Driver's license for Buddhist monk is his key to assimilation, improving harmony

By Michael Lollar, Memphis Commercial Appeal, September 21, 2009

Memphis, TN (USA) -- The Buddhist monk reaches a top speed of 5 mph as he maneuvers his 16-year-old Toyota around the grounds of the meditation center in Raleigh.

<< Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk who founded the Pema Karpo Buddhist Meditation Center in Raleigh, practices driving on the grounds of the Pho Da Temple last week. Khenpo, who fled Tibet at 19, is still learning English and has failed the driver's license exam three times.

It is a practice excursion to make sure that the monk, Khenpo Gawang Rinpoche, is familiar with the car the next time he takes his driver's license test.

A scholar among Buddhists, he has the equivalent of a doctorate in religion and literature. That means nothing to driver's license examiners who have flunked him three times on Tennessee's written driver's exam.

"It's kind of important to drive, to be independent, but language is a problem," says Khenpo, who lives about a mile from the meditation center that he founded here two years ago.

He wears the same deep amber and burgundy colors as those worn by one of his heroes, the Dalai Lama, leader-in-exile of Tibet. The amber represents wisdom, the burgundy compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, the monk fled Chinese-occupied Tibet to study in India. The Dalai Lama was born to a farm family.

The monk was born to yak herders. The monk has studied in group sessions with the Dalai Lama as his teacher and thinks of him primarily as a religious figure -- "the holiest of monks, a good and great teacher."

He also thinks of the Dalai Lama as a political figure,

campaigning for world peace and for self-determination for Tibetans in an occupied country.

The monk and his students bought tickets as soon as they became available for the Dalai Lama's visit to Memphis Wednesday. The Dalai Lama will accept an International Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, then speak at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts on "Developing Peace and Harmony."

For the monk, peace and harmony will improve when he finally gets a driver's license. He has to rely on students to drive him to and from the center, to the grocery store and to the orthodontist. As part of his adaptation to Western culture, he began wearing braces a year ago to correct an overbite. It had interfered with his ability to pronounce certain sounds in English.

Students call him "Khenpo," a title that means teacher. His given name is only one name, Gawang. Rinpoche is another title, recognizing a lineage of revered teachers or mentors.

Khenpo, 35, began studying English seriously in 2007 when he decided to open the Memphis center, the Pema Karpo Buddhist Meditation Center at 3921 Frayser-Raleigh Road.

He has learned to use a computer along with Photoshop software and Skype, software that allows him to communicate by live computer video with other Skype users. When his English improves, he hopes to teach Buddhism and meditation to students anywhere in the world.

But his immersion in English language courses like Rosetta Stone and children's programming on TV are, so far, no match for the written driver's exam.

"Abbreviations very bad," he says. Along with standard fare about lane changes and turn signals, the exams include abbreviations such as "DUI" (driving under the influence) and "BAC" (blood alcohol content).

"It's confusing for him," says Candia Ludy, a Memphian and former Baptist who formally converted to Buddhism in 1987.

She was working as a coordinator of courses on Buddhism at the Shambhala Mountain Retreat near Boulder, Colo., when she met Khenpo in 2005 and invited him to Memphis in hopes he might open a center here.

One of his Memphis students, attorney Halley Marker, says Khenpo's decision to open the Memphis center showed a "pioneer spirit" willing to bring Buddhism to the Bible belt.

Having his own center was a longtime goal for Khenpo,

whose work also includes translating ancient Tibetan texts into English. His dream of a driver's license also is a longtime goal. As a 10-year-old child, he visited Tibet's capital, Lhasa, with his father and saw cars for the first time. When they returned to their mountain village, Khenpo and his brothers used frozen yak dung as makeshift wheels to build toy cars.

In Buddhist tradition, Khenpo does not worry about his driver's license failures or fear his next exam. "Sometimes we need to accept our own karma," he says.

He knows of nothing he did to account for his three flunked exams, but in Buddhist tradition he does not dwell on the past. "If you want good things then you must do good things."

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