ISSN 2768-4261 (Online)
In the Anglophone world, Tibetan Buddhism is often presented through the teachings of such visionaries as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoché and other important reincarnate lamas. While such exceptional masters undoubtedly have much to teach us, English-speaking lay observers may lack an appreciation for the immense erudition, rigor and sophistication of the thousands of Tibetan monks and nuns who have studied in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic university system, or shédra (bshad grwa).
This interview seeks to provide some small remedy by presenting the perspectives of a graduate from the shédra at Namdröling Monastery, the largest Nyingma monastery in the Tibetan diaspora, located in Bylakuppe, Karnataka in South India. With a humility characteristic of his monastic vocation, the interviewee, Lopön Pema Dorjé (slob dpon pad+ma rdo rje), as he was called at the time of our interview, insists that he is “no one special”—he once commented to me that he doesn’t hold a passport, much less any reincarnation titles. Still, his words sparkle with an intelligence, creativity and faith honed by more than a decade of formal monastic studies and a genuine desire to share this significant learning for the benefit of others. It was in recognition of these, and other exceptional qualities, that on April 22, 2023 he received the title of Khenpo (mkhan po), the terminal scholastic degree of the Nyingma lineage, 16 years after he first enrolled at Namdröling’s shédra.
In the following interview, we discuss the relationship between speech, writing and the transmission of the Buddhist teachings, with considerations ranging from the original words of the Buddha to issues of digital transmission in the 21st century. In particular, we focus on the importance and practice of lung, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the oral transmission of written Buddhist scriptures. The Tibetan practice of lung is “likely a relic of Indian oral tradition,” inherited from the time in ancient India when oral recitation served as the sole means to preserve Buddhist texts in the centuries before they were committed to writing (Gardener 27). Tibetan Buddhism stresses the need for a disciple to receive oral transmission (lung) and oral teachings (khrid) from a qualified teacher in order to authentically study and practice the teachings held within a written text (Rdza dpal sprul rin po che 7-19). This teacher, in turn, also had to receive the oral transmission and teaching from a previous master, a process sometimes described as being like a “golden rosary” (gser phreng), where each individual is compared to a golden bead extending back to the composer of the text, be that the historical Buddha or another enlightened master. In the absence of the living lineage of oral transmission, a written text becomes a “mere book” (dpe cha tsam), a phrase used to describe a text in which the lineage of oral transmission has died (van der Kuijp 7).
The immense importance of oral transmission in Tibetan Buddhism confounds long-held Orientalist stereotypes concerning the Tibetan reverence for their script and “exotic” written artifacts, such as the prayer flags and mani stones so ubiquitous in the Himalaya. Referring to such material cultural practices, the late Cambridge anthropology professor Jack Goody went so far as to assert, “Tibet demonstrates the epitome of grapholatry,” meaning the actual worship of script as idol (Goody 16). Yet from a certain Tibetan Buddhist perspective, writing is, quite literally, only surface deep (Dung dkar blo bzang ‘phrin las 293-94). This flat, two-dimensional visual representation is but latent energy and potentiality, inactivated and dormant until lifted off the page on the breath of an authentic, lineage-holding master. The power and blessings of written texts are transmitted through the physical presence of an enunciating teacher, not the dead letter of a “mere book.” Orality must give life to writing.
Throughout our interview, we explore the question of how transmission occurs during lung, giving attention to the significance of synchronization, and the role of meditation: verbal, written and digital. Early on, Pema Dorjé draws a distinction between the Sūtrayāna and the Secret Mantrayāna, or exoteric and esoteric Buddhist teachings; he explains that receiving lung is beneficial for both types teaching, but is an absolute requirement in the case of the latter. Significantly, he also explains that it is the “continuum of sound” (sgra‘i brgyud pa) of the lung, rather than the semantic understanding its words, that transmits the authority (dbang cha), benefit (phan thogs), power (nus pa) and blessings (byin rlabs) of a particular Buddhist text. He presents a worldview of the soteriology of sound, whereby sound alone, even divorced from linguistic meaning, can serve as a conduit powerful enough to convey a teachings’ manifold qualities from master to disciple.
The interview occurred in-person on June 2, 2022 outside of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India, where we were both based for the summer with the English for Dharma Purposes (EDP) program of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute (SINI), Pema Dorjé as a student and myself as an English teacher. With the exception of a few English loanwords, indicated when first used with quotation marks and italics, our discussion was in Tibetan, which I then translated and transcribed into English. I originally conducted the interview as part of my dissertation fieldwork, and later received Pema Dorjé’s permission to edit and use selections from the interview for the current work.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Khenpo Pema Dorjé in the Mahābodhi Temple Complex, in Bodh Gaya, India.
Photo courtsey: Khenpo Pema Dorjé
Patrick Dowd: Please speak a bit about yourself and your personal history.
Lopön Pema Dorjé: My name is Pema Dorjé. I am from Tibet, from Nyarong in Kham (khams nyag rong). According to the Western calendar, I was born in 1984. As a child, I went to Chinese school and graduated from high school under the Chinese system, so I am quite comfortable with Chinese language. When I turned 18, I went directly to Larung Gar. There, I met Khenpo Jigmé Phüntsok Rinpoché (bla ma yid bzhin nor bu rin po che) and was ordained in his presence. I received many precious teachings from him during this extremely valuable time. I stayed at Larung Gar, receiving his teachings and practicing, for four years. After the passing of Khenpo Rinpoché in 2004, I stayed at Larung Gar a few more months, then decided to return home. I conducted rituals and served at my monastery in Nyarong for about a year, and then I attended a year of classes at our shédra. In 2006, I went on pilgrimage to Lhasa, my first time in the holy city. After my pilgrimage, I went directly to India and in 2007, I enrolled in Namdröling Monastery’s shédra in south India. I started in Year 2, as I had already completed the first year of studies in Tibet. In 2014, I finished the nine-year course of my shédra studies, and in 2015, I graduated as a Lopön.
After this, I began the expected work of a recent Lopön graduate. For three years, I taught the scriptures at Namdröling’s shédra. After this, I was sent to our branch monastery in Nepal, and taught the scriptures there for two years. I then returned to Namdröling in 2020 and was there throughout the pandemic. Then, this year , I began my studies here.
Patrick Dowd: Could you describe the relationship between Buddhism and writing? What is the importance of the scriptures for progressing on the Buddhist path?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: These days, the written scriptures are extremely important on the Buddhist path. We still have the Buddha’s teachings because they have been preserved in writing. Without writing, they would have been lost a long time ago. But this was not always the case.
In the Buddha’s time, no one wrote anything down, because it wasn’t necessary. When the Buddha spoke, the Arhats and Bodhisattvas immediately understood everything that he said and they could hold this within their minds unfailingly, without mistaking a single word or its meaning. They all had the power of perfect recollection (mi brjed pa’i gzungs).
If I were an Arhat, later I could tell you every word of our conversation. But not only that—I could describe the lay of the stones on the path, how the wind blew through the leaves of this tree, the way the clouds were shaped and their movement through the sky. But our memories aren’t like that anymore. No one has a memory like they did. That’s why we must depend on writing. We cannot remember anything without it. That’s why it is so important.
I think many modern people believe that in the Buddha’s time, people were stupid. They think that now they are so smart, they have so much knowledge and are able to create such amazing physical conditions. But think about memory! In the Buddha’s time, these thousands of disciples could remember every single word that he had spoken, exactly as he spoke it, with immediate comprehension of the meaning. Who can do that today?
Without our books, our computers and our smart phones, what do we really know? How strong is our memory without all of these outer conditions?
Patrick Dowd: I would like to ask you about the practice of lung [oral/reading transmission]. Generally speaking, there are many different Buddhist traditions throughout the world, but it seems like Tibetan Buddhism places unique emphasis on the need to receive lung. In other traditions, there’s no problem with reading a Buddhist text directly, but in Tibetan Buddhism, it is very important to first receive the lung. Why do you think there is this difference?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: I don’t know very much about other Buddhist traditions—how and why they practice as they do. But in terms of Tibetan Buddhism, you’re right that we have this tradition of receiving lung, which must happen before someone studies or practices a particular teaching. I think that the reason for this is due to the strong connection between Tibetan Buddhism and the Secret Mantrayāna.
Within Secret Mantrayāna, it is essential to receive the lama’s lineage and the lung. You must also go to the lama’s side and receive the empowerment. The lung and empowerment give the authorization (dbang cha) to read and practice a Secret Mantrayāna text. It is forbidden to look at a text without having received the lung, as the ḍākinīs (mkha’ ‘gro ma) and protectors (srung ma) will create many obstacles for you. The lama who composed the text entrusted them to guard these teachings, so it’s dangerous if you read the text without authorization, as the ḍākinīs and protectors may cause you harm.
Now, when it comes to sūtra level teachings, the exact same rules do not apply. You cannot say that you absolutely must receive the lung before you can read a Sūtrayāna text. There are even some texts that specify this within them: “Since this is a Sūtrayāna teaching, you are permitted to read this without receiving the lung.” However, we always say that whatever the text, sūtra or tantric, it is far, far better if you receive the lung. The benefit, the power and the blessings you gain from the text, all of this is said to be undoubtedly greater.
Patrick Dowd: Normally, when lamas just give a lung, without teaching, to a large audience, they read very quickly, so quickly that most of the public does not understand any of the words. It’s also fairly common for people to drink tea, eat snacks, and not pay too much attention when the lung is taking place. So what’s the benefit?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: It’s true, when the lama gives the lung very quickly, most people will not understand the words. But understanding the words isn’t what’s most essential.
Patrick Dowd: Then what is most essential?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: There are some people who say this tradition of receiving the lung came much later, that it was invented many generations after the Buddha, and that it’s not essential to receive the lung. Some people say this. But from my perspective, very authentic, qualified lamas make a point of giving lung and they do this solely to benefit others. So I believe the lung is beneficial. These masters say that what is important is to hear the sound—your ears must hear the sound of the lung from the master’s mouth. Clearly understanding each and every individual word isn’t important, but it is important to hear them vocalize the sound.
In Tibetan Buddhism, we talk about the distinction between sense consciousness and mental consciousness. In this case, we can think about sense consciousness as being like a camera. A camera takes pictures of forms, but it doesn’t comprehend what they are, what they do, if they’re good, if they’re bad. It just takes pictures of the forms themselves. It is the mental consciousness that comprehends the content of the pictures. The mental consciousness identifies, “Here’s a tree. There’s a person, etc.”
So with lung, you can think about the ear consciousness in the same way. The ear consciousness receives the sound, even if it does not understand its meaning. But the cause for understanding is now present within consciousness, and the karmic imprint has been made. This means that the mental consciousness can later examine and understand the meaning of the sound, even though the ear consciousness merely received it as sound, just as we can later look at the forms in a picture and understand them, even though the camera that took them has no understanding of their meaning. After the lung, then there are the causes for consciousness to understand the what the sound means.
Patrick Dowd: So when someone receive a lung, they’re creating the causes and karmic imprints to later understand a teaching?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: The best situation is for the mind to fully comprehend the meaning at the time of the lung, so that the ear consciousness and mental consciousness go together. But it’s often the case that mental consciousness cannot simultaneously understand the meaning, so the sound is heard by the ear consciousness but not understood by the mental consciousness. Still, the ear consciousness has heard the sound, moment by moment it has heard the sound, and that now dwells within consciousness, and has created the causes and karmic imprints for it to be later understood.
Each of the sense consciousnesses serve a different function: the ear consciousness hears, the eye consciousness sees, the nose consciousness smells, etc. And it’s often the case that mental consciousness does not understand what the different sense consciousnesses have received, but the information is still there within the mind. It’s like being saved on a “memory card,” so it’s there for you to receive later.
Now, if you fall asleep, it doesn’t work because the sense consciousness has stopped—it can no longer receive the sound. That’s why we say, “Don’t fall asleep during the lung!” But otherwise, as long as you hear the sound of the lung while it’s happening, understanding each and every word is not essential.
Patrick Dowd: In your opinion, must lung be received in person, or is it acceptable to receive lung through the internet?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: I don’t feel like I am in a position to decide if online lung is acceptable or unacceptable, so I won’t comment on that. I will say, however, these days, when a lama gives a lung, we can think of it as them opening a door, and I believe, if it’s “live,” the door of transmission remains open.
This is because when the lung is live, the sound, the continuum of the sound, carries directly, moment by moment, to your ear. It’s similar, for example, to a difference in volume, if someone speaks loudly or quietly. If someone speaks loudly, maybe 100 people can hear them. If they speak quietly, maybe only 10 people or less can hear them. It’s only a question of the volume of the sound, but the continuum of the sound remains unbroken. So live online lung might work in this manner—it’s just a way of amplifying the volume of the sound, and the continuum of the sound remains without interruption or break.
Patrick Dowd: What if someone does not listen to it live, if they listen to a recording of a teaching? Will they receive the lung or will they not?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: In that case, mostly likely they cannot receive it. I cannot say precisely, but this is what I think. At that point, the continuum of sound has already been broken. If the continuum of sound has been broken, it no longer exists. The lama’s speech has already finished. The continuum of sound is already finished.
Think about it this way. If the teachings are on a “CD,” but it’s not playing, you cannot say that the CD has sound. The CD has all the causes and conditions for sound, that’s true, but you cannot say the CD itself has sound. In the time between when the lama spoke and when someone listens to the recording, the continuum of sound has been severed—it’s no longer the same continuum as when the lama gave the lung. It has become something other than what it was.
Commenting on this is difficult. I cannot say definitively “You cannot receive a lung from a recording,” because there might be circumstances in which this is possible—maybe for some very high practitioners and lamas, such a transmission could happen. But to speak generally, after the lama completes the teaching, the continuum of that particular lung ends. The time between when the lama spoke and when someone listens to a recording severs this continuum.
Patrick Dowd: But what about when a lama gives a teaching using a “microphone”? For example, when His Holiness Khenpo Jigmé Phüntsok gave teachings, tens of thousands of disciples would gather and there would be some delay between the moment he spoke the teaching and when it was received by those who heard the sound through the microphone.
Lopön Pema Dorjé: It’s true that the sound is delayed when received through a microphone; it’s not simultaneous. But the continuum of the sound, the path for the sound, remains unbroken. For example, if a lama is very far away and giving the lung, we may receive it slightly later, but the continuum of that sound has never been severed—it flows directly, with no interval breaking the continuum. The continuum is never broken, so the transmission can occur. What is most essential in the transmission is for the continuum to remain unbroken.
Patrick Dowd: What about when a lung is given in another language? For example, if His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives the lung for The Way of the Bodhisattva in Tibetan, and one of his students then gives the lung in English, will there be a difference?
Lopön Pema Dorjé: Mostly likely there will be no great difference. This is merely a difference of the form of language, but not the scripture itself.
Patrick Dowd: I ask because if lung depends primarily on sound, the sound of the English lung will be very different from the sound of the Tibetan lung.
Lopön Pema Dorjé: What’s most important for the lung isn’t the sound; it’s the continuum of the sound (sgra‘i brgyud pa). The continuum of the sound is what is most important. This is because the continuum is imbued with all the aspirations, all the bodhicitta, all the energy and power of both the composer of the text, and all those who received the continuum of the text. This is why it is so important to receive lung directly from masters holding the lineage. The text has its own continuum of blessings, and this is accessed through receiving the lung.
Dung dkar blo bzang ‘phrin las. “Bod kyi skad yig ‘phel rgyas phyogs skor gyi thog ma’i bsam tshul.” Dung dkar blo bzang ‘phrin las kyi gsung rtsom phyogs bsgris. (“Initial Thoughts Concerning the Development of Tibetan Language and Writing.” The Collected Works of Dungkar Lobzang Trinlé.) Vol. 1. krung go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, 1997. pp. 293-326.
Gardner, Alexander. The Life of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Snow Lion, 2019.
Goody, Jack. “Introduction.” Literacy in Traditional Societies. Ed. J. Goody. Cambridge University Press, 1968. pp. 1-26.
Rdza dpal sprul rin po che. Kun bzang bla ma’i zhal lung. (The Words of My Perfect Teacher). chos spyod par skrun khang, 2010.
van der Kuijp, Leonard. Contributions to the Development of Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Franz Steiner, 1983.
Khenpo Pema Dorjé was born and raised in Tibet, in the Nyarong region of Kham. In 2015, he graduated as a Lopön from the monastic university (shédra, bshad grwa) of Namdröling Monastery, the largest Nyingma monastery in the Tibetan diaspora, located in Bylakuppe, Karnataka in South India. On April 22, 2023, in recognition of his learning, teaching and devotion to his Buddhist tradition, Namdröling Monastery bestowed upon him the title of Khenpo, the terminal scholastic degree in the Nyingma lineage. He is currently studying in his second year of the three yearlong English for Dharma Purposes (EDP) program of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute (SINI).
Patrick Dowd is a writer, translator and doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. His research centers on the sacred life of the Tibetan language and its role in Buddhist transmission, with his dissertation thematically-arranged around chapters on silence, speech, writing and transmission. He also teaches an online course on Tibetan to English translation and the English presentation of Tibetan Buddhist texts for SINI, where he meets his student, teacher and friend Khenpo Pema Dorjé thrice weekly.
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