My Story

The scholarly study of Buddhism and the actual implementation of Buddhist teachings in daily life are two different worlds. It has often been said that just studying Buddhism intellectually won’t really benefit your life. Dr. Alexander Berzin, both a scholar and practitioner, talks about his experience of having his feet in both the academic and spiritual worlds.

The Sputnik Generation

I was born in America in 1944, into a very ordinary family. My family didn’t have much money, they were just working people, and they didn’t have much education either. However, from a young age I had a very strong instinctive interest in Asian things. This wasn’t encouraged by my family, but it also wasn’t discouraged, and anyway in those days, not much information about Asia was available. When I was 13, I started doing yoga with a friend, and I read everything I could that was available about Buddhism, Indian thought, Chinese thought and so on.

I was part of what America called the “Sputnik Generation.” When the Sputnik went up into space, America became very, very upset because we felt we were so far behind Russia. All the children at school, including myself, were encouraged to study science so that we could catch up with Russia. So, at the age of 16, I went off to Rutgers University to study chemistry. Rutgers University is in New Jersey, where I grew up, and although Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongol Buddhist master, lived perhaps just 50 kilometers away, I had no idea of his existence.

As part of my studies I took an extra course in Asian Studies, which spoke about how Buddhism went from one civilization to another, and how each civilization understood it in a different way. Although I was only 17, it made such a strong impression on me that I said, “This is what I want to be involved with, the whole process of Buddhism going from one civilization to another.” And this is what I have followed for the rest of my life without any deviation or change.

Princeton: From Chemistry to Chinese Language, Thought and Philosophy

At Princeton University, a new program was started to attract more students to the Asian Studies department. Back then, there were very few students; it was in the early days of the Vietnam War, and very few Americans knew any Asian languages. I was very excited because there was an opportunity to study Chinese, so I applied, and was accepted. At 18, I started studying Chinese at Princeton, and completed the final two years of my baccalaureate there.

I was always interested in how Chinese philosophy had influenced the way Buddhism was understood when it came into China, and then how Buddhism affected Chinese philosophy afterwards. So I studied Chinese thought, philosophy, history, Buddhism and so on. I was sent to intensive language schools in the summers: one year at Harvard, one year to Stanford to start learning classical Chinese, and after getting my degree, a summer in Taiwan. For my graduate studies I went back to Harvard. I had already started studying Japanese as part of the Chinese program, and by the time I got my master’s degree in Far Eastern Languages, I had already done very extensive Chinese studies.

Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan: Comparative Studies

I wanted to know the Indian side as well as I knew the Chinese side, to see what the influences were in the development of Buddhism, and so I started studying Sanskrit. I received a joint doctorate degree from two departments: the Sanskrit and Indian Studies, and the Far Eastern Languages Departments. Sanskrit and Indian Studies led to Tibetan, and the emphasis was on philosophy and the history of Buddhism.

You know, I have a very strong thirst for knowledge, so I took extra courses in philosophy and psychology and kept up my interest in science through all of this. In this way I completed my studies, and learned general Buddhological methods of comparing translations. We would look at Buddhist texts in Sanskrit and then see how they were translated into Chinese and Tibetan, as well as study the history of the development of ideas and how this interrelated with general history. This type of training has been very helpful throughout my career.

From Harvard to the Living Tradition

Throughout this, I was always interested in what it would actually be like to think in this way, of all these philosophies and religions of Asia that I was studying – the different forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, and Daoism and Confucianism. But, there were no real opportunities to come into contact with the living tradition; it was as if I were studying the religions of Ancient Egypt. My interest, however, was very high.

But, when I started studying Tibetan in 1967, Robert Thurman came back to Harvard and we were classmates. Thurman had been one of the close students of Geshe Wangyal and had lived with him for several years. He had even been a monk for a about a year and had gone to India to study in Dharamsala. He was the one who told me about Geshe Wangyal and the possibility of studying in Dharamsala, where the Tibetans and His Holiness the Dalai Lama were. I started to visit Geshe Wangyal at his monastery in New Jersey whenever I went home for holidays, and began to understand what Buddhism was like as a living tradition. Although I visited Geshe Wangyal many times, I never had the opportunity to live and study with him. Nevertheless, he really inspired me to go to India and continue my studies there, so I applied for the Fulbright Fellowship to be able to do my dissertation research in India with the Tibetans.

I arrived in India in 1969 at the age of 24, and there I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and became completely immersed in Tibetan society. It felt as if my entire life up until then had been like being on a conveyor belt that had been leading me there – from an ordinary family in New Jersey, to full scholarships at Princeton and Harvard, and now to the Dalai Lama and the great Tibetan masters around him. I saw that everything I had studied about Tibetan Buddhism was very much alive and here were people who actually knew what everything meant in the Buddhist teachings. Here was the golden opportunity to learn from them.

Learning to Speak Tibetan in Dalhousie

When I went to India, I didn’t know spoken Tibetan. My professor at Harvard, Professor Nagatomi, actually had no idea how to even pronounce the language. He was Japanese and we learned Tibetan in terms of Japanese grammar, because at that time the only textbook available explained Tibetan grammar in comparison to Latin! Latin and Tibetan have nothing in common, whereas Japanese grammar is actually quite close to Tibetan.

I had to learn the spoken language, but there were no textbooks or materials available at all. Through my connection with Geshe Wangyal, I was able to connect with two young tulkus (reincarnate lamas), Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who had stayed at his monastery for a few years and knew English very well. They lived in Dalhousie, where many Tibetan refugees had settled. There, they kindly arranged for me to live with a Tibetan monk, Sonam Norbu, in a small house up on the side of a mountain. He didn’t know English, I couldn’t speak Tibetan, but living together, we had to somehow communicate. Here, my Buddhological and other training came in. I felt like an anthropologist in Borneo or Africa, trying to figure out another language.

All the Asian languages that I’d studied helped very much to be able to hear the tones in the Tibetan language and make some progress. When I wanted to communicate with Sonam, I would write something down (as I knew how to write Tibetan), and he would tell me how to pronounce it. We worked together like this, and I also had some language lessons with someone else. Eventually, the two young Rinpoches suggested that I study with their teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

Lam-rim Study in a Cowshed

I had come to India to write my dissertation, and although I had planned to do research on the very vast tantra topic of Guhyasamaja, Serkong Rinpoche, one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama whom I had gone to for advice, convinced me that it was totally absurd, and that I was completely unprepared for it. Trijang Rinpoche, His Holiness’s Junior Tutor, suggested that I instead study the lam-rim, the graded stages of the path, first. At that time nothing had been translated about it, so it was completely new to me. In those days the only books available on Tibetan Buddhism were those by Alexandra David-Neel, Evans-Wentz, Lama Govinda and a few others. I studied the oral tradition of lam-rim with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and then based my dissertation on that.

I lived very primitively in Dalhousie, with no water in my house and no toilet. Geshe Dhargyey lived much more primitively, however, in a shed that had been used to house a cow before him. There was just enough room for his bed, and a bit of space in front of the bed where his three young Rinpoche disciples and I sat on the mud floor as he taught. Jhado Rinpoche had joined Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches and myself; he later went on to become Abbot of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s monastery, Namgyal Monastery. This cowshed, full of flies and all sorts of other insects, was where we studied.

This was a really exciting period because so many new things were starting. His Holiness the Dalai Lama took an interest in what we were doing, our studies, and then gave us some small texts to translate for him. When His Holiness built the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives in Dharamsala, he asked Geshe Dhargyey to be the teacher there for Westerners and Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who had helped me, to be the translators. I asked if I could also be of assistance and His Holiness said, “Yes, but first go back to America, hand in your dissertation, get your degree, and then come back.”

Fitting in with Tibetan Society: Becoming a Translator

During this early period in India, I tried to fit in with Tibetan society by assuming a traditional role that they could relate to; thus I became a translator. I was extremely interested in starting my own Buddhist practice and so in early 1970, I became a Buddhist formally and started meditation practice. Since then I have continued to meditate every day.

In the role of a translator, you need not only language skills but also a very deep understanding of Buddhism, which means meditation and putting the teachings into practice in real life. There is no way to translate technical terms that discuss different states of mind or different experiences in meditation, without having actually experienced them yourself. The translation terms in use had mainly been chosen by missionaries who were primarily interested in translating the Bible into Tibetan, and had very little to do with the actual meaning of the words in Buddhism. So, from this early time, I combined my Buddhist practice with my Buddhological training.

I went back to Harvard in late 1971 and, after a few months, handed in my dissertation and got my doctorate in the spring of 1972. My professor had arranged a very nice teaching job for me at another prestigious university, since I had always intended to become a university professor, but I declined. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with people who were just guessing what Buddhism meant. Instead, I wanted to be with those who know exactly what it meant, and to study and learn from the authentic tradition, while keeping my objective perspective from my Buddhological training. Of course, my professor thought I was crazy, but nevertheless I returned to India. It was very cheap to live there, so it was possible.

My New Indian Life

I moved to Dharamsala and started to work with Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey and Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who were already working at the Library. I lived in an even smaller shack than the one in Dalhousie, still with no water or toilet and not even glass on its solitary window. Sonam Norbu, the Tibetan monk I had been with came to stay with me as well. Altogether, I lived in India in that very simple shack as my home for 29 years.

In that time, I helped to establish the Translation Bureau at the Library for His Holiness, and continued my studies. I saw that my Buddhological background gave me the tools to actually study further the Buddhist teachings. I knew the history and the names of the various texts, and I had people teaching me the real content, so I could put things together quite easily. His Holiness the Dalai Lama encouraged me to study with all four Tibetan traditions, although I primarily studied Gelugpa, so that I could see the larger picture of the full scope of Tibetan Buddhism. It was a very exciting time because, in those days, people had no idea of the full extent of what was even contained in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings.

Memory and Humility Training with Serkong Rinpoche

In 1974, I started studying with one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachers, Serkong Rinpoche, whom I had first met briefly back in 1969. From the very beginning of our contact in Dharamsala, he saw that I had the karmic connection to be a translator for him, and eventually for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and so he trained me in this. Although I was already translating books, this was training in oral translation and teaching. He would have me sit near him to watch how he dealt with different people. He would also train my memory: any time that I was with him he would stop all of a sudden and say, “Repeat word for word what I just said,” or, “Repeat what you just said, word for word.”

I started translating for him the next year when he was teaching other Westerners. He would never teach me anything by myself, it was always learning through having to translate for somebody else – except for Kalachakra. Kalachakra, he taught me privately; he saw that I had some deep connection. I was never allowed to take notes during any of the teachings, but would always have to remember everything and write it down afterwards. After a while, he wouldn’t even let me write notes after the lesson. He’d give me other things to do, and then I could only write everything down late at night.

Like Geshe Wangyal did with his close students, Serkong Rinpoche scolded me all the time. I remember once when I was translating for him, I asked him what a word he had just said meant that I didn’t understand. He scowled at me and said, “I explained that word to you seven years ago. Why don't you remember that? I remember!”

His favorite name for me was “idiot” and he never failed to point out when I was acting like one, especially in front of other people. This was excellent training. I remember once, when I translated for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there was an audience of about 10,000 people, and His Holiness stopped me, laughed, and said, “He just made a mistake.” From my training of being called an idiot all the time, I was able to continue translating and not just crawl under the rug. Translating require incredible attention and a tremendous memory, so I was very fortunate to not only have received Buddhological training, but also traditional Tibetan training.

I trained very intensively with Serkong Rinpoche for 9 years. I translated for him, helped him with his letters and travels, and in all that time, he said “thank you” to me only twice. This was also very helpful to me because, as he used to say, what do I expect? That I’m going to get a pat on the head and then like a dog I’ll wag my tail? One’s motivation for translating needs to be to benefit others, not to get praised with a “thank you.” Of course, all of my Buddhist meditation and practice was absolutely essential for being able to go through this process of traditional training without ever getting angry or giving up.

Helping to Build a Bridge between Cultures

Serkong Rinpoche passed away in 1983. After that, I started to receive invitations to travel around the world to give lectures, because I had visited many of these places already as Rinpoche’s translator. By that time, I was already translating sometimes for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But translation is not just about words, but about explaining and translating ideas. At those very early meetings that His Holiness had with Western psychologists, scientists and religious leaders, my task was to basically explain their ideas, not their words (because they didn’t have most of the words in Tibetan), and to create a cultural bridge. And this was exactly what had always interested me, from a very young age, how to make a bridge between different cultures in terms of the Buddhist teachings. To make such a bridge, you need to know both cultures really well, to know how people think and what their life is like. So I had the great and very rare privilege to be able to live with Tibetans for so long, gaining deep familiarity with the way they think, the way they live and so on. This has been absolutely essential in the transmission of Buddhism.

I initiated and was also asked to carry out various international projects for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. One of the main things was to try to open the world up to His Holiness and the Tibetans. They didn’t have passports, just refugee papers, and so they couldn’t get visas to any country unless they were invited. But they only had contacts in a few places. Now, my Harvard PhD came in very useful, because I was able to be invited all over the world to give guest lectures at universities. In this way I made contacts that would lead in the future to Tibetans and eventually His Holiness being invited abroad, and the opening of offices of His Holiness in different regions of the world. In 1985, I started going to all the former communist countries, almost all of the Latin American countries, and large portions of Africa. I then started going to the Middle East to open a dialogue between Buddhists and Muslims.

Throughout all of this, I focused on writing reports to send back to His Holiness, so that he knew a little about the culture and history of each country I visited. Again, my Harvard background allowed me to meet the various religious leaders of these countries and learn more about their religions from them, so that when His Holiness visited these countries, he would have a good idea of what their beliefs are. All the Buddhological and scientific training I had helped me to see what was important, organize it, and present it in a way that would be useful.

I was involved in so, so many projects. One of the most interesting was a project using Tibetan medicine to help the victims of Chernobyl, organized by the Ministry of Health of the Soviet Union. Although Tibetan medicine proved to be extremely effective, when the Soviet Union broke up, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine refused to cooperate on the project, and insisted that we mount three completely separate projects, which was physically and financially impossible. Sadly, that was the end of the project.

Another exciting project was organizing the translation and publication of books by Bakula Rinpoche into modern Mongolian, to help with the revival of Buddhism there. Bakula Rinpoche was the Indian ambassador to Mongolia at the time.

Returning to the West

All in all, I travelled to, and taught in probably more than 70 countries around the world. Throughout all of this, I maintained my daily meditation practice, which was very helpful in allowing me to carry on. As time went on, I kept on being invited to more places to teach and lecture. The lecture tours got longer and longer; the longest one was fifteen months – two or three different cities every week, traveling all over. With all of this travel, it was the Buddhist meditation practice that gave me the stability to do all of this, especially as I always traveled alone.

Over these years I had written several books and, at a certain point, I found that it was not very easy, being based in India, to work with my publishers, Snow Lion. Also I wanted to go into the direction of the Internet and this was too difficult to do in India. So, in 1998 I moved from India to the West. After a year of trying out various places that invited me, I decided to settle in Berlin, Germany. I already knew German so that was no problem, and there I was given the most independence. This was very important to me; I didn’t want to be tied down to any organization. Berlin was also a convenient location for being about to continue traveling easily to the Eastern European countries, Russia and the former Soviet republics where I had been frequently teaching and with which I felt a particularly close connection.

I arrived in the West with more than 30,000 pages of unpublished manuscripts – several incomplete books I had written, reading notes for them, translations of texts I had studied, and transcripts of some of my own lectures and lectures by my teachers that I had translated. There were also stacks of notes I had taken from teachings by His Holiness, his three main teachers, and Geshe Dhargyey. I was very concerned that all of this did not end up being thrown into the garbage when I die.

The Berzin Archives

I had had such an unbelievably privileged position, and quite unique, to study for so long with the greatest of the great lamas of the last generation. What I had learned and recorded was too precious and really needed to be shared with the world. Books, although maybe very nice to hold and look very nice, don’t reach a very large audience unless you wrote a bestseller, which none of my books were. In general, books are expensive to produce; they are expensive to buy; they take a tremendous amount of time to produce and you can’t correct them until the next edition. Although I’m a great fan of studying history, I also am a great fan of looking to the future, and the future is the Internet. In fact, the present is the Internet as well. With that in mind, I decided to put all my work on a website, and so I started berzinarchives.com in November of 2001.

The main principle that I’ve always followed is that everything on the website should be available free of charge, with no advertising and no selling of anything. The material on the website includes all the various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, covering the four Tibetan traditions, although primarily the Gelug tradition. There is also a lot of comparative material, material on Tibetan medicine, astrology, Buddhist history, Asian history, Tibetan history, and a lot of material on the relation between Buddhism and Islam. I am also a very strong believer in having things translated into many other languages.

The work with the Muslim section is very, very important, I feel, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is supporting this very strongly. From my travels in the Islamic world and lecturing at universities there, it is clear to me that people there are thirsty for knowledge about the world. It is crucial for global harmony not to exclude them, but to make available to them as well the teachings of Tibet, but without even a hint of trying to convert them to Buddhism.

Epilogue

By 2015, the Berzin Archives website was available in 21 languages and received around two million visits a year. This was the result of the hard work of over 100 paid staff and volunteers. In recent years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has repeatedly emphasized the need for 21st century Buddhism. Inspired by this, I decided to recruit some millennials who could help me to reinvent the website to reach a wider audience for the future. This has given birth to studybuddhism.com.

The new website has a totally responsive design, so shows well on desktop and all handheld devices. Based on user testing and analytics, we have created a website designed to meet the users’ needs. We have also greatly expanded our social media presence, and added rich audio and visual content. The aim is to create a central hub for people who are interested in Tibetan Buddhism by providing accessible, easy to digest knowledge from beginning to advanced levels. We want to create a community of users who can study together, and to provide an open platform for the best teachings out there.

At this point, we are starting with a small number of languages and a limited amount of the previous content. Many new articles have been added, specifically directed to beginners. The old website will continue to be available through the new website, until we have completely transferred all of its material to the updated version.

Concluding Summary

So, this is a little bit of my story. Throughout all of this I have maintained a very strong Buddhist practice. For example, during most of these years I’ve meditated for about two hours every day. I’ve also done many long meditation retreats. Nowadays I’ve shortened my meditation time, but I still certainly do at least 30 minutes each day. And it’s the strong emphasis in the teachings on compassion, of proper motivation, overcoming egotism and so on, that have been the main aspects that I always emphasize. With the inspiration of my teachers, starting with Geshe Wangyal who led me to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and from there to the Dalai Lama’s teachers, I’ve been able to lead a meaningful life which I hope has been useful and beneficial to others, putting together Buddhist practice and Buddhology, with both the experiential and objective sides of Buddhism. Maybe my story can inspire some of you to do the same as well.