Buddhism and Neuroscience in Dialogue
In the spring semester Buddhism and Psychology was offered as a course at RYI for the very first time. Professor Julia Stenzel presented some of the new perspectives and insights science can bring to Buddhist practice, and vice versa. The course began with an exploration of consciousness, drawing from different sources, such as Abhidharma, Yogācāra and Tantric traditions, contrasting and complementing these with scientific research articles. Julia explains, “During this course, we discuss what Buddhist traditions have to say about consciousness, the functioning of the mind, perception, behavior and so forth, and we look at these topics from different angles.” She says that when we are talking about emotions in class, we address the way scientists focus on physical components, whereas the Abhidharma emphasizes the cognitive aspects. Analyzing emotions in these various ways can also be helpful for our own meditation; psychotherapists and Buddhists agree in saying that unless you’re aware of an emotion, you cannot transform it.
When questioning the relationship between Buddhism and psychology, Julia highlights the overlap between Buddhist practice and psychotherapy, as both aim to understand how to cultivate wholesome thinking and behavior. She points out that they differ in their scope, because Buddhist practice aims at complete awakening, a process that continues over many lives, whereas therapy focuses on mental health in this life. The class explores certain training methods, like secular compassion training, both theoretically and experientially, through various exercises. One of the aims of the class is to show how certain concepts can be applied in a practical manner, and in this way the studies become more meaningful due to the theories being connected to life experiences.
Julia wrote her doctoral thesis on the Buddhist roots of secular compassion training. In order to understand the background of secular compassion training, she looked at the latest neuroscientific research on meditation. She points out that for the last two decades, neuroscientists have made great progress in exploring how compassion is measurable in the brain, and especially examining how meditation training can change the brain. For scientists, the idea that compassion could be generated through systematic training has emerged only recently. She explains that “interestingly, from the moment scientists declared they could measure compassion in the brain, a paradigm shift took place; compassion was now considered a scientific phenomenon, not just a religious one. In Buddhism, the idea of cultivating compassion is the very foundation of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Julia sees the dialogue between Buddhism and psychology as an opportunity. She believes that there is something to learn from taking both perspectives in exploring the mind. However, she explains that with this comes a challenge, because as western scientists have developed an interest in Buddhism-derived disciplines such as mindfulness and compassion training, they have taken over the discourse. There is a danger that the Buddhist foundations are being forgotten or distorted. This challenge was one of the reasons that prompted Julia to teach this class. She says: “I think it is important that students of Buddhism know about the dialogue that is going on between the two disciplines. Buddhist scholars should participate in the discussion, rectify misconceptions and add more of their knowledge; it is a worthwhile dialogue.”
As the students in this course explore and question their assumptions about the mind, the self, emotions and so forth based on various theories, it’s important that they be part of the greater academic dialogue. She concludes, “with a good grasp of Buddhist perspectives on these topics, I believe students will be able to participate in the Buddhism-science dialogue that is unfolding these days. It is my hope that they contribute insights that benefit Buddhist practitioners, the medical field, or even society at large.”
Moving Forward; Classes in Online Format
On March 14, all students of Rangjung Yeshe Institute received an important email with this subject line: Important Announcement: RYI Spring Semester classes to be moved online. Now that the semester has finished the Summer Program has begun online, we can reflect on how the classes went. Here is a summary of how RYI’s students found the experience of studying online.
For the most part, students were happy to be able to continue classes as it gave them a sense of structure and routine during a somewhat uncertain situation. Miriam, who went back to her home country of Germany says, “Considering all the difficult circumstances, I'm amazed at how well online learning is working out.” Students emphasized positive and negative aspects of the online learning format. Online learning has, for instance, made studying much easier for Nima Diki Sherpa. She combines her studies at RYI with a job and family life in Kathmandu. She tells us, “It is more comfortable for me to stay home, connect to the internet and start class.” Before, Diki had to travel a long way as her home is not close to RYI. For her this has been a great benefit, and she says her family members can listen to the teachings with her too. Maitri, who went back to Germany, agrees, “I like the convenience of the online classes, I can just sit at my desk at home and be in class at the same time.” She does identify one of the potential risks of being online, noting the temptation to drift off and end up somewhere like Facebook, but she says “The classes are usually interesting and keep me focussed.”
Many students mentioned that the current situation has showed them how important interaction with other students has been. Dominic from Singapore says, “perhaps the hardest part of online study is not being able to see the faces of other schoolmates.” Sameer from India stresses that meeting his friends and discussing sessions of classwork together made studying difficult material a lot more joyful. Both teachers and students are trying their best to incorporate social contact into the online classes. Before and after most classes, teachers reserve a few minutes to chat and check in with everyone, just like what usually happens in regular classes. And, RYI’s Student Society has continued their clubs and weekly meetings online. When the Summer Program starts, students enrolled in the courses are also encouraged to join the virtual club meetings and workshops.
Another challenge is time zone. After the move to online classes many students went back to their home countries and are now living in very different time zones. To accommodate this, all classes are recorded so they can be watched at a time convenient for everyone. Tiv, an exchange student who went back to the US, talks about her experience: “During the past months it has been challenging to attend classes because I am in almost an opposite time zone.” She says that professors have been really accommodating for students who are in America or other time zones. She explains, “For instance, one of my classes had presentations over the past weeks. I couldn’t be present in the class to give the presentation, but my professor allowed me to record my presentation beforehand.” She says that the other students who were able to attend the class could then listen and discuss it. In this way, she was still able to hear her classmates' thoughts on her research when she listened to the class recording.
Even though online classes are not the same as in-person classes, they have also been very important in creating structure and focus at this particular time. Dominic says that “online learning has been a precious lifeline as it allowed me to fall back on the ready-made structure and rhythm of university lessons and assignments, during this pretty disorienting moment in human history.” Dominic stresses the importance of reflecting on the more profound aspect of this time that we are collectively going through. He says, “rather than rush back into normalcy, this is actually the best of times to ask ourselves what our studies are actually saying to us, both individually and as a school, and how they speak to the present moment.”
Overcoming Challenges: Shenpen Provides Food Packages for Kathmandu’s Poorest
Usually the area around the great stupa of Boudhanath, where Rangjung Yeshe Institute is located, is crowded with people – shopkeepers, people doing their religious practice, tourists, and families buying groceries fill the streets with noise. Now the streets are empty. The country of Nepal has been in a lockdown for more than two months now. Even though this is a necessary measure to prevent the spread of the virus, the lockdown is affecting people’s financial situation greatly. Many Nepali citizens have lost their main income due to the national lockdown.
Rangjung Yeshe Shenpen, the NGO that is run by Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, is doing everything they can to help during these difficult times. Mélanie Létourneau, the director of Shenpen, explains that they are focussing now on two specific programs. First of all, they provide food baskets to daily wage worker families who have lost their source of income with the lockdown. So far, they are distributing almost 200 food packages per week. Secondly, Shenpen provides food daily to stray animals. “We feed more or less 100 stray animals every day, with a team of five volunteers”, Mélanie explains.
Why is help necessary? Nepal is a country of very limited resources and does not have the proper equipment to face such a pandemic. Mélanie explains that the government tries to help people by distributing rations, but many people have to wait a long time and the food that they receive is not enough. Many people are disheartened and do not see an end to it. They are afraid that if the lockdown continues, the coronavirus might not kill them, but hunger will. She continues, “we do our best to regularly provide food and other essential items, like soap, for people in need of help, however, we also face challenges because everyone is instructed to stay home, and we have very limited staff.” Fortunately, they have volunteers helping on a regular basis, and the monks and students of RYI lend a helping hand while following government protocol. Mélanie says, “We would love to be able to distribute more food packages per week and it is heart breaking that after all our food packages for the day have been distributed, we have to refuse food to mothers that come to us, who are crying and begging for help as they need to feed their families.”
The RYI Student Society is doing their best to contribute to the work of Shenpen as much as they can. The Student Society offered its remaining budget of 78,665 Nepali rupees for the semester to the current pandemic relief efforts of Shenpen. With the money that they donated, dozens of families were provided with essential items like rice, lentils, sugar, oil and potatoes. A number of RYI students and staff members, including RYI principal Philippe Turenne, have been collaborating with Shenpen to aid in food distribution (while following safety guidelines). BA student Alexi Dhami tells us about her experience, “I am happy that I can do something to help, it takes a lot of time and energy to prepare the food packages of daily essentials that Shenpen is distributing to those in need.” Shenpen delivers many sacks of rice, daal, oil and salt, to the homes of the volunteers and they spend hours packing and sorting them for distribution. Alexi explains, “When I helped, I packed rice into 2 kilogram bags, and in the end, we had what seemed like a hundred little bags of rice.” Hunger is not limited only to people; the street dogs are also suffering because there is less food available to them. With restaurants closed, they may not get their daily left-overs, or people who usually feed them may not have the means to feed them anymore. Shenpen has bought food and organized water stations for dogs all around Boudha.
In addition, individual alumni and students of RYI have raised money for Shenpen. Among them is Evangeline Clark, who ran a marathon in her backyard and collected almost $2000 for Shenpen. Also, the monks of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery have been a great help. Mélanie says, “They are doing exceptional work by purchasing, packing, storing and helping distribute the food parcels and by feeding the dogs: they are a real example of compassion in action.” Also, Utpala Café, connected to the monastery, has been very generous in providing daily free lunches for everyone in need.
How do the activities of Shenpen continue when the lockdown ends? “When the lockdown partially or fully ends, some people will be able to go back to work,” Mélanie explains, “but a majority won’t, for example, people working in the tourist industry, (including porters in the city and in the villages, women selling souvenirs on the street all over the city, taxi drivers, beggars, and others), and people working in export companies (such as carpet and pashmina factories) won’t have jobs for many months.” Shenpen will continue to help these people in the months to come, as there is no social security system in Nepal to care for poor and disadvantaged people. Mélanie expresses how happy and thankful she is for the wonderful synergy that has happened between RYI, the monks of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery and Shenpen. If you would like to contribute to this initiative, you can make a donation here: www.shenpennepal.org/donate.
How Ngöndro can change your mind!
Over the winter break most students went home to their families or exchanged the cold of Kathmandu for a warmer place. However, some students stayed at RYI and, together with about six hundred Buddhist practitioners, spent a full month doing Ngöndro retreat at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery. The participants spent time together studying and practicing each of the preliminary practices of the Chokling Tersar’s Barchey Kunsel cycle. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche guided the retreat and the monastery provided an inspiring space, and generously provided breakfast and lunch to all the participants each day. Rinpoche also gave teachings and instructions on the practice. In this article Dhidhi from China and Dominik from Germany speak about their experience and how the retreat helped their practice.
Dominik said it was the first time he participated in a retreat like this. He explains, “Every day we did the full Ngöndro, but we would focus intensely on one of the elements for two days in a row, for instance, chanting the refuge vow hundreds and hundreds of times.” Dhidhi understands that “the most important thing in the Ngöndro practice is that it helps us to be honest with ourselves”. She explains that in class her teachers and khenpos teach that all phenomena are emptiness, everything is impermanent, but this is not always easy to believe. She says, “instead of just realizing it intellectually, being able to say ‘I’ve learned Madhyamaka, I’ve received this high empowerment,’ Ngöndro allows us to go back and really check our own mind.” She explains that when you do these practices over and over again, you cannot lie to yourself; you will not be able to do this if you don’t fully believe and agree with the practice.
Among the different Ngöndro practices, the mandala practice was especially powerful for Dominik. He says, “I really enjoyed the mandala offering, this practice is designed for creating merit, since you’re offering so much, but for me it was really about letting go.” He explains that during the practice you offer the whole universe, everything beautiful that you can imagine but you are also offering your personality, your ambitions, thoughts, your friends, and family. He continues, “Basically, you are offering everything that makes up your life, everything that you love and hate.” To do that, genuinely, over and over again for hours, really helped him let go. Also, Dhidhi found the mandala practice very profound and explains that how during the mandala offering, you repetitively break the boundaries between self and others. Through doing the practice, over and over again, she notices how her habits started to break down. She explains, “I realized that through the practice, ‘non-duality’, which we study so intensely during our classes, is not a word game anymore. You begin to have an experiential understanding of it.” She emphasizes that the repetitive nature of the Ngöndro practice helps to unravel ingrained habits and that this is the strength of the practice retreat.
Dominik explains that the explanations he received about the practice were very helpful for him, “I feel more confident now that I could do the Ngöndro practice by myself”. For Dhidhi, the group dynamic was very empowering for her practice, “I got a lot of strength from seeing the other practitioners, many who were Himalayans and Nepali, most of them elderly.” She saw that when they start to practice, they are so full of concentration and devotion that “when they pray, and start to chant and focus on the practice, they have a natural dignity. Seeing them makes me want to be more honest during the practice and respect the practice even more.”
Meditating During a Global Crises
Every Friday afternoon during the fall and spring semesters, open meditation classes are held at Rangjung Yeshe Institute. During the middle of the spring semester RYI switched their classes to an online format, and the meditation classes also went online. How did the change to online classes affected students’ meditation practice? How can meditation help us in this time of global crisis? Maria Vasylieva and Katrin Jaeger talk about their experience, as well as the benefits and challenges of online meditation.
During the spring semester, the weekly open meditation class was taught by Lopon Konchog Gyaltsen, a young Lopon from Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery. After the meditation class switched from the usual classroom setting to the online format, Lopon Konchog Gyaltsen reviewed and gave instructions on the practice Śamatha (calm abiding meditation). He then continued with more advanced Śamatha practices and introduced analytical meditation. During each class, he explained one or more new ways of practicing meditation and guided the participants by practicing together. To gain familiarity with each new method, students were encouraged to repeat the practices daily for the following week. This gave students the opportunity to bring the lessons from the class into their daily practice, as well as providing students with some useful methods to deal with the uncertainty of the current situation.
Katrin emphasizes that the practice of meditation can be very helpful during this time of global crisis. She says, “Śamatha meditation, skilfully applied, helps us to stabilize our mind as the crisis confronts us with unprecedented uncertainties.” She explains that this can cause feelings of anxiety and fear, isolation, helplessness, and loss of control, and learning to direct our mind on a particular focus, rather than getting carried away by our thoughts or worries, can help us to deal with these challenges. She explains that by gaining a certain amount of stability in our minds, analytical meditation can help us to see things as they are, rather than as tainted by our emotional reactions to them. One of the analytical meditations that Lopon Konchog Gyaltsen introduced during the online sessions was a meditation on the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion. Katrin adds “Cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards those who suffer in the crisis can dissolve our fears, open our hearts, and deepen our meditation.”
The online format has brought both challenges and opportunities for the meditation class. Coming together and sharing a physical space with fellow practitioners cannot, of course, be recreated online. When the classes were held on campus they were usually frequented by many outsiders who took them as an opportunity to learn meditation with a qualified monastic teacher. However, the benefit of being online means that people who do not live in Kathmandu can benefit from the online classes. Maria explains, “During the online sessions, we have reached people far beyond Kathmandu who have access to authentic meditation instructions.” RYI has received letters from participants as far as Mumbai saying how glad they are to be part of the online classes and to learn how to meditate. Both Maria and Katrin emphasize that practicing meditation in a classroom, surrounded by likeminded people and in the presence of the teacher, can make it easier for some to focus on the practice. However, Maria notes, for others it might be easier to relax in the comfort of their own home. She adds, “Furthermore, some people may have more conducive circumstance for practice because of the lockdown.” She points out that, during the semester, the RYI football practice happened at the same time as meditation class. Students had to choose if they would play football or attend meditation class. Now that there is no such competing option, students can sit and meditate without feeling pulled to other outside activities.
RYI plans to start meditation classes once again in the fall semester. If you find meditation brings a nourishing element to your daily life then you are most welcome to join RYI’s weekly meditation sessions. We will email an announcement when our meditation classes start again or you can check for updates posted on our website.
Student Community Life
The RYI Student Society is a place for every student who, in addition to following the academic program, wants to be active in RYI community life. Up until the current restrictions on public life, the Student Society has been active in organizing a variety of activities. The following is an overview of the projects students have been involved in.
At the heart of the Student Society are several student-led clubs. The spring semester reflected the wide diversity of RYI students’ interests, featuring weekly Chöd practice, futsal games, Bollywood dancing, and Sanskrit chanting sessions.The previous semester saw students participating in weekly swing dance and music therapy sessions. Sameer Dhingra (India), founder of the Sanskrit chanting club, explained that the students participated in reading a Hindu text about Shaiva and Shakti. He says, “It is very exciting to chant this in Nepal, in a context where the tradition is alive and prospering and where many of the religious holidays and rituals are focussed on goddess worship.”
This academic year the Student Society also focused specifically on events which support environmental awareness, such as movie nights, guest lectures and active, practical involvement in supporting the environment in Nepal. Earlier in the academic year, students of RYI came together to pick up trash around Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery. They also organized workshops on composting and hosted several movie nights, showingfilms that address the environment and community-related topics.
Recently the Student Society has been organizing shared activities with Shenpen, the NGO run by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. In February, in conjunction with Shenpen, they organized a flea market at the Utpala farmers’ market to raise money for projects that provide education for Nepali youth. They raised over 100,000 Nepali rupees selling clothing, books and other items that were donated. In addition, three students visited the Matatirtha old age home, which is mainly sponsored by Shenpen. Rigzin Drakpa (Nepal) says about this visit, “Women come to Matatirtha because they have no family to care for them. We had a wonderful time together and feel that these women truly are appreciative of any visitors who want to come and spend some time with them."
Since the move to online classes toward the second half of the spring semester, the Student Society arranged online get-togethers to make sure that students were able to stay connected. Furthermore, since the lockdown started some students were able to volunteer for Shenpen's food distribution program while at the same time following proper regulations. Shenpen brought sacks of food to the students' doorsteps and provided the volunteers with gloves and bags so they could safely divide the food for the needy. Not being able to work has particularly affected those poor families who survive on money brought in from day labor. As well as volunteering their time, the Student Society was able to donate the remainder of their funds, normally used for club activities, to Shenpen’s relief efforts in the amount of 78,665 Nepali rupees. Dozens of families were provided with the essential goods they needed.
The Student society will continue to support and provide opportunities for students to stay connected over the summer months, with certain clubs running virtually throughout the summer.