A tibetan journey
ROBERT CHILTON has spent most of his adult life keeping alive the written traditions of Buddhism in the Tibetan language. The significance of this work is that many of the original Sanskrit texts of the Buddha and the early Buddhists were lost, so now these Tibetan texts are the most accurate record we have of the Buddha’s teachings. Here he shares with ELIZABETH DENLEY how he ended up in Kathmandu and eventually took on this archival work of preserving one of the world’s great traditions.
Q: Robert, you’ve been involved with the Tibetan and Nepalese monasteries for some time. Can you tell us what you have been doing there?
RC: Well, in a sense it started because I was a seeker. I was trying to find a way to have some sort of an authentic spiritual life, first within the Christian tradition, and then by a number of interesting ‘coincidences’ I managed to find myself in Kathmandu in Nepal.
I met Tibetan lamas there, and they were not only as knowledgeable as the best professors I’ve had at Duke university, but they also had the other side, which was they’d developed a humanness. They were both the best scholar you might meet as well as your favorite grandfather or grandmother, who would just know what you needed and find a way to give it to you. And I thought, “Okay, this is an authentic path.”
When I first came back after spending about a year and a half in Asia – Nepal, India, China – my family and close friends said, “So did you convert to Buddhism?” I said, “No, no, it wasn’t like that. As I’ve learned more about the teachings in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, I’ve realized that it’s what I’ve always believed. That’s what makes sense to me, and that’s the world I understand and experience. And if that’s what Buddhists believe then I’m also a Buddhist, because it makes sense.”
Q: When was this?
RC: This was in 1986, 1987, 1988. Then in 1989 I went to the University of Virginia and got a master’s degree.
Q: In Tibetan?
RC: They called it Religious Studies, but my focus was Tibetan language and Indo Tibetan Buddhist literature and philosophy. So that was a change, because previously I’d studied psychology. I was a major in psychology and computer science at Duke.
Q: So, the best of both worlds!
RC: In a certain way, but they all pointed in the same direction: I was interested in human consciousness and what it could be.
It became apparent to me at that time that Western psychology was really in its infancy and that in the East there was much more development of the knowledge of consciousness, psychology, and how to develop as a human being. The West was good at developing the material world, but if you wanted to develop the human, the mind, at that time it was much, much better to go to Asia.
After I got my degree I had knowledge of Tibetan, and a fair knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. I’d done meditation practice for several years in India, Nepal and also in the USA, as well as studying Zen and Insight meditation. And I heard there was a project where they could give me some work, which would combine my IT expertise with the fact that I could read Tibetan and knew Tibetan script. It was a project to save Tibetan books digitally.
Of course this was originally an Indian tradition. They were Sanskrit works that were translated into Tibetan – many of the Sanskrit originals were lost subsequently – but they were also translated into Chinese in some cases. The Chinese already had concepts and philosophy so they tried to map it, and it wasn’t always a very good map. The Tibetans really didn’t have philosophy, so they just had to make up new terms to match the Sanskrit. So there was a very good correspondence between the meaning they had in Tibet and meaning they had in Sanskrit. So in a sense, many of the lost Buddhist treasures of Sanskrit knowledge were preserved in Tibet.
I worked for that project for 15 years as the Technical Director, and it employed Tibetan refugees, first in the monasteries and also later in some of these refugee settlements, to type the books. They could read Tibetan, and we taught them how to use a normal keyboard and type the Tibetan letters using English letters. And they became touch-typists! We didn’t need very expensive computers, and there was also no problem of conversion because the English letters were readable universally.
Q: So it was the transliteration of the Tibetan.
RC: Yes. And of course we could convert it anytime we wanted to Tibetan script. Also, the people who developed the skills could type anything. They could touch-type at high speed. So it was a win-win: we had a very inexpensive labor force by western standards, and they could produce a great line of books of over 300,000 pages.
Q: Tell us about these books.
RC: These are teachings that were attributed to the Buddha and also the commentarial tradition of the Indian masters, who followed after the Buddha. They cover all of the main four Indian Buddhist philosophical schools. This is another interesting topic, because it’s not like there’s only one view to the Buddha’s teachings.
He didn’t teach that there’s one view that everyone has in common; it depends more on where you are and what is good for you. There are different ways to look at it, from the point of view of what you might call hermeneutics.
There’s a real lesson there about what is true for a person at a certain time. And that’s been one of my favorite topics, which I studied and have had a chance to teach as well.
So on one hand I have done this job, and on the other hand I’ve been continuing to study because I just really love the meditation and the philosophy and the practice and having the chance to be with the lamas and teachers.
Q: So are they translated into English as well?
RC: Yes, there are translations in English of some of the books. I don’t even know what percentage it would be, but certainly less than 50% of even just the core canon has been translated. I’d probably put the number closer to 20%.
Q: They must be some of the most original Buddhist teachings that exist.
RC: Yes. The Pali Canon, which is the southern school, has been fully translated into English, and there’s some overlap. But what they call the Kangyur or Kanjur in Tibetan, the translated words of the Buddha, is about 85,000 pages.
Then there’s the Tangyur or Tanjur, which is three to four times that amount. So by the time we added it all up, it was around a quarter of a million pages.
Q: So are these like the Gospels in the Bible that disciples of the Buddha have written?
RC: Well, it was an oral tradition. The Buddha, unlike Christ who taught only for 3 years, lived till the age of 80 and he was enlightened when he was 30. So he taught for almost 50 years. It was an oral tradition that was passed down for several hundred years before it was written.
Q: So what did you learn from this?
RC: One of the most important lessons for me is that it’s not a doctrine where we learn to believe what we are told, but rather it’s a method where we’re given the tools to see for ourselves how things are and check to see if it’s true.
One of the very famous sayings of the Buddha is, “Just as a goldsmith tests his gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence.” And that’s sort of the real thing. If it’s not practical, if it’s not something that you can apply right away in your life, then just leave it. You don’t have to say it’s bad, you just leave it aside and say, “Well, may be some other time, another place that will be relevant. But what I need to focus on is right here, because this is practical to my life right now.”
I also had another kind of insight. Someone asked me a beautiful question about free will and predestination, as they’d heard that I had studied Buddhism for the past few years. I said, “Well, we have some very, very limited free will, some very limited ability to make decisions that are really coming from inside knowledge. But as we practice, and as we gain more and more awareness, the freedom of movement that’s possible expands, and it becomes greater and greater.”
There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about liberation and Nirvana. What does it mean? It can simply be translated as freedom. The question is: How do you get to freedom?
It’s that development that each moment you can make a choice that can either in the future make you have less possibility to choose or more possibility to choose. And if you make good choices, you expand the number of choices you can make in the future, the range of choices you can make. How do you respond? Do you react according to your habits? Or do you have the chance to have that little gap of time where you consider “How am I going to respond to this? How am I going to think about this?”
The Buddhist messages all come from how we think – that’s the first step. If we think wrongly, we’re necessarily going to make a wrong decision. It might be good-wrong or bad-wrong, it’s kind of interesting. You can do something that you feel is good, for example, you could give money to someone who needs something, but if you’re doing it thinking someone’s going to see you doing that, the motivation there is sort of mixed. Then there’s really the bad stuff, like, “That’s not mine, but it’s going to be mine now.” That’s just plain old bad. And then there is what they call uncontaminated good, which is when you have the right motivation for doing a good action and you carry it out, and then you rejoice afterwards, not because someone saw you, but because it’s in the nature of goodness, the way the universe is structured.
Daaji was saying that God is the principle and the rules. When you’re in conformance with the principle and the rules, then it’s good. And when you are not in conformance, then you have the collisions, the problems, the mental afflictions and all that.
Q: How does it work as a Westerner in this tradition? Is it a natural fit or are there issues having grown up in a Western culture?
RC: Most of the people I spend time with are not Western Buddhists. I spend time with Tibetans. My wife’s family is Mongolian and they’ve been Buddhists for 300 years, and I spend time in their temples and with their lamas. For myself, I was trained as a scientist and was a very skeptical person. My father, who found an Eastern path in the Sikh tradition, would talk about karma and rebirth, and I was like, “Maybe. I don’t know. I’m a scientist, and until you can show me it’s true or not true, I’m just going to leave it on the table and say maybe yes, maybe no.” So I’d heard about rebirth and reincarnation, I’d heard about karma, but I didn’t have any conclusion. I had studied psychology: nature and nurture.
And then I went to Kathmandu and met Lama Lhundrup, who was the abbot of Kopan monastery. His English in the 1980s was of very limited vocabulary, but what he was able to express in an hour and a half answered so many of my questions. He completely convinced me that of course there is rebirth and reincarnation, and of course I had had multiple lives before. He convinced me that meditation is absolutely necessary. He said, “You feed your body every day with food, you have to feed your mind every day with meditation.”
He just hit all the high points in an hour and a half. It gives me chills now even just thinking about it, because I’d had all these questions for 5, 6 or 7 years. I’d read Alan Watts, I’d read Thomas Merton, and I was like, “Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know.” And then I met this lama and I’m like, “Okay, this is the real deal! Now I know where the wisdom lies – at least one of the places where wisdom lies.” Even though it was broken English, it was understandable.
To be continued.
Interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY
June 29, 2020
May 31, 2020
April 03, 2020