On the Job: Lama teaches path to peace, happiness

By Mike Cronin, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW, December 29, 2008

Pittsburgh, PA (USA) -- Until he was 6, Tempa Dukte Lama was like any other boy of Tibetan descent in Torpa, a village in the Humla district of northwest Nepal.

But in 1982, Lama began a journey of being unusual, if not unique. That's when his grandfather walked him to school: a monthlong trek through the Himalayas to a Buddhist monastery in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

"My life has been full of surprises," said Lama, 32, who lives in Greenfield.

He was the first person from his hometown to receive any type of formal education. He was the first Buddhist monk of the Tibetan Bon tradition to teach at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M. And he is the only Tibetan lama living in Pittsburgh.

His actual surname is Lama. But he earned the title of lama, or Buddhist priest, by completing his studies at the Himachal Pradesh monastery.

"It is possible have the last name Lama and not be a lama," he said.

Lama's arrival and development of a sangha, or community of Buddhists, in Pittsburgh last year fulfilled a need for many Western Pennsylvanians.

"I've been waiting for someone to come from Tibet for at least 20 years," said Bob Labobgah, 72, an artist who lives in Bloomfield. He attends Lama's meditation and discussion sessions every Tuesday night in a section of his basement that he's converted into a meditation room.

"He is an incredibly insightful and compassionate man," Labobgah said. "One time after meditation, he said, 'I want you all to be happy when you leave. I want you to be happy and stay calm for a few days, or at least a few hours.' That really struck me."

Helping people be happy is part of what Lama views as his mission as a lama. The happier people are, the more capacity they have to serve others, which, in turn, makes more people happy.

"A lama has to have the skill to be a resource for other people -- whether that's as a friend or a mentor," Lama said during an interview at his home. He smiles easily and often, creasing his face below a head of close-cropped black hair. He typically wears the traditional maroon robes of Buddhist monks and doesn't wear shoes in his house.

"A lama has to provide space for people to become whatever they are," he said. "People can take refuge in a lama. Then the lama sees something in you, so he can guide you so you can accomplish something."

He persuaded Iris Grossmann, 32, to complete her doctorate in geoscience and meteorology. Grossmann left the doctorate program at the University of Hamburg in Germany for the Santa Fe Zen center in 2004 and considered becoming a Buddhist nun. She'd been studying environmental conservation and climate change, but was frustrated with the feeling she could do only so much as a scientist.

"Tempa showed me it's when we have so many expectations with our work that we suffer," Grossmann said. "Tempa encouraged me to clear my mind and enjoy everything I do now. I can't expect that everything I do will have an impact -- just enjoy it. There's no reason we shouldn't enjoy what we're doing."

By the time Grossmann decided to finish her doctorate, she and Lama had fallen in love. They got married and moved to Pittsburgh after Grossmann landed a post-doctoral research position at Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

Lama registered a nonprofit, Olmo Ling, in August and said he plans to develop programs to serve the elderly, children 8 to 12 years old, and the sick and dying.

"I want to train people to be compassionate friends and spiritual caregivers," Lama said.