Monday, May 25, 2009

Words of My Perfect Teacher

Two months ago, my Tibetan teacher had a heart attack. I moved into his apartment just a few days later, to help during the recovery. Now it looks like I'll stay until he tells me to go.

His students call him Genla, a term of respect. About a week after his return home, Genla and I started taking walks in the park. I sometimes self-consciously "follow in his footsteps," a reminder to myself to study well.

We don't talk very much. Usually we walk a while in silence, then he says, in Tibetan:

"Bla ma dang. Mgon po."

These are the first words of a very well known prayer that I am memorizing. That's my cue to recite as much as I can. He fills in quickly when I falter. When I can't get any further, he gives me two or three words at a time. Every time I think I'm finished, he gives me more to memorize.

Genla told a story in class once about a young translator who asked so many questions, his teacher would run away from him in exhaustion. "You have to study like that," he said. Since then, I have tried to be such a student. When there is a little time I ask Genla questions. He is usually very patient. If I ask a question that is actually not so smart, he just says:

"Bla ma dang. Mgon po . . ."

Very early on in our walks, I started picking up trash. I was probably imitating him. But it's not out of character for me. My ex-girlfriend used to tell me to stop. But I wasn't OCD about it.

I picked up something. It might have been a cup. Genla said, "Where did you learn to do that?"

"I don't know," I said. "Probably from my mother." I remember mom picking up a piece of litter now and then. Once, when I was in grade school, someone in the car in front of us threw a couple of Coke cans out the window. I remember because mom got very angry. She turned the car around and circled back for the cans.

"That's good," Genla said. "If you do that in India, the novices will learn to do as well." Genla and I are planning on going to India this winter. He is planning a couple of monastery visits.

At first our walks were just a couple of blocks. Eight weeks later, they're two miles or more in length. Our route is a giant circle, circumscribing the park. We weave our way down to the water. Then we turn back along the bike path. It can be narrow there, between the riverbank and the roadway.

Genla came home with a book the other day. "The Legend of the Great Stupa," a Tibetan Buddhist classic of the Nyingma school, translated by Keith Dowman. A stupa is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics. The book tells the story of a very famous stupa.

"You can read this, if you want." I consider comments like this from Genla as directives. I've been reading the book before bed.

If you're familiar with Buddhism, you might have heard of ritual circumambulation. That means walking circles around a sacred object, like a temple or stupa. It came to mind during our walk today. We were circling the park again, and I remembered a passage from the "The Legend of the Great Stupa" that said:

"The benefits and favours received by any living creature who with a pure heart prostrates himself before the Great Stupa, circumambulates it and adores it are inconceivable and incalculable beyond the expression of the Buddhas of the past, present and future . . ."

Now in Tibetan Buddhism, there is the idea that you can make an ordinary thing more holy by treating it as a holy object. I thought I might make a very clever comparison. I said: "Genla, what's the difference between prostrating and circumambulating the Great Stupa, and walking around the park picking up trash?"

"Second one is better," he said. We took a few steps in silence. "Bla ma dang. Mgon po . . . "

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Two months ago today, my Tibetan teacher had a heart attack. A few days later, I moved out of