Tibetan Lamas

Geshe is a Buddhist academic degree for scholars, requiring about twenty years of study. The geshe degree is a scholarly degree and should not be confused with the spiritual function of a “lama”; a lama is a person with spiritual insights which allow him or her to spiritually guide disciples. A geshe, on the other hand, is a keeper of the Buddhist knowledge. [Wikipedia]

I hate to admit how this got started, but when I was a freshman in college at Purdue in 1962, I read a book by a “Tibetan Lama” named Lobsang Rampa. He turned out to be a plumber from Scotland writing channeled misinformation about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Still, I was enthralled with Tibet and read what other books I could find. There wasn’t much information about Tibet available in the early 60’s, though I enjoyed reading a number of books about India, including my favorites, The Mountain is Young by Han Suyin and The Far Pavilions. Deep in my heart, I formed a wish to meet a real Tibetan lama. Living in the American Midwest, I did not think that much of a possibility.

It is interesting to experience how wishes are granted as one journeys through life. In 1982 and 1983, I went on retreats at Bethany Springs, a retreat house close by Our Lady of Gethsemane monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky. One of the monks who had lived at Gethsemane was Thomas Merton, the famous writer and peace activist, who in 1968 journeyed to Darmsala, India, to visit the young Dalai Lama, who had escaped in 1959 from the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet. In his Asian Journal, Merton wrote about his arduous trek to northern India and his profound meetings with HH, the Dalai Lama. The two, speaking through translators, found a common bond, and one meeting turned into several. Merton died of an accidental electrocution a couple of weeks later in Bangkok, Thailand, but he had set in motion a dialogue between Buddhist and Christian monks that continues to this day.

In his sophomore year at The College of William and Mary, my oldest son Jim took a class in Buddhism. He then returned home at the end of the semester and swiped my entire shelf of books on Buddhism. I was gratified to have my child become interested in a particular interest of my own, though he has still not returned the books. Jim then discovered he could study Tibetan through Indiana University’s outstanding foreign language department. He subsequently discovered a “gift” in the ability to read and translate Tibetan and later Sanskrit. Before he graduated from IU with a degree in Religious Studies, he met a lama named Geshe Sopa, who was the Director of Buddhist Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, Jim went to live and then to study with Geshe Sopa, earning his Ph.D in Buddhist studies from the University of Wisconsin in 2001.

While Jim was a student at IU, I attended some functions at the Tibetan Cultural Center and met [receiving line kind of meeting] the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu, Buddhist monk, professor of Central Eurasian Studies, oldest brother of the XIVth Dalai Lama, and the 26th reincarnation of Takster Rinpoche. I read his autobiography,Tibet is My Country, which whetted further interest. I was fascinated with the ancient Tibetan beliefs, including the idea of Rinpoches, “precious ones” who incarnate again and again into the same position. According to Tibetan beliefs, the Takster Rinpoche, Professor Norbu, had incarnated 26 times as the abbot of the Kumbum monastery. How amazing to be a reincarnated lama, to be discovered while the child of a peasant as the incarnation of a high lama, and to be educated at the highest level at an important monastery, to have inherited the wealth and position of abbot, to escape from Tibet with the help of the CIA, and to end up as a professor at a university in the Midwestern United States.

Of course, Jim knew of my desire to speak with a Tibetan lama, so in 1993, when he was living at Deer Park, Geshe Sopa’s home near Madison, Wisconsin, he arranged for me to have an audience with Geshe Sopa. One does not just sit down for a chat, I discovered. When I arrived at Deer Park after an eight hour drive from Salem, I was ushered into the kitchen where four monks were making tsampa—butter sculptures made of salted tea, yak butter, and toasted barley flour. These sculptures are especially made for the December Butter Lamp Festival. When I saw what they were making, I said “tsampa,” which brought delighted smiles to their faces—-probably from my mispronunciation. I was visiting during Thanksgiving weekend and they were deep into preparation for the coming festival; the table and counter were lined with small sculptures. I later learned that one of the young monks was a rinpoche and the old monk was a high lama named Geshe Topgay.

Soon, I was escorted into Geshe Sopa’s presence; he received me formally, in monk’s robes, seated cross-legged on a platform in his room. The platform, about five feet high, was draped in crimson silk and colorful thangkas with gold embroidery. I had the disconcerting feeling of being in another time and another place. After I had bowed a greeting, he kindly asked me to sit and inquired about what I wanted to know. I was overwhelmed and could not think of anything to ask but finally managed a question about how he escaped from Tibet. I am sure that is not a question with which to use a high lama’s time, but he told me about his journey over the Himalayan mountains four months after the Dalai Lama’s, a frightening, hunger-filled journey through the high mountain passes. Then I asked him about the Neuchung Oracle, Dorje Drak-den (Nechung), the principal protector divinity of the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama (see History of Nechung Monastery), the one who told the Dalai Lama he must leave Tibet and named the places on the path of the safe journey to India. The Dalai Lama explained this oracle’s directions in his autobiography Freedom in Exile. Again, this was an unexpected question, but Geshe Sopa responded by explaining. Slowly, I relaxed and he began to question me about my beliefs. I think he grasped that my knowledge and thoughts were very fragmented. He began to tell me the basic teachings and tenets of Buddhism, speaking gently and kindly. Eventually, Jim helped me back away from his presence and leave the room properly, still facing Geshe Sopa. I remember being dazed the rest of the evening. I met Geshe Sopa several times after that and he was always smiling and cordial. I have never forgotten that profound hour in his presence—a dream fulfilled and a true honor for me to be in the presence of this holy man.


The Gift of Giving

President Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of Soka Gakaii International: SGI, is a man I greatly admire. From the ashes of WWII, he took an organization called Soka Gakaii (Value Creating Society) and became the third leader, rebuilding after the wartime imprisonment of the first two leaders had devestated the group. Through Ikeda’s leadership, this Buddhist society, which works for world peace, has spread around the globe.

My introduction to SGI and President Ikeda came through my beloved daughter-in-law, Shinobu, a native of Japan, who has given me many books by President Ikeda and who has also taken me to the Florida Nature and Culture Center, the SGI conference center in Weston, Florida. It was at FNCC that I first heard the story below from Shinobu, a “fortune baby,” or birth-right SGI member. 

Shinobu’s parents, Tadashi and Yoneko Arai, who lived in Nagoya, Japan, grew up during the suffering of WWII. Following their marriage in 1957, they raised a family of three daughters and together built a prosperous business. Mrs. Arai, a loving mother and a dedicated member of SGI, loved the sound of the koto harp.

After Mrs. Arai’s untimely death in 1991, Shinobu and her two sisters presented a koto to President and Mrs. Ikeda during a visit they made to Nagoya, as a tribute to them and to the memory of Mrs. Arai. The koto was given to honor Mrs. Ikada, who, though not a public performer, often plays the koto for her husband in their home. Some time later, President and Mrs. Ikeda presented the koto to a visiting scholar of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from India named Prof. Lokesh Chandra, Director of the International Academy of Indian Culture

In 1992, Shinobu came to United States as a “study abroad” student. Jim and Shinobu met in a Sanskrit class, which was part of the Buddhist Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, and married a few years later. After Jim received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2001, he took a teaching position with Antioch College’s Study Abroad program, escorting a group of students to Bodh Gaya, India for a semester of study. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is in Bihar, a remote part of India, a ten hour train ride from the capital of New Delhi. Jim and another young professor taught the classes and accompanied the students on tours to various holy sites and cities.

http://www.antioch-college.edu/news/gallery2/v/aea/buddhist-studies-india [Jim is on the left in the mauve shirt].

On their return journey, the group stopped in New Delhi. Before they left the U.S., Shinobu had written to Professor Chandra, telling him the story about the koto that she had given to President Ikeda, which eventually went to Professor Chandra’s institute, and mentioning that she and her husband would be visiting in India. Remembering meeting with President Ikeda and receiving the koto from him ten years before in Japan, Professor Chandra invited Shinobu and Jim to his institute. They spent several hours discussing Indian Buddhist history and iconography. Jim was able to take many photographs of Buddhist and Hindu artwork, including statues and paintings, greatly adding to his knowledge of 10th and 11th Century iconography. 

The part I love best about this story is the way the gift itself, the koto, travels and creates energy that brings people together over time and great distances. The memorial gift and President Ikeda’s giving of the gift set in motion a series of events in which eventually three scholars met in a far away land to share knowledge and fellowship, a meeting that Jim and Shinobu will always remember. Shinobu’s mother would have been overjoyed to know of her daughter’s journeys and of the happiness brought by the gift given in her name. This story is also a metaphor of how President Ikeda has sent in motion the energy and activities that have developed SGI into an international organization, empowering people to work for world peace.

After accompanying her husband to India, which interrupted her studies somewhat, Shinobu returned to the University of Wisconsin, completing her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2003. Her dissertation, Value of Simple Practice: A Study of Tiantai Zhiyi’s “Liumiao Famen,” was highly praised by her major professor, Professor Charles Hallisey, of Harvard and UW. In my family, there is a refrain repeated when a child or grandchild accomplishes a major educational or other goal, “Mamma Jeanne would be so proud!”, referring to my dear mother and her deep love of education and of her family. With the completion of her daughter’s educational journey, I think the same refrain would fit Yoneko Arai—she would be so proud!