Really? Do I Need to Learn Tibetan?


No. I suppose you do not need to learn Tibetan. But seriously, it will help you a lot. It is not that you have to become fluent, but it does help if you can read and pronounce Tibetan. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Your Refuge Vow: Eventually, if you are serious about taking the Tibetan Buddhist Path, a lama will give you your refuge vow. Truly, this is the most serious commitment you will ever make. Of course, a lot depends on the lama, but in my experience, serious ceremonies like taking vows and what they call “empowerments” are given primarily in Tibetan. It is a lot of “repeat after me”. The lama will say a long string of nearly unintelligible sounds, and then you have to repeat them. And if you are not familiar with the liturgy, or the texts your lama is using, then you will have no real idea what you are saying. Of course, your lama knows that, and he/she will carry you spiritually in this regard. But honestly, these ceremonies are fairly lengthy (like 30 minutes or more). At the end of your refuge vow, your lama will give you your Dharma name. And I can almost guarantee that will be written in Tibetan for you. Of course, he/she will also write it in English, but things do not always translate so well without losing that “Je ne sais quois”.

It can get to be stressful wondering how much longer you have to kneel and butcher the vows in the beautiful language that is Tibetan. My advice: at least practice repeating the Tibetan sentences you hear. Often, they are in strings of 5, 7 or 9 syllables, at least that is what I have noticed. It is one thing if you are part of a large ceremony with 100 people. But if you find yourself alone, or in a small group, it really shows how poor your Tibetan is. Maybe it is just me, but I found this part of my path embarrassing. And had I understood what was going to happen, I would have prepared a lot better out of respect if nothing else.

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2. Puja

Puja is a term used for daily prayers. The actual prayers used vary from center to center, and from lama to lama. And of course they vary based on the lineage of Tibetan Buddhism you are following.  Puja happens at least twice a day; morning and evening. Puja may be practiced in a small group at someone’s home, in an elaborate shrine, or simply alone at home in your den. The thing is, it is mostly done in Tibetan. Of course, you can do it in English, and some lamas do a lot more in English than others. But honestly, I do not think that doing everything in English is ever going to happen. So much would be lost of the tradition of Tibet. (Anyway, that is a debate that is not really relevant to you here). So, you gotta be able to “speak” Tibetan by reading along with the prayers.

3. Mantra

You will find that Tibetan Buddhism has dozens of mantras that are used at specific times, for specific reasons. Most of these  are NOT in Tibetan, but in Sanskrit transliterated into Tibetan. So it can get pretty confusing if you do not realize that the mantra being repeated, that you are reading in the Tibetan alphabet, is really Sanskrit. It is just good to know that.

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