A Tibetan Refugee Visits an American-Tibetan Buddhist Monastery

[Guestpost by Kunsang Palmo]

I pass by a Tibetan monastery every time I am on the shuttle to my liberal arts college from my apartment off­campus. I never thought of visiting it because monasteries have never been places that are meaningful independently. They are places where I have formed a lot of beautiful memories and they have also been places where I felt trapped by ritualistic handshakes, bows, smiles, and other social formalities. As a child in Nepal, I played games there, and as an adult in America, I sit next to the popular gossips and listen to my mom reminisce about refugee life with them. Going to a monastery means that my mom and I pull out our best chubas, Tibetan dresses, and sit down with other beautifully dressed women and speak in Tibetan. We remind ourselves that we are indeed Tibetan and not the Americans we are most of our lives. Between gossips and snacks that are spread before us on the floor, we would listen to our teacher and marvel at his wisdom and rhetoric. After which, we would all get up and fight for a spot on a line to receive blessings.

I remember when I was little and the heir to the Sakya tradition, Sakya Vajra Rinpoche, visited Nepal. Thousands of people cramped to see him in what I had always considered a big monastery. I, only a child then, fell from the grip of my grandmother’s hand and was being pushed around in the crowd until one stranger hoisted me up over their head and then handed me over to another stranger. I was then being passed over the heads of one stranger to another until I reached the front of the line in a corner allotted for lost children. It was there that I cried so loudly and fervently that I got scolded for not realizing the good fortune of being in the presense of the Lama, who was sitting in front of me.

So, when a friend told me that she had had a spiritual revelation, had developed a sensitivity to the plight of the world, was in need of spiritual guidance that would allow her to make sense of her newly found awareness, and that she had found that guidance in a Tibetan monastery, I had some issues. My friend was using the Tibetan monastery in a way that I had never conceived of before. The way she went on about this Tibetan monastery; in an instant, she made all that felt familiar to me, my childhood memories at the gompa, feel foreign.

I told her about the discomfort I felt. She responded by saying she wasn’t doing anything bad and that her intentions were in the right place. She wanted to appeal to my good sense and convince me out of what she believed was an irrational attachment to my belief that the monastery should be a place only for Tibetans. She argued that there is a way of thinking of religion that is detached from the institutionality of it. It is separate from the community and closer to the idea of spirituality and a sacred truth, she explained. I was not convinced by her definition of spirituality. I told her that her understanding of Tibetan Buddhism reminded me of the rendition that I had heard from Richard Gere. Her intentions were of no importance to me nor did I pay any heed to her claim to goodwill. As for her emotional problems and her need for Buddhism to save her, I couldn’t have given less shit. I didn’t say the last bit out loud. However, I did say that I did not want to participate in an institution that is perpetuating the exoticized narrative of the Tibetan people, which in turn is the influence behind the fundamentalism that is at rise within the Tibetan community; it is responsible behind the popular belief there exists a pure Tibet; the belief that the Tibetans have historically practiced a homogenized form of Buddhism, the only source of which can be found in the new age movement; a movement as White as White can be. I believed I had given an apt response but she did not yield. She said, “I am Jamaican. I know what you are talking about. I have read Said and Fanon.” So, does that mean that her blackness gives her immunity and that her elite, bourgeoisie self can legitimize the appropriated, exotifying narrative of Tibetan Buddhism?

I was fuming. She knew I was. However, there was a part of me that yearned to be a Tibetan amongst Tibetans. I joined a prayer session as my friend recommended. She said it would eradicate my bias against the monastery and potentially alleviate my propensity to rage. I saw the head lama sitting on the highest seat in the front side of the room next the elaborate shrine, which took up an entire wall. Next to him, in a lower seat were his wife and the second head lama, and in the lowest of the elevated seat, was a lone monk. Couple of feet away from them, were pillows and tiny tables organized in rows. Two White women in chubas were sitting there. Their style of wearing chuba imitated impeccably the popular fashion among middle­aged Tibetan women. They wore muted fabrics that were tailored to their bodies, which was a strange sight. I have seen many White women wear chubas, but they have always looked awkward with the hem falling too short and the bust either stretched to a distorted shape or hanging loose in an unattractive silhouette. However, these women even matched their tailored­t​o­f​it chubas with oversized, dark, felt material winter sweaters of the North Face brand that I have only seen Tibetan women sport in the stupas of Nepal out on their daily circumambulation. Needless to say, I was slightly disturbed. I sat in silence in a room where there were no gossips, no snacks, and was altogether too unnaturally Tibetan.

Having said that, monasteries are not used by Tibetans only to gossip and display their fashionable outfits. It is one of the ways of using the space that directly contrasts what I had seen in the American Tibetan monastery. Being born in a devoutly Buddhist family, I had experienced in one way or another, all the ways a Tibetan refugee might use a monastery and sitting in utter silence was certainly not one of them nor was I accustomed to murmured chants. It was the silence that rendered me clueless and alienated me from the monastery, and it was silence and stillness that I had never witnessed at a monastery. It felt like the times I had wandered into empty rooms while visiting my monk relatives in the Tharig Monastery, or rather tharu monastery as my Khampa tongue is accustomed to saying. My instincts were telling me to do three quick prostrations in front of the shrine and then leave the room immediately after. Even in the most somber of activities, one of which would be prayer sessions, the room will reverberate with chants. The noisiness of the room also allows people to take breaks in between to have small chats. The chats will never be prolonged as the main purpose of a prayer session is to collect merit through the repetition of donba, ​mantras. ​Monks and nuns will not have small chats between their daily prayers, unless they are in a private setting, however, they will practice incorporating a booming bass to their voice so that the chants have the effect of sounding like it is partially vocalized and partially echoed. However, being a woman and a lay person means that most of my activities at the monasteries involve everyday Tibetan conversations. It also means that I go there mostly for w​ang, ​initiations. They tend to be more festive in nature, and usually involves a picnic afterwards.

However, the festivity does not take away the religiosity of the space. The main purpose of going to the monastery, regardless of what we do there, is to collect merit and everything that is associated with or taking place around the monastery also has a quality of religiosity to them. Even if you are within the vicinity of a wang, you are collecting merit, which is why parents will often bring their children with them and then have them play in the monastery yard. Anything that is associated with the monastery is sacred, even the food that is served there. As a result, the act of going to a monastery is, in itself, an act of piety and that experience is always shared with other people. Even when a person decides to become a hermit, which entails complete isolation, a community is involved.

My uncle trained himself for years in order to cultivate the physicality and the mental strength necessary to become a hermit. He did 300 prostrations in the morning, 300 more at night, and meditated for three hours, twice a day every day. His physical tenacity was such that he once walked the Raj Path to India gate, which stretches 1.2 miles, back and forth in 30 minutes, carrying with him refreshments and drinks for four people. He was in his late forties at that time. He took on an excruciatingly demanding regiment and his devotion is admired within our family. We recognize him as being singular in his practice and although we do not try to imitate him, we certainly have involved ourselves in every part of his journey. By taking over his Samsaric duties, we have allowed him to fulfill his Dharma aspirations and through him we have been able to collect merit. Therefore, it wasn’t the piety, which the silence was supposed to convey, that disturbed me. The alienation I felt stems from the fact that I wasn’t involved in the merit­​collection of every single person there.

I wasn’t there to recognize their presence. I wasn’t there to acknowledge their piety. They recognized themselves and they were on an independent journey; a quest where I was all but necessary. It was clear to me that their Buddhism was different from mine. My Buddhism is confirmed to me through my connection with the people in my life and a prayer session without conversation and connection­​making left my experience at the American Monastery incomplete.

Monasteries are places that have always required me to involve myself with other people. They would be places where I would meet the people that I don’t usually meet and connect with them and confirm to myself and them, the connectedness and the realness of our community. I am Buddhist because everyone else in the room is Buddhist. I am able to be Buddhist because of all the people in my life. Sitting in silence and gazing inward as I felt that I was expected to do, distanced me from that space. Even though it looked right, it didn’t feel right.