Interview with Ven. Tenzin Namdak

 By Ven. Chantal and Ven. L. Jampa [transcribed and lightly edited byVen. L. Jampa)


[Ven. Jampa]: When did you enter Sera Monastery? And why did you decide to enter the monastery?


[Ven. Namdak]: I came in April 1997. Before that I studied a bit of colloquial Tibetan in Dharamsala with the intention to move down to Sera for further study. And why? Well, my gurus told me it would be very beneficial if I studied Tibetan and do more extensive traditional studies. I had doubts in the beginning, of course, because I thought I would do everything in English, become a monk, and do retreat. That was my initial plan for the future. Study wasn’t really in my view because I wanted to focus on retreat. Though of course, I thought to study the lam rim and such subjects for retreat. But at that time, a few of my teachers made it very clear that it was important to have a good basis, that if you go off for retreat to meditate without proper preparation it won’t bring the fruits you are looking for. So I agreed to do more extensive studies.

Initially I thought about doing only the Perfection of Wisdom studies and Madhayamika, which cuts down five years of the study program, so only 14 years.  But then after I finished Madhyamika I asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche. He very kindly said, “but don’t you have to study Abhidharma and Vinaya?” [Laughter] So it was very clear to me. And Rinpoche always said it was so important for lamrim understanding, and I think that’s really true. After study if you read lamrim again with the knowledge of the texts it’s so much more meaningful, gives such a richer experience, then you can do so much more with it.  It’s not that you become a scholar in 19 years, that’s very difficult to accomplish, to become a great scholar. But basically you learn how to read a text, and you learn from your classmates and teachers, that is part of the profundity of the system. Everyday you see that you don’t know much.


[Ven. Jampa]: Yes, the more you study the more you realize what you don’t know.

Even the great Kadampa Geshes said you have to read until you reach Buddhahood. Jangtse Choeje Rinpoche also said that one should study, try to put into practice, and by doing this for a few lifetimes, realization will come.. And if you think of the Buddha practicing for three countless eons, if you think it’s going to take a few lifetimes anyway, you might as well prepare over a decade or two. Study and put the imprints in the mind and one day the realizations will come.


[Ven. Namdak]: The present Abbot, who was one of my main teachers from the beginning, he was and still is like the father figure especially when giving classes. He knew exactly where a student was in his studies, what they were doing, whether they were sick or not, taking care of everybody. He used to say things are difficult, study is not easy sometimes, but you just push through it, plant the imprints. You never know when, but one day that will bring results.


[Ven. Jampa]: I’m particularly curious about the method and process of study, for example, a great amount of memorization is required to which most people educated in the west are not accustomed.


[Ven. Namdak]: Yes, a lot of memorization is required, and the process is quite different. There are no black boards and power point presentations. Of course there are some lamas and monks like myself who will rely on such kinds of things. In the beginning, it’s not easy, but it has more benefit if you memorize. You have to memorize and you have to work hard to memorize and keeps things in mind. You have to memorize in order to debate well. If you go to the debate courtyard and you haven’t memorized the definitions etc., well then, you waste your time. You’re going to be very bored, and it’s not going to be nice.


[Ven. Jampa]: Sometimes Western Monastics say they can’t go to study in the Tibetan monasteries because they are required to memorize so much and in our culture we don’t memorize. Often many insist, “I can’t memorize.” What would you say to that?


My memorization skills are also terrible. [Ven. Jampa]: But didn’t they improve quickly after a certain point? [Ven. Namdak]: You just have to work hard. Anybody can memorize a definition if they work hard. Right?! You memorize it, and then you go into the debate and you use that again. You use it in discussion. And by talking about it then it stays in the mind much better. We also have discussions in the West. This is a very important process: prepare well and then have a discussion, that way it stays (in the mind) much better. If you receive some teaching or just read it by yourself and keep it at that, it goes very quickly out from the mind. But if you discuss with others, memorize things, work very hard, read the texts again and again and slowly it stays in your mind a bit better.


[Ven. Chantal]: I have the sense that when you are in the environment where everyone is doing it, it’s easier for oneself to do, rather than not do.


[Ven. Namdak]: That’s why the Buddha established monastic institutions: nunneries, monasteries, and centers where people can gather and do the same things. That builds energy, makes it easier. Whether you study here (or like when I visited my mom once every five years for visa purposes) studying there, it’s completely different.


[Ven. Jampa/Ven. Chantal]: Yes, so what are the benefits of a Western monastic studying in a Tibetan  monastery instead of for example, FPMT’s most extensive program, the Masters Program at Istituto Lama Tsong Khapa or Nalanda? 


[Ven. Namdak]: Once a monk asked Lama Zopa Rinpoche about studying in Sera, and Rinpoche responded, “not every Taiwanese taxi driver can study in Sera.” It was just a very funny comment, but the point is that Sera is not easy. With Westerners we have a drop out of about 75% within the first two to three years. 75%!  It’s not easy, you know, you have to have the language and go with the culture, and the discipline is very tough. You have to be at the debate courtyard everyday, even if you don’t like it. So the first few years especially, it’s going to be rough and tough. If you can do it, it’s an amazing system. It has been thru many generations, but of course, nowhere is perfect, right? Wherever you go. You will see things in the monastery that you have to practice patience with, and certain rule and regulations, nothing is perfect anywhere.

But overall if you consider the complete study program, it’s an amazing system. But the first two or three years are very, very difficult. Especially as a Westerner you have to prove yourself in debate. Now we’re more accepted; we have a few good people who are stable, study well, debate well, because everything in the monastic institution is about debate. So if you’re a good debater then, you’ll be very popular. People will like you. And you should be relaxed. If you are too uptight then, also the Tibetans will show they’re not very pleased with you. So you must hang out and talk with them now and then and then you’ll build a very nice environment with your classmates and other monks of the monastery. That way it becomes a very easy place to live.


[Ven. Chantal]: How many Western monks have completed their studies? Are you the first; there have been some before, right? 


[Ven. Namdak]: Yes, yes, there are others, but for over 19 years… [I don’t think others stayed that long] because during my period of study, every few years they added more classes. At first when I came to Sera, Madhyamika was studied for only 2 years and Vinaya was only 1 year, then they added more. So now Madhyamika is studied for 4 years and Vinaya for 3 years.


[Ven. Jampa]: What do you wish to do now that you have completed this course of study? [Ven. Chantal]: How do you feel after having finished these 19 years?


[Ven. Namdak]: Lama Zopa Rinpoche has already given me some guidance about what I should do after my studies, Rinpoche has some plan, so yes, it has already been discussed. But it’s a bit too early for me to say. Basically, some time teaching and some time in retreat. It’s mainly Rinpoche’s wish. I know I myself don’t have any qualities to teach, but Rinpoche first asked me to give talks at the Bangalore center starting in 2003.


[Ven. Jampa]: Did you find any difficulty in giving those talks, in the sense of finding a way to communicate to a broad audience about the very specific, technical philosophical training you received in the monastery? 


[Ven. Namdak]: I try to generate a good motivation and pray to the guru. If done that way, the talks come along ok. That is the process of gaining experience. You know, you have to simplify the information, present things in a more simplified way. I found that with the Q&A, it came more easily for me. I think that’s due to the training in debate. To make sure the person who is asking the question does so in a clear way, makes it possible for better answers to come. In that way the debate program helped a lot. It’s not that you know the answer to every question straight away. But at least we can help someone to think about a subject a little more deeply or go into a particular direction.


When staying more than 19 years in one place, it really becomes your home. If you have to leave it to go out to the West, it can be difficult. It’s not that I haven’t gone to the West since I’ve been here. I’ve left every five years for my visa. [Ven. Jampa]: That’s it?! You’ve left India only once every five years? [Ven. Namdak] Yes. When I leave here it’s quite strange. For all these years I was with my classmates every day. It’s very intense; you share everything with each other, and not for one or two years, but 19 years, every day.

There’s such a social atmosphere. For example, if you don’t go to the debate courtyard for a few days, they start asking, “where is he, where is he? Is he sick? What’s happening? There’s really a kind of incredible friendship. So that’s probably what I’ll miss. You know how Tibetans are very easy going, always joking around. And they also know how to play with someone’s ego, in debate or with a roommate. They really know how to tease you, and that’s a very good learning process. It’s very healthy. In comparison, it seems Westerners are quite heavy. But I’ve never really lived in a Western community as such.


[Ven. Jampa]: How old were you when you came to Sera?


[Ven. Namdak]: I was 27, quite young. I stayed at Maitreya Institute for 1 year, from 1993-1994, before I became a monk, basically before I became a Buddhist. I met the dharma when I was 23. I was ordained in 1995 and then a Gelong in 1996.


[Ven. Jampa]: What can the Western monastics that do not live in community learn from the Tibetan monastic system?


If a monastic lives in community it is easier, it is very supportive for keeping pure morality. If you live in a place where everybody does the same thing then it’s easy to do it. If it is something that you should not do, then it’s very difficult not to do it. For example, if you live in a monastic community everybody is practicing morality, so it’s very easy, it’s natural to keep your vows. If you don’t live in (a monastic) community, then it’s very easy to develop the habits of those living around you, wherever you are. Even on a worldly level, if you grow up in a particular area where there’s a lot of violence etc. as a little child, the community forms the particular way of that area. So, if you live in a monastic institution it’s very encouraging for keeping monastic discipline, you keep going with the same thing that everybody else is doing. As far as practice is concerned, from the perspective of study and keeping pure morality, all can benefit from living in community.

For me, I know when I go back to Europe, I mostly stay with Geshe-la in the center or sometimes visit my mother, and then it’s a totally different energy. Sitting around with a lay person in your room or whatever, it’s different. And the thing is to live in community is not always easy for everyone, of course, by living together it’s easy to see faults. And also in a place like Sera, monks start to see a lot of faults in the system, and see faults in the people. Of course, nobody is perfect, the system is not perfect, but you have to deal with them, right?! If you start finding faults, then it becomes an obstacle for staying. So of course, I see things in the system that could be done another way or done better, but if you cannot change it yourself, or you cannot change another person straight away, then you have to accept it, right? You have to accept. We also have our own mistakes and faults that other people might not like, but we think we are right.

I think it’s very important to accept that no system is perfect, and no one is perfect. Then, whether you like it or not, you just don’t think about it. Like debate, you have to go whether you like it or not. If I stay in my room, and think “oh going to debate is not so beneficial,” that kind of mind set, is very, very problematic. It creates obstacles. If you just live in community, and you know the rules and abide in them, just follow the rules, without thinking too much, then it’s easier. For example with going to pujas, or doing particular prayers together in community, and one might think, “oh, I find it more beneficial to meditate on the lam rim by myself, or to do my own prayers.” Of course, it might be true, but if you think about it too much, it creates obstacles. That’s a very dangerous mind. [Living in the monastery] simplifies your life. Nothing is perfect, but if you abide by the rules of a particular community, even though they are not perfect, but you abide with a happy mind and if everybody does, the energy becomes harmonious in that place and then it becomes very easy to stay.


[Ven. Chantal]: Can you please offer some advice to the IMI sangha?


[Ven. Namdak]: The things I just said earlier I find most important. Because, you know, we always think we know better, especially in community. So it’s those things that we have to think twice about, before thinking too much and finding faults in others; thinking I don’t like this and I don’t like that; or for me, this and that is more beneficial. It is basically these states of mind that prevent you from engaging in the life of community living.


[Ven. Chantal]: I notice that when Western Sangha have meetings, we mostly talk about monastic communities, but when it comes down to doing something about it, nobody wants to work for the community. Everybody wants to do his or her own thing, but we just talk about community a lot. [Ven. Jampa]: The majority say that it’s what they want. People actually complain about not having community but then when an effort has begun toward building community, people start to say they don’t want to live in that location or, they don’t like that place, or it’s too much work, or that they need to do retreat, etc.


[Ven. Namdak]: oh yes, Westerners are “rang wang chenpo,” very individualistic. In one way it’s good. You know we have that tendency, but for ordained persons…the Buddha didn’t establish monastic institutions for nothing, right? There are specific reasons. So basically that’s it. People wishing to live in pure morality always talk about the need to study vinaya, but Rinpoche says if you have the lamrim then it’s easier to protect your vows. That’s very important advice that Lama Zopa Rinpoche has given. It’s true. If you have the lamrim and then read the vinaya a little bit, it’s much easier because the lamrim is there. It’s easier to guide yourself, to keep your vows, when the lamrim is there. So living in a community, a supportive place is really important. At least if one can’t always live there, one can live there from time to time, and at least try to not lose contact. Because you see with people who live separate from community, and the longer they stay separate, the more difficult it becomes. So at least the sojong dates or special events for sangha, teachings etc., it’s very important to have the feeling of being together. And of course, if you are like Milarepa then you can be anywhere.


[Ven. Jampa]: So then if you are like Milarepa, i.e. doing many retreats, you can do the individual thing. [laugh]


[Ven. Namdak]: Yes, that’s right. But if you are not advised to do solitary retreat by the guru, then it’s better to stay within these kinds of institutions. It’s an easy way of life. Once you are used to the system, even though not everything is perfect and you don’t necessarily agree with everything all the time, even so, if you don’t think about it too much, then it becomes easy.


[Ven. Jampa]: Do you think it’s possible to have monastic communities centered on philosophical study outside of India, in the West?


[Ven. Namdak]: Sure. It’s possible. Because if you are not prepared for retreat, or don’t plan to do solitary retreat for years, then what else to do, right? If you study, you put imprints in the mind. You can still do some retreats, or do group retreats and solitary retreats a little bit here and there, from time to time. And maybe later you can do some more retreats. Study really prepares the mind. It’s an analytical meditation. It’s habituating our minds toward the dharma. The more we habituate our minds to the dharma, the easier it becomes to do retreat. And the realizations one day will come. Maybe it takes a few life times but…

Here at Sera, we have both study and prayers. For the accumulation of merit we have Tara praises and the Heart Sutra etc., recited countless times over the years. If you try to calculate the number, it’s numberless. In some sessions we do 60 of the 21 praises to Tara in one session. And in Tibet, it was even more. Jangtse Choeje often says, in Tibet there was more emphasis in doing prayers together than on debate, because the accumulation of merit was seen as so important. Now there’s a little less here in Sera. In the West if you have a study program set up, like in the community, then you have to do things together like prayers, Heart Sutra, Tara Praises, the common prayers for the prevention of obstacles, and in order to create merit and in order to gain realizations. Because the more accumulation of merit, the easier the realizations come. I think certain programs are too focused on study, from that deficiency obstacles come.


[Ven. Jampa]: I experienced this myself with the Masters Program. And I see other students saying they don’t have time to do prayers because there’s so much study to do. Often I would think I have to memorize this before class tomorrow, I don’t have time to complete my prayers. I can’t go to puja because I have too much study to do.


[Ven. Namdak]: Here we see many cases with monks who never go to puja for example, they have excuses not to go. And they are very intelligent but at a certain level in their studies they begin to experience many obstacles, sickness, some kind of eye problem etc. Then the monks all say, see, see, this is because they didn’t go to pujas. Whether it’s true or not you can examine, but sometimes it looks like if you don’t do some kind of community powered prayers together or reading of texts…[many obstacles happen].  So it’s very important.


[Ven. Chantal]: I was wondering if there is exception for Westerners in terms of not joining all the prayers?


[Ven. Namdak]: No, no. They must join everything. There are no exceptions, and that’s good. We have about one and a half hours of debate in the evening, both individual and group debate, then we have one and a half hours of prayers, and then another half an hour of debate. Of course, there are also prayer sessions in the monastery outside of debate, morning or afternoon pujas that depend on the sponsors. And then also there are pujas in the individual khangtsen. And of course your own practice, personal commitments.


It is important to study because you study to get realizations. And to get realizations you have to contemplate about things, you have to do lam rim meditations. Of course, sometimes you have to put a little more emphasis on your study, like before an exam. That helps. [When talking about the difficulty of finding time for practice during such intense study] Geshe Jampa Tekchok who was Abbot advised me in the beginning to take the opportunity to reflect on the lam rim while doing the prayers in the monastery. Otherwise, there is no time for that. And if we don’t have realizations of the lam rim … so we have to find the time to reflect upon it.


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