The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Modern Adaptation of Buddhism > Personal Experience of Combining Buddhist Practice and Buddhology > Personal Experience Combining Buddhist Practice and Buddhology

Personal Experience Combining Buddhist Practice and Buddhology

Alexander Berzin
Elista, Kalmykia, Russia, October 2009

Unedited Transcript
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Today I’ve been asked to speak a little bit about the way in which one combines Buddhist practice with Buddhology, and specifically to tell about my own personal experience; in other words, to tell you a story about myself. And although of course it’s always a little bit embarrassing to speak about oneself, I’ll try to do something. And maybe my experience might be useful or inspiring for you.

The Sputnik Generation

I was born in America in 1944 in a very ordinary family. My family didn’t have very much money, just working people, and they didn’t have very much education either. But from a very young age I had a very strong instinctive interest in Asian things, and this was not encouraged or anything by my family, although they didn’t discourage it either. But not very much was available in those days. I started doing yoga when I was thirteen with another friend, and read everything I could that was available about Buddhism and Indian thought, Chinese thought, etc. I was part of what was called in America the “Sputnik Generation.” When Sputnik went up, America became very, very upset because we were so far behind Russia. And so all the children at school, including myself, were encouraged to study science, and catch up with Russia. So I went off to university when I was sixteen and studied chemistry at Rutgers University. This was in New Jersey, where I grew up. And although Geshe Wangyal lived only about maybe fifty kilometers away from where I grew up, I didn’t know of his existence.

As part of my studies I took an extra course in Asian Studies. And in this it spoke about how Buddhism went from one civilization to another and how each civilization understood it in a different way. Although I was only seventeen, this made such a strong impression on me that I said, “This is what I want to be involved with, the whole process of Buddhism going from one civilization to another.” And this is what I have followed for the rest of my life without any deviation or change.

Princeton, from Chemistry to Chinese Language, Thought and Philosophy

They were starting a new program at Princeton University to open up their Asian Studies department to more students, because there were very few students and this was in the early days of the Vietnam War and there were very few people who knew any Asian languages. So another opportunity opened up. So I was very excited because here was the opportunity to study Chinese, which was one of the possibilities. And so I applied and was accepted. So I started studying Chinese language when I was eighteen, and continued my studies at Princeton University for the second two years of my university training, my baccalaureate. And, so, a four-year program in the United States – the first two years were chemistry and the second two years I did Chinese.

What I was always interested in was how Chinese philosophy influenced the way that Buddhism was understood when it came into China, and what was the effect of Buddhist teachings on the philosophy in China that followed. And so I studied Chinese thought and philosophy, history, Buddhism, etc. They sent me to intensive language school in the summers, and one summer in Taiwan. And for my graduate studies I went to Harvard. I had already started studying Japanese as part of the Chinese program and by the time I got my master’s degree in Far Eastern languages, I had already done very extensive Chinese studies.

Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan: Comparative Studies

I wanted to know the Indian side as well as I knew the Chinese side, to see what were the influences in the development of Buddhism, and so I started my study of Sanskrit. And I then got a joint doctorate degree from two departments: the Sanskrit and Indian Studies, and the Far Eastern Languages Departments. So Sanskrit and Indian Studies was primarily with Sanskrit, and that lead to Tibetan, and the emphasis was on philosophy and history and Buddhism in both sides, the Indian and the Chinese side.

But you know I have a very strong thirst for knowledge, and so I did extra courses in philosophy and psychology, and kept my interest up in science through all of this. In this way I completed my studies and, through all of this, I learned general Buddhological methods of comparing translations. So we would look at Buddhist texts in Sanskrit and then see how it was translated into Chinese and into Tibetan, and studied the history of the development of ideas and how this interrelated with general history. All of this has been very helpful throughout my career, this type of training.

From Harvard to the Living Tradition

Through all of this, I was always interested to know what it would be like to actually think in this way, of all these philosophies and religions of Asia I was studying – the different forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Chinese thought: Daoism, Confucius. But there were no real opportunities to come in contact with living tradition; all of this was studied like Ancient Egypt. But when I started studying Tibetan in 1967, then Robert Thurman came back to Harvard at that time and we were classmates. We had most of our classes together.

This was before Uma was born. I’ve known her since she was a baby; she was very precocious. She acted much older than her age. Whenever you would call the home she would always insist that she would be the one that answers the phone, even when she was a little girl. Anyway, this was years before she was born.

And Thurman had been one of the close students of Geshe Wangyal and had lived with him for several years, and he had even been a monk for about a year and had gone to India and studied in Dharamsala. Geshe Wangyal had brought him there. So he told me about Geshe Wangyal; he told me about the possibility of studying in India, in Dharamsala. The Tibetans were there; His Holiness the Dalai Lama was there. And so I started visiting Geshe Wangyal at his monastery in New Jersey whenever I went home for holiday, and I started to have my first understanding that Buddhism was a living tradition. Although I visited Geshe Wangyal many times, I didn’t have the opportunity to live there with him and study. Nevertheless, he inspired me very much to go to India and continue my studies there, so I applied for the Fulbright fellowship to do my dissertation research in India with the Tibetans.

So I went in 1969 and I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and was completely immersed in Tibetan society. And I saw that everything was really very, very alive and here were people who actually knew what everything meant in the teachings of Buddhism, and here was my opportunity to learn from them.

Learning to Speak Tibetan in Dharamsala

When I went to India I did not know spoken Tibetan language. My professor at Harvard had no idea even how to pronounce the language. He was Japanese and we learned it in terms of Japanese grammar, because the only textbook that was available at that time explained Tibetan grammar in terms of Latin, and Latin and Tibetan have nothing in common, and Japanese grammar is actually quite close to Tibetan.

So now I had to learn the spoken language and there were no textbooks or materials available. So through my connection with Geshe Wangyal I was able to connect with two young Rinpoches who had stayed at the monastery with Geshe Wangyal in America for a few years, and they arranged for me to live with a Tibetan monk in a small house up on the side of the mountain. He knew no English and I couldn’t speak any Tibetan, and we lived together.

So now my Buddhological and other training came in. I had to be like an anthropologist going to Borneo or Africa and try to figure out another language. So all the Asian languages that I had studied helped very much to be able to hear the tones in Tibetan language and make some progress. And with the monk, if I wanted to communicate I would write something down (because I could write Tibetan) and he would tell me how to pronounce it, and we worked together like that. And I had some lessons with someone. Eventually these two young Rinpoches suggested that I study with their teacher.

Lam – rim Study in a Cowshed

I was there in India to write my dissertation. Although I had gone to do my research on a very vast tantra topic, Guhyasamaja, the various teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama convinced me that this was absurd and I was completely unprepared for that. So they suggested that I studied lam – rim, the graded stages of the path, first. And nothing was translated at that time, so it was completely new. I then studied it with their teacher – the oral tradition – and based my dissertation on that, the oral teachings of lam – rim.

I lived very primitively: no water in my house, no toilet. The teacher I studied with lived in a shed that was where a cow lived before him. There was only room for his bed and a little space in front of the bed. And he had three young teenage Rinpoche disciples and they and I sat on the floor by his bed in this cowshed filled with flies and all other sorts of insects. This is how I studied.

This was a very exciting period because so many new things were starting. His Holiness the Dalai Lama took interest in what we were doing, my studies, and already gave us some small texts to translate for him. And then when His Holiness built the library in Dharamsala he asked my teacher to be the teacher there for the Westerners. His name was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, and he asked the two Rinpoches, the young tulkus who were helping me, to be the translators at the library. I asked can I be of help as well and His Holiness said, “Yes, but go back to America and hand in your dissertation, get the degree and then come back”.

Fitting in with Tibetan Society: Becoming a Translator

You see, during this whole first phase of my time in India I tried to fit in with Tibetan society by assuming a role in their society, a position in their society, that was traditional; and that was the role of the translator. So they knew how to relate to me in terms of that role. I was extremely interested to start my Buddhist practice, and so formally I became a Buddhist in early 1970 and started my meditation practice, and so I’ve continued meditating every day since then. In this role of a traditional translator, this is someone who needs not only the language skills, but a very deep understanding of the Buddhist material, which means meditation, practice, putting the teachings into real life. There is no way to translate the technical terms that are discussing different states of mind, different experiences in meditation, without actually experiencing it yourself. And the words in the dictionary were usually chosen by missionaries who were interested in translating the Bible into Tibetan and they had very little to do with the actual meaning of the words in Buddhism. So from this early time I combined the Buddhist practice with my Buddhological training.

I went back to Harvard and after a few months handed in my dissertation, got my doctorate. And although my professor had arranged a very nice teaching job for me at another university, since I had always intended to become a university professor, I said, “No, thank you.” I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with people who just were guessing what Buddhism meant, but to be with those who actually knew what it meant – to study and learn from the real thing, the authentic tradition, while keeping my objective perspective from my Buddhological training. So, although my professor of course thought I was crazy, nevertheless I went back to India. It was very cheap to live there, so it was possible.

My New Indian Life

So I moved to Dharamsala with my teacher and we all worked at the Library there. My teacher had gone already and was teaching at the Library, and I joined them. So I lived in an even smaller shed, also with no water and no toilet. And the Tibetan monk that I was with came with me as well, stayed with me. Altogether I lived in India, as my home, for twenty – nine years in this very simple little shack that I lived in.

I helped to establish the Translation Bureau at the Library for His Holiness and continued my studies, because I saw that the Buddhological background that I had gave me the tools to be able to study further in Buddhist teachings. I knew the names of the various texts, I knew the history and so on, and here were the people that were teaching me the real content, so I could put things together quite easily. His Holiness the Dalai Lama encouraged me to study with all four Tibetan traditions, although primarily I studied Gelugpa, so that I could see the larger picture of the full scope of Tibetan Buddhism. And I was very excited because I had no idea – people in those days had no idea of the full extent of what even was contained in the Buddhist teachings.

Memory and Humility Training with Serkong Rinpoche

Then I started studying with one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachers, Serkong Rinpoche. And from the very beginning he saw that I had the karmic connection to be a translator for him and eventually for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And so he, from the very first beginning, started to train me to be a translator. And so, although I was translating books already, this was oral translation and also trained me to be a teacher. He would have me just sit near him and watch how he dealt with different people. And he would train my memory: any time that I was with him he would stop all of a sudden and say, “Repeat word for word what I just said,” or, “Repeat what you just said, word for word.”

I started translating for him when he was teaching, and he would never teach me anything by myself; I always had to translate it for somebody else if he was going to teach me – except for Kalachakra. That he taught me privately; he saw that I had some connection. He would never allow me to take notes; I always had to remember everything and write it down afterwards. He wouldn’t even let me, after a while, write down after the lesson. He would give me other things to do, and I could only write it down at night.

And, like Geshe Wangyal, he scolded me all the time. His favorite name for me was “idiot” and he never failed to point out when I was acting like an idiot, especially in front of many other people. And this was excellent training. I remember once translating for His Holiness the Dalai Lama: there were about ten thousand people, and His Holiness stopped me and said, “Ha, ha, ha. He just made a mistake.” From my training of being called an idiot all the time, I was able to continue translating and not just crawl under the rug. To be a translator requires tremendous memory and always paying attention, so I was very fortunate to not only have the traditional Buddhological training, but also the traditional Tibetan training.

I was with Serkong Rinpoche for nine years, very intensively, translating, helping him with letters, with his travels. In all that time he said “thank you” to me twice, and this was also very helpful because, as he used to say, what do I expect – that I’m going to get a pat on the head and then like a dog I’ll wag my tail? One’s motivation for translating, or doing anything in this area, needs to be just to benefit others, not to get praised with “thank you.” And of course all my Buddhist meditation, Buddhist practice, was absolutely essential for being able to go through this process of traditional training.

Helping to Build a Bridge between Cultures

So after this, my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, died, in 1983. I was already doing a little bit of translating for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After that I started being invited to travel around the world and give lectures myself, because I had done that as a translator for my teacher. And although I didn’t translate very often for His Holiness, sometimes I did. But translation is not just translating the words, but explaining and translating ideas. So at the very early meetings that His Holiness had with Western psychologists or religious leaders, my task was basically to try to explain their ideas, the scientists’ ideas, not the words (because you didn’t have these words in Tibetan), but to try to make that cultural bridge. And this is what I was always interested in, as I mentioned, from a very, very young age, is how to make a bridge between different cultures in terms of the Buddhist teachings. And to make that bridge, you really have to know the two cultures extremely well – to know how the people think, what their life is like. So I had the great privilege, the very rare privilege, to be able to live with the Tibetans for so long, so that I really could gain complete familiarity with the way they think, the way they live, and so on. This has been absolutely essential in the transmission of Buddhism.

After this I took on, or was asked to do, various types of projects for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Some I initiated, some I was asked to do. One of the main things was to try to open up the world to His Holiness and to the Tibetans. They have refugee papers, no passports, and so they cannot get a visa to any country unless somebody invites them. And they need to know people around the world. They know people only in a few countries. So now my Harvard PhD came in very handy because I was able to be invited all over the world to give guest lectures at universities. In this way I made the contacts for the Tibetans that would lead in the future to the Tibetans being invited, eventually His Holiness the Dalai Lama being invited, and eventually opening up offices of His Holiness in different regions of the world. So I started in 1985 going to the former communist countries, and almost all of the Latin American countries, and large portions of Africa. And then I started with the Middle East and opened the dialogue between the Buddhists and the Muslims.

Throughout all of this, what I also focused on was writing reports back for His Holiness so that he knew a little bit about the culture and the history of each country. Again my Harvard background allowed me to meet the religious leaders of these countries and to learn more about their religions from them, like African religions, or in Brazil, and so on, so that when His Holiness would go to these countries and meet these people he would have some idea of what their beliefs were. All the Buddhological training that I had and the scientific training helped me to be able to see what was important, organize it, present it in a way that would be useful.

I was involved with many other types of projects, too many to enumerate. But one of the most interesting was helping to organize a project of Tibetan medicine to help with the Chernobyl victims of Russia, organized by the Ministry of Health of the Soviet Union. And although the Tibetan medicine was extremely effective, when the Soviet Union broke up, Russia and Belarus and the Ukraine refused to cooperate on the project and mounted three completely separate projects and that was the end of the project.

Returning to the West

So, all in all, I travelled to and taught probably in more than seventy countries around the world. Throughout all of this I maintained my daily meditation practice. This has been extremely helpful for being able to do all of these things. And I kept on being invited to various places to teach and lecture. And these lecture tours got bigger and bigger; the longest one was fifteen months – two or three cities, different cities, every week. So with all that travel, it was the Buddhist meditation practice that gave me stability to do all of this, because I always travelled by myself.

At a certain point I had been writing many books and I found that it was not very easy, being based in India, to work with my publishers, and I wanted to go into the direction of the internet and this was too difficult to do in India. And so in 1998 I moved from India to the West. After about a year of trying out various places that invited me, I decided to settle in Berlin, Germany. I already knew the German language, so that was no problem, and there I was given the most independence, which is very important for me – not to be part of any organization. I came back to the West with about thirty thousand pages of my unpublished manuscripts – of reading notes, of lectures, and things that I had written (many of them I’d never finished), and transcriptions of my lectures, and of translations of lectures that I had translated for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his three teachers, and my own teacher, Geshe Dhargyey – and I was very concerned that all of this not be thrown into the garbage when I die.

The Berzin Archives

I had such an unbelievably privileged position, and fairly unique, to study for so long with the greatest of the great lamas of the last generation, that what I had was too precious and really needed to be shared with the world. Books, although maybe very nice to hold and look very nice, don’t reach a very large audience. They are expensive to produce, they are expensive to buy, and take a tremendous amount of time to produce, and you can’t correct them until the next edition. So although I’m a great fan of studying history, I also am a great fan of looking to the future, and the future is the internet and, in fact, the present is the internet as well. So I decided to put all my work into a website, and I started in November of 2001.

The main principle that I’ve always followed is that everything on it should be available free of charge with no advertising and no selling of anything. I have on it all the various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, of the four Tibetan traditions, although primarily the Gelug tradition. But a lot of comparative material, material on Tibetan medicine, astrology, Buddhist history, Asian history, Tibetan history, and a lot of material on the relation between Buddhism and Islam. I also am a very strong believer in having things translated into many other languages. Already we have six languages on the website: English, Russian, German, Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese, and we’re actively producing Chinese and French. The work with the Muslim section is very, very important, I feel, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is supporting this very strongly – that this be made available to the Islamic world. So that’s being translated now into Arabic and Urdu, the language of Pakistan, and when that is done we will put that also into Farsi, the language of Iran, and Turkish. We’ve also started, but not so much active work has been done, on four or five other languages: Mongolian, Vietnamese, etc.

The material on the website is programmed in such a way that blind people can use the website. In English we have already about six hundred articles and about four hundred audio files, and we are putting up transcripts of the audio files so that deaf people will have access to that. We are trying to use all the newest technology to make this material available. So with the transcripts of the audio files there’s also an audio player embedded in the page so you can listen and read at the same time, so that people who don’t have English as their first language can both read and listen at the same time (it can help with language study as well). It has an extensive search engine, very extensive glossaries with the definitions of terms. When the term appears in an article, a technical term that’s in the glossary, if you put the cursor over it, a popup window comes up with the definition. In the glossary, with the definitions, if there is any word in the definition that is also in the glossary it has a link to that so you can understand the definitions.

We are working on incorporating all the newest types of technology as it is developed. There are about seventy or eighty people working on this around the world and, although there is such a large amount of material already on the website, that’s only about twenty percent of what I have in my computer. So that obviously can never be finished in my lifetime, but I’m trying to set up the mechanism, the funding, etc., that will allow it to continue and be available for future generations. It’s my hope here in the Kalmyk Republic that particularly the Russian section be helpful in the whole education process of reviving Buddhism. Because the material is arranged in graded levels so that they can be studied, and many of my courses which I have taught, all the audio files are available, even as podcast. So if one would like to have a Dharma center or a meditation class and there is no teacher, then they could listen to a hundred classes on teachings of Nagarjuna’s Friendly Letter, or something like this, and they would have a full study course.

In the eight years that the website has been available online, the number of visitors has been steadily increasing. Last year we had about half a million visitors and now we are averaging about two thousand visitors every day. And the fact that it is free of charge makes it very easily available to people anywhere.

So this is a little bit of my story. And throughout all of this I have maintained a very strong Buddhist practice. For most of these years I’ve meditated about two hours every day. I’ve done many long meditation retreats. Nowadays I’ve shortened my meditation time, but I still certainly do at least a half hour each day. And it’s the strong emphasis in the teachings on compassion, of proper motivation, and overcoming egotism, etc., that have been the main aspects that I always emphasize. With the inspiration of my teachers, starting with Geshe Wangyal who led me to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and from there to the Dalai Lama’s teachers, I’ve been able to lead a life which I hope has been useful and beneficial, putting together the Buddhist practice and Buddhology, and both the experiential side as well as the objective side of Buddhism.

Thank you.