Complicated Buddhisms

by Shaun Terry

In the West, we are often faced with visions of Buddhism that appear to privilege contemplation and meditation above all else. Sometimes, the notion of flying monks and otherworldly feats may come to the fore, but it seems rare to think of Tibetan monks taking on spiritual lives for the sake of privilege and wealth, and it seems equally unlikely that a Westerner might think of compassion in Buddhism as having to do with medical practice or carving woodblocks with which to make prayer flags. However, what we might take from this week’s readings and Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup is that life in the Himalayas is just as much about making ends meet; about making compromised, practical decisions; and perhaps even about World Cup soccer as life is about those things in many other parts of the world.

The story of Ts’ampa Nawang helps us to think simultaneously about Buddhist dharma and about the most profound concern of most sentient beings: staying alive. As Sihlé puts it, the Buddha “presented the gist of his teaching, the Four Noble Truths, in a distinctly medical style” (236). Sihlé observes that the Four Noble Truths represent “clinical observation,” “diagnosis,” “prognosis,” and “prescription” (236).

More specifically, Sihlé tells us that Nawang envisages medical practice as necessitating altruism (243). In Nawang’s Himalayan Buddhist world, the reason for being a medical practitioner is to take care of others, and only through compassion could one “accomplish the long, very demanding course of medical studies” (243).

Sihlé informs us that Nawang’s experience experience of compassion for others privileges medical practice over religious activity (243). Sihlé explains that Nawang conceives of “medicine even more than religious activity as the paradigmatic altruistic activity…” (243). And, Nawang is not alone.

According to Sihlé, Nawang’s experience “exemplifies a type of Tibetan practitioner found most notably in the Nyingma tradition” (243). While it may appear to us that Tibetan Buddhists exemplify higher orders of compassion that might appear incomprehensible to Westerners, in fact, many of their concerns appear to be not wholly unlike ours, even if the satisfaction of their wants and needs may appear differently.

Similarly, Tashi Dondrup’s story appears to exemplify the pragmatism that must be necessary for many poor Tibetan Buddhists (Childs). On one hand, he is driven to live a life in accordance with the dharma as he knows it; on the other, his life chances are seriously constrained by the opportunities availed to him (Childs).

Childs prefaces Dondrup’s story by pointing out some apparent contradictions. In Buddhism, eating often means the deaths of sentient beings, causing a tension for Buddhists who believe in not causing harm to sentient beings (Childs 228-30). Childs makes this concrete by explaining that Dondrup “never hesitated to crush lice and fleas plucked from his clothing or to kill home invading rats by enticing them to feast upon poisoned morsels of food” (231). It may be easy for one to criticize such actions for being contradictory to Buddhist doctrine, but it is hard to blame someone for protecting their livelihood against those who might encroach on it. Childs quotes Dondrup: “I am a poor man. The rats should take pity on me instead of the other way around!” It may be that no Buddhist would prefer to kill a rat (would any of us, after all?), but understanding that Dondrup’s life appears to have been one of constantly concerning himself, from moment to moment, for how he can subsist over any period of time, it may become clearer that Dondrup’s actions were: 1) predicated on the idea that he never knew for how long he would be able to survive by the means at his current disposal; 2) his decisions were made under a great deal of stress and with access to very few options. To blame Dondrup for having violated doctrine would seem short-sighted.

Another interesting aspect of Dondrup lies in his personal relationship to Buddhist thought. Childs alludes to Dondrup’s disposition as one that might have helped Dondrup. Dondrup, according to Childs, took “solace in the basic tenets of Buddhism — for example, the knowledge that performing good deeds in this lifetime can help ensure less suffering in future lives. […] He never blamed bad karma for his present predicaments. Rather, he faced obstacles with stoic determination” (231). Here, Childs seems to be saying that Dondrup’s attitude toward the dharma was one by which he was able to see value in performing good (in Buddhistic terms) deeds, but faced his challenges with a pragmatism that allowed him to move past them.

At one point in Dondrup’s story, Childs tells us that Dondrup was promised some inheritance by his father, despite that Dondrup’s birth was illegitimate (231). Dondrup’s father had seen that Dondrup was a “good worker,” but in the end, Dondrup gets no part of the inheritance (Childs 231). The inheritance then went to Dondrup’s half-brother (legitimate brother, at that), but rather than despite the half-brother, Dondrup cares for him, using his last resources to help a rather painfully useless relative (Childs 232). Dondrup said, “I acted as his guardian when he was a child. But these days I no longer even speak to him. I have no use for a brother like that” (232). Even after having to have made the difficult but maybe necessary decision to have given up on his half-brother, Dondrup continues to work hard and to try and live the best life that he can (Childs). While Dondrup seems clearly to be motivated by Buddhist doctrine, he also sees his behavior as playing a crucial role in the outcomes of his life.

Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup focuses around a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in India. The period examined coincides with the 1998 World Cup, and the film’s protagonist is a boy, named Orgyen (played by Jamyang Lodro), who enthusiastically follows soccer throughout the film.

Often in the West, it seems that there is a perception of Buddhist monks as being especially pious, devoid of missteps and mistakes, fairly perfect and incredibly disciplined in their holy lives. If we are to take anything from this film, perhaps disabuse of the notion that all Tibetan Buddhist monks are perfect could be the primary outcome (Norbu).

Orgyen and his friends routinely misbehave during meditation sessions, draw graffiti on monastery walls, read contraband magazines, and sneak out in the middle of the night in order to watch soccer matches (Norbu). Orgyen’s attitude often seems to be about fulfilling his controversial desires, rather than about satisfying his need to study or to engage authentically in Buddhistic practices (Norbu).

While the film follows the familiar refrain of Boarding School films (think Flirting or Dead Poets’ Society), the story’s ending is made positive when Orgyen faces the dilemma of having to help a fellow child-monk with getting back the watch the boy had received from his mother before having been shipped off to monastery (Norbu). In the end, we might think of this scene as confronting something very human in us, but it is also true that Orgyen is having to deal with the tension between watching a soccer match for which he had fought so hard to be able to watch and having to deal with the sadness and regret that could come from his friend having to have lost the watch; that is, it may be as simple as that he had a human moment or may be his dedication to compassion that leads to his altruistic acts and sacrifice at the end of the film (Norbu).

What was common in the readings for this week was that Buddhism is complicated. It is not simply the study of doctrine and ritual practices presented in Buddhist texts. Certainly, Buddhists face the kinds of life challenges that everyone else does, too.


  • Childs, Geoff. “Hunger, Hard Work and Uncertainty: Tashi Dondrup Reminisces on Life

    and Death in a Tibetan Village” in Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the

    Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed.

  • Norbu, Khyentse. The Cup.
  • Sihlé, Nicolas. “Benefitting the Doctrine and All Sentient Beings: The Life of a Tibetan

    Lineage Master and the Ethos of Altruistic Action” ” in Buddhists: Understanding

    Buddhism Through the Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed., pp. 237-245.