THANKS TO DHARMA AND GREG (AND CHARMAINE), TELEVISION IS NO LONGER THIS RESEARCHER'S PRIMARY PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT!
On Sunday, February 18th I went to the Thubten Dargye Ling, located in Long Beach. The space, though technically labeled a monastery, is primarily a Dharma center for Western students studying Tibetan Buddhism in the Gelug tradition. I was the guest of my two key informants: Greg, a co-worker of mine, and his fiancée Charmaine. My ethnographical research techniques were participant observation, conversation, and an email interview with Greg.
I have never been a follower of any specific religion, and have not experienced any aspect of organized religion outside of a handful of Catholic masses I attended growing up. My parents never forced any kind of religion on me. All my ideas in this area have been shaped by a smattering of Sundays throughout my childhood (whenever my grandmother could get her pious paws on me), as I was forced to sit in scratchy and uncomfortable clothing and endure boring, rigid sermons at her church in New Haven, CT.
With this as my only exposure to "religion" and my only experience in attending a ceremony based upon a belief system, I had no idea what to expect when I went with Greg and Charmaine. I wasn't even sure what to call the event (A ceremony? A mass?). I asked Greg at work a couple of days before attending, so I would know how to explain to people where I would be spending my Sunday. He informed me that it was called a "teaching." The one we were to attend is classified as a "lam-rim" teaching, which is Tibetan for stages to the path [of enlightenment]. This immediately peaked my interest. I began to really get excited about going, although the nervousness persisted.
Greg and Charmaine follow the teachings of Geshe-la Tsultim Gyaltsen. In perusing the bookstore they had at the monastery, and seeing books written by many men who had "Geshe" before their name, it became clear to me that it was some sort of title (I initially thought it was part of his name!). I asked Greg about it and found out that "Geshe" is a title given those monastic scholars who have completed a minimum of 20 years of Buddhist studies and examinations in any of the various monastic universities (synonymous with the Western "Ph.D."). The "la" which is placed after "Geshe" is a Tibetan honorific title placed at the end of one's name to impart respect.
I met them at their apartment in the morning, where we sat, had coffee and some breakfast, then headed on our way at about 9:00. When we got there, the first thing we did was take off our shoes before entering the main room. A booklet was handed to us at the entry way that contained the chants that were done at the beginning and end of the teaching. It was also translated from Tibetan into English.
Although a few were sitting in folding chairs, most everyone sat on the floor on big pillows. We grabbed our pillows and found a spot. Before sitting completely down, Greg did a series of prostrations, which are done in order to humble yourself to the Geshe. I took in my surrounds as we waited for the Geshe to enter the room and begin. There was the smell of incense and the décor was eye candy. There was a lot of gold, red, and yellow designed tapestry and statuettes all over the room. Huge statues of different Buddhas were at the front of the room, and in front of them on an altar were offerings of flowers (a lot of lotus) and what I thought was a row of candles. In getting a closer look afterwards, I found out they were cups of clear water. There was a huge, elaborate sand medallion on the left side of the room. Charmaine informed me that this helped represent the idea that everything is temporary. She told me that they create these huge, intricate and beautiful pieces of art out of sand, only to see them destroyed either by the elements or themselves. Another representation of this idea was a sculpture called a torma, which again is extremely detailed but also made out of another temporary medium, butter and barley.
When the Geshe entered, everyone stood and there was a moment of silence. Then we all sat down, and everyone chanted in unison. Although I myself did not chant out loud, I followed along and mouthed the words in some areas. The low, monotone sound put me in somewhat of a meditative state and time was hard to judge. Then the Geshe began his teaching, speaking in Tibetan with a translator repeating what he had said in English over a microphone. I could not see where the translator was. His teaching lasted about an hour and a half, and was a delightful, informative experience. A great aspect was that despite his obvious tenure, he did not make you feel like he was untouchable. He laughed, made eye contact with people and smiled often. I brought a small notebook with me, and kept it in my pocket until I looked around and saw others with open notebooks and journals (including Charmaine) writing down his words. I then felt very comfortable taking notes.
What I liked best about my first experience with Tibetan Buddhism was that there didn't seem to be any sense of exclusivity; everyone was welcome there, and it didn't matter what reasons they had in attending. If I were to return, I would make a point of talking to a number of the people attending. I am interested in what draws them to Geshe-la Tsultim Gyaltsen's teachings. In a more general sense, I would like to know what attracts people to a certain path of learning.
The environment was one that seemed to create energy devoted to education and the bettering of yourself by placing others before you. This is a feeling I never got from the aforementioned Catholic masses, where I usually walked away feeling like some faceless God was breathing down my neck and watching my every move. Instead, I walked out of this experience with a sense of peace and feeling as though I had received a tiny life lesson.