Giving Yourself the Best Opportunity
Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the fact remains that you cannot study the dharma extensively in English or other European languages at the moment. When I say ‘extensively’ I mean to the level that one can study the dharma in the shedras (Buddhist colleges), for example.
For a start, many of the main treatises and their commentaries still have not been translated. And even the fundamental texts that are translated, what opportunities are there in the West at the moment to receive teachings on them in any depth?
The texts I have in mind, such as the 8th Karmapa’s commentary to ‘Entering the Middle Way’ are several volumes long. Even when taught in Tibetan it takes many months of daily teachings to go through them, even in a cursory manner. It would be nigh on impossible to teach them through an interpreter; it would simply take too long.
Then there is the lack of infrastructure and support for serious Buddhists in the West. Where could you go where you would be housed, fed and given teachings full-time over a period of several years, such that you wouldn’t need to worry about money or working for your board and could focus solely on your studies? Without such support how many people in your Buddhist community do you think would have the resources to pay Western prices for food and accommodation for such an extended period without needing to work? But before we think about the lack of support and so on, is there even any demand for such an opportunity? Are there many people in the West who would give up their jobs and worldly lives to spend many years learning the dharma full-time?
The main point I am trying to make here is that, if you do wish to study the dharma extensively, for the time being there is no choice but to learn Tibetan. I don’t say that because I myself am a Tibetan.. I say it based on the simple fact that the shedras are the only place where most people have any realistic chance of learning the major Buddhist treatises. It is essential to study these texts if one is to become learned in the dharma and, in the shedras, all the teachings are given in Tibetan.
Learning Tibetan may seem like a massive undertaking, but we’ve seen* how much progress can be made in a short time if the conditions are right and the person is diligent and determined. It comes down to how important one sees the dharma to be. People spend many years in school and university, and go to great expense, all for the sake of one’s future opportunities. For that matter, you see many Indians and Nepalese who live near Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal who have learnt Tibetan. Why have they done that? For business. They saw making money to be important, so they gave themselves a better opportunity to do that by learning Tibetan so that they could negotiate with more potential customers.
We Buddhists see the benefits of knowing the dharma to outweigh the benefits of making money by orders of magnitude. So why would we not learn that which would give us the best opportunities in the dharma?
In the current situation, it is beyond doubt that a Tibetan Buddhist will have better opportunities to receive the dharma if they speak Tibetan. The reasons for this are that most of those who are teaching Tibetan Buddhism are teaching in Tibetan and that most of the texts they teach have not been translated.
Even if the lama has an interpreter, the difference between listening to the lama directly and listening through an interpreter is vast. How close a relationship do you expect to form with a lama when you are reliant on a translator being present to communicate with them?
If you know Tibetan, you can turn up at any teaching given in Tibetan Buddhist circles and understand what is being said directly, without needing to depend on someone else to translate for you. You can pick up any text and read it for yourself. You can read what the greatest Tibetan lamas of the past have written themselves, in their own words.
I know that those of you who followed my advice and learned Tibetan do not need any convincing about the benefits it bestows, even if you were reluctant before. But there are still some of you who think, ‘I didn’t come here to learn Tibetan. I came here to practise, to meditate!’ But we have seen how this plays out many times now. It doesn’t take long before those who thought like this start to see the opportunities and progress that those who learn Tibetan make and then find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place, wishing they’d started to learn Tibetan earlier.
Drupon Khen Rinpoche offered this advice in Thrangu Sekhar Retreat Centre, where most of the practitioners of Western and Chinese origin know Tibetan and some learnt very quickly.