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Becoming Involved with Buddhism

Singapore, August 10, 1988

Revised excerpt from
Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten.
Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.

[See also:  Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher in Two Lifetimes and Do You Believe in Rebirth?]

From the time I was young, I was interested in Asian cultures. Around the age of thirteen, I started to practice hatha yoga. At sixteen, I entered Rutgers University, where I studied chemistry for two years. I took an elective course in Asian Civilizations, which I found extremely interesting. During one lecture, when the professor described the transmission of Buddhism from one country to another – the translation process and how Buddhism adapted itself to various cultures - it instantly struck me. This is what I had to learn about in depth.

When Princeton University opened a new program in the Asia Studies Department, I applied and was accepted into the Chinese Studies section. I was very interested in how Buddhism came to China, how it was influenced by Chinese culture, and how Buddhism, in turn, influenced later Chinese philosophy. I wanted to learn how Buddhism was practiced in daily life. While at Princeton, I was unaware that nearby lived Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongol Geshe from the Volga region of Russia, who headed the first Tibeto-Mongolian monastery in America. All I could do was to speculate what it might be like to think and act according to the Buddhist teachings.

I went to Harvard University in 1965 to do an M.A. in Far Eastern Languages, namely Medieval Chinese Philosophy and History. After the first year, I decided that I must learn Sanskrit and study Indian Buddhism in more depth, in order to understand how it was transmitted to China. Thus, I began to study the Sanskrit language and Indian philosophy. For my Ph.D., I did a joint degree between the Departments of Far Eastern Languages and Sanskrit and Indian Studies.

When, as part of my Indian Buddhist studies, I began to study Tibetan in 1967, I came to know about Geshe Wangyal and went to visit him whenever I returned to New Jersey to see my family. Unfortunately, Harvard was too far away for me to be able to study with this inspiring master. Nevertheless, Geshe Wangyal's student, Robert Thurman, the first Westerner to become a Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, was in most of my classes at Harvard. He told me about His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how Buddhism was a living tradition in the Tibetan refugee community in India. He told me how he had studied in India and that if I wished, he was sure that I could do so too. I required no further convincing. I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to go to India to do my dissertation research with the Tibetans. I received the fellowship and went to India in 1969.

In Dharamsala, I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well as his tutors, and it impressed me very strongly that what they believed in and practiced was for real. The study of Buddhism in an American university in the 1960s primarily entailed historical and linguistic analysis of the texts. It was a dry subject and it seemed as if we were learning about something that existed centuries ago, like the religions of Ancient Egypt, but not now. In India, however, the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism was alive. I was no longer learning from academics who had no personal experience of the Dharma, but from people who believed and knew Buddha's teachings. These teachings had been passed down from Buddha himself in an unbroken lineage, from master to disciple, to the present day. It was only a matter of being open to learn from the great masters around me. This was very exciting. Now, I focused not only on how Buddhism had changed as it went from one culture to another, but also on Buddhism as a living philosophy and religion that I could practice.

I began to study with one great lama (spiritual master), Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, to do the research for my doctorate. I also started to involve myself in the practice of Buddhism. After two years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama built the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala and asked my teacher to instruct foreigners there in Buddhist philosophy and meditation. He asked Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, two young lamas who had studied English in America under the guidance of Geshe Wangyal and with whom I was already translating some texts for His Holiness, to be the translators. I asked if I could also be of help, and His Holiness said, "Yes, but first go back to America, hand in your dissertation, and get the degree."

After submitting my thesis, I said "No thank you" to an academic career of university teaching and returned to India to continue studying with Geshe Dhargyey. We did further written translations and, as my spoken Tibetan improved, I became the interpreter for the great lama who had now became my main teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, the Master Debate Partner and Assistant Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I traveled with Serkong Rinpoche as his interpreter for two international teaching tours. After this great master passed away in 1983, Buddhist centers in several countries started to invite me to visit and teach.

From the time I went to India, I was struck by the fact that Buddhism not only gave practical advice about daily life, but it gave answers to many questions that I had previously been unable to answer. These were questions like, "Why was my life the way it was? Why did the things that occurred in my life happen?" The Buddhist explanation of karma answered these questions. Discovering this was very exciting because it enabled me to make some sense out of what I had experienced. Moreover, Buddhism gives a clear and rational explanation of the mind and how it works. Further, when we actually practice Buddhist methods for dealing with life's daily problems, we witness their effective results. This gave me great inspiration that I had found the right path that suited me perfectly.

In translating and teaching, I try to apply the lessons I have learned about Buddhism and how it spread from one culture to another. My study has made me aware of the factors we must be careful about when bringing Buddhism to the West and to modern societies. By knowing how Buddhism adapted to each new culture in the past, I hope to be of help in transmitting it to other countries in our modern world.