A Tibetan journey – part 2
ROBERT CHILTON has spent most of his adult life working with traditions of Buddhism in the Tibetan language. In Part 1, he shared the significance of this work in preserving the most accurate record we have of the Buddha’s teachings. In part 2, he tells ELIZABETH DENLEY about the Gompa Tibetan Monastery Services, where technology is used to connect the monasteries with followers, and create a platform for sharing the ancient wisdom.
Q: So what is happening now with the Tibetan monasteries? I don’t mean politically, but is the tradition alive still?
RC: These great masters were able to come out in the early 1960s. They eventually were able to reform the monasteries and continue their training. They were in refugee camps, first in Indian prisons, and then they were in these camps where they were living in tents with keep-guards to keep the elephants from rampaging through the camps. They went through a lot of hardships, but they were able to keep transmitting the knowledge.
The system of the monasteries is all about how to keep the knowledge alive from one generation to the next. And that was happening in Tibet since the time it was transmitted from India, in places like the great monastery in Nalanda and other great monasteries in India. They kept it going, and up till now they’ve been able to keep it going.
It used to be that every extended family would send at least one boy to the monastery to become a monk. It was just normal. And there were all these people in Tibet who were also coming into India through Nepal and Bhutan, and they would come into the monasteries and take up their spaces, cohorts in their classes, but recently the police forces have stopped that flow.
The monasteries and nunneries are doing great things in their local communities in terms of social welfare programs. They’re the ones who establish the clinics. They have hospitals, library resources, and there are people for any spiritual needs to be met in various ways, such as with prayers and advice, giving names to the children and blessings, and so on. All this plays a very vital role within the refugee communities in India and Nepal. Also, people in these communities have found ways to go abroad, to Malaysia, Singapore, USA, Canada and Australia.
There’s a need for them to have access to spiritual services, and that’s the project I’m working on now. That’s called Gompa Services, or Gompa Tibetan Monastery Services. Gompa Services is an online service platform that connects more than 50 monasteries and nunneries in India and Nepal to the world of their followers.
If people want to watch a webcast of a teaching, or some special ceremonies or a public puja, or if they want to arrange their own personal puja with a dedication for a specific purpose, they can do all that through the website. If they want to make donations toward other social projects, like the ones that help expand a library or build needed dormitories, they can make offerings through our service. We don’t charge any fees on those transactions.
We have members who help support the functions. It’s been going on since we started in 2014, and we really got launched in the last couple of years. We started a publicity launch a few months ago, in terms of making ourselves widely known, after we had made sure everything was working well.
Q: So is this mainly for India and Nepal, or is it global?
RC: The monasteries and nunneries that we’ve been connecting through the platform have been in India and Nepal. Our main coordinating office is in Dehra Dun, which is in North India. And we also do webcasting up in the North: whenever we have any events we send our crews out for the webcasting. We also have one in the South in Karnataka state that covers the southern region. There are a number of monasteries in that area, where people arrange pujas on demand. And then we also have our Kathmandu office for most of Nepal. There are other places, but it is mainly Kathmandu where most of the monasteries and nunneries are located.
We have recently been looking at bringing individual Dharma Centers – where they have events or teachings that are relevant to the community or followers worldwide – into our platform. Basically we have a system of providing for the distribution of the webcasts, which is all integrated. People can sign in with a user ID, they can make donations or not, it’s up to them.
But most of what’s really happening, in terms of the big events, is happening in the monasteries and the nunneries, especially for the arranged pujas. You have 200 monks who do the prayer for half a day, and there’s an energy. It’s really extraordinary when there are that many people all doing the same practice, and they’re trained to do it.
Q: There’s a history of Buddhism in the Indo-Nepali part of the country, which goes back to the original traditions.
RC: Yes, that’s definitely true, but it’s much more. I think in our educational system we value empirical evidence. What people are only starting to realize broadly is that the foundations of what we call empirical evidence are completely subjective in a sense. For example, first there was Einstein and his theory of general relativity. Then you had Neils Bohr and Heisenberg and the whole quantum worldview, which has taken a long time for the average person in the West to even understand.
One of my personal hobbies is to study quantum physics, and luckily I have enough mathematical and scientific training that I can sort of follow it. What I find fascinating is that when I read one of the early Indian philosophers, Nagarjuna, and his presentation of the Middle Way, he says that nothing exists the way it appears to, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When I put that up against the quantum worldview, as I understand it, there’s a way I can interpret the data coming from quantum theory that lines up pretty closely with what was said 2000 years ago in India. So we’re going back to what the Indians have always been teaching, and what the West is finally coming to.
Another great example is that the English and other scholars, who encountered Indian philosophy in the 1800s, dismissed it as very speculative: There was this idea that there’s not just a world, but countless world systems; these huge universal world systems. What were they thinking? They were just trying to do this kind of mental gymnastics and see who could outdo whom, and turn to describing the physical world.
And then you know, a century and a half later, guess what? The West is saying that there are all these multiple millions and uncountable world systems. It’s all expanding, and whether it’s going to contract or not contract, we do not know. Everything of the Indian philosophies that was laughed at as ridiculous, now is acknowledged as the way it is, according to the West.
My mother-in-law is a nurse, and she had been studying both her nursing and Indian explanations of karma when she came across a passage in one of the early Indian books. If you look at who has the biggest karmic impact, in terms of doing a good action or a bad action, one of the biggest is the parent, the mother in particular. And then there was a recorded case with one mother who had the ovum and another mother who carried the baby to term. At the time she was reading it, it was a long time ago when surrogacy wasn’t done yet, and my mother-inlaw was saying, “Why would they even speculate on this? Why is this in a book from 500 BC or 300 BC?”
A few years later they did exactly that. Answer the question now: Which one has the karma of being the mother? There are just so many cases! I could write a book about all the times the West has come around to the ideas that they previously dismissed as ridiculous Indian ideas, and now they go, “Oh, actually that’s true!”
Q: Well, the concept of nothingness is from the Indian philosophy. So many of the fundamental principles of mathematics came from India.
RC: William James, the psychologist, said around 1900, “The nature of the human mind is that it cannot stay on a single thought or a single object for more than a second or two.” Meanwhile these meditators in India could just stay there; forget hours or days, they could just stay there. That was completely out of the mindset of the Western scientists of the Victorian era.
Q: One thing that amazes me that Babuji said is, “The way forward for humanity is Eastern heart and Western mind, together.” It’s not that you need one; you need both. Somebody like you has the possibility to live that, right?
RC: That’s my goal. I feel so blessed that I was given a rigorous scientific education at a time when quantum theory was known, general relativity, transistors, everything that we know about the natural world, and at the same time, the great thinkers of India like Nagarjuna and others had been translated.
Before 1980 you could not find a good translation of Nagarjuna, and before 1980 you really couldn’t find any presentation on general relativity or quantum theory for lay people. And now you find both if you know where to look. Someone has to still show you some of these things, because they are pretty impenetrable at a certain superficial level, but if someone leads you through it, you can get it. I teach a one-week symposium on this.
Q: You are welcome to do it sometime here.
RC: I’d love to. It would be a blast! Thank you very much.
Interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY
October 03, 2019
October 03, 2019
October 03, 2019