Raised a Roman Catholic, tangled in a teenage faith crisis, I stumbled into friends who were intimate with Christian mystical traditions. I read John of the Cross, Charles Peguy, both Eliot’s plays and his Four Quartets. And then, Aldous Huxley’s novels and The Perennial Philosophy, which led me to read the Bhagavad Gita and Alan Watts . . . when I arrived at the University of Virginia I was a sort of Hindu-Christian mystic.
No one on the faculty in 1973 deigned to teach Christian mysticism. So I took introductory courses on Hinduism and Buddhism taught by Seshagiri Rao. Rao’s grader was one Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Don gave me a B+ (or an A-?) on a Zen paper, writing that it was good, but deficient in its failure to cite D.T. Suzuki. And I thought, yeah, he is right. Lazy of me. That is what we had in 1973.
As a sophomore, I started taking classes with Jeffrey Hopkins. His undergraduate classes were popular. Several times a semester, sometimes once a week, he would bring a Tibetan scholar to class and interpret for him. These monks spoke no English and were, to many, an attractive novelty. However, as I have written (in Changing Minds), what hooked me—gradually—was Hopkins himself. Without dramatics, but with a quiet intensity, he communicated some sense of what it would mean to take these ideas to heart, to see the world as a Tibetan Buddhist might.
Midway through my undergraduate years, I transitioned from advanced Spanish classes into Sanskrit. We read the Hitopadesha story about a woman who leaves her negligent husband to watch the baby while going to bathe. She returns to a baby covered in blood—but it is the blood of a snake killed by the family’s pet mongoose. Later that semester, we read the same story in my class on early Spanish literature––the sole difference being that the pet was a dog. The story had somehow found its way from India to Spain. Thereafter, I discounted ideas about the otherness of “Eastern” cultures. Such ideas were overwhelmingly dominant in those days.
As a senior I knew that I had found my thing. I got up before dawn to memorize Sanskrit grammar. I got perfect grades for the first time in my life. I had first-year Tibetan (Donald Lopez), second year Sanskrit (Harvey Aronson), and I took all of Hopkins’ undergraduate classes. I still wanted to study Hinduism, but it just too easy to enter Hopkins’ recently formed Buddhist Studies track within the History of Religions doctoral program. It was a natural continuation of what I had been doing.
The first year in graduate school, one of my housemates was Jules Levinson who was finishing his undergraduate work in preparation for entering the program. His classmates included Dan Cozort and Craig Preston. My classmates were Brian Daley and Leah Zahler. More senior in the program were Betsy Napper, Don Lopez, Joe Wilson, Anne Klein, Dan Perdue, John Buescher, and Kathy Rogers. Betsy taught us second year Tibetan. I started to feel that, as much as I liked Sanskrit’s math-like grammar, I actually preferred working with Tibetan.
My mother was politely worried that I was joining a cult. She came to check out a talk (off-campus) by one of the Tibetan lamas. That particular day, he was detailing the sufferings among the various hungry ghosts . . . But there was a potluck at Harvey Aronson’s apartment. She met everyone involved in the program and gave her blessing. Since then, she has always remembered Anne and Harvey and Don and Betsy. She still asks about them.
Over the first several years in this program, I realized that many of the more senior students had a relationship with Geshe Wangyal, who lived in New Jersey. They were Buddhists. I felt that I was not Buddhist; I did not have, or especially want, that same personal connection with a Buddhist teacher. And I still had a sense of connection to Christianity. One time, I told Jeffrey I was going to skip his class to attend a retreat led by Brother David Steindl-Rast. After that, Jeffrey kindly invited me to dinner with Roger Corless. We had dinner at Leah Zahler’s house. I came to understand that Roger thought of himself as both a Christian and a Buddhist––while also regarding the two as logically contradictory.
I wrote my master thesis (published as Compassion: A Tibetan Analysis) on a typewriter, living in an anthro professor’s cellar. I had a good friend, Dwight, who was in the anthropology grad program, and through him I met Victor and Edith Turner. Developing the concept that modern societies lack the truly liminal, but instead have liminoid states in which liminality is performed, the Turners quite seriously staged a [mock] wedding; I served as best man.
While not a Buddhist, I did make a connection with Buddhist practice––in a manner quite separate from the program. A professional bluegrass musician named Bill Evans persuaded me to visit the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. I did two 10-day retreats with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. I heard Sharon Salzberg’s first Dharma talk.
During all of these years, I had a partner. As I was finishing my course work, and sweating my way through comprehensive exams, she became ill––and then died over the course of 13 months from brain cancer.
This disrupted my academic progress. Jeffrey told me that to finish the program I had to go to India and work with Tibetan scholars there. I got a Fulbright, but after the assassination of Indira Gandhi no outside scholars intending to work with minorities were allowed to enter the country. I managed to go on my own, getting and then renewing a tourist visa.
With the help of many others (including Gareth Sparham), I studied with Loling Geshe Palden Drakpa in Delhi and with Gen Losang Gyatso in Dharamshala. In Dharamshala, I easily got an audience with the Dalai Lama—and I spent my time asking philosophical questions about my dissertation topic, the two truths. Besides answering my questions, His Holiness told me that what was really needed was a book that considered the two truths as presented in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including both tantric and non-tantric perspectives. Less ambitiously, I hoped to understand and to make clear to others at least one Tibetan version of Madhyamaka philosophy.
India completely transformed me. My intellectual fascination with the philosophy of emptiness was now rooted in a community where these ideas, and the people who studied them, were deeply respected. I saw what Tibetan Buddhism really means in a Tibetan community. I knew how I was unlike my Tibetan friends, how our cultures divided us. And yet we were deeply connected by Buddhist philosophy. In that particular sense, I was part of a community much bigger Jeffrey’s band of grad students. Gen Losang Gyatso nicknamed me “bden gnyis” (two truths). I was a bit obsessive, as doctoral students need to be.
I spent the next year writing my dissertation (the first portion of which was later published as The Two Truths) and caring for my infant son. My wife Valerie finished her psychology Ph.D. program––and also worked to support us. After Valerie committed do her final training in Indianapolis, I was very fortunate to get my first full-time job at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. In 1988, I defended my dissertation and got a position at Central Michigan University, where I have had my career.
In the early years away from the grad program, I started to consider myself a Buddhist. It was not a sudden event. Out in the rural Midwest, “Buddhist” seemed an improved way to understand who I had become, or was becoming, after India. Never a Tibetan Buddhist, because not Tibetan. But . . . some kind Buddhist.
Around this time, Jeffrey was supposed to teach at an NEH summer seminar at the University of Hawai’i. But the Dalai Lama called him, needing an interpreter. It displeased David Kalupahana, but he got Guy instead of Jeffrey––for three great weeks of intensive Buddhist philosophy. And there, I made a new friend: Jay Garfield. He was studying Tibetan with Janet Gyatso and, influenced by Bob Thurman’s work, was eager to soak up anything he could get out of me.
The Dalai Lama told Joshua and Diana Cutler that, in teaching Buddhism to Westerners, one should start with the two truths instead of the four noble truths. Based on that instruction, Jeffrey and others had come to their center to explain the two truths in each of the four tenet systems. At the Cutlers’ request, I used recordings of those talks as a springboard to write Appearance and Reality.
Around 1990, Don Lopez suggested to Joshua Cutler that the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (where Geshe Wangyal had taught) should organize and find sponsorship for a team-translation of Tsong kha pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. This happened. Along with Betsy Napper, Don Lopez, José Cabezón, Alan Wallace, Karen Lang, Roger Jackson, Dan Cozort, Joe Wilson, Gareth Sparham, Natalie Hauptman, John Newman, and John Makransky, we created a complete translation. Despite our considerable efforts to agree on common terminology, the translation did not at all read as a single work. Over a period of several years, I helped Joshua Cutler and Geshe Yeshe Thapkay edit and publish the translation in three volumes. Even in translation, the more philosophical sections of The Great Treatise are difficult to understand. To help with that, I published Introduction to Emptiness.
The Dalai Lama had taught The Great Treatise in India, but said he would not teach it in the West until there was a complete English translation. Now, Joshua and Diana invited His Holiness to teach the text; he did this over a period of days at Lehigh University in 2008. Because I had familiarity with the underlying material, I was invited to translate and edit the recordings of these talks into a book. This appeared as From Here to Enlightenment.
When Jeffrey retired from U. Va., David Germano generously hosted a two-day conference with most of Jeffrey’s former doctoral student presenting. Our heads together, we conceived the idea of a festschrift. With encouragement from the others, I assembled and edited this volume as Changing Minds.
Jay Garfield included me among a group of philosophers exploring the meaning of conventional truth in Candrakīrti’s Madhyamaka philosophy. Calling ourselves the Cowherds, we worked collaboratively––supported by funding from Tom Tillemans’ endowed chair––and published Moonshadows. It was a real joy working with this group. So when I got some money, Jay and I rounded up the Cowherds (a slightly different line-up) and published Moonpaths, focusing on how (or whether) ethics can work in Candrakīrti’s Madhyamaka.
During this period––the first decade of this century––my wife Valerie was diagnosed with breast cancer. Treatment kept in her remission for many years. Shortly after hosting the second iteration of the Cowherds in 2012, she was found to have metastatic disease. She died in 2013.
Up until that time, my publications were all translations and explanations of traditional Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. I worked with these ideas, but I did not say what I personally thought or practiced. After Valerie’s death, this changed with the publication of a non-academic book, A Buddhist Grief Observed.
Recently, the UMA Institute for Tibetan Studies (http://uma-tibet.org/edu/gomang/gomang_first.php) published most of the second half of my dissertation, with improvements made by Jeffrey Hopkins and Craig Preston.
Now married to a professor of linguistics, Carolina Gutiérrez-Rivas, I practice Spanish otra vez. I have spent much of my career as a department chair or program director, but that is ending. This academic year I will have extensive leave. I intend to translate Madhyamaka texts for the Library of Tibetan Classics (http://www.tibetanclassics.org/en/our-projects/library-of-tibetan-classics-lotc) and catch up on other neglected projects, making the variations of Tibetan Madhyamaka more accessible to scholars––and to everyone else.