Monday, November 01, 2010


Well, I've decided to move over to Wordpress, to find my same old blog on the new site, just click:
It is still a work in progress, so any suggestions would be appreciated.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The oral exam

Students in their seventh year of shedra have a special task during the 'rainy season retreat'. They must explain a passage of Mipham's spyi don 'od gsal snying po (available in English as Luminous Essence) and then answer questions.

The student does not get to pick what she will explain. The student's name is drawn. She takes her seat in front of the teachers, with her back to her fellow students. A page number is drawn - usually from the first half the text. She begins her explanation. Questions follow. Then the student is released. The whole ordeal lasts ten minutes.

These ten minutes are the source of a considerable amount of stress for seventh year students. I was not immune to this and spent as much time as I could reviewing the text. Leading up to the beginning of the 'rainy season retreat' I had been worrying about my visa situation and this oral exam was just one more thing making me anxious. About a week before the exam I decided the easiest solution was to leave India for two months then return. Just making this decision helped a lot in lightening up the crazy stress which had been plaguing me. It gave me a few days to cram on 'od gsal snying po and to pack my bags.

The exam itself went alright. The first person, Ani D.C., was very quiet and very nervous, despite her prodigious knowledge. Then it was my turn. I had to explain a passage about Ati Yoga (the highest level of Buddhist tantra). Unfortunately I hadn't reviewed this section very well although I'd read about the topic elsewhere. So I explained the first few lines, then second guessed myself, and said, "A le ngas nor yin sa red." Oh I think I've made a mistake! Everyone laughed. I continued with my explanation nonetheless. It turned out later I was not mistaken but my outburst revealed my lack of familiarity with the text. I was really nervous, but I tried to speak clearly, draw a few connections and make some examples. I had been hoping to reference Longchenpa's description of 'knots in the sky untying themselves' so I threw it in. When it came time to answer questions I had to describe the difference between khregs chod and thod rgal (two types of ati yoga meditation). I did alright on that one. The second questions was whether or not there is a difference between the views of Ati Yoga and of Prasangika Madyamika (the highest level of non-tantric Buddhist philosophy). I had something to say about this but didn't really have enough time to communicate my thoughts. The head teacher said, "That's enough." So I went back to my seat in the audience and grabbed a text book so I could see whether I had made a mistake or not.

It was a good experience. I'm glad so glad it is over! Now I'm in Nepal. More on that later.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Overheard in English Class

Teacher: Repeat after me: May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

Students: May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the classes of suffering.

Teacher:  You want to be free from the classes of suffering?  Fine, you may leave. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tantric kindergarten

Since my last post, back in April, I've been attending class and going to debate-- just like every other year. Now that we are studying tantra, though, it is like being in first year again. There is a lot of new terminology to learn, not to mention an extremely profound view of the universe. Unlike first year, however, at least we can all understand the text. In our first year many of us had to struggle to cope with the classical Tibetan. Despite being Himalayan, many of my classmates were not raised speaking or reading Tibetan. Rather they were educated in Bhutanese, Nepali, Hindi, English, and in one case, Urdu. Tibetan was not the language spoken in their homes, although some of their ancestors may have been of Tibetan origin. So we all had to struggle to figure out what was going on in class. I had an advantage actually, in that I could read the English translations of the texts we studied.

The quality of my studying hasn't been great these last few months. I've been worrying about my Indian visa. I can't go into details here, since this is a public blog, but what it comes down to is: I may have trouble attending enough classes to be able to write final exams. In order to write the exams for a given year of shedra we have to have attended at least eighty percent of the classes. I still have some things to try, I want to be able to write the exams… But if I can't, well, I will still study all the same texts. I just won't be able to graduate with my class. It is hard to accept this potentiality-- graduating from shedra is my dream. But really, it is just a piece of paper and a title. This situation forces me to focus on studying the Dharma for its own sake, which is how it should be.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seventh year begins

School has been in session for just more than a week now.  My first subject this year is Luminous Presence (spyi don 'od gsal snyingpo) - Mipham's overview of the Guhyagarbha Tantra based on Longchenpa's Dispelling Darkness in the Ten Directions (phyogs bcu mun sel).

Before I started shedra - I looked at the curriculum and wished that I didn't have to wait six years to study tantra.  Many people I've met have expressed similar views.   I think this sort of view  reflects how very little we know about the causal vehicle of the sutras.  Now that I've spent the last six years with the Mahayana commentaries I feel like they are dear friends and when it comes to practice - indispensable.  Of course I don't have to stop studying them, ever, but now I've been thrust into a new community - the three inner tantras.  I've only been studying inner tantra for a short time and I cannot imagine trying to study it without a background in Madhyamaka and Uttaratantra (which in fact we see as belonging to the sutra side of things despite having tantra in the name).

This year marks a new phase in my schooling degree wise - the graduate degree.  You see, the first four years of study are towards an Associates Degree, the next two towards a Bachelors, and the last three towards a Masters.  The graduate of all nine years receives the title of "Lopon".

What about the title "Khenpo" you ask?  Often compared to a Ph.D (perhaps erroneously) Khenpos are selected from within the ranks of Lopons.   To become a Khenpo one must fulfill certain criteria: 1. have scored in the first divison on the final exams for fourth, sixth, and ninth years   2. have taught as a kyorpon   3. have taught for at least three years after graduating   4. be a fully ordained monk in good standing.

So there you have it.  If anyone is wondering why Namdroling doesn't have any Khenmos or Ani Khenpos - see point number four.   So thus, the reinstatement of the full ordination lineage for nuns in the Tibetan tradition impacts us.  In the meantime, we have Ani Lopons, and that is just fine.

Personally, I'm totally satisfied just to receive the teachings, write the exams, and (in just three short years) graduate.  Titles are... well... problematic.  I am far more concerned with learning the Dharma and practicing it.

This year I have some fun new resources for studying Guhyagarbha.  A few bold individuals have written their PhD theses on the Tibetan commentaries to this tantra.  These are great to read as they have wonderful back ground information and include full or partial translations of the commentaries.  I also have searchable Tibetan versions of both Mipham and Longchenpa's commentaries which are proving to be useful indeed.  I wish I had searchable versions of gsang bdag zhal lung and gsang snying mdzod lde, two other key commentaries to the tantra.  So if you have such things, and are reading this- please get in touch.  Not that anyone actually reads my blog... but hey, it is worth a try right?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Greetings from the airport in Saskatoon.  In about 36 hours I should be arriving at Namdroling Monastery, India.

Since my last post I've done three more talks, bringing the final total for this trip to seven.  These three were all at the University of Saskatchewan.  Two were about the path of Mahayana and one -- the big one -- was about Tibetan Buddhist nuns. 

Other than talking myself hoarse these last few weeks, I've mostly been visiting with friends.  I studied a little bit and translated a short text.  There was an article about my life in the local paper and since then a few people have told me they recognize me.  Many, many more people have felt free to stare at me and sometimes give me secret smiles as though they know me.  I'm not too bother about this.  People stare at me all the time, wherever I go.  At least now the people in Saskatoon realize that they are looking at a Buddhist nun.

So I bid farewell to Saskatoon once again and look forward to getting back the monastery.  I like visiting my home but nine weeks is a long time for a holiday.   

Monday, February 15, 2010

I am happy to say I survived this last week.  It was really something - four speaking engagements and two parties. It started at the Unitarian Universalist Center with a talk on Buddhist Mind Training last Sunday.  Then I gave an introduction to Buddhism at the Avenue Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.  (I basically gave the same talk at both places. ) On Thursday, I met with a group of chaplaincy students at St. Paul's Hospital.  Finally, yesterday, I met with the Unitarian youth group, again at the U.U. Center. So it has been a busy week.   I also held a birthday party for my mother on Saturday, and, since yesterday was the lunar new year, I attended a Losar party.

The Losar party was special because I had the chance to spend some time with Ilse Guenther, wife of Buddhist studies pioneer Herbert Guenther.  At ninety years old Mrs. Guenther is healthy and active.  She's currently engaged in translating some of her husbands published works from English to German.   This party also included the entire Tibetan population of Saskatoon - all three of them.

I was a bit sad not to be at Namdroling for Losar.  It has always been my favorite place to celebrate the new year.  This year though, it would have been heartbreaking to be there on the first new year after the passing of our Lama.  It would have been lonely too, since a large part of our monastery population is still in Bodhgaya receiving the Kama empowerments.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Oh yeah that blog thingy, I knew I was forgetting something.

A month ago, I finished writing my sixth year exams.  I wrote two exams on Abhisamayalankarakarika by Maitreya, one on Haribhadra's commentary and the other on Paltrul Rinpoche's commentary. I also wrote an exam on the third chapter of Dharmakirti's Pramanavartika, with Mipham's commentary, one on the last two chapters of Dudjom's history, and one on Dharmadharmatavibhakarika by Maitreya, with Mipham's commentary.

If I had to pick a favorite subject for this year it would be Dharmadharmatavibhagakarika also known as chos dang chos nyid rnam 'byed. It focuses on the nature of samsara and nirvana as awareness. It is available in English as Distinguishing  Phenomena and Pure Being.  This translation is pretty good, but there are a few things I would change (spelling mistakes in the Tibetan on facing pages, for example).

This year (unless I happened to have failed my exams) I'll be starting seventh year, the first of three years focusing on tantra.  Last year I took special care to get the transmissions and permissions necessary to read Luminous Essence, Dharmachakra's English translation of Miphams spyi don 'do gsal snying po.  I'm also listening to Khenchen Namdrol's lectures on mp3.

Hmm... all this makes me sound quite studious.  Friends, that is simply not the case.  I'm home in Canada at the moment.  Dharma study and practice are indeed a part of each day.  The rest of the time I've been enjoying the amazing foods of home, playing MarioKart Wii, connecting with old friends and making new ones, and watching House MD.