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Buddhadharma : Summer 2012
SUMMER 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 81 institute’s traditional Tibetan professors teaching Madhyamika would fully mine just one text. They’d talk about how people commented on that text but they wouldn’t delve into the broader history. According to Larson, learning in both the Tibetan and Western styles is enrich- ing for students, in that it encourages them to become more flexible in their thinking. It can also be an invigorating challenge for the faculty who hail from both traditions, especially for the khen- pos, the Tibetan monastic professors. “Our students are modern and most are Western,” Larson says. “They’re from a world where people are skep- tical, where people question things. Tibetan monk students, for example, assume reincarnation is true because they’ve grown up with that idea, so they don’t say, ‘Wait a minute, why do you think reincarnation is right?’ but RYI students will ask that. Western- ers think about things differently and we make different assumptions. This has been interesting for our khenpos and I’ve watched them change over the years. Some of them had never met a foreigner before they sat down to teach us. They’ve learned about us and how to answer our questions.” Each year, the Rangjung Yeshe Insti- tute has one or two visiting professors from the West, and Larson says they’ve all told her the same thing: they really like teaching at RYI because the students are so enthusiastic. “When the profes- sors teach a Buddhism class in Amer- ica, for example,” she says, “some of the students are taking it just to fulfill a requirement or because they think it’s going to be easy, but our students are in the classroom because they’re seri- ous about studying Buddhist philoso- phy. The students ask good questions and have good discussions. They don’t sit there and send text messages to their friends.” One reason that the discussions are so lively and rich is because of the diver- sity of the students; the men and women who attend the institute come from all over the world and are a range of ages. Additionally, since RYI began offering degrees, it has become more ecumenical. Before accreditation, the students were mostly committed dharma students of Chokyi Nyima, his father, or his broth- ers Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Mingyur Rinpoche. Now, however, the institute is also attracting Buddhists from other traditions and even non-Buddhists. Larson gives the example of Boston College, a Jesuit institution, which has a study-abroad exchange program with RYI. Many of the students from Boston are Catholic. Generally speaking, they’ve taken an introductory course in Buddhism and would like to explore it further. They’re also keen to live abroad. For students from North America, living in Nepal and attending RYI can be an eye-opening experience. “It changes you,” says John Harris, a student from North Carolina who is in the B.A. pro- gram. “You don’t have power or water all the time, and you have to live with- out a lot. Going back to the States for the summer, I realized how lucky we are to have all this great stuff, but also that we really don’t need that much to be happy—you can become a prisoner of great things. The whole Nepal experi- ence kind of eases you up and gives you more patience for things. Since Nepal, there’s not as much restlessness in me.” RYI students can choose to live on their own or with a Tibetan or Nepali homestay family. Homestays help stu- dents enormously with their language acquisition. “Some people really con- sider them family,” Harris says. “One friend who has been here about five years has always stayed with the same family and she loves it.” Homestays, however, are not for everyone, and Har- ris chooses to live on his own because he values privacy. Tibetan and Nepali culture is much more social than North American culture, and many Tibetans and Nepalis will think that they’re being bad hosts if they leave you alone. “All that I have learned at RYI and in Nepal has been incredible,” Harris says. “But what has helped me the most are the teachings. I’ve studied texts that are from maybe the third or fourth century, and it’s awesome to see how relevant they still are today.” “Buddhist philosophy is based on practice, not just theory,” says Chokyi Nyima. “At monasteries where monks study, they become good scholars, but the goal is not just good scholarship. Ideally, a good scholar should also become a good practitioner, and gain some realization. So I thought it was very important to have a proper place for whoever comes to Nepal to let them study academically and then apply the teachings.” CHRISZCORNER Dominic Russell (left) and George Souza, second-year students in Rangjung Yeshe Institute’s B.A. program