Lama Geshe Thubten Jangchub: On the rocky path to Enlightenment

by Trisha Sertori, The Jakarta Post, April 15, 2009

Kuta, Bali (Indonesia) -- The study of Buddhism is a rigorous journey of science, philosophy and practice: An intellectual pursuit rendered meaningless without a lifelong dedication to understanding its ancient foundations.

For more than 30 years, Nepalese monk Geshe Thubten Jangchub, or Jangchub for short, has climbed the goat track of Buddhism, often stumbling over rocks or sliding into the crevasses of the religion's demanding landscape. In that time he has twice met the Dalai Lama, a man he says he can believe in.

A light-hearted fellow dressed in the rich red robes of his calling, Jangchub is quick to laugh, his broad smile giving him more than a passing resemblance to the Buddha he follows.

Jangchub was in Bali last week to give his personal blessing during the Heart Shrine Relics Tour, currently on show in Bali and Java.

The snowy mountains, brisk air and silence of Kopan Monastery in Nepal make up some of Jangchub's earliest memories. "When I entered the monastery the teacher asked me how old I was. I said I thought I was nine," says Jangchub, counting off three joints of three fingers as he did as a child.

Education in the monastery was tough - days started long before dawn with the standard school curriculum from 6 a.m. followed by memorizing Buddhist texts. For a Nepalese kid from Manang village, studying those texts meant learning Tibetan first, as the Buddhist texts are written in their original Tibetan.

"These days I can help monks with this because I speak Nepalese and Tibetan," he says. "It can be difficult for the monks to understand Tibetan, which we use for the Buddhist philosophy debates."

These debates have honed Jangchub's thinking skills; during discussions he threads Buddhist philosophy with the talk of his boyhood. His knowledge of the path is so rich he is able to explain simply some of the essence of Buddhist thought and how its practice can reduce conflict.

One example is the judgment of action rather than the judgment of people.

"There are many problems in the world. We have wars and things like that. But we say a person is not bad, but the actions are bad. For a Buddhist to say someone was bad, we would need supernatural powers to read their mind. I don't know another person's mind," Jangchub says. "In 1,000 people there may be a new Buddha. We don't know."

After all, he says, it is possible the person next to you is a Buddha in the making and to judge their person is beyond the scope of humans.

It is this separation of people from their actions that allows for the notion of compassion - a deeply held Buddhist view of the world, based, Jangchub says, on love.

"The Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the Chenrezi Buddha - the Compassionate Buddha. Compassion is an active form of love. Compassion is very important because in Buddhism compassion means to not harm others. This is a truth in all religions," says Jangchub.

The exiled 14th Dalai Lama is so compassionate, he adds, that he chose to remain on earth as a bodhisattva rather than become a Buddha and be forever removed from the cares of the world.

Getting to the root of those worldly woes and attempting to reduce their impact is addressed in Buddhist study and debate, says Jangchub, explaining people can't get on without wars, disagreements, jealousies and greed because of the "three poisons".

"The three poisons are anger, hindrance and attachment. Because of the impact of these three emotions we have wars, we are not happy," he says.

"These three emotions don't have legs, they don't have mouths, but they control us and make all the trouble in the world."

He adds that recognizing these drivers in the human makeup and working deliberately to reduce their hold can make us happier.

"We need to think about why we are angry; if it is about revenge, when we take out the person and only look at the action, our feelings of anger subside. We are angry at an action and an action does not have a personality.

"When it comes to attachment we need to see behind the attachment. We see something beautiful, something lovely and that builds attachment. In reality there is nothing there. It is all impermanence," says Jangchub of the ephemeral nature of life, which is guaranteed to break down into its tiniest atoms over time.

This Buddhist viewpoint of impermanence extends even to the soul, a philosophy at times at odds with other religions on the fundamental questions of why we exist. "Buddhists do not believe in the soul. This is because the idea of a soul demands permanence - an unchangeable state. Buddhists believe rather in past, present and future life. If we believed in the soul it would mean that when someone passes away the soul would be unchangeable so could not evolve."

This intellectual element of Buddhism, Jangchub stresses, is required of adherents of Buddhism.

"In Tibet, Buddhists believe in the three elements of Buddhism: Buddha of Science, Buddha of Philosophy and Buddha of Practice. People need to know the religion - that is, the science. They need to study the texts, the philosophy, and then the practice of the chanting and meditation. The problem lies in the fact that many people want to jump straight to the chanting and meditation - but the chanting is then hollow because they do not know what they are chanting."

He has gentle advice for those who would take on the shiny surface of Buddhism without also taking on its rigors.

"The study of Buddhism takes a long, long time. But if people don't do that study it is meaningless."