The Moss in the Garden: My Experience as a Monk in Graduate School
For the last year and a half, I have been studying for an MA in Asian Religions at McMaster University in addition to serving as the Tibetan-English language interpreter for Geshe Sonam at Lama Yeshe Ling Centre in Burlington, Ontario. A few sangha members have asked me about my experience of studying Buddhism in graduate school, so I thought that sharing a brief piece about my journey might be useful.
It is pertinent to mention at the outset that I am not a person of any intellectual brilliance or natural scholastic talent. In fact, I am by nature a scatterbrain, with a diagnosis in inattentive ADD to back up that assertion. At the same time, I do possess some intellectual curiosity, a commitment to self-improvement, and a love for the discussion and exploration of the Buddha-dharma.
Exploring this curiosity and improving myself meant that I knew my path forward was education. Graduate school seemed like a reasonable “middle way”. I had known for years that a Geshe degree was beyond me for several reasons – my own distractibility, difficulty in finding financial and peer support as well as constant snags with visas had made it clear years ago that it was not the path for me.
My previous success in overcoming obstacles, the biggest one of which was my own lack of self-confidence, was what first led me to contemplate the possibility of graduate school. I reflected how, due to my unconventional personality and oddball sense of humour, many people wrote me off as a bit of a flake or fad-seeker when I first became a monk. I certainly don’t fit in with the stereotypical image that Westerners expect of a monk (though I have found the Tibetans a lot friendlier and less expectation laden, and over the years have made many Tibetan Sangha friends, in India and here in Canada).The fact that I am still part of the sangha 16 years later and have been working as a centre interpreter for ten years gave me some confidence that with determination, I could overcome my own and others’ doubts. Certainly, I couldn’t imagine that completing an MA would be any tougher than the demanding LRZTP course.
Serving as the interpreter to the incredible Geshe Sonam since 2011 was another huge confidence builder, helping me to build enough skills to make a real contribution to the benefit of others. Practically, it meant that I would be bringing a degree of knowledge and experience to the field, a unique perspective different from that of my classmates, most of whom know Buddhism primarily through their academic experience of it.
Words of encouragement from Khensur Delek Rinpoche and Geshe Sonam led me to apply, and after I received acceptance, advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche confirming this would be useful and suggesting some practices in case of obstacles gave me added encouragement.
Fortunately for me, although Canadian universities do not have the same prestige as American schools do, our post-secondary education system is designed around well-funded public institutions. This means that, with the kindness of a benefactor and a few different scholarships, I was able work things out financially without going into debt. This was a huge concern as, of course, an advanced degree in Buddhist studies (even a PhD), provides no guarantee of academic employment, especially during a pandemic.
My first year in graduate school went very smoothly, and even without any accommodations for ADD I managed to do well academically. I also was able to immerse myself in conversations that I had been cocooned from while residing in large Buddhist centres. I have a much more realistic understanding of how Buddhism is viewed by the larger society, what hurdles it faces in adapting itself to changing realities, and how I might be able to participate in ensuring the precious dharma’s longevity in the North America.
In Canada, like everywhere else in the West, movements around social justice have become firmly rooted in the campus conversation. Though Canadians tend to stress gentler, kinder conversations, they are still tough. One thing I have learned is that diversity is not optional for Western Buddhism – it is essential. If the practitioners of the centres do not reflect the diversity of the local community, there is a real danger that they will fade into irrelevance. It has been disappointing to hear from some seasoned practitioners that the lack of younger practitioners in our communities is simply because the younger generation “doesn’t have the karma”. We must develop a willingness to move out of our comfort zone and embrace new generations of practitioners if we want centres to survive long-term. My approach has always been that as practitioners of the bodhisattva vehicle, part of our duty is to allow beings the opportunity to build the karma and affinities that will help them to develop a flourishing dharma practice. We need to learn to move out of our comfort zones and be less insular, and more outward-looking, seeing the centres not only as a place to meet our friends, but also places of outreach.
In terms of the academic study itself, it has given me an even deeper appreciation for the fantastic scholar-practitioners that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition produces. People with a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience, whose approach to Buddhism stresses it as a living, holistic path to transformation. Where knowledge and wisdom are important, but only insofar as they help beings to bring pressure to bear on the afflictions and develop positive mental qualities.
If Tibetan scholar-practitioners present to students the beautiful garden of the dharma, graduate studies in Buddhism are more like studying a specific type of moss that grows in that garden. Graduate supervisors often work with material in multiple languages but use that skill to develop their area of interest rather than convey a holistic presentation of the teachings. This approach does have its benefits – I have learned to be more methodical in how I approach research. I’ve looked at ancient Tibetan texts and manuscripts that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I’ve learned how to write and present information more effectively.
For Sangha that have been ordained for a few years, and have a good connection to a spiritual teacher, I don’t think the critical approach of the Western academic study of Buddhism will cause any danger to faith or practice. In fact, it may demonstrate how approaching things from the perspective of transforming and developing the mind is a rare and precious thing, that cannot be tasted with a completely intellectual or critical approach.
Graduate study also provides precious opportunities for Sangha to interact with people outside the Buddhist community, to participate in a broader conversation, and to expose themselves to constructive criticism that will help develop critical thinking. In the West, where financial support of monks and nuns is hard to come by, academic grants and research work can also provide a supplemental income, allowing a degree of financial independence and the means to travel to attend important teachings, purchase dharma books, and help fellow Sangha members.
With only a few more months before I complete my studies and final MA translation project, the next steps of this journey are unclear. It may take the form of a PhD, this time with an anthropological project that seeks to explore the pedagogies different Tibetan teachers employ when teaching in North America, or a Master in Pastoral Studies program to develop skills in counselling psychology and chaplaincy.
Whatever happens, this journey has provided me with new tools and ideas to contribute to the Buddhism in the West generally, and our centre specifically. It has also been a great way to root myself back into Canadian society after being away from my country for nearly 17 years.
Ven Khedrup is the resident Tibetan-English interpreter at Lama Yeshe Ling Centre in Ontario, Canada.