Orientation: This post is the first in a series. My goal is to share my experiences in trying to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. It assumes you are interested in Tibetan Buddhism and are alone in your search; no friends or family who are also Buddhists. Take my comments as they are, just comments; one person’s experience. And if it helps you on your way, I am very glad for that.
Many of k.d. lang’s fans know she is a Buddhist. It’s no secret. And because of that, I heard about what is called “The Dharma” in Buddhism. “Dharma” means a lot of things, but a common meaning is “path”. Yet, what happened to me next, after hearing about “the Dharma,” has been a tad on the frustrating and exasperating side. So I have decided to share my story in hopes that others, who find themselves interested in Buddhism, can save themselves the pain and heartache I have endured over the last 3 years trying to learn more. I can’t say that Tibetan Buddhism is exactly “user friendly”. Take this series of blog posts for what they are: one lost being’s struggle. I’m not an expert. But I know enough to offer general guidance for those new to Buddhism.
Old But New
Before I start, I feel there needs to be a general statement about the circumstances surrounding Tibetan Buddhism in the United States (and maybe in the UK and Australia). Until about 35 years ago, it was virtually impossible for an ordinary American to even hear about Tibetan Buddhism. In the 1970’s, a lama by the name of Choygam Trungpa, came to the US and began sharing it with others. While I did not start my own path with his teachings, in retrospect, had I known about him, it may have saved me time and effort trying to figure out what was going on. He was also the teacher of Pema Chondron, and most people have heard about her, probably the most famous American Tibetan Buddhist nun. However, even reading and listening to his teachings may not be enough to prepare you for the liturgical Tibetan Buddhist practices you will find yourself in if you pursue this.
Tibetan Buddhism: Not like all the rest
The first thing I would mention to people interested in k.d.’s Buddhism is this: k.d. practices a particular kind of Tibetan Buddhism. So, if you are going to follow suit, get ready to learn a lot about Tibetan culture, language, art and symbols. For example, take the image above. This is a female Buddha used often in certain branches of Tibetan Buddhism. This entire image is symbol upon symbol upon symbol. In fact, learning a lot is not enough. You have to master a substantial amount of these things, just to be able to keep up while you are listening to teachings and observing others.
Second, Tibetan Buddhism is nearly impossible to learn about on your own. Granted, there are a ton of books out there. But there are so many, it is really easy to read books that are either too advanced for you, or not the same Buddhism you think it is etc. You really have to find a center where you can watch other practitioners (people who are well versed in Tibetan Buddhist prayers, liturgies and meditations) and be exposed to basic teachings by an authentic lama. What I mean by an “authentic” lama is one who has been trained in the same branch (aka lineage) of Tibetan Buddhism that you decide to follow. (I’ll talk more about these lineages in a later post. For now, just know that not all Tibetan Buddhism is exactly the same). When I say “trained”, I mean someone, man or woman, who has most likely spent a lot of time in Tibet, is fluent in speaking, reading and writing Tibetan and who has been ordained by a well known master or ‘rinpoche’. How can you tell, as a beginner, whether a lama is legitimate? It’s pretty impossible, actually. You have to go on things like the size of the center and talking to other people who practice there. This is not something you can always figure out right away. It may take awhile. I will say that in my experience, a legitimate lama has a certain “way” about them. They are serious, yet very playful. They are honest, sincere and they know a ton. They know more than you can ever imagine. Seriously. It is unreal what a trained lama knows in terms of book learning, people and in some cases, the past and future.
Not your iPod’s meditation
Finally, most people know that meditation is part of Buddhism. It’s true. It is. But be prepared to have what a Tibetan lama calls “meditation”, be almost nothing like what you probably have heard in the mainstream. There are so many different kinds of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism, I do not think I could even list a fraction of them here. And be ready to listen to teachings about “meditation” where the lama mixes and matches different kinds of meditation in the same breath so that you are totally confused. Just know that eventually, all that confusion sorts itself out. Keep listening, keep listening, keep listening.
I will say that becoming a Tibetan Buddhist is a tough path to follow. But if you feel drawn and/or connected to it, I hope my experiences can help you navigate the carnage of doubt, fear and confusion that can arise on your path.