by Sonam Ongmo
His Holiness addressing members of 15 Buddhist Communities in New York, photo:Ang Kami Sherpa, PhotoHera.com
While waiting to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New York on May 5, I was thinking of a story that late Lopon Pemala from Bhutan once told me. As a young boy Lopon Pemala wanted to study Buddhism so he set out for Tibet where, during that time (1930’s), most of the great Buddhist teachers were. He told me how he made the journey with just a gho on his back, a small cloth bag and mere cloth boots on his feet. On the way he endured great hardship with little food and the unbearable cold – turning snot into icicles, freezing fingers and toes. But it was all about the suffering and the thirst for Buddhism. “If we wanted to receive the teachings, we went to great lengths, even if it was crossing mountains,” he said, and he surely had. He became one of Bhutan’s most learned and respected Buddhist scholars. So it was with some guilt then, that unlike the days of Lopon Pemala’s childhood, I was sitting comfortably in a chair at the Waldorf Astoria awaiting the world’s leading Buddhist figure to come to me (or rather the group of 120 members of the Himalayan Buddhist Community that I was a part of). We had congregated there to seek guidance on promoting Buddhist Culture in New York.
Obviously much has changed in the Himalayas since the time of Lopon Pemala’s childhood and I noted with sad irony that people no longer made that journey to Tibet (after China’s occupation). If anything they have all been heading in the opposite direction – out of Tibet.
photo:Ang Kami Sherpa, PhotoHera.com
His Holiness the Dalai Lama reaffirmed how the changing times made it “extremely crucial” in this “critical period” to preserve Buddhist Culture and Traditions. “For people from the Himalayas, Buddhism has influenced much of our cultural traditions. It is all we have. It is our identity. I always advise people to keep their own religious traditions,” he said, “When I travel in the west I tell people to keep their Judeo – Christian traditions as part of their identity. [In the Himalayas] Our cultural heritage is influenced by Buddhism so it’s logically fit to preserve that way of life.”
As for the Tibetans, he said, “We have managed to preserve Tibetan-Buddhist culture so far. But in the future, in Tibet, there is every chance that we [will] become insignificant minorities within our own land. In the eyes of the Communist hardliners, our unique Tibetan- Buddhist Heritage is a source of threat for separation so they deliberately have policies to keep a lid on this.”
His Holiness said that the Nalanda Buddhist traditions from India were a treasure of the East and if Tibetan culture disappeared, who was to take care of it? “ Since we share the same cultural traditions, it is a shared responsibility to preserve this,” he said. On the other hand, His Holiness said, that while construction of Temples and Statues was important, Statues couldn’t speak and Temples couldn’t impart teachings so it was most important to embody the spirit of Buddhism within us, rather than seek it in the structures. He explained, “For example in the 4th century an Indian Buddhist Master Vasu Bhandu said, ‘if you look at the teachings of the Buddha it consists of two aspects. One is the scriptural understanding of the teachings and the other it’s realization. It is only by implementing that into one's own personal practice and gaining the realization that Buddha's Teachings is upheld’.”
A popular Buddhist tradition is to offer prayer flags, say the rosary and turn prayer wheels. “But this is not sufficient,” His Holiness advised. “Traditionally our societies were illiterate so we had these simple practices. But the real method is through rigorous study of Buddhism. This doesn’t mean you have to become a monk or a nun,” he said.
My earlier thoughts about how times had changed for Buddhism was totally in sync with His Holiness’ message. With Buddhist teachers easily accessible now, books and texts so readily available, what excuse was there really for us today – aside from a lack of interest or laziness – to not acquire this knowledge, to not preserve our cultures? To assist in this effort, His Holiness also said that anyone from the Himalayas was welcome to study Buddhism for free in any of the Tibetan- Buddhist institutes in India regardless of their sect – whether Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya, Ngyingma etc. “We all belong to the same Community,” he said. He urged members of the Community to study Buddhism, not necessarily through a teacher, but through discussions and self-education. “It is good to have a teacher but the emphasis [should be] on your own learning and practice.” He advised the members to create an environment for learning for children in their communities, arrange programs and involve others without discrimination. Yet another reminder of what sacrifices Buddhist practitioners make, His Holiness even offered to explain or teach a text, if a community wished him to. The Himalayan Buddhist Community as an organization had to take the interest and the initiative, “otherwise the organization is meaningless,” he said.
A representative from the community, Sonam G. Sherpa, said they understood the “enormity of the challenges.” It was possible, he said, that the next generation of Himalayan Buddhist Communities would not enjoy the rich culture that they had grown up with. Understanding this, he committed that members would strive to work together to arrange programs to benefit the 15 different groups of the Buddhist Communities.
Mr. Lobsang Nyandak La, His Holiness’ representative to North America, and the Office of Tibet, were instrumental in organizing the audience. Representatives of Tibetans from the New York and New Jersey area were also present.