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.