03 June, 2006
Buddhism Comes Home
By Sushma Joshi
Tucked away in a corner of Bishalnagar is a building with newly erected concrete pillars enclosing a spacious hall with unfinished concrete ceiling and floor. About two hundred people arrive there on the last Saturday of each month for the Bodhipushpanjali.
Pushpanjali means an offering of flowers, and bodhi means wisdom. On the podium is a man wearing sunglasses reading out the day’s offerings in Nepali through the mike. He is Narayan Risal, a part-time physics professor and full-time Buddhist practitioner who leads the gatherings.
Today, the theme of discussion is death. “Many people from our sangha have died this month,” says Narayan. The audience includes people from Hindu backgrounds seeking to understand the experience of a recent death. Dissatisfied with a priestly reading the high Sanskrit of the Garuda Purana, a text used to mitigate and make legible the incomprehensible nature of death, people await to hear what Narayan-ji has to say.
Upstairs, Ratnashri, nee Sridhar Rana, is in mediation. He’s been in retreat for the last ten years. He spends from 12 to 16 hours in meditation, meeting only with family members and old students. He grants meetings upon special request. He is spiritual guru and advisor for many of the students in the room, and has initiated many people in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. He stays in close touch with former students, many of whom have now migrated abroad, but who still seek his spiritual guidance.
Upon special request, I am granted an interview. Ratnashri is sitting at the table, his long hair in a ponytail. He looks young for somebody in his fifties. Questions fly back and forth as he talks to us about the basics of abhidharma. Some of the questions are confrontational, some argumentative, but he takes them in stride. Ratnashri has the informal and relaxed presence of a master who’s comfortable with questioning of authority.
“This is the reason why we keep coming back to meet him,” says Joe Wagner, who’s from Denver. Joe, and his wife Cindi, met Ratnashri 12 years ago. They come back periodically to hear teachings from him whenever they can. “Where else can you find a teacher who can give you this much personal attention? Most of the teachers I know are surrounded by groups of students, and its impossible to have a detailed conversation with them.”
Ratnashri incorporates Gestalt therapy, new findings from nuclear science and a clear understanding of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions in his teachings. He practices Dzochen and Mahamudra, but his understanding of these practices are laced with the many years of study he has done of other traditions. Perhaps that is why increasing numbers of people from Hindu backgrounds, especially those with a modern, science-based education, are attracted to his teachings. “A modern Western education promotes excessively linear thinking with linear answers,” says Ratnashri. “Buddhism is able to give linear answers, and it is very experiential as well.”
Ratnashri is comfortable with the questions of new students about Buddhism because he himself is a rebel who found his way to Buddhism via a long and torturous route. Born Shridhar Rana in a middle class Hindu family in Kathmandu, Ratnashri was educated by Jesuits at St Xavier Boys School. He says that as a child he had the restless urge to bring about social change. “The meaning of ‘social change’ continued to change as I grew up,” he laughs.
At twenty, he went to Delhi for more studies. There he found Yogananda Parmahamsa’s book, The Autobiography of a Yogi. He was struck by the word ‘yogi’, bought the book and read throughout the night. “It was Christmas eve,” he says, “And I remember thinking then: this is what I am going to do. I am going to bring about a revolution in my society.”
From 1972 to 1979, he studied and practiced Hindu tantra. Dhana Shamsher, a celebrated tantric who also taught Crown Prince Birendra, initiated him into the practice. Ratnashri started to go to the cremation grounds at Tudaldevi, a local temple known for its powerful tantric presence, and was often left alone by locals who feared the goddess’s awesome powers. From nine pm to four am he meditated on the temple grounds. He would return home and sleep for three hours, then practice two more hours before going to his daily job. During this time, he also started to read voraciously from all the Hindu sages and mystics, including Vivekananda, Pramhamsa and the Upanishads with the commentary of Shankaracharya.
After seven years of practice, his questions about tantra practice had not abated. Ratnashri says he had an experience using Sri Ramana Maharshi’s method of Who Am I? “I had a clear awareness at one point—I went and met with a learned sage at the Adut Sastha, and he confirmed that I had experienced the atma.” Ratnashri felt dissatisfied with all the answers he received from Hindu mystics. If this is the atma, he thought, and I have attained it, how does anger and fear still arise? “I was still tied to my emotional defilements. It occurred to me that to say they were separate from me was just a strategy to avoid them,” he says.
A breakthrough came when he found a book on Zen by T.D. Suzuki, that seemed to answer his questions. Once, after reading Yogi Ramacharka, he meditated and had a vision of a mountain with a pagoda, inside which was a huge bronze Buddha. “Perhaps I was always meant to follow that path”, he says.
“My questioning style had always been more Buddhist than Hindu. I used to debate with Khaptad Baba about emptiness or Brahma. He could not answer my questions. He would laugh and say: ‘Sridhar, you ask all these difficult questions’,” says Ratnashri, laughing.
For eight years he practiced Zen, but communicating with a master through letters got difficult, and he began looking for an alternative. That’s when he came upon Mahayana, and though its practice was common among the Tibetans and Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Ratnashri had never been drawn to it.
During dinner at the house of American friends, Ratnashri met a South African woman, Denise. Denise convinced him that Tibetan Buddhism was something he would be interested in. Ratnashri was at first skeptical. The system appeared similar to the Hinduism that he had just left behind, with an excess of gods and deities. But Denise insisted it was a different symbolic system. “If there is any teacher like Milarepa, I would like to meet him,” Ratnashri said as he left. “Yes, there is somebody!” Denise answered.
Three months later, she took him to see Urgen Rimpoche, the late father of Choeki Nima and Chokling Rimpoche at Boudhanath. “I thought she was going to take me to see some hocus-pocus lama. He just blew my mind out—we got along like a house on fire. I only went back to him six months after this first meeting—that’s the amount of time I needed to digest what I had learnt,” smiles Ratnashri. Then, when he read up on it he realized it was different from Hindu tantra, or what Hinduism had to offer.
Ratnashri, whose root gurus are their Eminences Chogay Trichen Rimpoche and Karma Thinley Rimpoche, has also teachings from other spiritual guides. “Buddhism encourages you to learn from different gurus,” he says. “In ancient Buddhist texts, even the gurus would send their disciples to different teachers. Both my gurus encouraged me to do these interdisciplinary studies.”
Choeki Nima Rimpoche, whose shedra offering higher studies in Tibetan Buddhist studies in Kathmandu has become a busy hub for students of Buddhism, says: “There are a lot of people who say they are Buddhist, but few people who know the Dharma. Sridhar Rana,” he says, “is one of those people who has done both in-depth study and practice at the same time. There are not that many people with that much study and practice.”
Choeki Nima points out that the caste barriers of Hindu society have kept people away from Tibetans, who they see as cow-eaters and therefore polluted. Ratnashri bridged this divide by embracing Tibetan religion as his own. Ratnashri also has another advantage as somebody who is in-between the fully ordained monastic world and the lay world. Monks in saffron and maroon robes often arouse suspicion from laypeople who suspect them of orthodoxy and fundamentalism. “When we monks speak, people don’t listen,” says Choeki Nima with the characteristic twinkle of his eye. “But, when he speaks, people listen.” A measure of the regard Ratnashri garners in the Tibetan Buddhist world was seen when Shakya Trizen, head of the Shakya tradition who stays in Rajpur, India, stopped by at Bishalnagar to meet with Ratnashri during a visit to Nepal.
Besides traditional caste divisions, other misunderstandings also keep Hindus away from Buddhist teachings. “There are a lot of cultural misunderstandings,” says Ratnashri. “Many people from Hindu backgrounds think that if you become a Buddhist, you can’t be cremated after death.” He points out that these divisions did not always exist for, historically, many well-known Buddhist scholars came from the Brahmin and Chhetri castes.
Ratnashri’s work to bringing people of Hindu background closer to Buddhist thought has been moved along by the work of two excellent scholars. Narayan Risal and Punya Parajuli, who transformed themselves into bi-lingual scholars and translators under his tutelage, actively publish Sanskrit and Tibetan texts in translation, making the words of Buddha accessible to Nepali readers. Punya Parajuli , a Brahmin, grew up in a Tibetan community and quickly learned to read and write Tibetan. He went to Darjeeling to translate for the Dalai Lama. “People were so happy that I translated,” he says. “It was the first time they heard the teachings in their own language.”
A stranger wandering into the Bodhipushpanjali gathering might be forgiven for thinking he has walked into a reading of the Hindu scriptures. Narayan Risal, who has translated numerous Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Nepali, has the sing-song verbal delivery of a Hindu priest. Narayan spent his childhood in the Swargadwari Ashram, an ashram where children are trained in reading, writing and speaking the Sanskrit of Hindu scriptures. In his twenties, he recited the Bhagwad Gita for seven days with his father, a well-known priest. Narayan’s fluency in Sanskrit is matched only by his colloquial mastery of Nepali. Tibetan teachers, appreciative of his knowledge of languages, often ask him to come visit them to discuss different points of philosophy with them.
His familiar voice invites the listeners, a diverse crowd of middle-aged housewives and college students, retired professionals and children, to listen intently as he explains, point by point, the five pages of the day’s topics. The pages are written by Ratnashri, a prolific writer whose internal questionings about Buddhist philosophical points also finds its way onto a long-running correspondence with some of his oldest students.
Today, the Boudhapushpanjali is about death. Narayan Guru asks a man whose mother has just died to come and share the story of her death. The man, still highly emotional, but also elated by his experience, says how he stayed up with her all night as she prayed before dying with a radiant smile on her face, her body turned towards the direction of Amitava Buddha. After the man is finished, Narayan Guru reads out some of the haikus written by students of the sangha. Written by people in various stages of Buddhist evolution, the poems flutter away from memory like the petals of spring flowers which bloom outside. After all this is over, people feel a sense of closure about death that is not as easily felt after a reading of the Hindu funeral scriptures.
Nepal may be the birthplace of Buddha, but many Nepalis, growing up in Hindu and animistic traditions, don’t know much about his teachings. With teachers like Ratnashri who bridge cultural gaps with fluidity and answer questions of people with modern sensibilities, Buddhist practices are being introduced into a young, Nepali-speaking mainstream.
“The transnational growth of Thervada traditions has also affected the growth of Buddhism in Nepal, with traditionally Vajrayana Newar communities being drawn to a new and reformed Buddhism,” says David Gellner, Lecturer in Anthropology at Oxford University. Nepali monks and nuns from the Thervada tradition draw inspiration, funds and international support from South East Asia, specifically Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. The accessibility and donation basis of Vipassana meditation practice, taught by S.N Goenka, has also been phenomenally successful, drawing from all cultural and religious backgrounds.
With these various interdisciplinary systems of Buddhism nourishing the sangha in Nepal, a revival of mass-based Buddhism is in the making.
SIDEBAR (345 words)
An Interview with Ratnashri
You have been known to use Gestalt therapy in teaching your students.
In the modern context, science is supreme. Using psychology helps people to accept a new system, since science is the final authority on everything. I don’t agree with this, but modern education implies it. There are some other Tibetan Buddhist teachers who study psychology - and it has been extended to classical teachings as well.
You’re also known to incorporate the latest developments in nuclear physics.
I was very interested in physics in school. I have listed: nuclear physicist as the profession I would like to follow in my high school yearbook (laugh). I passed my SLC, but then I couldn’t understand my teacher’s English so I dropped out and started to read on my own.
You are married to one of your former students. How does this affect your practice?
Guruama has been a tremendous support. If I were to slacken in my practice, she would be the one to remind me of it. My married life is very conducive to spiritual practice.
What does your family, especially your extended family, think about your path?
My mother became a Buddhist through my influence. My father is still a Hindu - but he is not against my practice. Some of my uncles look at me suspiciously, like they want to know: what is this guy doing? But gradually, I think they are beginning to understand.
How has your retreat affected your students?
The influence of the retreat is powerful. People expanded more when I wasn’t there. In the beginning, there were around 15 people. Now, there are a hundred. If the guru is practicing, it must be worth it, people think. Choeki Nima Rimpoche told me I should start meeting my disciples who practice, so I started to do that. My intention is to do a life-long retreat, maybe not just in this location. I would like to travel to Eastern Tibet.
What’s the one quality essential to a modern Buddhist?
The basis of his interaction with society should be based in compassion.