A school full of children who can learn and be happy. Good conditions make good students

In Siliguri, a city in the Indian state of West Bengal, a boarding school was established almost six years ago for children from remote villages in the Himalayas of Nepal and India. The children from a poor background have blossomed quickly there and have got the same aspirations and dreams as their peers from well-to-do families. “I want to go on studying and then set up my own organic food business. In our mountains, all the food is organic,” says Mamata, who is in the eighth grade.
(The article was written for www.eduzin.cza Czech magazine about education, and later adapted for Speech of Delight).

The day starts radically early here, by European standards. At 5.30 am, in an instant, the sound of children’s feet outside my door turns the stillness of the night into a very busy morning. The room for the sick, temporarily converted into a guest room, where I am currently tossing and turning on a rather hard bed (which makes for a very light sleep), is located on the boys’ floor next to the bathroom with toilets. I can hear slamming doors, boys’ voices of varying pitch and intensity, and a mix of other, vaguer sounds. I wanted to experience the school from wake-up time to peace and quiet at night, but now I am not getting up, I do not want to disrupt the boys’ comfort zone as they wash up and use toilets. They’re super polite, I’m sure they’d greet me with a head bow, even while half naked, and some would say good morning Miss! – but I’d rather  just imagine the bathroom scenario. In half an hour, a few dozen children need to take their turns in the toilet and at the sinks, and the same is in the girls’ ward, one floor above. In all, there are about a hundred and sixty children living here. By six o’clock, everyone must be usually dressed in tracksuits, to start thirty minutes of physical exercise. 

I’m visiting the boarding primary school in Siliguri, West Bengal, India. THIS (Tise Himalayan International School) was founded by Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung, the abbot of Triten Norbutse monastery in Kathmandu, and his team, but it is not a religious school, it is a social project, a school for children from remote Himalayan villages in Nepal and India, and especially – though not exclusively – for those belonging to the ethnic minority who speak Tibetan dialects. The main objective is to provide children from poor families with a mix of modern and traditional education based on the ancient Himalayan culture and values associated with Buddhism, such as peaceful co-existence of people and harmony between man and nature. Why did the children have to leave the mountains for the bustling city for such an education? Let me explain.

Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung with THIS students. Read about the history of the school by clicking on the picture.

Into the unknown, in search of happiness

Mamata Rokaya is sixteen and she is in the 8th grade. She came to the school six years ago when it opened. “Honestly, we couldn’t put a sentence together in English back then,” she says in her now decent English. She was excited to go to the school, unlike other children who, when asked, replied that they were a bit afraid of the unknown. She remembers the beginning as difficult, but “then we got used to it and now we are all friends, brothers and sisters,” she says. 

A multi-talented girl, top of her class and a great dancer, Mamata passes on her dancing skills to her classmates, on weekends and holidays. Dancing is popular among the girls here, they learn it from each other and by following videos on Youtube. “Since childhood, I have always wanted to be a dancer. Then I realized that I wasn’t that good and now I rather want to go on studying and then set up my own organic food business. In our mountains, all the food is organic,” the dark-eyed girl says to me, smiling.   

Boarding schools are an unimaginable thing for many European parents, but in Nepal and India they are common. From the hill areas, many children leave for boarding schools located in a nearby or a more distant town before the age of ten, by twelve they are the majority. The trend has intensified a lot in recent decades. This is related to the increasing value of education as a social and economic lift, and also to the decline of traditional forms of earning in the mountains. The Himalayas are losing their population  and there are not enough good teachers there. But children from the poorest families who cannot afford alternatives depend on the local public school in their village or one nearby, and they often don’t learn much. “It used to happen that our teacher didn’t even come,” one boy remembers. “We liked not having to do anything then, but now I realize we were wasting our time,” he adds. In addition, Nepal’s and India´s state schools usually do not teach Tibetan language and Tibetan culture.

“In our village, we speak a language called ´khampa´, which is similar to Tibetan. Our family used to speak this dialect, but then we switched to Nepali because Nepali is taught at school and I was more fluent in it,” Mamata says. Families of the linguistic minority are slowly losing their cultural roots tied to their original language.

In this school (THIS), Mamata learns three languages, just like all the other children: Nepali (which is one of the official languages in West Bengal´s Darjeeling district), Tibetan and English. There is a 45 minute lesson a day for each language. Linguistic training is very intensive from pre-school onwards, with children having to master three different alphabets and three different scripts.  

Education in self-confidence

This week, the usual morning PE does not take place, as the school is going through final testing in all academic subjects – I arrived at the very end of the school year. The kids got up at the usual hour but instead of jumping they had got the task of reviewing the curriculum before breakfast. Some went to the dining hall and repeating out loud what is written in their handbooks; others sit outside quietly, in pairs, threes, or alone. Some look focused, others a bit drowsy, under the hood of their sweatshirts. 

Rinchen Thapa and her students

I am watching the exercises the students usually do in order to get their blood flowing in a couple of Sonam Norbu’s short videos. Kenla (Tibetan word for teacher – that’s what the children call him and the other adults) has been taking care of the children since it opened. Officially, he is the president of the founding organization, which in reality means that he is on the spot all the time, being in charge of the hostel and of the well-being of the children. He knows all of them by name and also by their story. He has visited many of the families where the children come for himself. 

“I was part of the team that went to the mountains on a recruitment trip in 2017 to offer families a place in our school,” he says. ”We saw a lot of poverty there; some children had no mother or father, some fathers drank too much alcohol. Some children were herding cattle in the mountains all alone,” says Sonam Norbu. 

The morning exercise, he explains, is basic Tibetan yoga. The children in his videos are lined up in rows behind each other and together they do different, dynamic movements, stretching their arms out in front of them or jumping up with their knees bent, shouting out different syllables during some of the exercises. Tibetan yoga, as well as short meditations in the morning and evening, typical folk dances in long-sleeved clothes that are waved gracefully in the air, or painting of Buddhist mandalas – all of this is taught to the children during art classes or in afternoon and weekend workshops. The school conveys elements of Himalayan as well as Indian culture and its customs to the children, and does so in an experiential way. There is definitely lots of singing, dancing and drawing. There is also a strong emphasis on environmental education, which is not considered a new, fashionable subject here, but a kind of continuation of the traditional veneration of nature typical for the Himalayan folks, and of their inclination to live in a sustainable way, in harmony with the natural environment.

Tibetan yoga every morning

The third educational and upbringing goal – in addition to providing modern education and the transmission of cultural traditions – is one that comes about perhaps automatically when both of the previous ones are met. “We want the children to know their value, not being inferior to anyone, to know that they can have the same aspirations and dreams as anyone else,” says Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung. In other words, the children’s sense of self-worth and dignity is as important for the founders of this school as much as their education.

Kids who can defeat boredom 

The life of the school has a tightly structured schedule from wake-up to bedtime, which brings an interesting contrast to the liveliness and vitality of the children. They can completely calm down on command, but they are not sheepish at all. When they play, they play vigorously and make lots of noise. And they are left to play freely. “Everything has its time, if they play, let them play!” says Sonam Norbu laconically. 

I like to watch the children playing, they are dexterous and resourceful and able to find their own way out of boredom. A group of five little girls, I guess six years old, are sitting in a circle under the staircase of the dormitory, throwing pebbles in the air. There are a lot of them – pebbles – here, unlike toys. They throw one, two, three pebbles with one hand and catch them again, in the palm of their hand and on the back, chattering, showing each other how to do it. Great exercises for motor skills. 

Many boys and some girls enjoy football.

Football is very popular here. Especially – but not only – among the boys there is a lot of enthusiastic football fans and passionate players. Many of them dream of becoming famous footballers. Fifteen-year-old Binod gets up at 4 a.m. every day and trains himself. “Dreams don’t just happen overnight, you have to work for them,” he says judiciously. Love for football also makes the boys avid readers of the local newspaper (its sports section), which hangs on the school´s notice board. 

Reading news about their favorite players…

No child  has a smart phone. But occasionally I see a bunch of kids surrounding an adult who is showing them something on theirs. On Sundays, the children use the adults’ phones to connect with their families.

The role of the extended family at the boarding school is taken over by the school team, teachers and caregivers. Many of the teachers and other members of the staff live in the school complex together with the students. “My wife and young daughter live in Kalimpong, which is about two hours away by car, and I visit them on weekends. During the week, I stay overnight at the school. I miss my daughter, but like this I dedicate more of my time to our pupils. Their parents are far away, so we adults try to replace them,” says the head teacher Nikhil Khati.

The cardboard water cycle 

Yungdrung Lhamo, a young teacher originally from far away Ladakh, also lives at the school. As a young girl, she also went through boarding school far from home and says it taught her to rely on herself. We are talking in the school’s library where she is showing me what children created on her class subject. Yungdrung Lhamo teaches “social studies” which includes geography, and she has assigned to to the students to represent the water cycle in nature. “We have a lot of cardboard, so I encouraged them to make something out of it,” she says. Her students made perfect use of the limited resources. Thanks to their skills and imagination, cardboard wrappers were transformed into evocative, pointy mountains, houses, and bridges with blue rivers flowing underneath. Cotton wool became clouds, leaves and pebbles formed nature. “They did great, they’re clever and creative,” the teacher praises the chilren. 

Children can create something meaningful out of nothing.

Another young member of the teaching staff is Rinchen Thapa. She graduated in political science and English and teaches English to the second and eighth graders. Rinchen comes from a village close to the city of Darjeeling, which is eighty kilometers far from the school. She is from a Tibeto-Nepali family, but is only now catching up with Tibetan as an adult. “When I see children learning it, I myself feel like learning it properly,” she says.

Compared to Tibetan, English is not a complicated language, she thinks. “I mainly try to make the students use it actively,” she says, adding: “With twenty five children in a class it is not easy but I still want to involve them as much as possible.” Some children commit to continue learning languages out of the school hours. “We girls in our dorm made a vow to only speak Tibetan or English to each other when we enter the room so that it would get more in our blood,” Mamata tells me. Such an attitude certainly makes teachers´ work easier and the students´ progress quicker.

Spelling Bee 2023…

Yungdrung and Rinchen are also “house masters”. All children of the school are divided into four formations, so-called houses. Each house has its own color and is named after one of the four important Asian rivers: Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Karnali. They all spring at the mount of Kailas in Tibet (which is named Tise in Tibetan and the school’s name, Tise Himalayan International School, is derived from it).

Yungdrung Lhamo and her colleague Sonam Tashi Bhutia lead the yellow Indus, while Rinchen with her colleague Sweta Rai are leading teachers of the blue Brahmaputra, helped by Sonam Palden and Kenrap Gyatso – just as an example. House masters are reference teachers for forty or so children of different ages of their “house”. The school holds competitions in which teams from each house engage. They include public speaking, art projects, sport events or dance performances. “I try to encourage even shy kids to participate. Recently I convinced a girl to perform in front of others, she built up her courage and got more confident afterwards,” says Rinchen Thapa.

Binod: Dreams are not fulfilled overnight, we have to work for it.,

The children also learn a lot just by being involved in the running of life in the hostel. On Sundays they collectively clean up. Every day brings many interactions with classmates of different ages, peer learning is a matter of course here. As the children get older there are more duties and responsibilities waiting for them. Older pupils help the younger children in the food line to keep their plates straight, while they are served by others; in the morning they have to ensure that all the children get up and dressed on time. Each of the four houses has a captain; and he or she has the most responsibilities. Mamata and Binod the footballer were or still are captains. “Taking care of others and organizing things for them is a lot of work, but sometimes it is fun,” Binod says.

Some people don’t get the chance

I am looking at a photo of parents with the first group of children who arrived at school in 2018. The wind-swept highlanders often look far older than their biological age. Life in the mountains has been getting easier slowly slowly, roads are being built, infrastructure is improving. But the situation of small farmers who work in the fields or keep cattle sometimes gets even worse, as traditional trade disappears and competition grows. Most parents of THIS students do hard manual labor, and they look accordingly. Even their children in shabby clothes in the photo look different from the children I meet at school, yet they are the same children. It’s as if their faces have brightened.

Parents and children heading for the school.

Nawang Sherpa is the vice-head teacher and he received the first wave of children at the school. They had to be taught everything from the very beginning, including basic hygiene, as he remembers. He has always encouraged his team to communicate a lot with the children, emphasizing English in particular. “Children are smart and can learn a language by imitating adults,” he says. “My advice was: in the classroom, keep the textbooks closed and mainly talk to them. Tell them stories, talk about what interests them, and give them space to respond!” A very skillful pedagogical attitude, I would say. Children are in good hands here. 

Thank to all the mentioned educators and other men and women working at the school that I didn’t have time to talk to or make them fit into the text, the children are in a very different situation than the trajectory of their families’ lives would have predicted. They are planting a seed for a better life than their parents have.

Hopefully there will be more kids to come and get this opportunity. The school collects no tuition and is financed by donations only. It doesn’t live high on the hog. In the photos, the school uniforms look elegant, but on closer inspection you can see many other things, like a hole in a shoe. The food is also modest. Eggs and bread or boiled chickpeas for breakfast, rice, potatoes, lentils and vegetables for lunch, noodle soup with meat or vegetables or rice, potatoes and vegetables again in the evening. For snacks the children have tea with milk and sugar and roasted rice, sometimes fruit. Different, more fancy meals are served on special occasions, maybe once a month, sweets very rarely. But the diet is well thought out, the children look healthy, have white teeth and sparkling eyes, and some of the boys have outgrown me already. 

Praising the food before meals.

I look at the children’s writing, drawings and other evidence of learning (how it is called in modern pedagogy) and see that the pupils can concentrate and achieve results. Also, when they play, they do it eagerly and joyfully. And it’s clear from what they tell me that they understand education is their chance. A chance which many people of the mountain communities of Nepal and India were not given. “Many intelligent people I know well could not study, their potential remained unfulfilled, which is sad to observe. The problems in our communities are largely rooted in the fact that people could not study,” says the school’s founder, Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung, who himself comes from a mountain village in Nepal. He, together with Sonam Norbu and other members of the staff believe that the school they established can break the chain of adversity that binds poor families. 

I wonder what plans they have for the children when they grow up and leave the school. Don’t they expect the graduates to return to the mountains and devote themselves to revitalizing their villages? Some of the similar schools invite their students to commit to their communities´welfare. 

“Of course, if they return home, it will be good, it would help their communities, but we don’t expect only that and it wouldn’t be realistic either,” says Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung. “If young people want to broaden their horizons and go elsewhere, we should not force them to stay. It wouldn’t work anyway,” he articulates his philosophy. And after a moment of reflection, he adds: “Actually, it might even be a good thing if they go out into the world. That way they can share the values this school has transmitted to them with other people and influence the world positively.” 

THIS school leaves a vast space for children´s dreams.

Pictures: Jitka Polanská, Tise Himalayan International School
The article was originally published in www.eduzin.cz, a Czech magazine about education.


As a response to the covid times and the imposed seclusion, for a couple of years Khenpo Gelek Jinpa gave support to Shenten´s community with his regular online teaching from Gyalwa Chaktri, the famous practice manual of Bon Dzogchen. At the beginning, those one hour long meetings took place every day, and combined thirty minutes of teaching with meditation. They were attended by up to three hundred people and many of them expressed their gratitude to the lama. During those encounters, Khenpo la repeatedly shared his key instructions. We decided to collect some and present them as a series of daily reminders. We continue with “KARMA IS MORE POWERFUL THAN BUDDHA”.

Karma is more powerful than Buddha. We should not take it as an abstract concept. After all, we can see it in our everyday experience. When we feel love, everything externally appears as beautiful and we are filled with joy. With those emotions, we plant a seed of positive karma. On the contrary, when we are pervaded by a negative emotion as anger or jealousy, external appearances darken and become negative.

Every thought, emotion and action leave a karmic imprint, as a foot leaves an imprint in snow. Every moment we have a choice to live a situation in a positive or a negative way. Our mind is a wonderful creator of everything, be aware of it. That’s why human life is so precious. It gives us a rare opportunity to discover peaceful, loving, compassionate qualities of the mind, its true nature, and let them prevail in our life.

Christine: Many people in Germany wished for a teaching and practice done step by step 

Christine Trachte – Halder and her husband Norbert Halder are close students and friends of Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche who is the abbot of Bon monastery of Triten Norbutse  in Kathmandu. Together with him they manage Yungdrung Bon Stiftung, a foundation based in Germany which helps the monastery and projects affiliated to it. Christine also organizes Khenchen Rinpoche´s teaching in Budhasweg near Frankfurt. 

Christine, you organized a cycle of teaching and practice in Germany,  led by Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung, which was sometimes called a “mini-gomdra”. What distinguished these retreats from others?

Our group met three times a year and received Dzogchen teaching from Khenchen Rinpoche step by step. We also train in Dzogchen meditation under his guidance. For me, it was a big difference compared to previous retreats. Before that, I could go and listen to teachings only during holidays.  I worked as a schoolteacher and for logic reasons, I could not choose my holiday freely. So, for many years, I only picked parts of the teaching here and there, I never completed an entire cycle. 

Christine at Shenten, the summer 2022.

After I retired, I had more time and could afford the luxury to go to theses retreats, follow a teaching from the very beginning and practice accordingly. Khenchen Rinpoche went quite slowly, especially at the beginning, and he did every step with us, guiding our practice, practicing with us. Initially, there was only one teaching session, in the morning, and all other sessions were dedicated to practice. It was a wonderful, deep experience.

How many people registered for the “mini-gomdra” retreat?

Around one hundred people, mostly from Germany. Only a half or a bit more than a half of them arrived at the end of the cycle, but I think it is still a very good result. It went on for eight years! We started in 2015 and the cycle concluded last year. Of course, there were the covid years in between. For two years, 2020 and 2021, we could not meet.

Did other participants also feel the benefits of going through the whole cycle, did you get their feedback?

Very much. Everybody who stayed until the end said that their lives were changed very much for the better. Out of their gratitude, many of them became generous supporters of Yungdrung Bon Stiftung, helping to sustain the monastery and THIS, the school for the children from the Himalayas, which is our heart project.

We all went deeper in our meditation. We also became very close to each other, and one could feel that special kind of energy being there, and a sense of protection. The experience was quite unique and special for me. 

Soon, the next cycle with Khenchen Rinpoche is going to start. But the format will be different. Can you explain it?

Again, Rinpoche is going to start from the beginning and go through the whole text, which is, in this case, Kusum Rangshar by Shardza Rinpoche, which refers to the Atri Dzogchen cycle, as an extensive commentary to its practice manual. The difference is the frequency: it will be only once a year, but the retreat will last six days. Another six-day long retreat with Khenchen Rinpoche in Germany will be organized in the spring and dedicated to a healing practice.

Christine and Margit, another participant of the “minigomdra”,with Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung at the castle of Saumur near Shenten Dargye Ling, just after the initiation of Lishu Tagring in 2023.

How did you happen to be the organizer of Rinpoche’s teaching?

In 2008, I joined the board of Yungdrung Bon Stiftung. The foundation was founded in 2000 by Wangden Kreuzer with the aim to support Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, the home monastery of Yongdzin Rinpoche. 2008 was the year when the founder and his sister left the board. 

In 2011 I became the main manager of the foundation and Norbert stepped in also, first as the treasurer and gradually taking on more duties. The foundation is surrounded and supported by many German practitioners who formed a community around it. We all used to meet during Yongdzin Rinpoche´s teaching in Germany once a year. The last year it was in 2014. 

In the same year, I think, someone pointed out that people who have regular jobs have some difficulty attending a complete cycle of teaching. Those people longed for the possibility of receiving teaching from a teacher coming to Germany possibly a few times a year and teaching us on long weekends (from Friday to Monday), in a series of teachings. Many people really waited for something like this! And Khenchen Rinpoche agreed to it, committing to come three times a year. People were so enthusiastic about it! And I, in the role of the manager of Yungdrung Bon Stiftung, happened to organize it.

Christine, you also attended  the meditation program of Shenten Dargye Ling, Gomdra. It extends over four years and lasts seventy days every year. This year is the last one of this cycle which started in 2019. What was your motivation to enter this program?

After I tasted the fruits of the “mini-gomdra” in Germany –  if we can call it that way – I wished to go on longer retreats, and as soon as I could – after retiring – I applied for the Gomdra at Shenten. Unfortunately, this year, due to my health problems I had to leave after one month. But I really liked being there, I find the format very supportive.  

Nobert, you have been following the teachings of Bon for a long time. When and where did you meet Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche?

I remember the first time I went to Lopon´s teaching was in Blanc in France in 2001. I think someone from the Dzogchen community of Namkhai Norbu told me about the retreat. I had gone to retreats with Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Sogyal Rinpoche before finding Bon. Lopon´s main topic is Dzogchen, and this is what I am interested in, that’s why I stuck to it. I do not understand much about tantra and do not have much connection with the ritualistic part of Buddhist and Bon teachings, I stay with what is understandable and clear for me – Dzogchen. I am not even particularly interested in which cycle the text is from, it is all one teaching, for me. 

And you, Christine, how did you meet Bon?

At that time when Norbert went to Blanc, we already stayed together but I could not go with him because, as a schoolteacher, I did not have holidays. I went in 2003 when the teaching was organized in August, which is a good time for teachers. The teaching with Lopon felt very familiar to me, and we continued coming in the following years. We became a part of Rinpoche´s  community and sangha. Compared to the teachings of Namkhai Norbu or Sogyal Rinpoche, these retreats  were less crowded, which we liked. 

What is your profession, Norbert? 

I studied physics and I have been self-employed in the field of electronics.

And you said you worked as a teacher, Christine, right?

I studied to be a teacher, but I also studied communication and taught communication skills in commercial courses. After I moved to Norbert´s hometown in Bavaria, I worked as a teacher in all kinds of schools. I taught German and history in middle school and grammar schools, but I also worked with adults and with students of vocational training.

Allow me one personal question. You are both practitioners and you are husband and wife. Where did you meet?

Christine: Norbert and I met in August 1999 in Lerab Ling founded by Sogyal Rinpoche, as we were both Rinpoche´s students. I remember it very well. In October 2000, I moved from Westphalia to Bavaria, Norbert´s region, and we have stayed together since then. In 2003, as I said, I met Yongdzin Rinpoche and Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche who, since the beginning, was accompanying Rinpoche during his teaching in the West.

Photo: Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung, Jitka Polanská

Riccardo and Lodoe: We met by chance and became close friends 

Bön teaching came to the Italian most eastern region of Friuli – Venezia Giulia thanks to a deep connection and friendship between Riccardo Vrech, a student of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and instructor of yantra yoga, and geshe Lodoe Tsukphud, one of the teachers at the Dialectic School of Bön monastery of Triten Norbutse in Kathmandu, Nepal…

When and how did you meet for the first time?

Riccardo: In 2003, I started my anthropological research in Dolpo. It is a high altitude, remote region of Nepal, culturally mostly Tibetan. At that time, it was even more isolated than today. To get from Kathmandu to my final destination I took two flights and then continued with three days of walking. 

Arriving in Kathmandu, a few days before my departure for the Himalayas, I went to Triten Norbutse monastery. I wanted to meet Lopon Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, a master well known to all students of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. 

As you may know, there are many stairs leading to the monastery,  and as I climbed them and reached the top, I looked up and there was a monk standing there and watching me. It was Lodoe. He was very friendly. He took my hand and led me to the monastery. He showed me around, we went to the temple, to the library of the monastery…

Do you remember that moment, geshe la?

Lodoe: I remember it very well. There is a path around the monastery, which we walk sometimes, and I just happened to be close to the entrance to the monastery when Riccardo arrived. He smiled at me nicely, and he looked ready to say something. That was how I felt when our eyes met.

How was your English, geshe la, at that time?

Lodoe: My English was close to zero, but we talked somehow, also with the help of some other people who were around. Riccardo told me that he was a student of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and I understood that he came to meet Yongdzin Rinpoche. He also told me “I am going to (the lake of) Phoksundo”. This made me pay attention immediately! It is my birthplace! I told him: “If you need help when you go there, tell me.”

Riccardo, did you have anybody in Dolpo helping you to organize your travel? 

Riccardo: My main contact was the director of Tapriza school, Senduk Lama. He helped me a lot. But the help of Lodoe came in very handy. He registered a message to his family on my video camera, to tell them to welcome me and take care of me. Today, he would just have a video call through whatsapp but then there was nothing like that. 

When I reached Phoksundo, Lodoe´s family, the father, the mother, a brother – they all showed great hospitality to me. I lived with them as their guest for a couple of weeks that time, and later I came to stay with them a few more times. It took me three years to conclude my research. I always stayed in Dolpo two, three, or four months at a maximum. 

And whenever Riccardo traveled through Kathmandu, you met, I imagine…

Lodoe: Yes, every time Riccardo went to Nepal, he came to see me and visited the monastery.

The friendship then developed furtherly and geshe Lodoe started traveling to Europe. Which year was it for the first time?

Lodoe: In 2011. Riccardo invited me to Italy, and I also have one friend in France and one in Germany and they both invited me to their countries. I went to France first, visited Shenten Dargye Ling, and from there I traveled to Germany and after that to Italy. 

“Riccardo and I have confidence in each other.”

Since then, geshe la is coming to teach in Italy. Did you count how many times the teaching has taken place?

Lodoe: This year was the fifth, or the sixth time.
Riccardo: At the  beginning it was quite difficult due to the language barrier. The original idea was to translate the teaching from Tibetan, but it was not easy to find a translator from Tibetan to Italian. I organize everything just as a private person, with friends, in an informal way. However, we managed to have a translator for Tibetan in the first year;  Anna De Pretis translated in Italian. But then, for practical reasons, we decided to switch to teaching in English.

Lodoe: My English was really poor but what to do, I tried. I already had a little experience with speaking  in English in public talks, usually small conferences of one two hours, that Riccardo organized. Riccardo translates my English into Italian. Last year and this year, Federico and Clara translated, they replaced him.

(Note: Federico Ballarin and Clara Lovisetti often translate teachings organized by Shenten Dargye Ling.)

What was the topic of the teaching this year?

Riccardo: We have been going through the preliminary practices –  ngondro – of the Gyalwa Chagtri, the practice manual of Zhang-Zhung Nyen Gyud cycle of Dzogchen teaching. Next year we will be finishing the last part of the ngondro

I want to say that since the beginning, I recognized the deep knowledge of geshe la and I have complete trust in him as a teacher. It is not easy to transfer this rich, ancient and complex knowledge to the West but I am confident that people here in Italy can benefit from what we do and we will continue to do.

Geshe la, do you like teaching to the Western people?

Oh, I do. 

Dolpo is a place where Yungdrung Bön was once very strong. Is that correct?

Lodoe: Yes, the teachings from Zhang-Zhung arrived in Tibet through Dolpo, and there were very important local lineages there but they have been dying out in the past two or three generations. 

Riccardo, coming back to your experiences in Dolpo: what did you like the most, there? What surprised you or impressed you? 

Riccardo:  It was like stepping into another dimension. When I walked through Dolpo, I went through forests, I crossed mountain passes, it was a full immersion into nature. You can see 360 degrees in very far distances. Breathtaking views, space everywhere! And in Lodoe´s birthplace, there is the unforgettable lake…

Dolpo at that time was classified as one of the poorest regions in an already poor Nepal –  it has got an “A” region´s rate. But it is not what you feel there, because of the open heartedness of Dolpo´s people, the way they welcome you and share whatever they have with you. It is really touching. You feel very rich there, actually. 

And I have the same question for geshe la regarding Europe, and especially Italy.

Lodoe: When I was landing at the airport of Venice for the first time –  it was in the evening, six or seven o’clock –  I was amazed, seeing so many interesting and unknown things on the land and on the coast and on the islands. I was wondering: “Is this place existent or not?” It is like you see the reality but still you cannot believe deeply.

I felt very lucky to visit Venice. For me, it looks like a dream within a dream. We have real dreams at night and our life is also a kind of dream. And Venice is another dream on top of our dreaming (he laughs). Venice is a wonderful place. A dream island (he laughs).

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I really like coming to Italy. Riccardo and I have confidence in each other, feeling close. I like Italian people for their natural behavior. They do not hide, they are open. You can really enjoy being with them.

Photos: Geshe Lodoe Tsukphud, Riccardo Vrech, Jitka Polanska


As a response to the covid times and the imposed seclusion, for a couple of years Khenpo Gelek Jinpa gave support to Shenten´s community with his regular online teaching from Gyalwa Chaktri, the famous practice manual of Bon Dzogchen. At the beginning, those one hour long meetings took place every day, and combined thirty minutes of teaching with meditation. They were attended by up to three hundred people and many of them expressed their gratitude to the lama. During those encounters, Khenpo la repeatedly shared his key instructions. We decided to collect some and present them as a series of daily reminders. We continue with “WHAT LIBERATION MEANS” in the context of Dzogchen practice.

It is important to understand what liberation or enlightenment really means, according to the teachings. We have to liberate our own impurities, our negative emotions. The impure mind is the source of suffering, samsara and nirvana are within our own mind.

If we hold on anger or jealousy, it means we do not really recognize the harm it causes to us. By liberating our negative emotions all enlightened qualities arise naturally in our mind.

Abiding in the state of rigpa is the most effective and powerful method how to liberate the mind but not so easy to apply, steadily. We have to check on ourselves and see what works, there are other supportive methods of releasing negative emotions and patterns, in the teachings.

We have to be honest with ourselves. We can be in the dharma for twenty years and feel proud about our seniority, but if we are not able to work with our emotions, we are in the same situation as a beginner.

In order to achieve liberation or at least go ahead on the path toward liberation, we have to understand what we, personally, need to liberate. We have to understand our anger, how it manifests, how it obscures our mind. If we keep our obscurations, it is like keeping a needle stuck in our body, it will hurt us. It is our ego who refuses to recognize our flaws, our obscurations, it looks away from them. It is scared to see. Be creative, see how your mind works.

Trul khor brings quick result and lots of benefit, says Geshe Lungrig about Tibetan yoga

Encouraged by Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung,  Geshe Lungrig Namdag taught Tibetan yoga to the participants of this year’s summer retreat at Shenten, during the morning meditation. “I have developed a strong connection to the exercises, I experience clearly the power they have to improve our meditation and our health, and so I am motivated to share this message with others,” he says.

Do you remember when you heard about trul khor for the first time?

First briefly, let me say something about myself. When I was young, around thirteen or fourteen years old, I went to the monastery in my hometown, Khyungpo Tengchen Gon. My brother was already studying at the monastery and he encouraged me to join. At the beginning, I was taught reading and writing in Tibetan and chanting. After some time, I decided to become a monk. There were around sixty monks there, at that time, not many. Nowadays, more than three hundred. My brother has become the abbot – khenpo – of the monastery in the meanwhile. 

As a monk, I continued studying chanting, playing ritual instruments like the drum damaru, and also I was introduced to the preliminary practices, which I completed. We were a group of monks and for more than one hundred days we practiced only ngondro.

After that I started slowly with the main practice, meditation, also phowa, I was sixteen, seventeen, maybe, at that time. When I was eighteen, I went on a pilgrimage, with my brother and other monks, we were seven eight monks all together. We went to holy places like Menri monastery, Yundgrung Ling monastery, Bonri, all very special places.

Did you get familiarity with trul khor already in Tibet, or only at Triten Norbutse where you studied later?

Already in Tibet, at the Khyungpo Tengchen Gon.  We did one hundred days of tummo retreat and practiced different kinds of trul khors. We were explained how to do before the retreat started. My brother taught a group of monks to which I also belonged. Later, I received further teaching about tsa lung trul khor from Drubdra Khenpo, Geshe Gelek, Khenchen Rinpoche at Triten Norbutse, and practised it.

In Tibet, tsa lung trul khor is not taught widely, only to those who are seriously interested. They have to do some preliminary practices and meditation and only after they are given the teachings.

Now you teach trul khor yourself. Was it something that you liked from the very beginning?

I think I am more interested in trul khor now. I like it very much because I understand more the benefits of these exercises. It is very beneficial for all of us, whether we are a sutra practitioner, a tantra practitioner, or a dzogchen practitioner. Our physical body is very important for everyone. We say that if you want to cross a big ocean, you have to have a good boat. If your boat is not very good, you cannot cross, and you can even drown. We always speak about the mind, the mind is like a captain of the boat. But the body is also very, very important on the spiritual path, and that’s why yoga and trul khor have been practised. People who are not on the spiritual path do sports to take care of their bodies, and we have yoga exercises. I arrived at that conclusion. I myself do as much as I can and I also want to show other people how to do them. 

Do you do yoga exercises regularly?

Not every day, from time to time, and especially when I have some teachings on yoga to do, I train for two three weeks before, and also I study texts speaking about these exercises. 

I noticed, when you taught us this summer at Shenten, that you compare different sources of texts. Tsa lung trul khor in its various forms is described in different texts. 

Yes, I checked the texts written by Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen, also Zhang-Zhung Nyen Gyud, which contain instructions for the set of exercises I was teaching you during the summer. Also, Ma Gyud texts speak about tsa lung, also A-Tri… They are quite similar to each other, and especially their effects and benefits are similar.

You said that in Tibet these exercises were not taught to everyone. Nowadays, they are taught openly, you even give courses on zoom. The approach has changed...

I think the idea is that it can help many people on the physical, energetical level. Even if they do not do it as deeply as tantra practitioners or dzogchen practitioners who transmitted those teachings, they can feel the benefits immediately. Just after doing the exercises people can immediately experience more openness, energy rising up and flowing freely. This is very positive. Everyone can improve their meditation by doing these exercises. In the morning, we can warm our body with yoga and expand space in our mind quickly, it is a good means against sleepiness. It also brings a feeling of joy and happiness. It increases our pure mind. 

Our physical body is made of five elements: space, earth, water, fire, wind… All forms of this universe, not only humans but also plants, rocks, everything, is made of five elements. We are closely connected with those elements. In a text it is said that we have four limbs and a head, which is five altogether, and five are also the elements which are the basic components of our body. When the power of the elements is exhausted in our body, we die. When the elements are balanced and harmonized, the body is healthy, and we experience much less suffering. 

Yoga exercises help to harmonize the elements, to connect us properly with our elements, correct?

Yes, that’s right, it is one of the effects. The essence of trul khor is described in the texts as a means to cut through illusions, to see the truth. Which is the purpose of all our spiritual practice. Tsa lung trul khor helps a lot to keep us on the path. If our negative emotions are strong, practicing trul khor helps to liberate them. In Zhang Zhung trul khor there are five preliminary exercises connected with the five elements, and then six root exercises which are designed to release our negative emotions of anger, ignorance, jealousy, desire, pride and drowsiness… The complete set contains forty movements.

You taught those five preliminary movements and the six root movements during the morning meditation at the summer retreat this summer. I found your method to be very good; we all practiced again and again what we had learned, as you added only one movement at a time so that we could remember and get familiar with it.

Yes, practice is important, otherwise people just listen to the teaching, but they do not have real experience. When we cook something, we must eat it. If not, it is all wasted. And we do not want to waste this precious teaching. Trul khor has been delivered to us by dzogchen masters who practised it and it was transmitted from a master to a disciple throughout the centuries, over thousands of years. Their main practice was Dzogchen, but they understood their bodies very well and they knew these auxiliary practices could improve meditation. And so they left a message for us about this very ancient technique.

When did you start teaching Tibetan yoga, at Shenten, do you remember?

I think that it started when Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche was teaching from the text of Kusum Rangshar about it and asked me to show the movements to the participants. It was a few years ago already. The same happened during a teaching of Khenpo Gelek Jinpa: he explained, and I showed the exercises. After that, they encouraged me to teach it on my own. I started already before the covid pandemic and during it, I did two times on zoom. Now it is included in the regular Shenten program. Besides that, I taught tsa lung trul khor in Hungary and in Poland. If they request, I teach it. I teach different things, depending on what the sanghas request:  Zhiné practice, Sherab Chamma practice, Medicine Buddha practice. I was also asked to teach the Four generosities practices and how to make namkhas.

When did you first come to Shenten?

The first time was in 2014, it was just to visit Yongdzin Rinpoche. Khenpo Rinpoche told me that time that I was always welcome, so I came more and more, staying for a longer time, listening to teachings, helping… Now I am a resident lama at Shenten Dargye Ling. 

Pictures: Jitka Polanská

Pearls of DailyGelek: LEAVE IT AS IT IS

As a response to the covid times and the imposed seclusion, for a couple of years Khenpo Gelek Jinpa gave support to Shenten´s community with his regular online teaching from Gyalwa Chaktri, the famous practice manual of Bon Dzogchen. At the beginning, those one hour long meetings took place every day, and combined thirty minutes of teaching with meditation. They were attended by up to three hundred people and many of them expressed their gratitude to the lama. During those encounters, Khenpo la repeatedly shared his key instructions. We decided to collect some and present them as a series of daily reminders. We continue with “LEAVE IT AS IT IS” and what it means in the context of Dzogchen practice.

Whenever I shared a worry with my master, Yongdzin Rinpoche, he used to say:  leave it as it is. I repeat it to myself when I feel disturbed.

Khenpo Gelek Jinpa

Leave it as it is

Do not chase after the past, do not create the future, do not modify the present – these are traditional recommendations about how to keep our mind when we meditate, how to detach it from our usual rush after thoughts and make it still.

It is a healthy attitude in general, not only in the practice.

Whatever happened, is gone. We should not lock it in our heart. Good things, bad things – let them go. Do not get obscured by your past.   

As for the future, nobody knows what it will be, so we should not spend much time in thinking about it. The future is not ripened yet, so do not shape it with your worries. With too much thinking, concepts become more and more concrete, it is like water becoming ice.

Be relaxed instead and help other people to relax about the future. Relaxed does not mean lazy, it means being able to release the stress from our mind and our body.

And what does it mean “do not modify the present”? Accept without judgment whatever arises in your mind. Do not elaborate it. Abide in the presence of it. Whatever comes, if you do not grasp at it, it will be liberated by itself. It is easier to say than do, but it is not too hard either. It is possible.

Whenever I shared a worry with my master, Yongdzin Rinpoche, he used to say:  leave it as it is. I repeat it to myself when I feel disturbed. I try to leave the mind unpolluted with negative thoughts and avoid negative reactions. Do not hold on those thoughts, and do not block them either – it is the best way how to deal with them.

We should keep this advice in our hearts. These are challenging times but worrying does not help. So do not worry much, whatever happens, take it as a result of our collective karma and a sign of the reality of impermanence.

Leave it as it is, leave everything in your mind freely. And if I cannot do that for the moment, then I pray, I at least pray as much as I can for everybody´s release from suffering. This is helpful for me and for others.

What matters is what is inside our hearts, our minds. There, you can cultivate peace and compassion, deep understanding for yourself and others. We all can.

(Daily sessions on ZOOM were called DailyGelek initially; later, Geshe Samten, Geshe Lungrik and Geshe Kalsang joined and the meetings were renamed DailyShenten).

Photo: Jitka Polanská, Largen Lama

We are dedicated to a non-sectarian view of the Dharma, promoting also Bön, founder of RIMÉ Association says

Paolo Roberti di Sarsina is a long-time dzogchen practitioner, a disciple of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. A year and a half ago he founded RIMÉ Association in Bologna, Italy, dedicated to spreading and promoting an atmosphere of tolerance and respect between various schools and traditions of Tibetan (and non-Tibetan) Buddhism. The name of the association – RIMÉ – recalls the non-sectarian movement started in the 19th century in Tibet to  which the great dzogchen master of the Bön tradition, Sharzda Tashi Gyaltsen, belonged. 

Paolo, since when have you been following Dharma?

I took refuge in 1982 in Pomaia, at the Lama Tzong Khapa´s Institute, more than forty years ago, with His Holiness Dalailama, the first time he came to Italy. I had been interested in Buddhism for some time before; my father gave me the first tome of the UTET edition, a publishing house specializing in Buddhist texts, when I was still in high school. After taking refuge I followed the Gelug school, the Dalailama´s tradition. In 1995 I joined the Dzogchen Community of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and I still belong to it today. With our Dzogchen community center, Gegenling, in 2010 we organized a teaching of the Master here in Bologna, where the oldest university in the world is located. On that occasion, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche gave a master lecture on Tibetan medicine, a heritage of humanity. For this event, we obtained the patronage of His Holiness Dalailama, as well as the Italian Prime Minister´s.

How and when was your Rimé Association for the Non-Sectarian Practice, Promotion and Diffusion of Dharma born?

It was founded in February 2022, and inspired by our Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. He himself was a great exponent of non-sectarianism having received teachings from many lineages. 

There is a story that illustrates his open attitude. In 1988, he was invited to the famous conference of several masters from various schools and lineages organized by His Holiness Dalailama. Everyone had to have a ‘badge’ indicating an affiliation to a school. But the Master was not easily classified. When they wanted to write ‘Sakya’ on it, he said ‘I am not Sakya though’, and this even if he was very connected to that school. “So Nyingmapa, maybe?” they asked him, knowing of him being close to that school. “Not even,” he replied. “I am a dzogchen master and I am not from one side,” he added.  And that is non-sectarian: include everything in one’s mind. It is wonderful!

Paolo Roberti di Sarsina con Federico Ballarin and Clara Lovisetti, dzogchen practitioners and translators of teachings by Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche and other Shenten lamas.

“Rimé” is a movement established in the 19th century in Tibet. The great Bön master, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1934) was a Rimé exponent. Can you tell us something about the origins and purpose of the initiative?

The ‘ris med’ movement had two main creators: Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (1813-1899) and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892). The name derives from the Tibetan words ris (sectarianism) and med (refutation) and literally means ‘without sides’, hence ‘non-sectarian’. The movement emphasized the unity of the different Dharma transmissions and the need to go beyond all sectarianism. It inspired a great spiritual rebirth. It referred back to the original sources of the Dharma teachings and aimed to transmit and teach the multiformity of lineages while preserving their variety.

The movement and especially its principles still inspire the dialogue among the different Tibetan religious schools, right?

Yes, they do. The greatest contemporary exponent of the ´Rimé’ is certainly His Holiness Dalailama. On our website you can find, for example, the transcript of His Holiness’ speech at the Twelfth Rimé Conference held in Dharamsala in 2015 where he, among other things, talks about the distances and mistrust bridged between the Gelug School and the Bön.

RIMÉ Association tries to find and connect examples of the non-sectarian approach to the Dharma in the West…

Yes, we have set up the ‘Rimé Network’, which is a voluntary collaborative network of Dharma centers that share a non-sectarian view. The idea is to join forces in the promotion of events, whether they are organized by the centers themselves, by our association or our center, Gelegling. The network currently includes six centers, including ours. Two of them are Bön: Ligmincha Italia and Kunsang Gar Meditation Centre of Geshe Dangsong Namgyal, located in California. 

I would like to mention here how much Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche studied and researched Bön. In light of his close and highly respectful relationship with Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, he invited him in 1997 to Merigar to transmit the Yetri Thasel´s dzogchen cycle.

In addition to setting up the network, you organize various events of different schools of Dharma. This year, a few of them have been related to Bön. Can you list them?

Last July, we had the honor of receiving teachings from Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche. A big part of the group took refuge with him and Rinpoche accepted our invitation to return next year. On that occasion, I expressed my hope to Rinpoche that the Congregation of Shenten Dargye Ling would like to support us.

In September, we will collaborate with Ligmincha Italy for a retreat with Menri Ponlop Trinley Nyima Rinpoche. We also had an online presentation of the book on the life of Khenpo Gelek Jinpa, written by Anne Brunila and based on Khenpo’s account, and in October, there will be a presentation of the translation of the book by Alejandro Chaoul, disciple of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, on the Tibetan yoga. 

Our idea and ambition is to establish the first Dharma center in Italy exclusively dedicated to promoting the non-sectarian movement, disseminating information and organizing events from various schools and lineages.

Besides connecting Dharma centers, as an association, you offer an opportunity to become members to Dharma practitioners. Which benefits does the membership bring?

Currently, we have eighty members. We provide them with information on events organized by us and beyond. Our website, which is continuously updated, presents various interesting materials including the history of the original Rimé movement. We try to create a community of members respectful of the various traditions and schools, although this does not mean eclecticism but rather a harmony within a diversity.

The retreats you organize at Bologna have a splendid setting in the Hermitage of Ronzano, a monastery founded in the 12th century in the hills of Bologna. The Hermitage is a few minutes’ drive from the city center, yet still isolated. How did you find this beautiful place?

The Hermitage belongs to the Order of the Servants of Mary and is run by lay volunteers. Various activities and events are hosted there, but only those which the prior finds trustable. We have built up a very good relationship with the people in charge over time. It is truly a beautiful place. Khenchen Rinpoche and Geshe Samten liked it very much.

Paolo, could you tell us something about your professional background?

I graduated in Medicine at the University of Bologna in 1979 with a thesis on yoga therapy. In 1983, I specialized in psychiatry, also at the University of Bologna, and worked as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. For several decades, I have been committed to promoting the centrality of the person in healthcare and have organized various initiatives in this field, including a National Symposium at the Senate in Rome, in 2016. 

You are president of the Foundation for Salutogenesis. Can you explain what the word means and what you are involved in?

The term Salutogenesis is formed from the Latin word salus, salutis – health, and the Greek word genesis – origin, beginning, derivation. It is a neologism coined by an Israeli sociologist, Aaron Antonovsky. Salutogenesis is everything that creates health, enables people, even in situations of great adversity (trauma, chronic illness, disability, poor socio-economic conditions), to make choices that lead to health, using their internal and external resources.

Salutogenesis, therefore, deals with the ’causes’, or rather the ‘sources’, of health. For us, it is the reference model for the promotion of health. For me, at the center of the health care process must always be the person, the patient.

Many valuable information can be found on the website of RIMÉ Association: https://www.associazionerime.org/

Pictures: Jitka Polanská

Pearls of DailyGelek: JOYFUL EFFORT

As a response to the covid times and the imposed seclusion, for a couple of years Khenpo Gelek Jinpa gave support to Shenten´s community with his regular online teaching from Gyalwa Chaktri, the famous practice manual of Bon Dzogchen. At the beginning, those one hour long meetings took place every day, and combined thirty minutes of teaching with meditation. They were attended by up to three hundred people and many of them expressed their gratitude to the lama. During those encounters, Khenpo la repeatedly shared his key instructions. We decided to collect some and present them as a series of daily reminders. We start with JOYFUL EFFORT and what it means in the context of Dzogchen practice.

(Daily sessions on ZOOM were called DailyGelek initially; later, Geshe Samten, Geshe Lungrik and Geshe Kalsang joined and the meetings were renamed DailyShenten).

In the teaching of Dzogchen we hear about “effortless state” or “effortless meditation”. Some people may misunderstand this. “Effortless” is a meditation that does not fabricate anything, this is the main characteristic of Dzogchen, compared to other kinds of meditation. But it does not mean at all that a Dzogchen practitioner should not be diligent and energetic. “Develop joyful effort” is what Tonpa Shenrab recommends to his disciples when he leaves them to go to for teaching in other places. When we know the purpose of our meditation and we trust in the result, then we naturally develop dedication and enthusiasm for it – joyful effort. When we have it, we do not divide our time between “practice time” and “leisure time”. Our mind does not wait for a formal meditation session to practice, it is naturally more and more engaged all the time. When we have joyful effort, we do not need to force ourselves to practice. Our practice does not feel dry and tiring, it is energizing and leads to a relaxed state. It is what we want to do more and more.

Photo: Yana Karamari

My son will continue the family tradition of Tibetan arts of healing, Amchi Nyima says

Amchi Nyima Gurung is a menrampa, a doctor of the Tibetan science of healing, sowa rigpa. He has been coming to Shenten for many years, practising kunye, Tibetan massage and giving medical consultations. Besides that, he teaches foundations of the massage, holding a workshop about it every summer. 

Amchi la, when did you come to Shenten for the first time?

It was in 2009.  I returned to France in 2012 after that, invited to a school of massage in Paris, to show them kunye, the Tibetan massage. That year, I also visited  Shenten and have continued coming every year since then, except for the “covid” years of 2020 and 2021. 

You offer the Tibetan massage to people who come for retreats at Shenten and to people from the neighborhood and you also teach the Tibetan massage. What kind of people attend your workshops?

Different people. Some are professional masseurs, but others are completely new to massage.

Can you say what is characteristic about kunye, how it differs from other types of massage we know in the West, such as thai or ayurveda massage?

I cannot compare the Tibetan massage to them because I do not know these massages well. I can only describe what we do in kunye. Ku means to apply something, and nye means rubbing. Basically, we apply oils and rub the body with them. The second phase of the massage is called chi and means cleansing. We clean the impurities which the body releases with the massage by applying tsampa, a roasted barley flour. But if a person suffers from what we call a wind imbalance, we do not remove the oil.

There is a special procedure for the lung imbalance, right?

Yes, it is called tsu´.  We put a mix of herbs into ghi (melted butter) and apply it on specific points of the body; on the temples, or on the back, palms, the chest, feet… Butter does not burn skin, that’s why it is suitable for this healing.

How did you learn kunye?

From my teachers and from traditional Tibetan medicine texts. They are part of the canonical corpus of texts of bumzhi. Some are very old. Some of them focus on specific parts of the body, others deal with the whole body. Also, they may focus on different diseases. 

You are an amchi, a menrampa – doctor of traditional Tibetan medicine. How long did you study for that?

Nine years. 

And where?

First in India, with His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizin. I arrived in India in 1979, from Nepal, when I was a nine-year-old boy. My father is an amchi, my family holds a lineage of amchis. But my grandfather died when my father was a young boy and so he could not get the full knowledge of the sowa rigpa from him. That’s why my parents decided to send me to Menri to learn the traditional Tibetan medicine there. They also wanted me to learn Tibetan language and culture in general. In my village, the local school does not teach them. 

Was it difficult for you as a young boy to leave your family?

Well, it seemed an opportunity to learn something new. I entered the school for children in Dolanji, which at that time had only five classes. After that, I continued my studies with Menri Trizin when he had time. I learned a lot from him, but it was not a systematic study. 

How long did you stay with His Holiness?

Around seven years. After that I returned to my family back home in Nepal. I was around twenty years old. I started helping my father in my village, Jharkot, in lower Mustang. He taught me about medical plants, and we went collecting them together. We also went to healing pujas in the village. 

After approximately a couple of years, Yongdzin Rinpoche sent me to the medical school in Dorpatan. This school  had been established there about five years earlier. I completed my studies under the guidance of  Tsultrim Sangye, called Gege, the founder of the school. It took me seven and half years. 

When did you get your degree as menrampa?

In 2001. I graduated at Triten Norbutse monastery, together with two other people. Then I returned again to my home in Mustang. 

Until 2009,  I stayed all year long in the mountains, helping patients. And I still continue to do so for a large part of the year, but I also continue to visit  Shenten and Kathmandu to offer massage and healing. 

You have a family in Mustang. Will your children continue the family tradition of amchis?

Yes, one of my two sons studies Tibetan medicine at the medical school of Triten Norbutse. He is twenty now. The younger one is in the eleventh grade at a school in Mustang. 

photos: Jitka Polanska

Debates are a method how to test your knowledge, the organizers of Shenten´s Shedra say

In 2019, Shenten Dargye Ling included in its program a course called “Shedra”, focusing on Bon philosophy and the art of dialectic process of disputation. In the course, Western followers of Yungdrung Bon learn how to debate as monks do. Sara Bertók and Wolfgang Reutter, the organizers of Shedra, disclose how it is organized and what they find challenging.

Why was Shedra, the course on philosophical aspects and debating in Yungdrung Bon, introduced in Shenten´s program? I heard that it was a wish of some practitioners, of you, Sara, in the first place. Is that correct?

Sara: No, the idea belonged to our lamas. It was a project of Yongdzin Rinpoche, Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche and Khenpo Gelek Jinpa. It came up when I was at Shenten organizing a summer retreat and as I was interested in such a course, I offered to organize it. I got involved a lot in it and later I asked Wolfgang to join as a co-organizer, because I did not have the capacity to do it all by myself.

Wolfgang: I was very interested in approaching the philosophy in Yungdrung Bon. When I heard that such a course was being planned, I immediately wanted to participate. And so I did. The first year of the cycle was organized only at Shenten, not online. It was before the “corona” started. I was there. After that Sara asked me if I could step in with the organization of it and so, from the second year on, we have been doing it together. That year, I was also elected as a member of the Council of Association of Shenten Dargye Ling. 

Sara: Most of the work went on Wolfi’s shoulder. I support him when I can.

I heard that the lamas were quite skeptical to whether a course on philosophy makes sense, and they are still uncertain about whether it is worth putting energy into it.

Sara: Yes, I can understand that they are skeptical about it and how successful it could be. It is a new subject with a new format, and what we have done can be viewed as a pilot project; to evaluate when the cycle is completed. 

Philosophy is a very vast topic in Yungdrung Bon, it takes years to learn it and even more to master it. And this knowledge is necessary in order to debate about it. So, the question is how to do a meaningful course dedicated to Bonpo philosophy when you have only a couple of weeks at your disposal within a year? I think this cycle offers us a very good opportunity to learn from the experience. And we can reflect on how to shape it better, maybe, in the next cycle.

The first part of the five-year-long cycle was held in 2019, right?

Wolfgang: Exactly, it was three weeks all spent together at Shenten. It was wonderful for all of us. It was a real retreat, including regular meditations and offerings. It was a big challenge also, for everybody.

What was the challenge about, specifically?

Wolfgang: It is a huge field of study. Monks study it for years, as Sara said, and we were all just new.
Sara: It was challenging also because we did not follow the monastic system of how they learn. If we had gone the gradual way as the monks do, from the very beginning, it would be very slow and not that interesting for us, and so we started in the middle, reading a quite complex text and then trying to debate over the text. Many people had no experience with the Sutra texts. Most of us know about Dzogchen, from our masters. The Sutric view is very different. The idea of debating about the concepts expressed in these texts was very new for many of us. The first year Khenchen Rinpoche tried to give us an overview of the whole system, talking about the Nine ways of Bon in a structural way, and we started to read the text that we analyzed and debated on throughout this and following years, a text called Salam, The self-commentary of the Magical Lamp of the Stages and Paths, by Nyamme Sherab Gyaltsen. 

The method of philosophical analysis that Tibetan monks use is different from how it is done in the field of Western philosophy. You derive your arguments from the text. It is not free reasoning, rather you need to learn quite strict rules and understand the text very well to be able to debate. 

I assisted in a couple of sessions the second year, with your kind permission, to get an idea of how the course was, and I could see that there is a pattern in the debate, a certain way of reasoning, but I could not find out easily what the pattern was. It was not possible to use just “common sense” logic. 

Wolfgang: Yes, the debate has a strict procedure with rules. There are also different roles: a defender and a challenger. It is a bit like a dance with the rules. You gather and deepen your knowledge with the debate.

Why is the course focused so much on debating? Debate is a complex thing that involves communication, reasoning, gestures… Would it not be better to just read and analyze a philosophical text with a teacher?

Wolfgang: I think that you cannot separate philosophy and debate. It is through debates that knowledge develops.  It is really important to know how the tradition developed the knowledge and how it tested it through debate for themselves and with other schools. The course refines logical thinking, in this way. And you can apply those methods we have learned in everyday life, when you become more skillful, of course. Now we are just beginners.

Sara: Debating is traditionally considered to be a very important learning method. It was also used as a way to compete with other spiritual schools. Nowadays, the main purpose is to refine one’s knowledge, your understanding of this knowledge. When you just listen passively to what a teacher says, you may think that you understand. But when you start debating on the subject, following the rules, it really tests your understanding. Your opponent may ask you something that catches you by surprise. You cannot just answer superficially. Your answer must be specific, clear, and very precise.  At the first sight what you say may seem correct, but then the challenger puts more pressure on you, and you find out that you have no sufficient arguments, your knowledge is weak. 

Debating also teaches resilience, you have to withstand somebody who is insisting on proving your position as not right. Also, it is good training for speaking in public. My impression is that monks who went through it are less shy to speak in front of others, while many Westerners are very shy. Maybe Western schools should introduce debating in their program.

Wolfgang: And it is fun. The more I do, the more I enjoy it. I imagine that it is very pleasurable when you can do it well, including all the movements. 

But you do not train it as a performance, right? Since the second year, the Shedra moved online and so you do not meet physically. Did you try it in the first year, at least?

Wolfgang: Not really, we had too little knowledge for that.
Sara: We needed first to learn syllogisms, the patterns of arguments.

Do monks debate from the very beginning of their course on philosophy, or do they have a preliminary course where they get familiar with the subject and rules? I’ve seen very young monks debating.

Wolfgang: Monks learn the basics of philosophy first. We jumped into reading a text that the monks meet only later on in their studies, not immediately. Salam is regarded as the highest text in Bon Mahayana tradition.
Sara: I think that at the beginning, monks train debating on some very easy subjects, like debating on colours, pillars and so on, not on philosophical subjects. 

How many people started the course of Shedra that you organize?

Sara: We were fifteen in the first year. We just reached the number fixed by Khenchen Rinpoche as a minimal number to start the program. In the second year there was covid, and we did not know how long it would take and how it would go. We decided then not to consider it as the second year of  the course but more as a repetition year. 

Wolfgang: And it was also shorter that year, only eight days. The following year, we went back to a full program, but only online. In 2022, it was organized both online and onsite. 

So, now four years are completed and one more is ahead, right?

Wolfgang: That’s correct.

How many people are in the course now?

Sara: Quite a lot. Just a few dropped out. And at the official second year, we let new people join.
Wolfgang: This year we were around twenty. 

How is the program structured and what do you do, specifically?

Wolfgang: In the first year, Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung and Khenpo Gelek both taught us, later, Khenpo Gelek took over the entire teaching. In addition, we have had Tibetan lessons with Charles Ramble in each course. We started with spoken Tibetan, and then we proceeded to the classical Tibetan. We have two sessions per day, each one for a different level of participants. This year all was concentrated in the afternoons. The philosophy session was every day from three to five pm. Plus the morning and the evening meditation. All on zoom. 

What do lessons in Tibetan look like? 

Sara: We have a beginners´ course of spoken Tibetan and a reading class. There are people in the group who are complete beginners, some others with just very little knowledge, others who are intermediate and then some with a really good level of knowledge. We started with two groups. When you approach the Tibetan language, even if you do it with the aim to read dharmic texts, you must learn the alphabet, pronunciation, reading and writing letters. This is quite a long process in Tibetan, and in general it is advisable to start with spoken Tibetan before starting to learn classical Tibetan. 

Wolfgang: Charles is a wonderful teacher. In the second year, he went on with us after the closure ended. It was really a precious opportunity. For me, personally, learning Tibetan is very challenging. And I will not be the only one, I guess. Many people tell me the same story. They start, then they drop, then they pick it up again.

As for the results, sometimes I do understand, and some other times I do not understand at all (laughs). But I started to understand the structure of a Tibetan sentence, this was very helpful, and it keeps me going. When you do not know a word, you can find it, but the understanding of how phrases are built is of key importance. I am very much motivated to go on.

Khenpo Gelek used to be a skilful debater during his studies at the monastery.

Dharmic texts are concise and condensed. Lamas themselves learn how to interpret them.

Sara: Yes, philosophical, and especially ritual texts, need the support of an oral tradition for interpreting them. A very specific language is used. And you also need the background knowledge to get the meaning well. In a way, it is similar to philosophical texts in Western philosophy, as you also cannot understand them easily without being introduced to their historical and cultural context. And Tibetan texts are even more distant from us, culturally, and also, as we said, the logic which they use is different. 

Many of them are ancient, which creates another barrier.

Sara: Yes, the text we read in the course was written in the 14th century. We are attempting to translate it into English, by the way.

Will it be finalized and published; do you have such aspirations?

Sara. It will be cool to publish it at the end. People in the group have been putting lots of effort in it, and they have good skills. It goes very slow, but I have this goal in my mind. It would be a big support for participants in the forthcoming courses, if Shedra continues. And also for anyone who cannot read Tibetan and just wants to know more about Bon philosophy. 

Bon is popular, the time for expansion has come, the owner of Vajra Books says

Vajra Books, a publishing house and a bookstore with the same name, both located in Kathmandu, are an important reference point for readers interested in Buddhism and the Himalayan culture, including Bon. “I decided to put books about Bon at the top of the list,” Bidur Dangol, the owner of Vajra Books, says.

Many people from our community come to your bookstore, Vajra Books, to buy books about Bon and not only Bon. And your publishing house has released quite a few titles related to Bon. How many, to be precise?

In total, our production counts approximately 300 titles until now, and 30 of them are about Bon. We have just published Drenpa´s Proclamation, The Rise and Decline of the Bon religion in Tibet  by Per Kvaerne and Dan Martin. I think it’s a very important book. I invest lots of money in such books as I really want to publish them. It was released in our new book series, Vajra Academic, as its third volume. I started Varja Academic during the lockdown. It was not easy, but it has been worth all the effort. I am grateful to Roberto Vitaly who has encouraged me in many ways to go this way.

Has the market been changing, for Bon literature?

In the last twenty years, knowledge of Bon has spread a lot. Now books about Bon are popular. Bon is being researched as a part of cultural heritage. It was different even just twenty-five years ago, when I started publishing books about Bon, it was still a taboo among many Tibetans. It was seen as something external and hostile to their tradition.

I had very good connections with researchers, such as Samten Karmey and Charles Ramble, also John Vincent Bellezza, and I saw them as very serious people; so I did not have any prejudice against Bon. On the contrary, I promoted it. Now there are more and more readers interested in it. The market for Bon books has increased. There is lots of curiosity about Bon these days..

And I am also perceived as the one who knows what is going on in the Bon community and somehow connected to it. People even come by and ask me how to get to the Triten Norbutse monastery!

In 2005 you published The Oral Tradition from Zhang-Zhung by John Reynolds. This book is a very valued source of information for many Western Bon practitioners.

I am not a practitioner, but at that time and on the occasion of publishing it, I went to meet Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche to receive his blessings. I did not know anybody in the monastery, so I felt a bit shy, but it was a very nice meeting. Lopon offered me a coffee and cookies and said he knew me already. “Many people speak about you, Bidur,” he told me. I felt very blessed. And I told him: “I will put books about Bon at the top, giving them a priority.”

Your bookshop offers a wide variety of books. How long has it taken to build such a richness?

I have been in the book trade for almost thirty years. I was interested in Buddhism from the very beginning. When I opened my own bookstore, I pursued my way. I did what I wanted to do, publishing books about Buddhism, including research and related matters by anthropologists and sociologists.

How many books are at your bookstore, currently?

Around ten thousand.

When I was here in Kathmandu 2020, just before the pandemic started, I saw John Reynolds coming to your bookstore every day, making corrections, just before sending a book to print. What book was that one?

Yes, that’s right. I was sending a taxi to collect him every day. The book, The Cult and the Practice of the Bonpo Deity Walchen Gekhod, was published then, during the lockdown that followed soon thereafter.

2020-2021 must have been hard for you…

Lockdowns were devastating for me. The shop was closed but we kept our employees and, of course, we lost lots of money. But we continued our publishing activities  – I worked from home – and we released a couple of books. One of them was the John Reynold´s book.

How many people are in your team?

We are five in the shop, in the publishing section we have five, so all together we are ten people. My son helps me at the shop, you may see him at the counter, and he is also one of the book designers.

Are you originally from Kathmandu?

Yes, I belong to the Newari community. Newars are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. They are known for their contributions to culture, art and literature, among other things. Traditionally, they were farmers but now many of them are in business. We are hard workers. Our language is different from Nepali, it is even from a different linguistic group, as it is one of the languages of the Sino-Tibetan family.

Have you traveled far, for your business?

Yes, I used to, but for the past three years, I have not. A few weeks ago, I traveled to New Delhi to attend a big book fair. It was my first trip in quite a long time. In 2019, I was in Paris for a conference, and I was planning to go to Prague last year, for a conference organized there. But I had a problem with my leg and could not go, at the end. Charles Ramble told me, jokingly: “You can stay home, we did the publicity for you!” (laughing).

Are your books sold in bookstores in Europe and the US?

Yes, we have good distribution channels. Now we are, among others, stocking our titles in the famous Watkins Books in London. In August, Dimitry Ermakov will present his book, Bo and Bon, there. It was published by us in 2008. We also sell in the Namse Bangdzo Bookstore in the US.

Also, I cooperate well with Garuda Verlag and its online bookstore located in Switzerland. Peter Eisenegger is a friend.  

We were small for a long time, but now the time for growth has come; for Vajra Books and for Bon. There are now quite a few Bonpo geshes who write texts and come along to present them to us asking if we would publish them. And, as I said, there is an ever increasing interest in Bon both within the scientific community and by readers worldwide.