Raising Buddhist Studies in the USA
Anne Carolyn Klein
(Lama Rigzin Drolma)
MA Buddhist Studies, UW 1971 ;
PhD., Religious Studies (Tibetan Buddhism) U.Va. 1981.
Looking back, it seems like all the major roads of my life led to and departed from Madison.
In late 1969 I met Harvey Aronson in David Knipe’s Hinduism class. Nearly 50 years later, Harvey and I just returned from our umpteenth study-trip in Asia together.
As Proust and Cittamātrins have noted, everyone sees a different world. And, as Buddhist philosophies from Vaibhāshika and Sauntrānitka to Cittamātra and Prasān.gika make clear, the key to what we see is in the details. Since Chuck has patiently pushed for me to tell the Madison world that I saw, I’ll start with some of the small stuff that made it such a grand and life-enhancing experience. I tell this with enormous gratitude for what this program brought me, and with sadness that Prof Robinson did not live to see the then improbable-seeming and indelible impact his program would make on so many lives and institutions.
In high school I read some early pieces on Zen, possibly some Alan Watts, as Suzuki Roshi had not yet published his classic Beginner’s Mind, and had my most first impactful conversations with my first love about the human condition and what to do in it. He had just read Living Zen by Robert Linssen and was full of new information about something hardly yet written about. I used these gleanings to give a report on Zen—who knows what I said—which garnered the only commendation I ever received from Mrs. Rich, my very wise and appropriately critical high school history teacher. I never encountered a word about Buddhism in my college courses at SUNY Binghamton, where I majored in English.
Flash forward to my college junior semester abroad in Neuchatel. Sitting in the philosophy classroom, as our kindly Swiss professor taught Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, I had a sudden flash of conviction. I must go to India. I’d never had this thought before. I knew nothing of India. But I had never had a summer on my own in Europe before either, with freedom to hitchhike wherever my friends and I chose. I spent a lot of time thinking about where to go next, and especially what to do over the summer. I quickly whispered this revelation to my friend and desk mate in class. Another friend behind us heard and leaned in, “You can’t hitchhike to India. It’s two continents away.” Well, we pored over maps and decided he was right. But the idea took hold of my soul. This was not just one more crazy aspiration. Not that summer. But I was going.
That year, drivers were still taking small groups to India overland in VW vans. It sounded magical. At summer’s end, in London, I stood outside one of the departure areas for those vans. I was sorely tempted. But the thought of my parents’ faces and my senior year brought me home.
Once back, I sought out India-related courses to top off my senior year. The closest I got was a semester of Old Vedic, taught by a brilliant polyglot whose other major specialty was Old Icelandic. I don’t remember what we read, if anything, but I learned Devanagari and a few key terms. I also assiduously perused graduate school catalogues. Obviously, I needed to study about India. That would legitimize the trip to my parents. Where and how could I do this?
The choices were not so many. I looked mainly for comparative lit programs. I found three: UC Berkeley (which required a good background in Sanskrit for admission), UW Seattle, and, UW Madison. But as I paged through the UW catalogue I saw something astonishing—a program in Indian Studies! And…in Buddhist Studies. I instantly concluded that though I liked literature I liked philosophy more. Hedging my bet, I applied to both Lit and Buddhism programs. And got a blessed letter from Frances Wilson offering me a fellowship to study Tamil. What a thrill. But I had never heard of Tamil. And, besides, I wanted to study Tibetan. What did I know about Tibetan? Well my high school boyfriend, with whom I’d had so many interesting teen-age Zen conversations had become a student of Suzuki Roshi’s and therefore, in my eyes, a sage on the topic of Buddhism. When I told him I was applying to UW, he said, “You’ll like Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll like the colors.” So I wrote Miss Wilson that I had my doubts about Tamil, I wanted to study Tibetan. And, miracle of miracles, I got another chance. I got a Ford Fellowship, $300/ per month to come study at UW.
My parents, though highly dubious about my shifting from a sensible field like English, nonetheless gave me their car so I could drive from Albany, NY further West than I’d ever been in my life. I couldn’t have been happier. When I read “MADISON” on the highway sign West of Chicago, I felt I’d crossed into a new world.
Actually, I had no idea what I was in for. It was a far cry from Buddhist Studies students today. I knew nothing, actually, about Buddhism, except that I wanted to study it. And, incredibly to me now in retrospect, I didn’t spend the summer reading up on it. No, I read Ouspensky and Gurdjieff that summer. What was I thinking? It speaks to the paucity of the field at that time that someone like me got not one but two scholarship offers from the program. (I was accepted into Comparative Lit at Seattle and UW as well, programs for which I was arguably somewhat prepared, but they didn’t offer any funding.).
I quickly met the major players, some who continue to influence and support me to this day. The first day I went, too ignorant even to be fearful (that came later) to meet Richard Robinson. He looked down from his vast height as we stood outside the 14th floor office. He said “You need to take Sanskrit. We don’t advise starting two languages the same year.” Robinson had come to Madison from Calgary, Canada. As a young man he had studied Buddhist Chinese there at the Calgary Buddhist Temple. (James Apple, PhD. UW, and now Professor of Buddhist Studies at U. Calgary, showed me around and when I lectured there and we drove by the now refurbished Jodo Shinshu affiliated Temple). All I knew that first day was that Robinson was a brilliant linguist. Bowing to his experience and authority, I set Tibetan aside for that first year and soon found myself drowning in George Hart’s brilliant Sanskrit grammar text, barely trading water in his first year Sanskrit class, in which I seemed to be the only true beginner. He assumed a lot of linguistic knowledge I didn’t have. Lenny Zwilling and Michael Sweet offered to help some of us newbies out. They were very kind. But they were also way ahead of me.
This was a new world, in which I knew no one, nor did I know any of the obviously important words I’d already heard other students bandy about. Unknown but intriguing sounding names like Nāgārjuna. Candrakirti. Dharmakīrti, Dignāga. Abhidharma. Vinaya. Tripitaka. Who were these people—Lenny, Mike, Roger Corless,—and how did they become so fluent with things I’d never heard of?
My other classes that first semester included David Knipe’s course on Hinduism. On the first day it was standing room only. I stood in the back, barely inside the door. Professor Knipe asked how many of us were there for Indian Studies. Most of the class raised their hands. How many in Buddhist Studies? I raised my hand and said my name. Two heads from the front row turned around to look, one head full of curly brown hair held in check with a headband, the other shining blond and bearded. Before long I knew them as Harvey Aronson and Jeffrey Hopkins. Later that week I met Betsy Napper, who was also in that class, a recent undergraduate transfer from Oberlin. I was starting to find my karass as my 60’s icon Kurt Vonnegut would say. But it was slow going for a while to come.
I was almost as lost in Hinduism class as I was in Sanskrit. Jeffrey walked by me in the hall one day and suggested, in an impressively knowing way, that I read Arthur Avalon (John Woodrooffe). I devoured The Serpent Power and other works. Though hardly at ease, I loved this new world. And began to see Jeffrey as someone who could help me through it.
David Knipe’s class was largely a case of students giving reports. Harvey gave a report on tantric erotic practices. Betsy stole the show by asking what benefits, if any, this had for women. No one had a good answer. For my part, steeped in Avalon, my paper was on Mantra and the power of sound. I noticed Harvey was very attentive during my paper. We hadn’t yet had an actual conversation. Earlier in the semester he’d asked me how I’d done on a recent Sanskrit text. This was the first thing he ever said to me. I considered his question rude and therefore undeserving of response. I steamed back to my apartment on Francis street and laid out for my new roommate how this uppity third-year grad student, who’d never so much as said “how are you” or “how do you like Madison” was inquiring into the creds of the new class by nosily asking about my Sanskrit grade. She responded with satisfyingly righteous indignation. Of course, I had gotten something like a 45 on this first test and was not eager to share the information. For his part, Harvey later said he’d never experienced anyone who refused to talk with him. So that was that for a good part of the semester.
But some months after the Sanskrit conversation Harvey asked if I’d like to see a Chinese slash-‘em-up. Another term I’d never heard. He bought two 75 cent tickets to the campus screening. Afterward we went to Ella’s, the beloved deli on State Street. Harvey had a bagel and coffee. I had a toasted cheese sandwich. We discovered we both wanted to go to India, so most of our conversation was about the where and when and why for such a trip. When the check came he looked at it briskly, then looked up and said, “Your share is $1.50.” Well, imagine that! On a first date he’s asking me for $1.50! So I put it on the table. Thinking about this later, I concluded that he was probably an intrinsically generous person. If he were not, he’d likely cover it up by grandly paying my sandwich. As nearly 50 years have proven, I was absolutely right on that one. When I returned home from Ella’s I had the surprising, not entirely welcome, yet unmistakable realization that I would marry him. Having just been set loose on the world, I really wasn’t looking for that. Luckily he was patient.
In the meantime though, Harvey offered to tutor me in Sanskrit. He also read my first papers. And we discovered we got along well, until we began to argue—each of us on different sides of the issue depending on the day—about whether or not we wanted to share our precious trip to India.
Another class I took was with Min Kiyota. As I recall he explained Mind Only/Chittamatra with the visual aid of some circles he drew on the blackboard. Again, I was mystified, but it was all so interesting. Gradually, I realized Jeffrey was the go-to person on these mysteries. This ultimately transformed my experienced at UW. With his help I’d begin to study Chittamatra through Tibetan sources, and later compare it with classic Madhyamaka as presented in Geluk texts.
My second semester was very different. With George Hart’s departure to Berkeley, Francis Wilson took over the first year Sanskrit class. She provided enormous support for flailing Sanskritists like myself and I began to make some progress. I also took a course in Buddhist Anthropology with Bob Miller, who later kindly hosted Harvey and me at the US Embassy pool in Delhi, saving us the trouble and potential embarrassment of continuing to sneak in over the back fence.
Both classes were severely disrupted by the nearly complete shutdown of the University due to the Vietnam protests which ultimately brought the US National Guard to campus, standing guard in full regalia complete with rifles, blocking entry to most of the buildings. Francis Wilson held Sanskrit off campus, at someone’s house. Harvey and I, along with my roommate Suzie Karant who was studying Chinese Buddhism with Wayne Schlepp (with whom I just reconnected in March 2019), and I think Betsy Napper, with whom I still close, were all alarmed about the war. We talked about this also with Suzanne Cahill, who spent a year in our Department before going on to get her PH.D.in Chinese Literature at Santa Barbara. (She taught at UC San Diego for decades, publishing books and article related with T’ang Dynasty China. We connect occasionally and always enthusiastically at AAR)
We and thousands of other UW students spent many evenings covering our faces with egg white, reputed to protect against tear gas, and dodging police on State Street, which shortly after had to be completely boarded up due to the broken glass on store fronts all along it. We were becoming moderately radical. We were also realizing that in studying Buddhism, especially those of us supported by government money, we were potentially bridges to a better understanding and valuing of Asian culture. We didn’t want to see it belittled or bombed. We wanted to understand it. We were indignant and felt protest was a moral necessity. This fervor continued throughout my time in Madison, heightened by Kent State the next year.
But the moral question took another turn. After my first year. I was headed east in a car with, among others (the late) Rick Kohn, then an undergraduate in the program and subsequent director of the film, Destroyer of Illusion (narrated by Richard Gere) and author of the Lord of the Dance, published posthumously under the oversight of Matthew Kapstein, also studying on the edges of the program then as an undergraduate. Just a few hours out of Madison we heard that four protesters, students like us, had bombed Sterling Hall to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center housed there. They were protesting the University’s military research in connection with the Vietnam war. They struck in the wee morning hours, probably thinking it was empty. But it wasn’t. A 32 year old post-doc, Robert Fassnacht, married and father of three, was killed, three others injured. We all felt the chill.
After the summer, back to classes. Harvey got an AIIS grant to study in India, but it was taking a long time to get his visa. Richard Robinson, sympathizing with Harvey’s wish to have a friend with him in India, wrote his colleague Prof. R.C. Pandey who taught Indian Buddhism at the University of Delhi, asking him to help me affiliate with the University. This was life-changing for me and I will always be grateful. Their joint intervention meant that, eventually I got a precious one-year study visa.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Jeffrey set up Tibet House in Cambridge, WI. This was at least partly because the former Abott of the prestigious Tantric College of Lower Lhasa, Kensur Ngawang Lekden, had accepted their invitation to come and teach in the Buddhist Studies program the following year. He was 70 years old at the time and his seat as Abbot placed him at the very top of the traditional Geluk hierarchy in Tibet, just a few rungs below the Dalai Lama himself. He had spent the first 60 years of his life in traditional Tibet, escaping just before His Holiness. On that pioneering trip, he told us, he helped to map out the departure route for His Holiness. He had been living in France until Geshe Wangyal, at whose Freewood Acres, New Jersey Monastery Jeffrey had lived and studied for seven years before coming to Wisconsin, invited him to this country. From there, he came to Madison. He would teach a seminar on Madhyamaka in Fall, 1970. I couldn’t wait.
Jeffrey taught a beginning course in Tibetan that summer, in preparation for the seminar. We met on the lawn of Tibet house, where Rinpoche and several grad students would be living. We learned the alphabet, pronunciation, writing, and basic grammar. With the help of Jeffrey’s hand-written purple mimeographed sheets, we started to read the Prasangika chapter of Gonjo Jigme Wangpo’s Precious Treasury of Tenets (Grub mtha’ rin chen ‘phreng ba) . It was the best possible start for me. Jeffrey predicted that this famously condensed presentation would give us a map, a “place to put” whatever philosophical systems we studied down the road. For me, it was nothing short of thrilling. I had no idea such a thing existed in Tibet, in Buddhism or anywhere.
Especially captivating was the rich vocabulary for different states of experience was another new world. Everything was described so precisely: state of calm, the state of insight, the various stages of meditative attention, the difference between direct perception, and getting at something by thinking about it. The stunningly broad arc of knowing, from studying, reflecting, to variously nuanced states of contemplation. At the tail end of 60’s, the operative broad-range epistemological description was, “Wow.” This more nuanced and articulate vocabulary opened a new inner world of richness, precision, much to think about cognitively, much to reckon with somatically, and through simply wondering.
I visited my parents in Albany in late summer and then returned to Madison. The plane made a stop in Chicago. Sitting on the hot tarmac, looking out the window, I had a sudden overwhelming image of being engulfed in flames. The flames were unexpectedly vivid, bright and licking. Not soothing. Was this a sign the plane would crash?
The plane didn’t crash. But after I arrived I learned of Richard Robinson’s terrible and ultimately fatal accident. His water heater had exploded and he was badly burned. He lived long enough almost to recover, only to succumb to choking on his first solid food a few weeks into the Fall term. It was a heavy loss. Among other memorials, a service was held on the bright green lawn of the newly inhabited Tibet House. His friends, family, students all stood in line to offer some incense, as I recall, into a fire. Hannah Robinson led the line, Kathryn Cissel closed it. I don’t think his children, Sita and Neil, were there. But we knew them and felt deeply for them also.
I had just moved into Tibet House then. When I had first pulled up, with my two parakeets, Jeffrey took gave us all a baleful look and said, “I guess it’s a package deal.” It was and we headed upstairs. I had a fabulously large corner room with at three large windows looking out onto prime Wisconsin farmland. Across the hall, in a much smaller room that she kept immaculately organized, was Natalie Maxwell, a new grad student with whom I am still very close, and Rick Munn, then an undergraduate and studying Buddhism. A good ways further down the hall was Jeffrey’s room, and at the very back of the floor, Kathy Cissel (now Kathryn Tsai, author of Biographies of Chinese Buddhist Nuns from the Fourth to Sixth Centuries), lived quietly in a small room and, understandably, kept much to herself that year, though always friendly and of cheerful expression when we gathered for meals, dishwashing, and the like.
Most significantly, Kensur Ngawang Lekden lived downstairs. Jeffrey read with him daily, tackling the encyclopedic dbU ma Chen mo and other texts. Kensur did not speak English and except for Jeffrey we did not speak Tibetan, so we developed various convivial short phrases and sign language. The first Tibetan sentence I ever spoke out loud was the honorific form of “dinner’s ready:” “Please honorably join us to eat your honorific food.”
Kensur was the first Tibetan I ever met in this life. He wore his prestige very lightly. In Tibet, anyone seeing him at a distance would immediately throw themselves on the ground in prostration. But in Cambridge, WI he laughed with us, slapping me on the back as I washed dishes; he ate with us, pointing out that flat plates were ideal for serving ice-cream because then you could lick them easily and not miss any of it. I would come downstairs to find him patiently bending down to pick up lint from our faded green carpet. To my surprise, self-conscious as I was about most everything, I found myself very, very comfortable hanging out with him.
In addition to the seminar on Buddhist tenets, which opened with the reflections on the debate between Samkhya and Buddhists about the logic of a creator deity, as well as the nature of pramana, translated by Jeffrey with the conversation much enlivened by Lenny and Mike, Kensur taught meditation on Saturdays out at the farm. About 20 people came, graduate students, including Suzanne Cahill, Ricky Kahn and his friend Barbara, and an assortment of others. Kensur taught what became a minor classic, Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, easy-to-digest and rich with background laying out Candrakirti and Tsongkhpa’s seven-fold method for cultivating Bodhicitta, and linking this with basic tenets of Buddhist wisdom on emptiness and dependent arising.
What this meant for me was that the beginning of my education as a Buddhist scholar was simultaneous with my introduction to Tibetan styles of meditation. In retrospect, this was hugely significant. Notwithstanding and indeed at that time quite naïve about the long-standing separation, in the western academy, between scholarship and practice, I cut my teeth on both simultaneously and was impressed by the natural dynamic between them. This easy consanguinity was modeled from the first by Kensur himself, one of the most admired scholars and orators of his generation in Tibet, his life always nourished by practice. His expertise was in both. None of this was something I could articulate at the time. But I have grown to appreciate more and more the way that Tibetan culture and education combines the contemplative and the academic. During an audience with HH Dalai Lama early in my first trip to India, he said, “If someone is just a scholar and gets a few things wrong, not so important. But if you are going to meditate, you must be very, very precise in your knowledge.” Intellectual knowing matters. And it is not enough.
The other big thing for me in that house was writing my M.A. thesis, combing through Cittamātra and Madhyamaka tenets to see how they combined or diverged. Jeffrey became my regular tutor, generously showing me the crucial passages in Tibetan, answering umpteen questions on various points, and basically making the thesis an opportunity for an enormous push in learning for me. Eventually I handed it in, Geshe Sopa approved it, and Dave Dillon brought over cake and ice cream to celebrate. I was done! Now all I needed was a ticket to India. Because the other big missing ingredient, a plan for what I’d do there, had been solved.
India At Last
Once I started studying Tibetan philosophical texts, especially the bits on mind’s ways of knowing, and especially topics like emptiness and dependent arising, I wanted to arrange the rest of my life to be able to continue in that vein. I understood that the first day of Jeffrey’s class on the sunlit lawn of Tibet house. So by the time I was writing my thesis I knew I would seek out Tibetan areas in India, where I could continue to study. I asked Kensur for his advice many times. What should I study? Always he demurred. Though he did say that, since I had become a vegetarian, I would be very happy in India. Finally, just days before my departure, he suggested I study Candrakirti’s Madhyamakāvatāra, his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s famous Root Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamaka-kārikas). I was energized! I had a plan! And an actual reason to go to India.
I worked at UW’s Alderman Library for several months, through the beginning of summer, and collecting the vaccinations. After my first tetanus shot, during lunch hour, I was discovered lying on the floor of the elevator that opened to my Library office area. My colleagues helped me up and all was well. My parents generously let me sell the car they’d given to buy my ticket. Professor Narain bought it for his son.
By mid-June I. I was finally on my way to India, heading east to New Jersey en route to meet Jeffrey’s teacher Geshe Wangyal before flying out of Kennedy to Paris, Copenhagen and, at long last, Mumbai. Harvey generously offered to help with on the ground basics since the AIIS stipend was huge compared to what it cost to live in India. A room at Sarnath’s Ladkahi Bodh Vihar was $5.00 a month. No bathroom or running water—but these were minor details. I was ive in India. Leaving Madison, meeting Geshe Wangyal for the first time, and getting on that plane to Bombay, a whirlwind week that was a passage, once again, to something completely different.
In Sarnath I gradually learned of Doboom Tulku, living in the Chinese temple there, who agreed to tutor me in Candrakirti’s text. He wanted to learn English; we worked together several hours every day, while his own teacher, whom he called Guru Ji, watched from another part of the room. During this time I received word that Kensur Rinpcohe had passed on. He’d had congestive heart failure. Later Jeffrey reported that as his time grew closer he would report that he was comfortable, very, very comfortable. Guru-Ji on hearing of Kensur’s passings, in one of the first Tibetan sentences I understood on my own, slowly declared “A sun has set.” I am still in touch with Doboom Tulku, who recently organized an international conference in India on the subject of compassion.
His teacher, Guru Ji, who did not speak English, would be my main mentor in 1980 when, as a Fulbright Fellow, I returned to India for my own dissertation research. But I get ahead of myself.
After Sarnath, Harvey and I settled in Dharamsala. He then focusing on Theravada practice as taught by Goenka, I was attending the first year of classes offered by the newly founded Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Among others, Alan Wallace, Alex Berzin, Jon Landeau, and Ruth Sonam attended as well. His Holiness suggested that I study with Geshe Rabten and Lati Rinpoche, and so each day after morning class at the Library I walked up the mountain to visit and hear teachings from one or both of these great masters. On the way down I’d often stop at the Kashmir Guest Cottage, where Jeffrey was staying, and he’d help explain things that I’d been puzzling over from the classes of the day. It was one of the very happiest times in my life.
As before, the scholastic reading of texts was accompanied by meditation teachings, which I attended to as I could each morning and evening, a lifelong habit.
The connection between study and practice, the intellect and lived experience, has been a central theme in all my writing and books, starting with my dissertation: Knowledge and Liberation:Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology in Support of Transformative Religious Experience.
This inquiry has expanded into reflections on how the body, emotions, aesthetics, the imagination, and lived experience as such all participate in the paths described in Buddhist texts and endeavored in Buddhist tradition. I feel I was very fortunate in my education as it began in and developed from the glowing Madison years.
I left India at the end of 1972. To my great sorrow my application for visa renewal was rejected. Despite the support of the Library in November, 1972, I got a “quit India” notice. Harvey received one as well. I was devastated and ready to hide out in Nepal. Harvey with us usual calm way of appraising things, said that if I went alone to Nepal, I would probably die. This seemed unduly dramatic, but his basic point was, I had to admit, sensible. It was time to go home.
We landed in England a week before Christmas. There were no flights to the US available. The family of Robbie Barnett, whom Harvey had met at a Goenka course, graciously took us in and, to our increasing embarrassment, kept us there for the nearly three weeks it took to secure a ticket to the US.. Harvey returned first, I at least wanted to do one retreat before hitting home and found a lovely place in Wales where I sat with Geshe Ngawang Dhargye’s instructions for about six weeks.
The return was disorienting. Reverse culture shock set in. Guys were wearing chunky high heels and flared pants; girls in unimaginably short skirts. I couldn’t read the dress cues anymore, didn’t go to movies for a year, stayed covered from ankles to neck, just like in India. No one cared about our stories of India, except for the few friends who’d been there themselves.
So in early 1973 we returned to Madison, where people did understand. I got a job typing Jeffrey’s thesis—Meditation on Emptiness, long enough to keep me gainfully employed for six months. Then Jeffrey got the job at U.Va. I thought about continuing for my Ph.D at Madison, but Steve Beyer, now replacing Robinson, said I should concentrate on Chinese, because since I “knew” Tibetan already, it wouldn’t count, just like Chinese wouldn’t count for a native Chinese speaker. But, not being the whiz kid he was, I didn’t know Tibetan after 18months in India. I needed to study. Jeffrey already was thinking of starting a Ph.D program at U.Va.,
so Harvey and I went there too. I worked part time as an admissions clerk at U.Va. hospital, studying and enjoying the company of Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, who Jeffrey invited our first year at U.Va. I suggested we share a house together, like the Wisconsin Tibet House, so we could make the most of Rinpoche’s presence in Charlottesville.
That was my introduction to Nyingma, the most ancient of Buddhist traditions in Tibet. Once Jeffrey started the official program in 1976, our curriculum was very largely Geluk, digging into the then untranslated and really unknown textbooks of classic monastic studies—debate, categories of mind, tenet systems, stages of the path. We couldn’t believe our luck. No one else in North America, at least not in Universities, was getting this kind of education. The best Geshes of their generation were handpicked by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come and teach us. In some ways the program was unsophisticated methodologically, and the field has recouped that element with great strides since. But in the 1970’s it was exactly what was needed to begin a deeper appreciation of the literary and oral scholarship held in Tibet.
Just as Kensur did in Madison, all the Tibetan scholars who visited at U.Va. gave weekly meditation talks, this time in town, and open to all. Most of us in the program went, as I recall, and in this way got a basic education on how discursive textual probing of topics like impermanence, compassion, selflessness and death could translate into distilled sets of reflections, that, over time, would start to become integrated into our basic take on the possibilities in our own lives.
Again, the syncopation of practice and study deepened. Betsy Napper and Joe Wilson, whom we knew from Madison and Geshe Wangyal’s, came down from New Jersey and joined the program. Other students who joined included Don Lopez, Dan Cozort, Guy Newland, Jules Levinson, and Kathy Rogers, all of whom made and/or continue to make important contributions through their writing, collaborations with Tibetans, or University teaching, all grandchildren of the Wisconsin program. Joe wrote a widely used grammar of classical Tibetan. Betsy and Jules both taught at Stanford after I left, then she took off to India to become a mainstay for the development of the now-thriving nunnery of Dolma Ling, which likely boasts the most scenic debating courtyard outside Tibet. In this she followed the footsteps of the renowned Frieda Bedy, whom she met in Dharamsala in her UW 1980 junior year abroad trip to India. It didn’t seem quite accidental that she, the only of us to build a Buddhist institution in India, was also the only one of us to meet Mrs. Bedy, who did likewise. Betsy published Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, a study of blo rig based on the renowned Lati Rinpoche’s teachings on this in U.Va., and her dissertation was published as Emptiness and Dependent Arising, a breathtakingly detailed study of commentaries onTsongkhapa and summary of Madhyamaka scholarship in the West to that point. Jules taught for a few years and then opted to devote his life to ongoing study and translation, and spearheaded the first conference on translation in Boulder, and his many excellent published translations includes the marvelous Essential Practice, lectures on Kamalashila’s Stages of Meditation by Trangu Rinpoche.
Harvey and I spent 1980 in India again, this time I was doing dissertation research, and we split our time between the newly established Drepung Monastery in South India and Boudha, Nepal, where we stayed and studied with Khetsun Sangpo. By then we had finished the foundational practices he’d taught at U.Va with his semester long class on the then-untranslated Words of My Perfect Teacher, giving rich commentary, orally translated by Jeffrey, and eventually edited by me. This commentary became the now classic Tantric Practice in Nyingma. In 1974 it was amazing to find 100 students signing up for the class. Before he left, he inspired us mightily by sharing with us a taste of his own experiences in a specific retreat, and said, casually, that if we wanted to study with him further we needed to complete these foundational practices and learn Tibetan. He wasn’t going to share the special lineages he held through a translator.
As soon as I finished my dissertation I jumped into a car with Betsy and we drove to Madison for the Dalai Lama’s first Kālacakra teaching and initiation in the West. At the most two hundred people attended. This was the inspiration of Geshe Hlundup Sopa, trained at Sera Monastery in Tibet and later India, and invited to the US by Geshe Wangyal. Jeffrey had taught him English in New Jersey and in the years before I arrived in Madison Richard Robinson’s expansive vision facilitated another thing never done before, he hired a traditionally trained Geshe in a tenure track position. Geshse Sopa taught Tibetan language and offered seminars on various topics, he was on my M.A. committee though somehow, with Kensur dominating my years there, I did not actually take a course with him. Nonetheless, his presence meant a great deal to me and everyone there. After my time in Madison he founded the now very established Deer Park center, where people attend classes from all over the world and which, toward the end of Geshe-Sopa’s life and in his presence, hosted another major teaching by the Dalai Lama, attended by nearly ten thousand westerners and Tibetans, a major ritual event with formal presentations to the Dalai Lama. Deer Park and its far-reaching programs are yet another part of the legacy of both Geshe Wangyal and Richard Robinson, and also Jeffrey, who played a crucial role in Robinson’s growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
After Charlottesville, I had the fantastic opportunity of a post-doc in the Women’s Studies program at Harvard Divinity School. I was new to feminist thought, and amazed to discover that much of the conversation around selfhood and agency in those years paralleled the different strategies of Buddhist practice and theory. Was gender an essence to be discovered, or culturally constructed? Was enlightenment something to be discovered, or gradually developed? Through the powerful support of my post-doc cohort, and the stunning leadership of Program Director Constance Buchanan, I began to write Meeting the Great Bliss Queen, wherein I juxtaposed how Nyingma and Geluk differently configured the relationship of cognitive to experiential learning, the dance of discovery and development, and their collective relevance for the art of the self.
In this book and others I incorporated as much as I could of Tibet’s rich oral traditions of Tibet. I collected oral material by asking many rounds of questions to as many qualified emic scholars as possible on whatever texts I was reading or translating. I featured oral commentary in most of my books, especially Oral Madhyamaka in Tibet: Path to the Middle: The Spoken Scholarship of Kensur Yeshey Tupden and, more recently, my translation of Khetsun Sangp’s extensive oral commentary on his own and only Dzogchen text, published as Strand of Jewels.
After Harvard, I had a wonderful non-tenure track stint at Stanford for five years. Khetsun Rinpoche came at least twice while we lived there, and, just as Kensur had in Madison and others had in Charlottesville, he taught both at the University and offered retreats for the community at large. In 1989, we moved to Houston so that I could start my position at Rice. For the first time we lived in a place where we didn’t have easy access to a Tibetan community. This was a big lacuna. So gradually we started what is now Dawn Mountain Center for Tibetan Buddhism (www.dawnmountain.org and on FB) a temple, community center, and research institute. Khetsun Sangpo was our first visitor, and he taught at Rice as well as Dawn Mountain.
One of the features of Dawn Mountain is that, in addition to introducing folks to Buddhist thought and practice in a manner sensitive to our contemporary culture and modern psychodynamics (Harvey’s Buddhist Practice on Western Ground explores the importance of this). In addition, we have translated a variety Tibetan practice texts or sadhana. We teach and practice these, interweaving (but not eliding) our own contemporary understanding with traditional oral commentary.
Since melody and song are an intrinsic part of the practice milieu in Tibet, I have translated nearly a dozen of these into chantable English, giving each line the same number of syllables as the original Tibetan. This means that the melody—considered part of the transmission of thep practice—can be reproduced in our own mother tongue. Some have been translated into chantable German and Spanish. This allows non-Tibetan speakers, like native Tibetans for centuries, to recite something that is cognitively or poetically compelling even as it massages the right brain’s uniquely open ease. Singing, one of my Tibetan teachers has said, makes the grace-energy enter more easily. This seems to be true. The point is, people love singing because we feel different when we sing. Something comes through to us that is not just the words, just intimately riding with the words. Transmission.
Transmission is important Tibetan contexts, and translation is an opportunity to disrupt or extend it. Or a little bit of both. I am grateful to Sidney Piburn at Snow Lion for welcoming my expensive vision for a book that explored this process, Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: A Story of Transmission. It has pictures, chantable and regular verse translations, a CD of Tibetan and English song, and explores the transmission of land, text and lamas. My impulse to write this and to develop a Chantable English vocabulary (you need lots of pithy, short words) continues my original interest in the fullness of experience that contemplative tradition invites. Such experience is not just cognitive, not just somatic, it is artful, social, and creative. I got to talk about this recently with Geshe Tupden Jinpa as part of Master Class in Tibetan translation put together by Wisdom Publications anchored by the extraordinary Jinpa, editor and chief translator of the Tibetan Classics series published by Wisdom.
The ritual orientation of which chanting is an important part also interests me very much. Like many Westerners, I long avoided it, despite its centrality to Tibetan Buddhism. However in the last 20 years or so, as I began to get instructions for more extensive retreats, I developed a familiarity and real appreciation for it. My article “Revisiting Ritual” reflects a modern westerner’s dialogue—or impasse--with ritual. It appeared in Fall 2016 Tricycle་ and was named one of the seventeen best articles in the magazine that year. (This and other writings mentioned here are available for free at https://rice.academia.edu/AnneCarolynKlein)
How Things Have Changed
I’ve been able to continue my connection with outstanding Tibetan teachers, and my more recent books and current projects are located more completely in the Nyingma and Dzogchen traditions. Here I am supported by David Germano, Ph.D 1992, UW. who Jeffrey hired as a freshly minted Ph.D at the University of Virginia. In 2018 David organized the Dzokchen Initiative in which about 30 international scholars focused on Dzokchen can share knowledge across this vast field of literature. While at U.Va David developed an outstanding on-line Tibetan dictionary, used widely across the field, as well as fostering the creation of a whole world of sophisticated digital resources and tools for probing Tibetan texts.
Today there are more than a handful of Buddhist Studies programs in North America, virtually all of them at least partial offshoots of the Wisconsin Program: Berkeley (Lewis Lancaster,UW 1968) U.Va (Jeffrey Hopkins, UW, 1973); Santa Barbara Jose Cabezon (UW. 1987). U. Michigan (Don Lopez, U.Va. 1982), Harvard (Janet Gyatso, Berkeley, 1981) , Toronto (Frances Garrett, U.Va. 2004), Seattle (Collette Cox, Columbia—whose noted Alex Wayman also taught at UW). Stanford (Carl Bielefeldt, Berkeley 1980) with Toronto and Stanford both awarded Ho Foundation Buddhist Centre support. And of course Madison itself, the river’s source, still flows on.
Buddhist Studies today embraces far more than the philosophical texts that so delighted us at U.Va, studies range widely, delving into Tibetan culture, biography, medicine, poetry, literary traditions, and more. Contemplative Studies, independent of and connected with the MindLife programs have placed Buddhism at the center of many contemporary discussions of health and happiness. The Buddhist Studies offerings at the AAR have exponentially increased since Chuck Prebish co-founded the first Buddhist Studies section there. I was a co-founder of the Himalayan Studies and Contemplative Studies programs, all of which continue, along with units Buddhist-Christian dialogue (in which the late Roger Corless, UW.Ph.D. 1973 played a key role for many years). Tantric Studies, and other groups that occasionally pair with these.
Most exciting of all, the things that inspired me most from the very beginning, the opportunity to reflect and cultivate in a way that honored intellect as well intuition, the body’s knowing as well as the mind’s, all those things that were impossible to talk to anyone about when I first became acquainted with them, are now part of cultural discourse.
It’s hard to remember now just how foreign Buddhism, perhaps especially Tibetan Buddhism, was to the US public when we started out. No one around us in Cambridge, MA had heard of the Dalai Lama, much less of Tibetan scholarship, ritual, art or meditation. Hardly anything had been translated. Meditation was weird, not really discussable outside small groups. Now, nearly everyone is at least aware that these things exist. As I write, Facebook shows a picture of Lady Gaga seated on stage with the Dalai Lama, describing the Mental Health First Aid Training Programs for High Schoolers she is putting into place. Examples could go on and on.
Madison really was a rich portal me. It led to years in Asia, studying with old world Tibetan Lamas there and also the US, and for ongoing contact down to the present with new generations of Lamas trained in exile or in Tibet, to my own very rewarding career, starting with stints at Harvard and Stanford, and now nearly 30 years at Rice. It led also to Harvey and my establishing a Center where the insights we have gleaned through our different explorations over these decades could reach the public in Houston and beyond. All of this stems from Richard Robinson’s groundbreaking idea to offer a graduate program in Buddhist Studies and to do it in Madison Wisconsin, before anyone else in the US. .