A Personal Story…

I would like to share with you a brief personal experience I had while studying abroad in China.  Part of my SYE research gave me the opportunity to use my free time abroad to continue my research in Tibet.  This personal experience was when I began developing the idea of Buddhism in the West and the concept of “consumer Buddhism.”

It is taught in the Mahayana tradition that the Buddhist nature is found in every being.  It is simply dormant and we are ignorant of its existence.  But by practicing the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism, we can awaken ourselves to enlightenment and understanding.

I was sitting at the feet of a Buddhist lama in a Tibetan refugee camp with my little list of handwritten questions. I might have written at the top, “Riddles to Stump the Lamas.” I carried this list around with me from robed priest to robed priest in my early days as the skeptical college seeker, imagining that eventually my questions about the meaning of life would resolve themselves through contact with great Eastern thinkers.

I asked one lama if Buddhas were made or born.  “Made…and born,” the lama replied. I wondered if this wise master was playfully withholding an explanation – or did he mean it?

“How can a Buddha be made and born at the same time?”

“From the point of view of who we really are, Buddhas are born. But from the point of view of a spiritual path, Buddhas are made.”

I was twenty and living in a tiny refugee camp nestled in the northern Himalayan range on the border of Tibet and Nepal. It was worlds away from the groomed lawns and genteel classrooms of St. Lawrence University, where the rest of my friends were attending lectures on art history and reading Kant. At the moment, that world left behind seemed weirdly alien to me, and the mud-floored one-room adobe hut where I slept on cotton batting and cooked on a camp stove felt like home. This was the classroom I wanted to be in. I wondered if I had been born on the wrong continent.

The lama, my source of spiritual wisdom at that time, lived quietly in a tiny monk’s quarters overlooking the courtyard of the village monastery. I can still see his wrinkled face, linked like folded raw silk, and his long gray beard against the backdrop of the square of blue Himalayan sky that was his window.  It reminded me of the mountains behind the Arizona retreat, wondering if it was some kind of unintended dichotomy.

What was the lama trying to tell me? Buddha means “one who is awake” and refers to a person whose wisdom and compassion has fully blossomed or awakened – a person of a very high order, a sage.  However, paradoxically, Buddha lives in every one of us, with an inner sage. That is why, on the one hand, we are born Buddhas, but – on the other hand – we still need to become Buddhas: we still need to wake up to the wisdom and compassion sleeping in our deepest being. That moment in the refugee camp was a wake-up call for me, so to speak. It was the first time I had an inkling that while I might have many small missions in life – to finish school, to spend time with my friends, to travel – there was one big mission that should not be missed: to wake up to inner wisdom and compassion. Even if that took a long time, it was a goal worth holding onto.

I spent the majority of my time in Tibet with this village and refugee camp. Speaking with the lamas that were there as well as the diaspora of Tibetans seeking refuge in this community.  It was my first step on the path of transformation.


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