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The Sera Connection: An Interview with José Cabezón
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
José Cabezón is a respected professor of religious studies and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Endowed Chair in Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studied at Sera Monastic University in South India and completed his Ph.D., studying with Geshe Lhundub Sopa, at the University of Wisconsin. Mandala spoke with José during a visit to Portland, Oregon, in May 2013.
Mandala: While researching Pabongka Hermitage near Lhasa, Tibet, for a recent issue, I came across the Sera Monastery Project, which you direct and work on and which had detailed information about the holy site. Will you describe this project for our readers?
José: The project basically is to document Sera Monastery. Mostly it’s focused on Sera in Tibet, but eventually I want to do something on Sera in India as well. Using a digital map, based on a satellite image of the monastery, the project identifies each of the different buildings within the monastery and each of the different regional houses. There is a database of several thousand images associated with the monastery that can be accessed from the digital map. It also has essays on what Tibetan monasticism is, what the structure of the monastery is, what the different colleges of Sera were, and how they arose. It’s an ongoing project.
Sera was founded in 1419, so 2019 is its 600th anniversary. One of my projects is, hopefully, to do a book on Sera to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the monastery. Ganden was founded in 1409 as I recall; but it goes Ganden [the original monastery of the Gelug order, founded by Je Tsongkhapa himself in 1409], Drepung [founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449), one of Tsongkhapa’s main disciples] and Sera [founded in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang (1355–1435), a disciple of Tsongkhapa]. Sera was the last of the three. I figure if I start now, maybe I’ll be able to get a book out between now and 2019.
Mandala: Let’s talk a little bit about Maitripa College since you are here for Maitripa’s symposium “Life After Life” with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and you sit on Maitripa’s board of directors. How did you get involved with Maitripa College?
José: My connection to Maitripa is through Yangsi Rinpoche. I was a monk studying in Sera [Monastic University in South India] at the same time that Rinpoche was there. We belonged to the same khangtsen [regional house]. Not only that, but we belonged to the same household, so his teacher is also my teacher, who is now known as Jangtse Chöje Rinpoche. My room was across the courtyard from Rinpoche’s.
In the early days, when I first got there, I gave Rinpoche a few English lessons, but he was so busy with his studies that it didn’t last very long. He still managed to learn English without me. [Laughs.] I lived there for six years while Rinpoche was studying.
Once Rinpoche got Maitripa off the ground, it really seemed to me a very worthwhile, needed thing in our culture to have institutes that were training people at different levels, giving people a doorway into the academic study of Buddhism for those who wanted to take that path, but then for many others giving them a solid background in Buddhist studies and Buddhist practice that would allow them to make a contribution to society in the form of chaplaincy or counseling or various types of non-profit work. Whatever direction that people go, they still to come out with a really strong Buddhist background. It seemed to be a really worthwhile thing to do. As soon as Rinpoche told me, I was very supportive and have been ever since.
Mandala: Since you talked about Sera, when did you first go to Sera? How old were you and how did you make that decision?
José: I went to the University of Wisconsin. I think it was 1977 when I entered the graduate program. At that point I was already ordained. Thubten Chodron and I were ordained as novices at the same time by Ling Rinpoche – the past incarnation of Ling Rinpoche – and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. We are kind of Dharma brother and sister. Then I was a novice monk for several years, and eventually I received full ordination. As a monk I did three years of graduate study under Geshe Sopa at the University of Wisconsin, and then Geshe Sopa sent me to Sera to study under his students there – his students being Jangtse Chöje Rinpoche and the other elder monks of Tsangpa khangtsen, including Geshe Dönyö, who was abbot of Sera later on and Geshe Lobsang, who is now one of the elder monks in that house.
I was there for six years from 1980 until 1985. I was doing a little bit of the traditional studies, but also writing my dissertation at the same time. Then I returned, and not too long after I returned, I finished my dissertation. I then gave back my vows and started teaching. I taught for a year at Carlton College in Minnesota, and a year at Trinity College in Hartford, a year at Ohio State, and then I was 12 years at a place called the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, the theology school associated with the University of Denver. Then 11 years ago, I was offered this position, this chair that is named in honor of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and have been at University of California, Santa Barbara ever since.
Mandala: Having experienced both monastery life in India and also non-monastic life in the United States, where do you see the intersection of Western culture and Buddhist culture going?
José: That is a very big question, and I think there is no single answer. It is more where our different traditions – or even within traditions – where our different organizations are heading. I think there are many different answers to that. Some traditions still emphasize relying on teachers that come from an Asian background. Other traditions are training their own Western teachers and are trying to make the move to create a Western Sangha that can kind of take over from the Asian teachers. I think it is too early to generalize from one tradition to another.
I’ll tell you a story. It is one of my favorites. When Lama Yeshe invited His Holiness to Spain for the first time [in 1982], I was translator for His Holiness. I never knew Lama Yeshe very well; but one day during this trip, Lama Yeshe invited me to have a meal with him. He asked me, “What do you think about the future of Buddhism in the West?” And I said, “I don’t know. My nature is somewhat pessimistic, so I don’t know. The West is so materialistic, and I don’t know whether authentic Buddhism will really be able to take a foothold.” Lama Yeshe said, “No, I think it will. Maybe not just in any place, but Spain is the place of the future.” So it struck me that then Tenzin Ösel Hita was recognized in Spain. I always took that as a kind of sign that Lama Yeshe saw something as being special about Spain. When I heard that his reincarnation had been recognized in a Spanish boy, I didn’t find it strange.
In the print edition of Mandala October-December 2013, José Cabezón discusses his nearly completed book on Buddhism and sexuality. To learn more online about José’s work on this topic, read “Rethinking Buddhism and Sex” published in Buddhadharma Summer 2009.
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