Geshe Wangyal: Combining Buddhist Practice and Buddhology

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I’m very happy and honored to be here today with all of you in Kalmykia, and especially to see so many young students. I had the great honor and privilege to know a great Kalmyk Geshe, Geshe Wangyal. He was a great inspiration and a great guide for me at the time of my life when I was the age of many of you here in the audience. 

Back in the 1960s, in the United States, there were very few opportunities to get to know Buddhism. There were a few books that were written, but they were more sensationalist, and they did not really convey the authentic tradition. There were a few professors at universities who were teaching about Buddhism, but the approach at that time was that Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, was a dead subject, and so it was taught like Ancient Egyptian Studies. The professors had their original texts in the original languages, and they taught language, primarily. It was almost like a grand puzzle that everybody was trying to figure out, “What could this possibly mean?” 

In this atmosphere, Geshe Wangyal was a unique light because he provided access to a living tradition. A few of us had the great fortune to meet with him, and a few of us actually lived and studied with him, like my colleagues Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins. Unfortunately, I was not able to actually live with Geshe Wangyal. I was already at Harvard University and was studying Buddhology. I was always interested in Buddhism from a very, very, early age, so very naturally, I went in that direction. However, my family lived near Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey. Once I started studying the Tibetan language at Harvard, then when I would visit my family at home, I started to go to Geshe Wangyal’s monastery. 

Geshe Wangyal always combined – the topic here at this conference – the spiritual approach and the Buddhological, scientific approach. He encouraged all of us to get PhDs at universities and to combine in our approach to Buddhism both the practice aspect as well as the scientific aspect. In terms of the practice aspect, not to just guess what it might mean, but rather to study with authentic masters who actually knew what everything meant from their own experience. 

He encouraged us to learn the traditional languages of Buddhism, especially Tibetan and Sanskrit. I also studied Chinese and Japanese. He also had a great wish for us to learn Mongolian and Russian, but none of us actually managed, in addition to all those languages, to learn Mongolian and Russian as well. Although, I must confess, I had a great interest to learn Mongolian, but it didn’t fit into my schedule at Harvard; otherwise, I would have taken it. 

Then, equipped with the languages, he encouraged us to go to India and study with the Tibetan masters there, especially under His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and to get the best of both systems of education, the traditional as well as the Buddhological, and whatever we learned to try to put that into personal practice. Geshe Wangyal himself was a great master in combining these two aspects because he taught us not only the texts and meditation, but he also worked with us on our personalities. 

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, Buddhism is intended for self-transformation. The point is to recognize what’s the source of our problems and social problems and to see that these are caused by confusion: confusion about reality, about how we exist and how others exist, and confusion about how the world exists. Because of that confusion, we have all sorts of disturbing emotions. We think that we are the only one in the world; we’re the most important one, so we have selfishness and greed and anger toward those who get in our way. That produces problems not only for ourselves, but for everybody. However, these problems are made by us, by humanity, out of our confusion; therefore, His Holiness says they can be solved by humanity. 

Although it’s not easy, it is possible to get rid of these problems by getting rid of their cause, which is mainly confusion. That means we need education, we need to understand reality, and then work on our personalities to overcome our disturbing emotions and the destructive behavior that we have based on those disturbing emotions. This means working on both the education and the practice side. 

Geshe Wangyal would work with students’ personalities in a very challenging way. Once, he had students staying and helping to build a new house. Geshe-la was also very practical in terms of how to make and do things. He showed everybody even how to sew clothes and how to cook because Buddhism is not something separate from our ordinary lives; it is part of everything that we do. One day, one of the students was up on the roof of this house being constructed. Geshe Wangyal climbed up on the ladder to the roof, and he went over to the student and started yelling at him. He said, “You are doing this completely wrong. You are ruining the whole thing! Get out of here!” And the student said, “What do you mean I’m doing it wrong? I’m doing it exactly as you told me to do it.” And Geshe Wangyal said, “Aha! That’s the me that’s to be refuted. That’s the false me.” In these types of ways, in real life, Geshe Wangyal would help us to recognize what is the source of our confusion. This is the type of great teacher he was. He not only taught texts, he didn’t only chant and read rituals, he also worked with students to transform themselves, and then to study Buddhology, become doctors in Buddhology, and then to go on, if possible, to teach at universities. 

Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins did that and have been teaching at American universities. I went to India and stayed in India and tried to serve His Holiness the Dalai Lama in various ways. If we look now in the American universities, we find that many of the generation of professors who teach Buddhist studies were students of Thurman and Hopkins, and they are persons who combine Buddhist practice with Buddhological training. They invite great masters from India, Tibetan masters, to teach Buddhism at the universities. Now, the whole living tradition of Buddhism as a practice and as a way of life is combined with the Buddhological, scientific approach. 

I think that we need to thank Geshe Wangyal for being an inspiration that helped to bring all of this about. This is a great honor and tribute to the Kalmyk people, which you can be very proud of. This has been a great contribution to the development of Buddhism in the present-day world, especially among a society today that has often lost sight of its traditional values. It’s very important and inspiring that this same approach is being encouraged here in Kalmykia, Geshe Wangyal’s homeland, and it is very wonderful that we have this conference here on the 400th anniversary of the Kalmyks being here in this part of Russia, which itself has a big significance of bringing these two cultures together, traditional Buddhist and European. I hope that many of the young students here can be inspired in a similar way in which my generation was inspired in America by Geshe Wangyal, so that this combined approach of Buddhist spiritual practice and Buddhology can flourish here as well.

Original Audio from the Seminar