Transforming minds through Buddhism

By Mario Toneguzzi, Calgary Herald March 24, 2012

McGill expert to speak in Calgary in early April
Calgary, Canada
-- The first time Lara Braitstein learned anything about Buddhism, she was struck by just how much sense it all made to her.

"What I learned at first was about understanding, that our minds are the source of our experience of the world as positive or negative, and that, if we learn to transform our minds, we will effectively transform the world by altering our experience of it," says the associate professor in the faculty of religious studies at McGill University.

"It was a life-changing experience for me.

"Eventually, I started to study Buddhism formally and got hooked. The philosophy, the history, the many forms of practice and extraordinary range of cultures that are all authentically Buddhist. What's not to like? Buddhism describes such an amazing array of traditions. To me, it is totally captivating."

Braitstein will bring her passion, wisdom, knowledge and perspective on Buddhism to Calgary for two talks.

The Numata chair in Buddhist studies at the University of Calgary is hosting her lectures.

On April 2 at 7: 30 p.m. at the CIBC Hub Room, Rozsa Centre, her topic is titled Composing Awakening: Saraha and his Adamantine Songs.

On April 3 at noon at Social Sciences 1339, her topic is Doringpa's spiritual biography (rnam thar) and the 10th Shamarpa: On the Trail of an 18th-century Renegade Lama.

"Well, these are academic talks. They come out of my research over the past many years. They will be quite different from each other," Braitstein says.

"The first one is about the ninth-century Indian Buddhist yogi-saint-poet Saraha. One of the famous 84 Great Adepts ("mahasiddha" in Sanskrit), he was an unconventional, even wild, figure who flouted social and religious conventions and taught through poetry and song. I will mainly be focusing on a set of three poems he composed about the nature of mind and how to become awakened. Until now, these particular poems have remained untranslated and untreated in scholarship. I'm not sure why that's been the case, but I translated these poems myself and have been working with them for 12 years now. I will be introducing Saraha and these poems, as well as discussing how he fits into the broader South Asian religious and literary context.

"The second talk is about a Tibetan Lama who lived in the 18th century (1742-1792)," Braitstein says. "His name is Chodrup Gyatso and he was the 10th incarnation of the Shamarpa, or Red Hat Lama, the second-oldest reincarnate Lama lineage in Tibet. He is remembered in many histories of Tibet in the 18th century as something of a villain for the role he played in a series of wars between Tibet and Nepal. At the same time, however, he is revered to this day in Nepal, and there are other narratives of that period (Nepalese, British and one important Tibetan text) that seriously challenge the view that he was a 'renegade Lama.' So I will be discussing his life and the many ways that his deeds have been interpreted, really trying to trace the history of his story."

She says the appeal of Buddhism today is the same as since the lifetime of the Buddha: we want to be happy, but we suffer.

Why is that the case?

How can we have a positive effect on that experience?

"Those are the questions that Buddhism goes deeply into," says Braitstein. "I'm not sure it's growing - it is certainly moving and changing, as it has done since the very beginning. I think it is growing in Canada, in the Americas as a whole, in fact, and in Europe. And that may give us the impression that it is growing, but I think we may have that impression because it is relatively new here. I think it is simply the case that it is becoming a Canadian tradition, or set of traditions, now and this is just one more place that it has taken root and taken new shapes, just like it did all over South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia over the past 2.5 millennia. We're just the latest stop."

Braitstein says a variety of people have been attracted to Buddhism.

"If you visit local Buddhist temples or Dharma groups, or attend large events, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Kalacakra initiations, for example, you will see people from everywhere and all walks of life," she says.