Responding to Modern Times: Khenpo Sodargyé’s View of Buddhism

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Submitted by Antonio Terrone, PhD, ATLA East Asia Metadata Analyst

When addressing the figure of Milarepa, a maverick eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist saint renowned for his spiritual achievements despite a murderous childhood, Khenpo Sodargyé soon adds that he, just like the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was first of all a normal human being. “Realization in the Buddhist path has nothing to do with magical powers or miracles; it is achieved through assiduous practice and personal experience. Dedicated attention to our own mind and thoughts and a continuous analysis of our emotions is the only way to change negative habits and harmful behavior for our own wellbeing as well as that of others.’”

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Khenpo Sodargyé during a morning lecture on Buddhism and modernity in China today in the Harris Hall at Northwestern University (Photo Credit: Antonio Terrone)

Tibetan Buddhist Monk at Northwestern University

In a crispy morning on October 31 as millions of children across the US were preparing to collect treats on their Halloween walks, at Northwestern University’s Harris Hall in Evanston, Illinois, a Tibetan Buddhist monk discussed the modern role of Buddhism in the world to a crowd of 250 people that included students and faculty.

In the past five years, benefiting from the Chinese government’s “soft power,” Khenpo, a renowned Buddhist master from the Tibetan pastoral area of Serta in Western China, has visited the United States several times. He was accompanied by several Chinese devotees and assistants, who are in charge of every detail of the organization and talk schedules.

He gives talks on Buddhism, preferably to college students and scholars at various prestigious universities. This year he added Northwestern University to a now long list of academic institutions who have invited him, this time per invitation from Professor Sarah H. Jacoby (Dept. Religious Studies). While in the morning he gave a talk on Buddhism and modernity in China today, in the afternoon he had an academic exchange with a group of scholars and graduate students specializing in Tibetan Buddhist studies. His eloquence, knowledge, and disarming humility make his lectures a great success.

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Khenpo Sodargyé posing for a group photo with some faculty, scholars, and graduate students specialized in Tibetan Buddhist studies at Northwestern University (Photo credit: Antonio Terrone)

Who is Khenpo Sodargyé?

Born in 1962 in a small rural area of Trango, a Tibetan village now part of the Sichuan Province of China, Khenpo is probably the most known and active Tibetan Buddhist teacher currently operating in China. As one of a handful of leaders at the head of the prestigious Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy in Serta, Golok, Khenpo is a direct disciple and successor of the late Khenpo Jikmé Phuntsok (1934-2003), the most beloved and renowned Buddhist master in contemporary Tibet. Originally established as a meditation center in the early 1980s, it rapidly expanded into a massive academic institution thanks to the influence and encouragement of the Tenth Panchen Lama, Chökyi Gyaltsen (1938-1989) the highest Tibetan hierarch second only to the Dalai Lama, who officially conferred the place the status of Buddhist Academy (Ch. foxueyuan) in 1987.

For several decades Buddhism in Tibet has faced numerous challenges and persecution equal only to those that millions of Tibetan devotees have experienced after the Chinese takeover of the land in the 1950s. Beginning with the economic and political reforms of the 1980s and cautiously encouraged by a warming of Chinese Communist attitudes toward religion, a small number of influential Tibetan Buddhist leaders (those who did not leave for exile following the Dalai Lama) have striven to bring values, doctrines, and traditions at the core of Buddhism back to public life.

Khenpo activities represent his response to the challenging concerns in today’s crumbling social systems, loss of identity, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation. Buddhism can be of assistance. He believes that science and technology are becoming our primary tools of daily life. But they alone cannot solve the stress and frustration our hyper-fast society produces. “Buddhist experience can assist our mental wellbeing.”

Buddhism on the Rise

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A recent aerial photo of Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy in Serta, (Golok/Sichuan, China). According to some estimates anywhere between 10,000 to 40,000 residents live there including Tibetan and Chinese monks, nuns, laypeople, and visiting students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just as Buddhism is meeting with unprecedented interest around the world and in China today, it is increasingly popular among Americans thanks to its minimal use of rituals and an emphasis on altruism, self-control, and rationality. In its particular Tibetan form, Buddhism favors relationship, from teacher and disciple, and to the community. One’s own Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition is equaled to the Buddha himself. In this regard, Khenpo points to an appropriate adage in Tibetan: “Even supplicating your guardian deity (Yidam) a hundred thousand times is not as effective [in the advancement of one’s own spiritual path] as recalling one’s own Buddhist teacher for just a brief instant!”

Another reason for its growing popularity especially in today’s China and in the West is that Buddhism has developed a systematic set of spiritual exercises and meditation techniques meant to lead practitioners along a soteriological path gradually and consistently in accordance with ones’ own efforts. Khenpo firmly believes in the logical, scientific, and rational nature of Buddhism. He points out that Buddhist teachings address all aspects of human life including astrology, astronomy, ecology, and the relationship between human beings and animals and nature. “The Buddha said to his disciples ‘Analyze what I say!’” Khenpo likes to remind his audiences, “Don’t take my words at face value. Think about them and test them yourselves!”

Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy

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Assembly of monks and nuns at Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy in Serta (Golok/Sichuan, China) during a Buddhist debate competition in 2012 (Khenpo is the second from right) (Photo credit: khenposodargye.org)

In most monastic traditions in Tibet even to this day, critical analysis and logical understanding of complex Buddhist philosophical and doctrinal concepts are trained through the ancient practice of debate. Monks engage in animated disputes challenging their opponent’s philosophical views of reality and testing rhetorical skills. The Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy where Khenpo teaches combines this approach to the study of Buddhist philosophy and religious commentaries with the practice of meditation, valued for its capacity to sharpen not only concentration, but also analytical thinking. At his Buddhist Academy, monastic and lay students engage in meditation practice virtually on a daily basis. However, monk students are asked to enter long-term meditation retreats at least once a year. “Realization and experience of reality” continues Khenpo, “cannot be achieved through academic studies of Buddhist scriptures alone. Meditation practice is equally important to one’s spiritual achievements.” In modern times Buddhist meditation techniques for examining our minds, controlling over thought processes, and analyzing our emotions appeal to many people.

Modernization typically refers to innovations and adaptations of technology, equipment, and ideas. In this case, Khenpo response at Larung Buddhist Academy has been in tune with the times. Cellphones, tablets, and laptops abound on the premises of the academy, and so do the Internet, social media, and live streaming of classes, talks, and major events; his webpage is rich and well organized, including an informative English version. Additionally, he has established a remote online course for his disciples who cannot visit Tibet frequently, which includes video classes, exercises, reading materials and even tests to advance in one’s path toward realization.

But the real achievement Khenpo is proud of is that the core of the Buddhist teachings has been maintained intact following traditional education and a profound study of Buddhist literature. “When it comes to comparing the study curriculum offered at our Buddhist institute with that of other mainstream and traditional monasteries in Tibet,” reflects Khenpo, “my sense if that there is not real difference. The content of our classes is fundamentally the same and topics are addressed traditionally.”

The fame of his academy, however, goes beyond the education of monks and the high quality of their training. It is the very goal of that education which is a selling point. The Larung Buddhist Academy leaders aim at the dissemination of Buddhism and Tibetan culture and the creation of a new class of teachers and leaders for Tibet. Social service is a strong addition in the lives of monks at the academy, who are encouraged to often travel across various regions of Eastern Tibet to disseminate the Buddhist message, give religious teachings, and offer spiritual advice, but also to sensitize the masses of Tibetans to various issues from environmental awareness to nutrition and hygiene. A special attention is given to animal welfare. In this regard, in the past several years the Buddhist leaders have been promoting animal release rituals and vegetarianism among the monastic population to maximize the production of merits.

Success and Obstacles of the Academy

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Khenpo Sodargyé with some Chinese disciples in Hong Kong presiding over an animal life release ritual (fish release) in summer 2011 (Photo Credit: khenposodargye.org)

The success of the Larung Buddhist Academy has not been without obstacles and on several occasions, its rapid and extraordinary growth has been an object of frustration for Chinese authorities, who under various pretexts halt constructions or enforce demolitions. It is not a coincidence that the fortunes of Larung Buddhist Academy began as it opened its doors to virtually everyone. Since the early 1980s, as the Chinese middle class appreciated some of the new economic opportunities and cultural relaxation that came with the liberalizing reforms, the Buddhist Academy has enjoyed a massive appeal among the Chinese population striving for exotic experiences, a religious community, spiritual wealth, and some distance from the stresses of modern life. Since its establishment, the Buddhist Academy rapidly became the destination for thousands of devotees not only from various Tibetan areas of China, but also from numerous provinces of China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. Some reports speak of 10,000 residents, others speculate more, but no definitive demographic figures are available.

When I first arrived at Larung Buddhist Academy in the fall of 2000, a young Khenpo told me that of more than 10,000 Tibetan residents living on the premises of the monastery, at least a thousand were Han Chinese including monks, nuns, and lay devotees. Due to his fluency in Mandarin Chinese, his teacher nominated him the chief teacher of the Chinese community of Buddhist devotees, and a whole residential area was built for them, including a large lay Buddhist temple. Since then, his Chinese followers have increased exponentially across China, East Asia, and…cyberspace (more than two million Chinese follow Khenpo Sodargyé’s Weibo postings!).

Although not an ascetic like the Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa and not boosting magical powers and supernatural skills, Khenpo charisma is fueled by the reassuring positivity of his vision. The disarming clarity of his profound knowledge, his belief in humans’ potential for altruism, and his eagerness to share his experience with and learn from others make him one of the most sought-after Buddhist teachers in China and the world today. As he likes to put it, “Buddhism is much more than a religion. It is an education of mind, an inner science that explores human emotions and deals with human afflictions.”

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