Awakin Calls » Tsering Gellek » Transcript
Tsering Gellek: Preserving Sacred Culture and Building Bridges of Goodness Across Time and Place
Guest: Tsering Gellek
Host: Kozo Hattori
Moderator: Pavi Mehta
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin calls are an all volunteer run offering of Service Space. A global platform founded on the simple principle, that by changing ourselves we change the world to create a more compassionate and service oriented society. Thank you for joining us.
Kozo: Good morning. Good afternoon. And good evening, depending on why you're calling in from. My name is Kozo Hattori and I'm really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call . Welcome and thank you for joining us.
The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for more compassionate society, while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of Service Space volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold the space. Today our special guest speaker is Tsering Gellek. Thank you again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Thank you. Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today in conversation with Tsering Gellek. As an all-volunteer offering, each awaken call is a is a conversational space that is co-created with many invisible hands. In a few minutes, our moderator, Pavi Mehta, will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker. And by the top of the hour will roll into Q&A and a circle of sharing where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point you can hit star six on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.That's email@example.com. Or submit a comment or question via the webcast form if you are listening online via live webcast.
Our moderator today is Pavi Mehta and you know, it's kind of appropriate that I'm sure one of the topics we're going to talk about today is caring, because Pavi is one of the most caring people I know. She brings care into everything she does, whether that's holding space for loved ones or friends going through a healing journey or opening up her home and cooking beautiful meals for an Awakin Circle. Or even just caring enough to deeply listen on daily conversations. And it's just a beautiful combination, I think to bring a caring person like Pavi with a caring person like Tsering together, in conversation. I'm so excited to see what emerges. So Pavi, thank you for joining us today, and I'll hand it over to you.
Pavi: Thank you so much, Kozo for that thoughtful introduction. I'm touched. And I'm delighted to be introducing our guest today, Tsering Gellek, to all of you. She is calling in from the sacred town of Sarnath in northeastern India. That's where she spends seven months out of each year as director of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute.
Tsering's multifaceted work involves working to preserve sacred art, architecture and culture in order to promote human dignity, tolerance and global engagement. And she's carried out this work as a woman in many traditionally male-dominated settings. Tsering is uniquely gifted as a bridge-builder between cultures and time periods. And this bridge-building work is inherent in her own heritage as the youngest daughter of a French-Egyptian poet and a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teacher, who has been exiled for over 50 years now, from his homeland of Tibet.
I've only met Tsering once in person and once is really all you need to get an immediate sense of her spirit. She comes around the corner like an old friend that you've never met before. And there's something about this woman, which you realize, when you hear a little bit more about her work, which we will today, that she has been repeatedly tasked with incredible responsibility, that she holds with humility and a tremendous faith in the power of noble friendships. And what I was so struck by was her immediate ability to magnetize that kind of friendship and that sense of 'let's come together around these shared values that we have, and see what can blossom from there.' And that's been a guiding force in her life, and I'm so excited that we get to share a little bit more of her story and spirit with all of you today. Tsering, welcome and thank you so much for being on our call.
Tsering: Thank you, Pavi and thank you, Kozo for that really quite an amazing introduction. I was wondering who you were talking about. I guess me! And thank you to the friends that are calling in from here and there, and listeners, and to really this wonderful program that gives us all an opportunity to hear from different people. And as it says, from different walks of lives.
Pavi: Tsering, I'd like to begin with helping you paint a picture of your formative years for our listeners. Give us a feel for the context you grew up in and some of the key influences in your early years.
Tsering: Mmm. How would I begin on that? Well, I often think about childhood memories and how we look back on our lives. And since we don't have, at least I don't have a perfect memory of the continuity of my early formative years, certain images sort of stand-out. And I would say that because I had a lot of folks in California, and then I also spent time in places like Nepal and India, some of my memories are really about encounters with adults and the world, it was kind of a religious world.
And so I'm thinking about when I was a child and living in Berkeley, California, my father was, of course he is a lama, and he has a community, and we would sit in the sitting room of a place called Padma Ling, the Lotus ground in Berkeley, and my father was giving lectures, Dharma talks and carrying out the different activities of the center. And my two older sisters and I might be seated on the floor, having a world that was so, a side of listening to the adult world, but also in our own job like activities. So I think from a very early age, I was both in the adult world quite quickly, and trying to occupy the innocence of just being a child. And that meant being a little bit naughty with my sisters and trying to play tricks and things like that. And then in Nepal, I would say that some of the memories that really stand out were meeting some of the extraordinary lamas that had come to Nepal from Tibet. And being, really, somehow struck! And it was, in a way that was very heartfelt, without understanding what it was, that drew me to them. But the peaceful and loving qualities that I immediately encountered with some of the lamas that I would meet as a child, some of the great masters that were in exile in Nepal and also India.
But it is, in terms of shaping the early years of my life, I would say that it was between communities and then the private space. And the private sphere of family lives, tucked into both my mother’s and father’s, and trying to also understand, those different spheres of life. And that would, continue to be a theme throughout my life. So in some ways, my early childhood years have come back more! As an adult and then during college, and later on, in graduate school, in a way, I was more independent and had a different outlook, in a way, of life. I don't know if that sort of answers a bit of your question?
Pavi: Yeah, no, that was beautiful. Thank you. I was wondering given that background and all that you were exposed to, what inspired your decision to study international relations and then law?
Tsering: Well, you know, I’ve definitely thought about how did that happen. And in fact, I do remember. I studied International Relations at a lovely small private college called Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and I had a really positive experience there. And then after I moved out to Washington DC, I had the thought that I wanted to go into public health. And I remember applying for the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and and I didn't get accepted. And I remember being very sad by that, and my father comforting me and saying that something else was in store for me. And at that point, I said, “That's really what I wanted to do!” But then I ended up applying to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and I seemed to be building on what was the theme of looking at ‘Tibetans in Exile’ and humanitarian issues. It felt somehow that that was an unfolding destiny, for me to continue to do that. So in some ways it seems like it wasn't so much of a strong decision of ‘this is what I want to do’, but it's sort of unfolded that way, and then it continued.
Pavi: Wow, and from there you went on to help refugees, but it was first in Africa that you began this work, right?
Tsering: That's right. And I do have this funny -- and I think a lot of people when they’re, especially with a strong family, and they may, in terms of an expectation that I might do exactly the same work as my father or my mother -- when I went through and finished my graduate school, I said, you know, I think, I've written a lot of papers and I've read a lot of political theory and you know, maybe I was done with school now. And I'll go and work at a bed-and-breakfast. So I worked at a bed and breakfast after graduate studies. And I actually had a kind of funny experience there, and funny in the sense that I realized, that I wasn't really cut out for doing it.
And at that point just by, I guess wonderful serendipity there, my professor who is my graduate studies professor Karen Jacobson, she told me that she had been awarded some funding to start a project. My project was called the Alchemy Project. And that was an amazing turn for me, because it was really, for me starting out, what felt like embarking on a whole new path. And I had a chance to connect with refugees from around the world. And she is one of the foremost scholars on refugee and migration studies and she is from South Africa. And I would go to a new continent, a new place and hear and witness stories and lives of people who have suffered tremendously. And so that was, for me, very -- it was, at the time, I felt like the bravest thing I've ever done.
And the work was really fascinating. It was really about how would you connect and support livelihood, as a way towards peace and development too. And relating to, you know, for me, Africa -- I'd never had a connection with Africa. I went to South Africa and Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mozambique. And before then, all of my life and work had really been related to Tibet and I hadn't had much exposure to the rest of the world. That was a very eye-opening thing, to have this kind of work and I learned a lot. And I still think that that was probably one of the most pivotal moments for me, in my life and to set a direction for me, for the future.
Pavi: That is so fascinating that you had that kind of that experience that was so different and yet so connected to the work that you're doing now. And I'm wondering what kind of insights are, what sort of, what do you feel like it may have taught you about the universal human experience?
Tsering: Well, I don't know. I think I had a few experiences that were, I guess you could say really intense. I had a kind of very protective upbringing, and in a sense, you know, some people might think that I'm brave, but I'm kind of a scaredy cat. And so when I was in South Africa, I just had my bearings and I didn't really understand the context and I didn't know so many people. I traveled with my professor, but I remember an interview that we had at a Jesuit Refugee Service, one of the big organizations that does a lot of support work for refugees. And I was sitting there with my professor who had a background in journalism and and we were sitting next to a person of the genocide. And it was the first time I'd ever sat next to someone who had, you know, directly been involved in the genocide. And I remember just feeling in my body how my heart was beating, and how I felt so, I think just in a way deeply confused about how this happens in human nature. It wasn't just a sort of conceptualization of war and conflict. I was sitting next to somebody. And it somehow, you know, if I say -- how do I connect that?
I still keep that out there as one of the stars in my life -- just trying to understand the scope and spectrum of both human suffering, and the darkness and the light that is existing. And I feel like it was very important. I don't think I've answered it, but the exposure to it really, kind of, was very sobering in a way. And that was like almost 20 years ago. So it is still very present. I can totally remember the table, the person and the whole atmosphere but mostly just the feeling within my own body, of that sense of a kind of deep -- it's more than...if we say fear, that would be in a way too simple of a word to sum it up; but I guess the word that pops into my mind is being just deeply perplexed about it. And I didn't, I couldn't really wrap my mind around it actually. So a lot of friends and colleagues that work in humanitarian assistance have had to witness really intense experiences, and have to come up with really smart strategies and balanced perspectives and many ways, passionate ways. And I hadn't quite figured out how to be engaged at that level. So I did take a step back.
And I was just recently writing about this. Your question has launched me into a memory! Of me being in Goma. This was so long ago, but I remember being in Goma and having a very vivid thought. And it was just a simple thought, which was that, you know, here I was really for the first time in the country that didn't have the Dharma, which was something that I was so, in a way, immersed in, and in a way, comforted by, all around me, for most of my life. And I remember looking at the moon, and saying or thinking to myself that -- we all share this moon. We share the earth, but we also share this view of the moon, and how could we all be so different and yet share these common spaces? For some reason, that thought, that moment sort of led me to say: I wanted to return back and help my father and the cultural preservation work. And I felt that I was best suited for that. But it was that sort of vivid moment of feeling that. And I think I've made some decisions like that in my life, that just culminate with a certain view, and it just coalesces for a moment there.
Pavi: As I'm listening to you, two things come to mind. One is -- just that moment that you described at the table as a feeling of being deeply perplexed brought to mind a quote from Rumi where he says "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment." And to me, that just speaks to the deep, potent and profound space that our honest confusion can open up, and it's kind of where the mind has to still itself a little bit. I think we drop more into a place of heart wisdom, and living at our edge, and leaning into our edges and our uncertainties, and there can be such profound teachings there.
Tsering: I think that's really true, Pavi. Yeah, I'm sorry, go on.
Pavi: And the other thing that comes to mind is there's not the sense of you sitting down at different stages in your life and saying, "Alright. This is my plan for the next year or two years, five years," but much more of an organic unfolding. And kind of the way a seed grows, each stage blossoming naturally, almost like that period where you had to wander a little bit farther away from home, farther away from the known. And then, when the time was right, a deep sense of knowing and calling kind of brought you back in with a newly-informed perspective and the richness of your Africa experience. There's something really beautiful about that way of being in the world which is very different from our very plan-oriented way.
Tsering: And I think that's right in the sense that would be, we encounter something that is so different and that, sometimes it seems like we will form an opinion that's so sudden and clear and rational. I am not sure I can even describe what would be a normal reaction for that. But I found that, when we are asked to look back on a life, our memories and the way we interpret them really shift. I see that it changes over time. And the richness of something… I like to think that the hidden meanings of what we do, do get revealed more and more over time, and hopefully when we're old and getting ready for another chapter, that we have a little bit of sense, of perspective of where we came from, and how all those twists and turns of uncertainty and unknown aspects become a little bit more clear, as we age.
So, things are being revealed to me more and more about my path from childhood to young adulthood and now in the middle age of my life that I see. There's a lot that’s really re-interpretable, that I can see now in different ways. I think that's been helpful for me in terms of being flexible about what comes next, especially when you have periods of work or life that are really challenging, then you might look back and say, "Oh, something similar happened before that was very challenging, and something came out of it, as they say." Especially someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who says -- "No mud, no lotus." So those points can be very helpful in the future.
Pavi: So true. So true. One of the things that you very quickly dove into the deep end of was cultural preservation work, and I believe one of the first series of tasks you were invited to lead was the installation of large peace bells at some of the most sacred sites across India and Nepal. Then, along with that, there was this deep vein of cultural preservation work that runs through your journey. And I know that term means different things to different people. From your experience and in the context of the work that you've been doing, can you speak a little bit about the value and deeper purpose of cultural preservation?
Tsering: Let's see. Just for the callers and the listeners on this program, I'll just give you a little sense of where I am. So I'm sitting at the Institute, and it's about 900 meters from the Sarnath Stupa called the Dhamek Stupa. And, throughout India, there are thousands of monuments. Amazing -- both ruins and living monuments. And, as a Buddhist, there are places that connect where the Buddha was born to where he was enlightened, to where he first taught, to where he attained parinirvana, and other sacred sites. So all of the sacred sites associated with the Buddha and with Guru Rinpoche and Padmasambhava are places associated with different activities that helps the light.
I think of the sacred sites as being both a source of blessings because of where the Buddha was. You talk about walking in the footsteps or going in in pilgrimage or coming to visit these sacred sites and, even if it's just a one-foot wall and it's a ruin, but you see with a different perspective. You see with different eyes. You imagine and you read the text, and you have a sense of history. So you fill out all those invisible spaces and you imagine.
So what my father initiated, about in 2002, a project of world peace bells, and it was an incredible project and he dedicated the whole world peace bells to all the lives that were lost in the last century and he wrote a beautiful dedication. And he calculated, on large-scale, all the people that had died in the causes of conflict, war, and famine. And he wanted to make these bells in Germany. And so we would then place the bells at the holy sites. And so the bells were produced, and then we needed to get the permission to install them at the sacred sites, and India, having more than 3,000 monuments with this incredible history, has also a bureaucracy, a part of the government called Archaeological Survey of India that manages all of these sites.
I started to have to work on getting permission to install the bells. What it meant practically was that I had to make the case that we were of public benefit. And that was a really interesting case, in a way, to make and to think about, what belonged to the public space. And so there's a provision that allowed for the bells to be installed. And so I went from place to place, and this was about 10 to 12 years ago that I was really working on this part of the cultural preservation, but installing the bells and that included both Nepal and in India, since the Buddha was born in Lumbini. And I went to Nepal and did that and then also did other sites that were associated with Guru Rinpoche. So I would work with both a very sacred mission, within a government bureaucratic system.
So it was a very interesting back and forth, you could say, between those two. And I learned a lot about communities from this and who needed to help support us and how things would manifest. But, on a personal level, I was kind of impatient. So I always thought that I had to do things very quickly. And so I think I felt sometimes that my world peace bells were more like whirlwind bells, that I was racing from place to place with big trucks across dusty roads and getting things coordinated. These are two and a half tons bells. These aren't small, little bells. So they're huge and required lots of cranes and so many different engineers to be a part of this project as well. So there was a lot of drama, which goes well in this part of the world! There was excitement and laughter and frustration and all of that!
So it was an incredible training ground for me. It wasn't academic. I'm not even sure that the work was peaceful. At the end, I'd get pictures. I got a picture yesterday of all these pilgrims gathering around and ringing the bell. These bells are rung, and they're the center, and most of the sites now have used the bells as their focal point, for the time and for prayer, and everything. So in the midst of it, it was rather dramatic. But it has since subsided into a more peaceful peace bell!
Pavi: It's just amazing. I mean, I'm just thinking about the intersection that you were operating in -- politics, history, religion, culture, gender politics -- there are just so many things. And it really did seem like your journey has always been a series of trainings, and once you complete one course, it's like onto the next.
So after this remarkable project in 2008, you were asked by your father to lead the renovation of one of Nepal's oldest monuments, the Swayambhu Stupa, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's amazing because this is over 1,500 years old, the Stupa, and has traditionally been restored every century and you were the 15th person and the only woman to ever take on that role of restoration. I wonder, what was your response to being given that mantle of responsibility, and can you give us a glimpse of the approach you took to that colossal project?
Tsering: Well again my answers aren't very pretty, but I really didn't know what I was getting into. I kept using this quote, saying "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." I feel like a lot of what I've done has just been the innocence of not really knowing what was going to be both at stake, involved in everything. And so that's probably the starting point, is that I didn't have an idea. In a way, I think I might be getting diminishing returns. As I get older and wiser, I'll be less productive (laughter), because I will be more quick to reject things, knowing the cost and also all the different aspects that are involved!
But at the time I had finished the bells and was then asked to do something. And my father, for those that know Tarthang Rinpoche, he’s created many activities and organizations. He's very dynamic and sometimes his instructions are like, "just go and put a little gold..." and he won't exactly describe the magnitude of the project. And I think that seems to work well for me! So I was told that this was an important project, that I was going to Nepal. And he did give me some advice, and I'll touch on that as I go. Let me just remember it. Don't forget to ask what his advice was.
So I started the work at Swayambhu Stupa. As you introduced it, it's the oldest temple in Nepal and really the center of Nepal's origin, of the country, the origin of the Kathmandu Valley. It really had significance to the whole country, and it was also going through democracy building and trying to get the country on track, so to speak. When I started, I started with, as you would, assembling a team and it started with finding the person who do the gold-smithing. We were going to be doing the entire renovation of the stupa, which meant that from the bottom to the top, we would be rebuilding and restoring the inner structure, which later on, I found out we needed to do.
Swayambhu is also, of course, the top of a small hill in the Kathmandu Valley. And around it are about 18 priest families, Newari Bajracharya priests. The whole work, we would work alongside with a community of priests and their families, and hundreds and hundreds of years of history there. And the department of archaeology, again another figure that I've gotten to know in India, the counterpart in India, and a little bit of UNESCO occasionally would come in and see what we were doing. But most of that work was the coordination of all of these different parties, and there was a lot of concern that something would either go missing or something would get damaged in the process. So because there was both fear and excitement, hope and fear were really exaggerated in this project. But also just the amount of interest in a way -- this is the national shrine, you could say, for many Buddhists and also Hindus. I think putting one foot in front of the other was about finding one person and then the next person. I wasn't making big project charts of timelines. I had in my mind a goal and I don't know how I even came up with it, but I said, in two years, that I would do this project.
I guess I'd like to tell one small story onto this point about the beginning, because they're always all these different layers. There's the world of these government offices and people and permissions and just sort of the politics of things, but then there's this sort of incredible other world that is so hard to really put into words, but there were several Lamas that were guardians to the project. And both of them were on long, long term retreats. One who's a great Lama, Chattral Rinpoche, and another one named Trulshik Rinpoche and they were on other ends of the Kathmandu Valley. But my father asked me to go, at the beginning of the project, and seek from them, in a way, a kind of prediction, and to help clarify any obstacles in the project. So I went to them and these are probably two of the most revered Lamas in the Tibetan Buddhist world. And they're very often, very secluded, very difficult to see them, especially one of them is almost always on retreat. But I was able to get a letter and a blessing from both of them.
And when I got the letters, they had both said very similar predictions about how the work would go and that it would start in the beginning well, but in the middle it would be difficult, and in the end it would be completed. I would always say, "When is the middle over?" because the middle seemed to go on forever. But what was extraordinary about this was just the accuracy of other details about the project. So I periodically went from very mundane, just human foibles and disagreement, to tapping into something that was such a deep current and a sense that it was completely out of my own hands or effort that I would do, but it was just the right time, the right conditions, and I was just an instrument. So if people ask me "what were you doing?" or "what was special about your work?" I am not sure I could say something with total certainty. Except for that it seemed like the right juncture in time that this happened. And for the listeners, there's some really interesting writings about the history of the Swayambhu Stupa by Professor Alex von Rospatt and others who've talked about this in their work, and looked at this history.
Oh, I reminded myself about the advice of my father! So he told me that I should have lots of parties. And this was very funny advice, but I had lots of tea parties with the priests. And we had lots of what’s called bhoj or feasts. And I think it was just getting to know people and having a happy time with one another, a good time, that things that had sometimes been very difficult to resolve could be somewhat more easily resolved, when we were sharing a meal together. And you're just sitting down and getting to know each other. So having parties was a very big part of moving things along.
And that means just being human and working with one another in a way so that we can understand it, and we're not so far away each other, and that the work itself is not only the focus. It wasn't just to determine that we would complete something, even though it was so important. But that at the end of the day we were also human beings having this extraordinary opportunity.
Pavi: One of the other things that really stood out to me in learning about that project was the sheer numbers of artisans and priests and the number of threads that you were weaving together, and how many hearts and hands contributed to this effort. One of the things you said about the artisans was that their hands were like poets. Can you share a little bit more about that?
Tsering: Well, Nepal has just an extraordinary tradition of art and in every medium from copper to stone and gold and heavy metal and every medium possible. I say that the Nepali artisans are like poets, that they can express the inexpressible. They can express these enlightened qualities. Also they travel, the Nepali artists, have traveled all over Asia to bring Buddha statues and temples. I love that in Nepal there are family lineages that go back centuries, where they learn these crafts from early childhood. It's so beautiful to see it being passed down and because we were doing this national project, it really helped bring about, in a sense -- it was already happening, but they wanted to offer the best and so they brought out these incredibly skilled artists and they put everything into the work.
One of the artists I remember was saying that he would take the statue, as he was working on it and molding it and casting, and he had worked on it for several months; it was a small figure and he would take it to his bed, and he would keep it near his pillow, as it was being half-formed, and I thought, "Wow, that's extraordinary". This is the kind of love and care and just really close connection that the artist had with their work. It was a beautiful opportunity to bring that alive for people and to do also some other rituals too, that had not been performed, since the last renovation in 1918. So big projects like this are a great opportunity. I kept saying the more that we can do this all over the world and take some of these sacred sites and bring it back, you bring all these other community members -- you revive different, either lost or fading, traditions. They get to learn about their past, and it's such a humbling experience to even just see how much they have in their own traditions, and just to watch it. It's a beautiful process.
Pavi: It really seems like a beautiful link between past, present and future -- this kind of work.
Tsering: There was the earthquake in Nepal in 2016 and so many monuments were damaged. But the Swayambhunath Stupa is one of the few that was really intact and people talked about the internal structure of the stupa which, when you remove the metal sheets, you'll see that there's layers of brick and wood and it's all wood joinery. They had an architectural system that actually worked and withstood earthquakes because of its traditional design which wasn't made of concrete. So there are some of these designs that are traditional, that are much more resilient. And I think when you say past, present, and future, it's very interesting to see the return to some of the traditional art and architectural systems that actually can be more safe and resilient than so many modern buildings of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, for example.
Pavi: Wow, so much and so many different threads that I want to explore, before we open it up more broadly. I wanted to talk a little bit about the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute that you're instrumental in founding and serve as the director of. For our listeners, the institute has a four-fold mission to sustain the roots of the Dharma, advance the study of classical Buddhist languages, empower the transmission of the Dharma, and to promote interdisciplinary collaborations. Tsering, can you tell us a little bit about who the students at this institute are, and what a typical day for you at Sarnath is like?
Tsering: Sure. So our students here: we're a small institute. We're fairly new. We opened our program doors in 2014. And again, being a little bit impatient by nature, I kept thinking, “Oh, we should be so much further ahead.” But I realized that to construct a building or a campus, it takes a little time. But in many ways, the hard work is actually making a school and institution and really going from the vision and mission, to the actual realization of it.
So, I feel like we're still very young, and sometimes what you describe of yourself, you have to, as they say, fake it till you make it. But in a way, I feel like we have our mission and it's coming through. We're actually growing into what we are saying we're doing. I guess you somehow have to state something that is larger than what you are at the moment. The mission is really about building a bridge, and I like to say that I believe that the Dharma has something to really benefit the world and all sentient beings. I believe that what we need to do as Dharma practitioners is find out all the different ways in which we can be of service to others, and that means understanding modern and contemporary issues. For that we have at the center of our program, ‘English for Dharma purposes’ program. We have khenpos who are like senior abbots or scholars who have done a very intensive monastic training. They come from monasteries from throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. They come for a three-year program to study English, and then some continue on. I've just completed our first 3 year batch last year, so we're on our second batch now.
For the monks that are here, we just, for example, had a science workshop by a lovely teacher from the American Embassy School in Delhi. His name is Richard Frazier. He gave an introduction to science. He introduced, for example, the concept of density. It was so amazing because the whole way in which a teacher who has taught for more than 40 years who has to find a way to communicate. So it's really an important process for the person who is teaching, and for our own students here. I see that there's really a two-way exchange, that bridges understanding from the Lamas that are here and some of others that come and visit and do programs with us.
I hope to keep extending that and we'll see where it goes. It's a long road and I think what encourages me the most though, when I look at the program is just how we get to be sort of the the first line for showing various aspects of both the Western, or modern culture, and the ancient Tibetan rooted tradition. So it's a very interesting juncture to meet these two together and I get to witness them on a regular basis.
You also asked me about my day. Yes, it has a rhythm and a schedule in a way,. We are an institute, but we are almost like a monastery. The day starts early. And in our Temple, at six, we do prayers and we have breakfast at 7. And the bell is rung for each of these moments. Not the big bell, but another bell. And then we have some wonderful teachers that are teaching. And in the morning I'm meeting with people and somehow my day becomes you know, it's meeting with people, it's helping. We’re still so small, and I have my responsibilities over a wide spectrum of things that are happening, from knowing what's going on in the kitchen, to the classroom, to upcoming seminars, to meeting with pilgrims that come, sometimes someone will come through. Many have come from Tibet, or will come from some faraway place, and will want to know about the books that we have here, that we give out to travelers, Dharma texts. And so it's a very varied day. And at the end of the day, the time has moved along very quickly. And the next day may be similar, but somehow anything unexpected could also happen. We stay on a small campus and Varanasi is just about a half an hour away and it's a quiet place where I am.
Kozo: Wonderful. Tsering, this is Kozo. Wow, there's so much to cover in your life, it's like we could talk for hours. But I want to give the opportunity for listeners to join the conversation. So if you have a question, feel free to hit *6 and you can join the call or you can ask your question at ask@servicespace dot-org and we'll be sure to transfer your question on to the call. So, thank you.
Pavi: And just as we're transitioning Tsering, I did want to ask one final question from my side. I understand that you've currently been asked by your father to spearhead yet another work of pretty monumental significance. Can you share a little bit about that and how its living in you at this moment in time?
Tsering: Well again, I feel a little bit like you would think that I'd have a different answer, but I have to say I don't really know what I'm getting into again! In that sense, it is very difficult. But I'm more trusting of the fact that I don't know. And that's a big part of my own experience is that it's okay not to know. It's okay not to be an expert, but keep being open and energetic, and as much as you can, be transparent about things. That allows for a lot more space for others to come in.
So the next project, I guess you can say that has now been been given to me, or asked of me, is to help coordinate this Encyclopedia of the Buddha's words in Tibetan. And what this entails is taking our version, my father has produced for many many years, a Kangyur, which is the translated words of the Buddha into Tibetan. And the version that he has created has 133 volumes, of over 1100, almost 1200 different texts of the Buddha. And I'm working with a team of scholars, lamas from Tibet and Nepal, India, and I'm assembling the team right now, as we speak. We're at the very beginning, at the full edges of the unknown, completely embarking on the very beginning of this project now. And to look at how can we help bring and hold this. This was done in the 8th Century to like the 11th or 12th century and there were many, many commentaries and a kind of introduction.
But what I'm hoping to do is provide a multi-volume encyclopaedia, so that, the next generation of readers in both Tibet and around the world, will have an updated version that will make it more accessible. And the idea is that we would present the life story and the incredible efforts that were made to bring the Dharma into, both from India, and into Tibet, and into the world. So now there would be, for example, descriptions, and of bringing to life in vivid detail, the history within the sutras, within the various texts of the Kangyur. And I'm looking to take some very modern approaches, in terms of information, in the way that we present. So using the traditional text and then finding ways through information-mapping and diagrams and taking a whole new perspective, so that we can communicate to the next generation, the words of the Buddha. And bring in imagery, that hasn’t ever been put together, in such a way. Hopefully, we'll have some form of it, also that’s online, but I’d love to see that this project gets in the hands of a whole wide spectrum of people around the world. So that's where we are, at the beginning. And invite anyone who's interested to please contact me and see, if there’s something you'd like to share about this; if you have an idea, you're most welcome to share with me.
Kozo: Wonderful, Tsering. I’m just, the images that keeps coming up for me during this conversation is the bridge, you know? And you've bridged, I mean you're bridging so many different things, or you’ve bridged and continue to bridge so many different things in your life. And one of the questions I have is, you know, you're preserving the sacred sites and you're obviously bridging past and present and future. But there's also an element… My family comes from Hawaii where, you know, in Hawaii, they strongly believe that there's a connection between ancestors and the present, even if the ancestors are passed, even if they’re no longer walking on the land. And I'm wondering if you've had any experiences where, you know, either at these sacred sites, or in the work that you do, where you felt that bridging with, whether the state, you know, of the Buddha, or the ancestors, or the entities that are no longer with us. And if that's a part of the work that you're doing?
Tsering: Hmm. Thank you, Kozo, that is a really interesting question. I think, I felt that particularly in the Swayambhu renovation, because it had a sort of cycle of, you know, fifty to a hundred years and I was given a photo in the beginning of my work there, and it showed the previous renovator. And I decided to, maybe I didn't decide it, but somehow that image was, sort of like, I kept it in my office in Nepal, in Kathmandu, and put it in my office and I said, you know, “They're watching over me!” (Laughter)
I said that these were, you know, kind of an ancestor, but we were connected. We were somehow the same, we were cut from the same cloth. We were coming from the same stream and there are people, in your line of work that, you know, who have come before you, and have done something. So I definitely felt that I might have just sort of superimposed those feelings and then projected it, but it was comforting.
And I think every, all of us, in our work can benefit from that sense of ancestry, whether it's literally the bloodline or the work-line. In my case, it was more the sensibility of the work that had come before, and it was very, very, encouraging when I read the hardship stories. I am one of those people that, I think, most people are, but I definitely am encouraged when I hear about the struggle and the hardships of a person, to do their work, and that they might have come out against all odds. I think, I felt, when I heard and understood, how challenging it was, in these different, in the past renovator’s lives, for example, and I felt like, “Well, you know, okay. So this is, this is the way it is. And it doesn't just happen, this immediately and smoothly,” because you kind of get that thought that, you know, everyone else got it a little bit easier, something like that. When you do the work, it's very encouraging to hear someone else complaining. I'm one of those people that, you know, I appreciate little bits of complaints, and then, you know, final victory. But you need to complain a little bit in the middle. Yeah!
Kozo: Wonderful, I mean, I love that the letter you got in the blessing, from the Lamas was: “It'll start well, the middle will be difficult and in the end, it will be over.” I mean that, that's, life right?”
Tsering: Right, yeah, really. Okay, that can be applied to anyone. I think we should make it into a bumper sticker. It’ll be really hard in the middle and in the end, you'll be fine. It really is, I think. So yeah, maybe that, that was, that wasn't specific to me. But I took it as -- wow, very profound. And they both mean the same thing. So maybe...
Kozo: We actually have a question online. Somebody sent it online that pertains to what you said. You kind of answered, you know, how you get comfort from knowing that others have gone through this struggle. And, you know, the middle part and you in the end, you completed the task before you. But someone online asked -- Specifically, what spiritual practices help you maintain the openness and heartfulness required to navigate the unknown in your work?
Tsering: Well, honestly, I think that my strongest practice is not holding on to things, that have either upset me or hurt me. And I think it's been a training that I've been exposed to, for much of my life. And I think I love humour and joy and friendships and connection. And I have been really blessed with beautiful people in my life.
So my practice is really about being, I guess, kind of, as transparent as I can be. I wear my heart on my sleeve, I cry rather openly. And I have felt sad and hurt openly. And then I have bounced back and been joyful and open and as loving as I can be. But I didn't want to be on a spiritual pedestal as if I had no disturbing emotions. I think I was given a lot of training in just being kind of real about it. And that real, I guess, quality allows you to be more flexible when things change. If you hold onto a really rigid self- image of perfection, you're going to break. But I was quite sloppy in a way and it was all messy, all over the place in some ways. But it also meant that I had a lot of space to grow and to kind of recover.
So my spiritual practice is a little bit of combination of forgetting about things that don't go as you kind of expect, and starting fresh every day, with a new moment. And then when you have a hard time, just kind of be real about it. And sometimes you have to step out and can't hold it, and you just need to take a little break and that's okay. If you're in a marathon and you're in the long run, it's okay to just, you know, do something very simple and then come back to it.
Kozo: Wonderful. Well, you must be resonating with other people. We just got a bunch of questions and comments online. Then we have a caller in the queue. But you know, I'm going to take my host privilege and ask one more question before we get to all these. And you know, this is related because I'm really interested in, you know, you co-authored this book about Caring and we ran an excerpt on DailyGood, and you said, "To care is to really understand that we are in a very concerning situation."
And actually my cousin and I were just talking about this. There's this phrase they use in America a lot. It's funny because people mis-say it, but the phrase is actually "I couldn't care less." But the way people say it often in, you know, because they don't say it properly, they say, "I could care less. I could care less if I'm..." you know. And there seems to be, I don't know if that's revealing a crack in the American psyche or something, but it's almost like, you know, in the face of this very concerning situation, whether you want to talk about divisiveness in the world or the global challenge or all these, you know, global warming...there's all these ways in which people are almost refusing to care. It's like it's too overwhelming to think about or I can't make a difference, or you know, I'm barely scraping by day to day, I can't worry about that, you know. And I really resonate with the urgency of caring but also how caring is... You know you talk about there's a vertical way of caring and how caring is actually almost I'd say what we are here to do, you know.
So I was wondering if you’d speak on that because I think it's so important in this day and age and... I have children, you know, and so caring for children. But also to make my children caring, to make my children care about... You know in Hawaii we say Āina, the land, that which is changeless, to have them care about relationships and stuff. So I was wondering if you'd speak on that a bit.
Tsering: Yeah, it's really interesting what you are saying about how it can get in a way mis-spoken and either way, it is interpreted as to not care. But you know, I think there's a lot of talk in, you know, in circles about compassion and kindness. And you know my father came out with his book on ‘Caring’ last year.
And he asked me to write a little something about it, a chapter in the book on care. And I remember just thinking about what does it mean to really care and how, on both a personal and community and global level, and how hard it is to do sometimes. So I decided to just do little exercises in my head and think about times that were really difficult to care actually. And then I was thinking about how, you know, so just to be, in a sense, real about it. And when you're really pressed for time and someone asks you to do something or maybe it's a person that you don't really like and this is on a very personal level and you may not feel that comfortable and you've been asked to do something, for whatever reason, and this internal sense of like we have put a limitation as to what and how we can care for another.
So I just contemplated on this idea of both this horizontal dimension of care to those around us and a kind of a visual of what is happening right now in the world. And it could go further and further out in terms of horizontal quality, of this moment now. And then I just imagined a vertical line also and that was connecting to this idea of ancestors and to the future responsibility of what we have as being here on this planet and the stewardship that's being required of us and urgent interventions in many ways. And there are people that are doing incredible work right now and I'd love to hear more about that too, if the two of you have, you know, thoughts on that.
But when I thought about this idea of vertical care, I was thinking about how my father has done projects that were about connecting the long arc of history, something that goes back 2,500 years, and he makes bells that last a thousand years. He, you know, designed things with a really far far vision of maybe, you know, we hope we're all around; around, meaning the beings, the ancient beings, that this planet is still around hundreds and thousands of years from now. But if you expand your time horizon, and I made it a vertical dimension in this case, but to say, far into the future and far into the past, that you have a look at doing things that expand the horizon -- and that can, you know, just even having the view of that, that whatever we do, that we try to think of something that extends it.
So that's kind of how, being invited to write this made me think more about horizons and how we have in this last maybe 50 years and increasingly become so momentary. We've shortened our time horizons for everything. And we don't make things that are multi-generational. And that when we go to places like Ajanta and Ellora, these incredible monuments, sacred monuments around the world, they were a people that invested generations into creating beauty and power and blessing and they were really a testament to a collective action. And I think we've lost that. In large part, it's very individual and our time horizon is very short. So I think if we can find ways to work on something that goes beyond our life span, that's already an incredible gift to the future, and to do something that you won't be able to finish in this life.
Kozo: Mmm, wonderful. I hope, you know, I hope there's many people here that take up that challenge because I think it's very important and thank you for sharing it. I'm going to stop talking now and we have a question on the actual call. So I'm going to hand it over to them.
Caller: Thank you so much. Hi, what a beautiful conversation and thank you to all of you for just a really engaging listen. Question, kind of an observation/question I had. I couldn't help when I was hearing you talk about the progression of projects that you undertook to not feel that there was some kind of underlying organic pulling, gentle pulling and kind of nurturing and coaching that was going along. You mentioned that your father would never, didn't describe the magnitude of the project and that you kind of went into it a little bit like Fools Rush In, and kind of the innocence of not knowing that allowed you to take on these incredible service opportunities for the world.
And I'm just, I'm curious about your father in all of this and kind of how he, how involved he has been, how he has, you know, nurtured you. Do you have a feeling that he's been kind of grooming you for something? I can't help but feel that or at least hope for that listening to you. It would be wonderful to have to kind of watch the progression of where this all takes you. Kind of an observation/comment. And then kind of a question was more, you know, the gender piece. Like how does that fit into your work now? How did it work in and what is the role of your sisters in the family enterprise?
Tsering: Well, those are two really big questions. Let's see, the role of my father and also a gender question. Let's see if I can come up with a combined answer in a sense. My father is very dynamic and extremely creative and hardworking, but I think one of the secrets to his success is that he doesn't, he looks at people and he sees, it's like a master investor into people. You know, like someone who you might least expect to, you know, do something and everyone else is like, "Oh, why would you choose that person to do that? She's such the wrong choice (that would be myself for example)!” And somehow it kind of works. And I think the odds, and this really comes from his own depths of understanding and his own teaching and lineage.
But I think really great leaders have the uncanny ability to identify others strengths, that, and even to use people's weaknesses. Like for example, I kept talking about my impatience. I mean, I don't know if people would consider me that impatient, but I always feel like I'm impatient because I'm always worried about time. But I think you know, I had a lot of fear in a way and I think fear has been something that I could use to motivate me to do things. And I think my father has understood that about me, of course, being both my father and a lama and a teacher, he has an insight into the way that we work in our sort of propensities. So I think I kept, you know, kind of working with that, and we had practices to use the things that are sometimes seen as our weaknesses, and to try to train them into more different learning opportunities. So that's one thing.
In terms of being a female and my sisters. Well, my sisters are incredible. My elder sister, Wangmo, and my middle sister, Pema, they both, in their own way, you could definitely have a beautiful conversation with either one of them. And they've both been my mentors and supporters also. And are very much engaged in a lot of work and are very dynamic. We are from a traditional culture, you know, as most of the world has not always given women the center stage, but my father just puts whoever can do the job, regardless of their background in a sense. And so over time, I think, you know, we've been able to accomplish some of the projects and earn respect in circles that have been very traditionally male-dominated and women are kind of invisible (there).
But it's challenging, because by nature, I don't actually like being the center of attention and I like to work behind the scenes. And Pavi was really sweet to mention, you know, sort of my heart-felt friends. Friends have been like a big part of my life, and I like to work with groups. And I like the success that are shared with the team. And sometimes I do work, I always want to do work with a friend. So if I find a friend who has a background and I’ll say -- let's do a project together. So I love to do work that's based on companionship and and enjoying doing work together.
But I think for women and for the future, I'd love to see if I can help in any way support other young women leaders and emerging leaders to encourage them that they can be all different types. And you can be shy and you can be, you know, a little insecure, you can be all different things, and still get work done. And I just want to encourage people to feel in their own bones who they are and just move from that.
Kozo: Feeling in your own bones who you are and move from that. That's lama-esque. We have a comment from Amsterdam that I don't want to miss. It's from Anneke and she says, "Dear Tsering. I'm happy that you exist and that we both know Bouddha. Thank you!” I think that's just some very deep gratitude for what you're sharing, Tsering. We also have a question. Yeah, we'll see if we can have this as the last question. I apologize to all the people who wrote in on the web form, some wrote some very long detailed questions, and we're just not going to be able to get to them today. But Leila Wilson from Chicago asked, "Could you talk a bit about your own creative or writing practice as a part of your process of discovery and concentration?”
Tsering: Well, just to my dear friend Anneke, who's been both a friend and a mentor and one of the people that has been always a great source of comfort throughout many of my project -- big love to her as well.
And to this question to Leila. I appreciate the question. I started sharing more of my poetry that I've been writing. And it's my slowest part of the day and I really enjoy writing and slowly processing various experiences. And I would say what I love about poetry and feels very new to me and in some ways but that the voice, my own voice, can come out through it with just a few words and I take away some words and leave them and then I look at it and I have a feeling of oh, that's it. And I know exactly when it's complete and then I'm happy. So I've reached that point. And I think most people in their creative arts have a sense of that time like, okay, I did it. Now that's done. That's the feeling I get.
Kozo: Wonderful. Tsering, we have one last question that we ask all of our callers on Awakin Calls and it's: How can we as the larger ServiceSpace Community serve you or help you with whatever work you're bringing forth in the world?
Tsering: That's such a beautiful question. I guess come visit me and I love people to come visit me in Sarnath or in Berkeley and have a cup of tea, and see if we can connect on something. There is so much good that we can do in this world. And if you have a good sense of humor and a sense of life and fun and offering to others, I am very open to starting a new project and working together. So it's just an open invitation, as I'd love to meet you here in Sarnath or in Berkeley.
Kozo: Wow, I don't think I've ever heard that answer to that question before but you're following your father's advice right, throw a lot of parties, like come over let's have a tea party. Beautiful, beautiful. I love that.
Tsering: Yeah, it is true though. Thank you, Kozo.
Kozo: Beautiful, beautiful. There is so much richness there. And, you know, I think about, I think something you said in that essay on caring of, you know, what this vertical carrying that you know, your life, if you look at that, your life as your message, as, you know, continued action throughout your life, in caring and doing service to define, you know, to make your mark on the world. And I just see that so beautifully in not only what you're doing now, but like, man, you've accomplished so much. I mean you've accomplished so much in your life, in this vertical realm, it just, it puts me in awe and it's beautiful and thank you for sharing and putting the challenge to us to also step up our game and have a lot of parties as well. So thank you so much for this beautiful conversation.
Tsering: Thank you very much.
Kozo: We like to end with a minute of silence as we began and then, yeah, thank you everybody for joining us this morning and all the invisible volunteers.
Kozo: Thank you.
Tsering: Thank you.
Kozo: Have a wonderful weekend and thank you for calling in from so far away and sharing this time with us.
Tsering: It's been a real pleasure and honor. Thank you all.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.