Fall 2020 Newsletter

Yarne Movie

A glimpse into the lives of young monks studying at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling

 

After having spent eight years in Kathmandu, - Andy Krakower directed the movie Yarne. The movie takes place in the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery and follows the life of two young monks who have to deal with the every-day realities of being young children living and studying together with their friends. Director Andy, gives us an insight into the process of directing the movie and its main themes.

Can you tell us a little bit about the movie?

Yarne tells the story of the child monks who begin receiving donations for performing prayers, only to find their friendship tested over how they should spend it. Tired of wasting his money on Coca Cola, Sonam decides to save up every rupee he earns during Yarne to buy a soccer ball, but first he will have to stand up to his best friend Tashi, a bully in the monastery.

The title of the movie is ‘Yarne’. What is Yarne and why did you choose this as a title for the movie?

Yarne is an annual six-week period during the summer when Buddhist monks remain within the monastery grounds for focused study and practice. Yarne has been practiced since the time of the Buddha. I have taught in the intensive Summer Program at RYI for many years, and during the time of the Yarne retreat, my daily arrival at Ka-Nying was often met by a cacophony of the child monks screaming for the gatekeeper. One day I was curious enough to wait and see why they screamed for him every day. I saw they were passing him money. He took their orders and money and minutes later returned from a nearby shop with cokes and candies. I then realized that because they weren’t allowed to leave the monastery grounds, they had elected the gatekeeper to go buy their sugary treats for them. Thus, the story of ‘Yarne’ began to develop.

What is the main idea of the movie?

I believe that for decades Hollywood films have unfairly presented a highly romanticized depiction of Buddhist monks, leading many to believe that all monks speak in wise life-altering riddles and are able to levitate. Particularly with child monks, I feel this is an unfair standard. I am attracted to characters whose title or position set up an expectation that is intended to honor them, but can in fact be de-humanizing. I feel that people often unknowingly hold Buddhist monks to an almost impossible standard of Buddhist ideals, forgetting that beneath their robes, they are also flawed and interesting human beings. This nearly impossible standard is doubly unfair for child monks, who are still just boys who may dislike school. They like music. They laugh and fight. There are shy kids, outspoken ones, and even bullies; but unlike other boys, they don’t have parents to fix their problems.

Many people in the West grasp onto the idea that all monks should be entirely cut off from the modern world. However, smart phones, football and Coca-Cola certainly exist in the monastery, as does money. I included images of the monks receiving donations, which was shocking to many Western audience members who seemed to think monks don’t require money either.

How did you come to work with the child monks?

I have lived in Nepal for nearly a decade and taught Nepali at RYI for many summers, so understanding Nepali and working in a monastery certainly gave me an access to the behind-the-shrine-room view of the monks. After Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche had given us his blessing to move forward with the project, the next step was casting, which is one of the trickiest and most nerve-wracking parts of filmmaking. The headmaster of the young monks led us to a classroom where they had gathered over a hundred ten- to twelve-year-old monks and told me to pick the two I’d like to cast. I tried to explain to him that I needed to see their acting ability, that I couldn’t just pick based on their look.

The next day I came back with Suresh Subedi, one of RYI’s Nepali Language Instructors. He and I had worked out some role-playing games to do with the young monks. While we played with them, Michael was filming with his phone. The idea was to get a sense of their personalities without them realizing it—and it worked. Audiences at some of the top film festivals in the world have been impressed by their stellar performances.

What is the most fun thing that happened while shooting with the little monks?

When we eventually release the short film, I will accompany it with a behind-the-scenes documentary that people have found as entertaining as the film itself. I have endless stories to tell about the little monks. This is one of them:

After our last day of shooting, I took four of the main actors to a pizzeria for a celebratory brownie and ice-cream. They’d never been inside a restaurant. Of course, they were shy and awkward but tried very hard to be well-mannered and figure out the strange eating utensils. They loved the ice cream, but then saw a monk eating a pizza and asked what it was. So, I ordered a plain margherita pizza. When it arrived, they had no idea how to eat it. Buddha rolled his up like a piece of paper. Pasang thought the crust was the front. Bikki said, “Ew, it’s gross, like tomatoes.” Buddha said, “Why’s there a leaf in my food?” I picked the basil off and said they didn’t have to eat it. Dawa sweetly said they will eat it because I paid so much money for it. Then he realized something, “since Westerners like this, you must like it too, so you eat it.” I did happily. I asked what they wanted to do next. They said they wanted to watch movies on my phone. So, I took them to a cafe with Wi-Fi, sat them down with headphones and a laptop and they had a ball, vegging out watching Bollywood action films and drinking lemonade for the afternoon.

Since recording this interview with Andy, Yarne has been released, to learn more about the movie Yarne and to watch the trailer on here on their website.

Former RYI student Tiv Hay-Rubin receives the Subul Sunim prize

Centuries ago, Buddhist epistemologists asked the question: how do we acquire knowledge? In the spring semester of 2020 a dedicated group of students, together with professor Daniel McNamara, discovered the importance of epistemology for understanding the intellectual history of Buddhism. A pursuit that was not left unrecognized when exchange student Tiv Hay-Rubin received the Subul Sunim prize for Buddhist studies with the paper she wrote for this course. In this paper she asked, “Why should we trust the Buddha?”

The tradition of Buddhist epistemology developed during the 6th century in India. A number of great philosophers from both the Buddhist and the Hindu traditions engaged themselves in determining how a person can attain indisputable knowledge. This discourse is known as pramāṇa theory. A pramāṇa refers to an instrument for acquiring knowledge. Buddhist philosophers such as Digṅāga, Dharmakīrti and Śāntarakṣita recognized different ways that knowledge could be attained; through direct yogic perception, logical inference and divine authority.

Why is it important to study Buddhist epistemology? Daniel McNamara stresses that pramāṇa can be seen as the foundation upon which many later philosophical ideas have developed. He explains this with an example:

If one wants to study quantum physics, it’s probably a good idea to understand the scientific method. Something similar is going on here. Pramāṇa theory is the ‘scientific method’ of Buddhist philosophy. We can’t understand the philosophical underpinnings of great traditions like Madhyamaka, Dzogchen or Mahāmudrā without understanding the methods given by pramāṇa theorists.

Besides giving an overview of the intellectual history of pramāṇa theory, the course showed students how pramāṇa can help us, right now. McNamara explains,

Rather than being an overly abstract pursuit, Buddhist epistemology is about asking the truly difficult questions in life: what is going on, right here, right now? The class was mainly concerned with perception. What is going on in a moment of perception? If we are Buddhists, we should care deeply about this, because ‘a moment of perception’ is where suffering occurs, and where we can intervene and become liberated.

Tiv also recognizes the importance of studying Buddhist epistemology. She says:

During the course, I learned how Buddhist scholars and epistemologists break down concepts like impermanence in order to understand how they actually emerge in our cognitive process. It was incredibly valuable to understand them not only as abstract ideas but actual ways to experience the world.

For her final paper, Tiv looked at different theories on why we should consider the Buddha a source for trustworthy knowledge. She argues that, according to the philosopher Dharmakīrti, the trustworthiness of the Buddha is based on intentionality. This means that we can only assess the Buddha’s validity as a source of knowledge based on his trustworthiness in helping sentient beings to achieve a particular goal, namely liberation.

Every year, Smith College, the university where Tiv studies, offers prizes for academic papers in a variety of disciplines. With her paper Tiv won the Subul Sunim prize for Buddhist Studies. For Tiv, receiving this reward was an affirmation that she made the right decision to study abroad at RYI for an academic year. She says,

Smith doesn’t have many opportunities to study Buddhist traditions in depth, so the prize felt like a recognition that students can do creative and interesting work outside of Smith, too! Being at RYI gave me opportunity to study Buddhism from many different angles – through its texts, its language, its epistemological traditions, and so much more.

We wish Tiv all the best with her future career and hope she will continue to study Buddhist philosophy.

Student Theses

Writing a thesis is an excellent opportunity for students to discover their own interests and fully immerse themselves in their areas of interest. In this article, we look at what some students at RYI have researched and the various methods they’ve used, as well as the rewards and challenges of the writing process. 

Andy Hallahan (US)
Andy studied for the MA in Buddhist Studies and is currently in the process of writing his thesis. For his research, he stayed in the Himalayan valley of Langtang conducting field work and exploring the Tibetan Buddhist belief in non-human entities and spirits that inhabit the landscape. His research explores how this belief may have implications for the local efforts of environmental conservation of this sacred site. He explains, “the Langtang Valley is one of the ‘hidden lands’, a place where the Dharma can prosper, traditionally held to be opened and blessed by Guru Padmasambhava.” Andy always wanted to undertake interdisciplinary work. He says, “this topic gives me the opportunity to combine my knowledge of Buddhist studies with environmentalist research. I’ve always had an intense fascination and respect for nature, especially in mountain environments.”

In Langtang, Andy conducted interviews with people who lived there, including the local village Lama, whom he observed performing rituals oriented towards the sacred landscape. As part of the thesis he is translating relevant Tibetan Buddhist scriptural texts and mapping the locations of sacred natural sites. With his thesis, Andy will contribute to the Langtang Memory Project, an NGO that was established to preserve the cultural memory of Langtang after the village was tragically destroyed during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

Victor Olin (Sweden)
Victor, in his fourth year of BA studies, wrote a thesis addressing the question, “What is a healthy person?” His research centred around concepts of health in Buddhism, and how health is formulated in relation to the Buddha and his followers. He compared early Buddhist understandings of health to traditional Indian notions of masculinity. He explains, “I chose to write about this topic because many people in Western countries are very concerned with how individuals, in particular Buddhists, regulate their health through food and lifestyle.” Victor’s aim is to shine a light on how Buddhism might have more to say about health than what appears at first glance. He explains that one of the most challenging aspects of doing research is making the decision of what to leave out and what to pursue, dropping certain areas of research and adding new ones.

Jo Donovan (Australia)
Jo is completing her MA in Buddhist Studies, and in addition has already completed a year of study at the traditional monastic shedra at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling. She sees her thesis as an opportunity to dive deeply into philosophy. She describes her topic, saying, “I write about a thought articulated in recent literature that the sixth century philosopher Dharmakīrti, by introducing the svabhāvapratibandha, was attempting to (and failed to) solve the problem of induction by turning the reasoning process into a deductive process. She jokes, “if you haven’t already studied this topic and you can understand what on earth I am talking about, well, hats off!” Jo is especially interested in comparative philosophy, specifically how the Indo-Tibetan way of logic differs from Western approaches to logic. She explains “something I discovered, and that fascinates me, is how Indian logic adds a subjective dimension. For example, in order to confirm a proposition, it has to be known by a person who didn’t know it before (but who accepted the ‘premise’) and who had an interest in knowing it. That’s kind of surprising.” 

Jo explains, “Tibetan debate is the thing that brings me the most joy in the world, it’s like debating Socrates if he was hyped up on stimulants!” For Jo one of the valuable things about doing her research at RYI was access to a living tradition. She explains, “I had a list of questions that I would carry around in a folder and when I would see a khenpo or lopon, I’d ask, for example, ‘do you know the difference between the object of conventional pramāṇa and that of ultimate pramāṇa?’ This certainly made for interesting lunch time conversation.”

As you can see, there is a great amount of diversity and interest among our MA students and the topics that they choose to study. Our students have had the opportunity to interact directly with this living Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which gives them access to another level of knowledge and depth which may otherwise not be accessible. While physically studying within the monastic environment is not possible at the moment, there are many online resources and methods that make it possible for students to interact with this living tradition. For example, the traditional khenpo classes at RYI have been moved online and students interact with traditionally trained monastic professors about the texts that they are studying. We nonetheless look forward to returning to campus at some time in the not-too-distant future.

The Joy of Studying Sanskrit

During the 2020 Summer Program, Jasmijn Olk spent two months intensely studying RYI’s  8-week Intermediate Sanskrit course. In the following account Jasmijn describes her experience studying during the Summer Program.

Over the past few months, my parents have asked me a question multiple times, because the corona-crisis has led me to living with them again, and for the first time in years they have a close-up view of my studies. Every morning they see me make a cup of tea and retreat to my room for my online classes. They hear my attempts of chanting the beautiful Sanskrit verses. And occasionally they hear me complain about the workload or the difficulty of the texts. However, more often I passionately talk to them about finally finding the right translation for a word or solving a difficult part of grammar.

For me there is no straightforward answer to their question of why I study Sanskrit. Unlike many other RYI students, I do not have an ambition to become a professional translator. Personally, I study Sanskrit because it brings me joy. Sometimes I jokingly say that translating is my way of meditating. The process of translating is repetitive and requires my utmost concentration. When I’m working on a Sanskrit translation, I forget about all the insecurities and anxiety that the corona-crisis has brought to my life. All I can do is focus on the verse that is in front of me.

During the intermediate Sanskrit summer program, we translated short passages from different texts. It was an introduction to the manifold genres in Sanskrit; poetry, prose, commentary and philosophical texts from both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. We started with the Bhagavad Gita, where the wise sage Krishna shares his views of emptiness. He asks, “Why avoid a war, when we will eternally be reborn again?” Then we moved on to the Tattvaratnāvali, a text from the tantric tradition, in which the author Maitrīpa provides glosses of the different Buddhist schools. Finally, we translated the introduction of the Hitopadeśa, one of the most famous collections of fables and moral tales. The central theme of these stories is that nothing is worse than to live a life without knowledge of books.

Attending the Summer Program has given me the tools to continue my journey of translating Sanskrit. It has furthermore given me a community of likeminded people, brought together from all over the world. For me, being able to read Sanskrit opens the gates to the incredible wisdom from the Buddhist and the Hindu tradition. I can’t think of a better reason to be studying Sanskrit.

To continue studying Sanskrit and to inspire others to do the same, Jasmijn started an online Sanskrit reading group as part of the RYI Student Society. If you are interested in joining, email her at jasmijnolk@gmail.com.