A View From the Path
|The following article is from the Autumn, 1996 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.|
Interview with Namgyal student Scott Palmer
Snow Lion's Jesse Townsley interviewed Scott Palmer to discover what it's like being a Westerner studying at Namgyal Monasteiy and Institute in Ithaca, NY.
Jesse: How did you hear about Namgyal Monastery and Institute? How did you come to be here?
Scott: I was an English and Philosophy major in college and in my final year I received an opportunity to study in Beijing, China. Part of what I wanted to do in China was to pursue my interests in Tibet, so I went to Lhasa for a couple of months and also travelled to some remote areas of Amdo.
I met a lot of monks, and talked about the Dharma and about Tibet and about what had been going on there. All of this was in Chinese, I didn't know any Tibetan at the time. Also I became interested in the role that Tibetan Buddhism has played in Inner AsiaXiryiang, Inner and Outer Mongolia, and west-central China, places where Tibetan Buddhism has, at one time at least, been a cultural interface of sorts.
When I came back to the states, I talked to a professor friend about preparing for graduate programs. I had decided that it was in my best interest to learn the Tibetan language before actually doing graduate work. This professor had just come back from His Holiness' teachings in Tucson and had picked up a brochure on Namgyal Institute.
It seemed that Namgyal was a place where qualified teachers were giving accurate and traditional teachings on an ongoing basis, a place for both serious academically inclined students and people looking for a reliable dharma center. This really appealed to me, so I researched it and took the plunge. I've been here almost three years.
J: What do you think it was about Tibetan Buddhism that attracted you?
S: I've always been very attracted to the way it seemed that Tibetan Buddhists were engaged in some kind of scientific experiment, a strict critical analysis of the Doctrine, of pots and tables, and persons, and whatever. I understood that there were leaps of faith, but they seem to make sensethey seemed well thought out. It wasn't just sit down and let the innate enlightened mind arise. There is some of that, don't get me wrong, but it has a time and place. Just sitting wasn't accessible to me. I would sit and all this stuff would arise. I wasn't convinced I had any tools, any handholds, any clues to go on. So I guess it appealed to my disposition as an I've got to think through everything kind of person.
And there are a lot of other things. There is the emphasis on developing a warm and compassionate heart and there are people, warm and compassionate people, that stand as proof. A tradition of love, who couldn't learn something from that? Travelling through Inner Asia, meeting a lot of different people from different religious and cultural backgrounds, there was something about the Tibetans as a people that struck me. Regular folks, who were not necessarily monks or nuns or scholars, just folks in fields and jeeps, wherever, they were such wonderful, warm people. This inspired me to try to figure out what it was about their culture in general that could inform this wonderful, warm, optimistic outlook in the midst of very hard, oppressive situations. I also met a lot of ordained sangha, nuns and monks, from various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism who had spent a considerable amount of their time meditating and thinking about the Dharma, and a few of them really struck me as wise, as if they hadn't wasted any of their lives. Of course there are perhaps inspiring people like this in all religions, but, well, I was convinced. So it's all this that struck me. It was so beautiful and huge that I felt that I really needed to investigate it.
Maybe I've lost some of my starryeyed infatuation, but I'm still convinced there is something behind all of this practice. It seems the more I study, the more I'm convinced that it could work; but much like a scientific theory, it has to be tested.
Of course the Tibetans don't have exclusive rights to the path, but some of them know it pretty well. I guess that's why I'm here.
J: So how are your classes this year?
S: My classes at Namgyal this year are great. This is perhaps the first year that I feel as if I have gained enough experience with the Tibetan language to actually read the texts. I mean, I still have so much work to do, but I feel as if I am experiencing the fruition of past hard work. This is a good feeling, no doubt, and it's taken over two years to get here. I'm definitely learning. And with Khensur Rinpoche here now, we have access to so much. He's really a phenomenal teacher.
J: What makes him such a good teacher?
S: Khensur Rinpoche is a veritable storehouse of traditional wisdom. Sidney calls him a heavyI think it's a big enough word (laughter). [Eds. note: Sidney Piburn is Program Director at Namgyal Monastery Institute.] What he means, what I mean is not that he's a big guy, which he is, no doubt, but that he's got a big presence. I remember walking into the shrine room before he gave a particular initiation and I thought the whole room was on fire. I'd never felt a space like that, before. He totally affects the atmosphere of a placesometimes it's goofy laughter, it depends.
I can put my engagement with him in context. For instance, I'm taking a practice class where Rinpoche is giving us teachings on a particular highest yoga tantra sadhana. This is going to last the whole year, which is really amazing. Just the fact that I can receive this practice is extraordinary, but to get ongoing teachings...there are very few places where Westerners, or non-ordained practitioners have access to this. And to get teachings on a sadhana practice for an entire year from someone as qualified as Khensur Rinpoche is absolutely phenomenal.
Which brings up the whole issue of qualifications which is quite funny. I mean it's traditional for the lama to say that he or she isn't qualifiedyou know what I meanbut because they've had great teachers, they'll try their best. It just sounds funny when a lama says this and then proceeds to narrate fifteen or so odd years, maybe most of their lifetimes in earnest practice, and however many retreats they've taken. It puts it in such huge perspective. I mean, Khensur Rinpoche was the abbot of Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala for three or four years and, well, they don't just pick anyone off the street to fill this position. But that's really not it, it's what he's done, it's hard work and practice.
Anyway, Khensur Rinpoche isn't somber or anything like that, he's just serious, even when he laughs. In two other classes with him, one where we are reading a bio rigs text and the other a tenets text, he will turn a mind-bending debate topic into a really hilarious joke. Or he will throw out an anecdote and just cool everything off. He is definitely a skillful teacher.
And not only do we have Khensur Rinpoche at Namgyal now, he is flanked with this power group: Tenzin Yingyin-la, Tondup-la, Tenzin Legdinla and Palden Choedak-la. It's like naming the line-up for Coltrane's Live in Paris album.
I think one of the really great things about Namgyal is that you really get this one-on-one engagement with the monks, with the instructors. And with Craig Preston around we've got a really good thing going. I was at the AAR last year and a pretty well-respected translator told me he thinks Tibetan doesn't have a grammar. I couldn't believe I was hearing this. Craig teaches us grammar. It's pretty rigorous. We have to be able to explain everything that is going on in a sentence, dot for dot. I tried to sell this scholar our textbook. Tibetan might be strange at times, but there is definitely grammar going on.
J: What's the difference between the larger and smaller classes?
S: Well, the larger classes tend to be more general topics classes. For instance, the largest class this semester is a class where Rinpoche is giving an extensive commentary on Je Tsong-ka-ba's Lam gtso mam, gsum, or the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. This could be seen as an introductory class, but someone having