buddhism.

Oradea, a town in Transylvania (Rumania) that is renowned as Count Dracula’s home, was the next stop. Rumania was much poorer than Czech Republic and Hungary, or rather, it was more neglected. As I later found in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, people had things, but they were falling apart and left unrepaired. The roads, once paved, were now rutted. The trams, once brightly painted, were now dilapidated. There was no idea of fixing things, or if there was, no money to do it. Transylvania was traditionally inhabited by Hungarians and in recent years, there has been an influx of Rumanians. The Dharma group was mostly Hungarians and took every opportunity to tell me how awful the Rumanians were. I was shocked at the prejudice and ethnic hatred, and found myself talking passionately about equanimity, tolerance, and compassion in the Dharma talks.

The people I stayed with were kind and hospitable, and as in most places, I felt real friendships develop. However, they knew little about etiquette around monastics, and at a gathering in someone’s flat after a talk, I was surrounded by couples making out. They would take turns talking to me and then resume their (obviously more pleasurable) activities. Needless to say, I excused myself as soon as possible and went to my room to meditate.

Venerable Chodron and Venerable Tenzin Palmo, holding hands and smiling.

With Venerable Tenzin Palmo.

Then on to Krakow, Poland, the site of Schindler’s List. Venerable Tenzin Palmo, a British nun who meditated 12 years in a cave in India, was also teaching in Poland at the time, and our schedules were arranged so we could meet in Krakow. It was lovely to see her again, and together we discussed the recent tragedy that had befallen many Polish Dharma centers. Years ago, a Danish teacher in the Tibetan tradition had set up centers in many cities. But in recent years power struggles developed, and the teacher, becoming involved in the Tibetans’ dispute over the new Karmapa, forbade his centers to invite other teachers from even his own Tibetan tradition. As a result, the centers throughout Poland split into opposing groups, with the Danish man and his followers retaining the property. The tragedy is that many friendships have disintegrated and much confusion generated about the meaning of refuge and relying on a spiritual mentor. Venerable Tenzin Palmo and I did our best to alleviate the confusion, encouraging people in the new groups to go ahead with their practice, to invite qualified teachers, and to practice together with their Dharma friends. This experience intensified my feeling that we Westerners need not and should not get involved in political disputes within the Tibetan community. We must remain firmly centered with a compassionate motivation on the real purpose of Dharma practice and check teachers’ qualifications well before establishing a teacher-student relationship with them.

The Poles were warm and friendly, and we had long, interesting and open talks. “As an American, do you have any idea what it’s like to have your country occupied by foreign forces? Can you imagine what it feels like to have your country carved up and your borders rearranged at the discretion of powerful neighbors? Do you know how it feels when citizens are deported to foreign lands?” they asked. All over Eastern Europe, people remarked that their countries were the walking grounds of foreign troops, and indeed so many of the places were alternately occupied by the Germans and the Russians. The smell of history lingers on in each place.

Inter-religious connections

I enjoy inter-religious dialogue and while in Prague met with the novice training master at a monastery. In Budapest, I met with a monk from a monastery with its church carved as a cave in the rock along the river in Budapest. In both these conversations, the monks were open and curious about Buddhism—I was probably the first Buddhist they had met—and they shared their experiences of following their faith despite the fact that their monasteries had been shut down during the communist regime.

In Krakow, Venerable Tenzin Palmo and I visited some sisters of St. Francis at their cloister in the center of the city. Two sisters in full traditional nuns’ dress sat behind the double grill as we exchanged questions and answers about spiritual life and practice. One topic of interest was how to keep our religious traditions alive and yet adapt to the circumstances of modern life, challenges that both Buddhist and Catholic monastics face. Our discussion lasted two hours, and by the end 13 Catholic nuns (half of the monastery’s inhabitants) were crammed into the tiny room. With much laughter we showed them how our robes were worn and they peeled off layers of black and white cloth to show us how to assemble their robes. We traded prayer beads through the grill, like teenage girls sharing secrets, and parted with a sense of love, understanding and shared goals.

Later, in Russia and Ukraine, I tried to meet with Orthodox nuns, but could not find any. One large Orthodox nunnery we visited in Moscow is now a museum. Fortunately, in Donetsk, Ukraine, a young Orthodox priest and a Catholic woman attended my talk at the Buddhist center. We spent a long time talking about doctrine, practice, and religious institutions. I explained to the priest that many people in America who had been raised Christian suffered from guilt. From their youth, they were told that Jesus had sacrificed his life for them and they felt they were too egotistical to appreciate or repay this and asked how this could be alleviated. He explained that many people misunderstand Jesus’ death—that Jesus sacrificed his life willingly, without asking for anything in return. He also said that women played a greater role in the early Church than they do now in Orthodoxy, and that slowly, he would like to see them resume that place.

Venerable Tenzin Palmo and I also visited Auschwitz as well as the Jewish neighborhood, the ghetto, and the cemetery in Krakow. It was rainy and cold those days, the weather illustrating the horror of what human beings’ destructive emotions can perpetrate. Coming from a Jewish background, I had been raised knowing about the tragedy there. But I found it odd, and all too familiar, that people were now vying for their share of suffering and pity. Some Jews objected to a Catholic nunnery being built near the concentration camp, and some Poles felt that the fact they lost a million Polish patriots at Auschwitz wasn’t adequately recognized by the world. The importance of meditating on equanimity became obvious to me—everyone equally wants to be happy and to avoid suffering. Creating too strong of a religious, racial, national, or ethnic identity obscures this basic human fact.

In Warsaw, I went to the site of the Jewish Ghetto where now a monument stands for those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The area is a park surrounded by socialist flats, but old photos reveal that after the uprising it was nothing more than leveled rubble. At the Jewish cemetery, we overheard an older woman visiting from America say that she had been in Warsaw at the time of the uprising and came back to look for the graves of her friends. It seems to me that Caucasians haven’t completely come to terms with the atrocities committed under Hitler and Stalin (to name a few)—they view these as flukes or aberrations, because white people could never cause such heinous events. I believe that this is why we have such difficulty grappling with events such as the situations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

From time to time on the trip, I met some Jewish Buddhists, in Eastern Europe and the FSU, where so few Jews are left! They are generally assimilated into the main society now, and although they say, “I am Jewish,” they don’t know much about the religion or culture. It’s similar to many people from my generation of Jews in USA. In Ukraine they told me that since so many Russian Jews in Israel can get Ukrainian TV, that there are now advertisements in Hebrew on their TV! They also told me that since things opened up in the FSU, that many of their Jews friends have left for Israel and the USA. It was interesting that the people I met didn’t want to leave, given how chaotic and directionless those societies are now.

The transition from Communism to ??

As I traveled northward, spring disappeared, and I entered the countries of the former Soviet Union, where winter lingered on. I realized that the person in St. Petersburg who was supposed to organize this part of the tour had dropped the ball. Some places didn’t know I was coming until I called them the night before to give them the arrival time of the train! People told me this was normal—since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, ties had been broken, there were now border checks and customs in what used to be one country, and things were not well organized.

All over Eastern Europe and the FSU, people told me how difficult the change from communism to free-market economy and political freedom had been. First there were economic hardships due to the changing system. Then there was the change in mentality required to cope with it. People said that under communism they lived better—they had what they needed—while now they had to struggle financially. Under the old system, things were taken care of for them, and they didn’t have to take personal initiative or be responsible for their livelihood. They worked a few hours each day, drank tea, and chanted with their colleagues the rest, and collected a paycheck that allowed them to live comfortably.

Now, they had to work hard. Factories were closing down, and people losing their jobs. Although the markets had plenty of Western goods, in the FSU hardly anyone could afford them. Even people who were employed were not paid well, if their employers had money to pay them at all. Many educated and intelligent people, especially in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine left their jobs to do business, buying and selling from one place to another. The poverty was real. In the Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine we basically ate rice, bread and potatoes.

In Eastern Europe, the situation was not so grave, and the mood was upbeat. People were glad to be free from communism and from Russian domination. Circumstances were difficult, but they were confident they would get through them. The people in the Baltics felt the same and were especially happy to have their independence. In all these areas, which had been under communism only since the war, the people removed the statues and symbols of communism as quickly as possible.

But in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, areas that were communist since the early 1920s, the atmosphere was different. Economically, they were more desperate, and socially, more disorganized. Their great empire was lost and their confidence destroyed. Only one woman I met in Moscow saw the present situation optimistically, saying that Russians now had the opportunity to develop an economic system which was neither capitalist nor communist, a system which could fit their unique cultural mentality.

But others I met felt confused. With the advent of perestroyka, things snowballed, changing so fast in ways that no one had expected, with no advance planning or firm direction for the society. Now clever people are profiteering from the chaos, and the gap between rich and poor is growing. It broke my heart to see old grandfathers in St. Petersburg begging outside the churches and old grandmothers in Moscow with their palms held out in the subways. Such things never happened before, I was told. But when I asked people if they wanted to return to the old system, they replied, “We know we can’t go back.” Yet, they had little idea of what lay ahead, and most did not have confidence in Yeltsin’s leadership.

The Baltic countries and the former Soviet Union

Back to my time in the Baltics. I taught in Vilnus (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia), but had the best connection with the people in Tallinn (Estonia). They were enthusiastic, and we did a marathon session on the gradual path to enlightenment, after which all of us were elated and inspired.

In previous decades a few people from the Baltics and St. Petersburg had learned Buddhism, either by going to India or to Buryatia, an ethnically Buddhist area in Russia just north of Mongolia. Some of these people were practitioners, others were scholars. Yet, the public has many misunderstanding about Buddhism. I was asked if I could see auras, if Tibetan monks could fly through the sky, if one could go to Shambala, or if I could perform miracles. I told them that the best miracle was to have impartial love and compassion for all beings, but that wasn’t what they wanted to hear!

I met people who had learned a little about tantra from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had gone to Tibet in the twenties. Then they read Evans-Wentz’s book on the six yogas of Naropa, invented their own tummo (inner heat) meditation and taught it to others. They were very proud that they didn’t have to wear overcoats in the icy Russian winter, while I was relieved that they didn’t go crazy from inventing their own meditation. It brought home to me the importance of meeting pure lineages and qualified teachers, and then following their instructions properly after doing the necessary preliminary practices.

The teachings in St. Petersburg were well attended. While there, I visited the Kalachakra Temple, a Tibetan temple completed in 1915 under the auspices of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. In the 1930s, Stalin had the monks killed, and the state took over the temple, turning it into an insect laboratory. In recent years the Buddhists were allowed to return, and there is now a group of young men from Buryatia and Kalmykia (between the Caspian and Black Seas) who are training to be monks. The women at the temple, some European, others Asian, were enthusiastic about Dharma, and we talked for hours. With excitement, they kept saying, “You’re the first Tibetan nun who’s been here. We’re so happy!”

In Moscow, the teachings were organized by a new-age center, although there are many Buddhist groups in the city. Before leaving Seattle, I met with the Russian consul, who was interested in Dharma. He gave me the contact of his friend in Moscow who was a Buddhist. I looked him up and had an impromptu meeting with some of the people from his group. We discussed Buddhism from the point of view of practice not theory, and there was a wonderful and warm feeling at the end of the evening.

Then on to Minsk, Belarus, where the trees were barely beginning to bud and the Dharma group was earnest. Again, people were not very familiar with etiquette for monastics, and I was housed at the flat of a single man who had a huge photo of a naked woman in his bathroom. Fortunately, he was kind and minded his manners, but it put me in an awkward position—do I ask to stay elsewhere even though everyone else’s flats were crowded?

On the way from Minsk to Donetsk, we stopped for a few hours in Kiev and met a friend of Igor, the man translating for me. She and I had a good connection and I was touched by how she shared the little she had with us. She and I were about the same size, and the idea popped into my head to give her the maroon cashmere sweater that friends had given to me. My ego tried to quench that idea with all sorts of “reasons” about my needing it. A civil war broke out inside me on the way to the train station, “Should I give her the sweater or not?” and I hesitated even after she got us sweet bread for the trip, although she had little money. Fortunately, my good sense won out, and I reached into my suitcase and gave her the beautiful sweater minutes before the train pulled away. Her face lighted up with delight, and I wondered how I could have considered, just five minutes prior, being so stingy as to keep it myself.

Donetsk, a coal mining town in eastern Ukraine, was the last stop. Here I stayed at a center begun by a Korean monk, where the people were friendly and open to the Dharma. The town had little “Mount Fujis” all around it. When the mines were dug, the excess earth was piled in hills of pollution around the town. Nevertheless, the town had trees and green grass—welcome sights after the dreariness of Moscow—and spring was again present. In addition to speaking at the center, the public library, and a college, I gave talks to two large groups at a high school, with many students staying afterwards to ask more questions.

With a good sense of timing, after finishing the last talk of this six-week tour, I promptly lost my voice. On the train from Donetsk to Kiev, I was coughing and sneezing, and the compassionate people who shared the train compartment, two slightly tipsy Ukrainian men, offered to share their precious vodka with me, saying that it would definitely make me feel better. But being unappreciative of their generosity, and using the (in their eyes) lame excuse that drinking was counter to my monastic vows, I refused. In an effort to overcome my ignorance, they kept repeating their offer, until I finally feigned going to sleep to have some peace.

As a final touch to the trip, on the flight from Kiev to Frankfurt, I sat next to an evangelical Christian from Seattle who had just been to Kazakhstan, Moscow, and Kiev to spread the “good news.” He was a pleasant man, who meant well and wanted to help others. But when I asked him if the Muslims who converted to Christianity faced difficulties with their families, he said, “Yes, but it’s better than going to hell.”

By the time I arrived in Frankfurt and my friend, a German monk, picked me up at the airport, I felt like Alice reemerging from the hole, wondering about confusing and wonderful experiences, the kindness and the complexity, that others had just shared with me.