When I saw the poster advertising Tsewang Gyatso's visit here at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, I knew enough to know it was a must-attend event. In Buddhism, the two branches that are of widest interest are the Zen Buddhism of China and Japan and the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (although there are others notably Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia). "Rinpoche" is the honorific spiritual title of ordained members of the Tibetan lineage, while "Khenchen" is an honorific scholarly title equivalent to "professor of Buddhist Studies." Right up my alley! But it got better: Tsewang Gyatso is the Khenchen of Palyul Nyingma Meditation and Study Centers, an international network of centers under the auspices of Namdrooling Palyul Monastery. There are four sub-branches of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. Of these four, Nyingma (means "ancient") is the oldest, and the branch most closely identified with the body of classical Buddhist commentary originating in the Eighth Century "Tibetan Renaissance," the great flowering of Buddhism in Tibet. This literature is the specialty of the famous North American scholar Robert Thurman (see his The Jewel Tree of Tibet) and our deepest heritage of philosophical Buddhism. And here he was, a Rinpoche of the highest rank, visiting out-of-the-way Mayaguez: a unique event, to my knowledge (although San Juan has a Buddhist center and the Dalai Lama visited there last year).
Needless to say, there were only about eight or nine people there the first night, when Gyatso Rinpoche gave a basic introduction to the origins of Buddhism. One or two more showed up last night, when Rinpoche discussed dzogchen practice, the basic spiritual practice of nyingma tantra. Buddhism is such a simple thing, and yet it is so endlessly rewarding (spiritual) and fascinating (intellectual). Rinpoche was not talking about philosophy, he was talking about training the mind for loving kindness towards all living beings. I ask students in class sometimes, "Do you want to be nice?" A surprisingly subversive question, and one that often has a big impact considering how basic and simple it is. Philosopher that I am, in some moods I get hung up on the issue of idealism in the Buddhist tradition (idealism in the metaphysical sense: the view that primary being is somehow mental). It is certainly true that the language, at least as far as I can see reading English translations, is unequivocal: the mind creates the world. There is a Berkeleyan/Spinozistic subtext that here dates back to the original Vedic tradition: if the universe is the mind of God under some description (Spinoza) or if God is a transcendental constitutive mind (Berkeley), in Hinduism the atman, then idealism might be (just) an abstruse item of theological metaphysics. On the other end of the spectrum we could take it all as figurative (the way someone like me reads the Bible), smile at the world and the world smiles back at you, Gestalt, and all that sort of thing. Listening to Khenchen Gyatso, he didn't seem to fit either of those interpretations. He explained the destructive force of the atomic bomb, for example, as an effect of the mental states that created it (and he ran the same line on modern medical research). He was clear on the point that the mind was what made the difference. Everything is alright or not alright, he was sure, depending on the state of the mind. A very satisfying evening, a real treat for us far-off Mayaguezanos for sure.