W. C. Cutler gave the following talk on Founder’s Day
February 5, 2007.
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. Bakshi always made a point about how he had established a non-profit, tax-exempt religious organization, whereas the original Kalmyk temple was a gathering place in a renovated garage. His point was that he followed the customs of the culture. As Shantideva states in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, this is what a bodhisattva should do, conform to the culture. So we can say that Tibetan Buddhism has been interacting with American culture for nearly 50 years.
Bakshi never tried to be counterculture, though many asked him to be so. Timothy Leary wanted his endorsement. Bakshi was his friend, but warned him of the law. When Leary ended up in jail, Bakshi said, “You see? This is what I told him would happen!” A native-American befriended Bakshi in his early days and urged Bakshi to come with him to the reservation in order to get away from the white people. Bakshi told this with an incredulous look. For him everyone was equally human.
Bakshi also avoided the excesses of our culture; for instance, our adoration of fame, success and wealth. You’ve heard this story but it always bears repeated telling. Soon after he first arrived, Bakshi was staying with the Moschkins in Freewood Acres. One day a large black limousine pulled up to the house and out stepped two well-dressed men in dark suits. They asked him if he could predict where the stock market would be in the near future, dollar signs in their eyes. Bakshi would then tell us how he said no, but he would feign disappointment and say that he should have said yes and he would have been rich by now.
When I was in college and first heard from Bob Thurman that Bakshi was in New Jersey, my friends at Harvard said, “O yes. I heard that there is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in New Jersey.” So word does get out.
Bakshi was so pleased when Marion Matics referred to him as a genius in his introduction to his translation of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. His true genius was his profound honesty, his ability to distinguish between right and wrong and to then act accordingly. This kind of keen intelligence was the light in Bakshi’s eyes.
So how far has Tibetan Buddhism come in 50 years? Has it taken root in the culture? This is very hard to determine. Certainly it is very much in the media. Indeed, our former monk Lobzang Tsetan appeared in a National Enquirer photo with Richard Gere this past week. There are more university chairs for Tibetan Buddhism being founded. But the teachings are so vast that true experts need to put in a lot of time at study, reflection, and meditation in order to gain the insight needed. In addition, we have translated so little of the huge body of scriptures.
One way to examine this question is to take a look at the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment where Je Tsong-ka-pa paraphrases a statement by Geshe Drom-dön-pa, a great Tibetan teacher of the eleventh century who founded the Kadampa tradition. Kadampa is made up of two words: Ka, which means the Buddha’s word, and Dam, which means instructions. So it means that all of the Buddha’s words must be taken as instructions for practice. The citation is in connection with a discussion of the qualities of a spiritual teacher; in particular, the quality of having a wealth of scriptural knowledge: “Geshe Drom-dön-pa said that when the “gurus of the Mahayana” give an explanation, they must cause their students to have a deep understanding. When they are putting the teachings into practice, they must demonstrate what is helpful at a time when the teaching is on the wane, and what is useful in the situation at hand.” Nowadays the teaching is waning.
Bakshi was a guru of the Mahayana tradition. Of course, he would never have said so, but would have called himself a member of the spiritual community, a fellow practitioner of Buddha’s teachings, a friend and companion who empowers us to put the teachings into practice, just like a nurse empowers patients to heal themselves, using the doctor’s medicine. Leaving aside the first part of the statement concerning deep understanding on the part of the student, Bakshi’s demonstration of humility is more an illustration of the second part of the statement, what is helpful when the teaching is waning and what is useful right now.
Bakshi was generous, loving, caring, sensitive, always alert, intelligent, cautious, confident—the list goes on. You never saw him being stingy, hateful, uncaring, insensitive, sleepy, unintelligent, impetuous, and without confidence. This is not to say that Bakshi lacked faults—he always assured us that he had many—it’s just that we rarely saw him struggle to control them. For instance, Bakshi was very emotionally expressive and he was strict and let you know his boundaries with great energy. Those who knew him well could always feel the love behind it all. But people didn’t always know him well. Bakshi loved to compete at games, especially chess. When Bakshi was in Tibet he would gamble with the nobility, playing a game of dice. Bakshi was quite outraged when they would cheat and he would storm out of the room, slamming the door hard. The others seemed to find this quite amusing. Of course, the game was always more interesting when Bakshi was playing so his friends would have to run after him and beg him to return. One day a Tibetan lama friend of Bakshi visit him here, accompanied by his attendant. This teacher was an old chess partner of Bakshi so a game soon started. When I went to check on how they were doing, Bakshi exclaimed to me, “The lama is cheating me. I didn’t know that lamas cheated.” This caused the lama and his attendant to burst into laughter, but when I started to walk over to join the fun, Bakshi glared at me and I quickly retreated downstairs. Diana had a similar experience.
Bakshi had his occasional struggles, but the point is that Bakshi always put others before himself, even when he was sick and dying. He taught through his example, which is what a bodhisattva must do because people do not usually accept what others advise them to do.
Bakshi didn’t think that everyone interested in Buddhism had to become a Buddhist. He always said that Buddhism would help them by enriching their American way of life, helping them to become better human beings. In addition, he thought that Buddhism’s vast body of knowledge would be helpful to a variety of disciplines in this culture.
For those students who wanted to become Buddhist he set an example by praying and meditating every morning and using every spare moment for studying the Buddha’s teachings. He was impeccable in his conduct and never showed any ethical impropriety. For those who had the capacity, he encouraged them to deepen their studies. Overall, though, he felt that it was enough to have an understanding of the general presentation of the Buddha’s teachings. Whenever he read from the scriptures and their commentaries, he exulted in the beauty of every teaching, no matter how simple or complex. He always gave us the feeling that our enlightenment was right around the corner. One day he proclaimed to us, “I really thought that I would reach enlightenment in this lifetime. I just don’t know what happened!”
So what is the meaning of Geshe Drom-dön-ba’s words “produce in the student a deep understanding?” It seems that it is relative to the level of the student. As Dendar-lha-ram-pa says in Bakshi’s Jeweled Staircase, the practice of going for refuge is as profound as the practice of the two stages of tantra. This means that the practice that causes us to enter the door of the Teaching is as profound as the teachings that bring our practice to completion. Bakshi always said that the teachings are like a sugar cube; they are sweet from whichever direction you taste them.
Has Tibetan Buddhism taken root in this culture? It seems that
we have to answer this by asking ourselves, “Since I became
interested in Buddhism, have I become a better person. Am I more caring
of others, less selfish, angry, jealous, competitive, proud and so
on.” Then we can send out a questionnaire and take a poll!
As for Diana and I, we will have been here working and studying for 38 of those 50 years. And we only consider it a great privilege. Again, as the Great Treatise states in the section on the attitudes needed to rely on the teacher: “3) the attitude which is like the earth. This means to take on all the responsibilities of the guru’s activities and not become dispirited by any of the responsibilities asked of you. It is as Bo-do-wa told Jen-nga-wa’s monks, “You have met with my geshe who is clearly a bodhisattva, and have practiced in accordance with his words. You have great merit! Now let this be a privilege, not a burden.”
So this is how we approach His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit to TBLC in July 2008. We are serving the guru, both His Holiness and Bakshi, and, in the wider sense, the Buddha, for His Holiness will be explaining the teachings of the Buddha. This gives our life great meaning and brings us much happiness.