News and Views on Tibet

Lessons of history from Tibetan scholar

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Buddhist man teaches life’s intangibles


BELLEVUE – In 1996, I trekked with a friend to a Tibetan monastery, nestled high in China’s southwestern mountains. In fact, the air was so thin at that altitude that our bodies tingled. We marveled at the intense blue sky.

As we explored the monastery, a young monk peered out of his room and motioned for us to enter.

We were intrigued with this bald man and his maroon robe and dark, leatherlike skin. And we spent the entire afternoon together, discussing life, fate, education, reincarnation and the value of traveling. He said it was fate that we met.

As we sipped yak milk, he said he would come find us in the United States.

My friend and I immediately offered up our addresses, scrawled on pieces of paper. He politely declined, saying that was unnecessary.

He told us we might not recognize him when he finds us. But he has done this before, he said, when he found his former teacher, though the person didn’t recognize him.

In the back of our minds, we wondered: Is this possible? Does this monk know something that we don’t know? Why would a Tibetan Buddhist monk want to fool two guests?

But as we sat in the chilly monastery, instead of scoffing, we listened.

When I told Nawang Dorjee this story in Bellevue the other day, he nodded and occasionally closed his eyes while he thought.

Dorjee, a Tibetan teacher, is Bellevue Community College’s first scholar in residence at the school’s new Center for Liberal Arts.

Dorjee lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, where he runs a school for Tibetan children so they can learn and preserve history and culture.

But for this academic year, he has descended from his Himalayan perch to share stories about Tibet, its conflict with China, Buddhism and his life as an orphan.

To understand this monk’s statements, Dorjee told me, it’s important to recognize Buddhism’s history in Tibet.

The religion arrived from India in the seventh century. Because Tibet was so remote and cut off from the rest of the world, Buddhists could focus on the religion and its ideas of interdependence, suffering and compassion. “The genius of the Tibetan technology is in the inside,” he said of the focus on an individual’s inner journey.

“The genius of Western civilization is all about exploration. It’s all about expansion, discovery, technology and external things. The Western mind is all about creating things.

“We never bothered to excavate the mountains. We never bothered to dam the rivers to make wealth. We were concentrated on how to be peaceful and compassionate.”

And Tibetan Buddhists believe the mind has different levels. At each level, practitioners focus on various ideas, such as clarity, simplicity, ethics, suffering, ignorance, awareness, love, tolerance and patience.

Eventually, through deep meditation, a practitioner becomes aware of the interdependence of life. And so, Dorjee said, the monk I met was likely referring to these ideas and a stream of consciousness that Tibetan Buddhists believe is reborn in other beings.

This stream of consciousness and infinite lifetimes, which Tibetan Buddhists also believe in, are the foundation that practitioners use to supposedly visit others in the future.

As he told me this, I could have countered with Western scientific reasoning. I could have said this is impossible. But I did the same thing I did at that Tibetan monastery in China.

I just listened.

My encounter with that monk and my talk with Dorjee underscored the importance of trying to understand ideas that I otherwise would dismiss as nonsense, illogical or irrational.

The conversations also taught me that the human brain works laterally when it focuses on material goods, and vertically when it comprehends and considers the intangible. It’s reassuring to know there’s plenty of room there.

And you know what? When I walk down the street these days, even with the noise of cars zipping by on wet streets, life seems a little quieter.

And I walk a little slower.

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